“Fables sucked!” - Bill Berry
In March of 1985, R.E.M had been on the road for pretty much three years straight, and they were miserable with the prospect of another year of the same. Record label I.R.S. hated their last record, Reckoning, and were ready to assign a more “noo wave” producer. When the band hired Joe Boyd (of Nick Drake fame) and jetted off to London without permission, the record company men were predictably less than pleased. And the recording sessions were a trial, resulting in a dark and dissonant album that was, in the words of Michael Stipe, “monumentally fucked-up.” Most of the band admitted this was the closest they’d ever come to calling it quits.
A year later, for Lifes Rich Pageant, they would sign producer Don Gehman (John Mellencamp, Barbra Streisand, The Bee Gees) and make their first impenitent grab for the mainstream. Guitarist Peter Buck was sick and tired of The Byrds comparisons and was ready to really rock. And, of course, Michael was ready to start enunciating.
So Fables of the Reconstruction has come to be known as the last “classic” R.E.M. record, because the guitars are still jangly and the vocals still foggy. But it hardly fits alongside Reckoning and Murmur and Chronic Town -- it’s just so fucking dour. It’s a hard record to get through, and it really stands alone in their catalogue, not least because of its low standing with the band members themselves (later rescinded).
I’ve always had a sort of affection for it, though. Everyone remembers the spry rockers (“Driver 8,” “Can’t Get There From Here”), the cacophonous opener, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” and “Good Advices,” if only for the line: When you meet a stranger/ Look at his shoes/ Keep your money in your shoes.” But what about the mesmeric “Maps and Legends” or “Kohoutek,” which is beautiful and strange and an undeniable love song? Or “Green Grow the Rushes,” with its delicate, elliptical riff and gentle coda of “la la la la la’s”?
Stipe called Fables his “storytelling album... the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on legends and fables to the grandchildren.” On “Old Man Kensey,” an Athens man holds neighborhood dogs for ransom. “Wendell Gee” is a drunk who disappears into a tree trunk, and “Life and How to Live It” references Georgian writer Brivs Mekis.
“As formalists, they valorize the past by definition,” griped Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, “and if their latest title means anything it’s that they’re slipping inexorably into the vague comforts of regret, mythos, and nostalgia.” On the whole, however, reception was not terrible. But the Fables tour was probably the most bizarre chapter in the band’s entire history; Michael cropped his hair, gained about thirty pounds, and took to wearing granny glasses and taping posters of Ronald McDonald to the back of his suit jacket. One particularly surreal moment: after a spot on Music Convoy in Germany, the band was interviewed by a clueless and increasingly despondent emcee who, when a stray dog wandered across the stage, asked if “you guys have any animals at home?” Michael responded with, “Yes, we have animals in America, just like here. Different kinds: cats and dogs, birds, lizards.”
Hank Williams had his country, Ike Turner and Little Richard had their brands of rhythm ‘n’ blues, Fats Domino had his boogie-woogie, and Chuck Berry had his rockabilly. But it took a precocious adolescent, with a wooden spoon hanging out of his curled lips, to coalesce these styles into rock ‘n’ roll. Emerging from the crossroads of Tupelo, Mississippi, he had got the devil in him, and he was going to make sure everyone else would too.
To experience The Complete Sun Sessions is to experience the birth of The King. Recorded between 1953 and 1956, these songs are sung by an anonymous Elvis Aaron Presley, before his skin color and pelvis made a repressed America express their id, before the Colonel made him into a commodity, before Hollywood made him into a dancing monkey, and before the bright lights and decadency of Vegas made him into a corpse. Too many nowadays remember the dreary-eyed Elvis dressed in white attempting to repent for his sins, as he karate chopped his way through another bombastic rendition of his seminal yesteryear classics. This album compels the listener to remember the bright-eyed Elvis dressing queer, attempting to repent for the sins of America, as he broke down color, sexual, and political barriers with a new form of artistic expression that would capture the attention of the world.
There were no conventions for rock ‘n’ roll during these sessions, so Elvis simply made them up as he fashioned another number. He was defining himself as an artist, as he birthed rock ‘n’ roll. So experimentation with disparate genres, styles, and structures is obvious on nearly every track. Whether it be Elvis playfully hiccupping on the beginning of the lusty “Baby, Let’s Play House,” sorrowfully whistling for an entire verse on the melancholy “Harbor Lights,” or his complete re-imagination of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” from a bluegrass waltz to a rock record with a jumpy rhythm and frantic tempo. But this experimentation is most lucid on “Milkcow Blues Boogie;” beginning as a generic, monotonous bluesy number, Elvis soon proclaims “Hold it fellas, it don’t move. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.” With that proclamation, the song, as if infused with some kind of divine jingle and jangle, does get “real gone” from what popular music was and to what music popular could be: dynamic, unconventional, and exciting.
One of the main strengths in Elvis’ career was his voice, and on these recordings it sounds as lively, invigorating, and evocative as ever. This is not the Elvis of his Vegas years, belting out numbers like a tragic, operatic character; here his voice is more assured of itself, giving the guitars and rhythm section room to breath and then exploding with emotion when needed. This blissful concord is best showcased on the slower ballads, which is not much of a surprise as young Elvis always dreamed of a career singing teary balladry. “Blue Moon” finds Elvis literally howling to the heavens to reciprocate his love, while his vibrato – bouncing between now and then and finally into oblivion – flawlessly captures his optimism and fears about the future on “Tomorrow Night.” Whether inspired by his penurious upbringing, the incessant and cruel teasing he was assailed with, by his peers, or his unrequited apparitions of grandeur, the passion in Elvis’ voice found on this album is without equal.
The innovation displayed on The Complete Sun Sessions was not Elvis’ sole doing. Sam Phillips, head of Sun Records, and influential music producer, flawlessly complimented Elvis’ raw talent, by employing now-famous production techniques, such as using a tape echo unit, and Elvis’ voice as an instrument by moving it around the sonic landscape of the instrumental, which each gave the record and Elvis’ voice a distinctive, memorable sound. Phillips also chose guitarist Scotty Moore, whose subversively splintered guitar riffs and runs helped forge a novel style of guitar play. Elvis would eventually produce his own records, due largely to Phillips generosity with his knowledge, but this album has Phillips’ creative fingerprints all over it.
By combining black with white, past with present, imagination with rebellion, Elvis catapulted a fresh, exciting form of music to a mainstream audience, whether it be called rock ‘n’ roll or by some other moniker. Elvis Aaron Pressley would soon become The King, and rock ‘n’ roll would soon blossom into a mature musical form with infinite reinterpretations, leaving The Complete Sun Sessions as an anachronistic reminder of what became of the twinkle in a young Mississippi boy’s eye.
What's intriguing to me about Daniel Johnston isn't the fact that he has bipolar disorder; it's the tension that the disease implicates in his music. I can't help but feel conflicted as to whether or not my enjoyment stems from an appreciation of its actual craft or the story behind it all. Do I like his music because I associate it with some constructed sense of "authenticity"? Does being culturally uninhibited have anything to do with what people describe as "natural" or "truthful" or "real"? Would I like Daniel Johnston's music as much if it weren't equipped with the story of his bipolar disorder? These elements are difficult to ignore when attempting to negotiate an honest relationship with Daniel Johnston and his music.
Thing is, my answers are immaterial. The questions are warranted for any artist who is auto-described (ridiculously) as a "genius," credited mostly to the disease, but musical taste is fluid. What Daniel Johnston's music does for me is point to this rarely discussed, dynamic aspect of taste. As much as I have championed so-called avant-garde music, its self-imposed avoidances are actually found and embraced in Daniel Johnston's music, and it's simply refreshing to my ears. His music's actually expressive of something, and unabashedly so, helping me once again celebrate subjectivity rather than fight it. Sure, it can often be trite and predictable, and sure you could blame it on his disease, but any sort of righteousness deflates under serious challenge: the meaning of Johnston's music is and always will be malleable.
It's hard to articulate an appreciation of "simple pop songs" without resorting to surfacy observations. Since Don't Be Scared -- originally self-released on cassette and known as Johnston's second full-length release -- comes with so many endearing qualities, perhaps the artificial superficiality is really what's important. From the slapdash "The Story of an Artist," to the Dylan-borrowing "I Had Lost My Mind," to the gloomy "Going Down," what's notable is the intent, the execution, the clarity. Never mind theoretical arguments over aesthetics; this is a documentation that's actually lucid. It's vibrant, colorful, and self-indulgent in the best possible way, all elements to which pop music often aspires and would likely achieve if it weren't so invested in financial concerns.
Since virtually all the songs feature a desolate Johnston on piano, Don't Be Scared lacks the unique chord organ blues of Yip/Jump Music or the vampirific soundworld of 1990, but it showcases how Johnston's creativity and talent shouldn't automatically be attributed to his disease. And with the decidedly off-kilter intro of "Mother Mom Said," the improvised, disconnected vocals on "Stars on Parade," and the downright bizarre "Something More" -- qualities artists now adopt in order to get their albums labeled "quirky" or "idiosyncratic" -- you really begin to realize how the underlying narrative of Johnston obscures more than clarifies anything. So, what now? Do you consider these attributes transitory and ignore or dismiss them? Do you chalk it all up to his bipolar disorder? Fuck that. Daniel Johnston's musical and cultural worth cannot be reduced so simply. As much as the bipolar disorder may have hypothetically provided or denied Johnston, it can't take away the meaning that I discern from the music.
These days, we think of The Modern Lovers’ self-titled 1976 album as an obvious classic. It may come as some surprise, then, that Jonathan Richman and his band were recording for five years before they found a label to release their material. Despite interest from A&M and Warner Brothers as early as 1971, The Modern Lovers’ music remained unreleased until Richman struck a deal with Beserkely Records in 1975. Even then, the resulting album was a bit like Frankenstein’s monster. Beserkely cobbled together the debut release from a series of raw-sounding demo sessions, produced mostly by John Cale in 1972. To this day, Richman doesn’t even consider The Modern Lovers a proper album.
Sanctuary Records’ expanded reissue ups the Frankenstein quotient, adding eight additional tracks to Beserkely’s nine. The new material is culled from The Modern Lovers’ first sessions, in late 1971, and later demos recorded in 1973 and 1974. While labels looking to sell fans on a reissue often dilute the original by tacking on any old outtake or B-side, Sanctuary’s choices are sound. Many of the extra songs are every bit as good as the core material, and even the three alternate versions of songs appearing on the Beserkely version (“Someone I Care About,” “Modern World,” and “Roadrunner”) are different and interesting enough to earn their keep.
The Modern Lovers’ oft-covered first track, “Roadrunner,” might be the best rock ‘n’ roll song of all time. Competitors like The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and The Who’s “My Generation” just don’t sustain multiple listens the way “Roadrunner” does. One can only take so much of Mick Jagger going on about sexual frustration, but “Roadrunner” somehow never gets old. Like the vast majority of timeless rock songs, “Roadrunner” is nothing more than a few simple guitar chords, with upbeat carnival organ harmonies elevating the singer’s slacker drawl. We find its narrator speeding down the Massachusetts highway, his blasting stereo plowing through feelings of isolation. Everyone who’s been 18 in American can identify with the pure love of freedom behind lyrics like, “I’m in love with rock ‘n’ roll/ And I’ll be out all night.” When Richman says, “Now you sing, Modern Lovers,” and the entire band joins in for the scraggly but spirited chorus, “Radio on!,” it feels like a mantra, or a manifesto.
If this makes The Modern Lovers seem like something of a ‘50s throwback, that’s only part of the paradox that makes them exciting. The album mixes old-fashioned romanticism and “Roadrunner”’s brand of Rebel Without a Cause fantasy with the ironic, irreverent asides of a band known for presaging punk. The Modern Lovers contains a song called “Old World” and a song called “Modern World,” both of which were recorded during the 1972 Cale sessions. The former praises Richman’s parents and insists, “I want to keep my place in the old world/ I want to keep my place in the arcane”; in the latter, he sings, “I’m in love with the USA/ I’m in love with the modern world” and advises anyone who doesn’t agree to “Put down the cigarette/ And drop out of BU.” What Richman shares with both ‘50s rock and ‘70s punk is a deep-seated disdain for hippies and pseudo-intellectuals. He’s no philistine, as we discover on “Pablo Picasso” (“The girls would turn the color of an avocado/ And he would drive down the street in his El Dorado”), but his aesthetic is decidedly working class, and he likes it that way.
Though The Modern Lovers are best known for their raucous rock songs, their quieter moments are also worth a listen. When he slows down, Richman can be hilarious and insightful at the same time. On “I’m Straight,” a 1973-4 demo track, he vaunts his own clean lifestyle in an attempt to woo the girl he likes away from her stoner boyfriend, “Hippie Johnny.” “I’m straight,” he sings, over minimal, muted guitar and drums, “And I want to take his place.” The song is an indictment of constantly-stoned flower children, but it goes a step farther, making the emphatically uncool claim that drugs are mere escapism. “I think if these guys, if they’re really so great/ Tell me why can’t they at least take this place/ And take it straight?” he wonders in his rambling, monotone fashion. “Why always stoned?”
But Richman’s lyrical talents extend beyond humor and social critique. “Hospital” is a delicate, mournful love song that begins with the arresting words, “When you get out of the hospital/ Let me back into your life.” Richman sings slowly and earnestly, as though he doesn’t know from moment to moment what he’ll say next. Occasionally, his voice explodes in a barrage of organ-backed doubt and confusion. As in most of the band’s love songs, including “She Cracked” and “Someone I Care About” on The Modern Lovers, physical and mental illness, as well as loneliness, figure prominently.
The idea that a great album must be the product of a singular vision has produced some of the tackiest concept records of all time. The Modern Lovers, one of the most influential albums of the past 50 years, proves that something as uncomplicated as a stable of rough but inspired rock songs can be more effective than all the studio-slick song cycles in the world.
It’s safe to say Aimee Mann never thought she’d be at risk of overexposure. When Bachelor No. 2 came out, however, that’s just what happened.
Interscope Records didn’t hear a single in her new record when she brought it to the label after completing it. Mann responded by touring, raising enough money to buy the record back, eventually releasing the album on her own SuperEgo Records. Mann finished the year by contributing songs (some from Bachelor No. 2) to the Paul Thomas Anderson film, Mangolia. Critics loved the record. Tom Cruise sang “Wise Up” on movie screens across the country, and Mann was nominated for an Oscar. (She lost it to Phil Fucking Collins, but beggars can’t be choosers.)
It’s to Mann’s credit that Bachelor No. 2 transcended the media flurry that preceded and followed its arrival. These well-crafted, baroque pop songs were unlike anything Mann had ever done. Her work with ‘80s pop band ‘Til Tuesday was more radio-friendly, and the songs on her previous records – 1993’s Whatever and 1996’s I’m with Stupid – were less subtle, thematically and sonically.
Just like her hero, Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces is about the similarities between relationships and political warfare, much of Bachelor No. 2 is about the thin line between relationships and business. This angle, oddly, makes these songs about rejection more personal than her previous work. “It doesn’t really help that you can never say what you’re looking for,” she sings coolly on “Nothing Is Good Enough.” “But,” she continues, “you’ll know it when you hear it/ Know it when you see it walk through the door.” Label executive or uncommunicative lover? In the end, it doesn’t matter.
Although a handful of producers worked on Bachelor No. 2, the record’s sound is consistent. It’s so finely detailed that aspects of a song’s arrangement aren’t obvious until the fourth or fifth listen. Mann keeps her usual method of steadily strumming a guitar over an almost-hip-hop rhythm, but the producers – mainly Jon Brion, known for layered, pointillistic arrangements – provide tape loops, string flourishes, and soaring background vocals. The contrast between Mann’s clear voice and the intricate production is striking, and the approach benefits the songs.
As for the songs, Mann’s knack for melody has never been better, nor has her lyrical prowess. The opening line of “Deathly” – “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?” – was reportedly the main inspiration for the Magnolia screenplay. “Deathly” is so confident, so defiant that it wouldn’t have worked as anything but the record’s centerpiece. Its majestic guitar solo alone is the stuff of career-highlight reels (either that of Mann or Brion, who played the solo). Even the record’s sole misstep, the plodding “It Takes All Kinds,” starts with a hell of a lyric: “As we were speaking of the devil, you walked right in/ Wearing hubris like a medal you revel in/ But it’s me at whom you’ll level your javelin.”
Aimee Mann has never matched Bachelor No. 2. She’s come close, especially with 2005’s organic, straight-ahead rock record The Forgotten Arm, but Mann will likely never again achieve Bachelor’s combination of production, songwriting, and performance.
Musicians have been making "future music" since humankind was self-aware of existing in a modern period and correspondingly excited for what was to come. Such compositions can be considered both ahead of their time and also showcase the artist's personal vision of Tomorrowland. At times innovative, “future music” is often just overproduced, audiophile crap that will eventually end up on a free compilation album provided by Bose as a show-off CD for their new sound system. Nevertheless, it seems somewhat obvious that when a technologically advanced instrument enters the musical universe, it usually makes the more progressive artists giddy and provides a strong catalyst to make forward-looking music (Herbie Hancock, Brian Eno, Radiohead, etc.). So, given the massive acceleration in technological advancements over the past 50 years, it really comes as no surprise that musicians have become increasingly infatuated with the future. Perhaps due to the ease of allowing a computer to take on more of the creative workload, there is now a surplus of techno with themes centering on robots, mathematical ascension, oppressive totalitarian regimes, and other now-standard symbols for the future. Has it yet become clichéd that today’s future is routinely envisioned as a cold place where simple synthesized melodies serve as our desperate communication over the daily grind of 4/4 house beats?
Sun Ra was always obsessed with the future. Whether he was shocking the jazz world by using unconventional electric instruments in his Arkestra or serving as Earth's official ambassador to Saturn, Mr. Ra was constantly fixated on the days beyond. Ironically, though, the self-proclaimed "afrofuturist" was constantly looking to the past for the inspiration to best depict his musical visions, particularly to those ancient Egyptian periods which borne his name. Yet for his 1966 solo album Monorails and Satellites, Sun Ra did not revert to the pyramids for inspiration, but instead decided to revisit his roots as a prodigious piano playing youth from Birmingham.
Best known for his maximalist compositions, lingering improvisations, and silly stage costumes, Sun Ra's genius was occasionally obscured by his elaborate (and often gimmicky) image. It is on his rare solo albums where we can get a clear view of the bones of his convoluted imagination. On such instances, he proves it is not necessary to use a modern instrument that mimics satellite noises in order to conjure up images of orbiting spacecraft -- a simple piano can suffice just fine. Whereas Monorails and Satellites may be considered avant-garde in comparison to most solo jazz piano albums (especially among others released in the mid-‘60s), it still serves as Sun Ra's most beautiful, most accessible, and most likeable picture of the future.
The first two songs on Monorails and Satellites, "Space Towers" and "Cogitation," with their percussive, off-rhythm driving chords, stage our future at a bustling place, concentrating more on progression than with patience for the aesthetic. However, the album then softens with Sun Ra playing more pointed, complex lines that transition the mood from a hard-hitting, drunk Duke Ellington into a less-swingy, attention-deficit Thelonious Monk. There are few recurring melodic themes throughout the album, but plenty of stylistic shifts that teeter between the effortlessly gorgeous and the complicated flurry, similar to a later-years John Fahey record. You get the feeling that this is the type of music that George Jetson would listen to when he has his mid-life crisis, eats some trippy mushrooms, and decides to go to a dive jazz bar in the slummy part of Orbit City to see a show. There is no fancy computer-driven music here, just a senile old guy who likes his piano just fine and who can still remember the days when space travel was a novel, exciting phenomenon.
It has been 41 years since the release of Monorails and Satellites, and we are still fixated to our televisions when astronauts have problems returning home from a routine space station mission. Our world has changed a great deal (but not really), and unfortunately, the future appears increasingly more grim than hopeful. Maybe that’s why Sun Ra’s legacy has stuck around so long (his Arkestra continues to outlive him) -- listening to his abstract-to-the-point-of-playful compositions foretell of a simpler, if not zany, life ahead.
“In retrospect, I knew that was the last optimism I was gonna have for a long time.” - Ryan Adams
The cliché about Ryan Adams is that he always knows exactly what he’s doing. That every pratfall and every “fuck you” and every bit of record company bating is just a calibrated put-on. Indeed, his five years in Whiskeytown were years well-spent; he was an insufferable little bitch right from the get-go (the band only produced three proper albums, but the lineup changes were in the teens), and by the time it all crumbled down around him, he was Paul Westerberg, he was Gram Parsons. A guy who could melt your heart with two chords and an “ooh-la-la” before belting you one in the teeth and stealing your french fries or your girlfriend.
But if Adams always had one hand on the wheel, it doesn’t show on Faithless Street, Whiskeytown’s 1995 debut. He sounds terrified; his voice flows against his own songwriting, which is achingly confident. On “Midway Park,” a gorgeous double helix of pedal steel arpeggios continually builds and is shattered by the howling, slobbering chorus: “We’ll lie/ We’ll lie/ Don’t tell the truth/ Just lie.” On the doleful title track, Adams admits, “I started this damn country band/ ’Cause punk rock is too hard to sing.”
Faithless Street was reissued by Outpost in 1998, refurbished and expanded nearly twofold. Three of the nine bonus tracks -- “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight,” “16 Days,” and “Yesterday’s News” -- are copped from the Stranger’s Almanac album, but they sound better here, especially the classic “Excuse Me” (ravaged on Almanac as a duet with Alejandro Escovedo).
The real gem, though, is “Desperate Ain’t Lonely,” on which Adams shares vocals with violinist Caitlin Cary. There’s a definite tension there that isn’t sexual (not to my knowledge, anyway) or the result of creative differences (she stuck it out until the very end). It’s just their voices. He sounds wrecked, she sounds strong. She’s moving on, he’s not.
And some might say he never did.
Here's another set of lovingly packaged reissues from Renascent -- Britain’s foremost archivists of out-of-print and often painfully overlooked guitar rock -- of The House of Love’s self-titled 1988 debut and their super rare 1987 singles collection The German Album (so named due to its original release in, you guessed it, Germany). Two albums that, since their release, deserve to be recognized as touchstones for many popular trends in British pop and rock: from shoegaze to Britpop to whoever the hell NME and Q have plastered all over their covers this month.
The House of Love fit somewhere in between the tail end of The Smiths and the rise of The Stone Roses on the British rock timeline; in fact, the sounds of those two bands present a good basis from which to approach these albums. Less emotive and literate (read: less pretentious) than Morrissey, but more focused and articulate (read: smarter) than Ian Brown, Guy Chadwick’s voice seems to melt between the guitars, his oblique lyrics never less than insightful, with hints of political awareness and a philosophical muse poking through the nonchalant façade. It’s a side Chadwick shows on “Welt,” when he proclaims, “I would like to criticize.” However, the band certainly makes it difficult to critique when the results are so pristine, some 20 years on.
While The German Album was never conceived as a whole, it arguably contains a stronger set of songs, largely due to the urgent delivery of the earliest 12-inch singles. The first four tracks — “Destroy the Heart,” “Shine On,” “Real Animal,” and “Nothing To Me” — stand up to any like-minded tracks from the era, recalling the moody anthems of predecessors The Chameleons and Echo and the Bunnymen, especially the latter’s work on Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here.
The House of Love, on the other hand, is moodier and slower, just missing classic status by a few cuts. Leadoff track “Christine” is the best song that The Jesus and Mary Chain never wrote, and if you’re familiar with that band's first two albums — Psychocandy and Darklands — you probably have an idea of how fucking good it might sound. “Salome” reminds me of The Psychedelic Furs, if Richard Butler’s voice had been sanded down to a croon.
In spite of its occasional brilliance, the relative restraint when compared to The German Album forces me to wonder if The House of Love ever should have conceptualized an entire LP. This isn’t to say it’s bad — far from it, in fact. But at times the band’s ambition in the studio is so grandiose it occasionally suffocates the music. The single format, however, gave the band an opportunity to reign in their sound, providing some of the rawness that suited them so well in their early days.
Regardless of its propensity for overproduction, The House of Love still comes out as a beautiful collection of distinctly British pop, a counterpoint to the spare reverb and echo of The German Album. And both — I repeat, BOTH — of these albums belong in any ‘80s rock collection that runs the gamut from post-punk to shoegaze. Yeah, they’re expensive as all hell, and you will probably have to order them online (unless you live in the U.K.), but where’s the fun in finding them easily? These are the kind of albums destined to be tracked down and located by obsessives only. They are truly diamonds in the rough, and they probably wouldn’t shine as bright if they weren’t so hard to come across.
1966: Malachi - Holy Music
The press release for this reissue claims that, since Holy Music was put to tape August 1966, it’s “one of the earliest specifically psychedelic albums ever recorded.” I beg to differ. Though the album features a pre-Red Krayola Steve Cunningham and otherworldly Tibetan Buddhist John Newbern, their only major label vanity project doesn’t really fall under my definition of psychedelic. Psychedelia comes from the Greek meaning “mind-manifest” and typically pertains to heightened and altered states of awareness. In music, this typically represents the effort of translating and expressing a piece of the psychedelic experience. What you have with this fossil may just be the first non-psychedelic acid record.
What brings me to this conclusion is the fact that, save for a few random minutes of hymnal chants, swishing water field recordings, and some kind of harpsichord and strings, each ten-odd-minute jam consists of intermittent mouth harp and intermittent acoustic guitar strumming. Aside from the few bars of Eastern mantra, every sound is intermittent at best, making the overall experience more disjointed and boring than any acid trip I’ve ever taken. Since Owsley cooked up his first batch of white lightning acid in March of ‘65 and this album was recorded the following year, the connection is obvious. Acid was legal at the time, after all, so it got around quickly and thoroughly. With that fact in hand, this is exactly the kind of album you would expect two hippies on pure ‘60s LSD to make if they had access to recording equipment, a small handful of random instruments, and nowhere better to be. I don’t know if you could really call that psychedelic in its execution, as it is simultaneously, aggravatingly random and drearily monotonous. Granted, it may trip people out if you pop this on during a road trip, but it’s sure not going to be from over-stimulation. Whatever vibrations those two guys were experiencing did not get picked up by the recording gear.
I’m sure Newbern had good intentions then and even to this day (he’s still making music), but outside of pre-converted Buddhists looking for some mildly distracting meditation sounds, Holy Music isn’t going to open the minds of people. Since this Fallout issue is its first ever appearance on CD, I’d imagine it hasn’t done much so far. For my money, you gotta stick with the 13th Floor Elevators. Their debut, The Psychedelic Sounds Of was recorded just two months later and is a hundred times more fulfilling. Furthermore, The Holy Modal Rounders released their self-titled debut with the track “Hesitation Blues,” which features the term “psychedelic” in 1964, so there really isn’t anything remarkable about this album. Well, except the obvious question: how the hell did Holy Music ever get released in the first place?
"This is my brand new song: lightning and thunder, hailstone, brimstone and fire, music, hurricane and tidal wave judgement. Mixed by earthquake, produced by flood." -- Lee Perry
If you are unfamiliar with Lee Perry, your music history class is missing a very important chapter in the lesson plan. Not knowing or understanding the importance of Perry's achievements should be a crime punishable by law, especially if you consider yourself a dub/reggae aficionado. While I admittedly didn't know of him myself until I was informally introduced via the work of Adrian Sherwood in the ‘80s, I felt a great retroactive shame upon my deflowering -- all those wasted years I spent in the darkness.
Lee Perry is one of the two key figures (alongside King Tubby) in the creation/cultivation of dub, hailed as the innovator of the turntable "scratch" effect and considered the creator of "reggae" due to his production of The Pioneers' "Long Shot Kick the Bucket." This track featured the first example of the reggae rhythm, which was initially so unique that no one knew what to call it, a rhythm that has been described by Perry as feeling as though you're stepping in glue. He additionally produced works for Bob Marley and The Wailers, The Heptones, Junior Byles, and Max Romeo in his self-built studio, The Black Ark. These credentials are surely worth a little more than a passing glance, and amazingly, this is just scratching the proverbial surface (excuse the pun).
This new 2-disc release, Ape-Ology, brings together 1978's Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Cornbread and Return of the Super Ape, as well as 1976's Scratch the Super Ape, with the pot being amply sweetened with seven bonus tracks, including the mixes of the dub plate "From Creation," which appears for the first time ever on vinyl or CD. What most assuredly stretches across these two discs is the sound of a maverick, the soul of an inventor, and the eccentricities of a man who creates, not detracts from, the brilliance. While I am sure by now that most of you Perry newbies are already off to your local shop or are online browsing in quest of this grail, I'll help the doubters along a little by delving into the volumes on offer here.
The first ten tracks of disc one comprise Scratch the Super Ape, presented how Perry had originally intended (as opposed to the Island issuing). The soul present throughout this album is so deep that one needs a life-preserver not to drown in it, most notably present on two highlights that are blessed with the warm, vibrant vocal harmonies of The Heptones: "Dread Lion," with its stumbling beat and trembling bass line (funk-driven to point of sickness), and "Zion Blood," with cooing wordless passages driven by conga. As exceptional as these songs are, no single track suffers under the weight of another; they each establish themselves as utterly essential, as the weighty toast of Prince Jazzbo on "Croaking Lizard" goes lengths in proving. What stands as the most remarkable feat of Super Ape is that each track is as vital today as in ‘76, refusing to age in spite of any lingering hiss that conspires against it.
The remainder of disc one, the album Roast Fish, Collie Weed and Cornbread, is yet another stunning work. Would it be too ambitious to declare it a masterpiece? Not really. It eagerly displays a broader view of Perry's unique character through stronger, experimental stylings and his unabashed vocals, all backed by The Full Experience. While his voice may not be as developed as The Heptones' or Prince Jazzbo's from Scratch the Super Ape, by utilizing it as an instrument in addition to being a vehicle for lyrics through unique phrasing and wordless noises, he creates his own atmospheric stylings. "Evil Tongue" demonstrates the greatest example of this -- lyrically damning, claustrophobic to the last beat, and thoroughly infectious and demented at every angle. Not to mention "Soul Fire" and the title track, which both feature a striking, authoritative presence. With Roast Fish, Perry delivers an uncompromising, powerful, and sometimes humorous record that observed, questioned, and challenged issues relevant to himself and the culture from which he came.
Disc two houses Return of the Super Ape, which displays another step forward in Perry's production. Ambitiously futuristic and, judging by its initial reception, bordering on the indecipherable, Perry's effects were driving this album with a stronger hand than Scratch and Roast, and it certainly wasn't any less engaging. It was just a different beast -- more sparse and seeming to drift in a vacuum. Take for example the highly twisted vibe of "Bird in Hand," which finds him reaching into a Cab Calloway vocal play. You wonder if Perry was up a tree, his stripes disappearing like yarn unwinding, leaving nothing more than a dancing Cheshire Cat smile; 'twas Brilling and the Slithy Toves,' indeed. The wobbly effect-laden "Jah Jah A Natty Dread" is yet another example of Perry's singularity and futuristic approach that, if released today, would still leave listeners with gaping maws. He was seriously untouchable on this record, with perhaps the only low point being his interpretation of Stevie Wonder-penned, Rufus/Chaka Khan-owned "Tell Me Something Good."
The second disc is rounded out by seven bonus tracks, including four mixes of the aforementioned cult anthem dub plate "From Creation" featuring Clive Hylton, which served as a special for the Coxson International Sound System. With the faith-invested vocals of Hylton, this astonishing track is elevated to breathtaking levels, creating a truly transcendent moment on record. This is followed perfectly with its three heavy dub counterparts. There are also two versions of the "Roast Fish and Cornbread" track from the album of the same name. The "JA Single Mix" is a mere skeletal version of the completed mix, while the "Corn Dub (JA Single Mix)" presents a slightly fuller version. The final track on disc two is the wondrous bass swagger of "OK Corral," featuring U Roy. Reportedly unreleased since its creation in 1970, this track is remarkable on every level.
Admittedly, Ape-Ology does suffer from a lack of fuller liner notes, and the packaging could have been yards better -- just visualize a box set with each disc housed in its own foldout digipak with original art work, full credits, and historical essays... mmmm, delicious -- but if this review was not a convincing enough argument for this collection's essentialness, there is nothing more that I could possibly do to persuade you. Instead, closing this review out will be a list of the astonishing musicians that were present on the three main albums, as they are as equally important as the man himself in the creation of these records, and each deserve a special place in everyone's collection:
Boris Gardiner, Anthony "Benbow" Creary, Earl "Chinna" Smith, Bobby Ellis, Richard "Dirty Harry" Hall, Vin Gordon, Prince Jazzbo, Mikey Richards, Winston Wright, Keith Stirling, Sly Dunbar, Noel "Scully" Simms, Egbert Evans, Herman Marquis, Vin Gordon, The Heptones, The Full Experience, Billy Boy, Geoffrey Chung.
Now to work on getting that monument built...