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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.