Monday, February 20, 2012

More potholes in the history of music...

I am embarrassed to admit how long it was before I embraced Sonic Youth. That situation was only fully rectified when a one Mr. Lala loaned me a copy of A Thousand Leaves. (Who could resist Wildflower Soul, really?)  I have since come around fully. I confess I still sort of skirt around popular opinion and favor alternately, Sister and Evol or their later material like Rather Ripped.

While I was busy being blind to SY's charms, I was hard at work falling deeply in love with bands obviously indebted to them: Archers of Loaf and Edsel. The Archers have marched on to a legacy of indie-rock royalty, as shown by their sell-out reunion tour crowds, but Edsel has fallen through the cracks. Never more than a footnote on the scene they lack a cult-ish fanbase to earn a posthumous place in the written history. The Edsel boys failed to fully connect with the cultural zeitgeist of their time. Interestingly, I think they would have fared better nowadays when shoegaze and spacerock in all their flavors are still ascendent.

The label they were on (Grass Records) went under and with it a wide swath of their catalog fell out of print for years. The lead singer, Sohrab Habibion--quiet on the scene for some time--has resurfaced as the guitarist in the Obits (which has its own royal legacy, featuring the singer and frontman of Drive Like Jehu / Hot Snakes fame). Apparently Habibion bribed the engineer mixing the latest Obits record to give a remastering touch-up to the o.o.p. Edsel material so that they could self-release it digitally. Though it never really left my musical vernacular, I am happy to have center stage again.

In fact, being the sort musically obsessed geek that I am, I have kept a sort of personal record of what I believed (at the time) to be the best record of the year, since 1990. To point out the hubris of such an endeavor, I was 15 in 1990; nobody knows shit about anything aged 15. Anyway, come the ripe old age of 18, I selected Edsel's sophomore record The Everlasting Belt Co. as my pick of 1993. I may just  be a nostalgic old geezer at this point, but I think the record holds up. I don't know if I would say it was the record of its year, but I'm not going back to rewrite that history.

Being weened early on with a diet of brit-pop, perhaps it makes sense that Edsel got through to me so easily: this has more in common with the tradition stemming from Echo and the Bunnymen and MBV than Nirvana or their ilk. The guitars are as likely to chime and ripple in psychedelic phasing as much as they are to grind with angsty distortion. They seem have learned as many lessons from Spacemen 3 as Fugazi. Sohrab's frail voice sounds like what it might be to hear Robert Wyatt front a punk band, as he hovers on the edge of a cracking falsetto. More often than not, they don't rely on soaring choruses so much as the compelling verses whose phrasing wend around the beat.

Like many-a-great band, they were restless: each album advanced their voice, progressive gains on a style that was less derivative and more distinctive. The follow-up to Everlasting, Detroit Folly, had some breakthrough moments, but was a bit shy on memorable hooks. My understanding is that they intend to release their swan-song, Techniques of Speed Hypnosis, as well. While for me, that one didn't have the brace of never-heard-this-before newness, I think it was their largest, boldest and even catchiest record. A real winner--keep your eyes peeled.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

HIstory and its failings

To be certain, even as an ambient artist, Paul Schütze is a fringe musician. His name will never be spoken in hushed tones outside of that little soundworld, the way Brian Eno's is; but there really can only be so many Eno's. On the flip-side, Schütze was a forerunner in a vital (if shortlived) subgenre of electronic music, and his material is plentiful and remarkable enough to ensure he won't end up in the recycle bin of history.

What seems more likely to happen is one of his finest works, Site Anubis, is in danger of being relegated to 'lost rarity' status. Some musicians, it seems, suffer from a damnable consistency. If his place in history is too small to sustain a large catalog, it gets tricky when his catalog is--although varied--uniformly good. Even my selection of Site Anubis as his best work is loaded with personal history, time / place associations, and probably a touch of its very status as a rarity (I am a record collector at heart).

A landmark electro-acoustic masterpiece, Site Anubis manages to graft Schütze's trademark ambient electronica--filled with rich drones and vibrophonic pitches that happen on an indiscernible rhythm--to an edgy, textural improv played over a dubbed out post-punk bedrock. If I remember the press rightly, the different instruments were recorded separately in no relation to each other. The different players improvised their parts in isolation. It was then Paul Schütze's job to create compositions from these raw materials.

What raw materials, though. The roster on this album is an avant-supergroup of the highest order.

Dirk Wachtelear, a member of the ambient group Pablo's Eye, pounds out drumbeats deeply indebted to Schütze's own idiosyncratic style, as if one arm is pinwheeling at a different bpm than the rest. Raoul Björkenheim of the Finnish jazz band Krakatau lays down arcing sheets of sustained guitar. Alex Beuss, on bass clarinet, duels with British saxophone legend Lol Coxhill. Coxhill himself is no stranger to meetings of jazz and rock, being a member in the ealry 70s of the prog outfit The Whole World that recorded Kevin Ayer's classic Shooting at the Moon.

The legendary Bill Laswell is the bassist for the session. Although his trademark rubbery bass-work is all over the album, what's more noteworthy is how his projects like Material and Automaton are clear antecedents to this work. There was certainly something in the water in the 1990s. Über-hyphenated outfits were prominent from top alternative rock to the avant garde. A few years later Jah Wobble would put together Deep Space (that at times included Laswell, too), a band that mined similar terrain to Site Anubis, carrying the torch forward. 

The key difference to me between those works and Phantom City may come down to premise: the construction of this album engendered an inherent disregard for the purity of the original performance. Schütze applied a heavier hand when sculpting the material into songs. A year or so later, nearly all these musicians would release a live album (which has been included in Schütze's bandcamp push) that I frankly find disappointing in comparison.

That Site Anubis became rare at all may not even a qualitative decision. More often, these things are combination of collaborators not seeing eye-to-eye or licensing issues with art or content. (You might recognize the art used for the cover that has been more recently appropriated by the band Cut Copy.) New releases from Schütze are intermittent at best nowadays, but he has finally made the vast majority of his back catalog available online, through bandcamp. For me this is a cause for celebration. I could not help but notice, though, that one of the few glaring omissions to this shiny new download store he has set up is Site Anubis.

Friday, February 3, 2012

So here's something interesting...

The Fall are the preeminent post-punk survivors. This much is accepted. This too is true: their catalog is a minefield to the uninitiated. It's not just that some of the 29-or-so official studio albums are sometimes lackluster or spotty--but their are countless compilations of seemingly arbitrary selections, reissues with shitty sound remastered from vinyl copies, a mountain of shoddy live albums of suspicious origin... the list goes on. But get this: for the last 30 years, they have consistently released high-water-mark albums every 5 years, like clockwork. Read on and see if you don't agree.


Arguably the first classic Fall record. From beginning to end, this is Mark & Co. firing on all cylinders. Grotesque also marks the end of the first phase of the Fall: by the next album, Mark's new wife, Brix would join the band and begin steering their absurdist rewiring of punk towards a more streamlined, poppier sound. Filled with chugging rhythms with no interest in taking-it-to-the-bridge, kazoo solos, left turns and right hooks--everything they do from raves ups to roiling abstract, 10 minute jams works on Grotesque. Smith at this point was discovering the peak of his powers. He gives his literate, confounding lyrics an abstract sense of rhythm that can only be rivalled by Captain Beefheart. He also has quite the range for someone who rants more than sings, punctuating his lines with pinched yelps and hilarious asides.


I barely need to defend this album. This Nation's Saving Grace is often shortlisted as the single best Fall LP. Now well into the the Fall mkII--they had gone deep into keyboard driven pop on the last outing, and from the start of this record the guitars are making their presence felt again. The Fall are once again menacing; not like a monster from a horror flick, but like the cooler kids at lunch that have too much fun at your expense and just might have been up to something truly unseemly before school. From Bombast to Cruiser's Creek, they are leaner band with more now at their disposal, and on Saving Grace, they deploy it all.


Extricate is a hissing, mean record. It is the first album the Fall cut after Mark and Brix called it quits, and kicking off with a track like Sing, Harpy; it shows. This album languished, ignored, in their discography for years. In part it had been poorly served by following a couple of passable filler releases and followed itself by a pair of weaker but questing LPs. Even though there is plenty to recommend this record, Chicago, Now puts it in the history books; another churning Fall epic--but this one murkier and more subtle than they had ever achieved before.


Inexplicably in the mid-90s, Brix came back into the fold for a few records. In fact she is one of the only (countless) ex-Fall band members to ever return. Her presence raises the bar on what was the first of many late-period rebirths for the Fall; the group has more August comeback-records than any one band deserves. The snarling interplay between her and Mark on Don't Call Me Darling, or the buzzing punk take on boy-girl pop that is Feeling Numb put this record on the Fall-keepers pile. Add to that the truly bizarro Bonkers in Phoenix and aptly titled Life Just Bounces and... well, you get the picture.


Coming hot on the heels of what was two of their most unhinged records, fresh with (yet another) new lineup, The Unutterable should have been the shmabling mess the subsequent Are You a Missing Winner was. Grant Showbiz, a frequent Fall collaborator produced this record, and his hand was unerring in bringing some of their best work to life. Mark's voice is close-mic'd throughout, bringing all the character of his distinctive bite to the forefront, competing with a punishing rhythmm section while electronic flourishes and guitar-work vie for some light. An indisputable Fall must-have.


It is telling what a dry spell the early 2000s were for the Fall that even their biggest booster abandoned them: after doing more John Peel sessions by this date than any other band by a mile, he had not asked them back in over 5 years. The session they cut in 2004 ended up being a clarion call. Rooted by the mammoth track, Blindness--a stomping dirge built around bass-work that sounds like the strings are as thick as power cables. That track is reprised here and easily serves as the centerpiece of Fall Heads Roll. The album is filled out with rollicking material that flies in the face that the group had been active endeavor at this point for 27+ years.


With recent good marks, the Fall was now in danger of becoming the one thing they had never, ever been: boring. Reformation was a lackluster outing and Imperial Wax Solvent was earning them the feint praise of "best album since ___________" that's the bain of so many elder statesmen.  YFOC ranks as far more than that. Mark shows a wit here that lets him escape the grumpy old man the snarling teenager he used to be turned into. More than that, the album signs off with Weather Report 2, the most moving moment on a Fall record to date. Over a rather lovely guitar figure, Smith mumbles about what sounds like redemption within a relationship (sort of), but half way through the music devolves into a single rolling, overdriven bass pulsation as Smith spits the same words he just sang. That description completely overlooks that the song also name-checks Murder She Wrote, so go figure that one out.

Obviously with a band as storied and legendary as the Fall, any handful albums does not give the whole picture. Then again, seven records are nothing to shake a stick at. The Fall are somehow constant yet constantly in flux. These albums serve as benchmarks, quality dispatches charting the developments and changing methods and priorities of the band. I look forward to what 2015 brings.