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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.