Sunday, July 31, 2011

Aphrodite's Child - 666

You probably wouldn't guess it from listening to this epic 1972 concept album, but Greek ex-patriate group Aphrodite's Child was actually a pretty standard rock quartet featuring drums, bass, guitar and keyboards.  Of course, the group was led by Vangelis Papathanassiou (later to achieve worldwide notoriety as the soundtrack composer for films like Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner), so its leader's vision demanded substantial studio augmentation, and the end results take on quite a bit of theatricality and an operatic expansiveness thanks to a wealth of different instruments, production techniques and vocal contributions from a number of non-band-members.  Without getting too far into the band's history, I'll say that this undeniably ambitious project took the group far outside their pop-oriented roots into the realm of long-form rock music narrative, touching upon psychedelic rock, European folk melodies and instrumentation, avant-garde performance art and studio composition, and lightly (if mostly in its weird and eclectic spirit, if not compositionally) upon progressive rock. 

Despite the fact that it's credited to Aphrodite's Child, 666 is a creative collaboration between Vangelis Papathanassiou and lyricist Costas Ferris and is an attempt to adapt the New Testament's Book of Revelation to a musical setting.  Though it's a concept album, there isn't really a plot or discernible narrative, not to mention an overtly Christian message (thankfully).  Instead, the combination of music and words evokes a dramatic conflict focusing on characters the Lamb and the Beast, and using familiar elements like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the number seven, as well as significant number of references to the social unrest that typified the late 60's and early 70's.  In many ways, I find 666 to be a remarkable and successful piece of work--the music covers quite a lot of ground, from the band's pop origins (on the catchy, horn-backed, Beatle-esque "Babylon" and "Hic and Nunc," "The Beast," and valedictory ballad "Break") to a significantly harder brand of psychedelic rock.  This second style is exemplified both in traditional song form on one of the album's best songs, "The Four Horsemen," which alternates between atmospheric folk sections and pounding invocations of the different horsemen and their visages, ably cried out by bassist/vocalist Demis Roussos.  Similarly trippy is the instrumental/spoken word song "Aegian Sea," which features heavily-reverbed guitar and vocal arrangements reminiscent of both early- and mid-70's Pink Floyd both melodically and in overall sound, and especially in Silver Koulouris' guitar sound. 

The band also capably handles shorter heavy rock instrumentals like "The Battle of the Locusts" and "Do It," as well of some of the album's most interesting fusions of psychedelic rock and Mediterranean folk music in the driving furiousness of "The Lamb," "Seven Bowls," "The Wakening Beast," "Lament" "The Marching Beast."  This fusion is one of the most distinctive things about Aphrodite's Child's sound; despite the album's scope and the quality of the playing, much of the instrumental palette sounds pretty familiar in that 70's sort of way, so some more ethnic sounds freshen up the more orthodox sounds.  One of my favorite of these moments comes on "Altamont," where the band whips up a hpnotic piano/horn/vibraphone/wordless vocal riff that presages the similar sound and ad nauseum repetition that Christian Vander and Magma would doggedly pursue in the next few years as they created Zeuhl.  The track evokes the real-world incident it's named after and builds to an effective spoken word climax that's one of the most humanity-affirming moments on the album.  In spite of Vangelis' varied capabilities as a composer, the musicians occasionally fail to communicate a sense of individual identity on their instruments--that magic element that can elevate more pedestrian material above the mere stuff of its making. 

That said, there are some genuinely "out" moments throughout the course of the album.  The spoken narrations (many provided by "John Forst") provide an excellent mood and sense of foreboding that support the music's darker leanings, while providing opportunities to expand Vangelis' compositions, even if the tracks are less than a minute long.  "" is one of the most notable avant-garde tracks, featuring a modern vocal performance by Irene Papas in which she repeats "I was, I am, I am to come I was" over a percussion backing provided by Vangelis.  Papas' controversial performance blends the allusion and multifaceted meanings of the mantra with the singer's graphic imitation of an orgasm into a package that might even make Marvin Gaye (king of the female orgasm sound byte) blush in embarrassment.  The nearly side-long "All the Seats Were Occupied" consolidates the entire album's disparate threads into an epic rock instrumental and sound collage in which bits of the previous songs reemerge and build into a pretty grand and satisfying climax, even if the track takes a few more minutes than necessary in getting there. 

Ultimately, 666 is definitely good enough to justify its enduring cult popularity--its ambitious scope, the strength and variety of Vangelis' compositions and plenty of great rock and dramatic moments make it a thoroughly enjoyable listen, especially for fans of music like Pink Floyd where the texture and atmosphere are as important as the songs themselves and there's plenty of sound snippets and spoken sections (though Vangelis does get quite a bit more dissonant and weird than Pink Floyd did by the time they achieved worldwide popularity).  If the music here suffers, it's primarily from sounding a little unimaginative when the songs are analyzed close-up, and a bit generically "of its time" 40 years later and, like most double albums, requiring a long attention span to absorb completely.  While it'll probably never rise above its cult obscurity, 666 is certainly a worthy and enjoyable next step for people who've exhausted the more well-known, accessibly mainstream psych/progressive bands of the early 70's--just don't expect it to shatter your musical world. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Phil Ochs - Tape From California

The passage of time hasn't been kind to Phil Ochs' (pronounced "oaks") legacy--while at one time he was arguably second only to Bob Dylan as the most famous contemporary folk singer/songwriter in the USA, today his name (let alone his music) inspires nary a hint of recognition and his discography is in a lamentable state--few of his classic 60's releases are even available on CD and it would seem that he's on a steady path to further obscurity.  It's a shame, since he's the man who competed the most fervently with Dylan when both were writing their most overt topical material and Ochs embraced the label "singing journalist" a bit more readily than Dylan.  As the 60's wore on, though, Ochs was also inclined to expand his scope as a songwriter and performer, albeit in a way quite different from Dylan, with the electric, jazz and modern classical-influences of his creative high-water mark, 1967's Pleasures of the Harbor.  Unfortunately Ochs' popularity failed to grow at the rate Dylan's did; a year later he produced Tape From California, wherein his talents and his frustrations seem to share the spotlight equally.

On paper, there seems to be little difference between the creative template for both albums, but under the surface lies an unprecedented tension and sense of frustration that wasn't previously evident.  On Pleasures of the Harbor Ochs sounded like a master coming into his own, the earnest sanctimoniousness of his earlier albums leavened with even more sarcasm, some gallows humor and an unseen complexity and maturity as a composer and arranger, but on Tape From California he sounds like a jaded genius preparing to become a hermit after one last scathing summation of the world he's about to spurn.

His words are just as rich and opaque as they were on Harbor and the arrangements are just as lush, but it sounds as though Ochs has decided that the social change he so zealously pursued before is in fact unachievable.  The album's title track, with its dual electric piano and harpsichord, reflects both disenchantment and detachment with the world as the singer continually reminds us he doesn't have time to talk, but he'll send us tape from California; Ochs' reedy voice and vibrato are just as strong as they were on Harbor, though.  As the album unfolds, the melodic lines are also familiarly reminiscent of Ochs' earlier works in both their beauty and construction--the songwriter's change in direction is more subtle.  The trumpets and martial drumming of "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land," for example, reflects the doomed Vietnam conflict--try as he might to escape, it would appear that California isn't quite far enough for Ochs to escape the myriad, paradoxical ways in which his country and society have failed his hopes.  We get another marching band-backed, brilliant comment on war in "The War is Over," which toys with the idea that ending war is a conscious choice.  At other times the production verges on bizarre, as with "Half A Century High," on which provocative words and a chilling vision are somewhat dampened by the decision to make Ochs' vocals sound as if they're coming out of a phonograph.  "The Harder They Fall," on the other hand, supports another indecipherable and at times morbid message about society's decrepit state with sweeping strings and hand drums.

The two songs that perhaps stand out the most are the two longest--the folky "Joe Hill," which borrows its melody from Woody Guthrie's "Tom Joad" and features Ramblin' Jack Elliott (who was apparently nearly too drunk to perform) on guitar.  The song's something of a combination between Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the real life story of Sacco and Vanzetti, with a protest singer twist and a murky ending.  The centerpiece of the album, though, must be "When In Rome," which depicts the fall of an empire over the course of its 13 minutes with at times gruesome detail and Ochs returning sneeringly with the "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" refrain. 

As Ochs' artistic impulses creep higher and higher, it's often difficult to discern just exactly what he's hoping to communicate, but what screams loudest in my ears is that all-too-personally-familiar sound of a man surrounded by all that he stands against and howling, powerless to change the situation.  Though it's easy to retroactively apply his eventual suicide to his earlier work, I think it's fair to say that his frustration with his lack of large scale success in the music business also resulted in some serious bitterness toward his craft, which was focused on attempting to rally people around social change.  The artistic merits of this album are pretty high; though there are a few missteps and the baroque, symphonic and jazz elements aren't as fresh and don't fit quite as comfortably as they did on Pleasures of the Harbor, it's the sense of distress and dark fragility that makes this album fascinating the way that a car accident is, rather than in a way that inspires celebration.  I hold this album in pretty high regard but it's always painful to hear such a talented artist in the throes of desperation.

Though the CD is out of print, you can thankfully still get a high quality MP3 here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Ragged Glory

Another excellent album that's chiefly great not necessarily because the songs or ideas are good (though there is plenty of quality writing here), but simply because it sounds so good.  In a lot of ways, the fact that Ragged Glory is such a good album defies belief.  At this point, Young was well over 20 years into his career as a musician and had been playing with Crazy Horse for nearly as long.  For artists of his vintage, 1990 didn't exactly yield a bumper crop of mid-career creative comebacks--the fact that Young and company manage to produce such a cohesive and vital album in the same style they've been playing since 1969 is another marvel in itself.

The heavily-distorted arpeggio and thunderous wash of overdriven rhythm guitar and bass that opens "Country Home" (apparently a 70's-penned track) is like a warm blanket for longtime Neil Young fans--aside from perhaps a small increase in heaviness, there is no difference between the band's sound here and on Young classic fuzz-rockers like "Cowgirl in the Sand," or any number of tunes on Zuma.  What's more, there's almost no diversion from the template in the entire album--two guitars, a bass, drums, Neil on lead vocals and the inimitable low-rent beauty of Crazy Horse backing vocals.  "Then why's it so great?" you may ask.  Well, as is often the case with classic Neil Young, it's hard for me to put my finger on it.  The man's best albums usually sound pleasant but generic to me on first listen then gradually unfurl their unassuming craftsmanship and casual splendor over several repeated plays.  I wish I could say it's the subtlety of the songwriting, but Neil's got better collections of songs than this--"White Line," "Mansion on the Hill" and cover "Farmer John" are pretty forgettable in terms of melody and structure, and by the time "Love and Only Love" comes on it's difficult to distinguish it from the album's previous epic jams "Over and Over" and "Love to Burn."  And still, there's something about the band's well-worn chemistry that carries the songs past their substance.

As always, Young's lead guitar lines are simple, often eschewing speed and multi-string complexity for melody, a wealth of subtle variation in ideas and that unquantifiable alchemical quality that makes anything Young plays--no matter how technically or melodically clichéd--sound like manna from heaven.  It must be a combination of the man's ear and his taste, neither of which are easy to fault when it comes to his guitar playing.  Then there's the matter of Old Black, Young's 1953 Les Paul Goldtop, and his 50's Fender Deluxe amplifier, which provide a tone so thick and so completely unique that it almost doesn't matter what Young plays, the sound is self-justifying.  Though I earlier mentioned that the songwriting is occasionally forgettable, there are some classic moments--"Fuckin' Up" is as humble and self-dissatisfied a self-admonishment as can be imagined from a star of Young's caliber, and it's got a main riff that could have invented grunge all by itself (apparently this album was quite popular with the up-and-coming grunge stars of the day, and it's easy to hear why with its "don't give a fuck" rough attitude).  "Days That Used to Be" interestingly addresses the lapsed hippie ideals of an unnamed contemporary while simultaneously borrowing the melody from Dylan's "My Back Pages," while "Love to Burn," "Over and Over" and "Love and Only Love," despite their extended jamming and overlapping subject matter, are actually founded on functioning and potentially concise songs with thought-provoking lyrics.  In actuality, despite its heavy sound, Ragged Glory is populated by relentlessly optimistic songs and a rough-edged, weathered wisdom that ought to be expected from Young at this point in his career.  In reality, the only major misstep is the album-ending live cut, "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)," which marries the melody from "The Water is Wide" with some preachily facile lyrics about respecting Mother Earth and her healing ways--not exactly the subtlety we expect from Young's pen, and the faux-Hendrix-"Star Spangled Banner" guitar doesn't really help.

Sometimes, you're not hoping to have your ears challenged or assaulted with earth-shattering ideas--sometimes you just want to roll the windows down and crank some rock and roll, and Ragged Glory is the perfect album for that mood.  It's tough to dispute that artists experience fewer and fewer creative epiphanies as they age, but in my mind Neil Young remains a paragon of self-reinvention.  After his often ill-received experimental period of the 80's this album is at once familiar and striking in its consolidation of Crazy Horse's hard rock strengths, an incrementally unique moment in Young's discography.  Though his casual approach to songwriting and recording results in a seemingly nonstop stream of workmanlike albums and songs, these days we rarely get a whole album quite this solid from Neil.  If I'm still writing songs at his age, I'll consider myself lucky to strike gold half as often as Young manages to still do after four decades of songwriting.  May the gold keep coming, even if it's accompanied by a little more silver and bronze with each passing year!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

One Tea (Song Video)

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Video for one of my newer songs--quieter, reflective and melody-focused.  Lyrics and more info are here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Kaleidoscope - Tangerine Dream

 In 1967 the psychedelic movement was at its peak in both the UK and the United States.  Like any good fad, the movement produced some extremely good music, some extremely popular music (not always both at the same time), and quite a bit of forgettable music that--especially in retrospect--sounds quite derivative in relation to the more popular and innovative psych releases of the day.  For this reason, much of the music from the period has a sort of "time capsule" feel to it and is usually clearly datable.  I'm not one to disparage music because it sounds like it was created the year it was created, but by the same token I most appreciate psychedelic albums that were either innovative with their ideas (after all, there was a lot of fresh stuff happening during the period, especially by pop music standards) or at least exemplify the best things about the period and do psychedelic well.  Although there are quite a few psych releases that are among my top albums and I regularly listen to and enjoy a broad selection of psych, it's not really my main interest and as a collector and listener I have less interest and tolerance in the more marginal (quality-wise, that is) releases.  Probably the main reason for this is that the musical ideas expressed during the movement, great though they are, seem to be finite and recycled to an extent that many of the "lost" psych albums are a source of frustration and diminishing returns rather than revelation.  So, with that preface I'd like to talk about some hallmark psychedelic rock that isn't especially innovative but, for me, exemplifies the movement and sounds great--over and over and over.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the psychedelic movement spawned two Kaleidoscopes--a US version and a UK version.  The party line is that this, the UK band, is the one worth talking about.  I tend to agree--to me, UK psychedelic music is quite a bit more compelling, as I think its movement produced the most interesting ideas, and the dumbed-down endless jamming of West Coast psych bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Grateful Dead never really did it for me.  There are some great obscure examples though, and you can't go wrong with a lot of the well-known stuff from Hendrix, the Doors, Love, Dylan's more psychedelic material and, of course, Captain Beefheart.  When it comes to British psych I tend to separate groups roughly between psychedelic pop and the edgier, darker and weirder stuff.  Kaleidoscope fits firmly in the former category, influenced most by (and most exemplifying) the whimsy, melancholy, subtle strangeness in sound and subject matter of the Beatles, Donovan and especially Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.  Like those groups, though, Kaleidoscope place utmost emphasis on pop songcraft.

Unlike a lot of psych bands, Kaleidoscope employ mainly standard rock band instrumentation--the band's eponymous opening track opens mysteriously with the invocation, "Relax your eyes, for after all--we can but share these minutes," before kicking into an upbeat slice of pop propelled by piano, heavy drums, overdriven electric guitar and cascading vocal harmonies framing a simple melody and lyrics that describe the goings-on of the world as seen through a kaleidoscope.  The track's buoyed by the wide-eyed energy of youth and, undoubtedly, wonderment at drug experiences.  It's this guileless sincerity that lifts most of the album above its forgotten peers to the level of rewarding our ears over 40 years later.  The arrangements continue to show a penchant for nylon-stringed guitar on the beautifully despondent "Please Excuse My Face."  "Dive Into Yesterday" is one of my favorites, with some noisy surf-influenced guitar, a progressive arrangement, a gorgeous, droning/rippling bridge and a reprise of the "relax your eyes" invocation for added cohesion.

Familiar UK psych tropes crop up repeatedly--"Flight from Ashiya" and "Mr. Small, The Watch Repairer Man" tap into the pervasive influence of "Eleanor Rigby" in terms of illustrating human helplessness and the loneliness of outsider characters.  The creative hooks make the tracks though; the former's jaunty pace and "we're poor little lambs/who've lost our way/bahh bahh bahh" effectively contrast the lyric's description of a plane crash in progress, and the latter brilliantly utilizes the familiar sound of a clock chime as the melody for the tale of a lonely watch repairer.  The song's "la-la-la-la" refrain again strongly echoes Syd Barrett, as does "Arnold Layne"-esque "The Murder of Lewis Tollani."  To round things off, there's also an overt Dylan influence in the words of "In The Room of Percussion" and elsewhere.

No review worth its salt consists merely of name-dropping and influence finger-pointing.  The point is that the band managed to create an immensely enjoyable collection of songs in spite of telegraphing their influences.  Peter Daltrey's (leader and singer) voice perfectly fits the material, capable of a rock edge but also of quavering sincerity, and the vocal lines are full of youthfully attractive harmony experiments that endearingly drop out when the line becomes too difficult.  Likewise, the production sounds great.  The piano, electric guitar and drums especially are miked so hot that they're right up in your face, and at its high points the album offers some extremely majestic moments.  One of those is the nearly indefinitely-prolonged "The Sky Children," which sweeps by with an airy sing-song melody, catchy 12-string electric guitar and tinkling chimes.  It's songs like this that get to the heart of why I continue to reach for this album--the innocent positivity and wonderment are so sincere that it's infectious, and to me that's the essence of the psychedelic movement.  Through the a confluence of counter culture, newly-available information, social freedom and drugs, the youth of the 60's cohesively created their own movement based on love, experimentation and open-mindedness, and all the record companies could do was try and facilitate a genre they knew nothing about.  This attitude shows in this music and even in the faces of the people who made it on the album cover--they were just kids themselves.  On top of that, the album perfectly inhabits its moment in time with the immature "wisdom" and pseudo-moralizing of "A Lesson Perhaps," probably the album's weakest track.  The pitfalls that ultimately undid the movement (naiveté and ignorance of the more complex and darker aspects of human interaction which would take much more real prominence at the end of the decade) already show in spite of the album's glistening beauty--a silver cloud with a dark lining.

According to the liner notes, some executives at Fontana had a lot of faith in Kaleidoscope's potential and poured a significant amount of money into this album and its follow-up, Faintly Blowing.  Sadly, the fact that they gave Kaleidoscope a full-length LP deal before making the band prove themselves with a hit single (as was standard practice in the day) is reflected in the label's poor instincts in choosing singles for the album--"Flight From Ashiya" wouldn't be my first choice ("Kaleidoscope," anyone?), nor would the horn-arranged satire of "Holiday Maker" or the catchier but still sub-"See Emily Play" tinkly toy piano of "A Dream for Julie."  By the time they chose the sublimely catchy "Jenny Artichoke," it was 1968 and the psychedelic boat was sailing along with Kaleidoscope's chances of wide recognition.  The band changed its name to Fairfield Parlour after Faintly Blowing and suffered more rather unjustified obscurity in a slightly more progressive vein before ultimately disbanding in 1972, when the psychedelic movement that spawned it was a distant memory.  Though the movement was short-lived, one of its lasting benefits was the fact that record labels were much more open to funding and taking risks on bands they didn't quite understand in hopes that the kids would go crazy for it.  A lot of great and eccentric albums would never have been made if not for this practice (including the entire progressive rock movement, for better or worse), and it sadly fell out of practice toward the mid-70's where the seeds of today's corporate music culture, with its willingness to autocratically tell listeners what they want and/or immediately seize and over-commercialize new music that listeners found for themselves, were sown.  Still, Kaleidoscope's period piece debut remains a  testament to the joys of innocence, pop, and searching that still sounds charming today.

Get it on CD here.

Monday, July 18, 2011

John Fahey - Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes

In laying out markers for my musical landscape and contextualizing some of the other reviews I've written, I've been totally remiss in not yet mentioning John Fahey--sole creator of the solo steel string guitar genre, acoustic blues fanatic, composer and innovator--so I'll start with my first Fahey disc, and an enduring favorite from a man whose first 15 recorded years spanned an astonishing array of progression while still remaining anchored in the blues.

Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes is John Fahey's second album, released on his own Takoma Records in 1963, four years after his unassuming but iconic debut.  The intervening years allowed Fahey to significantly refine his technique (mostly open tunings, allowing for lots of octave Travis picking, arpeggiatos and some majestic slow strums with blues-cum-classical melodies played on the high strings) as well as his compositional style, which sees the song lengths stretching out and the compositions featuring more surprising changes and contrasting movements.  Take "Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania/Alabama Border," which begins with a string-bending slow blues with a turnaround, mutates into a free, ascending arpeggio on the high strings, then again to a crushing minor blues dirge before revisiting each of its sections and closing on an arpeggio that crosses through dissonance to a dreamy major 7th concluding passage. 

Like a lot of albums that have become long-term favorites of mine, part of what I love about this album is how it sounds--the recording quality isn't great, but since it's (mostly) just one instrument, everything's still audible and the music is laced with an antique atmosphere--and the room reverb is awesome.  There are a few moments where the volume of Fahey's guitar threatens to distort the recording equipment (to its great) as on the slide glissando of "On the Beach of Waikiki," or where the distance of the guitar to the microphone lends a raucous feel, as on the energetic "Spanish Dance," and then on "John Henry Variations" when the instrument's slightly out-of-tune harmonic overtones warble with an unsettling but hypnotic pulse.  If I call some of this album "psychedelic," it's these sort of extra-melodic elements that I'm talking about, like 3:15 into "America" where (through the use of tape editing, I assume) the guitar timbre suddenly changes from bassy fingerstyle to tinny high-neck strumming, or 1:06 into "When the Springtime Comes Again," when the key abruptly shifts from minor to major but the theme remains almost the same--there's something within those quavering intervals that lingers on the precipice of some forgotten memory that never ceases to make my hairs stand on end.  The piece would continue to fascinate Fahey the composer as it evolved into numerous versions on the 1967 re-recording of this album, in numerous live recordings, and on 1971's America as "Mark 1:15"--each time expanding on the last but somehow leaving a trail of discrete incarnations, each with its own particular magic.

The dark corners of this album aren't without some extreme eccentricities, either, like the dissonant strumming on the flute duet, "The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill" (Fahey's titles were often almost as great as the songs they labeled).  Ultimately, though, Fahey's genius substantially rests on his ability to bizarrely marry the familiar harmony and structure of the blues with the dissonance and imagination of 20th century classical composers.  For someone like myself who gets bored with the repetition inherent in a lot of blues music, hearing Fahey deconstruct his beloved genre and reassemble its innards into dazzling piecemeal sculptures breathes new life into what's usually a compositionally inert idiom.  His preternatural melodic abilities provide melodic lines that sink into the brain slowly but insidiously--not sounding like much at first, but ultimately sounding as beautiful as any music possibly could--I really love the way his sweeping melodies traverse multiple string plucks, simultaneously savoring a note and impatiently re-sounding it before the sound has a chance to decay.

I've got a feeling that whichever Fahey album most people name as their favorite is one of the first (if not the first) that they hear.  Though his early career covered expansive ideological and theoretical territory, it did so at a modest pace and Fahey would often repeat the same ideas either explicitly or intuitively.  At the time he was only pressing hundreds of copies of each album, so how was he to know how things would sound when his discography was considered retrospectively?  For example, he re-recorded and re-released most of the songs from this album (to be reviewed at a later date) in 1967, and the advancements he made in technique and composition are noticeable.  What I'm trying to convey is that, beautiful as they are, some of his ideas lose that "first time" magic when they crop up elsewhere, and where you hear them first tends to remain the most memorable.  For me, it was here with Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes--I still think it's a great place to start with Fahey as it states many of the ideas he would continue to pursue--compositionally, technically, sonically (he'd continue to experiment with tape editing as the 60's wore on), and arrangement-wise (many more of his albums feature his own adaptations of Episcopal hymns as closers)--but it all comes in a relatively digestible form, mostly adhering to compartmentalized song structures and resonating with some sort of pop instinct in terms of flow and melody.  I've got several John Fahey favorites, but this is probably the one I'd give up last--you can pry this album from my corpse's withered fingers.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Locks

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More of a physical kind of frustration
Centered on gravity--lying low
Looking for an out
Inches are insufficient
Foot-pounds squeeze a reserve of might

Massive bulk held at bay by
old-growth concrete trees
dead at the roots

Iron leaves comb trash
Scalp just a bit of the good stuff
from a small but potent torrent
somehow clearer than the source
the rest released into the foam void

Garbage trees jealously bear the weight
Craving more pressure
Begrudging the escapees
Over-containing to a spill no valve can safety release
Shrugging it off as the pressure sags to a limp ex-tension

At first furiously dumping
Then just blandly merging
Good stuff, garbage, primary sources
All a spreading foam puddle
apart from the craving
as iron and concrete too are consumed in the blend

There's more where that came from

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In general, this poem is an attempt to explore the mechanism of the creative impulse and the external forces that inhibit and sometimes ultimately destroy its renewability--wrapped in the imagery and metaphor of the Ballard Locks, a Seattle landmark across which I find myself traveling at least a few times each week.  Looking back on my last few months of writing, I notice that I've been repeatedly interested in close-up depictions of inconspicuous physical things or concepts that usually lurk unnoticed in the periphery of our eyes and minds.  The shift in perspective turns the focus on the object's individual personality and isolates the specific nature of its being, resulting in a portrait that's not necessarily hostile but perhaps disconcerting, unsettling and certainly alien to our own sensibilities, even if it's couched in vaguely personified terms (as this poem does).  Scrutinize one object from its own perspective and you realize there are limitless viewpoints, few of which have any relation to our own until we impose it upon them, which usually results in their broad dismissal (we can't help it, it's how our brains work).  Anyway, this method is an attempt to communicate an experience I often have wherein I'm walking by something and I'm suddenly struck by its thinly-concealed strangeness to the point of absorption.  

As for the extended metaphor, I've come to appreciate over the years the delicate pressure-release of the creative impulse.  Complete absence of antagonism results in shitty art, but over-pressurization threatens to override the fail-safes and extend creation's feverish momentary madness into an inescapable morass.  I personally most often notice this external "over-pressurization" in the form of group apathy, remorselessly-short attention spans and the severe devaluation of art (hence the bitter closing line).  Even though it's stylistically mellow and unassuming (some consonance, alliteration and low-profile puns), this poem has become pretty close to my heart for the familiar imagery (standing there on the locks, you can really feel the weight of the water held back by the grace of the small amount that's allowed to escape), the characterization of the reservoir and release of creativity, and the resolve to continue maintaining the balance--even if the results merely disappear "into the foam void."
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Meters - The Meters

The Meters' 1969 debut can easily described as a distilled quintessence of what funk is.  In my opinion, it's also early enough to be considered a pivotal and influential step (along with things that James Brown was contemporaneously doing) in that slight shift in direction from R&B and soul that first resulted in what' now commonly known as "funk."  Though The Meters had already established themselves (and would further do so) as backing musicians for Allen Toussaint-produced artists and many others, they really sprang forth fully-formed with a distinctive group identity on this album.

What I love about this album is the beauty of its simplicity--the band serves up 12 indelibly fresh cuts of clean funk using only drums, bass, guitar and organ.  Despite the limited instrumental palette, each and every song is brimming with melody, hooks, energy and variety.  Because of the clarity in the band's approach, it's easy to discern the elemental form of funk that they're innovating.  The first beat of the measure is almost always heavily accented (wouldn't James Brown be proud), and the playing is so tight it's unbelievable.  The simplicity of Zigaboo Modeliste's drumming belies his impeccable precision and sense of timing (nobody could be more in-the-pocket), and the way it interlocks with George Porter's bass really gets at the point of the visceral grooves that make up the backbone of all good funk.  Leo Nocentelli's guitar tone is clean, for the most part, stating the melodies with the support of Arthur Neville's organ, but occasionally delving into melodic (but never overly-flashy) soloing and fills.

What I love about this and Look-Ka Py Py (their second album) is that they both embody the spirit of funk but manage to do so in a pop song context--the hypnotic rhythmic jamming of James Brown's 10 and 20-minute songs isn't present, but the same rhythmic principles and precise syncopation and dance-ability is.  Both approaches definitely have their virtues, but Brown's longform excursions can sometimes be a bit lengthy for some attention spans.  It's pretty amazing to imagine that, at one time, music like this had potential to chart (if only modestly); "Cissy Strut" charted on the R&B charts and is a perfect example of the band's more laid-back tunes.  My other pick is the infectious, up-tempo instrumental version of Sly Stone's "Sing A Simple Song" (difficult to relate to the original, save the ascending scale in the chorus) which perfectly exemplifies the bitchin' synthesis of drums, bass, overdriven guitar and keys.  Surely no modern band could have a hit with music like this, and isn't that a shame?

A while back when I heard that some of my favorite contemporary funk bands like Galactic held The Meters in high regard, I started checking out their mid-70's albums like Rejuvenation and Fire On The Bayou.  They're good albums, but by then the band's sound had become more mainstream and vocal-oriented--my jaw certainly dropped when I finally delved further into their back catalogue and understood what all the fuss is about.  If you want to comprehend just why The Meters remain one of New Orleans' best-kept secrets and cultural treasures, listen no further.

Get it here on CD, or here in MP3.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Joni Mitchell - For the Roses

If ever there were a transition album, it's got to be Joni's 1972 long-player, For the Roses.  In almost every way, it straddles the line between her earlier folky roots and her later dive into jazzy pop, while never reaching the peaks that both eras achieved.  Moreover, the album is a reminder of the delicate balance (since it's largely absent here) between all of Mitchell's different aspects that occurs on her best albums.

Attractive as the aforementioned combination between folky, acoustic Mitchell and slick, jazzy Mitchell might sound, the songs on For the Roses mostly fail to gel.  In my opinion, it's mostly down to a dearth of good melodies and hooks.  Although all classic Joni Mitchell albums seem to thrive on ear-shocking chord changes and surprisingly far-ranging melodies, For the Roses illustrates just how fine the line is between a novel, ear-surprising vocal melody and one that just sounds strange and is ultimately unmemorable.  The inauspiciously preachy allegorical piano ballad opener, "Banquet," demonstrates this as good as any other tracks ("Lesson in Survival" and "See You Sometime" suffer similar fates)--the sounds that made "The Last Time I Saw Richard" such a haunting closer to Blue sound here like an artist looking for inspiration in uncommon chord progressions but not bothering to listen to hear if the results are compelling.  And yet, we get to hear Mitchell experimenting with some of the deep vocal vibrato that she'd later put to great use on Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns.

Similarly, we get the first appearance of the saxophone and flute arrangements that typify those next albums, but in a much more subdued and organic setting.  The results are certainly sonically interesting, as on the wah-guitar, saxophone and synthesizer arrangements "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," the jazzy flute harmonies and bass clarinet of "Barangrill," and the tremulous vocal arrangements of "Electricity," among others.   It's just a pity that none of these songs presents a melody or lyrical hook that Mitchell had already demonstrated she was capable of on her previous two albums.  The latter, though, marks her turn toward the character sketches that would dominate her later 70's work, though it also heralds more preachiness directed toward the music industry, which we get in smaller doses here than on later albums.

Fortunately, it's not all bland--"For the Roses" is a nice mid-tempo acoustic guitar-based piece, while "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio" calls down some much-needed catchiness in both words, structure and melody.  "Blonde in the Bleachers" (especially the last 30 seconds) and "Judgment Of the Moon and Stars" aren't necessarily great tunes, but their neo-Mitchell arrangements reach lush and stimulating heights.  Overall, For the Roses fails to impress particularly because of where it resides in the Joni Mitchell chronology.  Perhaps Mitchell was contractually rushed into writing and recording the album when she didn't quite have many ideas fully fleshed out (sometimes it's better to wait until you have something to say before trying to say anything at all), or maybe the album just needed to happen in order for Joni Mitchell the artist to progress into what was to come.  Either way, this album's mostly of interest to the already-converted and probably won't grab any newcomers.

You can get it on CD here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Kevin Coyne - Marjory Razorblade

One of my favorite weird singer/songwriters is the enduringly obscure Kevin Coyne.  Though he started his career with a rather generic blues-rock outfit called Siren, Coyne eventually embarked on a solo career that occasionally brilliantly, almost always interestingly, and usually commercially unsuccessfully straddled the line between intense singer/songwriter, blues, and avant-garde material.  If you've read or heard about Kevin Coyne, it's probably been this 1973 album, his second solo outing and his undisputed high point--Marjory Razorblade.

A sprawling double album, Marjory Razorblade manages to cover a quite wide subject matter swath while maintaining a coherent sound typified by plenty of acoustic and bluesy electric guitars, Dobro, organ and an occasionally boisterous rhythm section.  If you start reading about Kevin Coyne, it won't be too long before you see him compared with Van Morrison--listen to the joyous, organ-suffused "Marlene" to have this comparison confirmed (except, what are those weird Captain Beefheart noises he starts making toward the end...?), then listen to, say, "Nasty," to have the comparison become nearly meaningless--though their vocal styles are somewhat comparable, Van Morrison and Kevin Coyne are worlds apart when it comes to their respective songwriting intentions.

It's often repeated that, earlier in his life, Kevin Coyne had worked in mental health institutions, which would later inform his songwriting muse.  While this detail might appear as the sort of sensational lore that is often tossed around to romanticize artists' work, there are quite a few songs that deal directly with mental instability, like the thinly-veiled desperation of "Talking to No-One," the anxious "Good Boy," and especially the heartbreaking "House on the Hill," which specifically describes the alienating environment of a mental institution and one man's struggle to reconcile his troubled psyche with the pressures of society.  One aspect of Coyne's songwriting I find fascinating is his ability to conjure acutely-detailed impressions of various outsider characters often through the use of first-person narration/monologue.  I don't quite understand how, but Coyne manages to variously imagine himself into the role of silent, desperate searcher on "Talking to No-One," "Everybody Says," and "House on the Hill," resentful, patronizing parent on "Good Boy," paranoid tourist on "This Is Spain," and a couple of uneasily bizarre characters whose precise summation escapes description on "Nasty" and "Jackie and Edna." The final 10 seconds of the latter--it should be noted--states (out of nowhere) but deigns not to develop a pure distillation of the essence of twee folk pop (one of the most over-developed genres of recent times).  What's more, Coyne channels all these characters with gut-wrenching empathy, graceful detail, and a gentle wit that amuses often without laughing at the fragile characters in a malicious way.

Though the album does experience the unavoidable double-album flaw of having a potentially-fatiguing length, the quality across its entirety is remarkably consistent.  Even the inclusion of traditional material like "Lonesome Valley" (on which Coyne sings call-and-response with himself) and "Heaven in My View" succeeds because of Coyne's energy and inventive arrangements.  Similarly, more straight-ahead blues material like "Mummy" ("Way way way way WAYYYYYYYYYYY"), "Chicken Wing" and "Cheat Me" is engaging because of the band's interplay, musicianship and energy.  We even get a few heavier tracks like the dire "Eastbourne Ladies" and a sort of surrealist Bringing it All Back Home-era solo acoustic Bob Dylan/Roy Harper absurd diatribe against religion in "Dog Latin."  The latter is also a pretty good example of Coyne's unusual and idiosyncratic guitar style--big chords with a lot of dissonance, drone strings, but melodic riffing within the core of the noise. 

It probably goes without saying that Kevin Coyne's style is undeniably eccentric--there are enough incidences of sarcastic goofy drama and Coyne's vocals dipping or soaring into bizarre territories to mean that Marjory Razorblade will sound "weird" to most mainstream music fans, but anybody who enjoys music with a pinch of absurdity will probably find his personality fascinating.  Coyne's later career featured quite a few more surprisingly avant-garde tendencies and strange collaborations with other artists, but Marjory Razorblade remains his simultaneously creepy-but-accessible peak.