Monday, 28 March 2011

The Coctails (Carrot Top)

This is the final CD by the Coctails, the cover photo emulating their previous album Peel, only with a feeling of rot and decay here. This is an album that I hold close to my heart - an idiosyncratic, personal favourite that becomes more obscure with each passing year, but that I still feel a strong rapport with. Because I don't own anything else by this band, this is taken a bit out of context. The Coctails were a Chicago band in the early 90s who merged indie rock with eclectic instrumentation and jazz/lounge influence; their earlier LPs, such as Long Sound, were bouncy and owed a debt to Dave Brubeck and stuff like that. Peel took things into a somewhat more guitar-based territory, and then this masterpiece ends up almost totally eschewing the quirks of their early work (with the closest reference being 'Cadali', a jaunty tune that is lovely, but out of place here). The Coctails is a dour, depressed record that's about half-instrumental, half-vocal. There are bright spots - 'Circles' is a major-key instrumental with vibraphones and a really perfect, brief use of casio beats - but even this has a somber tone. The vocal tracks are set by the opening cut, 'When I Come Around' (released around the same time as the Green Day hit of the same name); your typical white-guy indierock vocalist, emoting despite not actually having a great singing voice. This is heard more clearly on 'So Low', where the singer (either Archer Prewitt, John Upturch or Barry Phipps; not really sure) bellows a dramatic dirge. I can't speak highly enough of how wonderful this record is, but I have been listening to it for almost 15 years. The credits reveal the source recordings to come from various points throughout the 90s - 'When I Come Around' and 'Never Knew' were actually recorded with Stuart Moxham back in 1993 (this album was released in '96). So rather than being a cohesive statement of melancholy, this was a collection of what didn't fit on the other records; whatever the motive, it ends up being the most rewarding work of their career (and I think it outclasses anything Prewitt did subsequently in the Sea and Cake or solo). This is guitar-based indie rock, with carefully chosen notes that ring out delicately like a Bedhead record. And like Bedhead's last album, there's one fuzzy stomper near the end of the record that would be out of place except it fits so perfectly - the grunge anthem 'Cast Stones', a snarled rant that feels more frustrated than angry. The Coctails is filled with moments of utter beauty, such as the delicate 'Starling' and the epic 'City Sun'; it closes with a Terry Riley moment, 'Last Organ'. It's a thick, elliptical organ drone, clearly intended as an elegy for the band who I think had broken up by the time this was released. At the time, I'm sure this album complemented the livelier tunes on their other records - completing the picture, and fleshing out the band into a more fully expressive unit. But since it's been at least a decade or more since I've heard even Peel, I'm left remembering the Coctails by this, their Sister Lovers.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Circulatory System (Cloud Recordings)

It's been a decade since this CD came out, which makes the Olivia Tremor Control feel like eons ago. And while I was utterly buried in Olivia-worship around 1999, by 2001 this was more of a surprise than anything. The Olivias allegedly split due to Bill Doss/Will Hart tension, so Circulatory System became Will's showcase featuring most of the rest of the band. Practically this meant a more cohesive unit, with less overt Lennon/McCartney gestures; aesthetically this also meant a slightly darker, more introspective record that lacks the balance of, say, Black Foliage. The Olivia dreams - the unrealised motion pictures, the tape hiss ambience of the Black Swan Network - all get pulled back so the Circulatory System can focus on the album itself. This is an hour long and it came out relatively quickly after the dissolution of OTC, so you know Hart had a lot of these songs in the bag. I particularly remember seeing the Olivias play 'Inside Blasts' the last time I saw them and being somewhat blown away by it. Interestingly enough, it took 8 years for the followup record, Signal Morning, which I still haven't heard. The lo-fi recording technique that was so charming on Dusk at Cubist Castle is probably my biggest complaint with Circulatory System. It's almost like they had mastered their sound by then, and therefore weren't experimenting as much with recording techniques. Everything sounds fine, but it all sorta sounds the same. This might also be somewhat due to Hart's songwriting, which favours the subtle shifts more than the bombastic pop uppercuts. This record was lovingly assembled and the details are everywhere. There's tiny clarinet peeps, piano runs, accordions and organs to flesh out the midrange - it doesn't feel like guitar-driven pop music at all. Eric Harris (the main drummer) has a light jazzy style and it rolls along without any of the songs imploding under their own density. When they turn on the drone, like with the raga-like 'A Peek', it's quite impressive. But why I loved the two Olivia Tremor Control records is that they had these long, deranged side threes - 'Green Typewriters', for example - where they did pile on all of the layers and noise they held back from the other songs. The density is simultaneously the best and worst thing about Circulatory System. It's a great record, surely, and I always considered Hart far more interesting of a songwriter than Doss, but to go back to the Lennon/McCartney parallel, there's a reason you have two songwriters. It's not just balance but it's perspective; Circulatory System is far more of an introspective record. While neither songwriter will win prizes for their lyrics, Hart's are certainly more interpretive. Songs like 'Illusion' retain that simple elegance and acoustic strum that I loved about 'Marking Time'. And that's why I feel like a dick by ultimately finding something slightly disappointing about Circulatory System (though I don't think I realised this disappointment until, possibly, right now). What would have happened if this was the first band, and they later joined forces to create Olivia Tremor Control? I can't help but constantly draw these comparisons because the teenage me loved the ambition and over-the-top artifice of OTC, and that's definitely missing. Of course, you'll notice that here, like many times in these pages, my comments about the music are based far more on me -- on my feelings at the time this music impacted me -- than the music itself. But I'm afraid that's part of what music is, and to argue otherwise would silly. It will be a few years before I get to the Os, but I've made my feelings about the Olivia Tremor Control clear here. To discover a band, at 16, that brought together a seemingly impossible merging of experimentation with killer pop songs, was life-changing; the fact that they looked poised to take over the world with their rampant ideas and ambition made it even better. Of course this dovetailed with my own discovery of musique concrete, minimalism, experimental synthesisers and lo-fi recording techniques, so it felt at times more like a partnership in evolution than just a band I loved. And getting to meet and know the guys was great too ... so of course in my twenties, Circulatory System can't offer that same magic, even if now I listen to it and recognise a work of total genius. Remember, I too wanted to take over the world and start bands that would be equal, if not surpass, their ambition. By 2001 I think the Circulatory System was just focused on making an awesome record, which they did, and my own transparent dreams had died (aka, reality set in). So it's taken me this long to realise that I'm associating Circulatory System with that narrowing of my eyes; but I don't hold it responsible.