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30 September 2010

Camper Van Beethoven - 'Vampire Can Mating Oven' (Pitch-A-Tent/Rough Trade)

Wonderful title aside, I don't really rank Vampire Can Mating Oven among the essential Camper Van Beethoven releases. For one thing, the 1993 CD Camper Vantiquities contains the entirety of it, but enhanced with a bunch of awesome bonus tracks that I only vaguely remember because I lost my dub of Vantiquities years ago ('Porpoise Mouth', 'I'm Not Like Everybody Else' and especially 'Crossing Over'). The six songs that were released as this stopgap, pre-major label EP are all kinda throwaway, with maybe the exeception of 'Seven Languages', a crunchy, waka-chika guitar-tune. What's left? 'Heart', which is 'Border Ska' with lyrics, a version of 'Never Go Back' previewing what ends up on OBRS, an old pre-CVB song called 'Ice Cream Everyday', a dark instrumental called 'Processional' and a Ringo Starr cover ('Photograph'). 'Photograph' has its charms, sure, and I guess 'Processional' starts with a pretty cold set of layered melting voices. It's sort of interesting to hear the new wave influence of 'Ice Cream Everyday', but this was long before Dave Lowery found his voice. Of course, filler EPs are filler EPs, and since there can't be too many people clamoring for a vinyl issue of Vantiquities, this will have to do. And the liner notes are hilarious, as to be expected -- particularly the joke about mistranslating 'Heart' as 'Chest' in Serbo-Croat.

Camper Van Beethoven (Pitch-A-Tent/Rough Trade)

You'd think by the psychedelic cover and classic-style riffings that these boys are outing themselves as neo-hippies for the third album. I mean, they're noticing Jerry's daughter (and using a firstname basis with Mr. Garcia) and soon they'll probably start hanging out with Poi Dog Pondering if they're not careful. But flip it over and look at the amateurish scrawl of the Bic pen, and it all makes sense. The target of Lowery's seemingly endless bucket of bile is just being refocused - except it's not endless, it's pretty much the last gasp before major-label recognition and Dennis Herring production. So the sixties return with a vengeance (like herpes), though actually there's so many Led Zeppelin references here maybe we should include the 70s as well. Of course these guys are deconstructing retro/revivalism in their usual way and why not? As long as that shadow is going to loom over rock music, it's fair game. 'Good Guys and Bad Guys' was one of the iconic CVB tunes for this teenager, but now it sounds just a bit too trite for me. Though the triumphant keyboard/violin part and feelgood lyrics are certainly delivered with tongue embedded firmly in cheek, I think their edge is gone. Political satire works best when you don't dig too deeply, or maybe that's the point. I still love this third album, just in different ways, and largely due to the more progressive and experimental edges on the surrealism. Case in point - 'The History of Utah'. Yeah, it's inherently as nonsensical as any of the Telephone Free jams, but with a relentless minor-key sawing and bizarre song structure. 'We Love You' is the best version of 'Devil Went Down to Georgia' I've ever heard, and 'Shut Us Down' continues their "last song on the album" style - simple, anthemic, and self-mocking. Some of the instrumentals are a bit tempered - the cover of 'Interstellar Overdrive' notwithstanding that this heretic believes to surpass the original - there's more of a tendency towards folk and country exaggerations, and why not? Eugene Chadbourne is billed as a full band member here and if you listen to 'Hoe Yourself Down' you'll hear why. But 'Stairway to Heavan (sic)' is a dysfunctional, overstudio'd fuckup of 'Mao Reminisces' and it's kind of awesome. If you want to hear beautiful songwriting you're going to have to wait, cause apart from maybe the beautiful (perhaps misplaced?) 'Folly' and 'Une Fois' (which is brief and unintelligible), the lyrics are staying distinctly distanced from human emotions. Jonathan Segel's 'Still Wishing to Course' is maybe the exception, but it's a bit of a dud, which would have been better suited to his Storytelling solo album. 'Peace + Love' is also a winner, though it's really the CVB version of 'The Murder Mystery' (or 'The Gift') with Victor Krummenacher (I think) narrating this dark tale. But I always like experiments like this, and there's some great backwards guitar soloing here that I assume are Mr. Chadbourne in action. There are times when I forget that this is supposed to be a rock band, and this is the album that most reminds me of that. But maybe I want CVB to be something else?

Camper Van Beethoven - 'II & III' (Pitch-A-Tent)

This is where early Camper peaks, as I said in the last post - the dark/psych edge is much more pronounced, but it's no less eclectic. And there's lots of short songs, the way I like it. Let's talk about the instrumentals first - 'Abundance' opens up and it's to me, the signature violin-driven Jonathan Segel piece in the CVB repetoire. I don't know why this one jumps out as me as being so much better than we heard on Telephone Free, except for maybe the weird melting violin solo/bridge. And 'Turtlehead' is a a bit of Sun City Girls-styled spazz-core with another elliptical, middle-Eastern style breakdown in the middle. '4 Year Plan' reprises the ska-style rhythm guitar heard a few times on the last album, but with a very bright crisp recording. Though this record was recorded in multiple studio sessions and with no consistent drummer, it sounds really cohesive - and I guess if Telephone Free was the culmination of a zillion early lineups with twenty different members, II & III is at least a step closer to solid. 'Dust Pan' and 'ZZ Top Goes to Egypt' are beautifully evocative for being brief rock instrumentals,and while 'Circles' may not be strictly instrumental (with backwards singing, a trick they'll employ again on the third album), it's a winner. Now, vocally, Lowery is certainly continuing the witty goofball lyrics, but there's less of a focus on taking the piss out of the punk underground and maybe he's turning his lens towards a more worldly focus. 'No More Bullshit' ends the record wryly commenting 'No more MTV/No more rock stars' before embarking on an epic instrumental jam, worthy of the greatest guitar gods. And sure, there's some chuckles throughout just about every song. I place the misanthropy of 'Don't Go To Goleta' somehow above the nonsense of 'The Day that Lassie Went to the Moon'. Few others would probably make such a distinction, but the fine line of humour in music is tred as carefully as possible to the dark side here, and it never goes over. 'Gonna dress and act like Lou Reed' (in 'Down and Out') is an astute cultural observation here. And the mock-aggression of 'We're a Bad Trip' is absolutely classic status here. (Nerd alert - this copy has the slow version of that tune, which means (I guess) that this is the first pressing, and also I think that Crispy Dersen doesn't play on my copy at all). What a great song, and I prefer it slow - you can hear the pulsing keyboards better, and the descending guitar solo has a bit more breathing room, and no one has ever put the word 'hors d'oeuvres' into a song so well (Roy Harper may have titled a song as such but balked on the actual lyrics). But let's commend the move away from the ha-ha: 'Sad Lovers Waltz' is a CVB classic, and still moving because of it's naivete and amateurishness. One step for anger and one step for pain, indeed. 'Sometimes' is the ultimate Paisley renaissance piece, buried in hesitation and honesty, and arranged with the perfect hazyness. But my absolute favourite track of this album, and probably the most underrated tune in the entire CVB canon, is 'Form Another Stone'. I think it's overlooked because it's buried at the end of this album, which is probably the least well-known of their work, and lacks the ha-ha punchline or the obvious pop hook. But this is a fireball of a track, and one that I will continually cite as inspiration for my young guitar-addled brain. Jonathan Segel's 'Chain of Circumstance' isn't half-bad either. The simple duotone cover and general low-budget feel of this record is another thing that I find amazing -- it's weird that this came after their big hit ('Skinheads') and that they self-released it, but looking at it as a finished product, it's a magnificent statement. If I had come across this LP when I was 14 (instead of a dubbed cassette version, which is what I subsisted on for years until eBay came around) I would have been blown away, because this would have represented everything I dreamt of about "the underground". Hindsight shows this to be far from obscure or difficult, but that doesn't diminish it's greatness in the slightest.

26 September 2010

Camper Van Beethoven - 'Telephone Free Landslide Victory' (Independent Projects)

Telephone Free Landslide Victory is a great way to open up the Camper Van Beethoven section of this vinyl accumulation, particularly this original pressing on Independent Projects (number 824 out of 125), which is adorned absolutely beautiful screenprinted artwork. And this is the way the album should be heard -- not that 2004 CD reissue that they screwed up the sequencing on! The Camper Van Beethoven conundrum is pretty much laid out here both visually and musically. The screenprinting is aesthetically elegeant, but with a jarring dayglo orange ink juxtaposed against the muted earthen tones underneath. Likewise, Dave Lowery's bitingly droll songs are a bit confusing when juxtaposed with the instrumental ethnicky Morricone-kinda sounds that fill up more than half of this album. It integrates to me, in my brain, but I've been listening to this album for over 15 years. You gotta understand how appealing this was to me as a teenager - humour, pop hooks, and attitude with musical chops and open-mindedness. And most people never hear anything beyond 'Take the Skinheads Bowling' and 'Wasted', but that's fine, cause those are pretty killer jams. I of course went the wrong way 'round and heard the CVB version before the Black Flag original, so I was less impressed by Jonathan Segel's perfect rendering of Ginn's guitar solo than I should have been. It wasn't until years later after getting into psychedelic music, both dark and bright, that I realised how excellent early CVB is at rejoicing in psychedelic forms. Though this emerges more on the (superior, in my opinion) II & III, listening to 'Oh No!' is a good start. The instrumentals are bouncy and confident, with Chris Molla's guitar leads or Segel's keyboards often interacting in a way that is demonstratively brash. 'Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China' is maybe their most-loved instrumental tune, which is why it stayed constant in their setlists all the way to the present day, and why not? It's a great song, one that I tried to play violin along to back when I was learning violin. '9 of Disks' has searing, minor key voicings and a weird, spooky ambience that makes it another enduring classic. 'Skinhead Stomp' blends perfectly into 'Tina', the aburdist folkform reduction complete with goofball singing. It's a trace of Sun City Girls though I guess they probably weren't orbiting each other yet. The story is that these was a ragtag bunch of musical prankster college kids, inhabiting the same cultural space as Black Flag and whatnot, but quickly pushing against the limitations of that culture and extending their middle finger through musical iconoclasm. I don't think that's untrue, but I think there's more to iconoclasm than just having funny lyrics that reference kicker boots and the Circle Jerks. 'Payed Vacation - Greece' might be more of an F.U. than anything else, but were they aware of this at the time? When viewed as a whole career, one narrative in the Camper Van Beethoven story is the emerging confidence of D. Lowery as a brilliant expressive songwriter. On Telephone Free, he's still hiding behind a smirk the whole time. Though 'Take the Skinheads Bowling' was a college radio hit not just because it was funny and nonsensical, but because it is a brilliant pop song. I still get insanely happy when I hear it, and I've heard it a million times. Look, I love this stuff far more than I should (and I know far more about this band that most people would even care). It's true that I'd take Key Lime Pie's 'June' over 'Where the Hell is Bill?' 10 times out of 10, but that doesn't mean I don't have soft spot in my heart for this. And 'The Ambiguity Song' should get mentioned here since it didn't elsewhere -- I fell asleep to the (original) CD of this album one night in 1996 -- my CD player was screwed up and that song looped all night long, which probably explains a lot about my mental state today. I had a dream, it was about nothing!

25 September 2010

Neil Campbell - 'These Premises Are No Longer Bugged' (Giardia/Fusetron)

One's gotta think that this must count as 'early' N. Campbell by now, with these recordings made almost 15 years ago. Though maybe 'early mid-period' is more accurate, for Vibracathedral Orchestra was just an embryonic idea then, though we hear a preview of N. Campbell's interest in layers and tonal harmonic convergence here that would later soar majestically through said Orchestra. And his post-VCO career has been noteworthy as well, but what else can you expect from such a one-man musical force? 'Change login zeds' opens up These Premises Are No Longer Bugged with a mess of dissonant tones and bowing, with far too much surface noise on my copy to hear any bits of beauty. It's midway between the A-Band clang and the ur-drone he will later purvey, but the aesthetic is clear enough. And like all of the best Leedsian ecstatic drone slices, it begins after it's already started, or at least what we hear - a tape splice is the gateway. We're spliced into the significantly darker 'Clump' which has some murmuring gongs underneath a scratchy violin interplay, a far more malevolent track than we heard before. It's long, and it doesn't so much settle down as take it's intensity to a realm that redefines normal. By the end, the moaning seaship drones and feedback feel comforting, and the anarchic top layer becomes irrelevant flostam underneath the warmth and clatter. 'Guitar trio 5/4/97' is the most aggressive barrage of guitar noise that I've ever heard from N. Campbell, though it's brief and soon followed by Side 1's sunset 'Monument Irvine'. The nutty thing about this record is the vocal-driven Phil Spector tune, 'Why Don't They Let Us Fall in Love?' at the beginning of the flipside. It's hard to tell how earnest the singing is, as there's something a tad tossed-off about the 'yeah yeah yeah yeah' , but the melody is sweet, and the atonal scratching strings work well with cheap keyboards and bells - it's a pretty piece of fractured psychedelia in Neil's hands, and definitely a hidden gem in his catalogue. The tune extends out into a long bit of minimal repetition not unlike early Richard Youngs solo pieces (Advent and especially Festival come to mind). The rest of the album is the title track. This is another searing slice of horizontal sound, brash with energy and metallic in texture. The volume is significantly louder, enough to bury the surface noise on this lousy pressing, and there's a few currents that tease my ears more than others. A sense of motion never ends, and it's again an immense maelstrom to come out of just one soul. There's overdubs galore on this album, cause this is a true solo effort, though he fakes it well, as it really feels like a group of like-minded tranceheads. I'd like to make some grand analogy about the rise of Tony Blair and New Labour, and these being the sound of changing Britain led by a star in the North. But the reality is, I hear none of that here - like most of the greatest work of these Northern no-goodniks, it's timeless and universal.

23 September 2010

Camberwell Now - 'The Ghost Trade' (Ink)

This is the second time I've journeyed through these six songs in the past week (see the Glass Mastered Cinderblock review of the discography CD) but I ain't complaining. I love owning this on vinyl even though the sound gets noticeably muffled towards the end of each side -- my turntable suddenly out of alignment or a bad mastering job? I rarely prefer the sound of a CD but this might be one case where the LP fails. It's most audible in 'Wheat Futures', where the sibilance of Hayward's croaking is a bit too piercing. I thought vinyl was supposed to have better low-end? Maybe Ink Records didn't have much of a budget for a mastering engineer. Actually the real reason is that I tend to jump around to the faster, more aggressive parts of this album, and when I have the turntable going, it skips when I hit the floor. What haven't I already said? Did I rave about the kazoo part in 'The Ghost Trade'? This is one part where the dirty vinyl sound is preferable, cause who doesn't like a fuzzy kazoo? There's some tape manipulations transitioning from the kazoo breakdown into the xylophone coda and it's just the right amount of damage to lay over a tune without totally disrupting the flow. But it all comes back to 'Working Nights', where the bassline is like a woodpecker beating against a shopping mall made of granite. The power of the songwriting here is the way the speeds shift; Camberwell Now mastered this "suddenly, we'll shift from warp speed to half-speed" thing, in a way that This Heat never managed. But the art-rocker in me loves everything, as there's traces of the magnificent 70s all over this mid-80s masterpiece. The harmonised voices in 'Sitcom' are a good example of this. Camberwell Now are like "secret" prog-rock -- they took things forward somehow and it's marvelously accessible. I've grown accustomed to 'Greenfingers' following on my All's Well CD, so when 'The Ghost Trade' ends with a melting, shimmering wall of keyboard clouds and some faint murmurs of free improv underneath, it feels like a million years of silence are about to begin. But that's why it's nice to have on vinyl, cause you can flip it over!

22 September 2010

John Cale - 'Fear' (Island)

Here's at least one detail to love about every track of Fear: 1. Manzanera's crunchy, slightly palm-muted guitar part during the first verse of 'Fear is a Man's Best Friend'. 2. The pause, the hesitation just before the vocals start in on 'Buffalo Ballet' (but really, everything about 'Buffalo Ballet' - Cale's greatest power ballad, and one that really captures the sense of openness and wonder about his adopted home). 3. The wow and flutter of 'Barracuda', which I guess means the way it wobbles despite the confident rhythmic motion. Maybe it's the static around the bass guitar or the carnivalesque keyboards (are they Eno or Cale?) but it makes this a fun track to play loud when DJing. 4. 'Emily's organ textures, which provide a churchlike, apostolic earnestness behind Cale's emo lyrics and Eno's sweeps of white noise, particularly during the second verse. 5. In 'Ship of Fools', Cale sings 'There was something in the air that made us kind of weary', but his voice trails off at the end, cause, well, he's weary right? But I would be too if I was sailing all around the Welsh coast with these dudes. 6. The monotony of 'Gun', which when it ascends to its chorus, feels like the haymaker after you've already been peppered with jabs. 7. 'The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy', which was for some reason released as a single, has all manners of perversions, but Cale's hard-G pronunciation of 'orgy' is the biggest, outranking Judy Nylon's sultry breaths. 8. When the female backing singers (credited simply as 'Girls' on the sleeve) enter 'You Know More Than I Know'. They change the song -- no longer a reflective complement to 'Buffalo Ballet', it turns into something more exuberant, and tinged with gospel fringers. 9. Well, all the slide guitars, of course, on 'Momamma Scuba', though given the presence of Richard Thompson with Manzanera, I find this track rather disappointing. Overall, side two starts to drag, but this is the Island album I enjoy the most from Cale and the only one I've bothered to own over the years. It's a pretty fantastic 1-2-3 punch and 'Fear is a Man's Best Friend' should be at every karaoke bar on this planet.

17 September 2010

John Cale - 'Paris 1919' (Reprise)

Classic time! Paris 1919 is without a doubt my favourite John Cale solo work, and my particular copy is decrepit and moldy, with visible ringwear on the cover and a cut corner, indicating a promo bin/discount from some point in its timeline. This suits the record perfectly, for while there are some grand, bold arrangements here (if viewed as a rock album -- if viewed as orchestral pop, it sounds tiny), it's also self-consciously a product out of time, a displaced object bathed in sentimental memories and old dust-rust. The photos of Cale in his impecable white suit all bear the "last known photograph" effect, a compromise on his purity. And likewise, the sound is filled out with organs and the molasses of lower-mids. Listen to 'The Endless Plain of Fortune' if you don't believe me - it's a tune that trudges along, pushing forward through it's own cellos and violas, unable to reach the end. There's not much looking back to the strum-und-drang of the Velvet Underground on Paris 1919, or even the piano pounding ofChurch of Anthrax. When 'Macbeth' enhances the energy at the end of side 1, it still fits within this cohesive framework of the whole, and it's just a blast of fun, turning rowdy and cacophonous at the end. But dark clouds are pretty much absent here, though I would hesitate to call this an upbeat LP. When you have a tune as traditionally beautiful as 'Andalucia', you can't really see this as anything particularly challenging or avant-garde. Cale's singing voice is perfect for this material - supported by sliding guitars and organ textures, there's a buoyancy to his baritone bleatings. The fact that most memorable lines are delivered slowly, extending over several phrasings or chord changes, make Paris 1919 feel like a record of proud statements. 'Nothing ever frightens me more than religion at my door,' but this is an assessment of life at whatever age he was in 1973, built on Cale's not-forgotten past and sketched out through observations ('Half Past France'). And the title track, baroque and vulnerable, which I first heard when I was 14 and thought "This is like classical music, only like rock, and good too!". For a tune about longing, loss and ghosts, it's bouncy and bright, and the essence of what I thought "Europe" was before I ever got here. And then 'Graham Greene', where the Welsh accent gets a bit out of control, and Cale audaciously rhymes 'holding umbrellas/catching novellas' -- well, what a tune! I've listened to these songs back-to-back for so long that the feel like natural counterparts, even though they're pretty extremely different. This looks forward to Fear - another great album, but a lesser work - but you can have a second chance. 'Antartica Starts Here' is a nice closer of the (too-short) second side, with confident bass guitar and mechanical Wurlitzer supporting Cale's raspy poem. This is the weirdest falsetto singing I've ever heard, going for secrecy instead of heights, but it swells up when needed and marks a point of closure. Whispers linger on after the stylus spins out, and maybe I keep coming back to this, over and over, because I like secret communication.

16 September 2010

John Cale and Terry Riley - 'Church of Anthrax' (Columbia)

When titans meet! Except this is really surprisingly grounded in art-rock stomp, much closer to a solo Cale than Riley's stuff. It's hard to deny that this sounded like an avant-minimal supergroup on paper, yet the execution is less than amazing. It's good though -- but not one of the best records by either artist. If anything, it's too much of "here's what I do and here's what you do" -- not so surprising. They clearly strive for a balance between them, made the most evident in 'Ides of March' where we literally have Cale doing his piano thing and Riley doing his, with a different drummer behind each. As a bit of stereo experimentation it's rudimentary, but as a work of polyrhytmic sketching, it's sort of great. But first things first -- 'Church of Anthrax' blasts off the vinyl like a locomotive, and pounds away almost relentlessly. There's more of a focus on Dream Syndicate monotony than Riley's harmonic gliding, which is saved for next track. But as 'Church' pounds away, the layered organs and keyboards flex the right amount of muscle; the bassline ascends forever, picking a hole into my brain. So when Cale's microtonal piano meets the palace of mirrors in Versailles, it's awesome how Riley's reverb-drenched sax teases things. Riley is playful and a bit sassy; Cale is practically lowbrow in his Palestineque technique. The sax part is like 'Music from The Gift' all over again, but with the scary, unknown 70's looming ahead. There's an oceanic tide that darts around this double-helix, but at times, it feels like an afterthought. When it turns more thoughtful, I love the warm buzz underneath as it takes it's own natural breaths. It's a coda to side one, and a hell of way to fade out. After the flip, Adam Miller sings 'The Soul of Patrick Lee', which is such a John Cale solo song it's almost a parody. It has the same guitar riff as 'Venus in Furs' but then that moody, literate sensibility that he perfected on Paris 1919. I'm trapped more in the dark-psyche side of Cale here than I'd like to be -- I much prefer the sentimental, nostalgic whinging -- but it's okay. Riley is only plinking a few piano keys here, so it's funny to think of him as a mere sideman. Does 'Patrick Lee' stick out like the sore thumb of an otherwise instrumental record? Quite a bit, yeah, but maybe that's why it's smart in the middle. 'Ides of March', as already stated, is the meat of side 2, and it starts to take on a 'Bad Bad Leroy Brown' feel after about 8 minutes, which is probably just a successful sign of the delirium they were trying to induce. 'The Protege' closes things, a mirror image of 'Church of Anthrax', with pounding bass and drums and an elegant, slightly dirty edge to the piano part. The dissonance creaks out of the edges rather than being front and centre, and then there's a surprise ending which just sounds like a mastering error. Hmmmm. I remember buying this when on a trip to England, when I still lived in the US - it was a reissue (or maybe bootleg?), with a nice glossy cover and a pretty good sound to it. The shop proprietor made a comment about why would I come all the way to England to buy an American LP, but I don't think things are as simple as that.

13 September 2010

J,J. Cale - 'Okie' (EMI)

The nightshade comes up and there's a bump-bump-bump across the sky. Okie has a lot of boogie-woogie but also some smooth sliding, and I think this is some sort of cornerstone of Cale's career, but I don't know really. J.J. Cale is a mystery to me. I'm not sure exactly where that mystery began - years of passing up his records, not really knowing much about him besides 'After Midnight', and just always assuming he's the predecessor to that whole genre of music that I heard a lot of when growing up. It was sort of rock, but for adult men in the 50s, and definitely not cool, and that's where stuff like Dire Straits and the Travelin' Wilburys get filed in my brain. But Okie was a 50p car boot sale find, in pretty great shape, so I thought I'd dive in to see what the fuss was about. If there is any fuss. There's a sunburst sheen on everything and the basslines are kinda, I dunno, electric. It's a fluid sound but there's too many shackles around everything. Shackles are okay sometimes, and these ones have a nice rust, but I can't help but shift about restlessly wishing there would either be some break-free or perhaps some quasi-romantic cynicism that I can immerse myself in. Cajun influence is there, or maybe just a song called 'Cajun Woman', cause Dr. John this is not. There's some nice vocal harmonies, a pretty instrumental title track, and not much else to get excited about. I guess I like the soft strum more than the boogie rock, though Molly Hatchet this is not, either. What the hell does 'boogie' actually mean anyway? Blues-rock with all the blues sucked out? I played this record twice when trying to write this and failed to get anywhere -- nothing left an impact, and nothing lasted, no memories, no tendencies I wanted to revisit. The weird thing is, I always thought I would fit well with this kind of music, but I guess I'm just basing that on how I love mellow adult-sounding indie rock, later Mekons records, etc. But still, it's so goddam inoffensive that I can't even get the passion to dislike it.

4 September 2010

Cabaret Voltaire - 'Eight Crespuscule Tracks' (Giant)

Fast-forward eight years later from Red Mecca, and somehow Cabaret Voltaire have transformed into a full-on dance/club act, though still with some "scary"/dark elements to reference their original sound. This is a weird compilation, originally three songs released on the Crespuscule label, and here filled out to LP length. These original three songs, all titled 'Sluggin Fer Jesus', open side one and do the sampled Evangelical Christian thing -- I hate to sound so cynical, but this is actually a step backwards (if you ask me) from Negativland's 'Christianity is Stupid'. Compared to their early 80s roots, the late 80s Cab Volt has much brighter production and a very strong tendency towards the goofy dance-orientated cop-out. I must sound like I don't care for this record much, which is probably true -- I'm not sure how it ended up in my collection. Side B contains a mess of things - the wrly intoned 'Your Agent Man', and the theme from Shaft are both present. There's still a really heavy emphasis on tape loops and interesting textures, but many of the tapes are vocal samples -- like they've sacrificed mood for the dancefloor aesthetic. In some way though, I think it fails at that too - I can't imagine any of these tracks actually being played in a club. Though the drum sounds are bigger, they still have a tinniness to them that I can't imagine being particularly compelling in a dance club. It feels to me a bit like Red Mecca CV was a band trying to figure themselves out, and Eight Crespuscule Tracks is a band that found it. I'm just not sure if I like where they ended up - maybe I should check out the intermediary journey, as it's bound to be interesting. There are plenty of interesting, experimental elements on this LP to justify it; it's certainly not awful, just somewhat, I dunno, compromised. And the Shaft cover isn't even that bad!

Cabaret Voltaire - 'Red Mecca' (Rough Trade)

There's a lot to like in Red Mecca, particularly if you dig cold-yet-still-rambuctious songs in the CV mold. But things are so sharp and metallic it's more like rust than mould. Side one is pretty slow but continues from Mix-Up's more thoughtful moments, with lots of open spaces, more acoustic percussion, and more clearly enunciated singing. Though it's not exactly crooning. It culminates in 'A Thousand Ways' which feels weightless and never-ending, but without any exaggerated qualities at all. I've always gone to Cabaret Voltaire for their experimentalism, their approach to tapes and the interesting guitars vs tapes textures. But the songwriting here isn't half bad. Side two feels slightly more song-oriented, though there aren't any chart-toppers here. I didn't grok enough lyrical content to relate to anything specifically, but there's definitely a confidence that was lacking before. 'Red Mask' is practically a single, with Watson's tape loops dancing all around the more standard industrial rock grind. And it's pitted against 'Black Mask' (the titles are probably something to do with contrasting views of Islam or religion?) which is somewhat looser, around a standard mid-tempo drumbeat and with bleating synth hissing and distant atmospheric textures skirting around a songform. This record reminds me a lot of Savage Republic in a variety of musical manners - the monobeat, the chanted vocalising, the percussive single-mindedness. And like Savage Republic, Cabaret Voltaire are an 80's avant-rock band that hasn't really had their dues yet, at least in the sense that we're not making documentaries about them and they aren't doing reunion tours and these records aren't being reissued. And like Savage Republic, Cabaret Voltaire maybe didn't directly influence many of my peers but more likely were an influence on an influence. One inversion is that Savage Republic were a rock band with heavy industrial leanings, and I would probably flip that around to describe Cabaret Volatire. But like the last record, there are a few guitar lines that, while not exactly Led Zeppelin, have some sort of anthemic, cheerful lift that looks a bit more like on AOR radio than you'd expect -- in this case I'd say the harmonic progression of 'Split Second Feeling'. 'Spread the Virus' is pure evil though - despite a slight free jazz/circus feel at times - it's a goofy dark trip trying to break out of a straightjacket, and there's a nice shuffle to the beat despite all of the tortured growling. Moody, yes, and thirty years old now!

3 September 2010

Cabaret Voltaire - 'Mix-Up' (Rough Trade)

It's nice to transition from the Buzzcocks to Cabaret Voltaire, though I wouldn't normally make any connection between these artists. But it's a good transition: alphabetically from B to C, and geographically from Manchester to Sheffield, but approximately contemporaries, right? And both artists persevered where so many of their brethren hung it up after a few records. Listening to early Cabaret Voltaire, especially after the explosion of the "noise" underground, is a bit revelatory. For one thing, these guys are mostly into hi-fidelity recording, so the dictaphone-recorded basement jams are nonexistent. There's a bit of hiss present from the tapes, but even that's pretty mangeable, and when it layers up against whatever unorthodox recording techniques are being used, it makes a destructive futurescape that feels like it's pulling itself apart. Apart from the jammy live track 'Eyeless Sight', this is a beautiful, strange studio record that worships slow, searing electronics. They take their time to build up slowly in a few places - 'Heaven and Hell' is one such example. And while that's just a sketch as far as traditional songwriting goes, it's a good statement of purpose: electro-acoustic dualism, loaded with attitude and edge, with harsh, dissonant details. There's a lot of rhythm on Mix-Up but it's either synth bursts or tape loops. Chris Watson's loops are the smirking antithesis of Martin Swope, more foundational and less reverb-laden -- even when they're actually quite sparse. 'Photophobia' is one such example, a lengthy spoken piece that holds to a center, accelerates into unsettling territory, and leaves a spooky film. The Seeds cover ('No Escape') shows their roots, unless this was meant as mockery. 'Fourth Shot' has a guitar line that is searing and bright, which is why Cabaret Voltaire have always felt closer to a band like Suicide than to their fellow Sheffieldians, Throbbing Gristle. There's a liberal use of what now sounds to me like Casio beats, such as on 'Expect Nothing', though I'm sure it was sophisticated technology for the time. It actually injects a nice bit of twee into the car crash of audio. These guys play it slow and let things unfold, knowing that's where true horror comes from -- when the drums do become the main focus ('On Every Other Street') it actually get a bit scary. The cover is a blurry Max Headroom/white noise photo that doesn't really indiciate their Dada influence, or is that just in their name? I remembered this as being a patchy record but now, this sounds like a band with a vision.

2 September 2010

Buzzcocks - 'A Different Kind of Tension' (I.R.S.)

The Buzzcocks are certainly a great singles band but their albums are probably just as good. I admit that I rarely pull this one out, except I somehow keep thinking this is the one with 'Moving Away from the Pulsebeat' (it's not -- I don't have that one). It does have 'I Believe' which is another 7-minute tune, because this is the Buzzcocks at the turn of decade, trying to branch out and explore Shelley's long-standing interest in Krautrock, electronic music, etc. Or at least we have rumblings of that, if not an abrupt direction change. He does deliver some 'atmospheric keyboards' here but repetition is still the prime directive. Side A (or 'The Rose on the Chocolate Box', as the label subtitles it) finds three Steve Diggle tunes, including the beautiful 'Mad Mad Judy' which climaxes with a brilliantly psychedelic riff-feast. Side B (or 'The Thorn Underneath that Rose') has the cryptic 'Money' which seems to be about changes people go through, but throws it's hands up in disgust under a strangely classic rock-sounding riff. 'Hollow Inside' is a minor key meandering, though actually quite focused. If there's one point where I think A Different Kind of Tension fails, it's the title track. This is a conceptual song attempting to pair commands in opposition to one another, and has a stupid vocoder sound (which probably sounded awesome at the time). But no fault to Shelley for trying; it's 'I Believe' where he turns the lens inward and spills things all over the vinyl. Fair enough -- I appreciate the changes. It's 1980, after all -- instead of 'Boredom' and 'What Do I Get?' , Shelley waxes patience in 'You Say You Don't Love Me' and 'I Don't Know What to Do With My Life'. Deep philosophy yeah, but didn't everyone confront Thatcherism in their own way? But as his voice rings out at the end, "It... my... life!"

Buzzcocks - 'Singles Going Steady' (I.R.S.)

What a great document of the maturation of Mr. Pete Shelley as a songwriter! But it's a parallel development of A-sides and B-sides, for Singles Going Steady is consistently steady, set up along two rails. One would think the A-sides would be more enjoyable but with such fucking great B-sides, this is a winner all around. Pop music reflects the concerns of its time and in early 1978 these Mancunians were whining about dissatisfaction and self-identification. But a slew of love songs makes this more bubblegum than the dark-tinged artwork would suggest at first glance. When Steve Diggle sings (on the wonderful 'Harmony in My Head' and 'Autonomy') it's a nice bit of gruff to contrast Shelley's croon. And at the very end we hear the progress towards monotonous 80s new wave in 'Why Can't I Touch It?' and 'Something's Gone Wrong Again', with their midtempo beats and chorus pedal flourishes. But it's mostly fast and energetic, which is why kids still dance their tits off to 'What Do I Get?' today. And acts like Jay Reatard (until recently) thrived with the same basic sound, only dumbed-down. Shelley is smart, both lyrically and in songcraft. The aforementioned 'What Do I Get?' (one of four interrogative song titles here) has this little upturn harmonising the last time round the verse and chorus. It's the perfect harmony to the main melody but Shelley is singing it alone, so you have to imagine. 'Ever Fallen in Love', 'Noise Annoys' and 'Promises' are three more gems that I just want to single out for being excellent songs. This is like the best one-artist mixtape imaginable, and that's why it's a shame I often forget to listen to these Buzzcocks records. I was in a record store a few years ago and I heard a current Buzzcocks album, and I can't say it sounded bad either - consistency is a virtue that these guys have been practicing for almost 35 years now. I've never checked out Pete Shelley's minimal synth solo albums but maybe it's about time.

Buzzcocks - 'Time's Up (Featuring Howard Devoto)' (Smilin' Ears)

I never thought about this until I pulled out Time's Up, but bootlegs are another casualty of our digital Internet age. I know there's still semi-legitimate reissues going around, but that's not the same as when these were mass-produced and a serious source of revenue-theft. You can distribute anything, anytime, anyhow. I remember Pearl Jam's stunt releasing all of those live concerts from that one tour, which was only what, like 12 years ago? It feels like a million. Time's Up isn't a live recording though, but all of the studio sessions with Howard Devoto on vocals. This is a somewhat nastier, attitude-heavy Buzzcocks than when Pete Shelley totally takes over, but the title works because there's something timeless about these tunes. This particular bootleg of Time's Up is a beauty - the black and white cover gives away it's shadyness, and the "All Rights Reserved/All Wrongs Reversed" line on the back was stolen by Matador years later. Hooray for Smilin' Ears records of Valencia, Venezuela. This pretty much opens and closes the door on Howard Devoto in the Buzzcocks, I think, and it's been available in a zillion different ways and levels of legitimacy. This one is dirty sounding, as if the stolen master tapes were quickly pressed to vinyl and then returned. There's a few times the audio drops out -- more than a few times, really -- but this accentuates the edgy snarl of Devoto's pissy delivery. The famous Spiral Scratch tunes are here - 'Boredom', 'Orgasm Addict', etc. -- but it's the Sex Pistols-like dirges such as 'Drop in the Ocean' and 'Love Battery' that stand out the most to me. There's points when I wonder how much more ass-kicking this would sound if it was a decent mastering job, but in a way I like the Devoto era this way -- save the big sound for the next few records. It's dust on the stylus, but that's the sound -- the Northern dream, melted, and recalibrated through the lens of the time. Does 'Love Everybody's opening lyric of "I love you, big dummy" directly reference Beefheart? The guitar solo is pretty soaked in Zoot Horn Rollo so maybe that's that. The Buzzcocks were never one to quibble their approach; the strength is in the songwriting , the iconic anthems, and the 'tude. I'm actually more of a Magazine fan myself but that doesn't mean this is without merit. The final cut is also labeled as 'Boredom', but it's done in a retro 60's pop-psych style with bleeped lyrics - it sounds like a different band so I'm a bit curious what the deal is with this. But Smilin' Ears ain't exactly reknowned for their liner notes. And it's only listed on the sleeve, not the label, so we'll have to keep wondering about it.

Buttecounty Free Music Society - 'Induced Musical Spasticity (1984-2009)' (no label)

When this came out, of course I had never heard of BUFMS -- I mean, LAFMS, sure, and that was clearly the inspirational model for these weirdos, who seemed to gravitate around Chico, CA in the late 80s. One can only think that they would have taken over the world if only they lived in a bigger city. I saw this 4LP set with additional CD, packaged in a lovely box, and thought 'this looks like fun', and I got a good deal from the man at the psychedelic music store in Athens, so that was that. But then actually listening to it, well, it's a surprising mess of sound inside, and its a collage of many different artists who are all really different configurations of the same core people (OF COURSE!): Ambivalent Dosage, Ziplok, Hypnagogic Jerk, Bren't Lewiis Ensemble, Unlikely Modernists, 28th Day, the Conduits ... it appears that this scene put out 5 tapes, 4 by the Bren't Lewiis Ensemble and one compilation called Everything's DooDoo (which is represented here in its entirety, I think). The 8 vinyl sides of this box are sequenced in a curious fashion, more thematically than chronologically. Side A comes out of the gate with a brash, aggressive outsider sound, containing five tracks based around tape manipulations, repeating/skipped speech, and decidedly non-musical instrumental pluckings. Richard Streeter's 'Cookies Shaped Like Kites (edit)' is a particular highlight, sounding like a mentally retarded take on Robert Ashley. (and that's saying somethin'!) So if you're thinking these guys were purely in the realm of sound-art tape fuckery, it's understandable. But then side B upsets that, beginning with 28th Day's 'Let Go', a new wave tune with spindly guitars, dour vocals, and all the things we loved about the early 80s. Dilwhip's track is more along the same lines - hints of early R.E.M., the db's, Rain Parade -- of course far less polished and amateurish, but still a stab at rock music. The rest of the side starts to devolve that - Bren't Lewiis's 'Sakura Sakura' is an ethnic-derived sketch that could exist on a Jeweled Antler compilaton, and Hypnagogic Jerk's guitar/keys excursion is pretty nice in both sound and aesthetic. Side C continues the realisation that BUFMS were just as much into avant-rock sounds as the outer limits. And that's okay, cause I like R.E.M. AND Pierre Schaeffer! There's an earlier 28th Day track here, significantly more primitive, and without Barbara Manning (who I believe later made a few indie-folk records for Matador, and was in SF Seals). Right when I was starting to think that the BUFMS kids seemed miles removed from 'punk', Walking Jock's sneering 'Seven Year Itch' comes in the middle of side C. It answers the question "Were these guys going to see Black Flag shows during all of this?" and sounds a bit like Dag Nasty. Lots of fun. The Conduits take it back into the outer realm, with their Walkman-quality Ash Ra Tempel impersonation, and Hallucinatory Companion are a cute meandering instrumental that touches on the Young Marble Giants minimal approach. Side D takes things into the out-and-out goofy realm. It starts off with a manic melée of cheap keyboards appropriately named 'Carnival of Headache', by the cleverly named Experimental Artists. The narration reminds me of Jello Biafra, and it feeds into 'What's Your Beef?' by Lawrence Crane and John Young. This continues the atmosphere of fighting toys, but with sense of tug and push that is probably the most musically amazing moment on this set, so far. And right when it gets good, they stick a Monty Python cover in the middle. 'The Lumberjack Song', as performed by Tops Inc. is actually kinda amazing, with buzzsaw guitar and lush, layered yet tuneless singing. It's a vast improvement over the original, and I wonder if Pete Beck (the man behind Tops Inc) was in fact fifteen years old, doing this in his bedroom. The Hypnagogic Jerk track on side A is rehashed here only with brasher keyboards, followed by another Hallucinatory Companion tune. Rory Lyons completes the shift back from avant-rock to outer-limits explorations with a reverb-laden keyboard track that drifts away like magic, echoing bells. We're halfway there! Side E starts with Conduits again, doing a beautiful minimal harmonica and thumping electronics duet. Sidney Afrika does a deconstructed Steve Miller Band cover called 'fly like an algae' (get it??) that comes from some radio session, and the other highlight of Side E -- actually a highlight of the whole set -- is Ziplok's live performance, a pounding yet lush industrial guitar and drum machine set. It was performed under a blanket yet it sounds huge and ever-expanding. The next 2.5 sides are entirely a showcase for the Bren't Lewiis Ensemble, with F's side-long 'Goat Embryo (Covered With Glue)' being the epic kitchen-sink sound exploration. It proceeds slowly, always sounding like 2 or 3 people at a time despite having 14 people listed in the credits (including such musicians as Musclebutt, Joan of Art and Gnarlos). There's moments of the Futura-sound for sure - bending clanking sounds, moans and groans, and space-age warble. There's some spoken pause-button edit tape parts akin to side A, and some deep cosmic jamming, though it never stays focused long enough. There's also some poorly played string instruments (a favourite sound of mine) and it's such a collage that it could be 100 short tracks instead of one big piece. The next side (G, if yer followin') is Bren't Lewiis's 'Industrial Barbeque' event. It's a live recording which means consistent fidelity, but that fidelity is 'average'. There's more moaning, plinking, and scattered, burning foliage. Lots of echo from the room, yet we get a sense of how these weirdos existed as a live act. The fact that all of this was going on in Butte County, not exactly a place known as a metropolis of the bizarre, and in the midst of the Reagan 80s as well -- well, it's astounding. The tape collage on the previous side is a bit more dynamic, but it's nice that both sides of this group, clearly central to the BUFMS "scene", are represented. And Side H shows us yet another facet of Bren't Lewiis Ensemble - that of the goofball country n' western band, singing 'Plastic Jesus' . Next is Unlikely Modernists, a meandering bunch of tin-whistle and bongo hippies, Leaving the City MEV-style, but with some cartoon voices shouting in the mix. Now, we're almost through a four-LP box set, packed with a diverse array of "out" sounds, and to me, this Unlikely Modernists cut is the first "stereotypical weird music" track. That's not to say that I don't like it, but it at least fulfills some stereotypes. Bren't Lewiis gives us one last example from their ouvre (represented most reasonably, since they were 80% of the released cassette output back in the day) -- this one is heavy on the tape edits, with some recorder slowdown and other such grot. And finally, the whole she-bang ends with the Marques, a similar cut to the one that opened side A. A cyclical, mesmerising document of the soundworld of a few miscreants in a forgotten corner of rural California, sure. But a question has to be asked -- does this need to be heard? I enjoy all sides of this box set (though I have yet to get all the way through the bonus CD, which is a lengthy series of radio plays) but I tend to love things that are slipshod and miscellaneous. Can we call these recordings visionary, when no one heard them, and they influenced nobody? I don't actually care to have such debates, so I don't know why I bring it up. Despite whatever level of importance you might want to tack onto this set, these recordings hearken back to a time when creative energy found more innovative and isolated ways to express itself. Yeah, I mean this was pre-Internet, as was most music discussed on these pages, but more specifically they type of social interactions were completely impossible so these artists had only each other. And that type of tunnel vision can produce amazing things. Some of those amazing things are on these eight LP sides, and it's a real treasure to have them presented in such a grandiose manner.

1 September 2010

Kate Bush - 'Hounds of Love' (EMI)

It's 1985 and while the charts are packed with a-ha, Live Aid, Madonna and Whitney Houston, Kate Bush put out Hounds of Love and subversively managed to slip an insane vision into the record shelves of many middle-Britons. We all know Hounds of Love, being the first side of the LP, with 4 out of 5 smash hits there. But it's The Ninth Wave, the subtitled B-side where Bush stretches out and works some magic. But they're the yin and the yang, together making a monster that forever cemented her place in history (and were her famous last words, in a way). So should we dissect it? I enjoy both halves equally, because it's hard not to jump and sing along with 'Hounds of Love' and 'The Big Sky', and of course my arty proclivities love the flipside. Despite the blip of 'Mother Stands for Comfort', side A is just unfuckwithable. 'Running up that Hill (A Deal with God)' is Teutonic, scary, and thunderous; it's beautifully painted with digital synthesiser chiaroscuro, as is much of the record. The production techniques began on The Dreaming take on a more focused, pop-orientated approach here, but it's no sell-out. 'Hounds of Love' begins with the whispered 'Its in the trees... it's coming!" and it helps construct a strange Gothic/neo-romantic (but miles from the New Romantic Morrissey-shit) vision with tinges of horror film influence, or maybe just Dark Shadows. And then 'Cloudbursting' would just sound so heavy if you converted that monotonous riff to distorted electric guitars and had Deep Purple or someone play it. There's female sexual energy baked in the grooves here but I don't fetishise this record at all -- it's almost like it takes the so-called reinvention of pop sexuality by mainstream stars like Madonna and outdoes it, but without even trying. And then we flip it, and hear the familiar piano plinkles, but this is 'And Dream of Sheep', not 'Wuthering Heights'. I do have a soft spot for all songs that begin with words like 'and', 'of', 'for' -- they feel unfinished, or more like moments captured. Here, the swelling dramatic melodies are perfectly carried by her singing and I wonder what percentage of British music-purchasers ever listened to this half more than once? "The Ninth Wave" is a wonderous suite, flowing together like one complete piece and I think conceptually linked by the theme of communication breakdown. There's certainly enough language here -- and the spoken parts in 'Waking the Witch' make me think of role-playing games and fantasy geeks. But the lyrics are fluid, escaping, and did I mention that 'Watching you Without Me' has one of the most beautiful key changes in popular music? It's a subtle shift/lift-off that elevates the song to a higher plane, etc. etc. 'Jig of Life' could have probably been swapped with 'Mother Stands for Comfort' to make side 1 a flawless wall of upbeat pop, but I guess balance was a consideration. The funny thing about my relationship with this record is that I only got into it a few years ago; since I grew up in the US, the only Bush of my adolescence was that shitty alterna-grunge band (the political dynasty notwithstanding). My flatmate at the time did grow up listening to Hounds of Love and he turned me onto it, so many nights were passed with this playing in the kitchen. It felt almost weird and retro to spend 2007 rocking out to a 22-year old pop album that is easily found in any charity shop, but it hit me and felt like a nice refreshing answer to the smorgasboard of half-written song-orientated muck oozing from the so-called 'underground'. And even better was finding the VHS collection of her videos -- I like to imagine that Donald Sutherland really is her father!