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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.

24 April 2017

Thee Headcoats - 'W.O.A.H! - Bo In Thee Garage' (Get Hip)

Consistency is a virtue, right? And maybe so is prolificness (is that a word?). Discogs lists only 19 full-length albums by Thee Headcoats, which is fewer than I expected, but then Billy Childish has spread his vision over a variety of bands and pseudonyms (which are surveyed nicely on the Archive from 1959 compilation from a few years back) besides this one. Somehow this LP is all I have managed to accumulate, even though they're all eminently listenable examples of a real scene, postmodern primitivism
at its finest. This is a conceptual one, I guess, being entirely made up of Bo Diddley covers. It's recorded live in mono, and it sounds more or less like a dictaphone recording of a raunchy garage-rock band banging it out in some room somewhere -- which is precisely what this is.  Childish translates Diddley's swagger well through his vocals, and the covers are fairly faithful; nothing is sped up or riffed upon (as far as I can tell - I'm not quite super familiar with the originals), and there's a ramshackle quality that suits the material well. 'Greatest Lover in the World' sounds great when recast from the mouth of a white Englishman; 'Keep Your Big Mouth Shut' shows his own vocal capabilities, and has a nice sassy snarl to it. Somehow this all works and doesn't raise any obvious questions about race or appropriation: it's a tribute that is fun, heartfelt, and an easy listen. The rough fidelity helps - it's as much about the sound of this record as the performance, if this makes any sense. Mono records on vinyl often sound great, and this is blistering and raw, especially when the cymbals start to blur together into a tinny haze. Somehow everything is exuberant enough to work, and thus this document of a band likely just fucking around one afternoon, nearly 30 years ago now, is somehow completely fresh and living.

Jowe Head - 'Pincer Movement' (Hedonics)

That's an aesthetic I like - a strange cover, strange title, and contents that are definitely rock music but, well... strange. But it's fun! I know Head more from Swell Maps than Television Personalities, and that makes this feel rather contiguous since these songs are murky, deconstructed and generally kinda fucked up. Plus, it opens with 'Cake Shop Girl' which is also on Jane From Occupied Europe and actually on Head's second solo LP a few years later, too. I guess he really liked that song. I do too - it's fast, nervous, and cryptic while being sort of catchy at the same time. Pincer Movement's 'Loco Train' could also be a Swell Maps song, and maybe it is - I find all those Maps compilations confusing and their entire discography beyond the two proper albums is just a blur to me. Anyway, there are only a few full-fledged 'songs' on Pincer, with a lot of little ten second interstitials tying them together.  And some are just loose structures to jam over, though it's a Swell Maps style of jamming - not guitar solos or melodic improvisations, but textural jamming, if that makes any sense. 'Quatermass and the Pulpit' is a great example of that - a looping beat, with vocals chanting 'Kyrie elision!' and percussion sounds get freaky (both acoustic and electronic), various other treated instruments whirl and jigjag, and the whole piece turns into a psychedelic gel. It could easily keep my attention for 20 minutes, yet it ends after 5 (which is a classic showmanship manoeuvre).  There's a theme set by the titular pincers - songs about sea life, crustaceans, and mermaids abound. 'Mermaid', for example, is a dubby number occasionally erupting into layered shrieks, with all manners of odd keyboards, wind instruments and other affected experiments overtop of the pulsebeat. 'Wimoweh' is a cover of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' and it's a mad descent into layered tones and insanity. 'Crawfish' appears on both sides, first the 'Son of' and then the full version, and it's probably the album's most memorable track, herky-jerky and bold. Things get borderline goofy - 'Glass Animal Colony' seems to privilege the vocal hysterics over the textures - but everything is moved through quickly, which leaves me wanting more. By golly, Pincer Movement is great, a document of an unapologetically experimental time for art-rock in the UK (1981) and one that holds up well especially against the never-ending revivals of post-punk mannerisms. The band members all have great pseudonyms such as 'Phones Sportsman' and 'Prince Empire' -- plus, 'Crawfish' is technically an Elvis cover. And this can be yours for a relatively inexpensive price - for some reason this record has never become that collectible.

21 April 2017

Lee Hazlewood - 'Cowboy in Sweden' (LHI)

Oh, the temptation of flight - that somewhere else, another place, can be the answer to our problems. Europe loomed large during the Vietnam era, just as it appealed to me during the Bush administration. Scandinavia was where people were beautiful and sexually liberated and they really 'got' free jazz, and it could be everything that reactionary America was not. I guess Lee Hazlewood was drawn to Sweden for these reasons, and what makes Cowboy in Sweden so remarkable is that it's an album about trying to redefine one's identity in another land. I hope things worked out better for him - I've ended up in a Europe that is quite literally tearing itself apart, but it's not like the US looks any better right now. But anyway, the record : dry, cold and somewhat distant are qualities that I associate with Lee Hazlewood, and I supposed they're also a nice fit for the image many have of Sweden. Thus, this pairing doesn't seem so strange; Cowboy in Macedonia or Cowboy in Papua New Guinea would probably be more confusing. This is the soundtrack to a TV flick I haven't seen, so I have to guess the plot based on the songs. Clearly, our cowboy protagonist starts things off in jail, with a song ('Pray the Bars Away') fitting into the anti-classic country sound, though maybe he means psychological imprisonment. And then he seems to meet a girl, forgets his old one, and heads towards Stockholm to avoid the draft. Um, I guess. Hazlewood is interesting because he never really dug into a niche sound, staying connected at least minimally to the pop side of country, despite not really singing well or being that relatable. Most of Cowboy in Sweden is built around his baritone drawl, but when he bothers to emote a bit, it's mesmerising: 'No Train to Stockholm' and 'Cold Hard Times' are beautiful in their stark minimalism. On 'No Train' he somehow sounds like both Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen at the same time while actually singing; it's explicitly about avoiding the draft and absolutely fucking great. The classic Hazlewood formula is Lee + girl, and here it's mostly Nina Lizell, with Suzi Jane Hokum doing the valley ladies sound one on track ('For A Day Like Today'). Lizell and he duet on closer 'Vem Kan Segla', which has her singing Swedish lyrics and his replies/translations, that staggered his/her song style that he's made so familiar (kinda like his version of 'Dark Side of the Street', but a bit more mystical). Absolutely great.

19 April 2017

Hampton Hawes & Martial Solal - 'Key For Two' (Affinity)

Solal isn't a well-known name outside of France, but he's done a lot of film soundtrack composition, including Godard's Breathless. This record pairs him in the studio in Paris, 1969, with legend/tragedy Hawes, for a two piano collaboration which sadly fails to utilise the power of those instruments together. Large parts of the record are given over to solos, and when they play together, they mostly stay out of each other's way. The opening and closing tracks are 'Key for Two' and 'Three for Two', composed by Hawes and Solal respectively, and they're not only the only original compositions on the record but the only time where the two really go at it. The middle of the record is given over to standards and covers, all of which float by in a pleasant bop manner but usually showcasing just one pianist at a time. I can't tell who is who and the all-star rhythm section of Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke largely function as session musicians. I mean, it's a competent bop quartet,  but for the most part this sounds like public domain jazz to use in a movie. There are some high points, mostly when the rhythm section drops out. This version of 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most' is light and tender, almost fragile; the similarly unaccompanied 'Godchild' has some real spirit, as the two pianos dance around each other, teasing furtively. Michelot and Clarke really get cooking on 'The Theme', but that's about the most pyrotechnics on display. There's a real fear of dissonance here, and the liner notes even make a point of stating how carefully rehearsed these sessions were. I don't demand chaos or discord, but I want to hear a vision, and I don't think either pianist here puts forth anything particularly distinct. The two originals are really all we got, and the first is nothing more than a 12-bar, though executed confidently enough to dazzle. The last ends suddenly, almost like an accidental tape splice or a mastering error, which is a bit odd. I was curious about Hawes, and wanted to hear the pain and struggles of his addictions in his playing, but this is kinda standard (while I must point out - technically extremely competent, colourful and expressive, and bright). I wonder if more somber music might reveal more of who he was - and 'Spring', by far the highlight of this record, suggests this might be the case. It's also crazy to think that just a few months after this was recorded, somewhere across town, the Art Ensemble of Chicago recorded People in Sorrow and all of those other mind-blowing explorations of the American experience.

18 April 2017

Hatfield and the North (Virgin)

My favourite part on this Hatfield and the North record (a record which actually is packed with numerous small pleasures) comes about 2/3 of the way through 'Son of "There's No Place Like Homerton"', the longest piece on the record; some bright, piercing tones float over the otherwise melodic jam, sticking out like if Stereolab guested on just ten seconds of the song, though I think its actually a flute or woodwinds. It introduces a long, beautiful vocal section where the three female vocalists who are mostly relegated to backing roles come to the forefront. They chant in a round-like pattern, setting down some moments of total magic which has traces of English folk, early music, and whatever a Greek chorus is supposed to be. It's this part I keep coming back to whenever I listen to this record, the first side of which otherwise passes into the background, a melodic, rolling example of Canterbury scene prog in an advanced iteration. The lineup has Pip Pyle from Gong, Phil Miller from Matching Mole, and two guys from Caravan, one the brother of the 'other' Steve Miller who did that underrated duet record with Lol Coxhill -- and it sounds accordingly like Canterbury music was supposed to sound. All of the musicianship is excellent and in that style which feels hopelessly dated now - tight changes, affected guitars, Robert Wyatt guest spots, fast instrumental interplay, some great juxtapositions (a phone rings near the end of 'Fol de Rol' and the singing is finished through it; there's some concrète dabbling in other incidental spots), and songs with titles like 'Shaving is Boring'. They're capable of some engaging heat - the aggressive ending of 'Rifferama' sounds exactly how you'd expect a song called 'Rifferama' to sound. Whenever I try to explain to people that I like prog rock, I should cite records like this as an example; it's not as far out or spazzy as more European NWW-list stuff, but it's also a hell of a lot more interesting than Yes or ELP. The weirdness is controlled, and it's brainy without losing sight of music's power to create images and memories; sometimes the bass playing is a bit overbearing, which is a shame because the band can create some pretty nice soundworlds with basic rock instrumentation. The Pyle-penned 'Shaving' retains the acid edge of Gong, minus Daevid Allen (or anyone else) singing, and with an awesome, phenomenal space rock crescendo. Matching Mole was more fun of course, since it was Wyatt's band through and through, and I have a huge soft spot for the first National Health album, a band which emerged out of Hatfield, particularly because of the epic jam 'Tenemos Roads', probably the high point of this whole genre of music. 

Hat Melter - 'Unknown Album' (Crouton)

Two cellos, two percussionists and a lot of editing = a big electroacoustic tapestry, woven together with some mouse clicks and pressed onto 220gram vinyl. Hat Melted is a big, thick slab o' wax and since I really, really like cellos, I keep gripping my armrests hoping for some nice DDA-sounding deep 'llo. But it rarely comes, or when it does, it's blended with the percussion, the whole AMM-style of laminal sound or whatever they call it. Sometimes one cellos saws around in the background while another dances furtively around the higher register. Sometimes they just leave some space, though the processing here, while not super overboard, gives away that the room ain't necessarily real. The four musicans are pretty evenly balanced, or rather I should say the cellos and percussion are evenly balanced, since I'm not sure who's doing what. This Crouton label is (was?) run by Jon Mueller and focuses on his projects primarily - he's one of the percussionists here and probably also the svengali doing the editing. I suppose this breathes some life into improvisation, though the electronic effects aren't always in service of an overall aesthetic, and some of the more 'improv' parts go on too long. The first side is energetic and has big swells and deep resonating tones followed by their sudden absence; some circa-2003 computer work makes me think this was just coming from the wrong place to really gain some traction. A few years later I was in the UK surrounded by a whole scene that looked to these types of collaborations, but Milkwaukee just before noise broke was probably a somewhat isolated world. Hat Melter never made another recorded peep - I suspect this was a one-off studio-only collaboration, and while it has some intense peaks of enjoyable sound, it strikes me more as a curiosity now than anything. 

17 April 2017

Richard Harris - 'The Yard Went on Forever...' (Dunhill)

This moustachioed Irishman sure could croon! The followup to the mega-hit album which contained 'MacArthur Park' landed without much fanfare, despite Jimmy Webb going all-out to make a well-crafted orch-pop masterpiece. The Yard Went On Forever... is actually one song in eight parts, more like an opera, with themes coming and reappearing later, so I guess that makes this a concept album? There's a lot of imagery about children here, including some actual ones singing, and the lyric sheet takes the time to twice footnote the line 'she's skipping like a stone' as 'Before Nilsson', so you better be sure this wasn't a ripoff. I have a soft spot for Mr. Webb and somehow his progressive Southern American songcraft makes a nice match with Harris's soulful balladeering. It doesn't feel Irish in the slightest, though the format I somewhat associate with Scott Walker and some hybrid concept of 'Europe', and I guess this is a reverse version of that. The title track is nice to lose oneself in, with it's start-stop jerkyness, swells of orchestral magic,  backing vocals from the aforementioned kids and Webbisms like 'Does everybody have a place to hide?' There's some sort of social conscience here with lyrics about Nagasaki and Bombay and doomsday, but I just like the way it all crashes together.  I don't know what any of it means, but it's nice to listen to sometimes. Even still, I must admit this is a strange record to keep in the accumulation, found at a flea market and very rarely dusted off. The back cover has Harris in a bandanna with a Rambo font (though of course years before Rambo was created), which makes this feel like such a product of Vietnam and the changing social times - was he looking to garner cred with vets? Also, someone named David Duke plays French horn on this - I'm guessing it ain't THAT David Duke, but it's funny to imagine it so. I can see why it made sense to pair these guys up again and this is a great set of songs, though there's nothing particularly memorable here - no 'Galveston', no 'PF Sloan' - and I'm sure it was a commercial disappointment after 'MacArthur'. But then again, why the hell was that song so huge anyway? A perfect storm of right place, right time, I guess. Anyway, Dumbledore really belts them out here, and when he gets more aggro ('Gayla') it can be almost scary, at least if you have this turned up as loud as I do. But I'm more into the arrangements, which come from the Song Cycle style of American orchestral pop; the harpsichord and flutes float above everything, and for an early stereo mix, they did a pretty decent job. I understand why people go apeshit over listening to old pressings of records like this because it really sounds huge, almost like this was the genre of music my turntable was really designed for. I really liked Harris in that Lindsay Anderson film about Rugby League; this feels like a polar opposite to that aesthetic, though probably united through the concept of dirt. 

16 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Born in Captivity' (Awareness)

And we finally reach the end of the Roy Harper gauntlet. It's been a fun ride, no? Born in Captivity was released in 1984, so we've skipped ahead a few years, right over 1982's Work of Heart of which this record is supposedly the demo tapes of. Not being familiar with that record, I can only go by this which is mostly 'stripped-down' in the sense that it's Harper and an electric guitar, except for the more fleshed out cuts like 'Drawn to the Flames' and 'I Am a Child'. Harper in the 80s takes on the aesthetic that seduced many at the time - 'Child' has a mid tempo backing band and crippled guitar tones, sounding a bit like Hall & Oates or whatever was floating around at the time. This sound isn't so poo-poo'd any longer though it still sounds to me like the music I grew up rebelling against in some way. But unaccompanied, or barely accompanied, it sounds like 70s Harper, for the most part. Both sides start with songs named after people. 'Elizabeth' appears in full form on Whatever Happened to Jugula? but here is a confident slow-burner, a touching and intimate hymn for hope. 'Stan' is a song (I think) about football legend Stanley Matthews and thus I sorta like it for that reason, as it elevates him to some sort of mythic figure. Hey, I like nostalgia, especially nostalgia for a British life I never led. And then there's 'Work of Heart' , the six part song suite that fills out side two. It's hard to click with this, as perhaps I've just heard too many really long Roy Harper songs in the last few days. Or maybe the lack of full instrumentation drags this down, as all of the others (even 'McGoohan's Blues') featured a backing band. The first and last parts are called 'No One Ever Gets Out Alive', and those are catchy enough melodies, but all the stuff in the middle is hard to focus on. There are some swirling, descending guitar riffs here that sound exactly like the Page-guesting on 'The Same Old Rock', and I wonder if it's supposed to be a quote or just a struggling artist returning to one of his greatest triumphs. This isn't a terrible record by any means, and I always like when artists release the demos of something. Going through all of these Roy Harper albums, a careful reader will notice that I'm not super fair to Mr. Harper. I celebrate him for his audacity, but then prefer the straight ahead folk songs; I commend his visceral lyrics about religion and society, but then chide him for his misogyny. But that's really what it comes down to with Harper - he's a complex, fucked-up contradiction of an artist, and that's what makes him resonate so much with me still. I'm sure there's great material throughout his 80s and 90s output, and I'd love someone to make me a mix of the best of that era.

Roy Harper - 'One Of Those Days In England (Bullinamingvase)' (Chrysalis)

This record (which also has a different title in the US) more explicitly deals with issues of life in England, circa 1977, and while there's nary a trace of the punk sound taking over those shores at the time, it paints a portrait that is somewhat less idealised than the work of Ray Davies, while remaining true to Roy Harper's personality and past body of work. It also has some dudes from Wings playing on it. 'One of Those Days in England', the song, is split across the record; part one serves as a bouncy introduction to the whole LP, and is really just a love song; side two is given over to parts two through ten, which develop a bit like 'The Game' on the previous LP - a proper prog-rock suite, just not super proggy. Harper never gets into excessively jammy solos or fancy time signatures; I think after listening to all these records I can safely say he's confident with his technical skills and also likes the pop-rock format just fine, not seeking to tear it down with experimental musique concrete interludes or jazzy improvisations. Yet he still pushes the form in terms of duration and assemblage, making what I would call 'complicated pop'; parts 2-10 of the title track are maybe the best example yet of it all. The sheer length of it makes it feel slightly like light opera, but thankfully there's no central narrative. 'One of Those Days in England' is extremely English, sure, and makes no secret of the country's decline, but it's really a love song using the backdrop of nation, memory, and current events as a lyrical device. Coming when it does - before Thatcher took over and fucked shit up even further, there's a wistful nostalgia to the grumbling, like a little bit of decline is OK and who knew how bad things would get after this point. A Brexit anthem this is not, however; it's personal and idiosyncratic like everything of Harper's, resisting any possibilities for being co-opted as part of a movement or protest. I guess the first part of 'One of Those Days in England', standing alone on side 1, works not just as an introduction to the album but as potential radio single. It certainly sounds a lot more polished than anything on HQ; there's slick backing vocals and keyboards and a tendency towards a less 'hard' edge. The material in-between -- the rest of side 1 -- has some lovely parts; 'These Last Days' and 'Cherishing the Lonesome' continue the record's themes of love and loss and are quite Apollonian, moving through light, gentle melodies, towards a definitive rock and roll statement in the latter piece. 'Naked Flame' is the high point of the whole LP to me, a very crunchy folky piece which just screams with bright treble sonorities. A twelve-string guitar has never sounded better on vinyl, and there's also a close aesthetic similarity to some of the more traditional-leaning folkie Brits of the time, at least more than Harper tends to express. It's all dragged down by 'Watford Gap', which supposedly was left off some pressings because it was 'controversial', although it's about stopping at a roadside services and having a shitty meal. The meal was obviously so shitty that Harper was inspired to write a silly novelty song about it, but if you've spent many days in England you should have expected it, I would think.

15 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'When an Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease' (Chrysalis)

I have the North American edition of this album, which is called HQ in the UK, but to be honest I like this title more. I think of this (roughly) as Harper's Rust Never Sleeps, with one side being electric and one side acoustic, but it's actually not true - the rock numbers have acoustic interludes and the second side actually rocks a bit on 'Hallucinating Light'. Yet there's something of a duality here - maybe because side A is largely uptempo songs about big topics, and side B is a bit more delicate, pastoral, and romantic. This feels like the summation of everything Roy Harper explored between 1968-1974, synthesised into one masterful album, yet despite this cohesion, I wouldn't call this his best record (but certainly a good one). 'The Game (parts 1-5)' opens it up, a 13-minute epic investigation of the mysteries of existence. He's done these deep, rambling philosophical numbers before ('McGoohan's Blues', 'The Lords Prayer') but here, the whole work is built around a Kinks-style 'You Really Got Me' riff, which keeps everything from spiralling out of control. I'm not sure which parts are which, but somewhere in the middle, things take a nice shimmery folk turn, and it builds up to the climactic, inevitable rock-out ending. The final lyrics are 'Please leave this world as clean as when you came', and this is reflected in the composition itself which is relatively tidy, closer to Zeppelin than to Yes. It sounds a bit like Harper has shifted beyond melancholy to a sense of resignation; the feeling of 'The Game' is of a narrator trapped in structures beyond his control, trying to determine what art means, what his relationships have been worth. It's much more existential than sci-fi, and it works pretty well, even if you won't find yourself with a catchy melody stuck in your head afterwards.The big themes continue on 'The Spirit Lives', which starts off pontificating over a slidey steel guitar bed before starting to rock out. Here, Christianity is his target, and his atheistic, humanistic assertions rank up there with Burma's 'New Nails'; Roy Harper is more punk than anyone realised, perhaps because he rarely wraps his observations in easy slogans. Anyway, I'm always up for some religion-bashing, so I like it. The weak part of side one (and the whole record, really) is 'Grown Ups Are Just Silly Children', which ends the side, again reminding me of Roy Wood and Wizzard in particular. This rave-up is a throwaway number but it's okay, because side two is so lovely. 'Referendum (Legend)' I guess is some reboot on Sophisticated Beggar's 'Legend', or maybe its just a totally different song. 'Forget Me Not' is a truly beautiful, psychedelic work to immerse oneself in, a totally simple love song where the chorus/echo effects of John Leckie's production work wonders (finally). These days, I tend to gravitate towards the more simple, strong 'songs' instead of the ambitious prog-experimental jams, and this is just fucking stellar. 'Hallucinating Light' is long and trippy, yet very subdued - it precedes mellow minimalist rock bands like Low and the Clientele by two decades and remains a haunting presence even once the record segues into the title track, which is a slow yet fierce dirge about aging, I guess, filled with sports metaphors. The back cover of this outlines the rules for cricket, I guess since us Americans wouldn't know, but I would have rather had the lyrics printed. I don't know if Chris Corsano's Young Cricketer is somehow a reference to this - the album artwork is a little bit similar.

Roy Harper ‎– 'Flashes From The Archives Of Oblivion' (Chrysalis)

A good live album captures something that isn't found in the studio, but Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion only does that in, well, flashes. Case in point: track #2, the impeccable 'Commune', sounds pretty much as the version on Valentine does, minus the strings and layered vocals. There's a little fragment of something preceding it, spliced in after the lone studio track on this record ('Home') ends, but otherwise, apart from maybe some hesitations on the tricky fingerpicking, this is just a lesser version. Likewise, 'Me and My Woman', minus David Bedford's strings and accents, is just a really long strummy folk song. And that's my problem with Flashes - it feels often like a contractual obligation record than something proper, though the horrible cover art probably affects my enjoyment.  Which isn't to say there's anything wrong with this; Harper's spoken intros are cute, when present, and the recordings (coming from a variety of shows in the early 70s) are pretty nice sounding. 'Home' bookends the set, studio at the beginning and a faster, jammy live version at the end, and the inclusion of one studio track feels a bit odd, like it might have been better released as a single. Which it actually was, according to discogs.com. It's a great song, a perfect pop concoction with a great 70s rock hood and some nice flute interplay. I do like the more minimal 'Twelve Hours of Sunset', a bit slower and more acoustic, though you could also say it drags a bit. The most extended bit of solo guitar jamming comes on 'One Man Rock and Roll Band' and this is a nice take on the Stormcock classic. But some of the other songs ('Don't You Grieve', for example) aren't anything special in these versions, except maybe when the production rule of 'less is more' is applicable (most obviously on the Lifemask tracks - 'South Africa', 'All Ireland' and 'Highway Blues'). There are some string accompaniments on 'Another Day', and some light backing in other places -- but for the most part this seems to be just Harper solo gig throughout, albeit with some echo effects (or else recorded in very large rooms). I'm not a Harper completist (which I realise is a funny thing to say about someone I own ten albums by) but I keep this collection mostly for the studio version of 'Home', and a side-D jam called 'Too Many Movies',  - a melancholy, electric guitar strummer that touches on memory and popular culture. 

10 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Valentine' (Harvest)

This has weirdly been one of my favourite Roy Harper records, despite it being pretty uneven by design, being built around odds and ends, and shorter songs written over the previous few years. Oh, and it's also really dodgy in terms of political correctness, in more than few places. I had hoped upon embarking on this project all those years ago that giving a studious re-listen to all of these records would encourage me to re-evaluate them, and to hear new things and maybe reconsider my opinions. But to be honest, it's mostly reinforced my feelings and in cases like this where I have heard the record so many times, I feel like I'm not able to properly concentrate on them. With that in mind, Valentine is still lovely and still uneven. I am really a sucker for the soft, straight fingerpicking folkie tunes and the examples on here are stunning. 'Forever' from Sophisticated Beggar is somewhat reworked; 'North Country' is a take on the Dylan song (or rather, 'steals it back' as one live spoken intro declares); 'Commune' is about the most perfect, beautiful work of magic ever committed to vinyl. And let's talk now about the opener, 'Forbidden Fruit', which as the title might hint, is about wanting to fuck a 13-year old girl. Now, I firmly believe one can write a song from a different point of view than the songwriter, and that a narrative can be fictionalised, etc - and I like to think that Harper was doing that, rather than confessing to the whole world how much he lusted after a schoolgirl. It's an interesting situation to write about and to try to find empathy in the situation and I think he did a good job, but the added dynamic of music and melody makes this even more complicated, because it's one of the more catchy and graceful tracks he's given us. It's hard not to love this song, even if it's shady as hell. And it recasts the 'little girl' subject of the closing track, 'Forever', in a new (creepy) light. This masculine tendency rears its head throughout, veering into straight-up misogyny at points. I find that when it's masked in something delicate and twee, like on 'Commune', I love it; when backed by a more hard rock section, I don't. 'Male Chauvinist Pig Blues' is clearly tongue-in-cheek and easy to ignore but 'Magic Woman (Liberation Reshuffle)' is not so forgivable. Filler like 'Acapulco Gold' is mostly forgettable (though that's a lovely lounge piano pantomime!) than 'Magic Woman's lyrics about 'unconscious castration' and 'I need a man to plug into me'. It really is a testament to the power of the great songs here that I rate Valentine so high as an overall album and choose to ignore the odious material. 'Twelve Hours of Sunset', written from the window of a plane, is eerie and magical; it can make goosebumps rise and the electric guitar sound from Lifemask returns here, only this time, it's perfect. And 'Commune', 'Commune', well,  I don't even know what I can say except it's just fucking incredible. This is maybe more proof of why I see Harper and Neil Young as analogous; they both have sometimes questionable social stances, they can flip between rockers and folk songs in the same record, and their surrealist tendencies are a nice complement to each other.