1970: Wizz Jones - The Legendary Me
British folk followed a circuitous route. After centuries of simmering, it took American interest in their rural heritage, which itself was largely based on the traditional music of the British Isles, to reinvigorate a new generation of English guitar pickers. Transient throughout much of the '60s as the American folk revival ebbed and dispersed, this tight-knit group began to surface on record in the late '60s looking simultaneously forward and backward.
By this point a lot of folkies had moved from covering old ballads to composing their own songs, frequently heading in stranger directions than their predecessors had ever dared. Wizz Jones held out against the turn towards more personal subject matter, as well as any deviation from traditional folk structures. The result is a soothing, effortlessly warm collection that is more woolly blanket than freak flag, highlighting the gorgeous melodies that are the hallmark of memorable folk songs.
And yet to cast Jones as a nostalgia-ridden holdover wouldn't be truthful either. While "If I'd Only Known" is his only original composition on this set, only two of them are folkie standards, the traditional "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," and "Willie Moore," gleaned from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The other eight were written by Jones's close friend Alan Tunbridge, a graphic designer by trade and songwriter by hobby who proves adept at both the overarching human sentiment reminiscent of older folk songs and the detail-ridden emotional probing that is a singer-songwriter's stock-in-trade. A proficient finger-picker, Jones is capable of providing a mellifluous instrumental backing on his own, although he subtly, almost imperceptibly, adds piano, bass, or second guitar parts to many of the songs.
Burt Jansch acknowledged him as "the most underrated guitarist ever," and the three bonus live tracks included here show Jones interpreting the luminary's "Needle of Death," as well as doing justice to Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy." Those two choices accurately reflect the sphere Wizz Jones worked within. At a time when folk wanted to be either obtusely esoteric or tediously maudlin, Jones strove for a timeless style that reflects the kind of music worn-in by generations, yet re-imagined in a meta-conscious era.
2005: Jan Jelinek - Kosmischer Pitch
Like any number of other similar artists residing in the European glitch/microhouse arena, Berlin’s eminently prolific production maestro, Jan Jelinek, records under a variety of pseudonyms. On the Klang and Source labels, Jelinek has released several of his more dance-friendly records as both Farben and Gramm, respectively. But it’s his ~Scape recordings, on which he has chosen to record under his own name, that have been his most influentially successful works.
Though closer, rhythmically and sonically, to his earlier Gramm and Farben albums, Jelinek’s 2001 full length, Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records, was a breakthrough recording in the realm of minimalist techno. Utilizing a hip-hop aesthetic and transposing it upon the IDM template, Jelinek created a record constructed solely of samples from vintage jazz albums which were rendered virtually unrecognizable through digital manipulation. With each subsequent ~Scape release Jelinek has moved farther away from the realm of microhouse and into considerably more organic territory.
Kosmischer Pitch is without question Jan Jelinek’s most impressive release since his 2001 ~Scape debut. On several tracks, most notably “Universal Band Silhouette,” Jelinek returns to his dancier roots with this darkly upbeat techno piece. Though still using his sampler as a tool for the deconstruction of otherwise conventional recordings, Kosmischer Pitch features an abundance of samples identifiable as “live” instrumentation -- six-string and bass guitar in particular. Featuring an assortment of sound fragments lifted directly from the original LPs, Jelinek’s pieces vibrate with the warmth and static that accompanies vinyl needle noise. Ostensibly an homage to Krautrock, Kosmischer Pitch vaguely references Kraut and early progressive rock while still retaining a stylistically distinct, forward-leaning bent. To be fair, however, this record bears closer resemblance, however tenuous, to the “cosmic music” of Popol Vuh than his 2001 effort did to the jazz recordings that served as its original source material.
Similarly to Loop-Finding-Jazz-Reords, Kosmischer Pitch is a remarkably cohesive recording. The record’s eight lengthy pieces are moody, soporific, and convey a ponderous sense of atmosphere. Drones ebb and flow lazily throughout the recordings; even the few pieces which feature a drum machine have, on the whole, a lulling, trance-like effect. Jelinek, unlike many of his musical forebears, never ceases to astonish with his ability to place seemingly endless layers of samples upon each other to infuse each piece with a powerful and tactile musical density. Upon listening, particularly on the more drone-heavy second half of the album, it remains difficult to not be impressed with the meticulous construction of the tracks via an apparently infinite number of individual, discrete samples. Though Jan Jelinek has only been putting out albums since 1998, on Kosmischer Pitch, it sounds as if he’s been recording for ages.
2007: Shuttah - The Image Maker Vols. 1 & 2
I've practically given up on dollar-bin record shopping. My ability to judge proverbial books by their covers and to judge covers by the square inches they devote to musicians' chest hair (given the choice between two anonymous quiet storm soul LPs, side with the one whose auteur leaves the third button undone) has led me to some pleasant surprises. But once I get over the revelation that the past-prime BT Express album does indeed feature some funky breaks or the Wishbone Ash record does in fact, in its more placid moments, recall Terry Reid's River, I'm left with twelve-inches of empty signifiers that might beef up a Cultural Studies essay or a record collecting guide but will never give me persuasive reasons to listen closer, to listen more.
The Image Maker's charms linger a bit longer than those of most low-returns thrift store hauls. Partly because this ultra-obscure double-album is one giant vinyl-hound cryptogram. Though Shuttah's only LP was recorded on none other than progressive rock flagship label Vertigo's coin, these tunes never saw a proper release, and, more interestingly, no one is quite sure who played on the album. British copyright records don't reveal the songwriter's identity, and all information on the recording sessions has been lost. We know only two things for sure: these jams were committed to tape in 1971, and the culprits were likely involved in more prominent projects.
I won't venture any guesses as to the members' true identities -- sorry, I just don't feel like trudging through my old Renaissance and Procol Harum albums in search of clues. The Image Maker's high production values and adept songwriting do lead you to wonder how, exactly, this one fell through the cracks. Sure, the band veer into tepid bar rock waters when they try their hand at writing accessible songs, but this is at least marketable tepid bar rock, and the instrumental sections are top-notch. "Bull Run" is my favorite: panzer-sized riffs, storm-cloud fuzz organ, hallucinogenic snippets of military sound effects, out-there sax that could've come from John Surman or the dude who squawks all over Gong's Angel's Egg.
These genuinely inventive experimental cuts remind us that prog was never in theory a nauseating proposition. The genre's limitations come not from its ostentatious displays of virtuosity but from its failures to make good on its pretensions. Which happens here: the lyrical conceit -- some conflation of the Bible and a century of Anglo-American warfare -- never fleshes out. The statement Shuttah try so hard to make never fleshes itself out, kinda like how Isis' Panopticon never really elucidates its Foucaultian underpinnings. I don't doubt that this album will excite beard-strokers that enjoy being subsumed by menacing fuzz organ and enjoy the kitsch value of the lyrics' conceptual bent. Just don't listen to those people when they claim to take music seriously -- if they did, they'd admit that this album (like their Manassas, Tower of Power, and Yes records) is only a partial success, nice enough on its own terms but hardly a fount of missionary zeal.
1972: Day 5: Isaac Hayes - “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right)”
If there's one thing I've learned from my off-and-on viewing of daytime television for the past 20 years, it's this: Affairs, while always exciting and torrid in the beginning, generally work out very, very poorly. However, say you don't actually have the time or inclination to watch The Young and The Restless. No problem! You can experience the same lessons learned from someone else's infidelity through the magic of song instead.
Isaac Hayes' "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want To Be Right)" is an exquisitely crafted morality play in which a fictional protagonist finds himself torn between his role as a responsible, upright family man, and the woman he truly loves. If this were real life, we, the listeners, would be shocked and appalled by such blatantly duplicitous and cad-like behavior. Yet somehow Hayes' charm makes him the most sympathetic philanderer I've ever heard. His wounded, longing vocals is the sound of taking a jacuzzi in a vat of honey, while elsewhere the song is buoyed by his signature array of baroque touches -- in this instance sashaying saxophones and spine-tingling strings, with the subtle flutter of wah-wah guitar hiding in between. As the song climaxes, the dramatic flourishes of impassioned female vocals and sparse handclaps lead to a tense, heaving and exciting finish.
It’s true that you can't always choose who you fall in love with, and while this song doesn't hand out any real sage advice on actually cleaning up the foul mess that adultery leaves behind, it paints one of the most compelling and heartfelt portraits of unrequited love and covetous ruin ever committed to wax.
1979: Day 4: The Buzzcocks - “What Do I Get”
Has any other band in the past 30 years truly understood the alternately excruciating and delicious self-torture that is teenage longing quite the way The Buzzcocks did? Even the song titles, from "Orgasm Addict" to "Why Can't I Touch It?" encapsulate those hormonal and emotional excesses that we may grow out of but never forget.
One of The Buzzcocks' most popular songs, "What Do I Get," has taken a lot of abuse over the years. I seem to remember a car commercial (believe it or not, the "What do I get?" part seemed to refer to the safety package and other exciting extras), among other indignities. Despite all of this, the song still packs that intense punch of yearning and loneliness.
"You're talking like someone who knows first-hand," you're thinking. Well, yes, guilty. For me, "What Do I Get" will always bring me back (DeLorean style, guys) to a time in college of which I am not particularly proud. The particulars aren't terribly interesting, and to be quite honest, what I cherish most these days is the intense relationship I formed with The Buzzcocks' entire Singles Going Steady album during that time. Although I haven't felt that kind of solitary misery in quite a while, I will always somehow identify with lines like, "I'm not on the make/ I just need a break" and "I only get sleepless nights/ Alone here in my half-empty bed." I suppose, if you pressed, you could get me to admit that I screamed along with them as often as I could get my roommate to leave our room.
In the end, it's the relentless repetition of those title words, "What do I get?" that pour salt in that wound we all love to scratch open. It's the contrast between what we want and what we've got that really burns.
Not exciting enough for you? Well, next Valentine's Day, if you're good, I'll talk about what "Orgasm Addict" means to me.
1976: Day 3: Diana Ross - ”Love Hangover”
"If there's a cure for this, I don't want it"
And that right there just about sums up this song. There are maybe two or three more lines, but there's not much more you need to know. That's because a feeling like this can't be described in words. It needs a pulsing, rising bassline. It needs hand claps and a fluttering hi-hat. It needs conga pats and a sparkling Rhodes. It needs breathy oooos and aaaahs. This is the song that seduced the world into the heady reverie of disco.
Mined and maligned a million times since then, disco is perhaps the most contentious genre of the last 50 years. Punk's estranged twin (that's right), it probably raised more ire than that stridently confrontational movement, and all within a pretext of innocent fun cloaked with references to indulgent debauchery. Yet at its heart was a message of communal love, the fruition of the polyamorous '60s finally freed of political baggage, a full embrace of the revolutionary power of ecstasy. It may have left people feeling deluded, but its originators managed to congeal the perverse thrill of seduction into an elemental rhythm. It was the best channeling of foreplay ever committed to music.
Almost 30 years later, The Concretes took this song as a starting point and turned it into the equally gorgeous "Diana Ross." A ceremonial opening swells into a wall of sound that mourns the ache your love hangover leaves behind. And yet through the wail, Victoria Bergsman can "feel no pain with Diana Ross, she leads the way to a love hangover." It's an affirmation that “Love Hangover” is still the soundtrack to flushed amour, forever reminding us of the kind of drunken giddiness that erases all memory of heartbreak, pain, and betrayal. Bask in it, because for a short while, it is the loveliest feeling in the world.