Going from lost to found has never been easier. That's true, at least in some superficial sense, of making available information that people once might have presumed to be long gone, if they knew it existed at all. This especially holds for music in the online era, where collectors of obscurities across the globe can connect in an instant and where those obscurities themselves can live in perpetuity. You don't even need a label to reissue your band's long-lost masterpiece; you need a public Internet connection and some data. This doesn't guarantee an audience, of course, but it at least engenders the chance for one.
In the last year, Ashrae Fax—the Greensboro duo of Alex Chesney and Renée Mendoza, who reunited briefly after a decade apart—experienced this interest in retrofitting and uploading the past. In their small regional scene, their music put dark gothic dreams on the dancefloor, like New Order on an extended vacation with Siouxsie Sioux. In 2013, the New York label Mexican Summer reissued the group's sole album, Static Crash, in its widest format to date, earning the band new attention and prompting some select returns to the stage.
But Ashrae Fax had lots of songs and lots of parts of songs, sitting unfulfilled in archives. And that's where the story gets interesting. Since her time in Ashrae Fax, Mendoza has remained an active musician, leading the great country-soul act Filthybird and launching several other short-term projects. So in her home studio, located in Durham, she decided to give Ashrae Fax's discarded scraps, written as a teenager more than a decade ago, a second chance to live. She re-recorded them, added parts to fill in blanks and built what was always meant to be Ashrae Fax's first album, Never Really Been Into It. The result is a weird little pop wonderland.
Keyboards float and guitars radiate throughout Into It, gently guided by programmed drums and gilded by Mendoza's multi-tracked vocals. On "Intexus," she pines for homecoming, her voice faded but searching for a more stable plane. "CHKN" is a tune of teenage resignation, where sedatives and depression cause Mendoza to demand—politely, softly—that someone "put me on a stretcher and take me away before I murder someone." And on the kinetic but still tender "Hurricanes in a Jar," where saxophone plays limbo with Mendoza's voice and sidewinding bass, she swings between narcotic confidence and narcissistic conjecture. You could imagine Grimes speeding it up or Beach House slowing it down, references that give this music the modern context it deserves.
But these new renderings of old material don't reinvent the past or aim to make these songs something they never would have been. They still sound like music recorded to cheap cassettes, so that the tune and the tape blend into pop-music/art-project palimpsests. Mendoza, it seems, took care to maintain the integrity and spirit of Ashrae Fax, even if very few outside of the band's own scene were there to notice it on the first try. Label: Mexican Summer
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fine salvage"