Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Song of the day

"The Minotaur", by The Drones. Let's big up some Australian content. We don't get to do that very often. (Not because there's nothing that's any good, only, and sadly, that we don't get to hear very much of it.) There is something very physical about this song. Brutal, perhaps, but it's a vulnerable brutality: there is life, hope and optimism sitting somewhere within the several walls of guitars. (And I love those guitars. There is something thrilling about them that I haven't been getting from "guitar rock" in many a long year.)

Friday, June 26, 2009

R.I.P. x 3

Three in one day. Blimey. In relation to the third of them, in particular, the world actually does feel a little emptier today.

1. Sky "Sunlight" Saxon, erstwhile singer of The Seeds, one of the better of the "Nuggets"-era bands, responsible in particular for "Can't Seem To Make You Mine", one of the best songs of that or any other age. Saxon, like many others of a similar time and place (that place being, of course, a garage somewhere), underwent a second moment in the spotlight during the garage-rock revival of the latter half of the eighties, but it was not to last.

2. Steven Wells. I always read whatever Wellsy wrote. I didn't always, or perhaps almost ever, find myself in agreement with its content, but Wells had a style all his own, and he was an integral part of the coarsely (very coarsely in Wells's case) woven fabric that was the Golden Age of the New Musical Express.

3. Which leaves the big one, the genuinely unfillable hole. The King of Pop is dead. Long live the King of Pop. I can't believe how churned up I am about Michael Jackson's death. (In fact I am writing this through an unexpected veil of tears.) It's not that it was a shock (c.f. Grant McLennan) so much as that it feels so appallingly inevitable. It is as if, from the moment he was born, Michael Jackson's life was going to end this way - fundamentally alone, lost, his life controlled by people other than himself, and yet he has continued to be a part of the lives of so many people, from the media, who kept falling over themselves to portray him as crazy, wacko, a figure of fun, to people like our own eleven-year-old, who self-evidently has only discovered Michael Jackson long after Jackson's best musical days were behind him, but who will undoubtedly have been devastated upon hearing the news (I think a part of my own devastation is about feeling his pain). The parallels between Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley can now be accurately measured. I suspect they are many. Now that Michael has left the building, all we have is his legacy. And that, as we all now know, is greater than any one man could bear.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Crumbwatch, a continuing series

Further to our recent mention of Crumb's latest New Yorker outing, we have discovered this remarkable pair of photographs. We have been moving our eyes rapidly from one Crumb to the other for so long that we've made ourself dizzy, and we swear that we are unable to categorically say, in either photo, which one is R and which one is his cousin. It is, frankly, weird. (But then, we are talking about the Crumb family.) Matching caps, shirts, beards, sandals. Trousers of the same style, albeit different colours. It's like those stories you hear of identical twins who meet up after having been separated for 30 years, and they've both married girls called Cheryl. That Crumb gene must be mighty strong.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Song of the day

"Cotton Crown", by Sonic Youth. After a rather fraught and difficult weekend (we seem to be having a few of those) the iPod comes to the rescue with "Cotton Crown". Is this my favourite Sonic Youth song? It might be. It is more honest, open and sincere than Sonic Youth have ever allowed themselves to be. Heck, they don't even spell it "Kotton Krown". My only caveat is that the song isn't spun out towards infinity (and beyond!) like so many Sonic Youth songs. But most likely that is the point.

The World's Got Everything In It

Perhaps that's not an entirely true statement, but certainly over time the New Yorker has had pretty much everything in it. But even they have exceeded themselves with this year's Summer Fiction issue, which includes not one, not two, but eleven pages from the forthcoming R Crumb edition of the Book of Genesis. The first eleven pages, at that. You wouldn't buy it just for that, because you will, of course, be buying the book itself when it comes out. (Although it also has a Dan Clowes cover, the second in a month (!), and fiction by Jonathan Franzen, to further lure you in.) But you should at least sneak into a newsagents to flip through the Crumb pages (you will find them towards the back). The most surprising thing is how closely it resembles pretty much any of Crumb's work from the last 40 years. (Adam and Eve, particularly, come across as archetypal Crumb characters, both in the way they look and the way they are.) In fact, it will be an interesting exercise, after reading the R Crumb Book of Genesis, to go back to his other work and see if, perhaps, one could argue that Crumb has been a "biblical" writer all along. (I see a thesis coming on.)

And while we are on the subject of modern interpretations of classic works, it is worth clicking through to beck.com, where the Beckmeister is showing off his latest project: getting a bunch of friends together to record their own take on a classic album. In a day. Unrehearsed. The first album to be tackled is "The Velvet Underground & Nico". At the time of this writing you can watch Beck and his friends running through a gorgeous version of "Sunday Morning", complete with upright bass and marimba. Beck is perhaps under-recognised as a singer: over time he has convincingly tackled everything from Prince to Hank Williams to front-porch southern blues. So it should be no surprise that he sings the lead part here really well, but what makes the song work is the hauntingly gentle backing vocals.

You might assume that an exercise like this is in aid of helping a musician to find, or in Beck's case rediscover, his or her own voice, or to figure out which direction to go in next. It might also amount to airing one's undergarments in public. But with Beck what you see has always been what you get, and every album has been, in some way, a step towards somewhere else, and anyway "Modern Guilt", although I suspect I have neglected to mention it here, is one of my favourite albums of last year. The songs are simple and, for Beck, tightly focussed and arranged, and the whole thing is wrapped in a dense layer of pastoral psychedelia, which is almost always a good thing. So my advice is just to enjoy this latest little venture on its own terms, and with a healthy degree of curiosity as to where it might lead.

(I am also interested in the fact that, of all the music that I have exposed the boys to over the years, the artists who have stuck fastest are Abba, The Beatles and Beck. Fortunately, there is usually enough going on in Beck songs that it is possible to listen to them over and over again without getting tired of them. I don't know how many times I have heard "Midnite Vultures", and yet I still love it. Possibly more than ever. But I can't figure its appeal to pre-teens; exponentially so something as diffuse as "The Information". Carl's level of knowledge of Beck has extended to lyrical minutiae. Which can be a challenge for a parent. I have a feeling Beck is making it up as he goes along. "We've got warheads stacked in the kitchen" was today's example. Dad, what are warheads? Well, they're the explosive pointy end of a missile. Why would you have them stacked in the kitchen? Except, "Warheads" are also an incredibly sour lolly that Jules occasionally and somewhat masochistically buys at the shop. Which it makes sense to have stacked in the kitchen. So who knows? Another time we were stuck on: "Word up to the man-thing / She's always cold lamping." Dad, what's cold lamping? Like I have any idea. (Except for a sneaking suspicion that I am better off not knowing.) (I see another thesis coming on. Beck studies. Carl and I could do for Beck what Christopher Ricks did for Dylan. Except we're not, you know, professors of literature. Or of anything else for that matter.))

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hello Cruel World

Our best thoughts & wishes go out to Chris Knox, mainstay of the NZ music scene for too many years to think about, who, according to Pitchfork, is recovering from a stroke with, at this stage, unknown permanent consequences. We hope for the best. Speaking for ourself, we never really latched onto Tall Dwarfs, but "Not Given Lightly" is and remains one of the great late-20th-century songs - and not appended with the words "from New Zealand", either. And nobody can deny.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Ellen Willis Dictionary (contd)

Further to my previous post, I have continued reading my way through Ellen Willis's New Yorker "Rock, Etc" columns. In 1972 she used the term "punkiness". Which, while not as surprising as the appearance of "post-rock", is still curious. I know that "punk" was used, at least in the sense of "hoodlum", earlier than this. But at what point it was transposed to the world of music I have no idea. Pre-"punk", undoubtedly. Did McLaren call the Pistols "punk rock" or did the media give them that tag? I should probably know this.

Also, dig the following ad copy from 1974:
Head brings out the best in Julie Heldman.

Let Head bring out the best in you.
Well, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give it a try.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rip it up and start again?

The opening sentence of Ellen Willis's second "Rock, Etc" column for the New Yorker, in the issue of 6 July 1968, reads as follows:
The sociology of rock and post-rock has been based on three concepts: the star, the sound, and the scene.
So, Simon, remind me again who coined the phrase "post-rock"? "You can run, but you can't hide" etc etc, heh heh.

What's interesting is that someone in 1968, practically at the birth of the thing called "rock", could already have been thinking in terms of what had already come next, and just goes to show that the seemingly instantaneous fracturing/fragmenting of musical genres isn't confined to South London and/or the Aughties.

(I am, as you have gathered, making it my business to read, or re-read, all of Ellen's New Yorker columns. They are uniformly excellent. Period pieces, sure, but from an unusual source - not the usual hippie-centric pot-driven reveries/ranting of Rolling Stone, nor the POV of "The Man" a la, say, Time Magazine, but, rather, appearing in a curious place inside of the establishment with an editor who had enough nous to have someone writing about a particular artform who actually knows something about that artform As It Is Happening, and not merely observing from the comfort of their glass box. Or whatever. (See also Pauline Kael, the magazine's film critic at that time.))

Monday, June 08, 2009


Adrienne has, at various times and accurately, accused me of constructing the following shrines around myself: one to the New Yorker; one to Brian Eno; one to Bob Dylan; one to The Necks; and one to Ed Kuepper. And the Ed Kuepper shrine just got a bit bigger, with the discovery on eMusic (funny how often what you really want to download from eMusic is not the stuff they are trying to sell you) of five volumes of what Ed has rather cheekily entitled the Prince Melon Bootleg Series, comprising four sets of live recordings under Ed's own name (including "Honey Steel's Gold" done for that series of Original Artists Play The Original Albums concerts), and one by the Laughing Clowns comprising the 17-minute "Eternally Yours" recorded at Dingwalls (now there's a name from my late-1970s NME-reading past) and featuring the unexpected reappearance of Louise Elliott into the fold.

I propose writing at some greater length about these recordings in particular, and Ed in general, because I don't think Ed gets anywhere near the credit he deserves. But for now I just wanted to mention a couple of songs that came up sequentially a couple of nights ago on the iPod, both of which were heavy on the Kuepper. First was "Over The Hill", by John Martyn, from "Solid Air", which features, coming at you from the left speaker, a furiously strummed mandolin, something that Ed must surely have heard around the latter years of the Laughing Clowns, given its appearance on songs like "Master of Two Servants" and, later, "When The Sweet Turns Sour". Then came someone even lesser sung than Ed Kuepper, at least in this country, namely Peter Milton Walsh, and his long-running band The Apartments. "End of Some Fear", which hails from the glorious "A Life Full of Farewells", draws on the Laughing Clowns in its structure and instrumentation, and is also notable for the appearance of the word "Fear" in the title, a word that appears once or twice in the Ed Kuepper vernacular.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

You Make Me Dizzy

Spent a night in hospital. Feel like shit warmed up. But enough about me. Watch this; it will do you a power of good.

The heck. Watch this as well. It's Good Haircut Week.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Song of the day

"Sun Gonna Shine In My Back Door Someday Blues", by John Fahey. Dig, if you will, the title of this solo guitar piece. It is saying, Things aren't going so well at the moment, but one day in the future I am sure that they will be better. Which is a neat way of summing up the way things are at our house at the moment.

The guitar is an instrument the complexities of which I was not able to understand, or even imagine, until I had a fascinating conversation one day with my good friend Rob. Rob knows his guitars. I always thought you played a note and got a sound, and that was about it. Oh, no it isn't. Playing the acoustic guitar in particular, and especially the way John Fahey plays it, involves exponential levels of complexity, almost of a Man Against Nature magnitude. Okay, you have to be able to play the notes. Which Fahey could undoubtedly do, no matter how complicated and/or rapidfire those notes may have been. But on top of that you have the resonating effects of the body of the guitar, the resonating effects of the strings, the type of wood, the mic-ing up, the sound of the room, and who knows what else, to grapple with. There are live recordings of Fahey that sound like a man riding a precision-made billy cart down a steep hill without brakes or steering wheel, and somehow managing to wind up at the designated finishing point with an air of "all in a day's work". I would love to have seen him play. The existence of a recording entitled "Live in Tasmania" suggests the chance may have been closer than I thought.

You need to hear Fahey's playing. There is a lot of it out there. "The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick" is a particularly good live recording. It may be the one I was thinking of in the previous paragraph. It's a personal thing, obviously, but I'm not sure that the later, experimental Fahey, mucking about with electronics, electricity and the like, is actually all that rewarding. Many will disagree. Whatever. But I think it is at least arguable that all you really need is the 1996 collection "The Legend of Blind Joe Death", which combines the 1964 and 1967 "Blind Joe Death" recordings of the same set of tunes (there is supposedly a 1959 recording, too, but the provenance of Fahey's recordings, particularly for his own Takoma label, can get a bit murky), with a couple of extras thrown in for good but unnecessary measure. That is where "Sun Gonna Shine" comes from, and I am particularly feeling, today, the 1967 recording. It is a bit longer. It ups the degree of difficulty and the corresponding payoff. The recording is crisp and clear. The guitar behaves itself, even if there are moments when it threatens not to. I love it.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Bible stories

Go here. Read the story, which gives a little insight into what went into the making of R Crumb's forthcoming take on the Book of Genesis. Then click on the picture. When it opens on its own page, click on it again. Look closely. Seems like Crumb has been doing his Best Quality Work, to use a Hughes Primary School benchmark.