In his recent brief biography of Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol: A Penguin Life (Viking), the poet Wayne Kostenbaum writes: "It is not heroic to deprive the world of the artifacts if one has the ability.... In a time of artistic meanness, when creators stint posterity by refusing to produce, and by masquerading their drought as good manners, Warhol threw away decorum, and worked."
It’s easy to imagine that Gerard Langley, the auteur behind Bristol, England’s Blue Aeroplanes, has read this. One of the collective’s early songs was called "Warhol’s Fifteen," and in photographs, Langley’s ubiquitous shades pay homage to Warhol’s brand of Lower East Side cool. But even if he hasn’t, Kostenbaum’s apologia could serve as an epigraph to either of two recent products from the Aeroplanes factory: Weird Shit, which assembles 21 years of oddities by the band, and Record Player (both on Art Star), Langley’s first-ever solo effort.
In the late ’80s, the Blue Aeroplanes were credited with reinventing the role of lyrics in rock just as contemporaries My Bloody Valentine were retooling the place of the guitar. Their favorite technique involved using high-modernist verse by Auden ("Diary of an Airman"), Louis MacNiece ("Bagpipe Music"), or Sylvia Plath ("The Assailant") as source material. Langley’s own lyrics sometimes seemed the equal of those he cribbed, if not on paper then at least when delivered with three or more guitars wailing away in the background.
The 1990 Swagger and 1991’s Beatsongs (both on Ensign/Chrysalis) were commercial and critical successes, but just a few years later the band were as outmoded as an Oxford don at the Hacienda. Rough Music (1995, Beggars Banquet) was their best in years, but few took heed. Always loosely organized, the band underwent more changes than usual before resurfacing in 2000 with the import-only Cavaliers, on their own Art Star label. That album threaded a single, defiant Langley song-poem ("I meant to hold fast/With beliefs and an idea of the future") through a dozen tracks, with a line-up barely linked to earlier incarnations.
Which brings us up to the defensively titled Weird Shit. Originally a gig-only giveaway cassette, it lifts off in 1978 with the stiff "Showing Off To Impress the Girls" and touches down in 1999 with a Velvets-y Cavaliers outtake. In between, some tracks crash (the percussion-and-voice "Vade Mecum Gunslinger"), some circle aimlessly (a cover of Aerosmith’s "Mau-Mau"), and some barely leave the ground, like "Camus in the Pocket," a 40-second spoken sketch of an art-schooler’s vie bohème.
But a few soar: "Mean Time," with its sturdy Nuggets-y guitar progression and odd details ("Julee Cruise on the answerphone/It’s a campus town"), should have made whichever album it didn’t. The acoustic "Streets of Laredo" pairs Langley with Ian Kearey of Britfolk revivalists the Oyster Band for a tart, de-romanticized take on the Marty Robbins country staple. Best, and strangest, is "Through the Smoke Hole," which plays their oldest trick: after a stretch of tuning, the band falls into a jumpy groove, topped by generous helpings of poet Gary Snyder’s California Zen mysticism: "There is another world above this one/The way to it is through the smoke of this world."
Langley’s long been the sole Blue Aeroplanes constant (though brother/drummer John turns up regularly), so why isn’t Paper Plane just a Blue Aeroplanes release? Well, for one thing, the disc is as self-consciously pre-digital as its title: some cuts are overlaid with vinyl pops and clicks, and others are filtered through an AM-radio effect. (After a few cuts, you get used to it.) This veil of midrange is also Langley’s excuse to essay mid-’70s material that plays against his brainy image: Status Quo’s "Paper Plane," Deep Purple’s "Hush," and "Here Comes the Queen," originally recorded by Spooky Tooth guitarist Luther Grosvenor.
Even the originals are harsher than Langley’s usual fare, closer in tone to Mott the Hoople, say, than to the Byrds. And the lyrics are suitably acerbic, with twitches of self-reference replacing the expected flights of metaphor. "Spiky Young Iconoclast" and "X Celebrity" take aim at a generalized and — (make no mistake) younger — hipster, though the singer’s barbs could also be directed at himself circa his ’90s success. "Art Star" (which doubles as a label advertisement) is nastiest of all; a falsetto backing chorus whines the title as Langley slams the children of Marcel Duchamp: "Let’s all heed the postmodernist call/Seen one toilet seat, you’ve seen it all."
Neither of these discs is "the new Blue Aeroplanes album." It’s up to Langley whether there ever is such a thing. But both confirm Kostenbaum’s point: fame may be fleeting, but the creative impulse needn’t be. Or, as Langley sort of sang, sort of said on 1995’s "James": "This song is on a record/It’s something that I did."
(A minimal, fan-run Web site, with ordering information for Weird Shit and Record Player, is at www.blue.aeroplanes.com.)