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Thursday, December 30, 2010
THE FORTY BEST RECORDS OF 2010: Part Five
20. Vapid – Practically Dead (Nominal / Deranged)
And this year’s award for best band that sounds exactly like Bikini Kill goes to…
But seriously folks, I kid - after a disconcerting opening ten seconds that I hope I’m mishearing, Vancouver’s Vapid have an absolute ripper of a furious, depoliticised post-riot grrl punk rock album on the go here.
“The Vancouver new wave scene is tough and raunchy,” claimed a hilarious local TV announcer back in 1979, and clearly such logic applies no less today, as Vapid’s singer announces “hey cunt-hole bitch I’ve come to even the score” within her debut record’s first minute and the band proceed to kick through a set of sub-two minute cuts including “Die”, “Sex Stains”, “Bruises” and “Hate You”. In spite of all appearances though, Vapid are not hardcore – more just amped up, aggressive pop-punk really, somewhat reminiscent of the Avengers, Zeros, Dils etc, all cut through with a ‘90s guitar sound and hectoring vocal delivery that speaks of some serious quality time spent in the company of Kathleen and the girls/boy, Bratmobile, God Is My Co-Pilot and yadda yadda yadda.
Call me a wuss if you like, but whilst the comedy aggro is all good fun, I think the album really hits its stride when Vapid give in to their pop instincts on the second half, letting “So Far Gone”, “Movin’ On” and particularly “Death of Youth” stand out as some of the flat out best songs I’ve heard this year.
I dunno how long these girls and guys have been in the game, but it’s notable I think that many of the best numbers here seem to betray a certain wistful, ‘best is behind us’ vibe that hits pretty hard in combination with propulsive, pogo-worthy tunes. Here’s hoping it’s an approach they’ll find the energy to expand on in future, moreso than settling scores with cunthole bitches. Although that would be fine too.
But seriously guys, “Death of Youth” is something else – one of my picks of the year, for sure.
Mp3> Death of Youth
19. Dignan Porch – Tendrils (Captured Tracks)
Um, another one that’s gonna be hard to write about here, I fear. ‘Dignan Porch’ is a terrible name for a group, but I was drawn to their record because I like the cover so much. I’ve never managed to catch them live, but they are some people, apparently based in London. “Tendrils” sounds like a bunch of beautiful little song-writing demos, the kind that it’s easy to imagine some shit band in the ‘90s would have felt the need to blow up into airless, overproduced four minute full band arrangements, then gone around earnestly trying to convince everyone that they’ve recorded the best album in the world, as the gentle promise of the original demos fades away unheard.
Thankfully though, Dignan Porch are not a shit band from the ‘90s, so, in the free n’ easy world of 2010, we can relax and enjoy the demos. These are primarily realised through the means of a strummed acoustic guitar, over which somebody else plays terrific Barry Melton/J. Mascis-styled decorative electric lead. A fairly agreeable male vocalist sings simple, quiet songs through some nice, woozy Leslie speaker type effects.
I realise this sounds pretty awful, but don’t bail yet.
All of these songs are short – none of them outstay their welcome. A verse, a chorus or two, and they’re out. How refreshing is that from some guys who evidently play acoustic guitars in public places? Furthermore, all of these songs really strong melodies, frequently crossing the line into teen-movie-soundtrack hooks so relentlessly big and shameless that by the half-way point they start to sound almost manipulative.
Such uninhibited pop/rock bullseyeing, in combination with the woozy, Skip Spence / Elevators campfire psych dilated pupil fecklessness of the whole venture, is a combination that works extremely well for me. Sometimes they sound a bit like the shorter, weirder songs from Bee Thousand-era GBV. Sometimes they sound like Alasatair Galbraith’s group, The Rip. Sometimes they remind me of “Naked If We Want To” off the first Moby Grape album. Sometimes they even sound a little bit like Carl Simmons. Mostly though, they sound a bit like an acoustic(ish) Dinosaur Jr, getting high and trying to sound all witchy.
I dunno what any of these songs are s’posed to be about, and I don’t much care. They sound fantastic, and they have a real nice, human feeling to them, and this is a great record.
I wish I hadn’t started throwing that phrase ‘campfire psych’ around all the time. It sounds stupid I know, but it’s just this category I seem to have developed in my head, and I’m at a loss as to how else to file bands like this one, y’know? Suggestions for a better sub-sub-genre label welcomed at the usual address.
Mp3> As You Were
18. The Mantles – Pink Information EP (Mexican Summer)
From November this year:
“This year’s follow-up EP, ‘Pink Information’ on Mexican Summer, sees The Mantles reversing the natural trajectory taken by a lot of groups, stepping back from the ‘dark, sweeping drama’ approach of their LP in favour of a scrappier, more elemental pop angle, somewhat reminiscent of The Clean’s early material – a pretty encouraging turn of events, I’m sure you’d agree.
Happily, the EP also finds the band’s songwriting hitting a whole new level. I mean, what can I tell you – “Cascades” and “Situations” and just some of the most compulsively listenable songs I’ve heard this year, twisting and chugging, dead-pan and sweet and cool and… well, just perfect, really. Perfect in a way you never realised was ‘perfect’ until you heard it. There's a wildness here that there wasn't quite enough of on the LP; that bit just before the end of "Situations", where he exclaims "in the laboratory, the midnight hour..." before aborting the verse and ploughing straight back in a final chorus just blows my mind.
“Lily Never Married” is even better, sounding like one of those songs about unhappy family members and cloudy days that Ray Davies used to stick in the middle of mid-‘60s Kinks albums like morbid cries for help, catapulted back to our attention via a flawless Velvets groove and unbearably simple/poignant chord progression – a sad, humane song, using a few chords, a rhythm, a handful of repeated lyrics, to carry the quiet sorrow of an ordinary, wasted life into a place of real transcendence. “Now she's old / what can you say? / People just don't do / that anymore...”. Fitting those magic notes and words together, like Ray or Lou Reed used to be able to do every now and again. Five minutes passes in the space of, ooh, two and a half, easy. It’s really, really great.
I don’t like the song “Summer Read” quite so much as I used to, since I clocked the title and realised the opening line isn’t “TREAT ME LIKE A SUBMARINE”, but it’s still pretty good.
After some reflection, I think The Mantles are one of the only American “indie-rock” bands – in the sense of being unaffiliated with the conventions and fandom of garage or pop or punk or noise or psych or whatever else – whose output I really care for at present.”
Mp3> Lily Never Married
17. The Specific Heats – Cursed! (Fun With Absetos / Saganism)
Back in August, I wrote this about seein’ The Specific Heats play live:
“Boy, The Specific Heats are an amazing band! I was pretty blown away when I caught them on their visit to the UK last summer, and this time, if anything, I like them even better. They’ve survived a couple of line-up changes since then, and the presence Eric on bass rather undermines my previous assumption that Matt Patalano had deliberately built himself an ultimate rock n’ roll band of pretty ladies to help him bring his songs to the world, but that aside the new recruits fit in seamlessly. The whole deal is still essentially Matt’s baby after all, and he’s on exuberant form here, leaping around like a kid at a birthday party, wringing lunatic stuntman solos from his groovy Ventures guitar. Keira Flynn-Carson still gives the impression of being the happiest drummer on the planet, and the band’s high spirits are pretty contagious as they rip through a good dozen of their more upbeat numbers without a bummer to be seen.
Pulling influences from all over the shelf marked “the last 50 years of pop-infused rock n’ roll”, the ‘Heats combination of ‘60s pop-sike baroque, breathless Sloan/Weezer-style power-pop, surf-rock dynamics and good-natured Nuggets goofery is an exultant expression of high wire walking musical synthesis, and their new LP “Cursed!” is a veritable belter. And if “Baby I’m An Existentialist” ends up sounding almost exactly like “Down & Out” by Camper Van Beethoven, and “All I Want” is The Modern Lovers’ “Someone I Care About” rewritten via The Seeds’ “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine”… well how can this possibly be anything other than a good thing? Originality is overrated.
The term ‘psychedelic pop’ gets thrown around so often these days it’s almost become offputting, [so] it’s fucking great to hear such a strong, funny, talented band stepping up to the plate and just plain OWNING that once noble descriptor. See ‘em, hear ‘em, however you’re able.”
Most of that applies nicely to their long-awaited (in certain quarters) second LP too. This is a really GREAT sounding psyche-pop album, full of delightfully dusty analogue reverbs, slapback echoes, strange drifty mysteries and weird Joe Meek squelches – the sonic equivalent of the paisley that bedecks the cover art. The songs are great and lively, and Matt’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics are funny and goofy and affecting. Anyone out there still looking for ‘that Elephant 6 sound’, but not wishing to suffocate themselves with insufferable beardy boredom: The Specific Heat are waiting.
Mp3> Baby, I’m an Existentialist
16. Wyatt / Atzmon / Stephen - For The Ghosts Within (Domino)
To be honest with you, I’m a small-minded, rock n’ roll-fixated jerk, and as such it is extremely unlikely that I would be found checking out the work of Palestinian saxophonist Gilad Atzmon or composer/string arranger Ros Stephen were it not for the unmistakable presence brought to this collaborative album by Robert Wyatt.
I suppose that one of the things that has most defined Wyatt’s career over the years has been the conflict between musical avant-gardism and old fashioned sentimentality – a conflict which has resolved itself in his best work not through compromise but through a beautiful kind of synthesis – music that strives for universal relevance, basic human connection, through new, open-ended means. And if the chasm between comfort and innovation on “For The Ghosts Within” is at times a little more uncomfortable than it was on Wyatt’s masterful “ComicOpera”, well it is a no less intriguing and enjoyable work for it, and it is certainly nice to hear Wyatt letting his metaphorical hair down, using the collaborative setting to indulge some of his more… well if I say ‘comfortable’, ‘sentimental’ urges, those sound like fairly negative distinctions within the parlance of modern music-scribble, but I certainly don’t mean them at such.
At the risk of making undue generalisations, both Atzmon and Stephen would seem to be quite backward-looking artists, though again, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. The former, as showcased here, sounds like a dedicated disciple of (oxymoron alert) classic-era modern jazz, his highly lyrical playing recalling the weighty tone and incandescent emotion of early ‘60s Miles, or Coltrane on his slower numbers. Stephen’s string arrangements meanwhile, though never corny or overblown, can’t help but recall the rich, sweeping scores of a ‘quality’ 1950s film, zeroing in on, say, the kind of aching theme one might expect to accompany a lady being quietly heartbroken, exiting a Paris café against a beautifully photographed black & white sky.
Appropriate to this inviting old world atmosphere, Wyatt finally grasps the nettle and gives in to his perhaps long-standing desire to full scale Chet Baker, bringing his own characteristically idiosyncratic interpretation to a variety of ‘classic’ tunes. Of course, Wyatt is the kind of man who could sing the phonebook and invest it with a unique pathos (in fact he probably has done at some point in his career), so to hear him apply his himself to such old warhorses as Raskin/Mercer’s “Laura” or Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”, accompanied by Atzmon & Stephen’s cooked-to-perfection backing, is a plainly beautiful experience. Cutting through decades of accumulated schmaltz like the proverbial knife through butter, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any genuine lover of 20th century song who is not touched by hearing Wyatt’s voice wrapped around these storied words, whilst even his extra-vocal contributions to instrumental standards “Round Midnight” and “In A Sentimental Mood” manage to help raise their original potent spirit above the parapets of dinner-jazz monotony. In an achievement perhaps only equalled in recent history by Joey Ramone himself, Wyatt and co. actually manage to close the album by delivering “What A Wonderful World” straight-faced, and getting away with it… just about.
This being essentially a Wyatt record though, some more challenging, personal content is clearly needed/expected, and indeed the album’s overall highlight is probably “Lullaby For Lena”, a beautiful new song that sees Wyatt singing a set of simple, almost subliminal lyrics composed by his wife Alfie – “I was there for you / long before the day that I was born” . It is heart-stoppingly beautiful, standing alongside the very best moments from Wyatt’s solo albums.
Our man’s unflagging dedication to both experimentalism and political consciousness meanwhile is borne out in both the album’s thematic dedication to displaced peoples the world over, and the lengthy and somewhat confounding title track, which sees its cool, desert supper-club atmospherics and strident guest vocal from Tali Atzmon rudely interrupted when it segues into the next cut, where a volley of weird dixieland flourishes and faux-gramophone atmospherics from Atzmon is cut short by the break-beatin’ arrival of a pair of Palestinian rappers. Whilst the whole suite stands firm as a solid-as-fuck statement of political intent, it sadly must be said that these guys ain’t exactly the Wu-Tang Clan, and that their unexpected presence only really succeeds in standing out like a sore thumb amid this album’s polished musical world. One to chalk up as a ‘noble failure’ perhaps, but it has succeeded on numerous occasions in jerking me out of the wine-sipping late night reverie inspired by the familiar, upholstered surfaces of the rest of the album – and isn’t it exactly this kind of odd clash of moods, style, genre, nationalities, expectations, this search for a wholly borderless, universal new music, that has helped to define Robert Wyatt as one of the most consistently inspired musicians of his generation or any other?
Sunday, December 26, 2010
THE FORTY BEST RECORDS OF 2010: Part Four
25. Nice Face – Immer Etwas (Sacred Bones)
Mid-way through this year, I was thinking about the kind of sound I wanted to develop my bedroom space-punk recording project thingy into. I had some ideas for a very particular kind of heavily-effected, mechanized racket that I wanted to make. Then I got hold of this Nice Face album, and I was like, damn, this asshole has the whole thing nailed down already.
Dunno anything about where this guy’s coming from, where he’s going, but I do know that the frantic, reverb-engulfed, violent pop found on “Immer Etwas” is some of the most kick-ass home-recorded stuff I’ve heard this year. Squelchy keyboard hooks, digitally-distorted guitars, great use of effects (just about the RIGHT amount of everything). Songs are all crazy-eyed, mutant new wave hits, like the boiled down remnants of The Knack and Iggy’s “The Idiot” being fused into a hideous bloody mess in some vat of radioactive transistor radio goo - just the kind of troubled tunes one might expect to hear on the stereo when driving an armoured taxi through the streets of future-New York in an ‘80s post-apocalyptic movie. Good shit!
Uh, yeah, I don’t have much more to say about this – in a few years it’ll sound very much ‘of its time’ I guess, but in 2010 it really hit the spot. The LP looks really cool, but the CD has lots of extra tunes so, y’know, choose wisely.
Mp3> Situation Is Facing Utter Annihilation
24. Frankie Rose & The Outs – s/t (Memphis Industries)
If nothing on Frankie Rose’s first feature length outing as band leader/song-writer can compare to the majesty of “Where Do You Run To”, this album is nonetheless a real grower, and a surprising and ambitious effort really, given the easy action the various groups she’s drummed for have attracted simply through the means of sloppy C86ish noise-pop. Of eleven tracks here, only a handful - “Candy”, “Girlfriend Island”, “Don’t Tred” – really attempt to follow the Black Tambourine / Shop Assistants jangle-punk formula that many might have assumed would predominate on a Frankie Rose solo record. As to the rest, what we’re essentially looking at here is an extension of the rather beguiling b-side of her Slumberland 45 – a kind of elegant, 4AD-indebted shoegaze, liberally draping some of those old ‘gossamer webs of sound’ across the back of skeletal, barely there melodies, with generally pretty lovely results.
Indeed, that aforementioned b-side, “Hollow Life” is the opener here, re-recorded in longer form I think (tho I could be mistaken). Writing about it way back in November ’09, I got a bit carried away, proclaiming it, ahem - “..an absolutely exquisite snapshot of a Bout de Souffle bedroom scene eternal now, vast faux-cathedral organ tones and distant guitar-drift making a bed for Frankie’s oh-so-delicate voice. Like “I’ll Be Your Mirror” medicated to the point of total bliss-out, it’s exactly the sound I want to hear last thing before I go to sleep, gently rising to a Cocteaus-y grandeur in, like, ninety seconds, then falling away to nothing.” And, a year and a bit later, hopefully that can stand as pretty good description of the album as a whole.
Vital to the record’s success is the fact that it is a very good recording in the conventional sense, heavily reliant upon its careful and clear sound, its reliance on lovely analogue echo, its gentle vintage organ sounds,gentle, decaying chords, and so forth. If “Little Brown Haired Girls” sounds a bit like a Dum Dum Girls cut reconfigured for a phantasmagorical regency ballroom, and the wordless, crashing fuzz of “That’s What People Told Me” could be Vivian Girls rewriting The Chills’ “Purple Girl”, well, that’s probably about as far as such comparisons can be taken, and, well… doesn’t that basically sound GREAT?
Based on sound and feel alone, this record would be an instant classic. It’s a beautiful listen. What’s keeping it back here #24 here rather than #3 though, is, bluntly, song-writing, or lack thereof. While the majesterial sound here is the kind that tends to work well when it comes to letting tracks that consist of little more than a simple chord progression and some chanted “la la la”s drift by pleasantly enough, I can’t help but imagine how brilliant they each mighta been with, uh, y’know, lyrics and stuff. Verses, choruses, emotional engagement. The stuff that helped make “Where Do You Run To” so out of this world, even as a garageband demo.
Mp3> Little Brown-Haired Girls
23. Dead Meadow – Three Kings (Xemu)
There comes a time in every band’s life, when a gatefold double LP ‘greatest hits live plus new studio cuts’ set accompanied by a feature length concert footage/fantasy odyssey movie modelled after Led Zep’s “Song Remains The Same”, featuring cover art that sees the band enthroned like decadent rock n’ roll wizards, their groovy analogue equipment collection spread out before them across a verdant hillside, is the only way to go.
Of course, the difference is, Led Zep had the money and global following that allowed them to indulge such ludicrous conceits with a straight face. Dead Meadow, presumably, do not. Which as a long-term fan of the group, make me all the more keen to laugh loud and support them in their elaborate whimsy.
The movie, of course, is pretty stoned and pointless, squandering the potential for a Jodorowskian psychedelic mindfuck on some unexciting concert footage and vague, faux-symbolist music video tomfoolery… but I was happy enough with it. I mean, I wasn’t really expecting much else. It almost would have spoiled the gag if it was really good, wouldn’t it?
It did bug me however that I couldn’t hear Steve Kille’s bass on the soundtrack, like, *at all* - a factor which is obviously somewhat detrimental to the enjoyment of eighty-odd minutes of low-end heavy power trio rock. Partially, this can be blamed on the crappy speakers on my cheapest-one-in-the-shop TV, and indeed, the bass was audible when I played the LPs, but still not mixed high enough for my liking - a circumstance that is perplexing given that Kille takes sole production credit here. Also somewhat of a bummer is Jason Simon’s voice – never the band’s strong suit – which is heard here completely clean, and unsettlingly high in the mix, his throaty, tour-hardened, off-key bark a world away from the reverbed & phased tones that used to meander through the band’s older records like a gentle stream. I realise that a touring band aren’t able to achieve a perfectly lovely, otherworldly vocal mix every night, but for the recording of a live album, it… well it might have been a good idea to sort that shit out before it went and harshed everyone’s perfect Dead Meadow mellow, that’s all I’m sayin’.
Anyway, production gripes aside, I’m happy to be able to report that performance-wise, Dead Meadow are at the top of their game here, with the particular brand of well-honed hard rock telepathy that makes them such a killer live band much in evidence. Drums crashing by like the tides of the ocean, bass standing solid like the rocks as the waves hit, guitar spiralling off like a boat fulla warriors, off on some distant adventure - if you’ve heard the band before, well it’s the same old shit, (I think I’ve even done that metaphor before), but when you love it as much as I do, it never gets old. As heard here, “Til Kingdom Come”s Immigrant Song-esque tale of ocean-going pilgrims flat-out slays the version found on the lacklustre “Old Growth” album, and “At Her Open Door” and “The Whirlings” have never before spun and spluttered and screamed they way they do here. Psychedelic rock, the way it’s supposed to be done.
Change moves slowly in Dead Meadowland, and the very fact that they don’t end this set with a fourteen minute “Sleepy Silver Door” can be taken as a shocking and daring break from tradition. I didn’t mean to sound grumpy moaning about the production and stuff earlier on – hearing Dead Meadow on form in 2010, dropping heavy, hazy shit like this, is all the reward a humble fan could ask for. Maybe next time they’re in town I can score drugs for them and introduce them to loose chicks and… huh, what year did I say it was again?
Mp3> Til Kingdom Come
22. Dead Luke – American Haircut (Florida’s Dying)
More deliciously nasty homemade campfire psyche twaddle, bubbling up on this occasion from some unspecified location in the South Eastern USA. Like the Haunted Houses tape, I really like this one a whole lot, but it’s difficult to quite put my finger on why. Unlike the Haunted Houses tape, it’s quite varied, spread across nine long-ish tracks, each slightly different from the last, all rich in, uh, ‘aural interest’.
“Dreaming, Pt.3” has a kind of ritualistic, unheimlich stomp to it, reminiscent of Sylvester Anfang II, while “Luke Is Not Dead” is more of long-lost mutant guitar-blues effort, with a sorta rhythmless Velvets chug, like a mid-60s Lou and Sterl lost in the woods communing with witches. “Sunrise” and “Acid Forest” could nicely soundtrack the acid trip / blood sacrifice scene in some regionally produced early ‘70s hippie witchcraft shocker, complete with somebody banging away inexpertly on the sitar and webs of gnarled old feedback growl, but then “Lil Red Riding Hood” is back on the transcendent weirdo blues tip. The central riff and melody of “You’re Bringing Me Down” sound an awful lot like “Snowblind” by Judy Henske and Jerry Yester, I’m sure you’ll all be shocked to hear. It’s good though, and turns into a great delay pedal shredding drone in its final minute.
The one unifying element behind all this is the presence, in some form or other, of a voice whose slow, unsettling snarl seems to be drawing from the same well as Greg Ashley on the darker Gris Gris material, an influence that also seems to trickle down into the song-writing in places – the aforementioned “Lil Red Riding Hood” could’ve been pulled straight off “Medicine Fuck Dream”.
What more d’you expect me to say? I don’t know a damn thing about this record, but I find it very satisfying and comfortable listening. It sounds like the work of some cool and inspired people, and it suits my morbid proclivities perfectly.
“Backwoods campfire psyche revival” sounds like about the most unpromising phrase I’ve ever typed, but between this, Dignan Porch, Florida, Irma Vep and Purling Hiss’s “Public Service Announcement”, it seems to be creeping up on us regardless, sounding more spirited than we ever could’ve guessed.
Mp3> Luke is Not Dead
21. Hype Williams – untitled LP (no label)
Live review from August this year:
“There is something compelling about what they do that’s hard to quite define at a time when so many faceless acts seem to be groping around in the same closet without a flashlight, but I’m gonna take a leap of faith and say that the way Hype Williams do business essentially reminds me of Boards Of Canada. Although wisely bypassing the rotting carcass of ‘90s ‘IDM’ that lurks always beneath those Boards, they’ve got that same winning mixture of insistent pulse, rich, inviting melody and darkly unsettling undertones; garbled voices, melted ghosts of pop hits, crying children marching over the hill in the distance. It draws you in, it keeps you sedated with increasingly familiar games of fuzzy-headed audio-nostalgia, and it’s only then that you notice the nasty tricks, the sudden lurching stabs into the unknown. Very good stuff indeed. Friends with whom I was earnestly discussing what a dead end live electronica can be can be half an hour ago are now head-nodding, happily entranced as the duo crouch over their gear on-stage, if you’re willing to take that as any barometer of quality.”
So I’ll level with ya, when I bought a copy of this, the scribbled label on the merch table said “Hype Williams LP, £10”. That aside, the record is completely anonymous, guaranteed to confound Music & Video Exchange clerks and senile record collectors for years to come. Anyway, since the label said “LP”, the first few times I spun this, I did so at 33, and was mightily impressed by it’s hazy, slurred voices and cough syrup n’ weed nightmare dub atmospherics. Then I thought, hang on a minute. Sure enough, it sounds even better at 45, the vocal samples coherent and all the more unsettling for it, and the music brighter, stranger and more varied, percussion sounds and shaky guitar/key riffs hitting off at what sounds like the speed they were played at. Great! Obviously this is a 12” guys, not an LP. Duh. Then, earlier this week, I noticed it was approaching time to write this review, but I’m down at my mum’s house for xmas sans record or turntable, so I thought I’d see if I could find a quick download to refresh my memory. So I did that, and…. the mp3s are ripped at 33. So you see my dilemma: which one to review?
At 45, the chief point of note is that these recordings reveal Hype Williams to be far less of an electronic/sample based outfit than was suggested by their live show, with most of the music based around what sound like scrappy basement psyche jams, cut with odd, verite spoken word samples and heavily treated radio pop samples creeping in and out of the mix (a woman screams, a nervous-sounding home counties vicar discusses the Ark of the Covenenant, claiming “..the power of god was resting within that tabernacle” and suggesting “..putting a musical box inside it..”, before recommending “a dose of good, old fashioned hellfire preaching” to all and sundry). This approach, it should be noted, is very much in keeping with that taken on their earlier “High Beams” EP.
At 33 meanwhile, Hype Williams do indeed sound like a kind of evil Boards of Canada, hiding screaming children behind a grim, headnodding miasma of chopped n’ screwed electronics. This is very much in keeping with the kind of stuff they were doing in their live performance.
As previously noted, I have my concerns about this kind of sound ultimately becoming little more than a 21st century reiteration of the horrors of ‘trip-hop’. But at either speed, Hype Williams are certainly doing a lot to nullify my fears through the generous application of imagination, sonic depth and good old fashioned weirdness. Find yourself a copy and take yr choice.
Mp3> Untitled # 6
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
THE FORTY BEST RECORDS OF 2010: Part Three
30. Best Coast – Crazy For You
Let’s begin this review by saying that I think Bethany Cosentino writes fantastic pop songs, and that I like Best Coast’s big, fuzzy, shimmy double-guitar sound a whole lot, and that I was really, really looking forward to their debut LP. Let’s continue it by saying that despite all that, “Crazy For You” proved pretty difficult to love.
Best put it this way, I think: it’s very easy for a song-writer to listen to Jonathan Richman or Neil Young or whoever, and think, alright, I’m gonna write songs about exactly how I feel at this very minute - that’s honesty and integrity right there, and fuck ‘em if they don’t like it, etc. Until a few years ago, I’d certainly have told you that that’s what it’s all about. But the big crux is – not everybody is Jonathan Richman or Neil Young or whoever, and not everybody can make every emotional hiccup sound as urgent as they can. It’s a hard mark to hit, and if you miss it and lose the listener’s sympathy, well there’s only so far a good sound and a gift for melody can take you.
The opening ten seconds of every song on this record sounds brilliant, but, well, k’know… track one here, Bethany sings about some guy she wishes was her boyfriend and how she wishes he’d pay her more attention. Track two, she sings about how he’s a bit of a pain in the ass, but she can’t function without him cos he’s just so sweet. Track three, she’s bummed out cos he says they’re ‘just friends’. Track four she’s sitting around at home being miserable cos he’s not around, track five is a slow one and kinda ditto. Track six she’s sad cos he lied to her and never tells her how he feels, track seven she just sings “I miss you so much” again and again in this awful, pleading monotone, then it speeds up and gets cool for about thirty seconds. Track eight, she apologies for losing his favourite t-shirt, misses him and promises not to be “such a brat”. By track nine, you’re just thinking OH WOULD YOU JUST FORGET ABOUT HIM AND GET OVER IT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, HE SOUNDS LIKE A JERK ANYHOW.
(Whilst we’re on the subject, it really bugged me that lots of critics picked out the verse that goes “I lost my job / I miss my mom / I wish my cat could talk” – I think that’s about the best and most likeable bit on the whole record! Cut her some slack guys, sheesh, this isn’t a fucking Joanna Newsom record.)
Obviously there is nothing wrong with people writing songs about their own feelings and experiences and yadda yadda yadda, but this kind of needy, unedited hand-wringing is just not very becoming on anyone. I guess the feelings expressed must be real, and I guess that’s sad, but five different mid-tempo three chord songs with variations on “I miss you, I need you” as their chorus line do not need to be heard all over the world and played in concert every night.
To repeat: I think Cosentino Is an amazing song-writer. I think “Something In The Way” and “Wish He Was You” and “When I’m With You” are some of the most sublime pop songs of the modern era. Every song here has the potential to join them, but a bad case of the grumps has gotten in the way, and that’s a drag.
You should maybe give this one a go anyway though if you liked the singles, cos it’s still a pretty good listen – it sounds a bit like Weezer with girls and no bass, I guess. It’s fuzzy and easy-going and whizzes by nicely. But it should have been spectacular.
29. The Rantouls – In The Village of Rantoul (Chocolate Covered Records)
Every year needs one dumb-ass, ramshackle bubblegum album for use in drooling and grinning and dancing around in obsolete swimwear and over-sized sombreros. Hell, every year needs a pile of ‘em, but whatcha gonna do. For now The Rantouls will do nicely.
Often, modern ‘bubblegum’ of garage origin will be of a decidedly mixed vintage, wantonly throwing in power-pop and punk-pop and what-have-you. All well and good, but The Rantouls sail on purer waters, relentless in their pursuit of that Buddah Records / 1910 Fruitgum Company / Gentrys sweet spot. Three chord guitar/bass/drums music in which no melody is too obvious, no lyric too simplistic, no sugared up Bo Diddley/Archies steal too shameless. Music that steadfastly refuses to allow entry to even the tiniest, teeniest bit of ‘rock’ or its attendant macho moroseness.
This is a formula that can easily get ad-jingle throwaway, can seem like a joke even, when executed by those not fully committed to the material. The Rantouls though are believers, outlining their faith in no uncertain terms on this LP’s title track, during which they promise to take us across the seas to a land where “you just do what you want to do / the kids don’t go to school” and “everybody knows / you don’t even have to wear any clothes”. And take us there they do, in purely musical form at least, singing of chewin’ bubblegumbo, cuddling up, drinking from a little brown jug, flying in a hot air balloon and a little girl with an Indian drum. Ten songs, twenty minutes. That’s the way we like it! Chug-a-lug!
Mp3> Cuddle Up
28. Topaz Rags – Capricorn Born Again (Not Not Fun)
The second of a supremely unlikely THREE Pocahaunted side/successor projects to appear on this list, Topaz Rags use this LP to expand most satisfactorily on the strange and enticing sound explored on their earlier singles. Broadly speaking, this involves mixing the wordless vocal chants and head-nodding grooves of Poca-h with an approach that sees the vocals reduced to a almost subliminal role and favours acoustic(ish) instrumental interplay over psych/noise/blare, additionally incorporating with what I can only describe as a strong ‘LA noir’ vibe. Y’know: sinister late night jazz, Anger/Manson occult overtones, haunted Lynchian sprawl; candles burning in dark basement rooms as the sunshine blasts menacingly outside. All that stuff.
In the wrong hands – most hands - such preoccupations would lead to kitsch at best, idiocy at worst, but Topaz Rags are good at keeping things balanced, keeping their hand hidden, keeping their heads down. Carefully avoiding any big ‘signifier’ sounds, piano, bass and swooshed cymbals drive these songs forward with a gentle, trance-like sense of gradually evolving repetition, reminding me somewhat of Australian ambient/improv trio The Necks (a group whose work I like *a lot*, although I’ve somehow managed to go six years on this blog without mentioning the fact), if ever they were to start recording short, spooky songs with witchy vocialists instead of hour long sound-drifts. The simple, repeating figures here have a fiendish, comforting quality to them - like drifting off to sleep when you know you’ve got to keep watch to save your skin - and lengthy closer “Mind Power” in particular is a bone fide flesh-creeper. Occasional dub echoes or reverb gulches may intervene from time to time, but this is something quite, quite different from either the established psyche/noise scene that Not Not Fun and Pocahaunted grew out of, or from the more “witch house” friendly aesthetic of LA Vampires or Psychic Reality.
Working in a field in which the default methodology has long been to plug in all the pedals and let rip at length, the restraint and attention to detail evident in Topaz Rags’ music is extremely effective, the results beautifully chilling, exuding the kind of atmosphere you could cut with a knife. A ceremonial one, preferably. More than any other outfit around at the moment, this band are taking the whole psyche/drone/creep-core aesthetic to some strange and fascinating new places, and for that we must thank them.
27. Rolo Tomassi – Cosmology (Hassle Records)
Whilst I have endless admiration for Rolo Tomassi’s obvious talent and ambition, the impetuous, hand-break-turn nature of their earlier recordings frustrated me somewhat. This new one though (second LP proper, I think) finds them finally figuring out how to combine their disparate influences into something that sticks – namely a thunderous mixture of thrash metal, screamo post-hardcore and cosmic synth-prog excursions that sets out to knock you to the ground and keep you there for the duration, rather than having you scratching your head every thrity seconds, wondering what the fuck’s going on.
The quiet, ‘spacey’ passages have at last been convincingly incorporated into the metal-core song structures that surround them, and the clean vocal melodies work in tandem with the unhinged screaming. Hearing the two strains merge into a fully-formed, multi-limbed beast on album highlight “Kasia” is little short of awe-inspiring. ‘Big Metal Moment’ of the year for me I think!
Eva Spence’s vocals are, as ever, astonishing – perhaps the pre-eminent example of a woman fearlessly taking on the mantle of post-Napalm Death/Mayhem ‘vo-kills’, with visceral, spine-tingling and, uh, AWESOME results, her mid-song transitions from wounded werewolf to queen-of-Venus space diva are, uh, enough to break down my limited vocabulary for such things, so let’s just say MORE AWESOME.
Joe Nicholson’s guitars have riffs to spare, with a clean, treble-heavy thrash sound that cuts through like a guillotine, and James Spence’s keyboard odysseys (always the big divisive factor on earlier releases) really come into their own here too, full of otherworldy ‘Plant Caravan’ luminescence and sweeping analogue drama. So, uh, yeah – awesome.
In other news, this album was apparently produced by that Diplo guy. I dunno what he’s all about, or what he brought to the table, but he does an alright job if I’m any judge. The sound is perhaps a bit too clean and high-end for my liking, lacking the overdriven throb and chaotic murk I prefer my metal coated in, butat the same time it is hard to deny that it suits the band’s star-gazing, prog-damaged intent perfectly, and hey, if you’re gonna compete with the bad boys in the thrash stakes, you gotta keep it squeaky clean, subject to clear, digital daylight, however much grind and punk is still lurking in the mix. A few moments here and there take an unwise lurch in the direction of ‘emo’ (2003 definition), particularly when the guys sing, but that aside, this record is an avalanche of awesome and Rolo Tomassi’s best to date for my money.
Mp3> French Motel
26. The White Wires – WWII (Dirtnap)
Hey, you know what would have made the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ movie about ten times better? If they’d got Ottawa’s White Wires to do the music for it! Seriously, check out some their silly videos on youtube – they’ve got that Sex Bob-omb vibe down perfectly. They sound exactly like the music sounded in my head when I was reading the comic book. And they’re even from Canada for christssake.
Perfect, utilitarian heart on sleeve punk-power-pop reigns supreme across the entirety of this second album by ‘em, and it’s the kinda stuff I always love. The constant sugar rush of “WWII” may lead to hyperglycaemia or headaches if experienced in one sitting, but for four or five song bursts, played loud, it will get you where you’re going in double-time with a big idiot grin on yr face.
I love the bouncy, heart-on-sleeve energy, and the relentless 1-2, 1-1-2 drumming and chk-chk-chk-chk-chking hi-hats and the big, fuzzy bass sound and the breakin’ the speed limit barre chord guitar. I love how they have lots of songs that have the same name as more famous songs (“Let’s Go To The Beach”, “Roxanne”, “Be True To Your School”, “Bye Bye Baby”), but aren’t them. It’s great. It does its job. I love it. What more can I say? This is not exactly the kinda music that invites in-depth criticism – just another happy bulletin from the land where it’s always summer and “Rocket To Russia” is the king.
Anyway, long story short, I guess they got Beck instead cos they had money to waste and he cost more. What can ya say, life sucks.
Mp3> Be True To Your School (‘til You Get Kicked Out)
Saturday, December 18, 2010
High Voltage Man Kisses Night:
A Deathblog for Captain Beefheart
What a week – first Jean Rollin, now this. A bad few days for artists who pursued their unique visions about as far as is humanly possible irrespective of the rules governing their chosen form. In both cases, it strikes me that these were men who realised their creations not through the conventional means of deliberate thought, imagination and hard work, but simply because their particular inspiration tumbled out of them so strongly, they were incapable of not realising them.
Rarely has the phrase “we will not see his like again” seemed so massively appropriate twice within the space of a few days.
What could I possibly find to say about Don Van Vliet that wouldn’t sound hackneyed, obvious or absurd? Well I tell you what, let’s take a trip through some of my favourite moments of Beefheart-age, and maybe we can figure something out along the way…
Imagine hearing this in 1966! God knows, it still sounds pretty “what the fuck was THAT?!” the best part of fifty years later. Just a stunning, unprecedented record in every respect. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d swear blind that no rock band couldn’t possibly have recorded something like this before about the late ‘70s. It must have been a particularly alarming revelation, or so I should imagine, for the handful of innocent French people in the famous video linked above, who’d presumably just wandered down to the beach for a swim or whatever.
I remember reading somewhere or other that The Captain got a lot of shit off some people for using a theremin on the recorded version of this tune, an addition which was thought to be ‘silly’. SILLY? I’d like to have a record of those same people’s reactions to what transpired a few years later.
The rougher live version of the song embedded above is particularly useful in demonstrating the fact that “Electricity”, like just about every other song on “Safe As Milk”, has a terrifying wrecking ball dance floor swing behind it - something that the later, more experimental, incarnations of The Magic Band sadly lost as they transformed from a somewhat eccentric example of a working club band into a fully-fledged counter-cultural ‘freak act’. An observation which leads us neatly on to…
Fuck, I love this tune. Probably one of the most musically simplistic numbers ever recorded by an incarnation of The Magic Band, perhaps it’s very minimalism is the reason it’s ghost seems to pop up unheeded beneath the grime of a million subsequent garage/punk/hard rock thud-fests… that and the fact it grooves like a fucking bastard, I suppose. “You love her, ADAPT ‘er, ADAPTER ADAPTER, but whatabout afterthat?” – John Lee Hooker goes to hell.
I think it’s probably about a decade since I bought a copy of “Trout Mask Replica” – hoovered up back when I was hitting HMV sales, grabbing anything and everything that the pre/post-punk-centric music press tastemakers of the day decreed that I might wanna check out. I’ve listened to it on and off on a pretty much continuous basis since then, and I still don’t feel as if I’ve pexplored even a fraction of its mysteries.
“Trout Mask..” would be one of my first choices for a ‘desert island album’ I think. Not because it’s one of my favourites, but just because any one quarter of it’s vast sprawl contains enough compressed information and crazed inspiration to last a regular person a whole lifetime.
More than any other record in the, er, ‘rock canon’, internalising “Trout Mask..” is a long and gruelling process. The first obstacle that must be overcome is the common misconception that this album is primarily a load of hat-wearing, hurdy-gurdyin’ Tom Waitsian bullshit. It may initially sound like that on the surface, and indeed many (most?) Beefheart fans are harvested from those who are drawn to his work by the overriding, ostentatious “weirdness” of the whole venture. But that is not what “Trout Mask..” is about. I’m not usually one to tell people how they should or shouldn’t listen to music, but please: if you count yourself as a Beefheart fan because he has weird outfits and facial hair and sings songs called stuff like “Tropical Hot Dog Night” in a crazy blooz voice with parping horns and weird, undanceable time signatures then GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL. No not pass Go, and do not collect £200. Maybe you will meet that band Man Man there – I’m sure they’re still making records you might enjoy.
Sure, there is an element of that kind of pastiche that creeps in at times, and I could live a perfectly happy life if I never had to sit through “Hobo Chang Ba” again, but the clear-eyed, spinning genus of “Trout Mask..” lies in the way that it reveals itself to be the exact opposite of what the ostentatious weirdness contingent assume it to be. Rather than being deliberately strange and obtuse and alien-sounding for the purposes of differentiating itself from ‘regular’ society and giving self-defined ‘freaks’ some kind of horrendous-sounding exclusionary shit they can hang their silly-looking hats on, Beefheart’s songs from this period are in fact almost always extremely direct, even earnest, in their emotional intent – pure communication, unfettered by the impressionistic short-cuts and simplifications usually employed in song-writing. They are mundane and rational responses to the experience of living in an insane and overwhelmingly beautiful world – daring attempts to invest ‘singer & backing band’ popular music with the same powers of direct expression that Parker and Coltrane brought to instrumental jazz. And more to the point, frighteningly successful attempts that no one has ever dared try to repeat.
Just listen to “Frownland”, perhaps my favourite track on the whole of “Trout Mask..”, in which Beefheart seems to take on the role of a hen-pecked husband, escaped from the clutches of his partner and/or society’s “frownland”, merrily crashing through the undergrowth, dreaming of the land where “man can stand by another man without an ego-le flying”, and no doubt where he can carouse with Ella Guru and Big Joan too.
A minor piece maybe in light of what follows, but a group of musicians could practice for a thousand years and not manage to repeat the kind of precision un-collapse The Magic Band are doing here.
It is simply incredible.
Orange Claw Hammer
Not the album version, this a radio session thing with Frank Zappa playing guitar (and actually doing a good job - keeping it in his pants for once). I’m pretty sure this is actually the first Beefheart track I ever heard – on an NME covermount CD, if you can believe that. I used to listen to it a lot, and no wonder – it’s really great. The a-cappella album version gets a bit much, but re-cast as a sort of guitar n’ vocals folk odyssey, it is endlessly enjoyable, this strange hyper-imaginative tale of a pegleg father traversing a phantasmagorical silent era cartoon/acid trip landscape to buy his lost daughter a cherry phosphate. It is a testament to Beefheart’s genius I think that he manages to sing about being “shanghaied by hi-hat beaver moustache man, and his pirate friend”, and not only makes you refrain from turning the song off in disgust at such lunatic blather, but actually sounds like he knows exactly what the fuck he’s talking about, and communicates to us well the significance this wild and unfortunate happenstance. How many times did Jeff Mangum listen to this recording as an idle youth, I wonder…
Much has been said by this point to undermine Don Van Vliet’s oft-repeated claim that he personally composed every single note on “Trout Mask Replica”. Certainly, John ‘Drumbo’ French’s contention that the band practiced obsessively without Van Vliet, spinning endless jams into what became the songs on the albums, inspired only by occasional surrealistic demands and stylistic suggestions from the Captain, who would then fit his words around the music accordingly, seems a lot more convincing. But even so, this should not denigrate in any sense the genius of Van Vliet’s central role in the creation of this music, of his corralling the talent of the musicians into the form of something completely new. Even assuming he did just blurt out his lyrics over the top on impulse, the lightning speed combinations of words and music on the album are nothing short of telepathic in their precision. What may initially sound like chaos reveals hidden meanings, endless collisions of imagery and mood that speak of a near insane attention to detail.
And the Captain’s words are simply breathtaking on this album – again, there’s nothing I can say to communicate their overall effect. If you can get all the aforementioned hurdy-gurdyness out of your system, then I think the stretch from “Pachuco Cadaver” through to “Human Gets Me Blues” can be seen to represent to represent some kind of utter apotheosis of beat poetry / free jazz inspired expression.
And it’s all so funny, and so joyous and absurdly horny too – every time I listen, some new line knocks me sideways, makes me laugh out loud. (“Here she comes walking / looking like a zoo”, “Her lovin’ make me so happy / if I smile I’ll crack my chin”, “her skin as smooth as a daisy / her teeth as clean as holes where the bees go in”).
I Love You You Big Dummy
Lo Yo Yo Stuff
Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man
As every fool know, “Lick My Decals Off Baby” and “Clear Spot” are freakin’ incredible albums too, even if I’m too exhausted by this point to really say much about them.
A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To a Diamond
Counter to what I said earlier about The Captain’s lack of compositional involvement in “Trout Mask..”, let it be said that some of my favourite tracks on the latter day Beefheart albums are the short, idiosyncratic, carefully structured instrumentals like this one.
I don’t know where you’d choose to file something like this if it stood alone from the more conventionally Beefheartian stuff on “Doc at the Radar Station”, but hopefully we can at least agree that it’s absolutely lovely.
Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments For Guitar Players
Ok, so clearly not a song as such, but this little internet perennial never ceases to amaze. Stuff like rule #9 is such a perfect example of unique, sideways thought patterns that inform Beefheart’s music. I mean, it just makes so much sense on a purely instinctive level, y’know? I always feel kinda bad for my guitar for not following that rule, crazy as it may seem. Like, on some level I’m sure it would benefit both of us if I put put in the effort to keep it comfortable.
I entirely respect and understand his ‘pressure cooker’ theory of hat-wearing too, for the record, and can see how essential such a method is to extracting pure Beefheartian fervour from a musician, even if my own preferred conception of musicianship favours the lazier, more relaxed and free-flowing pleasures of the uncovered head.
The rule about the ‘church key’ is great too. I use that phrase all the time (in my head).
My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains
For all I’ve said above, this is probably my favourite Beefheart song. Such a simple, elegant, cosmic love song and hymn to the imagination. Ah Captain, ya big softy. Every time I put on “Clear Spot”, either this one or “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” makes me shed a tear.
Think of it as your reward for getting to the end of this post – well done everybody.
So long Don, and may your spirit live long.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
THE FORTY BEST RECORDS OF 2010: Part Two
35. Circle Pit – Bruise Constellation
Male/female guitar/drums duo from New South Wales, making optimum use of two people and base-line recording tech to heft a sleazoid, faux-biker rock sound toward the heavens. Royal Trux must of course be heavily implicated in the absurd aesthetic sins being wrought here, but Neil & Jennifer’s Rolling Stones fetish and bloody-minded slop is exchanged here for a sleeker, tidier outer shell of dense overdubs, and a record collection birthed from the detritus of lost grunger millionaires rather than ‘70s cokehead millionaires.
In all seriousness, the “I’m a bad-ass dude from the 90s / where’s the heroin?” vocals on opening track “Wave Machine” nearly put me off this thing for good, but once one gets a hold of Circle Pit’s particular groove and learns accepts their affectations for what they are, it is hard not to emerge from side # 2 feeling like you’ve had a pretty good time. Specifically, the kind of good time factored around the inherent lizard brain pleasure of hearing queasy Chrome/Meat Puppets guitar spew lapping endlessly across the bones of minimal first-time-on-drums thud as both participants make snarling faces and laugh at themselves in the mirror. More relaxed stretches where they reign in the FX and cut down on the shtick have a nice, hazy feel to them too, reminiscent of Sam Jayne’s perpetually underrated Love As Laughter.
Indie-kids be warned: I think this music is probably really bad for you. I know it’s on a cool label and they have great cover designs, but prolonged exposure will likely make you eat worse, dress worse, and it will lower the defences which keep you safe from the lost legions who are still out there somewhere plying this kind of junkie-dress up pantomime rock with less guile and humour than Circle Pit. But what can you say, it feels good: like eating crisps.
Between these guys and Purling Hiss, am I sensing a sort of grass-roots revival of unapologetic stoner mong gaining momentum within the underground-ish music spectrum at the moment? Could “Make Your Own Monster Magnet” be the sound to be seen with in ’11? Wishful thinking maybe, but OH MAN, I sure do hope so! A good time to buy shares in whoever it is makes those cheap wah-wah pedals that are always turning up on ebay, perhaps?
Mp3> Wave Machine
34. The Sceptres – discography tape (Suplex tapes)
Impeccably cool of presentation and musical vocabulary, The Spectres are the instant hit of the random stuff I’ve found to spend my pocket money on in London’s record shops this year. Urgent, nerve-rattled, spiked year zero punk that’s smart and exciting without getting irritating or post-y or letting the pace drop for a second – cor, yes please! Some of these guys are/were in pop-hardcore crew The Shitty Limits, whose dedication to speed and concision can be heard throughout. Front-woman Bryony meanwhile brings some slighty more complex melodies and weirdly constructed material to the table, and her fantastic shriekin’, rantin’ vocals make my heart beat a bit faster, claiming kinship of a long and noble pantheon of characterful British girl yellers that runs from Ari Up and Poly Styrene through Huggy Bear to the likes of Shrag, Help She Can’t Swim and Betty & The Werewolves.
You could maybe throw some vague period reference points in The Sceptres’ direction (X Ray Spex, “Pink Flag”, Peel Session-era Slits, pre-album ATV), but none of them really do this sound justice. Everything on this tape may scream ’77-‘79, but there weren’t actually *any* UK punk bands that sounded quite like this. Which is a shame cos they really bloody well should’ve been. At least we’ve got The Sceptres now, to make up for the past’s deficiencies.
Sound quality on this tape (compiled as an omnibus of assorted 7” releases, I think) is predictably shitty - muffled and mangled and warped by the long neglected tape player on my crappy mini-hifi - which is frustrating, making me hope for my own sake that this new vogue for tapes dies fast, regardless of how pretty and homemade and wilfully anachronistic they look. At the same time though, it occurs to me that this one performs the function of a classic demo tape perfectly – hearing these fuckin’ awesome songs all scuffed up and distant makes me itchy and desperate to hear more of them, at closer range. If I was some record label mogul or venue-booker (or John Peel) back in the era when demo tapes existed, I’d have these guys on the phone pronto, asking how fast they could get down here to play this music for me properly.
Mp3> Holes (from ‘Primal Slobs Go Wild’ EP)
33. Black Time – More Songs about Motorcycles and Death 12” EP (Wrench Records)
This 12” represents my first initiation into the world of cultish London-based group Black Time, and what I hear is strange and loud and disturbing and wrong in all the right ways. It makes me go all shivery and glance around anxiously. I like it.
There is a strong aesthetic consistency running through this record that I really appreciate, from name and cover art to song titles, and to the sound of the music itself. If I tell you that the opening cut is entitled “Fast Motorbike In The Kitchen”, we could end the review there really – that one phrase provides an exact summation of what Black Time sound like, where they are heading, the unnerving effect they intend to convey.
After a few years during which many, many new bands have faced accusations of using low fidelity recording to disguise a lack of ideas/talent, Black Time put the shit-fi veil to more aggressive and old fashioned use, pulling a thick fug of room noise and tape hiss across the details of their work like a black curtain, using it to build distance and mystery, as deliberately as some kvlt black metal outfit might. Not that this is all grim and alienated and po-faced, mind you. On the contrary, it’s honest and immediate and loads of fun – like a fast motorbike in the kitchen. And, somehow, after generations of sub-sub-Mary Chain/Raveonettes humbug has bored us senseless with motorbikes and chains and leather and car crashes, there is a maniacal, engine room determination here that makes it all work anew.
If “Cycles” suffers somewhat from sounding more like The Fall than is strictly healthy for a band that is not The Fall, other cuts do much to win me back, with “The Living Dead” paying oblique tribute to my all time fave weirdo-biker film “Psychomania” (sounds like they’re recording with a TV playing one of the movie’s bike chase scenes on in the background), whilst “Mallory Park” stalks into being like a vampire hunter bumbling ‘round Highgate cemetery before exploding into a beserk volley of maxed out noise (here comes the vampire!). “Harley Davidson” even has a touch of that propulsive, wistful, hopeless quality to it, some hint of an early Comet Gain track lost in its clang and clatter, like sitting in a bare room in 1972, staring at a black & white picture tacked to the wall, of guys in shade, riding motorbikes - no longer in the kitchen. (Allegedly it's a cover of the Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot tune, but I've yet to clock the similarity.)
Yeah, I like this. For music that goes out of it’s way to present itself as a buncha barely there, off-the-cuff bullshit, Black Time has real staying power.
Mp3> Fast Motorbike in the Kitchen
32. Umberto – Prophecy of the Black Widow (Not Not Fun)
The caravan of contemporary outfits paying tribute to the cool sounds found emanating from ‘70s/’80s horror movies rumbles on across the icy wilderness, with one the strongest and most shameless entries in this peculiar sub-genre to date, courtesy of one Matt Hill, recording on this occasion as “Umberto”.
Making the hermetic Carpenter worship of Zombi and, er, Zombie Zombie seem positively subtle in comparison, Hill really goes for the cup here, throwing in every fuckin’ thing he can think of that signifies this particular style, assembling an appropriately garish, bombastic, over-powering tribute to the work of Fabio Frizzi, Francesco De Masi, Goblin and anyone else who dared wave a synthesizer in the general direction of Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento between ’75 and ’85.
Opener "Temple Room” is particularly breathtaking – an eight minute pulveriser that lets ominous ring-mod squelch and synth-string spine-tinglers build up for a few minutes, before using electric guitar thunder-chords in even-more-ominous triplets as a bridge to a headlong rush into pulsing, Black Devil Disco Club-esque space disco euphroia. It’s like Mike Armstrong’s theme to “House of the Devil” amped up to apocalyptic scale, and if it doesn’t tick all yr horror-synth-core boxes, I dunno what will. Even the ol’ “sampled monk choir” gets a look in toward the end.
Subsequent tracks follow suit, each one taking one of those sky-scraping, inexplicably heroic Frizzi melodies by the scruff of the neck and feeding it through enough synth patches, eerie phasing effects and slopping wet compression to send any remaining competitors in the VHS-big-box-overdriven-mono-sound-retrogasm stakes crying home to mummy. Utter nonsense clearly, but within this specialised terrain, it totally does the business.
I’m sure you already know perfectly well whether or not you need music like this in your life. If you do, you’ll fuckin’ eat this up. If you don’t, you will probably never be in a position in which you contemplate listening to or owning it for more than a split second. I belong to the former category, and in terms of pure enjoyment I’d probably have rated this one higher, only the purely ridiculous, crowd-pleasing kitsch aspect of the whole venture makes it difficult to process from any purely sonic/objective point of view.
Mp3> Temple Room
31. Haunted Houses – The Invisible War of the Mind tape (Bathetic tapes)
I listened to a download of this tape *a lot* towards the start of this year, and liked it a great deal. Recalling my impressions of it and trying to write an outline for this write-up, I found myself thinking “that damned thing can’t possibly be as good as I remember it being, this description I’ve just written sounds terrible”. So I dug it out of iTunes and put it on again. It’s still great. Although self-indulgent and pointless on paper, there is some huge, indefinable weight behind this music that leaves me spellbound. It really gets under my skin, and I don’t know why. Thus this is very difficult review to write.
So let’s get this straight: Haunted Houses is one guy. He plays what sounds like an acoustic guitar going through a distortion pedal and other effects, massively overdriven and recorded straight to a boombox or laptop mic. There are miscellaneous heavy fucked bits of organ and whatnot, and the occasional thump of a distant drum machine or stomped boot on the floor. He howls and snarls and laments inconsolably, hammering away at vaguely-formed, dirge-like songs, often in 3 / 4 time or thereabouts. Every now and then, there is a moment where he sounds VERY much like the late Jim Shepard, and indeed, this album as a whole has a feel to it that reminds me of my favourite Shepard work, Vertical Slit’s “Twisted Steel and the Tits of Angels”.
Like that record, “Invisible War of the Mind” seems to mark out a space in which recording fidelity as we conventionally understand it is pushed to such extremes that the form of the music within collapses in on itself, destroying recognition of such fripperies as instruments, chords, song construction, yet letting the strange, dark emotional intent of the songs shine through unmistakably, daring you to recognise it, to hold it’s hand amidst the freezing, blackened murk of the near-disintegrated sound world.
For all that though, Haunted Houses is not Vertical Slit. It is something different. For one thing, this guy is a lot more plaintive than Shepard’s poker-faced desolation. He sounds real needy, almost… innocent?... at times; like some dorm-room shoegazer who’s just been dumped for the first real time and is letting his ‘true voice’ right out on tape. He’s wringing his hands tonight, but he’s still got some hope things might be better tomorrow. Fat fucking chance I know, but don’t tell him that, he might stop making music like this. It’s really something. (I hope he doesn’t read this.)
(You can download “The Invisible War of the Mind” for free from the Haunted Houses myspace.)
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
THE FORTY BEST RECORDS OF 2010: Part One
40. Myelin Sheaths – Get On Your Nerves
Half an hour’s worth of impossible row from these Canadian ne’erdowells, and it does me does me just fine thanks. Earlier this year I said of one of their singles:
“Myelin Sheaths’ guitars have a certain Sonic Youth quality to them – a thick, dissonant, mid-heavy blurt - and their bass rumbles like a rockslide. Maybe think ‘Eliminator Jr’ or something, stripped of any art world pretensions, reinvented for a beer-sozzled provincial punk scene. With most conventional, album-orientated “indie-rock” in such a moribund state at the moment, it’s always a thrill it is to hear stuff this beserk and fun, happy just to be itself. Any old punkers/grungers still not sold on the new world order of inarticulate kids making no-fi noise-pop on overpriced boutique 7” labels are advised to take a listen to this and try to write me some reasons why it’s not totally great.”
And much the same applies here, stretched across a longer duration. Sloppy, practice room recording quality is pushed through compression and EQ until it emerges bulbous and misshapen. Song-writing mopes across an axis garage-dumb and Ramonoid, but with a nuanced execution betrays background in canonical indie-rock and jangle, however much off-hand slobbishness they might try to obliterate it with.
Endearingly, an inexplicable obsession with medical/scientific themes seems to run through this groups work, and hits here include “What’s Your Diagnosis?”, “Everything is Contagious”, “Gloves”, “Blood Loss” and “Large Hadron Collider”. They are all pop songs, and many feature the title being yelled on the chorus. Lazy, noisy, excitable, pointless, scary, happy: kids will be kids, and I’m damn glad of that.
Mp3> What’s Your Diagnosis?
39. Cheap Time – Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations) (In The Red)
Ah, poor old Cheap Time. Their debut album found itself lurking about in the low 30s of my 2008 end-of-year list, but in retrospect I shoulda put it a LOT higher, cos it’s great! Now here they come with album #2 then, and whatayouknow, they’re still in the low ‘30s. Go figure. Just one of those pesky situations where a second album sees a group ‘developing’ too fast and in a not entirely painless direction, sprouting questionable new bits as their nascent audience (eg, me) looks on appalled.
As Jeffrey Novak and co have started to spread out and claim a bit of leg room beyond the realm of tightly-wound punk-pop, their song-writing has started to reveal a strong anglophile bent that would seem pretty peculiar for a group from Tennessee, were it not for the British Invasion-addled legacy of Big Star and their various satellites. Not that there’s much Beatles/Stones sugar to be found in Cheap time’s muse mind you – they’re pulling heavily toward a slightly darker, weirder strain of Britishness here, specifically the kind of stompy, sing-songy, cynical, working class pop that formed the flip-side of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s psyche-into-prog trajectory. Y’know what I mean – we’re talking The Faces, The Move, Victoria-era Kinks, early Slade, Hammersmith Gorillas, that whole deal.
Nothing wrong with that of course – it’s a strange and slightly audacious change of pace for a modern American band to say the least, and indeed there’s a lot of good stuff on this LP – the winning melody and bizarre processed guitar freakout on “Showboat”, the vengeful Crimson King stomp of “Miss Apparent”, “June Child” doing the business like an early Dave Davies solo tune – all great fun. But there’s also something distinctly unappealing about the record as a whole that stops me getting into it much despite its abundant musical strengths; some spiteful, fuck-you feeling running through the whole thing. Chilton without the charm, maybe.
As on their first record, the lyrics seem to take a default position of vague, sneering attacks against persons unknown, but while that approach worked great for ninety second punk blasts, it can’t help but sit uneasily in combination with the more jovial, more complex music found here. Novak’s leery, nasal delivery scarcely helps matters either, often making it sound as if the group worked for a week on each tune, then bleated out a buncha vocal tracks in a drunken one hour session and called it a day.
Weirdly, “Fantastic Explanations..” reminds me more than anything of what Supergrass might have sounded like on their first album, if they’d been a buncha really nasty guys who didn’t give a shit whether anyone liked them or not. Which is ironic, cos thinking about it I reckon it was a excess of easy-going niceness that put a pretty swift end to the creative shalf-life of Gaz and the boys. Maybe Cheap Time know something we don’t, but there’s gotta be a happy medium, surely. Hopefully on their next outing they might find it…
Mp3> June Child
38. Fursaxa – Mycorrhizae Realm (ATP)
Tara Burke’s umpteenth album as Fursaxa, and I dunno if anyone else is still interested, but personally I reckon this is one of her best. Largely dispensing with the wheezing harmonium drones and medievalist pretension that sometimes made her stuff a bit gruelling in the past, “Mycorrhizae..” takes a somewhat prettier, more easy-going route through the Fursaxa homeland, with fine and thoroughly psychedelic results, somewhat akin to the cosmic sprawl of her Kawabata Makoto-produced “Mandrake” from way back when.
Almost every track here begins by matching a slow, distantly familiar folk melody to a background of shimmering, insect swarm drone, adds some Burke’s most comfortable and conventionally pleasant singing to date, and gradually bulks up through such familiar devices as hippie bell tinkling, creepo organ sustain, sinister low-end vocals chants and miscellaneous owl clatter, together with some really nice cello, proceeding with admirable clarity of purpose toward a great, big, enveloping blanket of a sound.
“Poplar Moon” and “Wall of Tuhala” in particular seem to carry heavy echoes of Lubos Fiser’s soundtrack for the classic Czech mystic-vampire-fairytale movie “Valerie & Her Week of Wonders”, perhaps reflecting Burke’s involvement in the ‘Valerie Project’ (a recent endeavour that saw a who’s-who of Philly/Baltimore psyche/folk types recording new music inspired by said film), and aesthetically speaking that should give you a pretty good idea of where this record is looking to take you.
A ruined chapel or standing stone, alone in a shallow valley with hills rising the horizon; mid-summer heat and bright sun shining through brambles. Long, long grass, weeds, unseasonable berries and nature running wild. Fuzzy technicolor making everything look dreamy. Heavy dragonflies bobbing around in the haze as a shining stream gurgles by. Or, alternatively: mystical plant-god interlude from a Studio Ghibli film. If that’s where you’re heading at the moment, this is the bus to catch! There has been an awful lot of shitty “psychedelic folk” music recorded in the past few years, but this one is a keeper, I feel.
Mp3> Poplar Moon
37. The Human Race – Duality 3” CD
"CAGE FIGHTER, FRANKENSTEIN! CAGE FIGHTER, FRANKENSTEIN!” Ah, yeah. I knew as soon as I hit play on their myspace that embittered dole queue thugs with a heavy dose of Swell Maps in their DNA were the band for me, even if about half of their songs are completely terrible. Scrappy and eccentric and off-the-freakin’-wall enough to fit perfectly onto one of those Messthetics compilations, except that their track would probably turn up drunk and try to punch a Door & The Window b-side in the face, this is the kind of smart/stupid, junk/genius homemade punk rock that will always get the red carpet treatment round here. Trends may come and go, but you can’t keep a bunch of angry men with no money, too much spare time and a sense of despairing, comedic confusion from doing what they do best. “Bruises on your face/ bruise on your chin / bruises on your arm / pint of gin!” Exactly.
Mp3> Cage Fighter
36. The Moonhearts – s/t (Tic Tac Totally)
When particularly bored cultural historians come to look back on the lo-fi/garage/blah boom of the late ‘00s, they could do worse than point interested parties in the direction of this platter for a nigh-on definitive example of the form.
A punk rock rhythm section thunders away competently enough, almost eclipsed by obnoxiously-high-in-the-mix guitar, sounding like it’s being slopped through about ten Danelectro mini-pedals into a cheap, one-piece Marshall amp. There are surfy twang bits, and garage poundy bits and hardcore riffy bits, all fused into a sorta all-purpose basement/house party goo. There are vocals in there somewhere as tradition demands, even some inevitable shots at Beach Boys-y harmonies, helping to formalise some vague sense of ‘pop’ that would otherwise be lost in the blare, but the guy might as well be singing ingredients lists off beer cans for all the impression these songs make. Every two or three minutes, they stop, and start again with some slightly different chords. Reverb is ridiculous throughout.
Many people will consider this pretty bad music – dumb, head-ache inducing thunk, devoid of finesse, character or purpose. But that’s why I love it, y’know. It’s senselessly loud and chaotic and it’s got a real violent kick to it, the way this stuff has in various reiterations in 1957, 1967, 1977, 1987, 1997. And it’s alright now, in fact it’s a gas. It holds the centre and soundtracks walks across town and drunken, undistinguished evenings while some other asshole is off trying to make “Forever Changes” and failing. Rock n’ roll, no more no less. It’ll do nicely. The instrumental cut “Death Star Pt.I” and the Monkees rippin’ “Love Is Gone” are my favourites, and I like the nod to The Gun Club’s “Miami” on the cover art too.
Mp3> I Said
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
THE FORTY BEST RECORDS OF 2010:
Ok, it’s December, and you know what that means. Interminable best-albums-of-the-year run downs! Yes! Don’t pretend you don’t love ‘em. More than just a pathetic excuse for me to to assign numbers to works of human self-expression and obsessively put things in order, this is of course a good way to force myself to sit down and actually write something about that dozens of records I’ve not had time to communicate my liking for this year.
2009’s Top # 50 was probably a bit much, so this year I’ve decided to go for the more classic Top # 40. This serves to make getting a place on it into slightly more of an, ahem, achievement, as there are still records I really liked clamouring for a place just below the bottom of the list, rather than it just being an all-in compendium of everything I thought was at least quite good.
That aside, same rules as last year apply;
1. Included for consideration will be any release featuring music released for the first time in 2010 that features more than four songs, OR is bigger than a 7”.
2. I reserve the right to apologise at a later date for the non-inclusion of anything amazing that I missed or failed to appreciate the value of this year.
3. This year’s one specific exception: Joanna Newsom’s “Have One On Me”. I’ve borrowed my flatmate’s copy, and I’m sure it’s a tremendous and worthy piece of work, and I *love* the cover art, but I just haven’t had the time or inclination to really process three discs worth of dense, wistful 6 minute+ folk songs recently. Maybe on the off chance I ever get to spend a month alone in a rural cabin with nothing but a record player, I’ll get back to you with a full write-up, but at the moment it seems absurd to pass judgement on such a mammoth work based on what amounts to about two thirds of one listen.
4. Kickin’ up a stink just outside the big 4-0: Grass Widow, Mater Suspiria Vision, One Happy Island and Trash Kit. Well done to ya, good records all.
The image you see above, by the way, was drawn by Guido Crepex in 1967, and the speech bubble roughly translates as "I can't even hear my records with these all jerks around!" - so there's at least some reasoning behind my posting it here. Not that I need any, I mean just look at the damn thing!.
Monday, December 06, 2010
Just time to squeeze in another quick post before we get down to the 'end of year' blitz later this week, and here's a really neat new band I heard on the radio today whilst doing the washing up - Y Niwl ("The Fog"). Psychedelicised, Ventures-style surf-rock, straight outta Snowdonia! The perfect soundtrack to takin' a chemically enhanced trip out to hit the waves in Cardigan Bay, I'm assuming.
The tunes on their myspace are a groove, but the one they played on the radio was MIGHTY - gonna have to track down the LP I think.
Labels: Y Niwl
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