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21 November 2017

Joy Division - 'Unknown Pleasures' (Factory)

This is another one of those 'classics' that I'm almost embarrassed to have in the accumulation, if only because a) I rarely listen to it and b) I will certainly struggle to write original thoughts about it in 2017. Coming between the bootleg of Warsaw and the superior vision of Closer, it's interesting as a midpoint, or if you like to marvel at how far bands push themselves in a short period of time. I'm sure this is not an original observation, but Martin Hannett's production is just about everything to why this is a great record, and if you don't believe me, listen to Warsaw. I'm sure that Hannett and the band were working in synergy here, but regardless, the decision to strip out the middle of these songs, rather than filling them with crunchy guitar chords, is what makes Unknown Pleasures such a definitive turning point between punk and post. This introduction of emptiness of course amplifies the lyrical themes but it really opens up the songs and lets mood play a role, a gesture towards what is felt and not heard. Event underwritten songs like 'Candidate' gain so much from this expansion, and it still gets thick and meaty at times. 'Shadowplay' is attenuated towards a wall of sound feeling; 'New Dawn Fades' and 'Day of the Lords' are balanced, production-wise, against their baroque tendencies. It doesn't hurt that Curtis really starts to emerge as one of rock's iconic voices on this record, with the same menace as the Warsaw sound but an increased commitment to emotional delivery, meaning he's actually singing, and his 'When will it end?' is bone-chilling even if you don't consider his ultimate fate. It's a voice that is almost defiantly masculine after the 70s sounds of Bowie and glam, yet implying more than it lets on. This is still Factory rock music, made by cold men in dark warehouses, but it's inching towards a more cybernetic approach, the full-on embrace of synthesisers to come later in New Order but no doubt a concern this early on, already. Morris's drumming is more motorik, and a song like 'Insight' is far from computerised but looking at least in that direction. Synths are used more atmospherically here, swooping into the corners and occasionally roaring. There's a reason university students still walk around wearing t-shirts bearing this logo today, despite the fact that the only two songs even remotely close to being catchy/hook-based are 'Disorder' and 'She's Lost Control'. And there's a reason we still have scores of bands like Protomartyr essentially aping the sound of 'Wilderness', four decades later. 

J.D. - 'Warsaw' (RZM Productions)

The band mysteriously known only as 'J.D.' chose not to release these recordings, which is understandable; they're the dictionary definition of 'raw', in terms of recording, performance and composition. This is punk rock, though - the year '1977' has been mythologised by the mohicans and their descendents, or maybe it was '78 when these were recorded - I dunno for sure, but the anger is sure there. The band that was to follow shed a lot of these influences, making this little more than a curiosity for diehard fans (which I'm not) or for people who revel in early, raw obscurity. As the record progresses it starts to get closer to the Factory sound, but side one has a surprising amount  of chugga-chugga punk rock. The opening cut ('All Of This For You') is great in a primitive way and sets a tone that doesn't sustain itself throughout, as if this is sequnced in the chronological order of how it was written. 'Failures' has a Stooges-like sound, and 'Novelty', though later reinvented as a much more well-known song, is delivered vocally like it's the Descendents or other early 80s American HC act. Reportedly they were unhappy with post-production techniques, but I'm not sure any are evident here - this is rough sounding, maybe because of the bootleg mastering job, or maybe this wasn't actually the album they intended. Omission can sometimes be a good career move; as much as 'Transmission', 'Interzone' and 'Living in the Ice Age' foreshadow what was to come, certainly the myth was amplified by holding these back. The Hooks and crannies are already obvious, the early synth pulses ('No Love Lost') and the overly dour vibe, but the vocals are the main thing that are not quite there yet.  They're angry, yes, and captivated by strange ideas of isolation and collectivity, images of war and order ('Leaders of Men', 'They Walked in Line') no doubt a byproduct of the late 70s British culture and the difficulties of the economic reality of the time. Manchester was a hell of a lot further away from London culturally than geographically; its hard to see this occupying the same stratosphere as the whole Sex Pistols/Vivienne Westwood/Siouxsie aesthetic at the same time, but it technically did. If it reminds me of any London band it would be Killing Joke's first album, which we'll get to soon. But maybe this is a solid document of what they would have been like live - a bit more raw, the drums flailing rather than crisp.

14 November 2017

Gregory Jones & Roy Sablosky - 'No Imagination' (Vinyl)

There isn't much more one could want from a record of experimental electronics. No Imagination does quite a lot across its four tracks, and it's the only release by these guys apart from a new wave band called Standard of Living that they were both in; so this was probably seen as their experimental 'side project' if anything, which is a shame, cause I'd love to hear how their musical relationship may have developed over time. The four cuts traverse fairly different territory for a record that is built around two guys with electronics, though my favourite track is Jones-less, only featuring Sablosky plus James Gable on 'transducer guitar' and Marianne Fraenkel on vocals. It's a 15 minute long dirge called 'Intro (Summer Names)', perversely not the first track, but coming after 'No Moon No Mirror' (which is a proper intro). But 'Intro' the song consists of a heavily repetitive guitar strum, firing ecstatic overtones in conjunction with Sablosky's electronics, and the faint intonations of Fraenkel's spoken text. It's just there to feel more than listen to, obfuscating the urge to interpret verbal meaning. Her delivery reminds me of the voice on Blue Gene Tyranny's 'A Letter From Home'; this, to me, is an aesthetic device that I associate with the American avant-garde circa the time of my birth, when this was made. It's a beauty, a real storm of a musical work that feels romantic, adventurous, warm and cold all at the same times as it howls along. There's no acoustic presence on the other three tracks, but they're no less impressive; 'Diverted to Frankfurt (for Twelve Pulse Generators)' is, unsurprisingly, written for 12 pulse generators and the stark palette of their timbre makes this an active, complex convergence of sound. 'No Moon No Mirror' is an ethereal piece for synthesiser where the two musicians tease each other through space, sounding like something from the Kranky records catalog two decades later. It's marred only by a very audible scratch on my copy, which if it were on 'Diverted to Frankfurt' might not be so noticeable but here it shocks the stillness between the synth pulses. 'Forced' is the final cut, another long one, and it resembles the 'Amazon rainforest' approach to electronic improvisations. There's not so much a tonal basis as that of a swarm of insects, and it's as manic and active as the previous two tracks. It's best played loud - the whole record is - so the juxtaposing staccato bursts of static and square waves can get the resonance they deserve. This is a great record for turning your head slightly while listening, to change the way the overtones interact with one's hearing - the best minimalist/drone records have that, and it's nice to be achieved on something so compositionally distinct. Totally great and singular!

13 November 2017

The Jesus and Mary Chain - 'Psychocandy' (Reprise)

The sun don't shine, the stars don't shine, the walls fall down, the fish get drowned – it's bleak on the surface, but I never took the Jesus and Mary Chain all that seriously. At least not when it came to their goth posturing; what were they trying to be, druggie weirdos, retro rockers, or post-new wave shoegazers? Many people never cared for anything they did as much as this debut LP, and maybe I'm included - I certainly don't own any other recordings by them, though I used to have Honey's Dead on tape. Psychocandy is wonderfully simple, and I didn't realise that Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie was the drummer on it but the beautiful monotony of the rhythms made me look at who it was, and wouldn't you know it, it was him – which makes sense, in a way. The unforgettable drumbeat is the opening one, on 'Just Like Honey', still the J&MC song that seems to turn up the most on soundtracks and over the sound system at bars and clubs. That beat may just be the key, since it might as well be sampled from 'Be My Baby', and the 'candy' aspect is all I can hear today. That almost the exact same beat opens 'Sowing Seeds' doesn't seem to matter; Psychocandy is 14 songs but somehow feels short. A lot of drama can be packed into those songs; when it sounds like it can't get any more full-on, they can still stomp on a different set of effects pedals and kick things up to another level, as heard on 'My Little Underground'. In high school this music sounded so nihilistic and pushy to me, even though the melodies are undeniable (the 'uh-uh-oh's in 'Taste of Cindy' seemed ironic to me then, but now they sound to be bathed in as much adoration as they are in feedback). Really, this is the Ramones through one more iteration, or just using (slightly) different drugs. The guitar feedback squeals bathe everything with a greater sense of chaos than the shoegazer bands would dare try just a few years later; that's when it really sounds great, turned up loud - 'Inside Me' can even sound a bit scary on the right system. Sometimes all a band needs to do is figure out how to combine two things no one else was combining; in this case it was poofy hair + feedback. For awhile it seemed like trends in pop music came in regular waves, so it was logical that a 60s pop revival would happen in the 80s, though filtered through 80s aesthetics; that 70s folk-rock would get another wave in the 00s, etc. Now, things are too fragmented (subculturally and in terms of influence) so there's just everything all of the time, which means there will always be bands worshipping at the altar of Phil Spector and approaching it with whatever affects of the contemporary milieu are around. Just like there will always be bands worshipping at the altar of Hasil Adkins or the Stooges or Malaria or whatever.  I can't see a pop artist like the Jesus and Mary Chain ever achieving much chart success again, even in the UK, but the same is true for anyone that bases music around guitars now. I don't mourn this change, but rather enjoy the next wave which sounds very much of the moment – bands influenced by the J&MC as much as the J&MC were influenced by the Ronettes. This includes Merchandise and Cometa Fever and a lot of other stuff and while it starts to run together for me at some point, it's a sound that's always enjoyable, maybe because it brings back a sense of teenage cool so otherwise lacking in my life.

Jefferson Airplane - 'After Bathing at Baxter's' (RCA Victor)

Now this record I genuinely love, as it fulfils all of the promise of what late 60s psychedelic San Francisco music was supposed to be. I never have managed to get into the Grateful Dead so this is the pinnacle for me. One could argue that if this was supposed to be a 'drug band' (an appellation frequently used when I was growing up to describe artists such as Ozric Tentacles, Janes Addiction, etc), then After Bathing truly is a record made after having the psychedelic experience, where Surrealistic Pillow was more superficial, being mostly dressed-up folk-pop songs. There's little of that here, with the most folk-leaning moment being 'Rejoyce', though it doesn't take long to reveal itself as a wolf in sheep's clothing, with shifting time signatures, a lurching melody and Ulysses-inspired lyrics that tackle everything from nationalism to marital frustrations. That's Grace Slick singing again, now a more fully-integrated member of the band, and it helps. Her voice helps seal the deal on songs like 'Wild Tyme' and 'Young Girl Sunday Blues', both of which are solid, crunching rockers, and her 'Two Heads' has a pre-punk sneer. The guitar playing in general is where things really lift up on this album, as the three-guitar lineup finally starts to do something useful. It's not a thick wall of fuzz like a Superconductor record, nor delicate, thoughtful musings like Bedhead, but three musicians (and songwriters) with different styles, knowing how to assemble their contributions equally. Jorma Kaukonen I think might be the secret MVP of this band, though I don't know - there are edgy shrieks of psychedelic guitar all over this record, oozing from the corners of 'The Ballad of You and Me (And Pooneil)' and 'Martha' which I assume are him, but maybe not. Nine minutes of side two are given over to the improvised jam 'Spare Chaynge', probably considered an indulgent mess by listeners at the time but actually pretty solid. It builds into some more impressive riffage, but again, it's not too thick or lazy; the rhythm section of Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden, credited as co-composers, finally show their mettle. It's not a throw-everything-into-the-mix psychedelic jam but rather a lurching, jazz-leaning blues-based jam; I'm surprised how much I like it, maybe because it grounds the Airplane into an 'earthier' sound. Maybe I should check out some Hot Tuna records. For the second LP in a row, a Kaukonen composition ('The Last Wall of the Castle') is probably the best song on the album; it's a scorching hot boogie that feels like it's hurtling towards the end of the world while capturing the colours along the journey. But the pop-leaning material is in perfect balance, making this a two-headed beast that feels well-integrated, with hooks that persist fifty years later. This is not just a document of the times but an enduring psychedelic rock masterpiece. I haven't even mentioned 'A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You, Shortly', which utilises musique concrete and other collage techniques to be the most 'experimental' cut there is. 'Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon' has a nice round-like structure, and is the most obviously drug-referencing lyrics that I could here, but the real 'outer' sounds are 'Small Package' and 'Spare Chaynge'. Jefferson Airplane were a great band but I think recognised for the wrong material. Crown of Creation is a pretty good record too and Kantner's Blows Against the Empire is a very cool thing indeed, though I never picked up either of them, sadly.

Jefferson Airplane - 'Surrealistic Pillow' (RCA Victor)

OK, here's a bit of seemingly intentional nonconformity, but I don't think Surrealistic Pillow is all that great. Which leads to the followup question of why do I own a copy then, to which I cannot really provide an answer. This copy is beat to shit and the stereo pressing, and I love their subsequent release, but I think the record's notoriety probably stands in the way of me truly evaluating it, truly appreciating it maybe. Which is what I tried to do when it came up today, next in this project, another surprise of 'Oh do I have this still?' as happens so often here. I guess given the surreal, truly psychedelic sound of After Bathing at Baxter's I find the tepid folk-pop songs on here hard to sit through; the recording is also done in that too-echoey way that makes it sound particularly dated, the same way Moby Grape records sound to me, which is maybe just the 'psychedelic sound', at least the San Francisco variant. Speaking of Moby Grape, Skip Spence wrote 'My Best Friend', which is one of the more forgettable numbers here; it, along with 'Today' and 'How Do You Feel' steer Surrealistic Pillow far closer to sounding like a slightly amped up Mamas and Papas than the cabal of psychedelic visionaries they're supposed to be. The two towering songs here are of course 'Somebody to Love' and 'White Rabbit', and I don't know what I can really say about them that is an original take. The latter is of course a ridiculous work of music, immortalised by Hunter Thompson, and the former is, to me, merely a pretty good pop song of the era. That both of these are Grace Slick's contributions and that they have endured so much longer than anything else on Surrealistic Pillow probably indicates that having her join the band was a good idea. 'Plastic Fantastic Lover' is pretty good and 'She Has Funny Cars' is good music to play in a documentary when you're talking about the swinging sixties. Otherwise the pick of the litter for me is Jorma Kaukonen's beautiful 'Embryonic Journey', a bit of melting Vanguard/Takoma magic that works extra well before 'White Rabbit'. I know I'm being a bit hard on this because it's considered a psychedelic classic, but it hardly sounds like the Cold Sun LP. And better grooves are around the corner, for sure.

12 November 2017

Peter Jefferies - 'Electricity' (Superior Viaduct)

I got rid of my CD copy of The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World, figuring I could easily upgrade to De Stijl's 2013 vinyl reissue, but I was slow and now it doesn't seem to be available so easily. That's a shame since it makes a nice pairing with Electricity, the first two solo Jefferies albums and two of the finest dark piano and drums-based New Zealand songwriting records of the early 90s. This Superior Viaduct reissue is lovely as it comes in a nice gatefold, the kind of special nice printing where the inside of the cover is coloured (in this case the deep rich blue) and it sounds great, taking the time to stretch the album over three sides; plus it tacks on the awesome Swerve EP (with Robbie Muir) as the fourth side. The mastering and pressing is nice enough that the 'mid-fi' qualities of the original recording shine through. You can hear the clipped compression of Jefferies voice, as this was recorded to a 4-track reel to reel and that was clearly the aesthetic he was going for. But then sometimes the drums sound amazing, the 'digital cello' on 'By Small Degrees' is eerie, and the piano of course usually rings out magically. These songs are in the vein of his usual writing, as heard from Nocturnal Projections through This Kind of Punishment; slow, meditative musings on the self and human relationships, never crystal clear but not too esoteric either. The title track is a beauty, racked with self-awareness and a menacing, yet modernist edge. 'Don't Look Down' is a ballad of pure delicacy, fragile under it's own beauty but confident as well. There are experiments in loops and samples, static and distortion thrown about liberally, and a few bits of messy chaos. Bruce Russell joins for 'Just Nothing' and it sounds exactly like you'd imagine their collaboration to be like. 'Next' and 'Snare', in the middle of the record, provide some damaged art-rock, the most fragmentary tracks. It's sometimes a bit jarring how the songs will shift between delicate, introspective piano ballad to distorted stomper and then back for the next one, but they're all clearly executed with such a vision from Mr. Jefferies, even when that vision is improvisatory and experimental, that it functions as a cohesive whole. The mood stays dark since he favours minor keys, his voice has that timbre to it, and that Peter Jefferies musical signature (when piano and drums pound in unison) is hardly a walk in the park. As the record goes on it seems to diversify its sound, bringing in more guitars (played primitively by Jefferies on 'Couldn't Write a Book',  demonically by Russell, and in a solid folk strum by Paul Cahill on the strident 'Crossover'). It ends with a Barbara Manning cover, 'Scissors', sort of an odd choice, but it somehow works. The bonus tracks on side four are all from Swerve, which is a great EP. Muir's guitar and bass fleshes out these songs, and they're recorded a bit less cleanly than the album (which came after this EP). With the piano not necessarily the lead instrument, it is able to add great bits of colour to 'Don't Call Me, We'll Call You', and the whole suite feels like a brighter take on the usual Jefferies outlook. This isn't to say that his music is exceptionally bleak, but that the light shines through in concentrated rays, which can be an enormously powerful effect. 

11 November 2017

The Jazz Composer's Orchestra (JCOA)

This is a beautiful record, with a shiny mirrored gatefold cover and huge booklet, adorned with copious liner notes, photographs, poetry and and the actual scores. For an orchestra of composers, the JCOA records tended to stick to one composer per release, and this time it's Michael Mantler, who I think was the brains behind the whole project. And fair enough - the apostrophe indicates that this is the orchestra of a single composer, as opposed to being called the Jazz Composers Orchestra or even Jazz Composers' Orchestra (so few bands are willing to risk the trailing apostrophe). However, Cecil Taylor gets top billing, a line of his own, perhaps being the 'star power' used to market this thing. He only appears on the second LP, and they aren't his compositions, but he's clearly the featured guest as the booklet includes two pages of his Cecil Taylorisms, actually a beautiful verbal rendering of the complexity of group dynamics. I generally like Michael Mantler's work; I think he's underrated and definitely comes from a direction that tried to emphasise the power of the composer in new jazz music, particularly from a unioned/organised side, not unlike the AACM in a way. The sheer fact that this many musicians are together in a studio and the recording is clear and well-defined is an accomplishment alone; I actually really like listening to the first cut on headphones, as it has this throbbing low-end pulse underneath which can really work as 'night music'; a few months back I put the headphone extension cable on and sat on my balcony watching the trees sway in the summer wind while listening. Today's too cold for a repeat performance but in the glossy wooden echo of my bedroom (accented by the Ikea laminate floor) it takes on a different quality, maybe as the brass and saxes bounce around more. But that throb is so good - it's present not just on the aforementioned 'Communications #8' but on the short 'Preview' at the end of side two - and it helps to distinguish this from European free-jazz big bands like Globe Unity, who were generally more jittery and even light, in a sense. Larry Coryell is the featured soloist on 'Communications #9' and it gets into some real hot swamp jazz; his electric guitar rips holes over everything else, and when the same band reassembles for 'Communications #10' with Roswell Rudd it loses something without Coryell. Maybe I just like the way the guitar sound pulls everything closer to good fusion, or to Mantler's later work in the 70s. It's hard to single out any one musician here, as everyone eventually gets their moment, and it's not easy for me to determine which of the two flugelhorns is Lloyd Michels and which is Stephen Furtado, for example. The pace across both LPs is mostly 'full and fast', though not the death jazz speed of something like Naked City; just rumbling over the drums (either Andrew Cyrille or Beaver Harris) and the five simultaneous bassists (not always the same five, mind you). When Mr. Taylor enters the picture on LP #2, for the creatively titled 'Communications #11' he is mixed high enough to stay a constant presence throughout and he works well with this large of a group. This is 1968 so before Taylor's Unit band with Jimmy Lyons was established, but there's a similar sense of dynamics to his rising and falling runs. I can't really make much out of the scores because they are reproduced too small to really see, but the writing hits a high level of drama, especially on the second half (side four). The swells are particularly cinematic at points, and Taylor goes with the flow, locking in with Cyrille in particular (which makes sense, since the piano is of course a percussion instrument, something I am always aware of when listening to Cecil Taylor). The piano is mixed high, as high above everyone else as the cover's billing would suggest, and at times the other musicians fade into a background blur - yes, even Gato Barbieri. It's music that evokes a great sense of togetherness, sure, with a serious purpose and intent that paradoxically feels somewhat restrictive, as if it's interrogating the very question of what freedom is. And that's not always an easy listen, not because it's dissonant or dense but because it feels relentless in such a narratively understandable language. I go back to cinema because I honestly think that JCOA could have scored a film nicely (or maybe they did, I don't know); there's almost an emotional manipulation from the rising and crashing and plundering of these musicians. Whatever Mantler's intent was, I find it pretty affecting, even almost 50 years later.

10 November 2017

Jazzfinger - 'Mole & The Morning Dew' (Spirit of Orr)

Ecstatic drone! Thick, rushing roars of processed guitar. Echoes that ping back, jarring against other sonorities. Cheap keyboards and clanging guitars, sprawling out to explore a dark tunnel. Interplay both primitive and sophisticated. An autumnal atmosphere, like a Jesmond treeline in the dusk, the distant roar of suburban-bound traffic. Naturalistic renderings, both pastoral and contemporary.  The rush of electric energy, a current throughout, filling available space with its potentiality. Not exactly howls, but restrained cries, made with strings and wood being tapped, hammered and bowed. Treble kicked out of the window. Throw in everything and see what sticks, but refine it as it happens, control shaped through a long relationship of improvisation. It's not chaos, but a realm of glorious glowing energy. Arpeggios cycling towards a dark centre. Searing, bowed metal, pulsing through reverberating amplifiers. Gentle acoustic tones prodding against it all. Voices, bathed in static, in varispeed dictaphone glory, providing an off-centre to repeated guitar figures; the colour in the bowing takes it to different directions. Yet is always circles back.  A tape splice to end it all. 

8 November 2017

Abner Jay - 'Folk Song Stylist' (Mississippi)

Last night was supposedly a great one for the Democratic party in America as they won a bunch of local elections and supposedly are making their way back to power. I'm pretty skeptical, as I think they'll continue to struggle as they allow the centrist side of the party to keep pushing status quo, neoliberal policies while ignoring the concerns of the working class – but this isn't the forum for that. I only bring it up because I think if they used Abner Jay's 'I Wanna Job' as their campaign song next year (instead of that stupid 'Better Deal...' slogan that Schumer and Pelosi cooked up) then they might start to be relevant to the lower-income voter again. Jay knew what was up - the song brags that he doesn't want to socialise, he just wants to work, and then reports a first-hand account of the Watts riots, which he claims were entirely caused by unemployment. It's a haunting parallel to today's social unrest, Charlottesville etc., and just goes to prove that history is cyclical. Or maybe 'Starving To Death On My Government Claim' would be a good song to rally the socialist masses - except that the welfare state has mostly been eliminated by now. I don't know exactly when these tunes were originally recorded or how Mississippi put this together; there's a dearth of contemporary liner notes here, as if it's trying to pass itself off as an original artefact, but that's OK by me -- the original Brandie releases cost a pretty penny if you can find them, and you likely can't. The title of this is pretty spot-on, because "stylist" describes Jay to a tee; his eccentricities and the one-man-band approach take the songs which are traditional and infuse them with an off-kilter rhythm, breathing a generosity into the material. 'Cotton Fields' has banjo chords which sound like cardboard, held into place by the rhythm of the simple drum accompaniment. There are some background vocals and overdubs on some tracks ('The Thresher' has some beautiful gospel chorus behind it) but I get the sense most of this was done live, except for maybe the lead vocals. Jay's voice is thick and hearty, unapologetically African-American, and passionate; the opening cut 'Depression' could be a game-changer if you've never heard anything like him before, and his 'Shenandoah' is the best version I've ever heard of it, like a one man sacred harp band that doesn't need to come up for air. Throughout, these originals and covers are rendered so beautifully that the one-man-band gimmick and the peculiar honesty of his delivery both become irrelevant to the enjoyment. If it's 'outsider' music, it stands up as just great music, which is what it should do. 

7 November 2017

Joseph Jarman - 'Song For' (Delmark)

There really must have been something in the water in Chicago then, because the music that came out of the late 1960s AACM scene is so unlike anything of its own time or any other. This first Jarman solo record is another piece in the puzzle that became the Art Ensemble, and thus fits in alongside the early Roscoe Mitchell recordings and the other pre-Art Ensemble experiments, which converge on that amazing 5 CD 1967/68 box set (if only it could get a vinyl release!). Jar's band at this time contained Christopher Gaddy and Charles Clark, both of whom were dead within a year (according to the liner notes of this 1970s reissue); dual tragedies, of course, all the more because this core trio had a contemplative understanding of space and time that was a really different flavour to the playfulness of the Art Ensemble. As a quartet with Thurman Barker, they're stripped down on 'Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City', a jaw-dropping excursion into outer-limits impressionism, with Jarman's poetic recitation at the centre. This celebration of urban mysticism explicitly references Dada a few times and casts Chicago's skyline as a shifting tapestry of possible worlds, a chaos that pulsates and gives. Gaddy's piano lines are especially elegant, with a mood closer to Paul Bley than fellow AACMer Muhal Richard Abrams. The larger band, found on the other three tracks, contains Fred Anderson on tenor, Steve McCall on drums and William Brimfield on Trumpet, and both sides start with cohesive, melodic compositions. 'Little Fox Run' is waxy, even a bit brittle, and a strange juxtaposition against 'Non-Cognitive'. It punches through the air and announces their arrival, but is too one-dimensional to showcase Jarman's talents. Side B starts with 'Adam's Rib', a modal, evolving progression that creaks towards silence, opening up for the longer form improvisation of the title track, which is segues into. 'Song For' starts by building percussive elements in space before erupting into a push/pull that is free, but never chaotic. Brimfield's trumpet rips over everything and the presence of two drummers makes it kinda choppy, but the band knows when to hold 'em and knows when to fold 'em, and the comedowns and murmurs are some of the piece's most invigorating moments. At times Jarman's alto and Anderson's tenor don't even seem to be in the same room, but then they come together to make great waves of sound. All around, in the corners, you can hear slide whistles, shouting, and marimba; also Charles Clark moseying around and tiny finger cymbals and bells. This flavours the music with sounds not often heard on ESP releases of the time (Don Garrett's work excepted); it's an approach radical and visionary, but quietly so, which can be the most rewarding.

2 November 2017

Bert Jansch - 'L.A. Turnaround' (Charisma)

Our last solo Bert Jansch record brings a change in label and a change in tone. If the title doesn't give a hint, this has a strong American flavour, with a West Coast country-folk vibe, further accented by Mike Nesmith's production on some of the tracks. Some of the tracks were recorded in Paris, but most in Sussex, which makes the album's theme a bit misleading. Yet the back cover is adorned with a collage of photos of Jansch hanging out in proper American fashion among bars and with people wearing cowboy hats. Now, I'm not someone who feels that country music (or any genre) is some sacred thing that you can only perform if inherited by birthright - after all, the Mekons are probably my favourite band - so I don't begrudge Jansch for trying this. It really works, the combination of his fingerpicking style, soft voice and the genteel bounce of country music. On the more stripped down tunes, such as 'Travelling Man', there's the same flowing harmony found in his earlier work, though with a pedal steel giving it the necessary flavour. His vocal melodies are likewise influenced by American music - I can't imagine how 'Stone Monkey' would sound with Renbourn and/or Pentangle backing it - but it's a music built out of appreciation, the obligatory 'goes country' record that everyone has in them. The pedal steel is actually a great combination, though I think I'm generally fond of that instrument. It doesn't sound anything like Heather Leigh's playing on the Jailbreak record we recently reviewed, but more of the classic sound. 'Needle of Death' is revisited with this accompaniment,  suggesting that by this point it had already emerged as Jansch's most iconic number,  and surely relevant to the drug-addled 70s – though I find this version rather lacking in urgency. The cadence is altered to let the song breathe a bit more, but it loses the hook, and one feels like Jansch is maybe tiring of the number by this point. But this may be L.A. Turnaround's only misstep, as the rest of the record flows nicely, working perhaps as a complement to Nesmith's own country-rock output in that decade. When there's a bass/drums rhythm section behind the songs, they are usually light and rolling, keeping the emphasis on the folk feel. 'Open up the Watergate (Let the Sunshine In)' I assume is literally about the political scandal (this was 1974 after all) and isn't without its charms. This is the last Jansch record I own, and I see the follow up is called Santa Barbara Honeymoon so I suspect it's also of the American flavour. Not just anyone could probably slot into this aesthetic so easily and it could feel like a vacuous commercial gesture in lesser hands, but the one consistent thing over all of these albums is how steady those hands were.

Bert Jansch - 'Moonshine' (Reprise)

Another promo copy - Reprise must have really been pushing Jansch hard back then - and a record that splits the difference in two axes, those of solo/band, and traditionals/originals. This is the Tony Visconti record, taking Jansch's songs and arranging them in full-fledged styles that mostly suit the material. For a guy who did classics such as "Heroes" and Indiscreet, Moonshine probably ranks fairly low on his list of accomplishments, and he doesn't try to reinvent the wheel here. The full-band arrangements mostly hew close to the nature of Jansch's character, which is warm, intimate and romantic. If anything, the arrangements lack a bit of teeth; there's an 'adult contemporary' feeling to a lot of this, even the solo guitar pieces, but maybe that's just musical maturity. Jansch never came off as brash or impetuous in the earlier record, but I keep thinking back to that song 'Soho' on Bert and John, which isn't the most ragged vocal line, but it bursts with youth and energy. There's nothing like that here, but instead lengthy, thoughtful meditations on loneliness and the passing of time. And if you like putting music into the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy (I don't, though I frequently do on these pages because I'm a lazy and unscrupulous writer) then this feels extremely Apollonian, at least compared to the band arrangements on Birthday Blues. This isn't a criticism; the harp on 'The January Man' is lovely and always just escaping Jansch's guitar, and the medieval leaning  arrangements on the title track are kinda fun. But the title of the record doesn't feel like it should refer to a Bacchanalian revelry (if that's what the cover art is trying to suggest), but rather literally the light of the moon. 'Night Time Blues' is probably the best cut here, a long Jansch original that uses the fiddle and Danny Thompson's probing basslines to cradle and support the vocal, which wonders through all manner of solipsistic thoughts during a sleepless night. It's both comforting and a tiny bit unsettling, and a case where the arrangements and production really benefit the material. There's drums throughout but they're always a bit mellow, mostly Laurie Allen but with Dave Mattacks on 'Yarrow' (a steady, almost military rhythm which fits the song, a tale of quarrel and death) and the great Danny Richmond on 'The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face'. Jansch must have been super excited to work with Richmond, given how much he wears his love of Mingus on his sleeve, and this is a really harmonious and beautiful jam around an insanely romantic lyric (by Ewan McColl). Richmond sounds like he just showed up and played a standard 'jazz' pulse behind it, I daresay phoning it in a bit, and he's mixed oddly low given his stature - but the result works well. The final cut, 'Oh My Father', contains an electric guitar (by Garry Boyle) against Jansch's standard cow-stick, and Visconti on electric bass. It's some out of place here, though it situates this record firmly in the world of 1970s pop-rock; the buzzing electric airspace makes this sound almost like a bizarro Steely Dan track or something. I'm not sure how I feel about it, and I bet Jansch wasn't sure either.

Bert Jansch - 'Rosemary Lane' (Reprise)

It's 1971 now, and the Pentangle records are still coming but they've arguably passed their creative peak of the Sweet Child/Basket of Light/Cruel Sister era. Jansch put out a solo record called Nicola (after Birthday Blues) but I've never heard it, so we have to skip ahead and check in with him at this point. And this one is very much back to being a traditionalist folk record, albeit with a crisp and slightly glowing production that makes it sound far different in tone, atmosphere and harmonic space than those early releases on Transatlantic/Vanguard. The acoustic guitar is as closely recorded as on Bert and John, but it's warmer, in that wonderful way the slightest alterations in recording can totally change the sound of a singer-songwriter - perhaps the capsule was tilted at a different angle, scanning a different part of the fretboard. The material is mostly original Jansch acoustic compositions, but features a few covers and traditional numbers. 'Reynardine' is a familiar one for Fairport fans, and his interpretation is strongly affected yet warm, as he seems to be focused on intoning delicately. This vocal approach is heard on the sweet, romantic parts of this record, such as opening cut 'Tell Me What Is True Love?', which is chillingly beautiful. The instrumentals here are very stark and carefully composed, far away from any more rollicking Fahey-esque movement, 'Sarabanda' being a 16th century violin tune. They serve as nice boundaries between the lyrics, and there's a good thought to this sequencing. 'Bird Song' is the closer, which according to the liner notes is about his impressions of 'America and the American people'. Nothing like the Holy Modal Rounders tune of the same name, it's more Animal Farm, telling of the different types of birds which we must take as metaphors. It feels more scientific than sociopolitical, closer to the previous record's 'Tree Song', but therein lies the genius of songwriting. I feel like in pushing through these Jansch records, eight in a row, as much as I enjoy them it's hard for me to really give myself to them, so anxious am I to get to Joseph Jarman. And admittedly this is one of the ones I always forget about, but it's (like all of theme) a perfectly pleasant way to pass a half hour.

31 October 2017

Bert Jansch - 'Birthday Blues' (Reprise)

Promo issue with white labels and no liner notes. Skipping ahead a little bit from the last few records, we now find Jansch immersed in the Pentangle supergroup, whose extremely rewarding records we'll get to in due time, but for those curious and unfamiliar, there's a new CD box set of essentially everything available. Back here for a solo record (perhaps songs that didn't fit into Pentangle's prolific output?), Terry Cox and Danny Thompson from Pentangle join Jansch, and with Shel Talmy's production, this is an entirely different beast than the folky, traditional-leaning content that came before. It's a bit like Dylan's similar stylistic change circa Bringing It All Back Home, I'd say. Acoustic guitar still dominates, but Jansch is content to pull back from the firestorm of fingerpicking and give more space to the songs, focusing on his delivery and letting the first-rate rhythm section drive things along. As a songwriter, Jansch has a clearly expressed romanticism with a dark edge. 'A Woman Like You' is a driving, melancholy force that is followed by 'I Am Lonely', one of the record's more delicate songs; the juxtaposition of the two is Jansch in a nutshell. His voice is so convincing on both tracks, warbling with vibrato that isn't overdone. Similarly, 'Poison' grinds forward with a mean edge, Jansch striking chords or sparse riffs while the song pulses along, driven by the full band. There's the presence of flute and harmonica on a few tracks, and a big saxophone part on 'Promised Land', but it doesn't feel overproduced. This was Talmy's genius, perhaps. Folk moved into folk-rock, but these Jansch records feel slightly resistant to it, hence the jazzy presence of the Pentangle team. This is expressed most overtly on 'Blues', a 12-bar instrumental with some improvisation, but as an album closer it feels a little bit, well, off. A record with such great songs ('Tree Song' should also get a shout-out for its childlike and earnest vibe, which also utilises the full band instrumentation nicely) should conclude with a bigger statement than 'we also like blues and jazz records'. Still, it's overall finely nestled into that sweet spot where bigger, more pop-orientated production dovetails with quality songwriting and thus it feels like a step forward, not a desperate commercial reach.

30 October 2017

Bert Jansch and John Renbourn - 'Bert and John' (Transatlantic)

Finally, after guesting on Jansch's last few records and a few solo records of his own, John Renbourn makes a full-fledged collaboration with him. This is recorded in hard stereo, but it's not credited (at least on my copy) who is whom; I think the right channel is Renbourn because he has a punchier style of playing, but both of them do this really close-mic'd and forceful. It's almost like the entire record was done with a 'line-in' recording style, except these are pure acoustics and there's enough glow here to really feel that they were playing together. The record is almost entirely instrumental and the pair wrote most compositions, with the exception of Jansch's 'Soho', Anne Briggs's 'The Time Has Come' and a wonderfully inspired cover of Mingus's 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat'. The latter, when rendered on two acoustic guitars, emphasises the bluesy quality of Mingus's nature and it feels fresh, like a new spirit brought into the melodies. It certainly doesn't come off as an act of appropriation or anything of the sort, and of course it presages the Pentangle records to follow. The rest of the record has a brisk pace, with both guitarists favouring flashy, quick strikes and brisk interplay. The more careful numbers, like 'Orlando', are placed to bring a sense of breath to the sequencing; 'The Time Has Come' as well manages to be contemplative under Jansch's vocal line, without sacrificing any momentum. 'Soho' is a nice paean to city life and the overall tone is very modern, especially against Jack Orion's more traditional material; the records were released in the same year, I'm not sure which one first, but it's a sensible curation. I hear a lot of Gastr del Sol's Crookt, Crackt style here, especially on 'After the Dance', which is absolutely percussive; there's something of the same appeal, the acoustic guitars as razorblades, the occasionally jaw-dropping effects of construction. It's not about their technical mastery, because I'm sure these are raw and green compared to their more mature recordings, but that energy and vitality is felt without being showoffy or retrograde.

28 October 2017

Bert Jansch - 'Jack Orion' (Vanguard)

Renbourn has moved up to full collaborator here, getting a subtitle credit on this, though he doesn't play on every track; the music is a touch more polished too, as the opener 'The Waggoner's Lad' indicates. Here, Jansch's banjo playing pushes against Renbourn's sharp guitar and it's a traditional rendered in a flashy, aggressive style, but I like it; the recording on the banjo is way closer, or maybe it's just a nicer sounding instrument than the one on '900 Miles'. It's the same version from the previous album - here, re-included, a difference between this Vanguard issue of the record and the original UK release. The cover is not the most flattering photograph of Mr. Jansch but it clearly indicates a break from the Village-aspiring folk hipster look on the previous records; I'd say the presence of all traditional material here (well, all but one, but that one is a short instrumental by Ewan McColl, so it's effectively "traditional" in intent) also indicates this turn. It kinda reminds me how the Incredible String Band were total karma hippies on their second album but by Hangman's they were going for something, well, earthier. I've heard a few versions of 'Black Water Side' over the years but this one has a punchy guitar and confident delivery; maybe it's the male vocals as compared to Sandy Denny or Anne Briggs's takes, but it feels distinct and fresh, and I like it. The title track is the big sell, almost ten minutes long, telling the epic story of Jack Orion, a horny fiddler/lover who gets involved in some intrigue with another guy's wife, or something like that. There's a strange, scratchy line drawing of Mr. Orion on the back cover, and I guess it's another cautionary tale, like 'Needle of Death', though not preachy or pushy. Or maybe not; while it's a great track in its monotony, accented by Renbourn's second guitar which drives things forward and building in intensity as it goes along, I must confess that I find the story hard to follow by the end. It's not that I often listen to traditional British music hoping for a good yarn, and in particular I'd say these re-booted versions from the late 60s are even more enjoyable when letting go of the myth. Or maybe it's just my attention span, shot through with holes from a generation's worth on online gratification, YouTube culture, and general meda-overstimulus. Or maybe just from this self-imposed quest to listen to eight Bert Jansch records in sequence.

26 October 2017

Bert Jansch - 'Lucky Thirteen' (Vanguard)

I don't have Jansch's first, self-titled album; only this American issued compilation of selections from the first two. Being that I just took It Don't Bother Me off the turntable there's going to be a feeling of repetition/overlap here, so I'll announce here that I will happily swap this copy of Lucky Thirteen for any decent-condition pressing of Bert Jansch. Cause that's one I'd like to have - it contains Jansch's most notable song, 'Needle of Death' on it, which is thankfully also represented here at the end of side one. I don't think it's even the cautionary tale of heroin that I'm moved by, because really, who cares, but the catchy ascending melody, ripped off by Neil Young on 'Ambulance Blues'. It's a classic for a reason, a timeless anthem that's fun to sing despite the macabre tone. There's other great stuff from the first album here, like 'I Have No Time' and 'Courting Blues'; Instrumentally this is a strong collection, as Vanguard chose about half instrumentals, no doubt wanting to push this to their traditional folkie crowd. Jansch's fingerpicking has a way of actually being catchy without having lyrics of hooks; 'Angie' is positively infectious and hummable, and a nice way to open the set. 'The Wheel', though I just heard it, is placed at the end and it winds down a (let's face it) decent compilation, feeling reflective of the cycles of life and existence and reality, or maybe that's a lot to read into a guitar instrumental. This compilation is named after a track that Renbourn wrote and played lead on, yet Vanguard failed to credit him here; poor guy, he really makes that cut scream. And thanks for another peek into your flat!

Bert Jansch - 'It Don't Bother Me' (Transatlantic)

One of Glasgow's finest exports (better than Tennent's), Jansch's second album is a classic example of 60s folk, delivered in a straightforward fashion and with adorably awkward liner notes. ("In this song the meaning is maybe too deep for me to describe.") His fingerpicking is stunning as always and if he's trying to create the Bohemian image of a sexy late 60s folk star, he's done a great job. Beyond the cover photo, the essence of cool, Jansch isn't afraid to flex his vocal chops (on 'My Lover', he essentially delegates the guitar shredding to Renbourn and spends his energy crooning) and to emote with a genuine honesty. The title track is a great one, where he also draws on the phrasing and adds a level of honesty to lyrics would could come off as escapist or snotty if sung by someone else; here, it feels like a statement of purpose and a worthy claim to the album title. The liner notes offer 'no comment' on 'Anti Apartheid', I guess letting the song speak for itself; 'To separate the colours and break the rainbow sign / To ask the finest painter to draw a crooked line / would only slow the journey to here another time' is a beautiful lyric, one that can be completely removed from the context of political protest, and tick the box for social consciousness, even though being against apartheid wasn't exactly a gutsy position to take. Renbourn appears again on 'Lucky Thirteen', also writing it, and the ending rendition of '900 Miles' is done on a scratchy banjo, the tonality of which works beautifully with his voice. There's no presence of rock music's influence here, at least not that I can tell, though maybe I'm not great at separating folk scene 'tude from rocker style. It's not until Pentangle that Jansch really experiments with genre-melting and that's a long ways away, alphabetically. In the meantime we got a glut of these to get through, and while all are enjoyable, it's going to be tough to keep writing something unique about each one.

Jandek - 'Lost Cause' (Corwood Industries)

Skipping ahead a decade from Six and Six, Jandek is certainly a lot less monotonous than before, but not any more accessible. Lost Cause is split between acoustic and electric halves, though the electric half is a side-long free-form freakout (titled 'The Electric End') where plodding tom toms are layered with clangy electric guitar and a high-pitched whistling sound that's from some unidentifiable instrument, with the occasional vocal yelp from Mr. Sterling. It's nineteen minutes long and never lets up, and there's some pretty great parts - it's actually the reason I keep this record - though not exactly a smooth experience. The seven songs on side one are occasionally pretty, around themes of heartbreak ('God Came Between Us') and genitals ('Babe I Love You'). There's a whole lineage of loner, private-press acid folk casualties from the 70s (Kenneth Higney, Perry Leopold, Peter Grudzien, etc.) and Jandek's sound is like the most extreme version of this (and privately pressed, too) but somehow minus the acid. Or maybe he was a total tryptamine visionary, I can't presume to know, but his portraits of the mid-to-late 20th century American experience feel removed from any sort of Dionysian rites. I wonder if people thought this was going to be his last record at the time; its no bleaker than usual but just the 'End' in side 2's title and the LP name as well... it's not like anything could stop Jandek, and by this point (1992) he had developed quite a fleshed-out, complete musical vision. I was thinking during the last record how much Jandek's aesthetic has become a trope of today's avant-garde song people, certainly in terms of mood and vocal delivery; this has gotta be seen as some success for him, since initially he appeared to be both uninfluenced and uninfluenceable. Nowadays, he seems to be on a quest to perform with every one of today's active musicians, and that's actually admirable. However, I'm reminded of that story about a famous British wrestler who always wore a mask, and was known for his real face being secret, who announced he was going to take off the mask for a match, got huge attention for it, and then found his career essentially over, once the mask was off. (British wrestling fans will know who I'm talking about, but it doesn't matter). That's Jandek, to me – I was as stunned as everyone else when he suddenly played live in 2004, and then I saw a concert in 2005 and it was good, interesting kinda free rock, but nothing I would get too excited about. And since then, I haven't cared at all. But if I ever change my mind, there's been about 600 hours of new material to digest, including 6 and 9 CD box sets, some albums being entirely a-capella; but I'll pass, for now.

25 October 2017

Jandek - 'Six and Six' (Corwood Industries)

I guess this is one of the 'classic' Jandek records, as it sounds like an early Jandek record is supposed to sound, and the cover photo is iconic. Hailing from '81, Six and Six finds Jandek with an electric guitar, intoning over it slowly while picking some open strings in an erratic rhythm. And that's all it sounds like, moving through 9 songs, one in two parts, but really all one piece. It's a work of alienation, but aren't they all? Fragments of meaning come and go, there's a lot of 'you' in there and some stark images of animal and plant life about. 'Point Judith' is a work of total isolation, at least lyrically; musically, it sounds exactly like the other songs. I wonder how much Jandek worked out a complete artistic vision or how much he was making it up as he went along. For example, 'Forgive Me' mentions a "blue corpse" and six years later he put out an LP with that name, but I'm not sure if recurring imagery along is enough to create a mythology. The power in Jandek, if you find any, is that there's so little to grasp and it's completely unburdened by influence, yet it can be incredibly evocative. I must admit I haven't played this since the day I got it (at a yard sale for $3!), remembering it being an endurance test, but that this listen is occasionally sending chills through me, and from the strangest lyrics, too ("a label, a fable" ... wow!). The invariance of the guitar playing is astounding - though the track lengths vary, you could swap the music from any track with any others and it would be hard to notice; it's almost comedic the way the 10 minute 'I Knew You Would Leave' ends, and then after a track gap there's the sound of a tape recorder being turned on, and the guitar plucking starts up again. Sometimes I think Jandek actually has a classic rock and roll voice; there's a little bit of bluesy swagger to his intonation, like a Texas Mick Jagger with a bit of Lou Reed mixed in. Another observation tonight is how this music sounded so fucking alien and strange to me fifteen years ago, but now I've heard a lot of avant-songwriter types who sound just like this. An old friend used to say about bands like Anal Cunt: "Well, someone has to be Anal Cunt". I don't think that's the case here - no one had to be Jandek, and yet someone was.

Bob James Trio - 'Explosions' (Get Back)

The 60s are full of amazing recordings that push music into new directions; this Bob James Trio LP is often overlooked, maybe because James himself had a long career playing more standard jazz afterwards, and he wasn't there for the long haul. Despite the title, this isn't fire music, but an early exploration of electroacoustic improvisation meeting the jazz idiom head-on. It's credited to the trio of James, Barre Phillips and Robert Pozar, but the frequent incursions of tapes and electronics are the work of Gordon Mumma (on opening track, 'Peasant Boy') and Robert Ashley (on 'Untitled Mixes' and 'Wolfman'). The credits make it unclear if Mumma and Ashley are just responsible for the compositions, or maybe the tape material was supplied by Mumma but not actually, technically 'played' by him on this recording. It's a stunner, though - opening with a bumpy, centreless improvisation between James's piano, Phillips's bass and Pozar's drumkit, it soon withers to almost nothing and the players do an Art Ensemble-esque exploration of space. A few plucked strings, something scraped, a few tonally confusing notes - and this is when Mumma's sounds come in. Sounding like only tapes can sound, you can hear the squleching and squirming movement push the musicians to redefine their approach to colour and mood. This segues perfectly into 'Untitled Mixes', where Ashley's somewhat more present electronics are in place, but it feels like a seamless transition, just a handoff of tapes. The band continues their spacious interplay, with enough emptyness at the core that the surface noise is often alone (or the echo of the studio if your hi-fi equipment is good enough). Slowly, the musicians come back together, and it's harmoniously disharmonious, if that makes any sense. James's 'Explosions' closes the first half, a curiously named piece for something so quiet and spare. Phillips's bowing take centre stage and it sneaks around sonorities not unreminiscent of baroque European composition, eventually puttering to halt which is a false ending, before a few plucked strings resonate to the run-out grooves. Side two begins with Phillips's composition 'An On', which starts with a carnivalesque whirring of some sort of motor and a tin whistle, until the trio comes in and teases out a plodding theme. While neither Mumma nor Ashley are credited here, there's a heavy presence of tape loops, garbling and spinning slowly enough to interplay with the tonalities of the piano and bass quite beautifully, if you find this sort of thing beautiful (I do!). The piece utterly refuses to gel into a recognisable jazz form; that's saved for 'Wolfman'. This closer is the weirdest moment, simple because it sounds like Ashley's 'Wolfman' work (radios and voices) played overtop of a standard post-bop Bob James Trio jazz recording. It's a nice wall of sound, I guess, but there's no interplay, and it just comes off as a failed experiment, albeit not a terrible thing to sit through. The rest of the album is so curiously, cautiously groundbreaking that it fits because of the way it doesn't fit, and Ashley's work is pretty interesting on its own. I never really hear this record talked about much, which is a shame, because it's phenomenal, and tonally it's unlike anything else from the era that I've heard.

Jailbreak - 'The Rocker' (Family Vineyard)

We haven't checked in with Mr. Chris Corsano for awhile, so this comes a nice a surprise. Jailbreak was a duo of him and Heather Leigh, which put out two releases in 2010 and then that was it; hardly a surprise as they were living on different continents so rehearsal must have been a bit tough. Leigh's pedal steel and vocals would threaten to take over the whole soundstage here if it wasn't for Corsano's thunderous drumming. It's safe to say that there's no other pedal steel player out there who sounds like this, as the strings are drenched in a fuzz pedal, amped-up just to the edge of feedback, and moving in 50,000 different directions at the same time. It would also be safe to say there's no drumming anywhere else like this, except on other records Corsano plays on; together, it's a balancing act that works well.  Yet this isn't to suggest that The Rocker is teetering or restrained; it's aggressive to the max, with building blocks of pure energy, forcing the listener to strain to find the subtleties. 'Brought Down' starts off with solo Leigh for a minute or two before the drums kick in, and there's no going back one this cork is pulled out of the bottle. The vocals are twisted and shouty, enough in the background to be lyrically unintelligible but directly conveying power, wonder and energy. It's reminiscent of hardcore punk, an influence surely felt throughout The Rocker, as if that anger was merged with a free music approach. The flipside, 'Sugar Blues', isn't a huge departure, suggesting that maybe these edits were made out of one massive, epic blowout recording session. The dynamics at play are unified; when Jailbreak shifts they do so together, thus the moments when Corsano drops out (particularly about halfway through side two) are the most dramatic; when he comes back in at the moment parenthetically referred to in this sentence, it's like a massive weight dropping, and manages to incur a jolt of higher-level energy into a record that at this point has been almost a half-hour of being cranked up to (presumably) 10. The sliding strings, when distorted like this, genuinely reminds me of the pick-slides used in a lot of 80s metal guitar bands, which I'm sure is a comparison Jailbreak wouldn't object to. When Leigh hits the higher register vocally, it's like a banshee soaring over this violent chaos, and that world of destroyed possibilities is a beautifully rendered one. The Rocker isn't an easy listen - or rather, it's not a relaxing listen - but it's a rewarding one, and one that may be forgotten already among the prolific output of these two.

Jackie-O Motherfucker - 'The Magick Fire Music' (Ecstatic Peace!)

Once one cuts through the duct tape, one can start working through The Magick Fire Music. Four sides is a lotta Jackie-O, and they use this larger canvas to take their time, spreading out, at least compared to their Road Cone releases from around this time (2000-2001), Fig. 5 and Liberation, which I'm somehow more familiar with despite never owning. Jackie-O Motherfucker are actually a lot more Apollonian their the name and reputation may suggest, as these lengthy pieces (about two per side) mostly improvise around groove-based indie rock instrumentation – a jam band! It's hardly Medeski Martin & Wood, but the foundations are easy to feel, and even when they bring in squealing saxophones, keyboards/synths and tape loops, it's only dressing on the surface of a harmonious path. Mostly, this is music of meandering, and it strikes a nice Morricone-esque vibe sometimes ('The Cage', 'Quaker') which never threatens to really challenge the omphalos. Yes, The Magick Fire Music takes awhile to get anywhere, and maybe once it does, if it does, you aren't sure if you're back where you started. For a band that's been just "Tom Greenwood + collaborators" for a long time, it's interesting to listen back here to when they were somewhat more collectively a group, or at least that's my impression. There's no personnel listed so it's hard to know who's actually on this recording - hell, it could just all be Greenwood solo - but it feels like more, albeit surely live studio jams, offered with some restraint and a surprising amount of polish. Maybe "meander as philosophy" is a lot more difficult than it sounds; the I-IV-V chord progressions reached here feel a bit too easy, in which case we should turn to mood/texture/atmosphere for our pleasure. Departures from this deliver the most joy: '2nd Ave 2 M' is a twisting maelstrom that veers into space-jazz territory; 'Lost Stone' goes for tremolo-driven sky paintings and eschews rock instrumentation the most, and is a beautiful moment. It all comes to a summation on 'Black Squirrels', the jam with the most energy, the most psychedelic use of layered sound, and the presence of a banjo to tie the band to the 'Americana' influence they expressed more strongly on other releases. I had no idea that these guys are still together (in some form) and have been putting out a steady stream of records ever since this; I'm not sure how this stacks up against their whole oeuvre but someone out there's gotta be a completist.

24 October 2017

Iran (Vulgar Tango)

I used to have this on CD but 'upgraded' to the LP, which comes with a bonus 45 rpm 10", recorded about a year later and having zero presence on the usually infallible discogs.com. Iran are a group I know essentially nothing about except I received this to review for something, as a CD back in the early 00s, and always liked its warped, art-rock approach. At a time when I was looking to both drone/minimalism, textural approaches to composition, and collage material such as The Faust Tapes, it seemed to tick a lot of boxes. No one would ever describe Iran's sound as 'precise', but it's not a giant mess either. There's not a total abandonment of guitar-based indie rock, clearly their roots, but they were obviously looking to push forward beyond that sound. There's noise without chaos; tracks like 'Radio Galaxy' revel in static, hiss and its variable possibilities, but stay aware of space, time, and pace. 'The Music Plays Itself' (found on the bonus 10") continues the interplay of radiowaves and guitar, on a bed of tremolo and with some delicately expressed singing for just a second before a wave of thicker buzzing takes over. Though the guitar playing in 'Sailors' sounds like someone falling down the stairs, it's herky-jerky for good reason, and the various layers of buzzing guitars, static, and electronics throughout it (and other tracks) all seem to be there for a common purpose. It's not a kitchen-sink band, but rather a band that was seeking a way out of the easy disharmony of the spacey jam. We get flavours of genres - 'Spherical Cockpit' is one such example, a deconstruction of anthemic guitar post-rock, which by '98 when this came out was already pretty tiresome. Here, the chords build up, but there's zany synth sounds challenging the rigidity, like a shortwave radio broadcast of Mogwai or something. "Deconstruction" is such an easy term to throw into music writing, and it's often used to describe approaching a song from the inside-out, but Iran is actually more about construction - about choosing layers to mean something and combine for important textural form. It's lo-fi hi-fi, if that makes any sense - there's a clear soundstage on 'Crickets', Western Avenger', and even the hissy static of 'Yellow Tiger Lemons'. When vocals are present they're often processed beyond intelligibility, adding to the overall aesthetic with just enough odd words slipping out to steer things; or in 'Goodnight, Goodnight' they're delivered conventionally but with everything else out of balance to make it a parodic pop song, and a solid album closer.'San Diego' is the shortest incursion into this direction, with crisp acoustic guitars and even ending with a clearly emoted lyric!  'Drugs' and 'DC', the 33rpm side of the bonus 10", don't appear on the CD version of this album and are rendered in glorious fidelity, with the indie/post-rock presence of 'DC' a bit like if Bedhead got taken over by a computer virus. Overall it's a great assemblage that stood a bit ahead of its time – this type of experimentation felt a bit more common a few years later, by which point Iran had moved on to their second and third albums. I'm not sure where they are now, if anywhere.

20 October 2017

Invisible Sports - 'The Future Tastes' (Alt.Vinyl)

If we ever make it to the Vs you'll discover I have a bunch of Volcano the Bear records; most of them, in fact. I love those guys, and just recently got their 20th anniversary box set Commencing, which is massive. Somehow along the years with all of the side projects,  I totally forgot about Aaron Moore's solo song-based LP from 2012, The Future Tastes, which is some of the most polished and 'accessible' songcraft the man's ever released. His voice is unmistakeable, not a conventional singing voice but not a bad one either. These are fully arranged pop songs, a bit off-kilter (it's hardly sounding like Lady Gaga), but not as demented or damaged as Volcano (until the end). Some VtB tracks could just be Aaron solo, but they are of a different ilk - The Future Tastes is approached from a different philosophy, and that translates into a slightly trance-like take on post-rock, with an almost lounge flavour. And they're nice tunes, whether it's the jazzy inflections of 'Jesus Auto Sound' or the surreal psychedelia of 'Man Wakes Up With Wins'; Aaron's songs are oddly genteel, often using piano or keyboards, a light touch on percussion/drums, a lot of trumpet (some quite processed or at least played weirdly), and some nice details around the edges. 'Silence is What We're Made For' invokes a sentimentality rarely heard in Volcano songs, and I like it - it's an updating of 'Hello, Graham' in terms of mood, brought into a later stage in his musical career but coming from the same place of odd thoughtfulness. There's a lot of tonal percussion throughout this record –xylophones, or maybe it's marimba, or vibes, or even some sort of tuned drums – and they give the proceedings a mildly exotic flavour. Rhythmically, it's more subtle than it sounds at first, with the bass playing (upright, I think) often pushing against the vocal melodies and the drumming to make something not quite hypnotic, but suggestive. Side two has some more loose experiments, such as 'Hopfull' (a pause-button edit work that's the most 'electronica' this record gets, or 'Lovelove', which is all dub-like studio fuckery around a few repeated vocal phrases. It all concludes with 'It's a Warhorse', a thick song built over two endless organ chords, with all manner of scraping and screaming smaller sounds layered within. This is close to the mic, breathy, deep Moore, an intimate experience that is offset by the strangeness of the music. It's like all of the light grooves of the rest of the record are pushed away in favour of an intense, somewhat monotonous epic. It feels the most like a VtB outtake here, and I wonder if it was added to fill out running time or to make a link back to the mothership, so to speak. Either way, it's intriguing, and it wouldn't be Aaron Moore if everything was too harmonious from start to finish.

19 October 2017

Insayngel (Heavy Tapes)

Blink and you may have missed them; Insayngel was two members of Sightings with a few other people, an ex-Excepter guy and people who were also in a band called Vizusa (according to the infallible discogs - I've never heard of 'em). The Pusheadesque cover art may give a hint as to the direction of these sounds - this is harsh, sick noise-rock, straining to get free from some imagined shackles. 'Plastic Ancestor' begins things on a percussive note, with Caitlin Cook's voice definitely in 'caterwaul' territory and stretching over a nervous thumping bassline and what sounds like a bunch of cans being kicked around in a bin liner. It's really, really messy, but the rhythm section knows what they're doing and they shift into different movements, which gives it just enough of a centre to lurch along. I don't know when or how this was recorded, but when I listen to it, I just feel hot; perhaps it's because every time I remember being in Brooklyn it's always somehow summer so it's sticky and muggy. This, I can imagine, came out of jam sessions during this time, scraping away at distorted guitar strings and pounding on drums just as a way to stay cool. No lyrics are intelligible, and it's lo-fi enough to distort in all of the right places. The guitar playing sometimes has this weird slide sound, sometimes there's an incursion of low end that glows underneath it all, and sometimes the cymbals cut through everything else in a really unbalanced way. 'Hard to Handle' is not a Black Crowes cover, but a big mess of a song that is kinda fun to listen to. I keep coming back to the word 'lurching' to describe things, even though it kinda swings. The Sightings guys are the rhythm section and you can tell they're an ongoing musical relationship, and I should really listen to Sightings more because they're somehow underrated after all of these years. 'Black Rock Way', the longest track, is also the furthest away from a cohesive song though I'm not sure how much, if any, of this record was composed to begin with. This reminds me of the Godz, Cro-Magnon or some other primitive 60s thing, and has an oscillating keyboard/electronics part to take this firmly into bad trip territory. It slows to a crawl, with nothing but static and bumping notes and stammering, and it conjures an element of madness that's weirdly fun. I think back to that Hospitals LP discussed back in August and how these both come from a similar place, but one is quite clearly West Coast and the other quite clearly from a more high-octane lifestyle. Insayngel might be a terrible name, but if madness is the state attempting to be portrayed by this music, they kinda nailed it, or at least aspects of it. 

The Incredible String Band - 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter' (Elektra)

By The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, the psychedelic affectations of the previous record's cover are shelved in favour of some back-to-the-roots medieval roleplay, though maybe this is just a more British, stylised form of psychedelia. Joe Boyd's back, and his mark is felt even though the ISB themselves are credited with the arrangements. Still, I think Boyd knew how to record the piano so it sounds like it's being played in a great stone room; how to place microphones near the right part of the acoustic guitar to let the high-mids flow and interact wth the harpsichord so beautifully; how to incorporate a distant waterdripping sound with the string improvisation in the middle of 'The Water Song' to create an amazing atmosphere without things becoming too gimmicky. Heron's 'A Very Cellular Song' is the epic, a 13 minute mega-song which is really just like a few shorter pieces smashed together, and likewise has good and bad moments. About 2/3 of the way through is an instrumental breakdown with jaw's harp, some beat-boxing (really!) and mandolin chip-chop, which is wonderful, fruity, and just brief enough to leave one wanting more. But there's also a strange faux-gospel part (the 'goodnight, goodnight') which is a somewhat painful listen. I guess the idea of 'cellular' means that the song is just an assemblage of parts, rather than a reference to cellular phone technology (though such technology did exist in 1968, it would be called 'mobile' in UK parlance anyway), so it ends up just being a grouping/sequencing/labelling decision since these could have been broken into five or six different songs, and honestly the weak part of the album, especially when compared to some of side two's energy. Lyrically, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter feels a bit more adult than The 5000 Spirits; there's no 'Way Back in the 1960s' or 'Hedgehog Song' here, no simple love songs. Instead we get sinewy narratives, with proper names dropped here and there, and a loose, hippie take on British myth imagery. 'Waltz of the New Moon', 'Nightfall' and 'Koeeoaddi Theme' contain the florid, colourful adjectives that fit this vibe; the freakout jam at the end of 'Three is a Green Crown' matches it with an appropriate musical exploration. Shirley Collins contributes just a little bit of piano and organ but it goes a long way. Maybe this is the best balance they ever reached, but I've only ever heard The Wee Tam and Big Huge in passing so what do I know?

The Incredible String Band - 'The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion' (Elektra)

Talk about a shift in marketing - the cover alone would suggest that Messrs Heron and Williamson, reduced to a duo here, majorly 'turned on' after their first album and in their cosmic dialogue with the universe decided to reinvent the Incredible String Band as a fully psychedelicised wonder. I don't know if the music carries through on this promise, though it's a huge step forward in confidence and originality, and furthermore the duo plays together as a band on almost every track, making this feel much more cohesive. I'd say its more a step towards pop accessibility than drugged out wonderbliss. One can hear this from the get-go, on 'Chinese White', where Williamson's bowed gimbri adds a thick drone behind the song, sounding a bit like a Dylanesque harmonica only with a fourth dimension added. That's maybe the psychedelic-influenced ISB in a nutshell - or maybe the confident production of Joe Boyd is to thank. Danny Thompson guests on a few tracks and hand drums are occasionally present, though it's hardly a rock and roll ensemble; the presence of sitar (or guitar affected to sound like a sitar) and flute, weaving through the melodies is a bigger presence throughout. Without any traditionals here, the songcraft feels more akin to the 60s Village scene than to Anne Briggs or Shirley Collins, with only their accent really linking things to any UK folk movement. There's a syncopated quirk to some of the tunes, like 'No Sleep Blues', others look to jazz and blues for direction. Heron's tunes in particular have the hooks, like the indefatigable 'Hedgehog Song' and 'Painting Box'. If I try to imagine this accompanying a late 60s psychedelic/mystical 'trip' I'm sure there's some great psychedelic value; 'Little Cloud' is whimsical and jaunty but lyrically about floating to distant lands; 'My Name is Death' can be the bummer note or the key to understanding the whole experience, perhaps. The closer, 'Way Back in the 1960s', takes a fun, tongue-in-cheek look back to this time, and holds up well as a quasi-novelty number. I realise that writing about so many records here runs the risk of being pointless or uninsightful, and I can't think of what I can personally add about these mega-famous ISB albums, since I have little personal connection to them beyond just enjoying them now and then. The best I can do is to try to relate it to other music experiences, but apart from the resurgence of interest in 60s folk in the 00s noise 'underground', I couldn't think of music further away from the current Now/zeitgeist than this. And even within that decade-past underground, ISB was way too well-known to be seen as cool, when there were an endless stream of obscure burnout loners to discover instead. Still, this album and their next one have gotten many a play, not just my beaten copy (whose lifespan was already worn down long before it entered my possession) but among people in general, as these records remain immensely popular for good reason.

17 October 2017

The Incredible String Band (Elektra)

Mono pressing. Clive Palmer has a great reputation, maybe because he left the Incredible String Band after this debut album, before they found more commercial success, which cements him along with Syd Barrett, Howard Devoto, Judy Dyble and others who got out while the going was good. Listening to this lovely sounding (mono!) pressing, I realise that he wasn't a phenomenally large presence anyway. This debut is more like a "songwriter's guild" type of band, without all three members playing on every track, and a few being solo pieces. There's a very unfortunately titled solo Palmer track which should be enough to ruin his reputation except maybe because it's a jaunty banjo instrumental (and also a traditional tune) he gets away with it; otherwise it's only on 'Empty Pocket Blues' that we get to hear his voice. It's a nice song, though Robin Williamson's furtive tin whistling is what really makes it. Other gems are 'Dandelion Blues', which is whimsical and fleeting; 'When the Music Starts to Play' and the closing stomper 'Everything's Fine Right Now'. This type of winking contemporary folk came at the right place right time; I don't hear anything particularly 'psychedelic' here beyond the general lightness of tone and colour of the arrangements, but England was maybe more of a mushroom culture at this point, 1966. Heron and Williamson were actually both from Edinburgh as we're told in the notes on 'Smoke Shovelling Song', but this isn't a band I tend to remember when chronicling Scotland's greats. The liner notes are great -not quite lyrics but rambling written riffs on the themes of the song, which bring a nice accompaniment to the listening experience. This recording - did I mention it's in mono? - sounds clear and balanced, with the chop-chop of the strummed strings echoing for all of eternity, whether it's guitar, banjo, or mandolin. It's funny to think that Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span et. al formed in the wake of this, though I'm not sure how strong the influence was, and they were more rockin' when they started. Still, ISB managed to ultimately build a myth around themselves and it's hard to hear why in this first record. I saw a reunion show of the original trio circa 2004 and Clive Palmer seemed so goddamned old they pretty much had to wheel him out and prop him up --  though Wikipedia indicated he was only 61 at the time. I never did hear those C.O.B. records, maybe they're good?

16 October 2017

Inca Ore - 'Brute Nature Versus Wild Magic' (Weird Forest)

'Voices by Inca Ore', it says on the sleeve, suggesting that 100% of the sounds on here are voice, but the liners state 'All instrumentals lent by Rob Enbom'. Eva Saelens is Inca Ore and her voice is certainly the dominant centre here, but these instrumental loanings give many tracks a strong framework. That's little rhythmic plinks and plunks, guitars skittering around the place, kalimba and bells, sampled concrete elements ('Stay Wild Child'), and other small percussion. Is this all due to the generous Mr. Enbom? I don't want to diminish Saelens' vision, because she's certainly the one shaping the pieces, but there's so much more present here than her voice. That voice, on the best parts, stays away from Meredith Monk abstractisms or overly affected drone-processing for the most part. Other tracks are some excursions into pure vocal waaaaah ('The Mystery of Healing: A Guided Meditation' being a good example, though actual meditation would be pretty difficult with the thorny edges to this uneasy ebb n' flow; also side two's lengthy drone work) but feature smaller, more uniquely strange/beautiful segments as well. What we get here are actual words, fragments of language – sang at times and spoken at others – all with a demented hodge-podge assemblage. Brute Nature Versus Wild Magic is drenched in tape hiss, sounding like it was collaged together from experimental cassettes and other fragmentary explorations. The short pieces on side one have a distinctly west coast outsider feel (this is from the same universe as early Bügsküll, for sure) and there's a pleasantly 4AD-inspired take, though more like if 4AD's classic sound was patched together with Scotch tape and paperclips. The atmospherics ('Rainbows and Inca Teeth' or the aforementioned 'Mystery of Healing') are fine, lovely even, but start to pull this towards a recognisable mid-00s 'sound' (which of course this was part of); a few years after this she ended up on Not Not Fun, which was surely a suitable home for her music, but the art-damaged textual pieces are what I find the most mesmerising here. The best bits of this album I think are those, but maybe it's the way they are balanced against her soundscapes. Side two is one lengthy piece with a beautifully long title, and where voice does become front and centre, moving through a series of layered moaning movements. It's a long listen and not one I frequently go back to, though the lo-fi nature is everything and the moments where it slows and rests are the most eerily human and rewarding. Breath is behind everything here and it finalises into a repeated sense of wonder, in that Saelens is literally chanting 'Wow... wow....'. The possibilities of the human voice and some over-the-counter effects pedals are endless.