Albums Under £5: Various Artists – WMSE Library (1984-1997)
If for once I get this finished on time, it should get published around the start of exams, and if not I’ll more likely leave it four months than bother rewriting it, so either way the unluckier among you will have all-nighters on the table. I can’t offer too much practical advice about getting through these – all I’d suggest is to memorise when Tesco puts their semi-expired food on clearance, I think it’s seven or eight, so you can stock up for the night on the cheap – but I can give you something to make the small hours pass smoother: a twenty-nine disc, six hundred and fifty-six song archive of mostly Wisconsin music, built up over thirteen years by Milwaukee radio station WMSE 9.17 and weighing in at just under forty hours.
Obviously this is an obscene amount of music, and this is by necessity going to be a vague review. Even if I had the time and energy to fine-tooth my way through this many songs, I’m sure that you’ll be too busy studying diligently to take a full guided tour. Besides, I found that a lot of the joy of wading into WMSE Library came from not knowing what was coming up next. I downloaded it looking forward to a day and a half of nasty punk (I found it on the same website as these Die Kreuzen demos), and for sure you can find some of that on there, but the amount of variety in the library took me by surprise: Dorian Gray play heartbreaking shoegaze, The Front have an incredible five-song stretch at the start of Fron-Fuc that throws itself between tones and genres with such ease I’m suspicious there are two Fronts who got mixed up in a drawer, Jeanne Spicuzza delivers this weird, halting spoken-word piece over crackling interference. It’s a fantastic thing to have on in the dead of night, letting all of these left turns wash over you.
Beyond the music, WMSE Library is also fascinating for the glimmers of people’s lives you sometimes see – you’re not going to get a sweeping portrait of end-of-the-century Wisconsin, but the archive’s shot through with allusions to local events and shared points of reference. Kevin Mulvenna’s Let’s Invade Illinois, for instance, is interesting in the same way that any far-off local rivalry is, a chance to step into somebody else’s grievances for a while, and thick with local slang and in-jokes that for all I know might not even make much sense in Wisconsin any more. In For The Count is frozen even tighter in amber, a remnant of a scheme by the mayor’s office to encourage black participation in the 1990 US Census, and hazy evidence of shifting demographics and disillusionment with the government (it’s kind of a corny song but you can’t really call it a failure, Wisconsin kept all of their congressional seats that year). It feels like the same kind of second-hand, telephone-game stuff that people have to use to reconstruct life in like the Roman Empire, and it’s strange to try and apply it to things that only happened a generation ago. The amount of unfamiliar artists in the archive means that it lends itself to going down strange rabbit holes, inside Wisconsin and out – so if you’re inclined to chase stuff up you can hop from Jeanne Spicuzza to an article about a Wikipedia feud she got caught up in to Wikipedia’s Administrator’s Noticeboard, a trove twelve years deep of nationalist slap-fighting and bizarre vendettas. I suppose in this respect WMSE Library’s actually a pretty terrible thing to introduce to somebody just before their exams, but if you’ve an internet connection I’m probably not the direst strain on your impulse control.
I’m a trawler by nature and I found it a pleasure to dig through all of this material, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for finding it a bit much. I don’t see any particularly useful way to do a best-of playlist for something this wide and varied, but if you’re looking for a strong disc to start with I especially enjoyed Mx-Pa*. For one it’s got my favourite song out of the whole lot: Neighbourhood Texture Jam’s Borax Factory, an absolute belter delivered with bleak humour and perverse energy, vocalist James Lapsley crooning about lives drained in an industrial hellscape over a stomping glam backbone that never gets tired. Discovering it was a thrill, even if it was the only good song in this whole thing I would have come out satisfied. Elsewhere Naked Apes and Neofaxtion thrash out two very different strands of the nasty punk I dreamed of, Pamela Means has a lovely, late-evening kind of run of contemplative acoustic songs and Patrick Glassell closes things out with a swampy, unsettling instrumental. It’s a real buffet.
What surprised me listening through the library, however, was the consistency between discs. There’s chaff, undeniably – to take one common example your patience for overlong tape experiments will be tested – but there’s so much strong stuff to carry it, enough that every disc is worth exploring. It’s very possible that I listened through Borax Factory exactly once then forgot about it. Does every region have a goldmine like this? Wisconsin, especially Milwaukee, seems to have a fairly fertile music scene, but I’ve never seen a snapshot this sprawling and well-preserved from any other area. I’ve a lot of admiration for WMSE, obviously for putting this out but also for creating the conditions for such an archive in the first place, giving people the chance to get music into the world – Die Kreuzen’s Keith Brammer has an essay here which touches on the station’s importance to local bands. I’m ashamed to say I’ve a very poor awareness of local radio, even inside our own university, but WMSE Library shows that there’s a value to it that goes beyond me hitting the free stuff jackpot thirty years later, and I hope there’s always a place for it in the world.
*Annoyingly, the download button for Mx-Pa seems to be broken. It’s still possible to download if you want to take it on the bus, but it’s a little more complicated than with the rest of them. I’ve emailed the website, but if it isn’t sorted by the time this goes to press I’ll put instructions below: