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19 December 2010

The Chills - 'Submarine Bells' (Slash)

Promo copy, with slight water damage in the upper left hand corner. But I'm no collector, and only a mild Martin Phillips fan with a mere two actual Chills releases on my shelf. Interestingly, these two releases represent the two extremes of market reach in his career -- this, perhaps the most well-known Chills album (and their major label debut) -- and then Secret Box, a fanclub rarities triple CD that I never listened to all the way through. Submarine Bells isn't something I remember to listen to very often, as I'm guessing it's been about a decade. A shame too, because it's so undeniably pleasant, but with some introspective depth for those who want to dig. The melodies are gentle and singsong, never insanely hooky or quite as memorable as their early songs like 'Doledrums'. The only real awkward moment is 'Familiarity Breeds Contempt', a slightly sneering, edgy romp that sticks out against the soft keyboards, acoustic strum, and nicely layered (but not overdone) vocals of every other song. The 80s production style (which I can't articulate beyond saying it's a certain drum sound, and a certain sheen on the guitars) is rampant, but it works. Lyrically, Phillips is quite reflective - 'The Oncoming Day' tries to reconcile loss and look to the future. 'I SOAR' gets into explicit surrealism, perhaps drug-influenced, and reminds me of Neil Young in the process. 'Don't Be- Memory' is a more nostalgic take on loss, with a slight hint of melodrama creeping in. I love Kiwi pop music because it can wrap sadness in sweetness, in a nearly disarming way. Plus, the loose sketches, particular in things like Tall Dwarfs, are a real hallmark of the scene - here, the too-short 'Sweet Times' does it. The title track takes it out, in a sweet, keyboard-driven paen to the sea. The liner notes are loaded with information about nuclear testing and Greenpeace, which feels at odds to the personal nature of the record -- even 'Submarine Bells', immersed in its foamy lyrical matter, is about loss and love. Maybe they were just trying to maximize their major label impact. Hopefully it won't be another decade until the next spin, but at the rate this project is going, it probably will be.

14 December 2010

Cheveu (Born Bad)

There's strangely pixelated Apple ][ album art, strangely pixellated guitars and drum programming, yet there's nothing digital about this record. Instead we're bathed in analogue ambience, a hiss to envelop us into this soundworld. Cheveu was my favourite album of 2008, which explains why I've been collecting their singles (found on the Ebullient Ventilation page). You can divide most of Cheveu's songs into two categories - furious, frantic verbal diarrhea overtop a relentless guitar/drum attack, or a groove-based, fun jam based around an infectious and vaguely familiar guitar lick. A few of the standouts, like 'Superhero' combine the two forms. 'Jacob's Fight', side 1 track 1, should be all you need to hear to decide if Cheveu is gonna be your bag. 'Clara Venus', the one song recorded in a real studio, sounds no more hi-fi but perhaps a bit more passionate, as the band blasts out around some of Rimbaud's fine words. 'Happiness' also uses a borrowed text, this time from the Todd Solondz film of the same name, and the creepy, perverse language is cast in a goofball aesthetic, but a damn fine one. 'Lola Langusta' opens up side B with a rehash of the version found on one of the singles, but adorned with some trumpets to make it a DJ favourite. Is it thinking man's punk rock, or a punk rocker's dance music, or does it even matter? When I listen I'm filled with images of dirty Paris basements, illegal squats, and what I imagine is a theatrical live show. And I want to jack into an old 4-track and start bashing out my own tunes. This is music of frustration but not without careful attention to detail. 'Hot' has some nicely bending guitar notes as it fades into a rut, and throughout this I'm impressed by textures, textures, textures! Cheveu know how to make a guitar sound great, and they are often layering them and changing the textures on song breaks to liven up what could otherwise sound monotonous. The record jams out on the long 'Unemployment Blues', clearly a live, improvised recording that recalls Alternative TV's 'Alternatives'. A tribute or homage, maybe? It's the most psychedelic, though the delay-pedal vocal manipulations and whirring feedback loops are aggressively amateur, and the rhythm section holds things steady. Though youth oozes from every note of this record, there's a definite awareness of musical precedents, most notably fellow Frenchmen Metal Urbain. I like intense visions to be fun too, and this pulls it off with flying colours. Seek it out!

12 December 2010

The Cherry Blossoms (Apostasy / Black Velvet Fuckere / Breaking World/ Consanguineous / Hank the Herald Angel)

I suppose we should just thank heavens that this LP finally saw release, even if it took years of effort and the collaborative talents of FIVE different record labels. To anyone who has seen the Cherry Blossoms in person (I count myself among those lucky enough), then my frustration is inevitable. How can one capture the bohemian circus that is a Cherry Blossoms live show, using merely the technology of stereo microphones and audio mastering/reproduction? It must fail, not because the Cherry Blossoms are some sort of sonic experimentation that defies the LP format, but cause they are too rambunctious and multi-faceted to be reduced to a mere "band". I mean, they have a tap dancer! (whose contributions are audible here, I suppose, but really the kind of thing you see on the side of the stage while the rest of this messy melée unfolds). The twelve songs on this LP are pretty much the same recordings that have been kicking around forever, mostly live recordings of disappointing fidelity (particularly on 'A Love of My Own', where it's hard to believe they couldn't get a better quality recording). There's a lot of room echo, and while Peggy Snow's voice is still angelic, one must strain to hear the washboard, banjo, tambourines and who-knows-what-else in the margins. Because it's the margins that matter here. When I saw the Cherry Blossoms six years ago in a old Louisville church, I became convinced I was seeing the reincarnation of the Fugs. This was a true celebration of an American anti-current, with members spanning all ages and offerings that went beyond mere music. I was enthralled and entertained; this was the greatest band I've ever seen, and they could barley get through their own songs! Now, the album format removes the spectacle; that first time I saw them, they never really started a song as much as stumbled into it, the melodies and vocals emerging from a morass of fucking about, spontaneously read poetry, and concurrent conversations. Despite the inevitable disappointment of The Cherry Blossoms (or should I say the impossibility) -- I love this album. The only band members pictured on the sleeve are lead voices Peggy Snow and John Allingham, and their individual contributions showcase both of their songwriting styles. Snow's 'Mighty Misissippi' begins the record, showing her tendency for lyrical landscapes and beautifully unfolding melodies. Allingham's tunes are nervous, repetitive, and simplistic, delivered with the same wide-eyed passion he spouts in person. 'Rockin' Rocket Ship' and 'Rocks and Stones' are practically Jad Fair-like in their monotony, yet strangely compelling; by the time I saw them for the second time, after letting this album seep into my brain, I was so pumped up to hear 'Rocks and Stones' that I practically started moshing. Allingham, drummer Chris Davis, and other member Chuck (who doesn't appear to be credited here) moonlight as the utterly brilliant band the Arizona Drains, and you can hear the same stuck-in-a-loop logic in Allingham's Cherry Blossoms songs (the Internet uncovers little evidence to suggest that they still exist, which is tragic.) It's the few chances where Snow and Allingham combine songwriting talents that the Cherry Blossoms manage to create something transcendent, even despite the unsatisfying recording. 'Golden Windows' is a good time, 'Amazing Stars' moreso; but then, 'The Wind Did Blow' knocks it out of the park -- it is a spellbinding piece of magic, the Cherry Blossoms finest moment. Other highlights include a skiffle band cover version of BÖC's 'Godzilla' that is discordant and amusing (driven by kazoo, of course) and 'The Rising Tide', a chilling, beautiful coda. I have come to accept that this is all we'll ever get; I'll probably never again experience their madness -- their website hasn't been updated since 2001! So this is another great tragedy of American art, or maybe the furthest thing from a tragedy -- just a reminder that we don't need to document everything. I'm re-inspired just thinking about that first live show, an unforgettable ephemeral moment. And who knows, maybe something else will surface one day.

11 December 2010

Don Cherry (Horizon)

This is the tenth Don Cherry record discussed here, and sadly the last to feature in these pages. I list it as self-titled but it's been reissued as Brown Rice, so I tend to think of it as such myself. 'Brown Rice' is the opening track, a composition for three electric pianos, acoustic bass, drums, electric bongos, vocals and tenor sax. It's also one of the most singularly unique compositions heard thus far in this project. The graphic score is printed in the sleeve, which a fairly symmetrical structured pattern - pianos start, other instruments come in and disappear, and even Frank Lowe's washed out sax blasts are indicated. The melodies are very similar to the structures we've heard on the last five or so records, particularly where Cherry is on the piano. But here, it's made ecstatic with electricity, and a nice 70's cop-show waka-chika underneath it all. The whispered/chanted vocals are just over your shoulder, peering into your soul, and it's unsettling yet inviting. It's a piece that explodes with colour; an all-time classic for sure, it embraces of psychedelic electric fusion while distinguishing itself. 'Malkauns' is actually my favourite track on the record, a slow dirgy tune that begins with Charlie Haden playing bass over a tambura drone. Shades of 'Song for Che' of course, as there's the same thoughtful pauses, but it builds into a pitter-patter jam with Cherry-streaked trumpet lines over everything. This record feels like a very conscious return to the sound of the pocket trumpet from those original Ornette Coleman releases, but transmogrified through Cherry's own musical journey from the preceding decade (this is the mid 70s, after all). On the flipside, 'Chenrezig' evokes dark African clouds (Hakim Jamil's bass style is striking different than Haden's, which is a contributing factor; Cherry's vocals are growly and gruff). But there's also moments that glide along like a taxi in the streets of New York in the late 70's, calmly rooted in a sort of magical squalor. Ricky Cherry's acoustic piano is recorded in a way that makes it sound like an electric piano; by the end he's just pulsing on chords while Lowe and Don Cherry are ripping things up. 'Degi-Degi' takes things to a close, getting back to the electric boogie-whisper of 'Brown Rice'. Haden's bass sounds like it's been put through a loop pedal (except I don't think such things existed back then); the non-stop circular base has more electric pianos shattering glass around it. Cherry's voice and Lowe's sax mostly trade off roles, emulating a sort of verse-chorus-verse structure, but like a great Can track, the magic is all between the pulses. And with this, it fades away, though it connects to 'Brown Rice' and forms a Moebius strip of a record. We can read a bit into the cover photo - Cherry is in front of the Watts towers, yet adorned in some sort of traditional dress and slightly blurry, as if in motion. There is a definitively more 'urban' feel to this record than the last few, though it's still seeped in a mysterious atmosphere, a bit magical.

9 December 2010

Don Cherry - 'Eternal Now' (Antilles)

In Sweden now, Cherry is leaving his Ornette Coleman-influenced roots behind and working with musicians much closer to 'folk' than 'jazz', and also three guys I've never heard of. There's also no pocket trumpet or cornet to be found here, so maybe that's some other indication of his intended direction. (I've never actually been sure if he plays the cornet and the pocket trumpet, or if it's the same thing and just mislabeled by a lot of people). The opener, 'Gamla Stan - The Old Town by Night' sounds like the murky moody post-Mu direction, based around a h'suan (you know, the ancient Chinese instrument). It drifts gently into said night, suggesting a world more influenced by Palenque than Peking, but maybe that's just me. 'Love Train' is the smooth sexual force of Don Cherry, not the O'Jays, but actually it's Bernt Rosengren who is delivering the erotic salvos. Cherry, who composed the piece, stays on piano (with Christer Bothén) and directs the piece through a simple structure with occasionally erupting chord bangs. The taragot is Rosengren's instrument of choice, which is a wooden sax from Romania. When the notes change there's a bit of grift, and a much more mellow tone than a resonating sax bell would provide -- almost like a tenor sax crossed with an Indian shenhai. It's the closest to a proper jazz feeling on the whole record, as Rosengren knows how to work the reed. The gongs and Tibetan bells are felt more that overtly heard, and it's a nice slice of something different that appears to be something familiar. Bothén's own 'Bass Player for Ballatune' disrupts the smooth vibe, closing out the side with a pounding, Charlegmangian piano workout for six hands and two keyboards. It's dense and seems far longer than it's actual running time (3'45) -- and perhaps attempts to define 'eternal now'. On the flip we get 'Moving Pictures for the Ear', a repetetive tribal percussion jam over which Cherry extemporises on harmonium and vocals. I saw the No Neck Blues Band once and they got into a jam that sounded exactly like this, and the harmonium here floats around the same way their keyboard did. It's so simple, yet compelling - my highlight of the album - not so much because it's a convincing work of ethnoforgery but because the piece offers so much in a simple structure. The rhythms are there to pick apart and the timbre of the dousso n'Koni, in conjunction with the harmonium, make it endlessly psychedelic. 'Tibet' takes things full circle, with it's slowly expanding sound clouds -- Cherry bleating on the Pkan-dung, which the liner notes assure me is 'a Tibetan ritual trumpet constructed from the thighbone of a virgin'. It's the sparse journey you'd expect, a truly placid exploration that nonetheless manages to be interesting and with momentum. Overall, Eternal Now is a beautiful record to listen to, though maybe slightly leaning towards the dark side of "look at all of these cool ethnic instruments". Or actually, it straddles that line, as there's enough intuitive musicianship here to master anything unfamiliar, preventing this from being a mere educational exercise.

7 December 2010

Don Cherry/Krzysztof Penderecki - 'Humus - the Life Exploring Force/Actions (For Free Jazz Orchestra)' (Everest)

This odd pairing isn't really the unified synthesis of Polish avant-garde composition and free jazz pulse that it would suggest. Really, this is the product of the New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra, a free jazz big band populated by some of the giants of European free music. Manfred Schoof, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Peter Brötzmann, Wilem Breuker, Han Bennink, Terje Rypdal, Gunter Hampel and others -- such a collection of titans has rarely been assembled before! Cherry and Penderecki, two giants in different but occasionally overlapping worlds, probably don't share the stage at all on this recording. Side 1 is Cherry leading the band through his piece and side 2 is Penderecki, with Cherry absent. The labels are applied to the wrong sides on my copy, so I began by listening to side 2, which is the final 5 minutes of Cherry's 'Humus' and then Penderecki's composition, 'Actions'. 'Actions' is well-suited for this group - the many trumpets and saxes combine at both the beginning and the end to create a deep, throbbing drone that's both beautiful and malevolent. The chaotic parts remind me of the Globe Unity Orchestra recordings from around the same time period, no doubt due to some personnel overlap. But I file this under C for Cherry, because it's 'Humus' that is the more interesting piece. The orchestra, accentuated by Cherry, Loes Macgillycutty on vocals, and Mocqui Cherry on tambura, reads Cherry's melodies quite straight, giving a marching-band punch that I've never heard before in any of Cherry's music. Loes' singing is pretty much the icing on the cake (I like icing); she's fluttery and brash, but doesn't overdo it, sitting out long sections. The different movements of 'Humus' are broken down on the sleeve and the entire band stays to the script. But this is a script that allows a lot of improvisation. I think I can recognize Brötzmann in a few points, and Macgillycutty manages to punch her voice along with the instruments quite seamlessly. The coda, on side 2, brings back some of the Sanskrit chants heard on the last few records, with Cherry speaking to the crowd and trying to lead a complicated count on the 1, 5 and 13 beats. He almost talks more than he plays here, but it's a nice reprise of what's now a familiar theme ('Sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-mi'). Everything explodes in blast of cacophonous jazz blowing, and then we're out. (Well, actually this is where the Penderecki piece starts, but I'm trying to assess this in the proper order. Kinda like when my friend went to see Matrix 2, and the cinema screwed up and started showing the middle of the film first, and then the beginning came at the end.) I feel like I would be missing an opportunity if I finish this writeup without making some joke about 'hummus' but, well, there ya go.

5 December 2010

Don Cherry - 'Blue Lake' (Get Back)

Here's another unearthed trio recording from '71, relissued on Get Back with nice thick vinyl and unreadably Japanese gatefold liner notes. This is the Dyani/Tamiz band we heard on Orient, recorded live and recorded well. After Cherry's title track (a bamboo forest of strange swampy delights), we embark into 'Dollar and Okay's Tunes', which Cherry introduces through a friendly, conversational spoken section. It sounds like we're getting some of Dollar's tunes first, though it's all a big medley -- at least I'm assuming Dollar Brand writes the more cyclical, melodic piano-driven tunes. It definitely veers into the 'Eagle Eye' territory we heard before, except the sound is much more huge - perhaps things are recorded better, or the band is better at multi-tasking. Regardless, it's a swirling ball of sound that sounds great - unified, cohesive and luxurious. Tamiz is a great percussionist who can ride the waves, driving things forward while still containing them. The melodic structures, resembling (in some ways) Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath with the repetitive, simple melodies and ebullience, are departure points. When Cherry pulls out the trumpet, suddenly we're skirted away into uncharted Oriental depths. But it shifts a bit; over the 1.5 sides of this suite, we're taken through worlds of childlike simplicity and then thrust into staggering dynamic complexities. There's a nice interaction between Dyani's bass and Cherry on vocals and I think xylophone near the end of side two, and it sputters into a bit of vocal babbling (or maybe its perfectly lucid and I just don't understand the language) -- which has soft, rubberised edges and is extremely welcoming, even though the music stops and Cherry thanks the interior designer of the venue. It's a bit of a strange ending, but all muscles are relaxed by this point. Platter two is one long piece, 'East', which begins with a bouncy groove and some sinister bass played, using deep bow strokes and occasional fiber scratches. Cherry is again on piano for most of this and by this point I've started to really feel his doubletracked vocal/ivory stylings. While 'East' at first suggests a more avant-free exploration, it doesn't take long til we've fallen back into the same song-based stuff heard on the first record, and indeed on the last one as well. But it's not a comfort zone, it's a truly passionate musical communication. The band really gets cooking around one of those chanted four-note melodies that Cherry's fond of; it sounds strangely familiar, like maybe something from Mu or Orient, but it's always evolving so much that it's hard to say. Maybe I'm feeling Cherry's eternal rhythm, or maybe it's just somnambulant melodies.

4 December 2010

Don Cherry - 'Orient' (Get Back)

Orient's title track, split over two sides, is a rambunctious and sprawling improvisational duo with Han Bennink (or technically a trio, as there is very minimally contributed tambura). Cherry and Bennink both move between instruments, with a heavy emphasis on repetitive, circular piano melodies to open and close the piece. In the middle is where the meat is, though it's always changing. One memorable part on side 2, near the end, finds Bennink's trashcan cymbal style as a nice ridge against an otherwise hypnotic, stuck-record piano riff. It's great to see these two together; the most interesting bit is where Cherry is singing (in a sharp yet earthy caterwaul) over Bennink's xylophone/steel drum freakout. Or at least I think so; it actually sounds like both of them are playing this demented afrorhythm, but Bennink is the master of sounding like two for one. The hybrid world-fusion than was begun on the Mu records feels like it's found a more confident footing while simultaneously being more loose -- such is the power that someone like Bennink can contribute. I always tend to equate Bennink with a more humorous playfulness than Cherry often displays, and the beginning of 'Orient' on side 2 has a Dadaist call and response horn part that is reprised at the end with Bennink emulating brass instruments with his own voice. It ends the whole collaboration on a goofball moment that's a new direction for Cherry, yet somehow not incongruous with his eversought earthpulse. 'Eagle Eye', a trio recording with Johnny Dyani and Okay Tamiz, is the next split-across-two-sides piece. It's significantly more meandering and less propulsive, but shows another side of Cherry. It unfolds slowly, with some bowed bass and a much more languid drum style -- in some ways I think Tamiz is more attuned to Cherry's heartbeat, though perhaps the results are less intriguing than with Bennink's iconoclasm. Some moaning/chanting gets the energy level up before it settles into a nice piano riff groove, spoiled only by the platter-dividing fadeout. On side 3, the groove returns and so does the chanting, with a few James Brown-style interjections ("Help me out! I need help!", to which Dyani responds with his bassline; "I've been trying to learn to sing, y'know, but I really need help...." and then more pleas for vocal assistance, assuring the listener (or the band) as to how simple the song actually is). Soon, some live crowd sound is mixed in, sounding like a huge cavernous space, almost like a fake studio effect but maybe they just swung the microphone to face the other way. But it is a live performance, as the ending applause reveals. 'Eagle Eye' does start to become tiresome, but at some indeterminate point the tune turns into 'Togetherness', where Cherry busts out the pocket trumpet and gives us some of what we've been waiting for. This is another solid piece, and a nice crowdpleaser as the aforementioned applause indicates. Side four reunites Cherry with Han Bennink, and the tambura is a bit more audible here (or maybe only present here and not on 'Orient' at all, I'm not sure). 'Si Ta Ra Ma' is a side-long song structured around a four-note melody which is extended through piano, tabla, singing and other formats. It's a minimalist deconstruction of a melodic figure not unlike the work of Henry Flynt or, much later, Richard Youngs' Advent record. It does feel like Bennink has to take a backseat and given my stereotype of Dutch free jazz, it almost feels weird to imagine him embarking on this chant. But that's a stupid preconception to have about someone as fluid and shapeshifting as Bennink, and he manages to refute it throughout the duration of the side. He's in pitter-patter mode consistently, whether it be tabla, steel drum, or blocky-sounding drums. His nervousness plays off Cherry's calm, and when the melody returns on piano, it's like the sun setting over the harbour.