It's no secret that the world's most profound music often goes unheard. After all, the relationship between art and commerce is notoriously complicated, and marketability doesn't necessarily accompany creativity or vision. Their cult of discerning admirers notwithstanding, the Toiling Midgets only issued three proper albums—1982's Sea of Unrest for Rough Trade's Instant imprint, 1985's Dead Beats for the Joe Carducci-affiliated Thermidor label, and 1992's Son for a young Matador Records—during an on-again, off-again career that has lasted 35 years. A Smaller Life seeks to rectify this situation and introduce both curious saplings and grizzled historians to the reclusive San Francisco institution's unreleased canon.
Curated primarily from high-quality studio sessions engineered by the late Tom Mallon, the double-LP compilation amasses 24 tracks never before pressed on vinyl. These songs span the wiry charge of a 1980 demo to a charred feedback orgy consummated in 2011. As time marches on, the sound evolves and intensifies but stays true to Craig Gray's basic template, drawn when he founded the group as the predominantly instrumental successor to his classic Bay Area punk quartet, Negative Trend. Detours along the way include a pair of outtakes featuring American Music Club vocalist Mark Eitzel, as well as five haunted collaborations with ex-Sleepers frontman Ricky Williams, whose 1992 passing truncated his second and final tenure with the Midgets. As distinctive as they are, however, these singers don't matter too much. The band's undeniable core is the friction generated by guitarists Gray and Paul Hood, in which concise, circular chord progressions fornicate with expressionistic smears. Set against the weighty, shifting rhythms of Mallon and original drummer Tim Mooney (also RIP), the elemental riffs transform into a thing of searing majesty and bruising beauty.
Addendum: If A Smaller Life strikes your fancy, please consider investing in Ektro's Live at the Old Waldorf, July 21, 1982, a hazy but splendid snapshot of the early Midgets in action.
Jordan N. Mamone, New York City
September 22, 2014