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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.