1977: Dennis Duck - Dennis Duck Goes Disco
In 1977, Dennis Duck (who would go on to play in The Dream Syndicate and Human Hands) probably never thought this to be anything more than fucking with records on a variable speed turntable and dubbing 20 cassette copies for some friends of The Los Angeles Free Music Society. But like punk rock, 30 years later Goes Disco -- and the greater LAFMS -- amounts to something historically more altruistic than its self-serving, incestuous origins. A loose organization of sorts, LAFMS’s grassroots, DIY aesthetic largely foreshadowed the contemporary noise/experimental scene -- making short runs of cassettes and privately pressed records for whoever would listen (usually friends in bands). Often favoring freethinking, experimentation, and quantity over quality, there’s an inherent charm in just how unapproachable recordings by Smegma, the Doo-Dooettes and other LAFMS groups can be.
While the collective as far as the name is concerned is no longer officially active, the Los Angeles music scene hasn’t changed much. The Sunset strip is still defined by leather, bar rock, hair metal, and other types who will gladly “pay to play.” But deep within the drudges of the city there’s a thriving, self sustained music community giving themselves all the attention they need to make successful art. Among them is the city’s oldest (although technically in Pasadena), and one of the few remaining record stores (2006 bidding farewell to historic landmarks such as Aron’s, Rhino, and Tower), Poo-Bah. Former employer to LAFMS veteran Tom Recchion, the store has always embraced the avant garde with open arms and has played host to many LAFMS events in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s only fitting that they reissue Dennis Duck Goes Disco as part of the launch of their new record label.
So eat your heart out Christian Marclay. Not that the two are identical, and with no disrespect anyone, but Duck’s one-time experiment is a delicate reminder that there are always innovators who will never get due credit. And not to put Marclay on the spot, for there’s a seemingly endless amount of historical context that Goes Disco’s primitive turntablist tinkery fits into. Amongst mash-ups, DJ culture, William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Phillip Corner, Pierre Schaffer, and you name it, Goes Disco could most easily be compared to the modus operandi of John Cage.
In the ’30s and ’40s, before delving deeply into compositions based on the I Ching and other chance operations, Cage primarily composed percussive pieces that bore the simplistic intricacies of Erik Satie. But far be it from the classical world to welcome Cage’s percussion, comprised of car parts, toy pianos, and other found items with open arms. Much like Duck’s carefully “prepared” turntable, Cage’s greatest invention from those years, the prepared piano, was made by meticulously placing nuts, bolts, screws, keys, etc. in between the strings on the piano according to diagrams and specific instructions within the written score, thereby altering the characteristics of the piano and giving it a more percussive effect. Just as Cage’s piano was (among the aristocrats at the time) a desecration of the most sacred instrument in music, Goes Disco too, sounds like a defiance of what is musically correct (even 30 years after the fact). It uproots musical form, basking in the sound of (in very broad terms) warped and skipping records. By meticulously deriving different combinations of speed, anti-skate, lopsidedness, and off-centered center holes, Duck finds new possibilities in what a turntable can do.
To further this somewhat blasphemous comparison of Goes Disco to the career of John Cage, Cage’s work from the ’50s and on was derived from chance operations, and though often misconstrued as randomness, he always operated with a detailed written score, creating something of a musical ‘choose your own adventure’ for each piece. Duck didn’t necessarily have the same egoless, Zen Buddhist motivation for his art that drove Cage, but there are parallels in their processes. Duck’s liner notes describe the specific ways in which the turntable was manipulated for each piece as though setting up the obstacle course for the Mousetrap board game. With all the compositional tools in place, the stylus is left to run through the grooves and barriers at its own freewill, and its ultimate sound is unique to that very moment in time.
Perhaps it’s not all that heavy-handed or intentionally asking for that much conceptualism. Duck unknowingly struck at gold using any vinyl not too precious to be destroyed, thereby making a “disco” comprised of society’s waste (unless you’re Don Bolles or Irwin Chusid). Old children’s records, instructional LPs, laboratory samplers, demonstration discs, and other curiosities are brought to life or hammered fiercely into the ground depending on your point of view. Like a child thrashing his records and breaking his father’s turntable, Goes Disco is indeed a brute tour de force, but fortunately there is a conscious sense of flow and continuity through the album. Duck digs humor out of otherwise banal narratives, desperately trying to move them forward, and children’s songs that sound like they’re melting. It’s things like these, as well as comical clauses and juxtapositions that keep Goes Disco from becoming tedious and allow the more minimalist, beat-induced skipping to become that much more effective.
Thirty years ago, Goes Disco couldn’t have come from a government grant (the U.S. still being behind the times in that regard) or a performance at Carnegie Hall. However, time has aided these pieces in terms of their value as high art. While critical writings such as this review seem like the antithesis of the impulsive activities of the LAFMS, history needs every anti-art movement it can get (and they have the fancy, “coffee table” box sets to back up their historical significance). Ultimately Dennis Duck Goes Disco works so well because its original intentions were more an obnoxious experiment than a grand artistic statement.
1969: Frank Zappa - Uncle Meat
Striking from every sonic angle, the mega- (or magna depending on who you ask) opus Uncle Meat is the casual music listener’s most horrid experience. Over the course of four sides of recorded wax we find quick thematic interludes, improvised woodwinds, arranged orchestration, demented doo-wop, tape tricks, hedonistic guitar rock, and dialog clips from the belated film of the same name. In other words, it’s an aural trash heap for anyone who approaches this record wanting to discover a few cool tunes.
Take “Dog Breath in the Year of the Plague,” for example. It’s here, five ‘grooves’ into the record that we encounter our first pop moments. It begins with wailing horns and a pleasant guitar strum, then a catchy, climbing vocal melody line, then the chorus hits and a female faux-opera singer joins the mix. As the mantra-like verses progress, the vocals turn to groaning men and helium clowns. At the conclusion of the song, vexing slurs of horns unravel. And with that our culture of song-downloading, album-dissectors roll their cursors away from the ‘Buy’ button and call Zappa and The Mothers a wash. What may or may not be heard following this is Frank’s indifferent chuckle rising or descending onto us (I make no assumption as to where deified producers go when then they die). “Fantastic,” he says.
The genius that dwells amid Uncle Meat’s multiple personalities is its cohesion. The skill at capturing this trait unsurprisingly goes to Zappa’s production and editing abilities, which masterfully corral the collection of renegade musicians, sounds, improvisations and characters in this fevered film score. The cohesive devices themselves are both found in the thematic and instrumental portions of the record. Its theme, intended to be the score for a film that wouldn’t come into fruition for another two decades, revolves around the life of a talented collection of visionaries who reside in the sunny abundance of suburban LA. The songs and pieces of Uncle Meat document the mini-sagas of these people as they examine groupie life, the quest to create transcendent music and the all-American tradition of “Cruising for Burgers.” We meet the disenchanted Suzy Creamcheese and the budding Ian Underwood who Zappa urges to “whip out” his alto saxophone. Without question the Mothers’ signature commentary-laden absurdity thrives on Uncle Meat.
Musically, the glue of this record resides in the unhinging, and original, woodwind and organ playing. The quick movements of clarinets and saxophones create an urgent pulse that frames the music and fosters the miscellany in between. This design builds momentum toward the magnificently titled “King Kong,” which occupies an entire album side using these exact devices. Within this cocoon of tweets and organ haze, we find everything else. “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution” showcases hypnotic acoustic guitar soloing with a gentle, building organ in the background. There are irreverent renditions of “Louie, Louie” and “God Bless America” that make use of the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ and a kazoo respectively. “Mr. Green Genes” uses a proclaiming alto sax and twittering vocal harmony and “Ian Underwood Whips it Out” exposes us to some mean slabs of Coltrane-esque improvisation amid a maniacally groovy rhythm section. “Electric Aunt Jemima,” “The Air,” and “Cruising for Burgers” are off-kilter sunshine pop songs that would later find tremendous translation in Zappa’s live shows. “Uncle Meat Variations” and “Project X” both begin as pretty jazz pieces before evolving into avant-mayhem. And yet for all of its diversity we’re left with a record that has flawless fluidity.
If there ever were, records like this aren’t made anymore. Uncle Meat, purveyed by a master composer/producer/guitarist/editor, is a zany vision, carried out by a large collection of musicians who diverge and improvise to such an extent that it all makes sense. Music critics tend to laud works that influence -- ones that are used a foundation upon which other works or even whole genres are built. The prize in Uncle Meat is in fact the opposite. It represents a sonic exploration so keen, unifying, and rousing that, aside from Zappa himself, no has dared to follow in kind.
1966: The Association - And Then Along Comes the Association
Those responsible for the cover art of the notable psychedelic pop records of the 1960s had it right. So accurately would they adorn their subjects that one could merely walk into a record store, see them on the shelf and know what to expect. For example, let’s review the following:
The Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle – a psyche-collage of romantics through the ages The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s – a visceral cabaret of life, day-glo, death, and fashion Love’s Forever Changes -- a cerebral parade
The Association’s And Then Along Comes The Association is a similar member of that proud tradition. On its cover we find six men clad in respectable, matching suits writhing with their arms in the air like a Kesey experiment, all amid a murky, green composition. Based on this depiction, you might expect to find some fine, auditorium quality pop with an undercurrent of psychedelia; which, upon hearing, you’d fine you were correct on all counts.
Rising from the early-mid '60s LA folk scene, The Association sought to expand their sound by incorporating elements of rock, jazz, and blues into their music. “Along Comes Mary,” the record’s lead single, does just that, fusing a garage-quality backbeat with three-part vocal harmonies. The other hit off the record, “Cherish,” works in a similar vein. If you don't recognize “Cherish” by title it's because the track has merged with your subconscious through decades of appearances in film soundtracks and prom themes. These hits, while nice enough, aren’t the most interesting aspects of this album. The Addrisi brothers’ collaboration, “Don’t Blame it On Me,” would have little trouble finding a place on Pet Sounds with its mourning of a young romantic relationship. Its stunning backing vocals woo and shape the song into a beautiful ode, while “Message of Our Love” sweeps forth with similar gusto.
These moments aside, it’s clear, after even a single listen, that The Association give us nothing new in the way of theme or sound. The voices of either the lonely or fulfilled suitor are steadily and unsurprisingly used throughout, and the music follows the well-worn paths of sunshine and psychedelic pop music. Where the record succeeds, however, is in its ability to articulate emotions through simple harmonies. They're so precise that they convey hope (“Enter the Young”), celebration (“Message of Our Love”), futility (“Don’t Blame it One Me”), and regret (“Remember”), by simply altering Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba lines.
The Association would never create a record as stirring as The Beatles, as catchy as The Beach Boys, or as affecting as Love. With the benefit of time it seems their best contributions lay in the creation of a handful of rousing songs and for solidifying an established genre. Their billing at the inaugural 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (which became a template for music festivals to this day) is a testament to this latter notion. Perhaps too high a price is placed onto innovation while not enough is given to those musicians who merely carry the torch. For the sake of 1960s psychedelic pop rockers The Association, they carried the torch while creating some memorable anthems along the way.
1970: Wizz Jones - The Legendary Me
British folk followed a circuitous route. After centuries of simmering, it took American interest in their rural heritage, which itself was largely based on the traditional music of the British Isles, to reinvigorate a new generation of English guitar pickers. Transient throughout much of the '60s as the American folk revival ebbed and dispersed, this tight-knit group began to surface on record in the late '60s looking simultaneously forward and backward.
By this point a lot of folkies had moved from covering old ballads to composing their own songs, frequently heading in stranger directions than their predecessors had ever dared. Wizz Jones held out against the turn towards more personal subject matter, as well as any deviation from traditional folk structures. The result is a soothing, effortlessly warm collection that is more woolly blanket than freak flag, highlighting the gorgeous melodies that are the hallmark of memorable folk songs.
And yet to cast Jones as a nostalgia-ridden holdover wouldn't be truthful either. While "If I'd Only Known" is his only original composition on this set, only two of them are folkie standards, the traditional "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," and "Willie Moore," gleaned from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The other eight were written by Jones's close friend Alan Tunbridge, a graphic designer by trade and songwriter by hobby who proves adept at both the overarching human sentiment reminiscent of older folk songs and the detail-ridden emotional probing that is a singer-songwriter's stock-in-trade. A proficient finger-picker, Jones is capable of providing a mellifluous instrumental backing on his own, although he subtly, almost imperceptibly, adds piano, bass, or second guitar parts to many of the songs.
Burt Jansch acknowledged him as "the most underrated guitarist ever," and the three bonus live tracks included here show Jones interpreting the luminary's "Needle of Death," as well as doing justice to Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy." Those two choices accurately reflect the sphere Wizz Jones worked within. At a time when folk wanted to be either obtusely esoteric or tediously maudlin, Jones strove for a timeless style that reflects the kind of music worn-in by generations, yet re-imagined in a meta-conscious era.
1997: Jim O’Rourke - Bad Timing
Cooking something delicious doesn’t always require a heaping load of ingredients. Some of the best things I’ve ever tasted have been intelligently prepared single-food items.
For example, take an eggplant. Cut it in half and slather both open sides with olive oil until they are visibly yellowed by absorption. Add salt, pepper and a few red pepper flakes. Put it in the oven at 350˚ until a fork can ease softly into its cooked center. It’ll taste great, but keep in mind – you must use a prime eggplant.
Bad Timing is Jim O’Rourke’s eggplant dish, and he’s working with a
mighty fine vegetable.
O’Rourke’s produce is a drawn out and looped acoustic guitar, forming a seamless base structure for him to noodle and add/subtract over. It’s an eggplant grown on John Fahey’s musical farm, harkening back to Blind Joe Death/Dance of Death-era guitarage.
O’Rourke’s meticulous finger picking sets up an appetizing base. Keeping the ingredients to the bare minimum, he uses only what’s necessary to make the dish better as a whole. He drops in a dash of piano, a hint of synthesizer, and a sprinkling of electric and lap steel guitars. All of which take his creation to a new and gently celebratory place.
Subtlety dominates this record, but keep in mind there’s a very fine line between screaming by whispering and just quietly talking to yourself. What’s wonderful is how easy you lose yourself -- in a similar manner to listening to Neu! or even minimalists such as Burning Star Core or Keith Fullerton Whitman. Its droning simplicity makes you long for change, and when it comes, you’re gloriously uplifted.
“There’s Hell in Hello But More in Goodbye” meanders on Fahey’s farm for a significant amount of time and falls purposefully into a drone simmer that’s eventually built upon and explored. The less invasive “Bad Timing” also starts out with intriguing acoustic ramblings but systematically falls into a beautiful Alice in Wonderland wormhole, complete with ghostly feedback and snowy xylophone.
The larger tracks, “94 The Long Way” and the aptly named “Happy Trails,” start off with similar structures but launch off into a less drone-happy arena. “94 The Long Way” almost doesn’t make it out of the gate as O’Rourke fumbles with his eggplant -- it chugs on through, however, gaining firm footing. It’s reminiscent of that feeling you get at the beginning of a long journey: that early moment of anxiety that’s finally put at ease with the first rush of excitement when you hit the highway and smile triumphantly as you head off down the road.
“Happy Trails” offers the reverse, exploring that moment when you reach your destination and everyone is waiting for you in a big, over-the-top parade of waving friends. Its explosive opening is a realization that your trip has come to an end, evoking memories and finally focusing on the brave new world ahead. That world, moved ahead by the fun-loving drumming of Tortoise’s John McEntire, is a schlocky, Reno-esque commercial cowboy freak show, complete with horns and slide guitar. It’s fun as hell, but you have to wonder, "What the hell am I doing here?"
Getting back to the first analogy, this album’s base is the simple eggplant, but the constant building and taking away makes it dense with taste and information. O’Rourke is a master chef – not only with eggplant but with a lush variety of foodstuffs. In a time of fast food, tofu, and super expensive crap, this is an all together rare treat, so make sure you cherish this one, my fellow foodies.
2005: Jan Jelinek - Kosmischer Pitch
Like any number of other similar artists residing in the European glitch/microhouse arena, Berlin’s eminently prolific production maestro, Jan Jelinek, records under a variety of pseudonyms. On the Klang and Source labels, Jelinek has released several of his more dance-friendly records as both Farben and Gramm, respectively. But it’s his ~Scape recordings, on which he has chosen to record under his own name, that have been his most influentially successful works.
Though closer, rhythmically and sonically, to his earlier Gramm and Farben albums, Jelinek’s 2001 full length, Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records, was a breakthrough recording in the realm of minimalist techno. Utilizing a hip-hop aesthetic and transposing it upon the IDM template, Jelinek created a record constructed solely of samples from vintage jazz albums which were rendered virtually unrecognizable through digital manipulation. With each subsequent ~Scape release Jelinek has moved farther away from the realm of microhouse and into considerably more organic territory.
Kosmischer Pitch is without question Jan Jelinek’s most impressive release since his 2001 ~Scape debut. On several tracks, most notably “Universal Band Silhouette,” Jelinek returns to his dancier roots with this darkly upbeat techno piece. Though still using his sampler as a tool for the deconstruction of otherwise conventional recordings, Kosmischer Pitch features an abundance of samples identifiable as “live” instrumentation -- six-string and bass guitar in particular. Featuring an assortment of sound fragments lifted directly from the original LPs, Jelinek’s pieces vibrate with the warmth and static that accompanies vinyl needle noise. Ostensibly an homage to Krautrock, Kosmischer Pitch vaguely references Kraut and early progressive rock while still retaining a stylistically distinct, forward-leaning bent. To be fair, however, this record bears closer resemblance, however tenuous, to the “cosmic music” of Popol Vuh than his 2001 effort did to the jazz recordings that served as its original source material.
Similarly to Loop-Finding-Jazz-Reords, Kosmischer Pitch is a remarkably cohesive recording. The record’s eight lengthy pieces are moody, soporific, and convey a ponderous sense of atmosphere. Drones ebb and flow lazily throughout the recordings; even the few pieces which feature a drum machine have, on the whole, a lulling, trance-like effect. Jelinek, unlike many of his musical forebears, never ceases to astonish with his ability to place seemingly endless layers of samples upon each other to infuse each piece with a powerful and tactile musical density. Upon listening, particularly on the more drone-heavy second half of the album, it remains difficult to not be impressed with the meticulous construction of the tracks via an apparently infinite number of individual, discrete samples. Though Jan Jelinek has only been putting out albums since 1998, on Kosmischer Pitch, it sounds as if he’s been recording for ages.