Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #97 - Jimmy Cliff - The Harder They Come (1972)

Okay, it's not really a Jimmy Cliff album, but I hate the term "Various Artists" and Cliff is certainly the star player here, dominating the soundtrack album of the film in which he played the lead role. I should begin by saying that reggae is not really my thing, although I appreciate the influence it has had on other styles of music (we'll get to the Clash later in the list, who owe a great deal to the genre.)

With that in mind, this album raises an important question about musical analysis: to what extent should we let context influence our perceptions of music? Is the sound itself enough, or should we look to historical, social, and other non-musical elements to explain what we are hearing? Of course, in a certain sense, everything is context. Even a simple chord progression relies on centuries of musical tradition ingrained in our civilization in order for an audience to make sense of it. And all lyrics are about something, usually relating to the world outside the sleeve of the record itself.

Still, different types of music use context in a different way. For example, the first album I reviewed for this series, Before and After Science, largely puts sound over meaning, playing with nonsense lyrics and interesting new textures coaxed from synthesizers, as well as modernistic playing from the instrumentalists that plays with our expectations of what melody and harmony are supposed to be.

The Harder They Come is the exact opposite. There are no complex chord progressions here, no exotic instruments, no sounds you're not likely to have heard before. It's protest music, man. Three chords and the truth. The sound is a vehicle for the meaning, and the meaning is everything.

So what does it mean? Well, first of all, it's the soundtrack of a film in which the hero, played by Cliff, tries to make good, but ultimately is destroyed by crime and corruption, a grim tale lacking in hope or redemption, and reflecting the impoverished and generally unpleasant conditions in Jamaica at the time. In that context, the album is a sad one indeed, for the songs themselves are overflowing with optimism. You can get it if you really want, sings Cliff. The harder they come, the harder they fall. If we work together and hold our heads high, nothing can beat us. Given the fact that there was never any real hope of success to begin with, the album embodies the pathos of oblivious confidence exceeded all realistic expectations.

We are given clues to this cognitive dissonance on other tracks, mostly the ones not sung by Cliff. Songs like Shanty Town and By the Rivers of Babylon give the listener clues that all is not as sunny as Cliff would have you believe. There is sadness behind the singing, a sadness that reemerges as subtext when the title song is reprised at the end of the record.

The Harder They Come is simple and powerful, but it's also very much a product of its time and place, and I can't help but feel that I would find it more meaningful if I had lived through 1970s Jamaica. I kind of doubt it would be worth it, though.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #98 - Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom (1974)

I must begin this entry with an apology. I had intended to post a new review every week, but as astute reads will have noticed, I have already failed in that ambition, and only three albums in! The reason is that the album in question, Rock Bottom, was out of print in my country and I had difficulty in obtaining a copy. After my initial order from Amazon was abruptly cancelled days after it was supposed to arrive, I had to pursue overseas options, which even in the futuristic space age in which we live took rather longer than I expected. This will likely not be the last such roadblock, as there are several more albums in the list that are currently unavailable, but I shall endeavor to make allowances and obtain them in a timely fashion. In any case, I have the album now, so we can proceed.

While an avid lover of progressive rock, I have never much cared for the Canterbury scene. Bands such as Caravan and the Soft Machine have failed to hold my interest, and as Wyatt is well-known as one of the major figures of that subgenre, I confess I approached this record with a bit of trepidation. Wyatt's voice is not one that I find especially pleasant, particularly in its higher registers, and indeed I would call his vocals my least favorite part of the album. Apart from that minor niggle, however, I was pleasantly surprised by Rock Bottom, which is in every respect an engaging and satisfying listen.

Beginning with a relatively straightforward song, we are at once alerted that things are not quite right, as the otherwise conventional structure is interrupted by stabs of atonal piano, and strangely droning keyboards. The influence of jazz is prominent, but the unusual harmonic and melodic language is used in this context in what I would characterize as an impressionistic fashion.

Indeed, the whole album oddly reminds me of a Monet painting. There are no sharp edges, and everything is hazy and diffuse. In this respect, the cover painting is perfect. The album's centerpiece, Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road, is built on a tapestry of echoing, interlocking trumpets that produce a mesmerizing effect.

For me at least, the album seems to invite such extra-musical comparisons. Many of the lyrics consist of nonsense poetry, which, combined with its extremely English ad literate sensibilities, reminds me of the work of Lewis Carroll, which is assuredly a good thing.

As I've mentioned before, the ability to choose good collaborators is one of the marks of a great musician, and sat this Wyatt excels. The contributions of guest musicians, primarily to the album's closer, are delightful, from Mike Oldfield's trademarked layered guitars, to Fred Frith's viola, to Ivor Cutler's strangely accented recitation, accompanied by the creaking and groaning of a baritone concertina.

The album is paradoxical in that it comes across as both dark and light, both sad and joyous. There is desperation here; the tragic “stop its” of Little Red Riding Hood are heartbreaking, and this is understandable given that Wyatt was having to come to terms with being a paraplegic at the time of this album, having lost the use of his legs from a four-stroy fall. Yet there is also hope and love, and his devotion to his wife, who appears on the album and about whom many of the lyrics center, is clear. In fact, one of the last lines on the record sums up the nature of love with succinct poignancy: "Your madness fits in nicely with my own." What more could anyone ask in a significant other?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #99 - Neil Young - After the Gold Rush (1970)

I'm relatively new to the world of Neil Young. After hearing Cowgirl in the Sand on the radio a few years ago, I purchased the predecessor to After the Gold Rush, 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and I enjoy that record thoroughly. After the Gold Rush is my second Young acquisition, and the first thing I'm struck by is the change in mood as the decade rolled over from the 1960s to the 1970s.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is not without its dark moments, but there's a hopeful energy, and even playfulness to songs like Cinnamon Girl. On After the Gold Rush, Young seems to have matured, and in doing so, become considerably gloomier. The lyrics here deal with environmental catastrophe, loneliness, and racism. The instrumentation is sparse, and Young's voice is high and plaintive throughout. The whole thing is a little bit of a downer, which is not to say that it's not great.

One of things I appreciate in an album is the ability to hang together as a unified artistic statement, not just a collection of songs. The seventies were a particularly fertile time for this, the concept of "album rock" having been pioneered just a few years earlier by a combination of the Beatles, whose Rubber Soul inspired Brian Wilson to write a record with no filler, and the Beach Boys, whose resulting Pet Sounds spurred Paul McCartney to create Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. After the Gold Rush succeeds mightily in this department, sounding completely unified, even as the major songs are divided by short fragments like Till the Morning Comes and Cripple Creek Ferry, this last being an oddly bright and carefree conclusion to an otherwise dark record.

Speaking of Brian Wilson, the waltz-time Only Love Can Break Your Heart is something that would not have been out of place on a late period Beach Boys album, with its simple charm and 3/4 time melody, a rarity for rock albums, even ones as folk-influenced as this one. It's not the only song on the record to employ waltz time, either. In the album's lone cover version, Oh, Lonesome Me is perhaps best known for Johnny Cash's performance, a typical mid-tempo lament backed by the ubiquitous chugga-chugga-chugga of Cash's guitar. Young transforms the song and makes it his own in a way that only the very best covers succeed in doing (think Jimi Hendrix's definitive recording of Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower). Young slows the tempo way down and takes the rhythm from 4/4 to 3/4. He also sings it like he means it. He really sounds lonesome.  If you didn't know better, you'd never guess that he didn't write the thing.

Mention must be made of the title track, which feels like an epic even though it's less than four minutes long. It's classic Neil Young, composed of a haunting melody, cryptic lyrics, and a painfully tender vocal performance. The song is played entirely on piano, with the exception of a flugelhorn solo midway through. Why flugelhorn? Why not a more conventional choice, like saxophone, guitar, or even a string section? I don't know what inspired him to make this decision, but inspired it is. The horn sounds lonely and just foreign enough to perfectly capture the emotion of the song in a way that other choices wouldn't. It's little touches like that that make the album so interesting.

The other standout track I'd like to mention is Southern Man, the only track on the album that could be fairly described as "rocking". Lyrically, it's a diatribe about racism in the American South that inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd to reply with an affectionate defense of their homeland, Sweet Home Alabama. Good for you, Lynyrd Skynyrd! Musically, I have to admit that I enjoy it more than anything else here. Young is an underrated guitarist who manages to extract a great amount of feeling from very simply solos, and this is really the only chance you get on the record to hear that aspect of his musicianship. I would have liked to hear more.

Neil Young may not be my favorite artist on this list, but I can certainly appreciate a well-crafted record when I hear one, and After the Gold Rush delivers, both in terms of songwriting, production, and performance. I will revisit Young later in this project when it's time to review On the Beach (which I have not heard yet). It will be interesting to see how it compares.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #100 - Brian Eno - Before and After Science (1977)

It's been a long time since I've made use of this excellent blog I started all those years ago, but recently I decided to undertake a project worthy of its resurrection. In my continuing quest for new and interesting music, I always fear that I am missing out on the classics, and so I have decided to listen to all of Pitchfork Magazine's Top 100 Albums of the 1970s (Pitchfork being more in line with my sensibilities than other similar compilers of lists and the 1970s being objectively the best decade of music) in order, at he rate of approximately one a week.

Many of these albums I already know and love. Others will be brand new to me. I intend to approach all of them with fresh ears (as fresh as I can manage anyway) and post the resulting experiences here. Are you ready? Okay, here we go.

I should start right off by confessing that I am a confirmed Brian Eno addict. Dozens of albums in my collection bear his fingerprints in one way or another, and most of the rest are only a stone's throw away from his influence. The Kevin Bacon of the music world, playing Six Degrees of Brian Eno would be fun if it weren't so easy.

Before and After Science is subtitled "Ten Pictures," which is understated, elegant, and totally accurate. It has always been my favorite of his classic vocal period since the first time I heard it. Not as energetic as Here Come the Warm Jets, not as revolutionary as Another Green World, but in my view the most perfectly constructed artistic statement of Eno's career.

As always, Eno has surrounded himself with supremely talented musicians, but never in obvious ways. Fred Frith and Robert Fripp guest on guitar, Phil Collins and Jaki Liebezeit play drums on a couple of tracks, and the members of Cluster show up for one, but they never hog the spotlight or steal the show. They lurk in the background, making magic with quiet competence. Eno doesn't use "soloists". These guys are just another sound in the mix.

The lyrics are classic absurdist Eno chosen more for their sound than their sense, although they start seeming increasingly meaningful the more you listen to them. "If you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics, you will find that their minds rarely move in a line" makes so much sense, while at the same time being almost impossibly euphonic that it makes me feel like my mind is going.

The album progresses steadily from a sort of nervous energy embodied in tracks like "No One Receiving" and "King's Lead Hat" towards increasingly tranquil waters. By side two, the listener is transported far away to the calm and sleepy lands of bucolic ambience. "By This River", "Julie With...", and "Through Hollow Lands" are gorgeous and serene, yet with a sense of melancholy never too deep under the surface.

Elsewhere, Eno brings his twisted pop sensibilities to the forefront. "Backwater" is infectiously catchy in its simplicity, and Eno's squelchy horn-like synths sound as fresh today as the did forty years ago. "Here He Comes" transforms a simple pop melody into a work of soaring beauty with layer upon layer of chiming guitars, cooing background vocals, and of course the trademark synthesizers.

In fact, one of the things that continues to amaze and impress me about Eno is how he is able to get such unique sounds out of equipment that has been used by countless others in more or less predictable fashion. Nothing on this record sounds like a preset (which sadly cannot be said for some of Eno's more recent work), and indeed, very little here sounds like anything I've heard on any other record.

Perhaps the best example of this is the album's closer "Spider and I", which is close to being my favorite song of all time. It's the simplest track on the record, consisting solo of Eno on vocals and synthesizers with a languid bass guitar contribution by Brian Turrington, but out of that simplicity comes a texture that manages simultaneously to be heartbreaking and triumphant. After a couple of minutes, the distant Arcadian chords are joined by a short lyric, sung by Eno without pretense or apparent effort. "Spider and I sit watching the sky in a world without sound. We knit a web to catch one tiny fly, in our world without sound. We sleep in the morning. We dream of a ship that sails away, a thousand miles away." The second half of this is reprised once, and then the album ends. A world without sound.

Needless to say, if this were my list, Before and After Science would place far higher than #100.

Friday, October 25, 2013

New Work from Kyle Bobby Dunn

Multi-instrumentalist and ambient musician extraordinaire Kyle Bobby Dunn has asked me to share his latest work with you. It is a lovely, noble-sounding piece with the melancholy, brassy texture of distant horns signalling the passing of a wise and just king and the end of an era of halcyon tranquility.

Take a listen here.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Current 93 - Nature Unveiled (1984)

For me, at least, religious horror has always been a special kind of terrifying. Films like The Omen and The Exorcist were always far more frightening than simpler tales of hook-handed serial killers or more aggressive than average sharks. The kind of existential fear that comes from the unknown and unknowable realm of gods and the afterlife, utilized so effectively by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, taps into a far deeper level of the human psyche than more the more immediate and comprehensible threats of bodily harm.

It is appropriate, then, to round out our month of spooky records with one of Current 93's earliest efforts, a bleak and relentless patchwork of New Testament nightmares that could be described as an aural equivalent of the Book of Revelations. David Tibet, the creative force behind Current 93, has always had a fascination early Christianity and describes himself as a Gnostic, referring to the early sects of that religion that were shunned and quickly drummed out of existence by the Catholic Church in the first few centuries AD. Gnostic literature can get pretty wild, with a far greater penchant for the fantastic and otherworldly than the rest of the accepted Christian canon. Their somewhat darker outlook is perhaps understandable when one realizes that one of the central themes of Gnosticism is the idea of a wicked creator deity, the Demiurge (the Old Testament, vengeful God), who is separate from the pure and loving God of the New Testament.

With this little bit of backstory, we are at least a little more prepared for this noisy and disturbing record. A bed of sampled Gregorian chants floats eerily in the background, while discordant industrial noises clank and moan over them, punctuated by hellish growling and Tibet's strident vocals proclaiming that "Maldoror is dead" (a reference to Lautreamont's classic proto-surrealist, stream of consciousness novel that is itself quite unsettling.)

The album is broken up into two, side-long tracks, but it really sounds like a single piece of music. Tape manipulation stretches vocals out into deep bass groans. Christian themes are repeated throughout, with the title of side one referencing Golgotha, the place in which Christ was crucified. Although Nature Unveiled bears little resemblance musically to Current 93's later, folk-influenced work, thematically there is much in common, and the listener is always left feeling that the Apocalypse is just around the corner.

Towards the end of the album, the vocals fade away and are replaced by distant wailing and increasingly urgent sirens, a harbinger of imminent and inescapable doom. Then, suddenly, it's all over, the vision of the end of days complete.

Nature unveiled is a raw, powerful and extremely noisy record, and although Tibet and most of his collaborators drifted away from and ultimately rejected the "industrial" label, there is no doubt that this album remains one of the best and most effective examples of what industrial music was all about in the early eighties. Still, it will probably leave most people desperate to turn on all the lights and put on something a little more cheerful.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Andrew Liles & Daniel Menche - The Progeny of Flies (2008)

Andrew Liles and Daniel Menche are both influential and highly regarded members of the experimental music world, so naturally their team up raises high expectations. Faced with that kind of pressure, they chose to deliver an album about the life cycle of flies. Well, at least it's original.

The Progeny of Flies is a subtle, sinister record that is long on atmosphere and imagination. I've always said that a good ambient record allows room for the listener to insert his own thoughts and interpretations, and in this the record very admirably succeeds. It plays like the soundtrack to all the quiet, suspenseful bits at the beginnings of horror films, where you know something bad is going to happen but you're not sure what or when.

The album is divided up into four lengthy tracks named after various stages in the development of flies. The first of these, "Eggs," consists of a slowly shifting patchwork of electronic drones, low rumbles matched by higher, slowly unfolding synth melodies. It serves as a kind of warm up for what is yet to come, not giving away too much while offering considerable promise.

The second track builds o this, adding Liles' minimalist, Satie-like piano. Liles has an uncanny ability to extract an immense amount of atmosphere from just a couple of methodically repeated piano chords, and the supplemental bass thumpings and rumblings are more than sufficiently unsettling.

The third track, "Pupa," opens with the unexpected shriek of a horse's neigh, followed by the erratic plucking of some stringed instrument which I can't quite identify. Gradually, this fades away and is replaced by gentle metallic clangs and other acoustic sounds, heightened as ever by dark electronics.

The album concludes with the final stage, "Metamorphosis," in which the tensions builds to a climax , incorporating all that came before and more. Ghostly choirs, a repeated four-note piano motif, harrowing electronic groans and buzzes and finally the actual buzzing of the titular flies.

The album as a whole is very well structured, with each track building on the previous one for an ever increasing atmosphere of paranoia and menace, and while it certainly rewards close listening, it also works great as low background music to terrify any unwanted guests who have overstayed their welcome.