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30 May 2011

Lindsay Cooper - 'Rags' (Arc)

Lindsay Cooper's one of the less famous members of Henry Cow, no doubt due to having fewer extracurricular activities than Frith and Cutler, etc. But she's pretty fucking integral to their sound, and her list of other projects is not a short one. This is all I really know about her solo work, unless you count Western Culture, which is pretty much dominated by her touch. So Rags comes as a unsurprisingly satisfying blast of RIO, which of course stands for Rock in Opposition, which was a stupid name given to a group of bands that came out of the Cow. There's actually nothing rock about Rags, which isn't surprising given that it's based around Cooper's bassoon, oboe, and other reed instruments, often overdubbed into very somber, beautiful harmonies (the 'Woman's Wrongs' tracks in particular). Rags is of course intensely political, based around the concept of sweatshops and labour exploitation, which a specific indication of the woman's role in such things. Of course this is drenched in that 70's British Marxism, which I can't get enough of. This inevitably means a Kurt Weill influence in the songs, and when they're sung (by either Sally Potter or Phil Minton) it is a wee bit instructional in nature. Potter, who I know mostly as a filmmaker, is stunningly beautiful when singing 'Prostitution Song', and can also bash out la française in '1848'. She overdubs with herself on the eerie 'Stitch Goes the Needle', and it's haunting in its simplicity. Frith and Cutler are here, of course, sometimes doing the slowly unfolding Henry Cow style which makes this feel very familiar. Frith's acoustic interlude on 'General Strike' is delicate and beautiful, which sets the emotional resonance for the whole album. 'The Charter' is like being in history class, but the 'Chartist Anthem' duet is a little more lively, ending with a segue into the intense 'Cholera'. 'The Song of the Shirt' appears to tie everything together, really transcending any agit-prop content and finding a rolling, almost pastoral beauty in it's rising and falling piano runs. These pages will show how influenced I am by these RIO things, even though I hate the term and find a lot of it to be too pedantic. Rags is actually really compelling, though it's influenced by nothing of its era (and 1980 had a lot of great stuff going on); it's interesting how these artists look to the earlier precedents of the 20th century as a basis for their radicalism; such musical gestures could be seen as reactionary were it not for the lyrical and cultural associations. I've always personally had a strong feeling that the innovations of today have to reflect the classics, even if by 'classics' I mean the anti-traditions of the post-war avant-garde, etc. So maybe that's why I spent my 20's seeking out late 70's political art-rock instead of the hits of my own era. My particular copy has some black piece of paper glued over one line of the liner notes, as if to correct or redact something; I'm tempted to peel it back, but the 30 year old glue will surely rip up the record sleeve and I'm too prissy for that. Anyone else want to tell me what it says?

29 May 2011

Contortions - 'Buy' (Ze)

They called this stuff "no wave" and I guess that's because it had some nasty sounding guitars and a snarl behind the fun - though I suspect these guys were just as fussy about footwear and hairstyles as their keyboard-soaked peers. I always though the Contortions predated James White and the Blacks, but apparently they operated in parallel, which means this is less of a James White/Chance vehicle then I thought. Guitarist Jody Harris has to get some credit for being integral to this; certianly, his playing is the reason to listen in 2011. This is actually fun party music, with disco beats and fake-free guitar parts; the clanging and dissonance all stays contained and the structures never get too wild. It's a short album, more like a mini-LP, and there's weird bursts of alto sax that make the whole thing sound insanely clean. James Chance sings like an American Mick Jagger but I'm not sure what to compare his sax technique to. There's actually far less sax than I remembered, and it never gets that dissonant except on the last track 'Bedroom Athelete'. The songs are fast and fun, drenched in attitude that fits well when the guitars go wild; 'My Infatuation' is all shreds and slides, removing the traditional role of the guitar entirely, and you can do that when you have such a snappy, solid rhythm section. 'Twice Removed' is my fave because it hints at what the Contortions could do when they held their tendencies at bay; there's a brooding tension remniscent of what Pere Ubu were doing at this same time though it resists the urge to get truly weird. The presence of keyboards is quite minimal, but when they're there, it's cool - more like a fruity 60's organ feel. These currents of youth attitude come and go in waves, because this now reminds me of the Nation of Ulysses in some ways.

28 May 2011

Comus - 'First Utterance' (Earmark)

This is the stuff where legends are made, and certainly everything about First Utterance converges to produce something entirely worth of its acclaim. Since I like to wax personal here, I'll say how First Utterance surfaced on my consciousness around 2000-2002, which was also the time that I was discovering British folk/rock from this period, plus prog and other old gems. The Badaboom Gramaphone 'folk' issue was pretty influential and really set the template for things I wanted to investigate, and remember this was in the early days of mp3s - i think I might have actually sucked this down from Napster during it's heyday. After reading about the lost gems of bands like Fresh Maggots, Agincourt, and Tudor Lodge -- and often finding them less than gemlike - Comus was the real deal. In fact, the Badaboom Gramaphone #4 itself says "Seriously odd, and terribly necessary." There's not one thing that makes First Utterance so good; I wish we could say it was "just" the demented lyrical content, or "just" the frantic 12-string thrashing, or just the juxtaposition of insanely Appolonian beauty in the most Dionysian of contexts. But of course it's all of these things, and far more. My favourite track has always been 'The Herald', perhaps because it's tripartite structure seems to create an entire universe in one 12 minute burst. The female vocals are impossibly angelic, and the rolling waves of arpeggiated acoustic guitar have a narcotic effect on me. Despite the placid surface, there's some real thrashing about going on underneath it all - the sleep of reason producing demons for sure. It's a musical world I envy and would love to recreate myself, but such smooth confidence is beyond me. I guess it's a good counterpoint to 'Drip Drip', where the male vocals dominate in the most tortured and affected way. As a "band", Comus have what it takes - the long group instrumental passages are attenuated to a primal stomp, and the darting violin riffs jumping out constantly feel like they are emerging from a common dark heart. And when you're singing about being raped by a pagan spirit you better back it up. Both sides start with relatively short, upbeat tunes that would almost work as singles - 'Diana' and 'Song for Comus', the former being more or less the signature Comus song though it's far from their best. The string playing is fantastic though, and there's a real prog edge, reminding me a lot of Aphrodite's Child. Actually much of the record reminds me of Aphrodite's Child, but a bit more farmyard, and also Aphrodite's Child never sang about dragging Christians into the woods and killing them. 'The Bite' is of course the most overt in this theme, and it's also aggressively-paced, producing a real sense of fear, suggesting the poor victim's desperate attempts to escape. The flute playing here is deft as well, and I suggest anyone who thinks they might not like flutey folk music check this out. Because First Utterance defies everything logical about music. It's clearly created by the most extreme outsiders, a band motivated by pagan bloodlust as much as the pursuit of the sublime - yet it occupied some of the most accessible, upbeat musical territory. Even in the changing Britain of 1970, coming out of swinging London and all that bullshit, the subject matter is shocking. And musically, they couldn't be more out of step with popular music of the times. When put up against Sandy Denny, Anne Briggs and Fairport Convention, there's only a superficial resemblance in instrumentation; against Canterbury-school prog, there's none of the jazzy carefree benevolence. Tyrannosaurus Rex might be the only comparison, but maybe just because of the vocal resemblance - a song like 'The Prisoner', which addresses mental illness in a first-person narrative way, cuts through any sort of pop/psych surface. This particular edition is lovely - it's a thick vinyl pressing, gatefold cover, the extra-nice inner sleeve that has the plastic inside the paper to avoid scratching, and a bonus 45rpm 12"! The bonus material is the single version of 'Diana', which is a bit slower and more gloomy, and then two extra songs from an EP released in 1971. Of these, 'In The Lost Queen's Eye' is more of the same which is not a bad thing; 'Winter is a Coloured Bird' is significantly more chilled out, foreshadowing the shitty second album (which I only heard once, but disliked immensely). I had a friend who claimed to have found an original sealed copy of First Utterance in some weird Yorkshire secondhand shop for a few quid, and then he fell asleep listening to it and a candle melted and fell over and then burned the cover. Given the collectibility of the original pressing, he's a bigger fool for even breaking the shrinkwrap.

27 May 2011

Company Flow - 'Funcrusher Plus' (Rawkus)

Earlier in these annals I revisited the first Anti-Pop Consortium album, and looked at the overall concept of "experimental hip-hop", concluding:
I guess I must accept the reality: I just don't like hip-hop; if I want experimental + language I'll go to Robert Ashley or Henri Chopin. The instrumentals are probably my favorite part, which, I know, says more about me than about the music itself. Maybe I'm being too hard on them, but I don't think time has been too kind to this; there's a few 'interesting' elements, but interesting in a Logan's Run kind of way. Maybe they're talking about slingshotting into the sun and walls turning inside out, but it still has that rap diction. That masculine affect is a turn-off; it makes me think that the real radicals are the white kids doing sound poetry in the basements of Columbus, OH and other such dens of weirdness.
Oh, to quote myself on these same pages - but 2009 feels like so long ago. Anyway, I think upon revisiting Funcrusher Plus, which I really have not listened in over a decade, I better revise the above statement. I do actually like hip-hop, at least a little bit. For some reason the "rap diction" of these guys doesn't bother me, and I actually love the music here. The production on this is spacious and minimal, yet actually packed with wonderful wonderful details - a truly psychedelic experience, as cheesy at that may sound. Side one has the definitive Company Flow song, '8 Steps to Perfection', which is all bending strings and horror-film vibes, yet without having any trace of that horror-rap shit. And this isn't completely removed from black urban music - 'Silence' has a raw 1970's soul feel yet is repetitious and infectious while the voice sounds tense and stretched. This album is really cobbled together from singles and various recordings, so it's not a meticulously-plotted masterpiece. But maybe that's what makes it so compelling - it really is a unique and brilliant approach to music, very much of its genre but innovative and masterful at the same time. 'The Fire In Which You Burn' has sharp, pinging strings that attenuate the song towards psychic madness, and I think one of the reasons I've taken so long to write about this is that the more time I wait between listens, the more enjoyable it is. The double-LP format might be a bit too much, and the physical record feels crammed too, with the non-gatefold sleeve and the busy, ugly hip-hop design sensibility. I could probably just stick with this and Dr. Octagon and be content with this one period in art/rap hybrids, because with the frequency that I will actually go to Funcrusher Plus, it could last a lifetime.

14 May 2011

Commuters (Amphibious)

This is one of the more obscure entries from the Dagmarverse, by which I mean the spiraling discography of the great Dagmar Krause. Commuters is a trio of her + Ronald Heiloo and Harold Schellinx, and it's a 45rpm concept-EP, with ten songs telling the stories of abstract, well, commuters, I guess. We learn about 'The Architect', 'The Poet', etc - with pretty much all of the music being electric piano played in various styles. It's a pretty great idea and it works well; the songwriting is full of strange chord changes, weird modes, and sudden tempo changes, yet Dagmar manages to convey something direct and beautiful despite the "classical avant-garde" nature. Commuters is a playful record - 'The Gentleman on the Stairs' bounces around like a cat with a ball of yarn, always elusive. Her Kurt Weill influence is pretty apparent here, both in the melodic inflections and in the way these are all narratives, and this of course reminds me of Art Bears, specifically The World As It Is Today - almost like these could be Art Bears demos, if Frith and Cutler were to sketch tunes on piano. 'The Man on the Island' is built around a swirling cloud of Cecil Taylor toneclusters, while others are very minimal on the piano - 'The Philosopher' is just a few errant notes to prevent a-capella, and 'The Priest' is barely there at all. Schellinx wrote all of the lyrics and this feels like a one-off fun project, though the notes indicate that it took about a week to record. My copy, unlike this photo I found, doesn't have any text on it, making it a mysterious, Residents-like object that I was delighted to find in a yard sale years ago (really!).

Cometa Fever - 'Dead Light' (What The ...?)

A one-sided 12" means that I only have to write about half as much here, right? In addition to being only 5 songs, this is also pressed in an edition of 112 copies of which I have #108, so chances are you won't be able to find this for sale anymore. Three years ago these five songs felt like a weird, Italian take on bedroom psychedelia, clearly influenced by stuff like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Magazine, and A.R. Kane, yet with a somewhat more casual twang. And now, the indie blogs of today are filled with bands who sounds shockingly similar to Cometa Fever. The mini-band feel (Cometa Fever are only a duo, with all the rhythm tracks coming from a can) is certainly common today; this is probably not miles away from Blank Dogs, which in 2008 were just hitting the scene. 'Neon, Baby' is a drawling ballad that is sort of beautiful in its monotony; of course, all the vocals are mixed in such a way that the lyrics are pretty unintelligible (though they're clearly singing in English). Lo-fi textures are everywhere, never that radical but with just enough static and hiss to feel amateur; how about the title track's guitar grind? 'Black' closes the record with a jaunty bassline, somehow singsong in its darkness. It's not proper melancholy but a bit of an act, which I like - it suits the style well. Over time, this has grown on me immensely, though it feels a bit unremarkable given the glut of things sounding like this; I dig it, though, a ton, maybe irrationally so.

11 May 2011

Shirley and Dolly Collins - For As Many As Will (Topic)

Dolly goes synth! Well, just a little bit. Though made with a small band, most of the cuts on the gramattically-confusing For As Many As Will are pretty stripped down, often with just Dolly on the flute-organ and some minimal cornett or recorder from the other guys (a band which again includes Barry Dransfield on fiddle, though he only appears on a few tracks (though he sings a bit, too)). Side one ends with a long medley of seven different songs (hailing apparently from 1728) and the flute-organ is the constant that holds down the segues. It's most evident how the addition of just a simple recorder can transform a vibe from cooky country-faire into total Defender of the Crown style. While side one starts with the beautiful 'Lancashire Lass', it ends with the medley, which starts to get a bit dense even with rests between it's four sections. The final piece of it is the instrumental 'Lumps of Pudding' (which sounds like the name of some bad prog-rock instrumental) and it's like a raw Third Ear Band tune, cutting through any sentimentality that might linger from the previous medley with sharp euphonium and shawm playing quite wonderfully with Dolly's synth. Her synth patches, of course, aren't exactly Dick Hyman -- they fit quite seamlessly with their sound. Side two beings with the flowing piano ballad 'Gilderoy', which has some rare double-tracked vocals by Shirley. Though over 100 years old now, it manages to stir something in me and that's without even really paying attention to the lyrics, which are surely tragic. Before you can get too used to it, it lurches into the courtly stomp of 'Rockley Firs', and then another circuitous instrumental jam called 'Sweet Jenny Jones', propelled throughout by euphonium farts. The instrumentalism continues through a German Xmas carol before getting back into a righteous Shirley delivery, 'The Moon Shines Bright'. Another medley takes us out, this one about the harvest, with the standout being the fiddle + gittern accompanied 'The Mistress's Health', where Dransfield knows exactly when to saw and when to let it lie. So another solid album closes - and the door closes Shirley Collins in these annals. After A Favourite Garland's somewhat confusing or incomplete liner notes, For As Many As Will overcompensates by listing every musician's instruments multiple times - at the top and bottom of the track listing, and then broken down on each track. Don't let it be said that you don't know who's playing gittern on this record!

9 May 2011

Shirley Collins - 'A Favourite Garland' (Gama/Import)

I think this is a greatest hits record or something, because it's really confusing to make sense of the liner notes and there's a bunch of different musicians on it. We get a few tracks of Shirley and Dolly, some with the Ethingham Steam Band, and some in a fairly rock setting. These tracks, honestly, slay. But this might be a reflection of my own enjoyment of Fairport Convention more than anything else. 'Staines Morris', which we heard on Anthems in Eden, is pretty kickass with Richard Thompson playing and singing on it, and electric guitar along with Ashley Hutchings. They also deliver 'Just As the Tide Was A Flowing', but an even larger and more rocking group drives 'Murder of Maria Marten', this time accompanied by Barry Dransfield on fiddle. It's total Unhalfbricking, and a true gem in it schizophrenia - aftera brief rock bit, it changes gear into a misty grey wall of fiddle and voice, before reprising itself. Epic. I'm sure this was blasphemous to some but it's almost the standout of A Favourite Garland. I say "almost", because the standout to me is the version of 'Lady Margaret and Sweet William' performed solo by Shirley with dulcimer-banjo. It's the most languid and comfortable I've ever heard the song, and I have heard it plenty. Her dulcimer-banjo playing returns on side two's 'Over the Hills and Far Away', though Dolly's calliope-organ takes over for half of it. It's a weird juxtaposition, but the merry-go-round feel is part of Dolly's charm. 'Plains of Waterloo' finds the same flute-organ in a far more cloudy setting - drifting over the horizon as the song stretches out into infinity, almost. It's another real gem, and I wish I had a better sense of where all of these different cuts come from. The last cut is a short solo banjo tune, 'Higher Germanie', which leaves things just oh-so-unresolved.

Shirley & Dolly Collins - 'Anthems in Eden' (Harvest)

I have slightly dreaded writing about these Shirley Collins records. I do like them, but I don't find them to be a point of obsession like many of my friends. I'm not English and suffering lately from a tad of traditional overload, but I recognise these records as masterpieces of great enduring strength and beauty, etc. Dolly's arrangements are certainly a big part of the appeal, and her organ playing has a slightly goofy, carnivalesque feel to it. Though the solo Shirley track, 'Gathering Rushes in the Month of May', is stunning. Now it's easy to think of this as early music revival, ren fair jams, or what have you -- but a lot of these instruments were basically dead at the time of recording (which I believe was 1969) so it was a big deal to arrange these for sackbut, crumhorn and descant. Also, I like harpsichords and there's a nice spattering of it across these songs. Side one is a big suite of traditional songs adapted into a narrative form, which is brilliantly done. Shirley kicks out the righteous vibrato in her voice when necessary. Check out 'Lowlands', a song I do quite love, here presented as the 'dream' part of the song-story. She's joined by a chorus of male voices at just the right ratio; they sound great opening the last part of the story, 'A New Beginning/The Staines Morris', a morris dance I guess. Under Shirley's voice, the contrapuntal reeds and bells create a pleasing, almost hypnotic effect. But it's actually side two that I love more - seven songs, ranging from the soft tones of 'Bonny Cukoo' to the dark, Robert Burns poem 'Ca' The Yowes'. The arrangements are more stripped down, sometimes just voice and one reed instrument, maybe the occasional chord stuck on the harpsichord ('Nellie the Milkmaid'). There's a blueprint here for all manners of folk revival, if it so pleases you.

8 May 2011

Colleen - 'The Golden Morning Breaks' (Leaf)

I never understood why Cécile Schott uses the stage name Colleen - it's kinda like if someone named Dave went by a stage name of Kevin. But that's totally her right, just as it's her right to put out a record with such a ludicrous album cover. If Colleen is going for the 'fey, fairy girl who talks to unicorns' vibe then I guess she chose well; the music on this record is certainly a green, expansive pasture of delicate miniatures, and it's about as far away from the Paris city where she is based as one could imagine. This is her second album, which moves away from the reliance on looping pedals that the first LP used, though there are still several electronic-rooted tracks, such as 'The Happy Sea'. But the waves of digital soundbliss here are layered with quietly plinking natural sound. This is a great record to listen to on vinyl as it's warm and engulfing, with lots of close-mic'd zither, particularly on side one. The zither is really the star of the album, or at least something zitherlike; 'Mining in the Rain' is a classical example of a sound miniature, balancing a zither melody with the creaking of chair or some other room ambience. The hesistations between each note are exquisite; there's a genuine fragility that speaks heaps through it's economy. Compositionally, everything stays small and horizontal; I guess these sketches are really just improvisations that have been worked over. Leaf is a good label for her as she's midway between mild, beatless electronica and Jeweled Antler-style sound-drawings. Fidelity-wise, though, she's a world away from the lackadaisical approach of the Americans, and I think The Golden Morning Breaks is a strong record for it (despite occasional digital clipping, used as a texture). By the end of the first side, I'd adapted my own listening to the slow pace of Colleen's work, and found myself enraptured by 'I'll Read You A Story' as it undulates. The longest track is the closer, 'Everything Lay Still', which layers cello and twinkling bells into a blanket of calm. It rises to a narcotic state, stops to look around, and then steps back into the horizon. I sort of feel like Colleen's style of constructed, low-energy soundworld has become a common thing, though I can't really think of many other examples, and certainly in 2005 this felt really fresh and original. The Golden Morning Breaks really is a coherent album, a story in some ways, which begins with the delicate twinkles of 'Summer Water' and ends with 'Everything Lay Still's inverted currents.

Ornette Coleman - 'Dancing in Your Head' (Horizon/A&M)

Fast-forwarding about a decade from Stockholm, we find Ornette deep in the orgasmic revery of jazz-rock fusion. Dancing in Your Head is 85% a long jam with a jazz-rock band and 15% a jam with the Master Musicians of Joujouka. And a "jam" indeed is 'Theme from a Symphony variation one', as the thunderous blasts of discordant guitars, bass spurts, and Shannon Jackson (I assume the Ronald has not yet been added to his name) pounding away in a Beefheartian, yet swinging style. There's a chorus, a simple melody that the band falls back into at times, but the holes only appear in this dense fog because everyone is playing the same thing. And when the verses are in effect, we get every type of post-Django guitar rivulets, often piled on top of the other guitar's dirty palm-muting. Both guitarists are credited as 'lead' guitars - Bern Nix and Charlie Ellerbee - and there's a genius to it, a self-consuming inward looking thrash that has a primitive monotony that outlasts most other efforts of its time. The second variation, on side two, begins with a tease of jazz guitar glory before getting back into the tune that by this point has bored into my brain. Throughout the eleven minutes of the second variation we're occasionally teased with fuzz pedals, bursts of rock riffage, and Coleman's alto skronk, but it's always returns to the central theme. It's maximal minimalism, and I can't help but think that the parts where the guitars and saxes are fighting to out-ascend each other to the next note is total Zoot Horn Rollo. 'Midnight Sunrise' is recorded in Morocco and finds Ornette's alto accentuated by clarinet, Moroccan reeds and percussion. I don't think it's a great title, or only half-great, because this is dark music of the night with nothing on the horizon. Despite the exploratory gusts of air, the percussion swarms around everything and encloses it, and I'm left wishing there was more than a 4-and-a-half minute document of Ornette's trip to Africa. Promo copy.

7 May 2011

The Ornette Coleman Trio - 'At the "Golden Circle" Stockholm volume one' (Blue Note)

This is the record on which the Izenzon/Moffett trio's reputation rests, for me (and I will spell their names correctly in this writeup, as this record's sleeve uses the correct spelling unlike Town Hall 1962, which I only just realised butchers it - great job, ESP proofreaders!). I actually have never heard volume two of this concert, and never remember to look for it, which is strange given how much I love volume one. Part of the reason is that I was surprised by this record. My father gave me this LP, from his very small collection of jazz records, representing his brief flirtation with avant-garde jazz in the late 60's which he quickly lost interest in. Actually, I think this might be have been the only record to remain, though he told me that he had both volumes of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra and swore they were upstairs (they weren't; what a tease!). Anyway, I took this somewhat reluctantly, during the peak of my interest in skronky out-jazz, figuring it couldn't be that good because the recording date was early and Blue Note wasn't a label I thought of as being representative of free jazz. So what a surprise to hear a hot-shit band disassembling the ghost of bop, propelling with energy and that agile, wispy tone of Coleman. The record starts with a spoken introduction in Swedish, after Izenzon tunes up and we hear Moffett adjusting his hi-hat - which makes me now realise that as much I love this trio, it's only these two live recordings I know by them. (I suppose I should start looking for copies of the Chappaqua Suite). Anyway, 'Faces and Places' quickly explodes, with Moffett drilling his ride cymbal throughout, propelling along Ornette's creaky explorations. Again, Izenzon is a little hard to hear, which is partially cause of this weird phasing effect caused by the ride cymbal, which I quite like - it gives the whole track a semi-metallic feel, a little bit like industrial music. It occasionally feels familiar, like quotations of Charlie Parker melodies, but then rips the rug from under itself as it goes along. 'European Echoes' begins with an almost intentionally crude pattern of toots and bleats from Coleman, his technique sounding quite amateurish as the swing slowly starts to take hold. It doesn't feel so much like an echo to me or even something European, but more like a training wheels on a bicycle that slowly rolls long, hitting some Moffett-driven potholes along the way. It sputters to a quiet bit and Izenzon gets plucky, and the whole piece feels like it's about to open up like the Art Ensemble of Chicago would approach it. Slowly the bubbly pattern comes back into place and we're at halftime, after a round of applause from a room of polite Swedes. On the flipside, 'Dee Dee' bursts out with the toe-tapping exuberance begun with 'Faces and Places', leading to a great interplay between the bass and drums when Coleman drops out. And 'Dawn' is a beautiful, slightly subdued closer, beginning with a long melodic improvisation where the bass echoes the sax melody at times, bowed in a way that resembles another horn almost. Moffett's sound is really tinny, with lots of fluttering around on the hi-hat and not much kick, probably a result of recording techniques of anything. It's a meandering tune, content to coast around peripatetically with lots of coffee breaks. It ends, essentially, in a restless, slow bass solo; Ornette returns to put a cap on it, and we're out. It's a downbeat closing, but it looks ahead to volume two.

Ornette Coleman - 'Town Hall 1962' (ESP/Base)

Though the Coleman/Cherry/Haden/Higgins 4tet is the one that made Ornette famous, this next trio with David Izenzohn and Charles Moffet is a far more remarkable group, in my opinion. Actually, I think this is one of the most "underrated" bands of all time, perhaps because Izenzohn and Moffet were less famous that Cherry/Haden (both before and after) their work with Coleman. Or maybe I just have weird taste. Anyway, Town Hall 1962 showcases this trio and also two compositions for string quartet. This is the sixth release on ESP disk which means it didn't hit vinyl until a few years after the concert happened. It's a weird split release, with 'Doughnut' and 'The Ark' showcasing the trio, 'Sadness' being the string quartet + Ornette, and 'Dedication to Poets and Writers' being the quartet alone, though composed by Coleman. This makes the whole thing feel a bit disjointed and ambitious, like Ornette was trying to stuff all of his interests into one concert/record. The trio work is bright and sassy, though the recording is very much a live concert hall feel. Both cuts are drenched in natural reverb; the sharp sonorities of the sax cut through which leave Izenzohn and Moffet a bit underrepresented, but if you listen for them it's pretty rewarding. The side-long 'Ark' moves through a variety of shiny textures and bold motifs; it gets chaotic and ellipical at points, and there's one passage where it sounds like someone whistling but I think it's just Izenzohn bowing his strings to generate harmonics. There's a lot more bowing in his approach to bass playing (as compared to late-50's Haden) which might be another reason I enjoy this band so much. It's a very open sound, and somehow busier than the quartet recordings I just listened to. Now, the string quartet pieces are both beautiful and severe. 'Sadness' is aptly named - a somber, mournful integration of saxophone and strings, which doesn't so much cry as brood. 'Dedication' is lengthy but fluid - rooted in minor keys, constantly ascending and descending - it is far more contrapuntal than other Ornette classical-influenced compositions I've heard, though I guess that would only be Skies of America, which I haven't heard in ages (though I remember fondly). 'Dedication''s busyness comes as a sharp contrast when paired with 'Sadness'; I like the more minimal approach to string pieces, but the many glissandos and runs of 'Dedication' allow it to attain a thunderous, psychedelic quality. Town Hall 1962 is never a record I hear anyone talk about, despite it's place as an early ESP side, as I guess the neoclassicism puts it slightly out of step with the thunder of New York Eye and Ear Control, Spiritual Unity, etc., but I think there's a lot of joy (and 'Sadness') to extract from it.

3 May 2011

Ornette Coleman - 'Change of the Century' (Atlantic)

Change of the Century (another beautifully modest title) is go #2 for this quartet. Ornette ventures out with some call-and-response bluesy licks in 'Ramblin', almost like he's trying to prove he's linked to some soul. Cherry, still billed as the formal Donald here, steps back a bit and lets Ornette run here, but it feels a bit like a walk through the motions. Haden sounds somewhat more pronounced here, though in terms of production it's exactly like the first one. 'The Face of the Bass', despite the stupid name, is his time to shine but his punchy repetition over Higgins' jitteryjattery plinks at the end of 'Ramblin' is kinda nice too. But hey, I almost skipped track 2 which is called, yes, 'Free'. Ornette's liner notes claim that this is spontaneously improvised and perhaps so; it sure begins with a hell of a run, where you can practically hear the shimmery plastic of his alto breaking apart. Starts and stops, hesitations - this may be free but it's certainly anticipated by each of them, and the somewhat lumbering parts are my favourite bits. Haden knows how to ramp up the momentum and his tonal choices give Coleman room to run. Still not enough Cherry here, but he gets a few opportunities as the piece progresses and extensively on side two. Despite the loose feel to these runs, the music never gets too claustrophobic; this is probably somewhat due to the face that Coleman and Cherry rarely play at the same time, so it ends up with a much more "solo" type feel, just extended over two LP sides. There's some really nice cornet trilling on 'Bird Food' and the bouncing never really stops. The strongest TUNE on the record is 'Una Muy Bonita', which is kinda infectious and fun, and then the closing cut is probably the most freewheeling and expansive, but it wears out its welcome a bit. It is probably the most lively and spirited interplay we get between Cherry and Coleman, even if they are mostly darting around the same melody. It's a record of transition, but I certainly find it a lot more listenable than Free Jazz, (which of course someone had to go and make, and that's a good thing).

Ornette Coleman - 'The Shape of Jazz to Come' (Atlantic)

The sleeve boasts of a full dynamic-frequency spectrum, and it's true that this erupts in blistering mono, on the great Atlantic Recording Corporation of 1841 Broadway NYC, and you know, The Shape of Jazz to Come isn't a completely inaccurate title! Wanky wannabe-Stanley Crouches can argue til blue in the face about what was the first "free jazz" record, throwing up this one vs Cecil's first, as if it really matters who came before whom. (I'd put my money on Lennie Tristano anyway, if I cared about this debate). To my ears, The Shape of Jazz to Come sounds a lot less like Ascension than you might think, given its reputation. In fact, it starts out sneaky, with 'Lonely Woman' staking out a mellow, creeping blues that is radical only in its loss of centre. Donald Cherry is the cornetist and he's given pretty much equal time with Coleman's alto; there's not much low end apart from Charlie Haden so the whole record has a light lift to it. Cherry's technique is impeccable if not yet the original world-pulse freakbeat he would cultivate 12-15 years later. But the real "crazyness" begins on track 2, 'Eventually', which I would imagine at the time just sounded like two endless solos on top of each other. What glues it all together is Haden and Billy Higgins; while now we might see this rhythm section as holding things back from complete collective improvisation, I appreciate the grounding. I mean, there are riffs throughout, distinct chordal patterns composed by Coleman and adhered to despite the openness. 'Chronology', the closing cut, is certainly related to the hard bop at the time, though more exploratory and bright. In a jazz fantasy, Sonny Rollins could step right in here, and I wish he did at points because a fifth member could push things into a really high gear. 'Focus on Sanity' (a great title particularly when sandwiched between 'Peace' and 'Congeniality') is maybe the most discordant, but in some ways it feels reductive to only view this record by placing it in some quantifiable measure of innovation. Of course, with a bold title like that, I guess you're asking for it. One of the reasons this is a pure pleasure to listen to is the fidelity - I love the way these records sound, a blast from sixty years ago but sounding as true as today. Kudos to Bones Howe for his production techniques, however minimal they might be. Of course the title of this record has become legendary, parodied by Refused in their Shape of Punk to Come (a record that I missed out on but keep intending to go back and discover) and especially by the long-forgotten midwestern avant/punk band, the New Magnificent Cumshots, whose demo cassette The Shape of Jizz To Come (boasting the identical cover to this apart from the word 'jizz' pasted over 'jazz') never actually saw the light of day.

1 May 2011

Leonard Cohen - 'Recent Songs' (Columbia)

I suspect that Recent Songs is not one of the best-selling Leonard Cohen records, which is somewhat of a shame because it's a solid work with some songs you haven't heard a million times (because I, for one, will strangle myself if I hear 'Suzanne' again, as great as it might have been once to me). Part of Recent Songs' sleeper status is just timing - by the late 70s, the zeitgeist of ten years past was no longer present infuse these songs with the profundity that keeps us coming back to songs like 'Who By Fire' forty years later. Instead we get a somewhat older, more restrained Cohen focused perhaps a bit more on songcraft than before. Some songs are directed to specific people, such as 'The Traitor', while the more familiar grandiose poems ('Ballad of the Absent Mare') might be outtakes from a previous record. It's a longer record, with some stretched out jammy bits and a definitive placement into the 70s folk-rock mileau. Maybe it's just me, but on 'The Gypsy's Wife' I feel the bassline has just a bit of boogie-funk to flavour it, and it wouldn't be out of place on a Fleetwood Mac record of the same time. Likewise, there's a lot of electric piano to flesh things out. This musicality, sadly with all musicians uncredited on my copy (except for background vocalist Jennifer Warnes), is a nice addition, when sounding 1970s. There's also some elements that are more retro in approach, though the violin solos are lively and exciting; any guitar noodling stays focused. This LP came after the Cohen-disavowed, aborted Phil Spector album Death of a Ladies' Man and in some ways the music feels like a reaction to that gross, plastic sheen -- occasionally with uneven results. I find the retro parlour feel of 'Came So Far For Beauty' to bit a bit too slow for me, and the French-language cover tune, 'Un Canadien Errant', is just too close to Edith Piaf for me. But the "back to his roots" Cohen, at one time the Cohen I wanted, lacks the bitterness and desperation that makes Death of a Ladies' Man so amazing (even if it took me a good 15 years to come to that conclusion). When I do end up with a vinyl copy of that one, I will probably pull out Recent Songs even less frequently (and I already barely play this one).

Leonard Cohen - 'New Skin for the Old Ceremony' (CBS)

This is my favourite Leonard Cohen without any hesitation, and I wonder if that's because it's his best work, or because it's tied to the most personal associations. Musically speaking, it's somewhat more expansive, as the bursting bright horns on opening cut 'Is This What You Wanted?' indicate. But when it's still centered around voice and guitar, it slays - 'Who By Fire' is one of his most enduring songpoems, no doubt because of it's burning intensity. And 'Chelsea Hotel #2' is one that is equally classic, for me not because of the lyrics (not something I particularly relate to except for the part about being ugly but having the music), but because of the cadence and vocal gestures. 'I don't mean to suggest that I loved you the best / I can't keep track of each fallen robin' is as perfect and casual as Leonard Cohen can possibly be, yet it still resonates with a special magic (and slightly tossed-off at the same time). Yes, New Skin for the Old Ceremony is a flawless record, a tad more flawless than the first three in my opinion (and I realise how contradictory and ridiculous that statement is). Some of these tunes I've read in written form; 'Field Commander Cohen' is a good example but it translates splendidly into song, especially with the punchy strings. The assonance comes out when sung in a way that I don't always pick up on when reading something; Lewis Furey plays viola as well, and I like his solo work a great deal. Syncopation plays a nice role; 'There is a War' and 'Lover Lover Lover' both have a bouncy flamenco feel which in lesser hands would be cloying. This is probably also the key to getting into later more heavily-produced Cohen records; though I'm Your Man never clicked with me, I've come to really adore Death of a Lady's Man (though that's a whole other extreme I guess). I do remember walking around small-town Japan with this on my headphones constantly, with 'Leaving Greensleeves' attaining some sort of magical significance for me as I looked over wet fields of tealeaves. This record might also be the closest Cohen comes to Woody Allen territory, not that it's particularly funny or especially neurotic, but in that style of one-liners - 'I'm so afraid/ thate I listen to you', 'I undid your gown', etc. Again I feel somewhat at a loss for words, which I guess is a natural response to someone like Cohen who is such a master of them. If you're satisfied, as I was for years, it's perfectly acceptable to stop here and not explore any of his further records, though if you only pick one post-NKftOC I would definitely have to recommend Death of a Lady's Man (which I don't actually own, so it won't appear in these annals).