Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hypothetical mixtape: October 2014

Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa. It's the October 2014 hypothetical mixtape.

"Mkwaju", by Mkwaju Ensemble. I was attracted to this because of its affinity with other mid-80s flights of ethomusicology, such as the "Snake Charmer" EP. But then I discovered that this song establishes that there is one degree of separation between Yellow Magic Orchestra and Studio Ghibli. No, really. Joe Hisaishi, whose project this largely is, has composed  the soundtracks for many of Hayao Miyazaki's films. Hideki Matsutake, who did the keyboard programming, wasn't a member of YMO officially but did so much of the programming for them that he probably should have been. Bonus: it also kicks like Steve Reich in full flight.

(Available here. The link is still good at time of writing.)

"I Pity The Country", by Willie Dunn. Here is a, for want of a better term, country-folk song, excavated by the estimable Light In The Attic, that tells it like it was in the seventies for indigenous North Americans (in his case, Canadians) and, sadly, like it still is, and will likely ever be.

"Ali Baba", by John Holt. The first reggae reissue I bought on CD was "King Tubby Special", two discs of some of the best of King Tubby's studio concoctions. One of the many standout tracks was called "I Trim The Barber". Twenty-five years later, I finally, finally, stumble across the original song from which this riddim (amongst many others) sprang forth. It still sounds fresh as a daisy.

"Voyager Without Passport", by Friedemann. Do you remember Fischer Z? Do you remember Propaganda? Do you remember the sound of the guitar on David Sylvian's first couple of solo albums? It's all here, improbably. Maybe with a pinch of Grace Jones added.

(Bonus: album cover of the month.)

"Everyday Just Another Dream", by Naffi. This song certainly doesn't outstay its welcome. Songs like this one were the reason the post-punk (anti)movement was so important in pushing music forward. You couldn't have imagined a song like this existing on record in the mid-seventies. Of the many doors that punk blew down was the one leading to bands like Marine Girls and, through them, the indelible Weekend. (Also, for good measure, ... And The Native Hipsters, and Life Without Buildings.) That's the door that these folk also snuck through, if only briefly.

"Los Ninos Del Parque", by Liaisons Dangereuse. If I had heard this before I ever heard and fell in love with DAF's "Der Mussolini", would it be this song that lives in my notional Festive Fifty? That, being a counterfactual, is impossible to answer. But one thing I do know: I'm a complete sucker for that early-80s arpeggiated synth-driven rhythm bed.

"En Hast Utan Namn", by Family Four. Swedish pop group. Two males. Two females. Represented their country twice at Eurovision in the early seventies. That's right: Family Four. What's that? You were expecting, maybe, somebody else?

"Im Achtzigsten Stockwerk", by Hildegard Knef. Backing vocals by Die Rosy Singers. (You could easily put a comma in there. Just sayin'.)

"Nothing Serious (Just Buggin')", by Whistle. AKA We've Got A First-Generation Sampler And We're Gonna Use It. I wouldn't want to listen to this every day for the rest of my life but it's hella fun before the novelty wears off.

"How You Got That Girl", by Ex Hex. Power pop lives! Here they are playing it live, just like nature intended.

"Last Ride", by Wildest Dreams. You may think this is authentic southern fried boogie. I'm happy for you to think that, but you would actually be wrong. Wildest Dreams is none other than DJ Harvey. He did something similar a few years back as one half of Map Of Africa, so it must be some kind of a thing with him. (Coincidence corner: DJ Harvey has also remixed a song by Logic System, Logic System being none other than Hideki Matsutake, see above.) (And yes, it's a long track, but stick around for the wicked three-minute coda.)

"Why Didn't You Save Me (Dave Harrington Remix feat Tamara)", by Nicolas Jaar. Let's revisit, for a moment, my crackpot theory that your favourite artist remixed is never going to grab you as much as your favourite artist remixing some other artist. This is, on the face of it, an example of the former, but with a twist: the remixer in this case is the other member of your favourite artist's short-lived band, Darkside. Let's call it a draw.

"Our Love (The Juan Maclean Remix)", by Sharon Van Etten. Whereas this lands firmly in the latter category. It sits comfortably alongside the remarkable Ewan Pearson remix of Cortney Tidwell's "Don't Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up". (That's high praise, in case you were wondering.)

"Faux (Four Tet Remix)", by John Beltran. As to John Beltran, I know nothing. But this remix is classic Four Tet. Although it is also calling to mind something else: Chateau Flight maybe? (Incidentally, the new Four Tet album is needed in your life. Trust me.)

"On", by Aphex Twin. I have been on a vertiginous Aphex Twin learning curve over the last 12 months. It's like a dam burst, a dam that I didn't realise had been built, let alone was filling to dangerous levels. It all started some years ago, when I found "Selected Ambient Works Volume II" second-hand and took it home on spec, listened a few times, and put it aside. Much later, I picked up a copy of the 33 1/3 book about same. Of course, last year, as you know, interest in Aphex took off with the release of "Syro". That seems to have been the spark that I needed. (The Wire named it album of the year.) Meanwhile the internet was sending me off down sundry rabbit holes, one of which led to the discovery of this song. "On" came out as a 12" shortly before the release of "SAWII". That might, I suppose, be why I am partial to it. The heck if I know. I'm stuck down a rabbit hole. (The link is to a somewhat shortened version of the track, but it gives you the idea.)

"Natural Lifespan (Prins Thomas Mix)", by Cos/Mes. As with the Four Tet, the original of this, if it even exists, means nothing to me. We are here for the blissed-out Scandinavian funk moves. (In saying this we mean no disrespect.)

Saturday, August 01, 2015

YouTube of the day

"Milo", by Quilt.

You already know how we feel about Quilt's second album, "Held in Splendor".

They had a song called "Milo" on their first, self-titled album, which they seem to have decided was the one that they would turn upside down and shake the bejeezus out of, to see what would fall out.

It exists as a 26-minute freak-out on a two-song release self-explanatorily entitled "Quilt in Marfa".

Courtesy of Aquarium Drunkard, you can watch a more concise performance of the song. Hang on to your Canadian Mountie hat. It's a doozy. (The song. And the hat.)

Friday, July 31, 2015

Song of the day

"America Says Hello", by The Chills.

As readers of this blog will know, when it comes to the possibility of a new album by The Chills I have long since stopped expecting.

But I have never stopped hoping.

Readers: there is a new Chills album, "Silver Bullets", coming out on 30 October 2015.

My critical faculties have ceased to exist.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Cover version of the day

"Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", by The Costello Show.

One artist who is heavily represented on my vinyl shelves is Elvis Costello. "King Of America" is the last album of his that I bought in that format. At the time, I thought it was the "Stunning Return To Form" album, after the (I thought at the time) misstep of "Punch The Clock" (I revisited that album recently; it holds up surprisingly well) and the abject debacle that was "Goodbye Cruel World" (I think I was right about that one).

"King Of America" is an interesting record, but on reflection it is quite patchy, suffers as a lot of his later records do from bloat, and misses The Attractions (who only play on one song). The latter omission is pretty obviously intentional: you will look in vain for the name "Elvis Costello" on the album. This, I am guessing, is also a kind of conceptual con job: Costello, who, presumably in a moment of "punk rock" enthusiasm, took the name (in vain) of the "King" (see what he did there?) as an act of (presumably) rebellion rather than reverence, must have jumped at the chance to make an album with people better known for their work with the other Elvis. Perhaps he found it awkward, in those circumstances, to put the word "Elvis" on it; perhaps he wanted to distance his other self from the record (although if the latter, why put his instantly recognisable visage across 100 percent of the front cover? -- speaking of which, if you take away the hat and the Coke-bottle glasses, doesn't he look hipster a quarter of a century before the fact?).

We may never know. It is nevertheless an enjoyable, if overstuffed, record to listen to. But the song that stands out isn't even an Elvis Costello song. He takes "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", a song originally written for Nina Simone but made famous by Santa Esmeralda during the disco era (the version given a further lease of life by Quentin Tarantino), and turns it into a brooding and malevolent smoulder. A sneer is never that far from Costello's singing voice (which is why, when he eschews it, for example in "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No 4" or "The World And His Wife", it is so surprising, and life-affirming), and the faintest hint of one appears here, to great, if slightly terrifying, effect.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Song of the day

"The Belldog", by Eno, Moebius, Roedelius.

And so we pay our respects to German musician Dieter Moebius, who died earlier in the week. You will find plenty of worthwhile and knowledgeable tributes elsewhere; these are my personal thoughts only.

In my previous missive, I made reference to the extent to which Brian Eno has led me to other things. The music of Dieter Moebius was one of those things. During my early-eighties obsession with all things Eno, I must have found in a Melbourne record store a second-hand copy of an album called "After The Heat", labelled as being by "Eno  Moebius  Roedelius". Here is a photo of the record. You can see that it has been well worn.

At the time of buying it, I knew nothing about it. I also knew nothing of Moebius or Roedelius. (There was a time when all human knowledge was more than one click away.) Eno's name was enough for me. My early impressions of the record were, therefore, largely of bewilderment. I wouldn't say "disappointment", but as a mere boy I was only looking for concrete evidence of Eno, and that, I thought, was limited to his vocals on the final three songs on the album.

It wasn't until later that I became acquainted with the music of Moebius and Roedelius's earlier groups, Cluster and Harmonia. (I came to them through brief obsessions with Neu and Can, and also, I suppose, through discovering the album "Cluster & Eno" (the one with the cover photo of a microphone out standing in the field -- cue dodgy Dad joke).) Armed with all of this music, I was then able to go back and make a better fist of "After The Heat", which, when all is said and done, stands tall in the catalogues of all musicians involved (including the seemingly ubiquitous Conny Plank, who produced). Also, I was no longer clouding my judgment by trying in vain to find The Essence Of Eno throughout its grooves. I could let the music wash over me, as it was designed to do, and which it does to great effect.

"After The Heat" is, I would say, a fine example of pure collaboration. Sure, you have Eno's voice, which no matter how much you try to disguise it (including, on "Tzima N'Arki", running it backwards -- incidentally, I have struggled for years to figure out what was being sung; I can't keep enough syllables in my head at once: the best I can come up with is that the title might be "economist" backwards, phonetically, maybe). But aside from noting that the first song on side one seems to teeter on the edge of turning into Roxy Music's "The Bogus Man", and recognising Roedelius's typically thoughtful solo piano in a couple of tracks (although even then one of those tracks could just as easily have come from Eno's "Music For Films" album), it is impossible to say who was responsible for what. All three musicians seem to have buried themselves in the music. And it works well because of that. Even though I didn't realise that was what I wanted, it was in fact exactly what I wanted.

Indeed, Moebius (not to be confused, as I was for a while, with the French comic-book auteur of the same name; nor, for the sake of the record, did he invent the mobius strip) has the least recognisable "voice" of the three of them; he may even be one of the least recognisable "famous" musicians that ever existed. There are solo Moebius albums, but none of them is prominent in his discography. What Moebius seemed to thrive on was collaboration. As well as Cluster, Harmonia and Liliental, there are many albums with Moebius's name on them, but I'm not sure that any of them, or indeed any exercise of listening to them all in close succession, would reveal much about what Moebius actually sounded like. This is not a criticism. There are quite a lot of musicians whose names come readily to mind who would be well served by burying their egos, even just a little bit, beneath their music. Perhaps not everybody could do it to the extent that Moebius did (as I said at the outset, these are just my personal impressions), but having a string of great albums with one's own name attached to them must surely be, at least to some extent, its own reward.

Thank you Dieter Moebius, for the music.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Joy of Vinyl

Random thoughts on the occasion of the resurrection of my vinyl collection after several years of neglect.

1. What is the first thing I reach for? "Remain In Light". This is, by now, demonstrably a Pavlovian reaction. I have used this album many times as a test for how a stereo component or a pair of speakers sounds. (It's my "Dark Side Of The Moon".) I'm happy to report that it sounds as good as ever.

The curious thing about this, on reflection, is that it perhaps also reinforces the extent to which Brian Eno (who produced "Remain In Light") has, throughout my life, been something of a technological loss leader. Why did I really "need" a CD player? Because the only way to listen to "Thursday Afternoon" was on CD. Why did I really "need" an iPhone? Bloom. Why did I really "need" an iPad? Scape. (I know, it's kind of sad, isn't it?)

Thinking about "Remain In Light" also takes me back to when the video for "Once In A Lifetime" premiered on "Countdown". Aside from being one of the great music videos (I reckon that claim still holds: see below), it instantly catapulted the band into a much wider consciousness than their first three albums had managed. That, you would think, could only be a good thing. But, as only an antisocial, self-absorbed teenage boy could (I actually had a badge that said "I'm Antisocial", bought at the Melbourne Show, which I wore proudly, as if I knew what it even meant), I was sent into a silent, depressive rage the next morning in the year 12 common room when the girls were heard to be extolling, unqualified, the virtues of Talking Heads. Where were you when they released "Psycho Killer"?, I silently fumed. Where were you when "Fear Of Music" changed music forever? In other words, "GET OFF MY LAND!"

Reader, eventually I grew up. There are things of which I am not proud.

Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime by hushhush112

2. Just how good an album is "Astral Weeks"?

3. Can anybody tell me how I came to own a copy of Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners"? I honestly have no idea.

4. Of course, the real excitement of having a working turntable again (tech nerds corner: what I needed was a phono preamp: thank you, Rega; thank you, Duratone Hi-Fi) was that it enabled us to dig deep into the lounge-music end of the vinyl shelf, much to the horror of at least one of our children. (To be fair, V. Balsara's version of "Edelweiss" would strain any sane person's patience.) Here are some of the choicest cuts.

(a) "Soul Coaxing", by Norrie Paramor and His Strings.

(b) "Light My Fire", by Edmundo Ros.

(c) "House Of The Risin' Sun", by Herbie Mann.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Hypothetical mixtape: September 2014

I'm not entirely happy with this month's selections. The songs are fine, but (a) I have had a bugger of a time fitting them into any kind of playable sequence, and failed; and (b) I have a sneaking suspicion a few of the songs that were jettisoned along the way may have been better than some of the ones that snuck in. C'est la vie.

"Where Were You?", by The Mekons. So, let's start off with a classic example of a pop song, by alleged "punk" combo The Mekons, who later mutated into a lot of different things but somehow always remained true to themselves, and miraculously are still a going concern. The vocal inflections give it away as 1978/9, as do the chord changes, but really this is such a timeless example of good pop songwriting that it could be reworked to fit into any part of pop's rich tapestry. The violin is somewhat unexpected.

"Dancehall Domine", by The New Pornographers. More pop. The New Pornographers tend towards maximalism. This can be a bit overwhelming at album length, but a song at a time they are largely unbeatable. This song is written by A C Newman, who knows a thing or two about pop songs. Don't forget to watch the video.

"Red", by Hyuna. Of course, if we're going to talk about maximalism in pop, you can't get much more maximal than K-pop: nothing exceeds like excess. I am linking to Soundcloud because the song's video is a bit, erm, awkward. You have been warned.

"Let's Have a Party", by Geraldo Pino and The Heart Beats. We can wind things back a little bit here with some Hammond-led funky beats from 1970s Africa. Is Geraldo Pino the African James Brown? Well maybe, but that is a kind of stupid question.

"Blo", by Blo. Come for the bass. Stay for the two guitar solos, the second of which would make Eddie Van Halen sit up and take notice.

"Fanta", by Group Lewlewal. An entirely different strain of African music, which maybe puts paid to the notion that "African music" is even a thing, comprises contemplative guitar and/or kora playing, where not a lot happens, but does so exquisitely. Best heard recorded outside, as is the case here, rather than in a recording studio. If you are familiar with the work of Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, this is for you.

"Smile", by Ural Thomas. Fragile. Gorgeous. Here you can read about it, and the download link may well still work, too.

(Bonus: album cover of the month.)

"Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms)", by Detroit Emeralds. Think you've heard that opening guitar lick somewhere else? Maybe you have.

"I'm Not Satisfied", by Betty and Karen. The only way this could be improved is if it was by Betty and Veronica. (Kidding.) We are in sixties girl group heaven here. The Internet told me that it has been covered by The Go Team. My heart momentarily stopped until I realised it wasn't the Calvin Johnson Go Team but the other, more recent Go Team. (Whose first album I quite liked but that's another story.)

"Seven Bridges Road", by Steve Young. It's crying-in-your-beer hour. The best known version of this song was by a group who I like to pretend did not exist.

"Sweet Mountain", by Spring. Well, if this song does nothing else, it makes clear that at least someone was listening to "Pet Sounds" in 1972. Even if it was Brian Wilson's then wife and her sister. Oh, and Brian Wilson (who co-produced the album from which this song is taken, and co-wrote the song). Speaking of "Pet Sounds", we watched the new Wilson biopic, "Love and Mercy", the other day. The reconstructions of the making of "Pet Sounds" and "Good Vibrations", while presumably taking some artistic licence, are nevertheless fascinating insights into how Wilson went about trying to reproduce what he was hearing in his head. With "Pet Sounds", he managed it. With "Smile", maybe, what he was hearing was a step too far. It is a terribly sad story, inevitably, but it is also a celebration of what Wilson has achieved. Which is firmly in "We're not worthy" territory.

"What Game Shall We Play Today", by Chick Corea. Chick Corea played with Miles Davis in some of his more out-there endeavours: "Bitches Brew"; the Fillmore concerts. (He also played on "In A Silent Way": is that the greatest Miles Davis album as well as one of the great jazz albums? For now, let's just say it has aged well.) He then, in the early seventies, as if working with Miles hadn't pushed things far enough, formed a group that included Anthony Braxton. This song, though, is from his first solo album, called "Return to Forever" (released on ECM), which became the name of his next band. Thus was born the hated concept of "jazz fusion". On listening to this song (and yes, it is a song, not a "jam", not a "track") it is difficult to hear what all the fuss was about. Although maybe that's not true: it is certainly the opposite of everything Miles and other future-jazz spelunkers were reaching for. So if "nice" for you, in terms of the state of jazz in 1971, was a dirty word, you were probably going to interpret this as a shot across the bows. You may even have been heard to call out "Judas!", had that not already been done. But time, they say, heals all wounds, and 40-odd years later we can (can't we?) accept "What Game Shall We Play Today" on its own terms, as the quietly sublime pop song it undoubtedly is. 

"The Rose Explodes", by Dream Boat. You could, without too much effort, draw a line from "What Game Shall We Play Today" to this song. As with the latter, this is, on the surface, a light-as-a-feather pop song where, the more you dig beneath that surface, the more complexity you will find. But you can just as easily enjoy it without all that nasty digging. 

"Wordless In Woods", by Tara Jane O'Neil. Everything, as I have said before, sounds better with reverb. Beyond that, I'm not going to say anything at all, because, as the title of the song suggests, words sometimes only get in the way. 

"All The Rays", by Grumbling Fur. I hope they won't take it as other than a compliment if I suggest that this song satisfies that particular itch that we all have from time to time, where what we really want to hear is a Depeche Mode song from that precise point where Depeche Mode shifted from being pure synth-pop teasers to being heavily overcoated electro-goths.

"Girl Drop", by Lee Gamble. I know I shouldn't just say "this sounds like X crossed with Y" but, well, sometimes it does. The ingredients here are the overwhelmingly emotional chord changes you hear in a Burial record, and the beatless, weightless but nevertheless inexplicably propulsive trajectories of The Field. You may need a lie down afterwards.

"Dexter (Two Lone Swordsmen Remix)", by Ricardo Villalobos. Imagine if Villalobos's already outstanding "Dexter" were reimagined as an instrumental track inexplicably left off The Cure's "Seventeen Seconds". Only, you don't have to imagine it: it exists.

"Crying In Your Face", by AFX. September 2014 was around the time Aphex Twin finally came out of hiding, so it's not surprising that I had reams of older Aphex tracks to choose from. This one impressed me the most, largely because it seems to have pre-dated the so-called cold/minimal-wave revival by some five years. The acieeed squiggles over the top are a nice touch, too, but it is the song's foundational garments that do all the heavy lifting.