Monday, February 28, 2011

Merle Haggard - Someday We'll Look Back

Merle Mondays continue with the Hag's 1971 tour de force.  As if releasing a progressive gem in Hag earlier in the year wasn't enough, Merle saw fit to bestow upon us an even better album of bewitchingly eclectic Bakersfield country in Someday We'll Look Back.

Although my favorite side of Merle is the hard-edged Bakersfield honky-tonk sound with lots of steel guitar, I just can't fault this album (or Merle's entry in the "widest sideburn in the world" competition).  This album blends Merle's songwriting mastery (it's clear that by 1971 he'd achieved an uncommon level of assurance in his songwriting abilities) with some of his most mature vocals and a dizzying array of country blended from everything from Latin to blues on through to jazz, swing and even straight-up pop.

Though it's a mellow listen, this is classic Hag through and through--we get a dig at hippies in "Big Time Annie's Square," a badass prison song in "Huntsville" ("the man better keep both eyes on me/or they're gonna lose ol' Hag"), and some crushing heartbreak laments like "I'd Rather Be Gone."  What really tugs at my heart strings, though, is the authentic nostalgia that pervades the whole set--from the hit title track to the wistful, bittersweet imagery of "California Cottonfields," "Tulare Dust" and "One Row at a Time," Haggard has a way of sizing up his past in such a way that the emotion and sense of remembrance is overwhelming--when Merle sings "California cottonfields--as close to wealth as daddy ever came," you know he lived it.  There are Haggard albums I reach for more often, but this album is like a warm embrace from a relative you haven't seen in years.

Get it here on CD or MP3, along with the similarly strong Hag.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Third Ear Band - Third Ear Band (Review)

Third Ear Band's second album, 1970's self-titled (now sometimes retroactively titled Elements) builds on the oboe melody-led excursions of Alchemy by assigning each of its four songs to an element.  While the instrumentation is still basically the same as the debut, the songs are considerably more identifiable from each other.

Every time I listen to this album I'm amazed at how fun a listen it is without being particularly melodic--the opener, "Air" gently coalesces out of the ether based on a repetitive tabla beat and some probing oboe and cello/violin groans and fails to present any melody except for an occasionally repeated violin riff.  And yet, its smoky mystery is utterly compelling and lushly gorgeous, especially considering how few instruments produce the music.  "Earth" shifts gears completely, with the strings playing pizzicato over a much more minstrel-like beat from the drums.  Dual oboes improvise gently, probing Eastern-scales, while the tempo subtly gathers pace.  All of a sudden it's an ecstatic frenzy, then just as suddenly the tension disappears, the rhythmic pattern slightly shifts, and the process starts again.  Despite the general mood and ever-present tonal center of the music, there's no real melody to speak of--clear and quite listenable evidence that melody needn't reign supreme as the only musical element worthy of close attention.

"Fire" is a brilliant study in high-register drones and another shift in texture, with a relentless wavering feeling not unlike that of a dancing flame.  "Water" closes the album with an actual melody (imagine that) over sustained violin with just enough dissonance to remind us that we're not in any territory that had been scouted at the time of the album's release, or really a whole lot more since.  As I listen and re-listen in rapture to the strange and evocative sounds these instruments make together, I'm not always sure how the structures pertain to the elements they're named for, but in reality it's immaterial--by consciously giving each suite a distinct mood, the band stretched itself beyond its impressive but sometimes nebulous debut and gave structure to another forty odd minutes of rare beauty with memorable compositional elements.

Get it here on CD along with the band's first album.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Linda Perhacs - Parallelograms

It's hard to believe but I've had this album for about five years.  It's been interesting progressing from instantly enjoying it on first listen, driving across the Bay Bridge with Sarah in August, to returning to it again and again like an old friend--then all of a sudden I can't imagine living without it.  I hate to blaspheme, but I probably like this album as much or more than I like any one album by Joni Mitchell, to whom people most often compare Linda Perhacs.  Ok, maybe I like Blue as much, but in a different way.

The mood here is flawless--hypnotic, subtly psychedelic, simultaneously hazily nocturnal and narcotically dawn-like.  Perhacs' voice isn't quite as lithe or showy as that of similar female singers, but, more importantly, it fits the songs she's written and serves the words and atmosphere perfectly.  The album's shimmering opener sets the tone--a gently unusual fingerpicked arpeggio is soon joined by Perhacs' quietly intense, cascading multitracked vocals, which emulate the titular rain.  These elements reappear repeatedly--on "Moons and Cattails" and again on the most overtly psychedelic track, "Parallelograms," which blends another chant-like guitar figure with hypnotic vocals--the comfortably dissonant combination is shattered by hand percussion and delay-treated flutes as Perhacs' vocals sink past unintelligibly before recapitulating the original theme.

Some songs reach yearning heights over delicately understated guitar--as when Perhacs pleads, "Dolphin, take me with you..." or on the exquisite "Hey, Who Really Cares?", while elsewhere her delicate vocals convey a sense of place and sense experience that's uncanny, as on the swaying "Sandy Toes" or the almost mystically sensuous "Delicious."  The arrangements are impeccable throughout the entire album--whoever's producing knows just when to leave it to voice and guitar and when to add a reverbed guitar, a 12-string, wind instruments or some appropriate bass and ethnic drums.

Sure, it's easy to point out so-called hippie elements on this album--the amount of time spent lingering on small experiential and nature-oriented details is uncommonly high, and "Paper Mountain Man" and "Porcelain Baked Cast Iron Wedding" sound pretty late-60's.  Last time I checked, though, the value of savoring the moment didn't end with flower power.  It's too late anyway--I'm too close, it's too good.  I wouldn't change one thing about this album--it's these kinds of friendships that keep me coming back--stricken, helplessly content.

Get it here on CD and MP3.

Friday, February 25, 2011

One Tea

 ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` `

One tea shared between two cups
Separate pools, distinct
Two cups tilt--contents together
Crashing marbles, silent groans

Still two together
or now a third--discrete from one?
What force set two from one?
Moot questions, you may assert
Recombination erases any artificial identity

However, moving closer
can't you see?
Two side by side
passing under
Restless pacing

 ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` `

A new poem and song I've been performing this past month.  It's a quiet observation from my tea table.  Here's how it goes--I pour the tea from the pot into the sharing pitcher.  From there, the tea goes into two cups.  Now we have two different cups of tea--sure, it's the "same" tea, but not quite--the tea in the first cup isn't exactly the same as the second--to start with, they're in completely different vessels.  So, now the tea substance in each cup has a name--let's call them "A" and "B."  And what if I pour them back, together, into the sharing pitcher?  Does the tea return to being the exact same as before it was poured into cups and became "A" and "B"?  Is the distinction (which surely described something that was different about the two cups) so easily discarded and forgotten about?  Then I start thinking about the "A" molecules and the "B" molecules swimming, intermingling there in that pitcher.  It's happening as an utterly unmeasurable, ever-shifting dance.  The broader implications of this exercise constitute a substantial cornerstone of my worldview.  It's a good day when I can become so lost in amazement at a small's nice to have some perspective.  Oh yeah, this is also a love song describing what happens to two personalities together over time.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Peter Hammill - Over

Over is probably the Peter Hammill album that's received the most mainstream acclaim, a fact which is aided in no small part by the fact that it's the ultimate breakup album.  A fair number of critics (ah, the critics) praise Hammill's move from sci-fi existentialism to a more "mature" interpersonal lyrical bent.  This riles me for a number of reasons, chief among them being popular music's oversaturation with trite lyrics about love and breakups, and the fact that Hammill's earlier solo and Van der Graaf Generator works act as a cleansing and inspirational alternative in their passion and fascinating depth.  All value judgments regarding lyrical subjects aside, though, Over succeeds in spades at examining oft-repeated material from a fresh perspective and an honesty that makes it seem like the first breakup album ever made.

What I really love about this album is how hard on himself Hammill is--sure, there are the shallow accusations and laments that plague every breakup song, but they always sit side-by-side with Hammill's barbed, self-directed insults and self-blame.  This isn't merely a self-pity party, it's a man wrestling passionately with his mistakes in a vain effort to rise above his own faults.  In this way, Over takes the breakup beyond musical clichĂ©s--reminding us all that we're ultimately responsible for our actions--and lifts it to a level of psychological accuracy that most resembles the actual experience of an awful falling-out of any attempt that I've ever heard on record.  The emotions on this album bounce between self-pity, self-loathing, finger-pointing, outward blame, pure sorrow, confusion, anger, regret, betrayal and longing--just like you feel when a relationship disintegrates.  This turbulent stream of consciousness spans almost all of the songs (excepting the parent/child-themed "Autumn," and perhaps the ghostly "This Side of the Looking Glass," which mostly conveys despair); they could easily be strung together as one long internal dialogue.  That's not to say the songs sound samey--there's just an extremely cohesive mood.

Musically, there's much more demarcation.  Hammill's voice has filled out a little since the early 70's, though he's still capable of formidable rasps and pitch-perfect falsetto; he sounds great.  The song styles run the gamut from rockers ("Crying Wolf") to brooding acoustic numbers ("Alice [Letting Go]" and "[On Tuesdays She Used to do] Yoga") to lush, string-backed ballads ("Autumn" and "Betrayed" are like some kind of fucked-up version of Colin Blunstone's One Year) to extended, multi-part progressive suites ("Time Heals" and "Lost and Found").  Hammill's songwriting skills are in full force, and the changing instrumentation and dynamics perfectly suit his inner battles.  In the end, just like in real life, there's no true resolution--just the promise of new love and a hope that history won't completely repeat itself.

My only complaints about Over pertain to Hammill's instrumental prowess (here I'm suddenly wishing for Roy Harper's guitar abilities and Death or Glory?, my second-favorite breakup album)--if ever there were a musical visionary whose instrumental limitations necessitate compensatory collaborators, it'd be Hammill.  He comes up with fine riffs and guitar and piano figures for his songs but too often stiffly plays too many instruments by himself when his songs' creative turns are begging to have their ideas fleshed out by a more skilled guitarist and/or keyboardist--probably why Van der Graaf Generator worked so well.  Really, though, it's a minor issue as this album is a towering masterpiece of song, mood and evocation of one person's intense experience.  Over is far too complex of an album to do justice to in a few paragraphs; it's gnarled, circuitous and achingly beautiful (often in its ugliness)--time to just listen to it.

Get it here on CD, or here on MP3.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Merle Haggard - Branded Man

Yeah, that's right, there used to be such a thing as good country, and we're not talking about pill-popping tough-guy posers, we're talking about the guy who was in San Quentin for armed robbery when said legend performed there.  In spite of his heavenly pipes, Merle has always resonated with me because of his realism and authenticity--he writes and sings about what he knows, most often drinking, heartbreak and jail.

Branded Man was my first Merle Haggard album and still one of my very favorites.  Merle hits some glorious notes on this album both low (on "I Threw Away the Rose" and "Some of Us Never Learn") and high (on "Long Black Limousine" and "I Made the Prison Band").  A lot of these songs trade on the time-honored country trope of cheesy wordplay (a tradition that has somehow even remained in shitty contemporary country):  lines like "If you're trying to break my heart/You don't have very far to go" are glorious in their down-home cleverness, while elsewhere Haggard, referring to his past days of wine and roses, admits with a straight face "I kept the wine and threw away the rose."  There are many facets of this album's glory, from the track titles--some of which stand alone quite well--to the unbounded variety.  Merle goes from classic Bakersfield honky tonk to jazz to Spanish-flavored and back again in a very short time, and the Strangers have no trouble adapting to the style changes.  I swear, country music probably has the best session musicians out of any music genre.  Though there are a couple of driving Bakersfield numbers, I wouldn't mind a couple more.

Get the CD or MP3s here, on a two-for-one with I'm a Lonesome Fugitive.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron - Pieces of a Man

Although I've chosen some favorites to start off the review side of this blog, I'm unfortunately not completely in love with every album I review.  Not to say I don't enjoy this album, it's just too easy to describe the ways it doesn't fit with what I look for in this type of music and to list choices I wouldn't have made if I were the artist or producer.

Then again, it's pretty hard to fault the opening track--the one everyone thinks of when they think of Gil Scott-Heron--"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."  This is the song people are thinking of when they say Gil Scott-Heron was the first rapper (or somesuch fanfare), and it's unarguably the freshest thing on the disc with Scott-Heron's rapid-fire, cutting assessment of black America's imperatives in 1971 (as he sees it) over funky drum and bass, supported by a jazzy flute.  This is one of those cases, though, where almost all of the album is totally different from the flagship song.

The rest of Pieces of a Man sees Scott-Heron considering the state of his fellow man, often through the lens of what he's feeling about himself.  On the one hand, it's fascinating from a historical perspective--it's clear that socially-conscious black artists in the early 70's were processing their world musically in a pretty different way than their analogs do today.  The problem is that none of the other songs here capture the wit or verve of the leadoff track.  Instead of using irony to prove his point with a bit of sting, Gil seems content to rely on relentlessly earnest exposition.

This problem could be thoroughly alleviated by the music; lyrics don't get much more severe than Curtis or What's Going On, but the orchestral sweep of both albums and the frantic, redemptive highs found on the former fill the words with a sense of gravitas that overcomes the seriousness of the words.  Here we get an organic (lots of flute), jazzy type of soul that seems like it would have already fallen out of fashion by 1971.  Now, that's an artistic choice I don't totally agree with, but there are issues here that go beyond taste.  First off, Scott-Heron's voice isn't up to the challenge.  There are plenty of vocally-limited artists I love: Allen Toussaint is one, and an R&B artist.  Whereas Toussaint plays to his abilities by singing simple, catchy melodies that present him as an endearing personality, Scott-Heron attempts to hit notes and run off on flourishes that he can't nail.  Moreover, there's a distinct melodic deficit in a lot of these songs--most have at least a hook or two, sometimes around the chorus, but the verses show a pretty distinct lack of attention--like he decided on the chords but didn't bother to think about which notes he was singing as long as they fit the harmonic structure.  Perhaps less important but still irritating to me personally is that, for someone who's reputedly strongest on the lyrical/poetic side of things, Scott-Heron also pays little attention to how the meter of his words fits with the rhythm of each song, running fast to fit words in too small a space or awkwardly stretching a couple of words to fill a blank space demanded by the rather rigid, unimaginative song structures.  You can't expect the artist to cover all of these bases every time, but a good producer would have at least found one way to tighten things up a little bit.

It sounds like I really hate this album.  Not so; despite the ill-fitting music and cheese ("When You Are Who You Are," "I Think I'll Call It Morning"), there are some moments where it gels and gets worked-up the way it should--"Home is Where the Hatred Is" conjures an appropriate dark edginess, and "Pieces of a Man" overcomes its Van Morrison lounge feel to do the words justice with a pretty solid vocal performance.  Overall, Pieces of a Man is actually a pleasant listen (I actually play it fairly regularly) and a pretty cohesive album, it's just that the unique promise and potential of the first track is nowhere to be found as the album progresses.  And that, my friends, is not a classic.

Get it here--out of print, but affordable on MP3.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Roy Harper - Flat, Baroque and Berserk

Roy Harper's one of my all-time favorites, but that doesn't mean I think he's got a Midas touch.  Part of the reason why I love his music so much is because he wears his flaws on his sleeve--in many ways, he's made a career out of artistic as well as professional self-sabotage, always ready to nosedive with erratic behavior when a big break was on the way, and always quick to follow up an incisive gem of a song with a lewd throwaway.  Really, he's just like any of the rest of us, he just exemplifies what it means to be human to the utmost degree--the peaks of his greatness are shadowed equally by the troughs and valleys necessary to achieve that success, and the evidence is there in his songs and public personality for us all to see.  Part of great singer/songwriter music is coming to understand the person's deep personality, and Harper's got it in spades.  Like Robbie Basho, though, it's not always easy to hear and a lot of listeners have been turned off by his unflinching honesty.  As a songwriter, I think there's a lot to learn (obviously) from Harper's style as well as from his creative path--how his strengths have played out over a career and whether each of his experiments and artistic overreaches were worth the risk on principle alone, or when it's time to exercise restraint.  Then again, you can't win if you don't play.

Flat, Baroque and Berserk is Roy Harper's fourth album, and to me it's his first unqualified artistic success.  There are serious kinks in the first couple records with respect to production, focus and just how effectively his message is communicated, and the same can be argued of Folkjokeopus, but the blinding success of "McGoohan's Blues" still stands as a Harper classic and his first long-form triumph.  Here those issues seem to melt into the ether--gone is the dainty lo-fi folk rock of Come Out Fighting Genghis Smith (it's almost all acoustic guitar here, with the occasional acoustic wind instrument and one hard-rocker to break up the monotony), and the poetic confusion from Folkjokeopus' is trimmed away, leaving multifaceted yet economical poetry sung with Harper's very last breath--or so it would seem.

The instrumental arrangements are much simpler, showing off Roy's best guitar playing since his debut.  Snapshots like "Feeling All the Saturday," "Davey" and "Francesca" show a quietly intense mind working through mortality, aging and the (sometimes welcome) consequences of free love, and they're buoyed by Harper's distinctive fingerstyle.  Of course, his flatpicking style is equally as idiosyncratic, as we hear on the Jesus/Judas dialogue "Don't You Grieve" and the valedictory kiss-off, "Goodbye."  Even after all these years, the poetry on this disc still tantalizes--the inter-verse rhyming on "How Does it Feel" is fantastic, and there are numerous moments where he effortlessly pierces the shroud--a favorite of mine happens in "Tom Tiddler's Ground": "And you heard me say yes, but you know it's a guess/ Somebody else shouted 'No!'"

Yes, I'm aware I haven't even mentioned the obligatory mentionables--the gloriously ballsy "I Hate the White Man" was sort of an albatross around Harper's neck for years (listen to pretty much any live album to hear cries of "White Man!" from the audience).  Then there's the painful, smoldering resignation of "Another Day," graced by a really grand David Bedford string arrangement that prefigures his crucial contributions to Stormcock and Valentine.  Then, of course, the album closes with a hard rocking bang in  "Hell's Angels," where Roy's backed by (of all bands) The Nice (ugh...Keith Emerson...shudder).  While it's not quite as controversial as he may have intended, it's still a totally jarring close to a meditative album (see paragraph one) and his uncontrollable stoned laughter lets us know that the ride's only just beginning. 

Flat, Baroque and Berserk has a few less memorable moments ("Song of the Ages" in particular), but overall it's a pillar of the Harper discography and a refreshing album to return to when you want the good stuff but not the pomp of his mid-70's output.

Get it here, direct from the artist, or here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Robbie Basho - Venus in Cancer

Photobucket was scared of this photo and wouldn't let me upload it, because a naked woman = pornography.
This is easily Robbie Basho's most celebrated recording, most likely due to the tragic state of his legacy--it's one of only three (counting the fact that the entirety of The Grail and the Lotus is presented on the Guitar Soli compilation) of his original studio albums that's available today on CD.  Despite this unjust reality, Venus in Cancer is one of the better Basho albums, so we can at least be glad that what's out there does the man's contribution justice. 

In a lot of ways, I consider this album to be Robbie Basho's study in arpeggio.  Instead of the gale-force sonic flurry often heard on his earlier albums, here we get gentle, climbing guitar figures in which each individual note is audible and easy to savor.  For me, the two six-string pinnacles of Basho's Venus in Cancer style are the leadoff title track and "Kowaka d'Amour."  The former is a tentative, searching piece that sounds partly improvised--there's not necessarily an explicit melody, but the piece has an overall melodic flow and the mood progresses from mysterious to soaringly sublime at a majestic pace.  The latter song is like a darker, moodier shadow of the opener (perhaps like the astrological cover art suggests), with more of a minor, Eastern feel, but still an emphasis on space with a lot of the playing in arpeggio form.

Aside from these two brilliant solo guitar pieces, we get three vocal tunes and a 12-string instrumental.  It's customary--nay, obligatory--when writing about Robbie Basho to comment on his "love it or hate it" voice.  People love pretty guitar instrumentals, but they don't want to worry about weird.  Basho's vocal style is undeniably unconventional, but I'd argue that it's also tough to deny his ability.  If you can listen to "Eagle Sails the Blue Diamond Waters" without being moved, you've got a harder heart than I.  For me, it's not the timbre or style of Basho's voice that's an issue--I think it's marvelously unique, especially in combination with his guitar style--it's more of an issue with his poetry, which is often a bit florid (see "Wine Song").  But somehow, it all fits together here--I think "Song for the Queen" is one of the best realizations of Basho's combined guitar/vocal vision, with an aura of stately mystery that meshes well with the track's french horn and string arrangement. Out of the man's entire discography, I think the vocals work best here--far better than the less distinctive Basho Sings! and probably also even better than the vocal-heavy The Voice of the Eagle.  Regardless, Basho's vocals will probably always be bound turn off a number of those listeners who are merely looking for another John Fahey.  To the initiated, though, it's clear that Basho had a different purpose and for better or worse wasn't willing to go all-instrumental.

Venus in Cancer is a pretty good place to start with Robbie Basho--I still remember my first listen, standing out in the late summer sun painting a barn door, watching birds cross overhead and marveling at the man's passion and ability without really understanding the extent of his vision.  A lot of my favorite albums have taken years to fully appreciate, but I can still vividly remember that first unknowing encounter--this is definitely one of them. 

Out of print, but For sale used here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

This and That (The Piping of Earth)

` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` 
Adding, swelling
More in one spot
Growing, staying
Pretty much the same
Slowly, quicker
Helps if it's hot

At once--release!
In pieces small enough to have no name

Hurry, arms outstretched
Carry seeds of gold on uplifting fingers
Don't delay--to the weightless depths!
Peek with wonder
Fertile currents allow spring again!
You can know if you don't understand

Choosing, changing
Switching order
Sculpting, fleshing
Accidents become the laws
Encircling meaning
With a porous border

A shape is born!
The product falsely clarifies the cause

Hurry, arms outstretched
Carry seeds of gold on uplifting fingers
Don't delay--to the weightless depths!
Peek with wonder
Fertile currents allow spring again!
You can know if you don't understand

` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` 
This poem is about a dream I had--it was one of those dreams with very little action, but a whole lot of implicit meaning and impressionistic understanding.  I was facing a giant aquarium that was lit from the inside, full of tiny microorganisms floating around.  In the dream I remember feeling it was imperative that I get to the aquarium with what I was holding in my hands (which I knew was the beginning of a new life) so it could grow in the hot, fertile waters--and I wasn't the only one there ferrying life to the waters.

I spend a lot of In Not-Even-Anything Land trashing on our unqualified glorification of life (Hiding from Heaven and Dedicated... in particular), but this song celebrates the utterly inexplicable, microscopic transmutation that occurs when inanimate material becomes life.  Although I think we humans prize life as the ultimate good without giving much thought to the greater picture of the other amazing things going on in the universe, the beginning of life is a pretty amazing thing...just not necessarily better than something else. 

Among other things, the music experiments with ambiguous time signatures (for life's seeming randomness) and also with the guitar's timbre--I used a fine brush to play a hotly-miked guitar on the chorus to try and get ahold of the mysterious feeling the dream gave me.

New blog

With loads of help from my buddy Chelcie (take a look at her Etsy Shop) here is my new blog.  It's been an interesting but somewhat draining month playing around Seattle trying to get a couple of people interested in what I'm singing about.  With this new blog I'm planning to include a lot more writing about other people's music as well as hopefully get some YouTube videos recorded and uploaded in hopes of reaching a few more people who might be interested in the type of music I'm trying to make.  If nothing else, it'll keep my keyboard warm and it looks a whole lot better than the old blog.  Have a look around....Thanks again Chelcie!


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band - Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)

I'm totally embarrassed to admit it, but I waited to buy the last three Captain Beefheart albums until last December when I heard Don Van Vliet passed away.  After all--two of them were recorded in the 80's, which has been proven time and again as the kryptonite decade for my favorite 70's artists, and even worse for artists who were great in the 60's.  Even albums hailed as creative comebacks usually come across as pale shadows of the artist's original glory.  Rarely does it felt so good to be proven wrong.

So, after they languished on my wishlist for a couple of years I finally have a chance to listen to the Captain's last three albums, and I'm kicking myself for not getting them sooner.  Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is easily the most accessible and mainstream of the bunch, but that's not to say it's anywhere near normal--a far cry indeed from Clear Spot, which has its moments but really toes the conventionality line in comparison with some of the material here.

What strikes me most about this album is how much I hear it echoing in popular music from the past 30 years.  "Tropical Hot Dog Night," with its horns and overdriven guitar, sounds like the blueprint for nearly every single Cake song ever recorded, "Suction Prints" prefigures the downtown sound of bands like Massacre, while "Harry Irene" sounds like the kind of made-up story that continues to be Tom Waits' bread and butter.  In appropriating the Captain's growl, instrumentation and general style, though, Waits comes across as grayscale to Van Vliet's technicolor--there's shit on here that I can't even imagine he came up with, like the buzzing and bouncing "Bat Chain Puller," the epic voyage that is "Ice Rose," and the grooving "Candle Mambo."  The instrumental palette is strikingly vibrant with horns, synths and even a bit of marimba which, on paper, seems like it would be too much for Beefheart's style.  Oh yeah, let's not forget the seemingly endless number of variations in Van Vliet's vocal timbre.  And don't get me started on the wild, scattershot intensity of his words...

Fans of earlier Beefheart will have a lot to enjoy here, too.  As always, he's still got a tight connection with the blues, as on the leadoff track and things like "You Know You're a Man" and "Love Lies," and there's enough mathematically atonal guitar interplay to keep Trout Mask Replica fans drooling throughout the instrumental passages.  Most of all, this album is a hell of a lot of fun--a comeback indeed!

Get it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hiding from Heaven

Hiding from Heaven

Elbows gasping, nails bleeding—following electricity (whatever THAT is)

I fought my way out of a box to find myself in a bigger box
Then it hit me—it’s not about boxes!
They’re always collapsing—you’re always in the (W)ay

If you think you’re outside the box, then you forgot
The hardest rocks are the ones rattling round inside our heads--Dead!
I found you no longer breathing from your heels
But from your throat!

Each radical breath you take is speeding you to
The shallow grave your lungs are digging for you

It will be filled by a frail form that failed to feel the flailing madness

In the old days they called it ‘hiding from heaven’—back in the day
These days they call it “faith”

Ears sputtering, spine coughing—chased down by stars (whatever THEY are)
I sucked to empty self-fulfilling prophecies, filling my saintly virtue
Til the whole of my being leaked excess in puddles on the floor

What’s more—I awoke to find my “I”ness gone
In its place, a view through the eye of the storm

Can I trouble you to stop a sec, explain why death’s so bad
When everything that ever lived on earth is dead except for this now

Huh? Huh? Don’t make me laugh!

You reek of a living way of thinking, stinking of “human first”—“life as good”

You’re clawing forward as you fall back instead of graciously giving yourself to
A deep grave, gallantly going on with the great game, gulping gutfuls of ground
Grasp the gatekeeper’s grip when you gasp in a new way

In the old days they called it “hiding from heaven”—back in the day
These days they call it “salvation”

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Before I launch into what’s likely to be another tiresome rant, let me just comment on that very subject. This is the reason I love and MUST practice music and songwriting. You can discuss these things with prose, but you’ll never achieve the thrill of understanding the same (or many more) ideas from only five, well-chosen and aesthetically appealing words. You can write poems about these ideas, but you can never feel the same sublime, soaring feeling or crushing weight without the addition of music and at least one singing human voice. There’s something irreplaceable in that combination, and the coalescence of popular music’s conciseness and accessibility with high art’s depth, audacity and range of emotion is dizzyingly intoxicating—a vein that I can see myself mining for the rest of my days. So, I’ll try to explain myself in these entries, but only for those interested in a different perspective on the sounds than they’ve already provided themselves, and also, personally, to help me understand what I actually think myself.

Out of these 11 songs, “Hiding from Heaven” is unequivocally my baby…a “Rosemary’s” baby of sorts, but no less loved for it. Ever since it began its 2+ year gestation period on the back patio of the farm as an enormous, serpentine, wonky poem, this song has constantly harassed my thoughts. It took two years before I had fit the entire asymmetrical shape of the poem to music, and when it came to recording, “Hiding from Heaven” was the first song I started in November and one of the last ones finished in early April (most of the songs took 1-2 hours to mix, this one took over 4). A lot of thoughts were expended on how best to translate the booming din I’d been hearing in my head into a thing of dark, terrible majesty (insert “yeah, Elliot, it really is TERRIBLE” joke here) and you can rest assured I started feeling sympathetic pangs of the song’s professed madness in the process.

Musically, the song is a culmination of a large number of influences, tempered with a sense of my own personality. Despite its length, the song moves quickly and often abruptly between different musical sections—from the dissonant and odd-metered intro to the spacious first vocal section, the proggy breakdown, etc. I’ve tried my hardest to populate this song with guitar riffs and leads that other players will appreciate, but also that don’t tread the same ground too many times, playing with the song’s themes, dissonance, listener expectations and musical styles. A lot of these parts didn’t seem humanly possible when I started attempting takes, so hopefully that’s a good sign…most importantly, though, they strive to support the song’s overarching ideas. This principle has been crucial for all of these songs, but “Hiding from Heaven” required even more reaching on my part to bring the ideas to fruition—I used (but by no means invented) a few different techniques to get uncommon sounds out of the guitar. The eerie sustained notes at 1:45 are produced by a rubbing/tapping a steel slide on the strings; the single notes with the high-pitched texture around 3:10 come from scraping the pick perpendicularly against the strings windings instead of plucking. Finally, I couldn’t have realized my ideals for this song if my voice hadn’t gotten better. The theatrics you already heard in “No More” are turned up a notch in so many ways and the emotional brunt of the poem required a number of different singing styles and moments of strangeness and wildness to illustrate its intensity. I mention all of this out of a sense of accomplishment, but also to give you an idea of just how obsessively hard I worked to make this song sound how it does.

Lyrically, this is a long and complicated song. It’s heavily influenced by the ideas of and uses a few images from the ancient Taoist text, the Chuang-Tzu to illustrate a feverishly personal mind journey. You know you’re in for a fun time when a song starts with sensory dissociation and disbelief in such “comprehensible” and “tangible” items as electricity and stars…teetering on the edge. The one thing I keep thinking of when rounding up my thoughts for this note is Thomas Paine’s revolutionary “Common Sense” pamphlet—“Hiding from Heaven” means ignoring common sense—the way things simply are—attempting to circumvent demonstrable reality in favor of a coddling lollipop philosophy that panders to our most selfish indulgences. In my opinion, the major religious traditions offered in the world’s marketplace today offer solutions to undeniable human needs that insult our progress as thinking beings. Despite everything our science, art and long historical record has shown us, the best we can come up with is still an anthropomorphized “god” who created everything and will reward us with an eternal “after”life that fulfills all of our creature wants and pacifies all of our living fears—that is, only if we follow the arbitrary system of morality in the book that He (never She) wrote! Please! First of all, our infinitesimal scientific knowledge about the vastness of the universe, physics and biology here on earth demonstrate that a human-centric vision of the universe is a laughable proposition—on top of that, an omnipotent god that looks like a human and any system that is so clearly tailored to compensate for and satisfy human-only desires can only be human creations. Secondly, the justification for this system can be distilled to just one element—fear: fear of not having enough to eat, fear of physical pain, fear of losing loved ones, and fear of the inexplicable experience of death. These fears are entirely reasonable aspects of the human condition, but I think that we, as thinking creatures, deserve a better response than the utter fantasy that is fed to us by the religious institutions who can’t see beyond their own experience of power. There are currently a lot of social and environmental threats to our human world, but we can’t fight them effectively if we don’t address the fundamental ways of thinking that spawn them.

In spite of the above, this song isn’t merely another attempt to tear down organized religion—all you need for that is a bit of common sense, and it’s been done eloquently and effectively many times in the past 200+ years, regardless of whether or not the masses have climbed on board. Rather, it’s an attempt to address the same base human dilemmas in a way that takes into account our current advances (which should be obvious enough to be taken for granted) and reaches beyond to the unknowable to postulate a meaning—a rational mystic’s rally call. Sure, it’s much more difficult than jumping through moral hoops for a pie in the sky, but it’s ultimately a lot more rewarding and realistic.

Achievement of this sort of reconciliation not only requires abandonment of the status quo, but also engagement of our mystical potential (see “Head in the Clouds,” which also cautions against over-rationalization)—it requires intuitive experience of the Tao—(a descriptor for) the ineffable, indescribable, incomprehensible, inhuman, infinite and chaotic way the universe operates and is. For me personally, this process was a turbulent one that included several points of despair. When it comes to conjuring visions of the holistic nature of the universe, there’s a fine line between despair and ecstasy—easing the attachment to the knee-jerk ego response and ultimately abandoning the arrogance of any sense of human importance in the universe eventually replaces fear and despair with serene calmness and even sublime ecstasy. It’s not the human that takes first place, but the awe-inspiring, all-inclusive storm of the universe, from which we’re kidding ourselves if we say we’re separate. Death of a living organism is just one of incalculable aspects of the universe, and seen in such a vast perspective isn’t very dramatic at all. As the only living creatures (we’re aware of) that have the ability to contemplate the void, death is less of a loss of our beloved senses to be feared, and more of a reunification with the one to be anticipated when the time comes—to me a concept much more empowering, exciting and “other” than an eternity of sensory fulfillment on a cloud. So, despite the song’s foreboding atmosphere, the message is ultimately a positive (if challenging) one. Oh, and just remember—these are all opinions.

There, I finally got some ideas across without explaining the song line by line! I am pretty satisfied with the aesthetics of this song, though, and if you’ll indulge my hubris I’ll mention a line that indicates the layered detail that went into the word choice for the whole poem: “I sucked to empty self-fulfilling prophecies, filling my saintly virtue/till the whole of my being leaked excess in puddles on the floor,” which can be variously taken to mean “I sucked” (in the parlance of our time), “I sucked/latched [on]to self-fulfilling prophecies that were empty,” and “I sucked self-fulfilling prophecies until they were empty.”

Not sure how much I like this professor Elliot…luckily tomorrow’s song doesn’t require his services in the least, and he won’t be coming back in this capacity any time soon.