Saturday, May 21, 2011

Stack 'em pack 'em and rack 'em. Folks in the biz call 'em "capsule reviews". Giving any of these records justice in a few lines doesn't seem a possibility to me, but I'll give it a shot. Either I won't do 'em justice or I'll just waffle, or likely a combination thereof. They're sitting in a stack in front of me. I feel I must confront them.

That CD picture above, it's by NYC quartet, PITOM. Four nice Jewish lads, they've found a home at Tzadik (not a surprising development) and just released their second full-lengther, Blasphemy And Other Serious Crimes. They're nominally "heavy", they're instrumental, they feature a member on viola/violin, who injects a few Yiddish melodies into the mix, and the obi strip compares 'em to the Melvins and Mahuvishnu Orchestra. They've got a point, though I'd also add that this wouldn't seem out of place in the SST roster ca. the late '80s. Right now, about half of you have stopped reading this review, a quarter are persisting through politeness, and maybe the last quarter are vaguely intrigued. That is, because Pitom are a band to be vaguely intrigued by. They haven't got "it" down pat yet. Instrumental bands need to possess a near-superhuman lyricism and expressiveness on their given instruments or the musical result is a mere plod which sounds like it requires a singer. Pitom are better than that - I've now listened to this album a half-dozen times and enjoyed it - but they're not up to the level of, say, Dirty 3, Pell Mell or Yawning Man. That may take time, or it may never happen.

Brazilian guitar legend, Baden Powell (not to be confused w/ the famous Scout leader, Robert Baden-Powell from the UK. It is mighty odd that they practically share the same name) originally recorded this album in 1966, but was unhappy w/ its fidelity, hence he re-recorded it in 1990 for this edition on the French label, Iris. A re-recording ca. 1990 sounds like a scary prospect, but fear not: no keytars or Simmons drum pads were used in the process. I've heard bits and pieces of the original recordings over the years, and contrary to all popular trends and precedents, this re-recording sounds a lot better and technology-wise, pays no heed to the passing of time. It's a mixture of dreamy, almost psychedelic acoustic guitar explorations combined with occasional choral vocals and percussion, making much of it sound like a missing link between the bossa nova and tropicalia scenes. Which, in some sense, it well might've been. I have no idea as to whether this edition remains in print, but if you trip over it, pick it up and give it a home.

Archie Shepp's catalogue is all over the shop and spilling out onto the street. Maddeningly inconsistent, you're better off sticking to his absolute best moments and ignoring the rest outright, or you'll suffer him putting you through 45 minutes of not always particularly successful attempts at classic ballads, soul-jazz or Broadway tunes. I don't think he's been truly "on" for a couple of decades now, but when he was, he could move mountains. Yasmina, A Black Woman is one of the many albums he recorded in France in the late '60s for the BYG-Actuel label. My faves of this period remain his Blase and Live At The Pan-African Festival efforts - two very different albums: the first being a femme-fronted torch-song set; the latter being Shepp backed by a large troupe of African percussionists - though Yasmina isn't far behind. The two tracks on the B side consist of versions of Graham Moncur's "Sonny's Back" and the standard "Body And Soul", where Shepp trades his blows w/ veteran Blue Note hard-bopper Hank Mobley, though it's the side-long title track on side A, where Shepp once again teams up w/ most of the members of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, as well as Dave Burrell and Sunny Murray, that's the money shot. It's a percussive blowout where everyone seems to be on time, and unlike a lot of the BYG recordings, the fidelity is pretty good. Throwing this one on the pile won't break your back.

I knew nothing of this release prior to hearing it, and even less of its performer, but it's been one of my favourite releases of the last 6 months. Katell Keineg is Irish-born and raised, though she has spent quite a lot of her adult, musical life in New York. She released a 7" on Bob Mould's Singles Only Label (SOL) back in 1993, and even put out two CDs on the Elektra label that decade. In the early years of the 21st century, she put an album out on Jason Willett (Half Japanese)'s Megaphone label. Then there's this album, released last year on the UK imprint, Honest Jon's. She's a singer-songwriter, like so many others. She sings of love lost, love gained, the past, the future and everything in between. A lot of folks do it and few do it well. Keineg does it so well that I'm left speechless as to why her name is just about completely unknown. She covers Big Star's "Thirteen" here - one of the finest songs there ever was - and does it justice, but it's her originals I really like. There's guitar, bass and drums, sometimes not all used within the one song. It's sparse. There's her sweet but never too sweet vocals throughout which have a presence and communicate the lyrics perfectly. I'm a sucker for this schtick when it's pulled off - witness my fawning over Elisa Randazzo and Frida Hyvonen on this blog the past 18 months - and Keineg is equally as good. If not better. 12 songs, 11 of them original, every single one of them is excellent.

Now here's some man's music. Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson took on his middle name after a hair-straightening product fizzled his follicles for all time and he was left w/ a shiny dome until he croaked in 1988. But in his time, and like many other blues shouters, his time was ca. 1946 'til the early '50s, when such music began to be eclipsed by rock & roll proper, he cut a good deal of honkin' sides dealing in the important subject matter of the day: what a badass he was, how much booze he could drink, how many women he had and could have, and how all the women of the world had screwed him over. That sums it up. He played alto sax and barked into his mic about these things in songs such as "Cherry Red Blues", "Too Many Women Blues", "Baldheaded Blues", "Juice Head baby" and "When A Woman Lovers Her Juice". He released a stack of great material on the King label at the time, then around 1952 or so headed in a more straight-up jazz direction, incorporating a young fellow by the name of John Coltrane in the band. He later recorded w/ Cannonball Adderley, then found a revival of interest in his R & B material in the late '60s/early '70s after playing w/ Johnny Otis. EU copyright laws dictate that every budget label within their borders has reissued this stuff the past decade. You could do worse than this 4CD JSP box, which inexplicably has 3 CDs of Vinson and one CD of fellow Texan R & B dude, Jim Wynn, filling it out. Whatever. Vinson's musical style is heavily steeped in swing jazz and it's heavy on the brass - sometimes he sounds to me like a more hard-hitting and boozed-up version of Cab Calloway - though his phrasing is undoubtedly grounded in the blues. His vocal delivery is hammed up w/ what can only be described as quasi-yodelling to accent the effect of either his despair, drunkeness or boasting, and for me, it works. The post-war music boom spat out these boozy singers onto every street corner of just about every major city, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson was undoubtedly one of the best.

When the grindcore boom was big news at the dawn of the '90s, spearheaded by Earache Records, Napalm Death, Carcass etc., I was well aware of it. It was big news, and down here they sold a whole lotta records. I wasn't overly interested in the music or the bands making the music and never pursued buying any of it - my mind was elsewhere at the time - but I observed from a distance and enjoyed the fact that a bunch of smelly Limeys (and some Floridians) were making a fuckawful racket and somehow managing to ship 100s of 1,000s of units of the stuff in the meantime. For some friends of mine, that early Earache scene was their teenage musical godsend, their grounding for all that came after, in the same way as SST was for me (and there's a great article here which details it for one such person). Back in the '90s, I worked for Earache's distributor down here and saw some of their bands as they came through town - after all, if the tickets were free (they always were) and the band was from overseas, then chances are I'd see them just for the sheer hell of it - and I distinctly recall being impressed by Cathedral whilst on another occasion (this woulda been around 1997 or '98) being bored out of my skull by Napalm Death. ND started off their life in the British crust scene, heavily influenced by a strange mixture of outfits: Siege, Discharge, Celtic Frost, Swans, Throbbing Gristle and others. Their first two albums are hailed as genius by many, and thereafter, following some serious line-up changes which barely resemble the original band at all, they went into quite a long slump of releasing disc upon disc of fairly generic death metal (this is when I saw them, and boy, were they dull), only to apparently be resurrected once more in recent times as a blazing, hardcore-influenced grind band. Friends of mine saw them play here just last year and they said the show knocked the walls off the building. I have nothing to say in that regard. What I can say is that their first two albums, Scum and From Enslavement To Obliteration, I have only purchased in the last 18 months, and I can't explain why it is that now, as I'm pushing 40, they sound so good. They are truly blasts of barely-contained noise which clean my head out just when it needs it, and as I get older, I need those quick rushes. They don't last for long, and thankfully few of the songs here do, either, but they do the trick.

I bought this 1967 Arhoolie recording well over a decade ago, probably at some point in the late '90s. It was a time of discovery, after all, and after having my lights turned on by everyone from Blind Willie Johnson to Junior Kimbrough, I figured Lightnin' Hopkins should be on the list, too. Contextually, he was much loved by some of the SST posse, w/ one of his songs even covered on the Tom Troccoli's Dog LP and Dez Cadena being a vocal fan of his works. All that was for naught. I played this a couple of times upon purchase and it didn't connect one bit. It didn't have the crackle of the '30s recordings I was into at the time, and Hopkins' solo performances were simply too sparse for me to get my head around. The songs rambled and so did Hopkins. I later learnt that this was simply his style: producers and studio workers were constantly frustrated by his inability or unwillingness to play the same song twice. He'd ramble, improvise, go off on tangents and piss off everyone involved. About 9 months ago, I heard a Lightnin' Hopkins solo track on the radio. It's not often this happens, so you remember it when it does. I was mesmerised by the song and had to hear the back announcement to find out who played it. So much so that I sat in my driveway w/ the car radio on for 5 minutes in pursuit of the answer. When I found out, I went inside and pulled out my much-neglected copy of Texas Blues Man and gave it a spin. The loose drawl, the aimless, almost psychedelic guitar shards flying off in all directions, the sparsity of it all made sense and I was hearing it w/ a new pair of ears. In the past 9 months there's been more purchases of his wares, and I haven't been ripped off yet. There's a zillion records by the man known as Lightnin' Hopkins in print at this moment in history. This is but one of them, and you could do a whole lot worse than start here.

If you're going to buy one French funk compilation this year, make it this one. Musically speaking, the French are very good at a few things: they gave the world Django Reinhardt, Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, Debussy and Ravel, after all, and in the realms of rock & roll there's Magma and Metal Urbain. There's also a whole league of avant-garde and musique concret I'm not even going to bother listing, but - and that's a big "but" - the term "funk" doesn't spring to mind when considering France's contribution to the world of sound. In fact, the mere idea of sitting through an hour+ of the shit probably makes you break out in hives. But the good news is that this compilation on the UK label, Nascente, delivers when no sane person thought it could. Many of the tracks here are "library music" songs used for commercial reasons by TV and film studios, hence you could say this is an excercise in faux-funk (that's about as far as my French stretches, so I had to use it), though there's also a track by world-music superstar, Manu Dibango (the killer "Africadelia"), so it's not just wall-to-wall irony. Regardless, 90% of the tracks sound like they've been lifted from cheesy French cop shows, some even having sirens and gunfire throughout. My fave cut is track 10, Sauveur Mallia's "All The Bass", which sounds like it has three bass players competing w/ each other to create the funkiest lick possible. That sounds scary, but it ain't. More than just cheese, more than mere "fun", there's some seriously good music here. Nascente's done a whole series of these regional/national funk comps the past few years, and this one, along w/ Bollywood Funk Experience and South African Funk Experience, you need. Compiled by the pros for schleps like you and me.
I heard this record a couple of times back in the mid '90s, and now here I am, 15 years later, hearing it all over again. It's Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume 2, originally released in 1994 on Warp Records. The idea of myself listening to electronic music which wasn't overtly connected w/ the world of rock & roll was a foreign thing at the time. I was introduced to this by a work colleague who was a big-time dance-music freak, a man who thought that, despite my prejudice against "dance culture" and its music, I might be able to get into the more experimental fringes of the scene. In our workaday environment, he played it several times and I became an enthusiast for the record, if not Aphex Twin/Richard James' other works at the time, which I admittedly didn't know much about except for key tracks in the latter half of the '90s, such as "Windowlicker". In the latter half of that decade, my mind was opened to and embraced various strains of what could be dubbed "electronica": Autechre, Farmer's Manual, the Mego school of artists, some of the minimal, dub-influenced acts and more. Any sense of rock purism was thrown out the window, as well it should. But back to this album. What sets it apart, and what makes it quite remarkable, given its success at the time (it charted in the UK at # 11), is that it is as its title says: selected ambient works. There are a couple of tracks which feature vague "beats" in their midst, but you couldn't dance to them. They're dark, brooding and mostly resemble Eno ca. Another Green World. This 2CD set is a long haul: it's two 79-minute CDs of totally non-song-based music, simply drones and soundscapes heavily lifted in sound and approach from Eno's classic ambient period in the late '70s. For many people, regardless of whether they're a disco bunny or rock pig, there's just not enough happening here to justify listening to it. There's plenty to listen to here, and I don't need to justify it. This is a classic. There, I said it.


All done, and all of this was written whilst home sick from work feeling like a bag of shit w/ a godawful virus, rugged up on the couch. Not a bad effort, says I. I'll use that as an excuse for any faults in judgment you may perceive in the scribes above.


Elfin said...

Glad to hear you like at least some Aphex Twin, Dave. Ambient Works Vol.2 is not consistently great, but when it works, it works really well. Will be delving into some Lightning Hopkins after reading, so thanks for that.

Pig State Recon said...

Thanks for the tip - that Aphex Twin set has been sitting in the used bin at my local record shop since we moved up here. Will most definitely pick it up next time I'm there.