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23 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Closer' (Factory)

Closer is probably Joy Division's great statement, a masterpiece if such a title must be awarded, though it's a hard record to grasp. I've listened to this enough times to recognise any second of it, if heard somewhere, yet I probably couldn't hum a single melody in an empty, soundless room. Maybe Closer is a bit schizophrenic, often quickly shifting between different ideas, sometimes juxtaposing moods in an unsettling way. Some songs harken back to the Warsaw days, all grit and gristle ('A Means to an End'), and others are cool, icy post-disco misery ('Isolation'). 'Atrocity Exhibition' starts things off as one of the most challenging works in the Joy Division oeuvre, and it's almost like if Talking Heads had Lee Ranaldo guesting on guitar. The industrial scrapes and howls fit the inspiration (a brilliantly experimental JG Ballard pseudo-novel that is a far more extreme vision of technology and irony gone awry than anything offered here) and the track really separates Closer from the record which came before it. But the overwhelming feeling is that of stasis, that of being trapped in suspension, which makes Curtis's suicide all the more affecting. (This was released posthumously, just, I think). This isn't just repetition or monotony, but the feeling of trying to go somewhere and never making any progress. That feeling is all over this record but probably the most evident in 'The Eternal', whose haunting piano tinkles are pretty fucking harrowing. 'Heart and Soul', 'Decades' and 'A Means to an End' are other highlights, but really it's all pretty solid. The use of synths are again carefully chosen; on 'Decades' the pressing feeling perfectly conjures the Teutonic sensibility that goes in hand with the fascist overtones Joy Division were occasionally accused of wearing. I don't absolve them of this transgression but it fucking works to sell the misery, because if your worldview is bleak and hopeless, then creeping fascism is just the icing on the cake (take a look at a newspaper today for current examples). 

21 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Unknown Pleasures' (Factory)

This is another one of those 'classics' that I'm almost embarrassed to have in the accumulation, if only because a) I rarely listen to it and b) I will certainly struggle to write original thoughts about it in 2017. Coming between the bootleg of Warsaw and the superior vision of Closer, it's interesting as a midpoint, or if you like to marvel at how far bands push themselves in a short period of time. I'm sure this is not an original observation, but Martin Hannett's production is just about everything to why this is a great record, and if you don't believe me, listen to Warsaw. I'm sure that Hannett and the band were working in synergy here, but regardless, the decision to strip out the middle of these songs, rather than filling them with crunchy guitar chords, is what makes Unknown Pleasures such a definitive turning point between punk and post. This introduction of emptiness of course amplifies the lyrical themes but it really opens up the songs and lets mood play a role, a gesture towards what is felt and not heard. Event underwritten songs like 'Candidate' gain so much from this expansion, and it still gets thick and meaty at times. 'Shadowplay' is attenuated towards a wall of sound feeling; 'New Dawn Fades' and 'Day of the Lords' are balanced, production-wise, against their baroque tendencies. It doesn't hurt that Curtis really starts to emerge as one of rock's iconic voices on this record, with the same menace as the Warsaw sound but an increased commitment to emotional delivery, meaning he's actually singing, and his 'When will it end?' is bone-chilling even if you don't consider his ultimate fate. It's a voice that is almost defiantly masculine after the 70s sounds of Bowie and glam, yet implying more than it lets on. This is still Factory rock music, made by cold men in dark warehouses, but it's inching towards a more cybernetic approach, the full-on embrace of synthesisers to come later in New Order but no doubt a concern this early on, already. Morris's drumming is more motorik, and a song like 'Insight' is far from computerised but looking at least in that direction. Synths are used more atmospherically here, swooping into the corners and occasionally roaring. There's a reason university students still walk around wearing t-shirts bearing this logo today, despite the fact that the only two songs even remotely close to being catchy/hook-based are 'Disorder' and 'She's Lost Control'. And there's a reason we still have scores of bands like Protomartyr essentially aping the sound of 'Wilderness', four decades later. 

J.D. - 'Warsaw' (RZM Productions)

The band mysteriously known only as 'J.D.' chose not to release these recordings, which is understandable; they're the dictionary definition of 'raw', in terms of recording, performance and composition. This is punk rock, though - the year '1977' has been mythologised by the mohicans and their descendents, or maybe it was '78 when these were recorded - I dunno for sure, but the anger is sure there. The band that was to follow shed a lot of these influences, making this little more than a curiosity for diehard fans (which I'm not) or for people who revel in early, raw obscurity. As the record progresses it starts to get closer to the Factory sound, but side one has a surprising amount  of chugga-chugga punk rock. The opening cut ('All Of This For You') is great in a primitive way and sets a tone that doesn't sustain itself throughout, as if this is sequnced in the chronological order of how it was written. 'Failures' has a Stooges-like sound, and 'Novelty', though later reinvented as a much more well-known song, is delivered vocally like it's the Descendents or other early 80s American HC act. Reportedly they were unhappy with post-production techniques, but I'm not sure any are evident here - this is rough sounding, maybe because of the bootleg mastering job, or maybe this wasn't actually the album they intended. Omission can sometimes be a good career move; as much as 'Transmission', 'Interzone' and 'Living in the Ice Age' foreshadow what was to come, certainly the myth was amplified by holding these back. The Hooks and crannies are already obvious, the early synth pulses ('No Love Lost') and the overly dour vibe, but the vocals are the main thing that are not quite there yet.  They're angry, yes, and captivated by strange ideas of isolation and collectivity, images of war and order ('Leaders of Men', 'They Walked in Line') no doubt a byproduct of the late 70s British culture and the difficulties of the economic reality of the time. Manchester was a hell of a lot further away from London culturally than geographically; its hard to see this occupying the same stratosphere as the whole Sex Pistols/Vivienne Westwood/Siouxsie aesthetic at the same time, but it technically did. If it reminds me of any London band it would be Killing Joke's first album, which we'll get to soon. But maybe this is a solid document of what they would have been like live - a bit more raw, the drums flailing rather than crisp.

14 November 2017

Gregory Jones & Roy Sablosky - 'No Imagination' (Vinyl)

There isn't much more one could want from a record of experimental electronics. No Imagination does quite a lot across its four tracks, and it's the only release by these guys apart from a new wave band called Standard of Living that they were both in; so this was probably seen as their experimental 'side project' if anything, which is a shame, cause I'd love to hear how their musical relationship may have developed over time. The four cuts traverse fairly different territory for a record that is built around two guys with electronics, though my favourite track is Jones-less, only featuring Sablosky plus James Gable on 'transducer guitar' and Marianne Fraenkel on vocals. It's a 15 minute long dirge called 'Intro (Summer Names)', perversely not the first track, but coming after 'No Moon No Mirror' (which is a proper intro). But 'Intro' the song consists of a heavily repetitive guitar strum, firing ecstatic overtones in conjunction with Sablosky's electronics, and the faint intonations of Fraenkel's spoken text. It's just there to feel more than listen to, obfuscating the urge to interpret verbal meaning. Her delivery reminds me of the voice on Blue Gene Tyranny's 'A Letter From Home'; this, to me, is an aesthetic device that I associate with the American avant-garde circa the time of my birth, when this was made. It's a beauty, a real storm of a musical work that feels romantic, adventurous, warm and cold all at the same times as it howls along. There's no acoustic presence on the other three tracks, but they're no less impressive; 'Diverted to Frankfurt (for Twelve Pulse Generators)' is, unsurprisingly, written for 12 pulse generators and the stark palette of their timbre makes this an active, complex convergence of sound. 'No Moon No Mirror' is an ethereal piece for synthesiser where the two musicians tease each other through space, sounding like something from the Kranky records catalog two decades later. It's marred only by a very audible scratch on my copy, which if it were on 'Diverted to Frankfurt' might not be so noticeable but here it shocks the stillness between the synth pulses. 'Forced' is the final cut, another long one, and it resembles the 'Amazon rainforest' approach to electronic improvisations. There's not so much a tonal basis as that of a swarm of insects, and it's as manic and active as the previous two tracks. It's best played loud - the whole record is - so the juxtaposing staccato bursts of static and square waves can get the resonance they deserve. This is a great record for turning your head slightly while listening, to change the way the overtones interact with one's hearing - the best minimalist/drone records have that, and it's nice to be achieved on something so compositionally distinct. Totally great and singular!

13 November 2017

The Jesus and Mary Chain - 'Psychocandy' (Reprise)

The sun don't shine, the stars don't shine, the walls fall down, the fish get drowned – it's bleak on the surface, but I never took the Jesus and Mary Chain all that seriously. At least not when it came to their goth posturing; what were they trying to be, druggie weirdos, retro rockers, or post-new wave shoegazers? Many people never cared for anything they did as much as this debut LP, and maybe I'm included - I certainly don't own any other recordings by them, though I used to have Honey's Dead on tape. Psychocandy is wonderfully simple, and I didn't realise that Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie was the drummer on it but the beautiful monotony of the rhythms made me look at who it was, and wouldn't you know it, it was him – which makes sense, in a way. The unforgettable drumbeat is the opening one, on 'Just Like Honey', still the J&MC song that seems to turn up the most on soundtracks and over the sound system at bars and clubs. That beat may just be the key, since it might as well be sampled from 'Be My Baby', and the 'candy' aspect is all I can hear today. That almost the exact same beat opens 'Sowing Seeds' doesn't seem to matter; Psychocandy is 14 songs but somehow feels short. A lot of drama can be packed into those songs; when it sounds like it can't get any more full-on, they can still stomp on a different set of effects pedals and kick things up to another level, as heard on 'My Little Underground'. In high school this music sounded so nihilistic and pushy to me, even though the melodies are undeniable (the 'uh-uh-oh's in 'Taste of Cindy' seemed ironic to me then, but now they sound to be bathed in as much adoration as they are in feedback). Really, this is the Ramones through one more iteration, or just using (slightly) different drugs. The guitar feedback squeals bathe everything with a greater sense of chaos than the shoegazer bands would dare try just a few years later; that's when it really sounds great, turned up loud - 'Inside Me' can even sound a bit scary on the right system. Sometimes all a band needs to do is figure out how to combine two things no one else was combining; in this case it was poofy hair + feedback. For awhile it seemed like trends in pop music came in regular waves, so it was logical that a 60s pop revival would happen in the 80s, though filtered through 80s aesthetics; that 70s folk-rock would get another wave in the 00s, etc. Now, things are too fragmented (subculturally and in terms of influence) so there's just everything all of the time, which means there will always be bands worshipping at the altar of Phil Spector and approaching it with whatever affects of the contemporary milieu are around. Just like there will always be bands worshipping at the altar of Hasil Adkins or the Stooges or Malaria or whatever.  I can't see a pop artist like the Jesus and Mary Chain ever achieving much chart success again, even in the UK, but the same is true for anyone that bases music around guitars now. I don't mourn this change, but rather enjoy the next wave which sounds very much of the moment – bands influenced by the J&MC as much as the J&MC were influenced by the Ronettes. This includes Merchandise and Cometa Fever and a lot of other stuff and while it starts to run together for me at some point, it's a sound that's always enjoyable, maybe because it brings back a sense of teenage cool so otherwise lacking in my life.

Jefferson Airplane - 'After Bathing at Baxter's' (RCA Victor)

Now this record I genuinely love, as it fulfils all of the promise of what late 60s psychedelic San Francisco music was supposed to be. I never have managed to get into the Grateful Dead so this is the pinnacle for me. One could argue that if this was supposed to be a 'drug band' (an appellation frequently used when I was growing up to describe artists such as Ozric Tentacles, Janes Addiction, etc), then After Bathing truly is a record made after having the psychedelic experience, where Surrealistic Pillow was more superficial, being mostly dressed-up folk-pop songs. There's little of that here, with the most folk-leaning moment being 'Rejoyce', though it doesn't take long to reveal itself as a wolf in sheep's clothing, with shifting time signatures, a lurching melody and Ulysses-inspired lyrics that tackle everything from nationalism to marital frustrations. That's Grace Slick singing again, now a more fully-integrated member of the band, and it helps. Her voice helps seal the deal on songs like 'Wild Tyme' and 'Young Girl Sunday Blues', both of which are solid, crunching rockers, and her 'Two Heads' has a pre-punk sneer. The guitar playing in general is where things really lift up on this album, as the three-guitar lineup finally starts to do something useful. It's not a thick wall of fuzz like a Superconductor record, nor delicate, thoughtful musings like Bedhead, but three musicians (and songwriters) with different styles, knowing how to assemble their contributions equally. Jorma Kaukonen I think might be the secret MVP of this band, though I don't know - there are edgy shrieks of psychedelic guitar all over this record, oozing from the corners of 'The Ballad of You and Me (And Pooneil)' and 'Martha' which I assume are him, but maybe not. Nine minutes of side two are given over to the improvised jam 'Spare Chaynge', probably considered an indulgent mess by listeners at the time but actually pretty solid. It builds into some more impressive riffage, but again, it's not too thick or lazy; the rhythm section of Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden, credited as co-composers, finally show their mettle. It's not a throw-everything-into-the-mix psychedelic jam but rather a lurching, jazz-leaning blues-based jam; I'm surprised how much I like it, maybe because it grounds the Airplane into an 'earthier' sound. Maybe I should check out some Hot Tuna records. For the second LP in a row, a Kaukonen composition ('The Last Wall of the Castle') is probably the best song on the album; it's a scorching hot boogie that feels like it's hurtling towards the end of the world while capturing the colours along the journey. But the pop-leaning material is in perfect balance, making this a two-headed beast that feels well-integrated, with hooks that persist fifty years later. This is not just a document of the times but an enduring psychedelic rock masterpiece. I haven't even mentioned 'A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You, Shortly', which utilises musique concrete and other collage techniques to be the most 'experimental' cut there is. 'Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon' has a nice round-like structure, and is the most obviously drug-referencing lyrics that I could here, but the real 'outer' sounds are 'Small Package' and 'Spare Chaynge'. Jefferson Airplane were a great band but I think recognised for the wrong material. Crown of Creation is a pretty good record too and Kantner's Blows Against the Empire is a very cool thing indeed, though I never picked up either of them, sadly.

Jefferson Airplane - 'Surrealistic Pillow' (RCA Victor)

OK, here's a bit of seemingly intentional nonconformity, but I don't think Surrealistic Pillow is all that great. Which leads to the followup question of why do I own a copy then, to which I cannot really provide an answer. This copy is beat to shit and the stereo pressing, and I love their subsequent release, but I think the record's notoriety probably stands in the way of me truly evaluating it, truly appreciating it maybe. Which is what I tried to do when it came up today, next in this project, another surprise of 'Oh do I have this still?' as happens so often here. I guess given the surreal, truly psychedelic sound of After Bathing at Baxter's I find the tepid folk-pop songs on here hard to sit through; the recording is also done in that too-echoey way that makes it sound particularly dated, the same way Moby Grape records sound to me, which is maybe just the 'psychedelic sound', at least the San Francisco variant. Speaking of Moby Grape, Skip Spence wrote 'My Best Friend', which is one of the more forgettable numbers here; it, along with 'Today' and 'How Do You Feel' steer Surrealistic Pillow far closer to sounding like a slightly amped up Mamas and Papas than the cabal of psychedelic visionaries they're supposed to be. The two towering songs here are of course 'Somebody to Love' and 'White Rabbit', and I don't know what I can really say about them that is an original take. The latter is of course a ridiculous work of music, immortalised by Hunter Thompson, and the former is, to me, merely a pretty good pop song of the era. That both of these are Grace Slick's contributions and that they have endured so much longer than anything else on Surrealistic Pillow probably indicates that having her join the band was a good idea. 'Plastic Fantastic Lover' is pretty good and 'She Has Funny Cars' is good music to play in a documentary when you're talking about the swinging sixties. Otherwise the pick of the litter for me is Jorma Kaukonen's beautiful 'Embryonic Journey', a bit of melting Vanguard/Takoma magic that works extra well before 'White Rabbit'. I know I'm being a bit hard on this because it's considered a psychedelic classic, but it hardly sounds like the Cold Sun LP. And better grooves are around the corner, for sure.

12 November 2017

Peter Jefferies - 'Electricity' (Superior Viaduct)

I got rid of my CD copy of The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World, figuring I could easily upgrade to De Stijl's 2013 vinyl reissue, but I was slow and now it doesn't seem to be available so easily. That's a shame since it makes a nice pairing with Electricity, the first two solo Jefferies albums and two of the finest dark piano and drums-based New Zealand songwriting records of the early 90s. This Superior Viaduct reissue is lovely as it comes in a nice gatefold, the kind of special nice printing where the inside of the cover is coloured (in this case the deep rich blue) and it sounds great, taking the time to stretch the album over three sides; plus it tacks on the awesome Swerve EP (with Robbie Muir) as the fourth side. The mastering and pressing is nice enough that the 'mid-fi' qualities of the original recording shine through. You can hear the clipped compression of Jefferies voice, as this was recorded to a 4-track reel to reel and that was clearly the aesthetic he was going for. But then sometimes the drums sound amazing, the 'digital cello' on 'By Small Degrees' is eerie, and the piano of course usually rings out magically. These songs are in the vein of his usual writing, as heard from Nocturnal Projections through This Kind of Punishment; slow, meditative musings on the self and human relationships, never crystal clear but not too esoteric either. The title track is a beauty, racked with self-awareness and a menacing, yet modernist edge. 'Don't Look Down' is a ballad of pure delicacy, fragile under it's own beauty but confident as well. There are experiments in loops and samples, static and distortion thrown about liberally, and a few bits of messy chaos. Bruce Russell joins for 'Just Nothing' and it sounds exactly like you'd imagine their collaboration to be like. 'Next' and 'Snare', in the middle of the record, provide some damaged art-rock, the most fragmentary tracks. It's sometimes a bit jarring how the songs will shift between delicate, introspective piano ballad to distorted stomper and then back for the next one, but they're all clearly executed with such a vision from Mr. Jefferies, even when that vision is improvisatory and experimental, that it functions as a cohesive whole. The mood stays dark since he favours minor keys, his voice has that timbre to it, and that Peter Jefferies musical signature (when piano and drums pound in unison) is hardly a walk in the park. As the record goes on it seems to diversify its sound, bringing in more guitars (played primitively by Jefferies on 'Couldn't Write a Book',  demonically by Russell, and in a solid folk strum by Paul Cahill on the strident 'Crossover'). It ends with a Barbara Manning cover, 'Scissors', sort of an odd choice, but it somehow works. The bonus tracks on side four are all from Swerve, which is a great EP. Muir's guitar and bass fleshes out these songs, and they're recorded a bit less cleanly than the album (which came after this EP). With the piano not necessarily the lead instrument, it is able to add great bits of colour to 'Don't Call Me, We'll Call You', and the whole suite feels like a brighter take on the usual Jefferies outlook. This isn't to say that his music is exceptionally bleak, but that the light shines through in concentrated rays, which can be an enormously powerful effect. 

11 November 2017

The Jazz Composer's Orchestra (JCOA)

This is a beautiful record, with a shiny mirrored gatefold cover and huge booklet, adorned with copious liner notes, photographs, poetry and and the actual scores. For an orchestra of composers, the JCOA records tended to stick to one composer per release, and this time it's Michael Mantler, who I think was the brains behind the whole project. And fair enough - the apostrophe indicates that this is the orchestra of a single composer, as opposed to being called the Jazz Composers Orchestra or even Jazz Composers' Orchestra (so few bands are willing to risk the trailing apostrophe). However, Cecil Taylor gets top billing, a line of his own, perhaps being the 'star power' used to market this thing. He only appears on the second LP, and they aren't his compositions, but he's clearly the featured guest as the booklet includes two pages of his Cecil Taylorisms, actually a beautiful verbal rendering of the complexity of group dynamics. I generally like Michael Mantler's work; I think he's underrated and definitely comes from a direction that tried to emphasise the power of the composer in new jazz music, particularly from a unioned/organised side, not unlike the AACM in a way. The sheer fact that this many musicians are together in a studio and the recording is clear and well-defined is an accomplishment alone; I actually really like listening to the first cut on headphones, as it has this throbbing low-end pulse underneath which can really work as 'night music'; a few months back I put the headphone extension cable on and sat on my balcony watching the trees sway in the summer wind while listening. Today's too cold for a repeat performance but in the glossy wooden echo of my bedroom (accented by the Ikea laminate floor) it takes on a different quality, maybe as the brass and saxes bounce around more. But that throb is so good - it's present not just on the aforementioned 'Communications #8' but on the short 'Preview' at the end of side two - and it helps to distinguish this from European free-jazz big bands like Globe Unity, who were generally more jittery and even light, in a sense. Larry Coryell is the featured soloist on 'Communications #9' and it gets into some real hot swamp jazz; his electric guitar rips holes over everything else, and when the same band reassembles for 'Communications #10' with Roswell Rudd it loses something without Coryell. Maybe I just like the way the guitar sound pulls everything closer to good fusion, or to Mantler's later work in the 70s. It's hard to single out any one musician here, as everyone eventually gets their moment, and it's not easy for me to determine which of the two flugelhorns is Lloyd Michels and which is Stephen Furtado, for example. The pace across both LPs is mostly 'full and fast', though not the death jazz speed of something like Naked City; just rumbling over the drums (either Andrew Cyrille or Beaver Harris) and the five simultaneous bassists (not always the same five, mind you). When Mr. Taylor enters the picture on LP #2, for the creatively titled 'Communications #11' he is mixed high enough to stay a constant presence throughout and he works well with this large of a group. This is 1968 so before Taylor's Unit band with Jimmy Lyons was established, but there's a similar sense of dynamics to his rising and falling runs. I can't really make much out of the scores because they are reproduced too small to really see, but the writing hits a high level of drama, especially on the second half (side four). The swells are particularly cinematic at points, and Taylor goes with the flow, locking in with Cyrille in particular (which makes sense, since the piano is of course a percussion instrument, something I am always aware of when listening to Cecil Taylor). The piano is mixed high, as high above everyone else as the cover's billing would suggest, and at times the other musicians fade into a background blur - yes, even Gato Barbieri. It's music that evokes a great sense of togetherness, sure, with a serious purpose and intent that paradoxically feels somewhat restrictive, as if it's interrogating the very question of what freedom is. And that's not always an easy listen, not because it's dissonant or dense but because it feels relentless in such a narratively understandable language. I go back to cinema because I honestly think that JCOA could have scored a film nicely (or maybe they did, I don't know); there's almost an emotional manipulation from the rising and crashing and plundering of these musicians. Whatever Mantler's intent was, I find it pretty affecting, even almost 50 years later.

10 November 2017

Jazzfinger - 'Mole & The Morning Dew' (Spirit of Orr)

Ecstatic drone! Thick, rushing roars of processed guitar. Echoes that ping back, jarring against other sonorities. Cheap keyboards and clanging guitars, sprawling out to explore a dark tunnel. Interplay both primitive and sophisticated. An autumnal atmosphere, like a Jesmond treeline in the dusk, the distant roar of suburban-bound traffic. Naturalistic renderings, both pastoral and contemporary.  The rush of electric energy, a current throughout, filling available space with its potentiality. Not exactly howls, but restrained cries, made with strings and wood being tapped, hammered and bowed. Treble kicked out of the window. Throw in everything and see what sticks, but refine it as it happens, control shaped through a long relationship of improvisation. It's not chaos, but a realm of glorious glowing energy. Arpeggios cycling towards a dark centre. Searing, bowed metal, pulsing through reverberating amplifiers. Gentle acoustic tones prodding against it all. Voices, bathed in static, in varispeed dictaphone glory, providing an off-centre to repeated guitar figures; the colour in the bowing takes it to different directions. Yet is always circles back.  A tape splice to end it all. 

8 November 2017

Abner Jay - 'Folk Song Stylist' (Mississippi)

Last night was supposedly a great one for the Democratic party in America as they won a bunch of local elections and supposedly are making their way back to power. I'm pretty skeptical, as I think they'll continue to struggle as they allow the centrist side of the party to keep pushing status quo, neoliberal policies while ignoring the concerns of the working class – but this isn't the forum for that. I only bring it up because I think if they used Abner Jay's 'I Wanna Job' as their campaign song next year (instead of that stupid 'Better Deal...' slogan that Schumer and Pelosi cooked up) then they might start to be relevant to the lower-income voter again. Jay knew what was up - the song brags that he doesn't want to socialise, he just wants to work, and then reports a first-hand account of the Watts riots, which he claims were entirely caused by unemployment. It's a haunting parallel to today's social unrest, Charlottesville etc., and just goes to prove that history is cyclical. Or maybe 'Starving To Death On My Government Claim' would be a good song to rally the socialist masses - except that the welfare state has mostly been eliminated by now. I don't know exactly when these tunes were originally recorded or how Mississippi put this together; there's a dearth of contemporary liner notes here, as if it's trying to pass itself off as an original artefact, but that's OK by me -- the original Brandie releases cost a pretty penny if you can find them, and you likely can't. The title of this is pretty spot-on, because "stylist" describes Jay to a tee; his eccentricities and the one-man-band approach take the songs which are traditional and infuse them with an off-kilter rhythm, breathing a generosity into the material. 'Cotton Fields' has banjo chords which sound like cardboard, held into place by the rhythm of the simple drum accompaniment. There are some background vocals and overdubs on some tracks ('The Thresher' has some beautiful gospel chorus behind it) but I get the sense most of this was done live, except for maybe the lead vocals. Jay's voice is thick and hearty, unapologetically African-American, and passionate; the opening cut 'Depression' could be a game-changer if you've never heard anything like him before, and his 'Shenandoah' is the best version I've ever heard of it, like a one man sacred harp band that doesn't need to come up for air. Throughout, these originals and covers are rendered so beautifully that the one-man-band gimmick and the peculiar honesty of his delivery both become irrelevant to the enjoyment. If it's 'outsider' music, it stands up as just great music, which is what it should do. 

7 November 2017

Joseph Jarman - 'Song For' (Delmark)

There really must have been something in the water in Chicago then, because the music that came out of the late 1960s AACM scene is so unlike anything of its own time or any other. This first Jarman solo record is another piece in the puzzle that became the Art Ensemble, and thus fits in alongside the early Roscoe Mitchell recordings and the other pre-Art Ensemble experiments, which converge on that amazing 5 CD 1967/68 box set (if only it could get a vinyl release!). Jar's band at this time contained Christopher Gaddy and Charles Clark, both of whom were dead within a year (according to the liner notes of this 1970s reissue); dual tragedies, of course, all the more because this core trio had a contemplative understanding of space and time that was a really different flavour to the playfulness of the Art Ensemble. As a quartet with Thurman Barker, they're stripped down on 'Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City', a jaw-dropping excursion into outer-limits impressionism, with Jarman's poetic recitation at the centre. This celebration of urban mysticism explicitly references Dada a few times and casts Chicago's skyline as a shifting tapestry of possible worlds, a chaos that pulsates and gives. Gaddy's piano lines are especially elegant, with a mood closer to Paul Bley than fellow AACMer Muhal Richard Abrams. The larger band, found on the other three tracks, contains Fred Anderson on tenor, Steve McCall on drums and William Brimfield on Trumpet, and both sides start with cohesive, melodic compositions. 'Little Fox Run' is waxy, even a bit brittle, and a strange juxtaposition against 'Non-Cognitive'. It punches through the air and announces their arrival, but is too one-dimensional to showcase Jarman's talents. Side B starts with 'Adam's Rib', a modal, evolving progression that creaks towards silence, opening up for the longer form improvisation of the title track, which is segues into. 'Song For' starts by building percussive elements in space before erupting into a push/pull that is free, but never chaotic. Brimfield's trumpet rips over everything and the presence of two drummers makes it kinda choppy, but the band knows when to hold 'em and knows when to fold 'em, and the comedowns and murmurs are some of the piece's most invigorating moments. At times Jarman's alto and Anderson's tenor don't even seem to be in the same room, but then they come together to make great waves of sound. All around, in the corners, you can hear slide whistles, shouting, and marimba; also Charles Clark moseying around and tiny finger cymbals and bells. This flavours the music with sounds not often heard on ESP releases of the time (Don Garrett's work excepted); it's an approach radical and visionary, but quietly so, which can be the most rewarding.

2 November 2017

Bert Jansch - 'L.A. Turnaround' (Charisma)

Our last solo Bert Jansch record brings a change in label and a change in tone. If the title doesn't give a hint, this has a strong American flavour, with a West Coast country-folk vibe, further accented by Mike Nesmith's production on some of the tracks. Some of the tracks were recorded in Paris, but most in Sussex, which makes the album's theme a bit misleading. Yet the back cover is adorned with a collage of photos of Jansch hanging out in proper American fashion among bars and with people wearing cowboy hats. Now, I'm not someone who feels that country music (or any genre) is some sacred thing that you can only perform if inherited by birthright - after all, the Mekons are probably my favourite band - so I don't begrudge Jansch for trying this. It really works, the combination of his fingerpicking style, soft voice and the genteel bounce of country music. On the more stripped down tunes, such as 'Travelling Man', there's the same flowing harmony found in his earlier work, though with a pedal steel giving it the necessary flavour. His vocal melodies are likewise influenced by American music - I can't imagine how 'Stone Monkey' would sound with Renbourn and/or Pentangle backing it - but it's a music built out of appreciation, the obligatory 'goes country' record that everyone has in them. The pedal steel is actually a great combination, though I think I'm generally fond of that instrument. It doesn't sound anything like Heather Leigh's playing on the Jailbreak record we recently reviewed, but more of the classic sound. 'Needle of Death' is revisited with this accompaniment,  suggesting that by this point it had already emerged as Jansch's most iconic number,  and surely relevant to the drug-addled 70s – though I find this version rather lacking in urgency. The cadence is altered to let the song breathe a bit more, but it loses the hook, and one feels like Jansch is maybe tiring of the number by this point. But this may be L.A. Turnaround's only misstep, as the rest of the record flows nicely, working perhaps as a complement to Nesmith's own country-rock output in that decade. When there's a bass/drums rhythm section behind the songs, they are usually light and rolling, keeping the emphasis on the folk feel. 'Open up the Watergate (Let the Sunshine In)' I assume is literally about the political scandal (this was 1974 after all) and isn't without its charms. This is the last Jansch record I own, and I see the follow up is called Santa Barbara Honeymoon so I suspect it's also of the American flavour. Not just anyone could probably slot into this aesthetic so easily and it could feel like a vacuous commercial gesture in lesser hands, but the one consistent thing over all of these albums is how steady those hands were.