September 18, 2014
Pete Townshend - Who Came First (1972)

3.5/5

Who Came First is the first solo album by English R&B act the Who’s guitarist/ principle song-writer / creative master-mind, Pete Townshend.  For those that absolutely love Pete Townshend’s solipsistic self-indulgence but think that Roger Daltrey’s bluesy bluster, John Entwhistle’s muscular musicality and Keith Moon’s completely bonkers sense of fun manages to blunt the bite of such confessional tosh as “Behind Blue Eyes”, have I got a record for you!

Who Came First was Pete’s first solo album and it was released concurrently with Who’s Next. The cover is a thing of wonder – there a cocky looking Townshend boldly stands on eggs (he is literally walking on egg shells – get it?!), arms akimbo, clad in white jumpsuit and thousand yard stare. The record is very much something of a companion piece to that great Who classic it was released with: offering up a more confessional, acoustic guitar-driven counter-point to the much more electric The Who album.

The record was obviously an extremely personal one for Pete Townshend. The record was partially a tribute to Pete’s recently deceased spiritual guru, the notorious quasi-charlatan Meher Baba (hey, it was the late 60s/ early 70s – everyone had an Indian spiritual leader at one point), and features collaborations with Townshend’s best friend, Faces bassist Ronnie Lane.

There are some genuinely great songs on this record. The opening cut “Pure and Easy” was so good that it would later be colonized - along with the equally sharp “Let’s See Action” - by Pete’s day job. That said, I actually prefer these solo renditions to what the Who alter did to them. As much as I like the Who –I rate them ahead of the Rolling Stones et al in terms of British rock acts rooted in American R&B – the band was always something of a blunt instrument. For all of their many strengths, subtlety was never one of them. Townshend on his own, however, manages to find a certain level of nuance in these performances. Sure, Pete’s not as powerful a singer as Roger Daltrey is, but in a lot of ways, he may be a better singer, at least for this folky material.

The second song “Evolution” (which is curiously played and sung by Ronnie Lane – effectively making it a Ronnie Lane solo number at the beginning of a Pete Townshend solo record!) is a catchy song featuring something of a circular riff and lyrics about the impacts of experience on belief and personal outlook. Like all things Ronnie Lane, the cut is good natured, though unfortunately is hampered by some quasi spiritual, new-age mumbo jumbo. This is followed by “Forever Is No Time At All” which features a catchy electric riff and some charming falsetto from Pete.

The best song on the record is probably “Sheraton Gibson”, a finger-picked, yearning, acoustic number about the loneliness and isolation wrought by time spent on the road. The song is probably one of Townshend’s most affecting, honest and charming. It is accented with the occasional electric guitar overdub or inserted moog bit (Pete was spending a lot of time with synthesizers while recording this).

Also great is Pete’s cover of Jim Reeve’s country classic, “There’s A Heartache Following Me”. Pete allegedly selected the song on the grounds that it was a favorite of the Baba – which should make it a somewhat suspect choice (especially as the greatest misstep on this record is Pete’s attempt to fit the Baba’s universal prayer to music on “Parvardigar”) but Pete does a great job of bringing the melancholy of that song to the front. I actually prefer Pete’s incredibly personal, slightly amateurishly sung (and recorded – it sounds like he cut this thing in his living room on a 4-track) delivery of the song to the original’s slick Nashville professionalism. Take that musical competence!

The record does not feel overly long and is over before you know it. Overall, it’s well sequenced and fun, even if Pete pushes his new-age religious conceits a little more than anyone can really be comfortable with. While this record is slightly self-indulgent, the record is at least up-front about this. It is also disarming and clever enough to put the listener in a charitable frame of mind. It’s not quite up to the standards that Pete would later set for his solo material with the two Scoop rarities collections, but as far as vanity solo projects by members of successful rock groups, this one certainly ranks highly.

Still… Meher Baba… seriously?

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September 17, 2014
Blur - Think Tank (2003)

4.5/5

The great Brit Pop battle of the mid-1990s is probably something that was more an invention of the NME and Spin Magazine (remember Spin?) than it was anything tangible that anyone really experienced. At the same time, stating a preference in the epic question: Blur or Oasis? - became something of an important point of personal etiquette, that though superficial, (much like its older formulation: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?) said something important about the tastes, and with it, world view of the answerer.

And there is a correct answer (hint: it’s Pulp).

That said, the choice is really between if you prefer derivative good-timey music mostly about drugs & rock ‘n’ roll delivered by sneering, angry, borderline illiterates (Oasis) or if you prefer said music it delivered by witty, slightly posh Londoners with a feel for weirdness and a sense of humor (Blur). The choice should have been fairly obvious then. The ones that clubbed each other upside the head with cricket bats, obviously.

And so it went until 2000 or so, when it became apparent to most that Oasis were (as they always had been) pretty one note, Blur continued on workmanlike (though less inspired) and people started listening more to America for musical direction again (as our decade-long infatuation with all things Grunge seemed to draw to a close – it turns out this was merely a decade long hiatus).

Then in 2002-2003, Blur did something different. They parted ways with the guitarist (Graham Coxon) who was largely responsible for their trademark Britpop sound and made a record that embraced the weirdness that always lay just below the surface of much of their best work. Singer/guitarist Damon Albarn, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree made what was effectively the initial Damon Albarn solo-record. A lot of the music on the record was something of a prototype for the lyrical/experimental approach that would characterize Albarn’s later work with Gorrilaz, Mali Music and The Good, the Bad & the Queen but in a way that was a little more focused than any of those projects. It was sort of a hybrid work: sounding a bit like Blur and a bit like what was going to come.

The record was extremely controversial on its release: it included producer Fatboy Slim on a handful of songs (a move that allegedly contributed to Coxon leaving the band), recording time spent in Morocco, cover art by Banksy and a whole lot of generally weird sounds, especially coming from a band that while previously a bit strange, always played it pretty straight. The album was critically divisive at the time, some reviewers savaging it while others embracing the new direction. It was also a bit of a commercial flop, at least by Blur’s standards, but a lot of this may have had to do with the beginning of the (still ongoing) end for the CD market that was already well-underway in 2003. Personally, I think that this is the best work that Blur ever did and I was sad to see the band permanently break-up a year or so after the album’s release.

The record is clearly a singer’s record – Albarn does a lot of layering vocal tracks on top of each other, making the record sound vaguely gospel in a lot of places. The guitar parts are basic, but functional and the music is fleshed out by deep, reggae-influenced bass-lines from Alex James, intelligent percussion work by Rowntree and a lot of ambient (and often vaguely North African) production sounds.

The album opens with the trip-hop come gospel “Ambulance” featuring thumping bass and the aforementioned layered vocals by Albarn. Albarn always had a lovely voice, one of the best and most underrated among rock singers, and it is nice to hear him really get to sing. He imbues the song and the vaguely anti-war (this was the build up to Iraq) second song, “Out of Time” with genuine emotion and tenderness.

The albums lone misstep comes with the first of the Fatboy Slim produced songs “Crazy Beat”. Without the irritating “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah!” refrain, slightly inane lyrical content and trademark Fatboy slim vocoded production ticks, the song would probably have been a lot better. It features a decent guitar riff (reminiscent of something by The Clash). Still, the song is damn annoying, but fortunately it gives way to the generically titled, though gorgeous “Good Song”. Albarn is all over this one, singing with a cracked-voiced, pained emotionalism and even venturing into falsetto for middle-eight.

On The Way To The Club” is one of Blur’s stranger songs. It is very percussion forward – relying both on Rowntree and apparently a drum machine. The song features lyrics about a surreal evening out by Albarn and a whole lot of vocoder as it slowly comes unhinged towards the end. This careens into the neo-gospel/ blues / hip hop/ vaguely Middle-Eastern, “Brother and Sisters”. The song is largely made up of Albarn’s (often clever) rapped discourse on drugs of all sorts (best line: “Smoking makes you holy”) played against a gospel chorus. This is followed-up by the proto-Sahel Blues of “Caravan”. Albarn was travelling extensively to Mali for his Mali Music side-project and his interest in Ali Farka Toure-esque desert music is obvious here. That said, Blur do a good job of making the form their own, injecting a lot of left-field electronics and production tricks.

The album is extremely well-sequenced. Just as things began to sound a little too mid-tempo, Blur inject a minute and eight seconds of raw-punk meet Moroccan pipes with “We’ve Got A File On You”. This is one of the best rockers the band ever turned out and it is a shame that it is so brief. But no matter because next-up is the hilariously titled reggae “Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club”. The song was clearly written/performed on location in Morocco under the influence of the local “herb” and is one of the most charming things that Blur have ever turned-out. It includes a whole of interesting and varied bits, a strong anti-war sentiment and quite probably Alex James’ finest moment as a bass-player.

The record then ends with a sequence of what is arguably its four best song. Beginning with “Sweet Song” a piano/acoustic guitar ballad with a titular accurate sentiment. The song is a testament to loneliness and a belief in love, and for your sad, love-sick reviewer at least, the song resonates deeply. There are moments where Albarn can make you gush with tears on the strength of his and this is definitely one of them.

This is followed-up with the experimental “Jets”. The song slowly builds, beginning with a simple, repetitive guitar figure, but then adding a second guitar line, bass and drums. The song features curious chanted, chorus interspersed periodically, the whole thing slowly building to… a brilliant jazz saxophone solo by guest musician Mike Smith. This is some fiery, vaguely post-bop playing that, while completely unexpected in the context of the song, turns out to be exactly what was needed. The playfulness of the song manages to transcend what otherwise might have been filler – no matter how many times I listen to it, that sax-bit still sounds fresh and unexpected.

From there we get the second Fatboy Slim produced track, the indelible “Gene by Gene”. The band sound a lot like Combat Rock/Sandinista-era Clash, turning in a memorable and interesting rocker driven by electronics, a trebly 2-note guitar figure, curious squeaky bed/mattress sounds and an infinitely deep sounding bass thump. Albarn’s vocals seem to float over proceedings, accented occasionally by soaring gospel choir.

The song ends with the single song to feature Coxon; “Battery In Your Leg”. The song is an incredibly minimalist piano ballad from Albarn with a disquieting electronic soup behind him. Then Graham Coxon comes in: playing with a ‘Robert Fripp on Here Come The Warm Jets’ tone and proceeds to rip the song a new-asshole. This is curiously experimental Graham Coxon – the like of which we have not seen again anyplace else. Whether it was the internal arguments within the band and the knowledge of his eminent departure that inspired his solo here or some other, unknowable force, either internal or external, this is beautiful, expressive playing. At once, though he wasn’t missed over the rest of the album, you wonder what other elements he might have brought to the other songs. The sheer vapidity of much of Coxon’s solo career also makes you wonder what he was thinking between 2002 (when he left Blur) and the band reuniting for a handful of gigs in 2009. 2012, 2013 and whenever they get together again next.

So that’s Think Tank, featuring some 12 great to classic Blur songs (all in one place, no less) and one that might be salvageable were it not so irritating. These are songs worthy of many of their early left-field classics, “Country House”, “Park Life”, “No Distance Left To Run”, “Tender” and about a dozen others. On the other hand, Oasis had that one good song (no, it’s not fucking “Wonderwall”). The jury is hung then on that eternal Blur vs Oasis question.

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September 15, 2014
Michael Hurley - Long Journey (1977)

5/5

Punk’s not dead man! Punk will live forever! Never mind that Bill Drummond guy who actually seems to know what he’s talking about, having been there and all seeming to not buy this argument. Just because a social movement has been transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold, reduced to a fashion set and library of records – the best examples are made by bands that pretty explicitly stopped playing punk music (i.e. The Clash). Never mind that most of what is considered punk: the social movement was effectively related to the socio-economic-political conditions of Britain in the late 70s, much of which was co-opted and distorted by New Labour politics of the late 90s, the equally squalid Tori fight back and that singular aggression (and slagging off the Queen) is hardly sufficient to challenge the pervasive problems of inequality that remain manifest in British (and for that matter, even more so: American) society. Never mind that Johnny Rotten was just out to cynically exploit everyone anyways and that his animosity towards Malcolm McLaren is curious, particularly as the duo shared a unified world view. Never mind that Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols was just poorly played heavy metal, anyways. Never mind that anything actually interesting about punk has been so aggressively mainstreamed over the last 30 years that it ceased to hold any meaning or interest whatsoever, such that mall-punk of the late 90s/early 2000s are in many ways more representative of punk that anything Fugazi, Minor Threat or any of the straight edge carriers of the true punk faith ever did. Never mind that you can purchase Misfits shirts at a Hot Topic, a marketing practice for which the band, claiming anti-capitalist cred are being warmly remunerated. Never mind any of that, because as long as a bunch of fuck-up twenty-somethings continue to swill Pabst, wear clothes covered in spikes and safety pins and sneer things like “Punk’s not dead” while managing to affect exactly nothing , then punk is apparently alive and dynamic.

So - a great left-field folk record from the year punk broke…that has absolutely nothing to do with punk!

Michael Hurley is a Pacific Northwest singer/songwriter/ folk singer. Long Journey is a poignant slice of Americana (Americana is like mom’s apple pie – always served in slices – sometimes a la mode, sometimes straight up) featuring some heartfelt, touching, charming, funny, and above all, honest, songs about the American condition and geography as he saw them.

There are a lot of great songs on this record – and Hurley carries them with some strong guitar playing and with genuine warmth. The arrangements are functional but interesting. Hurley typically on acoustic or hollow-body electric guitar and augmented with fiddle, pedal steel, bass, light percussion and other accents where needed. The arrangements are never showy or get in the way of the songs but serve to make the songs feel more fleshed out.

Hurley’s singing is absolutely great here – crisp and clear with accents on all the right places. Latter Hurley records (released on Portland’s Mississippi Records label) have retained the absurdist humor, often taking it to extremes, but Hurley’s pitch and enunciation have become as weathered as the man himself. Hearing him relatively fresh-face and fresh-voiced in 1977, and with a compelling set of songs, you genuinely wonder why he didn’t earn more acclaim. Probably something to do with punk/disco/prog being the dominant musical templates of the era.

The record opens with the languid travel song “Long Journey”. The song is a folk meets country number that does well to hammer home the lightly methodical feeling of travelling long-distances while still retaining its sense of humor. The record is full of stories and jokes: ‘Hog of the Forsaken” for example is a funny ditty about a pork pie of seeming cosmic/metaphysical significance.

Having grown up in Portland, OR, my absolute favorite song has to be “Portland Water” which is about Portland being a bit wet/rainy and all. This song is perfect as a folk-song – deeply entrenching Hurley in the Woody Gurthrie tradition (Woody also had a love affair with the Pacific Northwest). This song is deceptively simple while also revealing something about the geography/ weather/ power of place of Portland. There is something about how Hurley delivers the line: “Up in the canyon/ looking down on the river/ and the wind come blowing/ and it makes me shiver” that gets me every time I hear it. The line about going to the zoo and “seeing the Puma” always makes me chuckle, and I love the bit about the Indians calling the river the “spirit’s daughter”.

Another highlight is “Reconciled to the Blues”, which appears to be the song that Jonathan Richman has spent his entire post Modern Lovers career unsuccessfully trying to write. That said, the songs on this record alternate between “very strong” and “classic”, so you can’t really go wrong.

Like the great Captain Beefheart, Hurley is an American who has done things his own way, regardless of popular trends. I managed to catch Hurley at a music festival in Asheville, North Carolina (of all places) a couple of weeks ago and what was really incredible is that even the most tossed-off sounding songs that he played tend to pick up a certain resonance. They are songs that, for all of their apparent weirdness sometimes, manage to stick with you. Hurley may be last surviving throw-back to Old, Weird America (perhaps John Darnielle’s The Mountain Goats are the most recent carriers of the torch of this tradition). Hurley’s music is iconoclastic simply by virtue of Hurley simply being weird in his own way. Without putting on a uniform and aligning himself with a social movement, Hurley ends up coming off as more ‘punk’ than anyone currently calling themselves ‘punk’ and probably many of the original punks at the time this record first came out as well.

So how’s that for the spirit of 1977? I’m also pretty sure that Joe Strummer would really would have dug Michael Hurley…

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September 14, 2014
Bola Sete - Autentico! (1966)

4.5/5

When I sit down to write these reviews, my perception of self has to be, quite pretentiously (or perhaps portentously) that of critic as surgeon. The hope is that I may dissect a work as if with scalpel: delicately extracting the good, the bad, the facets of cultural importance, the harbingers of future musical change and the places where an ill-conceived masturbation joke might be inserted.

In reality, the practice of criticism is a lot more like playing whack-a-mole with a large blunt object and real moles. You try to hammer on a lot of different things that all seem to pop up at once in a musical piece, probably miss most of them, and end up with a godawful mess on your hands. Cultural dissection is more about wildly flailing around, mashing mole guts and gore all over the place, chunks of vermin splattered every which way, full of cursing, recriminations and sorrow.

In short, it is a game for demented lunatics with possible dangerous, psychotic tendencies. And anyways, the question should perhaps be less of what is innovative or authentic, but merely what is good and you don’t really need a surgeon to determine that, just someone with an idiots IQ and a congealing mole blood all over them. This entirely devalues the critic as we all make those decisions for ourselves every day anyways, but critics are just assholes with the arrogance to think they understand cultural capital better than the culture as a whole.

So how’s that for a little peak behind the scenes? You should have gone on that sausage factory tour instead - less emotional wreckage to navigate.

Anyhow…. what an unbelievable guitarist Bola Sete is! Sete’s playing fully embodies everything I like about Brazilian music - and particularly about Bossa Nova. He brings an obvious, sultry romanticism (and joy!) to his playing while also bringing a very clear intelligence. He is subtle in his experimentations rhythmically, harmonically and melodically, with every note he plays being in some way interesting. Also, it’s great pop music that people like to dance to.

There are a lot of strong classical notes that underlie Sete’s playing. It is fairly obvious that he has been classically trained, but he brings a lot of the Baroque aesthetic, along with the requirement for problem solving incumbent in classical guitar playing (guitarist Marc Ribot once likened playing a classical guitar piece as like trying to solve 100 different complicated math problems at once in real time) to a bossa tradition. Sete is playful, with melody, with rhythm and with the references he chooses to sprinkle his solos with.

The record opens with “Brejeiro”, which is an engaging upbeat bossa. The tune moves through some tasty modulations. While Sete is also highly regarded as a solo guitarist, he is exemplary here in a trio format, demonstrating intelligent interplay with the bass and drums. With Sete the only soloist here, the rhythm section are he largely unsung heroes here, providing Sete a subtlety shifting, polyrhythmic sea to sail across. While the main thematic elements are determined by Sete, drummer Paulinho and bassist (and future Sergio Mendes mainstay) Sebastiao Neto provide their own subtle, slightly hypnotic, accents.

Soul Samba" is also great and gives Sete an opportunity to really dig in. Here he inflects bop guitar lines with his classical and bossa predilections, creating a a stellar melange of the two. Sete goes on an absolute tear, the ideas never seem to stop and he plays like a man possessed, trying to get them all across.

"Coisa" is another highlight, featuring a minor-key ballad that borrows elements from "Nature Boy" which features perfect group interplay. For Sete, the ideas never really seem to stop, while Neto and Paulinho shift the terrain just so to coax further subtle experimentation. This piece goes in a lot of different directions musically, but feels completely controlled and tuneful at the same time. Bossa is all about slow burn, that controlled passion that is made all the more intense by being spooned out rather than poured.

Also great is “Baion Blues" whereby Sete dusts off his (before unknown) T-Bone Walker chops and delivers a hybrid of jump blues, rockabilly and bossa. The tune is completely unexpected but still manages to fit seamlessly with the rest of the record. It almost seems to suggest an alternative world in which Chuck Berry was from Rio rather than St. Louis. This is followed-up with the carnival-beat driven "Pau De Arara"

This whole record is a non-stop joy. I like to listen to it while I try to clean caked-on moll remains off of my carpet. You may want to listen to it differently.

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September 13, 2014
Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

3/5

I have a particularly irritating friend on Facebook (or my preferred construction, “The Book of Faces” which makes it sound even more perverse) who peppers his feed with a series of ‘observations’. These largely consist of inane statements of the obvious whereby any deviation from the young man’s own highly parochial expectations (all of which are normal occurrences in a medium to large sized city) are treated as if they belong to some bizarre mutant occult ritual, worthy of much hemming and hawing. And so, we have a dim procession of charmless observations paired with what can only be described as a tin ear for wit.

In short, my friend is a verifiable Anti-Proust: capable of draining the life from even the most lively and rendering even the most interesting as a damp and flabby mass. His daily insights are like chewing a ball of damp wool. Rather than infuse the quotidian with wit, soul or insight, he instead manages to drain them of any possible joy or imagination. One would hope that such abject navel gazing might eventually (accidentally?) yield some fruit of self-examination. Instead, we are only offered-up a front-row seat to observe a feast of self-abuse.  Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is probably a record that he likes a great deal.

Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a record that is probably extremely controversial to criticize because of the vast cultural capital now attached to it. It is an album that I quite liked in my early 20s, but which has not in any way aged well to my ears (though it remains popular among my generation (and probably Gen-Xers as well) as a “very important album that speaks to the human condition”. The record was portrayed as edgy and experimental when it was released, which is confusing on the grounds that it never sounded much of either then or now.

Much of this cultural capital stems from the conditions under which the record was recorded and eventually released. Wilco had undergone a line-up shift (bringing in talented and genuinely musical drummer Glenn Kotche for whoever they had before) while the band’s two founders: Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett were at each other’s throats throughout based on different views on the musical direction the band should go. Bennett wanted more middlebrow alt-country roots rock with a few odd production elements (see Wilco’s preceding three records) while Tweedy-favored his particular brand of middlebrow high school notebook poetry augmented by skeletal pop alt-country song structures and various production bleeps and bloops, making the band something of a cow pie splattered Radiohead-lite. The bleeps and bloops were provided by famed indie-music musicians and producer Jim O’Rourke (who on his own makes record more interesting music than anything Wilco has thus far managed). The fall out from this great debate resulted in Bennett exciting the band upon completion of the record.

On top of this creative strife, came the almost comical decision of Wilco’s record label to drop the band on the grounds that (according to the band – the record company executives have been curiously silent) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was too “difficult”, “experimental” and “non-commercial”. The group released the album for free on the Internet and began to tour behind it anyways. The humor was compounded a few months later when the band was resigned by a different subsidiary of the same label and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to great critical acclaim.

And what acclaim: Pitchfork famously gave the record a much coveted perfect 10, all but guaranteeing through its roll at the time as ascendant determiner of cultural importance that the next decade would be colored by endless rehashes of YHF (as it came to be abbreviated). The sales were brisk (for a relatively indie-rock record) and this record, as much as anything is responsible for the mainstreaming of the indie rock sound, which is now largely inescapable. The success of this record paved the way for the dominance of The Broken Social Scene, The Arcade Fire, The XX and others. The record was an instant and obvious NPR crossover and in 2002 (when the record was released) its particular brand of middle-brow, non-specific though slightly ‘hurt’ emotionalism (delivered though Jeff Tweedy’s slightly precious restrained tantrums in miniature) and soothing computer sounds meets equally soothing acoustic guitars was exactly what the country needed to recover from the trauma of 9/11 and the onset of the neoconservative war in Afghanistan (and soon Iraq). Unsurprisingly, this was the same period in which tonally similar and now equally inescapable, “Mumblecore” cinema started making its big in-roads.

This then leaves an important question: did anyone find this record difficult at the time? I rather liked it when it came out, but I never found it willfully experimental per se. It’s easy crossover success further cements this notion that this was not the type of bold, genre defying, difficult artistic statement that would result in a band being dropped by their label on the grounds that they could not possibly release so commercially irredeemable an album. Never mind that it’s basically just a bunch of kinda-catchy alt-Country pop songs dressed up with a little Nigel Godrich styled production. The incredible record sales that accompanied OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac had all demonstrated that indie rock listeners for this same aesthetic (slightly fractured pop songs with computer/technology-derived production sounds). The addition of acoustic guitars was never going to be a stretch.

You sort of wonder if a lot of the controversy was electioneered as a means of hyping and album that, while kind of interesting, and having a few good pop moments, is mostly held up by Jim O’Rouke’s blips and boops. That the whole process of the uneasy gestation, third trimester record label drama and eventual birth of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ was captured as a surprisingly rather dull, (though artistically shot in black and white) documentary for posterity almost lends credence to the theory that many of the machinations behind this release were in some way designed to cultivate critics and social justice aware indie rock/NPR crossover fans.

The album opens with “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” which opens amid a sea of chiming bell sounds, whooshing electronics, slightly out of tune piano and slightly polyrhythmic drumming, before acoustic guitars and Jeff Tweedy’s half-trite half-profound (ish) poetry emerge. He swipes lines/lyrical concepts from Gary Numan and pushes some really trite rhymes. Poor Jeff Tweedy, it sounds like he is having some non-specific relationship issues, though he seems to have a cursory, though quite cold relationship with his wife in the documentary. If you can grit your teeth through some of Tweedy’s more agonizing formulations (i.e. “I’m hiding out in the big city blinking” or “Take off your Band-Aid because I don’t believe in touchdowns”) then this isn’t a bad song.

The second song, “Kamera” is also ok. I wish Jeff Tweedy would learn how to spell the word ‘camera’ correctly and also that he would stop telling us that it’s “not ok” but whatever. The song is driven by a acoustic guitars and proceeds at a pleasant enough clip. It is light, catchy fun – see also the song “Heavy Metal Drummer” which pulls of the same trick slightly better, creating an acoustic anthem about high school Kiss cover bands. This of course only leads on to believe that perhaps Tweedy visited his high school notebooks as the source of the lyrics, but the song is fun enough that the juvenilia doesn’t manage to grate. Also, “War on War” is more of the same type of thing, only less effective, but including some neat shortwave radio sounds and electric piano.

“Radio Cure” on the other hand is just awful. Slow, plodding slop peppered with navel-gazing, solipsistic lyrical conceits and absolutely awful delivery from Tweedy. He sounds at once drunk, like he his on verge of tears and like he really doesn’t give a shit about actually hitting the notes he is singing. Demanding that the subject to whom the song is addressed “cheer up” repeatedly, when this is clearly the antithesis of what Tweedy clearly actually would like from the song is a pretty irritating construction.

Surprisingly, the best song on the album is the love song that is ostensibly about Jesus – and this coming from a self-described atheist. “Jesus, Etc” features an elegiac string arrangement and sounds like a more mature, fully written song than the rest of the record. In many ways, it feels out of place with the rest of the album. Gone is the gurgling, dense production draped over the skeleton of a pop track and instead we get a fully written, clear bit of chamber pop. The song is mature, well thought-out and complete. The ecclesiastical themes, while minor, actually work well to add additional ballast to the song. As I said, it really doesn’t fit with the rest of YHF: it’s almost as if Tweedy and Jay Bennett sat down and wrote this song, then after they started fighting, decided that actually writing songs was a lot of work (and they couldn’t stand to be around each other anyways), and so Tweedy pulled out his high school notebooks and got Jim O’Rourke, et al to jam over the cracks.

Unfortunately, “Jesus, Etc” is followed-up by one of the most extreme examples of kind of laziness that creeps across the rest of the record with, “The Ashes of American Flags”. This song is often singled out for praise, and I never quite got it. The song seeks profundity by trying to ascribe epic attributes to the mundane, but fails to actually do this. Over the course of the song, Tweedy documents his journey from ATM to gas station convenience store; to making an overly specific purchase (Tweedy drinks “Diet Coke”) before inserting some vaguely depressed musings, and then declares the demise of the American Dream (saluting the titular ashes of American Flags).  Apparently this is supposed to be about general apathy for issues of import and Tweedy’s disappointment with this, but Tweedy himself comes off as so self-involved that I don’t know how effective this actually comes off as. Tweedy sort of comes off as a parody of himself here. I appreciate the risk of the opening gambit; I just wish the song were more effective. To the songs credit, it has a decent descending guitar figure and one or two decent lines (“shake like a toothache” is a genuinely unique formulation). I also like it that it collapses into weird vacuum cleaning sounds before segueing into a sunny pop song.

“I’m The Man That Loves You” is also pretty good (and probably comes closest to replicating the quality of ‘Jesus, Etc’). I likely the slight psychedelic bits and the krautrock influenced guitar solos (though they go on a little too long). Also, the horn arrangements are interesting and clever. They remind me of a lot of the things that I really like about the Beta Band’s seminal 3-EPs, but then I just end of wishing I were listening to the Beta Band instead.

The rest of the record is largely more of what we’ve already head – upbeat, pentatonic acoustic guitar rock or brooding Jim O’Rourke sounds plus Tweedy vocalizations about something or other non-specific. A lot of this would be more effective if Tweedy were a better poet, but many of his formulations sound so forced that you have to make an effort to distance yourself and enjoy what is going on, occasionally despite Tweedy. Because the songs are so skeletal, there isn’t a lot to hold on to with any of them. The melodies where they appear sound coincidental and are pretty forgettable (with the exception of “Jesus, Etc”). Forcing the production to do the heavy lifting largely works for this album, but it also makes it sound slightly hollow. Beneath all of Radiohead’s turn and computer sounds, they usually had pretty strongly composed music. Here, you strip away the production and all you are left with is a sketch. So maybe you can say, this record is effective as sound collage, but then the lion share of the credit for it must go to O’Rourke as opposed to Wilco.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album that works extremely hard to be taken as a serious piece of art without actually having put in the work to do so. Despite all of Tweedy’s self-conscious lyrics, there is a real lack of introspection to the lyrics. This would be ok had Wilco delivered a strong set of songs. Instead we get some dimly defined (though slightly catchy) chord changes and a sea of interesting production. You just wish that this production had been paired with material genuinely worthy of it, or perhaps just presented on its own. Much like my friend’s irritating ‘observations’ that I mentioned at the start of this review, the record comes up short in actually delivering much in the way of genuine introspection.

Now if only I could find a way to de-friend Wilco on Facebook without them noticing. I wouldn’t want to hurt Jeff Tweedy’s feelings - he seems like he’s already under a lot of stress. Maybe Wilco could write a non-specific song about that.

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September 12, 2014
Mark Hollis - Mark Hollis (1998)

5/5

If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.

- John Cage

This one has to be in contention for record of the 1990s, which, all things considered, is quite a tall order.

Elusiveness’ Mark Hollis is probably best known as the frontman/keyboardist for the group Talk Talk. Talk Talk started life as one of the multitude of the young, hungry (like wolves!) Duran Duran clones that terrorized the anglophone world throughout the 1980s. Talk Talk were different though: after 1.5 records of quasi New Romantic inflected synth pop, the band ditched those trappings and started making self consciously arty music, influenced heavily by post-punk, jazz and classical.

In a way, Talk Talk internalized much of the ethos of John Cage in that the notes that the band didn’t play, and its use of silence, became just as important as the notes that it did play. The band only seemed to get better and better a time went on: jamming extensively and freely improvising and then meticulously editing these jams into songs. The template was almost the same as Miles Davis used to make ‘Bitches Brew’, ‘Live-Evil’ and a host of other early fusion classics but with the band’s aesthetic more closely related to a hybrid of swing-era sounds and the ECM material coming out of Europe.

In 1992, shortly after the release of of the classic ‘Laughing Stock’, the band abruptly called it quits, with Hollis citing wanting to spend more time with his children. Six years later, Hollis suddenly (and quietly - did he know any other way?) reappeared with this self-titled release, an album that largely continued to the musical ideas of ‘Laughing Stock’ but with even greater emphasis on silence. I recall telling a friend that the written word will inevitably progress towards silence. Mark Hollis appears to have made this conceit central to his music, including also the recorded note.

The arrangements on Mark Hollis’ solo are both sparse and lush. Hollis marshals dozens of orchestral musicians and session-men to his cause, at times creating great, though always tightly controlled, epics in miniature. The record is rich with softly played piano, clarinets and the occasional string. Hollis clearly obsessed over the sound of the musicians breathing int he room and the way human breath sounds passing through an instrument. The microphones clearly sat extremely close to the various musicians and the record feels extremely intimate - it is almost as if the musicians are sitting next to you in the room, softly playing. Hollis’ interest in “silence” is a thing of wonder - he obviously puts an immense amount of thought into every piece of music he ever records. It is almost as if John Cage decided to make a pop record.

The record opens with “The Colour of Spring" a gentle piece for piano and voice with Hollis reciting/half singing minimalist poetry about burned bridges. This segues gracefully into "Watershed”, featuring gentle acoustic guitars, harmonica, drums and a woodwind section. Hollis is a master of dualities, the music is at once warm and cold at the same time. Everything is so quiet that Hollis delivery of the song at the points where his voice rices above a murmur or a whisper can at times come across as aggressive or even brutal.

The highpoint of the record is “A Life (1895-1915)”, a World War I epic about the destruction of young life. The song is orchestrated for clarinets, light percussion, piano, voices and lightly plucked violins. While the arrangement sounds sparse, extraordinarily complexity bubbles just below the surface - Hollis almost taking a quasi free-jazz arrangement to the material.

Westward Bound" by contrast exists as a purely acoustic folk number that someone might play to themselves at 3am when everyone else is asleep and they are taking care not to awake anyone."The Daily Planet" (which follows it) hints at Stravinsky but then curiously introduces a straight-up New Orleans drum beat. Despite the heavy, intimacy of proceedings, Hollis obviously has a sense of humor, you just need to take it on his terms.

The music is extraordinarily delicate, perhaps too delicate for some, but it is also emotionally devastating. Listening to a record like this, it is obvious why Hollis records so rarely (his last credit was a subsequently scrubbed piano credit on UNKLE’s 1998 debut ‘Psyence Fiction’ of all things - who said Mark Hollis wasn’t interested in hip-hop, or in taking risks?) You suspect that the act of making music must be akin to opening up a vein for Hollis. We are all enriched on those occasions when he choses to do so.

This is a record that you don’t so much listen to as one that will haunt you and your imagination. Proceed with caution. It has been called “possibly the most intimate record ever made”, this is no overstatement. This is minimalism done extraordinarily well during an era that, in many ways, thrived on minimalism.

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September 11, 2014
Camper Van Beethoven - II & III (1986)

4.5/5

Camper Van Beethoven! Finally: an indie band after my own heart! Of course, they have been around since forever and a day ago, but them’s the breaks, particularly if you want your indie rock to not sound like either Joy Division, Wire or Paul Simon from time to time. Combining the country inflected tunefulness of the Mekons (at least during their country period), the scorn for good taste of The Fugs and  the willful (sometimes aggressive) internationalism of the Sun City Girls, these guys know how to avoid the post post-punk indie rocker clichés while (apparently) simultaneously inventing them.

There is a lot to love on this album by Camper Von Bismark. They make what is basically a country western record, but then add a whole lot of sitars, swirling psych guitars, surf riffs, punk, krautrock, experimentalism and a whole lot else, but because the songs are effectively rooted in a pre alt-country, alt-country idiom and because they are generally pretty competent musicians, everything ends up cooking together in a sort of space western stew.

Best of all, Camper Van Hayden clearly have a good sense of humor in their approach to the material. Indeed, it is kind of an asshole move to title your second album ‘II & III’ and then label the different sides of vinyl something else entirely, so its hard to figure out what song you are actually listening to, but they do it with such a joyful abandon, that how can you possibly begrudge Camper Van Bach, whatever little joke Camper Van Strauss wants to make. Also, one of the best songs is called “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt" and the album ends with a completely wanky song called "No More Bullshit", so it is pretty clear that Camper Van Weber were/are stony-faced, serious types that could never take a joke. That said, there is too much bullshit in general, so the sentiment is entirely valid.

The band has a lot of great moments where they seem to predict the more pop direction that Sonic Youth would eventually take (only with more sitar) particularly on the mesmerizing slice of neo-psych “Circles”. (speaking of Sonic Youth, Camper Van Brahms  even cover Sonic Youth on this record… as a BLUEGRASS!). But yes, the song “Cricles” does indeed go in a bit of a circle, but is a worthwhile journey: much like circumnavigating the globe in order to discover a passage to India might have been circa 1492 or so. This is, of course, not to compare Camper Von Schubert with Christopher Columbus per se: Camper Von Wagner are not responsible for the creation of a massive colonial empire built on exploitation and avarice all through the Americas, its more that you simply wish that Camper Von Mendelssohn, and their bold spirit of adventurousness had perhaps rubbed off on more of their contemporaries and/or successors. Instead, we get a new Vampire Weekend record every 3 years.

Did I mention that Camper Van Hindemith  have a great sense of humor? Dig the country/ punk/ kletzmer of “No Krugerrands for David” or the martial/ Irish folk song/ psych mash-up of “No Flies on Us” or the Soviet folk tune sound-alike “4 Year Plan” and tell me that the band wasn’t clearly having a lot fun at the same time that they were taking the piss.

Another stand-out is the quasi 60s pop of “Sometimes”, but picking highlights is crazy when the whole album works together so well as a cohesive whole. Of particular merit is violinist/ multi-instrumentalist/ singer Jonathan Segel, who through his playing, manages to push the music of Camper Van Mozart into new and exciting directions, while still keeping them grounded in their swirling psych-country.

Camper Van Meyerbeer’s sophomore output remains as inventive, silly and addictive as it was the day it came out (or so I would guess: I was probably around 2 years old at the time and deep into what has proven to be a lifelong Beatles/James Brown phase. I also was probably really into any song about Dinosaurs at the time, which means that, I was undoubtedly, already a Jonathan Richman fan). The band represent what indie-rock initially was - a fun and clever break with the over-used sounds that dominated commercial radio in the the 80s and a bold attempt to do something new and exciting by pulling in a series of unlikely influences. I would talk about the record more but I am running out of German/Austrian composers to reference when discussing Camper Van Gluck.

Camper Van Buxtehude! Camper Van Weill! Camper Van Stockhausen!

Ok, I’m done.

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September 10, 2014
The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream (2014)

3.5/5

Well, there was this movie I seen one time, about a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck. He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself. The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck.

- Bob Dylan, Brownsville Girl

I’m fairly shocked to find that I’m actually reviewing something ‘contemporary’ rather than Bob Dylan’s mid-80s disaster of a record, “Knocked Out Loaded” . Then again, ‘contemporary’ is all relative these days as we shall soon see.

The War on Drugs (aka Adam Granduciel + assorted studio noodle buddies) manages a pretty good trick with their most recent album, ‘Lost in the Dream’: they manage to sound incredibly derivative of music that I don’t really rate (80s Dylan, Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) yet somehow transcend the thematic elements inherent in those sounds to produce something that I actually like. On the one hand, the songs on the ‘Lost in the Dream’ sound as though they are a collection of mid-80s cast-offs: “Dancing in the Dark” era synths turn and bubble below the surface, drum beats are slightly mechanical 4/4 back beats, the songs are all about freedom in the face of the death of the “American Dream” ©. On the other hand, the work is fairly dense lyrically and The War on Drugs manage to somehow breathe life into each of these elements. Also, the decision to not fully revive awful, over-compressed 80s guitar tones was a wise one. Instead, we get a sea of super shimmery-tremolo guitar. Tremolo! Take that American Dream!

I know, I just spent the bulk of the last paragraph talking about the debt the War on Drugs owes to its influences, but I’m not done yet. Part of what makes the work effective is this cultural referencing and sense of continuity with the past, particularly as much of the music referenced was wholly invested in excising the Americana graveyard -  a topic perhaps even more pertinent now as income inequality, etc. have only deepened and the plight of the Rust Belt has only become more dire. The War on Drugs directly borrows Dylan’s 80s growl and lyrical over-embellishment, Springsteen’s guttural (though curiously muted) primal yelps, Mark Knopfler’s guitar fills, and Tom Petty’s 4-on-the-floor, uh, boogie

(Side note: The War on Drugs should cover Dylan’s “Brownsville Girl” – that song is ripe for critical re-appraisal. Also, Granduciel works well as the metaphorical hungry kid in the song.)

So, in a way, The War On Drugs are sort of a meta-commentary on a particular type of 80s adult contemporary music, a music who’s pathos and great subjects remain pertinent/resonate with young Americans who are increasingly feeling as though society as a whole is actively seeking to divest itself of them. I may be giving The War On Drugs a lot of credit, but the lyrical conceits are simultaneously literate and nebulous enough, that, why not?

The opener “Under the Pressure” does a good job of defining how the record as a whole sounds, shimmering guitars, gentle-synth, bright piano that doesn’t do a lot other than create texture and elusive Dylan-inflected vocals. The song is catchy enough and segues nicely into the driving single “Red Eyes”. A lot of people have compared this album to The Arcade Fire, who similarly try to borrow from Springsteen’s epic, 80s bombast. To my mind, this is a lot more self-conscious and a lot more successful in its borrowing. The Arcade Fire invested too much energy in trying to ironically sex-up material and aesthetics that are, by their very nature, not particularly sexy anymore to create an overly ironic post-punk meets Springsteen stew that, to me at least, has never been entirely convincing. The War on Drugs reach for a lot less, but ironically (take that Arcade Fire!) achieves more as a result.

Another stand-out is “An Ocean Between the Waves”, which is the most Knopfler-esque song on the record, featuring some pretty solid guitar work without the track overstaying its welcome (as so many Dire Straits songs do). Deep pathos crash against “Sultans of Swing” riffage. I’m also very fond of the title track, which is lyrically dense and dredges-up the sense of fin de siècle despair that defines the album. The harmonica (and the way Granduciel sings “the soldier man”) reminds you that Dylan is still the primary reference here.

Songs I don’t like: “Suffering” works well in the context of sequencing the record, but isn’t particularly interesting on its own and the stretch of songs that links “Disappearing” (which isn’t bad despite its irritating 80s drum beat) and “Lost in the Dream” never quite shake the feel of being filler.

The record then is actually well summed-up by the lyrical conceits of the song “Brownsville Girl”: ‘Lost in the Dream’ is almost as if someone with a little more taste than whoever coaxed “Knocked Out Loaded”, “Empire Burlesque”, “Shot Of Love” and “Infidels” (which, surprise: featured, Mark Knopfler) out of an obliterated drunk and (shudders) Born-Again Christian, Bob Dylan, had somehow forced Bob to really focus and pull together a single set of decent songs, which would then shine incandescent and speak timeless (and timely) truths (or something) despite their mid-80s production trappings.

In an era where almost all new music is highly derivative, The War On Drugs’ ‘Lost in the Dream’ manages to transcend its innate derivativeness by fully embracing derivativeness – sounding like a lost 80s Dylan meets Dire Straits classic that never was because Dylan was too drunk on rum and Christianity to make a decent all-around album at any point between 1978s ‘Street Legal” and 1989s “Oh Mercy”. While this is something of a service, it probably would have been more meaningful had it come out in say, 1983 or so. That said, it also makes me worry for the fate of contemporary popular indie-rock music. If we are now plumbing the lows of 80s-Dylan records for inspiration (indie-spiration?), what dearth of influences will be left unturned in a couple of years for popular indie-rock acts to rehash? Wham? Genesis? Phil Collins? Simple fucking Minds?! Hair metal already seems to be making a minor comeback in the popular consciousness, which should be cause for concern to us all.

Or maybe they will be driven to try the most desperate, degenerate thing of all: people will have to put down their cell phones and rather than ironically reference their parents LP collection, try something completely new.

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September 9, 2014
Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou - Spielt Eigene Kompositionen (1963)

5/5

I feel like this is a record that I have had a hard time explaining and justifying to people. Every time I have tried to explain just why this is one of my favorite records, people are quick to judge, claim you are trying to strike an altogether-too-hip pose or draw some kind of assertion about me because I have the gall to hold up this album as one of my all-time favorites.

Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a quite obscure musical figure. She is an Ethiopian nun who primarily plays unaccompanied piano compositions of her own writing that are so spellbindingly beautiful they deserve to be better known. Her music is strongly Western influenced – sounding a lot like a hybrid of Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Gershwin and Bill Evans (thrown in for good measure) while also occasionally featuring the occasional strongly Ethiopian melodic phrase. Her first album, ‘Spielt Eigene Kompositionen’ (also reissued as part of Buda Musique’s stellar Ethiopique CD series) is a thing of such incredible beauty, thought and passion that the record deserves to be rescued from the obscurity that it rests. This is one of the single most glorious listening experiences that you can have - a rare pleasure of thought, beauty and melodicism mingle that transcends time, space and culture.

Yes, this is quintessential hipster shit: seemingly picking a record from obscurity – one made by an Ethiopian nun no less – and holding it up as a paragon of beauty in the universe. Many people are won’t to dismiss this record on the grounds that ‘World Music’ just isn’t for them, etc. All of this is to completely ignore that this record represents a series of serious piano compositions in the early 20th century idiom. Transcendent music is transcendent music, regardless of the biography of those making it, and more to the point anyone who would dismiss this record out of hand probably shouldn’t even bother to read this review in the first place. Irony is in many ways one of the saving graces of our civilization, but those that fetishize irony typically end up among its greatest victims. In approaching a record like this one, disposing of the pretensions of irony is a must.

This is not to say that the music is without humor – there is a certain light touch to proceedings – it is more to say, dispose of whatever Orientalist baggage/perceptions/knowing-hipster shit about what a solo-piano record by an Ethiopian nun might sound like and if you are interested, just take the music for what it is, because it is beautiful and listening to it will enrich your life.

So really, all of the above is a long winded way of trying to say: be open minded about this stuff, already.

I don’t know a lot about Guèbrou other than that she is still alive (and performing) and now lives in Toronto. Allmusic provides this helpful biographical note:

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a daughter of Ethiopian high society who chucked it all to become a nun in the nation’s Orthodox Church. Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou was educated in Europe. She played violin (under the tutelage of Polish émigré Alexander Kontorowicz). She took up her piano studies while in the convent and teaching at an orphanage. Her first recordings — two LPs — were issued in 1963, when she was 40.

I’ve also managed to glean from various websites, etc., that Guèbrou, basically only wanted to play piano. A lot of the incentive for joining a convent was to dedicate herself fully to her music and to the plight of the poor, whom she sought to help through music and musical education. 

This is a record that may not grab you immediately. It is important to sit with it, intently and thoughtfully as it slowly reveals itself. From the opening notes of “The Homeless Wanderer” it is clear that this is not going to be the expected Mulutu Astatke/Mahmoud Ahmed-esque Ethiopian fair that people who are interested in Ethiopian music (or have seen the Jim Jarmusch directed, Bill Murray vehicle ‘Broken Flowers’) expect. Not that there is anything wrong with Mulutu Astatke or Mahmoud Ahmed – I’m a big fan of both - it is more to say that it stems more from the Western classical tradition, but in many ways transcends these as well.

There is a certain playful, improvised feel to a lot of the record. The compositions clearly hinge around melodic structures, but Guèbrou dances around these, smashing chords into each other ala-Debussy while also playing in an almost early-jazz idiom. She is almost a perfect hybrid of early-20th century French keyboard music and early jazz. You get the feeling that both Jelly Roll Morton and Maurice Ravel would dig what she was laying down.

Guèbrou is such an imaginative musician that it is hard not to listen to the record as a whole and then wish immediately for more. Given this, the record is all highlights, but a personal favorite of mine is “A Young Girl’s Complaint” which may be the quintessential representation of everything that Guèbrou does well. In a way, this is music that is close to the third-stream tradition (a hybrid of jazz and classical) that the Modern Jazz Quartet, many of the musicians on the ECM label, Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef were pointing towards in the 60s and 70s, only emerging from a completely different (and seemingly from a different era) set of traditions. In some ways, it may also be more successful.

There is something that is entirely calming and satisfying about this music – to listen to it is to put aside existential dread for a little while and breathe easy.

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September 8, 2014
Sonny Rollins - In Japan (1974)

4/5

In honor of Sonny Rollins’ 84th birthday, I figured it would be prudent to commemorate the date with a review of one of Sonny’s many records. His birthday was of course, yesterday, but I’m sure Sonny (who at various points took a year off in his career to work on his technique) surely appreciates the notion of better late than never.

Live in Japan documents a fiery 1973 Tokyo live date, featuring an extremely progressive Rollins quintet including Yoshiaki Masuo (guitar), Bob Crenshaw (electric bass), David Lee (drums) and James Mtume (congas). I’m pretty sure this record was only officially released in Japan (though some research indicates there was also an Italian bootleg pressing) and the album was never reissued on CD. This is a real shame for a couple of reasons, namely: Rollins’ playing is absolutely stunning throughout and the record is fairly unique in Rollins’ catalog in that Sonny appears to be responding to both Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ era fusion, Coltrane’s sheets of sound, as well as more Latin-percussion driven jazz being played by Sabu Martinez. Certainly Rollins still sounds like Rollins (he may be the most unmistakable tenor player of all time), but the way the band mesh around him and the types of lines he plays seem to be unique to this set.

The records opens with the sweltering “Powaii” which features Rollins playing long, very free melodic lines. The tune continues to build tension and features a lot of solo space for the drums and congas. The cut almost sounds like something off a Wayne Shorter only with record. Overall it works, though free-jazz never seemed to be the most comfortable idiom for Rollins. Sonny always went free on his own terms (and was always a player more than willing to take musical risks) but his innate melodicism and that Rollins seems to have the entirety of American (not to mention Caribbean) popular song from 1920-1960 cataloged in his head tended to make his more free jazz dates successful but play against many of Rollins biggest strengths.

The second cut is a great, elongated reading of the Rollins Calypso-inspired classic “St. Thomas”. The sheer joy in Rollins’ read and extremely lyrical soloing here is contrasted by some nice accompaniment from Crenshaw and Masuo in particular. Rollins keeps the song fresh by injecting long, slightly free melodic lines here and there, but mostly improvises directly on the melody.

Sonny follows this up with a lengthy, almost modal/post-bop read on “Alfie”. Rollins plays with some real fire, melding his sense for melody with some extremely free playing. This may as a whole be Rollins’ strongest moment trying to play more freely. His ability to bounce back and forth between two playing idioms is interesting and seems to point to where Rollins might have continued to evolve had free-jazz stayed in vogue. His tying the knot between free, modal improvisation, bop and the hyper-melodic playing style from the 30s do well to showcase Rollins’ talent for linking all three of these traditions. Masuo also contributes a tasteful, John McLaughlin influenced solo, which manages to both swing and be more understated than McLaughlin typically manages.

The record ends with “Moritat” (which is a retitled take on “Mac the Knife”). The cut features some very straightforward playing from Rollins, as he weaves together quotes from a half dozen other standards and folk tunes throughout as well as playing some very adventurous lines. “Moritat” is Rollins doing what he does best: taking risks while building a full tapestry from scraps of popular songs and is own genius for improvised melody. The quotes are fitting, funny and offer interesting insights into the tunes.

All in all, this both a typical and an atypical record for Rollins. He tries to play a bit free and opts for a slightly-fusion influenced rhythm section while also tending to revert to what he is best at. Overall, it is an exciting set, allowing a great artist to stretch out a little and try something new. While not an absolute classic, this is a fairly unique Rollins record and beyond the novelty, there are enough exceptional moments on this set to make it well worth seeking out.