Holy Hell! Transaction de Novo Turns 20

Holy Hell! Transaction de Novo Turns 20

Transaction de Novo closed Bedhead’s short career with grace and dignity.

Indie rock from Texas during the hardcore ‘80s meant Austin by way of San Antonio’s Butthole Surfers, or maybe MDC and Big Boys to the cognoscenti. The next decade witnessed a far less confrontational sonic approach from a Dallas quintet. Shelved under slowcore next to Low and Codeine, Bedhead’s somnolent mood, revisited 20 years later, seems less definable, more elusive.

Subdued vocals by Matt Kadane flit from glum asides to fond reminisences to stark love poetry. Joined on guitars by his brother Bubba, the two moved from their hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas to Dallas. By 1991, drummer Trini Martinez and guitarist Tench Coxe spurred these four musicians to form Bedhead. Kris Wheat’s bass enabled the band to debut onstage in Austin early the next year.

“Bedside Table,” their first single, led to Butthole Surfer King Coffey’s signing them to his Trance Syndicate label. WhatFunLifeWas, the first Bedhead album, established their presentation. Monochrome covers, devoid of any frills but the necessary titles, recalled a Factory Records aesthetic. Bedhead, like those Manchester-based predecessors Joy Division, preferred music whose presentation needed no photos of the line-up, no appeal to market sensibilities.

As for the results, these first emanations feel less weighty, at least now and then. The band’s lighter approach to a few songs eases the somber delivery of most others. Three electric guitars allowed melodies to lock into a measured tone. Dry, sparse production enhanced rather than hindered the effect. Calculated calmly rather than fussed over, Bedhead’s tunes constructed steady rhythms, over or within which a meditative voice reflected.

Comparisons not only to Joy Division (whose “Ceremony” they covered well) but also to the Velvet Underground ensued. The speak-song of Lou Reed, however, came out as less nasal and less whining. Instead, in Matt Kadane’s voice, a conversational attitude highlights the introspective verse rather than a concocted pose that the singer as frontman assumes. Bedhead let the music set a stark image.

Those images hinted at an intelligent, poised mentality. The band, all the same, found itself hindered by the relocation of Matt to New York, and Coxe’s teaching job in Russia. The members managed The Dark Ages EP and what many consider their most accomplished record, the full-length Beheaded, both released in 1996.

The mid-‘90s found Bedhead gaining prominence for their intimate, meditative tone, but listening to these albums (all the band’s work is carefully gathered on the 2014 collection Bedhead 1992-1998) now, they offer energy and occasional distortion, if with somewhat mixed results. Their spunkier moments did not always subside when they should have; the band fares best in a haunting delivery.

Transaction de Novo means “new business,” and this confidence took the five musicians about as far as the demands of a composed and contemplative rock-based amplified genre permitted. That is, the construction of their songs relied upon sparser notes spread out in an ambiance relying on space. Producer Steve Albini’s typical “recording” meshes with the direct, uncluttered and honest ethos of Bedhead.

The guitars on “More Than Ever” keep pace with the hesitant admissions of the vocalist. Melody emerges more outlined than painted in. Bedhead preferred control to release. Yet the latter action prevails on “Parade,” where suggestions of a Tex-Mex beat accompany a sprightly waltzing step.

“Exhume” fits the band’s direction, by title and melody. Wheat’s bass supports the guitar’s glimmer. The darkness of this opening track, conveyed by the low vocals, lightens as the chords jingle together. “Forgetting” and “Half-Thought” express their titular themes neatly. Bedhead rouses itself through well-timed diffusion of the tension built up, although the volume of this shift usually emerges softly.

The exception, “Extramundane,” lives up to its title too. It picks up the beat, but coming as it does halfway, its contrast with what precedes and follows unsettles the downbeat air of the album. The penultimate track, “Psychosomatica,” matches its compound titular design: it betrays the unhinged mind’s noise, but the guitars wear the listener out well before the song stumbles to a monotonous end.

Better is the exquisite “Lepidoptera.” Overlooked in critical paeans to the band, this track deserves acclaim. Even the formidable Vladimir Nabokov might nod approvingly to its delicate examination of a butterfly’s brief beauty. Matt Kadane’s matter-of-fact manner rejects sentiment, but accepts stoicism.

Seven minutes, for Bedhead, marks a long song. “The Present” concludesTransaction de Novo by recovering the steady balance shown in their best compositions. After its appearance in early 1998, the distances preventing the lineup from touring as much as they wanted led to the band’s breakup.

The gamelan-enriched ensemble Macha paid tribute to the now-dead Bedhead with a split release integrating the two groups. The Kadane brothers formed the New Year shortly thereafter. Their fraternal discography testifies to their craft, pursued amidst other projects since the millennium.

With all of Bedhead’s singles, demos, live cuts and studio creations compiled, audiences two decades on can appreciate the band as a whole. Their half-dozen years making music left behind wonderful tributes to the power of the still, small sounds after the amp-stacked earthquakes of arena rock fade. Transaction de Novo closed their short career with grace and dignity, qualities evident in these songs.

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