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Monday, 15 September 2014

Zusaan Kali Fasteau & Donald Rafael Garrett ‎– 'Memoirs Of A Dream' (Flying Note)

You can count me among the fans of the Sea Ensemble's 1974 ESP-Disk album We Move Together; it's one of the less heralded ESP titles, coming so late, and maybe due to it not really fitting into any prevailing jazz scene at the time. Don Garrett is one of those figures who was integral to the 1960's free jazz movement without being recorded that many times. He played on Coltrane's Kulu Sé Mama and in the Archie Shepp band for a bit, and was generally described as being an energetic, visionary figure who knew and worked with just about everybody, without ever carving out much of a name for himself as a band leader or soloist. His long-term relationship with Kali Fasteau (they were married during the 70s) led to the Sea Ensemble, a duo group that somehow sounds like so much more. I came across this double CD at some point in my exploratory jazz phase and often throw it on when I want to escape into the fluid movement of wind. These are two live concerts, and they are flowing, evocative improvisations. The first disc is live in Leiden, 1975, and in two 15-minute tracks they start a whirling ball of organic sounds rolling that never really stops, though it has its ebbs and flows. It finally comes to a gentle, slow resolution where the air, channeled by these two, finds a resting place. The second disc is live in Turkey, 1977, towards the end of their relationship. This is divided into twelve tracks, all untitled, and has a less crisp, more woody fidelity. They start by speaking an introduction with some abstract language and then blow through some intense interactions. There is a lot of piano and upright bass, as well as the wind instruments heard so prominently on the first disc. The fidelity makes it sound a bit like a recording from the 1920's or at least the pre-modern times; this gives it even more of an otherworldly feel than the instrumentation does. There's a good bit of vocals here, sprinkled overtop like a spice, and the two get into a push-pull thing sometimes, particularly when both on wind instruments (I can't always tell what's what; some of the flute-like sounds feel too wooden in origin to be a proper flute, but then not quite a shakuhachi sound either). When it gets more of an edge (the double-bass bowing is warm and wet, but there's a more sharp, grating bowed instrument later on that when plucked sounds like a sitar or something Indian), it stands out from the other tracks. This musical freedom, where a jazz basis is synthesised with the pulse of worldwide traditional music, feels more like a way of life than a genre. Though many of my favourite 'jazz' artists trend towards this type of output (Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, etc.), they're really outliers when compared to the standard jazz narrative, of Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Centre and public radio and all that shit. Maybe this is just a bunch of hippie shit, but these artists found their path and stayed committed and true, and you can hear it between the notes and spaces of the recordings. The passion here is expressive, but it's as much about the overall artistic vision (visually, as well as in the way they lived) as it is about the sounds themselves. I find inspiration here more from that aspect than from the actual recordings, because as pleasurable and psychedelic as it can be to be carried on Fasteau and Garrett's flying carpets, it's more of a call to arms, to get off this laptop and pick up my busted-ass clarinet and start exploring my own outer spheres. That's not to diminish how great this is - it's an hour and a half well-spent, alive and breathing.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Fall of Saigon (Gazul)

By the time the first minute of Fall of Saigon has passed, the punchy opener 'Visions', I feel like I am listening to a slightly more aggressive version of Young Marble Giants. The simple synth pulses, gentle rhythms, and Florence Berthon's earthy, intimate voice are certainly from the same playbook, and this comes a few years later (1981-1984) so the influence is probably undeniable. But this was reissued probably due to the presence of Pascal Comelade, who later built a career performing in more experimental and improvised arenas, and these nascent tendencies are heard throughout. And when guitarist Terry Den takes over vocals, as on 'On the Beach at Fontana' (chanting a James Joyce poem) or 'She Leaves me All Alone', we get a more industrial, trance-like feel. His dour voice recalls the Cure or just about anyone else making dark punk-edged pop in 1982. (Could the band name refer to the This Heat song, or is it a reference to French political history?) This music is familiar through its obscurity, being another one of those rediscovered gems that keep surfacing at fairly regular intervals. That balance of serious and heavy lies throughout - there's fun live recordings of covers (Kraftwerk's 'The Model', TV Personalities 'Part Time Punks', and The Doors's 'The End') sequenced together in the middle, but it doesn't feel like filler, instead like a fleshing out of the personality of this band, represented 30 years later by this single CD. I don't know how Fall of Saigon fits into the trajectory of French art-rock; I so want to shoehorn them into some lineage between Mahogany Brain and Cheveu, but that's just forcing myself to rationalise great music into a historical narrative. The of-its-time sound and the covers inevitably situate this as a product of its time, but it's a time that we've been celebrating for three decades and I see no reason to suddenly stop.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Fall - 'Grotesque (After the Gramme)' (Cog Sinister)

This is a weird CD release because it pre-pends some early singles ('How I Wrote Elastic Man', 'Totally Wired' plus b-sides 'City Hobgoblins' and 'Putta Block'), but without anything in the liner notes indicating that. So 'Pay Your Rates' actually kicks in as track 5, and then Grotesque proper begins. Not a problem here - the singles complement the album perfectly - it's just that I only know what the song titles are thanks to my familiarity with the tracks (and the Gracenote CDDB database, of course). Repetition, cited often as an early Fall motif, is maybe most prominent here of any of these early releases - 'Pay Your Rates', 'New Face in Hell' and 'C n CS Mithering' (not to mention 'The NWRA'!) are insanely monotonous, drilling into one's brain with their back-and-forth soul-sucking. It's like a Michael Snow film, except with Smith's sneering lyrics providing a wild unraveling. 'English Scheme' has always been one of my favourite Fall songs, maybe due to the way that the carnivalesque keyboards blast over everything and the geographic evocations within the lyrics tweak my own fascination with British maps By this point, The Fall have evolved out of the punk thing entirely and arecreating something intangible but about their lives in Manchester. It's more confident, perhaps, less prone to hiding between Smith's bile. The keyboard and guitar interplay on 'New Face in Hell' is practically jazz. 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Fall - 'Dragnet' (COG Sinister)

I guess this is the second Fall album and it's just about perfect. It's recorded with a bit more of a gritty feel than Live at the Witch Trials and the songwriting seems more obnoxious (that's a good thing!) and the great Craig Scanlon has joined the band at this point, able to exude the maximum dissonance within what is still technically a pop song. You can hear it in 'Psykick Dancehall' which builds up a repetitive, annoying high-pitched riff during it's climax. Mark E. is ripping it up too, snarling throughout stuff like 'Printhead', a dark mishmash of punk and DIY singles and whatever else was happening in 1979 Britain. The original liner notes are reproduced here in annoyingly small CD quality, and maybe it's best summed up by Mark E.'s own bio, about his visit to the dry cleaners: 'How did your coat get so dirty, Mr. Smith? What do you do for a living? Answer: I hang around old buildings for hours and get very dirty in one of those hours.' Genius, I guess; dirty buildings do fill the corners of Dragnet, even if it's the 'Flat of Angles'. The longer form jams ('Spectre vs. Rector' and 'A Figure Walks' which is utterly brutal in its monotony) take the promise of early single 'Repetition' and run the course. The people making this would probably never have imagined that anyone would consider it a 'classic' today.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Fairport Convention - 'House Full' (Hannibal)

Here's one I got for free somehow, which is a live recording of the 1970 Fairport lineup, post-Lamble, post-Denny. Just five guys trying to make the best of their iconic vocalist's departure. The liner notes, written by Joe Boyd in the 60s, are somewhat dismissive of the Full House album and of later Fairport in general (referring to a 'long, slow, sometimes ungraceful but always spirited decline'). But he insists that this 1970 band was a tight unit, not captured on the studio recording, and thus this live gig from Los Angeles in September 1970 is presented to support his argument. It's a good live recording - a bit lacking in the low end, but this is a CD after all - and the 'reluctant vocalists' Thompson and Swarbrick (again, Boyd's words) sound pretty confident to me, especially on 'Banks of the Sweet Primroses' where they exude a casual confidence which sounds striking, or maybe I just like English accents. The band is overall playing a bit fast, or at least with a spring in their step. The instrumentals are particularly fierce - 'Mason's Apron' sounds like something off Camper Van Beethoven's second album, and the climax of 'Matty Groves' never sounded better. As a band, the material has shifted really strongly towards the 'folk' in 'folk-rock' (which is a nice juxtaposition with the Heyday CD we just listened to) and also leads to more extended meandering solos by Thompson, which are always welcome. He seems to just stick some extra notes in hidden places, here and there, and it's a casual grace that he masters when he starts making solo records a few miserable years later. The centerpiece, of course, is 'Sloth' - I've already proclaimed my love for this song elsewhere, and that remains on this version, if it isn't amplified. The fierce buildup about 8 minutes in is even more aggro than the studio version, and the raw live edges are perfect for the come down, when Swarbrick starts to delicately pluck the violin strings around the cadence. It's like he's trying to tease the beast of a melody into revving up again and it works wonders. I love this song and even though this lineup of Fairport is slightly lackluster,  I can't imagine 'Sloth' with Sandy Denny -- the sense of resignation and frustration is distinctly male. The closing cut, 'Battle of the Somme', is delicate in a way that it feels out of place, especially after 'Mason's Apron', but maybe that's just my own itchy nervousness coming into play.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Fairport Convention - 'Heyday - BBC Radio Sessions 1968-69/Extended' (Island)

Heyday was Fairport's album of radio sessions from the early era of the band, but not the earliest - it's all Sandy Denny here, sans-Dyble, and while they were theoretically writing material like 'Meet on the Ledge' and recording albums as great as Unhalfbricking, this collection shows them cutting loose and mostly delivering rave-up cover versions. If Fairport was folk-rock, this shows that the rock came first; the only British traditionals appear as the bonus tracks, though this CD is all about the bonus tracks. I actually had the original Heyday CD, which was only the first 12 cuts here, and then upgraded to this expanded reissue when it came out. The album proper is almost a classic of its own - the band goes through Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Gene Clark songs with varying aplomb, and there's a few originals such as the great 'If It Feels Good, You Know It Can't Be Wrong', by Thompson and Ashley Hutchings. Of course, no more false words have ever been written, but on that track, the debt to American rambling folk-rock is laid on thick. This is perhaps the least British Fairport Convention ever -- their smashing version 'Reno, Nevada' shows how much they fetishised American folk culture -- but some of the most fun. And Joe Boyd contributes to the liner notes, explaining how he pushed them to define a more distinctly British sound, which I think everyone can thank him for. These are Peel Sessions from before the term really existed and thus have that thin, spontaneous Maida Vale sound, with reverb on the live vocals (most evident on 'Fotheringay's haunting background voices and 'Si Tu Dois Partir'). It's only the bonus disc that starts to creep later, material-wise, into 1969 and into far more British fare. Here we get 'Nottamun Town', 'Fotheringay', 'Reynardine' and 'Tam Lin', all of which defined and distinguished Fairport Convention from the other masses of Dylan-gazing folk-hippies, and you can hear why. Thompsons's shredding on 'Nottamun' is great with Martin Lamble's congas, and it's like a hash den at times, all the more affecting when juxtaposed with a strident Jackson C. Frank cover. The version of 'Tam Lin' to close it out is a scorcher, as good as the album version and a million miles from 'Gone, Gone, Gone' earlier on the disc. It's an appropriate finish to something as conclusively 'fun' as this album, with a burning light that lingers after the disc has stopped spinning.

John Fahey - 'God, Time and Causality' (Shanachie)

This late-period Fahey (but predating his 'experimental' comeback on labels such as Tim/Kerr and Table of the Elements) is a gem, combining the expanded blues ragas of his early work with the more direct, punctual guitar tone found in his 80s recordings. He revisits some old tunes here, making this a key document of how an old master continually reinvents himself. Maybe it's wisdom and age, but God, Time and Causality announces itself right off the bat with 'Revelation', which according to the liner notes quotes Charley Patton. It then segues into 'The Red Pony', a thundering, almost violent epic that roars and flows for about six minutes. A new version of 'Lion', last heard on The Yellow Princess, follows, and the liner notes metions that this is stolen from an obscure blues guitarist named Walter Hawkins, and that the flamenco flourishes were also Hawkins'. This is such an iconic Fahey tune to me, and hearing it twenty years after the last recording illustrates the 'time' part of the album title. 'Requiem for Mississippi John Hurt' is also revisited as the second part of a medley and it becomes such a lifting, magical ride that I probably can't tell it's recorded 20 years after the version on Requia. There's a bed of overtones here, a warm glow from the speedy repetition which lingers on during the changes.  Fahey's 80s output is often overlooked and Rainforests admittedly feels minor and reaching, but God, Time and Casuality really can stand against any of his classic late 60s albums, so if anything this illustrates the biases of time (there's some causality for you). My own accumulation of Fahey recordings ends here, but I would like to check out Womblife again, because I remember it embracing electric reverb and delay pedals with a vigor not even hinted at in his earlier electronic tendencies, and while I didn't care for it at the time (preferring the definitive acoustic Fahey) I think that after listening to a few of these albums sequentially I would feel more of the context to support it (which is kinda really why I do this, you know)....

Sunday, 30 March 2014

John Fahey - 'Rain Forests, Oceans and Other Themes' (Varrick)

Fast-forwarding nearly two decades from America, Fahey here delivers a set of mostly-covers, recorded live in an old church. He's accompanied by Terry Robb on about half the tracks, and the effect is jarring if you're used to the expansive songs of his 60s records. The opening track, 'Melody McOcean' (one of the few originals here) already sets a tone - the melodies are more carefully pronounced, building on tones in a way that makes me think about melodic indie guitar bands like Bedhead who followed in the 90s. There's quite a bit of distortion on these notes, which is odd given the liner notes which go on about the recording process and the delicate nature that was in the old church-studio where it happened. It is a great large room and the harshness of the CD format really pushes up against it, making some of the highs almost too-brittle to enjoy. If this is Fahey in pastel, it's OK by me - 'Melody McOcean' has an epic grandeur that while less dusty than his earlier work, shows a development and the same brilliant compositional ear. 'Rain Forest' is a bit more strummy, and a few of the shorter pieces such as 'Atlantic High' and The World is Waiting for the Sunrise' take on that old magic. This is definitely a cooler album and I'm not just saying that cause it's about rain forests and there are waves on the cover; the tonal qualities of the guitars, no doubt due to the recording style, are glossier and echoey. The wooly transfigurations here merge into a spacious breeze, and the numerous covers make this feel even more alien. Clapton's 'Layla' is the first one, and it's pretty straight-forward as it goes, and I must say dazzling when Robb and Fahey intertwine in a speedy manner. A Moondog  piece makes an appearance, and there's some synth, percussion and bass to fill that out (cause you need rhythm with Moondog!) - it's an odd collection of sounds, more malevolent than Moondog usually is, but with some nice ringing open chords to balance the strange modes. The most curious cover is probably Stravinsky's 'The Firebird', as the second part lets the room ambience drift over all. It's beautiful and fragile; you can almost feel a fireplace burning in the background as the final resounding strum mockingly dismisses the theme. 

Monday, 17 March 2014

John Fahey - 'America' (Takoma/Fantasy)

At the deepest point of my Fahey interest (1999-2001, roughly) I was convinced beyond any doubt that America was his masterpiece - though I must say that I hadn't heard them all, and still haven't. This was due largely to a friend uncovering a vinyl copy; he dubbed it to a tape, and during a long afternoon drive across central Pennsylvania we listened to it while trying to stay awake and the synergy was magic - the long sweeping guitarscapes were a perfect complement to the dim light of I-80, with rolling hills in the distance that seemed to write their own elegies. I immediately ordered this CD, which strangely expanded and contracted the LP at the same time. A lot of additional material was added - the first nine tracks, in fact - but one of the LP tracks was shortened to fit the fascistic 75 minute runtime of a compact disc. But it's great in both formats; I can't, at this point, imagine America without the beautiful 11-minute 'Dalhart, Texas, 1967' or the incredible version of 'Amazing Grace' (the best these ears have ever heard, with piercing shards of guitar cutting through the nonbelievers like machine gun fire). And neither were on the original LP. When we finally get around to it, I'm taken back to that drive and the transformative power of music (or whatever cliché you prefer) is in full effect. America is built around two 15- minute tracks, 'Mark 1:15' and 'The Voice of the Turtle', and the longer formats are where Fahey shines the most (although the former, I believe, is the truncated one). These pieces take their time to build, and especially in the case of 'Voice of the Turtle', represent probably the fullest evidence of his guitar genius. The shorter tracks are also great though - 'Dvorak' is celebratory and when looking at the strange, primitive artwork ('The destruction of Takoma Park, Maryland') while listening to it, it feels spooky. This is no longer necessarily my favourite album of his - I would probably take the wistful longing of Days Have Gone By, or just decline to pick one - but it's a formidable entry into American music. The title seems to acknowledge this, and while it's easy to inject a whole lot of context into your work by titling it 'America' (I'm looking at you, Baudrillard), it's fitting for the self-made man he was. I'm always drawn to the way mid-century American artists dealt with space, to me one of the fundamental issues of American culture - and the long format improvicompositions here breathe in and exhale, like a William Carlos Williams poem. The title track itself (left off the original issue!) is perhaps the most impressionistic part of the album, with a resonant high-register introduction before the resounding, aggressive strides of the main theme kick in. It's easy to think of this as the whole 200-year history compressed into a 7 minute instrumental guitar piece and I'll succumb to that analysis. Though it's lacking any musique concrete experimentation or weirder elements, this is Fahey's magnum opus for sure, and it's been recently reissued in full on vinyl so I'll probably make the conversion soon - which is the first time it's ever all been together, even if only two minutes are missing here.

John Fahey - 'The Yellow Princess' (Vanguard)

Fahey goes 'serious' in the liner notes here, explaining that he's tired of writing humorous record notes, for 'such publicity stunts are no longer necessary'. Then it transforms into a beautiful description of the title piece, written for a boat, and with a description of one's place in the cosmos, Whitman-motivated, that is as stirring and majestic to read as the composition is to hear. 'The Yellow Princess' is Fahey strumming and picking frantically in standard tuning, creating a dazzling array of  guitar sounds. It's a momentum picked up a few tracks later in 'Lion', an open-G eulogy to his housecat that moves through moods, appropriately given it's inspiration. The Yellow Princess overall shows Fahey in the extremes - slow, mournful picking and jaunty whimsicality both share a loveseat. The longest piece is 'Irish Setter', another one for a pet, but that's only 7 minutes, making this very digestible overall. Fahey's accompanied by a band on two tracks, but it's minimal - 'Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible city of Bladensburg' is actually one of the most spare pieces on the disc, starting with a few cautious steps before building to a swirling tornado, with an additional guitar adding a shimmery, bendy feel to a lengthy buildup. Fahey leans slightly more towards severity, and away from beauty, with modal progressions and minor key explorations ('Irish Setter', 'Charles A. Lee: In Memoriam'). But when he drives straight-ahead with simplistic wonder (as on the sublime 'View'), it provides the complete yin-yang of the Fahey spirit, and you start to see what his reputation is based upon.