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28 March 2011

Cocteau Twins - 'Heaven or Las Vegas' (4AD)

I don't know a lot about this band -- just this album, and I used to have a cassette of Blue Bell Knoll that I wish I still had, cause it was great! But this is a pretty masterful collection of songs, of this band doing what they do... strangely mutated vocals (actually singing English, just with weird phrasing), thick semi-ambient guitars that sound like synths, and a drum machine to push it all along. It's pure pop abstraction, made evident by how infectious these songs are even though I haven't listened to this album in probably a decade, I remember almost every song. Side one is just a feelgood suite of winners. 'Iceblink Luck' jumps out as particularly memorable - it's sentiments are so human despite an aesthetic that is alien. Inviting indeed, I still love the title track and the way it soars. The maxim "a pop hook can be genius without literal meaning'" is sure in effect here. Side two takes things down a notch, opening with the relatively somber (and somewhat world music-like) 'I wear your ring'. And as much as I enjoy listening to it (particularly this scratchy, beat-up old LP, which has enough surface noise to add another layer of strange on proceedings), I don't really know how to write about this music. I know this band has a massive cult following but I just casually like this one record. I'm almost afraid to write any interpretations here just in case I get angry comments from Cocteau diehards (see, I still delude myself into thinking that people actually read this blog). I know they're Scottish, but this feels pretty far away from the Close Lobsters record just under review here, despite being really rather contemporary of them. I can hear a Kate Bush influence in 'Road, river and rail' but maybe I'm just looking for something easy to say. There's evidence of the times - the bassline gets pretty plucky on 'Pitch the baby', and the overall sound has a very 80s aesthetic (though I think this is actually 1990). 'Frou-frou foxes in midsummer fires', the closing cut, is dark and brooding, and one that I didn't actually remember. When it kicks in, it's an epic liftup, and it's almost like scat singing, yet so serious. When you look up 4AD in the dictionary, this should be what you get. I guess this band influenced artists like Sigur Ros and maybe even the shitgaze stuff of more recent times. And all this from just outside of Falkirk too!

27 March 2011

Close Lobsters - 'Foxheads Stalk This Land' (Enigma)

A long time ago, I dropped $2 on this because a friend raved about it as a forgotten masterpiece of mid-80's college pop. Close Lobsters were from Scotland and affiliated with that "C-86" scene which was a bit before my time but I liked anyway - some day far into the future we'll get to that seminal compilation, but for now there's just a few odd LPs to represent it on these shelves. Bold, brash 80's drum production, clean channel guitarjangle and some (but not too many keyboards) are the foundation; on top you get sweetly sung melodies, occasionally moody and prone to 4/4 confidence. The liner notes, instead of printing lyrics, print poetic riffs on each track which I quite like! I always remembered this being good for the opening cut, 'Just Too Bloody Stupid', but 'I Kiss the Flower in Bloom' jumps out at me now. File under the Field Mice; there's not a whole lot I can say about this except I still enjoy this for as rarely as I listen to it. It's breezy and loose. The bile comes in the vocal delivery on the title track, but the guitars are all still flowery, and the echoey drums situate it all in a very familiar arena. It's only the 8-minute closing track, 'Mother of God', where Close Lobsters stretch out and get more fiery. This is a monotonous exercise in riff-rock, with a huge layered guitar sound that burns out into the night Of course, it sounds a little bit like Big Country. These guys made another album which I've never heard, but my eyes are open for it in the $2 bins of the world.

Circle - 'Paris-Concert' (ECM)

For me, Chick Corea begin and ends with Circle - Paris-Concert -- no, wait, it begins here and ends with the ARC record, but I file that under 'Corea' and this one under 'Circle'. That's because I see this as an equal split between Braxton and Corea, I guess - though listening now, it's really an even split between all four members. Which makes the name Circle quite apt, though it may lead to confusion with the Finnish group. Side 1 is about as great as jazz can be, opening with Wayne Shorter's 'Nefertitti' and then merging into a solo bass composition by David Holland. They take Shorter's lyricism and open up the space between the notes, getting quite thick at times but never letting any party dominate things. Holland and Barry Altschul are really fluid together and they're each afforded moments to shine in a solo environment. Holland's piece, 'Song for the Newborn', is a beautiful, rolling tune. It's woody and cavernous, and attains a romantic edge; probably my favourite cut on the whole double LP, and one to put on mixtapes. This is a live recording so you can really feel the energy in the air; the fidelity is first rate, and there are times with Braxton's plastic reeds and the cello or bass bowing becoming difficult to distinguish, but it's a masterful groupthink with a sum more than its parts. Altschul's 'Lookout Farm' goes way beyond a drum solo, dancing around with a light touch. Corea's only real contribution, compositionally, is 'Duet' with Braxton (though given a more Braxtonian name on the LP's label), which blends into the drum solo; but his playing is stellar throughout, a post-Cecil manic edge undercut by billowing, Paul Bley-esque tone clouds. 'Duet' in particular takes on a shimmery atmosphere; it's spellbinding. Braxton of course contributes a strangely-named graphical score composition which feels midway between his late 60's Delmark AACM records and the more continental, music-hall feel of his mid-70s compositions. Which makes sense, cause this is 1971. The second LP consists of two side-long pieces, both ceaselessly flowing and expansive. Side 3 is a long piece composed by Holland which varies between call and response melodies and explosive free sections. There are passages where Braxton sits out and the trio lays a base, and his reeds feel more gentle than brassy. The fourth side, 'No Greater Love', is an opening of an old standard. By this point in the concert, the band has really established a rapport and the track swirls with energy. The chord changes are obviously rooted in a a jazz/blues tradition more than anything else we've heard in Paris - Concert, yet this doesn't hold back the explorations. Corea in particular shines here; he manages to play the role of the centre, while simultaneously breaking into some of the most divergent asides. According to the Internet, Circle actually put out six records in their very brief existence, but I've never heard any others. This one seems to show up a lot - it's certainly a popular title amongst my friends - but I'd be curious to hear what they could do in a studio.

18 March 2011

Chrome - '3rd from the Sun' (Don't Fall Off the Mountain)

Chrome in 1982 has taken on a somewhat more formulaic approach, though it's still a formula that is very distinctly and uniquely their own. There's some longer tunes here, such as 'Armageddon', that establish unrelenting horizontality. There's still the usual thick guitars, atmospheric effects, and slow-moving oscillators, but by this point they've been doing it for awhile and there's not such a strangeness to it. The vocals are frequently doubletracked, maybe both Edge and Creed in unison (?), but they tend to create a more robotlike effect, which is almost jarring on the opening cut ('Firebomb'). '3rd From the Sun' begins with an epic chordal progression, illustrating how much closer to traditional rock music we've gotten since Alien Soundtracks. When taken out of the bedroom experimentalist environment, the harsh vocal delivery and minor-key guitar leads draw this closer to horror-rock territory than I'd like. I'm not saying this sounds like White Zombie, but there are some affinities. Using chords isn't a sin; on 'Off the Line' a fairly standard progression becomes a workout in maximalism within a minimal structure, and it's one of the more rewarding (and lyrically slim) tunes here. There were guitar solos on Alien Soundtracks too, probably moreso than here; what's changed is that Chrome has figured out how to be 'heavy'. It's not thick or loud necessarily, but heavy in terms of speed and space. Parts of this record remind me of Voivod, who were surely influenced by Chrome. And there's a big scary head on the cover of this record (like there is on most Voivod albums).

17 March 2011

Chrome - 'Red Exposure' (Beggars Banquet)

Though this record is missing credits, I think Chrome has been paired down to the Edge/Creed duo by this point. Compared to their debut record, Red Exposure makes a significant step forward in terms of recording/sound quality, sounding like an actual studio product. This serves to accentuate their sound, allowing strange melting metallic drone intrusions to poke out of the mix more. There's more dynamic range, and it allows the songs to breathe more, such as 'Static Gravity' which reprises the midtempo jauntyness found on Alien Sountracks in a carnivalesque manner. Side two opens things up a bit, but also moves into 80's pop territory with 'Electric Chair'. The sense of menace and fear is released here, and a slight Gary Numan thing is in place. But it's cool, there's no reason why Chrome can't write something catchy. It's still a bit scary, after all, and this is total metal - metallic and shimmery, not heavy metal. By the end, 'Isolation', we're drifting into a sunset, with a rising and falling pulse, not quite machine but not quite human.

9 March 2011

Chrome - 'Alien Soundtracks' (Siren)

As the title suggests this is a blast from another world, a discordant slicing array of metallic textures and primal songforms that somehow sounds of its time despite having no peers. It's home recording-style song construction, with searing feedback guitars mixed low and weird monotonous percussion which sometimes attains genius, particularly on 'Nova Feedback', which has an almost jazz-guitar tone and a somewhat prog riff. Sometimes you can't tell if it's badly-played violin or a weird guitar texture, and everything is balanced so well nothing fights the frontal role. It's an easy record to lose yourself in, for while all of the elements are obvious, there's something about the way it all attenuates into the mix. There's sci-fi allusions everywhere (from the title, band name, and 'Baradas nicto' scrawled on the liner notes, which I guess is a paraphrase of The Day the Earth Stood Still, plus lyrical detachment in tunes like 'Slip It To the Android'); yet occasionally, there's something associative in Helios Creed's singing; a surreal escapade in 'All Data Lost' or 'Phraoah Chromium's confused sexuality and claustrophobia. Guitars are still the root of the Chrome sound, even if they're more focused on texture than riff. The modulated vocal style, especially on tunes like 'Pygmies in Zee Park', sorta sounds like Bowie and should have glam associations, but there's something too bastardised about the Chrome sound to pull things that way. Chrome never really quite fit into the punk lineage and the music is more akin to psychedelia anyway (listen to the blues-thrust of 'Pharaoah Chromium', for examps, or 'St 37' which is like a lost Malcolm Mooney-era Can track), but there's also a swagger and attitude that is unmistakably snide. I find myself listening to this record very rarely even though it's kinda revelatory whenever I do.

3 March 2011

Alex Chilton - 'Feudalist Tarts' (New Rose)

But by this point, I'm not sure anymore. I don't know why I allow my biases for production to colour my tastes so much. Feudalist Tarts, from 1986, is a bright and brassy Alex Chilton, a mini-LP of half covers, half originals. The A-side erupts with the nonsense of 'Tee Ne Nee Ni' before leading into the strongest track on the record, 'Stuff'. This is bold, confident 80's production, laden with saxophone solos, slicing electric guitar leads, and harmonica. It's an Ardent job, and the most self-consciously Memphis/Stax approach he's done in a long time, but it can't help but feel a bit empty. 'Stuff' is the winner because it manages to drag on into aimlessness, almost like the mood is fighting the production. I love Like Flies of Sherbert but I'm not sure about Feudalist Tarts, even though both records are clearly made by a man who has lost it. I shouldn't speak ill of the recently deceased, but I think the advantage of Sherbert is that we're thrust into the immediacy of his dissolution. By the time Tarts comes around, he's figured out what he's going to do, and he's just doing it; there's no sincerity in either, but there's also no subtlety to this record. 'Lost My Job' is the bright spot of side two, unless you really like harmonica, because he blows on 'Lost My Job' like a third-rate Dylan who's performing in a cruise ship bar. The rhythm section does retain the plodding nature of Sherbert (despite being completely different personnel) but there's too much radio-friendliness. 'Paradise' though, almost captures the singsong naiveté of #1 Record, though the half-assed ska guitar part renders the whole thing as a shitty exercise in self-parody.

2 March 2011

Alex Chilton - 'Like Flies on Sherbert' (Aura)

Welcome back, me! With many apologies for the long delay - 'twas due to the fact that this accumulation of vinyl (and CDs) were packed tightly in cardboard boxes for the past few months - a turbulent period of personal change, relocation and lots of sweat. But now they are unpacked, back on the shelves, the ol' Pro-Ject hooked up again, and the Ortofon cartridge is ready to scream out. It's pretty nice to come back with Like Flies on Sherbert, a record that I believe should be forced upon every irritating jangle-prone Big Star follower. The sugar and twang only work for me if you know the darkness underneath. Sister Lovers is some well-documented depression but the spiral comes out of that, through 'Downs', and into Sherbert, a maddening plodding mess that somehow makes more sense to me as I get older. Yeah, it's mostly cover versions, with all the levels set wrong, tons of mistakes left in, and a proto-Inca Eyeball vibe of apathy. Though, there's an energy in the loose rings - the fluid grooves are about feeling, not precision. The personal demons of Mr. Chilton are a good deal abstracted from the relatively direct levels of Sister Lovers, but if you liked the sarcasm of 'Thank You Friends' you'll probably find much to celebrate here. I know I do. Roy Orbison's 'I've Had It' is a particular highlight, with Chilton growling the lyrics out of the side of his mouth, and if I knew the song better I'd know for sure if he's even singing the lyrics correctly. 'Waltz Across Texas' is perhaps the most memorable track here, though it might be a stretch to apply the term 'highlight'. It's a ludicrous mockery of American music, while somehow being very listenable - it's one I've played repeatedly. The title tracks ends it, an crunchy bit of whatthefuck. I wonder if this was the only record Chilton ever made - no Box Tops, no Big Star -- then what sort of legacy he would have? I suspect we would think of him as much more of a Kenneth Higney figure. Pussy Galore comparisons are easy to make, but this is a record that has moved beyond self-destruction, into a new level of confusion. Bonus points awarded for the Videodrome-esque back cover, where producer James Luther Dickinson is draped in an American flag, in sunglasses and a headband, labeled only as "Dickinson".