1995: Elf Power - Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs
If Cobain hadn’t snuffed himself, a nation in mourning may not have turned to the anesthetizing Blue Album for blissed out suburban comfort; in turn, troubled parents might have hesitated in popping Prozac into the gaping maw of a generation already inculcated with escapism. A more focused, less weepy record-buying public might instead have turned to the criminally neglected Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs and inspired Elf Power to hone its jagged angst instead of blunting their sound to a dull hum so psychedelic it might be mistaken for a busted air conditioner. In turn, Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger could pursue a sporadic academic career desperately seeking authenticity of purpose, while Rivers Cuomo could maybe open up a falafel stand or something and autograph pitas for dozens of Theta Kis spring-breaking in the flatlands…
However, the flux capacitor’s shot, I’m stuck here in 2007 and I can’t fix the incongruity of the space-time continuum or introduce Chuck Berry’s cousin to Appetite for Destruction, which, I’m sure, everyone will agree would have sped things up a bit. The best I can do is relate the virtues of Elf Power’s debut against a career that careens towards blander, less visceral material, marking them as the most meager monster to emerge from the Atlanta suburbs since the first shitty R.E.M. record.
The crux of Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs rests on the album’s fourth cut, a cover of The Dwarves’ “Drug Store.” Rieger drains the rambunctious refrain of its intended frenetic energy and imbues it with the sweet, sweet apathy and angst of a sophomore PE class. The inclusion of a Dwarves’ song suggests a primogeniture that Elf Power has since distanced itself from, and subtly introduces the themes of alienation, adolescent disillusionment and involuntary catharsis, which dominate the record as a veritable rock anthem. Reiger cushions his darker motifs with a lyrical joviality that keeps self pity at bay, drawing allusions to Pinkerton. While admittedly steeped in high school heroics, notions like “You self righteous motherfucker/I don’t give a shit what you had for supper” go down smooth and almost radio friendly thanks to Reiger’s dirty finesse. The surgery and amputee motifs that litter the record develop a markedly complex metaphor of heartbreak as limb loss that permeates the album without crowding it, leaving room for the distortion jam-outs and GBV-ish esoteric pop cuts that prevent Vainly Clutching… from becoming a senior thesis on loneliness. Elf Power have discarded many of the classic song styles that make their debut so strong, allowing a love of arena/anthem rock to mutate into a lolling interest in marches on later albums, kind of a return to old-world aesthetics that blends a potentially solid band into the grey tapestry of indie rock like so much frizzing wool.
While the strictly lo-fi aesthetic of Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs might be the most galvanizing aspect of the recording, it incorporates itself into the character of the album, adding a caustic layer to an already dense mélange of distortion and bittersweet pubescent contempt. It gives the songs a sense of covert self satisfaction. Latter day Elf Power has intentionally retained the semblance of low production value with little consequence, except perhaps to masque the heavy influence fellow E6er’s have had on Elf Power’s sound and style. The civilizing effect of the Elephant 6 collective on a band like Elf Power has proven disastrous: Spanish blankets to the Aztecs disastrous. Certainly, Reiger & Co. could never have maintained the raw, sarcastic malevolence for long, but their distance from this strong, albeit particular, debut boggles the mind.
It’s sort of like meeting that scary kid from art history a few years after graduation, and he’s got a crew cut, some urban outfitter gear and he pretends you never saw where he carved that pentagram in his arm back in 10th grade. “But dude, have you heard Beefheart?” Man, I miss that kid...
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.