Saturday, July 26, 2014

Song of the day

"Twin Oaks Pt 1", by Ryley Walker.

It seems like every few years there is a folk-rock revival. Either that or folk-rock never really goes away. It certainly adapts and mutates (the story, up until more or less the present day, is well told in Rob Young's massive book "Electric Eden"), as it did a brief while back through the insertion of electronic music, as heard to best effect in the work of Tunng. ("Bullets" is a fine, but not the only fine, example.) Young includes the output of the Ghost Box label in the tradition, but the link there, I reckon, is slightly tenuous -- the philosophy might be similar, though I can't quite hear it explicitly in the music.

What you also get is younger musicians coming through who are situating themselves squarely in the tradition, yet don't sound exactly like what has come before: the reason for that being that every generation leaves its distinctive marks and, in doing so, itself becomes part of the tradition. And so, what we find in the new recording by Ryley Walker, "All Kinds of You", are distinct echoes of a singularly modern band, Espers, who added their own (indefinable -- by me, anyway) incremental touches to what could be called the Pentangle school of British folk-rock. (And whose most recent album, "III", which is a few years old now, I still can't draw myself away from, assuming I would even want to.) (By the way, I don't even know for sure if "folk-rock" is the term I should be using here: I can hear purists' teeth being set on edge as I type.)

Whatever it is, though, "All Kinds of You" is a totally successful record on its own terms. Certainly it contains traces, sometimes strong traces, of other music. Espers, yes, for sure, you only have to listen to the first song, "West Wind"; Pentangle and Fairport Convention are there, too, and there is a clear connection to Bert Jansch in Walker's affectless/undemonstrative vocal style. There are also hints of Nick Drake (not least in the album cover photo) and of what I would term, in my uneducated manner, Appalachian music (which, again, I apologise if I am getting this wrong). Dude can play guitar, too.

The surprising reference, for me, at least, comes at the start of "Twin Oaks Pt 1", which sounds so much like the work of Ed Kuepper that you half expect old Uncle Ed to start singing "My horses they ain't hungry, they won't eat your hay" at any moment*. It is an instrumental, though, so he doesn't. He was probably busy elsewhere, anyway: reworking "Eternally Yours" for the seven thousandth time or some such.

You can stream the entire album below (go right ahead); "Twin Oaks Pt 1" is the third track.

*Coincidence upon coincidence: Kuepper's "Pretty Mary" is actually Ed's rewrite / homage to an American folk standard, "The Wagoner's Lad", which, as "The Waggoner's Lad", was also recorded by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. There you go. (And it's not just me saying this: go here.)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hypothetical mixtape: August 2013

Movin' right along …

"Bat Bi Hiru Lau", by William S Fischer. You could break this down into a list of its component parts, but that ain't never gonna convey the madness, or the intensity, of what all of those parts add up to. Is it early fusion? Lounge? Library? Psychedelic funk? All of the above? You decide.

"I Know You Got Soul", by Eric B and Rakim. You may appreciate the irony that a song that is built from samples of other songs was itself cannibalised so as to aid in the construction of "Pump Up the Volume". All together now: "You got it!"

"How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?", by Brother D and the Collective Effort. We interrupt this frivolous playlist for a political message. A WELL FUNKY political message. All together now: "Agitate, educate, organise!"

"Three Sisters", by Affinity. You should never walk past any record that has on its front cover the famous Vertigo "swirl". It's as if these records, many of which sank without a trace on release, have been sitting buried in a time capsule for four decades waiting to be dug up and appreciated. If it includes Linda Hoyle on vocals, well, just pretend it's your birthday.

"O Caroline", by Matching Mole. Matching Mole were formed by Robert Wyatt (whose "Stalin Wasn't Stalling" was inexplicably left out of my recent "fifty at fifty" list) upon the demise of his previous band, The Soft Machine. They released two albums. Their reputation would place them squarely within the British progressive rock movement, but that would not tell the full story. There is nothing prog rock about this song. I suppose you might call it prog pop (but I would rather you didn't); Wyatt's opening lines might also align it with PoMo. But you might also relax for a minute, stop your anxious handwringing and enjoy it as the majestic pop song that it is.

"Drip Dry Eyes", by Yukihiro Takahashi. Speaking of pop songs, Yuki Takahashi, of YMO, has always had an ear for melody. It would be difficult to argue that this doesn't sound "of its time" (it being, on one reading, just another song evoking the sound of Roxy Music Mk II), but I don't care about that, cos somewhere deep inside of me it is always 1981.

"Alamein Train", by The Pete Best Beatles. A deeply personal song about Cheryl.

"Bitter Devotion (Ewan Pearson Extended Remix)", by Simone Fedi. The ghost of DFA Records hangs over this record. But fear not, it's a benevolent spirit, in this case, the afterimage of an old friend that's not quite here any more, but not quite entirely vanished, either. Whenever I see the words "Ewan Pearson Extended Remix", I cross my fingers for something as remarkable as his remix of Cortney Tidwell's "Don't Let the Stars Keep Us Tangled Up", and this isn't that, but it does have a similar lightness of touch. The house piano is a neat fit, as it was on The Juan Maclean's "Happy House", and I'm not just making that point in order to bolster an otherwise tenuous DFA reference. Because I would never do that.

"Anytime Soon", by Andy Stott. Free music. On the internet. Seriously. Here. (If you wanted to spend money, you could do worse than pick up his "Luxury Problems" album. It's a keeper.)

"Lida Lou", by Monomono. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure that there is anything in particular to distinguish this particular song, except that we do love ourselves some seventies African vibe, which is what this is. (Nigeria, 1973.) And that's more than enough. Oh, plus, there's a wicked Hammond solo. At least I think it's a Hammond. It could be a Lowrey. Or a Farfisa. Who's to know?

"Azamane Tillade", by Bombino. Which brings us squarely to this month's Black Keys connection: African desert blues, as they say, produced by what's-his-name. I like that they've resurrected the old Nonesuch logo. Somebody knows what they are doing.

"Pink Dust", by SQÜRL. (Nice umlauts, yes?) You would think that Jim Jarmusch would be old enough to know better, but something seems to possess the white-maned enigma to indulge in a spot of noisy guitar sludge. You know what to expect if you have seen "Only Lovers Left Alive". And if you haven't seen it, what's keeping you?

"Spiritual", by Tom Verlaine. You can read about this here. Download it, too; the link's still good. Me, I'm lost for words.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

It's just like Skype ...

... except it's basically useless unless you happen to live in New York, Chicago or Washington.

I found this ad in the New Yorker circa mid-1964. 

That Bell Telephone had this technology 50 years ago is surprising (to say the least). I guess the world wasn't ready.

Right-click etc for an enlargeable copy.

In ancient times

So, let me see. What, according to the "Goings On About Town" section of the New Yorker cover dated May 2, 1964, could I do in New York on the day I was born (Sunday, May 3, 1964)?

Well, I could go to the Village Vanguard to listen to Chet Baker. (Or I could wait a couple of days to catch the Miles Davis Quintet, on Tuesday, May 5.) Or maybe the "stalwart" Sonny Rollins, together with Roland Kirk's "foursome", at the Half Note. Hey, that's not a bad double bill. And Chico Hamilton is playing somewhere called the Gold Bug (85 W 3rd St).

On the other hand, I could always go to the movies. "Dr Strangelove" is playing. So is "From Russia With Love". Or I can be one jump ahead of the crowd by catching "The Pink Panther", which opens this week (although the New Yorker review isn't entirely favourable: "heavy-handed fun").

But what I am really interested in is E B White's unsigned editorial from the magazine, which, thanks to the miracles of the technology of the future, I am able to reproduce below (right-click etc for an enlargeable version). Taking the death of Rachel Carson ("Silent Spring") as his hook, White looks at the mistreatment of the natural world by America's corporations, specifically their use of chemicals, and despairs at its consequences and, more importantly, at the failure of government to do anything serious about it. ("The federal agencies concerned with the problem bicker among themselves" -- surely not!) It is a short, typically understated but brutal piece of writing.

Fifty years on, of course, the natural world may not exactly be thriving, but life hasn't died out (not yet); something was done (though never enough) about widespread unregulated use of chemicals; man, and many of those with whom we share the planet, lived to fight another day. In other words: we got out of that one.

And yet White's editorial continues to hit hard because, if you replaced "America's corporations" with "the countries of the world", and "use of chemicals" with "burning of fossil fuels", you could write much the same essay today.

I'm not sure how it is possible not to see climate change as a very serious threat to life on this planet. (Call me naive, but science, it seems to me, isn't something one can choose to believe or not believe depending on one's financial situation of political persuasion (the Pope may have put Galileo Galilei under house arrest, but the Earth still revolves around the Sun); science operates to demonstrate, as best scientists can with the tools at their disposal, that a thing is or that it isn't.) And yet the current discourse is against change, and the structural obstacles are so immense that the paradigm (or the "facts on the ground") would have to shift dramatically to galvanise the world into action. It is a lot easier to do nothing. My friend Alun thinks that this coming summer in Australia may well do the trick. I hope he's wrong (we have no air conditioning, and if Melbourne is hot, Canberra is usually hotter), but I also, thinking not only of myself, hope he's right.

Where am I going with this? Well, E B White's piece can work as a counter to such overwhelmingly negative thoughts. You can read it, you can reflect on the fact that over the intervening period we managed to put a man on the moon, and you can tell yourself that maybe, just maybe, we will find a way, despite our worst impulses, to get out of this one, too.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Song of the day

"The Price of Love", by Richard and Linda Thompson.

Tucked away, unannounced and unheralded, at the end of the second disc of the Rhino Handmade version of Richard and Linda Thompson's "Shoot Out the Lights" is a cover version of "The Price of Love", a song written by a couple of Everlys and taken to the top of the charts by Mr Bryan Ferry.

I have trawled through a lot of Richard Thompson recordings in my time, including several armfuls of covers, but I have never known him to do this song. Truth be told, it is not especially notable (more significant, in terms of the "canon", is the appearance of "I'll Keep It With Mine", delivered with feeling, and goodness knows what kind of subtext(s), by Richard and Linda), and the sound quality, unlike that of all of the other live tracks on disc two, is shocking, but it does contain a typically blistering, if brief, Thompson guitar solo. The appearance of Linda on this track is speculative.

I mention it at all, I guess, because Richard Thompson fans tend towards the obsessive, and because of the possibility that you may otherwise have missed it.

For a limited time, as long as nobody minds, you can listen to it here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Song of the day

"DBF", by Eno - Hyde.

Or, Brian Eno 2014 = Neil Young 2012?

I had never made a particular connection between the careers of Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Neil Young and Brian Eno. But it is there: all of them (roll Ed Kuepper into the mix if you like, for some Australian content), in their own way, treat albums not so much as Major Artistic Statements as somewhat random and arbitrary snapshots of what they have been up to, or where their thoughts are at, or even how they are feeling on a particular day.

Eno perhaps less so, but, as the recent excellent overview by SFJ over at the New Yorker alludes to, Eno is a (non-)musician whose reason for continuing is the work itself, and an interest in seeing where a particular idea or collaboration might lead. Thus the fact that he might disappear (aside from his regular high-profile production jobs) for years at a time doesn't mean he is not working, only that nothing that he has created has, by whatever internal slide rule he uses, seemed to him fit for turning into an album.

When that moment strikes, though, there seems to be no stopping him. Whether his partnership with Warp has been conducive to his releasing albums on a regular schedule I cannot say, but after a decade or so in which Eno largely went missing from the record racks, he has, since 2010, been at the helm of five albums and an EP. These have, to my ears, been of varying quality, but "Lux", from 2012, is the magnificent pinnacle of his "ambient" work, and now we have "High Life", his second collaborative album in two months (not a typo) with Karl Hyde, whom you might know as a member of Underworld.

The first of those two albums, "Someday World", failed to hit its (or any) target. If the collaboration had ended there, it would have sunk without trace, a fleeting footnote in both of their biographies. "High Life", though, makes it work. (Hence the question raised at the start of this post. "Americana" was perhaps a slightly dodgy album in its own right (although I do love the way a sixties garage sensibility breathes life into such moribund entities as "Oh Susannah" and "Tom Dula"; plus, Neil Young's discography is not short of slightly dodgy albums) but as a warm-up lap for the enormity of "Psychedelic Pill" (an album about which I have significant reservations, but I think I can see what he was getting at; if nothing else, it just needed a bit more work -- and a sharpened butcher's knife to cut out the large amounts of fat) it at least makes some kind of sense.)

"High Life" is a wonderful record. It is dripping with a sense of the sheer joy of making music. Many of the tracks may be nothing more than sketchy ideas not fully resolved or developed, but they work just fine as they are, and these old guys are to be applauded for letting them go in this state. It is hard to see how they could have been improved. Eno's stamp, not surprisingly, is all over these tracks. (I am at this stage finding it difficult to isolate Hyde's influence, but even if it was no more than standing off to one side and encouraging Eno to follow his own instincts (which I'm sure is not the case) his time was hardly wasted, his joint credit hardly undeserved.)

What does it sound like? It sounds like David Byrne's guitar from "Remain in Light" together with that album's strangulated funk. It sounds like the backing tracks from "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts". (Curiously (or not), it sounds more like my idea of what a Byrne and Eno album should be than the actual Byrne and Eno album that came out in 2008, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today", which was in many ways the diagonal opposite of "Bush of Ghosts". This might say more about me than about the record. It might also suggest that Karl Hyde and I were listening to the same records at the start of the eighties and were drawing the same things from what we were listening to. This would make Karl Hyde the ultimate Fanboy Enabler. There are worse things.)

Nowhere does it sound more like these things than on "DBF". You know those outtakes / incomplete ideas that were included on the CD reissue of "Remain in Light"? You could slip this track in amongst them and nobody would even notice. "DBF" is one of the shorter tracks on the album. It's a bit like the Energiser Bunny: wind it up and watch it go.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Song of the day

"Nostalgia", by David Sylvian.

Thirty years ago I first bought "Brilliant Trees", David Sylvian's first solo album, which, incidentally, was released precisely 30 years and one week ago.

I now know that the feelings "Nostalgia" describes are my default emotional state: an aching nostalgia. Whether this is just a by-product of growing old(er), or whether I have always been predisposed to missing what I no longer have, or even, maybe, whether this very song, which was no doubt still seeping its way inwards five years later, when (a) my father died and (b, and not unrelated) the world I had known fell apart before my grasping hands, I cannot really say. But Sylvian's music has long had a profound effect on me, and I can't really say with any confidence that it (in general, or this song in particular) has had no impact on the type of person I turned out to be.

Which is a heavy burden for a musician to carry, and not necessarily an invited one. Sylvian, as the lead singer and beautiful poster boy of Japan, had felt the many and intense burdens of stardom before he wrote this song, and, in breaking up the band, he intentionally started down the one-way road of dismantling those bonds. This album was the second step along that road. It is clearly the product of a different time: gone are the days when a young but impressive artist, consciously distancing himself from the trappings of fame, could command enough respect, and financial backing, from a major record label to be able to pull together a group of musicians of this calibre: Danny Thompson. Mark Isham. Ryuichi Sakamoto. Jon Hassell. Holger Czukay. Kenny Wheeler. (Also on the album are Sylvian's brother, Steve Jansen, and Richard Barbieri, who were both in Japan. It is interesting, I think, that even though Sylvian might be argued to have torn up their money ticket, he has continued to work with these two, and also with the late Mick Karn, throughout his career; or, perhaps more to the point, it is interesting that they have been prepared to continue to work with him, as if to say, unusually in this business, "we respect your decision and we wish you well".) This was an album that was never going to trouble the charts. (Although its single, "Red Guitar", was something of a hit, and, even if that was largely on account of name recognition, to say that its success was a surprise was, and still is, an understatement.)

Sylvian, on this album and on all of his work since, alone and in collaboration, has demonstrated a serene confidence. If "Brilliant Trees" was a statement of intent, it turns out to have been almost novelistic in the way it acted as a place-holder for all of the different trajectories his solo career would take. You may no longer be taking notice, but he is still writing his own story in his own way. And it is still a cracking good read.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Song of the day

"Liminality", by Fennesz.

It might be my imagination, but it seems to me that there has not been such a flood of compelling albums released so far this year as was the case in 2013. Certainly, new albums by Beck, Real Estate and (though this jury is still out) Woods are more than welcome, but the standout so far, for me at least, is "Becs", by Fennesz.

Over the past 10 or so years, Christian Fennesz has conveyed the impression of digging his own furrow through the sonic possibilities of guitar and electronics, untainted by whatever musics might be going on around him, or out there in the wider world. He may not be blinkered, but he is unquestionably committed.

"Becs" continues from where "Black Sea" left off. Critics are reading much into his return to Editions Mego as a possibly slightly backward step, and they are also reading this album, as a consequence, as something of a retread of "Endless Summer". It is true that the sun is peeking through the clouds throughout the new album. But if you listen to these two albums, and the two that came out between them, in sequence, I think you can comfortably say they are as linear as they are circular. Which is to say, they are, at the one time, neither of those things, and both of them. (This makes sense to me.)

"Liminality", which forms the centre of "Becs", runs over 10 minutes. It comprises a relatively simple and straightforward sequence of notes and chords. And yet it is the most emotionally draining piece of music I have heard for some time. There are a small number of songs that I can only listen to when I am on my own, on account of the listening experience being intensely personal. I can add "Liminality" to that list. The guitar playing is as exposed as Fennesz has ever allowed it to be. Yes, it is partially encrusted with layers of sonic gunk, which, by the way, doesn't at all interfere with what he is doing, but each individual note, each chord, sends out with it the unmistakable echo of tears cascading off the strings.

(Bonus: Tony Buck contributes drums that are so Necks-like you assume he was given free reign. As with his work in The Necks, he plays in a way that doesn't draw attention to his immense gifts.)