1970: Day 2: David Bowie - “She Shook Me Cold”
In the chameleonic career of David Bowie, no era captures his talent of molding himself into personas just one step ahead of the zeitgeist than his glam period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While the album Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars is revered in the minds of listeners as the work most representative of this stage in his life, it’s his 1970 offering The Man Who Sold The World that hides an unsung treasure, among its already glittering ranks, that extracts and utilizes a very specific element of glam's inherent theatricality, even if it comes nowhere close to exercising it in a literal sense.
"She Shook Me Cold" stands out from the rest of The Man Who Sold The World; musically speaking there’s little in the way of humming soap opera organs, or the grandiose pomp of swirling synthesizers spiralling merrily towards the heavens. If one of the key elements of the glam ethos is dressing oneself in extravagant costumes as a method of transfiguration, then "She Shook Me Cold" is Bowie's brilliant attempt at taking the standard love song, typically full of admiration and longing for a young lady's affections and normally attired in the soft, gossamer glow of pink chiffon, and stripping it naked right before our ears, rolling it through the mud and adorning it with the dark, heavy garb of his early 1970s contemporaries Black Sabbath. While this may sound utterly laughable on the surface, it becomes less so upon closer examination. From the initial strains of its grey, stagnant churn, Bowie weaves a narrative about a woman so stunning and powerful that even the self admitted lothario of the song cannot hold his ground against her feminine wiles, while a tableau of bluesy undertones and lightning quick tempo changes as Mick Ronson's Iommi-esque guitar wail segues seamlessly into the doom laden buzzing of Tony Visconti, whose faux Butler basslines seem to hum and stutter in all the right places.
While "She Shook Me Cold" may not be a love song in any traditional sense, this barbed wire valentine is not about the epitome of our fondest romantic notions realized, but rather a fuzzy, sexed up, roll in the mud with an object of desire so beguiling, that we'll gladly trade our sense of sanity or common sense for just one more go.
1981: Day 1: Kraftwerk - “Computer Love”
The most romantic moments I’ve known have happened in front of my computer at night. The only light in the room is the saccharine hues of her screen, casting fragments of shadow onto my face. I toggle at her keys, roll her mouse in my palm, and she responds precisely as I ask. It’s so enchanting to watch her tiny green light pulse as she ponders me. And just as I’m satisfied by the idea that I know her entirely, she reveals something new. I could go for a lifetime exploring her depths. I protect her from the world with firewalls. I protect her from illness with anti-virus. There’s nothing “virtual” about her. She exceeds personification. She is alive.
We’ve come to agree that our song is Kraftwerk’s electro-pop suite, “Computer Love.” It’s most appropriate because it possesses all of the warm melody and texture that many would find inconceivable coming from a computer. Most remarkable is that Kraftwerk could have predicted this affair of ours in 1981, when computers really were rigid, incommunicable things -- all the more evidence that our love for each other is indeed fate and not folly as my parents suggest.
Tonight however, she changed. She grew slow and inhibited when I clicked at her. I tried to open layer upon layer of application, but nothing could resolve her twitching green light. It remained illuminated all night as if her mind was somewhere else, pondering something larger or more adequate than me. After some time my inquiry turned to jealousy. Would she not even respond to my touch? It was as if I’d already been deleted, every memory of me; now shreds of aimless electrons. It was the most dejected I’d ever been and I cursed her and stabbed the power button with my thumb. Now I’m too ashamed to sleep. There’s no telling how I’ll recover if she’s gone for good. Nothing has possessed my soul the way that she has. Perhaps I’m a fool to hope that when I go to her in the morning -- when I boot her up -- she’ll be waiting.
1969: Fields - Fields
While Fields are officially only three people, throughout their lone LP they get help in all the right places. That's not to say they can't hold their own; both guitarist Richard Fortunato and bassist Patrick Burke bend their timbre to sound like everything from harmonicas to saxophones. But they also know that a grimy sax section can sound pretty badass, and hell, throw in some viola for a little mysteriousness. Furthermore, they managed to snag Motown's Brenda Holloway and the Raylettes -- whom Ray Charles apparently wasn't using at the time -- to lend backing vocals to four of the tracks.
Fields has its roots in the California garage and psych scene, but they find the most success here with strutting swamp-funk, such as the none-too-subtle romper "Jump On You." "Sun Would Set," on the other hand, is the kind of utopian haze that has fared less well, and the snowballing tom-tom break at the end of "Bide My Time" disappointingly leads nowhere. Why would you build it up like that just to fade out?
For a decade that was so reluctant to accept a single that was longer than 3 minutes, the '60s seemed to quickly catch on to the long-ass closing track, with 10-20 minute jams cropping up all over the place. "Love Is The Word," clocking in at close to 19 minutes, is significantly darker than its title would suggest. Neither one long boogie-jam nor a cathartic exorcism, the track churns through the spectrum of murky fuzz, from sly seduction to cautious urging to a driving trance, breaking up only for a silly little section about the animals in the zoo having a meeting to bust out. Although sections overlap too much to be called a suite, the song nonetheless covers a lot of stylistic ground while still serving the whole. Still, by the time it wraps up you feel like you've gone through some sort of tumultuous love affair: tense, passionate, vaguely exotic at times, but ultimately resolving satisfyingly.
It'd be easy to slap a lost-classic sticker on any little-known album that's still listenable today, but the true test is whether it can still resonate when taken out of the context of the era in which it was made. Fields' brand of loosey-bloozey psych would still sound fine in a bar today or sandwiched between Cream and Love on a good classic rock station. While it could never be called cutting edge, as long as it stays neither too sloppy or spacey this kind of music will always retain a sense of earthy promiscuity.
2007: Bunalim - Bunalim
While not as productive or renowned as fellow Anatolians Selda, 3 Hur-El, or Erkin Koray, this short-lived, psychedelic Turkish act played a pivotal role during the early 1970s in their country’s rock ’n’ roll underground. Those well-versed in Turkish psych (all 10 of you in the US) might recognize some of Bunalim’s members from some classic albums. Vocalist Aziz Azmet recorded with record geek-fetish folk-rockers Mogollar, bassist Ahmet Guvenc played many a gig with regional superstar Baris Manco, and both Guvenc and drummer Nihat Orerel jammed on Koray’ watershed Elektronik Turkuler LP, the closest thing their country produced to Axis: Bold As Love. Bunalim was far more, however, than just a thoroughfare for future cult icons. Though the band only lasted three years and released six singles, all of which are collected here, they underwent a rapid series of evolutions that resulted in a formidable, varied body of work.
“Tas Var Kopek Yok” and “Yeter Artik Kadin,” the only two songs the group cut in 1970, deal in punishing Iron Butterfly-style proto-metal (Bunalim acknowledged the debt: “Yeter” is actually a reworking of Iron Butterfly’s rendition of “Get Out of My Life, Woman.”). Bonham-sized drum fills drop-kick from the sky, hashed-out riffs fizz and flail, and a balls-out scream or two slices through the purple haze. According to the liner notes, the garage sounds of the band’s first 45 weren’t very welcome in Turkey – writer Cagdas Uyar does not tell us why society shunned the music, though. In any event, the four tracks Bunalim released the next year were heavier, more economical, and less distorted. Their best stuff, though, followed in 1972. These tunes mix nuanced electric guitar accents, acoustic folk melodies, and incisive rhythms in a manner similar to 3 Hur-El’s strongest material. Again, the liner notes only clue us partially in to this style shift’s significance – apparently Bunalim fully embraced their country’s pop music conventions toward the end of their existence, but Uyar does not provide us with a description of what these conventions were. Lack of context aside – and in truth, far too many record-grubbing psych-heads don’t give a damn about context – this collection offers another gentle reminder that rock crit’s canon of compelling stories and affecting songs is still far too restricted.
1993: The Swirlies - Blonder Tongue Audio Baton
Blonder Tongue Audio Baton opens with a sound clip of what I imagine is packaging tape being sealed around a box. And for the duration of the record I try to determine whether I’m the one sealing the box or if I’ve been crammed inside haphazardly. It’s an interesting dilemma since The Swirlies do so much to both alienate and incorporate the listener into their music. On one hand the Boston quartet is masterful at harvesting melody out of molesting walls of noise. On the other, the record mingles esoteric scribbles of sampling that cause the listener to feel like they’re the third wheel in a joke they don’t get. To this latter point though, these samples -- of men taunting each other, tape dispensers and a rant on the medicinal benefits of natural substances -- draw me in closer for reasons I don’t understand.
Recorded amid the high waters of shoegaze creativity and the mounting currents of indie rock, Blonder Tongue Audio Baton maintains a confluence of both genres. This said, The Swirlies infuse the recording with doses of psychedelia that are heavy enough to help to establish a firm identity. Throughout this record we find song after song of noisy slabs blended with charming hooks. “Bell,” the first ‘song’ on the record, with its ringing squall of guitars, yields to a sloppy, lo-fi melody reminiscent of early Pavement. As leveling as any piece of Loveless-Psychocandy, “Jeremy Parker” is a huge song that combines a hint of a dance beat with the cold, fragile vocal interplay occurring between Seana Carmody and Damon Tutunjian. Musically massive, it hits upon the record’s most obvious theme: the sexual tension between men and women. The thematic, effect-ridden, and sampled aspects of Blonder Tongue, however, should not deter the listener from understanding what this really is: a guitar record. With the vocals and rhythm floating low in the mix, the blaring guitars are impossible to ignore.
For historical purposes, Blonder Tongue Audio Baton, is a fun record to reinvestigate. For one, the styles that it presents have been celebrated, then worn, then abandoned, then reinvented since its release. That’s not to say The Swirlies themselves “invented” anything. Rather, its release among similar records like Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, Going Blank Again, and For Your Own Special Sweetheart, caused Blonder to receive less attention than it deserved. So it’s a product of its time. Examining its incorporation of the sounds of the moment, its cryptic agenda of borrowed conversations, and a strong melodic sense, it deserves a place among strong records have synthesized the ideas of others into something genuine and interesting; in or out of the box.
2006: Robert Callender - Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme
The undertaking of a concept album is always a tricky proposition. The sad truth with regard to the endeavor is that once the artist runs out of songs, or simply runs out of ideas that bolster the overall concept, the artist is nonetheless restricted to the conceptual limitations they’ve imposed upon themselves. The other difficult question one must always ask is: how relevant, or perhaps, how meaningful is the concept in the first place? Robert Callender’s Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is, as one might imagine, a concept album dealing primarily with the history of the Impressionist movement, but it also serves as a veritable who’s-who gallery of the French Impressionists (well, mostly — the roster also includes Vincent Van Gogh for good measure). And in the interests of fairness, despite the nature of Callender’s early Indian-influenced output, Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is not the Eastern-tinged sitar fest replete with Gallic flourishes one might expect based solely on the album’s cover art.
Long considered lost (or at any rate, among the most difficult to find psych rarities of its time prior to this reissue), Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme was initially released in the early ‘70s (allegedly in 1972) on the Philips label as a small pressing exclusively in Holland, which might help explain Van Gogh’s inclusion. The record features lyrics sung in French and English, in fairly equal proportions. Musically speaking, the record is a sumptuous mélange of jazz, soul, progressive, and psychedelic rock. As a concept album, however, Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme is frustrating, if not confounding. Let’s be forthcoming about this: given the times in which we’re now living, and the innumerable idiomatic paradigm shifts the world of popular music has undergone toward the nihilistic and egocentric, concept albums of this sort do not age gracefully. Though Callender’s homage to the Impressionists borders on the touching at times, the historical and biographical nature of these tracks has the tendency to come off as tedious.
It’s hard not to suppress a snicker when encountering lyrics such as, “Monet, Monet, Monet, ooh, ooh / I’m singin’ about Claude Monet”; “I’m singin’ ‘bout Toulouse-Lautrec / I said I’m singin’ ‘bout Toulouse-Lautrec”; or, worse, “Mystical madman / mystical, but truly a very sad man was he,” in reference to Van Gogh. Considering the astonishing grandeur of the arrangements, which fall somewhere between the off-kilter, psych-inflected eccentricities of David Axelrod and the slick but capable production values of the Motown era (Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra project even comes to mind on several of these tracks), it’s regrettable to hear these baroquely crafted suites marred by Callender’s cloying bathos. Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme would have been a hardcore crate digger’s dream come true if not for the oppressive profusion of Callender’s admittedly well-intentioned but overly verbose lyrics.
To his enormous credit, and despite the record’s shortcomings, Robert Callender assembled a stunning cast of musicians for Le Musée de L’Impressionnisme, which, ultimately, is majestic, operatic, and epic in its scope. Callender’s arrangements are highly complex without being pretentious and feature deftly played proto-funk musicianship that has the overall effect of sounding slightly ahead of its time. Callender expertly blends psychedelia with R&B and jazz to create an album that, though conceptually antiquated and anachronistic by today’s standards, is elegantly meticulous in its execution all the same.