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22 December 2013

Fairport Convention - 'Liege & Lief' (Island)

Most would consider this their best album, and it's hard to argue with the "Don't fuck with me" stomp of 'Matty Groves' or 'Tam Lin'. My personal favourite is Unhalfbricking, not just for its awesome title but also for it's brilliant Dylan covers and the epic 'A Sailor's Life'. Alas, I've never found an affordable vinyl copy so we have to skip on to this fourth album, which as I already said, is pretty hard to fuck with. While Unhalfbricking might have better songs, this has the strongest performances. According to the Internet, this was released in December 1969, making three full albums in one calendar year, and I'd say their three finest, certainly of the Thompson era (which is really all I know). This is truly Fairport showing their growth as a "band"; the grungy stomp of 'Matty Groves' is evidence of a solid rock ensemble that has developed over a few albums, the kind that Carducci would write about as a tight technical unit. There's nothing fey or wimpy about the folk influence; instead it shows a remarkable dedication to the presence of each musician, the rhythmic motion pulling each piece in a definite direction and letting Denny's voice soar. The repetitive palm-muting on 'The Deserter' achieves a similar transcendence. Fast-forward to this blog years in the future, when we get to solo Thompson albums and I'm sure I'll still be raving about how 'Calvary Cross' is as heavy as the best Black Sabbath material then. The years may pass, but my diatribes never change. Anyway, the traditional, Swarbrick-driven material like side two's medley maintains the same hard-rock edge, and if there was any singer here besides Denny, she'd probably be left in the dust. This is six people playing rock music, not five plus a singer, and the way she coasts over the crests of 'Tam Lin''s waves is masterful, allowing the in-between verse sections to meander with guitar explorations but holding everything central. This could make a believer out of anyone who thinks they don't like folk-influenced stuff, and over the years this continues to sound fresh and alive, not like a clichéd dinosaur.

20 December 2013

Fairport Convention (A&M)

If you came here expecting a review of the first Fairport Convention album, their lone release with Judy Dyble as vocalist, you're going to be disappointed. This is actually the second Fairport record, correctly known as What We Did on Our Holidays but released in the US as a self-titled record, just like They used to do so often to be intentionally confusing (or, I'm sure there was a better reason, but, eh). This is another record that is, at this point, "iconic" but we'll try to actually hear it this time through. 'Fotheringay' is the opening cut, along with 'Meet on the Ledge' the two eternal classics from this album (which will appear on any Fairport/Thompson greatest hits comp that has the rights to them). The traditionals are the high points - remember, unlike most of their ilk, Fairport actually started more "rock" and migrated towards "folk". 'She Moves Through the Fair' is one of those things that would truly define the movement, and the then-contemporary covers (Joni Mitchell's 'Eastern Rain' and Dylan's 'I'll Keep It With Mine') situate it in a wrapping that is strangely paisley with a British tweed mix (which would probably look godawful were it a real fabric and not a badly-designed music-writing metaphor). 'Book Song' is an original that feels akin to 'Percy's Song', with an inspired Thompson blues-influenced solo that has just a wonderful, earthy tone. The blues progression of 'Mr. Lacey' is a bit tired, and Simon Nicol's 'End of a Holiday' ends things with a melancholy I find less than convincing. But I'm just nitpicking; the way the dark moods of '"The Lord Is In This Place... How Dreadful Is This Place"' explodes into the pure pop of Thompson's 'No Man's Land' is more or less magic, even if the "folk" and "rock" are split across two tracks. It's so easy to look back at this as an experiment in synthesis and lose sight of the emotion and feeling of what it meant for young British rockers to be rediscovering this material. It's the feeling that made this a cornerstone of a movement, or rather an empire.

19 December 2013

Jad Fair & Kramer - 'Roll Out the Barrel' (Shimmy-Disc)

Recently, Jad Fair released a 99-song CD set called Beautiful Songs, a career retrospective. That's a pretty apt title, as both words seem to describe the man's output: beauty is a strange one, his not a traditional notion of it by any means, but nonetheless evident in his naive, gentle subject matter and constructed idiot-savant delivery. And "songs" indeed, for even in Half Japanese's most frantic and anti-melodic early work, a dedication to songcraft can still be heard. This collaboration with Kramer hails from 1988 and it's an often overlooked record, at least by me - its been on my shelf since I was in high school but I rarely give it a spin. It's a strong collection, though, as Kramer uses Fair's songs as a framework on which to hang various production and arrangement techniques. These are sometimes spooky and ethereal; he mostly avoids Galaxie 500 reverb on Fair's voice, but Don Fleming's guitar playing is atmospheric and searing on cuts like 'Bird of Prey', 'Best Left Unsaid', and 'When Is She Coming'. Other tracks are a surreal cornucopia of sound techniques, often deconstructing cover versions in that Shockabilly manner. This is around the time Bongwater was releasing Too Much Sleep and that same style of kitchen-sink addition is evident in how these are put together; and honestly, listening to Kramer's most recent release The Brill Building, as tough as I found it to get through, his approach hasn't really changed. Roll Out the Barrel, while diverse and curious, is never slick; even more clean electronic-tinged songs, such as 'Better Safe than Sorry', support rather than overpower Fair's tenor wails. The covers are possibly meat to be ironic - 'Help!', 'On the Sunny Side of the Street' - and the Penn Jilette-assisted 'Twist and Shout' and 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' are all pretty great. I fear that Jad Fair's presence might push this into 'novelty music' territory for many, who would then overlook what's a great collection of late 80's art-rock. Despite being NYC-based for so long, the Shimmy-Disc scene sounds so different now from other avant-leaning artists from that place and time, though they were all part of the same gang. Now that we've gone through a few iterations of the hip ebb and flow around song-based work from NYC (with Thurston Moore somehow remaining central to so much of it, present here too) this feels strangely contemporary in the post-everything era, or whatever a more educated cultural commentator would view the 2013 soundworld. My point: blow the dust off this and enjoy it as much as I just did.

6 December 2013

Eyeless in Gaza - 'Drumming the Beating Heart'

My other experience with Eyeless in Gaza comes a year after Photographs as Memories, finding a bolder production, maybe slightly toned-down singing, and some long-form instrumental explorations in 'Dreaming at Rain'. (Great choice of a preposition there, guys!) Maybe the 80's changed everyone because I hear a more 4AD sound here - not that Photographs didn't had a liberal use of synth textures and reverb-laden vocals, but it has the more polished, more churchy vibe here which makes me think of Dead Can Dance or Dif Juz. 'Veil Like Calm' sounds practically epic, compared to the first albums relative raggedness; there's not only more confidence here, but a more unified vision perhaps. At this point, Eyeless in Gaza sound like Eyeless in Gaza and no one else. It's still unmistakably capturing a mood and time that is long past, yet elements surface in the popular sounds of today. I keep going back to the aforementioned 'Dreaming at Rain' - it's clearly the dark horse on the album, yet feels a product of writing the rest of the songs -- the end of an organic process, perhaps. I don't mean to harp on Bates' voice, which is wonderful and expressive - but here, especially on side two, he stretches it into something flowing and responsive rather than just over-the-top dramatic. There's more instrumentation that guitars here (as there was on the first, but even moreso) and the plinky-plonks and bells and whistles occasionally create a tapestry of pure tortured beauty. Despite these new romantic tendencies (and the album title) this never strays into too maudlin territory. An underrated gem.

Eyeless in Gaza - 'Photographs as Memories' (Edigsa/Cherry Red)

This first (second?) Eyeless in Gaza record is relatively simple, built around the drumless two-man band of Martyn Bates and Peter Becker. Over the years they picked up a cult following, but I've never been part; these two records I have are a pleasure every time I listen to them, which is rarely. Bates's vocals are the tough sell here - very dramatic, somewhere between David Sylvian and the Cure, they take what would be otherwise somber, moody songs and inject them with a bit of rock pyrotechnics. Yet it somehow doesn't have any element of glam; the synth beats, if anything, recall early Tuxedomoon or even Too Pure label stuff which of course was to come in the future. 'Speech Rapid Fire' takes on a romanticism in the chorus, but other songs are pure black eyeliner ('Looking Daggers'). Bates's vocalisations occasionally render the lyrics unintelligible, stretched out to an over-enunciated wail. I keep thinking of Tuxedomoon despite all attempts for anything else to emerge; the broken sax/synth interplay of 'John of Patmos' or the twisted rhythms of 'No Noise' really would situate this on Ralph Records as much as it makes sense to be on Cherry Red. But hey, it was 1981, and anything was possible. "Post-"punk in the truest sense, Eyeless in Gaza maintain a rhythmic and melodic experimentation throughout that is based more on textural effects than jazz-influenced improvisation, thus showing they chose a different path at what may have been the same forked road that, say, This Heat stood at around the same time. As to why we're still listening to this 30 years later, I can only blame my own dinosaur tastes -- yet if this record was re-released tomorrow on Not Not Fun, under a different name, I don't think anyone would suspect a thing.

5 December 2013

Eye Shaking Kingdom - 'With Metal and Swordlight' (LeftHand/Sick Head)

Back from the grave! Or at least another hiatus, this time brought on by a relocation and an actual separation from the vinyl accumulation. We have a week back in its presence so we promise to work through as much as we can, or at least reach the 'F's. Eye Shaking Kingdom is a duo of two Scots, some new school noisemakers who are clearly indebted to the Leeds-axis 'ecstatic drone' scene (aren't we all?) but with a tendency towards darker, more gritty layers. The four tracks here move through all manner of horizontalities, starting with 'Thrown Holy Ghosts' mechanical whirrs, all gears and gristle, before resolving into a piercing, shrill drone. The second track amps up the unease, and on the flip, 'In Opal and In Emerald' is outwardly rambunctious, with a jeweled beacon of cheap synth light cutting over the Japanese noise-esque gurgles and static aberrations. Occasionally it all converges, and just when you start to feel your third eye stir, it jumps aside again. One half of this is Nackt Insecten, whose solo work is not a million miles from this; the collaboration feels natural, if not particularly challenging. But there's a harmony in this dischord, and it suggests a unified vision.

30 August 2013

Exclaim - 'Critical Exploder' (Sound Pollution)

Extreme Japanese hardcore, though there's little in the sound to indicate it's far-East origin. This outlier in my vinyl accumulation exists as a gift from a friend, and a much appreciated one. Though they're probably forgotten already, this 2001 release stands as an document of some amazingly fast, uncompromising hardcore - this is similar to a style known as 'power violence' but I'm not sure if Exclaim strictly qualify (nor do I really care). What I do know is that this is super fast, super aggro, and recorded just poorly enough to be exhilarating, but not too badly as to lose it's impact. Song titles in English, lyrics apparently in Japanese, and a few stick out of the lyrics sheet like 'YES' 'YES' 'KEEP ON PUSHIN'. There's parts where the (single) guitar and the voice becoming indistinguishable as a mess of static. There's always been a lot of back and forth on the boundary between 'noise' and 'hardcore' - some of these are balanced better than others (Combatwoundedveteran, anyone?) and others fall too clearly into one camp. There's not a lot of 'noise' here in terms of electronics or improvised mess - the guitar playing is pretty straight - but it's a total buzzsaw and somehow this transcends everything into truly remarkable territory. I'm not expert on hardcore but my tastes have always gravitated towards the unusual, extreme examples which can be appealing to fans of all/any extreme musics; hence, the continued existence of Critical Exploder amongst all the wimpy folk and indie-pop records. 45 rpm of course, so it's louder, and faster, and while it's pretty short to be a proper 'LP', it's a fully satisfying assault.

23 August 2013

The Ex - '6.6' (Ex)

A 'return to form' in some ways, after Joggers & Smoggers and only using my small sampling of physical Ex releases, this 12" is the last of a series of singles released around 1990; maybe because of a mastering problem or whatnot, this is actually a 12" of two songs, but the package includes a 7" sleeve for this two songs. Don't try to stuff it in though, it won't fit. 'Euroconfusion' makes me chuckle a bit; it's accompanied by a text against the Schengen treaty, which I personally think was a pretty good treaty. It's a great song, though it's the closest G.W. Sok's ever come to straight-up rap music. There's a drum machine (really!) and jagged Gang of Four guitars, but it's more hip-hop than Big Black. The flip, 'Bird in the Hand', has a funky rhythm part too, but the guitars jump in, punctuating each vocal shout, simultaneously melting and exploding. It crashes to an end, ending up a completely satisfying outburst. These six singles (of which this is the final) were collected at some point into an album which would likely work as one of the more complete and satisfying Ex records, and a nice balance to the improv weirdness (yes, I love both sides!).

The Ex - 'Joggers & Smoggers' (Ex)

This has always been my favourite Ex album, where they full embraced their avant-garde tendencies and made a huge, sprawling record that's meant as a statement - a statement of purpose, but also a roadmap to future explorations. Some may disagree, as this can also be seen as an inconsistent scattering of sketches and unfinished ideas. Either way, if this isn't a turning point, I don't know what is - it's a 34-track double LP packed with guests from Dutch jazz as well as Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and other such titans. But it also has a textual influence not yet seen, with various other writers contributing ideas (including Kafka, Brecht and Emma Goldman). The opening track announces that this is something different - it's a rumbling, staticky sketch, like something from a soundtrack, resisting the urge to explode in punk fury. And throughout Joggers & Smoggers we find a different, more open Ex. Whether they're accentuating their lineup with instruments yet-unheard of on Ex records, or just letting the songs breathe more, this is a conscious change. The results are stunning - as long as it is, it never gets tiresome and the lyrics seem to reflect this new openness as well. 'People Who Venture', deep on side three, is a nuanced dissection of individuality and systems, and they're printed in the gatefold so they can be enjoyed separately. I hear a lot of Beefheart, whose always been somewhat of a spiritual influence through the herky-jerky root sound, but also in the sprawl. The second side brings in some funky horns, growling voices, and the occasional classic Ex 'song'. The rocking bits move towards the sound of discordant bands like the Fire Engines or Dog Faced Hermans more than Crass; a Scottish influence perhaps? The next full-lengths after this, which I sadly don't own in physical form, are the two collaborations with Tom Cora, seen by many as the high point of the Ex's (and Cora's) career. It's easy to listen to Joggers & Smoggers and declare this as the warmup to a more improvisatory form, but really, the Cora records are tighter and more song-based than even this.

30 July 2013

Essential Logic - 'Beat Rhythm News - Waddle Ya Play ?' (Rough Trade)

It's easily been a decade since I last listened to this, so it's like hearing it for the first time. Essential Logic is built around Lora Logic, the saxophonist in X-Ray Spex, who comes to the forefront here as songwriter and lead vocalist. It's much less herky-jerky than I remember it being. I daresay this is closer to pop music than anything radical or abrasive, though with weird punk girl vocals (not really a million miles away from Cyndi Lauper) and brassy jazz bits. But was 'punk', in the UK at least, ever supposed to be more than a new form of pop? Logic's songwriting is strong, which I've always overlooked about Essential Logic before. This isn't the verbal territory of 'O Bondage, Up Yours!', but one of more abstract, poetic observations (which is possibly why she clicked so well with Mayo Thompson). The catchiest tune is 'Wake up', which for some reason doesn't have lyrics printed, but it's a perfect guitar hook that moves quickly beyond any trappings of it's milieu. 'Shabby Abbott' does critique organised religion but it's not so obvious, instead built around domestic awareness. Logic is a saxophonist so that's featured on every song, with additional sax by Dave Wright, arranging songs like 'World Friction' into thick, big-band style interplay with a slightly discordant lean. 'Albert Albert Albert' is about as challenging as it gets, with some Sonic Youth chord cadences and some really distinct song structures; closer 'Popcorn Boy' descends into a marching band chant for the album's final moments, and it's an accomplishment, as is the album as a whole. Shit, this is a really great record, and it feels somewhat underrated now (as it's been a decade since all this stuff got reissued and hyped up). Let's keep it in our consciousness. I'm curious about finding a copy of Logic's solo LP, Pedigree Charm -- maybe by the time I reach the L's, I will have found one.

29 July 2013

ESG - 'Says Dance To The Beat Of Moody' (99)

The sad part about only having these two early ESG EPs is that there just isn't a lot of music, so our diversion into Bronx DIY funk-punk is already over. This record is only about ten minutes long, and all three song titles are in the EP title. 'Dance' is just that, but the dancing doesn't stop, lest you think for even a second, on 'The Beat', where vocalist Renee really digs in and emotes in a way we haven't quite heard yet.  But she's not a wordy vocalist -- there aren't many places where she even sings, happy to just let the bass and drums push things along. The repetition is what it's all about, and this is like a faster, funkier version of Pylon, with handclaps and start-stop moments. A strong influence of dub, which oddly I heard in the live tracks of the first EP, is evident here, in terms of production techniques with the echo coming and going. 'Moody' has some real guitar waka-chika but it's thick enough to work.The goofy 1980s Space Invaders artwork is appropriate too as this couldn't sound more "1982" if it tried. But that's a good thing!

28 July 2013

ESG (99)

These six songs are so incredibly strange to behold - trebly, thinly-recorded voices with a sassy, funk/soul edge to them and a super addictive rhythm section, but then the hooks are all missing and it often feels empty.  I mean, this was just a weird band -- all sisters, from the Bronx, playing some form of rock/punk, and it's produced by Martin Hannett on side one and it still feels like a fish out of water, even after three decades of posthumous institutionalisation. ESG don't really fit with any scene - they were a rock band that was danceable, sounding like Rip Rig and Panic in approach but way more simplistic; punk, sure, but undeniably urban; but too amped-up and agitated to fit with soul or funk. This uncertainty isn't really evident in the music, which just feels really honest. The second half of this is live, but it sounds home-recorded -- 'Hey!' ends with a whimper, with a stray guitar note here and there, feeling again like a few layers are missing.  You gotta love bands with a theme song ("Queen of the Ryche", anyone?) and 'ESG' has that too. ESG stood for Emerald, Sapphire and Gold which I guess the artwork illustrated, but for some reason this cover always makes me think of soccer.

24 July 2013

Brian Eno/Harold Budd with Daniel Lanois - 'The Pearl' (Editions EG)

It's a summer day and my window is open while I revisit The Pearl, an album that I remember as being deceptively intangible, always slipping away from a centre. With the voices of children, playing in a nearby park, creeping in with the various wind, traffic and bird sounds, it's difficult to distinguish Eno's production techniques  on this album from what's drifting in. Drift it does, and I realise as soon as I pull this off my shelf that I should really file it under B for Budd (and that is in fact where it will be refiled) but I imagined that one day I would have The Plateaux of Mirrors to put alongside it, which never happened. Budd's piano is the constant, sometimes glowing with a harmonic resonance that is beautiful if a bit easy. It's not a thick sound, and when it really gets sparse, as on 'Against The Sky', allowing its minor key intervals to wire-frame a mood, it's an exceptional entry. Daniel Lanois gets a co-credit here and I'm not sure what he's done and what's Eno, but it's all so delicate that I'm sure the party sessions afterwards were legendary. If you haven't heard this record but know anything about these musicians, you can probably guess what it sounds like. "New age" is the term often thrown about and it's definitely a step closer to it than than, say, Music for Airports - in terms of how 'active' it is, and how much it follows musical conventions of melody/harmony. It's somber as it should be, and because this is such a pre-defined concept there's no chances to be taken. I like this album - I don't listen to it regularly, but at any volume it has the power to completely transform a situation, even if it's more felt than heard. My Eno trip ends here as I don't think his later work tends to appear on vinyl, so no Nerve Net for us.

21 July 2013

Brian Eno - 'Before and After Science' (Island)

This is the most maligned Eno album, at least of the vocal tetralogy, and I'm not sure why. No, it's not as timeless as Another Green World or Taking Tiger Mountain, but it moves relentlessly forward in pursuit of whatever he was interested in in 1977, which is why the earlier records are so great. Sometimes I think people get mixed up with what they want an artist to be vs. what the artist wants to actually be. Of course, there's no accounting for taste and I also don't blanketly accept any choice of direction that any artist makes. But in the case of Before and After Science, I don't think that he's committed any great aesthetic crimes. This is divided into two halves, really - the punchy dustups are on the first half and the gentle, sweet songs come out to play on side two. Clearly, his interest in rhythms and beats is evident, as the opening cut 'No One Receiving' toes the water and 'Kurt's Rejoinder' furthers - the paleo-futurism of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is almost upon us, and the genius production of those Talking Heads records even more apparent. This warbling, ethnic-leaning affect isn't so egregious; there's striking similarity, in terms of production, as Bowie's Lodger, though this actually predates it. What's different is the voice of the singer-songwriter - Eno is the calm, thinking type, and Bowie the edgy rockstar. 'King's Lead Hat', an anagram of Talking Heads, is probably the one for your mixtape, taking the Fear of Music production techniques to more distinctly Eno songcraft. It's a winner for sure, but my sympathies are more with side two, particularly 'Julie With...' and 'By the River'. The latter is built around a simple electric piano, and here Eno's just crooning romantically without any need for studio/tech wizardry. It's this second side where I think people get lost, as it creeps a bit too much towards balladry; I find this a nice counterpoint. If anything is to criticise for Before and After Science it's that these two sides (the innovative studio genius and the sensitive melodic troubadour) are more separated, where in Another Green World they're perfectly balanced. But that's exactly why it's "Before" and "After" science, right?

19 July 2013

Brian Eno - 'Floating in Sequence' (The Impossible Recordworks)

I think I have three records from this illustrious bootleg label, though this is really just an EP, with only six songs. There's some radio sessions which are of stellar sound quality (though still nice and raw and unproduced) and some live material from the 1976 Reading festival. These two live cuts have an expected level of crowd noise, clearly an audience recording, though that's not without merit. 'The Fat Lady of Limbourg' (an odd choice for inclusion, really) starts with ambient (no pun intended) crowd chatter over a pulsing shaker rhythm, sounding like a Casio beat except I don't think Casios were invented yet. The arrangement doesn't stray too far from Taking Tiger Mountain's version, with obviously a more limited palette. Eno's vocalisations are earnestly precise, enunciating every lyric of this cryptic tale as if he means it. One can only imagine a crowd of festival-goers at various stages of drunk and/or high, patiently sitting through this song in hopes that something more satisfying will come along. The applause at the end is pitiful, but the other live cut is 'Third Uncle' so they probably got their wish. This version is as brilliant as ever -- can this song be ruined? Built to Spill even did a great cover of it, check YouTube -- and a bit grungier than the album version, as to be expected.  Simon Phillips keeps it fluttering along on the drums, and Manzanera shines as always, particularly when it turns into a thrashed-out melee. But the radio sessions are the highlights of this LP - 'Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch' absolutely rips, with the guitars exploding in a violent cacophony and sounding at points like some lost private-press psych LP, like something you'd read about in The Acid Archives, except with vocal exaltations that are distinctly Eno's. There's a cover of 'Fever' which is fun, and not at all tossed-off, suggesting that the band actually worked this out for some release. 'Baby's on Fire' has a speedier tempo than normal (or else this is mastered too fast, a not uncommon trait of bootleg LPs) and the solo/bridge section accelerates into screeching monotony before the band comes back having doubled the pulse. This segues right into 'I'll Come Running', which (as I suggested a few posts ago) is greatly improved with crunchy electric guitar riffs instead of piano arpeggios. I never thought of Eno's band as something I would have wanted to see live, but these two cuts suggest they would have been a sight to see. I now realise that if I had a time machine, instead of killing Hitler or doing anything altruistic, I'd probably just use it to see old bands. And eat cheaper lunches.

Brian Eno - 'Discreet Music' (EG/Obscure)

A confession: I'm not wild about Discreet Music. The first side of this is lovely, sure, but the Pachabel redux on the flip takes so long to get interesting that I usually check out. Just as on his pop records, Eno's melodies are his strengths, but it's a fine line to walk. 'Discreet Music' is presented in the liner notes like some sort of revelation in music-making, but it's really built on the same principles that make the 60s minimalist canon so timeless - the slight shifting phases, the lingering pulse of the harmonies, etc. 'Discreet Music' is really a blueprint for artists like Stars of the Lid, which is not a bad thing - this delicate, group ambience has become old hat to me by now, though this was made by one person alone. Still, it's a lovely half-hour or so, which makes Pachebel's 'Canon in D' deconstruction so tiresome in comparison. By the third movement, which has the title 'Brutal Ardour' (which almost seems like a self-parodic Eno title), it has grown sentient and shaken off its host, but it takes so long to get there that I've lost interest when it finally comes around. Maybe I'm tired of 'Canon in D' from a lifetime of .MOD files, cheap keyboard demo modes, etc. At best, you could dive into this like some pure ear candy, similar to Van Dyke's cover of Donovan on Song Cycle, but the palette is too spare to stay intriguing. This never got classified as part of the 'ambient' series and that's fair enough, cause it's not truly 'ambient' yet, and it's not as consistently great as any of those records, or Music for Films. But side one is great enough that I hold onto this, and the relatively long running time for an LP (due to the low volume of the mastering job) means it's a dangerous thing to listen to, without nodding off and letting my stylus grind into oblivion for all eternity on the run-out groove. There's a big stupid sticker on my copy advertising the EG label (who reissued this from Eno's original 'obscure' imprint) as being a great source for 'new age' music. I guess all genre labels are equally stupid so why not?

18 July 2013

Eno - 'Another Green World' (Island)

I think this was the first Eno record I heard, and I came from the ambient side, not the Roxy Music side. Another Green World was perfect - it was a mix of instrumentals that were futuristic, yet organic; heavily studio-based, yet didn't sound like music made by computers; and a few pop songs that were just so perfect that it didn't need any more singing. Years later I feel mostly the same way about it. 'I'll Come Running' feels a bit too rock-based to fit, though it's a great song; otherwise I wouldn't change a thing. What's funny is that for a record I think of as "half-ambient", it's surprisingly punchy throughout. The electroacoustic processing of the various guitars, keyboards, and drums don't shy away from sharp edges - 'Sky Saw', the opening cut, is aptly named. But the world painted here isn't so much a science-fiction vision as it's an alternate reality, rooted in an ethereal surrealism. This is truly music for the techno-hippies of today, for people who are into organic farming but use Twitter to talk about it. And yet, it was made 38 years ago. There's a few bonafide classics here, mostly 'St. Elmo's Fire', which is almost like a "benchmark" song you can play for someone to see if they are a good person or not. (If they like it, they're cool; if not, find better friends). Fripp's solo there is somehow the wankiest-Yngvie thing ever, yet doesn't feel gratuitous. Certain sounds on here, such as the pulsing organs of 'Golden Hours', are now inseparable in my mind from their placement in some of Peter Greenaway's early films, and The Falls in particular, which is about as cinematically precise of a depiction of 'Another Green World' as is possible. I know I just finished writing about how Taking Tiger Mountain was such a landmark record to me, but this would be the one I'd probably have to choose as Eno's most total and complete statement.

17 July 2013

Eno - 'Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)' (Island)

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) was made six years before I was born. Yet, I feel as close to this music as to anything made in my lifetime, despite the fact that this is a deliberately obtuse art-rock concept album made by a rich British rockstar at the height of his fame. This is the Eno album with a "narrative", though that's pretty hard to grasp. The far east theme rides throughout, making Eno quite prescient when it comes to world politics, though I guess 'East vs. West' is an age-old dilemma (which all sumo wrestling is based on, I think). The glam trappings of Warm Jets are somewhat dormant, instead allowing for evil pre-"post-punk" throbbing ('Third Uncle'), demented nursery rhymes ('Put a Straw Under Baby'), jittery rock opera ('China My China'), and surreal mini-epics ('Mother Whale Eyeless'). There's some more extremely artificial guitar tones, courtesy of his old friend Manzanera and Eno's own 'snake guitar' (which cuts through 'China' like a nailgun), plus a lot of creatively recorded keyboards, synths, and even some piano. The title track closes it out by looking ahead to Another Green World and it does so with the understated beauty and elegance that Eno's perfect at. So I'm just describing Taking Tiger Mountain again, which I'm sure enough proper critics have done before, but what does it mean to me? I was recently at a party where a bunch of my peers were talking about the first Guns N' Roses album and how significant it was to their cultural identity (though being a party, they weren't using those exact words, instead bathing it in a wash of emotional nostalgia and common familiarity, but that's what I took from it, so whatever) and I realised that I feel the same way about this, even though I didn't hear it until my college years. But those were good years to come of age intellectually and creatively, and Taking Tiger Mountain (which has little, I remind you, to emotionally connect with) seemed to be at the peak ratio between brainy experimentalism and satisfying rock and roll songcraft. Even the cover steps back from the flashy occult-leanings of Warm Jets and shows a multifaceted Eno, his hand placed on his head to show that he's bringing the cerebral to rock and roll. It's not for everyone, but for me, it was like a map of potentialities, none of which I ever actually pursued myself. 

16 July 2013

Eno - 'Here Come the Warm Jets' (Island)

Here come a run of records that will be hard to write about because I've listened to them to death and there's not much new to say. In fact, when I listen now, I have to struggle to hear new things, which is not to say I am in any way 'bored' with Here Come the Warm Jets. But certainly, the iconic cuts have been played to death, so I no longer have much to say about 'Needles in the Camel's Eye' or 'Baby's on Fire' except that when I hear them played in public places (a bar, restaurant, club, or dentist's office) then I'm delighted to know said establishment has good taste. The more disturbing and edgy tracks are the ones I enjoy the most - 'Driving Me Backwards' is possibly Eno's greatest achievement, as it feels like a metaphor that can apply to so many zillions of scenarios - the 1970s British economy, the pressures of creative inspiration - or maybe it's just about nothing. The jets of the title track and 'On Some Faraway Beach' are indeed warm, dragging me into a murky, pleasant sound bath, with genteel melodies circling around some undefined dynamo. 'Blank Frank' is like the evil version of the Beach Boys' SMiLE - psychedelic, sure, but it's all bad vibes and menace, with just as much invention in the studio. These records, especially Another Green World, somehow get away with guitar tones that would sound horrendous in most other contexts. 'Blank Frank's solo sounds more like a paper shredder, yet I wouldn't call it proto-industrial. I have a thing for 'Some of them are Old' and 'Put A Straw Under Baby' (on Tiger Mt.) because I love Eno's pure melodicism; the songs are like nursery-rhymes with bizarre, intangible lyrics and stick in my head deeper than the rockers ('It will follow you, it will follow you...'). The breakdown on 'Some of Them are Old', with it's weird slide guitar arpeggios and buzzsaw/tabla contradicitons, is among the most sublime passages on any Eno recording I've heard, and the reverb-drenched church bell coda is an oft-overlooked island of calm. I'm an unabashed Eno fan, but also a shitty one that doesn't stick with his recent material (recent meaning, oh, the last 25 years or so). A Year with Swollen Appendices, his book from 1995, is maybe his greatest gift to the creative world (even more than the Oblique Strategies) but when viewed holistically, his career somehow maintains a consistent approach to exploration throughout - there's never anything that feels like it wasn't worth trying.

15 July 2013

Don Ellis - 'Haiku' (MPS/BASF)

A record released on the BASF label?!? Was this primarily intended to demonstrate stereo equipment over its artistic goals? Ellis is a good choice for such an approach, because he has a really lush, psychedelic arrangement style and his compositions lie somewhere between Sketches of Spain-era Miles Davis and the more circular meanderings of Moondog, or even Lou Harrison. The Harrison connection is heard most obviously on the opening cut, 'Children', which is an exercise in pure, liquid beauty. There's no easy place to file this - it's trumpet-driven but it's hardly jazz - it's soundtracky, but not a soundtrack - and it's got classical overtones galore, but it's hardly classical music. The more orchestrated moments weave the ear candy into cotton forms, occasionally overdoing it with it's pouncing rhythms ('Summer Rain') but being delightful and elegant when stripped down - side one closes with 'Forest', built primarily around Ellis's trumpet and a bit of harp. But even the parts that sounds clichéd, I can't help but wondering if you threw Van Dyke Parks singing overtop and told me it was a Song Cycle outtake, if I'd be ecstatic. Ellis is probably most famous for the French Connection soundtrack, which has a dirtier edge than anything here. The liner notes talk about how influenced he is by Japanese culture, though there's hardly any Eastern flavour to the sounds. But the photo of a nude Ellis sitting on a rock, contemplating the mysteries of the universe (with those contemplations likely forming into a 5-7-5 pattern), tells me all I need to know. This has always stayed in my vinyl accumulation because even though it's pretty 'soft', it's sometimes just the right atmosphere for a lazy summer afternoon. There's too much work to be done, so instead of romping through the leaves and trees I can stare at the screen and let this carry me off to distant imagined corners of mainstream psychedelic circa 1971. I thought I had a copy of Electric Bath, which has a somewhat more Latin edge, but I must have imagined that.

14 July 2013

Elklink - 'The Rise of Elklink' (Kye)

Elklink is a Graham Lambkin cassette that was reissued here with a bonus track, built entirely from tape and voice. There's a lot of whispers, creaks, and guttural sounds, but it's not so much the source material as the way the overall construction makes an insane, unique atmosphere. Which is the key to Lambkin's genius. This has usual collaborators Tim Goss and Adris Hoyos appearing in places on electronics and voice, respectively, but it's largely Lambkin's game (though Goss's very delicate intrusions make 'Paul, Linda & Minor Members' completely stunning). The two sides of the original cassette are mirror images, in terms of titles - 'Tension Tec' vs 'Utension Tec', and two tracks called 'The Spoons'.  Delicacy is the key; the first 'Spoons', at times, withers to a point that is barely perceptible. Occasionally we hear an outlier - a baby's cry, a distant telephone or the pluck of an acoustic string - but mostly it's the mouth of Lambkin generating all of the ebbs and flows here. If you like Robert Ashley's Automatic Writing but want something a bit more, well, 'rock and roll' --- then Elklink might be for you. The sonority of the tape itself, continually rolling in a loop while this serene madness bubbles around it, is the primary colour here. Sometimes things congeal into soaring, ascending streaks while lots of it lies fermenting. The bonus track, 'You', is more thickly blanketed in white (or is it pink?) noise, a childlike vocal fumble occasionally poking out. This would make a good cut to mix with the numbers stations recordings of The Conet Project which I don't doubt was some sort of influence, if anything was. This was recorded in Florida in 1999 and I strive sometimes to hear a sense of alienation of the Englishman in his new country. I'm a massive fan of Lambkin's work, from the Shadow Ring through his brilliant solo work (just wait til we get to Salmon Run, a recording that I won't be able to throw enough superlatives at) and this certainly ranks among his best releases.

13 July 2013

Electric Light Orchestra (United Artists)

Back before it was cool to like ELO, it was extremely un-cool to like them. Which of course made them cool, until they became cool, but by that point I was mature and confident enough in my tastes that I didn't really give a shit. The El Dorado/'Mr. Blue Sky' ELO is awesome and great too, but this early material, with Roy Wood in the band, is the logical continuation of the Move's more orch-tastic experiments and really must have felt like the world of pop music was going to change forever. When listening to side one of this record (sometimes called No Answer) it's hard not to be dazzled by the approach; Wood's cello saws through the first two cuts like a roundhouse punch, there's a shitload of ideas jammed into every crevice, and it just sounds HUGE, even when there aren't a zillion overdubs. Somewhere on YouTube there's a video of '10538 Orchestra' being performed by Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood and about 700 cellists (if my memory serves me right, though it's probably actually just a few) and it sends chills down my spine.  Lynne's taste for bubblegum merges perfectly with Wood's darker sonorities, and 'Look at Me Now' takes it even further, with a more spacious arrangement. It's a bit like His Name is Alive's 'Cornfield' as if it appeared on Wood's Boulders album, but with an English hunting horn thrown on top. The yin and yang of these guys worked in the Move but it really explodes here, just coming together perfectly. There's a tendency towards old English music-hall styles and relatively restrained production (especially compared to later ELO), and the gatefold cover has cryptic photographs for each song. It's really an art-rock classic, with major progressive tendencies but enough instant gratification to avoid it sounding anything like the bad side of prog. The contrapuntal violin runs, quotes of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen', and hook-drenched breaks follow from 'Cherry Blossom Clinic' and other madness on the Move's second album; this is a continuation with purpose, and it's really sad that Wood and Lynne didn't stick together longer because they really tempered each other's excesses while simultaneously inspiring each other. And Lynne is great - 'Queen of the Hours' is maybe my favourite song he ever wrote, drenched in a poetic longing that is all flowers and razorblades, a far cry from 'Roll Over Beethoven', which only came an album later. It's almost sad that this perfect pairing only lasted for one album in full Electric Light Orchestra form (cause this blows away both of the Move records with Lynne). Every time I listen to this I want to hold onto it, because as great as Boulders is (and as 'pretty good' as Mustard is), that's really the last great Roy Wood work to me. Though, I never got into Wizzard properly - but there's still time in this long and lonely life to give them a chance.

12 July 2013

Electric Bunnies - 'Through the Magical Door' (Florida's Dying)

The gimmick of this album is in the packaging - a gatefold which opens into a board-game, complete with die-cut pieces. The game is pretty silly, containing commands like 'Smell someone's feet' and 'Admit your a racist'; I'll admit to being enough of a collector, valuing the sacred quality of record packaging, that I never punched out the pieces and played. If you're expecting similarly lighthearted fare on the record then you're wrong, though I wouldn't describe Through the Magical Door as sombre; rather, it operates on a level of sophistication that makes this the high water mark of the bedroom psychedelia glut of 2008-2010. There's as much jangly guitars and revamped 60's worship here as on the rest of the records on labels such as Shdwply -- but with far stronger songcraft and an electicism that transcends the rest. Compare to the Dead Luke LP, for example - that's a good LP, sure, but I think in ten years Through the Magical Door will be remembered much more fondly. How these guys have managed to escape greater notoriety (now a few years down the line) is beyond me. Each song has something distinct, yet it's all held together nicely. The title track leans towards folk-revival sounds and suggests a longer attention span than is immediate apparent. 'Marigold Flower' is pure retro magic, with the affable amateurism of 80s Flying Nun merged with Summer of Love icing. For a bedroom recordings, there's a shockingly huge sound on 'What's Your Favorite Thing?', anchored by a driving floor tom and being the purest bit of indie rock on the record. Closing cut 'Sweet Dreams My Dear Esmeralda' is a long, murky banger with lotsa layers and losta sauce. It would be my pick were it not for 'Psychic Lemonade', which outdoes the Dukes of Stratosphere using nothing more than backwards guitars, a perfect organ pulse, and some DOD pedals. No, wait, 'A Snowman on the First Day of Spring' is actually the best cut, loaded with searing organic tons and just enough electroacoustic bathwater to create something otherwordly and chilling. There's also 'The Green Octopus', a slow, longing ode that breaks into gritty guitar strums and ends with some musique concrete, another surprise. I assume these guys have broken up or gone on to college, which is a shame, because this is a remarkably adept entry into all-time great psych records, something that is very much of its time but also aware of its own antecedents - in just the perfect balance.

6 July 2013

El Jesus de Magico - 'Scalping the Guru' (Columbus Discount)

Scalping the Guru was the original name of Guided by Voices' Alien Lanes album (which we'll get to, eventually) so this may be some sort of reference to their Ohio brethren. The only real influence is in the production, where the dirty, anthemic guitars of 'Summer of Luhv' could be lifted straight from those mid-90s GbV classics. But instead of catchy, hooky melodies, El Jesus's vocalist takes a different approach: less grandiose, without any element of being a 'front man'. The opening cut is more hi-fi though, appropriately titled 'Ancestor Worship', and laying down a pretty good Kraut-like groove, recalling Yeti's tectonic plateshifts (with with a bit less cosmic dust). I file this under E which shows my own Anglican bias towards respecting articles; just like Los Llamarada will appear under Lo, not Ll. But I don't think there's anything hispanic about El Jesus de Magico - this is a great synthesis of white avant-rock influences, an assemblage that is confident and experimental as well. Feedback, synths or some other electronic forms appear throughout - side two starts with a track built from static and space, sounding like a dirty needle, but in a hypnotic compelling way. When the band hits a mid-tempo groove, as on 'Whistle Cock', their improvisational side is allowed to unfold, as the drummer holds things together just barely. But I wouldn't call this noise-rock or even particularly ramshackle; it's a unique balance of together and apart, which is why I'd cite these guys as one of the more interesting rock bands in whatever passes for the American 'underground' today.

12 April 2013

Egg, Eggs - 'The Cleansing Power of Fruit' (Feeding Tube)

I'm enthusiastic for any band who features punctuation in their name. Egg, Eggs are as confusing as their name, built around free electric rock, random electronics, and babbling nonsense vocals. There's parts here that start to resemble song structures, certainly with repetition in the voice, but it beelines for absurdity as soon as it can. Recording techniques are scattered, with lots clearly sourced from practices and open jams, edited into a whole that is just as incoherent as fragments, but longer. I admit I ordered this because I was getting stuff from Feeding Tube anyway and it sounded intruiging; the first two listens did nothing for me, but this time through I'm really grooving on it. There's people from the Western Massachusetts scene all over this, though the only name I recognise is John Maloney from Sunburned Hand of the Man, whose drumming here is crisp, light and evasive. While the vocalist is chanting about feathers and seashells, you get some shit-fart bass, clattering snare, and a general discordance. If your only influence was reading old issues of Bananafish and then you decided to start a rock band, it would probably sound like this. I love most forms of absurd nonsense, and I also have a high tolerance for curious vocal techniques; singer David Russell is quite the tenor, squeaking around almost like a caricature while obsessively intoning mantras like 'My name's Mr. Eat Candy, I'm pleased to meet you mystery candy". I'll imagine that is actually Hollywood director David O. Russell, who swung by while filming The Fighter to record these sessions. If you like Starship Beer or large parts of the BUFMS box set, then this is carrying the torch. It's also endless, or feels that way; it's really long, for a single LP, and varied enough that the more driving parts ('Foul Chinese Waterfront Pig') offset the more spare elements, and it feels like a true compendium of madness. It's hard to pinpoint what Egg, Eggs are striving to express here - there's a strong sense of game-playing, of course, and a collage aesthetic throughout; but I can't help but wonder why they chose these edits over the surely hours of other sessions they had.

11 April 2013

Egg (Deram Nova)

Egg occupy a space somewhere between power trio and prog-rock. Dave Stewart's organ is the lead, and it sounds like an organ, mostly eschewing effects and other processing in order to construct creative, intelligent rock music where the keys are the lead instrument. The vocals are actually I've always liked most about Egg - Mont Campbell signs earnestly, with a deep reverberating voice and with lyrics, printed on the sleeve, that exhibit an honest creativity. His bass playing is essential though, being sinewy enough to push against Stewart's changes without being dominant. The structures are tight, but it doesn't feel overly rigid - maybe it's the jazz influections of drummer Clive Brooks, but it's responsive. This is Canterbury in a nutshell - the thinking man's rock, and a fairy early entry, from 1970, that avoids pompousness for the most part. Somehow they manage to cover Bach's 'Fugue in D' and it comes off as charming and cute instead of stuffy classical wanking. Egg are clear to separate their vocal-based songs from their more experimental instrumental excursions. Overall, they don't get too out there - this is definitely on the safe prog, so we have no completely free sessions or white noise blankets or musique concrete or anything like that, except for one dazzling movement of side 2. 'The Song of McGillicuddie the Pusillanimous' (and that's only half the title) is the best song on the album, with slicing organ riffs recalling 60's garage and a fairly intense lyrical bend. Side two is given over to the 'Symphony No. 2', where the Bachisms come to the forefront again, as well as the more atmospheric excursions as previously mentioned; sometimes the bass is just a low gritty hum, and the noisy passage just before the last movement has a great, chunky organ that does finally step on the ring modulation. It works a cohesive piece and ends a pretty solid album, I think Egg's only one - they soon went on to do Hatfield and the North and National Health, where a more strident professionalism stagnates things slightly. But we're still a few years away from the H's, let alone the N's.

10 April 2013

Eat Skull - 'Wild and Inside' (Siltbreeze)

Eat Skull's second album is something I've consistently listened to since it came out almost four years ago, and it makes a lot of sense to me. This gang just pulls everything together in the right balance, making records that are strident, yet not cocky; welcoming but not obvious; quirky but not obtuse. 'Stick to the Formula' lays things out on side 1 track 1 with a knowing smirk, and listening back to back with Sick to Death, nothing has really changed, except the songwriting has leaped ahead a notch. There's perhaps a bit more of an embrace of the 80s Kiwi sound here - 'Heaven's Stranger' sounds exactly like early Clean. It's also my favourite song by Eat Skull, with it's slightly-too-many-words for the chorus line ringing out like an indefinite anthem. 'Happy Submarine' continues this feel - lay an earnest, upbeat male vocal over a reverb drenched electric guitar and minimal tambourine - it's followed by 'Talkin' Bro in the Wall Blues' which is a slow ballad, at least by Eat Skull standards, and like the first album, it ends with a more subdued, almost folky feel ('Dawn in the Face' and 'Oregon Dreaming'). The aggro side is most evident in 'Nuke Mecca' which somehow works despite it's ridiculous nature. The lyrics are there to be heard; nothing is hidden, yet it's still somewhat elusive. One wonders if Eat Skull could express some true pain, or show any sign of a struggle, but this is the bedroom psychedelia movement in a nutshell - good times on a pinpoint aesthetic. It's a very short trip, too. I remember that a good friend of mine did not match my enthusiasm for Eat Skull, citing this band as one of the reasons he felt alienated from contemporary underground rock; he saw this as vapid, cheap and empty music that played it safe and just followed a cookiecutter pattern. Maybe he's right, because I feel his alienation with much of the current wave, so i think I've just made an exception for Eat Skull because they push exactly the right buttons for me. This isn't meant as a criticism - their output since this has definitely tried to open some doors, and I'm glad to hear it.

9 April 2013

Eat Skull - 'Sick to Death' (Siltbreeze)

Eat Skull's first record, along with the first Pink Reason LP, is a key release in what I see as the 'second wave' of Siltbreeze. It seemingly came out of nowhere, but the I wasn't really hip to what was going on in Portland in 2008. It was exciting to hear at the time, symbolising some sort of bridge to the past greatness of the 90s underground, by virtue of being on this great label. These kids really feel like 'kids' - a youthful exuberance breaks through everything, and if there's an easy criticism here, it's that Eat Skull are a bit manufactured. This cobbles together a bunch of influences I share into a perfect pastiche that simultaneously touches on UK DIY, early Flying Nun, 90s twee indie, contemporary lo-fi, and even a bit of that Shrimper bi-fi feel. The songs are primarily driven by the vocalist, very blown out guitars, and cheap keyboards, and the whole thing sounds like it was recorded on a dictaphone. The pure pop hooks aren't as overt as on their next album, but they poke through on songs like 'Stress Crazy' and 'Ghost List', where the self-conscious static and hiss gets broken through by something genuinely affective. Closing cut 'New Confinement', with a female vocalists, sounds like it could be an outtake by Garbage and the Flowers. I'd like to say it feels a bit disingenuous at times, but the name of the game is 'fun' from start to finish, and while things songs aren't going to bring me to my knees through a sheer understanding of human emotion (if anything, I couldn't really tell you what any of these songs are 'about'), I'm willing to overlook that. It's punk with soft edges, or pop with rough edges, but this is indicative of the new late 00s underground, where its agents are just as comfortable bashing out experiments in tape noise and power electronics as they are writing saccharine indie love songs. Their second record felt at the time like a major leap forward after this, but listening to Sick to Death again, it's basically the same formula only a bit less catchy.

7 April 2013

Eardrum - 'Last Light' (Leaf)

Eardrum, a British duo (I assume they are British - you can just tell), put out this double LP in 1999 and  my rhythm-seeking ears were thrilled at the time. This is a work of complex assemblage, made to feel like an organic jam; I'm not sure if it belongs in the 'electronica' genre or if it's dance music or why any of that matters, but people like to classify things. The drum in the name Eardrum is key here, as this is built around percussion. This appealed to me because Eardrum avoided harsh, dance-like club beats and used acoustic recordings; the multilayered psychedelic quilt that results is invigorating, light, and functions as both deep-listening and good-time music. Polyrhythmic syncopation is just the base; the various textures are the real joy here, and they are built from howling echo effects, wispy flutes, and other accents. 'Swamp Doctor' opens up side two with a lighter pitter-patter, suggesting equatorial music, but it somehow escapes any stereotypes, even that of eclectic hybrid forms. I also like O.Rang, who I'm reminded of by this; such invigorating exotica is not everyday fare for me, but it's hard to find fault. When the beats get more rapid, as on 'Nightcrawler', it's never overwhelming; there's enough counterpoint and development over the course of each piece to keep things moving. Tension is immediately released, and when occasional digital artefacts are audible, they feel more like phase/flange effects than glitch-core. It's an achievement to make music that is clearly constructed from samples, edits and very finicky details yet still manages to feel so loose. The four sides of this go by quickly, mastered loud on 180-gram vinyl that has strangely sharp edges to it. It a melting pot, clearly sampled from worldwide sources, but darting in and out of various regions. 'From the Nucleus' starts to take on a rainforest feel, with sonorities not a million miles from Gamelan music, but doesn't commit. Perhaps this is true contemporary music, a grey-washing that aims for the middle of all metrics and somehow doesn't  feel blanched. Reading back over this post, I realise that almost every sentence asserts something about Eardrum and then gives a qualifying "but..." so maybe this balance is even evident when listening. Active balance, perhaps?

23 March 2013

Dzyan - 'Electric Silence' (Bellaphon)

The cover of this Kraut gem indicates some seriously gross sci-fi territory, with melting scary aliens, the psychedelic version of TMNT's Krang (though let's face it, Krang is a pretty psychedelic character to begin with, or at least a cartoon embodiment of the late chapters of Joseph McElroy's Plus). But the sounds are much more varied. Admittedly, the opening cut 'Back to Where We Came From' starts things off with a very outer-limits vibe, though these affected mellotrons are of a more earthly source than they first appear. But while Electric Silence is a beautiful, lush record to get lost in, its influences are more Eastern than extra-terrestrial. Both sides of the record feature a middle track built around sitar atmosphonics, with the mellotrons making holy platforms, in layers, to ascend towards a collective jam. It's good stuff, sure, but not the extreme edge of prog-Kraut-freakout that you'd expect. A mellow 'out' is still a nice 'out', and Dzyan's sense of tension of mood is stunning. It's when they vary towards rock moves that they lose me - the middle section of the aforementioned opening cut is a funky jam that sounds like Malcolm Mooney-era Can, sans-Mooney. The exception to the placid eerieness is 'The Road Not Taken', which explodes into an extremely aggressive ball of free rock; honestly, this cut sounds like the Flying Luttenbachers by the end. It's an awesome track but sticks out like a sore thumb. The closing title track is not silent at all but features a similar call-and-response game to the opening cut, only in a more nimble, nervous style, making the entirety of Electric Silence feel like one complete cycle. This copy is in quadrophonic sound, and I lack the technology to accurately reproduce it, so maybe I'm missing lots. Even in stereo this is a keeper. 

9 February 2013

Bob Dylan - 'Bringing It All Back Home' (Columbia)

I grew up with an oppositional view of music. Music was so tightly tied to the social aspects of growing up in America in the late 80s/early 90s that it meant something. What bands you liked = who you were. And by my early teenage years I was hellbent on constructing such a personal definition that was unique from the others in my adolescent sphere, yet also grounded in something. I did my research - when I decided that "punk" was the ultimate reaction to the unjust society (which, of course, I had no remote understanding of), I went to the library and properly studied it. Even then I had some respect for the history of music, but only a Gestalt history - where the central figure was Lou Reed, not Dylan. And because I was only capable of seeing culture developments in opposition to one another (rather than synergistically - didn't I learn anything from James Burke's Connections documentary series?), I ended up with a pretty screwed up view. The way I saw it, I liked Descendents and not Smashing Pumpkins like the other kids at my school; this meant that embracing Descendents automatically meant a rejection of everything Smashing Pumpkins "stood for", which by extension was the entire capitalist patriarchal society that dominated the earth. (A funny concept for a band writing songs like 'I Like Food'). So my understanding of music - and believe me, for years, there was nothing else I consumed or thought about except music - highlighted the moments and quotations which supported my already existing narrative. I think that's what everyone does anyway - we pick and choose the facts we like - but how do these existing narratives get constructed? A subject for deeper investigation, maybe when we get around to the R's and do the Stones .... Anyway, I remembered reading about Johnny Rotten making a t-shirt that says "Fuck Pink Floyd", and quotes from SST 80s guys that emphasised their isolation and commercial futility -- this was the language to me. It was us against them, and the history of rock and roll being spewed out by Rolling Stone magazine and the Greil Marcus-style critical canon was privileging the commercially successful artists, not the real innovators. Fuck Dylan, fuck the Stones, especially fuck Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac and all those dinosaurs -- the real Rock and Roll hall of fame, as I saw it in 1994, should have housed the Dictators and Fugazi, not Clapton and Foghat.

Twenty years later I'm hopefully a bit more nuanced in my view of the world and especially culture. The irony is that I came to embrace many of the so-called 'classic rock' artists who I so blatantly rejected when I was young; I got into classic rock in my late 20s, and particularly Dylan, who I spent years never completely understanding why everyone liked him so much. To me (in the 90s), Dylan was a culturally significant figure who wrote vague, bland folk-rock songs and went through a bunch of phases including a shitty Christian one, and who was worshipped by a legion of obsessive rock writers who were basically being hoodwinked. To me, in this decade, Dylan is fucking awesome, though for reasons that are often intangible. I might still mostly agree with my 90s view, if I were to remove the word 'bland' from the above sentence, but over the years, and especially as I've had my own life experiences, Dylan's power has crept up on me. I'm still picky about his output - this is actually the only Dylan LP I own, and only because i picked it up years ago for dirt cheap and I rarely listen to it -- and I favour the Basement Tapes-era stuff (particularly the 4CD bootleg), the more mystical and funky bits of Desire, and the vastly underrated New Morning album. I think if you care about rock music at all, and I sure do, then Dylan is unavoidable. I didn't try explicitly to like or dislike Dylan - it just happens. Cover versions help, such as Fairport Convention's brilliant renderings or the amazing-beyond-words cover of 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' by 13th Floor Elevators. 'Baby Blue' is here to close the LP and I realise while listening to it that it's buried in attitude, as is pretty much everything that makes early Dylan great. I don't want to pontificate on what Dylan 'means' because there's already a huge (and mostly horrible, I imagine) volume of semi-scholarly literature about that. But there's something that grew in me as I became more confident in my own life and creative choices, and that thing is frequently tickled when listening to these overplayed classics. Being an American abroad perhaps contributed to it as well - in Britain I couldn't understand how everyone was just worshipping the man, and my pleas that Neil and Roy Harper were actually better songwriters went unheard -- and eventually I guess I just wore down. Actually when I watched that film I'm Not There, I was quite taken by it - and I realised just how much I was a Bob Dylan fan. And what's also great about confidence is that I'm happy to like anything I like - just wait until we get to the J's and I can write about how brilliant 90s San Francisco pop-punk band J Church are -- without the need for oppositional, elitist demarcations.

5 February 2013

Ian Dury & the Blockheads - 'Do It Yourself' (Stiff/Epic)

What sense can we make of Ian Dury? The currents of popular music in Britain are always unsteady, and Dury's run of records around the time of punk are hard to place. Compared to Sex Pistols, the Clash, or Sham 69, this is a whole different beast, yet there's something still ragged and attitudinal going on here. 'Inbetweenies', the opening cut, sounds almost like a joke; it, like the rest of Do It Yourself has a crisp, tight beat that is almost disco-like; I guess it would situate Dury closer to New Wave, though there's more of a pub-rock edge with the guitars. In some cases he feels like a working class British James Brown - not that there's much soul, but that there's driving, repetitive rhythms over which Dury sounds like he is free-associating. And his vocals are nothing like Brown or any conventional singer - his Englishness is almost exaggerated, someone off-key, and weirdly charming. I don't know why I feel such a need to categorise everything, particularly Dury, who is maybe best viewed as an anomaly of the times, albeit a fairly normal-sounding one. Can't I just enjoy something as good rock music? When the beat starts to fall away, as on 'Sink My Boats', I like the direction - there's more honesty and personality on display. 'This Is What We Find' is the album's best song, even though it sounds like Madness. I used to have his first album but it disappeared somewhere over the years; I have no real understanding of what Dury did after this, but according to Wikipedia he died in 2000. But Do It Yourself - despite the title, it's a polished affair - I wonder if this was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Desperate Bicycles, etc also happening at the same time? Or maybe those weren't even on Dury's radar. 

31 January 2013

Durutti Column - 'LC' (Base)

I never became a fan of this band but this record, which I just blew a decade of dust off, is pretty intriguing. Durutti Column probably have a place among the most psychedelic side of new wave fans - they seem like the type of band to get a cult around them, though I never really got it. This is instrumental music built around ringing guitars, throbbing basslines, and thoughtful, exploratory song structures. The notes ring out with chorus effects, not oversaturated and not at all hazy. The structures are deceptively simple, and the good nature of these tunes calls to mind acts like Young Marble Giants, making great things with careful brushstrokes. When there are vocals, such as on 'Sketch for Dawn (2)', they're as cryptically buried as you'd expect; these guys are clearly too shy to lay down some confident rock caterwauls. There's some adventurous jamming, of the clean-channel fast-strum type, and while it's easy to take this as a big 'guitar' album, this is really just as much about the bassist and drummer. The keyboards are a presence as well, whether contributing to the sky or being thrust, sharp detail notes (as found on the other vocal track, 'The Missing Boy'). I think LC is one of their more well-regarded records though it's the only one I've ever listened to, and I admit that by the end, I'm quite taken by their sound. There's a subtlety to this, a quieter vein of the 1980s that I also find in bands like Tirez Tirez; the production is important, the tones are carefully chosen. This is a new type of guitar god - one that paints on gauze instead of canvas. 

30 January 2013

Dukes of Stratosphear - 'Psonic Psunspot' (Virgin)

You who know me will know that I love me a silent 'P' so Psonic Psunspot wins on the title front for sure. This is the full-length by this moonlighting XTC psychedelic tribute band and it continues the pastiche of late 60's pop beauty with the same slightly silly lean. Compared to the EP, PP is a bit less buried in its own conceit. When Partridge, Moulding et al go more straight, such as the practically XTC-like 'Have You Seen Jackie?', there's some songs that stand up remarkably well outside of the context of this lark. Which is to explain why I own zero records by XTC (actually that's not true, but zero that I have listened to since the 90s) and both the LP and EP releases by the Dukes. I even used to have the 'You're a Good Man Albert Brown' 12", a bit of unnecessary collector completism. Said tune is a pounding, piano ballad recalling Ray Davies circa Something Else, but almost regal in it's brassy, British class-eye.  'Shiny Cage' actually reminds me more of the Olivia Tremor Control, so the Dukes were clearly looking ahead about a decade and predicting how others would look back to a few decades previous. It's almost as confusing as 'Primer', except the songwriting is so lucid; the organ breakdowns, big ringing major 7ths, and sharp guitar solos are a Terrascopian elixir that tastes shockingly sweet. Other tracks are more devout in their pillaging - closing cut 'Pale and Precious' is the best Beach Boys tribute since His Name is Alive's 'Universal Frequencies' (and you know there's been craploads). I'm definitely sad they didn't leave us more though probably I should be more fair to late XTC. And it's on crazy coloured vinyl to match the album artwork.

Dukes of Stratosphear - '25 O'Clock' (Virgin)

What do we say about the Dukes of Stratosphear? Sure, it's a joke - this was released on April Fools Day 1985 and is so over-the-top in its Nuggets-style psych imagery that feels somewhere in-between parody and pastiche. My issue is that I actually like the Dukes of Stratospear far better than XTC, so the joke has backfired. Or not, cause maybe it wasn't really a joke. 25 O'Clock does its best to not be serious, but it's such a perfect mishmash of the Electric Prunes, Chocolate Watchband, 'Paint It Black' and all these other legendary antecedents that its impossible to not enjoy it. The production mostly apes it's influences too though there are studio tricks (most notably in 'Bike Ride To the Moon') that reveal it's provenance. But that's okay, because everyone was in on the joke - this is all wink,wink, nod, nod. This makes me question my appreciation for this though - about the ingenuity of the music - but then 'I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night' isn't necessarily a deep, moving introspective song either. 

14 January 2013

Ducktails - 'Landscapes' (Olde English Spelling Bee)

This Ducktails record is such a pleasing style of provocative music. It's built around pure dreams, the sounds being made up of airy, warm comfort that is still psychedelic in it's overall assemblage. The guitars are strummed and picked as melodic chords, recorded in a hazy, phased-out lo-fi style which reminds me of Bügsküll or other remnants of DIY dream-pop. When Mr. Ducktails (Matt Mondanilee) sings it's like a sweet, hesitant demo tape. He's not afraid to go falsetto, but it's clear that the vocals aren't meant to be any more than another layer. The cheap rhythm loops, from probably built in keyboard beats, are a testament to this generation of thrift-store sound voyagers. But while many of his generation fixate on harshness and tension, Mondanilee glides along a soft, supportive wave. Even the technicolour artwork suggests a family holiday, the sweet sense of teenage nostalgia, and a place where no dogs bite. I don't mean to say this is pure ear candy - it eschews polish, consisting of dirty-yet-soft edges.  Where a lot of melodic loop-pedal kids end up stuck in go-nowhere harmonic noodling, Mondanilee has a sense of balance - these are pop songs, even if mostly instrumental, and they burn with a relaxed glow that channels energy inward instead of being lazy. Maybe that's what 'hypnagogic' means but I think people already stopped saying that a few years ago.

11 January 2013

Arnold Dreyblatt & The Orchestra Of Excited Strings ‎– 'Nodal Excitation' (India Navigation)

A few months ago I had my ears cleaned out. I thought I had damaged my left ear after seeing a Neil Young & Crazy Horse cover band in a too-small bar, but it turned out to have nothing to do with that - I just had so much wax impacted in my ear canals that things were blocked. The moment of discovery, when the wax is removed (which looked like a dog turd from each ear) is a sonic rebirth. I immediately became aware of sounds I had not perceived for who-knows-how long. Instantly I heard static, crackling around everywhere; the sound of the fluorescent ceiling lamps in the doctor's office; the presence (if not actual sound) of the blood and sinus fluids in my own head. It was among the most psychedelic moments I've ever experienced. I'm glad this happened before I got to the D's here, because Nodal Excitation (like most of Dreyblatt's work) is best enjoyed when you can really perceive the details - otherwise it just sounds like one string being plucked for 40 minutes. I'll make a rare statement here - I used to have the Dexter's Cigar CD reissue of this, which I dumped when I found the vinyl. (I'll never pass up India Navigation originals, who would?) But listening today, with a cup of tea in a dark room, seated lotus style, I wonder if the more clear sonic frequencies in the high register of a CD might be preferable to this pressing. Admittedly, when the deeper sounds cut in (on the second movement of the first side), the vinyl's bass response give it an attack which is just glorious. But the highs are where it's at - the nodes being excited, if you will - and I fear I might be selling it short by listening to this 30 year old slab of wax, which is of course not crystalline. Or maybe this is just the limitation of my shitty amplifier and phono preamp (donations accepted to buy me a new one! Comment below if you want to be my sugar daddy/mommy). But the shifting overtones, fighting against the attack of the staccato strings, are where Dreyblatt works his magic. This is minimalism done right, but there might be deeper questions to investigate about what it means. What is the expressive, human statement of Dreyblatt's compositions? What makes this music, and not sound art? The act of listening, of course, is fundamentally human, and I am truly moved by a sense of wonder and amazement when I listen to Nodal Excitation. But how much of this is from Dreyblatt's hand, and how much is from the context I bring myself to the music? When I get back to Elbow Cinderblock we'll hear some more sides of Dreyblatt, and return to these questions. For now I can enjoy the vinyl's surface noise, dancing around the piano-wire plucks, creating a warm envelope.

10 January 2013

Dreamcatcher - 'Nimbus' (Fluorescent Friends)

The cover of this is affable; two kids, really, looking like everyone else you know, honestly presenting themselves in front of their equipment. Dreamcatcher might already be forgotten, if they were ever remembered, but this Canadian duo released this pretty-solid LP of dark, improvised electornic noise. There's nothing easy about the sound but it's not needlessly harsh. There's buried, processed vocals, usually to create a sense of unease rather than abrasion. There's a good sense of exploration and freedom, with flowing, moving echoes of echoes juxtaposed with throbbing pulses and jerky, nervous fuckery. Nothing comes easy with this type of music, but in the wake of Wolf Eyes we found a lot of enthusiasm around this time (2005). The Throbbing Gristle influence is most obvious on 'Doctor Clawk', which uses shiny, clear beats behind aural terror. This evil sound accelerates on 'Eyes of Featherface II', the most screaming, dissonant piece on the record, and a beautiful closer (especially as the last moments are tranquil bird-like sounds), showcasing their ability to construct a dynamic sound range. What happened to these guys? I'm sure basic Internet research could unearth this but I like to wonder. The male member, Blake Hargreaves, made a brilliantly demented solo album that we'll get to in the H's, eventually, eventually.

The Dream Syndicate - 'Medicine Show' (A&M)

They've moved to a major label here, and the change is obvious from the beginning of track 1, 'Still Holding On To You'. Kendra Smith has departed and this is now the Steve Wynn show, with songwriting much more focused towards a crooning Americana style. Side one of Medicine Show is pretty hard to enjoy, perhaps due to Sandy Pearlman's production which emphasises the snare drum in that way I always call "the 80's drum sound" for lack of a better term (see Big Country records for another example). But it's not just the production - the songwriting is closer to Neil than Lou, and while I love Neil too, there's something just a bit off; Precoda's Dionysian leads are left to linger behind the Voice of Wynn, and the songs just aren't as strong. Maybe it's my bias against bigger sounding records, but the songs just don't hold up, with the exception of the Precoda-penned 'Bullet With My Name On It'. But then we flip it and get the title track, a slowed down retread of Days of Wine and Roses-style jamming which builds to a nice plateau by the end. And then the album's highlight, 'John Coltrane Stereo Blues', a largely free romp through a mid-tempo rock foundation which resembles Sonic Youth at points with it's discordant guitar squeals; it's not just the best song on Medicine Show but maybe the best Dream Syndicate song full stop. The ballad 'Merretville' could slow things down but actually closes on a nice 'Torn Curtain'. There's enough good times here, though it's definitely the end for me.

8 January 2013

The Dream Syndicate - 'The Days of Wine and Roses' (Ruby)

This is where it comes together perfectly - thick shards of exploratory guitar (psychedelic mode: ON), a frontman with an emerging, distinct rock voice, and  most importantly great songs. The EP showed promise but everything is amped up a notch here; both side 2's open with 'When You Smile' but on Days of Wine and Roses, the first notes indicate that things are more confident than before. It's slower, the echo is there, and the band knows what they are doing. Maybe I've listened to this so many times it's become familiar, but the opening cut ('Tell Me When it's Over') crashes in as an iconic side 1, track 1. Kendra Smith's 'Too Little, Too Late' is hardly the predecessor to Opal you'd think, instead dragging the album down a bit - but maybe it's also a nice counterbalance to Steve Wynn's Verlaine/Reed affectations. There's some spin for you. But I like these affectations, for the Velvets influence is what made this such a defining record of the early 80s, where this music feels out of step with the new wave layers everywhere. And Precoda, Precoda - this guy is like a forgotten guitar god, and he disappeared after this band for years until he re-surfaced briefly in the even more ignored Last Days of May. It will be a long time until we get to the L's, so in the meanwhile we can just put the title track of this record, probably their best song, on infinite repeat and let it take us to forever escapable climaxes.

7 January 2013

The Dream Syndicate (Down There)

Legends start somewhere. Actually I don't think the Dream Syndicate are even close to 'legendary' - well, the LaMonte Young one, maybe. This one is great too. This is probably their first EP ; most songs will reappear, a bit feistier, on Days of Wine and Roses, but the slightly more raw jams here are great stuff. 'That's What You Always Say' actually sounds like a lo-fi recording, with a really bizarre drum production. And Karl Precoda knows how to tear it up; this wild axe-man vs. rockstar front-men tension is what made early Dream Syndicate so great. When Precoda and Wynn turn totally feral, on the last song, 'Some Kinda Itch', it's just a promise of things to come. One time I saw a great Japanese band, Overhang Party, who sounded like the Dream Syndicate. I told a friend this and he asked 'Which Dream Syndicate?' and I realised both. Wynn and co. aren't quite the minimal drone masters but there's an understanding of deeper musical ideas underneath the Velvets-styled rocking. And the LP, to follow next is just spectacular.