Sunday, September 25, 2016

Hypothetical mixtape: November 2015

A micro-playlist this time around. Just enough caught my ear to fit comfortably onto one side of a C-90. (Ask your parents.)

"Aeronaut", by Miaux. Around 1979 or 1980 you would not have been surprised to find something like this released as a seven-inch single. Today it seems so anachronistic as to be a masterstroke. Four minutes of the most gorgeous piano melody you could ever expect to hear. Reference points? Well, Colleen, obviously enough, but also [here he goes again -- ed] "From Gardens Where We Feel Secure", by Virginia Astley, with a dose of Cluster & Eno and maybe even the first Durutti Column album. The video is also pretty cool.

"Strade Vuote", by Daniela Casa. Some tastefully understated shredding (yes, there is such a thing) atop (I think) bottom-end Fender Rhodes. And bongos. This might be just me, but I can no longer hear bongos without thinking of Rhod Gilbert's legendary "ball bongos" from the last season of Buzzcocks.

"Dope VHS Master", by Desmond Cheese. They had me at the name of the track and artist. Lucky me, then, that the track is so chill it's practically an ice bucket. (Bonus: Australian content.) (Double bonus: album cover of the month.)

"Magnets (ft Lorde) (Jon Hopkins Remix)", by Disclosure. I never drank the Disclosure kool-aid. But I can respect Jon Hopkins, who, after many long years in the, uh, business, seems finally to have found his own sound, and it's a sound that was, clearly, worth searching for. Allow yourself to be absorbed. (Consumer advisory: there's not a whole lot of Lorde left in this remix.)

"Hearts Entwine", by Brenda Ray. I don't even have the words. (Perhaps this will help.) Just listen.

"Worship You", by Colleen Green. Methodology: turn everything up as far into the red as it will go without setting off a nuclear chain reaction, then play a gorgeous pop song. Somehow, the gorgeous pop song manages to shine through. I'm sure there's a moral there. (See also, obviously enough, "Psychocandy".)

"Marie-douceur, Marie-colère", by Marie Laforêt. French singer/actress tackles Jagger/Richards number. Nails it.

"4 Walls", by f(x). Because we all need some K-Pop in our lives.

"Calm Down", by Katy B x Four Tet x Floating Points. This is here largely because Floating Points has been my big discovery of 2016. Also, well, Four Tet, obviously. Soundcloud comment pretty much nails it: "This song got dancing. So good!"

"Paris", by Thundercat. An absolutely stunning miniature, rendered necessarily devastating by the tragic events that led to its making. Obviously enough, a piece of music is not going to remake anybody's lives, but just maybe it could be the slimmest of silver linings?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Grateful Dead -- Their part in my downfall

It all started off harmlessly enough. Earlier this year the Dessner boys, from The National, put out a five-disc Grateful Dead tribute album. The opening track was by War on Drugs, of whom I am a recently converted Big Fan, and the broad range of contributors was enough to pique my interest. Plus, I have long felt guilty about my total lack of Dead knowledge. So I gave it a listen. Obviously, that took quite a while. (This, I now know, is something of a constant with the Dead.) But I was sufficiently impressed with what I heard to take the next step and listen to something by the band themselves.

I had also just read a favourable review of the 2016-released 1978 Red Rocks Amphitheatre show ("7/8/78" in Deadhead notation), so that seemed like as good a place as any to start. (Although, as you will discover if you start digging, each of the many and varied eras of the Dead has its boosters. Perhaps even more so than usual, don't believe anything you read unless you already trust the writer.)

There is a venerable and wise saying: anyone who claims that they don't like Grateful Dead just hasn't heard the right song yet. And so it was that I heard the 7/8/78 version of a song called "Terrapin Station", whereupon I tumbled down a rabbit hole ...

And there I have stayed. Among the many unpleasant side-effects of a Grateful Dead obsession is the collapse of regular sleep patterns. By rights, Grateful Dead late at night should be a no-go zone: their songs not so much having the usual verse-chorus-verse structure as a kind of circular and/or perpetual motion, they tend to get lodged in your head more tenaciously than other songs. But when else is it possible to listen to the Dead in the only way they should really be absorbed: in concert. Dead shows had a tendency to run for two, three, four hours. Many have been released commercially. Many more are readily streamable at They toured extensively for something like 28 years. They seemingly recorded everything. If you think you can listen to all of it, you are some kind of an idiot. I might be that kind of an idiot.

So, you ask, how is the view from down the rabbit hole?

The first thing you notice is that there are hours and hours of live Grateful Dead that are just plain awful. Even if you limit yourself to what I think I am coming to regard as Peak Dead (late sixties to early- to mid-seventies, with another spike around 1990), you will find yourself sitting through hour after hour of tedium: yet another by-the-numbers Chuck Berry cover; dubious country-and-western-inflected "ditties" (although I must confess to having a soft spot for "Me And My Uncle", and not only because it tends to be mercifully short); aimless instrumental noodling; embarrassingly bad vocals (which have ruined many an otherwise near-perfect version of "Playing In The Band"); drum solos (although at least they are reasonably concise; compare and contrast Led Zeppelin's "How The West Was Won"); more ill-considered cover versions; more abstract and directionless musical wanderings; and so on.

Sounds about as much fun as halitosis, right? But here's the thing: a lot of what I described in the previous paragraph is in the nature of a down payment. The band takes its sweet time warming up for the evening, allowing whatever substances to start working (band and audience alike, as legend has it), getting their bearings as to where they are and figuring out where they might go next. The payoff, assuming there is one, is largely inexplicable. A band that has hitherto sounded like your worst idea of a bad night out at some point takes off. Where exactly it takes off to can vary, but that's the thing. These dudes are so skilful, and have played together for so long, that they can pretty much go anywhere. Songs turn into other songs on the head of a pin. A three-minute blues number suddenly forgets what it is, and only remembers an hour later, having taken some pretty hard left turns in the meantime. For me, the best moments actually sound like they have been hived off from Miles Davis albums such as "In A Silent Way", "Agharta" and "Pangaea".

If that peak only lasted for a few minutes (and I have heard that happen), it would not be unreasonable to ask whether those lost hours spent getting there were really worth it. But transcendence is transcendence: some people spend their entire lives in search of it. If you can find it in a passage of music after what may have been only a few short hours of searching (painful as those hours might have been), maybe you have, actually, done rather well.

But back to "Terrapin Station". The version I heard (and subsequently wrote about) had me making comparisons with Wilco. (The more Dead I listen to, the more I think that comparison wasn't as stupid as I initially thought.) Interestingly, there is a show from a few days before Red Rocks (aka 7/1/78) where it might as well be a totally different song. Its prog-rock undercarriage is completely exposed, so much so that if you added a one-legged flute player into the mix it would sound precisely like Jethro Tull circa "Songs From The Wood". Had that been the first version I heard, I can't imagine it would have tipped me over the edge. Whereas later in that same show (during the same uninterrupted sequence of songs, in fact) another song appears which, although I had heard it before, stopped me in my tracks. It is, I suspect, "my" Grateful Dead song (at least until the next one): "Wharf Rat". It's not so different from the Red Rocks version of "Terrapin Station" in mood, actually. If there are several discrete "types" of Dead song (I think that case can be made), they would both fall into the one category. (The band also played "Wharf Rat" at Red Rocks, a couple of songs before "Terrapin Station". But at the time (or maybe it was the way they played it that night) it didn't grab me like "Terrapin" did.) Maybe I am just a Jerry Garcia kind of guy.

I think that what I have learnt from all of this is that, if you simply have to take the long and winding road that leads to Grateful Dead, get yourself a good map. It just so happens that over the last couple of weeks a worthy curator has revealed himself to me: his name is John Hilgart, and he has been working his special brand of Dead magic at a web site called Save Your Face. Focussing on the years 1972-1974, he takes particular shows and edits them down into digestible and, generally, highly listenable chunks. (If you don't like one, at least you know there will be another one along in a minute that might be more to your liking, and probably is.) Working my way through his offerings has been working well for me, because when you are 52 years old and have been exposed as a child to god knows what dangerous chemicals through working on your parents' farm (they both died in their sixties) you just don't know how much time you have left, and, transcendental moments be damned, you have probably got better things to do than sit through one more bad rendition of "Good Lovin'" in the hope that it will eventually get you to the next level. I recommend checking out his good works.

In the meantime, here are three YouTubes of "Wharf Rat", from various moments in Dead time. They don't so much demonstrate evolution as change, but hey, a change is as good as a holiday, right?

First, from 1981. Garcia looks like Alan Moore on a bad day.

This one's from ten years later. There is rather a lot of bad hair here. Is Bob Weir wearing dad jeans? ("Wharf Rat" starts around 16 minutes in.)

And then there's Winterland, New Year's Eve 1978. "Wharf Rat" enters around 17:45 into this beast of a sequence. (I have actually listened to this entire show. At four hours it's a bit of a trial, although to be fair it must have taken place at the end of a long night: they offer breakfast to those who choose to hang around.)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Hypothetical mixtape: October 2015

All those months ago, you could have found these songs, and more, on the internet. If you didn't have, y'know, things to be getting on with.

"Glasshead", by Four Tet. We start proceedings with two tracks by the estimable Four Tet, the first old, the second new. The old one, "Glasshead", was, it seems, one of the first of his recordings to be commercially released, four years before "Rounds", the record that changed many lives (mine included). It is educational (and, in its own way, thrilling) to go back: dude clearly knew where he was headed.

"Opus (Four Tet Remix)", by Eric Prydz. In more recent times Four Tet has been casting an eye on what has been happening on the dance floor. Hence his keenness to do this remix. And yet it still manages to sound like "Rounds". (Also: what happens between 2'10" and 7'50" is, not to put too fine a point on it, astounding.)

"Space Jam", by Kornel Kovacs. This would not sound out of place as one of those slightly left-field tracks that from time to time land the closing spot on Kompakt's "Total" compilations.

"ABBA 002", by Axel Boman. We have an 18-year-old at our house who likes to create the impression that he wants nothing to do with ABBA. (Curiously, I was once that exact same 18-year-old.) Perhaps, though, when a song of theirs is as seamlessly woven into the fabric of a track as is the case here, we can sneak something through his defences. Let's find out, shall we?

"My Way Home", by Obas Nenor. Samples one of Gil Scott-Heron's finest moments. And lives to tell the tale.

"Good Times", by The Persuasions. Yes, you have heard this somewhere before.

"She Takes Me There", by Promised Land Sound. On Paradise of Bachelors, the 21st century's mark of quality.

"Streap Tease In The Stars (The Way I Do)", by Sirarcusa. Somebody has been through cratedigger hell to bring you this song. Respect to them. It's songs like this are why I do what I do. (Is that even a sentence?) Warning: contains flute.

"Accadde A Bali", by Arawak. Did I just say "Warning: contains flute"? Consider yourself warned. (Bonus: album cover of the month.)

"Wishing On A Star", by Fresh 4. Featuring the drum loop that launched a thousand Hydroplane songs. Produced by Smith & (it goes without saying) Mighty. (This is the best version I could find on the Tube. The one I was listening to was the 12" version. For those who are interested, I have for the time being deposited it in the Dropbox.) 

"Zion Pathway", by I Kong. Choice reggae "side" from 1977, with a distinct "Onward Christian Soldiers" vibe. (I know, right?) Fun fact: I Kong also worked under what is perhaps the best alias ever, "Ricky Storm".

"Night", by Joel Graham. When I moved to Melbourne, in 1982, I had no idea that a person, any person, could actually create music, as opposed to (as I did) absorb music that other people had made. (In all honesty, I'm still not sure how people do it.) I was lucky enough to get to know people who knew people who made music that sounded not unlike this. To me, they were like gods. This song was made in 1982. (In San Francisco.) I'm sure I would have liked it had I heard it then. I like it now. Around the 7:20 mark things start to get particularly interesting. From the label that also brought you Gigi Masin, whose name you have seen in this column on more than one occasion. More power to them.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Song of the day

"The Halfwit In Me", by Ryley Walker.

So, I purposely avoided listening to the pre-release singles off the new Ryley Walker album, "Golden Sings That Have Been Sung". I had been trying to hold down my expectations for the album, and my plan was not to allow one or two songs to become over-familiar to the detriment of the rest of the record when it came out.

Turns out that some reviewers may have fallen into this trap: I have lost count of the number of times I have read that the rest of the album sits in the shadow of "The Halfwit In Me" thus marking the album down to, y'know, six and a half stars or whatever. I am here to tell you that, listening to the album straight through several times from scratch, it might not even be the strongest track on the record.

(I am also here to tell you that the album is another huge step along the road for an extraordinary talent who is still growing into his own skin. We seem to get Walker's own singing voice this time around, making some of the reference points a bit less transparent than on "Primrose Green". What comes to the fore this time around is the band arrangements, which are as perfect as they are frequently surprising. There is a looseness, a fluidity at work here that can only come from someone who is both deeply talented and immensely confident of their ability. (The inclusion of double bass is a master stroke.) And one other thing: the album also comes in a "Deep Cuts" edition, including a 41-minute version of another of the record's finest songs, "Sullen Mind". Do you really need to go that extra distance? Yes, actually, you do.)

So why am I picking what, according to no lesser authority than myself (and, let's face it, there is no lesser authority than myself), "might not even be the strongest track on the record"? Because I have spent the past couple of months up to my eyeballs in Grateful Dead, and this is one of the Grateful Deadest songs I can think of that's not by the Dead. Observe the considered meanderings of the last couple of minutes. But don't just observe them. Get stuck right in.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Song of the day

"Where All Is Fled", by Steve Hauschildt.

This piece of music manages, in four blissful minutes, to hit the sweet spot between three of Brian Eno's most important albums (well, to me, anyway), "Another Green World", "The Pearl" (with Harold Budd), and "Music For Films". (You can, if you like, throw in "Apollo" for good measure.)

On that analysis, you might consider it to be somewhat derivative. But when a song is this gorgeous, it would be churlish to quibble.