In the fallow years following the cassette tape’s heyday, there existed still a murmur, a whisper from the underground. Resilient, reticent labels for whom the abandonment of the format was never an option carried on the struggle to know and make known with plastic shells and magnetic tape.
While the unraveling of that particular thread is best left for cultural historians, this column will serve to highlight the more recent output of one such label: Unread Records & Tapes. Currently based in Pittsburgh, PA, Unread has nearly 200 releases (the majority on cassette) dating back to 1994, and, like many an excellent DIY label, has a finger on the pulse of many unique musical movements. From post-punk to garage, from experimental ambient to folk, Chris Fisher’s label has seen it all.
What follows is a brief rundown of standout Unread tapes, all still in print and available directly from the label.
Unread #157 | Plundershop – Slam Dunk Silhouette
Brantley Fletcher, sole proprietor of Plundershop, has the enviable ability to harness disparate modes and styles and bend them into something as sublime as it is unsettling. There is, aside from the more readily-digestible indie rock moments, a brooding unease manifested in humming wires and scattershot synthesis, in offhand self-deprecation all the more damning for its specificity. With such density at hand, Slam Dunk Silhouette escapes simple accounts of mood and meaning, but what better time to deploy the broad compositional strokes of minimalism and experimental ambience than in times of uncertainty.
Unread #162 | Razors – Besides
Besides is surely an exercise designed just to see how many bumps and bruises, how many ironic jabs and noisy interruptions the popular conception of twee can withstand. With such meticulous arrangers as Razors, it’s a deeply satisfying journey that marries the obstinate experimentation of lo-fi with the charming melodies of Rocketship and their ilk. And unlike twee’s preeminent anti-musicians, Beat Happening, Razors are quite good at playing instruments.
Unread #163 – Discombobulated Ventriloquist – 2009
Discombobulated Ventriloquist is venerated designer and visual artist Ron Rege Jr.’s solo electronic project, and 2009 full of bubbling, grinding, swirling eddies of synthesized élan. There’s a bit of that Nintendo soundtrack charm floating about, comforting sounds you’ve never heard but instantly are drawn to. In the same moment, there’ something slightly unsettling as you realize these sounds, well, they’re seemingly emanating from within your own brain.
Unread #172 Wckr Spgt – Stephen Plummer Presents His Favorite WCKR SPGT Songs
I know some of you bemoan the regrettable shortage of truly insightful, clever fun punk, but Stephen Plummer, whoever he might be, was thinking of you all along. Wckr Spgt clearly relish the role of the Sloterdijk’s kynic, teasing out submerged truths through irreverent songwriting. With impishly abrasive confessions ranging from the scatalogical to the sacrilegious, there’s probably nobody these folks haven’t ticked off. If that hasn’t sold you yet, the fact they took the time to take the piss out of François Mitterand, of all people, most definitely should.
Unread #192 C. Worth – Duga
Nothing makes for better ambient listening than a good concept – the more unsettling, the more mythical, the better. This tape is undoubtedly championship material in this regard (oh, and, of course, with regard to the musical content itself). Recorded on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, “Duga” – the Duga-3 being a Soviet early-warning radar installation found within the fallout site – is well aware of this axiom. Dissonant, otherworldly drones rise and fall, collapse into one themselves, attenuating with a measured, Lynchian pace. Visit Russia?