1968: Pearls Before Swine - Balaklava
If the market for what has now been deemed ‘indie rock’ existed in the late '60s, Thomas D. Rapp and Pearls Before Swine would have surely been at the top of the heap. Had he become a more affixed part of the rock canon, Rapp could perhaps be credited with inventing many of the conventions that indie culture currently holds dear. Rapp had a clever reference-based band name for his solo project, was unwittingly experimental, and, had he been heard more at the time, would have likely been adored by critics while the mainstream cast him off as “weird arty shit.”
At his core, though, Rapp is perhaps one of the most engaging songwriters this great pop medium has seen, and his 1968 offering Balaklava is the proof. As the story goes, Rapp, a North Dakota native, would frequently enter into regional song-writing competitions where he would encounter – and consistently top - another young troubadour by the name of Robert Zimmerman. With songs like “Translucent Carriages,” “There Was a Man,” and “Guardian Angels,” Rapp’s talent is readily evident in the slowly building melodies embellished by winds, strings, piano, and Rapp’s creaking voice (reminiscent of a more subdued David Byrne).
Rapp had far more at work in his music than mere tunes. He was simultaneously infatuated with both history and surrealism, and he employed both in his music for a product he called ‘constructive melancholy.’ Here, Rapp is exploring the Vietnam War in ways that were never touched upon in the more mainstream folk movement. The historical aspect of the album even seems surreal, like an actual recording of Trumpeter Landfrey, who sounded the battle cry at the battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War, resulting in the senseless killing of many British soldiers. From there, it only becomes more abstract, combining the aforementioned instruments with recordings of waves crashing and chirping birds. The progression completes with a reference to Lord of the Rings, which may have been clever at the time, but admittedly losses meaning given the homogenization of the series today.
Still, the songs don’t work as a cohesive unit. Rather, they may be thought of as different takes on Rapp’s many ideas. The psychedelic label, often applied far too liberally, makes sense on Balaklava, as the experimentation meets classic song-writing for a trip of an affair. Rapp moved on to become a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia in the 70s, but like many artifacts of the Vietnam era, this album stands the test of time in a way that has not been bested since. Sadly, it may never get the chance because of the weight of its obscurity. Put in my bid for a full reissue.
1. Trumpeter Landfrey
2. Translucent Carriages
3. Images of April
4. There Was a man
5. I Saw the World
6. Guardian Angels
8. Lepers and Roses
9. Florence Nightingale
10. Ring Thing
1965: Jackson C. Frank - Blues Run The Game
Unless you're a connoisseur of folk music, have seen Vincent Gallo's movie The Brown Bunny, or have frantically searched the influences of Devendra Banhart, you've probably never heard the absolute beauty of singer-songwriter Jackson C. Frank's music. To be honest, I have to claim the last two of these references as my path to discovering one of the ‘60s greatest forgotten folk treasures.
Since becoming familiar with his music, I've learned that Frank, who died in 1999, had a sad life of pain and loss; both mentally and physically. Frank was severely burned during a tragic fire at his elementary school at the age of 11, and for the rest of his life was left scarred in more ways than one. He always had a sense of insecurity, but managed to write a short list of beautiful songs and influenced a long list of performers before living a life of recluse on the streets, and in the mental hospitals of New York City.
Blues Run the Game is a perfect album in every sense. As far as folk records go, I've heard nothing better. It's full of melancholy and beauty, and is a completely essential exercise in folk music. Produced by Paul Simon and recorded in less than three hours, each track contains pristine sounds of acoustic guitar and gentle vocals. It makes you feel like this is the mold that others have tried to imitate ever since. Many have covered Frank's songs, such as the illustrious Nick Drake and Sandy Denny (Denny was also Frank's girlfriend for a short period of time. Although Denny is more recognized than Frank, it's impossible not to see he was as big an influence on her work as just about anyone else).
The title track, "Blues Run the Game," has been accepted by Frank's fans as his most identifiable and significant song, written during one of the only times things seemed to be going well in his life. He had just received a small fortune of insurance money from his fire accident and began a journey to England. It was there that he became completely engaged with writing folk music.
The stand out song on the album is "Milk and Honey," with its solemn beauty epitomizing everything that is simple and perfect about the state of music in the mid-'60s. The songs have an uncanny ability to paint images in my head of childhood and remind me of an innocence long left behind.
For the longest time, you couldn't find a copy of Blues Run the Game. Over the past decade, however, several labels have re-issued the album for an ever-growing fan base. If you own any folk record, and don't have this in your collection, consider this an insightful plea. It's nice to see so many people slowly going back in time to revisit some of the lost treasures that have fallen to the wayside. And although our timing might be too late to show him some support, hopefully the love for Jackson C. Frank's music that was left behind is just beginning for a new generation.
1980: Clock DVA - White Souls in Black Suits
Possibly one of the most enigmatic groups in the history of English post punk, Clock DVA underwent several dramatic metamorphoses throughout their career. With the exception of vocalist/frontman Adi Newton’s gruff, menacing voice, each of Clock DVA’s albums has a completely different sound: the angular, jagged post punk/mutant disco of their first album, White Souls in Black suit; the new wave sensibilities of their second album, Thirst; the smoky, jazz-inflected undertones of the third album, Advantage; and finally, the dark, throbbing industrial sound of their fourth proper album, Buried Dreams, which would permeate Clock DVA’s subsequent offerings. Evidently a difficult man to work with, Newton completely altered Clock DVA’s lineup on every album, which accounts for the wide disparity of styles from one record to another.
White Souls in Black Suits was released by the invitation of Throbbing Gristle on their own label, the long-defunct Industrial Records. Furthermore, the record was recorded in Cabaret Voltaire’s Western Works studio. The early industrial/noise influence of these two Sheffield bands has a distinct presence on White Souls in Black Suits. Structurally, the album is the most experimental and “un-structured” of all Clock DVA’s albums.
Raw and unpolished, White Souls in Black Suits is a primarily improvised album, ostensibly a piss-take on the English “white soul” groups of the time. The combination of repetitive, distorted guitars, squawking saxophones, and sub-funk, almost dub-influenced bass lines give the music a distinctly post punk/mutant disco sound. The noisy, improvisational element on White Souls in Black Suits, however, betrays Clock DVA’s affiliation with the Industrial Records groups Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. The heavy use of delay, guitar feedback, rhythmic, pounding percussion, and all-out collages of pure noise aligns Clock DVA with the early industrial movement more than any other genre (although that would change after this record).
The world Newton evokes through his music is populated with sinister, shadowy figures, stalkers, serial killers, and imagery of torture straight from the Marquis de Sade. This began, to some degree, on White Souls in Black Suits, and would eventually dominate later Clock DVA records, basically concept albums dedicated to depraved historical figures such as Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who bathed in the blood of virgins.
Repetitive, droning, and eerie, White Souls in Black Suits can be disturbing and difficult to listen to. The album, now near impossible to find copies of, is almost anachronistic and archaic, so far removed are we from the early Eighties Sheffield scene. The poor mastering from the original tapes has rendered the album more of a novelty than anything else. Nevertheless, White Souls in Black Suits is an interesting, albeit unsettling, introduction to an important and overlooked post punk group from the '80s.
3. Disconsentment (2)
8. Film Sound Track (Keyboards Assemble Themselves At Dawn)
1969: Larry Coryell - Lady Coryell
The first time listening to Lady Coryell, I was expecting something busier. Basically, I was looking for a Bitches Brew inspired clone. Hearing the loose, scratchy voice of a slightly off key Coryell was somewhat startling. I skipped to the second track, only to hear that voice again: More then anything it sounded like Steve Winwood on crack. Slightly disillusioned, I took the disc out and started jamming Return to Forever, or whatever likeminded band I was craving at the time.
When my fusion hard on cooled a bit, I went back to Lady Coryell and discovered something completely different. In place of modal chaos was a ripe selection of extremely catchy themes. Even when the improvisation was at it's most extreme ("Stiff Neck"), there was always a hummable riff or phrase to fall back on. Secondly, and somewhat ironically, only the first half of the album contained vocals. Side-B revealed a lot more guitar noodling and extended jams. Yet Coryell's sharp, often distorted guitar tone was clear throughout. The perfect assimilation of style had evaded me before, but here was a jazz guitarist playing a heavy blues riff with atonal wankery fidgeting in the background ("Sunday Telephone"). Beautiful. It felt the same as the Hendrix inspired 'rock' aesthetic other musicians had been trying to achieve in the same year, though under different guises. Basically, it was not a record to be pegged down.
Coming back to it now, I can try to explain how Lady Coryell combines forms of jazz, blues, folk, and psychedelic rock, but it won't do much good. It's the kind of album that doesn't subscribe to any specific method. It is a gem because its eclecticism is effortless, and I can't help but think that if it were released today, it would still be hailed as truly original. If you take the albums variety into account, Lady Coryell is also a nice bridge from rock into a more traditional jazz setting, or vice versa. Though sometimes it's just better in the middle.
2002: Glifted - Under and In
Welcome to the epicenter of hazy delirium. Though the world of Under and In may seem overwhelmingly dense at first listen, eventually you'll be sucked right in to an experience so gloriously disorienting that you'll feel like you're undergoing radical mutation. It's audio narcotics, and there are few other products advertised as such that are innately intoxicating as this.
You may feel like your CD is skipping when you play the first track, but notice the snaking countermelody and phased-out vocals coming in, you'll start getting into it. I opted to review this for The DeLorean because any Hum enthusiasts who looked up Glifted on Amazon and read the disparaging comments of fellow Hum'sters could easily miss out on something grand and unique. It's only like Hum in the guitars swoop and dive like aural avalanches. Tim Lash's vocals are less intimate and emotionally endearing perhaps, but in many ways, this band trumps Hum's entire catalogue with its spaced-out majesty. I always thought Matt Talbott's lyrics were kind of dumb anyway ("I'm thinking of a number between everything and two"). To me, what was always good about Hum was the sheer grandiosity of their sound. They were their best when surging and powering through a soaring progression like on Downward is Heavenward's opening track.
Glifted's music is more about disorientation. It's music that, more than any other, deserves all of the Loveless comparisons heaped on it. The merry cacophony idealized in that classic album's opening track's wordless chorus is at the heart of what makes Under and In such a winner. And, like Loveless, there are really catchy pop tunes hidden under all the washes. Perhaps a bit more so, since the album's poppier moments arrive in crunchier, Hum-like fashion (particularly on the infectious "Baby's Blue"). So, while it may not stand up to the infallible behemoth of Kevin Shield's innovation and subtle song writing, it comes pretty damn close. The only thing preventing Under and In from being a perfect woozy rock opus might be the lengthy and pointless loop tacked on to the albums end. But don't let that stop you. This is an enticing trip that you definitely don't want to pass up.
1. Is There Any Always
2. The Scare
3. On and On
4. Baby's Blue
5. Heavy Ion
6. Last in Line
7. Every Single Second
8. The Ground
9. Red Lift
1998: The Crainium - A New Music For A New Kitchen
With the often vapid, territorial pissing of trends and provincial music(s), music can be tiresome and predictable. Most music that becomes popular nowadays can be traced back to an earlier trend that happened decades ago. It'd be arrogant to claim, however, that the more avant-garde sectors of music are any more original or 'authentic' than, say, the garage rock or disco-punk trends; all music has its influences, and all of it's hybrid. However, the difference between those in the vanguard and the more conservative musicians can be found in audience reception.
The Crainium's one and only album, A New Music for a New Kitchen, for example, is still very much part of a negotiation (as opposed to appropriation) of sound, despite it being clearly influenced by the short-lived No Wave scene of the '70s/early '80s. There's no co-optation involved here. Dragging the sounds of D.N.A., Mars, and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks through noise and post-punk movements of the late 20th century, The Crainium play with sounds that still resist convention and conformity. This is why their music in 1998 has continued resonance today; the codes in this music are still very much dynamic and alive, no matter how old the influences are.
In this hour-long document of nervous spasms and intricate song writing, The Crainium balance tight composition with blasts of free chaos. With discordant guitars, contorted drumming, and penetrating vocals, The Crainium channel the improvisational aspects of free jazz while signaling an era entrenched in noise contextualized; it's Cecil Taylor meets Boredoms meets James Chance meets Melt-Banana. It's intelligent music that harnesses the exciting destructive elements of punk, simultaneously acknowledging its home at the outer edges of societal normalcy. And it's this resistance to societal normalcy that's expressed in its lyrics, which deconstruct the notion of gender in a society that employs the construction for power politics (hence, the album title).
A New Music for a New Kitchen will probably never achieve the level of acclaim that most records of this caliber do -- not because it can't be appreciated or because it's ahead of its time, but because it's an anomaly. It's not part of a scene or a movement, and the embrace of dissonance and exclusion of tonality has assured its obscurity among the more straightened crowd. If anything, The Crainium makes it apparent that the No Wave scene fizzled out much too early, and the critique of gender in music is at best a slight hum. Even though Tim Dewitt and Brian DeGraw are now in Gang Gang Dance, their work in the Crainium remains their most penetrating output. A New Music for a New Kitchen isn't a cry for help; it's a scream to rise above the mediocrity of rosy-cheeked America. It's just too bad that the Crainium isn't around to keep things moving.
1. The roles we play, a dead-ended game. We have to change. Create and rearrange. The roles we play they are a dead-ended game.
2. Watch who they beat, watch who they eat.
3. You pretend that you depend, but now you are, are you, visible?
4. There are no rabbits in my hat (yes, yes, yes, I am a traitor to my sex!)
5. Abracadabra! What am I now?
6. Only true love will break the rules.
7. Your penis, it is tiny, and it can not spell.
9. Cut it out of my body, cut it out of my mind, to look, no look
11. What are we hiding? (Parts 1-2 and 3) - Blood and babies, over tea. The eggtree and the ebbing tides. The main in the moon, drinks claret
12. New hormones. Until then, we will not know what love is
14. A new music for a new kitchen. Or, (How I raised myself up from the dead, and you can tell too!)
15. The coquettery of immobility oh watch how I bake, a vicitm, a baby, a coital cake
17. A new music for a new kitchen