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Deborah M. Withers: Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory (2010) April 25, 2010

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Music.
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Deborah M. Withers: Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory

There’s been a boomlet in Kate Bush writing over the last few years. 33 1/3 has a book on The Dreaming in the works. Ron Moy’s Kate Bush and Hounds of Love appeared in 2007 (I missed it, but it’s on order). Rob Jovanovic’s solid and straightforward biography, called Kate Bush: The Biography, came out a few years ago, as did a second edition of a collector’s guide.

And just this year Deborah M. Withers published Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory.

Withers says she called the book that because she wanted to write a book about Kate Bush using various types of critical theory but she wanted it to be fun, too. Unlike some writers of pop culture criticism I can think of (like Enterprise Zones, a collection of essays on Star Trek) she pays a lot of attention to the actual subject instead of just stringing together a lot of quotes from Cixous, Deleuze, Guattari, etc. Her interpretations are guided as much by close reading of Kate Bush’s lyrics and listening to the performances (and watching videos) as by theory, and I’m actually learning interesting new things about a musician I’ve been listening to for over thirty years. Plus, as Withers points out, pretty much everything else about Kate Bush has been written by middle-aged straight white guys, so a book by a young lesbian is going to offer some new perspectives.

The book looks at several of Bush’s albums, following the progression of what Withers calls the Bushian Feminine Subject, looking more at the personas represented in Bush’s songs than Bush herself. The Kick Inside is about the human body, Lionheart about performance, camp, and artificiality (except when it’s about English nationalism, in the title song, though why that can’t be something of a performance in itself isn’t really addressed), Never For Ever about transition, and so on. It’s an approach that works pretty well.

The book sometimes moves a bit too quickly for its own good; if Withers is going to address the ways in which Bush moves from the English nationalism of “Lionheart” or the Orientalism of “Kashka from Baghdad” to the more relative anti-colonialism of The Dreaming, why not discuss “Pull Out the Pin,” which appears to be from the perspective of a Viet Cong guerilla?

The section on The Red Shoes has some good commentary on the album’s related video The Line, the Cross, and the Curve in the context of the fairy tale “The Red Shoes” and the Powell and Pressburger movie based on it. However, it has less discussion of the actual music on the album. That’s unfortunate, because with all its celebrity guest stars (Eric Clapton, Prince, Nigel Kennedy, etc) it seemed to be trying too hard to connect with the mainstream and sell more records. But that may not tie in neatly with Withers’s narrative of the Bushian Feminine Subject.

The Aerial section seems rather rushed, too, skipping the first disc entirely and again not really spending much time on the music.

Overall, though, this quirky mix of playfulness and critical theory is a surprisingly accessible read, and one with a fair number of interesting new insights. It’s more relevant (and much more current) than Fred Vermorel’s The Secret History of Kate Bush (& the Strange Art of Pop), for longtime fans who remember when that was almost the only book on Kate…


Brian Eno: Sonora Portraits (1999) April 11, 2010

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Brian Eno: Sonora Portraits

I just realized the other day that I’d forgotten about another Brian Eno book. Easy to do, considering this one gets filed with the CDs instead of the music books.

Sonora Portraits was apparently a series of book/CD sets produced by the Italian company Materiali Sonori, though the only other one I know of involved Hector Zazou, and I don’t have that one. What you get is a slipcase containing a slimline jewel box with a CD and a 96-page book the same size as the slimline.

I’ll get to the music shortly, but first, the book. Each page has two columns of text, the same material in Italian and English. There are four articles: “Sound Ambience: Erik Satie, John Cage, Brian Eno” by Claudio Chianura, “Una Conversazione con Brian Eno” by Arturo Stalteri, “Driving” by Fabio Martini, and “Ambient Music” by Adelio Fuse. Chianura’s piece is fairly short and puts Eno’s ambient music into the appropriate theoretical and historical context. Stalteri’s interview is also rather short, but surprisingly wide-ranging, covering specific Eno albums, Italian folk music, and UFOs. Martini provides a stream of consciousness piece with some thoughts about Eno’s music in various contexts. Fuse’s “Ambient Music” takes up half the book, going into more detail about Satie, Cage, and Eno, the ideas of ambient music, musique d’ameublement, and environmental sound. The book ends with a brief chronology of Eno’s life and work, and a selection of websites.

Overall, the book isn’t going to provide the kind of depth and detail that Eric Tamm’s does, but it certainly goes well beyond liner notes.

The CD is a rather odd mix, some relatively hard-to-find material (easier to find now than it was in 1999) and some much more accessible. There are three tracks identified as being from Eno’s work for Derek Jarman’s Glitterbug. The short ambient instrumental “Distant Hill”, the unfinished-sounding instrumental “Radiothesia III,” and the classical-gone-synth “Strawinsky” can only be found here or on the All Saints label compilation Future Perfect. Five tracks are from Music for Films III, reissued in 2005. There’s also a track each from Eno’s The Drop, Eno and Wobble’s Spinner, and Eno and John Cale’s Wrong Way Up, as well as a brief edit of the album-length “Neroli” (from the album of that name); even that edit is available elsewhere. The disc ends with seven minutes of Eno speaking, which is reproduced in the book as the beginning of the Stalteri/Eno interview.

So, not an essential bit of Eno; the book’s much shorter than some others you can get, and there are no exclusive music tracks. It’s an interesting collectible, if you’re a bit of an Eno completist, but I have rarely listened to the CD; not only is the material generally available on other CDs, but it’s not the best selection of Eno material, and it doesn’t all really fit together very well. As for the book, I read it when I bought the CD and basically forgot about it.

(In 2000, Materiali Sonori released Arturo Stalteri’s tribute album Cool August Moon: From the Music of Brian Eno. Instrumental and vocal Eno songs are recast as pretty, piano-led chamber pieces. A reviewer on Amazon called it a work of schmaltzification, which is pretty much on target. I may have listened to it all the way through once. At most. Fortunately, it was an inexpensive emusic download.)

David Sheppard: On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (2008) April 3, 2010

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David Sheppard: On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno

This is, as far as I know, the first proper biography of Brian Eno — original member of Roxy Music, collaborator with Robert Fripp and David Bowie, inventor of ambient music, producer of U2 and Coldplay, and so much more.  Fortunately, it’s a good book.

There are other books about Eno. Eric Tamm wrote a musicological take on Eno’s albums called Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound (now available as a free download at Tamm’s website). Eno published a diary of a year in his life, A Year With Swollen Appendices. (The year in question was 1995.) The 33 1/3 series published Geeta Dayal’s book on Eno’s album Another Green World. This one, a biography of Eno the man, may explain why there are Eno fans in the first place.

Sheppard’s book is long and well-researched, drawing on published accounts as well as a variety of interviews with many of the people who’ve been a part of Eno’s world. The book covers Eno’s life from his childhood well into the 21st century. I was pleasantly surprised by some of Sheppard’s choices of interview subjects; I hadn’t realized, for example, how early people like John Foxx and Colin Newman had crossed paths with Eno. The book feels like it’s exhaustive, giving a lot of coverage to Eno’s time in Roxy Music but also mentioning more obscure activities, like his production work with the Urban Verbs, without ever being a dry recitation of facts. A lot of personalities come through in the book, and there are some surprises and some great anecdotes.

It’s not a case of unadulterated hero worship, either — a few people, perhaps most notably Gavin Bryars, occasionally pop up in the narrative to argue that Eno gets credit for things others did first, or that some of his projects really are just the work of a dilettante with no deep understanding of what he’s doing.

Overall, though, Sheppard does a good job of intelligently discussing Eno’s music in the context of its times, be it Roxy Music in the glam era or working with Bowie in the punk era, and he presents Eno as a fascinating and complex and certainly not perfect person. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

(Beats the hell out of the Roxy Music book I struggled through a few years ago, Paul Stump’s Unknown Pleasures: A Cultural Biography of Roxy Music. There are three other Roxy Music books out there now. I’ll give another one a shot one of these days.)

And speaking of record stores… April 3, 2010

Posted by sjroby in Life in general, Music.
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Various artists: Steppas’ Delight 2

I was in Toronto a month ago. I used to love going to the big record stores in Toronto — the Sam’s and A&A on Yonge, originally, and then the Tower Records down the street — because Ottawa didn’t really have anything that could compare for sheer size and selection. Well, Sam’s, A&A, and Tower are all gone, and the last major chain standing, HMV, has a big store where Sam’s used to be.

So I went into HMV, and it had a lot of stuff, but not much of what I was looking for. (I was hoping to find, among other things, Dubstep Allstars Volume 7, but settled for the second Steppas Delight compilation.)

Anyway, getting to the point at last: there was a security guard at the entrance. It seemed ironic — record stores are going out of business because some people are stealing music from the comfort of their own homes, and people are still shoplifting physical CDs?

Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure (1973) April 3, 2010

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Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure

So I’m reading On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno by David Sheppard, about which more shortly, and I’m in a section of the book dealing with Eno’s time in Roxy Music and it occurs to me that I haven’t listened to For Your Pleasure in some time.

So I do. And it’s as brilliant as ever. The manic pop thrills of “Do the Strand” and “Editions of You” (and the best ever sequence of sax/synth/guitar solos in the latter) are the instant gratification moments of the album, but there’s plenty of strangeness and drama to maintain the listener’s interest in the longer, more experimental songs.

I first heard this album back around the end of 1980, when I was 17 and a fan of new wave and David Bowie and the usual suspects and had picked up Roxy Music’s Greatest Hits and become utterly enthralled, even more than I expected (I knew a few of their later songs). So I went out and bought For Your Pleasure, the band’s second album, originally released in 1973. It was a long way from the suave and sophisticated image of Roxy Music in 1980. Some of it’s new wave years before new wave, like Neu! and a handful of others, but it’s also progressive rock. I was discovering Ultravox and the Stranglers around the same time, but I was also still listening to a bit of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and even Yes then, too, and For Your Pleasure was the link between them.

The album kicks off with the fast and propulsive “Do the Strand,” which proposes “a danceable solution to teenage revolution.” This would fit well in any new wave playlist. The next two songs, “Beauty Queen” and “Strictly Confidential,” might be described as prog ballads, being atmospheric and quiet early on before allowing the full band to bring a bit of a racket for a climax. Then there’s another proto-new wave rocker, “Editions of You,” another stomper remembered by many for the aforementioned solos (the synth bit can still raise eyebrows). Side one ends with the eerie “In Every Dream Home A Heartache,” in which Bryan Ferry sings over ominous keyboard and guitar lines about the unhappiness in modern homes before addressing his inflatable sex doll in the tones of an obsessed lover. About three minutes in, the drums kick in and an almost Pink Floyd-like squall of guitar soloing and keyboards relieve the tension, before fading into a false ending and returning gradually with phased/distorted instruments before fading out again.

Side two starts off with the nine-minute long “The Bogus Man,” but its steady beat and keyboard pulses and guitar scratches, along with near random instrumental interjections and Ferry’s distorted vocals, maintains a groove that makes the nine minute duration hypnotic rather than excessive, not unlike some long krautrock tracks. “Grey Lagoons” starts out with Ferry crooning over piano, organ, and backing vocals, before drums and bass join in after the first couple of lines, and a brief guitar solo comes in where a chorus might be expected, then there’s another verse, the guitar returns, and the band speeds up into a rocking interlude with a sax solo, then the beat shifts a little and bass and a brash harmonica solo take the lead, before speeding up again for an extended guitar solo supported by a pounding piano line, then Ferry starts crooning again…. And the album closes with the title track, another atmospheric and hypnotic slow song.

This isn’t a terribly satisfying album for people who want straightforward song structures — there’s not a lot of verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus here. It is very satisfying, however, for listeners who want something adventurous and different. Unfortunately, Roxy Music’s second album is also their last with Brian Eno; without his experimental drive, Ferry would take the band in a more conventional direction. They did some great music without Eno but it wasn’t like the music they did with him.

Anyone whose idea of Roxy Music is restricted to songs like, say, “Dance Away,” “Over You,” “Avalon,” and “More Than This” will have no idea what this album sounds like. The young Ferry’s voice can be a bit of an acquired taste, with its almost random vibrato, and it can be mannered and affected at times. But For Year Pleasure rewards the effort it may take to get into it.