The concept of an “underground supergroup” is a slight contradiction in terms, yet the phrase has been used to describe Ego Summit. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to simply describe the group as some old buddies jamming in the barn. Nonetheless, the histories of the members are unavoidable and they are collectively leaving behind an inspired discography that dates back to the Ford administration. The ‘Summit was a gathering of a handful of old-time Columbus, OH indie pioneers—old friends—who had been show-going and collaborating in an incestuous scene for decades, but might not have all stepped into the same room at the same time to make music. And so, Mike Rep, Ron House, Jim Shepard, Tommy Jay, and Don Howland got together in Jay’s studio/barn to play some music. As Rep’s liners note, “it was generally agreed that some documentation to that fellowship should be recorded on tape before the participants doddered off into ‘old age.’”
That session, recorded by Jay and Rep with some help from Jerry Wick, became the thirteen song album The Room Isn’t Big Enough, the first vinyl release on Rep’s Old Age/No Age imprint, previously a cassette only label. Though a short-lived project, the album is cohesive and profound, a modern day DIY masterpiece that pulled sounds and influences from a half-century’s worth of interesting music. Ego Summit manages to seamlessly reference punk, folk, psych, and blues, and is perfectly presented by the band’s rough-around-the-edges 4-track aesthetic.
But before moving on, I can’t help but fall into the trap of dissecting the parts before examining the whole. Perhaps because the musicians in Ego Summit were so self-realized at the time of recording, their personalities shine through and it’s always clear which mind created each of the songs. And so, it’s worth talking about some of them.
Rep is the elder statesman here, but probably not by too many years. Back in ‘75 he recorded (as Mike Rep and the Quotas) “Rocket to Nowhere,” a home-recorded anthem with guitars up to 11 and a prerecorded crowd to appreciate it all. In ‘78 he recorded “Rocket Music On,” one of the few songs written (by anyone) since ‘75 to match the quality of “RTN.” And since those days he’s written and recorded a few albums—er, cassettes—worth of near-perfection. As known for his own songs as his behind the scenes work, Mike’s had “lovingly fucked with” credits on countless classics, including Guided By Voices’ Propeller and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments’ Bait & Switch. His knob twiddling, recording, mixing, and doing whatever the fuck it takes to make the record sound as it should (i.e. LFW’ing) manages to, again and again, capture on tape the essence of a band’s live performance, and that element is no doubt part of what makes Ego Summit so memorable.
His pal, Jim Shepard, was a pioneer in the home recording world, starting with his earliest group, Vertical Slit, and continuing with Vertical Slit, V3, and as a solo artist and collaborator until his death in 1999. His aesthetic was visionary and consistent, and valued the act of tape recording as much as the music that went onto the tapes. He layered sound collage and ambient noise into his instrumentation and the result was unique, fresh music. Perhaps his musical vision can be found in the lyrics to his song, “17...A Rock Aesthetic,” from the Evil Love Deeper album:
It’s not what’s precise or good about music that makes it good
It’s what’s awful about it that’s appealing
It’s like everybody temporarily needs some rock band on stage banging away
Their little rock show—a drum set, a couple loud guitars
Repeating songs that don’t really need repeating
Doing a greatest hits tour over and over
“This is off our new album”
“We were actually better when we were 17 and we could barely tune our guitars”
Ron House is one of the few who manages to write a seemingly endless catalog of perfectly crafted songs. With Great Plains, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, and as a solo artist and collaborator he’s produced a steady stream of vivid, memorable tunes, which is all the more welcome considering the climate of songwriting in which most seem to prefer formula to invention. Tommy Jay is a longtime collaborator with Rep, playing with him in the Quotas and his own True Believers, which Hummel was a sometimes member of. And Howland’s work with the Gibson Brothers and Bassholes has served as an inspiration for countless groups in recent years.
All of the above players have appeared on each other’s records and in each other’s bands, but perhaps not all at once together until Ego Summit. Their intertwining histories are clear, since throughout the record members are playing off of each other in a back and forth that can only be achieved through an intimate familiarity. Part of the album’s appeal is that each band member’s songs are unique to their styles, yet the result is a distinct product.
“Beyond the Laws” is a fitting opener to the album. House’s melody is set against a nonstop guitar lead, the layers held together by Ron’s distinct vocals. It’s a strong, structured start that is followed by Shepard’s much looser “Illogical,” a superbly meandering mess of guitar leads. Jay’s first contribution to the album is one of the high points, a melancholy, blues number called “Novacaine,” which is stark in contrast to the humorous recounting of Howland’s past loves in “Wife Blues” (his third wife had “areolas big and pink”) that follows.
It’s hard to pinpoint where, exactly, the band is coming from with the album, but the general feel could be described as “dudes obsessed with the Velvet Underground, Electric Eels, and Screamin’ Mee-Mees jamming with each other.” At times, it sounds a whole lot like early Guided By Voices, partly due to the disparate influences and home-recording aesthetic. Considering at least a couple of ES members have collaborated with Robert Pollard in some capacity, perhaps it’s not exactly a coincidence.
Side two opens with “Half Off,” which might be my favorite House penned tune. The song is a slow paced, minimal sounding folkish number built around Howland’s crooning, a vocal performance that steals the album. Though the liner notes mention that most of the songs were written specifically for this album, at least a few have made appearances since then on members’ other records. Shepard also recorded a version of the great “We Got It All” for a Vertical Slit CD, and The Quotas’ most recent CD has a new take on “Black Hole,” the penultimate song on The Room Isn’t Big Enough. It’s the purest punk song on the album, and in ways has a similar sounding instrumental bashing as The Urinals did on their third single.
(Right click and "Save as..." to listen to "Black Hole" by Ego Summit)
Despite their egos, it doesn’t seem as though the group has gotten much respect. Though the record was released nearly a decade ago, the pressing is still readily available in distros (Fusetron always has it in stock) and no one seems to care, so the time is ripe to snatch it up and appreciate it. Maybe if enough people pick up on its greatness some of the alleged “other” Ego Summit recordings will surface on a second release.
(Right click and "Save as..." to listen to "Half Off" by Ego Summit)
In my initial column here I wrote about a record from Austin by The Nubees. Shortly after, I decided it’d be fun to attempt to track down scans of as many of those unique record sleeves as possible. So far the count is up to 9 out of 45 records (with another couple hopefully coming soon). Got a copy? Please send a scan/photo of the cover and labels, along with your number. You can find this in the “Track the Nubees” section of www.nostages.com., which will also, eventually, have a bunch more photos, writing, discographies, and other random crap on it.
To catch up on past Cheap Rewards go here.
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These MP3s are intended for educational purposes and to allow people to hear songs from rare and/or hopelessly out of print records. If you're an artist or label behind one of these recordings and you want an MP3 taken down, please contact the editor at termibore-at-aoldotcom.
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