Monday, January 26, 2015

The lowdown on a handful of releases which are being spun...

In my bid to transform into Tommy Saxondale, I have been delving into the back catalogue (there is no 'current' catalogue to speak of) of British band of yore, Traffic. Traffic were an interesting and eclectic outfit for a nominally 'rock' band of some success, one who experimented with the form in unique ways whose catalogue, at different turns, reminds me of everyone from Jefferson Airplane to Soft Machine to Amon Duul 2. The group's Steve Winwood, fresh from the Spencer Davis Group at the time, later made a major name for himself as an AOR putz (though this slice of MOR gold still holds some pleasant childhood memories: deal with it), but back in his early days still held a pioneering sensibility, mixing his pop ambitions with a progressive brand of rock music taking cues from English psychedelia (Soft Machine/Pink Floyd/Fairports), jazz improvisation and Eastern exotica (as many did in a universe inhabited by George Harrison and his popularisation of the form).
Winwood was not the only Traffic member worth taking note of: their history is littered with line-up changes (starting in '67, they even folded in 1969 for a year whilst Winwood formed and dissolved Blind Faith for one album), though fellow members Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi also made serious contributions to the band's sound - and to complicate things further, Mason is not present on 1971's The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys, the album I will ostensibly discuss.
The 'Only In My Dreams' is the one which gets most of the attention, and its 12 minutes of descending piano lines and moaning of the great injustices of the music biz are lovely indeed. It's as English as a cup o' tea and dripping for breakfast, and the band's quintessential Englishness is of course part of their appeal. My pick is the opener, 'Hidden Treasure', a 'rock' song with whimsy and the major presence of flute which won't make you vomit. It's all rather lovely, as are a number of other Traffic LPs, such as its predecessor, John Barleycorn Must Die (progified white soul at its peak). The group took the basic template of late-period Beatles - when the band got really interesting - and stamped a particular brand of loose, jazzy English progressive rock (without being 'prog-rock') mixed with various 'world' influences on top. Signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records label - a swell place to be - they fit in snugly next to their bucolic Limey cohorts, Richard Thompson, John Martyn, Nick Drake, etc. I can stand them, and then some.

Welcome to 2015, here's a 2012 album from Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti. I had largely ignored Mr. Pink's discography until 6 months ago. I had heard some of his earlier work a number of years ago when his name was first being made, and it wasn't so much his music which turned me off (his earlier albums are very rough, musically, almost like lo-fi mix tapes), but the silliness of the music press at the time, which as always was trying to codify a movement out of nothing, thus branding Pink and his cohorts as 'hypnagogic pop' (ask David Keenan about that - I don't believe anyone on earth has re-used such a term in the past half-decade).
Anyway, I didn't hold it against AP - I just ignored his music for a number of years, as I tend to ignore most things on earth (except for this track, which was omnipresent and undeniably catchy). So all of this takes me to 2015. No, actually, it takes me to the winter of 2014: somehow or other I heard a couple of cuts from his 2012 LP, Mature Themes, and the goodness, nay, greatness of what I was hearing took me back. This is that guy, adored my young people so much more beautiful, young and groovy I could ever expect to be at this stage in my life? It was. It is. Ariel Pink makes excellent music - let me say that. I rate him as the spiritual and musical heir to Kramer and the Shimmy Disc circus (Bongwater, Shockabilly, Dogbowl, King Missile, et al) he built around himself some 25+ years ago (an empire long gone, alas).
Certainly, the music 'Pink has been making for the last five years on the 4AD label - 2010's Before Today, 2012's Mature Themes and most definitely last year's Pom Pom 2LP set - bear some resemblances to that classic Shimmy Disc 'sound' (which you know I love). They are such perfect encapsulations of the freak-rock ouvre - think of a road map circling Syd/Ayers/Beefheart/Mothers mixed w/ a dash of Roxy art-rock and Bolan boogie - that I will say this: I'm surprised he sells as many records as he does. I've always figured that shit rises to the top, at least in the music biz of the last 35+ years, and Mr. Pink bucks the trend. Not that he sells zillions of records, but for an artist I rate as worthy, he does well for himself, and most unfortunately don't. I could, of course, discuss any of the three records mentioned, but since I just purchased Mature Themes in the LP format just the other day (another rare birthday-related indulgence, I'll admit), it is the one I'll focus on.
Dig the opening cut, 'Kinski Assassin': tell me that isn't an A-grace slice of unhinged pop music. Go on. Or 'Only In My Dreams': sunshine pop a la The Association/5th Dimension w/ a David Crosby/Dennis Wilson hash-imbibing gonzo vibe sprinkled on top. Or thereabouts. Lastly, I will pick side B, track 1, as a highlight: 'Schnitzel Boogie'. It's like Zoogz Rift if he actually made good records which went above and beyond pure schtick. I can't speak for Ariel Pink's slightly annoying public persona, nor do I really care to analyse or defend it - it doesn't interest me enough either way. I do, however, think he is currently in the thick of releasing a series of excellent slabs of eccentric rock music, and the fact that he has recently roped in Don Bolles (yes, thee Don Bolles, and if I have to explain who he is, then you probably won't care who he is) into his band as the skins man makes perfect sense. Ariel Pink's music is weird and wonderful and never merely whacky: its eccentricities serve as a reflection of its creator's personality, and I endorse these recordings without hesitation.

Saturday, January 24, 2015


By golly, you know you're truly a hopeless cause when you turn 43 and spoil yourself by purchasing a cassette from a local band as a way of patting yourself on the back for living another year on earth. But that's what I did this past week, and in hindsight, there are worse predicaments and habits for a middle-aged white man such as myself.

EXEK are a new-ish four-piece and I know next to zip about 'em. They have a pedigree of sort, I'm told. Haven't seen them live yet - I missed them by a minute or two when they played a city dive w/ the mighty CUNTZ a couple of months back - though my friends in attendance noted that I really would have liked them and that they exuded a dark and cold post-punk vibe one can only perfect (or even attempt) after a few hundred ingestions of Metal Box. Sounds like my kinda party!

I heard this cassette, 'limited' (as they all must be) and released on the Time And Space label, soon thereafter and have been streaming it a fair bit since right here. Despite my protests of late that I need no more physical product in my life, the allure of the tape hit me upon viewing the other day, and a purchase was made. I have been a staunch critic of the 'cassette revival' in recent years, that I confess, but an additional confession must be that I have been somewhat won over to the format in recent times, or at the very least more tolerant. My criticism of the format's pain-in-the-ass nature in regards to locating songs in a playlist has, in this attention-deficit day and age, become its advantage: one is forced to listen to a release to its conclusion, track by track, taking in every second. After all, the alternative will possibly drive you nuts.

This waffle aside, EXEK make an excellent racket, and that's a decision you can make for yourself upon hearing it. The opening cut, 'Submitted', has the stench of Lydon/Levene/Wobble all over it, but of course that is not such a bad thing, especially given the high quality of the guitar scratching throughout. The darkwave gloom continues for three more tracks, and a I sense a Euro-damaged (and almost Tuxedomoon/Ralph Records: and yes, I know they're not European) vibe throughout, and for a group of Antipodean delinquents with little track record outside of this 20-minute cassette, I'd say they've nailed an ace PiL/Cabaret Voltaire hybrid of sorts, and I need to see and hear more of what it is EXEK do.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


An ever-so-brief interlude... the music the brothers Mael - Ron and Russell - AKA Sparks, made betwixt the years 1971 - 1975 has kept the thunder out of my head the past 18 months. It's become quite an obsession, and I know I need to delve further. Operatic, schizophrenic, multi-facted glamoid circus music. It's a small wonder they were so big at the time, since their take on 'rock' is a skewed one indeed, but one perfectly suited for a Brit audience of the day (being LA-based Anglophiles as they were, eschewing the granola and brown shoes styles of their Angelino compadres). I actually thought Sparks were English, but that was apparently a common misconception and one the band were only too happy to encourage.

Their music was a sweet spot for smart rock folks in the mid '70s when it seemed like the genre itself might be going down the toilet. I can't help but note, as an aside which may be painful for some, their obvious influence on a young Jello Biafra. Mr. Boucher has noted many times over the years his teenage obsession w/ Sparks, and one spin of the likes of Kimono My House/Propaganda/Indiscreet albums and their frenetic, cartoonish tunes a-plenty, and you can hear the blueprint for the likes of Fresh Fruit.../Plast Surgery Disasters therein. Deal with it. Deal with Sparks. I certainly have been.
I have written here before of my first encounter w/ them as a teen, watching the fantastic B-flick, Roller Coaster, where the band rips out a destructive version of 'Big Boys' (from '76's Big Beat LP, a full-lengther produced by Rupert 'Pina Colada' Holmes!) in front of a crowd of dorks in a theme park.

Sparks actually toured Down Under approx. half a decade ago, to the wild delight of nearly zero people, which is a pity. I didn't even attend. I found it a curious spectacle that they would make the effort, and was well aware of the band's place in the grand scheme of things and their hep resurrection c/o In The Red Records, but I didn't feel like forking out the coins and passed. Few others did, although the shows were apparently fantastic. So be it. The Sparks revival has began in my abode 18 months back, and it's still going strong. More in the future...

Monday, January 05, 2015

DAVID BYRNE - The Catherine Wheel, a New Wave 'dance project' soundtrack you should hear. Really.

What a New Waver. This David Byrne score from 1981 is quite something indeed. I had, until recent years, pegged Mr. Byrne as a pleasant gentleman but one whose reputation as a Man Of Quirk rendered his musical career of little interest. Sure, he has a pretty cool record label responsible for some mighty swell reissues by the likes of William Onyeabor, Tom Ze and Os Mutantes, amongst others - and who hasn't performed a herky-jerk dance to 'Psycho Killer' at a party while inebriated? You?! - but I figured Talking Heads, a band who sold an awful lot of records, to be one of the less interesting acts which found their feet in the mid '70s NYC rock & roll renaissance centred around CBGBs. Of course, that's piffle. The Heartbreakers and Richard Hell & the Voidoids, for instance, only made about one great album between the two of 'em, and Talking Heads made at least two really great albums: Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, from 1979 and '80, respectively. Produced by Eno - el naturale - they could easily pass for Eno discs themselves, and their mixture of butt-tight funk, ethno forgery and Frippian guitar noodling (from Fripp himself) make 'em worthy additions to your collections. Fugg knows it took them long enought to be added to mine.

And thus thar be The Catherine Wheel from 1981, Byrne's soundtrack to Twyla Tharp's dance project which was probably all the rage in the Downtown district. I know next to nothing of it, except for this accompanying music. Roughly 70 minutes in length, The Catherine Wheel was originally released as a 2LP set, then on CD, and for now remains out of print in any format outside of digital (I've been spinning it via streaming services. Fuck you, too). I'm on a strict No Buying policy right now - haven't purchased an ounce of music for 4 months (a situation brought on by the fact that I can barely even enter the dreaded 'spare room' without tripping over piles of LPs, CDs and yes, cassettes) - but if I stumbled over a vinyl edition of this baby tomorrow, I may just make an exception.

There's 23 tracks present, a couple being under a minute and some surpassing five minutes. If you didn't know it was a score for a live dance presentation, you wouldn't guess. It possesses no real 'soundtrack' feel, but its mixture of moody instrumentals, muscular funk and abstract No Wave-isms make it a highly listenable and eclectic brew. As with the previous two Talking Heads LPs (and even Byrne/Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts LP, a record I know a lot of people like but one I always found to be the least interesting effort from Eno's 'classic' [1971 - 1983] period - however, I need to revisit it), its angular, faux-Afro rhythms played by a bunch of college-edumucated honkies (albeit accompanied by ace players such as Yogi Horton, Bernie Worell, Adrian Belew, Eno, etc.) sounds like a more avant take on the sound the 'Heads had perfected on their previous two LPs. Some cuts even wound up on subsequents 'Heads platters, in modified form. You want tracks? I'll give you tracks... 'Big Business' and 'Dinosaur'. Follow the links to the side and you'll hear the whole thing. Yep, the whole damn thing. The world's at the tip of your fingers, no effort to be made. Sometimes the goods are right under yer nose. Why even write about it? Just listen.