January 30, 2006

Gabi Delgado-Lopez and Robert Görl met in Düsseldorf, an industrial city in northwestern Germany that also boasted Kraftwerk among its local talent, during the height of the international punk movement in 1977. Spanish transplant Delgado was singing in local punk bands, while Görl was finishing his formal musical training at a conservatory. Picking up Wolfgang Spellmans, Ludwig Hass and Michael Kemner along the way, Görl and Delgado formed D.A.F (der Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft). Taking cues from the doom-laden sound of industrial forefathers Cabaret Voltaire of Sheffield, England, D.A.F. released their first album, a riotous mess of synth-powered heavy metal entitled Ein Produkt der DAF, in 1979. With its open defiance of current standards for listenability, it went over like the proverbial lead balloon.

Shorty thereafter, D.A.F. decided to take their horror show on the road, and moved to London where they made their English debut at the Marquee club supporting The Fall. An early review in Sounds summed up the intensity of their live performances thusly: “If D.A.F. had an onstage duel with Throbbing Gristle, there would be no one left alive on stage to announce the winner.” While there was nothing entirely new about experimenting with electronic elements or even industrial beats, no one had yet taken synth-based music so far out of the realm of the ethereal and psychedelic and placed it so squarely within the muscular, sweaty confines of the corporeal.

In 1980, D.A.F.’s particular brand of industrial dance music for punks caught the eye of legendary krautrock producer Conrad Plank, who’d worked with the likes of Neu!, Kraftwerk, and Brian Eno. Plank immediately expressed interest in lending his talents to D.A.F., who had shed three members and once again consisted of original duo Görl and Delgado. With Plank’s help, D.A.F. released their groundbreaking second album Die Kleinen Und Die Bosen, and second single, “Tanz Mit Dir,” to some critical acclaim but less-than widespread recognition. With their emphasis on brutal, mechanistic grooves, doom-laden lyrics, and thanks in large part to Delgado’s lusty groaning vocals, D.A.F. had created a new genre—EBM, or “electronic body music.”

By 1983, D.A.F. had found their stride, and released their third and most accessible album yet, Alles Ist Gut. Under Plank’s tutelage, they had become a legitimate hit machine in their native Germany and even saw their singles chart in England. The album’s first single, “Der Mussolini,” shocked listeners by referring to fascist leaders and attempting to start a dance craze named after one of the 20th century’s most detestable anti-heroes. “Mein Herz macht Bum” (which translates “my heart goes boom”) is a sordid entreaty to a blue-eyed object of Delgado’s desire. On “Der Räuber und der Prinz,” Delgado whispers a homoerotic tale about a late night encounter between a prince and a thief, mid-burglary. In a way few others had done before them, D.A.F. unflinchingly explored the uncharted territories where power and desire overlap, and challenged norms by attempting to step outside boundaries drawn around socially acceptable forms of desire.

Although D.A.F. went on to release several more albums as a group, and Delgado and Görl enjoyed many years of solo and side projects, they would never enjoy the relative commercial success that awaited some their disciples—acts like Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode, Six Finger Satellite, and NIN. Their legacy lives on, most recently, in the work of fellow German/Latin duo Closer Musik, the solo work of its vocalist Matias Aguayo, and Six Finger Satellite’s alum The Juan Maclean.

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Jessica Graves | 6:30 am | Comments (0)

January 27, 2006

Beth Cameron, frontwoman and guitarist of Nashville band Forget Cassettes, is not a big woman. From what I’ve read in reviews of the band’s shows, she’s tiny. But she makes an almighty racket.

At the time of recording their debut album, FC was just Beth and a guy called Doni who hit the drums quite hard. He’s left to hit drums with …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, as you do, and two other boys have replaced him. It must be nice to discover that you are equivalent to two people.

I don’t know what they sound like now, but back in 2004, they were producing a lot of noise for just a duo. I’d estimate they’re around 50% louder now, but that’s making a few assumptions.

Guitarists in two-piece bands often resort to tricks like installing bass pickups (a la Local H) or creating larger-than-life personas centred around faux-incest dynamics (the White Stripes). I don’t think Beth Cameron has done either of these. She just rips shreds off her Gibson SG and shows off some almighty chops.

Forget Cassettes’ music is best described as a post-punk melange. They seem to pay reference to riot grrrl (the vocals), post-rock (the quiet passages), Hüsker Dü (the really raucous bits) and occasionally even classic bands like Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin (bluesy, loud riffs). Something for the whole family, really.

Cameron’s voice brings to mind early PJ Harvey, although she can sound a little bit more petulant at times and her lyrics sometimes verge on school-girl journal sentiments. Yet when she unleashes the full power of her voice at the same time as a blast of guitar, it merges into a wall of sound that can make grown men cry. Judging by some of her lyrics, that was probably the desired end.

One of my favourite tracks on the album is the title-track “Instruments of Action.” The interplay between guitar and drums is impressive and the stop-start rhythm builds anticipation for each note—something very few songs can claim. The multiple crescendos and peaks coincide with the most defiant lyrics leaving the listener with no doubt that this band mean what they say.

“Like Tiny Swords” is another stand-out, I suspect because it reminds me of Placebo’s “36 Degrees.” It a simpler song, in terms of musical technique, than others on the album but it boasts an intensity and a sense of purpose that trounces far showier songs.

Forget Cassettes aren’t particularly well known outside of Nashville and a WOXY-inspired following in Ohio, but with musical power like this, it’ll take blocks of solid concrete to keep them from being heard.

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David Pullar | 6:30 am | Comments (0)

January 26, 2006

Another Stypod writer talked at length about New Buffalo a while back; the Arts & Crafts recording artist opened for Feist and Broken Social Scene at a number of shows last year. Having seen her perform, I have to say that she was in fact pretty good. Think “Canadian Dido.” Except uh, think positive. She was pretty warmly received by a full club whose attendees sat on the ground because they wanted to stand up when Feist came on and until then they didn’t want to make their legs sore. It was probably for the best, then, that she came first. The second act was killer.

Jason Collett, who the previous article neglected to mention, is another
Arts & Crafts recording artist; you might recognize his name from Broken
Social Scene interviews and liner notes. As one of their resident
guitarists, he’s worked with them live, in studio, and I’m going to guess on
video—he has what you’d call a “distinctive” rocking-out stance. And, of
course, he also has solo material. What you probably don’t know—especially if you’ve heard the lead single “Fire” off of 2005 release, Idols of Exile—is that, unusually enough, his solo stuff is definitely within the realm of alt-country and folk-rock. I mean it: acoustic guitars, talk of drink and salvation, twangy solos, and line-dancing drums, all capped off with a strained voice that sounds like a nerdy, Canadian Jeff Tweedy.

It’s best not to talk about his first album; it wasn’t bad, but it by no
means comes close to Idols of Exile. Consider, for example, “Hangover Blues,” his duet with Emily Haines. It starts with a disorienting disco drumline, but then the acoustic guitars come in and bam, it’s definitely alt-country. He’s singing about making love in front of the TV and stuff, minstrels shaking tambourines, and how “morning came in sinister”—all cribbed from Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, but with a lot less Sonic Youth dickery. Basically, it’s a bouncy, vaguely twangy slice of Americana
(Canadiana?) and it basically sums up the peppier moments of the album.

Well, except one.

You see, this is one of those albums that you know is a full album and the
artist intended it to be viewed as a full album, but upon listening you
realize that the album’s price can be justified by a single song. In this
case it’s “I’ll Bring The Sun,” which is basically the most optimistic,
upbeat, fun, joyous songs released by Arts & Crafts last year. Yes, I’m
including Broken Social Scene’s self-titled in there; “I’ll Bring The Sun”
is focused, concise, and clearly-produced, with each glorious note ringing
clearly. What’s especially awesome about “I’ll Bring The Sun” is that you
don’t even expect it to get as huge and explosive as it does. The verse is
busy enough, and his backing band echoes him sometimes instead of a studio effect doing it, and then the chorus “I’ll bring the sun / To you when I come” is just propelled by a fantastic, cheery hook, and then the end of the song is this enormous, happy coda in celebration of the A chord, and three minutes later it’s over. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the album is worth writing about. But once it ends, it’s apparent “I’ll Bring The Sun” is
basically one of the awesomest songs of the last year.

Idols of Exile will be released on February 7th in the United States and is available in Canada
now.

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Todd Burns | 6:30 am | Comments (3)

January 25, 2006

Pulp are most famous for being the band that people who pride themselves on not choosing Oasis or Blur chose—an escape hatch from the mid-90s dichotomy, the weird, tumultuous, bitter, idiosyncratic alternative to the rest of Britpop’s compulsively anthemic bathos. All of which means that Pulp doesn’t show up much at parties, or in drunken singalongs: while songs like, say, “Champagne Supernova” were made to be shouted along with poorly, there isn’t much that can be done with Jarvis Cocker’s breathy, mumbly delivery, and there’s something about the satirical, second-guessing nature of his lyrics even in Pulp’s most accessible songs that threatens to leave the candy-craving inebriate frustrated and bummed out. For all Cocker’s sordid, leeringly explicit lyrics, Pulp were never a sex band; they were too tangled up in narrative, in examination and analysis, unable to reach the genitals without wandering around in the head first. “We learned too much at school,” Cocker famously wailed, and his inability to talk about silvery moons and holding hands without reams of compulsive back story proved it marvelously true.

But Pulp was around for a long time before that—a long time, even, before they hit upon the roundabout, intellectualized lust that would bring them British success (America never really caught on). Cocker’s first album under the Pulp name, “It,” was released in 1983, after a Peel session that impressed no one and a year at university; the band’s sophomore release, “Freaks,” was really another debut, as Cocker was the only holdover from Pulp’s previous incarnation, and you can tell: while “It” is a slapdash, awkward singer-songwriter album, “Freaks” is a weird, concept-albumy Joy Division takeoff, all gloomy sparseness and Ray Bradbury carnival mythology, billed on the cover as “ten stories about power, claustrophobia, suffocation and holding hands.” Most of it is still awkward, and much of it is dull, but exploration reveals moments that, if they don’t come near Pulp’s mid-90s commercial and artistic peak, bear their own kind of cracked merit. “Don’t You Know” is like a power-pop song suffering from, um, claustrophobia and suffocation, dipped in molasses and featuring Cocker’s laconic, amiable drone over a stuttering, monotone guitar and the occasional anomalously bright three-note flourish. Pulp’s locked-in gloom is lighter here; the song’s about not having the energy or backbone to dissolve a relationship, and revolves around the mordantly cheerful remark “If you could walk away where would you go, anyway?” The Joy Division indebtitude comes to a head on “Anorexic Beauty,” driven by a clipped guitar that does nothing but build for three minutes and yet never moves from its spot, while Cocker deadpans lines like “sultry and corpselike.”

But the strangest, most immediately arresting song on the album is “Being Followed Home” (”I don’t know what for / I don’t know by whom”), whose refusal to take its radio-melodrama self anything less than utterly seriously is mildly awesome. Foley footsteps and spidery guitar fade in slowly and come to the edge of a cliff, as Cocker gently nudges forward a knob in the studio marked “FRANTIC”; when the song breaks loose, a whiff of imagined carnival organ whirls in the blackness behind the verses, and Cocker’s unusually flowery lyrics knock against each other until coming to a head with a breathless action sequence: “A bottle smashes / The glint of a blade in the moonlight / Someone laughs… the corner’s turned… and it’s too late!” It sounds ludicrous on paper, and in a way it sounds ludicrous when you hear it, but it’s the moment on “Freaks” when the aura of awkward gloom the band’s spinning deepens and becomes believable; the moment when Cocker (and his band, which was, mostly, to change again before Pulp’s success) succeeds in providing perfect musical support for his jumpy penny-dreadful lyrics. And it’s in “Being Followed Home,” even more than in the sardonic satire of songs like “Anorexic Beauty,” that shades of the Pulp to come are most obvious—the sprawling, nervous narration; the invented short stories delivered utterly convincingly; the tumultuous but meticulously tailored musical atmosphere. There wasn’t too much changing to be done after this: what would make the band successful was Cocker’s eventual application of his knack for fiction to the mundanities of the British working class. Carnies and broken bottles are all very well, but it turns out there isn’t much money in power, claustrophobia, and suffocation. Holding hands, though: there you’re on to something.

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Theon Weber | 6:30 am | Comments (3)

January 24, 2006

The NME has a lot to answer for and I won’t for a minute justify their appalling hype-job on the mostly-unexceptional Gay Dad back in 1999. Judging by the number of second-hand copies of their album Leisure Noise lying around, it seems that a lot of people bought it on the back of some hyperbolic statement like “album of the year” or “hands down the only album you should care about in 1999” or even “this year’s OK Computer”. It’s equally apparent that hearing the damn thing didn’t live up to expectations.

I was lucky enough not to buy the album and instead went for the far cheaper option of the “Oh Jim” single. The song, like the album, is a fairly straight Brit-pop rip off – Supergrass for the kids who thought Be Here Now was better than Morning Glory. And yet nestled at the end of the disc is an outstanding 8 minute jam by the name of “Lieb ist für Immer”—surely a Neu! reference if ever there was one. And the kraut-rock comparisons don’t end there.

A wash of synths flows through the mix, followed by a minimalist, mechanical guitar riff; then some tinkly bell effects that put the Kraft back into the werk. At around the 1 minute mark, Cliff Jones starts to talk some crap about first love in a muted, treated monotone. The bass kicks in soon after, with a vague sense of menace, then a meaty drum-beat. After 3 minutes, things loosen up with another guitar riff, but this time it’s almost funky. Are we in Can territory now? The landscape sure looks familiar.

Over the course of the song, the gay dads add and subtract from these elements—a four-on-the-floor drum machine beat here, cutting back to a sinister synthesized bass line there. This was always the trick of kraut-rock and good repetitive music in general—keep things the same, but always different.

Someone wiser than me once said that kraut-rock is just German for “prog,” but it’s never showy like prog is. That’s not to say that they don’t have talent or musical chops—kraut-rock bands just never felt the need to flaunt their virtuosity. There are amazing musical gifts on display in “Lieb ist für Immer,” but it’s mostly the interaction of the various elements that makes this song great.

So forget that this song was recorded by a group of over-hyped youngsters in the seedy, dry-mouthed morning-after of Brit-pop. Picture instead a group of art students in Düsseldorf around about 1973, experimenting with synthesizers they don’t know how to use and sounds that they as yet only sit at the back of the consciousness. And let the trance begin.

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David Pullar | 6:30 am | Comments (3)

January 23, 2006

I’ve been working my way through Bob Dylan’s Chronicles over the past few days and have been thoroughly enjoying it. It amazes me how meaningfully Dylan was able to respond to all the differing situations he found himself in. Whether it was in the Midwest, New York City, Woodstock, or in New Orleans, his surroundings were at all times informing the shape and content of his music.

All of this caused me to wonder whether or not this sense of belonging in music, especially popular music, is becoming a thing of the past. As much as I like the catchy hooks of “Since U Been Gone,” I have no idea where Kelly Clarkson is from, and nor do I think that really matters. Pop music is a world currency: it is just as listenable in Ljubljana, Slovenia as it is in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It seems to me that pop music is having less and less to say about who we are as a people in a particular place, and more about what we like to consume as entertainment.

This is where the significance of groups like the Animal Collective lies. The group only have emerged out of the current North American way of life. Take “We Tigers” from their 2004 album Sung Tongs for example. In the midst of a society longing for more security, Avey Tare and Panda Bear opt rather to start a drum circle chanting ‘everybody’s welcome, everybody’s welcome, tiger, tiger, tiger, tiger.’ This isn’t some humanistic approach to reality in which we gather together, ignore all our differences, sing kumbaya, and then claim to be living in unity with each other. Instead, they invite us to participate in their alternate way of life in which we all gather together and start dancing around on all fours, short-circuiting us from the rest of society.

On the more recent Feels, the focus is more on destruction: the album consists of one incomplete song followed by another, as they throw away more ideas in one album than most artists can come up with in their career. “The Purple Bottle” is a wonderful example of their schizophrenic songwriting. It goes from a nice melodic pop song (ala “I Just Called to Say I Love You”), to a disturbed Beach Boys choral piece, to a possessed screaming opus, all in under eight minutes. Here again you hear the group yet again immersing themselves in their surroundings, only to explode them from within. Proving that, as Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “somewhere is better than nowhere.”

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Jeff Friesen | 6:30 am | Comments (4)

January 20, 2006

Lizzy Mercier Descloux grew up in Paris, briefly attending Les Beaux Arts before launching her professional career in a boutique in Les Halles, a neighborhood that was at the centre of “swinging Paris” in the mid-70s. In 1975, she moved to New York to be closer to the epicenter of the avant-rock scene, bought a Fender Jazzmaster guitar and began performing in Soho galleries and Lower East side clubs. In 1978 under the name of Rosa Yemen, she recorded a first six titles LP, on the cult label ZE Records. She became involved in the birth of the City’s “New Cinema,” acting in a number of short films including Amos Poe’s “Blank Generation.” She also wrote an ode to Andreas Baader for the music of Diego Cortez’ film Grutzy Elvis. Having picked up the requisite avant-garde credibility in New York, Lizzie worked as correspondent for the magazine Rock News. Her articles found her at the cutting-edge of the music scene, reporting on two new movements that emerged from the same origins: punk and new wave. Lizzy was in the front lines as Blondie, The Ramones, Television, The New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders and Patti Smith rose to wider and wider recognition.

On her return to Paris, Lizzy managed the boutique Harry Cover, an outlet for T-shirts and records, with her partner, producer and ZE Records executive Michel Esteban. The couple established themselves as Paris’ answer to Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, and Lizzy soon earned a reputation as the muse of the city’s burgeoning punk movement. Lizzy, in her early 20s at the time, was thrilled by the raw new sound pioneered by her new friends, future members of Les Stinky Toys and Asphalt Jungle. Caught up in the no wave movement that had taken New York’s underground scene by storm in the late 70s, Lizzy went into the studio on her own in 1979 to record a debut album, Press Color. But as the French punk movement burning out in the late 70s, Lizzy began looking to new musical horizons. In the early 80s a buzz formed around what journalists at Actuel and Libération dubbed la sono mondiale, or “the world sound,” long before anyone coined the term “world music.”

After touring to promote Press Color with a funk band, Lizzy Mercier Descloux traveled to Europe with companion/filmmaker Seth Tillett. They worked in Italy on a series of short films where she met Federico Fellini during the filming of La Cittŕ delle donne, discovered the label Ocora (traditional music from all around the world) and started writing songs with help of drummer Bill Perry. In Paris they auditioned African musicians cause after wild child funk the idea was to make a record fusing African roots music, disco, swing and some obscure soundtracks. Mambo Naussau, by many accounts Lizzy’s most fully realized work, was recorded in Nassau, Bahamas at Compass point, a home of Island Records’ studios. Steve Stanley, a young engineer from Jamaica who was also working with Grace Jones and The Tom Tom Club, produced the album.

At a time when artists like The Talking Heads were dabbling in instruments from around the world and folk idioms to a slightly more primitivist effect, on tracks like “Lady O’Kpele” Lizzy and company were bringing a fresh avant-garde energy to an already lively regional folk tradition. On “Payola,” funky beats and island grooves bent slightly askew set the pace for the rest of the album. Tracks like “Mister Sowete” seem to predict female fronted acts like The Sugarcubes and ESG and made established bands like The Slits and The Raincoats seem conventional by comparison.

Lizzy eventually left France and made her home in Corsica where she devoted herself to a new career as a painter. After her untimely death in 2002 at the age of 47, interest in her work was renewed among critics and music fans as films like Downtown 81 reemerged as fascinating artifacts of the no wave generation. As one of the pioneers of the no wave movement and an artist of such range and depth across media, let’s hope Lizzy’s legacy lives on alongside the work of her contemporaries Liquid Liquid, DNA, and The Contortions.

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Jessica Graves | 6:30 am | Comments (5)

January 19, 2006

I never thought I’d say this, but the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” leaves a lot to be desired. The closest thing to a hit from the Bob Dylan/Roy Orbison/Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne/George Harrison supergroup, “Handle with Care” always seemed an irreproachable work of pop—loping, amiable, and brief, with quietly clever lyrics and a titular hook you could wait for with a smile all through the verses. Harrison had the bulk of the song; Orbison and Dylan came in to quaver and growl, respectively, on the bridges; and it was good. Nevertheless, for me it was one of those songs that play better in one’s head than on record—my memory of “Handle With Care,” of its self-deprecation and softhearted declarations of love (”Been beat up and battered around / Been sent up and I’ve been shot down / You’re the best thing that I’ve ever found / Handle me with care”), of its descending-escalator verses and plaintive bridges, was always finer than what I heard when I actually played the record. Somehow I imagined an artwork of impossible sublimity, all love’s weary maturity given a deft, beautiful essaying in the space of three minutes. What I got was some rock stars goofing off. It was my fault, really.

But something unexpected and a little embarrassing has happened. See, Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley frontwoman and indie-girl clotheshorse, has a solo album coming out. And on this solo album is a cover of “Handle With Care,” featuring, in lieu of Harrison, Orbison, and Dylan, Jenny Lewis, Ben Gibbard, and Conor Oberst. And the terrible thing is, I like it better. I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan since I was old enough to wear headphones and look sullen, but apparently I endorse his replacement with the guy from Bright Eyes. Something has gone very, very wrong, and it’s probably my fault, again.

Or maybe not. Listen to the cover. Listen to the way it moves faster than the original—it’s about twenty seconds shorter, which can make all the difference in a pop song, and definitely does here. Lewis—who, unlike Harrison, is a better singer than her backup—powers her way through the verses, delivering her wry list of abuses quickly without sacrificing clarity, wrapping her voice around the word “adorable” for a tightrope second before dropping it with exquisite timing and moving to the hook. Producer M.Ward has upped the jangle, making a country song out of what was once merely almost a country song, and Gibbard and Oberst, if they’re not Orbison and Dylan, do a fine job (Gibbard’s patented plaintivity is more or less perfect for his “I’m so tired of being lonely” line, and Oberst, for as far as I know the first time, sheds his malfunctioning-respirator voice for a rasp that isn’t an obvious enough Dylan impression to be distracting). Lewis and company haven’t done anything bold with the song musically—this is no Scissor Sisters’ “Comfortably Numb”—but the original’s ramshackle quality has been replaced with impeccable, vocals-forward, crystal-clear production, and it’s better for it; the Wilburys’ lyrics come in loud and clear, and it turns out that I was right—the song is kind of impossibly sublime; it does kind of encompass all of love’s weary maturity. “Been stuck in airports, terrorized / Sent to meetings, hypnotized / Overexposed, commercialized” performs in less than ten seconds the kind of railing against dehumanization Serious Rock Bands are supposed to spend entire albums on, and “I’ve been robbed and ridiculed / In day-care centers and night schools” is a perfect line, summing up half a life in fewer words than really should be possible.

The cover isn’t without its missteps—at one point “I’ve been fobbed off and I’ve been fooled” is changed to “I’ve been fucked off and I’ve been fooled,” which barely makes sense, and exists only to give Jenny Lewis a chance to say “fuck,” at which, as every male Rilo Kiley fan knows, she is excellent, but for which this is not the time—but to me it’s a staggering, eye-opening improvement, and I don’t think it’s my fault. No, I really think someone—maybe Jenny Lewis, maybe M.Ward, maybe Ben Gibbard, I don’t know—has unlocked the cage this song was trapped in, and let it spread its wings and soar, the way it always almost could. And I’m not ashamed to admit it—just as I’m not ashamed to admit that, with “I’ve been uptight and made a mess / I’ll clean it up myself I guess / Oh, sweet smell of success / Handle me with care,” with that last moment of sheepish triumph, Conor Oberst, of all people, makes me grin like crazy.

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Theon Weber | 6:30 am | Comments (0)

January 18, 2006

Being a 24 year old Australian, I was too young and too geographically remote to catch the first wave of “shoegazer” bands to come out of the UK in the early 90s (Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Swervedriver etc). What I was around for instead was the antipodean aftershock—the swirly psychedelic indie rock bands that got some airplay and major label attention as part of the mid-90s “alternative” craze. There was never a “scene” as such, just a lot of talented musicians mining similar territory. Sadly, the best of these bands never achieved the success that was their due and disbanded, leaving Australian music the poorer, while the noxious likes of Spiderbait, Grinspoon, and Regurgitator became our summer festival perennials instead.

Possibly my favourite band to tread the effects-pedals was Sidewinder—a band of Canberrans transplanted to Sydney (no doubt due to the incredible lameness of my current hometown). Their first LP Atlantis (1996) was the sound of a young band finding its feet and isn’t as consistent as the follow-up (1998’s Tangerine), but it contains the blazing “Not Coming Home”—a song that expresses exactly why the electric guitar was invented in the first place. Martin Craft’s impassioned vocals are pretty un-shoegazer—although Adam Franklin from Swervedriver has mined similar territory—but the wall of sound that this band produced brings several Oxford bands to mind. Where this band rises above mere imitation is in the unique approach of taking classic Australian pub rock and rubbing it until it glistens.

Another Sydney-based band was Drop City—probably the most psychedelic of the bunch and friends of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, to give you an idea of what to expect. I recall an interview in which the band members stated that they broke up after a live show that involved something like two songs and 45 minutes. When they were at their best, circa This Heavenly Machine (1996), they recorded some of the best music influenced by Floyd and Dinosaur Jr in equal measure—“Living In The Machine Pt. 1” is Exhibit A.

And finally, a band that were a little bit more Britpop sounding at their peak (building on Pulp and the Boo Radleys to great effect on 1996’s Love Walked In LP) but who started off gazing at their shoelaces like the rest—The Earthmen. An early track of theirs, “Momentum” from 1993, is a great place to start. With its mellow, druggy intro building up into a pummelling climax that recalls Ride’s “Decay” more than a little, it’s a song that moves my guts and my heart.

It’s probably unfair to look at these bands in the light of their influences, as if they were nothing more than cultural appropriation—like American remakes of Asian or French films. These songs stand as classics in their own right. But I can’t help feeling that if they are a little bit better than most, it’s because they have been standing on the shoulders of giants.

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David Pullar | 6:30 am | Comments (3)

January 17, 2006

In a strange way, it’s easy to underestimate Derek Bailey’s importance. Many of us, especially on this side of the pond, know Bailey, who passed away on Christmas at 75, as simply a wildly inventive guitarist. To his compatriots, though, he was a much more central figure to the free-improvised music that began bubbling up in England in the late ’60s. His earliest free groups—the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Music Improvisation Company—were huge umbrella organizations under which basically any improviser who happened to be in the area could interact with like-minded musicians. Some of these early collaborators are now guiding lights in the field, like Gavin Bryars (though technically not as an improviser), Evan Parker, and Dave Holland; AMM began to experiment with a similar alchemy around this time as well, and they too were invited to come play with or alongside the SME. When Bailey began his Company in 1976—another rotating cast that put on annual week-long improv-fests of interchanging small and large groups—he continued to not just contribute as a musician, but also act as a sort of patron. Naturally, there he also edited a dedicated magazine, Musics, and a label, Incus, that he co-founded with Parker and longtime friend and fellow-traveller Tony Oxley, which survives still, well past 100 releases to date. While it’s stranger still to celebrate a wildly inventive guitarist for his organizational skills, it’s easy to imagine that, were he a less able manager, a lot of that music would be lost to most of us.

His earliest years in groups now seem embryonic, just skeletal beginnings of where his sound would go. These were musicians trying to approach a music without traditional idiom, though many of these players, Bailey included, were coming from jazz backgrounds, and that comes through especially strongly in those early large-group numbers. As with much large-group improvisation, the more bombastic players tend to drown out everything else, and Bailey’s light-touch picking and plucking rarely survives the carnage. In smaller groups, however, and particularly duos, Bailey could shine as a preternaturally astute improviser; listen here (in another recording from the same 1970 Gernan radio broadcast as above) as he and bassist Dave Holland run concentric rings around each other while never deigning to approach a conventional melody. When I said “a music without traditional idiom” before, that’s what I meant; a music as stripped of the usual vernacular of harmony, melody, or rhythm as possible—by now, of course, this sort of improvisation has become kind of its own idiom. In an interview, Bailey called it a music whose “roots are in occasion rather than place.” (He also wrote a book on the subject, that was later adapted for a BBC documentary mini-series.) There’s a classic recording of a London concert (The London Concert, considered a historic document of this time, Incus 16) with Evan Parker on sax, in which not only are the players wholly attuned throughout, but you can hear points where the heavy-skronk-happy Parker seems cowed by Bailey’s hypnotic picking into all but imitating the sounds coming from his partner.

But as time went on, Bailey’s own highly original and very specific language on the guitar became clear. Though he still continued to play in groups (with the usual suspects, as well as folks like John Zorn and Japanese terror-proggers Ruins, and even Butoh dancer Min Tanaka), his solo work was the real showcase for that language I don’t use the word “language” lightly; Bailey himself was entirely cognizant of the idea that improvised music like this could resemble everyday speech in a way, and his own seemed to develop in the same manner as an infant first learning to talk. His first solo album (Solo Guitar, Vol. 1, Incus 10) is filled with short passages of relative simplicity—one note at a time, repeated patterns interrupted by a-melodious tones and carried on from there. By the aughts, that language had refined into something not only more complicated, but wholly uncategorizable. His 2002 album Ballads is probably the apotheosis of his solo work, with not just a more varied vocabulary and complex structures, but a decidedly more sensitive, wise, poetic voice. The old patterns are all but gone, and he’s almost embraced melody, beginning a line on a recognizable set of notes, before taking the first opportunity for a bracing left turn, creating an ever-evolving sound full of constant surprises. By the end of his life, he’d developed carpal tunnel syndrome, along with the motor-neurological disorder that took him, and he could no longer grip his plectrum. Many people would perhaps go gently, and Bailey did have to stop playing live, but he didn’t stop playing. Instead, he simply maneuvered and all but retaught himself to use his instrument. The ensuing album—Carpal Tunnel, released only a few months before his death—is equal parts haunting and exhilarating; he isn’t hitting those strings with the force he once did, but this revamped language still reflects the old one, in sometimes wild ways. No longer do we get the long, unfurled ribbons of notes, but a meditative calm, even when his new style of playing ends up sounding like no acoustic guitar is ever supposed to, and filigreed with silence, as if he’s leaving all those old intermediary sounds out to focus simply on the ones that matter most. But what’s one more invention, when you’ve left so many behind.

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Jeff Siegel | 6:30 am | Comments (1)

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