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30 October 2010

Eugene Chadbourne - 'Country Music in the World of Islam' (Fundamental)

This is a collaboration between Chadbourne, the Sun City Girls and Elliot Sharp -- and you could probably include Matt Groening in there too, as Akbar and Jeff are spilling all over this record. As a band, well, Chadbourne and Sun City Girls work together brilliantly. Who else is so attuned to Chadbourne's rambling sensibility? And the title is apt for describing the contents. The songs blend together into two side-long suites, much like his performance style. I saw Chadbourne live once, but on record I don't have to endure the rather brutal odor that emanated from the stage. If only I could have seen this lineup! Rick Bishops's guitar playing is great with Chadbourne's style, and the goofy songs fit right in with the Dante's Disneyland mentality. I actually rate this over all those great Shockabilly records, maybe cause I like things sharp and not so echoey. Not that this record will be that much of a departure for Shockabilly fans. This is 1990, made nine years into the Reagan revolution, and understandably the songs burst with batshit insane conspiracy theories, social commentary on 80s issues, and timeless cleverness like 'Big John Loves His Dick'. 'Castro's Surgery is a Mystery' is maybe the pinnacle of this madness, a good dose of Horse Cock Phepner-style lyrical musings overlaid with the most sinister (yet stupid) sampled voice. You can't go too far into a Chadbourne record without hearing some cover versions, so you get Gram Parsons 'Luxury Liner', 'I Wouldn't Live in New York City' by Buck Owens, and the jazz standard 'I Cover the Waterfront'. The latter is done in a dirgy 80s' indie rock way, overlaid with braying farmyard animals, obtuse keyboard interference and several overdubbed layers of Chadbourne arguing with himself. And every once in awhile a really sweet harmony is reached with Charles Gocher, and some bittersweet sentimentality leaks through (despite the radio voice talking overtop). All throughout the record, of course, there's plucking and scrambling galore - banjo in particular works well with the usual Bishopisms. Everyone has a strong free improv sensibility that's really unique when pushed against these bouncy, brightly delivered songs. The middle of the record gets into more ballady tunes, with 'I'm Not You' and 'He Was a Boy' taking the humour down a notch; the band really gets cooking at the end of 'Boy' and Gocher in particular responds well and holds things just on the verge of pure chaos. 'Hippies and Cops' has a real alternarock edge not just because of the conflict described in the lyrics, but due to the deep fuzz guitars and basses. They're mixed low but it's still pleasantly tongue in cheek - 'The List is Too Long' gets into more metal-influenced rock with noodly solos that are probably Chadbourne, but it's actually hard to tell. I'm reminded of late 80s SST experimentalists, and the rock is brought back as an intro to the last tune, 'Don't Burn the Flag, Let's Burn the Bush'. Certainly flag-burning was all the rage in 1990 and the topical nature of this is not lost on me, but who knew what would happen a decade later in American politics! I'm sorry this wasn't revived for the dark part of the 00s, because when you sing 'The president oughta be in jail' it feels even more relevant when applied to the son. Though this is an unusually straightforward tune for Chadbourne it's charming, my own political sympathies notwithstanding - you can only imagine a frustrated 80s Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg (RIP, by the way!) happy to see some flame still burning.

21 October 2010

Car Commercials - 'Eric's Diary' (Soft Abuse)

Clearly this is some sort of companion piece to Judy's Dust, as it has a similar title, the same style of paste-on covers and the same inversion of teenage nostalgia/futurism. The sounds inside, though, take such an alien, unsettled gambit that it's almost impossible to reach inside this bauble. The few vocal hooks that peer out of Judy's Dust feel like Top 40 compared to Eric's very strange Diary. It's a bit hard to tell what's what, since there seems to be an extra song on each side, but there's much more of a keyboard presence here, though played somewhat ironically on the (aptly titled) 'Teenage Pact' -- the Casio sounds are pushed to the forefront over manic drummin' and strummin', and it serves to isolate Car Commercials' apparent disinterest in their own music. There's less warbly walkman shit here, but the fidelity isn't any better - this is almost like the outtakes of Judy's Dust. 'Bad Plans in Action' and 'In A Hallway' use maddening guitar figures - any sort of riff has disintegrated, leaving only the excess gestures. Vocals, as well, are far more in the stream-of-consciousness/yelping style, though the lyrics are clear enough if you want to suss out whatever these guys are on about. The snare drum and feedback squeals are the punctuation of this otherwise unending miasma. It's a strange and challenging trip, for sure; and though it has the same sonic elements as the 7" and first LP, yet somehow it feels stark and bare. There's a part just before 'Oh My God, it's happening' where my record skipped and it made a rather infectious rhythm loop, but the rules of this game dictate that I had to bump the stylus along. And what came next? More feedback, muttered words and cold clattering. The closing tracks on each side are the most extreme of any Car Commercials vision to date. 'Everything Hurts Me' is long and tough-going -- it's attenuated towards painful yelping and frustrated outbursts, and it starts to take on a hall of mirrors quality. The end of side 2 ('Blew It') which may actually be two tracks (it's hard to tell) is the opposite - sparse, bare, and the most Shadow Ring-style they've ever done --- except minus all the attitude, just bathed in awkwardness. in the middle is a huge piece of silence, and then a fragmentary church-organ coda (maybe this is the bonus track? ). The typewritten track listing has what's clearly intentional typos, certainly a metaphor for the music, so maybe this is Pussy Galore refracted through 15 subsequent years of avant-damage. This is the type of record that I could become easily obsessed over, as it makes me want to keep exploring it's unlit corridors, even though I know there's no fun there.

15 October 2010

Car Commercials - 'Judy's Dust' (Cenotaph)

This is the new sound of New Jersey, and a pretty carefully cultivated one at that. Half of these guys are in Home Blitz and the other half was affiliated with Ladderwoe, so the resulting mix is pretty accurately a blend - a freeish rock group with a real anti-aesthetic and a particular velocity. The opening track is a long warbling instrumental with noodling casio and scraping, and it never even closely congeals into anything tangible, though with an exactitude and deliberation missing from most free-form ensembles of today's world. When the rock riffs creep in, first heard on '190' and most effecively on 'Babe's out of luck' (which actually approximates a traditional rock song), it's cathartic. A satisfying release to tension and it makes you think the whole mess was quite deliberate. Is it hard to connect to the expressions here? Surely 'Mechanic's yelps and mumbles bear no resemblance to sanity, but then it's hard to deny those rough songforms, when they turn up. 'Collida and Jimmy' begins with an anthemic strum, though soon after the singing starts (an off-kilter warble, of course) it proceeds to follow it's own musings down dark corridors and never comes back. The drumset is used throughout the record with maximum imprecision, but it fits the faux-nostalgia that the sleeve artwork (and liner "notes") create. It's park Jandek, of course, with a smidgeon of Pere Ubu but also a good helping of Kenneth Higney. Just blazing on through in a cavern of one-take songbash, Judy's Dust somehow overcomes it's limitations and communicates. There's no inertia here. The slowly melting, unfolding of 'The Devils' hints at a grand vision, and the occasional intrusion of tape-player speed adjustment or feedback squeal all seems like part of it. Maybe 'The Investigation' is their 'Murder Mystery', I don't know for sure. It's rock music, deconstructed and reinvented yet again. And it ends with a Boomtown Rats cover.

Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band - 'Wangaratta Wahine' (Image)

I only know this gang of Australian jug-band revivalists because their first LP was (strangely) released on the ESP label. This is their second, from 1974, and it's a pretty solid effort for what it is. I guess I admit a soft spot for liking this sort of thing, which explains it's presence in these pages (and all the Spike Jones CDs I have). As miners of pre-World War II popular music, Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band are certainly competent. This record is loaded with speedy chops, and relatively tasteful arrangements - they were a fairly large ensemble whose members know when to not play. The harmonica was supposedly the big attraction here and it's nice, certainly preferable to the silly fart-sounding kazoo playing that appears a few times. Eleven of the twelve songs are upbeat, usually built around a rock drum kit, which (in conjunction with the good studio recording) dates this music and gives it that slightly disappointing retro feel. The slow tune is 'Wait for me Juanita', which is actually a beautiful, delicate song that transcends the novelty vibe stuck on everything else. The Aussie accents sneak through at times, on the title track or on the pro-smoking bend of 'If youse a viper'. We get lots of cartoony sections, and plenty of goofball vocals, but there's a dedication to the style that is earnest enough. My tastes definitely run towards the Bohemian vibes of 'Lovesick blues' or 'Half a moon is better than no moon' moreso than silly tunes lke 'Your feets to big'(sic). 'Jug band music' is perhaps their raison d'être, which actually is quite stirring and honest. Of course, my taste in jug bands runs closer to 13th Floor Elevators, but I can sort of understand why ESP was affiliated with these guys. Did I mention I bought this in Melbourne? Maybe this kind of retro sensibility comes around every twenty years - the Squirrel Nut Zippers had a hit in '96 so I guess we have a few more to wait for the next one.

Can - 'Moonshake' (Cherry Red)

I thought this was an odd release when I stumbled across it - a 12", 45prm single for 'Moonshake' released a decade too late. And on Cherry Red records! But this makes sense - it's an early 80's label, very much 'of its time', looking back to an influence on its own sound. A bit of retro fun, recast in moody 80s low-lighting. And it works -- and 45rpm never hurts for great bass resonance. As mentioned before, my copy of Future Days disappeared somehow, so this is my sole way to hear 'Moonshake' on vinyl until a new copy arrives. I forgot all of the business happening between the notes here - it's such a busy track, with Can really trying to cram as much into a fairly low-key, repetitive groove as possible. In some ways it's as forward thinking as 'Aumgn', but just expressed within the song instead of around it. But the real reason I treasure this single is 'Turtles Have Short Legs', the greatest Can non-album track. This is Damo spazzing out with a bit of anthropomorphic nonsense over a silly, stupid piano riff. It has to be a holdover from the Malcolm Mooney days, but maybe not; the only thing I really know about it is that 'Parappa the Rapper' stole the backing music and stuck it in a playstation game, one of the more head-scratching wtfs ever. But it's a great, silly song, and Damo sorta sings 'regs' instead of 'legs' which is such a great great stereotype, captured in vinyl forever (and at 45rpm!). On the AA side, 'One More Night' sounds as great as always, a window into an endless maze of its own architecture. It says on the sleeve that Epic Soundtracks helped "compile" this, though picking 3 songs isn't really hard work. Thanks, Cherry Red!

14 October 2010

Can - 'Soon Over Babaluma' (United Artists)

I really like records that have that shiny, mirrored cover, even though when they are 35 years old (in this case) they really start to look shitty, almost like the sleeve is going rusty. I never know how to rate Soon Over Babaluma. This is Can's first album without an exclusive vocalist, but should that matter? Future Days, which somehow disappeared from my accumulation, is one of my favourite Can records, perhaps the one where they most truly explore the idea of 'Inner Space'. Soon Over Babaluma actually amps things up a bit, but there's a really strong Italian prog influence. It's heard most notably on "Splash', though since this LP is so beaten I couldn't get all the way though that track without having to pick up the stylus FOUR TIMES to circumvent skips. Michael Karoli and Irmin Schmidt are more than adequate vocalists for this type of music, which is frantic, yet horizontal; it finds a nervousness and stays locked between two poles, oscillating in a way that allows Karoli to do some lead guitar heroics. 'Chain Reaction' is the longest track here, at 11 minutes, but it doesn't really get into the more bizarre soundregions the earlier albums explore. When it breaks, it sorta rolls with a funk/jazz feel. The basslines are properly monotonous, but Can has migrated by this point into a (very, very good) prog-rock band. It's still great music on that level, but it's not the truly special sound explorations we heard on 'Peking O'. And I hate to say it, but it feels compositionally scattered. Jaki has moved from drums to "perc." and you can hear it here - this resembles King Crimson's Starless and Bible Black-style Fripp leads + wacky percussion. Or maybe that's Lark's Tongues, I always forget which one has the extra percussionist. The maracas and shakers tend to overwhelm things. There's not nearly as much space in these songs, but there's certainly a more sci-fi feeling (just look at the cover)! 'Dizzy Dizzy' and 'Come Sta. La Luna' are the two leadoff tracks and potential singles, though if you listen to a hit like 'Spoon' and then come back to this, well, it's just not the same. 'Come Sta. La Luna' is Irmin singing and it sounds like some dark miscreant horror movie spawn; it's oddball even in the diverse catalogue of Can and one that's sure to be repeated. 'Quantum Physics' is the closer, a dark piece that's hard to really sort out, but it has some nice textural work. I stop after this, with Can, though a bit of the later stuff I've heard is very very nice, probably in a way that if it were any other band, I'd listen to lots. But because it's Can, my standards are too high.

12 October 2010

Can - 'Tago Mago' (United Artists)

When I found this copy of Tago Mago I was torn between this British import, with alternate cover photo and neat (but delicate) matchbox folding -- and the original gatefold cover we know and love. I went with this one to save a few bucks, in the process depriving myself of one of the most iconic images in the whole Kraut world, but probably snagging the more rare of the two options. This isn't an amazing pressing, or maybe it's just old, or maybe my stylus is just showing some wear (we are 191 records through this project, after all). Side one opens with 'Paperhouse', which segues into 'Mushroom', a track that really opens up and (on a good pressing) allows you to really hear the room when Jaki is cracking against the rim of his snare drum. Here, things are a bit distorted and the sense of space is compromised a bit by the inevitable noticing of vinyl artifice. Oh well. I used to somewhat discount 'Mushroom' for the obvious drug reference but tonight it just sounds magical - particularly the converging downward tones of the guitar leads and the organ leads. 'Oh Yeah' is the champion tune of the first side though, beginning with noisy, electronic filterbanks and unfolding into a bouncy, jazzy groove. I particularly like the sense of backwardsness that is throughout - maybe Damo's unique vocal style or maybe a bit of studio trickery. It feels like art that is erasing itself as it happens, trying to keep up with its own beautiful internal momentum. Overall there's so much more swing here than in any of the Mooney stuff, 'Soul Desert' excepted. I dunno if it's Damo's influence or Jaki coming out of his shell more, but 'Paperhouse' introduces a new lightness of touch that serves Can well, particularly on 'Oh Yeah' when the band will sort rise, like the crest of a wave, then it will break and shimmy out into every direction at once. It's a sense of motion that is far more open and free than Monster Movie's grooves. In the middle of Tago Mago, quite literally, are two side-long pieces. Both are behemoths, amazingly dense constructions that are (to me) what cements Can's legend. 'Hallelujah' you've all heard - a repetitive hook, bass-driven, that again proceeds quite dub-like through 1,000 transformations in eighteen minutes. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration but whereas 'Yoo Doo Right' is plodding and (sorry) stupid, 'Hallelujah' answers to a higher calling It rolls more than it rocks, without being any less heavy. In the middle it suddenly turns all Tony Curtis-like, but it's still the same song. When turned up really, really loud, it rips the roof off. But then, side 3 has 'Aumgn', 17:22 of Can's most experimental side. If you dig the Holger Czukay solo album Canaxis (and I sure do) then you might love this, though Canaxis's platitudes of calm are replaced by intense, screaming horror. There's dense walls of sound, upfront organ textures, blatant music concrete, and overdriven drum pounding that duets with a sinewave generator, barking dogs, and Damo shoving the microphone down his throat and moaning through reverb and delay units (just like kids do today, in basements worldwide). Those who want to dismiss this as mere fucking around should direct their attention to the last five or six minutes, where everything builds to a ludicrous crescendo before sputtering out into an assonant dawn. Gratuitous, no! It's actually one of the most accomplished examples of long-form rock experimentation on record. And after that, side 4's 'Peking O' feels relatively short (at twelve minutes). I don't know how connected Damo was to the nihilistic Japanese psychedelic underground happening at this time, but 'Peking O' begins like a companion piece to Tereyama's Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets. It's harsh, dissonant layers of organ, delay-affected vocal screeching that melts into a bizarro Casio lounge trip, a bizarre atmosphere that is somewhat plush animals and somewhat proto-Residents tone-squawk. There's swirling keyboard lines, bent jazz breakdowns, and a manic, Brainticket-esque pulse. It's the fragmented attention-span, non-linear adjunct to 'Aumgn's dense wall of cosmic energy. It's easy to get lost in the magic, but then when you think about the step made between Monster Movie and this, well, it's a holyshitohmigod-nobrainer. I can hear Renaldo and the Loaf birthing into existence, and the sequenced blast beats + electric piano noodling are a recipe for dementia. Vocally, Damo is showing how he influenced both C. Spencer Yeh and the Micro Machines guy. At the end it finds it's pulse, just in time to burn out and introduce 'Bring Me Coffee or Tea', which despite it's darkly impulsive suspension, can only feel like a comedown when juxtaposed with the last four tracks. There's a reason Tago Mago is considered an all-time classic and I didn't really just need to write all of this to further inflate it's legend. But sometimes a close listen, even to something familiar, is rewarding in a way you'd never expect. And that's been a nice benefit to this project - rediscovering what was never lost.

11 October 2010

The Can - 'Soundtracks' (Liberty)

The baton is passed from Mooney to Suzuki, though it's not sequenced this way. The back cover of this even indicates that this is "the second album of THE CAN, but not album no. two". So we're to view this as a stopgap collection, not an album proper but something to document the soundtrack work during this transitional time (1969/1970). You can hear the baton being passed most beautifully at the end of side one, though sequencing actually places Damo's underrated 'Don't Turn the Light On, Leave Me Alone' before Mooney's last gasp 'Soul Desert'. I'd have preferred the two sides of Soundtracks to be played backwards, because then you open the record with 'Mother Sky' and close with 'Soul Desert'. Which makes more sense, cause a) 'Mother Sky' is one of the greatest tracks in the history of rock music, a powerful tour de force that grows in stature with every play, so why not have it as a leadoff? and b) Mooney sounds at his most deranged, his most spent, as he hurtles through 'Soul Desert'. So a more grandiose entrance, and a more dignified farewell. Now I don't care much for the two 'Deadlock's or 'She Brings the Rain', and 'Tango Whisyman' is good but forgettable, so we're left with a strong EP and some padding. But when you have 'Mother Sky', with it's thunder and lightning and icicles and car crashes and momentum galore, why do you need to worry about anything else? We hear this track being approached like a dub track, showing Czukay's greater interest in studio fuckery. And the back cover photo shows an earnest young Holger, set much closer to the camera than anyone else, holding some wooden traditional thing that appears to be emitting a microphone for young shirtless Damo to croon through. Another reason for my side-b-should-be-side-a theory -- then, 'Mother Sky' would also be Damo's introduction to the world, and it's a hell of an entrance, much more so than 'Deadlock'! This is a dirty old Liberty record pressing that's creaking with surface noise, but it's not actually a bad way to listen to it. Also notable: Irwin Schmidt is holding a banjo in this photo, but I don't hear any (nor is he credited as such). 'Album no. two will be released in the beginning of 1971', and you know what that one is, right?

1 October 2010

Camper Van Beethoven - 'Key Lime Pie' (Virgin)

It's easy for me to think of this as something different than Camper Van Beethoven. Sure, it's most of the same band, and Jonathan Segel's is not reason enough to declare this to be the product of a different band. No, there's something else -something different about this record that makes it stand alone from the rest of their catalogue. So that's why I hesitate to call Key Lime Pie the best Camper Van Beethoven album, but the best and only album by this weird mutant formation that mostly resembles Camper Van Beethoven. Sure, the 'Opening Theme' sounds like a classic bit of CVB ethno-stomping, with maybe an even better raw production style than we've heard in a long time (Dennis Herring, you've finally got it!). But it's when the floortoms-and-brimstone of 'Jack Ruby' kicks in that I feel we have a different serpent entirely. Now, I first heard this record in high school so it conformed to the perfect model of art I imagined at the time; rock music against rock music, embracing neoclassical elements, traces of Americana, the Gold Soundz-grift that tingled me whenever I listened to 80s R.E.M. -- it's all here. In Summer of 1994 I was stuck in that awkward in-between time, unable to drive or do things on my own, forced to spend lots of hot summers in the minivan with my parents driving, my cheapo walkman providing my only escape until the batteries died and things got weird and slow. So I wore out my tape of Key Lime Pie. As we drove through Ohio interstate highways and suburban streets, with my body twisted sideways (ear against the backseat, constrained by seatbelt, looking up through the windows at sky) -- this is why 'Sweethearts' clicked into place. I would feel carsick but maybe just hot; the A/C never worked right, or just maybe didn't reach all the way to the back. I had to press my ear against the seat to keep one side of my $2 headphones from cutting out. I was confused by punk, metal, alternative music, the 60's, the 70's, the 80's, and my own adolescence. How could it all fit together? And did it matter? And at the time, 'Sweethearts' was the most magnificently beautiful blend of music I had ever heard. Greg Lisher's simple guitar lead said everything I wanted to hear; but the actual words were perfect too, steeped in some sort of American nostalgia that I invented myself a place in. 'Jack Ruby' now strikes me as even more than that - a pop song centered on searing darkness. 'All Her Favorite Fruit' is maybe the most celebrated David Lowery song and it's certainly the most confident step forward he ever made -it's delicate, and a bit magical too. And the humour is even more relaxed, as I wouldn't call 'When I Win the Lottery' or 'I Was Born in a Laundromat' particularly silly. The guitars have a heavy presence on Key Lime Pie, but when listening to this, I used to dream of becoming a violin player like Morgan Ficther -- it's funny how years later, I found out she barely even plays on this record apart from 'Pictures of Matchstick Men' (sadly, a hit, despite being the most throwaway track on here). The real violinist, Don Lax, contributes stunning sawing on 'June' (my pick of the litter for 2010) and the 'Opening Theme', and there's a chill that still passes over me when I hear 'Come on Darkness'. So forgive me if I sound a bit overdramatic or nostalgic about Key Lime Pie - it's not perfect, but it's perfect for what it is, and I don't think David Lowery (or any of these players) can ever top it.

Camper Van Beethoven - 'Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart' (Virgin)

The big sound of Dennis Herring rips out of the speakers here. This is Camper Van Beethoven's major-label debut, the last record with Jonathan Segel, and the first time the band will stack the cards in favour of non-funny songwriting. This is also the first Camper Van Beethoven album I ever heard, and I was lucky enough to check it out from the public library some fateful day in the early 90s. This is a damn solid set of songs, though it pains me to realise now that they are a bit less meaningful to me than they used to be -- despite being probably more meaningful to D. Lowery, get it? For while 'The History of Utah' might be a bit of nonsense, it's was dramatic, inspiring absurdity at one point in my listening days. And now it's easier for me to recall than feeling than to connect with songs like 'One of these Days'. It's like stepping halfway towards true expression - but don't worry, we'll get here. There's still surrealism all over Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. 'Eye of Fatima pt. 1' is an 80s reinvention of Blegvad's 'Casablanca Moon' and 'She Divines Water' is maybe the most perfect merging of sentimental acoustic-janglestrum and epic nonsense. The instrumentals are decent enough - sounding not a million miles away from Telephone Free's sound but with far more baroque production - the power-folk of 'Eye of Fatima pt 2', the rolling 'Waka' and the dirge-like 'The Fool' are all excellent (and the traditional 'O Death' fits better with these than the other vocal songs). 'The Devil Song' has a meandering modal guitar line that makes it a keeper, and the stunning gypsy stomp of 'Tania' (a song for Patty Hearst that's just as much history lesson as fingerpicking madness) is still breathtaking. 'Life is Grand' seemingly addresses their major label sell-out in the same chuckling way that all of their other albums end, bearing a structural resemblance to 'No More Bullshit' but with the maturity of a few more years packed in. The horn sections are the most obvious sound of WEA/Virgin/Atlantic's investment, but on 'Turquoise Jewelry' they sound kinda cheap and fake, like some thin ska-core tune. It's when the band slows it down a notch that I enjoy this record the most -- 'Change Your Mind''s lyric of 'How far can you walk/in a night so restless?' presages the beauty to come one album later. But don't worry, we're almost there.