Sunday, January 30, 2005

I’m feeling slack right now and have way too much to do before the week is up, so this HIGH FIVE is a bit of a cop-out. I’m going to steal some old reviews I wrote for Amazon a few years back, and they can be apt descriptions for the discs in question. Some of them are fairly trite and dorky, but I figured I was writing them for the completely clueless. I think I’ll also note that I saw the new Blues Explosion video the other night, and it was the worst fucking thing I’ve just about ever seen or heard. Never been a huge fan of the guy, though Orange and Extra Width were two records I dug quite a bit 10-odd years back, but to see what they’ve devolved into… that’s a sad sight.

1) MILES DAVIS – Get Up With It 2CD
My favourite album of all time, seriously. There was no other artist on earth I played more in the years 1995-98 than Miles Davis. I’ve taken a long break from the guy, but now I’m back for more. Every home could use a copy of every recording the man made between the years 1969-75, and that means you!

Uh… this is what I said:

Without a doubt, one of the greatest albums of them all, a double set only comparable to the likes of the Stooges' Funhouse in its darkness, intensity and raw, funky sexuality. Now for starters let's get something straight: I loathe "fusion", and to even CONSIDER putting Miles' music of the '70s in that category - a genre filled with lilly-livered chumps like Return To Forever and the Yellow Jackets - is a great disservice to Miles and his music. From 1969 to '75, Mr. Davis pioneered and created his own unique sounds, a mixture of hard funk, psychedelic rock, avant-garde electronics and free jazz, that has never been equaled in regards to its sonics or its "vibe". There is NOTHING that can touch the raised-middle-finger jab in the guts felt when one puts on discs like Dark Magus, Live Evil, Agharta, Big Fun or On The Corner. The feelings of utter loathing and despair, the overwhelming EMOTION of these discs can be too much, yet nothing can prepare you for 1974's Get Up With It, a disc of such wildness and total lack of any commercial forethought (and thank the heavens for that) that it was granted pretty much instant deletion upon release and has mainly only been available from Japan for the last 25 years.

Start with the cover: a big, slightly unflattering, grainy photo of The Man. It's the sight of a man against the world, battling for his own identity. Hit the first track, "He Loved Him Madly" (a tribute to Duke Ellington), a 32-minute ambient piece only broken up occasionally by Peter Cosey's mumbling guitar lines. It's one of the saddest damn songs you'll ever hear, and you can bet yer booty that if it was made by a bunch of white guys in Berlin ca. '71, every Krautrock freak in town would be hailing it as a classic. Next track "Maiysha" is a schizophrenic one. For ten minutes in merely putters along like a lite Latin number, interrupted sporadically by Miles' Sun Ra-like organ, then it stops, gets into a hard groove and proceeds to move along to Peter Cosey's awesome guitar screeches for another five minutes. Hot. "Honky Tonk" is up next, a brief interlude of stop-start rhythms and noisy organ crunch. It prepares you for the next track the unstoppable "Rated X", THE peak of Miles' - or maybe anyone's - sonic capabilities. Part hyperdive breakbeat rhythms, part uber-funk, and nine parts pure noise, there is no other sound on earth as MOVING as this song. Get up with it.

Disc two starts with "Calypso Frelimo", another 32-minute piece that starts where "Rated X" finishes off. Ecstatic peaks of dark psychedelic jamming, aided by Miles' wah-wah'd trumpet, gel and compete. "Red China Blues" is a brief number that kicks it in a Chess-Records-meets-Ornette way, and the 15-minute+ "Mtume" once again takes you for a ride with its collision of Cosey's guitar (a highly under-rated player in a field with the likes of Sonny Sharrock) and about half a dozen percussionists. Finishing is "Billy Preston", more chilling mid-range avant-funk to close the set.

Get Up With It is the perfect summation of what was filling Miles' head at the time: the avant electronics of Stockhausen, the cyclical funk of James Brown, the wailing psych guitar of Hendrix, the improvised freeness of Ornette Coleman and as The Man himself put it, "a deep African thing". Many words have been written on Miles' music of this period, but to really GET it, you have to LISTEN to it. Not a word is spoken on GUWI, yet it speaks volumes on its creator's alienation and sense of despair. As far as so-called "out-rock" goes, this is about as "out" as you could get, and certainly about as purely "psychedelic" as music has ever gotten, so do the done thing and get with it.

2) CURRENT 93 – Thunder Perfect Mind CD
Another artist I used to listen to a whole lot, yet has been absent from my stereo for far too long. This is their best and you, of course, need a copy. Here goes…

Current 93 are admittedly an aquired taste. I myself do not like a good third of their material, but when they're on, they're on, and this is about as ON as they've ever gotten. Taking a huge musical swing with '88's Earth Covers Earth (also a C93 high point), where in which they dropped their creepy industrial tag only to steep themselves in a kind of strange, mystical folk netherworld inspired by the likes of the Incredible String Band, Comus and Shirley/Dolly Collins, the band was well traversed in the given genre by 1992 to make their masterpiece. This is it.

Featuring the usual suspects of Balance/Wood/Stapleton/McDowall, etc., as well as the likes of Nick Saloman (that's Bevis Frond to you, sir), David Tibet has successfully created a simply mesmerising collection of songs that play on all the best aspects of his talents: the ability to tell creepy stories with a melodic, enchanting, yet often melancholy backdrop by his cohorts. "A Sadness Song" is probably the best song he's ever done, and the 10+ minute track, "Hitler as Kalki", contains some stunning psych guitar work from Mr. Saloman. Thunder Perfect Mind contains next to none of the insane ranting nor vapid pretensions that mar certain other C93 releases, and all that talk of them being "gothic masters" (and I loathe "gothic" music) is pure baloney: this is pure psychedelia the way it should be: a head trip without the drugs, just the sounds.

3) The DAMNED – Damned Damned Damned LP
And again…

As the year 1977 and its musical epiphanies become but a distant memory for some, it makes it easier to judge the musical merits of its respective bands from a long-term perspective, and if there's any disc from the period that seems to get better with age, it's the Damned's debut. Long-considered The Band Least Likely, or at best a footnote to the UK punk explosion, looking back, their dedication to truly anarchic music and their exuberant fandom for high-energy rock'n'roll - as opposed to social revolution and politics - certainly makes their records a whole lot more enjoyable to listen to than several of their compadres from the era.

As opposed to the Sex Pistols, Clash and the Buzzcocks, the Damned sounded American more than British, their music being a kind of MC5/Stooges/NY Dolls/Nuggets (and, yes, T-Rex) hybrid that, in hindsight, proved to be more influential on American Hardcore (especially the LA and DC scenes) than the more infamous Sex Pistols or Clash.

Or putting it simply, from a basic perspective of high-energy punk rock with the eternal themes of trash, love and teenage dreams, this record is near unbeatable. EVERY song here could've made a killer single. Of course there is the incredible twofer of "New Rose" and "Neat Neat Neat", both of which were classic singles of the day, but beyond that there's also such nuggets as "Born to Kill", "Fan Club" and "Stab Your Back". The performances, the trashy production, the guitar licks, Rat Scabies psychotic drumming and especially Dave Vanian’s Hammer-Horror vocals are all brilliant. It's something you'll probably never read about in any of the "official" books on UK punk, but the Damned made possibly the best UK punk album of 1977. Amen to that!

4) THE BAND – s/t LP
No Amazon review here. I’ve only been listening to this because I watched The Last Waltz for the first time this week. Reputed as a great inspiration for Spinal Tap, it’s easy to see why. Martin Scorcese comes across like a hopelessly earnest, yet drugged-out and nervous interviewer and the band seems to be permanently trashed. This album is one of those LPs you probably stumbled across many a time in your younger days in record stores, or at least I did, and, not knowing anything about them, I presumed that it sucked. There’s the unappealing brown cover, a photo of some ugly old bearded dudes and the lamest band name of them all: The Band. What’s more, the record’s self-titled. I put them in the same exciting basket as Bread and Poco and swore they were a band not for me. Naturally, I was wrong. I’m not sure they were tapping into The Great American Songbook, as Greil Marcus would have you believe (the fact that they were Canadians puts that into a weird light), though the songwriting chops are unbelievable – every track a scorcher – and even though a love for this album puts me fair and square in the MOJO/UNCUT-reading demographic I like to think I’m not a part of, it’s still OK by me. It also probably should’ve been in that Top 75 Albums Of All Time List or whatever the hell that two-part mess I indulged in a little while ago was, but at the time it slipped my mind.

5) THE POP GROUP – Y LP
I noted a little while ago that I gave The Pop Group a recent listen and was a touch underwhelmed by the experience. It came as a great shock, since they were, at a time many years back a favourite band of mine. I’ve given them another spin this week and I think the magic is coming back. Give it a few more weeks and I could be on a heavy Pop Group binge which will take months to recover from. Wish me luck.

The Amazon review:

In a day and age when just about every esoteric oddity from recorded history is given a deluxe reissue to bring it forth to new generations of keen listeners, it beggars belief as to why this 1979 masterpiece only exists as a rather expensive Japanese import, but onto other matters...

The Pop Group's debut will always have a special place in my heart and eardrums. I purchased my own secondhand vinyl copy as a 19 year-old back in 1991, and have never looked back. Y is simply one of rock's all-time essential groundbreaking albums. A motley crew of disgruntled Bristol teenagers who were inspired by everything from British punk (though perhaps not so much musically), Situationism, Fela Kuti, Jamaican dub, electric Miles Davis, John Cage, the Last Poets, Abbie Hoffman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, James Brown and many other gems, their anarchic stew of barely-together deconstructed rock, abstract funk, heavy dub reverb and chaotic, free-jazz-inspired rhythms still sends a chill down my spine today.

The overall package of Y, its cryptic cover, its lyrical themes of corruption, lies, despair and alienation, the howling, desperate vocals of Mark Stewart and the amazing (and huge) fold-out poster that accompanies the LP combine to make up a truly alien piece of work that seems to exist within its own universe. Tracks like "Snowgirl" (part avant-garde show tune, part looming dirge), the anthemic "We Are Time" (7+ minutes of intense dub-inflected angst) and the closing screams of "Don't Sell Your Dreams" are permanently scorched on my brain.The Pop Group, like most groundbreakers, never made a dent commercially, though proved to be highly influential on the likes of Nick Cave's Birthday Party (Cave himself has repeatedly said that witnessing The Pop Group live for the first time twisted his brain in ways previously thought unimaginable, and has listed The Pop Group's "We Are All Prostitutes" 7" as the greatest song of the 20th century) and LA's seminal Minutemen (Mike Watt still plays Pop Group covers live to this day), as well as the Bristol scene of the '80s/'90s (Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, etc.). A simply brilliant, essential, unforgettable debut.

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