“The Elephant Table Album: A Compilation of Difficult Music” (1983)

What do we mean when we describe music as “difficult”? I know I’ve done it before here on the blog, but I suspect it means different things to different people. Is it music with unusual timing signatures? Disturbing lyrics? Experimental work with sound that doesn’t fall into any kind of recognizable pattern or framework? Genres you don’t personally care for? Something that creates an unsettled mood in the listener? Or maybe all of the above… or none… I don’t know. When I use the term difficult, I usually mean something I find musically well outside of the norm, something I can’t quite wrap my mind around. This includes non-music and noise, as well as experimental and avantgarde. It’s music that challenges my preconceptions of what actually constitutes “music”, and I find it valuable in that it expands my mind. I don’t always like it, and often I only listen to a given album once, but that doesn’t mean the listening experience wasn’t valuable.

So I was intrigued when I ran across this record yesterday over at Easy Street Records, because it says right on the cover that it’s “a compilation of difficult music”. I wondered what that meant to the label, and the first artist name my eyes fell upon was Chris and Cosey. Hmm… I don’t normally think of them as difficult. Is that because I’ve listened to them a bunch over the last few months? A little further down is Coil. OK, I sort of get that, at least some of their stuff. Nurse With Wound. Now this is making a bit more sense. I only know a few of the other 17 performers (♠), specifically SPK, Muslimgauze, and Legendary Pink Dots. That gave me enough context to know that this was an album I needed to buy.

The genesis of The Elephant Table Album was an article Dave Henderson wrote for the May 7, 1983 issue of Sounds entitled “Wild Planet!” (the text of which can be found HERE). It was a survey of the more extreme music being made at the time, a listing of dozens of bands with blurbs on each. Four months after that article appeared this double album came out. I’m not sure how it was received at the time, nor do I know how I would have reacted to it back in 1983 (probably badly), but rough 36 years later in my living room it’s tremendous. 400 Blows’ “Beat the Devil” is a high point, along with the Chris and Cosey jam.

Styles mix on this album, though there’s still a general cohesion. The Elephant Table Album opens with an industrial dance track, Portion Control’s “Chew You to Bits”, then takes a sharp left turn to Chris and Cosey, though their “Raining Tears of Love” is less poppy than their later sound, a methodical electro dystopian dream sequence. From there we take another sudden swerve and find ourselves listening to horns and synths and piano and disconnectedly haunting vocals in the very avantgarde “Musak from Hawthorne Court” by Metamorphosis. And it just keeps going on like that, song after song, surprise after surprise.

I can’t say enough good things about The Elephant Table Album. It was re-released on vinyl in 1989 with a different set of liner notes, and that same year a CD version came out, though the CD only has 17 tracks. It also sounds like the CD version was actually recorded directly from a vinyl copy and not from the masters, so buyer beware.

(♠) The track listing on the reverse of the record goes up to 21. However, Muslimgauze is listed twice, both times numbered 9. So what’s the deal? Looking at the grooves on that side it looks like the record only has five tracks, which would mean that despite Muslimgauze being listed twice there is in fact only one track devoted to him on the record.

Record Shopping, Minneapolis Style

I’m spending a week or so in Minnesota visiting friends, which includes a couple of days staying with Tristen and his family in Minneapolis. Tristen traveled to Airwaves with us last year and even wrote a blog post with me about the Icelandic band Legend… though surprisingly outside of a shared interest in Icelandic music, we don’t have a whole ton in common when it comes to what we like to listen to. In fact, usually Holly and Tristen trade CDs by mail while I try to figure out what the hell I’m missing.

But today was about doing some record shopping in Minneapolis. Admittedly we didn’t make a full day of it, since we had some lunch to eat and the new Star Trek movie to see (two thumbs up, though there were a few things that stretched credulity even by Star Trek standards), but we did get out to three stores: Electric Fetus, Cheapo Records, and Hymie’s.

Electric Fetus

This is more or less a regular stop every time I come out to Minneapolis, an indie record store that just celebrated it’s 45th anniversary. The Fetus has a solid selection of new and used CDs, and a pretty healthy assortment of vinyl, with a strong emphasis on rock titles. Part of the store is also more of a gift shop with lots of shirts and other assorted odds and ends. I came across some good stuff here, including The World of Ike and Tina Live and an album of 1970s Persian funk called, not surprisingly, Persian Funk that was put out by Secret Stash Records a few years back (very excited about this one!). I also bought some new CDs including Iggy & The Stooges Search and Destroy (two CD set for $5.99) and Opus Eponymous by the Swedish doom metal band Ghost (aka Ghost BC) who I’ve been hearing a bit about lately.

The Electric Fetus is a classic indie record store with a friendly staff, an institution in the Minneapolis music scene that is a must stop if you’re in town.

Cheapo

The bottom line is that Cheapo’s selection is probably the best in Minneapolis. Period. Sure, if you’re way into some obscure genre there may be some other place that has more of that one particular niche… but this place has a used punk CD section that is probably a good 25 feet long, if not more, and the amount of vinyl across all genres is staggering. There were 21 bins of new arrivals from the last week. Twenty one! I could have spent 4-5 hours there, but I didn’t have that kind of time. I did, however, find some good stuff including an Amphetamine Reptile Records comp called Dope, Guns, and Fucking in the Streets, The Pink Album Plus by The Pagans, and a special mystery album that will appear soon in a future post. Stay tuned! I also picked up some used CDs by hip hop artist Sensational (Sensational and Corner the Market) and the Just Like Kicking Jesus EP by The Brain Jonestown Massacre which was released on the Icelandic 12 Tonar label.

You cannot beat Cheapo for selection, and their prices are fantastic. If I could only make one stop in Minneapolis, this would be it.

Hymie’s

This was a shot in the dark – even Tristen hadn’t been here before. It’s a pretty cool, funky shop, and the thing I liked the most was it wasn’t the “normal” record store fare. Yes there was a rock section, but really the emphasis here was on 45s, folk, international, jazz, and less “popular” music. While I didn’t buy anything, I liked the vibe and can see the specialist appeal if you’re into things off the beaten path.

 

I always have a good time record shopping in Minneapolis and seem to find stuff that isn’t as prevalent in my regular Seattle haunts – different city, different tastes. There are a few other shops I would have liked to hit, but time simply didn’t permit it – I’m just in the city for one day, and there’s a lot to do. But if you find yourself here with some time to spare, I think you’ll find the indie record store scene is still alive and well.