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.
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.
2007: Shuttah - The Image Maker Vols. 1 & 2
I've practically given up on dollar-bin record shopping. My ability to judge proverbial books by their covers and to judge covers by the square inches they devote to musicians' chest hair (given the choice between two anonymous quiet storm soul LPs, side with the one whose auteur leaves the third button undone) has led me to some pleasant surprises. But once I get over the revelation that the past-prime BT Express album does indeed feature some funky breaks or the Wishbone Ash record does in fact, in its more placid moments, recall Terry Reid's River, I'm left with twelve-inches of empty signifiers that might beef up a Cultural Studies essay or a record collecting guide but will never give me persuasive reasons to listen closer, to listen more.
The Image Maker's charms linger a bit longer than those of most low-returns thrift store hauls. Partly because this ultra-obscure double-album is one giant vinyl-hound cryptogram. Though Shuttah's only LP was recorded on none other than progressive rock flagship label Vertigo's coin, these tunes never saw a proper release, and, more interestingly, no one is quite sure who played on the album. British copyright records don't reveal the songwriter's identity, and all information on the recording sessions has been lost. We know only two things for sure: these jams were committed to tape in 1971, and the culprits were likely involved in more prominent projects.
I won't venture any guesses as to the members' true identities -- sorry, I just don't feel like trudging through my old Renaissance and Procol Harum albums in search of clues. The Image Maker's high production values and adept songwriting do lead you to wonder how, exactly, this one fell through the cracks. Sure, the band veer into tepid bar rock waters when they try their hand at writing accessible songs, but this is at least marketable tepid bar rock, and the instrumental sections are top-notch. "Bull Run" is my favorite: panzer-sized riffs, storm-cloud fuzz organ, hallucinogenic snippets of military sound effects, out-there sax that could've come from John Surman or the dude who squawks all over Gong's Angel's Egg.
These genuinely inventive experimental cuts remind us that prog was never in theory a nauseating proposition. The genre's limitations come not from its ostentatious displays of virtuosity but from its failures to make good on its pretensions. Which happens here: the lyrical conceit -- some conflation of the Bible and a century of Anglo-American warfare -- never fleshes out. The statement Shuttah try so hard to make never fleshes itself out, kinda like how Isis' Panopticon never really elucidates its Foucaultian underpinnings. I don't doubt that this album will excite beard-strokers that enjoy being subsumed by menacing fuzz organ and enjoy the kitsch value of the lyrics' conceptual bent. Just don't listen to those people when they claim to take music seriously -- if they did, they'd admit that this album (like their Manassas, Tower of Power, and Yes records) is only a partial success, nice enough on its own terms but hardly a fount of missionary zeal.
1972: Day 5: Isaac Hayes - “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right)”
If there's one thing I've learned from my off-and-on viewing of daytime television for the past 20 years, it's this: Affairs, while always exciting and torrid in the beginning, generally work out very, very poorly. However, say you don't actually have the time or inclination to watch The Young and The Restless. No problem! You can experience the same lessons learned from someone else's infidelity through the magic of song instead.
Isaac Hayes' "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want To Be Right)" is an exquisitely crafted morality play in which a fictional protagonist finds himself torn between his role as a responsible, upright family man, and the woman he truly loves. If this were real life, we, the listeners, would be shocked and appalled by such blatantly duplicitous and cad-like behavior. Yet somehow Hayes' charm makes him the most sympathetic philanderer I've ever heard. His wounded, longing vocals is the sound of taking a jacuzzi in a vat of honey, while elsewhere the song is buoyed by his signature array of baroque touches -- in this instance sashaying saxophones and spine-tingling strings, with the subtle flutter of wah-wah guitar hiding in between. As the song climaxes, the dramatic flourishes of impassioned female vocals and sparse handclaps lead to a tense, heaving and exciting finish.
It’s true that you can't always choose who you fall in love with, and while this song doesn't hand out any real sage advice on actually cleaning up the foul mess that adultery leaves behind, it paints one of the most compelling and heartfelt portraits of unrequited love and covetous ruin ever committed to wax.