Sunday, February 19, 2012

The genre known as "spiritual jazz" is oft seen as an American phenomenon. It is, after all, a form of jazz derived from the gospel churches, one which, loosely speaking, sees forms of avant or modal jazz mixing w/ both Christian and Eastern religious overtones and often hints of psychedelia. Shove that in yer Wikipedia and smoke it! So, this compilation comes as a surprise, as I wasn't aware of too many European jazzers from the '60s/'70s who'd fall under such a bracket, but the great thing about Spiritual Jazz Volume 2 (the first was a US-based one a few years back) is the uniquely European take on the sound. It's not like many of the performers within were actually deliberately apeing the sounds of Pharoah Sanders/Alice Coltrane/Don Cherry etc., as some prefigure their spiritual excursions by up to a near decade. Rather, I think it shows that a good idea, a necessary idea - just like punk rock as it sprung up in London, New York, Cleveland and Sydney/Brisbane in the mid '70s - is one which reaches like minds throughout the globe when it is needed, independent of the parties' knowledge of the others' existence (or maybe I'm reaching a bit...).
The opening track sets the tone for much of the music within, and it's a scorcher: Erich Kleinschuster Sextett's "Communion" from 1970. Kleinschuster was an Austrian trombonist and bandleader, and this track, surprisingly featuring US trumpeter Art Farmer on trumpet, contains a liturgical choir w/ a distinctly European tone, dark and distinctly non-uplifting. It sounds like a Penderecki piece or perhaps a Krzysztof Komeda soundtrack to an old Polanski film (think Rosemary's Baby), and the effect of the surging jazz along w/ the vocals is a sublime mix. One of the best aspects of the set is playing it whilst reading the extensive liner notes: it's a steep learning curve for all but the most hardy avant-Euro boffin. I know of German trombonist Albert Mangesdorf, but I did not know of his "Varies" piece from 1963, released strangely on CBS (the Kleinschuster track was released on EMI!), a brilliant modal number which again possesses that strange B & W quality of early '60s Berlin. And British pianist Michael Garrick? Exactly. He's next and his 1968 track, "Temple Dancer", again stretches the boundaries of freedom, composition, the spiritual and the psychedelic. There's more obscurities afoot: American-born pianist Phil Raphael, who relocated to Europe in the '50s, with a lengthy number, "Archangelo", from 1972, featuring the wordless, operatic vocals of Rose Thompson and a host of Belgian players belting out a cool, bongo-laden jazz vibe. French saxophonist Barney Wilen is up next w/ one of my favourites, "Afrika Freak Out", from his double LP of 1972, Moshi, a record inspired by his 1968 trip to Africa. It's a rip of Pharoah Sanders' "The Creator Has A Master Plan", or at least heavily indebted to it (featuring the same chant/melody as its inspiration), and has me wondering how good the rest of the LP may be. In between there are tracks by Russian guitarist Nicolai Gromin, Finnish pianist Heikki Sarmanto and more, but the big surprise for me is the last track by Dutch saxophonist Hans Dulfer & Ritmo-Natural. Dulfer is the father of the musically useless eye-candy pop-jazz starlet, Candy Dulfer, though he has a strong background in avant-jazz and psychedelia (as well as mersh fusionoid nonsense later on), and even cut an LP w/ the great Frank Wright back in the day. His teaming w/ the band Ritmo-Natural was an attempt to combine free jazz w/ a more danceable rock rhythm, and the result is an ace take on psychedelic jazz, sounding like a cross between the spiritual yearnings of Don Cherry and the outward-bound tribal psychedelia of aryan rockers such as International Harvester and their brethren. It's a combo which should grace your ears. It's only February, but this set is a shoe-in for one of the best archival digs of 2012. A neat and informative package giving you a glimpse into a world of music you probably never knew existed.

Just the other day, when discussing w/ a friend what I'd been spinning lately at home, I had to confess: I've been going through a "major Doors phase". Like, for real. When he stopped laughing, he asked me what prompted such a thing, as if "Doors phases" are the sole domain of tortured teenaged poets and dreadlocked college students. I couldn't pinpoint it... or perhaps I could and was afraid to confess the root source of my fascination: the documentary film from 2 years back, When You're Strange, narrated by alleged coolster, Johnny Depp. I had seen it over the Xmas break, and whilst the film is not much in and of itself - it rarely, if ever, goes beyond all the cliches you've heard before, contains no further information than what you could find at Wikipedia regarding the story of the band, and tends to swallow the whole myth of Jim Morrison being a tortured genius in a laughably uncritical light - it did at least prompt me to drag out a 4LP Best Of The Doors set I'd been known the spin throughout the prior decade. I bought the set in question when I was working for a certain music chain and the label (that'd be Warner) were obviously stuck w/ a mountain of what they perceived to be overstocks. The shrinkwrapped 4LP set me back a whopping $2.50. I figured it was worth a shot. As a Best Of, it's a staggeringly stupid endeavour: along w/ all the tracks band is famous for (you don't need me to list them), as well as some cool lesser-known numbers, there's a disc featuring remixes by dunces of yesteryear such as P'nau, as well as a few post-Jimbo tracks from the group when they indulged in ersatz lounge-rock w/ Morrison's vocals reciting waffle on top. But I'd skip those tracks, obviously.
Somehow, in the 6 weeks or so after having viewed When You're Strange, I have managed to accumulate all 6 "proper" studio Doors records on CD - they're cheap as hell, remastered and packaged and annotated by folks who give a shit - by the exchange of legal tender. First came Waiting For The Sun (don't ask me why I started there; I think it's because I read many years ago that one of the members of the original Destroy All Monsters rated it as one of his top 10 discs of all time), and then the flood began. It's all there: The Doors, Strange Days, Waiting For The Sun, The Soft Parade, Morrison Hotel and LA Woman. That series of LPs were released between the years 1967 - 1971, and they're nothing to laugh at.
Why do some folks I know think the Doors are laughable? Because they represent a frat-boy version of what a "wild" rock & roll band should be? Because they sold a lot of records? Because Jim Morrison was a pretentious, self-absorbed, delusional drunk w/ a penchant for bad poetry? Or is it because Ray Manzarek, the keeper of the flame, the insufferable bore whose business card probably simply reads "Ray Manzarek: ex-member of The Doors"? A combination thereof. I understand that all these points have their validity, some in degrees greater than others, though it still doesn't answer the question as to whether the band made rock & roll records you'd want to sit down and listen to in the year 2012 and receive some kind of satisfaction from the experience. For my two cents, they were absolutely one of the better American outfits of their day, up there w/ the VU, Stooges, MC5, Byrds, Seeds, 13th Floor Elevators, Mothers Of Invention, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Love and Creedence. Their musical evolution throughout the albums is also an interesting thing to behold: stack 'em up next to each other, play them in succession and there's something fascinating going on, as the band rarely stayed within the same musical parameters for more than one disc. The combination of the players - Jimbo's croon alternating w/ a white-boy blues howl; Manzarek's intricate keyboard work, much of it based on his classical/jazz background, and one which eschewed many obvious blues-based rock cliches; Robby Krieger's guitar work, a highly under-rated mix of surf, jazz, psychedelia, flamenco and modal/Indian scales; and drummer John Densmore's adventurous, jazzy drumming whose fills perfectly accentuated the dynamics of the songs - made an interesting whole which shouldn't be overshadowed by the most famous member of the band's antics.
Each album contains at least 2 or 3 songs you would be familiar with: their career was a fairly even spread of hits, and as said, the band's evolution, de-evolution and musical rebirth of sorts means that every single one of them has something to offer. The debut is a tough and raw garage-rock disc, seeing them still hanging onto their roots in the Love/Seeds vein, and contains songs you may want to hear (again) in this lifetime such as "Break On Through (To The Other Side)" and "The End"; the follow-up, probably my fave of the lot, sees the rawness toned down by a more experimental, studio-based sound, and features the title track (duh), "People Are Strange" and "When The Music's Over"; 1968's Waiting For The Sun is an album that some critics say sees the band standing still, and one littered w/ lesser material - that it may be, though it still has "Summer's Almost Gone and "The Unknown Soldier", as well as the perennial/ubiquitous "Hello (I Love You)"; 1969's The Soft Parade was one where they lost a percentage of their harder-edged fan base, and their harder-edged sound w/ it. Being stuck in the studio for months on end and w/ pressure from the label to deliver a pop hit, the record is bathed in strings and brass, as if it was mixed by Herb Alpert, though that doesn't mean I don't recommend it. Check out the clip above. It possesses the same level of schlock as Las Vegas-period Elvis - a rock band derockifying itself with an army of tuxedoed putzes - and in it still lies a level of sublime beauty. If Scott Walker had released that very disc in '69, you'd be talking about it, and the 8-minute title track is just fruity enough to tickle my funny bones. Morrison Hotel, from 1970, was seen as a comeback disc by many. They ditched the studio trickery in favour of a more blues-based sound, returning to their roots the way everyone was during that period (think of the hoopla praised upon The Band at that time, a band who rejected psychedelia as if it was a wrong turn in rock's evolutionary path), grounding their sound w/ the addition of bass work from Ray Neapolitan and blues/roots legend Lonnie Mack. It also contains two tracks later ably covered by LA bands I'd highly rate: "Indian Summer", recorded by Opal and released on a Chemical Imbalance giveaway 7", and "Peace Frog", covered by Saccharine Trust on 1984's Surviving You, Always. LA Woman was the unplanned swan song by the group, and one often hailed as their finest work. It's more blues-based than previous albums, contains a great cover of John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake", "Riders On The Storm" and the ace title track, and for me is their equal best outing. Where would the original 4-piece had gone from here had they survived? I don't like to ponder such things. I may not like the hypothetical answer. It's a well-known fact that they tried to get Iggy to take over the frontman slot in the mid '70s when Pop was frying his brain in LA at the time, and it's probably best for everyone that it never happened.
Writing about The Doors on this blog may seem like a laughable excercise in redundancy and pointlessness, but since I now own all 6 of their albums proper (don't think for a second I'm about to tackle Full Circle and Other Voices) and have played them constantly the past month, I felt it needed to be done. Hardy underground rockers seem pissed that the Doors got all the fame and money whilst the Stooges and the Velvets - two bands intrinsically linked to the story of the band (the former being influnced by the Doors; the latter being an influence) - toiled in obscurity and poverty at the time, though the general public's stupidity and bad taste is not headline news. Strangely enough, if the history books are to be believed, the Doors were still largely seen as a "cult" band until the 1980s, the starting point of their rebirth as "classic rock" being the point at which Jim Morrison's head was placed on the front cover of Rolling Stone in 1982. It may seem hard to believe, but it's true. The fact that some group of assholes at a keg party are currently singing along to "Light My Fire" somewhere on earth at this point in time is no reason not to like them.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I could post about a bunch of old R & B and jazz nonsense, but since no one gives a shit, I'll write about punk rock, specifically the debut LP by the band known as the Adolescents. Originally released on the Frontier label in 1981, it made a big splash, especially in its hometown, becoming somewhat of what one shall term an "independent hit". I can't relay sales figures your way, but I'm willing to bet it sold in the 10s of 1,000s within its first few years. In fact, a quick Google search tells me that it still stands as second only to the Dead Kennedys' debut in Californian punk sales (I'm assuming such a list omits the nth-wave shenanigans of Green Day, NOFX, etc.). It also stands as one of the earliest and best full-length efforts by an American hardcore punk band, being beaten to the punch by (GI), Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and Group Sex, but coming out before Damaged and the subsequent glut that followed (there was much gold in them thar glut, but glut it be).
The band was formed in 1979 in suburban Fullerton (part of the greater Orange County, I believe: the launchpad for 1960s conservatism as we know it, and one which bred a generation of monsters as they came of age in the late '70s), and released the excellent "Amoeba" 7" on Posh Boy soon thereafter. Along w/ compadres such as Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, they were one of the biggest draws on the HC scene, and the quality of this disc gives their popularity such justified weight. It's one of the best statements of Southern Californian teen-punk angst of its day, one which belies some major Germs damage in its sound, particularly the Darby-like snarl of singer Tony Cadena and the relentless riffing of guitarists Rikk and Frank Agnew.
The best albums of this particular genre - let's call it first-wave Southern Californian suburban punk - all possess a unique character not duplicated by their competition: (GI) has the aura of poetic, junked-out '70s suburban decadence within its grooves; Group Sex has the older and wiser(??) presence of Keith Morris in its midst, the album being lyrically smart-arsed and cynical, the music being upbeat, bouncy and often not sticking to a simple 4/4 beat (true words: its songs remain tough to master from a musician's perspective); Damaged possesses a darkness and grime which makes it anything but a good-time-vibes platter (even though I always have a good time when I hear it); Redd Kross's Born Innocent was a total gas, pure homage to white, suburban American culture at the dawn of the 1980s, but their schtick was more Seeds and Kiss than the Germs; and Milo Goes To College has the pop hooks a-plenty, but sounds like the apolitical/apathetic/sociopathic screaming of a spoilt obnoxious kid (hence, I like that one, too). There are others, but you get the idea.
Adolescents has the musical grounding, as noted, of the Germs which lays the basis of its sound, though for a teenaged band, they've got a surprisingly sophisticated (relatively speaking) depth of songwriting when it's warranted, especially so on tracks such as "Kids Of The Black Hole", the best track on the disc, an all-time fave punk platter of mine, and one which clocks in at nearly five and a half minutes, featuring several choruses, bridges, verses and guitar breaks within. Its mixture of tension/release - the build-up which surges into the next phase of the song - is something pretty goddamn magical. The "hit" track, "Amoeba", is nothing to sneeze at, either. It used to get a flogging on the 3PBS punk show back in the mid/late '80s, which is where I first heard it (and taped it: an item still in my possession). The Adolescents' songs were anthemic but never corny; you could raise your fist and bark it out, their music containing a real rock & roll dynamic lost on their lesser brethren (TSOL, Social Distortion, et al), most of whom always looked like posers in the making to me.
In between the anthemic material, there's a whole swag of short/fast/loud tracks such as "I Hate Children", "No Way", "Rip It Up" and "Democracy", none of which rewrite the book on punk rock as we know it, but at this embryonic stage, no one was looking at rewriting anything just yet. You don't hear this often, but I'm going to call the Adolescents pioneers, one of the earliest and the best at what they did. A mixture of musical chops, songwriting skills and the ability to pen a lyric which perfectly captures the spirit of the time was and is a rare combination. For one LP, at least, the band had all three. Tony Cadena was a great vocalist and frontman, too, his essence being an unusual mix of OC punk thug out to destroy, combined w/ the soul of a sulky but sensitive screwed-up kid. Let's call it a Darby Crash/Jack Grisham hybrid, at least for now.
The band fell apart pretty soon after the release of the album: Rikk Agnew split from the group, joined Christian Death and released some screwy yet highly-rated solo discs (I'm yet to hear them, though friends rate them favourably); Casey Royer formed and fronted the shitawful D.I.; Cadena started the Abandoned then later the Flower Leperds, a band who got much favourable coverage via Flipside during their reign, though again, their sounds have not graced my ears.
The band reformed in '86 for the first of many times, but that's another, and far less interesting, story. The original incarnation of the band, or at least the one who wrote, performed and recorded Adolescents, had something good going for a brief while. It had the life span of a carton of milk, naturally, but that's hardcore for you.
I've gone and done it: I've set up a page at Discogs to sell some of my unwanted vinyl and CDs. Let's put it this way: if you haven't listened to a disc since the 20th century, and its existence in your collection does not go beyond the mere perfunctory (ie. - something to show off to collector dorks), then you don't need it... unless it's a real sentimental fave not spun in an eon due to overuse in prior decades. Check it out here. Normal transmission here at LD will resume soon.