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29 November 2014

Fire Engines - 'Aufgeladen Und Bereit Fur Action Und Spass' (Fast Product America)

Here's a compilation containing most of the Lubricate Your Living Room record I just put back on the shelf, as well as a few extra tunes. It's bookended by the 'Candyskin'/'Meat Whiplash' 7", and 'Candyskin' is about as candied as the Fire Engines ever got, not just because of the melodic signing and relatively accessible lyrics but also due to the presence of a string section. It's a great, gorgeous meeting of orch-pop arrangements and post-punk snot, delivered with just the right amount of sarcasm. Listening to these songs right after just hearing them on the previous LP is actually fun. That's happened a few times throughout this project, with varying results, but this time I really notice a fidelity difference - how much better this pressing sounds than the Pop Aural one. I guess Fast Product America released this attempting to sell the Fire Engines to the American audiences, but I think the band was so short-lived that it barely mattered. Listening to 'Discord' twice in one night makes one really "get" the Fire Engines. And that's essentially all I can say here.

11 November 2014

Fire Engines - 'Lubricate Your Living Room' (Pop Aural)

This first record by the Fire Engines doesn't feel fully-formed, though that's maybe just because it's mostly instrumental. My other Fire Engines record (we'll get to this in a sec) has most of this one on it, and that pressing sounds slightly better than this earlier effort. It's funny to think of this happening in 1980 Edinburgh, which means it's possible these guys played shows with the Exploited. You couldn't get further away from Wattie & co. while still being rock music (well, I suppose you could); the monotony and tight rhythm section + jagged, sharp guitars sounds not unlike Gang of Four's blueprint, though I guess this was the blueprint for about 70% of British bands at the time. Fire Engines really excel at the long instrumental jams - 'Discord' is an epic, seemingly endless bashabout, and the two-part title track is a long-form exploration as well. They aren't unmelodic, though they prefer to focus on pounding guitar licks than pop hooks. The monotony has a fun, poppy flavour, unlike the Fall's nihilism or Flipper's drugged-out dirges. It's a statement of a new musical frontier - where the rhythmic concerns are of foremost importance and the traditional rock frontman recedes to the distance (though singer David Henderson can yelp like the best of them, when he bothers). I remember these guys doing a reunion show when I was living in Scotland, maybe 8-10 years ago, and I skipped it because it was in Edinburgh and expensive. I think they were actually opening up for a Beefheartless Magic Band, or maybe I'm just conflating two shows around the same time, neither of which I went to. Either way, it would make sense, as there's some real spiritual unity between Fire Engines and the Magic Band's most notorious efforts. The brutal, plodding 4/4 drums that rarely break for fills or flourishes anchor the guitars, but it's somehow spirited and uplifting. A sarnie and tomatoes makes a nice album cover, too.

10 November 2014

Fille Qui Mousse - 'Trixie Stapelton 291 - Se Taire Pour Une Femme Trop Belle' (Bichon)

I don't know anything about Fille Qui Mousse. This is something that appeared in my life around the time the early days of Internet filesharing opened up and you could start downloading all sorts of NWW-list items that you never thought would be heard. Napster, I think, or early Soulseek - it was before the Mutant Sounds blog, but the same online discovery time. Around then, a friend suggested I check out this album, and I did, and it hit the sweet spot, which is the more discordant, weird side of jammy 70's prog-fusion. It's French, obviously, and the 'Stapleton' in the title makes me really wonder about the Nurse With Wound connection, but I always liked it and therefore swept up the vinyl reissue when it appeared a few years ago. A few tracks on here and out-and-out sound experiments - the monotonous dronescape of 'Esplanade' which closes side 1 in a maddening fashion, or the tinny toy piano freakout of 'Transcription Interrompue'. Trixie Stapleton doesn't feel anything like a cohesive album, because cohesion was the enemy. This was outsider music, progressive without many chops, built around weird improvised bits and getting better the more fucked up it lurches. When it resembles rock music (which it actually does a few times), it's an album that sounds somewhere between Berrocal and a scrawny, withered Krautrock band. When it's looped electroacoustic weirdness, there's a primitivism that the French always do so well. The jazzy/fusion tendencies come through on the 'band' tracks like 'L'eau Était Vitale', but it's not really meant to feel like a band album, I don't think it's a band at all. This was one mad artist's project and thus the other members came and went, which comes through in the recordings. Time has been kind to this record, though since it wasn't actually released until the 90s (though recorded in the early 70's, allegedly 70-72 which would make this very ahead of it's time, even for that scene) I suppose we've had less time with it.

27 October 2014

Fennesz - 'Endless Summer' (Mego)

This felt like a groundbreaking record when it came out, and probably represents my peak interest in whatever this genre was. I see it's been reissued since as a deluxe double LP edition so clearly it has some sort of place in history. By 2001 I had seen Christian Fennesz live a few times, and for a guy bent over a laptop he had the most performative presence I've still probably ever seen in, well, whatever this genre was. Endless Summer, as its title indicates, has a warmth and organic quality that doesn't jar with the 'glitches' and electronic crackle, but rather works with the qualities of that sound to complement the language of laptop-experimentalism. From the get-go, 'Made in Hongkong', Fennesz throws the listener into wet, warm tonalities with a burning digital ebb and flow. The achievement of Endless Summer is not the fact that it's trying to capture the same feeling as the Beach Boys or surf music, but rather that it is such a cohesive, expressive statement. The acoustic guitar strums on 'A Year in a Minute' have the languid quality of some of the Jeweled Antler pop bands or Dylan's more stoned moments, and it's remarkable that they achieve such a harmony with the gargling, folding-in-upon-itself undertow that is constantly fighting for air here. This type of wet electronic comfort (which I often associate with the Leaf label -- see the Eardrum review) can easily create a bath of thick mid-rangey tones, which can feel easy at times, like ear candy This doesn't hide it's digital manipulations - the pulsing of 'Before I Leave' is relentless, even annoying at times, and maybe the one track that feels out of place. But Fennesz is seeking new feelings, combining the familiar with the other, and this occasionally produces an exotica vibe ('Shisheido'), as if Les Baxter was being updated for the digital age. Repetition is present, nearly to the point of insanity on the lengthy closer 'Happy Audio', and this type of minimalism feels strangely maximal. Around the turn of the millennium we were lucky to find a lot of (mostly European) electronic artists trying to move away from the beats that characterise dance tracks, instead finding an affinity with post-rock by focusing on textures, colour, etc. I don't know how people more knowledgeable about this genre would feel about me lumping Fennesz in with Pole, Gas, or Oval, but to a young rocker seeking new musical languages, this stuff was magical. It's faded from my memory even though there's no shortage of great music being made today that picks up from where this left off. These descendants may be the proof of the eternity promised by the title of Endless Summer.

Felt - 'Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty' (Cherry Red)

Before I ever heard Felt, I read a review of this record and decided they would get points for the title alone. Here's the establishment of the beta-male guitar-god; where jangle climbs the throne and the clean channel rules supreme. It starts with an instrumental, the lengthy 'Evergreen Dazed', which introduces the Felt sound - two tinny guitars, lots of reverb, and a plodding drummer. The lead parts are moody, built around descending melodies and never too flashy. Here, the instruments ring and ring and ring, and when the voice is present (all songs sung by Felt mastermind Lawrence, who I assume is the guy pictured on the front), it's breathy and minus any rock and roll histrionics. This is about as far from Led Zeppelin as rock music can possibly be, and is in alignment with the other plans for the genre established by their brethren of the early 80s - the Cure, Durutti Column, etc. I admit that even though the point of this project is to give these records the solid decent listen they deserve, I found myself tuning out the vocals entirely, letting the guitars carry me into some sort of somnambulistic state. Thus, I'm not sure if the poem 'Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty' printed on the sleeve contains actual lyrics (since there is no song by this name) or is merely a poem; it does contain the line 'Dazed like evergreen' at the end, but that song is an instrumental. So Lawrence writes and sings lyrics but then only prints entirely different ones on the sleeve - that's something Michael Stipe hadn't even thought of. But back to the music - six long songs, a half-hour total, and it melts into something that feels like a 'statement'. When there's rhythm guitar, it might have a little distortion but from the natural fuzz of an amplifier, as opposed to anything more grungy. The opening chugga-chug of 'Cathedral' feels like something solid you can dig your feet into, planting like roots, and the whole record ends with 'Templeroy', petering out rather than exploding or burning or whatever impulse rock music often tends to produce. This is their debut and I don't really know anything else by them, figuring I'd always find more Felt LPs lying around during my years in the UK (I didn't).

26 September 2014

The Feelies - 'Only Life' (A&M)

I'm such a child of the Internet - well, actually I'm an early adopter, as it's been 21 years since my first email address, in the days of lynx and gopher, but I digress -- and I often forget about how difficult it was to access cultural content before, even before my teenage years. When I listen to the cover of 'What Goes On' which closes out the Feelies third album, Only Life, I think about how discovering the Velvet Underground in 1988 was not as easy as it is now. I'm sure those records were all in print, but they weren't necessarily available at Sam Goody or wherever kids went to buy records then; and you still had to buy them, at least, as opposed to just listening to it on YouTube or whatever. This isn't an original observation, but one that seems to affect how I listen to Only Life in 2014. In some ways it's "another album, another influence" for the Feelies - I always thought of this album as their VU-worship statement, but I'm not sure why I thought that apart from the presence of 'What Goes On'. What this really sounds like is a more polished, more accessible version of The Good Earth. It's on a major label, too, a fact which I genuinely forgot, though it sounds like it; the bigger, bolder drum sounds and soaring vocals, heard right off the bat on 'It's Only Life' and 'Too Much' , which are slightly tailored for the radio of the time (albeit college radio). It's a bit like Hüsker Dü's Warehouse compared to their earlier stuff - not bad, but not as raw and ragged. The Good Earth is a classic because it's not raw or ragged, but it's not like this either. Is it all production? The guitar solos are still sinewy and invigorating, the chord progressions are similar, and the vocals are a tad less understated than before (the 'whoa-oh's and 'away-hey's on 'Too Far Gone' and 'Away', respectively, definitely have more of a power pop feel than the wordless moans of 'When Company Comes', but there's nothing wrong with that). It's not exactly Whitesnake or whatever 1988 sounded like to everyone else; listening for the first time in years, Only Life sounds great, a solid and respectable record. 'Higher Ground', not related to the Stevie Wonder/Red Hot Chili Peppers standard, is booming and gracious. In 'Too Much', Glenn Mercer sounds a tad bit more arena-rock than usual. 'The Undertow' picks up from where 'The Last Roundup' left off, with even more vitriol; 'The Final Word' and 'Too Far Gone'  (no relation to the unreleased Neil Young tune) has some of the 1-2 punch left, sounding like a cross between the first two albums; the vocals are eerily similar to the jumpiness of  'Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness', but then the guitar solo is a smooth beast. Yeah, it's really only 'What Goes On' that makes me associate this album with the VU, and even that sounds more like the Feelies, in the usual spirit of their covers. I don't have Time For a Witness and it looks like they did a reunion album in 2011 (plus, a solo Glenn Mercer record in 2007 that is really good), so the journey ends here.

25 September 2014

The Feelies - 'No One Knows' (Coyote)

There's not much to this 12" - it's an extended single, marked on the label as 45rpm but actually 33rpm, so you don't even get better sound quality on the two Good Earth tracks, 'the High Road' and 'Slipping (Into Something)'. Well, I guess you do, as a shorter run time means it can be mastered louder, but I couldn't tell. They are great songs, and the two b-sides are both covers - the Beatles, again, with 'She Said, She Said', not quite as luxuriously reinvented as 'Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey' but with a nice psychedelic vibe - a thicker middle than most of the other songs from this period. 'Slipping (Into Something)' is a pretty great song, with very minimal vocals and a thick, accelerating ending that builds to an inevitable But then the kicker - a cover of Neil's 'Sedan Delivery', done in the same tossed off way as the Beatles cover. This is faithful, and the high pitched voice is even accurate, though out of character. The singing on both of these covers has an exuberance that hasn't been heard since Crazy Rhythms and that's very, very welcome - the saving grace of an otherwise unnecessary EP.

24 September 2014

The Feelies - 'The Good Earth' (Domino/Coyote)

There was quite a hiatus before this appeared and when it did, it was almost shocking - gone are the jittery rhythms and angular guitar leads, replaced by languid, open-chord strums. And I think they're a better band for it. Was it a brave choice, turning down the energy and looking for something else; or was it a crass appeal to commercial pressures, fitting into the jangly 'college rock' vibe of the late 1980s? I don't buy it that turning down and simplifying - and consciously removing your 'edge' - is a sign of selling out or lesser quality music. The Good Earth is a masterpiece, clearly one of the high water marks of American rock in the 80s and the Feelies' finest achievement. And they have the distinction of being a band that simultaneously influenced R.E.M. (with their first album) and was influenced by R.E.M. (here). Though R.E.M. is a bit of an easy comparison, just because there's arpeggios galore and a solid backbeat; I also hear traces of country standards, blues/spirituals, and of course folk. There's a cowboy vibe to 'Tomorrow Today', which utilises the new rhythm section of Brenda Sauter, Dave Weckerman and Stan Demeski to great success. 'Slipping (Into Something)' and 'Let's Go' are not too far from the songwriting of Crazy Rhythms, just using a different arrangement to the same tension and cadences. 'The Last Roundup' is the most indicative of the earlier material, probably a holdover, with lots of frantic strumming and the two percussionists used to full effect. The highlight of this record for me, and therefore of The Feelies, is 'When Company Comes', the most simple sketch of a song, built around three chords strummed and with a chorus of nearly wordless vocals, topped with some searing guitar notes. It's pure psychedelia, but like you've never heard before. I don't know why it moves me so much - maybe, when combined with the speaking voices mixed into the end and the way it comes as the last song on side one (which is always the best position for a song, in my opinion), it all amalgamates into some lost, wispy alternative Americana that I can't remember (I was six when this came out) but yearn for anyway. (hint: it never existed)

15 September 2014

The Feelies - 'Crazy Rhythms' (Stiff)

I listen to this record quite often. It somehow cuts through the familiarity that saturates so many other albums from this time; the songs have seeped deep into my cortex, with every note and tom-tom tap memorised to the point of instinct, yet it doesn't feel like I'm on a mental autopilot when listening to it. This early Feelies lineup is so different than their subsequent albums, probably due to the presence of Anton ("Andy") Fier, who left after this record. The opening cut is pretty much the roadmap - 'The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness', which explicitly lays out the nervous energy that made this early lineup so great. It's a song where only Bill Million plays any guitars, a studio assemblage for sure, and the rest of the band is on various percussion. Larks Tongues in Aspic this is not; I wish I could say layered guitars were influenced by Glenn Branca, but I doubt it; it's jittery, tight and coherent, but succinct and still a pop song. The more catchy songs, like 'Crazy Rhythms' and 'Moscow Nights', could be punk thrashers with different production and a different singer. In the voices of Million and Glenn Mercer, it's comes off as some hybrid of R.E.M. and Mission of Burma (both of whom the Feelies pre-date). It's all good, though. Nothing stays beyond its welcome, even the seven minute 'Forces at Work'; when the contrapuntal ascending and descending guitar lines break out at the end of 'Loveless Love', it fades out before it starts to be show-offy. This is a total guitar album; 'Forces at Work' is epic in the way it crescendos, yet it's never jerkoff Yngvie-style stylings - the players aren't necessarily virtuosos on the fretboards, but they have a masterful way of assembling things. The vibe of Crazy Rhythms is fun and hyper without being overly aggressive, and the fashion of the members from the cover and liner photos is so proto-indie chic it would be a cliché if this wasn't 1980. The Beatles cover is just in line with the rest of it, and it doesn't feel silly or gimmicky. This is a great band and this is a great debut, and it's nice that they change gears so abruptly on their next album (which took six years to come out!).  I don't have a bad thing to say here, nor anything insightful either; I feel like I've just been describing this record by pointing out how balanced it is and what it is not, more than what it is. I'll tell you this - I throw on 'Moscow Nights' or 'Crazy Rhythms' some time just when I want to jump around and play a weird sort of air guitar, and I'm glad no one sees me doing so.

11 September 2014

Faust - 'IV' (Virgin)

The Nurse With Wound list taught us that Faust was not so singular; there were plenty of demented Euro-freaks throughout the entire wonderful 1970s making music that defied logic or categorisation. What made Faust so special was their impact - as a high-profile act, with records on Virgin and singing in English, their brand of madness could seep into a larger market than the so-called 'underground'. IV is really where you hear that - at times their most accessible record, with plaintive ballads such as 'Jennifer', and pop-skews like 'The Sad Skinhead' (which actually makes me think of the Homosexuals and their deconstructed song-based genius), but also opening with the 12-minute blast of 'Krautrock'. Tongue-in-cheek title aside, this track more or less invented the 'ecstatic drone' genre, or whatever you would call artists twenty-plus years later such as Skullflower, Total, Sunroof, Double Leopards, etc. It's not like any of the other dark, dense jams of its time apart from maybe some Japanese artists - the horizontality is more akin to minimalist composition, but the edges are poking out everywhere, nothing sanded down. It's somehow an entirely different beast than 'Sister Ray', too; there's less affect, if that makes any sense; it's muddy and fuzzy and endlessly replayable. The rest of the record is no slouch - 'Giggy Smile' is a jam of jams, and 'It's a Bit of a Pain' is a beautiful way to go out.  The rock parts have a warm, wooly recording and when there's electronic fuckery ('Picnic on a Frozen River') it sounds as soft and encompassing as the glowing guitar amps. If this is a summation of the first three records' experiments, so be it; IV is as cohesive and complete for Faust as Led Zeppelin's fourth record is to them. Why we don't have posters of this hanging in university dorms instead is a true shame. And this is it, really - the end of Faust proper. I know there's the Munich and Elsewhere record and the Tony Conrad collab and then the 90s and beyond, but this was the end of Faust in the 70s; four perfect albums and then they disappeared. As much as I love Rien and some of the later stuff, you can't help but wonder what the legacy would be if they had stayed defunct. There's always been something occult about Faust, even if they were actually more like absurd art-school kids in person (as I suspect); the word 'occult' does come from 'occluded' so maybe that's how it should have stayed.

10 September 2014

The Faust Tapes (Recommended)

This is a record that became legendary partially because of it's collage-like assemblage, and partially because it marketed for dirt cheap in its original release. This reissue has a nice little plastic bag cover and keeps the cheap feel with kinda thin vinyl, but I'm surprised Recommended didn't make something sturdier, cause I know this wasn't 49p when new. But the sound is great, and the record makes as much of an impact with me now as it did when I first heard it, even if the sounds are familiar. Some CD reissues of this apparently included a track listing, which seems antithetical to The Faust Tapes. One of the paradoxes is that while a "collage" (though that is somewhat overstated, I think), I always end up listening to it straight through (as my old CD version had it all as one track, I think). The few proper songs jump out; the 'J'ai mal aux dents' one is iconic, the only long bit on the record, and it has this Naked City-esque breakdown in the middle that sounds a bit clichéd now but not a trace in '73, I'm sure (and has some great tape splicing sounds as well). The jammy bits make you forget that Faust were at their hearts primitive surrealists, not drugged-out psychonauts; well, they probably ingested their fair share, but when you listen to the broken drumbeats and pseudo-funk breakdowns, it's a long way from the searing, layered echoes of the Cosmic Jokers. Maybe this was nothing more than an EP of songs extended into something larger by splicing together outtakes and jams, but that's the point - The Faust Tapes is a record to celebrate the in-between bits as much as the more constructed product. Those who celebrate this as one of Faust's finest achievements probably don't cite any single song as the high water mark, but the cohesive whole. This is the album as a statement itself, but in a totally different manner than Sgt. Pepper's

29 July 2014

Faust - 'So Far' (Recommended)

I've always envisioned Faust as a bit of a 'boy band', in the sense that they were put together by Uwe Nettelbeck to capitalise on the psychedelic craze. The best line from Wikipedia's entry on the first album is definitely "In 1971, Polydor entered a deal with Uwe Nettelbeck to assemble a musical ensemble that could compete with the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and Small Faces." So they're basically the Backstreet Boys of their time! Again, it's hard to decide on the pinnacle of Faust's first four albums because they're all so fucking perfect, but So Far might be the most cohesive record of them as a 'band'. It's more diverse than the debut, opening with 'It's a Rainy Day Sunshine Girl' which is typically attributed as indebted to the Velvet Underground, but I hear more of the Godz in it, plus a hint of soul. Really! That's what my soul looks like. 'No Harm' is the one I like to play when I DJ, though I never remember the name of it ("Daddy, take a banana, Tomorrow is Sunday!", yeah that one) and when turned up LOUD, it sounds absolutely goddamned fucking incredible. This is Faust almost pissing out perfect, spazzy guitar-psych just because they can, and it's somehow a bit Dada and distinctly European and yet menacing and accessible simultaneously. They also manage to sound like Throbbing Gristle on 'Mamie is Blue', and spin some delicate folk moments with 'On the Way to Abamae'. It's occasionally goofy, like when the voices all line up on 'I've Got My Car and My TV', but more often it has a haunting, challenging darkness that spins a web of associations for me. There's actually less tape manipulations and studio fuckery here than I remember - it's really an album of songs, yet it's hard to grasp what these guys are actually about. I find something quite expressive among all these confusing branches, but then they had me at the first album. This is another reissue but one that has the beautiful prints inside, though the paper slipcase holding them is so tight that I rarely take them out. It was the last of the original four to get a CD re-release (or at least it was hella difficult to find in 1999) and thus the one I came to latest, so in many ways it still sounds the freshest, and it's a beautiful, inspiring package.

Faust (Recommended)

I got into Krautrock while a sophomore in college, circa 1998-99, and at the time I devoured all the big names (or at least what was available to me in the pre-Napster days, with a limited budget). You can read already my thoughts on Agitation Free, Cosmic Jokers, and Dzyan; but the "big names" as I saw it, probably thanks to Julian Cope's privileging of them in his book, were Can, Düül and Faust. (In my mind I always grouped Neu!, Harmonia, Ash Ra Tempel and Brainticket into a 'second tier' which is pretty stupid --Brainticket were Swiss, after all -- but, hey, we take easily presented narratives and stick with them, especially when 19). My point is that Faust seemed like one of the essentials of Krautrock and to me they were the best. The absolute best. My compass is always wavering on which of the first four Faust albums I like the best, but you can make a strong case for any of them. This one tends to get overlooked, maybe because it has the least "songy" bits, and also because it probably wasn't as big of a seller. Years later, after having dug through the NWW list and all the obscure surrealist treasures that have been unearthed through blogs and reissue labels, Faust "1" (as I like to call it) stands out as something special. The overall presentation is ace - clear cover and vinyl, mysterious lack of info, creepy/scary X-ray fist - and then three stunning tracks. I first found a CD reissue of this secondhand and played it to death, but this vinyl version (a reissue from the late 70s, I think) really makes the tones pop out. This is extremely left-field when compared to a lot of the other kozmiche music happening at the time, due to the collaged nature and odd pop/folk forms that are woven throughout - but I think it actually sounds quite distinct from a lot of the less jammy, more surreal freak music of the 70s, like Mahogany Brain or Jac Berrocal too. This is 1971, and that's notable as well, because it somehow feels like a blueprint for the 70s to come, clearly built from the psychedelic times of the 60s, but completely singular as well. There's only three cuts here, and the first side is pretty iconic, with its melting marching band and 'a wonderful wooden reason'.... but it's 'Miss Fortune' that I really love to listen to. It's a beautiful composition, even when it feels discordant, and it introduces the Faust tradition of ending the albums with genteel acoustic bits. Whenever other artists are compared to Faust, it's usually because they have a short attention span or collaged together a bunch of different styles a la Tapes. But who's out there capturing the mystery, the enigma, and the spectacle? Faust in the Internet age surely couldn't happen anyway...

4 July 2014

Family Underground - 'Familiar Places' (Into The Lunar Night)

So many contradictions here! These Danes are about the sweetest, kindest people you'll ever meet, but their music often sounds like the devotional chants of a murderous cult. The title is 'familiar places' but the only familiar imagery this will conjure is an imagined nocturnal bender with distant, ever-ungraspable shrieks in the distance and a pulsating ur-drone throughout. That is to say, this is a pretty great album that somehow transcends the ecstatic drone scene it was birthed from and has lots of peers (Double Leopards, Birds of Delay, etc.) while still somehow retaining a distinct quality. The centrepiece, 'Valley of 1xxx Smokes', sounds a bit like the mid-fi horizontalism of Newcastle's Culver, though with extra members to sweeten the deal with melodicas, tinkering bells and other not-quite-identifiable sounds. It's not too obvious, but works up enough steam that having to break in the middle to flip the LP is actually a detriment. Family Underground seem to flirt between organic, pastoral drone and darker, industrial-tinged rattling; it's a delicate balance than shifts its weight even in the same track. And when 'Hellish Design' rolls around to close up, it feels sufficient, a band that hasn't outstayed their welcome and knows exactly what they are converging on.

29 June 2014

Family Fodder ‎– 'ScHiZoPhReNiA pArTy!' (Fresh)

I rarely spin this 12" EP, mostly because it opens with 9 brutal minutes of 'Dinosaur Sex', a raveup that has energy and spirit but is just too utterly stupid for me to fully enjoy. There's the same creative pop production techniques at play here as on Monkey Banana Kitchen, though maybe a bit less vocal or structural experimentation. The dub/reggae influence is more subtle here, just being the undertow of 'Emergency' as opposed to an out-and-out rave. The flipside contains a few songs that predate fast, guitar-based indie rock, as well as the percussion blowout 'Silence', a memorable gem from the Savoir Faire greatest hits disc. There's a few songs that aren't that CD, and thus hearing gems like 'Tea with Dolly' (feeling like This Heat goes pop, with ascending and descending melodic steps keeping everything just off-kilter) and the closer 'Better Lies' (a tense hybrid between dream-pop and indie soul, with the line 'I am the sex pistol of dreams'). Schizophrenia may be appropriate, for that's the condition most associable with the tape-splice technique, though to be honest, there's less overt splicing and fuckery present here than on the full-length. It sounds great at 45rpm though!

18 June 2014

Family Fodder - 'Monkey Banana Kitchen' (Fresh)

About half of this record appears on the Savoir Faire best-of CD (which we'll get to, soon) so I'm a bit disorientated by the sequencing of this, Family Fodder's first proper album, which I've listened to much less than I've listened to the CD. So the opening cut, 'Darling', while a great a-capella vocal experiment, is a bit of a what-the-fuck - as much of an anti-logical side1track1 as the forthcoming Fleetwood Mac Tusk (which starts with the naturally finishing 'Over and Over' as some sort of oddball paen to Finnegans Wake, I think, but enough of that for now). Family Fodder struck me as an utterly astounding calvary of post-punk art-school weirdness when I first heard them back in 2001 or so, but now with all the other magic that's been unearthed by blogs and reissue labels, they are less earthshattering. The tendencies between pop and experimental are held in check, mostly, and there's every imaginable influence that turn-of-the-80s British art punks were digesting. Monkey Banana Kitchen ranges from primitive indie-clatter (the sublime 'Cold Wars', aggro 'Wrong', and 'Savoir Faire', which predates Stereolab and adds a healthy dose of amphetamines) to dub ('Monkey' is the obvious one, but it's integrated into songwriting, Slits-like, in 'Symbols', a fantastic song left off the greatest hits album for some reason); straight-up reggae is attempted in 'Bass Adds Bass', which is the album's only real misstep besides the child rave-up 'Philosophy'. Romance is deconstructed in the duet 'Love Song', which looks for 'a new kind of love song'; 'Cold Wars' deals with similar territory, with the lyric 'We're just like America and Russia' reaching a new significance given recent world events. But romance is just one element - the grand brushstrokes are wilfully obscured by the strong sense of musical play throughout. Overdubs are used brilliantly - there's some bells, or a few seemingly random pianochords, or some discordant voices - and studio phasing/flange/fluter techniques are not shied away from. 'Organ Grinder' creates a eerie mood, with a cadence akin to Wire's 'French Film Blurred' and German chanting which balances 'Savoir Faire's frantic French on the flipside - it's a beautiful mix, ending in a dissipating sound bed of scraping string instruments and echoing xylophones. It's a song I've listened to a zillion times but I find something new to hear each time through.

5 May 2014

The Family Elan - 'Stare Of Dawn' (Locust Music)

The Family Elan is Chris Hladowski, Bradford-born multi-instrumentalist and member of various groups in Scotland in the last decade including Scatter and Nalle; this is a totally solo affair showcasing his immersion in Eastern acoustic instrumentation and it fits in well with a lot of the new wave of ethnic-flavoured underground folk forms that hit around this time (2007). The recording is close and bright, and on most of the six tracks Hladowski jams melodically on bouzouki or dulcimer or oud or something - it's not easy for this ear to discern the different tonalities, but there's percussion (maybe a drum or maybe just the side of the wooden instrument being tapped, plus bells and shakers) and a bit of singing and some flute and it's all just very very nice. But that's not to diminish it - when the repetitive, trance-like riffs break down, as they do at the end of 'Over The Hills and Fields I Wander', there's a bed of free sonority for all of these errant string plucks to dance around in. It's reminiscent of some of Vibracathedral Orchestra's (un)holy ruckus, though more rooted in a pastoral song structure. When Hladowski sings, as on the opening and closing cuts, his voice has a mellow, smoky tone that floats in between the strumming, plucking and bowing. The songs occasionally shift towards less stable territory, and violins scratch about an elusive centre; it's occasionally beautiful beyond belief, and while somehow feeling akin to a lot of other artists, nothing comes to mind so there's a unique vision as well. 

23 April 2014

The Fall - 'The Wonderful and Frightening World...' (PVC/Beggars Banquet)

This is as far as I go, or maybe to This Nation's Saving Grace - I always forget which one came out later and I'm too lazy to look it up. So my only Fall on vinyl is the first and last, at least within the era that I know. And 5-6 years later, only a bit has changed. Karl Burns is the sole survivor from the Witch Trials band and he's moved to bass (I think; the credits are CONFUSING!). Craig Scanlon is on guitar and it's generally his acidic slashing that makes this era great (arriving for Dragnet and defining a style of post-punk shredding that is timeless, like so much great art, because it's simultaneously of it's era and also completely transcendent, like This Heat or Godard or, I dunno, Animal Collective or something...). You're thrown for a loop by the opening moments of 'Lay of the Land', which begins with some austere intonation about the apocalypse or something - hey, the Fall invented the Current 93 sound too! But it's just a ruse, cause the band comes crashing in and it's the Fall as we know it, with yet another great song. Catchy, but the hooks are all in the instrumentation, and the vocals are just fenceposts to build around. The production on this record is a bit weird, making the band sound distant and lo-fi but with a bright rhythm section. Smith's voice (both his and his wife's) has some reverb glow, and, hey, I like it! It gets quite muddy on 'Copped It', especially with the digital synth sheen and a snarling Beefheartian turn, building to one of the more vocally abstract (and I daresay adventurous) songs in the early Fall catalogue. 'Craigness' rises and falls through varying levels of plateaus but ultimately gets nowhere; it's the 'frightening' part of the album title, for sure. The 'wonderful' follows, actually at the end of both sides, in both 'Disney Dream Debased' and the strange 'C.R.E.E.P.', where the harmonic clouds around the band seem strangely benevolent, and oddly in-sync with 1980s pop. The keyboards here lift the songs, for once, instead of oppressing them, and Brix's feminine voice cuts the bile somewhat. It's still a strange trip, but one that sees a way out of the endless circles of concrete and muck. We're in the darkest period of Thatcher's assault on Britain here, yet somehow the Fall are able to make sense of it, true artists that they are.

The Fall - 'Live at the Witch Trials' (I.R.S.)

Whenever you evaluate the first release of an extremely prolific artist, it's a bit interesting to think about how there were no guarantees they would ever release any more records. What if this had been it? The Fall's first album is certainly not their best, but it's mostly great, and certainly sets the pace for what's to come. Yet the most interesting thing about it, maybe, is that it's the first of so many. All of the things are in place here by the end of the first song - the driving sound of indie future, Smith's sneering mockery with extemporaneous asides, something vaguely approaching pop form - and I can only think about what these young kids must have been like to spend time with. Certainly when bashing out 'Frightened' in some Mancunian garage, there was no certainty that 33 years later they'd be an institution, with countless albums, songs, and members. The Fall are an interesting band culturally, as I've meet lots of other casual Fall fans like myself, and we're all capable of being devoted to one particular era of the band without even dabbling in the others. I remember meeting a Fall fan whose expertise was in the Frenz Experiment era, and they had no idea what Perverted by Language sounded like -- just as I've never heard Extricate or I Am Kurious Oranj (though I'm sure they are fine records). To really sink into all 58 albums or whatever it is (72 according to discogs) requires a strength I just do not have. So I always stuck to the first handful, figuring they were the most influential and therefore the best (an arrogant assumption, for sure). Witch Trials has at least one all-time classic ('Rebellious Jukebox') and some underrated gems, such as the title track, a loose noodling sketch that serves more as an introduction to the perfect 'Futures and Pasts'. The presence of keyboards, even primitive ones, definitely separates them from Sham 96 or the Clash; they are haunting bells on 'Two Steps Back', a druggy moon hanging over the bleak 'Industrial Estate's of the North. Is this pure poetry, the birth of a new lyrical prophet? Or just another 'everything + the kitchen sink' art-school project? What I found so curious is that during my years living in Britain (2005-2008), all of the local bands still sounded like early Fall, though more like 'No Xmas for John Quays' than any of the messier bits. Whether this was direct inspiration or filtered through a few microgenerations, I'm not sure, but M.E. Smith is still royalty to a lot of people and there's not much sign that his geyser has slowed down since this.

17 March 2014

Fairport Convention - 'The History Of' (Island)

I love those 'rock band family trees' and this gatefold LP uses it as the artwork, which is fun as you can really trace the lineups and changes of the sound as you listen through this compilation, which spans up through '71. Most of the first LP of this feels like a retread, especially as I just listened to What We Did on Our Holidays and Liege and Lief for this project; the Unhalfbricking songs are a nice inclusion (ah, it's such a pleasure to have 'A Sailor's Life' on vinyl!) though they included zero from the self-titled Judy Dyble-vocalised album. I can't say much more than I already did except I didn't mind listening to 'Matty Groves' again, and this first LP is a pretty solid collection that should be foundational for many people. 'Grazy Man Michael' and the medley replace 'Tam Lin' for some reason - I guess the medley is important to show their further descent into traditional material, especially to audiences in 1972 who might be purchasing Babbacombe Lee expecting Thompson's malignant picking to be there. The second LP I confess I rarely listen to, though it contains Thompson's mighty 'Sloth' and the single-only 'Now be Thankful'. 'Sloth' really is a masterpiece, alternating between world-weary resignation in the verses and the fire-storming churning of something more kinetic, only to sit back and look at the 'war' which has begun, just the roll of the drum, etc. etc. This is probably the best Fairport song. I'm so biased towards the official, rock-ist view of Fairport Convention, which is that after Richard Thompson left, I cash out (just like I care not a fuck for post-Wyatt Soft Machine, post-Barrett Floyd (mostly), etc.). I guess that's cause I've never taken the initiative to really give that stuff a chance, happy to take the collective doctrine as gospel.  The last side of the record is hard to sink into; 'John Lee' is all right, there's a real storytelling sense, and the performances are more than adequate, but I don't know; it's just not for me.