Saturday, 10 October 2009

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - 'The Mirror Man Sessions' (Buddha)

Here's a rare case when the CD reissue trumps the vinyl - Mirror Man was a record of leftover long jams from the pre-Strictly Personal sessions, a surprisingly uncommercial yet revelatory glimpse from '67 or so, though it came out in '71, if I have my timeline right. This CD sticks those tracks (maybe extending some of the first few tracks, though I'm not sure) and other, generally superior versions of songs that were re-recorded for Strictly, and in the process becomes one of the most essential Beefheart items, I think. 'Tarotplane' blends into '25th Century Quaker' which blends into 'Mirror Man' and it's hard to even notice where the seams are. These are exercises in horizontality, really the only time I can remember the Magic Band merging with the James Brown band, at least spiritually. Soul is actually present but it's as inside-out as you'd expect it to be. Somehow despite hearing these jams a million times I think they manage to surprise me, at least a little bit, every time. Whatever had infected Can and Neu! was clearly in the same smoke but the difference is all in the culture - Beefheart's band is all guts, worms and breath while the Germans have little funny tables next to their sofas. But furthermore, these long tracks are about motion - they move, slowly, like crisscrossing waves that rise and fall and gradually take you across to another island. The shorter songs are for the most part superior to the versions that ended up on Strictly Personal - for one reason, because they're so much more clear, though they are Krasnow as well. There's some great true distortion present on a few tracks - meaning the guitars actually break up because the amplifier/speaker can't handle the signal. The phasing stuff isn't here but it manages to sound weirder anyway. Because weird is not just prepackaged effects that everyone uses - it's in the songwriting, the performance, the expression. This disc is packed at 71 minutes and pretty satisfying, but it's also still a band in transition, on the verge of masterpiece.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Bedhead - 'Transaction de Novo' (Trance Syndicate)

Perfection comes at the end. Here's a CD I've listened to so many times that every chord change, every nanosecond of hesitation before each note is played, every barely audible vocal breath -- these things are all weighed down with a dense, emotional gravity to my ears. Maybe you'd just hear some slow-paced indie rock band doing what they do, nothing special. Ear of the beholder, I guess? The formula is the same yet there's miles of growth in this band, though that realisation might be hard for me to articulate. 'Exhume' opens up with a drumless, ringing patchwork of guitar and bass notes just like 'Beheaded', except the tone is more contemplative than dark. The lyrics alternate between barely-sung and extremely sung, by which I mean melodically intoned with a real sincerity. 'More than Ever' maybe exemplifies this - it's slow, open drum beat leaves room for the voice to ring along with the guitars, where every note is expertly chosen to fall alongside every space, also expertly chosen. The ringing notes are so powerful - on 'Parade', they're repetitive and trance-like, and they've been stuck in my head for literally a decade. Bubba Kadane sings on 'Half-thought' which is slightly more upbeat and bouncy, though I would never know it was a different singer were it not for the credits. 'Extramundane' is even more upbeat, a fast, slightly distorted tune that would have been a perfect pop single in another world. The lyrics are maybe a bit more upfront than before, and you can hear a confidence even as they sing about hesitation and uncertainty. Brilliant! The real rocker, and one of the most memorable songs in the Bedhead catalogue, would be 'Psychosomatica', which is the most cranked up they ever sounded. Instead of a warm glow, the Rat pedals come out for properly crunchy, angular riffs. There are pop hooks in all of these songs, but they are ironed out and subdued so you would never think of any of these songs as catchy - but maybe this makes their inevitable brain-burrowing more effective. A personal note: shortly after this album came out I jumped in a car with some friends and drove a few hours to a nearby city to see Bedhead live, in a small club I had been to before where there were maybe 50 people watching bemusedly. They were good, maybe even great, though it was 1998 and memory hasn't been kind. I remember they played 'The Rest of the Day' at the end of their set, which was like shooting their load kinda, but it was the end right? So then an encore is demanded and they come out and play the one song I was hoping to hear, 'The Present', which is the last track on this, Bedhead's last album. And any doubts about what my all time favorite Bedhead song was immediately were washed away. I can't say why this song is so great - there's no obvious riff of dramatic build, apart from some sort of organ or affected guitar that fills the middle zone unlike anything they ever used before. Maybe its the lyrics, which are I guess playing on words meaning both the current era and a gift; the gift of course is the music they left for us. I'm sure I'm not the only devoted fan who is still waving their torch a decade later (after going through personal journeys, taste changes, broadening horizons and self-reinventions a million times over). They broke up really soon afterwards, maybe a week or two, and immediately I regretted not savouring every second of that show. The drive back in the middle of the night was more memorable, with a $2 tape of Galaxie 500 'This Is Our Music' stuck in the tape player and playing over and over. Anyway, I saved the sticker that was on the shrinkwrap when I bought this CD in 1998, and it just fell out of the CD booklet. Great press quotes here: "Mesmerising ... melancholy and pure." (Melody Maker). "Restraint. Intelligence. Control... the effect is monumental." (Raygun). But it's not just restraint and intelligence - it's emotional and soulful and impressionistic, just with a carefully chosen palette. Live forever, Bedhead - not to discount that Macha EP or the New Year, but this is where it peaked and then you flamed out as you should have.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Bedhead - 'Beheaded' (Trance Syndicate)

It's a bit awkward to sing a word like 'efficacy' in rock music but somehow these guys pull it off. Not surprising, really, for a band with a guy named Bubba and another named Tench. I've always though there's something weird in the water down there but Bedhead definitely stem from the thoughtful side of Texas rock music (the same college-educated place the American Analog Set come from) instead of the Gibby/Roky/freak side. They can co-exist though - after all, King Coffey put this record out so he's clearly a man of discerning taste. This was the first record I heard by them and probably their masterpiece, except for their last album. Dual masterpieces maybe? The epic song is 'The Rest of the Day' which was the one that blew eveything open for me the first time I heard it, with some slowcore geek in a dorm room, autumn of freshman year, circa 2 AM. Wide-eyes staring at each other through the silence while moonlight lit up the incredibly dismal surroundings - it was true adolescent magic, and what better soundtrack to convince myself that I wasn't a normal adolescent? The three guitar formula is still here but there's some occasionaly chimes or xylophone, used to incredibly powerful effect in 'The Rest of the Day'. You wanna talk about a buildup? But they, they cut it off again!! -- resisting the urge to let that hot magma explode everywhere. The overlapping ascending and descending guitar lines are the ropes building a temple to sound; whatever microgenre you wanna stick this in - post-rock or slowcore or indiewhatever -- here's one of the finest examples of it. The whole album is awesome though - 'Losing Memories' ends the record on gentle note (which is the Bedhead M.O.) there's the obligatory fast rocker ('Felo de Se'). The Kadane boys share vocal duties but you can barely tell which one is singing. They are twins after all. 'Beheaded', the opening track, takes the moody dirge of 'Inhume' (from The Dark Ages EP) and adds an equally gloomy vocal to it, which is cut through at the end by the xylophone or whatever - shining through the darkness like points of light in the sky. 'Smoke' captures a beautiful vision stained through barroom eyes perfectly and 'Roman Candle' twists chord changes exactly when they're needed. I think a lot of people might find this music too wimpy, too cerebral, or just too normal for their mindfucked musical tastes, yet I think everyone could benefit from some close study of Bedhead's work.

Bedhead - 'The Dark Ages' (Trance Syndicate)

'The Dark Ages' last a few hours according to the lyrics and that's all the time that's needed to erase memories, but mine will last forever. My college years are filled with them - memories of listening to this and Beheaded and some Low albums at 3 AM and thinking about how amazing it is that there are rock bands who like to be quiet and nuanced. "Perfect music for 3 AM!" I would always say, certainly moreso than the KLF's take. Plus there's memories of my own hands, snaked along a Mexican Telecaster neck in dingy basements as my fingers pluck out slow, snaking melodies lifted from Bedhead records (not note-for-note, but lifting the general feel, dig?). 'The Dark Ages' might be my favorite Bedhead song; the drums pound along with a steady beat and switch to a ride-cymbal heavy pattern during the chorus, which is when the leaves fall from treetops and let light into the forest. By the end it's crescendoed into a crunchier, more powerful version of the same chords, but it resists the temptation to totally rock out and cuts things off right when the fire is in sight. 'Inhume' also does the slow build, instrumentally, with feedback entering like a muted trumpet. The chords shift slowly, emerging with distinct personalities, and this is music for guitar bands, indeed. Maybe one of the reasons I never got into Mogwai was that their quiet/loud thing always seemed too easy and much less controlled than Bedhead's approach. Actually I probably never thought about it that much -- really, I was just ready move on by the time Mogwai hit the scene. There's only three songs on The Dark Ages but all three are fully satisfying. 'Any Life' is the last and it brings back the slight country and western tendencies that have crept up in the past two CDs. It's just a twangy guitar lead, almost playing the role of a pedal steel, but it's enough to flavour this tune, a gentle vocal-driven meditation that ends this EP on an understated note. But these guys are the masters of understatement, after all.

Bedhead - '4songCDEP19:10' (Trance Syndicate)

Bedhead's records all have a really similar design and this weird mishmash of numbers like a private barcode, in which BH0x is always present with x being the number of the release. WhatFunLifeWas is actually BH03 and I have all the subsequent ones so they must have had a debut 7" or two that I still need to complete my collection. Which I would love to do, because as I mentioned in the previous post, I love this fucking band and it's here where they start to hit their stride. This EP, BH04, was recorded in a big empty Texas church on one microphone. Unlike their studio recordings, these 4 songs are light and slightly more strummy, letting the room sing through the notes. 'Heizahobit' opens up with a real Feelies The Good Earth feeling, a sound not given lightly despite it's apparently lack of weight. 'Dead Language' is an all-time Bedhead fave, where the vocals come to the forefront though they are no less gentle; lyrics that seem to touch on war and skin and graves and something personal all at once. Despite the 100 times I've listened to this song I've never bothered to look for literal meaning, instead being satisfied to let the jaunty bounce of the drums and the slightly awkward melody set some sort of mood. Yeah, it's the most folky Bedhead moment probably, and it seems like they've relaxed a bit but stayed focused, which sounds like a contradiction but this is a band that contradicts itself more as you sink deeper into their music. 'WhatI'mHereFor' is a repetitive riff led by a solid, consistent drum that again devolves as it goes along while sticking to the pattern. The last track is a cover of Joy Division's 'Disorder' which I will say without hesitation blows away the original. The booming sound of the church is the lead instrument and Ian Curtis's vocal dramatics are replaced by Matt Kadane's existential murmur. Without any trace of hysterics the song still screams with pain, with the lackadaisacal repition of the two-note guitar lead driving the point home. The 'you've got the spirit/don't lose the feeling' part rises to a new intensity unheard in the original that somehow feels more genuine to me, even though they didn't write it. With an approach and palette like this, it's hard for Bedhead to ever come off as false or disingenuous. The 19 mnutes 10 seconds that embedded in the title end and it's all been very satisfying. This may be the black sheep of the Bedhead catalogue, but it's a place worth visiting regardless.

Bedhead - 'WhatFunLifeWas' (Trance Syndicate)

I think you'll find extremely enthusiastic Bedhead fans hidden in pockets of weird all around the world, and I'm certainly one of them. Out of all that 90s indie/post stuff they stand out as something special and though it's been quite awhile since I've given this one a spin, it's a welcome sound to these ears. A lot of bespectacled, button-down shirt-wearing kids with guitars were excited about this band in the mid 90s (hand raised here!) because it falls into that whole guitar-based reaction to punk that was happening at the time. I think not just of Bedhead but of bands like the Sea and Cake, poised on that moment before their musically exploratory tendencies led to outright fusion or experimentalism, but still striving for something. Not that there's anything particularly progressive about Bedhead. It's "indie rock" in the brainy camp, with three guitars, whispered low key vocals and long dramatic arcs that rely on timbre, dynamics and other subtleties. And that was music to my ears in 1997 when I first heard this band, starting with Bedheaded and eventually moving back to this debut. 1994 was when WhatFunLifeWas hit the scene and it's easy enough to mistake these guys for goths with a title like that (and a subsequent Joy Division cover shines more light on that angle) - almost enough to make up for the awkward, slightly stupid band name. And while that first impression of Bedhead was that they avoided rock pyrotechnics in favor of clean channel moodyness and restraint almost to the point of severity, WhatFunLifeWas actually burns quite a bit of amptubes. It's not that it's agressive in any way but rather a slow burn; distortion is more like fuzz, another texture particularly on songs like 'To the Ground' and 'Haywire'. Vocals, well, not any of them stick with me in the slightest and really the same can be said for the songwriting on this one; this is my least-listened-to Bedhead release and the others I've listened to plenty. I got this one last, maybe when that star was fading -- you know how that goes. Which means, if I can get myself back into that mentality, WhatFunLifeWas could be experienced as if for the first time. That would involve re-widening my eyes and truly believing in some sort of Achievable Indierock Ideal, something involving strange tunings, guitar effects as political statements and some narrow astrovision that worked for me then. I guess this was a favorite band during one of those weird transitional periods for me and I haven't shed any of my affection, and there's nothing to be ashamed of here. Though delivery, production, artwork and mood firmly place this in the mid90s guitar indie universe, nothing feels really dated. Time will tell if Bedhead are timeless but I definitely throw on The Dark Ages at least once a year (and we'll get there in a sec) and nothing is lessened. They chose their tools wisely, yet still gave themselves enough room to swing wide. 'Foaming Love' is one such example, where you can hear their Texas roots in the swinging country cadences, yet it's still enough jangle to sweep up the 80s college puddle and enough tension to nod to Mission of Burma, Bitch Magnet, Slint and other more direct precedents. It's rock music but it assaults the conventions, just more quietly. Sometimes subtlety can bash you over the head - let's move on to the CDs I've worn out and let this one stay fresh.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Pierre Bastien - 'Mecanoid' (Rephlex)

Bastien's got some major cred (I believe he plays on Berrocal's Paralleles which we'll get to, shortly) and here in 2001 he's built robots to jam with him. Perhaps he's so difficult to work with that he's driven away all human collaborators? (A feeling I can certainly understand). Well if you imagine this as a French post-prog audio Mystery Science Theater 3000 then you'll get the picture, except maybe Joel and his robots are all dressed up in lounge singer gear. The clicks and thumps played by the robots are regularly spaced, of course, and despite the wooly organic textural elements to their sound, it's undeniably machine-created. Bastien himself plays trumpets and pianos and African instruments I've never heard of, so you can't really say it's all thump-thump repetition, but it does feel like extended lock grooves that somehow change and shift while staying locked, if that makes any sense (it doesn't). This CD has always interested me because it's so clean, almost shiny, sounding like some novelty cabaret-electronica experiment except with everything sucked out of the middle. I admit the novelty of robots is what sucked me in but there's something wonderfully retro about this, like the whole idea of voluntarily engaging with semi-obsolete technology. Not that robotics is obsolete at all but there's certainly more practical and easy ways to create loops and sounds like this today - so it's more like a willing desire to use these techniques, like choosing 8mm film in 2009 or whatever. Which I'm totally down with, but I must admit that about 75% through this disc I start to get somewhat bored. Despite different rhythms and instrumentation it starts to get pretty samey, so maybe ten tracks of robots playing low key dance vibes is 4 more than I need.