Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ramases - Space Hymns

Here's an obscure one.  Ramases' 1971 debut is a great example of what the record label situation was like in the early 70's--with the success of psychedelia from the Beatles and the growing popularity of early progressive groups like King Crimson and the Moody Blues, major labels were much more interested in throwing wacky music at the wall to see if it would stick--commercially, that is.  A lot of weird people who no present-day label would pay attention to got fully-funded releases, which makes for quite a few interesting artifacts and a few stone cold classics.  This album belongs to the former category--you at least hope you're in for a few interesting moments when you know that the main guy claims to be from a different planet, sent to educate the earth people with his alien knowledge.  At the very least, the concept gets us a ridiculously awesome Roger Dean cover with a church steeple taking off into space.  Oh, and 10cc is the backing band.

The opener, "Life Child," is easily the hardest cut on the album, boasting a funky riff and some fuzzy guitar solos--unfortunately its promise of hard psychedelia and edgy angry affronts to the earth people is rarely repeated during the rest of the album.  However, we do get quite a bit of weirdness--"Quasar One" is dedicated to Ramases' homeworld and features some pretty sweet chanting, while "Molecular Delusions" experiments with a Gregorian chant style.  "Journey to the Inside" is probably the trippiest track on the disc, replete with cascading backward recordings and closing the album with Ramases somewhat interestingly discussing the fact that the distance between the planets is comparative to the distance between electrons and nuclei before losing us again by fading out saying "If you took a pill to get smaller..."

The alien concept is at times rewarding and at other times frustrating--rewarding on the rather pastoral stoned reverie "And the Whole World" as well as the mysteriously creepy "Earth-People"--then frustrating when the solution for the "Earth-People" is the return of Jesus (track 10, "Jesus").  A little creative follow-through, please?  Elsewhere limp writing holds back some catchy folk-pop in "Baloon" ("just off the surface of the moon"...yikes; don't worry--he also rhymes "bubble" and "trouble" later in the same song).  Aside from the songwriting issues and failure to go for broke on the weird alien concept, the music here is held back by Sel's (Ramases' wife) nasal vocals, which are usually present in the form of unison backing vocals (couldn't even write some harmony parts) as well as unnecessary repetition of vocal lines and ideas.  Case in point, "Molecular Delusions," which presents an interesting 20-second idea, then proceeds to repeat it for four minutes.  "You're the Only One (Joe)" has potential to be the creepiest Earth-people finger-pointer on the whole album but spoils the idea with irritating vocals that repeat again and again (is the line paying homage to Midnight Cowboy, is it an indictment of mankind's collective selfishness, or is it just annoying?).

This album always gives me a little pleasure whenever I give it a spin--at least in the act of imagining a world where record labels fund this kind of thing--but I'm always left frustrated at its many areas of unfulfilled potential.

You can find it here on CD, if you really want to.  And, I've just noticed, the long out-of-print follow-up, Glass Top Coffin has finally seen CD release.  It's even less heavy than Space Hymns, but is probably a better album.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance - One for the Road

Although this is is my first Ronnie Lane review, One for the Road represents the tail end of Ronnie Lane's remarkable 2-year stint as a solo artist--one last blazing home fire of an album before his dreams of surviving in a traveling musical caravan (see the back of the album cover below) buckled under financial pressure and criminally poor album sales.  Excepting the pretty good Pete Townshend collaboration Rough Mix, this is Lane's creative and energetic swansong.

Even more than its two predecessors (Anymore for Anymore and Slim Chance), this is an album of struggle against the pressure to live a mainstream life and an expression of the pure joy of living in connection with nature and self-developed values.  For all his skills as a songwriter and lyricist, Lane's words are deceptively simple.  At times he rants and raves like a man pacing around in a prison cell--"Give me just one wish and leave me be," or "I'd rather have a bad time than no time at all" from "32nd Street"--while tossed off observations like "I've just been where I been/Just seen what I seen/Nothin' more" ("Don't Try'n' Change My Mind") belie the hard wisdom his working-class background and financial struggles must surely have earned him.  Elsewhere it's the simple pleasures he extolls, like a rural wedding ("Steppin' and Reelin'"), waking up with the sun ("G'morning"), and the slow burn-out of late summer ("Burnin' Summer").  Despite his obvious frustration with the societal pressures he so concertedly contradicts, Lane never sounds bitter.  His voice, at times a rough growl and at others a soulful croon, is an ever-present reminder that this is a man laying his passion and struggle bare for all to see.

Ronnie Lane's earlier contributions to the Small Faces and The Faces certainly hinted at the direction his solo career took, but who would have ever guessed his sound would ever get as organic, joyous and soulful as it is here?  Slim Chance not only employs typical rock band instrumentation, there's also fiddle, accordion and mandolin--not bad for just five dudes.  They're also able back-up singers, making songs like "One for the Road," "32nd Street" and "Nobody's Listenin'" some of the most raucous shout-alongs Lane ever laid to tape.  In my mind, Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance is about as close as anyone else has ever gotten to the Band's confluence of soul, genre-blending, songwriting, earthy feel and purity of feel--and Slim Chance only has one lead vocalist.  In today's musical era of anachronistic old-timey so-called "Americana," trumped-up agrarian costumery and forced vocal affectations, more than a few performers could learn something from Lane's authenticity, both as a songwriter and performer--he uses simple instruments not to look backward, but to conjure the timeless energy of a group of friends playing and singing together, and his songs still sound fresh because they tap into his passionate self-expression, not some imagined sepia folk world.  With simple music that sounds as instantly familiar as this, that's what separates the few kernels of wheat from the god-awfully huge piles of chaff--even though the system eventually battered Ronnie Lane into submission, he's got at least three shining albums of beautiful defiance that escape commercial surrender and stand proud on their own distinctive spirit.

You can get this (nearly complete) album here, along with almost all of Slim Chance.  Also highly-recommended is The Passing Show , a film documentary that follows Lane from his Small Faces days to his tragic MS-related death.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Steve Hillage - Fish Rising

Here's another later Canterbury favorite.  Due to its associations with jazz, the Canterbury scene was never as guitar-centric as mainstream rock.  Nevertheless, Steve Hillage is certainly one of the biggest Canterbury guitar heroes and probably the most accessible one in terms of his style and technique.  He was a member of both Arzachel and Khan, then joined Gong in the early 70's.  This, his first solo album, features numerous Gong members as well as Henry Cow's Lindsay Cooper on bassoon and Egg/Hatfield and the North/National Health keyboardist Dave Stewart.

Like a lot of the classic Canterbury albums, I treasure this one for its variety, intelligence and light-heartedness.  1970's progressive rock music is often associated with bloated epics, overseriousness and romantic-period leanings, but I believe that the music on albums like this is actually more progressive in the literal meaning of the word--yes, there are epics (steer clear if you don't like long songs!) but the primary goal is advancing music past the established forms and status quo.  Hillage manages to challenge us with his compositions but simultaneously provides some of the tastiest guitar ever laid to tape.

The opening suite is the longest on the album, building from gentle psychedelia with jazzy soloing to a harder sound, more reminiscent of Gong.  This is much more centered on Hillage, though, and the compositions are organized around nice, identifiable guitar riffs and themes, though there's a great ostinato section with some furious soloing by Stewart.  "Fish" and "Meditation of the Snake" are shorter experiments, the first being a fast-paced Gong-like discussion of different fish and the second being a delay-guitar soundscape.

Side two is more hypnotic and repetitive than the first--"Salmon Song" may be my favorite track, with a spacey riff and a barnstorming set of dual solos.  Similarly, "Aftaglid" features several repeating patterns that act as platforms for Hillage's guitar soloing.  The key to these long songs is organization, as the mood segues seamlessly between gentler, quieter parts and heavier soloing, never wearing out each riff and always following with a change of texture.

The only bad thing about this album is that I bought three more Steve Hillage albums hoping they'd come close and none of them quite match the glory of Fish Rising--I don't mind Hillage's voice, but the New Age lyrics get heavier and heavier-handed on later efforts, and though the more song-oriented sound is in some places successful, many of the guitar ideas are just restatements of things heard here and on earlier Hillage collaborations.  It's a bit disappointing, but this album is so good and so full of ideas that Hillage can't be blamed for being unable to match their breadth and quality on every other album.  At least we've got Fish Rising

Observant readers may notice that this one is another deep pull from my tiny but cherished vinyl collection.  Out of the few records I own, I have to say that this one sounds better in its remastered CD version; the vinyl is actually a bit muddy (not well-balanced between clarity and heaviness the way my Captain Beyond LP is), making it hard to catch the small details that this album is packed with--I think I know what's going on because I recognize the riffs but closer listening reveals numerous quieter passages and depth uncommon in guitar-oriented rock. 

Get the CD or MP3s here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Robert Wyatt - Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard

Robert Wyatt's first album after the career-defining Rock Bottom is not likely to satisfy any relative newcomers looking for a reprise of its predecessor's dark catharsis and cohesive brilliance.  To longer-term initiates, though, it's a solid representation of what's most often expected from Wyatt from his Soft Machine days to his more recent work.  In many ways, I think this album sets the template for his material from the last 15 years in terms of the wealth of guest contributions (John Greaves and Fred Frith from Henry Cow, Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno) and its unevenness.

Like most of Wyatt's post-accident music, the sounds here are gentle but quirky, moodily psychedelic and jazzy in that classic Canterbury way.  The whimsical, melodically-challenging "Muddy Mouse" segments punctuate the first, "Richard" side of the album (or second, depending which version you have), breaking up the hypnotic groove and progressive sonic layering of "Solar Flares" and the equally languid, spine-tingling "Five Black Notes and One White Note," which plays with gorgeous intervals on a magnified level, similarly to some of his later work on Dondestan.  Wyatt accomplishes some of his best vocal trumpet impressions on the side-closing "Muddy Mouth" as well as some pretty humorous and casual singing regarding the world's oceans.

The other, "Ruth" side of the album is rather different, featuring much more conventional song structures, as on the jazzy sort-of-funny (mostly for the words) "Soup Song" and the slightly quirky blues of "Sonia."  "Team Spirit" is a more rocking, long-form song about a football that stretches into more interesting territory with some cool sonic excursions.  The dirge-like "Song for Che" closes the album on a fittingly valedictory note.

While Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard rarely succeeds in the same ways Rock Bottom did, it's pretty typical of later Wyatt--despite its status as a mixed bag of sorts, there is plenty of experimentation going on and it's a pleasant listen without ever being too hard on the ears.  If you manage your expectations and can forgive the album's inability to stack up to its predecessor, it'll be a good gauge of how much you'll likely enjoy Wyatt's later albums. 

Get it here on CD, or here on MP3.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Roy Harper - Bullinamingvase

Bullinamingvase (apologetically titled One of Those Days in England for the US release) is Roy Harper's last album of the 1970's as well as his last truly great album for at least eight years (or more, depending on whose opinion you're hearing).  Like HQ before it, this album delves further into a full band sound with slight progressive and psychedelic flourishes.  Although the band is different and a bit less distinctive (no more Bill Bruford or Chris Spedding, unfortunately), the production is probably even more diverse than HQ's and the overall flow is smoother and more coherent--the album succeeds because Harper's songs exemplify the things that made his earlier works unique while at the same time entering territories as yet untrod by the the songwriter. 

Listening to the "One of Those Days in England (Part 1)," it's hard to imagine the track was only worked up at the behest of the label in order to provide a single for the album--though the words are light, the song (in addition to being catchy with a great steel guitar riff and Paul and Linda McCartney on backing vocals) establishes a dreamy, wistful tone that permeates much of the album, not to mention the fact that it first introduces the melodic theme that will return several times in the song's later parts.  "These Last Days" is a fascinating Harper song to which I find myself continually returning.  In it the oft-indignant singer takes on a tone of acquiescence, singing "we might have to take the world the way we've made it"... "I'm not sure that any side is right/any side."  The subtly jazzy harmony of the music is suitably narcotic for the song's message, and the final lines "Some of us ain't satisfied with less than any universe/Well hell I'll have to go along with that, 'cause I've got mine" eerily predict the self-absorbed malaise that seems to have stifled any chance at an efficacious counterculture movement in the 30+ years since the song was recorded.

"Cherishing the Lonesome," a hopeful love song is another favorite, with a dynamic arrangement that showcases Harper's inimitable fingerstyle guitar but also crescendos into a progressive full-band arrangement with overdriven electrics and some well-placed xylophone.  "The Naked Flame" (a perpetual live performance survivor) is country-tinged with more steel guitar, recounting a dissolving relationship with some more great lines ("I can't believe we'll just exist/as figments of each other's past"), while the absurdly irreverent "Watford Gap" is a hoe-down singalong that rips the shit out of a roadside diner often frequented by touring bands.  After listening to some of the lines ("the city's like a goolie in a groupie's stagnant womb," par example) it's easy to tell why early versions of the album excised the track for fear of legal reprisals.  No one can accuse Roy of completely abandoning controversy despite this being one of his more meditative outings.

Of course, the sidelong "One of Those Days in England (Parts 2-10)" is the album's crown jewel--the pinnacle that the rest of the album's formidable poetry hints at.  Harper's last great epic is suffused with English mythology, imagery and history and glows with sentimental  passion.  Harper employs parallel structure to simultaneously consider his changing homeland as well as the nature and trajectory of the human race and the passing of time.  Throughout, Harper's humanistic outlook is at its most compelling, tempering his fire with the salt and wisdom of life experience, along with some vivid recollections of early-40's England.  Where numerous singer/songwriters fail to provide interesting arrangements when playing in a full-band setting, Roy adorns his core voice/guitar nucleus with some great piano, a bit of harp, and plenty of (relatively) hard rock interludes and varying tempos and textures.

Though the songs on this album are geared toward a full band setting, Harper's at heart an intimate character--the songs play equally well in an all-acoustic setting, and the backing band is never the center of the show the way it almost was at times on HQ.  Still, the production Roy was granted by EMI and Harvest is undeniably high-class, demanding that the music be taken seriously by simply sounding good.  Not a lot of madcaps of Roy's stripe had so many opportunities to fully realize their musical visions, especially not at the end of the 1970's, and Bullinamingvase makes good on the investment (well, artistically, if not especially commercially, though I think the album performed fairly well in comparison with Roy's other releases).  Though Roy's later career has had numerous peaks, Bullinamingvase is his last big success with a big label, fully utilizing the professional support without the bitterness or dodgy production judgment that would follow on The Unknown Soldier and Commercial Breaks.

You can buy it from Roy here, or here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Slapp Happy - Acnalbasac Noom

Since this isn't a download blog and a lot of my traffic comes from facebook, I've decided to start linking to YouTube for at least one song mentioned in each review, so use your mouse to find some Easter eggs and match some sounds to the words. 

A release with an entirely befuddling genesis, Acnalbasac Noom was recorded for Polydor by the core Slapp Happy trio (Dagmar Krause, vocals; Peter Blegvad, guitar; Anthony Moore, keys) with Faust as a backing band in 1973.  The songs were re-recorded for Virgin in 1974 and released as the self-titled Slapp Happy.  The original recordings finally saw release on Recommended Records in 1980 as Slapp Happy or Slapp Happy, then (here comes the really confusing part) reissued again by Recommended as Acnalbasac Noom.  Today, if you want the original Faust version, your best bet is on CD, titled Acnalbasac Noom.

Acnalbasac Noom is pop music with brains--eclectic, jazzy, psychedelic, experimental and intelligent, but never prone to lengthy instrumental passages or songwriting that could be considered "progressive" in the early 70's meaning of the word.  Instead, it's an album that exudes wit; a clever spin on convention that won't assault anyone's expectations but subtle--slightly subversive.  The focus of the show is on Dagmar Krause's vocals singing Blegvad's lyrics.  For those familiar with Krause's later material (Henry Cow, Art Bears etc.), her performances here are much more traditional and even the timbre of her voice sounds quite different.  Here, it's a bit on the nasally side, sweetly but sharply adding an odd sultry edge to much of the lounge-flavored material and occasionally delving deeper into a more technically-proficient Nico-like register.

The real joy comes when you dig past Krause's rather thick but attractive German accent to find Blegvad's adroit way with words.  Take the album-opening words on the spy-themed title track: "He used to wear fedoras/but now he sports a fez/There's Kabbalistic innuendos/in everything he says."   The text of this album is a veritable treasure trove of clever rhyme, boundless vocabulary, humor and wit.  At times, it borders on smarmy, but despite their intelligence Blegvad's songs are blithely unpretentious--a rare combination.  The music is unobtrusively melodic, with pretty standard rock group arrangements with the occasional flittering synthesizer, and in addition to the aforementioned lounge-style pop there's some joyous almost bubblegum pop in "Charlie and Charlie," "Michelangelo," and "The Secret," while "A Little Something" lays down a bossa nova rock groove and "Mr. Rainbow" and "The Drum" tread into demonstrably heavier psychedelic territory.  The CD reissue sports a pretty wicked aerobics-themed bonus track, too, entitled "Everybody's Slimmin'", which is just as awesome as it sounds ("shake your yamma yamma like you're humping a ghost").

If you listen to this and can't stand Dagmar Krause's voice, there's probably little hope you'll enjoy Art Bears or her work with Henry Cow.  On the other hand, if you're already a fan of those, you might find this album a less demanding pleasure.  Either way, you can crawl further down the experimental pop deconstruction rabbit hole with Desperate Straights, Slapp Happy's 1975 collaboration with Henry Cow.

Get the CD here.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bob Dylan - Another Side of Bob Dylan

What? An album people have actually heard of?!  I never said that only obscure music is good--more, I like to hope that just because an artist or album isn't well known doesn't necessarily mean it's because they're bad (though some definitely are).  And naturally, the opposite goes for some extremely popular artists! 

Another Side of Bob Dylan sits smack in the middle of one of the greatest runs of great albums in history--after The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin', and right before Bringing It All Back Home--so it's usually appraised quite highly, perhaps by association.  In my opinion, the album can be fairly assessed as a minor but artistically necessary entry in an extremely fertile artistic period.

Whether the title is intentional or more of a record label decision, it's pretty apt--here Dylan deliberately distances himself from the mantle of neo-folk protest king that his previous two albums earned him--only the oblique "Chimes of Freedom" could be remotely linked with protest music, while "My Back Pages" (the undisputed best song of the set) denies the self-serious sanctimoniousness of his earlier material with lush imagery and an immortal refrain.  On other songs ("All I Really Want to Do," "It Ain't Me Babe") it seems he'd rather not be held responsible for anything at all!

So, in absence of an overarching social theme, what does Dylan offer as a replacement?  Well, in some ways not much--when it comes to new ideas, Another Side is a pretty slight.  In some ways, it borrows too heavily from Freewheelin'; "Motorpsycho Nightmare" and "I Shall Be Free no. 10" attempt (with mixed results) to recapture the wry wit of his second album's comic relief, while "I Don't Believe You" and "To Ramona" attempt to recapture some of the tongue-in-cheek romantic flavor that was absent on Times They Are A-Changin'.  "Spanish Harlem Incident" and "Black Crow Blues" are pretty bland, while the long and uncomfortable "Ballad in Plain D" (recounting the dissolution of his relationship with Suze Rotolo) forays almost bizarrely into confessional singer/songwriter territory in a way that Dylan would purposely avoid until Blood On The Tracks.  For someone whose personality and music was deliberately assembled as a dazzling patchwork of prevarications and theft, the song's directness is at once fascinating and a bit repulsive as it conveys firsthand the consequences of such a persona.  In any case, it's more of a curiosity compared with what most people love about Dylan from this era.

Probably the best thing this album has going for itself is Dylan's pop instincts--though they rarely deal with weighty subjects, there are a healthy handful of great-to-classic songs that plenty of other artists had hits with.  Though it's short on revelation, Another Side is an amicable listen for the warmth of Dylan's personality and its laid-back mood--another great thing about Dylan from this period.  A lot is made about his transition from acoustic "folk" to electric rock on the following album, but what's more striking to me is the pre-flowering of his surrealist words.  The change is hinted at on "Chimes of Freedom" and "My Back Pages," but it's nothing compared with what would come on songs like "Gates of Eden" and "It's Alright Ma" and later glories.  Ironically, though he usually manages to toss in some humorous throwaways, Dylan's later success can arguably be attributed to his return to serious subject matter--he just happened to drop the black-and-white moral stance and approach the topics from a much more artistically-developed and open-ended angle.  I guess Another Side can be viewed as the shrugging off of the shackles that was necessary for his continued artistic development.

Get it here on CD or MP3.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Captain Beyond - Captain Beyond

Not the 3D cover; you can tell because his space energy ball isn't inside your brain.

Though Captain Beyond is a band known by few, its membership previously performed in well-known outfits--singer Rod Evans was Deep Purple's original vocalist (including the hit "Hush"), guitarist Larry "Rhino" Reinhardt and bassist Lee Dorman were in Iron Butterfly, and drum God Bobby Caldwell was in the Edgar Winter Group.  Though the band made a handful of albums through the 70's (and apparently an EP in 2000), I consider them a one-off; the quality of this album is unlike anything else they put out--not to mention how well it stands up to the rest of the hard rock/proto-metal/progressive psychedelic field it fits in.

As with most of my favorite albums, I can still remember the first time I listened to this one--I remember it as a relentless barrage of detuned guitar riffs that was enjoyable but afterward seemed like a slightly same-y blur.  After a few listens and some time off (always a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff) I returned to find a relatively short album (35 minutes) positively bristling with ideas.  Since it's become an all-time favorite and one of my heavier, not overly-brainy delights.

Every time I listen to this album I can't help marveling at just how well all of the elements and all-important group chemistry lined up.  The lead-off track illustrates particularly well the band's aesthetic and visceral power.  Caldwell's odd-metered drumming kicks it off with his indomitable snare (he's got to be one of the best drummers of all time that didn't make it huge, and his drumming alone makes this album worth listening to) and the muscular rhythm guitar kicks in.  Pretty soon Evans is singing about black dreams, landing on a star and floating on a sea of air.  After only a minute and a half, an entirely different riff shifts the feel to 4/4 and the guitar leads get a whole lot gnarlier (as does Evans' singing) the last minute of the song returns to odd meter with a chromatically ascending atonal riff to close the track.  None of the song parts repeat--why should they?  You hear the ideas and there's no need to drive them into the ground.  This is pretty typical of the whole album--a cohesive sound that manages to churn out a nonstop, heavily enjambed stream of (mostly guitar-driven) ideas.  Right up my alley.

The rest of the album subtly alters the original themes and throws in an impressive array of styles--hazy psychedelia in "Myopic Void," jazz fusion in "Thousand Days of Yesterdays," Hendrix-influenced hard rock in "I Can't Feel Nothin' Part 1," to an almost MOR, lounge-styled psych jazz in "As the Moon Speaks (Return)."  The album's real backbone, though, is in heavy proto-metal riffs.  They certainly abound, popping up suddenly even in the mellower tracks, and there are even a few more traditional songs to sink your teeth into--"Mesmerization Eclipse" is notable for its guttural riff, aggressive drums and Evans' well-placed song-opening grunt, while "Raging River of Fear" again leans on Jimi while predicting late 70's and 80's metal's penchant for vocal harmonies.

As far as vocals and lyrics are concerned, they are a seemingly incongruous combination of metaphysical outer space-oriented images and more typically hard rock lyrics about women.  While some may find these subjects cheesy, I feel they fit the music perfectly--hard rock really can't ever succeed at taking itself too seriously, so why not focus on some truly cosmic subjects?  It fits the album art, and really it's only cheesy if you prefer not to engage in the underlying subject matter.  Evans, whose vocals are best described as "manly" proves a pretty versatile vocalist, and even a subtle one--I'm still hearing minor vocal nuances that are easily overshadowed by the riffs.  While his former band was exploring extremely epic, theatrical styles with his replacement (Ian Gillan), Evans here sounds just like a dude fighting with his place in the universe, maybe on drugs.  Which, theatricality and drugs aside, is all any of us is really doing at any given time.

Before bidding you one last time to check this album out, I have to remark that it's one of the best complex integrations of the cowbell that I've ever heard.  It can be done.

Get 'er here on CD or MP3.