Ray Seraphin’s released a pair of great EPs over the past year and both have embraced a line between power pop and indie pop toggling the line of the ‘80s underground with a delicate grace. Over the years Ray has joined up with bands on the more punk half of the divide — Talkies, Apache, Buzzer — but as he’s moved further into the year Seraphin has been pushing into Sarah Records territory with ease and it looks good on him. I asked Ray to chip in a pick for the Hidden Gems series and he’s nabbed an underground favorite that’s a bit far from either end of his spectrum in terms of its source, but not so far from the tender impact that Seraphin’s music has on the listener. Check out his take on Empire’s Expensive Sound and hear how it came into his life.
“I discovered Empire’s Expensive Sound in my late teens,” says Seraphin. “I think I bought a CD reissue from a great record store in El Cerrito called Mod Lang, which specialized in English imports. I had heard that Empire, an offshoot of Generation X, was indirectly responsible for the ’80s D.C. music scene — namely Ian Mackaye’s projects — so I sought out a copy. Expensive Sound ended up being a pivotal discovery for me in terms of my own songwriting. And despite the endorsements of hardcore glitterati members Mackaye and Henry Rollins, the record remains an obscure (yet highly rewarding) listen.”
“Originally released in 1981, the same year Gary Numan and Soft Cell were raking in big bucks with their noir-flecked brand of retrofuturism, Expensive Sound was out-of-step with the climate of commercial music. Their music was raw, bare, warm — distinct from the glacial, antiseptic pop that would dominate the decade. The album was neither totally forward-looking nor nostalgia embracing. Instead,” notes Ray, “I think Expensive Sound does what great albums tend to: preserves a specific moment in time.”
“There’s an arid, unvarnished quality to the recordings — typified by frontman Derwood Andrews’s voice and words. He sang with uncommon fragility and in a soft, almost diffident voice. There’s little reverb, almost no double-tracking, and absolutely no attempt to Americanize his delivery. The subject matter is rendered in a similar, disarmingly plain way. Boredom, depression, unrequited love, and existential dread are treated in equal parts — sans one song about playing the electric guitar (the aptly titled “Electric Guitar”). While Derwood’s lyrics exhibit some of the doom-and-gloom sentiment of post-punk progenitors Joy Division, they are almost Holden Caulfield-esque in their simplicity. Empire’s response to adversity is delivered with a shrug and a sigh. A sample verse from “Hot Seat”:
“Sitting here without a care
All I have to do is stare
I wonder how long will I live
Day number one has gone”
Elsewhere, “Today” laments the loss of individualism — people are simply “statistics on paper” who trudge to work as if they’re in a funeral “procession.” Their solution is declarative but opaque: “start today/don’t throw it away.”
“If Andrew’s bashful vocals are part of the charm, his expressive guitar playing is the main attraction of Expensive Sound. As the sole guitarist on the record, he demonstrates a versatility unusual for the band’s punk roots — deftly maneuvering between chunky, minimalist riffing (like on “Hot Seat”), vast swathes of dark noise (“Empire”), and lacerating, tightly coiled leads (“Safety”). While Expensive Sound may be better known for the bands it inspired — the neo-psychedia of The Stone Roses and the athletic fretwork of Fugazi — I appreciate it on its own merits: one of the finest guitar pop records of the era.”
Gotta agree with Ray here, this one’s a bonafide classic that doesn’t come into the conversation enough these days and honestly I thank him for reminding me of why that is. Thankfully more than a few people agree and there are some reissues of the record available still, which means if you’re unfamiliar, then its time to get acquainted. In other good news Seraphin’s latest EP is being issued by Mt. St Mtn.
Support the artist. Buy it HERE.