Third Man Records
Out November 20
Southeast of Saturn illumines an entirely different Detroit Rock City than the one you think you know. It’s a sonic place you’ll want to visit.
The city of Detroit is no stranger to music. Long before it saw an emerging space rock scene toward the end of the twentieth century, it seemed impossible to think about Detroit in any aural sense without immediately hearing the sounds of Motown, and bands like The Supremes and The Temptations. Less than a decade later, the city earned a place in the foundations of punk history, skyrocketing MC5 to success. Iggy and the Stooges (known then as the Psychedelic Stooges) also played their first gig in Detroit. And of course, Suzi Quatro was born there. So it shouldn’t come as much of a revelation to learn that this place sparked new creative energies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although most of the bands on Third Man’s new Southeast of Saturn never saw any mainstream success, they’ve earned a cult following.
Speaking of the musicians so finely curated on this compilation, can I interest you in some lightning-quick time travel? Let me introduce you, reader, to some of the spaces where these bands honed their sound. First stop: Zoot’s Coffee, in Midtown Detroit. I’ll let you in on a little secret: not a lot of coffee got served there. The underground venue was home to a number of bands that defined the city’s music scene in the mid-90s, including Windy & Carl. The venue, as the story goes, was named after the owner’s Doberman. Down the road in Ann Arbor, Windy & Carl also booked gigs at the now-famous Blind Pig, which previously hosted performances by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Sonic Youth. That venue and its current owner appeared in an October 2020 ad supporting Joe Biden for US president. So, in more ways than one, the Blind Pig is on the right side of history. Back in the Cass Corridor district of Detroit, Majesty Crush, one of the more well-known bands on the compilation, played at Dally in the Alley – a community festival with roots in the mid-nineteenth century that also hosted a number of the other musicians represented on Southeast of Saturn.
Although arising out of the same geographic space and temporal moment, each of the bands channel their influences into distinctive tracks that conjure vastly different atmospheres of sound. Majesty Crush’s No. 1 Fan, the first track on the compilation, reveals the band’s acoustic connections to Britpop and American grunge. The sound is the band’s own, yet it contains hints of The Stone Roses and Nirvana as it engages in unassuming conversation with Oasis. In 1992, bassist Hobey Echlin told the Detroit Free Press that the band’s music “all comes out of punk rock simplicity.” Twenty-five years later, Echlin wrote a remembrance in the Detroit Metro Times for David Stroughter, the band’s lead singer who died in 2017. Echlin’s words describe Stroughter while illuminating the varied ways in which the band resonates: “He was the epitome of a late ’80s Detroit post-punk enigma . . . a multicultural iconoclast who grew up with the nephews and uncles of Motown royalty, who could be heard chatting with Einstürzende Neubaten in fluent German upstairs in the Burns Room of St. Andrew’s Hall after a show.”
A number of the tracks on Southeast of Saturn are instrumental, recalling early Durutti Column strings and keys. The Windy & Carl contribution to the compilation, Instrumental #2, feels like it could have been an outtake for the Durutti Column LP Lips That Would Kiss. I can’t help but wonder if Tony Wilson might have been interested in signing the band to Factory Records if the music had only got started a bit earlier. Beyond Windy & Carl, Miss Bliss’s Grey and Thirsty Forest Animals’s Nape are also sure to spark the interest of Durutti Column fans. In the summers of 1991 and 1992, Thirsty Forest Animals appeared on a number of bills with Majesty Crush, revealing how two bands with starkly disparate sounds could engage in a sonic dialogue simply because their music grew out of a corresponding space and time.
As the compilation moves forward, songs like Asha Vida’s Eskimo Summer, Ten Second Dynasty’s Continuum, and Astrobrite’s Crasher exemplify the aural qualities that have now become synonymous with shoegaze. My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain seem to haunt the compilation just as it’s time to flip to the B-side. As the tracks on the album shift from fuzzy guitars to trippy synth sounds, it becomes clear how these bands, collectively, defined the age of Detroit Space Rock. Yet even as the electronic vibrations come into clearer focus, Glider’s Shift insists on grunge connections to the West Coast while Calliope’s Laughing at Roadsigns calls across the Atlantic as an answer to a Britpop anthem.
Burnt Hair Records, a label that has since become synonymous with the Detroit scene of the 1990s, signed many of the bands on Southeast of Saturn. Radio DJ Larry Hoffmann, who hosted the locally famous Life According To Larry radio show, launched the label in 1990. While the collective sound of the compilation might ultimately be remembered as space rock, the nineteen songs together illuminate the varied influences and audiences these bands cultivated. This is a dazzling compilation from Third Man Records that you don’t want to miss.
Audrey J. Golden is a literature and film professor who lives in New York. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and you can check out her personal website to learn more about her writing and her archive of books, records, and ephemera.