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 ; Did Not Chart ; Diskant (R.I.P.) ; DIYSFL ; Dreaming (R.I.P.?) ; Dusted in Exile ; Echoes & Dust ; 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 ; Lexicon Devil ; Lost Prom (R.I.P.?) ; LPCoverLover ; Midnight Mines ; Musique Machine ; Mutant Sounds (R.I.P.?) ; Nick Thunk :( ; Norman ; Peel ; Perfect Sound Forever ; 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.]
Thursday, January 14, 2021
To begin by stating the bleedin’ obvious though, the ways in which I engage with music have changed considerably during 2020.
To rewind a bit, let's just say that, over the past five years or so, I’ve found my listening splitting itself neatly into two distinct streams. Firstly, there’s more frenetic punk, metal and rock stuff, along with whatever song-based indie stuff still persists in my diet, which I listen to on earphones whilst out and about, travelling to or from work, or traversing the city for one reason or another. And secondly, there’s slower, more relaxing, texture-based, droney or repetitive music, which I listen to at home on the nice speakers.
Needless to say then, the pandemic has had the effect of largely eliminating the life circumstances which allowed me to enjoy the first of those two categories. As a result, whilst I have still discovered and enjoyed plenty of frenetic and/or song-based rock music during 2020, it’s fair to say that I have spent less time listening to it than at any point in my adult life to date, and the stuff which has ended up on my Best Records list reflects this.
Conversely however, nine months of working-from-home have meant that I have been listening to a hell of a lot more music whilst at home, and, significantly, this listening has increasingly been taking place whilst I’ve not necessarily been relaxing and/or exhausted.
Previously I should note, I never listened to music whilst working - partly because I’ve always been operating under threat of interruption from phonecalls or human interaction whilst in the office, and partly because I’ve never wanted to end up associating the music I love with sitting in a strip-light illuminated open plan room, filling in spreadsheets.
Working-from-home though, sitting there with no immediate distractions, turntable right next to me and a ton of crap to plough through…. well of course I’m going to play some records! And, it’s been pretty great to be honest - my ears have been getting a hell of a work-out, if nothing else.
Like it or not though of course, music conducive to working naturally tends to veer in certain directions. Toward tasteful, unobtrusive electronica, stretched out, groove-based stuff of one kind or another, low key, upbeat jazz and funk…. you get the idea. Precisely the kind of stuff, in other words, which my angry, teeth-grinding teenage self would have derided as bland, broadsheet-acceptable background pap. Yet here I am. I’m diggin’ it. ‘Selected Ambient Works’, Soul Jazz comps, Roy Ayers, Tony Allen and the two Four Tet albums I own have been in heavy rotation, as I finally begin to realise that all those refined, head-noddin’, CD-on-in-the-background grown ups I used to look down upon weren’t really malign, self-satisfied cultural homogenisers. They were probably just BUSY.
Anyway, needless to say, this change in circumstances has dove-tailed nicely with my renewed engagement with contemporary jazz, many of proponents of which happen to be based in the UK and able to post records to me without much difficulty. Something about the combo of rhythmic drive, cerebral atmos, varied textures and abstract, instrumental beauty offered by jazz of all stripes allows it to function as a perfect counterpoint to ploughing through a desk job, and this is reflected by its prominence on the multi-part list which follows.
Yes, multi-part list. For, as you will have noted, the blighted year of 2020 has actually proved so astonishingly rich in great new music - at least from my own personal POV - that I will be present the world with a Stereo Sanctity TOP FORTY, for the first time since the misbegotten / hazily recalled ‘glory days’ of 2010/11-ish.
As ever, the placing of items on this list is largely arbitrary. If it’s on here, that means I really liked it, simple as that.
In addition to all the jazz, I think 2020 also ended up being a bit of a banner year for releases within the UK’s psyche/noise rock scene, even as its proponents were perversely prevented from flogging their wares in that music’s natural environment of sweaty, unventilated rooms for the duration. I predict a distinct lull forthcoming in this regard as we hit the inevitable period in which archives have been emptied and bands not yet able to fully reconvene in aforementioned rooms to assemble new material, so - let’s enjoy it while we can, that’s my advice.
This strand is strongly represented on the first instalment of the big list below, beginning with a triple header or precisely this sort of thing. As other commentators have noted, assessing and commenting on some of these records without distant shards of their amp damage ringing in my ears feels strange. But, nonetheless, the racket abides.
Splendidly OTT stuff from this UK psyche-noise super-group led by Luminous Bodies’ Tracy Bellaries. Back in September I ventured to observe:
“With three guitar raging, creeping and blaring through the mix around the central driveshaft of Bellaries’ bass and Cleaver’s drums, together with Ghold’s Alex Wilson going completely off his nut on tonsil-gargling/dying vampire vocals and more effects than you can shake a stick at on everything, it sounds as if all concerned are having a veritable whale of a time here, somehow emerging with a sound both ridiculously excessive and totally solid. The most riotous, undemandingly fun set of UK underground rock gear I’ve heard in an age, this comes hugely recommended.”
Veterans of years-worth of exhilaratingly anarchic (if unconscionably sticky) live performances, up to this point Sly & The Family Drone had yet to really surpass their jokily-named origins when it came to the field of recorded music. Perfect timing then that they’ve ended up finally making the transition to credible recording artistes during a year which saw the very concept of live music effectively annihilated.
Initially based around a core of free-form, pedal-based electronics (with everyone’s mic outputs seemingly filtered through everyone else’s boxes), The Family Drone’s arsenal has expanded over the years to include polyphonous, crashing drums and honking, elephantine brass, and it these elements which tend to predominate on ‘Walk It Dry’. Cutting the band’s oft-exhausting marathon jams down to a series of sub-five minute ‘pieces’ also works extremely well here, allowing for a greater variety of atmospheres and instrumental set ups to get a look-in, whilst keeping listener attention spans ticking over nicely.
As in the group’s live shows, menacing/bowel-quaking Throbbing Gristle-ish industrial shrieks and rumbles find themselves perversely infused with an infectious sense of child-like, saucepan-banging fun, without a trace of grim-dark mopery in sight. Which is great, especially with the reverb-drenched, metal-oid percussion throws in a bakery’s-worth of rolls and a baritone sax or tuba (or something) thundering away Mats Gustafson-style like a wild boar digging for truffles. Splendid stuff, which I can now enjoy it in the comfort of my own home without getting doused in second hand bottled ale or harangued by flabby, naked men - which, personally speaking, I count as a major plus, even after ten months of hermetic isolation.
Though the band members themselves would presumably beg to differ, Casual Nun’s existence thus far seems to me to have comprised a series of scorched earth skirmishes between the band’s rockist and experimental tendencies (always a fascinating struggle to witness, cf: ‘80s Sonic Youth). For better or for worse, the former seems to be very much in the ascendant here, with nine tracks squeezed into a lean thirty two minutes, as a ragin’, roided-up noise-rock vibe predominates for the most part, anchored in urban anxiety with repurposed Motorhead riffs and a GBH-worthy punkoid stomp from the rhythm section, leaving only the heavy warp of pedal-grue applied to vocals and guitar alike to really speak to the band’s ostensible psychedelic MO.
Don’t speak too soon though! Midway through, the experimental faction regroup, allowing the record to slide into a central valley of monged out weirdness, with a more reflective, drum machine-trudging’ burned out mope (Pink Celestial Herons), leading into a beatless swathe of blissed out, fuzz-trailing ambience recalling the kind of thing electric guitarists usually come up with when asked to record something ‘desert-y’ (‘Pana, Tejas’), before ‘Rabbits’ brings us a skit-like bit of way out nonsense involving creepy, childlike narration and murky, free-form shards of noise. ‘Heavy Liquid’ (Stooges or Paul Pope inspired?) proves the wildest outlier however, diverging from a reassuringly straight up opening riff and sinking instead into a deconstructed murk of frog-marching, time-keepin’ rhythm and distant, discombobulated vocals hysterics, stretching our patience until the band eventually return to core rock-pleasure-principle biz, momentarily dropping into about twenty seconds of Pigs x7-like stomp at the end - a notion which happily remains central to the remainder of the album. The closing Greek language ‘Φυλαχτό’ proves especially effective in this regard, with a crushing melange of snare-on-every-beat stomp and shrieking, Vest-ish wah-wah combining to pummel those ol’ experimental tendencies into submission just so.
From June: “Heavy duty, oxygen-sucking, cosmic / cloud level Popal Vuh-esque drone-work here from Austria-based American guitarist Eric Arn (Primordial Undermind) and British cellist Jasmine Pender (Rotten Bliss). First cut is perfect for witnessing a pale sun rise across a planetery curve as one falls into the orbit of a frozen, featureless gas giant, or so I should imagine, whilst the second explores more tense, noisy and recognisably instrument-y angles on the same kind of weightless inertia. It’s good, in other words.”
I’ve been meaning to dig into the work of the temptingly named Promoridal Undermind andor Rotten Bliss ever since I wrote that six months ago, but time just hasn’t allowed. For no though, this remains a pretty killer piece of aural stasis. Maybe later this year?
Ok, so, first off, please don’t let the cover artwork put you off this one. I mean, yeah… I don’t know what’s going on with it to be perfectly honest, but rest assured, it does not really reflect the agreeably no nonsense cartoon-ish heavy metal found within.
I’m sure there must have been dozens of bands named “Midnight” over the years, so, for the avoidance of confusion, this one is seemingly a one-man metal outfit operating out of Columbus, Ohio.
With the background thus established, I’ll make things easier for you by going a bit “choose your own adventure” with the remainder of this write-up (a suitably METAL reference point, right?), leaving you to pick your preferred pithy summation of Midnight’s MO from the following:
a) Imagine if Venom had valued musicality over theatricality, and had put a bit more effort into tight playing and achieving a cool recorded sound (albeit, one rendered on a four-track in somebody’s basement).
b) Imagine if the progenitors of ‘90s Norwegian black metal, rather than growing up to be a bunch of shady, questionable-belief-system-incubating misanthropes lording it over one of the most preposterously myopic and tedious sub-genres in rock history, had instead been content to go on presenting themselves as easy-going, beer-swilling dudes who dig stupid, fast music and pretend to worship Satan because it’s funny.
c) Midnight is the metal what The Spits are to punk.
Choose your path, adventurer! Whatever happens, you’ll likely get clobbered by a rat-ogre as songs with names like ‘Devil’s Excrement’ or ‘Fucking Speed and Darkness’ blare, but that’s life, right?
Also from June: “Seemingly demonstrating that you can take the boys out of the Pond, but can’t dry ‘em off no matter how hard you try, this collaboration between Bardo Pond guitarists the Gibbons Bros and a drummer named Scott Verrastro finds the trio initially tip-toeing around each other with a few minutes of uncertain, questioning abstraction, before they apparently make eye contact, exchange shrugs and lock into exactly the kind of stoned, heavy-weight-on-butterfly-wings grandeur which has helped cement the brothers’ main band’s ‘90s output as such an indelible and insurmountable cornerstone of modern heavy psyche.
Although the sound is necessary somewhat stripped back here, I’ve not heard these guys tap into this particular sweetest of sweet spots for some years now, making their decision to break out the big spoons and just dig in across the majority of this three track release feel like a slo-mo, fungoid sugar rush of purest delight.”
Always nice to hit a bandcamp ‘play’ button and find yourself thinking, “what the holy hell is THIS?”, isn’t it?
Sounding like some long lost cry of confusion dredged up from some dark, primordial burrow adjacent to the furthest outpost of the UK’s ‘70s freak-rock underground, the two songs presented here - apparently the work of one Shane Horgan and collaborators - mix croaking, rather disturbing acid casualty vocals with lumbering, ‘Come As You Are’-style chorus pedal bass lines, looming thunder clouds, Simon House-era Hawkwind synths and a lugubrious, proto-doom rhythmic swing, enhanced by atmospheric, echo-drenched Link Wray power chords and patches of frazzled, weirdly melodic guitar heroics.
For my purposes at least, the results sound utterly out of time, and pretty f-ing epic, in a mad kind of way; troubling psychedelic grue from the dark heart of nowhere. I’d throw out an appeal for more of the same, but actually, wouldn’t I prefer it if this thing just remained an uncouth, one-off mystery lurking deep ‘neath the surface of my iTunes? Probably.
From darkest April: “Pure, third-eye blasting maximalist fields of bliss straight out of the American south, conjured forth via a 12 string acoustic, hammered dulcimer and some (fairly minimal) percussion, with nary an amp nor pedal in sight. Swings open those bead curtains into blinding sunlight just like I like this stuff to. Pretty magnificent. Sitting comfortably alongside such aforementioned-in-the-pages acts as Woven Skull, Sarah Louise, Sally Anne Morgan & Kryssi B., Elkhorn etc, there seems to be a fresh strain of rustic-minded, pure psyche brilliance starting to bubble up from the Trump-bedevilled underground which needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. Children of Pelt rejoice!”
Damn, what was I on. Still sounds nice, anyway.
For a white-skinned person who lives in Nottingham to style himself as ‘Dusty Bible’ and begin playing ‘the blues’ without also assuming the mantle of being an unbearable tosser, is quite an achievement. For said person to actually end up making some great, resolutely unpretentious, music is little short of a miracle. As the evidence presented on this dredged-up-from-the-archives live album (the first of two of this year’s list taped at Notts’ estimable J.T. Soar) ably proves however, canonisation should be a shoe-in for this particular old boy.
Ably backed up by a pair of blatantly non-Canadian Canadians (including Grey Hairs guitarist / Notts legend Chris Summerlin on bass), Mr Bible clearly draws heavily from the loose, overdriven punkoid swagger of Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers (no coincidence perhaps that it was the blog of the aforementioned Mr Summerlin which first hepped me to those guys way back when). By largely eschewing the slide in favour of more straight up, knotty pickin’ however, and by letting his combo’s obvious background in avant/ post-hardcore type rock creep in around the edges, Dusty & co actually end up hitting on a style which sometimes uncannily recalls that of early ‘70s Mancunian thugs Stackwaddy.
As regular readers / mix CD listeners will be aware, there are few higher recommendations than that from my POV, so, even as DB & The Cs (if you will) proceed to cook up a denser, more tangled power trio-type racket across these cuts than the ‘Waddy ever managed to get on tape, complete with a few touches of Groundhogsy spikery and ZZ Top muscle, those looking to enjoy a more contemporary take on the kind of testosterone-fuelled ur-rock carnage they represented, made by men who (one hopes) have never resorted to threatening Black Sabbath roadies with tyre irons or throwing band members out of moving vans, are nonetheless encouraged to take note.
Also - closes out with the best version of Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’ ever. Best one in my collection anyway, I’ve checked. And that includes about half a dozen by the man himself, so…
The ‘Welsh Triangle’ UFO flap of the late 1970s, around which the music on this album is based, is of particular interest to me, as I grew up in the area in which these alleged events took place, just a few years after the fact.
Did you know, I even saw a UFO once, when I was a small child? No kidding. I got out of bed super-early one Saturday morning, ran downstairs to watch the cartoons on TV, and there it was - hovering over the farmers’ fields opposite our house like some kind of steel-plated steampunk balloon type thing. Of course, by the time my parents got up a few hours later, it had gone, and they told me to shut up and stop making a fuss, and that was the end of that. But I know I saw it.
Anyway. Be that as it may, the idea of something so utterly outlandish arising from and/or descending into a landscape which, to me at least, seems so prosaic and familiar, is inherently fascinating to me, whilst the geographically specific track titles (‘Stack Rocks Humanoid Display’, ‘Beneath RAF Brawdy’) and samples from contemporary news reports which Nick Scrivin, aka The Night Monitor, filters through his work here, seem especially eerie.
Would Scrivin’s menacing aural question marks of hermetic analogue synth retromancy play quite so potently for a listener unencumbered by such interests and associations? I’d like to think so. This stuff is pretty good! And, whilst the innovation of tying these hauntology-friendly conjurations to paranormal events which took place in the UK during the 1970s may seem like a staggeringly obvious strategy (The Night Monitor’s other extant album concerns “the 1977 Enfield Poltergeist case”), that doesn’t make it any less aesthetically appealing, from my POV at the very least.---
To be continued…
Labels: best of 2020, Casual Nun, Curanderos, Dusty Bible & The Canadians, Eric Arn & Jasmine Pender, Gerycz / Powers / Rolin, Midnight, Mummise Guns, Sly & The Family Drone, The Night Monitor, Wolfen
Tuesday, December 29, 2020
First off, I’ve got to offer entirely predictable, prosaic apologies for the delay in getting these ‘end of year’ posts together this year. Basically, the first half of December just proved far busier than planned, which left me behind on things. That’s about it.
With no further ado then, let’s go on with it. The list below has eight items on it simply because that turns out to be the number of reissues and compilations I bought during 2020 which were, a) actually released in 2020, and b) pleased me sufficiently to obtain a place on the list. (For the record, I did buy an absolute ton of new/old jazz, soul and soundtrack discs this year… but they all bear earlier copyrights for the reissue, so hey-ho.)
A marathon run-down of 2020’s new/new music will follow…. let’s be optimistic and say, SOON.
The pricing of 7”s these days makes my toenails curl and my chest hair fall out, but nonetheless, I couldn’t stop myself paying the equivalent of about £4 per minute of music for this sliver of absurdly esoteric library-sleaze, its lineage guaranteed to impress at least four highly reclusive people in any first-world nation you happen to visit.
As the title and beautifully crude cover artwork will no doubt signal to these especially cultured individuals, the two lean slices of raging, big beat strip club dementia herein were offered up by the splendidly named Senor Reverberi for use in his regular patron Renato Polselli’s legendarily distasteful, mondo-ish whitecoater sex film ‘Revelations of a Psychiatrist on The World of Sexual Perversion’ (1978), a work whose lurid rep is surpassed only by its comprehensive obscurity. If Reverberi & Forlai’s thoroughly blazin’, psyched out, prog-carnival stylings are in any way representative of the on-screen action however, well… I think the world may have done ol’ Renato’s perverso rivelazioni a disservice, let’s put it that way.
As any fool know, listenable live recording of the definitive ’69-’70 incarnation of The Stooges have proved an extremely elusive commodity up to this point. Suffice to say then, this basic sound desk mixdown of the ill-starred quartet’s final public performance, ploughing through their ‘Funhouse’ material in more-or-less the same order it’s presented on the album, is probably about as good as it’s ever gonna get, more than likely.
In the cold light of day, the drawbacks of both source tape and performance will become clear as soon as you get this one back from the shop and drop the needle. In no particular order, we’re looking here at the frequent absence of Dave Alexander’s bass [he was famously fired the same night for on-stage inebriation], way too much vocal and sax in the mix, aimless moments of slurred, between-song inertia, occasional cut-outs and variations in volume, a rather murky guitar sound, and, perhaps worst of all, a dry, headache-y, no-room-sound feel characteristic of soundboard tapes throughout the ages.
None of this though distracts too much from the things which continue to make it worth scouring the earth for every piece of Stooge detritus on the market. As fans will be aware, there are two of those things, Mrs Asheton named them Ron and Scott, and happily, they can both be heard large and in charge here beneath Iggy’s yammering. The set might be slow to get going, but by the time Ron drops a hair-raising wah solo on ‘Down on the Street’, sounding like he’s juggling live electric cables, you know it’s gonna be worth sticking around for the duration. ‘Dirt’ in particular benefits from a slinky, heavy-ass groove which I believe is unique to this recording (Alexander is very much in evidence here, for the record), and when they kick into ‘1970’ in double-time, sounding almost like some acid-damaged ‘80s hardcore band, well… holy hell. That’s really something.
A some-time employee of the late Hideo Ikeezumi’s ‘Modern Music’ shop in Tokyo, Go Hirano (that’s a person, not a band, ‘Go’ being a common Japanese family name) was apparently quite a a fixture of the scene from which grew up around the storied PSF label. Though Go was an enthusiastic witness to the extremist outpourings of the label’s roster of envelope-pushing rock bands however, he seemingly found his own musical muse somewhere else entirely, quietly developing a propensity for creating minimal-yet-melodic, home-recorded musical miniatures, picked out primarily on piano, with occasional interventions from melodica, wind chimes, ocarina, and whatever strange, slightly reverb-distorted room sounds happened to be crashing around at the time the recordings took place.
A hermetic, rather intimate, practice, this style came to full fruition on Go’s third LP, ‘Corridor of Daylights’, originally issued on CD by PSF in 2004 and pressed to vinyl for the first time at the dawn of 2020 by Black Editions. Warm, gentle and curiously compelling, the album’s collage of numerous short tracks will tend to evoke all manner of potential comparisons from seasoned listeners - from the murky four track conjurations of New Zealand’s Alastair Galbraith to Erik Satie’s zen-like piano compositions, via Epic Soundtracks’ delightfully cozy home tapes or the tendencies of innumerable ambient artists to incorporate both chance and atmospheric sound into their recordings - but in truth, none of these quite hit the mark.
At points, ‘Corridor of Daylights’ may veer toward the twee, particularly when the melodica or Go’s ‘ba-ba’ing wordless vocals come into play (perhaps recalling label mates Maher Shalal Hash Baz?), but the further you allow yourself to sink into Go’s headspace as the album progresses, the more immersive, calming and innately beautiful his ready-made compositions become, to the extent that you will occasionally feel yourself stunned by the depth of otherworldly ambience casually captured on tape by one guy with a cheap condenser microphone, sitting in a one room apartment somewhere in suburban Japan in the early years of the 21st century. (Of the tracks streaming on Bandcamp, I’d particularly draw your attention to the unusually lengthy ‘Coral’ in this regard.)
Just as the disorientating roar conjured up by bands of scowling, black-clad outsiders in underground rocks club could be seen as a synapse-jolting flipside to the stultifying sound of major label MOR rock which dominated much of Japan’s musical landscape through the 70s, 80s and 90s, so perhaps we could see Go Hirano’s simple, instinctive approach to creating ambient/meditative music as a refreshing, nay necessary, DIY counterweight to the more technologically sophisticated, eminently tasteful and frequently industry-sponsored sounds catalogued on Light in the Attic’s Kankyō Ongaku compilation..?
Essentially comprising a more brash and outgoing take on the kind of themes and atmospheres Budd employed for his exquisitely low-key work on Mike Hodges’ ‘Get Carter’ a few year earlier, ‘Internecine..’ provides the listener with a one-size-fits-all accompaniment to being tense, duplicitous and/or frightened during the 1970s, incorporating a lavishly orchestrated, harpsichord-led main theme, masses of chime/tabla/woodblock-enhanced clock-watching unease, menacing cello stings, moments of bass-bin juddering synth terror and, best of all, some indelible examples of what synthesizer player Paul Fishman refers to in his liner notes as “hypnotic Budd grooves” (devotees of the ‘..Carter’ score will know exactly what he means).
One repeated theme in particular, with a heavy-ass electric bass line, whip-smart jazz drumming and metronomic percussion, will cement itself in yr brain for all eternity. Easily a match of any of the more bad-ass/head nodding moments found on Morricone & Nicolai’s giallo scores, consider it a must for the next time you find yourself assembling a sniper rifle, hitting the button on the top of an oversized stopwatch or navigating London’s back streets in pursuit of a suspicious transit van.
Sadly this one is not available to stream or download - vinyl only folks, so you’ll just have to take to take my word for it and shell out for a copy, available direct from the source.
“Recorded by Brian Eno in 1981” would seem to be the primary selling point for the sole LP produced by this hard-luck Ghanian outfit during their original run, but personally, I’d much prefer to commend it to you on the basis of it being a set of startlingly inventive and exhilarating, intermittently cinematic, afro-funk featuring musicianship so damn in-the-pocket that James Brown would probably have pointed his finger at ‘em and given them a pay rise. (If that’s not enough first draft hyperbole for you, I also wrote a bit about the record back in this post from July.)
Well, I think I probably said quite enough about this legendary-no-longer platter from the dark heart of Neil’s mid-‘70s creative zenith back in September, but, just for the record, I’d also like to note that if you put all the biographical/career trajectory type bollocks I dug into there aside and just throw it on in the background, it also rather perversely makes for some pretty good porch-sittin’, beer-sittin’ relaxation time - a secondary function which Mr Young, as a devotee of J.J. Cale, must no doubt appreciate.
There is, as you would hope, quite a range of stuff to enjoy here, and the comp makes a perfect jumping off point for further exploration. From the modal mediations of Matthew Halsall to muscular, live-in-situ chop workouts from groups like Ill Considered and Collocuter, to more electronica/hip-hop inclined rhythmic experiments from Joe Armon-Jones & Maxwell Owin, Pokus and Hector Plimmer, sly jazz-funk burners from The Expansions and Cromagnon Band, flute-driven exotica from Tenderlonious, straight up Coltrane/Sanders worship from Nat Birchall and Chip Wickham, together with the squelching, tuba-driven weirdness of Emma-Jean Thackray’s ‘Walrus’ and extraordinary cosmic/psychedelic excursions from SEED Ensemble and the aptly-named Levitation Orchestra…. all-in-all, this red-eyed homeworker salutes Soul Jazz for assembling a comprehensively enthralling and brain-kneading mountain of music which has at no point caused him to spill coffee on his keyboard or lose track of his morning emails as these discs were spun again, and yet again, through the course of many a 2020 working week.
Once again, this release has not been bandcamp-ed or soundcloud-ed, but you can preview to yr heart’s content via Soul Jazz’s website here.
Very much a shining light of what we might roughly call the ‘second wave’ of Tokyo-based psychedelic rock bands associated with the aforementioned PSF label, White Heaven released this, their first LP, in 1991, and it immediately establishes them as a very different prospect from the black-clad noise extremity of first-wavers like High Rise and Fushitsusha, instead perusing a more intuitive, fragile and essentially song-based approach to funnelling the spirit of ‘60s psychedelia into a contemporary rock context.
To some extent betraying the fearful hesitancy of a young band with a stand-in bass player entering a professional studio for the first time, ‘Out’ sometimes even finds itself echoing the hermetic, too-cool-for-school sound of late ‘80s British psyche revivalists like Spacemen 3 or Thee Hypnotics, with opening cut ‘Blind Promise’ suggesting a distortion-blitzed take on the reverberating chaos of The 13th Floor Elevators (no mean feat in itself), whilst the shadows of both the Velvets and The Doors hang over the band’s tendency to launch into loosely-structured, expressionistic epics at the drop of a hat.
All of which is very nice, but there are two factors in play here which help ‘Out’ to transcend its status as a mere interesting, out-of-time psych-rock record and become something truly special. The first of these is the extraordinary contribution of vocalist/rhythm guitarist/primary songwriter You Ishihara, whose bombastic, tormented crooning may initially be apt to inspire a certain amount of hilarity for first-time listeners, particularly given that his lyrics are conveyed as a kind of absurdist Japan-glish mish-mash which sometimes recalls a less artful version of Damo Suzuki’s work with Can (is he really singing “..your face just like a closet..” on ‘Fallin’ Stars End’?). Once you get used to it though, it’s difficult not to love the sheer courage with which Ishihara attacks these compositions, imbuing them with a kind of crazed, dramatic gravitas which, if nothing else, is certainly entirely psychedelic.
Whilst the presence of such an out-there vocalist could tend to overpower many bands though, Ishihara more than meets his match here in the figure of White Heaven’s most renowned member, lead guitarist Michio Kurihara (whom you may recall from his subsequent work with Ghost, Cosmic Invention, Boris and Damon & Noami). A key figure in the shadowy pantheon of 80s/90s Japanese guitar gods, Kurihara was already in jaw-dropping form even at this early stage in his career, stretching Ishihara’s mangled hymnals out into shrieking abysses of string-bending oblivion, drawing somewhat from the ol’ SF ballroom sound embodied by Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cippolina, but expanding that overdriven, vibrato-heavy style to fit the higher velocity and higher volume of early ‘90s underground rock, strafing and dive-bombing as much as PSF fanboys (hi there) may have demanded on rockers like ‘My Cold Dimension’ whilst also retaining the lyrical, questing quality which we all hoped to find (but so rarely did) on all those San Fran jam band-type records.
Coloured by an ethereal sheen of maxed out reverb, and more tentative use of chorus and tape echo, Kurihara provides the perfect ‘church key’ for the bizarre, lysergic visions suggested by Ishihara’s surprisingly dry and up-front vocals, as they together transform cuts like the brooding, multi-part ‘Mandrax Town’ and the album’s definitive title track into immaculate evocations of precisely the kind of electrified, blinding light beauty which keeps me returning to the unkempt fields of psychedelic rock year after year after year.
Wednesday, December 02, 2020
This compilation is the result of a long and rather convoluted gestation process. I initially began throwing it together after visiting Japan last year, as a gift for some friends over there who had expressed an interest in hearing some contemporary British bands.
I chose 2015 as a cut off point for ‘new-ness’ pretty arbitrarily, and, as noted on the back cover scan above, decided to concentrate on shorter, more song-based stuff rather than the gargantuan psyche/doom stuff I often favour, primarily for space reasons (although I’ve done my best to throw in a few stylistic curveballs along the way too, particularly in the second half).
As I began gradually knocking the tracklist into shape however, it occurred to me that the period covered by the music herein actually marked out a very specific period in the cultural history of the British Isles. From the Cameron government’s dispiriting election victory in 2015 and the ridiculous/fateful referendum which followed, to the ensuing wave of hate-filled, populist xenophobia, through the ultimately doomed attempts at a fight-back, to the surreal political chaos which consumed so much of last year, and the crushing, no-hope full stop of last December’s general election result.
Could some of this spiralling ugliness, uncertainty and frustration be heard reflected in the output of the UK and Ireland’s underground rock scenes during this period? I don’t know. But suffice to say, my selections herein couldn’t help but take on a certain political bent as I remained glued to the hell-ish, hour-by-hour parliamentary ruckus which characterised the latter half of 2019.
Little did I know at that point of course, that the music herein was about to acquire a whole new level of historical potency, as the fragile cultural ecosystem which allowed it to exist in the first place found itself obliterated more-or-less overnight in March 2020.
Eight months on, it’s still fairly mind-boggling to consider that, for the first time in history, the collective creation and performance of popular music has effectively been shut down, by virtue of both governmental decree and accepted common sense, with the kind of non-profit-making / DIY musical cultures represented on this comp potentially suffering most severe and sustained damage, as a result of being both deprived of industry/government hand-outs and existing almost by definition within the confines of small, unventilated rooms.
Of course, things will come back in 2021, in some as-yet-unguessed-at form. With a bit of luck, the vast majority of the bands and musicians featured on this comp will still be active in some form. But whatever happens, all will be changed.
The faces and the places we’ve all got to know over the past few years, the forms and norms we’d all grown to expect as we’ve trudged out on cold dark evening on our way to venues or practice rooms or other weird autonomous spaces of one kind of another -- all of that is now gone. When the time to rebuild comes, new faces will be gluing foam to walls and carrying boxes of Red Stripe into new places, and new things will be happening within when OGs like you(?) and I emerge from hiding to knock upon their doors.
To a certain extent then, the music featured herein can be seen to represent the last gasp of a certain strand of DIY culture, caught in amber and filtered through my own individual tastes, before things screeched to a halt. A final burst of amplified discontent before the universe hit the ‘pause’, and then ‘restart’, buttons.
I realise that’s a pretty heavy burden of significance for a humble mix CD to carry, but what can you do? Ladies and gents, a tiny slice of the sound of the UK and Ireland, 2015-2019. Enjoy.
(NB - As the keen-eyed/eared amongst you will note, this online version of the comp contains a very important bonus track not included on the initial CD version run off for friends in Dec 2019, from which the cover scans above are taken. Apols for confusion.)
(As is now traditional, I’ve linked to relevant bandcamp pages in the tracklist below. Whether these bands are still active or otherwise, your financial contributions will almost certainly reach someone who deserves a few quid.)
Friday, November 20, 2020
Price paid: £7, Haystacks Music (Hay-on-Wye).
The late Huw Lloyd Langton (1951-2012) represents a curious figure within the storied saga of Hawkwind. A more-or-less founding member of the group, he was a mere eighteen years old when he hooked up with Dave Brock, Nik Turner and co, jamming around Notting Hill at the tail end of the ‘60s, and his somewhat Gilmour-esque lead guitar work formed one of the more prominent elements of the band’s embryonic debut LP.
Shortly thereafter however, Langton exited Hawkwind (and seemingly the music industry as a whole) after suffering what can only be described, in the parlance of the times, as a severe freakout midway through an epic, acid-saturated residency which saw the band performing for several days straight within an inflatable geodesic dome illegally erected outside the gates of the 1970 Isle of Wight festival (which was actually charging people to enter if you can believe that - super uncool, man).
Some commentators (including Joe Banks, author of the recently published Hawkwind: Days of the Underground) have identified Hawkwind’s failure to replace Langton as one of the key factors which subsequently allowed the band’s signature sound to coalesce. Certainly, their position as a major ‘70s rock band without a conventional lead guitarist seems noteworthy. Brock’s relentless concentration on grinding, rudimentary barre chords went a long way toward establishing their now widely recognised proto-punk cred, whilst the lack of a melodic lead instrument conversely helped push them further toward the kosmische/‘krautrock’ realm, with Turner’s heavily effected woodwinds, DikMik and Del Dettmar’s primitive electronics and (later) Simon House’s baroque synthesizers all stepping up in turn to fill the void.
As valid as this argument may be however, regular readers will be aware that I am inclined toward the belief that any piece of music can be improved with the addition of a ragin’ guitar solo or two, and as such, I can’t help but find myself ruing Langton’s absence from Hawkwind’s golden age recordings, wondering what this pivotal / invisible figure may (or may not) have contributed to the grandeur of the Space Ritual, had he only kept his head together and made it to the shuttle in time for take-off.
Brave listeners who have allowed their Hawkwind “cut off point” to dawdle far beyond the Lemmy era though will of course had their chance to find out just what HLL (if I may) had to offer, as, in the dying days of the 1970s, he popped up again, seemingly out of nowhere, bringing a new sense of energy which to a great extent helped the band to retool themselves for the ‘80s, following the unedifying collapse of their Robert Calvert-dominated late ‘70s futurist art-pop era (which is another story entirely).
Langton’s work during his second tenure with Hawkwind can perhaps be best appreciated on the ‘Live ‘79’ LP, recorded mere months after he re-joined. Therein, his searing, virtuosic lead shred often dominates proceedings, suggesting that the poor lad may well have spent his ‘lost years’ obsessively practicing scales and lab-testing new amps. [Actually, Langton had spent ’75 to ’77 playing with the group Widowmaker, formed by ex-Mott The Hoople guitarist Ariel Bender - Fact Checkin’ Ed.]
Given the speed with which talented players were usually ejected from Hawkwind’s orbit under Baron Brock’s oft-paranoid leadership, Langton actually proceeded to hang on for quite a while too, overseeing the band’s transition to a more streamlined, metallic hard rock sound through the ‘80s before finally departing, for reasons unknown to myself, in 1988. (“All was not well with the band,” Wikipedia notes ominously.)
Which brings us, finally, to The Lloyd Langton Group, with whom Langton seems to have performed and recorded in parallel with his Hawkwind commitments through the mid/late ‘80s. Released in ’85 through the West London-based independent label Flicknife (who also handled the bulk of Hawkwind’s output through this period), ‘Night Air’ was their first proper LP, featuring a power trio line-up completed by Kenny Wilson on bass and drummer John Clark.
A consummate set of soaring, propulsive chromium-plated guitar rock, the album to some extent plugs straight into the legacy of the ‘70s underground, but does so with class rather than retrogressive boorishness, with the pioneering work of Martin Weaver (Wicked Lady / Dark) in particular providing a useful reference point, not least on the killer, slow-burning riffage of obvious single ‘Call Your Number’.
At the same time though, ‘Night Air’ is recognisably a product of the ‘80s. Though avoiding the more obvious clichés, its sound palette is redolent of that decade in a way that’s difficult to really put into words. Emptying out my brain-pan in search of a way to convey this highly specific ‘80s indie label trad rock sound, all I can really come up with is the impression of a time when yr average rock band guys used solid state amps, and actually thought they were cool. The warm, fuzzy weirdness which carried through from the late ‘60s into AOR’s imperial phase in the ‘70s has been squashed down here to a colder, sleeker sound, funnelled to the recording desk via lo-tech circuit boards and square, bakelite-coated boxes.
It’s a sound which makes me think of rack-mounted units fronted with cheap-looking black plastic, rows little knobs picked out in lime green or cherry red; of old speaker stacks reeking of tobacco, dragged out from some pub’s old backline, and of subterranean rooms done out like futuristic packing warehouses. None of which is meant as a criticism, I should stress - Langton’s guitar tone is often great here, whirring and whirling like a fairground organ on the extended outro to ‘Before is All’. It’s just… different, that’s all.
Conversely, there are some slightly Floyd-ish “introspection in the country house” type moments creeping in too here and there (you can hear ‘em in Langton’s strained middle-class voice and the faint ‘atmospheric’ keyboards just about discernable on the opening track, and in the faux-medieval acoustic recitation, reverbed just so, which closes out side one) - even though I daresay the closest these guys ever got to the shining castles of the rock aristocracy was zooming past a picturesque gatehouse or two on a mid-week schlepp up to a gig in Wolverhampton.
Overall, side # 1 probably fares best here. In addition to the aforementioned ‘Call Your Number’, the album’s title track, with its plaintive, minor key melody, singing-in-my-real-voice vocals and general air of sonic ambition transcending cash-strapped production, actually isn’t a million miles away from a late ‘80s Bevis Frond banger, whilst the upbeat ‘Painted Evergreen’ sounds like the kind of thing Motörhead might have come up with, had they taken their foot off the gas and spent a few weeks fortified by nothing but Earl Grey and scones.
Side # 2 largely stays on-message musically speaking, even as ‘Diseased Society’s lyrical concerns hit that hyper-specific “psychedelic hangover meets nebulous Thatcher-era social criticism” sweet-spot (you know the one), before ‘Lonely Man’ and ‘Candle Burning’ allow Lloyd Langton to spread his musical wings a bit, exploring more melancholic, spaced out territory, with creditable, if not exactly mind-blowing, results.
Only the closing ‘Lunar-Tic’ seems like an outlier - a sort of drugged out, post-punk-ish experiment whose jerky, cyclical rhythms and muttering, pub-loony vocals close out what has has otherwise proved a surprisingly uplifting and affirmative record with a dose of the kind of gloomy discombobulation you’d reasonably expect of a man best known for having blown his brains out with LSD and disappeared from view over a decade beforehand.
For the most part though, the material on ‘Night Air’ feels far more energised and inspired than the rather lumpen, “will-this-do?” approach taken by Hawkwind’s output during the same time period, suggesting that Lloyd Langton was already saving up his A-game for his solo work. Stronger writing and more nuanced playing bring a greater sense of excitement and forward momentum to proceedings, with the distant echoes of SF paperback psychedelia enhanced by Ande Tucker’s absolutely terrific interplanetary cityscape artwork, ironically providing the Lloyd Langton Group with a rocket-propelled kick that Hawkwind had largely abandoned by this point.
Though it’s unlikely to quite make the grade as a ‘lost classic’, anyone who shares my fascination with UK freak-rock and its aftermath should nonetheless find ‘Night Air’ a solidly rewarding listen, joining a few dots between sounds, scenes and personnel in engaging fashion, suggesting that the enigmatic Huw Lloyd Langton was, above all else, a gentleman of refined taste and no little talent - may he rest in peace.
‘Night Air’ by The Lloyd Langton Group gets a seemingly fairly blurry thumbs up!
Friday, November 13, 2020
Price paid: £8, Sounds of the Universe (Soho).
There’s a special place in heaven for early ‘60s piano jazz albums with photos of demurely dressed young ladies relaxing in the countryside on the cover, and The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s ‘Barefoot Sunday Blues’, I would dare to suggest, represents the very apotheosis of this curious cultural phenomenon.
As befits recording artistes signed to Argo, jazz imprint of Chicago’s Chess Records, Lewis and his boys (comprising bassist Eldee Young and drummer Red Holt, for the most part) veer heavily toward unpretentious, blue-based arrangements, eschewing both ‘cool’ Brubeck-esque West Coast shit and the more cerebral lyricism of Bill Evans in favour of a warmer, looser and less technically uptight approach, foregrounding rhythm at all times and primarily concentrating upon the business of just playin’ the fuckin’ tunes, even verging into r’n’b/pop territory in places.
Featuring what Le Roi Jones’ obligatory sanctimonious sleeve notes describe as “an anonymous soul sister whispering her sensuous refrain” - ie, vocalising the title, ‘Comanche’-style, on each 12 bar change-over - the closing ‘Come On Baby’ in particular would have been a shoe-in for the soundtrack to some beatnik exploitation flick.
Lewis’s trio had of course been kicking this easy-going stuff out day-in, day-out for the better part of a decade at this point, so it’s hardly surprising that the players are consummate to a T, keeping things a just-a-few-small-few notches livelier and more inventive than one might reasonably expect of an early-‘60s-piano-jazz-album-with-photo-of-a-demurely-dressed-young-lady-relaxing-in-the-countryside-on-the-cover.
Even in this less-than-revolutionary context, musicians this deeply entrenched in their craft are almost incapable of not giving us something to think about now and again, and guest bassist Christopher White in particular makes his presence felt here with a few spectacular scuttles up and down the higher end of his instrument’s neck on the opening ‘Lonely Avenue’, practically establishing himself as the track’s lead player - a trick he repeats on side # 2’s ‘Act Like You Mean It’ (an Eldee Young composition, no less).
In fact, the latter track represents an interesting stylistic diversion, with Lewis’s keys remaining deep in the background behind White’s dextrous bass excursions (almost reminiscent of Pentangle’s Danny Thompson in places), the leader’s contribution concentrating more upon some spirited vocal “ba ba de bums”, seemingly calling out the melody to the bassist midway through the take, which should surely have earned him a ‘vocal’ credit.
Sounds like everybody’s having a ton of fun on that one anyway, but primary bassman Young meanwhile distinguishes himself by adding some wheezing, rather drone-y cello to the otherwise fairly routine run through Charles Lloyd’s ‘Island Blues’ which closes out side # 1.
Though not exactly what you’d call a grand-standing, virtuoso player on the evidence of these cuts, Lewis himself meanwhile does good work on tracks like Dave Grusin’s ‘Sarah Jane’ And his own ‘Don’t Even Kick It Around’, expanding the melodies in some pleasantly far-flung, arabesque directions, as well as adding some Mingus-esque “AH!”s and “HUH!”s to proceedings, just about discernable in the background of the livelier numbers.
Holt’s drumming meanwhile is, as noted, rock solid, lending the trio a swing that certainly wouldn’t disgrace Chess’s core output, his heavy, heartbeat pulse implying that he’d be equally content pounding it out for Muddy Waters or Fats Domino or whoever, even as his brushy snare n’ hi-hat stuff doffs cap to the more shimmery subtleties of Kennedy-era crossover jazz.
Recorded in a single day just over three months before JFK kicked the bucket (if the sleeve is to be believed), the only mystery proposed by this resolutely straight-forward collection of earthy, professionally rendered music is -- given that this was all apparently laid down as one uninterrupted session, why does White sub for Young on two tunes, including one that the latter actually wrote? Did Young arrive late, or have to leave early, or something? White is clearly no slouch and knows the material well though, so…. what’s the deal here?
A belated footnote in one of those moribund 1000+ page plus ‘guide to jazz’ compendiums down the local library may or may not satisfy my curiosity on this point, but…. instead let’s savour the mystery. Was Young in the depths of a heavy scag habit, passing out at regular intervals, with White hurriedly hustled in by taxi? Or, was the shark-like White being groomed as Young’s replacement, as the latter cursed his fat fingers, grimly contemplating the loss of touring income as he shuffled off to write advertising jingles? Who knows, who knows. Well, Ramsey Lewis (who is still with us, praise the lord) quite possibly knows, but I’m darned if I can be bothered to ask him.
Admittedly much more of a spring / summer record that one capable of standing up to the more rigorous demands of autumn / winter listening, ‘Barefoot Sunday Blues’ nonetheless opens a sweet window into an easier time, when humble, craft-based jazzers roamed the earth, just writing and playing their fuckin’ tunes - a touch too fruity to make it as elevator music, but way, way too conventional to put the name of Ramsey Lewis ‘pon the lips of any young hipster digging into the storied legacy of the post-bop/spiritual contingent decades down the line.
It’s just some nice, groovy music, played by good people, with a nice groovy picture on the front - reminding us of a time when recorded music was a sufficiently valuable commodity that that was enough. Now though, I’m going to put it back til next June and start listening to, I dunno, Kluster or something.
‘Barefoot Sunday Blues’ by the Ramey Lewis Trio gets an out of season THUMBS UP!
Choicest selection from the inner sleeve:
Tuesday, November 03, 2020
Here we go again…. with just a few quick shout-outs for potential purchases this coming Bandcamp Revenue-Free Friday (6th), assuming we can tear ourselves away from whatever rancorous madness will no doubt be unfolding across the U.S.A. by that point. (In the unlikely event you’re reading this and have an uncast vote, I’ll assume you know what you need to do with it.)
Anyway, on with what, for the foreseeable, we must laughably call ‘the show’... a rare “no electric guitars at all” edition this time around, curiously.
London-based brass & electronics manipulator Sam Barton is probably best-known as one quarter of the group Teeth of the Sea, but enough ‘about the author’ shit, have you HEARD the track ‘Sleuth’, which forms part of his digital only solo album ‘Acid Apple Satin Walls’, uploaded to bandcamp back in September? It’s incredible.
Multiple layers of glimmering, sci-fi synth drift slip Earth’s gravitational pull within seconds, as a crushingly mournful trumpet rings out loud and clear from the heart of some cavernous, off-world reverb tank, before a more circumspect Casio koto preset jazz lament takes over, adding just the right tug of steely-eyed nostalgia to our unfolding journey across a pulsing, Mobius/Jodorowsky cityscape of sound.
If that boring-ass ‘Bladerunner’ sequel from a couple of years back had actually succeeded in recapturing some scintilla of the original film’s visionary quality, this is the music I’d imagine we might have heard blazing across the opening credits - that’s all I’m sayin’ on the subject. It’s a shame Barton calls it a day after only six minutes (I could easily have gone for to sixty), but - leave ‘em wanting more, right?
A first trawl through the full album reveals many more exciting, bedroom-bound interstellar excursions, and it’s definitely top of my ‘buy list’ for this Friday, but for now, it’s this one track that’s hit me above all else.
Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood.
A far cry from the melancholic tone of Angel Bat Dawid’s Transition East single from earlier this year, this double LP live set, recorded for the most part with her instrument-swapping six piece band during an appearance at 2019’s Berlin Jazzfest, is pure fire.As is extensively detailed in the sleeve notes accompanying International Anthem’s digital release (vinyl scheduled for early next year), it seems Dawid and her companions had a pretty rough time of it on the days surrounding their performance in Berlin, and as a result, a hefty weight of simmering anger and frustration found itself channelled into a spell-bindingly anarchic and uncompromising performance, guaranteed to deliver an immediate kick to the nuts of anyone who’s written off this ‘new jazz’ scene as mere lifestyle music for hipper-than-thou home-workers, or some such (hi there).
An exuberant and outspoken stage performer to put it mildly, Dawid here leads her band through an increasingly intense series of rhythmic vocal mantras and cathartic call and response routines, sometimes veering closer to some kind of unhinged improvised theatre, revival church testimonial or group therapy session than to many listeners’ preconceptions of a quote-unquote ‘jazz’ set.
To some extent recalling the more militant and unglued corners of Art Ensemble of Chicago’s discography, one imagines this must have put the wind up some segments of the refined European festival crowd presumably assembled for this show, but, any walk-outs or deserters from the concert space may well have been forced to ask themselves - if you don't want to listen to an African-American woman speaking her mind, what the hell are you doing at a jazz festival?
Contemplation of that question, to my mind, provides an immediate validation of Dawid’s confrontational - genuinely rather “‘punk’” in fact - performance style, and needless to say, those jazzbos who did stay on for the duration will have found themselves richly rewarded, in pure muso terms just as much as on the more visceral/emotional/existential side of things.
As unconventional as their approach may have been here, Dawid and her band are certainly no slouches on the technical front. The extended interplay between Dawid’s clarinet and Xristian Espinoza’s sax on the loping grooves of ‘London’, and her keyboard improvisations on ‘Black Family’, are absolutely inspired, whilst the smouldering, nocturnal heft of the piano/horn intro to ‘We are Starzz’ is little short of sublime. Enhanced by wild, rhythmic glossolalia and cosmic synth swirls, ‘We Hereby Declare The African Look’ and ‘Melo Deez from Heab’N’ meanwhile present bizarre, sci-fi groove-outs worthy of either Funkadelic’s most errant, acid soaked excursions or Sun Ra’s most wonkily accessible ‘80s pop crossover work (depending on which way you look at it), whilst the rolling rhythmic backbone provided by South African drummer (and bandleader) Asher Gamedze and lodestone bassist Dr Adam Zanolini is exceptional throughout.
An extraordinary record which will never, ever be played in background anywhere on earth without stepping up and causing trouble, this music catches the mood of a very particular moment in space and time, and burns through it like so much blazing paraffin - a worthy successor to the most furious and misunderstood of ‘70s jazz sides.
And, on completely the other side of the contemporary jazz coin meanwhile, I’ve recently been getting into the work of Manchester-based saxophonist and band leader Matthew Halsall, and, on the basis of the two lengthy tracks available for streaming, his forthcoming double LP ‘Salute to the Sun’ is really going to be a splendid listen.
Basically a warm and toasty tribute to the all-doors-open majesty of late ‘60s spiritual jazz in the Sanders / Alice C. mould (or, perhaps, that precise moment when it hit the more austere European / ECM aesthetic?), there’s a bit of a ‘new age’y’ feel going on here perhaps which may not perhaps be everyone’s cup o’ tea (you know, a meditational, ‘mindfulness’ workshop, translucent Japanese wall hangings kind of vibe). But, as in the work of the mighty, aforementioned Ms Coltrane, this aesthetic seems to find itself verging here into a rich density of sound which remains thoroughly psychedelic, in the best possible way; climbing the damn mountains pictured on the front, not just looking at a picture of ‘em.
Straight in on the opening ‘Joyful Spirits of the Universe’ (yep), a brush across the harp strings (Maddie Herbert), a slowly unwinding melody picked out on flute (Matt Cliffe) and a big, lolloping Cecil McBee bass line (Gavin Barras) let us know exactly where we stand. And, whatever you care to say about the legitimacy of painstakingly recreating the atmos of a musical form which first peaked half a century ago, it’s a place I’m happy to continue standing in for a long, long time to come.
Greg Ashley & The Western Playboys.
Neither new, nor of much relevance to the lived experience of most listeners I daresay, this little EP of covers and country standards, knocked out by Greg Ashley and his backing band as a warm up for and/or cool down from laying down some of Ashley’s cynical and misery-wracked original material at some point in the past decade or so, has been pleasing me a great deal recently.
It’s all much as you’d expect really - acoustic pickin’, barrelhouse piano, hangdog rhythm and slurred, Chilton-esque vocal sneer, along with the realisation that Warren Zevon’s strung out cowboy lament ‘Carmelita’ is indeed the absolute perfect song for Ashley to have a bash at - but what can I tell you? I just really like this kind of thing when banged out with just the right quantities of guts, grit and off-hand good cheer, sounding rather like Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band emerging from about forty years’ worth of bad road, having left their pedal steel player dead in a ditch after a botched coke deal.
Plus it looks as if I’m the only person who has actually bought this on bandcamp thus far, so you’ve gotta love an underdog, right? Yee and indeed fucking Ha.
Monday, October 26, 2020
Spells and Incantations:
Being Thee 10th Annual Stereo Sanctity/
Breakfast in the Ruins Halloween Mix CD.
As we kick off Halloween week, here, as tradition demands, is a just-under-80-minute mix of ragin’, unholy audio to get you in the mood for whatever safely socially distanced blasphemous rites and abhorrent festivities yourself and your household support bubble/coven have planned this year.
Given that this is the tenth instalment in the series (research gleaned from the long-shuttered archives suggests that the first occurred back in 2008, but that I skipped both 2018 and 2019), you’ll appreciate that the back catalogues of the true greats of Horror-Rock have already been thoroughly tapped by this point, but, as so often in life, metal has stepped up to save the day.
Betwixt the riffage, we also dip a disfigured toe or two into the faddish yet undeniably appealing waters of ‘dungeon synth’, and explore a wide range of atavistic diabolism during the first half, before a brief diversion into lycanthropy ushers us into some unspeakable realms of cosmic terror, concluding with a nod to everyone’s favourite Obeah Man. Dare you stand before the altar and offer up your mortal soul? Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, a quick click on the mixcloud ‘play’ button is all it takes.
Alternatively though, if you miss the riskier business of getting naked and throwing questionable fluids around the place, the old school mp3 download link below the tracklist may prove more to your liking.
(As usual, bands and artists who are still a going concern and deserve your support have been linked below as appropriate.)
Tuesday, September 15, 2020
New/Old LP reviews:
Neil Young – Homegrown
Normally when legendary artists (and/or their record companies) decide to unveil long-lost, never-before-released albums from decades past, caution is strongly advised, but, there are of course exceptions. Hearing John Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix pootling about for instance will pretty much never cease to be rewarding, however much the attempts to scrape more monetary value from their legacies may grate, and, though many (most) may disagree, I’d personally extend the same indulgence to Neil Young’s work up to the end of the 1970s.
Or, such was my justification earlier this year for blind pre-ordering this forty-five year old major label LP with a singularly unappealing illustration of a hippie eating a corncob on the cover, at any rate. In contextualising that decision however, we should make clear from the outset that, for Young’s fans, ‘Homegrown’ is far from just another iffy rehash of some nixed studio sessions or somesuch.
In fact, the legend goes that this completed LP was all ready to go back in 1975 – sequenced, mastered, cover art signed off etc – and was indeed being prepped for great things by Reprise, touted around the industry as Young’s ‘return from the wilderness’ after a lengthy spell of what then seemed like self-sabotaging, contrarian craziness - the natural successor to his multi-million selling, star-making ‘Harvest’ a few years earlier.
In typically perverse Youngian fashion however, Neil took the decision to withdraw ‘Homegrown’ from release just before it hit the pressing plants, not because the material was in any way sub-par, the story goes, but because it was in fact too commercial for his liking, instead instructing the suits to put out ‘Tonight’s The Night’, a set of recordings which had been kicking around for a few years at this point, considered too ragged, edgy and inebriated for a general release.
Actually, the truth is a bit more complicated than that… which is where things start to get interesting. In his definitive Young biog ‘Shakey’, Jimmy McDonough frames the story as follows (p.469):
“After some mixing was completed, [producer] Elliot Mazer headed off for England, where he played a tape of the album for the head of Chrysalis Records, who then told Mo Ostin he was sure they had another five-million seller. But then a funny thing happened. Young changed his mind.
Blame it on that blurry evening at the Chateau Marmont, where Young had played ‘Homegrown’ back to back with ‘Tonight’s the Night’ for a bunch of stoned musicians including Rick Danko. “At which point Rick the Prick said, ‘Go with the raw one,’” said Mazer, who was devastated when Young decided to jettison ‘Homegrown’ in favour of ‘Tonight’s the Night’.
There was another factor involved in the decision. Young had pulled back from the emotional nakedness of ‘Homegrown’. “It was a little too personal… it scared me,” Young told Cameron Crowe a short time later. “I’ve never released any of those. And I probably never will. I think I’d be too embarrassed to put them out. They’re a little too real.”
(I’m unsure whether or not I’ve mentioned it previously on this blog incidentally, but I recommend McDonough’s Neil Young book so highly that I’d advise you to read it even if you have zero interest in the life and work of Neil Young. Quite possibly the best book on music I’ve ever read, it’s such a fucking masterpiece of the biographical form that the incidental picture of the entertainment industry and the lifestyles of musicians in America during the 60s, 70s and 80s it paints along the way is worth the entry price alone.)
Anyway - the rest is history. ‘Tonight’s The Night’ was initially met with consternation and disappointment, but has since been widely hailed as a staggering work of genius. ‘Harvest’, with it’s easy-going country-rock sound and flat, rather muted production, meanwhile continues to divide hardcore fans, but I still think it’s an equally fine piece of work. And now, nearly half a century down the track, you’d better believe I was happy to sign up blind to grab myself a piece of the alleged ‘successor’ LP which skirts both of these great works, as well as sitting in close temporal/emotional proximity to two more of Young’s flat-out masterpieces (‘On The Beach’ and ‘Zuma’).
Indeed, on its first few dozen spins, ‘Homegrown’ seems to hold more value as a priceless historical artefact for Young-o-philes than it does for its surface level musical merit, making the Chrysalis guy’s talk of a “five million seller” seem pretty mystifying. (Possibly he was high? Just a thought.)
Anyway, it’s certainly no instant mindblower, that’s for sure, lacking as it does either the raw force of an ‘Everybody Knows..’ or ‘On The Beach’, or the indelible melodic grace of ‘Harvest’ or ‘After The Goldrush’, but… there’s a lot going on beneath the surface here.
Many of the recordings included on the album feel fragile, disjointed, or out-of-place, which lends a transient, inscrutable quality to the record as a whole. Something about it gets under your skin.
It’s a haunter, in other words - or at least, that’s my first impression. And, like any haunting, only by digging deeper, getting further stuck into the context surrounding it, can we really start to get to the bottom of things. So let’s do that. Strap yourselves in safely readers - I’m afraid this might go on a while.
Though ‘Homegrown’ ultimately has little in common with ‘Harvest’, there is nonetheless some kind of conscious connection between the two records.
Beyond just the homey, rustic artwork from Tom Wilkes (who also did the earlier album) and the single-agriculture-related-word-beginning-with-‘H’ title, ‘Homegrown’s opening cut ‘Separate Ways’ begins – in what surely must be a deliberate gesture – with an almost exact recreation of Harvest opener ‘Out on the Weekend’s forlorn, hang-dog shuffle.
This time however, the vibe is dark and foreboding, rather than merelt disconsolate and bored, as the rhythm section of Tim Mulligan and Levon Helm (no less) beat out a leaden, muddy trudge. Instead of Neil’s brash harmonica, the cripplingly beautiful melody on the intro is picked out on Ben Keith’s inimitable pedal steel, sounding, in McDonough’s words, like “..one of the loneliest sounds ever recorded”.
Despite this sonic nod to our hero’s albatross of a big-hit-album three years earlier, the feel this record is actually communicating couldn’t be more different. As ‘Homegrown’s hypothetical 1975 listeners would quote possibly have realised before even dropping the needle, had they taken the time to grok the song titles and noted album’s on-the-nose back cover dedication (“For Carrie”), we know we’re going to be hitting some choppy waters here.
The true connection between ‘Harvest’ and ‘Homegrown’ in fact is not one of continuation, but of opposition. Between them, they mark out the beginning and end of the relationship which bookended the most creatively vital period of Young’s life, essentially representing a kind of yin and yang of their creator’s treacherous emotional demonology.
Taken as a whole, I tend to think that Neil Young’s ‘70s output can be best understood as a kind of ‘innocence to experience’ tale, framed not only around the darkening, increasingly chemical hue of America’s ‘me decade’, wherein the ideals of the hippie era died a lingering, drawn-out death, but also deeply intertwined with the turbulence in Young’s own life, and in particular the changes wrought upon his personality by his tempestuous relationship with the actress Carrie Snodgrass, the bitter fallout from which eventually allowed his song-writing to attain the wider, more nuanced vision evident in his best work during the second half of the decade.
Written around the time that the two first met, the songs on ‘Harvest’ – bright and disarmingly melodic yet crippled by self-doubt, naïvely searching for love and acceptance – defines the ‘innocence’ part of our story almost too well. Therein, Neil “fell in love with the actress”; she was “playing a part that [he] could understand”. A few years of more-or-less hell later, ‘Homegrown’ hits the same relationship on the exit ramp, pieced together when things were at their very rawest, following the couple’s mutually devastating separation.
Shortly after completing these recordings, Young would hook up with the rejuvenated Crazy Horse in Malibu, and, in between getting blasted to their heart’s content on all the indulgences mid-70s Malibu had to offer, they recorded what came to be seen as the ‘official’ break-up album, the all-time catharsis-through-rock classic that is ‘Zuma’. Time time after that, he’d rake the ghost of his failed relationship over the coals yet again, finally regaining the steely-eyed, nihilistic persona (last glimpsed on ‘On The Beach’ in ‘73) which characterises the ‘experience’ part of our story, as he laid down the exceptional set of the acoustic demos belatedly released under the name Hitchhiker (those ‘H’s again) in 2017; an album which finds him sounding decades older, and centuries wiser, than the kid who recorded ‘Harvest’ just a few short years earlier.
Back to ‘Homegrown’ though, what we essentially have here is the previously invisible hinge upon which Thee Story of Neil Young in The 1970s pivots; the exact centre-point of the drama, left on the cutting room floor until now, cos it was just too much, man.
That’s not to say however that ‘Homegrown’ really plays as a ragin’, hang-wringing break-up album. Though some of the lyrics may be rife with uncomfortably personal detail, at the same time it often feels as if these songs were laid down before their writer’s feelings have really been allowed to sink in and coalesce.
As with such deconstructed masterpieces as Big Star’s ‘Third / Sister Lovers’ and Skip Spence’s ‘Oar’, heartbreak stalks around the edges of these songs, pain warping them from within. It’s as if the poor guy hadn’t even realised the extent to which he’d been fucked up by it all yet, but as always, the music knows.
Straight out of the gate on Side # 1, ‘Separate Ways’ and ‘Try’ both at least attempt to give us the straight dope, sounding slurred and emotionally drained, even as their lyrics chase some white horse of reconciliation over the hazy horizon.
The inspired instrumental interplay between Young, Keith, Helm and Mulligan on the former song lends it a touch of that ineffable sublimity that defines the best of Young’s singer/songwriter-orientated output, whilst the latter - framed as a soggy, exhausted country waltz – pushes coherence way out on a limb, but just about keeps it together thanks to some interesting lyrical digressions, and crisp backing vocals from Emmylou Harris.
According to McDonough, some of ‘Try’s lyrics, including its stand-out “..shit Mary, I can’t dance” bit, incorporate phrases coined by Snodgrass’s mother, who passed away at almost the exact same moment her daughter’s relationship with Young imploded. Assuming there’s any truth in that, it’s certainly easy to see why Neil thought it better to keep this stuff out of the public eye for a while.
Equally personal, albeit in a slightly more obtuse fashion is ‘Mexico’, a brief (one minute forty) fragment of piano balladry, full of eerie, unresolved phrases left hanging in the air, recalling ‘Harvest’-era songs like ‘There’s a World’ or ‘Love in Mind’. Part of a seemingly endless series of numbers which find Young attempting to escape his troubles by taking imaginary trips to remote locales or other historical periods, this not-quite-song feels like musical thinking-out-loud, but it’s a testament to the strength of Young’s creativity during this era that even his half-finished ruminations remain eerily spell-binding.
In more concrete terms, ‘Mexico’ is also one of a number of songs on ‘Homegrown’ which touch uneasily on their writer’s recent experience of fatherhood, the spectre of his perceived failure to keep his new family together hanging heavy, as domestic responsibilities impinge upon the freedom he might otherwise have enjoyed as a newly single, itinerant rock star. (“Daddy is a travellin’ man..”, the song concludes uncertainly, as the final, ominous notes drift off into the ether.)
Skipping over ‘Love is a Rose’, a robust ol’ coffee-shop folk belter which can’t help but sound a bit out of place here (SO 1962, man), we arrive at ‘Homegrown’s title track, an incongruously light-hearted freak-rock shuffle which, though it ain’t exactly gonna blow anyone mind, is still far more palatable than the version which appeared on the ‘American Stars N’ Bars’ album a few years later.
On that album, it sounded like a smug hippie campfire sing-along that got way out of hand, but here, shorn of the more familiar version’s obnoxious backing vocals, it scrubs up pretty well, strummed/picked in a kinda interesting manner by Neil on a fuzzed out electric and Ben Keith on lap steel, backed up by a supremely groovy, light touch beat from drummer Karl T. Himmel. Suggesting a slightly more nuanced sentiment than the “heh heh, he’s singing about weed” vibe encouraged by the ‘..Stars and Bars’ recording, the song provides some welcome respite from the heavier themes explored elsewhere on this record… which is much needed, given that things get pretty far-out as we head toward the end of side # 1, to say the least.
Oddly reminiscent of some stoned out ‘skit’ track from a ‘90s hip-hop album, ‘Florida’ finds Young and Keith (who seems to have been acting as the star’s primary right-hand-man / emotional crutch at this point) conjuring eerie droning sounds from what the album credits tell us are “wine glasses and piano strings”, whilst muttering distractedly about a potential visit to the sunshine state (“palm trees n’ shit, y’know..”). Things take a darker turn however when Neil begins recounting what is evidently the memory of a dream, which concludes with his retrieving a baby whose parents have been killed in a freak hang-gliding accident. (Those following the underlying psychodrama may wish to note that the audio cuts out just as he begins describing a woman approaching him, claiming the child as her own.)
All of which effectively serves as an intro to what is possibly ‘Homegrown’s most remarkable moment, the inexplicably named ‘Kansas’, another fragmentary, close-miced solo vignette, accompanied this time by soft-strummed, tentative acoustic.
Distantly echoing the privileged masculine self-loathing of the oft-misunderstood ‘A Man Needs a Maid’, but recasting it in more oneiric, transitory territory, this one finds Neil waking up from a bad dream, next to a girl (but not THE girl?), whose name he is unable to recollect; “guess you’re the one I’m talking to this morning / with your mind so kind and your friendly body lying / in my bungalow of stucco / that the glory and success bought..”.
The cynicism of the lyric here is belied by the almost surreal, beach-at-dawn airiness conjured by Young’s minimal musical setting. It’s as if he’s settled into this identity as a self-pitying, profligate rock star only momentarily before he drifts off again into the breeze over the ocean, ready to take shape again in some other place and time.
The preceding skit, with its talk of lethal hang-gliding accidents, adds a sinister undertow to the song’s insistence (during the closest thing it manages to a chorus) that “we can go gliding, through the air, far from the tears you’ve cried..” – a strange sentiment indeed for the pot-smoking, alpha male millionaire to express toward a sleeping beach-house groupie, and far from a reassuring one, with the sickly-sweet pull of New Age guru-dom (and ‘Revolution Blues’) still lurking just a few miles back on the cultural highway. (I’m also reminded that Dennis Hopper’s character in ‘The Last Movie’ was named Kansas, but am probably just thinking about all this a bit too hard.)
Dialling back the intensity somewhat, Side # 2 opens with ‘We Don’t Smoke It No More’, five minutes of heavy-lidded, last-gasp-before-unconscious 12 bar jamming which could have been pulled straight from the infamously debauched ‘Tonight’s The Night’ sessions. Sounding largely improvised, the lyrics could potentially be poking barbed fun at ‘70s rock stars’ favourite game of publically declaring themselves free of all those BAD drugs, whilst quietly sneaking to the bathroom to hoover up this week’s designated GOOD drugs, which prevent them from crumpling to the floor like weeping, incontinent man-children (a frequent pass-time of Young’s erstwhile cohorts in CS&N, incidentally).
There’s ragged magic here for the faithful, but more casual listeners might feel more inclined to prescribe a mug of cocoa and good night’s sleep to the players before they deign to hit ‘record’ again… a sentiment which could apply to this album as a whole in fact, excepting perhaps the following ‘White Line’, which sounds positively sprightly in comparison.
Augmented by some tasteful acoustic lead licks from Levon’s arch-nemesis Robbie Robertson, this recording – taped in London of all places, on one of the days surrounding CSN&Y’s disastrous 1974 Wembley Stadium concert – hits a real sweet spot that all Neil freaks should be able to appreciate, drawing a shaky (natch) throughline between the disarming melodicism of his early ‘70s work and the more weathered, emotionally nuanced balladry of the ‘Hitchhiker’/‘Rust Never Sleeps’ era.
After that though, it’s back to the gnarled, bonged out grunge with ‘Vacancy’, a sinister nightmare of frazzled, end-of-relationship paranoia (“I look in your eyes, and I don’t know who’s there”) which sounds like CCR suddenly losing the will to live mid-recording session, the double meaning if its title summoning visions of anonymous motel break-downs, even as it prefigures the harder, riff-based rock sound of ‘Zuma’.
Clearly giving voice to the side of Young’s personality which saw fit to knock it on the head with Carrie in no uncertain terms, ‘Vacancy’ is a murky, dispiriting rock song in spite of some great lead guitar work in the second half, revealing a disturbing edge when viewed through the prism of this album’s ongoing emotional narrative – all the more-so once it segues into the beguiling, gossamer psychedelia of ‘Little Wing’.
This is another strange, fragmentary song which, echoing the ghosts of ‘After The Goldrush’s ‘Birds’, invites us to envision some kind of spectral, hippie goddess, who “comes to town when the children sing / leaves them feathers when they fall”.
A thing of extraordinary beauty, it’s an example of the way Young’s compositions, at their best, can completely disarm the listener’s critical faculties, allowing words which we might write off as cliché in the hands of other writers to fall like pollen over the shell of his hesitant chording, creating a song which sounds as if it could have existed for a thousand years, lost in the aether, until this sleepy, Kermit-voiced stoner tuned into just the right frequency and dragged it back down to terra firma.
Much the same can be said for ‘Star of Bethlehem’, an unsettlingly ambiguous ol’ time country tune which was subsequently revisited on ‘American Stars N’ Bars’. Lent greater significance here as it closes out one of its writer’s most personal LPs, the song’s declaration that, “your friends and your lovers won’t protect you / they’re all just passing through you in the end” chills the blood, whilst its gnomic conclusion forces us to consider the possibility that some coded message is being conveyed solely to the ears of particular listener here, as the casually irreligious Young brings matters to a close by musing that, “maybe the Star of Bethlehem wasn’t a star at all?”
So thin, troubled and wracked by unprocessed emotion are the recordings on ‘Homegrown’ that to try to conclude by placing it somewhere within the context of Young’s more familiar ‘70s catalogue, let alone offering an opinion as to whether you should or should not buy it, seems almost brutishly insensitive.
Cobbled together from what feels like a state of mind at the very edge of continued functionality, lost somewhere in the slipstream between waking and dream, many of these tracks feel more like automatic writing than conscious attempts at commercial songwriting, marking out a space in which stanzas fade away unresolved and voices sink into whispers, even as each scrape of finger against string or shuffle on the studio chair is painstakingly reproduced in cutting edge stereo.
For Young’s fans, this is a vital, fascinating and - yes - haunting glimpse into the mind of one of the 20th century’s greatest musical talents, captured at the exact moment his life hit a cataclysmic crossroads. For anyone else though, caution is advised – it’s all too easy to see why he thought better of putting this stuff in the public domain for over four decades. God knows, it might take us four more to really get the drop on it.
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