1997: Jim O’Rourke - Bad Timing
Jim O’Rourke’s first solo album after parting ways with his Gastr del Sol partner David Grubbs works like a stylistic palette cleanser. After constantly pushing their ambitions forward with every Gastr release, O’Rourke took a chance to indulge in something simultaneously simpler and more complex with Bad Timing. It’s a contradiction because these songs are generally more musically complicated than anything Gastr did, yet their main focus is always on melody. A track like “94 the Long Way” grows ever denser as it piles on instrumentation over its 13-minute run time, but sounds simpler in the wake of the acoustic-ambient creepiness of songs like “Work from Smoke” or the electronic noise of “Hello Spiral” from the older albums.
This album sets a very good trajectory of where O’Rourke would be going with future albums like Eureka and Insignificance, but while those albums focused on pop and rock respectively Bad Timing shows O’Rourke taking his John Fahey worship to a majestic extreme. And much like Fahey’s best work, this entirely instrumental album never makes you miss vocals; O’Rourke’s guitar playing is so emotive he practically makes it sing.
Certain moments grab you more and more upon repeated listens. The opener “There’s Hell in Hello but More in Goodbye” manages to jump from a bouncy lighthearted melody to intricately rhythmic guitar to a darker sequence of low pulses punctuated by harmonics so beautiful that you don’t even notice the growing piano chords in the background. The song goes from sounding off the cuff and silly to sincere and tragic in only a couple minutes. Meanwhile the title track sounds downright magical as it builds a hypnotic guitar groove that eventually leads into mournful horns. Nothing, though, feels more satisfying than the feedback soaked finale “Happy Trails” which starts sounding like Fahey being backed by Earth and inexplicably ends by exploding into the jolliest possible combination of strings, trombones, and a ukulele solo… because why the hell not.
Describing elements of these songs can get across the inventiveness O’Rourke is playing with, but there’s no way to describe the genuine sense of fun when you hear this album, or the way the songs (ranging from 10 to 13 minutes) make you wish they went on forever. Though this solo record marked the end of one of the most creative musical collaborations of the 90s, O’Rourke sounds so full of ideas and life that it’s hard not to find it cathartic. Plus, I’ve tried and it is impossible to hear that ukulele solo without getting a great big grin on your face.
[Illustration: Mat Pringle]
1971-1972: Don Cherry - Organic Music Society
It’s not entirely clear when trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Don Cherry’s (1936-1995) organic-music cocktail of songs and traditions became a basis for an improvising language, but one can imagine that the thirst for knowledge went at least as far back as his Watts, Los Angeles bebop roots. By 1971 and 1972, when he convened the Organic Music Society sessions in Copenhagen, Bollnäs and Stockholm, Cherry had lived mainly in Europe for several years, in cities like Paris and Rome as well as a former schoolhouse in rural Sweden. His roots had grown broader and deeper through working with South African pianist Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) and bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani, Turkish drummer Okay Temiz and trumpeter Maffy Falay, and musicians from throughout Europe and the Americas. Added to this was the unique all-in scene available in Scandinavia, which allowed collaborations with composers, psychedelic musicians, jazzmen, visual artists, and filmmakers.
Released on the Swedish imprint Caprice, Organic Music Society joined Cherry with, among others, Falay, Temiz, percussionists Bengt Berger, Christer Bothén and Nana Vasconcelos, reedman Tommy Koverhult, a youth orchestra, and his wife Mocqui (whose tapestry design also graces the cover) on a patchwork of compositions and improvisations. In addition to the trumpeter’s tunes, there are also covers of Brand, Terry Riley, and Pharoah Sanders across 80 minutes of music. Though Organic Music Society has been one of the most lauded titles in the Caprice catalog, it is only now with the recordings’ fortieth anniversary that they’re seeing a renaissance on disc.
Opening with “North Brazilian Ceremonial Hymn,” it’s pretty clear that this set is distant from the free jazz milieu to which Cherry’s name is often attached. Girded by tanpura, berimbau, and bells (itself a fairly odd instrumental combination), the twelve-person chorus elicits a solemn, dirge-like processional in a field of accents. It’s unsettling but strangely peaceful music once one gives oneself over, washing away the particularities of tradition for another sort of ritual. The next four tracks are from the Cherry-Bothén-Berger session, mixing meditative fragments with chanting exhortations and churning modal repetition, though the trio tends to cycle through shifts rather abruptly on just the right side of ragtag. From a conversation this writer had with German vibraphonist Karl Berger (who worked frequently with Cherry), it became clear that the musicians had to recognize Cherry’s cues and follow him wherever his pied-piper intuition took the music, even as it crossed perceived sonic boundaries. On “Relativity Suite” he states that “this is the way of the organic society – to flow with time,” while incorporating tabla rhythms and Gnawa strings into a surging, ring-like ensemble vibration. It’s a rather different iteration of concepts that Cherry used with the Jazz Composers Orchestra for the 1973 JCOA LP of the same name.
The 1971 recordings from Stockholm’s Modernamuseet include nearly 30 minutes of music featuring Cherry’s voice, piano, and pocket trumpet with an ensemble of brass, flutes, bass, and percussion, balanced between a distant din and incisive clarity. Moving from minimalist arpeggios to the soaring “Desireless” (here titled “Hope”) and its piercing carpet, the ensemble sounds considerably larger than a sextet, able to engender hazily blissful visions and raw energy with equal measure. Cherry’s pianism is gorgeous and rhapsodic, a weighty arranger’s piano redolent of township barrelhouse and Monkish poise. Though hard to find, a similar vibe permeates the Stockholm free jazz orchestra Movement Incorporated (ostensibly led by Cherry) as well as reedman Gunnar Lindquist’s G.L. Unit (Odeon, 1970). A snatch of Brubeck precedes the group’s journey into “The Creator has a Master Plan,” which takes shape as several different song fragments before the familiar theme emerges. While Organic Music Society might seem at first like a disjointed (albeit spirited) smattering of improvisation and ethnographic reference, the music here is really something all its own, not only a cornerstone of Cherry’s unending journey, but also a bridging of world vanguards.
1984: Déficit Des Années Antérieures - La famille des saltimbanques
There are so many ways I wish I could have come across La famille des saltimbanques, like discovering it tucked away in the dusty closet of a library, laying dormant in some neglected confiscation bin. “Too many kids trying to re-enact some whacko rituals with this one,” the librarian would reason. Or, better yet: students covertly trading tapes during class, and this silhouette, these D. D. A. A. shadows: La famille des saltimbanques is the mysterious tape that nobody can figure out. Maybe someone took it from the storage closet of the French classroom? Maybe someone wants to start a cult.
Not sure why La famille des saltimbanques reminds me of school. Perhaps it’s the cover art, with its drab backing color and shapes lifted from Pablo Picasso’s painting of the same name — who hasn’t marked up their schoolbooks at one point or another? Or maybe it’s because this tape sounds aged by time, and I have such little context for it. A cassette released overseas before I was even born? How the hell did I even hear this? Like Marcos Hassan wrote of Poem Rocket earlier this month, these recordings were given new life on the Internet, and I wouldn’t have heard them — or even of them — if someone hadn’t decided, “I think I’ll share this weird tape of French noises on the Internet today.” (Thanks!)
I hear creeping erosion throughout La famille des saltimbanques; on “Ne plus rien voir,” it’s as if buzzing frequencies physically seeped into the tape over decades of neglect. The track’s cyclical bassline reminds me of 90s post-rock, yet the synthesizer haze is all chewed apart and left gauzy, creating an airy and surprisingly pleasant effect. Elsewhere, “Loin dans le froid” is a more horror-wrought mixture: rhythmically blinking like a VCR timer display, dated tics of clinking electronics become enveloped within a crawling murk of guitar and horror film synth, occasionally clearing with the brief letting of strangled feedback.
Des saltimbanques, however: this tape is hardly acrobatic, but it is a performance of bad-trip psych unease, feedback squall and basement electronics. Furthermore, like the figures of Picasso’s painting, the music of La famille des saltimbanques is cohesive, yet also subtly distant and detached. Blacking out the details of Picasso’s circus figures, this French trio leaves only shapes with an unknown sense of direction — no longer is the family of entertainers made of distinct members; here they have become an oddly shaped mystery, expressionless and blank. Is it artistic co-option, or perhaps some deeper symbolic meaning? I’m just going to use it as an excuse to fictionalize and mythologize:
“What have I told you about this tape?”
“It’s dangerous! You kids and your curiosity—you’d better not try to initiate others into ‘Baltique’ again!”
1996: Chavez - Ride the Fader
When I first dug into Chavez’s catalog, I felt like I’d discovered some well-kept secret in Matador’s discography among the Pavement and GBV records I always associated with the label. Surprisingly, though, I quickly found on the interwebs that Chavez was the label’s best selling band ever at the time of their 2006 compilation Better Days Will Haunt You. I was a bit dumbfounded; not Pavement or GBV or even Yo La Tengo had trumped this band I had never heard of? But then I actually listened to Chavez and the reasons quickly became clear. Somehow the band found a sweet spot between the clear production and full sound of 90s radio alt-rock and the “indie” songwriting of their label mates. And unlike GBV or early Pavement, this stuff didn’t sound like it was recorded in some dudes basement on a fifty dollar budget that was spent on beer and a thrift store tape recorder.
Chavez’s most triumphant moment is their 1996 LP, Ride the Fader, which combines some of the best pieces of noodly math-rock and jagged post-punk bands into one glorious, listenable whole. Guitarist/singer Matt Sweeny performs a tricky and rather amazing balancing act between downtuned and super heavy guitars and his mostly calm and melodic singing. I expected screaming when I first heard these riffs, but what the band delivers is something so much more than the average sludgy and forgettable sound of most 90s alt. Instead, the guitars are equal parts crushingly heavy and surprisingly playful while the vocals contain most of the hooks that will stay stuck in your head.
It doesn’t hurt that Sweeny is backed by a fantastic band – just listen to some of those drum fills – that blow up everything he writes into epic anthems. After a few spins, I wasn’t so shocked that these guys sold better than all their label mates as they sounds good enough to hook almost anyone on first listen but still have the depth and wide sonic range to keep bringing you back for just one more riff. Somehow while Pavement was surging again in the late 2000s, Chavez has stayed in the background, overshadowed by most of Matador’s other 90s acts. Hopefully with their first new material in over decade on the way, a new group of listeners will discover one of Matador’s hidden gems.
2002: Isis - “Carry”
I think it’s too early to make lists compiling the albums that changed the way we heard music in the first decade of the 21st century. Still, there are some that have popped up here and there, and Isis’ Oceanic is missing in most of them.
It’s easy to reduce the album’s importance to its marriage of downtuned and slow metal with the clean guitars and suspended emotion characteristic of post rock, but, for my Chuck E. Cheese tokens, the band’s real genius lies in their song arrangements. Take “Carry” for example; it starts with a droning and calm sound of guitars and synths that is punctured with a bass and kick drum marking a very simple beat, a slow rise that they also cleverly use in the song “Weight, ”the gentlest of the songs found within Oceanic. Afterwards, a guitar melody appears to give the song some direction which ends in a huge distorted chord that has the band lurching in riff form. Aaron Turner growls in a desperate manner while the riffs become darker and lower in register (and Maria Christopher’s vocals makes it feel more solemn) and then, just when you think things are about to break, the sound steps back a little, uncorking a gentle but steady riff that has the impact of a neutron bomb. Then they scale it back up again, first with distortion, then with thickness until the song is done, a chapter completed, drafted, corrected and checked.
Most of the action described in the lyrics of this concept album happen in the span of a few seconds. This is where the narrative and its marriage with sound works best; the poetics of a man taking his own life by drowning makes the music suffocating in its heaviness yet epiphanous in its softer shades, like the light many describe at the end of a tunnel when exiting life. Capturing the meaning of a moment in time and its elegiac implications in song form is harder to achieve than writing a standard story with little subtleties; in other words, the bread and butter of rock concept albums.
Isis bathe the listener with music that is made to detonate in little deaths, keeping air away from the lungs to make expiration and self-negation things of beauty and true art.
2001: The White Stripes - “Party of Special Things to Do”
If you listen to Captain Beefheart’s mid-70s albums such as Unconditionally Guaranteed or Bluejeans & Moonbeams it can be pretty depressing just how limp they sound. “Party of Special Things to Do,” the opener on Bluejeans, is better than everything else on the album but still manages to just be OK. And while most put blame on the lack of any real Magic Band members, the sense of musical castration is made even worse by how phoned-in Beefheart sounds. His lyrics are still just as wonderfully bizarre and he does all of his hiccup-y vocal tricks and there’s a sort of cool spoken word intro and so on, but it just doesn’t feel right. Everything is where it should be, but the passion you’d normally be hearing seems completely drained.
This disappointment might have been why Jack White decided to cover “Party of Special Things to Do” as the A-side to their only single on Sub Pop and transform it into one of the most hard-hitting songs the White Stripes ever recorded. In their standard fashion the song is stripped down to its bluntest parts, something that White surely learned from Beefheart’s own arrangements on albums like Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby. The weak riff to Beefheart’s version gets re-born with White’s monstrously heavy guitar and turned into a brilliant hook that carries the song while White shouts over Meg’s pounding drums. The White Stripes made possibly the best tribute to one of their big influences, not by covering Beefheart’s best or most famous material, but by taking one of his few, forgotten duds and turning it into stunner.