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21 February 2015

Free Music Quintet - 'Free Music One and Two' (ESP)

Not a lot of Eurojazz landed on ESP and I guess that's not surprising as it was a NY-based label and these were the days way before the global communication network we're so used to now saturated our lives. So I'm not really sure what the story is with this album, which is one I almost never hear talked about but is pretty worthy of of the ESP brand, in my opinion. Ferdy Rikkers, Erwin Somer, Pierre Coubois, Boy Raaymakers and Peter van der Locht holed up in the farmhouse that Somer was living in and spent two days recording in June 1968, and this is the output. Free music it certainly is, and despite the jazz-leaning instrumentation this actually achieves something close to "non-idiomatic" at points (though it's probably years before that term was introduced). No instrumentation is listed besides Courbois's drum manufacturer (Yamaha and Paiste cymbals, if you were wondering) and the high-contrast photos on the back cover only hint at what we're hearing. Rikkers is on double bass, though it sounds like a higher-pitched stringed instrument, perhaps a violin, is getting played against him occasionally. Somer's on xylophone or vibes, though the photo shows him bowing it (I think). Van der Locht is on reeds and Raaymakers on trumpet or flugelhorn or something brassy. The latter two are playing two instruments at once in their photographs and that might explain some of the plurality heard here. Courbois pulls things into the jazz angle the most with his frantic yet light touch, and the saxes (which occasionally sound like they have wax paper stuffed in them) get appropriately bellicose when it's demanded of the others. Throughout the half-hour or so of music, the sliding measure between tense and fluid never settles, instead veering wildly from one extreme to another, often changing suddenly. Somer's xylophone playing is very mood-focused, and restrained; there are parts where he slowly rings out a descending pattern, the sonority of which cuts through the warring winds, and infuses a mature gravitas on the group. The punchier parts of this (such as the opening of side two) generally outshine the spacious parts, though Courbois does a stellar job creating atmosphere with his Paistes when he gets a chance. It's quietest moments are at the very end, where the proceedings sputter into nothing, and the crackle of 47-year old surface noise is barely distinguishable from the woodblocks, instrument-slapping and other light percussion that rides out this session. What does it feel like? Joyous, bright and open - the sounds of freedom, I suppose.

Bill Fox - 'Shelter from the Smoke' (Scat)

I was just talking about Bill Fox with a friend from back home, and I called him "the Bob Dylan of the Rust Belt" which is a bit of hyperbole, sure, but who else would it be -- Donnie Iris? Scat reissued this a few years back on vinyl, one of the first in hopefully a growing trend of great 90s records that were originally released only as CDs getting the vinyl treatment years later. Because my dream of eventually having 0 CDs can be achieved! Fox is really a genius, and this is sort of what you'd expect from an aging punk rocker. Lots of acoustic guitars, to the point where it feels mostly like a singer-songwriter album, though a few rockers such as 'Way Way Down' (which could be a Vampire on Titus-era Guided by Voices outtake) and 'Let's Be Buried Together' (which sounds pretty much like the Mice). The opening track, 'Over and Away She Goes' sets the tone by sounding like a neo-Byrdsian folk number; tambourine and shakers and bright jangly guitars do wonders to mask Fox's raspy voice, though I love his singing and don't mean that in a bad way. The Dylan influence is most obvious when there's harmonica coasting over the strum ('Baystorm', most obviously), but the band-led 'Grand-Ville Blues' could be mistaken for the Hawks circa '65 if you squint your ears. Many of the acoustic songs have an almost fairy-tale like quality; a tendency towards sing-song cadences, which makes this a pretty catchy album ('Let in the Sun' is almost a hymn in its simplicity, but that's also not meant in a bad way). When he slows down and opens up ('Sara Page', the aforementioned 'Daystorm') the space really builds it. I'm not from Cleveland but close by, and listening to this transports me back there in some way, even though I first heard this years after I left home. This isn't a trailblazing record, nor a clear example of an artist baring their soul, but it's full of such strong songs that it congeals into a small masterpiece. If only Transit Byzantium could get the same reissue treatment!

18 February 2015

Frank Sumatra and the Mob - 'Te Deum' (Small Wonder)

I forgot I had this! One of the side effects of releasing a record with no spine (a 12" single, in fact) is that I rarely remember to listen to it, as it gets skipped upon all casual eye-browses of the shelf. This is a delight, a one-off 12" by 'Frank Sumatra' which is an alias of John Pearce, aka Alig Fodder from the great Family Fodder who we reviewed just earlier up the alphabetical ladder. 'The Story so Far' is the more European pop side of Fodder's work, an arpeggiated, falsetto-sung bit of demented romance. Fodder's affect is in full force and he has some pipes on him! Backing vocals form an unknown female vocalist imply that 'The Mob' is just Family Fodder in a different configuration. By the end it stumbles into a messy cave, and collapses on itself, though not without some lovely twinkling bells. Track 2 is a goofy send-up of Joe Meek's 'Telstar', sounding like it's being performed on a synthesizer over the telephone while choppy guitar and woodblock accompany it. Perhaps the torch of interesting production techniques burns on. On the flip we get the one true 'hit' from this record (though I doubt anyone ever actually heard it).  'Tedium' could be right off a Family Fodder record - a destroyed pop song with bouncy bassline and beautiful riff-hook, with some extramusical forays into squelchy guitars and synthesizer madness. It never falls apart, nor does it even threaten to - it's a slice of pop magic and the way things oughta be. Pure experimentalism is reserved for 'The Blues', which is all studio fuckery and suggestion, sounding like that TUOB 7" a decade+ prior, and you don't get to compare things to TUOB very often.

Fraction - 'Moon Blood' (Phoenix)

There's something that divides people about this Fraction record. Maybe I swallowed the Kool-Aid pushed by The Acid Archives (which calls tracks 2-4 "among the most powerful music ever laid down", and that this is the "underground heavy psych monster to conquer them all") and other such private-press aficionados. Maybe this is really a third-rate amped-up Steppenwolf ripoff, a bunch of Christian meathead biker-rock garbage that would be intolerable were it not obscure. But whenever I hear 'Come Out of Her' I realise I must side with The Acid Archives, even if they do say that this bootleg copy sounds terrible compared to the official pressings. I'm not even a huge heavy rock guy - I don't own any Sabbath records even, and my sense of 'heavy' is probably different than most folks (I often cite Richard Thompson's 'Calvary Cross' as one of the heaviest tracks ever). Yet something about this album rips me apart. It's not so much the earnest, religious lyrics (which could all be easily about sex if you just substitute "vagina" for "God", though I guess most hymns could work that way too) as the extreme way that Jim Beach belts them out - it's like an unholy merger of Robert Plant and Jim Morrison, except I don't like either of those guys much. The recording really is good, even on this bootleg pressing, and I can imagine how a lesser production would dampen the impact of this. (Or, we can wonder how many other half-decent obscurities would have benefitted from better production). I can't deny the obscure nature of this is part of what appeals to me, but it's not obscurity for obscurity's sake. What's amazing about Fraction was that they existed at all, and I wonder what their lives were (are?) like, committed to this very uncompromising style of rock music but fervently theological in their execution. Maybe, as a nonbeliever myself, I like flirting with the idea of Christianity because it's the most 'out' trip of all, and the truest rebellion that I could enact in my life. I wonder what, if any, drugs were consumed - you'd think their beliefs would forbid it, but this sounds hand-in-hand with so many other heavy psych records which quite frequently partook. I'm with the Archives on this - this is a beast, an utterly singular record that's not an every-day listen (and may not offer many lessons in 2015) but hard to ignore when it does see the turntable.

13 February 2015

Fotheringay (A&M)

My copy of this is so beat-to-shit that it's buried in surface noise, and skips a good it bit too. I actually fear for the safety of my stylus and thus rarely listen to it. Also, despite being a pretty solid record, I never get any craving to hear it. This picks up where you'd expect it to - taking the Fairport sound but bringing in a stronger Dylan/Band influence, most obvious in the cover of 'Too Much of Nothing but also on 'Winter Winds', a less languid but otherwise derivative take on the 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere' vibe. Co-lead vocalist (and Denny's husband) Trevor Lucas sounds pretty good against Denny; the timbre of his voice isn't a million kilometres away from Richard Thompson's, though, so this feels precisely like the second act it is. Additionally, naming your band after one of your iconic songs from your last band can't help but cast a cloud over whatever you do next. Through all the static I can hear how nicely this is produced; a good drum sound, lots of reverb on the guitar lines, and the voices soaring above it all. I think they only ever made this one record; Denny went solo with the excellent The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and I don't know whatever happened to Lucas. It's all what one might expect from a Fairport Convention spinoff, and that's perfectly OK. Denny's perfect touch is why this is remarkable; the Lucas-led songs barely stand out. There's some nice electric guitar leads, but it's the wispy, rolling Fairport sound that I like the most; Denny's 'The Pond and the Stream' being a great example of this. The cover art is pretty bonkers when you stop to actually look at it; on my beaten, faded copy it feels strangely, I dunno, authoritative.

Flying Luttenbachers - 'Destroy All Music' (Bourgeois / Elevated Chimp / ugEXPLODE)

I used to think of the Flying Luttenbachers and that whole Weasel Walter scene as some sort of 'death jazz', made the more extreme by his silly makeup and releasing albums with titles like Destroy all Music. Which makes this listen, a good ten+ years since the last one, so surprising - this is really quite goddamn musical. This is an earlier, more jazz-based lineup of Walter's ever-shifting ensemble and it's really just descended from the New York school of spazzy fusion improv, John Zorn and Massacre, Bill Laswell, etc. Despite the presence of Ken Vandermark, Dylan Posa's guitar is what really drives this (as well as Walter's strangely light touch on the drumset). 'Demonic Velocities/20,000 Volts' opens up the record with a pretty straight-up blueprint of what we'll get - tooting reeds, bumpy electric bass, and sheets of noisy guitar that is mixed low enough that everything else gets to breathe and find space. When Posa gets crazy strumming and picking the bridge, it works well with the chaos ('The Necessary Impossibility of Determinism' being one such example) but really, this is a pretty damn composed record. There's a joy throughout this, a real spirit of living despite the violent sonorities, suggesting that this is really a bunch of softies having a play at being extreme. The chops are undeniable, and when it drops into more traditional jazz swinging ('Tiamat En Arc') the inevitable descent into guitar noise feels integrated rather than sarcastic. Listening to this is fun, and not at all annoying which is how I remember later records like Revenge sounding. The final cut maybe is a preview of that direction, but in a small dosage, it's pretty fun. The synths add a nice touch as well, a bit of a Sun Ra Atlantis vibe (on 'Verlag Aus Den "Turbo Scratcher"'). I just watched Whiplash and decided I hate 'jazz', so this picked up my spirits somewhat. They aren't destroying anything, just creating something ephemeral and alive

8 February 2015

Flying Burrito Bros. - 'Burrito Deluxe' (A&M)

And now a blast of west-coast country rock, here far more pushed toward the "rock" side of the equation. There's a pretty good reason why this is never put in the same rarified air as The Gilded Palace of Sin - because it's nowhere near as good. Unfortunately I've never come across a copy of Gilded Palace, but enjoy listening to this from time to time. Gram Parsons leaves after this one and you still get a few bright, strident Parsons songs like 'Lazy Days'; a lot of covers fill this, including a lackluster version of Dylan's 'If You Gotta Go' (which I don't enjoy hearing in English, thanks Fairport) and a great version of the Stones' 'Wild Horses' featuring Leon Russell on piano. Jim Dickson co-produced this and it sounds great, even on this beat-up scratchy copy; all the high-mids ring out and the mandolin strum in particular sounds as fresh as yesterday. The songwriting just feels a bit behind the pace - there's nothing as cripplingly contrived as 'Sin City' or 'Dark End of the Street' here; the most memorable tune besides 'Wild Horses' is probably 'Farther Along', a traditional arranged here in full Burrito fashion, or the bouncy 'Down in the Churchyard'. Bernie Leadon's guitar lines are sharp, overpowering the pedal steel on songs like 'Older Guys'; his 'God's Own Singer' here presages the Eagles. But overall, this record is just too goddamn upbeat to really stand up as a classic. I've seen this tacked onto CD reissues of Gilded Palace and that's a great place for it. It ends with 'Wild Horses' which really is the strongest song, done straight but with those beautiful American harmonies adding a level of gloss over the longing. Bonus points for the back cover where they look like members of some cult. I have no idea what the band has sounded like since; I guess there's been a zillion members and something tours now under that name with zero original members (my friend saw them by accident in rural Norway a few years back).

6 February 2015

Fleetwood Mac - 'Tusk' (Warner Brothers)

What do we say about Tusk, now? For years it was mentioned by people like Byron Coley as a masterpiece, which I always figured was a joke or some sort of needless contrarianism; in those times of fear I stayed away and thus missed out on really absorbing this into my formative years. At some point curiosity took over, and its ubiquity in charity shops and secondhand stores means I eventually took the gamble (apparently risking $4, if this is my original price sticker). And then there was this gradual period where Tusk started becoming incredibly fashionable among my music-obsessed friends, as we finally learned to eschew the punk orthodoxy and listen for ourselves. Perhaps, initially with some degree of irony (though a variable amount, depending on the person). Hey, I actually liked this, I discovered; it's unsurprising as I love great pop music and fucked-up pop music, which Tusk is both; I found that the manic/ragged/experimental quality that made this so talked-about was really there. So now I would definitively say yes, Tusk is a great album, with surprisingly little filler given its length (I can only really count 'Never Make Me Cry' as such, as I'm sure many people would argue for its merits). The hooks are catchy, the production somehow both cold and intimate, and it contains a disjointed collection of songs that range from angry to disconnected and druggy. But most importantly, it was the followup to the most successful pop record of all-time, and thus it's 'edgy' qualities attain more sharpness in comparison. So yes, we may occasionally overrate it, but that's cause there will probably never be anything like this again. This isn't like Radiohead making Kid A and confounding their alterna-rock fans, or Lou Reed's obvious fuck-yous; instead, it's experimental precisely because its not, if that makes any sense. Tusk is a band who became so big that they no longer had to listen to anyone telling them what to do, and it turns out their inner path was a pretty righteous one anyway, but the pressures of stardom and interpersonal relationship fallouts inject so much conflict into this that it never quite lifts off cohesively. But unlike most sprawling messes, there's enough genius here and perhaps the external context of their previous success infuses a certain swagger into it all. If you told me that none of the three songwriters played on each other's tracks, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised; Lindsay Buckingham's tracks sound as fucked-up and home-recorded as most of McCartney II and I suspect he wanted to be nowhere near Stevie Nicks at this time. The fact that the title track was the biggest hit on the whole album is fairly incredible, since it's by far the most demented song. If you turn it up loud - and you should - you can hear all of these buried, twisted layers of gibberish vocals behind the marching band, sounding a bit like an anachronistic guest appearance by Dylan Nyoukis's Blood Stereo (actually, it kinda sounds like Animal Collective). Even the idea to lead off the record with 'Over & Over' - a great song, but hardly a side 1, track 1 - feels like a brick in the wall of perversity. Over four million people bought this record, and you can find it for pennies now (unless you live in Europe, where I regularly see it priced over 25€). As much as I'm a massive Camper Van Beethoven fan, their full-scale covering of the whole album never resonated too much with me beyond being a mere novelty. There's probably a whole bunch of people who have never delved deep into Tusk and I'm actually jealous that you get that feeling of discovery and fascination that I once had. This is one of the best arguments for cocaine use ever committed to vinyl.

Fläsket Brinner (Silence)

It's nice that the synchronicity of alphabetical order chooses this record next, as I just got back from a lovely visit to Stockholm, where I did not knowingly encounter any former members of Fläsket Brinner (but who knows!). The cover of this looks truly evil, though maybe it was just one of their dogs cast in strange lighting (are Swedish people ever evil, Nikanor Teratologen excepted?). This sounds like a live album throughout, at least for sure on side 1, and its built around thick instrumentals with searing and soaring guitar lines, that 1971 rock-organ sound, and solos galore. It's not nearly as far out as some other Euro-prog of the time (without vocals, 'Räva's chanting notwithstanding, a lot is actually lost for me when it comes to prog-rock). The legendary Bo Hansson appears here on organ on one track which he composed, though he was actually a full-time member of Fläsket Brinner, instead likely lending his celebrity to help sell some records for Silence. Most of side one is the epic 'Tysta Finskan' and it's melodic and driving, never letting up its momentum, while giving these guys a lot of space. 'Bengans Vals' starts like it's going to turn into some Don Cherry-esque earth mantra, but quickly seizes upon a double-tracked guitar line (as is the fashion so many times throughout). King Crimson was surely an influence (probably to everyone who made music like this in 1971) as well as some Canterbury stuff (I hear some Egg in this) and the reeds - sax + contrabassoon - give this a nice flavour halfway towards Henry Cow, never threatening to step into jazz. I believe this is a really well-regarded prog record (at least among Scandinavians) and I almost feel guilty that I've never been super into it; this has gravitated to my "sell" pile over the years but I always hold on for some reason. They can certainly get going with a lot of energy, though the rhythm section often takes on a boogie-rock feel. I'm not sure if I prefer 'Tysta Finskan's epic jam or the shorter piece that are dotted across side two. 'Bosses Låt' proves they can dig in and cut into granite, in a way that even Joe Carducci would approve of; 'Upsala Gård' is the most reed-heavy and occasionally feels like a Fela Kuti piece.