November 11, 2008
Photograph Burns (American/Onion 1996)
Rick Rubin’s American label started an offshoot named Onion Records that was run by record collector extraordinaire and Matador Records alumni, Johan Kugelberg. Kugelberg wasn’t given long to establish the label, but the Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, V-3 and Brad Laner’s Electric Company weren’t exactly the most accessible acts to invest into during your opening salvo. Personally, I loved all three of these releases although the Stiffs Inc. and God Lives Underwater albums left me cold. Anyway you slice it, the label gave all three a wider stage to exploit during the last days of the major label feeding frenzy of indie rock esoterica and its also-rans.
I really found it kind of heartbreaking that V-3 mastermind and Columbuis, OH icon jim Shepard committed suicide in 1998 because Photograph Burns was the one album where he was able to channel all of his misanthropy and alienation into something conflicted and beautiful. It’s an angry and somewhat hateful album that takes aim at love, friendship and a multitude of betrayals, but avoids the psychedelic ugliness and swaths of noise that masked the bruised heart at the center of his work. It doesn’t hurt that his backing band tears through the punk numbers with a ferocity that finally matched the seething emotions rampant in his previous work. The opener “American Face” may be one of my favorite punk songs of the 90s as it busts through the gates like the MC5 as Shepard rails against American egotism while wishing he could remain in a narcotic cocoon. It’s full of loathing of country and self wrapped in a catchy shambles of a tune that I never get sick of listening to these days.
The slower tunes remind of Smog’s mid 90s work on Red Apple Falls and Doctor Came at Dawn if they were influenced by Chrome and the Killed by Death Series. In fact, Photograph Burns reminds me alot of Chrome’s Red Exposure if you subrtracted the beats and added even more bad intentions. When you trace the steps through his discography, Photograph Burns is even more depressing since his battles with narcotics and depression become apparent. I never knew the man, but his albums make me wish he found some sort of peace in his end because his music is a portrait of a tortured soul who never found any semblance of happiness.