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31 May 2010

Tim Buckley - 'Lorca' (Elektra)

'Lorca' (the song) has a great descending riff, the evil twin to Floyd's 'Interstellar Overdrive', and it feels amazingly focused, searching towards Buckley's own inner destructive soul. The electric piano steps forth, played by Lee Underwood in the same meandering, noodly style that he showed us on guitar those last few albums, but sounding like small burning solar flares. 'Anonymous Proposition' is the kind of song that exemplifies Lorca though - Buckley's own melody is strong and the band is floundering around him. Forty years of rock deconstruction followed but methinks this is a real stab at musical freedom through folk forms. By the time this gets to the end, it's like we're right back where we started, but we've felt. The rhythm section is what's missing - John Balkan's bass has become a lead instrument and apart from some congas (probably most obviously timekeeping on side two and a bit of 'Lorca', actually), we have a beast of a record. But the voice becomes the centre - the ultimate inversion of rock's rules, so already cast-in-stone by 1970 despite all the manic experimentation of the past few years. But this feels relatively uninfluenced by any of that. 'I Had A Talk With My Woman' has some bonafide pop hooks in it, but it continues the atmosphere set by the first side. Then 'Driftin'' enters the scene, which is slowed down miserable country-blues over a campfire ambience. I think of some of Neil Young's most miserable times on the beach when I hear this one, both in temperament and in Underwood's soloing. It ends with a frantic pace, as Buckley is wailing in his teen idol way but the band is cooking a brutal breakfast. I used to think of Lorca as split between side one's radical explorations and side two's more conventional tunes, or rather, they always seemed more like a continuation of Happy Sad/Blue Afternoon. But this time it sounds much more cohesive than I remembered. It's true that 'Lorca' and 'Anonymous Proposition' are the most radical in form, with 'Lorca' itself introducing some real dark juju. But the second side shouldn't be overlooked, just because it has a more rhythmic center. This is Buckley unleashed, and if you think of all three of these records (including the ones before and after) as coming out of the same sessions, then we really have a remarkably productive period of creativity for any one artist to claim.

30 May 2010

Tim Buckley - 'Blue Afternoon' (Straight)

You can see there's been some gap since the last post, which is attributable to a holiday, but actually I've listened to Blue Afternoon about five times before being able to write about it - twice before the break and thrice since. Blue Afternoon is a 'sleeper' if there ever was one. Somber in tone, the avant-tendencies are stroked a bit further and one can't deny the Astral Weeks fuzz in the windscreen. Or maybe it's like if Happy Sad was just Sad Sad. A gentle guitar strum guides every song, but there's still some noodly bass and piano parts, and the occasional guitar flourish, like when Lee Underwood rips it up on 'So Lonely'. 'The River' is an epic in under six minutes, full of percussive swells, grand scenery and confident pain. 'The Train' takes us closer to 'Gypsy Woman' territory but that opening riffstrum is a classic rock gesture if I've ever heard it. I think the reason many of us are still interested in Tim Buckley in 2010 is just how far he pushed himself over a handful of albums. Things are so fluid here, the songwriting is freeform, there's jazzglue everywhere and its truly genre-defying. But you can go back to find more details every time. The wooly recording quality makes everything feel like it's from another time and of course his tragic death inflates the star. Maybe I've always been a halfassed fan of avant-garde music because it's most powerful to me when it combines some sort of forward-thinking whatthefuck innovation with something human that I can connect to. Pure experimentation can alienate me (sometimes) whereas using musical invention to extend human expression, well, fuck yeah, that has the emotional wallop I want. The crazy jamjazz breakdown about 3/4 through 'The Train' is almost out of place but when Buckley comes back in, wailing and gibberishing over extended dissonant jamming, something blows the hair out of my eyes (and it comes from the stereo speakers, readers). It's a weird contrast with the first half of the album, which are mopey yet beautiful songs, but it somehow feels cyclical, which is why I've listened to this 5 times now. Mine is a promo copy on Straight, with crystal-clear looking vinyl that somehow sounds crackly and dirty - maybe it's just a cheap promo pressing? Supposedly the material from this was recorded at the same time as Lorca and Starsailor's outer explorations so you can appreciate his sense of grouping. And now it's onto those....

12 May 2010

Tim Buckley - 'Happy Sad' (Elektra)

This is overall my fave Tim Buckley record. It's the transitional one, where he's arcing up towards the stratosphere, knees tensed slightly. Or maybe he just heard Astral Weeks and said 'I gotta get some of that." "That" being the sound of pure liquidity; a record of ebbs and flows that bursts free with joyous character and somehow looks ahead to the even more out-there futurism of Lorca, Starsailor and the funky stuff. If you don't believe me, listen to the urban bongo grooves of 'Gypsy Woman', which dominates side B with its dark voodoo. It's partially due to the band really finding its voice, with Lee Underwood's lead guitar going apeshit here and on other tracks; not really being familiar with the in-between album, Goodbye and Hello, I'm not so sure how gradual this change was. It's pure jazz and Buckley lets his voice take a backseat at times, but knows when to let it rip. 'Gypsy Woman cast a spell on me / no mama don't you lie...' rips out like Robert Plant's 'Whole Lotta Love' bullshit, but this anticipates it, and this band rips the head off anything Zep ever did. (Though, can I name a single member of Buckley's backing band without looking at the liner notes? Can anyone?) But 'Gypsy Woman's histrionics belies the true beauty of this record, which is in the gentle rumbling grooves of the calm tracks. And let's not forget to mention David Friedman's vibes, which utterly transform a song like 'Buzzin' Fly' into a transcendent gem. Love is in the air and it's simple but with a biting undercurrent. 'Strange Feelin'' nails this, and it's a hell of a one-two punch with 'Fly', possibly being the greatest one-two punch in the history of rock music where both songs contain trailing apostrophes. 'Love From Room 109' is the difficult beast, which takes on the extended form in a moody workout, recalling the other epic folk jams of its day ('Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' and that song on the first Neil album come to mind) but with a somewhat more watery presence. Maybe this stuff influenced shit like Dave Matthews Band but to my ears it's a magical blend, where everything is just right. There's more contemplative photos of Buckley on the sleeve for the teenyboppers to stare at, though I'd like to know how this went over with the pop kids. While some tracks are certainly accessible, like the straight-up folk beauty of 'Sing a Song for You', this sounds like a band that realises it has no limits. They make not take full advantage of this freedom quite yet, but it's on the horizon.

Tim Buckley (Elektra)

In my reality, the best crooners wear checked jackets and sport turtlenecks, white pants and a whitefro. You throw together Jack Nietzche, Van Dyke Parks and a 19-year old Tim Buckley and you're gonna get something at least interesting, if not earth-shattering. I know this Buckley record the least of his work, or at least as little as I know Goodbye and Hello (because I've never found a copy). But it's solid, though still in the whole 60's singer-songwriter style. About half of the songs are co-written with someone named Beckett (Samuel?) and they are given that warm, soulful production technique that always makes me think "mainstream". Plus, these liner notes are so awesome I'm gonna paste 'em verbatim:
Tim Buckley, an incredibly thin wire, just nineteen-years-old, is already a kind of quintessence of nouvelle, the sensitivity apparent in the very fineness of his features. The man is a study in fragile contrasts: yet everything is in key, precise. His songs are exquisitely controller: quiet, complex mosaics of powerful electric sound, they hold the magic of Japanese water colors. The voice - crisp, full of strength and character, can soar, yet remain tender and delicate. This is Tim Buckley.
This sums it up better than the Underbite could ever hope to say. There's little to jump out at me as this lacks the freedom of his later records, but the strings are dark and mournful and his voice has the sophistication that lends a gravitas to even creepy songs like 'Song Slowly Song' (though singing about a 16 year old girl ain't so bad if you're only 19 yourself, but how old was Beckett)? The melancholia that I love in Buckley is present, but buried a bit - or rather, as he hasn't really come into his own yet, it doesn't feel like his melancholia yet, but a generic sort. In some ways the blurb above feels more like a prediction of his future records than a description of this one - specifically the watercolour thing, which really comes to life once he shakes off steady rhythms and lets things roll. Van Dyke is pretty much just a session musician, though his harpsichord is pretty when you can hear it. Imagine how amazing a full-fledged songwriting collaboration would have been between these two? Move over Smile, cause the one thing I've always wanted from Tim Buckley was for him to be singing cryptic layered word-poems that gesticulate about American landscapes, political discontent and the fleeting inevitability of moments past. Or maybe a Samuel Beckett/VDP/Buckley collaboration would be an even greater rock music what-if jackoff. But yeah, I'm sad to say that this self-titled record gets filed back after this one listen because I'm just psyched to hear Blue Afternoon and Happy Sad again.

10 May 2010

Buckingham Nicks (Polydor)

This gem from '73 is of course overshadowed by the insanely commercially successful records that followed once Lindsay and Stevie joined forces with the rest of FM. FM radio, that is, but the true testament to their longevity is how their best-know tunes have found their way onto AM radio, a cultural pedestal that few artists achieve. But this self-titled Buckingham Nicks LP remains slightly obscure, the Atilla to Fleetwood Mac's solo Billy Joel, if you know what I mean. Of course the band - mostly no names, or I guess session musicians -- lacks the notoriety of the McVies and Fleetwood, but the production helps the material and situates it very much in its time but with some long-lasting appeal (I mean, I'm listening to it now in 2010, and I'm sure I'm not the only one). This is a shiny, bold, loud record and Stevie's voice explodes out of the vinyl on track 1, 'Crying in the Night'. Her vocals are literally brilliant, as in light-emitting, and there's some strong songwriting to back things up. It's impossible for me to listen to this without comparing it to what comes later - there's an earlier version of 'Crystal', sung by Lindsay but penned by Stevie, and 'Without a Leg to Stand On' foreshadows Lindsay's plodding, monotonous and brilliant tunes on Tusk. There's a real tendency towards the Southern/country/roots-rock sound, which you can surmise from Lindsay's moustache. The LA/cocaine sexyness is kept in check despite the hint 'o tit on the sleeve and I can ever hear how 'Lola (My Love)' later turned into 'The Chain'. Stevie's voice is such a true star, but you can imaging how perfect she'da fit into the country genre if the head honchos at the label didn't see the crossover potential. This is certainly her roots, as the LP is dedicated to the grandfather of country music who suspiciously has the surname of 'Nicks'. Whomever heard this and had the idea to pair them with Fleetwood Mac was clearly a visionary, and probably has the bank account to prove it, even to this day. Remember, things were happy then and even the epic 'Frozen Love', the sole joint composition, does little to spoil the honeymoon. 'Hate gave you me for a lover,' and maybe that's a statement of purpose. I don't know. This is pointed in the direction of crossover success in every way, aiming for the widest possible audience. There's the just-country-enough, just-heavy-enough guitar licks that are in every song; the fact that Lindsay sings at all; and even the psychedelic, solarised reverse mirror image back cover for those still coming off the 60s hangover.

2 May 2010

Marion Brown - 'Afternoon of a Georgia Faun' (ECM)

I was in the car with Rob, and I don't remember exactly what kind of car it was - some old late 80's clunker piece of shit, like a Chrysler K car or an old Chevy. Long and boxy, and on it's last legs. We were on the Merrit Parkway in Connecticut, certainly a pleasing stretch of American highway if there ever was one. It was cold outside; maybe snow on the treetops; not the heat-drenched Southern sunshine this record makes me think of. But back then, I had never heard it, and he pulled out a Maxell Type II cassette with Afternoon of a Georgia Faun dubbed onto side A (with some Cerberus Shoal CD on the flip), and threw it in the deck. 'This is like birds playing in a birdbath, splashing around,' he said, and I now know that he is right, but at the time, I couldn't really hear it. Cause when you're going 65 mph in an old car, there's a lot of wind and distractions, and you can't always hear quiet, sparse nuanced music. I could tell that this was a delicate beast, and at the time it reminded me of the early Art Ensemble of Chicago jams - the little instruments and all that. But I honestly couldn't hear it; I could only feel Rob's enthusiasm for what he believed was one of the great forgotten masterpieces of it's era (1970). The car started to overheat so we actually had to wind the windows down and turn the heater on full blast, the logic being that the heat would be drawn out through the dashboard. It worked - we didn't break down, but it rendered 'Afternoon of a Georgia Faun' unlistenable at the time. It didn't matter to me; sometimes a friend's enthusiasm/passion is all it takes to make me a true believer. When I got home I ebayed this and finally got to explore 'Afternoon of a Georgia Faun' in the relative solitude of my own flat. The birdbath analogy has always stayed with me (even if I am remembering the rest of this story incorrectly) particularly because of Jeanne Lee and Gayle Palmoré's soaring voices. Invented instruments, percussive drops, and a genteel sense of spatial exploration make this a true classic. But it's a different thing than the Art Ensemble's explorations - it's the Sea Ensemble that I would probably put this closer to, in the way it breathes and pulses and seeks harmony instead of Dada. Side B's wonderful 'Djinji's Corner' was also a pleasant surprise - continuing the open poetics of the first side, but with a bit more energy, some propulsive snaredrum taps (courtesy of Andrew Cyrille) and maybe a bit of theatrics that are missing from side A. The lineup is great - Braxton is back with us sooner than later on our alphabetical sojourn, though he is really a sideman, despite playing 8 different instruments. I'm not sure which parts are his, Brown's, or Bernie Maupin's, but it doesn't matter at all - it's all a swirling, yet coherent abstraction. It's strange to me how this record is relatively obscure - I mean, it's not a legendary classic, but it probably should be - I've never seen reissues floating around as frequently as Brown's ESP stuff, but I think it towers over many similar approaches to sound organisation . Seek this out if you haven't heard it; it's a beautiful, magical slice of black vinyl.