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28 February 2010

Blues Control - 'Puff' (Woodsist)

Hazy, murky tape ambience with thick layers of keyboard and slowly repeating melodies. The sensation of a music box being run over by a steamroller. And heavy, thick guitar strings reverberating with distortion, delay and echo, chopping through the stasis like a bloody sledgehammer. Puff is five compositions, built, no-doubt, from improvisations; it's a sound-world constructed with blind precision. Rhythms build from tape loops, felt in the distance as the tracks march toward Valhalla. I guess I'm not describing anything too groundbreaking given the utter glut of these practitioners in the past few years, but Puff is truly a high-water mark the whole 'movement'. And movement indeed, for Russ and Lea are masters of brownian motion. This is one to enjoy loud, or with headphones on, because it's so nice to sink into. The five tracks blend into each other and have pretty similar approaches anyway, giving the album and overall thematic cohesion, but the final song, 'Call Collect' is fucking amazing. It's wispy; simultaneously raindrops and black magic, tip-toeing around the stereo field. At times this could pass for some detached German electronica; it's music that somehow trasncends time, as it could have been recorded 30 years ago or 30 years from now. These two used to have another band called Watersports that was similarly amazing at the way they constructed sound. Maybe Watersports just renamed themselves, though Blues Control have less of a focus on environmental recordings so maybe it's a distinctly different project with the same lineup. Regardless of their moniker, I think these two are incredibly underrated, and I think Puff is one of those records that people will still be listening to in 15-20 years. Which is more permanence that most of us could ever hope for.

10 February 2010

Blue Öyster Cult - 'Secret Treaties' (Columbia)

Things really come together on this third album, where the BÖC integrates a lot more pop hookery yet somehow doesn't compromise their dark rock edge. And drummer Albert Bouchard takes the mic a few times, on the incredibly goofy 'Dominance and Submission' and 'Cagey Cretins'. But how about the opening cut, released as a single, 'Career of Evil'? A Patti Smith-penned bit of rock mythology that is absolutely ridiculous at times ('I'd like to do it your daughter on a dirt road'!) but magically awesome at the same time. I dig the weird keyboards and minor keys that hint at Eastern mysticism and the usual fake occult shtick these guys piled on. I assume most of that is Sandy Pearlman? Has a band of decent artistic quality ever been so dominated by their manager? He formed the band, named and renamed them (Soft White Underbelly, anyone?), produced their albums and wrote a ton of their lyrics. Though who can blame him? When left on their own, these kids come up with stuff like 'Harvester of Eyes', a tune which is saved by it's heavy half-time coda with scat singing on top. The fascist imagery that I mentioned when I reviewed their first album pops up a bit more overtly here, with the cover photograph and song 'ME 262' about a German warplane. But all of this imagery is just flirting. I'd love to get all of the weird background vocals (including the spoken bits on 'Dominance and Submission') and do a silly mash-up, but I guess SNL already exploited BÖC-themed comedy. We leave the cult here, as the Encourager Template dips no deeper into their catalogue, but if you wanna really bum yourself out, seek out Espers' butchering of the (originally sublime) 'Flaming Telepaths'. Oh, this time they thanked a guy who runs a T-shirt company, while on the last album they thanked someone from 'The Leather Man'. Maybe this is the short-sleeve polyester blend to Tyranny and Mutation's leather look.

The Blue Öyster Cult - 'Tyranny and Mutation' (Columbia)

Gawlik's awesome artwork has taken on a new alien dimension here, accentuated by two pink moons (though this predates Dhalgren). Architecture is still the focal point of his drawing, but architecture perhaps without purpose, unlike the songs themselves. Things crunch a little harder here and any remaining psychedelia from the Stalk-Forrest hangover is almost totally jettisoned (though I can still hear a bit on 'Teen Archer'). 'The Red and the Black' is a great tune for testing out new stereo equipment, cause the louder you play it the more shaking and stirring you can here. It's crazy that such a fiery bit of boogie-rock is actually about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and not Stendhal. This is the one the Minutemen covered, and they probably called Eric Bloom "E. Bloom" in 'History Lesson, pt 2' because of the way all monikers are abbreviated here. I would probably call this my favorite BÖC record, though it doesn't have anything resembling a hit or even a radio staple. '7 Screaming Diz-busters' more than makes up for that, on a balancing act between dark vibe rock and proto-metal. 'Baby Ice Dog', penned by Patti Smith, is maybe my least favorite song - I prefer the evil Ren-faire tinges on stuff like 'Mistress of the Salmon Salt (Quicktime Girl)'. Seriously, could anyone come up with better song titles? Well, 'OD'd on Life Itself' and 'Hot Rails to Hell' sound like something from a Saxon record, but they're good stompers as well. I feel like The Blue Öyster Cult (note the addition of the definite article!) took a step away from accessibility here and really made their masterpiece, though it's got such a strange/goofy dichotomy going on that I still don't completely grok it. To go back to the artwork one last time - the back cover reminds me of that crazy acid-burned Nintendo game, 3D Worldrunner; this is a pretty good soundtrack to crash into those columns, though I don't know if any powerups will pop out.

8 February 2010

Blue Öyster Cult (Columbia)

I love staring into the three point perspective of this album cover. The way everything tapers into the fake occult symbol, recalling question mark, crucifix and swastika - the three most essential symbols of humanity right? And the strangely repetitive geometric architecture, mirrored on the back by a set of railroad tracks. If I were Greil Marcus or some other great pontificator I could probably draw allusions to 'Mystery Train' or the underground railroad or something, but really I just see this as motion. This is a band with an idea, with direction, and yet there's something vaguely sinister about it all. Opening up your debut album with a song about Altamont certainly makes it clear which of rock's spiritual forces you intend to draw on; what I also think BOC's whole shtick suggests (at least early on) is some sort of fascistic undertone to rock and roll. After all, something can light 'Cities on Flame' and you can burn down the Reichstag too. Or maybe that's just what I think when I see umlauts. If you actually pronounce the Ö, well, it sounds fucking stupid so that was obviously mean to look cool, but not sound cool. The music, well, it's awesome riffage from start to finish, with a few weird stylistic bumps that shows these guys haven't found their footing yet. 'Redeemed' has an edge of Vegas crooner to it, and 'She's as Beautiful as a Foot', while great, feels more akin to Christian cult-rock, the type that's been the reissue rage lately. Thank Richard Meltzer for that. This is a somewhat manufactured band though, and the vaguely fascistic imagery I think also suggests a less individualist approach to rock music than the classic big names of the Stones, the Who, etc. None of these guys ever becamse a household name, right? Even after they landed a few hit songs years down the road, knowing the name of Joe Bouchard is more likely to win you a pub quiz than a spot in typical 'rock' conversation. Eric Bloom sings on almost every song with this weird raspy echo behind his voice, and the guitars all have a pretty similar crunch at least until side 2. Keyboards are there, ocasionally in a Doorsy way ('Before the Kiss, a Redcap') but usually felt not heard. And the album in general feels like an album. This is AOR, after all, a term that probably didn't exist yet by this point but here's a record to lead you to it. I remembered 'Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll' being a much better song than it actually is, but I totally forgot about the greatness of 'Workshop of the Telescopes'. True story - when I was really young, like 12, there was something that made me uncomfortable about the idea of this band and I hoped I would never actually hear them. Years later I found the first three albums all at once and I've never regretted that purchase, not even once. Rock music plus theatrics can walk a thin line but these guys are all hints and suggestions, and they deliver the goods as a band too. It's weird how they are sorta manufactured -- what's the 00s equivalent, the Strokes?

1 February 2010

Paul Bley - 'Open, to love' (ECM)

Paul Bley has made a few solo piano records and I admit that they are a guilty pleasure of mine. Though this is the only one I actually own, I would not pass up another were I to stumble across it at a fleamarket, swap meet, or secondhand record store. You see, I used to tinkle the ol' ivories myself a bit, back in the day, and I maintain a real soft spot for that instrument. I started playing piano when I was 7. Actually, I went to a Suzuki lesson when I was even younger but that didn't work. The teacher drew a smiley face on middle C; I was in a class with about 40 other students and we all took turns going up and playing middle C once. No thanks, mom! I said on the drive home and that was that; I later started studying with a an old nun named Sister Bernadette and you can be sure that was the "traditional" method. Anyway, I bring all of this up now because after 8 or 9 years of piano lessons I could just about bash my way through Rachmaninoff's 'Prelude in C# Minor', but when it came to actually playing something interesting or evocative, sorry, no way. Thus my interest in solo piano records by people like Bley, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Cecil Taylor. Additionally, I just love the way solo piano sounds on vinyl - when you can really crank it up and hear all sorts of air in the room, and the highs just scream out of my Ortofon cartridge. Now, Bley in particular is the other end of the spectrum from Taylor; he's slow, sparse, and a major bummer. This is downer music of the highest variety. It's hard to imagine that you could want to slit your wrists by listening to a guy play piano for 40 minutes, particularly in that abstract ECM way, but give this a listen if you don't believe me. Even when he gets into more rolling songforms like 'Ida Lupino', there's just enough hesitation to inflict some real soulpain. This track is a killer because of the way he accents the tune - it's definitely got the depressed lounge feel (more than any of the others on here) which you can thank his ex-wife Carla for cause she wrote it - but Paul's grace notes and embellishments are what makes this track so amazing. Well, that and I think I can hear him humming as he plays, Glenn Gould style. Three of these tracks are written by his ex-wife and two by Annette Peacock; however, he makes it all his own. The title of the album and track 'Open, to love' emphasises the isolation felt here - a divorced man, playing piano alone in a room in Norway. You can only imagine the Helvetica font and Scandinavian design to maximise the cultural stereotypes we have about these things. I listen to this record when I want a downer, sure, but it's not angry or bitter bad vibes at all. Instead, it's music of resignation. Insecurity, trepidation, and fear also play a part. Bley doesn't try to impress by playing fast or dazzling you with crazy tone clusters, cause I guess he did all that on his 60's records. This is more like the Steely Dan of avant-jazz; an older, calculated performance inspired by disappointment instead of energy.

Carla Bley Band - 'European Tour 1977' (Watt)

I've listened to this one about four times in a row now, hestitating to jot down these thoughts for some reason. There's nothing controversial about European Tour 1977, yet it's the only other Carla Bley record I own which means I will be leaving her work after this record... at least until the great Liberation Music Orchestra album which I have filed under H for Haden. So I'm savouring it somewhat. I think Bley is one of the most underrated of American composers. There's a liveliness here, cause it's a strong band (Andrew Cyrille and Hugh Hopper as a rhythm section, Michael Mantler, Terry Adams, Elton Dean as lead alto, etc.) and Bley's compositions are quite exuberant. She's actually rather uncompromising, despite the (relative) accessibility of her work. When separated from Paul Haines' lyrics, the pieces take on a much more freewheeling vibe. This manages to walk the ede of jazz and fusion pretty well - Dean and Hopper certainly give it that edge (plus the electric bass in general) but side two in particular has a more jazzy feel to it. 'Drinking Music' is named probably due to it's swerving, elliptical melodies. One can imagine these guys in some Bavarian beerhall during the recording of this. European melodies are all over Mantler's trumpet lines, which scream like a drunken toreador. But if you're thinking this record is going all Eurotrash, the closer, 'Spangled Banner Minor and Other Patriotic Songs' will dispel that. This is the avant-jazz deconstruction of 'The Star-Spangled Banner', and, you know, I think it gives Hendrix's version a run for the money. This track in particular does it for me, not that I really love these melodies in their original form but because I'm a sucker for big band jazz with large, strident melody lines. Ten people is big enough for me, and no one overplays. The middle movement of this slows to a crawl before building up around a piano arpeggio and sputtering towards its climax. I have a real tendency to associate good music with left-wing politics, and particularly to look for minor key themes in conjunction with overtly American imagery (such as John Fahey's America album). It's certainly easy to think "this music mourns the decline of morality in an empire" (or something like that) and I fear that this post may opt for that easy critical eye. But I also know what it's like to be an American in Europe, struggling with the conflicts of identity politics in a strange, chunky sea. And perhaps the American members of the Carla Bley Band in '77 were feeling that too - for me, I think it would come out sounding something like this, at least if I were a large jazz ensemble. But back to the music: I don't think there are any parts of this record that are completely improvised; in fact, most of side 1 feels tightly wound (and beautifully languid at the same time). Bley's organ blasts some funky clouds, especially when over the more rock parts -- perhaps this is something she developed in the Escalator days w/McLaughlin and Bruce. If so, they were great help because she's mastered the balance, at it all feels so seamless.