Monthly Archives: September 2008
One of the downsides of the new romantic movement is that its groups tended to be more exciting in a video or in the studio than they were in the live arena. One of the rare exceptions to this rule was Gary Numan, a performer whose canny blend of synthesizer textures and conventional rock band instrumentation allowed his music to translate itself to a live format with ease. As a result, he was a popular concert attraction in his native England and listeners can get a good idea of his live skills with Living Ornaments ’79. This album, the full set from a September 1979 performance at the Hammersmith Odeon, finds Numan taking a generous selection of tunes from all his albums up to that point and delivering them with a carefully controlled mixture of style and power. Many of the songs are much more energetic than their studio counterparts: the muscular rhythm guitar riffs that propel “Something’s in the House” take on a new power in the live arena, and “Me I Disconnect From You” runs twice as fast as its studio incarnation. Other songs on Living Ornaments ’79 benefit from new arrangements; the most notable transformation in this area is “Bombers,” which is transformed from the fast, guitar-based punk-pop of its studio version into an atmospheric, ballad-paced track where spacy synthesizers replace the guitar riffs. Numan also turns in a surprisingly effective cover of “On Broadway” that culminates in an unexpected, electic violin solo. The remainder of the tracks continue in the same vein as these highlights, effectively mixing live energy with the icy electronic affectations that make Numan’s studio classics so interesting. In short, Living Ornaments ’79 is a solid live document of Gary Numan in his hitmaking prime and a worthwhile supplement to his studio work for fans.
Chester & Lester is a beautiful and fun album by two masters. It was recorded in the mid-’70s when Chet Atkins was in his fifties and Les Paul was in his sixties. The latter had been in retirement for a decade before the recording of this album. Nashville studio musicians, including Randy Goodrum on piano and Larrie Londin on drums, back up the master guitarists, but this is by no means a country album. In fact, this album swings on classics such as “Birth of the Blues,” “Avalon,” and “Caravan.” Other classic songs, including “It’s Been a Long Time” and “It Had to Be You,” are beautifully rendered, featuring Les Paul’s instantly recognizable ringing bell tone and Chet Atkins’ fluid, slightly twangy sound. The recording has an informal feel, with between-song banter (and even some joking in the middle of songs) included on the record, which adds to the enjoyment and warmth of this album. The listener knows that the musicians are having a great time. According to the liner notes, only two songs have any overdubs, so, “You hear the music just as it came down.” And it all “came down” beautifully.
Chet Atkins/Les Paul-CHESTER & LESTER (1977)
On this intriguing concept album, altoist John Zorn (who also “sings” and plays harpsichord, game calls, piano, and musical saw) utilizes an odd assortment of open-minded avant-garde players (with a couple of ringers) on nine themes originally written for Italian films by Ennio Morricone, plus his own “Tre Nel 5000.” These often-radical interpretations (which Morricone endorsed) keep the melodies in mind while getting very adventurous. Among the musicians heard on the colorful and very eccentric set (which utilizes different personnel and instrumentation on each track) are guitarists Bill Frisell and Vernon Reid, percussionist Bobby Previte, keyboardist Anthony Coleman, altoist Tim Berne, pianist Wayne Horvitz, organist Big John Patton, and even Toots Thielemans on harmonica and whistling among many others. There are certainly no dull moments on this often-riotous program.
On the surface, Lodger is the most accessible of the three Berlin-era records David Bowie made with Brian Eno, simply because there are no instrumentals and there are a handful of concise pop songs. Nevertheless, Lodger is still gnarled and twisted avant pop; what makes it different is how it incorporates such experimental tendencies into genuine songs, something that Low and Heroes purposely avoided. “D.J.,” “Look Back in Anger,” and “Boys Keep Swinging” have strong melodic hooks that are subverted and strengthened by the layered, dissonant productions, while the remainder of the record is divided between similarly effective avant pop and ambient instrumentals. Lodger has an edgier, more minimalistic bent than its two predecessors, which makes it more accessible for rock fans, as well as giving it a more immediate, emotional impact. It might not stretch the boundaries of rock like Low and Heroes, but it arguably utilizes those ideas in a more effective fashion.
David Bowie-LODGER (1979)
Faust made (er, makes) pretty, catchy, slightly disturbing noise. In their early 1970s heyday, they recorded versions of pop, psychedelia, tape, and electronic music– but really, they just played Faust music, alienating their record labels, each other, and generally being impossible to either classify or market. By 1974, categorization threatened to ruin the reception of their fourth LP– long considered their “sell out” record by die-hard fans due to an alleged concession to more palatable songs and mixes– but as the concept of pretty/catchy noise isn’t necessarily as wtf now as it would have been then, the record’s rep has mostly recouped. And I guess that’s the lesson of Faust: Make the music you want to make, take the drugs you want to take, escape from the outside world when you can, and for god’s sake, BE PRETTY/CATCHY/DISTURBING.
IV was Faust’s second release for Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin Records. The band had recently been dropped by Polydor, and though Branson wasn’t willing to pay them the huge advance sum manager/svengali/credit-taker Uwe Nettelbeck had nabbed from their previous label, he would let the band use Virgin’s state-of-74 recording studios at the Manor in Oxfordshire to cut a new album. Faust left Germany for England, played a few shows, and even managed to compile the super-classic The Faust Tapes for Virgin– with which they promptly guerilla attacked the UK charts by selling it for half a pound– all before starting work on what would become IV. They even shared studio space with a young Mike Oldfield, whose Tubular Bells would soon help bankroll Virgin into Really Important Label status.
Of course, before the album was done, things got messy: Nettelbeck stepped in to compile the record from Faust’s sessions at the Manor (and previous ones in Wümme, Germany) without consulting the band, in turn prompting founding members Hans-Joachim Irmler and Rudolf Sosna to quit. This then forced those who remained– Jean-Herve Peron, Zappi Diermaier, and Gunter Wüstoff– to recruit members of Slapp Happy and Guru Guru to fill out their touring band in order to promote IV. By 1975, the band cut (or were relieved of) its ties with Branson and Virgin, reconvened to record a few tracks at Giorgio Moroder’s Munich studios for an album that was never completed, and eventually, unceremoniously dissolved. Not much was heard from the Faust camp before the band reunited (sans a couple of members) in 1990, and released Rien in 1994.
So, do you know Faust yet? As an album, IV matches the band’s trajectory: Jumbled, fragmented, with random data integrity issues, but seeming more the brainchild of inspired pop anarchists than calculating avant-gardists. Yes, the record sounds more “professional” than any of their others, but somehow that doesn’t actually equate to slick sounds: Opener “Krautrock” (which Irmler says was inspired by the band’s perception of the British still fearing the “krauts”) is on the noisiest end of Faust’s spectrum, using distortion and feedback as springboards for tripping into galactic clouds. For better than seven minutes, minute gradients of angelic, overdriven major-chord-sheets are exploited by who knows what devices before the drums come in and the track moves from milky, third-ear noise into MINDFUCKING KRAUTROCK. And before you can explode from the sonic congestion, “The Sad Skinhead” starts, replete with ridiculous 60s go-go beat and skank guitar. They sing, “Apart from all the bad times you gave me, I always felt good with you,” “Going places, smashing faces– what else could have happened to us?” I say needlessly: it’s a jam. And then they keep going.
The gorgeous psych-ballad “Jennifer” provides a suitably jarring transition from the previous song, and is further proof that the band (Sosna in this case) were capable of writing actual “songs,” with melodies and chords that in some other, non-acid-baked circumstance, might already have been attached to a Volkswagen ad by now. The pulsating bass drone, backed by eerily distant organ and guitar arpeggios, provides the perfect, glowing backdrop for lines like “Jennifer, your red hair is burning,” but this song is a good example of how dissecting individual Faustian innards often yields much less than the whole– it’s the sum shine that matters.
“Just a Second (Starts Like That!)” begins as a relatively conventional guitar jam, but soon devolves into electro-noise that reminds me of some of the space-tropical music on Hosono & Yokoo’s Cochin Moon– but the fractured nature of the piece is pure Faust. They go one better on the next track. Right down to the fucked-up tracklisting (which double-confusingly appends names of forthcoming tracks to the previous one), the medley of “Giggy Smile” and “Picnic on a Frozen River” may be the ultimate Faust moment, crossing strains of rock otherwise totally, transitionally opposed– in this case, fake blues-rock and synthy surf-pop– in the name of “why the fuck not?” And to no fan’s surprise, it is also a magic song.
So is “Läuft…Heißt Das Es Läuft Oder Es Kommt Bald…Läuft”. Appearing later on the 71 Minutes compilation as “Psalter”, it fits in perfectly on IV: the first half of the song is based on a finger-picked acoustic guitar figure (playing what sounds like 6/4 + 7/4, or hey, maybe 13/4), but adds layers of drums, handclaps, flutes and what sounds like a bowed string (?) of some kind. In any case, what sounds complicated actually comes out pretty lovely, and certainly the most hummable song in 13 that I know. The song ends on a solemn, almost distractingly plain-faced organ postlude. Even with distortion cranked up in the final minute, this is the kind of thing they should be playing in church to fool me into going.
IV ends perfectly with Peron’s “It’s A Bit of a Pain”. This is essentially a strange take on pleasantly psychedelic, 70s So Cal country-rock, but its true awesomeness can only be appreciated by following the lyrical narrative:
It’s a bit of a pain
To be where I am.
It’s a bit of a pain
To be where I am.
But it’s all ri– BBBBBBZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ
This reissue includes a bonus disc of tracks from a 1973 Peel Session broadcast, as well as alternate versions of several songs and fragments. Fans will know the Peel Session songs (the jazzy, sax-heavy “The Lurcher”, a “Krautrock” remix and “Do So”) from the BBC Sessions+ CD, also contained in 2000’s Wümme Years box set. The spacey, ambient piano piece, titled appropriately “Piano Piece”, later appeared on 71 Minutes as “Das Meer”. Since both discs are available in the box, I’d advise anyone in love with IV and needing more Faust just to drop the required funds and own almost everything Faust released in their original incarnation. Of course, IV isn’t in that box, so if you don’t need everything, but are curious, it’s an easy starting point. Pretty, catchy, slightly disturbing, magic.
Faust-FAUST IV (1974)
Following the 1973 Time Fades Away tour, Neil Young wrote and recorded an Irish wake of a record called Tonight’s the Night and went on the road drunkenly playing its songs to uncomprehending listeners and hostile reviewers. Reprise rejected the record, and Young went right back and made On the Beach, which shares some of the ragged style of its two predecessors. But where Time was embattled and Tonight mournful, On the Beach was savage and, ultimately, triumphant. “I’m a vampire, babe,” Young sang, and he proceeded to take bites out of various subjects: threatening the lives of the stars who lived in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon (“Revolution Blues”); answering back to Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose “Sweet Home Alabama” had taken him to task for his criticisms of the South in “Southern Man” and “Alabama” (“Walk On”); and rejecting the critics (“Ambulance Blues”). But the barbs were mixed with humor and even affection, as Young seemed to be emerging from the grief and self-abuse that had plagued him for two years. But the album was so spare and under-produced, its lyrics so harrowing, that it was easy to miss Young’s conclusion: he was saying goodbye to despair, not being overwhelmed by it.
Neil Young-ON THE BEACH (1974)
“…calling it Shedding the Past seemed to be a mere paradox… it feels so much the emotion, the feeling of the intensity and purity of club and rave in the early days, without resembling those gone moments….” In a fuzzy transmission floating between the seventh and eighth track of Shedding the Past, we get this commentary straight from the horse’s mouth. Shed’s English is awkward and broken, but his description is right on the money: Shedding is an album that harkens back to its influences for the sake of progress rather than nostalgia. Over the course of these eleven tracks, Shed paints a stark landscape, glistening with steely hues of early techno and forming something sleek, jagged and as he puts it, “full of energy and vigor.” Shedding is austere and avant-garde, but its inspired rhythms and unified variety make it as compelling as it is provocative.
The most immediately striking aspect of Shedding are the off-kilter beats. For a techno album whose songs mostly chug along at 130 BPM, the feeling of forward propulsion is notably scarce. After a brief and vaporous intro, “Boose-Sweep” stumbles in with abrupt intensity. An airy melody hovers in, and the beat slips further and further into a dilapidated groove, making it increasingly difficult not to dance like a jittery invalid. On “Another Wedged Chicken,” heavy bass kicks bookend each measure, letting a flurry of hand-claps flesh out the space in between. The rhythm lurches back and forth with an arrogant swagger that seems to say, “alright, let’s start this shit,” making this a wonderfully expressive track to mix with. On “Flat Axe,” a restrained 4/4 tick takes things down a notch, priming the listener for the hollow spaces ahead.
“The Lower Upside Down” evokes a cavernous atmosphere penetrated by a crisp and delicate micro-beat, creating a vibe ineffably suited to the song’s title. For better or worse, things get a little misty-eyed on “Slow Motion Replay,” with delayed piano stabs adding a dose of chill-out room cheese to an otherwise stern track. This could be the album’s only misstep, especially as the beatless “Waved Mind” achieves an equally euphoric effect with creamier, Eno-esque production. Nonetheless, it is part of a graceful shift in tone that reveals Shed’s knack for narrative arc, and makes the upcoming U-turn all the more jarring.
As “Waved Mind” dissipates, the crackle of magnetic tape introduces “Archived Document,” the aforementioned statement of purpose from Shed. This piggyback segue sets up the album’s most powerful moment: the fuzz slips back, Shed delivers three words in a staccato grumble—”True. Techno. Music.”—and there drops the brisk and heavy beat to the album’s only balls-out peak-time killer, aptly titled “That Beats Everything!” It is an indulgent romp, and Shed’s ear for production is no less apparent here than on the more experimental tracks. After such a metallic climax, “ITHAW” sounds almost housey as it drifts by with syncopated bass pumps and ghostly female voices. Aside from “Slow Motion Replay,” “Estrange” is the album’s most emotive chapter. Its warbling melody recalls Aphex Twin’s early ambient works, while its somber melancholy smacks of Klimek or Tim Hecker. Shedding glides to a finish with “Ostrich-Mountain-Square,” a shimmering ambient number that closes the album on a pleasantly serene note.
Though Shedding the Past has a style that is purely its own, it falls into the fold of Ostgut-Ton very elegantly. Much like Berghain/Panorama Bar and its illustrious cast of resident DJs, Shed perpetuates the visceral excitement of old school rave by ceaselessly presenting the listener with something cryptic, physical and modern. With its lustrous aesthetic, oblique rhythms and coherent diversity, Shedding the Past is surely one of the best albums of the year.
Shed-SHEDDING THE PAST (2008)
I love to feel as if I’ve awakened into a beautiful dream where the temperature is more than comfortable, maybe even a bit chilly and the sun is shining on my face. It makes me feel more alive, more awake and more in tune with the forces of the world. It is those moments that there is no fear, no worry and nothing to prevent possibility. The only limitation is when you realize that feeling can’t last forever. It is at that moment you become afraid, aware and more than a bit sad because you know that this, all of this, is temporary. This is the feeling of Rameses III, “Honey Rose”. I have not seen the movie it was created to complement. I wonder if I need to. The pieces are essentially the same waves of sound with slight shifts and differences and as a CD; it is quite brief. However, it fills the heart and gives one pause to know that at some point, everything turns to dust. It is a bittersweet melody and in Autumn I will play this and remember times of my life when I felt exactly like the space created by the disc. If I end up crying, it will be ok because sometimes beauty is not always smiles and laughter. Sometimes it is gut wrenching.
– Erica Rucker
Rameses III-HONEY ROSE (2007)
The second album by Amon Düül II (not to be confused with the more anarchic radicals Amon Düül), 1970’s Yeti, is their first masterpiece, one of the defining early albums of Krautrock. A double album on vinyl, Yeti consists of a set of structured songs and a second disc of improvisations. It’s testament to the group’s fluidity and improvisational grace that the two albums don’t actually sound that different from each other, and that the improvisational disc may actually be even better than the composed disc. The first disc opens with “Soap Shop Rock,” a 12-minute suite that recalls King Crimson’s early work in the way it switches easily between lyrical, contemplative passages and a more violent, charging sound, and continues through a series of six more songs in the two- to six-minute range, from the ominous, threatening “Archangels Thunderbird” (featuring a great doomy vocal by mono-named female singer Renate) to the delicate, almost folky acoustic tune “Cerberus.” The improvisational disc contains only three tracks, closing with a nine-minute stunner called “Sandoz in the Rain” that’s considered by many to be the birth of the entire space rock subgenre. A delicate, almost ambient wash of sound featuring delicately strummed phased acoustic guitars and a meandering flute, it’s possibly the high point of Amon Düül II’s entire career. [Most CD issues have squeezed the two discs onto one CD by cutting three minutes out of “Pale Gallery,” but the Captain Trips CD restores it to its full five-minute length.]
Amon Düül II-YETI (1970)