2006: ESG - Keep On Moving
ESG get treated by journalists like a group that the right people took under their wing, somewhat condescendingly implying that everybody was charmed by these girls with rudimentary technical skills. The spirit of punk had just as much room for three sisters from the Bronx as it did four pseudo-brothers from Queens, but whereas punk and the genres it spawned represented an ideology tied to a style of music, ESG never seemed particularly rebellious, and consequently came off as kinda naive, making them outsiders to an outsider art form. Maybe the downtown scene found a bit of primitivism in them, which might have helped them placate their own intellectual insecurities.
While those early hits owe their appeal to an irresistible spunk, attempting to achieve similar sassiness 25 years later just sounds sad. It's like watching your mom try to be sexy or something, and just as embarrassing. Tracks like "Purely Physical" and "The Road" sounds like strip music for the saggy set. The music sounds dry and cheap, like they're still playing the same drum machine they've had since the '80s.
Denser numbers like "Everything Goes" and the title track come close to finding a groove, but are hampered by the sense that these ladies can still barely play their instruments. There's something far less charming about middle-aged women playing clumsy beats and simple bass-lines than teenage sisters forming a band with instruments their mom gave them. "Ex" is clearly trying to be a sensitive heartbreak song, but I don't want to hear that kind of trembly teenage stuff when I know these girls have been having relationships for 30 years. Call me sexist or ageist for saying women in their forties can't pull off what people half their age do, but the whole point of getting older is to become more mature, or at the very least more proficient.
It must be frustrating for bands to realize the hot new sound of now is what they were doing way back when. There's a weird irony that young people playing old instruments usually sound better than old people playing new instruments, so you'd better trade your nostalgia for defiance if you want to impress the kids. Then again, if you don't care about keeping your cred and just want to get paid to play music, who cares about broke hipsters.
1989: Godflesh - Streetcleaner
Streetcleaner, a work purveyed by Justin Boardrick of the current Hydra Head recording outfit, Jesu, is pure texture. Guitars surge like deep ocean swells; slow and damning. "Machine" spews out beats that toggle from tick to crash with no warning. The vocals are distilled to distorted, doom-mantras like, "You breed/ like rats," or "Don't hold me back/ This is my own hell." In the 1980s when speed and intricacy were the musical traits held in the highest esteem, Godflesh choose to reveal themselves in gradual, leveling eruptions of sound.
Inventors of the short-lived grindcore genre, Godflesh stripped death metal of its vocal barks, riffs, and gaudy drums while at the same time, besting its brutality. In so doing they polarized metal fans and gained new support in hardcore, industrial, and goth circles. The music; thick, bleak, and repetitive, somehow evokes lucid imagery like silent vampire films, scorched expanses of forest at twilight, and grey, windowless buildings seconds before implosion. This crafted atmosphere of utter devastation is masterful through the record's first side. It's only when we flip the wax that the results become a bit more sorted. Side two, recorded in a separate studio session, adds to the mix a second guitarist, Paul Neville, as well as slabs of sampling. In some cases, the broadened sound works; "Devastator/Mighty Trust Krusher" drips with urgent guitar shrills reminiscent of noise-metal heroes, the Swans, and "Life is Easy" barges out of the speakers with minimalist riffing. As we reach the title track and the closing, "Locust Furnace," however, Streetcleaner loses its sense of thick minimalism and descends back toward other death metal efforts. On these tracks, the riffing becomes prominent, and the growling-vox effects become contrived. None of this is to say that these tracks are weak, rather this more traditional approach brings the listener out of the horror and into the mosh pit. The apt noise-mongering grows that much easier to catalogue and falls into territory ventured by the likes of Meshuggah and Burzum.
Justin Boardrick would return to the magnificence explored on Streetcleaner's first side with the Godflesh follow-up, Pure and then embark toward more rhythmically-charged efforts with the Ice and God projects, before creating Jesu. Some may find it odd that the mastermind behind Godflesh could make the transition to a project such as Jesu which is lathered in melody. But, I have an inkling that to Boardrick, music is simply sheets of sound; obscuring both the good and bad, the sweet and deteriorated.
2006: The Gentle Rain - Moody
There is often a dreadfully fine line that exists between cheesy and hip when it comes to dated and highly stylized music. The Gentle Rain, throughout the duration of Moody, the band’s sole 1973 record, have one foot firmly planted on either side of that line. A labor of love of sorts for English producer/arranger Nick Ingman, Moody was the end result of two days in the studio with a cast of session musicians, including the always-impressive Canadian flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler. Consisting of twelve covers of songs by artists as diverse as the Beatles, Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, and others, the Gentle Rain’s arrangements are very much a product of their era.
Having had an initially limited pressing that went out of print decades ago, Moody has been long sought after by record collectors and crate diggers alike. The album is something of an anomaly that more or less epitomizes the term crossover jazz in terms of the structure of its compositions and orchestrations. But the inclusion of so many covers at the expense of original compositions has the effect of likening the Gentle Rain’s music to muzak as much as it does the jazz/rock hybrid form that spawned in the early ‘70s. And while much of its material is actually quite strong, many of the record’s more well-known pieces, such as the opening cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” have achieved the level of elevator music over time and through numerous paradigm shifts. Also serving as something of a distraction is the inclusion of now-kitschy instrumentation such as the moog synthesizer. Once the moog kicks in on several of these pieces, most notably on the cover of Johnny Worth’s “Gonna Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse,” the tracks take a decidedly cheesy turn that causes the suppression of a snicker to be a considerably arduous task.
On the positive side, Moody is a beautifully produced and lushly arranged album that is perhaps one of the most eloquently expressive examples of crossover jazz ever recorded. Its obscurity makes it difficult to pin down just how influential it was at the time, but upon giving it a spin one recognizes the Gentle Rain’s album as the source from which a number of recognizable samples have been lifted. Possessing cinematic overtones that associate it with the numerous blaxploitation soundtracks of the era; it’s difficult to avoid thinking Ingman may have taken a cue or two from Isaac Hayes’ Shaft score (we’ve heard that wah-wah pedal before). However anachronistic Moody may be, it certainly does, however, feature moments of brilliance. Kenny Wheeler’s flugelhorn solos are melodic and seductive, and complement the somewhat funky nature of the arrangements, as do Ingman’s flute solos. An underlying vibe of eeriness, which is enhanced by the ensemble’s vibraphone playing and haunting Fender Rhodes electric piano, persists throughout the album as well. By and large, the Gentle Rain’s Moody is a curiosity that is pleasing to the ear and well worth seeking out as an artifact of the ‘70, particularly now that it’s in fact possible to do so.
1974: Brian Eno - Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
We tend to take Brian Eno pretty seriously these days. After all, he did invent entire genres of music and merge the rock and avant garde worlds forever. From Robert Fripp to Roxy Music, David Byrne to David Bowie, Eno’s collaborations have yielded some of the most impressive albums of the past 50 years. Hell, he even made U2 sound kind of interesting.
But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1974, upon the release of Eno’s second solo album, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), he was best known as a debauched rock star with a knack for salacious sound bites. It must have been that reputation that prompted Pete Erskine, of the publication Long Acre, to write that the album “smacked of the bogus.”
Almost 35 years later, it’s clear that Taking Tiger Mountain was no joke. Rather, history has revealed it to be a transition point between the more conventional rock of Roxy Music and Eno’s first solo release, Here Come the Warm Jets, and more experimental albums like 1975’s Another Green World and the ambient records of the late ’70s and beyond.
Although the album was inspired by a set of eight postcards depicting the Maoist opera Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Eno never saw the theatrical production and was uninterested in doing so. His primary fascination was with the title, which he split into two parts. Taking Tiger Mountain seemed ancient and fantastical, while By Strategy was modern and technological.1 Throughout the album, this duality is striking, as Eno juxtaposes bizarre, noisy, futuristic sounds with impressionistic but often narrative lyrics full of Brechtian military scenes and references to the Far East.
Although we still get 10 songs with lyrics, verses, and even choruses of a sort, things aren’t quite the same as they were on Warms Jets. It would be a stretch to say the album contains a story arc, but the first song, “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” recounts a departure to China, and beyond that point, the music and lyrics become increasingly foreign and abstract. We’re left with the spare, haiku-like images, far-away chanting, and sweeping, epic-film instrumentals of “Taking Tiger Mountain.” The idea of opera, if not the Maoist piece itself, makes an appearance, as Eno delivers many of the lyrics in a stagey, declamatory style. Popular genres like the lullaby (“Put a Straw Under Baby”) and the soldier’s drinking song (“Back in Judy’s Jungle”) are taken up, twisted, and discarded within single tracks. At first listen, “Burning Airlines” sounds like a sweet, wistful pop ballad a la “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” but then you realize it’s about a guy whose girlfriend dies in a plane crash on the way to China.
No wonder Eno abandoned rock after Taking Tiger Mountain — he’d simply exhausted the form. And if he sounded a bit cheeky as he did so, I don’t think we can begrudge him that.
1 During the record’s production, Eno and artist Peter Schmidt, who created the cover art, took the idea of strategy literally, creating a deck of “Oblique Strategy” cards. Intended as guidance for artistic dilemmas and including such advice as, “Do nothing for as long as possible” and “Short circuit (example: a man eating peas with the idea that they will improve his virility shovels them straight into his lap),” the deck is now in its fifth edition. If you don’t want to spend all your pocket money on a set, try Eno Web’s [random oblique strategy generator->http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/oblique/oblique.html].
1976: Merrell Fankhauser - Maui
Although you may not have heard of him, you are at least karmically aware of Merrell Fankhauser’s work. Quickly after writing the still often-referenced “Wipe Out” surf-rock signature piece with The Impacts in the early ’60s, he founded MU with Antenna Jimmy Semens (Captain Beefheart) as well as the freak-folk Fapardokly, which melded into Merrell Fankhauser & The H.M.S. Bounty. Those projects only produced a handful of LPs, but they are all highly sought after by serious vinyl geeks. Trust me, this trend has helped shape almost every dusty record bin you’ve poked through since such things first started forming in garages and flea markets.
After becoming disillusioned with the music industry in the early ’70s, Merrell, his violinist wife, and MU, his band at the time, all escaped to Hawaii. Mary Lee and Merrell built a Tarzan nest in a Maui rainforest after hearing the island may have had remnants of the sunken Mu civilization, and dug into the surroundings for what would end up being seven years. His band didn’t last long, though; half of them left to become Christian ministers on the mainland, as addressed in the song “Some of Them Escaped.” So, by the time there was enough material to warrant a recording excursion to Los Angeles in 1975, it was just Merrell, Mary, and some session musicians (hence his first solo album). It sold in small numbers on a local island indie label, then, like the tragedy that followed so much of his work, just kinda faded away into strategically placed vinyl troughs.
That’s where Anthology comes in. Now with seven bonus tracks, Maui is complete and restored for the über-nerd, who can’t find or afford the original LP, to see how Merrell’s sound progressed since his prominent late-’60s acid phase. Being as it was recorded and released in the mid-’70s, the studio sounds reflect less of the razorblade fuzz charm of his earlier work and more of the glossy sheen that came with newer, more accurate equipment, while his lyrics, despite still being based on abstract mysticism and myth, ooze a wiser, more honest maturity.
“The music business has got more sharks than there are in the sea/ They stole my songs and they stole my girl, but they can’t steal me” from “Sail It Over The Ocean” isn’t just dreary bitching, after all. It’s an affirmation of the choices he made, having already acknowledged the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. The high strung, plucky, BJ Thomas-like “I Saw Your Photograph” deserves to go down in history as one of the catchiest and happiest pop love songs of all time, and it’s just one of the moments here that compel you to smile. As such, the quality of these songs will see most of them outlive the style in which they were recorded. Rock sure doesn’t produce many characters like this any more.
1990: Souled American - Around the Horn
Something totally weird has happened. Something I spent a lot of my life actively working against while being reared in smalltown Texas has suddenly started to make sense: I’m sort of digging country. I was shellacked with ungodly guilt and smirks upon the realization and revelation of this fact. You can only yell “Asshole” to a certain number of Confederate-draped trucks before they’re allowed to brandish the bullhorn mounted in those Hella lights and scream “Hypocrite!” right on back, you know? If those dudes could see me now (they can’t), they’d have an offcial license to mock. I mean, my dad gave me a Jerry Jeff Walker LP when I told him about this and, uh, I liked it. It’s a pretty serious affliction and, in addition, it’s entirely the fault of this album, Around the Horn, by Souled American.
Souled American are one of those heavily under-listened-to bands. According to Rough Trade, they have that rare distinction of each subsequent release selling fewer records than the previous. I really don’t remember how I heard of them past the skeletal and languid reputations of their last two albums. After the “best band ever” confirmation by a friend, I searched out their not terribly easy to find records. Around the Horn marks the mid-career stage for the band and superlatively bridges early- and late-period Souled American. Thus it is pretty slow in the grand scheme of things, even if it’s damn upbeat in regards to future Souled endeavors.
The big tonal distinction is Joe Adducci’s bass, which sounds more or less like it was recorded underwater from three rooms away, though here it isn’t quite as extreme as on earlier albums. Adducci and Chris Grigoroff share vocal duties, both singing in a weird, raspy, twangy voice that occasionally lapses into falsetto. The guitars on this record are, for lack of a better analogy, the shoegaze of country; churning, ringing, and slippery. It seems like the guitars are strummed a few seconds before you actually hear the sound. The whole album has random dissonances bristling about. The final two albums saw the band play without drummer Jamey Barnard, but here, on their third, his presence is already pretty minimal, the drums almost always understated.
Around the Horn also introduced me to the country notion of releasing an album half filled with cover songs and not being seen as a total hack-job (in fact, their next album, Sonny, has only one original on it). They inhabit the covers so well that I really can’t imagine any of these songs being written by anyone but Souled American. They’re that sort of inexplicably weird band where you can’t quite put your finger on what’s so bizarre about them, which is, at the end of the day, what makes Souled American worth listening to in the first place.