Bob Burnett: From 1975-87 Bern Nix, along with Charles Ellerbe, made up the searing two guitar attack in Ornette Coleman's group, Prime Time. Prime Time was a group that was on fire. They merged together the pulse of Afro-pop-meets-James Brown-funk with strands of New York’s no wave movement. In fact, Nix played briefly in the no-wave group, The Contortions. Prime Time made about six albums that I can think of, but to get a quick sense of Prime Time check out this clip on youtube that features them on Saturday Night Live.
I can hear you saying “Ornette on Saturday Night Live?” Hold on—the story gets better.
Prime Time are introduced by the show’s guest host Milton Berle, standing in some kind of boxing-type robe surrounded by a bunch of older men in suits. In his best show biz banter he says “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you—Ornette Coleman! Let’s hear it!”
Now, far out out of the spotlight of live TV and beyond Prime Time, Bern Nix has released an interesting solo album with a unique distribution method. Low Barometer is on New York’s Tompkins Square Records and is only available via download at emusic. Albeit a work featuring its share of improvisations on a theme, this music doesn’t resemble the rhythmic density of Prime Time. It’s an album of spare solo guitar touching equally on shards of Derek Bailey-styled free improvisation as well as classic single note melody playing circa Jim Hall. There is a ton of space on this album. Nix frequently plays in a very controlled manner however he’s constantly exploring, improvising and searching for phrases, combinations and new pathways to follow. Low Barometer is an interesting puzzle piece type approach to music. It’s a quiet and subdued listening experience but nonetheless a fresh look at the challenge of playing solo guitar.
I made a reference to Derek Bailey—I’m thinking Nix’s playing on Low Barometer reflects specifically on Bailey’s Ballads album as well as Pieces For Guitar where delicate improvisation within a somewhat linear scope made up the palette. Nix’s playing never reaches for the visceral, harmonic textures that Bailey frequently ascended to; he’s very much coming from an introspective, calming jazz player’s perspective here.
If you have an emusic account you should use eight of your downloads to get this album. If you don’t have an emusic account you might want to check in with Downtown Music Gallery whom a few weeks back offered signed, limited edition CD-R’s of the album.
Kim Kirkpatrick: I seldom end up owning everything by a group; normally I check everything out and then discard a few that are just OK. The American Analog Set is an exception, I own every CD they ever released. I own all six full length CDs, the EPs too, covering from 1996 to 2005, and they all sound the same! (“ All sounds the same”, don’t you just love hearing that from someone?). In the case of AmAnSet the “sameness” is repetition, analogous to many a masterful artist’s exploration, whatever the medium. Through the years their skills have refined, producing more blissful subtlety with each release.
Set Free (2005) may well be The American Analog Set’s last release. The band announced the members would be busy with solo projects and that they would no longer be touring with any consistency. Set Free is a superb ending for the group, going out with refinement and beauty. AmAnSet fit within the Post Rock genre, along the lines of Tortoise, Mogwai, and Low. All of these bands are in no hurry to get anywhere within a song and function as a whole, with equal importance to all the players.
I had a run of delightful years when AmAnSet, Bedhead (both from Texas), and Low (Minnesota) were all releasing tightly reined in, utterly consistent music. The mood these bands presented--the thick atmosphere--fit my personality perfectly. Like my response to dub reggae, once I entered The American Analog Set’s world of emotions and pace I felt no need to leave. “Slowcore” has been used to describe this music, and AmAnSet certainly maintains a deliberate slow pace, a low key, subdued sound throughout their years.
The American Analog Set’s chosen limitations seem to boost their creativity. Subtle variations within the soft rhythmic (acoustic and warm electric) guitars, whispered vocals, beautifully toned bass, occasional organ, xylophone, and melodica, well… it just makes me want to turn down the lights, sit down, and feel the wash and comfort of The American Analog Set. And the lyrics are to cry for, beautiful, comfortably down. Set Free, what a perfect title for a musical departure eh? The Velvet Undergound’s “I’m Set Free” strikes me as relevant in mood, speed, and general laid back revelations. Set Free is a fine starting point for The American Analog Set, and I would expect you to want more after hearing it.
Bob Burnett: I’m not at the expansive complete set archiving level Kim is with AmAnSet but agree with his comments about consistency, relevance and the listening joy they bring. In addition to Set Free I find myself frequently drawn to 2003’s Promise of Love. These musical waters runs deep; one minute I feel that VU pull, suddenly the soft, melodic xylophone takes me to parallel them with the contemplative Modern Jazz Quartet. Yeah, I know that’s somewhat a stretch but the chamber/ensemble feel within both groups reflect a strong and positive group approach to music—something both Kim and I react to in a positive way.
Bob Burnett: I listened to Paul Kelly's soundtrack to the film "Lantana" before I ever saw the movie itself. I know that's a bit unusual but my friend and Sydney-region music source Brad sent the soundtrack my way and based solely on the strength of what I heard I purchased a DVD of the film and really liked it too.
If you haven't seen "Lantana" you should consider renting it. Director Ray Lawrence created a wonderful interweaving of lives that become more and more complicated and connected. In addition to being terrific drama, the film has a wonderful "look" due to the primary use of natural lighting. "Lantana" Director of Photography Mandy Walker further explains:
"To shoot a film with natural light is harder than lighting because you have less control. Ray Lawrence has a very particular style and way of making a film that is based on natural performances and the environment that you are working in. The actors, he wants to feel, can be in a room for example that is the least bit cluttered with equipment, and each location is chosen for the atmosphere that already exists there. "
To its credit, the soundtrack doesn’t particularly need the film to stand alone as a great listening experience. Paul Kelly created a musical space that one reviewer aptly called "desert ambient". An interesting description given the film was shot in urban and suburban locations around Sydney. To me the soundtrack has a longing, lonely feel; Kelly plays extended vamps on guitar and is joined on piano (Bruce Haymes) bass (Steve Hadley) and drums (Peter Luscombe) all colleagues of Paul Kelly in the sometime/unofficial band, Professor Ratbaggy. On first listen I was reminded of the energy and direction of The Necks when they get into one of their long, slow groove-based improvisations similar in feel to their Drive By album.
The music makes for a colorful, floating background. There have been many occasions where I put it on in my office, let it play and find myself drifting along with it as I type or do other tasks. Although I praise its “Erik Satie-like” qualities of being able to be simultaneously present and ignored it shouldn’t be taken as saying the music is boring; it doesn’t just lay there like wallpaper soundtracks. Incidentally, composer Paul Kelly is mainly known as a rock musician in Australia. He’s fronted a number of bands over the decades and is known for writing and performing heartfelt songs that capture the spirit of Australia. One review mentioned similarities to Elvis Costello.
I know the retail price for the CD is high so you may want to check-out the film first, get a sense of the music and keep an eye out for the CD when you flip through the racks.
Bob Burnett: Sometimes you just want to play some songs. And that's exactly what Wilco does on their Sky Blue Sky album. This is an album of convergence; where a group of people in a band have found a place in time that is comfortable and thoughtfully realized. Instead of making a big, complicated and anxious album Wilco has taken a breath and gotten together to make songs that reflect being at a moment of solid collaboration.
The album was created in their studio space--the Wilco loft; in fact guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and audio engineer TJ Doherty set-up beds and lived in the loft too. The overall recording has a lived-in style too-- to such a degree that a song ends and you can hear the room tone of the space lingering as it fades out; an occasional amp hum or realization of the space itself further evolves the authentic environment of the songs and group interplay away from the commonplace recording practice of pristine vacuum-like "silence". This vital listening experience environment created on Sky Blue Sky reminds me when Neil Young and Crazy Horse made Ragged Glory in their barn of a rehearsal space. In addition to sounding like simultaneous group interplay the bonus for me on Ragged Glory was at the end of each song hearing Young's sustained feedback floats which added beautifully to the song's impact. Likewise, each of Wilcos' songs rise to become special moments too--because they feel like they capture people playing together in a sharp and creative way.
Christoph Green and Brendan Canty (photo by Jim Saah)
The video was shot in a very loose, handheld manner that feels like the album sounds--not contrived and nicely in the moment. Producer/Director Brendan Canty and Wilco's sound engineer TJ Doherty captured the sound wonderfully and cameraperson Nikos Kourkoulakos and co-Producer/Director and cameraperson Christoph Green not only captured the band playing live but created a body of complimentary interstitial images; abstract close-ups from Wilco's homebase of Chicago, quirky and interesting"objet d'art" in Jeff Tweedy's home (where the interview with Tweedy took place), Chicago winter weather and some of the most beat-generation inspired dancing dust particles you'll ever experience.
This is a great effort--a very rewarding listen. Don't believe the reviews that disparage this album as a weak one in the shadow of their past albums. Sky Blue Sky deserves its own place in the exceptional body of work Wilco has produced.
I have little to no rational perspective on this band--you know how that happens sometimes? You find a band that you just absorb and the world is great. The Sea and Cake are that band to me. They fit me perfectly. Even their solo efforts work for me. In fact, I think vocalist/guitarist Sam Prekop's self-titled solo album is one of my ongoing favorite things to listen to.
And so after four years I get a new The Sea and Cake album to listen to and I am quite intrigued in a different way. Everybody is a change in course for the band. Granted, like all of their albums it's made up of ten songs but the process for making this one was different. In addition to playing drums, John McIntire (also a member of another no-rational-perspective-by me band Tortoise) usually engineers the recordings at his own Soma Electronic Music Studios. This time they recorded the album outside of Chicago at Key Club Studios in Benton Harbor, Michigan and used Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins as engineers and Brian Paulson as Producer --freeing up McEntire to be a fulltime band member. They focused solely on the craft of making this album-- spending a lot of time rehearsing and working out material. Because of this effort, there seems to be few overdubs and reflects the positive attributes that happen when a band plays together in a focused manner.
Everybody doesn't have the glowing '70s Canterbury progressive rock moments that happened for me on their last two albums but that's completely alright. Everybody is pared back, cleaner, simpler but none-the-less compelling. “It’s a rock album,” said Prekop (on label Thrill Jockey's webpage) and continues by saying “the most straight ahead, even ‘rootsy’ record we’ve ever made.” I agree. Everybody is catchy.
I'm very excited that they are touring in support of this album because the songs will be great live. (In fact, I'm hoping to catch them at the Troubadour in Los Angeles this coming weekend)
PS: Saw The Sea and Cake at the Troubadour in LA on Sunday night and they were great--I hope you can catch them on this tour. They are sharp, driving, tight and alot more uptempo than on the studio albums. Its worth it just to see John McEntire playing drums--amazingly intense and focused.
Bob Burnett: I came to CAN somewhat backwards--through the solo work of Holger Czukay. In the early '80s Holger Czukay, CAN bassist and former student of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (the guy in deep thought to the right with the dials behind him), released Movies. Movies was an album of immense creativity and skill.
"TAGO MAGO was CAN's official second album and was an attempt in achieving a mystery musical world from light to darkness and return. The album consisted not only out of regularly recorded music, but for the first time we combined 'in-between-recordings', that means the musicians were secretly recorded in the pauses when a new microphone and recording set up was being established. In that time the rest of the group just played in order to make the time pass by instead of waiting till the technical problems were solved. And there was always one microphone and one recorder on standby position for such cases. Altogether certainly a psychedelic experience, and the studio itself even turned into something new e.g. by changing dramatically the whole illumination."
Kim Kirkpatrick: Tago Mago surfaced as a double LP in 1971. I was 19, and I was open to most any musical genre. If the music was personal, rang true, experimental and/or an attempt to move all of music forward I was interested. Tago Mago fulfilled all of the above traits and filled my head with a 73-minute visit to CAN’s tribal, space world. Hypnotizing, simple grooves that I would get lost in, psychedelic to be sure, Can was a telepathic musical crew in no hurry to return you to earth. CAN was The Grateful Dead at their improvisational best, minus the Chuck Berry, Johnny B. Goode aspect. The Dead’s all night journeys, their searching, long distance flights certainly apply to Tago Mago and Can at their peak. But CAN was all about a jazz groove, jamming, lengthy experimentation, analogous to the electric Miles of the same period. Like Bitches Brew, Live-Evil or especially Tribute to Jack Johnson. Tago Mago is a fusion of rock and jazz, as well as tape editing and studio creativity by Holgar Czukay.
In the sixties, in addition to studying with Stockhausen, Holgar Czukay played the french horn prior to forming CAN. He brought together:
Irmin Schmidt (a classical composer and piano player), Jaki Liebezeit (a jazz drummer), and rock guitarist Michael Karoli. Damo Suzuki joined them on vocals with the recording of Tago Mago. This release may well be the best example of CAN’s telepathic ability to groove and move together. Liebezeit’s drumming is the driving force, with a complexity not often found in rock. He creates and supports powerful grooves on Tago Mago, and in retrospect his playing is a pioneering example of world beat music. Holgar Czukay plays bass, simple, minimal notes, but with a heaviness worthy of dub. Damo Suzuki, well, he was always the difficult one for new listeners. Be it his gibberish, yelling, whispering, or electronically altered vocals, his performances made clear this was an alternate reality for the ears. CAN and Tago Mago specifically, continues to be an amazing and relevant musical experience all these decades later. With all of their musical experimentation, the mixing of genres (electronic, rock, jazz, world beat), the songs still stick in your head like masterful pop music. I have spent entire days with one of them slithering and bumping in my head, and certainly the number one culprit who often rears his head is “Mushroom”.
"When I saw mushroom head
When I saw mushroom head
When I saw mushroom head
I was born and I was dead
I was born and I was dead"
Tago Mago was reissued and re-mastered a few years ago; you need to check it out. I’d say if you wanted to own one Can release this one is clearly it.
A very quick word to recommend two great reads for very different reasons. Joe Boyd's White Bicycles:Making Music in the 1960s is an autobiography that covers most of the '60s--from his time as a college student booking long forgotten blues players to play at Harvard coffee shops through the early '70s when he produced Nick Drake and others for his company Witchseason Productions. Along the way Muddy Waters, Coleman Hawkins, Pink Floyd, The Move, The Incredible String Band, John Cale, Maria Muldaur, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, John Martyn, Vashti Bunyan and many, many others take part in the tales told by master raconteur and mind-like-a-steel-trap archivist Joe Boyd.
Also---I've just gotten today a CD that is made up of 23 cuts of music that is a soundtrack for the book. The CD offers a wide range of music Joe Boyd produced. On first listen I'm taken by Nico's song "Afraid" from her Desertshore album thanks to John Cale's co-production and thoughtful playing of piano and viola on the cut. In addition to Nico you get the mystical pop song "Arnold Layne" from Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd as well as great music by The Incredible String Band, Soft Machine as well as several examples from Island Record's classic "pink label" era--Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, John and Beverley Martyn and Fotheringay. And last but not least the quirky "Brazil" by Geoff and Maria Muldaur from their Pottery Pie album. "Brazil" later appeared in Terry Gilliam's film. (And this Maria Muldaur is THAT Maria Muldaur--the singer of '70s hit "Midnight at the Oasis" which was producer Joe Boyd's biggest hit song. )
Paul Morley’s Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City is a 300+ page essay that offers an overview of music, musical thought and music happenstance. Oh—did I mention the journey also features many sidebar vignettes while on an automobile journey/fantasy with Kylie Minogue?
The nearly 40 page music timeline taking you from the year 1637 until 1968 is worth the price of the book alone. There are also some of the most incredible thematic artist/songlists I’ve ever seen.
Also, I highly suggest downloading DJ Food's now hard to find on CD Raiding the 20th Century posted on Ubuweb. Raiding the 20th Century features snippets of Paul Morley reading from the book as part of DJ food's incredible cast of thousands sound collage. It is amazing and inspiring.
Bob Burnett: Muddy Water’s acoustic blues album Folk Singer was recorded at Chess studios in the fall of 1963. It may be 40+ years old but has an evocative sound that remains fresh today. It is considered an audiophile classic. The original session for Folk Singer was a trio—Muddy played acoustic slide guitar, Willie Dixon was on stand-up bass, and the young, fairly unknown at the time Buddy Guy played the second guitar.
The album title was a marketing ploy devised by Chess label founders Leonard and Phil Chess to tap into the expanding top forty-charting folk music “scene” of 1963. Artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio and the Rooftop Singers were all charting successfully. While having little resemblance with the "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” style folk music that was trendy, Folk Singer allowed Muddy Waters a unique opportunity to divert from the funky electric blues/ R&B sounds he was most known for and record an album of spare shouts and moans played on a battered Sears folk box slide guitar. It was the style he'd made famous decades before in his Mississippi playing days. His voice resonates deeply: telling blues tales in a turbulent and pleading way.
From 1963 onward blues musicians such as Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James were able to tap into folk festivals as well as college tours. Europe also became new turf. The Blues and Gospel Caravan Europeon tour of spring 1964—which featured Muddy Waters, Rev. Gary Davis and Sister Rosetta Tharpe—was wildly successful.
Folk Singer allowed Muddy, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy to reach deep, strip the music back to its roots to a time when this music was more likely played on a front porch instead of in a world class recording studio. The CD version of this album contains the original nine songs that the trio did (a few cuts adding drummer Clifton James) as well as five additional cuts from two sessions in October 1964 with a much larger band.
The beauty of this album to me is that it captured a crucial transition in music. A time when pop was moving away from asking how much was the doggy in the window to looking for answers blowin’ in the wind. And Muddy and the blues players were right there in the thick of things--- asking questions in their own way too.
Rob Green: Thump and roll, bright horns, backward drum beats coaxing a soft walking upright bass line, sweet, effect-less vocals weaving between a meandering, out of tune piano. All this magic recorded in some dive in sweltering
This is real Ska to me.
Ska first cropped up in
Reviewing box sets is never easy, and this one was no exception. The Trojan Ska Box Set includes 50 songs over three CDs. When I sat down and listened to every tune intently, (I’m not going to lie…) there were a few tracks that I had to hit the ol’ skip button on. That’s when I realized that pouring over every nook and cranny of a comp like this is not the way to get into it. This isn’t Mozart; it’s feel-good-fun in music form. Ska is designed to be the sound track of good stuff unfolding. For me it’s springtime (Oakland-Berkeley) East bay BBQ music. It’s what brought the best keg party you’ve ever been to into the right place when it was getting a little too sideways. It’s burying your toes in the sand, and driving around with your face in the wind with no particular destination.
That being said, there are also some familiar names like Desmond Dekker, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Lord Tanamo—all were quite popular and prolific at the time. There are about a million Ska comps out there, and they’re all pretty good for the most part. This one in my opinion is a cut above the rest.
Because there are so many songs in this box set, I’ll just run down a few of my personal favorites and stand-out tracks. I’m a huge Skatalites fan, and I was completely stoked to see an original version of the oft covered and/or blatantly ripped off "Guns of Navarone". Everyone from the Specials to Big Country (Yes I do mean the Scottish dudes from the ‘80s--check out the opening riff on “Fields of Fire”) have tried to tame this venerable instrumental beast, but much like the old worn out bomber jacket with your scooter club insignia on the back, nothing fits like the original. Big smiles also were brought when I got a load of the original version of “The Tide is High” by the Paragons. Yes, it is that song, and no, Blondie didn’t write it.
Then of course there’s the legendary Desmond Dekker’s “007
There are a ton of new finds and some notable match-ups (and you thought the Rap guys invented that move, feh!) like the heart melting “When I Call Your Name” by Stranger Cole and Patsy. Good stuff I tell you.
I know a lot of new Ska/Punk kids who can't really sink their teeth into the traditional stuff. There are always complaints about recording quality, song speed, etc. They tend to think that it's not as powerful because it's not as fast or tight. To me though, Trojan-era Ska is as punk rock as anything out there. It's not about speed-- it's about rawness. It's about calling out to the bottom rung of society, the alienated and the angry, and saying "Here's something just for you. Get out on the dance floor and run around in circles!" I don't have anything against 311 or Less than Jake, as a matter of fact I love a lot of the new school Ska/Punk.
It's just that what many of the kids who showed up late to the party don't understand is that all of the new stuff derives its power from the old familiar beats and styles of traditional Ska.
That's why this box set is so perfect. It's a rough, beautiful history lesson.
Bob Burnett: Recently on The Online Photographer, there was discussion about iTunes' Jazz 101 series. What came out of it for me was a collective deep appreciation of Duke Ellington. In hopes of tapping further into Ellington’s world I thought I'd mention an album that isn’t a Duke Ellington album but is from the Ellington family, Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn and THE Orchestra . The album was made in 1961 and features the silky beauty of Johnny Hodges' alto sax in a pairing with Billy Strayhorn as the arranger and band leader of the Ellington Orchestra. Strayhorn created new arrangements of songs by Ellington, Hodges and himself. There was a longtime relationship between the three men—30+ years of working together --when this album was made.
Johnny Hodges was always a Strayhorn favorite and frequently was a featured player in Strayhorn's arrangements of Ellington's compositions. This recording further pushes Hodges to the front of the orchestra and the results work well. Nothing can touch two arrangements in particular, "Daydream" and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good ". These two cuts alone are worth the price of the album.
On the downside (but far from a dealbreaker) there's an overall "produced" sound that tends to make the backing horns sound more glossy and smooth than they need to be. I've read where the blame lies with Rudy Van Gelder's recording--no way. Creed Taylor is credited as the producer and his CTI label in years to follow has always been a challenging effort for me to cut through; studio "enhancements" became a hallmark of his touch so why not think he'd do the same thing to this album? Johnny Hodges credited his alto sax sound to a blending of soprano sax legend Sidney Bechet and trumpet master Louis Armstrong. In his early days he apprenticed with Bechet at the Club Basha at 145th St. and Seventh Ave. in New York City. In Loren Schoenberg's 1998 re-release liner notes he quotes Hodges' reflections on that era.
"I joined Sidney Bechet (at Club Basha)..he has another soprano, a straight one, which he gave to me and would teach me different
things in the duet form. Then I learned all the introductions and
solos so if he was late I would take over until he (Bechet) got
Billy Strayhorn was essential to the Ellington "sound".
His lush, interweaving new arrangements on this album ebb and flow with thoughtful subtlety regardless if the framework is ballad or blues. Sadly, Strayhorn died of cancer at age 52 only a handful of years after this album was made. Luckily we have this album that showcases his immense talent. Thanks be to Verve for putting this one out once again on cd as part of their "master edition" re-issue series. Seems to me this is one of those albums that could have easily fallen between the cracks and vanished.
Kim Kirkpatrick: Two former members of The Housemartins, Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway formed The Beautiful South. While similar in pop smoothness to their previous band, The Housemartins, The Beautiful South was a phenomenal improvement in my opinion. The Beautiful South is more catchy, more cynical, musically more upbeat, but also far more sinister underneath the sweet, smooth sound. If one did not pay attention the polish and slickness produced by these fine musicians might push you away. Might even bring to mind Steely Dan’s lifeless perfection, which has caused Bob and I (for decades) to quickly leave any space they might be audible.
I think The Smiths or Belle and Sebastian are a better way into The Beautiful South. Belle and Sebastian share the diversity of vocals and musical instrumentation that The Beautiful South explored for over a dozen releases. A similarity is there in The Smith’s catchiness, brilliant lyrics, and creativity through the years. Most important, and I’d say unique to both bands, is their consistent dichotomy of upbeat, driving music, and depressing, cynical, sarcastic, often hopeless lyrics.
Welcome To The Beautiful South was released in 1989, and was an impressive debut, producing three singles that charted well on the UK charts. “Song For Whoever” made it to #2 and remains one of my favorite songs by The Beautiful South. Written from the point of view of a songwriter who moves from girl to girl for pop music material, using his experiences to hopefully reach the top of the musical charts.
… Cheap, never cheapAnother rockin’ pop song, “From Under The Covers” is an odd blend of Dire Straits and Herb Alpert, and about oversleeping.
I’ll sing you songs till you’re asleep
When you’ve gone upstairs I’ll creep
And write it all down
Oh Shirley, oh Deborah, oh Julie, oh Jane
I wrote so many songs about you
I forget your name (I forget your name)
Jennifer, Alison, Phillipa, Sue Deborah, Annabel, too
Jennifer, Alison, Phillipa, Sue Deborah, Annabel, too
I forget your name
And he’ll blame his clockSixties funk, tribal (ala Peter Gabriel style) thumping, African high life, Elton John piano styling, calypso beats, wives buried in walls, too much to fully cover here. I find (all these years later) Welcome To The Beautiful South and the follow up, Choke (1990) to be my favorites, though I own many more of their releases. After eighteen years together, albeit with line up changes, The Beautiful South announced (in 2007) they were breaking up due to “musical similarities”.
Or he’ll say he’s lost his socks
And they’ll tell you that he’s been bitten by a snake
His excuses are an art
From the bottom of his heart
And he thinks of them whenever he’s awake
Bob Burnett: There are some listening experiences that seem to be like star-aligning moments. They become a permanently etched memory.
One of those moments happened for me several summers ago while driving along the Oregon coast. I have to preface this story --- there wasn’t anything remotely romantic or otherworldly in the set-up of the moment; I didn’t have an out-of-body experience where I figured out which Egyptian Pharoah I was in a past life or see a beckoning tunnel of light. In fact, I was returning from a morning errand of getting a few things at a grocery store about 15 minutes from the little A-frame on the coast where my family was staying. Suddenly there was a floating fog, a crashing grayish-green ocean and a rolling, open road. And The Necks Aether was playing.
The Necks are Australia's premier instrumental trio. Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums), and Lloyd Swanton (bass) create long form improvisational moments that are sublime and almost chemical in the way the elements within their compositions and instrumentation react to each other. Their work defies description in many ways--sometimes they are floating and ambient, sometimes they create grooving vamps, other times they are spare, sharp and somewhat dissonant. The common thread in their work (more than 13 albums to date since 1989) is that their CDs are made up of one lengthy composition—frequently clocking in at an hour or longer.
Aether is an album that reflects their slowly evolving, ambient side. I say "ambient" but that's not to be confused with fluttery, "new-age" type pseudo-spiritual styled music. There are subtle, evolving peaks and valleys in this music; slight cymbal rolls, sustained organ chords, a slight piano cycle of chords. This is music that reflects strongly for me to thoughts of landscapes, the color of light and movement within nature. Their work raises comparisons to Terry Riley, Eno, Steve Reich, etc. Actually, to me Aether connects to some of John Zorn's long format minimal compositions such as Redbird and Duras-Duchamp. I also link the overall concept within Aether to Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet.
Even if I didn’t have an imprinted memory of a moment in time with Aether I'd still consider it one of my favorite contemporary listening experiences. Although expensive here in the USA I recommend pursuing The Necks diverse body of work.
Kim Kirkpatrick: The urgent, agitated jangling noise and feedback on this recording will definitely clean out your head. The Days of Wine and Roses is a classic early eighties Paisley Underground rock release. Paisley Underground was a tag attached to Los Angeles bands of the mid eighties that seemingly were repeating (in the same geographical location) a psychedelic/folk rock explosion that included The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors and others long forgotten. The eighties “version” included such bands as The Three O’Clock, the Rain Parade, The Long Ryders, Green on Red, and the Bangles (gasp!).
The Dream Syndicate was an esoteric name choice, a nod to Tony Conrad’s experimental group of the early sixties, a line up that including John Cale of The Velvet Underground. And The Velvet Underground (here we go again) is an essential connection to the sound of The Dream Syndicate. Both bands were outside the musical scenes of their time. In the sixties The Velvet Underground stood alone, with a dark, on the edge, NYC attitude and reality. Meanwhile San Francisco based bands such as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service were creating serpentine launching pads for alternate realities, encouraging people to expand their consciousness, to get back to the earth, back to Eden, love love love.
The Velvet Underground would stretch out live, and The Dream Syndicate certainly was capable of expanding upon and bending our eighties reality, moving their songs into feedback laden, jagged journeys. Like VU though, The Dream Syndicate was convulsive, unreliable, and more aligned with heroin or cocaine then any mind-expanding hallucinogen. They were not about bringing people together; they were loners, expressing pain, cynicism, and desperation. Two strong individuals provided the focus for these two bands. Steve Wynn was the leader of The Dream Syndicate, and like Lou Reed he dominated the group, doing nearly all of the songwriting and singing, the man upfront, the man in charge. Reed and Wynn were, and are ultra cool, with tough personas, and they share a hardened view of the world.
Virtuosity was never the point of either band, with no one up front wailing out dominating, “look at me” guitar solos, no bass or drum solos, instead they were focused on creating a group sound, an atmosphere that defined both bands. Steve Wynn formed the Dream Syndicate, with Kendra Smith on bass, Karl Precoda on guitar, and Dennis Duck on drums. This was the bands original line up, the one that recorded The Days of Wine and Roses, released in 1982 on Ruby Records. I have read the album’s name was from a poem by the 19th century writer Ernest Dowson. But the title track makes it clear Wynn was responding to the 1962 movie, The Days of Wine and Roses which starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as two seemingly normal people taken over by alcoholism. The movie fits Wynn’s intelligent, poignant, pained outsider perspective:
The word from outside is she’s on the ledge again
Drawing a crowd and threatening everything
I’m here wondering just where I fit in
Everybody says I don’t care no I don’t care
Everybody says I don’t care no I don’t care
I’m just trying to remember
The days of wine and roses
Karl Precoda, the lead guitarist* was not a masterful guitar player, pretty simple playing actually. But his feedback improvisations, his almost collapsing sound, “of the moment” playing style, still produce a knowing, mischievous smile on my face. He is all over the title track and most every song on this release. Precoda’s noise is a true link to the psychedelic sixties and to VU. His playing goes to the heart of the song, it feels true to Wynn’s lyrics. At the same time his playing often moves in a singular, detached way around the fringe of a song, like he isn’t completely in his body or the current reality he is participating in. The Dream Syndicate with Precoda, Smith, and Wynn were destined to fall apart; you can hear it in their desperate, powerful music. Kendra Smith left after this recording, joining up with David Roback of the Rain Parade to form Opal**. Karl Precoda fell from sight for quite awhile, resurfacing in the nineties with Last Days of May a meandering, jamming, fusion style band. Last I heard Karl was a humanities professor at Virginia Tech. Steve Wynn has been working consistently since the demise of The Dream Syndicate, releasing over a dozen solo recordings as well as three with the group Gumball. I own my share of post Precoda/Smith Dream Syndicate releases and solo Wynn music, some excellent material too. But any subsequent music by The Dream Syndicate (and it’s members) never was as powerful a tempest (or as tenuous), as the original line up.
The Days of Wine and Roses is an essential album, unique in its time, and clearly influential to many a band since. Within this music I hear links to The Doors, Neil Young, Television, Gang of Four, and certainly Yo La Tengo, to name a few. The current Rhino CD release is re-mastered and also includes a preceding EP, which is generally sparse and thin in comparison to the perfection of the full length’s songs. The Dream Syndicate utilized the rock music of their past and those around them, owned it and created an original sound that holds up well almost 20 years later.
Karl Precoda is not a lead guitarist in the traditional sense, he
does not step up and take over a song so much as color it, give it
the proper atmosphere and fragile possibility of implosion.
When Kendra Smith left Opal she was replaced by Hope Sandoval, and
later was part of Mazzy Star with David Roback.
Rob Green: I was more than a little nervous when I found out Lifetime was not only touring again, but were also about to put out a new album after 10 years of silence. My first thought was “Leave it alone! You’ve made an indelible mark in the annals of mid '90s Hardcore! (Hello Bastards (1995), and Jersey’s Best Dancers (1996)) Here and gone like Ninjas! Ninjas don’t ever return to the scene of the devastation they hath wrought after years of falling out of shape and doing something other than assassinating ear drums!”
It’s just not done.
Well I’m happy and relieved to report that not only does this new effort by Jersey’s favorite sons (I ain't talkin’ about Bon Jovi!) live up to their legendary first two records, but I honestly think it’s their best so far. Instead of a rusty old machine trying to shake life back into itself, this new record feels like a nice bottle of wine that was opened at the right time, allowing sonic ass-kicking melodic hardcore to slide its way down and light the fire of the fifteen year old in all of us. It gives you that old familiar feeling of cutting school and heading to the arcade to blow your entire wad of birthday money.
This record is pure accelerator from the get go. From the first track "Northbound Breakdown" (a clapped out hot rod ride down memory lane in the summertime) to the quick tempo nod to record nerd nostalgia on the final track "Records at Nite", Lifetime has taken a well deserved break from adulthood. Almost like an early midlife crisis, these dudes jumped right back into the soup after ten years being completely off the map, and made a record that all of us in our mid thirties who were slowly losing touch with what was right in the world, really desperately needed.
It’s a reassuring feeling to know that bands can be older and still move forward without bending to today’s trends. This is real hardcore melodic punk. There are no black on black suits with red ties. There are no Edgar Allen Poe haircuts. There are no neo-emo pretty boys wearing FUCKING EYELINER. Just alienated kids who happened to have grown up a bit, but still know how to make pure, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, both-middle-fingers-in-the-air hardcore. Thanks Lifetime, not a moment too soon.
Rob Green grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and got involved in the late 80’s Gilman St. punk scene (Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine, The Mr.T Experience, Tilt, and yes of course Green Day). He's played guitar and drums in a million bands, some more successful than others. He toured the US and Europe playing guitar for the Parasites in the early '90s. Most mornings, he hangs out with Bob and talks music at Stacy's Coffee Parlour.