2005: Destroyer - Notorious Lightning and Other Works
Notorious Lightning and Other Works is an EP that features more guitar-oriented recordings of six songs from Destroyer's 2004 release, Your Blues. The recordings are a welcome change for fans who were put off by the synthetic textures of that record, but are dynamic and interesting enough to make this EP worth owning even for listeners who already own and enjoy the originals. Backed by tourmates Frog Eyes, Destroyer's Dan Bejar retains all of the theatricality and obtuse wordplay he's known for, and adds more viscera and emotion to the songs through the addition of Carey Mercer's sinewy, distorted guitarwork and howled vocals. The atmospherics of the original recordings that kept the songs at a distance has been shed, and the new arrangements bristle with immediacy.
Mercer's singing complements Bejar's well, lending a world-weary and ragged tone to the title track's extended coda. The rest of Frog Eyes, billed here as Destroyer Players, also work well with Bejar, particularly the keyboard work of Grayson Walker as heard in the outro of “New Ways of Living.” The contributions of the members of Frog Eyes are what make this record so enjoyable; it feels like a genuine collaboration rather than Bejar telling a group of studio musicians how to play his songs, and because the other musicians bring something new to the table, the recordings have virtues of their own that can be appreciated even outside of the context of their original versions on Your Blues.
The manic intensity of the first four songs slows down and shifts to a more mournful, resigned tone for “Don't Become the Thing You Hated,” which of the songs featured is probably most similar to its Your Blues counterpart. Likewise, things remain subdued for the final track: a stately, elegant version of “Your Blues.”
True to his moniker, it's fitting that with this release Bejar destroyed the notion of the definitive recording in pop music. In the past, the remixing and rerecording of songs had only yielded stale, lifeless results that were never enjoyable in their own right. In contrast, the songs found on Notorious Lightning and Other Works equal if not surpass the originals. Despite that, at just under half an hour, this EP still might be a bit too slight to work as an introduction to Destroyer for new listeners, but for the initiated, Notorious Lightning and Other Works is well worth investigating.
2005: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - Pedestrian Pop Hits
I must have been nine or ten the first time I went to a roller skating rink. These adolescent hang-outs were the best things since sleep, and they were also one of the first signs of freedom I experienced. Video games, BMX bikes, giggling girls, and overnight lock-ins were also at the helm of entertainment for my friends and me. And just like now, music was everything. Artists like Prince, J. Geils Band, and Blondie were all over the radio. Each had qualities that were pop-focused, yet their sounds were very foreign to my young ears.
Ariel Pink’s Pedestrian Pop Hits is similar in many respects. The album has a peculiar way of drawing the same types of images in my head as the aforementioned bands did back in those days. However, while Ariel Pink’s music has some of the same nostalgic qualities I admire, he has also found a way to remain incredibly new and original. Amongst the jumble that is Pedestrian Pop Hits, there is something very carefree and reassuring happening. I must admit that I haven’t always felt this in his other releases. Additionally, this mini-album only consists of one 16-minute song, which leaves me hungering for more upon each listen. Perhaps it’s merely the law of diminishing returns presented at its finest.
“Pedestrian Pop Hits” fades in slowly with muddled keyboard noises, jangled guitar improvisations, and effect-laden vocals, which all interplay nicely with one another. Eventually, a flanged bass surfaces to give the song a more focused direction. It remains this way for virtually the entire track, and with only minimal changes taking place, you begin to fall into a trance-like state. Eventually the individual elements of the song drift away and you are left with one cohesive experience. Even near the end of the track, where the psychedelic influences come out a bit stronger, there is still a level of control that keeps things intact.
Quite honestly this is one of the better recordings I have heard in a couple years. It reminds me that as I get older I am drawn to things that have nostalgic qualities, but that I also have a need for progressive explorations. Since I am only able to draw faded images in my head of what those times in the roller skating rinks were actually like, I have to rely on people like Ariel Pink to show me how things used to look and sound. Not many artists can blur the line between pop and avant-garde with the same magical results. It takes a fine craftsmanship to be able to pull this off.
: Paul Simon - The Paul Simon Songbook
It sounds like a can’t-miss proposition: Paul Simon, with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, playing some of his best-known songs. This approach, as with some Unplugged entries and the recent Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1, often reacquaints the listener with a song, but it doesn’t completely work here.
This set is somewhat awkward, assumedly because Paul Simon was in an awkward place in 1965. His first record with Art Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., failed to sell, so he moved to England for a new audience. Simon played the London coffeehouse circuit and became a minor sensation, so his label CBS (now Columbia) Records sent him into the studio for a solo release as a quick profit.
Though “The Sound of Silence” was the only signature Simon & Garfunkel song to appear on their debut record, Simon had already written a handful of tracks that would become the duo’s greatest hits. Some of those appear here -- “The Sound of Silence,” “I Am a Rock,” “April Come She Will,” “Leaves That Are Green” -- and maybe it’s because they’re comfortingly familiar, but those are the songs on Songbook that work best. It’s alarming to hear these songs without Garfunkel, and it’s alternately rewarding and disheartening to hear Simon take center stage on songs built for two.
“I Am a Rock” benefits most from the solo treatment. The song features Simon banging away on his guitar, which makes the lyrics (“Don’t talk of love/ I’ve heard the word before”) sound angrier than on the version we all know. The Songbook rendition of “The Sound Of Silence” is also a revelation; although Wednesday Morning featured an acoustic version, hearing Simon sing it solo lends the song appropriate intimacy. “Kathy’s Song,” one of Simon’s best works, is the record’s centerpiece, and this arrangement – even more so than the better-known live solo version – makes the song harshly personal. Last line “there but for the grace of you go I” just doesn’t sound right followed by applause.
While some songs benefit from being stripped down, others suffer. “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” is even more embarrassing here than on the following year’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Simon’s Dylan impression is uncanny, but the talking-blues parody, timely in 1965, now sounds tired. It’s hard to imagine Simon thinking much of this song today.
Though it doesn’t reflect Paul Simon’s deservedly sterling reputation, The Paul Simon Songbook offers a fascinating glimpse at the singer-songwriter in a moment of artistic uncertainty. For Simon, this was a rare place to be.
2007: Nick Drake [including Joe Boyd interview] - Fruit Tree
The following review includes an interview with Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd.
Since his premature death in 1974, English folk singer Nick Drake has slowly cultivated the kind of following that eluded him in life. Though too shy and introverted to gain commercial success, they are those very qualities that have earned him a devoted following that includes luminaries like Robert Smith (who named The Cure after Drake’s song “Time Has Told Me”), Paul Weller, and Peter Buck, not to mention legions of folk disciples.
Fruit Tree is a re-issue of the 1979 boxset that collected Drake’s discography, Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970), and Pink Moon (1972). Sanctioned by the Drake Estate, the new edition curiously omits Time Of No Reply, a collection of rare tracks, home recordings, and the last four songs Drake wrote and recorded, originally released with the set, but offers in their place a new 108-page book featuring song-by-song analysis by producer Joe Boyd, engineer John Wood, arranger Robert Kirby, and songwriter/music journalist and friend Robin Frederick, and a bio film, A Skin Too Few, directed by Jeroen Berkvens and featuring interviews with Boyd, Wood, Kirby, Paul Weller, and Drake’s sister Gabrielle.
Fruit Tree, as a whole, suggests taking a fresh look at Nick Drake. Long associated with words like 'pastoral,' 'introverted,' and 'mysterious,' the curious career arc of Drake’s lone three albums prompts other descriptions to be applied: the orchestral mysticism of Five Leaves Left, giving way to the jazz-rock fusion of Bryter Layter, and bleeding into the minimally bleak beauty of Pink Moon suggest an artist searching not only for an appreciative and receptive audience, but also for the most effective methods to convey his songs.
Drake’s outsider art, separated from his folk peers by his distinct roots in American gospel, blues, and R&B, and set aside from more contemporary fans by his quaint Englishness, places him in the category of artists like Daniel Johnston, Roky Erikson, and Elliott Smith, not in musical similarity (not that the late Smith’s acoustic works don’t owe something to Drake’s work, especially Pink Moon), but in those artists' own difficulty in maneuvering the base world of rock ’n’ roll media. Enormously talented and proficient, but far too withdrawn to emotionally deal with the rock ’n’ roll spotlight, the din of the concert-going crowd, and his own worries of irrelevance, Drake was perceived by some of the rock lit crowd as a spoiled, depressed silver-spooner.
Of course, there’s far more to Drake’s music than the 'sad bastard' umbrella is able to cover. The delicate, virginal quality of his voice, never rising above a whisper and inherited from his folk-singing mother (aptly demonstrated by snippets of her work included in the Skin Too Few film), his jazz- and blues-inflected cluster chords, the workmanlike stability of his picking patterns -- they all reveal an artist not concerned with any particular scene, other than the one in his head.
And the lyrics! Always suggesting a man out of step with everything, pleading for “a second grace,” “a place to be,” or mourning a fruit tree that “can never flourish ’til its stock is in the ground.” Or one who couldn’t recognize those around him who tried to be those fruit tree roots: “Know that I love you, know I don’t care/ Know that I see you, know I’m not there.” We find him praying for “warmth and green paper” in the rainy streets under the chiming city clock. Throughout his three albums, Drake uses only the lowliest terms to label himself: a clown, a parasite, a poor boy.
Yet hope and beauty are constant: the sprightly humor of “Hazey Jane II,” the utterly romantic vision of “Northern Sky.” the hard-earned resolution of “The Day is Done.” With a song like “Pink Moon,” Drake manages to somehow encapsulate both the eschatological joy and fear of impending judgment. Feats like this are rare, and their soft accomplishment echoes on in the sounds and tones of Drake’s cult today.
Perhaps it’s best that Time of No Reply has been left out of this definitive version of Fruit Tree. Though fascinating, it’s best to view Nick Drake in light of his three albums. His scarce output only highlights the mystery inherent to Drake’s music. We are left with only them, coherent and complete, and a vision of an artist that remains an enigma to even those closest to them.
The following is a brief interview with Joe Boyd, the man who discovered Nick Drake, managed him under his Witchseason Productions, and produced his first two albums, Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter.
Nick Drake’s music has a few particular adjectives that seem to follow it: 'magical,' 'mysterious,' 'fragile.' How to do you feel these descriptions fare against your experience with Nick? What words would you like applied to his art, lyrics, and overall working approach? What words would you use to describe his music to someone who has never heard him?
JB: Literate words, complicated and sophisticated musicianship, very English.
You’ve stated that you feel one of the reasons traditionally English-based folk music has had difficulty finding an audience in America is a certain lack of “swing or color” often associated with pop music in America, descended from R&B roots. Yet Nick’s music is awash with elements of jazz, gospel, and blues music, all heavily American in origin. What do you think made an audience so elusive for Nick in his lifetime? How much of the incorporation of these elements came from you and your direction of the rhythm section on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter?
JB: Nick’s music is rhythmically rooted in the Anglo-American pop music/jazz tradition and does not have the handicap of ‘English folkiness’ that for example Richard Thompson has. He failed in his lifetime because a) he didn’t perform live; b) there was no UK radio who would play his records on a regular basis and c) we never got a U.S. deal in his lifetime so he never benefited from the golden age of ‘free-form radio’ where his music might have gained exposure.
It seems in many ways that Nick was his own worst enemy when it came to promotion. His live shows are legendary in their raggedness. Were there any good Nick Drake shows? Did you feel unwillingness on Nick’s part to promote (via live shows, interviews, radio spots) his albums? Did the confrontational tone of many of his lyrics (lines that dealt with his lack of compensation or recognition) ever strike you as odd in relation to his perceived aversion to fame, and his refusal to position himself promotionally? Did you ever feel Nick was deliberately sabotaging himself?
JB: Nick was not averse to fame at all. But he had no ability to talk to an audience and was crushed by gigs where the audience talked through his music. The one great gig was opening for Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival hall in November 1969. Nick was just a very shy person who never found a way to reach an audience. I expected the records to create an attentive audience who would shut up and listen to him, but they didn’t.
In recent years, due in large part to the emerging popularity of free-folk artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, bands like the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Vashti Bunyan have all received some well-deserved attention. How do you feel Nick is connected to these artists (other than the formal connections of Richard Thompson, Linda Thompson, Danny Thompson, and Dave Mattacks)? Did Nick feel any sense of community with these artists, or vice-versa, or did Nick’s illness make it difficult for him to make the connections? Do you think Nick considered himself a 'folkie?'
JB: Nick was definitely not a folkie. He liked some folk music but never spent much time with other musicians except for John Martyn, and that was more due to Beverly Martyn’s mothering instincts for Nick rather than genuine friendship between the two singers. He did bond with musicians like Danny Thompson and Dave Mattacks who played on his records, but the comradeship was limited mostly to the studio.
How would you describe John Cale’s contributions to Bryter Layter, and his influence on Nick personally and musically?
JB: John took over two tracks in whirlwind fashion and did a great job. I am not sure whether Nick liked them or not, but everyone else did. That was the beginning and end of it. John went back to New York and I am not aware that he saw Nick again.
John Wood, who produced Pink Moon with Nick, said that he couldn’t listen to the album for years. What do you think of Pink Moon? Being close to Nick, is its stark honesty and nakedness difficult for you to handle at all? Did its rejection of a certain level of production standards feel at all personal to you?
JB: It did take me a while to appreciate Pink Moon since at the time I thought it was commercial suicide. He may well have felt that everyone – me, Kirby, etc – took things a bit too far with Bryter Layter.
How did you feel about Nick’s final sessions? Where you present for any of the sessions? By all accounts the experience was harrowing, yet the trip to Sound Techniques seemed to temporarily cheer him up. What did you think would come of a fourth album, if anything? Did you have any ideas about or for it?
JB: I was there and it was harrowing to see someone who used to record live with an orchestra struggle to sing and play guitar at the same time. I think Nick was gratified to have finished the four songs but I didn’t see him acting cheerful about it.
Lastly, I’d like to ask how you feel about the new Fruit Tree reissue. How involved in the project have you been? Do you feel that the additions to the reissue add anything new to Nick’s legacy? Do you see the “Fruit Tree” presenting a complete idea of who Nick was, or do you feel that there will always be a portion of Nick shrouded in mystery? How important is the mystique of Nick to his music?
JB: I haven’t seen or heard Fruit Tree yet so I can’t comment. But getting the 3 albums together has always been a good idea.
1973: Guru Guru - Guru Guru
There’s something to be said for a band that sounds like they have fun playing together. If you are familiar with the most well-known names in Krautrock — Amon Duul II, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Can, and Faust—then you can appreciate that this particular period in German music isn’t exactly known for bands with a light-hearted sense of humor. So imagine my surprise after hearing Guru Guru whip through a 13-minute medley that ends with a tribute to Eddie Cochran. I guess Germans did have a good time. Who knew?
What you may expect from a band that jammed with Amon Duul II and Can is a moody, atonal mind-fuck of an album. What you actually get is a view of the German equivalent to rock pranksters Frank Zappa, The Residents, Ween, or even (gulp) Primus. Don’t let those comparisons scare you away, though. Guru Guru don’t sound like any of the aforementioned groups (save for maybe Zappa at times), but they do have two things in common with all of them: a damaged sense of humor, and the musical ability to melt your brain if they so desire.
Guru Guru’s first cut, “Samantha’s Rabbit,” starts off with awkwardly propulsive drumming before settling into a hybrid between the fractured melodies of early Pink Floyd and the more traditional blooz-rawk of Cream. However, it’s the song structures that truly throw the listener for a loop. When things become too pedestrian, the band stops on a dime and heads to the polar opposite of where you may have thought they were going. Perverse? Maybe. Interesting? Definitely.
As the album progresses, it becomes increasingly surreal, as if the band is living in a self-imposed psychedelic fantasy. “Woman Drum” sounds like the trio has imagined themselves sitting in the clouds, smoking hash out of a hookah with Little Richard and Chuck Berry. “Der Elektrolurch” is all tribal toms and deftly plucked electric guitar that conjures up a collaboration between Popol Vuh and the Grateful Dead, before devolving into a Faust-like mush of disjointed electronics and spoken word. The band then comes full-circle to kick out some echoed arena-rock histrionics that will make you wonder if they seriously wanted to rock you, or if they’re just taking the piss out of the musical trends of their era.
On the other hand, with Guru Guru, trying to figure out whether or not the band is joking is hardly the point. It takes a certain type of album to remind you that having a good time is all that should really matter. The music here doesn’t blow (sober) minds, and you definitely won’t develop an emotional attachment to it, but in its own way Guru Guru is a mind-fuck album in a genre packed with mind-fuck albums, just not in the way that you were expecting it to be.
1967: Blossom Toes - We Are Ever So Clean
Pioneering in modern music usually follows some chronological track that’s easy to follow. Blues, for example, can be traced down the Mississippi River to its southernmost deltas, where men in shacks laced together solemn guitar signatures and the lyrical laments of field workers. Most music, in fact, can similarly trace its origin to a specific source. Psychedelic rock, however, the music that soundtracked the ‘flower power’ movement, doesn’t have such a clear lineage. The daunting volume of bands that, between the years 1966 and 1969, were willing to share their standard rock setup (guitar-bass-drums-piano) with a more expansive collection of sitars, strings, brass, organs, and woodwinds would contrarily suggest a nebulous, spontaneous musical origin if any existed at all. Recording efforts put particular pressure on producers, who each tried to capture the sonic spirit of an expanding sociopolitical consciousness (particularly of Asian culture) that defied any existing convention. The swell of music produced under the Flower Power banner all seemed to adopt some form of wayward, blurred, day-glo, meter-hopping motif. And like all movements and fads, a certain deconvolution was necessary in order to discern genuine conviction from empty fashion.
The Blossom Toes’ 1967 LP We Are Ever So Clean will forever have a place in flower power while at the same time, existing somewhere on this continuum between creativity (“Mrs. Murphy’s Budgerigar” sounds like a template for The Zombies’ 1968 Odyssey and Oracle) and fashion (the LSD-placebo laden, “The Remarkable Saga of the Frozen Dog”). “Look at Me, I’m You” introduces the record with a driving two-chord guitar line. The song then shifts into bubbling vocal harmonies and abstract lyrical lines that swirl in and out of the speakers: “The air is filled with coal dust/ The rain is making me rust.” Then an orchestral coda ensues for a few measures before the song shifts back into the driving rock that frames the song. While such schizophrenia does well to characterize psychedelic rock music, it’s poorly executed here with its layers of awkward texture. Simply put, The Blossom Toes’ adherence to blues-rock rhythms create rigid song structures that don’t lend well to these time-signature bends and instrumental arrangements that turn on a dime. This contrasts, for example, with Love’s “You Set the Scene” that, with its loose jazz rhythm, can readily be crafted into varying textures and arrangements. In spite of its auspicious introduction, We Are Ever So Clean has plenty of rousing moments, the best of which happen when a more homogeneous approach is employed. “Love Is” is an elegant song that could very well be a root of chamber pop as we know it today. It’s a short, ruminative piece with the perfect amount of tempered ambition. “Mister Watchmaker” compels in the same sense. In a perfect world, “Late for Tea” would rival “Time of the Season” and “With a Little Help From My Friends” as psychedelic rock’s crowning anthem.
As a DeLorean writer, I’m often leery of reissue bonus tracks, but the strength of those included on this collection bare mentioning. The live versions of “Mister Watchmaker” and “Love Is” invite the listener into an even greater intimacy than their beautiful recorded counterparts. A confident and loyal cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” serves to tie this collection into the context of the late 1960s pop. Included also is an instrumental version of “Look at Me, I’m You” that drives forth with genuine rock abandon. Clearly, its finished counterpart that found its way onto the record fell victim to an overzealous editing session. Its inclusion is telling: allowing us to glimpse the sketchpad of ideas stirring among the band and the unfortunate role that production had in diluting it. And it’s this notion that prevents We Are Ever So Clean from being a landmark psychedelic record. Ambition and zeal. Surely a sign of the times.