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Following up on the downloads part 2: Buying from the artists January 15, 2012

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I bought some albums from artist-affiliated websites in 2011, always a good way to ensure artists are getting their share.

From Robert Fripp’s DGM Live website (dgmlive.com) I bought two downloads: Fripp and Brian Eno on May 28, 1975 in Paris, and Theo Travis and Robert Fripp live on May 21, 2009. The Fripp and Eno release was a must buy for anyone who loves Eno’s ambient music, as I do; Fripp’s done a lot of great solo ambient stuff as well, and I’ve bought a couple of his soundscapes through DGM Live in the past. I bought the Travis/Fripp download to get a sense of what the John Foxx and Theo Travis CD that came out in 2011 might be like. My concerns that Travis might be too jazzy, too proggy, or too new agey seemed to be allayed by that one.

From Silver Mountain Media I bought some His Name Is Alive albums. They used to put out official, major releases through 4ad and put out lots of odds and sods through small labels, but their focus seems to be SMM now. This time around I bought one newish album, The Eclipse, and a couple of grab bags, The Emergency LP and When the Stars Refuse to Shine, the latter bits and pieces from the recording of one of their last 4ad albums. Not as essential as their classic 4ad albums, but I needed an HNIA fix and was glad to get one.

I really liked Dälek’s blend of noise and hiphop. They’re either on hiatus or split, but the legacy continues through their Deadverse label. From Deadverse I bought a label comp and the solo debut of MC Dälek under the name IconAclass, a solid old school hiphop album, much more conventional than anything the old band put out but a fine album in its own right.

But the most interesting and rewarding experience was the Leyland Kirby subscription. Kirby, under such names as V/VM and The Caretaker, used to make lots of material available for free at his website, and I certainly benefited from his largesse. And I love his three-CD Sadly The Future Is No Longer What It Was album. So, when he announced a subscription plan a year ago, I signed up. It was a choose-your-price arrangement with a few options, but the only one that worked was the lowest — £15 or something like that — ended up being a hell of a deal. Multiple EP downloads, a full Leyland Kirby album download, two Caretaker album downloads, plus random odds and sods — well. The Kirby album continues the moody, dark ambient feel of Sadly…, one Caretaker album continues that moniker’s exploration of old ballroom music samples (remember Jack Nicholson in the haunted ballroom in Kubrick’s version of The Shining?), the other reworks Schubert samples for an art movie soundtrack, the EPs cover a wide range of electronic terrain. I would so do a subscription like this again. But I’d pay more. Gladly.

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.)

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.

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.

20 albums that shaped my life February 26, 2009

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Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (Canadian LP cover)

Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (Canadian LP cover)

Inspired by Kevin and Allyn and Geoff:

List the first favorite albums that come to your mind. This is NOT a list of music you feel is of critical importance or value. By noting the ones that come to mind first, you should get a picture of the music that shaped your life in your formative years.

I know I’m going to forget things and want to change things, but here goes. This is in roughly the order I encountered these albums.

1. Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue. One of the first proper albums I ever got, and the first by a band that I was fairly obsessed by for a year or two, getting several more of their albums.It was probably the combination of catchy pop, prog, rock and roll, and the occasional synth that intrigued me.

2. Kate Bush: The Kick Inside. It was a while before I got the album, and not just the 45 of “Wuthering Heights,” but it was the beginning of a lifelong love for the distinctive and groundbreaking music of Kate Bush. It can beautiful, or weird, or both at the same time. There was nothing else like it at the time, and by the end of 1979 this and the next album, very different though it may be, helped set the course for my taste in music.

3. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. I didn’t like the Sex Pistols when I first heard them, being too fond of the over-the-top production of artists like ELO, Queen, and Alan Parsons Project to like anything this raw and harsh. It took the more smoothed-off edges of new wave to lead me into the less compromising punk sound. Once it clicked, I realized it was nothing more or less than rock and roll in its purest form. My favourite punk rock is generally the first wave of late ’70s UK punk, but there are still bands doing fresh new takes on the sound. They’re just not the ones you’ve heard of.

4. David Bowie: Stage. My first Bowie LP. Sort of a stepping stone from the vaguely proggy rock I liked to the stranger end of new wave, this was a concert album from the time of Bowie’s Heroes album. From Station to Station through Scary Monsters is my fave run of Bowie albums, though there’s plenty of great stuff before and after that era. This was probably one of my first Eno-related experiences, too.

5. Gary Numan and Tubeway Army: Replicas. Mixing punk/new wave with synthesizers, alienation, and the science fiction of JG Ballard and Philip K. Dick, Numan created an album that was influential in its own right but also brought to my attention the band he happily admitted was his top influence, Ultravox. Ultravox and its founder, John Foxx, have since eclipsed my interest in Numan to a considerable extent, but this is still a fine album and I might have taken longer to discover Ultravox without it.

6. Brian Eno: Music for Films. Heard it playing in a record store: sparse, eerie instrumental electronic music a million miles away from the usual, more florid electronic music of the time. Plus he got bonus points for working with Roxy Music, David Bowie, Devo, etc etc. I’ve got lots of his albums, love most of them, but this is still my fave.

7. Wire: 154. Former punk band demonstrating just how far this whole new wave/postpunk thing could go. A masterpiece by a great band I’ve already blathered about here.

8. Joy Division: Closer. The first album, Unknown Pleasures, didn’t click with me when I first heard it. This did (and then so did Unknown Pleasures). And from this came New Order and so much more.

9. Killing Joke: Killing Joke. Bought this after reading about them in Creem: too punk for metal fans, too metal for punk fans, but using synthesizers too and ending up in the Billboard disco charts? They’re still around and still confounding expectations, after influencing everyone from Metallica to Ministry to Nine Inch Nails. This album showed a different way to incorporate synths: instead of weird noises, or imitating other instruments, or just layering pretty chords on top of everything, this album had abrasive synth sounds that were as aggressive sounding as the guitars.

10. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Juju. Siouxsie practically invented goth but didn’t let it become a straitjacket. Pounding tribal drums, swirling guitars, melodic basslines, and Siouxsie’s voice… another postpunk classic.

11. Cocteau Twins: Head Over Heels. My first exposure to the 4AD sound dreamy and ethereal but also loud and banging. One of the forerunners to the shoegazer scene.

12. Husker Du: New Day Rising. Punk seemed to have been abandoned by the major labels and headed itself into a dead end of faster harder louder dumber. Husker Du was fast, hard, loud, and smart, and weren’t afraid to slow things down occasionally or use acoustic guitars and piano.

13. The Smiths: Hatful of Hollow. Like REM, another fave, the Smiths were jangly guitar-based rock with melodies to die for, lyrics to ponder, and a frontman who was very much not the usual rock singer.

14. Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy. The Beach Boys playing through a slow motion car crash of guitar feedback, this was a renewal of punk and another of the foundations of shoegazer. Noise = pop.

15. Jr Gone Wild: Less Art, More Pop. Friends of mine release their first LP, a mix of punk, ’60s, country, and other influences, especially Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and possibly Elvis Costello. A friend of mine once heard the critics’ darlings Uncle Tupelo, who are credited with kicking off the No Depression/alt.country scene, and said they were just Jr with all the fun sucked out. He wasn’t entirely wrong, though Uncle Tupelo probably never heard Jr.  think their next two albums are arguably better in many respects, but this is the first time friends of mine put out an actual album. I had a single, a compilation LP with a couple of songs, and a couple of tapes of stuff by some of the guys who later became Jr, but an album… especially one I actually liked… that’s a big deal.

16. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless. The pinnacle of shoegazer, layer upon layer of distorted guitar sound and distant vocals, sounding nothing like rock music as that term is generally understood. There were a lot of great bands in that scene (Ride, Lush, Slowdive, etc), but this is the most important and influential album from that scene. And I love it.

17. Various artists: Pimps, Players, and Private Eyes. Ice-T helped compile this collection of funk and soul songs from blaxploitation movies, which helped reignite my interest in those styles. And not just in the context of blaxploitation.

18. Culture: Two Sevens Clash. This is a roots reggae album from the late 1970s that was reportedly a favourite on the UK punk scene (I read about it in a couple of books on punk). The punk clubs didn’t have enough punk albums to play, so DJ Don Letts introduced the punk scene to reggae — a more hardcore version of the sound than Bob Marley’s. This is heavy on the rasta stuff, but also accessible and catchy, and helped get me more into reggae.

19. Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights. New but drawing on the likes of Joy Division and other postpunk and pre-grunge alternative bands as influences, this helped revive interesting guitar rock for the 21st century. See also Editors, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, etc.

20. Burial: Burial. Boxcutter’s Oneiric was the first dubstep album I heard, if memory serves, but this one sealed the deal. It may have evolved out of UK scenes I wasn’t familiar with (2-step, garage), but I could hear elements of ambient and dub making something unique, like a soundtrack for a low budget third world Blade Runner. It’s strange, atmospheric, and oddly affecting.