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23 June 2017

Home Blitz - 'Out of Phase' (Richie)

Before this album came out, Daniel DiMaggio had already released a handful of 7"s which affirmed Home Blitz as prime progenitors of a new wave of post-indie-post-punk, the mid-to-late 00s explosion of bands that descended more from the Swell Maps than the Sex Pistols. But this LP masterfully merged his more experimental tendencies to carefully selected hooks and home-recording choices, which makes it an extremely fucking satisfying listen. DiMaggio was becoming obsessed with Game Theory and Scott Miller, and you hear that right away in the opening cut, 'Nest of Vipers', but only after it first moves through a patch of Beefheart/Skin Graft skronk. It's all tension and release, and 'Two Steps' hits next as a slice of perfect, ragged lo-fi guitar pop, a 'Box Elder' for a new generation. A as opening gambit 1-2 punch, it's amazing. If I sound hyperbolic it's only because today's listen to Out of Phase comes at the right time; enough years have passed to put this in perspective and show its staying power, and the songs sound phenomenal in 2017. The 'experimental' tracks here, 'Live Outside' (the next descendent of titles that are ambiguous to whether the word is 'live' or 'live', after Joan of Arc) and 'Three Steps', are more than mere filler; they are moody field recordings that put the pop constructions into the context of New Jersey life, and they're essential to the flow of the record, much more than (for example) the jazzcursions on the Tenement 2xLP. DiMaggio's drumming isn't exactly Steve Gaddesque but it works, flailing on the cymbals and providing a bumpy bed for the pop hooks. His guitar playing is like a Dionysian Peter Buck, spazzing chords and frantic arpeggios, which inject the songs with the right amount of nervous energy. 'World War III', 'Nighttime Feel' and 'Other Side of the Street' could be parallel universe classics, saturated in the early 80s DIY aesthetic but married to more contemporary concerns. There's even a Cock Sparrer cover, 'Is Anybody There?', reimagined as a yearning plea for connection. The run-out groove on side A says 'Perpetual Night' but that was released as a separate 7", a shame since it's a great, great song too. Oh, I have an extra copy of this LP for some reason; if anybody wants it, make an offer in the comments!

The Holy Modal Rounders - 'The Moray Eels Eat The' (Sundazed)

The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders is a great record; it's fun, doesn't go on too long, and manages to convert its 60s-drenched anarchy into something that still feels meaningful. That's not to say it isn't clearly a document of its time, but just that the 'fuck it' approach to folk music was already rooted in something much older than the psychedelic rock at the time, and even though this is a heavily psychedelic record, it feels remarkably present today, even compared to classic rockers like Hendrix or Sgt Peppers. Of course, there's nothing like the Rounders being made today, at least not that I'm aware of; the folk-noise hybrid stuff that happened about a decade ago often verged towards absurdity but never with such reckless abandon, and anyway, the context was all different. One of the nicest things anyone ever said to me was years and years ago when I was playing them some of my solo music, which was somber, delicate and spare post-adolescent minimalism. My friend remarked that my personality seemed so different than the music I was making; he then put on 'Bird Song', from Moray Eels, and said that he expected my solo work to resemble something more like that. I haven't seen Easy Rider since before I was in straight-legged pants so I barely remember its moment of fame, but there's no better song to put on and dance around to, flopping my arms and moaning the mostly wordless vocal parts. The overtly drugged out songs like 'My Mind Capsized' and 'Half a Mind' have outlasted their era, and this version of Michael Hurley's 'Werewolf' is so drained and sparse that it's genuinely frightening. You have to squint to hear the residue of the American songbook, but it's there just as surely as I mix my metaphors. 'Duji Song' is like the world's most frightening, inside-out jug band; 'Take-off Artist Song' is deconstructed vaudeville at it's finest. I wish I had a copy of Indian War Whoop to complete the classic Rounders collection but it's been reish'd enough times that I'm sure it will pass by. In the meantime I'll consider this to be the pinnacle; even the cover art is beautiful, magnificent, lush and appropriate. 

7 June 2017

The Holy Modal Rounders - 'Stampfel & Weber' (Fantasy)

This is a mid-70s issue of the first two Holy Modal Rounders albums, originally recorded for Prestige in 1963-64. I was glad to find it because I like this early material of theirs; it's goofy but still relatively sane, at least compared to the later releases, and sometimes it's just nice to listen to. Unfortunately Prestige sequenced these backwards, with record 1 being the less memorable Holy Modal Rounders 2, but that's not the biggest crime, and it's easily solvable. The liner notes here are a gas - Ed Ward writes about the halcyon days of the early 60s NYC folk scene and how these two jokesters came around upsetting the apple cart, but nonetheless with a discipline and understanding of traditional musics that allowed them to break such rules. I don't know Mr Ward or what he looked like but I can't help but think of F. Murray Abraham in Inside Llewyn Davis, a blowhard reminiscing about some mythical era of which he's largely responsible for the myth. Or maybe I'm just sore cause he calls Indian War Whoop and Moray Eels 'close to unlistenable' - hey man, your liner notes are close to unreadable! Even the uncredited/technical notes to this reissue says that 'none of the albums recorded since these ... have been nearly as successful'. Maybe they're just speaking of commercial success but it feels like a cheap shot at the esteemed ESP and Elektra labels. Anyway. The second Rounders album, coming first in this sequence, has some lovely moments - Stampfel's banjo playing on 'I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground' is precise and ragged, and 'Junko Partner', written with Michael Hurley, is one of the only originals and a nice goof. But it is record #2, album #1 that I like more, maybe as it contains a few more original compositions, and the performances sound more fresh. 'Euphoria' could be the Modals raison d'être, capturing the simplicity and spirit of their early approach. 'Reuben's Train' is fierce and the fiddle cuts like a knife. 'Blues in the Bottle' is a great opener, and when Stampfel starts to play after each verse it revs up like a jet engine. 'Better Things for You' is maybe the best original composition on either record. This is only a decade or so after Harry Smith's anthology but these two clearly studied it like a bible. Clarence 'Tom' Ashley's 'The Cuckoo' never sounded so raw, and it's brilliant how the Rounders celebrate American music so joyously, tying it directly to the underculture which birthed it. This is music that takes itself seriously while also being able to laugh at itself; they realised the need to preserve these songs before they became enshrined in the same glass towers that ruined American jazz culture. Music has to live, and Stampfel & Weber found a humour, inherent in even the most serious subject matter, and also injected it with a streak of rebelliousness. I think actually the Rounders sound more radical today, as their quest was unsuccessful; folk music has become sanitised and its conservative tendencies emphasised. Harry Smith surely turns in his grave now, but maybe if enough people play Holy Modal Rounders records simultaneously, he'll stop, or at least pause.

Christopher Hobbs / John Adams / Gavin Bryars - 'Ensemble Pieces' (Obscure)

Not sure why I don't have this in the split LPs section; I guess I file it under Hobbs since he's the most present here in addition to being first-billed, having composed two of the four pieces and performing on Bryars's work as well. Eno's Obscure imprint was a great enterprise I think, and I buy any of them if I'm fortunate enough to come across one and it's affordable. The cover for this really captures my impression of the 1970s British avant-garde, showing some modernist urban building in a manner which seems like it comes from a film excerpt, perhaps some structuralist-materialist polemic. Ensemble Pieces is occasionally a bit dry, as 70s British avant-garde can be, but it's at least democratically dry if that makes sense. The word 'ensemble' is quite relevant as these are compositions in which the players have a great deal of agency, and the focus is on how the group performs, perhaps the only commonality between the three composers. It does raise the question of why, if the ensemble is the point of this record, the composers get the primary credits, but I guess old habits die hard. The two Hobbs compositions open both sides and 'Aran' is the high point of the record, a pulsing melodic work originally for 12 performers but here played (through the magic of overdubs) by Hobbs, John White and Bryars. It's all tonal percussion, beating around a pulse and resembling a Western hackjob gamelan, and I mean that in the most endearing way possible. The toy piano, wood blocks, and small cymbals all fight it out and there's an exuberance that is minimalist composition at its finest. 'McCrimmon Will Never Return' has the same sense of melodic investigation, though being a duet of Hobbs and Bryars on two reed organs each, it has a significantly more restrained sonic palette and takes on a mantra-like feel, like an Indian harmonium devotional except slightly neurotic and with the tonal conflicts being the focal point. John Adams presents three works and his ensemble players aren't credited individually, perhaps because the back sleeve needed more space for the liner notes. They move through three distinct pieces, the most unusual being the slowest, 'Christian Zeal and Activity', which features a strange radio interview tape played overtop. It's a predecessor to 'BBF3' I guess, but decidedly less apocalyptic. 'Sentimentals' closes out the side and apparently quotes 'Sophisticated Lady' though I didn't notice it; it feels the most rooted in academic composition though it's light and moving. 'John Philip Sousa', a tribute, is centred around a motorik snare drum and maybe the one of the three where one can most hear that this ensemble is self-conducting. Bryars' '1, 2, 1-2-3-4' is an odd exercise in genre collage on first listen, and the liner notes reveal the format of the composition, where the all-star cast (including Cornelius Cardew, Derek Bailey, Andy MacKay and Eno himself) are all playing along to dictaphones while wearing headphones. There's a sense of irony here of course, since it's a jazz ballad, but the format makes it sound like its' all falling apart, yet in a delicate way, not like the Portsmouth Sinfonia (though clearly related since this is Gavin Bryars after all). Bryars is the odd man out here as the others can all be connected somewhat to post-minimalist composition, at least in terms of structure, but this iconoclasm, even within the scope of this LP, is welcome.

5 June 2017

His Name is Alive - 'Home Is In Your Head' (4AD)

Because we're so out-of-sync with the compact disc portion of this project, our only dalliance with the great His Name is Alive comes with this LP edition of Home Is In Your Head, the second 'proper' album (a way I like to categorise His Name is Alive's many, many albums - 'proper' used to just mean 'is on 4AD', but that distinction no longer holds). At least for now - if we ever get back to the CDs then there's a whole slew of them and I relish the chance to write about each, so much that I may blow the dust off my CD player and get back to where we left off - Faust, I think it was? Writing about any HNIA record on its own is somewhat weird; merely describing the record would make it sound like a self-contained work, which of course it is, but HNIA only really make sense to me when viewed against the totality of their (or should I say, his) career. On its own, Home is In Your Head is a wonderfully schizophrenic assemblage of haunting songforms, experimental tape constructions, primitive synthscapes and maudlin string-driven work (largely acoustic guitar). Twenty years ago, when I was first exposed to it, I had never heard anything like this, but the above description could pass for any number of rediscovered oddities that make their way around the Internet in a contemporary afterlife. With that in mind, HiiYH does feel like a product of the 1980s home-taping experimental underground, though this came out in '91 so it could be viewed (perhaps) as a cap on the whole thing. Defever was 22 at this time and it's precisely old enough to have a mastery on his earlier ideas, with the studio talent to create something this careful and delicate; the moments of beauty, when they want to roar, are unparalleled ('Mescalina', 'My Feathers Need Cleaning', 'Dreams Are of the Body'). There's something simultaneously sophisticated and teenage about some of these songs; 'Are We Still Married?'  in its simplicity seemed merely wry at first, until I later lived it, at which point it amplified into being totally devastating; 'Chances Are We Are Mad' has youthful bloodrush, yet tempered by a intangible wisdom. And the title of 'There's Something Between Us And He's Changing My Words' says it all. The arrangements occasionally burst into wall-of-DOD pedal distortion, glimpses of heavy metal glory but only in quick flashes. The production is as wet and lush as its label is famous for; Karin Oliver's voice has enough reverb to be haunting without being cheap, and the thin acoustic guitar arpeggios are close-miked to create a wide sort of dynamic ('Very Bad a Bitter Hand', 'When People Disappear'). But I wouldn't call this folky, or poppy, or gothy, or anything obvious; its assemblage is that of a total vision. This was the last of the original 4AD HNIA albums that I came to, first digesting all of the more pop-orientated works (Stars on ESP and Ft. Lake remain my favourites, but they're all great, really) and it certainly feels like the most 'experimental', meaning that it's the least bound to songforms out of any of them. And that's again why I must think about HiiYH in relation to the other albums. Certainly if you take this as a stepping stone in the progression from its predecessor Livonia's dark liquidity through Stars on ESP's cracking sunshine towards the even further gospel blues R&B period into the wholeearth magic soundballs of Brown Rice and the more recent work, then it fits a logical path. But beyond the genre/aesthetic changes, this feels like a touchstone in the whole HNIA mythos, the artistic world Defever created in the 90s. That's what really clicked with me and continues to inspire me -- it's not just the beautiful songcraft but the themes, lyrics and gestures that recur in later albums. 'Are You Coming Down This Weekend?' would seem like a throwaway sketch on an initial listen, but to me it's a skeleton key, one that explains (for example) 'The Bees' on Stars on ESP and certainly informs the backgrounds of many many other songs. The bonus track ('The Other Body' I think it's called) feels like some clue left to be deciphered, and it's a fucking great song too, especially with it's sudden tape-splice ending. 'Love's a Fish Eye', in its own delicate way expresses the general philosophy of His Name Is Alive, if that makes any sense. Well, maybe it doesn't, maybe none of this does; but, maybe that's why art is/can be great - the world-building, the vision mediating reality, which one can define so precisely, and then invite others to explore. A long time ago I read an interview with Defever somewhere and I remember him referring to these earlier albums as adolescent (which he didn't mean disparagingly, and that's probably not the exact quote any but just how I remember it) and sure, those preoccupations are evident. I discovered HNIA at the tail end of my adolescence but somehow at age 37 they feel even more inspiring. I know I've grown with these records and I'm not sure how it would sound to someone hearing this today at age 18, especially given the access they would have, and the lack of obscurity of anything these days. So once again, without this turning into another nostalgia trip, I need to acknowledge that I'm glad to be the age I am, and to have been touched by this music when I was, because it planted a seed or something which continues to resonate two decades later.

Andrew Hill - 'Point of Departure' (Blue Note)

The lineup shifts slightly here for this, the third Andrew Hill album of 1964 - the vibes are gone, but we add two saxes and a trumpet, and a young Anthony Williams replacing Elvin Jones on drums. That substitution is felt immediately, for his touch is a bit lighter, and the album starts with 'Refuge', which gives lots of space for Hill and Richard Davis and leaves the brass instruments silent for long stretches. It's Eric Dolphy on alto (and later bass clarinet) and his playing throughout this record is fairly crisp, angular at times, and even a bit sneaky. Again, I'm impressed with Hill's approach to harmony, as he throws some chords in underneath the saxes that must be diminished or 7ths or 9ths or something, cause they seem to question the direction of the piece as a whole. Davis is great because he knows what to do with this – when to play with Hill and when to play against him. To make a bad analogy to football, Hill is like a brilliant midfielder, occupying the centre of the recording and controlling the flow, moving ideas between the rhythm section (defenders) and the brass (the forwards). There aren't many places where Kenny Dorham, Dolphy and Joe Henderson are all playing together, but when they do it's from a place of balance. What's impressive is how much this tries to extend the melodic, formal language of jazz without resorting to a total breakdown of structure. 'New Monastery', for example, actually swings, but while Dorham is declaring a melodic statement, Hill is colouring each rising trumpet burst with cluster of moody piano chords, which has an effect that is thought-inducing without being disconcerting. There's no reason not to occasionally let the groove carry a few phrases, or to have a solo here or there - but this is forward-thinking jazz, of course, a new avant-garde which seems to have been largely overlooked and one that's lovely because it doesn't need to make such a point of this. Dolphy is a nice presence here but it's not like he steals the album, apart from maybe some of the soloing on side two, and Joe Henderson has a really nice interplay with Dorham, especially on the last cut ('Dedication', which takes a somewhat more somber tone). There's a lot more out there, as his Blue Note career spanned the 60s; also I'm curious to know how his art developed further, and particularly how he may have sustained himself into the 80s and other periods where being a composer's jazz composer wasn't necessarily the easiest path financially. But sadly these are the only two records in the accumulation so once again we have to move on.

30 May 2017

Andrew Hill - 'Judgment!' (Blue Note)

The first thing that really hit me when I dropped the stylus was how fucking rich this sounded for a 52 year old record. I know I babble on here too often about the great sound of the vinyl, which is especially frustrating because words can't convey it, but here I was actually surprised; these Blue Note masters were quality. This is a stereo pressing too and I thought a general rule of thumb was to avoid early stereo pressings, but I tried pressing the mono button on my amp and the soundstage shrunk to a point of almost unpleasantness. Now, I'm not usually into vibes-based jazz, but Bobby Hutcherson doesn't even appear on every track here, and when he does it sounds magnificent, with the tones bright and ringing as a perfect counterpoint to Hill's piano. Elvin Jones sounds so distinctly like Elvin Jones, even though he's also influenced a million drummers in his wake; side one feels occasionally dominated by him, such as the drum solo near the end of 'Yokada Yokada'. The cymbals clatter through like slicing blades of light, and when songs stop on a drum break it's like being transported back to a smoky club in 1964. There's quite a few drum solos here, 'Reconciliation' and 'Alfred' also having them, though it fits in with the style of the record - a post-bop, melodic take that's avant-garde in construction if not a 'difficult' listen in the slightest, unless you're looking for catchy pop hooks. Hill's records interest me more for their composition than any white-heat playing and this is no exception (though the other one has Dolphy on it). 'Siete Ocho', the opener, pushes the vibes and piano against each other, escalating the tension while letting bassist Richard Davis establish a Can-like repetitive groove. 'Yokada' is whimsical, even flighty, and 'Alfred' (supposedly a tribute to Blue Note head honcho Alfred Lion) is the mellow ballad.  Apollonian to the core, the beauty of Judgment! is not incredibly obvious but distinctly rewarding. Davis is also a tremendously underrated bassist who was everywhere in the 60s, including on Astral Weeks which may be unfairly what he's remembered for the most, though his contribution to that is outstanding for that of a session player. I'm a native English speaker but find it very odd that we don't spell it 'judgement'. As great as this cover art is, that title just looks all wrong (but I know it's not).

Kenneth Higney - 'Attic Demonstration' (One Kind Favor)

For a record as legendary as Attic Demonstration, it's not a long listen, but it's pretty satisfying. Thankfully this reissue is easily available, because originals go for a fortune, as this was never actually 'released'. Higney, in the liner notes, explains that this was a series of demos he recorded to show his songwriting talent, and he sang these as drafts, without ever intending to be the ultimate singer or musician. This was pressed up as an LP to make it easier for him to send it to people (as this was the late 70s) but I don't completely buy that explanation. I mean, why would you put a photo of yourself front and centre if you're just trying to sell some songs to others? I think the answer is somewhere more in-between; clearly Higney was operating out of the privately-pressed lineage (though I guess it's hard to declare that as ever being a scene, being so geographically dispersed and also recording-based rather than concert-focused; I guess it's a scene that came together 30 years after the fact with The Acid Archives and all that). Additionally, the music is so fleshed out, a vision of dark ramshackle psych that is so complete (in how bare it is) that I would think a potential 'customer' would be overwhelmed by the flanged guitars shredding solos and the burnout pulse throughout. Well, no one bit. The instrumentation isn't credited to anyone specifically but the reissue liner notes thank a now-deceased musician named Gordon Gaines for the guitar playing; I wonder if he's also the bassist and drummer, or if this is Higney himself bashing around. I don't want to buy into a narrative that Higney couldn't sing or play, but certainly there is a rawness in the vocals that goes far beyond the Dylan/Reed school of the unschooled; at times the melody isn't even remotely clear, lost in a flurry of missed corners -- and you think a clear vocal melody would be the goal if one was genuinely trying to sell songs. Lyrics are printed on the back, which allows the lengthier tracks ('Rock Star' and 'Ley Us Pray') to be examined more thoroughly; the latter of these is the most fragile, and also populated with unclear characters (perhaps allegorical). Throughout all songs, though, the more visceral parts of Attic Demonstration jump out from the recording, burrowing into my mind, and making the lyric sheet feel disconnected anyway. I've always put 'Children of Sound' on mixtapes as it perfectly captures the dream of psychedelia after being watered down through a few years of disappointment. The cadences are often jerky (opening cut 'Night Rider' appears to start on the off-beat; 'Quietly Leave Me' feels like it's being made up as it goes along) and the mix is uneven too; again, I suspect this was meant not to be a serious foray into the music world but were any of these self-released items genuinely mistaken for stabs at greatness? In the annals of broken/outsider greatness I personally think Attic Demonstration comes from a place more primal, more desperate and more authentic than a lot of the others - it's a very male (hairy) attack on songcraft, but a convincing one, and it never slides even remotely close to novelty territory as many others do.

25 May 2017

Hevoset (Dekorder)

Two similarly named denizens of the Finnish early-00s tape underground made this collaborative tape, and Dekorder saw fit to reissue it on vinyl. Jan and Jani (from Kemialliset Ystävät and Uton, respectively) have similar approaches to sound, especially in how they make it, being solo artists who assemble crazy surreal soundscapes from tapes, loops, acoustic instruments and primitive electronics. I was reading an essay over the weekend which pointed out that the phrase 'lo-fi' is misleading, because fidelity refers to the ability of the recording to accurately reflect the actual sound, so therefore extremely overproduced studio albums by Queen or whatever are actually lo-fi, since they sound nothing like what those Queen songs sounded like when the band played in a room. This makes me realise that the Hevoset LP (as well as many, many others from the avant/tape underground) are actually extremely hi-fi music. I never saw Hevoset live, but I've seen Tomotonttu and Uton a few times and I know that what you hear is what you get. Perhaps 'tape-fi' is a better term, as this LP sounds like a cassette tape being played. The untitled tracks move from a variety of moods but it's always pretty thick, even when there's more spacious elements. The opening cut of side two is exactly that - tentative acoustic strings pinging around over a rumbling, narcotic drone, pulsing around a vacuous middle. Here the details are all there is, the central narrative is lost, and it's almost conventionally spooky, absent of the more gonzo elements I usually associated with Anderzen's work. Halfway through side 1 there's some crazy percussive bongos thumping around, a caterwaul vocal straining to get out through it all, and actually a good deal of space there as well. But then other tracks are screaming miasmas of affected keyboard tones, or maybe they are guitars or maybe neither; it's the Birchville Cat Motel school of soundscaping, though rough around the edges. The sound of the tape machine itself is often present, the same motor wheelgrind heard behind early 'bi-fi' (see, there's another one) recordings from the early 90s but here placed into an experimental soundnik scenario. I've always loved Jan's sense of motion and Jani's approach to texture; they combine beautifully on a track about midway through the second side where a melodic string figure is stumbling around a melting synth melody; they dart around each other and never quite converge.

16 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Western Culture' (Interzone)

This is the record for which the 'Thatcher anticipation' tag on the sidebar was invented, the swan song of Henry Cow, reduced here to a four-piece instrumental band and performing two side-long compositions, or song suites I guess. Not only is John Greaves gone, but so is the sock; Cutler's cut-out art (there's some nice alliteration) is actually really appropriate and nicely composed, just like the record itself. 'History and Prospects' is written by original member Tim Hodgkinson, and is one of the more genre-bending Cow compositions, though it's not exactly hip-hop or country music. Its opening piece, 'Industry', references the then-burgeoning industrial music scene, or maybe they weren't aware of that and it's just inspired by proletariat Marxism (or, perhaps by both); either way it's hot shit, with Frith playing a thick, almost dubby bassline between some modal reeds and a thick groove-beat. There's some electroacoustic work here, tapes and other noise, which make a few crashing percussive parts sound like Neubauten. Overall it's one of my favourite Henry Cow tracks, one which seems to look the furthest ahead not just in terms of electronic integration but towards Frith's later work in New York, in the 80s. 'The Decay of Cities' comes next, a bit more textbook perhaps, but that textbook is about labour statistics and urbanism, and it punches above its weight. Difficult music, maybe, but it's spacious and it's still recognisable as modern instrumental rock music, with the free/drone/noise parts used more like icing on a cake. Cooper's 'Day by Day', on the flip, is a little more conventional prog-Cow, or at least more fitting in the continuum of their Virgin-era records. I know now that Western Culture was their Abbey Road, recorded with it intending to be the end, so I can hear resignation in the heavy, ponderous rhythms and the probing, unresolved oboe/sax lines. But I can also hear connections to some of their past and future collaborators, showing them to be a band in the truest meaning of the word 'progressive'. It could be the acoustic guitar plucks here and there, sounding not unlike Derek Bailey, but also the spazzy bits of 'The Decay of Cities' which show the influence of the Residents and Ralph Records - a turn towards surrealist sound, perhaps another way that I see Western Culture more like a beautiful beginning (or collection of beginnings) than a somber ending.

14 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Concerts' (Caroline)

I was watching a really boring hockey game last night, and during the period breaks I read the Henry Cow page on Wikipedia; afterwards, this Wikipedia reading was the most memorable part about the whole experience, if that can give you some indication of how dull the hockey game was. I really had no idea how tense and difficult it was to be in Henry Cow. If you look back at the last three posts, I'm gushing about how confident and lockstep they are in their vision, without any idea that they were not only struggling to survive professionally (well, I may have guessed that) but also challenged internally in terms of the band dynamics. Unrest's brilliant second side apparently came together because they didn't have enough composed material, and they nearly killed each other making it, but it goes to show the power of the recorded output, because to me it sounds like a gang of geniuses improvising with one hive mind. Which brings us to Concerts, in some ways the most 'complete' Henry Cow release as it's certainly the most representative of what you might find if you had been blessed enough to catch them in the mid 1970s. At this point, Dagmar Krause is a full member of the band, sticking around after the Slapp Happy merger collapsed (another fact I learned from Wikipedia - the merger wasn't so easy and the two different approaches eventually tore them apart). And once again, the free group improvisations are placed in the second half of the record (the second disc, as this is a 2xLP set) and the 'songs' are pushed to the forefront. Another Wikipedia-learned fact (sorry, I'm a broken record) is that the unwillingness to integrate vocal-based songs and instrumental/free music led to the formation of Art Bears, essentially a split. It's almost a reverse trajectory from most other bands, because back on the first album it feels like they were totally comfortable with structure and exploration being so well balanced - in a way it would take many other artists years to figure out. Side 1 of Concerts is bookended by 'Beautiful as the Moon', which goes from the structured song into the outro jam, into what is credited as 'Nirvana for Mice', though I barely recognised it. This recording is fantastic - it's easy to forget that it's a concert recording - and the band is inspired. Frith switches between guitar and piano seamlessly and you see how little they actually relied on studio work. We get the beautiful 'Ottawa Song' (as far as I know, never released elsewhere, and it's a touching, distant grass-is-always-greener yearning for another place) and a Matching Mole cover, before 'Beautiful' is reprised. As one unbroken 23 minute piece of music, it's astounding, showing Henry Cow at what they did best. Side two is also fun, though the fidelity takes a hit. Robert Wyatt shows up for Desperate Straights's 'Bad Alchemy' and then sticks around for his own 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road'. This is a fairly straight cover, though given a lot of momentum from such a full band and with the thundering piano chords really making a feelgood moment, at least for those who love Rock Bottom as much as I. It's a nice way to cement Henry Cow in a scene of peers, and makes the second record all the more of a contrast. The Oslo improvisation that makes up side three is preferable to the fourth side's pastiche of two jams in Gronigen and one in Udine, but I tend to like mellow soundscape group improv more than when musicians collectively find a melodic structure. 'Oslo' starts off really murky, and while it builds (and provides space for Krause as well), it never stays in one place or forces itself into a song structure. The fourth side is build around some recognisable structures, but still twists and turns on a dime a few times.  Not unlike In Praise of Learning's 'Living in the Heart of the Beast', it starts to feel too immense to keep track of, and also, the sheer length of the record just starts to get to me by this point. The two records work well to be listened to as separate albums, separate bands even, and now that I've read more about their internal dynamics I hear a band starting to fall apart - which is totally not what I ever thought the many times before when I listened to Concerts (or parts of it). So this is surely the bias of what I read, which is why sometimes I'm happier not knowing anything about the background of music which I love. I can't believe no one has written a book about Henry Cow and the RIO scene - or maybe someone did, links in comments, please. The world could definitely use this, far more than we need another Springsteen or Dylan biography.

13 May 2017

Henry Cow/Slapp Happy - 'In Praise of Learning' (Red)

I have a lot of records; some would say 'too many', and I probably must concur, even though I find it hard to part with any. One sign that your accumulation is too vast is when you don't actually remember if you own a record or not. One of the many things I've enjoyed about doing this project over the past 8 years is realising these possessions and omissions, and now I've realised that I do NOT own a copy of Desperate Straights, the one credited to Slapp Happy/Henry Cow (in that precise order of credit, and which I guess came from the same sessions as this LP). I always thought of these two bands as having briefly merged for two albums, rather than merely 'having collaborated', and In Praise of Learning is probably the high point for both bands' careers, though I realise I said in the last post that Unrest was the best Henry Cow record. By now you should know to ignore my superlatives, anyway. But anyway, the distinct sensibilities of each band are perfect in combination, different enough to challenge and pull the musicians in new directions, but unified in their passions and penchant for adventure. This LP is credited to Henry Cow (except on the spine, where Slapp Happy gets some love), and this makes sense as this is much more of a Henry Cow album with Slapp Happy's spin, as opposed to Desperate Straights which is the other way around. Plus it has a sock on the cover, dyed red in case you had any fucking doubt about their politics. The opening cut, 'War', is the most explosive juxtaposition of the two ensembles, opening with Blegvad's voice briefly before Dagmar Krause (credited here by her first name over, a proto-Madonna if there ever was one) comes crashing in. This is the first Art Bears song for sure, with violent poetic imagery and rhyme soaring over a potent mix of musicians. Former Henry Cow member Geoff Leigh returns to guest and Mongezi Feza is also present; it's almost a pop song and a perfect introduction to 'Living In the Heart of the Beast'. This is Tim Hodgkinson's composition, and it's an epic number, taking up the rest of side 1 and moving through an absolute plethora of words, printed on the back sleeve like the polemic/essay it properly should be read as. This piece is hard to grasp, with its title the most memorable thing, but in its density lies many rewards. As it proceeds through several movements, it gradually takes on the role of the anthem, as if Henry Cow has figured out how to write aggressively political music that avoids cheap sensationalism or inconsistent wavering; indeed, 'Beast' finds its own footing by the end, where it comes marching to a conclusion over a what's probably the most conventional "progressive rock"-sounding moment on the record. Side two (as usual) has the free improvisations, though they are just the bread around 'Beautiful as the Moon - Terrible As an Army With Banners'. This sound is a bit more stripped down, with Greaves/Cutler locking into a plodding groove over which Frith's piano arpeggios perfectly complement Krause's rising and falling voice. I guess to some people her singing might be an acquired taste but I love it, and would buy any record of hers sound-unheard; I remember already gushing here about Babble and the Commuters EP, and this is another one of her greatest accomplishments. Her timbre is so uncompromising that it's a perfect match for Henry Cow, one of the most principled bands there ever was (to me, they approach Crass-like territory), and 'Beautiful as the Moon' finally releases in it's conclusion into a cadence that is actually catchy, probably the most hummable part of this record and of Henry Cow in general. The improv tracks on either side are both wonderful and I can only dream of what outtakes there must be; 'Beginning - The Long March' is a little punchier, but 'Morning Star' gets into some truly extended technique'z recalling eastern gong music as much as it resembles rock, jazz, or anything western, really. Cooper in particular shines here, especially over scraped guitar strings that occasionally sound like bowls of water rotating on a giant animal skin. The lyrics are printed on the back, which you really need to follow, and at the bottom is the (amazing) quote by John Grierson: 'Art is not a mirror - it is a hammer'. I find that as inspiring today as I did at 17, even if it feels like more of a struggle to believe it (or to implement it). I don't know much about the personal journeys of the Henry Cow people over the years, but they've at least managed to keep a public image that they have really lived this ethos without compromise. I'm not sure if any young musicians today listen to Henry Cow for inspiration, but they really should.

12 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Unrest' (Virgin)

Maybe their best record, Unrest takes the sock and darkens the hue, which the music mostly does too. Once again, the Cow (with Lindsay Cooper replacing Geoff Leigh) structure their album with the more open, improvisatory bits on side two and the tight, strident rock songs first. 'Ruins' is the highlight of side 1, a long Frith composition that has become one of their signature tunes, but I also love the piano playing at the beginning of 'Half Asleep; Half Awake'. I assume it's Greaves tinkling the ivories (though it's heavy on the black keys – somehow evoking the Paul Bley side of jazz without sounding of that genre at all) since he composed the piece. The piano that closes out the album, a distant yearning underneath some even more distant vocals on 'Deluge' might be Frith, since they're both credited. The more 'out' sounds on side two are really what drives me crazy though; 'Linguaphonie' I've listened to multiple times, trying to make sense of it. It's the Cow at their most electroacoustic, Frith almost stealing the show with the amplifier hum, heavy use of effects pedals, and radio static guitar which sounds almost completely alien; but Cutler is also a force here. It again hints at a jazz without fully committing, ending in a free cacophony that is the perfect lead in to 'Upon Entering the Hotel Adlon', a work so frantic you could tell me that it was a Skin Graft Records outtake from 20 years later and I'd believe you. Cutler is still kicking ass here, showing his hellacious attacking style that is usually hidden behind his spectacled, tea-and-biscuits appearance. This is also the next step in the too-obvious progression through politics that Henry Cow make; here things turn darker, realising the struggle of the intellectual improvisation-friendly progressive musician against a dying European post-war culture. Things get a lot more red soon (quite literally if we're talking about cover socks), and culminate in their last album which actually has hammers and fucking sickles on the cover. My politics mostly line up with these guys and I'm sure, certain actually, that Jeremy Corbyn has a copy of this record. I hope he uses the sprightly progressive bounce of 'Bittern Storm Over Ulm' to motivate his people to the polls next month. I met Cutler briefly when I was an undergraduate, after seeing him give a workshop about sampling, copyright and intellectual property. When we chatted afterwards and I told him how I was just getting into his back catalogue, he told me to avoid the East Side Digital CD reissues of Henry Cow, warning that they were mastered badly and to buy (of course) the ReR issues. I've heard Henry Cow on CD and yes, it did sound thin (though I don't know which version it was, and all CDs sound thin if you're a vinyl snob); but here on original Virgin wax, Unrest sounds fucking thundering. I know I probably go on too much here about how great and resonant these records sound on my Rega, but one of the reasons I kept listening to this over the past few days is just how pleasureable it sounded. The guitars have a real fire to them, but the sax and reeds of Hodgkinson and Cooper are perky and brisk, and give this a really complete, satisfying dynamic range.

10 May 2017

Henry Cow (Virgin)

Henry Cow started here! Which means that a lot of other things did too, ultimately; this is the source of a great series of rivers and tributaries, and a whole movement in music called 'Rock in Opposition' which sounds funny now but maybe not so much in these times of socio-political upheaval. But really, Henry Cow were a progressive rock band, simultaneously a shining example of rock music and also far more experimental than most of their British peers. I haven't actually sat down and listened to this one for a long time (which is the whole point of this project), and I must say I've come away more impressed than I remembered being. The individual musicians all have had such storied careers that it's charming to listen to them at their point of origin, but so much is already established. Chris Cutler's style of drumming is unmistakeable - crisp and light, yet driving and confident, and he locks in with John Greaves to drive the compositions forward. Greaves is the most heavily felt, especially on opener 'Nirvana for Mice', and he's the reason this is pulled so heavily in the direction of rock music, I'd say. But he shows he can improvise, too, although there's not much extended technique at play from him compared to the others. Over the weekend, I read David Toop's recent-ish book on improvisation before 1970, which focused mostly on the English scene, so improvisation is on my mind. The improv moments of Henry Cow (I know this is commonly called Legend or Leg End, but those words appear nowhere on the sleeve, spine or labels of my copy) mostly take place on side two, during the middle part where the reprise of 'Teenbeat' segues into 'The Tenth Chaffinch', a collective work which has some utterly dazzling moments. Fred Frith, again starting out here as a plucky young guitar player, can hold down prog riffage as well as skittery, bumpy Derek Bailey-style runs, and I found myself drawn back to the memory of the one time I saw him play live, at a weird session with some Estonian musicians. Frith has this way of tossing off moments that sound like no one else in terms of technique -- not flashy, but expressive, and with a focus on tonality and mood that is lacking from a lot of stick and poke guys. The weirdly, possibly microtonal shifts that open 'Extract From "With The Yellow Half-Moon And Blue Star"' on side two turn into the same kind of thing, like a conventional rock guitarist melted with some distant, hazy lights in the distance on a cool summer night. It's amazing to think how he had this ability to paint on the very first record he ever played on (I think). The whole band sings on 'Nine Funerals of the Citizen King', which I guess is technically the closest these guys get to sounding like Genesis, though the lyrics feel more modern, probing and poetic. It's a great song and one I forget about; generally I wish there were more vocals in Henry Cow, even the truncated glossolalia we get at the end of 'Amygdala'. Somehow this band turned into an institution, but one that kept challenging and reinventing itself; I can only imagine what this must have seemed like in 1973, especially coming during that time when British music was started to harden and become somewhat immobile. Compared to Egg or Hatfield and the North, this is madness, but like many enduring records (for example This Heat's Deceit, or Animal Collective's Sung Tongs) it manages to be from a scene/style but totally singular, kicking the ass of everything around it (non-aggressively!) with a purity of vision and purpose. And I write this as someone who even gets bored a little bit during this record! But there's more to come, so much more to come....

9 May 2017

Pierre Henry - 'Mouvement-Rythme-Étude' (Philips)

I can't find any record of this particular edition anywhere online (spine/catalogue #6510 017) but it's well-known under the same title with a different cover. This edition may be a bit less attractive but the copy I found was in really nice shape and that's a good thing, because with Henry and similar musique concrete records, the space is important. Surface noise would get in the way of the echo, which resonates off of the gurgles and bloops that mostly populate this record. I can't imagine what it must have been like to see this dance piece being performed; I think a lot of this was recorded with a microphone in a room, because you really hear the echo, though maybe it's a tape effect. And Ninjinski was somehow part of it! As a non-visual source for psychedelic enjoyment, it's hard to get much better than records like this - eschewing any recognisable genre, including drone/noise, these are sounds assembled in a way that creates a whole new musical ontology. Which is why the title of this record is so apt - it seems bland at first, but fuck yeah it's all about movement and rhythm, and Henry is often thought of (by me, at least when I'm not thinking too deeply about him) as purely a technological innovator and not so much as a composer. And while an electronic record from the 70s with a track called 'Continuum' could be a stereotype, the sounds contained within are a far cry from cosmic synth rackeffects or freakazoid drone - its more like a strange object bouncing around several dimensions, occasionally refracting with the sound that you hear when MP3s are compressed poorly, except this was caused probably by Henry grabbing the spinning reel-to-reel loop with his hand (or some other such trick). There's an incredible amount of diversity across this record, and maybe that's the reason (along with the expense) that I've never hunted down any other Pierre Henry records: this is satisfying enough. 'Pureté' is maybe the most dazzling in terms of 'how the fuck did he do that', a constantly shifting series of mild sound-bumps, still sounding like a future we could only dream of even though it's been nearly half a century since it was recorded. The 'Adagio' pieces here refer to a traditional musical mode here, and that's another reminder of how this record reinvents music itself, the aforementioned ontology of its own. For people who are scared of the 'avant-garde', I'd recommend a dip into this record, because there's enough of an embracing of the fundamental concepts of 'music' here that it can be grokked by anyone with even a remotely open mind.

4 May 2017

The Karl Hendricks Trio - 'A Gesture of Kindness' (Fiasco/Peas Kor)

This is the last Karl Hendricks Trio record with the original, 'classic' lineup, as Tim Parker soon left and formed a great band called Vehicle Flips for awhile, before leaving Pittsburgh entirely. I wonder what happened to him? I used to know him, when I was a plucky kid, and he was a pretty cool dude. If all you take the first sentence here as your only source, then you might think it was Parker who steered the Trio towards a more pop-based, catchy direction, and that his departure was already imminent here, because A Gesture of Kindness mostly sheds the pop hooks which Buick Electra is so saturated in, and trends towards a more subdued style of melodic work. Although the album artwork boasts of 'snappy toe-tappers', this album steers far closer to the sound of mid-90s indie rock; you can hear an influence from bands like Slint, the For Carnation, and Silkworm. This style actually suits the more introspective and somber side of Karl's lyrics, which are in full force here. The album closer, 'Your Damned Impertinence', runs over nine minutes (EPIC!), built around a very plodding, moody indie rock line which would really date this if it wasn't such a good track. There's an irony to the lyrics -  he's singing, through clenched teeth, a love song about how he enjoys the act of being frustrated, and when it explodes into the rocking-out parts, there's a thrill of release, an anthemic lift, and a genuine justification of the relationship between the lyrics and the musical style. Also (mostly) absent this time is Wayno; Chris Ware takes over cover art duties here, which is certainly a lovely aesthetic, though Wayno does the cover of the included lyric book, and it resembles a classic zine 'mini'. Typed out in Xeroxed glory, Karl's lyrics here can be read more easily than ever before and a dark bitterness seems to have crept in. The glorious, romantic optimism of 'Painted My Heart' or 'Nowhere But Here' is absent, and an ultimately deeper (though initially less inspiring) frustration with relationships and love has emerged. I think I listen to Karl's music to feel young and inspired - to remember the way I approached the universe at age 17 - so that's one of the reasons I rarely dust off A Gesture of Kindness. Twenty years later, I can really feel some of these observations resonating with me, because I needed to suffer my own miseries of love/life to connect with these songs. The rockers are fast and furious, and the fidelity of this pressing leaves a bit to be desired - the first side in particular was either mastered or pressed poorly, as the sound is blown out and muffled, and way too bassy. On the more aggressive numbers this is really problematic, but when things slow down for 'The Dress You Bought in Cleveland', over which Karl mourns a relationship from a classic male perspective (yet devoid of any misogyny), the space really echoes well. The 1-2 punch of 'Desperate Drunken Artist' and 'Breaktaking First Novel' shows his turn towards the world of literature; he spent his later years teaching creative writing, and it was in a literature class that he gave me this copy of A Gesture of Kindness, making it a truly self-fulfilling title. I don't have any of the later records, which is not to indicate that I didn't always enjoy the Trio (and later the Karl Hendricks Rock Band) whenever I saw them. I hope that if anyone is actually reading these writeups, then maybe some new people will be turned on to the man's words and music. RIP.

1 May 2017

The Karl Hendricks Trio - 'Sings About Misery and Women' (Fiasco/Peas Kor)

I love the title of this album, and Wayno's artwork for once is a bit less reminiscent of 80s Daniel Clowes and more expressive; young Karl's demeanour on the cover + Tim & Tom in the background gives this a melancholy flavour before the stylus is even lowered. The bricks and foliage and background statues would imply an autumnal New England liberal arts college setting, though I'm sure it's actually depicting Pittsburgh which has some monuments of its own, y'know, and some pretty OK foliage. Anyway, it all comes together to make a rather 'emo' record, though of course Karl Hendricks has always been 'emo', even though his sound and style bore little resemblance to the hardcore-based scene of the same name, which was also taking place in 1993. This is the second consecutive Karl Hendricks LP with misapplied labels (what was your problem, early 90s Peas Kor?) so as I forgot, I started with side B, and the crunchy 'Women and Strangers'. This may actually be the sequence that I became more used to and slightly prefer, since it places 'You're A Bigger Jerk Than Me' as track 2, which is a good place for it. This is one of Karl's most enduring songs, and a good transitional song between the earlier, poppier material and the tendency towards heavy guitar rock which later Trio/Rock Band followed. Throughout, there's no shortage of balladry - 'Flowers Avenue' and 'Romantic Stories from the War' are plaintive, searching for an outlet for a heart being overpumped with blood and regret. 'I Didn't Believe in Gravity' is the singer-songwriter strumming an acoustic guitar, the indie rock folk moment, and a throwback to Karl's pre-Trio self-released cassettes. When the distortion pedals are stepped on, it really works, and the indie rock vibe is felt in the juxtaposition between slow, arpeggiated moments and strummed electric guitar chords, always on the verge of breaking out ('I Don't Need Your Shit', 'Do You Like To Watch Me Sob?'). There's something almost minimal and economical about the early Trio - the 4/4 steady beats were a nice antidote to the time-signature obsessed sounds of Don Caballero and their followers, who were coming out of Pittsburgh at the same time. Karl's voice is mixed higher here than on Buick Electra and this confidence carries through in the playing. I get sad listening to this not because of the lyrics (which never wallow so much in the misery as find a comfort in it), but because of his recent passing; there's little more I can say to express what a tragedy it was, and hope that his music continues to find new fans.

30 April 2017

The Karl Hendricks Trio - 'Buick Electra' (Peas Kor)

Things get personal here, and I don't expect anyone who didn't grow up in Pittsburgh to understand my undying love for this record. I was about to write 'anyone who didn't grow up in the shadow of this man', but then I realised that's not so accurate. Because that would imply that he was some towering figure who dominated everything that came in his wake, but that's not true at all. Yes, Karl Hendricks was a huge figure to me and many others in the Pittsburgh music world, but he wasn't intimidating or menacing or scary; his shadow was a pleasant place to inhabit, because as corny as it is to say, he was a sort of 'father figure'. Karl. who passed away in January of this year, was little more than a decade older than me, but symbolised the whole generation of a music scene that I peered into, as a teenager, with eager eyes. This older wave, who would be probably considered 'old-school' now (as I am probably 'mid-school' by this point), but were sort of 'mid-school' to me when I was 'new school' in the late 90s, if ya follow - they set the pace for what being in a band in Pittsburgh meant. I saw the Karl Hendricks Trio early in the afternoon at Lollapalooza '93, on the second stage, and the moshing morons in the crowd couldn't overpower the purity that seemed to emanate from the stage. From that moment (I was 13) I think I began to formulate my value system for all music and art and everything to follow. I knew they were "local" and "indie rock" and they had a serious-seeming work ethic, and records illustrated by this cartoonist name Wayno which conjured an honesty and efficiency of songwriting that appealed greatly to me. Then I got a little older and met him, since he worked at (and later owned) the record store that supplied so, so many of these records under review here.... and he was great. Friendly, sure, even if a bit distant - and always willing to offer suggestions, and amazingly he got to know me a bit, which was like being blessed with acceptance into this so-called music scene I so aspired to join. At one point we had a class together at the University, 'The Modernist Tradition', when I was a sophomore. He brought me LPs of the next two records under discussion here, since I didn't have them, and we talked not just about music but about Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Over the years he developed a much more rock-focused aesthetic, extending his guitar playing and classic influences, though of course its evident here - there's a Stones cover, after all ('She Was Hot'). Buick Electra is the first Karl LP, from 1992, and still my favourite, though it was really during my senior year of high school (1996-97) that I grew so attached to it. These songs are somewhere between indie-pop and indie-rock, melodic but occasionally heavy, and portrayed (to me, at least) a secret world. They seemed to pick up from the jangly influence of R.E.M. and 80s college rock that I liked then, but took it a bit further with a bit of punk spirit, but none of the irritating technical/math jerking off of the other Pittsburgh bands. Karl was Pittsburgh's greatest ever romantic, and he never needed to hide his emotions between any sort of swagger. Three songs here contain the word 'heart' in the title and the rest of them might as well too; even the songs of loss and regret ('Dead Flowers', which is not a Stones cover; 'All That's Left'). 'Orange Nehi' is perhaps the album's most angular and steely track, the title a reference to a local soda which (along with the slightly obtuse melody) conspired to speak volumes to me as a teenager, a secret language that I felt I could decode. 'Dumber Than I Look' is soulful and earnest; 'Painted My Heart' is so sweet and devoted that it brings tears to my eyes, but the whole record does right now. Early Karl is what inspired me and showed me that 'local music' could be amazing; his Jolly Doom cassette from the pre-Trio days and the I Hate This Party 7" are also essential recordings for me. I'll cut this short now as there's two more Karl records to follow, but I hope there is a day when I can listen to this record without crying; I guess I should just be grateful for the last two decades of listening to it while feeling joyous and inspired.

29 April 2017

Richard Hell & the Voidoids - 'Blank Generation' (Sire)

Far be it from me to care about musical 'authenticity' - to even think such a concept should exist - but I rather affectionately think of this album as an example of 'fake punk'. But what is real, what is punk, yada yada yada - boring conversations, sure. What I mean is that Blank Generation fits a lot more with the genre of 'classic rock' than with Crass or Black Flag or even the Ramones, that's all - it's a bold statement, all attitude, an invented persona glossed up and sold to the kids no different than it was done for early Dylan, Elvis, Iggy, Johnny Cash or any other male greats. That the Voidoids were a solid rock band with great guitar interplay and a knack for anthemic songwriting is often overlooked behind all of the alienation and youthful romanticism, but at this point in history the fun outweighs the sense of posturing (for me). Robert Quine and Ivan Julian are the stars here, the former ending up on Lou Reed's The Blue Mask later; I'm not always sure who is the 'lead' player but they are both aspiring guitar gods, and there's some totally shredding solos here (another reason I've never felt comfortable considering this to be 'punk' - because my punk world is more austere and principled, not so hedonistic in terms of rock and roll's supposed excesses circa-1975). Hell's lyrics are mouthy and sassy, occasionally brilliant ('Another World') and often faux-brilliant, which is a different kind of brilliant but still brilliant (the sex-obsession here is primal and raw, with the first three songs all drenched in sensuality and body-talk). The guitar lines leap out with pierces and stabs, high pitched enough to be slightly annoying and anti-social, at least in terms of mid-70s rock, and Hell's sneer takes centre stage most of the time. I always found the recordings of Hell with Television to be disappointing (or at best, just a curiosity); never heard Destiny Street either. But Blank Generation is a satisfying listen for sure. Best song: 'Betrayal Takes Two' (weirdly covered by King Missile, and they did it well); it's a catchy, uncentered insight into human relationships that's still charged with post-teenage bloodflow passion. Best baller move: (not-)singing the 'blank' (depicted as '_____' in the lyric sheet) on the album's title track, a true anthem of discontent. 'I was sayin' let me out of here before I was even born' is just about goddamn perfect no matter how you look at it.

Julius Hemphill - ''Coon Bid'ness' (Arista/Freedom)

I'm still kicking myself for missing out on the Dogon A.D. reissue last year, but at least I have this LP to enjoy whenever I'd like. I get uncomfortable saying the title but it makes sense, cause with this record, Hemphill attempts to musically interrogate the question of blackness head-on, particularly with side 1, the first half of which is fairly avant-classical in nature. The presence of a white drummer (Barry Altschul) doesn't matter, as this record opens around the slow, melodic rumblings of the altos against Abdul Wadud's cello and Hamiett Bluiett's baritone. Both 'Reflections' and 'Lyric' are careful, somber, and rather beautiful, with sonorities akin to Messiaen in places. They never stay 100% calm, though, with flutters in the corners to reveal the inherent and potential freedom of it all, perhaps described as a benevolent instability. I'm reminded a bit of Ornette Coleman's 'Sadness', but maybe that's a simplistic comparison, because these two pieces have an awareness that situates them in the mid-70s Bohemian/artistic milieu, much more than mere throwbacks to either Coleman's work or third stream jazz. 'Skin' parts 1 and 2 is where the rhythms start to kick in, with Wadud's cello sawed at like a rock guitar. It's genuinely riffy, a bit like those late 70s Ornette Coleman records only really more strident & driving than funk-leaning, and could be mistaken for a 'black' analogy to Rhys Chatham, Branca, or the minimal rock chops to come in the early 80s. The three saxophones share the soundstage and while it freqently revs into some really punchy sequences, there's enough space for everyone to explore their themes. I love the cello and Altschul is such a great player that he's able to set a pace without dominating, just like on all the stuff he did with Chick Corea. It's the B-side, 'The Hard Blues', that lets everyone stretch out the most. It feels more improvised after the tightly composed (in parts) first half, though it's not anything close to a free-for-all. Blues it is, but not in a 12-bar way (thank god), and I continue to hear rock tendencies in the way Wadud saws at his strings, and maybe the lower baritone sax contributes as well. Over 20 minutes the group comes together, comes apart, and comes back together, and they embrace dissonance wholeheartedly, and you can feel Hemphill's vision not just as a composer, but as a bandleader. There are moments in 'The Hard Blues' that recall Captain Beefheart circa Trout Mask, not necessarily as whacked-out or surreal, but in the sense of otherness, except here using blues as a crossing point for jazz instead of rock. 

25 April 2017

Heldon - 'IV' (Aural Explorer)

Apparently this isn't a proper release of the fourth Heldon album, but some sort of compilation, containing most of the fourth album but some other stuff. I've never noticed before since it's the only Heldon record I've ever listened to -- but why is that? This stuff is great, I want more! 'Chief Electronic Wizard' Richard Pinhas established a style of minimal electronic music that has been unbelievably influential, though quite singular for its time, so it sounds like a lot of things from recent years, except it birthed a lot of it. This slowly builds up a suite of songs called 'Perspective', with a weird interlude at the end of side 1 (which sounds like guitar-based post-rock twenty years early) that Pinhas neither wrote nor played on. But it's his band - the looming face photographed on the back cover is his, as if there was any doubt whose band this is. He's credited with electronics and guitar, though the guitar isn't that recognisable until the third track ('Perspective III'), where it roars and threatens to keep rupturing the vinyl, despite being pretty buried by the pulsing synth rhythm. In other places, things are more placid; 'Perspective I' could be something released on Kranky in the late 90s by a band like Tomorrowland or Labradford, and the synths are where it gets really crazy. 'Perspective IV' is the most wild, a precursor to all the 'ecstatic drone' stuff that came out of places like Leeds in the late 90s/early 00s. And what does this record make me feel like? Like bits of my brain are burning, and there's a wonder about my place in this world, suggesting that natural, pastoral beauty can find a new life through technology. The cover art is pretty fucking scary, like something you might see on a Voivod album cover, and directly inject this into the "science fiction" realm (as well as reish label Aural Explorer's typeface, which is so retro-cool it feels like it came out of modern day Portland). But I don't want to dwell on this easy sci-fi vibe - it's important to take music like this and make it your own, freeing oneself from the easy tendencies to associate it with soundtracks and other cultural offerings. Pinhas was a pioneering figure and never succumbed to easy New Age sounds or dance beats; this is electroacoustic music, truly, though it doesn't sound anything like AMM, or Cluster, or even other French weirdness like Mahogany Brain or Red Noise. I don't pay much attention to contemporary followers of the Heldon sound, but maybe I should; there's a whole soundworld that I must admit I am undeveloped in, as a listener.

24 April 2017

Thee Headcoats - 'W.O.A.H! - Bo In Thee Garage' (Get Hip)

Consistency is a virtue, right? And maybe so is prolificness (is that a word?). Discogs lists only 19 full-length albums by Thee Headcoats, which is fewer than I expected, but then Billy Childish has spread his vision over a variety of bands and pseudonyms (which are surveyed nicely on the Archive from 1959 compilation from a few years back) besides this one. Somehow this LP is all I have managed to accumulate, even though they're all eminently listenable examples of a real scene, postmodern primitivism
at its finest. This is a conceptual one, I guess, being entirely made up of Bo Diddley covers. It's recorded live in mono, and it sounds more or less like a dictaphone recording of a raunchy garage-rock band banging it out in some room somewhere -- which is precisely what this is.  Childish translates Diddley's swagger well through his vocals, and the covers are fairly faithful; nothing is sped up or riffed upon (as far as I can tell - I'm not quite super familiar with the originals), and there's a ramshackle quality that suits the material well. 'Greatest Lover in the World' sounds great when recast from the mouth of a white Englishman; 'Keep Your Big Mouth Shut' shows his own vocal capabilities, and has a nice sassy snarl to it. Somehow this all works and doesn't raise any obvious questions about race or appropriation: it's a tribute that is fun, heartfelt, and an easy listen. The rough fidelity helps - it's as much about the sound of this record as the performance, if this makes any sense. Mono records on vinyl often sound great, and this is blistering and raw, especially when the cymbals start to blur together into a tinny haze. Somehow everything is exuberant enough to work, and thus this document of a band likely just fucking around one afternoon, nearly 30 years ago now, is somehow completely fresh and living.

Jowe Head - 'Pincer Movement' (Hedonics)

That's an aesthetic I like - a strange cover, strange title, and contents that are definitely rock music but, well... strange. But it's fun! I know Head more from Swell Maps than Television Personalities, and that makes this feel rather contiguous since these songs are murky, deconstructed and generally kinda fucked up. Plus, it opens with 'Cake Shop Girl' which is also on Jane From Occupied Europe and actually on Head's second solo LP a few years later, too. I guess he really liked that song. I do too - it's fast, nervous, and cryptic while being sort of catchy at the same time. Pincer Movement's 'Loco Train' could also be a Swell Maps song, and maybe it is - I find all those Maps compilations confusing and their entire discography beyond the two proper albums is just a blur to me. Anyway, there are only a few full-fledged 'songs' on Pincer, with a lot of little ten second interstitials tying them together.  And some are just loose structures to jam over, though it's a Swell Maps style of jamming - not guitar solos or melodic improvisations, but textural jamming, if that makes any sense. 'Quatermass and the Pulpit' is a great example of that - a looping beat, with vocals chanting 'Kyrie elision!' and percussion sounds get freaky (both acoustic and electronic), various other treated instruments whirl and jigjag, and the whole piece turns into a psychedelic gel. It could easily keep my attention for 20 minutes, yet it ends after 5 (which is a classic showmanship manoeuvre).  There's a theme set by the titular pincers - songs about sea life, crustaceans, and mermaids abound. 'Mermaid', for example, is a dubby number occasionally erupting into layered shrieks, with all manners of odd keyboards, wind instruments and other affected experiments overtop of the pulsebeat. 'Wimoweh' is a cover of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' and it's a mad descent into layered tones and insanity. 'Crawfish' appears on both sides, first the 'Son of' and then the full version, and it's probably the album's most memorable track, herky-jerky and bold. Things get borderline goofy - 'Glass Animal Colony' seems to privilege the vocal hysterics over the textures - but everything is moved through quickly, which leaves me wanting more. By golly, Pincer Movement is great, a document of an unapologetically experimental time for art-rock in the UK (1981) and one that holds up well especially against the never-ending revivals of post-punk mannerisms. The band members all have great pseudonyms such as 'Phones Sportsman' and 'Prince Empire' -- plus, 'Crawfish' is technically an Elvis cover. And this can be yours for a relatively inexpensive price - for some reason this record has never become that collectible.

21 April 2017

Lee Hazlewood - 'Cowboy in Sweden' (LHI)

Oh, the temptation of flight - that somewhere else, another place, can be the answer to our problems. Europe loomed large during the Vietnam era, just as it appealed to me during the Bush administration. Scandinavia was where people were beautiful and sexually liberated and they really 'got' free jazz, and it could be everything that reactionary America was not. I guess Lee Hazlewood was drawn to Sweden for these reasons, and what makes Cowboy in Sweden so remarkable is that it's an album about trying to redefine one's identity in another land. I hope things worked out better for him - I've ended up in a Europe that is quite literally tearing itself apart, but it's not like the US looks any better right now. But anyway, the record : dry, cold and somewhat distant are qualities that I associate with Lee Hazlewood, and I supposed they're also a nice fit for the image many have of Sweden. Thus, this pairing doesn't seem so strange; Cowboy in Macedonia or Cowboy in Papua New Guinea would probably be more confusing. This is the soundtrack to a TV flick I haven't seen, so I have to guess the plot based on the songs. Clearly, our cowboy protagonist starts things off in jail, with a song ('Pray the Bars Away') fitting into the anti-classic country sound, though maybe he means psychological imprisonment. And then he seems to meet a girl, forgets his old one, and heads towards Stockholm to avoid the draft. Um, I guess. Hazlewood is interesting because he never really dug into a niche sound, staying connected at least minimally to the pop side of country, despite not really singing well or being that relatable. Most of Cowboy in Sweden is built around his baritone drawl, but when he bothers to emote a bit, it's mesmerising: 'No Train to Stockholm' and 'Cold Hard Times' are beautiful in their stark minimalism. On 'No Train' he somehow sounds like both Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen at the same time while actually singing; it's explicitly about avoiding the draft and absolutely fucking great. The classic Hazlewood formula is Lee + girl, and here it's mostly Nina Lizell, with Suzi Jane Hokum doing the valley ladies sound one on track ('For A Day Like Today'). Lizell and he duet on closer 'Vem Kan Segla', which has her singing Swedish lyrics and his replies/translations, that staggered his/her song style that he's made so familiar (kinda like his version of 'Dark Side of the Street', but a bit more mystical). Absolutely great.

19 April 2017

Hampton Hawes & Martial Solal - 'Key For Two' (Affinity)

Solal isn't a well-known name outside of France, but he's done a lot of film soundtrack composition, including Godard's Breathless. This record pairs him in the studio in Paris, 1969, with legend/tragedy Hawes, for a two piano collaboration which sadly fails to utilise the power of those instruments together. Large parts of the record are given over to solos, and when they play together, they mostly stay out of each other's way. The opening and closing tracks are 'Key for Two' and 'Three for Two', composed by Hawes and Solal respectively, and they're not only the only original compositions on the record but the only time where the two really go at it. The middle of the record is given over to standards and covers, all of which float by in a pleasant bop manner but usually showcasing just one pianist at a time. I can't tell who is who and the all-star rhythm section of Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke largely function as session musicians. I mean, it's a competent bop quartet,  but for the most part this sounds like public domain jazz to use in a movie. There are some high points, mostly when the rhythm section drops out. This version of 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most' is light and tender, almost fragile; the similarly unaccompanied 'Godchild' has some real spirit, as the two pianos dance around each other, teasing furtively. Michelot and Clarke really get cooking on 'The Theme', but that's about the most pyrotechnics on display. There's a real fear of dissonance here, and the liner notes even make a point of stating how carefully rehearsed these sessions were. I don't demand chaos or discord, but I want to hear a vision, and I don't think either pianist here puts forth anything particularly distinct. The two originals are really all we got, and the first is nothing more than a 12-bar, though executed confidently enough to dazzle. The last ends suddenly, almost like an accidental tape splice or a mastering error, which is a bit odd. I was curious about Hawes, and wanted to hear the pain and struggles of his addictions in his playing, but this is kinda standard (while I must point out - technically extremely competent, colourful and expressive, and bright). I wonder if more somber music might reveal more of who he was - and 'Spring', by far the highlight of this record, suggests this might be the case. It's also crazy to think that just a few months after this was recorded, somewhere across town, the Art Ensemble of Chicago recorded People in Sorrow and all of those other mind-blowing explorations of the American experience.

18 April 2017

Hatfield and the North (Virgin)

My favourite part on this Hatfield and the North record (a record which actually is packed with numerous small pleasures) comes about 2/3 of the way through 'Son of "There's No Place Like Homerton"', the longest piece on the record; some bright, piercing tones float over the otherwise melodic jam, sticking out like if Stereolab guested on just ten seconds of the song, though I think its actually a flute or woodwinds. It introduces a long, beautiful vocal section where the three female vocalists who are mostly relegated to backing roles come to the forefront. They chant in a round-like pattern, setting down some moments of total magic which has traces of English folk, early music, and whatever a Greek chorus is supposed to be. It's this part I keep coming back to whenever I listen to this record, the first side of which otherwise passes into the background, a melodic, rolling example of Canterbury scene prog in an advanced iteration. The lineup has Pip Pyle from Gong, Phil Miller from Matching Mole, and two guys from Caravan, one the brother of the 'other' Steve Miller who did that underrated duet record with Lol Coxhill -- and it sounds accordingly like Canterbury music was supposed to sound. All of the musicianship is excellent and in that style which feels hopelessly dated now - tight changes, affected guitars, Robert Wyatt guest spots, fast instrumental interplay, some great juxtapositions (a phone rings near the end of 'Fol de Rol' and the singing is finished through it; there's some concrète dabbling in other incidental spots), and songs with titles like 'Shaving is Boring'. They're capable of some engaging heat - the aggressive ending of 'Rifferama' sounds exactly how you'd expect a song called 'Rifferama' to sound. Whenever I try to explain to people that I like prog rock, I should cite records like this as an example; it's not as far out or spazzy as more European NWW-list stuff, but it's also a hell of a lot more interesting than Yes or ELP. The weirdness is controlled, and it's brainy without losing sight of music's power to create images and memories; sometimes the bass playing is a bit overbearing, which is a shame because the band can create some pretty nice soundworlds with basic rock instrumentation. The Pyle-penned 'Shaving' retains the acid edge of Gong, minus Daevid Allen (or anyone else) singing, and with an awesome, phenomenal space rock crescendo. Matching Mole was more fun of course, since it was Wyatt's band through and through, and I have a huge soft spot for the first National Health album, a band which emerged out of Hatfield, particularly because of the epic jam 'Tenemos Roads', probably the high point of this whole genre of music. 

Hat Melter - 'Unknown Album' (Crouton)

Two cellos, two percussionists and a lot of editing = a big electroacoustic tapestry, woven together with some mouse clicks and pressed onto 220gram vinyl. Hat Melted is a big, thick slab o' wax and since I really, really like cellos, I keep gripping my armrests hoping for some nice DDA-sounding deep 'llo. But it rarely comes, or when it does, it's blended with the percussion, the whole AMM-style of laminal sound or whatever they call it. Sometimes one cellos saws around in the background while another dances furtively around the higher register. Sometimes they just leave some space, though the processing here, while not super overboard, gives away that the room ain't necessarily real. The four musicans are pretty evenly balanced, or rather I should say the cellos and percussion are evenly balanced, since I'm not sure who's doing what. This Crouton label is (was?) run by Jon Mueller and focuses on his projects primarily - he's one of the percussionists here and probably also the svengali doing the editing. I suppose this breathes some life into improvisation, though the electronic effects aren't always in service of an overall aesthetic, and some of the more 'improv' parts go on too long. The first side is energetic and has big swells and deep resonating tones followed by their sudden absence; some circa-2003 computer work makes me think this was just coming from the wrong place to really gain some traction. A few years later I was in the UK surrounded by a whole scene that looked to these types of collaborations, but Milkwaukee just before noise broke was probably a somewhat isolated world. Hat Melter never made another recorded peep - I suspect this was a one-off studio-only collaboration, and while it has some intense peaks of enjoyable sound, it strikes me more as a curiosity now than anything. 

17 April 2017

Richard Harris - 'The Yard Went on Forever...' (Dunhill)

This moustachioed Irishman sure could croon! The followup to the mega-hit album which contained 'MacArthur Park' landed without much fanfare, despite Jimmy Webb going all-out to make a well-crafted orch-pop masterpiece. The Yard Went On Forever... is actually one song in eight parts, more like an opera, with themes coming and reappearing later, so I guess that makes this a concept album? There's a lot of imagery about children here, including some actual ones singing, and the lyric sheet takes the time to twice footnote the line 'she's skipping like a stone' as 'Before Nilsson', so you better be sure this wasn't a ripoff. I have a soft spot for Mr. Webb and somehow his progressive Southern American songcraft makes a nice match with Harris's soulful balladeering. It doesn't feel Irish in the slightest, though the format I somewhat associate with Scott Walker and some hybrid concept of 'Europe', and I guess this is a reverse version of that. The title track is nice to lose oneself in, with it's start-stop jerkyness, swells of orchestral magic,  backing vocals from the aforementioned kids and Webbisms like 'Does everybody have a place to hide?' There's some sort of social conscience here with lyrics about Nagasaki and Bombay and doomsday, but I just like the way it all crashes together.  I don't know what any of it means, but it's nice to listen to sometimes. Even still, I must admit this is a strange record to keep in the accumulation, found at a flea market and very rarely dusted off. The back cover has Harris in a bandanna with a Rambo font (though of course years before Rambo was created), which makes this feel like such a product of Vietnam and the changing social times - was he looking to garner cred with vets? Also, someone named David Duke plays French horn on this - I'm guessing it ain't THAT David Duke, but it's funny to imagine it so. I can see why it made sense to pair these guys up again and this is a great set of songs, though there's nothing particularly memorable here - no 'Galveston', no 'PF Sloan' - and I'm sure it was a commercial disappointment after 'MacArthur'. But then again, why the hell was that song so huge anyway? A perfect storm of right place, right time, I guess. Anyway, Dumbledore really belts them out here, and when he gets more aggro ('Gayla') it can be almost scary, at least if you have this turned up as loud as I do. But I'm more into the arrangements, which come from the Song Cycle style of American orchestral pop; the harpsichord and flutes float above everything, and for an early stereo mix, they did a pretty decent job. I understand why people go apeshit over listening to old pressings of records like this because it really sounds huge, almost like this was the genre of music my turntable was really designed for. I really liked Harris in that Lindsay Anderson film about Rugby League; this feels like a polar opposite to that aesthetic, though probably united through the concept of dirt.