Wednesday, May 29, 2013

July's sole self-titled album from 1968 has seen itself returning to my turntable (OK, CD player) quite a bit the past fortnight, and it really is an album worth your time and trouble. Originally released by the Major Minor label (now owned by the EMI corporation), the reissue I speak of was released on the fantastic Rev-Ola label about 5 years ago, and is possibly out of print, but I doubt you'll have too much trouble sniffing out a copy on the 'net. You will find that the effort was well worth it. The band was only active for two years - 1968/'9 - although the roots of the band go all the way back to the late '50s, in a quagmire of intermingling skiffle/pop/beat groups whose storyline would rival that of Spinal Tap in the annals of 1960s UK rock bands (although the pre-July outfit, Los Tomcats, sound interesting). Really, you're best off just reading the Allmusic entry on the band if the story grabs you that much. I'm more interested in the music for now. There is one band July were obviously heavily indebted to. In fact there is exactly one band whom this album will remind you of, the similarities being almost embarrassingly close, but the band in question isn't a bad template to start for British psych-pop ca. the late '60s. Oh, where was I? The band! That'd be Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd. July don't quite have the surf-guitar/Shadows twang thing happening as much as Syd - the songs veering between sweet and lush psychedelic pop and "heavy" guitar solos which employ use of the wah-wah pedal - but those two factors aside, this has Syd dementia all over it. If it wasn't done so well, it could almost be dismissed, or miscontrued, as psychsploitation fraud sign, sealed and delivered by a group of suit-and-tie studio opportunists, but July were the real thing. That first track, "My Clown", issued as a single at the time, sets the template for the rest of the record. I would say there's not a single clunker on the whole disc. July presents a beautifully haunting and eclectic brew of psych, occasionally drifting off into the aether (like good psychedelia should), but reining things back in w/ great hooks. There's 12 tracks to chew on, and this well-packaged edition has 4 bonus cuts (alternate versions) and a 7" also released at the time. The world of psych obscurities is a minefield of wrong directions and disappointments, but July and The Outsiders' CQ remain my two fave discoveries of the era in recent years. Regardless of reputation of rarity, these are records even non-collectors should get a kick out of. There's no real reason the band shouldn't have been huge, outside of bad luck and the band shuffling members and quickly calling it quits. I hear they've had tracks included on a zillion psych comps, both good and the type you'd find for sale at a supermarket in the 1970s, so I guess I'm the last to the party in heralding something of great worth in 'em. Go figure. Do it.

That's it for now. I've been too pooped lately to get wordy on the interwebz. I've been putting together a Powder Monkeys reissue which will be out next month, and I'll tell you more about in the near future (never miss an opportunity to spruik), and as an interesting, or possibly terrifying aside, depending on your opinion, I was busy last week driving Jello Biafra all over town for his recent spoken-word shows, being asked at the last minute to be his driver/assistant by the touring company who brought him out. Love him or hate him, I will say this: he was perfectly pleasant, funny and interesting the whole time (and barely brought up politics in conversation at all, contrary to what some may expect), and I'd still rate my youthful purchase of Plastic Surgery Disasters as one of those watershed moments in my musical development (if I may say such a thing), truly a before/after conversion point where all hopes of becoming a normal human being were dashed forever after being exposed to its wares. So if you wanna blame him for me, then go for it.

Below is a clip I only just discovered today. Speaking of frying minds, it's a brain-scorcher: a short French art film/extended music clip from 1973 featuring the ever-great Don Cherry. I know nothing about its history, but I shall dig deeper and find out...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bombino's second full-lengther, Nomad, recently released on the Nonesuch label, is one of the finer things I've heard this year. I procured a copy from a representative of the Time-Warner corporation just the other day (take a wild guess: rhymes w/ "David Lang"), and I've had it on repeat the past 24 hours, hitting pause during sleeping hours. Omara "Bombino" Moctar is a 30-something guitarist from Niger in West Africa who partly plays in the tradition of the likes of Ali Farka Toure - rhythmic and repetitive "desert blues" - but whose music also pays a nod to the Western sounds of Hendrix and Jimmy Page. Well, his influences are as such, although you're unlikely to mistake his music from Physical Graffiti anytime soon. It does, however, emit an intricate, semi-psychedelic tone which is more varied than his desert peers, bringing to mind everything from Moby Grape and Quicksilver to the 'Dead-like noodling of Television. Surely that can't be a bad thing, and to answer my own question, it's not.
Prior to Nomad, Bombino released an excellent CD on the Cumbancha label by the name of Agadez (where he hails from) in 2011. Have I written about it before? Possibly not, although it was one of my favourite releases of that year. It was also pretty raw, less textured than Nomad, though the lo-fi quality of the recording added to its mystique. Here was a guy who'd been hounded by militants from his place of birth (members of his band were apparently murdered), and his music reflected this relentless persistance: epic and evolving guitar/bass/drums jams which wouldn't quit. Regarding Nomad, here's the catch: it's produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, this year's Jack White/Mike Patton/etc., a middle-brow taste-maker who's sold a zillion records, plays in a fairly ordinary rock band and has the world's major music critics at his feet. Not that I have anything against Auerbach. I never thought anything of the Black Keys even in their early days, so it's not like I'm resenting their newfound popularity as a long-time, embittered fan who held them dear when no one gave a shit about them. The Black Keys are simply this year's White Stripes: the band your uncool cousin at the family BBQ asks you about once he hears you're into "alternative music". There are worse things in this life to worry about. At the very least, Auerbach (second cousin of the great Robert Quine, by the way) has put his fame & industry pull to good use, having produced Dr. John's return-to-form Locked Down from last year, and his own solo LP from 2009, Keep It Hid, from what I heard, was actually a pretty interesting mix of white-boy blues-rock, studio experimentation and some sort of moderne swamp-pop. I didn't hate it.
And of course there's Nomad by Bombino. Auerbach has slickened up the proceedings a tad, but not detrimentally so: there's simply more definition between instruments and Dan has roped in some honkies to broaden the musical pallette, including keyboards and lapsteel guitar. The results are certainly nothing to mourn, the overall ambience being note-perfect. I hope Bombino doesn't get progressively "Westernised" in his musical output as his fame rises, although the right balance is achieved this time around. There's 11 tracks in 40 minutes, songs tend to blend into one, although I can certainly say that the rockin' guitar twang on "Azamane Tiliade" stands out, and the drone and added lapsteel on the finisher, "Tamiditine", caught my ear.
 Simply discussing context, famous producers, etc. probably doesn't do Nomad any justice, although it's an interesting part of the story. It's a contemporary recording on a major label, produced by some famous guy, and it is what it is what it is: a great collection of psychedelic desert-rock. Dig it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

 When Numero Group recently announced that they were to be reissuing (kind of: the Sub Pop versions are, so far as I know, still in print on CD) the three records by New York's Codeine, I just about spat my lunch all over my computer (not really). It seemed like a mighty odd choice for a quality label which had released a ton of ace regional soul/funk comps and other curios, but hadn't really delved into the quagmire of "indie rock" reissues. But I'm glad they have, because Codeine's debut, Frigid Stars LP, originally issued by Germany's Glitterhouse label (there's a blast from the past) in 1990 and subsequently domestically reissued by Sub Pop in '91, is a real gem from the dawn of the '90s. Prior to my purchase of NG's deluxe 2LP edition this week, I hadn't played Frigid Stars LP for a long time, probably since Clinton was in power, and call me a hopelessly nostalgic old fuck if you please (you should), but it's a trip to the past well worth revisiting. I never owned it back in the day; the household copy back was owned by my brother, though I was prone to borrowing it for days on end to spin its wares on repeat. Alongside the noisier shit I was listening to back at the time (in '91 it was a lot of Die Kreuzen/Chrome/Swans), Codeine washed over me like, well, codeine. Many hold them responsible for developing the "slowcore" scene back in the day, and whilst that's interesting in some small way, I'd personally be more interested in who the fuck coined the term "slowcore" so I could wring their neck. Anyway! At this point in time, "slowcore" didn't really exist, and I suppose that if I was to define such a term, if I really, really had to, it'd be post-punk rock music of a slow, textured variety. Not quite shoegaze, and not quite doom, it is what it is and that's the end of the matter. Fact is, nobody cared less about it or its existence back in 1991: there was simply Codeine's debut to contend with.
The band had only existed for a year when Frigid Stars LP was recorded. Drummer Chris Brokaw was also playing in Come at the time (one day I will actually listen to Eleven: Eleven) and left the band to pursue Come fulltime (fnar fnar); other members would go onto play w/ the likes of June of 44 and Rex. Got it? Frigid Stars LP is made up of 10 songs, and there's not one I skip (caveat: the Glitterhouse version only had 8 songs; Sub Pop tacked on two extra for their edition). There is an awesome sense of melncholy throughout, though it never gets mawkish or hamfisted. The instrumentation keeps everything in check; washes of guitar noise mixed w/ subtlety and intricacy. What Codeine achieved in 1990 would subsequently be run into the ground throughout that decade, as every post-HC nudnik w/ a college degreee decided to 'slow it down' for whatever effect. Some good things were achieved, and some best left forgotten. Listening to Frigid Stars takes me back to being a confused, nervous and slightly stupid 19 year-old: the sadness of the opener, "D"; the heady guitar churn of "Pickup Song" (a track which sounds like it could've been lifted from the Grifters' debut, So Happy Together, from '92, or vice-versa); the anthemic "Cave-In"... I must've listened to this a lot back in the day, coz little of has been a surprise to me during my 2013 revisit, except for perhaps how good this still sounds. And let me say this, before you accuse me of being hopelessly nostalgic (you already have): listening to Frigid Stars LP doesn't get me wistful for the past. If anything, spinning it in the year 2013 only makes me thankful that it's not 1991 anymore and I made it through to approaching middle age w/ everything, most importantly my sanity, intact. Things are better now, in many regards.
Codeine were a band of their time and place: parts of their ouvre (and membership, in some instances) overlap w/ the likes of Slint, Bitch Magnet, Galaxie 500, Grifters, Supreme Dicks et al, but their worthiness makes them more than just an artifact of their era. Frigid Stars is a very fine recording of it or any era. Numero Group's edition, as w/ most things they do, is ridiculously deluxe: a heavy-duty gatefold sleeve w/ a bonus LP of demo recordings and very early tracks from the late '80s ("Skeletons" being the most atypical: an uptempo number which borders on hardcore) and a CD of everything therein (which I still can't manage to exit from its packaging w/out fearing that I'll tear the LP sleeve apart: how the fugg are you supposed to remove this thing?), as well as a large and detailed booklet detailing the history of the band w/ many previously unpublished photos. Interesting stuff - the roots of the group go all the way back to an early '80s HC unit, Pay The Man - but you're best reading it firsthand, not here. NG has also released similar editions of the band's Barely Real and The White Birch, and I might very well need 'em all.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Been an interesting last few weeks here in Melbourne regarding touring acts. Like I said in the previous post, we had Public Image Ltd. just last month, and before that we had Iggy and the Stooges (or what passes for the Stooges these days; there's none of the Asheton brothers in the band anymore, and that new album... peee-yoooo! I can't possiby express disppointment, since there isn't any), and in the past fortnight we've had Blue Oyster Cult, Flamin' Groovies and Black Sabbath all passing through town. Hell, whilst yer at it, throw Aerosmith in the mix there, too. 1975 is alive and well. I caught none of them, for various reasons. Actually, my main reason would be a lack of interest and desire to fork out big dough for the occasion, but there are other mitigating factors. Black Sabbath were the pick of the bunch, so far as I'm concerned (and reports from all and sundry have been universally very positive), but I've been to a handful of arena shows in my lifetime, and they've all been duds. If there's one thing them punkers got right it remains this: "arena-rock" shows are one hell of a lifeless, disengaging experience. I fell asleep watching Slayer in such a manner mid last decade! Sitting down w/ 10,000 other schlebs in a cavernous airport hangar watching your fave raves from a zillion miles away is a bore, and I don't care who's leaping about on stage. I'd rather watch the Youtube clip the next night and save my money. There was the one glaring exception of having witnessed a brain-frying show by Neil Young at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl about a decade back, when his blazing performance smoked minds left, right & centre, but that also mighta had something to do w/ what I smoked before the show.
Anyway... BOC played at the Prince Of Wales, as a sideshow to their Dig It Up! show (where the Flamin' Groovies also played; Google this event, if need be), and, being cautious about paying money for a band whose peak era was roughly the year I was born (that's 1972, folks), I steered clear. Some friends of mine attended and were vaguely positive about the performance, although griped about it being either a little too "guitar workshop" or even "too Pat Benatar" for their liking. Yikes! Having only two original members in the mix probably didn't help the cause. The 'Groovies? They're OK, though they've never worked me up into enough of a lather to care a great deal for their existence, despite what my namesake thinks of them. I've never even bothered to research the whole story behind the differing Roy Loney/Cyril Jordan lineups, since their music has never inspired me enough to care. Still, this "Slow Death" clip is one of the greatest things I've ever seen and there are other moments in their discography I like (and even own), but again: their highpoint was approximately the year I was born (or maybe even the year I attended kindergarten, if you're willing to vouch for Shake Some Action as the contender), so it wasn't on my radar. Some folks said they were sloppy, some folks said they were great. Some folks said they were sloppy and great.
Now, let me tell you a little (and perhaps pointless) story about Black Sabbath... last week I was invited to a private "listening party" by Universal Music for their forthcoming new album, 13, to be released worlwide next month. It's not because I'm an important guy or anything, it's just because myself and a workmate happen to be friendly w/ a sales rep from the company and were offered the passes. We eagerly accepted them. I'm not one prone to attending such events - in fact, I usually avoid them like a proverbial cliche - but I figured it would get me out of the office for the afternoon, give me a chance to mooch a few free drinks and possibly even grant me the honour of shaking the hand of either Ozzy, Geezer or Tony, the three of whom would be in attendance. What the fuck, I'm pretty shameless. I might even be able to get a snap of the four of us together and post it on Facebook for the envy of my nerdy friends.
 I hadn't been to a "listening party" for over 15 years. The last one I can remember attending, in all seriousness, was for Sepultura's Roots, which was held at the Public Bar in North Melbourne and comprised of a hundred or more freeloaders packed into a small bar for the free booze and pizzas, a chance to hear the record (which I'd already heard a thousand times by then, anyway, as I was working for their distributor at the time and was - quite literally - involved w/ the manufacturing of the album) and get drunk w/ friends. I remember having a blast, if I remember much at all. I expected this one, to be held at the ultra-posh Park Hyatt Hotel, to be a similar if perhaps larger affair: 200 junket-riders packed into a mini-ballroom, guzzling booze whilst the album was played overhead and the members of the band shuffled around under heavy security to meet and greet important people (mostly journalists). It was nothing like it.
Upon arrival we were directed to the downstairs bar where we were greeted by several security types who instructed us to hand over our mobile phones and then ran a metal detector over us. I guess it only takes one person to leak an album to the entire goddamn world these days. We were then directed to the next room, a very swish private area where billionaires probably hold hooker parties and snort coke off the balls of midgets. Or something like that. This was to be a far more intimate affair than I expected. There's a coffee machine and some backstage deli treats laid out for the guests and 20 chairs lined up in a semi-circle against the oval-shaped space to my right. I immediately spot a few people I know - radio and retail types - so I get myself a bottle of mineral water and grab a chair next to an old retail friend who's there. Proceedings are about to begin. We're given a program of the forthcoming album before it's to be played - track listings, a rundown on the history (sales and otherwise) of Black Sabbath - and a Park Hyatt notepad and pen to make notes. A marketing schleb from Universal - thee marketing schleb from Universal, apparently - then gives a speech about the album and 'Sabbath's standing in the greater scheme of things, the kind of award-winning speech which earns you six figures a year in major recording companies. OK, it wasn't that bad. Being an Englishman of the right age, he went on to talk about the English punk scene of the late '70s (don't ask me why, no one asked) and how it was a rebellion against the pretension of rock music in the '70s - yada yada yada... heard this before? - but remember this: Black Sabbath were never pretentious, they were the real deal. OK. I won't argue.
Cue Ozzy, Tony and Geezer for a quick hello, quite literally. Ozzy shuffled in - the others seemed more sprightly and compos mentis - and mumbled a polite greetings to everyone, saying thanks you for coming along and he hopes we enjoy the record. I don't care what they say about the guy, he was the perfect gentleman when I semi-met him. Exit band members and cue the madly-guarded new album for the select few people in the room. The speakers set up were tiny, about twice the size of my fist, but fuck me, they could pack a punch: they were LOUD. Too loud. Annoyingly loud. Nobody wanted to be known as the person who asked that the volume be turned down at a Black Sabbath listening party, but everyone was thinking it. Anyway, we sat through the eight tracks of the album, I scribbled out a Satanic star on my sketch pad and wrote "Hail Satan" and then we were once again politely escorted from the room to pick up our mobile phones and chat amongst ourselves. I joked to a friend that I had a plastic-based recording device sewn into my jean cuffs and was shot a suspicious look by a company rep. It was a joke; he soon realised that. Ozzy and co. were kicking back at the bar 10 metres away, waiting for the non-journo plebs to leave so they could answer some pre-approved questions from the Woodward & Bernsteins present. My workmate pointed him out to me and said, Maybe I'll potter over and say g'day to him. Two turtlenecked dudes were in proximity of Ozzy, and it was quite obvious that if you were to seriously entertain such an idea, they would sniff you out pronto and probably put you in a lung-squeezing Brazilian jujitsu hold before throwing you through a plate-glass window onto the street. Best not risk it. What the fuck do you say to Ozzy, anyway? "I really liked you music ca. 1968-1978"? No, to be fair, the new 'Sabbath album sounds pretty A-OK to me. It certainly sounds better than the new Stooges album, and even better than the first "new" "Black Flag" track leaked just this past week (sidenote: care to discuss this? Please do. Ginn's guitar sounds hot, as always, although Ron Reyes' - a man who's been residing mostly under the Where The Fuck Is He Now? file for the past 30+ years - Hank Rollins impersonation sounds constipated and the rhythm section is weak as piss and possibly playing an altogether different song underneath. I like jazz, too, especially SST-damaged jazz, but this sounds extremely unpromising to me): every riff off 13 is ripped off a track from one of their first six, classic LPs (there's about three moments throughout which had my workmate prodding me and shouting in my ear, "That's 'Children Of The Grave'"), Rick Rubin's production is crunching and mostly sympathetic to what 'Sabbath should sound like (he hasn't totally reproduced the beautifully organic fuzz of their early '70s works, the bass lacking the warmth of the days of yore), the lyrics are mostly atrocious drivel you might expect to see written on the schoolbag of a 13 year-old and out of the eight songs, there's probably four I'd rate as being really great, two as "good" and the remaining two being a bit weak but still acceptable in the grand scheme of things. W/ today's diminished expectations for listenable rock music, that's not a bad strike rate. I told you this story was pointless.