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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.