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

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. 

16 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Born in Captivity' (Awareness)

And we finally reach the end of the Roy Harper gauntlet. It's been a fun ride, no? Born in Captivity was released in 1984, so we've skipped ahead a few years, right over 1982's Work of Heart of which this record is supposedly the demo tapes of. Not being familiar with that record, I can only go by this which is mostly 'stripped-down' in the sense that it's Harper and an electric guitar, except for the more fleshed out cuts like 'Drawn to the Flames' and 'I Am a Child'. Harper in the 80s takes on the aesthetic that seduced many at the time - 'Child' has a mid tempo backing band and crippled guitar tones, sounding a bit like Hall & Oates or whatever was floating around at the time. This sound isn't so poo-poo'd any longer though it still sounds to me like the music I grew up rebelling against in some way. But unaccompanied, or barely accompanied, it sounds like 70s Harper, for the most part. Both sides start with songs named after people. 'Elizabeth' appears in full form on Whatever Happened to Jugula? but here is a confident slow-burner, a touching and intimate hymn for hope. 'Stan' is a song (I think) about football legend Stanley Matthews and thus I sorta like it for that reason, as it elevates him to some sort of mythic figure. Hey, I like nostalgia, especially nostalgia for a British life I never led. And then there's 'Work of Heart' , the six part song suite that fills out side two. It's hard to click with this, as perhaps I've just heard too many really long Roy Harper songs in the last few days. Or maybe the lack of full instrumentation drags this down, as all of the others (even 'McGoohan's Blues') featured a backing band. The first and last parts are called 'No One Ever Gets Out Alive', and those are catchy enough melodies, but all the stuff in the middle is hard to focus on. There are some swirling, descending guitar riffs here that sound exactly like the Page-guesting on 'The Same Old Rock', and I wonder if it's supposed to be a quote or just a struggling artist returning to one of his greatest triumphs. This isn't a terrible record by any means, and I always like when artists release the demos of something. Going through all of these Roy Harper albums, a careful reader will notice that I'm not super fair to Mr. Harper. I celebrate him for his audacity, but then prefer the straight ahead folk songs; I commend his visceral lyrics about religion and society, but then chide him for his misogyny. But that's really what it comes down to with Harper - he's a complex, fucked-up contradiction of an artist, and that's what makes him resonate so much with me still. I'm sure there's great material throughout his 80s and 90s output, and I'd love someone to make me a mix of the best of that era.

Roy Harper - 'One Of Those Days In England (Bullinamingvase)' (Chrysalis)

This record (which also has a different title in the US) more explicitly deals with issues of life in England, circa 1977, and while there's nary a trace of the punk sound taking over those shores at the time, it paints a portrait that is somewhat less idealised than the work of Ray Davies, while remaining true to Roy Harper's personality and past body of work. It also has some dudes from Wings playing on it. 'One of Those Days in England', the song, is split across the record; part one serves as a bouncy introduction to the whole LP, and is really just a love song; side two is given over to parts two through ten, which develop a bit like 'The Game' on the previous LP - a proper prog-rock suite, just not super proggy. Harper never gets into excessively jammy solos or fancy time signatures; I think after listening to all these records I can safely say he's confident with his technical skills and also likes the pop-rock format just fine, not seeking to tear it down with experimental musique concrete interludes or jazzy improvisations. Yet he still pushes the form in terms of duration and assemblage, making what I would call 'complicated pop'; parts 2-10 of the title track are maybe the best example yet of it all. The sheer length of it makes it feel slightly like light opera, but thankfully there's no central narrative. 'One of Those Days in England' is extremely English, sure, and makes no secret of the country's decline, but it's really a love song using the backdrop of nation, memory, and current events as a lyrical device. Coming when it does - before Thatcher took over and fucked shit up even further, there's a wistful nostalgia to the grumbling, like a little bit of decline is OK and who knew how bad things would get after this point. A Brexit anthem this is not, however; it's personal and idiosyncratic like everything of Harper's, resisting any possibilities for being co-opted as part of a movement or protest. I guess the first part of 'One of Those Days in England', standing alone on side 1, works not just as an introduction to the album but as potential radio single. It certainly sounds a lot more polished than anything on HQ; there's slick backing vocals and keyboards and a tendency towards a less 'hard' edge. The material in-between -- the rest of side 1 -- has some lovely parts; 'These Last Days' and 'Cherishing the Lonesome' continue the record's themes of love and loss and are quite Apollonian, moving through light, gentle melodies, towards a definitive rock and roll statement in the latter piece. 'Naked Flame' is the high point of the whole LP to me, a very crunchy folky piece which just screams with bright treble sonorities. A twelve-string guitar has never sounded better on vinyl, and there's also a close aesthetic similarity to some of the more traditional-leaning folkie Brits of the time, at least more than Harper tends to express. It's all dragged down by 'Watford Gap', which supposedly was left off some pressings because it was 'controversial', although it's about stopping at a roadside services and having a shitty meal. The meal was obviously so shitty that Harper was inspired to write a silly novelty song about it, but if you've spent many days in England you should have expected it, I would think.

15 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'When an Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease' (Chrysalis)

I have the North American edition of this album, which is called HQ in the UK, but to be honest I like this title more. I think of this (roughly) as Harper's Rust Never Sleeps, with one side being electric and one side acoustic, but it's actually not true - the rock numbers have acoustic interludes and the second side actually rocks a bit on 'Hallucinating Light'. Yet there's something of a duality here - maybe because side A is largely uptempo songs about big topics, and side B is a bit more delicate, pastoral, and romantic. This feels like the summation of everything Roy Harper explored between 1968-1974, synthesised into one masterful album, yet despite this cohesion, I wouldn't call this his best record (but certainly a good one). 'The Game (parts 1-5)' opens it up, a 13-minute epic investigation of the mysteries of existence. He's done these deep, rambling philosophical numbers before ('McGoohan's Blues', 'The Lords Prayer') but here, the whole work is built around a Kinks-style 'You Really Got Me' riff, which keeps everything from spiralling out of control. I'm not sure which parts are which, but somewhere in the middle, things take a nice shimmery folk turn, and it builds up to the climactic, inevitable rock-out ending. The final lyrics are 'Please leave this world as clean as when you came', and this is reflected in the composition itself which is relatively tidy, closer to Zeppelin than to Yes. It sounds a bit like Harper has shifted beyond melancholy to a sense of resignation; the feeling of 'The Game' is of a narrator trapped in structures beyond his control, trying to determine what art means, what his relationships have been worth. It's much more existential than sci-fi, and it works pretty well, even if you won't find yourself with a catchy melody stuck in your head afterwards.The big themes continue on 'The Spirit Lives', which starts off pontificating over a slidey steel guitar bed before starting to rock out. Here, Christianity is his target, and his atheistic, humanistic assertions rank up there with Burma's 'New Nails'; Roy Harper is more punk than anyone realised, perhaps because he rarely wraps his observations in easy slogans. Anyway, I'm always up for some religion-bashing, so I like it. The weak part of side one (and the whole record, really) is 'Grown Ups Are Just Silly Children', which ends the side, again reminding me of Roy Wood and Wizzard in particular. This rave-up is a throwaway number but it's okay, because side two is so lovely. 'Referendum (Legend)' I guess is some reboot on Sophisticated Beggar's 'Legend', or maybe its just a totally different song. 'Forget Me Not' is a truly beautiful, psychedelic work to immerse oneself in, a totally simple love song where the chorus/echo effects of John Leckie's production work wonders (finally). These days, I tend to gravitate towards the more simple, strong 'songs' instead of the ambitious prog-experimental jams, and this is just fucking stellar. 'Hallucinating Light' is long and trippy, yet very subdued - it precedes mellow minimalist rock bands like Low and the Clientele by two decades and remains a haunting presence even once the record segues into the title track, which is a slow yet fierce dirge about aging, I guess, filled with sports metaphors. The back cover of this outlines the rules for cricket, I guess since us Americans wouldn't know, but I would have rather had the lyrics printed. I don't know if Chris Corsano's Young Cricketer is somehow a reference to this - the album artwork is a little bit similar.

Roy Harper ‎– 'Flashes From The Archives Of Oblivion' (Chrysalis)

A good live album captures something that isn't found in the studio, but Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion only does that in, well, flashes. Case in point: track #2, the impeccable 'Commune', sounds pretty much as the version on Valentine does, minus the strings and layered vocals. There's a little fragment of something preceding it, spliced in after the lone studio track on this record ('Home') ends, but otherwise, apart from maybe some hesitations on the tricky fingerpicking, this is just a lesser version. Likewise, 'Me and My Woman', minus David Bedford's strings and accents, is just a really long strummy folk song. And that's my problem with Flashes - it feels often like a contractual obligation record than something proper, though the horrible cover art probably affects my enjoyment.  Which isn't to say there's anything wrong with this; Harper's spoken intros are cute, when present, and the recordings (coming from a variety of shows in the early 70s) are pretty nice sounding. 'Home' bookends the set, studio at the beginning and a faster, jammy live version at the end, and the inclusion of one studio track feels a bit odd, like it might have been better released as a single. Which it actually was, according to discogs.com. It's a great song, a perfect pop concoction with a great 70s rock hood and some nice flute interplay. I do like the more minimal 'Twelve Hours of Sunset', a bit slower and more acoustic, though you could also say it drags a bit. The most extended bit of solo guitar jamming comes on 'One Man Rock and Roll Band' and this is a nice take on the Stormcock classic. But some of the other songs ('Don't You Grieve', for example) aren't anything special in these versions, except maybe when the production rule of 'less is more' is applicable (most obviously on the Lifemask tracks - 'South Africa', 'All Ireland' and 'Highway Blues'). There are some string accompaniments on 'Another Day', and some light backing in other places -- but for the most part this seems to be just Harper solo gig throughout, albeit with some echo effects (or else recorded in very large rooms). I'm not a Harper completist (which I realise is a funny thing to say about someone I own ten albums by) but I keep this collection mostly for the studio version of 'Home', and a side-D jam called 'Too Many Movies',  - a melancholy, electric guitar strummer that touches on memory and popular culture. 

10 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Valentine' (Harvest)

This has weirdly been one of my favourite Roy Harper records, despite it being pretty uneven by design, being built around odds and ends, and shorter songs written over the previous few years. Oh, and it's also really dodgy in terms of political correctness, in more than few places. I had hoped upon embarking on this project all those years ago that giving a studious re-listen to all of these records would encourage me to re-evaluate them, and to hear new things and maybe reconsider my opinions. But to be honest, it's mostly reinforced my feelings and in cases like this where I have heard the record so many times, I feel like I'm not able to properly concentrate on them. With that in mind, Valentine is still lovely and still uneven. I am really a sucker for the soft, straight fingerpicking folkie tunes and the examples on here are stunning. 'Forever' from Sophisticated Beggar is somewhat reworked; 'North Country' is a take on the Dylan song (or rather, 'steals it back' as one live spoken intro declares); 'Commune' is about the most perfect, beautiful work of magic ever committed to vinyl. And let's talk now about the opener, 'Forbidden Fruit', which as the title might hint, is about wanting to fuck a 13-year old girl. Now, I firmly believe one can write a song from a different point of view than the songwriter, and that a narrative can be fictionalised, etc - and I like to think that Harper was doing that, rather than confessing to the whole world how much he lusted after a schoolgirl. It's an interesting situation to write about and to try to find empathy in the situation and I think he did a good job, but the added dynamic of music and melody makes this even more complicated, because it's one of the more catchy and graceful tracks he's given us. It's hard not to love this song, even if it's shady as hell. And it recasts the 'little girl' subject of the closing track, 'Forever', in a new (creepy) light. This masculine tendency rears its head throughout, veering into straight-up misogyny at points. I find that when it's masked in something delicate and twee, like on 'Commune', I love it; when backed by a more hard rock section, I don't. 'Male Chauvinist Pig Blues' is clearly tongue-in-cheek and easy to ignore but 'Magic Woman (Liberation Reshuffle)' is not so forgivable. Filler like 'Acapulco Gold' is mostly forgettable (though that's a lovely lounge piano pantomime!) than 'Magic Woman's lyrics about 'unconscious castration' and 'I need a man to plug into me'. It really is a testament to the power of the great songs here that I rate Valentine so high as an overall album and choose to ignore the odious material. 'Twelve Hours of Sunset', written from the window of a plane, is eerie and magical; it can make goosebumps rise and the electric guitar sound from Lifemask returns here, only this time, it's perfect. And 'Commune', 'Commune', well,  I don't even know what I can say except it's just fucking incredible. This is maybe more proof of why I see Harper and Neil Young as analogous; they both have sometimes questionable social stances, they can flip between rockers and folk songs in the same record, and their surrealist tendencies are a nice complement to each other.

9 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Lifemask' (Chrysalis)

This one tends to get passed over, falling among a run of far better albums, and my memory of the sound is that its all clangy electric guitars mostly strummed without much accompaniment. Side two is given over entirely to 'The Lords Prayer', which may be the longest of all Harper songs but it lacks the dynamic magic of some of this other great long pieces. But side one is bookended by great songs, 'Highway Blues' and 'South Africa'. The latter is a perfect little love song (I have no idea why it's titled such), with swirling, multi-tracked guitars and layers of voice giving it an ethereal 4AD sound, a decade before that was a thing. On this song the heavy-handed production (engineered by John Leckie, who did the next few Harper albums too) works, but in other places I find it to be a bit much. Compared to Stormcock, there isn't really that many more affectations on the instruments, and the synths are mostly held to 'Highway Blues' and 'The Lord's Prayer'. What's missing here is the pastoral feeling, the classic folkie sound which is a conventional thing for me to pine for, but whatever - it's something I love about Harper. That chilling feeling is only really present in 'All Ireland'; the rest of Lifemask is given over to more prog-leaning material. 'Highway Blues' is still a good song, with quintessentially Harperian rambling lyrics, and huge vocal explosions. And of course 'The Lords Prayer', over half of the record, has its moments. It's a song written while Harper was dangerously ill, and as an example of him trying to pack everything possible into one song it's fascinating, with the lyrics thankfully printed out so you can realise that most of them are lines beginning with 'whose...'. But sung and put into a 22 minute song with Jimmy Page and a full band, it somehow just becomes a mess. The man is capable of writing a super catchy pop song and there's none of that here - not a hook to hold onto, and the long spoken introduction establishes a nice podcast atmosphere but the rest of the song doesn't hold up. The 'introduction' to the liner notes is a somewhat whiny screed about his lack of commercial success and in the credits he mentions that one assistant engineer couldn't handle working on 'The Lords Prayer' which maybe should have been a sign. But the man's work has been so stellar to this point that I've overlooked this misstep, and the record which follows more than makes up for the dearth of delicate, romantic love songs. Apparently most version of Lifemask came as a cool gatefold that opened up around his face, but this Chrysalis issue takes the cheap route, so that could be another reason I'm grumpy about this particular record.

Roy Harper - 'Stormcock' (Chrysalis)

Here's the one, if you are only casually acquainted with Harper, that his reputation is largely built upon. And why not - Stormcock is a stunning achievement, somehow feeling like the most complete and representative record of his career despite being only four long songs and almost entirely acoustic. What it's missing is the whimsy, the goofiness, which inhabits (or infects, depending on your POV) most of this other material. I personally like a little whimsy in my Harper, but Stormcock is so solid that I don't miss it. The three previous albums discussed here, while solid-to-great, still had their bits of filler (sometimes connected directly to the aforementioned whimsy), but there is not a trace of that here; it's as if every second of every song is perfectly placed, from the exaggerated reverberating twang of a stray guitar note in 'Hors d'œuvres' to the ripping solo at the end of 'The Same Old Rock'. And let's start with the latter song, actually. It's the one with Jimmy Page, famously guesting under a pseudonym, and their acoustic jamming pyrotechnics are brilliant, presaging Jugula by 14 years and with a much stronger composition than anything on that album. But there's so much more at play in 'The Same Old Rock'; it may encapsulate everything that is great about Harper. The delicate melodicism found in some of his signature songs (such as 'Another Day', 'Commune', 'Forever' etc.) is equalled if not surpassed; the way he starts singing ( 'All along the ancient wastes / the same reflection spins...') out of the slow guitar intro is like dawn breaking through the mist, and one of the more beautiful moments; the layered vocals and mild percussion comes in to separate the aggro riffage at the end from the rest of the song which always makes me think this is really Harper's 'Stairway to Heaven' (or 'Bohemian Rhapsody'). File alongside Gastr del Sol's Crookt, Crackt or Fly?, and I wonder if this was an influence on Grubbs/O'Rourke. When one guitarist starts on this slightly middle-Eastern melodic riff (I assume Page), I always felt a bit like this used modal scales so seamlessly that it secretly revealed the whole album to be in the 'prog-rock' genre. Lyrically, it's an attack on religion and war, and Stormcock's first three songs feel predominantly to be addressing systems, structures, and other such big topics. 'One Man Rock and Roll Band' has some war imagery, made more stark by the flange effect on Harper's voice. I love this one too - the guitar is acoustic but the voice is electric, and the vocoder/flanger/chorus/whatever is a chilling complement to the natural timbre of his voice. When the piano chords show up, near the end, their thundering overtones are a perfect segue into the last track. Actually, studio production slowly creeps up slowly on this record, starting with the spare, minimal 'Hors d'œuvres' and building up to the David arranged 'Me and My Woman', where synths, horns, and other orchestral elements come and go around the maelstrom of strumming and singing. The drama is exaggerated at times (perhaps this is the album's take on 'whimsy' I was looking for) but it never cheapens things. It's huge, bringing matters to a close and ending almost suddenly, leaving an echo of headspace. If the man had a masterpiece, it's hard not to point to this one; it's a reputation justly deserved.

Roy Harper - 'Flat Baroque and Berserk' (Harvest)

In more argumentative moods I will sometimes put out the opinion that Bob Dylan ain't half the songwriter that Roy Harper is. I don't know if I really believe that, or why it would matter anyway since they are both great, but clearly I'm holding on to all these Harper records (where I own exactly one of Dylan) for a reason, though that reason has more to do with their relative availabilities than a true assessment of preference. But when I was going through a phase, often connected to drinking a bit, I would make this argument - or lager-ument, if you get my drift - to try to provoke my Dylan-obsessed friends into discovering the depth and sophistication of Harper's oeuvre - especially as he was from their own country and Dylan was from mine, so therefore they would relate to delicate English nuances I would never completely pick up on. Anyway, I realise now that a better comparison is not Dylan but Neil Young, not just in the way they are split between folky/electric work and their penchant for self-indulgence (since you could apply the same to Dylan), but in how much of himself Harper seems to put out there, closer to Young than Dylan, where you are always at arm's length (even if it's sometimes Greil Marcus's arm). Flat Baroque and Berserk isn't quite a step backwards from Folkjokeopus but it feels like it slips a bit into the cracks between it's predecessor and Stormcock. It's actually less baroque than Folkjokeopus (maybe because he's broke from Shel Talmy's invoice) so there's a lot more straightforward strummin'-and-singin', you know, the singer-songwriter genre, which is not for everyone. 'Don't You Grieve' and 'I Hate the White Man' open things off, the former being a catchy song from the perspective of Judas Iscariot and the latter being a confused bit of political sympathising that does not hold up so well in 2017, despite Harper's long spoken introduction. It's like he know how complicated this issue would be, and he was trying to proactively get ahead of the issue, but my problem is not really with the song itself (well-written, and occasionally lovely) but with the nearly blackface nature of the whole thing, most evident in his pronunciation of the word 'the' in the titular line. But let's move on; it could have been a lot worse and it's the thought that counts, right? Flat Baroque and Berserk has 'Another Day', one of his most beloved songs (and most well-known thanks to This Mortal Coil's beautiful rendition, which we'll get to in ten years or so). The arrangement benefits it greatly, lifting the 'I loved you a long time ago' lyrics out of the mix to feel like a natural gust of wind, carrying it into the ether - his voice is so soft and the strings are also restrained, making this the most baroque cut on the record but a pretty restrained one. And this is one of those tracks where the sheer beauty just overwhelms everything else.  This is among the more Apollonian cuts and fits in with the album's general theme of loss and memory (though that really emerges on side two, after side one closes with 'Goodbye', an elegy to someone who was shot). Most of side two excels; 'Davey', is a brief minor-key, wistful number about his brother; the drifting flying carpet ride of 'East of the Sun'; the perfect, infallible 'Francesca'. 'Song of the Ages' is a perfect balance between guitar, harp and voice and is also beautiful to the point of being nearly paralysing.'Tom Tiddler's Ground' echoes 'How Does it Feel', as the two longer compositions on each side, but 'Tiddler' is the superior cut for sure. This, like most of the album, is only Harper's voice and guitar, except for a delicately meandering keyboard line, which only really comes to the forefront during the chorus. As details go, it's magical, and right when it's about to wear out its welcome, the record segues into 'Francesca'. It's only the balls-out rock of 'Hell's Angels' to close which feels unnatural; Harper's taste in sequencing is sometimes questionable (see Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion, when we get there). The record comes clad in a gatefold which is rather silly (given the cover photo) but features typed out lyrics inside, to everything except for 'Feeling All the Saturday' (which is actually a lovely ditty despite mentioning a toddler squeezing shit out of his diaper).

8 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Folkjokeopus' (World Pacific)

I wish I had the UK edition of this because the cover is nicer - this has a circusy typeface that jars against the moody, moustache-heavy photo on the cover here. Actually, Harper looks like Howard Moon from The Mighty Boosh on this sleeve, though the sounds herein are far from the scat-jazz stylings the fictitious Mr. Moon would endorse. This is Harper's third album and I'm sad not to own the second as Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith is a fantastic album where the Harper sound begins to come together and emerge as a distinct vision, rather than a 'product of the times'. But Folkjokeopus ain't bad at all, probably one of my overall favourites, and Shel Talmy's production is really evident - generally a good thing, except that  some of the rockers start to sound the same. The unnamed rhythm section has a real boogie-woogie bass player and several songs' reliance on minor key strummed acoustic chords before a major resolution leads to a samey feeling throughout. One would be forgiven for confusing snippets of 'Seargent Sunshine', 'Zaney Janey' and 'She's the One', although they are pretty different compositions. The first two are fun and pleasant pop songs, one the perfect album opener and the second perhaps Harper's counterpoint to Nick Drake's 'Hazy Jane' - I like to think they are about the same woman and reflect the dispositions of the songwriters and how they interpreted her. 'She's The One' is the all-time most-played Harper cut in this house. My vinyl is worn a bit thin here, but it sounds great, and I just want to keep listening to it over and over. A paen of jealous appreciation to a friend unhappy with his marriage, it seethes with fantasy, passion and life, even with cryptic lyrics I've struggled with for a decade ('She's the one who buys the comics, drops the kids and knows the con', but maybe I'm trying to read in too much). It's major hook ('Ah how can any man talk like you / with a wonderful wife like yours?') is impossible to not sing along to, bursting with such exuberance. The momentum keeps this going and it doesn't even begin to wear out its welcome despite it's seven minute length - but if we want to talk about duration, well this is the album with 'McGoohan's Blues', the 17 minute epic loosely inspired by The Prisoner. As length Harper compositions go, this is one of the strongest, built mostly around a stark, tinny strum and his voice. This is borderline conspiracy theory soliloquising, with the Prisoner imagery slowly fading into a full-fledged psychedelic mess (rainbows, toadstools, silver water, etc.). Because of this, it's not that easy to grip onto, but clearly lashing out at social conventions, religion, conformity, and government - what else ya got? It's not as much as protest anthem as a Theory of Everything, and it helps that the song is pretty great too, with the nearly shrieked chorus anchoring the long slow journey til when the band finally kicks in. But the full band part of 'McGoohan's Blues' isn't some payoff, just a plateau, and not what I tend to remember. As a whole, Talmy holds Folkjokeopus together well, and there's very little throwaway beyond 'Exercising Some Control', about a dog (which does sound the most like the music-hall influenced Kinks of anything here). Eastern raga influences rears its head on 'In the Time of Water', though it's too brief to really notice; 'Ballad of Songwriter' casts the songwriter as the bringer of light, and may be the predecessor to the 'Dayman' song from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; it's also where, on this listen, I started to hear a similarity to another eccentric English Roy from the same era, Mr. Wood, who shares the slight hint of the carnivalesque with Harper. 'Composer of Life' is another nearly forgotten cut, a twee, falsetto sketch that is actually fucking beautiful and one of the other underrated gems on this record. I gave this three full listens just now, which may seem a bit silly since I have 8 more Harper LPs to plow through, but I keep wanting to go back to 'She's The One'. Maybe because of the presence of 'McGoohan's', this would be my pick for the Roy Harper album to get, if you are only seeking one, since it feels pretty evenly dispersed over all of his different approaches. The one thing this lacks is some of the stunning fingerpicking from Sophsticated Beggar, but Stomcock lies ahead....

3 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Sophisticated Beggar' (Big Ben)

For the fist time (I think) in Dislocated Underbite's eight+ year history, I happened to buy an LP that was exactly the next one to be listened to alphabetical. So this is both the next LP in the gauntlet and also its newest addition. Sophisticated Beggar is Roy Harper's first album, and one of the three I was missing (out of the ones I want, not his entire discography - FYI contact me if you want to unload a cheap copy of Jugula or Ghenghis Smith). Harper wrote some cute liner notes on the back explaining how he used to dislike this record but didn't mind it so much anymore, and singled out his favourite songs. For a man who's not always left the most comfortable body of work in today's woke/PC times, 'China Girl' is a hell of a way to open his first album. It's wistful and slight and built around 'oriental' melodies, which is somehow more cringeworthy than the concept; but then again whenever I hear 'Turning Japanese' I don't mind it so what's the difference? This is way before Harper started writing epic seventeen minute songs, and also before he really started to flesh out his instrumentation - Sophisticated Beggar is remarkably unsophisticated in terms of arrangement, built around his guitar fingerpicking and voice, a classic late 60s folk record with the influence of rock and British counterculture. But the fingerpicking is fantastic - during parts of this, such as the title track, I realise how fucking great his guitar-fu was, which I tend to forget in the glow of his songwriting. 'Committed' and 'Mr. Station Master' feature a full electric rock band, recorded in a wooly, almost lo-fi way, the latter built around a languid shuffle and dominated by thick organ chords. But both songs are kinda throwaway, closer to bubblegum than the dirgey, intense lyrical dumps he'd become notable for later. The other throwaway stuff ('Big Fat Silver Aeroplane and 'China Girl') at least fit the era, and the album congeals nicely. Rather than being a Dylan copy, theres way more of a Bert Jansch influence (heard most evidently on the instrumental 'Blackpool'). 'Forever', 'Legend' and 'October the 12th' stand out as songs that would linger into Harper's subsequent live career; the latter could be a more colourful analogy to Nick Drake's work, except Harper's voice has the undeniably cheekyness that works well with his more extravagant lyrics. 'Forever' is fucking gorgeous, with his singing earnestly mellow ('drawing into an eternal horizon of time' blends with the hypnotic guitar pattern and is one of my favourite Roy Harper songs in his whole catalogue). With Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith he really takes a step forwards towards the frustratingly idiosyncratic and mostly brilliant artist he would be over the next decade and eight or so albums. Hang on, cause we're in for a lot of Roy Harper in the next few days.

James Twig Harper ‎– 'Intuitive American Esoteric Vol. 2' ( American Tapes/Ecstatic Peace!/Gods Of Tundra/Heresee/Slowtoe)

Another multi-label collaboration (and you gotta hand it to Harper for his vision), this one contains far fewer liner notes - none at all, apart from a now-faded gold sticker on the cover - and is split into two side-long pieces, with no label on the LP and an etching on one side saying to play at any speed. I chose 33 because I was too lazy to lift my turntable's glass platter; I started with the etched side, which is almost entirely locked groves so it's particularly difficult to listen to. It's fun to watch my Rega Bias cartridge skid all over the place trying to grab onto something, though I worry if it's damaging, so I'm glad to play this now before upgrading to a new cart. I'm reminded, of course, of all those Brinkmann records I never listen to, which are also joys of physical groove mastering. There's a similar skittiness here, though the materials feel more analogue and the beats more like byproducts. I'm not sure how many grooves I missed while going through this so it's probably safe to say I heard 70% of this at best.  It's the other, 'normal' side of Intuitive American Esoteric vol. 2 which is the real doozy. Here, Harper goes through just about everything in his toolbox, and while it has a fairly tighter 'electronic' soundbase than vol. 1 (meaning: there are less obviously acoustic tones that aren't processed into something space-aged), it really moved through a lot of territory. And it's LONG - I wasn't timing but it felt like it went on for about a half-hour. There's parts that sound like they are underwater, parts that are out-and-out aggressive percussive noise, and parts that pull in eight different directions at once. There's so much motion here that it would be insane to try to follow all of the parts, and everything collages together as it's happening so it's a dense psychedelic journey, for sure. I think the sense of movement and composition here is more accomplished than volume 1, though the fidelity is not quite as high and the range of pitches and sound-hues starts to congeal about halfway through. That's not to say there isn't plenty of space here - Harper is not a 'wall of noise' artist - but it's busy even within the spaces, if that makes any sense. Volume 3 happened but I haven't heard it; the completist part of me wants to seek it out, however.