It didn't take much to be subversive back in Prague's bad old days: Just doing Velvet Underground covers could get you busted, and writing honestly about the simple misery of being human was heresy. In that sense, the Party elite did Czech rockers a favor, because underground music never got lost in a politics-as-identity shtick, and when the curtain was lifted they still had plenty to rock about.
So if the music on Czeching In, the first American compilation of Czech/Slovak pop, is abstract, complicated, silly, and more aggressive in its aesthetics than its politics, consider it a blessing. The set opens with the spastic boogaloo of "Light Explosion"--sort of "Dragnet" on speedy barrio ecstasy--by world-music man-children Sum Svistu. There's a marvelous "We're here, we're weird, get used to it" attitude at work here, and in most Czech/Slovak art-pop, with an aesthetic sensibility reminiscent of our own late Wallets: Naturally a polka accordion goes with a funk bass. Of courseKurt Weillian melodies should be sung in gibberish, backed by a six-piece ska brass section. Further on, Tornádo Lue--who mostly use Sylvia Plath's poems as lyrics--spew bittersweet bile like a hard-assed Björk, and Uz Jsme Doma epitomize the frenetic Czech marriage of punk, ska, and jazz on the cut "Jassica," a pub song about a whale and a sailor and their giraffe love child that only hints at the operatic desperation of their live shows. (See A-List, p.33.)
Also included are baby boomers Yo Yo Band (feel-good reggae) and Buty; Laura a Její Tygri, a convulsive 14-piece brass ska/jazz rock band; Zuby Nehty (guitarless, all-female sisters to Stereolab); and ska stompers Sto Zvírat. Uz Jsme Doma's album Hollywood(another Wallets connection?) is due for an April release on Skoda, but if we're going to be deprived of full records from Sum Svistu and Tornádo Lue, a Czeching In sequel is mandatory--and should include Slunicko, the country's finest hard rock group. (Sullivan)
Skoda Records, PO Box 1389, Wilmington, DE 19899.CP
In case you still don't know who David Carson is, he's the mythic ex-surfer, ex-high-school teacher who, with minimal design training, shaped some of the most influential pop culture magazines of the past several years, including Ray Gun (from which he was let go last fall) and Beach Culture. His chaotic and sometimes lush layouts and challenging, if sometimes indecipherable text have resulted in equal heaps of professional glory and criticism; he's also probably the first graphic designer to have groupies. And though I wouldn't go so far as to call it "the end of print," Carson's work did mainstream the declining tradition of segregating text and image, transforming both into layered, multi-channeled, multi-meaning print: He made paper the equivalent of multimedia.
The Carson "look" became a commodity in itself, with the likes of Pepsi and Nike signing him on to help capture the youth market. Indeed, as you'll see from the abundant illustrations in The End of Print, Carson is quite talented; but contrary to what he and co-author/design commentator Lewis Blackwell would have you believe, he didn't rise out of the surf like Venus. Blackwell, editor of the British magazine Creative Review, is remiss for promoting Carson's view of himself as a renegade outside of design history. His destabilization of print is much in the spirit of the raw, experimental Dutch design of the '80s, and goes even further back to the type experimentation of the Dada and Futurist movements; cross-fertilization between Carson and designers at schools (including Cranbrook and Cal-Arts) was another influence. Fortunately, David Byrne does a much better job of framing Carson's work in an introductory essay, comparing it to music in its ability to communicate directly, and at a level that has nothing to do with logic and rationality. Meanwhile, I still can't tell if I'm in the presence of artistic genius or design-wank eye-candy. (Anne Galperin)