Friday, May 20, 2011

Henry Cow - Leg End

There is apparently some debate as to whether Henry Cow can accurately be deemed part of the Canterbury scene as an actual physical scene, but to me they're both clearly a part of the scene (due to guitarist Fred Frith's geographical origins and the band's association with Robert Wyatt both live and on his Rock Bottom and Ruth is Stranger than Richard albums) and part of the Canterbury scene as a genre of music that blends rock, jazz, folk, experimental and a playful sense of whimsy.  Henry Cow is one of my favorite groups in or out of the Canterbury scene for the complexity and dense melody of their music, the way each member of the group contributes in an identifiable and irreplaceable way, for the way they blend avant-garde compositions with improvised music across their sparse but evolutionary discography, and for the fact that their music remains challenging but listenable no matter how many times I return to it.

Leg End is the band's 1973 debut--it doesn't take too many seconds after the rimshot that kicks off "Nirvana for Mice" before it's obvious that Henry Cow is probably the Canterbury band most influenced by avant-garde modern classical music, which shows in their compositions' weaving concentric circles of odd-metered counterpoint as well as a hefty dose of atonality and dissonance lurking behind and within the jazzy melodies.  The sound is saxophone-heavy, with at least two horns at most times, and Fred Frith's guitar is often double-tracked, while some synthesizer fills in the background not covered by the manic drums and restlessly probing bass lines.  "Nirvana..." sort of sums up a good part of the band's mission on Leg End, consisting of a vibrantly intricate composition which quickly dissolves into a jam over which Geoff Leigh's saxophone runs rampant in an ecstatic free jazz testimony.  Interestingly, the rest of the group's vamping mechanism during Leigh's solo acts as a sort of improvisational version of the composed sections, as each band member sticks with a different meter and improvises accompaniment.  The parts interweave, at times synchronizing and at other times sounding rather tenuously held-together.  For me, it's exhilarating.  If you weren't already awake, the song-ending staccato blast will ensure either your attention or annoyance (these guys are admittedly not for everyone).

The rest of Leg End follows a similar path, though there is a superabundance of ideas, great variety in mood and melody, and some more surprises in instrumental arrangements, including flute, clarinet and Frith's violin.  The Tim Hodgkinson-penned "Amygdala" boasts an ever-shifting melodic structure that dabbles in the types of Renaissance style that is Gentle Giant's stock in trade, while the dark and cacophonous "Teenbeat Introduction" goes further down the free jazz rabbithole before swelling gloriously into Frith's "Teenbeat" composition.  "The Tenth Chaffinch" sounds very much like one of the group's live improvisations (mostly unreleased until the release of the box set The Road), blending musique concrete (pre-recorded sounds) with totally atonal, unstructured improvisation.  The album closes with an odd track, "Nine Funerals of the Citizen King," which actually features a vocal arrangement.  Though the music is extremely dense (perhaps even impenetrable on first listen), further listening reveals melodic motifs that pop up in "Teenbeat" and return again throughout "With the Yellow Half-Moon" and again in "Nine Funerals..."

For me, Leg End and the rest of Henry Cow's discography represents the real deal when it comes to progressive music--genre is irrelevant, and the band unflinchingly incorporates modern musical concepts into a sound that assaults the ear with surprises at every turn but remains a fun and energetic (especially Chris Cutler's drums, which rival Robert Wyatt's Soft Machine-era drums in energy and creativity) listen with innumerable moments of twinkling beauty.  I've heard the band's earlier material compared with Frank Zappa and the Mothers' albums from the same period, and while I can see a general stylistic similarity (jazzy, complex compositions, lots of noise and craziness), Henry Cow sounds so much more out-of-this-world and surprising to my ears, while Zappa's compositions (and especially his guitar playing), idiosyncratic as they are, always remind me directly of something I've already heard before.  This album is the perfect example of music that doesn't need lyrics--when it sounds and feels this indescribable, why limit it with the trappings of lyrics?

The whole Henry Cow discography can be found at Recommended Records, which is owned and operated by drummer Chris Cutler, or here, if you don't want to pay in GBP.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tree Trough Trunk

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Tree, trough, trunk
You thunk too little
You whittled well past the middle
a brittle busted paradiddle
You piddled on petals
You pedaled with paddles
You addled your glad hull with gas-leaking barnacles
when grass-beaking tabernacles require
a subtler approach
Surefire settler roaches saw, till, encroach
Crotch thinking splotches out a single blinking eye
It sizes, it sighs
Its size matters--flatters
Bladders overfloweth, wind bloweth, shingles clatter
Stunted growth conserves matter
Till tail-eating snakes
(full of themselves)
try taking just a few more inches

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

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

The last three months have been almost all poetry in my notebook--stuff that probably won't be set to music, but more importantly I've been attempting to focus even more on the aesthetics of the words themselves and have a bit of fun--lots of abstraction, alliteration, even more fluid rhyming, puns and surrealism.  This is one of my favorite of my new poems for its succinctness and the fun I had writing it.  It's an example of how some of my word choice is based on how the words sound and feel in the mouth as much or more than on what they mean, as well as one of the first poems that experiments with what I've been calling (in my head, of course) "block rhyming," which shows up more in some later poems.  In general, this poem deals with the idea of taking too much as well as self-destruction...maybe.  Finally, I'm including videos with these poems because they're meant to be both read (on the page) and heard out loud--read before you watch the video or along with it and some of the pun and rhyme-type elements might be more apparent, as some are aural and some are visual.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Two videos - "Dedicated to You, but You Were Napping" and "Oh Well"

OK--I've finally got some content up on the video page; a couple of songs I recorded in my parents' house in April--unfortunately the mustache is long gone!  They're my first attempt at creating a video (I used Apple's iMovie) and also at uploading a YouTube video, not to mention that they're fairly rough takes.  Just when I felt like I was starting to get comfortable with having to hear my own voice over and over again, now I get the distinct displeasure of watching myself play too--yikes.  It's hard not to squirm watching myself but it's been quite challenging trying to promote myself these last few months as a solo artist while still writing new material--I'm trying to access as many different avenues as I can.  While I'm not exactly hoping to give Rebecca Black a run for her money, YouTube is another place to go.  The arrangements on the videos I'll be putting up are simple and close to how I've been playing my songs live--just a guitar and vocals, without the multiple guitar parts that are pretty integral to my recorded compositions and my full vision for my songs.  While I wish I could have a bunch more guitar, I hope that each song can still stand as a complete entity when stripped down to mostly rhythm guitar and vocals, though some of the blank stares I've experienced playing out so far have tested my resolve.  The pressure is on to hone the delivery, and now that I have to watch myself play I guess I can work on my stage presence a bit--especially when I start uploading vids of the poetry I've been working on lately.  No guitar to hide behind!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The United States of America - The United States of America (1968)

I'm feeling a bit saucy today so I'll begin with a contentious declaration--The United States of America's self-titled 1968 debut (and sole album) is the best American psychedelic album of the 1960's.  As usual, such things are firmly a matter of taste, but for me this band and album exemplify the psychedelic movement sonically and ideologically in a way that many British (but pathetically few American) bands could successfully accomplish.  Although there are numerous great US albums with psychedelic elements (Blonde on Blonde and Forever Changes, for example), this one positively oozes psychedelia from its overt LSD references, mad sound excursions and defiantly interrogative attitude.

For me, the band's interest 20th century classical music (the members were bigtime John Cage devotees, apparently) perfectly marries with the (at the time) chic psychedelic aesthetic--after all, most of the recording techniques, early synthesizers and theoretical precepts of the psychedelic era had already worked themselves through the more arcane and intellectual world of "classical" music starting around fifty years earlier.  The polytonal album-opening collage of carnival organ music, marching band and piano fades into the hazy "The American Metaphysical Circus," featuring Dorothy Moskowitz's ring modulator-treated vocals over an increasingly heavy drum-and-bass dirge with an ample cacophonous backdrop of early synthesizer blurps and effect-laden violin.  Dissonance abounds, and it's impossible to deny your in for a real trip as Moskowitz's vocals get steelier and steelier.  The lyrics first broach the dominant themes of the album (and band--their name is no accident), creepily allegorizing the cheap facade of post WWII consumerist, suburban America as a sort of nightmarish bordello in which "the price is right/the cost of one admission is your mind." 

Let's not jump to the conclusion that this is all clinical academic music theory, though.  "Hard Coming Love" immediately follows with an uptempo blast hard pop, with a mouth-wateringly noisy and overdriven violin solo--the vocals don't even come in until 1:30.  It's the clear aim of the band not to supplant the form of pop music but to warp such undeniably catchy tunes with trippy atonality and downright weird sounds (check out the twittering synth interludes after each chorus).  "The Garden of Earthly Delights" and "Coming Down" are similarly rocking-yet-hooky with some pretty out-there lyrics, with the latter pretty clearly pondering an acid comedown.  The false sheen of suburban conformity is again sent-up in the hilarious dixieland jazz of "I Won't Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar" and the melancholic "Stranded in Time"(both sung by the band's leader, Joseph Byrd) while the capitalist system's seedy underbelly is further considered by "The American Way of Love," a mighty album closing suite that variously mocks "respectable" white businessmen, perverts surf pop and pastiches another sound collage culled from the preceding tracks in one final mind-expanding resolution.  What really impresses me is the astute compositional variety on display here--in addition to marches, ballads, rock, jazz, pop, and chamber music arrangements, we get a sinisterly anthemic meditation on the irretrievability and inscrutability of the past set to a warped blend of Gregorian chant and rock ("Where Is Yesterday").

Despite the musicians' clear musical erudition, they manage to walk a fine line of challenging accessibility, never letting us forget that they're having a hell of a good time doing it--Moskowitz has a great voice that is strangely sexy despite some of the lyrical content, and Byrd's voice makes up for its mere technical passability with plenty of sneering ironic attitude.  The heavy drums and fuzz bass are serious draws, with some of the sickest basslines I've heard in any genre, while the electronics are probably the best-integrated synths of the late 60's on tape, often functioning compositionally rather than just as a strange noisy backdrop (as in Fifty Foot Hose's Cauldron, for example).  And, oh yeah, there's no guitar (please accept my apologies for not beginning my review with this fact--it's amazing how nervous and apologetic critics get when the trusty six-string is nowhere to be heard)!  This is one of those few guitarless instances where I truly don't miss it; it's more than replaced by the aggressive violin and agile bass playing. 

Unfortunately the sound quality isn't the greatest--the details of the cacophony get steamrolled by treble-heavy speakers--I often forget how good this album is since there are situations in which I just can't play it, but whenever I catch up with it on good headphones or a nice system I wish it was more conducive to all listening settings.  I should also add that the liner notes for the CD remaster are great--illuminating interviews with both Byrd and Moskowitz on the band's fascinating history and artistic principles.  I won't lie--this album sounds very much of its time, probably sounding to some like a throwback time capsule--but it's got that stylish 60's atmosphere (the female vocals help) that will always be classy to my ears.  Strange how that mood all but disappeared from the early 70's on.  There are more popular American psychedelic albums (how so many West coast bands re-regurgitated the same bland "psychedelic" blues jams ad nauseum and became touted as the best psychedelic music the country produced is beyond me), but none are as intelligent, satirical and vividly crazy as this, the thinking man's American psychedelic album.

Get it here on CD, or MP3, or vinyl reissue.