The Now Underground Sound of Drag City | Bleader

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Now Underground Sound of Drag City

Posted By on 09.30.10 at 02:34 PM

Magik Markers
  • Magik Markers
On Saturday night Ronny's hosts a killer bill with two of the less hyped acts on Drag City Records. While I'd never say that the label has become more commercial during its august history, it's definitely broadened its scope—and there aren't many other imprints that release such a wide range of music while privileging no one type over another. The success of Joanna Newsom and Bonnie "Prince" Billy certainly helps Drag City put out records by Alasdair Roberts and Red Krayola—to say nothing of its stream of great reissues and the even more eccentric labels it distributes. Magik Markers and Sic Alps, who play on Saturday, are inheritors in a way of the legacy of the label's early years, when it presciently charted the outer edges of what passed for indie rock at the time (Pavement, Royal Trux, Gastr del Sol, Smog). Neither band sounds much like any of those Drag City acts, but they're both denizens of a bona fide underground—releasing loads of music in limited editions, either on tiny labels or by themselves, and more or less operating off the grid.

Last year Magik Markers released Balf Quarry, their debut for the label and the latest step in the duo's transformation from unreconstructed noise rock into a kind of twisted, pensive art-rock clearly influenced by Sonic Youth. Front woman Elisa Ambrogio has a pitchy sing-talking style that's equally sweet and sinister, and on guitar she alternates between rudimentary strumming and furious six-string damage a la Lee Ranaldo. Her bandmate, Pete Nolan, bashes away on drums, opting for wild chaos rather than Steve Shelley-style regimentation. On many songs from the new record Magik Markers share Sonic Youth's fascination with the underbelly of pop culture, but on "Risperdal" (which you can hear below) and "Don't Talk in Your Sleep," Ambrogio visits an even darker place—the unpleasantness in her lyrics isn't happening in the half-imaginary world of celebrity but among ordinary people right now, even if it's only on seedy reality television and in sordid magazine reports. Still, it's hard not to wince a little at lines like these, from "Ohio R./Live/Hoosier": "I wish the wind'd never stopped / And his grave was never dug / Now I'm stuck in a windless valley / Trapping air in the hot ozone above."

Sic Alps
  • Sic Alps
Like Magik Markers, California's Sic Alps have such a cluttered discography that keeping up on it requires a serious commitment. I'm a latecomer to the band and only finally heard the sprawling anthology A Long Way Around to a Shortcut after Drag City issued it as double LP last year—it was originally released on CD by Animal Disguise in 2008. The set compiles a bunch of singles, cassettes, EPs, and 12-inches released during the previous two years, and most of it could be categorized loosely as lo-fi psych-garage—only loosely, though. There are a lot of releases represented here, and an even greater range of appealingly shambolic sounds, from the noisy free-jazz/psych-folk meandering of "Description of the Harbor" (actually a cover of a tune by Philadelphia wackos Strapping Fieldhands) to the raw antipolitical folk-rock of "Who Has Time to Protest?" to the explosively fuzzy pop-to-noise freakout "When You Tell It, Tell it Well." Threading through everything in the collection, whether acoustic or electric, is a trippy vibe that steers safely clear of freak-folk affect and whimsy. That's not to say the music's dead serious or anything; Sic Alps seem to be exploring in earnest, but they're obviously having a good time while doing it. The band has a new album coming out on Drag City in January, so I imagine they'll play some fresh material tonight. Below you can check out "Message From the Law."

Magik Markers, "Risperdal":

Sic Alps, "Message From the Law":

Today's playlist:

Jason Kahn, Vanishing Point (23five)
BlackRoc, BlackRoc (BlackRoc)
Various artists, Slåttar Frå Hallingdal og Valdres (Talik)
Mary Lou Williams, Presents Black Christ of the Andes (Smithsonian Folkways)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, Heinz Holliger conductor, Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Canto di Speranza (ECM)

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