Monomaniacal home-recordists-cum-outsider-musicians are getting to be a rather common breed, but Columbus, Ohio’s Jim Shepard was hunkered down in his primordial lair back when most people thought “lo-fi” meant listening to music on a transistor radio. Far more devoted to noise than most one-man/4-track operations, Shepard — who hung himself at home in October 1998 — had a flair for carving out blocks of blue-collar art-rock that rivals fellow Rust Belt survivors like Destroy All Monsters and Pere Ubu (in its heyday). He also tempered the smart-guy sound-assemblage with a dark and smoky garage aesthetic born of toxin-laden practice spaces and beer-soaked lunch hours out behind the plant.
Shepard inaugurated his insular experimentation back in the late ’70s with Vertical Slit, a free-ranging, amorphously constructed band that laid out its lattices of scree around the leader’s extraordinary guitar constructions. You can hear bits of MC5er Fred “Sonic” Smith, Sonny Sharrock and Can’s Michael Karoli in Shepard’s alternately piercing and massaging use of feedback, while his lyrics coat everything in sight with overlapping bile and black humor. An array of cassette releases and micro-pressed records — in editions ranging from 100 (Slit and Pre-Slit) to a whopping 300 (The Live EP) — were excerpted for Vertical Slit and Beyond, a revelatory 1976-’90 compendium of isolationist howl that would be impossible to replicate in an age of networking and backslapping indie-rock support groups.
Not that the confronto-delic aesthetic that endures in V-3 (a combo Shepard put together) exactly conforms to that of the whippersnappers who have sprung up over the years. In fact, his last-sane-man-on-earth stance might be even more pronounced in this setting. The atypically clean-sounding Psychic Dancehall wastes no time in expounding Shepard’s pronounced anti-social mindset: the weary opener, “Prime Minister Keyes” finds him continually muttering (to no one in particular) “I couldn’t fit in if you gave me your name.” His fellow travelers here seem to share those feelings: Bassist Nudge Squidfish (!) delivers a hollow-eyed plaint called “Dead Man,” while singer/guitarist Roxanne Newman uses her tabula rasa voice to sap all emotion from defeatist anthems like “Tick Tock” and “Gotta Get Free.” It’s clearly Shepard’s show, though, and he airs a stealthy virtuosity both as a guitarist (on the Ubu-esque “Another Exterminator (Eaten By Bugs)”) and a scorched-earth prose writer (the glacial live version of “Photograph Burns”).
Negotiate Nothing lowers the fi a notch or two, which actually enhances the hepatic tones that radiate from liquored-up portraits like “Girl in a Room” and “Harry” (both of which bear a trace of MX-80-style bluster). While it’s easier to identify most of the album as punk rock, Shepard and Squidfish throw a wrench (hell, a whole toolbox!) into the works on pieces like the tape-loop collage “Scrap Metal Radio” and the fuzzily suburbo-phobic “Your Uncle.” Shepard’s keen observations are more detailed than ever, as evidenced by the deceptively titled “Party at 15th and Summit,” a real-time journey to rock bottom that introduces characters like Gene: “He plays in a local band/He’s advanced to shooting heroin in the back of his hand.”
After an enforced hiatus — the result of an industrial accident that nearly cost Shepard a hand at his day job — V-3 resurfaced on a major label. The cash influx didn’t change the band’s modus operandi, though — Photograph Burns was recorded for a hair under $500, and it’s got enough jaggedly dangling viscera (especially in a remake of “Superhuman”) to prove it. Shepard’s dark, mannered vocals add a detached menace to psychic jostles like “American Face” (a spiritual update of the MC5’s bird-flipping “American Ruse”) and a crescendo-upon-crescendo rendition of the title track. Interestingly, Shepard also allows a glimpse into his usually well-disguised introspective side on the foggy “Bristol Girl.” He may not be on a first-name basis with the man downstairs, but you get the feeling Shepard knows a lot more about bad juju than labelmate Glenn Danzig ever will.
On his solo albums, both compiled from a battery of self-released cassettes, Shepard waxes more avant-garde, blending Chrome-plated tape gnash with perversely over-the-top fuzz guitar. Songs as such don’t materialize very often on Picking Through the Wreckage With a Stick, but the sounds that do are pretty enthralling in their own right. Shepard works up some resonant Eastern modalities on “Exile on Brown Street” and leads a pickup group (including a couple of Strapping Fieldhands) through live versions of “U.F.O.logy” and “Dusted.” The pulsing “Quotients & Numbers” (which exudes a fervor reminiscent of embryonic Modern Lovers) proves Shepard is better off with a melody. Evil Love Deeper, which compiles material recorded by a variety of Shepard’s “lesser” groups (including Lacquer and Skullbank) meanders in a similar fashion, taking in post-Beat art pieces like “2001: A Long Island Oddysey” and spazzed-out noise ventures (“Panasonic”). As the songs get shorter-they range from four minutes down to 50 seconds — the attitude gets worse, and the results more rewarding.
Pimping in the 90’s, a fan club release with a really cool booklet, is a collection of soundbites from Shepherd’s basement or garage or perhaps just recordings of the voices in his head that may have driven him to his ultimate suicide. Intermingled with recordings from porn movies are uber-classic pieces of fuzz-grunge sonic terrorism like “Car Horn in a Stinger Trap” and “You Smoke Ink?” which even if you wanted to find them, couldn’t be found anywhere else.