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.