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May’s eMusic downloads May 31, 2009

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The Sight Below: Glider

The Sight Below: Glider

The Sight Below: Glider. Another project by Rafael Anton Irisarri (mentioned last month), this one is like minimal techno crossed with Robin Guthrie’s ambient guitar music.

The Hope Blister: Underarms & Sideways. The Hope Blister was the project that followed on from the 4AD label’s classic This Mortal Coil project. Underarms was a limited release of instrumental tracks; it’s been rereleased with Sideways, a set of remixes by Markus Guentner. Hasn’t really sunk in yet.

Somatic Responses: Reformation. Good, dark dubstep.

Backyard Band: Skillet, Experience Unlimited: Future Funk, Rare Essence: Greatest Hits Vol 1. Well, if you read two George Pelecanos novels in a row, all the references to go-go music will make you want to hear more than just the Trouble Funk and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers that you already have. Go-go’s a variety of funk that’s huge in Washington DC and obscure pretty much everywhere else, and part of the reason is that it seems to be more about the live experience than albums. Still, some good fun stuff here.

Spatial: Infra002, Gravious: Futurist EP, Horsepower Productions: When You Hold Me/Let’s Dance. More dubstep singles.

10-20: 10-20

10-20: 10-20

10-20: 10-20. A mix of abstract electronic music in the IDM mold with some dubstep influences.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: Infernal Machines. This’ll probably be getting its own post before long. Steampunk jazz? The future of big band music? Whatever you call it, it’s an interesting new jazz album that at times seems to verge on progressive rock. But it’s better than that may sound.

Lafayette Gilchrist: Soul Progressin’. New album from jazz pianist Gilchrist and his band.

Harold Budd and Clive Wright: Candylion. Second collaboration by ambient pianist Budd and guitarist Wright, a little more varied in style than the first, less purely ambient.

Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career. More upbeat yet mopey Scottish pop, with fewer immediately catchy hooks than Let’s Get Out of This Country and more strings.

Sunn O))): Monoliths and Dimensions. Halloween background music — beatless heavy metal drones with occasional orchestral and choral touches, some metal vocals, in four epic tracks.

J Dilla: The Shining. Catchy collection of rap and a bit of R&B by the late and highly respected producer and a variety of guests, including Common, D’Angelo, Madlib, Busta Rhymes, and several others. There’s a bit of a J Dilla cult developing, and this is a pretty accessible introduction.

Paul Motion Trio: One Time Out. Continuing the attempt to broaden my jazz horizons. This is a nonstandard jazz trio, with drums, sax, and electric guitar. Sometimes sounds pretty trad, other times sounds quite different from the usual.

Edan: Beauty and the Beat. A strong and enjoyable hiphop album with inventive, sometimes psychedelic-sounding music.

Astrid Williamson: Day of the Lone Wolf. One of my favourite music reviewers is a big fan of Astrid Williamson; this is a very likeable album, but it’s not a hell of a lot different from a lot of post-Sarah Mclachlan/Lilith Fair albums. Pleasant female singer/songwriter stuff. Some really good songs, but not quite as revelatory as I expected.

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Paul Morley on Joy Division (2008) May 29, 2009

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Paul Morley: Joy Division: Piece by Piece

Paul Morley: Joy Division: Piece by Piece

Paul Morley was starting out as a Manchester-based writer for the leading UK music weekly, the New Musical Express (better known as the NME), at the same time as Joy Division started their musical career; he helped promote them in the pages of the NME and elsewhere, and has written about them a lot over the decades, as CD reissues and movies reignite interest in the band. He has a deeper, tragic connection to the band: his father committed suicide in 1977; Joy Division’s Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980.

Joy Division only recorded two proper albums (and another CD or two’s worth of singles, compilation tracks, and whatnot) before Curtis’s death. His suicide undoubtedly helped create the cult following the band has had over the decades, but there’s a timelessness to the music that has been every bit as much as important as the stories behind the music.

The Joy Division story’s been told in a number of books, in the first half of the movie 24 Hour Party People, and in the recent movie Control, about both of which more soon.

Anyway: this book. It’s everything Morley’s written about Joy Division. Articles, liner notes, memoirs, everything. Sometimes it’s repetitive, sometimes it’s annoyingly self-indulgent, but it’s always thoughtful and driven by a very real connection to the band and their music. It’s not a great book for reading cover to cover, though that’s how I read it. The repetition would seem less noticeable if I’d read the book in bits and pieces over a longer period of time.

This is not the book for someone new to the band, but then there are a few of those already. Touching From a Distance, written by Deborah Curtis, Ian Curtis’s widow, is a better starting point. There’s also a 33 1/3 book on their first album, Unknown Pleasures. But if you’ve read those or know the basics, there’s a lot of great stuff here, some of it written at the time all this was new and just happening, some of it written with a different perspective years later.

33 1/3: Pink Flag (2009) May 27, 2009

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Wilson Neate: Pink Flag

Wilson Neate: Pink Flag

Jeffrey Roesgen’s book on the Pogues (below) shows how good a book about an album can be by doing the unexpected. Wilson Neate shows how good a book about an album can be by writing a conventional work that does everything it needs to.

Pink Flag is Wire’s first album. It was released as part of the first wave of UK punk in 1977, and it’s been a touchstone for a lot of musicians ever since. However, it’s neither typical of UK ’77 punk nor of Wire’s long career, so Neate uses a fair bit of the book to put the band and the album in context. With 21 short, punchy, loud guitar songs on one LP, Pink Flag audibly shares a great deal with several other punk albums of the time, but according to band members and others quoted in the book, Wire was seen as something outside the core punk scene, being a bit older and more self-consciously approaching music as an art project, rejecting conventions of rock and roll that were still largely unchallenged by punk rebellion. At the same time, the loud racket of punk, much of it played by people just learning to play their instruments, was an obvious opportunity for a bunch of art school types who were also just learning to play instruments. They made a lot more sense in the punk context than they would have elsewhere at the time.

I think Neate somewhat overstates the exceptionalist case for Wire and Pink Flag. Few of the bands worth remembering from punk’s first wave adhered to a rigid and rockist punk formula through their careers. After the Sex Pistols, John Lydon went on to the very different Public Image Ltd; Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks and formed Magazine; the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and others moved away from the core punk sound after an album or two, building on new influences and developing new styles. Wire was hardly the only band of that time to do something recognizable as a punk album and then go off into a dozen different directions. Still, it’s not exaggerating to say that Wire’s members have approached their career over the decades as more of an art project than a rock band, and many of their solo projects make that even more obvious.

Anyway, in addition to providing that context, Neate tells the history of the band and the work they did on the way to recording Pink Flag. He provides a lot of detail on the recording of the album, discussing all the songs individually, and he quotes the band members, the producer, and a number of other musicians along the way. Wire’s members seem to have been quite candid and open in their discussions, and there’s a lot of interesting information here. Other people Neate talked to include Pink Flag producer Mike Thorne, later musicians like Henry Rollins (Black Flag, the Rollins Band), Ian McKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) and Graham Coxon (Blur), rock writer Jon Savage, and many many others. the book provides a knowledgeable and intelligent look at the band from the inside and the outside.

I read somewhere that there was originally some interest in doing a book on Wire’s third album 154 instead of Pink Flag, but the latter is much more well known in America and is more often mentioned as a key influence. Fortunately, there is another book, Wire: Everybody Loves a History, which also features a lot of input from band members and covers the band and  various side projects up to 1990 or so. It’s out of print and may be hard to find, but it’s worth tracking down. It’d be great to see an updated edition some day. Another writer has recently produced a book on Wire, but from all reports it’s replete with errors and the band doesn’t recommend it.

John Foxx and Robin Guthrie: Mirrorball (2009) May 17, 2009

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John Foxx and Robin Guthrie: Mirrorball

John Foxx and Robin Guthrie: Mirrorball

Having heard the albums Foxx and Guthrie recorded (separately) with ambient musician Harold Budd, I expected an instrumental album with layers of piano, synth, and Guthrie’s distinctive reverbed guitar sound. So it came as something of a surprise to hear Foxx singing on several songs on this album.

The end result is something like the Cocteau Twins’ album Victorialand crossed with Foxx’s Cathedral Oceans project. While this is the warmest, most melodic, most accessible of Foxx’s three albums so far this year, it’s not quite pop music. When Foxx sings, he draws, as he did on Cathedral Oceans, on the sound of traditional church music, going so far as to sing in something that sounds at times like Latin, Italian, or Spanish, but isn’t. It’s like the invented language the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser often used, and it adds an evocative, distant sense of mystery even to songs like “Estrellita,” the song that stands out as the one most likely to appeal to people who’ve never heard of Foxx or Guthrie.

Guthrie’s guitar playing and sound have always evoked descriptions like atmospheric or ethereal, and that’s certainly the case here. He provides his usual restrained and delicate touch, playing simple guitar lines with plenty of reverb, creating a paradoxically austere yet full sound. Foxx’s vocals work similarly, usually being treated with a bit of echo. Some songs add acoustic guitar, piano, or unobtrusive programmed percussion. There’s an emotional weight to the album; it’s not dry or abstract (unlike some of the D’Agostino/Foxx/Jansen album earlier this year). The words may not tell you what to feel, but you’ll find your own appropriate reactions. This is beautiful music.

You can see a video for “Estrellita” on Foxx’s Quiet Man blog. If you like it and order the album from Foxx’s preferred retailer, Townsend Records, you’ll get a download link for an exclusive extended version of one of the songs.

33 1/3: Daydream Nation (2007) May 7, 2009

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Daydream Nation

Matthew Stearns: Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth’s 1988 album Daydream Nation is one of the great rock albums of the last 25 years. It’s the record on which, after releasing several noisy, experimental, and sometimes inconsistent — but generally good — albums, Sonic Youth took a bold step towards accessibility without selling out. There’s noise and strange beauty, but there are also some great rock songs there, too.

Daydream Nation was well received on its release and got a lot of good reviews, which is how it ended up being the first SY album I bought. I loved it from the first listen and still think it’s one of the highlights of their long, productive, and still ongoing career. So when I heard that the album would be profiled in one of the 33 1/3 books, I was really looking forward to reading it. Then I hit Matthew Stearns’s wall of prose. Example:

If the act of listening to music requires some degree of participatory commitment from the listener, and if that commitment itself takes place as a kind of merging and identifying with the action and drama of the record, then Daydream Nation asks for one hell of a commitment. Based on the sheer scope of  its attack, Daydream Nation poses a direct, imminent threat to the safety and well being of its listeners. At the very least, it threatens the security and structural viability of its listener’s ears. This record eats ears — chews them up with its gnarled sonic teeth and swallows them whole.

In this sense, it’s perfectly appropriate, and not shameful at all, to be slightly frightened by Daydream Nation. By reputation and in size, it stands as a kind of outsized rock ‘n’ roll behemoth — an overwhelming monstrosity (in the sense that monsters typically tend to be born of extremes, rife with power, difficult to contain, and mythic in proportion — Daydream Nation certainly meets all of these qualifications) capable of crushing the will of the most resilient, well-intentioned listener if the necessary preparations haven’t been made.

Um, no. Never mind that swallowing something whole generally involves no chewing. This is unrestrained and undeniably enthusiastic, a rush of words written with passion, and it was probably a blast to write, but it doesn’t make for good reading.

The book does have a lot of information; Stearns had some access to band members, and SY’s Lee Ranaldo wrote an introduction. But that prose style just never lets up. I’ve read a dozen books in this series but this one was the only one I had to struggle to finish.

33 1/3: Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (2008) May 7, 2009

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Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

Jeffrey T. Roesgen: Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

The 33 1/3 series is a series of small paperback books, averaging around a hundred or so pages, that take a look at a particular album.

Jeffrey T. Roesgen’s Rum, Sodomy & The Lash is about the Pogues’ 1985 album of that name. Instead of just going into the history of the band and the making of the album, the way a lot of books in that series do, Roesgen uses the album’s cover art (The Raft of the Medusa, with the faces of band members superimposed over some of the people’s faces in the painting) to tell a version of the story of the post-Napoleonic sailing disaster of the Medusa, with the Pogues as characters aboard the ship, alternating with nonfiction sections on the album’s songs. A couple of other books in the series have been works of fiction that somehow involve the album in question, so it’s not an entirely unprecedented approach.

Given the historical focus of many of the album’s songs, it works surprisingly well. The naval-themed album title, the choice of artwork, the songs that range from the American West to the shores of Gallipoli to traditional Irish songs, the Pogues’ involvement in some Alex Cox movies, and the fact that the Pogues were anything but a purist Irish folk band all make an anachronistic naval adventure a good fit. What starts off as a bit of a romp grows steadily darker, as an inexperienced ship captain and his inexperienced navigator, holding their posts by virtue of supporting the monarchy but overseeing a crew and officers who were supporters of Napoleon, take their ship into dangerous waters off the coast of Africa. Whether there’s supposed to be much resonance between the story and the actual career of the Pogues at that time is questionable, but it works in tying different strands of the album into a whole.

A bit more nonfiction might have been helpful, but as the bibliography points out, there are several other books on the band. (Heck, I’ve got one myself, Anne Scanlon’s The Pogues: The Lost Decade, though it was written and published years before the end of the band.) Roesgen interrupts his fictional narrative every so often with a section a few pages long named after a particular song. There’s some information on the song and a few comments on other related matters, then back to the story.

Overall, while not necessarily the most informative book in the 33 1/3 series, it’s insightful and entertaining.

enoise May 7, 2009

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Brian Eno: Before and After Science

Brian Eno: Before and After Science

E. Noise. Eno noise. Doesn’t rhyme with Eloise.

Lou Stathis in 1980:

In the world of rok — and by that I don’t mean the tuna fish that you get on your radio — all that was authentic to the seventies can be summed up in about four words: Roxy Music and Sex Pistols.

Okay, you can stop twitching and yelling. I did not say that these two bands were responsible for the only decent music to come out of the last ten years. only that most anything interesting created during that time was built on groundwork laid either by these two bands, or the seminal groups of the sixties, such as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, the Soft Machine, Iggy and the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground.

[…]

[Roxy Music’s Brian] Eno probably was/is the most important figure in seventies rok. I suppose I could go back and amend the opening of this column to read that the seventies could be summed up in three letters, but that would be too much for even me to take seriously. I’ve heard it said that Eno’s “Seven Deadly Finns” single of 1974 was singlehandedly responsible for the new wave — that too is just a bit much. […] As a direct result we have dozens of groups mining territory today that Eno showed was worth diddling around in — bands like the Cars, Magazine, Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, Wire, Devo, the Residents, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, XTC, and a whole crock of others (all of whom will swear on Elvis’s grave that they were playing that way long before they ever heard the limey wimp’s name). To say nothing of the rehabilitation job he did at the Old Folks’ Studio on Fripp and Bowie.

That’s from his inaugural “muzick” column in the January 1980 issue of Heavy Metal, “the adult illustrated fantasy magazine.” His February column ended with something that was almost a shopping list for me: “Duty Now for the Future: The 1980 Future-Mutant’s Core Record Collection” listed necessary records by Brian Eno (“The Man. Anything. Period.”), Devo, David Bowie, Ultravox, Magazine, Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, Bill Nelson’s Red Noise, XTC, Talking Heads, The Contortions, James White and the Blacks, the Urban Verbs, The Normal, the Silicon Teens, Cowboys International, and Pere Ubu.

I had already discovered Bowie, Devo, and Numan by then. Within the next couple of years I had albums by Ultravox, Magazine, Bill Nelson, XTC, the Urban Verbs, and Cowboys International. In years since I’ve gotten more stuff by them and by the Talking Heads, the Normal, the Silicon Teens, and Pere Ubu.

A lot of this stuff, which Stathis dubbed Enoise (i.e., Eno-influenced postpunk incorporating electronics), was in some sense a cross between the Sex Pistols and Roxy Music. Nearly 30 years later, I still love those sounds and those bands. Their influence is still around, as various subgenres and revivals over the last few years like disco punk and the postpunk revival demonstrate. Eno himself is still around, too, still doing ambient music installations that generate albums like Compact Forest Proposal and Kite Music and collaborating with a everyone from Paul Simon to Coldplay and U2. He’s more an elder statesman than a revolutionary now, but he’s still capable of creating interesting music. Many of the people in the bands Stathis listed are still doing great things, too.

Lou Stathis went on to other things, including editing some of DC’s Vertigo line of comics. He died of cancer in 1997.