Saturday, November 24, 2012

Song of the day (2)

"Love Interruption", by Jack White.

Curse you, Jack White. Not only do you establish the greatest colour-coded two-piece rock band in the history of the world. Not only do you make a career out of artistic alliances with attractive women that you are no longer going out with, and create relationship furphies (or at least red herrings) to further the mystique. Not only do you come up with the idea of the travelling record store, for which I will hate you until the day I die for my not having thought of it first. Not only are you the only American ever (possibly not true) to use cricketing terminology/imagery in furtherance of a musical career. No. Not content with all of those things, you are also responsible for this song, which I cannot get out of my head. How do you create such musical propulsion without so much as a drum or a bass guitar? How do you fit so much into 2.5 minutes? Where did you find Ruby Amanfu, whose backing vocals are the most perfect of perfect fits? Where did you get the idea to turn what is basically a power pop or maybe even pop-metal song into what is essentially a duet between clarinets and an electric piano?

How do you make everything look so damn easy?

A few words about "Anastasis", an album by Dead Can Dance

The year was 1990. We were renting a small terrace house in Liverpool Street, North Fitzroy. It was the year we got married, and the start of our life together. The house was positioned so as to receive the least amount of sunlight possible. It was a very cold house. And damp. Mould cruelly took from me one much-loved pair of op-shop stovepipe trousers and a pair of black pointy shoes.

The house had a dishwasher. Neither of us had ever lived in a house with a dishwasher. We figured that in the absence of dishwasher powder we should be able to squirt a quantity of dishwashing liquid into the space provided, with the same result. We figured wrong.

We also shared the house with mice. One night Adrienne was talking on the phone with someone when a mouse scurried up the cord that connected the handpiece to the telephone. Mice also ate one layer of our wedding cake. (Ants ate the other layer. I think it should be safe to say now, 22 years later, that neither of these things proved to be bad omens.)

My musical tastes also changed over the course of 1990, as we unconsciously sought out some common ground. It seemed time for me to say goodbye, at least for a while and/or outside of headphone listening, to Swans, Einsturzende Neubauten, Big Black, John Zorn, Husker Du, and the like. Tom Waits seemed like fair game. (Although to this day I have never been entirely sure.) And we both liked Elvis Costello, The Blackeyed Susans, My Friend The Chocolate Cake, and (of course) the many moods of Dave Graney. (I don't think we had yet discovered the love that dared not speak its name -- lounge music.)

But one record that particularly mesmerised both of us that year was "Aion", by Dead Can Dance. It was the first Dead Can Dance album I bought; I had not previously had anything more than a passing awareness of them in their earlier, classic Goth incarnation. I don't even know what lured me into buying it. But it immediately stuck. It seemed to strike both of us as coming from somewhere we could both appreciate (if not recognise), a place that was both mysterious and striking. We listened to it a lot in that house, and have continued to bring it out from time to time ever since. (I also distinctly remember sitting on the floor in the living room one Sunday afternoon listening to an interview with Lisa Gerrard on Triple R or 3PBS that conveyed the distinct impression that she is not like other people (viz., as mad as a hatter). Which, I suppose, just confirms that linearity and/or rationality of thought is not a prerequisite for artistic creation.)

They released a couple more albums after "Aion", in which they chased their particular, and elusive, muse in different but still rewarding directions, and we stayed along for the ride. Then they went quiet. Lisa Gerrard did some solo work, collaborations and film soundtracks (quite a lot, actually). Brendan Perry retired to Ireland and was a less visible presence. We didn't feel the urge to pursue what either of them was doing individually. The Dead Can Dance albums we knew and loved were enough to tide us over.

All of which is to say: my sense of amazement at the existence of a new Dead Can Dance album, in 2012, might well amount to nothing more than misty-eyed nostalgia. But it also might be down to its being a record of the highest quality, landing unexpectedly, like a dream, in the middle of an era when the prevailing aesthetic, at least outside of the purely electronic/fetishistic realm, seems to be one of slap it down and push it out. Whatever emotional and intellectual plane they are operating on, it results in music that sounds like nobody else. It also allows them frequently to get away with things nobody else could get away with.

Cases in point:

1.  Brendan Perry's lyrics on "Children Of The Sun", which, if anybody else was singing them, would come across as the most embarrassing hippie nonsense, but the gravity with which he sings them, and the sheer exhilaration of the musical accompaniment, render nugatory any question of how much he means it and how much is slyly winking self-mockery. His voice, an authoritative blend of Jim Morrison, Scott Walker, Mark Snarski and Frank Sinatra, commands an authority that cuts any such questions short.

2.  "Amnesia" slides uncomfortably easily into "The Eternal", by Joy Division, a pre-Goth talisman for those of their/our generation but also a song, and a band, that remain largely untouchable and from whose narrow orbit you would have assumed Dead Can Dance had drifted away many years ago. And yet somehow, again, their unblinking sense of purpose means that any doubts are left at the starting gate.

Look, I can't really say much that would convince you of the worth of this album if you were disposed the other way. As a possible (or even likely) album of the year, it is, as I have attempted to convey, a very personal choice, and I would be the first to admit that with Dead Can Dance you either get it or you don't. But if that die has not already been cast for you, can I at least suggest that you give it a try? (And if you do, please, to do it justice, listen on CD through good quality speakers or headphones. It's what they would want you to do.)

(And to FACT Magazine, who included it in their list of 50 worst album covers of the year, I say: phooey.)

Song of the day

"Reservations", by Wilco.

"I've got reservations about so many things but not about you."

I can't think of another song lyric that I can relate to so completely.

Well, except for "I feel like sitting down", obviously.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

New Yorker cover of the day

17 March, 1962. By Abe Birnbaum.

Surely this deserves to be on a wall somewhere, not just sitting on a newsagent's shelf trying to catch the eye of the unsuspecting browser. Although I imagine it would have worked as that, too.

(Apparently he once did a children's book, called "Green Eyes", which I have long kept half an eye out for, thus far unsuccessfully. Yes, I know that's what the internet is for.)

As usual, if you open the picture in a new window you should be able to enlarge it. But I imagine you are way ahead of me on that.

What John Zorn did next

And so, after a hectic 2010, in which he released, more or less, an album a month, you would expect that John Zorn would have taken it easy in 2011. And in a sense, by his standards that is what he did. "Only" five albums under his own name appeared that year. One was a surprise. Now read on ...

"The Satyr's Play / Cerberus". There are some John Zorn albums that I would happily never listen to, or even think about, ever again. This album is in that category. Whether Zorn is in the business of throwing every kind of shit against the wall and seeing which lumps of it stick, or whether I just don't have the right set of ears for this kind of chamber/avant/compositional malarkey, is a question I won't spend too much time divining an answer to. I'm not interested, and that's that. Most of this album is given over to two Zorn regulars, Kenny Wollesen and Cyro Baptista, hitting things -- including some pretty nifty-sounding things, it has to be said -- as per Zorn's instructions, along with a selection of sound effects. As you might expect, goats appear. It would probably have been better (at least for the goats) if they hadn't. We are in the field or discourse where people tend to spell the word "Magic" with a "k", and "Weird" with a "y". It contains a couple of rather nice passages, but even these are marred by the appearance of those blasted goats. The rest of the album is given over to a mostly gnarly combination of bass trombone, tuba and trumpet. (The word "random" comes to mind.) For ten minutes. And if that sounds enticing, you are a braver person than I am.

"Nova Express". If you read William S Burroughs during your university days (as one does), you would recognise the title of this album, and also the names of a few of the tracks: "Port Of Saints". "Dead Fingers Talk". "The Ticket That Exploded". In fact, this is the second Burroughs-themed album of Zorn's, following on from 2010's "Interzone". As with that record, I have little to no sense of where the Burroughs connection might be coming from. Maybe it's a red herring. Maybe my Burroughs days are just too far behind me. Whatever. The music is very cool regardless. Joey Baron you already know as one smart, agile drummer. Trevor Dunn is a bassist Zorn has been using regularly of late, although usually he is plugged in (Greg Cohen being the go-to guy for the upright) whereas here he plays acoustic. Similarly John Medeski, best known as a Hammond technician, plays the piano. Kenny Wollesen finesses the vibraphone (because, y'know, everything sounds better with vibraphone). This is music to immerse yourself in. What sets this, with its frequent abstractions, apart from "The Satyr's Play / Cerberus"? That's hard to say. Maybe it's just one's greater familiarity with a piano/bass/drums structure. Maybe it's the intuitive sense of Baron's drumming doing just enough to provide the listener with an anchor. You can, at least most of the time, tap your feet to this music, while at the same time being invited to concentrate hard enough to get to the bottom of it. It's an invitation I am happy to accept this time around. Although such is not, alas, the case for ...

"Enigmata". "Res Ipsa Loquitur", writes Zorn in his lengthy accompanying essay to this album. The phrase is well known to lawyers: "the thing speaks for itself". But Zorn adds an addendum: "Sed Quid In Infernos Dicit" ("but what the hell does it say?"). Which, when put together, is not a bad explanation of what Zorn does, not just here, but on many of his records. He also makes a couple of other pertinent observations: "the world may not be ready for this music." And "it makes no pretensions to be anything other than what it is." Of course, he is making a case for his own work here, and while the music "sounds" good on paper, that doesn't convert the damn thing into anything that approaches my own understanding of what is "listenable". Which seems to me to be a bit of a setback. Maybe he took the time to articulate and communicate his thoughts about the creative process as a way of both acknowledging this music's wilful cussedness and engaging the listener in a kind of aural staring contest. In which case, whoops, I blinked. I can admire it (it must have been hell to learn and play -- you really need dudes of the calibre of Marc Ribot and Trevor Dunn (who switches to electric five-string bass here) to pull this off). But, as with the first album dealt with in this survey, I don't know that I really want to go through it all again in a hurry.

"At The Gates Of Paradise". On the other hand, and maybe here I am further demonstrating my own narrowmindedness, I can listen to Zorn's chamber jazz ensembles (my term) both at length and on repeat. Plus, this is the exact same quartet as on "Nova Express". The mystery here, if you choose to turn your mind to it, which you certainly don't have to, is as to when you are listening to Zorn's composition and when what you are hearing is the players, playin'. And on this occasion they are not telling. Which is fine, the music works the same way regardless. It is, as the man said, what it is. There are moments when you might imagine yourself sitting at a table in some smoke-filled supper club, drinking a martini and sucking on a cheroot, listening intently to the Vince Guaraldi Trio. At other times you might be immersed in a world of 1950s exotica a la Martin Denny. Certainly the vibraphone helps in this regard. But the versatility of John Medeski is maybe this record's trump card. This is a world that Zorn has been frequenting quite regularly of late. The question of whether this particular well might start to run dry hasn't yet formed itself, but it is a question that cannot be ruled out in the future.

"A Dreamers Christmas". Which brings us to the words we never thought we would be typing: this is John Zorn's Christmas album. To which the only response, as no doubt its author intended, is "What the???". Is it some kind of post-modern exercise/statement? An elaborate hoax? A move into the lucrative field of television-advertised product? A quest for fame and fortune? Something for the kiddies? It may even be all of the above. (The appearance of Mike Patton in the credits might suggest, to those familiar with his other Zorn-related utterances, that the kiddies should be kept well away. But let's keep an open mind.) Indeed, the front cover design is rather family-friendly, with the possible exception of Santa's slightly disturbing blackened eye-holes. (John Zorn would delight in pointing out to you that Santa is an anagram of Satan.) Once lured in by the cover, what do we find? Seven traditional Christmas songs and two Zorn originals, performed by The Dreamers sextet, the most potentially radio friendly of all of Zorn's projects. (Which is not necessarily even remotely close to radio friendly, really.) Trevor Dunn. Joey Baron. Kenny Wollesen. Cyro Baptista. The bearded wonder Jamie Saft on keyboard duties. And the trump card, Marc Ribot on guitar, a fellow guaranteed to breathe life into the most moribund of music. Not that this is at all lifeless. The surprise, which is no surprise at all really, is that you actually could slip this on while your grandmother is serving out the Christmas pud and nobody of any generation would bat an eye. Even Patton is on his best behaviour, channelling Mel Torme in his performance of Torme's own (with Robert Wells) "The Christmas Song". A (Christmas) cracker.

Which brings us, somewhat belatedly, to 2012, and by last count a further ten records under Zorn's name have been released this year, with at least one more to come. As usual, not everything will be to everyone's liking. None of it at all may be to some people's liking. Me, I'll take it all in when I'm good and ready and most likely write a few words about the exercise here. But you know by now not to expect it any time soon.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Song of the day

"We Came To", by The Crystal Ark.

In which The Crystal Ark turn into The Juan Maclean. Well, kind of. The Juan Maclean with home-made synths and a hint of Spanish. Sounds okay to me!

(Note: clip is of the "house mix", not the album version, but it will give you the general idea.)

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Song of the day

"Bend Beyond", by Woods.

I hope it's just a phase I'm going through, but some of the more highly regarded recent releases from well-known, and in some cases loved, artists have been putting me in mind of the phrase "I like your old stuff better than your new stuff". Those that jump readily to mind are by Cat Power, Tame Impala and Best Coast. There are others. The Best Coast album, for example, demonstrates what happens when an artist who makes an early impression based on a particular sound, or a particular transmogrification of the zeitgeist (does that even mean anything?), steps out from behind the veil of that sound and reveals ... nothing special.

Woods are a band that have made sounding ramshackle and slap-dash something of an (anti-)art form. So the signs weren't good when they announced that their new album would be made in an actual studio. Would Woods, too, throw out the baby with the sonic bathwater? Well, the answer is, well and truly, no. "Bend Beyond" reveals that, even when Woods' sound has been (relatively) cleaned up, they still have something going for them. That something is a keen ear for a melody, a turn of phrase, whatever is that X factor that goes into making a song memorable.

The title track ("Bend Beyond" -- well, duh), I think, bears out my earlier description of Woods as occasionally coming across (in a good way) as a kind of dishevelled Mercury Rev. What passes for the chorus is so gorgeous that lesser artists (or more sensible ones, perhaps) would have milked it for all it was worth. Woods, on the other hand, give us a couple of fleeting glimpses of it before spending most of the remaining four minutes teasing out some well-wrought guitar shenanigans. (It is not surprising that the first live version I found on YouTube runs for 10 minutes.) Then we get two more runs-through of that gorgeous chorus, as if to confirm that we didn't just imagine it. And that's it. It sounds better than it reads on paper, mainly because it is impossible to describe the (again, relatively) fragile beauty that the song is exuding.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that it's not even the best track on the album. There is an astounding three-song sequence in the latter part of the record that has gone a long way towards convincing me that Woods are, as of this moment, the best thing going.

That live version of "Bend Beyond" I mentioned? It's here.