Saturday, November 26, 2011

Allow my two cents to be thrown in the pot regarding Simon Reynolds' latest tome, Retromania (Faber & Faber/2011). I'm familiar w/ some of Reynolds' writing over the years, mainly the articles he'd occasionally pen for The Wire, as well as his book, Rip It Up & Start Again, from approx. half a decade ago. The latter was actually a pretty good one, too, one which dissected and put together the post-punk diaspora which exploded throughout the globe in the late '70s and early '80s into a comprehensive (and comprehensible) narrative. He has a fairly simple and approachable style of writing, conversational like a zine/blog writer, yet he also isn't afraid to throw a few pieces of academic lingo and analysis around. Much like many a Limey music journalist, he also isn't afraid to discuss - and sometimes even create - the occasionally ludicrous music genre (such as "hypnagogic pop" and "hauntological": the kind of phrases I couldn't possibly say w/ a straight face), though he's been living in the US for 15 years now (and recently moved from NYC to LA), and "gets" rock & roll far moreso than most of his fellow countrymen (his chapter on SST in the 1980s from Rip It Up... was pretty spot on).
But anyway, it's 2011, popular and unpopular music hasn't given the masses nor underground a major kick up the backside for about a decade now (possibly debatable, but that's his stance [and mine]), and Retromania is Reynolds' attempt to tackle the topic of the state of music in the year 2011, where technology has taken us and where it's likely to lead us. The rapid change of technological advances the past 5 years, and the way it's changed the musical landscape and the way we approach it and listen to it, has left myself and some of my compadres more than a little dumbstruck. The instant gratification of the internet, iphones, downloads etc. almost has me forgetting what life was like before such gadgets came along. Whilst I'm prone to complaining about the get-it-now culture swallowing the minds of the youth of the land, I'm as guilty as anyone in my exploitation of said technology.
But back to the book.... for the most part, Retromania puts to paper what's been swimming around my head the past few years regarding contemporary music: why, in the 21st century, does the new music I'm hearing not excite me like the music of old? Is it all really that unoriginal, or is it simply a sign of my own age? Do 19 year-olds voraciously devour the hot, new underground sounds in the same manner I did 20 years ago? Does it resonate w/ them in the same way it did for previous generations? In short: has music been cheapened and de-valued? There's no definitive answer for any of this, although Reynolds does claim there to be a general malaise in the originality dept. the past decade, and this can be blamed on the omnipresent nature of information and our ready access to just about any music from the past & present at the press of a key, something bordering on information overload, and something which has led to a near-parasitic music culture which is constantly feeding on itself, almost unable to search for new ideas. In other words, its sense of forward momentum, of breaking new ground, has been lost, or at least stalled. Regional scenes are not given time to develop anymore as they had in the past (think of everything from the blues/R & B of the '30s/'40s - the west coast practitioners had a very different sound to those of the south or the east - through to the distinct HC/punk scenes of the early '80s), as an artist can display their wares to the world via Youtube/Myspace/Facebook/ etc. after one practice, and possibly find themselves being plagiarised in Finland or Estonia within 24 hours... but I digress. Retromania is more fun that that. It's not a whinge nor a Luddite manifesto, and also willingly acknowledges the benefits the internet has brought music fans throughout the previous 15 years.
The first half of the book, in particular, had me interested: it dissects the culture of record collecting and how this relates to the changing world of the 21st century. The story of his son as a five-year-old living in NYC and obsessed w/ collecting bus maps, is both hilarious and illuminating. Reynolds would take his son on weekend bus trips throughout the burroughs so he could collect the maps, until one day he simply said to his son: Why don't we just go to Central Station and pick up all the maps there are in one quick & easy grab? His son was horrified at the suggestion, and at that point the author knew he had the collecting bug like his old man: it wasn't just the collection per se, it was the journey in the acquiring which made it such a passion.
Reynolds interviews and writes about some infamous collectors and label folks well worth reading about - John Kugelberg, Miriam Linna, Crypt's Tim Warren - and for me this was the most interesting part of the book. The latter two, in particular, have always held the belief that, if I may paraphrase, it may be old, but if it's new to me, then it's new, and that's something I can relate to (at least that's how I justify my hopelessly backward-looking music obsessions). Reynolds also gives some major page space to the current trend of famous musicians curating festivals, the constant revival/reunion circuit (something which has a particular stronghold within the punk/independent scene of the '70s/'80s) and the labels dedicated to reissuing old material. I can say this from experience, having worked in the, err, "biz" the past 15+ years: it's a lot easier selling older material tarted up at the right price than it is breaking a new band, no matter how brilliant you may think them to be. Believe me, a well-annotated and -packaged Ella Fitzgerald box set marked at the right price (ie. - dirt cheap) moves faster and more steadily than 99% of "hot" "new" releases.
Reynolds lost me halfway through the book for a few-dozen pages when he started writing about the world of fashion and its constant recycling, but that's probably just because I have zilch interest in clothing (I found a look which suits me 25 years ago and I've stuck w/ it ever since), though it picks up the pace again when discussing contemporary artists he rates (ones I mostly don't), "futurism", sci-fi writing and the 20-year cycle of nostalgia. My workplace is a few doors down from a "community" high school (basically an "alternative education" facility), and it nevers ceases to crack me up when I walk past a big group of its students on the way to work, many of them decked in subcultural uniforms from decades past: there's the death/thrash metal kids wearing Kreator, Destruction and Sodom patches on their denim jackets, the HC kids w/ Bad Brains and Black Flag t-shirts and the crusties w/ Crass and Rudimentary Peni hoodies, smoking out the front on most mornings. There's even a small group of retro-stoners, clad in Led Zep and Hendrix tees, looking like extras from Dazed & Confused. Several times I've walked by in a Black Flag or Sunn O))) t-shirt, only to hear one of them mutter to me, "Cool t-shirt, man". No one's ever commented on my Louis Jordan top, but that's no surprise. Some of the kids wear Darkthrone and Burzum shirts, but none of them sport truly new and contemporary bands on their apparel. If I didn't feel approx. 100 years old in their vicinity, simply as a matter of social research, I'd ask them why they don't appear to listen to contemporary music, but each time I chicken out.
Reynolds is quite taken by the current crop of "hypnagogic pop" bands 20-somethings are entranced by in the 21st century. Hypnagogic pop? I was hoping you wouldn't ask. Loosely speaking, if I have this correct, it's a term attached to a certain retro school of sound which feeds on various forms of pop from decades past: '70s yacht-rock, '80s synth-pop, New Age, kraut, etc. Ariel Pink is the most famous poster boy, though others, like Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never, also get major props from more "adult-oriented" publications such as The Wire. Ariel Pink has one great song I can vouch for (hear it here); Mark McGuire and his outfit, Emeralds, even have their moments (there's a great 2CD Best Of on the Mego label; his schtick is looped guitars and electronics which possesses a kraut/Terry Riley vibe); even Oneohtrix Point Never I have enjoyed... but is this the best there is to offer? It's not music to get excited about, and in my grumpier of moods, I'm prone to dismissing all of this stuff as vacuous hipster nonsense few people are likely to care about in 12 months time, let alone 10 years. Taking full advantage of the technology at the tip of my fingers, whilst reading Retromania, I browsed Youtube to hear tracks by Boards Of Canada and the "hauntological" (don't ask) sounds of Advisory Circle and The Focus Group and found myself distinctly underwhelmed. I wanted to be excited by these groups, but I wasn't. I doubt there's ever been a poll conducted to determine whether my reaction is a widespread phenomenon amongst Gen X music nerds who appear to be almost incapable of appreciating 21st-century "young people's music", so you'll just have to accept that as being the opinion of one man.
But Simon Reynolds is a professional music writer, which means he has to - and obviously does - find something of value in these bands, and if he didn't, he may as well give up his profession or enquire about vacancies at MOJO magazine. 21st-century music, both underground and mainstream, may be rife w/ plagiarism, unoriginality and a parasitic nature almost unprecedented - and perhaps much of this can be blamed on technology - but you can't fight it, and I shouldn't resent those born at the wrong (or right) time who are growing up in this climate of rapid change.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Here's an excellent release which has come straight of nowhere, or, to be more specific, Sweden ca. 1971 - 1975. Released on the RPM label out of the UK, Stars And Angels compiles the best tracks from Turid Lundqvist's three LPs she released on the Silence label in the '70s. You're unfamiliar w/ her works? I was, too. Born in 1949, she'd been playing around since 1965 and was signed to the Metronome label in the late '60s, although her recordings from the time went unreleased (and were apparently erased). The extensive liner notes paint an interesting picture of the music scene of the time. You may already know of some of them: Parson Sound, International Harvester, Trad Gras och Stenar and the Baby Grandmothers. The Subliminal Sounds label out of Sweden has reissued a lot of this stuff the past decade, as well as recordings by the excellent contemporary Swedish psych outfit, Dungen, and it's well worth digging your claws into. Parson Sound let out an almighty low-end, drugged roar, like White Light/White Heat played at a crawl, and International Harvester could be considered a brother/sister band to the original, communal Amon Duul. The Baby Grandmothers played more high-energy rock & roll, sounding like a strange, Nordic take on '60s garage punk and Blue Cheer's first disc. To tie this all in, The Baby Grandmothers' Kenny Hakansson accompanies Turid on most of the tracks here, lending the songs a sublime, acidic quality they may not have otherwise possessed. And that's not to imply that Turid herself is any slouch: her vocal mannerisms sometimes earned her comparisons to Melanie and Joni Mitchell (the latter is occasionally spot on), although her music is way more fried and exploratory than either, thus equally earning comparisons to left-field troubadours such as Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs. You could even compare her music to that of Joanna Newsom, but A) Turid was there first; B) Newsom's music annoys me; and C) I don't see how comparing an artist of 40 years ago to a contemporary one necessarily paints a flattering portrait for either singer (ie. - you're either saying that Newsom's approach is dated or contrived [a distinct possibility] or that Turid's music is boring enough to sound contemporary). But anyway! There's 17 tracks here of wistful and occasionally fruity psychedelic folk music, and despite the frostbitten conditions they were recorded in, they possess a colourful, sun-drenched aura, and given their accessible nature - there's plenty of great hooks here - it has me thinking the cult of Turid is most certainly worthy of breaking out further than the miniscule following she enjoys outside of her homeland. There were plans for her to move to the UK and sign to John Peel's Dandelion label, but it never came to fruition. She would've made a perfect label mate w/ Bridget St. John, and her music fits in nicely next to other UK u/ground eccentrics of the day such as Comus, Jan Dukes de Grey, Twink, pre-T-Rex Bolan, etc. The liner notes tell an interesting story: there was a musical movement in Sweden in the '60s/'70s known as "Progg"; not "prog" as in progressive rock, but one built on a DIY/anything-goes ethos where musical ability meant little. The movement was also highly political, but like most such movements, whether it's the Yippies, Red Army Faction or Weather Underground (though there's no mention of armed struggle amongst the Swedish Proggers), it petered out by the end of the decade, possibly superceded by punk. I have no interest in pursuing musical obscurities for their own sake in the 21st century - that's a waste of everyone's time - the music Turid Lundqvist recorded in the first half of the 1970s stands on its own, regardless of who has or hasn't heard of her before, as something worth pursuing. Along w/ Jan Dukes de Grey and Bridget St. John, this is one of my fave early-'70s (re)discoveries of recent years.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I first saw the 1975 film Race With The Devil on VHS cassette some time around the dawn of this century. I walked into the video store, stumped as to what to rent, and asked the guy behind the counter for a good, thrill-a-minute action flick I likely wouldn't have seen before. I don't usually ask total strangers for recommendations, but the guy in question was an older rock & roll dude from the area who owned the store, knew his films and was prone to playing a bit of Can, Amon Duul and Cluster over the store speakers (hell, I walked in there one day and he was playing F/i!!). I'd accept his verdict. He recommended the Peter Fonda/Warren Oates suburbanites-on-the-run-from-murderous-Satanists thrill-ride, Race With The Devil, directed by Jack Starrett, a man who cut his teeth making biker exploitation flicks in the '60s and wound up as a bit-part actor in schlocky '80s TV fare such as Knight Rider.
I watched the film for the first time in over a decade just the other night. Far from disappointing me - I liked it a whole lot the first time around - it possibly impressed me more with a re-viewing. When describing it to a friend yesterday, I said it was an A-grade B movie. That is, the basis of the film is a total B-movie premise, and in lesser hands and w/ lesser actors it may well have totally sunk from view, but w/ a tight script, characters that make sense, actors who can actually act and hot stunt/action direction, Race With The Devil is superior drive-in fodder.
The film starts out establishing the main male characters: Fonda plays a professional motorbike rider whose form has recently slipped, and Oates is his best friend, confidante, owner of a successful motorbike store and repair centre and also an ace on two wheels. There's some early riding scenes as the two of them duke it out on the dirt hills, just to show that they're not totally stripped of all machismo in their dorkoid suburban surroundings. When push comes to shove, they may indeed fight back. Oates is usually known for playing the perrenial tough guy, so to see him playing someone so gentlemanly - the two of them are decent and likeable characters - is a refreshing change. Even more refreshing is seeing Fonda act beyond his usually wooden parameters. I usually rate him as one step above Charles Bronson, but this time his performance his believable and sympathetic.
So anyway, Oates has bought himself a mega-deluxe motorhome w/ all the mod cons (even a microwave oven!), so he and Fonda and their respective wives, played by Lara Parker and M*A*S*H*'s Loretta Swit, decide to take it on the road - their own self-contained home - to the back of beyond for a vacation. First night on the road, camped by a creek in the middle of nowhere, Oates and Fonda witness a firelit Satanic ritual across the water where a young woman is sacrificed. Both in shock, and not yet seen by the perpetrators, the shit hits the fan when Swit turns the outside light of the motorhome on, yelling for her husband to come inside, and they're spotted. Soon, the chase is on. But the film is not just 20 minutes of build-up and character development and then 70 minutes of road thrills. The action ebbs and flows, lulling you into a false sense of security that the foursome are finally safe and OK - even in the arms of the local police or at a well-lit, highly populated camp site - only to find they're back in imminent danger once again. It's an excellent example of the post-Manson paranoia of the time, but in a twist, and without meaning to give too much away, the Satanists aren't hippies or counter-cultural cut-outs.
Race With The Devil is a great snapshot of its time: lots of bad fashion, biege colours and a big dollop of whitebread Amerika. The foursome think they've found safety in their self-contained house-on-the-road, but at every turn it's shown to be a fallacy. When the situation seems hopeless, I found myself muttering in my mind, I'd be straight on the iphone to the FBI, but you've got to keep saying to yourself: those were different times. Technology has made it hard to get lost on a map in the US of A in the 21st century. Back in '75, there was still a sense of space between people and towns. When you're out of reach of the proper authorities, you may well be screwed. As they are.
Race With The Devil reminds me a bit of another superior B movie made over 20 years later: 1997's Breakdown, starring Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh. You've probably skipped over it a thousand times down at the local DVD rental establishment, but like Race With The Devil, it's a great white-suburbanites-in-peril flick, again set in the middle of nowhere (this time in the southwest deserts of America), w/ characters that make sense, both in their actions and motivations, a tight script and ace direction. Kurt Russell has surely made more bad films than good ones in his life, but I'll stand by Breakdown as one of the latter. Regardless, Race With The Devil is an intense, well-made action/thriller/horror flick I'd recommend to anyone and everyone. The feeling of hopelessness and dread throughout is almost too much to bear. In many ways, Race With The Devil is a much better film than it should be, and that's not a bad thing at all.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bloody hell, the frogs can indeed rock when need be. These two clips from Metal Urbain have given me a slap across the face the past week, the combo of jagged Stooges riffs and electro scuzz the finest beats this side of early Chrome or Cabaret Voltaire. Hell, if the Screamers had added a James Williamson-style guitar-slinger to their electroid mix, they mighta sounded a whole lot like this. Which goes to show that great ideas - necessary ideas - can often spring up around the globe from disparate sources at an identical point in time, w/ none of the seperate players being aware of each other's existence. Or something like that. Or maybe Metal Urbain were simply a great fucking rock & roll band, and these clips have fried my brain at least a little. Got an anthology CD 'round these parts somewhere, I'm gonna have to dig it out.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Who's to say what makes great rock & roll anymore? If you were to believe some of the self-appointed arbiters of taste, you'd certainly believe that Lou Reed and Metallica's new collaborative effort, Lulu, ranks among the worst albums ever recorded. If it truly is, then I'm rather curious to hear it, but the barrage of negativity - as if these professional critic types are simply looking for something, anything, to get excited about in 2011, even if it's from a wholly negative perspective - has worn me down to a calm indifference... and I haven't even heard the thing yet! And anyway, if it is as terrible as some people are saying it is, then that's merely following a distinct career path both parties have followed the past few decades. Lou Reed released Ecstacy in 2000, and it wound up being my favourite release of that year. His career has been a total rollercoaster ride to the highest peaks and the deepest valleys, but that's Lou. He doesn't give a fuck what you think. Maybe he should, and if he wasn't such a flaming asshole he would, but I'd also be disappointed if he did. Metallica, on the other hand, hit their peak during their first three albums in the early/mid '80s, and haven't reared their heads out of the muck for any extended time since. I've actually heard their St. Anger album, and it beggars belief that Lulu could be worse, but it may well be. Some chowderhead gives Lulu a blasting here at Pitchfork. When a friend recommended I read it, I blasted back that I found it incomprehensible that someone at Pitchfork would actually know anything about what makes good rock music, but the review, in hindsight, probably hits the nail on the head most of the time. Still, I'd rather watch the clip above - Loutallica obliterating "White Light/White Heat" on British TV - than one by the Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver. It's not that Metallica sound that bad, it's that Reed sounds like he couldn't be bothered. He's sounded that way for decades, you'd better get used to it. There's also this review from Volcanic Tongue. That's the other side of the story. I can't vouch for the opinions, but I'm glad someone wrote it. In a career of Fuck Yous, Lulu may be Reed's biggest middle finger yet. Frankly, if it's upset people as much as it appears to have, then it must have something going for it.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Originally released on the Prestige label in 1960, Eric Dolphy's Outward Bound was also the very first "jazz" record I bought. I purchased a secondhand vinyl edition of this back in the heady days of the early '90s - 1993, to be exact - when I was dead set on exploring the four-letter music form which until then had evaded me. Dolphy seemed a good place to start - his work w/ Coltrane, Mingus and Ornette Coleman alone put him up there in the pantheon - and the single-digit price tag didn't scare me at the time, either. It didn't blow my head off upon first listen - I guess I was looking for something more musically ferocious, given my penchant for "noise" back in the day; I encountered that soon thereafter w/ a self-titled Albert Ayler bootleg purchased in the ensuing months, one which set my on track for becoming a lifelong jazz dork thereafter - but it's stayed w/ me ever since, a sentimental fave and one I'll clutch 'til I'm under the ground, if possible. Dolphy left this mortal coil in '64, due to diabetes complications, an incalculable loss to the music world, as he had only in his last few years started to really hit a stride which would, had he lived, likely seen him as one of the great innovators of the '60s. His last few discs, notably Out To Lunch (Blue Note/1964), Conversations (1963), Last Date (1964) and Iron Man (ditto) see him branching out into a wilder, more expansive sound, and that's not counting the dozens of bootlegs from this period (most of them documenting European tours of the time) which demonstrate his progressively expressive and outward-bound (fnar!) forays on his instruments of choice: alto sax, bass clarinet and the flute. Check out the clip below for an excellent example of just how phenomenal a player he could be. On Outward Bound, Dolphy is accompanied by the great Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, a guy who cut a stack of killer hard-bop/free discs in the '60s, either as a sideman or headliner, before blowing his wad w/ some lightweight/mersh atrocities in the following decade (something which seemed to ruin his legacy for many observers), Roy Haynes on drums, Mingus sidekick Jaki Byard on piano and Blue Note mainstay George Tucker on bass. Dolphy cuts loose on a few extended solos on tracks such as "G.W." and "Les" and you can see where his music is heading, though it mainly sticks to a sound rooted in '50s hard bop. The revolution hadn't happened yet, though that doesn't mean you won't have a real good time listening to it. As my current jazz obsessions have recently veered towards the Yusef Lateef/Jackie McLean/Andrew Hill school of avant-bop sounds - giving the more hard-line screeching a break for a while - Outward Bound sounds better to me than it did back in 1993. The album itself is still readily available on both LP and CD in various editions on various labels (it's now public domain in the EU, so the onslaught of reissues by anyone and everyone begins), and since any and every disc w/ Dolphy's name on it is worth its price, you know what you should do.

Seymour Stein, owner/founder of Sire Records (prior to it being bought by Warner Brothers), is often seen as a caricature of the music biz, a cigar-chomping fast-talker who possibly embodies all the negative aspects of the industry he works in, but I'll give him credit for at least giving brief exposure to a few artists who would've been lucky to've released anything in their lifetime other than maybe a Bomp 7" (which DMZ did in 1977) when he opened his wallet during the punk/new wave explosion in '77. Sure, he dropped most of 'em like a hot potato when he realised they weren't gonna make him a mint soon thereafter (he was a businessman, not a true believer), but the documents remain. One of the documents is this disc, a release which has escaped my ears until now. It's recently been reissued on vinyl c/o the good folks at 4 Men With Beards, and one glance at the cover above may render me an excuse for my tardiness: THAT COVER SUCKS. I recall seeing it several times over the years at shops such as Au-go-go, when that establishment was still open and would put high-priced rarities on its wall, and despite its rep as a lost punker classic from the '70s, I always found it hard to get beyond that cover. At its best, it might've been a Cheap Trick/Cars blend of new wave/pop nonsense; at its worst, it looks like it belongs in the Boston/Toto/Journey school of '70s atrocities. It is, of course, neither. DMZ existed for a few years in the mid/late '70s and hailed from Boston; early member Dave Robinson had spent time in the Modern Lovers and later did play in The Cars, but for many they're remembered for basically morphing into the long-running Beantown garage outfit, The Lyres, the group singer Jeff Conolly formed after their dissolution (bassist Mike Lewis joined 'em, too, later on). What's so special about this release - one many punk rock releases from '77/'78 unfortunately can not claim an equal boast to (especially for a full-lengther) - is the quality of the songwriting and its ability to really rock. The sound is sharp, punchy, relentlessly upbeat and sympathetic to their aims: rockin'. Perhaps most strangely of all, you can thank none other than Flo & Eddie - the Turtles/Mothers Of Invention dudes - for the production job: the rhythm section of Paul Murphy and Rick Corraccio is hot, the guitar cranked high in the mix and Conolly's yelps the crowning glory atop all of this. DMZ's sound was caught somewhere in the mix between '60s Nuggets rock (there's a cover of "Out Of Our Tree"), early '70s proto-punk (New York Dolls and Raw Power are all over this) and the fast-paced no-frills shenanigans of the Ramones. A pretty good combo - a tried a true combo which possibly now amounts to a musical cliche flogged into the ground these past 35 years - but DMZ were there at the beginning and, judging by this sole studio long-player, did it better than most others. Long obscured to all but a few diehard collector nerds, it's now out and about and available in the few worthy record stores left on this planet. It's 11 tracks of high-octane rock & roll malarky - something I'm prone to dismissing, but something I also get down on my knees and worship when it's done w/ aplomb - and in this case I'll give DMZ's LP a shamefully belated two thumbs up, Fonzie style.