2014 18 Jul
… and then, every so often, a record comes along that reaffirms your faith in recorded sound, with a jolt. A record that makes your heart burst.
Diligent Manafonistas readers may remember my previous post about Varnaline’s Man of Sin, which was Anders Parker’s first record. Nearly two decades ago (… the LP, that is, not my post). How different could two records be? The debut, lo-fi and amateurish to the point of shambolic – and this: professional and miraculously un-jaded despite the passage of time.
Every single track on this record is a winner.
2014 16 Jul
2014 13 Jul
There’s a great review of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (Deutsche Grammophon C20 series reissue) on the Amazon US site, and it’s informative lucid writing. The writer of the review states that the some of the stories told in the work are rendered in a way that is unintelligible: ‘made so vague that only the phonetic properties matter’.
Phonetic properties is a great phrase. And Berio’s Sinfonia is genius. And Sinfonia‘s reviewer is right – only the phonetic properties matter. Much of the time. Words under water, messages in bottles, the tongue set free. Words appropriated and re- ( or is that ‘de-’?) contextualised are central to Berio’s Sinfonia in a way not dissimilar to Heiner Goebbels’ Eraritjaritjaka, Museé des Phrases. The latter is a stage production, of course, its words all Elias Canetti’s, and all discernible, but the similarity remains: words under water or thrown into the air, where they fly around overhead. Le Seagull, le trawler, le kung fu kick of language.
Unholy Soul by The Orchids was described by Ian McCann in the NME as “a Pet Sounds for the 90s” and is an unclassifiable work of wonder. (I’ve never listened to Pet Sounds so no idea if McCann’s comparison was on the mark). Much of Unholy Soul is straightforward guitar-based pop, but it constantly pushes at the form’s limits and what we have here is cathedral like in its invisible structure, when we’d have expected a shed.
Sung in a mumbled, diffident Glasgow voice, the songs phonetic properties are unusual and lend the songs a timelessness/ otherworldliness. It’s difficult to believe that this was a real band and not a portrayal from a work of fiction. Singer James Hackett’s vocal style means that much of the lyrical content is lost to me in terms of its meaning, but we can take this as a positive, like Berio’s words under water.
The LP starts off with a strong vibe of the oneiric, and (in a way) like the film Inception, never quite opens its eyes. Could these be dreams within dreams? From Me And The Black And White Dream:
Picture this. A thousand people with no eyes, staring at you
But you had a [...] and I had a [...]
It’s gotta be me
In the black and white dream
More dreams, this time from the song Peaches:
Dreaming dreaming dreaming, baby
Dreaming dreaming dreaming, baby
A lot of these songs suggest the vibe of a place, but without the specifics that define it. They conjure a world of stone buildings, viaducts, rain and shelter, moss and lichen, a liminal zone between adolescence and adulthood. A slightly bleak urban landscape peopled by musical geniuses and machine elves. An almost – but not quite – monochrome world, where colour explodes in unexpected places and in vividly weird combinations.
Things take a turn for the surreal during The Sadness of Sex Part 1. I dunno if it’s some production trick using stereo, but this track has that feeling you get when you listen to Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite – that the room has turned upside down and gravity has temporarily stopped doing its thing. More great, if not always audible lyrics:
There’s a cat in my window, where the light had been
And she’s telling me secrets, [...]
And the last time I saw, well it was a [...] time
Gotta stop gotta stop gotta stop
Stepping over you
The song also contains short phrases of sampled dialogue from diverse sources including the films Arsenic and Old Lace and The BFG. Part love song, part sound collage, complete fucking genius. But – maybe because of the diffidence thing – you get the feeling that The Orchids had no idea they were painting a late 20th century masterpiece with Unholy Soul.
Unholy Soul was reissued a while back and is easily available on CD.
The Orchids have a great website. My second favourite website of all time, in fact – www.theorchids.net. What’s my first favourite website of all time? Why, www.lunkhead.net of course!
2014 11 Jul
My introduction to the Burrell Brothers’ music was the way the best musical introductions happen – out of the blue and without hype. John Peel played a track from the N.Y. House’n Authority record Apartments on the radio one night. The track, Apt. 1b was – and remains – one of the best things I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Intended or not, when you payed the 6 quid for the vinyl, shrinkwrapped and bearing the intriguing Nu Groove records logo, it felt like you were buying a piece of art. Each track is named for an apartment, or rather its number: APT. 1A, APT. 2A, APT. 3A, APT. 1B, APT. 2B, APT 3.B. The record never quite captures a Manhattan feel, and has instead a vibe of the city being viewed from the second zone, from the bridge-and-tunnel surrounds: maybe from Jersey City or Long Island City. Real ambient. The river runs right through this EP like the word Blackpool through a stick of rock. N.Y. House’n Authority was a Rheji Burrell project (he’s the guy pictured on the CD inlay below, on the left, wearing a hat). Rheji Burrell was also responsible for the haunting, slightly disturbing $1.15 Please EP by Metro, another slice of deep, dark ambient that conjures a world of the old, highly dangerous NY, steam billowing up from the streets – a world of infinite possibility for those who can make it (if you can make it here …) and a sense of danger everywhere. Ronald Burrell (aka Rhano Burrell, to the right in the picture, the dude without the hat) was responsible for a number of equally memorable Nu Groove productions, like Aphrodisiac’s Just Before The Dawn, which sounds on the face of it like club stuff (which maybe it was intended as?) but also manages to sound avant garde. Avant garde in the best way, though: experimental and innovative without any tiresome left bank of the Seine weight bearing down on it or purist pretension burden. Complete fucking genius. The label of the Aphrodisiac’s EP also credits someone called Judy Russell as a “Finger snap co-ordinator” (good detail, good humour. Wherever you are, Judy, I hope you’re well). Anyway, the Burrell album is a record I love so much that I have three copies of it. A Virgin Records America vinyl LP (unplayed, mint condition) a Ten Records (UK associated Virgin label) vinyl LP played so much that its shiny vinyl is now matte and scratchy sounding, and after years of searching, and a Virgin Records America issue of the CD (pictured below). Much of the Burrell album probably only makes sense if you know the brothers’ later work for Nu Groove records (Apartments was released a year or so after this LP, after Virgin wisely dropped them, knowing that this stuff was too cool to sell in millions). What you get here is 10 tracks, the first side is mainly ‘dance’ numbers – and from the first bar of the first track, Trust In The Music, you do just that. Rheji Burrell’s percussive deployments – elemental, intricate, hypnotic. The uptempo songs on the first side of the album have dated, for sure. But they’ve dated like a fine wine. There’s just too much mathematics in this music for it not to have the longevity of the outlier, the longevity of true genius. Track 3, I Really Like, for instance, creates its own universe in miniature: the eternal and familiar narrative of romantic love’s vicissitudes, but with the flashes of light and darkness woven into the programmed base and its interaction with the dull thud of the electric bass drum and a vocal that spans octaves as the love weather changes. Did I say genius? Side 2 of the record – the entire second side – juxtaposes with the first. The first 4 songs – Sunshine, Let Me Love You Tonight, No Greater Love, and Calling are all variations on the same theme, with the last of these taking that theme to its apotheosis. And after that, the final track – if the preceding has been an amazing film, then One And Only Lady is that zone of comfort as the credits roll, and we stand up and shuffle out of the cinema, a brilliant parting shot. To untrained ears, Burrell might sound like your average R&B record. Believe me, it ain’t. It’s a classic, and no mistake. A fair number of the songs mentioned above are on Spotify and YouTube, so check them out.
Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues
And I explained that I had overpaid them
So overdued I went to the company store
and the clerk there said that they had just been invaded
So I set sail in a teardrop and escaped beneath the doorsill
Cause the smell of her perfume echoes in my head still
Cause I see my people trying to drown the sun
In weekends of whiskey sours
Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?
2014 7 Jul
2014 5 Jul
I love field recordings, but they have to be done in the right way for them to work. It’s not simply a matter of switching a tape recorder on and walking away. One of my favourite pieces of field recordings is More Hopes And Dreams by American Music Club. 5 separate notes sound falteringly, then repeat. Despite it only being an auditory work, you can tell that this recording was made at night – magnetic tape captures more information than you may think, and the brain picks these up. That is why recorded music and sounds are a form of magic, and why music is the most visceral of all the arts. Anyway, More Hopes And Dreams is a great 1 minute and 59 second listen. Apparently the weird noises on it were made by a power station near where the band lived in northern California. Local people would turn up just to hear it. Power stations have a weird forbidding magnetism. If you get a train from London Victoria down to Kent, you pass Battersea Power Station, and it’s one of the UK’s most fascinating sites (and sights). I wonder what its systems tests would have sounded like, had it been a modern power station? The Tate Modern was of course once a power station too – and within the almost oneiric proportions of its Turbine Hall, you can, if you settle the inner voice and forget the surrounding art works, just about feel its ghosts.
I love field recordings not out of a love for processed sound (though I love that too). Chris Watson‘s Stepping Into The Dark is a fantastic example of the art. Beautifully recorded, and full of detail, it takes you right to where the sound is (was). Recorded in various locations (among them England, Scotland, Germany. Venezuela) this record is inspirational. The artist on his website describes the recording of the first track in an intriguing way: “Wind wherever the sound recordist operates is an obvious nuisance. Just as it is with turbulent seas and fast-running water, it is relatively simple to make a recording that captures the generalised bashing and cashing of the elements, but this results in white noise that describes nothing of the detailed ebb and flow as witnessed. The remarkable thing here, in Glen Cannich, was that i could walk through the foci of these wind sounds within a few paces, as if being part of some great instrument. The blast here was so strong that it took some time to fix the microphones securely – I felt surrounded by the full force of the elements being channelled through this site, and wanted the recording to reflect the bent-double posture and sheer physicality I was experiencing.” Brilliant!
Janek Schaefer’s Lay-by Lullaby has an equally strong sense of location – while much less rural/ bucolic – being based (according to his record label 12k) “around location recordings made in the middle of the night above the M3 motorway, right at the end of the road where JG Ballard lived, a couple of miles from Schaefer’s studio on the far west edge of London. Ballard wrote his seminal works on car culture, as the motorway was being built past the front of his house in 1973; Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974)”.
I love field recordings, and I also love the work of JG Ballard. High Rise and War Fever, in particular. Ballard was, of course, as the above says, a resident of England’s ‘Edgeland’, deliberately basing himself in the suburbs as he felt this was a cultural vantage point, the right distance between the cultural epicentre and the boondocks. I say I love the work of JG Ballard. Not strictly true. I love the idea of it more than the reality of it.
It’s sort of, well, kinda difficult to talk about Janek Schaefer’s Lay-by Lullaby without making reference to Krafwerk’s Autobahn: the gleam of machines, the speed, the excitement, and the danger. Or that wonderful Black Box Recorder line: “the English motorway system is beautiful and strange”. There are elements of both here, but it’s not (to my ears) first person POV. Not all of it anyway. We’re not behind the wheel. Also much of the record is in slow- slowmotion, almost as if time has stopped. I guess the clue to all this is in the record’s title!
Anyway, I love field recordings and I love Lay-by Lullaby. My end of year top 20 is filling up nicely.
“I don’t care if it
Rains or freezes
As long as I’ve got my
Ridin’ on the dashboard
Of my car”
Released 2 days ago, this remaster of John Cale and Terry Riley’s late 60s (early 70s) collaboration Church of Anthrax is a very fun listen. There’s enough of the album’s story already out there (and in Sid Smith’s new liner notes on the inlay – well written and informative they are, too). So no need for me to go into the story of the record itself.
1. Church of Anthrax – took three or for listens for this one to make any sense. Initially the keyboard sounds like Manzarek in his cups (or deep into the enhanced cartoon blotter paper, or both). But it redeems itself with the sax and bass and keyboard all in the same tailspin. Like the Canterbury Scene without a Canterbury, spirals of receding repetition, then a slowing to nothing.
2. The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Despite this being a remaster, the warmth of the tape hiss is still obvious (and welcome) on this recording. Piano chords half sleep under the grey/ blue gloaming of the sax. Lesser artists would have been happy with this aural aperçu alone. Not here though: as the track progresses, entropy does its thing and by the end we have a faded Polaroid, an end and a beginning so far away from each other that they have become a mutual mystery. Total fucking genius, and no mistake.
3. The Soul of Patrick Lee. Great lyrics, with many of Cale’s career leitmotifs present: the sky, Wales and Welsh towns, music, Christmas. Good vocal performance by Adam Miller. But you just can’t help wondering what a singer like Bert Jansch would have invested in these lyrics. The effect is not unlike hearing Doug Yule on Who Loves the Sun. Competent, but inspiration as a lacuna.
4. Ides of March. In many ways, this is a comedy song. I say “song” but it’s instrumental. And transcendental, too. Shakespeare’s soothsayer in Julius Caesar recast as his own idiot shadow-self.
5. The Protégé. A John Cale classic all the way. Again, instrumental. You can’t help but wait for the Welsh baritone to start up, but it doesn’t, and right at the end, there’s a punchline, a denouement, and it brings the record to a close that is funny and succinct.
6. There is no 6th track on this record. However, here is an intriguing 700 word text by Cale that ends with these words: As soon as the time came to go, the dramatic sequence of obliteration took its toll on the landscape; the sky was immune. Gone.
2014 29 Jun
Released in the year that the Soviet Union put the Mir space station into orbit, this wonderfully titled LP by Felt is – not unlike the Mir itself – an outstanding achievement of the 20th century. Albeit a slightly more obscure one, if just as ‘out there’.
At less than 19 minutes’ running time, this record could have fallen into the horrible “mini LP” category, but like Billy Bragg’s “Life’s A Riot” (which was about 18 minutes long) what we have is a fully realised work that’s confident enough in itself not to need to justify itself by sticking around for the conventional 40 to 45 minutes.
I know little about the band’s biography, but what I do know is that this would have been one of Felt’s first recordings after the departure of their eeerily/ spookily/ uncommonly talented guitarist Maurice Deebank. The only other thing I ‘know’ about the band – and it may well be urban myth – is that singer Lawrence (who doesn’t sing on this, but plays guitar) doesn’t eat vegetables. I’m sure I read in a book once about an interview where they asked him, if he doesn’t eat vegetables, what his Christmas dinner looked like. I think the reply was that he had a Bernard Matthews* roast turkey, on its own. (Bernard Matthews is the brand name of a UK turkey producer – they had a massive advertising spend in the 1980s, and few must be the UK kids of that era who didn’t eat Bernard Matthews breaded turkey burgers for tea at least once a week.)
Poultry aside, it’s not really possible to describe this work in any satisfactory way. And certainly not in a way that it’s makers would agree with. But never mind, I’ll try anyway.
Jaunty art-deco cocktail meta cabaret jazz, with electric piano notes that sound like the light from saints’ haloes bouncing off rainy pavements and back into the sky. Samples of sea waves, light and low-tide, with gulls flying overhead. The instrumentation has wearied, nagging melancholy that makes you wonder if in fact the composer of the music isn’t a time-traveller, washed up on a 20th century shore, aghast at what he’s found. A guitar is played backwards, a sense of returning, of comfort, the time traveller back in the 1600s or whenever he came from. Musical description of a semi-imaginary building, centuries telescoped into seconds, the constellations above its open roof racing past like groups of far-off meteorites. Desert landscapes, electrical storms.
In a good way, Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death is an exhausting listen – if it catches you in the right mood its strangeness and sadness seem all too real and paradoxically, simultaneously dreamlike.