Warning: this is a long review, with a story and a review of a 23-song compilation. Be patient. Or skim it. Either way.
EvilSponge has a history with Karl Hendricks. Well, we have histories with many obscure rock musicians, but such is the life of an indie music critic.
I first became aware of Karl Hendricks in the mid-1990s. All i knew was that he played in a trio and he released albums that had cartoons on the covers. I would see these records while flipping through CDs at any number of Atlanta used CD shops. In time, Karl Hendricks Trio records with cartoon covers started coming out on Merge Records, and since Merge is the label owned by Superchunk, this lent the band a certain air of credibility. Maybe, we thought, this was really cool jazz, because we thought the name "Karl Hendricks Trio" implied a jazz band. (But, as Karl himself sang on The Scoffer's Reply, "It's not jazz when you play it like that.")
Tracers was the first one to take the dive, buying a used Karl Hendricks Trio record from Eat More Records, the lost great record store of Gwinnett County in northeast Atlanta. (Tracers note: the album was the utterly superb Misery and Women)
We took the record home to the apartment we shared with four cats, a place that was the epicenter of the pre-EvilSponge crowd. (To get to our place, get off the highway at Northside and take a left at the Girls-R-Fun!) We opened a round of beers and placed the CD in the player. I believe that Malimus was there as well, perhaps with Squid, Tim, and some others of our extended group.
We were surprised to discover that The Karl Hendricks Trio was not a jazz act as we had assumed, but instead was a punkish indie rock band. Except that Karl had a way with words. They say that he was called "The Poet of Pittsburgh", and on that night long ago many of us fell in love with the clever words of that man.
Years later, the pre-EvilSponge crowd borrowed Tracers' father's old Crown Victoria and drove to Chapel Hill on a holy pilgrimage to the Merge Records 10th Anniversary Festival. The second band on the bill was "Karl Hendricks Rock Band", and we had long argued over which of the cartoon characters on the record covers was Karl. So Malimus and i came up with a Mad Scheme: we bought cheap plain t-shirts, cloth paint, and stencils at the WalMart in Chapel Hill and we made two t-shirts that read "Are you Karl Hendricks?" We wore them to the show to find out who, exactly, was this guy that we listened to.
We got there and waited in the North Carolina heat to get our tickets at the door. As we reached the front of the line, we saw Superchunk bassist Laura Balance come out and talk with someone at the door. She looked up, saw our shirts, and her jaw hit the floor. She muttered something about needing to tell people and ran inside.
We grabbed beers and stood at the front of the stage as The Karl Hendricks Rock Band was setting up. A shortish guy with short blondish hair and glasses was setting up a bass. My vote was the Karl was the blonde cartoon character, so i thought that he might be Karl. He looked up from plugging in his pedals, saw us, and said, "Unbelievable!" And then, "Karl is not going to believe this. Wait, let me get my camera!" So i was wrong. Curses!
Karl was a skinny, dark-haired guy in glasses, as Tracers guessed correctly from the cartoon characters. But The Karl Hendricks Rock Band was glorious in concert. And Karl seemed like he was having a blast on stage. The band tore through seven songs in about 30 minutes. It was loud and fast and Karl's wonderful lyrics were lost in the fury and guitar roar. But it was awesome and fun, and i enjoyed seeing the band.
Later in the show, the bassist who had taken pictures of our shirts saw us in the crowd and said, "Wait here. You guys need to meet Karl." He ran off and then came back with a sweaty, slightly drunk Karl Hendricks who was amazingly excited to see two guys in homemade t-shirts with his name on it. We chatted and he was flattered and excited, and seemed like a nice guy. He posed for this picture with Malimus and i.
From Left: PostLibyan, Karl Hendricks, Malimus.
It was cool to meet him and finally know which one of the cartoon characters he was.
Years later, The Karl Hendricks Trio played Atlanta on a Sunday. Malimus, Tracers, and i went. Sadly, the only other people there were the opening bands, the bar staff, and two guys who were from Pittsburgh and knew his music from their bar days in The 'Burgh. He played to five people on the floor cheering him on and screaming requests.
Later at the merch table, Malimus presented him with an 8x10 print of the picture of the three of us. Karl was amazed. "My wife didnít believe me," he said. So we gave him a print to take home and show her proof that two indie rock fans from Atlanta had stalked him at a music festival in Chapel Hill, back in the late 1990s.
After that, Karl faded in and out of our notice. He released records that were, well, Karl Hendricks records. He had a certain indie rock punkish sound, with witty lyrics. Any one of his albums has a song or two where you listen to the words and think, "Sing it brother! Preach the truth!"
And he did.
Karl eventually developed throat cancer. Alex of OK Productions, who had brought him to Atlanta for that poorly attended show, told us.
Then Karl got better and did another album.
Then, in January of this year, Karl died from throat cancer. He was 46. The same age as me. And goddamit, that bitch cancer claims another good one.
I found out a few days later when it surfaced on my FaceBook feed. I shared the news with everyone relevant, put on my copy of 1994's Merge release Misery and Women and played You're a Bigger Jerk than Me loud. I am sure the neighbors in my condo building were annoyed. "If you think you're happy now," Karl sang, "Then you're a bigger jerk than me'."
A few weeks later a guy who was a friend of a guy who knew a girl who worked with a girl who was there at the emergence of EvilSponge (follow that tenuous connection?) wrote an essay about seeing Karl when that guy was growing up. The post was shared, and suddenly the EvilSponge Minions gathered on Facebook, sharing videos and chatting and laughing and mourning.
In March of this year Comedy Minus One, the indie label who released Karl's final two albums, released this tribute on Bandcamp. Twenty-two different acts covering Karl's music. The title comes from something Karl once said about mankind's greatest inventions being the wheel and the alphabet.
I bought it immediately and have lived with it since then. There is a lot here, but goddammit it is perfect. It needs to be heard. Karl needs to be heard. His records need to be played: often and loud. Revel in the way he played with language, and talked about the everyday atrocities of living in a world where people are often cruel or neglectful for no real reason other than that they are too lost in their own mis-perceptions of reality to really see or care.
You should go and listen to this. At least once. I sincerely believe that the world would be a better place if everyone was familiar with Karl Hendricks. So take an hour or so and go to Bandcamp and listen. Listening on Bandcamp is free, so you're not out anything but some time. There are 22 tracks on the compilation in a variety of styles, so there is bound to be something that you enjoy. Then go to YouTube and search for Karl Hendricks and watch some of his videos.
You can thank me later.
The tribute starts off with a song that perfectly epitomizes Karl. In the last verse the lyrics go, "When will the goodamn poor wise up and kill everyone in a suit? / When will goddamn me wise up and stop putting my faith in you." Wow. In a simple rhyme Karl describes a very punk dissatisfaction with the world and a very post-punk mopiness about relationships. Such was his power. AX YR DR (Axe Your Doctor ???) play this song perfectly: a guitar chugs and a mopey voice recites the words over a tinking drum machine beat. In the second verse, a second guitar line comes in, a chiming over the grinding layer. A faithful cover that is still a new take on this. (Karl liked his songs to be noisy punk pop.) This is perfect.
And for the second track, we veer off into very different territory. The Beagle Brothers are a country band, singing Karl's words with a drawl, slide guitar, a lovely sauntering bass line, and a general bluegrass sensibility. But it works. Karl's music has a self-deprecating mopiness that works with country music. The Scoffer's Reply features one of my favorite Karl lyrics: "It's not jazz when you play it like that". Indeed... But this really works.
Up next is Painted My Heart by Brian Mietz. This is a messy and loud indie pop song -- think Pixies, only less polished. It's all frantic crashing drums, guitars in layers, and a lo-fi vocal. It's catchy and happy.
The Card Party give us yet another completely different take on a Karl tune, this time a mostly spoken word version of The World Says. It starts with a guy speaking the lyrics as a faint guitar strums. Eventually a wailing distorted guitar layer joins in. This is kind of like Karl reinterpreted as a song on an early King Missile album.
Chris Brokaw (any relation to Tom?) does a lo-fi version of The Night Has No Eyes, all clattering guitar and poorly recorded vocals. And then Developer do the same song that we heard as spoken word two songs back. They take The World Says and twist it into a slowcore pop tune, like the halfway point between Mark Kozelek and Karl.
The next band listed is Entertainment and not, sadly, AtlantAthens goth act eNTERTAINME.nt. They take Karl's Somewhere A Weekend Of Sin and play it as a crazy electroclash tune. A female voice talks for a bit, and then a silly synth comes in. Then another layer of voice, echoed and electro-processed sings Karl's words. As the song progresses the intense electro effects on the voice fade and it becomes clearer. But the music is spacey noise with a chugging disco beat. This is completely crazy, an off the wall take on Karl Hendricks, and i like it.
The Family Ghost do What You're Queen Of Now as lo-fi, noisy, poorly recorded punk. The vocalist yells into a microphone from a few feet away, almost completely overpowered by a guitar roar and a drum thudding. I think that Karl would appreciate this rendition.
Greg Hoy of Greg Hoy & The Boys is actually the vocalist on this compilation who sounds the most like Karl Hendricks. On this version of Your Lesbian Friends Mr. Hoy's voice is out front and clear over a swinging pop version of this song, the rhythm section really going. This is a nice version of a song that features another one of my favorite Karl lines, "Your lesbian friends come over / they curse when you're not here/ but they calm down when i offer them some beer. / we try to talk / but they don't even like football / without you around / we're getting nowhere at all."
Howling Fantods play Dead Flowers like a stripped down Green Day tune. The guitar chugs along with vocals and then after a minute the whole band comes in and just tears at the song frantically.
"I've had it up to here with attractive women in coffee shops. / I've had it up here with these goddamn sunny days" is the opening couplet to The Whole Fucking Thing, a brilliantly worded yet very dark song. Jake McKelvie & The Countertops play it with grinding guitar and clear vocals. There is a hint of Dinosaur Jr in the proceedings, but not with the fury that J Mascis plays.
The Bleedin' Obvious by The Jet Age is a loud rock song, a really fast rendition of this tune. It's a decent rendition, but the vocalist's reedy voice and yelling vocal style makes it hard for Karl's witty lyrics to shine through.
Johnny Ray Lerner gives a simple lo-fi acoustic version of Chuck Dukowski Was Confused. It is odd to have a lo-fi acoustic cover of a song about hardcore punk that Karl played fast and furious but not hardcore. I kind of like the simple arrangement here.
The Kyle Sowashes take a crack at what very well might be my favorite Karl Hendricks song title: The Worst Coffee I've Ever Had. They tear at this with pop punk angst, faithful to what Karl did. The drumming is fast and loud, the guitars grind and the vocalist (Kyle Sowash?) sings clearly.
Coming In September is turned into a light pop song by Mason Pitzel. A cymbal clanks slowly under a chiming guitar, the voice almost lost in the mix. On the chorus someone sings in harmony. This is actually a really pretty version of this song.
For the second version of Dead Flowers on the compilation, Princess Reason slows it down to a subtle lo-fi bedroom pop tune. The voice is hushed, almost a whisper, as an electric guitar picks along. This stripped down rendition makes the song seem incredibly sad, while the Howling Fantoids make it seem angry. And actually, the phrasing, the hushed breathy vocal, and the strummed guitar remind me of Impeccable Blahs-era Say Hi To Your Mom. Maybe this song actually is about vampires...
Rachel Wetzel plays The Last Thing You'll Ever Do For Me through lots of echo, the voice and the guitar clattering in huge rebounding layers. The whole thing reminds me of July Skies in way. Halfway through, she steps on the overdrive and it becomes noisy. I like this one.
Remote Places turn in a slowcore cover of Some Girls Like Cigarettes. This version is lo-fi and slow, like early Low covering Karl. I like this version, and again slowing down Karl's songs makes the melancholy that lies underneath his punk anger show through.
The Ballad of Bill Lee as covered by Rick Rizzo is kind of folkish. An electric guitar whines and acoustic strums while the voice sings, clear. It's awfully earnest, as is Skiing's cover of Dizzy and Stoned. This is very lo-fi bedroom pop made up of voice, a chiming guitar, and a chugging drum machine. The same kind of music makes up Steve Silverstein's cover of Baseball Cards, only with a silly keyboard loop thrown in. I feel like these three tracks were put next to each other because they are all very heartfelt covers, done simply.
The compilation ends with The Victoria Lucas covering Beergasm. I feel this wraps things up on the appropriate note, The Victoria Lucas playing this as a loud, fast punk tune with the whole band slamming at it.
So, whew, that is the compilation. A lot of material, and it can be a little overwhelming. There is a fair amount of diversity show here -- punk (lots of that), pop (a fair amount), and lo-fi bedroom pop (too much of that really), but also country and electroclash. I tend to like covers where a band takes a song, strips it down to a hummable melody and some lyrics, and then remakes it as something their own. And given that, i think that the best cover here is The Beagle Brothers' rendition of The Scoffer's Reply. By taking this song and reinterpreting it as their brand of country, they turned in something lovely. You know, if Karl sang about pickup trucks a little more he could have been a best-selling country songwriter!
Your mileage may vary of course. But there is a lot here and you are bound to find something you enjoy. I like the diversity of this record. I even like that half of it is lo-fi covers by people who obviously were touched by Karl's work and wanted to contribute to this memorial. It's all seems very sincere and heart-felt.
Rest in peace, Karl. I won't forget you.
And you, dear reader. Go out and listen. At the very least listen. There is so much here that there is bound to be something you like. Buy a track or two, throwing a few bucks to Karl's family (all proceeds from this compilation go to Karl's widow and two daughters). Go and search for his records.
The man had a real way with words. There is a lot of beauty in the lyrics here. People need to know that.