Monday, April 25, 2011

Pure genius from French avant-progsters, MAGMA. I got into them 'round '94/'95, mainly via a fandom of the Art Bears/This Heat and all that Chris Cutler/ReR/RIO crowd, whom I was digging at the time. Also, Joe Carducci was (and is) a big fan and wrote about 'em in his biblical Rock & The Pop Narcotic tome, hence, I was gonna be all over them like a rash. I wrote about the band briefly here, and I'm pretty sure I've put pen to screen on them in years prior, too, so search if you care (I don't). They were touring the US when I was there in '99, though they were one city ahead of me the whole way and I missed them. One article you may care to read is this one - it's regarding UK snooker champion/legend, Steve Davis, and his love for the band (and others). I'd read about him before, and his financing of Magma's UK shows in the 1980s is legendary. He made a fortune as a snooker champ, but never lost his love for oddball prog in the process and put his money where his mouth is. Probably lost a whole bunch of it, too. He's also a big Necks fan and is doing guest DJ spots for BBC radio. God bless him, I wish more sports stars would blow their fortunes on such esoteric but worthwhile pursuits.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I posted just recently about the great Yusef Lateef, noting that many of his '50s/'60s jazz titles are well worth getting, even though his music went off the rails a little bit in the '70s (and came back around again in the '90s). If you need further proof of that, check out this clip from Norwegian TV in the '70s. It's Yusef on vocals w/ a funk-based backing band, the audio/visual result being a strange mix of Sun Ra-style space-bound nonsense, Devo robotics and George Clinton-lite grooves. I'm not saying it's bad, and I'm not saying it's good. I'm simply saying you should watch it. I know I said that his music went a little off the rails in the '70s, but I gotta say, I kinda dig the track this clip is on. And I haven't even mentioned the hats!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Two contemporary releases I can certainly vouch for, made by bands in the here and now. Perhaps I need to state this, just so I don't appear to be hopelessly stuck in the past (I am). Constant Pagaent is the latest & greatest effort from Scottish quartet, Trembling Bells, and once again on the Honest Jon's imprint (an excellent and eclectic one it be, and one owned by none other than Blur's Damon Albarn). The band was formed in the mid '00s by drummer Alex Neilson, a veteran of the UK's (and the world's!) avant/improv scene, having worked with everyone from Will Oldham to Ashtray Navigations to Current 93 to Alistair Galbraith to Jandek, as well as being linked up to the David Keenan/Volcanic Tongue empire, in some manner. You get the drift. Most of those artists don't exactly fall into the "improv" bracket, though he's also served time in Britain's avant-jazz scene, so there ya go. I'll call him a "journeyman". Trembling Bells are fronted by the soaring vocals of Lavinia Blackwall, a fetching lass w/ a pair of pipes you could only compare to one of England's finest vocalists of yore, Sandy Denny. She's not entirely pitch-perfect, and there lies her charm. The band is mining a sound which is an obvious throwback to the classic Brit folk-rock of the '60s/'70s - think Fairports, Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Shirley/Dolly Collins and more esoteric treats such as Comus and Jan Dukes de Grey - and boy do they nail it. Better than that, it's more than a mere aping of a sound perfected 40 years ago. There's a modern twist thrown in the mix, but never is it tre moderne. The opening cut, "Just As The Rainbow" contains soaring guitars from Mike Hastings and a bombastic, pummeling rhythm, the cacophonous meeting sounding like a blend of bagpipes (I checked: there are none) and a full string section (there is cello and viola in their mix somewhere). My wife thought it sounded like the Dirty Three. She is correct, but then Blackwall's vocals come in and the mixture of the overtly psychedelic with the traditional possesses a transcendent effect. Throughout the 10 tracks, the magic never lets up. The band swoops and soars its way through a league of material which breathes new life to a form that seemed dead in its tracks by the mid '70s. Sure, Current 93 have been doing this schtick for 25 years, and great as its been, Tibet & co. never rocked like this. And Hastings' guitar work... it's the noise of the gods. At times it sounds like the clangs of a harpsichord, then it's bagpipes and then it's an unholy combo of 1st-LP Stooges Ashton combined w/ '66/'67-period Barrett. It's a beautiful thing. Track 5, "Where Do I Go From You?", is the obvious highlight, the last two minutes soaring w/ Blackwall's vocals and Hastings' interlocking guitar noodles. If it was released on Topic or Island in 1970, you'd be losing your shit (and sleep) bidding for copies on ebay in the hope of making your life complete. The sound is organic, loose, lively and a brilliant mix of the old and new. Not being purists, their sound also delves into UFO-period 'Floyd/Soft Machine territory on occasion, making this the best album of 1967-1970 released in the year of 2011 there'll be. So far as I can tell - and I'm hardly the one to ask - they're the best band in the UK at this point in history, and this is certainly going to be one of my favourite albums of 2011. Get on it.

Zomes ain't a band, it's one man: Asa Osborne. He's also in Lungfish, the veteran post-hardcore outfit who have about a dozen albums on Dischord (and a band I'm relatively new to, despite protests from friends for a decade egging me on to check out their wares. Their DC punk/Joy Division/Black Sabbath hybrid, which isn't too dissimilar to Die Kreuzen ca. October File, is mighty tasty and something I might even write about one day, as well as the interesting, rewarding and varied output of their main man, Daniel Higgs. Now please allow me to escape these parantheses), as well as a band called Pupils, whom I know zip about. Earth Grid is Zomes' second official release (on Thrill Jockey), having put out a disc on the Holy Mountain label a few years back. It was recorded entirely onto cassette and mastered by Bob Weston, facts which may thrill you but probably don't give you an idea of what they sound like. The music is primarily played on what sounds like a cheap keyboard from the '80s and it's all instrumental. It's minimal and lo-tech and there's 15 tracks which, put together, make up approx. 40 minutes of music. The songs are basic in their approach - this isn't Rick Wakeman - though each song creeps along w/ a certain lyricism as they're embellished subtely throughout w/ notes layered upon notes, the end result being quite hypnotic. I'd compare Zomes to being something along the lines of very early Cabaret Voltaire (as in pre-Rough Trade era, as heard on their 3CD 1974-1978 recordings on Mute), a 4-track take on Cluster/Harmonia or an instrumental version of the Screamers' more downbeat moments. In fact, slap a Tomata Du Plenty on top of this and you might just think you're listening to some classic Masque-period demos ca. '77/'78. There's some percussion thrown in the mix, and my guess is that it's his cheap Casiotone doing the job. Sure, there's a lot of this stuff around; The Kids are all over this nonsense in 2011 and have the audacity to release it on limited runs of cassette. Zomes is something for the wider marketplace, beyond the practioner's immediate circle of friends and sycophants. Regardless of whether it was recorded in 1974 or last week, it's a sound I still like, and Zomes does it very well indeed. Light a bowl and jump inside Earth Grid some time.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The mighty DIE KREUZEN get inducted into the WAMI Hall Of Fame Awards. Good on 'em. Along w/ Slovenly and Saccharine Trust, I think I remain just about their sole mouthpiece in the southern hemisphere, or perhaps just the most vocal, and I'll be glad to accept that position, if it's available. What's the WAMI Awards? Beats me. Looks official, though, so I'm assuming a city-approved boardwalk plaque is merely a few years away. Some people say - even me, most often - that these types of awards aren't worth the paper they're written on, but I'm glad they've received some sort of recognition for their efforts. I'll be taking Cows & Beer/Die Kreuzen/October File/Century Days/Gone Away to the grave. Cement's optional, but I'll accept it if it gets thrown in w/ the rest of 'em.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Urgh... the point of this post, if indeed there is any, has just been lost by the fact that for some reason I cannot get the embedding code for The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" clip from YouTube, the live version from The Last Waltz. You can blame Martin Scorcese, Robbie Robertson, some company stooge... whoever it is, their thirst for intellectual copyright extends to YouTube clips. Fuck 'em. You can see it here if you want. Maybe a click to another site is too much effort in this day and age. I'm not attempting to compare the New York Dolls with The Band: they're poles apart. You know that, and if I attempted to draw the longest bow in music history and throw 'em in the same basket, I'd be laughed outta here. I guess the only comparison I was going to draw was the fact that I believe the two clips in question, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", from The Band's 1976 concert captured on film c/o Scorcese, and the live clip above by the 'Dolls, which I'm pretty sure is from German TV ca. 1973, remain right up the top of the heap, or near enough, of my fave ever live clips captured on film. They're both perfect encapsulations of bands - great bands - being much more than the mere sum of their parts.
Strangely enough, the first ever "punk" record I bought was one by the NY Dolls: a bootleg split 12" EP twixt the 'Dolls and the Sex Pistols by the name of After The Storm. It consisted of early demos by both bands and I bought it mostly because it was cheap and it featured the 'Pistols. I was aware of the NY Dolls, primarily - or I should say solely - because of the 'Pistols, and their inclusion on the disc fascinated me. I didn't buy another 'Dolls record for another 15 years, mainly because my brother had their albums, which I could and would borrow if I wanted to, and also because the 'Dolls, great as they were, I put in the same basket as the Ramones: there seemed very little reason to actually buy their records when I'd heard their damn songs so often, and would continue to do so at pubs, clubs, friends' places or on the radio. I don't hear 'em at all on the radio these days, but you get the point. My purchase of their two studio LPs from the '70s was a belated revelation. In my own hands, copies to own and devour for days on end and in the privacy of my own abode, their genius got under my skin. I've been meaning to write a lengthy piece on the band for over 7 years now, and yet it's never happened. That's for the same reason that I've barely mentioned the Stooges: it's all been done before and I don't think I could possibly come up with a new and/or interesting spin on either band. But here I am writing about 'em. About a year ago I wound up in an online debate on a certain social networking site (take a wild guess) on the topic of the 'Dolls Vs. The Stooges. At that point in time I was siding w/ the former. I stand by that seemingly crazy position today. For me, it's clips like the above which proves my point (there is no point: it's simply an opinion). Friends howled in rage that I could think such a thing. After all, the Stooges were not only the greatest rock & roll band of all time (I even stated exactly that in this ancient, dated and slightly embarrassing article many moons ago), hell, they were above and beyond rock & roll. Their three LPs - Stooges, Funhouse and Raw Power - took rock to a whole new, supersonic level, deconstructing it and placing it all back toegther again as a new form. They were - and remain - the template for any rock band worth giving a damn about from the past 40 years. And the 'Dolls... well, great as they were, they were also simply a great rock & roll band, never reaching to the beyond in the way the Stooges did. I agree. But I also haven't listened to the Stooges much the last 10 years. Then again, I haven't listened to Miles Davis or the Minutemen all that much the last 10 years either, and that's for the same reason: every single note they played is ingrained in my brain. This isn't an argument, and to skip the topic, you really should watch this clip. The band is in full bloom and a magnificent portal for the disparate personalities which made up the band, and an excellent combination of Thunders' guitar heroics, Johanson's smart (as opposed to smart-arsed) lyrical sleaze and the visual backdrop of Jerry Nolan's over-the-top drumming efforts, Syl Sylvain's high camp and the statuesque, like he's taken too much cough syrup, figure of Arthur Kane. For me it remains what a rock & roll band should be. There's variations on the theme which are just as good - completely different bands like Can or the Meat Puppets, bands with distinct personalities within the group dynamic which make up their greatness - but for me the visual/audio aspects of the 'Dolls performing "Looking For A Kiss" on TV remains just about unbeatable. Did you make sense of any of that?
The Band... this now remains an afterthought. Again, if you wish to see the clip, go here. I bought The Band's first two LPs back in the late '90s sometime: they're the only two you really need. They were cheap, they were there, they were secondhand and everyone told me I should own them. They made little sense to me until I saw The Last Waltz for the first time in 2005. Seeing the way the band interacted on stage as a unit put the pieces of the puzzle together. I revisited the albums in question and held them high as indeed the genius every boring dickhead had been telling me they were for the prior decade. I think it was Levon Helms' ability to perform some tricky percussive moves - especially those rolls just before he breaks into the chorus of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" - whilst flawlessly singing rather wordy songs in a note-perfect manner which first impressed me. Without sounding like a tech-head windbag - such people belong in a very large hole many miles from me - it struck me that the band, all seasoned musos - had practiced their craft to a fine art without sucking out its soul. The way the diferent personalities engaged with each other and delivered the songs - great songs - impressed the hell out of me. It was all about the music, maaan, and shouldn't it be? The Band, as hinted by their very name, wanted to strip away and distance itself from rock & roll's increasing pretension at their inception, though by the mid '70s - hell, probably earlier than that - Robbie Robertson's monstrous ego took hold and the band began to split at the seams. Still, this 1976 concert, their very last, captures a band w/ way more spirit than most, and li'l Marty Scorcese managed to make one of the best concert films of them all, captured in widescreen on quality film stock. The Band sold a zillion records in their day and are much loved by boring idiots the world over, but that doesn't diminish any of their musical achievements. I've been known in years past to drunkenly torture friends who were unfortunate enough to stop by my place and intoxicate all present by drunkenly playing my Last Waltz DVD to their eternal dismay. Well, now I can do it all over again. You just gotta click that button.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The name Yusef Lateef has been swimming around the back portions of my brain for a number of years now. Probably about 15, if you want to put a figure to it. Lydia Lunch one noted him as her favourite musician. Perhaps that's not much of a recommendation. It's only in recent months that I've taken the step of investigating some of his wares. I'd previously pegged him as an interesting character in the world of "jazz", though despite his well-known forays into the fields of ethno-exotica, I figured his music might be a touch to "polite" for my palette. Maybe it's just my tastes which have changed, or, more accurately, broadened, and has allowed his music to enter my sphere. At one stage of my life, I thought that anything less than Albert Ayler's Bells was music for pussies. Now I'm one of the pussies.
The artist known as Yusef Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston in Tennessee in 1920. He was one of the first notable American musicians to convert to Islam, which he did in 1950, and during these early years he played w/ the likes of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Elvin Jones and Dizzy Gillespie. It wasn't until the mid '50s that he gained prominence as a leader, and started to meld exotic sounds into his modal/bop sound. Between the years 1957 - 1967, he cut a slew of killer albums on labels such as Savoy and Impulse!, the latter bordering on the sound of the "New Thing". Live At Pep's (Impulse!/1964) featured Australia-via-En Zed pianist, Mike Nock, whilst Psychicemotus from '65 has bassist Reggie Workman (who's done time w/ Archie Shepp, Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, etc.) performing four-string duties.
Musically, these albums - ones such as Prayer To The East, Eastern Sounds, Cry! - Tender, Into Something, The Golden Flute and the ones previously mentioned - take a basic 1950s bop sound, one not too dissimilar to Miles' discs at the time, and spruce them up with an array of "ethnic" instruments: xun (Chinese flute), gong, Argol, shenai, Indian bells, as well as Lateef's oft-used flute, saxophone and oboe. Like a lot of jazz guys from the era, there's many covers present, from jazz standards to the sublime (Love Theme From Spartacus) to the unusual (Satie's First Gymnopedie on The Golden Flute). You can dig yourself deep in his sounds. It's spiritual without getting hokey. Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders took this trip further, much further, later in the decade, and made some of the greatest music ever in the process. They mixed the spiritual with the radical and I've talked about 'em enough in this blog not to go into them right now.
By later on in the '60s, Lateef tried to "contemporise" his sound a tad with albums like Detroit: Lattitude 42 30 Longitude 83, which featured players Ray Barretto and Cecil McBee. This meant electric-bass funk riffs, keyboards, congas, guitar and proto-rapping from the urban jungle. It's not as good as it could've been, though it's also not as bad as it could've been, either. That point would come in the late '70s with an album such as Autophysiopsychic, an all-out '70s soul-funk LP featuring Art Farmer. In the '80s, his music veered off into a New Age direction, similar to Pharoah Sanders' path at the time, though in the '90s - when he was in his 70s - he went back to his jazz roots, recording a great album with a large ensemble in 1997 called The World At Peace, w/ moments of clutter which bring to mind Sun Ra's recordings of yore. He 's now 90 years of age, and so far as I know, not musically active. I think he's earned a rest. Lateef has a lot of albums out there; a good deal of them you don't need, though you could grab just about any of his early Savoy, Prestige and '60s Impulse titles and walk away happy w/ your purchase. Lateef never actually called his music "jazz", and maybe you shouldn't either. If you dig the otherworldly, Oriental tones of Alice Coltrane or Don Cherry's finest moments, then Lateef is good entry point for going back into the roots of the sound. A friend of mine purchased a copy of The Golden Flute on my recommendation and told me he thought it was "boring". I've told him to persist. I don't think I'm leading you up the wrong path: Yusef Lateef is definitely worth the trouble.
As an endnote, since every post on this blog must relate to the SST label in some small way, I should add that none other than Ossie Cadena - Dez Cadena's dad - produced some of Lateef's Savoy/Prestige albums, Ossie being a west coast jazz legend of some note. See? Black Flag/Yusef Lateef. It all makes sense now.