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26 January 2016

Gastr del Sol - 'Camofleur' (Drag City)

More personal nostalgia (as if you haven't already endured heaps, if you've been reading this over the year): the release of Gastr del Sol's Camofleur in late 1997 was as impactful to me as Sgt. Pepper's or In Utero was to some people. Of course, there were very few people who I could share this with during my freshman year of college except a handful of friends. By the time this was released, the nascent Internet gossip (particularly the exalted droneon list, the archives of which from 1996-1999 I would kill to find) already indicated that the working relationship between Grubbs and O'Rourke had broken down, and Camofleur would be their last album. What I didn't realise then until it was released (and actually I forget about even now) is that Markus Popp joined as a full third member (or at least is credited as such) and whatever his impact was on the collaboration remains unknown - but the result is masterful. This is around (or just before) the time Jim O started producing Superchunk records and was talking in interviews about how much he loved Burt Bacharach, and this was not needless iconoclasm - it was an embracing of a plurality of sonic palette that served him really well on his first few Drag City solo albums, and surely influenced Camofleur immensely. What is more noticeable when listening to this, just five seconds into 'The Seasons Reverse', was how exuberant the sound was. Popp's digital glitching or whatever the hell he does (and that's not meant to be derogatory - I love me some early Oval) seems to propel these songs with a brightness that you could argue Upgrade & Afterlife lacked. It's not just that there was now a beat behind things, but that even Grubb's singing found a more conventional melodicism and while the lyrics are not necessarily any less cryptic, they feel truly like they support the musical idea rather than digging in their heels against comprehension. This opening track ends with an explosive cornet solo (one that I remember caused some controversy on droneon, cause after all, there are rules for experimental music, right?) and then it leads into a great bit of field recordings with O'Rourke attempting to communicate to a confused, non-English speaking child. 'Black Horse' is a thick, lush instrumental that sounds remarkably straight-forward compared to, say, 'Hello Spiral', but to me follows logically from that aesthetic. My local radio station used it as their station ID music bed for years so it conjures a special feeling; YouTube shows a live version from 1995 as just a guitar/bass/drums trio that feels like exactly the same song, yet completely different at the same time - so it's composition predates Upgrade but was wisely left off because (probably) it didn't fit the mood of that album. A song such as 'Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder' would have sounded like 'Rebecca Sylvester' on an earlier work, but the Camofleur transformation adds some fruit to this dinner plate; Popp's waterfall of digital effects feels as warm and organic as Systemisch and the cryptic, circular nature of Grubbs's worldview is something I love to lose myself in. 'Mouth Canyon' is the debut (as far as I know) of Jim O as a vocalist, and it also has this really wonderful opening passage that is like a series of breezes blowing against you - bleeping electronic tones and wind instruments come together in a magical harmony. 'A Puff of Dew' is the darkness before the dawn - a molasses-drenched swamp of stasis, with Grubbs intoning about staircases and mountains. I think Camofleur is by far the most American Gastr record, sounding influenced by landscape and other scenery throughout; 'A Puff of Dew' brings a dark undercurrent to the surface, and is one of the only mentions of an air mattress in a song that I can think of. And then it all comes to a summation with the instrumental beauty 'Bauchredner', the final march towards a higher consciousness. As it's the last track ever released by Gastr del Sol, it feels like a fitting conclusion.

Gastr del Sol - 'Upgrade and Afterlife' (Drag City)

This was the one that really did it for me - my first Gastr release, which is a near-masterpiece like all of the records that brought Grubbs and O'Rourke together. That's a pairing that seems to make no sense on paper and ends up being the greater than the sum of two parts. The formula of Crookt, Crackt or Fly isn't deviated from too much except there is maybe less acoustic guitar choppiness and more of a unified sensibility to create some pleasing compositions - works that are about synergy rather than difference. The tracks with vocals are placed in the centre, but the starting and ending cuts are masterfully lyrics despite being instrumental. 'Our Exquisite Replica of Eternity' - what a title, what a track. It's O'Rourke who clearly takes lead here, with his 'new music' composer chops in the forefront, building things around some electroacoustic drones which move and grind slowly as the piece unfolds. It explodes, an O'Rourke trick evident in many of his records, but here recalling George Gershwin heavily, which feels forward thinking in its anachronism. It's all spinning at 45 RPM (this is not a double album but a one-and-a-half record) which gives it a sense of momentum too. The ending track is a John Fahey cover, 'Dry Bones in the Valley' (from 1975's Old Fashioned Love, if you were wondering) and it's done pretty straight, breathing through the space in the acoustic strum and showing these guys as the virtuoso musicians that they are; once Tony Conrad's violin drone comes in, the track takes on a hypnotic and incredibly melancholy tendency that intensifies until the record is over. And these songs in the middle, with Grubbs dropping his Grubbisms everywhere? Great too, for the most part. 'These are shark fins/I believe the tongue propels them' is the most quotable and wonderful-ridiculous Gastr lyric ever, making 'Rebecca Sylvester' the single most iconic Gastr del Sol track. The piano psychosis of Mirror Repair is most evident during 'The Relay', and 'Hello Spiral' brings in the McEntire drumming (after a harsh, aggressive bit of tape work by Ralf Wehowsky, sounding like John Wiese's hand to me) for the indie rock sound (but only a bit). Actually, it's 'Hello Spiral' that sounds precisely like the LP is skipping, just off-kilter enough to make it feel maddening. I obviously love this record, to the point where I read great personal emotional connections into it despite it being relentlessly avant-garde and obtuse. But it's a warm avant-garde, a celebration of art and possibilities (as the famous Roman Signer photo on the cover indicates). and maybe it sounds a bit silly or dated now but you gotta believe this 18 year old was enthralled. Upgrade & Afterlife is a map of possibilities for what music and art can do, slouching towards the cerebral but never quite abandoning the guttural. And the crazy thing is that they followed it up with something even better.

19 January 2016

Gastr del Sol - 'Mirror Repair' (Drag City)

Mirror Repair is a really solid EP that was probably recorded around the same time as Crookt, Crackt or Fly but has a very different feel. There's a little of the acoustic guitar interplay, but a lot more piano, and a somewhat throwaway 'rock' piece ('Dictionary of Handwriting') which, despite it's thin construction, feels like a defiinitive example of the post-rock sound. 'Eight Corners' is the centrepiece, build around a slowly looping piano figure, which gains a bit of air each time round, lifting up and then almost drifting back to the ground before finding another gust of life. Grubbs intones some Chicago geography, which the usual take-it-or-leave-it impact, and the piece ambles along until some crazy, cracked (or crackt?) electronics chime in. It's like Smegma or the Nihilist Spasm Band dropped by to do some overdubs, and this is where O'Rourke uses whatever digital technology he was surely innovating (in 1994!) to its full potential. It's avant-garde as all fuck, and probably one of the band's highlights, sounding especially great at 45pm because there's so much space and clarity to the recording. I actually listened to the second half of this song twice just now, once through speakers and once through headphones. It's magic. The rest of the EP ain't shabby; the title track has the most vocalising and might even seem to be about something if you slow down to figure out the intention behind the lyrics (I never bother, though). 'Why Sleep' is built around that slowly unfolding spatial drone that mid-period Gastr does so well. Maybe this is nothing more than taking Varese/Xenakis techniques and introducing it to the post-rock set, but it's fucking stunning to listen to, and still sounds like new (or at least underexplored) horizons to me, two decades later.

15 January 2016

Gastr Del Sol ‎- 'Crookt, Crackt, Or Fly' (Drag City)

'In the museum / they set up the drums all wrong / reversed hi-hat and snare' is a lyric that, when you read it here, doesn't sound so odd. But once David Grubbs delivers it with his famous diction, and perhaps in the context of the overall song ('Parenthetically', which is clearly a hissy, caught-on-dictaphone improvisation) and the overall album (the sublime, strange and still singular Crookt, Crackt or Fly), it feels fucking alien. There's a forgotten generation of people like me, mostly male I'm guessing, and white, and quite a few who wear spectacles, who felt the power of the guitar but didn't want to sound like Yngvie or Satriani in our teenage aspirations. Gastr del Sol, and in particular this LP, was like manna from heaven. I never really listened to the first Gastr album, because it didn't have Jim O'Rourke on it. But here on the sophomore record, the two are equals, dazzling in their guitar interplay but not afraid of incorporating some piano or electronics when necessary. The thirteen minutes of 'Work from Smoke' make up the Gastr piece de resistance, the masterpiece that takes you through everything they do in a short period of time: Grubbs's idiot-savant lyrics, edgy acoustic guitar slashes, and a new dawn of droning electronics that sounds like George Crumb having a go at remixing the Spirit of Eden master tapes after drinking a few sixpacks of malt liquor. If this was the only track they ever cut they'd still live in eternal greatness for me, but there's actually the rest of the album to enjoy (and a few other records, too).  Side two's monster is 'The Wrong Soundings', a combination of processed ambient/field recordings (sounding mostly like somebody fucking around in a cave or other resonant space) with some circular insanity-guitar; the first half doesn't grab you by the throat and throttle like the best parts of 'Work from Smoke' or 'Every Five Miles', but it's a key transition to Upgrade & Afterlife's more O'Rourke-dominanted moments - and then the RAWK comes crashing in, and we remember the roots of this band (or at least 2/3 of them). It's not the most cohesive track, feeling a bit like a collage of several different parts, but the sum isn't shabby. I think part of the reason this record feels so perfect is that is sticks to a fairly limited palette, being mostly acoustic, though John McEntire shows up to rock out on side 2 for a bit. Crookt, Crackt or Fly breathes a heavy gust of the avant-garde into an indie rock carcass (remember, Grubbs was the dude from Bastro!) and if there needs to be a photograph of something in the dictionary entry for 'post-rock', this is a pretty strong candidate. You can laugh at Grubbs's vocal delivery (and I often do - it's great to open your junk mail and sing it in his style), and maybe the strangeness feels affected to some, but I'm never one to mock ambition and this is bathed in it, and I think confidently achieves its goals. Maybe it's mostly forgotten by now, but the legions of crookt crackt guitar players in contemporary bands (Dirty Projectors come to mind) surely owe some debt to this. It's absolutely wonderful, and despite the very distinct tone here, I'm almost always in the mood for it.

The Garbage & The Flowers - 'Stoned Rehearsal' (Quemada)

Were this a lesser band, Stoned Rehearsal would be a case of scraping the bottom of the barrel to release something, anything, by a band that (criminally) left too few recordings. It's just a dictaphone recording from what I assume was a practice space, but that's OK since almost everything on their "proper" album is also recorded on a dictaphone. The title's pretty much perfect as a description; a rehearsal this is, complete with stops, chatter, and tuning breaks. There's nothing provided to indicate when this took place, though we get a 4 page well-typed lyric sheet to sing along. This is great because it enables you to read 'Henry, Where is Lyon?' as a short story, which is really is - a long dark rumination on relationships set through some characters in a vague, gun-orientated narrative. It's the pick of the album for me, as it lumbers along it's chord progression, bassline meandering and the open hi-hat keeping time awkwardly - but over this, Helen Johnstone and (I'm guessing) Yuri Frusin take us through this journey, casually harmonising but not consistently. 'Though the world has come undone', indeed - this, like the rest of Stoned Rehearsal, is a song unique to this record, not appearing on Eyes Rind which suggests it was recorded later - and it feels like it's just teetering on a precipice of something intangible - but something that is welcoming and inviting. Other songs are less cohesive - 'River of Sem' takes some tries to get going (and Johnstone has some fun with her delivery);  'Call Out the Dogs Again' falls apart at the end - but this only serves to make this more intimate. 'Elisabeth' is adapted from a Herman Hesse poem and the vocal interplay, though barely above a murmur, is lovely, and the plodding drums (and dog barks!) are still forming the song. The one thing I find frustrating about this wonderful band is that everything feels so archival, like a document, rather than something living and growing. Or maybe that's exactly what the mystery is. I don't think a lot of artists could get away with releasing a practice tape on vinyl years later, but with Garbage and the Flowers it feels vital, like a missing piece. Johnstone is part of a new project called Caroline No that has recently released a (great!) tape, which retains some of the somnambulant motion of tG&tF's more genteel side. So, while I'm pretty sure this is all we're gonna get from them (the vault is surely dry), this feels appropriate as the final gasp.

The Garbage & The Flowers - 'Eyes Rind as if Beggars' (Bo'Weavil)

If you wait long enough, eventually everything gets reissued. I had this for over a year and only just now realised there was a CD stuck inside, but my CD player is broken at the moment so I'm not sure what's on it. Maybe I should pay closer attention to things I purchase. In the New Zealand hall of fame, this band occupies a special place, though really they should qualify for the regular ol' "music" hall of fame, if such a thing existed. Thank gosh it doesn't. Originally released in 1997, this double LP is mostly made of lo-fi live recordings, documenting this anarchic, shambolic mess of a band that nonetheless managed to captivate enough listeners to warrant this deluxe reissue, many years later. This is guitar music, occasionally erupting into piles of dissonant feedback and distortion, but it's not the slightest bit aggressive. This is dream music, though it never seduces you with anything too easy or too confectionary. Singer Helen Johnstone and guitarists Yuri Frusin and Paul Yates are the yin and yang, with her gorgeous voice and their hell-guitars pushing and pulling, but the drummer is nothing to scoff at either - this was really perfection, more than the sum of their parts, because of (not 'despite') the rough edges. The album feels more like a collection of whatever was lying around, a document that this existed, rather than a focused project, and I couldn't imagine it any other way. The notes bend and shimmer ('Holy Holy Blue' feels like it's barely held together at all), the recordings sound like their all made during the last night on earth, and the feeling is all warmth and magic, mostly creeping in from the edges. The walls of guitar on 'Nothing Going Down' and 'Rosicrucinn Lover' are almost devotional; they take over the space but never feel self-indulgent. Maybe it's just the Velvet Underground taken to the logical conclusion if it was 25 years later and on the other side of the world, but I love it. There's a quality to a lot of music from New Zealand -- Alastair Galbraith, I'm looking at you -- that is spooky, reverent, and open. This record is saturated in that, while seemingly laid on a fun jammy indie-rock structure. This is all romance without cynicism, a testament to the powers of noise and the energy within a band unit. And it's simple too - listen to 'Nothing Going Down at All' or 'Carousel' - this could be you or I. It's inspiring, and it makes me feel young and old at the same time, and I'm gushing here but I'm just so fucking grateful that this band existed.

14 January 2016

Gang of Four - 'Another Day/Another Dollar' (Warner Bros.)

This EP pairs three new songs with two live ones, and the new songs are produced more intensely than anything before. 'To Hell With Poverty' is a fun song with the great refrain "We'll get drunk on cheap wine!". It's still built around the formula (Andy Gill's fiery swordstrokes of guitar laid over a thick, chunky and dancey rhythm section), but there's more studio affectations - some echoey yelps, served as accents on the melody, are really the calling card of this song. I was in a doctor's waiting room last week and they were playing Madonna's 'Material Girl' and I couldn't notice how similar the production techniques were to this. The other two songs remind me more of Einsturzende Neubauten or something like that - more industrial, churning out like they were influenced by that scene at the time, though maybe not. The live side is good enough - 'Cheeseburger' is fiery and it's nice to hear the intensity they brought to the more rigid songs. I never went past here but maybe it's time to overcome my fear of Songs of the Free?