HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

8 February 2018

King Crimson - 'In the Court of the Crimson King' (Atlantic)

Whoa, I still have this? And it still bears the $2.99 price tag from when I grabbed it, a distinct memory during my college years, the only decent record in an otherwise worthless store if I recall correctly. I took what's a fairly standard path through 'punk' and out the other side - King Crimson were a symbol of ridiculous bombast and awfulness to me in high school, as by that point the Belew years had turned them into a symbol of overly technical, emotionless music for intelligent white men that likely have some social problems. (Whether that's true or not, I dunno; I suspect that a reevaluation of 80s Crimson through today's ears would be significantly more positive in outlook.) Then I got into experimental music, eventually looking back toward progressive sounds from the 70s, and then Crimson is a force you have to reckon with. For me, Fripp's work with Eno came first (not so much the full collaborations but even just that hot-shit solo on 'St. Elmo's Fire'); then, the Giles, Giles and Fripp record. Eventually, I wound up hearing Larks Tongues in Aspic and admitting that, yes, King Crimson had some undeniably cool material. And this all started here, their debut, which sounds a lot more like Genesis than the percussive time signature journeys on Larks or Red. The last time I played this record, which was likely the only time, my verdict was that In The Court of the Crimson King was an uneasy mix; mid-tempo prog-pop built around flutes + epic male vocals for the most part, not bad but not earth-shattering – and then the infallible power of '21st Century Schizoid Man'. It's been covered and parodied a bunch (Unrest comes to mind but I'm sure there's others) but when I put this on on a snowy February morning in Helsinki, I had to crank it and jump around the room with glee. The rest of the record is the easier material to parody, but it's a solid entry in the genre. Greg Lake's singing is quite good, and as he ruminates on the foibles of mankind in 'Epitaph' it's rather convincing, particularly in the epic fade out, 'I fear tomorrow I'll be crying', and that's before late capitalism had really started twisting the screws as fiercely as today. 'Moonchild including The Dream and The Illusion' would be memorable enough just for the title, but the romantic, wistful lyrics are actually rather beautiful and there's a great improvised breakdown 3/4 of the way through that gets into some good call and response jib-jabs. Here, Fripp's guitar is jazzing around some spazzy (but not aggressive percussion); it suggest that they were listening to (if not outright being influenced by) European improvisation of the time, Brötzmann and the Dutch guys, etc. There's a false ending on the last track, which allows just enough pause to contemplate how idiosyncratic this album actually is. It sounds more like 2 or 3 different bands, like a compilation. Given how big King Crimson became subsequently, I know that there's hardcore fans with far deeper insights than I, who are scoffing at this writeup. But this is a personal journey through a wall of vinyl, so I can close this writeup by saying simply: 'I just like how it sounds'. Even early on in his career, Fripp was focused on getting a good recording - and anyway, the scary face on the front cover is great, and would be worthy enough to appear on a future Voivod album cover. Camper Van Chadbourne did a pretty great cover of 'I Talk To The Wind' which I prefer to the original, but maybe I'm just more familiar with it.

1 February 2018

Killing Joke (EG/Malicious Damage)

I'm always remembering this record as much more harsh and aggressive than it actually is. I blame the cover artwork, a masterpiece of bleak dystopia, which makes even Crass records seem cuddly by comparison.  The photos are actually taken from actual uprisings in Northern Ireland, so the spirit of unrest is prevalent throughout Killing Joke. This stark monochrome presentation, the weird typeface for the song titles which looks backwards until you squint and see it's not, and the presence of synthesisers are factors which probably cause me to remember this as some sort of Ministry-like wall of industrial noise, or even sounding a little like Big Black. That's not really true, as the opener 'Requiem' actually has some new wave residue and the songs tend to favour soaring, majestic vocals. So each time I listen to this, somewhat less often than once per year, I'm reminded that it's not as scary or nasty as I thought – which is not to say it lacks 'tude. It's a confident debut by a band who amassed a decent career, though I never heard any of their subsequent music, content as I am with my incorrect conception. 'The Wait' is the closest to my memory's image, a punchy stomper with growled vocals, and it's followed up by 'Complications', where the vocalist's English accent is most prevalent, poking out form the echo effects. 'Bloodsport' brings in a somewhat infectious rhythm and the synths punctuate buzzsaw guitars which amass into something, well, rather accessible. It's not hard to imagine this playing in a disco for drunk youngsters, at least in an interesting disco. I am 99% sure I chronicled this anecdote before somewhere on this blog but it's too funny not to mention again: In my high school, there was a kid who wrote band names on his notebook and jacket, to be cool, even though he didn't actually listen to to the bands, which made him the ultimate early 90s sinner - a 'poseur'. Anyway, he would frequently get the band names wrong, mostly just misspellings like 'IRON MAYDEN' or whatever, but I remember he had written 'KILLER JOKE' on either his notebook or jacket, I don't remember which, and, well, that's the whole story. But KILLER JOKE is a great band name, an even better one than Killing Joke. 

29 January 2018

Kiila - 'Tuota Tuota' (Fonal)

Being in the K's, we're going to get a lot of Finnish stuff since that's the most common consonant in their alphabet. Actually, as I write this, I think this is the last Finnish record we'll encounter. But it comes close after the Kemialliset Ystävät LP, which a few members of Kiila appear on. Tuota Tuota doesn't sound much like KY though, or even much like Heartcore, the first Kiila CD which we'll get to if the CDs ever catch up with the LPs (not likely). While that CD is a more sketch-based set of songs with ambient overtones, the turn towards folk/traditional-influenced material is heavy here. Pekko Käppi is part of the band, and main songwriter Niko-Matti Ahti favours pastoral imagery (at least from what I can make out - my Finnish ain't so great); when the two of them sing together, or at least I think it's the two of them, it has a great, rough hewn to it. Not gruff, but not gentle, a bit scratchy around the edges, and that's when Kiila is at their best. There's a delicate approach to acoustics, with guitars and bowed strings forming much of the basis of the songs; the electric instrumentation includes bass guitar and keyboards, but they're always in balance with the more organic side. This is quite a jammy band, and that's the beauty; the lengthy 'Portaissa' which closes the first half ends in a cacophony of little noises and shaken bits, like a wave that crashes onto a shore and then leaves slowly evaporating foam. A female vocalist, I think Laura Naukkarinen (Lau Nau) takes charge of 'Niin Kuin Puut', and the pattern starts over - a delicate folky piece to start the side, and then more fleshed out jams as it progresses. 'Kehotuslaulu' ('invitation song', roughly) has a real hoedown feel, as whatever instrument Käppi bows attains a hillbilly twang; Jaakko Tolvi's drumming is always solid and the rave-up moments are truly festive, even a bit silly. 'Uhka, Uhka, Uhka' takes on the darkest tone; affected electric guitar and dense organ drones pull this closer to good 70s prog and away from the Finnport Convention approach that their more recent material has taken on. It's recorded in a really up-front way, like a bunch of musicians jamming in a studio and with the atmosphere set entirely by the arrangements, rather than any sort of clever roomsound or creative mic placement. It also reminds me of some of Nico's work (as in Christa Päffgen Nico, not Niko-Matti Ahti whose work it already is); in general, I'd say Kiila's aesthetic is actually kinda Krautrock influenced, as the best jammy parts can shift from medieval organs and tinkling bells to a monstrous, infectious bass-driven groove. But they are tasteful enough not to overdo it, and the closing cut (an instrumental) teases that it's going to be an 'everything but the kitchen sink' mess before tightening up around a focused theme. 

27 January 2018

Cheb Khaled & Safy Boutella ‎- 'Kutché' (Zone/EMI)

I don't know much about rai as a genre but thought this would be a good way to find out about it, as Cheb Khaled is one of those names I knew of, even if the actual sound was a mystery to me. And it's not common to find interesting records for sale in Latvia, so why not start investigating a genre with something that promises 100% of it? This is from '88 and you can hear it; the drums and synths are right out of MTV from the era, and the traditional Algerian instruments are sometimes hard to make out, or maybe even synth/MIDI versions. Khaled's voice soars over the songs, and he does this choppy/blocky thing sometimes that I like. The more sunshine-drenched tunes like 'El Lela' stick out a bit, because there's an openness and energy that overcomes the dated (to my ears) sound of the instrumentation. Khaled was the biggest of the big in this scene and I'm reading how he sold out later, but by the 1980s rai had already transmogrified into the modern pop music that this is. 'Chab Rassi' has a nice odd distance - its beat propels along like a ball on a hard floor, but there's a whirling flute line that answers Khaled's vocal line and it adds a nice woody assonance to the track. If there are ballads here, then it's a form of balladry I don't get, fast and bulbous; I don't understand the language anyway so it's hard for me to grasp the intent of any of these tracks. It's secular music, that's for sure, and overall it's slickly produced by Boutella, who gets a co-credit and largely handles arrangements and a bunch of instrumentation. There's some nice drum programming on 'Chebba' and a generally bouncy disposition to the whole record, but I really should investigate the rai from earlier decades, when it was genuinely the music of pariahs and rebels. 'Minuit', the closer, hints at that with some street field recordings of an accordion player bringing in the song before it erupts into the world pop confection that fits with the rest of the album. If rai is traditionally Dionysian music, like punk and rembetika, then by this point it had embraced the system pretty fully, I think. I'm not disappointed - though I rarely play this, it suits a certain summer mood, and listening to this provides some form of a escape, as I'm sure it's the closest that I'll ever get to Western Algeria.

Kemialliset Ystävät ‎– 'Ullakkopalo' (Fonal)

Hi there. It's been awhile; a month+ break taken for no particular reason except sometimes you just need a break. There were some dark days in between this and the last transmission, quite literally dark as recovering from a minor eye surgery led to some light sensitivity, which would have been the perfect time to just sit in the dark and listen to records. Yet, no, it didn't happen, and I actually blame the timing of Ullakkopalo being drawn next in this deck. This is a dense masterpiece, where Jan Anderzen has put together a zillion layers of strange interacting sounds to create a tapestry that is dizzying and awe-inspiring, if you can stay focused enough while listening for awe to form.  And I couldn't, which is why after years of technically loving this record, I rarely listen to it; I don't spend as much time as I'd like parsing through its various confounding movements. Sure, there's a lot of horsin' around, but it's all in the service of something complete. With a load of guest musicians, spread throughout the tracks in a manner where their contributions are pretty much impossible to distinguish from Anderzen's own fuckery, this is a real 'Who's Who' of the Finnish freak underground, except all blended together. I first heard Kemialliset Ystävät about five or six years before this, but that was another world entirely. Then, KY material was based around a loose thrashing about, with a lot of acoustic instruments, a lo-fi texture, and no particular hurry to get to any destination. But by this point (2010), it had become a symphony of precisely assembled sound matter, still based around weird experiments and uncertain tonal sources, but concerned with plot, not just feel. I'm reminded at times of Ennio Morricone scores, Albert Marcouer's great 70s art-pop, shoegaze textures and the Residents, but that's just a few points of reference. Really, this is such singular music that it does it a disservice to compare it to other artists. There are moments where the cheap synthesisers swirl around in a carnivalesque manner, but there's a clarity to it all, and as said above a precision, which hides behind the surface-level madness. Singling out tracks is difficult but a few weeks back a Pekko Käppi record was reviewed and even though they're pretty different in temperament, there's a similar sense of eclecticism to how it's all put together. And now that I've gotten here, reaching the end of this, it wasn't so hard after all to write something about, though I don't know if my words add much value to the listening experience.

14 December 2017

Kark - 'The Hermit' (HP Cycle)

Time has forgotten Kark already and this, like so many HP Cycle releases, exists in the utterly weird vacuum of mid-00s experimental music which sort of congealed around a 'scene' but also sorta didn't. File alongside the Maniacs Dream record or the Boots/CC/Snake & Remus box - what a great fucking label, and I wish it was still operating. Kark were from Louisville and may have been 100% the same lineup as Sapat, a band which has been kicking around forever and who released two great LPs that also are never talked about. Of course, Sapat was a shifting lineup of just about every weirdo freak who ever picked up a sound-making device within the greater Louisville region, so Kark being 100% overlap doesn't really mean anything. More likely, Kark are just the more jazz-orientated members of Sapat emphasising the horns and the swing or whatever characteristics make one file a record in the 'jazz' section instead of 'pop/rock'. As faithful readers realise by now, I make no such distinctions by genre and only trust the infallible alphabetical order as my organising principle, but I would still call Kark 'jazz' or at least 'jazzy'. The first side opens with a slow, creeping modal workout that is heavily middle-eastern in tone and builds into an explosive cacophony. For a few minutes in the centre of the side every goes at it with MAXIMUM ENERGY which means skronk, squeals, screaming and blast beats underneath it all. When this movement passes, it starts to get really interesting and wobbly; you can hear the big, cavernous space they are all jamming in and the ensemble is large, I'd guess somewhere between six and fifteen people though it's hard to tell for sure. This circling around a pulse eventually takes form as a thick, stomping dirge that's rhythmically so primitive it's brilliant, and around this you hear horns and cymbals and bowed bass finding a centre again. It's a beautiful side of music created by a bunch of outsiders to the jazz context, as far as I know, since the musicians are uncredited (the only liner notes being a cryptic strip of doodle-on paper). By the end it slows down to an ambient whisper, a fadeout drone, which segues nicely into the flip, an unbanded side-long piece that starts from a spare, spooky room jam. This continues the vaguely middle-eastern vibe heard on side 1, but for a longer stretch, with the musicians giving each other lots of space to probe and resonate. It's a beautiful slice of Kentucky exotica, and when it again swells into a huge epic blowout, it's actually a bit disappointing, though surely cathartic for the musicians – but the space is what's so beautiful and unique. This is a live recording, though a pretty clear one, where the echo of the room is very much a part of the music and somehow things don't get too lost once the drums start to rumble. A surprising breakdown into a double-bass driven riff, counterpointed by electric piano or some other form of keyboards, recalls the Art Ensemble/Fontella Bass's 'Theme de Yo-Yo' for a second or two, and an enthusiastic audience is audible during a momentary lull. The Hermit breathes with life and is really fun, fierce in places but neither overly groove-based nor head-scratchingly avant. It seems to assimilate a lot of influences into a group approach that shares a view about music, and it's obscure status relegates this surely to the 'hidden gem' category, after only a decade.

10 December 2017

Pekko Käppi - 'Vuonna '86' (Singing Knives)

Pekko Käppi's Vuonna '86 is a record I forgot I had, but it's absolutely perfect as a way to clear the weekend cobwebs on this Sunday morning. It's also a nice way to inaugurate the Ks of this project. Käppi's a Tampere, Finland based musician who ostensibly works out of traditional Finnish sounds but to say that really that only really makes sense as, to use an annoyingly overbaked phrase, a 'starting point'. This is a glowing, electric batch of songs, saturated in reverb, distortion, and other household effects but each held together by Käppi's confident crafting. There's moments of pure Dionysian hell music like 'Oilin Ennustus', where all kinds of broken, buzzing electronics explode in a total cacophony, yet despite the menacing tone it never collapses under its own chaos, with various soundrings keeping an orbit. Other tracks employ the traditional vibe, in terms of instrumentation – 'Naria Hakkaan' is a bowed instrument, probably a jouhikko, grinding back and forth in a style that is hypnotic and minimal, yet with an ineffable, devilish spark. Käppi's work always has this sense of madness to it, whether he's assembling electronic drones into a dense wall of sound, or performing traditional songs ripped straight from the Kaleva; if you have seen him live, there's always a hint of something that's not darkness, not aggression, but something else; perhaps it's just an off-kilter confidence. This is all over Vuonna '86, heard in his singing on 'Kuolleitten Kuppahan' (which is simultaneously twisted and beautiful) or on the title track, or anywhere else. A lot of these songs feel like they are following a simple back-and-forth structure, a 1-2-1-2-1 that ratchets up the pressure as it goes along but then most cuts end before they wear out their welcome. Of course, the Finnish language is extremely strange to everyone in the world minus about 5 million people, and most of them probably aren't listening to this. 'Vuonna '86' makes that most clear, with a spoken voice anchoring it's outer explorations, something ripped from the radio or media perhaps, but feeling as natural in the bed of static and searing overtones as one could be. Maybe the secret to Pekko Käppi is that he's not a 'noise' artist at all but a master craftsman, and his constructions glow with their own internal logic and harmony.

7 December 2017

June of 44 - 'Tropics and Meridians' (Quarterstick)

I'm going to show my age a bit now by remembering the strange and somewhat maligned sub-genre of late 90s indie rock that we called "boat rock", or maybe it was "nautical rock". This was before Channel 101 made those highlarious Yacht Rock comedy sketches, and it wasn't anything to do with the smooth sounds of Christopher Cross or the Doobie Brothers. This was truly a sub-sub-genre or maybe even a sub-sub-sub-genre, unified by the curious trend of writing songs about nautical life.  I can remember the biggest proponents of this being June of 44 and a somewhat related band called Shipping News, both who emerged after the dissolution of the mighty Rodan. I can also remember a band called Victory at Sea and then some very 'local' bands that never released anything, as well as other regional ones from the same era (1996-2000) who maybe never released anything either and are now mostly forgotten but passed through my town a few times. Or maybe "boat rock" was never such a big thing beyond these few bands, but at the time, it certainly felt like a trend that quickly became tiresome while being somewhat inexplicable as well. June of 44 dropped boat references all over their work; their first album is called Engine Takes to the Water (though I like to think it's about a jet ski), and there's a sailor tattoo on the cover of this one, and they had this kinda annoying, kinda brilliant song called 'Sharks and Sailors'. I watched the Slint documentary a few weeks ago and ever since I've been jamming Tweez a lot; I guess this is the third generation of Louisville bands (Rodan came after Slint, and June of '44/Rachel's/Shipping News/The Sonora Pine after Rodan, though by the time of Tropics and Meridians the band had moved to Chicago. So what does this record sound like? Essentially like a third generation Slint, who took their musical cues from that band's more copied works (cough, 'Washer', cough) than their more innovative ones (say, 'Nan Ding'). You can hear this most evidently on this record's 'Lusitania' (hey, that's a song about a boat!) which propels along with a 5/4 beat and whispered/spoken vocals. It's probably the strongest cut on the record, with a sinewy guitar line that keeps folding in on itself and actually conveys a circular feeling of sinking. I had forgotten all about it, but not about the epic opener 'Anisette', a thunderous and slow jam that builds eventually to a screaming force after about nine minutes. No one ever called this stuff 'screamo' at the time, but it was intensely serious guitar based music with a tendency to explode both musically and vocally. I guess we called this post-rock though it feels pretty straight-forward in places. When there are scratchy, interlocking guitars ('June Leaf', 'Arms Over Arteries') June of 44 sound like a pretty tight, impressive band. The careful, whispered singing on the latter sounds like Bedhead and that's always a good thing. 'Sanctioned in a Birdcage' does everything it's supposed to do, painting by numbers with a powerful punching bass sound, guitar playing that mimics the militaristic theme of the lyrics (shards and muted single notes on one, against ringing arpeggios on the other) and a nice growl on the vocals (which shout 'Where did the birds go?' a few times, which is either brilliant or hilarious or both). I lost interest in these guys so I've never heard their last two albums, because it started to feel derivative and a bit tired by 1999 or so. I still jam the Rodan record a good bit but the offshoots I have mostly forgotten, except the second Sonora Pine record which remains an underrated gem of that whole movement. Yet there's a reason I always held on to this record; maybe it's a bit of teenage nostalgia for me (I was still in high school when I bought this) or maybe because it's a solid document of a time when this music genuinely inspired me; this is a roundabout way of confessing that Tropics and Meridians sounds pretty good right about now. While my tone here is somewhat teasing, I don't begrudge these guys for writing songs about boats; it's better than another album of songs about girls, or cars, or whatever the fuck men normally tend to write rock songs about. And their interest in literature (the band is named after Henry Miller's wife, and their first album has a song about her which is one of their best, perhaps because it's one of their most concise) is also commendable, even if it maybe seems in retrospect like a superficial affectation. I think I used to listen to this a lot, and I've dragged it around for 21 years, so it sounds kinda rough now, beat up and scratched and the victim of years of poor turntable/stylus choices. Which is also a shame; the recording by Bob Weston should sound explosive and thundering, and those drums on 'Anisette' I remember well, though this particular replication of them has suffered. This comes packaged with a beautiful set of art stamps, not legal US postage but lovely nonetheless, depicting, mostly, well, boats. Can you remember some other "boat rock" bands?

JuJu - 'A Message From Mozambique' (Black Fire)

And that message is, loud and clear, 'we are teeming with life and energy'. Except JuJu aren't from Mozambique, they're from Richmond, VA and some form of this band still exists today, still based around saxophonist Plunky Nkabinde. 1972 was a great era for merging free jazz and African nationalism, or perhaps I should say continentalism; the iconography is made clearly visible on the cover and clearly audible throughout the heavily percussive LP of searing jazzjams under review here. If one didn't know better, this photo could pass as the bizarro Art Ensemble of Chicago (from around this same era), but the music is much more built around flow than space, showing that facepaint alone does not indicate sound. Compositionally, A Message From Mozambique is spread across the whole band, and the six cuts here have distinct personalities. Nkabinde's '(Struggle) Home' opens up with 16 minutes of rapid, toe-tapping melodic jamming, creating the sound that I remember the most about this record. It's driving, with two percussionists and fast, thunderous piano runs from Al-Hammel Rasul and much soloing from Nkabinde; free, yes, but the dissonance fits within a widely defined space and the overall motion is harmonic and energy-producing. Rasul's beautiful 'Soledad Brothers' would seem to pull things down a notch, except this open piano framework allows vibes and smaller percussive elements to run amuck between the chords. It's rising and falling cadences are beautiful and propelling, wrapping up the nervous energy into the centre of the soundstage and harnessing the group power in a quieter, more focused form. It's my favourite cut on the record and a tragedy that it's only five minutes long. A more 'traditional' group jam comes with the wonderfully titled 'Make Your Own Revolution Now', which feels most at home against the ESP/skronk scene of the preceding few years. The drums and piano tend to dominate here, but when Nkabinde and flautist Lon Moshe come in, they make their presence felt through fast, dynamic exaltations. The remainder of side two pulls away from western jazz entirely, being drum/percussion workouts that are sometimes deceptively minimal-seeming ('Freedom Fighter') or more explicitly exploring the influences of indigenous music (the traditional 'Nairobi/Chants' which does involve some spirited vocalisations). JuJu's success is in synthesising these genres in such a palatable way - certainly we've heard it before in ways more impressionistic (the aforementioned Art Ensemble, or the work of Don Garrett) or more futurist (later Ornette Coleman), but this is an Afro-jazz record that is remarkably fun and I daresay even 'accessible', at least for a free jazz entry. That JuJu and Nkabinde never became household names, nor even enshrined in the same canon as other figures from this time (Archie Shepp, Frank Wright, etc.) may be due to this balance being slightly more 'fun' that one would expect; yet both the playing and compositional sense are as strong as anything else from the era.

Ju Suk Reet Meate, Oblivia, SIXES, Sharkiface & Loachfillet ‎- 'Dr. Octopuss' (Fish Pies/BOC Sound Laboratories)

Five weirdo outsider types got together and made Dr. Octopuss, two side-long works of fucked-up sound interaction (or I guess it's one long composimprovisiation,  since it's listed as parts 1 and 2, but who knows for sure how it's meant to be taken?). Ju Suk and Oblivia are of course from Smegma and I don't know the others, but this certainly comes from a similar soundworld to Smegma – one that eschews not just all traditional musical patterns (notes, chords, harmony, rhythm etc.) but the orthodoxy of experimental and improvised music as well, if that makes any sense. I get the title mixed up with Dr. Octagon/Dr. Octagonecologyst, though that's about the only similarity beyond the mad scientist, inhuman theme. Actually I think it's the name of a misspelled Spider-Man villain, a mutation human-robot hybrid with scary mechanical tentacles if I remember correctly (no, I haven't seen the films). The hybrid human/machine concept carries over, but perhaps the malevolence is left behind, because this is a pretty fun trip, or maybe my baseline for fun is villanous. This record does have an underwater feel, as many of the layers are surrounded by a slow, encapsulating pulse, holding the rest of the sounds in a sort of permanent stasis. The electro/acoustic (human/machine? too simple, too simple) balance feels roughly 50/50, and with such a layered approach it's impossible to know who is responsible for which elements. It does feel like it was a live take, maybe even in front of an audience, and there are sampled elements (French media speech, other urban sounds) which impose the heaviest themes, even though they are used sparingly. Sometimes the fidelity makes these samples sound like they're coming from an unwatched television in an adjacent room, which is an eerie pathway to postmodernism which I heartily endorse. Whatever sounds were generated by traditional musical instruments, those sources are treated with all manners of household effects, which furthers the sense of otherworldliness. There's clearly keyboard and saxophones, occasionally getting into a dialogue against a mild oscillating background wind. Some moments are delicate and spare, but never exactly silent - an errant keyboard run or bumping bit of static will always poke through. It moves briskly through both sides, a concoction that is at once a unique meeting of some true American outsiders and also another run of the mill jam. This contradiction isn't a blessing but its an unavoidable conclusion when trying to remember the last time I actually listened to this.

3 December 2017

Simon Joyner - 'Songs for the New Year' (Sing, Eunuchs!/Shrimper)

Songs for the New Year is a record of quiet, intense songs; its lyric sheet takes up two full pages and it's not in a large typeface. Joyner often pens lengthy tracts, never at this point in his career content to repeat a simple mantra or let less do more. This isn't a criticism, nor is it meant to convey that he is some radical experimentalist in form – there's still verses and repeating choruses, the basic building blocks of the song. But a tune like 'Parachute' shifts through so many different ideas over a few minutes that it needs to be listened to again to be fully absorbed. And even after almost twenty years I still haven't fully digested Songs for the New Year. The title would indicate that this album has a theme of newness and rebirth, and I suppose it's there, but it's really about winter and coldness taking over. I can imagine the Omaha winters are stark and harsh; here, it's just beginning in Helsinki so it's a perfect soundtrack to watch the snow fall. The album opens with 'The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll', a song that was not on the album of the same name and wouldn't have really fit there anyway, but here it's perfect. It functions as a gateway to the rest of this record, with Chris Deden's echoey piano notes and Joyner's gentle voice providing the foundation for this song of journey and escape. So many of Joyner's songs seem to be about travelling, or at least trying to get somewhere, and this is almost like a meta-tune, a skeleton key to the rest. The song I've gone back to the most over the years is 'Two Friends Take a Bow for the Record', describing just what its title indicates. Distance is again a theme, though here's its emotional distance, and this requiem for an ending friendship is complex without being bitter, grimacing through pain without resorting to irony. It's a feeling we've all lived through, yet has rarely been chronicled in 4/4 (or any other) time. The slow, plaintive pulse of the music allow Joyner to inhabit the narrative, and his voice sounds less warbling than on previous records, driven by the honesty and conviction of what he's singing about. Loss, again, is a recurring concept; these friends are certainly from the same Joynerverse of characters that narrate 'Born of Longing' or 'I Wrote a Song About the Ocean', who yearn to escape from their own memories. 'Disappear From Here' closes the record and is the most stripped down, just Joyner and his guitar, and the way it proceeds through a line of verses reminds me of Neil Young closing On the Beach with 'Ambulance Blues'. The rural themes so prevalent on Heaven's Gate return, with winter explicitly discussed, and the final moments really feels like a man trying to intentionally fade into nothing. This record is so quiet and it's also recorded in an intimate way, with carefully chosen arrangements - the accordion playing that I raved about on the last record returns here, and is just as beautifully understated. I wouldn't call this lo-fi, hi-fi, bi-fi or any other kind of fi - it's merely plain ol' fidelity, and when you turn it up, it doesn't sound richer or more complex; it's like this was meant to be listened to quietly, while a candle burned. Songs for the New Year is the end of an era, for after this Joyner began his more heavily orchestrated Truckstop era, another rewarding period of his insanely prolific career. Unfortunately I never managed to acquire physical copies of any of that stuff so we have to end the discussion of Mr. Joyner's output here, but this is a beautiful and precise place to do so.

2 December 2017

Simon Joyner - 'Heaven's Gate' (Sing, Eunuchs!)

For those not familiar with the music of Simon Joyner, I strongly encourage you to begin investigating. Heaven's Gate may be a good starting point. It's a much more quiet record than Cowardly Traveller, shaking off the ramshackle indie rock residue in favour of an intimate, acoustic folk template. His singing is front and centre, warbling and unpolished, which delivers a special glow to the first-person narrated songs. The other accompaniments are likewise spare, just a few drums here, some organ there, rarely taking the spotlight, but when it happens (as the violin and cello on 'Kerosene') it's remarkable. The title of this album reminds me of the failed Michael Cimino film I never saw, though probably now most resonates with the death cult who became nationally prominent a few years after this was released. But 'Kerosene', rather than being a Big Black cover, uses the literal gate of heaven as a metaphor for a chronicle of a woman turned away from something, full of rural and apocalyptic imagery. As these songs are all reasonably long, Joyner has time to really stretch out lyrically and paint with words. 'Three Well-Aimed Arrows' probes his own subconscious and is the most rickety tune, and 'The Black Dog' gets almost spooky. 'Farewell to Percival' ends the record as a long quest song, ostensibly a farewell but also full of surreal and adventurous imagery, and all prodding along with Chris Deden's simple drums and organ playing behind Joyner's guitar. This is the most unflashy of accompaniments and it's perfect, though only the second best musical gesture on the album. The best would be on Heaven's Gate's pièce de résistance, 'Catherine', a simple and plaintive song about a mother (perhaps Joyner's own? or maybe it's just a song). This is a song of great, unbreakable beauty, rolling along a gentle strum like a wave, and with a subtle, yet pitch-perfect accordion part played by Bill Hoover between the breaths. Hardcore Joyner fans or Joyner himself may be surprised that I find this song so resonant, especially against other more ambitious works ('Prometheus', or the carved-up Bert Janschisms of 'Alabaster'), but for decades now I've gone back to listen to it over and over, wearing out the vinyl, and sometimes I have to fight back tears to get through it. I don't think it was the inspiration for Jenny Slate's web series of the same name, but that would be improved by overdubbing this song behind each episode. Most things would be improved by a bit of 'Catherine'. 

1 December 2017

Simon Joyner ‎– 'The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll' (Sing, Eunuchs!)

My copy actually has a white sleeve, but it's so much easier to steal these images than to scan them. I hope that this brief excursion into early Simon Joyner records is as rewarding to read about as it is for me to listen to; this is an intensely beautiful body of work from a gifted songwriter whose talent only further expanded over the subsequent two decades, though for some reason I only have his early ones. The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll is a nice hybrid of the ragged approach found on his Iffy cassette and the somewhat most contemplative singer-songwriter vibe of the subsequent Room Temperature cassette. This is his first LP release and it's spread across different sounds and styles, with some band work and scarring electric guitar playing, perhaps by Joyner or perhaps with a band - no one else is credited but I'd guess Chris Deden is the drummer. Joyner is a natural with an acoustic guitar but over his career he has resisted attempts to pigeonhole him into the coffeeshop/open-mic genre. Here, electricity brings a darker cadence, especially on songs like '747', 'August (Die She Must)' and 'Fallen Man'. There's a lot of personal pronoun work here, and it's neither intensely soul-baring nor character work, which is maybe one of the reasons that Joyner's never found major commercial success. Instead, he writes songs that are rich in imagery, oblique enough to have an air of mystery, and relatable in fleeting passages. 'Appendix' is a long and somewhat surreal travelogue, which is quite compelling in it's manic strumming; it's the acoustic mirror of side one's 'I Went to the Lady of Perpetual Healing', which seems to describe a mystical experience but is maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek. These are great, ragged indie rock accompaniments, Omaha style, and they perfectly complement Joyner's unorthodox voice; the scratchy violin on 'Cole Porter' can act as a symbol of the whole scene he came from at this time, which stretched to the West Coast to include the Shrimper label and artists like Refrigerator and the Mountain Goats, who Joyner shares an obvious musical affinity with. It comes to a head with the final track, 'Joy Division' (where have we heard that name before?), which is an electric guitar and voice tune, sung to a father and with the same sense of mild desperation that rings through the whole album. It crescendos into a brief moment of cathartic rocking out, before ending with a tape splice. It's sudden, but suddenly moving as well, and there's still a glimmer of teen angst despite the more sophisticated approach to lyric writing. This style of arrangements is right up my alley but it set these artists aside from more commercially-minded songwriters; I clicked with it as an adolescent in the mid-90s because it felt intimate, homemade, and inviting. If the songwriting is pure then there should be no need for big studio production, and I think I still believe that today.