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25 May 2017

Hevoset (Dekorder)

Two similarly named denizens of the Finnish early-00s tape underground made this collaborative tape, and Dekorder saw fit to reissue it on vinyl. Jan and Jani (from Kemialliset Ystävät and Uton, respectively) have similar approaches to sound, especially in how they make it, being solo artists who assemble crazy surreal soundscapes from tapes, loops, acoustic instruments and primitive electronics. I was reading an essay over the weekend which pointed out that the phrase 'lo-fi' is misleading, because fidelity refers to the ability of the recording to accurately reflect the actual sound, so therefore extremely overproduced studio albums by Queen or whatever are actually lo-fi, since they sound nothing like what those Queen songs sounded like when the band played in a room. This makes me realise that the Hevoset LP (as well as many, many others from the avant/tape underground) are actually extremely hi-fi music. I never saw Hevoset live, but I've seen Tomotonttu and Uton a few times and I know that what you hear is what you get. Perhaps 'tape-fi' is a better term, as this LP sounds like a cassette tape being played. The untitled tracks move from a variety of moods but it's always pretty thick, even when there's more spacious elements. The opening cut of side two is exactly that - tentative acoustic strings pinging around over a rumbling, narcotic drone, pulsing around a vacuous middle. Here the details are all there is, the central narrative is lost, and it's almost conventionally spooky, absent of the more gonzo elements I usually associated with Anderzen's work. Halfway through side 1 there's some crazy percussive bongos thumping around, a caterwaul vocal straining to get out through it all, and actually a good deal of space there as well. But then other tracks are screaming miasmas of affected keyboard tones, or maybe they are guitars or maybe neither; it's the Birchville Cat Motel school of soundscaping, though rough around the edges. The sound of the tape machine itself is often present, the same motor wheelgrind heard behind early 'bi-fi' (see, there's another one) recordings from the early 90s but here placed into an experimental soundnik scenario. I've always loved Jan's sense of motion and Jani's approach to texture; they combine beautifully on a track about midway through the second side where a melodic string figure is stumbling around a melting synth melody; they dart around each other and never quite converge.

16 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Western Culture' (Interzone)

This is the record for which the 'Thatcher anticipation' tag on the sidebar was invented, the swan song of Henry Cow, reduced here to a four-piece instrumental band and performing two side-long compositions, or song suites I guess. Not only is John Greaves gone, but so is the sock; Cutler's cut-out art (there's some nice alliteration) is actually really appropriate and nicely composed, just like the record itself. 'History and Prospects' is written by original member Tim Hodgkinson, and is one of the more genre-bending Cow compositions, though it's not exactly hip-hop or country music. Its opening piece, 'Industry', references the then-burgeoning industrial music scene, or maybe they weren't aware of that and it's just inspired by proletariat Marxism (or, perhaps by both); either way it's hot shit, with Frith playing a thick, almost dubby bassline between some modal reeds and a thick groove-beat. There's some electroacoustic work here, tapes and other noise, which make a few crashing percussive parts sound like Neubauten. Overall it's one of my favourite Henry Cow tracks, one which seems to look the furthest ahead not just in terms of electronic integration but towards Frith's later work in New York, in the 80s. 'The Decay of Cities' comes next, a bit more textbook perhaps, but that textbook is about labour statistics and urbanism, and it punches above its weight. Difficult music, maybe, but it's spacious and it's still recognisable as modern instrumental rock music, with the free/drone/noise parts used more like icing on a cake. Cooper's 'Day by Day', on the flip, is a little more conventional prog-Cow, or at least more fitting in the continuum of their Virgin-era records. I know now that Western Culture was their Abbey Road, recorded with it intending to be the end, so I can hear resignation in the heavy, ponderous rhythms and the probing, unresolved oboe/sax lines. But I can also hear connections to some of their past and future collaborators, showing them to be a band in the truest meaning of the word 'progressive'. It could be the acoustic guitar plucks here and there, sounding not unlike Derek Bailey, but also the spazzy bits of 'The Decay of Cities' which show the influence of the Residents and Ralph Records - a turn towards surrealist sound, perhaps another way that I see Western Culture more like a beautiful beginning (or collection of beginnings) than a somber ending.

14 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Concerts' (Caroline)

I was watching a really boring hockey game last night, and during the period breaks I read the Henry Cow page on Wikipedia; afterwards, this Wikipedia reading was the most memorable part about the whole experience, if that can give you some indication of how dull the hockey game was. I really had no idea how tense and difficult it was to be in Henry Cow. If you look back at the last three posts, I'm gushing about how confident and lockstep they are in their vision, without any idea that they were not only struggling to survive professionally (well, I may have guessed that) but also challenged internally in terms of the band dynamics. Unrest's brilliant second side apparently came together because they didn't have enough composed material, and they nearly killed each other making it, but it goes to show the power of the recorded output, because to me it sounds like a gang of geniuses improvising with one hive mind. Which brings us to Concerts, in some ways the most 'complete' Henry Cow release as it's certainly the most representative of what you might find if you had been blessed enough to catch them in the mid 1970s. At this point, Dagmar Krause is a full member of the band, sticking around after the Slapp Happy merger collapsed (another fact I learned from Wikipedia - the merger wasn't so easy and the two different approaches eventually tore them apart). And once again, the free group improvisations are placed in the second half of the record (the second disc, as this is a 2xLP set) and the 'songs' are pushed to the forefront. Another Wikipedia-learned fact (sorry, I'm a broken record) is that the unwillingness to integrate vocal-based songs and instrumental/free music led to the formation of Art Bears, essentially a split. It's almost a reverse trajectory from most other bands, because back on the first album it feels like they were totally comfortable with structure and exploration being so well balanced - in a way it would take many other artists years to figure out. Side 1 of Concerts is bookended by 'Beautiful as the Moon', which goes from the structured song into the outro jam, into what is credited as 'Nirvana for Mice', though I barely recognised it. This recording is fantastic - it's easy to forget that it's a concert recording - and the band is inspired. Frith switches between guitar and piano seamlessly and you see how little they actually relied on studio work. We get the beautiful 'Ottawa Song' (as far as I know, never released elsewhere, and it's a touching, distant grass-is-always-greener yearning for another place) and a Matching Mole cover, before 'Beautiful' is reprised. As one unbroken 23 minute piece of music, it's astounding, showing Henry Cow at what they did best. Side two is also fun, though the fidelity takes a hit. Robert Wyatt shows up for Desperate Straights's 'Bad Alchemy' and then sticks around for his own 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road'. This is a fairly straight cover, though given a lot of momentum from such a full band and with the thundering piano chords really making a feelgood moment, at least for those who love Rock Bottom as much as I. It's a nice way to cement Henry Cow in a scene of peers, and makes the second record all the more of a contrast. The Oslo improvisation that makes up side three is preferable to the fourth side's pastiche of two jams in Gronigen and one in Udine, but I tend to like mellow soundscape group improv more than when musicians collectively find a melodic structure. 'Oslo' starts off really murky, and while it builds (and provides space for Krause as well), it never stays in one place or forces itself into a song structure. The fourth side is build around some recognisable structures, but still twists and turns on a dime a few times.  Not unlike In Praise of Learning's 'Living in the Heart of the Beast', it starts to feel too immense to keep track of, and also, the sheer length of the record just starts to get to me by this point. The two records work well to be listened to as separate albums, separate bands even, and now that I've read more about their internal dynamics I hear a band starting to fall apart - which is totally not what I ever thought the many times before when I listened to Concerts (or parts of it). So this is surely the bias of what I read, which is why sometimes I'm happier not knowing anything about the background of music which I love. I can't believe no one has written a book about Henry Cow and the RIO scene - or maybe someone did, links in comments, please. The world could definitely use this, far more than we need another Springsteen or Dylan biography.

13 May 2017

Henry Cow/Slapp Happy - 'In Praise of Learning' (Red)

I have a lot of records; some would say 'too many', and I probably must concur, even though I find it hard to part with any. One sign that your accumulation is too vast is when you don't actually remember if you own a record or not. One of the many things I've enjoyed about doing this project over the past 8 years is realising these possessions and omissions, and now I've realised that I do NOT own a copy of Desperate Straights, the one credited to Slapp Happy/Henry Cow (in that precise order of credit, and which I guess came from the same sessions as this LP). I always thought of these two bands as having briefly merged for two albums, rather than merely 'having collaborated', and In Praise of Learning is probably the high point for both bands' careers, though I realise I said in the last post that Unrest was the best Henry Cow record. By now you should know to ignore my superlatives, anyway. But anyway, the distinct sensibilities of each band are perfect in combination, different enough to challenge and pull the musicians in new directions, but unified in their passions and penchant for adventure. This LP is credited to Henry Cow (except on the spine, where Slapp Happy gets some love), and this makes sense as this is much more of a Henry Cow album with Slapp Happy's spin, as opposed to Desperate Straights which is the other way around. Plus it has a sock on the cover, dyed red in case you had any fucking doubt about their politics. The opening cut, 'War', is the most explosive juxtaposition of the two ensembles, opening with Blegvad's voice briefly before Dagmar Krause (credited here by her first name over, a proto-Madonna if there ever was one) comes crashing in. This is the first Art Bears song for sure, with violent poetic imagery and rhyme soaring over a potent mix of musicians. Former Henry Cow member Geoff Leigh returns to guest and Mongezi Feza is also present; it's almost a pop song and a perfect introduction to 'Living In the Heart of the Beast'. This is Tim Hodgkinson's composition, and it's an epic number, taking up the rest of side 1 and moving through an absolute plethora of words, printed on the back sleeve like the polemic/essay it properly should be read as. This piece is hard to grasp, with its title the most memorable thing, but in its density lies many rewards. As it proceeds through several movements, it gradually takes on the role of the anthem, as if Henry Cow has figured out how to write aggressively political music that avoids cheap sensationalism or inconsistent wavering; indeed, 'Beast' finds its own footing by the end, where it comes marching to a conclusion over a what's probably the most conventional "progressive rock"-sounding moment on the record. Side two (as usual) has the free improvisations, though they are just the bread around 'Beautiful as the Moon - Terrible As an Army With Banners'. This sound is a bit more stripped down, with Greaves/Cutler locking into a plodding groove over which Frith's piano arpeggios perfectly complement Krause's rising and falling voice. I guess to some people her singing might be an acquired taste but I love it, and would buy any record of hers sound-unheard; I remember already gushing here about Babble and the Commuters EP, and this is another one of her greatest accomplishments. Her timbre is so uncompromising that it's a perfect match for Henry Cow, one of the most principled bands there ever was (to me, they approach Crass-like territory), and 'Beautiful as the Moon' finally releases in it's conclusion into a cadence that is actually catchy, probably the most hummable part of this record and of Henry Cow in general. The improv tracks on either side are both wonderful and I can only dream of what outtakes there must be; 'Beginning - The Long March' is a little punchier, but 'Morning Star' gets into some truly extended technique'z recalling eastern gong music as much as it resembles rock, jazz, or anything western, really. Cooper in particular shines here, especially over scraped guitar strings that occasionally sound like bowls of water rotating on a giant animal skin. The lyrics are printed on the back, which you really need to follow, and at the bottom is the (amazing) quote by John Grierson: 'Art is not a mirror - it is a hammer'. I find that as inspiring today as I did at 17, even if it feels like more of a struggle to believe it (or to implement it). I don't know much about the personal journeys of the Henry Cow people over the years, but they've at least managed to keep a public image that they have really lived this ethos without compromise. I'm not sure if any young musicians today listen to Henry Cow for inspiration, but they really should.

12 May 2017

Henry Cow - 'Unrest' (Virgin)

Maybe their best record, Unrest takes the sock and darkens the hue, which the music mostly does too. Once again, the Cow (with Lindsay Cooper replacing Geoff Leigh) structure their album with the more open, improvisatory bits on side two and the tight, strident rock songs first. 'Ruins' is the highlight of side 1, a long Frith composition that has become one of their signature tunes, but I also love the piano playing at the beginning of 'Half Asleep; Half Awake'. I assume it's Greaves tinkling the ivories (though it's heavy on the black keys – somehow evoking the Paul Bley side of jazz without sounding of that genre at all) since he composed the piece. The piano that closes out the album, a distant yearning underneath some even more distant vocals on 'Deluge' might be Frith, since they're both credited. The more 'out' sounds on side two are really what drives me crazy though; 'Linguaphonie' I've listened to multiple times, trying to make sense of it. It's the Cow at their most electroacoustic, Frith almost stealing the show with the amplifier hum, heavy use of effects pedals, and radio static guitar which sounds almost completely alien; but Cutler is also a force here. It again hints at a jazz without fully committing, ending in a free cacophony that is the perfect lead in to 'Upon Entering the Hotel Adlon', a work so frantic you could tell me that it was a Skin Graft Records outtake from 20 years later and I'd believe you. Cutler is still kicking ass here, showing his hellacious attacking style that is usually hidden behind his spectacled, tea-and-biscuits appearance. This is also the next step in the too-obvious progression through politics that Henry Cow make; here things turn darker, realising the struggle of the intellectual improvisation-friendly progressive musician against a dying European post-war culture. Things get a lot more red soon (quite literally if we're talking about cover socks), and culminate in their last album which actually has hammers and fucking sickles on the cover. My politics mostly line up with these guys and I'm sure, certain actually, that Jeremy Corbyn has a copy of this record. I hope he uses the sprightly progressive bounce of 'Bittern Storm Over Ulm' to motivate his people to the polls next month. I met Cutler briefly when I was an undergraduate, after seeing him give a workshop about sampling, copyright and intellectual property. When we chatted afterwards and I told him how I was just getting into his back catalogue, he told me to avoid the East Side Digital CD reissues of Henry Cow, warning that they were mastered badly and to buy (of course) the ReR issues. I've heard Henry Cow on CD and yes, it did sound thin (though I don't know which version it was, and all CDs sound thin if you're a vinyl snob); but here on original Virgin wax, Unrest sounds fucking thundering. I know I probably go on too much here about how great and resonant these records sound on my Rega, but one of the reasons I kept listening to this over the past few days is just how pleasureable it sounded. The guitars have a real fire to them, but the sax and reeds of Hodgkinson and Cooper are perky and brisk, and give this a really complete, satisfying dynamic range.

10 May 2017

Henry Cow (Virgin)

Henry Cow started here! Which means that a lot of other things did too, ultimately; this is the source of a great series of rivers and tributaries, and a whole movement in music called 'Rock in Opposition' which sounds funny now but maybe not so much in these times of socio-political upheaval. But really, Henry Cow were a progressive rock band, simultaneously a shining example of rock music and also far more experimental than most of their British peers. I haven't actually sat down and listened to this one for a long time (which is the whole point of this project), and I must say I've come away more impressed than I remembered being. The individual musicians all have had such storied careers that it's charming to listen to them at their point of origin, but so much is already established. Chris Cutler's style of drumming is unmistakeable - crisp and light, yet driving and confident, and he locks in with John Greaves to drive the compositions forward. Greaves is the most heavily felt, especially on opener 'Nirvana for Mice', and he's the reason this is pulled so heavily in the direction of rock music, I'd say. But he shows he can improvise, too, although there's not much extended technique at play from him compared to the others. Over the weekend, I read David Toop's recent-ish book on improvisation before 1970, which focused mostly on the English scene, so improvisation is on my mind. The improv moments of Henry Cow (I know this is commonly called Legend or Leg End, but those words appear nowhere on the sleeve, spine or labels of my copy) mostly take place on side two, during the middle part where the reprise of 'Teenbeat' segues into 'The Tenth Chaffinch', a collective work which has some utterly dazzling moments. Fred Frith, again starting out here as a plucky young guitar player, can hold down prog riffage as well as skittery, bumpy Derek Bailey-style runs, and I found myself drawn back to the memory of the one time I saw him play live, at a weird session with some Estonian musicians. Frith has this way of tossing off moments that sound like no one else in terms of technique -- not flashy, but expressive, and with a focus on tonality and mood that is lacking from a lot of stick and poke guys. The weirdly, possibly microtonal shifts that open 'Extract From "With The Yellow Half-Moon And Blue Star"' on side two turn into the same kind of thing, like a conventional rock guitarist melted with some distant, hazy lights in the distance on a cool summer night. It's amazing to think how he had this ability to paint on the very first record he ever played on (I think). The whole band sings on 'Nine Funerals of the Citizen King', which I guess is technically the closest these guys get to sounding like Genesis, though the lyrics feel more modern, probing and poetic. It's a great song and one I forget about; generally I wish there were more vocals in Henry Cow, even the truncated glossolalia we get at the end of 'Amygdala'. Somehow this band turned into an institution, but one that kept challenging and reinventing itself; I can only imagine what this must have seemed like in 1973, especially coming during that time when British music was started to harden and become somewhat immobile. Compared to Egg or Hatfield and the North, this is madness, but like many enduring records (for example This Heat's Deceit, or Animal Collective's Sung Tongs) it manages to be from a scene/style but totally singular, kicking the ass of everything around it (non-aggressively!) with a purity of vision and purpose. And I write this as someone who even gets bored a little bit during this record! But there's more to come, so much more to come....

9 May 2017

Pierre Henry - 'Mouvement-Rythme-Étude' (Philips)

I can't find any record of this particular edition anywhere online (spine/catalogue #6510 017) but it's well-known under the same title with a different cover. This edition may be a bit less attractive but the copy I found was in really nice shape and that's a good thing, because with Henry and similar musique concrete records, the space is important. Surface noise would get in the way of the echo, which resonates off of the gurgles and bloops that mostly populate this record. I can't imagine what it must have been like to see this dance piece being performed; I think a lot of this was recorded with a microphone in a room, because you really hear the echo, though maybe it's a tape effect. And Ninjinski was somehow part of it! As a non-visual source for psychedelic enjoyment, it's hard to get much better than records like this - eschewing any recognisable genre, including drone/noise, these are sounds assembled in a way that creates a whole new musical ontology. Which is why the title of this record is so apt - it seems bland at first, but fuck yeah it's all about movement and rhythm, and Henry is often thought of (by me, at least when I'm not thinking too deeply about him) as purely a technological innovator and not so much as a composer. And while an electronic record from the 70s with a track called 'Continuum' could be a stereotype, the sounds contained within are a far cry from cosmic synth rackeffects or freakazoid drone - its more like a strange object bouncing around several dimensions, occasionally refracting with the sound that you hear when MP3s are compressed poorly, except this was caused probably by Henry grabbing the spinning reel-to-reel loop with his hand (or some other such trick). There's an incredible amount of diversity across this record, and maybe that's the reason (along with the expense) that I've never hunted down any other Pierre Henry records: this is satisfying enough. 'Pureté' is maybe the most dazzling in terms of 'how the fuck did he do that', a constantly shifting series of mild sound-bumps, still sounding like a future we could only dream of even though it's been nearly half a century since it was recorded. The 'Adagio' pieces here refer to a traditional musical mode here, and that's another reminder of how this record reinvents music itself, the aforementioned ontology of its own. For people who are scared of the 'avant-garde', I'd recommend a dip into this record, because there's enough of an embracing of the fundamental concepts of 'music' here that it can be grokked by anyone with even a remotely open mind.

4 May 2017

The Karl Hendricks Trio - 'A Gesture of Kindness' (Fiasco/Peas Kor)

This is the last Karl Hendricks Trio record with the original, 'classic' lineup, as Tim Parker soon left and formed a great band called Vehicle Flips for awhile, before leaving Pittsburgh entirely. I wonder what happened to him? I used to know him, when I was a plucky kid, and he was a pretty cool dude. If all you take the first sentence here as your only source, then you might think it was Parker who steered the Trio towards a more pop-based, catchy direction, and that his departure was already imminent here, because A Gesture of Kindness mostly sheds the pop hooks which Buick Electra is so saturated in, and trends towards a more subdued style of melodic work. Although the album artwork boasts of 'snappy toe-tappers', this album steers far closer to the sound of mid-90s indie rock; you can hear an influence from bands like Slint, the For Carnation, and Silkworm. This style actually suits the more introspective and somber side of Karl's lyrics, which are in full force here. The album closer, 'Your Damned Impertinence', runs over nine minutes (EPIC!), built around a very plodding, moody indie rock line which would really date this if it wasn't such a good track. There's an irony to the lyrics -  he's singing, through clenched teeth, a love song about how he enjoys the act of being frustrated, and when it explodes into the rocking-out parts, there's a thrill of release, an anthemic lift, and a genuine justification of the relationship between the lyrics and the musical style. Also (mostly) absent this time is Wayno; Chris Ware takes over cover art duties here, which is certainly a lovely aesthetic, though Wayno does the cover of the included lyric book, and it resembles a classic zine 'mini'. Typed out in Xeroxed glory, Karl's lyrics here can be read more easily than ever before and a dark bitterness seems to have crept in. The glorious, romantic optimism of 'Painted My Heart' or 'Nowhere But Here' is absent, and an ultimately deeper (though initially less inspiring) frustration with relationships and love has emerged. I think I listen to Karl's music to feel young and inspired - to remember the way I approached the universe at age 17 - so that's one of the reasons I rarely dust off A Gesture of Kindness. Twenty years later, I can really feel some of these observations resonating with me, because I needed to suffer my own miseries of love/life to connect with these songs. The rockers are fast and furious, and the fidelity of this pressing leaves a bit to be desired - the first side in particular was either mastered or pressed poorly, as the sound is blown out and muffled, and way too bassy. On the more aggressive numbers this is really problematic, but when things slow down for 'The Dress You Bought in Cleveland', over which Karl mourns a relationship from a classic male perspective (yet devoid of any misogyny), the space really echoes well. The 1-2 punch of 'Desperate Drunken Artist' and 'Breaktaking First Novel' shows his turn towards the world of literature; he spent his later years teaching creative writing, and it was in a literature class that he gave me this copy of A Gesture of Kindness, making it a truly self-fulfilling title. I don't have any of the later records, which is not to indicate that I didn't always enjoy the Trio (and later the Karl Hendricks Rock Band) whenever I saw them. I hope that if anyone is actually reading these writeups, then maybe some new people will be turned on to the man's words and music. RIP.

1 May 2017

The Karl Hendricks Trio - 'Sings About Misery and Women' (Fiasco/Peas Kor)

I love the title of this album, and Wayno's artwork for once is a bit less reminiscent of 80s Daniel Clowes and more expressive; young Karl's demeanour on the cover + Tim & Tom in the background gives this a melancholy flavour before the stylus is even lowered. The bricks and foliage and background statues would imply an autumnal New England liberal arts college setting, though I'm sure it's actually depicting Pittsburgh which has some monuments of its own, y'know, and some pretty OK foliage. Anyway, it all comes together to make a rather 'emo' record, though of course Karl Hendricks has always been 'emo', even though his sound and style bore little resemblance to the hardcore-based scene of the same name, which was also taking place in 1993. This is the second consecutive Karl Hendricks LP with misapplied labels (what was your problem, early 90s Peas Kor?) so as I forgot, I started with side B, and the crunchy 'Women and Strangers'. This may actually be the sequence that I became more used to and slightly prefer, since it places 'You're A Bigger Jerk Than Me' as track 2, which is a good place for it. This is one of Karl's most enduring songs, and a good transitional song between the earlier, poppier material and the tendency towards heavy guitar rock which later Trio/Rock Band followed. Throughout, there's no shortage of balladry - 'Flowers Avenue' and 'Romantic Stories from the War' are plaintive, searching for an outlet for a heart being overpumped with blood and regret. 'I Didn't Believe in Gravity' is the singer-songwriter strumming an acoustic guitar, the indie rock folk moment, and a throwback to Karl's pre-Trio self-released cassettes. When the distortion pedals are stepped on, it really works, and the indie rock vibe is felt in the juxtaposition between slow, arpeggiated moments and strummed electric guitar chords, always on the verge of breaking out ('I Don't Need Your Shit', 'Do You Like To Watch Me Sob?'). There's something almost minimal and economical about the early Trio - the 4/4 steady beats were a nice antidote to the time-signature obsessed sounds of Don Caballero and their followers, who were coming out of Pittsburgh at the same time. Karl's voice is mixed higher here than on Buick Electra and this confidence carries through in the playing. I get sad listening to this not because of the lyrics (which never wallow so much in the misery as find a comfort in it), but because of his recent passing; there's little more I can say to express what a tragedy it was, and hope that his music continues to find new fans.

30 April 2017

The Karl Hendricks Trio - 'Buick Electra' (Peas Kor)

Things get personal here, and I don't expect anyone who didn't grow up in Pittsburgh to understand my undying love for this record. I was about to write 'anyone who didn't grow up in the shadow of this man', but then I realised that's not so accurate. Because that would imply that he was some towering figure who dominated everything that came in his wake, but that's not true at all. Yes, Karl Hendricks was a huge figure to me and many others in the Pittsburgh music world, but he wasn't intimidating or menacing or scary; his shadow was a pleasant place to inhabit, because as corny as it is to say, he was a sort of 'father figure'. Karl. who passed away in January of this year, was little more than a decade older than me, but symbolised the whole generation of a music scene that I peered into, as a teenager, with eager eyes. This older wave, who would be probably considered 'old-school' now (as I am probably 'mid-school' by this point), but were sort of 'mid-school' to me when I was 'new school' in the late 90s, if ya follow - they set the pace for what being in a band in Pittsburgh meant. I saw the Karl Hendricks Trio early in the afternoon at Lollapalooza '93, on the second stage, and the moshing morons in the crowd couldn't overpower the purity that seemed to emanate from the stage. From that moment (I was 13) I think I began to formulate my value system for all music and art and everything to follow. I knew they were "local" and "indie rock" and they had a serious-seeming work ethic, and records illustrated by this cartoonist name Wayno which conjured an honesty and efficiency of songwriting that appealed greatly to me. Then I got a little older and met him, since he worked at (and later owned) the record store that supplied so, so many of these records under review here.... and he was great. Friendly, sure, even if a bit distant - and always willing to offer suggestions, and amazingly he got to know me a bit, which was like being blessed with acceptance into this so-called music scene I so aspired to join. At one point we had a class together at the University, 'The Modernist Tradition', when I was a sophomore. He brought me LPs of the next two records under discussion here, since I didn't have them, and we talked not just about music but about Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Over the years he developed a much more rock-focused aesthetic, extending his guitar playing and classic influences, though of course its evident here - there's a Stones cover, after all ('She Was Hot'). Buick Electra is the first Karl LP, from 1992, and still my favourite, though it was really during my senior year of high school (1996-97) that I grew so attached to it. These songs are somewhere between indie-pop and indie-rock, melodic but occasionally heavy, and portrayed (to me, at least) a secret world. They seemed to pick up from the jangly influence of R.E.M. and 80s college rock that I liked then, but took it a bit further with a bit of punk spirit, but none of the irritating technical/math jerking off of the other Pittsburgh bands. Karl was Pittsburgh's greatest ever romantic, and he never needed to hide his emotions between any sort of swagger. Three songs here contain the word 'heart' in the title and the rest of them might as well too; even the songs of loss and regret ('Dead Flowers', which is not a Stones cover; 'All That's Left'). 'Orange Nehi' is perhaps the album's most angular and steely track, the title a reference to a local soda which (along with the slightly obtuse melody) conspired to speak volumes to me as a teenager, a secret language that I felt I could decode. 'Dumber Than I Look' is soulful and earnest; 'Painted My Heart' is so sweet and devoted that it brings tears to my eyes, but the whole record does right now. Early Karl is what inspired me and showed me that 'local music' could be amazing; his Jolly Doom cassette from the pre-Trio days and the I Hate This Party 7" are also essential recordings for me. I'll cut this short now as there's two more Karl records to follow, but I hope there is a day when I can listen to this record without crying; I guess I should just be grateful for the last two decades of listening to it while feeling joyous and inspired.

29 April 2017

Richard Hell & the Voidoids - 'Blank Generation' (Sire)

Far be it from me to care about musical 'authenticity' - to even think such a concept should exist - but I rather affectionately think of this album as an example of 'fake punk'. But what is real, what is punk, yada yada yada - boring conversations, sure. What I mean is that Blank Generation fits a lot more with the genre of 'classic rock' than with Crass or Black Flag or even the Ramones, that's all - it's a bold statement, all attitude, an invented persona glossed up and sold to the kids no different than it was done for early Dylan, Elvis, Iggy, Johnny Cash or any other male greats. That the Voidoids were a solid rock band with great guitar interplay and a knack for anthemic songwriting is often overlooked behind all of the alienation and youthful romanticism, but at this point in history the fun outweighs the sense of posturing (for me). Robert Quine and Ivan Julian are the stars here, the former ending up on Lou Reed's The Blue Mask later; I'm not always sure who is the 'lead' player but they are both aspiring guitar gods, and there's some totally shredding solos here (another reason I've never felt comfortable considering this to be 'punk' - because my punk world is more austere and principled, not so hedonistic in terms of rock and roll's supposed excesses circa-1975). Hell's lyrics are mouthy and sassy, occasionally brilliant ('Another World') and often faux-brilliant, which is a different kind of brilliant but still brilliant (the sex-obsession here is primal and raw, with the first three songs all drenched in sensuality and body-talk). The guitar lines leap out with pierces and stabs, high pitched enough to be slightly annoying and anti-social, at least in terms of mid-70s rock, and Hell's sneer takes centre stage most of the time. I always found the recordings of Hell with Television to be disappointing (or at best, just a curiosity); never heard Destiny Street either. But Blank Generation is a satisfying listen for sure. Best song: 'Betrayal Takes Two' (weirdly covered by King Missile, and they did it well); it's a catchy, uncentered insight into human relationships that's still charged with post-teenage bloodflow passion. Best baller move: (not-)singing the 'blank' (depicted as '_____' in the lyric sheet) on the album's title track, a true anthem of discontent. 'I was sayin' let me out of here before I was even born' is just about goddamn perfect no matter how you look at it.

Julius Hemphill - ''Coon Bid'ness' (Arista/Freedom)

I'm still kicking myself for missing out on the Dogon A.D. reissue last year, but at least I have this LP to enjoy whenever I'd like. I get uncomfortable saying the title but it makes sense, cause with this record, Hemphill attempts to musically interrogate the question of blackness head-on, particularly with side 1, the first half of which is fairly avant-classical in nature. The presence of a white drummer (Barry Altschul) doesn't matter, as this record opens around the slow, melodic rumblings of the altos against Abdul Wadud's cello and Hamiett Bluiett's baritone. Both 'Reflections' and 'Lyric' are careful, somber, and rather beautiful, with sonorities akin to Messiaen in places. They never stay 100% calm, though, with flutters in the corners to reveal the inherent and potential freedom of it all, perhaps described as a benevolent instability. I'm reminded a bit of Ornette Coleman's 'Sadness', but maybe that's a simplistic comparison, because these two pieces have an awareness that situates them in the mid-70s Bohemian/artistic milieu, much more than mere throwbacks to either Coleman's work or third stream jazz. 'Skin' parts 1 and 2 is where the rhythms start to kick in, with Wadud's cello sawed at like a rock guitar. It's genuinely riffy, a bit like those late 70s Ornette Coleman records only really more strident & driving than funk-leaning, and could be mistaken for a 'black' analogy to Rhys Chatham, Branca, or the minimal rock chops to come in the early 80s. The three saxophones share the soundstage and while it freqently revs into some really punchy sequences, there's enough space for everyone to explore their themes. I love the cello and Altschul is such a great player that he's able to set a pace without dominating, just like on all the stuff he did with Chick Corea. It's the B-side, 'The Hard Blues', that lets everyone stretch out the most. It feels more improvised after the tightly composed (in parts) first half, though it's not anything close to a free-for-all. Blues it is, but not in a 12-bar way (thank god), and I continue to hear rock tendencies in the way Wadud saws at his strings, and maybe the lower baritone sax contributes as well. Over 20 minutes the group comes together, comes apart, and comes back together, and they embrace dissonance wholeheartedly, and you can feel Hemphill's vision not just as a composer, but as a bandleader. There are moments in 'The Hard Blues' that recall Captain Beefheart circa Trout Mask, not necessarily as whacked-out or surreal, but in the sense of otherness, except here using blues as a crossing point for jazz instead of rock. 

25 April 2017

Heldon - 'IV' (Aural Explorer)

Apparently this isn't a proper release of the fourth Heldon album, but some sort of compilation, containing most of the fourth album but some other stuff. I've never noticed before since it's the only Heldon record I've ever listened to -- but why is that? This stuff is great, I want more! 'Chief Electronic Wizard' Richard Pinhas established a style of minimal electronic music that has been unbelievably influential, though quite singular for its time, so it sounds like a lot of things from recent years, except it birthed a lot of it. This slowly builds up a suite of songs called 'Perspective', with a weird interlude at the end of side 1 (which sounds like guitar-based post-rock twenty years early) that Pinhas neither wrote nor played on. But it's his band - the looming face photographed on the back cover is his, as if there was any doubt whose band this is. He's credited with electronics and guitar, though the guitar isn't that recognisable until the third track ('Perspective III'), where it roars and threatens to keep rupturing the vinyl, despite being pretty buried by the pulsing synth rhythm. In other places, things are more placid; 'Perspective I' could be something released on Kranky in the late 90s by a band like Tomorrowland or Labradford, and the synths are where it gets really crazy. 'Perspective IV' is the most wild, a precursor to all the 'ecstatic drone' stuff that came out of places like Leeds in the late 90s/early 00s. And what does this record make me feel like? Like bits of my brain are burning, and there's a wonder about my place in this world, suggesting that natural, pastoral beauty can find a new life through technology. The cover art is pretty fucking scary, like something you might see on a Voivod album cover, and directly inject this into the "science fiction" realm (as well as reish label Aural Explorer's typeface, which is so retro-cool it feels like it came out of modern day Portland). But I don't want to dwell on this easy sci-fi vibe - it's important to take music like this and make it your own, freeing oneself from the easy tendencies to associate it with soundtracks and other cultural offerings. Pinhas was a pioneering figure and never succumbed to easy New Age sounds or dance beats; this is electroacoustic music, truly, though it doesn't sound anything like AMM, or Cluster, or even other French weirdness like Mahogany Brain or Red Noise. I don't pay much attention to contemporary followers of the Heldon sound, but maybe I should; there's a whole soundworld that I must admit I am undeveloped in, as a listener.