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14 December 2017

Kark - 'The Hermit' (HP Cycle)

Time has forgotten Kark already and this, like so many HP Cycle releases, exists in the utterly weird vacuum of mid-00s experimental music which sort of congealed around a 'scene' but also sorta didn't. File alongside the Maniacs Dream record or the Boots/CC/Snake & Remus box - what a great fucking label, and I wish it was still operating. Kark were from Louisville and may have been 100% the same lineup as Sapat, a band which has been kicking around forever and who released two great LPs that also are never talked about. Of course, Sapat was a shifting lineup of just about every weirdo freak who ever picked up a sound-making device within the greater Louisville region, so Kark being 100% overlap doesn't really mean anything. More likely, Kark are just the more jazz-orientated members of Sapat emphasising the horns and the swing or whatever characteristics make one file a record in the 'jazz' section instead of 'pop/rock'. As faithful readers realise by now, I make no such distinctions by genre and only trust the infallible alphabetical order as my organising principle, but I would still call Kark 'jazz' or at least 'jazzy'. The first side opens with a slow, creeping modal workout that is heavily middle-eastern in tone and builds into an explosive cacophony. For a few minutes in the centre of the side every goes at it with MAXIMUM ENERGY which means skronk, squeals, screaming and blast beats underneath it all. When this movement passes, it starts to get really interesting and wobbly; you can hear the big, cavernous space they are all jamming in and the ensemble is large, I'd guess somewhere between six and fifteen people though it's hard to tell for sure. This circling around a pulse eventually takes form as a thick, stomping dirge that's rhythmically so primitive it's brilliant, and around this you hear horns and cymbals and bowed bass finding a centre again. It's a beautiful side of music created by a bunch of outsiders to the jazz context, as far as I know, since the musicians are uncredited (the only liner notes being a cryptic strip of doodle-on paper). By the end it slows down to an ambient whisper, a fadeout drone, which segues nicely into the flip, an unbanded side-long piece that starts from a spare, spooky room jam. This continues the vaguely middle-eastern vibe heard on side 1, but for a longer stretch, with the musicians giving each other lots of space to probe and resonate. It's a beautiful slice of Kentucky exotica, and when it again swells into a huge epic blowout, it's actually a bit disappointing, though surely cathartic for the musicians – but the space is what's so beautiful and unique. This is a live recording, though a pretty clear one, where the echo of the room is very much a part of the music and somehow things don't get too lost once the drums start to rumble. A surprising breakdown into a double-bass driven riff, counterpointed by electric piano or some other form of keyboards, recalls the Art Ensemble/Fontella Bass's 'Theme de Yo-Yo' for a second or two, and an enthusiastic audience is audible during a momentary lull. The Hermit breathes with life and is really fun, fierce in places but neither overly groove-based nor head-scratchingly avant. It seems to assimilate a lot of influences into a group approach that shares a view about music, and it's obscure status relegates this surely to the 'hidden gem' category, after only a decade.

10 December 2017

Pekko Käppi - 'Vuonna '86' (Singing Knives)

Pekko Käppi's Vuonna '86 is a record I forgot I had, but it's absolutely perfect as a way to clear the weekend cobwebs on this Sunday morning. It's also a nice way to inaugurate the Ks of this project. Käppi's a Tampere, Finland based musician who ostensibly works out of traditional Finnish sounds but to say that really that only really makes sense as, to use an annoyingly overbaked phrase, a 'starting point'. This is a glowing, electric batch of songs, saturated in reverb, distortion, and other household effects but each held together by Käppi's confident crafting. There's moments of pure Dionysian hell music like 'Oilin Ennustus', where all kinds of broken, buzzing electronics explode in a total cacophony, yet despite the menacing tone it never collapses under its own chaos, with various soundrings keeping an orbit. Other tracks employ the traditional vibe, in terms of instrumentation – 'Naria Hakkaan' is a bowed instrument, probably a jouhikko, grinding back and forth in a style that is hypnotic and minimal, yet with an ineffable, devilish spark. Käppi's work always has this sense of madness to it, whether he's assembling electronic drones into a dense wall of sound, or performing traditional songs ripped straight from the Kaleva; if you have seen him live, there's always a hint of something that's not darkness, not aggression, but something else; perhaps it's just an off-kilter confidence. This is all over Vuonna '86, heard in his singing on 'Kuolleitten Kuppahan' (which is simultaneously twisted and beautiful) or on the title track, or anywhere else. A lot of these songs feel like they are following a simple back-and-forth structure, a 1-2-1-2-1 that ratchets up the pressure as it goes along but then most cuts end before they wear out their welcome. Of course, the Finnish language is extremely strange to everyone in the world minus about 5 million people, and most of them probably aren't listening to this. 'Vuonna '86' makes that most clear, with a spoken voice anchoring it's outer explorations, something ripped from the radio or media perhaps, but feeling as natural in the bed of static and searing overtones as one could be. Maybe the secret to Pekko Käppi is that he's not a 'noise' artist at all but a master craftsman, and his constructions glow with their own internal logic and harmony.

7 December 2017

June of 44 - 'Tropics and Meridians' (Quarterstick)

I'm going to show my age a bit now by remembering the strange and somewhat maligned sub-genre of late 90s indie rock that we called "boat rock", or maybe it was "nautical rock". This was before Channel 101 made those highlarious Yacht Rock comedy sketches, and it wasn't anything to do with the smooth sounds of Christopher Cross or the Doobie Brothers. This was truly a sub-sub-genre or maybe even a sub-sub-sub-genre, unified by the curious trend of writing songs about nautical life.  I can remember the biggest proponents of this being June of 44 and a somewhat related band called Shipping News, both who emerged after the dissolution of the mighty Rodan. I can also remember a band called Victory at Sea and then some very 'local' bands that never released anything, as well as other regional ones from the same era (1996-2000) who maybe never released anything either and are now mostly forgotten but passed through my town a few times. Or maybe "boat rock" was never such a big thing beyond these few bands, but at the time, it certainly felt like a trend that quickly became tiresome while being somewhat inexplicable as well. June of 44 dropped boat references all over their work; their first album is called Engine Takes to the Water (though I like to think it's about a jet ski), and there's a sailor tattoo on the cover of this one, and they had this kinda annoying, kinda brilliant song called 'Sharks and Sailors'. I watched the Slint documentary a few weeks ago and ever since I've been jamming Tweez a lot; I guess this is the third generation of Louisville bands (Rodan came after Slint, and June of '44/Rachel's/Shipping News/The Sonora Pine after Rodan, though by the time of Tropics and Meridians the band had moved to Chicago. So what does this record sound like? Essentially like a third generation Slint, who took their musical cues from that band's more copied works (cough, 'Washer', cough) than their more innovative ones (say, 'Nan Ding'). You can hear this most evidently on this record's 'Lusitania' (hey, that's a song about a boat!) which propels along with a 5/4 beat and whispered/spoken vocals. It's probably the strongest cut on the record, with a sinewy guitar line that keeps folding in on itself and actually conveys a circular feeling of sinking. I had forgotten all about it, but not about the epic opener 'Anisette', a thunderous and slow jam that builds eventually to a screaming force after about nine minutes. No one ever called this stuff 'screamo' at the time, but it was intensely serious guitar based music with a tendency to explode both musically and vocally. I guess we called this post-rock though it feels pretty straight-forward in places. When there are scratchy, interlocking guitars ('June Leaf', 'Arms Over Arteries') June of 44 sound like a pretty tight, impressive band. The careful, whispered singing on the latter sounds like Bedhead and that's always a good thing. 'Sanctioned in a Birdcage' does everything it's supposed to do, painting by numbers with a powerful punching bass sound, guitar playing that mimics the militaristic theme of the lyrics (shards and muted single notes on one, against ringing arpeggios on the other) and a nice growl on the vocals (which shout 'Where did the birds go?' a few times, which is either brilliant or hilarious or both). I lost interest in these guys so I've never heard their last two albums, because it started to feel derivative and a bit tired by 1999 or so. I still jam the Rodan record a good bit but the offshoots I have mostly forgotten, except the second Sonora Pine record which remains an underrated gem of that whole movement. Yet there's a reason I always held on to this record; maybe it's a bit of teenage nostalgia for me (I was still in high school when I bought this) or maybe because it's a solid document of a time when this music genuinely inspired me; this is a roundabout way of confessing that Tropics and Meridians sounds pretty good right about now. While my tone here is somewhat teasing, I don't begrudge these guys for writing songs about boats; it's better than another album of songs about girls, or cars, or whatever the fuck men normally tend to write rock songs about. And their interest in literature (the band is named after Henry Miller's wife, and their first album has a song about her which is one of their best, perhaps because it's one of their most concise) is also commendable, even if it maybe seems in retrospect like a superficial affectation. I think I used to listen to this a lot, and I've dragged it around for 21 years, so it sounds kinda rough now, beat up and scratched and the victim of years of poor turntable/stylus choices. Which is also a shame; the recording by Bob Weston should sound explosive and thundering, and those drums on 'Anisette' I remember well, though this particular replication of them has suffered. This comes packaged with a beautiful set of art stamps, not legal US postage but lovely nonetheless, depicting, mostly, well, boats. Can you remember some other "boat rock" bands?

JuJu - 'A Message From Mozambique' (Black Fire)

And that message is, loud and clear, 'we are teeming with life and energy'. Except JuJu aren't from Mozambique, they're from Richmond, VA and some form of this band still exists today, still based around saxophonist Plunky Nkabinde. 1972 was a great era for merging free jazz and African nationalism, or perhaps I should say continentalism; the iconography is made clearly visible on the cover and clearly audible throughout the heavily percussive LP of searing jazzjams under review here. If one didn't know better, this photo could pass as the bizarro Art Ensemble of Chicago (from around this same era), but the music is much more built around flow than space, showing that facepaint alone does not indicate sound. Compositionally, A Message From Mozambique is spread across the whole band, and the six cuts here have distinct personalities. Nkabinde's '(Struggle) Home' opens up with 16 minutes of rapid, toe-tapping melodic jamming, creating the sound that I remember the most about this record. It's driving, with two percussionists and fast, thunderous piano runs from Al-Hammel Rasul and much soloing from Nkabinde; free, yes, but the dissonance fits within a widely defined space and the overall motion is harmonic and energy-producing. Rasul's beautiful 'Soledad Brothers' would seem to pull things down a notch, except this open piano framework allows vibes and smaller percussive elements to run amuck between the chords. It's rising and falling cadences are beautiful and propelling, wrapping up the nervous energy into the centre of the soundstage and harnessing the group power in a quieter, more focused form. It's my favourite cut on the record and a tragedy that it's only five minutes long. A more 'traditional' group jam comes with the wonderfully titled 'Make Your Own Revolution Now', which feels most at home against the ESP/skronk scene of the preceding few years. The drums and piano tend to dominate here, but when Nkabinde and flautist Lon Moshe come in, they make their presence felt through fast, dynamic exaltations. The remainder of side two pulls away from western jazz entirely, being drum/percussion workouts that are sometimes deceptively minimal-seeming ('Freedom Fighter') or more explicitly exploring the influences of indigenous music (the traditional 'Nairobi/Chants' which does involve some spirited vocalisations). JuJu's success is in synthesising these genres in such a palatable way - certainly we've heard it before in ways more impressionistic (the aforementioned Art Ensemble, or the work of Don Garrett) or more futurist (later Ornette Coleman), but this is an Afro-jazz record that is remarkably fun and I daresay even 'accessible', at least for a free jazz entry. That JuJu and Nkabinde never became household names, nor even enshrined in the same canon as other figures from this time (Archie Shepp, Frank Wright, etc.) may be due to this balance being slightly more 'fun' that one would expect; yet both the playing and compositional sense are as strong as anything else from the era.

Ju Suk Reet Meate, Oblivia, SIXES, Sharkiface & Loachfillet ‎- 'Dr. Octopuss' (Fish Pies/BOC Sound Laboratories)

Five weirdo outsider types got together and made Dr. Octopuss, two side-long works of fucked-up sound interaction (or I guess it's one long composimprovisiation,  since it's listed as parts 1 and 2, but who knows for sure how it's meant to be taken?). Ju Suk and Oblivia are of course from Smegma and I don't know the others, but this certainly comes from a similar soundworld to Smegma – one that eschews not just all traditional musical patterns (notes, chords, harmony, rhythm etc.) but the orthodoxy of experimental and improvised music as well, if that makes any sense. I get the title mixed up with Dr. Octagon/Dr. Octagonecologyst, though that's about the only similarity beyond the mad scientist, inhuman theme. Actually I think it's the name of a misspelled Spider-Man villain, a mutation human-robot hybrid with scary mechanical tentacles if I remember correctly (no, I haven't seen the films). The hybrid human/machine concept carries over, but perhaps the malevolence is left behind, because this is a pretty fun trip, or maybe my baseline for fun is villanous. This record does have an underwater feel, as many of the layers are surrounded by a slow, encapsulating pulse, holding the rest of the sounds in a sort of permanent stasis. The electro/acoustic (human/machine? too simple, too simple) balance feels roughly 50/50, and with such a layered approach it's impossible to know who is responsible for which elements. It does feel like it was a live take, maybe even in front of an audience, and there are sampled elements (French media speech, other urban sounds) which impose the heaviest themes, even though they are used sparingly. Sometimes the fidelity makes these samples sound like they're coming from an unwatched television in an adjacent room, which is an eerie pathway to postmodernism which I heartily endorse. Whatever sounds were generated by traditional musical instruments, those sources are treated with all manners of household effects, which furthers the sense of otherworldliness. There's clearly keyboard and saxophones, occasionally getting into a dialogue against a mild oscillating background wind. Some moments are delicate and spare, but never exactly silent - an errant keyboard run or bumping bit of static will always poke through. It moves briskly through both sides, a concoction that is at once a unique meeting of some true American outsiders and also another run of the mill jam. This contradiction isn't a blessing but its an unavoidable conclusion when trying to remember the last time I actually listened to this.

3 December 2017

Simon Joyner - 'Songs for the New Year' (Sing, Eunuchs!/Shrimper)

Songs for the New Year is a record of quiet, intense songs; its lyric sheet takes up two full pages and it's not in a large typeface. Joyner often pens lengthy tracts, never at this point in his career content to repeat a simple mantra or let less do more. This isn't a criticism, nor is it meant to convey that he is some radical experimentalist in form – there's still verses and repeating choruses, the basic building blocks of the song. But a tune like 'Parachute' shifts through so many different ideas over a few minutes that it needs to be listened to again to be fully absorbed. And even after almost twenty years I still haven't fully digested Songs for the New Year. The title would indicate that this album has a theme of newness and rebirth, and I suppose it's there, but it's really about winter and coldness taking over. I can imagine the Omaha winters are stark and harsh; here, it's just beginning in Helsinki so it's a perfect soundtrack to watch the snow fall. The album opens with 'The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll', a song that was not on the album of the same name and wouldn't have really fit there anyway, but here it's perfect. It functions as a gateway to the rest of this record, with Chris Deden's echoey piano notes and Joyner's gentle voice providing the foundation for this song of journey and escape. So many of Joyner's songs seem to be about travelling, or at least trying to get somewhere, and this is almost like a meta-tune, a skeleton key to the rest. The song I've gone back to the most over the years is 'Two Friends Take a Bow for the Record', describing just what its title indicates. Distance is again a theme, though here's its emotional distance, and this requiem for an ending friendship is complex without being bitter, grimacing through pain without resorting to irony. It's a feeling we've all lived through, yet has rarely been chronicled in 4/4 (or any other) time. The slow, plaintive pulse of the music allow Joyner to inhabit the narrative, and his voice sounds less warbling than on previous records, driven by the honesty and conviction of what he's singing about. Loss, again, is a recurring concept; these friends are certainly from the same Joynerverse of characters that narrate 'Born of Longing' or 'I Wrote a Song About the Ocean', who yearn to escape from their own memories. 'Disappear From Here' closes the record and is the most stripped down, just Joyner and his guitar, and the way it proceeds through a line of verses reminds me of Neil Young closing On the Beach with 'Ambulance Blues'. The rural themes so prevalent on Heaven's Gate return, with winter explicitly discussed, and the final moments really feels like a man trying to intentionally fade into nothing. This record is so quiet and it's also recorded in an intimate way, with carefully chosen arrangements - the accordion playing that I raved about on the last record returns here, and is just as beautifully understated. I wouldn't call this lo-fi, hi-fi, bi-fi or any other kind of fi - it's merely plain ol' fidelity, and when you turn it up, it doesn't sound richer or more complex; it's like this was meant to be listened to quietly, while a candle burned. Songs for the New Year is the end of an era, for after this Joyner began his more heavily orchestrated Truckstop era, another rewarding period of his insanely prolific career. Unfortunately I never managed to acquire physical copies of any of that stuff so we have to end the discussion of Mr. Joyner's output here, but this is a beautiful and precise place to do so.

2 December 2017

Simon Joyner - 'Heaven's Gate' (Sing, Eunuchs!)

For those not familiar with the music of Simon Joyner, I strongly encourage you to begin investigating. Heaven's Gate may be a good starting point. It's a much more quiet record than Cowardly Traveller, shaking off the ramshackle indie rock residue in favour of an intimate, acoustic folk template. His singing is front and centre, warbling and unpolished, which delivers a special glow to the first-person narrated songs. The other accompaniments are likewise spare, just a few drums here, some organ there, rarely taking the spotlight, but when it happens (as the violin and cello on 'Kerosene') it's remarkable. The title of this album reminds me of the failed Michael Cimino film I never saw, though probably now most resonates with the death cult who became nationally prominent a few years after this was released. But 'Kerosene', rather than being a Big Black cover, uses the literal gate of heaven as a metaphor for a chronicle of a woman turned away from something, full of rural and apocalyptic imagery. As these songs are all reasonably long, Joyner has time to really stretch out lyrically and paint with words. 'Three Well-Aimed Arrows' probes his own subconscious and is the most rickety tune, and 'The Black Dog' gets almost spooky. 'Farewell to Percival' ends the record as a long quest song, ostensibly a farewell but also full of surreal and adventurous imagery, and all prodding along with Chris Deden's simple drums and organ playing behind Joyner's guitar. This is the most unflashy of accompaniments and it's perfect, though only the second best musical gesture on the album. The best would be on Heaven's Gate's pièce de résistance, 'Catherine', a simple and plaintive song about a mother (perhaps Joyner's own? or maybe it's just a song). This is a song of great, unbreakable beauty, rolling along a gentle strum like a wave, and with a subtle, yet pitch-perfect accordion part played by Bill Hoover between the breaths. Hardcore Joyner fans or Joyner himself may be surprised that I find this song so resonant, especially against other more ambitious works ('Prometheus', or the carved-up Bert Janschisms of 'Alabaster'), but for decades now I've gone back to listen to it over and over, wearing out the vinyl, and sometimes I have to fight back tears to get through it. I don't think it was the inspiration for Jenny Slate's web series of the same name, but that would be improved by overdubbing this song behind each episode. Most things would be improved by a bit of 'Catherine'. 

1 December 2017

Simon Joyner ‎– 'The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll' (Sing, Eunuchs!)

My copy actually has a white sleeve, but it's so much easier to steal these images than to scan them. I hope that this brief excursion into early Simon Joyner records is as rewarding to read about as it is for me to listen to; this is an intensely beautiful body of work from a gifted songwriter whose talent only further expanded over the subsequent two decades, though for some reason I only have his early ones. The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll is a nice hybrid of the ragged approach found on his Iffy cassette and the somewhat most contemplative singer-songwriter vibe of the subsequent Room Temperature cassette. This is his first LP release and it's spread across different sounds and styles, with some band work and scarring electric guitar playing, perhaps by Joyner or perhaps with a band - no one else is credited but I'd guess Chris Deden is the drummer. Joyner is a natural with an acoustic guitar but over his career he has resisted attempts to pigeonhole him into the coffeeshop/open-mic genre. Here, electricity brings a darker cadence, especially on songs like '747', 'August (Die She Must)' and 'Fallen Man'. There's a lot of personal pronoun work here, and it's neither intensely soul-baring nor character work, which is maybe one of the reasons that Joyner's never found major commercial success. Instead, he writes songs that are rich in imagery, oblique enough to have an air of mystery, and relatable in fleeting passages. 'Appendix' is a long and somewhat surreal travelogue, which is quite compelling in it's manic strumming; it's the acoustic mirror of side one's 'I Went to the Lady of Perpetual Healing', which seems to describe a mystical experience but is maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek. These are great, ragged indie rock accompaniments, Omaha style, and they perfectly complement Joyner's unorthodox voice; the scratchy violin on 'Cole Porter' can act as a symbol of the whole scene he came from at this time, which stretched to the West Coast to include the Shrimper label and artists like Refrigerator and the Mountain Goats, who Joyner shares an obvious musical affinity with. It comes to a head with the final track, 'Joy Division' (where have we heard that name before?), which is an electric guitar and voice tune, sung to a father and with the same sense of mild desperation that rings through the whole album. It crescendos into a brief moment of cathartic rocking out, before ending with a tape splice. It's sudden, but suddenly moving as well, and there's still a glimmer of teen angst despite the more sophisticated approach to lyric writing. This style of arrangements is right up my alley but it set these artists aside from more commercially-minded songwriters; I clicked with it as an adolescent in the mid-90s because it felt intimate, homemade, and inviting. If the songwriting is pure then there should be no need for big studio production, and I think I still believe that today.

28 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Still' (Factory)

Still is always somewhat maligned by JD completists and I can understand why. It's patchy and thrown together from questionable live tapes; the version of 'Ceremony', one of the greatest songs ever to come from JD or New Order,  is actually pretty poor here. But there's a few reasons I like it anyway. One is getting to hear Ian Curtis sing the lyric 'sucking on your ding dong' during the cover of 'Sister Ray' - anything that de-mythologises a legend, even in a tiny way is welcome, and what value is Ian Curtis if we don't celebrate his humanity? Because half of this is live, it has a much more stripped down feel than Closer, coming almost full circle to Warsaw and making this a nice set of four releases to evaluate sequentially. There's a few songs from Warsaw present on the first half ('Ice Age', 'They Walked in Line'), which makes record one essentially a 'lost album' put together from errant studio sessions. Nothing here feels incomplete, and there's a brash, bold confidence among the best of them. 'Something Must Break' pulls the listener along as if on a leash, and 'Dead Souls' is a classic in its theatrical simplicity. The live cuts are rough, as they should be, and this ragged nature features some great insights, such as how fucking classic the guitar riff on 'Transmission' is. When synths are used in the live setting, like on 'Decades', it's lacking something, at least compared to the studio version - this take is so thin and compromised that I'm surprised it was included. Likewise the live version of 'Digital', a good choice to end the last official release of Joy Division, suffers compared to other versions I've heard, perhaps on that Heart and Soul box or some other compilations. I'm not sure why the raggedness hurts in this particular song as opposed to helping (such as on 'Disorder') but it leaves me wanting more. Perhaps this was always the intent with Still, or maybe it was just to stop bootlegging as Wikipedia claims. It's a curious release and this particular edition may be a bootleg itself, which is a nice absurd ending to the recorded Joy Division story. It took me awhile to get through these records since it's hard to find much to say about them, and I still failed to bring any new insights here in these four posts, yet I must admit I enjoyed revisiting them more than I thought. Whenever I think about culling records like this from the collection I usually listen again and find some sort of pleasure to justify keeping them. And it's times like this I can explain why there are 1600 LPs to the right of me. And now, it's onward to Simon Joyner!

23 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Closer' (Factory)

Closer is probably Joy Division's great statement, a masterpiece if such a title must be awarded, though it's a hard record to grasp. I've listened to this enough times to recognise any second of it, if heard somewhere, yet I probably couldn't hum a single melody in an empty, soundless room. Maybe Closer is a bit schizophrenic, often quickly shifting between different ideas, sometimes juxtaposing moods in an unsettling way. Some songs harken back to the Warsaw days, all grit and gristle ('A Means to an End'), and others are cool, icy post-disco misery ('Isolation'). 'Atrocity Exhibition' starts things off as one of the most challenging works in the Joy Division oeuvre, and it's almost like if Talking Heads had Lee Ranaldo guesting on guitar. The industrial scrapes and howls fit the inspiration (a brilliantly experimental JG Ballard pseudo-novel that is a far more extreme vision of technology and irony gone awry than anything offered here) and the track really separates Closer from the record which came before it. But the overwhelming feeling is that of stasis, that of being trapped in suspension, which makes Curtis's suicide all the more affecting. (This was released posthumously, just, I think). This isn't just repetition or monotony, but the feeling of trying to go somewhere and never making any progress. That feeling is all over this record but probably the most evident in 'The Eternal', whose haunting piano tinkles are pretty fucking harrowing. 'Heart and Soul', 'Decades' and 'A Means to an End' are other highlights, but really it's all pretty solid. The use of synths are again carefully chosen; on 'Decades' the pressing feeling perfectly conjures the Teutonic sensibility that goes in hand with the fascist overtones Joy Division were occasionally accused of wearing. I don't absolve them of this transgression but it fucking works to sell the misery, because if your worldview is bleak and hopeless, then creeping fascism is just the icing on the cake (take a look at a newspaper today for current examples). 

21 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Unknown Pleasures' (Factory)

This is another one of those 'classics' that I'm almost embarrassed to have in the accumulation, if only because a) I rarely listen to it and b) I will certainly struggle to write original thoughts about it in 2017. Coming between the bootleg of Warsaw and the superior vision of Closer, it's interesting as a midpoint, or if you like to marvel at how far bands push themselves in a short period of time. I'm sure this is not an original observation, but Martin Hannett's production is just about everything to why this is a great record, and if you don't believe me, listen to Warsaw. I'm sure that Hannett and the band were working in synergy here, but regardless, the decision to strip out the middle of these songs, rather than filling them with crunchy guitar chords, is what makes Unknown Pleasures such a definitive turning point between punk and post. This introduction of emptiness of course amplifies the lyrical themes but it really opens up the songs and lets mood play a role, a gesture towards what is felt and not heard. Event underwritten songs like 'Candidate' gain so much from this expansion, and it still gets thick and meaty at times. 'Shadowplay' is attenuated towards a wall of sound feeling; 'New Dawn Fades' and 'Day of the Lords' are balanced, production-wise, against their baroque tendencies. It doesn't hurt that Curtis really starts to emerge as one of rock's iconic voices on this record, with the same menace as the Warsaw sound but an increased commitment to emotional delivery, meaning he's actually singing, and his 'When will it end?' is bone-chilling even if you don't consider his ultimate fate. It's a voice that is almost defiantly masculine after the 70s sounds of Bowie and glam, yet implying more than it lets on. This is still Factory rock music, made by cold men in dark warehouses, but it's inching towards a more cybernetic approach, the full-on embrace of synthesisers to come later in New Order but no doubt a concern this early on, already. Morris's drumming is more motorik, and a song like 'Insight' is far from computerised but looking at least in that direction. Synths are used more atmospherically here, swooping into the corners and occasionally roaring. There's a reason university students still walk around wearing t-shirts bearing this logo today, despite the fact that the only two songs even remotely close to being catchy/hook-based are 'Disorder' and 'She's Lost Control'. And there's a reason we still have scores of bands like Protomartyr essentially aping the sound of 'Wilderness', four decades later. 

J.D. - 'Warsaw' (RZM Productions)

The band mysteriously known only as 'J.D.' chose not to release these recordings, which is understandable; they're the dictionary definition of 'raw', in terms of recording, performance and composition. This is punk rock, though - the year '1977' has been mythologised by the mohicans and their descendents, or maybe it was '78 when these were recorded - I dunno for sure, but the anger is sure there. The band that was to follow shed a lot of these influences, making this little more than a curiosity for diehard fans (which I'm not) or for people who revel in early, raw obscurity. As the record progresses it starts to get closer to the Factory sound, but side one has a surprising amount  of chugga-chugga punk rock. The opening cut ('All Of This For You') is great in a primitive way and sets a tone that doesn't sustain itself throughout, as if this is sequnced in the chronological order of how it was written. 'Failures' has a Stooges-like sound, and 'Novelty', though later reinvented as a much more well-known song, is delivered vocally like it's the Descendents or other early 80s American HC act. Reportedly they were unhappy with post-production techniques, but I'm not sure any are evident here - this is rough sounding, maybe because of the bootleg mastering job, or maybe this wasn't actually the album they intended. Omission can sometimes be a good career move; as much as 'Transmission', 'Interzone' and 'Living in the Ice Age' foreshadow what was to come, certainly the myth was amplified by holding these back. The Hooks and crannies are already obvious, the early synth pulses ('No Love Lost') and the overly dour vibe, but the vocals are the main thing that are not quite there yet.  They're angry, yes, and captivated by strange ideas of isolation and collectivity, images of war and order ('Leaders of Men', 'They Walked in Line') no doubt a byproduct of the late 70s British culture and the difficulties of the economic reality of the time. Manchester was a hell of a lot further away from London culturally than geographically; its hard to see this occupying the same stratosphere as the whole Sex Pistols/Vivienne Westwood/Siouxsie aesthetic at the same time, but it technically did. If it reminds me of any London band it would be Killing Joke's first album, which we'll get to soon. But maybe this is a solid document of what they would have been like live - a bit more raw, the drums flailing rather than crisp.

14 November 2017

Gregory Jones & Roy Sablosky - 'No Imagination' (Vinyl)

There isn't much more one could want from a record of experimental electronics. No Imagination does quite a lot across its four tracks, and it's the only release by these guys apart from a new wave band called Standard of Living that they were both in; so this was probably seen as their experimental 'side project' if anything, which is a shame, cause I'd love to hear how their musical relationship may have developed over time. The four cuts traverse fairly different territory for a record that is built around two guys with electronics, though my favourite track is Jones-less, only featuring Sablosky plus James Gable on 'transducer guitar' and Marianne Fraenkel on vocals. It's a 15 minute long dirge called 'Intro (Summer Names)', perversely not the first track, but coming after 'No Moon No Mirror' (which is a proper intro). But 'Intro' the song consists of a heavily repetitive guitar strum, firing ecstatic overtones in conjunction with Sablosky's electronics, and the faint intonations of Fraenkel's spoken text. It's just there to feel more than listen to, obfuscating the urge to interpret verbal meaning. Her delivery reminds me of the voice on Blue Gene Tyranny's 'A Letter From Home'; this, to me, is an aesthetic device that I associate with the American avant-garde circa the time of my birth, when this was made. It's a beauty, a real storm of a musical work that feels romantic, adventurous, warm and cold all at the same times as it howls along. There's no acoustic presence on the other three tracks, but they're no less impressive; 'Diverted to Frankfurt (for Twelve Pulse Generators)' is, unsurprisingly, written for 12 pulse generators and the stark palette of their timbre makes this an active, complex convergence of sound. 'No Moon No Mirror' is an ethereal piece for synthesiser where the two musicians tease each other through space, sounding like something from the Kranky records catalog two decades later. It's marred only by a very audible scratch on my copy, which if it were on 'Diverted to Frankfurt' might not be so noticeable but here it shocks the stillness between the synth pulses. 'Forced' is the final cut, another long one, and it resembles the 'Amazon rainforest' approach to electronic improvisations. There's not so much a tonal basis as that of a swarm of insects, and it's as manic and active as the previous two tracks. It's best played loud - the whole record is - so the juxtaposing staccato bursts of static and square waves can get the resonance they deserve. This is a great record for turning your head slightly while listening, to change the way the overtones interact with one's hearing - the best minimalist/drone records have that, and it's nice to be achieved on something so compositionally distinct. Totally great and singular!

13 November 2017

The Jesus and Mary Chain - 'Psychocandy' (Reprise)

The sun don't shine, the stars don't shine, the walls fall down, the fish get drowned – it's bleak on the surface, but I never took the Jesus and Mary Chain all that seriously. At least not when it came to their goth posturing; what were they trying to be, druggie weirdos, retro rockers, or post-new wave shoegazers? Many people never cared for anything they did as much as this debut LP, and maybe I'm included - I certainly don't own any other recordings by them, though I used to have Honey's Dead on tape. Psychocandy is wonderfully simple, and I didn't realise that Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie was the drummer on it but the beautiful monotony of the rhythms made me look at who it was, and wouldn't you know it, it was him – which makes sense, in a way. The unforgettable drumbeat is the opening one, on 'Just Like Honey', still the J&MC song that seems to turn up the most on soundtracks and over the sound system at bars and clubs. That beat may just be the key, since it might as well be sampled from 'Be My Baby', and the 'candy' aspect is all I can hear today. That almost the exact same beat opens 'Sowing Seeds' doesn't seem to matter; Psychocandy is 14 songs but somehow feels short. A lot of drama can be packed into those songs; when it sounds like it can't get any more full-on, they can still stomp on a different set of effects pedals and kick things up to another level, as heard on 'My Little Underground'. In high school this music sounded so nihilistic and pushy to me, even though the melodies are undeniable (the 'uh-uh-oh's in 'Taste of Cindy' seemed ironic to me then, but now they sound to be bathed in as much adoration as they are in feedback). Really, this is the Ramones through one more iteration, or just using (slightly) different drugs. The guitar feedback squeals bathe everything with a greater sense of chaos than the shoegazer bands would dare try just a few years later; that's when it really sounds great, turned up loud - 'Inside Me' can even sound a bit scary on the right system. Sometimes all a band needs to do is figure out how to combine two things no one else was combining; in this case it was poofy hair + feedback. For awhile it seemed like trends in pop music came in regular waves, so it was logical that a 60s pop revival would happen in the 80s, though filtered through 80s aesthetics; that 70s folk-rock would get another wave in the 00s, etc. Now, things are too fragmented (subculturally and in terms of influence) so there's just everything all of the time, which means there will always be bands worshipping at the altar of Phil Spector and approaching it with whatever affects of the contemporary milieu are around. Just like there will always be bands worshipping at the altar of Hasil Adkins or the Stooges or Malaria or whatever.  I can't see a pop artist like the Jesus and Mary Chain ever achieving much chart success again, even in the UK, but the same is true for anyone that bases music around guitars now. I don't mourn this change, but rather enjoy the next wave which sounds very much of the moment – bands influenced by the J&MC as much as the J&MC were influenced by the Ronettes. This includes Merchandise and Cometa Fever and a lot of other stuff and while it starts to run together for me at some point, it's a sound that's always enjoyable, maybe because it brings back a sense of teenage cool so otherwise lacking in my life.

Jefferson Airplane - 'After Bathing at Baxter's' (RCA Victor)

Now this record I genuinely love, as it fulfils all of the promise of what late 60s psychedelic San Francisco music was supposed to be. I never have managed to get into the Grateful Dead so this is the pinnacle for me. One could argue that if this was supposed to be a 'drug band' (an appellation frequently used when I was growing up to describe artists such as Ozric Tentacles, Janes Addiction, etc), then After Bathing truly is a record made after having the psychedelic experience, where Surrealistic Pillow was more superficial, being mostly dressed-up folk-pop songs. There's little of that here, with the most folk-leaning moment being 'Rejoyce', though it doesn't take long to reveal itself as a wolf in sheep's clothing, with shifting time signatures, a lurching melody and Ulysses-inspired lyrics that tackle everything from nationalism to marital frustrations. That's Grace Slick singing again, now a more fully-integrated member of the band, and it helps. Her voice helps seal the deal on songs like 'Wild Tyme' and 'Young Girl Sunday Blues', both of which are solid, crunching rockers, and her 'Two Heads' has a pre-punk sneer. The guitar playing in general is where things really lift up on this album, as the three-guitar lineup finally starts to do something useful. It's not a thick wall of fuzz like a Superconductor record, nor delicate, thoughtful musings like Bedhead, but three musicians (and songwriters) with different styles, knowing how to assemble their contributions equally. Jorma Kaukonen I think might be the secret MVP of this band, though I don't know - there are edgy shrieks of psychedelic guitar all over this record, oozing from the corners of 'The Ballad of You and Me (And Pooneil)' and 'Martha' which I assume are him, but maybe not. Nine minutes of side two are given over to the improvised jam 'Spare Chaynge', probably considered an indulgent mess by listeners at the time but actually pretty solid. It builds into some more impressive riffage, but again, it's not too thick or lazy; the rhythm section of Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden, credited as co-composers, finally show their mettle. It's not a throw-everything-into-the-mix psychedelic jam but rather a lurching, jazz-leaning blues-based jam; I'm surprised how much I like it, maybe because it grounds the Airplane into an 'earthier' sound. Maybe I should check out some Hot Tuna records. For the second LP in a row, a Kaukonen composition ('The Last Wall of the Castle') is probably the best song on the album; it's a scorching hot boogie that feels like it's hurtling towards the end of the world while capturing the colours along the journey. But the pop-leaning material is in perfect balance, making this a two-headed beast that feels well-integrated, with hooks that persist fifty years later. This is not just a document of the times but an enduring psychedelic rock masterpiece. I haven't even mentioned 'A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You, Shortly', which utilises musique concrete and other collage techniques to be the most 'experimental' cut there is. 'Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon' has a nice round-like structure, and is the most obviously drug-referencing lyrics that I could here, but the real 'outer' sounds are 'Small Package' and 'Spare Chaynge'. Jefferson Airplane were a great band but I think recognised for the wrong material. Crown of Creation is a pretty good record too and Kantner's Blows Against the Empire is a very cool thing indeed, though I never picked up either of them, sadly.

Jefferson Airplane - 'Surrealistic Pillow' (RCA Victor)

OK, here's a bit of seemingly intentional nonconformity, but I don't think Surrealistic Pillow is all that great. Which leads to the followup question of why do I own a copy then, to which I cannot really provide an answer. This copy is beat to shit and the stereo pressing, and I love their subsequent release, but I think the record's notoriety probably stands in the way of me truly evaluating it, truly appreciating it maybe. Which is what I tried to do when it came up today, next in this project, another surprise of 'Oh do I have this still?' as happens so often here. I guess given the surreal, truly psychedelic sound of After Bathing at Baxter's I find the tepid folk-pop songs on here hard to sit through; the recording is also done in that too-echoey way that makes it sound particularly dated, the same way Moby Grape records sound to me, which is maybe just the 'psychedelic sound', at least the San Francisco variant. Speaking of Moby Grape, Skip Spence wrote 'My Best Friend', which is one of the more forgettable numbers here; it, along with 'Today' and 'How Do You Feel' steer Surrealistic Pillow far closer to sounding like a slightly amped up Mamas and Papas than the cabal of psychedelic visionaries they're supposed to be. The two towering songs here are of course 'Somebody to Love' and 'White Rabbit', and I don't know what I can really say about them that is an original take. The latter is of course a ridiculous work of music, immortalised by Hunter Thompson, and the former is, to me, merely a pretty good pop song of the era. That both of these are Grace Slick's contributions and that they have endured so much longer than anything else on Surrealistic Pillow probably indicates that having her join the band was a good idea. 'Plastic Fantastic Lover' is pretty good and 'She Has Funny Cars' is good music to play in a documentary when you're talking about the swinging sixties. Otherwise the pick of the litter for me is Jorma Kaukonen's beautiful 'Embryonic Journey', a bit of melting Vanguard/Takoma magic that works extra well before 'White Rabbit'. I know I'm being a bit hard on this because it's considered a psychedelic classic, but it hardly sounds like the Cold Sun LP. And better grooves are around the corner, for sure.

12 November 2017

Peter Jefferies - 'Electricity' (Superior Viaduct)

I got rid of my CD copy of The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World, figuring I could easily upgrade to De Stijl's 2013 vinyl reissue, but I was slow and now it doesn't seem to be available so easily. That's a shame since it makes a nice pairing with Electricity, the first two solo Jefferies albums and two of the finest dark piano and drums-based New Zealand songwriting records of the early 90s. This Superior Viaduct reissue is lovely as it comes in a nice gatefold, the kind of special nice printing where the inside of the cover is coloured (in this case the deep rich blue) and it sounds great, taking the time to stretch the album over three sides; plus it tacks on the awesome Swerve EP (with Robbie Muir) as the fourth side. The mastering and pressing is nice enough that the 'mid-fi' qualities of the original recording shine through. You can hear the clipped compression of Jefferies voice, as this was recorded to a 4-track reel to reel and that was clearly the aesthetic he was going for. But then sometimes the drums sound amazing, the 'digital cello' on 'By Small Degrees' is eerie, and the piano of course usually rings out magically. These songs are in the vein of his usual writing, as heard from Nocturnal Projections through This Kind of Punishment; slow, meditative musings on the self and human relationships, never crystal clear but not too esoteric either. The title track is a beauty, racked with self-awareness and a menacing, yet modernist edge. 'Don't Look Down' is a ballad of pure delicacy, fragile under it's own beauty but confident as well. There are experiments in loops and samples, static and distortion thrown about liberally, and a few bits of messy chaos. Bruce Russell joins for 'Just Nothing' and it sounds exactly like you'd imagine their collaboration to be like. 'Next' and 'Snare', in the middle of the record, provide some damaged art-rock, the most fragmentary tracks. It's sometimes a bit jarring how the songs will shift between delicate, introspective piano ballad to distorted stomper and then back for the next one, but they're all clearly executed with such a vision from Mr. Jefferies, even when that vision is improvisatory and experimental, that it functions as a cohesive whole. The mood stays dark since he favours minor keys, his voice has that timbre to it, and that Peter Jefferies musical signature (when piano and drums pound in unison) is hardly a walk in the park. As the record goes on it seems to diversify its sound, bringing in more guitars (played primitively by Jefferies on 'Couldn't Write a Book',  demonically by Russell, and in a solid folk strum by Paul Cahill on the strident 'Crossover'). It ends with a Barbara Manning cover, 'Scissors', sort of an odd choice, but it somehow works. The bonus tracks on side four are all from Swerve, which is a great EP. Muir's guitar and bass fleshes out these songs, and they're recorded a bit less cleanly than the album (which came after this EP). With the piano not necessarily the lead instrument, it is able to add great bits of colour to 'Don't Call Me, We'll Call You', and the whole suite feels like a brighter take on the usual Jefferies outlook. This isn't to say that his music is exceptionally bleak, but that the light shines through in concentrated rays, which can be an enormously powerful effect. 

11 November 2017

The Jazz Composer's Orchestra (JCOA)

This is a beautiful record, with a shiny mirrored gatefold cover and huge booklet, adorned with copious liner notes, photographs, poetry and and the actual scores. For an orchestra of composers, the JCOA records tended to stick to one composer per release, and this time it's Michael Mantler, who I think was the brains behind the whole project. And fair enough - the apostrophe indicates that this is the orchestra of a single composer, as opposed to being called the Jazz Composers Orchestra or even Jazz Composers' Orchestra (so few bands are willing to risk the trailing apostrophe). However, Cecil Taylor gets top billing, a line of his own, perhaps being the 'star power' used to market this thing. He only appears on the second LP, and they aren't his compositions, but he's clearly the featured guest as the booklet includes two pages of his Cecil Taylorisms, actually a beautiful verbal rendering of the complexity of group dynamics. I generally like Michael Mantler's work; I think he's underrated and definitely comes from a direction that tried to emphasise the power of the composer in new jazz music, particularly from a unioned/organised side, not unlike the AACM in a way. The sheer fact that this many musicians are together in a studio and the recording is clear and well-defined is an accomplishment alone; I actually really like listening to the first cut on headphones, as it has this throbbing low-end pulse underneath which can really work as 'night music'; a few months back I put the headphone extension cable on and sat on my balcony watching the trees sway in the summer wind while listening. Today's too cold for a repeat performance but in the glossy wooden echo of my bedroom (accented by the Ikea laminate floor) it takes on a different quality, maybe as the brass and saxes bounce around more. But that throb is so good - it's present not just on the aforementioned 'Communications #8' but on the short 'Preview' at the end of side two - and it helps to distinguish this from European free-jazz big bands like Globe Unity, who were generally more jittery and even light, in a sense. Larry Coryell is the featured soloist on 'Communications #9' and it gets into some real hot swamp jazz; his electric guitar rips holes over everything else, and when the same band reassembles for 'Communications #10' with Roswell Rudd it loses something without Coryell. Maybe I just like the way the guitar sound pulls everything closer to good fusion, or to Mantler's later work in the 70s. It's hard to single out any one musician here, as everyone eventually gets their moment, and it's not easy for me to determine which of the two flugelhorns is Lloyd Michels and which is Stephen Furtado, for example. The pace across both LPs is mostly 'full and fast', though not the death jazz speed of something like Naked City; just rumbling over the drums (either Andrew Cyrille or Beaver Harris) and the five simultaneous bassists (not always the same five, mind you). When Mr. Taylor enters the picture on LP #2, for the creatively titled 'Communications #11' he is mixed high enough to stay a constant presence throughout and he works well with this large of a group. This is 1968 so before Taylor's Unit band with Jimmy Lyons was established, but there's a similar sense of dynamics to his rising and falling runs. I can't really make much out of the scores because they are reproduced too small to really see, but the writing hits a high level of drama, especially on the second half (side four). The swells are particularly cinematic at points, and Taylor goes with the flow, locking in with Cyrille in particular (which makes sense, since the piano is of course a percussion instrument, something I am always aware of when listening to Cecil Taylor). The piano is mixed high, as high above everyone else as the cover's billing would suggest, and at times the other musicians fade into a background blur - yes, even Gato Barbieri. It's music that evokes a great sense of togetherness, sure, with a serious purpose and intent that paradoxically feels somewhat restrictive, as if it's interrogating the very question of what freedom is. And that's not always an easy listen, not because it's dissonant or dense but because it feels relentless in such a narratively understandable language. I go back to cinema because I honestly think that JCOA could have scored a film nicely (or maybe they did, I don't know); there's almost an emotional manipulation from the rising and crashing and plundering of these musicians. Whatever Mantler's intent was, I find it pretty affecting, even almost 50 years later.

10 November 2017

Jazzfinger - 'Mole & The Morning Dew' (Spirit of Orr)

Ecstatic drone! Thick, rushing roars of processed guitar. Echoes that ping back, jarring against other sonorities. Cheap keyboards and clanging guitars, sprawling out to explore a dark tunnel. Interplay both primitive and sophisticated. An autumnal atmosphere, like a Jesmond treeline in the dusk, the distant roar of suburban-bound traffic. Naturalistic renderings, both pastoral and contemporary.  The rush of electric energy, a current throughout, filling available space with its potentiality. Not exactly howls, but restrained cries, made with strings and wood being tapped, hammered and bowed. Treble kicked out of the window. Throw in everything and see what sticks, but refine it as it happens, control shaped through a long relationship of improvisation. It's not chaos, but a realm of glorious glowing energy. Arpeggios cycling towards a dark centre. Searing, bowed metal, pulsing through reverberating amplifiers. Gentle acoustic tones prodding against it all. Voices, bathed in static, in varispeed dictaphone glory, providing an off-centre to repeated guitar figures; the colour in the bowing takes it to different directions. Yet is always circles back.  A tape splice to end it all. 

8 November 2017

Abner Jay - 'Folk Song Stylist' (Mississippi)

Last night was supposedly a great one for the Democratic party in America as they won a bunch of local elections and supposedly are making their way back to power. I'm pretty skeptical, as I think they'll continue to struggle as they allow the centrist side of the party to keep pushing status quo, neoliberal policies while ignoring the concerns of the working class – but this isn't the forum for that. I only bring it up because I think if they used Abner Jay's 'I Wanna Job' as their campaign song next year (instead of that stupid 'Better Deal...' slogan that Schumer and Pelosi cooked up) then they might start to be relevant to the lower-income voter again. Jay knew what was up - the song brags that he doesn't want to socialise, he just wants to work, and then reports a first-hand account of the Watts riots, which he claims were entirely caused by unemployment. It's a haunting parallel to today's social unrest, Charlottesville etc., and just goes to prove that history is cyclical. Or maybe 'Starving To Death On My Government Claim' would be a good song to rally the socialist masses - except that the welfare state has mostly been eliminated by now. I don't know exactly when these tunes were originally recorded or how Mississippi put this together; there's a dearth of contemporary liner notes here, as if it's trying to pass itself off as an original artefact, but that's OK by me -- the original Brandie releases cost a pretty penny if you can find them, and you likely can't. The title of this is pretty spot-on, because "stylist" describes Jay to a tee; his eccentricities and the one-man-band approach take the songs which are traditional and infuse them with an off-kilter rhythm, breathing a generosity into the material. 'Cotton Fields' has banjo chords which sound like cardboard, held into place by the rhythm of the simple drum accompaniment. There are some background vocals and overdubs on some tracks ('The Thresher' has some beautiful gospel chorus behind it) but I get the sense most of this was done live, except for maybe the lead vocals. Jay's voice is thick and hearty, unapologetically African-American, and passionate; the opening cut 'Depression' could be a game-changer if you've never heard anything like him before, and his 'Shenandoah' is the best version I've ever heard of it, like a one man sacred harp band that doesn't need to come up for air. Throughout, these originals and covers are rendered so beautifully that the one-man-band gimmick and the peculiar honesty of his delivery both become irrelevant to the enjoyment. If it's 'outsider' music, it stands up as just great music, which is what it should do. 

7 November 2017

Joseph Jarman - 'Song For' (Delmark)

There really must have been something in the water in Chicago then, because the music that came out of the late 1960s AACM scene is so unlike anything of its own time or any other. This first Jarman solo record is another piece in the puzzle that became the Art Ensemble, and thus fits in alongside the early Roscoe Mitchell recordings and the other pre-Art Ensemble experiments, which converge on that amazing 5 CD 1967/68 box set (if only it could get a vinyl release!). Jar's band at this time contained Christopher Gaddy and Charles Clark, both of whom were dead within a year (according to the liner notes of this 1970s reissue); dual tragedies, of course, all the more because this core trio had a contemplative understanding of space and time that was a really different flavour to the playfulness of the Art Ensemble. As a quartet with Thurman Barker, they're stripped down on 'Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City', a jaw-dropping excursion into outer-limits impressionism, with Jarman's poetic recitation at the centre. This celebration of urban mysticism explicitly references Dada a few times and casts Chicago's skyline as a shifting tapestry of possible worlds, a chaos that pulsates and gives. Gaddy's piano lines are especially elegant, with a mood closer to Paul Bley than fellow AACMer Muhal Richard Abrams. The larger band, found on the other three tracks, contains Fred Anderson on tenor, Steve McCall on drums and William Brimfield on Trumpet, and both sides start with cohesive, melodic compositions. 'Little Fox Run' is waxy, even a bit brittle, and a strange juxtaposition against 'Non-Cognitive'. It punches through the air and announces their arrival, but is too one-dimensional to showcase Jarman's talents. Side B starts with 'Adam's Rib', a modal, evolving progression that creaks towards silence, opening up for the longer form improvisation of the title track, which is segues into. 'Song For' starts by building percussive elements in space before erupting into a push/pull that is free, but never chaotic. Brimfield's trumpet rips over everything and the presence of two drummers makes it kinda choppy, but the band knows when to hold 'em and knows when to fold 'em, and the comedowns and murmurs are some of the piece's most invigorating moments. At times Jarman's alto and Anderson's tenor don't even seem to be in the same room, but then they come together to make great waves of sound. All around, in the corners, you can hear slide whistles, shouting, and marimba; also Charles Clark moseying around and tiny finger cymbals and bells. This flavours the music with sounds not often heard on ESP releases of the time (Don Garrett's work excepted); it's an approach radical and visionary, but quietly so, which can be the most rewarding.

2 November 2017

Bert Jansch - 'L.A. Turnaround' (Charisma)

Our last solo Bert Jansch record brings a change in label and a change in tone. If the title doesn't give a hint, this has a strong American flavour, with a West Coast country-folk vibe, further accented by Mike Nesmith's production on some of the tracks. Some of the tracks were recorded in Paris, but most in Sussex, which makes the album's theme a bit misleading. Yet the back cover is adorned with a collage of photos of Jansch hanging out in proper American fashion among bars and with people wearing cowboy hats. Now, I'm not someone who feels that country music (or any genre) is some sacred thing that you can only perform if inherited by birthright - after all, the Mekons are probably my favourite band - so I don't begrudge Jansch for trying this. It really works, the combination of his fingerpicking style, soft voice and the genteel bounce of country music. On the more stripped down tunes, such as 'Travelling Man', there's the same flowing harmony found in his earlier work, though with a pedal steel giving it the necessary flavour. His vocal melodies are likewise influenced by American music - I can't imagine how 'Stone Monkey' would sound with Renbourn and/or Pentangle backing it - but it's a music built out of appreciation, the obligatory 'goes country' record that everyone has in them. The pedal steel is actually a great combination, though I think I'm generally fond of that instrument. It doesn't sound anything like Heather Leigh's playing on the Jailbreak record we recently reviewed, but more of the classic sound. 'Needle of Death' is revisited with this accompaniment,  suggesting that by this point it had already emerged as Jansch's most iconic number,  and surely relevant to the drug-addled 70s – though I find this version rather lacking in urgency. The cadence is altered to let the song breathe a bit more, but it loses the hook, and one feels like Jansch is maybe tiring of the number by this point. But this may be L.A. Turnaround's only misstep, as the rest of the record flows nicely, working perhaps as a complement to Nesmith's own country-rock output in that decade. When there's a bass/drums rhythm section behind the songs, they are usually light and rolling, keeping the emphasis on the folk feel. 'Open up the Watergate (Let the Sunshine In)' I assume is literally about the political scandal (this was 1974 after all) and isn't without its charms. This is the last Jansch record I own, and I see the follow up is called Santa Barbara Honeymoon so I suspect it's also of the American flavour. Not just anyone could probably slot into this aesthetic so easily and it could feel like a vacuous commercial gesture in lesser hands, but the one consistent thing over all of these albums is how steady those hands were.

Bert Jansch - 'Moonshine' (Reprise)

Another promo copy - Reprise must have really been pushing Jansch hard back then - and a record that splits the difference in two axes, those of solo/band, and traditionals/originals. This is the Tony Visconti record, taking Jansch's songs and arranging them in full-fledged styles that mostly suit the material. For a guy who did classics such as "Heroes" and Indiscreet, Moonshine probably ranks fairly low on his list of accomplishments, and he doesn't try to reinvent the wheel here. The full-band arrangements mostly hew close to the nature of Jansch's character, which is warm, intimate and romantic. If anything, the arrangements lack a bit of teeth; there's an 'adult contemporary' feeling to a lot of this, even the solo guitar pieces, but maybe that's just musical maturity. Jansch never came off as brash or impetuous in the earlier record, but I keep thinking back to that song 'Soho' on Bert and John, which isn't the most ragged vocal line, but it bursts with youth and energy. There's nothing like that here, but instead lengthy, thoughtful meditations on loneliness and the passing of time. And if you like putting music into the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy (I don't, though I frequently do on these pages because I'm a lazy and unscrupulous writer) then this feels extremely Apollonian, at least compared to the band arrangements on Birthday Blues. This isn't a criticism; the harp on 'The January Man' is lovely and always just escaping Jansch's guitar, and the medieval leaning  arrangements on the title track are kinda fun. But the title of the record doesn't feel like it should refer to a Bacchanalian revelry (if that's what the cover art is trying to suggest), but rather literally the light of the moon. 'Night Time Blues' is probably the best cut here, a long Jansch original that uses the fiddle and Danny Thompson's probing basslines to cradle and support the vocal, which wonders through all manner of solipsistic thoughts during a sleepless night. It's both comforting and a tiny bit unsettling, and a case where the arrangements and production really benefit the material. There's drums throughout but they're always a bit mellow, mostly Laurie Allen but with Dave Mattacks on 'Yarrow' (a steady, almost military rhythm which fits the song, a tale of quarrel and death) and the great Danny Richmond on 'The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face'. Jansch must have been super excited to work with Richmond, given how much he wears his love of Mingus on his sleeve, and this is a really harmonious and beautiful jam around an insanely romantic lyric (by Ewan McColl). Richmond sounds like he just showed up and played a standard 'jazz' pulse behind it, I daresay phoning it in a bit, and he's mixed oddly low given his stature - but the result works well. The final cut, 'Oh My Father', contains an electric guitar (by Garry Boyle) against Jansch's standard cow-stick, and Visconti on electric bass. It's some out of place here, though it situates this record firmly in the world of 1970s pop-rock; the buzzing electric airspace makes this sound almost like a bizarro Steely Dan track or something. I'm not sure how I feel about it, and I bet Jansch wasn't sure either.

Bert Jansch - 'Rosemary Lane' (Reprise)

It's 1971 now, and the Pentangle records are still coming but they've arguably passed their creative peak of the Sweet Child/Basket of Light/Cruel Sister era. Jansch put out a solo record called Nicola (after Birthday Blues) but I've never heard it, so we have to skip ahead and check in with him at this point. And this one is very much back to being a traditionalist folk record, albeit with a crisp and slightly glowing production that makes it sound far different in tone, atmosphere and harmonic space than those early releases on Transatlantic/Vanguard. The acoustic guitar is as closely recorded as on Bert and John, but it's warmer, in that wonderful way the slightest alterations in recording can totally change the sound of a singer-songwriter - perhaps the capsule was tilted at a different angle, scanning a different part of the fretboard. The material is mostly original Jansch acoustic compositions, but features a few covers and traditional numbers. 'Reynardine' is a familiar one for Fairport fans, and his interpretation is strongly affected yet warm, as he seems to be focused on intoning delicately. This vocal approach is heard on the sweet, romantic parts of this record, such as opening cut 'Tell Me What Is True Love?', which is chillingly beautiful. The instrumentals here are very stark and carefully composed, far away from any more rollicking Fahey-esque movement, 'Sarabanda' being a 16th century violin tune. They serve as nice boundaries between the lyrics, and there's a good thought to this sequencing. 'Bird Song' is the closer, which according to the liner notes is about his impressions of 'America and the American people'. Nothing like the Holy Modal Rounders tune of the same name, it's more Animal Farm, telling of the different types of birds which we must take as metaphors. It feels more scientific than sociopolitical, closer to the previous record's 'Tree Song', but therein lies the genius of songwriting. I feel like in pushing through these Jansch records, eight in a row, as much as I enjoy them it's hard for me to really give myself to them, so anxious am I to get to Joseph Jarman. And admittedly this is one of the ones I always forget about, but it's (like all of theme) a perfectly pleasant way to pass a half hour.

31 October 2017

Bert Jansch - 'Birthday Blues' (Reprise)

Promo issue with white labels and no liner notes. Skipping ahead a little bit from the last few records, we now find Jansch immersed in the Pentangle supergroup, whose extremely rewarding records we'll get to in due time, but for those curious and unfamiliar, there's a new CD box set of essentially everything available. Back here for a solo record (perhaps songs that didn't fit into Pentangle's prolific output?), Terry Cox and Danny Thompson from Pentangle join Jansch, and with Shel Talmy's production, this is an entirely different beast than the folky, traditional-leaning content that came before. It's a bit like Dylan's similar stylistic change circa Bringing It All Back Home, I'd say. Acoustic guitar still dominates, but Jansch is content to pull back from the firestorm of fingerpicking and give more space to the songs, focusing on his delivery and letting the first-rate rhythm section drive things along. As a songwriter, Jansch has a clearly expressed romanticism with a dark edge. 'A Woman Like You' is a driving, melancholy force that is followed by 'I Am Lonely', one of the record's more delicate songs; the juxtaposition of the two is Jansch in a nutshell. His voice is so convincing on both tracks, warbling with vibrato that isn't overdone. Similarly, 'Poison' grinds forward with a mean edge, Jansch striking chords or sparse riffs while the song pulses along, driven by the full band. There's the presence of flute and harmonica on a few tracks, and a big saxophone part on 'Promised Land', but it doesn't feel overproduced. This was Talmy's genius, perhaps. Folk moved into folk-rock, but these Jansch records feel slightly resistant to it, hence the jazzy presence of the Pentangle team. This is expressed most overtly on 'Blues', a 12-bar instrumental with some improvisation, but as an album closer it feels a little bit, well, off. A record with such great songs ('Tree Song' should also get a shout-out for its childlike and earnest vibe, which also utilises the full band instrumentation nicely) should conclude with a bigger statement than 'we also like blues and jazz records'. Still, it's overall finely nestled into that sweet spot where bigger, more pop-orientated production dovetails with quality songwriting and thus it feels like a step forward, not a desperate commercial reach.

30 October 2017

Bert Jansch and John Renbourn - 'Bert and John' (Transatlantic)

Finally, after guesting on Jansch's last few records and a few solo records of his own, John Renbourn makes a full-fledged collaboration with him. This is recorded in hard stereo, but it's not credited (at least on my copy) who is whom; I think the right channel is Renbourn because he has a punchier style of playing, but both of them do this really close-mic'd and forceful. It's almost like the entire record was done with a 'line-in' recording style, except these are pure acoustics and there's enough glow here to really feel that they were playing together. The record is almost entirely instrumental and the pair wrote most compositions, with the exception of Jansch's 'Soho', Anne Briggs's 'The Time Has Come' and a wonderfully inspired cover of Mingus's 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat'. The latter, when rendered on two acoustic guitars, emphasises the bluesy quality of Mingus's nature and it feels fresh, like a new spirit brought into the melodies. It certainly doesn't come off as an act of appropriation or anything of the sort, and of course it presages the Pentangle records to follow. The rest of the record has a brisk pace, with both guitarists favouring flashy, quick strikes and brisk interplay. The more careful numbers, like 'Orlando', are placed to bring a sense of breath to the sequencing; 'The Time Has Come' as well manages to be contemplative under Jansch's vocal line, without sacrificing any momentum. 'Soho' is a nice paean to city life and the overall tone is very modern, especially against Jack Orion's more traditional material; the records were released in the same year, I'm not sure which one first, but it's a sensible curation. I hear a lot of Gastr del Sol's Crookt, Crackt style here, especially on 'After the Dance', which is absolutely percussive; there's something of the same appeal, the acoustic guitars as razorblades, the occasionally jaw-dropping effects of construction. It's not about their technical mastery, because I'm sure these are raw and green compared to their more mature recordings, but that energy and vitality is felt without being showoffy or retrograde.

28 October 2017

Bert Jansch - 'Jack Orion' (Vanguard)

Renbourn has moved up to full collaborator here, getting a subtitle credit on this, though he doesn't play on every track; the music is a touch more polished too, as the opener 'The Waggoner's Lad' indicates. Here, Jansch's banjo playing pushes against Renbourn's sharp guitar and it's a traditional rendered in a flashy, aggressive style, but I like it; the recording on the banjo is way closer, or maybe it's just a nicer sounding instrument than the one on '900 Miles'. It's the same version from the previous album - here, re-included, a difference between this Vanguard issue of the record and the original UK release. The cover is not the most flattering photograph of Mr. Jansch but it clearly indicates a break from the Village-aspiring folk hipster look on the previous records; I'd say the presence of all traditional material here (well, all but one, but that one is a short instrumental by Ewan McColl, so it's effectively "traditional" in intent) also indicates this turn. It kinda reminds me how the Incredible String Band were total karma hippies on their second album but by Hangman's they were going for something, well, earthier. I've heard a few versions of 'Black Water Side' over the years but this one has a punchy guitar and confident delivery; maybe it's the male vocals as compared to Sandy Denny or Anne Briggs's takes, but it feels distinct and fresh, and I like it. The title track is the big sell, almost ten minutes long, telling the epic story of Jack Orion, a horny fiddler/lover who gets involved in some intrigue with another guy's wife, or something like that. There's a strange, scratchy line drawing of Mr. Orion on the back cover, and I guess it's another cautionary tale, like 'Needle of Death', though not preachy or pushy. Or maybe not; while it's a great track in its monotony, accented by Renbourn's second guitar which drives things forward and building in intensity as it goes along, I must confess that I find the story hard to follow by the end. It's not that I often listen to traditional British music hoping for a good yarn, and in particular I'd say these re-booted versions from the late 60s are even more enjoyable when letting go of the myth. Or maybe it's just my attention span, shot through with holes from a generation's worth on online gratification, YouTube culture, and general meda-overstimulus. Or maybe just from this self-imposed quest to listen to eight Bert Jansch records in sequence.

26 October 2017

Bert Jansch - 'Lucky Thirteen' (Vanguard)

I don't have Jansch's first, self-titled album; only this American issued compilation of selections from the first two. Being that I just took It Don't Bother Me off the turntable there's going to be a feeling of repetition/overlap here, so I'll announce here that I will happily swap this copy of Lucky Thirteen for any decent-condition pressing of Bert Jansch. Cause that's one I'd like to have - it contains Jansch's most notable song, 'Needle of Death' on it, which is thankfully also represented here at the end of side one. I don't think it's even the cautionary tale of heroin that I'm moved by, because really, who cares, but the catchy ascending melody, ripped off by Neil Young on 'Ambulance Blues'. It's a classic for a reason, a timeless anthem that's fun to sing despite the macabre tone. There's other great stuff from the first album here, like 'I Have No Time' and 'Courting Blues'; Instrumentally this is a strong collection, as Vanguard chose about half instrumentals, no doubt wanting to push this to their traditional folkie crowd. Jansch's fingerpicking has a way of actually being catchy without having lyrics of hooks; 'Angie' is positively infectious and hummable, and a nice way to open the set. 'The Wheel', though I just heard it, is placed at the end and it winds down a (let's face it) decent compilation, feeling reflective of the cycles of life and existence and reality, or maybe that's a lot to read into a guitar instrumental. This compilation is named after a track that Renbourn wrote and played lead on, yet Vanguard failed to credit him here; poor guy, he really makes that cut scream. And thanks for another peek into your flat!

Bert Jansch - 'It Don't Bother Me' (Transatlantic)

One of Glasgow's finest exports (better than Tennent's), Jansch's second album is a classic example of 60s folk, delivered in a straightforward fashion and with adorably awkward liner notes. ("In this song the meaning is maybe too deep for me to describe.") His fingerpicking is stunning as always and if he's trying to create the Bohemian image of a sexy late 60s folk star, he's done a great job. Beyond the cover photo, the essence of cool, Jansch isn't afraid to flex his vocal chops (on 'My Lover', he essentially delegates the guitar shredding to Renbourn and spends his energy crooning) and to emote with a genuine honesty. The title track is a great one, where he also draws on the phrasing and adds a level of honesty to lyrics would could come off as escapist or snotty if sung by someone else; here, it feels like a statement of purpose and a worthy claim to the album title. The liner notes offer 'no comment' on 'Anti Apartheid', I guess letting the song speak for itself; 'To separate the colours and break the rainbow sign / To ask the finest painter to draw a crooked line / would only slow the journey to here another time' is a beautiful lyric, one that can be completely removed from the context of political protest, and tick the box for social consciousness, even though being against apartheid wasn't exactly a gutsy position to take. Renbourn appears again on 'Lucky Thirteen', also writing it, and the ending rendition of '900 Miles' is done on a scratchy banjo, the tonality of which works beautifully with his voice. There's no presence of rock music's influence here, at least not that I can tell, though maybe I'm not great at separating folk scene 'tude from rocker style. It's not until Pentangle that Jansch really experiments with genre-melting and that's a long ways away, alphabetically. In the meantime we got a glut of these to get through, and while all are enjoyable, it's going to be tough to keep writing something unique about each one.

Jandek - 'Lost Cause' (Corwood Industries)

Skipping ahead a decade from Six and Six, Jandek is certainly a lot less monotonous than before, but not any more accessible. Lost Cause is split between acoustic and electric halves, though the electric half is a side-long free-form freakout (titled 'The Electric End') where plodding tom toms are layered with clangy electric guitar and a high-pitched whistling sound that's from some unidentifiable instrument, with the occasional vocal yelp from Mr. Sterling. It's nineteen minutes long and never lets up, and there's some pretty great parts - it's actually the reason I keep this record - though not exactly a smooth experience. The seven songs on side one are occasionally pretty, around themes of heartbreak ('God Came Between Us') and genitals ('Babe I Love You'). There's a whole lineage of loner, private-press acid folk casualties from the 70s (Kenneth Higney, Perry Leopold, Peter Grudzien, etc.) and Jandek's sound is like the most extreme version of this (and privately pressed, too) but somehow minus the acid. Or maybe he was a total tryptamine visionary, I can't presume to know, but his portraits of the mid-to-late 20th century American experience feel removed from any sort of Dionysian rites. I wonder if people thought this was going to be his last record at the time; its no bleaker than usual but just the 'End' in side 2's title and the LP name as well... it's not like anything could stop Jandek, and by this point (1992) he had developed quite a fleshed-out, complete musical vision. I was thinking during the last record how much Jandek's aesthetic has become a trope of today's avant-garde song people, certainly in terms of mood and vocal delivery; this has gotta be seen as some success for him, since initially he appeared to be both uninfluenced and uninfluenceable. Nowadays, he seems to be on a quest to perform with every one of today's active musicians, and that's actually admirable. However, I'm reminded of that story about a famous British wrestler who always wore a mask, and was known for his real face being secret, who announced he was going to take off the mask for a match, got huge attention for it, and then found his career essentially over, once the mask was off. (British wrestling fans will know who I'm talking about, but it doesn't matter). That's Jandek, to me – I was as stunned as everyone else when he suddenly played live in 2004, and then I saw a concert in 2005 and it was good, interesting kinda free rock, but nothing I would get too excited about. And since then, I haven't cared at all. But if I ever change my mind, there's been about 600 hours of new material to digest, including 6 and 9 CD box sets, some albums being entirely a-capella; but I'll pass, for now.