Monday, April 23, 2012

I've threatened/promised this Springsteen piece for an eon, and now feels like the time to deliver. To be honest, it's not like I'm going to add much of anything to the critical debate regarding Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. All which needs to be said has been said. Frankly, so far as I see it, the only reason I could see why anyone who reads this blog on a regular occasion (which means the "you" in question vaguely inhabits the same musical stratosphere as myself) wouldn't like this album is because of blind prejudice: that is, you fucking hate Bruce Springsteen. That's fine, you're welcome to your opinion, but that still doesn't answer the question as to why Nebraska, Springsteen's very atypical solo outing from 1982, recorded on cassette tape with just himself and a handful of accompanying instruments (harmonica, mandolin, electric/acoustic guitars, etc.), isn't to your liking. Maybe you don't like "folk music" or singer-songwriters of the soul-bearing variety. Maybe your have your head up your arse. Maybe you think that The Boss a shamelessly mersh bar-band hack who couldn't possibly come up with any musical goods in his or your lifetime. The reasons could be many and varied.
When I was 12 and buying Top 40 7" singles on a weekly basis, I bought myself a copy of Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark". I liked the song OK, though I wasn't hot on Springsteen per se. The denim/blue-collar/Born In The USA angle didn't sit well w/ an Anglophile such as myself, because in my pubescent state I associated just about all American music w/ boring AOR corporate rock a la Eagles/REO Speedwagon/etc., simply by association of its origin (this wasn't because I was a bad-assed punk rocker; I was a candy-assed new romantic/wave fan. It was only after being exposed to the Dead Kennedys/Cramps when I was 13 that I came to appreciate a world of American music previously unknown). From memory, I played the single a handful of times, but it went w/ The Big Cull of 1986, when I sold all my Top 40 7"s in a quest to be the most hardcore idiot the world had ever known, and I figured my one purchase of a Springsteen single to be a strange detour on my quest for righteousness. It's not that I disliked The Boss: frankly, the guy wasn't even on the map. Skip 18 years to 2002, and then came my next Boss purchase: the one we speak of now. It was a few dollars at the Camberwell Market, I'd read the stories, I took the plunge.
Now all of this was a frankly boring and roundabout way of explaining how I came to find myself as a 30-year-old in what I considered to be the strange position of purchasing myself a Bruce Springsteen LP. I did it again soon thereafter. And again. And yet again: Darkness On The Edge Of Town, The River and Born To Run. All great albums, I will state with a certain caveat: I consider Bruce to be an excellent songwriter and a great storyteller - he can even pen an awesome rock riff (see "Candy's Room" on Darkness...) - but his recorded output is often marred by production and arrangements which are either way too mersh, bar-band, cheesy, sluggishly unrock or a combination thereof (there is, however, one excellent track from the peak of his '80s mersh period, right here). This is why Nebraska, for myself and many others (weird to think that Bruce didn't learn from this but instead went onto a lifetime of mostly schlock production. I guess record sales and not critical praise are what pay the rent) is the one Springsteen album to get. There's no ifs or buts: it has the songs - the best collection of songs he ever wrote - and it has the sympathetic, lo-fi and totally unadorned production which complement the feel of the songs.
The album itself was actually originally recorded as merely demos for an upcoming album. Tracks with the E Street Band were recorded soon afterwards, but Springsteen thought the stark and stripped-back demo recordings sounded much better, and so they were released as an official LP by the corporate slavedogs at Columbia Records. Some full-band recordings have been bootlegged and released over the years, and I'd bet you a lollipop you could Google 'em and find them in a heartbeat (I've never bothered, out of a total lack of curiosity). I've posted my favourite song from the album below - again, "Atlantic City" seems to be everyone's favourite track - although there are several others which make the grade: the title number, of course; the stripped-back, one-man-band Chuck Berry-style "Johnny 99"; the ghostly "State Trooper", a song Springsteen has always said was influenced by Suicide's "Frankie Teardrop" (Bruce has covered Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" both in concert and on disc: Blast First released a very ltd. 10" a couple of years back w/ his rendition [it's good, too]); and the vaguely uplifting closer, "Reason To Believe". Like I said, Springsteen is an excellent storyteller, and Nebraska as a whole presents a range of characters who give the listener a picture of their lives, most of them grim. So far as narrative, songwriting and the execution of its theme, it's up there with Dylan's Blood On The Tracks and Neil Young's On The Beach as a compositional whole.
Bruce Springsteen has sold a lot of records in his life, and that's certainly no reason to ignore this excellent album. A few years ago I praised Nirvana's Nevermind on this very blog and challenged anyone to come up w/ a convincing argument as to why it wasn't a great album. Ditto for Nebraska. Your previous efforts were pathetic, so I can only conclude that I was correct. Please send all ill-informed comments to the box below.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The past month or so, I've revisited some of my fave avant-jazz platters of yore, mainly top boppers from the '90s (I mean, records I discovered in the '90s). Maybe it's just me wanting a musical flashback, or perhaps it's a needed dose of high-energy splat in my musical diet, but whatever the reason, this kick I'm on has put a skip in my step. My forays into jazz (say it: it's a four-letter word) the past decade has seen me really getting inside the hard-bop (bordering-on-free) sounds of Jackie McLean, Charles Mingus, Lennie Tristano, Max Roach and Andrew Hill, the cool grace of Bill Evans and Ran Blake, West Coast groove from Shelly Manne and Jimmy Giuffre, primo early Louis Armstrong and spiritual jazz obscurities reissued on boffin crate-digger labels. The hard-arsed blast of Alexander Von Schlippenbach, Cecil Taylor, David S. Ware, William Parker, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, Anthony Braxton, Frank Lowe, Evan Parker, Charles Tyler, Charles Gayle, Paul Flaherty, etc. was always there in the mix, but exploring new sounds you're not used to and constantly finding out more and more and more about all the things you don't know so well... isn't that what getting older and wiser is supposed to be about? Is this fascinating to you? Thought so. And in the spirit of this awe-inspiring story, I present to you this rather fantastic documentary from 2006, All The Notes, centred on the life of one of the absolute all-time greats, Cecil Taylor. From around 1996-2001, there was probably no other hard-hitting jazz noisemaker on earth I liked more than Cecil. Because he hung around longer than his contemporaries such as Ayler and Coltrane, because he didn't get old and boring like Archie Shepp, because he still recorded heavily in the '80s/'90s (unlike Ornette), his discography is massive, and that means you've got a lot to choose from. And a lot of it is good. I can take or leave his solo piano records - his style is so cluttered and abrasive that it needs other instruments in the mix to give it a sense of light and shade - but elsewhere you'll find one of the best jazz discographies of the past 50 years. You want a few recommendations? OK, how about you start w/ the two most obvious and widely-available titles on Blue Note from the mid '60s, Conquistador and Unit Structures, featuring the likes of Alan Silva, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille and Bill Dixon; then there's some killers on FMP such as 1996's Always A Pleasure, which is a concert recording from Berlin ca. 1993 (a record of such awesome power, I once listed it as one of my top-10 desert island discs at Perfect Sound Forever) and the double-CD set, Alms/Tiergarten (Spree), a "jazz orchestra" marathon featuring players such as ECM folk like Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko and Louis Sclavis, as well as Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, Peter Kowald, Han Bennink and his bass partner for much of the '80s/'90s, the great William Parker; there's also 1985's Winged Serpent and 1986's Olu Iwa, both on the Italian Soul Note label (and featuring killer players of great esteem such as Frank Wright and John Tchicai); and how about The Great Paris Concert from 1966, released on Black Lion?; the live quartet recording of Taylor/Parker/Lyons/Bakr from 1981, The Eighth, on Hat Art, anyone?; the now-deleted(?) 2CD released on the Revenant label by the name of Nefertiti: The Beautiful One Has Come, which puts together two rare early '60s performances by his trios of the time... Let me get some breath. See what I mean? I'm only halfway there, but that'll keep you busy. Because Taylor is a pianist, his music as a leader possesses a density which no others in the jazz field have matched. It can be exhausting (you can't listen to two discs of one of his jazz orchestra sets all in one sitting), but his smaller band settings possess the two most important ingredients: space and energy. He's also a pretty eccentric dude, to say the very least. One viewing of this documentary will confirm that. He was set to play here a couple of years back at the jazz festival in Melbourne, though he pulled out at the last moment due to illness. I was bummed, but you've got to understand this: the guy is 83 years old and his music hasn't softened one goddamn iota. Once again, it's taken over 7 years and 600 entries to finally spill the beans on an all-time fave raver, and now all you gotta do is press "play" on that clip above.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Just to break up the monotony of non-SST-related artists, let's talk about an SST-related artist. Got it? I'll discuss a fellow by the name of Jack Brewer. He sang in the '80s rock & roll group by the name of Saccharine Trust. I've written about 'em before, specifically here. I'd be repeating myself if I was to state that they remain one of my all-time fave outfits of the era, but that's OK. Along w/ the usual SST cronies (Black Flag, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Slovenly, etc.), Wipers, Big Boys, Half Japanese, Swans, Flipper, Die Kreuzen, et al, I rank 'em up there as one of the best of the best in 1980s underground rock from the US of A. If you disagree, that's fine w/ me. Just don't complain when I rattle on about 'em. This internet contains a wide variety of content, I'm told, and you're obviously reading the wrong site if you think I've gone off the rails. But anyway! The 'Trust are alive and among us to this day. They took a 15-year (or so) break after they split in '86 and have been and on/off consideration ever since. When they originally called it quits, the two main members, singer Brewer and guitarist Joe Baiza, went in separate musical directions. Baiza's Universal Congress Of - as I've fucking said time and time again - made one of the great unheralded albums of its decade, their self-titled platter from 1987. A monstrous, swirling instrumental beast, it's an awesome mixture of six-string Ulmer/Sharrock guitar hysterics and Can/Miles groove. Do I need to state it again? GET IT. As for Jack, it took him a few years to find his feet, but finally in 1990 he released the great Rockin' Ethereal LP on the New Alliance label (the Watt/Boon imprint since purchased by Ginn and the SST empire).

I think I've told this story before... but what the hey, you're gonna hear it again: my older brother went to the US for a 2-month holiday in the summer of 1990/'91, trekking up the west coast and then through to Chicago. The first week or so he spent in Los Angeles. Within the first few days of arriving in the country, he found himself in attendance at a Jack Brewer show at the Anti-Club. Drunk and full of bravado, he also found himself talking to Brewer after the show, and before he knew it, he and his friend were crashing at Jack's place for a few nights. When he told me this story a week later on the phone, I was in such jealous awe that it beggars belief in the 21st century. Prior to the internet, life experience, cynicism - whatever - the world seemed a mighty big place. The life of underground musicians worshipped from afar seemed so foreign, so elevated upon a ridiculous pedestal that it almost seems incomprehensible in this day and age, but I can tell you this: when my brother came back in late January from his trip and gave me an autographed copy of Pagan Icons from Jack goddamn Brewer, it was a special day indeed. You know, you can stop reading this if you want to. But on with the story... Also in his package was a copy of Jack's recently-released opus, Rockin' Ethereal. For the both of us, it became a peculiar fave, its last track, "1989 Again", being a catch-cry which no one else on earth seemed to get. The record itself disappeared in the marketplace without a trace and hit the cut-out bins a few years later. I hope to give it a critical resurrection of sorts, if not a commercial one (I ain't that deluded).
Brewer's band featured none other than SWA's Richard Ford on guitar and backing vocals, Bobby Fitzer on bass and Ed Huerta on drums (he also played in the Lazy Cowgirls; in fact, he has an interesting web site here). The music is much more straight rock & roll than Sacc' Trust's jazzbo inflections - w/out Baiza on strings it'd be hard to replicate that sound - but the urgency makes up for the lack of musical complications. Not that this is straight-ahead "rock", and despite the presence of Ford on guitar, this is a lot better than anything SWA ever put to tape (I wouldn't be talking about it right now if it wasn't), but the rhythm section doesn't get too intricate nor fancy: it's four-to-the-floor, accenting the right moments the way a good rhythm section should. And Ford? He can play a mean riff and embellish it w/ enough fancy stuff to take it beyond mere rote rock & roll (he also produced the album). Musically, there is a lot going on here, even if that doesn't seem apparent upon first listen.
There's 11 tracks and not a turkey in the bunch. It's over in about 35 minutes, and if you're circuiting the same musical orbit I do, you'll probably chuck it back on for a second spin. There are more than a few cuts here which reach anthemic status: "Dog's Liberation", "In Your Skin", the awesome "Evil Twin", "I Needed You", a reconfigured take on The Doors' "Peace Frog" (also covered on 'Trust's Surviving You, Always and Past Lives) and, of course, "1989 Again". I recall at the time that Byron Coley, always a huge spruiker of the Sacc' Trust/Brewer cause, wasn't so hot on its blatantly rockist approach, but I think that such a dismissal fails to take into account just how great its rockist aproach is. In terms of musical immediacy, Rockin' Ethereal is the most right-on thing Brewer put to tape since Pagan Icons. 22 years later, this album remains great LA underground rock which was totally dismissed at the time - plugging SST artists ca. 1990/'91 must've been a slog when you look at what else was "hot" during that period: Sub Pop, Touch & Go, Am Rep, etc. Barring a couple of artists such as Pell Mell and Slovenly, the label had lost the plot entirely - but all that is ancient history. All which is left two decades later is whether this record is worth your time. I say it is, and then some. Brewer's crazy poet-preacherman mannerisms are in excellent form and the sympathetic band nail the delivery of the material. It's a cut-out disc which'll cost you but a penny or two, but you'll thank me later.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

I wrote about David S. Ware's Surrendered CD 5 years ago - Jesus effing Cripes, was that 5 years ago??! - right here. In case you can't be bothered going to the link, I will briefly explain that the record in question, released on Sony/Columbia in 2000, is one of the highlights of this jazzbo veteran's long and fruitful career, and will probably go down in history as the last great and/or interesting "jazz" album released by a major recording company, ever. If you think the majors suck at releasing rock & roll, you should see how they stumble and fail w/ remarkable consistency when it comes to "jazz". Being a nominally niche form of music in the modern scheme of things, the cheese factor is laid on even thicker for the mass market than its rock sidekick - since "rock" is a mass-market music form - and hence... wait a fucking minute, I'm being sidetracked by my own good self here. I'll save that rant for the street corner. Anyway, Branford Marsalis, the slightly less annoying brother to "traditionalist" fartspider, Wynton, signed up Ware and co. in the hope of bringing his adventurous/far-out sounds to the masses. He failed, of course, but he succeeded in being the A & R dude responsible for releasing what are probably the only two killer jazz platters released by the Columbia Records Corporation since they showed James Ulmer the door back in the mid '80s. They even managed to rope Rolling Stone scribe David Fricke into the fold to pen the liner notes; no great feat, since the guy seems to've jotted the liners for every second major-label disc I own, but despite the severe handicap of being one of the head cheeses at Rolling Stone mag, I actually like a decent amount of what he writes (and his notes for the Ware album in question are great). So, why am I writing about this record... again? Because today, on the holiest of holy days, I gave it a spin, and I'm still of the opinion that it remains one of the finest American jazz long-players of the past two decades. I then searched Youtube for footage and came up w/ this oddity: someone posted my fave song from the disc, "Glorified Calypso", and for reasons unknown to most functioning adults, put it to scenes from the old depressoid Kraut flick, Christiane F. If there's a connection between the two, it's lost on me, but at the risk of strangling the English language even further, I will state that it's not like the clip doesn't not work in some strange way. I'm giving them a B-, slightly higher than I should, if only because they showed us mercy by including no calypso dancing footage.

Monday, April 02, 2012

This blog has been going for over 7 years, and for some reason I have not once posted on the band known as Can. Or, if I have, then I can't seem to find any evidence of it. A crazy ommission in the grand scheme of things, since, if I was going to make a list (what, do you want me to make a list?! Well...), I'd rate 'em up there in my top 10 for all of eternity, or something to that effect. Certainly, their first five studio LPs, their "core" output, if you will - Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi and Future Days - are a mindblowing disc-by-disc musical trip which few others have ever equaled. Along w/ Miles Davis' electric albums from roughly the same period, or Pharoah Sanders' massive, God-like output from the day, they remain brain-frying documents which organically meld together a disparate range of influences into a unique whole: avant-jazz, the sounds of the Third World, electronics, psychedelia and something you might even call a little rock & roll. Hailing Can as iconoclasts worthy of such praise has become a cliche in this day and age, since just about any worthy band you may care to mention, along w/ many an unworthy band I'd prefer not to discuss, have noted them as a, err, "influence" on what they are. But cliches are also often born from great truths, so let's get on w/ the show.
I first heard 'em back in '93, as the '90s Krautrock revival was taking place and long overdue CD reissues (remember them?) were finally bringing the likes of Amon Duul 1/2, Neu! and Faust back into the public eye (although that may be a falsehood: I fluked most of this stuff on LP, as CD reissues of a lot of this guff was still a year or two from happening). To be honest, after having been exposed to Neu! (via a secondhand Best Of LP on Cherry Red from 1982 which was located and purchased) and Faust (via a beat-up copy of IV on vinyl), both of which musically nailed me on the head to a tee - Neu!'s clinical precision and Faust's chaotic noise - Can didn't make much of a dent at first. It was the Soundtracks album I first procured, the band's 1970 release which collects together various soundtrack pieces recorded by the band and sees them in a transitional mode between their first two singers, Malcom Mooney and Damo Suzuki (the album features tracks by both). Of course, I love the record now, but at the time, barring perhaps the epic "Mother Sky", it sounded like a bunch of none-too-remarkable hippie jams. But persist I did, if only because I felt like I was being berated by all sides to discover the genius of this neglected band; I say this because at the time, a band like Can was neglected by all but a few, and until the mid '90s, most of the now-revered Kraut bands were considered forgotten cut-out fodder by many (true!).
And so Tago Mago was soon purchased, along w/ Ege Bamyasi and Future Days - the Holy Trinity of Can platters - along w/ a copy of their debut from '69, Monster Movie. Only when all these records are placed together as parts of a greater whole, do they truly make sense. I don't mean to demean them by implying that as individual albums they don't, but hearing the band in constant transition throughout these discs is what really illuminates their genius, as the three of them - or four of them, if I'm to include Monster Movie - are very different from each other.
Original singer, Malcom Mooney, an Afro-American artist living in Cologne at the time, sang on the first album, and whilst I wouldn't proclaim him to be much of a talented vocalist by "normal" standards, his propulsive, nervous bark is a perfect accompinament to the band during this raw period, when they sounded more like a Germanic take on White Light-period Velvets or the glorious, rough two-note drone of 1st-LP Seeds than the free-form, genre-crossing troupe they would soon become. The album is made up of three mid-length tracks on the A side, and the 20-minute monolith on the B side, "Yoo Doo Right", which, as everyone points out, is their "Sister Ray", if the band is/was to have a "Sister Ray" (and obviously they did. Got me?). MM is an incredible disc, totally out of the loop for its time, especially so for a German rock band (it's "avant-garde" in some respects, but way more rough-house garage rock & roll than just about anything else on the continent at the time), but for myself, once Damo Suzuki joined is when Can really hit the ground running.
The triumvrate of Tago Mago/Ege Bamyasi/Future Days, from 1971, '72 and '73, respectively, are hard to beat. The band was in total shapeshifting mode by this period, a 5-headed beast who disregarded the rules of rock music more than any outfit of their era, throwing in elements of musique concret, proto "world music", dub, psychedelic funk, ambient and possibly a moment or two of what you might call "punk rock". This has all been covered before; not by me, but many others. But still, since I haven't said it, I feel like I'm only repeating others, and not merely myself. Tago Mago is the 2LP magnum opus, a sprawling epic split into two pretty distinct halves: the first disc contains actual "songs", side B being the meta-funk of "Halleluhwah", a Can fave for moi, 18+ minutes of James Brown groove as Jaki Liebezeit and bassist Holger Czukay lock it in and don't let go. Much like Brown's rhythms, it's been ripped off a thousand times, not by gangstas and OGs, but white indie folks (particularly skivvy-wearing Limeys). The second half of Tago Mago is loose as a goose: two sides of extended studio bong hits which probably won't make a great deal of sense if you're into the band's more "rock" material, but for myself, "Aumgn", "Peking O" and "Bring Me Coffee Or Two" play out the rest of the set perfectly. Drones, noise, screaming, fucking around. There's been a lot of that stuff the past 40 years - I've seen it, I've done it - but Can did it better than you or me.
Ege Bamyasi is a single LP, just as good as Tago Mago, possibly better. It's got 7 tracks, two of which hover around the 10-minute mark. Again, it's the perfect meeting point of 5 heads which surprisingly ever found common cause in the first place, the band being a strange combination of older, academic eggheads (Czukay, Liebezeit and keyboard player Irmin Schmidt were all well into their 30s), a younger "head", guitarist Michael Karoli, and the itinerant Japanese busker on vocals, Mr. Suzuki. Ege Bamyasi is the perfect bridge twixt the two discs it's surrounded by: it possesses the harsh, avant sound of Tago Mago, w/out ever going off the deep end, paving the way for the awesome, minimal drift of Future Days.
FD has 4 tracks, the B side taken up wholly by the 20-minute number, "Bel Air". The 9-minute title cut is one of the best things the band ever did, a percussive glide w/ lots of room to move and Suzuki's barely-audible vocals on top; the 3-minute mover, "Moonshake" being the best 3 minutes of start-to-finish they laid to tape. FD shows that the band knew all about space within a song. Can were essentially a "jam band": the group and their truckload of gadgets would hibernate in the studio, Inner Space, for days on end and pick out the best of it for release. In one very real sense, Can were a "prog" band, as "progressive" as it gets, but since the term "progressive rock" got hijacked by gear nerds w/ neo-classical ambitions, Can fit nowhere in that scene. Their approach was totally garage-oriented, grabbing whatever was at their disposal and, despite their obvious chops, celebrating a certain amateurism and desire to make a distinctly primitive noise.
After FD, things got a little tighter, perhaps a little slicker. Suzuki had left, and band members shared vocals on 1974's Soon Over Babaluma. It's a record I like a lot, one which sounds cleaner, more full in sound, but still has that Can groove throughout, sounding a whole lot like Miles ca. Big Fun or In A Silent Way. And there was more to come from the band after that, both good and bad, but that's another story. There's also another Can disc from the period well worth getting your mitts on: 1976's Unlimited Edition, which collects together outtakes and unreleased tracks from 1968-1976. Some are long - edging the 20-minute mark, and some are short (just over a minute) - and some are from the band's mythologised "Ethnological Forgery Series" in which Can attempted the emulate the music of different regions like a Folkways document. The sequencing is something I have trouble with - it jumps from brief, semi-atonal musical sketches to fully-realised ambient pieces - not perfectly clustering the music styles together the way I think they should've been, but hey, that's nitpicking and no slight on the actual music. If you're going to own everything else from the crucial 1968-'73 years, then Unlimited Edition is also something you definitely need. There's also Delay, from 1968, ultra-primitive recordings which were originally slated to be their first LP (until no one would release it), mandatory if you're super-keen on the '60s garage-rock side of the band, but for me this remains a great historical curio with a few hot tracks, but not something which musically satisfies the way their later, more expansive material does.
For just about any post-1976 music worth a dime, Can - much like the Stooges or Captain Beefheart - are seen as a Ground Zero band: that is, their music remains a part of the basic template for any music from the past 35 years worth listening to, their sound so all-encompassing, so defining within the realms of left-field sounds that their classic '60s/'70s period remains a before/after equation. Or, to frame it another way, you couldn't possibly have made music worth listening to within the past 35 years without having heard and been influenced by the music of Can (or the Stooges et al). Not true, of course, but the strike rate's high enough that it's a good line to throw around at cocktail parties and I wouldn't necessarily laugh in your face if I heard you uttering it. There's a 3CD box comin' out in a few months of previously unreleased material from the glory years. I need it. You need it. I don't think this entry has contributed greatly to the canon of Can worship within the global community, but I've said my piece.