Greil Marcus, whose books like Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces and The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs deepen the mysteries of rock music instead of explaining them away, has kept up his Real Life Rock Top 10 column with few interruptions for more than thirty-five years. This edition of The Inbox is structured after his column and dedicated to him.
1. Tongo Eisen-Martin, “I go to the railroad tracks and follow them to the station of my enemies” (Rocks In Your Head Records)
The first time I encountered Tongo Eisen-Martin’s poetry in person (and in any form), his reading, delivered entirely from memory in an uninterrupted twenty-minute barrage, all but sent my folding chair sailing backward with me in it across the room. It was more like a harsh-noise set than a standard poetry showcase, and I realised more poets should learn how to actually read their work out loud. If most verse aspires to song, Tongo Eisen-Martin is beyond music entirely. He can generate more heat and electricity with his voice than most bands can, microphone optional.
2. Bluetile Lounge, “Easterly” (Hobbledehoy)
From Perth, Australia, a new song by a first-generation slowcore band that more admirers of Low, Bedhead, Duster, and Codeine deserve to hear. When the group changes key, they take the stalest of pop songwriting moves and make it hit like a shock, the lumbering pace adding to the surprise of the shift. This is only the second song Bluetile Lounge have released since 1998, and it might be the most vertiginous and dramatic music they’ve recorded.
3. Matt Christensen, “The Inland Empire Sea” (Self Released)
The more I listen to Matt Christensen’s growing archive of guitar-and-voice recordings, which form a major chunk of the 150+ albums on his Bandcamp page, the more they seem like extensions of a single song whose movements and textures and lyrical motifs develop with patience across years. Christensen’s economy of variation makes this song-behind-songs feel very old. It doesn’t take much work to imagine his most compact compositions, like “You’re a Star,” being recorded using a pulley-driven lathe in 1928. For all the weight of time this album carries, it’s also nearly as spectral as the space-bound transmissions he describes in “Big Data.” It’s a sharp invisible beam, or a hologram block of concrete.
4. Heather Woods Broderick, “Domes” (Dauw)
Broderick describes these cello-based recordings, with their looping structures and their enveloping sound, as making her feel serene and safe. I experience an undercurrent of terrified awe when I hear the frothing distortion of “Tor,” the overcast severity of “Caracol,” and—as vertigo inducing as the Bluetile Lounge song above—the repeated two-chord tipping in “Figura” over G major’s coastal cliff edge and into E minor’s rocky ocean. But maybe my reaction complements Broderick’s characterisation of these pieces, which pair suspense and tranquillity like in Mary Oliver’s description of a waterfall: “some slack and perfectly balanced / blind and rough peace.”
5. Forest Management, “Palm Life” (Husky Pants)
If Broderick’s Domes is the cliffs overlooking treacherous waters, this is the surf and the depths beyond—dense and opaque, nearly monochromatic but full of sparking and crashing at the surface. Or it’s like riding an empty train deep underground. Or even better, through an underwater rail tunnel.
6. Smoke Point, “Smoke Point” (Geographic North)
The last time Brian Foote, best known for helping run the labels Kranky and Peak Oil, released a record of his own, many of the copies included a floppy disk stuck to the front cover. This album, the first from his duo with Sage Caswell, is similarly tuned to eighties and nineties interfaces. It’s refashioned old-school techno that disregards catharsis or chill, instead choosing deep–focus intent. Trying to make it background music doesn’t work very well; its lucidity and drive come from setting the volume high. When it’s loud it evokes running through an empty subway station in slow motion.
7. Skyminds, “Tera Preta” (Not Not Fun)
From Oakland, an hour of serene synth- and keys-led instrumentals with enough percussive push to make this duo sound nearly like a full band, yet two degrees too sedate to fully register as slow jams. Terra Preta is alluringly contemplative, maintaining a consistent unhurried pace except for the march of “Eastern Window,” and taking its momentum from the slight variations of texture across tracks, like the brushed drums on “Ci Tarum.” For someone who enjoys synths but prefers they not be too dazzlingly bright, this is perfect.
8. Ryan Wade Ruehlen, “Tropic of Paranoia” (Self Released)
Alto saxophone solos transform into: 1) dust storms, 2) showers of sparks, 3) agitated freeway sounds in movies from fifty years ago, 4) paper being shredded, 5) radio transmitter failure, 6) civil defence sirens, 7) harmony more hair-raising than dissonance (“Tethered Air Zones,” about six minutes in), 8) two trucks about to crash into each other, but instead the vehicles sailing through each other’s space as if neither was material, like each truck was a transparent plastic slide on the overhead projector of the world, 9) ecstatic fury released from the parched earth and allowed to evaporate.
9. Oleksii Podat, “my mom sends me photos from relatively safe places” (Self Released)
Relatively safe places, documented and collected in a twenty-page PDF that accompanies the download from Bandcamp: a clear and shallow stream, a dirt road, patches of snow almost fully melted, dry grass surrounded by trees both bare and evergreen, elephant statues, the interior and exterior of a church capped in gold and bright blue, another stream with houses in the distance beyond, landscapes a Californian like me might mistake for roadside views in the Sierra Nevada. When viewed while listening to the two wordless, beatless compositions here—recorded by Oleksii Podat in either Sloviansk, Ukraine (where he’s from) or Kyiv (where he is now)—the images conjure a momentum, a voice: Preserve this moment of stillness. Then keep moving.
10. Greil Marcus, “More Real Life Rock” (Yale University Press)
Item ten is the inspiration for this Inbox piece. More Real Life Rock, which collects Marcus’s columns from November 2014 to February 2021, doubles as a polyphonic history of America’s past decade, gathered in albums, films, novels, news headlines, snippets of radio broadcasts, emails, speeches, advertisements, and further layers of collage material—all of it pasted together in such a thick and carefully intermeshed mass, you could drill a hole into its centre and peer at the inner spirit of the United States.