Tuesday, September 28, 2010

DION - s/t LP (Laurie/1968[CD reissue via Ace/UK])
As good as I'd hoped for. The name "Dion" had sprung up in polite company the last couple of years, and I instantly found it mighty curious that a guy who was most famous as a kind of teen-idol Italian-American street-corner doo-wop singer who, w/ the Delmonts, found great fame and fortune in the late '50s/ early '60s had then, apparently, in the late '60s cut a couple of highly-regarded discs in a kind of Fred Neil/Tim Hardin vein. And that he did, and my curiosity finally got the better of me.
Dion left his original label Laurie for mega-corp Columbia in 1963, though by then his heart wasn't set on more teeny-bopper fair; instead, he'd become enthralled by the new folk scene centred around Greenwich Village, particularly Bob Dylan, and he'd also found himself w/ a raging heroin habit. He recorded a few hit singles, but largely didn't record much the next 5 years. It was only when he kicked his addiction in '68 that he hit the studio again w/ a bag of covers, some originals and a yearning to get all introspective. On Dion, lush orchestral arrangements accompany the fairly bare-bones folksy/bluesy songs, and Dion takes a more free-form approach w/ his vocals, sounding a whole lot like obvious contemporaries Fred Neil, Tim Buckley and Van Morrison. He's got the sweetest damn voice you'll ever hear, one which never falls into the occasionally over-dramatic warbling of Buckley, but soars like Neil or Morrison at their best. It's the best instrument on the album.
The covers are pretty obvious choices for the era - Fred Neil, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Dylan, though there's also a vastly different reworking of Hendrix's "Purple Haze" (the CD liner notes call it "embarrassing": sounds pretty fine to me!), a non-terrible example of white-boy blues w/ Lightnin' Hopkins' "You Better Watch Yourself (Sonny Boy)", and a surprisingly non-saccharine take on Stevie Wonder's cheesefest, "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever". Best of all is the lead-off track, the top 5 hit from the LP, "Abraham, Martin and John", a song which, for all I know probably still gets a flogging on oldies radio and I just happen to be the last guy on earth to've heard it. Written by Dick Holler (though Dion claims to've written the song's melody) it's a close to perfect slice of string-laden AM folk-pop, and even though the subject matter is about as dated as last week's milk (you shouldn't have to try too hard to guess what he's singing about), even an old curmudgeon like me can admit it's still an affecting tune.
There's also an original tune by the man himself, the anti-war "He Looks A Lot Like Me", a sparse guitar/vocal lament which proves he was more than just a jukebox for the best singer/songwriters of the day. As a whole, Dion is an astonishingly good album, a total surprise and a must for any fan of late '60s Buckley, Fred Neil, Astral Weeks and even Forever Changes, and possibly even best of all is the bonus track on the Ace CD, the rare B-side to "Abraham, Martin and John", "Daddy Rollin' (In Your Arms)", another Dion original which makes him sound like a street punk for real. Lou Reed always dug him, and now I can see why. The opening riff, complete w/ a violently strummed distorted guitar, sounds uncannily like the Velvets' "Sister Ray", and it's a primo slice of punkified '60s folk-rock likely ignored by all but the most foolhardy collector dork.
Later on, Dion traded in the smack for God and has apparently refused to play anything but religious material (I think his interpretation might be a little loose), though people still speak highly of the records he's made throughout the last 40 years, especially the Spector-produced Born To Be With You from 1975, a record alleged to be one of the best ever, according to Limey guitar-slingers Pete Townsend and Jason Pierce. I'll deal w/ that another time. Until then, if your taste in music extends beyond my usual rants about old punk discs and SST releases, you might wanna investigate.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I don't tend to talk about my favourite films on this blog. This is probably because I'd imagine you think my tastes in movies blow. Hell, sometimes even I think my taste in films suck. But for whatever reason I've decided to put this clip up, certainly one of the most ham-fisted of scenes in Andrei Konchalovsky's 1985 "exiential action" flick, RUNAWAY TRAIN. It's been one of my all-time fave movies ever since I saw it for the first time on TV back in 1988, and even a recent viewing hasn't let it slip down the list. I remember it being on at the cinemas when I was 13, but ignored it due to the title: the frighteningly literal title Runaway Train makes it sound like a Disney film. If you haven't seen it, the cast probably won't sell the picture to you. There's serial ham, Jon Voight, a guy whose career started off strong as an A-list talent in films such as Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance, but whom by the '80s had hit the same skids that befell other actors of his "New Hollywood" generation, and found himself either doing B-movies or not working much at all. And that's the good news. On top of that you have Z-grade straight-to-DVD icon Eric Roberts ("Julia's brother"), who, despite several cases of serious over-acting on his behalf, manages to pull of a highly convincing portrait of a not-too-bright thug (possibly not a stretch); and Rebecca DeMornay, the chick who got her gear off in Risky Business, playing a stranded railway worker stuck on the train w/ these two lowlifes. The extremely bloody and violent tale, w/ a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, follows the attempted escape from a maximum-security prison in the middle of an Alaskan winter, one (Voight) a hardened criminal wishing to show the dastardly prison warden (and boy, he's dastardly) that he can escape the prison's claw, break free and not let his spirit be crushed; the other, Roberts, a dumb punk in the middle of a stretch for statutory rape ("we's was in love") who's only too eager to please the legendary lifer whose resolve remains an inspiration to all the prisoners. And of course their plans go haywire when they realise in the midst of their escape that they're stuck on a runaway train headed for disaster. I shouldn't have to explain the metaphor of the "runaway train", but I will: Manny (Voight), is the "runaway train", a force which can't be stopped, a hardened brute of a man who'll stop at nothing for his freedom. But can such a beast show pity for a fellow human being? You'll just have to watch it, if you care. After those last few sentences, that's less likely. Directed by a Russian, the script by a Jap, featuring an American cast and filmed in Canada, this international effort, for a film of its time, is surprisingly downbeat, grim and brutally realistic in its violence (delicate souls probably won't get past the first 40 minutes based in the prison), though the action scenes in the last 40 minutes, superbly directed though they are, would also certainly find an appeal amongst the multiplex Lethal Weapon crowd. I've met many folks who've never seen Runaway Train, but those who have, every single one of them has nothing but praise for it. Along w/ Walter Hill's excellent Southern Comfort from 1982, it remains the best thinking-man's action flick of the '80s.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I was on the city-bound no. 19 tram a few months ago, ironically enough on the way to an opening party of sorts for a friend who had just bought and taken over two fairly well-known independent record stores, when I was unfortunately within earshot of just the kind of mind-numbing conversation which usually accompanies a trip on public transport. It was a 20-something blowhard loudly proclaiming to his mates that he couldn't believe - he was apopleptic on the topic - that anyone in this day and age would bother actually buying music, let alone visiting a record store to do so. He then went on to say that the entire business of music had shifted radically in the last few years - a truism - and that musicians should now accept the fact that income from actual recorded music will soon be zilch (because why should you have to pay for it?) and they'll have to make up the difference through touring and merchandise sales. There's about 80% truth in these statements, but it's the 20% which is so wrong - and even moreso when uttered from the mouth of a grade-A douche - that I was tempted to butt into their conversation to correct him on a few matters and maybe give him a clip over the ear in the process. But I didn't. After all, he might've had a knife, and I have a blog.
Where was I going w/ all of this? Probably nowhere, but it did have me thinking: if all music in the future, as some predict to be, will be purely digital and not be presented in any manner of physical form, where will the concept of labels stand? I don't mean major labels, as there isn't one in existence any more which actually carries any sense of identity (the way Warner Brothers, Elektra, Island, Atlantic, etc. all once did), but the independent label, the aggregator and subjective arbiter of sound. A great label is an excellent filter. Of course, none of this digital-age brouhaha transformation will ever fully take place: vinyl has already made a major comeback, and whilst the CD is currently going the way of the 8-track, I'll lay a $1,000.00 bet with anyone reading this that the format will undergo a strange revival in the next 15-20 years, as people tire of the concept of accessing music via computer screens and ipods. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia to revive everything. All those putzes who traded in their CDs for ipods will be doing the same thing as every twit who stupidly traded in their vinyl for CDs back in the '80s/'90s, believing wax to be a dead format: buying it back.
And in no way whatsoever, this brings me around to these two releases on one of my fave contemporary imprints, AUM Fidelity. I hope AUM Fidelity is still around in 20-30 years, though that's doubtful. At the very least, I hope their catalogue of CDs don't become landfill and can be aquired, consumed and appreciated in a form which gives creedence to the label's grand body of work. Much like its little brother label, Eremite (though they're both totally unrelated and unconnected, except for the crossover of a few players), as well as similar labels of yesteryear such as FMP and ESP'-Disk, AUM Fidelity is all about documenting a key scene of jazz players, whether in live performance or the studio and, despite the great joy that many of its releases bring to the listener in and of themselves, presenting each release as part of a wider catalogue of music. There's a Cooper-Moore CD on AF by the name of The Cedarbox Recordings which, by most standards (a solo album comprising of "diddley-bo, horizontal hoe-handle harp, ashimba, bamboo fife, twanger, piano, mouth-bow, three-stringed fretless banjo, percussion, synth, voice"), tests one's patience, yet guided by the label's freedom principle in allowing its artists to express themselves in any manner they see fit, it makes sense as a piece of the puzzle. You don't give birth to a label w/ something like that, but for a 51st release preceeded by a remarkable strike rate, it's an interesting indulgence.
Both David S. Ware and William Parker, two of AF's star performers and possibly (and likely) the two best players in contemporary avant-jazz, have been allowed to indulge themselves in a few curio releases the last decade (Parker's duet albums w/ Hamid Drake and Ware's strictly-solo outings), and both to rather excellent results. On I Plan To Stay A Believer, Parker has documented a series of live recordings from 2001-2008 from his project dedicated to interpreting the songs of Curtis Mayfield. It's perhaps an odd choice for a guy who's indulged in the world of free jazz for close to 40 years, and my worst fears were that it would result in a kind of faux soul-jazz slop. Of course, I'm not here to write bad reviews, but to point the way towards good things, and this is one of them. Being a massive Curtis fan (though I OD'd on his Impressions LPs and first four solo discs so bad about a decade or more ago that I haven't listened to them much in recent years), the songs and their nuances are well known, so it really comes down to what kind of balance Parker strikes between reverence and a desire to reinvent. The band, which features the likes of Dave Burrell, Sabir Mateen and Hamid Drake and ace vocalist Leena Conquest, actually manages to keep the interpretations quite orthodox throughout much of it, which I think is what makes this work. It's not a "jazz" take on Mayfield so much as it's a combination of deep soul with outward-bound jazz interludes, w/ both "People Get Ready" and "I'm So Proud" evolving into original Parker compositions, "The Inside Song" (an original) being a simply awesome gospel stomper. And yet this description doesn't do the sense of ebb and flow of the music justice, as it doesn't simply revert from interpretation to improvisation as a matter of rule. "New World Order" comprises a 90-piece children's chorus, the New York recordings a full gospel choir; "Move On Up" is a total reinvention, sounding not unlike Sun Ra/June Tyson's recordings from the early '70s. Parker is one of the great experimenters in jazz and a man of serious intent, he never stands still. I'll chalk this one up as another unique and inventive notch in his belt, and I'll quietly wait for a long-overdue follow-up to 1998's epochal recording, The Peach Orchard (thee finest jazz recording of the last 20 years, says I), with his In Order To Survive quartet. Put it this way: if you like either Mayfield or Parker, you'll be interested in hearing this, and if you're already a fan of both then there's little choice.

"Every song written or improvised has an inside song which lives in the shadows, in-between the sounds and silences and behind the words, pulsating, waiting to be reborn as a new song." - William Parker

Saxophonist hotshot David S. Ware is a man I've written about quite a few times before, though I believe the albums I covered were in fact his two major-label recordings for Sony (he was snapped up by Sony A & R guy Branford Marsalis, the less-assholeish brother of Wynton) from a decade back, both of which rate as (surprisingly enough, given most major-labels' track record of whitewashing any interesting artist they sign) perhaps his finest recordings. The bean-counters at Sony weren't that impressed w/ the underwhelming sales and he was shown the door pretty quick, and was of course allowed back w/ open arms by AUM Fidelity (as well as a few releases on Thirsty Ear, including an incredible 3CD live set), where he's done everything from power trios to a quartet aided by synths and electronic keys (2001's Corridors & Parallels: another one of his best) to a screeching, 40-minute rendition of Sonny Rollins' "Freedom Suite". And this time on Onecept, despite his recent illness - a lung transplant, I think - and what now marks his 50th year on the instrument (mind you, he started young), he's gone into the studio w/ stalwart sidekick William Parker and percussionist Warren Smith w/ zero rehearsals and nothing mapped out. It was all left up to chance, but given the telepathic nature of the performers, I had to read about it to notice this fact: I didn't hear it. Either this is edited to perfection or, more likely, the players are one-take perfectionists, because it's an enganging, fiery brew which, at least to me, had me thinking of Ayler's early trio recordings for ESP: sheets of sound which pretty much reinvented jazz for an entire generation. Onecept isn't reinventing anything and Ware has probably taken bigger artistic chances before (as mentioned), but maybe I'm just saying that because the mastery of Onecept sounds a whole lot more "composed" than it actually is. Walking into the studio w/out any preconceived notion of what it is you'll actually play together is a hell of a risk. I guess he just makes it sound easy. Best Ware disc in a while. Keep 'em coming...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New LP in a ltd. edition of 300 by my fave midwestern noiseniks, BOY DIRT CAR: Familia, released on the After Music Recordings label outta Minneapolis. Nice silk-screened cover, and a very cool racket indeed. BDC have been around for almost 30(!) years, and infamously feature two members, Dan Kubinski and Keith Brammer, from one of the great US u/ground rock bands of yesteryear, Die Kreuzen. It's the sound of punkers weened on (GI) and Pink Flag exploring new sonic capabilities via Branca and Throbbing Gristle. Well, at least it was, back in the '80s. These days, BDC are like a noise heritage act, and I don't mean that as an insult. Most avenues of experimentation have already been explored; for me it's simply a case of who does it well, and BDC always fulfill that obligation. These'll be gone before you know it, so get in quick.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's a rare, and good, day indeed when I wrap my ears around a contemporary rock 'n' roll combo who make me stand up and take notice. The Brooklyn four-piece known as Endless Boogie, for this month, is that band. Formed all the way back in 2001, they're a group I'd heard of many times before, mistakenly assuming them to be "just another hipster band from Brooklyn" (w/ possible moustaches, tape-label connections and fixed-gear bikes), and hence I paid them no mind. It was only when I heard a track of theirs on the radio back in 2008, and then managed to scam a free copy of the album from a friend who worked at Shock (who licensed their Focus Level album for Australia), that I realised all my previously-held assumptions regarding Endless Boogie were a crock.
I flogged that album for a good month or more, though for whatever reason never blogged about it nor spoke about it to friends. And then just last week, I heard on the radio (same station, same show: take a guess) the opening track, the 10-minute blues-psych meisterwerk, "Empty Eye", from their brand-new full-lengther, Full House Head. For the first 30 seconds I mistook it for a Junior Kimbrough number (the similarities are pretty uncanny) and immediately pricked up my ears, curious that someone was playing the guy on the radio in 2010 (that'd be a good thing), but when the Jagger-like vocals came barking out over the minimalist, blues-rock shuffle, I figured it was a 'Stones track ca. Sticky Fingers or Exile..., likely an unreleased and/or unheard (by me, at least) track from the myriad 'Stones box sets, both legitimate and otherwise, which have been getting released of late. I was wrong again.
Now all of this is a ridiculously roundabout way of trying to get to a point. The point, I think, is this: the band known as Endless Boogie, despite their unashamedly derivative nature, are one who've far surpassed whatever meagre expectations I held for them. They're a shameless mish-mash of well-worn sounds - the band is made up of four fast-approaching-middle-age collector "dudes" (one being Paul Major, an infamous hoarder of vinyl on the US's east coast) - but the vaults they're plundering to come up w/ their own unique take on blues/boogie-rock are A-OK by me. Obviously there's a heavy element of minimalist choogle derived from John Lee Hooker (their name being the title of a '70s Hooker LP) and primo Canned Heat, but they mix it up w/ a more aggressive variant on the genre, spawned from the likes of the Groundhogs and the Coloured Balls (the two greatest bands I'd fly under the vague banner of "aggressive, hard-hitting and vaguely punkish '70s blues-rock"), as well as a loose 'n' swingin' psychedelic garage punk a la the Stooges' first LP and the kind of repetitive grooves collector dorks pop boners to on Can and Neu! platters. Sounds like "collector music", right? Endless Boogie are better than that, particularly the new album, Full House Head.
That opener, "Empty Eye".... boy oh boy, that's a corker, an ear-grabbing lead-off that's streets ahead of just about any contemporary rock 'n' roll tune I've heard the past 12 months. When you hear it context-free like I did upon first listen, you can't deny its greatness. If the 'Stones hadn't lost the plot (or their balls) after Exile..., they woulda sounded like that. And there's more to come. Most of the songs hover on the 8-minute mark; the faster tracks, such as "Tarmac City", almost resemble an AC/DC-Dead Moon hybrid (and on "Top Dollar Speaks His Mind", Major sounds exactly like Fred Cole); and the final number, "A Life Worth Leaving", clocks in at over 22 minutes and drops the fidelity levels as it continues, laying out an awesome grime that's somewhere between "Sister Ray", Master Of Reality and "Orgone Accumulator". Upon listening to this the dozenth time (I only just received it in the mail three days ago), and then revisiting their Focus Level CD once again, I'm convinced that Endless Boogie are not merely a high-concept band aimed at hipsters. In fact, they're nothing of the sort. As a totally non-careerist conglomerate of hairy, ageing vinyl addicts creating their own musical niche in the year 2010, I can't fault them. No matter which way you cut it, it's great stuff. Investigate.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I wrote about 'em just recently - EMBRACE - and here's a pretty cool live clip of them from '86 performing one of the best songs on the album, "Money". With a surprisingly good sound on this clip, it ably demonstrates what a solid and surprisingly "rock" (given the place and time) approach the band had. Dig it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yikes. Over 2 weeks from the last time I threw something in the ring here. You can call it general laziness or a lack of time, but I'll call it a writer's block. I've been listening to plenty o' good music, believe you me, but my ability to express it all has hit a bit of a dead spot. Perhaps you should check out the following two entries I found on James "The Hound" Marshall's excellent site, The Houndblog, a wealth of information which has probably been the biggest influence on my musical tastes and areas of audio obsession which have taken hold over me the last six months. Jim's blog gives you the facts, never condescending in its approach (despite the fact that I'm willing to bet that his site is a steep learning curve for all but the obsessed), it gives you the necessary facts straight-up about many artists from the 1940s-'70s you don't often read about in most rock-oriented blogs (everything from Johnny Ray to Sister Rosetta Tharpe), and this is all done usually tinted w/ a supremely black and frequently hilarious sense of humour. The first is Jim writing about his longtime friendship w/ the now-deceased guitar God, Robert Quine, detailing Quine's sad demise following the death of his wife. Quine always came across like a cool guy, and this great piece of writing does nothing to dispel this assumption, though the destructive levels of his drug abuse (something I was totally unaware of) is more than a little depressing. Second up is Marshall's write-up on the career of the perennial "fifth 'Stone", Bill Wyman. The portrait's far from flattering, but if you believe what you've just read - and there's no reason not to - then Wyman doesn't have a hell of a lot going for him: his homely looks and poor song-writing would always make him a background man. It's funny as hell and highly recommended.