- Here We Go
OK, let's get the comparisons out of the way up front so we can concentrate on the music. If, like most people, you're wondering, "What's a Tuuli?" I can tell you it's not Ice-Ts character on the American crime drama, Law & Order, rather a schoolmate of vocalist Jenny MacIsaac (formerly Jenny Vegas) and her band of young hotties (average age around 23), who just happen to be the hottest thing to emerge from the Toronto indie scene since their cross-town, foul-mouthed, hardcore compatriots, Kittie who are, musically, the Rolling Stones to Tuuli's Beatles. [In fact, this album has been nominated by Chart Action Magazine (Canada's answer to music industry journals, Billboard or Cash Box) for Album of the Year.] Or, perhaps more accurately, if you bought our analysis of The Donnas as the wide-eyed offspring of a musical marriage between The Runaways and The Ramones, Tuuli would be their poppier, lighter sounding kin from north of the border--think The Go-Go's and Blondie funneled through Cheap Trick, or, my personal favorite: Josie & The Pussycats and Jem meet Redd Kross.
Formed five years ago by MacIsaac and her high school classmate, bassist Claire Blake, Tuuli's initial release was the "Rockstar Potential" EP on Seattle indie, Kill Rock Stars, and most of those tracks are included on this full-length debut (some appear on the limited edition EP--plus video tracks--that accompanies the first 5,000 copies).
Leadoff track, "Wake Up," actually sounds like a punkier version of S Club 7 (I can hear the girls groaning already, but that's what I hear), while leadoff single, "It's Over" is not only the best 7" I've had all year, but also inaugurates a brand new subgenre of alternative music that the world has been waiting for all these years: "bubblegum punk." "A Thousand Stars"' echoey guitars, keyboard flourishes, and wall-of-sound production rises several notches above its bubblegum surroundings and is just one of many songs which highlight the girls' exquisite harmonies. "Rockstar Boyfriends" kicks some serious ass and, along with the title track is one of the disk's hardest rockers, demonstrating there's more to Tuuli than bubblegum and lipstick.
If my 14 year old is any indication, the current single, "Summer Song," with its Russ Ballard wall-of-guitar sound (think of most cover versions of his beloved "Since You've Been Gone" chestnut), is gonna be another massive hit, as she's been running around the house singing the "Yeah-Yeah-Yeah, Yeah-Yeah-Yeah-Yeah" chorus all week. [And no, they didn't cop that from The Rezillo's "Yeah Yeah," but that would make a nice segue on my radio show!]
Kathy Wellenbrock's keyboards provide tasteful fills throughout, but I particularly enjoyed that extra melodic thrust they gave to "Who's the Fool Now?," another in the long line of wall-to-wall killer singles lurking within. My advice to the folks at Linus is to get this thing distributed in the lower 48 ASAP. Now excuse me while I go cast my vote at Chart Action.
Buy If You Own (BIYO): Go-Go's, cartoon pop (Josie, Jem), Blondie, Redd Kross, Cheap Trick
Malcolm Morley -
Lost and Found (Hux)
Malcolm has the unfortunate knack of being in the right place at the wrong time. His first solo album to be released was an upbeat, white disco/techno monster that was perfect for the 8Ts - unfortunately it was released last year. Now his first solo album to be recorded (back in 1976) is finally seeing the light of day, having been quashed at the time because of the anti-hippie backlash that was brewing just as the shit hit the fans and the Sex Pistols took over the front pages of every music magazine in Britain, and Help Yourself, Malc's band at the time, were nothing if not a bunch of hippies.
So now, 25 years later, we can once again groove to that pre-punk, West Coast, singer/songwriter, country rock vibe that was all the rage back in the early '70s from artists such as Jackson Browne, Dan Fogelberg, Poco, Pure Prairie League, The Flying Burritos, and countless others. The funky, bluesy beat of "Burning Love" is also reminiscent of early Elton John (ca. Tumbleweed Connection/Madman Across The Water/Honky Chateau), as is "Honey Please," a boogie-woogie, New Orleans rag that would also be the perfect accompaniment to night tripping with Dr. John.
"All That I Need" finds Billy Joel back at the piano bar, as does the melancholic ballad, "Grace," but I can also buy liner notes author Nigel Cross' contention that the former would sound just as nice with Tom Waits' throat wrapped around it. I also enjoyed the shuck and jive of "Ruby," which nicely weds Johnny Rivers' "Rockin' Penumonia..." piano histrionics to a hard-driving, Chuck Berry catwalk.
Now I don't mean to imply that all these comparisons to other styles and singers is a bad thing on Morley's part or laziness on mine...I just believe that it's impossible to discuss these "lost recordings" without putting them into the historical context in which they were composed and recorded. So growing my hair about six inches, donning my old "bells," and setting Mr. Peobody's Wabac machine for the early 70s, I asked myself what was I listening to back then and sat down crosslegged on the floor and listened to this in that frame of mind. I can hear remnants of the early work of Jesse Colin Young[bloods], Ian Matthews [Southern Comfort], Tom Rush, John Kongos, Tom Rapp's Reprise years, and John Prine (particularly on "Naked As The Night") all swirling around in my head while digging Lost and Found. Many of the songs are indeed "of the time" in which they were written and would probably have been compared quite favorably to the above mentioned artists if the album was originally issued upon completion.
But sour grapes make horrible w(h)ines, so just sit back and enjoy the warmth of nostalgia that Lost and Found conjurs up. For example, there isn't a British music fan alive that isn't familiar with The Bonzo's "Can Blue Men Sing The Whites," and even Lou Reed told us "I Want To Be Black," so Malc's entry into transpigmentation is in heady company, but "Whiteman's Blues" is one of the catchiest of the lot. [Granted, Sir Henry Over-The-Deep-End's butchering of his track is an obvious answer to the titular query, but I still like Morley's song better, and in retrospect, the best thing about the Bonzo's track was the title - good for a few larfs and then back into the record jacket.] On the other hand, "Fish and Chips" is one of the least derivative tracks on the album and, consequently, one of the best.
So, rewire your grey matter and get that early-mid '70s musical headset working...it will set the stage for you to receive and accept Lost and Found, not forlornly questioning what might have been, but raising a glass on high to Hux Records and thanking them for what now is. Put simply, one of the finest archival releases of the year.
Now if we can hear Malc and the Help's "lost fifth album," we can close the book on Morley's "seventies period" and move along to something fresh and exciting from one of England's finest songwriters and criminally underrated musical treasures.
BIYO: Help Yourself, CSNY, West Coast singer/songwriters, Toms Rapp & Rush
The Green Pajamas -
Northern Gothic (Camera Obscura)
Following a couple of disjointed efforts on Woronzow, the GPJs return to this Australian imprint, the home of their greatest triumphs, Strung Behind the Sun and 1999s best album, All Clues Lead To Megan's Bed. Right from the opening track, it's clear they're taking no prisoners. The ballsy "In the Darkness" is full of mandolins, organs, marracas, a mean distorto guitar solo from Jeff Kelly and Laura Weller's lilting backing vocals, all adding up to one of the strongest, albeit shortest GPJs tracks I've heard in quite a while. A heavy, melodic, McCartney-esque bassline (played by Kelly) dominates "In the Burning Moonlight," wherein he makes good use of a dualing solo between his organ runs and distorted guitar fills and his catchy accordian intro adds an olde worlde European vibe to "Bitter Moon," a moody, funky love song.
Keyboardist Eric Lichter drops by with two of his strongest PJ contributions since "Hush Your Violence" and "Glass Tambourine:" "Wild Wild Reefs" and "Coyotes and Comets." The latter is as hauntingly visual as the whole western sky in the midst of a meteor shower and ends too abruptly - as if we're owed a couple of extra verses to finish the story, and the former is more linear and melodic than the quirky, syncopated, angular material on his recent solo album, Palm Wine Sunday Blue. (It's also the only track on the entire album to feature all the Pajamas - as was the final track on "Palm Wine" - making this a GPJs album in name only - it's essentially a Jeff Kelly solo album, as he wrote 11 of the 14 tracks and performed all the instruments on 8 of them.)
After several feet-wetting albums, guitarist Laura Weller seems to have finally found her niche and her "Christine Crystalline" comes across more as a PJs song than a CONTRIBUTION to a PJs album. Perhaps this one just fits better in its surroundings and doesn't call attention to itself as a Laura Weller composition performed by the Green Pajamas. She is also the most prominent PJ on the album, appearing on nearly half of the tracks (by contrast, the rhythm section of Joe Ross and Karl Wilhelm - by far the most senior members of the band - only appear on two and three respectively!), and her recent collaboration with Kelly in the Goblin Market project has also eased her indoctrination into the clan, such that she's now thinking and writing like a Pajama. I'd like to hear a full album's worth of her angelic harmonies, rather than a few teasers tossed in amongst Kelly's material. Nevertheless, it's a downbeat rocker like This Is Where We Disappear's cautionary, anti-suicide tale, "Downslide," suggesting that Laura sure hangs out with a bunch of freaky chicks!
"First Love" is the heaviest track - approaching Sabbath-ian dimensions - on an already gloom and doom, sturm und drang release and is the most frighteneing and depressing track Kelly has ever written. It appears to be about the abduction/rape/drowning murder of an 11 year old, and on more than one occasion my mind was wandering back to those scenes at the end of Nick Roeg's classic Don't Look Now thriller where the red-caped midget murderer chased Donald Sutherland through the canals of Venice. Of course, Kelly tells us it's based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, but I like the Roeg connection just as much.
"The Cruel Night" feels like an outtake from the aforementioned Goblin Market project, but in the context of "Northern Gothic" and tales of murder, rape, fear, and tension, it works quite well here. It's one of PJs' best tracks since "Megan's Bed," with Weller's soprano providing a melodic counterpoint to Kelly's gruffer pronouncements. "Mary Ryan's Hair" (which most listeners will know by the recurring refrain, "Dark eyes and butterflies" - perhaps a small homage to The Spacious Mind's Sleeping Eyes and Butterflies release from a few years back?) sounds so familiar that you may find yourself mentally rumaging through Kelly's back catalogue for its source. A piano plays in an empty room...Kelly and Weller huddle in hushed conversation in the corner...then all of a sudden a crescending burst of music interrupts their mental wanderings and we're in the midst of what seems to be a cautionary tale of heroin addiction, as the "I give up" chorus gives way to a refrain of "I shoot up."
"Blue Halloween Moon" is essentially a rewrite of "Swans and Butterflies" from 7 Fathoms Down and Falling, so your mileage will vary according to your appreciation of the older song. This one is a little longer and the arrangement is fuller, so I'll give this a slight nod. And Kelly, ever the crafty craftsman, has another holiday song to add to his canon, ensuring the DJs in the audience will give this at least an annual spin. But personally, I'll find many other opportunities to get this on the air. It also gives Kelly an opportunity to rip off one of his patented guitar solos that has been sadly missing on recent full lengths.
So, while my overall reaction to the album is upbeat and encouraging, particularly in light of my disappointment with the Woronzow material, I still can't shake the feeling that it may be a long time before we get to actually hear a full-fledged Green Pajamas album. I'm sure it's merely a matter of conflicting schedules and familial and work responsibilities that probably prohibits bringing all the Pajamas together for a recording session. (Having interviewed them on three separate occasions on my radio show, I can personally attest to how difficult it is to get everyone in the same room together!) In the past, this has given their albums a disjointed, catch-as-catch-can feel - as if they were recorded on the fly with whatever members that were available dropping by Kelly's basement studio and recording their segments and then Kelly and Ross retiring to the editing room to do their magic and assemble a finished product, much like a director assembles a film from the flotsam and jetsam of individual scenes. Maybe because this is basically a Kelly solo album, it feels more cohesive than previous releases. Also, perhaps more than on any release since "Megan's Bed," the pieces fit together like a tight little jigsaw puzzle, with nothing left over - no throw aways or filler. For that reason, not to mention the much stronger material, this is their finest release since "Megan's Bed," and will one day be rightly praised as a high water mark of their "Camera Obscura period."
In Gowan Ring -
Hazel Steps through a Weathered Home
Jon Michael B'eirth has been making strange and unusual, some might say "wyrd" folk music for nearly a decade now under the name In Gowan Ring. On this, his ninth full-length (including early cassette-only releases, a Compendium of greatest hits, and a couple of compilations of outtakes and alternate versions known as Exists & Entr'Ances) and first for Chicago-based Blue Sanct, home of (and run by) Drekka's Michael Anderson, Jon adds to a unique canon of work that occasionally crosses paths with other folkie noncomformists Gryphon, The Fool, Martyn Bates, the Third Ear and Incredible String Bands, Simon & Garfunkle (he has also recorded a version of "Scarborough Fair," which he called "The First True Love"), Fit & Limo, and several acts centered around Timothy Renner (Stone Breath, Mourning Cloak, Timothy the Revelator), with whom Jon shared a stage at the fourth Terrastock festival in Seattle a couple of years ago.
The opening track, "Orb Weavers," is rich with horns, cellos, and violins, such that comparisons with the mellower side of early King Crimson will immediately spring to mind (particularly "Cadence and Cascade" in this instance, but any of the first four will give you an accurate benchmark to gauge the sound in your mind's ear as you progress through the album.) The velvety harmonies on the title track beckon Paul and Art into your consciousness, and the madrigal, round-like vocals are reminiscent of the material the old Viking busker, Moondog was shouting from NYC street corners some 40-odd years ago.
You'll find vestiges of Donovan's "Writer in the Sun," "Lullabye of the Spring," "Sand and Foam," etc. in "The Seer and The Seen," but B'eirth brings an almost religious fervor to the track, much like a priest singing high mass or a Cantor entertaining his congregation. Elsewhere, the intimacy of the flute driven thing that is "Kingdom of The Shades" bleeds across the entire release, leaving this listener with a warm and fuzzy feeling - as if Jon Michael were standing in my living room, delivering a personal concert for a cadre of my closest friends.
In a time when the world is moving much too fast, Jon Michael not only takes the time to stop and smell the roses, he's kneeling down to plant the seeds, and squatting Buddha-like to watch those roses grow. Another aspect of his songwriting that recalls the best of Donovan is the ease with which he slides into gentle, memorable, almost childlike melodies, a talent he also shares with John Prine. Like those masterful songwriters, there is a depth to these songs that is revealed only upon repeated listens. At first the ear is attracted to the surface melody, but after listening a second time, I uncovered the delicate addition of a flute-like sackbut, a gently strummed cittern, a violin, or one of Jon's homemade instruments in the background or in the left or right channel that the ear missed the first time through. (The instrumental coda to "A Poet's Lyre" provides an excellent opportunity to examine this special feature.) It is this natural gift for creating multi-layered compositions that is so atttractive about Jon's work in general and "Hazel Steps..." in particular.
Yet in spite of all this seemingly subliminal activity, these compositions don't sound busy or overly complicated - as if Jon were trying to cram too much "information" into the song. Indeed, there are not 5,000 layers to this onion, but the melancholia, intimacy, and nostalgia of just two or three will bring many listeners close to tears.
If there is a drawback to an otherwise perfect collection, it's that some listeners will become impatient with the restraint that Jon brings to these pieces. Sadly, not everyone is prepared to shut down their self-inflicted "busy schedules" to give "Hazel Steps..." the patience and time it needs to be appreciated. But it is these listeners' loss. The rest of us need more releases like this. As the saintly, monklike B'eirth has continually demonstrated over the last decade, patience, silence, and space DO have a place in this rat race of a world. We all should, nay, must take the time to plant some roses. Quite simply, one of the half dozen or so best releases of the year. Go hence, and acquire ye thusly.
BIYO: First four King Crimson LPs, Simon & Garfunkle, Donovan, wyrdfolk
Projekt Karpaty Magiczne
and Zygmunt Stenwak - Water Dreams
After a trio of "ethnocore" releases (Ethnocore, Nytu, and Vak) which I've not heard, Poland's Magic Carpathians Project (an outgrowth of Atman, featuring multi-instrumentalists Anna Nacher and Marek Styczynski, bassist Tomasz Radziuk, and percussionist Janek Kubek) return with their seventh release, a collaborative effort with Polish-American photographer, Stenwak. Those photographs (in an accompanying 24-page booklet) are an integral part of the project (they were apparently positioned all over Radio Gdansk Studio, such that they were all the participants saw during the recording session), making the whole release similar in concept to Stars of the Lid's collaboration with painter, Jon McCafferty (Per Aspera Ad Astra) from a few years back. However, that's where the comparisons end, for no one could possibly confuse the Texas duo's speaker hum with these Polish hippies' spiritually pastoral music, another fine entry in the burgeoning wyrdfolk movement, surely 2002s best kept musical secret.
The opening track, "Something you can hide in," features a shamanistic vocal performance from Anna that borders on spiritual possession. [It's no surprise that the topic of her workshop at the Network East-West conference on Women, Spirituality, and Yoga this past June focused on "Reclaiming Your Voice." The band also performed "Ancient Music from the Carpathian Mountains" during one of the evening programmes.] The tribal, percussive backing, occasionally accompanied by Marek's soft woodwind embellishments (on the Slovakian pastoral fujara), drags us into the holy sweat tent, where Anna's hypnotic chanting - sometimes in English, more often not - summons ancient deities of indeterminate origin. Haunting, elegiac, and eerily beautiful.
The rhythmic chock-a-blocks continue on "Distance" which makes effective use of the fujara to continue the disk's hypnotic atmosphere. The syncopated interplay between this pastoral woodwind instrument and Anna's Ono-like caterwailing makes this track remind me of a Kabuki theatre piece. Ultimately, a spooky Punch and Judy show, not for the squeamish or young at heart.
"So Transparent" IS a fairytale...and a fractured one at that, as perhaps told by Nina Hagen, the vocalist whose range and unique delivery Nacher has most often been compared to.
Avant jazz skronk is the order of the day on "Triple Portrait," predominently sax and bass feeding off each other that will no doubt appeal to fans of 'Trane's acid period. Over Styczynski and Radziuk's freeform jamming, Anna does some free associating of her own in a tongue I'm not familiar with.
I do know, however, that Polish is the loving tongue in which Anna relates "A Story part III." Now I'll be the first to admit that Polish is not exactly the most romantic sounding language, yet my English speaking brain still tries to unscramble the words and strangely draws me in to the song rather than automatically shutting down. Truly an example of the international language of music: despite not understanding the lyrics of the story that Anna is reltating, I'm curiously drawn in to the interplay between her voice and the assortment of Tibetan liturgical instruments hammered dulcimer, tabla, tampura, djembe, doof, khol, and assorted hydjaks, gopishands, and rattles that make up the background music.
[Most of these are on display in Marek's home, Galaria Stary Dom (the Old House Gallery) in Nowy Sacz, where he is a fourth generation inhabitant of the 150 year old house. It is here that Marek holds interactive musical workshops (such as "The Talking Meadow Workshop"), which demonstrate the usage of the many ethnic instruments he also employs on Carpathian releases, with a special eye (and ear) towards their relationship with the surrounding environment. The promotion of "ecological culture" is also the focus of the Stary Dom Association of Art and Education, founded in 1999 and presided over by its president, one Anna Nacher. For more info, visit www.starydom.art.pl/01glownaangielska.htm.]
Finally, a special mention of "Continuum" is warranted to call attention to guest Patrycja Kujawska's sometimes manic, gypsy-like violin playing, which manages the mean feat of borrowing several bars from the repetitive, staccato riff of Steven Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, and deploying them in subtle nuances that recall the best of Godspeed You Black Emperor. Toss Anna's vocal exorcisms that range from a mantric "Om" to a Hindu call to prayer over the top and you've got a heady cauldron of unbridled estrogen just waiting to burst over your eardrums and down your spine.
BIYO: There's a long line of female vocalists that employ their voices as an additional instrument in shaping their band's sound - from as far back as Yoko, through Liz (Cocteau Twins) Fraser and Lisa (Dead Can Dance) Gerrard, and on up to the current work of Christina (Charalambides) Carter, so Anna has a long heritage from which to draw inspiration. It is also that lengthy tradition that lends itself to a scholarly discussion of voice-as-instrument, and with Water Dreams, that discussion can no longer take place without acknowledging the importance of Anna Nacher to the vocal form and, in turn, it's importance to shaping the sound of The Magic Carpathians Project.
The Spacious Mind -
"Reality Blipcrotch" 10"
Jens - standing in the trees I get lifted by the leaves
The Spacious Mind - Live Volume One: Do Your Thing But Don't Touch Ours. Skogsnäs 26/10/99
(all three on Goddamn I'm A Countryman)
As one of today's finest psychedelic bands celebrates its first decade together, Sweden's Spacious Mind treat their fans to not one, but two new releases - both on their own custom imprint. But before we discuss those, let's begin with the debut solo release from their keyboard player, Jens Unosson. About 20 years ago, I bought a compilation of songs by some of the leading artists of the Finnish rock underground called The Shape of Finns To Come (Cherry Red, 1980). Among the second-tier punk bands like Eppu Normaalli, Top Rank, and Suitcase, and the rudimentary, generic bar band boogie that always seems to be in fashion in Scandinavia, there was a relatively unknown act called Art Pop Combo leading off the collection with a song called "Old Timer." It was a melancholic tale of loneliness about an old man and his discovery that someone had killed his dog, the only real friend he had in the whle world. Somehow, this track has remained engraved in my cerebellum, and every once in a while I pull out the LP and relive some old memories of when I first purchased it (in Amsterdam), along with some out-loud ruminations about whatever happened to that "Sweet-dish" penpal (from Sweden, natch!) that I was so enamored with. Although I never received a picture of her, it seemed strange that she stopped writing right about the time I sent my picture along with her Christmas presents. But that's another story.
What all this has to do with the task at hand is that the Art Pop Combo track was the first song that popped into my head while listening to Unosson's debut. In contrast to his gruff, sandpaper grovel, Jens' relaxing demeanor, melancholic turn of phrase, and earthy vibe bathes the listener in a warm, cozy glow...like a few glasses of grog on a cold, Scandinavian night. [You might want to try and track down that comp if you find yourself enjoying this release as much as I did.]
The first thing you'll notice out of the gate is Jens' gruff, whispered vocals, resembling a cross between Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, with a tumbler full of Stiff Little Fingers' Jake Burns and Ministry's Al Jourgenson thrown in for good measure (Jens told me that his own bandmates kid him that he "sounds like Tom Waits...on downers"!), although listeners are not likely to be paying much attention to the lyrics (which are included nevertheless). It is curiosity which will cause fans of Jens' other projects (Holy River Family Band, Cauldron) to hunt this down, and they (and all others) will be richly rewarded.
From the sitar backing on the opener, "Fragments," to the blistering solos on "Tomorrow there's another day" and "The hills are all flat now," you will marvel at the guitar wizardry of Arne Jonasson (also from Holy River), one of today's unsung guitar gods. The occasional female backing from Saga adds a welcome respite from Jens' gravelly delivery, and provides a lilting counterpoint on "Tomorrow there's another day," "Sad young man," and and "The sea and the willow tree" that prevents the listener from becoming overly tied down in the aesthetics of Jens' basso profundo.
Jonasson's slide on "Tomorrow there's another day" will appeal to fans of Clapton and, a little closer to home, Mikael Rickfors, another of those artists I discovered through my Swedish penpal. Several keyboard melody lines bear strong resemblance to Nick Saloman's similar usage of rather cheesy sounding organ runs on his early Bevis Frond LPs, particularly on "Gardens." At six minutes, the album's longest track, "Sad young man" is about two minutes too long, but you'll still want to stick around to enjoy some of Jonasson's tastier guitar licks.
Nostalgia is the theme of "Era long gone" and it's surprising how many old hippies are waxing poetic about the good old days, from Saloman ("It Won't Come Again") to Neil Young ("Mansion on the Hill") and now Unosson, who, of all three, is perhaps the most successful at recreating the atmosphere of sitting cross-legged on the floor staring at album covers (preferably of the gatefold type, of course) and, in fact, the marvelous CD package opens into a gatefold digipack.
So if you, too, long for the simpler, gentler, more peaceful days of "eras long gone," by all means hunt this one down, stick it in your walkman, and head off to the nearest field or park and lay down in the tall grass and stare at the cloud formations overhead while Unosson provides the soundtrack to your next trip inside your mind.
Although it's been nearly three years since we've been blessed with new material from Jens' mothership, The Spacious Mind, the simultaneous archival releases of a 2-song, 10" EP (recorded November, 2001) and a live gig (from October, 1999) serves as a temporary reprieve for those of us who feared we had lost another of our beloved treasures to the ravages of "musical differences," "conflicting schedules," and, God forbid, "familial responsibilities!" Apparently, the band realized this as well, as the liners to "Reality Blipcrotch" proclaim, "two new songs from a band that in recent years has been travelling down the lazy river road much too often. Not so anymore." While I take exception to their definition of "new," just hearing these year-old tracks is encouraging.
The first of the two, 15-minute, sidelong tracks, "The Drifter" begins as an electronic space boogie, riding along the crest of Lundmark's aggressive, rolling bassline, while Oja and Thomas Brännström's dueling guitars serpentine around Unosson's gothic keyboard lines which merge just enough Doors-y Manzarek and Iron Ingle to transport us back to a fog machine-enshrouded Fillmore, ca. 1968. Sleeping Eyes and Butterflies, indeed!
A trapdoor fucking exit big enough to drown The Dead C opens midsong, and the bottom falls out leaving us suspended from a cumulous cloud of purple haze, dodging silver shards of electric lightning slashing across the sky, courtesy Oja and Brännström's guitar pyro-techniques, and drifting, as the title and three-line lyric suggest, "from star to star."
The lyrics to the flip side, "The Players in the Band," along with Jens' three-page, hand-drawn comic insert, give us the history of the band, which we discover was originally known as The Suspicious Minds until Spacelord (Jens') took them under his wing and renamed them. Fans of Hawkwind's mythological trappings (courtesy sci-fi author, Michael Moorcock) will enjoy reading Jens' account of the early history of the band - more so than reading the lyrics. Like most autobiographical songs, it is long on exposition and short on melody, which merely serves as a skeleton on which to hang the lyrics.
However, after the story ends, an ephemeral haze of cymbols, "In-A-Gadda..." keyboards, surging lysergics of electronics, sitars, bells, whistles (flutes), wind chimes, etc. envelops the listener in your basic soundtrack to a trip through the local opium den. Experienced flyers (and Deadheads) may wish to skip the background info and begin their journey here. Those still ensconced in the comic will note that it, tellingly, ends with the unanswered question, "Will there ever be another Spacious Mind album?" The "Stay Tuned" cliffhanger of a response, suggests we may be in store for some groovy times ahead.
The last of three simulataneous releases on Spacious Mind's in-house imprint is the first in what will hopefully develop into a lengthy series of live recordings under the banner, "Wilmot Clawson Presents:" (check the liners) that demonstrate the power and majesty of the band better than all their equally impressive, but, of necessity, restrained studio efforts. "Volume One" was recorded in what looks like The White Lodge from David Lynch's Twin Peaks - it appears to be an ice hut or hunting lodge covered with ancient triangular symbols in the great alchemical tradition stuck in the middle of the woods in the middle of Sweden in a little commune called Skogsnäs, which takes it rightful place alongside Podunk, Kansas and Bumfuck, Egypt as one of the world's most isolated 'burbs. But in this instance, it's the isolation and remoteness and relief of just getting to the gig that contributes to the sweep and majesty of the seamless, hourlong, five-song set that follows - one of the finest headphone experiences since Lamp of The Universe's Cosmic Union, one of last year's finest surprises.
The opening half hour, "Upon Which Areas May The Circles Be Drawn?" is the single most psychedelic experience you will encounter all year, combining early Pink Floyd (ca. Meddle) and The Bevis Frond's side-long extravaganzas like "The Shrine" with some spacey Hawkwind-on-Quaaludes electronic effects, a smidgeon of SubArachnoid Space and a whiff of The Church's jam sessions from a few years ago, Bastard Universe.
The comically, yet functionally titled "Jam" (aren't they all?!) serves as a loose amalgamation of mood swings - what was often referred to back in the day during a Grateful Dead concert as the "space" segment. If you could imagine SubArachnoid's Mason Jones and Nick (Bevis Frond) Saloman jamming with Garcia, you'll have an idea of where this intergalactic segue is "head"ed. At other times throughout the show, lead guitarist Henrik Oja's apparent fascination with Robert Smith's crisp, wah-wahed high-pitched pluckings suggest he spent an awful lot of time absorbing The Cure's Disintegration album! I also suspect drummer David Johansson's snare has a couple of screws loose - it sounds like a couple of pebbles rattling around inside a tambourine, which is occasionally distracting to the point where I feared I had split my speakers from cranking up the volume too high.
At about the nine minute mark, bassist Mårten Lundmark begins a nimble solo, and when Jens Unosson's sci-fi organ comes in and wraps its sinewy neck around Lundmark's thumping bassline, I had to check my watch for I thought I was back at Amsterdam's legendary Paradiso club in the midst of a Soft Machine gig. This perhaps is a signal to the other members to return to earth for a few minutes to play a few tracks off Organic Mind Solution, to wit: "The One That Really Won The War" and "Interplanetarian Lovemachine pt III."
Lundmark's bass playing really takes off here, propelling the next half hour of the show into hyperdrive. Imagine Lemmy-era Hawkwind fueled by herbs instead of pharmaceuticals! As a matter of fact, I would rank this right up there alongside Space Ritual as one of the finest live recordings I've ever heard. Too bad the tape ran out during the finale, "Euphoria Euphoria," leaving only the attendees to relish the closing 15 minutes of this marvelous experience. And what of those lucky Leifs? Unfortunately, they make their presence known at the end of "...War" and the intro to "Euphoria...." Those familiar with Spacemen 3s Dream Weapon live recording will recall the annoying conversations in the background - the same distractions run through some of the quieter passages here, particularly during Oja's Roy Montgomery-esque delicate pindrop solo. But all is forgotten/forgiven once Unosson enters and begins his dueling keyboard solo, announcing the return of the rhythm section, at which point the whole piece sadly fades (down) into sweet oblivion. Perhaps if some audience members also had tapes rolling, a subsequent EP will emerge for all of us to appreciate the closing 15 minutes of, literally(!), "Euphoria Euphoria."
But these are minor quibbles. I suggest you find yourself a good pair of headphones and a couple of comfy cushions, stake out a soft corner of the carpet, sit back, and float away on this magic carpet ride to the center of your mind.
Last year, my fellow travelers on a popular discussion list selected a compilation of 35 year old recordings from an obscure Swedish band as the best release of 2001. This year, they'll only have to go back about 3 to find a couple of 2002s finest archival releases.
BIYO: Grateful Dead, Holy River Family Band, Cauldron, The Cure's Disintegration, Roy Montgomery, SubArachnoid Space, Bevis Frond, Cul De Sac
Sahara Hotnights -
Jennie Bomb (Jetset)
Two of the hottest trends in rock and roll in 2002 were the re-emergence of chick rock and the Scandinavian indie scene and this winner from a bunch of prolific Swedish hotties (two full lengths, two EPs and about a dozen CD singles) combines both into one of the year's best releases. Checking in from the glammy side of life in the frozen tundra of Umeå (where the band formed back in '97) and mixing a lethal cocktail of Suzi Quatro and Slade with equal parts of Girlschool and the rougher edges of The Runaways - more Lita Ford than Joan Jett - the Hotbabes, er Hotnights stomp their hands and clap their feet with the opening anthemic rocker, "Alright Alright (Here's My Fist Where's The Fight?)" and the remainder of Jennie Bomb is chock full of one bootstomping shoutalong after another. Particular faves include "No Big Deal," with its Poly Styrene vocal inflections and X-Ray Spex teenaged angst which effectively updates "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" for the 21st century and "Down and Out," a scorching shoutathon that is the closest approximation yet of what Girlschool might sound like if they were still treading the boards.
"Fall Into Line"'s catchy, singalong chorus and stomping backbeat make it a good candidate for a single, while the angry mission statement of "We're Not Going Down" (er, well, uh, OK then) will have the teenies bopping in the aisles and shaking their fists to the heavens. "With or Without Control" is a nice change of pace that slows the Faster Pussycat Kill Kill beats down a few RPMs, but then it's back to the twin-guitar attack, shouted chorus, bootstomping backbeat, and glammy vibe of "Out of The System" sums up the whole fantastic mess in two words: Swedish Girlschool, although my hearty recommendation is to pick up Jennie Bomb for yourself and judge for yourself the young, independent Swedish rock and roll scene. There is indeed life after The Hives!
BIYO: Girlschool, Suzi Quatro, Slade, Lita Ford.
Melody A.M. (Astralwerks)
At the other end of the Scandi indie scene is the Norwegian mixmeister duo Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland, aka Röyskopp, and the title alone tells us we're in the end-of-the-evening chill out mood, which The KLF perfected a decade ago on the essential Chill Out and which dozens of artists from Air to Basement Jaxx have been trying to emulate ever since. It's amazing what a TV commercial (for T-Mobile in England) and an old Bobby Vinton tune ("Blue on Blue") can do for a career. In fact, the tune in question ("So Easy") wasn't even on the original release - Astralwerks' clever marketing department reissued the LP with that song tacked on as the opener to meet the hostile demand of punters and chill-out victims alike. And it works, as anyone who's spent too many mornings crashing in the beanbag chair can attest to the myriad of weird and unusual tunes that run roughshod through your head in the afterglow of an evening's hearty partying.
"Sparks" has a romantic f-beat that's perfect for spending some quality time with that special someone and a soulful, slow groove vocal by Anelli Drecker that had me thinking of Minnie Ripperton. "In Space" is just one of many tracks that effectively combines the soft dance beats of St. Etienne with the romantic easy listening of some of Ennio Morricone's soundtracks, and the wall-of-sound orch pop of High Llamas and Kevin Coral and his Witch Hazel Sound.
"Poor Leno," however, is a little too over the top in the disco department and will challenge Dirty Vegas for the background spot in the next Mitsubishi commercial. Naturally, but unfortunately, the bonus remix disk features two lengthy versions of the song which will probably E-late the E-crowd, but bore old couch potatoes like us to tears. "A Higher Place" is too fancy for its own good with misplaced edits and a syncopated kitchen sink approach that is more disorienting than groove-y (again, E-freaks will appreciate this more than the just-say-no folks).
"Röyksopp's Night Out" sounds like Bert Kaempfert gone wild in the techno jungles of Jamaica - imagine marrying the guitar line from Marley's "Could You Be Loved?" to the trumpet melodies on "Afrikaan Beat" and you're not only in the right club, you're in the middle of the spotlight on the dance floor. That, of course is a very good thing and, at eight minutes, it's also the longest track so you'll have plenty of time to get those feets a-moving to the techno cha-cha backbeat.
BIYO: In sum, while it fizzles out (literally) at the end ("40 Years Back/Come" is little more than five minutes of dead air with a few electronic noodlings WAY WAY WAY in the background), fans of The KLF, Morricone, Witch Hazel Sound, and St. Etienne and hard-core porno soundtracks (you know who you are and you, therefore, know what I mean) will enjoy this breakfast souffle during your next early morning chill out session.
Sigur Ros - (PIAS/Fat Cat)
[Note: This release has no title. More information is available at www.sigur-ros.com.]
There's minimalism and then there's just downright nothingness. Obviously not in it for the money, the third album from this Windham Hill hybrid of Godspeed You Black Iceberg and Emperor Mogwai (aka Iceland's Sigur Ros - pronounced like "see-a-rose") has no title (although it's usually referred to in print by the parentheses that vaguely adorn the disk itself), contains eight untitled tracks (or, more accurately, eight variations of the same tune), features vocalist Jonsi's made-up language that's a cross between broken English and Icelandic, has no lyrics to speak of (although the latest parlor game among potheads is trying to decipher what's coming out of your speakers - leading candidates so far include "You sat alone," "You sign on," and "You saw life"), contains no artwork save the band's website - which you can't view unless you have Macromedia installed - and is just about the sparsest packaging I've come across in eons - essentially a bunch of photographs the band took of the trees outside their studio.
From the new age-y piano and angelic choir intro (copped, I should add, directly from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "Joan of Arc") to the whining, strangulated feline squawking (imagine Radiohead's Thom Yorke with his balls caught in a vise) that serves as placeholders for the write-them-yourself lyrics, this is a frustrated songwriter's wet dream come true - essentially eight templates for us to creat our own lyrics and sing the songs as we see fit - all within the generic melodic outlines that they've set down for us. These consist of a few Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack flourishes like melancholic piano tunings and heartwrenching strings, and electronic, industrialized atmospherics heavily influenced by OMDs Architecture & Morality.
They improve upon Emperor Mogwai by concentrating on the quiter end of the soft/loud dichotomy, and since Badalamenti is one of my favorite composers, and Architecture & Morality is my favorite OMD album, I can only share the good vibes generated by this disk. And, as a public service to my fellow DJs out there, I popped over to the band's website and copied the working titles down for reference when completing your setlists:
track 1 - Vaka (the name of orri's daughter)
track 2 - Fyrsta (the first song)
track 3 - Samskeyti (attachment)
track 4 - Njósnavélin (the spy machine)
track 5 - Álafoss (the location of the band's studio)
track 6 - E-bow [georg uses an e-bow on his bass]
track 7 - Dauðalagið (the death song)
track 8 - Popplagið (the pop song)
However, since this is the number one album in the country as I type, lack of titles has certainly not hindered its popularity and, hopefully, won't frustrate sales either. For fans of the quiter, pindrop end of the musical spectrum, this is one of my favorite releases of the year.
BIYO: Godspeed You Black Emperor, Mogwai, OMD, Radiohead
Robyn Hitchcock - Robyn Sings (Editions PAF!)
Along with Camper Van Beethoven's double-disk, song-for-song Tusk tribute, this self-released 2xCD tribute to Dylan's infamous Royal Albert Hall concert ranks as the year's ballsiest display of chutzpah. To not only record, but actually release these albums is tantamount to career suicide (not a problem with CVB - they're already dead), but I like chutzpah, and, both of these efforts are very, very good and totally successful in what they're trying to accomplish.
Hitchcock's first disk closely follows the setlist for the acoustic set from Dylan's "Royal Albert Hall" gig, tossing in a few recent ringers ("Tangled Up In Blue," "Not Dark Yet," and "Dignity") to replace the time-ravaged "Mr. Tambourine Man," "She Belongs To Me," and "Just Like A Woman." He introduces "Visions of Johanna" by admitting, "This is my favorite song. This is why I started writing songs," and then rolls off a spot-on interpretation, right down to the harmonica fillers. [In fact, it's such a favorite, that he also includes an electric version at the end of the set.] Most of the tracks find Hitchcock naked and alone on the stage without a net -- just an acoustic guitar and his harp, and as such, the honesty and sponteneity of the performances shine through. In fact, "4th Time Around" has a rather comical touch of Robyn forgetting the lyrics, regrouping his thoughts, and then recovering without missing a beat. A lesser, more self-conscious talent would surely have edited this performance out in favor of a cleaner version, but Hitch just lays it out - warts and all, and, as he writes in his liner notes, it's these qualities of honesty, openness and championing of our frailties that makes us all "human."
Not everything works, however. Hitch fights a losing battle with his voice on "Not Dark Yet" and also loses the melody along the way, and his basso profundo gravely delivery of "4th Time Around" sounds more like Leonard Cohen Does Dylan. The full band treatment of "Baby Blue," is rather straightforward, and Chocolate Watch Band has already recorded the definitive cover version, so we have to question its inclusion.
The lack of audience participation in the middle of the set (which includes "Baby Blue" and "Desolation Row") seems to imply these are studio performances, and only Hitch would drag "Dignity" out of retirement, perhaps influenced by Dylan's decision to include it in his MTV Unplugged recording.
Nevertheless, if you enjoyed the original acoustic RAH disk from the recent archival box set or are still diggin' Dylan Unplugged, there's bound to be something here to bring a smile and a knowing nod of appreciation.
As to the sacriligious electric set, it's a song-for-song recreation, right down to the unintelligible mumbling leading up to Dylan's famous admonition at the start of "One Too Many Mornings," "If only you wouldn't clap so hard." I was cleaning coffee out of the keyboard for hours after that one! The credits also portray Hitchcock and his band as Dylan and The Hawks, lending another layer to the homage: Hitch and his band are not just playing these songs, but are in effect portraying Dylan and The Hawks as if they were part of a documentary film.
If anything is missing, it's the sense of anger and astonishment from the audience at Dylan's transition into the electronic age. Hence, the Monday morning quarterbacks in the audience cheer wildly at Hitch's recreation of these events from the 60s, rather than appreciating his interpretation of some of his favorite songs. I got the feeling that the punters were hanging on every word just to see how close Hitch could get to the original. It was also a bit annoying hearing cries of "Judas" in at least a half dozen different spots, as if this was some sort of surreal crowd participation exercize. And for all its pinpoint acuracy, I can't understand why Hitch elects to omit Dylan's famous retort, "I don't believe you…you're a liar."But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise fascinating glimpse into what makes Hitch tick. Do yourself a favor and track this down and enjoy a blistering set by a hot band with Hitch holding the audience in the palm of his hand, obviously loving what he is doing…and doing it so well.
BIYO: Dylan's RAH concert
Windy & Carl -
Introspection [3xCD box] (Blue Flea)
Throughout the last decade, the husband and wife duo of Windy (Weber) & Carl (Hultgren) have been issuing beautiful, ambient, atmospheric, guitar-based mood-enhancing music, often in limited quantities of a few hundred, occasionally through magazines and tribute album compilations, and, in the early days, via super-limited (as in about 50) cassette releases. This long-awaited "singles compilation" collects most of these long out-of-print tracks and tosses in a few alternate takes and live recordings from a local Detroit public radio station, and is, along with Malcolm Morley's Lost and Found (reviewed above), my selection as the archival release of the year.
Their 1993 debut vanity release on their own Blue Flea imprint ("Watersong" b/w "Dragonfly") was offered in limited quantities of 300 and was created more out of a desire to hear what they sounded like on record than to actually impress anyone enough to offer them a lucrative recording contract. Windy's whispered, heavily echoed vocals suggest a performer at ease behind the microphone, which is surprising considering that many of her subsequent vocal performances are buried in the mix. Could this be a rare instance of someone who became less assured and less confident in their vocal abilities, or is it simply a matter of lost innocence as future recordings actually were intended to (more or less) impress folks enough to continue adding W&C releases to their collections? Carl's guitar at this point is easily identifiable as such, with perhaps Felt's Maurice Deebank as the most obvious influence, particularly on the b-side, which could easily pass for something off Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty.
Later that year, the glissandoing, arpeggiated style of Vini (Durutti Column) Reilly found its way into Carl's fingers, and the resulting 10- minute, 2-part "Instrumental" (the debut release on Larry Hofmann's Burnt Hair imprint) is an early example of his experiments with effects and electronics. From this point on, most of their releases would feature such ethereal dreamlike qualities as floating in jello or doing push-ups in a lemon meringue pie.
"Fragments of Time and Space" (another debut release, this one for Enraptured out of London) and "Left Without Air" demonstrate latent Cocteau Twins tendencies and would sit comfortably alongside anything on Victorialand and Treasure. By now (1995) Windy's voice had begun its descent into the mix of molasses and treacle from which it henceforth rarely emerged, and Carl's style was assuming more elements of Robin Guthrie's atmospheric, wall-of-guitar sound. Also at this point, the melodies became more nebulous, abandoning linear "pop" structures as Carl aggressively explored what I call "body music" -- you are now feeling the music rather than simply hearing it.
Their music had also become virtualy indistinguishable from the work of fellow astral projectors Stars of the Lid, The Azusa Plane, and Labradford, thus giving birth to what I termed "snorecore." Windy describes it perfectly in her liner note for "Beyond Asleep," saying it was so-named because she used to fall asleep everytime Carl played it!
A fine line was also drawn in the sand between New Age mystical music and the ambient, atmospheric rock. Over the years that line has blurred to the point of nonexistence, with the key distinction now being the use of keyboards/synths as the main instrument on the New Age side of the fence, whereas the "snorers" predominently created their sound with six strings and a ton of effects pedals. Listeners curious to make their own comparisons are advised to seek out Aeoliah's Angel Love and Michel Genest's Crystal Fantasy.
Other highlights of the first (or W) disk include "Green," featuring a rare acoustical performance by Carl, supporting sexy, pillow talk vocals, and "Universal Energy," which toys with bells to add a festive vibe to the somber proceedings. Fans of Stereolab will be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this and anything out of their self-professed Marxist Manifestos.
Kicking off disk two (&), "Beyond Asleep" is required listening for fans of Raymond Scott's Soothing Sounds for Baby as well as anyone who needs to drift off and catch a few zzzzzz's. If you're into rescoring the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz with rock and roll music, put this under the scene in the poppy fields where all the living creatures fall asleep.
"Fuzzy," the first track I ever heard by W&C, services the definition of "ambient" with a smile. As the music washed over me, permeating my aura and sharing my living space, I happened to glance at the CD timer and was amazed that nearly four minutes had passed by! This, "Near and Far," and "Mechanism" reach the next plateau--beyond atmospherics ... beyond ambient ... beyond even snorecore-- into the next musical dimension of "subliminal rock," an area of music I began to explore with great vigor in the mid-'90s. Essentially instrumental mood pieces, these entries from the W&C discography (along with the majority of the singles on the W disk) leave the blueprint of traditional "songs" behind, enveloping us with sound molecules vibrating in the air that you hear.
& also contains most of the material that juxtaposes the familiar W&C sound with harsh, brazen, almost splintering white noise. Despite all its good intentions, "Program," their contribution to the Silver Apples tribute album doesn't work, simply because their musical approaches come from opposite ends of the spectrum: Silver Apples are very angular, syncopated and metallic and those three adjectives do not exist in the Windy & Carl musical dictionary. There are, however, a few live performances to the contrary that do focus on the "noise" aspect of their sound (the half hour trilogy of "Live at Go Sound," "Live Song From Transmissions," and "Underground"), but, thankfully these diversions have been omitted from their studio recordings (and, as we shall see, later live shows).
Although this is an essential disk in the musical chronology of the couple's development, it's the one I'll play the least as I'm more of a fan of the quieter moments. Coincidentally, I also noticed that it seems that most of these noisier pieces have been confined to compilation appearances, but whether that's by design or merely a coincidence is open to conjecture.
Having been disappointed with the live stuff on the compilation disk, it was with some trepidation that I approached disk three (the C disk), a collection of live performances and alternate mixes of earlier recordings. However, having seen W&C perform on their 1999 tour, I knew the live performances had evolved back to the delicate sounds of the early singles and studio recordings, so I was encouraged that this later approach would be represented on the live disk and I wasn't disappointed.
Opening with a four-song, 20-minute stint from Ralph Valdez' Detroit public radio show on WDET, this is the W&C that I've come to know and love. The songs blend together into a seamless whole and give an excellent indication of what the current W&C live performance is like. The segues are so smooth and negligible, most listeners may think it's a single extended track. The confusion is natural (and not unique. The commemorative live Terrastock disk, recorded at the first festival in 1997, contains two W&C songs, yet they are combined and listed as a single track.) It's also, of course, how it must be for music such as this. As a mood is laid down and the air is bent with different pitches and sonic layerings, the audience is in no mood for the typical "That was such and such from our first album; now here's something off our latest" stage banter. This also leads me to the conclusion (based on a quick relisten to their albums) that most of W&C's studio material is actually performed live with a minimum of overdubs.
Despite the wonders to be found within, there are a few items that I'd like to point out--mostly small matters mainly of interest to fans. A nice touch would have been to include the lyrics, but that would have understandably balloooned the price into near-prohibitive territory. Also, considering the technological effort that Carl goes through to replicate the sound in his head, it would have been nice if he included some technical info on his setup. The educational value alone in relating the various guitar setups and tunings he uses (a la Eno's self-penned liners to his ambient releases) would be very valuable to listeners hearing this music and asking themselves, "Howdy do dat?" It would also serve to quash those rumors aluded to in the liners that any keyboards were used in the creation of any of W&C's music.
Finally, the sparse packaging is also somewhat disappointing, particularly the choice of a blurry live photo for the cover shot - I might have swapped this with the back cover of the booklet. Better yet, as evidenced by Windy's artistic talent in many of her hand-drawn 7" and EP covers replicated within, it would have been nice if she could have given us a custom-designed cover. As it is, folks picking up the box may be misled into thinking it were a collection of bootleg recordings - it has that homegrown, grainy, feel to it. This may be intentional, but, nevertheless, be forewarned when looking for this at your local retailers.
All that said, I still suggest you pull up a cloud, bring along a pic-a-nic basket, stretch out your mind, and float across the majestic musical tapestry that is The Wondrous World of Windy & Carl.
BIYO: Snorecore (Stars of The Lid, Azusa Plane, Labradford), Eno's ambient "Music for..." series, Cocteau Twins, mystical New Age artists Aeoliah, Michel Genest, atmospheric, electronic krautrock (Cluster, Tangerine Dream).