HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

18 October 2016

Gunter Hampel and his Galaxie Dream Band - 'Angel' (Birth/Jubilee Edition)

The 'classic' Gunter Hampel record is the first one, The 8th of July 1969, being a recording from just that day which merges the American and continental European approaches to free music of the time, with Anthony Braxton and Jeanne Lee meeting Willem Breuker and Arjen Gorter, among others. But his catalog beyond that record is worth a dip, especially if you can come across these 'Jubilee Edition' releases, reissuing some recordings from the early 70s at what was then a discount price. And also if you like vibes. Angel finds Hampel and Jeanne Lee working together again, with a young Daniel Carter on saxes and Enrico Rava, plus a few less known names (I thought bassist John Shea sounded familiar until I realised I was thinking of former Manchester United defender John O'Shea). This is recorded live on WKCR in New York, 1972, and thus has that raw, slightly scratchy sound associated with radio recordings - the energy of the live audience can't be felt, though I guess the energy of potentially millions of listeners could replace it, in a virtual sense. These guys were certainly up to the task, opening with a fluttery collection of wind instruments (there's five musicians here blowing into things, plus Lee's voice, Paul Bouillet's guitar, the aforementioned Shea, and Murugar's percussion hanging it all together on a wire frame). No one takes front and centre, until the middle of side one when the guitar chords have a 70s waka-chika sound and Carter's tenor repeats a three note theme over which everyone else goes wild, circling and circling and never quite coming to a test. Things evolve collectively, the digging of heels gradually lightening and a dare I say 'swing' feel coming in. Hampel switches to his vibes and makes a nice off-kilter groove with the rhythm section, though Murugar is fluttering about on the toms and making the rhythm felt through the absence of a strong drum pattern. It's masterful, and it's slightly sneaky the way it creeps out of the angry birds at the beginning. Side two continues, veering back and forth from open, quick jabs of winds and more fluid passages. It's all held together by Hampel's compositional sense, which is just there enough to be felt while allowing these musicians the full spectrum of expression. I'm not always sure who is who (Rava's trumpet is largely underrepresented) but as the Galaxie Dream Band, it definitely congeals into a band form.

15 October 2016

hamaYôko ‎– 'Shasô -Train Window-' (Entr'acte)

Not really sure about this one - I think this was a promo that I never did anything with, or maybe someone sent it to me looking for a show. Thanks to it's generic white sleeve I never notice it, and it's likely lurked on this shelf back since 2009 when (according to the discogs authority) it was released. hamaYôko is the pseudonym of a Japanese sound artist and choreographer and this is a 45rpm EP of pieces I suppose are inspired by train windows. It contains semi-melodic electronic compositions (with spurting, extremely digital processing around warm sine waves), singing wordless female singing, and field recordings from around the world (dutifully credited in the liner notes). 'Akai Pool' is loaded with splashing water, mixed high above the rolling composition and sounding a bit like two recordings smashed together. 'Icewater's March' has some sampled tuba, and throughout you hear children's voices, because of course you do. I don't want to be too hard on this, but this record illustrates the difficulty in adeptly, not clumsily employing field recordings or musique concrete techniques. There's not much nuance here in terms of how the parts fit together, and it doesn't feel like there's any sort of 'vision' here beyond the discovery of computer-based editing and a curiosity about the world of overheard sound. Some tracks have a rhythmic momentum behind them ('Headeck' is almost a strange pop song, and probably the high point of the record, where it has that feel of things being pulled apart, yet still held together) but others seem to be potpourri-blends of recordings, without a sense of what it's actually trying to express. Or it could be that my white male Western ears are approaching this from my own biases, because of course I am, and if I was able to open up to the worldview of ms. hamaYôko then I might be more forgiving. But I'll take my field recording-based music more minimal than this (my own collaborations excepted, of course) and put this one on the sell pile.

Hair Police - 'Prescribed Burning' (Hospital Productions)

The cover of this is stark and minimal, and the inside of the rough cardboard is screened with a pattern that makes it almost the inverse of Obedience Cuts. On the first half, Hair Police is far away from the active machinations of Obedience - it's rather 'mellow', though that's probably not the correct word to use when describing music this dark and desolate. Prescribed Burning could work as a horror film soundtrack, except it's tonality is so low-key and it's accents come from processed, reverb-laden sounds of indeterminate origin (really, it's not even clear what is electronic here and what comes from acoustic or human sources) that I would imagine it would make any such film a distraction. And there's not necessarily a horror lurking here, just unease and confusion. The two lengthy pieces that start side 1 (untitled, as are all of them here) are spacious, with clanking sounds and drones ebbing and flowing. The third, a short track to lead into side two's more aggressive start, feels like something incidental that was scrapped from other material. If you listen closely, especially on the second track, you'll hear some backwards-processed sounds, suggesting this was more of a studio work than it may sound like upon first listen. Side two then explodes, at least relatively, with churning, grinding distorted sounds, beacons of higher pitched feedback, and the feeling of forces pulling themselves apart. It's closer to the 'Hair Police' sound, though it doesn't feel like the deconstructed "band" they do when appearing live, and it's not completely clear if all three members are actively involved in this. But kudos to Hair Police for not painting themselves into a corner, especially during this time, the peak of their self-described 'gnarly times'. Yeah, that infamous t-shirt they made became their unofficial slogan, written across the two sides here in the run-out grooves, and perfectly encapsulating the Bush/Cheney/Iraq/post-9-11 years in America better than any other two words could. I said before how the decline in output from this American noise underground was more likely an incorrect perception I hold based on my own waning interest/involvement, but I also tie it to the political changes in America - not that Obama's election in 2008 ushered in a progressive era, not by any means - but certainly the mindset changed in some way. And before y'all comment on how ridiculous this is, I'm not saying that noise music changed because of Obama, but that the music created during the Bush years reflected feelings of frustration, anger and hopelessness (at least to me) while never quite embracing nihilism or self-destruction, and one can connect this to a general cultural zeitgeist in a way that enhances the interpretation of such music via context, etc. None of which is really relevant to describing side two of Prescribed Burning, which apart from the first cut stays in the sparse groove of side one - not necessarily gentle, but spacious, with start-stop rhythm, the momentum being a lurching crawl. Not many distinct vocals are audible here - by this point it seems like Mike Connelly was using his voice purely as instrument so it's going to be processed beyond recognition (though some deeper, guttural growls are evident). I still hold onto this connection to free jazz - that Hair Police are in some strange way a jazz group - and think this would be like Marion Brown's Afternoon of a Georgia Faun side one if it were transposed to this time and place.

Hair Police - 'Blind Kingdom' (Ultra Eczema)

We only get one side here, but it's a doozy, 16 minutes of Hair Police creating another (I assume improvised) sound-based hellscape. This one starts slow, and finished slow, but uses the space to have screeching, maniacal vocals which sound more like highly compressed feedback, all manner of clanging, echo-laden percussion, and synthesisers galore. The opening moments set the tone with some bold synth notes and some of the most clear filter sweeps (or phasing, or whatever that effect is called) yet heard in the Hair Police oeuvre. At points the low end cuts out entirely and shrill oscillations fill the whole soundstage, waiting for the sludgy, static-laden undercurrent to rise back up to meet it. There's some pretty great interplay here, and not just three noiseniks playing on top of each other without listening. The electronic processing is more conventional compared to the earlier material's sound of circuit-bent toys, but this benefits the analog synth waves which rise up like the phallic urge depicted on Dennis Tyfus's cover art. Side two is all etchings and I suspect if I tried to play it, it might still sound like Hair Police.

Hair Police - 'Constantly Terrified' (Troubleman Unlimited)

A year later from Obedience Cuts and it's clear that Hair Police have definitely 'progressed' as a band, but describing exactly how can be a challenge. But why else do this if not to challenge myself, to attempt to articulate music into words, futile as it may be? Constantly Terrified is four long cuts, beginning with a low rattling and slowly building into the full-on assault of 'Rattler's Echo'. This is like one of those great free jazz sides from the 70s recorded live, where a group builds to a total interplay of free expression, except here the aesthetic is much more a white/basement/scuzz one. But that's not a massive depature from the world of ESP Records circa '68 - Trevor Tremaine's drumming is not unlike that of Sunny Murray, and if you replace saxes with homemade/hacked electronics, this really could be a bizarro, hung over Globe Unity recording. Connelly's voice is yelping and shrieking and everything seems so violent, yet cohesive. And then it fades out and we get 'The Haunting', where slowly bending tones make a warped bed for the buzzing, scraping and hiss to interact on. The drumming is fake primitive, lots of floor tom and stickwork, and the processed vocals (I guess?) give this a really nasty, sick edge which suits the cover art's portrayal of fear and helplessness. It suddenly ends, in a locked groove of bassy rumbling which mirrors the low rattling at the start of the side. On the flip, 'My Skull is My Face' is built around a monotonous rhythm, with echoing drones (so beautiful they could be taken from a new age record if not juxtaposed with such teethy bile) and more vocal caterwauling. And the title track closes it out, which is an experiment in stasis - a holding pattern which nonetheless has a great diversity of sounds within it's edges, but never giving into the clichés of dynamics. It's here that maybe Hair Police have set their M.O - that is to be 'Constantly Terrified', where the monotony and feeling of being trapped reigns supreme. Overall it's an utterly unpleasant LP, but that was the idea, and it's executed marvelously.

11 October 2016

Hair Police - 'Obedience Cuts' (Gods of Tundra)

This is Hair Police's second full-length album but the first where they really found their footing, and it's enjoyable to revisit it after so many years. 'Let's See Who's Here and Who's Not' explodes immediately into a lurching, violent chaos, and it's home-recorded at just the perfect fidelity. A lot of warm, thick electronics blanket the sound - what I'm struck by on the first side is just how incredibly warm this sounds, which isn't all attributable to the vinyl version specifically but Hair Police's preferred frequencies (lows and low-mids). Trevor Tremaine's drumming is sometimes overwhelmed by it, and you can hear his cymbals and snare flailing about, cutting through the mix now and then, and he's content to pull back (or maybe he contributes some other role to the mix). The aesthetic is dark, as the puke-green ink on the cover hints, and unpleasant, but there's a life in this music that finds itself during the quieter moments. The title track is one such place, where the sturm-und-drang pulls back and lets the oscillations take over. This sound-soup is where I most enjoy Hair Police - there's a real subtlety to their interactions, a tension that swells and never releases in the way you'd expect from a regular 'band' vibe. 'The Empty Socket' on side two almost approaches the Dead C's 'Now I Fall' before it tumbles down the hill; 'Bee Scrape' likewise ends up in a rolling ball of noise, but one that has synths slicing through like a ninja throwing star. Robert Beatty might steal the show on this record, but it's hard to tell where his noiseboxes end and Mike Connelly's feedback guitar begins; even the drums get heavily processed with echo on 'Full of Guts', and it gels really, really well. There's a few more Hair Police records coming up and it's funny now to revisit this music after what doesn't feel like such a long time, but was over a decade. The American 'noise' peaked in popularity a few years after this and then seemed to fade away, though I think this may be more a product of changing marketplaces (and my own interests shifting) rather than any sort of decline in output. Still, among all the hundreds of projects and bands that came to prominence in the following years, Hair Police somehow distinguished themselves against the rest, and with fresh ears and a spin of Obedience Cuts, it's easy to hear the reasons.

18 September 2016

Hair & Skin Trading Company - 'Psychedelische Musique' (Freek)

One of the great joys of this gradual and probably quixotic project to work through my vinyl accumulation in alphabetica order is the discovery of records that I didn't remember I owned, or didn't remember what they sounded like. Psychedelische Musique has been hiding here for years, spun only once or twice since I first purchased it, secondhand, back in 2001. 'An American comes to the UK to buy an American record?' said the shopowner with a sarcastic drawl (and you can guess which infamous shopowner it was, if I tell you said shop was located in Leicester) but I didn't let his intimidating aggressive nerdyness deter me - who gives a fuck where I'm from or where a record is from or where it's purchased? And anyway, this isn't an American record - both the band and the label are British, so I don't have any idea what the fuck he was going on about. It's strange I remember that exchange more than I remember the music. This was £8 well-spent, as I knew the moment I dropped the stylus and heard the ringing, pulsing electronic drones that open it (even if I subsequently forgot about them). This is pastiched together like a 90s version of The Faust Tapes, with a variety of, well, 'psychedelic music' techniques applied throughout. Side one has a long, slow spacious passage in the middle with some ominous clanging and echoing roomsound, like Labradford if they had an interest in backwards sounds. Other parts are thicker, and even with a bit of rock-hypnotism at play ('Tor' has lurching guitars, though not too high in the mix, and lazy-ass vocal intoning making it feel like a sketch, an Elephant 6 interstitial track gone rogue) and a generally dark (or at least uneasy) vibe throughout. Side two opens with a pounding heavy goth guitar jam, abruptly ending with a tape splice, as if they were suddenly channeling White Zombie but then changed their mind and left it on the record anyway as a joke. It feels a bit incongruous with the rest of the record, which assembles studio trickery, a post-This Heat soundworld, with the dark surrealism of Thunder Perfect Mind-era Nurse With Wound. There's not a lot of distinction between the organic and the electronic, and the swirling backwards sounds are well-applied. Maybe it's time to see what else they did or what they've done since.

11 August 2016

Charlie Haden - 'Liberation Music Orchestra' (Impulse!)

Maybe it's a safe pick, a consensus one for sure - when Mr. Haden passed two summers ago, most of the online obituaries referred specifically to this record as his masterwork, along with the early Ornette Coleman recordings, of course. I often cite this among my most treasured recordings in the entire 'jazz' sub-section of my vinyl accumulation, though (like fellow Impulse genre-bender The Black Saint and Sinner Lady by Mingus), 'jazz' isn't the right term to encapsulate all the ideas at play here. So much could go wrong here - a white guy working with predominantly black musicians (though arranged by a white lady), directly addressing political struggles during the same time that Archie Shepp and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were radicalising their music. But Haden and Bley used the Spanish Civil War as their focal point, and somehow it gels in a way which survives the test of time and avoids musical-tourist trappings. Perhaps this was the Buena Vista Social Club of its day, but to me, there's a sense of adventure, and a unified feeling, a purity of vision, as well as a widening of musical possibilities. Bley's arrangements may be the secret ingredient but this is still driven by Haden's plucking -- bass is definitively the lead instrument here, and even on piano-driven segment such as 'War Prayers' or the choral elements, it clearly emanates out of his leadership. I found this record when an undergraduate, through Robert Wyatt's cover of 'Song for Che', and that song is still the most powerful to me - a warbling, fluid melody that spins around like a bead of water on glossy paper,  building through several dramatic peaks without giving in to melodrama. It's pure Haden for long stretches, and the melody (as dynamic as it is) stands up there with Ayler's 'Ghosts' for me as one of the most iconic compositions in so-called 'free' jazz. I don't mean to diminish the other players here: Gato's sax burns with its usual sizzling energy, not that it should be taken for granted; Don Cherry and Dewey Redman make this a proto-lineup of Old and New Dreams, where Coleman's vast shadow can be chucked aside.  Roswell Rudd is underrated here, as always, but trombonists are generally underrated, right? For all of the years I've spent exploring avant-garde/free jazz, the records I come back to the most are the ones which stand out against the skronky, blow-out-your-brains aesthetic so commonly associated with the genre. This record, the aforementioned Black Saint and Sinner Lady, Shepp's Blasé, Art Ensemble records, Escalator Over the Hill, Sun Ra's more doo-wop influenced pieces -- for someone who claims to love free jazz, my preferences are further away from the 'free' side of it, towards a little more compositional basis, or towards other genre-influences such as classical or folk. Liberation Music Orchestra is maybe as much about the idea, the image carried through by its cover - a ragtag-looking group of musicians united in an expression of solidarity for the underclasses, in a time when that still meant something, before the all-pervasive irony of postmodernism took over etcetera, etcetera. Of course, this ragtag bunch is made up of some of the most successful and well-respected musicians of their time, but that brick-wall cover photo still conveys something. It's like the free jazz version of the cover of the first Ramones album, maybe, but musically about as far away from that simplicity as possible. 

21 July 2016

Peter Gutteridge - 'Pure' (540)

And with this, we conclude the Gs. It's an oddball selection for the end of this underrated alphabetical segment, and an odd choice to have gotten a deluxe double-vinyl reissue. Originally released as a cassette on Xpressway way back in '89, the 540 label saw fit to give it a first-time vinyl pressing in 2013. I'm not complaining - Pure is a great collection of sketches, experiments and low-stakes hypnotica - but it feels a bit strange that during this wave of New Zealand greats getting issued in affordable (and more importantly, available) vinyl slices, that this was chosen. While other great material -- some would say 'greater' -- remains impossible to source (I'm thinking about Plagal fucking Grind, y'know). But I'm not trying to diminish Pure, in which the late Mr. Gutteridge steps away from the shadow of the Clean and the Great Unwashed and presents his own musical personality across 21 songs. I never listened to Snapper and I'm not so clear at picking out his own songwriting from the other voices in the Clean, but honestly, Pure offers little in the way of a singer-songwriter approach anyway. The majority of the tracks are instrumental, with thick, pulsing layers of electric guitar, organs, and shimmery keyboards. All the sounds come from the cheapo, Tall Dwarfs-esque approach, but the man extracted a wealth of diversity from the limited gear. The lo-fi recording helps and this feels almost odd to hear on vinyl (though welcome, thank you 540!). 'Planet Phrom' is the closest we get to the jangly feel of the Chills or Clean, as I expected from his background, and features Snapper's Christine Voice (whatta great name, eh?) helping with distant, echo-laden backing vocals. For the most part, the rest of the songs stay away from any twee, light sensation, the next closest being the lark of 'Having Fun', and the furthest away probably being the decidedly un-gentle 'Bomb' (where guest vocalist Bruce Mahalski intones a mostly-spoken vocal line over a casio beat with pulsing keyboards and a few theatrical glissandos). This isn't horror movie music or heavy metal or anything, but it's closer to the dour gloom I usually associate with the Xpressway label than one would expect from a musician of Gutteridge's lineage. Spread out over two LPs, Pure starts to feel like a patchwork quilt, stitched together by the thick instrumentals. If I were to reduce this to an 'X crossed with Y' analogy, I'd probably say it's like a cheap-ass Terry Riley meets Suicide vibe, which sounds pretty great, doesn't it? We're still filtering everything through the Flying Nun sunglasses of course, and maybe 540 was hoping that this would stand as the man's legacy rather than being a supporting player to the Kilgours or Martin Philips. I'm glad for it, and in some way it makes me think of the (equally underrated and obscure?) Jowe Head solo record, Pincer Movement, not so much in how it sounds but how it stands, in relation to the band which he is better known as a member of.

Guru Guru - 'Dance of the Flames' (Atlantic)

Guru Guru, on a wider release (and American major label) get back to business with the crunchy rock-riffage found on side one of the self-titled album. It's not a genre I'm super qualified to critique, but after typing this I realise how 'rockist' this vinyl accumulation is. I've always liked things on the cerebral side, but weirdly as I grow older the gut-punching guitar epics make more and more sense to me. It's like I'm aging in reverse, or maybe the few times I've read Carducci's Rock and the Pop Narcotic sunk in, and I have a real appreciation/understanding of what makes a rock band great (and ignore all the homophobic stuff in there). So yeah, Guru Guru know how to shred and this for the most part resembles the first side of the previous record, not the spacey, sci-fi second. But things start opening up a bit on 'The Girl from Hirschorn', containing a long, long shredding guitar solo before a nice singing part comes in, the pieces slows to a gentle 60's psych vibe, and concludes. It's well-recorded too, sounding like a psychedelic rock record should, and maybe the two sides of Guru Guru find symbiosis here. 'Samba Das Rosas' is the album's other wildcard, being a genre exercise in samba, with the guitarist singing in a falsetto and a nice atmosphere - no one does samba like a bunch of Germans from Heidelberg!  'Rallulli' is the record's most collectively improvised feel, sounding like Dutch free jazz in the beginning before the almighty rhythm comes in, though it stays acoustic (including upright bass) and sneaks around without ever getting settled. On the rare times I listen to Guru Guru this is a record to skip around rather than play straight through - I prefer the previous record's second half for the focused listen and there's about 40 other albums I could investigate were I so inclined. This band still exists! And when one thinks about how a rock band can persevere for almost a half-century without major commercial success, it makes one see a sort of musical purity there, even if that's just a bit of hindsight and conjecture. Sometimes I like to pronounce the word 'guru' as guh-ROO, like if I'm describing some weird yoga instructor in a mocking way; and saying guh-ROO guh-ROO as a band name is almost as funny as saying "zed zed Top". If I were to rank my favourite rock bands Guru Guru are probably somewhere around 286th, or maybe lower, but that's still pretty high if you think about how many rock bands there are.

12 July 2016

Guru Guru (Brain)

For years I thought this was the first Guru Guru record, but the Internet tells me it's actually the fifth! For guys often lumped in with Kraut heavyweights, you wouldn't think it listening to side one, which is mostly balls-out biker rock. Any intellectual (or at least, progressive) tendencies present in Guru Guru are buried behind the riffs, operating here in power trio mode, and even doing an Eddie Cochran cover as well. I'm not so equipped to rate such things - at parts I feel like I could be listening to Steppenwolf - but when flipped over, this record becomes a winner. That's due to 'Der Elektrolurch', a snaking, funky exploration which starts around some jammy percussion before experimenting with heavily processed guitars and a scary sci-fi voice (though I think most voices sound scary in German). It's almost unrecognisable against the riffage on side one, and it's kosmiche musik at its best - progressive, dark, and invigorating. You could probably argue that it's a bit underwritten, sounding more like a few sketches put in linear fashion than an actual 'song', but that's OK. Closer 'The Story of Life' continues the atmosphere for 12 and a half minutes, and it takes it's time. It's a slow, meandering tune with a plodding bassline, built around the repeated tenor vocals about matters such as 'The story of life' / 'is hello and good-bye'. About 2/3 of the way through we get to some sort of bridge, suggesting we sleep 'until we meet again', and it drifts off to nothing among some gongs - before a distorted guitar comes back in and takes us home via a flying carpet of burning riffage. Guru Guru are second-tier Krautrock for me but this second side can stand up against the best moments by Dzyan or Cosmic Jokers, for sure.

4 July 2016

Guided by Voices - 'Sunfish Holy Breakfast' (Matador)

Even big record companies like Matador make mistakes sometimes. I'm referring to the label which incorrectly lists this as a 33 1/3 rpm release, which gets me every time, so trusting am I of printed materials. But that's the only mistake they made - this EP, really pulled together from odds and ends, has somehow snuck into my personal canon of GbV's greatest works. Maybe it's just a case of right-place/right-time; at this point, Pollard and company could really do no wrong. Two of these songs were previously released ('Stabbing a Star' & 'If We Wait') and both are great, but the latter is transcendent, and also among the most literally written of any Pollard song ever, lyrically. It's another inspirational tune, akin to 'Watch Me Jumpstart', except the collective pronoun 'we' turns this into a group exercise, and the musical progression follows the lyrics. A drunken friend once unlocked it; the first verse is drenched in self-doubt, the drums come in and rouse the narrator towards action, but then doubt returns and he falls back on his knees until ultimately deciding to rush out the door and seize the world. It's also funny that for as much as Pollard has enriched my life with his cryptic turns of phrase, here, where he lays it down honestly and directly, it's even more powerful. What else makes Sunfish Holy Breakfast great? It actually opens with a Sprout tune, and a wonderful one in 'Jabberstroker'. The two sound quite unified in 'Canteen Plums' and 'A Contest Featuring Human Beings'; it's a union that was never quite as solid as during this moment. Most of the songs on this record are build around thick, chugga chugga guitar chords, though it's a testament to the lightness of melody on 'Beekeeper Seeks Ruth' that the mix doesn't get bogged down despite it's limited frequence range and dominance of the bedroom six-string overtones. When you throw in a few ascending 'The FLYing party is HERE!' it can really lift a track up. The thick guitars are full-on during 'Cocksoldiers and Their Postwar Stubble', and no amount of Kim Deal production can save this from its title, one of the most masculine monikers ever composed -- but that's actually beneficial, a faux-meatheadedness. The slow, four-chord progression takes us through a relatively slow melody, and it finds its way into the cortex like the rest of 'em. It still makes me jump around my room and do air-drums along with the rolls (and the vacuum cleaner sound that's on Alien Lanes is also here - maybe it's a bong hit?). Closer 'Heavy Metal Country' is also done in a big studio, but instead of getting the big 'rock' treatment, it sounds like something from the 4AD label circa the late 80s. All the male rock here stuff, it's really just a pisstake, as is the sleeve art -- I think -- which a casual observer may get confused with that one No Neck Blues Band album. A shoutout as well to Jim Greer, who wrote 'Trendspotter Acrobat', which slots in perfectly among the rest. Maybe it's time to check out those DTCV albums.

Guided by Voices - 'Alien Lanes' (Matador)

I hit a bit of a lull in this blog, because I was suddenly struck by how pointless and/or difficult it is to write about Alien Lanes. I mean, this is another mammoth formative record in my life, a record I have beaten into my brain for twenty years now, and without ever wavering in my love for it. But the show must go on, so I'll try to formulate something here that is worth your time, a screed to justify the RSS bandwidth you may be reading this over. So, yeah, Alien Lanes. I'll say one thing -- it is a testament to the heralded 'lo-fi' recording techniques that this record sounds exactly the same every time I play it, even though the grooves have to be worn out more than anything else on my shelves, and also regardless of which type of sound-reproducin' equipment I play it on. Yes, ever since I snuck away from my high school's class visit to the College Faire (a trade show where various shitty local/ish institutions of higher learning set up tables and tried to talk us into applying to them) and purchased this, shrinkwrapped and new, I've been enthralled by its vision. This was supposed to be the start of GbV phase two (or three?), after Bee Thousand brought them notoriety, but really it's the penultimate gasp of their period of truest greatness. Alien Lanes is the perfect synthesis of everything they did, which includes wyrd folk-ish experiments ('They're Not Witches', 'Big Chief Chinese Restaurant'), perfect bubblegum ('Game of Pricks', 'My Valuable Hunting Knife'), 60s throwbacks ('As We Go Up We Go Down'), a few stunning Sprout songs ('A Good Flying Bird', 'Straw Dogs'), a few of Pollard's most iconic Pollard rock masterpieces ('Watch Me Jumpstart', 'Motor Away', 'My Son Cool'), some very fragmented-yet-rewarding sketches ('Gold Hick', 'Cigarette Tricks'), intentionally dumb rockers (surprising live favourite 'Pimple Zoo'), some rather experimental sci-fi songforms ('Auditorium', 'Hit') - as well as one of the greatest opening cuts ever ('A Salty Salute') and one of the most forgettable closers ('Alright'). And just before that, labeled as 'presumed throwaway', the stark, chilling 'Always Crush Me', which is almost showoffy - like bragging about the full extent of one's genius. And all the tracks I didn't mention, which are almost uniformly great and sound great when singing along to (let's name 'Blimps Go 90', 'King & Caroline', 'Closer You Are', 'Evil Speakers' because I like typing the titles almost as much as I like listening to them). And shitty album artwork that looks like it was done in Corel Draw (I bet it was, it was 1996 after all!). It's a complete package. One of my favourite memories is sitting around in a car, on tour with some friends' band, in 2005 I think, and listening to this while pantomiming hand motions to act out the lyrics. It was a brotherhood united by our love for this record and it's infinite mysteries, earworm-generating inspiration, and awe-inducing imagery. And it was fun to pretend to park a forklift, 'like a billion stars flickering from the grinder's wheel', though I don't remember the specific hand gesture to go with that one. Please play 'My Son Cool' at my funeral, and I wish they would have played 'Motor Away' at my birth. No, 'Watch Me Jumpstart'. Watch Me Continue to find inspiration twenty years into my lifetime bond with this masterpiece. Thanks.

1 May 2016

Guided By Vocies - 'Bee Thousand (The Director's Cut)' (Scat)

As mentioned a few posts ago, I no longer have my original copy of Bee Thousand, as it was loaned to someone years ago and never returned. It's OK, I suppose; I've committed every second of it to memory over the past 20 years anyway, and while I'll happily replace it when I come across it cheap-ish, for now I survive. Bee Thousand (The Director's Cut) actually contains every song anyway - the first two LPs recreate an earlier, longer version as assembled in 1993, and the final platter contains the seven songs from the official Bee Thousand that weren't on the 1993 version (which includes some of the most definitive tracks of the album: 'Buzzards and Dreadful Crows', 'Hardcore UFOs', 'I Am A Scientist', and 'Gold Star for Robot Boy') as well as The Grand Hour and and I Am A Scientist 7"s. But sequencing is everything, as one listen to any side of The Director's Cut will indicate. So much of the genius of Bee Thousand is how it fits together as a complete whole, without any filler and with the transitions carefully chosen. 'Echoes Myron' without 'Yours to Keep' preceeding it (and that awkward tape splice) just isn't right! And opening the whole thing with 'Demons Are Real' is a bold choice, but the first chords of 'Hardcore UFOs' are the most iconic opening in indie rock history (except, perhaps, for 'A Salty Salute' on Alien Lanes) so it's hard for me to really think of this as Bee Thousand without it. And yeah, not every song here is great - the would-have-been third side gets pretty spotty, so it makes sense that 'I'll Buy You a Bird' and  'Zoning the Planet' were dropped later, when the album we know and love took its final form. And I don't know that the world needs the falsetto-filler of 'Rainbow Billy' for any reason except the historic record. But still, at this point, Pollard and Sprout were just hit machines, churning out such an incredible body of work that fan-assembled outtakes collections are still being assembled to this day. The liner notes, written here by Robert Griffin of Scat, are really nicely done, telling the story of his relationship to the band, and how this album took form over so many iterations. The other running orders are reproduced with Pollard's lyric sheet for the third one, and his cassette track listings for the others; it turns out it's Griffin himself who put together the iconic sequencing, and that the album was actually assembled on an early version of ProTools (not bad for 1994!). So all of this is rather disjointed - Christ, it's a cluttered mess - but it's a glorious one. Some of the songs turned up much later - 'Why Did You Land?' was sped-up and re-recorded as a b-side to 'The Official Ironmen Rally Song'; 'Stabbing a Star' came out on a 7", and bits of 'Bite' and '2nd Moves to Twin' turned up elsewhere on Bee Thousand itself. And even shaken up and put in a blender, there's so much here to love and enjoy, and so much meaning and associations to draw, maybe even amplified by its new juxtapositions. 'Smothered in Hugs' retains it's magic nostalgia; 'Hot Freaks' and 'Her Psychology Today' their rampant sexuality. 'Myron' feels like it ties together many threads, and 'Deathtrot and Warlock Riding a Rooster' has some beauteous self-harmonising. And this is before even getting to this final LP, which contains a few of the greatest GbV tracks (two versions of 'Shocker in Gloomtown', a song so great the Breeders covered it; and an Andy Shernoff-produced version of 'My Valuable Hunting Knife' which never ended up anywhere else, somehow). So even though I still wonder why Pollard originally wanted to end the album with 'Crocker's Favourite Song' instead of 'You're Not An Airplane'. Yes, listen to the original first, but thank God for Griffin's efforts in releasing this, both musically and writerly - this is an important bit of history, at least to people like me.

29 April 2016

Guided by Voices - 'Vampire on Titus' (Scat)

Out of the frying pan and into the fire! I don't know a lot of other obsessive GbV-heads but I would guess that Vampire on Titus shares the same status in their minds as in mine: simultaneously their best and least essential of the golden period; an exercise in contradictions and paradox. This is where they took the 'lo-fi' thing as far as it could be taken while still resembling a rock band, by intentionally distorting & muddying most of the songs, needlessly so (some would say). And I'm not sure, still, how I feel about these choices in obfuscation. I can't imagine 'Perhaps Now the Vultures' or 'Sot' any other way, but it seems to hurt other songs - two of which appear in superior, and more clear forms on Fast Japanese Spin Cycle. In many ways this is my favourite GbV album because it's not only their most difficult but it also has some of their absolute best work. And it feels more like a complete work than a collection of songs, perhaps because some of the tracks are so obfuscated as to be almost impenetrable - so they blend into the overall blanket. 'Expecting Brainchild' could be an arena rock classic but because of the way it's recorded, it feels more like a Chrome outtake - and that's precisely what's brilliant about it (and enables the homophobic f-word to be overlooked and barely heard, just as in 'Hit' on Alien Lanes). Another thing which hurts Vampire was the subsequent release of the Fast Japanese 7", which will be addressed here if I ever actually resurrect the 7" blog, because as mentioned above it features versions of 'Marchers in Orange' and 'Dusted' that blow away the versions on this LP. The latter, made evident on the 7" as possibly one of Pollard's best-ever songs (and that's a tall claim!), is almost indistinguishable from the other midrangey rockers in its Vampire form. 'Marchers' on the LP is built around a clunky pump organ, and the title makes me think of the protestant Orange march that I frequently saw during my Glasgow years, so it's a dicey association though surely not what Pollard means at all. '"Wished I Was a Giant"' starts things off with that midrangey, murky basement rock 4-track sound but somehow transcends it, as it's become an iconic GbV song over the years; the mandatory quotation marks makes it all the more brilliant, and the context indicates that Pollard is referring it not as a direct quote but as a nickname for some power-tripping person. So, so many classics here - 'Jar of Cardinals' is pure beauty; 'Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)' is one of Sprout's masterpieces, and 'Non-Absorbing', while simplistic in form, is more or less a statement of purpose: 'Do you see more than I do?'. These jams peppered live sets through the period I dub as 'golden' and I've listened to them hundreds of times, so they feel truly familiar to this near-obsessive fan. It is, I guess, the lesser-remembered songs which really characterise Vampire on Titus, and some of them should be more celebrated: 'World of Fun', 'Wondering Boy Poet' (which has the cleanest, folkiest part of the record with it's 'Sailing, just like the days....' refrain-outro) and 'Perhaps Now the Vultures' are all pretty great songs. Maybe the best testament to Vampire on Titus's lasting power is that I listened to it before writing this, then went away for a week before finishing it, and couldn't get '#2 In the Model Home Series' out of my head the whole time. That's a sketchy, fragmentary song that could be a forgotten track on Suitcase or a clip of 'Back to Saturn X Radio Report', but when it drilled deep into my brain its repeated refrain of  'And secretly she sees' somehow sounds like the key to unlock a world with a million hallways and meanings. And that's exactly why this period of GbV continues to fascinate me - because it's just a treasure map. Vampire on Titus may be one of the dustiest of these maps, but when you blow it off enough to see, the riches are extremely rewarding.

12 April 2016

Guided by Voices - 'Propeller' (Scat)

Eventually, everything from my formative years will be reissued in some deluxe vinyl package. I'm not unhappy about this; owning an original of Propeller was an impossible dream, and I never jumped on the twofer CD with Vampire on Titus since I had already had an original LP of the latter. Scat reissued this a few years back, selecting cover #14 for immortality (a good choice!) and thus enabling me to complete my dream run on vinyl of GbV's most fertile, amazing period. Except my original-ish white vinyl Bee Thousand disappeared mysteriously some years ago, leaving me with only Scat's Director's Cut, which is not bad and has 'Shocker in Gloomtown' on it, after all, but doesn't have the original sequencing which makes me feel that I need both. Anyway, we'll get there. But yes, this is the start of a fertile, amazing period which I would argue is not just GbV's finest era but one of the finest eras of any artist ever, in any medium. Yeah, 1992-97, starting here and going through Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, including most of (if not all) of the EPs and singles from this time - it's a run that is just utterly perfect. Now, Propeller I had listened to a zillion times on a dubbed Maxell type II (high bias!) cassette I got in high school from some enterprising soul online, back when I was actually trading dubs of albums through the mail, such was this high school kid's budget. It's a record that is so brilliantly conceived from start to finish that by the time I finally got this vinyl version, well, I didn't even need to listen to it. I could go through song by song and try to describe them, or even better describe what they mean to me, but maybe that would be boring or pointless. I could try to write something smart about the ironic rock and roll chant that opens the album, the arena-rock aspirations of these basement dwelling weirdos from Dayon, Ohio, and something about the failure of stardom being what makes this great, blah blah blah, sprinkle in some comparison to Kevin Coyne, and we're done. But what's the point? When they broke in '94 or '95 everything that could have possibly been written about them already was. And I can't even really say how great this sounds on vinyl cause it really just sounds like the cassette did - after all, it was recorded on cassette to begin with. So while the pressing is lovely enough (and includes a collection of some alternate handmade covers), it's not like the discovery of some great lost soundworld. OK, here's something I'll actually say: I love Pollard's more optimistic songs, and this record is covered in them: 'Quality of Armor', 'Exit Flagger', 'Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy' - these and most of the other cuts have been live staples for 25 years, through various lineups, and these must be songs I have listened to 3000 times each and I'm not the slightest bit tired of them. If I remember correctly they were gonna 'quit' the band and this was to be their final album, though given how many times Pollard has broken up and reformed the band, at this point I just see Guided by Voices more like a celestial force than a band, so I don't take that too seriously. I was just talking about the pre-Propeller Box that had all their albums up to this point, and was thinking about how actually great a lot of them are; I made a great mixtape of the best 4 or 5 songs from each of those. But Propeller is a step forward beyond belief; this is where Sprout really starts to shine ('14 Cheerleader Coldfront'!) and the band became, to me at least, the greatest fucking rock band of all time. Even the weakest cuts are epic soundworlds to me - the collage 'Back To Saturn X Radio Report' is made up of fragmentary songs that are found on King Shit and the Golden BoysStatic Airplane Jam, and other outtakes compilations from this era, and somehow the clumsy pause-button editing just strikes me as a brilliant vision. This is the first cornerstone of an amazingly rewarding vision, and I'll just knock off the superlatives now because I got a few more albums to spread them over.

11 April 2016

Peter Grudzien - 'The Unicorn/The Garden of Love' (Subliminal Sounds)

Peter Grudzien is an outlier among outliers; in many ways you could call this just another acid-drenched, home-recorded privately pressed psych record, albeit one deeply rooted in country/western traditions and affectations. But Grudzien's 1974 statement is one that is militantly gay, wistfully fragile, and perfectly balanced on the damaged/cohesive axis, and somehow feels completely unlike anything else in the genre. The songs on The Unicorn are almost all based around a strummed acoustic guitar and his yokel yodel, but then there's some weird fuckery throughout; 'Redemption and Prayer' is built around processed voice loops, and feels akin to something that might come out of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre a decade earlier. 'Kentucky Candy', an epic ode to his lover, has some delay-heavy, operatic background vocals that (according to the liners) were just ripped off an LP recording of Tannhäuser, and the effect is stunning. There's a plodding bass throughout most of the album (which is just enough to make it all feel off-kilter, despite Grudzien's excellent technical abilities) as well as pedal steel, banjo and some electric guitars. It feels like a vision - one that begins with the title track's mystical allusions (for the unicorn, according to Grudzien's original liner notes, is a 'frail creature that will redeem mankind', though the 2007 reissue notes state that it's about a guy whose profile looked like a unicorn) and on through the unambiguous 'White Trash Hillbilly Trick' and 'Queen of All the Blue-Eyed'. He digs in and shreds on the instrumental 'The Lost World', and the lyrical themes throughout don't avoid the big issues of religion, love, and guilt. This is a lovely reissue too; the home-recording makes everything a little bit uneven, as levels tend to jump from cut to cut, but the acoustic instruments sound warm and full, and the musique concrete parts feel appropriately spooky, with enough midrange to clearly identify them as tapes being reworked. Everything climaxes on the finalé, 'Return of the Unicorn', which moves through a variety of different recording fragments, including a lo-fi, instrumental keyboard theme which feels anthemic, and a full-band (though of course, all Grudzien) conclusion which sounds decisive, even visionary. The second album was culled from recordings ranging from the 1950s to the late 80s, and it sounds appropriately hodgepodge, but strong. There's more country stylings but even some homemade doo-wop ('The Bills', from 1957), a few versions of the title track, and some cover versions. Spotty, yes, but overall enjoyable, and it feels more like a window into the mind of a person who is just absolutely in love with sound and its potential. And he was at fucking Stonewall, according to the haunting cut of that name, from 1987, made up of nothing more than his (deeper than before) voice accompanied by bells. His chronicling of the story revises the official history and talks about clones and conspiracy theories, too! The aforementioned liner notes, written in all capital letters, are pretty difficult to read but tell Grudzien's story, and one of the things that I think makes this so strange is that Grudzien is a New York City guy through and through, despite the Nashville/Bakersfield influence on his music. Given that Merle Haggard died last weekend, it's interesting to think about the whole sense of identity in country music; Haggard played his cards when it suited him but is mostly remembered as a right-wing or even reactionary figure against the counterculture (though it's of course more complicated than that, sorta like, say, Neil Young). Grudzien seems like he's from another planet, and maybe he was -- he was a total outsider in every way, not just because of his sexuality, and you could argue that country music represented a true freedom to him, and his obscure private-press rendition of it captures a genuine essence that the commercial products only pretended at. Though I hesitate to ever call one form of art/music genuine and another not; what I mean is that Grudzien, who even after this gorgeous double-LP reissue remains super obscure, represents the untold story of 1970s counterculture. Not that The Unicorn necessarily stands alongside any traditional country or underground gay art music of the time - it's just a singular creature, and shaped a bit like a unicorn.

Group Ongaku ‎– 'Music Of Group Ongaku' (Seer Sound Archive)

1960 was a long time ago, even in the accelerated and compressed culture-span that has informed so much of my own accumulation here. And the first side of this record is a long 33 minutes recorded these 56 years ago, where all sorts of crazy echo-laden sounds are performed by the Japanese avant-garde of the time, in this case a six-person ensemble led by Takehisa Kosugi, later of the Taj Mahal Travellers. No instruments are credited on 'Automatism' or 'Object' but we can hear all sorts of things, and the historical liner notes (on this less-than-legitimate reissue) tell us some of what is used. It's not recorded so well, at Shukou Mizuno's house, so it feels like a strange distant radio broadcast. I'm reminded a bit of Cage's Variations IV, perhaps in the static-laden, wooly quality of the sound as well as the wonder as to what produces the sounds. There's a lot of voice as well, hollering and grunting, and it feels serious and playful at the same time; one would guess that tapes and other recordings make up about half of the sound, thus being a live electro-acoustic improvisation and a quite early one as well. You could even imagine it being scary, audio terror from a past era, if you tend towards fear in your curiosity. The b-side is the two-part 'Metaplasm', recorded a year later with a slightly different lineup and with instrumentation credited. And a good thing, these notes, as it's a significantly more 'instrument'-based approach, with clear saxophone solos (by Kosugi and Yasunao Tone), plucking about on guitars and cellos, and a piano. This has a unsurprisingly 'open' feel, with the musicians taking their time to feel out space and interact without stepping on each other's toes. It's shocking how much this sounds like today's "non-idiomatic improvisation", as absurd as that term may be; could this just be a human-nature blueprint for how to approach open sound? The second part of 'Metaplasm' is where the tapes come in, and it continues the exploratory vibe, this time through machinery. Remember, this was recorded before the Beatles hit and when rock music was not much (if any) of an influence on these artists; it's an avant-garde that feels pure and untouched by commercialism or marketing. 'Ongaku' means 'music' in Japanese, so the name of the group is even a bit ironic, or a bit generic; I'm not quite sure which.

18 March 2016

Green Pajamas - 'Book of Hours' (Green Monkey)

Scored this for $1 back in the day and I think I spun it all of 1.5 times, though I was quite fond of the Pajamas during their brief late 90s comeback run on Camera Obscura. By then they were embracing 6's throwback stuff a bit more, everything shot through a soft-focus lens, etc. -- whereas this album, I think their second, has a bright 1980s feel to it. This may be due to the balance of songwriting; main Pajamas muse Jeff Kelly doesn't have Joe Ross here, as he had temporarily left the band, but rather bassist Steve Lawrence and keyboardist Bruce Haedt. Kelly's songwriting is as sharp as always, though his style clashes with the others. Kelly's maudlin 'The Night Miss Sundby Died' feels very odd against Lawrence's 'Ain't So Bad' - the latter is a rave-up in the style of some 60s party jam, which is a bit jarring after the lush romanticism of the former. Haedt's 'Higher Than I've Been' also feels out of place, like some Nuggets-era forgotten tune, spry and bouncy, and really something that would be OK in a different context. Or maybe it's just that I associate Kelly's youthful voice with this band so much that other vocalists just feel like something wrong. Album closer 'Time of Year' (which has a great bagpipe part, probably the most successful incorporation of bagpipes into guitar-pop that I've ever heard, and a great chorus part to ride us out) has Kelly wistfully crooning 'It's the time of year / when everyone should be in love', which is pretty much a definitive statement of purpose for the Green Pajamas. Their custom brand of melancholy may not be present in these lyrics,  at least not obviously, but I assure you that it's heard in his delivery. The arrangements are really nice on Book of Hours, fleshed out with keyboards and multi-tracked guitars, yet never feeling too heavy. Even the horn section on 'Paula' supports the songwriting rather than just being a needless flourish. Their first album, Summer of Lust, was only released as a cassette and feels like one, so must be where they stepped forward with a bigger production because, well, that's what you do when you go to wax! A quick glance at discogs reveals a zillion albums since the last one I listened to (which was 1999's All Clues Lead to Meagan's Bed) and I bet they're all as enjoyable as this one - not an everyday pop album to fall in love with and learn intimately, but a pleasant jolt back to the less heralded side of the mid-1980s when I actually remember I have it. 'Kim The Waitress' was their first single, which Wikipedia refers to as a 'regional hit single', a term which is more of a throwback than their sound supposedly is. The photo on the back of the inner sleeve features them posing artfully on a hillside, clad in peacoats and cardigans, in case you had any doubt about where they stood against the backdrop of mid-80s punk/new wave/indie music: confidently and stridently out of time. And god bless 'em.

John Greaves / Peter Blegvad / Lisa Herman - 'Kew. Rhone.' (Virgin)

The lineup here is impressive, and I've always wanted Kew. Rhone. to be just a little bit more attenuated towards Blegvad's quirky pop songwriting and less towards sounding like 50 other art-rock records that I have. Many would probably call this Blegvad's masterpiece as a lyricist, which may be true -- but my copy is missing the lyrics sheet! Thankfully the Internet steps in to fill things out, because Kew. Rhone. is made up of riddles and conundrums. Maybe it's not going to make your soul weep with heart-rendering emotional ballads, but what's here can get the brain raging like nothing else. That is, if you can pay attention; there's so much going on with the backing tracks (Andrew Cyrille's drumming is particularly impressive) so it's easy to tune out to what they are crooning about. And some songs, like 'Catalogue Of Fifteen Objects And Their Titles', are just that - lists, brilliant to read on paper, and brilliant to listen to sung over a prog track, but it's hard to pay attention to while it's happening.  Do the lyrics reflect the music? Probably under deeper study, yes, but my big complaint with Kew. Rhone., and I know this is blasphemy as a supposed Blegvad fan, is that for such unparalleled lyrical constructions, the music feels better suited for some of Chris Cutler's stern Marxist musings instead. Of course, John Greaves is responsible for the compositions, and this is 1976, so it's still very much derived from the Henry Cow sound; any sort of punk influence is nascent, though 'Nine Mineral Emblems' has a pretty manic jam between a noisy guitar (I guess Blegvad's) and Michael Mantler's trumpet. Mantler and then-wife Carla Bley are strongly felt here; compositionally it feels pretty much like a merger of Bley's work (from that period) with that of Henry Cow. Above it all soars Lisa Herman, a very under-recorded vocalist whose voice is perfectly suited for this progressive, arty sound. At times she is soulful and at others screeching; when she duets with Blegvad ('Apricot', among others) she has the ability to bring out a certain quality in his voice. As incredible as songs like 'Pipeline' might be (which refer to Blegvad's drawings on the back of the album as an essential component), it's only a few times that I feel the band is really exploring some new territory (such as the remarkable closer 'gegenstand'). With further study, I suspect I could become mildly obsessed with this record. And I love In Praise of Learning, yet this I wish sounded more like Slapp Happy. I dunno. I guess I'm just too demanding. And there's a book out about this now, which has spawned a few online articles proclaiming this record's greatness. Everything lines up to make this something I should be obsessed with, but perhaps I missed my chance. Or maybe the book, which I'm ordering now, will illuminate things more clearly.

1 March 2016

Andrew Graham's Swarming Branch - 'Classic Glass' (Tonk)

This is one hell of a sound sound, and it warms my heart that there's a gang of youngsters in Columbus, Ohio making music like this. Do you like Tin Pan Alley, musical cabaret and a Harry Nilsson/Van Dyke Parks vibe? But also fuzzy, jammy indie rock with psychedelic riffs galore? This might be for you, and I can guess this might be a love-it-or-hate it aesthetic; it's about as far from macho posturing as I can imagine while still being 'rock' music, yet to me this doesn't sound affected, even though Graham's singing technique is a bit like the guy from Cockey Rebel crossed with Basement Tapes-era Dylan. As the band name indicates, Mr. Graham is the singer-songwriter behind the Swarming Branch, but keyboardist Dane Terry (creator of a a fantastic solo album we'll get to, one day) is a pretty strong presence, and the bright, springy drums of Sean Leary aren't to be overlooked. This trio makes up the core, I guess, but there's guest musicians galore, including three 'lead guitar' players, obviously not found on every track. It's a bit messy to unravel but it doesn't really matter, because it sounds like a BAND. Their self-administered label is called Tonk and the concept of the honky-tonk rears its head from the majestic/shambolic opening cut ('That Constant Country Thirst') and lyrically in the amazingly cryptic and simultaneously anthemic 'Holy Joeys, Cognoscenti, Tar Babies In Love'. But I wonder what honky-tonk even means to them? There's hints of Nashville in places, sure, such as the slide guitars on 'The New Age Succuba, Susie Jean', but everything feels warped as hell -- and not through a druggy or surrealist haze. It's actually a really hard aesthetic to put a finger on, but it's one that feels confident and open at the same time. The rising and falling guitars and keyboard lines are occasionally chillingly beautiful; 'The Pounce' is as close as this record comes to a ballad, and it wears its heart on its sleeve. And sometimes it just drives straight ahead in the way that rock and roll does best. The high point of the album (and of music overall for the past few years, to these ears) may be the medley of 'This Water Does Not Reach The River' and 'I Warn You' that ends side 1. The first of these is a manic, high-energy stomper and the latter a 4/4 mid-tempo dirge that has some simple, yet stunning interplay between the instruments that makes this feel like a genius chipping away at a rock to reveal some sculpture. When Swarming Branch fall into these more straight-forward moments, it's incredibly satisfying; besides 'I Warn You's powerful punch, 'Final Boss' feels practically like a stadium-rock song, with a relentless pounding on the piano, some synth creepage courtesy of Ryan Jewell, and Graham's irrepressible voice soaring over it all. It crashes to an epic finish and effectively ends the record as the last track is an electro-pop oddity by a guest artist - a strange choice, but this record is a bouquet of strange choices, really, which all gel together to make some odd sense. I am more excited to hear what they do next than I am about just about anyone else actively making music today.

28 February 2016

Gordy Horn ‎- 'The Glue That Holds The Kids Together' (What The...?)

Four tracks spanning five years of Gordy Horn, a chaotic Cincinnati ensemble that has a bit of a kitchen-sink 'anything goes' approach to sound and membership, yet anchored by Scott Hisey and Tim Schwallie. These four tracks have a vaguely jazzy/swing feel to them, but the headscratchers is 'Aimee's Dream' (the earliest cut, from 2000) which exists in its own singularity entirely. This has a bizarrely sung female vocal line over a hypnotic string part (a harp!), but it sounds more like the outtake of a video made for some workplace seminar than any sort of identifiable art-rock tradition. It's mesmerising and unsettling, yet somehow still feels logical with the other three tracks. Two of them involve Clayton Gunnells, formerly of Funkadelic circa America Eats Its Young, which makes this an odd crossover with What The...? label head C. Spencer Yeh, who appears on 'Put the Rascal in the Pudding', contributing some of his distinct violin playing circa the era (2003). The horn is in Gordy Horn, not that explicitly in terms of there being actual horns (though there is sax and trumpet) but just feeling like this is from the free jazz lineage. But this reminds me more of parts of Smegma's Glamour Girl 1941 than anything from ESP-disk; it's an outsider aesthetic, for sure, as well as the sense that anything could be possible. One-sided LPs are sometimes frustrating; these four tracks fill out a side nicely, but why not more? Given that Gordy Horn has been active forever, one thinks there could have been more selected, though maybe economical concerns limited this to one-side. Their released discography is pretty sparse besides this and a tape set, on Yeh's other label Dronedisco, suggesting that maybe they were recorded less than one expected. In nearby Louisville there's a band called Sapat that I think is rather similar - a long-running institution, anchored by a few key members, that have had oodles of weirdos and freaks passing in and out of, and rarely recorded (or rather, those recordings rarely massaged into actual releases). Not sure if the Horn is still active these days but I would love to hear more.

23 February 2016

GOL, Ana-Maria Avram, Iancu Dumitrescu And Members Of Ansamblul Hyperion - 'Musique Directe' (Planam)

GOL are a French-based quartet of electro-acoustic improvisers who take their soundmap from Musica Elettronica Viva and others which have followed in their wake. It's a spacious sound, and occasionally gets quite extreme in terms of echo/effects/processing, but there's a group feel throughout that doesn't really change when the guests join in. The opening cut is just GOL alone, and while their name suggests football fandom, this is more like water skiïng, cutting against waves of roomspace with tensely attenuated electronics. Avram and Dumitrescu join for the second track and it's a much murkier affair, with Dumitrescu playing a prepared piano frame which (I assume) fills up all the middle space. There's still a lot of negotiating even when there's nervous energy, like a yapping dog knowing when to pull back and wait for a snack. Occasionally some really what-the-fuck sounds drift in, but then they don't overstay their welcome; it's a trick that GOL plays a few time throughout the record but never to the point of gimmickyness. The last cut on side 1 features Dumitrescu on the cello but this doesn't sound like Yo-Yo Ma or even like a recognisable cello in any form. Actually, there's very few points of recognisable instruments across the whole album, at least in a conventional sense. Sometimes a processed sound has a texture that makes it identifiable as a plucked acoustic string or percussive tap, but it's transformed into a sideways ghost here. Yet this processing is not the point - it's not an overly wet record, just one that has a solid mood. Side two starts with a Dumitrescu composition built around a tape piece from 1985, played by Avram, and accentuated by the group's clatter and sturm. It rather seamlessly blends into the last piece, which is the only one to feature "members of Ansamblul Hyperion", in this case two people both named Teodorescu. It's not like the sound is significantly more full when there are seven people playing on a track instead of four, but this one gets into the higher register a bit more and ends around some ringing space tones that have a subtle pulse beneath them. At first I thought the title of this album was somewhat of a joke, but actually there is something 'direct' here, in the direct cinema sense, as in we're witnessing a group collaboration that is natural and unprocessed. The sounds, sure, have their own electronic processing at times, but the cohesive group dynamic is presented without visible editing or subterfuge. The liner notes contain a graphical score for a piece which is not on this album, maybe a Dadaist joke or just something pretty they wanted to include anyway. It's hard to tell the tone of this - it's not an overly joyous sound, nor is it too-serious or academic. And the basic, plain graphic artwork places this in a zone of total neutrality, allowing one to add their own interpretation at will. Direct music, indeed.

22 February 2016

The Golden Palominos - 'Visions of Excess' (Celluloid)

Were the Golden Palominos a 'supergroup'? Cause they weren't really a group, were they? Just one guy, Anton Fier, and a bunch of famous friends making songs together. But the lineup is quite impressive - it looks more impressive to me now than it did when I bought this for $1 many years ago, no doubt due to the presence of Michael Stipe, cause, see, I was a big R.E.M. fan during my early teenage years. This sounds a lot better now than back then, too, maybe because I've made my peace with big mid-eighties drum production (and Fier, the svengali here, is a drummer after all and there's unnecessary digital programming on about half of this). The song selection is pretty decent too; the highlight of the whole record is the cover of 'Animal Speaks' by 15-60-75 (y'know -- the Numbers Band!) which is the best Numbers song anyway, and gets a pretty good treatment with a snarling John Lydon. The core band (Fier, Bill Laswell and Jody Harris) is only accentuated with organist Bernie Worrell here, and they somehow bring a manic pulsing punk feel to the song, stripping out its more R&B elements. The songs on Visions of Excess are grouped by singer, weirdly - all three of the Stipe tunes are put in front, maybe to try to capitalise on his marketability. 'Omaha', the Moby Grape cover, is even catchier than the original, and has Henry Kaiser playing this searing drone guitar throughout the whole thing, which sometimes loops into a weird reverse delay. It's such a great song, and the Palominos know that just because they have serious avant-garde cred they don't need to deconstruct every song. The original tunes are pretty solid; the two of them which are Stipe-sung are driving mid-tempo songs, the kind of songs I always imagined when I hear the term 'modern rock'; 'Clustering Train' sounds a little bit like 'King of Birds' from R.E.M.'s Document, though this pre-dates it. Jack Bruce sings on the rather long 'Silver Bullet' but it's probably the weakest track on the album. Syd Straw takes over for two tracks (and does backing vocals on others); 'Buenos Aires', which features Carla Bley on the organ, is really great - Straw's Southern twang breathes life into the song, which keeps rising and falling organically. Fier's drumming is really overpowering throughout this record - partly it's the sound of the times, but probably more because he's the leader of the band and the drummer so he's gonna mix himself up. I can't help but wonder what 'Buenos Aires' would sound like with a more loose, folksy feel. 'Only One Party' closes it out, a Beefheartian dirge with Arto Lindsay yelping and the guitar recorded so it sounds kinda lo-fi, or at least distant. It's a pretty cool track actually, though it somehow feels incongruous with the rest of the album, even though it's already a pretty divergent affair. And that's it for the Golden Palominos though if I ever resurrect the 7" blog, I also have the 7" of 'Omaha'. No grand conclusions to draw here. I wonder what their other albums are like? The first one is maybe worth checking out as Fred Frith is on it. But then again, some of these guest musicians make such minor contributions that they might as well have been session people; does Chris Stamey's keyboards on 'Omaha' really sound distinctly like Chris Stamey playing? Is he even known as a keyboard player? But I'm quibbling; this ain't a bad record, and one that is simultaneously a product of it's time and also doesn't really sound like anything else.

Gong - 'Flying Teapot: Radio Gnome Invisible Part 1' (Charly)

I'm a bad Gong fan, because I don't own anything beyond this first part of the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy, nor could I really tell you what it's all about, even though the story is written out, by hand, in the gatefold sleeve. But who's gonna take the time to read this? Instead you can drift off on the psychedelic voyage presented by Mr. Allen and friends, and listen to his voice, focusing on the lyrics when you want to and letting the guitars, flutes and echoing resonance take you to new dimensions of sound and spirit. This is a pretty solid album though, significantly more progventurous than Camembert, though at the expensive of, well, cohesion. We have two titular tracks here, 'Radio Gnome Invisible' which opens things up as a hard introduction to the Gnomish concept; then, the 12:30 of 'Flying Teapot'. Most of side one is taken up by this second cut, which shifts from movement to movement in an epic manner yet stays nimble - it feels almost like it doesn't repeat or go back into themes, but maybe it's because I feel my brain get baked just by listening. I like the diversity here, and we have long instrumental runs that take this record just a small step closer to Genesis territory than before - this isn't totally insane NWW-list Futura-prog at all, but feels druggier because of the cultural associations around this kind of music. Maybe it's the chord changes, or the modalities, or the saxophones and guitars interacting in a certain way, but it definitely feels like prog-rock, though Daevid Allen's singing brings things back to la-la land. There are slow, spacious passages with tape loops and wind instruments making abstract soundscapes, but then also lively and exuberant rock jams. If anything, it's a treasure map being laid out that has an irrepressible personality, yet fits well within the context of early 70s prog-space rock. Hawkwind are a good comparison perhaps, but Gong is goofier and therefore they've always been more to my tastes. Side two handily shifts between sounds - 'The Pot Head Pixies' has the same hooky/manic energy as Camembert's 'Fohat Digs Holes in Space'; 'Zero The Hero and the Witch's Spell' moves between exploratory noodling over a light jazz-rock base to a thick, slow space-dirge in just a matter of minutes. 'Witch's Spell/I Am Your Pussy' ends things with Gilli Smyth intoning about modern Wiccan rituals, or something - by this point you can practically smell the smoke wafting in from .... somewhere? Gatefold cover so you can roll your joints in it, of course. I don't have parts two or three so I guess we'll never know what happens to this invisible gnome, but I guess he probably starts getting really into jazz fusion.

20 February 2016

Gong - 'Camembert Electrique' (Virgin)

Gong is one of those bands that you can imagine was more fun to be in than to listen to, but that's not true in the case of Camembert Electrique; their most popular album, I think, or at least the one that I listen to the most. This is the fun side of progressive rock, but it's not really that proggy - the songs are relatively short, mostly built around pop ditties written by Daevid Allen, and while we get some tape manipulations and sax solos and crazy druggie vocals, it's nothing like Yes or Crimson - but rather, a tight rock band with some odd flavours. This was recorded in France, as the title indicates, and you'd think this would bring a more continental atmosphere to these Canterbury boys, but I don't know; I don't think this sounds much like French or Italian prog of the time, and Allen is Australian anyway so it's not like the British-base of Gong meant they normally sound like Tenpole Tudor. Allen's exuberance carries through, whether it's chanting 'O mother / let's do it again', the elegance of 'And You Tried So Hard',  or the irrepressible glee of 'Fohat Digs Holes in Space'. And the band is pretty versatile - a rather tight-knit unit at the point, at least compared to the big messy groups I always think of as characterising later (and Pierre Morlein's) Gong. On 'You Can't Kill Me'  and 'Dynamite' they sound quite pointed, and almost severe - the goofiness is buried, or at least balanced by a harder psych edge, kinda like, I dunno -- Jane's Addiction? But then they also can slip into moments of sweet, sweet melody, such as the chorus of 'And You Tried So Hard', a song which feels like it's changing rock sub-genres with each verse. The album is structured around four sub-30 second experimental tape pieces, appearing at the beginning and end of each side (locked grooves at the end of course, and clumsy ones at that); the 'songs' of 1 finish with two medleys, with the beautiful 'I Am Your Fantasy' (led by the gorgeous, lush vocals of Gilli Smyth) being the standout track, possibly of the whole record. The best moments of swirling space rock use echo effects over a Czukay-like bassline; 'Fohat Digs Holes in Space' runs away with this concept, building up a creeping sense of malevolence until the hook/vocals come in to save the day. And it's got the obligatory drug reference, lackadaisical approach, and noodly sax solo, to make it a truely iconic track. You know, at their worst, Gong could be seen as the proto-Phish; not that Phish are all that bad (I got sucked into a wormhole watching them cover the VU's Loaded on YouTube one night, and it was all right!). But now, they already feel like such a relic, even though this type of goofy druggy prog-pop has never died, but merely evolved.

19 February 2016

Godspeed You Black Emperor! ‎– 'Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven' (Constellation)

I love the unofficial abbreviation "Yr." for 'your" - thank Sonic Youth for that one - but according to the often-fallible discogs, the vinyl release of this spells out the word "Your" while the various CD issues use the "Yr.". The gatefold sleeve breaks down the movements of each side-long piece, in a very loose graphical score, so you can view this as a 19 track album if you want. I like the side-long approach; I personally think of my own records (the few that I have made) in those terms, one side at a time, as standalone pieces. 'Storm' is the first of the four; it begins with a 'classic' GYBE! sound, with a militaristic drumbeat behind a ringing mishmash of harmonies, like if Vibracathedral Orchestra met Bedhead or something. When cranked up loud (and my neighbours must really be enjoying the GYBE! phase of my record accumulation) you can hear all of the violins pushing against each other in the upper mids, making this feel like the sound of internal combustion. The overall 'Storm', being another twenty minutes of music in four parts, really feels like it ends after it's second movement, 'Gathering Storm'; then we get some field recordings of airport announcements and the lush 'Cancer Towers on Holy Road Hi-Way' which takes out the side with deep, ringing low piano chords, practically Well-Tuned in how they create spacious toneclouds. 'Static' is the name of side two and it opens with rotating electro-acoustic drones, before some neo-romantic violin takes over ('Atomic Clock') and here's an evangelical preacher overdubbed, in what's becoming a bit of a Godspeed You Black Emperor! cliché by this point. And you know the rest - guitars slowly noodle into place, the strings grow out of the ambience and take on a life of their own until the motion has gradually become more steady, until it's oceanic. But this doesn't crash into a epic riff-jam - instead 'World Police and Friendly Fire' takes centre stage, where plucked cello notes build a tense momentum. It's a good segue and throughout the rest of the side, this develops around that theme, with instruments coming and going, dense drones behind the melody, teasing us that it's not going to turn into a confident rock jam. But it does - and it's somewhat diminishing, a bunch of musicians playing in a groove, though more composed than a jam. A few of them are keeping a steady crashing drone going, some are focusing on the melodic riff, and the bass/drums hold things tight; it's post-Slint, post-rock as we called it back then, and it's only the buildup and release, buildup and release that keep it from becoming boring (even though we know where it's going all along). But it's not the end - there's an outro, a thick ambient drone that could be smack off the first Labradford album, with the title 'The Buildings They Are Sleeping Now'. And however you may feel about their ascendant indie rock parts, these electroacoustic bits take familiar sonography (bowed cymbals, oscillating drone strings, endlessly echoing roomspace) and somehow create something unique. At this halfway point I'll try to articulate my feelings about GYBE! circa the release of this record, because they seemed unstoppable, yet somehow sort of turned into furniture. All my college buddies were in awe of what they were doing, partially because it has all the art gestures (scrawled song titles, cryptic language, and the good sense to sit back and let the music tell the story) and partially because it's always impressive where this many people get together to make music without some major financial backing behind them. But I was starting to get a bit tired of it; for as enjoyable as this double LP is to listen to now, fifteen and one-half years later, I remember feeling rather disappointed by it all. Apart from the fourth side, it all felt repetitive. So I gave up on this band - I didn't listen to their followup, and when I heard they re-formed (or at least put out their first record in ten years) awhile back I wasn't really interested. I'm a fickle beast, or I was at age 20, but I did see them one last time, at a University-funded concert that worked for a band with mid-sized popularity: pretty good sound, films, and all were on display. They played the hits from Slow Riot  and I think some stuff from this album and probably a whole lot of improvisation - to be honest, the Morricone parts all sound pretty much the same after awhile so I don't really remember. But at some moment it really hit me - maybe when they played 'Moya' or maybe they even played the immortal 'BBF3' live - my memory is really hazy -- and I suddenly realised how fucking amazing and great this band really was. I mean, I was already a fan, a rabid one at first, then a subdued one (no doubt due to them no longer being my 'secret' and their rise in popularity, cause that's the 19 year old mentality), but I left that concert with a deep, deep appreciation. It was an appreciation that wasn't so much about their music, but one that extended someone to an overall idea of ideology. Because I realised, during this horrible time where George W. Bush had just stolen an election and global capitalism was running rampant (and this was pre-9/11 of course) that what Godspeed You Black Emperor! were doing was PUNK ROCK - though of course it didn't sound like the Germs or Crass or Naked Raygun even but rather it was a truly progressive idea of what 'punk' could be; what it could mean, if you want to care about such stupid ideologies. And I did, at least then, and was constantly looking for a way to reconcile that concept with something more progressive. So yeah, if I wanna dismiss them I'll just say they're soundtrack music but the truth is, these Nucks seemed committed to a vision, and I don't know anything about them (they stay pretty anonymous at least across these records) but at that moment, watching these ravaged grainy films that were so bleak and hopeless and full of rage and beauty at the same time - it all clicked with me. So yeah, back to the record - side three is called 'Sleep' and it starts off, well, sleepy (despite more spoken overlays). But the middle segment, 'Monheim', is more of the same yet somehow brighter - the drumming takes on a frantic, almost jazzy cadence, and a drone of higher pitch eventually takes over, the rest of the band fades out, and it turns into this repetitive texture with subtle xylophone tinkles before coming into another rock bit - the 'bringing it all back home' feel, not in the Dylan sense, but more like some kinda of journey. And then: the fourth side, one in which I remember a friend, one of the same friend with whom I drove two hours one night to see them on the Slow Riot tour, referred to as "just a bunch of noise" -- but this quarter of the record, the semi-titular 'Antennas to Heaven', is definitely a departure. It opens with some singing and strumming, and then moves through seven different segments that are far more textural and less concerned with making cohesive melodic riffs than anything to-date. There is an explosive, rocking musical passage in the middle with a bunch of slide guitar and a Hawaiian feel, but it's actually overshadowed by how the rest of the piece is some more loose and episodic than anything they've done before. I know I ranted and raved in the last post about how 'BBF3' is their masterpiece, and it really is, but this is probably my second favourite side of theirs. The Slow Riot EP really stands out against these other two records because those two compositions are tight, and this and the first album are collages formed into side-long compositions, for the most part. And it's a lot of music - listening to Lift Your Skinny Fists knocks out most of an evening, or at least it feels that way. So I'm content having stopped here; I'm left with three records that still feel special to me, even if I used up their inspiration-charges a long time ago. It might even be a nostalgia trip now, for the most part, but it's a sufficiently  soundtracked trip indeed.

16 February 2016

Godspeed You Black Emperor! ‎– 'Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada E.P.' (Constellation)

And here's where things started to get huge. Not just huge in sound, though it's very much that, but huge in terms of cultural impact. Of course, a large cultural impact in my world circa 1999 is a far cry from an actual cultural impact, like, for example, popular culture. Not that this was underground; Godspeed You Black Emperor! exploded at the right time - when records still mattered, things weren't totally digital, and enough of a groupthink existed to crown them as the new gods of the nearly-underground. I loved the first album and knew they were poised for a breakout; the moment I heard 'Moya', the 45rpm first side of this, I knew it had come. Everything that was great about F#A#∞ is present here! By this I mean the liberal use of violins and cellos, a brilliant application of field recordings and tape manipulations, a theme of dystopian decay, and a strong sense of landscape and sweeping romanticism. Everything that was weak about F#A#∞ has been fixed! While the pieces still have movements, they are not a lazy collage. While there's again a strongly dominant spoken voice, it's integrated into the music as an instrument rather than layered on top, so the band is dialoguing with these ideas. And there's two compositions, one of which tightens the soundscape vibe into an epic cinematic indie rock build, and the other which avoids the easy crescendos in favour of a horizontal composition. 'Moya' is built around one hell of a RIFF - though it takes its time to get there, instead opening with a lush, thick ambience that couldn't be done without these neoclassical instruments. It skates on the edge of eternity, not that long (this is 45rpm after all) but enough to build a pulse inside the listener as well as out of the speakers. And when that riff comes - a rising, anthemic crescendo that is supported by a thunderous, deep bass guitar and the string section filling out the midrange - it's unforgettable. Catchy and iconic, it's been etched into my brain ever since, and seeing it live the two times I did was breathtaking. It's the most 'accessible' track GYBE! ever made, though I write that having heard none of the recent albums after the one after this EP. Anyway. It's amazing, but then after a belt-change back to 33, the B-side, 'BBF3', takes things even further. The centrepiece of this is a recording of a clearly deranged man, an extremist for sure, ranting and raving about freedom and liberty and genreal libertarian insanity. It's impossible to hear this right now, February 2016, and not think about Donald Trump - the tonality of his voice is eerily similar and there's a phrase that is a chilling echo of Trump's line about Mexicans all being rapists 'and some of them,  I assume, are good people'. But it's not just this slightly humorous, mostly disturbing vocalisation that makes the track; it's the way the band creates an epic dialogue with it. It rises and falls like waves, resisting the impulse to explode into a distortion-laden wall of sound, and also keep the harmonic movement rather restrained. 'BBF3' feels like it's pulling itself apart in every direction, it's tonality echoing the chaos inherent in the narrator's worldview. For a band that uses apocalyptic imagery (and are no strangers to religious appropriation when possible -- see the cover art, which whatever it might say, uses the religiously-charged Hebrew alphabet) -- this is the thunderous summation of chaos and dystopia, an internalised fear and trembling that Mr. Finnegan expresses and represses. This is no longer mere soundtrack/soundscape music, no longer merely a darker, punker Morricone - this is a band who has managed to synthesise a vision, and made one side-long work of perfection. I often think of this as following the same formula as Sun City Girls' 'Napoleon and Josephine', which is also amazing and probably my favourite SCG song -- but it's also a different beast and a hell of a lot more breathtaking. Even after I had my backlash to them (which I'll describe in my next review) I would sometimes go back to 'BBF3', which is a work of perfection that is dark, unsettling, and beautiful - and yet addictive. And it lives forever on this slab of wax, one of those tracks that makes me feel justified in owning physical media still. Sure you can listen to all 18 glorious minutes on YouTube but it's not the same; this is a total package, putting the 'art' in 'art-rock' and I don't just mean the lavish packaging. It's a track that remains inspirational to me, to this day - a track to encourage me to attempt to scoop up the mess of data flowing through my brain, blood and heart at all times and regurgitate back something that someone, somewhere, might be able to parse with one iota of recognition for some sort of harmony with their own cracked/skewed impulses. God bless, Godspeed.