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Saturday, 5 June 2010

Vashti Bunyan - 'Just Another Diamond Day' (Spinney)

It's rare for a CD reissue to lead to such a resurgence at it did for Vashti Bunyan - this CD was issued about ten years ago (at least that's when I think I got it) and before you know it, she's been embraced wholeheartedly by the experimental community and is suddenly making records with Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective. I've not listened to a post-1970 note of Vashti Bunyan but I think it's an interesting pairing because there is nothing remotely experimental about Just Another Diamond Day. At least, what I like about this record is its simplicity. These are simple songs, some barely over two minutes, with singsong melodies and rural-pastoral observations only occasionally given any more than a twee/Sallyangie treatment. When it does, like when Dave Swarbrick contributes fiddle to 'Where I Like to Stand', it's a wonderful combination. Bunyan's voice is so upfront and genteel, and it's rather reverb-laden, yet at the same time it's a bit weird because she does actually sing in a kinda nervous, rushed way. These songs don't really breathe and when there are string arrangements they feel even more cramped, which I actually like, though I don't know if that's exactly what she was going for. Joe Boyd's production is up to his usual standards and his use of vocal reverb is positively Krameresque. Simon Nicol's banjo on 'Come Wind Come Rain' is jaunty and works well against the wordless aspects of her singing, and I think I like these bits, which at least have perceptible edges, against the total softness of the recorder-driven tunes. These days I feel little to connect with lyrically; obviously the rural imagery speaks to some philosophy in people that I don't completely get. I've spent my own time in the Hebrides, and there is no place more beautiful, but these are not traditional Hebridean songs at all - this is an Englishwoman constructing an identity. I'm still not really sure why this is considered to be such outsider music. The arrangements of Dolly Collins make her records with Shirley much more exploratory, in my opinion - apart from the slight awkwardness, Vashti Bunyan is a very traditional folk-based singer-songwriter. I'm not saying this to sound negative - because even though I haven't listened to this CD in about 8 years, it's been a pleasant thing to revisit. This is one case where bonus tracks don't help - the original album presumably ended on 'Iris's Song For Us', which is a perfect last wave, but the CD sticks four more songs. The last is another version of 'Iris's Song', but one that's stuck a bit in it's own suspended particles, and not quite as effective as the original. But I guess you gotta put bonus tracks somewhere!

Friday, 4 June 2010

Bügsküll - 'Phantasies and Senseitions' (RoadCone)

Somehow, without actually realising it, I've accumulated a mini-gauntlet of Bügsküll recordings over the years, though my selection is far from complete. But I wouldn't hesitate to fill in the gaps, as Sean Bügsküll is an often-overlooked musical explorer, whose early work (found on this CD) recalls an early 90s Portland underground that I've pieced together a picture of built solely from recordings like this, Cher Doll records, and whatever other weirdness filtered into my brain. There's 18 tracks on Phantasies and Senseitions, but they aren't divided between phantasies and senseitions. It's generally easy to tell which is which; maybe the dual nature of this collection is why it has both an 'Intro' (track 1) and an 'Opening Theme' (track 3). This is one of the most rock-like Bügsküll releases, or at least there are less electronics than on his later stuff. Though it might be more accurate to say that whatever electroacoustic elements are present in these tracks are recorded so 4-track lo-fi that it feels as organic as the guitars and keyboards that are also here. This is a band format, while later Bügsküll is more of a solo artist. There are songs here, though catchy pop hooks are buried in lumbering, reverb-laden loops and breathy, unintelligible vocals. Mistakes are left in, and even celebrated, but instead of an aggressive Pussy Galore vibe, this band is more like a ragged pillow. There's a clustering of more organised songs near the end of the disc, ranging from melting electric folk ('Concrete Boots') to punchy pop-rock ('Olympic'), but it's never played that straight. Some tracks on Phantasies and Senseitions are genre sketches, like pastoral 'Old Towne', and strange looping experiments like 'Inhuman' that sound like Shirley Collins dunked in a vat of molasses. When I found this CD (a few years after it came out) I saw them as more like the West Coast Guided by Voices, but now I don't have the slightest idea why I made that comparison, as this is far far more experimental music. Apart from 'Sit on This' (which can't deny it's grunge influence, especially since this is 1994), there's almost nothing of singalong value here. The experimentation isn't miles away from Elephant 6-style bedroom psychedelia, with found sounds often applied over top of poorly-recorded drums and line-in guitars. There are elements of free rock but of a slowed-down, stoned out variety. Horns and/or violins (sometimes recorded so badly you can't really be sure) strengthen the melodic approach, and it doesn't feel particularly improvised, but still freewheelin'. 'Seguara' lumbers along with a 90s indie rock sound, with delicately placed vocals getting thrown under the bus at times. But my pick of the disc is 'Concrete Boots', a fractured, off-key work of total romantic beauty and bliss.

Anton Bruhin - 'InOut' (Alga Marghen)

The cover of this nice Alga digipak shows four cassette tapes, labeled to match the four tracks presented here, spanning 1976-1981. Cassette tape (TDK, for the most part) was Bruhin's preferred recording format and in the case of the titular piece, the means of construction. 'InOut' is a 23 minute composition that uses a variety of household/skiffle band soundmaking devices in conjunction with rapid-fire pause-button recording technique. The main theme of 'InOut' is the pause button itself, which is an everpresent click. The split-second bursts of sound are constructed with great regard to linearity, creating dazzling runs that resemble microtonal robots or synth-step filters, though done in the most lo-fi of settings. It's mean to be listened to, not read about, because it's a dazzling, stunning work - the kind that gives me that invigorating feeling and reminds me why I like experimental music in the first place. Nothing else sounds like this. 'Musik, vielleicht für Sie' does use a very long reel-to-reel loop, bypassing the erase head, a technique often employed by tape loop geeks worldwife. Bruhin uses a homemade PVC pipe, voice, and some other small instrument to build his sound world over 25 minutes, but instead of sounding like an Alvin Lucier decay-piece, it's more like a personal exploration of memory and texture. You can hear the physical space here, but maybe you actually can't and we're all victims of another trompe l'ear game. 'Wochenwende' makes use of the built-in speaker on a cassette player and all of its shitty frequence response. This is six layers that again employ small instruments for a more gradual shifting effect, again a nice track, but perhaps the least distinctive. And finally, Bruhin closes with 'Die Welt', a poem from the 1600's read and deconstructed via variable speed tape. The effect is not unlike something from the early 80's Ralph Records catalogue, all goofy and modulated but choppy in all the right places. You'll see a huge amount of tape experimentation across these blogs and I'm still two thumbs up for the medium, despite -- in fact, because of - it's supposed 'obsolescence'. But while much of the great tape experimentation and sound poetry was done with fancy (for the time) equipment, Bruhin had a total cheapskate approach. His results are as brilliant as anything you'll ever hear, and the trash-aesthetic of it is part of why I love it so much.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet - 'Stone/Water' (OkkaDisk)

Coming on the heels of that first Die Like a Dog blastfest, the Brötzmann session here at Cinderblock HQ continues with this. Stone/Water starts out suggesting a severely intimidating stage (which was the Victoriaville festival, 1999). Three tenor saxes, with Brötzmann and Vandermark also on clarinet at times and Gustafsson as well -- makes it pretty impossible for me to distinguish who is playing what when - but that's really not the point, right? Sometimes I long for the old style of jazz liner notes where they tell you who is playing what solo when, and stereo panning is also nice but there's too many musicians here and it's also a live recording. There's a double rhythm section as well, though I'm not saying these musicians should be confined into traditional roles! But this is not the "big ball of sound" approach at all - over its 38 minutes, we get a hella grab bag of different sounds happening. Early on there's a lot of sawing of the strings - Parker and Kessler on basses, but also Fred Lomberg-Holm on cello, which gives the band this really interesting lifting up feel, like a series of slowly emerging plateaus. The earth starts to shake when both drummers really kick it in - Hamid Drake's playing is usually quite distinct but it's difficult to distinguish him from Michael Zerang. What a great surname 'Zerang' is -- I just want to append an exclamation point to the end whenever I type it. Anyway, this isn't all ten people playing all at once for 40 minutes. There are a few miniatures buried within. About fifteen minutes in there's this strangely medieval courtly jig, except not really, but it is quite woodsy and weird. FL-H is playing violin here and angling off into all sorts of different directions, creating something quite dissonant and lovely. Halfway through it's a 5-man horn solo, or whatever you call that - a quintet? The absence of bass or percussion gives things this really clarity and it's awesome to lose yourself in it, but also to single out one musician and 'follow' their zigzags. Toshihori Kondo is on this recording but his electronics, while present, mostly take a backseat except for one long call and response part (also somewhere in the middle). Soon after, you think it's all gonna come back together for a crashing finale, with the full band exploding into a raging balloon of pure fire, except it doesn't actually end, instead trickling down into this super amazing fucked up string part (about two minutes from the end) where the recording quality sounds like some lost 1950's outsider electroacoustic record and everything is weirdly hairy and then it trickles to the end. A great, great outro from what is overall a very strong recording (and quite aptly titled, as it's rocky and fluid at the same time). I've seen the Brötzmann Tentet twice with a similar lineup (never with Kondo but once with McPhee, and I think I remember Mars Williams being there once) and it never had this much clarity.

Peter Brötzmann/Die Like a Dog Quartet - 'Little Birds Have Fast Harts No. 1' (FMP)

This might speak more to my current state of free jazz enjoyment in 2010 but my favourite aspect of this Die Like A Dog marathon (67 minutes!) is the presence of one Toshinori Kondo, a trumpeter who quite frequently employs digital effects on his sound. What this does is provide a balance to the meat n' fire blowing of Brötzmann and the great, yet earthy rhythm section of William Parker and Hamid Drake. The first track is 43 minutes long and it started with Brötzmann exuberantly and/or aggressively bleating away before the band bursts in. Over the course of the whole movement it's hard to really focus as a casual listener, but I guess you aren't supposed to listen to this stuff casually. Kondo's extended vamps are certainly what stands out, being saturated in delay and flange, yet still fleeting and light. It's not like the affected trumpet sounds of Spaceheads, but used more as an accent. Sometimes he flares up and the processing distorts a bit and it has the feeling of sunlight on a freshly Windexed pane, with a minute glimpse of a rainbow refraction. Now, this band is a tribute to Albert Ayler, certainly not the first but there's nothing wrong with that. Ayler's influence on Brötzmann is profound, in terms of wide vibrato and emotive soul-baring thrusting. Kondo works as the Don Ayler, I guess. There aren't any identifiable Albert licks here, but 'Part 2' begins with the sort of melodic wandering that you'd hear in Ayler's Michael Sampson band era, though it quickly erupts into a ball of free not unlike what track 1 sounded like. This is an incredibly long time to spend in a fairly similar musical mode. The band plays, everyone is free, and at points there are solos. It's free jazz as it was in 1997, which is to say an awesome thing to behold and not bad to listen to either. Hamid Drake is an amazing master of rhythm but almost an odd choice for an Ayler-inspired band, as his drumming is much more centered than Sunny Murray (who I would think of as the 'definitive' Albert Ayler drummer, if there is such a thing). He's played with Parker for so long that they have a really natural interaction, and Parker's wild thudding provides a thundering belly over which Drake can dance. When I saw Die Like a Dog live, which I'm guessing was a few years after this, Kondo was gone and Roy Campbell was in his place. I was disappointed on finding this out, though Campbell proved to be a much more emotional player, and his passion was an adequate substitute for Kondo's trickery. The furious nature of the band means that and more deep listening elecroacoustic jazz experimentation is gonna get lost in the shuffle. Don't get me wrong, things do slow down at times -- just not for long. The second piece is a bit more subdued than the first, with a very sparse improvised melodic bit that does have some processed noteless blowing from Kondo, and an odd phasing effect - but it's too little too late. Kondo is a fascinating musician, but I can't stop thinking this isn't the right venue for him. Though Albert Ayler would certianly have been curious to explore electronic experimentation had he lived - I am convinced of that, for whatever reason. The primitive and folky aspects of Ayler's music, which emerge for me more and more as the reason, are probably better tributed in the Art Ensemble's 'Lebert Aaly', or from a tribute group not yet formed. I realise I've always filed this under Brötzmann, following the artist name on the spine, rather than the front of the CD which would put this under 'D'. It also says 'Composed by Peter Brötzmann' which sounds like a bit of credit-claiming cause if this isn't majorly group improvised, then I dunno what is.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Broadcast - 'The Future Crayon' (Warp)

I think a lot of my friends are surprised that I love Broadcast so much, cause they're seen as "outside" of my circle or something. Or maybe they fall into a "like but don't love" category, where they certainly sat for many years in my own estimation til something elevated them to the field of Underbite-Cinderblock lovin'. This is an Incesticide-style compilation that dates from 1998-2001, though it wasn't released until 2006. When I first heard this, it was a dub or rip or burn or whatever the kids call it these days, so I didn't realise it was a compilation - so I listened to it as an album and thought it was totally great. 'Illuminations' is a fantastic way to open, with bold brush strokes that paint a spooky social portrait. These songs almost feel like they bridge the gap between the earlier Broadcast sound and the more diverse, coherent material of Tender Buttons, with Haha Sound the obvious in-between point. Individual songs can stand alone on many a mixtape. 'Small Song IV' is spare and chilling, and I think that I like this band so much when they let their songs breathr. If anything has really changed since the early days, it's that we no longer get to hear the crazy space-jazz instrumentals, like 'DDL' and 'Violent Playground'. There's been a tendency towards more minimal song structures and production methods, though because this is sequences for flow, not chronology, you don't necessarily get that. But that's why CD players can be programmed. The 18 tracks here have a few highlights: 'Poem of Dead Song' fizzles with an Eastern ambience that's partially Mata Hari, or maybe 'Casablanca Moon'. But instead of verbosity, it's all smoke and mirrors, and the mirrors reflect other mirrors. Utterly beautiful. The drummer gets the jazzercise on, with 'Locusts' swinging around until he holds back and lets feedback and drones do the talking, but only for a second. It's a mastery of good taste, unlike this review, which is sycophantic and rambling. It's been years since I've listened to anything earlier than Haha Sound (except this) but it might be time to go and revisit those first two records - just as soon as I get through all the vinyl and CDs and 7"s for these blogs (it's been well over a year and we're not through the B's yet! Help!).