Let me start out by saying this is a record made by a band of scene veterans, that only old dogs like myself will truly appreciate and gush over but certainly can be appreciated by anyone that has a deep and abiding love for anti-corporate rock music.
Do you remember when J. Mascis would drive east from Amherst and put together a band with the cream of the capital district crop to back him up; Jason Martin, Troy Pohl, Suzanne Thorpe, Al Kash? Times Boredom remembers.
With Sky Furrows, famous journalist, music critic (intimidating to be criticizing a critic!), poet and performer (collaborating with superstars like Mike Watt, Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby) Karen Schoemer has done something similar in Saratoga. At first glance you could say she hired a pre-grouped band of performers based on their all being associated with Burnt Hills, but each of them has an independent voice and has worked on multiple projects throughout the years both during and prior to their involvement with seminal regional superstar collective (that dozens have played for or in one time or another) Burnt Hills. And with this group of talented noise scenesters that includes introverted solo recorders Parashi and Rambutan, members of Century Plants, etc. (the list goes on much longer but stops around there on the press release) unlike J., Sky Furrows has made something lasting, significant, and, if you don’t mind an old dog howling along… fantastic!
Unlike your and my new and old bands, none of the members of Sky Furrows are trying to be the new or the next anything. They’ve been there. They haven’t tried to merge sludge with level plane style screamo to be on Pitchfork’s list of the ’10 greatest new sludgo bands’. They’re a band playing music they love, have always loved, and will always love. Hipsters and societal trends in contemporary music be damned. The sound is clearly retro and eclectic, but the music is true to its independent, outsider cultural force that independent rock and punk decidedly was. And obviously in their case still is; this band is for those of us that comb through old independent record stores shelves and old label catalogues, still seeking that additional great one neither we nor any of our friends have somehow ever heard all these years that are say, the missing link between post-punk and lo-fi… Sky Furrows’ sound is both tied to a very particular point in time yet timeless. It runs the gamut from proto-punk straight through to post noise rock without any skips, jumps, or irregularities that wake you from this timeless indie-rock (what the term meant in the early 90s, not the aughts or later) classic.
And when you hear them you can tell right away they’re all well versed and rehearsed. Their influences voluminous. The experience contained within their roster intimidating. 30 or 40 years of experience from Brooklyn to Saratoga, from SST to SYR, from Mike Watts to Burnt Hills (or their similar comparative collective Sunburned Hand of the Man from the Massachusetts side)…
The music, when taken altogether on the surface oddly enough reminds me most of mid to late 90s Sonic Youth. Hardiman’s solid, interesting bass lines often decorated by easy slides up and down, in and out. Locked in by Donnelly’s skillfull busy drumming and seamless fills of tried and true indie rock rhythms (with plenty of jazz references intentionally willfully or not, often using a brush kit). Guitar chords, lines, rhythms and strum work from the outstanding undeniably well versed Mike Griffin. As for the vocals, I’m immediately reminded of the typical speak singing of famous poets ‘rapping’ over punk rock and no wave in the late seventies and eighties east village. And then, of course, the famous women that took it to the next level, specifically Patti Smith and Kim Gordon (although Lydia Lunch definitely deserves a place in there Karen just doesn’t evoke that kind of raw unsophisticated rage). Just like these NYC poetess legends, Schoemer exhibits both confidence and vulnerability, the knowledge that what she’s writing is important and at times even brilliant… But she always has enough humility to consistently break 4th walls whenever she finds herself getting too serious (a line she’s better at staying below than some of the decidedly pretentious rants Smith and Gordon have gotten into over the years — the trappings of too much fame and worship).
The band’s sound must be described as minimalist. A standard drum kit, bass lines that run the gamut from seventies punk to distorted 90s angst, and a mostly clean indie rock guitar laying down the rhythm and melodies beneath the poet frontwoman that sings neither verse or chorus, but speaks her lines in an unpretentious amelodic relatively unemotional though sometimes too quickly (trying to say scores of lines per song) sings peak. Yeah, it can get pretty beatpoet/beatnik (or hippie if you’re unfamiliar with the nice way to say it). But not in an annoying way, not to me. More like a measured, knowledgeable way that makes use of volumes of precedent, takes the good aspects and foregoes the shit everyone knows and makes fun of. Mostly. Other people will probably view the entire soundscape as pretentious east village shit. No one can help that. If you don’t like what they like, you sure as shit ain’t gonna like Sky Furrows (and I’m guessing they really don’t care. This is a mature group of people that knows exactly what they’re doing and who they appeal to).
While influences like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen are easy to hear and point out, the roots go so deep that some of what I hear is the similarity of lesser known but also great 80s and 90s indie bands like Seam and Pell Mell. And I’m sure every critic could find a dozen other bands they like that are either obvious influences when you think about it or buried deep within the beautiful mosaic..
The obvious standout track is the first one, and one those of us that have been watching them for awhile now are already familiar with, Alyosha. I’ve read through the lyrics many times now and am still trying to figure out whether the reference is to the famous Alyosha (Karamazov) or not. It seems to be about woman. A number of different women, each of who has their own stream of random thoughts which are all kind of tied together by the fact that being women influences how they think, how they may be excluded in music scenes, etc. No idea what it has to do with Alyosha.
The second track Ensenada is almost like a cover/renewal/sequel to the 3rd track on the first Stooges record ‘We will Fall’ (how’s that for a deep cut?). A rolling baseline rapped over by both a sing song vocalist, constantly changing drum/tom lines and fills and heavily effected guitar. I can practically hear the ‘ho gee ranjha’ or whatever the fuck the Ashetons are saying in the background. The only issue I have with this track (and the album in general) is its placement; I understand that they’re trying to let you know they’re an experimental band that jams and has far out guitar effects and experimental noises (sounds like a mix of reverb pedals, a glass slide, strumming and picking the strings right above the neck or below the bridge) sooner rather than later, but a track this long and low that just hangs for a long time shouldn’t be at this spot in the record… maybe at the end like Sister Ray so you can groove out or shut it off if you don’t feel like listening to all the wanking…
36 ways of looking at a memory has a sound so familiar and yet so hard to place; because it’s that song your band played 20 years ago that never quite came together because you knew it was so great it deserved more than your band could do for it; well Sky Furrows did it and finished it beautifully. There’s no chorus (like the other songs, not even a repeated phrase, just anti-commercial stream of conscious banter), and it’s made unnecessary by the recurring bridge full of affected guitars. Not to mention the guitar chords that define the verse and most of the track that are so despairing and angsty yet enduring you can’t help but picture yourself on a downtown stoop smoking a joint with your friends complaining about highways and trains and crummy diners trying to remember a bunch of references at once struggling against the short term memory affects of the weed…. well that’s how it affects me anyway. And the regional references to the Taconic, Kew Gardens, and Prospect Park only serve to make me think the song could very well be my own thoughts some night…
The Mind Runs a Race and Falls down is pure low key late Sonic Youth (in the beginning I hear Thurston’s ghostly voice about to say ‘these are the words but not the truth’…) / To me it’s about a complicated relationship that’s both great and entirely frustrating — great as long as you’re not asked to define it, but as always Karen feels she has to; “We’re not exactly lovers and not exactly sister and brother”.
By Foreign Cities the band’s in comfortable and by now familiar territory. Like the last few songs have been gaining momentum and this one revved it way up with immediacy and much stronger velvet underground tones, then went straight into triple overtime (which is the best and most unexpected part of any game) … this was the great song everyone would demand an early eighties borderline no wave band of regulars at cbgb’s play whenever they took the stage. A neurotic New York rant about someone longing to travel but getting caught up in a swarm of planning with old maps from a shit low wage jobs and ideas about old hollywood starlets and where did we begin (somewhere in a sontag novel that unconsciously segued into a Saul Bellow passage, a Suzanne Vega rant, something an angry twenty something keeps yelling drunkenly on the street)? ‘I wasn’t fired! I quit!’ Truly a lost classic that no one knew was out there. A perfect energetic closer that leaves you cheering for an encore.
Apology by way of footnotes; this review wasn’t written by a professional writer but rather a real fan. One that’s very grateful that the music they love and have always loved is still being made and innovated upon and somehow, despite all the difficulty involved and research they otherwise would have had to have done to have found this fantastic record in a dusty old record store about to be shutdown, it somehow fell in my lap. This one’s a keeper for sure.
— Ippolit Terentyev