Hegel says Minerva’s owl flies at dusk. He meant that we only come to have knowledge and understanding of a thing as that thing is passing away. But I don’t remember it that way. If you were young and weird at the end of the twentieth century, had access to drugs, the internet, a CD burner and some weirdo friends—maybe, if you were lucky, a good record shop and a sympathetic venue or two—then you knew something was going on. In a few short years bracketing the turn of the millennium, you crossed paths in turn with Thuja’s The Deer Lay Down Their Bones, Jackie-O Motherfucker’s Fig. 5, Pelt’s Ayahuasca, and Headdress by The Sunburned Hand of the Man. These albums did not by any means sound the same, but they all seemed to be participating in some wider mysterious development in American music.
We probably still called it post-rock of a sort, because we didn’t have any better term for these new eccentricities of instrumental music. But it didn’t sound like post-rock at all. There were none of the elegant groove logistics of a Tortoise, the cinematic bombast of a Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the lugubrious detonations of a Mogwai. This stuff was droning and shambolic, ritualistic even. It was made with guitars, yes, but also with flutes and horns and a great American gamelan of chimes and percussive objects. And it certainly wasn’t post-anything. It was often retrograde and consumed with the past. Jazz forms, folk forms, liturgies, stray fragments of whatever world musics came to hand. One might have surmised that this was some kind of scene, but it was happening in disparate corners of the United States all around the same time. Suddenly there were free rock troupes comprised of uncertain and unstable lineups of multi-instrumentalist members putting out strange and wonderful folk incantations on microscopic record labels. When David Keenan of The Wire dubbed it the “new weird America,” he saved us all the trouble of naming it, but not of trying to understand what it meant. For me, record buying in my twenties and beyond was, in no small part, devoted to furnishing myself with some kind of genealogy for what these bands were doing. We had to learn about AMM and the Taj Mahal Travellers and Jandek and Pearls Before Swine just to have a language with which to describe the sounds these bands were making. I was trying to grapple with it in real time.
But that was now decades ago. And I’m not sure I’ve yet come up with a satisfying historical explanation for that remarkable little psychedelic renaissance in American music some twenty years back. Chalk it up to some combination of cheap urban living; the acid revival of the mid-1990s; the democratization of music recording and music distribution technology; an online information culture sophisticated enough to inform you of weird bands without fully demystifying them; and perhaps some kind of ineffable but widely shared need for a new American head music. I am gratified, at any rate, to see that era being written about and lovingly reissued. When historical explanation fails, mythology tends to pick up the slack.
Of all those free rock bands that emerged around the turn of the millennium, Sunburned Hand of the Man were the loosest. Nobody, let’s face it, was going to dance to the No Neck Blues Band. But Sunburned could sling that cosmic slop. Real heads know that phenomenon of being dazed in a Dead show parking lot, where the beats from some neverending drum circle bleed into the funk wafting from the van of the guy selling nitrous balloons. Headdress sounds something like that throbbing confluence, perhaps because it was recorded live indoors and outdoors at various locations in the Greater Boston area in the spring and fall of 2001. One feels the spontaneity of these mad jams. And Three Lobed and Carl Saff did an absolutely superlative job with the anniversary remasters. You can feel the pulse of it.
The brilliantly colored and exquisitely crocheted hand talisman on the cover of Headdress beckons you in. The fingertips of the sunburned hand touch the waning crescent moon. Inside, drummer John Moloney and bassist Rob Thomas (plus a battery of other percussionists) lay down a druggy, but unassailably groovy rhythmic foundation. This was always Sunburned’s secret weapon: no matter how freaky things got, you could always find that bounce at the bottom. On top, the late great guitarist Marc Orleans (to whom the reissue is lovingly dedicated) leads you through the haze with his thickly scribbled Eddie Hazel lines. Flutes, trumpets, organs, electronics, chants and reverberating demented ejaculations fill in the general disarray. There’s a scrap of spoken word here; a police car siren there. A track-by-track description won’t do the record justice. It all melts together. And you just have to hear Headdress and move to it.
Unlike many of their new weird compeers, Sunburned Hand of the Man is still putting out excellent music. But Headdress was definitely one of the first standouts in their absolutely labyrinthine hundred-plus record discography. And it is wonderful to have such a great sounding version of it available again. I would say that it is something of a key to the map, but there probably is no map. And as for the historical moment from which this music emerged, perhaps I will never fully understand it because I will never truly let it go. | b sirota