1988: Steve Reich - Different Trains
Dan Deacon’s recent album America ended with the lengthy title suite, reportedly inspired by his experiences travelling cross country on trains. Back in the late 80s Steve Reich also drew inspiration from cross country trips on trains, to create a fascinating piece of music constructed mainly from samples of people speaking. The original version, done in 1988, featured The Kronos Quartet playing along with the sampled voices.
The piece is often described as having been inspired by Reich’s youth, traveling the long cross country distance between his two separated parents, and the realization that during the same period Jewish kids his own age were being shipped in Holocaust trains. It is split into three sections that represent Pre-war America, war-torn Europe, and finally a post-war Earth. It’s a heavy concept, but one that Reich delivers on with a tremendous amount of care and innovation when you consider his use of sampling. Different Trains went on to win a Grammy, though I doubt anyone, especially Reich, really cared about that.
1989 - 2012: Suzanne Langille & Loren Connors - “Blue Ghost Blues” (“Haunted House”)
By any measure, I’m no blues scholar. I’m no connoisseur of the blues. When I first picked up a guitar, my dad taught me the scales. It’s only been in the last month or two, about two decades later, that I’ve started running through them again. So maybe I’m not the best person to write about the blues. But I can’t shake this song, “Haunted House,” and its recent transformation(s) by Suzanne Langille and Loren Connors.
The available information surrounding “Haunted House” is scant. The song is, at least in part, an amalgam of verses from “Blue Ghost Blues” (1927, 1938) and “Lonesome Ghost Blues” (1927), both songs pre-dating “Haunted House” by decades. Regarding the biography of the songwriter, Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson, I kindly direct you elsewhere. Without going too far off course, suffice it to say that his influence is still felt. “[His] early recordings are the first guitar recordings that display a single-note soloing style with use of string bending and vibrato,” that is, he originated the guitar solo.
One can make guesses as to the origins of the content of songs, but sometimes one is left, simply, to drift through them, and know the song as it gives itself – again and again, listen after listen. In my opinion, “Haunted House,” in the hands of Langille and Connors, is a gorgeous, and yes, haunting song in all of its recorded iterations. In an email, Suzanne Langille wrote, “I think Lonnie Johnson’s ‘Blue Ghost Blues’ is the greatest love song ever written. It’s about a love – and a need to protect – that transcends death. I believe in it.” She continued, “Loren introduced me to the song, which had been introduced to him by our good friend Robert Crotty, a blues musician from Hamden who passed away not too long ago. It was the truest thing I had ever heard. No other song comes close.” She concluded, “When our band was first coming together, after a couple performances of it, we decided to call our band Haunted House and the song ‘Blue Ghost Blues.’”
Although three of the four recordings of “Haunted House” are performed by the full band, the very first and most “simple” rendition is by Langille and Connors alone, together, at the end of Connor’s 1989 album In Pittsburgh. It may take a few listens to hear the ways in which the voice and guitar sing to each other. The song is slow like a crawl, and is as lonesome as it is lovely. One guitar plays a simple rhythm throughout, as though creating a space in which Langille and Connors can inhabit and explore, both as ghosts, both as lovers. There are moments in this rendition more convincing, and moving, than in most songs I’ve heard: the drawl of time, I’ve been in this haunted house/ six long months today; the solo after the black cat’s sympathy; when Langille sings the grip of the ghost around her, and the spoken words of the dead lover, the whispered “I love you”; the way Connor’s guitar drops, and drops, throughout the song until, by the end, it’s nothing but a pick scratching against the strings.
The next recording of “Haunted House” (hereafter, “Blue Ghost Blues”) would come one decade later, in 1999, on Haunted House’s live album, Up In Flames. The crawl had been stretched out from 6 and a half minutes to 23 minutes. The voice isn’t first heard until well after the eight-minute mark; in the meantime, throughout the opening minutes (if the voice’s entrance can be said to initiate the song) were experimental electric guitar improvisations typical of Connor’s work during the 90’s: minor and foreboding. At the nine-minute mark, nearly everything drops out but Langille’s voice. An underlying, low, discordant, and distorted thump carries it forward, and Connor’s guitar wanders, strangely, around the words being spoken and sung. More forcefully than before, Langille almost yells that the “blue ghost got [her] house surrounded/and [she] can’t get away,” and that’s exactly what this version sounds like: the storm surrounding the house, the house surrounding the storm, the ghost and the lover intertwining in the terror and promise of their mutual alienation and affection. This time around, Connor’s guitar drops into a fury of noise, and the song is carried out, held captive, within it.
The next year, Haunted House would release an EP (collected on Night Through) containing a second live recording of “Blue Ghost Blues.” Although it is much shorter than the version on Up In Flames, it is nonetheless quite similar, only distinguishing itself in intensity: between loud and quiet, between fury and silence, between body and specter. The house-shape is more clearly articulated in the almost empty space Langille’s voice inhabits, and Connor’s guitar soars and swirls around the body, bringing to mind Mr. Lockwood’s encounter in Wuthering Heights: “I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in – let me in!’”
In 2011, over two decades after the first recording, Haunted House released Blue Ghost Blues, containing their fourth, and latest, recording of “Blue Ghost Blues.” If I may let my own voice fade away for a bit so that you might finally listen for yourself…
Suzanne concluded her email: “We did yet another version and vibe of it at the Haunted House performance at Roulette this year. I don’t know if the recording came out okay. I’ll find out this weekend.”
1972: Deep Purple - “Space Truckin’”
Deep Purple were so much more than “Smoke on the Water.” They were a hard rock band with an organ that often was heavier than the guitar, they incorporated classical music motifs while singing about racing cars in space, and their drummer owed more to Buddy Rich than anyone else. They were so much of their time that, in theory, they should sound like the most dated band in the world. This is not the case at all.
The genius of Deep Purple relies on their pomposity, although not in the way most people have assumed. Yes, they were overblown and quite pretentious; but what makes them amazing is that they were all that while remaining true to rock n’ roll in terms of excitement. They could make a ten minute song sound as incendiary as a two and a half minute punk song.
Take something like the live version of “Space Truckin’.” It’s filled with complicated passages and arrangements but it’s never less than a bulldozer blazing down the highway. They used their musicianship to make music of the most intense order. Stretching the song past ten minutes, it eventually seem like the Earth is being ripped in half while you keep headbanging.
It’s the essence of metal: challenging music played in a brutal way that makes your body react. That’s why they, along with Black Sabbath, are the undisputed fathers of the form. Deep Purple went a step ahead and made low cultured baroque music as exciting as the most sophisticated and avant garde styles in rock, and they still feel timeless nowadays.
1983: Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure
Virginia Astley was born into a musical family, the daughter of a commercial composer who had written the memorable theme songs to British television shows The Saint and Dangerman. She began studying piano at the age of six, and flute at the age of 14. As a young music school student, she joined post-punk group Victims of Pleasure as keyboardist, and performed as session player on more than a few albums of the period. As a solo artist, she contributed background music to the epochal Les Disques Du Crépuscule compilation The Fruit Of The Original Sin. She eventually formed her own group, The Ravishing Beauties, who were tapped for a highly prized opening slot for The Teardrop Explodes.
Astley’s first solo release was a beguilingly strange 10” EP entitled A Bao A Qu (named in tribute to a mythical creature invented by Borges), released on the tiny Why Fi imprint in 1982. Songs such as “We Will Meet Them Again” and “Sanctus” are early indications of Astley’s unique aesthetic, an application of traditional English pastoral and liturgical motifs to minimal wave chamber pop. An atmosphere of wistfulness and nostalgia permeates all of Virginia Astley’s early recordings, a complex longing for a particular way of life now irretrievably lost. This isn’t quite the pagan royalism of mythical Albion that became a focal point for the Wicker Man-era 1960s British folk revival (and the subsequent re-revival in the form of apocalyptic folk), but something far more parochial, abstract, and personal.
The style reached its full expression on Virginia’s masterpiece From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, released in 1983 on Astley’s own Happy Valley Records imprint, a subsidiary of Rough Trade established specifically for the release of the album. Divided into two movements, “Morning” and “Afternoon,” Gardens broke decisively from the electronic pop of Astley’s early recordings, eschewing vocals and pop structure almost entirely in favor of abstractly decorative works of pastoral neoclassicism. At times Astley gestures towards the ambient drift of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, perhaps an unavoidable comparison for instrumental music of this period, but her command of melody and harmony keep one foot firmly grounded in tradition.
A series of looped field recordings — birdsong, village church bells, the gentle baaing of sheep, the squeaks and scrapes of gardening implements — lend the music an electroacoustic dimension, creating a uniquely mimetic counterpoint to the baroque sensibilities of Astley’s compositions. From The KLF’s Chill Out to Boards Of Canada’s In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country, British artists have often returned to this same wellspring of pastoral nostalgia, though Astley’s take has a certain ambiguity all its own.
Following the abstract detour of Gardens, Virginia Astley returned to making electronic pop and continued to record and release music throughout the 80s and 90s, but largely failed to find a discernible audience outside of an insular cult following based largely in Japan. She gently faded into quasi-obscurity over the ensuing decades. Gardens was reissued by Rough Trade in 2003, perhaps in a bid to focus critical attention upon an overlooked masterpiece, but the label may have been a few years too early to make the right kind of impact. A scant year later, Ghost Box began releasing music by a small group of artists focused on (re-)creating an imaginary collective past inexorably tied to British provincialism and a fraught relationship with nostalgia. The music of Belbury Poly in particular seems to slot in nicely with Virginia Astley’s hallucinatory waking dreams of an English village and the security promised by a benevolent social order.
Though it does not appear Astley had much interest in drawing explicit references to trad folk, library music, or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, her lightweight instrumentals have a certain appealing kind of neoclassical blandness that makes them feel hauntingly familiar, perhaps a residue of her background in commercial composing. Almost 30 years later, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure still manages to insinuate itself into the unconscious with an eerie congeniality, promising sepia-toned nostalgia but delivering something irrevocably strange and ambivalent, a nagging sensation in the corner of one’s memory, a perfect English garden disturbed by the presence of ghosts.
1979: The Pop Group - Y
“It had everything that I thought rock and roll should have. It was violent, paranoid music for a violent, paranoid time.” – Nick Cave on The Pop Group
Cough, the sophomore (and sadly, last) album by the DC outfit Black Eyes, was one of those albums that made all other music seem dopey — and while the effect is always temporary, in this case the feeling lasted for weeks. It was 2004 and dance-punk was riding a wave of popularity that was just reaching its crest. The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” was played at every party, often signaling the point where things got real. Though, despite how good that song is — and it is fantastic — Cough just made it seem thin and gaudy, like so much paper streamer.
It’s not even like the Rapture and co. and Black Eyes were shooting for the same target. The former were interested in packing dance floors while the latter was more on an art-damaged vision quest. Though here’s the thing: Black Eyes could focus on outré experimentation but still create high-energy, funky tracks that felt just as immediate and fun as anything on DFA. It made it seem, if only for a second, like everyone else was reaching for low-hanging fruit. I imagine this is what it was like to hear The Pop Group in 1979.
The group was headed up by Mark Stewart and Gareth Sager, both young students from the southern city of Bristol. Prodded by the same frustrations that stoked the fires of many of the era’s three-chord punk bands, The Pop Group had the same energy and anger as any of its colleagues. Though the group’s debut, a dub-infused, angular monster called Y, has a level of musical inventiveness and general chutzpah that makes it one of early post-punk’s finest moments.
You can hear it right from the first track. “She is Beyond Good an Evil” is built on liquid bass and a jagged guitar that stutters and explodes over and over. Each would be be engaging on their own, but their combination, along with Stewart’s atavistic howl, creates a song that keeps hinting at disco but intentionally holds such accessibility at a distance. The same goes for the following track “Thief of Fire” — there are moments where you can hear a glimmer of straight-forward angular post-punk, but instead of vamping on it, the band has the track melt into a free-jazz sax slog.
Elsewhere, the album delves more into the tropes of no-wave. Rather than delivering melodic aggression like fellow Bristol punk acts The Cortinas and The Agents, the band opts for long abstract dirges filled with aimless dissonance and skronk horns with tracks like “Don’t Call Me Pain.” The longest track, “We Are Time,” has more in common with the layered guitar work of Glenn Branca than anyone else.
What’s impressive about all of this isn’t so much The Pop Group’s decision to slouch toward deconstruction over delivering an overt message. Y isn’t just an album of angry anthems designed as red meat for the young and disaffected — though, through all the willful sonic antagonism it still works like one. And that’s what’s impressive.
1994: Schoolly D - Welcome to America
“This album’s really a feeling. It’s like, ‘Welcome to yourself.’ You are now here. We are here. This country was born and raised on violence, and now we are adults — and we’re violent,” explains Schoolly D aka Jesse B. Weaver Jr. in a 1994 interview with Gabriel Alvarez. Schoolly makes it known where he stands in the age-old debate of art imitating life vs. life imitating art. However, one would be remiss to assume that Welcome to America is yet another “ghetto CNN” record. The tales contained on this album’s 13 tracks are not so much news reports as they are a series of psychological profiles, and the black bogeymen Schoolly bluntly portrays represent the realization of conservative white America’s deepest fear: drug-crazed, gun-toting black gangsters run amok, raping and murdering at will, without consequence or remorse. Hide your daughters! Arm your sons!
Of course, Schoolly’d been purposely pissing off pastoids for his entire career, which by this point was already ten years deep. The difference this time around is that much of the cartoonish humor and Black Nationalist imagery of his prior efforts have been stripped away, while the sex, drugs and violence are all taken to post-parody extremes. For example, in place of crudely drawn asses or a red, black, and green banner, the cover art now features black and white photographs of urban decay; similarly, “Peace to the Nation” (a song off 1991’s How A Black Man Feels) is replaced with “Peace Of What,” a cynical diatribe in the tradition of Main Source’s “Peace is Not the Word to Play;” and where once Schoolly rapped about his mom waving a gun at the girl he snuck into his room after hours (on “Saturday Night”), he now gets a woman high, takes her out to dinner, brings her home, kicks her ass, fucks her, then shoots her in the head (on “I Wanna Get Dusted”). The carnage escalates on “Niggas Like Me,” in which Schoolly raps:
“All I wanna do is get you in my caddy/ I don’t give a fuck about your mommy or your daddy/ ‘Cause niggas like me, don’t you bother/ We don’t give a fuck about a bitch-ass father/ At the table I eat up all the dinner/ I pinch your granny on the ass like a winner/ I fuck your little sister/ I got the ho calling me Mister/ Big Dick, real slick, real sick/ I fucked the ho then I dropped her real quick/ I put your little brother in a gang/ I sit back and watch the nigga bang.”
In a sense, this album is like a gangsta rap version of The Last House on the Left, except instead of, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘it’s only music,’” the Intro tells us most invitingly and accommodatingly, “All the motherfuckers is welcome: hardcore niggas, gangsta bitches, ho’s, motherfucking bitches…” Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s Allmusic review states, “It helps that the record contains the best music he has ever recorded, although the best moments can’t hide the fact that Schoolly D doesn’t have the lyrical grace of the rappers that followed in his footsteps.” While I partially agree, in that I think the beats on here are some of the best Schoolly has ever produced (more on that later), I have to add that if you’re looking for “lyrical grace” in a Schoolly D album, then you’re totally missing the point. First of all, the man improvised the majority of his vocals, so there’s that. Second, and more importantly, it was never Schoolly’s intent to woo his audience with beautiful turns of phrase, so for him to dress up his rhymes simply because the game had changed would be to cater to expectations of how he should sound, an act antithetical to everything he ever represented. Grace and subtlety are absent from his words, but so too are they absent from the world he describes. After all, this is not Philadelphia, The City of Brotherly Love; this is Philadelphia, The City That Bombed Itself. Hence, the language, like the artwork, is all black and white.
As entertaining and provocative as the lyrical polemics are, it’s the beats on Welcome to America that are perhaps most appealing and illustrative of Schoolly’s artistic growth. I use the word “beats” as a standard term for hip-hop production, but it is traditional instrumentation that serves as the backbone of this album’s production side. While all of his prior releases relied primarily on drum machines, samples and turntables, here, a full band — including Schoolly himself as well as a young Scott Storch (pre-superproducer trappings) on keys — is added to the mix. Uninformed listeners who equate ‘hip-hop bands’ with the abysmal rap rock fad of the late ’90s rather than the old studio musicians employed by labels like Sugar Hill Records can just check that pretension at the door.
Remember, Schoolly is the rapper responsible for such classic numbers as “I Don’t Like Rock N’ Roll” and “No More Rock N’ Roll,” so it’s safe to assume that even quality hard rock-inspired production ala the Beastie Boys or Run DMC was the furthest thing from his mind when he entered the studio. “I grew up on Funkadelic, Parliament, Buddy Miles, Average White Band, Tower of Power, Earth Wind & Fire,” says Weaver, and the MC’s musical tastes likely shed some light on the direction the musicians received from himself and executive producers Chris Schwartz and Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo, as the beats on here are best classified as heavy funk meets Philadelphia soul. And though one might look to connect this sound with that of The Roots, who also employed Scott Storch and released their debut, Organix, just a year prior, it’s the criminally slept-on illadelphia hip-hop trio The Goats who provide a better basis for comparison, as their two albums – 1992’s Tricks of the Shade and 1994’s No Goats No Glory – were both produced by The Butcher as well.
Another plausible inspiration was the affiliation of Schoolly D with film director Abel Farrara, who’d pestered Schoolly into allowing him to use his music as the soundtrack for the 1990 classic King of New York starring Christopher Walken. Though Schoolly wouldn’t physically sit down to score an entire film on his own until 1996’s Lowball, it strikes me as far from inconceivable that Schoolly was by 1994 already looking toward a second career as a film composer. Furthermore, witnessing firsthand how well his music complemented the on-screen action of King of New York (and vice versa) definitely could’ve encouraged him to further explore the already-cinematic elements of his sound. Note the gunshots and siren-like horns on “I Know You Want To Kill Me” and the resonant buildup giving way to a basic pimp-strut bass line on “I Shot Da Bitch.” Devices such as these and others are used throughout the record to build and release dramatic tension, crafting a series of audible story arcs, the last of which culminates with “Stop Frontin,” which uses a sequence of cinematic skits in place of a hook.
While Welcome to America’s finale, “Another Sign,” doesn’t so much resolve the album’s conflicts as it reiterates or summarizes them, it does offer up a poignantly sobering narrative: “Sitting at the breakfast table smoking me a spliff/ Say what’s up to my little sis/ Thirteen and already knocked up/ But the little black daddy don’t give a fuck/ Our momma mad ‘cause she gave up/ Took her to church every week but couldn’t save her/ I got a daughter and a son/ Before he say “daddy” little nigga might say “gun”…” The bleakness is exacerbated by a beautiful, if hopeless, gospel chorus of male and female crooners harmonizing along with the song’s main blues riff. Meanwhile, the rhythm section’s intoxicating effect strikes an ingenious counterbalance. Family dysfunction never sounded so goddamn smooth.
For further discussion of Schoolly D’s production prowess, check out this post I contributed to the t.r.o.y. blog.