1997: Elliott Smith - Either/Or
Much has been made of Elliott Smith’s performance at the 1997 Oscar ceremony, and rightly so. Not only is it an inherently bizarre moment in pop culture, it’s a nervous but typically brilliant performance, with a surprisingly understated Academy orchestra in the background. It marked the beginning of a new chapter for Smith, who had been a relatively successful indie rock musician until he was suddenly the Oscar-nominated center of attention.
Either/Or found Elliott Smith on the edge of this major success. He wasn’t about to top the Billboard charts, but fans of his first three records surely didn’t imagine hearing his songs at a multiplex. This was an especially funny notion considering Either/Or, the record that informed Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting soundtrack, featured Smith and his narrators at their most downtrodden and unlucky.
The album’s lyrics are full of disappointment and loneliness, sung over melodies straight out of Tin Pan Alley; it’s a Los Angeles record, one that finds the city both foreboding and transparent. There’s a constant push and pull in all of Smith’s work, contrasts between simple and intricate, dissonant and melodic. Nowhere is this clearer than on Either/Or, a record that starts with Smith singing “He’s planned to meet you underneath the horse/ In the cathedral with the glass stained black.” Things don’t get much bleaker than that, but there’s a hope in Elliott Smith’s darkness and a cynical sense of humor that propels Either/Or from self-doubt towards cautious optimism.
The record is a bridge between the lo-fi darkness of Roman Candle and Elliott Smith and the studio sheen of XO and Figure 8. Although Smith sings in his signature near-whisper, the guitars are crystal clear. While his previous work consisted of just guitar and vocals, drums and bass sneak their way onto these songs, and the change works beautifully. Opening track “Speed Trials” signals this shift, with Smith’s guitar entering the record alongside subdued drums.
Simply put, the songs on Either/Or are Elliott Smith’s best, from the poppy and seething “Ballad of Big Nothing” to the beautifully haunting “Angeles,” which features Smith gently fingerpicking his guitar while a single keyboard note sounds in the distance. “Between The Bars” is the centerpiece of the album and perhaps Smith's career. Gus Van Sant featured the song prominently in his film, and it’s easy to see why -- it’s cinematic in scope; you can picture its narrator wandering the city in a drunken, but not altogether pleasant, haze. The sweetly sad melody is a perfect complement to the bittersweet lyrics, which allude to a life made whole but incomplete by alcohol.
The soft, dopily romantic “Say Yes” is the unexpectedly hopeful conclusion to Either/Or: “I’m in love with a world through the eyes of a girl/ Who’s still around the morning after,” he sings over a slowly descending scale. The song gives the listener a sense that this man, so clearly experienced with disillusion and addiction, is not inexperienced with love and sunlight. Sure, he seems to be near-whispering -- this world is a dark place to inhabit -- but look. Look what’s still here, no matter what; look at what I found. Tomorrow.
1. Speed Trials
3. Ballad Of Big Nothing
4. Between The Bars
5. Pictures Of Me
6. No Name No. 5
7. Rose Parade
8. Punch and Judy
10. Cupid’s Trick
11. 2:45 AM
12. Say Yes
2007: The Flying Luttenbachers - Incarceration by Abstraction
An artifact of neglected genius: that’s what we have here. After grinding The Flying Luttenbachers stone for 15 years, Weasel Walter has finally come to the conclusion that the band, concept, and their thoroughly impressive opus will never garner the attention or respect that they duly deserve. He was forever moving upwards and onwards to the ends of staying an outsider to any musical clique that might be burgeoning with popularity, yet was consistently praised by the audience he did have as an innovator and inspiration -- too completely absorbed in his vision to worry about his perception by his audience, peers, or even his collaborators. If you don’t dig it, hell, he’ll push forward without you. Another casualty of the oft-cited phenomenon of being too far ahead of one’s time.
I can only surmise that the rising tide of the internet’s proliferation of ever more and weirder music that has lifted so many boats, but failed to buoy that of the Luttenbachers, drove the final nail in their coffin. And what a shame, since those who are flooding in are surely aware of the cultural trope of the misunderstood genius. Truisms are truisms for a reason, and one is that some art is just too hard to swallow without the benefit of the mastication of several generations, even for the purportedly open-minded and adventurous.
What hath this neglect wrought? How about Weasel’s most succinct and accomplished compositions forced into the most awkward of arrangements? Having, to some extent, economically abandoned the project (probably out of deference to those that have performed and labored nigh-gratis previously on his recordings), Weasel’s only recourse for getting the music in the can was to revisit the arduous path taken on Systems Emerge From Complete Disorder and perform the entire work himself. Bear in mind that this is still a rock album, no matter how divergent from the mainstream predilection it may be. And rock music, even as cerebral as TFL's, thrives on syn-/en-ergy, and a massively overtracked recording is where both go to die. To wit, Weasel labels these “definitive solo versions of each piece… for the sake of documentation.” Not exactly the verbiage of transcendent rock power.
While not benefiting from any of the aural or psychic bleed of a live recording, Incarceration by Abstraction is entirely adequate. I first fell in love with The Luttenbachers to the sonically equivalent Systems, so to properly receptive ears, none of the brilliance should be lost. TFL has long been (since Infection and Decline, at least) an exercise in pitting the systematic and mechanical against the metaphysical and beautiful against the absurd and irreverent, but previous works have given precedent to each of these aspects in their own turn, whereas here, each is given equal treatment. In that respect, this certainly has the feel of an ambiguous end to a cycle, which is put to words in the first libretto of the cycle.
With any luck, it was the tidiness of this being a summary work that led to the cessation of TFL’s operations, and Weasel will revive the project. But rest assured, he trudges forward, constantly nudged from his beeline path, but never relenting, always paying lip service to having learned his lesson. Maybe this time he has, and he’ll focus on that for which there’s a receptive audience. But something tells me he is, at his core, a slave to his vision and might just be content to strive for greatness at the expense of happiness.
RIP The Flying Luttenbachers.
1. Assault On Apathy
4. Violent Shade
5. Triplex (For Ed Rodriguez And Mick Barr)
6. Crypt Emission
7. The Serialization Of Cruelty
8. The First Time
2009: Death - …For the Whole World to See
Thank the fine folks at Drag City for rescuing this one from the sands of time: In 1971, David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, three African-American brothers from Detroit, got hip to The Stooges and decided to forgo the soul/funk they’d been playing. In 1974, they cut a rock ‘n’ roll demo with Jim Vitt, known for his work with Parliament/Funkadelic, and started making the rounds with a single, “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking." Clive Davis, president of Columbia, heard it and expressed interest in the group, but told the band they'd have to change their name: Death.
The best PR guy couldn’t write it any better. The boys declined the censored offer and faded into the annals of Detroit rock history. They formed a short-lived Christian rock outfit, The 4th Movement, but soon took up day jobs, while their single went on to become a much sought after collector's item, selling for as high as a grand among grubby-handed record nerds. And yet, without the seven killer tunes that comprise Death’s long-delayed debut, they would be little more than a cool back-story. The songs are good, fantastic even, and while it’s important to note that these guys clearly weren’t inventing punk rock -- as some overzealous dudes have suggested -- they were playing as aggressively as their most radical contemporaries and with a melodic edge that bellies the influence of glammier garage-rockers like Alice Cooper and early Amboy Dukes.
It's baffling to me that the opener “Keep on Knocking” was the B-side to the group’s lone single. It’s a crunchy, perfect blast of tuneful rock music: David’s minimal guitar leads and over-driven rhythm crackle; the brisk pace finds Dannis’ drums threatening to tear the song apart, and singer/bassist Bobby barks out a kiss-off to a former love. The band launches into “Rock-N-Roll Victim” with a characteristic 1-2-3-4. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be an anti-drug song or some counterculture anthem, with lyrics about rolling another stick of grass, but it’s jutting, twist-turn riffs imply that if the band was high on anything, it certainly wasn’t mellow. "You’re a rock ‘n’ roll victim/ And I know it’s the truth/ ’Cuz I’m a rock ‘n’ roll victim, too." It’s glorious hard-rock nonsense.
“Let the World Turn” opens like some prog-rock Prince jam with multi-tracked vocals echoing over the album's funkiest break, before launching into a trashy attack that would later inform the British New Wave of Heavy Metal. If the start-stop rhythms aren’t enough to give Lars Ulrich a hard-on, the ridiculous drum solo will surely seal the deal. “You’re a Prisoner” and “Freakin’ Out” follow, each more violent and distorted than the last, as if Drag City -- or whoever sequenced this thing -- envisioned an album-long crescendo. “Where Do We Go From Here???” features Bobby’s mostly out of key vocals, but it’s hard to object -- the song is so direct, his bass work so taut and soulful. Creepy, psychedelic laughter provides a break in the song, just enough for you to ask, “What’s going on,” before the whole thing thunders to an amp-melting conclusion.
“Politicians in My Eyes,” the A-side to Death's original single, boasts the most confrontational lyrics on the album. Railing against politicians who don’t care and "send young folks to die," the song asks a simple question: "Politicians tell me why/ won’t you help the people who try?" The strife is supported by a barrage of drums and overdriven guitars that grind the song to its finish. As hard-rock takes on the shape of minimalist composition, the repeated rhythms and snatches of melody express rage and frustration long after the lyrics have ceased explicitly stating the message. It’s the kind of song that feels as appropriate today as it did 33 years ago. That kind of fervor makes …For the Whole World to See such a blast and a defining example of the spirit that drives not just rock ‘n’ roll, but true outsider art.
1. Keep on Knocking
2. Rock-n-Roll Victim
3. Let the World Turn
4. You’re a Prisoner
5. Freakin’ Out
6. Where Do We Go From Here???
7. Politicians in My Eyes
1969: Bee Gees - Odessa
Reviewing Odessa without sounding like a total fan boy is difficult, but not totally inappropriate. Before you take my gushing five-star review at face value, it should be mentioned that this boxset is directed toward die hard Bee Gees enthusiasts rather than the casual fan. Fair enough; this long-awaited collection gives an incredibly detailed look at one of the trippiest, most complex examples of soft AM pop ever. While the band's first three albums experimented with arrangements and were ambitious in their own right, Odessa shows The Bee Gees at their most far-reaching. With tentative titles such as Masterpeace and An American Opera, there’s no doubt they were thinking about the album as a whole, not just songs and singles. But despite the conceptualization, incredible songwriting, and a 'This is our album and we’ll do whatever the fuck we want’ sort of approach, Odessa has always been a dark horse next to albums like SF Sorrow, Sgt. Pepper's, and Days of Future Past.
Although their previous records shared a melancholic undercurrent, there are moments in Odessa that are downright devastating, forever raising the bar for sad music. The opening and title track, saturated in hallucinatory reverb, tangles a lost-at-sea story with a man's desperate attempt to contact an old love. Themes continue to spiral downward during the next three songs, with sinister lyrics like “It makes me laugh/ You’ve got no friends,” “I followed a river/ Where the dead man would lay” and “15 kids and a family on the skids/ I’ve got to go for a Sunday drive.” At the bottom of the well is “I Laugh in Your Face,” one of the darkest, most brutal soft-pop songs of all time.
Through a maze of oceanic analogies and cryptic portrayals of Americana (something they picked up after writing portions of the album in New York), The Bee Gees' revel in conflicting emotions. It’s all very obtuse, to say the least; the creative band/brother struggle that developed during Odessa’s making produce some significant stylistic leaps. And while a lot of double albums might have been more successful if condensed into a single LP, Odessa plays without any filler. Even the purely orchestral pieces, though slightly superfluous, lend themselves to an overall tone without sounding completely misguided.
It’s only natural that fans' expectations would be high after years of deluxe-treatment rumors. Fortunately, Odessa was put in the hands of reissue supervisor Andrew Sandoval, who obviously holds the album in very high regard, sparing no expense in creating the most detailed, bible version of the album. From the spot-on reproduction of the red velvet artwork to liner notes detailing where, when, and why each song was recorded, this three-disc version is about as comprehensive as we're going to get (especially given that the two living brothers, Robin and Barry, seem to ignore this phase of their careers.)
Disc one contains a remastered version of the album’s U.S. stereo pressing. Coming much closer to the original vinyl mix, it’s a vast improvement over the previous CD issue, which sounded washed out and loaded with tape hiss. The second disc contains the UK mono mix, which, although different from the U.S. version, is not as drastic as the opposing mixes from their first three albums. The bass thumps nicely and -- typical to mono mixes of the time -- the drums are heavier. The band is placed in the forefront, with ornamental orchestration used more as a backdrop than on the U.S. version. The mono mixes reveal that, at its core, Odessa is much looser than your typical Bee Gees album. It's an acoustic record in disguise, fairly casual and off the cuff, with guitar strings buzzing and double-tracked vocals often falling out of sync. Go mono!
Then there’s disc three, loaded with alternate takes and demos. We learn that naming their British ship “Veronica” was a rather arbitrary decision and that their homage to Thomas Edison used to be about some lady named Barbara. While songs like “Marley Purt Drive” don’t sound terribly different from their final mix, others (such as “Never Say Never,” which had an insane fuzz-guitar part erased in favor of more orchestration) are drastically different. On early mixes, psychedelic mellotron parts often sit on the surface, prior to being drowned out by live strings. It’s an amazing window into their creative process.
Unfortunately, all other versions of Odessa remain out of print. Long time fans should have nothing to complain about, while casual listeners will likely find this deluxe edition a little redundant. I can only hope newcomers are inspired to continue digging into the Bee Gees’ catalog. Following Odessa, Robin left the band and recorded his solo masterpiece, Robin’s Reign, which has never been officially released on CD. Barry and Maurice continued with the Bee Gees title, releasing Cucumber Castle, another great and undervalued record. Convincing them that Odessa is essential to music history seems like a tall order, but hopefully this reissue will remind them of how cool and complex they were before the leisure suits.
Disc 1 (stereo), Disc 2 (mono):
1. Odessa (City on the Black Sea)
2. You’ll Never See My Face Again
3. Black Diamond
4. Marley Purt Drive
6. Melody Fair
8. Whisper Whisper
10. Sound of Love
11. Give Your Best
12. Seven Seas Symphony
13. With All Nations (International Anthem)
14. I Laugh in Your Face
15. Never Say Never Again
16. First of May
17. The British Opera
1. Odessa (demo)
2. You’ll Never See My Face Again (alternate mix)
3. Black Diamond (demo)
4. Marley Purt Drive (alternate mix)
5. Barbara Came to Stay
6. Edison (alternate mix)
7. Melody Fair (demo)
8. Melody Fair (alternate mix)
9. Suddenly (alternate mix)
10. Whisper Whisper – Part Two (alternate version)
11. Lamplight (demo)
12. Lamplight (alternate version)
13. Sound of Love (alternate mix)
14. Give Your Best (alternate mix)
15. Seven Seas Symphony (demo)
16. With All Nations (International Anthem) (vocal version)
17. I Laugh in Your Face (alternate mix)
18. Never Say Never Again (alternate mix)
19. First of May (demo)
20. First of May (alternate mix)
21. Nobody’s Someone
23. Odessa Promotional Spot
1996: The Rolling Stones - The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus
For nearly 30 years, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus was a legendary, unexperienced piece of pop detritus, cousin to Smile and Jerry Lewis’ holocaust movie The Clown That Cried. The project -- a big-top-themed concert featuring the Stones, The Who, Taj Mahal, John Lennon, and others -- was supposed to be shown on television, but was never broadcast. Reasons for its absence abound, but the most accepted theory is that Jagger and co. were unhappy with their performances and felt upstaged by their colleagues.
It’s a reasonable concern. The bands on the roster -- aside from the play-by-numbers Jethro Tull -- are in top form, especially The Who, who had just come off a tour and were about to unleash Tommy. They perform a blistering, fevered rendition of their classic mini-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away,” leaving the unrehearsed, creaky Stones outmatched.
Nonetheless, the headliners' scaled-back performance has definite appeal. It’s interesting to hear The Rolling Stones with a little less energy than usual and more interesting still to hear them perform for a small audience. After an introduction from John Lennon (in its entirety: “and now”), the band starts their set with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” followed by “Parachute Woman,” “No Expectations,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Sympathy For The Devil,” and show closer “Salt of the Earth.” It’s a solid set, and if the rumor about the project’s shelving is true, it’s a shame the Stones didn’t have enough faith in their fans.
Elsewhere, the ’60s rock cameos come fast and furious: Marianne Faithful gorgeously singing “Something Better,” Jethro Tull phoning in “Song For Jeffrey,” Taj Mahal stomping through the murky funk of “Ain’t That a Lot of Love.” The best track, however, is also the most tossed off: a cover of the Beatles’ “Yer Blues” by a band called The Dirty Mac -- featuring Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Lennon on vocals. The song sounds exactly like you’d imagine, with Lennon wailing his misery while Richards’ and Clapton’s notes bend within an inch of their lives. It’s the perfect song choice for these icons; if they had tried to tackle “Hey Jude” or “All You Need Is Love,” the result would have been a watered-down mess.
There’s nothing bad here, just minutiae -- a carnival orchestra, an itchy 12-bar blues with shrieking Yoko Ono vocals, and witty banter between rock stars. The concert doesn’t live up to its reputation, but it was never meant to be taken seriously. Instead, it’s an informal experiment in variety, a throwaway work by legends who regularly threw away legendary things.
1. Mick Jagger’s Introduction Of Rock and Roll Circus
2. Entry of the Gladiators – Circus Orchestra
3. Mick Jagger’s Introduction Of Jethro Tull
4. Song For Jeffrey – Jethro Tull
5. Keith Richards’ Introduction of The Who
6. A Quick One While He’s Away – The Who
7. Over The Waves – Rosas
8. Ain’t That A Lot Of Love – Taj Mahal
9. Charlie Watts’ Introduction Of Marianne Faithfull
10. Something Better – Marianne Faithfull
11. Mick Jagger and John Lennon’s Introduction Of The Dirty Mac
12. Yer Blues – The Dirty Mac
13. Whole Lotta Yoko – Yoko Ono & The Dirty Mac
14. Jumpin’ Jack Flash – The Rolling Stones
15. Parachute Woman – The Rolling Stones
16. No Expectations – The Rolling Stones
17. You Can’t Always Get What You Want – The Rolling Stones
18. Sympathy For The Devil – The Rolling Stones
19. Salt of the Earth – The Rolling Stones
1981: Glenn Branca - The Ascension
At the New Music America Festival in 1982, John Cage attended a performance of Glenn Branca’s Indeterminate Activities of Resultant Masses. He was deeply troubled by what he heard, leading him to famously liken Branca to a fascist. As a matter of course, if an artist is able to provoke extreme disgust -- and particularly if the disgusted party happens to be the exalted father of American avant-garde music -- that artist probably has something going for him. Branca’s symphonies are still met with derision from certain quarters of the crusty classical coterie, but thanks in part to his association with the No Wave movement and Sonic Youth, his place in punk’s history books (they have those now!) is cemented.
The Ascension was written directly before Resultant Masses, when Branca was still playing rock clubs and working up the nerve to call himself a composer. Released on what’s widely considered to be the coolest record label of all time, 99 Records, The Ascension achieves a level of sophistication that even the most ambitious New York noise punks had only hinted at. Crossing the seemingly insurmountable divide between punk and classical, The Ascension stands apart from both traditions as simply essential 20th-century music.
Instead of offering my own account of an esoteric scene that died before I was born, I’ll defer to the recent throng of coffee table No Wave books (and at $29.99, you can’t call this cheap nihilism). The primary sources are probably more deserving of your time and money, though: Metal Machine Music, The Ramones, Brian Eno, No New York, minimalism, theater of cruelty, Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio, Branca’s own Theoretical Girls, and of course John Cale and The Velvet Underground. Branca’s piece managed to invoke the Lower East Side’s noisy cultural legacy while predicting the future of indie guitar rock.
Critic/martyr Lester Bangs once argued that the alien screeching of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was really just urban ambient music, “great in Midwestern suburbs, but kinda unnecessary in NYC.” That holds for the more extreme side of No Wave in general: It’s music to prove a point to, good for advancing passive violence on those around you, maybe attractive to Catholics with self-laceration complexes, but by design a moral and aesthetic dead end. Take The Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray” which after 15 minutes of hard fought perseverance finally succumbs to its insidious disease and degenerates into unadulterated white noise. The Ascension works the opposite way; it takes white noise and harnesses it to create something highly organized and possibly even life-affirming.
Branca begins “Lesson No. 2” with an agit-bass riff before his guitar army joins in, adding grinding and whirring feedback to his insistent pulse. It sounds like the rehearsal of a particularly tight and imaginative No Wave band. The tune runs its course and then derails; Branca’s shout-out and kiss-off to the scene that fostered his artistic development. It ends in crashes of cacophonous guitar executed with chilly precision on top of a steady drumbeat.
With a name borrowed from Situationist theory, “The Spectacular Commodity” initially continues the mood of cynicism and foreboding, a sonic depiction of industrialization’s corroding effect on the landscape and the human spirit. A monstrous chord rings out seven times in slow succession like the toll of church bells -- strident metallic chimes. Three guitars, each playing on a different octave, are accompanied by bass and drums as they work their way through a series of tempo changes, rave-ups, and blowouts. The musically untrained among us won’t understand everything that’s going on, and it makes no difference. It’s immediately discernible that, despite all the dissonance, each note played has its place in this 12-minute leviathan. At roughly 8:50, high, open-sounding chords begin to float above the grit, while the other two guitars drop in to perform exultant accompaniment. Climactic doesn’t begin to describe it. This could make the perfect soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis or a triumphant battle tune for that fated day when humans will have to take up arms against the machines. Guitarists of the world, unite!
“Structure,” built on recurring noxious harmonics, is all suffocated aggression and claustrophobia (on a related note, the pointed song titles helpfully guide the listener’s free association responses to the work). The second side begins with “Light Fields (In Consonance),” which basically consists of one note, but garners its momentum through rhythmic interplay. The composition is somewhat reminiscent of Rhys Chatham’s 1977 “Guitar Trio,” which was probably the first piece to marry punk guitar with minimalist composition. However, Branca was no strict minimalist, and “Light Fields” suddenly becomes dynamic in its final two minutes, as the riffs begin shifting and climbing upwards until they reach the octave.
Last act “The Ascension” is as ambitious and lengthy as “The Spectacular Commodity,” though otherwise an entirely different beast. It's a less muscular and methodical buildup, relying largely on the overtones created by extreme guitar feedback (one can only imagine how loud and powerful this must have been live). You know how weird guitar sounds are always referred to as “ethereal” now? Well, here’s the blueprint. At times the center can barely hold and the song becomes almost completely abstract, yet during the last 30 seconds I would swear there were strings playing if I didn’t know better. It's like a redemptive response to the godless Metal Machine Music.
The sense of otherworldliness in “The Ascension” is created in part by the random disorienting nature of feedback, as well as the song’s Cage-ian silences and unpredictable tempos. Yet “The Spectacular Commodity” remains the show-stopper here for all the reasons Cage hated Branca’s work: its shattering volume, its triumphant romanticism and Wagnerian hulk. One of Cage’s misgivings was that too much of Branca’s own personality was in his work, and indeed The Ascension bares the heavy hand of its maker. When I want ego-less sound, though, I’ll just open my Brooklyn window or turn on my rain machine, thankyouverymuch. With both classical and rock, the listener’s sense of empowerment often comes vicariously through the artist. Like the paroxysmal art-punks in Robert Longo’s iconic Men in Cities series -- to which the striking cover art belongs -- sometimes we need the shock of loud, angular guitar to catalyze our own private liberation trip.
1. Lesson No. 2
2. The Spectacular Commodity
4. Light Fields (In Consonance)
5. The Ascension