Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fred Frith - Gravity

Gravity, Fred Frith's first post-Henry Cow solo outing, is an album positively packed with ideas.  From its through-and-through dance/rhythm concept, to the dizzying array of styles presented by each song, to the mottled textures of Frith's fantastically wrinkly songs to the man's all-over-the-place guitar playing, a lesser group would have make a career's worth of albums out of the ideas present on just half of these songs. 

The songs presented here tread middle-Eastern themes and modes ("Hands of the Juggler"), Scandanavian and British folk ("Don't Cry For Me" and "A Career in Real Estate," respectively), as well as more familiar Frith subjects like melodic jazz (on "Spring Any Day Now" I could swear he single-handedly created the template for all Nintendo music to come) and the avant-garde ("Year of the Monkey," "Crack in the Concrete").  We also get a taste of classic Canterbury humor with a totally wonky-melodied but somehow recognizable rendition of "Dancing in the Street."

I think what sets this apart from other 80's (and beyond) Fred Frith albums is the driving energy, which must in part be attributed to the backing bands--Samla Mammas Manna on the A-Side and the Muffins on the B-Side--who lend able, ballsy and often manic flesh to the bones of Frith's compositions.  Additionally, it's probably the highest concentration of pure guitar shredding ever collected on one Fred Frith album (including his solo guitar albums)--the avant-garde rock songs here have some of the most complex riffs, lead lines and soloing I've ever heard the man play, and considering the rest of the projects he's been involved in, that's really saying something.  Songs like "Norrgarden Nyvla," with its majestic-turned-insane distortion-soaked lead lines contrast yet sit perfectly comfortably near the clean Massacre-esque riffing and unbalanced sliding he pulls of on "Slap Dance."

At times the music gets quite atonal and almost mathematical in its composition (though Frith's kind of atonality rivals Captain Beefheart's in its sense of melody), but somehow it's more listenable (if still quite busy) than a lot of other avant-garde music--even examples from Frith's own canon.  Probably its greatest asset is its sense of humor and the aura of fun surrounding the whole album--a sense of humor that was surely lacking from the final days of Henry Cow and the entirety of the Art Bears project.  To hear this album immediately after Western Culture is to believe against plain evidence that avant-garde can be fun.

Get the CD here.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bonne Idée

Here's an even more informal, opinion-based collection of thoughts about music-making and music-evaluating.  I'm not sure I really have a specific argument to make--rather, I think it'll be more of an exploration of what's meant by the word "idea" when it comes to music, how ideas fit into my evaluation of and preferences for certain types of music (remember, it's only my opinion), and some of the ways ideas figure into the challenge of remaining vital as a musical artist across time.

For a word that everyone knows, "idea" can have quite a multitude of meanings when it comes to music.  Ostensibly, a musical idea is the same as any other type of idea--a thought or concept that is unique,  novel, interesting, or in some way memorable.  When it comes to music, though, there are myriad different ways an idea can take shape and affect the final product.  For starters, I propose that, in the context of a pop song, an "idea" and a "hook" are roughly the same thing.  A hook, as you likely know, is the elusive jewel that all pop songsmiths are constantly in search of.  A hook is that catchy riff (like Keith Richards' "Satisfaction" guitar riff)

Friday, March 25, 2011

We'll Be All Right

Flowers're pretty

` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` `  
Can you sing a song in a whispery voice
About your big love as if you were the first?
Can you do it all cute, like you don't have a choice?
If you can be bad, but not quite the worst

You'll be all right
The poor kids'll listen (they don't know any better)

Can you dress for your gig with an old-timey twang?
Just like the old days, but a little bit cleaner
Can you parrot the songs that your dead heroes sang?
If you can sing it all sweet when they would have been meaner

You'll be OK
The condo people'll like you

Can you sing a song that'll make us forget
The big problems and make our small ones seem strange?
Don't show us any ideas we haven't seen yet
If you can assure us that nothing should change

You'll do just fine
The baby people'll love you

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

This is a tongue-in-cheek but rather derisive song about some current trends in music.  Specifically, it's directed at the type of breathy "Americana" acts (and their liberal-yet-complacent audience) whose idea of creativity seems to be aping Nick Drake and creating music so predictable, so lowest-common-denominator and unchallenging that it apologizes for even being audible.  That, or they're sterilely covering folk songs note-for-note in anachronistic getups, trying to trick us into believing it's not 2011 (sorry, but your Iron and Wine arrangement was a dead giveaway).  Surely we can set our sights a little higher.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Taj Mahal Travellers - August 1974

Taj Mahal Travellers has nothing to do with American blues rock, or anything to do with the Indian mausoleum, for that matter--they're Japanese.  This is another great example of music that should not be judged by traditional aesthetic standards as well as a good comparison/contrast to the AMM album I wrote about earlier this week.

The particulars of this music are actually easy to describe--few instruments are usually playing at the same time, there's little in the way of tonal development, and it's quite repetitive.  Though each track fades out at the end, it appears to be a continuously-recorded performance.  The backbone of the group's sound is drone; the recording moves incredibly slowly and deals with huge blocks of tone.  For instance, at the album's outset the main drone is a bowed electric guitar, which plays more or less continuously on the same note while hand percussion, wooden xylophone, synthesizer, some sort of brass instrument, harmonica and voices all fade in and out.  The instruments make and repeat short statements, or they let loose long threads of tone, layering with the guitar (for now) into the texture of the overall drone.  Add to the list of instruments a few traditional Japanese instruments and a violin and you've basically got the sonic palette for the whole album, and it's a double.

Yes, it's easy to describe what's being done for over 80 minutes worth of music, and yet, when it comes to describing just why this album is so righteously awesome, the right words just can't be found.  Though the style of music is totally different, on one level this album is strongly reminiscent of Miles Davis' On The Corner.  At any given time, there aren't really that many instruments playing, but if you pay attention you start to notice that an instrument will appear in the mix, hang around for a few minutes then fade out just as delicately as it originally appeared, contributing a texture or color to the sound without altering the overall mood.  After a while, though, you might notice that none of the instruments that were playing 20 minutes ago are still playing.  The overall mood and quality of the sound moves similarly, changing slowly and subtly but hitting a few fairly distinctive areas over the course of the album.  My favorite passage happens about a third of the way through the second track, where the layered wordless voices and dulcimer-like Japanese folk instruments reach a soaring, epic swell.  The third track has some pretty awesome primal percussion/synth jams, and the fourth has a lot of delay-treated violin.  This is one of my favorite mood-centric albums--the overall feeling is mysterious, cathartic, and at times pretty weird.  While it's pretty moody, it's not really too dark, and it functions equally well as a meditative soundtrack as it does for close-listening.  The emphasis on shifting texture, the change between spaciousness and thick soundscapes, and especially the sound-exaltation that's possible when you really lose yourself in the timbre of the droning instruments offers an experience unlike a lot of mainstream music, but at the same time fairly accessible.  It's not quite as sonically-challenging as the less-repetitious and more freely-atonal works of a group like AMM, but this (and their strongly-recommended first album) demonstrates that experiments with free improvisation can deliver widely differing but similarly rewarding results.

This album is out of print...find it here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Come November

` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` 
Come November,
I need someone who'll pander to my beliefs
In brief--
If he wants my vote, rote memorization of newscast persuasions won't do
True, they can be compelling but selling's not always the top goal
                                          --full stop (whole)
I'm afraid we disagree

I want someone who's said, instead of
"God bless us,"
"Maybe our messes stem from our own hands."
Grand speeches reach us, teach us false pride
While others deride what our real progress lacks

I need somebody who knows some wars aren't
worth beginning (or winning)
Who knows that a rifle and a contract a hero
do not necessarily make
Take, for example the so-called bravery
of slavery to flags and empty ideals
that steal your days to pay the already rich
                                            --you were tricked!

Please, show me someone whose thoughts aren't bought
by the sheen of a preening wool-pulling machine
Whose spleen stomachs all sides
not non-sides of meaning
manufactured for our end

Send someone quick who's not too thick to shout:
"The more we know, the less it shows!"
Whose throat parches at our sleepwalk forced marches--
Our arms raised, bills brandished in bare fists
kissed by the flaccid promise of
satisfaction from checking purchases off a perpetual list
                                             --will you ever get pissed?!

I need someone who's aware change doesn't happen
in two- four- and six-year increments
Whose implements and wisdom are unhurried
Who's worried, to boot
that the root's that there's more new ones breathing 
than older ones leaving

I need someone who doesn't exist
If you need me, 
I'll be dangling my feet in the water,
my slaughtered ballot already confetti
in the victorious breeze

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

An uncommonly political song for me (though the conclusions are perhaps familiar) and a solid step forward on the poetry side of things.  I've been having lots of fun lately getting more and more fluid with rhyming--both in placement and how accurate/imperfect the rhyme is--and this song is the tip of the iceberg.  The process has been freeing, allowing for some associative ideas to arise unexpectedly, though at times to the extent that the resulting poems are totally unfit to accompany songs.  I wasn't sure if I could do it with this one, but it's actually been fun performing the serpentine thing.  There is no structure other than a repeating melodic motif, though it's fairly firmly in a single key--you'll forgive a few departures, right?  I'm going to try not to beat these things to death and make people work a little harder, but I will say that I couldn't resist intentionally mixing a couple of bodily metaphors.  Bad poetry--C minus.

Monday, March 21, 2011

AMM - Generative Themes

AMM are the perfect group to bring up after part two of the essay I just posted, and Generative Themes is as good an album of theirs as I could hope to choose for an auditory example of some of the ideas discussed therein.  AMM was formed in 1965 with the stated intent to make music completely unrelated to any established genre.  By 1983 they'd gone through quite a few lineup changes but their group aesthetic had progressed somewhat close to the realm that they currently inhabit--free improvisation with a somewhat meditative feel, occasionally punctuated by noisy outbursts.

Generative Themes is a bit of an unusual AMM album because it's a studio recording--for this reason, it's made up of four discrete tracks instead of a single album-length track or an entire performance split up into gapless tracks for navigation purposes.  I'll be up-front--this is one of my favorite AMM albums (though I do have several favorites).  It's the first AMM album to feature pianist John Tilbury (a member to present day) and also the first to be saxophone-free.  The result is a somewhat intelligible mix of Keith Rowe's tabletop guitar and radio tuner, Eddie Prévost's percussion and Tilbury's prepared piano--for the most part each instrument is distinct and the personality of each performer is somewhat apparent, at least to a much greater extent than on the gloriously cacophonous AMMMusic or The Crypt.

Due to the nature of the album's recording, it's possible (though not necessarily obligatory) to make statements about each track as individual "themes."  The first is reminiscent of somewhat quieter early AMM--Rowe's guitar creates a gently percussive droning atmosphere, like he's dragging a pick (though it's likely something else) slowly across the coils of the strings.  Inaudible radio lurks in the background, with the occasional word or phrase popping out into the space left by the musicians.  Eventually Prévost joins in with toms and cymbals, and Tilbury makes some opening statements with the piano--the prepared instrument sounds at times more like a wooden xylophone than a piano--it's otherworldly.  The second theme finds Rowe conjuring more uncommon sounds out of his guitar, with repetitive waggling noises and some liquidy but tuneless drones (sorry, this is the best way I can describe it).  The overall texture of the track is dynamic, with lots of spaces between the piano notes and drum beats--sort of like popcorn popping, but much more engaging.  After listening to a lot of more recent AMM albums, it's a fun change to hear Prévost playing like an actual drummer--the track winds together on the last couple of minutes into as close of a groove as AMM probably ever get, with delightfully wonky beats on the drums and some aggressive keys from Tilbury. The third theme is more brooding, with some great Rowe radio moments (at one point a child's voice audibly calls "It's a pie--it's hot!"), and Tilbury playing low on the keyboard's register.  There's still plenty of space between short bursts of sound--the texture is mottled, almost playful, at times.  The final theme conjures some of the early AMM spirit--some serious noise happens, with a barrage of radio ("the GEEK"), lots of tom and cymbal work from Prévost, thick clusters on the piano, and some wild, overdriven guitar squalls.  Just five minutes before the end, the clouds break and things quiet down--the space returns, leaving pause for thought and the occasional brief noisy surprise from drum or piano.

Because of its abstractness, it's tough to write about this kind of music in any great detail, but among the AMM canon I think Generative Themes presents a pretty balanced amount of each personality as well as a good mix of old AMM/new AMM, quiet/loud, spaciousness/density, fast/slow, and the ever-present (yet easily-forgotten) element of chance--things lined up quite well, from Rowe's blind radio pulls to the collective teetering grooves which develop only to quickly disappear.  This would make a good first exposure to AMM. 

Get 'er here from the label, or from Amazon: Generative Themes.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways - Part 2

Before delving into the more elemental aesthetic elements, I’d like to propose that the deconstruction of and experimentation with the aforementioned aesthetic elements creates an enormous pool of aesthetic possibilities for expanded enjoyment.  Predictably, engagement with the central pillars of melody, harmony and structure present the most wide-reaching potential for experimentation.  Atonality—the partial or complete abandonment of traditional melodic and harmonic structure—is probably the single largest tool in deconstructing melody and harmony.  Atonal music is capable of flouting every single rule and expectation that comes with traditional harmony, bringing with it a vast freedom on the part of the musician or composer.  With this freedom, though, comes the undeniable fact that the resulting music contravenes the sonic expectations of most listeners—dissonance becomes the norm, and the unfamiliar harmonic structure can be difficult to assimilate.  Likewise, deconstruction of basic structure can also lead to extreme freedom but potential pitfalls in terms of accessibility.  Progressive rock pioneers of the 1970’s stretched the boundaries of traditional rock structure by writing extended,

Friday, March 18, 2011

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways - Part 1

Before I start reviewing some of the less…conventional…albums I’ve come across, I think it’s time for a bit of an informal essay on the subject I’ve been putting off for a while—to the point that it’s prevented me from writing about a few different groups and albums whose style requires a proper introduction.  Since this piece is more a collection of thoughts on a rather intangible subject, I won’t be providing a whole lot of references.  More likely, I’ll make reference to certain aesthetic components mentioned here as I review more albums, providing aural examples that correspond to the concepts.  Most of what I’m going to discuss here is old news from a music history perspective, and I don’t pretend to have said anything for the first time, though I am using my own words.  Rather, I intend to express a subjective opinion as a music lover and musician regarding music’s full aesthetic potential and argue against the deliberate limitation that seems to dominate the musical landscape as much as a century after these creative advances have been made.
This piece is not meant to systematically map the aesthetics of music with words (a fool’s errand), nor is it an attempt to confine musical pleasures to the topics and categories I mention.  Instead, I hope it will identify and illuminate some of the facets of music in which we habitually (but perhaps unconsciously) take pleasure.  Words will always be an inadequate tool when it comes to completely describing something as elusive as music, but an attempt at articulation can only make for clearer communication and a better (if imperfect) understanding of the subject.  From there, I’ll explore the slightly different but equally compelling

Monday, March 14, 2011

Merle Haggard - Sing Me Back Home

As whole albums go, Sing Me Back Home is a relatively minor entry into Merle Haggard's early catalog.  Most of the early Capitol Hag albums are built around a hit, a few potential hits, and some filler.  While you can't name a 60's Merle Haggard album that I don't enjoy from beginning to end, it's true that the good stuff is more concentrated on some albums than it is on others.  In other words, an album stands or falls based on the quality of the filler, and Sing Me Back Home has quite a bit more filler than it has potential hits.

The title track is nice and solid--stately and emotional, with a sort of anthemic quality that's a new thing for Haggard at this point in his career.  There are a couple of good drinking songs--"Wine Take Me Away" and the heartbroken "I'll Leave the Bottle On the Bar," as well as the catchy mid-tempo "Where Does the Good Times Go?"  "Seeing Eye Dog" is the most Bakersfield-sounding track on the disc and probably my favorite, with a pounding tempo, nimble steel guitar and some powerful vocals from Merle.  Add to the list the well-handled novelty tune "Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp" (it's a surprisingly jolly tune about an abandoned single mother who provides for her 14 children by becoming a prostitute) and you've hit the album's brightest spots, songwriting-wise.  Elsewhere Merle mines the songs of his Bakersfield forbears, with the somewhat out-of-place "Mom and Dad's Waltz" and tosses off the similar yet similarly out-of-place "Home is Where a Kid Grows Up." Songs like "Look Over Me," "If You See My Baby" and "My Past is Present" lack the wit, verve and hooks of their like on earlier Hag albums, though there's nothing objectively wrong with them.

Still, Sing Me Back Home is an enjoyable listen irrespective of the quality of the individual songs--the production is sterling, with a lot of close-miked guitars, drum kits and backing vocals, and Merle's vocals are worth paying close attention to for an entire listen for the depth of nuance and subtle emotion; he's not quite singing the phone book, but it's clear that his (and his band's) abilities as performers are capable of elevating material much higher than its weaknesses would seem to allow.

Get it here on CD or MP3.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Davy Graham - Large As Life and Twice As Natural

Time to turn our probing ears to another unjustly-overlooked guitarist.  Today, few have even heard of Davy Graham, but he's unanimously considered "important" by those who have--a host of better-known performers and guitarists are quick to drop his name (Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, John Martyn, Paul Simon, Ralph McTell, Roy Harper, Jimmy Page, Martin Carthy, the list goes on...) as the most adventurous and eclectic guitarist of the early 60's English folk revival, yet his actual work remains painfully obscure (though thankfully currently in print).

Davy Graham's fourth LP, Large As Life and Twice As Natural (genius title!) presents equal justification for his esteemed reputation it does evidence for his failure to achieve commercial success.  The solo guitar "Tristano" reveals Graham as a virtuoso of the truest stripe, capable of seamless transition between (or simultaneous juggling of both) rhythm and lead parts, while the song itself fuses jazz, blues, folk and middle-Eastern modalities in a way that nobody in the mid-60's could have even imagined.  That's how Davy is usually described by the converted--a loner whose penchant for world-traveling gave him an untouchable breadth of experience which, combined with his seemingly boundless imagination and ungodly chops, meant he was fusing Irish folk songs with Indian ragas and Eastern-izing obscure blues songs (by all accounts he invented DADGAD guitar tuning) while his later followers were aping Anthology of American Folk Music standards and worshiping Dylan.  In reality, though, very little of Graham's recorded output consists of solo guitar, which I think might have played a role in his commercial difficulties.

More representative of Davy's standard MO would be his expansive reading of classic British folk song "Bruton Town," where the guitar flits jazzily around the traditional melody, refusing to adhere to traditional folk rules.  Graham's voice is probably his greatest limitation--not bad (I actually enjoy it) but certainly not traditionally "beautiful" or as marketable as his guitar abilities.  Likewise, "Both Sides Now" is a revelatory opener--its languorous, modal opening makes you wonder if this is actually the same "Both Sides Now" you thought it was, then BAM!  The bass and drums kick in and Davy presents us with an uncannily energetic and imaginative reading of Joni Mitchell's oft-covered standard.  The cacophonous rhythm section ably handles the eclectic mix of styles present here (Pentangle's Danny Thompson has got to be one of the best session bassists of the time period), bringing lots of ethnic flair to the Eastern songs (the major-key "Sunshine Raga" and minor-key "Blue Raga," as well as the hypnotic "Jenra") and provide a suitably grinding bottom to the  blues numbers ("Freight Train Blues" has some awesome cymbal work and Davy's singing is pretty rocking).

The whole album feels like it was recorded live (there are plenty of vocal imperfections and loose improvisation to attest to this observation) and the sound is great--nobody else's guitar sounded like Graham's.  The commercial flaws of the albums can be seen a mile off, though--it's neither folk (too experimental and eclectic) nor folk-rock (too jazzy and accoustic), and it's got nothing to do with psychedelia (apart from the delirium-inducing guitar excursions), which was the rage in 1968--how do you market that, and to whom?  Perhaps Davy's eclecticism became his career's undoing (deliberately becoming addicted to heroin in order to emulate his jazz idols probably didn't help either) but for me it's the best thing about him--you never know where the next song is going and his playing is full of surprises both compositionally and technically.  Here Graham might not quite fuse as many genres within the same song as he does on Folk, Blues and Beyond, but it's a fine representation of his style and contains some career highlights. 

I couldn't resist including this shot from the album notes--what a cigarillo-smoking, big straw hat-wearing ladies man.  Thanks Davy. Get the CD here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Merle Haggard - Strangers

Take a look at Merle Haggard on 1965's Strangers: even with that silly tie and leaning on that tiny guitar, he already knows he's a badass.  As might be expected, though, the full flower of Merle's greatness hasn't quite bloomed on this, his debut.  To my ears the reason is a combination of production/style and material.  It's pretty clear that Merle's being pitched as more of a crooner, with an emphasis on ballads and smooth melodies--too often the arrangements include big string arrangements and Nashville Patsy Cline-style backup singers, and the amount of reverb would suggest that Merle was performing inside a cave.  In retrospect it's easy to criticize the production choices, but it's worth mentioning that the more muscular Bakersfield brand of country that became Merle's signature was still in its very early stages in 1965--though Together Again/My Heart Skips A Beat had already been released in '64, there wasn't much precedent for the Bakersfield lightning bolt Haggard was about to call down in 1966's Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down.

So, that brings us to the material.  There are a handful of good-to-very-good songs, my favorites being "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can" (or my name ain't Merle), the ridiculously awesome vocal on "Sing A Sad Song" (probably the only place where the crooner image actually fits), the title track, and "You Don't Have Very Far To Go" (for some reason Merle's recorded this song on at least three studio albums; my favorite version is on Branded Man).  Oh yeah, we also get a dynamite song title--"The Worst is Yet to Come."  There are a few bombs, too, like the novelty tune "Sam Hill," and a few bland ballads like "Falling for You" and "You Don't Even Try."  Merle's signature writing style was on its way to fulfillment, but he's only got writing credit on half of the songs, and it's pretty clear he didn't pick all of the covers (a glance at later albums' writing credits reveals that Merle had really good taste in filler; that's why the albums are so good).  Instead of a classic Hag album, we get a soft launch;   Strangers is a pleasant enough listen but I'm always left thirsting for a little more energy or a little bit better writing.  Thankfully the next nine albums of originals deliver better on both counts every single time.

Get it here in CD or MP3, along with the immortal Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Gene Clark - White Light

This album is probably one of those to which I've become too close to properly review.  I've listened to the whole thing upwards of 35 times, according to iTunes, to the point that the songs are totally ingrained into the fabric of who I am.  Like Linda Perhacs' Parallelagrams, I still remember the first time I listened to it about five years ago, sitting there still on my bed, not doing anything else.  40 minutes seems like a long time when you're just sitting there focusing on an album you've never heard before, and I remember thinking "Huh," when the album finished--neither impressed nor displeased.  That's the beauty of Gene Clark--it's a "huh" the first time you listen, then gradually it's an "oh my god this is awesome" as the plays increase.  I know some No Other fans find this album boring, but I can't see why, other than that the instrumentation is less ornate and there's perhaps a little bit less drama.

To me, this album is perfect singer/songwriter, through and through.  Gene's voice is so achingly plaintive, his words are deceptively simple the mood is meditative, and the playing is ear-catching enough to reward attention but never overshadows the songs.  A lot of the credit's probably due to producer/guitarist Jesse Davis, whose subtly deft, wrinkled arrangements reward multiple listens and whose slide guitar backs many of the tracks with the slightest bit of muscle.

The love songs here are tough to match anywhere--"With Tomorrow," just Gene and his guitar, subtly slays, with Clark imortally intoning "it was more like a dream than reality/I must have thought it was a dream when you were here with me" that marks the maturation of the "less-is-more" ethos that made "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" the best Byrds song on record.  Likewise, the slow-burning "Because of You" is pure emotion, founded on a subtly catchy guitar riff and lifted into the clouds with some atmospheric organ work.

My favorite tracks, though, come from Clark's more inscrutable side.  That Gene Clark was a mystic I have no doubt--it's pretty clear from No Other's torturous catharsis--but here we have an even quieter type of probing the beyond.  The rapturous "White Light" portrays the mystical experience like some sort of back porch hoedown (my heart always pounds when he joyously calls out "white light"), while the waltzing "For A Spanish Guitar" finds Gene in the ages-old struggle between a man's sense of self and...everything else.  The most glorious thing about this is it's not a description, not an explanation--it's just Clark expressing this quiet, ineffable combat as if he were just talking to himself (we'll forgive him the misuse of the word "whom").  To me, the album's production mimics the same ineffability--just the way it sounds feels so good (seriously, the opening five seconds are like a gust of warm air).

The album ends with a Dylan cover (ironic, considering that the music could easily be described as "Dylanesque" but that it also transcends the trappings of Dylan's writing style) and the entirely impenetrable rocker "1975;" I've talked with a few people who find this album boring--so it may be, but such a judgment should be made after at least a few close listens.  I don't think I've ever been bowled over by a Gene Clark album on first listen, but I can think of at least three that will remain safe in my cold dead clutches.  For those of us with sympathetic tastes, White Light is an unassuming masterpiece of form and performance and a lifelong companion.

Get it here on CD or MP3, with bonus tracks.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Soft Machine - Third

I've been thinking and thinking about which album I should review in order to broach the subject of the Canterbury scene--something quintessentially Canterbury, exhibiting all of the hallmark characteristics.  Ultimately, I'm not sure that's quite possible--there are albums that seem textbook Canterbury but aren't really that great, don't feature any of the important Canterbury musicians, or are just too obscure to introduce a phenomenon that's simultaneously a scene built around specific bands and people, but also a genre and approach to music that's ultimately transce.nded its origins to produce a lot of great music that has absolutely no connection to the original scene.  So, instead of attempting to find the Canterbury exemplar, I've decided to just pick one of the very best albums by arguably the most well-known Canterbury band--Soft Machine's Third.

On Third, Soft Machine became something very different from what they were on their first album (an organ-driven jazzy psychedelic pop group) as well as their second (an even more abstruse psychedelic group augmented by jazz instrumentation)--on Third, Soft Machine became something more like a jazz combo playing a more serious and epic version of what they played on Volume Two.  It's early jazz-rock fusion of an undeniably British stripe--the booty-shaking Afro-American elements that drove the seminal fusion behind Bitches Brew is nowhere to be found, replaced instead by some sort of dark, intellectual, avant-garde European sensibility.

Take the Hugh Hopper-penned opening track, "Facelift," for instance.  The live-recorded behemoth of a song opens with Mike Ratledge's outrageously overdriven organ (a classic Canterbury element) in a flagrant barrage of sound--it's arrhythmic, amelodic and fucking righteous--it's not notes, it's sound.  Say what you will about overintellectualization robbing "rock" music of its bestial nature, there's something primal in the howl and shrieks that Ratledge calls out of that thing that destroys the system in a whole other way.  It's a good six minutes before the lurking horns fall in step and state the song's main theme over Hopper's fuzz bass (another Canterbury staple).  The melody is a thing of dark imperial grandeur, threatening and tense, suddenly shattering into a driving rock beat, with Elton Dean's saxophone battling with Ratledge's organ for shrieking supremacy.  Through some clever editing (this is a live concert, remember) we cut away to Ratledge on a hypnotic electric piano vamp that prefigures Hopper's 1984 album.  A forboding flute solo, then the whole thing slowly builds back into the main theme, suddenly run backward and the song closes with analog tape squeals.  We're already a long way from home--the last vestiges of pop instincts of Volume Two have been sacrificed to the jazz gods--and what a ritual it is, with some crushing solos from Ratledge, Dean and Caravan's Jimmy Hastings on flute; the free jazz influence here is much stronger than ever before, with texture and chops reigning supreme.  Robert Wyatt, that most-celebrated of Canterbury figures, "only" plays the drums, effortlessly making the complex changes and driving the whole beast forward with imagination and verve.

"Slightly All the Time" lightens up just a bit, built on songwriter Ratledge's odd-metered electric piano riffs' interplay with Hopper's looping bass intervals.  Wyatt shines several times on cymbals.  The multi-part song treads some slow-groove territory and abruptly shifts between hypnotic vamps and manic "The Price Is Right Theme Song From Hell" excursions.  Just when you think the group's diving undersea to Sun Ra's Atlantis, "Moon In June" comes along--Robert Wyatt's thin, high, lispy vocals remind us where the band came from.  The album's third epic suite combines Wyatt's playful whimsy (another Canterbury cornerstone) with the band's newer experimental bent, soon wheeling away from Wyatt's vocal meanderings to fast riffing to a warped soundworld of slowed-down tapes, skittering violin and Wyatt's wordless voice blending with the other unrecognizable instruments as the thing rumbles to a close.

The double album finishes on the dreamiest number of the bunch, "Out-Bloody-Rageous."  Again, it's more about sound, timbre and texture as several minutes of delay keyboard collage bookend the extended suite, also appearing at the midpoint.  The driving melodic sections are again backboned by Ratledge's keys--he often solos on organ over his mightily complex electric piano riffs.  The song is similar enough in mood and style to match the rest of the album well but it takes a few listens before its individual character shines through--after all, there are only four tracks but they're each almost 20 minutes long; surely a little attention will help unlock their secrets.  I love the alien sense of melody on this album as well as its cohesiveness and foreboding majesty--it's an unexpectedly dark turn in the progression of Soft Machine's albums, but it's also a masterpiece in composition and fearless exploration of jazz fusion, which at the time was brand new.  It's hard to believe the direction other artists took the genre as the decade wore on--why would you ever want Weather Report when fusion can sound this threatening?  I didn't fully appreciate this album until getting the 2007 CD remaster--the earlier CD reissue's sound is quite murky which, combined with the material's murkiness, makes assimilating the song structures and recognizing and appreciating the melodies much more difficult.  Plus, the new remaster has three live bonus tracks.

So, Soft Machine was home to a number of Canterbury luminaries--Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers (formerly) and Elton Dean--and exhibited (actually, it often created) many classic Canterbury musical traits from the jazz influence, the sense of lyrical humor, fuzz bass and overdriven organ, as well as the general experimental spirit of the entire scene.  As will be apparent as I review more good-to-great albums from this scene, its characteristics are fluid enough that they're not immutable, and "Canterbury" became more of an attitude toward music that transcended its geographical origins.

Get it here on CD, with a bonus disc.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cheap Seats at the Cartesian Theater

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And who, pray tell
do you think you are?
What might you think
you're saying?
What do you prove?
Can you act?
Are you more than a caption?
Are you trapped?
Can you become no stronger?
Are you even aware?

You think you know it means something
You know you think it means something
You mean you think you know something
You know you mean to think something
You thing--you mean to think you know!

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Another new song I've been playing at recent performances.  This will likely be the title track on the second album, whenever that happens.  I'm pretty excited about how the project's shaping up--it'll be a collection of mostly short (< 2 minute) songs, many of which will explore different aspects of the human mind.  For example, "One Tea" partly concerns the brain's ability to visualize and conceptualize in abstract, not to mention become lost in thought to the point of ignoring current sensory input.  The short song format should allow for a lot of wide-ranging musical experiments but ensure that they're all easily digestible (well, at least from the perspective of time commitment--some, including this song, tread near or past the far reaches of what I was messing with last time). 

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking (insert comment about irony here) about how our brains work simultaneously as the executors of our actions and as the collectors and facilitators of our sensory and mind experience.  When I'm feeling particularly...frank, I'm tempted to think that our brains most often act automatically to fulfill their programming--to unconsciously act as we've acted before or are predisposed to act, to supply habitual necessities, to remember and want to re-achieve pleasure and avoid pain, and to veil it all with the so-arrogantly-human conscious certainty that each of our "selves" is really in control of what we're thinking, deliberately choosing before each action, and serving something greater than mere biological chemistry and deterministic behavioral probability.  Luckily, with the help of modern cognitive science and a bit of observant humility it's possible to at least try to rise above this oh-so predictable hubris and attempt something more.  It might not be wrapped in as neat a package, but acknowledging the realest state of things as accurately as possible seems to me to be the first step forward. 

Anyway, one day I was thinking something along these lines and was suddenly aware of that part of my mind which evaluates these thoughts--sure, I may (or may not) have a skeptical thoughts regarding the level of free agency the human mind actually possesses, but where do those thoughts come from?  Are they subject to the same predictability and programming, or do they perhaps issue from a less rigidly-regulated part of the mind--is it possible to stretch that rigidity and, if not travel to completely unmarked territory, to at least tread in a slightly different direction and free things up a bit?  This song addresses that part of my mind that sits in judgment of my programming.  Is it evidence of a more powerful agency, or merely illusory, another aspect of the mind's complexity--efficacy or description?  If it's indeed a sign that more can be wrung out of our minds than zombie-like fulfillment of our predispositions, is this small part of the mind enough to overcome the habitual brain chemistry that gets us through every day, or is it helpless in its novelty?  The shuffling word game at the end of the song ironically warns against becoming too impressed with the mind's ability to oversee some of its own processes.  Let's not forget what we are, where we came from and where we're going.

Musically, the song doesn't have any sort of real time signature, or a key, for that matter, though it's based on fifth intervals so each chord isn't harmonically unfamiliar to the ear.  It's got a tempo and a couple of recurring patterns, but the number of beats of silence between guitar strums alternates even if the pattern is similar.  It's also an experiment with using only bar chords.