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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Biota - 'Invisible Map' (Recommended)

The artwork to 2001's followup to Object Holder reminds me somewhat of playing an old 320x200 game like Doom or Castle Wolfenstein 3-D. The music, well, it's actually a great deal clearer than Object Holder's mess. The same elements are there - deconstructed folk melodies driven by acoustic guitar and accordion, sweet female vocals popping up now and then, and chaotic, effected percussion. But there's just a tad bit more space between these elements, allowing a bit of light to shine through. I still find this an almost unbearable listen to manage in one sitting: 37 tracks, 76 minutes. Yow. These guys n' gals sure make the most of the CD format. The booklet is thick too, with page after page of digital artwork. The lead vocalist has changed to Genevieve Heistek, though she sounds a lot like the last one, and there's still only about six tracks with lyrics. The folk melodies are amplified a bit but now you can hear the details much more. The chaos under the melody of 'Port' is spastic, yet constrained, and it has a nice sound of prog-blueballs. I usually get sick of accordion when I listen to Biota, but 'Landless' is mixtape-perfect: His Name is Alive dipped in a Gallic marinade and hung out to dry with a swarm of aggressive insects. It's unfortunately just a bit too short. And in the lengthy instrumental middle of this record (20 tracks, in fact) we get a lot of styles. 'Sleeping Car' is made up of difficult intervals, sounding cold, Eastern and oblique yet bouncy and fun. 'Snake Out' is practically ecstatic, though still with effected drumming and spazzy acoustic strums everywhere. When the accordion returns, its a bit disappointing, but I am listening to my second 70+ minute Biota CD in a row. There's some real neoclassicisms here, which have made me rethink my standard line on Biota. Because, I like this band - I own three of their CDs plus the Mnemonists stuff, and generally think they're somewhat underrecognised, particuarly since song-based deconstruction has gotten some steam lately. But I've always been slightly hesistant to fully commit to Biota, because I thought they were too eclectic. Yeah, check it - I mean, I have (I think) diverse taste in music, and I think it's great if you can merge influences from 20th century classical, folk music, prog rock, pop, etc. I used to think that Biota were merging too many sounds and this is why I never could really click with them - they sound more like an encylopedia than a group of musicians expressing themselves through art. But listening now, I realise that's not so much the case. What really hurts Biota is that I don't think they conceptualise a 'record' the same way that I do - as a standalone canvas that can be used for various forms of expression, etc. The rules and format of that canvas may be unfortunately predetermined through a variety of nasty precedents, such as 60s rock music, economics, etc. -- but it still exists. And this is a record - perhaps I would enjoy them live more. Biota, I think, sees the CD as being a 75-80 minute receptacle for their recordings and thus they dump everything they can on there, not really thinking about how the listening experience plays out on the other end. For example, there are some lovely, delicate moments in the middle of this album - spooky piano textures, breathing silences, creeping strings, etc. The problem is, I don't even notice them because we're talking about tracks that are somewhere in the mid-20's out of 37 short pieces. I think someone could probably craft an entire release around a few of these tracks; it's all presentation, you know? But Biota, they just shove them in there among all the chum and deconstructed pop jams, so the impact is somewhat lessened. I think if this was 2 35-minute albums I listened to separately, I would 'hear' the music much more than I do now, because around track 17 I just started to glaze over it. Even if I listened to 2 35-minute albums back to back, I think I would hear them better. Because it's presentation; it's the canvas that really matters but the frame is important too. So there is my beef and that also explains why I'm going to say little about the second half of this record, apart from the parts with singing which stand out, especially 'Words Disappear' which is awesome. Because I wasn't really listening, due to the above mentioned philosophical disagreement. And also, enough is enough with putting effects on the drums!

Biota - 'Object Holder' (RéR)

In the mid-90s, no one could hear your screams. The musical side of the (now relegated to art duty) Mnemonists created this dense 70 minute mess of a prog/avant-pop album -- at a time when the rest of us were busy listening to the Smoking Popes. But it's no more comprehensible to me in 2009. Biota have an eclectic sound but I can reduce it to two elements: accordion and delay-affected percussion. Everything else is perfectly nice, but if you wanna know what makes Biota sound like Biota (and not like, say, Animal Collective), its those two elements. The squeezebox makes everything sound like European busking music to me, and it's hard to believe these people were in the American southwest. There are explicitly folk parts, like 'Idea for a Wagon', but those are the moments that actually bore me a bit. Sorry guys, but I'm raised on liking my folk music to be as raw and gritty as possible, and there's just too many rack effects here. But effects are the name of the game, often building everything into an unintelligible chaos. The opening cut, 'Bumpreader', is about 9 minutes of everything you can get from the album, like an overhead view before zooming in for deeper inspection. There's confusing arrays of horns, acoustics, and studio fuckery to mix everything into a deep soup. This is a highly compositional approach to music, as strong melodies and chord changes are emphatic, though the presentation is somewhat obfuscated. But once Susanne Lewis starts singing, about seven tracks in with 'Reckoning falls', it takes a future-pop angle. While Biota have no problem recording their drums through chorus and delay, or recording their flügelhorn through shit-tons of reverb, they leave her voice coherently articulate. This works though - they understand the pop knife that has to cut through the sac of effects - and a strange beauty rings out on these songs. The downside is that I tend to privilege these pop tunes over the instrumental jams, which make up most of the disc. The lyrics are abstract yet evocative - sometimes about Uri Geller ('Reckoning falls') and sometimes the description of a surreal journey ('Private wire'). 'Signal's vocal part follows a tinny acoustic-electric guitar riff, the real sound of adult-alternative radio except the resulting monolith is too weird to stand a chance. There are a few placid piano instrumentals that seem to break the record into three parts, of which the third part's songs are all written by Chris Cutler. 'Coat' is an almost wonderfully sing-song melody about borrowing a coat, with fluttering percussion underneath that is distracting. The theatre of the everyday, but with flanger on the drums! 'The Trunk' closes things out with a fairly aggro moment and then there's an unlabeled bonus track -- as if the first 23 weren't enough! -- and to be honest, I don't know that I ever made it this far before. The artwork is as awkwardly out-of-place as the music, being drenched in psychedelic pastels, computer generated art, and the general vibe of early 90s Residents CD-ROM experiments. Yet the sounds within are 'interesting', occasionaly fascinating, and thus this has a space on my shelves.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Bingo Trappers - 'Juanita Ave.' (Animal World)

A few years after their masterful Sierra Nevada, the Bingo Trappers returned on a new label with this CD, which (if I remember correctly) was marketed fairly strongly: magazine ads, college radio play, and a big US tour. All in vain, methinks -- they sank without a trace and now this remains an obscurity, though less than a decade old (2000). Given the preponderance of bedroom-lofi thumb-twiddlers making their rounds now (I'm looking at you, Woodsist label!) you'd think it would be time for a comeback. I expected as much when Woods put out a record on Shrimper - that seemed to link the two 'movements', if there is any such thing to link. But the Bingo Trappers, if they still exist, are probably just hiding out in some Amsterdam suburb now. Juanita Ave. is a strong set of songs, and generously so - 15 of them in 50 minutes - and the tone shifts a lot to prevent it from ever sounding samey. There might not be anything as earth-shatteringly classic as 'King in Exile' here, but there's a similar bummer/ramshackle feel throughout. 'Is That a Fact' reminds me a bit of Suicide or Lou Reed - there's definitely more 'tude here than these Nederlanders ever showed before. The first half of the album is strongly guitar-jangle heavy - not aggressive or distorted, but frantic and lyrical. Deeper investigation would probably reward a r willing to lose themselves in 'God's Biographer', 'White Bikini' or 'The Last Resort/Seinpost 1976'. I can hear sentimentality, self-criticism, and resignation, even on the goofier sounding stuff like 'The Real Mr. Tambourine'. Energy is great, especially when brushed over 4-track recorded rock drums, but I love this band when they're at their most pastoral. 'Twilight Kids' recalls 'Walkin' Through the Clouds' from Sierra Nevada, and is a step above the rest of the songs in terms of fidelity. It's followed by 'My Virtual Things', which takes a page from the Bats songbook and hits that mellow NZ sunshine vibe. I should say here that this record is lo-fi, but honestly so. There are no deliberately disfigured tunes, apart from maybe 'Sneakers' ghetto-industrial rhythm/theremin loop. These last three songs actually are a great coda to the album - my favorite part - and make me think of the 'Nighttime'/'Blue Moon'/'Take Care' trilogy that ends Big Star's Third (which, coincidentally, is the last CD reviewed here). I suspect there's hundreds of these discs somewhere in a box in Tallahassee, which is a shame for the band, the label, and the public.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Big Star - 'Third/Sister Lovers' (Rykodisc)

I just finished writing a post on our sister blog about how Radio City is Big Star's finest hour, but I'm about to babble so much about my love for Third that you'll think I was lying then. I mean, some would go as far as to call this "the best album of all-time", but those people probably talk to ghosts. I knew this guy in college who felt that way. He considered this his all-time favorite record and to be honest, he's the one who turned me onto it after an initial listen (a few years earlier) failed to move me. "So many artists try to make these really depressing records," he told me, talking about Joy Division I think, "but Alex Chilton was so genuinely miserable you can really hear it in every song." You know how sometimes you hear a record again but it sounds different because of how it's framed? Well, his saying those words definitely made me hear things differently -- for example, the guitar whizzles in "Kizza Me" sound to me now, like, I dunno, pain. But is this actually a Big Star record, or the weird transitional period between Big Star and solo Alex Chilton? (Much like Instinct by the Moles is really a Richard Davies solo album). Or has Big Star just shed another member, replacing Andy Hummel with a bunch of session dudes, Steve Cropper, and some strings but retaining their essential "band"-ness? This CD issue claims to restore the 'proper' sequencing but that's never been agreed on anyway. It opens with 'Kizza Me' which is one of the filler tunes - a perfectly adequate power rocker that would be fine on #1 Record, but apart from the above mentioned guitarwhizzles feels a bit limp. I think it's just because I want 'Thank You Friends' to be the opening cut. Has anyone in rock music before ever realised that sarcasm can be suffering? The liner notes would indicate that Chilton's major problem in the mid-70s was his own failure to become a rockstar, though methinks things are probably a bit more complicated. Either way, 'Thank you Friends' is a wonderful kiss-off, masquerading it's bile behind a spry chord progression. It goes right into 'Big Black Car' which just sounds like a man exhausted, on the verge of giving up. I think the big celebrated cuts (at least by This Mortal Coil), 'Holocaust' and 'Kangaroo', have always confused me a bit. Are they the masterpieces, or the exceptions to true misery? Is 'Holocaust' just a tad on the wrong side of overwrought? 'Kangaroo's dramatics don't bother me quite as much, maybe because the 12-string guitar is so beautiful, but 'Holocaust's piano just feels a bit too overboard. The real holocaust is between the doors of the Big Black Car. Except, sometimes 'Holocaust' sounds amazing to me, and moves me almost to tears -- music is subjective and weird like that, dontchaknow! But back to the first half - I'm not fussed about the 'Femme Fatale' cover, and 'O, Dana' doesn't do a lot either. But Jesus Christ, 'Jesus Christ'! Religion can be suffering too. So yeah, past the 'Kangaroo' hump we get 'Stroke it Noel' which is a song that I love almost beyond description. I love the jaunty strings but only because they are so undercut by the way Alex sings 'Do you want to dance....' with about as little enthusiasm as possible. And then Jody Stephens 'For You' which is utterly beautiful and the perfect balance needed at this point. I don't know what needs to be said about the closing trilogy that hasn't been already said or covered by others. 'Nighttime' makes me think of other songs; the one by (fellow purveyor of some genuine depression) Smog, where he sings 'I walk the city streets at night / and I'm scared shitless' and also J-Church's completely different song of the same time that is everybit as sentimental and bittersweet. We'll hear at least two covers of 'Blue Moon' and one of 'Take Care' before we finish the Cinderblock tour, so I'll just quote this brilliant line - "This sounds a bit like good-bye / And in a way it is, I guess" -- and then we'll start to wrap this up. But wait, there's bonus tracks! If you get past 'Nature Boy' and a rather rote Kinks cover, w get to 'Dream Lover' and 'Downs', which are real gems. I've started to think of Radio City - Third - Like Flies on Sherbert as a trilogy of sorts, and you can certainly here the progression: joyous, slightly loose rock and roll --> bent-out-of-shape Tonight's the Night Style bashing about --> utter ramshackle insanity. 'Dream Lover' is halfway into Sherbert, and 'Downs' pretty much all the way there. But because that's in the C's, we're gonna have to wait awhile to get there.

Jacques Berrocal - 'Catalogue' (Alga Marghen)

This is the third piece of the puzzle, reissued in a digipak by Alga Marghen with some bonus material. I'll spare my usual rant about digipaks and instead thank the Marghens for bringing this gem to the surface again. Where Musiq Musik is exploratory improvised deconstruction and Paralleles introduces more surrealist trope, Catalogue goes full-on collage style and presents 17 different sides of Berrocal in 17 tracks. Nothing is safe here. Electronics and tapes, for sure, put this alongside the weirdest fringes of LAFMS or other outsider camps -- yet there's also simplistic instrumental interplay that harkens back to Musiq's joy di vivré. 'friedrich trass' and 'tango' both use toy instruments to construct surrealist miniatures, and we get vocal manipulations galore. A big band sound appears too, creaking along on 'JONCTION' and 'Rideau. 'SOLO' splits the record with a strangely operatic Gregorian chant and there's some rock excursions too ('nO mORE dirTY bLa blApS' and 'signe particulier', which make me think of something Zorn would do, but not Naked City). Catalogue is a great title because this really is a compendium of maverick approaches to sound. I think the diversity of this release always made it the Berrocal record I found it hardest to interact with, but on this listen I'm totally stoked. It's almost like a desert island disc of ideas; the only frustrating factor is that the ideas are rarely given enough space to develop. If you like making weird music yourself, this is cool, because you can take these tracks inspiration and crosspollinate these ideas with your own, unless you're hellbent on being 100% original. I don't think I'd mind hearing someone else riffing on 'néon' or 'terminal'. I'd definitely put this in a special box alongside stuff like the first Anal Magic disc, because they came from some fucked up place, disappeared and 30 years later provide a treasure map of exploration for all of us young believers. The (mostly live) bonus tracks are nothing to scoff at either; they only pad the record out to 47 minutes instead of stuffing the disc, an act of restraint that I quite like.

Jacques Berrocal / Dominique Coster / Roger Ferlet - 'Musiq Musik' (Fractal)

This short album - I've always been fond of the term mini-LP - was originally recorded for the legendary Futura label in 1973 and appears in glistening CD quality courtesy of Fractal records. I believe this is Jacques Berrocal's recorded debut. It's his name that appears beneath the track listing so I've always treated him as the leader and I've filed this accordingly. But the trio is, on the surface, a trumpet/trombone/cornet jazz trio, let loose in a studio with the intent of deconstructing music forever. Over these four tracks, these three explore a great number of wind instruments and percussion, dabble in electronics, and occasionally wither away into the aether. This is significantly less surreal than Paralleles but still wildly inventive and exploratory. I actually like this one on CD because the way the silent parts are magnified in digital stillness ; maybe I'm just making excuses because I can't shell out 300€ for the original LP! Musiq Musik has some memorable passages on each track - 'Pièces à lanam' has some killer bagpipes, and the 'Leïla Concerto' has actual trumpet-driven classical passages that sound like Mahler's worst nightmare. But overall this works as a cohesive whole (if brief). It's hard to call this jazz but it's not a million miles away from Don Garrett and Kali Fausteau's Sea Ensemble, though not quite as connected to the human spirit. Vocalising is kept to a minimum though the artists occasionally shout 'Musiq!', sometimes under tape manipulations, andit's charming. Track three, 'Anonymous', has some rumbling synth (or maybe it's a harmonium, since that's what's listed in the credits) with some wordless singing; it crawls and pauses repeatedly, cresting with some shards of air. 'Cryptea' closes the disc with 11 minutes of pulling and yelping, getting into the most dissonant territory we've yet heard. It's dreamlike and dystopian at the same time; it recalls the side-long jam on Paralleles but with a somewhat simpler palette. At times it returns to a harmonium pulse while Ferlet (I guess) plays some exultant trumpet parts. There are a lot of notes here, but they feel carefully chosen as opposed to some free jazz logorrhoea. I hold Berrocal in extremely high regard, at least due to the trilogy of this, Paralleles and Catalogue, and listening again today (while trying to describe it, y'know, in words), my mind still trembles at what a work of genius this is.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Han Bennink - 'Nerve Beats' (Atavistic)

Bennink, a force, a gust of wind, a brutal gale. This isn't a solo drums album, but a solo Han Bennink piece. The man can make sound from anything -- who can't? -- but it's really about what's behind it. There's a momentum that pulses through the three tracks, beginning with a snare drum rattle and soon moving to concrète-addled collages, clarinet and trombone honking, and deep cavernous roars. The title is perfect cause it's all nerves; the music of 'too much coffee', not a drug we usually associate with the Dutch. Bennink's twitchy nervousness has a great, fierce energy behind it all and there's nothing annoying about his palpitations. This was recorded for Radio Bremen in 1973, the same radio station the produced that incredibly Henry Cow session ;; it musta been some station! I'm imagining a squat, Teutonic version of myself, tuning in to Nerve Beats live over the airwaves in '73 while drinking a Haake Beck (just after watching the Werder match, y'know). Records like Nerve Beats (which, by inclusion on Atavistic's Unheard Music Series was in fact unheard until this CD issue) make such a case for improvised music as a whole. There is no genre that can even remotely describe this music - part jazz part industrial part surrealist - and it's all made by one man, showing off his vast technical talent and his flamboyant sense of humour, which was quite evident when I saw him bashing away with the Willem Breuker Kollektief (or was it ICP?) 30 years after this was recorded. There are certainly plenty of drums here - beats galore, sturm und drang or whatever its called, but in the slightly different Nederlands tongue. This is a disc of many tongues; competing languages all propelled through one person; it's as uniquely personal a "solo" album as many of the more traditional entries in the genre (Dylan, Lennon, y'know). That this man still has a beating heart in 2009 is a testament to the eternal ur-pulse you can feel in this recording.