Human Switchboard - Who's Landing in My Hangar? Anthology 1977 - 1984
Record Label: Bar/None
Release Date: October 24, 2011
Reissues and compilations must be serious cash cows for labels. Otherwise, who needs yet another repackaging of R.E.M. or Smiths tunes; classic bands they are, but how hard is it to get a hold of anything they've done? Thankfully, amidst the mind-numbing barrage of special editions with "ultra-exclusive"-- keyword for "throwaway"-- bonus cuts, Bar/None has bestowed upon us a retrospective worth celebrating. History hasn't exactly been kind to Human Switchboard-- discussions of their era and genre are dominated by names like Talking Heads, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Television, and The Feelies, among others, leaving them largely forgotten-- which make comps like this one all the more important. The anthology packages their one full-length Who's Landing in My Hangar? along with assorted singles and EP cuts, spanning a weighty eighty minutes, every second of which sounds fresh and damn near vital.
Human Switchboard's sound, more than any band that springs to mind, embodies the transition from the proto-punk of the early '70s (think Roxy Music's spiky first two albums) with the post-punk and New Wave that would emerge the following decade. There's a palpable energy behind it all that's timeless, and songs like "In This Town" hint at its source. It's the same restlessness and dissatisfaction in Smallville, USA, that's led many a band, past and present, to write about their travails, bang on some instruments and take the show on the road. Needless to say, the resulting music is raw, real and so without affectation that even "Refrigerator Door", a song that would likely sound embarrasing if done by any band today, simply sounds like charming naivete rather than blatant over-sharing (frontman Bob Pfeifer's Lou Reed-like knack for subtle subversion doesn't hurt).
Human Switchboard's rollicking guitars recall other early-'80s acts like The Replacements, but the band's most distinctive character comes from Myrna Marcarian's Farfisa. At a time when other post-punk bands were experimenting with slick-sounding synthesizers, their use of '60s-inspired organ imparts a unique old-school rock 'n' roll vibe unlike anything their peers created. Marcarian's contributions didn't end with the instrumental; her lead vocal on tunes like "(Say No To) Saturday's Girl" and "I Can Walk Alone" are confident, defiant and bear close similarities to female punks like Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith.
While the material here comes from across the band's career, there's such remarkable continuity, it wouldn't be hard to imagine Anthology as a double album. As arranged, it flows nicely from start to finish and sounds more like a unified whole than fragments of an act's existence pieced together. Since I'm usually a proponent of experiencing music in album form, I find it fortuitous that this set seems perfectly primed for consumption in such a manner.
Somehow, over the last three decades, Human Switchboard's legacy seems to have inexplicably been lost in the shuffle, while a select few of their contemporaries have been elevated to god-status. In that light, Who's Landing in My Hangar? Anthology 1977 - 1984, is long overdue and a necessary close-up view of the career of an under-heralded but nonetheless essential band.