2009: Kath Bloom - Loving Takes This Course
The cream always rises to the top, even if it takes 30 years. Since the late '70s, Kath Bloom has been releasing lo-fi folk with painfully honest lyrics and equally contemplative, sparse melodies. The classically trained Connecticut singer-songwriter wrote six records with avant-garde guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors before 1984. All six were pressed in numbers between 50 and 300; all fetch a principal's ransom on the black market.
Then Kath, daughter of renowned oboist Robert Bloom, took the last half of the '80s off on account of maternity leave, family issues, and financial instability. Eventually, cult classic director Richard Linklater caught wind of her and licensed "Come Here" for 1995's Before Sunrise, which rekindled commercial interest in her back catalog as well as her passion for writing songs. By Y2K, she was back releasing albums left and right.
To give her entire career due, Chapter Music commissioned a two-disc tribute album, Loving Takes This Course, which collects a selection of her greatest hits on one disc, and features a range of notable indie artists covering the same songs on another. Naturally, some covers don't quite "get" it, stretching out elegant vocals and smooth production that belies the original songs charm and gritty, off key quirkiness. However, inspired interpretations from Devendra Banhart, Scout Niblett, Amy Rude, and the gorgeous Mia Doi Todd ultimately save the disc.
Of course, the originals are the best reason to invest in this compilation; we get an even mix of Bloom's post-millennium projects and selections from her rare early work. "The Breeze/My Baby Cries" is heartwarming, with Kath's better-than-Joan Baez warble hitting the right kind of mournful over off-key guitar and subtly malfunctioning studio effects. The more lo-fi her surroundings, the more impact her vocals have. "I Wanna Love" has a sweet country-folk vibe going for it, bound to make first time listeners swoon. Every track is moving in its own way.
Considering how half-assed most tribute albums end up being -- bloated with phoned-in covers from the big name slackers -- Loving Takes This Course is a beacon of quality. From the names involved (lest we forget Mark Kozalek and The Dodos) to the choice greatest hits disc, it's the kind of once-in-a-career retrospective that makes an obscurity into a legend. San Francisco filmmaker Caveh Zahedi spent two years putting it together, and the effort shows. Expect to see the name Kath Bloom in the same circles as Vashti Bunyan, Gillian Welch, and Lucinda Williams a lot from now on.
Disc One: The Covers
1. Come Here (Marble Sounds)
2. The Breeze/My Baby Cries (Bill Callahan)
3. When I See You (Laura Jean)
4. Finally (Mark Kozelek)
5. Window (Mick Turner & Peggy Frew)
6. Forget About Him (Devendra Banhart)
7. I Wanna Love (Scout Niblett)
8. Biggest Light Of All (The Dodos)
9. Look At Me (Josephine Foster)
10. Ready Or Not (Mia Doi Todd)
11. Fall Again (Corrina Repp)
12. It's So Hard To Come Home (Marianne Dissard & Joey Burns)
13. In Your School (Amy Rude)
14. If This Journey (Tom Hanford)
15. There Was A Boy (Meg Baird)
16. Come Here (The Concretes)
Disc Two: The Kath Bloom Originals
1. Come Here
2. The Breeze/My Baby Cries
3. When I See You
6. Forget About Him
7. I Wanna Love
8. Biggest Light Of All
9. Look At Me
10. Ready Or Not
11. Fall Again
12. It's So Hard To Come Home
13. In Your School
14. If This Journey
15. There Was A Boy
16. Come Here
2009: Vampire Hands - Me and You Cherry Red/Cuz It’s a Beach Funeral
I’ve got to hand it to Vampire Hands; the 14 songs on their Modern Radio reissue straddle a lot of different musical styles -- from space rock to Afrobeat, to noise punk and back -- yet still maintain enough cohesion to keep the listener from getting whiplashed.
The first eight tracks comprise an out-of-print, self-released 2008 LP, You and Me Cherry Red. “Statuette,” with its metallic electro-thump, thick, wobbling bass, and paper-thin guitar noodling, gets the album off on ominous footing. Then, like a shaft of light breaking through a ceiling of black and threatening clouds, the laid back “No Fun” unfurls a waltzing one-two-three melody bathed in sunny guitar and galloping percussion. Such dramatic mood swings are just as likely to occur between tracks as they are within a single one. “Friendship Rd” begins as a Mahjongg-esque African drum circle that morphs ever-so-slowly into a quivering ambient dialog between pulsating guitars. The album detours back to the dark side, as the lonely, psych-tinged “Cathedral Blues One” gives way to the threatening funeral march of “Cathedral Blues Two.” A consistent production value keeps the record from flying apart amid the frequent stylistic shifts; there’s a flatness to it that, combined with the faraway sound of the vocals, beautifully complements what’s going on in the music.
The last six tracks are from a 2007 EP titled Cuz It’s a Beach Funeral, and they're a little monotonous in comparison. It, too, begins with a version of “Statuette,” only this incarnation is more exemplary of the EP as a whole: slower, spacier, and more atonal, yet it does make wonderful use of the band’s most haunting lyric, the obsessively repeated “You were splashed in appropriate black.” This mantra transitions seamlessly into “Paradise Knife Fights,” as worthy a single as I’ve heard all year. A little under two-minutes, the song repurposes a hook from Elvis’ “Latest Flame,” adds some tribal percussion, a dash of slide guitar, and churns out a beach-ready dance juggernaut. There’s nowhere to go from there but down. The remaining tracks revel in the bleaker side of psychedelia, with only the plodding, echo-drenched “Desert Dreams” really standing out.
The two releases compiled here reveal a band that’s big on atmosphere but who, in their best moments, still maintain tight control over each song. There’s a great deal of growth on display in this little disc, as the spaced-out psych-ambiance that dominates the 2007 EP is brought fully to heel on the 2008 full-length. Indeed, Me and You Cherry Red / Cuz It’s a Beach Funeral is a handy snapshot of where Vampire Hands have been and a very promising indicator of where they are heading.
2. No Fun
3. Heat Fire
4. Safe Word
5. Friendship Rd
6. Cathedral Blues One
7. Cathedral Blues Two
8. Me and You Cherry Red
9. Statuette (Original Version)
10. Paradise Knife Fights
11. Beach Funeral
12. We Widows
14. Desert Dream
2009: Dntel - Something Always Goes Wrong/Early Works for Me if it Works for You/Early Works For Me if it
Life is Full of Possibilities, Dntel’s breakthrough work, is also his most fully realized. The album is remembered for its ideal marriage of somber, subdued vocals with Tamborello’s pensive, brooding soundscapes and glitchy programming. Yet it was the Ben Gibbard-featured standout, “This Is the Dream of Evan and Chan,” that drew attention to the producer and would serve as the impetus for The Postal Service. Although the duo’s only album Give Up is polarizing to say the least, I maintain that Gibbard’s effortless, languid melodies perfectly complemented, even tempered, Tamborello’s dense, occasionally frenetic arrangements.
Prior to this, Jimmy Tamborello had released two instrumental (excluding a few vocal samples) records for Phthalo. First to be released, though second to be recorded, Early Works for Me if it Works for You was an album that drew heavily from ’90s IDM giants Aphex Twin and µ-ziq. Although great aptitude is displayed on these drum-and-bass workouts, nothing really reaches the aforementioned artist's level of rhythmic intricacy. While a few hints of potential are present -- the dark, lonely downtempo of “Curtains” hints at a step away from the Warp Records sound, as does the heavily reverbed, hollow percussion of “Tybalt 60” -- the album mostly contains a lot of good but not exceptional rapid-fire drum tracks set against ambient backgrounds.
Two years later, Phthalo released Dntel’s first submitted work, Something Always Goes Wrong. Interestingly enough, the album sounds less derivative of a single source than its successor (though the Warp influence is still very evident). It does, however, suffer from bloated tracks that lack the development to justify seven-to-nine-minute run times. And I’ll admit, I’m not very captivated by the material, partly because I’m listening 15 years after the fact -- it simply isn’t of the same caliber as Dntel’s contemporaries (Boards of Canada comes to mind). However, like Early Works, it does show promise.
With Early Works for Me if it Works For You II, we get to hear what was left on the hard drive from the Life Is Full of Possibilities sessions. Tamborello began implementing vocals, live instrumentation, dusky textures, and increasingly complex rhythms, resulting in a more enjoyable whole than this collection's first two discs. Given its B-sides nature, a general lack of cohesion is to be expected. Yet, in my opinion, some of these cuts could have supplanted weaker moments on Life Is Full of Possibilities.
Ultimately, the Early Works for Me if It Works For You set serves as an interesting and important document of Tamborello’s career trajectory, a path marked with several aliases and stylistic explorations. A vast amount of growth is seen from disc to disc, and there are definitely some solid tracks along the way. While the first two albums lack a certain vitality and replay value, they’re worth hearing for those interested in Tamborello’s development as a solo artist. Although often overshadowed by his collaborators, the cuts on Life Is Full of Possibilities and its B-sides prove that Dntel's best work can support itself without the help of outside guests.
Something Always Goes Wrong:
1. In Which Our Hero Begins His Long And
2. In Which Our Hero Finds A Faithful Sidekick
3. In Which Our Hero Is Put Under A Spell
4. In Which Our Hero Dodges Bullets And Swords
5. In Which Our Hero Frees The Damsel In Distress
6. In Which Our Hero Is Decapitated By The Evil
7. In Which Our Hero Begins His Long And
Arduous Quest (Seq Remix)
8. In Which Our Hero Was Taken By Surprise
9. The S.O.S
10. A Machine And A Memory Keep You Alive
Early Works for Me if it Works for You:
1. Loneliness Is Having No One To Miss
2. High Horses Theme
3. Pliesex Sielking
4. Termites In The Bathtub
5. Fort Instructions
7. Tybalt 60
8. Danny Loves Experimental Electronics
9. Sky Pointing
11. Winds Let Me Down Again
12. Jewel States, The Door Borders
Early Works for Me if it Works for You II:
1. New Name
2. Incomplete 1
3. Paul Guitar
4. Don't Try
6. Darker Earlier
7. Smile Break
8. Incomplete 4
11. Fancy Ian
13. Incomplete 2
14. Bluegrass (Short)
17. The First Day After The Worst
1971: Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire de Melody Nelson
Serge Gainsbourg was already the creator of one of the most lascivious pop singles of all time, the infamous “Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus,” when he released Histoire de Melody Nelson -- a short, psychedelic, operatic concept album about a brusque affair between a middle-aged lecher and an underage nymphet with “naturally red hair” (played by Gainsbourg's then-wife, muse, and collaborator Jane Birkin). Although widely accepted as a classic album, it also has a stigma attached to it: no matter what musical barriers Gainsbourg surpassed, he always seemed, first and foremost, a dirty old man bent on shocking more than creating art. Certainly, Gainsbourg lived every minute of his life by his own envelope-pushing mantra (“For me, provocation is oxygen”), but he was also a romantic of the highest order, compared to Rimbaud while living, to Baudelaire in death.
Clocking in less than 28 minutes, Histoire de Melody Nelson is a groovy, emotive, and intriguing piece that demands more than a cursory listen. Even the recording details have a strong, mysterious allure of their own (until recently, the identities of Gainsbourg's English session musicians, now known to be Vic Flick, Brian Odgers, Big Jim Sullivan, and Dougie Wright, were uncommon knowledge). Although not terribly difficult to find (my copy is a mid-’90s import reissue) this album should be readily available in all record stores, Wal-Marts, and gas stations throughout the land, even though that would crush its caché considerably. The king of reanimating lost gems, Light in the Attic (with plenty of help from UK treasure trawlers Finders Keepers) is doing its part by reissuing and revamping Gainsbourg's beloved record which, 38 years after its original release, still holds persuasive power as both a shock-value missive and high conceptualized musical work of art.
In the opener, we meet our characters: the narrator (Serge) and Melody, his object of desire and destiny. More important than the collision between his 1910 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost and her bicycle that highlights, “Melody” is the impact between an inebriated, well-trodden rogue and an innocent but world-ready nymphet; between an overpowering of will and a submission to emotion, and between wanton lust and pure love. The opening scene is heightened by the presence of an indescribable and uncontrollable “spirit of ecstasy,” matched musically by Jean-Claude Vannier’s unwavering cinematic arrangement and the backing band, holding down a hypnotic groove, heavy on scattershot guitar and an elastic bounding bass (ripped off delightfully by Beck on Sea Change’s “Paper Tiger”).
“Ballade de Melody Nelson” is a gorgeous string-powered song which foreshadows the fate of Melody, a girl who had much love to give but whose days were numbered. A mock declaration of bravado is demonstrated for the fatal ending of a “delicious” young girl who our narrator only knew for an instant but who will touch him more than he cares to let on. After this, we experience “Valse de Melody” (a lovely contemplative reminiscence done in sweeping waltz fashion), “Ah! Melody” (detailing the freeing of inhibitions under the influence of burgeoning love), “L’Hotel Particulier” (the irresistible funk of consummation), and the climactic beat instrumental “En Melody” (literally, “in Melody,” complete with Birkin’s orgiastic loss of control) before setting up the tragic final act.
The album ends with the lengthy piece, “Cargo Culte,” which mirrors “Melody” in sound (but adds choral flourishes) and details the devastating end to this unconventional love story. Melody, under the influence of a newly discovered erotic energy, desires to return to her English hometown. Serge, on the other hand, has fallen under her spell and prays for a quasi-religious/spiritual cargo cult to will the plane upon an air disaster in order to bring his Melody back to him. The demise is inevitable; Serge’s heart collapses as she is plucked from the sky and taken from this world, leaving him “having nothing more to lose nor a God in whom to believe.”
Although Gainsbourg had already set himself a life-course of provocation and near-illicit behavior in addition to that of a superstar musician and acting legend in France, the pieces from all camps never fell into such perfect place as they did with Histoire de Melody Nelson. Yet, when released, the record was an unmitigated commercial disaster. As a wordsmith, Gainsbourg is peerless, and Melody is his magnum opus; it may not be his most playful, but it is his most beautiful set of words. Musically, it is a “concept album” that is marvelously understated, never allowing itself 10 minutes, much less one, of instrumental flatulence normally associated with the term. The pomp, when it rears its head, is delectable and reflects the salaciousness going on in the story perfectly. Likewise, Vannier’s contributions are so essential that he deserves co-credit on the front cover (which he was due until it was decided that Gainsbourg would get a solo billing).
Lewd and romantic at the same time, Gainsbourg played upon a much-trodden theme -- made most famous by Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita -- but makes the story his own by adding a few unique turns (still, it is interesting to note that Gainsbourg had the idea of setting Nabokov’s work to music, even going as far as asking the literary legend's permission, but an ongoing contractual recording of the novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation derailed his plans). The concept behind the album is just that -- a concept or a sketched story. The blanks are there for the listener to fill in: backgrounds, emotions, and aftermaths. Histoire de Melody Nelson is much, much more than a simple lust story, and like any true work of art, it poses more questions than it answers. As the album continues gaining attention for its growing army of celebrity musician admirers, lovers of music owe it to themselves to find this impeccably conceived, progressive musical landmark. Frequently labeled as a lecherous rogue or public provocateur, Gainsbourg is also one of the most important artists of the 20th century, and this masterpiece is the proof.
2. Ballade de Melody Nelson
3. Valse de Melody
4. Ah! Melody
5. L’Hotel Particulier
6. En Melody
7. Cargo Culte
1989: Young MC - Stone Cold Rhymin’
I can't believe this album is 20 years old already. It seems like yesterday that one of the worst offenses to parental authority was being sent to the principal's office (something that elicits no fear in this post-Columbine world), and busting a move provided more leeway for creative expression than smacking that 'til it gets sore. Mainstream hip-hop sure has grown up to be a sweaty old pervert. Granted, Young MC is still boastful, materialistic, and misogynistic, but there is a palpable innocence in his landmark record that we, as a society, lost somewhere along the way. And yet, no matter how far down the moral sewer civilization gets flushed, "Bust A Move" remains a staple at sporting events and aerobics classes worldwide to this day.
Of course, it's easy to attribute Stone Cold Rhymin's modest staying power to its contributors. The Dust Brothers found their pre-Beastie Boys groove with "Know How" alongside engineer Mario Caldato Junior (who was there for Check Your Head, Ill Communication, and Hello Nasty). Stevie Wonder vocalist Crystal Blake added her soulful tones to three tracks, and Quincy Jones produced and mixed one more. Notably, Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea lent his funky goodness to both of the record's charting singles, "Principal's Office" and the immortal "Bust A Move." Certainly, these collaborators influence cannot be understated. After all, emcees are often at the mercy of their producers, and Stone Cold Rhymin' was made before MPCs and digital technology put professional recording capabilities in the hands of Joe Everyman.
Young MC is the name on the cover, though, and there wouldn't have been any hits without his next-level flow. Born Marvin Young in England and raised in Queens, he had been rap battling since the age of 10, honing his skills at parties along the way. His songwriting talent would become evident not only with his own hits, but as the co-author of Tone Loc's only notable tracks "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Madina." He earned a bachelor's degree in economics before Stone Cold Rhymin' dropped, a fact he brags about and should be presented for the achievement it is, but might have been seen as shameful for a member of NWA.
It's not that Young's subject matter is brilliant or anything, but his delivery is bolstered by pristine diction; his metaphors are precise, and his messages are delivered bluntly and honestly. He was targeting an adolescent market, but he never seemed pandering, and although his Regan-speech turn on the anti-drug anthem "Just Say No" clearly tips his political cap -- ruining any chance he had for street cred --he was at the very least real to himself.
In honor of the album's 20th anniversary, Delicious Vinyl has created a deluxe edition with six bonus remixes. Impact's version of "Principal's Office" and the Matt Dike retread of "I Let 'Em Know" really shouldn't have bothered -- neither remix takes the original anywhere new. Even worse, the Aaron LaCrate and Debonair Samir take on "Know How" pushes the track to a banal house realm populated by one of the most annoying horn sounds in history. MEN (two-thirds of Le Tigre) at least turn "Got More Rhymes" into a slinky Indian electro slide that's almost worth the price of admission, while the Southern Comfort mix of "I Come Off" takes a much dirtier funk turn than the original. The main reason to invest in this version, however, is M.I.A./Big Dada producer Diplo's take on "Bust A Move," which includes pulsating bass, space synths, and an intensely punchy beat. If the original album isn't enough for you, these few remixes should put the whole affair over the top.
If there was ever any doubt, the Quincy-produced "Just Say No" established Stone Cold Rhymin' as a mainstream album in its day. This was not the music of the people, per say; it's club fodder made of tight rhymes, choice hooks, and superb production that seems dated because of its sounds, not its ideas. That is why "Bust A Move" won a Grammy over much more relevant singles like "Me, Myself, And I" by De La Soul and "Fight The Power" by Public Enemy. The handful of stellar remixes only cement the album's place in history. Make no mistake, this is essential hip-hop.
1. I Come Off
2. Principal's Office
3. Bust A Move
4. Non Stop
5. Fastest Rhyme
6. My Name Is Young
7. Know How
8. Roll With The Punches
9. I Let 'Em Know
10. Pick Up The Pace
11. Got More Rhymes
12. Stone Cold Buggin'
13. Just Say No
14. I Come Off (Southern Comfort Mix)
15. Principal's Office (Impact Rmx)
16. Bust A Move (Diplo Rmx)
17. Know How Theme (Aaron LaCrate & Debonair Samir Rmx)
18. I Let 'Em Know (Matt Dike Rmx)
19. Pick Up The Pace 1990
20. Got More Rhymes (MEN Rmx)
1973: Spirogyra - Bells, Boots and Shambles
Easily confused with the American smooth jazz nightmare by the same name (or almost: Spyro Gyra), Spirogyra were everything that their popular 1970’s alter egos were not: long-haired, musically conscientious, fiercely independent, and politically engaged. Perhaps musical celebrity is more than just a competition between analogous Google search terms, but information about the Canterbury acid folk outfit -- like physical copies of their records, reissued or otherwise -- is notoriously hard to track down. What we do know about the group is limited to a few vital stats: founded by singer and guitarist Martin Cockerham at the University of Kent in Southeast England and featuring a revolving cast of like-minded earthmuffins (vocalist Barbara Gaskin, bassist Steve Borrill, violinist Julian Cusack, and future Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks), Spirogyra produced three stunning records between 1971 and 1973, then vanished off the face of this space-time continuum.
Geographically and temporally, Spirogyra would seem to have been destined for musical stardom: the group poofed into existence at the height of the 1970’s Canterbury scene, where a gainful marriage of progressive rock and pop sensibility was spawning legends like Caravan, The Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers, and Gong. Stiff competition, yes, but Spirogyra did manage to achieve something of a cult following in this land of lengthy guitar improvisations and elaborate chromatic minutia. If they never made it onto the list of bands we now identify with “The Canterbury Sound,” it is because they were incorrigible folkies at heart, determined to pick up where Scottish psych-folk bards Clive Palmer and Mike Heron had left off in the late 1960s.
Superficial similarities between Spirogyra and The Incredible String Band circa The 5000 Spirits, or the Layers of the Onion and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter abound: the athletic male and female vocal gymnastics, the insistence upon the purity and resonance of the analogue instrument, songs that “tell stories” -- often five at a time. But while ISB always seemed everywhere but the historical here and now -- flitting from Old England to ancient Morocco and Far-East Asia in a flick of the wrist -- Spirogyra is strikingly devoid of this sort of musical shape-shifting. Far more modest in instrumentation and approach and far less intent upon losing themselves in an estranged and more idyllic past, they seemed to reconcile the tradition of British folk with the musical climate of the present.
Bells, Boots and Shambles, their third and most breathtakingly beautiful album, offers an idiosyncratic crossover between two musical attitudes: the simplicity and wholesomeness of old-school Celtic folk and the freewheeling extravagance of ’70s prog. Flute, cello, saxophone, piano, and finger-plucked guitar juggle melancholy melody lines like hot-potatoes, sometimes getting bogged down in the intricacies of minor-key baroque counterpoint, sometimes exploding into rock ‘n’ roll refrains. Barbara Gaskin’s crystal-clear soprano, by all means a highlight in itself, alternates between medieval carols and multi-track warrior chants -- not unlike an Enya on steroids. Martin Cockerham co-narrates their tales of revolutionary upheaval and apocalyptic capitalism with theatrical flair, at times almost glam rock in his impersonations of crusty military sergeants and bleeding-heart leftist agitators.
As loosey-goosy as Spirogyra’s music may seem on paper, Bells, Boots and Shambles leaves us hanging at every turn, just as mystified as Cockerham himself as to how the ensemble could possibly sound so organic: “All of my best songs were written with the chords, main lyrics, and melody all coming to me at the same time all of a sudden.” Rather than send us reeling in all directions, Cockerham’s succession of micro-melodies registers as one long idea and is almost as hummable as that Broadway musical you couldn’t get enough of as a kid. Which is why -- despite all the militant rhetoric -- Spirogyra could conceivably have just as much mass market potential as their eponymous rivals. But the commercial history of music, even compulsively listenable music, often just isn’t fair.
Could someone please make this record widely available to everyone everywhere, and do it fast? Micro-label Tapestry Records released a gorgeous vinyl reissue of the album in 2007 -- faithful to the crystalline production of the original, but almost impossible to find, even in the most specialized niche shops. Forget its socio-historical interest or its obvious appeal to fans of New Weird America and “really obscure” psychedelic gems: Spirogyra is music that would even make your dad smile.
1. Furthest Point
2. Old Boot Wine
3. Parallel Lines Never Seperate
5. Everyday Consumption Song
6. Sergant Says
7. In the Western World