1993: 4 Non Blondes - “What’s Up?”
This isn’t a reassessment of an artist or its music. It’s a reassessment of age.
You see, I think 4 Non Blondes suck. But I didn’t always feel like that.
There are songs that mark our lives. Some remain with us forever, others get left behind, becoming nothing more than a weird smile to strangers and a familiar look for friends. I don’t think 4 Non Blondes belong to any of these categories. When “What’s Up?” started to pop up on the radio, “alternative” music was in full swing. The crying yelp of Eddie Vedder imitators was ubiquitous, sure, but it was within this context that made 4 Non Blondes sound like a revolution to me, a band that could change your life. They had the Bikini Kill lineup (three girls and a male guitarist), and their look was relatively weird. They were, to my 11-year-old mind, perfect.
And yet, I’m pretty sure 4 Non Blondes didn’t change any lives. “What’s Up?” is ridiculously simple and traditional. Singer (and later songwriter for Pink and Christina Aguilera) Linda Perry has a tremendous voice, yet she tended to overdo her vocal performance to the point of annoyance. It is, in essence, a trite song that frequently comes up on classic radio but still fails to capture the moment to the degree that songs like “Come As You Are” or “MMM Bop” did in the 90s. Everything about the song is trapped in 1993, even in the sense that it could be called “good.” But if you were like me at that moment and with a certain frame of mind, it was the best thing ever. I miss the feeling I used to get from the song’s simple chord progression.
1971: Neil Ardley - A Symphony of Amaranths
It wouldn’t be totally out of line to say that “post-rock,” the merger of rock, electric jazz, minimalism, and progressive music attributable to groups like Tortoise, cornetist Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, or Gastr Del Sol, began decades ago in England. Psychedelic heroes the Soft Machine employed jazz musicians like reedmen Karl Jenkins, Lyn Dobson and Elton Dean; King Crimson boasted pianist firebrand Keith Tippett among its early personnel; Cream bassist Jack Bruce switched to contrabass for a number of jazz ensemble recordings and performances; and prog favorites Colosseum counted free jazzers Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophones), Jon Hiseman (drums) and Tony Reeves (bass) in their ranks. This cross-pollination between creative improvisation and psychedelic/progressive rock wasn’t just limited to English musicians, but it was certainly a noticeable factor in the development of both forms.
Composer-pianist Neil Ardley (1937-2004) may not be one of the most well known in English vanguard circles, but hopefully that will soon change as more of his music resurfaces on disc. Influenced heavily by Miles Davis’ right-hand man Gil Evans, Ardley founded the New Jazz Orchestra in 1963, an ensemble that featured the cream of the British jazz crop and released two records in its lifetime — Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Verve, 1965) and Western Reunion 1965 (Decca, 1965 — reissued on CD by Vocalion). An expanded NJO cut the shockingly beautiful A Symphony of Amaranths in 1971 under Ardley’s sole leadership, and while garnering Arts Council awards upon its release, it has remained one of the scarcer LPs in Ardley’s catalog. Released by Regal Zonophone (home to Tyrannosaurus Rex’s early LPs), the session features a who’s who of British jazz and rock — Jenkins, Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith appear, as do percussionist Frank Ricotti, trumpeters Derek Watkins, Harry Beckett and Henry Lowther, reed players Don Rendell and Barbara Thompson, pianist Stan Tracey, harpist David Snell, bassists Chris Laurence and Jeff Clyne, and vocalists Ivor Cutler and Norma Winstone. Now, vying for “reissue of the year,” A Symphony of Amaranths has been reissued on CD by Dusk Fire (and on LP via Wah Wah), cut from the original master tapes with an extra track from the same session — an amusingly syrupy tango “National Anthem” that recalls Carla Bley.
The title piece, dedicated to Evans and Duke Ellington, begins with lush and glassine interstices from glockenspiel, vibes, harp, and piano strings before horns and rhythm emerge in a stately, hard chug, bedded by a string ensemble carpet. Beckett and Thompson trade off flugelhorn and soprano saxophone skirls, popping out of a field of cracking traps and cascading detail. The second movement is appropriately titled “Nocturne” and couples taut gong and castanet accents with lilting, throaty strings and woodwinds, a light but cutting sway that supports Lowther’s incisive, romantic trumpet keen. “Entracte” begins with harp, piano, and glockenspiel in trio, reminiscent of Steve Reich at first blush, soon splaying out into crepuscular flourishes. Heckstall-Smith’s burred tenor is front and center on “Impromptu,” the orchestra in painterly washes against the rhythm section’s extraordinary clip. Heckstall-Smith is an interesting contrast against the more studied robustness of Don Rendell (a star of Ardley’s excellent Greek Variations LP from 1970, on Columbia), who follows suit — their trades against brash ensemble passages and pulsing minimalism keep the music from bogging in self-reflection in the final few minutes, encouraging a punchy close.
Surrealist poet and raconteur Ivor Cutler and jazz-rock vocalist Norma Winstone are the stars of “The Dong With A Luminous Nose” and “Three Poems,” which took up the original LP’s second side. Cutler’s dry, warbling delivery is weird enough on its own, but set against impulsive ensemble push and striking orchestral accent it’s part of an absolutely fascinating picture appropriate to Edward Lear’s poem. In fact, the affinity between Cutler and Lear is likely how this three-part collaboration came into being. Ardley wasn’t the first to employ modern poetry with improvised music — English pianist-composer Michael Garrick recorded a number of successful examples for the Argo label during the mid-Sixties as well, to say nothing of the extraordinary collaborations between 20th century “classical” composers and poets. As one might expect, Ardley has written and arranged the music for “The Dong With A Luminous Nose” to the extent that improvisation is less a focal point than inflection and support, which shapes music and word into a balanced whole. Winstone is a powerful singer quite different from Cutler, and soars in her breathy lyric presentations of brief poems by Yeats, Joyce, and Carroll. The music is more open here and recalls the reverberant intensity of Winstone’s own LP The Edge of Time (Argo, 1972, which Ardley participated in), creating a dreamlike but forceful sphere of activity.
A Symphony of Amaranths presents Ardley’s work in gorgeous, full, and detailed sound with copious liner notes and photographs, and is one of the (sadly) rare examples of a reissue done exactly right. Hopefully more of Ardley’s music will see reissue in the near future, but for now this cornerstone set will more than suffice, fleshing out sporadically available examples from his small but rewarding catalog. And while the cast of 29 British improvisers and classical performers really make this set sing, this reissue rightly sets into relief how extraordinary deep one man’s vision was.
1980: Androids Of Mu - Blood Robots
I never knew sci-fi punk existed until the whirling UFOs and explosions began shrouding Androids Of Mu’s Blood Robots in effects shrapnel (kind of like how I didn’t know aliens existed until they probed my virgin bottom; sorry mom), but there it is, and it’s nice to know it existed, even if many of you didn’t know then and don’t know now. Rectify that; it’s the only way to make those demons go away.
The instrumentation is extremely crude, even for punk in its infancy. Bess, the bass player who’s supposed to serve as a rudder for this slow-rumbling punk pontoon boat, fumbles around like it’s an audition for The Shaggs, while the guitar players, Corrina and Deborah Thomas, follow suit. Drummer Cozmic might have garnered a little experience before joining this band, and even throws in a fill or two, but Keith Moon is still rolling over in his grave. What we have here essentially is the essence of the artform: Sloppy music played by sloppy people for other sloppy people. Yet it’s not that simple.
What to make of those cosmic WHOOOSHES that enter the fray every so often, in particular on the remarkably wobbly “Pretty Nun” and album-opener “Atomic X”? It’s interesting to note that, despite amateurish musicianship, Androids Of Mu represented anything but your typical, furiously simple punk act. They sang about “Bored Housewifes” (in the soon-to-be era of fuckin’ Family Ties no less) and girls that might be boys, which is encouraging in itself, but when you couple those lyrics with the spiky interactions of the players and the aforementioned layers of effects, what you emerge with is a punk reissue packed with more intrigue than most.
You, the punk punters, used to have to pay at least $40 for the original issue of Blood Robots (Fuck Off Records) from 1980; enter 2013 and you can get it from Water Wing Records for a song (and like $15 or so). Sounds like progress to me.
1997: Modest Mouse - “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine”
Whenever I listen to the last part of Modest Mouse’s “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine,” I lose my shit. Seriously, I can’t help it. I just want to rip stuff up. In the most mild of cases, I walk around my house and yell the lyrics like there’s no tomorrow. I even air guitar, for Pete’s sake. Then, when the last octave chord fades, my mind gets back into civilized mode and wanders off onto everyday stuff. Last time this happened, it made me think about something specific: “Will I ever get old and stop climbing over chairs, screaming and grinning like an idiot whenever I listen to this song?”
When I was in 6th grade and couldn’t find enough fast and heavy music to quench my thirst, I wondered if I would ever stop listening to music that was loud and difficult. Many years afterwards, I have grown to listen to heavier and more difficult music than what I used to like in my youth. And yes, I have grown to like more subtle stuff, too. Still, I wonder if it’ll ever stop getting this excited about music.
Modest Mouse themselves have gone through a transition. They’re no longer the band that screamed and made natural harmonics fly off with whammy bar drops. They have since grown more tuneful and a bit more mellow; yet, they retain a spark that touches on the sensible part of my nerves, emotional music without being overly dramatic. Their sound has changed, but that part — the core of what makes them incredible — not only remains, but has also grown to cover more ground. And yes, they still blow the dust off “Doing the Cockroach” to flay around in concert.
As for me? I hope I never stop feeling the way I do about music.
1983: Paris 1942 (Moe Tucker, Alan Bishop, Sir Richard Bishop)
I have cruel friends who like to play God Over Riboflavin; it’s their favorite pastime. They know my tastes as well as I do myself, and they like to withhold information from me, anticipating my reaction of equal parts enthusiasm and frustration. “Moe Tucker and the Bishops from Sun City Girls had a band once? They recorded an album? Why didn’t you tell me sooner, I know that you knew this all along! How long have we been friends again?!?
Before the stupid “Tea Party-gate,” before twee-immortalizations by way of “quirky” millennial movie soundtracks, before playing with the Kropotkins, and before the (un)necessary Velvet Underground reunion in the 90s, Moe Tucker joined up with Alan and Richard Bishop of Sun City Girls, as well as fellow AZ collaborators David Oliphant, Bennie Baresi, and Jesse Akkari, and made an album. It’s an amazing mixture of early SCG-experimentalism, Velvet-inspired bashing, and howling, immediacy captured by way of equipment prone to tape hiss, as well as a living illustration of the link between the two generations. From this band, SCG would form, and the evolution seems as much obvious as it does brilliant, like one of those moments when you predict the end of a film and still find yourself totally immersed.
Influence is strange; often we associate influence with what is immediately available, with what bits of similarities and languages are in the songs at first listen. Then there is that which comes more apparent over time. If one were to listen to SCG’s Dante’s Disneyland Inferno for the first time, I’d gamble that the first words out of the mouth of said listener wouldn’t be “Velvet Underground.” But listening to Paris 1942 next to Torch of the Mystics, there are definitely signs of what was and what became. Influence doesn’t always translate literally, and for the most part, for the better I’d argue. If we were to learn correctly from The Velvet Underground, it would be that form isn’t an adherence, and that the point is not to be rewriters, but rather translators. Somewhere along the way, they cover Syd Barrett’s “Long Gone,” and it too couldn’t feel more as close and as far away as possible from its source.
That being said, some of Paris 1942 feels very close to the source — “Move Out Of Wichita,” and “Pontious Pilote” specifically — but the album doesn’t play out like a form or genre exercise playbook. The more experimental tracks such as “Conversation,” or the songs that worked somewhere between the two, such as “Berlin Mood” or “Hex,” are easily as enjoyable as those closer to the VU heart, as well as making the two sides of the band (between form and experiment) more exciting.
Outside a few links on the internet, little has been said about Paris 1942, and besides the occasionally excited blogger, reception seems pretty negative. User “teenagegurls” from the terminalboredom.com message board calls it, “ready-made recipe for the worst music of all time.” Same forum, “panama fist” says, “add this to my ‘no one actually listens to’ category.” User “frankie teardrop” simply calls it “fag crap.” But it’s when “Whet Bull” says that Moe Tucker is “Velvet Underground’s LVP (Least Valuable Player)” that the sort of fear regarding lack of traditional rockist value is succinctly articulated. Tucker’s “career” (if it could even be called that) was by no means financially successful, but the scope of her influence seems to have had the most artistically interesting effect. Whereas Lou Reed and John Cale currently tread into their own forms of “adult contemporary,” somewhat trapped within their own constraints, Tucker grew out of her self-imposed limitations. On “Hex,” she plays a full kit, if just to show us that she could have played that way all along, but had the foresight and understanding to know what central force of the VU would be so identifiable. The 12-minute long “Headhunters” reinforces what can be found in every version of “Sister Ray” available: that Tucker could hear a song better than about anybody else, and could hold it together accordingly.
Her simplicity, matched with what would become the identifiable experimentation and instrumental work of Sun City Girls, is a sort of one-two punch at traditional garage rock tropes, striking the fear in “panama fists” and “teenagegurls” everywhere. Both sides of the Paris 1942 coin have been involved in work that is definitely more worthy of critical praise, but it’s amazing to see the brief moment in which these two converged. Escaping the easy designation of “super-group” by way of being relatively unknown at that point, it goes to show that those “fantasy bands” you form in your head while you’re really stoned may or may not have actually existed at one point.
1986: The Group - Live
In music, all-star games generally do pretty well. One thinks of concert recordings like The Quintet at Massey Hall in Toronto, 1953 (later issued on LP by Debut), where bebop masters Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus convened on stage. Or the various outfits billed later as Jazz at the Philharmonic or Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars, bringing notable artists and repertoire together as a surefire shot. In rock music, perhaps the result of bringing together known greats is a little more predictable, but the term ‘supergroup’ still applies, whether one is talking about Cream, Blind Faith, or June of ’44. But not every such all-star lineup is as storied — witness The Group, a band of first-, second-, and third-generation avant-garde jazz musicians who came together for a series of concerts in 1986 and 1987, the results of which went unreleased until Live came out late in 2012 on Lithuania’s No Business Records. It was never the intention for The Group to pass by recorded documentation; rather, as much as the 1980s were a time of increased visibility for jazz and improvising musicians, the home court of New York still pressed conservatism ahead of even the most populist branch of creative music.
The Group was a cooperative consisting of trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, violinist Billy Bang, alto saxophonist Marion Brown, bassists Sirone and Fred Hopkins, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Brown and Cyrille were the ensemble’s veterans, both having been on the scene since the early-to-mid-60s. Sirone (given name Norris Jones) was a few years younger but also came up in the post-Coltrane avant-garde. Fred Hopkins was a Chicagoan who relocated East alongside a number of his peers in the AACM, while Abdullah and Bang were veterans of the 1970s loft jazz scene. Only Abdullah and Cyrille are still living, but both continue to contribute much to modern music. Circa 1986, all six of these figures were vibrant and crucial voices in the varied landscape of jazz from inside to outside, keeping company with collectives like Old and New Dreams, The Leaders, and the World Saxophone Quartet.
Live was recorded September 13, 1986 at the Jazz Center of New York in lower Manhattan and consists of five compositions, two by members of The Group and three from the pens of Mingus, Miriam Makeba, and cornetist Butch Morris. Programmatically, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the works of architects Morris and Mingus are placed next to one another. The cornetist’s “Joanne’s Green Satin Dress” sets a gentle calypso lilt against massive, pliant dueling pizzicato basses and Cyrille’s detailed waltzing architecture. Bang’s violin is dervish-like and electric while kaleidoscopically phrased, and Brown’s alto is imbued with a warm, throaty simplicity. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus’ ode to Lester Young, begins with a “Wade in the Water”-like duet between Brown and Cyrille, a hushed blues oratory that spreads out into Abdullah’s burred vocalizing and plunged wow, spurring his comrades towards incisive soli and a particularly rousing bass duet with Hopkins’ excoriating arco in play.
Brown’s “La Placita” is a Spanish-tinged tune that first appeared on his ESP-Disk’ LP Why Not? (1966, with Sirone). The tug of two bassists is reminiscent of Ronnie Boykins and Reggie Johnson on “Capricorn Moon,” another fine early Brown recorded work, and in actuality, this piece seems like an amalgam of both tunes. The saxophonist’s tone and phrasing are calmly aged, with Monkish flecks soaring on the ebb of a multi-tiered rhythm section. Cyrille’s unaccompanied solo is an Afro-Cuban drum choir pared down into particulate, matter-of-fact statements. Following the tense string trio of “Shift Below,” Abdullah’s arrangement of Makeba’s “Amanpondo” is a rousing dance of Township and Sufi rhythms, the latter in full bloom under the skittering bow of Billy Bang. Nearly a half-hour in length, “Amanpondo” is epic, groovy, and also terse when it needs to be. Like most of the tunes here, it follows a theme-and-solos structure, rather than collective improvisation, and even when the soloists take the music “out,” the music remains rooted.
With all the accolades showered on artists like Wynton Marsalis and his acolytes during the 1980s at the expense of “accessible avant-garde” players, it’s no surprise that a somewhat more obscure outfit like The Group remained a collective of musicians’ musicians rather than household names. But it’s clear from Live that free music and the tradition had a lot to say to one another, and that the results could be both complex and breathtakingly powerful. It’s better that we hear The Group a quarter-century late than never.