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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…

In search of Kate Bush March 18, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Music.
Kate Bush: untitled three-LP bootleg

Kate Bush: untitled three-LP bootleg

Bootlegs, that is.

Over the last 30+ years, Kate Bush has been many things — groundbreaking (she was one of the first people to use sampling), musically adventurous (how many people have worked with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Trio Bulgarka, and Prince?), influential (you can hear her influence in Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, among others, but ex-Sex Pistol John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon and  Outkast rapper Big Boi have sung her praises, and metal, punk, techno, and folk musicians have covered her songs), and perhaps a bit eccentric. One thing she isn’t, though, is prolific.

Since 1978, Kate Bush has released only eight proper albums: The Kick Inside (1978), Lionheart (1978), Never For Ever (1980), The Dreaming (1982), Hounds of Love (1982), The Sensual World (1989), The Red Shoes (1993), and Aerial (2005.) There’s also been a live album, a compilation, and two albums’ worth of singles, b-sides, and rarities only available as part of the 1990 box set This Woman’s Work, which collected the albums up to that point. Plus a handful of singles and tracks on compilation albums. That’s not a lot of music in more than thirty years. And when you consider that she’s the kind of singular artist who attracts a devoted cult audience, that’s really not a lot of music.

Ordinarily, a fan of someone who’s been around in the music business a long time would be able to expand on the artist’s discography by hunting down bootlegs: live concert recordings, collections of demo versions, unreleased material that somehow made its way to bootleggers, or — the most obviously illegal variety — collections of otherwise uncollected singles and compilation tracks. For the most part, collecting this kind of bootleg is a victimless crime, especially in an era when millions of music fans feel no need to pay for any of the music they like. (Well, sometimes there’s a victim — some bootlegs aren’t worth paying for. At least bootleg trading sites on the Internet can remove some of that risk.)

But there isn’t much to find, bootlegwise, for Kate Bush. There are really only a couple of things worth tracking down. And the bootleg pictured above isn’t one of them now, though it was a great find twenty years ago. One of the LPs is the concert released on video as Live at the Hammersmith Odeon, and released years later on CD. Another is from another concert, but the sound quality isn’t as good and the performances aren’t significantly different. (Since she’s only ever had one concert tour, the pool of sources is small.) The third LP is a really poorly recorded version of the 1979 Kate Bush Christmas TV special, a mix of live and studio recordings with one unreleased song, a duet version by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel of Roy Harper’s “Another Day” (also recorded by This Mortal Coil, with the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser singing).

Kate Bush: Cathy's Home Demos

Kate Bush: Cathy’s Home Demos

Really, there are two things worth tracking down, and you may not get the best version at first.

Before signing her recording contract and working on her first album, Kate recorded a number of songs on a tape recorder at home, just herself singing and playing piano. A few of the songs later ended up, properly recorded, on her early albums, but there’s an album’s worth of songs that exist nowhere else. somehow a copy of the tape ended up being played on a radio station, with some listeners taping the broadcast; different bootleg collections reportedly come from either reproductions of the original tape, or from reproductions of tapes of the radio broadcast. Either way, the sound quality leaves something to be desired. Some people have tidied up the songs using noise reduction, and some have also adjusted the speed or pitch of the recordings, which sound a bit too low to many ears.

There are a lot of different versions of these songs floating around. I first heard them by buying a bootleg CD called Cathy’s Home Demos. Other versions include Alone at the Piano, The Phoenix Demos, and Shrubberies. Of the versions I’ve found as torrents, the best sounding is The Phoenix Demos. I found them somewhere as 320kbps mp3s, but if you’re not that concerned about mp3 quality, the easiest way to get them is Bryan Dongray’s website, which has them as 128kbps mp3s — not quite CD quality, but considering the source, more than listenable.

So that’s the first must-have rarity for Kate Bush fans. The second is the high quality version of the 1979 Christmas special. Back in 2006 someone, apparently someone with access to the BBC, made available a top quality version of the special. Another person then tidied up the soundtrack a little, and the whole thing was set up as a PAL DVD file and distributed through certain torrent sites. The picture and sound quality are superb. Though you can find low quality videos on youtube, and though the DVD at 3.29GB may take a long time to download, it’s worth it. You can watch the whole thing or rip the audio track and burn it to CD. If you’re a fan, you’ll find yourself wondering why this has never been released. It’d be a lot easier just to buy it, but you can’t. Try DIME EZTorrent — they don’t allow anything that’s been commercially released, so no one’s being ripped off.

Other than these two items, what’s left is bits and pieces — a couple live songs, a Gershwin cover, a soundtrack tune, an instrumental b-side, that sort of thing — most of them legally released at one point but some of them now hard to find. But the demos and TV special are the big ones. In this mildly obsessed fanboy’s opinion, at least…

20 albums that shaped my life February 26, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Canadian content, Life in general, Music.
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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.