1965: Jackson C. Frank - Blues Run The Game
Unless you're a connoisseur of folk music, have seen Vincent Gallo's movie The Brown Bunny, or have frantically searched the influences of Devendra Banhart, you've probably never heard the absolute beauty of singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank's music. To be honest, I have to claim the last two of these references as my path to discovering one of the ‘60s greatest forgotten folk treasures.
Since becoming familiar with his music, I've learned that Frank, who died in 1999, had a sad life of pain and loss; both mentally and physically. Frank was severely burned during a tragic fire at his elementary school at the age of 11, and for the rest of his life was left scarred in more ways than one. He always had a sense of insecurity, but managed to write a short list of beautiful songs and influenced a long list of performers before living a life of recluse on the streets, and in the mental hospitals of New York City.
Blues Run the Game is a perfect album in every sense. As far as folk records go, I've heard nothing better. It's full of melancholy and beauty, and is a completely essential exercise in folk music. Produced by Paul Simon and recorded in less than three hours, each track contains pristine sounds of acoustic guitar and gentle vocals. It makes you feel like this is the mold that others have tried to imitate ever since. Many have covered Frank's songs, such as the illustrious Nick Drake and Sandy Denny (Denny was also Frank's girlfriend for a short period of time. Although Denny is more recognized than Frank, it's impossible not to see he was as big an influence on her work as just about anyone else).
The title track, "Blues Run the Game," has been accepted by Frank's fans as his most identifiable and significant song, written during one of the only times things seemed to be going well in his life. He had just received a small fortune of insurance money from his fire accident and began a journey to England. It was there that he became completely engaged with writing folk music.
The stand out song on the album is "Milk and Honey," with its solemn beauty epitomizing everything that is simple and perfect about the state of music in the mid-'60s. The songs have an uncanny ability to paint images in my head of childhood and remind me of an innocence long left behind.
For the longest time, you couldn't find a copy of Blues Run the Game. Over the past decade, however, several labels have re-issued the album for an ever-growing fan base. If you own any folk record, and don't have this in your collection, consider this an insightful plea. It's nice to see so many people slowly going back in time to revisit some of the lost treasures that have fallen to the wayside. And although our timing might be too late to show him some support, hopefully the love for Jackson C. Frank's music that was left behind is just beginning for a new generation.
1969: Larry Coryell - Lady Coryell
The first time listening to Lady Coryell, I was expecting something busier. Basically, I was looking for a Bitches Brew inspired clone. Hearing the loose, scratchy voice of a slightly off key Coryell was somewhat startling. I skipped to the second track, only to hear that voice again: More then anything it sounded like Steve Winwood on crack. Slightly disillusioned, I took the disc out and started jamming Return to Forever, or whatever likeminded band I was craving at the time.
When my fusion hard on cooled a bit, I went back to Lady Coryell and discovered something completely different. In place of modal chaos was a ripe selection of extremely catchy themes. Even when the improvisation was at it's most extreme ("Stiff Neck"), there was always a hummable riff or phrase to fall back on. Secondly, and somewhat ironically, only the first half of the album contained vocals. Side-B revealed a lot more guitar noodling and extended jams. Yet Coryell's sharp, often distorted guitar tone was clear throughout. The perfect assimilation of style had evaded me before, but here was a jazz guitarist playing a heavy blues riff with atonal wankery fidgeting in the background ("Sunday Telephone"). Beautiful. It felt the same as the Hendrix inspired 'rock' aesthetic other musicians had been trying to achieve in the same year, though under different guises. Basically, it was not a record to be pegged down.
Coming back to it now, I can try to explain how Lady Coryell combines forms of jazz, blues, folk, and psychedelic rock, but it won't do much good. It's the kind of album that doesn't subscribe to any specific method. It is a gem because its eclecticism is effortless, and I can't help but think that if it were released today, it would still be hailed as truly original. If you take the albums variety into account, Lady Coryell is also a nice bridge from rock into a more traditional jazz setting, or vice versa. Though sometimes it's just better in the middle.
2002: Glifted - Under and In
Welcome to the epicenter of hazy delirium. Though the world of Under and In may seem overwhelmingly dense at first listen, eventually you'll be sucked right in to an experience so gloriously disorienting that you'll feel like you're undergoing radical mutation. It's audio narcotics, and there are few other products advertised as such that are innately intoxicating as this.
You may feel like your CD is skipping when you play the first track, but notice the snaking countermelody and phased-out vocals coming in, you'll start getting into it. I opted to review this for The DeLorean because any Hum enthusiasts who looked up Glifted on Amazon and read the disparaging comments of fellow Hum'sters could easily miss out on something grand and unique. It's only like Hum in the guitars swoop and dive like aural avalanches. Tim Lash's vocals are less intimate and emotionally endearing perhaps, but in many ways, this band trumps Hum's entire catalogue with its spaced-out majesty. I always thought Matt Talbott's lyrics were kind of dumb anyway ("I'm thinking of a number between everything and two"). To me, what was always good about Hum was the sheer grandiosity of their sound. They were their best when surging and powering through a soaring progression like on Downward is Heavenward's opening track.
Glifted's music is more about disorientation. It's music that, more than any other, deserves all of the Loveless comparisons heaped on it. The merry cacophony idealized in that classic album's opening track's wordless chorus is at the heart of what makes Under and In such a winner. And, like Loveless, there are really catchy pop tunes hidden under all the washes. Perhaps a bit more so, since the album's poppier moments arrive in crunchier, Hum-like fashion (particularly on the infectious "Baby's Blue"). So, while it may not stand up to the infallible behemoth of Kevin Shield's innovation and subtle song writing, it comes pretty damn close. The only thing preventing Under and In from being a perfect woozy rock opus might be the lengthy and pointless loop tacked on to the albums end. But don't let that stop you. This is an enticing trip that you definitely don't want to pass up.
1. Is There Any Always
2. The Scare
3. On and On
4. Baby's Blue
5. Heavy Ion
6. Last in Line
7. Every Single Second
8. The Ground
9. Red Lift
1998: The Crainium - A New Music For A New Kitchen
With the often vapid, territorial pissing of trends and provincial music(s), music can be tiresome and predictable. Most music that becomes popular nowadays can be traced back to an earlier trend that happened decades ago. It'd be arrogant to claim, however, that the more avant-garde sectors of music are any more original or 'authentic' than, say, the garage rock or disco-punk trends; all music has its influences, and all of it's hybrid. However, the difference between those in the vanguard and the more conservative musicians can be found in audience reception.
The Crainium's one and only album, A New Music for a New Kitchen, for example, is still very much part of a negotiation (as opposed to appropriation) of sound, despite it being clearly influenced by the short-lived No Wave scene of the '70s/early '80s. There's no co-optation involved here. Dragging the sounds of D.N.A., Mars, and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks through noise and post-punk movements of the late 20th century, The Crainium play with sounds that still resist convention and conformity. This is why their music in 1998 has continued resonance today; the codes in this music are still very much dynamic and alive, no matter how old the influences are.
In this hour-long document of nervous spasms and intricate song writing, The Crainium balance tight composition with blasts of free chaos. With discordant guitars, contorted drumming, and penetrating vocals, The Crainium channel the improvisational aspects of free jazz while signaling an era entrenched in noise contextualized; it's Cecil Taylor meets Boredoms meets James Chance meets Melt-Banana. It's intelligent music that harnesses the exciting destructive elements of punk, simultaneously acknowledging its home at the outer edges of societal normalcy. And it's this resistance to societal normalcy that's expressed in its lyrics, which deconstruct the notion of gender in a society that employs the construction for power politics (hence, the album title).
A New Music for a New Kitchen will probably never achieve the level of acclaim that most records of this caliber do -- not because it can't be appreciated or because it's ahead of its time, but because it's an anomaly. It's not part of a scene or a movement, and the embrace of dissonance and exclusion of tonality has assured its obscurity among the more straightened crowd. If anything, The Crainium makes it apparent that the No Wave scene fizzled out much too early, and the critique of gender in music is at best a slight hum. Even though Tim Dewitt and Brian DeGraw are now in Gang Gang Dance, their work in the Crainium remains their most penetrating output. A New Music for a New Kitchen isn't a cry for help; it's a scream to rise above the mediocrity of rosy-cheeked America. It's just too bad that the Crainium isn't around to keep things moving.
1. The roles we play, a dead-ended game. We have to change. Create and rearrange. The roles we play they are a dead-ended game.
2. Watch who they beat, watch who they eat.
3. You pretend that you depend, but now you are, are you, visible?
4. There are no rabbits in my hat (yes, yes, yes, I am a traitor to my sex!)
5. Abracadabra! What am I now?
6. Only true love will break the rules.
7. Your penis, it is tiny, and it can not spell.
9. Cut it out of my body, cut it out of my mind, to look, no look
11. What are we hiding? (Parts 1-2 and 3) - Blood and babies, over tea. The eggtree and the ebbing tides. The main in the moon, drinks claret
12. New hormones. Until then, we will not know what love is
14. A new music for a new kitchen. Or, (How I raised myself up from the dead, and you can tell too!)
15. The coquettery of immobility oh watch how I bake, a vicitm, a baby, a coital cake
17. A new music for a new kitchen
2003: Leafcutter John - The Housebound Spirit
It was Keith Fullerton Whitman, right here on TMT in fact, who initially acquainted me with the name Leafcutter John. He answered most glowingly in Leafcutter John’s favor when asked if there were artists deserving more recognition, "Some of the most vital and humanistic yet academic-leaning computer music of this or any time really." I remember this because it piqued my interest at the time that such bold plaudits were going to someone I'd never caught wind of before. Also, that someone with such an organic and folksy name was making computer music. I feebly investigated him at the time, couldn't find much about him, tried to *gulp* download his album, was stymied, and proceeded to ignore KFW's plea and went on like seemingly everyone else (I still can't find many reviews of this album) in continuing to ignore him. Well, not too long ago, I stumbled upon this album, and ever since, I've regretted not heeding the well-informed advice at the time.
This album is sold as one of those Matmos(ish) novelties (no knock on Matmos) featuring samples from a highly restricted set of sources. In this case, the samples all come from items you can find in your home. The reason is that the artist was suffering from crippling agoraphobia after being attacked in public, hence the title The Housebound Spirit. To be honest, I couldn't give a lick. It’s distracting to consider such tangential nonsense. What we should concern ourselves with is the breathtaking sweep of this album. The ‘genre’ ping-pongs around with every track, from KFW IDM sounds to Kid 606-esque cut-ups to avant-classical electro-acoustic to a sparing vocal and acoustic guitar. They're masterfully executed, and, moreover, it’s really an enjoyable collection to listen to. The pacing might be the greatest achievement here, with strikingly disparate tempos residing next to one another cohesively. Similarly, the dynamics in sound are perfectly jarring. And none of this comes anywhere near to conveying the magical experience of listening to this record. This is the truly inspired music that makes people like my self love music. PLEASE, please go out and buy this album. Absolutely one of the most essential recordings I've heard in the past few years.
2. Electric Love
3. If You have an Enemy
5. Walk on my Back
7. Mandolin Work
8. Short Sine
9. House of a Soul
10. For Two
11. All I Could Think of Was Nothing
12. Arches Never Sleep
13. Escape From the Globous Playpen
14. Dead Men Can't Talk, They Can't Do Anything
15. Know Mercy
1978: Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance
With The Modern Dance, Pere Ubu accomplished something almost no other artist has ever accomplished: they created a timeless record. Twenty-six years after its inception, The Modern Dance sounds as jarring and radical as it must have in 1978. This doesn't make The Modern Dance the greatest album ever made, but it certainly makes it one of the most interesting ones. And as a fun exercise, I'm going to review The Modern Dance as if it came out today, on December 20, 2004:
Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi is considered the first absurdist drama ever written and caused a riot on the night of its first performance in France in 1896. In this scatological farce, Pere Ubu (which translates into King Turd) is an obese and vile member of the bourgeoisie who murders literally hundreds of people in his overblown and insatiable pursuit of money and power.
Never before has a band's name fit the group so perfectly. Straight out of Cleveland, Pere Ubu laughs at American complacency and entertainment expectations, beginning their debut album with 30 seconds of blistering and uncompromising guitar feedback before falling into the avant-garage anthem "Nonalignment Pact." At that point, you think the pain has passed. But Pere Ubu has other plans. The pain has only begun, because David Thomas, the human embodiment of Midwest paranoia, begins yelping and squealing over the riffing and senseless electronic squeals as if a whole flock of fire-breathing geese are chasing him in his flying car. And only them does the horror really hit you: Pere Ubu has a bloated mental patient for a lead singer.
And for the rest of "Nonalignment Pact," the catchiest and most fun attempt at garage-rock in years, Thomas blurts the silliest lyrics with such frenzy you start to believe these lines are coming from his heart: "I want to make a deal with you girl/ Get it signed by the heads of state/ I want to make a deal with you girl/ Get it recognized around the world/ You better sign my/ Nonalignment pact." Synthesizer farts, whooshing air noises, and a single-minded groove take the song to heights unseen since "Debaser."
And the Pixies are the best starting point, too. Think Pixies if, instead of creating alternative rock, they had instead created a steady market for dramatized alien rape sounds. David Thomas and friends certainly couldn't have made this album without the Pixies yelping with a fat guy or Captain Beefheart showing the world the power of nonsense. And they've grabbed hold of the spirit of the Contortions, Gang of Four, and every other post-punk or no wave group that wanted to dance. But Pere Ubu has mangled these influences through a strange new filter. It's not blue collar; it's not hipster pretension; it's not anything except really, really frighteningly weird.
And the rest of the album beyond the startling "Nonalignment Pact" makes good on that statement, albeit with less guttural impact. "The Modern Dance" and "Laughing" both stir and brew into creepy and unsettling no wave soundscapes before exploding into jittery dance-if-you-have-a-seizure-coming ecstasy. Saxophones and comically high-end guitars splatter around David Thomas's multi-tracked vocals; making lyrics that sound like a tortured homeless man's diary entry become profound statements about belief and chaos: "If the devil comes / We'll shoot him with a gun."
The wonderfully strange "Chinese Radiation" makes good on its name and announces the second half of the record as the extremely experimental half (because apparently the first half wasn't weird enough). "Life Stinks" is a two minute squeaky fart that comes across as honestly as farts tend to do. "Real World" and "Over My Head" try to match "The Modern Dance" and "Laughing" as a one-two combo, but instead meander and never hit the groove of the formers. "Sentimental Journey," literally six minutes of
moans and glass breaking, even makes a case for Pere Ubu as the shittiest and most pretentious band ever.
But "Humor Me," which ends The Modern Dance, returns Pere Ubu to our previous conclusion: they're the weirdest good band we've got. What starts as a really lame reggae prank (complete with "It's just a joke, mon" Jamaican accent) suddenly transforms into a Pixies-cum-psychedelic dirge with David Thomas sincerely wailing, "So humor me!" over a climactic guitar solo. Did Pere Ubu just end their record with a mock-reggae jam/indie rock anthem? Has a band already bested "Take Me Out" for the Mid-Song Transition Award?
Pere Ubu have announced themselves loud and clear as a rock presence, a rock presence just as soon to implode as to conquer the world. Four records of "Nonalignment Pact" and "Humor Me" will get them David Thomas statues while one record of "Sentimental Journey" will get them shows in friends' basements. The verdict is out on these Cleveland rockers, but maybe that's what Pere Ubu is all about. Is it a joke, mon?
1. Nonalignment Pact
2. The Modern Dance
4. Street Waves
5. Chinese Radiation
6. Life Stinks
7. Real World
8. Over My Head
9. Sentimental Journey
10. Humor Me