1973: John Cale - Paris 1919
As The Velvet Underground seemed to be reaching the zenith of its artistic potential in 1968, there was unfortunately another type of escalation that the band was experiencing; the rift between frontman Lou Reed and the overlooked, yet essential architect of the more experimental and daring aspects of VU's unique sound, John Cale. The chasm between the two grew until Reed threatened to leave the band, thus resulting in the remaining members' begrudging decision to cast Cale out of the band.
After Reed himself eventually left The Velvet Underground in 1970, the contrast in the burgeoning solo careers of both men at this early stage reveals a curious dichotomy between Lou Reed's 1972 hit Transformer and John Cale's Paris 1919, which followed only one year later. For as timely and glossy as Lou Reed's walk on the wild side of the glam movement was, Cale's Paris 1919 was diametrically opposed in its sweetly anachronistic flavor and earnestness, taking its cues from the mellow warmth of soft rock and chamber pop. Given Cale's avant-garde pedigree, having worked with artists such as John Cage and LaMonte Young's Dream Syndicate, this album was certainly a jarring shift, especially for listeners who might have been expecting that his previous effort with minimalist Terry Riley, Church of Anthrax, would have been a return to form for him and a comfortable niche to settle into.
Instead, we find John Cale abandoning the mesmerizing rigidity of his former projects, adopting a sound with a softer, more refined focus. Cale's ethereal Welsh lilt is framed by the leisurely, pastoral sprawl of guitars and pianos and, on several songs, orchestral accompaniments that masterfully pirouette between being baroque and sprightly. The atmosphere of Paris 1919 is one of curious opposites, as one can hear the echoes of naked folksy earnestness so prevalent in his early '70s contemporaries, such as Cat Stevens, Neil Young, and James Taylor, yearning to break the tense surface of gentlemanly restraint. The understated sway of "Hanky Panky Nohow," with its surehanded fingerpick twinkle and sleepy strings, evokes Nick Drake being channeled through the warm glow of a golden AM radio, while "Graham Greene"'s buoyant horn stabs, off-kilter piano, and jaunty vocal phrasing come off as one of the best songs Belle and Sebastian never wrote.
While we may wonder and mourn what could have been if the wills of Reed and Cale had not forced them apart all the way until the short-lived "reunion" in the '90s, we are left with two artists whose respective approaches to reinvention were unsurprisingly different. While Lou Reed became a professional chameleon of sorts, overtly signaling any marked shifts in his sound, John Cale seemed to enjoy a more subtle method. If being avant-garde is the act of subverting common expectations, then Cale slyly crafted a brilliant achievement in Paris 1919 by utilizing a mournful gentility to catch his original target audience unaware and hiding in plain sight.
2004: The Intelligence - Boredom and Terror
Seattleite Lars Finberg might be better known as the drummer of the A-Frames. Or, if you're from Seattle but don't pay attention to quality music, you might know him as "that guy who used to work at Cellophane Square." Hopefully you know him for the first reason and not the latter. The Intelligence always seemed like the area's best-kept secret, even as the A-Frames were garnering more attention, but that was fine -- it just made the rest of us who knew of them seem cooler by comparison. Now? No one's cool anymore; sorry.
2005's In The Red-backed Icky Baby did a lot to get The Intelligence’s name out there. It also saw Finberg’s 'solo' project flesh out into a fully realized band as he was joined by Factums' drummer Matthew Ford and two members, Lee Reader and Nicholas Brawley, of the recently (at the time) broken-up Popular Shapes. While The Intelligence have been hanging around since 2000 with more changes in line-up than you might think, we get the stripped-down version on this release, which is Finberg, a guitar, drums, keyboards and a drum machine.
Over Boredom and Terror's brief 26 minutes there is enough variation to keep things fresh. But who really needs variation when you're doing something so perfectly? The drum machine and keyboard tandem of "Spellers and Counters" is an absolute gem. There's also the outright pop of the lively "Weekends in Jail," which features the most fleshed-out sound, and all without keyboards. "Telephone Wires" is the other more conventional sounding rocker, with more catchy guitar chords and a memorable chorus. Matter of fact, nearly every song on here has a great hook. They're great without being saccharine or trying too hard, and the weight of that success is mostly attributed to Finberg's delivery. For example, who knows what he’s saying on the driving "Guys"? It doesn't matter; it's how he's saying it that does. That might sound like a page from Pinback's playbook, but it's a safe bet that these lyrics aren't quite so oblique. They're just random.
In a perfect world, this would be popular music. Really, I can't think of many reasons why this band hasn't caught on. The music is ridiculously catchy, upbeat, clever, and you could probably dance to it if you were so inclined. Okay, there are a few f-bombs thrown in here and there, most philosophically on "The World Is A Drag," where Finberg asks the timeless question "Who gives a fuck if the world is a drag?" Certainly not I. The only track preventing Boredom and Terror from being a perfect album is “The Night Belongs to Microphones.” It's not a bad track -- not at all -- but it suffers from being surrounded by some amazing songs. This album was originally going to be released as a double CD, but someone at Omnibus convinced Lars to scale it back and stick to just one disc. The leftover material was issued as a bonus CD to be packaged along with the 12-inch version of Boredom and Terror that Narnack later put out. If only they would've switched out “Microphones” with "Darling, That Was A Lie" from that disc, then daaaaaaamn. That's all I'm sayin'.
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].