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.


Monday, July 06, 2015

Song of the day

"Nganshe", by Mbongwana Star.

When I was growing up, on the family dairy farm at Fish Creek, hay-carting season was my favourite time of the year. It generally coincided with the lead-up to Christmas, which was an exciting time anyway, and school was over for another year, but there was more to it than that. Hay-carting time was one of the few times when the farm was crawling with people, not just family and share farmers. As an only child, I think I welcomed the invasion, although I suspect I would also not have wanted it to be like that all of the time. (I get people fatigue.)

Hay time was a rolling sequence of activities, from paddock to paddock and from one activity to another, until it was all done. First, tractors went out onto the paddock to cut the grass, using what were basically giant motorised pruning shears. (Before that, identified paddocks were locked up, free from cattle, to allow the grass to grow tall and go to seed.) The cut hay was left to sit for a few days, during which time it was turned once or twice to help it to dry out. It was then raked up into neat rows. Next, a hay baler would appear, gobbling up the rows of hay and spitting it out, via some kind of alchemy, in the form of tied-up rectangular bales. Following close behind the baler was a team of hay carters manning a truck and trailer, stacking up the bales and taking them to the hay sheds, where they were unloaded, tossed onto what we called an elevator, which was a cross between a conveyer belt and an escalator, and stacked up into the highest corners of the hay sheds.

(Note: the above is a random picture from the internet. Our hay sheds were open at the front. But you get the idea.)

So there was a lot of tractor work, which I loved, and there were also long, punishing days of hard physical labour, which left me with a feeling of pure physical exhaustion, which was kind of nice. The nerd inside of me also enjoyed the challenge of trying to build the neatest stack of hay, both on the back of the truck and in the shed.

(It was also a chance to earn some extra pocket money with which to buy records.)

While all this work was going on, dad and my uncles were also constantly looking at the sky, trying to divine the weather for the next couple of days. Often enough in South Gippsland, rain was not far away, so hay season also tended to be a race against time. Wet cut hay was worse than useless: it made bad hay, but you had to bale it up anyway, the problem being that wet baled hay packed tightly into a shed was also a major fire hazard. The hay would sit, in its wet state, causing it to heat up, possibly to such an extent that it might combust, taking the shed with it. (A common sight around farms in the district was a crow bar or other long metal implement stuffed into a narrow gap between bales, with a farmer sliding it out to check the heat every few hours, to see if the entire stack would have to be dismantled.) Thus, if bad weather was on the cards you had to go until you were finished: into the night, if necessary, through thunderstorms, if necessary (there was no O H and S to worry about in those days), and even, not infrequently, all Christmas morning (but work always stopped on Christmas day in time for lunch; that was the line that could not be crossed).

Another thing that I associate with hay season, a thing that was peculiar to our farm, was the Chuck Wagon. Uncle Jack had built a campervan out of an old Bedford refrigerated truck. The uncles used to travel around with this; it had all the comforts of home. (Well, all the comforts of their home, anyway. They were two batchelors; they didn't much go in for fancy things.) You could back up to a river, fling open the back doors, and drop a fishing line straight into the water. During hay season, uncle Jack (who had worked in the family bakery until the War, and was capable of cooking up an absolute storm) would turn the van into a kind of mobile kitchen unit, which would appear every couple of hours or so where the hay carters were working, and providing us all with an extraordinary spread: pies, pies and more pies (all filled with meat that had, until recently, been walking around in our own paddocks), followed by apple pies, snake cakes (aka Swiss rolls), biscuits, and endless cups of tea. I suspect the local bands of kids who made up the local hay-carting teams liked working at our place because the Chuck Wagon was never far away.

So, what is the point of this story? Are these just the deluded ramblings of a crazy old man? Well, quite possibly. But aside from that, I was put in mind of the old hay-carting days by, of all things, a sound on a recording. Specifically, there is a kind of circular, metallic, scraping sound (I don't know how else to describe it) that permeates "Nganshe", the third song on "From Kinshasa", an album by a hot new Congolese beat combo called Mbongwana Star, that, immediately upon my hearing it, sent me hurtling down a wormhole and landed me in front of the hay shed in front of the old house (the house my parents lived in when I was born) at the end of Eastways Road. It is, as near as can be, the sound that was produced by the hay elevator when it was sending hay up into the shed for stacking. Not being in even the tiniest part of my person remotely mechanically minded, I couldn't tell you what was making the sound. The word "flywheel" comes to mind. I would guess it was a belt that didn't quite sit squarely, and, year after year, managed to produce the exact same noise. It was annoying for a while, but eventually faded into the background. Not so far into the background, though, that I wasn't able to instantly pinpoint it 35 years later.

(For what it's worth, "From Kinshasa" is as good an album as I have heard in a while. How to put it? If someone had flown Jah Wobble, John Lydon and Keith Levene down to Kinshasa hot on the heels of "Metal Box", say, and got them together with these guys to make a record, this is what it might have sounded like. I could go for that.)

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Song of the day (2)

"A Man And A Woman", by Manuel.

It's 2015. Why in the heck would anybody in their right mind be listening to Manuel and His Music of the Mountains?

And yet. 

And yet.

Mashup of the day

"Hawaii Off Your Shoulder (Jay-Z vs Kitty, Daisy and Lewis)".

Ah, the insanely non-sequiturial mashup. In this case, a rap song that even I know, mashed together with something that wouldn't be out of place on the soundtrack to "Spongebob Squarepants". 

Shit never gets old.

Song of the day

"Until Lately", by The Dream Syndicate.

If you only buy one CD this year, make it an old one. Specifically, make it the new reissue of "The Days of Wine and Roses", by The Dream Syndicate. Not because it's remastered (they already did that in 2001). Not because of the bonus material. Just because it is SUCH a fantastic album.

For example: side two, track two.