Sunday, November 11, 2018

Ui - "Lifelike"

Flaubert once opined that, “an artist becomes a critic the same way a soldier becomes an informer.”

For Sasha Frere-Jones, it was the other way around. While working as a music critic, Frere-Jones was called out by a reader for giving too many negative reviews, then challenged to come up with something better. The result was Ui, an instrumental trio consisting of two bass guitars and drums.

Ui’s two bass-guitar approach was not unprecedented in post-rock. (The Chicago band Tortoise comes to mind.) But Ui’s second album Lifelike (1998) demonstrates that Ui were much more than just “Tortoise Jr.”

Lifelike kicks off with the hip-hop funk of “Drive Until He Sleeps” and closes with the ambient soundscape of “Exeunt”. In between, Ui tackles a commendably wide variety of styles, including breakbeat (“Laceria”), free jazz (“Undersided”), and electronic noise (“Blood in the Air”).

Most intriguing of all is “The Fortunate One Knows No Anxiety”, a “bottleneck bass guitar” piece that evolved from a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. (Any guesses?)

However, this is not to say that Lifelike is flawless. As technically proficient as these musicians are, the music itself is often easy to ignore. “Drive Until He Sleeps”, with its catchy hook and funky groove, seems to be a fluke. The cubist song structures and shifting time signatures of the remaining tracks all suggest music that hits you on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one. An album which is “lifelike”, rather than alive.

It is one of life’s most bittersweet ironies that most bands under the “indie rock” umbrella sound the same. Lifelike is frequently rough listening, perhaps intentionally so… but it’s unlike any other band you’ve heard.

*** (out of four)

Monday, October 29, 2018

Youth and Ben Watkins - "Empty Quarter"

Bad news first… Ben Watkins produced the first album by adult film star Traci Lords. However, he’s responsible for a lot of great music, too. Today, we review Empty Quarter, a collaboration with Martin “Youth” Glover.

Youth first rose to fame as bassist for the punk band Killing Joke, a role he held until 1982. Watkins was lead vocalist for the British New Wave band the Hitmen. In 1983 Watkins (now proficient on guitar, drums, and keyboards) teamed up with Youth to record this album as the soundtrack to the play Street Captives by Jonathan Moore.

Being a soundtrack album, Empty Quarter is an entirely instrumental affair. The music here is dark and sparse, an ambient/industrial hybrid, best listened to by oneself late at night in total darkness.

Despite its short running time of 35 minutes, Empty Quarter covers a lot of ground. The opening track "Incompressible Megalasaurians" features some tasty funk bass playing (already a staple of Youth’s post-Killing Joke band Brilliant). “Gizzy Headed Buzzards” is distinguished by some beautifully gloomy oboe and cello, the latter played by Adam Peters (who pitched in when not busy with Echo and the Bunnymen). Best of all is “Repulsion” – even though it bears more than a passing resemblance to the soundtrack of Dawn of the Dead.

Watkins would go on to form Juno Reactor, a project which continues to this day. Youth would become a highly sought-after producer and remix artist, collaborating with the likes of U2, Marilyn Manson, and Paul McCartney. (He should consider writing a memoir!)

As far as I know, Empty Quarter is unavailable on CD, so you’re not depriving the artists of any royalties by listening to it on YouTube:

It only lasts about 35 minutes, but the music will remain in your head long afterwards.

*** (out of four)

Allen Ginsberg - "Holy Soul Jelly Roll"

It is not an exaggeration to say that Allen Ginsberg brought American poetry out of the dark ages. His influence on post-WWII culture is incalculable. For one thing, he was a major influence on Bob Dylan, and what would the 60’s counterculture have been without Bob Dylan?

Ginsberg was part of a group of poets (Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, et al) who called themselves the Beat Generation, the name suggesting spiritual exhaustion with the conformity, materialism, and repression of contemporary society (although, as the saying goes, they ain’t seen nothing yet). The “Beats” drew from an ancient tradition (before modern typesetting) in which poetry was spoken rather than written. They cared less about how words looked on a printed page than how they sounded.

During the Beats’ heyday, spoken-word poetry remained an underground phenomenon. However, when rap music – with its emphasis on meter and rhyme  over melody – ascended to the mainstream in the 80’s, a resurgence in spoken-word poetry followed. The 90’s music festival Lollapalooza featured a poetry tent. “MTV Unplugged” devoted one of its episodes to poetry. “Poetry slams” began springing up in big city coffeehouses.

The time was right, therefore, for Holy Soul Jelly Roll (1994), a 4-CD retrospective of Ginsberg’s career. The first disc includes the first public reading of Ginsberg’s most famous poem “Howl”. Disc 2 features the 63-minute “Kaddish”, dedicated to Ginsberg’s mother. The real gold is on Disc 4, which includes unreleased collaborations with the Clash (“Capitol Air”) and Dylan (“Airplane Blues”).

The production of Holy Soul was overseen by Hal Willner, who went through hundreds of hours of tapes. Willner, to his credit, resisted the producer’s urge to choose the best sounding recordings. Instead, he chose the recordings which had the most passion, and cleaned them up as best as he could. Best of all, Holy Soul is accompanied by a 64-page booklet, in which Ginsberg comments on every track.

To read Ginsberg’s poetry is magic. To hear it read by Ginsberg is divine.

**** (out of four)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Blue - "Blue"

In the early 1970’s, the Beatles were almost as conspicuous by their absence as they were during their 60’s heyday. In the immediate wake of the Fab Four’s breakup, several artists emerged that emulated the Liverpudlians’ classic sound: Emmit Rhodes, the Raspberries, Badfinger, and Sleepy Hollow.

One of the least known bands from this era is Blue. The Scottish trio was fronted by ex-Marmalade guitarist Hugh Nicholson. The rhythm section consisted of Ian MacMillan (bass) and Timmy Donald (drums), from the band Trash (an early Apple Records signing).

Blue created soft rock that epitomized the Beatles’ sonic template: concise song structures, layered guitars, and high-pitched harmonies.

All of these elements are in evidence on Blue’s self-titled debut album. But don’t let the Fab Four comparisons fool you; there’s a wide variety of music on this record.

Mid-tempo rockers like “Sitting on a Fence” and “Little Jody” recall No Dice-era Badfinger. “Let Me Know” (one of three songs written by MacMillan) captures the country-rock vibe of early Eagles and Poco. The Scots achieve a surprisingly authentic Caribbean vibe on “Skye Banana Boat Song”.

DJ John Peel promoted them on his show ("That Blue are a remarkably fine band is beyond dispute"). Elton John signed them to his record label. In spite of this, Blue would eventually find its way into the bargain bins.

Sadly, Blue is probably most famous for a 2003 court case, in which Nicholson and MacMillan unsuccessfully sued the boy band Blue for using their name.

Blue is hard to find on CD. (Used copies sell for about $40.) But if you manage to hunt one down, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

**** (out of four)

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Ride - Carnival of Light"

“Shoegazing” is a style of rock music that evolved in the UK during the late 1980’s. Myriad effects (chorus, flanging, reverb) created a wash of sound in which no individual instrument was distinguishable from the others. The term “shoegazing” itself came from the fact that the musicians played with their heads bent down in order to see the readouts on their effects pedals.

The British band Ride arrived on the scene in 1990 with their debut album Nowhere. Their sophomore effort – 1992’s Going Blank Again – is now regarded as a shoegazing masterpiece, with the single “Leave Them All Behind” appearing on the NME’s list of “greatest songs of all time”. Today we review Ride’s third LP, Carnival of Light (1994).

Carnival of Light incorporates 60’s “power-pop” influences that foreshadowed the “Britpop” genre which would emerge soon afterwards. There’s no one “song I gotta have” on the order of “Leave Them All Behind”. But there is an impressive amount of variety on this album; no two tracks sound alike. There’s the Byrds-like jangle of “1000 Miles”, the hypnotic guitar riff on the acoustic “From Time to Time”, and the straight-up, devil-horns-in-the-air “Moonlight Medicine”.

Carnival of Light, with its vocal harmonies, 60’s-sounding guitars, and meticulous production, was a direct contradiction to the 90’s grunge aesthetic. It drew ire from critics for abandoning the band’s shoegazing roots.

In retrospect, this seems more than a little hypocritical. When bands like Oasis and Kula Shaker incorporated 60’s influences shortly afterwards, the critics couldn’t jump on the bandwagon fast enough.

The band members themselves would distance themselves from this album, calling it “carnival of shite” in interviews. But Carnival of Light is a lasting reminder of a great band at its peak.

**** (out of four)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Klaatu - "Endangered Species"

In the fall of 1976, Klaatu released their eponymous debut album. There were no names of band members, no photographs, no songwriting credits… nothing. This led American audiences to speculate that Klaatu was a clandestine reunion of the Beatles. The rumor was further fueled by the fact that the LP was on Capitol records, the Beatles’ American label.

Eventually, Klaatu was revealed to be a trio of Canadian musicians. The resulting negative backlash ensured their return to obscurity.

However, Klaatu continued to release albums. There was Hope (1977) - criminally underappreciated at the time but now hailed as a prog rock masterpiece – followed by Sir Army Suit (1978).

These last two albums didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, so for Klaatu’s fourth album, Endangered Species (1980), Capitol took matters into their own hands. The album was recorded in LA. Session musicians (including studio veterans Lee Sklar and Tom Scott) and an outside producer (Christopher Bond) were brought in.

No Klaatu album deserves to be called weak, but Endangered Species is generally regarded as their weakest effort. Bond worked extensively with Hall and Oates, and one can hear his effect on the music. The production here is slick and glossy. The multilayered soundscapes of the band’s previous three LP’s are replaced by generic, dated dance pop.

Fortunately, the songs rise above the production. The opening track, “I Can’t Help It”, could have been a hit for Alan Parsons. The Middle-Eastern flourishes of “Howl at the Moon” hark back to Sir Army Suit. “Sell Out, Sell Out” indicates that Klaatu were not completely ignorant of what was happening to them. “All Good Things” is the most poignant a tribute to a pet I’ve ever heard.

Capitol’s attempt to make Klaatu sound like every other Top 40 band proved unsuccessful, and Endangered Species would be the band’s last album to be released in the US. Klaatu’s fifth and final LP (the excellent Magentalane) was released in Canada only.

Endangered Species is only weak when considering the higher-than-normal expectations created by Klaatu’s first three albums. At their best, these guys created music as good and as original as any other band… including that other group on Capitol.

***1/2 (out of four)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Killing Joke - "Pandemonium"

Killing Joke appeared on the scene at the tail end of the punk explosion. Other bands (Metallica, Korn, Soundgarden) would eventually make more aggressive music, but in 1980, Killing Joke’s eponymous debut album was harder and heavier than virtually anything out at that time. (Even the Sex Pistols sounded tame in comparison.)

Technically, Killing Joke would be categorized as “post-punk”: music inspired by punk’s attitude but transcending its minimalism and simplicity. Killing Joke broke away from the pack with noise-guitar, tribal drumming, and dub bass. The resulting sound would influence several genres of music, from metal to grunge to industrial.

After seven more albums and a few lineup changes, the band took a four-year hiatus. The only Killing Joke record to come out during this period was the compilation Laugh? I Nearly Bought One!

While assembling that LP, guitarist Geordie Walker became reacquainted with the band’s original bass player Youth, who suggested reforming the band. The result was 1994’s Pandemonium (the album we are reviewing today).

The riff-heavy title track, with it’s far-Eastern tonalities, picks up where Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” left off. The electronic repetition of “Whiteout” recalls Youth’s remix work for other artists (The Art of Noise, PM Dawn). “Black Moon” borrows a riff from Bauhaus’ “Dark Entries”, while stopping short of plagiarism.

Pandemonium briefly runs out of steam in the middle section. The savagely beautiful “Jana”, in particular, seems to be out of place. But the only serious misstep is the album’s closing track, “Mathematics of Chaos”, in which Walker’s brilliant guitar work is buried beneath a deluge of synthesizers.

Pandemonium eventually gave Killing Joke their well-deserved 15 minutes, especially in the US. (Many Americans thought they were a new band!) Since then, Killing Joke has inspired an entire generation of imitators: Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and (sadly) Killing Joke themselves nowadays. But Pandemonium is a thrilling listen, ranking only slightly below their early 80’s output.

*** (out of four)