Quasi, Field Studies (1999)

Enjoying the music and lyrics of Quasi, the ex-husband and wife duo of Sam Coomes, organ (formerly of Heatmiser, Elliot Smith’s original post-grunge band), and Janet Weiss, drums (Sleater-Kinney), reminds me of something someone told me once about the emotional power of Hollywood film. Show someone the final scene of Casablanca with writing on the bottom stating that, “All this took place in a studio in Burbank, Calif.; the people in the background are midgets; the planes are cardboard cut-outs and Bogart is wearing 3-inch lifts in his shoes” and the viewer, raised on Hollywood since day one, will simply jump right over it and back into the story — “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Ditto goes for pop music. The pull of Quasi’s Beatlesque-indie-pop-Prozac is so strong, so familiar, with Weiss’ Ringoisms fitting perfectly with Coomes’ anti-Ritalin organ attack, that it’s easy to overlook that Coomes and Weiss’ harmonies are calmly singing that everyone is a sellout, everything sucks and that, “You can cover up your chains and call yourself free / It doesn’t really matter to me.”

After 14 more tracks about selling souls to the devil, coming in last, living in abject loneliness and realizing that there is always something worse than blandness — namely death — you’d think I’d be ready for a few hours of time alone.

Nope.

I’m back listening to this same godforsaken album and you will be too — as long as you believe strongly enough in pop music where you can unquestioningly sing along to such lines as, “Don’t believe a word I sing / because it’s only a song and it don’t mean a thing.”

Brilliant. Play it again, Sam.

Everything Is Nice (1999)

The first two discs of this three-disc, 10-year anniversary set start with a simple nod to what Matador has always epitomized: underground rock ʻnʼ roll, aka indie-rock. The breadwinners since day one – Pavement, Jon Spencer, Guided By Voices, Yo La Tengo – are joined by a new set of indie-rock illuminati – Sleater-Kinney, Mogwai, Cat Power. Great music, few surprises.

But then a funny thing happens on Matadorʼs tour of the corporate offices. By the end of the first two discs youʼve been taken to places you never imagined going in the heart of American indie (heretofore white) musical elitism – places as disparate and complementary as techno, hip hop, and avant-noise. But what first sounds like Matador forgetting its audience – in a thoroughly overground example of middle-aged identity collapse – by disc three sounds like the most subversive musical move since Pavementʼs Steve Malkmus uttered the words, “Darlinʼ, donʼt you go and cut your hair.”

On the first disc it is Non Phixionʼs “Refuse to Lose” – as in “I got so much trouble on my mind/refuse to lose” courtesy of Chuck D. – that starts the shift, breaking down the indie-pop political ambivalence of earlier tracks. By the second disc Matadorʼs gloves are completely off and the electronic outfit Matmos, along with Khan, Red Snapper and another underground hip-hop troop, the Arsonists, begin to finish off any thoughts of returning unchanged to the indie-rock womb.

Everything is Nice is a brilliant commercial ploy (three CDs, 43 songs, for around $11.99) as well as an incredible statement, calmly exploring a new way of thinking about being an independent label, where dichotomies that have ruled the American underground since punk rock and hip hop divided paths – somewhere after the “World Destruction” sessions between Johnny Rotten and Afrika Bambaataa – donʼt seem to be nearly as important or permanent.

After 10 years of business, Matador has seen through enough of the world to understand the financial and ideological importance of bridging the space between black nationalism and white boredom, urban ghettoes and suburban garages, childish naïveté and hard to earn street-cred, Americana and international pop, feminism and machismo, and the bedroom and club. Though the implications of all this need to be worked out – something for the next 10 years – Matador has found a way to make a buck while still fucking with their version of rock ʻnʼ roll, making the greatest record label in America one of Americaʼs greatest cultural assets.

Malcolm X Park and Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation (1999)

What is striking about these two newly available-on-CD releases from former Arlington, Va., residents Unrest are the subversions that Mark Robinson and his band get away with. The freedom is obvious and immediate; this is punk, the “new thing,” fresh refuse from the blank generation. Reagan is still in the White House; Michael Jackson is king of the airwaves; Poison is kickin’ ass and Robinson et al., armed with the emerging possibilities of an American underground and the subversive incantations of British punk rock, are able to generate a stirring musical curveball while still having a laugh.

The bread-and-butter tracks on both records are the hardcore stabs that shift between nervous-teenage-boy energy and nervous-adult-is-there-anything-else release. But it’s the nonsensical rants, spoken word segments, rockabilly segues, movie samples and pop-torrid love songs that give both albums their edge. Punk is not a repetitive musical style for Robinson. Rather, punk is the ability — or more exactly, the obsessive need — to break the straight face, to transgress the mask in front of the microphone, sending up ’80s sexism (“Love’s like a muscle/And you make me want to flex” from “Black Power Dynamo” on KKB) while warning against emotional fascism (“All I need is more time to remember/time is something you don’t have/they’re going to crucify you!” from “The Gas Chair,” Malcolm X Park).

And though Malcolm X Park is the more “consistent” and emotive of the two records, it’s a song like KKB’s “She Makes Me Shake Like a Soul Machine,” an overly serious acoustic power ballad à la “Patience” with full-on vocal overdubs and a FM-radio fade-out — surrounded, of course, by killer hardcore — that illustrates punk’s brilliant fusion of irony and honesty. It’s 1990, the last quiet year in the underground, and punk is an open world where Robinson feels at home pairing Kiss’ “Strutter” to Fugazi-esque lyrics and upside-down Zeppelin riffs to bar-band middle fingers.