1979: Sun Ra - Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty is the only Sun Ra album I consistently put on when I want to fall asleep. It’s probably the quietest, most peaceful item in the audio universe that is Sun Ra’s discography. At this point in his career, Ra was recording material for five hour blocks, editing the best parts into an album, and then releasing them almost immediately. Three full-band Sun Ra/Arkestra LPs were released in 1979, with Sleeping Beauty on Ra’s own infamous Saturn Records label. I say infamous because for some albums he only pressed 75 copies. On others, maybe one side of a record was from a completely different recording session put out ten years earlier. Such is the mythology surrounding Sun Ra’s status as a DIY distributor of his own catalog.
The music on this album comes at a time when the disco/soul/funk of Sun Ra’s hometown (Philly Soul) had become bigger than ever. Besides that influence, Sun Ra and the Arkestra were becoming less and less dependent on the free jazz experiments documented on countless live recordings like 1978’s Media Dream. This isn’t to say that the tracks here don’t still feel formless, they’re just more conventional than what you’d expect. The first track “Springtime Again” lilts along at a slow and tender pace, hinting at Sun Ra’s reoccurring meditations on duality and the transition from winter to spring. The recording breezes along as the 28-piece Arkestra keep the song afloat. Punctuated by Ra’s piano work and the sax solos of veteran Arkestra members Marshall Allen and John Gilmore, the song is a classic in Sun Ra’s catalog.
Track two, the funkier “Door of the Cosmos,” brings to mind concert-favorite “Enlightenment” with a steady dose of chants and hand claps. The spirit of the performance stands out as the song becomes more dependent on bass and guitar. June Tyson’s vocals sound great on this one, and trumpet player Michael Ray also steps up to the plate with one of his best performances. Perhaps more than any other member in the Arkestra though, the song is driven by the subtle off-rhythm snares of drummer Luqman Ali who sounds amazingly in control of the band throughout the whole album.
The title track, taking up all of side two on the original LP, has always been my least favorite of the bunch but there’s still plenty to be said for it. Vibraphones come more into play, the vocals are murkier, and the song is carried along mainly by Sun Ra’s cloudy electric piano riffs as a guide for other members in the Arkestra to find room for their solos. Marshall Allen’s brief solo toward the end of the song is a pretty great representation of two themes that hold the album together: restraint and release. Allen’s stabbing atonal solos might be found on Sun Ra’s earlier work, but here they are squeezed tight and reconfigured for the track, a more traditional big-band-influenced slow-burning space-funk groove. This was the brilliance of Sun Ra as a bandleader; he constantly found ways to reinvent his music with the Arkestra. Sleeping Beauty is just one of many albums to uphold that artistic achievement.
EVOL was a hell of a leap for Sonic Youth. Considering that it’s bookended by the dreamily experimental, if slightly underbaked, Bad Moon Rising and the masterpiece duo of Sister and Daydream Nation, this LP is the blueprint for what became the instantly recognizable “Sonic Youth Sound” which drove late 80’ indie rock. From the downright creepy dirge “Tom Violence” to the near radio-friendly pop of “Star Power,” the album is loaded with gems, but the indisputable high-point is the closing seven-minute epic “Expressway To Yr. Skull.”
“Expressway” is a skeleton of a pop ditty surrounded by an ocean of seething guitar noise and remains one of Sonic Youth’s most popular and exhausting live experiences. The whole song is a rush of monstrous rave-ups and a slow descent into delicate, gurgling noise both of which the band handles with supreme ease. They lead the audience along with them until the taut pause in the middle of the song when they bash us over the head with a wall of guitar which starts the soundscape-ish second half that slowly dissolves into blistering feedback for the final minutes.
This is Sonic Youth, and noise rock generally, at the top of its game. From this point on, Sonic Youth could do no wrong, cranking out a series albums where every melodic line and guitar squawk feels equally essential and perfectly placed. As is evidence by the blatant riff “borrowing” on “Ex-Dreams” from The Men’s excellent 2012 LP Open Your Heart (skip to 2:20 if you don’t believe me), “Expressway To Yr. Skull” is still is still one of the finest and most beloved pieces from Sonic Youth’s 80’s pinnacle.
P.S. As the begging of this video proves, Thurston Moore is the fucking man.
1978: Wire - “Dot Dash”
Through the three distinct stages of their career, Wire has never been known to give much thought to their singles. Their records from the mid-80s and early-00s should probably be heard in “best of” compilations to avoid the occasional missteps and their three flawless albums from the 70s are so densely packed and perfectly constructed that listening to individual cuts seems somewhat odd. But one single sticks out in Wire’s discography, both because it’s one of the best tracks from their first incarnation and because it’s only appeared in one or two places over their entire forty-year span.
Released in June 1978, “Dot Dash” fills the already brief gap between 1977’s minimalist punk masterpiece Pink Flag and its expansive, synthy-er follow-up Chairs Missing from later the same year. As expected, “Dot Dash” toes an interesting line between these very different albums and shows what exactly Wire was working on in the months between LPs. On one hand, its sound isn’t too far from Pink Flag’s side B tracks like “Fragile” or “Mannequin.” But picking it apart a bit more shows Wire embracing a wider sonic pallet than Pink Flag offered and edging subtly closer to the more fleshed-out Chairs Missing.
At around the 1:20 mark, the song opens up with an actual guitar solo (sort of) and these chiming pings continue until the end, adding another layer of background texture. Now that doesn’t sound like much, but considering how crushingly stark and focused Pink Flag was, “Dot Dash” drops a pretty big hint at what Wire’s sound would morph into over the next couple years. Combined with a relative lack of aggression and strong pop sensibility, perhaps it was ultimately a lesser known single that foreshadowed the unique brand of experimental post-pop Wire focused on for much of the 80s.
1989: Inner City - “Good Life”
Kevin Saunderson got into music making a few years after his high school friends Derrick May and Juan Atkins, opting to spend the early 80s focusing on college, while they worked on a new sound that people were calling techno. Thankfully he did get into music because, aside from the fact that “The Belleville Two” wouldn’t sound nearly as cool, Saunderson’s late 80s work is responsible for creating the popular breakthrough his friends had been working towards. Saunderson’s greatest contribution to the sound came from his Inner City collaborations with Paris Grey, and while their debut single “Big Fun” is the track that skyrocketed techno to the top of the dance charts, the follow-up “Good Times” is even bigger and better.
While Saunderson’s beats are fantastic*, Paris Grey and her stunning voice are the reason why these songs had such a major impact. Originally a gospel singer in Chicago, Grey began doing vocal tracks for house singles during the 80s, and eventually was invited to Detroit to put vocals over some tracks that Saunderson had made. The pairing worked together like some sort of perfect chemical reaction: a Chicago house-diva and one of the early techno producers joined forces to create something that helped elevate both music scenes to tremendous popularity. Grey’s voice is an amazing combination of soulful and sexy in the verses of “Good Life,” leading into her electronically tweaked chorus that effortlessly glides over Saunderson’s pumping 909 programming. It makes sense when you watch the very dated (but still pretty charming) music video that Grey seems incapable of taking that cocky grin off her face; after debuting with a big hit, nothing’s more satisfying than blowing everyone away with an even bigger one.
*So fantastic in fact, that Hercules and the Love Affair heavily sampled “Good Life” to make their own take on 80s house, “You Belong.”
1996: Fiona Apple - Tidal
If you approach Fiona Apple’s early music without context, you’ll think she’s a seductive songstress who dares to go a little further to the extreme, both thematically and sonically. But in 1996, when her debut album first appeared, Fiona was a subversive figure in the music world.
She was an artist too young to be so serious and mature in her subject matter, one who never thought twice when speaking her mind (see her “the world is bullshit” rant she gave during her MTV Awards acceptance speech). The video for her song “Criminal” reeked of illegal activity even though nothing controversial is shown. But, most importantly, the reason she was a such a stark and heavy artist was reflected in the way Apple could hiss and whimper a melody that, at key moments, could be full of pain and sexual desire.
Tidal isn’t a concept album, it’s also not a confessional song cycle. It’s simply an old fashioned record, taking a setting and touching a bunch of subject matters within it, related with each other only because the author’s voice is so clear throughout its lyrics. Fiona reflects on past relationships in a remorseful way, confronts present lovers on their undoings and speaks about sexuality that is both painful (“Sullen Girl”) and pleasure seeking (“The First Taste”).
Armed primordially with a piano, Apple uses a virtual army of sounds and instruments to make her songs, thanks to partner in crime Jon Brion. Her tunes are not only showcases for her voice, lyrics and songwriting skills; they are also fully developed instrumental tracks that complement the themes and vocal melodies. The album features a very specific sound with certain touches that make it stand out.
But it’s her voice – a seductive sound on the lower register – that really makes this album stand out. It’s every word she didn’t write, every mental image that didn’t make it to the lyric book, everything that’s implicit by the protagonist: her raised eyebrows, smirks, and every single tear she sheds for her lover and herself. Like the music that carries it, her voice is not bound by range alone; sometimes it reaches high places, but most of the time it works by sheer force and emotion. “Tidal” is a perfect word to describe the ebb, flow, and power of her main instrument, not to mention the impact of the songs that use it to feel and become real. Fiona Apple might be another singer seated behind the piano, but her debut makes it clear she is a force to be reckoned with.
By the end of the 1970s, the hangover had worn off and underground psych entered a problematic phase, a second adolescence. If psychedelic rock had ever been a movement, it certainly wasn’t anymore, having undergone fragmentation and dispersal into the comparatively humorless realms of progressive rock and heavy metal. At the end of the decade, punk began to rear its ugly head, borrowing the DIY ethos of underground psych toward its own polemical ends. Though (post-)punk eventually addressed the need for music that appealed to the “higher” four circuits of human consciousness, in 1978 it was a stripped-down, primitive snarl without so much as a lysergic residue.
It is this background that makes a record like The Happy Dragon-Band — the sole album released by the eponymous Detroit band led by composer Tommy Court — such a unique case. It was recorded and released at a time in which there was barely any context for what it offered, an eclectic mashup of apocalyptic psych-folk and brain damaged groove glued together by a no-budget production with occasional side trips into abstract electronic noise. It was an idiosyncratic response to void times by a composer who was aware of the adventurous periphery of psychedelia. Captain Beefheart, Chrome, and Comus are a few of the possible reference points, and those are just the “C”s. This is not to suggest that the album is derivative. On the contrary, it is remarkably coherent and assured. That confidence of tone is especially true of the vocals, which alternate between the starry-eyed euphoria of first-wave psych and the acidic sneer of punk. Even as the band fumbles and trips over itself, the vocals carry the weird banner of The Happy Dragon-Band ever forward.
Released on the tiny Michigan-based indie Fiddlers Music, the album made very little impact and was quickly forgotten until a later generation of rare psych collectors retroactively recognized it as a lost classic. This led to a digital reissue in 2005 by bootleg label Radioactive. Due to poor research and the echo chamber quality of the internet, the record has frequently been incorrectly attributed to the Detroit group who recorded the Doors-esque album Phantom’s Divine Comedy in 1974. Listening to the two albums side-by-side should confirm the lack of even a slight similarity between the two. Phantom is derivative and staid, an avant la lettre throwback with the pedantic overtones of art rock thrown in for bad measure. The Happy Dragon-Band, for all their flaws, were startlingly original, and completely in step with the flux of their particular moment. Look no further than the album’s opening track “3-D Free,” a loping reggae jam with lyrics that evoke a bizarre apocalyptic vision: “All the buildings started to fall/ I saw police shooting rats swarming in the drains.”
The album ends with a chaotic squall of noise that purports to be an electronic version of the same song, but comes closer to a nightmarish re-vision. Nearly three minutes of tribal percussion, swirling synths, and distorted screams suddenly cracks and dissolves into a solo acoustic version of the song that somehow manages to be ten times as fucked and sinister as the original.
The growing influence of Ariel Pink and his milieu has meant that vintage lo-fi oddities by artists such as Donnie & Joe Emerson and Cleaners From Venus have recently received the reissue treatment along with a flurry of critical attention. The Happy Dragon-Band would seem to be ripe for this kind of reappraisal, despite the fact that their brand of psych retains an irreducible pessimism that does not mesh particularly well with the blithely Pollyannish outlook of much borrowed nostalgia. I would like to claim that The Happy Dragon-Band is an album whose time has come, but I’m not sure there is any one time in which it would sit comfortably.
Short-lived projects like the Del Byzanteens are often great ways of entering the archives of discarded culture. When Deleuze and Guattari first inflicted Jung’s concept of the rhizomatic nature of history on generations of college students, they were trying to suggest that you could get into history through the side door; that if you used the less stately entrance you might be exposed to a more complex, indeed more ‘Byzantine’ world of connections. The main point of entry for music scene historians into world of the Del Byzanteens is the internet factoid that their keyboard player and vocalist was film-maker Jim Jarmusch.
If you only listened to the labyrinthine garage of “Girl’s Imagination” for its ‘byzantine charms’ it might be enough; the track hits you with the feeling you get when you know you’ve found yourself some genuine old and dirty underground hit – a tune that actually got played at parties. But if you limited yourself this way, you’d miss out on other highlights of a great one time album; for example Supreme’s cover “My World is Empty Without You” or the keyboard experimentalism on “Apartment,” not to mention the 60s garage hustle of “Welcome.” Likewise if you assumed that Jarmusch is the mad genius behind all of this, just because he’s the only recognizable name, you’d be missing the eclectic influences that fed the Del Byzanteens.
As a band that only had one LP, their history was typically rhizomatic – lateral rather than deep. And as a New York band, with many connections in a tightly squeezed city of millions, we can assume this may have been more true for them than for most. Guitarist Dan Braun played with Glenn Branca and Michael Gira; the brothers Brown became film producers and horror comic archivists in later life (already in the 80s the Del Byzanteens were cultivating a horror B-Movie garage sound similar to The Cramps, also New York based). Phil Kline was to become a maverick experimental composer. The band’s sound itself was not correspondingly eclectic. Most tracks were characterized by an active pogo-ing baseline and tight straightforward drumming, with deranged honky tonk belly dancer keyboards and other curious flourishes thrown in to keep it interesting.
But it also happens for our generalizing purposes that Dan Braun’s high school band was called Spinal Root Gang, featuring none other than the protean Madonna Ciccone. In an interview with The Washington Post in the 1980s Jarmusch claimed that his free film-making was influenced by the spirit of a music scene that was DIY rather than professional. Sometimes when you turn over a stone, a scene is crawling with connections that seem to have had a lifelong influence on careers that at first seemed unique and entirely self-created.
I don’t know all that much about Turkish jazz-funk music, but the good thing about an album like this is that you don’t really need to know the stories behind the (in this case proggy-soul) bands before they went a whole different direction, broke up, or descended into relative obscurity. The songs stand on their own without context. Or maybe the lack of context just makes the whole listening experience better, by casting that sense of mystery and myth that eludes some bands you already “know.”
What I can tell you about this compilation is that it was curated by Roskow Gretschman, a German hip-hop/club music DJ associated with the Jazzanova project. It’s fitting that the songs stray toward jazz throughout the album much more than they approach full-fledged funk. Needless to say, the choices are diverse and flat-out fun.
Ferdi Özbeğen’s “Köprüden Geçti Gelin” has been the track I’ve returned to most often just because it was sampled for an Action Bronson song and I have a friend who’s obsessed with the food-obsessed rapper. The song contains a wonderful hi-hat riding drum arrangement, and it’s easy to understand why a rap producer would want to chop it up. Erkin Koray is the name on here you may actually have heard of. His album Elektronik Türküler came to my attention years ago, because it is a masterpiece of Turkish-folk-infused psychedelic prog music. I’m pretty sure his is the only song on the compilation to use a Bağlama.
Besides that, I had to dig for information about each band. Most of them are fronted by percussionists it seems. Aksu Orkestrasi reach toward Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Splace” with “Bermuda Seytan Üçgeni” — opening the song with sounds of the seashore and closing it with crescendoing spacy keyboard jabs. Drummer Erol Pekcan contributes two excellent tracks. The first is a sprawling modal piano-centric jazz number (“Şenlik”) while the second (“Gel Sevgilim”) is more of a traditional call-and-response soul song equipped with a killer horn section. Drummer Okay Temiz probably contributes the most well-blended fusion of Western soul-jazz and Turkish folk for his track, while another drummer, Durul Gence, leads his group through “Hilal,” which is apparently a famous Ottoman military march jazzed up, disassembled, and put back together again. Gence, having worked with experimental-leaning artist Sonny Sharrock, frames the album’s context for those who need that kind of thing. This isn’t traditional jazz or traditional funk music. It’s just a pretty damn great collection. Check out Volume 2 here.
Who says noise can’t be fun? Because “fun” perfectly describes the sound of Kazumoto Endo’s While You Were Out, a record that feels like a great realization of the first two decades of Japanoise as it had been growing into a large music scene. Endo’s level of creativity and enthusiasm, frankly, make a lot of similar artists sound boring in comparison. It’s no surprise that when C. Spencer Yeh released his primer of Japanoise last week he chose to end his mix with Endo’s “Itabashi Girl.” His music acts like a swan song for a very niche group of music that expanded into a far wider audience once the new millennium started.
The great example to start with is “Shinjuku Kahki Pants” which (like many of the best parts on While You Were Out) warps sampled pop music into a mountain of noise, while retaining the form of the original sources. Distorted loops will constantly change up and reveal themselves as a disco groove, or a drum fill from a rock song will dart and disappear before you know it. The most thrilling and funny (Endo’s wonderful sense of humor pops up all over this record) moment comes when all of the cacophony disappears and from the silence a little harpsichord melody dances into your ear. A smooth bass line comes with it, followed by a Japanese girl delicately laughing, and right as your thought process manages to form “what the fu…” − BAM we’re pulled back into another blast of pulsing distortion. The first time I heard it I couldn’t help but laugh and find it weirdly charming.
“Itabashi Girl” remains Endo’s most memorable and loved song, by taking that same bait and switch to a gleeful extreme with his expert sampling. Endo cuts up an obnoxious disco loop endlessly, constantly interrupting it with his dense waves of distortion, but always returning back to that same repetitive loop. The call and response grows more frantic, and as the sample keeps returning you begin to question what has more value. Endo’s sections are certainly atonal, but there’s variety, incredibly original timbres, complex rhythms, and a liberating sense of musical freedom against the same glitzy hook repeated ad nauseam. It’s a cool idea, sort of, but the conclusion of the song reveals Endo not just as another great noise artist, but a true innovator and genius of the genre. The two sections which were separated begin to overlap, and melt into each other. Eventually the disco and the noise are all the same, all equal, and as the song grows louder and denser and builds and samples of shouting girls grow in speed and volume… everything cuts out and we hear an orgasmic declaration to “MOVE YOUR BODY!” And it clicks that that’s exactly what this song, this “harsh noise,” has been making you want to do the whole time. It’s becomes not about what type of music has more value but that all music, sound really, can be ugly, stupid, beautiful, clever, funny, and touching often all at once.
It apparently took Endo some time to actually get into the noise scene. According to one bio written about him, he enjoyed it but found the recorded albums boring. Though his opinion did change eventually after hearing certain albums (thanks Merzbow!) that belief comes across when listening to While You Were Out. This record sounds like somebody who is restless, the same way artists from Charlie Parker to DJ Sprinkles’ on The Midtown 120 Blues were restless, and knew the music around them was so much more. Endo’s record, in his incredibly tiny discography (this is arguably his only studio album), shows an artist working without any boundaries and having a really fun time doing it. It remains an absolute peak for Japanese Noise.
The first and the last LPs in New Order’s 80s catalog are funny things. They represent two very different extremes from the band that crawled out of the mopey ashes of Joy Division to become acid-house indie-dance gods. While 1989’s Technique hardly has any trace of the dark post-punk origins of the band in its sunny dance-floor vibes, their 1981 debut Movement is the sound of three already gloomy musicians coping withe the suicide of their best friend. The result is understandably bleak.
Surprisingly, though, the first track “Dreams Never End” eschew much of the plodding moroseness that dominates the album in favor of a sound much closer to the dance music the band would make in years to come. Like one other song on the album, “Doubts Even Here,” bassist Peter Hook is on vocal duty instead of the group’s usual frontman Bernard Sumner. Though “Hooky” is known for melodic basslines rather than vocal chops his delivery is still solid, if a bit detached, and the song is an interesting snapshot of what could have been. But fret not, because what Hook lacks in vocal range he more than makes up for with the most expressive bass playing of any post-punk outfit. His riffs from Joy Division songs like “Digital” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” are legendary and he delivers a similarly memorable and catchy performance here. Bouncing between only two or three notes, Hook’s bass adds a strong sense of motion and movement to the track and largely invents what would become New Order’s impossible-to-stand-still-to sound. The other trademark ingredients like Stephen Morris’ machine-like drumming and Sumner’s razor guitar lines are there too, but from beginning to end this is Hook’s show and holy hell does he deliver.
Movement is a good album, don’t get me wrong, but “Dreams Never Die” outpaces the rest of the record by a mile, showing much more than any other song the band’s deep desire to evolve and the sound of what New Order would become rather than what they had already been.