I wish the ape a lot of success.
Stereo Sisterhood / Blog Graveyard:
- After The Sabbath ; All Ages ; Another Nickel ; Bachelor ; BangtheBore ; Beard (R.I.P.) ; Beyond The Implode (R.I.P.) ; Black Editions ; Black Time ; Bull ; Cocaine & Rhinestones ; Dancing ; DCB ; Destination:Out (R.I.P.) ; Did Not Chart ; Diskant (R.I.P.) ; DIYSFL ; Dreaming (R.I.P.?) ; Dusted in Exile ; Every GBV LP ; Flux ; Free ; Freq ; F-in' Record Reviews ; Garage Hangover ; Gramophone ; Grant ; Head Heritage ; Heathen Disco/Doug Mosurock ; Jonathan ; KBD ; Kulkarni ; Landline/Jay Babcock ; Last Days (R.I.P.) ; Lexicon Devil ; Lost Prom (R.I.P.?) ; LPCoverLover ; Midnight Mines ; Musique Machine ; Mutant Sounds (R.I.P.?) ; Nick Thunk :( ; Norman ; Peel ; Plan B (R.I.P) ; PSF ; Quietus ; Science ; Teleport City ; Terminal Escape ; Terrascope ; Tome ; Transistors ; Ubu ; Upset ; Vibes ; WFMU (R.I.P.) ; XRRF (occasionally resurrected). [If you know of any good rock-write still online, pls let me know.]
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
Trouble? No Trouble:
D.C. Berman & The Ten Year Rule.
As I get older and my history of – cough – “musical appreciation” correspondingly stretches back further, I’ve found myself developing a Ten Year Rule for the purposes of wheat / chaff separation.
Many people, I’ve noticed, tend - broadly speaking - to continue to enjoy the same music throughout their lives (hopefully adding a few things to the pile along the way, god willing). In their youth, they will discover a bunch of artists or bands or sub-genres or whatever that strike a chord with them, and they will continue to follow them across the years, and find them rewarding in perpetuity.
I have no problem with this. In fact, I envy these people. I wish I could do the same, rather than tempestuously embracing and dismissing different styles and performers every five minutes based on inexplicable whims and emotional impulses. It’s hard work sometimes, let me tell you. Sometimes I’ll be stuck for an answer when people ask me whether I want to buy a ticket for some band that I’d rather drink battery acid than listen to again, whilst other friends are apt to scan my recently played records and retreat blankly with an “uh…. yeah…”.
I’m certainly glad I don’t feel the need to manage my personal relationships the same way I do my mp3 player anyway. I’d be a right unmanageable, duplicitous, affirmation-chasing bastard.
Thus, the Ten Year Rule. This informal arrangement involves me thinking back on records that I liked a great deal ten years ago, and deciding how I feel about them. If the feeling is good, perhaps I will even listen to them. Perhaps, in the best case scenario, I will not have even stopped listening to them (but this is rare).
If I still find these records enjoyable and edifying - if I can approach them from a new angle and pull new meaning and nuance from their recordings from my vantage point of, uh, slightly greater maturity – they have passed the test. Having survived a decade amid the rapids of my treacherous tastes, they must surely contain some indelible, undeniable good stuff, and I can be confident that they will stay with me for life.
The Ten Year Rule, it should be noted, largely applies to song-based rock/pop/folk kind of stuff. Psych, drone and jazz records do not need this kind of fire & brimstone treatment; appreciation of them will either grow and deepen across the years, or it won’t. It’s cool, either way. Likewise, more formalised genres such as metal, country, soul and funk simply abide. They either are, or they are not. They do not change, and for this I love them most of all.
For reference then: Richard & Linda Thompson passed the test. ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ passed the test. Everything Neil Young recorded in the ‘70s passes the test. ‘Nebraska’ passed the test. You get the picture. These are the records I will build my fort around, and defend against all comers, should they make it across the flaming moat of free psych improv and cosmic doom.
As it happens, I was very, very big on Silver Jews in about 2008/09, which puts them back in the ring to fight it out with my ears, Ten Year Rule style.
Conveniently of course, David Berman aided this process by disappearing from view for exactly ten years, re-emerging right on schedule for what we now know was a horrifically short final act to his public career as a cult singer-songwriter type.
Most of what follows, it should be noted, was written before Berman’s death, but it still reflects my feeling on his work pretty accurately. At the time of writing, the messy, depressing and generally awful circumstances of his passing have neither endeared me to the parts of his catalogue I have issues with, nor soiled the swathes of it which I love.
2008/09, I should note, was a bit of a funny time for me, full of minor league stupidity and pointlessness. As such, the Silver Jews records carry associations with times that I do not remember fondly. Combine this with Berman’s tendency toward toe-curling public confessionals and self-mythologising drama of one kind or another – a tendency I am now apt to regard with distaste and uneasiness, particularly in view of its ugly conclusion – and, well, let’s just say that, on the surface of things, the band’s chances of making it through the gauntlet of the Ten Year Rule do not look good.
Such though is the beauty of the Ten Year Rule. Any roving, forgotten set of mp3s can be a contender. All they’ve got to do is get by attention with a good left hook, back it up with something solid in the gut, and they’re in with the immortals.
In 2012/13-ish, I found myself sitting in an airport departure lounge, listening to the sketchy, slightly naïve first Silver Jews LP, 1994’s ‘Starlite Walker’, and was deeply moved by the opening song, Trains Across the Sea. Next time you’re travelling, I’d recommend it. It’s a good one to listen to in an airport (and not merely because it had literally been “evening all day long” at the time of listening either).
Keeping the album around, I subsequently got pretty fixated on the strange, fourth wall-breaking, somewhat horror movie-ish song New Orleans, and could easily have composed a whole rambling blogpost unpicking its allusions and twists and turns (not at mention the creative disjuncture it reveals between Berman and his more collegiate Pavement buddies), had time allowed.
Actually, the airport is often a good place to listen to Silver Jews, I feel. So many of those Berman lines take on a strange, new resonance when you’re lolling about in transit in an atmosphere of enforced neutrality, subliminally prepped for sudden emergencies or emotional wobbles. Try it out!
As luck would have it, I was actually supping beer alone in – where else? – an airport bar earlier this year, when I received an email on my magic 21st century telephone from the Drag City mailing list, announcing David Berman’s return with the Purple Mountains record. Streaming the proffered lead track through headphones, I made the mistake of treating the exceptionally downbeat lyrics with far more irony than we now realise their author had intended, and found myself somewhat won over by the rich, whisky-soaked character of our hero’s voice, and cheery, country-rock caste of the accompanying tune (tad over-produced tho, but never mind).
Overjoyed, I was inspired to wander around the departure lounge for a good half hour, ducking those luggage carts with the flashing lights and listening once again to my favourite Silver Jews album (see below). It worked a treat. I found so much it it that I had never previously considered. The band’s chances in the big ten-year bout were suddenly looking considerably brighter.
The album in question of course was Berman’s second under the Silver Jews name, 1996’s ‘The Natural Bridge’, and you know what? Upon reflection, it doesn’t merely “stand up well” or some crap like that; approaching it cold, emotional baggage checked at the door, it is an absolute, 24 carat masterpiece – a statement in sound as complete and timeless as any of the untouchable, classic rock singer-songwriter holy-of-holys you’d care to name. Seriously - front to back, whether considered as a collection of songs or a unified entity, it is just great.
The leap forward from ‘Starlite Walker’ here is vast. That earlier record retained the feel of Berman simply mucking around with his college buddies, giggling over football trivia and long forgotten indie-boy in-jokes as they jammed away a few afternoons; its intermittent moments of poetry emerging despite rather than through the circumstances of its recording.
On ‘Natural Bridge’ though, Berman’s lyrical / poetic ambitions are front and centre as he gives the orders to a coterie of essentially anonymous backing musicians. For the first time, he doesn’t have to hold back for fear of embarrassing himself in front of his college pals, and the results, simply put, are astounding.
The opening trio of How to Rent a Room, Pet Politics and Black & Brown Shoes largely set the blue-print for the kind of sardonic, aphorism-filled rambles through the realm of literary-poetic evasion tactics that would come to define Silver Jews for most listeners, but whilst I would contest that they deliver on the promise of this formula more perfectly than anything Berman recorded subsequently, they also dip their toes into a dark twilit netherworld beyond the easy pleasures of mere eyebrow-arching lyrical zingers.
One could easily listen to the former song a dozen times before noticing that the outwardly sardonic lyrics – rather queasily, in post-August 2019 hindsight - largely centre around the narrator’s fantasy of his ex-partner learning about his death and realising she was responsible for it, even as Berman carefully sidesteps the kind of autobiographical solipsism that would increasingly characterise his later output.
The disconcerting, room sound-drenched crepuscular drift of ‘Pet Politics’ meanwhile swings even darker, breaking through the curtains of its predecessor’s vague, break up-related ruminations, forcibly shaking listeners out of their indie-rock complacency, introducing them to something else entirely;
“Adam was not the first man
Though the bible tells us so
There was one who came before him
Whose name we do not know
He also lived in the garden
But he had no mouth or eyes
One day Adam came to kill him
And he died beneath these skies”
Beat that, Leonard Cohen. Whether this heretical twist on the creation myth was somehow drawn from Berman’s apparent interest in Talmudic tales and parables, or whether he just pulled it straight from his fevered brain whilst in search of some good rhymes, who knows, but it certainly does a good job of setting the tone for what follows.
As the album progresses, the range of Berman’s lyrical trapeze act becomes broader and more audacious - and frequently more disturbing too. As the gentle humour of the earlier cuts blackens and burns to a crisp, the effect he and his band achieve on central tracks like Dallas and Albermarle Station leaves me entirely in awe. There is a bleak, slouching immensity to these songs’ psychotropic vision of mid-American daylight that is impossible to trap within this kind of easy, critical lingo.
There are several things which I think readers unfamiliar with ‘Natural Bridge’ should be made aware of.
Firstly, as mentioned above, very few of the lyrics on this album can be said with certainty to be directly autobiographical. I’m sure that Berman had all of the usual dilemmas and torments that defined his life hanging over him when he composed this material, but, like so many great artists, he seemed to realise here that, by burying the signifiers of his troubles within fleeting, third person dioramas, fictionalised projections of self and fragmented fields of abstract detail, he could hit at a level far deeper and longer-lasting than the banality of a mere confessional would allow. (Of course, I wish he could have kept this realisation more clearly in mind in later years, but… I don’t want to get ahead of myself.)
Secondly, I feel that, whereas detractors could easily write Berman’s songs off as collections of essentially fatuous two-liner puns and gags nailed together at random intervals atop generic, lolloping country-rock tunes, on ‘The Natural Bridge’ his trademark non-sequiturs feel as if they have been very carefully assembled, hewn into shape across years of trial and error, whilst his mid-verse shifts in perspective are used to create visceral effects – sinister ones, by and large – which reach beyond the scope of the individual lines.
“John Parker the Third, steps over a bird, on a Wall Street window ledge
Little Wilkie, dead cat rotting, deep inside the hedge”
- ‘The Ballad of Reverend War Character’
“We saw B.B. King on General Hospital
In the Oak Cliff dram-house where we stayed
When Clancy beat her with his belt buckle
We cleaned her cuts and then we prayed”
The deeper you get into the album, the more religion – of a more millennial Christian than Jewish bent, oddly enough – seems to intrude into these songs, with the looming spectre of some kind of divine judgement ever close at hand (“don’t you know, God stays up all night?”). During the records’s unsettling final stretch, these images build into a kind of apocalyptic fervour – an all-consuming obsession with The End, cut through with watery-eyed childhood / familial nostalgia, and expressed in terms both religious and secular.
“Bad roads, bad snow, bad bridges
Could turn a once bad man religious
If my kingdom ever comes, you’d better run, run run run”
- ‘Albermarle Station’
“When the governor’s heart fails
The state bird falls from its branch
Icicles on Hell’s higher hills”
- ‘Pretty Eyes’
Knowing Berman, this End is more liable to be a personal than collective one – self-annihilation, the end of a relationship, or of a way of life – but as the ominous feeling becomes ever stronger through the Beckett-like dead ends of the warped bar room jokes dryly relayed in The Frontier Index (“bartender says, hey, we don’t serve robots / robot says, oh but, someday you will”), the idea of a more tangible oblivion waiting to engulf the cast of fragmentary characters Berman has introduced us to across these songs becomes ever harder to avoid.
“One of these days, these days will end
The kitchen window, the light will bend”
- ‘Pretty Eyes’
Throughout ‘The Natural Bridge’, it feels as if the kind of unabashed sentimentality that plays a(n arguably detrimental) role in other Silver Jews records has been ruthlessly hammered down and repressed. As a result, when it finally breaks through on the closing Pretty Eyes, the effect is devastating. You can almost see the orange glow of a ‘Miracle Mile’ nuclear conflagration appearing on the horizon over the sedate family ranch house that the lyrics of the album’s final songs keep obsessively returning to, as Berman signs off, “final words are so hard to devise / I promise I’ll always remember, your pretty eyes”.
As the CD player whirs to a stop (I don’t believe I’ve ever even seen a copy of this on vinyl – we're deep in 1996 here folks), you may be apt to think back to the lines which, delivered in a far more flippant, good-humoured tone of voice, opened the album some forty odd minutes earlier: “you know I don’t really want to die / I only want to die in your eyes”.
Yeah, that’s right – the fucker only went and made this album circular. Some kind of Mobius strip of phantasmagorical Pan-American despair – every i dotted, every t crossed. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Of course, it is only now, returning to the album again, that I begin to notice just how fixated on more common-or-garden death Berman was here too. From the suicide fantasies of ‘Pet Politics’ to the multiple fatalities of The Ballad of Reverend War Character, to classic zingers like “there must be a pool out behind the church / cos he looks so cool in the back of the hearse” (‘Albermarle Station’), I don’t think there is a single song here that doesn’t touch upon mortality to some degree. Even the otherwise obscure album title seems suggestive of a transition between life and death. Viewed from a certain angle, the whole thing starts to play like history’s most elaborate musical suicide note. We should be glad, I daresay, that it didn't turn out that way.
Before we move on, I also want to throw in a word for the production and musical backing on ‘Natural Bridge’, which is sparse, but exquisite. On the first go-round a decade ago, I largely dismissed the music here as a kind of utilitarian, deliberately unobtrusive backing to the hi-jinx of Berman’s monotone wordplay, but upon returning to it, I can more readily appreciate the understated beauty of the band’s nuanced, alt-countrified playing, drifting and flowing like the tides and rains frequently evoked in the songs. (I’ve seen the term “countrypolitan” thrown around in press releases once or twice… I like it!).
Just those two chiming, clean-toned guitars playing off each other, big room reverb, and some deceptively simple, rolling rhythm-playing keeping everyone on their toes, Berman’s own soft, unsteady acoustic (perhaps drafted in from some solo demos?) drifting in and out of the tracks here and there – that’s all that’s needed. Throw in an occasional gesture of jarring experimentalism (ominous static creeping into ‘Pet Politics’, a “malfunctioning robot” noise solo on ‘The Frontier Index’), and this is a great production which serves the song-writing perfectly. The album’s instrumental cut, The Right to Remain Silent, which I often used to skip through in the past, now feels a highlight.
Much to my chagrin, it is ‘American Water’, the 1998 follow-up to ‘Natural Bridge’, which seems to have become enshrined as Thee Classic Silver Jews Album. Personally however, I’ve never really warmed to it, perhaps simply because I’m so fixated on its predecessor. For me, it has that kind of ‘overreaching-follow-up-to-a-classic’ feel about it. You know, one of those records that seems on first glance to give people MORE of all the stuff that made the previous album such a hit, but somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. (T Rex’s ‘The Slider’ or Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ both spring to mind as text-book examples of this phenomenon.)
As with those records, there are some excellent songs on here, of course - Buckingham Rabbit and Smith & Jones Forever in particular are favourites of mine, both absolute highlights of the band’s catalogue, and closing track The Wild Kindness remains sublime.
Elsewhere though, Berman’s writing feels less cohesive this time around, veering closer to the louche assemblages of smart alec couplets that my hypothetical detractors were mentioning earlier, and, although guest star Stephen Malkmus adds some beautifully lyrical guitar solos to the album’s best songs, his over-bearing presence on these recordings frequently proves detrimental, dragging us toward the same indecisive doldrums that were blighting Pavement’s output at around this time, making sprawling, jam-happy tracks like ‘Federal Dust’ and ‘Blue Arrangements’ feel like a chore to sit through. (“‘American Water’ isn’t a Pavement album, but it could play one on TV,” I think I recall reading in a review somewhere.)
Significantly, ‘American Water’ also has the distinction of containing the first Silver Jews song which I absolutely cannot stand to sit through (‘Honk If You’re Lonely’), marking the emergence of the particular strain of cartoon-ish, sing-song self-pity which would sadly go on to make Berman’s 21st century work more difficult to fully get behind.
Which brings us neatly onto 2001’s ‘Bright Flight’, an album which I remember caning relentlessly for a couple of months in 2008, but which now resides comfortably within the “battery acid instead please” category of my music library.
Apparently recorded deep within an abyss of severe substance abuse issues and a set of dizzying highs and lows in Berman’s personal life which culminated in a bizarrely dramatic suicide attempt in 2002, a quick skim through the album confirms my worst fears. It is indeed a tough listen in 2019… and not in a good way, either. Full of wide-eyed, faux-naïve pleas to the writer’s lady love, the album’s moments of jaunty humour feel desperate, whilst its corresponding stretches of k-hole desperation sound like a joke, setting a pattern that subsequent albums would struggle to overcome.
More than anything, ‘Bright Flight’ plays like an unsympathetic pastiche of a Silver Jews album, full of needlessly obscure lyrical convulsions, insincere emotional hand-wringing and morbid metaphysical pronouncements. Even the sound, Disneyfied and EQed to within an inch of its life, is fucking ugly compared to the unadorned room sound of the earlier records, as indeed is the cruddy polaroid sofa pictured on the cover (like, yeah, lo-fi, man). Just say no, kids.
After this, the two Silver Jews “comeback” albums, ‘Tanglewood Numbers’ (2005) and ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’ (2008) feel like dictionary definitions of “mixed bag”, interspersing songs which delight me beyond all measure with others which irk me so much I can’t even stand to share a room with them.
Chiefly I think, these two “happy” (in heavy inverted commas) Jews albums are noteworthy for introducing the world to Berman’s previously unsuspected talent as a writer of comedy songs, revelling in a sense of absurdist whimsy that, allowing for a transatlantic cultural translation, wouldn’t have been out of place on a Vivian Stanshall record.
Of the two albums, ‘Tanglewood..’ holds up the best, with only a handful of songs I feel compelled to skip through, including, ironically, ‘Punks in the Beerlight’, the first Silver Jews song which ever grabbed my attention. A chest-beating, cod-Springsteen pre-fab “anthem” for the Pitchfork crowd, it’s romantic celebration of drug abuse now strikes me as woefully ill-conceived.
Aside from that and a couple of other unedifying clunkers on the first side however, the rest of this album remains pretty great. To my surprise, the frantic Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed is still an absolute joy, every couplet a LOL-worthy wonder (“happiness won’t leave me alone says a bird in a nest / get a load of this fucking view, it’s the best in the west”), enhanced no end by the perfect timing of Berman’s slurred, shambolic delivery.
The understated calm of I’m Getting Back Into Getting Back Into You meanwhile sets the blueprint for what a “happy” Silver Jews song could and should have sounded like in a world that no longer needed those inverted commas, and has the distinction of featuring perhaps my single all-time favourite Berman stanza;
“I’ve been working at the airport bar
It’s like Christmas on a submarine
Wings and brandy on a winter’s night
You wouldn’t really call it a scene”
Sadly, we must now conclude that that world without the commas never really became a reality, but here more than anywhere, you can hear bits of hard-won, universal wisdom and warmth creeping through the humour and eccentricity of Berman’s post-rehab writing, nowhere more so than in the splendid opening to How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down;
“Fast cars, fine ass
These things will pass
They won’t get more profound
Time is a game only children play well
How can I love you if you won’t lie down?”
At this point friends, I challenge you to deny that this man was touched by a certain amount of genius.
I don’t intend this piece to be a teary-eyed tribute when I started writing it, but spending some time reacquainting myself with ‘Tanglewood Numbers’ makes me feel like turning it into one.
In the context of what now seems certain to be filed away by posterity as a life blighted by depression, addiction and wasted potential, it’s difficult not to shed a tear upon hearing Berman sounding calm and reflective as that aforementioned bird in its nest on Sleeping is the Only Love;
“Lately I’ve come to find
Life is sweeter than Jewish wine
Give a box of candy or a foot massage
Some people don’t take the time”
All that, and we haven’t even got to the looming horrors of The Farmers Hotel. Another one I could dedicate pages to. Let’s leave it to speak for itself, shall we.
By the time we get to ‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’ a few years later (the only Berman LP to eschew the tradition of gnomic two word titles, curiously enough), the tentative happiness of the preceding album seems to have hardened into an eerie rictus grin, held in place largely by the twinkly preciousness of the heavy-handed, post-Flaming Lips type Pro-tooled production.
Like a porcelain-toothed convert emerging from a Scientology meeting, the album’s pointed positivity has a weird vibe to it – a feeling only enhanced by Berman’s insistence on foregrounding the presence of his wife (and bassist/co-vocalist) Cassie in the album’s accompanying videos, press and stage appearances, presenting his “true love” to the world as if she were some kind of glittering trophy.
I mean, of course we all sincerely wished them well, but… if ever a guy seemed to be publically setting himself up for a fall, y’know?
I loved this album when it came out (Stereo Sanctity album of the year 2008!), and whilst I won’t dwell further on what I now perceive to be its failings, suffice to say, it all just sounds…. a bit too desperate to be liked, to Keep It Simple Stupid and to entertain. An admirable goal, no doubt, but for a writer as quixotic and introverted as Berman, it can’t help but sound a bit forced, a bit self-deluding.
It is ironic therefore that the only bits of the album I feel the need to revisit ten years on are its out-and-out comedy songs.
The epic San Francisco B.C., as you will probably be aware if you’ve read this far, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. A masterpiece story-song for the ages, set to an impeccable ‘Foggy Notion’ groove. At a push, I think I could probably recite the whole thing word-for-word straight off the top of my head by this point, and the fact that Berman apparently never applied himself to giving the world more of whatever this is, instead leaving it an inexplicable one-off within his catalogue, makes me feel desperately sad. (Well, there’s always ‘The Farmers Hotel’ of course…)
To my surprise, I also continue to greatly enjoy two other relatively light-hearted trifles on the album’s b-side. Firstly, there’s the laidback Candy Jail, in which it is difficult to fathom whether Berman’s vision of confinement in an institution “where the guards are gracious, and the grounds are grand, where the warden really listens and he understands” is meant to reflect his experience of married life, his position as a sort-of-famous musician recording for a nice-guy indie record label, or just a wider comment on, like, life in Capitalist America, man. Whatever your preferred interpretation though, it’s one of those cases where the metaphor itself is outlined so appealingly that it doesn’t really matter what it “means”.
If my earlier comparison to Vivian Stanshall meanwhile sounded like a stretch, I refer you directly to the opening lines of Party Barge, an obnoxious three minutes of self-amused, throw-away goofery which, miraculously, continues to win my favour a full decade down the line;
“Father drove a steamroller,
Mother was a crossing guard
She got rolled when he got steamed,
And I got left in charge”
Take a bow, Dave – you’ve earned it.
For the life of me, I can’t explain why I still like this song. By any conventional yard-stick it’s quirky, novelty guff of the lowest order, but hearing the gusto with which Berman announces, “Ports of call! Day-Glo bait! Come see a legend while it’s still being made!”, backed my what basically sounds like a load of bell-ringing, horn-honking gimmicky chaos thrown together minutes before the studio kicked out for the evening, never fails to brighten my day.
So, that’s how the Silver Jews catalogue stacks up for me a decade down the line. As I daresay I’ve made clear, this has been a complicated test case for the Ten Year Rule, but the very fact I’m bothering to write this I think serves as its own verdict.
Against all the odds, this handful of troublesome, ill-starred LPs continue to mean a great deal to me, long after the appeal of most of their indie-rock kith and kin has fallen away – and, I would contest, they should probably mean something to you too, if you’re at all interested in the delicate art of writing songs with words.
For better or for worse, D.C. Berman was on a plain of his own; a true one-off. His achievements in the field of song shine through above and beyond all of the wasted potential and self-sabotage.
Originally, pre-August 8th, I was going to conclude here by taking the ‘Purple Mountains’ record to task, but I can’t do that now. I can’t even go near it.
How, as either writers or listeners, are we supposed to approach the shiny new opening salvo of a bold creative comeback that didn’t even last long enough for the band to begin their first tour; whose leading light barely even lived long enough to skim the reviews? It’s an impossible weight for a recording to bear.
I mentioned something earlier about ‘The Natural Bridge’ sounding like an album-as-suicide-note. Well, whether planned or otherwise, ‘Purple Mountains’ has become just that, and it’s not pretty.
Streaming the pre-release videos for the songs a few months back, the sentiments expressed in the lyrics seemed so exaggerated that – in combination with the jaunty, up-tempo musical backing and the videos which seemed to intersperse shots of Berman moping about in his suburban home with footage of him sharing a stage with his wife – I’d assumed the whole thing must be some kind of a gag. I imagined him happily back at home, deliberate attempting to write the most morose, depressing songs imaginable and to playing them in cheery, “triumphant” fashion, as some kind of quirky creative / cathartic exercise.
It was only later, reading this no-doubt-soon-to-be-infamous interview with the Washington Post, that the penny dropped. Was he REALLY living alone in a room above the Drag City offices, marriage permanently on the rocks, looking as if he’d barely got out of bed in the past month...? Oh, come on man, please say it ain’t so!
In the light of this, the full album, when released, was difficult to stomach – and after last week of course, it’s taken on a whole other terrible, toxic feel which makes it impossible to even approach.
How were we as listeners (and never mind all those release day critics saying “yeah, nice comeback album, 8/10”) supposed to have known, when this guy sidled up to us after ten years off the radar and started crooning, “lately I tend to make strangers wherever I go / some of them were once people I was happy to know” and “conditions I wish weren’t taking control / darkness and cold, darkness and cold”, that he was entirely sincere?
Shit, how could we have NOT known? Did I really just hear this man with a well-known history of depression and suicide attempts sing, “feels like something really wrong has happened / I confess I’m barely holding on”? (Sorry if that's a misquote, I’m not going back to double-check.)
A cry for help, a final ‘fuck you’, a sincere attempt at soul-bearing or a doomed attempt to ‘deal’? What were these songs when he recorded them, and what are they now? How are we to possibly understand this thing in years to come?
Maybe in another ten years, I’ll be able to go near it and figure something out.
For now, all I’m able to do is go back nearly fifteen years, to closing song (more of hand-on-heart spoken confession / statement of intent kind of a thing, really) from ‘Tanglewood Numbers’, in which a post-rehab, on-the-upswing Berman told us, “there is a place beyond the blues I never want to see again” - and then experience a very hollow feeling inside.
Thursday, August 08, 2019
(1967 – 2019)
God. I only just heard.
In spare half hours recently, I’ve been pulling together a long, rambling blog post laying out my mixed feelings about David Berman and Silver Jews, to sort of contextualise a brief discussion of his recent ‘Purple Mountains’ record. So, I’ve been listening to and thinking about his stuff a great deal, for better or for worse.
All that’s out of the window now of course, but there were some heart-felt words in there I hope, so I’ll try to rake it over with this awful new knowledge, see where it goes and get back to you.
As with so much of his later output, it’s difficult to tell whether the Purple Mountains record represents a troubled man desperately trying to sound cheerful, or a happy man trying to sound troubled, and this uncertainly lent it an unpalatable whiff of insincerity on pre-8th August spins…. but I guess he’s given us a pretty irrefutable answer now.
Basically, I fear there is precious little room here for hope, or serenity, or closure, or whatever the good feeling you’re supposed to have when looking back on the legacies of people who have died is. This is nasty, unplanned, improper. Ghastly in the strictest sense. The new record has a few fleeting breaths of wisdom, grace and charm about it, but they are suffocated by a pall of ugly, clown-ish self-pity most unbecoming for a gentleman of his age, which I did not feel should be encouraged. For an artist who liked to unpack his life story in public every few years, it makes for a weird and terrible epitaph.
Berman was an incredible talent, perhaps the single best lyricist ever to work in popular song, and some of his recordings remain close to me always. For him to go out this way is unspeakable.
What else can you say? I feel so sorry for everyone who cared about him, I hope he’s at peace somehow.
Chalk lines around my body
Like the shoreline of a lake
Your laughter made me nervous
It made your body shake too hard
Now there's a lot of things that I'm gonna miss
Like thunder down country and the way water drifts
When you're running for the door in the rain
Read the Metro section, see my name
No I didn't really want to die
I only want to die in your eyes
Grant me one last wish
Life should mean a lot less than this
- ‘How To Rent a Room’, 1996
Friday, July 05, 2019
Second Quarter Report:
March – June Listening
(part # 1 of 2)
By and large, the past three months of my music listening have been characterised by a wealth of glimmering, phantastical discoveries slouching their way down the Bandcamp / second hand LP highway -- combined with a chronic lack of the time, space and technology necessary to fully engage with them.
Nonetheless, these things, so many things, all demand at least a brief shout-out here, if I’m to hold my head high vis-à-vis dragging out this dinosaur blog’s lifespan. Trying to compress stuff that’s basically beyond words into a reader-friendly para when you’ve basically only had a chance to stick it on once or twice whilst dojng admin is never much fun, so hold on to yr hats, but bandcamp links are easy, so they at least should help to clarify what I’m haphazardly going on about.
As luck would have it, many of the ‘new’ discoveries highlighted below aren’t really all that new, in terms of release date, but god knows, if the idea of listening to a record from 2017 beings you out in a rash, I can’t help.
Les Filles De Illighadad.
I discovered Les Filles De Illighadad via a recommendation link on the bandcamp page of much-lauded Tuareg guitar hero Mdou Moctar, whose work I had decided to investigate after reading that he had starred in the first ever Tuareg language feature film(!), a Saharan version of ‘Purple Rain’ (!!) [it’s for real – DVD and soundtrack are both available here].
Moctar’s music is perfectly good – indeed, it seems to have been blowing minds left, right and centre - but it didn’t really do it for me. I found it a bit too… bombastic and ego-driven I suppose? Maybe a bit too heavy on the cliché Western pop-rock moves? (I know, I know – what did I expect.) Clicking straight through to the calming, communal exuberance of Les Filles De Illighadad though proved the perfect corrective to these (wholly subjective) deficiencies, very much providing a ‘yin’ to Moctar’s ‘yang’ when it comes to the strategies which proponents of North African electric guitar music may find themselves employing as their music gains ever more traction amongst moneyed first world rubes such as myself.
Rather than awkwardly hacking it up into in my own words, it will probably be best if I simply cut and paste a few paragraphs from the notes accompanying Les Filles most recent album, ‘Eghass Malan’ (2017), which I think gives us the gist here pretty well:
“In the past years, certain genres of Tuareg music have become popular in the West. International acts of “desert blues” like Tinariwen, Bombino, and Mdou Moctar have become synonymous with the name “Tuareg.” But guitar music is a recent creation. In the 1970s young Tuareg men living in exile in Libya and Algeria discovered the guitar. Lacking any female vocalists to perform tende, they began to play the guitar to mimic this sound, replacing water drums with plastic jerrycans and substituting a guitar drone for the vocal call and response. The exiled eventually traveled home and brought the guitar music with them. In time, this new guitar sound came to eclipse the tende, especially in the urban centers. If tende is a music that has always been sung by woman, the Tuareg guitar was its gendered counterpart, and Tuareg guitar music is a male dominated scene.
Fatou Seidi Ghali, lead vocalist and performer of Les Filles is one of the only Tuareg female guitarists in Niger. Sneaking away with her older brother's guitar, she taught herself to play. While Fatou's role as the first female Tuareg guitarist is groundbreaking, it is just as interesting for her musical direction. In a place where gender norms have created two divergent musics, Fatou and Les Filles are reasserting the role of tende in Tuareg guitar. In lieu of the djembe or the drum kit, so popular in contemporary Tuareg rock bands, Les Filles de Illighadad incorporate the traditional drum and the pounding calabash, half buried in water. The forgotten inspiration of Tuareg guitar, they are reclaiming its importance in the genre and reclaiming the music of tende.”
Got all that? Good. In practice, those of us tuning into Les Filles De Illighadad whilst lacking the necessary background to appreciate the finer subtleties of their place within Tuareg musical culture can expect to hear the following: complex, intuitive circular melodies, elegantly picked out on the buzz-free strings of a Fender Stratocaster (or off-brand equivalent); gentle acoustic strumming supported by the propulsive, rhythmic web of hand clapping and the unique forms of percussion outlined above; unison female voices delivering happy-yet-world weary call and response type tunes that could be as old as the dawn of time for all I know, interspersed with joyous, animalistic cries that make it sound as if some big, brightly plumed flightless birds have rocked up to join the party. It’s absolutely brilliant!
The second song, ‘Inssegh Inssegh’, with guitar-work that almost recalls Junior Kimbrough, stands out as a particular favourite. If you don’t like this… well, I don’t know what to say.
A trio hailing from somewhere in the vicinity of County Leitrim and/or Cork, Woven Skull seem to be keeping the spirit of the early ’00s kneelcore/proper psyche/new-weird-whatever CD-R scene alive, wringing out a sound that sometimes resembles a more slightly more rock-orientated take on the hive mind cacophony of Vibracathedral Orchestra… but, equally, sometimes doesn’t. To say I approve would be something of an understatement.
‘Exile of Warren Street’, the opening cut on their self-titled record from last year, mixes buzzing, insectoid fuzz guitar strum-drone with shrieking bowed strings and clamorous, collapsed kit drumming, suggesting an alternative history in which the EPI-era Velvets had kept Angus Maclise on board and swung behind Cale’s avant/minimalist impulses rather than Reed’s songwriting, but then further complicates matters by bringing in a hulking great, quasi-Arabic doom riff. Crazy, man!
On subsequent tracks, the group push the furthest reaches of the sound available to them within their guitar / mandola / drums trio set-up, sometimes delivering ecstatic webs of picked string-drone that wouldn’t sound out of place on a James Blackshaw record, whilst delving elsewhere into full-on Sun City Girls ethno-forgery territory, like a ritual wedding dance devised by a tribe of post-apocalyptic cyborgs.
Much of the time, the band emphasise dense, knotty and rather punishing textures, full of stabbing high-end and seething, granular chaos hoovered straight off the forest floor – and speaking of which, I myself am basically floored by the extent to which Woven Skull have managed to conjure up such a unique and powerful sound for themselves; out of time, out of place, and touching gossamer-light on their (presumably voluminous) sphere of influence as much by accident-of-coincidental-greatness as by design.
Given how many of my personal sonic fetishes Woven Skull touch upon, I’m horrified to discover that they’ve actually been playing together since 2008. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to ignore their existence for so long (I fear I may have been confusing their name with that of garage-pop also-rans Woven Bones), but if for some reason, they feel inclined to cross the water to our exhausted br*xit netherworld at some point in the near future, they are liable to find me glowering in the front row, making up for lost time.
I confess it’s taken me a while to get my head around the recent explosion of interest in smooth/soulful jazz. I mean, it’s just been so… unexpected, y’know? Well, actually, perhaps not. I mean, all these young people with their music schools scholarships, their inclusive politics, good manners and vast quantities of marijuana…. I guess we should all have seen this one coming, right?
Anyway, the weather’s getting warmer, summer solstice has come and gone, and I’m finally feeling it; finally managing to overcome that instinctive distrust borne of a lifetime of being told that legitimate music must be aggressively idiosyncratic and disdainful of formal technique, and that anything ‘new’ that won’t upset attendees at a hypothetical dinner party should treated with extreme suspicion. And, I’m happy to report that this remarkable double album bearing the name of Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven has proved a great help in this regard. (Another thing that has helped: this video.)
A uniquely ambitious venture, ‘Universal Beings’ feels almost like a kind of a primer for this ascendant scene. Each of its four LP sides was recorded in a different city (New York, Chicago, London, Los Angeles), and each features a different group of players, with McCraven the sole constant.
Like many musicians within this mileau, McCraven plays as if he is as much influenced by hip-hop and electronica as ‘classic’ jazz, but his smoked-out, head-nodding 4/4 style, occasionally diverging into patterns of skittering, Ninja Tune-y rim-shots and weird double-time experiments, remains well-judged, never degenerating into cheese, and always serving to enhance, rather than detract from, the fine work of his collaborators. And, make no mistake, accessibility should not be confused here with any lack of depth or legitimacy in the performances showcased herein, which, I would contend, often hit a level that even the most hardline free improv/extended technique partisans will find difficult to dismiss.
The New York side, in particular, is absolutely sublime, recalling the blissed out vistas of the kind of early ‘70s session that Don Cherry or Alice Coltrane might have slipped right into, with Brandee Younger (harp), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Dezron Douglas (bass) all delivering contributions which deserve to be (very melodiously) hymned from the rooftops. Elsewhere, the Chicago side a little more fiery, with tenor player Shabaka Hutchins (appearing courtesy of Verve Records, I’ll have you know) blurting out the kind of proudly dissonant, clustered chords that will forever put me in mind of late-period Coltrane (John, that is). [I grasp at these old timey comparisons simply because it’s my natural instinct as an old timey guy, you understand, not because the players here necessarily stand up and demand them.]
The London side meanwhile dives straight into deep Gilles Peterson territory, with McCraven knocking out a rhythm that seems to be drawing on some kinda local grime/trap influence, but the session soon settles down into a hypnotic, sizzling kinda headspace, with Ashley Henry (electric piano) really clicking into place. Recorded at the home of that hot young hipster, Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, meanwhile, the L.A. side features a slightly larger ensemble, with Parker himself contributing some fragmented – but not overbearing – shards of disembodied fuzz guitar to proceedings, but it’s still just as much of a compelling and – dare I say – inspiring listen as the rest of this monumental document; an album I can easily imagine be fetishized in years to come as the sound of a very particular, and I’d venture, very positive, set of cultural time & place circumstances crystalising – temporarily, at least - into something really special.
Word to the wise: if any of this appeals to you, get on this soon, because vinyl copies are now sold out from most UK retailers, and this one of those albums that *really* benefits from the format, so pay what you have to, and happy hunting. I apologise for the fact that I was too dumb-headed to tell you about back when stock was fresh and new about nine months ago.
And, at completely the other end of the musical spectrum meanwhile – hold the presses folks! Here’s our new lead: Welsh metal band fronted by Russo-German antifa / feminist activist play unbelievably intense tech-grind / battle-ready DM addressing frightening, taboo-skirting subjects of real life concern. As you might imagine, the results are impossible to fuck with, but more surprisingly, they are also super fun to listen to and don’t give me a headache! Whole world rejoices! Story at eleven.
That’s all the info I have to report at present, but this interview should help fill in some of the gaps. For now, I’ll merely say that, whilst I usually find the more technical side of contemporary metal a huge turn off, the members of Venom Prison channel their post-human level virtuosity into such a raw, cathartic head-rush of sound that my usual gripes about muscle-nerd precision and faceless production find themselves righteously flattened.
Crucially, there is a tasty core of real Rock Pleasure Principle stuff retained here. Those riff break-downs and soaring lead lines are totally “sick”, as I believe the kids are saying - as much Arch Enemy as Meshuggah - and, combined with the flesh-shredding rage Larissa Stupar is putting across here (channelling pure Lee Dorrian era Napalm Death, in spirit if not in actual sonic resemblance)… well, this is just too much awesome for me to get my head around right now. My vision’s blurring – send help!
There are, I would suggest, few people in the quote-unquote “civilised” world who currently have as much reason to be irked as Brazilians living in the UK. The three members of Tropical Nightmare do indeed seem to fall within this category, but it would be misleading to tie current geo-political anguish onto the four songs which comprise their ‘III’ EP, given that it was recorded in the summer of 2016, before the situation over here became quite so tragi-comically dire, and before their home country turned around and delivered an election result that the world needs like a shotgun wound to the thigh.
Nonetheless, it is this sort of thing which came to mind when I eventually hit ‘play’ on their bandcamp after seeing them performing live a few times, and being very impressed by the experience. Given that this is ominous, pedal-damaged mid-tempo punk with a heavy, distorted bass in the forefront, I suppose a Killing Joke comparison is probably warranted, but I enjoy these guys a lot more than that grisly lot; theirs is a serrated, nuanced and fiercely unpredictable take on noise-punk – a welcome touch of Big Black/Shellac in the mix maybe? - bolstered by the kind of vein-popping, impassioned delivery which adds further weight to the argument that, for some strange, indefinable reason, contemporary Portuguese and Spanish language punk tends to knock seven shades out of the Anglophone competition.
It doesn’t look as if Tropical Nightmare have released anything since this tape came out in January ‘18, but they’re still active (as of a few months back anyway), still gigging occasionally in London – so please, click the link above and show ‘em some love, and perhaps they’ll get back in the studio / dig out the old eight track [delete as applicable] before long.
Friday, June 21, 2019
Psychedelic Speed Freaks –
Psychedelic Speed Freaks LP
(Black Editions, 2019)
Okay, so some background is definitely needed to clear up the nomenclature here, before we get into the nitty-gritty.
Back in Tokyo in the early 1980s, bassist Nanjo Asahito and guitarist Munehiro Narita formed the incredibly influential maximalist heavy rock trio High Rise (you can read me waxing lyrical about their recently reissued second album here). One of High Rise’s early songs was named ‘Psychedelic Speed Freaks’, and the late Hideo Ikeezumi subsequently adopted this as the name for his even more influential record label – generally shortened to P.S.F. – which proceeded to release High Rise’s music, alongside that of many other incomparably influential acts in the fields of psychedelic rock, jazz/improv and uncategorisible weirdness, culminating, eventually, in the release of a double CD compilation entitled ‘P.S.F.: Psychedelic Speed Freaks’, assembled as a tribute to Ikeezumi following his untimely passing in 2017. (I wrote about this compilation here, and it has subsequently been reissued on quadruple vinyl(!), also via Black Editions.)
High Rise, meanwhile, split up in the late ‘80s, reportedly due to Narita’s decision to give up music in order to spend more time with his family. Maximalist guitar nuts such as myself however now have cause to REJOICE, as, unexpectedly, 2019 finds the great man returning once again to the world of recorded sound, perhaps inspired by the attention the aforementioned Black Editions label has recently been lavishing upon the P.S.F. catalogue.
Now apparently based in the USA, Narita has teamed up with – and I quote – “a pair of untamed L.A. acid punks” and, displaying a nigh-on herculean lack of originally, he has named his new band Psychedelic Speed Freaks, prominently displaying the P, S and F initials on the cover of their self-produced debut album, which is also named ‘Psychedelic Speed Freaks’.
Got all that clear? Good, because otherwise the resulting confusion could tend to obscure the fact that ‘Psychedelic Speed Freaks’, the 2019 debut album by the band Psychedelic Speed Freaks, is fucking brilliant.
Though essentially offering a direct continuation of High Rise’s blueprint of over-saturated Blue Cheer –> ‘Raw Power’ -> Motorhead lineage rock n’ roll, Narita flies free here from the intimidating ‘thunder-bass’ and blackened production aesthetic imposed by Asahito, and, clearly in command of the faders, he’s got his guitar mixed at what I would personally deem about the right level (and anyone who has ever been fool enough to take my advice on such matters knows what that means).
Whilst new collaborators “Jasso” (bass/vox) and “TJ” (drums) lay down the necessary bare bones of some reassuringly sloppy stoner-punk thud somewhere down the hall, Narita is right up in our face, alchemising their grue into sizzling liquid gold, with his unique approach to lead playing – a heavily fuzz-wahed yet precisely lyrical wipe-out in which individual picked notes are subsumed into a single, wildly fluctuating sine wave of giddy, shrieking energy, bypassing flesh and wood as if ripped straight from some twitching, malfunctioning synapse plugged directly into a speaker-stack – sounding even more aggressive and well-honed than it did back in the ‘80s, if such is possible.
On the tunes on the A side, Narita spends at least some of his time playing chords, falling back into the kind of familiar, proto-Mudhoney riff patterns that characterised High Rise’s material on ‘Lawless’ and ‘End Your Worries’. By the time we get to the B side though, he’s completely off the leash, leaving the bass to hold down the structure as he hits the high end of the neck and solos his way into the stratosphere.
The result is, needless to say, one of the most exhilaratingly extreme rock albums of the modern era, sitting comfortably next to the MC5-meets-AMT carnage of Feral Ohms debut from a couple of years back, even as tracks like ‘Night Seer’ – my personal favourite here - dial things back to a sleek, pulsing urban beauty that nigh on defies description, recalling the exquisitely nuanced blare of Martin Weaver’s work in Wicked Lady, whilst closing track ‘Immaterialized’ finds Narita grinding the gears of a shining, ectoplasmic hog for an eternal run down the post-earth highway, ol’ Jasso’s voice breaking into a Lemmy-like croak as space-rock oblivion beckons. It’s a monster.
Fuzz guitar fanatics who value raw sound, inventive playing and sonic extremity over expensive, brightly coloured boxes and multi-tracked compression - or indeed, unrehabilitated rock fans who just want an excuse to grind their drunken heads into the ground like some kind of human corkscrew - both need to get on this immediately.
Still available from Norman in the UK!
Thursday, June 06, 2019
An Evening with
Roky Erickson & The Explosives
(no label / year unknown)
Price paid: £5 from a record fair in a gymnasium in Leicester, circa 2004-ish.
At the time I spied this LP, Roky Erickson’s solo career was still very much an unknown to me. Of course, I already knew and loved the work of The 13th Floor Elevators (I have a budget two-fer CD package bought from a Borders clearout sale at an impressionable age to thank for that one), but beyond that…? I was vaguely aware that the guy had made some scattered recordings subsequent to his release from Rusk State mental hospital in the mid-70s, but – to their eternal shame - none of the sources I relied upon for musical guidance at the time had clued me into the fact that this music might be worth tracking down and listening to.
Since then, both reissues of Roky’s ‘official’ discography and his surprise re-emergence as an active presence in the world circa 2007 have helped to raise the profile of his solo work to some extent, but if you ask me, it STILL doesn’t get its due, and, back in the early ‘00s, this disc felt like some way-out, marginal shit, lurking on the fringes of the cult-rock canon; a shrugged off footnote to the litany of collapse and mental illness that ended every potted Elevators biog.
As such, I had no idea what I was getting into. “Oh, that guy from The 13th Floor Elevators who went crazy,” I remember thinking to myself. “I wonder what he got up to after the band broke up?”
Even in those pre-vinyl revival days, £5 seemed like a strikingly low sum to fork out for an answer to that question, so I took the plunge, returning to my dusty, rented garret and only to drop the needle and discover THE BEST ANSWER I could possibly have imagined.
I had been expecting, I suppose, merely a curio – some damaged, acid casualty folk meanderings would have been my best guess. So, you can imagine the joy I felt being hit full on by the raging, high energy distorto-choogle of ‘The Wind And More’, and realising that Roky Erickson had actually spent the decade following his incarceration crafting an awe-inspiring catalogue of raw, punkoid heavy rock songs dealing with vampires, zombies and the wiles of Satan, and indeed had performed them with raucous gusto, backed up here by what sounds like the most shit-hot bar band in the entire universe. Holy cow!
Why didn’t anyone TELL ME he was this great?, I remember thinking. As I proceeded to dig deeper into some of Rykodisc’s CD reissues, discovering the sinister, synapse-blazing wonders of Two Headed Dog, I Think of Demons and I Have Always Been Here Before, my disbelief at the fact that Roky Erickson wasn’t enthroned amid the highest pantheon of weirdo rock’n’roll royalty only grew. I mean, whichever way you approach it, this shit is just amazing. These records are raw and uncouth and mind-bogglingly strange, but, through all his travails, the guy’s aesthetic vision remained pure, whilst, in terms of melodic song-writing, he just knocked out hit after hit after hit.
All these years later though, I still think that this shady bootleg, of uncertain provenance and unknown recording date, remains one of the strongest Roky performances ever captured on tape, and one of the best possible introductions to his particular thing.
As his fans will be painfully aware, Roky’s tempestuous mental health made the quality of his live appearances pretty hit and miss, to say the least. I was lucky enough to see him perform on three separate occasions following his surprise come-back in 2007, and, though he was by all accounts experiencing a greater degree of personal stability than he had enjoyed in decades, it was still pretty eerie to hear him perform his songs in perfect, note-for-note fashion, dutifully recreating every slurred line and vocal tic of the studio-recorded versions, before staring vacantly into the middle distance once the applause died down, not saying a word, and often relying on his band members to prompt him by whispering the title of the next song in his ear. (Those who have attended Brian Wilson concerts during the 21st century will quite possibly have noticed the same phenomenon.)
By contrast, the performance presented on ‘An Evening With..’ finds Roky on absolutely top form, sounding sharp, energised and clearly in the mood for some ad-libs and improvisation. (I STILL don’t know where and when this album was recorded by the way, but The Explosives began acting as Roky’s backing band from 1978 through to the beginning of his “lost years” in the early/mid ‘80s, so… probably sometime around then.) (1)
“The Hells Angels at the Mick Jagger concert…. stabbing the girl at Altamont!” he exclaims, apropos of nothing, during the instrumental coda to opener ‘The Wind And More’ (basic fact checking = not a Roky specialty). This song, apparently written in celebration of Luciferian powers of telekinesis, has incidentally become one of my favourites in Roky’s horror-rock repertoire, and it gets a great extended work-out here.
“The forces of evil are in full sway!”, he cheerfully declares as the ominous, opening chords of ‘Night of the Vampire’ kick in, and indeed, the old boy seems to have been having a whale of a time, his rhythm guitar ringing our rude, loud and in perfect time. Encouraged perhaps by this, the band seem to be at their ease and proceed to play a veritable blinder. (2)
Lead guitarist Cam King is, it must be said, very dominant here. Building on the tricky lead lines devised by Duane Aslaksen of Roky’s prior backing band The Aliens, King takes things to what I think can be safely deemed “the next level”, packing every available second of these recordings with grandstanding, soar-with-the-eagles shred. Crucially however, he never steps on his boss’s toes, and remains in sympathy always with the spirit and melody of the songs. A perfect “church key” accompanist, he brings a variety and excitement to the sound that keeps even the gruelling, mantra-like repetition of the eight minute ‘Stand For The Fire Demon’ sounding fresh.
At the end of the side one, goaded on by shouted requests from a woman in the crowd, the band even take a shot at ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’. “This is a song they play in old Baptist church houses, on the old wooden organ..” Roky rambles by way of an introduction, before being cut off by The Explosives, who proceed to transform the song’s immortal four chord stomp (one of the first things I ever learned to play on the guitar, incidentally) into a punkoid juggernaut so joyous it almost succeeds in eclipsing the original Spades and Elevators versions in my affections, aided by King’s valiant attempt to recreate the inimitable sound of Tommy Hall’s “electric jug” by means of some high velocity, tremolo neck-tapping.
I believe it was Jad Fair who once said that there are only two kinds of songs that matter, love songs and monster songs, and rarely has an artist taken that ethos to heart quite so thoroughly as Roky Erickson. Another thing then that helps make this bootleg so great is that it’s track list takes the time to highlight the oft-overlooked former aspect of his catalogue. In between the scarifying odes to gremlins, ghosts and demons, each side of the LP contains a beautiful example of Roky’s gentler balladry, reminding us that, in a kinder, less weird world, he could easily have enjoyed an alternative career as a romantic pop troubadour, slotting straight into the specifically Texan tradition of Buddy Holly and Bobby Fuller.
‘For You’, on the A side, is in particular a wonderful song, and Roky’s stuttering declaration that “the other girls were around / but I never tried to score” [because] “I'd stay completely true / I who would wait forever / wait for you” is incredibly touching – a disarmingly sweet flip-side to the kind of swaggering, travellin' band machismo we’d reasonably expect from this brand of OTT ‘70s heavy rock, and a reminder that, in a weird sort of way, Roky also often feels like a spiritual precursor to the oddball, heart-on-sleeve stylings of the aforementioned Mr Fair, or to his sometime movie buddy Daniel Johnson.
(Insofar as I’m aware, this was ‘For You’s first recorded appearance, although it was reprised in slightly altered form on Roky’s excellent 1995 ‘comeback’ album All That May Do My Rhyme, a beautiful set which concentrates primarily on his love songs, and is well worth tracking down.)
At the complete other end of the scale meanwhile, Side B also contains what I feel is one of the best available versions of the oft-recorded Bloody Hammer, arguably the definitive statement of Roky’s post-hospital era, and a singular landmark of post-traumatic outsider art / heavy metal damage. It’s impossible to fully compartmentalise the disorientating rush of mixed emotions embodied in this song, but, like the very best of the horror movies Roky loved so much, it is a pretty overpowering experience, both exhilarating / empowering and sickeningly disturbing.
Marking what I think is the only instance of Roky explicitly addressing the nightmare of his incarceration and electro-shock “therapy” in his lyrics (“I am the doctor / I am the psychiatrist / to make sure they don’t hammer their minds out”), the song’s implications of real world abuse swiftly dissolve into a terrifying melange of incoherent horror imagery (“the baby ghost in the 1900s says, beat it with your chain!”) that, paradoxically, feel far too much like a raw wound for its public airing as a rock n’ roll freakout to seem at all comfortable.
For all that some may see a bottomless, Mansonite black hole at the heart of Roky’s music though, he – and, by extension, we – can take strength from the fact that, in spite of all the ugly obstacles placed in his path, he never went fully over the dark side. For all the shrieking demons he conjured on stage, he never lost his natural gentleness, or his stuttering, schoolboy naivety. As he is determined to tell us, even in this darkest corner of his songbook, “I never have that bloody hammer”.
Throughout his life, Roky Erickson treaded a harder road than most of us can imagine, but by embracing his demons and inviting them out to party, he came through it smiling, with his amp roaring, ready to entertain, and may God and Satan alike bless him for that.
Throughout the halcyon years of file-sharing, I searched in vain for a ripped mp3 copy of ‘An Evening with Roky Erickson & The Explosives’, longing to carry it around with me and plunder it for mix CDs. After much frustration, I finally discovered that the exact same recording is in fact far better known under the seemingly arbitrary title of ‘Casting The Runes’, and that it first appeared in 1987 (see footnote below), and subsequently on CD during the ‘90s.
You can listen to it in its entirety on Youtube here, and you know what? If anything I’ve written above remotely interests you, you REALLY, REALLY should.
After that, you will naturally want to hear more, so I would recommend atoning for your bootlegging sins by buying some of the official Roky Erickson reissues, from which his family and estate will hopefully receive some royalties. (Gremlins Have Pictures would be my number # 1 pick for beginners.)
An Evening with Roky Erickson & The Explosives gets the square root of a zillion kaleidoscopic thumbs ups, and an eternal, three-eyed love triangle stare.
(1)Whilst researching this post, I have finally ascertained that the tracks on this LP were recorded at the Soap Creek Saloon, Austin TX, on November 27th 1979, and at the Rock Island club in Houston on December 22nd 1979. The recordings were made by David Hough for use in a planned documentary entitled ‘Meeting with an Alien’, and Edwin “Savage Pencil” Pouncey provided sleeve notes for the first LP release under the title ‘Casting the Runes’, which appeared in 1987. Thanks Discogs!
(2) We should put in a word here about Erickson’s fondness for excessive volume and full spectrum guitar distortion when playing in a band context – an element that lends a hair-raising proto-punk kick to his earliest solo recordings. Throughout his post-hospital years, Roky reportedly used blaring noise from TVs and radios as a kind of DIY therapy, and his maximalist approach to guitar-playing (pretty rare in children of the ‘60s) seems to have reflected this, to the extent that, during a series of ill-fated Elevators reunion gigs in the early ‘70s, the other band members were forced to rig up a system that allowed them to covertly turn his amp down, because otherwise he’d just crank all the dials to ten and deafen everybody. (This story is recalled from the book ‘Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators, Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound’ by Paul Drummond, which came out in 2007 and is a *great* read, albeit a rather expensive one at the time of writing (reprint please!)).
Saturday, June 01, 2019
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
For you, I cool the streets with the wind at night
In the day I beat with the sun on the cobblestones
And cool the wind of the Nile at night
The earth, I fill with diamonds, plus light
To say they never, ever bite
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
With you, god shows me his wife
Lucifer and the mother of witches
In marriage they unite
My gremlins, color purple after light
To say they never, ever bite
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
May ninth, 1976, Satan came to earth on a May night
Gremlins have pictures, of the anniversary of Christ
The square root of zero, is something smaller than zero
which keeps getting smaller, keeps him out of sight, his soul
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
I promise, I promise
My green and blue eyes to you
Unfortunately I’m not really in a position to compose a proper obit post right now, but watch this space—appropriate tribute will be coming soon.
To jump on the line that will no doubt figure in about 98% of social media obits - we’re gonna miss him, baby.
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Not Quite So Old EPs:
Louder Than a Thousand Deaths
(Me Saco Un Ojo, 2012)
Price paid: £7 (Rat Records, Camberwell)
A long-standing – if rarely applied – rule of my record shopping exploits is that any record featuring a picture of some Space Marines or other Warhammer type fantasy battle characters on the front will be automatically purchased. (Yeah, I know, keep me away from those Bolt Thrower reissues…)
In part, this is a childhood nostalgia thing (just leave it, please), but at same time I have faith that any heavy music (and it WILL be heavy music, let’s face it) that seeks to evoke the spirit of… this sort of thing… is liable to be pretty cool. (Yeah, those Bolt Thrower reissues.)
As such, the beautiful rendering of some copyright-skirting DEFINITELY NOT Chaos Marines on the front of this 2012 release from Swedish/Hungarian band Megatomb (you’ll need one of those after a Megadeth, presumably..?) made it a no-brainer.
With only six song titles listed, I was hoping Megatomb might be a doom band, but no dice. Turns out this is actually a 45rpm 12” EP kind of deal. Bah!
In the great crap-shoot of contemporary metal sub-genres, I’d probably peg these guys as blackened thrash, with touch of death on the side. Which I suppose makes them yet another nice example of the boundary-blurring “bit of everything” / “it’s just METAL, FFS” approach that has become increasingly widespread amongst metal bands in recent years, and that, from my POV at least, seems like a very positive development vis-a-vis making the genre more fun and accessible to outsiders.
Specifically, things here lean toward entry level teen thrash riffs abetted by down-tuned/compressed DM low-end, drums that alternate between aspirant blast-beats and leaden, ‘ominous’ breakdowns, and, most prominently, BM style “vokills” executed in that “sneering troll-vampire ranting in his slime cave beneath the ice” type manner that can’t help but sound at least a little bit ridiculous when – as here – it is combined with music anything less than monumentally intense and terrifying.
If Megatomb’s name and artwork betrays the band’s almost heroic disinterest in innovation, a quick scan of their lyrics sheet seals the deal, confirming that the interests of “Kobra” (vokills), “Skull” (guitar), “Kommando” (bass & vokills) and “Fist” (drums) lie entirely in offering a comforting, paint-by-numbers reiteration of extreme metal’s founding aesthetic principles. (Song titles: ‘Dealing With The Cross’, ‘Forbidden Altar’, ‘Nuclear Violence’.) Drop the needle on side A and you'll even hear a “bring out yr dead” type atmospheric intro with half-speed triad riffs and a big, tolling bell; cozy as a teapot on a doily, so far as this genre’s concerned.
Vocals (sorry, voKILLS) are far too dominant in the mix for my taste, but the guitar sound is still suitably thick n’ gnarled, with the bass in particular sounding in-the-red filthy during the chord riffing segments (which certainly puts a nix on the ‘80s nostalgia angle). In fact, the whole thing benefits from a great, raw, black-paint-peeling-from-rehearsal-room-walls kind of sound, which blends in well with the kind of four-beers-in, punk-spirited mid-fi attack that I tend to like from my thrash/death/black/whatever.
The main problem here is probably the drumming, which sounds uncertainly executed (by metal standards), and often gets a bit lost in the mix, preventing the band from ever really hitting a solid groove and leaving us kinda floundering where we should be headbanging. Nonetheless though, this is jolly good, spirited stuff and it gets better as it goes along. If for some unaccountable reason you’re forced to choose in fact, side B is definitely the one to go for here.
The way that the pummelling bass drum intro on ‘Dealing With the Cross’ gradually speeds up is awesome – in fact, both this song and the following ‘Forbidden Altar’ have a dementedly enthusiastic, clod-hopping brilliance to them that I really enjoyed. Sounding like the likely results of a “learn to be Slayer in a day” masterclass designed to keep delinquent teens off the street, these tunes ace it on sheer enthusiasm alone. Reading the lyrics sheet along with them meanwhile is a Venom-level hoot (“Darkness and evil and power from hell / twisting the flesh! / Beasts of death feast tonight / revel in doom!”), and old Mr Kobra’s “Cor, I’m knackered” retching type noises at the end (and frequently the start) of each track are hilarious, particularly given the extent to which they’re boosted into the foreground.
Sadly, a quick internet search tends to suggest that Megatomb have not been very active subsequent to the release of this record in 2013. Perhaps a legal team jointly representing Dave Mustaine and Games Workshop caught up with them and had a quick word…?
Nonetheless, ‘Louder Than a Thousand Deaths’ at least exists, and, though it will change NOT A SINGLE THING about your life, beliefs, or tastes, if you like metal and you like pictures of space marines, it will make a fine addition to your home. It’s a whole bunch of fun to listen to, it looks great and the printed sleeve & vinyl pressing from UK based label Me Saco Un Ojo is of an admirably high quality.
‘Louder Than a Thousand Deaths’ by Megatomb gets a THUMBS UP.
Friday, May 17, 2019
Devadip Carlos Santana –
Oneness: Silver Dreams, Golden Reality
Price paid: £3 (Rat Records, Camberwell)
I can’t say for sure readers, but I’m guessing that if you too enjoy browsing in second hand record shops, you’ll be used to seeing this album pop up like a bad penny on a fairly regular basis.
On at least 147 separate occasions, I have seen it in the racks for a fairly low price, and thought: “Wow, what the heck is that? Looks pretty far out!”
Due to the cover design and the record company’s infuriating refusal to actually acknowledge that this is a Santana record, it generally takes me at least thirty seconds of squinting at the text on the spine before I realise that it is, in fact, a fucking Santana record. At which point I tend to think, “ugh! A fucking Santana record,” and send it back from whence it came, my hopes of a crazy psychedelic bargain dashed, and a crucial minute or so of browsing lost.
When I fell into this trap once again on a visit to Camberwell’s estimable Rat Records earlier this year (most varied and unpredictable stock (& pricing) in London, guaranteed) I thought, y’know what, I’m sick of this – I’m actually going to just BUY the damned thing and settle the matter once and for all.
Thinking back further, I’m not really sure when my instinctive dislike of Carlos Santana first originated. I’m pretty sure that I recall hearing ‘Black Magic Woman’ on the radio as a teenager, and feeling as if my ears were folding up and trying to tunnel their way back inside my head from sheer embarrassment. So, there’s that. I also remember (and, I should stress, quite possibly MISREMEMBER) reading an interview quote from him somewhere in which he was carrying on like a right chauvinist arsehole, boasting about “balling chicks” in some back street brothel or something. So I was all like, man, fuck this bloke and his holier-than-thou cosmic bodhisattva bullshit.
Although the idea of fusing psychedelic rock with Latin rhythms ostensibly sounds like an admirable project to undertake, the bits and pieces of Santana music I’ve subsequently encountered over the years have similarly failed to impress. Heard in passing, his / their stuff just comes across as bland and slightly cheesy, with an unappealing ‘cabaret crooner’ vibe to it, and a whiff of smug, hippie entitlement so stifling it makes The Eagles sounds like Discharge by comparison. Is that fair? I dunno. Just my fleeting first impressions.
In recent years however, I’ve vaguely begun to consider the possibility that I might have written old Carlos off unjustly. After all, I love forward-thinking, jazz-inflected ’60s rock, I love twiddley guitar-playing and I love pseudo-mystical psychedelic hoo-hah. There’s got to be at least something here for me, right? I mean, a guy who was friends with Alice Coltrane surely can’t be all bad, and think I recall reading an interview with Nick Mitchell from the excellent Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura, in which he stated that he liked nothing better of an evening than to pour a big glass of red and jam along with some Santana albums [again, could be a total misquote – I should check]. (1)
Contemplating the copy of ‘Oneness: Silver Dreams, Golden Reality’ as it sat before me in the shop, I figured that, well, if he’s going to be doing cool, psychedelic stuff anywhere, it must surely be on this mysterioso, spirituality themed gatefold LP with a never-ending rank of gigantic, alien Buddha statues disappearing into the eternal horizon on the front, right…?
So I paid my £3 and took my choice.
This ostensibly being a music review, you’ll naturally want to know what I thought about it.
So, let’s get to that, shall we?
‘Oneness: Silver Dreams, Golden Reality’ is terrible.
Well alright – it’s mostly terrible. It does have its moments, which I will outline below, but the bad far outweighs the good, so far as I'm concerned.
Taken as a whole, this album speaks of how completely lost the hippie / new age generation had become by the dread year 1979. Almost every creative decision on it feels like a blunder, a bad move, an awkward “ooh, sorry guys – not sure about that” moment. I can’t speak for their earlier work, but by this point I’d venture to suggest, Santana and his pals were up an aesthetic shit creek sans paddle. Even taken as pure kitsch though, it’s difficult to find much to enjoy here.
Overall, feels like a relic of some *other* 1979 that our parents and cultural guardians tried to protect us from. They probably thought it had been taken out the back and shot long ago by some gaggle of NME / Village Voice writers, but here I am, all these years later, senselessly subjecting myself to it for the sake of three small pound coins.
Actually, I was disappointed right from the outset when I realised that this record is made up of lots of little bits and pieces, immediately nixing my hopes for some meditational / long-jammin’ kind of stuff, but I’ll at least admit that the first part of side one – recorded live in Osaka! - is fairly ok.
There are some bells, some keyboard that sounds like the accompaniment to an ice-skating demonstration, and some slick, Mahavishnu-style fusion jamming – great drumming and super lively bass, and there are a few nods to ‘Bitches Brew’ here and there, but the overall feel is disappointingly bland. Carlos’s tone just sounds horrible here, as if he were playing through some kind of cheap midi guitar emulator or something, and his up-and-down-the-scales type chops ain’t exactly knocking me out either.
Thereafter, the same performance briefly takes a sharp left turn toward what I can only describe as a kind of Copacabana supper club cod-calypso vibe, as the big S duels with a jaunty boogie-woogie pianist and the dungeons & dragons keyboards continue to work their dubious magic in the background. Ye gods.
You’ll appreciate that I speak as someone whose tastes have shifted primarily toward the appreciation of pre-1975 music and modern derivations thereof when I say: THIS is why punk had to happen – these few minutes, right here. It’s almost enough to make me cry ‘uncle’ and go back to glowering away with my Au Pairs and PiL records for the rest of eternity, like all those journalists said I should.
After some “atmospheric interlude on a Dio album” bombast, our tour through the darkest realms of bad taste continues with ‘Silver Dreams & Golden Smiles’, a vocal ballad – Greg Walker on the mic, ladies & gents – so monumentally awful it frankly beggars belief that anyone would think to present it as part of a suite of purportedly spiritual, consciousness-expanding type material. It’s cocktail hour at the Holiday Inn, folks!
Thankfully, ‘Oneness’, which opens side two, is actually pretty great – a gentle organ drone, layered over the sound of waves lapping at the shore, over which Carlos drops some smouldering, controlled licks, gradually building up into a convincingly impassioned, over-driven wig-out, followed by a startling interjection from some wailing, fire-alarm-on-venus synths. Definitely the album’s highlight, and very much worth a punt, if you can find a way to enjoy it in isolation.
Perhaps buoyed by this, I also quite enjoyed the next track, ‘Life is Just a Passing Parade’, another vocal song with a muscular, Stevie Wonder pastiche funk arrangement. It’s a bit of the OTT side, with all kinds of gross, unnecessary flourishes from the players, but it’s lively and interesting enough for me to give it a pass. Ripping solo too. If Prince had recorded this a decade later, we’d all be worshiping at its feet, most probably.
Of course this upswing can’t last, and it doesn’t. Routine ‘Laguna Sunset’ acoustic meanderings, then we’re back to the Greg Walker cocktail hour for some overcooked, string-enhanced Latin vibes that feel about as authentic as a junior clerk in the CBS accounts department rocking a sombrero.
Next up, we have a reading of a poem composed by Santana’s guru, Sri Chinmoy, performed by a woman who sounds about as enthralled by this prospect as I am.
More jaunty, hi-fi demo fusion noodling follows. My god, will this thing never end?
Yes. Ok. It just ended. I feel as if I could have listened to ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’ about seventeen times in the time that took, but it’s finally over.
So ok – in retrospect, I’ll freely admit that it might well have been unfair of me to try to introduce myself to the work of a ‘60s era musician using an album that he recorded at the dawn of the 1980s, having changed his name whilst apparently in thrall to the teachings of Jamaica, N.Y. based spiritual leader.
I mean, let’s face it, there were precious few stars of Santana’s generation who were really keeping body & soul together and producing vital work at this point in time. Compare this thing to the sorry plight of some of his contemporaries in fact, and his fans might at least have taken heart from the fact that their hero was apparently living clean, feeling happy, and playing painstakingly accomplished virtuoso noodling to beat the band. CSNY fans should be so lucky.
At the time of writing, I’m kind of torn as to whether or not I can really afford the two centimetres of shelf space that this LP will take up in my collection, or whether it goes straight to the charity shop bag. If any readers would like to point me in the direction of some Santana stuff that I might actually like however, or to generally make a case for his defence, or whatever else – the floor is yours, friends. Comments box below.
For the time being though:
‘Oneness: Silver Dreams, Golden Reality’ by Devadip Carlos Santana gets a THUMBS DOWN.
(1) The interview I was thinking of is here. Mitchell says, “Santana's early groups have been a big tower of joy for me,” but he does not explicitly say the glass of red n’ jamming thing I wrote above. Not sure where I got that from. Apologies, anyway.
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