Sometimes, you have to judge an album by its cover.
In the case of Identities by Infomatik, it’s an intricate jewel case wired with electronics.
I ran across a copy of the EP during a volunteer shift at Lifelong Thrift Store. The case was falling apart because the electronics had been dislodged. At first, I thought someone was crazy enough to ditch a copy of Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony, but a closer examination of the album credits ruled that out.
Then I had to wonder — what kind of band would go this amount of effort to craft such complex packaging?
I reached a dead end when I attempted to visit the band’s web site, which had long been surrendered to domain squatters. The Wayback Machine gives some hint of who this band was. A Google search on the band’s requires the use of quotations, otherwise Google will assume you want to search “informatik” instead of “infomatik”. (The best terms to use: “infomatik” band.)
In the mid-2000s, the band got a lot of good press in Seattle, eventually releasing a full-length album, Technologies. Obviously, Infomatik is no longer, the band’s members scattered to the wind and any evidence of their existence relegated to difficult web searches and a scant entry in Discogs.
It’s a pity.
Infomatik threw its hat into the ring of ’80s revivalism so prevalent at the time. The synths are grimy, the live beats as danceable as anything found in a machine, and the vocals a satisfying balance of deadpan and angst. They may descend from Killing Joke and Wire, but they understood what made those bands good.
I was so thoroughly impressed with Identify that I tracked down Technologies. All the tracks from Identify found their way to Technologies, but it’s none the worse for it.
In the mid-’00s, the infrastructure to get music online was in its infancy, so none of these releases are available through any of the usual digital services. As of this writing, a single copy each of Identify and Technologies are for sale on Discogs in the $30 range.
With my volunteer discount, I took Identify home for $0.83. I snagged the last remaining copy of Technologies on Amazon Marketplace for less than $2. The shipping cost more than the disc.
Carole King has been something of a straw woman here on Musicwhore.org. When her name was evoked, it was usually in service of describing milquetoast or overly sentimentalized music. Do a search for Onitsuka Chichiro on old versions of this site, and King probably shows up in a paragraph somewhere.
King released her landmark album, Tapestry, a year and two months before I was born. I would have encountered her music on the radio as I was growing up, probably on KSSK alongside Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
By the time I was old enough to explore music on my own, King’s music had become fodder for TV commercial jingles. A burgeoning art fag such as myself couldn’t help but hold her in disdain.
Gilmore Girls was one of my favorite shows, but when it aired, I had to mute the opening credits. The overly earnest cover of King’s “Where You Lead” is aural treacle.
But Tapestry shows up on critics list everywhere, and it’s not hard to find old vinyl pressings of the album selling for no more than $10. Before it could be jingle fodder, it had to achieve a level of success to warrant such ubiquity.
So when I spotted a copy of Tapestry selling for $1 at Lifelong Thrift Store, I bought it.
And I like it way more than I expected to.
King’s performances are gritty. Subsequent covers and reimagining of Tapestry’s tracks all polish off those rough edges. Onituska inherited that unfortunate legacy, although her own voice brings back some of that burnish.
I imagine Tapestry was the Jagged Little Pill of its day — an album where nearly every track could have been considered a hit single. While Alanis Morrisette’s breakthrough album took a raw, emotional look at heartbreak, King’s Tapestry holds together with an exploration of camaraderie. In both cases, they’re strong performances driven by an artistic clarity.
But it’s taken me nearly most of my lifetime to appreciate Tapestry. In that sense, the album is also a cautionary tale of music commercialization. Exploit a copyright too much, and a listener with little context may not realize that catchy jingle was actually intended to be art.
The strongest memory I have about this album involves one of my teachers in high school. At the time, I wouldn’t have admitted to thinking he was cute. Heck, I really didn’t know what was going on with my hormones to tell.
Compared with all the other teachers on the faculty, he was a kid, probably not more than 10 years older than I was. I didn’t really give age much nuance back then — he was an adult, so he fell under the broad stroke of old.
As a student, I never really liked raising my hand and asking for help. I perceived that as a sign of weakness. But on that first summer of high school, I was underwater. The school threw us into a geometry class that required Algebra I, and most of us hadn’t taken algebra.
So I had to ask for help. A lot. And I didn’t mind because, well, the teacher’s cologne smelled nice.
He was also building his music collection, and one of the albums he owned was Birth, School, Work, Death by The Godfathers. The album cover intrigued me, and it struck me as something I probably would like.
A friend of mine had picked it up based on said teacher’s recommendation and encouraged me to do so as well. I choose my purchases carefully back then, so I didn’t follow up.
Not for another 30 years.
I probably would have dug the Godfathers quite a bit. Birth, School, Work, Death has the reverb-drenched commercial sheen required of post-punk albums at the time, but it didn’t polish off all the rough edges from the band.
The Clash is an obvious influence, especially with the shouted choruses and Peter Coyne’s monotone verses. But that influence is tempered with a dash of classic rock and some well-timed melodies.
I hadn’t quite gotten into the rougher areas of punk, so the Godfathers would have been an appropriate gateway band.
Birth, School, Work, Death also has a cover that absolutely sells the album. If I had discovered the album by other means, I still would have found the austerity of the cover fascinating.
As it stands, Birth, School, Work, Death marks the first time my life ever resembled a song by The Police.
I’ve read about her in numerous rock magazines during high school, and on more than a few occasions, Blue would be played on the in-store system at Waterloo Records during a shift. Máire Brennan of Clannad introduced me to “Big Yellow Taxi”, which Janet Jackson would sample to great effect.
But it wasn’t until I picked up Court and Spark at the Friends of the Seattle Library Book Sale that I made the connection with “Help Me”. I didn’t realize Joni Mitchell had recorded that song.
Even now, “Help Me” is indelibly tied in my head with one particular radio station in Honolulu — KSSK, or K-59. In the ’70s, KSSK (590 AM) was the top-rated station in Honolulu with a playlist that featured all the big hits of the day.
In the ’80s, car stereos improved, and FM stations gained popularity. KQMQ (93.1 FM) captured mindshare among young people, but my mom stubbornly refused to let us listen to it. She preferred the traffic and news reports KSSK provided, and since she was behind the wheel, that information would be important for drive time.
But oh my GOD, KSSK didn’t update their playlist as the decade switched over from the 70s to the 80s. They were still playing music that was considered absolutely square by my siblings and me. Duran Duran, Madonna and Huey Lewis were doing wonderful things with synthesizers. Why did we have to be subjected to this easy listening junk from Carole King, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell??
“Help Me” stood for everything that was wrong with KSSK’s playlist. It was that jazzy, inoffensive, reliably adult kind of music that was automatically branded “boring” by anyone under 20.
Maybe the station might play a Sheena Easton single or some pre-Thriller Michael Jackson, but Prince was verboten. And good luck catching any Eurythmics. Otherwise, it was the Eagles, baby.
I haven’t listened to radio since the ’80s, but I assume if I were to tune into KSSK right now, the playlist would still be stuck in the ’70s, and “Help Me” would be right there.
Of course, now I listen to “Help Me” with terrific fondness, and 30 years of music education has given me a far deeper appreciation of Court and Spark. When I didn’t have John Coltrane and Charles Mingus as a point of reference, the album would have remained square to me. Instead, I understand why Court and Spark is a big deal. Mitchell retains her folk sound, but she makes it swing.
At some point, I’ll revisit Blue, but right now, Court and Spark is my go-to Joni Mitchell album.