Saturday, January 31, 2009

Right on the one: Harmonium, "Vert" (1975) & Larry Young, "Khalid of Space: Welcome" (1973)

This is pure candy-floss stuff, but damn if it isn't immaculately made. Harmonium was a Québécois group that trafficked in a spotty sort of proggy psych-folk: I've never heard the entire album from which this originates, Si On Avait Besoin d'une Cinquième Saison ('if a fifth season were necessary'), but the only other track of theirs that's made my acquiantance was some pretty spotty faux-Dixieland stuff not unlike the lower points of Skip Spence's Oar--you know, the moments in which he forgot to be mentally ill and clung to his duty, as a former member of Jefferson Airplane, to be boring. I cannot, uh, celebrate the entire catalogue, but the harmony vocals and flute arrangement on this one are kee-ler dee-ler.

And to regain a bit of skronk cred:

Larry Young was for a while the Next Big Thing in the jazz organ world: until he came along in the early '60s, virtually every Hammond B3 player copped Jimmy Smith's signature combination of R&B licks and bebop runs (hell, they even ripped off the positions of his drawbars), so when Young's brand of modal, linear, intellectually-skewed playing came along, Jimmy had his first serious challenger for jazz organ supremacy. Some jazz critic--you know, Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, Ralph J. Gleason, one of those guys who wrote everything--said that if Smith were the Charlie Parker of the B3, Larry was its Coltrane, and the comparison is apt: he shaved the good-timey blues inflections and chicken-shack greasiness from his forebear's sound, leaving a diamond-hard, fiery harmonic and melodic conception that owed as much to India and modern classical music as to Groove Holmes, Brother Jack McDuff, or any of the soul players from whom Smith drew considerable influence.

After playing in the first several lineups of Tony Williams' Lifetime and contributing to John McLaughlin's early psych-rock collaboration with Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies rhythm section (Devotion, which isn't exactly a great album but is worth seeking out for fans of McLaughlin and Hendrix), Larry's involvement in Black Power and the Nation of Islam spurred a name change to Khalid Yasin (he also referred to himself as Abdul Aziz on occasion), and his solo dates moved from the exploratory, eccentric post-bop of dates like Into Somethin' and Unity! to an electrified spiritual-fusion sound that tended to function like a grittier, more ghetto-conscious counterpart to Pharoah Sanders' exultant mysticism. Unfortunately, he also had a tendency for curious mismanagement of his career, and by the time of his death at 37 from undiagnosed diabetes (in March 1978), he was, if not alienated from the 'jazz world,' then certainly considered a marginal figure within it.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Samurai, "More Rain" (1971)

Lawson was the voice of two of the best 'lost' groups of the British psych-prog era (and I do feel that we speak very much of a continuum from the Beatles through Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson), Samurai and Greenslade: the first, as represented by their excellent ballad "More Rain," had an awareness of jazz harmony and R&B texture that for whatever reason seemed endemic of a very small group of excellent bands that only existed from about '69 to '71 (Colosseum and especially the brilliant Cressida, whose 1971 LP Asylum is back-to-front killer). Peep Tony Edwards' subtle wah-wah guitar work and the autumnal flutes of Don Fay and Tony Roberts.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Univers Zero, "Vous le Saurez en Temps Voulu" (1979)

Most of the groups that spearheaded the particular school of avant-garde rock called RIO (Rock-in-Opposition) in the middle and later '70s had about them either a politicized intellectualism (Henry Cow and its offshoots, Area, Art Zoyd) or an anarchistic sense of humor derived from Dada and Surrealism (Stormy Six, Samla Mammas Manna, Etron Fou Leloublan, Area again); the Belgians in Univers Zero replaced both of the above with a double portion of sonic violence, to which they then appended a delicate filagree of more sonic violence. Where the Samlas and Area clearly came out of a jazz-rock and ethnic music tradition and Henry Cow welded Canterbury prog and free jazz to Schoenbergian chamber music and Brecht/Weill song setpieces, Univers Zero took much of its early inspiration from the rhythmically ferocious early ballets of Igor Stravinsky, especially Le Sacre du Printemps, and Béla Bartók's equally telluric focus on eerie sonics and mutated folk tonalities.

"Vous le Saurez en Temps Voulu" ("You'll Know It At the Appropriate Time") is from their second LP, 1979's Hérésie, which is perhaps the most determinedly grim and least rock-influenced record in their output. Where later offerings, among which I'd highly recommend Ceux de Dehors and Uzed, tended to feature compositions driven by asymmetrical ostinati across which slashed dissonant pirouettes of melody, Hérésie builds slowly, layering chants and funeral-procession rhythms (think the end of The Seventh Seal, not New Orleans) that build to fevered intensities before collapsing into jagged percussive figures and strangled guitar lines.

[Follow the link at the end of the video to hear the second half of the track.]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Shlack much?

Mitigating circumstances being wot they are, some new tracks (on a rather legends-of-soul tip) sans criticism; normal posting to resume shortly.

Isaac Hayes, "Never Can Say Goodbye": the moment at which Ike's vocal enters is literally (not literally) the smoothest passage in the history of sound. From Black Moses, 1971.

Curtis Mayfield, "(Don't Worry) If There's Hell Below We're All Going to Go": I'd be surprised if anyone hadn't copped this yet, but the fuzz bass demands recapitulation. From Curtis, 1970.

Stevie Wonder, "Village Ghetto Land": for a very brief while, Stevie had an absolutely brutal sense of humor ("He's Mistra Know-It-All," par exemple), of which this is one of the finest products. From Songs in the Key of Life, 1976.

Steely Dan, "Charlie Freak": As I've had occasion to say before, a band about which I tend to have seriously conflicted feelings, but this is a perfect song. The piano part is like an NYC nightmare reading of Bach's first cello suite. From Pretzel Logic, 1974.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Get yr latte pass: The Easybeats, "Friday on My Mind" (1967) & Premiata Forneria Marconi, "Impressioni di Settembre" (1972)

Legendary shit in Australia and the UK that never particularly made it in the States. The Easybeats were, in the mid-'60s, the most famous band in Australia by no small margin, and "Friday on My Mind" was among their biggest hits, for obvious reasons: it's a perfectly constructed pop single, with not a single hair out of place. The kinetic, moddish guitar intro; the combination of lust and vulnerability in the vocal; the artful baroque cadences in the harmonic progression, especially leading into the chorus; that perfectly-placed two bar kick-drum break separating the last two choruses; and, as for most great pop songs that rely on a youthful adrenaline rush, the foreboding of the awful comedown that one can never escape but that is lost, if only for a moment, in the blind and crazed force of excitement. Genius.

Premiata Forneria Marconi (more often called PFM by fans; the name was taken from a bakery that apparently funded their early efforts) are generally held to be the most representative exponents of Italian symphonic prog, and this track from their '72 debut Storia di un Minuto is a decent one-shot introduction: autumnal Romanticism, medieval and Renaissance references, combination of rustic acoustic guitar and flute with buzzy synths and washes of Mellotron, and the very bel canto tendency toward grandiosity that singer Flavio Premoli shares with other Mediterranean vocalists--I think of Demis Roussos (Aphrodite's Child) or Francesco DiGiacomo (Banco del Mutuo Soccorso). I've never thought the group quite as remarkable as their reputation would suggest (this is a band that garners frequent greatest-of-all-time shouts in the nerdy circles among which I obviously travel): they have the habit of writing what are essentially the same four or five songs over and over, and their omnipresent melodramatic romanticism tends to preclude much play of ambiguities or emotional depth, but I like them well enough in small doses, and "Impressioni di Settembre" is a particularly neat encapsulation of what they do well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Máquina, "Earth's Daughter" (1971?)

Máquina, "Earth's Daughter"

Though I'm no Obama devotee, something of historical significance seems appropriate today: Máquina's 1971 debut, Why? Máquina!, was the first rock record to come out of Francisco Franco's fascist Spain. The LP itself is largely in the jammy/free-improv psych vein, not entirely unlike early Santana plus Saucerful of Secrets Floyd, but the CD version on Picap/Actual (a Spanish reissue label, from the looks of things) includes a couple of miscellaneous tracks of indeterminate origin, the best of which is "Earth's Daughter," a piece of theatrical piano-and-strings baroquerie that mines territory similar to that being explored at the same time by David Bowie on Hunky Dory. Good sheet; czech the download.

Shuggie Otis Double Feature: "Strawberry Letter 23" and "Freedom Flight" (1971)

Shuggie Otis is unquestionably one of the most wildly talented musicians in West Coast funk and jazz history. The son of Johnny Otis, the early R&B bandleader and, as he seems to be called by every article on the subject, "impresario," young Shuggie was cutting heads on the twelve-bar blues from the time he was an adolescent, performing professionally by the time he was 12 not only on his principle instrument (the guitar) but behind the drums, at the keys, and on bass as well. At 16 he played bass on Frank Zappa's Hot Rats (FZ was a big Johnny Otis fan and actually grew his famed goatee as an homage), and by 18 he'd cut his first solo record, Freedom Flight, laying down much of the instrumentation himself with the odd assist from a coterie of top-rank L.A. studio cats.

"Strawberry Letter 23" would later become a massive hit in a watered-down, tarted-up cover by the Brothers Johnson, but Shuggie's original is where you want to find yourself: at the moment I can't think of a record which more perfectly and seamlessly integrates the rock'n'roll and R&B milieus of its day, which so acutely marries a baroque psych production to a rolling funk groove and a nearly proggy coda of layered guitar overdubs.

Freedom Flight's title track, on the other hand, gives us a glimpse of Shuggie in full modal-improv mode, backed by musicians including Wilton Felder (bass), Aynsley Dunbar (drums, then with Frank Zappa's band), and the brilliant George Duke (Rhodes piano). The blues-derived lyricism in his playing, over the sort of groove one might find on a contemporary Pharoah Sanders or Lonnie Liston Smith record, is astonishing; there was really nobody playing guitar this way, with this much sting combined with this much lilt, in 1971, and I'm pressed to name another effort of this sort even today. (Unfortunately, the track has to be faded at 10:00 of its 12:48 length due to YouTube restrictions.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK Day: Tom Waits, "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" (2006)

A memorial holiday is a strange entity with which to attempt to cope: no matter the cause, the effect tends to be that anyone paying attention lays out maudlin feasts for the dead man that overlook and neuter his importance, and everyone else takes the day off and makes a snide joke or two. So what about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? His legend, the human monument we have made of him, risks obscuring one of the many angles of ingress into what he was able to achieve; namely, that by a simple refusal, by a radical and specific no to power that is also always a yes to possibility, to the fleeting and ineluctable newness of the moment, to the singular flash of trembling sublimity, the forces of our new and subtle totalitarianism can be brought smoking to the ground.

King was, of course, a marvelous rhetorician, and the importance of his personal charisma cannot be understated in his ability to effect mass change, but charismatic men infest every streetcorner in an age equipped with the techniques of their breeding, something that was perhaps less true in his day. His personal magnetism was an enabling condition, but for once it was not the message, the contour: if you are willing to gain a different understanding of your relationship with virtually every quantity and quality in your life, including life itself, you cannot be made to bend. You can be beaten, arrested, murdered, but as he and Gandhi before him knew, these are not victories for the State; they constitute only placeholders that by their excessive force and ideological frailty make clear just how threadbare that State has become. The question of what to do after the laws and leaders have changed is an entirely different one and perhaps even more difficult--the years since the deaths of King and his rival-turned-compatriot Malcolm X have taught us nothing if not that--but sufficient for the day are its own troubles, as another well-known passive resister once said.

Bearing all these things in mind, I give you one of Tom Waits' best songs in a career riddled with them, "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" from 2006's triple album Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. As only a bone-deep truthsayer can do, he gives us the stakes: there is no guarantee, and if you hope, you hope for reasons of your own, but spring will always follow winter, and every moment is a new and tiny possibility, another opening into a million possible worlds. That it's done rather in the style of a New Orleans second-line funeral march seems à propos, not only for Dr. King, but for this moment and other moments.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "Party Girl" (1980)

"Heartfelt" relationship songs are generally the stuff of high-grade solipsism and the finest boredom reinforcement; Elvis Costello is an exception because he is--was, at this point--so acutely, painfully aware of the politics of sexual discourse. Armed Forces, his 1980 record with the Attractions, is notable on two levels: it introduces, in a putative and still acerbic form, the fixation with Phil Spectorism and Motown-inspired production that would later lead him down some fairly dodgy avenues (Bacharach joints and hiring out gospel backing singers, the latter of which may be the single surest indicator that a White musician has become middle-aged), and it presents a rumination on the conceptual similarities between romantic infatuation and the rise of neo-fascism.

Since the criticism of the Frankfurt School, the ideological links between philosophical Romanticism, with its Germanic mythos and English naïveté, and the totalitarian have been well established, but Costello's shift in focus from capital letters to those allegedly more intimate small-r "romances" marks his best work as something conceptually new as well as exciting, vibrant, vicious. If This Year's Model dealt with relationships in terms of the culture industry, Madison Avenue, film clichés, and a gleeful exhibition of the spite and self-interest underlying them, Armed Forces moves directly to the State as a seducer which travels very much the same byways and makes use of the same mechanisms as do its "party girls"--dissipated pseudo-Bohemian rich kids, to be sure (Denton in the house), but also capital-P Party Girls who encourage the leap into desire-association and wish-fulfillment that fuels both the fascism of MTV and the fascism of Mussolini's brigades. As he puts it on another of the album's standouts, "Green Shirt,"

Theres a smart young woman on a light blue screen
Who comes into my house every night.
And she takes all the red, yellow, orange and green
And she turns them into black and white.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Action, "Shadows & Reflections" (1967)

The prototypical should-have-beens: the Action were one of the most-loved bands on the mid-'60s English Mod scene, famed for ripping takes on Motown and Stax singles and for singer Reg King's stately and weathered blue-eyed soul tenor, but they stuck to singles in what was rapidly becoming the age of the LP and went under in 1968 (they recorded enough new material for an album in late '67/early '68 but couldn't find a label; those songs were issued as a "lost album" 30 years later under the titles Brain and Rolled Gold, which is probably what you'll find in record stores if you're lucky enough to find anything). "Shadows & Reflections," produced and arranged by none other than George Martin (who plays the harpsichord introduction as well), marked their transition from lean and spiky rhythm-and-blues to baroque psychedelic pop and should have been a huge hit, which of course it wasn't. The Zombies' legendary Odessey and Oracle (spelling intentional) has been referred to as "England's Pet Sounds," but the Action's last U.K. single stakes as good a claim as any to being the British "Good Vibrations."

Baris Manço & Kurtalan Ekspres, "Hal Hal" (1981) & Eric Dolphy, "Something Sweet, Something Tender" (1964)

Baris was a legend in his native Turkey, the founder and prime mover in the Anatolian rock movement that began with revved-up electric renditions of traditional Turkish folksongs, heavily under the sway of Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, et al and eventually came to include trax as flat funky as "Hal Hal," his 1981 single with Kurtalan Ekspres, the backing band that accompanied him from '73 until his death. The combination of Middle Eastern tonality, Americanized funk breaks, and muezzin-style singing is astonishing.

After mentioning Eric Dolphy under the Ayler post, it seemed only right to supply some of his extraordinary music for those unaware. A bass clarinetist, flautist, and alto saxophonist, Dolphy came to prominence in Charles Mingus' big bands of the late '50s, and the mark of Charlie's swooning, slightly surreal lines in ballads ("I X Love," "Celia") is certainly discernable on "Something Sweet, Something Tender." The cut comes from his 1964 masterpiece Out to Lunch!, which I would have to deem required listening: Dolphy's compositional sense is an unprecedented collision of Thelonious Monk and Edgard Varèse with Salvador Dalí and film noir, and the sensitivity and raw innovation of the ensemble work (the dearly departed Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Bobby Hutcherson's spectral and funky vibraphone substitute for a piano, the estimable Richard Davis on bass, and a seventeen-year-old Tony Williams on drums) has yet to be bested anywhere in jazz or improvised music as a whole. I've long found that Dolphy's solo lines strike me more as shapes and figures than melodies, per se; the incredible velocity and tonal plasticity of his playing blurs the contours of "melody" until it becomes a physical figure, a chunk of sonic architecture wrought from the air.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Albert Ayler, "Summertime" (1965)

In the pantheon of free-jazz saxophonists, Coltrane had the vision and earth-and-metal genius; Eric Dolphy had the astonishing technical facility and ability to render sound from physical form and the reverse; Archie Shepp was funky, witty, righteous; but Albert Ayler had something that was not only possessed by none of his contemporaries but was in fact basically unprecedented by his forebears and in large degree went to the grave (or, as the case may be, the bottom of the East River) with him. Like Coltrane, he came out of bar-walking, sandpaper-toned R&B honking, but where the former streamlined his sound to an unrivaled purity and intensity and began developing the melodic line into self-reflexive and ultimately exponential territory, Ayler widened his vibrato to a frequency that approximated a particularly weathered female voice and stripped down what Coltrane built up, past Charlie Parker's eloquence and theoretical mastery, past New Orleans riffing and Louis Armstrong song-lines, back to a telluric shamanism ("primitive" only in terms of Westernized timelines, for how much more subtle in his way is Robert Johnson than J.S. Bach, how much more nuanced an understanding of timbre and rhythm did he possess?) that dealt with improvisation as chant, as mourning cry, as invocation and self-devouring play of mantric sound. Here he cuts through the thousand hackneyed renditions of "Summertime" that had piled up by 1965 (to say nothing of the transatlantic storehouses such readings could fill today) and locates its power in the lowest rumbling regions of the throat, gateway between the stomach which digests and the mouth which enunciates.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cannibal Ox, "The F-Word" (2001)

There is nothing else on Earth that sounds like Can Ox; the comparisons to Wu Tang circa 36 Chambers are warranted, but primarily on the level of vividness and intensity. The Cold Vein remains their only record, though there are periodically rumors of Vast Aire and Vordul Megallah reuniting, and it's as strong a hip-hop album as has been made since the days of Biggie and the Nas that ate souls and stole skeletons: El-P's production is a psychedelic mélange of transmogrified and distorted samples equal parts RZA, Stockhausen, and washed-out superhero-flick soundtrack, and both Vast and Vordul chronicle the occluded and the underground with precision, wit, and an abhorrence of the too-clever hippie bullshit of yr average backpacker MC (Common?). "The F-Word" functions as Vast's feature on The Cold Vein: all three verses are his, and the strength of both his flow and his compositional eye is plain in the way that his depiction of an incipient romance begins as an idle fantasy and becomes something hallucinatory and obsessive.

King Crimson, "Frame by Frame" (1982)

One of my two or three favorite tracks by the '80s version of King Crimson--the videos from earlier lineups aren't very good, urrelse I'd hasten me to them.

Generally I ride for the 1972-1974 Crimson (Robert Fripp, guitar/keyboards; John Wetton, bass; David Cross, violin/keyboards; Bill Bruford, drums) above all other incarnations; if you haven't got Larks Tongues' in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, or Red, you have some immediate homework to do ... and actually, come to think of it, I suppose I prefer the different groups that made the first three KC records, In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon, and Lizard, as well (variously including Ian MacDonald or Mel Collins on reeds, Greg Lake or Peter Giles on bass, the brilliant British free-jazzer Keith Tippett on piano, Michael Giles or Andy McCullough on drums, and the fantastic horn section of oboist Robin Miller, trombonist Nick Evans, and cornetist Marc Charig).

That said, the early '80s KC represented the tenor of its time and place in a unique way: Fripp had been living in the U.S. since the late '70s, working on future-paranoid projects including his own Exposure and Peter Gabriel's first three solo records, and his plans to form a group with bassist Tony Levin and guitarist Adrian Belew metamorphosed when Bill Bruford joined up again and he decided to reincarnate the King Crimson "idea" (he's always referred to KC as more an interpretive and creative construct than a "band" as such). Heavily into the artier end of the new wave spectrum, Balinese gamelan, and the rhythmic experiments that had informed earlier compositions like "Fracture" and "Larks' Tongues," Fripp molded the group into a sort of neurotic, heavily urban Indonesian art-funk ensemble. Twitch thee twitch thee.