It’s not quite the charity compilation, but the label anniversary comp is one of the banes of a music writer’s existence. Whether you’re ultra familiar with the imprint in question or not, compiling a strict greatest hits package is never preferred, while cover commissions are even more dubious. And then there are format limitations and restrictions, limited edition expansions and exclusive packages, and the fact that die-hard fans, being this particular products largest market demographic, are buying these things regardless of reviews or critical endorsement. Which brings us to Three Lobed Recordings’ Not the Spaces You Know, But Between Them, nominally an anniversary collection celebrating the small North Carolina-based experimental label’s ten years of existence, but also a worthy example of how a commemoration of this nature can transcend inherent limitations, doling-out in equal measure rewards for both the curious and the well-collected supporter.
What Three Lobed and its founder Cory Rayborn have generously done here is offer over two-and-a-half hours of exclusive, unreleased material from some of the most important acts associated with the label, from indie godheads like Sonic Youth and Sun City Girls to lesser known but enticing fringe artists such as Steven Gunn and Eternal Tapestry. The contributions from each of the nine artists represented are almost uniformly worthwhile, but for once it’s not solely the content that intrigues, but also the structure and sequencing of the set, which separates Not the Spaces from the deluge of other perennially-stamped releases. Not the Spaces unfortunately can’t escape the functionality hurdle—four slabs of 140 gram dutch vinyl housed in a hefty, lidded box, complete with unique inner sleeves and liner notes insert (though there is a handy download card included)—but the decision to collate the collection into standalone sides wherein each artist contributes about twenty minutes of music is a well-considered move for a set of this nature.
Meaning, with nine artists contributing just sixteen tracks across eights sides of vinyl (Wooden Wand and D. Charles Speer, the two most song-oriented musicians included, share a side), these are some looong tracks, a handful of which occupy an entire side unto themselves. Among other things, the sequencing helps facilitate single-sit listening sessions, as it’s easier to digest the set on a per-band basis, instead of one overwhelming barrage of pan-ethnic folk improv, industrial noise meditations, and heady psych-rock odysseys. Three Lobed certainly have a healthy roster of past artists—many of which could’ve even increased the set’s visibility, including Six Organs of Admittance, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Matthew Valentine, and Yellow Swans—but the tightly curated track list speaks to the collection’s integrity and consistency of vision as a document of one label’s ten year artistic trajectory.
By definition, however, it’s the music that must endure, and Not the Spaces features essential rarities, illuminating discoveries, and a few handy compendiums for listeners curious about some of the more difficult artists represented. The collection kicks off with a three track excerpt from Sun City Girls’ last US gig, but even in their final act before the death of drummer Charles Gocher, Alan and Richard Bishop’s guitars entangle and combust in fascinatingly complex patterns, with “Wide World of Animals” and the extended “Caravan” piercing the cerebellum with an urgency arguably not seen since band’s early-‘90s peak. Meanwhile, I imagine Steven Gunn will be the discovery of the set for most listeners, his experimental folk odyssey “The Lurker Extended” wandering from carefully finger-picked acoustics though a cauldron of untethered noise before emerging a quarter hour later, melody and confidence intact. If this is a sign of things to come for Gunn and Three Lobed, consider my interest piqued.
At the other end of the Three Lobed timeline is Sonic Youth’s “Out & In,” recorded in 2000 (the year of the label’s inception), and “In & Out,” laid down last year by what could prove to be the final incarnation of the legendary NYC art-rock institution. The latter track is a droning, Kim Gordon sung dirge, at odds with the band’s more recent material, more like an oddity found on their Destroyed Room (2006) comp. It’s the earlier piece however, that highlights the entire collection. Beneath a vicious, three-guitar attack (featuring Jim O’Rourke, then the fifth member of the band), Steve Shelley propels the group ever-further up the intensity scale, hammering out an escalating, unrelenting beat over which Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and O’Rourke collide in a fiery display of the group’s latter day power. It’s probably premature to be writing the group’s obituary, but if this is indeed the end, this is how I want to remember Sonic Youth, all preternatural synchronicity and unhinged fury.
The middle of the set further highlights the range of the label’s output. Brian Sullivan and Nate Nelson’s uncompromising digital/industrial noise project Mouthus contribute two tracks, both in static, shallow churn mode, while Comets on Fire stitch together four years worthy of rehearsal tapes into a single, twenty-minute tapestry of corroded psychedelic blues riffing, serene retreats into the shadows, and searing bursts of improv. These performances may have originated from Comets’ most recent, traditionally structured period, but the piece harkens back the band’s pre-Field Recordings from the Sun (2002) days. Later, like an oasis amid a desert of extreme experimentation, lies Side F, featuring a concise, folk-leaning series of tracks by D. Charles Speer & the Helix and Wooden Wand, the former interpreting Jerry Foster and Bill Rice’s “Big, Big City” and Gene Clark’s “Shooting Star,” while Wooden Wand goes solo with an original three song set of a country laments. If this is my least favorite side of the comp, it’s not for lack of competence—the Shooting Star” cover and Wooden Wand’s “Hall of Blame” and “Black Nikes” are all strong tracks—but more due to predisposition. Nevertheless, this run provides a welcome relief and important contextual contrast.
Not the Spaces ends with two mammoth contributions from a similar spectrum of American stoner rock, with contemporary psych peddlers Eternal Tapestry folding jazzy sax bleating into an extended space-rock excursion. It plays almost like a tribute to their forebears in Bardo Pond, who end the set with a patiently gathering storm of molasses-slow riffs, Eastern-accented flute runs, and spookily deployed, incantatory vocals courtesy of Isobel Sollenberger. It’s an intimidating way to end the compilation, but an appropriate one considering the strides made by not only Three Lobed but by the whole of American experimental guitar rock over the last ten years. What’s sometimes lost in these commemorative packages, however, is something Not the Spaces has in abundance: a generosity of spirit that’s manifest not in the simple act of memorializing, but in the attention to detail extending from the appropriately representative but none-too-obvious track selection to the beautifully sketched artwork and sturdy packaging. The whole endeavor paints Three Lobed as one of the touchstones of contemporary American underground music, but crucially and against all notions of comprehensiveness, actually leaves one salivating at the prospect of further discovery. [CMG]