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Monday, February 20, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016: Part # 3.
10. Chroma - Cuerpos Dóciles 12''
Of the assorted flash-in-the-pan fads that have increasingly been afflicting internet-era music subcultures over the past few years, one of the most irksome to me personally has been the sudden (perhaps already fading?) rage for “dark punk”/goth revival stuff that seems to have been swept through the world’s punk scenes like a particularly virulent stream of Dutch Elm Disease. I mean, ok - I realise that the world currently feels very much like an accelerated blockbuster re-run of the darkest moments of the 1980s, but does that really mean we have to sound like it too? If quasi-mainstream bands playing Siouxsie & The Banshees rehashes are still being hailed by what remains of the press as if they represent some exciting, new future, does that mean that the underground has to follow suit by launching tepid re-enactments of, I dunno, Christian Death or UK Decay or something? What gives?
Well, I don’t know. It’s just pure, unfettered personal preference speaking here, really. Let’s just mark the fact that it’s a sound I’ve never liked very much, and move on to say that, from my POV, the best thing by far to come out of this ‘dark punk’ moment has been Rakta (see below), and the assorted bands that have followed in their wake or move within their orbit – and chief amongst those is Chroma, a Barcelona-based outfit featuring (I believe) Rakta’s former guitarist, who has now relocated there and plays bass in Chroma. [Corrections to that largely pieced together pile of assumptions welcomed in the comments].
Verily, many ‘dark punk’ signifiers can be readily identified on this 12”, from the wanton abuse of phaser and chorus pedals to the grooveless, martial drumming and some high-end, Joy Division-y basslines, but Chroma’s application here is so searing and purposeful it almost redeems such gestures for all time. Far from snuffling about like not-quite-committed revivalists who got bored of all the other styles of punk music invinted in the ‘80s, Chroma wield their noise with an unflinching, 50 yard stare, as if just DARING the likes of me to fuck with them as they channel rage, resistance and forward momentum into some of the best punk rock I heard in 2016, no qualifiers or sub-categorisation needed.
Dragging riffs out of pure sheets of FX-filtered amp skree, the guitar here is genuine, shiver-down-the-spine exciting, but it’s Rebe’s vocals that are the main selling point here, standing out proud, feral, terrifying and awesome – war-cries from the side of the barricades that I hope I’m also on when our nightmare future fully kicks in.
Sadly I’m too much of a dunce to even figure out whether she’s singing in Catalan or Spanish, let alone understand what she’s saying, but it certainly sounds as if some heavy matters are being addressed, and I’m pretty sure she has my vote on them.
Behind her, the rhythm section Laura and Amy eke out a kind of scaly, dystopian gloom that certainly captures the best and most brutal side of post-punk atmospherics, those familiar snare rolls and eerie, melodic bass bits suggesting a slow march toward imminent, ghastly violence – with the ensuing image of Chroma’s fiery breath melting their enemies kaiju-style expressing everything that makes this great 12” such an enervating and inspiring listen. I may not be looking forward to much in 2017, but I’m certainly looking forward to more of this.
Variously available from different labels in NYC, Barcelona and Brazil, you can check Chroma’s bandcamp for details if you want to track down a hard copy, or get a download straight from the band.
9. Mule Team - tape (self-released)
At completely the other end of the rock spectrum meanwhile -- Mule Team are a great four-piece band from Japan (members split between Yokosuka, Tokyo and Yokahama I believe), who play cool, easy-going rock n’ roll with sweet guitar leads, catchy tunes, a rolling back-beat and a pointed disinterest in self-promotion or online presence, with the latter no doubt contributing to their music’s success in standing entirely outside of the petty concerns and demands of contemporary culture, whilst simultaneously not caving in to any overt retro posturing.
It’s good time music and they have a good time playing it; if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a good time listening to it, and this is all that matters. Over the course of the six songs on this tape (manufactured to cover costs for a Japanese tour supporting Nobunny and long since sold out), the band veer away from their base in Creedence-style choogle to embrace Dinosaur-esque neo-classic rock at some points, Big Star-ish power-pop at others, with just enough of the members’ backgrounds in garage-punk shining through to keep things fast, loud and slightly on edge.
A nifty Eastern hemisphere counter-part to bands like Tennessee’s Natural Child (only minus the stoner humour, Eagles infatuation and terrible album covers), Mule Team remind us that, when it’s done right, rock music doesn’t have to be anything more than rock music, because rock music is great.
One song from this tape can be streamed via Bandcamp (as per the D/i/s/c/o/s tape, please don’t buy it – the price equates to about £600), but otherwise you’re shit out of luck if you want to hear Mule Team’s recorded work just at the moment, I’m afraid.
8. Rakta – III LP (various labels)
The defection of Rakta’s guitarist [see Chroma review above] seems to have pushed Brazil’s finest future-punks in somewhat of a bold new direction if this release is anything to go by, with the slightly more outré sonic palette of vocalist/keyboardist/noiseist Carla now co-existing alongside the dogged, DIY punk beat-down of the band’s rhythm section, without the customary wall of guitar chug to fall back on.
Incorporating everything from ‘tribal’ floor tom pounding, horror movie organs and Indian war whoops to jagged bursts of white noise and masses of Rakta’s by-now-expected Boss delay pedal freakouts, the results are – miraculously - all served up in a manner that remains compelling rather than infuriating, and, as much as I miss the sheet metal distortion of Laura’s guitar, it’s safe to say that ‘III’ represents the band fully taking ownership of the more explorative, unmoored sound that their earlier releases have always hinted at.
Mixing an unsettlingly minimal, martial beat with outbursts of strangulated noise, mangled ‘satellite decay’ vocal fragments and fascistic soundtrack-to-a-barbarian-movie synth-strings, ‘A Violencia do Silencio’ sounds like something Cabaret Voltaire might have come up with in one of their fruitier moments, whilst both of the LP’s longer tracks (‘Conjuração Do Espelho’, ‘A Busca Do Circulo’) succeed in conjuring up the kind of electronic-atavistic sound-fog that puts me in mind of much-missed noise-witch covens like Pocahaunted or Double Leopards – reference points that it is very cool indeed to have the opportunity to throw around in relation to what is still ostensibly a “punk” record.
I guess you could say, much of the time, when a rock band let their yen for ‘creative expression’ hang out as shamelessly as Rakta do here, you’d be apt to write it off as a load of indulgent, difficult-second-album hoo-hah and wish they’d play to their strengths instead, but you could equally say that (certainly in terms of the still pervasive post-punk/’new pop’ critical mindset) successfully making such a leap is what separates groups who actually have something important to add to the equation from the mere chancers or genre re-enactors. As such, it is heartening to listen to ‘III’ and hear Rakta just making it, y’know - work.
It works so well in fact, I find myself willing them to go even further with the more potentially alienating or absurd aspects of their sound, for there is a self-belief to be felt and heard here that reassures me that this band are not messing around. Just as per their first 12” a couple of years back, ‘III’ is just about the most exhilarating and genuinely forward-thinking thing I’ve heard from the quote-unquote punk underground in donkey’s years, and deserves to be celebrated as such.
Variously pressed in different continents by (I’m quoting here) “Iron Lung Records (USA), Nada Nada Discos/Dama da Noite Discos (BR) and Dê o Fora (ES)”, ‘III’ can be purchased in various formats direct from the band, or check with local distros etc if you need it in hard copy but are wary of the postage.
7. Monoliths – s/t LP (Dry Cough)
An authentically mighty Nottingham-based doom outfit (ex-Moloch, Diet Pills etc), Monoliths here heroically reject any hint of ‘genre innovation’, instead doubling back on tried and tested veneration of Sleep, Earth, Burning Witch et al for some long haul, mountain flattening heaviosity that pretty much nails it as far as I’m concerned.
“Monoliths play heavy and slow”, they say. “No plan, no goals, just riffs.” As a few minutes playback of this LP proves beyond doubt, they ain’t kidding.
Whilst there’s nothing “new” here perhaps, doom is a genre that has always thrived upon stasis, and if it’s fair to say that, if Monoliths do indeed “nail it” here, they do so with an extremely large nail, hammered into the centre of an empty field, around which an amorphous black doom-dog circles on a length of chain, snarling and drooling as the cymbals crash, the feedback shrieks between each downtuned ur-chord and the sub-bass distorts so bad you worry for the future of your speakers.
Trad as fuck but still stretched to suitably – sorry – monolithic proportions, the b-side here (‘Omnipresence of Emptiness’) lays down an ‘eastern’ tinged riff that could have come off a Cathedral record at one end of the horizon, or a Bong LP at the other, and canes it to within an inch of its life, as lead overdubs, sweet death metal bellowing and 2016’s most crushing bass tones keeping monotony at bay whilst the band hit a groove so undeniable it should make all right-thinking advocates of this genre fucking weep. Sweet, slo-mo head-banging gnosis of the highest order – if you don’t like this, perhaps doom is not the genre for you, frankly.
Listen and buy digitally via bandcamp; available on vinyl from Dry Cough.
6. Rhys Chatham – Pythagorean Dream
Each year, I need a good drone or two to keep me going, and in truth this LP has spent longer sitting on my turntable than any other on this list.
Scaling back considerably from the intimidating 100+ guitar armies he was operating with a few years back, concerns re: developing a performance that could be toured more economically seem to have led Chatham in entirely the opposite direction, as he has realised that modern delay & looping technology allows him to effectively sit on his lonesome and layer sound to his heart’s content, as he happily acknowledges in the admirably straight-forward account of his aims and methodology that accompanies this release.
(In an area of music that often thrives upon abstraction and obscurantism, I can’t appreciate how much I appreciate Chatham packaging his work with what is essentially a nice little note to his listeners, explaining exactly what he’s up to.)
The results of Chatham’s solo performance endeavours fit this pre-written narrative for this release quite nicely by way of being much, much, much less epic and abrasive than the kind of sound we might have expected of him in the past, seeing him working instead in a far more meditative, self-contained manner, as he starts from near silence, slowly feeding careful phrases of guitar and flute into his no doubt impressive arsenal of boxes with flashing lights, gradually building up an ebbing and flowing tide of overtones and cascading, ever-decaying fragments of melody that, if it is perhaps not exactly burning the rulebook of modern composition and brazenly pissing in the ashes, is nonetheless an absolutely splendid listen for those of us who like to chill with a nice drone on a weekday evening.
And, I don’t have a great deal more to say on the subject to be honest, except to note that, whilst Chatham essentially isn’t doing anything here that any guitar player with a couple of hundred quids-worth of unnecessary pedals hasn’t done (or contemplated doing) in the privacy of their own home, what really shines through on ‘Pythagorean Dream’ is the care and deliberation that his background in composition has allowed him to employ in marshalling these sounds, instinctively honing his every string buzz and knob-twist to enhance the piece, and to add to the listener’s enjoyment of it.
It is an approach, I feel, that anyone approaching this sort of thing from a rock perspective (with its inevitable bias toward self-expression and indulgence) could very much benefit from observing, and one that helps make ‘Pythagorean Dream’ a fine listen that I have returned to frequently throughout 2016.
‘Pythagorean Dream’ is available in assorted formats at a range of attractive price points from the UK-based Foom label. (The LP is a lovely package, and hard to beat value-for-money-wise – three cheers, Foom.)
Friday, January 27, 2017
January Deathblog Compendium.
As I struggle forlornly to find a few minutes to get this stopped clock styled Best of 2016 “count-down” back in action, I have of course been aware that, like some awful annual ritual, a lot of people who fall within this blog’s orbit have passed away since Christmas.
January always feels so horribly medieval, doesn’t it? It gets cold, so the older or more infirm among us start to die. Hospitals buckle under a further escalation of their now-continuous “crisis”, comedic Dickensian undertakers rub their hands together in glee, and even the most chilled of Saturnine cult rock musicians, living (one hopes) in relative comfort, surrounded by the warmth and respect of their peers and loved ones, are not immune to the remorseless progress of death.
(Jesus Christ, always a barrel of laughs on this blog at the moment, isn’t it?)
Anyway. As I like to make a habit here of marking the passing of those whose work has made an impression upon me over the years, there follows a short round up of remembrance for the recently departed – all deserving of far more space than I have allocated them here.
Rick Parfitt (1948 – 2016)
There comes a point in every music fan’s life when he or she will cut through the derision engendered by Live Aid, ‘Whatever You Want..’, slicked back ponytails and that time they sued Radio One for not play-listing their new single, and realise that Status Quo were and are *A-OK*. And, given that the past few years have found me wearing double denim and listening to monotonous boogie-rock as a matter of almost daily routine, this liberating realisation has hit me with hit me particular force of recent.
As John Peel recognised, if ‘Caroline’ and ‘Down Down’ don’t get your dancefloor going, you need to have some serious words with your dancefloor, and indeed, extensive testing has shown that the Quo’s output remained certifiably bad-ass throughout the first half of the 1970s. (If you need further evidence, begin here.)
(As an aside, the band’s perpetual uncoolness has meant that key LPs like ‘Piledriver’ and ‘Quo’ remain among the few first rate, Vertigo-swirl era ‘70s rock records that can still be picked up for peanuts at the time of writing. As such, my PRO-TIP for any cash-strapped record collectors is to head down to Oxfam and fill yr boots before the wind changes. You won't regret it.)
Though Status Quo’s best work relies too much on a collective, unified groove for me to be able to hymn Parfitt’s individual contributions to their oeuvre with a great deal of certainty, he shares many song-writing credits for their best shit, and his unrelenting dedication to the art of high gauge Telecaster hammering should surel;y earn him legendary status amongst rhythm guitar players. As a key member of such a monster unit and (by most accounts) a lovely chap, he will be missed.
William Onyeabor (1946-2017)
A relatively recent discovery for me (and for many others, if the proliferation of the ubiquitous ‘Who is William Onyeabor?’ compilation is anything to go by), Onyeabor was an entirely self-sufficient Nigerian musician, producer, record mogul and “industrialist” whose trademark combination of irresistible disco/funk rhythms, Stevie Wonder-esque keyboard/synth wig-outs and soulful, understated vocals delivering mighty, no nonsense themes of peace, togetherness and humility – delivered in the form of eight self-released LP between 1977 and 1985, at which point he apparently abandoned music altogether and became somewhat reclusive - created just about the happiest, most affirmative and immediately likeable sound I’ve heard in many a year. And apparently he achieved all this whilst dressed like JR from ‘Dallas’ too, which is awesome.
Tracks like Better Change Your Mind, Atomic Bomb and Why Go To War go off like wonky, eight minute smiles of DIY disco ecstasy, and whilst I’ve yet to spend enough time with Mr Onyeabor’s work to eulogise him further, I was very sad to hear that he passed away last week.
Peter Sarstedt (1941 – 2017)
Well if you’re going to be a one hit wonder, this is the way to do it.
I’ve probably written before here at some point about how, before I was “into” music, when my age was still in single figures, the songs that initially captivated me and stuck in my mind during long, Radio Two-soundtracked drives with my Dad tended to be “story songs” with some kind of heavy, dramatic atmosphere – ‘House of the Rising Sun’, ‘Ode to Billie-Jo’, and of course, ‘Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?’.
Just like those other songs, I still love it too, and offer no apology. It would be my first choice in Karaoke, if the machines ever had it (I guess, being primarily lyric-based, it wasn’t a bit hit in Japan), and I could probably recite most of the verses for you straight off the bat.
At one point in my ill-starred past, I had a yen to record some sort of horrifying noise deconstruction of it, but, returning to Sarstedt’s original, I concluded that it remained absolutely great, and as such didn’t deserve to be subjected to any kind of “deconstruction”, despite its comedic flourishes and manipulative melodramatic turnaround.
These days in fact, the song carries more potency for me than ever, as it’s exhaustive litany of mid-century cultural reference points – which all sounded so mysterious and enticing to me as a child, suggestive of the wondrous promise of adulthood – now feel incredibly sad; fading memories of a world of guilt-free, Riviera-tanned European privilege that sat ready for the taking, tempered by just the right amount of quasi-Bohemian aesthetic daring to add substance to the argument that, for the lucky few at least, the time and place hymned by Sarstedt represented the pinnacle of Western civilisation.
In fact, there’s quite a thorny dialogue going on in the song vis-à-vis the way that the excesses the singer chronicles are ostensibly dismissed from the POV of (we presume) a penniless, working class troubadour grounded in a ‘reality’ unmentioned until the final turn-around - but at the same time, the aspirational, near mythical, glamour his subject represents is so absolutely irresistible that he cannot hide his covetous awe.
And, it is this grudging celebration of an era in which, in stark contrast to the conduct of the assorted paranoid shitbirds currently stockpiling the world’s capital, the privileged few still gave at least a surface level impression of being stylish and culturally sophisticated, that I believe most strongly resonates with the song’s audience, then as now.
Meanwhile, I’m sure Peter Sarstedt lived a fine and fulfilling life, enjoyed much happiness, many romantic adventures and indelible friendships, wrote bucketloads of other magnificent songs, and so on….. but I’m afraid I can’t tell you about any of that, because I have no idea. As far as his influence on my life thus far goes, he is The Song, and, whilst it is difficult to imagine that seeing him in concert would have been anything other than the most excruciating hour of “PLAY THE HIT” imaginable, I am nonetheless saddened by the way that his death sends the kind of world he delineated in The Song further and deeper into a soon-to-be-beyond-living-memory past of dry historical record.
Jaki Liebezeit (1938 – 2017)
Well… what can you say? If you know anything of Can, you know Jaki, and if you know Jaki, you know he was one of the most extraordinary drummers ever to grace the “rock” idiom. (And if, conversely, you don’t know anything of Can, it’s about bloody time you rectified that, don’t you think? [Try here for a compendium of good starting points.])
Because seriously folks, there is no way I can talk about the drums on most prime-era Can tracks without resorting to hyperbole – they are just phenomenal. Of all the preternaturally gifted members of that most gifted of bands, I’m inclined to think he was the most so.
(I’ve also always liked the fact that – as was pointed out in the hand-drawn caricatures of Can members that graced the set of Can CD-Rs that an extremely generous contact posted to me fifteen-odd years ago [I really must dig those out and scan them, they were great] – Liebezeit translates as “love time”, which is a sublimely good name for a drummer.)
In essence I suppose, Liebezeit was a key exponent of the idea that, if music is going to break new ground, the rhythm behind it has to break new ground, but that it can only do so by means of a killer groove. So if the killer grooves you’ve done before sound old – find new ones.
He was still playing too I believe, scheduled to participate in some kind of semi-Can reunion this year with Schmidt and Mooney, so…. just a terrible loss. R.I.P.
Mark Fisher (1968 – 2017)
Lastly, and of a rather different character from the losses discussed above, perhaps this month’s saddest and most unexpected of news concerns the death of Mark Fisher, the writer and academic whose tangentially music-related K-Punk blog, and his subsequent books, offered what for many, myself included to some extent, proved a jumping off point into a new realm of critical thought, and a new lens through which to view the troubled era we find ourselves living through.
Although it must be said that I haven’t managed to engage with Mark’s writing quite as deeply as I might have done – reading his stuff purely online, rather than on paper, thus far – I have nonetheless always been very impressed by the directness of his writing, and his pointed avoidance of the kind of obscurantism that often blights such “theory”-based work, even whilst setting out some extremely challenging ideas. The broadness of his approach when it comes to approaching the contextualisation of the present (as opposed to the past) from a variety of entirely new directions is likewise remarkable – a difficult and potentially dangerous task without the safety net of hindsight, but one for which he possessed a uniquely sharp aptitude.
Now more than ever, as the slow descent into entropy and social collapse he often discussed seems to be picking up speed at a terrifying rate, Fisher’s absence over the next few years will be painfully felt in many quarters.
Whilst I never met Mark face to face, my day job sometimes entailed my contacting him in regard to some entirely tedious administrative matters, and I always meant to follow up one of those emails with a “by the way, love your writing” type note – but, hating the awkwardness of those “uh, I’m a big fan” type conversations, and aware of the fact that I had very little of use to add by way of commentary on his work, I never did – a decision I now regret.
To be honest, I still have little of use to add, beyond a gnawing sense of one-step-removed sadness of the variety that I daresay Mark may have found time to address in his final book, ‘The Weird and The Eerie’, whose online sample chapter I found extremely interesting, skim reading it between tasks at work in the days immediately before I heard the bad news.
All I can do is point you in the direction of some more worthwhile tributes – here, here or here – and also point out that a fund has been initiated to help Mark’s wife and son keep things together through this difficult time. From my position of one-step-removed abstraction, my heart goes out to them.
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016: Part # 2.
15. Assembled Minds –
Creaking Haze & Other Rave Ghosts CD/download
Popping up with little fanfare in the early part of 2016 as a download/CD only release (can’t say I blame them for skipping the vinyl, economically speaking) and propagated online via the usual haunts through which one may expect to discover such things, this hefty chunk of folk-horror-y “rave” music could easily be accused of shamelessly pandering to the odd predilections a specialised UK audience whose preferred aesthetic signifiers should in theory have hit the point of creative redundancy some time ago, in the wake of Burial, Hecker, The Caretaker and innumerable other miners of the “sad old ravers get spooky” demographic.
In practice however, there’s still much eerily fluorescent water in the well, and ‘Creaking Haze..’ has stuck with me throughout the year, simply on the basis that, stripped of any theoretical/cultural baggage and taken on its own merits, it is a great listen. For one thing, and unlike the other artists cited above, Assembled Minds have the advantage of making what is essentially still dance music.
Probably not in the sense of surefire bangers for 1am at a provincial night-spot admittedly, and whether or not it could credibly be labelled ‘rave’ music is something I’ll have to leave to disco biscuit historians more confident on the subject than myself, but nonetheless - as a compendium of bass-shuddering, 4/4 beats and reverby electric piano stings, this does the business. And, when said elements find themselves threaded through with kaleidoscopic reveries of BoC eeriness, Simonetti synth blasts and strange, carnivalesque folksy melodic fragments, redolent of maypoles and all manner of pagan cavorting, the results are extremely compelling.
With track titles like ‘Call to the Shining Man’ and ‘At The Hands of the Woodland Governor’ (not to mention the alarming ‘Morris Horror’) displaying an admirable lack of subtlety when it comes to exploiting their chosen aestehtic to its fullest possible extent, the work of Assembled Minds veers constantly toward a heady, mushroom-peaking overload of sensation in which communal euphoria and imminent, bloody terror are but a split second apart, creating a thunderous bacchanal of proudly psychedelic ‘tronica freakout that is assuredly not for the faint-headed.
Listen and buy from Patterned Air.
14. The Still – s/t LP
I might as well admit it, I’m really not sure how to sell you on this one, wherein a quartet of disconcertingly professional, Berlin-based musicians (The Necks’ Chris Abrahams among them) convene and set the tape running, apparently with the aim of jamming out something ‘cinematic’.
Personally, I would contend that they largely fail in this intent (for their work here is just too involved, jazzy and meandering to do much soundtrackin’ in the post-Barry/Morricone realm to which they may or may not aspire), but they nonetheless succeed in summoning up a pile of rich, noir-ish business that more or less functions as a nice, warm bath for tired & discerning ears – letting soothing, conventionally pretty riffs, drifting tone flurries and the simple, unmoored tones of reassuringly expensive instruments played in a manner that is assured, on-point and ‘cool’ to the nth degree tumble by, just the way they should.
I particularly enjoy the way that the players here are not afraid to fall into unashamedly melodic, somewhat sentimental patterns and phrases that would be absolute anathema to most ‘experimental’ or serious jazz musicians, with the “soundtrack” conceit allowing them to give voice to some seriously lovely variations on familiar moods, picked out in taut and muscular fashion reminiscent of the very best ‘60s movie jazz.
Indeed, Miles Davis’s ‘Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud’ might well be a valid reference point, even as Rico Repotente’s guitar echoes the knotty peregrinations of The Dirty Three’s Mick Turner and Abrahams’ unmistakable thinking-mans-drizzle of unresolved piano notes spreads itself across the tracks like some tidal pulse.
Another jazz milestone worth a mention too of course is Alice Coltrane’s eternal ‘Journey in Satchidananda’, whose influence can be most keenly felt in Derek Shirley’s sonorous, slow-stepping bass – particularly when he pretty much rips Cecil McBee’s moves wholesale to provide the backbone for my favourite piece here, ‘The Early Bird’, perhaps inspiring Abrahams to give us his keyboard’s best approximation of Alice’s cascading harp runs, as Repotente journeys ‘cross the fretboard in search of some sweet spot the ‘Dead never dreamed of. In a profound sense, it is all just *really, really nice*.
In fact, the whole of this LPs second side is pretty damn keen – a veritable aural spa day that leaves us centred, refreshed and ready again to face the world and start listening to some god-awful, bleating rock music – particularly given that Repotente is thoughtful enough to get us in the mood for just that on the closing ‘The Ecstatic’, finally hitting the overdrive and letting the feedback ring, the rest of the ensemble holding down a simple, melancholic riff as the guitar man lets it all hang out, double- / triple-tracking himself into the most happily harmonious expression of chaos 2016 had to offer.
As he is the only band member I’ve not mentioned by name thus far, we’ll close by noting that Steve Heather played the drums, produced and provided the artwork, and managed all three tasks extremely well insofar as I’m qualified to tell. Nice work everybody.
Buy from Bronzerat. Listen once you’ve bought it, I suppose. (Old school.)
13. Gate – Saturday Night Fever LP
For all that music may have become a big ol’ post-modern free-for-all these days, it’s still difficult to think of a more gloriously ridiculous wheeze than the idea of a guy from The Dead C recording a disco album and naming it ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – and indeed, whilst I am happy to be corrected on this point, I’m inclined to believe that Michael Morley had only the most nebulous conception of “disco” in mind when he set out to record these tracks.
Certainly, the miasmic clouds of broken electronics, abusive guitar skree, mind-numbing classic rock riff-loops and Morley’s tremulous, death-bed voice (which at one point announces that “you should me dancing” like a message from the beyond) all constitute such far-edge outliers within even the widest possible definition of “disco” that I think it’s safe to assume he missed the board entirely here, genre-wise.
Whether or not he cares is of course another issue though, and the sound of Morley forcing elements of his established MO in both Gate and Dead C through a filter of lo-fi dancefloor backbeat and sampled horn stabs on the opening ‘Asset’ is extremely pleasing – enough so to make it one of favourite cuts of the year, in fact. Somewhat like Jim Shepard hitting Arthur Russell’s mutant dancefloor, it’s an acrid, pale-skinned riot of introverted neon strutting that never fails to cheer me up.
Remaining resolutely drum-free, the following ‘Licker’ apparently chose to duck the disco concept altogether, veering closer to established Dead C territory, but the dense web of rhythmic loops that Morley constructs here (perhaps in naïve deference to the methodology of electronic dance music, perhaps not) gives it a feel of Astral Social Club-esque “exploding sequencer” infinity that likewise remains very satisfactory.
‘Caked’ on Side 2 sounds more authentically “disco”, if admittedly like the kind of disco that a shotgun-wielding basement shut-in might have made, almost daring us to determine how much of the taxi radio fidelity track Morley is crooning over is some genuine Studio 54-era sample, and how much of it originated within his own gear… although, as the delay knobs are cranked and the beat disappears into a lengthy bout of elegiac synth-choir rave come-down, such questions become somewhat irrelevant – which is just as it should be.
Decidedly more entertaining than yr average disc of maximalist electro-noise splurge, Morley’s attempts to stretch a bit beyond his comfort zone pay-off handsomely on ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and if only person amid the massed ranks of humanity ever accidentally puts this on expecting The Bee-Gees, his work will not have been in vain.
Listen and buy via MIE.
12. Dog Chocolate – Snack Fans LP
(Upset The Rhythm)
One of the few (perhaps the only?) contemporary record I actually managed to review in 2016, I wrote quite a lot of rambling nonsense about this one here. I am not proud. Still a great record though!
Buy via Upset The Rhythm.
11. T.O.Y.S – Sicks LP
T.O.Y.S (not to be confused with mersh shoegaze band Toy) are a band I have admired for a long time on the – ahem – “live circuit”, and that I have meant to find an opportunity to tell you about on this blog for just as long.
I recall when I first saw T.O.Y.S, a number of years ago at a small indie-pop gig, my initial thought was “wow, these guys won’t be hanging around on this level for long”, and indeed, I continue to be slightly amazed that they haven’t yet broken through to a wider audience, given the obvious accomplishment and popular appeal of the music they play.
I suppose an inevitable decline in the number of label owners/A&R types ready to reach for their chequebooks after a few pints, combined perhaps with some admirable modesty and/or ethical grounding on the part of the band’s members, must be to blame. Whatever the case though, the mainstream’s loss is “our” gain, and it is splendid to have a band this obviously great and potentially massive still humbly knocking about on the DIY scene.
Whilst “a lo-fi New Order” has long been my go-to soundbite when it comes to trying to sell people on T.O.Y.S’ combination of propulsive bass/drums/keys beat-downs and defiantly melancholy pop song-writing, ‘Sicks’ sees them upping their game to the level of “a punk Pet Shop Boys”, emerging as by far their best recording to date, if I’m any judge.
Readers familiar with the band won’t need reminding that Eddy Lines (real name? – maybe) is an astoundingly good drummer, who could have absolutely cleaned up in one of those early ‘00s Rapture/!!! style dancey post-punk bands. In combination with bassist Adam John Miller (real name? – probably), who must be congratulated for side-stepping the obvious Hook-isms that accompany this style and hammering down distorted root chords as if he was in a straight up punk band, the songs of David Kitchen (real name? – doubtful) are propelled forward here with a power and velocity that many more ostensibly aggressive bands would die for.
Atop this certifiably bad-ass backing, I suspect just about anything would sound good, but, whilst I’ll admit that Kitchen’s nasal voice has proved a bit of an acquired taste on past releases, I suppose I must have acquired it, because his lyrics and phrasing here hit home harder with me than they ever have in the past, suggesting narratives with a few choices lines and shimmering waves of Yamaha chordage that send my mind reeling in a way that precious little song-based pop stuff manages to now that I’m a jaded, emotionally-dead grown-up.
Unaccustomed as I am to finding ways to write about this kind of music in this day and age, I think I’d probably best give it a rest before I drivel off into some kind of PR piffle, but suffice to say – if anything I’ve said above piques your interest, give this album a listen, because it’s *great*.
The first three songs in particular are an absolute knock-out, perfectly capturing the spirit that has always so impressed me in the band’s live sets, and whilst I might initially have advised that the long, slower selections that follow dilute their impact somewhat, repeat listens have found them growing on me until I have become very fond of them indeed, revealing some right proper song-writing suss set to metronomic dancefloor backing.
In short then, this is just fantastic, committed homemade pop music of the best possible kind. Please do whatever you can to help make these guys famous, for they richly deserve it. (If you hold a label cheque-book though, perhaps best keep it to yourself, because it would be lovely if they stayed with Oddbox through their long-delayed ascendancy to whatever the 2017 equivalent of Top Of The Pops is.)
Listen and buy via Oddbox.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
My Favourite Records of 2016: Part # 1.
Like so many of us right now, I can’t even begin to give voice to the fear and despair I feel regarding the future at the present juncture. All explanations thus far offered sound uncertain and incomplete, whilst ‘solutions’, when they are proposed at all, seem ludicrously inadequate.
All I can think to say that sounds even vaguely hopeful is that, there are a lot of us sharing this despair. Broadly speaking, decent, right-thinking people are still polling something like 40 – 50% around the world, and that’s a lot of naysayers for the fascists to try to pull down into the mire with them.
Like everyone else, I don’t know what will happen next, or what kind of opposition to it might eventually emerge, but I do know that the percentage of the population that comprises ourselves, our friends, our families, our extended social demographic is not going to disappear overnight. We just need to stay strong and do whatever we can to ensure that the assorted swine now taking the reins across the globe won’t be able to enforce their idiocy upon us, at least until we’ve made them bleed for it. In the simple but apt words of the late Hunter S. Thompson: fuck them.
Meanwhile, some records came out this year. Here are some of the ones I liked the best, in ascending order.
20. D/i/s/c/o/s – Mix Tape
Since I saw them play last year, I’ve oft been want to exclaim that D/i/s/c/o/s are the “best live band in Japan”, which is a fairly fatuous pronouncement given the extremely small number of live bands I’ve seen in Japan, but what can you say – I’m on a PR tip when it comes to trying to spread knowledge of these guys, and it’s a nice attention grabber.
Being admirably adverse to attention however, they don't do themselves many favours, especially vis-à-vis recordings, but whilst this tape of bedroom demos from their basic two piece line-up sees both volume and energy levels necessarily toned down to fit the circumstances, it’s still a lovely listen, with Kato-san’s rhythmic John Lee Hooker via John Dwyer guitar moves & Red Moon’s splendidly exuberant, hi-hat-free drums both readily identifiable.
Happily, the slightly more laidback vibe also gives us the chance to appreciate the surprisingly poppy and well thought out song structures that underpin the band’s sound – an aspect of their work that can easily be overlooked in the blown-out riff-out of their live sets. One of the untitled cuts has ‘ooh-ooh-ohhs’ straight off The Ramone’s ‘Oh Oh I Love Her So’, so that gives you some indication of the bubblegum traces littered round here, but unlike so many of the U.S. bands currently treading those congealing waters, it’s never cutesy, never cloying, never just finger-pointing pantomime; D/i/s/c/o/s understand the street corner spirit that made rock n’ roll and doo-wop so compelling despite its formulaic sentimentality, and, schooled via the gods of Memphis, they’ve got the off-hand chops to make it happen.
There are a couple of absolutely tremendous groovers here (particularly like the one about having “the lawyers on our tail”) that wouldn’t be out of place in these gentlemen’s work in Mule Team (of whom more later), and, whilst it’s clearly not the HERE-WE-ARE world-conquering D/i/s/c/o/s disc I’ve been praying for, it’s nonetheless simple, homemade classic rock n’ roll business with one ear open for the neighbours banging on the wall, and that, as ever, is hard not to love.
Listen and buy via bandcamp (but please, don’t click ‘buy’ on their download version – Y100,000 is about £686 at the current exchange rate – why, those jokers etc…)
19. Lush Worker – Impervium d/l
This is the first of four releases on this list (that’s, what, 20%?) to feature the magic axe-work of Mr Mike Vest, who will surely need no introduction to those who have followed my fawning appreciations of his work over the past few years.
Amid his voluminous output in 2016, this solo guitar & effects number under the Lush Worker name struck me as a particularly keen venture, taking Vest’s by-now-familiar brand of outer limits psyche/noise guitar rock to the far galactic fringes, where amp hum, neck-scrapes and pedal clicks multiply queasily through massed layers of delay until they sound like echoing emergency sirens and overheating equipment in some derelict, off-world field hospital; lights blinking, gloop spilling, bulkheads crashing, vision blurring and multiplying as consciousness fades and unknown incorporeal entities run amok, all as our man sweetly shreds on oblivious through the medicated haze.
Further edifying proof in other words that there are still no limits to the atmospheric idylls that can be conjured from the ol’ electric guitar with a bit of imagination and technical suss, this is a very nice time indeed.
No less than four other Lush Worker releases have subsequently popped up this year, but I haven’t had time to buy/listen to them. Jesus Christ, slow down man.
Listen and buy via bandcamp.
18. Midnight Mines –
If You Can’t Find a Partner Use a Wooden Chair LP
Just about creeping onto the 2016 list before the door of December slams (good job I’ve been so slack in writing this bloody thing), this debut vinyl offering from under-the-radar North London tape provocateurs “Baron Saturday” and “Private Sorrow” seems to capture the demoralised spirit of the age with almost uncanny precision.
Though still loosely ‘structured’, this is work-weary, disconsolate, weekend hobby fare, carelessly ditching the blown-out garage-punk headaches of its perpetrators’ better known projects as if they can just no longer be BOTHERED with such a rock n’ roll smoke screen, instead ploughing their remaining resources into the esoteric shed-craft of iffy four-track experimentalism and fragmented instant song creation, daring a would-be audience of their most tolerant friends to care as they veer uneasily between relatively chirpy Messthetics readymades and terrible valleys of caustic, dubbed out despair.
I’ve never been much into ugly-for-ugly’s-sake when it comes to rock or noise music, but thankfully Midnight Mines succeed in a similar process of sublimation to that regularly achieved by the closely associated Black Time, wherein frustration, exhaustion and wilful obscurantism are channelled via a set of sadistically tormented equipment into sheets of disarming, near spiritual beauty; it’s like seeing the crap kicked around in the dingiest corners of the most benighted commuter suburbs fleetingly landing at the feet of a silver-skinned prophet, who delivers the best f-ing free kick you’ve ever seen betwixt the rusted poles that form the goals of some dilapidated nocturnal pleasureground. Or something.
Returning to earth somewhat, just try joining the dots between an English analogue to the poker-faced death trips of Jim Shepard, the otherly emanations of NZ’s Alastair Galbraith, the haunted diatribes of The Shadow Ring and the bed-sit sci-fi of Solid Space, but keep just enough punk rock grease left in the engine to stir some shit up, and you’ll be somewhere in the realm of Midnight Mines.
A right treat for all fans of the kind of parched, outsider nowheresville mojo honed by those aforementioned artistes then basically, inexplicably lurking in the midst of one of the biggest blobs of population density on the map, because nowhere’s as lonely as a city and all that, y’know.
Kudos too for their appropriation of one of Leiber & Stoller’s more troubling exhortations for this LP’s title. I, for one, appreciate it.
Listen and buy via bandcamp.
17. The Caretaker –
Everywhere At The End of Time, Stage # 1
(History Always Favours The Winners)
The conceptual basis behind what is apparently set to become The Caretaker’s final statement is ambitious indeed, and, whilst I won’t bother rehashing the details here, his plan for the series of six releases of which this comprises the first part, and a whole lot more besides, can be gleaned via this interview that John Doran condusted earlier this year with the officially-no-longer-elusive James Kirby. (It’s also one of the best bits of music-write I’ve encountered this year incidentally, so give it a look regardless.)
Upon first listen to this initial instalment then, it is, as one would expect in view of the wider concept, probably the least treated/modified visit to the ‘haunted ballroom’ conjured from Kirby’s stash of mouldering 78s to date (or, presumably, ever), thus blurring the line between his categorisation as a musician or merely a curator of sound further than ever before.
Those (such as myself) who have found this distinction troublesome in the past however are encouraged to put such preconceptions aside, because, taken as a stand-alone listening experience disengaged from its wider purpose within The Caretaker’s catalogue, this disc remains enthralling.
Though Kirby is arguably doing little more here than selecting pieces of pre-existing music and ripping them through his digital recording set up, his keen ear for atmosphere and emotion, combined with his judicious application of cuts, repetitions and selective treatments, ensure that this presentation of keys being pushed, horns being blown and strings being scraped by distant men long dead remains characteristically compelling, enveloping and transforming the mood of any room in which it is played. Though perhaps not as overwhelming or unnerving as The Caretaker’s more processed/maximalist releases, it still *works*, it what I’m basically trying to say.
Even if we want to take it merely as a Duchampian readymade, it is difficult to deny that this is one assembled with the touch of a genius, and I wait with a mixture of anticipation and fear to see what damage Kirby plans to wreak upon these gentle sounds over the next three years.
Listen and buy via bandcamp.
16. Melting Hand – High Collider LP
More Vestage interest (sorry) here, as Mike instigates a wild n’ wooly four piece psyche-jam super-group with members of Terminal Cheesecake and Gum Takes Tooth.
The result, suffice to say, is a writhing, shrieking mass of inter-galactic heavy rock maximalism, guitar-lines spiralling out of control like severed tentacles or fizzing electrical cables, as the rhythms ebb and flow like electro-magnetic pulse, battering the poor ship of your brain senseless.
Track titles like ‘Drug Cop’ and ‘Slug Race’ are suggestive of Vest’s comrades bringing a grimmer, more earthbound noise-rock aesthetic to his more usual science fictional concerns, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any sign of this in the music itself, which goes straight to the far end of oblivion from the opening burst of skree onward and never lets up for a second, as the players shred themselves stupid to the point of what is presumably total bodily collapse, like some best-of-both-worlds High Rise / Acid Mothers Temple team-up of dreams.
The closing ‘Spectral Dispensary’ is probably my favourite cut, easing us out with ten minutes or so of mechanized, post-collapse amp turbulence cascading across a rolling drum beat that just won't quit, and.... what more is there to say really? If you like this sort of thing then get with this, because it’s fucking brilliant. And if you don’t – well I can say what I like as you’ve doubtless ceased reading by this point.
So to conclude: MELTING HAND! Yeah! I’d love to see this lot live if they can ever make it happen somewhere in the vicinity of London that’s neither at 3am nor on a £50 festival bill.
Listen and buy download via bandcamp. Looks like the LP is still available from Hominid Sounds.
To be continued….
Wednesday, December 07, 2016
So, About the #1 Spot In This Comps & Reissues List…
…to be honest, I had a bit of rethink / change of heart on the records I was going to place at # 1, and I don’t currently have the time to unpack my feeling about them in any meaningful fashion – so basically, I’m not going to bother.
I won’t retrospectively edit the preceding posts or anything, but perhaps let’s just consider all the numbers shifted up one – cos let’s face it, nothing deserves to beat that Nigerian rock comp.
Meanwhile, I’m about to start work on my usual “best new records” list, and there is lots and lots of fantastic stuff that I need to cover on it, almost all of which I have neglected to write any words about at an earlier point in the year. I’ve got to fit it all somehow betwixt freelance work deadlines and family/social engagements however, so please expect things to drag on way into January at best. Last time I checked, records by contemporary musical units don’t turn into pumpkins at midnight on New Year’s Eve, so hopefully it won’t be too late for me to try to sell you on some good stuff you may have overlooked.
(Boy, I’ll bet you don’t get this kind of crap on Pitchfork, do you – come what may, I’ll always have my amateurism!)
Prior to all that however, I should note that this Saturday will find me standing behind a table at this record fair hosted by my favourite new London record shop in my favourite new music-focused London community space.
I’ll be manning my wife’s stall, and also flogging some choice mix CDs and VHS movies on a “name yr price” basis for the benefit of charity (a fairly marginal benefit, I’ll be the first to admit, but what the hell – it’s something). If you still read these benighted pages and find yourself in the neighbourhood, pop in and say ‘hi’. It’ll be lovely.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
The Best Comps & Reissues of 2016 (thus far):
2. Wake Up You!
The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, Vol # 1
The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, Vol # 1
Anyone who has visited a record shop in the past five years will no doubt have noted, attractively repackaged collections of ‘70s African music have been claiming ever more space in the reissue racks, and, by this point it is probably a fair bet that most open-minded (read: financially solvent) music fans will have taken the bait and started to give ‘em a go.
Whilst there is no doubt much opportunity here is begin moaning about the excesses of first world ‘boutique’ vinyl snobbery and context-free assimilation of other cultural forms etc, I’ll leave that to others, because personally speaking, the process of digging this stuff (as processed via the reigning comp-lords at labels like Now Again, Soundway etc) has proved an extremely rewarding process, hepping me to all manner of intoxicating sounds whose varied nature and significance I shan’t strain your patience by listing and unpacking here.
In a similar spirit of conciseness then, let’s just say that if, like me, you have developed a particular taste for that sweet spot where indigenous African pop/folk traditions collide head-first with the overriding influence of Anglo-American rock and soul, this new compendium represents The Motherlode as far as Nigeria’s post-civil war ‘afro rock’ boom is concerned.
Though it was the epochal World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s a Real Thing comp that first drawn my attention to cuts like OFO The Black Company’s incendiary ‘Allah Wakbarr’, and Soundway’s mammoth Nigeria Rock Special may have filled in the gaps, familiarising me with names like Ofege and The Funkees, focus and context is nonetheless the key when it comes to this sort of thing, and this is what puts ‘Wake Up You!’ ahead of the pack.
From the gut-punch of Gilles Caron’s cover photograph to the extensive historical background outlined in Uchenna Ikonne’s near book-length liner notes, there is I think much to be said for Now Again’s decision to tackle head-on the kind of uncomfortable realities surrounding this music that other African reissues can be a touch too shy about fully acknowledging.
And I don’t need to say much more on that score really – you’ve listened to Fela, you’ve read around a bit - you know the deal. When investigating African rock, jazz and highlife for the first time, Western listeners (myself included) will often tend to feel disappointed that so little of this music is overtly angry or political, but, as a few spins of this comp and a perusal of Ikonne’s text will make clear, such a train of thought is an exercise in grievous point-missing. With a hellish civil war and corrupt authoritarian lockdown bookending the period of relative freedom within which the groups represented on this comp flourished, many of the musicians herein faced down the worst of both no less than any of the country’s other citizens, and the fact that they came out of it smiling and ready to party is in many ways the only political statement required.
Without wishing to labour the point, there is an argument to be made that the kind of aggression and anguish that overflows from – and indeed, increasingly defines – the rock music of stable, democratic countries is entirely surplus to requirements in an environment in which the eventual results of such self-destructive social currents must be dealt with on a day to day basis. Whilst Ikonne’s text inevitably soon falls back into a familiar pattern of chronicling the kind of management entanglements, ego-clashes and band break-ups that render ‘rock history’ a drag the world over, none of this hum-drum backstage business carries across into the music itself – and neither, more pointedly, does the musicians’ rather varied experiences during the war. (Amongst other things, I was astonished to read in Ikonne’s text that pop music was considered such a vital aid to morale in the Biafran conflict that fighting units on both sides were encouraged to ‘adopt’ their own regimental rock bands, and that it was in this context that many of the outfits represented here received their first exposure.)
If such a background played upon the minds of the band members, there seems to have been a collective understanding that their audience – whether military or civilian - simply didn’t want to hear about it, and as working musicians, probably struggling to make the weekly payments on their rare & precious equipment, the groups didn’t feel much inclined to force it upon them. (A welcome counter-point to the introspective, heart-on-sleeve drudgery that was becoming increasingly prevalent in Anglo-American rock of the same period.)
At one point, Ikonne describes the heavier, post-civil war sound of pioneering ‘60s pop band The Hykkers as “..rugged and murky, pulsing with the threat of barely contained violence; Guitars screeching like low-flying fighter jets, bass lines thrumming like trundling tank tracks”. With the best will in the world however, listeners accustomed to the bombastic hullabaloo of post-1970 Western rock will have trouble identifying such intent within the highlife-indebted James Brown shuffle of the group’s mild-mannered anti-drugs anthem ‘Stone The Flower’ - or indeed in most of the other selections included on ‘Wake Up You!’.
Indeed, “anger has no place on the dance floor” would seem to be the unspoken message of many of the cuts featured herein, and, as cloying as direct hymns to love and togetherness may have become in Anglo-American rock culture in the aftermath of the collapse of the ‘60s counter-culture, here by contrast they maintain a power and strength of feeling which suggests that irony, ennui and easy cynicism had precious little relevance for musicians and listeners who have just spent a few years at the mercy of all-too-real hunger and violence.
From the opening chords of Formulars Dance Band’s ‘Never Never Let Me Down’ – gentle funk strumming and fudge-thick, spiralling organ notes breaking through the patina of surface noise alongside a heart-breakingly earnest, imperfect declaration of undying love - to the everyone-on-the-floor inclusive funk throw-downs of The Hygrades and The Funkees, the Zam-Rock-esque riff lullaby of Waves’ ‘Mother’ and the exploratory, Fela-indebted groove-outs of Aktion’s ‘Groove the Funk’ and Wrinkar Experience’s exquisitely melancholy dance floor smash ‘Ballad of a Sad Young Woman’, this is music that sinks into your soul like cosmic butter, forcibly reminding you that, however bad life on this planet may become, however much soul-withering, genocidal shit might go down over the next few years, as long as somewhere in the world there is a generator, a stage, a PA, some amps, and a bunch of people up there willing to give of themselves as generously and joyously as the guys in these bands did whilst an audience eats and drinks and smokes what they please, as long as there is one foot being placed in front of the other as the dance begins – things are still gonna be alright.
And then, just when you’ve finally reconciled yourself to the outlook described above and given up hope of ever finding The African Stooges, an outfit named War-Head Constriction suddenly come crashing in with the most assaultive outbursts of fuzz-wah whiteout I’ve heard all year, like Mizutani-San himself just got up on stage for a guest spot. Holy shit.
So, in closing – the next time you find yourself sinking into ennui, sick of festivals, sick of bloody gigs, sick of records – just put this on for an immediate reminder of what the fucking point is, and more importantly, what it sounds like.
In fact, I still have volume # 2 of this comp lying untouched – saving it up because volume # 1 is just too good.
Available direct from Now-Again in the US, consult yr local dealer elsewhere.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
The Best Comps & Reissues of 2016 (thus far):
3. D.R. Hooker – The Truth LP
(Veals and Geeks Records)
Well, life goes on, so let’s try to finally get this reissues count-down in the can…
Though it was not new to me in 2016, the unexpected reappearance on vinyl of this little number gives me the opportunity both to experience one of the most remarkable artefacts unearthed by the post-hippy/x-tian rock obscurity-collectin’ community in the form of spinning black plastic, and just as importantly, to tell you all about it.
And, to be honest, I don’t really know how to get started on this one without alienating a fair swathe of my hypothetical readership right off the bat. I mean, if I tell you that, sometime in 1972, some mysterious dude who styled himself as “D.R. Hooker” rounded up some local musicians in New Haven, Connecticut, laid down a bunch of songs and pressed 99 copies of an LP containing the results with a grainy picture of (presumably) himself in full Jesus Christ get-up wielding an acoustic guitar on the cover, then apparently disappeared off the face of the earth…. well, you’ll already be conjuring up a very specific idea of what this record probably sounds like – but frankly you should check their expectations, because our man Mr. Hooker had a hell of a lot more up his sleeve than yr average gospelisin’ private press misfit.
Pointedly failing to fully adhere to any known genre template at any point, “The Truth” is in fact a slinky, street-walking masterpiece of casually devastating quasi-psychedelic groove-pop that has never failed to please me immeasurably.
On first exposure, the vibe here seems predominantly mellow, with brushed drums, unhinged, dub-like echo and phase effects, meandering, head-nodding bass lines and a kind of shufflin’, understated lounge feel that almost Hooker and his buddies were subject to the gravitational pull of then-contemporary landmarks like ‘What’s Going On?’ and ‘Superfly’.
As with those records though, it soon becomes clear that, whilst the playing itself is light-touch, the groove beneath it is H-E-A-V-Y – as best befits Herr Hooker’s stoned, vibrato-laden, baritone drawl, which drifts through the ether like a kind of ego-less, faintly nerd-ified Jim Morrison, shifting from strip joint pick-up routines to earnest spiritual reflections to baleful condemnations of human excess on the turn of a dime, as weird subtleties of the musical backing follow his lead. Regardless of what his ‘deal’ may have been in real life, for the forty-odd minutes of this LP, D.R.H. sounds like the coolest, most confident motherfucker ever to stalk these strange musical back waters – a legend and a true star, a smooth-talkin’ scholar, unlikely musical genius and a genuine, 24-carat enigma.
Tracks like ‘Weather Girl’ (cascading chimes, thunder samples and a groove so relaxed it should be illegal) and ‘A Stranger’s Smile’ (“nice weather we’re having lately / wait, tell me your name..” D.R. intones in strange, robot/research scientist speaking voice) are pure, libidinous pop, like the Jesus Man on the cover flashing you his pure white teeth and standing you a drink in the hotel bar. Just don’t expect it to be a strong one though, as Hooker opens Side B with the cut that is arguably his masterpiece, ‘Forge Your Own Chains’, a spectacularly sinister slice of stoned easy listening paranoia in which hip society’s impending doom at the hands of self-inflicted intoxicants is delineated in a manner whose strange mixture of gut churning unease and jazz-inflicted pastoral beauty recalls the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s Bob Markley at his sublime freakiest. “Maybe one more cigarette, will clear your head,” Hooker deadpans as finger-picked electric guitar fades in and out of the track’s dense wash of sound; “Today you’re living / tomorrow you’re dead” he continues, as a spectral clarinet rises from the void to celebrate “your” imminent demise. Like I say – HEAVY.
Uniquely amongst reborn hippy weirdo types, there is not a trace of wide-eyed naivety in Hooker’s persona here. Though he never breaks out into to full-blown aggression, he comes across as a canny, soft-spoken hustler just as likely to finger the wallet straight from your back pocket as to beseech you to leave it on his collection plate.
When he does deign to bust out the fuzz though, he really goes for it, dredging up time-worn, cyclopean riffs and epic, damaged soloing that would be the envy of any ‘70s Heavy contenders. More bestial weather sound effects and startling, feedback-drenched synthesizer(!?) squiggles lend an almost Eno/Ubu art-rock feel to the vast, degraded distorto-riff that anchors opener ‘The Sea’, and if reading ‘The Bible’ was actually half as exciting as Hooker makes it sound via the ass-blasting majesty of his song of that name (“..father of the dragon / and the son of man!”), I’d probably be writing this from the reading room of the nearest Jehovah’s Witnesses temple. Seriously, I don’t care how much the Xtian stuff outs you off, if you like slightly off-kilter rock music, you should look it up – it’s awesome.
And, well, I mean… what else can I tell you? I must have listened to this album a hundred times over the years (on mp3 before I acquired the vinyl this year, natch), and still it leaves me speechless. D.R. Hooker, if you’re out ther somewhere, you strange, chemically-altered Jesus-imitating, guitar-strumming mystery motherfucker, know that you RULE, and that I love you for it.
A note on the label that put this out: as far as I can ascertain, the original D.R. Hooker LP was issued on the amusingly monikered “VAG Records”. To my surprise meanwhile, it turns out that the somewhat unsavoury sounding “Veals and Geeks” label is actually a spin-off from a record shop of the same name in Brussels, and they have previously released a number of other things. Therefore, I can only assume that the fact their name allows them to re-use the ‘VAG’ acronym on their ‘almost exact repress’ style packaging of “The Truth” is nothing more or less than a happy coincidence.
Anyway, whatever - you can stream and buy it from them straight from their Bandcamp here.
Friday, November 11, 2016
More Fun With Laughin’ Len.
I fought in the old revolution
On the side of the ghosts and the king
Of course I was very young
And I thought that we were winning
I can't pretend I still feel very much like singing
As they carry the bodies away
It’s funny, when Satori asked me this morning about this ‘Leonardo Cohen’ who’d died*, one of the first things I managed to mumble was “well, I liked a lot of his stuff, but I’m not really a big fan or anything…”.
Well, maybe it’s the timing, or maybe sometimes you just don’t realise you’re a ‘big fan’ until the moment arrives, but nine hours later I’m finding it difficult to keep it together and remain dry-eyed today.
The more I think back on his songs – bits I recall from them, bits I’ve looked up online or seen quoted in tribute – the more I realise how serious this guy was about his job as a poet, an artist, whatever you want to call it, and how much of an example his success must set for others who would purport to assume such a role.
Whilst I’ll admit that much of his stuff can be overly personal, or ridiculously obtuse, or even somewhat cringe-worthy, when he had a mind to, he could craft couplets or stanzas that hit like hammer blows. A few painstakingly chosen words in a casual pop/folk rhyming pattern that could alter people’s understanding of their position in life, could shift their moods from bottom to top or vice versa, could re-arrange entire worldviews, could remind people what their priorities need to be.
And, we’re not just talking *some* people here. I don’t think Leonard Cohen was writing for some sub-set of the population, some particular demographic or age/geography-defined cult following. His words (especially in his later years) were explicitly aimed at *all* people. Whether he achieved it or not, the ‘tent pole’ songs in his catalogue (and many of the deep cuts besides) aspire to a kind of universality that I think is the highest goal a creator of human culture can seek.
I don’t need to point you toward quotes and examples – just go google some up, they are everywhere.
Of course, each of his albums has its throwaways and its goof-offs and missteps, but you feel that if he came up with a batch of songs whose lines didn’t hit that mark often enough, he’d probably have just thrown out the whole lot and started again. For all the humour in his work, he wasn’t messing around.
It sounds ridiculous, but reading his lyrics on the page today (as I have rarely done in the past), they remind me more than anything of William Blake – that particular mixture of frustrating obscurity, chest-beating melodrama and absolute, crushing directness – and I’d almost go as far as to say that his “greatest hits” have entered the collective lexicon in a similarly indelible fashion.
I don’t know quite where I’m going with this – it’s all going a bit “gripping the lectern and shaking fist at the heavens”, isn’t it? Sorry about that. I don’t have an ending or a final sign off planned, or any gags. Perhaps there is more to come. This plus a BBC World Service panel discussion of the incoming President’s likely foreign policy agenda has all proved a bit too much to take in today, so we’ll leave it there for now. As Cohen reminded us, buried amid the apocalyptic visions of the song I linked to in the post below,
“love is the only engine of survival”.
* Apparently Leonard Cohen is almost entirely unknown in Japan, which I suppose is understandable given the extent to which the appeal of his work relies upon knowledge of the English language, although I’d imagine outfits like The Jacks must have cultivated at least a passing familiarity with his output…?
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