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11 August 2016

Charlie Haden - 'Liberation Music Orchestra' (Impulse!)

Maybe it's a safe pick, a consensus one for sure - when Mr. Haden passed two summers ago, most of the online obituaries referred specifically to this record as his masterwork, along with the early Ornette Coleman recordings, of course. I often cite this among my most treasured recordings in the entire 'jazz' sub-section of my vinyl accumulation, though (like fellow Impulse genre-bender The Black Saint and Sinner Lady by Mingus), 'jazz' isn't the right term to encapsulate all the ideas at play here. So much could go wrong here - a white guy working with predominantly black musicians (though arranged by a white lady), directly addressing political struggles during the same time that Archie Shepp and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were radicalising their music. But Haden and Bley used the Spanish Civil War as their focal point, and somehow it gels in a way which survives the test of time and avoids musical-tourist trappings. Perhaps this was the Buena Vista Social Club of its day, but to me, there's a sense of adventure, and a unified feeling, a purity of vision, as well as a widening of musical possibilities. Bley's arrangements may be the secret ingredient but this is still driven by Haden's plucking -- bass is definitively the lead instrument here, and even on piano-driven segment such as 'War Prayers' or the choral elements, it clearly emanates out of his leadership. I found this record when an undergraduate, through Robert Wyatt's cover of 'Song for Che', and that song is still the most powerful to me - a warbling, fluid melody that spins around like a bead of water on glossy paper,  building through several dramatic peaks without giving in to melodrama. It's pure Haden for long stretches, and the melody (as dynamic as it is) stands up there with Ayler's 'Ghosts' for me as one of the most iconic compositions in so-called 'free' jazz. I don't mean to diminish the other players here: Gato's sax burns with its usual sizzling energy, not that it should be taken for granted; Don Cherry and Dewey Redman make this a proto-lineup of Old and New Dreams, where Coleman's vast shadow can be chucked aside.  Roswell Rudd is underrated here, as always, but trombonists are generally underrated, right? For all of the years I've spent exploring avant-garde/free jazz, the records I come back to the most are the ones which stand out against the skronky, blow-out-your-brains aesthetic so commonly associated with the genre. This record, the aforementioned Black Saint and Sinner Lady, Shepp's Blasé, Art Ensemble records, Escalator Over the Hill, Sun Ra's more doo-wop influenced pieces -- for someone who claims to love free jazz, my preferences are further away from the 'free' side of it, towards a little more compositional basis, or towards other genre-influences such as classical or folk. Liberation Music Orchestra is maybe as much about the idea, the image carried through by its cover - a ragtag-looking group of musicians united in an expression of solidarity for the underclasses, in a time when that still meant something, before the all-pervasive irony of postmodernism took over etcetera, etcetera. Of course, this ragtag bunch is made up of some of the most successful and well-respected musicians of their time, but that brick-wall cover photo still conveys something. It's like the free jazz version of the cover of the first Ramones album, maybe, but musically about as far away from that simplicity as possible. 

21 July 2016

Peter Gutteridge - 'Pure' (540)

And with this, we conclude the Gs. It's an oddball selection for the end of this underrated alphabetical segment, and an odd choice to have gotten a deluxe double-vinyl reissue. Originally released as a cassette on Xpressway way back in '89, the 540 label saw fit to give it a first-time vinyl pressing in 2013. I'm not complaining - Pure is a great collection of sketches, experiments and low-stakes hypnotica - but it feels a bit strange that during this wave of New Zealand greats getting issued in affordable (and more importantly, available) vinyl slices, that this was chosen. While other great material -- some would say 'greater' -- remains impossible to source (I'm thinking about Plagal fucking Grind, y'know). But I'm not trying to diminish Pure, in which the late Mr. Gutteridge steps away from the shadow of the Clean and the Great Unwashed and presents his own musical personality across 21 songs. I never listened to Snapper and I'm not so clear at picking out his own songwriting from the other voices in the Clean, but honestly, Pure offers little in the way of a singer-songwriter approach anyway. The majority of the tracks are instrumental, with thick, pulsing layers of electric guitar, organs, and shimmery keyboards. All the sounds come from the cheapo, Tall Dwarfs-esque approach, but the man extracted a wealth of diversity from the limited gear. The lo-fi recording helps and this feels almost odd to hear on vinyl (though welcome, thank you 540!). 'Planet Phrom' is the closest we get to the jangly feel of the Chills or Clean, as I expected from his background, and features Snapper's Christine Voice (whatta great name, eh?) helping with distant, echo-laden backing vocals. For the most part, the rest of the songs stay away from any twee, light sensation, the next closest being the lark of 'Having Fun', and the furthest away probably being the decidedly un-gentle 'Bomb' (where guest vocalist Bruce Mahalski intones a mostly-spoken vocal line over a casio beat with pulsing keyboards and a few theatrical glissandos). This isn't horror movie music or heavy metal or anything, but it's closer to the dour gloom I usually associate with the Xpressway label than one would expect from a musician of Gutteridge's lineage. Spread out over two LPs, Pure starts to feel like a patchwork quilt, stitched together by the thick instrumentals. If I were to reduce this to an 'X crossed with Y' analogy, I'd probably say it's like a cheap-ass Terry Riley meets Suicide vibe, which sounds pretty great, doesn't it? We're still filtering everything through the Flying Nun sunglasses of course, and maybe 540 was hoping that this would stand as the man's legacy rather than being a supporting player to the Kilgours or Martin Philips. I'm glad for it, and in some way it makes me think of the (equally underrated and obscure?) Jowe Head solo record, Pincer Movement, not so much in how it sounds but how it stands, in relation to the band which he is better known as a member of.

Guru Guru - 'Dance of the Flames' (Atlantic)

Guru Guru, on a wider release (and American major label) get back to business with the crunchy rock-riffage found on side one of the self-titled album. It's not a genre I'm super qualified to critique, but after typing this I realise how 'rockist' this vinyl accumulation is. I've always liked things on the cerebral side, but weirdly as I grow older the gut-punching guitar epics make more and more sense to me. It's like I'm aging in reverse, or maybe the few times I've read Carducci's Rock and the Pop Narcotic sunk in, and I have a real appreciation/understanding of what makes a rock band great (and ignore all the homophobic stuff in there). So yeah, Guru Guru know how to shred and this for the most part resembles the first side of the previous record, not the spacey, sci-fi second. But things start opening up a bit on 'The Girl from Hirschorn', containing a long, long shredding guitar solo before a nice singing part comes in, the pieces slows to a gentle 60's psych vibe, and concludes. It's well-recorded too, sounding like a psychedelic rock record should, and maybe the two sides of Guru Guru find symbiosis here. 'Samba Das Rosas' is the album's other wildcard, being a genre exercise in samba, with the guitarist singing in a falsetto and a nice atmosphere - no one does samba like a bunch of Germans from Heidelberg!  'Rallulli' is the record's most collectively improvised feel, sounding like Dutch free jazz in the beginning before the almighty rhythm comes in, though it stays acoustic (including upright bass) and sneaks around without ever getting settled. On the rare times I listen to Guru Guru this is a record to skip around rather than play straight through - I prefer the previous record's second half for the focused listen and there's about 40 other albums I could investigate were I so inclined. This band still exists! And when one thinks about how a rock band can persevere for almost a half-century without major commercial success, it makes one see a sort of musical purity there, even if that's just a bit of hindsight and conjecture. Sometimes I like to pronounce the word 'guru' as guh-ROO, like if I'm describing some weird yoga instructor in a mocking way; and saying guh-ROO guh-ROO as a band name is almost as funny as saying "zed zed Top". If I were to rank my favourite rock bands Guru Guru are probably somewhere around 286th, or maybe lower, but that's still pretty high if you think about how many rock bands there are.

12 July 2016

Guru Guru (Brain)

For years I thought this was the first Guru Guru record, but the Internet tells me it's actually the fifth! For guys often lumped in with Kraut heavyweights, you wouldn't think it listening to side one, which is mostly balls-out biker rock. Any intellectual (or at least, progressive) tendencies present in Guru Guru are buried behind the riffs, operating here in power trio mode, and even doing an Eddie Cochran cover as well. I'm not so equipped to rate such things - at parts I feel like I could be listening to Steppenwolf - but when flipped over, this record becomes a winner. That's due to 'Der Elektrolurch', a snaking, funky exploration which starts around some jammy percussion before experimenting with heavily processed guitars and a scary sci-fi voice (though I think most voices sound scary in German). It's almost unrecognisable against the riffage on side one, and it's kosmiche musik at its best - progressive, dark, and invigorating. You could probably argue that it's a bit underwritten, sounding more like a few sketches put in linear fashion than an actual 'song', but that's OK. Closer 'The Story of Life' continues the atmosphere for 12 and a half minutes, and it takes it's time. It's a slow, meandering tune with a plodding bassline, built around the repeated tenor vocals about matters such as 'The story of life' / 'is hello and good-bye'. About 2/3 of the way through we get to some sort of bridge, suggesting we sleep 'until we meet again', and it drifts off to nothing among some gongs - before a distorted guitar comes back in and takes us home via a flying carpet of burning riffage. Guru Guru are second-tier Krautrock for me but this second side can stand up against the best moments by Dzyan or Cosmic Jokers, for sure.

4 July 2016

Guided by Voices - 'Sunfish Holy Breakfast' (Matador)

Even big record companies like Matador make mistakes sometimes. I'm referring to the label which incorrectly lists this as a 33 1/3 rpm release, which gets me every time, so trusting am I of printed materials. But that's the only mistake they made - this EP, really pulled together from odds and ends, has somehow snuck into my personal canon of GbV's greatest works. Maybe it's just a case of right-place/right-time; at this point, Pollard and company could really do no wrong. Two of these songs were previously released ('Stabbing a Star' & 'If We Wait') and both are great, but the latter is transcendent, and also among the most literally written of any Pollard song ever, lyrically. It's another inspirational tune, akin to 'Watch Me Jumpstart', except the collective pronoun 'we' turns this into a group exercise, and the musical progression follows the lyrics. A drunken friend once unlocked it; the first verse is drenched in self-doubt, the drums come in and rouse the narrator towards action, but then doubt returns and he falls back on his knees until ultimately deciding to rush out the door and seize the world. It's also funny that for as much as Pollard has enriched my life with his cryptic turns of phrase, here, where he lays it down honestly and directly, it's even more powerful. What else makes Sunfish Holy Breakfast great? It actually opens with a Sprout tune, and a wonderful one in 'Jabberstroker'. The two sound quite unified in 'Canteen Plums' and 'A Contest Featuring Human Beings'; it's a union that was never quite as solid as during this moment. Most of the songs on this record are build around thick, chugga chugga guitar chords, though it's a testament to the lightness of melody on 'Beekeeper Seeks Ruth' that the mix doesn't get bogged down despite it's limited frequence range and dominance of the bedroom six-string overtones. When you throw in a few ascending 'The FLYing party is HERE!' it can really lift a track up. The thick guitars are full-on during 'Cocksoldiers and Their Postwar Stubble', and no amount of Kim Deal production can save this from its title, one of the most masculine monikers ever composed -- but that's actually beneficial, a faux-meatheadedness. The slow, four-chord progression takes us through a relatively slow melody, and it finds its way into the cortex like the rest of 'em. It still makes me jump around my room and do air-drums along with the rolls (and the vacuum cleaner sound that's on Alien Lanes is also here - maybe it's a bong hit?). Closer 'Heavy Metal Country' is also done in a big studio, but instead of getting the big 'rock' treatment, it sounds like something from the 4AD label circa the late 80s. All the male rock here stuff, it's really just a pisstake, as is the sleeve art -- I think -- which a casual observer may get confused with that one No Neck Blues Band album. A shoutout as well to Jim Greer, who wrote 'Trendspotter Acrobat', which slots in perfectly among the rest. Maybe it's time to check out those DTCV albums.

Guided by Voices - 'Alien Lanes' (Matador)

I hit a bit of a lull in this blog, because I was suddenly struck by how pointless and/or difficult it is to write about Alien Lanes. I mean, this is another mammoth formative record in my life, a record I have beaten into my brain for twenty years now, and without ever wavering in my love for it. But the show must go on, so I'll try to formulate something here that is worth your time, a screed to justify the RSS bandwidth you may be reading this over. So, yeah, Alien Lanes. I'll say one thing -- it is a testament to the heralded 'lo-fi' recording techniques that this record sounds exactly the same every time I play it, even though the grooves have to be worn out more than anything else on my shelves, and also regardless of which type of sound-reproducin' equipment I play it on. Yes, ever since I snuck away from my high school's class visit to the College Faire (a trade show where various shitty local/ish institutions of higher learning set up tables and tried to talk us into applying to them) and purchased this, shrinkwrapped and new, I've been enthralled by its vision. This was supposed to be the start of GbV phase two (or three?), after Bee Thousand brought them notoriety, but really it's the penultimate gasp of their period of truest greatness. Alien Lanes is the perfect synthesis of everything they did, which includes wyrd folk-ish experiments ('They're Not Witches', 'Big Chief Chinese Restaurant'), perfect bubblegum ('Game of Pricks', 'My Valuable Hunting Knife'), 60s throwbacks ('As We Go Up We Go Down'), a few stunning Sprout songs ('A Good Flying Bird', 'Straw Dogs'), a few of Pollard's most iconic Pollard rock masterpieces ('Watch Me Jumpstart', 'Motor Away', 'My Son Cool'), some very fragmented-yet-rewarding sketches ('Gold Hick', 'Cigarette Tricks'), intentionally dumb rockers (surprising live favourite 'Pimple Zoo'), some rather experimental sci-fi songforms ('Auditorium', 'Hit') - as well as one of the greatest opening cuts ever ('A Salty Salute') and one of the most forgettable closers ('Alright'). And just before that, labeled as 'presumed throwaway', the stark, chilling 'Always Crush Me', which is almost showoffy - like bragging about the full extent of one's genius. And all the tracks I didn't mention, which are almost uniformly great and sound great when singing along to (let's name 'Blimps Go 90', 'King & Caroline', 'Closer You Are', 'Evil Speakers' because I like typing the titles almost as much as I like listening to them). And shitty album artwork that looks like it was done in Corel Draw (I bet it was, it was 1996 after all!). It's a complete package. One of my favourite memories is sitting around in a car, on tour with some friends' band, in 2005 I think, and listening to this while pantomiming hand motions to act out the lyrics. It was a brotherhood united by our love for this record and it's infinite mysteries, earworm-generating inspiration, and awe-inducing imagery. And it was fun to pretend to park a forklift, 'like a billion stars flickering from the grinder's wheel', though I don't remember the specific hand gesture to go with that one. Please play 'My Son Cool' at my funeral, and I wish they would have played 'Motor Away' at my birth. No, 'Watch Me Jumpstart'. Watch Me Continue to find inspiration twenty years into my lifetime bond with this masterpiece. Thanks.

1 May 2016

Guided By Vocies - 'Bee Thousand (The Director's Cut)' (Scat)

As mentioned a few posts ago, I no longer have my original copy of Bee Thousand, as it was loaned to someone years ago and never returned. It's OK, I suppose; I've committed every second of it to memory over the past 20 years anyway, and while I'll happily replace it when I come across it cheap-ish, for now I survive. Bee Thousand (The Director's Cut) actually contains every song anyway - the first two LPs recreate an earlier, longer version as assembled in 1993, and the final platter contains the seven songs from the official Bee Thousand that weren't on the 1993 version (which includes some of the most definitive tracks of the album: 'Buzzards and Dreadful Crows', 'Hardcore UFOs', 'I Am A Scientist', and 'Gold Star for Robot Boy') as well as The Grand Hour and and I Am A Scientist 7"s. But sequencing is everything, as one listen to any side of The Director's Cut will indicate. So much of the genius of Bee Thousand is how it fits together as a complete whole, without any filler and with the transitions carefully chosen. 'Echoes Myron' without 'Yours to Keep' preceeding it (and that awkward tape splice) just isn't right! And opening the whole thing with 'Demons Are Real' is a bold choice, but the first chords of 'Hardcore UFOs' are the most iconic opening in indie rock history (except, perhaps, for 'A Salty Salute' on Alien Lanes) so it's hard for me to really think of this as Bee Thousand without it. And yeah, not every song here is great - the would-have-been third side gets pretty spotty, so it makes sense that 'I'll Buy You a Bird' and  'Zoning the Planet' were dropped later, when the album we know and love took its final form. And I don't know that the world needs the falsetto-filler of 'Rainbow Billy' for any reason except the historic record. But still, at this point, Pollard and Sprout were just hit machines, churning out such an incredible body of work that fan-assembled outtakes collections are still being assembled to this day. The liner notes, written here by Robert Griffin of Scat, are really nicely done, telling the story of his relationship to the band, and how this album took form over so many iterations. The other running orders are reproduced with Pollard's lyric sheet for the third one, and his cassette track listings for the others; it turns out it's Griffin himself who put together the iconic sequencing, and that the album was actually assembled on an early version of ProTools (not bad for 1994!). So all of this is rather disjointed - Christ, it's a cluttered mess - but it's a glorious one. Some of the songs turned up much later - 'Why Did You Land?' was sped-up and re-recorded as a b-side to 'The Official Ironmen Rally Song'; 'Stabbing a Star' came out on a 7", and bits of 'Bite' and '2nd Moves to Twin' turned up elsewhere on Bee Thousand itself. And even shaken up and put in a blender, there's so much here to love and enjoy, and so much meaning and associations to draw, maybe even amplified by its new juxtapositions. 'Smothered in Hugs' retains it's magic nostalgia; 'Hot Freaks' and 'Her Psychology Today' their rampant sexuality. 'Myron' feels like it ties together many threads, and 'Deathtrot and Warlock Riding a Rooster' has some beauteous self-harmonising. And this is before even getting to this final LP, which contains a few of the greatest GbV tracks (two versions of 'Shocker in Gloomtown', a song so great the Breeders covered it; and an Andy Shernoff-produced version of 'My Valuable Hunting Knife' which never ended up anywhere else, somehow). So even though I still wonder why Pollard originally wanted to end the album with 'Crocker's Favourite Song' instead of 'You're Not An Airplane'. Yes, listen to the original first, but thank God for Griffin's efforts in releasing this, both musically and writerly - this is an important bit of history, at least to people like me.

29 April 2016

Guided by Voices - 'Vampire on Titus' (Scat)

Out of the frying pan and into the fire! I don't know a lot of other obsessive GbV-heads but I would guess that Vampire on Titus shares the same status in their minds as in mine: simultaneously their best and least essential of the golden period; an exercise in contradictions and paradox. This is where they took the 'lo-fi' thing as far as it could be taken while still resembling a rock band, by intentionally distorting & muddying most of the songs, needlessly so (some would say). And I'm not sure, still, how I feel about these choices in obfuscation. I can't imagine 'Perhaps Now the Vultures' or 'Sot' any other way, but it seems to hurt other songs - two of which appear in superior, and more clear forms on Fast Japanese Spin Cycle. In many ways this is my favourite GbV album because it's not only their most difficult but it also has some of their absolute best work. And it feels more like a complete work than a collection of songs, perhaps because some of the tracks are so obfuscated as to be almost impenetrable - so they blend into the overall blanket. 'Expecting Brainchild' could be an arena rock classic but because of the way it's recorded, it feels more like a Chrome outtake - and that's precisely what's brilliant about it (and enables the homophobic f-word to be overlooked and barely heard, just as in 'Hit' on Alien Lanes). Another thing which hurts Vampire was the subsequent release of the Fast Japanese 7", which will be addressed here if I ever actually resurrect the 7" blog, because as mentioned above it features versions of 'Marchers in Orange' and 'Dusted' that blow away the versions on this LP. The latter, made evident on the 7" as possibly one of Pollard's best-ever songs (and that's a tall claim!), is almost indistinguishable from the other midrangey rockers in its Vampire form. 'Marchers' on the LP is built around a clunky pump organ, and the title makes me think of the protestant Orange march that I frequently saw during my Glasgow years, so it's a dicey association though surely not what Pollard means at all. '"Wished I Was a Giant"' starts things off with that midrangey, murky basement rock 4-track sound but somehow transcends it, as it's become an iconic GbV song over the years; the mandatory quotation marks makes it all the more brilliant, and the context indicates that Pollard is referring it not as a direct quote but as a nickname for some power-tripping person. So, so many classics here - 'Jar of Cardinals' is pure beauty; 'Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)' is one of Sprout's masterpieces, and 'Non-Absorbing', while simplistic in form, is more or less a statement of purpose: 'Do you see more than I do?'. These jams peppered live sets through the period I dub as 'golden' and I've listened to them hundreds of times, so they feel truly familiar to this near-obsessive fan. It is, I guess, the lesser-remembered songs which really characterise Vampire on Titus, and some of them should be more celebrated: 'World of Fun', 'Wondering Boy Poet' (which has the cleanest, folkiest part of the record with it's 'Sailing, just like the days....' refrain-outro) and 'Perhaps Now the Vultures' are all pretty great songs. Maybe the best testament to Vampire on Titus's lasting power is that I listened to it before writing this, then went away for a week before finishing it, and couldn't get '#2 In the Model Home Series' out of my head the whole time. That's a sketchy, fragmentary song that could be a forgotten track on Suitcase or a clip of 'Back to Saturn X Radio Report', but when it drilled deep into my brain its repeated refrain of  'And secretly she sees' somehow sounds like the key to unlock a world with a million hallways and meanings. And that's exactly why this period of GbV continues to fascinate me - because it's just a treasure map. Vampire on Titus may be one of the dustiest of these maps, but when you blow it off enough to see, the riches are extremely rewarding.

12 April 2016

Guided by Voices - 'Propeller' (Scat)

Eventually, everything from my formative years will be reissued in some deluxe vinyl package. I'm not unhappy about this; owning an original of Propeller was an impossible dream, and I never jumped on the twofer CD with Vampire on Titus since I had already had an original LP of the latter. Scat reissued this a few years back, selecting cover #14 for immortality (a good choice!) and thus enabling me to complete my dream run on vinyl of GbV's most fertile, amazing period. Except my original-ish white vinyl Bee Thousand disappeared mysteriously some years ago, leaving me with only Scat's Director's Cut, which is not bad and has 'Shocker in Gloomtown' on it, after all, but doesn't have the original sequencing which makes me feel that I need both. Anyway, we'll get there. But yes, this is the start of a fertile, amazing period which I would argue is not just GbV's finest era but one of the finest eras of any artist ever, in any medium. Yeah, 1992-97, starting here and going through Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, including most of (if not all) of the EPs and singles from this time - it's a run that is just utterly perfect. Now, Propeller I had listened to a zillion times on a dubbed Maxell type II (high bias!) cassette I got in high school from some enterprising soul online, back when I was actually trading dubs of albums through the mail, such was this high school kid's budget. It's a record that is so brilliantly conceived from start to finish that by the time I finally got this vinyl version, well, I didn't even need to listen to it. I could go through song by song and try to describe them, or even better describe what they mean to me, but maybe that would be boring or pointless. I could try to write something smart about the ironic rock and roll chant that opens the album, the arena-rock aspirations of these basement dwelling weirdos from Dayon, Ohio, and something about the failure of stardom being what makes this great, blah blah blah, sprinkle in some comparison to Kevin Coyne, and we're done. But what's the point? When they broke in '94 or '95 everything that could have possibly been written about them already was. And I can't even really say how great this sounds on vinyl cause it really just sounds like the cassette did - after all, it was recorded on cassette to begin with. So while the pressing is lovely enough (and includes a collection of some alternate handmade covers), it's not like the discovery of some great lost soundworld. OK, here's something I'll actually say: I love Pollard's more optimistic songs, and this record is covered in them: 'Quality of Armor', 'Exit Flagger', 'Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy' - these and most of the other cuts have been live staples for 25 years, through various lineups, and these must be songs I have listened to 3000 times each and I'm not the slightest bit tired of them. If I remember correctly they were gonna 'quit' the band and this was to be their final album, though given how many times Pollard has broken up and reformed the band, at this point I just see Guided by Voices more like a celestial force than a band, so I don't take that too seriously. I was just talking about the pre-Propeller Box that had all their albums up to this point, and was thinking about how actually great a lot of them are; I made a great mixtape of the best 4 or 5 songs from each of those. But Propeller is a step forward beyond belief; this is where Sprout really starts to shine ('14 Cheerleader Coldfront'!) and the band became, to me at least, the greatest fucking rock band of all time. Even the weakest cuts are epic soundworlds to me - the collage 'Back To Saturn X Radio Report' is made up of fragmentary songs that are found on King Shit and the Golden BoysStatic Airplane Jam, and other outtakes compilations from this era, and somehow the clumsy pause-button editing just strikes me as a brilliant vision. This is the first cornerstone of an amazingly rewarding vision, and I'll just knock off the superlatives now because I got a few more albums to spread them over.

11 April 2016

Peter Grudzien - 'The Unicorn/The Garden of Love' (Subliminal Sounds)

Peter Grudzien is an outlier among outliers; in many ways you could call this just another acid-drenched, home-recorded privately pressed psych record, albeit one deeply rooted in country/western traditions and affectations. But Grudzien's 1974 statement is one that is militantly gay, wistfully fragile, and perfectly balanced on the damaged/cohesive axis, and somehow feels completely unlike anything else in the genre. The songs on The Unicorn are almost all based around a strummed acoustic guitar and his yokel yodel, but then there's some weird fuckery throughout; 'Redemption and Prayer' is built around processed voice loops, and feels akin to something that might come out of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre a decade earlier. 'Kentucky Candy', an epic ode to his lover, has some delay-heavy, operatic background vocals that (according to the liners) were just ripped off an LP recording of Tannhäuser, and the effect is stunning. There's a plodding bass throughout most of the album (which is just enough to make it all feel off-kilter, despite Grudzien's excellent technical abilities) as well as pedal steel, banjo and some electric guitars. It feels like a vision - one that begins with the title track's mystical allusions (for the unicorn, according to Grudzien's original liner notes, is a 'frail creature that will redeem mankind', though the 2007 reissue notes state that it's about a guy whose profile looked like a unicorn) and on through the unambiguous 'White Trash Hillbilly Trick' and 'Queen of All the Blue-Eyed'. He digs in and shreds on the instrumental 'The Lost World', and the lyrical themes throughout don't avoid the big issues of religion, love, and guilt. This is a lovely reissue too; the home-recording makes everything a little bit uneven, as levels tend to jump from cut to cut, but the acoustic instruments sound warm and full, and the musique concrete parts feel appropriately spooky, with enough midrange to clearly identify them as tapes being reworked. Everything climaxes on the finalé, 'Return of the Unicorn', which moves through a variety of different recording fragments, including a lo-fi, instrumental keyboard theme which feels anthemic, and a full-band (though of course, all Grudzien) conclusion which sounds decisive, even visionary. The second album was culled from recordings ranging from the 1950s to the late 80s, and it sounds appropriately hodgepodge, but strong. There's more country stylings but even some homemade doo-wop ('The Bills', from 1957), a few versions of the title track, and some cover versions. Spotty, yes, but overall enjoyable, and it feels more like a window into the mind of a person who is just absolutely in love with sound and its potential. And he was at fucking Stonewall, according to the haunting cut of that name, from 1987, made up of nothing more than his (deeper than before) voice accompanied by bells. His chronicling of the story revises the official history and talks about clones and conspiracy theories, too! The aforementioned liner notes, written in all capital letters, are pretty difficult to read but tell Grudzien's story, and one of the things that I think makes this so strange is that Grudzien is a New York City guy through and through, despite the Nashville/Bakersfield influence on his music. Given that Merle Haggard died last weekend, it's interesting to think about the whole sense of identity in country music; Haggard played his cards when it suited him but is mostly remembered as a right-wing or even reactionary figure against the counterculture (though it's of course more complicated than that, sorta like, say, Neil Young). Grudzien seems like he's from another planet, and maybe he was -- he was a total outsider in every way, not just because of his sexuality, and you could argue that country music represented a true freedom to him, and his obscure private-press rendition of it captures a genuine essence that the commercial products only pretended at. Though I hesitate to ever call one form of art/music genuine and another not; what I mean is that Grudzien, who even after this gorgeous double-LP reissue remains super obscure, represents the untold story of 1970s counterculture. Not that The Unicorn necessarily stands alongside any traditional country or underground gay art music of the time - it's just a singular creature, and shaped a bit like a unicorn.

Group Ongaku ‎– 'Music Of Group Ongaku' (Seer Sound Archive)

1960 was a long time ago, even in the accelerated and compressed culture-span that has informed so much of my own accumulation here. And the first side of this record is a long 33 minutes recorded these 56 years ago, where all sorts of crazy echo-laden sounds are performed by the Japanese avant-garde of the time, in this case a six-person ensemble led by Takehisa Kosugi, later of the Taj Mahal Travellers. No instruments are credited on 'Automatism' or 'Object' but we can hear all sorts of things, and the historical liner notes (on this less-than-legitimate reissue) tell us some of what is used. It's not recorded so well, at Shukou Mizuno's house, so it feels like a strange distant radio broadcast. I'm reminded a bit of Cage's Variations IV, perhaps in the static-laden, wooly quality of the sound as well as the wonder as to what produces the sounds. There's a lot of voice as well, hollering and grunting, and it feels serious and playful at the same time; one would guess that tapes and other recordings make up about half of the sound, thus being a live electro-acoustic improvisation and a quite early one as well. You could even imagine it being scary, audio terror from a past era, if you tend towards fear in your curiosity. The b-side is the two-part 'Metaplasm', recorded a year later with a slightly different lineup and with instrumentation credited. And a good thing, these notes, as it's a significantly more 'instrument'-based approach, with clear saxophone solos (by Kosugi and Yasunao Tone), plucking about on guitars and cellos, and a piano. This has a unsurprisingly 'open' feel, with the musicians taking their time to feel out space and interact without stepping on each other's toes. It's shocking how much this sounds like today's "non-idiomatic improvisation", as absurd as that term may be; could this just be a human-nature blueprint for how to approach open sound? The second part of 'Metaplasm' is where the tapes come in, and it continues the exploratory vibe, this time through machinery. Remember, this was recorded before the Beatles hit and when rock music was not much (if any) of an influence on these artists; it's an avant-garde that feels pure and untouched by commercialism or marketing. 'Ongaku' means 'music' in Japanese, so the name of the group is even a bit ironic, or a bit generic; I'm not quite sure which.

18 March 2016

Green Pajamas - 'Book of Hours' (Green Monkey)

Scored this for $1 back in the day and I think I spun it all of 1.5 times, though I was quite fond of the Pajamas during their brief late 90s comeback run on Camera Obscura. By then they were embracing 6's throwback stuff a bit more, everything shot through a soft-focus lens, etc. -- whereas this album, I think their second, has a bright 1980s feel to it. This may be due to the balance of songwriting; main Pajamas muse Jeff Kelly doesn't have Joe Ross here, as he had temporarily left the band, but rather bassist Steve Lawrence and keyboardist Bruce Haedt. Kelly's songwriting is as sharp as always, though his style clashes with the others. Kelly's maudlin 'The Night Miss Sundby Died' feels very odd against Lawrence's 'Ain't So Bad' - the latter is a rave-up in the style of some 60s party jam, which is a bit jarring after the lush romanticism of the former. Haedt's 'Higher Than I've Been' also feels out of place, like some Nuggets-era forgotten tune, spry and bouncy, and really something that would be OK in a different context. Or maybe it's just that I associate Kelly's youthful voice with this band so much that other vocalists just feel like something wrong. Album closer 'Time of Year' (which has a great bagpipe part, probably the most successful incorporation of bagpipes into guitar-pop that I've ever heard, and a great chorus part to ride us out) has Kelly wistfully crooning 'It's the time of year / when everyone should be in love', which is pretty much a definitive statement of purpose for the Green Pajamas. Their custom brand of melancholy may not be present in these lyrics,  at least not obviously, but I assure you that it's heard in his delivery. The arrangements are really nice on Book of Hours, fleshed out with keyboards and multi-tracked guitars, yet never feeling too heavy. Even the horn section on 'Paula' supports the songwriting rather than just being a needless flourish. Their first album, Summer of Lust, was only released as a cassette and feels like one, so must be where they stepped forward with a bigger production because, well, that's what you do when you go to wax! A quick glance at discogs reveals a zillion albums since the last one I listened to (which was 1999's All Clues Lead to Meagan's Bed) and I bet they're all as enjoyable as this one - not an everyday pop album to fall in love with and learn intimately, but a pleasant jolt back to the less heralded side of the mid-1980s when I actually remember I have it. 'Kim The Waitress' was their first single, which Wikipedia refers to as a 'regional hit single', a term which is more of a throwback than their sound supposedly is. The photo on the back of the inner sleeve features them posing artfully on a hillside, clad in peacoats and cardigans, in case you had any doubt about where they stood against the backdrop of mid-80s punk/new wave/indie music: confidently and stridently out of time. And god bless 'em.

John Greaves / Peter Blegvad / Lisa Herman - 'Kew. Rhone.' (Virgin)

The lineup here is impressive, and I've always wanted Kew. Rhone. to be just a little bit more attenuated towards Blegvad's quirky pop songwriting and less towards sounding like 50 other art-rock records that I have. Many would probably call this Blegvad's masterpiece as a lyricist, which may be true -- but my copy is missing the lyrics sheet! Thankfully the Internet steps in to fill things out, because Kew. Rhone. is made up of riddles and conundrums. Maybe it's not going to make your soul weep with heart-rendering emotional ballads, but what's here can get the brain raging like nothing else. That is, if you can pay attention; there's so much going on with the backing tracks (Andrew Cyrille's drumming is particularly impressive) so it's easy to tune out to what they are crooning about. And some songs, like 'Catalogue Of Fifteen Objects And Their Titles', are just that - lists, brilliant to read on paper, and brilliant to listen to sung over a prog track, but it's hard to pay attention to while it's happening.  Do the lyrics reflect the music? Probably under deeper study, yes, but my big complaint with Kew. Rhone., and I know this is blasphemy as a supposed Blegvad fan, is that for such unparalleled lyrical constructions, the music feels better suited for some of Chris Cutler's stern Marxist musings instead. Of course, John Greaves is responsible for the compositions, and this is 1976, so it's still very much derived from the Henry Cow sound; any sort of punk influence is nascent, though 'Nine Mineral Emblems' has a pretty manic jam between a noisy guitar (I guess Blegvad's) and Michael Mantler's trumpet. Mantler and then-wife Carla Bley are strongly felt here; compositionally it feels pretty much like a merger of Bley's work (from that period) with that of Henry Cow. Above it all soars Lisa Herman, a very under-recorded vocalist whose voice is perfectly suited for this progressive, arty sound. At times she is soulful and at others screeching; when she duets with Blegvad ('Apricot', among others) she has the ability to bring out a certain quality in his voice. As incredible as songs like 'Pipeline' might be (which refer to Blegvad's drawings on the back of the album as an essential component), it's only a few times that I feel the band is really exploring some new territory (such as the remarkable closer 'gegenstand'). With further study, I suspect I could become mildly obsessed with this record. And I love In Praise of Learning, yet this I wish sounded more like Slapp Happy. I dunno. I guess I'm just too demanding. And there's a book out about this now, which has spawned a few online articles proclaiming this record's greatness. Everything lines up to make this something I should be obsessed with, but perhaps I missed my chance. Or maybe the book, which I'm ordering now, will illuminate things more clearly.