Saturday, April 28, 2012

Song of the season

"Ding-A-Dong", by Teach In.

Every year, around the time of his birthday, a man's mind turns to Eurovision. And, in particular, to this past winner. According to Wikipedia, the song is "an up-tempo ode to positive thought". If you ask me, it speaks for itself.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Song of the day

"Pulls Me Like A Tide", by The Nearly Brothers.

For some years now, I have been lamenting the absence of recorded material from Mark Snarski. What I didn't know was, back in 2010 he put a band together, recorded an album's worth of songs and then some (more about that below), and released it under the name The Nearly Brothers, to, as far as I can tell, no acclaim whatsoever.

Such is life, I guess. Snarski is blessed with one of the biggest, most soulful singing voices in modern music (you might call him the Australian Mark Lanegan, but you also might not), and has a great ear for a tune, but seems to be destined to fall forever beneath the zeitgeist-radar. The new album, now I have my virtual hands on it (legal, like), shows no drop in quality or intensity from his days in The Jackson Code, all of whose albums are essential listening, if you ask me. His songs of romantic obsession / jealousy / calamity continue to be matched with stellar playing and clever, sympathetic arrangements. They may not win points for artistic originality, but, as (I think) I have said before, quality craftsmanship never goes out of style.

Did I mention the band? Aside from the Irish guitarist, TB Allen, with whom I am not familiar (and nor is Discogs, aside from this album), all of the crew will be in your collection. Martyn P Casey you know from The Triffids, The Bad Seeds, and/or Grinderman. Mick Harvey, on production duties, hasn't yet been elevated to the sainthood notwithstanding my efforts. And on drums we have one Bongo Fury, who may or may not be the same person as Mark Dawson, known to you, if nowhere else, from yesterday's blog post (he has worked with Ed Kuepper on and off for a long time and was also the drummer in The Jackson Code).

This song, a long, slow-burning number that mostly works its way around a couple of chords for five-odd minutes, is the perfect ending to a fine album. Or it would be. Which brings me to the "and then some" referred to above. This album seems to have fallen victim to the not uncommon idea that, because a CD can hold a lot more than a "traditional" album's worth of music, it makes sense to add a few songs at the end and call them "bonus tracks". Which means that we have four songs tacked on after this ostensible "big finish", which, no matter that they are perfectly good Snarski songs and could just as easily have found their way onto the album proper, serve to diminish the impact of the album. It has never seemed to me like a winning move. Tom Waits CDs in this country have tended to have "Australian only bonus tracks" stuck on the end, to no great purpose (and anyway most if not all of those eventually turned up on "Orphans"). Wilco did it right on their most recent album, some copies of which came with a second disc containing four songs, a couple of which were alternate versions of songs on the album and one of which, "I Love My Label", was a very perky cover of a Nick Lowe song. Oldster bands like Swell Maps and Beat Happening occasionally used to throw in a vinyl seven-inch single or flexidisc with their LPs. (To bring us back to somewhere near where we started, Ed Kuepper's other other band The Aints did this with their ultra-lo-fidelity live album "SLSQ". Which may have stood for Special Low Sound Quality.) So it can be done in a way that doesn't attack the integrity of the thing the bonus songs are supposed to be an appendix to. End of sermon.

Here's some YouTube of The Nearly Brothers playing, it would appear, in Sydney a mere couple of weeks ago, with keyboards replacing the strings of the recorded version, and someone looking suspiciously like Mick Harvey himself attacking a bass guitar in the background. Snarski misses a couple of notes, but that only makes him more human, innit?

(Note to uploader: handheld cameras make some of us woozy. Go easy.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Song of the day

"Master of Two Servants", by Ed Kuepper.

And on the seventh day Ed Kuepper rested.

But it was a strange, restless kind of rest. Five years ago he returned from the wilderness with the angry, energetic "Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog" album, reuniting him with Jeffery Wegener and thus activating the pilot light that eventually ignited into the Laughing Clowns reunion tour.

Since then, Ed has been trawling through his back catalogue, releasing his own Bootleg Series to rival Bob Dylan's, thus adding to the disk space taken up with versions of "Eternally Yours". (I've lost count.) But we have had no new Ed Kuepper music.

So it was with much excitement that the news of a new Ed album was greeted a few weeks ago. What we got, though, was "new" in a very Ed Kuepper sense of "new": eleven old songs given a fresh lick of paint and sent off into the world. The cover, with its nod to his first solo album, back in 1985, "Electrical Storm", should have been a clue. What Ed has done is re-recorded most of "Electrical Storm", added a couple of songs from "Rooms of the Magnificent", and called it "Second Winter".

I should emphasise that (a) this kind of caper from Ed should come as no surprise and (b) nothing I have written here should be taken as criticism. Like Dylan, Ed has spent much of his career looking back over his own songs and reworking, or reinventing, them, treating them, indeed, as "standards" to be interpreted according to the mood of the times, and with all that he has learned since their first creation being at his disposal. It's in many ways an admirable trait, but presumably one that wouldn't lend itself to the all-new-all-the-time rigours of the marketplace.

Ah, yes, the song. I have always loved the original version of this song, propelled to within an inch of its life by what can only be described, using two words that don't often get the opportunity to hang out together, as a mandolin frenzy. (It is also one of the songs that doesn't turn up on any of the demo / alternate take / outtake / live recordings that Ed keeps putting out.) So it is nice to be reminded of the song again, even if its new form eschews the mandolin for some of Ed's typically fine guitar playing. It still moves at a cracking pace. It is a great little song, whichever way you slice it.

This one is the original:

And this is Ed and Mark Dawson doing what is more or less the version from the new album, but in a live setting:

John Zorn 2010 - Fourth and Final Quarterly Report

Finally (feel free to stifle a yawn, or even not to stifle one), my thoughts on the last three John Zorn releases for 2010.

In October, he released "What Thou Wilt", a collection of three chamber pieces written between 1999 and 2007. I have said it before, and I'll say it again, but I just don't "get" this branch of Zorn's ouvre. I will merely observe that the strings in the first piece are so tasty you could eat them. The second, a twenty-two-minute solo piano work, is pretty serious (and again sounds marvellous: one thing about Zorn, he doesn't skimp on sound quality; or artwork quality, for that matter; and he's no slouch at quantity either). If, as the liner notes suggest, the pianist is doing all this from memory, then that's some memory.

For November he gave us "Interzone", the first of a pair of William S Burroughs-referencing works (the second, "Nova Express", appeared in early 2011). This is what Zornophiles would call an all-star line-up: Zorn, Ribot, Wollesen, Baptista, Medeski, Dunn, Mori. Those names, of course, don't tell you what to expect, but if you ran them through your internal processor you would probably imagine yourself to be somewhere between Naked City, The Dreamers, Electric Masada and the more recent series of chamber jazz albums (for want of a better description) which began with "In Search of the Miraculous".

What it is, or what it sounds like, is the 21st century equivalent of Zorn's File Card compositions, whereby certain heads, or instructions, were written on a series of file cards, which he flipped up in some kind of predetermined sequence and which the musicians were asked to follow. The overall length of this album, just shy of an hour, has allowed Zorn to give the individual segments more room to move than on the more turn-on-the-head-of-a-pin Carl-Stalling-with-ADHD adventures of, for example, Naked City's "Torture Garden". The pick-n-mix nature of this method ensures that some bits will appeal more than others, and your own mileage might differ, but I find the middle section of this album frequently a slog, which is a shame given the nature of the players. The upside is that if you don't like something it will be over before too long, and anyway whatever you think of the rest of it the last five or so minutes are a classic John Zorn blast.

What it has to do with William S Burroughs I can't really say, aside from what might be the sound of a gunshot early on, and some fragments that might have come out of a dusty back road in Algiers. But then my Burroughs days are 20-some years behind me, and I have no real intention of ever heading down that rabbit hole again.

And, bringing Zorn's big 2010 to an end (I have my suspicions that it may not have actually appeared until 2011, but let's cut the man a little slack), number 17 in the Book of Angels series, "Caym", this one by Cyro Baptista's own little ensemble, Banquet of the Spirits. Maybe by this point I was suffering from Zorn fatigue, or more specifically from Masada fatigue (although I sincerely hope not), but this seems to have less to offer than many others in the series. I have a theory, admittedly rather dubious, which is: the better the ensemble player, the less striking the ensemble player's own group. (I could give examples. Would that help? I doubt it.) Plus, as I've said here before, I have my own issues with the accordion.

(You should be allowed to make up your own mind. And there's no doubt these cats are all fine players. Here is a clip of them playing live.)

13.11 Cyro Baptista & Banquet of the Spirits live al Teatro Manzoni from aperitivo in concerto on Vimeo.

So, in summary, what can you say about a man who releases a dozen albums in a calendar year? I suppose you could say, "Slow down, man." But there isn't much chance of that happening, I expect. For a guy like John Zorn (i.e., for John Zorn), who has so many different strings to his bow, one couldn't imagine too many people liking all of them. Fifty percent might even be a good strike rate. But if someone whose work you generally admired released even half a dozen great albums in a year, you'd be in some kind of a heaven. And even if this was an exercise in clearing the decks (he went on to put out "only" five albums in 2011!) there's plenty of evidence that he has no intention of resting on his laurels just yet. (Word is that he's also planning something big for his 60th birthday, which comes around in 2013. You have been warned.)

Bonus Beats: you don't have to dig too far into this site for a quantity of audience video from Masada's recent South American shows. And I had no idea that he was going to bring the old gang back together. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Song of the day

"Do It First", by The Crayon Fields.

Ah, Autumn. With the leaves starting to fall from the trees, and the colours changing from green to red and yellow, this is Canberra's time of year. One can be comfortably inwardly focused, and yet not be freezing cold. (Today it is actually a bit warm. A bit warm, I tell you!) There might be footy on the telly and you might not yet be sick of it. (Even if, as supporter of a certain team, you are already looking towards next season.)

This song by The Crayon Fields sums up the best things about this time of year, I reckon, just by sounding the way it does.

(I think their first album is great. It is redolent of the kind of innocent charm that pervades many great first albums by jangly, introspective pop groups. The trick is then to take that quality to the next level. You can't be naive and wide-eyed a second time (unless you are Jonathan Richman and can make a credible career out of it) (okay, Calvin Johnson probably managed it two or three times with Beat Happening, although even then their strongest album, "You Turn Me On", came about because they had by then (relatively speaking) "grown up"), which means you have to be something else. The second Crayon Fields album wasn't quite clear on what that something was, or was going to be. It came out in 2009. There hasn't been another record since, and the singer now has a solo album out, so maybe they never figured it out. Which would be a shame, if only because every second band over the last couple of years has adapted the basic sound of "Do It First", and a few of them have probably made some money out of it, or at least gotten recognition. "Do It First" isn't even on YouTube (a live version can be found there, but the sound quality is so awful it doesn't go close to doing justice to the fragile, autumnal grace of the recorded version).

But all is not lost, for you can download it here.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Song of the day

"Matelot", by The Renegades.

The Renegades were a British beat group from the early sixties. Evidently they had some kind of a following in Finland. (Go figure.) I had never so much as heard of them until yesterday, when we went to see "Le Havre", the new film by Aki Kaurismaki. (If you have any spare time this Easter and it is showing in your town, you should see it. It won't last long.)

This song bookends the film.