1958: Mike Nichols & Elaine May - Improvisations To Music
Every culture, subculture, genre, and category has its wonks. Improvisational comedy is no exception; its biggest snobs scoff at Robin Williams’ zany talk show antics, and they eschew the hackery of television shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? by decrying the lack of characters and scenework. I am one of those snobs.
I know, I know: there are other, more important things worth defending, such as root canals and the oeuvre of Milli Vanilli. When done poorly, improv is an interminable, execrable experience. However, when improv is done well, it is downright transcendental. Scenes, characters, objects, motivations appear out of nowhere. Long-form improv is less about laughs than it is about creating worlds out of nothing; the laughs come naturally when appropriate (or inappropriate) objects, people, and settings suddenly appear with clear, natural motivations. Simply put: long-form improv is about story and characters, while short-form improv is about games and zingers. Not that I’m biased.
End snob rant, enter Nichols & May, two of the most capable and brilliant long-form improvisers in history. Their second record, An Evening With Mike Nichols And Elaine May, is considered their best, but you can read about that elsewhere (and do, because it’s flat-out amazing). Their debut, Improvisations To Music, is a different matter, because it’s a snapshot of two stage actors trying out their craft in the studio for the first time, with mixed results.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May honed their abilities with the Compass Players, a Chicago theater group that later became Second City. They brought their improv act to clubs and eventually became a Broadway sensation (a period partially documented on An Evening With…). Improvisations To Music finds them between these milestones.
What works best on the album are the variations on genre: the Hitchcockian spies of “Mysterioso” who speak in increasingly ridiculous code (“Go to the Good Humor man... order a Fudgicle”), the dentist and patient stuck in a Douglas Sirk melodrama (“If I can teach one Saudi Arabian the rules of dental hygiene as I have learned them…”). Each highlight, especially the dentist scene, are exercises in pace, and they build to climaxes with subtle endings. Credit is also due to pianist Marty Rubenstein, who provides perfect, unobtrusive accompaniment.
What doesn’t work just feels arbitrary, such as the jaunty “Everybody’s Doing It,” a questionable parody of beat poetry using corporate and ad speak. It is either unfunny or simply too dated to work. Other skippable tracks are simply dull, such as the conversational “Tango” and the father-daughter scene “Chopin,” which gets points for sad drama but not much else.
Improvisations To Music is interesting for everything it is not: namely, a fitting start to huge careers. Mike Nichols especially flowered shortly after the duo broke up in the mid-’60s, going on to direct countless Broadway hits, as well as films such as Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. Elaine May became a successful screenwriter and playwright (and teamed again with Nichols on The Birdcage and Primary Colors, which both featured May’s screenplay and Nichols’ direction). For the duo’s masterpieces, and to see what happens when ridiculous situations build naturally to absurdity, check out An Evening With Mike Nichols & Elaine May. For the moment before it all exploded, start here.
1. Cocktail Piano
3. Second Piano Concerto (The Dentist)
4. Everybody’s Doing It
5. Bach To Bach
7. Sonata For Piano And Celeste
1967: Tim Buckley - Goodbye and Hello
In the 1960s, the idea of music as an outlet for those struggling to find their place in a materialistic and corrupt world was becoming especially pronounced. Goodbye and Hello, in this sense, is certainly a product of its time; these melancholy folk tunes highlight the feelings of disappointment and disenchantment resulting from the tumultuous ’60s. Still, on this album, Tim Buckley delves beyond folksy reactions to politics.
That depth resides in Buckley’s soft-spoken, lyrical delivery. With a multi-octave range of possibilities and the gently wailing, melodic capability of his voice, he transcends the then-familiar sight of a man and his guitar, speaking to a people, a country, and a time. In “No Man Can Find the War,” the poetry is undeniable throughout. Yet when he finally asks “Is the war inside your mind?” we shift from the political to the individual, from the physical manifestation of war to a metaphorical one. There is a war in Tim Buckley’s mind.
In fact, Buckley is at his very best when confronting the torment buried within, rather than in the politics or war going on around him. “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain” references his failed marriage with Mary Guibert (mother of Jeff Buckley), the “Flying Pisces.” The tune is undoubtedly epic, filled with queens and charming dancers and seascapes. Ultimately, however, Buckley abandons the fantastical for safe and steady ground, as the song culminates in a series of pleading howls: “Please come home.” Who pleads is not made clear -- the Flying Pisces? the abandoned child? Buckley himself? Yet the grief and desperation remains personal and, above all else, human.
The voice of protest comes from a place packed full of emotion and turmoil, yet adding politics to the mix hardens and toughens any outcome. The war outside is something to talk and sing about, but considering the war in Tim Buckley’s mind, Goodbye and Hello becomes not only a product of its time, but a product of human experience, in life, love, and loss.
1. No Man Can Find the War
2. Carnival Song
3. Pleasant Street
5. I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain
6. Once I Was
7. Phantasmagoria in Two
9. Goodbye and Hello
10. Morning Glory
1999: Franco Godi, Enzo Jannacci, and Paolo Tomelleri - Signor Rossi
In the movie Booty Call, Jamie Foxx’s character, Bunz, relates a story about growing up with a cheap TV on which it was impossible to read subtitles; therefore, he watched a lot of movies with only foreign-language accompaniment, particularly kung-fu flicks. After a while, he tells acquaintances at dinner, “I started being able to understand the motherfuckers.”
I’m not going to claim that after dozens of listens to Signor Rossi – a reissue of an out-of-print collection of soundtrack music from the animated TV show of the same name – I can understand Italian any better. I can still only make out the words that mirror their counterparts in the Spanish language. That’s it. However, now that I’ve absorbed a SHIT-ton of these delightful cycles of cheeky voices, sounds, and instrumental blurts, I feel a certain kinship with the characters and, especially, the tunes.
Part of their charm is that they simply couldn’t have been created in any other environment. This is cartoooon moooosic throooo and throooo, and as such it’s technically one of the only examples I’ve heard of its kind. There are snips and snatches of Ennio Morricone flourishes and other signatures I’m sure many-a soundtrack composer used back when this batch of songs was whipped up, but, for me, the constituent parts have no clear precedent, which is a mind-blowing thing if you’re used to being pelted by four-member units with a singer-guitarist-bassguy-drumdude lineup.
The lack of linguistic understanding even allows me to focus more closely on the instrumental deviations and the actual sounds being made by the singers’ mouths. Which is to say, my mind is uncluttered by the need to make sense of what's being said, a state of purity that’s more liberating than you might think. Not to mention that there’s a lot of ‘bop-ba-bop-ba’ stuff that’s as communicable as the International Language.
I never expected to derive such pleasure from a complication such as this, and now that I’ve finally allowed myself to look up a few of the cartoons themselves, I’m convinced this stuff might have influenced The Critic. Or maybe not.
1. Herr Rossi Sucht das Glück - Millerc
2. Rossi Easy Background
3. Parapapa "Perepepe" Choir
4. Sicura E Trac, Pts. 1-3 - Nichetti
5. Bim Bum Bam Patabum Choir
6. Qua Qua Qua - Marrow
7. Tutankamen Cha Cha Cha
8. Wild Wild West
9. Viva Happiness - Nichetti
10. La Canzone di Merlotto - Nichetti
11. Bu Bu Buana Bu
12. Krimi Slop
13. Gatto Blues
14. Vita Da Can - Nichetti
16. Signor Rossi Chac Chac Chac
17. Doctor Frankenstein
19. Salamek Zumpalla
20. W La Felictà - Nichetti
21. Ogni Estate Za Za Za - Nichetti
22. Fish Song
23. Qua Qua Qua
24. Marcia Della Fattoria
25. Spooky Twist
26. L' Allero
27. Hills & Guitars
28. Ol' Man Rossi
29. W La Felicità - Nichetti
30. Sicura E Track - Nichetti
31. Qua Qua Qua - Marrow
32. W La Felicità - Nichetti
33. W La Felicità
2008: White Zombie - Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
At least for me, Geffen Records' release of a White Zombie boxed set was the most shocking yet eagerly-anticipated musical event of 2008. After decades of longing for the seminal heavy metal group's self-released ’80s material to receive a CD reissue, most of us had grown resigned to its unlikelihood. Horror film icon and rock ‘n’ roll "boogieman" Rob Zombie has done little to disguise his dislike for his band's early work, including their major-label debut La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol 1. And yet, against all odds, here it is: a compilation of the band's entire (well, almost-entire, but more on that later) output in a neat, handsomely-packaged set of five discs.
Each CD functions as a snapshot of the band's evolution, beginning with their earliest, hardcore-influenced EPs. Zombie's voice is recognizable but still far from the hell-hound growl that would become his trademark. The way he skates over the full-speed-ahead guitar shredding recalls the lo-fi brilliance of T.S.O.L. or Earth A.D.-era Misfits. Queasy, lurching numbers like the Birthday Party-esque “True Crime” or the crashing, frenetic “Cats Eye Resurrection” got the band lumped in with the New York no-wave scene, yet one need only turn to tracks like “Pig Heaven” or “Eighty-Eight” to know that, even then, White Zombie had more in common with Slayer than Swans.
The second disc captures both the best and worst of White Zombie's pre-Geffen output. In 1987, Soul Crusher was considered a minor masterpiece, being embraced by such rock luminaries as Thurston Moore and Kurt Cobain. The debut album's 10 songs are consciously dissonant, replete with disquieting tempo-shifts, staccato drum-fills, and layers of squealing multi-tracked vocals. It marks Zombie's first use of B-movie sound-clips, an embellishment that would eventually become their hallmark.
Next to the roiling madness of Soul Crusher, Make Them Die Slowly is a bit of a yawner -- understandable considering Caroline Records gave the band just a few days to write and record an entire LP. The result is a hodge-podge of poorly-produced, overlong, and often indistinct songs. While a few tracks rise above the din -- the plodding “Murderworld” does a groovy about-face at the midway point before dissolving into thrash-metal bar mitzvah theme -- the most compelling reason to listen is to hear Rob Zombie's voice finally mature.
The set's biggest stylistic leap occurs between the second and third disc. The addition of Chicago's Jay Yuenger solidified White Zombie around a far more groove-oriented sound. Within the space of a single EP, God of Thunder, the whiplash-inducing approach to songwriting was abandoned in favor of a funkier, more technically polished style. The title-track, a superb cover of the Kiss song, is the work of fully confident, self-assured group of musicians. Along with “Love Razor” and a reprise of “Disaster Blaster,” these could have been lost tracks from their Geffen years.
La Sexorcisto and Astrocreep: 2000 are both very well-known albums and need no further praise from me. I'll only add that it's nice to have all of White Zombie's compilation and soundtrack cuts (of which there are surprisingly many) finally collected in one place. These constitute some of the band's best work, including the punishing “I Am Hell,” “Feed the Gods,” and “The One,” which displayed Rob Zombie's growing infatuation with electronics that would come to full fruition in 1998's Hellbilly Deluxe.
The set's videos and live footage are a mixed bag. Compared to the Nirvana boxed set, With the Lights Out, which featured home-movies of the band playing in their parents' basement and other memorable gems, the offerings here are a bit of a letdown. The videos range from outstanding (“I'm Your Boogieman,” “More Human than Human,” “Thunderkiss '65”) to forgettable (“The One” -- god, could they look a little more bored?). It's always cool to watch old concert footage and be reminded of what your favorite artists looked like way back when, but there aren't any recordings of the band prior to La Sexorcisto, and hey, how do they not have a single performance of “More Human than Human?"
The hardest of hardliners will point out the conspicuous absence of Super Sexy Swingin' Sounds and the KMFDM remixes of “Thunderkiss '65,” but both releases are readily available at any decent record store. I, for one, applaud the omission, but am a little irked they didn't include any of the unreleased demos that have been floating around the bootleg market for 20-some-odd years.
As for the packaging, it's everything you've come to expect from a Rob Zombie release: his lavish, Big Daddy Roth-inspired B-movie artwork with plenty of photography of the band through its various incarnations. Some kind of retrospective essay could have given context to the chaotic sounds of White Zombie's tumultuous beginnings, but it's a minor complaint.
When all is said and done, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie might not be the exact collection Zombie fans were been hoping for, but it's more than most of us ever expected. All those who followed Rob Zombie's career through the ’90s will find plenty here to sink their fangs into, and taken on their own merits, these recordings hold up well compared to other hardcore/noise rock/heavy metal contemporaries. I'm glad that Geffen saw fit to disturb this corpse's slumber.
1. Gentleman Junkie
2. King Of Souls
3. Tales From The Scarecrowman
4. Cat's Eye Resurrection
5. Pig Heaven
6. Slaughter The Grey
8. Fast Jungle
9. Gun Crazy
13. True Crime
2. Shack Of Hate
3. Drowning The Colossus
4. Crow III
5. Die, Zombie, Die
7. Truck On Fire
10. Diamond Ass
12. Disaster Blaster
15. Acid Flesh
16. Power Hungry
1. God Of Thunder
2. Love Razor
3. Disaster Blaster 2
4. Welcome To Planet Motherfucker/Psychoholic Slag
5. Knuckle Duster (Radio 1-A)
6. Thunder Kiss '65
7. Black Sunshine
9. Cosmic Monsters Inc.
10. Spiderbaby (Yeah-Yeah-Yeah)
11. I Am Legend
12. Knuckle Duster (Radio 2-B)
14. One Big Crunch
15. Grindhouse (A Go-Go)
17. Warp Asylum
18. I Am Hell
1. Children Of The Grave
2. Feed The Gods
3. Electric Head Pt. 1 (The Agony)
4. Super-Charger Heaven
5. Real Solution #9
6. Creature Of The Wheel
7. Electric Head Pt. 2 (The Ecstasy)
8. Grease Paint And Monkey Brains
9. I, Zombie
10. More Human Than Human
11. El Phantasmo And The Chicken-Run Blast-O-Rama
12. Blur The Technicolor
13. Blood, Milk And The Sky
14. The One
15. I'm Your Boogieman
16. Ratfinks, Suicide Tanks And Cannibal Girls
2000: Sylvain Chauveau - The Black Book of Capitalism
This collection is a reissue of Sylvain Chauveau’s first record, initially released almost 10 years ago. Since then, Chauveau has made a name for himself as a classical auteur with ever-growing ties to ambient and experimental idioms. The Black Book of Capitalism gives the listener a chance to encounter a musician still committed to melody and harmony over texture and atmosphere. Those familiar with the disquieting silence that pervades works like 2007’s S. may be surprised to find how unabashedly orchestral much of this album is.
“Le Marin Rejeté Par La Mer” is a traditional chamber piece with a wistful piano theme that endures the dual infiltration of a single male voice and violin that mirror each other’s melodies, while “Dernière Étape Avant Le Silence” is a mobile, uplifting hymn that sounds more like Beirut or Yann Tiersen than Satie or Stars of the Lid -- the latter two being artists whose work Chauveau has been more likely to reference in recent years. “Dialogue Avec Le Vent,” as its title implies, could be likened to a weather vane, one that points alternately to Chauveau’s musical past and to the path that he would begin to trace after this record’s release. A simple guitar figure persists amid an encroaching cloud of sustained guitar and horn tones. It’s a pretty piece that suffers a bit from its split allegiance to post-rock and ambient music.
The real stunner here is “Je Suis Vivant et Vous Êtes Morts,” which consists of a relentless bomb-like ticking, swirling streams of distorted organ tone, and a few sharp intakes of breath, cut off before they’re finished. The ticking compounds to become an articulated, mechanical crank abutted by sexual cooing and shadowy columns of horn sound. It’s scary and seductive and leaves one unprepared for the sudden, larger-than-life arrival of “Mon Royaume,” which sounds like the intro to a Def Jux release with its big, slappy drums, crackly, antiquated samples, and menacing synth tones. All of this bombast abruptly gives way to a piano piece deeply nostalgic for Satie.
Such abrupt transitions mean that The Black Book of Capitalism plays more like a label compilation than a solo album. That’s a testament to Chauveau’s versatility, but it’s also a detriment to the record’s overall quality, which ultimately moves in too many directions for the listener to remain fully engaged for its duration.
1. Et Peu à Peu Les Flots Respiraient Comme On Pleure
3. Hurlements En Faveur de Serge T.
4. Le Marin Rejeté Par La Mer
5. Dernière Étape Avant Le Silence
6. Dialogues Avec Le Vent
7. Ses Mains Tremblent Encore
8. Ma Contribution À L’Industrie Phonographique
9. Géographie Intime
10. Je Suis Vivant et Vous Êtes Morts
11. Mon Royaume
12. Potlatch (1971-1999)
13. Un Souffle Remua La Nuit
2009: The Shadow Ring - Life Review (1993-2003)
Anyone can create art, but relatively few create something meaningful. Even fewer construct something likable, never mind profound. Only a handful of untrained musicians will leave a lasting impression if they fail to learn a conventional way to play their instruments. In other words, legions of Furious Georges exist in the shadow of every Ramones.
Consider the odds against The Shadow Ring. Original members Graham Lambkin and Darren Harris never picked up an instrument before they decided to record their debut album. A lot of the band’s early songs consist of relatively simple guitar patterns, sometimes accompanied by a few notes held down on a keyboard. Their lyrics, for the most part, explore seemingly mundane themes, such as water or their daily routines.
Yet somehow The Shadow Ring harvested their ideas and honed their musical inclinations, authoring truly unique, strange, and captivating music throughout their 10-year existence. They were chameleons, naturally shifting genres, while still retaining their original DNA. Their albums are warehouses of ideas, wherein the surreal seamlessly pairs with the tangible to spawn a universe only the band could inhabit.
Like any confounding and brilliant band, an anthology cannot easily sum up The Shadow Ring’s discography, a body of work containing nine albums (including a double LP and a live album) and five singles. But Life Review, a two-disc, 34-track, 140-minute collection, does an adequate job. Compiled by Shadow Ring visionary Graham Lambkin, the album takes us through each period of the band's lifespan with grace and fluidity.
Three distinct phases mark The Shadow Ring’s career, each seeming like a dramatic break from the last. The band worked out their ideas on one album and mastered the particular style on the next; when they decided to step outside whatever genre they spent two albums exploring, one record would transition into a stylistic shift for the band.
Different influences also marked each phase. As the band matured, their taste progressed from the basic Forced Exposure finds into a deeper realm of outsider composition. Their earliest recordings -- including two albums for Siltbreeze -- exhibited an amateurish take on folk while revealing affinities for early T. Rex, The Fall, and Vibing up the Senile Man-era Alternative TV. After their Siltbreeze years, the band jumped onto the Swill Radio roster, shed their guitars, focused on composition, and delved further into the Nurse With Wound list. With label-head/Idea Fire Company-member Scott Foust's think-tank environment, they expanded their musical ideas, morphing into an icy electronic trio, assimilating bits of compositional technique from sources like Walter Marchetti and Asmus Tietchens while retaining the homemade edge of their craft.
Still, the band’s influences revealed themselves like temporary images on the retina; one must look closely to uncover their musical roots. Shifting from one style to the next, staying miles ahead of their peers, they sounded like nothing before or after them. Using Harris’ stern, unemotional speaking voice to communicate keen observations and surreal imagery ensured that no one could mimic their lyrical bent. Lambkin’s instrumental accompaniment -- be it performed on a detuned guitar, thrift store microphone, or with field recordings -- sounded truly unique with limited materials and limited knowledge of music theory.
Although they lacked any sort of formal training, Lambkin and Harris initially set out to create a dreary, bedroom-folk record. During The Shadow Ring’s earliest albums -- the Don’t Open the Window 7-inch, City Lights LP, and the Tiny Creatures 7-inch -- they tested the limits of their abilities. A few of their songs serve as a band workout, wherein Harris and Lambkin (jointed occasionally by Klaus Canterbury) probe rhythmic, instrumental, and poetic dynamics. Others provide a vehicle for Harris’ vocal interpretation of Lambkin’s musings.
On Life Review, eight tracks -- two of them previously unreleased -- document this early period. “Don’t Open the Window,” the oldest track on the comp, showcases the band keeping a small improvisational edge while fashioning rhythms from the same repetitive cloth as The Fall -- albeit with simple keyboard strikes and an out-of-tune ax, played by either Lambkin or Harris like it’s the first time they picked up the instrument. The band truly finds its voice on the very next track, the previously unreleased “Computer Forms.” A one-chord boogie on the guitar and crystalline xylophone percussion provide groundwork as Harris recites post-modern commentary on the band’s music. Lambkin’s lyrics showcase a Ulysses-esque narrative flow, beginning with the protagonist turning the knob on a faucet and thinking about writing music. He proceeds to lay out his thoughts, discussing furniture, giving advice to future musicians, and describing a stuffed frog.
Although they found instrumental footing on the Tiny Creatures 7-inch, they refined their sound on their second LP, Put the Music in Its Coffin, which finds them at the pinnacle of their early folk phase. Represented on Life Review by three tracks, the album is painted as rusty industrial English landscape with low bass lines, feedback, and cheap keyboard drones. The plodding rhythm guitar dirge on “Nocturnal Middle Rumbles” moves steadily above an underbelly of light, tumbling chord fragments. Harris describes a Kafka-esque scene: “Figure falls out of the alley/ Figure looks a lot like me in clay.” It’s a simple, direct statement accompanied by instrumentation that mimics the lyrical feeling. With it, The Shadow Ring mastered their initial folk phase; it was time to move onwards.
Tom Goss was recruited for their next album, 1996's Wax Work Echoes, and he ushered in The Shadow Ring phase two. With the acquisition, the band smattered drones and sparse percussion atop their rancid guitar rhythms. “Wallet of Wasps” rumbles along with gypsy guitar fractures and pounds of a bass drum. Goss smears space-synth drones over the instrumental passages, as what sounds like drawn-out notes on the violin emerge in the background. While not far removed from the selections on Put the Music in Its Coffin, Goss’ presence underscores the dread and anxiety that runs through so much of The Shadow Ring’s early work. Lambkin and Harris allow Goss to spread his wings on “Apricot Rat,” where he covers a simple guitar line and pot-and-pan percussion with a gray, droning smog cloud.
The band sanded down the edges in their second phase with Hold on to ID, the penultimate statement of their two-album stint on Siltbreeze. Focusing their lyrical and instrumental vision, they created a cohesive album that tells the tale of rising water and heightening paranoia with intertextual commentary on the band’s history. Recorded in Coombe House -- the drafty white tenement house featured on the cover -- the album captures a dark winter sound, with slow-moving piano and one-dimensional frosted drones forming around Harris’ vocals. Some of the simple guitar rhythms found on Put the Music in its Coffin crop up on Hold on to ID, notably on the title track, which appears in a live version on Life Review. Mainly, guitars are used as percussion, drowned out with gray electronics and pushed to the back to make room for Harris' vocals.
Lambkin’s emerging role as a meticulous craftsman is also apparent on Hold on to ID. A few spare piano strikes add multitudes of detail beneath the swirling industrial smog of “Wash What You Eat.” The tape hiss solo that ends the title track compliments the frightful mood contained in the tune: synth frequencies rise and burst along with each verse like a screeching firework. Although Lambkin’s lyricism began to blossom on the Mouse on Mouth single (also included in Life Review), it really comes to fruition on Hold on to ID. “The Way of the World” highlights the album’s obsession with nautical creatures. “You’ve got to watch the water that is in your life,” Harris warns. “Filter out impurities and try hard to find/ Aquavermin, the cancers of H20/ Stray fish that pass up through the plug hole.” Surreal and dark while remaining playful, the song contains a style that figures prominently on the band’s final trilogy.
While Hold on to ID keeps a steady focus, Lighthouse marks the sound of a band prying open their skulls and squeezing every last brilliant idea from their minds. The last album recorded at Coombe House and their first for the Swill Radio imprint, Lighthouse exists outside any of the band’s phases and in a league with Walk to the Fire, Twin Infinitives, and other classic outsider double albums. A much looser experience than previous recordings, Lambkin and Harris laugh, cough, leave in mistakes, and invite friends like Idea Fire Company-members Karla Borecky and Scott Foust with Harry Pussy drummer Adris Hoyos to fill out the sound. Guitar plays less of a role in Lighthouse, as a madhouse of tape experimentation, drums, synth, and piano carve the curvy path through each song. The minimalist tendencies and attention to detail that the band would cement on their final two albums rear its heads on Lighthouse, while vikings, a woman working for a shadowy government agency, death visions, a father-to-be, British noblemen, King Arthur, and a lighthouse-keeper all factor into the lyrics, which, despite their wide range of subject matter, contain keen observations about life.
Represented by only four tracks on this anthology, Lighthouse's scope and sprawling musical vision is apparent; it's an album that begs to be heard in its entirety on its original vinyl format. The jittery keyboard rhythm, slow-moving piano strikes, and ascending and falling synth streaks on “I Am a Lighthouse” take a backseat to Lambkin’s startling lyrical insights. Harris speaks about taking “a walk to where color does not grow” and “stroking rough hours into smooth minutes.” He comments: “I got depressed and amazed together/ When I thought how quickly time goes.” Harris’ speak-singing accentuates Lambkin’s simple but profound observations by injecting rhythm into his stern delivery. Meanwhile, the speed-walking pace of the background music mimics the psychedelic thought processing patterns in the narrator’s skull filling.
“I am a Lighthouse” represents a more straightforward side of Lighthouse -- at least for The Shadow Ring. The wilder side is shown on the anthology with “Fish and Hog” and “Arthuring Tina.” The funhouse explodes on the former, as Harris gives surreal step-by-step instructions for using a box (sample: “Three: Put someone in a box and cut them to twins”), while an ascending piano line gets interrupted by Hoyos’ drum bashes and a voice pleading “Don’t say no.” The album’s bizarre King Arthur obsession becomes blatantly obvious on “Arthuring Tina,” where, on top of a four-note keyboard pattern that occasionally gives way to negative space, Harris engages in consonant word play and silly commentary (“Half-a-dead Tina/ She was full of blood like us”).
After the wonderland of Lighthouse, the band ventured into the meat market of Lindus, a cold yet playful trip into the darkest region of the walk-in cooler. The album marks another transition for the band: a short jump into the world of minimal electronics. Although one must use very unflattering terms to effectively capture the mood of the album, it is one of the most consistently engrossing works The Shadow Ring ever committed to vinyl. Whereas Lighthouse painted a carnival inside of Coombe House, Lindus -- represented on Life Review by three tracks -- catches the band sketching out an alien atmosphere. Tape manipulation plays a prominent role in creating this atmosphere, allowing Lambkin to add bits of static and found sound to the mix and to slow vocals until they become something inhuman and almost unrecognizable. At times they sound contained, sterile, and stiff, as though they were recorded in an empty morgue. Lyrically, the album provides blunt insights into the human condition, comparing our race to urination and describing seedy beach people. Elements like footsteps and narration on “The Riverside” prevent the tunes from further drifting into orbit, while keyboards and electronics stretch out in the background like the steel lining of a meat cooler floor.
I’m Some Songs, the band’s swan song, turned out to be the perfect endpoint. Although it seems one-dimensional on first listen, it reveals its labyrinthine construction with repeated exposure, slowly morphing into a meticulously crafted masterwork on par with the upper echelon of avant-garde compositions. The minute details Lambkin mixed into the record -- like a clinging metal sound before the vocals on almost every song -- emerge like hidden treasure. He used the same backing tapes, played at different speeds and altered in different manners, on almost every trach, creating an aural sense of déjà vu. In a 2007 interview, Lambkin pointed out the pace at which he dropped a piece of metal to the floor during a particular song. At one point, he intentionally dropped the metal at the wrong interval. It’s a detail that one may not process right away, but it illustrates his progress as a composer and the lighter, playful side of his studious editing.
Flowing oceanic sounds and a steady cylindrical drone carve out the setting of “Man on the Land,” one of two tracks from I’m Some Songs that appear on Life Review. Lambkin crafts an abandoned factory of sound, as a soft, conveyor-belt drone and a ghost-wind flow through dilapidated hallways. Harris' vocals are slowed until they sound like Darth Vader’s recitation of shamanistic philosophy. It all solidifies Lambkin’s status as a top-tier thrift-store composer, using anything applicable to construct the right sound.
Of particular note on Life Review is “Veehay,” one of six stellar unreleased tracks on the anthology. Soaked in a rainbow spectrum of Tangerine Dream synth lines, the tune occupies a realm apart from most of I’m Some Songs' content. Once again, Harris’ vocals are stretched out and disfigured, but they wash over the drone, adding a relaxing feeling to the cold album. Fittingly, “Start Repeating,” a companion piece of sorts to “Veehay,” ends the disc. A spiral staircase of post-techno synth rhythms, the track adds a smattering of colors to the frost, all the while padding its belly with an airy drone and decaying organ breaths.
And, at the end of “Start Repeating," The Shadow Ring basically waved goodbye. But something has nagged at the band’s fans for the past five years; many of us believed Lambkin had at least a few outtakes stashed somewhere. On top of that, the band never received due portion of the burgeoning interest in avant-garde music that sprouted up over the past seven years. Life Review finally lends some closure to The Shadow Ring’s legacy with unreleased gems like “Stella Drive,” their take on Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” and two cuts from the City Lights era that are arguably better than that entire record. Even with all the album cuts, it's both fresh and exciting affair, and a nice introduction that will probably attract a wave of new listeners. Even as the final hammer smack nails The Shadow Ring's career shut, the band proves to be impervious to decay. What are the odds?