[Stars on C-30] Rambling thoughts on Herbcraft, Expo 70 and the cassette resurgence

Tape labels are abundant these days, as are new cassette releases, and Stars on C-30 includes reviews of some of these releases, the occasional band or label profile, and a look at the culture surrounding cassettes.

Let’s face it, when you name your label Fuck It Tapes, you’ve instantly raised the bar for anything you release. With a name like that you quickly come to the conclusion, how can anything they release be bad? Fortunately, I have yet to have a bad experience with Fuck It Tapes. As the cassette arm of Woodsist Records, Fuck It adds a variety of sounds to the world, including some excellent releases from Woods, Wavves, Blank Dogs, MV & EE, and a recent release from Ducktails. The label’s latest gem is a cassette from Portland’s Herbcraft. This new collection, Papers, is the follow-up to this summer’s debut LP, Discovers the Bitter Water of Agartha. Papers is as fine a document of bedroom psychedelic folk as I’ve heard in a long time. Theses songs have an amazing amount of space while maintaining a full, rounded, often swirling sound. Equally impressive is how well all of the instruments and various sounds hang together. These songs, especially those that comprise the first side of the tape, are really addictive. This is the kind of stuff you want to rewind as soon as it ends and begin again. For my money, “Lessons” is the highpoint here. Herbcraft’s music seems like the soundtrack for the aftermath of a party that got seriously out of had. Everyone is passed out, the lights are low, smoke hangs in the air, a lot of things are broken, and no one will be the same when morning comes. Papers is grinding away on a cassette player somewhere, setting the scene for the one semi-conscious guy in the bean bag chair.

If you recover from the party and decide to change your life through meditation, look no further than Expo 70’s latest cassette, Resurrection (Heavy Meditation), released on Electric Temple. Expo 70 is the baby of Kansas City’s Justin Wright. Wright’s Expo 70 output is largely improvised psychedelic drone. I always imagine this is what a merging of Sunn 0))) and Hawkwind might sound like. Resurrection consists of two sides of heavy meditative drone looped and looped and looped….. repeat until sleepy. It’s fantastic if you’re looking for meditation music. It’s repetitious and trance-inducing. I really enjoy Expo 70 but this one was a bit much for me. One side and I would have been happy, two sides was pushing it. The good news is Expo 70 is extremely prolific, so check out this tape is you like the drone, also, I recommend the Center of the Earth and Sonic Messenger LPs.

After my last Stars on C-30 column, I received a great comment from a friend of mine via Facebook. In response to the idea of cassettes being a hot medium once again, he commented, “…the DIY world survives and more frequently does more than simply survive but acts as that crazy and wise uncle that you never see but often ask about for his insight. One of my main dissatisfactions with the music biz is that ANYONE with 100 bucks, an internet connection and a little bit of time can put a record out. Sometimes this is great. REALLY great! But most of the time it’s a self-indulgent exercise by some bored cat in need of a bit of self-esteem. So is the cassette tape label simply a vanity project or a real viable means of distribution?”

I think this a totally valid point and one that I remember being raised in the mid 90’s during the last cassette boom. First off, I think bad bands will always greatly outnumber good bands and they will always get their music released… nothing can change that. I feel cassettes are a great medium for bands and labels on a budget. They’re cheap to produce and easy to put together at home. In addition, they’re perfect for releasing music with limited appeal or limited name recognition. I think the point my friend raises is do we need to release music with limited appeal or is this just self-indulgence on the part of the artist? This is debatable and I honestly don’t know where I stand on that question.

As I’ve been reviewing tapes, I’ve noticed a lot of bands release the tape and offer the download for free on MySpace or Bandcamp. This made me think, is the cassette resurgence a product of the download frenzy? Are bands that would normally just release the download thinking that they need a physical release as well? Does it make sense for a small band to take advantage of the insane collectors market manufactured by the music business by making 100 copies of the new EP on cassette and selling it for $5 while offering the download for free? If you just have the download and you’re not really well known, how likely are the folks who liked your set at the bar last week to go home and download your album the next morning? If there’s a $5 cassette for sale after your set they’re probably going to buy it. If they do go for the download they probably really liked the band and by giving away those few songs for free the band has almost ensured a return customer when their next release comes out.

In a more direct response to the question of the cassette label as vanity project or viable means of distribution, in my opinion, it is both. I feel the cassette label is viable distribution for those microscopic bands that somehow need to reach beyond the neighborhood bar to get off the ground. I think it becomes more of a vanity type thing when a band who could easily sell 1000 or more copies of an LP or CD release a cassette limited to 100 copies. This is the curse of the manufactured collectible, which is a discussion for another time.

I know this has been a rambling discussion, but I’d really like to hear what any of you reading this might think. Please feel free to discuss…

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