Thursday, May 27, 2010

I ain't here to really talk about music as such today: I'm going to talk about a couple of blogs. There's a zillion of 'em out there, and the laws of probability can deduct that at least 7 of them must be worth reading. The following fall into that category.

First up is The Houndblog. I stumbled across this one via Blog To Comm, of all pathways, but it's the destination that counts, not the journey. Houndblog has been around for a couple of years and is helmed by music scene vet, James Marshall. I'd never heard of the guy before, though I get a feeling he could walk into any bar on the east coast USA and everyone would know his name, so to speak. In other words, I probably shoulda heard of him on my travels: he DJ'd at WFMU for umpteen years, has written for a whole bunch of publications and CD reissues worth a gander and knows his shit like no other. The shit in question is mainly raw country/blues/soul/gospel of yesteryear and classic proto-punk a la Stooges/Velvets/Flamin' Groovies et al. The writing is no-nonsense but not without a sly sense of humour, giving you all the facts - the background info, the personnel, the label, the musical terrain, the sounds - and is usually accompanied by several kickass Youtube clips which give you the sounds and pictures necessary for an all-round appreciation of the artist in question. One of his great passions and areas of expertise remains the pre-rock 'n' roll electric blues which has been lighting my fire like nothing on earth the last six months, and if only for that reason alone, I'd say Houndblog is an essential stop on your interweb highway. His excitement is contagious, and I fear that if I continue to read his site I might just fall into total self-parody realm within the next few years, as I slip into a rut of attending 78 parties, discussing widened holes and cracks ala Ghost World. I guess there are worse places to wind up. For now, I gotta investigate me some hot sides on the Duke/Peacock, Excello, King/Federal, Specialty, Fortune and Trumpet labels, and pronto.

Next up is Mutant Sounds. I have no idea who is behind this blog - there's little information given in that regard - though it has a huge following (over 1,000 official) and is rampantly prolific in its entries. In its debut year, 2007, it clocked up a whopping 2018(!!) of them, though it has since tapered off the last couple of years to a cool 3-400 per annum. My hat is tipped. Mutant Sounds is a download-oriented site, something I'm usually not too fond of (for various reasons), though there are two great things in its favour: it concentrates on out-of-print product, often so rare and mythical the sands of time had me thinking some of them never really existed in reality; and secondly, 90% of the music it offers is either great or at least "interesting" (ie. "Collector Music"). Even moreso, they were kind enough to remove a download link to an old F/i LP I'd reissued when I politely requested that they do so. So they're not simply thieving, opportunistic bastards, but nice folks. I wish there'd been a site like this back in the early/mid '90s when I busy purchasing all kinds of alleged "psych/prog monster" reissues from various mailorder outlets, only to come crashing back down to earth upon first listen, soon realising that one man's monster is another man's Weather Report/Jethro Tull hybrid. The depth of knowledge and musical aquisition on Mutant Sounds is staggering. I can honestly say that the bulk of the music covered I have never heard of, and that's coming from a guy who's gladly wasted most of his life wanting to scour every last piece of information on exactly the kind of esoteric nonsense Mutant Sounds specialises in. You'll hear prog, art-punk, electronic drones, Euro psych, free jazz and pretty much everything in between. Essential!

Lastly I'll mention The Hedonist Jive. Jay Hinman has taken the leap from a mere blog to the big league of an actual .com website, and in its wake he's swept up the three blogs he was concurrently running, Hedonist Beer Jive, Detailed Twang and First Principles - dealing in beer, music and politics, respectively - and put them under the one roof. I never read his beer blog much: it all tastes the same to me, and since I haven't drunk a drop of booze for nine months, the site was of little interest. First Principles I visited on occasion, though I'll be honest, I get most of my political commentary from bleeding-heart sites such as The Huffington Post and the like, and contemporary politics isn't something I actively read about these days as much as I probably should. Detailed Twang was definitely a site worth a regular drop-in, of course, and putting the three together makes for a swish balance of topics and ideas. Best of all, in his latest entry, his given y'all a link to a pdf version of the first issue of his old fanzine from the 1990s, Superdope. This one, from 1991, I never managed to read the first time round (I think I have all subsequent issues, though consulting those piles of paper in the spare room for an answer is not something I feel like tackling right now), and it ably demonstrates that Superdope was indeed the finest read of its day, along w/ Feminist Baseball and Wipeout!, covering the best music of its era in a smart-arsed (but smart) fashion which few could rival. I piss in no man's pocket, but The Hedonist Jive is a darn good read.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

TROTSKY ICEPICK - El Kabong LP (SST/1989)
I'm not going on record saying Trotsky Icepick were a great band. They weren't. But at least a couple of their albums - Baby and El Kabong - feature a few excellent songs which make their purchase a worthwhile pursuit. Chances are you'll get these for a nickel or two somewhere, as they were released amidst the SST glut of 1987-'89 (mind you, there was a lot of goodness in that glut, too!). Somewhat of an LA post-punk supergroup who, in their lifetime, featured ex- members of such luminaries as 100 Flowers, Leaving Trains, Middle Class(!) and The Last, they managed to pump out over half-a-dozen albums throughout the mid-'80s to mid-'90s without making a huge dent. El Kabong is one of them. Heavily influenced by Brit post-punk - Magazine, Wire, The Fall - their sound was part SST-damaged "rock" (there's a Meat Puppets/Minutemen "vibe" floating around there somewhere) and part trans-Atlantic angst. Sounds like potentially a great thing, though I'd be lying if the results were anything to write home about. So why am I writing about a band prone to generating such non-excitement levels? Because there's three songs on El Kabong which rule. You know, the way good things rule. The first is the opener, "The Conveniences Of Life", an ode to the dazzling technologies available to the average putz in the late 1980s: microwaves, VCRs, fax machines et al. It's a stomper in a kinda first-album Magazine/Pink Flag way, booming snare drums lending it a party-starting quality. Next up is a cover of Magazine's "The Light Pours Out Of Me", a great song in its own right, but one also easy to fuck up. Trotsky Icepick don't stray too far from a basic xerox approach, and in my opinion better the original with their energetic tribute. Now flip the record over to side B. First track is "Astronomer": that's the one you're looking for. Funnily enough, it doesn't differ much in sound, structure or approach to the two previously mentioned tracks: that same drum-driven stomping rhythm (think "TV Eye" or Eno's "Needle In A Camel's Eye") with flange-soaked guitar chords atop. Best of all, after the chorus comes the big descending guitar hook, noodling notes spewed out like the best leads on Marquee Moon. That's the clincher, and those three tracks alone make this worth keeping. I bought it upon release, along w/ their Baby (also definitely worth a shot for SST tragics, as it bears an overall consistency which El Kabong lacks) and Poison Summer (their debut from '86, and an album I haven't listened to for so many years that at this stage I'd need a re-listen before I could say anything about it) LPs. I still own all three of them over 20 years later, so I guess that says something about 'em. Walk, don't run, but if you stumble upon any of these in your travels - and most specifically El Kabong and the three great songs it contains - then there's worse things you could do w/ a few spare bucks than add them to the pile.
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POSTSCRIPT: True story dept. - In 1989, my final year of high school, I screenprinted "Trotsky Icepick" on the back of my black denim jacket. That's commitment. To what, I don't know...

Sunday, May 09, 2010

THE ART OF THE COMPILATION
There ain't nothin' as sweet on God's good earth as a fine compilation. A collection of music packaged, annotated and all put together by someone else as an overview of a particular style, genre or scene. I'm an album man myself - that is, a record featuring multiple tracks by one artist - though sometimes a collection of tunes from all manner of folks is a whole lot more fun than 35-75 minutes of music from the same person or group. Such is the case with the following releases. These are some of my favourite comps of recent years - and I seen a lot of 'em - possibly of all time (ask me in a decade). Sure, I coulda put in Nuggets or Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music, but I figure you've already got those, right? The number of compilations being released covering everything from Peruvian psych to African funk to early '80s minimal synth-wave music sees no slowing down in the immediate future, and that's a good thing. You need a taster first, and then you dive right in, find out what you really like and explore further. The following releases are all worth your bother, and here's hoping you dig deeper. It's barely even scratching the surface, I know, but it's a start.

"That's What I Want" - Jook Joint Blues: Good Time Rhythm & Blues 1943-1956 4CD box (JSP/2007)
Much like the Trikont label (see below), British label JSP (that's John Steadman Productions: the guy who runs it) has so many great collections which span so many genres - jump-blues, western swing, Rembetika, cajun, jazz, old-time gospel et al - that they could have easily taken up all entries on this list. I've picked a couple, and this one, featuring 112 tracks of raw, good-time Southern electric blues from the 1940s/'50s, rates as one of their finest. Less out-and-out chaotic than the Shim Sham Shimmy release on Sub Rosa, the mood here relies less on raucousness and more on a loose, gin-soaked feel, very much like those Junior Kimbrough discs I've raved about in these pages before. Which figures, coz Kimbrough basically learned his chops from this very scene: totally regional blues where 78s wouldn't even leave county lines until Northern and foreign (white) collector dorks in the 1960s went shopping door to door.

Cantors, Klezmorium and Crooners: 1905-1953 3CD box (JSP/2009)
Despite my status as an agnostic gentile, there is something about Jewish music which appeals. Much like the soul/funk/jazz of Ethiopia, there's a certain key and tone in which the music is played which instantly identifies it for what it is. This collection is put together by 78 collector, Sherry Mayrent, a statement of fact which probably means about as much to you as it does to me, but nevertheless, this is an eclectic brew. Of special note is track 3 on disc 2: "Histendiger Chazen" by Maurice Schwartz. It sounds like a scratchy tape smuggled from a local mental hospital: Schwartz chants, yells, moans and screams solo for minutes on end, like a man having a conversation w/ himself. I'm told it's actually an ancient Yiddish chant. The rest of the three CDs contain actual music, and it's a terrific transportation into another time and place. Rockin'!

American Primitive, Vol. 2 2CD (Revenant/2005)
John Fahey (now solely Dean Blackwood's: Fahey's lawyer and friend before his death)'s Revenant label almost singlehandedly redefined the art of the box set with their 7-CD Charley Patton behemoth and then subsequently the 9-CD Albert Ayler set in the earlier half of last decade, but since they're not compilations of various artists - and since pretty much everything the Revenant label released is essential - I have to throw in something from their roster. 2005's second volume of raw pre-war gospel fits the bill perfectly. Most of the recordings are from the late 1920s and early 1930s (w/ one wax-cylinder cut being from 1897[!!]), lo-fi, coated in crackles and range from solo yelpers (some even propping their sound w/ spoons) to baptist choirs. A whole lot more in between. The God-botherers made a mighty racket back in the day.

Roll Your Moneymaker: Early Black Rock 'n' Roll 1948-1958 CD (Trikont/2008)
The German label Trikont - renowned for its compilations which span the genres of Rembetika, old-time country blues, gospel, southern soul, cajun, '70s punk and everything in between - just like the JSP imprint, possibly deserve all dozen entries here, but I'll list this one, simply because it's been a recent fave and fits perfectly w/ my current obsession with wild pre-rock 'n' roll black music. There's a lot of obvious entries here, even though it strangely omits the likes of the brilliant Louis Jordan and Amos Milburn, but that's no detraction from its uniform excellence in material. Ike Turner, Etta James, Lazy Lester, Rufus Thomas, Slim Harpo, Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley deliver just some of the 30 numbers. Like a party tape for the ages.

Loch Ness Monster CD (Trojan/2003)
The genre known as Oi! has never floated my boat to any great degree - barring those killer early singles by Cockney Rejects and Angelic Upstarts - but I can certainly thank the baldies for their contribution (in their fandom) to reggae. Skinhead reggae - there's no great explanation of the "sound" - was the great reggae being made around the 1969/'70, before it got drenched in dub and after it mutated from its ska/bluebeat roots. Lyrically and thematically, it's also pretty off-the-wall stuff: monsters, vampires, horror movies and guttural screams. Throw in some wild organ sounds and you've got a winner. Originally released on LP in 1970 (the now-deleted CD has a ton of bonus tracks), it features the Upsetters, King Horror, Music Doctors and more. Upbeat and often mighty strange, it's a good 'un.

Dr. Boogie Presents 26 Deranged and Smokin' Cool Cats CD (Sub Rosa/2009)
Dr. Boogie - AKA Walter De Paduwa - has now put out five volumes of goods on the Belgian avant-garde label Sub Rosa: primo pre- and post-war blues, boogie-woogie and '50s rockabilly. They're all worth a shot, but this and Shim Sham Shimmy (below) remain the finest collections thus far. I've heard of pretty much no one on this compilation, which means he's either scraping the bottom of the barrell for the sake of obscurantism or I just don't know my shit. Regardless, there's a million '50s rockabilly comps orbiting the earth as I write this, and this is surely one of the better ones. The paucity of any liner notes explaining who these unknowns are is the only drawback on an otherwise beautifully packaged and compiled album.

Dr. Boogie Presents: Ethnic Authentic Electric Shim Sham Shimmy CD (Sub Rosa/2008)
Thr roughest, wildest and rawest collection of good-time electric blues from the 1940s. If there actually exists a genre known as "gutbucket blues", then this fits the bill like a pink rubber glove. The opening title track by Champion Jack Dupree, which roars from the speaker, through to cuts by the likes of Slim Gaillard, Papa George Lewis, the great Joe Hill Louis and even a big name such as Albert Collins, never lets up the pace nor crudity of sound. 30 tracks in all. Ferocious.

Lion Vs. Dragon In Dub CD (Trojan/2007)
This is a Savage Pencil/Edwin Pouncey-curated collection of his favourite dub tunes, released just before Trojan/Sanctuary was bought by Universal Music. In other words, it was deleted before it was barely released, so it might be tough finding copies. Non-stop heavy duty Jah-drenched goodness throughout, and I & I rate it as the finest dub collection of all time (which actually means very little, but you get the point). First two tracks are the highlights: bongo-infused trance from Dadawah, and a cut by Keith Hudson from his Entering The Dragon LP of '74. Again, there's more dub comps out there than you could poke a stick at in a lifetime, but for me, few have shown the care, attention to detail, sequencing or track-for-track joy that this one offers. Hats off to Mr. Pencil!
FRIDA HYVONEN - Silence Is Wild (Chapter/Secretly Canadian/2008)
It's Sunday evening - it's been a busy Mother's Day: family, in-laws, lunch dates, even a going-away BBQ for a good friend moving back to the US tomorrow - and it's time to settle down, hit some keypads and talk a little nonsense. Just an hour ago I was tossing up the subject at hand. I could take the predictable option and write about the Black Sabbath, Can, Byrds or Cluster albums I've been flogging the last 48 hours, but that'd be beating the same drum. Let me throw something completely different your way. After all, I consider Frida Hyvonen's Silence Is Wild to be one of the finest contemporary releases of recent years, and her show here in Melbourne earlier this year rates as easily one of the top 5 live performances I've witnessed in the last half-decade. I've spoken about this record - hailed its genius - to many a friend and aquaintance the past 12 months, and it's made little difference. I'll take no credit for the solid audience turnout at her Melbourne show; for now, any audience she has down here is from word-of-mouth, for I've certainly never heard her on public radio. Fact is, I can write about music which gets the cognescenti nodding their heads in approval - an approval born from the fact that everyone knows the music already and agrees it to be a good thing - or I can use it to open some minds and get folks curious about records they'd otherwise never care about nor heard of. This record fits the latter category.
Silence Is Wild is 33-year-old Swedish singer Frida Hyvonen's second album. Her debut, Death Becomes Her, was released in 2006 and featured a far more sparse sound (essentially her and a piano): it caught my ear but didn't bend it. Her sophomore album is augmented by strings, drums, horns, synthesizers and backing vocals, and for me the goods are delivered. When friends ask me what she sounds like, my description usually puts a big question mark over their heads: Kate Bush, schlocky '80s balladry and '70s confessional singer-songwriter a la all those West Coast cokeheads of the day. Such a description possibly begs the question: how could it sound any good?, and I can only respond it's the songs. It's all about the songs. Lyrically, she touches on personal issues in a darkly comic way which is stunning, and at this stage in my life I rarely pay any attention to the lyrical matter of the songs I listen to. Her songs are mini-stories, poetically told in such a way that the music appears to be built around the lyric, and not the other way around. No need for rhyming couplets; occasionally seemingly nonsensical lines are blurted out in ways which throw off the rhythm but still perfectly complement the song. To pull this trick off successfully shows a distinct strength of songcraft. "December", a gutwrenchingly honest tale of an unwanted pregnancy and its consequences (a song she played as her encore at her Melbourne show: what a bummer, dude! My fellow gig-goer bellowed to me afterwards, Pity she didn't have any more abortion tunes to really get the audience punching the air as a finale), sounds like the words were written on paper in no song form whatsoever, then moaned over an unrelated piano backing track. Sorry, am I making this sound terrible? It's not. Far from it.
There's not a dud to pick here. From the big-haired torch-song of the opener, "Dirty Dancing", to the mournful piano dirges to the New Wave stompin' "Scandinavian Blonde" through to the epic (and my fave) "Oh Shanghai", with its accompanying choir leading the song to its conclusion. Silence Is Wild rides a wave of peaks and valleys, but never hits a mawkish bum note or divebombs into generic alt-rock terrain.
If this was released on Elektra Records in 1970 (and soundwise that's not a stretch), sold zip, got deleted thereafter, only to be rediscovered three-and-a-half decades later by some hipper-than-hip reissue label who specialised in deluxe 180-gm pressings of "lost classics", YOU'D LOSE YOUR SHIT OVER IT. Well, that's not the case: all there is to show here is this album and the songs it contains. In this case, context means nothing.