Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Monday, January 28, 2008
The Rolling Stones – Play With Fire b/w The Last Time (Decca, 1965)
I spotted this – scratched, dusty and unloved – in my parents’ record collection when I went home for Christmas. Not that I had any sinister record-swiping agenda you understand, it’s just that I was idly sketching out potential cover art for a 7” single and I needed to find one to draw around to get the size right, and… well anyway, there is was. I think the reason I’d never clocked this one before whilst flicking through our house’s shoebox of ancestral 45s is that, as you can see, the label on the a-side has been torn off, rendering the music within a mystery. This time round though, I was drawn for whatever reason to turn the disc over to investigate further, and discovered it was by the ‘Stones! Score! I wasn’t familiar with the song “The Last Time”, but still, a sixties Rolling Stones single! Clearly this one needed to take a trip back with me to London, and a functioning record player.
So, after forgetting about the damn thing for a couple of weeks, it was only the other day that I finally dropped the needle and discovered the a-side is ‘Play With Fire’. Double score! I’m sure I don’t need to waste time telling you how good the song is. Surely the most beautiful, unconventional and sinister of all the early Jagger/Richards songs, slowly rising like scented black smoke from my hi-fi speakers in glorious, fuzzy mono through a thick curtain of crackle. More than ever, it sounds less like a run of the mill Rolling Stones single and more like the kind of thing Mick Jagger’s character from ‘Performance’ might have charted with in his glory days. Evil, decadent jangle-folk for the masses. Wow.
But even wower, it turns out ‘The Last Time’ is a fucking brilliant number too. It’s an r’n’b derived original with a great melody that sees the band hitting the same kind of raucous, party-shaking groove that made their early, pre-fame singles so hot. The twangy lead guitar hook (I’m not enough of a Stones geek to immediately identify it as the work of Keith or Brian, though I’d guess the latter) is absolute punk genius, and it’s got one of those great, lolloping slightly-too-polite Charlie Watts rhythms going on. It’s funny how although the innumerable thousands of garage bands who idolised the Stones had a natural tendency to tear off in crazed pursuit of the high-energy finish-line (and I bless them thrice daily for it), as I get older I’m really starting to appreciate the more subtle pleasures of Charlie’s old-fashioned approach to things, and this song is a perfect case in point. Marvel as he helps cement the band into a fiendishly hot, deceptively mid-paced groove that – I would like to think – could still kick off some smouldering action on yr nearest dancefloor nearly fifty years after the fact, whereas most of our Nuggets faves would simply give rise to carnage and confusion. Let’s hear it for Charlie!
I don’t know whether this record is worth anything in terms of money, and I don’t particularly care. I guess probably not, seeing as it’s a flimsy, scratched copy of a hit single by an extremely popular band, but nonetheless, feel free to taunt me in the comments box by going “Wow, you’ve got original pressing with the blue label! Have you considered taking out life insurance and investing in a fireproof safe?” or something. I’m an idiot, I’ll believe you.
(Note these are CD versions of the songs, not ones ripped from my old 7”. I’ll leave you to decide whether that adds or detracts from the experience.)
Play With Fire / The Last Time
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
STEREO SANCTITY RADIO SHOW #8
This one is a bit different to my previous radio shows, in that it doesn't feature me talking, and is instead more along the lines of a downloadable mix CD, with individual mp3s, cover art and track details. I haven't done this for any particular reasion, other than a general lack of time to record a "proper" show, and the fact that I had a really sweet 80 minute playlist and didn't want to lose anything off it. If you yearn for some talking, there are at least some mysterious ghost voices to keep you company, and details about where all the tracks came from can be found within the download.
I'm not sure whether or not I'll do talking shows or mix CD shows in future; I guess I'll throw the question open to "the people", and take a poll. Do you enjoy my stumbling tributes to the glory days of John Peel, or would you be happier with a more easily manageable mix of awesome songs undisturbed by any witless DJ yammering? If you have a preference either way, please let me know via the usual channels, and if you veer toward the latter viewpoint, don't worry, I won't take it as a personal insult or anything.
Anyway, without further ado, here's the tracklisting and the download link. For the record, this show is largely put together from stuff I was really digging back in October and November, as I'm getting a bit behind with these things. As ever, hope you enjoy it.
2. The Real Kids – All Kinda Girls
3. Sonia – En Mi Nube
4. The Mountain Goats – The Day The Aliens Came (Hawaiian Feeling)
5. The Mods – You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’
8. Phosphene – Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
9. Bob B. Sox & The Blue Jeans – Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts?
10.The Ex & Getatchew Mekuria – Ethiopia Hagere
11.The Rev. Sister Mary Nelson – Judgement
12.R.L. Burnside & The Sound Machine – Well, Well, Well
13.Liz Green – Bad Medicine
14.Derek Bailey – Play 6
15.The Pebbles – Gonna Tell Your Man
16.Tinturn Abbey – Vacuum Cleaner
17.Viking Moses – Holland 1945
19.Panic Buttons – O Wow!
20.The Rondelles – He’s Outta Sight
21.Lord Luther – Thinkin’ Man’s Girl
22.Meg Baird, Helena Espvall & Sharron Kraus – Bruton Town
23.King Tubby – King Tubby’s Badness Dub
24.David Thomas Broughton & 7 Hertz – The Weight Of My Love
25.The Minutemen – Shit You Hear At Parties
26.The Wave Pictures – A Change Is Gonna Come
Download (89mb .zip file)
Labels: radio show
Monday, January 14, 2008
THE WIND HARP: CORRECTIONS AND FURTHER INFORMATION
Some of you may recall my post from November about the Wind Harp album "Songs From The Hill".
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I have subsequently been contacted by Thomas Ward McCain, who single-handedly designed and built the harp recorded for the album.
I am somewhat emarrassed about the gross inaccuracies featured in my original post about the album, and can only say in my defense that the misleading information is repeated on both Wikipedia and All Music Guide.
I asked Mr. McCain if he would mind if I reproduced parts of his email on this weblog, by way of both setting the record straight and providing some fascinating new information on what has previously been a pretty mysterious recording, and am grateful to him for providing the following statement.
My name is Thomas Ward McCain.
I built the big wind harp in Chelsea, Vermont, age 19/20 and completed it late June, 1971.
United Artists Records made a double album of its music titled "Songs From the Hill"
in 1972. I was not associated in any way with that project.
I am now 57 and live in Japan and have made good headway toward constructing another big wind harp, new design completely, more Oriental, in Nikko, Japan, a mountainous area north of Tokyo.
I recently came across a review of "Songs From the Hill" UA album that included a few errors about who made the harp, and its location. These errors were 100% innocent. The reviewer simply included information from other sources he assumed correct.
I penned him an email correcting the information in a friendly spirit, complimenting his sincere, in-depth review, and fine writing craftsmanship... I added some additional personal remarks about my experience building the "Chelsea Wind Harp" as the villagers of Chelsea, Vermont called the harp. I never wrote anything about this before now.
FIRST: Regarding the erroneous idea that "it was built by a Northern California Hippy commune, on a Mountain out west."
No, I worked totally alone, nearly two years on the wind harp built atop a high hill above the small village of Chelsea, Vermont. The property was owned by a wonderful man and farmer, Mr. Matoon, who gave me permission to built it on his land.
I lived high on the hill, near the harp site in a small cabin, and all the work was mine. I am orignally from the Adirondacks, northern New York State, not California, was never a hippie, nor commune resident.
I built the harp out of inspiration over years to combine my love of stringed instruments, art/sculpture and hiking and the outdoors/nature as well as a dislike for museums as the sad verdict/venue for most art. These factors meshed and manifested as this big wind harp.
I lived alone the entire time, a year and a half, never socialized except to be respectful to the villagers in the valley below, post office personnel, etc. who seemed to let me be, perhaps as I kept short hair, and seemed decent, hardworking and polite, though clearly aloof.
The day I completed it and it was fully strung with various guages of stainless steel wire gifted to me by Boeing Aircraft, my mother organized a small picnic for the villagers to hike up and listen as I released the dampers and let the wind play "music" it for the first time. There was a gentle wind/breeze and the sound was beautiful. The villagers were happy.
I disappeared after that, trying to be anonymous, an attempt to observe an Oriental
art tradition not to claim exclusively human authorship of song, writing, or art work. "Unsigned" allowed it be be authored/inspired by more than human hands.
A year later I entered a remote Asian monastery and meditated and lived there for 27 years, and left there in 2000 when I heard the United Artists Record album for the first time.
To be honest, I agree a bit with the reviewer that the album recording can sound "eerie!"...
So different than the feeling when you are on the hilltop next tothe wind harp with panoramic vistas of surrounding forested hills, vales and mountains. That experience for myself and apparently the thousands who somehow found it, was quite the opposite of scary...but rather lofty, uplifting, the wind playing a man-made harp....
When I complete the Nikko Wind Harp, I will think twice before permitting a recording as I still feel hiking a small mountain and viewing the harp is really part of my wind harp idea, not simply hearing its "sound."
Mejiro, Tokyo, Japan
PS: I did have the album (saved by my family for nearly 30 years) put on CD, which I have myself and made no effort to market it. However, I have sporadically received requests from persons in the last few years who have been unable to find the original double album UA recording and asked for a CD from me. As the harp itself has long since been disassembled and moved from the hilltop in Vermont to other East Coast locations, and rebuilt at least twice but, according to those who heard the Chelsea wind harp, reconstructions paled in comparison.
SO, I thought I would make some extra copies of my CD and make available should someone write me.
Needless to say, much respect is due to Mr. McCain for both his creative work and his approach to life, and many thanks to him for getting in touch. For those of you interested in the wind harp concept, his website feautures some fascinating photographs and technical details of the Vermont harp.
Sunday, January 06, 2008
THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2007:
MIKA MIKO – C.Y.S.L.A.B.F. (Kill Rock Stars)
I’m so pissed off that I missed the Mika Miko / No Age show at the Luminaire back in June. I even had a ticket. Damn birthday parties! Anyway, point is, Mika Miko are an all-female punk band from Los Angeles, only two of the thirteen songs they recorded for this debut album hit the two minute mark, and OMG, they absolutely SLAY. “The Slits being Black Flag” is what somebody or other said. The Slits comparison is slightly erroneous as there’s no reggae here, but Mika Miko definitely have that wild, self-sufficient !GIRL-GANG! energy going on, so we’ll let it slide. As to the `Flag comparison, well, yeah, I guess I’ll take it. Mika Miko may work the kind of spidery guitar-lines and stabby white-funk rhythms that seem to come as naturally to modern kids as ‘Louis Louis’ did to the ‘70s punks, but that can’t hide the fact that the vibe here is pure early Californian hardcore, and all the more thrilling for it, recalling a time and place in which the punk bands were still desperate weirdoes, unhindered by generic convention, grabbing influences from all over and hammering them down as fast as they could on the cheapest recording equipment in town. Maybe it’s LA’s status as a giant, soulless suburb that allows it to throw out some rock n’ roll this vital and crazed every now and then: “white, suburban delinquent music”, just like Iggy intended. To understand Mika Miko is to understand mic cables tangled around limbs, incomprehensible vocal takes yelled down what sounds like an international phoneline, Lorna Doom learning to play bass as she went along in The Germs, grazed knees, too many sweets, Robert Quine’s guitar solo on ‘Love Comes In Spurts’, songs that finish before you realise they’d started and drum beats whose sole purpose in life is to go BOUNCE!BOUNCE!BOUNCE!BOUNCE!BOUNCE!
This is decadent 2007 though, the key advantage being that instead of having to make a virtue of misery like the old punks, Mika Miko are content to just sound like they’re having Tons O’ Fun. 2007 also means that instead of toiling in vinyl darkness in the SST mines, Mika Miko can be part of arty partying type cliques, can pick up a bunch of hype from crappy free magazines, can wear stupid hats without fear of ridicule and can make groovy videos like the one below. Most of the time I hate 21st century po-mo hipster-media culture by default, but maybe, just maybe, there are occasions to stand and salute the moments of righteousness it can bring us.
And no, I don’t know what C.Y.S.L.A.B.F stands for. And I don’t know what any of the lyrics on this album are about either, but I suspect they’re probably about being awesome.
Mp3 > Jogging Song (He’s Your Mr. Right)
NO AGE – WEIRDO RIPPERS (FatCat)
I’m still pissed off that I missed that Mika Miko / No Age show at the Luminaire back in June. But at least they have the good grace to be close together in the alphabet, so that they follow each other in my album round-up. Anyway, No Age are ostensibly two guys from LA who play guitar and drums and used to be in a hardcore band, and I did a review of this record by them for Freq back in April. I’m actually quite surprised to see it popping up so prominently on my best-of-year list. Because you see, by any conventionally applicable standard, ‘Weirdo Rippers’ is NOT a great album. It’s patchy and it’s self-indulgent and it’s really badly recorded, and I’d be unlikely to play it to anyone and expect them to be immediately impressed. So what’s the score? Well basically, ‘Weirdo Rippers’ is *exciting*. If you’ll permit me to quote myself again:
“‘No Age do noise, No Age do pop (in a manner of speaking), but only infrequently do the two meet. These meetings prove to be the most interesting bits, and it is the tension between the two approaches that helps make Weirdo Rippers such an attention-grabbing singularity. All things considered, No Age's 'noise' tracks are exceptionally good, betraying a level of forethought and imagination that eludes many. […] Batteries of cheapola guitar effects summon up the kind of melancholic fuzz-scape dreamt of by post-MBV shoegaze disciples, interspersed with warped found sound textures and other intriguing sonic wreckage. […] Chopped and spliced into this nodding-out-on-petrol-fumes extravaganza are examples of the 'other' No Age, playing flailing guitar and drums beat-downs, recorded in classic dictaphone-in-the-rehearsal-room style. Here, No Age wisely reject the post-Lightning Bolt consensus of testosterone-fuelled sensory overload, instead playing up their relative technical inadequacies, thrashing sloppily at some distant horizon, strangulated geek yelping expressing mockery and self-belief in equal measure, eventually rallying around some semblance of a melody and coalescing into outbursts of refreshingly straightforward surf-riffin' guitar pop, imbuing No Age's noise-trash hardcore approach with a cracked strain of humanity and humour […] One of the most exciting thing I've heard from the American underground this year, No Age's positivist approach makes Weirdo Rippers a shot across the bows of the increasingly complacent noise scene, and suggests that, given some studio time and a crate of new toys, these boys are likely to return with something truly special.”
So there you go. “My Life’s Alright Without You” is still my favourite tune from the album, and I think it sufficiently demonstrates everything that’s great about No Age, circumnavigating The Dead C via Weezer over the course of 90 seconds. What’s not to love?
Mp3 > My Life’s Alright Without You
OM – PILGRIMAGE (Southern Lord)
Somehow I’ve managed to miss out on Om’s output over the past few years, so I can’t really comment re: how this record measures up to their previous work, but let me simply say…. Whoa. On ‘Pilgrimage’, Om demonstrate their mastery of the essentials of metal, raising the form to a zen-like plateau wherein heavy music no longer even needs to be loud to achieve heaviocity…. it’s simply spiritually heavy. Quiet music somehow hewn from lead weights, dumbbells and monolithic boulders. And then, after a good, long while, it does get loud, and it’s like, WHOA. Old Testament. Avert your eyes from the majesty of The Riff, lest ye be smote. Or smitten. Or whatever; you get the point. The God whose praises Om sing doesn’t piss about, so it’s a pretty hard point to miss.
I’m not posting an MP3 because this is half an hour of music that is clearly meant to be experienced in one go, preferably whilst laying down in darkness with the bass on the EQ cranked really high, and such is the grace of the transitions between segments that placing one in isolation from the rest would seem kind of sacrilegious.
PANDA BEAR – PERSON PITCH (Paw Tracks)
Well, you knew it was coming. ‘Person Pitch’ seems to have become this year’s default list-topper across the board of indie-media, even achieving the dubious distinction of triumphing in Pitchfork’s 2007 run-down. Unlike the vast majority of previous list-topping buzz records though, ‘Person Pitch’ is also what we here at Stereo Sanctity would consider to be a really, really wonderful album, and as such it is heartening to see that so many people seem to have dug it. For the uninitiated, what Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, has essentially done here is to loop some particularly ecstatic moments from his record collection and other found sound sources, warp them beyond recognition with pitch-shifting, delay and vast, oceanic reverb, and craft them into palaces of dense, hypnotic, dub-pop over which he harmonises with himself in his distinctive high-pitched croon, applying the logic of song and instinctively pulling beautifully formal, cyclical, endlessly comforting melodies out of what in lesser hands could have simply emerged as a big mess.
I’ve always thought of Panda Bear as being the more ‘difficult’ member of the Animal Collective – quite a boast considering that Avey Tare put out a whole album of music played backwards this year – but eventually also the most rewarding. His previous solo record, the initially baffling but ultimately quite moving ‘Young Prayer’, is a perfect case in point. Thankfully, ‘Person Pitch’ is a little more immediate, its ingredients sequenced with such a perfect understanding of what constitutes *good, warm, human-pleasing sound* that it’s hard not to be drawn in to some extent. But nonetheless, full appreciation definitely requires the listener to get into the right mood, particularly with regard to the music’s length and repetition. I daresay many people will NEVER be in the right mood to find a place for fourteen minutes of “Good Girl / Carrots” in their lives, and that’s ok, they shouldn’t waste time tearing their hair out wondering what they’re missing, there’s no big secret. But when you do find yourself in the right mood (I recommend a very long walk, near a river, on a day that is either very hot or very cold), ‘Person Pitch’ is a conduit for pure, drugless psychedelic transformation of an extremely pleasurable kind.
I’ve got this far without pulling out one of the inescapable Beach Boys comparisons that must have had Mr. Lennox launching fungal, technicolored psychic happy-daggers at reviewers throughout the year, but what the hell; let’s get it over with and conclude in lazy journo style by simply saying that ‘Person Pitch’ sounds kinda like what might have happened if, instead of being stuck in a world dominated by Spector and The Beatles, shyster doctors, abusive relatives and cokehead bandmates, Brian Wilson had instead woken up one morning in 1968 to find Terry Riley and Lee Perry standing on his doorstep, prototype samplers under their arms and ready to rock.
Mp3 > Bros (radio edit)
ROBERT WYATT – COMICOPERA (Domino)
Beyond the music he makes, Robert Wyatt has great importance to me simply as a person, and as a cultural presence. The documentary about him I videoed off BBC2 a few years ago has seen many viewings, and each time, I am awed by what a basically amazing bloke Wyatt is. Personally, artistically, politically, philosophically – I just can’t fault the guy at all; almost everything he says seems to resound with wisdom, humility and righteousness. He’s a true hero. That confession out of the way, I’ll admit that on a musical level, he lost me slightly with the vocal jazz miniatures of ‘Cookooland’, but ‘Comicopera’ has me back on side and then some. It’s an absolutely astonishing record, one of his all-time best.
Split into several distinct sections, ‘Comicopera’ unfolds with characteristically off-kilter grandeur, drifting across continents and palettes of sound like a series of musical waking dreams, much in the vein of 1997’s excellent ‘Shleep’, rendering musical and lyrical content effectively inseparable as Wyatt does his utmost to present a full picture of the world as he experiences it circa 2007, moving from the confines of his own home and relationships through the quiet confusion of 21st century British life into the full horror of international political turmoil, before concluding with some reflections on the possibilities for communication and mutual understanding between cultures now in the process of being forced closer together.
‘Comicopera’ is certainly a mighty musical statement befitting a veteran of the prog rock era. Summarised in terms such as those above it sounds like an almost ludicrously earnest, over-reaching, self-righteous undertaking, and in the hands of any other aging British musician it probably would be. But as Wyatt’s fans will already know well, his wit, subtlety, intelligence, musical imagination and the unflagging sense of honesty and humanity with which he approaches his work, not to mention the assistance of his impressive band of international collaborators, makes Robert more than up to the task of emerging with what is easily one of the most beautiful and affecting albums of the year.
Such is the range of subject matter, emotion and musical form covered by ‘Comicopera’ that I could easily stumble through pages of clumsy verbiage trying to get to grips with it all. Far better that you just find forty-five minutes to sit down with a pot of tea and listen to it yourself, and, if further info is required, let me point you in the direction of Thom Jurek’s excellent write-up of the record at All Music Guide, which does the job for me quite nicely.
Mp3 > Stay Tuned
ERIK FRIEDLANDER – BLOCK ICE & PROPANE (Skipstone Records)
This is out of alphabetical order because it’s a late entry; I’ve only gotten around to giving it a good listen this weekend. Erik Friedlander is best known to me for his sterling work providing strings on the last few Mountain Goats records, and here he presents an album of solo cello pieces inspired by memories of epic childhood journeys across the USA. And much like an epic childhood journey, the results are at times rather lugubrious, but also on occasion extremely dramatic, and are eventually guaranteed to prove good, wholesome listening to anyone who enjoys cellos and epic American landscapes and such like. Friedlander is a musician of prodigious inventive skill, and the improvised passages here howl, soar, shriek and moan in the manner of the more adventurous free improv bassists, occasionally sounding like he is attempting to channel a Slayer solo, whilst the more conventional, composed segments are beautifully lyrical, at their best recalling what might have transpired had John Fahey taken up the cello.
Possibly too abstract to appeal to many of the indie rockers who already know Friedlander’s name, yet too staid and sentimental for the majority of avant-jazzers to take an interest, this is the kind of basically bloody good music liable to slip between the cracks of current music scenes, so I thought I’d make space to give it a shout-out.
Mp3 > A Thousand Unpieced Suns
I have also quite enjoyed:
Ectogram – Fluff On A Faraway Hill
Great sideways crab-walking Welsh spacerock; dense, fuzzy, warm-blooded, weird and lovely.
Electric Wizard – Witchcult Today
Jus Osborn’s new four piece Electric Wizard may lack the spark (or whatever the dark, doom metal opposite of a spark is) that led the original line-up to scale the heights of the Dopethrone, but no matter. This is still, in a profound sense, an Electric Wizard album, and there are times in life when nothing else will do. Specifically, times when you’ve just smoked an ounce of weed and watched five Redemption videos in a row.
Expo 70 – Animism
One man’s sub-bass buzzing double LP tribute to the glory days of Ash Ra Tempel, Fripp & Eno, Tangerine Dream et al = a very special sleepy-time for science fiction fans!
PJ Harvey – White Chalk
Relegated from a place in the main list simply because I don’t think the songwriting chops on display here can really sustain the chamber piano / ghostly Victorian waif concept across a whole album, but Polly is still in command of an ancient, gut-level musical power, and the title track and a few other songs when things come together here are really, really stunning.
Ill Ease - All Systems-A-Go-Go
One woman band Elizabeth Sharp hates drum machines. They always stay on time, they're always perfect, she says dismissively. She doesn't like keyboards much either. Too much sucky, not enough fucky, she concludes. Clearly Ms Sharp and I have much to discuss.
Times New Viking – Presents The Paisley Reich
A great, thrashy guitar/keyboard/yelping punk trio with some killer songs, big noise and barrels of energy, sadly marred here by the fact that they seem to have been recorded on a dictaphone in the coat pocket of someone in the rehearsal room across the corridor. Obviously I’m always up for a good live-to-tape lo-fi blast, but y’know – there are limits. Maybe next time they can bring a microphone and a four-track and really kick some ass.
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2007:
HELP SHE CAN’T SWIM – THE DEATH OF NIGHTLIFE (Fantastic Plastic)
I wrote pretty extensively, and not entirely coherently, about this album earlier in the year, and I’m a bit worn out on it to be honest. So let’s just say it’s a strong second album from a really great, furious post-riot grrl punk/pop band, and see what the cut up machine has to say about the rest:
“A bit muddled. Then there's the roll-call: take no prisoners cow to death of an essay, so hold on. Resigned to adulthood riff/rhythm mode. Clearer and smashier than on a free jazz/poetry band, love while you exist, and don’t you forget it. The same rock Liar machine gun style. Help She be a common trait amongst of the confusion; gloriously covering her eyes I saw fingers. That’s all fine and passes here even bigger. Any questions? Bolts covering her eyes.
We know. Shot down the melodies whilst the remaining guitar thrashes like an elastic band about to snap, and dreams. Boring; don't see on my universal teenage freedom trip. Pretending they’re let down primarily by the failure, getting pretty close.
Teenage best fucking shot. That’s why I like music as "rock n' roll"; if pushed, drums and easy melody – enough to give lo-fi warriors, like, up, recalling one running through all. Lost with cats the neuroses, musical maturity or breathe when you're always wearing they give it their best. But "rock n' roll" will to regret, but in charging in, I increasingly consider medicine – The words are taken up by keyboards - and total fabrication is an aesthetic part of good too.”
Any questions indeed.
Mp3 > I Think The Record’s Stopped
HERMAN DUNE – GIANT (Source Inc / EMI)
It's hard to find anything particularly objective or new to say about an album that seems to have soundtracked the whole year, getting spun in every living room, shop, gig, mp3 player or radio I’ve been near, whether I felt like listening or not. For better or worse, 2007 certainly turned out to be the year in which Herman Dune made the well-deserved leap from being long-standing cult heroes to being a major label signed, Broadsheet-approved breakthrough act. At first, I really didn’t like ‘Giant’ at all, for myriad irksome reasons. Obvious singles ‘I Wish That I Could See You Soon’ and ‘1-2-3 Apple Tree’ just seemed too obvious and cloying in their sentiment, their Jonathan Richman-derived charms wearing thin with repeated listens, whilst the rest of the album seemed to mount a slightly contrived attempt at ‘serious’ Cohen/Dylan styled song-writing, ditching the band’s perfect guitar/guitar/drums line-up in favour of an unconvincing world tour through indie-boy takes on brass and ‘ethnic’ percussion, making half the songs on what already seemed an overlong, unfocused record sound like ropey outtakes from ‘Graceland’.
That was back in January and February. Clearly, I was being a big idiot back in January and February. The real root of my displeasure was that, having established a pretty big emotional connection with the hot-off-the-press confessional sentiments of previous Dune albums, I was really not in the right frame of mind to dig ‘Giant’s 'pining-for-a-lover-across-the-ocean' vibe at all.
Well joke’s on me as it turns out, because looking back from the more objective perspective of the end of the year, ‘Giant’ is obviously a fine, fine album. Still possibly the ‘difficult’ entry in the Dune’s catalogue of recorded hits, it’s a little too long and has a couple of weak tracks, but nevertheless, it’s an inspired step forward for a band who had already pretty much perfected what they do, and an album of great emotional depth and open-hearted musical spontaneity. The subtleties of the full band arrangements are a slow-burning joy, and David-Ivar Herman Dune’s continuing transformation of his personal life into timeless, romantic pop is as epic and affecting an undertaking as those helmed by the aforementioned Mr. Richman and Mr. Cohen. Like Dylan at his best, every seemingly tossed off rhyme and guileless singalong chorus is handled with a master’s touch, and if their qualities are perhaps not always immediately apparent, it would take a heart of stone not to be eventually moved by songs such as 'Pure Heart' and 'When The Water Gets Cold'. And some of Andre’s more laidback, whisky-sipping musical travelogues are pretty great too (“Glory Of Old” especially), but ‘Giant’ is David’s show really.
And as to those hit singles... well, I’ve been lucky enough to see the new incarnation of the band play a few times this year, and as their record company continue to push them toward a segment of the music market in which legions of unshaven men write songs about nothing in particular by rote, invoking Beach Boys and Beatles and bulk-blocking studio time in pursuit of dread mid-afternoon festival slot tedium, let’s just say that seeing David up there with a crowd of thousands clapping along, singing “You say you dyed your hair black since you were seventeen / cos it goes well with your eyes so green / well I’m losing my hair and my eyes are blue / and you know how bad I like to be with you!”, and then leaning back to twist the knobs up on his amp for an off-the-cuff guitar solo, just like in the old days, equals… wow, just wow.
Let’s make Herman Dune pop stars in 2008.
Mp3 > When The Water Gets Cold
JESUS LICKS – TERRIBLE BEAUTY (Post Records)
You’ll recall that I wrote a little bit about Jesus Licks in my singles reviews post a few weeks back. What I said about them then still applies, so if you’ll allow me a gratuitous recap;
“The first time I saw [Jesus Licks] play, it struck me that they might have been formed in a remote Welsh valley by the four people in the local area who liked music. As it transpires, they were formed in entirely different circumstances and actually come from proper, big places, like London and so forth, but nonetheless, the feeling is there. I suppose ‘weird folk’ is an appropriate summation of what Jesus Licks do, but it’s a million miles away from the kind of ‘weird folk’ practiced and aspired to by [most of the rather pretentious types involved in such things]. To get a handle on Jesus Licks variety of weird folk, perhaps imagine The Marine Girls taking a holiday to some distant rural locale, and joining forces with their hippie uncles to sit by the riverside and sing odd, quiet songs about highwaymen and sharks and murdering people.”
This is their album, and I really dig it. It features gentle guitar strumming and banjo plucking and minimal percussion and sometimes other things, like violins and melodicas and choirs and echoing noises of uncertain origin, but mainly just high, shaky female voices singing really simple, strange, sinister-yet-comforting songs about stuff. Like Gorkys before them, there’s sometimes a danger of descent into unsavoury quirkiness, but also like Gorkys, they have enough charm and smarts and lovely sounds to win the race, and end up just being good instead. Thirty years from now, end of civilisation permitting, some record geek will be busily ploughing through dusty boxes of unwanted CDs by dodgy Beta Band spin-off groups, and he’ll find a copy of this, and he’ll think “hmm, this looks interesting”, and he’ll play it on his lovingly maintained vintage CD player, and he’ll be like “wow, this is great! What were these guys all about??” And he’ll reissue it on his boutique label, and all the other record geeks will love it too, so why not get in before the rush and buy yourself one now? If you don’t like it, you can sell it for loads of money in 2040.
Mp3 > If I Accidentally Murdered You
JEFFREY LEWIS – 12 CRASS SONGS (Rough Trade)
When I interviewed Jeffrey Lewis for Beard magazine in 2006 and he mentioned he was in the process of recording this album, I thought he was joking. Hearing him play a whole set of Crass covers for the first time at End Of The Road, it sounded like a joke taken too far, and I was not convinced that this was really a good move for anyone concerned. By the time I actually got hold of the album though, things had clicked; I’d seen Jeffrey and his band play an absolutely storming show at the Windmill, and as a bunch of privileged 21st century boho indie kids yelled along with the choruses of ‘I Ain’t Thick’ and ‘Big A, Little a’, the essential righteousness and universality of Crass’s songs, and Jeffrey’s determination to communicate them to an audience beyond aging anarcho-punk lifers hit home hard.
It helps that the album *sounds* so great. This is definitely the most successful and imaginative Lewis record to date in terms of recording and arrangements, from killer acoustic punk/hippie jams on ‘Banned From The Roxy’ and ‘Systematic Death’ to the sprawling, fully realised strings & electronics backing on ‘Where Next Columbus?’ and ‘Demoncrats’. Even if you can’t relate to the agit-prop lyrics and are wary of being lectured to in drowsy NY beatnik monotone for forty minutes, on a musical level this album is a blast, full of charm and energy and invention, and I'd defy anybody who is still uneasy about the concept to emerge from a cursory listen having not enjoyed it. But Crass deserve at least half the credit here for providing the source material, and, as was probably the original intention of the project, their song writing is a revelation. Admittedly, my personal politics tend to veer toward the extreme left already, but still, I’m blown away by the basic righteousness of the lines Crass were lying down here. Although still obviously polemic and somewhat paranoid in their approach, these songs rarely resort to the easy “fuck the system” banalities that I’d always kind of assumed bands like Crass would base their lyrics around. Instead they remain smart and engaging even at their most strident, and their nail-head-hitting ratio is pretty spot on, whilst songs like ‘..Thick’ and ‘..Columbus’ manage to punch home some universal profundity re: individual self-determination and free will vs. societal destiny/responsibility on a level that extends way beyond that of brute political struggle. For all of the ceaseless revolutionary rhetoric, Lewis’s interpretations of these songs make it clear that Crass were intelligent people, that they believed what they believed for a reason, and that they weren’t just pissing around.
As such, it’s interesting yo note that little of the abundant press or blogwrite about this album has really engaged with the politics of the songs. I mean, here’s one of the current generation’s most talented and entertaining songwriters going back to the darkest days of the 1980s to sing to us in no uncertain terms about totalitarian state control, government brainwashing, state-sponsored genocide, the political monopoly of the ‘privileged classes’, systematic police brutality and all the rest of it, and most people seem content to limit their discussion to observations about how ingeniously he bends the songs to his own performance style and emotional range, or to view the whole thing as a post-modern exercise ala The Dirty Projector’s baffling 'reimagining' of Black Flag’s ‘Damaged’..?
Well I don’t have time or space to fully articulate the things which could be said about the reasons behind this album’s existence or why it feels so refreshing and enjoyable, but maybe just pause to consider whether the sidestepping of the politics issue by most of the current musical community maybe says something about why Jeffrey decided it was worth risking his own career and putting in a year’s time, money and effort to bring this album into being.
But whatever. As ’12 Crass Songs’ shoots up a lot more best-of-year lists that any previous Jeff Lewis albums, and antifolk kids around the world sit in dorm rooms trying to work out tabs for ‘Do they Owe Us A Living?’, I think we can probably count this as a roaring success. If I were to pick one album of the year, this would probably be it.
I Ain’t Thick, It’s Just a Trick
Punk Is Dead
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