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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.