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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'ĂȘtre, 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.