HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

31 August 2011

Kevin Coyne/Dagmar Krause - 'Babble' (Virgin)

I file this under C-for-Coyne because he wrote all of the songs, and Dagmar is "just" the female perspective vocally, but she sure adds a lot to this, a forgotten masterpiece in my opinion. Babble is a concept album about a relationship falling apart, set in the late 60s. The main theme is communication, but there's a lot of brutal honesty in these songs. It's not something for everyone, nor would I classify this among the greatest downer breakup albums like Mountain Goats' Sweden or Smog's Doctor Came at Dawn. Instead it's a restrained, folk-rock song cycle that tries repeatedly to find hope and strength in failure, but offers no answers. Instead of being duets, the songs are often led by one or the other, though they do come together at points. The opening two cuts are pretty incredible - the male 'Are You Deceiving Me?' and then Dagmar's 'Come Down Here'. These two songs, with lyrics that are actually pretty sparse, are drenched in fear and insecurity and explore a middle-aged emotional territory that few artists ever touch. The vocal performances are stellar, of course, and you would think these two actually had a relationship (though I doubt that). The music is generally folky-blues in that Kevin Coyne style, most rambunctious in 'Stand Up' (which is also probably the weakest, most out-of-place tune lyrically) though 'Sweetheart' could totally be an Art Bears track with it's doom organ and vocal hysterics. 'Shaking Hands with the Sun' is almost a misstep, equating the relationship with Hitler and Mussolini, but that type of extreme simile can work if one is grounded in a similar emotional quagmire. The closing lyric of "it doesn't burn" is repeated in a way that conflicts with the upbeat tune; and then 'My Minds Joined Forces' comes out of it which is the most sarcastic, almost twee mirage of the album. But I gravitate towards brutal, raw honesty which you get in 'I Really Love You' and the Kevin Ayers-like 'Sun Shines Down on Me'. 'I Confess' is the guilt song, and it has the same gentle cadence of Marjory Razor Blade's most successful strummers. This avoids becoming a musical light-opera deal by being fairly untied to the "concept album" format, and having loose, open lyrics that can resonate to anyone, outside of a narrative. The last two tracks are repetitive duets, the first "It really doesn't matter' and the "We know who we are" - both the song titles and only lyrics. It's a trance of resolution, but I can't say that the album ends hopefully; just in an air of resignation.

30 August 2011

Kevin Coyne - 'Marjory Razor Blade' (Virgin)

This is Kevin Coyne's masterpiece, and I'm lucky to have the double LP version. It's sprawling and messy, like all double albums, but compared to the spare Case History this is a rocker. Lyrically, Coyne's turning his gaze to the middle class as opposed to the deranged mental patients he chronicled before, but really, is there a difference? 'This Is Spain' in particular resonates with me because of a terrible business trip I was on once that had me stuck in Marbella, a touristy hellhole if there ever is one. I didn't think of that song then but how great it would have been to walk around listening to it on headphones. But what an awesome record this is - the blues edges are sharper, the drums give everything a pounding edge, and Coyne's distinctive voice is the powerful center (even though he's not mixed that high). The title track opens things up in a practically 'Dust Blows Forward' manner, an a-capella dirge with twisted aggro flavours. When 'Marlene' comes out of it, it's a magical explosion, and like the fellow side-A cut 'Eastbourne Ladies', Coyne really never sounds better. The album is back and forth a bit between the drum-driven electric blues and the mellow ballads, with two Carter Family tunes thrown in the mix. The 'blues' is rampant, particularly on side two. 'Cheat Me' is pure knife-edge; 'I Want My Crown' and 'Mummy' feel more like sketches than full "songs" - a place for the band to stretch out with some slide stylings and other affects. Because I tend to enjoy Coyne's acoustic side more, I find these tracks charming, and maybe Marjory Razor Blade is so perfect because the balance is just right. When there is a full band, like 'House on the Hill', it's a nice momentum-builder; this song, feeling like a holdover from Case History because of the frank way it addresses mental illness, is nonetheless one of the album's strongest. Record two begins with my all-time favourite Coyne song, 'Jackie and Edna', a song about loneliness and regret unlike anything else I've ever heard. There's some class consciousness sprinkled throughout Marjory Razor Blade but it's not overwhelming - we're not into Housemartins or Billy Bragg territory, though I suspect Coyne may have been an influence here. This was about as close to commercial success as he ever got, and while I'm not intimately familiar with his later output, the general wisdom is that he never bettered this -- who am I to argue?

Kevin Coyne - 'Case History' (Tapestry)

The first Kevin Coyne record was repressed on thick 180g vinyl with good remastering and a really thick, solid cardboard sleeve - really, this thing could stop a bullet. I always wanted to hear this as I've loved most of Marjory Razorblade, particularly the acoustic/bluesy songs, which Case History consists almost entirely of. I wasn't disappointed - this is a great, intense trip, consisting of songs Coyne wrote while working in a mental institution. He has a great British bluesman voice, a bit Donald Duckish at times, but with just the right taste of pain. Some members of Siren turn up on a few tracks, most notably the great opener 'God Bless the Bride', where the extra guitars are a lovely complement. In all honesty, almost every one of these songs is about mental dissolution and despair, usually with an intense steel strum and repetition in the right way. 'Need Somebody' tackles age and loneliness in a quite prescient way for a 28 year old, and it foreshadows Coyne's own descent into depression later in his career. I saw him play around 2002 or so with the Mountain Stage band from that radio show as his backing group, because I think his son was in it. I didn't really know any of the songs he played except for 'Having a Party' which at that moment represented the true failure of rock and roll - the side we never hear about. He died soon after, and I'll always remember this pudgy guy in sandals bleating out this forgotten rock classic to a near-empty room in a Pittsburgh industrial park. But back to the other end of his career, all full of enthusiasm and promise. Case History is pretty fucking great. 'Araby' gets wispy and rambling, just like the somber 'White Horse'. Many of these songs, from a guitar-strumming POV, are simple-minded and repeititive, even trance-like. 'My Message to the People' feels far longer than it is, as does 'Mad Boy', making side two feel claustrophobic and nightmarish - which is exactly the intent. Though there's nothing musically experimental happening, it's pretty uncompromising. At it's most loopy it starts to resemble psychedelic blues, closer to Ed Askew than Country Joe. But it's the voice and the lyrics that drive through everything, and I ought to listen to this one much more often.

Lol Coxhill - 'The Joy of Paranoia' (Ogun)

Sometimes when I am going through a mild personal freakout, either a "why the fuck do I have so many records?" moment (which I call armchair zen) or a "do i even really like music?" moment, I'll think about all the records I never listen to as a key element (but I'm never sure if it's cause or effect). So I'll have these moments where I wonder why I need to own four different LPs by Lol Coxhill when I never listen to them, etcetera etcetera. This project was embarked upon partially to conquer these freakouts, and genuinely assess all of this plastic and vinyl I drag around with me from place to place, which is not so easy to deal with when you move to a new country every 3 years. Most of the time I end up finding new pleasures here, as I think I've only come across one or two LPs so far that I don't enjoy at all anymore -- yes, I tossed that second Arti + Mestieri record already. I've loved the first 3 Coxhill records here, and had fond memories of Joy of Paranoia. This memory has been mostly upheld, though I'd probably say it's my least favourite of the four. How much you enjoy the paranoia depends on how much you like guitars; side one is an 18 minute jam with three guitarists I've never heard of, one acoustic, one electric, and one bass. Lol is on soprano throughout -- throughout the entire LP - and I think he works well with the other guys. The Spanish guitar in particular gives it a real gentle, adult-oriented-improv feel, and they spill into all margins of speed, timbre and motion over the track. Side two begins with a four-part suite with Veryan Weston on piano, which is playful; the two don't so much intertwine as provoke, and there's a wooly tone to the sax like it's been muted. Or maybe I just need a new stylus. The fourth part of this suite is called 'Prelude to paranoia' and it leads into a solo piece, the almost-title track of the album ('Joy of Paranoia Waltz'). And what a track! This is some multitracked soprano sax, ascending and descending simultaneously to create the maddening tapestry it's title suggests. Paranoia is pleasure here; it's not claustrophobic or even that demanding, but it's an intense and beautiful 2 minutes and 12 seconds - go hear it on YouTube if you don't believe me. It's a Coxhill jam for mixtapes and DJ sets, and it's exuberance is infectious. The last two tracks are longer live improvisations with a hot electric pianist, Michael Garrick. The playful attitude remains though it's most edgy than the acoustic piano tracks with Weston; they combine to make side two a symmetrical sandwich balanced around 'Joy of Paranoia Waltz', with some crowd enthusiasm and applause sprinkled in. 'Perdido' has a great piano solo that is sorta funky at times, or maybe I should say chunky; this brings out Lol's more tuneful side, which is reassuring. Trying to describe these tracks makes them sound pedestrian but they are anything but. Though this album feels a bit like a mishmash of disparate sessions, in a way all four of the records under consideration here have had that attribute. The liner notes here are even more earnest than Ear of Beholder's spoken sections ("I hope that those who accept my more extreme outpourings will find this music as interesting as I did at the time of recording") and that just adds to all the fucking charm this guy has built with me over the past four entries. Sadly, my accumulation of all things Coxhill terminates here.

28 August 2011

Coxhill/Miller Miller/Coxhill (Virgin)

Of course I (like everyone) thought this would be 'Fly Like and Eagle' Steve Miller, but sadly (or happily?) I was wrong - this Steve Miller has some connection to Hatfield and the North, I think. This record invites two titles and two entrances, eschewing the side A/side B malarkey that has plagued records for so long. I chose Miller/Coxhill first and it's a sneaky beginning - 'Chocolate Field', a somber piano piece that Lol comes in on at the end. Coxhill doesn't appear on the lengthy second track, 'One For You', but we get Phil Miller, Pip Pyle and Richard Sinclair, making this a solidly Canterbury track, as you can imagine. It sounds pretty good though - composed by Miller, it's clearly built around his piano, but with some lovely, ripping guitar notes from the other Miller. It's definitely that rolling, brainy yet easy limey prog vibe, and while a forgettable track, it sets the vibe for Coxhill's re-entry on 'Portland Bill'. Instead of a a full drum kit, this has frantic cymbal playing from Laurie Allen and Lol and Miller finally start to open up a bit, like a catamaran traveling through a cloudy tunnel. The cymbals give the piece more velocity and nervousness than I think a full drum kit could do; Lol is much more sidewinder than tunesmith here, and it serves the group dynamic very well. But then flip it over, and holy christ does it get nuts. 'Will my thirst play me tricks?/The ant about to be crushed ponders not the where withal of bootleather' is some outer limits madness, where our eponymous band leaders play 'Wurlitzer percussion', which I guess means bashing on a Wurlitzer. This sounds like nothing I've ever heard from the genre of Bumpy Rambling Bashing; it's nervous and driving, and it blends seamlessly into 'Maggots', where some 'messy phones' are played and then we finally get to 'Bath '72' which is a warm, wet solo Coxhill piece with 'children, tapes and motors' (though these elements are merely a gurgling presence in the background). This is the most adventurous side of vinyl yet from Coxhill, and there's hardly any trace of his music hall leanings -- yet it carries through the joy found on Ear of Beholder, coupled with innovative exploration. Exciting stuff, for sure. The last two tracks, 'Wimbledon Baths' and "Gog ma Gog' take things down a notch, but this somber, moody ending is kinda nice after the highs heard before. The end result of this meeting is something inconsistent, and hardly unified enough to stand as the double-titled dual-entry record it's presented as, but the gems shine bright.

Lol Coxhill - 'Toverbal Sweet' (Mushroom)

Lol tells us in the liner notes that he's not really the band leader here, and if the record had come out in Holland it would probably be Pierre Courbois or Jasper Van't Hof listed first. This trio appears on Ear of Beholder and here stretches out a bit as a reeds/piano/drum trio. Side one is broken into a bunch of shorter tracks that really flow as one live performance. Van't Hof's piano is repetetive and melodic, owing far more to Mike Ratledge's Soft Machine style than any jazz precedent. Throughout the entire album, there's a repetitive four-note theme that sets an almost rock tone; when Coxhill is soloing over it, it really feels like a jam band, but with jazz instrumentation. Despite the melodic, chordal focus, this doesn't feel "easy" or cheap; instead, it's infused with a splendid history and awareness of antecedents. This is jaunty jazz that strides with a spring step; it's miles away from Miles, and only gets into out-scrapings on the last track, 'The Un-Tempere Klavier and Heavy Friends'. This Berrocalism recalls the 'Rasa Moods' piece on Ear of Beholder, and while not quite as distant (or verbal), it has that same casual quality that emphasis performance over studio fidelity. It gets ferocious only at the very end, and they show they can hang with the big dogs. There's a few solos on side one - Courbois's drum solos are understated, even feeble, but I mean than as a compliment. The hot piano sound is really going to make or break your feelings on Toverball Sweet; I myself find it pretty "sweet" indeed, but I'm a former ivory-pounder myself. Side one's closing minute, just titled 'Toverbal', is an elegiac moment of Coxhill's magical wind, and I don't know why they didn't choose to close the whole album with it.

21 August 2011

Lol Coxhill - 'Ear of Beholder' (Dandelion/Ampex)

Ear of Beholder is one of those magical artefacts that is delightful from start to finish, though I don't make myself listen to it enough. Coxhill's a great saxophonist and his personality shines through every second of this, whether he's blowing his horn or speaking affably to the listener. Though it's only 3 of the 21 tracks on Ear of Beholder, the songs where Lol sings with David Bedford accompanying him on piano and backing vocals are stunning - their impact on the album is huge. Midway through side 1, after we've been treated to two fantastic live saxophone improvisations (all of which have a lot of great outdoors noise in the background, and 'Deviation Dance' has a great, gritty fidelity), we encounter the first of these songs. 'Two Little Pigeons' is sweet and sort of romantic, having that old-timey feel but fragmented through a London avant-garde of the late 1960's. And 'Don Alfonso' (who works at Oxo) is a bit of sillyness but it balances well and serves to break up what would otherwise be a whole side of saxophone solos. Not that I don't like the sax solos - I wouldn't own so many Lol Coxhill LPs if I didn't - but that these show a humour, versatility and eclecticism that is iconoclastic in the often po-faced UK improv scene. Coxhill's playing is deft; bluesy and swinging when it needs to be, and generally much more human than other UK musicians like Evan Parker. His mastery is felt but he's not beating you over the head with it. But that's just side 1! Side two goes for the documentary feel; 'Feedback' being a noisy dictaphone recording that is aptly namee, and then a larger band ensemble that features Mike Oldfield, though the fidelity is no better. It's got a similar feel to some of those chunky Arbete & Fritid instrumentals, though not quite as woodsy. We encounter a children's choir on 'Mango Walk', and the theme of innocent voices is returned to in side four's cover of 'I Am the Walrus' (though accompanied by Lol's flute and maraccas). Side three is a long piece, 'Rasa Moods', perhaps the most traditional "improv" here, though it also features some strange readings and has that same distant fidelity that characterises the moments with Oldfield on side two. The record's last side is like a mirror of the first one - more solo improvisations, another piano song with Bedford (the edgy 'Dat's why darkies were born' (presented in context, via spoken introduction), and a rocking jam 'The Rhytmic Hooter'. This is a monster of a debut album and it's iconoclastic, political, exploratory, diverse and accessible all at once - which is more than most artists could even dream of achieving in a long career.

Henry Cowell / Lou Harrison - split LP (CRI)

"You can't go wrong with CRI" is one of those steadfast rules of vinyl accumulation, though really, my own shelves have only a few. Both sides here are conducted by Leopold Stokowski, a "man of his time" by choice, and featuring Maro and Anahid Ajemian, two Armenian-American sisters who solo on piano and violin respectively. The Cowell composition, 'Persian Set', based on his time in Iran. It reminds me in places of the reedy mystery of the Meshes of the Afternoon soundtrack, though by the last Rondo movement, it explodes with a living, bouncy ferocity. There's some vocals during this bit which are proto-prog rock (really, they could be from the Aphrodite's Child album); the whole composition should involve a tar, a Persian guitar, but this recording uses a regular guitar. On the flip is a similarly eerie, modal work by Lou Harrison from 1951 called 'Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra'. Now, Harrison's slowly becoming one of my heroes of 20th century composition and this showcases him well, if a bit more downcast and moody than his usual ebullient work. There's a certain ebb and flow in the suites of Lou Harrison - what he does he is gets these long, slow melodies usually played by strings or flutes, with a fast, rhythmic but limited-palette instrument underneath, in a gamelan style. This one starts out with a bang but gets slow in the middle, only to slowly build back to a plateau. The second movement of this suite eeks out carefully, putting its toes in the water slowly with some exploratory fluting; the stillness is incredible. Gradually the gongs or other percussion start to appear, giving a wider horizon to the pastoral scene.

9 August 2011

Jacques Coursil Unit - 'Way Head' (BYG)

Way Ahead (as it's referred to inside, the though cover + my memory prefer this as the more 60's Way Head) is split between two of Coursil's compositions on side 1 and a lengthy Bill Dixon-penned workout on side 2. Coursil's debt to Dixon is also evident in his style, which tends to take the meandering, Gestalt approach to his instrument. 'Duke' has lots of winds and bends, a far cry from the brassy, bright abstractions that Lester Bowie was doing also in Paris at the same time. The rhythm section is the all-white duo of Beb Guerin and Claude Delcloo, and it's rounded out by the alto sax of Arthur Jones (who also plays on Archie Shepp's Yasmina, a Black Woman but is otherwise a somewhat forgotten figure). There's some great interplay between Jones' smooth tone and Guein's bowed bass, but if 'Duke' is meant to refer to Ellington I ain't hearing it. The second track, on the naming tip, is 'Fidel', and continues the left-field sidesteps. It ends with a great bumbling bass solo, sounding like a microphone being held and walking slowly away from Guerin while he thrashes and flops. On the flip is out Dixon piece, 'Paper', which is 18 minutes of gradual opening tone clouds, hesitations, and occasional bold outbursts of resonance. I like Coursil because he's really cerebral, though this is really the only thing I know of his. There's AACM influence, sure, but maybe that's just an easy insight for any record that is slow, placid and free without being rambunctious. The imagery here is far more abstracted, apart from a subtle blues feel that comes from Jones's horn. But it's BYG not by-the-books, and I like it lots.

6 August 2011

Country Joe and the Fish - 'Electric Music for the Mind and Body' (Vanguard)

The title is apt because this is pretty electrifying 60's rock - the guitars are truly racing with electricity, tinny and sharp, and honestly some of Barry Melton's noodling is exhilirating in its exploratory way. 'Death Sound Blues' takes a blues-bar pattern and amps it up with a malevolence unequaled by anything short of Neil's 'Revolution Blues'. A blues basis is throughout most of the record, and Melton takes lead vocals on 'Love', which actually injects a nice hot blast of white soul into the proceedings. It's a little pedestrian but his guitar solo has just enough creaking and clanging to carry it through. 'Happiness is a Porpoise Mouth' twists a weird singsong sex fable into a carnivalesque nightmare, with organs and buzzing, treated guitars to really make it sing. I'm generally surprised by how much bite this has; I haven't played this in well over a decade and remembered it being sorta wishy-washy. Wishy-washy it's not, but bouncy-bouncy and jingle-jangle it can be when it's not being ethereal and dark. 'Sad and Lonely Times' is such a tune, despite the lyrics. Some days I'd prefer the hazy tracks of side 2 to side 1's sharper bite, but I guess it depends on the horizon of a given day. The album's nadir ('The Masked Marauder', a bit of goofy cartoon theme music) is immediately followed by it's zenith, the closing 'Grace'. This is a wispy, wet ballad with guitars played above the headstock to create an almost musique concrete feel. Shimmering cymbals, a haunting riff, and just the right echo and resonance make this a full-on masterpiece in the truest Terrastock style.