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.