Like the majority of bands that first played with electronics, it's hard to discuss Yellow Magic Orchestra without referencing Kraftwerk. However, to combat the homogenization and simplification of modern music's trajectory, one must try. The Japanese group, hugely successful and still influential in their native country, had only minor hits in the Western world during their late 1970s, early 1980s heyday. They're probably more remembered nowadays as one of the first projects of Academy Award-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (the 'Danny Elfman / Oingo Boingo complex'). Nevertheless, their music is worth reappraisal.
YMO's second album, Solid State Survivor, was released in 1979. Although they would release more ambitious (1981's Technodelic) and well-crafted (1983's Naughty Boys) works, it's here that their unique, left-field musical manifesto is best expressed. Indeed, despite the presence and implementation of mile-high stacks of synthesizers and other electronic gadgets, YMO's sound is rooted in composition and performance. Whereas their German counterparts were masters of minimalism, YMO layer and weave. The ‘robotik’ sound of other synth pioneers is tweaked with the inclusion of Sakamoto's classically-trained keyboard runs, Haruomi Hosono's bass stabs, and Yukihiro Takahashi's drum embellishments, as well as traditional Oriental instrumentation.
These contradictions are present on the album's most famous tracks: "Rydeen" is a giddy thrill of synth-pop bliss, with strong melodic lines performed like high-register wind instruments. This hyper consonance and carefree momentum is an unmistakable influence on early Japanese video game music. Equally, "Technopolis," for all its Technology TV Show Theme stylings, is importantly punctuated by a funky bass that rumbles and pops. "Behind the Mask," a psychologically paranoid ‘love song’ straight out of a Philip K. Dick short story ("Is it me/ Is it you/ Behind this mask?"), is almost sabotaged by Sakamoto's use of vocoder, which completely obscures his vocals. The song works -- though, the lack of a strong conventional vocal hook has given birth to horribly overwrought re-imaginings and covers of the song, the most successful of which was recorded by Eric Clapton during his mid-’80s Phil Collins period.
This sense that YMO are, at times, self-sabotaging their easiest bids for pop success is no more evident than on the cover of The Beatles' classic "Day Tripper." What is first a proto-hard rock song -- a prime candidate for the basic moog-and-arpeggiator makeover -- is transformed into an off-kilter mutant. It's almost post-punk in its convulsive rhythms and far ahead of its time in the use of intentional glitching. It could be one of the more prescient tracks on the album. Furthermore, the title track, placed right at the end of side two, is a straightforward New Wave song, containing the album's only full-bodied vocal performance from Yukihiro Takahashi. It comes off as a kinetic tribute to Roxy Music or David Bowie. Here, however, YMO show a mischievousness: the majority of the vocals are drowned out by scratchy, distorted samples in favor of, once again, an instrumental chorus hook.
Solid State Survivor presents all sides of its creator's complexity. YMO are at times synthetic, at times vital; they are frustrating, joyous; willingly accessible, yet defiantly stubborn. In the future, they would craft more one-dimensional, satisfying albums. Technodelic would take the experimental innovation to new depths, just as much as Naughty Boys would feature fully-fledged pop songs, with proper vocal performances from Takahashi to boot. Sakamoto would find better means of expression -- both in his solo compositions and in collaboration with other artists, such as David Sylvian, Alva Noto and Christian Fennesz (in a graceful, atmospheric mode represented here by "Castalia"). On this album, however, YMO display a smörgåsbord-like approach. They move away from Kraftwerk's clinical, futurist kitsch. Instead, they use the synthesizer as a composition aid. The result may not be as iconic as their Germanic contemporaries, but YMO's art shows a great deal more sophistication.
Until Captain Beefheart’s brilliant Safe as Milk (1967), no one had paid such a respectful and original homage to the great bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta, whose names narrowly escaped the contempt and neglect engendered by Jim Crow laws. The Kropotkins may have spent more time on the New York avant-garde scene than in Memphis’ smoky bars, but they all maintain a personal, often passionate tie to the blues and other musical traditions the region directly or indirectly engendered -- jazz and hip-hop, soul and funk; they may not all have been raised in the rural South, the historical birthplace of the genre, but they all are, in a way, children of the blues.
Such is the case for the The Kropotniks' instigator, Dave Soldier, an avant-garde composer and violinist -- also a psychology and neurology professor at Columbia University -- whose string quartet used to perform microtonal arrangements of Muddy Waters’ songs. Similarly rooted is Lorette Velvette (The Hellcats, Alluring Strange, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns) a Memphis singer with an entrancing voice, brought up in the school of blues and rockabilly. And don't forget Samm Bennett (Tom Cora, Elliott Sharp, John Zorn), a subtle drummer fond of free-jazz, who has spent a good deal of time traveling around West-Africa, studying the traditional rhythmic patterns brought by Africans to the New World.
Born from a New York meeting of musicians from various backgrounds, The Kropotkins is a collective with a rotating lineup, a project that materializes from time to time rather than being a "group" in the classic sense. Started in 1992, they have only released two albums since, one in 1996, the other, Five Points Crawl, in 2001. Two records whose grooves offer nuggets of the pleasant smell of the old South, the slowness of farm work, the frenzy of East St. Louis bars, and, above all, the dusty roads and sparkling railroad tracks, the throbbing trucks and rumbling freight trains, the inhospitable road stops and dubious motels; in a word, the immensity of the landscapes, which the band’s most compelling songs drive up and down at turbo speed.
“Cold Wet Steel,” “Shake ‘em on Down” and “Everdream,” opening songs on The Kropotkins’ self-titled album, explode the musical quarries that the band exploits. The first tune is a classic one, an accurate and jubilatory interpretation of the Delta blues' best moments. A simple and efficient bass line, tirelessly repeated, with a rhythmically bouncing banjo and a violin providing the typical instrumental response to the hot and cheeky Lorette Velvette, who casts a spell on her audience from the very first line. Nothing is lacking, save Otha Turner’s fife, which appears on the following song.
“Shake ‘em on Down” marks the next phase of The Kropotkins’ interpretive work; the homage to Mississippi Fred McDowell is obvious, but irreverent. The urgency of the vocals and the guitar slide responses evoke an image of a train flying at top speed, constantly on the verge of derailing. A discomfort accentuated by Jonathan Kane (February, Swans, Rhys Chatham) whose drum shuffle, far from being monotonous, follows the guitar in jolts, introducing a radically different dynamic that truly gives new flavor to the McDowell classic.
“Everdream” is the ultimate step in the transformation that The Kropotkins impose on the old-fashioned arrangement of their idols; hip-hop beats, industrial sounds, and electronic loops compete with the hegemony of the classical banjo, violin, and fife, musically illustrating the nightmarish visions recounted by Lorette Velvette (“Momma gonna milk you/ or kill you dead”). We have come full circle; the traditional sounds now cheerfully collide with the recent ones, proving that the road from Memphis to New York was long, but without too many potholes.
The record drifts from respectful covers to audacious interpretations, from songs that purr like a big engine (“Coal Black Wind”) to bravura pieces that offer the musicians, Mark Feldman (John Zorn, Arcado String Trio, Pharoah Sanders) in particular, a chance to express their virtuosity. But the music is always pretext. Pretext for Lorette Velvette and Samm Bennett, whose vocals, sung with tender or ironic tones, outline scenes from outdated places and times, sketching the timeless failings of their fellow man, taking part in the constitution and perpetuation of a specific idea in the American myth.
I’ve always felt that Brighten the Corners, Pavement’s penultimate album, was a record with an identity crisis, though of a different sort than the preceding, incredibly eclectic Wowee Zowee. On one hand, BtC was another step towards rock “maturity” -- more nuanced production, a greater degree of multi-tracking, less of the gawky warts-n-all approach that made Pavement easy to root for. On the other, with the benefit of hindsight comparisons to the later Terror Twilight, Brighten the Corners is downright rollicking.
Perhaps not coincidentally, BtC’s songs are even sequenced like an adolescent growing up. The record’s funnest tracks are its first few, the much-beloved “Stereo” and “Shady Lane” -- “Stereo” in particular is so canonized that one can find several YouTube videos of hipster parents’ toddlers singing it. “Date with IKEA” remains a great power-pop song, and the sardonic “Type Slowly” is a worthy ancestor of Terror Twilight’s “Spit on a Stranger” -- a twinkling, smirky gem of a tune that actually merits its five minutes. “Embassy Row” tacks a lackluster preamble onto a bona fide barnburner.
And depending on who you ask, “Embassy Row” is either the last worthwhile track on a Pavement record or simply the band’s last true rocker. Either way, it’s hard to argue that Brighten the Corners' second half is as strong as its first, which is as good as anything the band ever recorded. “Passat Dream” and “We are Underused” probably qualify as filler for Pavement, but for nearly any other band they’d be lead-single material. “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Fin” are pleasant enough, but together mostly represent an eight-and-a-half minute attempt to end the album.
If you’re reading this, though, you’ve likely already listened to Brighten the Corners and formed your own opinion. So what does Matador’s reissue -- dubbed the Nicene Creedence Edition” -- add? We’ve got the original album’s 12 songs, remastered (I can’t tell the difference, maybe you can). Then there’s another 31 tracks of B-sides, unreleased session material, and live songs to wade through, split over two discs. I’ll touch on some highlights:
- A jam session called “And Then (the Hexx)” that was apparently planned to be BtC’s first track. They made the right decision. (It appears in a different incarnation on Terror Twilight.)
- Three quality rockers from the “Stereo” single: “Westie Can Drum,” “Winner of the,” and “Birds in the Majic Industry.”
- A pair of lighthearted (if inessential) numbers from the “Spit on a Stranger” single: “Harness Your Hopes” and “Roll with the Wind” (the unreleased version of “Roll” is even better).
- An unfortunate honky-tonk two-step reinvention of “Type Slowly” (“Slowly Typed”).
- A cover of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” which old-timers might remember from the classic What’s Up Matador compilation
- KCRW, BBC, and Peel sessions whose collective highlights are the Peel session’s playful cuts of “Date with IKEA” and Wowee Zowee’s “Grave Architecture.”
- Two silly themes recorded for an appearance on Space Ghost Coast to Coast
And that’s about it. Pavement were primarily a pop band, and great pop bands are also good self-editors. Thus it stands to reason that a reissue that tacks on stuff that didn’t make the first cut (from a band that had just knocked out the sprawling Wowee Zowee) might not be consistent. With a couple of exceptions, the Nicene Creedence Edition is the least essential of Matador’s Pavement compilations. But even with this caveat, the package performs the service of reminding us how good Brighten the Corners still is -- it bats well above .500, and if it wins the original album any new listeners, Nicene more than validates its existence.
1969: Morgen - Morgen
The cover of guitarist Steve Morgen’s first and only album anticipates the record’s mystery status. It features a monochrome reproduction of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, an equally iconic solid grey background, and a single word, small enough to go unnoticed against the colorful merry-go-round of late-'60s psychedelic balloon lettering: "Morgen," which is at once the artist’s name, the album’s title, and the German word for “tomorrow.” 1969 was the year of Woodstock, but it was also the year of Altamont, where a fan's murder at a Rolling Stones concert sounded the death toll of daisy-haired euphoria. If excess had been the rule of the turning decade, Morgen signaled the throbbing hangover that would accompany its listeners into the new one.
“Welcome to the void,” sings Morgen on the album’s vertiginous opener. If Munch’s The Scream rose to German philosopher Schopenhauer’s call for a pictorial art capable of capturing the sound of a human howl, “Welcome to the Void” provides its acid rock counterpart. Amid plunging baroque bass lines, careering fuzz guitars, and a drum gallop capable of whipping a retirement community into a band of Samurais, Morgen opens his flirtation with emptiness -- not with a scream, but with a single, arching, razor-sharp laugh. Not a Black Sabbath laugh, not an “Oh look how evil I am holding my pinky up to the corner of my mouth” kind of cackle, but one that actually hails from the far side of the borderline. Listening to this song for the first time is as disturbing and exhilarating as watching these four Long Island musicians taking an amphetamine-driven joyride to the top of a cliff, looking out into the star-studded black-yonder, and slamming down on the gas.
Which is perhaps one of the reasons why Morgen crashed and burned the second it hit the press, especially considering the band’s pairing with the subsidiary of a major label. Maybe Morgen and his bandmates simply scared radio stations stiff. But for all its inebriated thrill-seeking, its existential head-scratching, and its overblown guitar solos, Morgen offers a gentleman’s share of softer, more delicate moments. “Of Dreams,” the album’s second track, reincarnates the opener's braying Steve Morgen as a kind of sweet-voiced, sexless nymph, recounting a series of bucolic adventures with a woman whose “hair caressed the air and made it sing.” Suddenly, and almost by a stroke of magical luck, the cantering drums of "Welcome to the Void" weave their way back into the mix, revealing the secret logic of one song in the backbone of another.
Women and narcotics are definitely the central pillars of Steve Morgen’s search for metaphysical meaning, and sometimes it's difficult to tell whether he's courting the perfect high or the girl next door. Fortunately, the lyrical skirt-chasing doesn’t stop at embarrassing one-liners like “I want to fill you with my fire.” On “Purple,” “She’s the Nitetime,” and “Love,” the album’s closing trilogy, Morgen returns to the fatal cliff of the first song, jumps aboard a square of windowpane, and shuttles off into the kaleidoscopic night. At first, he begins to lose his sense of time. Then, he begins to panic. Finally, the stars assume the outline of the young woman he's been pining after, and he realizes that she's been sitting beside him the whole time, there on the cliff, guiding him down to earth with a pat on the back and a water bottle.
After three-and-a-half minutes of major key, up-tempo hot love, Maid Marianne slips through Robin Hood’s fingers yet again, and the album finishes on the same note of ecstatic horror that it began on. Not with a suicidal scream this time, but a long and murderous one, as Steve Morgen fords a black riptide of ascending bass triads, climbs atop a bridge of tumbling drums, and promises to “crush [her] to [him] madly/ smother [her] in kisses/ and wildly proclaim [his] love.”
As its top-ten ranking among many a collector and a blogger will attest, Morgen is more than a representative slice of the heavier side of 1960s psychedelia. And it's more than a showcase of some of the most top-notch electric guitar playing that never made it to Woodstock-Altamont, for people who like that kind of thing. Although it is simply overflowing with ’60s rock stereotypes, it takes the sound of its time to a kind of nail-biting, adolescent extreme, perhaps even to its breaking point. Some people might call it the beginning of hard rock.
It’s hard to believe a lot of things about Murmur. That R.E.M. actually made the album; that they used to sound this weird and original; that Murmur is now 25 years old; that it spurred listeners to toss around newfangled terms like “college-rock” as something new and distinct from the old punk-rock orthodoxy; that R.E.M. started out so right for an act that went so wrong. That, ultimately, this band and this album are the godfathers of so much of your favorite music, whether you’d like to admit it or not. But you know all that already from countless “100 Best Albums Of All-Time” lists that slot Murmur somewhere in the high 80s or low 90s -- every music hack seems to instinctively know it belongs in the ranks but can’t always remember why. So, let’s just talk about the reissue-ish parts of this package.
Disc one is the original joint straight, no chaser. The remastering job brings out the snap, crackle, and pop missing from the murky, mysterious original cut, especially in the percussion. The lack of bonus tracks may seem like wasted space, especially stacked up against, say, the forthcoming 10th-anniversary reissue of Pavement’s Brighten The Corners. One might think Universal would at least append the band’s Chronic Town debut EP. But the label was smart to stay away from repackaging odds ‘n’ sods. Everything from this era already showed up on the largely shitty old relic Dead Letter Office and 2006’s great best-of-the-indie-years And I Feel Fine. However, it would have been nice to toss in the Hib-Tone single version of “Radio Free Europe,” since, as they freely admit, it crushes the album version like a grape.
But that’s where the live set comes in: crushed grapes? Why settle for wine when you can have blood and whiskey? The previously unheard 1983 Toronto show that takes up the entirety of disc two has sharper teeth than any studio versions of the songs, drawn mostly from Murmur with a sprinkling of Chronic Town and some early takes on Reckoning’s best tracks. Who needs Chronic Town itself with such vicious versions of “Carnival Of Sorts (Box Cars),” “Gardening at Night,” and “1,000,000” in hand? Why isn’t the audience clapping harder for “Harborcoat” and “7 Chinese Bros”? Oh yeah, they’ve never heard those before.
If you want all the B-sides from this era, you’ll find them without too much trouble -- but you might wish you hadn’t. This concert is much more satisfying than any hoary old chestnuts from the studio archives, an exhilarating reminder that R.E.M. really did come roaring out of the (post) punk era with furious style (on par with contemporaries like Mission of Burma) and a reputation built more on devastating performances than through quietly confounding albums that didn’t fit into any nerdy sub-genres at the time. Block the last 15 or 20 years of R.E.M.’s sputtering output when you throw this on, and you’ll never need to ask what the frequency is again.
It’s difficult to find vocals more compellingly arranged than on Quarteto Em Cy’s frightfully beautiful Som Definitivo. Having released a broad array of popular bossa albums (including children’s recordings), Cyva, Cynara, Cybele, and Cylene, four vocally virtuosic sisters, are among the most significant of female bossa and MPB groups. While the Quarteto released a body of formidable work spanning over three decades, it is Som Definitivo that fully reveals the group’s mastery of bossa nova, jazz, and pop.
“Imagem,” written by Tamba Trio pianist Luis Eça, is a microcosm of the broad genre synthesis that began in the ’60s. The composition begins with an almost stereotypical bossa nova flute section, which, due to the appropriation of Brazilian music, American ears may associate with elevator music. Then comes a jazz-inflected vocal line, sung in hauntingly low -- though imperceptible -- unison; the sisters match their vibrato flawlessly. The harmony breaks into two groups, then four as the section modulates to a new key, insinuating each chord change with as little sound as possible.
The show stopper, though, is the bossa standard “Arrastão,” which Eça engineers away from the piece’s usual pop bombast (search it on YouTube for a nauseating experience). The vocal delivery in relation to the presumed genre is again fascinating; the piece doesn’t actually sink into a recognizable “bossa” feel until the very end, favoring a straight bass line full of jazz and vocal pop tensions. It’s hard not to think of Brian Wilson’s vocal breaks as harmonies circulate around the memorable melody.
This delayed gratification in “Arrastão” also reflects Som Definitovo's astute politics. Bossa nova’s tendency to signify upper-class leisure is subverted by delaying the “bossa” until the very end. The contoured harmonies reflect both the anticipation felt in the first section ("Hey, there’s a raft out to sea!") and the leisurely relief felt in the finale ("We’ll never see as many fish as this!").
Although the Quarteto continues to exist today, the lineup is vastly different and the transglobal resonances of pop as a (potentially) all-encompassing genre are noticeably absent. So, what foresight the group had in calling their masterpiece “Definitive Sound.”
The more recognized Randy Newman is in mainstream culture, the more reviled his presence becomes. Despite enduring critical popularity with Pixar, his songs for their films -- think “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” from Toy Story or “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. -- have made his name synonymous with mediocrity. They’re fine songs, but regular Oscars viewers turn hostile seeing this potato-shaped old man on the red carpet every year. (Though I’d like to make a case for the beautiful “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2. Maybe that’s a separate column.)
It wasn’t always so. Newman’s records, including this year’s decent Harps and Angels, are elegant character portraits and sharp satirical documents. As a writer, Newman ranks with Mark Twain as one of the country’s finest and funniest social critics; as a musician and composer, he stands with McCartney and Lennon, and the best of Tin Pan Alley.
Sail Away, released in 1972, is often cited as the pinnacle of Newman’s satirical work. And while it’s a great record, Good Old Boys is the subtler, more complicated effort. In fact, satire doesn’t get more complex than opening track “Rednecks,” whose hick narrator sees Georgia governor Lester Maddox on the Dick Cavett Show and spits out a rant about the patronizing response the politician receives from the northern-elite audience. The result is Newman singing from the southerners point of view, himself singing about the northern hypocrites who mock his kind: “We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground/ We’re rednecks, and we’re keeping the niggers down.” This is followed by a critique of segregation: “[The black man is] free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City/ He’s free to be put in a cage on the south side of Chicago.” That’s just the first track.
Things get a little less complex from there, but no less vivid. The narrator of “Birmingham” is a proud Alabama resident who works in a factory (“that’s all right with me”) and owns Dan, "the meanest dog in Alabam." He is also married to the title character of “Marie,” one of Newman’s finest compositions. The heartbreaking ballad is sung by Marie’s drunk husband, who tells his wife the things he’d never say sober: “The song that the trees sing when the wind blows/ You’re a flower, you’re a river, you’re a rainbow.” (He won’t remember this in the morning.)
Good Old Boys' centerpiece is “Louisiana 1927,” an account of the Great Mississippi Flood. The song’s refrain is “they’re trying to wash us away,” a comment on the theory that the city’s levees were dynamited to preserve the wealthier sections of New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, the song gained new popularity in 2005, after similar theories arose from Hurricane Katrina. It's simply a gorgeous track, accomplishing in a few words what lesser social critics attempt with entire books. And, like the rest of the record, the song just sounds great. There's just enough orchestration to inject some theatricality, but Newman's tight band -- which included session veterans Jim Keltner on drums, bassist Russ Titelman, and Glenn Frey and Don Henley as guest vocalists -- provide its R&B backbone.
At the time of Good Old Boys' release, some criticized Newman for patronizing his southern subjects. However, though these narrators are seemingly inarticulate, they’re simply direct: “they’re trying to wash us away”, “he’s free to be put in a cage.” These aren’t idiots, and in using the vernacular of a hick stereotype, Newman has pulled off a bait and switch, a record of misdirection. If you think this is a crude caricature, you can almost hear him saying that you’re the one recognizing the stereotypes, so you’re the crude one. See what I mean? Complicated.
There’s a reason people associate the sound of NWA (and West Coast hip-hop in general) with Dr. Dre instead of Arabian Prince. The Prince was a founding member of NWA (under the moniker Professor X) but left after Ice Cube came back in 1988. Now, consider the lack of common knowledge about the group before 1988, which of course means before Straight Outta Compton, and you'll begin to understand Arabian Prince's dilemma. Aside from a few minor vocals on “Something 2 Dance 2,” he just isn’t there. He’s the Pete Best to NWA’s Beatles, the guy who exited at the wrong moment and got left in the dust as a result.
Innovative Life proves that his departure was hardly a tragedy.
While G-funk itself is a pungent leftover dish these days, Arabian Prince’s electro-rap has aged worse, and this compilation shows that there’s not much reason to look back. While opener “Strange Life” provides a great mission statement in the verse ("The end’s not near so don’t scream and shout/ Live a strange life until your time runs out”), Arabian Prince’s definition of strange only went as far as pushing the weirder-sounding buttons on the newest synth of the day. The poorly paced compositions rely on then-new electro sounds to cover up unimaginative riffs and chord progressions, and the results are predictable.
Of course, you could argue that The Prince's music was made explicitly to get booties shakin’ rather than titillate some pasty, sofa-bound reviewer playing the collection in his living room. This is simple dance-floor fuel, and you wouldn’t go wrong slipping one of the tracks into a housewarming party playlist (once you kicked that pasty reviewer off the couch). Maybe Innovative Life is just meant for DJs rather than casual listeners, a handy compendium of tight, funny-ha-ha electro tracks that will effortlessly flow into a Spank Rock remix or something -- as long as no one’s listening too hard and there aren’t any real dance music fans in the house. But ’80s retro parties aren’t even in style anymore: it’s all about the ’90s these days, from Brooklyn to the Bay, and even so, you don’t hear any of the crate diggers at Academy or Amoeba wishing someone would reissue all the old EMF 12-inches, no matter how “Unbelievable” they sounded back then.
Though they didn’t go over too well with the mudslingers at Woodstock, The Incredible String Band were some of the biggest thrill-seekers in late-1960s psychedelic folk. Judging from the group photo on the cover of their third album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, their lives were just as full of fairy-tale images as their music. In 1968, when The Beatles donned white kaftans and absconded to India to study transcendental meditation, Robin Williamson had already returned from Morocco carrying an oud, a gimbri, a sitar, a water harp, and a bag full of melismatic vocal licks. Though former bandmate Clive Palmer seemed lost to India and Afghanistan forever, Williamson reunited with rock guitarist Mike Heron and set up house in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where the Scottish duo experimented with communal living, ran around wearing Renaissance costumes, and mastered enough non-occidental string instruments to justify their towering moniker.
After their second LP, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, confirmed their movement away from traditional Celtic roots, The Incredible String Band hit upon a distinctive marriage of East and West that would become their signature sound. With The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which expanded their lineup to include girlfriends Licorice McKechnie and Rose Simpson, the group pushed the logic of cultural hybridization further than anyone else had dared. Unlike other members of the Sgt. Pepper’s generation, Williamson and Heron were ready to do more than just quote the Middle Eastern and East Asian musical traditions; they allowed these influences to explode the very fabric of their songwriting.
If only for its hallucinogenic quality, listening to The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is a lot like watching the dream sequence in Walter Lang’s 1939 remake of A Little Princess, where the film suddenly switches from monochrome to Technicolor, sublimating the life of an orphaned Shirley Temple into a tale fit for the Brother’s Grimm. Shirley, now styled as a petticoated princess, arbitrates a dispute between an evil witch (her tight-lipped headmistress) and a lovely shepherdess (her beloved teacher) over a “stolen kiss” as she is regaled by a swirling cavalcade of pied pipers, court jesters, and cooks armed with over-basted suckling pigs. If we can’t triumph the powers that be, the film seems to suggest, why don’t we just drop out of reality for a while and write our own tall tales?
Equally enchanting and enchanted, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter provides a potent musical antidote to today’s daily grind. Taking off from the group’s farmhouse in Pembrokeshire, Williamson’s soaring tenor catches on a gust of wind and sweeps us into a promised land filled with panpipes and misty garden walls, frankincense and minotaurs, spinning castles and witches wearing black cherries on their fingers. Though each song unfurls like one of those long-winded adventure stories that bards rattled off to the ladies back home, Hangman’s is a movement not only across the seven continents but backwards through time, where childhood make-believe magnifies into courtly love and a stroll down a tree-lined lane becomes a caravan down the Silk Road. In “A Very Cellular Song,” a 13-minute ode to an amoeba that joins a Sikh hymn with a Bahaman spiritual, the group enumerates the joys of “living the timeless life” -- perhaps hitting upon the secret ideal of all true-blue hippies, past and present.
But while The Incredible String Band were busy luxuriating in their own escapist fantasy, they were also working long hours to break apart traditional song structure and confront their glut of exotic instruments with their wickermanian aesthetic. With the advent of 8-track recording, they had finally discovered a way of putting all of their ideas (and all of their instruments) down on tape. And Williamson and Heron were overflowing with ideas -- so much that they didn’t see the point in drawing any one of them out into a verse-chorus-bridge-chorus number.
“I did not write this song,” Williamson sang on their first album. “It was my joys and sorrows that bore it.” Obviously, The Incredible String Band did write their songs, and we cannot overestimate the amount of time it probably took them to sync up each microtonal flutter of Williamson’s voice with a corresponding sitar arabesque. But, listening to Hangman, we cannot avoid the feeling that Williamson and Heron were trying to reverse the equation that had come to dominate even the most “eclectic” music of their time: the channeling of sentiment into form, as opposed to the accommodation of form to sentiment. Though their transitions from raga to music-hall parody were nothing short of virtuosic, The Incredible String Band were less interested in blowing their own pennywhistles than in confronting the fact that no single melody, no single musical language, suffices to capture all the colors in the psychic rainbow.
Often lost in the pantheon of Bernard Stollman’s ESP label is the last batch of recordings they released just before closing their doors. While there are several dozen “essential” ESP recordings from the late-’60s, releases from the early-’70s by Ronnie Boykins, Donald Garrett, and others often get lumped in with posthumous records by Bud Powell and Billie Holiday (which do deserve some attention of their own). Among these is Frank Lowe’s debut, Black Beings, certainly one of the most quintessential ESP releases.
The death of Coltrane and Ayler put a small muzzle on American free jazz, ultimately causing it to branch out and take on new forms. By the early-’70s, many American players had left the country, seeking out a more receptive European audience. European natives had already established their own take on free jazz. While not soulless, the deliberate lack of rhythm and melody heard from European’s like Peter Brötzmann, Albert Manglesdorff, and Paul Rutherford were far cries from the Pan-African influences pouring out of those like Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders. But in the midst of all this change, Frank Lowe remained one of the last to carry on the “Fire Music” tradition in its truest form. Mixing post-bop influences, African heritage, and the experimentation of late-period John Coltrane, Black Beings remains one of the most soulful and extreme albums of its ilk.
Beginning with “In Trane’s Name,” Black Beings takes off like a shotgun blast, bearing a sense of urgency rarely captured on recording. Over the interlocking static-like rhythm section of William Parker (one of his earliest appearances on record) and Rashid Sinan, Frank Lowe, Joseph Jarman and Raymond Lee Cheng race through the “head” with intense prowess, a sort of formality before jumping into full-on improvisation. Lowe begins with some staccato melodic phrasing similar to Shepp, but quickly soars into an overblown, multiphonic scream/skronk that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
Essentially just a recording of a live show, Black Beings encapsulates what’s great about improvisation at its very core: harnessing spontaneity in a way that can never be recreated. Aside from stellar, moment-to-moment playing, Black Beings also documents a pivotal time in music. Lowe takes free jazz to its fiercest and rawest states, while remaining deeply invested in the same roots as the previous generation of jazz experimenters. As avant-garde as Black Beings gets, it is indeed pure soul music, without a trace of pretension or self-indulgence that often cripples free jazz.
While this album has been reissued several times by various questionable sources, the latest reissue is significant for two reasons. Aside from being an official release on Stollman’s recently revived ESP label, Black Beings also has bonus material that is pretty much essential to the release. Previously “In Trane’s Name” had ended with Rashid Sinan’s sharp snare drum crack, which seemed to mark the end of the piece. But to make the original album fit within the sides of an LP, Raymond Lee Cheng’s impressive violin solo was left out, along with the entire finish of the song. (It should also be noted that up until this release, Raymond Lee Cheng had always been credited as “The Wizard.” Maybe some people knew who it really was; however, I had always assumed it was a moniker for Leroy Jenkins.) Additionally, the final track, “Thulani,” originally faded out on a high note but now plays out until its definitive ending, in which you can hear an audience of about 10 devoted fans clapping. (How fucking sad is that?) The fidelity of the recording has benefited from a superb remastering job as well. Where previous versions heard the mix obviously in the red, full of lo-fi analog distortion, the latest version keeps the all the grit, while adding a great deal of clarity. Bass notes that were once buried in the mix are brought out to the surface, and no longer do the drums drown everything out in an overdriven haze.
Black Beings is an essential release for anyone interested in the history of free jazz, and those already fond of the album will without a doubt appreciate the upgrade.