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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.