1971: String Cheese - String Cheese
After their 1971 debut album failed to register a blip in the marketplace, Chicago sextet String Cheese promptly faded away. Their failure is woeful, because with proper backing and encouragement, they could have been the next It's A Beautiful Day. Like that San Francisco band, String Cheese's sound was steeped in sparkling hippie subject matter, strongly delivered by chanteuse Sally Smaller and aided by the electric violin of Gregory Bloch. Unfortunately, their debut album was also their last.
12-string guitarist and co-vocalist Lawrence W. Wendelken wrote most of the songs on String Cheese, and there are some truly tasteful arrangements contained within. "Soul Of Man," for example, benefits from lush, live strings over folksy acoustic guitar picking and sparse drums, while a Larry and Sally duet muses on the winding road that is the human experience. Meanwhile, the harpsichord-led intro to "Woke Up This Morning" (not the theme to The Sopranos) comes straight out of a renaissance court, progressing to a summery, psychedelic electric sitar jam with lyricism glowing in sunshine-induced optimism. There is some serious talent on display here.
Sure, the electric guitar and bass on String Cheese sound more late-’70s than one would hope for, and the themes are a little vague considering America's involvement in an unjust war propelled by a criminal president, but another album or two surely would've worked the kinks out. C'est la vie, I suppose, and at least we have this Fallout reissue. There is nothing in the way of inflated liner notes or bonus tracks, but the new cover art is nice, the remastering has taken quite well, and it's the first time the album has made it to CD. The tape hiss and occasional pop noise are at worst minimally invasive and at best charming. It's doubtful you would ever find an original pressing that sounds better for less than $50, so this reissue might be your best bet. Consume this, lest ye be lactose intolerant.
1999: Einojuhani Rautavaara - Rautavaara: Cantus Arcticus/Piano Concerto No 1/Symphony No. 3
Let’s be frank. If you are going to buy a CD combining the best three works of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, it’s because you are either (a) a doctoral student writing a thesis on Scandinavian classical music or (b) an open-minded music geek who heard that the work uses recorded bird calls as an instrument -- and you think that’s just some gnarly obscurity that you can use to impress your hipster friends*. However, unlike virtually all other “this-music-is-so-great, because-you-don’t-know-about-it” crap, Rautavaara’s music is truly enjoyable and rewarding. The composer's output is not obscure in the United States because it's bad; it just bears an unfortunate headline -- 20th Century neo-classical music from Finland.
You know, modern (or postmodern if you gotta be a dick about it) orchestral composers have it pretty rough. Their music is often unimaginably difficult to create but usually gets hidden somewhere behind a hundred Beethoven albums in the antiquated, all-encompassing “classical” section. Generations after classical music's golden age, these newer composers are unlikely to have an important page in the history books, and because the internet has effectively destroyed any chance for a lucrative career selling records, they must resort to lugging around cumbersome symphonies to half-filled community-sponsored theater halls to get any notice or paycheck (except for those who are more skillful at receiving governmental artistic grants). Einojuhani Rautavaara took a slightly different route, purposely changing up his musical styles (serialism, operatic, romanticism, avant-garde, neo-classicism, etc.), which kept his audiences on their toes and kept his music relevant. By the time he started experimenting with magnetic tape samples, electronics, and mysticism, no one saw him as an old kook resorting to record selling gimmicks; he was simply continuing his innovative path while earning the prestige associated with the most renowned Finnish composers.
Now, not to take anything away from this compilation's pianist (the lovely and talented Laura Mikkola – who is perhaps best known for performing Rautavaara’s works) nor the other works contained therein, but the highlight is Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra). What is noteworthy about the 1972 piece is that Rautavaara himself recorded Arctic bird calls in Northern Finland and composed an entire concerto based on -- and utilizing -- the recordings. Even more remarkable is that he slightly re-tuned the woodwinds in the orchestra to better match the featured avian guests. The end result comes together beautifully, delivering on the intent to transport the listener to an isolated Arctic island inhabited solely by mysterious birds, seen only in fleeting moments by ancient Nordic sailors. Rautavaara builds a delicate work that does not relegate the tapes to artsy ambiance, but relies upon them as the star of the show --the vital component that brings the entire concerto together. The (taped) birds bring life to the orchestra, and the orchestra makes the chirps and tweets lyrical.
An ample comparison to Rautavaara’s music are the building designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Both bodies of work are unmistakably modern, seemingly natural extensions of their surroundings, and will frustrate purists for sidestepping the true-to-form status quo. However, most of Rautavaara’s work should not necessarily strike the listener as overly radical -- in fact, some of his best work (including Symphony Number 3 on this disc) is quite characteristic of late-19th Century romanticism. One must only imagine the effect if Lizst, Wagner, or Chopin had the technology available to blast recorded samples through speakers alongside their symphonies. Einojuhani Rautavaara is still alive and well today, still waxing mystical (as he has done for the later part of his career), and proudly stands as one of the most exceptional names in Finnish culture. Who knows, perhaps 50 years from now, when the Arctic birds have been killed off by global warming, the world will use Cantus Articus as the best means to visualize what a cold, Arctic environment was once like.
* Please note that the writer of this review does not intentionally intend to broadcast his ulterior motives for choosing this album.
1990: Galaxie 500 - This Is Our Music
I can’t stand song lyric websites. They have too many pop-up ads and their message boards feature comments like “I really dig this tune. It drives me to a serene and moody state.” But occasionally I’ll give in and log on to see if someone has been able to decipher a particularly obscure line of My Bloody Valentine or Young Marble Giants. And I’m always sorry afterwards. Cobain was right. Words suck.
Most recently, I looked up the lyrics on This Is Our Music, the final album by Galaxie 500. It’s not that I can’t understand what Dean Wareham is singing; I just can’t seem to make myself pay attention. My brain says, “Eh. We’ll catch ‘em the next time.” My brain doesn’t care.
Neither did Galaxie 500. “It’s not like Dean said ‘I wanna be a singer,’ and had all these Morrissey lyrics,” said bassist Naomi Yang. The few phrases that do bubble up and stick are rapturously silly; lines like, “I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/ But your dog refused to look at it” and “It’s all too much/ Cause you have another eyelid.” Keep in mind, everyone in this band attended Harvard University.
But, honestly, I kid because I love. At the top of this review, you'll see I’ve cited slowcore bands Low and Codeine as similar artists, and while both groups share Galaxie’s minimalist, measured technique, neither came close to matching either their weird humor or bright, albeit smeared, pop hooks. These are perfect pop songs -- funny songs, sad songs, love songs. Our Music’s two centerpieces, “Summertime” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling” (they were a great weather band), achieve a majestic, burning magic that transcends any subgenre.
In 1997, all three Galaxie 500 records were reissued by Rykodisc, and today, considering the band received so little attention (even in their hometown) during their six-year lifetime, they’re pretty easy to find. In fact, due credit is still rarely given when it comes to their exceptional influence on modern indie pop; My Morning Jacket, The Shins, Slumber Party, and Band of Horses (to name a few) all owe something to Galaxie 500, the best Boston band of all time.
1969: The Beatles - Abbey Road
By 1969, the once promising, fresh-faced Fab Four had, in essence, transformed into the weary, resentful Truculent Two. Guitarist George Harrison, drummer Ringo Star, and millions of melancholy fans watched on as the most successful songwriting duo in music history -- guitarist John Lennon and bassist Paul McCartney -- became bitter adversaries. Lennon and McCartney's lives were diverging along with their music. The once subtle differences in their influences -- compositional and stylistic predilections which led to the conception of peerlessly popular, exhilarating music -- had become an irreconcilable divide. Lennon’s influences were quickly shifting from the world of popular song to more broad, avant-garde art, similar to the works created by his girlfriend Yoko Ono. Contrastingly, McCartney, still heavily influenced by the ’50s rock of his childhood, remained fascinated with creating timeless pop anthems (though his broader artistic ambitions had become exceptionally inventive, such as his suggestion for the group to personify the fictitious Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band). Never was this artistic split more obvious musically than on the dialectic Abbey Road -- the final album recorded by The Beatles.
The initial eight tracks that comprise the album's first half are a traditional arrangement of full-length songs, as Lennon preferred. Fittingly, his memorable “Come Together” opens the album. Beginning with a superb McCartney bassline, an iconoclastic Lennon farcically strings together illicit drug and sexual imagery, while his eerie calls to be “shot” are accentuated by a clever Ringo hi-hat. Although the opener is a strikingly traditional composition in Lennon’s later-Beatles catalogue, his other full-length contributions are more telling of how he had matured and where he was heading creatively. The menacing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” progressively combines an incessant blues riff, a hissing Moog synthesizer, and a sparse vocal track bound by a wall of guitars into a magnificently portentous testament of his love for Yoko, while the poignant “Because,” stripped of all rock ‘n’ roll archetypes, eloquently employs sophisticated harmonies to enliven and beautify some of Lennon’s most innocent lyrics: “Because the sky is blue it makes me cry/ Because the sky is blue – Ah – love is old, love is new/ Love is all, love is you.” The opening section is also memorable for Harrison’s contributions (“Something,” “Here Comes The Sun”), which portend his brilliant post-Beatles solo album, All Things Must Pass.
The final portion of the album encompasses the famous medley, spearheaded and dominated in content by McCartney. His eclectic “You Never Give Me Your Money,” a light-hearted, ultimately hopeful rumination on the band’s label troubles (“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven/ All good children go to heaven”), opens this section, but it is on McCartney’s climactic four-track finale where he truly shines. Whether it be his captivating melodies (“She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” “Carry That Weight”), his knack for pithy, teary balladry (“Golden Slumbers”), or, as Lennon described to Playboy, his ability to be “philosophical” with a poignant Shakespearean couplet (“And, in the end/ The love you take/ Is equal to the love you make”), all of McCartney’s musical trademarks are at work. Combined with Lennon’s playful vocals on “Polythene Pam,” the group’s lush harmonies on “Sun King,” Harrison’s diverse guitar play -- including a memorable use of arpeggio (“Carry That Weight”) -- and Ringo’s notable drum solo on “The End,” the medley proves to be one of the most inspired and enjoyable pieces of music in The Beatles' extraordinary catalogue.
For a band that exceedingly composed their music around motifs of love, the breakup of The Beatles was dissonantly vitriolic. However, by putting their differences aside and recording Abbey Road with a passion for music they had nearly extinguished with petty disputes and grudges, The Beatles gave music fans another blissful musical experience that is still producing joy decades after its creation.
1980: Robert Fripp - God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners
In the whole tiresome CDs vs vinyl debate, there is one big advantage CDs have that hasn't been brought up: keeping all of the music on one side of a disc discourages the creation of ridiculous ‘split concept’ albums. Case in point, this 1980 release from King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp is a split LP comprised of God Save the Queen on one side and Under Heavy Manners on the other, an unnatural pairing that never coheres into a satisfying listening experience.
God Save the Queen features Fripp playing his guitar through his standard Frippertronics setup. For those unfamiliar with Frippertronics, it consists of two tape recorders linked together to create delay effects, as the tape from one recorder is passed to the next. Utilizing this system, God Save The Queen is a meandering, spacey work, wherein various tones slide through the music and overlap each other. It's not bad.
Under Heavy Manners, on the other hand, is all about rhythm. Utilizing what Fripp calls Discotronics (I'm not kidding), a minimalist guitar part is repeated ad infinitum and overdubbed with funky bass and unfaltering drumming. To top it off, David Byrne (credited as Absalm el Habib) recites a list of words featuring the -ism suffix and some other seemingly nonsensical phrases. This is also not bad.
So what's the problem? Well, while each side is enjoyable, they are so dissimilar that one individual is unlikely to enjoy them both. Moreover, even if a person liked the two sides, they probably wouldn't be in the mood to listen to them back-to-back, because they cancel each other out: the amorphous tones of God Save the Queen spoil the excitement of Under Heavy Manners, and Under Heavy Manners is probably too intense for those in the mood for the meditative sounds of God Save the Queen.
Fripp has explored all of the musical concepts on display on this LP more fully elsewhere, so it is hardly essential listening. That being said, the collaboration with David Byrne is interesting, and God Save the Queen does create some nice ambiance that make this record worth picking up for the curious listener. Just don't count on playing more than half of it regularly.
1973: Paul Adolphus - The Dawn Wind
The Dawn Wind was a one-off collaboration between Australian Paul Adolphus and engineer-slash-multi-instrumentalist Mitsu Harada. Made in a rustic Japanese schoolroom studio just before Paul and his family moved back to his native land, the album commemorated time spent living in a little bohemian arts community outside Kyoto. Originally pressed to a mere 200 copies, it scattered to the trendy parts of Japan and quickly became a crown jewel of obscure folk with a psychedelic World Music bend, well before World Music was trendy.
Even with, or perhaps aided by, the quaint ravages of time, The Dawn Wind delivers a chill so relaxing it could make NyQuil retire. The come-all crash pad style in which these guys roll easily comes through, with Paul's pals sitting at his feet and lending a helping hand when the guitar and bongos aren't quite cutting the mustard. It's an authentic hippie pot party captured for all eternity.
Vibe aside, it's not too hard to see why this album isn't as highly sought after as, say, the average Incredible String Band vinyl. Paul's prowess on the acoustic guitar is passable at best -- not up to the Cat Stevens standards of the day -- while his Canned Heat/Nick Drake vocals struggle to keep it together. The whole shtick is endearing, and The Dawn Wind achieves all its goals, but there aren't any Waking Life "wow" moments to really make one hanker for a revisit, nothing forcing you to ponder how they did it. However, if you ever run out of patchouli or Nag Champa incense, a couple spins of this'll fix you right up.