We Have Dozens of Titles is Gastr del Sol’s Anti-Greatest Hits Compilation

The legendary Chicago experimental duo release rarities and live recordings more than 25 years after disbanding, further cementing the impression they made on experimental music in the 1990s.

Music Reviews Gastr del Sol
We Have Dozens of Titles is Gastr del Sol’s Anti-Greatest Hits Compilation

It wouldn’t feel right to say that they don’t make bands like Gastr del Sol anymore—David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke are quite prolific still, as they facilitate the birth of future avant-gardes through production and teaching—but they really don’t. Over seven years and seven albums, the Chicago-based band became central players in a bubbling experimental rock scene that toyed with the freakiest tools of folk and the mathiest permutations of rock. At their most accessible, they retained a futuristic cool; at their most cerebral, they still maintained a way in. Once they dropped Camoufleur in 1998, it felt like the world was just about to get Gastr del Sol, but its leading duo retired the band to pursue their next projects. Just look at their resumes (a great solo career for Grubbs; O’Rourke taking a stint in Sonic Youth before tackling a revered solo career of his own).

We Have Dozens of Titles marks the band’s surprise return—kind of. The release is an archival album that’s spent the last 26 years in latency; Gastr del Sol’s unorganized studio and live recordings have emerged from their cryogenic slumbers in a sprawling collection. Featuring live performances of favorites like “The Seasons Reverse” and “Dictionary of Handwriting,” alongside the entirety of 1995’s avant-jazz opus “The Harp Factory on Lake Street,” Titles is a stately release offering a little something for every fan and functioning as a gate for the uninitiated. It would be a big stretch to call this a “greatest hits” compilation, but there is a celebratory component to Titles that justifies the length.

The collection starts where the band left off: with a recording of “The Seasons Reverse” from the band’s last show in 1997. A generation later, “The Seasons Reverse” remains a beloved favorite and an inviting entry point for new fans. In total, there are five live recordings on We Have Dozens of Titles, each offering a snapshot-in-time of a beloved composition. “Ursus Arctos Wonderfilis” from The Serpentine Similar is a proper jam that sounds just a touch looser, more haptic live. This version of “Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder” is special: Where the track from Camoufleur serves as a lyrical specter from which the phrase “I have dozens of titles” becomes We Have Dozens of Titles, the live version is double the length and double the heart, somehow.

We Have Dozens of Titles collects the fringe materials from Gastr del Sol’s prolific contributions into one container for the first time. “Quietly Approaching” previously shared a disc with The Sea and Cake and The Folk Implosion on Red Hot + Bothered, one of the geekiest ‘90s compilations of its kind; now, it serves as the second track on Titles and dials up the minimalist intensity. Then there’s “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” a glorious Japan-only Christmas composition that balances familiar holiday sounds with abstraction. “Dead Cats in a Foghorn” is a remarkable recording, completely unpredictable, undergirded by a faint synth that gives the whole composition a “decaying hospital” aura.

Whether the duo and their guests are slamming on the guitar, brass, strings or synths, Gastr del Sol left few stones unturned in their heyday. We Have Dozens of Titles tries to do justice to that by connecting disparate material from the fringes of their discography and recordings that demonstrate what the band can do outside the studio. The heads can debate over which songs have better studio or live versions, or which deep cut is deeper. These recordings have all existed in some form, released or vaulted, for over 25 years (30 in some cases)—so an interesting question would be what this compilation means now versus what it may have meant in 2004 or 2014. Would Titles be as rewarding had it been released 10 or 20 years ago instead of this week? Would it be more rewarding to release it in five or 10 more years, as Grubbs and O’Rourke chart further ahead on their impressive paths?

It’s impossible to say. That said, at this time—when the zenith of experimental music leans harder into electronics and extreme club music—We Have Dozens of Titles stands out as an artifact of a midwestern avant-garde landmark that is just as essential to understanding today’s most out-there music as any other. There is something remarkable about collecting these recordings in one package for the first time; there is something distinctly remarkable, too, about how Titles cements Gastr del Sol’s legacy. To release a compilation like this is to acknowledge that Gastr del Sol must be canonized, and the compositions it features justify the assertion time and time again.

Devon Chodzin is a Philadelphia-based critic and urban planner with bylines at Aquarium Drunkard, Stereogum, Bandcamp Daily and more. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.

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