Regarding great marginal or underground musicians, it’s often true that the less well known they remain, the better. Counterbalancing the obvious need to sell some records or get a bit of recognition after toiling in their home studio for years is the harsh reality that “discovery” usually leads them to make certain concessions to the market, or at least to change in some barely perceptible way when thousands of people are suddenly listening—a kind of observer’s paradox for artists. This seems more true than ever, now that outsider musicians seem to have about a week to develop before the hip documentary filmmakers come calling, making celebrities of people whose brilliance is virtually dependent on noncelebrity.
Dan Wilson, dba Meadow House, has benefited from some small amount of media attention, though inclusion in a CD compilation released by The Wire magazine and in the groundbreaking 365 Days Project MP3 series, prestigious as both are, isn’t in quite the same category as a cover story in The New York Times Arts & Leisure section. There’s also been one Meadow House single, in a minuscule edition on a tiny label, but that’s about it. Considering Wilson’s obvious brilliance, and his equally obvious volatility—he’s rumored to be fond of destroying his work after it’s completed and seems in many other ways to be something of a ticking bomb—one can only be thankful that we now have an hour of his music preserved on compact disc, courtesy of London’s Alcohol Records: a label big enough to get the thing distributed and small enough, alas, not to threaten Dan’s career with megastardom.
Despite the dearth of Meadow House material available to the public till now, Wilson’s talents have been on display on a regular basis on Resonance FM, the London-based ultra-alternative station. As host of The Hellebore Shew (now discontinued), Wilson produced the kind of riveting, awe-inspiring radio that seems to come along once a decade even in the best of times. Utterly indescribable, Hellebore pushed the limits of what one person working with a microphone and a handful of sound-producing tools could do on the radio, seemingly without a jot of fear or excess self-consciousness (or irony, thank goodness): chanting “Hello, hello, hello, hello” for three minutes while banging rhythmically on his chest to alter the sound, or presenting “The Railings Report,” in which he “tests the resonance” of various park railings by clanging on them and awards a prize to the best one. (Archives of The Hellebore Shew are available on the Web at hellebore.aa.stodge.org, and you are hereby advised to explore them.) Wilson is also known for his massive “tape dropping” project—recording various sounds on cassette tapes (sometimes random, sometimes made with a specific human target in mind), and leaving them, anonymously, for people to find and listen to.
Tongue Under a Ton of Nine-Volters, the first full-length Meadow House release, doesn’t provide the same direct view into Wilson’s psyche as his anything-goes, schizophrenic-and-proud-of-it radio show, consisting as it does of songs only, but the connection is clear. The music is obviously the product of a zero-to-sixty mind with a head full of ideas that are driving him insane (so to speak). In the tradition of other brilliant, uncategorizable home recordists—R. Stevie Moore is an obvious comparison—Wilson, who is still only twenty-one, seems to have listened to and digested every piece of contemporary music in the world, regurgitated it, and somehow incorporated all of it into his work while retaining his own unmistakable style. Like Moore’s work, all of Wilson’s is nominally rock-based, but Wilson is as quintessentially English as Moore is American. (The ghost of Syd Barrett lurks, inevitably, just below the surface on more than one track here, though Meadow House’s music is far more dense and hyperkinetic.) And his oddball-genius pop is about as good as it gets. Wilson, who plays all instruments and sings all vocals, intones his darkly humorous poetry—worth the price of admission alone—over marching metallic percussives, kazoos, unidentifiable “Eastern” stringed instruments, various toys, fake woodwinds, and odd overdubbed voices that cover all bases from Lothar and the Hand People to English music hall to ’80s disco-pop to surreal antifolk to (of course) Beatles-through-a-shredder. He tackles stream-of-consciousness psychedelia on the lovely “Hippy Blankets” and gleam-in-the-eye, bad-boy mischievousness on the ode to voyeurism, “My Window-Cleaning Days Are Over.” And, inevitably, he breaks down the fourth wall at will, as in “Pins and Needles,” when he interrupts his train of thought to mutter, “Let’s get this feedback loop going.”
If there’s any hope at this point of saving rock music from becoming a tiresome, endless nostalgia trip, it’s here. Get it before the hip documentary filmmakers ruin him.
DAVE MANDL was the Rail's former music editor. He is a freelance writer/journalist.