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10 June 2010

Burning Star Core - 'The Very Heart of the World' (Thin Wrist)

Now it's 2004 and we're up to Thin Wrist #G, so things have progressed. These recordings showcase the various band lineups of Burning Star Core, apart from the beautiful opening track, 'Benjamin'. This bit of solo elegy is both minimal and eclectic, focused around a dim drone but accented continuously with the most delicate of grace notes. 'Nyarlathtotep' is the vocal warrior Yeh has become, accentuated with Jeremy Lesniak's percussion. There's an earthy feel to this, with hollow wood block textures that remind me of indigenous Australian music, yet fluid and far-out in the western anti-tradition. When the electronics break in to steal the focus it's a lovely bit of Flavor Flav'ing. 'Catapults' is a 5 minute sample of the Lexington, KY-based backing back featuring Trevor Tremaine, Burning Star Core mainstay Robert Beatty, Sara O'Keefe and Jim McIntyre. Yeh is drumming in a lumbering, traintrack manner, also providing one of two organs which provide the harmonic centre. Clarinet, guitars and percussion run free over this, and while this is once again a snapshot of eternal music, it doesn't leave me desiring change. Especially cause side B's 'Come Back Through Me' is an epic bit of psychedelic sound construction, built around a fairly tonal droneriff. This is the trio lineup with Beatty and Tremaine, and Yeh dabbling about in various different contexts. Beatty's electronics twirl into the darkness, and the riff, while rudimentary, keeps things grounded. Tremaine has shown his jazzhands in the past, but in this case he doesn't lose sight of the ur-pulse (yet still manages to explore and support the others). I've always felt this was the "definitive" Burning Star Core release, though I need to review the more recent release (and hang on readers, cause we will) -- it's split evenly between several different sides of Yeh's output, and shows his interactions with others while never completely giving up the director's chair. This is maybe a bit less 'noisy' than some Burning Star Core can be, but there's a celebration of precision and freedom that sets this apart from it's contemporaries. And as a document of Midwestern experimentalism, you can rank this with the other masters of the geographic region.

9 June 2010

Burning Star Core/Comets on Fire (Yik Yak)

This collaboration between one of the mid-decade's underground stars and an ascendant Burning Star Core lineup of C. Spencer Yeh and Robert Beatty was clearly recorded in one long, fun session and sliced onto vinyl for the listening public to enjoy. The recording quality is a murky, overblown mess which is part of the appeal for Comets on Fire fans, though I must admit that I always prefer my Burning Star Core more Hi-fi'lutin. Side one is all crunch, driven around a raven riff that could be the Son of (Edgar Winter's) 'Frankenstein'. Some press referred to this as Hawkwind-esque, which I can see, though I must admit my knowledge of Hawkwind is surprisingly thin. But this isn't space-rock - it's very grounded, earthy, and and geological. Side two has a more chug-chug feel, revving up into the aggro-boogie that I associate with Comets on Fire, and you also get a little more breathing room for the electronics and (I guess?) violin of Burning Star Core. There also appears to be vocals in there, perhaps a taste of Yeh's predilection for odd-throat soundforms. The drums are thunderous but the midrange is so blown out that you can only really feel the kick and hear the cymbals flittering about. I'm not sure if the recording quality benefits this, because then it becomes some aesthetic statement, or if it compromises it. It runs at such an intense level that there's little dramatic impact, but it's also awesome to follow the piercing electronic tones that cut through everything and whizz and dance around like fireflies.

Burning Star Core - 'Brighter Summer Day' (Thin Wrist)

Has this been ten years already? Thin Wrist catalog #B, a label that does them alphabetically, which will have to fold after release #Z? This is C. Spencer Yeh's first vinyl long-player, with two side-long beasts showcasing the sound construction of his project back in 2000. As elegantly-packaged as LPs come, this is a super thick vinyl pressing that really makes the deep tones ring, particularly on side A's 'A Brighter Summer Day'. This track is immensely powerful, with thick layers of violin constantly combining and recombining microtonally into a bulldozer of sound, simultaneously occupying every available frequency. There are electronics as well, and additional electronics by another player, though it's hard to distinguish what is what. There's a percussive element to these "electronics", sounding like a rollercoaster ripping through the sun. The electronic sense is far more prevalent on the B-side, 'Baybe It Wasn't Meant to Me', a 16 minute set of 'sleep deprivation experiments' performed on a 'computer', of course a catch-all for who knows what source material. We get synthesisers, field recordings, and natural acoustics but heavily processed and constructed in a piecemeal manner. Unlike side A's horizontal vision, this does a few abrupt about-faces, challenging in its internal logic. Circular, maybe, or a spiral that changes direction a few times? An underrated track for sure, and one that certainly feels influenced by Oval as much as Ash Ra Tempel. There's a sealed envelope in here that I never broke the seal on, not that I am typically collector scum but I saw what was inside someone else's (back when this came out) so I never opened mine. Of course, I've forgotten what was in there, and now I don't want to open it cause this is a nine-year old antique LP! As a first LP, I think it's an impressive debut. It certainly suggests both sides of what is to come - side A presages the violin-driven improvised elements (often now performed under his own name) and side B hints at the incredibly constructed, composed soundworlds that populate later LPs like Challenger. If anything, these two sides have become intertwined and indistinguishable.

7 June 2010

Sandy Bull - 'E Pluribus Unum' (Vanguard)

This document of mid-sixties idiomatic string mastery was something I was originally a bit disappointed with, as half of the record follows a 32-bar blues progression. It took me many years to embrace this progression, as I had an aversion to anything that traditionally rooted. Funny thing too, cause my Dad loves the blues, country, delta, proto-rock and otherwise, so I surely felt a ton of these vibrations when I was in the womb. 'No Deposit, No Return' blues is a multitracked composition by Bull, building up on a boom-chick drum part that actually might have been recorded with bass drum and hi-hat on separate takes. The bass drives the blues melody and Bull improvises on electric guitar and oud. The tone on the electric guitar is amazing; it has one of the most shimmering, earthy sounds I've ever heard and overall the whole track buzzes with an incarnate static energy. By the end, the main melody is driven by the oud but he's extemporisin' up a storm in the background on the 'lectric axe, and even the cowbell has come out. Though the instrumental workout here is beautiful, it's really the overall structural arc that is so great about this track. It moves slowly and loops back in on itself, like a dancing flame. It's totally lovely, but side two's "electric blend" frees itself from the blues convention, beginning around a bold electric oud improvisation. It takes awhile to flex its muscles, painting the walls with ringing overtones while it does. Once the familiar boom-chick creeps in, it feels a bit more focused. Over 21 minutes, 'Electric Blend' starts and stops a few times, creating a whirlwind of eastern-tinged echo and tremelo. The bass solos a bit, getting jiggy over a shuddering electric guitar, in one of the piece's more subtle moments. Like side 1, the background starts to get a bit crazy with noisy, low-mixed freakouts. It has that ringing tambura effect but close listen reveals it to sound more like Thurston Moore. Bull, on the back cover, looks like a guy who owns a midwestern gas station, but from listening to this you'd think he was a swami with long white robes and some dog-eared yoga books. Maybe that's part of what appeals to me so much about E Pluribus Unum - two sides, two moods, east meets west and all of that. The fidelity on this record is top-notch as well - a mid 60's pressing, this somehow remained absolutely mint until it ended up in my hands, and almost no surface noise is present. An advertisement for the wonders of vinyl records, this is!

5 June 2010

Bügsküll & the Big White Cloud (Scratch)

This is technically a collaboration with someone named the Big White Cloud, but it's hard to tell what Mr. Cloud actually brings to this that wasn't already in the Bügsküll arsenal (ah, those lovely umlauts have returned again!). This record begins with a driving stadium rock jam called 'Fair Are the Sails' (or at least, if Bügsküll played a stadium). The bedroom electro-psych we've heard emerge over the past few records (and we are missing Distracted Snowflake Volume Two, remember) is now emphasised with a driving 4/4 beat behind it and triumphant, anthemic riffs. The long second track, 'We Understand That', builds up on the thick layers of the opener with a goofy come-and-go electronic beat, and occasional vocal intrusions - a brief processed vocal part that serves as a type of hook, and then some murky megaphone speaking. The speaking continues on side one's brief coda, a plucky metal-tank inhabitor that somehow fits with the back cover text about whales and whatnot. Side two furthers the 'inside' psychedelia, as the layers are quite thick and the notes quite melodic. Whomever the Big White Cloud is, they certainly steer Byrne to a more fun, accessible direction - until the last track, 'Tweedlebug Jamboree', which is perhaps the longest and most out there piece heard on any of these records. There's no tonal center, and it's assembled from bits and pieces - and it's dark. As dark as some of Snakland's bad karma. As the sendoff track for our Bugskull run, it's a good choice, as it somehow encapsulates much (if not everything) that is great about Bugskull. And overall, this album feels like a logical place to go after Distracted Snowflake. It builds on the confidence of that record and the achievements of the early work, but without being repetitive. Mr. Byrne pretty much dropped off the map after this - nine years later, another LP was released, but it dates from the Snowflake period - so maybe this is a swansong not just of my own accumulation but of Bugskull in general.

Bugskull - 'Distracted Snowflake Volume One' (Pop Secret/Darla)

I think this is probably Bugskull's finest moment. It's not quite as messy (sonically) as the last few albums, but boasts a pop confidence not heard ever before. There's a more emphatic approach to the instrumental work as well, as the opening track 'Icecream Daydream' sets the stage, sounding like a looser Yo La Tengo circa Painful. The electronica aspects are much more personal than before; field recordings, affected keyboards and weird synth sequences create songs that are some of the most mystically odd electronic music I've ever heard. 'Goodbye' is like a bizarro Boards of Canada track, every bit as detailed and perfectionist. But it's also got the most song-based side of Bügsküll that we've heard to date. 'Grand Canyon' is a straight-up folk song, somewhat improvised lyrically, with the sound of wind (perhaps recorded at the Canyon itself?) that is deceptively simple; it's nuanced and honest, and a far cry from Crock's soup-maelstrom. And 'Winky's Wild Ride (The Quest)' is the best Bügsküll song ever - with probably the most forward vocal part, and also some magically ascending toneclouds - it's the essence of the sublime. The closer, 'Sun', starts like Charlemagne Palestine on a hot air balloon - warm to the touch, and occasionally flaring up before plateauing into a sophisticated mid-level psych workout. The percussion is Eastern-tinged hand drumming, a nice complement to the hard electro-beats that pepper the other parts of the record. The recording quality is stunning, letting the instruments breathe and find their own space -- but it could also be that over the years, Mr. Byrne has upgraded his equipment somewhat. The liner notes contain a silly/nonsensical story about a garden gnome that I could live without, but it sets a mood I guess, and the album more than delivers. All of these Bugskull records offer something to enjoy, but this one seems to take every aspect of what he does and do it better than the rest.

Bügsküll - 'Crock: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack' (Pop Secret)

For years I thought Crock was a fake movie, since the names from the film credits sound made up (The Surgeon, Steve Sexx Stevens, Slats Grobnik) but the Internet tells me it's a real film. Prescott Sheng maybe didn't turn into the next Jean-Luc Godard, but whatever weirdness Crock was (the stills on the back suggest a wonderfully public-access aesthetic), it sure had a great soundtrack that probed the outer limits of bedroom psychedelia in 1996. Bügsküll (the umlauts are back!) are great for soundtrackin', as the longer instrumental jams first explored on Snakland seem ripe for arthouse cinema. The titles suggest a close affiliation with the film with Pretty Boy and the Lost Patrol being repeating names. 'The Cactus Corps' takes up most of side 1 and it's built over a crooked Casio beat with heavy guitar panning, disembodied affected ghostspeak, and sublimely accessible malevolence. The electronic beats creep in a good bit on 'Pretty Boy's Tent' but guitars, cheap keyboards, and consumer effects pedals beat all here. 'Maggot (heart)s Pretty Boy' is the most vocal we've heard Mr. Bryne in awhile, perhaps intending this to be the hit single. Through the gently plodding song there's bit of sun-starved twang guitar which cuts through those lower mids and opens a prism on things. I suspect this whole record is Byrne solo, a there are even less live drums. The drum programming, as mentioned before on 'Tent', is quite simplistic, almost like retarded proto-breakcore, but so buried in the drones and effects the effect is quite odd. 'The Lost Patrol Return Home' thuds along as an appropriate end-credits track, with a nice placid coda of perfectly placed tones. I realise with Crock how Bügsküll has too short of an attention span to properly "do" minimalist drone, and the results is a richer cornucopia of textures and melodies. Now if only Criterion will get on the DVD release...

4 June 2010

Bugskull - 'Snakland' (Scratch)

For this vinyl long-player, Bugskull (now sans-umlauts, perhaps due to Canadian importation laws, as this is on Vancouver label Scratch) step it up a notch. Things sound cleaner, though not necessarily studio-quality - just with better drum mics. There are crazier layers of psychedelic excess, like frantic synths and more clarity in these excursions, relying on timbre over fuzz. The songwriting feels a bit regressed, or maybe I should say that instead of concentrating on the lyrical side hinted at on Phantasies and Senseitions, there is more development of the musical sketches there. Lyrics are present, though often repetitive chants like 'We are coming' ('From the Skies') instead of personal lyrical material. But this suits the album's overall artwork and presentation - adorned with toys and stuffed animals, Snakland feels like a record that Jeff Koons would have made. There is still a band here, though a 3-piece, and the rhythm section falls into 90s indie swing occasionally. Sean Byrne keeps it interesting with all of the layers, and the buzzing and spurting electronics often give the record the vibe of a haunted Toys R' Us. 'Mind Phaser' is perhaps Snakland's most epic track, sounding like early Mercury Rev if the wordy guy was kept in-check. I'd say this is a 'transitional' album, but that's usually a term for lazy writing. 'Bouncer' certainly points towards the electronica direction they will take, but with a significantly more clubby feel than the mild textures to follow a few albums later (I guess that's why it's called 'Bouncer'). Underneath these beats are some thick My Bloody Valentine guitar smears, like traffic in a city tunnel. Don't blink or you'll miss it. 'Exit Wound', the closing track, is long and meandering, with the wound not far from "Nurse With", if you get my drift. And drift it does, through heavily modulated darkwoods with screaming (yet largely organic) murk behind it.

2 June 2010

Tim Buckley - 'Sefronia' (Discreet/Warner Bros)

About halfway through side one of this record I started wondering why this is in my collection. Then I remembered that the two-part title track, buried near the end of side 2, which is an interesting little suite of melodies that hint of past glories (Blue Afternoon in particular). Maybe. And it begins with something redeemable -- the side 1 track 1 is a Fred Neil song called 'Dolphins' that's pretty great in a country-rock/70's smooth kinda way, sounding a bit like Dennis Wilson or that awesome Donnie and Jo Emerson record. But then two songs later, my throat is trying to cut off oxygen to my brain, or maybe that's just the effect I get from staring at Buckley's tropical button-down shirt on the back cover. And when I start to think I'm just exaggerating, I get to 'Peanut Man' and things are even worse. Buckley's last three records (of which this is the second) are called "sex-funk" records by Wikipedia, but I don't see it. It's not fair to funk, or to sex, to be compared to this music. There are many tunes on Happy Sad, Starsailor and Lorca that are funkier and sexier than this. But maybe I've just always screwed weird people. "Pour another glass of cola and pass it to me / I 'm looking through you, yes I can / I should do you, peanut man" is some of the most erotic poetry ever put to music, indeed. I guess my negativity surrounding this comes from the fact that it follows a truly spellbinding run of innovative music, which I've really enjoyed revisiting, listening to some of them multiple times (technically beyond the Underbite requirements, you know). I can find a few positive notes in 'Martha' , which is influenced by Jimmy Webb and/or John Prine (though actually penned by Tom Waits), a sad slice o' life that finds Buckley holding back his own vocal fire. But 'I Know I'd Recognize Your Face' is so completely fucking terrible that it feels a bit like a parody 70's duet that would be in a comedy sketch. The next round of purges will have to seriously consider the argument that this is worth keeping just for 'Sefronia' and 'Dolphins', and right now I'm leaning heavily against it. It's a sad way to end our minor Buckley gauntlet, but I guess it was a sad way for his career/life to end.

1 June 2010

Tim Buckley - 'Starsailor' (Straight)

His curls are cropped a bit but his voice, inner and outer, is more wild than ever. This is Starsailor, a record where all the planets are in alignment. I know this is considered a groundbreaking avant-garde work, but it's not as insane as it's reputation might lead you to believe. This flips the inside/outside dynamic of Lorca somewhat, with 'Starsailor' (the titular track) providing the furthest foray into drone echo on side 2, and side one having rather "straight" songs that almost perfectly assimilate Buckley's ideas. Overall, Lorca's side one experimentation is the guiding light, but there's a remarkable concision to the way these songs are executed. Albumwide, nothing is longer than 5 and a half minutes, and the rhythmic freedom and meandering tearducts are largely controlled. And the songs are great. In retrospect, his debut album now feels like songs written for a less powerful voice. As Buckley grows into himself, his songwriting steps up to support, like a really fancy office chair that doesn't neglect the lumbars. 'Jungle Fire' synthesizes some of Happy Sad's 'Gypsy Woman' with side two of Lorca, but also allows Buckley to experiment with strange chord changes and voicings. 'Come Here Woman' is a great opener, setting a dark tone but then changing direction whenever it gets easy. 'Monterey' is a smashing riff-driven rocker where Buckley's pushing things with his voice. 'Moulin Rouge' is Buckley's foray into Kevin Ayers territory, with a village band feel carried by Mothers of Invention member Buck Gardner. Because I heard this record a generation or two after it was made, it's sometimes difficult for me to place what was an influence and what has been influenced by, follow? Though of course I can hear bits of Annette Peacock, US Maple, etc, it's really a singular work. Though who's to say that 'Starsailor''s layered fades aren't somewhat attributable to a healthy serving of Otto Luening? Of course we can't leave without talking about 'Song to the Siren', which by this point I should be tired of because of a million teeny mixtapes and This Mortal Coil's overblown (or brilliant, depending on my mood) treatment. But in reality, this is one of the most remarkably beautiful 3 minutes and 20 seconds ever put to wax, combining fragility, distance, depth, spookyness, energy and occlusion into something absolutely perfect. It is inspiring and devastating; it justifies the existence of the chorus effect; it is a raft from which I hope to never wash ashore, because with resolution comes complacency.