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16 December 2009

Birth Refusal/Cassis Cornuta (Ultra Eczema)

A one-sided LP of synth repetition, slowly expanding feedback phase and the occasional flanged out space warble. Near the end the back and forth accelerates but it doesn't conclude, pause or stop to reflect at any point. The sleeve folds out into a 36" x 24" color poster showing various oozing swamp things knifing a pregnant woman in the woods. An apt band name, I suppose - it's some Michigan dudes, and Cornuta is an Antwerp weirdo that occasionally pops in Belgian underground clubs, armed with banks of synthesizers. This was recorded live for the radio and the whole thing feels like it's been run through some heavy limiters, smashing all fidelity into a narrow band. It still manages to be nasty; the malice is contained too, even in the more aggressive parts. It's a focused attack on civility, but forgive me if it feels a bit rote. I can't tell what's Cornuta and what's Birth Refusal as it's all fairly electronic (or electroacoustic) in origin, but there's no good times to be had here, for sure. If you turn it up loud, the ringing sine waves leap from the speakers slightly more, though it still has this weird feeling of middle-band. For artwork that is all body-flesh-corpuscle horror, there's something distinctly mechanical about this.

14 December 2009

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic - 'Magnetic Flip' (Ace of Hearts)

Fast-forward to 1984 - Burma is pretty much done and now Birdsongs of the Mesozoic can open up their wings and soar. This record explodes, sounding a zillion times more confident than the debut EP does. Partially this is because of the recording - the drums are pounding, the electric guitars burn, and the you can feel the energy coursing through the microphones. But the band's performances are far more lively, feeling like a dynamic unit here instead of a series of academic overdubs like on the EP. The mix-tape highlight is the cover of the theme from Rocky and Bullwinkle, but they tackle Rite of Spring too. And they do it well! But the original compositions have much more of a flow to them. The opening cut, 'Shiny Golden Snakes', is built around shards of electric guitar that sound like they're sampled from a Gang of Four record. There's confident RIO/prog strides here but there's still a heavy focus on tapes and collages. I think if anything, Magnetic Flip sounds more like Mission of Burma, but if Chris Cutler had replaced Peter Prescott. 'The Fundamental' is a crashing cacophony of thunderous density that explores rhythm, texture and tone all at the same time. The piano is no longer the lead instrument, sharing time equally with everyone else, but when it's played there's less flowery runs and more punchiness. It's like Miller feels that he is running out of time, or something. The last cut, written by organist Rick Scott, takes on a somewhat new-agey feel through it's synth clouds. Perhaps this presages the crystal/jazz direction they went towards after Miller and Swope left. Supposedly Miller quit Mission of Burma because of his tinnitus, but Magnetic Flip is a loud record. Given the progression from Sproton Layer to MoB to BotM, you can certainly hear the sound of someone who is relentlessly looking for new directions in music; I suspect this need for self-reinvention was somewhat of a motivation for his departure from both bands. Of course the reformed Burma probably destroys that bit of pop-psychology. There's probably some good stuff in the post-Swope/Miller Birdsongs records just like there's probably some good jams on those late-70s Soft Machine records; but with all the other stuff out there to hear, I'll probably never find out for sure.

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic - 'EP' (Ace of Hearts)

I love Great Pop Things, the comic strip done by the dude from the Mekons, and if he ever did one for Birdsongs of the Mesozoic the subtitle would be "They tried to change the world through dinosaur masks and embracing chamber music!". Of course it's the Mission of Burma connection that lodged these records in my consciousness, but I'm glad for it. They came to me at a time when I was looking for something smarter to go with my meat and potatoes rock/punk diet. Instrumental rock music with synths, lots of tape manipulations courtest of Martin Swope, and synths/keyboards to boot - what could go wrong? Now I hear this as fitting into that whole New York school of art music, like Elliot Sharp and Glenn Branca, though I don't really know why since it's a lot more rock than I remember it being. Not stadium-filling, Aerosmith-style rock, but rather the Henry Cow/Crimson variant. Though they're not afraid to use canned/synth drums, which provide a weird plastic centre over which 'Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous' can ebb and flow. I also like how 'Transformation of Oz' has this manic piano breakdown where Roger Miller is bashing about on some tom-toms and then it cuts out into a more elliptical, neo-classical piano solo - and then the riff comes back in. Martin Swope actually plays electric guitar here, so all of the Burmaisms have been inverted. I used to spin the full-length quite a bit but this EP is less known to me. A shame too, cause 'Drift' is a truly lovely seaside raft in turbulence. This EP is rather dominated by Roger Miller's piano, which sounds great though slightly Windham Hill at times. When complemented by Karen Kaderavek's cello on 'The Orange Ocean', I can't help but think of this music as a reaction to punk's naievete. Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, despite their dinosaur schtick, are the first few steps towards the indie-classical hybrid that got big about fifteen years later - artists like Louisville's Rachel's and maybe even you could throw Godspeed You Black Emperor into that category. These five songs pass by relatively quickly, but there's a full-length just around the corner.

10 December 2009

Bingo Trappers - 'Sierra Nevada' (Shrimper/Sing, Eunuchs!)

My copy of this 1997 unheralded masterpiece still wears its $2 discount bin pricetag, and I'm still grateful for the bargain. These Dutch lo-fi folk-rockers formed in the mid-90s and spat out a bunch of tapes and a few full-length releases over the next 6 years or so, but this debut LP is the one I hold closest to my heart. It certainly helps that this was released on the two flagship labels of the "bi-fi" scene (or whatever it was called) during the pinnacle of my own interest/passion in such things. At the time I first heard this, I wasn't schooled enough in Bob Dylan or the Band or the Flying Burrito Bros or any of the other antecedents to this sound, but I knew I liked it. These are songs based around earnest melodies, simple guitar chords and arpeggios, cloppy drumming and occasionally steel guitar or organ when it needs to be particularly delicate ('Walkin' Through the Clouds' being a highlight of restraint). 'King in Exile' remains an all-time favorite bummer-rock tune, and when I saw these guys live in 2002 or so, they opened with it! There's a magnificence to the 4-track sound here, though it's not used to experiment as much as for mood. I would call this vaguely psychedelic music - 'Let's Hit the Road Again' reminds me of Syd Barrett, and 'Michael George' has a demented neo-psych feel. The songwriting is amazing - thankfully they sing in English so you can get all of the nuances of "Well I'm passing through" (in 'Deerhunter') and the very strict viewpoint of 'Pure Intentions' (which is actually a Mountain Goats cover; icing on the cake for me in 1998 when I bought this). Most of this mess comes from just two guys, who remained the core of the band throughout it all. 'Bastardizin' the Poet' veers into more popular 90s guitar fuzz sounds, but Neutral Milk Hotel this is not. Even behind the major chords, a European misery hangs over everything. The vocals get pretty dour, but there's some incredibly human guitar leads behind everything, poking through 'King in Exile's gloom like a flashlight. 'Joseph' could be a hymn, but instead it's a weighty meditative tune with a melody recalling traditional folk from the British Isles. 'Slice of Time' warps through the homespun drummin' and strummin' with a ghosty accompaniment; the slightly sing-song lyrics take on a creepy vibe that resembles a snake eating its own tail. It all wraps up with the sentimental 'Dream Horse', a carefully chosen act of sequencing that brings Sierra Nevada to a sweet conclusion. Weirdly, a band called Guv'ner released a record around the same time as this with the same cover photo. I don't think I've ever met another Bingo Trappers fan, but if I ever get around to writing that book about the Shrimper scene that I've always wanted to write, I'll hopefully encounter a few. Until then, it's nice to have this pleasure in solitude.

9 December 2009

Big Star - 'Radio City' (Big Beat)

I think Big Star are definitely worthy of their retrograde acclaim. #1 Record has a lot of filler but I'm a sucker for the really twee/pervy stuff like that 'Won't you let me walk you home from school' song. But Radio City I've always felt was their strongest work - I'd even give it the nod over Sister Lovers, which is awesome but some forgettable mush, too. I think it's the riffs on Radio City that get me the most - I actually find myself playing air guitar to 'O My Soul' and 'Mod Lang', whereas the #1 Record riffs feel a bit underdeveloped and Sister Lovers is too 'luuded out. This is Thin Lizzy to me, these rockers. The band really plays well as a band here, hitting the chords with the proper crunch and perfect timing. 'Life is White' is a heavy jam - there's space between the corners, and ringing voices are always nice. 'Way Out West' is totally Andy Hummel's finest moment, and things get a bit more snaky on 'You Get What You Deserve'. I hesistate to call this a perfect classic - Big Star are one of those bands whose seminal album is a mixtape of their best work -- but it's their finest moment. Chilton's snarled "I can't be / satisfied" at the beginning of 'Mod Lang' deserves to be as classic as anything Jagger ever delivered. God, the guitars just sound so fucking good here. Yeah, it wimps out a bit at the end, but oh how triumphantly? 'September Gurls' is the bubblegum classic, but then 'Mopha Too' and 'I'm In Love With a Girl' are light sketches - a precursor to the 'Night Time'/'Blue Moon'/'Take Care' trifecta at the end of Sister Lovers. This is a mid-80s repress on a British label; it's mastered well, sounding great, perhaps better than the original press on Stax.

5 December 2009

Big Black - 'Atomizer' (Homestead)

No, it's not the soundtrack to the Michel Houllebecq book, nor do they use the more attractive (in this correspondant's opinion) British spelling of Atomiser, but this isn't a record for being attractive. It's pure brutality, or at least pure misanthropy, or, at least, to use some more commas, as pure as misanthrophy in music can be that still adheres to pop/rock song structures and 4/4 rhythms. I think 'Jordan, Minnesota' is still my favorite Big Black song (and this is my favoite Big Black record, by a mile) perhaps because the topic is so heavy. Albini obviously felt strongly enough that he designated a full 50% of the liner notes to this tune. And it has a strong moral agenda whereas the hits like 'Kerosene' are more situational. But they're all great. So here's a question- do you think if you were a sports team, but say a really fucked up sociopathic sports team like the Oakland Raiders or something, then you would play the ending of 'Strange Things' through the PA at your games to get the crowd worked into a frenzied meléé? Cause when I listen to this song, even though the liner notes say it's bad, it's like a reworking of 'Rock and Roll part 2' by Gary Glitter. A bit of circular logic here cause don't Mr. Glitter's problems make you want to crank up 'Jordan, Minnesota'? This will stay with you until you die, and Atomizer is a fucking intense fist of industrial-indie-punk-metal fury, the sound of 1986 as I imagine it because, let's be honest, Big Black were before my time. I love that the liner notes (which I've already mentioned twice) are not merely lyrics but instead "about" the songs. I love that a song like 'Passing Complexion' has such a catchy, octave-pedal pop hook in it yet it's still angry and punchy and about something. Maybe it's my loss, but I don't really listen to anything else Albini's done anymore. That first Shellac record is great (though I don't own it) and I don't dislike any of his output, but whenever I get that urge to listen to music that recalls the misplaced emotions I had in high school (and suggests a grimy, Midwest city of industry) then I just go back to this one, even though it's as familiar as apple pie now. It all musta been so different on 5 October 1985 when this was recorded. And what a thanks list! Sonic (fucking) Youth, Squirrel Bait, Byron and Jimmy (still quite the partnership in those days), Jack Rabid, the Butthole Surfers, Killdozer and the entire city of Minneapolis (including Prince, I guess). And "anybody who likes the bishops" -- meaning Alan and Rick? It's not really a thanks list, but a list of "hellos to" -- yet, does anyone really think 'hello' is the right sentiment for this band? Such pleasantries seem beyond Albini and co., as they seem more likely to greet you by stabbing you in the stomach with a Phillips screwdriver. This will stay with you until you die, and Atomizer will too.

3 December 2009

Jacques Berrocal - 'Paralleles' (d'Advantage)

If the Encourager Templates ever catches fire and I can only save one LP, this might be it. Not just because I love it so much but because it's among the scarcest (and therefore most precious) items on the shelf. It's a circus of evaporating jazz and inexplicable surrealism, one that should be in every home and in every microwave oven. One reason it's so is 'Rock and Roll Station', amazing not just because of Stapleton's remake but because the simple introduction of a spoken text suddenly creates a manifesto. This is the 'History Lesson, part 2' for the whole genre of experimental/progressive/Futura/NWW-listy music; whatever you want to call it, it creeps around like a playful penguin clutching a trumpet under his wing. It tells you what music can be, at least to these ears, and to mine (which is all that matters to me). I heard a DJ play it recently and immediately had to go and make friends; it's a call to a secret society, almost. It's funny how this most 'outsider' of music is actually very focused and knowledgeable; the dedication of 'bric-à-brac' to Luigi Russolo shows that Jacques knows his anti-classics (which is probably a good idea when making one yourself). Likewise, the artwork on the back recalls Max Ernst, Dada, all that jazz - and this was a few years before Stapleton himself started explicitly describing his approach to music as a descendent of such. But enough, what about the music? 'bric-à-brac' is so fucking incredible - similar to Jacques' other masterpiece Musiq Musik but with a somewhat more windy, sinewy feel. Pierre Bastien (who we saw earlier, though 20 years later, with some robots of his own) plays contrabassoon and Bernard Vitet's strings are utterly magical, but it's pointless to single out something that is really a group thing. Until now we've not really heard any groupthink quite like this except possibly some of those Art Ensemble sides, but that was definitely rooted in something much more American. These guys, it's like it's from outer space but relatively absent of electronic effects. Hell, one track is Berrocal's solo cornet and it sounds totally amazing. So many sounds here, and yet there's something magical that makes this transcend all the legions of followers since. Maybe I'm a sucker for myths, though it's cool that there's nothing reclusive or obscure about Berrocal - he's around these days, still active, quite approachable and all of this stuff is in print on CD now. Which means, readers, if you don't have this you can probably pull out a credit card and Google your way to surrealist nirvana.

28 November 2009

Bent Leg Fatima (File 13)

To all those of you who own this record, I ask, 'When was the last time you listened to it?' Cause I was about to lament this as a great forgotten psych-pop record, but then I started thinking about how much I overuse the idea of the 'forgotten' here on the Underbite ... forgotten exactly by whom? I often make the mistake of assuming some sort of hive mind of music listeners, inadvertently projecting my own biases and beliefs onto the rest of you. It's been years since I've given this a spin, and once the first proper song began ('Cup and Saucer') I started thinking about how this should get more play. There's a lot of creaking and bending despite it being a fairly driven Krauty-jam, and the singing/vocalisations are bright and melodic while still maintaining an aura of the mystic. When Bent Leg Fatima step on the more acoustic/folky gears, it reminds me more of something like Bügsküll. There's something unmistakably 90s indie pop about it, but it's melting under weird artefacts: Alice Coltrane records covered in butter, canyon cinemas projected backwards, and frogs leaping to wrong time signatures. They know when to accentuate things with studio fuckery, but they don't overdo it. Things sounded a bit simpler then; later these dudes morphed into party-Kraut-Hee Haw revival band Need New Body, but I think they were still ascending at this point. Both bands share a proclivity for horizontal (or go-nowhere, if you prefer) instrumentals, based among a deep rhythm, though Bent Leg's are much more chilled out. There's guitars but they don't dominate - the organs and electric pianos shoot out jumpy and high strung, plucky staccato arrows occasionally turning into lightning. The balance is split quite nicely between 'pop' and instrumental; you can pick your favorites but they're interspersed perfectly. Just when I start to get bored with the synths and wispy atmospherics, someone starts to croon about a mouse or a cat again. Though judging from the titles, these guys were also writing about Hemingway and Yachts. Psychedelphia's take on "Yacht Rock"? I don't hear much of a Christopher Cross influence, but maybe I'm just not trying hard enough. Did I mention how great the production is? The drums sound like drums, and this sounds like a real band playing on top but it's somehow modern and retro at the same time.

27 November 2009

Pierre Bensusan - '2' (Rounder)

A shaggy-haired Frenchman, hello! You have brought us what I assume is a second album of traditional French folk songs accompanied with acoustic guitar and occasionally more - bagpipes, flutes, and strings. The dark overtones of these few cuts make the album a winner, even if a warp renders 'La Danse Du Capricorne I' unplayable. But strangely, the side 1 counterpart, 'Belle Je M'En Vais En Allemagne' plays fine -- maybe the bagpipes' gothic misery forces my stylus to stay on target. On the instrumentals, Bensusan turns on precise points - this is all Appollonian, friends. 'Le Lendemain de La Fete' is a great title ('The Day After the Night Before') and the liner notes remark on this, but it doesn't hold a candle to 'The Flax in Bloom' or other cuts. I like Bensusan - always meaning to check out his other records, since they're easy to come by -- but I'm not sure why. His voice is confident, Gallic of course, but not particularly amazing. His playing is solid, certainly nothing to scoff at, but there's nothing to really mark him as an exemplery neo-folk dude. I guess this scores an 'above average' in every category, to the point where the overall score, not that I actually assess records in a Pitchfork-like manner, but you know what I mean, is high enough to make me appreciate it. Apologies for the shitty mobile phone photo, but Google was fruitless in bringing up this cover -- all of the other ones seems to be some green alternate cover. I'm not sure if you can tell from this resolution but that's actually a drawing, a stunning portrait by Patrick Alexandre that casts Bensusan as a folk hero much like a heavy metal artist would portray some 80s band. I love it.

22 November 2009

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band - 'Ice Cream for Crow' (Virgin/Epic)

Don's so earnest on the cover photo, as if he knew this would be his last record. There is some feeling of things winding down here, perhaps most evident in 'Evening Bell' and it's internal headbutting. It's a dismantling of 15 years of music, which in retrospect, doesn't feel very long at all given the journeys taken. 'Ice Cream for Crow' had a great video that MTV rejected for being 'too weird' although it's relatively standard for 1982 rock video - the band playing in the Mojave desert, a place that infects Ice Cream for Crow throughout. Go find it on YouTube if you haven't seen it. I don't think the Captain was looking for any more mainstream success after his flirtation with accessibility in the mid-70s; that video just looks like fun. Ice Cream for Crow is a fun album despite the ticking clock. The band's different yet again, with a few holdovers from Doc and Gary Lucas staying on, but sadly no John French. New drummer Cliff R. Martinez holds things down well and this one is produced well again. DVV's inspired too -- listen to 'Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat' which has a melting mudsicle of his best imagery, touching back to the inspirations from the days of the dust blowing forward n' back, but without being in retrograde orbit. The lyrics sheets lays it all down, including the purely prosaic '"81" Poop Hatch". I can't help but feel like DVV had fallen into some sort of gently avuncular role by this point (as the video testifies to, too). Maybe Uncle Beefheart's wisdom by this point is what makes this such a nice departure point - with moments allegorical ('The Thousand and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole'), rhythmic ('Ink Mathematics') and strangely wistful/wistfully strange ('Cardboard Cutout Sundown'). Many have mourned the departure of Captain Beefheart from the world of music but I'm happy with what he left us.

18 November 2009

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band - 'Doc at the Radar Station' (Virgin)

Man, I love Doc at the Radar Station. It's probably my third overall favorite Beefheart album. And who would have thunkit from the (lovely, yet limp) coverart and necktie-adorned band photograph? Sure, Shiny Beast was the comeback album but this is the true comeback. The record explodes with 'Hot Head' and there's the crunch and menace that was missing for most of the 70's -- this is 1980, too, not a year particularly remembered for fucked up music. As hinted at in the last post, John French is here on slide guitar and maybe he's just what the missing element was before. 'Run Paint Run Run' always makes me think of the VU's 'Run Run Run'; the trombone finally fits here. And best of all is the voice - it ain't what it was in '69, sure, but it sounds a lot better than the Spotlight Kid era crooning. In 'Ashtray Heart' you can literally hear him turn it on, like stepping on a BigMuff pedal for the larynx. There's so much to love here. 'Dirty Blue Gene' is wonderfully bonkers; it's like a swirling cloud of office supplies over ice. French cuts through this all like an inbred Eddie Van Halen. 'Sue Egypt' is a fairly free love poem over a haphazardly strummed cacophany. 'I think of the dust on the chair / and under her eyes' and reading that line doesn't even hint at the true beauty of this piece. Not to mention this song is presumably where the Bad Vugum label got their name. 'Flavor Bud Living' is one of the best guitar riffs I've heard out of all these records - it bubbles and burns, perhaps due to Gary Lucas' guest guitar playing. And 'Making Love to A Vampire With a Monkey on my Knee', despite its title, is all plunderous lurching and f-bombs; not at all the novelty song you'd fear. Dark sexuality rages but maybe it's just the neckties. A classic for sure.

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band - 'Easy Teeth' (Impossible Recordworks)

A bootleg! The first of the Underbite I think - filed here, before Doc, because it dates from 18 February 1978, where these 4 shoddy-sounding sides were recorded in Huntington Beach, CA. Yep, the Shiny Beast tour. Now the fidelity really blows here, which makes me realise how conservative I've gotten in my 'old' age -- I don't really give a shit about bootlegs anymore. I guess there's enough "proper" music to listen to and I just don't get much of a thrill about hearing a Walkman-quality recitation of songs I've heard a million times. There's exceptions galore, but I figure all of the truly great bootlegs cross over - the Walls Have Ears and Stray Slacks;; I guess the original Basement Tapes is the greatest bootleg ever, in rock-writer terms (which I just can't seem to shake!). But anyway, I'm satisfied to sit and wait for the few crossovers to reach the 'regular' market. Easy Teeth certainly doesn't belong in that category - this is a Beefheart bootleg for diehard fans only. There are a few depressing moments, such as DVV's voice as he tries to growl out 'Eeeeee-leeeehhhh-triiiiiih-cehhhhh-teeeee' like it's still ten years earlier. This band isn't the most shit-hot of his career either, though with 'Bat Chain Puller' they get the stomp going. On the Shiny Beast tracks, there's glimmers of the raw power that was sucked out of the album through its glossy production, etc. There's another point on side 1, I think, where Beefheart recites the classic 'squid eating dough' line and the audience cheers - talk about going through the motions! There's some other banter throughout the 4 sides of this set, including a story abot going to eat ribs with Roland Kirk in the middle of the night. Oh, California. I don't want to jump ahead but I think the reason Doc at the Radar Station is my favorite of late Beefheart is because John French re-enters the picture, even if he's not on drums. Not to diss Robert Williams, who is quite competent here, but French gives the band something they're lacking. There's some obligatory Trout Mask hits on here like 'Pachuco Cadaver', an extended, somewhat extemporaneous 'China Pig', and a crunchy, brief 'Dali's Car' -- though this band is at its best when performing their own material. 'Owed T'Alex' has a great undertow that survives the murky heat of the audience-made recording. I have two other bootlegs on this "label", which hails from the mysterious place of 'Légerdemain, USA'. Closes out with a weird 'Golden Birdies' as a final set or encore? Who knows when the bootleggers decided to splice (and how they choose to sequence).

10 November 2009

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band - 'Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)' (Warner Bros.)

The return to form, always slightly disappointing once you've heard bootlegs of the original Bat Chain Puller, but still pretty solid. 'Tropical Hot Dog Night' shows how bouncy Latin rhythms and brassy trumpet accents can coexist with the growling freakazoid Van Vliet from ten years earlier. There's a bit of gasping and wheezing but the vocal range is still there, and I dig the pervy undercurrent here because it's all bit creepier when he's a bit older and the 70's have (mostly) happened. It's a compromise, sure, but it feels genuine to me. When I listen to this I feel pretty good, but not insane; 1978 was a downer time for a lot of people and it's funny to think about this coming out alongside the Ramones, Television, and other edgy youth music. There isn't a whole lot of attitude here, as the focus seems to be more about precision. I like it crispy. 'Apes-Ma' is a genteel reminder of the man's poetic gift and such an awesome coda to this record; flip it over and start again cause 'The Floppy Boot Stomp' feels nearly epic. 'When I See Mommy I Feel Like a Mummy' is a top-tapper that reminds me of the really guttural, viscious rawk from Lick My Decals Off, Baby. 'You Know You're A Man' is supposed to be like that too, but it just reminds me of a more awkward, limp version of something that Devo did much better in their Hardcore days. I usually skip 'Harry Irene', another dud track, just because the trad sieve loses me; the wavering warbling voice as well ... I dunno, it works in other songs but this feels like some more of the Buster Poindexter style - not DVV's strength. Except for when he shouts 'What's the meaning in this?' because I still haven't figured it out. The lineup doesn't feel quite as gelled, perhaps because there's so many different instruments on it. Jeff Tepper is the only Beefheart guitarist who I can really recall - Ed Marimba is limited to just the marimba and percussion though he could slice out guitar riffs pretty fucking nicely too. I guess using real names here was supposed to show some sort of maturation or maybe they did that on the two records I skipped owning too; but the tucked-in shirts?

9 November 2009

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band - 'Clear Spot' (Reprise)

I know I just ranted about The Spotlight Kid mostly sucking because it's so commercial, but for some reason I kinda like Clear Spot even though it contains some of the most overtly smooth, "inside" tunes of the orthodox Beefheart canon. I mean, 'Too Much Time' has Van Vliet sounding like a lounge crooner, with bright brassy horns and some genuine balladry -- yet I'm okay with this. I think it's all to do with the production. The Spotlight Kid sounds pretty shitty, while Clear Spot is bright and bold, and because of that I think it somehow sounds weirder. Plus, there's a balance here. For every 'Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles' (a tune I actually like cause of Lebowski), it's immediately followed by a crunchy stomper like 'Big Eyed Beans from Venus'. Likewise, 'My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains' has 'Sun Zoom Spark' after it, and 'Sun Zoom Spark' is an awesome song. I kinda think that the problem is in how Beefheart tried to embrace a larger market. I mean, the stuff from Safe as Milk is fairly "accessible", meaning it doesnt sound totally insane like Lick My Decals Off does -- but it's somehow not as squeaky clean as this. Maybe on The Spotlight Kid Beefheart was trying to write music based on what he thought other people wanted to here, whereas on Clear Spot he's being himself a little bit more. Cause the man was -- is -- human, right? Lots of points go to the packaging, being one solid card with a clear mylar sleeve where the words/logo "Clear Spot" are embossed in a pretty cool idea. Unfortunately my copy has yellowed and the flap is starting to fall off - but this is a radio station copy from some station called WCCB, which the internet tells me is Baltimore community college. This isn't my favorite Beefheart record by any stretch, but it's definitely a keeper (even if there's no Drumbo).

8 November 2009

Captain Beefheart - 'The Spotlight Kid' (Reprise)

I'm not really a fan of this album though I'm sure if I listened to it a million times I would probably find something to love. It's a stab at the commercial moon, with slower more 4/4 songs and generally less chaos. 'I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby' opens it up and it's like the Captain trying to be Barry White or something. I like the low brassy vibrations when he sings deep but the jerkoff rhythm feels a bit too , I dunno, careful? A song like 'Blabber and Smoke' actually misuses the marimba, in my opinion, and Van Vliet sounds like he's singing from the end of a weird tunnel. The dark guitar riffs and slightly too clever and the plodding rhythm section actually sounds slick. There's elements to enjoy -- 'Click Clack' and 'Grow Fins' are a demented interlude in the middle of side 2, and even the more accessible songs are still charming if you like the whole general Captain Beefheart thing. A few of the brighter riffs, such as in 'Alice in Blunderland', are pleasing in the same way that I don't mind hearing a band like Deerhoof, yet a far cry from the self-swallowing rhythmic monster I know this band is capable of. And the solos are positively alien to the Beefheart aesthetic, if you ask me -- this is not a 'jam band'. It's funny how Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeams are completely reviled by everyone, including Beefheart himself, while The Spotlight Kid is still considered part of the canon. I've only heard Unconditionally once and barely remember it, but I don't think it was all that much more 'inside' than this one. Not that commercialism in itself is a negative thing - but after the massive highs of Decals and Trout Mask it's hard not to be disappointed. The cover says everything though, and I wonder if this had some demented weird artwork instead, then I might enjoy it more.

Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band - 'Lick My Decals Off, Baby' (Straight)

It's been a bit of a holiday for the Underbite corp., for which I can only offer my heartfelt apologies. Life, reality, circumstance, etc. often combine to prevent the listening required to properly assess these records and without being physically near the accumulation (or a turntable), this service had to just lie dormant. But Lick My Decals Off, Baby is a hell of a way to return. A lot of people hold this up as the pinnacle of Van Vliet's musical work and I wouldn't argue against it; certainly it's an essential piece of the puzzle, at least along with Trout Mask. It's single-album length and general diversity (and marimba!) make it a somewhat more palatable record to throw on when craving a blast o' Beefheart. I think there's a greater merging of the dismantled visionary (heard on Trout Mask) with the raw rock of the earlier stuff; somehow the overall product isn't compromised. 'Doctor Dark' is a great indication of this sound - it drives forward like the most raw, guttural riff-based rock but also mangles the fence. Even though this is one of the most listened to Beefheart records, there are some songs I always tend to forget about, like the brilliant 'The Clouds Are Full Of Wine (Not Whiskey or Rye)' or 'Petrified Forest'. The lyrics sheet prints some additional poems mixed in, which deny the normality of the font with the freelancing apostrophes and choppy fragments. It's a pleasure to read these, something I can't do for Trout Mask because (my copy, at least) doesn't boast a lyric sheet. Listening to 'Bellerin' Plain' is like proto-Pollard - the casual falling off in pitch at the end of each line as he sings "Foothills, locomotives walked n' sugar beets rolled down the tracks/Sunbum bounce soot off the black smokestacks" is practically 'Dusted' to me. And how about the sense of assonance in 'Doctor Dark's "Tear apart 'n black 'n white 'n like / The moon on a pail of milk spilled down black in the night / little girl lost a tear 'n her kite/ T' the night 'n like 'n light" -- I know it's boring to quote lyrics here but that's some fucking Bruce Andrews shit there. 'Woe-Is-A-Me-Bop', 'Space-Age Couple' and 'I Love You, Big Dummy' are the rawest songs, I think, perhaps of Beefheart's entire catalogue. It's not that they are simplistic or particularly carnal; rather I think they just communicate most directly. There's some brilliant shifts in 'Woe-Is-A-Me-Bop' - listen to the way the intro bars set a tone and then as soon as Don's voice comes in, it totally contorts itself in a different direction. There's a lot of cadence shifts in this song as it goes along; perhaps the limited set of lyrics on this one makes it easier to concentrate on the tonal lurches. But somehow, by the time of 'Flash Gordon's Ape', the lurching feels more like a snowmobile running through the desert, hitting irregularly spaced rocks. It's enough to see your own shadow and know when to confront it.

11 October 2009

Captan Beefheart and His Magic Band - 'Trout Mask Replica' (Reprise)

It feels like the Underbite has hit on a bunch of classic/infallible/etc. albums lately but looking back it's really just this and Pet Sounds. But I should stick to my policy of trying to actually say something new, worthwhile and (I guess) personal about these rather than repeating clichés and foregone conclusions. So what can I actually draw from listening to this, for the millionth time? The words flow by like a river, albeit one very familiar; pause button edit techniques recall Gyson but i think of Anton Bruhin dancing with Charles Olson. I used to listen to this and be amazed at the logical patterns that emerge, for example the ending rodeo of 'Pachuco Cadaver'. Now I just try to feel it - it's all about Drumbo for me tonight. The Captain may have been pissed off at John French (leaving him off the credits) but at least he was smart enough to keep him prominent in the mix. The date printed on the back of this cover reveals this to be a late 70's reissue, and it's in great shape so I can hear every wispy cymbal flick and thud-thud. About midway through you need a break, which is why I can't imagine listening to this on CD. It's not the most demanding record ever made - I am listening to it quite casually - but it's such a complete vision that it feels like one complete symphony in 28 movements. Yeah yeah yeah, this'll get the "changed music forever" tag of course, but what's remarkable is listening in sequence cause I just did Strictly Personal and Mirror Man - even though those are 'transitional' works, blending between the edgy 4/4 stomp of Safe as Milk and more open, damaged compositions -- it's still a giant leap forward from that stuff to Trout Mask Replica. It helps that everything gel'd into a summit of personal expression and power - not just the utterly demented approach to rock songwriting, but the artwork and lyrics have stepped it up a few notches. 'Martian blues' is what they always call this stuff right? Sure, you can hear the remnants of that tradition especially in stuff like 'China Pig' but really, entire genres of music and thousands of musicians have still never progressed past this album. And no one has ever really equaled it as an accomplishment either. The raw sexuality of Beefheart's lyrics has always seemed like the perfect fit for music at least somewhat based in the blues - and it's pretty flagrant here, like 'My Human Gets Me Blues' and 'Big Joan'. The soprano sax that spits out all over this album makes sense too - I mean, that's the load he's shooting right? Also, 'Veterans Day Poppy', with it's awesome half-time bridge and Vietnam-era lyrics is a hell of a closer, and one of the most underrated Beefheart songs in general. Raw, primitive, insert whatever adjectives you usually read here -- it's all true, and it's maybe one of the pieces missing from earlier records. The story that's emerged from Drumbo and the others, about how this record was created through a brutal cult-like regiment, should make the bleeding hearts among us reevaluate Trout Mask's greatness, but I don't really care. Does anyone believe something this intense could be created through normal conditions? I like how certain songs reveal more traditional music characteristics, for example 'She's Too Much For My Mirror' has chord changes that remind me of Steely Dan or something. This is probably not the point, but rather a bad habit that I gravitate towards when trying to re-evaluate the very familiar.

9 October 2009

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - 'Strictly Personal' (Blue Thumb)

Strictly Personal is always a bit savaged in the record guides, claiming that Bob Krasnow ruined it with his overtly 'crazy' production. I used to think this was nonsense and that Strictly Personal was underrated, great even -- but listening now I agree that Krasnow is to blame for whatever is lacking here. This isn't so much because it's whacked out with reverb and flange (cause those parts are cool, like some dub-blues-psych hybrid) but because the production is just bad. If you listen to the first part of 'Trust Us', the drums sound like they're being played underwater (though not in a good way), and the whole performance feels like the highs and lows have been sucked out, leaving only a gross-timbred middle section. I understand that the technique of rock music production wasn't as developed in 1968 but given how many other amazing records came out at this time , I don't why they couldn't get this one right. Again, it's a shame because Don's songwriting has developed another stage in its complexity, with some proto-Trout Mask brilliance. 'Son of Mirror Man - Mere Man' is one work of genius, even despite the mismatched levels and farty bass sound. I've always wondered about that title - is 'Mere Man' the name of Mirror Man's son, or is this song about the son of someone named 'Mirror Man-Mere Man'? This song though enters a new realm of melting ice cream on the hoods of racecars - a realm opened just earlier with the bendy overlapping end of 'Trust Us'. Side two opens with 'On Tomorrow', a dark screaming song that melts into the sublime 'Beetle Bones n' Smokin' Stones', a taste of the animal-deranged vocal stylings that the good Captain later became famous for. The Mirror Man Sessions CD has the better, longer, unaffected versions of a lot of these tracks (like 'Kandy Korn') and overall is a better listen -- probably one that renders Strictly Personal obsolete -- but we'll get there on the Cinderblock tip soon enough. The good moments here are great though and it's certainly a transitional work. Though the Beefheartian vibe is true California all the way, I manage to incorrectly assign a imagistic geography that places it in some weird South that may actually be under the surface of the Earth's crust. Certainly the bluesy deconstructions are responsible for this, but they weren't consciously thinking about deconstruction when creating these records (at least I hope not!) so maybe that's why it actually rocks pretty hard.

6 October 2009

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band - 'Safe as Milk' (Buddah)

Here's an eccentricity of my filing - I file Beefheart records under B, not under C. Usually I go by surname, ie: Roy Harper under H, with exceptions if the name is fake (Henry Cow does not go under C). By this logic Captain Beefheart is a C, yet I just so completely think of them as "Beefheart" records that B is what's natural. Safe as Milk is pretty visionary, if not totally 'unfuckwithable'. Part of what makes it great is the uncertainty of that vision. Here we have nascent Van Vliet which is the first of many periods. Nascent, then Singular (Trout Mask + Decals of course), then Fumbling (to which I'd even add The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot to the two that everyone disowns) and then that wonderful late period Rebirth. Safe as Milk lurches around between post-garage tunes teetering on the edge of novelty ('Yellow Brick Road') to absolute scorchers ('Electricity', 'Zig Zag Wanderer'), with a few diversions into balladry ('When There's Woman', and 'I'm Glad' which is like Tom Jones channeled through the ol' brickbats). And then songs that seem to fall in-between, like 'Autumn's Child'. Many of these songs are a lot more complex than you would think, full of changes and weird melodic movements, but it still sounds 'direct' (probably because I'm comparing it to Trout Mask). 'Electricity' has this squealing guitar that sounds like a theremin or something, and it pops up throughout the song, which is one of those details I try to listen for when hearing a record I've heard a bunch of times before. There's a cloud of 60's production haze around these songs that Beefheart never really revisited; Strictly Personal goes off the deep end with studio effects and then the 60's were over, weren't they? I like that - at times you could almost imagine these cuts alongside something by Love, maybe on a California radio station.

3 October 2009

Beach Boys - 'Smiley Smile' (Capitol)

I have a confession to make - I'm a very late bloomer with the Beach Boys. Actually, I listened to a greatest hits tape a lot when I was in 2nd grade - stuff like 'Help me Rhonda', 'Surfin' Safari', 'In My Room', 'I Get Around' - so maybe that makes me an early bloomer. But it's only in the past 12 months that I really went back and got into SMiLE and post- records. I mean, I've always been cool with that stuff, always liked Pet Sounds as much as everyone else and enjoyed what I've heard of the 70's records, but I never had the total psychedelic breakthrough that was purported to be there lurking in the hours of incoherent SMiLE bootlegs (if only you could have the energy to assemble it yourself). The 2004 Brian Wilson version was decent enough, I guess, but hardly the stuff of legend. And this copy of Smiley Smile's been on my shelf for years, which I used to play just to hear 'Heroes and Villains'. But at some point last year I gave SMiLE another chance, and oh boy, did it hit me. I think everyone just needs to find their own most satsifying SMiLE bootleg. In my case, it was the "Purple Chick" edition (which I'm sure some savvy Googlers can find elsewhere on Blogspot), which rather unconventionally attempts to assemble a coherent version of SMiLE by following the 2004 edition's sequencing and titles, but 95% drawn from the 60s outtakes. There's a few occasions where they have to put the 2004 mix in for a few bars, usually just to link sections together, but I forgive this - it's an incredible package and a feat of excellent editing, and it comes across as the brilliant, almost perfect vision that it's meant to be. For a lot of last winter I would fall asleep listening to this version on headphones, hearing a million screaming voices in the background murk of 'Barnyard' and having American-spiritualist allegorical hallucinations during 'Cabinessence'. I've seen the light, as the saying goes, and maybe the fact that I had to 'work' a bit makes it more special -- I mean, what if you could go down to Best Buy and plunk down some cash for the real legit SMiLE? But now a decade-plus of rock, pop and psychedelic obsessions make sense. Maybe I should go back and listen to those High Llamas records I dismissed back in college. Anyway, to get back to the topic at hand, Smiley Smile - going back to this after hearing the unfinished majesty of the real SMiLE is difficult. Really, I find it almost unbelievable that B. Wilson would even allow this to be released. This is really the sound of giving up - the troubled perfectionist who says 'fuck it!' and just dumps out whatever he cares about the least to make a product. Am I being hard on Smiley Smile? I think not. The version of 'Heroes and Villains' is weak compared to any of the bootleg versions (though it's such an amazing tune that it still stands up even in this form) and 'Vegetables' immediately follows. But there ends the highlights. 'She's Going Bald' is a promising beginning that ends in an unsatisfying bit of studio fuckery - hardly the worst Beach Boys track ever, but just a hint at the aborted "humour" component to SMiLE and so completely tossed off here that it's hard to really enjoy it. The casual becomes the sublime in 'Little Pad', one of the stronger songs even though there's not much to it. 'Good Vibrations' is 'Good Vibrations' but since that was a previously released single it doesn't really count, though it's sure nice to be included here in blistering mono. 'Wonderful' and 'Wind Chimes' are really frustrating because they just sound lazy compared to any of the bootleg outtakes - a lot of the instrumentation behind these tracks is a stripped down synth/organ, almost as if Brian played everything himself just to get it finished. 'Whistle In' ends the record on a forgettable bit of filler, which is all this record really is. Even when I hadn't properly Heard the real SMiLE outtakes, this felt like filler + a few good songs, which is generally how the public received it (if my history is correct). For those people who don't have the guts to venture into bootleg territory, this and a few songs from later records is all you'll get. ('Cabinessence' from 20/20 is perfect, and ditto for 'Surf's Up' when it finally appeared on the album of the same name). And that's hardly enough to base a myth on, so start here and then go find those bootlegs.

2 October 2009

Beach Boys - 'Pet Sounds' (Reprise)

It's nice to find this late 70's reissue cause it's actually in mono -- 'the way Brian cut it', according to the back - and when those thunderdrums crash in, you can really feel the thick mono moat. With records as classic as this, I find the act of logging these screeds in the Encourager Template a bit half-hearted. I don't really want to add to the rock canon inflation of Pet Sounds, nor do I feel any need to be contrarian -- it's a great record, where previously less relevant tracks will over time emerge for their day in the sun, and enough has been written about it already. At the moment it's 'Sloop John B' that endlessly revolves around my brain, drawing comparisons to other traditional versions I've heard (and Joseph Spence's awesome guitar pluckery-fuckery comes to mind), and side B's sleeper classic 'Here Today'. My camera is offline at the moment and I couldn't find an existing image of the cover I have online (which is the same photo as the classic green/yellow one, just with a dull brown border around it) so this will have to suffice. I'm kinda bummed I don't have more to say about this, but really, what else is there to say?

30 September 2009

Masaki Batoh - 'Kikaokubeshi' (The Now Sound)

The yin (or maybe yang) to A Ghost From the Darkened Sea, Kikaokubeshi is another six tracks - though this time its longer, slower, and at 33rpm. As well as instrumental, dark, dense and minimal in comparison to Darakened Sea's folky songs. The raging storms of dark psych that Ghost are known for are more prevalent here, though Batoh avoids any obvious guitar heroics or vocalising. 'Magakami' brings in some rock drums and church organ, though it still maintains an anti-rock experimentalism, like a group improvisation to a dark film soundtrack. 'Ebb' begins the second side with some melting vocal mumbles that start to make sense after awhile, though its got that great sound poetry feel, filtered through the rising sun. I infrequently feel the desire to pull this one out, though in the organic drone/psych genre it's first-class. It's not actually all that droney yet it has that huge, expanding "ball of sound feel" and it reminds me of what the psychedelic/minimal underground was doing in the late 90s. It hurts to say this, but this type of music has lost a lot of its value to me. When this came out, sure, it was awesome and refreshing especially given what I was into at the time. But after ten years of a wonderful, dynamic, exciting underground of home-tapers and bedroom psych wizards, I'm no longer looking for this Out sound -- or rather, I don't really think of it as 'out' anymore. When I listen to Batoh's record I don't apply this criticism because it predates that stuff for me, but it's true -- instead of being excited at the nearly infinite amount of underground psych, I just find it all starting to sound the same and my jaded ears gloss over the nuances that make these records so rewarding. Avoiding that gloss is a major challenge for anyone in these media-saturated times and I try my best, but it's inevitable with the onslaught of effects-pedal guitar/synth ambience continually clutttering my inbox of consciousness. I digress, again, and unfairly so; Kikaokubeshi is a winner and I think these days you can get a CD 2-fer with this and Darkened Sea together -- truly the way to go, if you can't score the wax.

29 September 2009

Masaki Batoh - 'A Ghost From the Darkened Sea' (The Now Sound)

This lovely mini-LP blows away most Ghost recordings, in my opinion, but major gas face to the label for not marking the 45rpm speed anywhere. Because, this opens with a thumping, acoustic cover of Can's 'Yoo Doo Right' with deep, breathy Japanese singing -- and it sounds great at either speed, just more guttural at 33. So it's not until track 2, a cover of Cream's 'World of Pain', that it becomes clear that it's a 45rpm record. Both songs are great reworkings that show the gentler side of Batoh, though there are still very dark winds blowing. 'Sham No Umi' closes the first half with some shimmery beach acousticness, still out there enough to qualify for the psych prize. What I love about these acoustic treatments is how he will subtly accent some chord changes with a spare organ or harmonium note, or perfectly underplayed percussion. The massive wall of sound psychedelic guitar monster stayed home for this one. 'Spooky' opens side 2 and it's not a cover of the Classic IV standard but a steel drum repetition that can't help but make me think of Steve Reich or 60s minimalism. It's cut with some dissonant howling and fades into 'Tuchigumo', the most experimental piece on the record. Here, rubbing and bowing sounds build up into a soundscape, not unlike Nurse With Wound at times but holding back from the balls-out juxtapositions. There are some great reversed sounds in the background but it's not overwhelming. The last track is where you hear the 'hardy gardy' credited on the sleeve, and it's a dense wall of thick drone that lets light in, but only in glimpses. The track, like the whole album, is a gem.

19 September 2009

Béla Bartók - 'Divertimento (for strings)' (Bartók Recording Studio)

Classical records pose a problem, alphabetically. Do I file the record under the name of the composer or the name of the conductor? Despite a lifelong interest in classical music (though one marked with a healthy skepticism towards the nauseating attitudes carried by advocates of the genre), I actually don't have that many records so it's never been a big issue. This is conducted by Tibor Serly, and actually the 'Divertimento' is only half of the record with side 2 filled out by a Gesueldo piece (also conducted by Serly) and a Scarlatti sonata conducted by A. Walter Kramer. Which means, there is neither consistency of composer nor of conductor to make the decision for me. Since the record was issued by Bartok's own in-house label, we have a tiebreaker. This comes on that super thick shellac like 78s are pressed to, and the sleeve claims the record is 'non-breakable'. It sounds pretty good, with 'Divertimento''s lively glissandos sounding like lemon juice splattering across glass. The melody is circular and initially doesn't display the usual Magyar folk jams associated with Bartók. The second movement emerges with this really sweet cello riff that meditates for awhile before the screaming violins and violas burst out, clawing for your heart - but only for a second before they are subsumed. It's the ocean at night, raging to a foggy horizon, with occasional bursts of static and white light cutting through. At moments, the same sense of drama that Mahler's later symphonies have is here, though with a very different sonic palette. The recording is crisp and wide - the differences in volume between the quiet and loud parts are so extreme that it's actually a bit difficult to listen to without intense concentration. The third movement is actually on side two and brings in the typically Bartókian circular folk/dance melodies -- not a bad thing as the bass-like cello plucks sounds great on this old bit of wax and you can't always want Béla in minimal/mystic mode. Still, it doesn't feel like it fits with the first two movements and I wonder how much the physical interruption of flipping the record is responsible for this feeling. I guess it's a thematic tie to the Gesueldo piece, which even though it was written 350 years earlier carries a similar sense of motion. The Scarlatti piece is 'whatever' I guess - total filler but it's easy enough to ignore.

18 September 2009

Syd Barrett - 'The Madcap Laughs and Barrett' (Harvest)

It's nice to have this as a 2-record set with a photo-adorned gatefold. Barrett is such the stuff of myths these days that I find it colours my enjoyment of the music a bit. Sure, it's a great story and it's almost inarguable that Pink Floyd was more interesting with him, but it's hard not to feel like the poor guy was exploited a bit. And listening to The Madcap Laughs has its moments of genuine spookyness, but a lot of proto-twee cute moments that, whether they were Barrett's fault or not, are hard for me to get past now. Among the plethora of depressed, outsider folk that's been unearthed there's certainly been a lot of more fucked up stuff, but Barrett has the mass appeal. I guess cause there's such a strong pop sensibility, plus the connection to a very popular rock band whose posters still adorn the walls of college dorms worldwide. Now, my favorite moments tend towards songs like 'Dark Glove', 'Terrapin' and 'Golden Hair', maybe because I've drowned myself in the outfolk sound recently. But the poppy tunes are great too: 'Here I Go' is an Ayers-like bit of whimsy that I think Barrett pulls off well, but many others maybe would stumble on it. I always thought Robert Wyatt played on this record but Harvest's repackaging doesn't credit him, if that is true. Barrett is a bit more cohesive and rocking, with some great songs ('Waving my arms int he air/I never lied to you' is a quite underrated one, plus 'Wolfpack'), yet I think I'm mostly satisfied by the end of record one. The messed up rhythms that sounded so 'crazy' once are there and I pity the backing band, but it's not reason enough to be excited in a record collection full of hesitations. This set falls into the category of records I'd never consider getting rid of, yet I'll probably never listen to them again. They are trophies, existing only to chronicle some important stage in my past development for my own autobiographical purposes. And, I don't have Spence's Oar so maybe this fills that niche too. When I was 15 I used to dream of meeting a girl who would have a Syd Barrett poster in her room, though instead of James Joyce's 'Golden Hair' she always had black locks in my dreams. Said girl never materialised but I'm sure she's not hard to find (I'm no longer interested). But a girl with a Kenneth Higney poster instead, now that would be a treat!

Bardo Pond - 'Lapsed' (Matador)

It was my freshman year of college and this merging of my two big interests -- Matador-label indie rock and minimalist drone -- seemed irresistable. I remember going to the record store after class and buying this for $8 or maybe $9, which is how much new LPs cost back in 1997. When I got home I discovered a strange, weird smear on side 2- and the shrinkwrap meant it was a factory defect, not the sign of a curious record store owner -- so I emailed Matador. At the time their website was a weird web address like www.matador.recs.com -- actually, that address still works which is pretty weird -- and their customer service rep apologised and offered me a new copy if I would send the old one back. I thought that was pretty nice of them but I never got around to mailing it back. The thing about Lapsed is that I never really got past the first track, so some aberrations on side two were forgivable. Sure, there's some other great jams on here - 'Pick My Brain' has a nice sunny strum-bake;;; 'Anandomiche' is Bardo's great take on 'Til the Morning Comes'. Not to mention the super long closing jam 'Aldrin' which is in some ways the perfect Bardo Pond song, as equally momentous as their big long 'Amen' track on Bufo Alvarius. But it's the opening track here, 'Tommy Gun Angel', that I've worn out on this LP. Not that you can really tell since everything is so murky and fuzzy anyway. Even though I gave this LP the usual once-over with the anti-static brush before playing (and it looked clean), after each side the stylus had scraped a big ball of dust out of the grooves. What a perfect metaphor. Is that a metaphor? But yeah, 'Tommy Gun Angel'. To say this is my favorite Bardo Pond song is an understatement. It actually is the only Bardo Pond song that matters. I used to have Amanita and Bufo Alvarious and some later stuff I think, but I ended up selling them all during some money-hungry purge, because when it came down to it I just wanted to listen to 'Tommy Gun Angel' over and over. This song is huge and thundering, yet concise. It's actually catchy, meaning you are caught in a net you can't escape from; the indistinct, moaning vocals are the perfect counterpart to the snaking guitar riff. It meanders along as probably the world's laziest hook. This is both a pop song and a testament to everything that can be illegible in the world. Maybe they have bettered or bested it, but I have little desire to hear anything else (and that is not a slight upon this band in any way). I saw them live a year or two after this came out and I fidgeted through the whole set waiting to hear 'Tommy Gun Angel'. The sound was terrible (being in some college auditorium) and everything was out of balance, almost like a dub reggae mix. They played it, but it was disappointing. Maybe that was when I sold the other stuff. I saw them a few years later and it was better but by that point I figured I should get over this song. So it's lingered for some years, unplayed until now, and I find that despite my technical appreciation of 'Aldrin's brilliance I'm still hung up on the side-1-track-1. It's nice to know that I can approach art-rock (or artistic rock music at least) with the same attitude of a spoiled Top-40 radio fan, just wanting to hear the hit song. But stop reading this and go hear it yourself.

9 September 2009

Gato Barbieri and Dollar Brand - 'Confluence' (Arista)

For some reason I've always been really unfair towards Arista records, a label that I associate with the bottom of the barrel (weird Lou Reed albums, Barry Manilow, Milli Vanilli). These mid-70's Black Lion/Freedom series releases are generally worth hearing and there are a few gems (this record being one of them, and Braxton kicked out a few killer releases too) but the graphic design and liner notes feel like something the music has to struggle to overcome. This series of duets was actually recorded in Milan during March, 1968 though the record was issued in 1975. With great phrases like "the pianist had rejected apartheid, but not the Christian hymnal" and "Confluence, the flowing together of two or more streams, becomes confluence, the combined stream formed by conjunction" you know you are in for a treat. (The notes were written by Robert Palmer). This record is split between Brand's compositions on side 1 and Barbieri's on side 2. Barbieri's 'To Elsa' is a beast quite unlike In Search of the Mystery, opening with a chunky Brand piano solo and then being followed by a tenor sax solo by Gato - really the opposite of 'confluence', but it's beastly in a brainy way (especially the piano part). Brand's pieces pick a point between traditional spiritual/African folksong and super disjointed avant-jazz stylings, and Barbieri meets him with equally cold Gestalt sax lines. When Brand switches to cello it seems to flow a bit better, but the interruptions and angles are what make the piano/sax duets so good. The final track, 'Eighty First Street', features a piano line lifted straight off Meredith Monk's Dolmen Music. It rolls along with Gato getting back into his pimp-dogg mode before it all comes crumbling down into a pile of melting ice cream.

8 September 2009

Gato Barbieri - 'In Search of the Mystery' (Get Back)

This is an ESP classic from '67 that Get Back lovingly reissued on 'HQ 180 GRAM PURE VIRGIN VINYL' and it sounds great. Barbieri's deep, sexy sax tone resonates with that wide vibrato throughout. It's almost as wide as Ayler's yet it's modulated totally differently. Where you get a guttural energy from Albert, Gato kicks it out no less emotional, yet with totally different emotions. It's hard for me to look at this cover picture and not see something crafty in Gato's expression. So whenever I listen to this, I can't help but think that he'd be the wrong saxophonist to leave your girlfriend with alone, let's say you're at a party together and they're chatting by the keg. I'm sure he's a standup guy in real life but 'In Search of the Mystery' is free jazz's seduction music. The whole of side 1 really burns slowly, like a flickering candle that won't go out. Sirone is on bass (I love his work with the Revolutionary Ensemble); here, he's joined by Calo Scott's cello and there's times when I'm not sure who's doing what. You'd think there'd be some great interplay between the two, and while there are moments (mostly occuring on the second side), they really play second (and third) fiddle to Gato's deep reeds. It's the B-side, with 'Obsession no. 2' and 'Cinematque' that gestures towards more dissonant, grating Braxtonisms (though not too much - there's still something politely accessible about it all). I don't know if he found the mystery but I always want to listen to this in the late hours of the evening. A chillout/comedown record? But fiery as well, just not abrasive in the slightest. Barbieri's later Latin experiments scare me away but he forever gets a pass from me for Escalator Over the Hill and Liberation Music Orchestra, so he kept the right company.

7 September 2009

Band Apart (Crammed Discs)

I don't know much about this band but I bet there's some interesting connection to someone more well-known. Though on a Belgian label, the come from NYC and have that moody, early 80's dance vibe to them (the credits date this as early 1983). 'Jaguar' begins with some off-timed guitar jangle, and the beat comes in suggesting we're in Pylon territory. But 'Jaguar' has a much darker, more melting atmosphere. The vocals are gasped and dramatic, but pulled back in the mix. Everything has a dubby layer of goop overtop and you can tell this band made the most of their time in the studio. It's a brilliant track and a totally worthy leadoff for this 4 song, 45rpm 12" - the kind that should show up in hipster club nights today and bum the kids out. 'Strainer' is a more plodding tune that takes awhile to get going and ends very, very abrupty - like they simply ran out of tape -- but while underway, its a good induction into Band Apart's paramilitary force. The B-side has two more: 'Eve Ryonne' has stars in its eyes and the beat is cranked to the forefront with relentless precision. It is the EP's most "New Wave" moment (beyond the Godard reference in their band name) but there's still some evidence of weird electronic processing in-between the lines. 'Le Mont des des Olives' doubles it's article, perhaps a French-speaking gesture for their Brusselian label. This is the big finale, a churning, accelerating wall of sound that deconstructs 'Baba O'Reilly' through the lens of 'All World Cowboy Romance'. Some jellyfish synths float up into the ether until it's a dreamy, ecstatic potage. A minor forgotten masterpiece of a track? Two absolute winners and two decent stopgaps are why this will always have a place on my shelf. So what else did they produce?

6 September 2009

The Band (Capitol)

History has been kind to the second Band album, giving it one of those nicknames ('the Brown album') that few other records are able to pull off. But what's changed? They're a bit further away from Dylan, with Robbie Robertson taking a much more domineering role (with a writing credit on every song) and the roots-rock sound taking more of a hold. 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' attempts to recaputre the magic (and accessibility) of 'The Weight' and it exceeds it, in my opinion. But the genre stompers like 'Rag Mama Rag' don't do much for me. Again, my copy of this is beat to shit, but that's the way it should be listened to, even if there's an inpenetrable skip during the delicate 'Whispering Pines'. Underneath all the crackles I can hear that the production is first-rate, which is actually one of my favorite aspects of this record. The way the piano resonantes on 'Dixie' and the acoustic guitar creeps out of the mix is perfect - there's a lot of separation, but it still feels natural and organic. I guess the funky 'Up On Cripple Creek' beat out Neil's by at least a year; I like to think of two rafts meeting midway. I like Neil's tune better but this one has porn bass and jaw's harp, so. This is pretty affected music, meaning that these guys had a schtick which you can see in every aspect - the songwriting, the artwork, the clothing they're wearing in the photo, and even the way they sing stuff like 'Jemima Surrender'. And I'm okay with some old-timey throwback vibes - I mean that's why they call this "roots" rock, right? They proved in the basement that they've properly digested the Anthology and I guess I can hear some of Clarence 'Tom' Ashley in 'Jawbone', if I listen hard enough. I suspect this is generally regarded as their best work because it's so much more confident than Big Pink, but I don't hear as much yearning and pain. I think they're trying, but they aren't squeezing out the notes with as much gravitas. Remember, I was raised on slow off-kilter songs and stuff like Palace Brothers, so a song like 'Rockin' Chair' (even though it's pretty awesome) still sounds solid and confident to me. Overall it's admirable that this came out in 1969 but couldn't sound further away from the psychedelic sixties. Maybe this is the American version of The Village Green Preservation Society, but again, these guys are mostly Canadian. How can I ever work out all of these contradictions?!

5 September 2009

Band - 'Music From Big Pink' (Capitol)

So, the canon rears its head. It took me awhile to really get into the Band, cause I always found them "too earthy" back in those dark years where I was more interested in listening to, I dunno, Harriet the Spy -- instead of Big Pink, a record acclaimed by just about everyone in history as being an all-time classic. Of course that's not reason enough to worship it; there's nothing more annoying than the blind recitation of critic pablum and when I finally did start to dig the Band it was through a genuine 'sinking in' of their work into my brainblood. I wonder how much Greil Marcus has to do with all of this, though. I mean, he wrote Invisible Republic and ever since the mythology has been in place. You know, Dylan and the Band, holed up in upstate New York and redefining American music, etc. etc. Except weren't the Band actually Canadian? I could wikipedia that to be sure, but I guess it doesn't matter since Neil is a 'nuck too and he gets a free pass for writing some of the most 'American' music ever ('Out on the Weekend', 'Thrasher', anyone?). To be honest it was almost exactly one year ago that I started to really click with Basement Tapes, meaning the officially released double LP first and not the "real" or "genuine" basement tapes. And hey, raise a glass to the bootleggers cause they deserve to use those titles -- the officially-released Basement Tapes are kind of a fucking joke since the Band went back and faked a bunch of it to raise their stature in history. Of course I think Dylan was probably fine with that, smirking at the muddy mess, figuring if you're gonna release the damn things finally (cause it was about 9 years later, right?) you might as well be half-assed about it. So yeah, about a year ago I was driving around in a car for a few weeks and I only had a few CDs, two of which were Basement Tapes (which will be henceforth referred to without a preceding article to distinguish from the bootlegs). And goddamit, I finally fell in love with it, maybe cause I was visiting the US at the time or maybe because my time had finally come. And I've subsequently checked Invisible Republic out of the library and pushed my way through the whole turgid thing and started digging through the actual basement tapes through many online bootlegs (the best of which I've found is the 4CD set A Tree with Roots), and fuck me, maybe I'm starting to believe it a bit. Which means that Music from Big Pink, which I've always liked more than the self-titled one, has started to really grow on me. I think the earliest Band is my favorite since a few Basement Tapes songs that didn't make it to Big Pink are some of the best ones: 'Bessie Smith', 'Katie's Been Gone'. But I think this is a deservedly great album and I will have to cast my lot with this version of 'Tears of Rage' - even though Dylan wrote the fucking thing, Manuel squeezes every bit of life out of those weird, cryptic lyrics and by the end I actually feel physically drained by it. It's hard to hear all the ghosts of old weird America to the level that the Marcus book would make you expect (and 'The Weight' feels just like classic rock radio/beer commercial music to me) but there's definitely cracks in the woodwork. These young Hawks were definitely going for something and you can hear a lot of pain inside 'Caledonia Mission' ;; 'Long Black Veil' sure doesn't hurt either. But maybe we should blame this album for inventing roots rock and thus the Black Crowes, the H.O.R.D.E. festival, Blues Traveler, etc.? My jury's still out on which version of 'This Wheel's on Fire' is my favorite; ditto for 'I Shall Be Released'. I guess three Dylan compositions was about par for this time (Unhalfbricking?) but these guys get more claim to it since they obviously had the close relationship with him that everyone else dreamt of. My copy of this is beat to shit, with scratches and surface noise galore, and I think that's the only way I want to hear it. I spun a CD reissue that tacked on a 'Katie's Been Gone' demo but it was just too clean for me. Do you think the basement was clean?

1 September 2009

Bachs - 'Out of the Bachs' (Void)

Seventy-six goddam LPs and we've finally made it to the second letter, which is a remarkable feeling. And this relatively recent addition to the Spinal Underbite is one of those "privately-pressed" pysch records that've been all the rage in recent years, and usually are obscure for a reason. But not the Bachs! I don't know what's up with Void records - their website, printed on the jacket, is of the stores.ebay.com domain ... but in the A4 laser-printed liner notes, they claim this is
"hailed as the greatest garage album of all time". Well, I'll take that superlative without any need for salt, cause this record is fucking awesome. See, there's something fragile and slightly inept about it. Certainly, the recording session was led by a person who had never seen magnetic tape before - the record is saturated with phasing problems, a weird echo, and the greatest of rhythmic hesitations (greatest as in historically awesome, not lengthy). And the songwriting, it's not shy nor is it particularly confident. Out of the Bachs sounds a bit like a record made in a parallel dimension. I guess these suburban Chicago kids got quite popular playing school dances and the occasional wedding, and they ended up making enough money to lay down this LP before they went to college (or something like that. I quite enjoy intentionally mangling history sometimes). So this record was made, showcasing the two-lead singer, three-guitars-but-it-ain't-heavy sound through 12 rather bouncy numbers. Yeah, it's the late 1960s and they aren't straying too far from their Nuggetsy roots, but this record contains at least two absolute total classics, coming right in the middle of the listen. 'Minister to a Mind Diseased's lyrics even grace the back cover, as if to say "hey, this song is IMPORTANT!". It's edgy and slightly deranged; there's a funny ebb and flow to this song and it really honestly deserves to be up there with the 'Like a Rolling Stone's and 'A Day in the Life's that Other People are always going on about. But then flip the record and you get 'Tables of Grass Fields', with ringing chords that shine like a Move record held underwater, fighting for air. Plus, a killer tom-tom solo. I have a feeling this record will come in and out of print, in various semi-legitimate 'reissues', til the end of time. And maybe that's best for it - would a big proper deluxe attention-whoring box set (come on people, a Bachs Set!) do justice? Music like this, though they were grasping for some sort of BeatlesKinksWho legitimacy at the time, is forever relegated to the margins. And I'm happy with it there.

28 August 2009

Albert Ayler - 'Nuits de la Fondation Maeght vol. 1' (Shandar)

This is one of the prides of my collection, if I have to look at it as a collection (a habit I all-too-often slip into) -- a mint condition copy of the first ever release on the Shandar label, truly one of the greatest labels of all-time. And the discography page online claims that this recording is Albert Ayler's last ever concert. I don't know if that's true - if so, I'm a bit surprised that the music stays so close to the jazz idiom and away from the fusion rock of his last studio work -- but it's a lovely sounding document, with a very different band from what we heard last (which was four years prior). Cal Cobbs (here listed as Call Cobbs) plays piano and his presence is quite strong. His style of long, elliptical runs suggests that he is definitely the pianist heard on 'Angels', a track from the Live in Greenwich Village discs. Allen Blairman is a bit more rigid than either Sunny Murray or Beaver Harris but he infuses the longer tracks with a momentum that can almost be seen as nervousness. Who knows what was going through Albert's head at this point? He certainly has energy. 'Spirits' has him zigzagging all over the map, switching to soprano at points (I think). Cobbs pretty much sticks to a chordal progression underneath most of the quarter-hour we hear it, and those chords sound like they come from another piece. But by this point, Ayler's compositions have all blended into one another and since the titles are all so similar and repetitive it suggests that he's left us one giant body of work instead of a bunch of individual compositions. I think Ayler peaked around 66/67 with the band we heard on the last two releases - I'm a bit biased towards the violin but also it had a more unique character to it. The Blairman/Steve Tintweiss rhythm section here is more rooted in Sonny Rollins and post-bop styles, and while this gives Ayler a grounding it lacks the utter mindfuckery of the marching-band/Negro spritual style he was doing a few years earlier. I guess that's what is the most disappointing about Ayler's last recordings - not that he tapered in ability or vision, but the folk elements were gone (or at least buried, most likely digested and reassimilated into something else). That's not to say that Nuits de la Fondation Maeght isn't great - it's definitely a great great jazz record, but it's only an average Albert Ayler record. But even though Ayler left us so many documents of his work, it still wasn't enough. 'Holy Family' on side 2 sounds exuberant and joyful, but very much a jazz piece. I guess I miss a trumpet to bounce off Ayler's explorations, and the rhythm section really does hold things down a bit. 'Spirits Rejoice' at the end is a familiar theme made beautiful by Cobbs' twinkling, and it's played fairly straight here, a ballad that continually picks up and breathes life into itself just when it's at the point of expiration. And expiration for Albert's life was to come just a few months after this, so it's nearly impossible to listen to this without some profound feelings, looking to hear symptoms of his troubled life in this version of 'Spirits Rejoice'. I'm not sure that I can actually hear that on this record; in fact, it's the lack of pain on this record that is telltale, if anything.

27 August 2009

Albert Ayler - 'Lörrach/Paris 1966' (Hat)

There are bands and there are great bands and there are bands that literally shred everything that came before them and churn it into some new musical buttersoupmelée and marry that to the some incredible fifth dimensional soundwaves that simultaenously occupy all of time and space and whatever comes after. So here's the Underbite Hyperbolé in action again, because wasn't I saying such great things one or two mere posts ago about the classic Ayler/Peacock/Murray trio? Well yes, that's all well and fine and earthshattering in a certain way, but for me, the band from '66-67 with Don Ayler and Michael Sampson is the one that blows it all apart for me. When you drop the needle on 'Bells', side one track one from the 33rpm Lörrach platter, the air you breathe takes on a shiny new curved dimension and your bones literally throb with excitement and energy. Or at least mine do. Maybe I'm just a sucker for the strings because they give everything a very, I dunno, regal quality, like this is something truly triumphant and celebratory. Or maybe it's that it just took Albert a few more years to explode like this, and the synergy created by his brother is what allowed that to happen - I mean, it's not like Sunny Murray was ever holding anyone back -- but pure freedom isn't what I listen for in Albert Ayler's music. Or maybe it's got something to do with the fidelity of these live recordings - and of the Impulse! discs from Greenwich Village that come next on the CD blog. These recordings are so rich that every note can sing. The moments of utter cacophony are so clear and righteous that even the most conservative jazz listener would have to admit there's something magical there. And the craziest thing of all is that they're mono! (Or maybe that's exactly why). 'Our Prayer' is religious music that'll make anyone melt into a blubbering mess no matter how much you've tried to excommunicate yourself. The 45rpm Paris platter has two versions of 'Ghosts' on one side (though titled in the singular 'Ghost' here, certainly not a foreshadowing of the 1990 Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore vehicle) and even though we've heard this tune few times now we haven't even begun to get sick of it. Each one is different than the last; you could play 'Ghosts' a million times and never tire of finding ways to breathe life into it. The goofy military march at the end of the second version here is a good segue into side D's 'Holy Family', which occasionally breaks down into neoclassical madness with William Folwell and Sampson providing a thick bed of strings for Albert's suddenly aggressive vibrato to rage against. No one ever says that Don Ayler is a great trumpet player and that always gets my hackles up - sure, he lacks the technical ability and versatility of a Lester Bowie, but I don't believe that anyone ever clicked with Albert better. Blood is thicker than water I guess and there's a serious mindmeld that can only come from sharing DNA. You can try to do an analytical breakdown of why this music is so communicative (for example, the tempo slowdowns I think lend a hell of a lot of gravitas to it) but I think that picks apart the moment, which should just be experienced. Or maybe this leads to deification at the expensive of independent thought. If Ayler had lived and made competent-to-passable records into the 90s (like McCoy Tyner or somebody equivalent) would we still hear the magic and fire in this? I say yes, although I realise my own enthusiasm is furthering the myth a bit, but deservedly so if you ask me. The only real question for me is what's better - this record or the Greenwich Village discs? And does it even matter, because I'm lucky enough to be able to listen to both of them, any time I'd like.