Tuesday, 24 December 2013

John Fahey - 'Requia' (Vanguard)

I don't have any Fahey records on vinyl, but would love to find at least America (as it differs from the CD version), as hearing his guitar picking bathed in scratchy, late-60s vinyl atmospherics is surely wonderful. But despite my general dislike of the glass-mastered format, the mastering job on Requia is done right. The first sharp tones of 'Requiem for John Hurt' jump out of the speakers, so clean, and right up against my ears as if they're right over my shoulder. Maybe we're all used to listening to music through laptop speakers now, but this is music that still feels alive, even though it's approaching a half-century mark. Requia is also notable for it's 4-part, musique concrete-laden 'Requiem for Molly', which occupies most of the second half of this album and finds Fahey at his most experimental, at least until Womblife came around in the late 90s. And for those trying to truly understand Fahey, maybe this is the key. The liner notes explain how he started playing guitar in the 1950s but he failed to find the freedom he sought; while not directly relating this sense of constraint to the tape experimentations of 'Requiem for Molly' it's hard not to draw the parallel. As a tape piece, it's all over the place. Sped up loops and voice samples recall Steve Reich's tape work from around the same time; the incorporation of marching bands, funeral music and other earlier American styles, over which Fahey alternates between a mournful chordal progression and more abstracted slide playing and frantic picking, makes a chaotic tapestry that nonetheless retains its appropriate colour throughout. Actually, it makes me feel a bit of the same ur-Americana as Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, released nearly the same time. The other tracks on Requia are solid too; 'When the Catfish is in Bloom' is described as a 'cantica' (along with the closing beauty, 'Fight On Christians, Fight On') and it's alcohol-fueled composition, described in the liner notes, makes me wonder if Richard Brautigan was sitting in the coffee shop where it was composed. The cover of this is also wonderful - Fahey looks a bit like a traveling door-to-door salesman, with his tweed jacket and skinny tie. His position is straight-forward, the way a "folk" record should portray him, as he just looks like a nice young man. There's nothing visible here to indicate the far-out sounds on (imagining this is a vinyl original) side two. But they're not actually that far-out. Compared to the forced surrealism of, say, Zappa's earliest work (which we must admit we'll probably never reach in this project) or even After Bathing at Baxter's, the tape collages of 'Requiem for Molly' are naturalistic and even subtle -- making this a musique concrete work that you could play for your grandmother. Especially when it's made by what looks to be such a nice young man.

Monday, 23 December 2013

John Fahey - 'The Legend of Blind Joe Death' (Takoma)

According to discogs.com, Blind Joe Death has been issued 12 times, and what makes it confusing is that Fahey re-recorded parts of it later in the 60s. This is a semi-authoritative release, though it's not for completists, which I'm not. As a document of Fahey's earliest style it's good enough for me. We all know this was a unique invention, an American folk guitar form that was set forth assertively and influenced legions. The blues roots are inevitable; most of the Blind Joe songs follow a 12-bar or similar pattern. But somehow Fahey's playing doesn't raise any of the usual questions about race or authenticity; it's a confident and singular vision that is also flexible. There's a remarkable variety of mood here, from the spare melancholy of 'On Doing an Evil Deed Blues' to the thick, reverberating grandeur of 'The Trasncendental Waterfall', whose length and title alone indicate you're in for a ride. Having listened to a bunch of Fahey in the past, there's a lot of familiarity to the cadences, the pauses, and the sense of motion. When Fahey's own voice introduced the last track, "West Coast Blues', there's something chilling about hearing him so young, especially as my introduction to his work was with his late 90's "comeback" recordings (and the time I saw him live and met him was shortly before his passing). The idea of re-editing an album and releasing it multiple times, making no version truly authoritative, is a radical one. It makes the record feel like a living, evolving work with no necessary endpoint, and that feels somewhat progressive for its time, though I doubt it was its intention. Maybe Blind Joe Death is the Google Docs of acoustic guitar records; additionally, the presentation of the recordings as being by Blind Joe Death could raise all sorts of postmodern questions about authorship, etc. None of which was Fahey's intention, of course, but it's a funny way to reinvent this. And if the man was about anything, it was reinvention.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Extra Glenns - 'Martial Arts Weekend' (Absolutely Kosher)

Guess what? I'm a massive Mountain Goats fan, but since it's gonna be 2021 before I ever reach the M's I'll just tell you now: from The Hound Chronicles on, I'm enraptured, up to and through Full Force Galesburg which is the apotheosis of some unobtainable magic that is uniquely tied to my own adolescence and development of an understanding of art, language, and expression. I should also tell you that Galesburg came out when I was 17, and his post-Galesburg records I still enjoy, occasionally love, but something has been missing for me. It's me that's changed, not him; nothing but love and respect for the big D himself here from Cinderblock HQ and I'll save my gushing for, well, 2021. Anyway, amongst that era of perfection lies the Infidelity 7", a rare example of a supergroup that truly is, or whatever clichés come to mind. This full-length didn't appear til almost a decade later and I scooped it up fervently, even though by 2001 my obsessive Mountain Goats collecting phase had, I guess, waned. I never thought we'd hear anything from the Extra Glenns after that 7" so this was quite a surprise - but if a new Extra Glenns release comes out next month, I won't be shocked. The once-per-decade release rate is a good way to be. Martial Arts Weekend occupies a really strange, almost forgotten corner of my Darnielle pantheon. It's a completely solid album; I can't pick it apart for any reason except my general criticism of later Mountain Goats (or what now is probably mid-period to current Mountain Goats), which I already stated above: I changed. These songs just came at a time when they didn't resonate with me as much as the first few hundred Darnielle songs I consumed. As on the 7" Franklin Bruno takes a backseat but not too much of one; his contributions are enough to distinguish this from the Mountain Goats recordings of that era, even though the songwriting is almost all Darnielle. But for some reason, I always forget that this record exists. There's wonderful tracks - 'Ultra Violet', 'Sombody Else's Parking Lot in Sebastopol' - but they never attain the personal highs of, say, any song on Zopilote Machine. We get a rather straight, piano driven cover of 'Memories', from my favourite Leonard Cohen record, which somehow replaces the leering swagger of Cohen with that earnest bi-fi sound. 'Malevolent Seascape Y' follows the X of 1993 and is just as malevolent; 'The River Song' is pastoral, genteel, and resigned at the same time. Bruno is an artist whose work I always liked but never got WAY into; Nothing Painted Blue were just a bit too far away from anything I could latch onto, though maybe I just didn't try hard enough. I think this might be the last recorded occurence of 'Going to...' songs but I'm too lazy to pull out other CDs and check dates. I'm glad for this project because it reminded me of the existence of this album, which over a decade later reveals some forgotten pleasures.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Ex - 'Pokkeherrie' (Ex)

Pokkeherrie is Dutch for "so much noise", at least according to Google Translate, and it's a nice to hear their native tongue, even if G.W. Sok "raps" in English throughout this and other Ex records. Situated chronologically slightly after Tumult, this isn't miles apart from that record in sound, if anything being a bit more straightforward than it's predecessor. There's some longer songs, some successful ('1,000,000 Ashtrays') and some less so ('Soviet Threat', which gets bogged down in its own wordiness and quotes Eliot's world-ending whimper, which I'm getting sick of hearing about). If mid-80s Ex has the tendency to turn into endless tom-tom pounding over distorted mush, here guitarist Terrie palm starts to develop his unique technique that works so well later in the 90s in both improv jazz and 'world' music contexts. It's a bit more palm-muting, more errant notes, and a willingness to break away from the rather staccato rhythm section of Katrin and Luc. This is not a quiet record in the slightest, living up to its title, as even when a track starts out in a creaky, exploratory mood ('Hit the Headlines', 'Rumours of Music') it falls into that Ex sound quickly. The artwork is classic black and white crust with lyrics written out so you can follow along, with some bizarre, Ettamogah Pub style cartoons on the back. Everything is done according to plan here, and it's a solid record, but it feels a bit superfluous after just listening to Tumult and knowing what was soon around the Cor(a)ner. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Ex - 'Tumult' (Fist Puppet)

My dalliance with The Ex begins in 1983, with this first step away from the straight Crassisms of Disturbing Domestic Peace and towards the discordant, improv-based experimentalism that would occupy their next 30 years of existence. It begins with 'Bouquet of Barbed Wire', with long guitar drones and slow, throbbing drumming over which G.W. Sok intones his invective; here, as on much of the record, it's an observation about fear in society. He sounds almost bored as he chants, but he's just getting revved up, and over the next 50 or so minutes, the Ex pluck, plod and pound away at the shell of capitalism. Boredom might be a theme of the record, despite being called Tumult -- 'Happy Thoughts' is drenched in ennui, with hints of drum programming (!) following Sok's distant 'Wait for the big bang' repetition; is this depression following oppression? Martial law is invoked on the next track, 'The Well-Known Soldier', but I've always found the Ex's political strides slightly compromised by the fact that they come from Holland. As oppressive as they may find all governments to be, they're coming from one of the most progressive places in the world, where punk rock bands can be supported by the state and squats are everywhere. That's not to say I'm calling bullshit on The Ex, but that they are a often a testament to the truth that things can always be better. Throughout Tumult, the band is happy to fall back into fast 'n furious punk at times, such as 'Red Muzak', and any sort of melodic, anthemic qualities are avoided in favour of the shouted polemic and monotonous rhythm. Their interest in Ethiopian jazz and their dalliances with Han Bennink are a long way away, but will come with time. The cover art boasts a red warrior, faceless as part of the proletariat, bending the bars of a prison, but I think the red and black, the pure leftie outlook, is already about to evolve. Some gems litter Tumult, but the Ex are never a band great at self-editing, and 53 minutes is pretty long (especially knowing I have a few more Ex records ahead). This album came just before a run of brilliant records, from Blueprints for a Blackout through Aural Guerilla and then the genius work with Tom Cora, so it feels like a penultimate glimpse of an open sky, just over the horizon. Mixing metaphors, yes, but Sok's as guilty of this as I am (just check out 'Hunt the Hunters').

Saturday, 20 July 2013

ESP Summer - 'LP' (Perdition Plastics)

I guess at this point, now that 17 years have passed, we're unlikely to see another release from ESP Summer. There's probably not too many people clamouring for one either, which is a shame because this is a beautiful slice of perfect, simple pop. I'm a massive fan of Warn Defever and His Name is Alive, and not so much one of Pale Saints (though that's not for any reason, as what I've heard has sounded pretty good). This collaboration, as the name indicates, falls perfectly between HNIA's Mouth By Mouth and Stars on ESP albums - a period in which Warn threw off the shackles of his Cocteau-influenced early 4AD years and embraced warm, summery pop music. This has the feel of a Tall Dwarfs-style home recording, built around line-in electric guitars, some keyboards, and well recorded vocals. Ian Masters has a sweet voice which flies high over romantic, touching tunes like 'Golden Heart of the Year' and 'Web of Dream'; I imagine these songs were written pretty collaboratively 50/50 as there's a strong sense of Defever's hand, but with something slightly different at play. There's very occasional electronic moments, but they don't really get in the way - this is guitar-pop all the way, even when the vocals are drenched in reverb. In music like this, the simplicity is the charm - not that these songs are rudimentary or primitive, but the overall approach of this as a fun 'side project' carries through. There's no gravitas, but it's not throwaway. His Name is Alive is supposed to be Warn's brilliant songwriting with a beautifully-voiced female overtop, and for the majority of their tracks, it is; my other favourite Defever collaboration, New Grape, is also with a female singer. But it works here, cause Masters sings in a sweet tenor. Any one of these songs could appear on a His Name is Alive record, yet they don't turn up anywhere else -- Warn is notoriously reusing and reassessing old work, but ESP Summer stands alone. The 'ESP' supposedly did refer to the great record label, but there's not a trace of either Albert Ayler or Cro-Magnon here. Instead I recall the gentler side of the mid-90s American indie underground, the likes of which appeared on those Tiny Idols compilations. Part of being an HNIA fan is the pick-and-choose among the zillions of things Defever produces, but I'd wager that most people would put this pretty high on their shortlist of his greatest accomplishments.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Es - 'Kaikkeuden Kauneus Ja Käsittämättömyys' (Fonal)

Es is Fonal label chief Sami Sänpäkkilä's project, and he's always kept one of the lower profiles amongst his own label's output, releasing a handful of albums over the past decade. This one is from 2004, though it was recorded mostly a few years before, and features ten generally low-energy explorations of texture, ambience and space. Female vocalists adorn it, sometimes front and centre (as on the opening cut 'Surullisille, Onnettomille...') and sometimes in a more distant fashion. It's well recorded, but not too hi-fi -- the CD uses homespun digital technology to create a soundplace that is crisp when it wants to be, though not particularly distinctive at that. There's a lot of synth, played in spooky, Goth-leaning styles, but then with acoustic instruments creeping in to give everything a somber, Finnish take on the 4AD aesthetic (or at least, what used to be the 4AD aesthetic). My Finnish isn't good enough to understand any lyrics or titles, but that's part of the pleasure of these artists - if the lyrics are great, we live in mystery, and if they're bad, we're spared the awfulness. There's no shortage of the ol' digital delay, here sounding more like a skipping CD - making a track such as 'Puutarhaan laskeutuu höyhen' an uneasy blend of here and there, reminding me of Biota/Mnemonists except lacking the exuberance. Digital static pokes in as well, and the start-stop nature of the textures sometimes jars against the songwriting. But I've always found this Es disc interesting - it's a lot less freakazoid than Avarus or Kemialliset Ystävät, yet far from conventional. The title track is the closer, a 9 minute bad trip that's built around an indecisive church organ and some eerie chanting. It requires a monk-like attention span but offers a rewarding heart-lift when it's complete.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Embarrassment - 'Heyday 1969-83' (Bar/None)

The Embarrassment are about the ultimate definition of 'product of their time'. In the early 80s, when you're stuck in Kansas and you're into punk rock, there's not a lot of outlets. Though they put out records til 1990, this twofer collects material from their early period and contains essentially all the Embarrassment you need - unless you're a completist. I'm not, but I would be thrilled to come across their debut single on vinyl one day, because both 'Sex Drive' and 'Patio Set' are unlike anything else out there. 'Sex Drive' deals with an oft-trodden topic but explodes with a chorus perfectly suited for adolescent sexual frustration. It's on par with Devo's 'Uncontrollable Urge' in greatness, except I don't play air drums along to Devo. As we get into their more developed material (much pulled from their Death Travels West mini-LP), there's a bit less bile and a slightly goofy side actually emerges, as well as a great deal of melody and guitar interplay. 'Celebrity Art Party' is based around a silly joke, basically, and 'I'm a Don Juan' wears it's self-awareness big and loud. 'Wellsville' is pre-Adventures of Pete and Pete but says it all perfectly. There's not much actually that punk about the Embarassment, especially as the disc goes on, but they lean just enough towards R.E.M. and the Feelies without being too jangly; it's a balance that seems perfectly suited for the Midwest at this time. I grew up not knowing anything about the Embarrassment, but about bands like them, who represented some ideal to me. I was in college by the time I heard this so it was like discovering a long-lost familiar concept. I admit I rarely ever throw on disc two, the 'scarcities', though I have to for the purpose of this writing; and it's solid, certainly justifiable, though I wish Bar/None would have gone more for completeness (the liner notes mention a cover of 'Pushin' Too Hard' from this period, which is not included). The scarcities seem to follow chronologically too, at least in terms of sound; 'After the Disco' is clearly from the same jagged irrationality of the 'Patio Set' era, and though it goes on a verse too long, is a worthy tune. Another version of 'Jazzface' lurks at the end of disc two as well as a bunch of live tracks. The live recordings aren't necessary and I wonder what else could have filled this disc out.  But again, I'm not a completist, nor am I even that big of an Embarrassment fan, but whenever I throw this on, I'm delighted.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Earles and Jensen present.... 'Just Farr a Laugh Vols. 1 & 2: The Greatest Prank Phone Calls Ever!' (Matador)

I guess my own self-imposed rules about this blog say I have to write something about these two CDs of Memphis-based crank phone calls, inexplicably released by the esteemed indie giant Matador a few years back. The first disc of this was passed around between friends of mine (as a CD-r of unknown origin which someone got from someone who got it from someone, etc.) for years, so seeing this get a deluxe double CD reissue almost brought tears to my eyes, first at the sheer ridiculousness of this, and secondly because it came with a bonus second disc. Now, disc two's never really leapt out at me, but I probably listened to disc 1 thirty or forty times during the mid-00s, and this is largely the type of conceptual anti-comedy that requires repeated listenings to make an impact, so it's probably just a matter of needing to give it more time. What's brilliant about these calls is that the majority of the victims never, probably to this day, become aware that they are the recipients of a prank. Earles and Jensen create characters and situations that allow them to improvise in a manner that is ridiculous, but not so ridiculous that you realise it's a ruse. Their brilliance is in playing up stereotypes of modern life, the way desperate people talk, and by making obscure cultural references here and there. This might involve a middle-aged woman mentioning that Billy Ocean is one of her favourite blues musicians, pretending to be Jason Bonham or Morris Day, or . The most memorable character on these discs is of course Bleachy, a creation that is pretty damn racist but pretty damn hilarious. If you want your own adventure in storytelling, try to explain the cultural "meaning" of Bleachy to a European. ("Well, there is a chain of drive-through fast-food establishments largely on the East coast called Rally's, which is stereotypically frequented by African-Americans....") I can't deny that the Bleachy calls are totally fucking hilarious, though they start to drag a bit on disc 2. Throughout, the pop culture references are wonderfully American and wonderfully decrepit - Kurt Loder, Murphy's Romance, Jermaine Stewart, Simon and Simon, etc. 'The Yogurt Machine' is probably the highlight, which is worth seeking out all two hours of this just to hear Earles (or Jensen) say "Well, tell me about 'em." But this is not humour for everyone, and hopefully it will serve as some sort of weird time capsule that future generations can attempt to decipher. This was probably the last possible moment that something like this would have gotten a physical release, as it's hard to justify this needing any more deluxe of a presentation than YouTube or an RSS feed - but I'm happy for it.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Earth - '2' (SubPop)

I'm no stoner and thus I never got hip to the whole wave of bands like Sleep, Sunn O, Corrupted, etc. Not that I dislike the style - these pages will show I'm no stranger to minimal epics, heavy guitars, and glacially-paced records. I guess it's the rock edges that always got me - I'd rather trance out to a Terry Riley or Phill Niblock monolith than feel the residue of heavy metal, or whatever I imagined is there. But like most genres I have one or two entries on the shelves, and this Earth 2 CD is one I very much treasure, because it out-stoners all the stoner rock I've ever heard, and isn't really rock. It's just guitar and bass, often imperceptible from each other, in three very long tracks, with not much changing. It's the record I think Earth's reputation rests upon, or should rest upon, as it's an almost unparalleled statement especially given the time (1993) and label (SubPop, post-Nirvana)! The value in here is not just the sheer immobility of it, because there's actually quite a lot of motion and genuine riffs that return, too - but in the overall atmosphere. Put on Earth 2 and you'll spend the next 70 minutes trapped inside a spherical chamber over which you have no control of your senses. It works quietly as ambient music and it works very loud too, because there's a lot of magic happening in these guitars. 'Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine' feels unending cause it is, but there's a small universe of swirling, buzzing atmospherics on top. And the final cut, 'Like gold and faceted', is over a half-hour with some crashing percussion in the background here and there (but not too much) and it's essentially an endless slow roar. It's exactly like the time I saw Tony Conrad play live, except a meathead version. Meathead minimalism is great, though! Who cares if they have the history of 20th century composition under their belts (and maybe they do)? If Carducci taught me anything it's that intellect has no bearing on great music. These guys are still around but they reinvented themselves as a post-rock band with British folk leanings, and what I heard I really liked; but this is something special, something so simple it's actually quite difficult. 

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Chöying Drolma & Steve Tibbetts ‎– Chö (Hannibal)

Drolma is a Buddhist nun who sings devotional melodies over Tibbetts's guitar ambience, and it's occasionally mesmerising; 'Kyamdro Semkye', for example, has her voice shimmying in every direction and threatening to pull itself apart, while a plaintive, plucking melody of strings rotates underneath. Throughout the numerous short pieces on this disc, the duo keeps establishing an unreliable sense of stability; with the language impenetrable to me, I can only focus on the abstract qualities, which is what we like music for anyway. I guess this is really experimental for a Buddhist singer; though it's mostly an organic core, there are accents, such as backwards skipping studio trickery and searing, post-newage guitar melancholia which would surely be out of place in a traditional setting. Without any real background in whatever traditions are being dismantled here, I'm unable to say much of value. But with a background in the 80's 4AD label, I can hear a lot of similarities; 'Ngani Tröma' is basically an early His Name is Alive cut with a Tibetan vocalist instead of a Michiganite. I put this on every once in awhile without really knowing how to feel about it. I'm not so interested in it from an ethnomusicological standpoint, so it becomes ear candy to me. It's delicious ear candy, but ear candy nonetheless; I try not to approach this intrigued by the exotic 'other', but it's a presence I can't escape from. Tibbetts is clearly in the driver's seat and his textures run the gamut from pedestrian to curiosity-inducing. He doesn't overdo anything, but I don't know why he would, except that I have a bias against these hybrid "world music" projects, so I'm always on guard in defense of good taste.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Arnold Dreyblatt - 'The Sound of One String' (Table of the Elements)

It's not every day that a composer releases an Incesticide, to refer to that Nirvana collection yet again. The Sound of One String serves two purposes - it can function as an introduction to Dreyblatt's work, presented chronologically - while also collecting rarities for the fans. There's some familiar pieces here - 'Nodal Excitation' appears twice, in different forms, including an early solo performance from 1979. And there's a live version of 'Propellers in Love' which is a bit brighter than the studio version. Live recordings of Dreyblatt are great because you can really get a sense of the room, depending on the recording - on the more spare moments, like the aforementioned solo 'Nodal Excitation', you get a bit of room noise and while it's maybe not the most accurate way to reproduce the very specific frequencies, it's a wonderful document of 'being there' that only brilliant sound recordings can convey. By the time this version of 'Propellers' ends, the whole disc has been an ecstatic bit of buzzing beauty. And 'Damping Influence', a more subdued piece, works well to bring down the energy, with it's toy piano cutting through like a bizarre gamelan. And things start to pick themselves up again here, building up towards the steady electric-guitar drone of 'End Correction' and then 'Music for Small String Orchestra', a stunning experiment with traditional instrumentation. It's still just-intonated, of course, and changes slowly from overtone to overtone, and feels like an epic drone composition - like a more austere Lou Harrison, perhaps. The whole disc (and it's a packed 79 minutes) ends with 'Dirge Relations', which looks ahead to the sound and lineup of Animal Magnetism. This does that slow 'walking' thing that is all over Animal Magnetism, suggestion a modular music that is nonetheless cohesive. I admit I haven't kept up with what Dreyblatt has been doing for the past 20 years or so, which is a shame because I love his music this much. Such an reinvention of acoustic instruments doesn't feel dated at all, even though some of these tracks are 34 years old; for this listener, at least, it's a direction for further exploration.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Arnold Dreyblatt - 'Animal Magnetism' (Tzadik)

This is one that blew everything wide open for me. My impressionable teenage mind heard this for the first time (i think) in someone's car, on a cassette, and even still I was quite affected by the power of microtonal music. This is rocking 20th century classical composition, an album to make anyone sit up and take notice. But it's not aggressive, macho, or posturing - it is pure energy, an open, celebratory exploration of sound with a pulsing momentum and a driving urgency. It would be easy to try to read the sound of post-wall Berlin into this, and were I a Greil Marcus type maybe I would try to say that this music celebrates the eclecticism of a new Europe. But I'm not, so I'll just again repeat that this fucking 'rocks'. It's that drum on the opening track, 'Point Rotation', that sets the tone, but it's not a snare - it's a Basque string drum. Yes, even the drums are tuned microtonally and would you expect anything less? There's such a passion behind this ensemble, compared to the more sedate Propellers lineup (only cello/tuba/electric bass specialist Jan Schade remains) that when a deep bowing sound (maybe Schade's cello) saws through the mix, its accelerating rather than retarding. Interesting recording techniques mean that on some tracks, certain instruments are not properly in the mix, so it feels like someone is tapping a bell or block right over your shoulder, as opposed to with the other musicians. The piercing, sharp staccato notes are the brightest sounds on here and work really well against the horns. Everything is distinguished, and it's a composition to celebrate. I know this work like the back of my hand, making this a rare work of classical music that I sing along to. Like 'Propelleres in Love', it ends with a slow, spacious statement, just a note, a rest, and the note again, repeated. Very little gets better than this.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Arnold Dreyblatt & The Orchestra of Excited Strings - 'Propellers in Love' (hatART)

Arnold Dreyblatt's music really speaks to me; he might be the minimalist I feel the strongest emotional connection to. This work from the 1980s is given a disclaimer in the liner notes, from the get-go, that it's 'extremely difficult to capture on tape' and we can imagine even moreso on CD. This takes the formula of Nodal Excitation but with a slightly different compositional feel. It's easy to dismiss Dreyblatt's compositions from this decade as basically being 'dung-dung-dung-dung-dung-dung' but that's far beside the point, and not particularly true -- this disc is a very obvious midpoint, compositionally, between Nodal Excitation and Animal Magnetism. Even on CD with my lousy stereo I'm able to feel slowly emerging, thick blanketing overtones building up on every track, and the louder I turn it up, the more there is. A propeller is a good metaphor because this music is propelled along by the incessant beat, though it's often more linear than circular.  One thing I love is how infinitely relistenable Dreyblatt's music is. Yeah, it's all overtones, but they sound different every time, and there's no chance of a segment of this music getting stuck in your head like a pop song. This might be true 'eternal music' to borrow a term from LaMonte. The most subtle variations in rhythm make a movement incredibly distinct from the last one. The longest segments of 'Propellers in Love' are  'Odd & Even' and the title track, both almost ten minutes, and the duration benefits the feel; it's really easy to get lost, making the code ('Lucky Strike') all the more amazing, with it's sparse, ringing chords. This is a beautiful composition. As a bonus track, hatART gives us the 15 minute 'High Life', played by just Dreyblatt and Paul Panhuysen. This is a total drone piece, and a lovely one, surely constructed from many of the same frequencies that his other work utilises. It's meditative and anything but throwaway, but definitely of a different state of mind entirely.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Dream/Aktion Unit - 'Blood Shadow Rampage' (Volcanic Tongue)

With gatefold-CD artwork painted to recall the "video nasties" of the 1980s, Blood Shadow Rampage sets its aesthetic loud and clear before the disc even starts. Consisting of Thurston Moore, Heather Leigh Murray, Chris Corsano, Matthew Heyner and Paul Flaherty, it's totally twisted and free, as you'd expect. But it's not just a big ball of noise - there are improvising musicians, not in-the-red noiseniks (for the most part) and there are some really sparse comedowns, particularly during 'Your Missing Foot' and 'Brutal Lust'. Corsano and Heyner are an interesting pairing and they serve to really make this recording distinct from other Corsano/Flaherty projects - they often hold back, playing around rhythm  and letting the unusual assonance of Moore and Murray's strings create what are sometimes quite psychedelic toneclouds. It's not always clear to me what's Flaherty, what's Murray, and what's Moore, especially when there gets to be more high-pitched frequencies. But there are moments, such as on the closing track ('Here Come the Fucking Dead') where Flaherty amps up the vibrato and there's no doubt you're listening to a saxophone. You can get a sense of the musicians pushing and challenging each other, and there are moments that scream against the identity of free music, with the swirling gasps of feedback and other tinnitus-enhancing treats. When Corsano does kick in, it's often cathartic, and Moore (whose guitar is the most elusive animal here) occasionally steps in to remind you that, yes, he's Thurston Moore. This is a live recording from Stirling, Scotland and the crowd responds appropriately. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

Dräp En Hund - 'Be Yourself' (Slottet)

There's not much out there (in English) about Dräp En Hund, a band of two 13-year old Swedish girls bashing away on electric bass and a drumset. One of 'em is Mats Gustafsson's daughter (I think) and I'm not sure who the other is or what else they've done, or why I have this. My calendar indicates that both of these girls are about 20 now and are possibly embarassed by this disc, but they have no reason to be. This is surprisingly sophisticated and occasionally quite heavy, with good (by which I mean dirty) production and a fun vibe. It's over in a half-hour, but not before first taking us through songs like the title track, the introspective 'God Damned Destroyed' (with the lyrics "I do wrong/my life is totally destroyed") or the cautionary tale 'Don't Drink'. This is far from novelty music, though I don't think I would be super interested in it were they adults. They sing in English, and sing well - the whole disc feels incredibly influenced by 90's "alternative" rock, though I don't know if it was. I'm not expert on that genre but I imagine Babes in Toyland, L7 and Hole sound not unlike this, at least in terms of vocal delivery. There's a minimalism to this that is commendable; the fuzz pedal and a slight bit of feedback provides just enough that it doesn't feel thin or needy; the occasional odd percussive element pokes out (is that a cowbell in 'Hey Ho Let's Go!'?). I daresay Dräp En Hund stand up against the majority of similar bands with much older members; this completely transcends any novelty value.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Barry Dransfield (Spinney)

It's odd to have this and Nick Drake back-to-back, because I just finished trying to articulate feelings about Nick Drake's legacy as a resurrected-from-obscurity folk icon, and I kept mentioning (without naming) other obscure figures from that time. So here's an example, right away - Dransfield, who pops up on various records here and there (I think I have him playing fiddle on a Shirley Collins album or two, but I'm too lazy to pull them out and check) and then made this, his only solo album, in '72. He plays all of the instruments and thus keeps things spare, mostly built around his strong voice and arpeggiated guitar patterns. It's about half traditionals and half then-contemporary covers, opening with Michael Hurley's 'Werewolf' and David Ackles' ''Be My Friend' as a one-two punch. I like both songs - my appreciation of Ackles has been mentioned in these pages before - but his Apollonian treatment of 'Werewolf' pales in comparison to the Holy Modal Rounders, a version I love so much I can't even accept Hurley doing it anymore. The traditionals integrate fairly well with the newer songs, as the production links them consistently. It's a good album, though a bit distant - 'She's Like a Swallow' tries but fails to really impact through his vocal delivery, but it's too rigid to have the compassion it needs. Perhaps an album built entirely from overdubs lacks responsiveness, though there are other examples of this working for me (Roy Wood's Boulders! - to be reviewed on this blog in about 20 years). And on the instrumental medley jam 'Reels', things sound great, and Barry works into a jig-like frenzy. There's nothing to tie this to the electric/rock side of early 70s British folk revivalism, but that might be a benefit - Dransfield is clearly a traditionalist and he sticks with what he knows. I think I bought this when it was reissued because that coincided with a peak of my interest in this stuff; now I'm less moved by it, but there's something so pleasant about his voice and guitar -- so it stays on the shelf collecting dust, inspiring the occasional listen.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Nick Drake - 'Fruit Tree' (Hannibal)

What can we say about Nick Drake now? Or rather, what does Nick Drake 'mean'? I'm not above asking banal questions like this - what does an aspect of culture (popular or otherwise) mean? I'm not pretending to be Chuck Klostermann here, but when it comes to writing about music that everyone already knows, I feel more interested in the larger cultural context rather than simply describing the music and adding to the plethora of writings already out there. There's no answer to this question, of course; Nick Drake probably symbolises lots of different things to lots of different people. He didn't mean much in his day, which is part of the whole thing. In many ways, Drake is the archetype of the 'misunderstood genius' who only finds success posthumously. There's plenty of those now, and in the folk genre specifically, the last decade has been cluttered with them. Where Drake ranks among this group depends on one's personal taste, of course. It's hard to reconcile my interest in Nick Drake when I was 17 (who was one of the first 'folk' artists I investigated, I think after hearing Pink Moon somewhere) with where the whole genre rests with me now. And ironically, I couldn't really tolerate the slicked-out Joe Boyd production of Bryter Layter back then while now it's the only one I ever pull out and listen to anymore. But Drake's value, meaning, whatever is inseparable from his personal darkness; no one can get anything out of this music without an appreciation of melancholy. Whether he committed suicide or not, he infused something into all of these songs. When the fingerpicking wasn't special, there's a genuine trepidation in his voice ('River Man' is a good example of this). And as saccharine as it may feel now after a decade of Volkswagen commercials, there's still something that brings me to my knees in the pure beauty of some of these cuts. Yes, not everything needs to have a slicing psychedelic guitar solo or surrealist musique concrete collage in the middle to tick my boxes. I think Drake's music, for many people, has taken on something mythical that isn't really there. Five Leaves Left isn't a million miles away from other British neo-folk albums of its time - maybe there's stronger songwriting and a more mellow vibe than Dando Shaft or The Trees - but the formula isn't anything innovative (and some of the musicians, like Pentangle's Danny Thompson, came from that scene). Bryter Layter takes things up a notch, attempting to be more commercial perhaps but wisely involving Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks and John Cale. It's here that the songwriting peaks, with both 'Hazey Jane' songs as close to perfect as I've ever heard. Somehow it manages to achieve stunning melodic beauty without a trace of the saccharine -- not many could get away with 'Fly', but  it's total magic to me. And then Pink Moon. The little book included with this box set is actually a bit hard to read because it's written so badly, but there's numerous mentions about how sad and difficult Pink Moon is. And I'm not denying that, but somehow I've never quite put it up there in my all-time depression pantheon. Maybe again it's the fucking Volkswagen commercials, or maybe it's cause this has become such a standard barometer for the 'stark downer folk' genre that I've stopped even thinking about it. Which brings me back to having to write about all three of these albums (I have pretty much nothing to say about the odds-and-ends collection, which didn't even collect everything cause those Tamworth-on-Arden sessions surfaced later, and Nick Drake doesn't really work in Incesticide mode, though 'Black Eyed Dog' is awesome) which in some ways just hit my ears and fall right off without sinking in. Maybe Drake is an artist who I like and appreciate but whose music never really felt like it spoke to me -- he's for everyone else, like the Beatles or AC/DC, and that's cool but I'm not going to feel a strong personal connection. But does anyone feel a connection to him? Sure, there's some moving songs here, but I can't say they've ever been more than illustrative of someone else's condition for me. This is music I appreciate and maybe even love, but when I'm brought to tears it's at the construction of it - not because it speaks for me. Maybe this is just my problem, but if others could have connected with Drake maybe he would have been happier. See, there's the tortured genius thing again - it's so essential to his identity as an artist, that I don't know if it's because we've grafted it onto him or because his music grafted it onto us. Either way, he actually left a perfect amount of material (especially compared to some of the other guys of that time) - there's just enough Nick Drake, not too little, not too much. If it were possible to build the legacy on only the music, I think he'd be regarded on the same level as Bert Jansch - which is a pretty high regard.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Dragibus - 'Tutti Frutti' (Autobus)

I think this is the only recording from the 'children's music' genre, though Dragibus are a pretty demented form of music for children. Three French people, one dressed as a penguin, doing broken-sounding pop songs for kids - why do I have this? I think I met one of these people once, and was enamoured at the fact they travelled to schools and did Sun City Girls covers for kids. I remember there being such a cover on this CD, but I must have imagined it. But we do get Moondog's 'Pygmy Pig' and if H'Art Songs weren't for children what would be? It's a bit hard to get through this disc in one sitting though the vocals are bright, the arrangements quirky, and odd sounds pop in whenever it threatens to get monotonous. At times the singing sounds like Shonen Knife doing 60s ye-ye covers, but that sounds like a derogatory comparison and I don't mean it that way at all. This may be one of those bands that is more fun to be in than to listen to, but the choice of material is decent (it's about half originals and half covers from what I can tell, and has any other band ever presented a Television Personalities song to schools of French youngsters before?) and I am reminded of that recent Portlandia sketch about children's bands (which was funny!).  If I had kids of my own (and I don't, too busy listening to records!) I'd school them on this, for sure. You're never too young to start speaking French, right? 

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Dr. Octagon - 'Dr. Octagonecologyst' (Dreamworks/Bulk)

God, the 90s were great. I forgot I had this, and I probably haven't listened to it in a decade, but I remember every word. I must have listened to this a lot in my University years, because almost every one of Kool Keith's bizarre lyrics has stayed with me. Every once in awhile I give hip-hop a chance, but I've learned that whenever it gets talked about as being "experimental" or "psychedelic" it's rarely those things. This would certainly be psychedelic from a lyrical perspective, in a horror movie way, though the frequent bizarre sex jokes and animal nonsense make Dr. Octagonecologyst  a unique, unclassifiable beast. No, I think this works precisely because it's not experimental at all. It's grounded by stunning hip-hop backing tracks courtesy of Dan the Automator, and I think the reason none of Keith Thrornton's followups have been very good is because this magical pairing was something that could only happen once. There's no atmosphere quite like this, even if this wasn't rap music; the skits don't bug me, the porno samples are somehow appropriate, and there's a few tracks (particularly 'Technical Difficulties') that verge into truly unexplored territory and are actually awe-inspiring at points. I saw Keith live, sometime around the Dr. Dooom album or maybe Matthew, and it was one of the worst performances I've ever seen, disappointing me to the point where I probably haven't listened to this since. As floundering as his post-Octagon career has been (and there's an article on Grantland that gets into the recent years), it's all forgiven for the magic of 'Blue Flowers', 'Earth People' and 'halfsharkalligatorhalfman' (a title which has a beautiful logic in itself). I'm not really qualified to discuss hip-hop at all, and my tastes (as revealed on these pages) are so hideously tied to white people my age that I'm embarrassed at my own stereotype. But this stays with me, a relic of my life that I've spent enough time with to forever feel a kinship when I meet, to cite a recent example, someone who signs their iPhone emails with "Sent from my 7XL (not yet invented)."

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Arthur Doyle - 'Plays and Sings from the Songbook Volume One' (Audible Hiss)

This is where Doyle crosses from the realm of jazz into proper 'outsider' music, if such a genre exists. The Songbook was composed while Doyle was in 'the clink', and thus each of these seven compositions capture an artist truly drawn into himself. This was released on an appropriate label because the hiss is prevalent, sounding like it was recorded mostly on a dictaphone. I wouldn't e surprised if this was recorded in jail somehow, though the credits are nonexistent beyond titles. When he sings, it's erratic, slurry and wet; a stereotypical 'old jazz dude' voice if there ever was one. The opening cut 'Ozy Lady Dozy Lady' announced how uncompromising the Songbook is going to be, being eight and a half minutes of a repeating vocal line over minimal piano plinks, with the occasional foray into narrative, maybe. It's magical and deranged, but then again, I eat up stuff like this. But 'Ozy Lady Dozy Lady' might be the most accessible track here; things only get more damaged as the album proceeds.  'Yo Yoo > Yo Yoo' takes us into sax territory, with it's jalopy-like bleating; 'Olca Cola in Angola' is over ten minutes of starts and stops, sax and voice alternating like a draft that can never quite get completed. It's repetition is its charm, but this is not an easy time. It's a work of obsession, a document of the inside of a brain, and for this I'm grateful. I rarely listen to this, but there's a value in releasing 9 minutes of flute meanderings, which to anyone else would be a demo of a demo of a demo. The thing is, these are fairly simplistic compositions, so the only strangeness is really in the presentation - an unedited sketchbook of ideas which don't really make sense in this presentation. If you're interested in the creative process in general, there's a lot of joy to find here. I don't think a second volume of this ever materialised, which is a shame, though I don't know who would be buying it (and I think I got this for 50 cents somewhere).

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Arthur Doyle plus 4 - 'Alabama Feeling' (DRA)

I've always questioned the legitimacy of this CD, as the liner notes are written in broken English, and even the 'Tansfer (sic) by Wharton Tiers' credit is a bit suspect. I suppose the sound quality is good enough given the source material which was hardly Dark Side of the Moon to begin with. Doyle's a marginal figure who was briefly resurrected in the late 90s and his reputation rests largely on this record, I believe. It's a powerful blast of free insanity, and Doyle is featured not on sax but on Voice-O-Phone (both tenor and bass), which I think is just a funny way to say sax. Because that's what it sounds like. Well, there's a lot going on here, and the opening cut 'November 8th or 9th - I Can't Remember When' is as memorable as its title (take that how you'd like). There's two drummers here and throughout the disc, doing that thing two drummers often do in free jazz which is making the whole thing a cacophonous propulsive blast. Charles Stephens's trombone is what really dominates, maybe just because of the frequencies, which cut against the electric bass guitar. When Doyle solos, as on 'Something for Caserio, Larry & Irma', it's ripped to shreds, vibrating with an unmistakeable force but about the polar opposite of a Coltrane-like tone. Maybe this is what Albert Ayler would have been reduced to had he lived another decade or so, and lost a sense of control. This isn't to say that Doyle is a bad saxophonist, excuse me, Voice-O-Phonist -- just a raw and primitive one. He certainly brings a power and a scattershot sense of movement, and this is indeed where the charm of this disc can be found. I like chaos and this is mostly that, though it's far from random - these oddball musicians display some sense of timing and the overall feeling is hillbilly-batshit-insane, which is something that separates it quite a bit from Euro free stuff such as Globe Unity, etc. The cover art makes me think of a Braxton composition gone wrong, which is a nice idea, and maybe this disc is not unlike what that would sound like.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Double Leopards - 'Savage Summer Sun' (Hospital)

When we last left Double Leopards it was with Halve Maen; fast-forward a couple years and we get this digitised slice of two live performances, filling the CD's 73 minutes and being relentless in its deep, rumbling drones. Here, we can see the progression of the band as a collective unit, where four humans create an abstract sound-world. They weren't the first to do it, nor were they the last, but they hit on something unique and personal during the mid-00s which is commendable (despite spawning legions of imitators, which isn't their fault). The first track begins with a wall of low frequencies, during which we start to hear screaming, free-jazz styled noodling emerge over a slow, military-like rhythm. It's still subdued by the density that fills the midrange spectrum,  which gradually allows a razor-sharp counter-drone to fight against it. Movement is slow, and change almost imperceptible, but there's a brash charging forward felt here - I would even call it 'energy'. It's not an obvious melting of like-minded improvisers but rather distinct personalities, united in some goal, though of course the unconventional instrumentation (I am guessing lots of processed voice, homemade synthesisers  and keyboards) means this could all be the work of a single person.  And then the second track begins with a full-on assault, with layers suggesting water, metal, and ruptured velocity. It's anti-meditative drone music, yet horizontal enough to be based on some minimalist heritage. It's a live performance and the rough edges are present; some percussion comes and goes but resembles a fumbling in the rumbling; not a bad thing, and this instability presses against the endless cycles. And when it ends, it's the silence that is savage. Thus we bid Double Leopards farewell, though I swore I had more recordings by them -- whatever happened to my vinyl copy of A Hole is True?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Tod Dockstader - 'Water Music' / 'Two Moons' / 'Quatermass' (Starkland)

Though we've already done Quatermass on vinyl, this CD's a must-have for the other two pieces. 'Water Music' is about 18 minutes of tape manipulations, built up from recordings of kitchen sinks, splahses, and other such liquid sources. It's what you'd expect from a brilliant electro-acoustic composer working in 1963; a purity of tone, a frantic sense of layered motion, and a truly otherwordly angle. It's the earliest piece on this CD and in some ways my favourite, capturing that "early electronic" sound that is the sound of pure experimentation - a treasure to behold. It builds up slowly, with sparse plinks and plunks before laying down an evasive, electronic bottom.  By the end of its fourth part, it's pushed into deep brain cavities and rooted about, yet somehow retained its sense of natural beauty. But it closes on some spirited, rapid movement that redefines the idea of 'liquid'. And then 'Two Moons of Quatermass' is in the middle, clearly a companion to his more famous work and brief in about 9 minutes, split into two parts - like a 7" teaser to accompany the LP. Like the more famous work this is built from, this gets into dark, dissonant geography with a playful lilt. The big crashing gongs of Quatermass are only hinted at, but then thankfully this CD gets to the real thing a few minutes later, which in digital form, has a clarity that is pleasing but a brittle, sterile aftertaste. I'll take my battered 60's LP version over this any day, but that's not going to surprise anyone who actually knows me.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Bill Dixon - 'Collection' (Cadence)

There's a major problem with my copy of Bill Dixon's Collection, and that's disc 1 is actually disc 2. Though the printing on the face indicates that it is in fact the first disc, it's actually a second copy of disc 2. Which means that when I look at the track listing, I can only wonder what solo trumpet magic must occur on tracks such as 'The Long Walk', 'Tracings II', and 'When Winter Comes'. So instead, I'll listen to disc two twice. This is all solo trumpet, recorded in the mid-70s, and it shows all sides of Mr. Dixon. We get a bluesy, expressionistic Dixon on 'The Long Line' and an abstract, elliptical one on 'Swirls'. There's some percussion accompaniment on 'Summerdance or Judith Dunn - Pt. One', and this cavernous sound recalls some hip 1960's sci-fi soundtrack, or some Eurospy flick. It's a highlight - despite the rumbling drums, it's still very much Dixon's show, and some of squawks and shrieks are purely NWW-list sounding. Dixon's more soft, wooly recordings are preferable to the straight-ahead production, when the mic is places more close. I have quite a few records of solo saxophone, solo drums, etc on these shelves and while I rarely get the urge to pull them out, I'm always drawn to them conceptually - from a free/improv/jazz angle, the solo record is the ultimate statement (even if you make a bunch of them), as well as a uniquely egotistic thing. This is what I do, and here it is without any dressing. It's a bit brave, but also focused. 30 years later Greg Kelley will mine similar territory, and I'm sure Dixon's work is somewhat of an influence. This CD is plainly packaged and I always forget I have it (and definitely forgot about the missing disc 1) but there's a lot of beauty within.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Disco Operating System - 'Ultrasonic Bath' (Lotta Continua)

Among the dustbins of culture are so many self-released CDs, jewelcases stacking up to Saturn, and here's one more that probably no one has thought about in years, including its creator. Disco Operating System is Gareth Bibby of Manchester, UK, and the reason I own this is because he handed it to me at some point in the past decade. I've forgotten now exactly when and why and I assume I saw him perform this mishmash of electronica - too abstract to fall into the IDM category, but too, I dunno, 'straight' to get lumped in with irr.apt.(ext) and that sort of thing. There are tracks such as 'Boom-bip every trip' which reveal Bibby's background, surely as a dance/club kid (or maybe that's my stereotype of British people) - but then the very next song, 'Goblins be Thine', could be a Nurse With Wound outtake from circa the A Sucked Orange period. Bibby is clearly adept at using a computer - this is an excellent, if nondescript work of assemblage - and it relies on loops/repetition a bit too much, throwing up some easy surrealism and moving on. But this is a type of music to find almost no audience. It's not fun enough for a mass audience, but it's thoughtful/brainy approach tends too much towards easy rhythms and thus would alienate fans of pure electronic abstraction. There aren't many organic sounds here, but a warm feeling like those great Boards of Canada records, so it's not totally cold. But ultimately I stop paying attention and I wonder if I will listen to it ever again (as I probably only did once in the past decade).

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Directing Hand - 'Bells for Augustine Lesage' (Secret Eye)

Alex Neilson exploded with a flurry of musical activity about seven years back, playing suddenly with everyone from Alasdair Roberts to Jandek to Current 93. Often overlooked was his own solo project, Directing Hand, which was some part noisy free improv and some part traditional British folk re-interpretations. This CD on Secret Eye, a relatively early release in the Directing Hand saga, is somewhere in-between. Made up of Neilson plus many compatriots from his old band Scatter, this features a mix of loosely interpreted, casually sung traditionals (at the end of the disc, both the immortal Anne Briggs 'Lowlands' and the less known, Kentucky-based Jean Ritchie's 'Hangman') and some quiet, Jeweled Antler-styled drone pieces. With a name like Directing Hand you'd expect confidence but this is really music of trepidation. The vocals are constantly in retreat, and the various organs, brass instruments, strings and I think harmoniums carefully eek out notes only after everyone else has stepped forwards. It's a bizarre type of improv and Neilson's own voice is clear from a musical perspective even if his vocalics are often mixed low. But it's charming; that warm, enveloping sound made those overlooked Scatter CDs so wonderful to bathe in, and there's plenty of that here, even if the structure is somewhat more rampaging. At times Neilson feels almost like he is trying to channel as much energy as possible into low-volume music, an approach that is relatively successful.