Music blogs and websites are never fully agreed on what underrated should mean – does it mean underexposed (which is true of most alternative music by definition), or underappreciated (e.g. saying that, god forbid, Beatles For Sale is the best Beatles album)? What I hope to do with a new series is split the two definitions in two and create a parallel series of recommendations: one of albums that are not as widely heard as they could be, and those that have been heard frequently, but are not considered ‘great’, particularly in relation to an artist’s other material.. This brings me to the other issue: how to measure it, as too frequently music blogs take on a subjective barometer which means they often end up preaching to the choir. I therefore propose that:
Underexposed = albums with less than 5000 listeners on Last.fm as of 9th February 2015
Underappreciated = average review score is lower than a certain mark, OR that average mark is much lower than a band’s mean average (so an album rated as a 5 when a band averages 8, for example). The protean nature of music magazines means it’s impossible to set a standard metric for this, so it will be dependent upon each album, though Metacritic will be used as a starting point.
So without further ado, here’s the first from my Underexposed albums series…
Underexposed Albums #1: Y Bhekhirst – Hot In The Airport (1986…probably)
Number of last.fm listeners as of 9th Feb 2015: 319
We get so much insight into the lives of public figures at this moment that it comes as a real shock to find people like Tommy Wiseau or Y. Bhekhirst, whose past and even nationality is a genuine mystery. It’s not known how many people played on this album, whether it was a full band or one person with overdubs. The Wiseau resemblance is an uncanny one, given that if the theory that Y Bhekhirst is a Peruvian man called Jose Hugo Diaz Guzman holds water, then both men seem to have made a business importing clothes at some point in their lives.
The album is an utter shambles. ‘Dalmar’ is one of the least comfortable album openers, sounding like a hangover from some indistinct night before. There is never really a safe moment on the album because each instrument seems to be one step out of sync with the others, while Bhekhirst’s lyrics, such as they are, narrate experiences that seem clear to him but offer no explanation to an outsider. He keeps inviting someone to dance. It appears to be raining a lot. There are so few concrete references in the lyrics that it feels like being trapped in the singer’s head. When none of the instruments function together, there is no sense that anything connects to anything. Whenever he uses the 2nd person address in his lyrics it always feels like an interior monologue, caught raw before it has the chance to be constructed properly.
Yet within this, the songs carve their own rhythms – ‘Time Passing’ having about 4 going on at once. ‘I Run My Car’ has the most assertive bass on the album, chugging along like a backfiring engine. ‘Rain In Summer’ is the most rhythmically effective, with dispassionate cymbal action, a double-tracked guitar that falls with the chaos of precipitation, and a bass that doesn’t walk so much as it stalks. The centrepiece of the album is the title track, which features a drum machine and dance music stylings that, in its introduction, make it sound like a RickRoll for Blue Monday. The presence of the drum machine means the song is the only one with any sort of rhythmic anchor, helped by the restraint of the guitar in playing repetitive chords. The mysteries still pervade though. Why on earth would anyone go to the airport at night to party? The only guess I can hazard is something to do with the 1981 Air Traffic Controller’s Strike, but in the imagination of Y. Bhekhirst, there is every chance the phrase was just invented as a half-rhyming mantra. ‘Freshing Air’ is like ‘Rain In Summer’ in the way that its title and music give the idea of a pastoral ideal that has been warped somewhere, as the guitar tries to remember a coherent melody line. Is there an influence here from Bhekhirst’s obvious foreignness within New York? ‘You Dance’ continues the vein of humour from the title track (whether it is intentional or not is impossible to tell – yet another mystery to add to the mix) as Bhekhirst sings:
‘If you like, listen to this music’.
Which sums up the whole ‘Airport’ project: an attempt to make a clean pop record that is churned out as something far more rough and pockmarked, where notes and beats rarely follow each other smoothly.
‘I Will Sing’ bizarrely predicts Meatloaf’s ‘I Would Do Anything For Love’, which was released years later. ‘Everytime I’ is a strangely affecting closer, with some extra treatment on the guitar and a sense of things being stretched out, instead of nervously ticking along as they do on the rest of the record. It really brings out the untrained crooning quality of Bhekhirst’s voice, putting him up there with plaintive minstrels like Hank Williams and Harry Nilsson.
Many of the things I’ve suggested here come back to the idea of intention: if Bhekhirst is as amateurish as he sounds, can he really have meant it all? If he was such a great artist, why haven’t we heard from him again? Here, then, is a great case study to show how chasing after artistic intention is often futile. It is unlikely anyone will be able to track Bhekhirst down, much less correspond with him. The only thing that survives is this album. We won’t get a statement from Bhekhirst saying that I hired out a recording studio for a day and played some songs I didn’t rehearse and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. The first impression you get from this album is the hypnotic power lurking underneath the initially impenetrable mix. When music hits you in that way, it deserves to have an afterlife that the artist does not. Music is not there to be ‘explained’ by the artist, or anyone else for that matter. It matters as much, and means as much, as the listener is willing to put into it. And I’m desperate to tell you, if you haven’t got that impression already, that this is an album deserving of your attention.
Hot In The Airport has been gradually sneaking its way into my affections for a couple of years now, and deserves to be considered as one of the landmark albums of the 1980s along with Remain In Light, Daydream Nation et al. In fact, it is probably the ultimate in 1980s DIY/underground recording; more incoherent than The Fall, more cryptic than R.E.M and even more curious in its affective power than The Replacements. It’s easy to get caught in a wormhole of ‘shabbier-than-thou’ which decrees that the only authentic underground music is Steve Albini recording himself hitting trashcan lids with vinyl copies of Songs The Lord Taught Us while locked in the basement of an abandoned car factory, but little is going to beat a man of uncertain nationality wandering around New York record shops, handing over his cassette, never to be seen again. So enjoy the pièce de résistance, and I’ll meet you at the airport tonight. Toniiiiiiiight….