Saturday, January 28, 2012

Dillard and Clark - The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark

The other night I was having trouble choosing something to listen to--ultimately, instead of one of my recent jazz purchases, I reached for this--Gene Clark's first (of two) albums with bluegrass virtuoso Doug Dillard, sandwiched between his post-Byrds solo debut Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers and the stunning White Light.  While a lot of country rock aficionados like to place this album as one of the first country rock collections, I prefer to think of it in the context of Gene Clark's discography as both his first masterpiece as a performer and songwriter as well as the only full album where he's complemented by an instrumentalist with an equally impressive and distinctive personality.

It's a Gene Clark album, so of course there are some great songs--"Train Leaves Here This Morning" is likely many people's favorite with its laid-back swing and one of Gene's best ambiguous chorus lines since "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better" with "there's a train leaves here this morning/I'm not sure what I might be on."  The arrangements still show a Byrds-like penchant for thick harmony vocal arrangements, but to my ears Dillard and company provide considerably stronger accompaniment.  Also quickly noticeable are "Out On the Side," which showcases Clark's aching emotional vocal delivery backed by a full band (organ included) arrangement, and "Don't Come Rollin'," which starts as a loose harmonica jam and builds into a buoyantly conversational tell-off replete with some fast-talking from Clark, not to mention a hash reference. 

As usual, though, the songs that withhold their treasures for patient attention are ultimately just as interesting--"She Darked the Sun" proves Clark was able to adapt his songwriting to an old-timey bluegrass aesthetic while at the same time dropping crushingly modern lines like "with the length of her mind she darked the sun."  Even more affecting is the album's one-two closing punch--the jubilant banjo and familiar bass pattern of "The Plan" belie Clark's desperate existential searching, and "Something's Wrong," focuses the songwriter's profound melancholy into one of the most powerful coming-of-age songs I've ever heard, full of childhood reminiscences and a devastating bridge--and with its album-closing fiddle denouement it still clocks in under three minutes. 

These would still be great songs even if Clark were just singing them with an acoustic guitar, but Dillard (as well as Bernie Leadon) provide a shimmering backdrop of banjo, mandolin and lead acoustic guitar that adds both depth and warmth to Clark's songs as well as playing that's worthy of focusing on for its beauty alone.  Dillard's banjo skills in particular are mesmerizing--his speed is remarkable, but even more so is his ability to change up his picking patterns on the fly, providing a rhythm/lead accompaniment that constantly and fluidly changes.  It's also worth noting how well the album incorporates subtle psychedelic production elements--the harmonies in particular lend themselves to such treatment, as the brilliant instrumental section, break, and final chorus of "With Care From Someone" demonstrate, and the inclusion of harpsichord on a number of songs adds a sort of exoticism that again reminds us that what we're listening to is more than just a bluegrass album with original songs--check out the trippy swelling atmosphere at the end of "The Radio Song"--it was 1968, after all. 

Even though this album clocks in under 30 minutes and the follow-up utterly fails to live up to its predecessor, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark lives on in my collection as a perfect collection of songs and performances--listening to it the other night was like having a conversation with an old friend.

Get it here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tony Williams - Life Time

By 1965 and this--drummer Tony Williams' first set as a leader--the then-17-year-old had already been working with a slew of talented and innovative jazz artists, including Herbie Hancock, Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean and Grachan Moncur III (not to mention his recent incorporation into Miles Davis' Second Great Quintet).  Listening to Life Time, it's clear that Williams was listening closely to what the latter two were doing, especially on the sessions for McLean's One Step Beyond and Moncur III's Evolution.  For me, this album represents one of several high points from the period when it comes to a distinctive brand of avant-garde jazz that seems to favor space over wild soloing.

You know from the eerie, quietly intense opening melody of "Two Pieces of One: Red" that this isn't going to be a typical bop album, but as Sam Rivers' tenor fades out and dual bowed basses from Richard Davis and Gary Peacock gently arpeggiate it's apparent that this subtle opening isn't going for the explosion your ears might expect.  One of the bassists takes the first solo, and from then on you can rest assured that we're not returning to the usual structures or sounds for the rest of the album.  "Two Pieces of One: Red" and the rest of Life Time are typified by a restrained, spacious atmosphere wherein solos take place with very little backing instrumentation (aided considerably by the fact that there's no piano on three of five tracks) and rarely take off into the rapid-fire solo excursions popular even with some of the players on this disc--Sam Rivers is surprisingly subdued here, but he manages to ride the transition with little difficulty, relying more on dynamics and the presence/non-presence duality that's much more of an option when you're playing in a musical landscape as open as this one.  Indeed, the overall sound of this album owes as much to the theoretical advancements of John Cage as it does to free jazz pioneers, setting up blocks of silence as both an effective compositional tool (making it easier to tell when the sometimes skeletal compositions are moving to another section) and as an invisible member of the combo, giving the players another (absence of) sound to play off and somehow adding depth and intensity to the sounds that are actually present.  Williams' drums in particular seem to particularly smolder in the open, reverb-heavy environment, with his brushwork lifelike in its texture and his cymbal work especially benefiting from miles of reverb and a lack of competition with other instruments (and himself, for that matter--this music wouldn't be so great if the players didn't match the mood by leaving a little space in their own playing).

"Two Pieces of One: Green" is the album's longest track, with Rivers contributing some more of his characteristic fire and blasting some really juicy overtones, while Williams explores the toms and un-snared snare.  While the subtle melody of some of the album's other tracks gradually reveals itself, this track is one of the freest of the bunch, demonstrating amply that free jazz doesn't have to always consist of several instruments blaring at the same time.  "Tomorrow Afternoon" comes closest to hard bop in melody and swing, but gradually breaks up into greater and greater caverns of space, like the floor is dropping away from the comfortable atmosphere that was so briefly established.  "Memory" drops Rivers and brings vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Hancock in for a bassless free improvisation that sees Hutcherson and Williams riffing off one another quite effectively, with the vibes providing just enough of a tonal anchor; with Williams' wood block and other hand percussion providing yet another noticeable textural contribution.  The arrangement is so sparse that when Hancock finally asserts himself around 5:30 with a brief chord, it sounds like the loudest, most melodic thing you've ever heard.  The album ends with "Barb's Song to the Wizard," a piano and bass duet with no drums--the tense melody nods to Williams' aforementioned work with Moncur III and McLean.  Unlike those great albums, though, Williams always seems to take things one step further, providing no real traditional bop tunes to appease nervous listeners and committing fully to the album's mission statement.

The fact that this album works so well with such a piecemeal, rotating assortment of players exclusively playing the compositions of a 17-year-old drummer is a testament both to Williams' skill and unheard-of musical maturity at the time, but also to whatever it was in the air at the time that made all of these players so assured in their judgment, synchronicity and adventurousness.  Life Time is a grower in the best sense of the word--sounding like nothing much on first listen but gradually unfolding into a paradoxically dense work, considering its relative quietness--and every time I listen to it I find myself asking "Why isn't there more free jazz like this?!"  Luckily a little research into the discographies of the artists involved here yield further pairings in the same time period and several great albums in the same vein.  While Williams would go on in the next few years to collaborate with some of avant-garde jazz's most acclaimed albums (as well as Miles Davis' less challenging but equally iconic work [I bet he hated this album]) before heading into fusion territory, he did reconvene with some of these players for the nearly-as-excellent Spring, but no album I've found has done such a good job of fusing an AMM-like free improv space aesthetic with "traditional" free jazz harmony and melody--recommendations welcome!

Get it here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Picchio dal Pozzo - Picchio dal Pozzo

To round out this week's Canterbury Scene focus, here's one of the best examples of how the scene's sounds eventually transcended their geographical and physical origins, and a few even more obscure groups in Europe carried the Canterbury influence in an expanded and often quite interesting and artistically successful direction.  On their 1976 eponymous debut, Italian group Picchio dal Pozzo manage to fuse the gentle synth atmospheres and vocalizing of solo Robert Wyatt with space rock jams not unlike those of mid-70s Gong, all the while sticking to a very Canterburian classical-jazz instrumentation that's heavy on flute, xylophone, oboe, keyboard and fuzzed-out bass and guitar.   

Like so many of my very favorite albums, part of what I love about this album is simply how the music sounds--from the first fade-in acoustic guitar notes of "Merta" the tone of this album is like a warm bath--enveloping, soothing and somehow comforting in spite of its more challenging moments.  Though it's easy to trace this group's influences to Canterbury, there's something about their hazy, dreamy sound and penchant for mischievous wordless vocals that is totally their own.  "Cocomelastico" follows with a direct segue into an awesome-sounding guitar/saxophone counterpoint melody underpinned by layers of spacey synths and some sort of twisted lounge music with suitably gently goofy singing.  As you can see from the lyrics provided on the band's official website, the few words to these songs are mostly nonsense and whimsical wordplay; perhaps one of the Canterbury scene's greatest strengths in terms of longevity is that, unlike most progressive bands, its groups never seemed to take themselves too seriously!

The album's darkest track and arguably its centerpiece is the magnificent "Seppia," beginning with a minor ostinato and some well-chosen dissonant note pairs in the bass before stating a dramatic oboe-led melody and dropping into on of the most deliriously hypnotic fuzz bass riffs in Canterbury history for a synth/xylophone/vocal jam that lasts a good six minutes before dropping suddenly into a quietly avant-garde flute/xylophone/bass trio and closing the tune with some spoken word and a stately, mysterious reed-led section.  The number of sudden surprises, dynamics, details and layers of beauty in a track like this are my total ideal--it's at once accessible and traditionally melodic, while at the same time playing with dissonance and bizarre choices.  The genius of Picchio dal Pozzo's approach seems to be their use of gentle instruments and textures to explore these potentially grating musical moves; they're not going to offend anybody too blatantly, but if you pay attention you realize that there's a lot more going on here than it might initially appear.

"Napier" and the rest of the tracks present more densely-packed, swiftly-moving ideas, quirky but accessible melodies and almost narcotic timbres.  While the last couple of tracks are perhaps less obviously memorable in terms of melody and structure, their humble beauty does improve with further listening and the texture and atmosphere suits the rest of the album's mood so well that the disc trails off in a dreamy whisper that makes me want to start over immediately.  Though it can be argued that the heavy Canterbury influences make Picchio dal Pozzo's debut a bit derivative, as far as I'm concerned we could do with a few more great Canterbury albums and the quality of this music is so consistent and the atmosphere is so uniquely dreamy that it really doesn't bother me; sometimes doing something really well trumps doing something first, and you'll often find there are subtle wrinkles of originality hidden within.

Picchio dal Pozzo is one of my favorite Canterbury albums and is probably favorite Italian progressive album (though there are only a few Italian progressive groups who have actually clicked with me; Stormy Six, Area and Museo Rosenbach and maybe one or two others who manage to do more than rehash the less interesting aspects of symphonic prog).  I'm also really excited to say that this album is back in print on CD--just reissued by Italy's Goodfellas label at the end of 2011.  Now I can review it guilt-free and point you to one of my favorite online storefronts, Recommended Records, as a great place to purchase this CD and support these artists. Obviously, this album is highly recommended, as is the group's second and final studio release, the more challenging and RIO-flavored (but equally rewarding) Abbiamo tutti i suoi problemi, which has been consistently commercially available--more on that album later!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hatfield and the North - Hatfield and the North

To delve further into the dense stuff of the Canterbury Scene, Hatfield and the North's 1974 debut is a great place to explore how the scene evolved both personnel-wise and sound-wise as the 70's wore on.  By this time Soft Machine was firmly on a jazz-heavy fusion route, with Robert Wyatt long-since departed, finished with his next project Matching Mole, a paraplegic and releasing his first masterpiece, Rock Bottom, the same year.  Gong and Caravan were already very different bands, with drummer Pip Pyle gone from Gong (to drum for Hatfield and the North) and guitarist Steve Hillage added to the fold, and bassist Richard Sinclair departing Caravan, also to work with the Hatfields.  By the time of this album's recording, the core group was rounded out by Egg (among other groups) keyboardist Dave Stewart and Matching Mole/Delivery guitarist Phil Miller.  My intention isn't to get overly cluttered with names and group references, but rather to show just how intermingling the Canterbury Scene was (and continues to be, to some extent)--Hatfield and the North can in some ways be considered the first Canterbury supergroup as it was formed from members who had already demonstrated their abilities on the classic albums of other Canterbury groups.

Sound-wise, Hatfield and the North amply demonstrates how the Canterbury sound continued to get more sophisticated, more refined, and jazzier.  Unlike mid-70's Soft Machine (or the trace jazz elements found in Caravan, for example), Hatfield and the North's debut sound is one of fusion of jazz harmony, complex composition and improvisation with appealing, gentle melodies.  The complexity of these compositions is far from the relative pop-simplicity of Caravan's songs, yet Richard Sinclair seems to have no trouble accommodating his bass skills to the material.  And don't think that this group is just going to sound like a summation of all the things the members did before--this album is rife with seamless transitions and sub-one-minute segue tracks, and the mission of the vocals (the lyrics for which are mostly tongue-in-cheek nonsense) seems to be to give listeners an accessible insertion point into what's often complex and difficult-to-get-the-first-time music.

Though it's not his group, per se (at least not as much as later incarnation National Health was), Dave Stewart's keyboards provide the most noticeable framework for this music--fluidly transitioning between Rhodes electric piano, Hammond organ, various synthesizers and acoustic piano to provide both texture and melodic substance.  "Son of 'There's No Place Like Homerton'" boasts some of the most Egg-like contrapuntal puzzle keyboard of the album, with a complex, ever-shifting atmosphere abetted by airy, ethereal contributions of the "Northettes" (background singers Barbara Gaskin, Amanda Parsons and Ann Rosenthal, who also contributed to Egg's Civil Surface album, released the same year).  Robert Wyatt guest vocalizes on "Calyx," eventually joined by Richard Sinclair in a delicate, wordless duet.  It's these kinds of complex but unassuming moments that make Hatfield and the North's two albums so rewarding on repeated listens.

I have to admit that it took me quite a few before my attitude shifted from mere respectful appreciation to all-out enthusiasm--I'm beginning to think that there's something about the language of jazz harmony that's fundamentally different from that found in most rock and pop--you have to have to acquaint yourself a certain amount with it before it stops just sounding like silly noodling and the multiple facets possible with extended harmony start to shine through.  The songs here don't often "rock out" (even by Canterbury's gentle standards), and the often major-key extended harmonies are much more reminiscent of later smooth jazz music than their darker minor counterparts being explored by Soft Machine and Henry Cow.  The band does manage to get pretty uptempo and a little more aggressive in sound on the fast-paced "Rifferama," which features Gong saxophonist Didier Malherbe and on which Dave Stewart coyly quotes the "I Never Glid Before" melody.  "Shaving is Boring" is likely the album's most epic composition, treading some darker territory with some Mahavishnu Orchestra-like ostinato patterns, gnarly Canterbury fuzz organ and an uncharacteristically distorted and noticeable contribution from Phil Miller's guitar (we won't quite get to see him cut loose until National Health's Of Queues and Cures, which fulfills all of Hatfield and the North's promise and then some).  Richard Sinclair does his best Robert Wyatt in the vaguely sexual "Licks for the Ladies," displaying that his sometimes subdued vocals aren't without a considerable amount of nuance.  He also manages some of the album's funniest quirky Canterbury nonsense vocals when "Big Jobs No. 2" recapitulates the second track with metacommentary on the band's hopes for commercial success.

It's interesting to see how all of these Canterbury figures continued to develop their distinct but collective musical visions while at the same time working for some kind of commercial success.  As the band morphed into National Health and progressive music became less and less popular in the late 70's, it became clear that the golden days of having label support and a mouthpiece through which to broadcast these ideas were drawing to a close.  Luckily several of these musicians have soldiered on to make more worthwhile music, but we also have a legacy of densely enjoyable recordings and ideas to engage in the present.  This album is warmly recommended along with the band's sophomore effort The Rotters' Club, as well as National Health's self-titled debut and the aforementioned Of Queues and Cures--more thoughts on those records later!

Get it here.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Caravan - In the Land of Grey and Pink

It's been a while since I've written about any Canterbury Scene bands, and I'd still like to further explore how the music has expanded past its original physical scene into a recognizable style, but also what it was like when the style and membership of the scene was still concentrated in just a few bands.  You can't do that without talking about Caravan, which--aside from Soft Machine--probably has the most members closely tied with the early Canterbury Scene.  Like Soft Machine, Caravan started in the late 60's, boasting members from the formative Canterbury band Wilde Flowers.  Also like Soft Machine, Caravan was instrumental in defining what has come to be known as the Canterbury sound, although in a considerably different way from the Softs.  Even at its early poppiest, Soft Machine's sound was always firmly rooted in jazz, while I'd say Caravan is more tied to psychedelic rock with some elements of jazz and progressive, and by most accounts they perfected this distinctive blend with this, 1971's In the Land of Grey and Pink.

In case you were worried, the bouncy opener, "Golf Girl" assures us of this album's origin--the trombone, flute, juiced-up organ and goofy lyrics ("on the golf course/we talk in Morse") are undeniably Canterbury.  Compared with Soft Machine, though, this is definitely rock, and while it seems Robert Wyatt was mostly just screwing around (albeit quite entertainingly) with his lyrics, there's a sincerity with Richard Sinclair's words and delivery that adds a dimension of warmth to Caravan's whimsy.  "Winter Wine" turns a 180, with a psychedelic folk bent and a bunch of fantasy imagery that seems to support the album cover (which, by the way, is fucking awesome--I want to go there).  Though Sinclair's vocals do seem a little inconspicuous on first listen, a surprising amount of nuance becomes apparent when you come to learn the songs a bit better.  The mutual Canterbury influence is apparent in how he and guitarist/vocalist Pye Hastings make up a sort of two-man approximation of Wyatt--Hastings' vocals rest in the thin, upper register Wyatt treads so often (check out the delirious cowbell pop of "Love to Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly)", while Sinclair's lower range seems to prefigure the fragile humility so often found in Wyatt's post-Soft Machine work. 

The title track revisits the "Golf Girl" feel with some more stoner-hippie-fantasy-nonsense imagery ("we'll pick our fill of punk weed and smoke it it till we bleed--that's all we'll need") as well as some sparkling piano and a great organ solo.  I find it interesting how the band employs a classic Canterbury (Mike Ratledge) innovation like the fuzz organ, but use it in a totally different way.  This brings me to the epic, side-long closer "Nine Feet Underground," which assures us without a doubt that Caravan's lead solo instrument is Dave Sinclair's organ.  While the other Canterbury groups are no strangers to long solos, Caravan seems content to set up a fairly straightforward rock riff-based jam and allow Dave Sinclair to stretch out with several minutes-long organ solos.  While it's a repetitive approach and Sinclair's style is nowhere near as technically erudite as Mike Ratledge's or Dave Stewart's, for example, there's something about Caravan's hazy/catchy psychedelic atmosphere and the tone and Sinclair's tone and note choice that just clicks perfectly.  It's amazing how well a 22 minute-long song can mostly subsist on jams and organ solos (though Pye Hastings and Richard Sinclair each contribute a vocal section) but I think it owes to memorable, melodic chord progressions and Sinclair's willingness to effectively alter the tone and effects of his instrument to expand his ideas and change up the palette.  The song's conclusion pits barnstorming riff sections against some of Sinclair's most groovily aggressive soloing (though some say it rips of "Sunshine of Your Love," I'm not sure Cream can really lay creative claim to an entire musical interval--suffice to say the two riffs are similar-sounding and Cream's came first).  Amazing--that is, if you like longform jamming.

It seems there's a Canterbury Scene band for every mood and season (well, not really, but the scene demonstrates surprising depth while still conveying a distinctive sound), and for me Caravan is the catchiest, most mainstream of the lot, which is probably why they remain one of the bands who is more often discovered by younger listeners, even achieving mention in Mojo, which sports nary a mention of most other Canterbury luminaries, except Robert Wyatt, who seems to show up several times an issue these days.  This album is warmly recommended to psych/prog fans as well as Canterbury disciples, and it's worth mentioning that If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You and Caravan for Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night are nearly as rewarding.

Get it here, or deluxe here.

Please enjoy the back cover, too:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Davy Graham - The Guitar Player

If you're interested in delving into the influential and often mind-blowing rabbit hole that is Davy Graham's guitar playing and inimitable fusion of jazz and blues with folk from across the world, I urge you not to start here!  That's right, it's another installment of the only-very-occasionally-controversial Know Your Enemy series.  This time it's not really poor Davy or his fleet fingers, but rather his presumed audience who's the enemy.  It's got to be pretty much impossible to reckon how many great artists' originality and instincts have been stifled (either by their record labels or by themselves) in hopes of presenting their music as inoffensive and appealing to the largest and most middle-of-the-road audience possible.  By this album's 1963 release, Davy had already been doing the things that made him a legend among many British musicians who would find considerably more fame (things like showing up to a party and playing a single-guitar arrangement of Ravel's Boléro).  Instead of committing his unrivaled guitar excursions to tape, Pye subsidary Golden Guinea decided it would be more commercially accessible to pair Graham with a jazz session drummer and record an inoffensive mix of jazz and blues standards.

And so, we have The Guitar Player, whose title and cover promises an aural vision of Graham it doesn't deliver, at least in relation to his historical reputation.  We get "Take Five" and "Cry Me A River" (an earlier filmed version of which secured Graham this record deal) as well as Cannonball Adderly's "Sermonette."  While the material is in places somewhat mundane, Graham's playing is always flowingly organic (the tempo ebbs and flows with quite a bit of endearing imperfection) and it's fascinating to hear him collapse all the vocal and instrumental parts of a song like "Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" into a single fingerstyle guitar part.  Disappointingly, most of the songs veer toward jazzy blues (or maybe bluesy jazz, as many Graham's mini-fills tend to riff on blues scales), though there are a few outliers that hint at the man's true passion--"The Ruby and the Pearl" injects a satisfying amount of minor Latin into the mix (and the drummer manages to play the sticks in a considerably more complementary way than he often does elsewhere, or maybe it's the fact that it's just acoustic guitar and drums that makes some of the arrangements sound  just a bit hollow).

Re-listening to this album, I'm reminded how much of a joy it is to listen to Graham's guitar playing, no matter what the context--sort of the guitar equivalent of saying you'd be OK listening to your favorite singer singing names out of the phone book.  It's just the knowledge that Graham had much bigger ideas to share and the way the songs are all so self-consciously happy sounding that rings somewhat forced.  The liner notes Davy writes "I sincerely hope you enjoy this record either to listen to or as a background to a good conversation," which just about sums it up--cowering in submission to your hoped-for audience so very rarely produces the stuff from which legends are born.  The CD reissue of this album seems determined to apologize for the original album's timidness, including examples of what actually made Graham legendary (raga-infused Irish folk in "She Moved Thru' The Bizarre/Blue Raga," Greek folk in "Miserlou" and a considerably more eclectic selection of songs from Graham's later-70's All That Moody, including his legendary instrumental "Anji").  Still, the unfortunate truth is that, pleasant as it is, this album doesn't come close to doing Graham's contributions justice.  While Graham would have career-long troubles finding a marketable niche for himself and regularly seemed to make artistic choices in hopes of endearing himself to an intangible audience, he at least managed to create a concurrent legacy of music that more successfully represented his unique and unprecedented vision.  While it's frustrating that he never produced an epic, vocal-less collection of his genre-shattering experiments (I'm sure partly owing to the fact that solo acoustic guitar as a genre was pretty much just getting going in the early 1960's), there are much better places to start than The Guitar Player.

You can get it here.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Plastic People of the Universe - Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned

Recorded in 1974 in communist Prague but not released until 1978 in France Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned is the first album by long-lived Czech band Plastic People of the Universe.  Like a number of other bands in the 60's and 70's, these guys were part of an underground rebellion against repressive communist governments that took the shape of rock music--I can't think of a much cooler reason to make music.

I remember the first time I tried to listen to this album, I was a little disappointed in the opener, "Dvacet;" though it introduces the group's appealing instrumentation (including saxophone, violin, some weird keyboards and delay-treated vocals), the melodic pattern is simple and repetitive, and though I'm aware the Czech poetry (written by Egon Bondy) that makes up the lyrics is probably pretty charged, I can't understand Czech and don't have a source for translation.  I must have stopped listening and switched to something else before the one-minute mark, when the free jazz-informed sax solo starts with a scream from one of the vocalists, and the group's primal groove kicks in.  When I finally gave the album a second chance, I remember kicking myself for not listening just a bit further.  Though it's just a couple minutes long, "Dvacet" is a good example of the group's compositional style, which relies on repetitive grooves and sing-song melodies as a backdrop for some pretty wild soloing.

It becomes pretty apparent how Frank Zappa-influenced these guys are (they even took their name from a Mothers of Invention song) after just a few minutes, but I like how they take the irreverent mood and tense harmonic structure of Zappa and Henry Cow and apply it to a much more primitive structure of simplistic but often brutal riffing.  "Toxica" spaces out a minor theme with effective theatricality before riff-izing it for a great fuzz guitar solo, while "Magicke Noci" starts with some delirious synthesizer before launching into one of the album's most punishingly foreboding riffs, somehow conjured just from bass, rhodes and drums.  "Podivuhodny mandarin" is probably the best fusion of lyrical rhythm and hypnotic riffing on the album--make sure to check out the video of a 2009 performance; these guys are still rocking this material even though they're old and grizzled!

Though a few of the quieter tracks (like "Okolo Okna") might not be as immediate or arresting, the group always manages to set up a unique atmosphere and accomplish some spacey soloing.  I also really like their deeper ventures into satirical territory on the short spoof "MGM" (wherein the group imitates MGM's opening lion roar with their own voices) and the theatrical closer "Jo - to se ti to spi," where the vocalizing is almost Robert Wyatt-like.  Keep in mind that this is an underground recording (the sound quality is pretty low), but the group's untamed irreverent spirit and counter-cultural defiance always manage to show through--you can easily tell that they're not only risking their political freedom to make this music, they're also having a great time doing it!  Good luck finding a CD of this sadly out of print album; luckily it's around for download in quite a few places.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Doors - The Doors

Jim's left eye is...John Densmore's face?

It's been a while since I've undertaken the carefree task of writing about something really popular and well-known, so why not talk about The Doors' 1967 self-titled debut?  Now that this album is pushing 50, it's a little easier to take its legendary status with a grain of salt, and I find it easiest to evaluate when taken as what it really is--pop music, pure and simple!  When you think about these songs as something "the kids" were supposed to go crazy for and buy in wheelbarrowfuls, the facts that Jim Morrison's "poetry" is mostly inane cliché rhymes and that the music here isn't really challenging or as dark as the image the band cultivated don't really matter--it's pop, and pretty great pop, for that matter.

Not that The Doors wasn't a revolutionary or nearly completely fresh album at the time it emerged--it pretty much made Elektra Records into a successful rock label, proved the marketability of a dark, distinctive version of US psychedelic rock that had little to do with the typical West Coast sound, and demonstrated that there was plenty of room in the pantheon of teen idols for a raw, sexual, and darkly pseudo-artistic figure like Jim Morrison, paving the way for a lot more experimentation in US pop music. 

What made The Doors so different and successful?  To my eyes and ears, it's the fact that they backed up their unique, marketable image with such a distinctive style.  While Morrison's poetic pretensions are often hard to swallow, the rest of the band really did fulfill the dark, artsy image that's represented so well by the cover art--Ray Manzarek's roots were classical, Robby Krieger purportedly never played an electric guitar (he was a flamenco player) before joining the group, and John Densmore's jazz chops are probably the best thing the group's got going for itself instrumentally.  That murky, dark sound typified by heavily-reverbed Morrison vocals (the power of his voice as an instrument is tough to deny, especially when he swings between baritone crooning and animalistic shrieks) and piercing organ high-end was pretty much unheard-of, and even if a lot of the material is ultimately lightweight, it certainly fits the group's image in mood and bluster.  Whoever had the idea to include the Brecht/Weill "Alabama Song" and blues standard "Back Door Man" was on the right track, fleshing out the group's druggier originals with the drunken carnival leer of a sex-crazed pervert that Morrison would continue to embrace, probably to his great personal detriment.  Of course, the original that cements these covers' filthy promise is the immortal "The End," in most parts not so much a song as it is a musical texture backdrop for Morrison's closest attempt at poetry on the album, with some controversial sex noises and mother-f'er talk.

What really made the album sell, though, is the wealth of melody and hooks that reside in most of the songs--"Break On Through" and "Light My Fire" combine late night drug imagery (though most people probably haven't heard the unedited "Break On Through," where Morrison clearly shouts "she get high") with pop-perfect breaks and simple melodies delivered with apt doom by Morrison's god voice.  It's impressive how many other potential hits are on here, though, like the funky organ/guitar combo on "Soul Kitchen" and "Twentieth Century Fox," not to mention the schmaltzy mystery of "The Crystal Ship."  And surprisingly, a couple deep cuts are just as catchy--the garagey start/stop of "I Looked At You" makes for a great false ending, and the thinly-veiled sexual imagery of "Take It As It Comes" is probably the only thing that held it back from single-dom.

Though their edginess makes them appear unique, The Doors' career started like so many other great, wide-eyed rock bands, with a group whose instincts were pure but whose vision into the future was short-sighted due to the fact that they barely knew what they were doing when they were doing it--there's about three repetitive keyboard basslines that Manzarek recycles across all of these songs, while Krieger's nascent relationship with his electric guitar evidences itself in a limited range of ideas and a virtually identical guitar solo on "Soul Kitchen" and "Twentieth Century Fox."  The familiar commercial pressure to repeat the debut's success made for diminishing returns after the group's sophomore album, but when they eventually gained confidence as a working unit their diverse and unusual identities shone through for some weirder and more experimental compositions, but I think the perfect storm and untainted energy of this one will probably stand in most people's minds as their definitive statement.  Just don't take it too seriously. 

Get it here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tyler Fortier - Bang On Time

Time for some friend music!  I've known today's artist--Eugene, Oregon-based singer/songwriter Tyler Fortier--since we were both about five years old, having both grown up in Camas, so it's always a pleasure today to track his continuing path as an artist and a special pleasure to feature an album of his here on the blog.  Bang on Time is Tyler's third release of 2011, following February's ...And They Rode Like Wildfire Snaking Through the Hills 'Neath the Scarlet Sun and April's Fear of the Unknown.  The fact that he managed to even find time and energy to write, record, distribute and tour behind three releases (let alone take the care to give each album a discrete identity) is hard to imagine, yet here the evidence is for us to enjoy.

One thing we songwriters and musicians hate to hear is that we've improved or gotten "better"--there's no quicker way to backhandedly dismiss a creative legacy that took years and an immeasurable amount of personal investment to create.  When I say Tyler has improved, I mean that he's progressively honed the aspects of his music that have been there making his albums great since the beginning--he's become more assured as a vocalist, his artistic vision has become clearer with each release and, most importantly, his craft as a songwriter has reached a level of nuance that pushes it well past what many working musicians are even capable of. 

Tyler introduces Bang On Time as stripped-down and lyrically-driven; while I'd hesitate to call the arrangements stripped-down (songs often feature several acoustic instruments, three-part vocal harmony, and there are a few string arrangements), the mood is certainly more contemplative than the rock arrangements of Fear of the Unknown.  The lyrics are indeed the centerpiece, with the irrevocable passing of time being the prime thread that connects Tyler's varied thoughts.  After listening a few times, I'm most struck by a feeling of immediacy, the sense that now is the imperative time for action, whether it's to get out of "A Place I Used To Know," to stop the clock in the title track, to continue moving "To Keep From Growing Old," or to cut the shit and get back to the things we really care about in "This World Is Moving Slow."  Tyler for the most part avoids cliché when dealing with these topics, and overcomes their familiarity to the listener with an earnest emotional authenticity that always shines through.

Of course, melody and hooks never hurt.  Moments like the transition from the chorus "home" to the bridge "home" on "This World Is Moving Slow" come at just the right time, and the restraint and simplicity of a chorus melody like the one on "When The Day Gets Lonely" transform and elevate a track that begins deceptively plainly.  While we're on the subject, one of my very favorite things about Tyler's recent work is his continuing musical relationship with his fiance, Erin Flood, whose harmony vocals blend with and accent Tyler's lead vocals perfectly, amplifying the emotional power and lifting less memorable songs like "Sweet Marie" with enhanced melodicism. 

Equally as exciting as Tyler's attention to songwriting and arranging craft are the places where he starts taking risks outside his established field, like when the breathiness gives way for a naked, strong high or low note in the vocals, or on unexpected songwriting experiments.  While the textured instrumental arrangements occasionally have me wondering if the same result couldn't necessarily be achieved with fewer sounds, a song like the moodily dark "Bang On Time" hangs on its hypnotic bassline, cavernous reverb and multiple guitars, while the album-closing "We Waited For Everything" successfully employs a dense arrangement that includes bells, pre-recorded voices, piano and spacious delay to enhance the song's dream theme with subtle psychedelic touches.  With today's proliferation of independent musicians and the ease of creating and distributing digital recordings, I often wonder what it takes for good music to finally reach mainstream notoriety--hearing songs like these, it seems like Tyler's starting to tap into even more methods that can distinguish him from the host of other Americana acts out there. 

I spend so much time looking for "out-there" artists that deconstruct our fundamental assumptions about music aesthetics that I can forget how equally rewarding more traditional music can be if the songwriting is crafted with minute and loving detail--I look forward to seeing where Tyler takes his rarefied craft with his next release.  For now, you can see him live on his solo tour around Oregon and Washington--I'll be at Nectar Lounge to see him this Friday!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Peter Lang - The Thing at the Nursery Room Window

One of the greatest title/cover art combinations I'm aware of...what exactly is that cursive smoke spelling out?

Especially considering the fact that the "American Primitive" genre of folk guitar was just over a decade old in the early 1970's, I think it's a testament to the depth of the stable of outstanding guitarists Takoma Records had assembled that each one managed to have a distinctive style and purpose.  While genre founder John Fahey wanted to communicate something mystical he discovered by examining the elemental essence of early blues players under a microscope and Robbie Basho strove to reimagine his guitar technique to communicate incommunicable mystical secrets, Leo Kottke and Peter Lang both seemed to be players first and composers second--musicians driven most by the joy of making beautiful sounds come out of their instruments.  While this is an important component to any musician's working life, I think vision is one of the elements that separates musicians who truly have something to say from those who are simply technically proficient.  What I find most interesting about Peter Lang's Takoma debut is the fact that it finds the guitarist at a developmental crossroads, growing past his pure technical roots into a territory with far fewer limits, determined only by his own compositional imagination.

According to the CD reissue's liner notes, Fahey told Lang that he was thinking (as a composer) in too small blocks of time and urged him to allow his pieces to stretch out a bit.  You can hear where Fahey's coming from on the opening tracks "Snow Toad" and "Muggy Friday," where Lang's formidable technique seems bent on making the finish line.  While his rapid fingerpicking audibly owes more to Kottke's style than Fahey's, Lang's approach is subtly idiosyncratic, with a nice emphasis on string bends and slides.  As the album progresses, though, we get to see the fruits of Lang's response to Fahey's critique--"Turnpike Terror," though only slightly longer, starts playing with dynamic and textural changes, utilizing space and strumming to take the short piece in several directions.  The marvelous "Bituminous Nightmare" stretches even further, flirting with much more dissonance, theme development and single note layering (for lack of a better term) that seems to be wholly Lang's trick. 

Though only a few of the songs here fully demonstrate Lang's growth as a composer, his playing is always beautiful, engaging, and (for my money) more emotionally compelling than Kottke's.  He proves himself an able slide player on "Wide Oval Ripoff," a capable balladeer on "Young Man, Young Man, Look At Your Shoes," and unafraid of lightning fast swing on "Quetico Reel."  Satisfyingly, though, the album ends on his most ambitious and adventurous compositions, the nearly 10-minute "Future Shot at the Rainbow," which further explores his penchant for overlapping single note lines to an almost baroque extent, unfolding and refolding a humbly beautiful melody with a real sense of journey abetted by judicious pacing and flow.  While Lang never managed a consistent output, his playing is always delightful and this album stands as one of the most enjoyable Takoma releases and a hopeful nod to the virtue of stretching beyond your comfort zone.

Get it here.