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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.

Le Drapeau Noir (Chironex)

The new wave of free British music is here! I gravitated around these circles for a few years so I saw a lot of interesting stuff happening in the UK, which was music being made by young, dedicated musicians with strong roots in the free/jazz antecedents of the 60s and 70s, a strong influence of punk/hardcore/indie, and a willingness to tie up all these strands into something strong and personal. Chora, from Sheffield, are leaders among that and this one-off project, Le Drapeau Noir, features some of them (I think) and maybe some people from the Hunter Gracchus (also from Sheffield) and most certainly Pascal Nichols from Part Wild Horses Mane on Both Sides, as his drumming style is inimitable. The label says it's all three bands together, which if you think about it, should be a cacophonous mess - but instead we get a cacophonous bucket of beauty. This above-mentioned druming style anchors the three jams on this self-titled LP, allowing harmonium, flute, and what sounds even like a tamboura to weave in and out of the order/chaos edge. While made only a few years ago, it dowses into the more floral currents of 1960's jazz, yet updates it with a communicative sense of collective joy. By the end, the explorations are tonal, as a thick blanket of drones comes together with each member confident, listening, yet free. It's a remarkable coming together of minds, perhaps meant only as a one-off thing, but thankfully having made this document. Which is great, because these things are lovely to listen to!

6 January 2013

Double Leopards - 'Halve Maen' (Eclipse)

We're back after a hiatus where we listened to no sound at all - a self-imposed anechoic chamber which means Halve Maen, where we left off, sounds like the most overwhelming and powerful sound of all (after the lack). The title must be Old English, or something, and the artwork is perfect to support the dark, cavernous sounds inside. This is primitive but not simple; a very careful, mature experimental field that builds on the experiments of the last album, adding some (dare I say?) polish to the proceedings. 'Druid Spectre' uses a piano to create something probing, beautiful in texture and tempo. The second side's long 'A Hemisphere in Your Hair' fulfills the promise of a new age; it moves, enveloping air like a cloud, not eschewing structure but rather jogging alongside it. The drums that come in at the end are like a wakeup call. Double Leopards might never transcend Halve Maen's intimacy; even the noisier tracks on the second record ('The Forest Outlaws' is a beacon of light towards the dirty 00s, a decade they would conquer, without trying) feel like they are made close to the heart, close to the ears. There's a constant folding at play - a representation of sound that is wet, layered, and unraveling all at once. The tools may be simple or may be complex - it's not relevant. It's hyperbole, perhaps, to say the promise of Pebble is fulfilled here, especially as they followed this with further explorations and more great records. But this is a masterful summation of the Double Leopards sound, at least their early sound, and records like this make me still love the sound recording object as art form.