Needless to say, we waited in breathless anticipation of the mid-November release date to hear some of our favorite musicians making tracks like they did when they were teenagers. Sure enough, a lot of Square Zeros alumni played the game, including:
- Our own Derek Hawkins (SZ #10), who collaborated with Stephen Selman (SZ #1) on a project called Dagger Shores.
- Selman, for his part, wrote an 8-bit video game soundtrack under the name EARTHSTAR and helped engineer several other musicians' projects.
- Hearts Bleed Radio's fearless editor Stephen Perry (SZ #2), who released a solo album as well as an EP with his band Dreadful Crows (including Aileen Brophy (SZ #5). [Aileen's Space Merchants bandmate Michael Guggino also released an album under the name Freaky Wilderness.]
- Nova Luz of The Amputees (SZ #13) contributed a solo guitar-and-vocals EP named after her recording device.
- Seth Applebaum of The Mad Doctors (SZ #20) released a handful of tracks under the project name Ghost Funk.
- Jon Daily of The Black Black (SZ #26) slipped back into his role as the solo artist Vansanity, a track of which was produced by...
- Michael Sincavage of Low Fat Getting High (SZ #31), who — aside from contributing as an engineer to a few projects — also released a full-length, two-sided effort under his own name.
Perry, who's quite clearly a friend of the show, asked both Jon and Bettina to wade through the forty(!) contributions to the 4-Track Challenge that came in and offer up a Top-Ten List of our favorite tracks. Since Derek was actually hardworking enough to write an album for it, we gave him a pass on writing up a list, but if you really want to know his top ten, you know, buy him a drink. Guy's got opinions for days.
So, without further ado, here are Jon and Bettina's top-ten reviews for the HBR 4-Track Challenge. Enjoy, and don't forget to check out all of the incredible submissions over at http://www.heartsbleedradio.com/p/4-track-challenge.html
— BW + JM
"Sketch of an Inept Camp Counselor," Michael Sincavage
This is a top-ten list — not a mixtape — so I don't feel the need to start you off with something major-key and uptempo to get you moving. Despite the wall-to-wall guitars of his full-time project Low Fat Getting High, Sincavage's solo work allows a lot more dark corners for the mind to nestle. "Sketch" is powerfully haunting, coming on the heels of the shouted outro of "Lefty (Cardboard Box)" with vocals barely above a whisper. The backing vocals are hair-raising, and the pounded acoustic chords that close out the song are positively Misfitsian. — JM
"Figure It Out While You Can," Freaky Wilderness
This is something that I would hear on The O.C. soundtrack and would make the idea of California seem very appealing. But here we are, in Brooklyn, it's cold and gray, and I don't remember the last time I saw a palm tree, but this song still fits. — BW
"Red Shift," Dreadful Crows
Ahh, here's the opening uptempo banger to bat lead on your lo-fi mixtape. A rambling single-note guitar intro opens up into a handful of jangling chords and a brilliantly simple vocal melody over your best 4/4 beat. Then Perry engages that J Mascis button he paid extra to get on his four-track recorder and blows it all to shit. Money well-spent, Steve. — JM
"Most Magazines," Women of the Night
Let's all run away together. I'll drive the bright red Mustang, and you can control the radio. — BW
"What Song," Nova Luz
Luz's guitar and vocals creep in on "What Song" as if the listener only just realized that the record was spinning and gently turned up the volume to hear her song. Even then, there's a delicacy to her playing and singing that are absolutely beautiful. Her guitar lines don't always resolve — a choice that could tend proggy or jazzy, depending — but the immaculate timing of her alternately swelling and plaintive vocals ensure that it comes out a lot more Billie Holiday than Jon Anderson. It leaves without saying goodbye, and then you put it on again. — JM
"Dead Waves," Dagger Shores
This one has those surf vibes I like. It's mellow but exciting. It's the beach after dark. It's kind of doing it on the beach after dark. — BW
"Space Tourist," Vansanity
God, which Vansanity track to pick? "Drunk and Stoned," which plays like Jonathan Richman finally deciding that — if Hippie Johnny's gonna get all the girls anyway, he might as well join him? "...And Then The Cops Came," which — aside from sounding like "Institutionalized" by Suicidal Tendencies, contains a shout-out to our police trouble at ZeroFest? "The Rules," with its totally satisfying Neanderthal simplicity? No, in this pack of anti-authoritarian rockers, "Space Tourist" stands alone, with Daily explaining the matter-of-fact social and psychological baggage of astronauts returning to Earth. Listen: the tape slows down for the chorus and warps right back up to speed for the verse. You can't do that shit with a CD; that's that analog tape shit. — JM
"Down In The Water," Big Little Death
One. This album is called Magic Toilet, yes. Two. This is every summer by the pool. This is cookouts in a backyard. It's driving home late in the suburbs when you're home to visit family over the holidays. There's something about this that feels very familiar but also exciting, and that's probably why I'm playing it on repeat. — BW
"Watch You Glow," Jason Maksymilian
I can't decide if "Watch You Glow," Maksymilian's A-side contribution to the challenge, burns more like a late-game Hüsker Dü track or an early-game Soul Asylum track — there's not a lot of difference, sometimes. More importantly, it burns. The verse builds like a dream: open for a few bars, it coasts — staccato drums ramp up the emotion — then the chorus crashes like a wave. The tight-fisted bridge comes right on cue, and the solo at 2:25 has a melodic simplicity that a lot of guitar wonks would do well to review. My only problem, obviously, is with the name of the album. Morgantown Central? Sounds like Minneapolis Central to me, homes. And that's high praise around these parts. — JM
"Tree Huggin'," Person Whale
This is fuzzy. This is clearly DIY. This is something I'd want to stumble on at a King Pizza night at Don Pedro. The song starts a toe-tapper and moves to the rest of your body (in case you haven't been able to guess by now — I like things that can make me dance). In the wise words of my good friend Mr. David Napolitano, "This band is as fuzzy as a shag carpet and twice as fun to listen to." And you know, I think he's right. — BW
"Gilded Trash," Dagger Shores
Cue the laughter from Derek Hawkins. Full disclosure: Derek and I play together in Sunset Guns, where our roles are probably best defined as Alan Vega and Meat Loaf, respectively. He will not be surprised, then, that I chose the simple melody and earnest delivery of "Gilded Trash" over anything else. Frankly, I think he's done something interesting with this entire EP — it's a departure from anything I've ever heard him write — and I think there are a lot of great moments. Hell, aside from Derek's vocals and guitar, Selman's contributions on keys are immaculately deployed, and the tones he uses are perfect. But "Gilded Trash" cuts through the angst and anger of the other six tracks. It's the disillusioned but undaunted heart at the center of an EP written in dark days. — JM
"Freezing," Hans Viets
Someone, please, slow dance with me to this song. I'll bury my head in your chest, and we'll sway under the dim reflections of disco balls. You'll have your arms around my waist, and the chaperones will ignore that we're standing too close. We'll talk in whispers. We'll fade out slowly.— BW
"Freezing," Hans Viets
I was working on something when this came on. I remember hearing "Pills" and thinking, "Oh man, this guy can write a song. This guy's a trippy Roy Orbison." Then I returned to my work. Then, halfway through the classic lo-fi '50s pop recording "Freezing," I honed in on the line "I remember just the other night/I was in there holding you tight/Now, I'm standing here with icicles on my nuts," and thought, "...I'm, uh, going to need to set this aside for some time when I can give it a real listen. Because this is clearly incredible." The backing vocal harmonies are pitch-perfect, and the production is tinny in just the right places like your favorite 45 from the '50s. — JM
"Mode," Ghost Funk
Spoiler alert — Jon Mann pretty much has the perfect description for all of The Haunt, so I'll leave the words to him, the tunes to Seth, and I'll just leave this right here at #4. — BW
"The Mesosphere," EARTHSTAR
This belongs in this four-track challenge in so many ways. The lifecycle of the Tascam Portastudio very closely parallels that of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and a lot of those teenagers who were making demos on the home-recording device back in the late '80s were devoting significant amounts of their time to video games outside of that. Lord knows we weren't getting laid.
As one of those adepts of classic video games (and strangers to the female touch), the simple, short “The Mesosphere” is the track that really speaks to me. Selman has captured the ethereality (and he knows it, with that track title) of those last, interstitial moments in the role-playing game's storyline before the final battle. You’ve rescued the princess, who is now a pretty formidable healer in her own right. She has led you to the vile sorcerer’s dungeon, where you’ve freed the castle engineer (who, of course, practically raised her since her father was so busy running the kingdom) from his chains. In his gratitude, he has joined your party (he throws a mean wrench), and he has taken you to the cemetery at the edge of town where your heroic ancestor buried the starship Serenia after he saved the world the last time it was at the brink of destruction. You’ve taken Serenia to another planet, where a guardian goddess a thousand years old has put you through an ordeal to test your mettle and given you a sword that can cut to the very heart of evil itself.
“Mesosphere” is the soundtrack for your trip back to your home planet to fight the ultimate darkness. You have gone from an orphan with a hero’s blood in his veins to humanity’s last chance, and you spend the trip meditating on the near impossibility of your mission, and the certainty that your death, the princess’s death, the engineer’s death — any of these will mean the end of mankind. If you don’t succeed, “Mesosphere” is the last moment of peace anyone will ever have. So you sharpen your sword, and you look out the ship’s porthole onto the universe you love, and you wait, as you plummet through the Mesosphere. — JM
"Perverted," Nova Luz
Who does she remind me of? I'm sitting here asking myself that, and while I can't pinpoint references or images to explain why I love this, I can just simply call it haunting. The simplicity combined with the power of her voice is striking. I kind of want to sit on the couch with a glass of red wine and a dim lamp and this song, this album, and be calm. It's probably raining outside. — BW
"Aloha Empire," New England Axe Factory
Big guitars chime four chords. Drums trickle in. Joe Walsh, apparently, walks into the room, picks up a guitar, and proceeds to lay down the funkiest groove that mankind has ever witnessed with a pick made out of honeyed butter on a guitar carved out of a pig's rib with strings of tightly wound bacon. Then, he splits into two Walshes, harmonizing over his own riff. This song is absolute nonsense.
Next, a syncopated two-chord progression — there might be three in there, why are you counting them instead of bobbing your head violently? God, you're the worst kind of music listener — stomps through the verse, while Doug Martsch sidles into the room, plugs in his guitar and leans into the mic to deliver the delicately spacey melody of the chorus. Then, Walsh shoves him out of the way, and proceeds to lay down the funkiest groove that mankind has ever witnessed, Mark II. This song is absolute nonsense.
Chords are again, absolutely spanked on guitar. Then, the bridge, which — if memory serves me correctly — recalls a demented take on the outro on Phish's "Theme from the Bottom," which — admittedly — I have not heard since I was maybe seventeen. Vocals are alternately sung and shrieked as the song crescendos, because now you're on Willy Wonka's boat in the chocolate river. On the river right back to the sweetness of the chorus. This song, you guys.
It's impossible we're getting out of here without a titanic guitar solo, I'm realizing that now. There's just no way that– yeah, there it is. Ohhh hell. There it is. Harmonized. God bless this song. God bless this ridiculous, unholy nonsense. — JM
"Big Gulp (My Heart Won't Go On)," Michael Sincavage
At first, I thought I was going to pick "Don't Know Him" as one of my top ten tracks, but then I realized — Nah, brah, the thing about "Big Gulp" is that it makes me want to dance. That kind of hip-swinging dance where your elbows get into it, too. But it has a heaviness to it that makes the dance happen while you're hunched over, hair swinging. That's a compliment. This is wonderful. — BW
"Haunt," Ghost Funk
First off, all of Seth Applebaum's contribution to the HBR 4-Track Challenge as Ghost Funk is great. Whereas some of the submissions came out as very nice compilations of a handful of songs, The Haunt is clearly all part of one developed musical concept with a certain number of identifiable characteristics. One is Applebaum's command of reverb and delay; despite his very interestingly written and nicely played guitar and drum parts, this is a tone record to a large degree. The most intriguing sounds on this record come out of the background, as drums are run through delays and guitars tremble.
Take, for example, the dreamy '70s Gainsbourgian feel of the title track, "Haunt." "Haunt" breathes in like the soundtrack to some lost film where two sexy French teenagers — wait, three sexy French teenagers — keep taking breaks from doing it to go smoke cigarettes and casually ruminate on Being. The hammering delay on the percussion at 1:03, coincidentally, is the sonic equivalent of how maddening it is to watch that movie all the way through if you aren’t getting any. Hell, I was hard-pressed not to include the following track, "Ectoplasm Pt. 1" on this list, too. Listening to it right now, I can't be sure I've made the right decision. That riff at 1:28. You could sell it to Hollywood tonight.
Now, to be fair to our other players, Applebaum is an adapt of tape technology, which he uses regularly at his studio Ghostload Sound to capture a warmth and lo-fi ruggedness sometimes lost in the unrestrained polish of digital engineering. However, the strength of Ghost Funk isn’t necessarily that its creator has pushed the tape to its limits or used some sort of arcane knowledge that the rest of us aren’t privy to; at the end of it all, Seth has really just written some very cool, brilliantly conceived music that was capable of being played and captured with minimal means and that — again, I can’t stress this enough — makes me want to do it and never stop.
And that's the real challenge, right? — JM
"Mission Creep," Minor Pangs
I like to joke that you should live every day like Rydell High — 2015 pretending to be the '70s pretending to be the '50s. This song embodies this. It sounds like the hand jive meets spy film. I want to put on knee-high boots and my leather jacket and strut to the sock hop. Super honorable mention to their track "Boyfriends." — BW
And, alright, a few Jon Mann Honorable Mentions:
Joshua Inman, Sweater Buttons — I play with Josh in Paper Fleet. He's a sick, sick drummer. He has a lovely kit at our practice space, where he could have recorded himself absolutely shredding and bounced it down to one track. Instead, he found a couple of nice sounding surfaces at his apartment and hit them with things. Respect. Favorite track: "Baby, You've Changed"
Michael Guggino, Freaky Wilderness — My favorite thing about Mike's band The Space Merchants is their ability to recreate their very gnarly psychedelia on stage without it losing anything from the recording. His restraint is in evidence here, too, and it's really a great listen. Favorite track: "Figure It Out While You Can"
Minor Pangs — The songwriting tends Grateful Dead, and the harmonies tend Crosby Stills Nash. A really nice, relaxing listen. Favorite track: "Like A Traveler"