Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Week in Listening 12/8 - 12/14

12/8/08- Minny Pops- Drastic Measures, Drastic Movement LP 1980
Company Flow- Funcrusher Plus CD 1997
Deerhoof- Offend Maggie CD 2008
Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath- self titled LP 1970

12/9/08- No Age- Weirdo Rippers CD 2007
Alice Coltrane- Lord of Lords LP 1972
Lambchop and Hands Off Cuba- CoLAB CDEP
Portastatic- Bright Ideas CD 2005
Tyvek/Cheveu- Future Junk b/w El Tortuga split 7” 2007

12/10/08- Angry Samoans- Back From Samoa LP 1982
The Books- The Lemon of Pink CD 2003
The Rosebuds- Unwind CD 2005
Saturday Looks Good To Me- Dianne Falling Off Of Her Horse b/w
Springtime Judgment 7” 2008
Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago CD 2007
Laura Gibson- Six White Horses CDEP 2008
Evangelista- Hello, Voyager CD 2008
Jeb Bishop- Tiebreaker CD 2008
The William Parker Quartet- Petit Oiseau CD 2008
Art Bears- Hopes and Fears LP 1978

12/11/08- AC Newman- The Slow Wonder CD 2004
Altered Images- Pinky Blue (Plus) CD 1982
Frank Fairfield- I’ve Always Been a Rambler/Darling Corey b/w I Wish I Was a Mole In the Ground 7" 2008
Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee- The Newest Sound Around (The Legendary Duets) CD 1961

12/12/08- Andrew Hill- So in Love CD 1960
Andrew Hill- Black Fire CD 1963
Andrew Hill- Smokestack CD 1963
Andrew Hill- Judgment! CD 1964
Andrew Hill- Point of Departure CD 1964
Various Artists- A Million Dollars Worth of Doo-Wop Volume Two CD

12/13/08- No Age- Weirdo Rippers CD 2007
Algebra Mothers- The Strawberry Cheesecake b/w The Modern Noise 7” 1979
Animal Collective- Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished CD 2000
Taj Mahal Travelers- August 1974 2LP 1975
John Fahey & Cul de Sac- The Epiphany of Glenn Jones CD 1997

12/14/08- ZZ Top- Rio Grande Mud LP 1972
Traffic- Mr. Fantasy LP 1968
Paul & Linda McCartney- Ram LP 1971
Elvis Costello and the Attractions- This Year’s Model LP 1978
Buddy Holly- Legend: From the Original Master Tapes 2LP
Brian Eno- Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) LP 1974
Lula Côrtes and Zé Ramalho- Paêbirú 2LP 1975
Fish & Roses- self titled EP 1987
Neil Michael Hagerty- self titled CD 2001
James Gang- Yer Album LP 1969
Souled American- Fe CD 1988
Mercury Rev- Car Wash Hair CDEP 1991

MONDAY 12/8- Minny Pops was a bunch of Dutch synth-nuts that were far more inclined to incorporate abrasion and a clinical coldness into their sound than to polish any softening gestures to the pop charts. It’s a pretty desolate and dated experience, but I’m feeling kind of desolate and dated lately. This was released on Plurex (a great Dutch punk imprint), but they ended up flirting around with Factory label, and I’m curious as to what those later records sound like.
It’s been so long since I’d spent time with Company Flow that it was almost like a new experience. Hey, nice to meet ya’, you look kinda familiar. Funcrusher stands up pretty well, which isn’t a surprise. ‘90s Underground hip-hop seems to have more staying power than much of the more deliberately commercially inclined contemporaneous stuff, but maybe I’m biased. I feel safe in predicting that this is still going to sound spiffy in a decade. I hope it doesn’t take that long to listen to it again.
This new Deerhoof record sounds just fine. I’m only just getting it under my skin, but each listen reveals depth and development through increased familiarity. One thing I like about them is how their intricate and spastic energy (which at times borders on proggy-funkiness) is so unique to their collective personality that I haven’t crossed paths with a single band that tries to approximate what they do, much less a pack of them. They’ve really worked out a sound that’s undeniably them and is perhaps so difficult to approximate that they don’t have to worry about the pressure of staying ahead of the bandwagon. If it sounds like Deerhoof, it’s almost certainly Deerhoof.

Brotherhood of Breath has been on my radar screen for a long time, but until fairly recently it’s been hard to hear their music with ease. Back in the ‘90s, I’d tried to order some stuff on a couple of occasions only to be find myself in backorder purgatory. Well, the first two BoB recordings are available on Emusic, so I grabbed them up. Chris McGregor was the leader of this group which grew out of a previous band called The Blue Notes. They were South African expatriates, and they have some recordings, one of which (Very Urgent) was released under the name The Chris McGregor Group (also on EMusic). The Blue Notes basically morphed into BoB with the addition of a bunch of the then current British free-jazz upstarts, and they really qualify as one of the few avant-tinged big bands. The music has been described as a mixture of Sun Ra and Mingus, and that’s pretty spot-on. It certainly has its hooks in tradition, but there is an edgy intensity to the playing that really places it in the ‘60s avant/free milieu. Along with McGregor, the names on this record are real heavyweights in the deep history of European progressive/experimental jazz, including Harry Miller, Mike Osborne, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, John Surman, Harry Beckett, and Mongezi Feza. I’m still absorbing the strong cross-cultural vibe that this record offers, but it suffices to say that it’s a major extension of the freedoms opened up by Coltrane, Coleman, Ayler, Sun Ra, et al. It has some fine moments of intense grooving that never gets too tight and mingles with strong soloing (particularly the trombone), and I’m looking forward to spending more time with this record.

TUESDAY 12/9- I’m starting to get a handle on No Age. Not that they’re particularly slippery, but they do seem to have a shifty mixture of punkish energy that is used to throttle an approach that’s very reminiscent of the strains of indie-rock from around a decade and a half ago. This might not seem like such a big deal, or such a hard thing to classify, but No Age doesn’t really have a specific band or even a defined sub-genre that can be used to pinpoint their sound. This is a good thing. I’ll stress that the punk feel that I get from this is just that, a feel. Nothing on Weirdo Rippers suggests punk in any kind of classical form, but it does have the kind of youthful intensity that you’d find at a good all-ages show. The music is more open ended, with a density that is less about songs and more about texture. There were a ton of bands doing this in the early ‘90s, basically continuing the Sonic Youth/Blast First experience into the new decade, and No Age’s vigor keeps it from sounding like a mere throwback. Good deal.

Alice Coltrane used to get bagged on by all kinds of people for the work she did after her husband’s death. It was hard to hear those records for myself back then, so I just waited. Well, the pendulum of opinion has swung significantly in the other direction, so a whole bunch of her stuff is available. Lord of Lords is a very strong album, scored for orchestra, and it is far less based in the improvisational backbone of jazz than I’m sure many people would have liked. But that’s alright. She employs piano, organ, harp, and timpani to interact with the strings, Charlie Haden is on board with his outstanding bass, and the thick, sweetly droning effect is spiritually strong. This is the third part of a trilogy, but I’m not able to comment on that aspect of the recording at this point. This was also her last record for Impulse. The best days of that label were mostly over, and I’m sure the baffled or even hostile responses that her recordings were getting hurt the prospects of a lasting relationship. I’m just glad that Coltrane’s body of work saw some critical reappraisal before she died. She deserved better when these records were released, and it’s nice that she saw some overdue reconsideration.
The collaboration between Lambchop and Nashville electronics duo Hands Off Cuba is short and attractively tweaked. Lambchop are quite adept at taking unexpected turns as they march straight into the heart of greatness, so taking a detour into an area that might initially seem a little too far a field from the heart of what they proffer proves to be much ado about nothing. Or I should say something. The cross-pollination of Wagner and Company’s vibrant acoustic stew with the often abstract textural sonic approach of HOC avoids any kind of contradictory aura, possibly because both sides of this equation seem to have similar artistic temperaments. A lot of electronic music isn’t exactly subtle. This isn’t a complaint, except when that bluntness is grafted onto something that needs room to unfold and develop its strengths. I’ve heard too many bad remixes that never should’ve made it beyond the hypothetical point that do just this. COLab, however, is an appropriate interweaving of sympathetic aesthetics, and it leaves a lasting impression.

WEDNESDAY 12/10- Back From Samoa is such a perfect example of the caustically snotty, brutally brief, non-scientific depths as heights that pure unhyphenated punk could stoop to attain that I’m rather mystified at the non-adulation they sometimes receive. What’s the deal? It’s true that the group was a bit older (less sexy) than their more lauded contemporaries in the hallowed halls of US punk, and that they lack any elements that can be winningly transmogrified into the fabric of romanticized social discord as historical movement (which is great when it’s appropriate, don’t get me wrong), and that they were as misanthropic, negative, and obnoxious as any band ever, often in response to their peers, but for a certain style of no frills bash-it-out anti technique these jokers don’t really have any peers. Group Sex by Circle Jerks is sort of close, but that album’s lyrics often slip into the realm of social commentary. Back From Samoa has none of that. It bounces between vague ranting, doofus celebration and juvenile humor, never reaching for subjects or targets beyond its own backyard. During my last two years of high school, I’m guessing that I played this with more frequency than any other record. It still kills.
Listening to the CoLab EP got me thinking about The Books. It is certainly true that I haven’t heard everything, but I have heard this duo, and I can’t really think of a better mixture of the warmth of live instrumentation and the bent aura of electronic manipulation. As The Lemon of Pink progresses, a gentle but enveloping folkiness builds, words are spoken (captured) and repeated, and the wise use of technology infuses the whole affair with a strange but welcoming quality that leaves behind some fine residue. Just one listen to “There Is No There There” with its perfectly scrambled execution was all I needed to realize that these guys were on to something. Too bad they’re not more prolific.
The Rosebuds are fairly prolific as pop-rockers go. The core of this band, husband Ivan and wife Kelly, have a predilection for riffy, hooky, dynamically strong, instrumentally adept (though non-flashy) and emotionally charged party motion. There is a purity to The Rosebuds that makes any sort of conceptualizing over their sound inappropriate. They simply shut down the contemporary tendency to throw a post- in front of a hyphenated or slangy genre descriptor, and irony is refreshingly not in the band’s arsenal. This is music that’s quality increases in relation to how many ears are digging it, the kind of sound that can inspire a person to randomly embrace strangers. The only reason Unwind isn’t as good as Make Out is because there’s less of it to groove to.
Saturday Looks Good To Me is the project of Fred Thomas of Ann Arbor, Michigan. There is fortitude of knowledge and a depth of love regarding the pop muse in his music, and All Your Summer Songs will rate extremely high in the wrap-up of this decade’s best sounds. The above single shows that Thomas hasn’t lost a smidgen of his ability to write strong songs and deliver them with a scientific mastery of instrumentation, production, and the judicious application of genre. His/their music can dabble in girl-group, Motown, twee-pop, and downtrodden symphonics while never sounding like an anachronism. If you’ve been waiting for a contemporary Spector, well here’s your benevolent svengali.
Laura Gibson’s EP, a solo affair, sounds exactly like the sort of thing you’d hear playing in a group house loaded full of twenty-somethings who make their own clothes and grow their own vegetables (No meat on the premises. But filter-less cigarettes? Sure). It has that sort of intense folkish vibe. Though actually, I should be more serious. The six songs here are largely a heartfelt and extremely well-rendered examination of prewar acoustic blues of a deeply rural bent. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mance Lipscomb, Furry Lewis, and the wonderful Elizabeth Cotten all get covered with sincerity and skill on this record and the sharpness of the recording really brings out the power of her nylon strings and the unique edginess of her vocal chords. It’s the kind of experience that a hard drive and two computer speakers just can’t defeat. Patty Waters may be the reigning queen of the "Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair" interpretations (Nina Simone fans have collectively quit reading this and went to their respective corners to pout), but Gibson’s version is just dandy. The Pacific Northwest is chocked so full of talent that it seems like you’d be constantly stumbling over bearded solo strummers and packs of loose noodlers while taking a tour of the region. That’s cool. But if I tripped over Laura Gibson, immediately after apologizing I’d feel damn fortunate. She’s that kind of rare bird. I saw her open for Colin Meloy and my interest was peaked. This EP really brought home the goods.

Evangelista might just be the heaviest non-jazz album of the year. It’s the latest record from Carla Bozulich, in collaboration with members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, A Silver Mt. Lion, and Black Ox Orkestar, and while I’ve always admired what I’d heard from Carla in the past (Geraldine Fibbers, Scarnella), this thing wails with the intensity of a primal scream. That said, this isn’t at all slapdash or one dimensional. Read again who her partners are on this album. There is a strong and smart interaction between Carla and the other musicians, and the aggressive and loose exploration on display is at times close to exasperating. For a reference point, think early Patti Smith, but here’s the deal: I love Patti, though not in the way some older hands do, since they were there to soak in the experience as it happened. I can certainly understand why those who saw her develop and explode the norm in real time speak of her so highly, and I can surely grasp a significant amount of her greatness, but by the time I’d heard her I was just a young squirt, listening to her output and being undoubtedly affected by having absorbed a bunch of other stuff that had taken the various balls that Smith had punted and ran with them into the end-zone marked musical freedom. Yeah. Listening to Patti always provided deep enjoyment, not life-changing revelation. The reason I’m going on at length about this is due to the ass-pinning fervor of this Evangelista record, particularly its last track. THIS makes me feel the way Lester and Lenny and all those Creem Magazine subscribers must have felt the first time they heard Patti speak of pissing in a river from the stage. Describing Hello, Voyager as a harsh, bruising experience might make it sound like something you’d want to avoid, but it’s also sublime and beautiful. I doubt that anyone who listens to it will ever forget it.
Jeb Bishop and William Parker are both involved with the ever developing avant-jazz scene. They have different stories and significance, however. Jeb is a younger trombone player who grew out of playing punk rock and into improvising with a slew of other younger names of import, particularly Ken Vandermark. William Parker is pretty much the dean of free bass playing, and the list of his collaborators is like a who’s who of outsider jazz from the last thirty years. The respective discs above have only gotten two listens apiece, so I’ll hold back on in-depth description until I’ve gained a more solid foundation in what they are about. I will mention that the Bishop is spacious and inviting in its measured abstraction and the Parker is really quite striking in its engagement with tradition. If you have the impression of avant-jazz as undisciplined note-splatter and abrasive cacophony, well both of these discs should serve as a nice corrective to that stereotype. Bishop seems as interested in silence as he is in how to negate it, and while his record is certainly not explicitly bound to any sort reverence to the explicit swing of standard jazz forms, his recording lacks any kind of assaulting element, being at times almost relaxing. And Parker’s record follows in the footsteps of Sound Unity from a couple of years ago, which is to say that it’s the yang to Bishop’s ying, building a strong but suitably loose foundation for strong soloing and interaction that could even get a few smiles out of a Blue Note hardliner. Gee, I said more than I intended. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

THURSDAY 12/11- Carl Newman is the main cat in New Pornographers, and they are simply a bunch of doozies. He’s also had his hands in other well-baked pies, including this solo record. There is a new one coming out with his name on it that I’m sure I’ll grab when it’s legal to do so (I think it’s already leaked), so I thought about catching back up with this one. Part of what I like so much about his music is the agile heaviness that’s extant. This is essentially pop/rock, so the quality and degree of heavy is applied so it registers subtly and works to advance the propulsion of the songwriting, burrowing hooks into the memory and choruses into the air as the listener gleefully sings along. Other elements add to the cumulative effect, such as the appealing use of keyboards (very power-pop without any bad connotations) and Newman’s distinctive vocal delivery. The bottom line is he tackles a no-big-deal kind of genre sound with loads of panache and I can’t imagine this record will ever wear out its welcome.
I’d pretty much never heard Altered Images until I started downloading music. I say pretty much because one of the John Hughes soundtracks apparently has a song on it by them. Not sure which song or soundtrack. But I definitely knew about the band. Hell, they were featured in the first issue of Creem Magazine that I ever bought. The radio stations in my area didn’t put AI in rotation however, so I went without hearing them until I randomly grabbed a few tunes from the internet. I liked those songs, one from a John Peel session and the other a demo from 1980. They were guitar based popish post-punk that reminded me of the many cool indie-pop bands from the early ‘90s that were coming out on labels like Slumberland. Except for vocalist Claire Grogan, who had a high-pitched and unsteady delivery that’s a bit like Debby Harry’s precocious kid sister. So a few days back I decided to give Pinky Blue a spin and can’t say that I was impressed. Its biggest setback is the ‘80s radio sheen that coats everything. To make matters worse, most of the songs are undistinguished. Things putter along like I’m riding to the mall in the backseat of someone else’s car circa 1986. Man, what a horrid fucking memory. Actually, a few of the remixes here have some sprightliness and enough engaging sonic action that I did smile a little bit. So it’s wasn’t a total loss. But compared to those early tracks, Pinky Blue is a huge letdown. People who actually profess to love the ‘80s might think differently.
Frank Fairfield is a guy I don’t know much about. His MySpace page says he’s a young musician and record collector. His music is a rather amazing channeling of the sort of old timey wonderment personified by guys like Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who’s "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" gets covered on this (downloadable) 7”. Fairfield has a superbly heavy hand with his fiddle bow, and the fact that a guy under thirty years of age can pull off sounding like a backwoodsman from the era of the FDR administration while avoiding any kind of minstrelsy is cause for some major pondering. He records for a swell little indie label called Tompkins Square, he’s opened for Fleet Foxes and will be opening for Charlie Louvin, and I’d love to hear more than three songs by this guy. The last time I checked this was a free download at EMusic, so if you have a computer and the interest there should be no further barriers between you and this guy.

Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee are both long serving inspirations from the jazz underground. Blake is one of the most neglected pianists to emerge from the wide open ‘60s scene and Lee is one of the few vocalists to engage in extended interaction with the avant-garde. The Newest Sound Around is basically ground zero for both of them, and after knowing about this record for years and being denied access by it almost constant unavailability (it was in print on CD for a while under the parenthetical title above), I finally got to hear it. Tis nice. Anyone expecting to hear the ripping throat action that Lee emoted on Archie Shepp’s Blasé will be disappointed, but keep in mind that this was recorded in 1961 by two young newcomers to the scene. This is a deep inspection of classic song that leaves the lasting aura of mastery in an early, lively stage. Blake’s playing is quite interesting, always interacting with Lee instead of falling into the mode of accompaniment, which often happens in pianist/vocalist duos. Lee’s voice possesses an assurance and a prettiness that sustains throughout the record. She knows the material, and is comfortable enough with it and with Blake’s playing to inject just the right amount of her own artistic personality to these versions (no diva is she). Jazz with vocals almost always leaves me disappointed, but this one is a keeper and then some.

FRIDAY 12/12- Speaking of underrated pianists, the late Andrew Hill fits that description perfectly. While he’s nowhere near as unknown at Ran Blake, it’s still stymieing how a guy who consistently produced one classic after another for Blue Note records is basically only on the radar screens of serious jazzbos and Nels Cline fans. Hill often gets lumped in with the avant-garde, and while that is less of a disservice to his legacy than just placing him into the mainstream, it still doesn’t accurately describe what he excelled at in the ‘60s. A good word to describe him would be cerebral. Both Hill’s composing and his improvising are positively drenched in unexpected turns that are gracefully rendered. He was able to get incredible expressiveness from some of Blue Note’s most familiar players while often including more eclectic personnel, many of which have painfully small documentation on record. He had a sort of late-career resurgence shortly before his death from cancer, returning to Blue Note with fanfare and some surprising sales figures, but I’m still digging around in his massive ‘60s recordings.
So In Love was his debut as a leader, recorded for the Warwick label, and while the sound quality is a drag it still sheds some serious light on his development. Along for the ride are bass legend Malachi Favors and a little known drummer James Slaughter. This isn’t an earth shattering listen, but Hill still sounds quite unique at this early point, playing around with Afro-Cuban melodies that are pleasantly lacking in the norms for the period.

Black Fire was his debut for Blue Note and it’s a monster. Throughout the record, Hill maintains a tightrope between angularity and essential swing, full of spiky assertiveness and a serious playfulness, expanding on the Afro-Cuban tendencies with stirring artistic progress. He spurs his partners into some fantastic interplay. Tenor Joe Henderson sounds very inspired, and the Richard Davis (bass)/Roy Haynes (drums) rhythm section tangle together into a brilliant fabric of notes and textures. If you’re a newcomer to the music of Hill, start with this disc. It has bucketfuls of the instinctive qualities of the best jazz of its era while lacking even a whiff of workaday sessioneering. It’s just fascinating in the almost offhand heights it achieves.
Smokestack retains Davis and Haynes, subtracts Henderson, and adds another bassist in Eddie Khan. This sort of instrumental line-up isn’t often utilized. It sounds pretty great here. Naturally it’s very much a record about rhythm, with Hill gliding around reacting and commenting on its strong bedrock, and also spurring his cohorts into higher levels of creativity. This isn’t as quite as gripping as Black Fire, but it still has much to offer.
Judgment! is a quartet of Davis, vibe maestro Bobby Hutcherson, Hill and Elvin Jones on drums. The more familiar combo of instruments gives this a surface feel of a straight on post-bop session, but that’s slowly peeled away to reveal a steady engagement with progressive movement. Jones sounds perfect, and Hutcherson blends his percussive tones into a fine tapestry with Hill. Davis is a goddamned anchor. He was Stravinsky’s bassist of choice, and I’ve never heard a record where he sounds less than stellar.
Point of Departure is simply one of the essential jazz albums. It has Hill at an early apex in his career, bringing together one of the most mind bending one-and-done groups ever assembled. Henderson’s back, as is Davis. Add hard-bop mainstay Kenny Dorham on trumpet, the young and amazing Tony Williams on drums and Eric Dolphy on horns. The music lives up to the expectations, holding a constant, evolving beauty: so beautiful in fact, that Dolphy’s presence, while certainly noticeable, never has that smack of idiosyncrasy that’s often present when he played on the more mainstream (I’m not using that word as a putdown) records of others. Everybody is working at the peak of their abilities. PoD has attained a stature in jazz history that’s secure, yet it seems to lack the fervent following that other documents of its era (Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Hancock’s Maiden Voyage or even Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, for some examples) inspire. This surely has much to do with Hill’s musical temperament, which really requires time and familiarity before the vastness of the whole really begins to have lasting impact. He wasn’t angry or thorny enough to be championed by the advocates of the full-blown free-nation, and he required too much time and attention for those in line with the progressions of advanced post-bop and modal sounds. But as far as Hill’s artistic legacy goes, time is on his side, because he’s still way ahead of it.

SATURDAY 12/13- Algebra Mothers (or the A-Moms, for short) were from Detroit and their one single was a blast of punked-out Devoid hurky-jerk. In the era in which this lived and breathed, bands all over the land were issuing cheap vinyl calling cards that contained their eventual one-shots of undervalued glory. These guys are a quick glimpse of Motor City ingenuity. Keep the Spud-Boy’s epileptic structure and attempt to approximate their veneer of synthiness with fired-up, over the top keyboards straight outta the garage and then drench it all with gnarled-out guitars and the whooping, whopping vocal presence of a late-adolescent angsty-nerd in heat. Fucking sizzling.

Animal Collective is a band that I’d been curious about long before I’d actually heard them. My real intro was Sung Tongs, but until now I’d neglected to go back and catch up with what I’d missed. The debut record is nice, capturing them in a somewhat embryonic form, though it is interesting how strong some of the band’s more developed tendencies were at this early stage, particularly the detailed abstraction of extreme tones as an almost rhythmic backbone for their songs. There are investigations into areas that don’t seem to figure in their current sound (possibly to return later) and also the feel of a group who was essentially playing for themselves, finding a finishing point and then just throwing the results out there to see if anything snuck into the favor of a small segment of the populace. It’s obvious what happened. Animal Collective is a great example of how a band that’s complex and hard-to-pin-down yet still generally accessible to a large number of ears can thrive in the current post-major label, technologically enhanced marketplace. There are certainly plenty of unpaid for copies of their records floating around in IPods or sitting on hard drives, but the reality is that these aren’t really lost sales. What the free flow of tech allows is a stronger bond between the artist and their real fan base, the people who do buy records and attend shows. And when the artist isn’t constantly screwed by bad distribution of tangible product or faced with record label bean counters who are expecting a return on their investment, they spend much more time concentrating on their art and developing the relationship with the people who truly care about it. Animal Collective has been growing for almost a decade, and so has the number of people who care about that growth. The lifespan of bands that play demanding music was once much shorter, and when it was exceeded it was cause for celebration. The tide is slowly turning to an atmosphere where we don’t have to flip our wigs when a group produces a golden ten years.
Taj Mahal Travelers are pretty legendary for playing a splendid strain of experimental drone. One of the most revered Japanese psyche bands of all time and also one of the most demanding since they seem to totally work outside the realm of rock influence, at least on the basis of the above double album. These guys demand that you interact with their sound completely on their terms, which means forsaking the groove and just sitting back so the slow build of abstraction can be more fully soaked up. Taj Mahal Travelers aren’t a gateway drug. They are a bursting bag of prime shit. You either dig what it’s about or you look for other kicks.
The Fahey/Cul de Sac record probably stumped a lot of people when it appeared. Fahey was a long standing master of instrumental guitar in the American Primitive folk style. And Cul de Sac was a bunch of heavy hitters from the deep underground. I’ve only listened to this once, but it’s already clear that the often haunting undertone of Fahey’s playing was clearly absorbed by the members of Cul de Sac, and that the tough and discerning methods of the band helped to reenergize one of the greatest guitarists of all time. If all you’ve heard is Fahey’s Vanguard-era material, you’re in for a shock. But a great one.

SUNDAY 12/14- ZZ Top had a period of hipster vogue that found them embraced by the fans of Sonic Youth and Steve Albini. This kind of thing can be a pain when there is a surplus of irony, but in this case the adulation was quite pure and ultimately deserving. ZZ Top in the ‘70s was just a smoking band. They understood how to translate the brevity and lack of flashy-technique that was an inherent part of their influences into the then new heavy rock landscape without bastardizing what was taken or softening what resulted. Purists often disdain these guys as tasteless or trite, but that’s simply fucked. The forms that ZZ Top pilfered from were never about reverence and solemnity. It was the soundtrack to weekend plunges into joints and dives that offered a smoky, spirit-drenched atmosphere and the possibility of sex or if not, then at least a temporary respite from the rawness of life. They should be commended for declining to kowtow to the curators and guards in the museum-like atmosphere that’s often erected around the still vital and copious legacy of the blues and R & B. They didn’t betray the music, but actually extended much of what was essential about it to heaps of people who probably thought Champion Jack Dupree was a pugilist. How sneaky of them.
Traffic was one of the first Brit psyche bands that I took the plunge with after tasting Syd-era Pink Floyd. I’d always kind of dug Winwood in The Spencer Davis Group, and the early stuff by this band grabbed me then and continues to squeeze me to this day. I think they’ve aged quite well, considering that a large portion of the current music scene shows no signs of shying away from the airy, spacey, occasionally foofy terrain that Traffic was involved with pioneering. These guys eventually went to the dogs, but I think their early impulses are well worth hearing.
I’ve probably insulted Paul McCartney more times than I’ve done the same to George W. Bush, and that’s a shameful thing to consider. It’s true that Paul’s decision making is often odious, but it’s not like he’s alone, and it’s not like anything he does really has an impact on my life, unlike that asshole soon-to-be ex-Pres. It’s just that Paul was the designated whipping boy of The Beatles, the one who eventually proved to be pretty square and unrepentantly careerist. I don’t know how I ended up with a copy of Ram. I don’t remember buying it, but I guess I did, probably because "Uncle Albert and Admiral Halsey" is on this record. That’s the one post-Beatles McCartney song I’ve always liked. Well, the whole thing’s not bad. Yeah, it could’ve been better. No, I’m not going to buy any Wings albums. I would buy a used copy of this on CD if it weren’t overpriced for the bonus tracks, however.
Elvis Costello is another guy that I’ve been rather unkind to at times. Most of the stuff that has his name on it post-1980 doesn’t really thrill me all that much, honestly. It’s really just a case of Costello not replacing the raucous but brainy punch of his second and third records with anything nearly as interesting. Those are the only things by him that I own, and This Year’s Model is just a blast. I’d heard many of his records in a random order, and when I finally listened to this one, "Pump It Up" smacked me but good. This is what the new wave was supposed to be about. Too bad so many people took so many bad turns.
Buddy Holly hopefully needs no intro. Beside his talent, what’s so striking about him should be obvious from listening to a well ordered collection like Legend. He’s really the main guy from the original rock ‘n’ roll impulse to show a strong progression in style without really subverting what he was essentially about. Listening to the early stuff, it’s clear that Holly, while grasping the wildness of the new music, was either unwilling or unable to subtract the elements of his personality that would eventually come to the foreground as that plane crash loomed closer. Another way to put it would be that early on Holly rocked, but he was never really a rocker. And compared to him, pretty much every other chartbusting contemporary either looks like a flubby sell-out (Elvis, natch) or they appear boxed in by the limitations of their own invention (Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, the many rockabilly wild men, and especially Bill Haley, the opportunistic über-square of all times). Berry and Diddley stand as exceptions due to the unbeatable strength of their sound. Rock snobs generally hate Holly’s later stuff, considering it soft and antithetical to what the whole ‘50s teen uprising was supposed to be about, and yes, I too prefer the corking early junk, but also recognize the fragile sweetness (the sincerity) of the more developed material. It’s all essential.
Brian Eno looms huge over the current music scene. Taking Tiger Mountain is probably the one document of his greatness that I value the most. It’s an unbelievably strange record that has a curved spine of inviting qualities, sometimes rocking, other times mysterious, occasionally exasperatingly pretty, at moments raw and dense, and always enthralling. I’m rather stingy with the genius appellation, but it applies here. This was the big brown nipple that truckloads of soon to be post-punks were sucking on around 5-6 years after this was recorded. Without Eno, the whole landscape of what punk was to spin into would’ve been much different. And certainly lesser. This is desert island material, as pleasing now in its quirky labyrinthine structure as it must have been then.

The story behind the Lula Côrtes and Zé Ramalho 2LP is that nearly all of the copies of the release were lost in a fire. That means it was rare, baby. Brazilian mid-‘70s psyche that flutters and fuzzes and floats and occasionally employs flutes, it’s a real mover. The overall heft of their sound is very spacious and uninterested in gestures to any overt pop or rock sensibility, working up a graceful, loosely melodic acoustic terrain that gives it a certain immediate appeal. Having the length of four sides of vinyl allows the music to really expand and breathe, and these two cats are quite adept musically, using their proficiency to deepen the welcoming weirdness. Very, very druggy. If you are thinking Os Mutantes, don’t. As endearingly oddball (and yes, great) as that band could be they were often an extension of/improvement on gestures to and from within the pop charts. Paêbirú is not that sort of thing. Its subversiveness comes from the extended aleinness of the wide open formlessness it provides.
I’d call Fish & Roses a forgotten band, but I don’t know how many people even knew about them in the first place. New York City art-rock outsiders who released their debut on one of the more interesting and neglected labels (Lost) to call that ‘berg home in the ‘80s, F & R were label mates and peers with such bands as Mofungo, The Scene Is Now, Elliot Sharp, Chain Gang, and Les Batteries. The one aspect of F & R that helped them to stand out even in this considerable company was their lack of a guitar. Now this isn’t such a big deal today, when keyboards and electronics have helped to decrease the omnipresence of six-strings, but twenty years ago it was almost unheard of in the rock landscape. The sorta sub-scene that this band bounced around in had a much wider scope of interest than the majority of the u-ground of the period, and this helped to give their music a unique quality. Along with The Scene Is Now and Mofungo, F & R also had a leftist political sensibility that placed them close to what Minutemen were doing, but frankly most people didn’t seem to grasp this at the time, particularly in F & R’s case, since the more keyboard-driven sound didn’t immediately jive with what Watt Boon & Hurley were throwing down. Another thing about F & R that seems legit is their existence as a continuum of No Wave ideals. This band’s drummer Rick Brown happened to also be a member of Blinding Headache, Information and V-Effect, three No Wave groups that were as terribly overlooked as F & R. I’d surely be nice to see a CD reissue stuffed with all of this band’s recordings. The release on Homestead and the disc on Fell Good All Over are unheard of by me at this late date, and that’s a situation I’d like to see change.
The James Gang is responsible for two of the dandiest slabs in all of hard rock singles-dom, “Funk #49” and “Walk Away”. But I’d always avoided inspecting the albums, figuring that they couldn’t be all that interesting. I’ve grown into a friendlier relationship with a lot of hard rock bands these last few years, so I thought I’d tackle the debut by these guys. In a word: Inconsistent. Much of the material here doesn’t play to the band’s two biggest strengths, the guitar playing of a young Joe Walsh and the heated group interaction of which they were capable. Instead, it dabbles around in a lot of areas that should’ve probably been left alone. None of the music is bad. It just seems ill-suited. The biggest problem with the album has nothing to do with the music, though. It concerns the inclusion of a batch of studio outtakes that largely revolve around the antics of Walsh, who apparently always fancied himself something of a wise-acre. In truth he’s frustratingly lame. As anything that was once interesting about his music evaporated he grew into one of the most odious characters in the whole California Cocaine scene, but at this point he seems more like one of those obnoxious high-school cut-ups who refuse to shake off the persona and grow into a more grounded, less annoying individual. What a dunce.
The Mercury Rev EP is sort of like a trip down memory lane. “Car Wash Hair” was a track from their first album Yerself Is Steam. I played that record more than a bunch of times shortly after its release, but never picked up this EP until recently. So it has the sweet smell of familiarity, but also new angles. The interesting observation about the band at this point is how there was little specific precedent for their sound from within the scene they were working in. While they are often compared to Flaming Lips, the truth is at this point the Lips were still shifting away from the grungy/psychy heaviness that endeared them to Dinosaur Jr fans. I recall aligning Rev with Galaxie 500 back then, partly because Dean Wareham guests on the record, but that analogy seems off target in retrospect. Both bands shared an interest in a psyche state of mind, and I’d have loved to hear a Galaxie (or Luna, for that matter) cover of “Car Wash Hair”, but the comparison still seems to miss the mark. G500 was very much about the absorption and interpretation of classic elements, in their case post-Warhol and Cale Velvets and early Jon Richman. Rev certainly harkened back to older developments as well, but in their case it was much less definable. They were glancing backward and using the past as a less specific palate of possibilities. If you like Mercury Rev and haven’t heard this, search for it. It’s a nice addendum to their early sound. It also has one of those untitled 30-minute bonus tracks that were so ubiquitous in the ‘90s. That was very thoughtful of them.


Anonymous said...

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Thanks Mike

Joseph said...


Thanks for the heads-up. The site looks fantastic. No doubt I'll be spending time with it and learning a lot. There are plenty more McGregor/BoB recordings that I'll be listening to and writing about, and when I do, I'll be sure to mention and provide a link to your work.