Saturday, October 10, 2009

JUDEE SILL: Judee Sill

Judee Sill - Judee Sill
Reading what the good Colonel has to say about Plastic Ono Band got me thinking about the relationship between my response to art and my response the the artist. He’s right to acknowledge his subjectivity, and I think if he hadn’t been exposed to the Beatle Cult so frequently during his youth, he would be able to enjoy that album as much as I do. An artist’s biography doesn’t have to sink their work, in fact, sometimes it can enhance it. Just ask your friendly neighborhood Proust scholar or Judee Sill fan.

Just as discussions of Fela Kuti (“The government killed his mom, man!”) and Sun Ra (“That dude was from Jupiter!”) can’t resist the biopic-ready anecdotes that liter liner notes and rock-mag retrospectives, trumped up for ecstatic record-store proselytizing and dialed down for stoic newswire obitu-blurbs, so too does some iteration of Judee Sill’s tragically short arc of delinquency, addiction, arrest, redemption, and fatal relapse accompany almost any discussion of her wonderful music.

Sill’s meager repertoire, however (she completed just two albums before she died) is so much more than the soundtrack to a desperate American girl’s chaotic biography. In fact, on record she sounds triumphant and hopeful, with just a hint of pain lurking around the edges. The back-story adds a layer of meaning, but it doesn’t turn the music into a death-watch like all those Kurt Cobain lyrics about guns.

Imagine a Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter’s version of Alejandro Jodorowski’s El Topo, and you’ll get a sense of the distinct setting painted in Sill’s songs; a dusty prairie populated by gun-slinging mystics riding toward Gnostic transcendence. Sill’s pristine, cathedral voice gives you an immediate taste: a certain angel-with-a-twang quality (“get” becomes “git”) that straddles the line between the Southwest U.S. and the kind of heaven imagined in Sunday-school daydreams. Beneath these soaring vocals, Sill crafts arrangements informed equally by J.S. Bach and the gospel licks she picked up during her incarceration.

Every song is filled with wounded hope, like “The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown”, a loping mystic nursery rhyme about apocalyptic wars between good and evil, with Sill’s soul as the battlefield. As it comes to an end, her double-tracked voice splits off into a soaring round. It’s absolutely elevating.

The obvious highlight, though, is “Jesus Was A Crossmaker”. A stop-in-your tracks beauty of a song, it’s been covered (poorly) by Warren Zevon, The Hollies, Cass Elliot, and Linda Ronstadt, who irritatingly changed the title to remove the potential for blasphemy. (Frida Hyvönen does an excellent rendition, however.) The song’s ambivalence is amplified by its context within Sill’s canon. The ridge-riders and archetypal men in her songs are overwhelmingly messianic. Rooted as she is in Christian mysticism, however, she only uses the name “Jesus” in this one song, which, as it turns out, is not about Jesus at all. Hersey has it that a bad relationship with a member of the Eagles inspired the lyric, and said FM-twang stalwart is portrayed as “a bandit and a heartbreaker” who enticed her before vanishing. He’s an exorcist gunslinger who chases the devil but leaves the door wide open for the devil to return. He is good plus evil, but who isn’t? Sure, he’s trouble, but, as the song reminds us, even Jesus was trouble. Anyone who has studied the gospels seriously is bound to have some ambivalent feelings about Jesus; he’s a troubling figure, a disturbing character filled with insane compassion and radicalized unorthodoxy. Caring for this Jesus is much harder than caring for the sanitized Caucasian logo of mainstream protestant comfort food. And if we can love Jesus not in spite of his troubling characteristics but because of them, then we can certainly love the people in our lives for their erraticness, their unreliability, their anger and their insanity.

That's not the easiest pill to take, but when it comes from someone as cautiously hopeful as Judee Sill, it’s hard to be cynical. This album’s final line could come across as kindergarten motivational-speak, but from a bank-robbing drug addict turned troubadour, it isn’t hard to believe that “However we are is okay.” Not perfect, not without flaws. Okay.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

JOHN LENNON: Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon - John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band
Plastic Ono Band is hailed by adherents as a powerful masterpiece but this album’s emotional punch depends entirely on the listener’s investment in the person of John Lennon.

The ex-Beatle’s direct, confrontational lyrics (delivered in a "seething fury" or a "wounded coo", depending on which emotional extreme he wishes to telegraph at the moment) offer litte beyond bland fodder for celeb-obsessed voyeurism, like peeking into the naughty diary of a big star who, as it turns out, is less than compelling. When he branches out beyond his own wounded psyche to discuss religion (“God”) or socio-economic stratification (“Working Class Hero”) he is unable to match his incredible vanity with any real insight, instead settling for watered-down Marxist slogans and self-deification.

Sometimes this kind of auto-bio-pop is compelling in a car-wreck kind of way. Kanye West’s entire career, for example, can be seen as an inadvertent concept piece about a materialistic narcissist whose irrational persecution complex gradually gives way to budding self-awareness. Kanye, however, despite
his best efforts, is unburdened by the kind of naive hero-worship poured over Lennon’s grave by Boomer sycophants. Like Lennon, West believes that a recording contract is a suitable substitute for a basic understanding of political and cultural issues, but his delusion is his own. The John Lennon mythology hangs over every note of Plastic Ono Band like an ugly VH1 albatross.

It’s a real shame, too, because there are some nice ideas here, even if Lennon and producer Phil Spector (working against his usual modus operandi to make the album as self-consciously “raw” as possible) don’t exactly now what to do with them. "God" has an aching repetition that doesn’t require a detailed arrangement, “Isolation” has a clever chord structure, and “Mother” would be a wistful, enjoyable ballad without the screaming theatrics and pathetic post-mortem pleas for parental affection.

All of those good moments are squandered. The only way to purely enjoy this album would be to listen to it with no knowledge of who John Lennon is or what he inexplicably means to people. For me, however, such a blissfully objective listen is impossible. I grew up fully immersed in Baby Boomer mythology, a mythology I would eventually renounce as shallow, revisionist nonsense. I can never really enjoy this album as much as I would like to, because it is impossible for me to separate it from the life of the auteur.

Friday, May 29, 2009

ISIS: Wavering Radiant

Isis - Wavering Radiant
The music on Wavering Radiant, the fifth album from Isis, uproots the traditionally earthbound sonics of Metal, deploying genre tokens (cookie-monster growls, distorted guitars) for purposes far from that forehead-punching we all love so much. This isn't the studded-leather of an Iron Maiden B-movie or the booze-and-blood pummel-chug of a Slayer melee. This stuff is weirdly ethereal.

Like Sleep, Isis tug at your ear with texture over virtuosity, shifting moods with negative space and gradual thematic development instead of sudden good-cop/bad-cop dynamics and glittering guitar shred. Where Sleep's distortion-pedal texture is a lead giant, however, Isis use their fancy stomp boxes to craft a a warm stratosphere of misty guitar sound that drowns listeners instead of crushing them.

This abrasive/ethereal sound (downy-soft blankets on beds of nails) and the mixed-low vocals put me in the same woozy headspace as My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and it gets even less Metal than that, fist-clenchers and teeth-grinders: The opening of "Hand of the Host" actually recalls Disintegration by The Cure. You might say that this is the sensitive art-kid metal that gets beat up by Slayer and Death but doesn't want to play Final Fantasy VII with Dragonforce. It wouldn't be terribly surprising to see Isis swapping mascara and Carl Jung essays with Tool. (Tool's Adam Jones was even nice enough to take time out from his band's latest Epic Hiatus to play guitar on Wavering Radiant. And all the Metalheads hug each other and knit scarves and swap tofu recipes.)

I've got no Metal credentials, and I'm pretty much a weepy pantywaist, but lest you think my endorsement of the new Isis record is an indie-kid dressing up to play headbanger, let me assure you that my Thrash-threshold is up to snuff. (Emperor isn't so scary once you've heard Throbbing Gristle.) I know it sounds like my affinity for this music is based on how un-Metal it is, and maybe that's partially true, but I'm not so attached to any genre that I require a test of authenticity. Who needs that black t-shirt albatross when you've got creativity like these guys? Isis are not farting around. They aren't watering down the music you love so your mom and Simon Cowell will buy, buy, buy at the iTunes machine. They just don't need to puff up their chests in a more-satanic-than-thou pissing contest. This band has written the best set of American Metal tunes since at least Lateralus, if not Master of Puppets, and they play them like it's no big deal, interacting with confident, sturdy musicianship, actually listening to each other instead of trying to outplay each other. Who needs Metal Ethos? Give us Isis.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

SLEEP: Dopesmoker

Sleep - Dopesmoker
The image of Godzilla, plastic buildings at his foam-suit feet, is as iconic as anything in 20th Century pop culture. In the 1998 Hollywood remake the creature was redesigned into obscurity, the lumbering icon replaced with a reptilian special effect that failed to leave a single footprint on our collective memory. This version was scarier and faster, and a greater threat to the puny protagonists, but it missed the point. Nuclear allegories aside, what audiences love about Godzilla isn't terror. We love watching this chubby harbinger of destruction on his molasses rampages because he looks so COOL. It's not complicated. It appeals to our simplest tastes. Godzilla is just plain cool.

In the same way, what many of us love about Metal isn't understood by the prog-technicians of technical metal. Why is Black Sabbath's legacy so unassailable while only a few guitar store aficionados sing the praises of Dream Theater? Maybe Metal's most durable contribution to culture isn't a penchant for certain malevolent modalities, but an uncomplicated (and incredibly cool) sonic palette of oozing sludge. Maybe the rightful heirs to Black Sabbath are SunnO))) and Merzbow, not Tool and Opeth.

Sleep's Dopesmoker demonstrates that music can thrill with pure heaviness as its only virtue. They have mined Metal and chipped away everything superfluous, leaving nothing but a down-tuned 4/4, plodding incessantly with no interest in flash or pomp. This is a triumph of timbre over pitch, compositional ambitions restrained to conjure a simple, foam-suit behemoth that lumbers for about an hour. And just so we're clear, that hour is ONE SONG.

Before hearing this album, I had heard it described several times. "These guys play one song for an hour! Etc." I couldn't understand why anyone would be interested in this, but , but the fact the the descriptions were always followed by an ecstatic recommendation stuck with me, and on one of those hungry but budget-constrained hunts through Ann Arbor's Wazoo records, a used copy of Dopesmoker was enough to make me put back whatever else was in my hands. I've always been uncontrollably curious about music that strains the limits of credulity. Good or bad, anything that will make me say "I can't belive this exists" is a must-hear.

The existence of Dopesmoker isn't nearly as hard to swallow as the record's immense entertainment value. Given the pot-numbed reaction time for which Doom metal musicians are famous, an album like this is inevitable. That this album is so listenable is a testament not to the music-geek reverence for "uncompromising" music, but to the power of a sludge guitar to pummel the brain's pleasure centers. Kinda like a drug.

The chant-growl vocals, narrating a Biblical stoner fantasy with just two notes, are welcome diversions from the distortion storm, and the guitar solo at the 15-minute mark and the part just past the 40-minute mark where they turn off the distortion pedal are also highlights, but the core appeal of the album is the Earth-sized monolith of turgid guitar tone. The way Brian Eno, Flying Lotus, Tim Hecker and Krzysztof Penderecki create sound worlds, settings instead of narratives, maps rather than comic books, Sleep have made a monument, a six-stringed Marshall stack mountain.

Though Jerusalem, an earlier and apparently compromised version of this album, was arbitrarily divided into movements, Dopesmoker is one marathon track. This makes it hard to listen to in increments, (though if you approach this album as sonic wallpaper, the first twenty minutes over and over are as good as anything else here) but it also means that listening to Dopesmoker is an event. There are plenty of albums that I listen to more often than I listen to this one, but there are few albums for which I carefully set aside a predetermined amount of time. Dopesmoker is a captivating trip (and I mean that in an honest spirit of sobriety) into a blinding void of heaviness. Make sure your CD shelf is damn sturdy before you buy this.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

ZOMBY: Where Were U in '92?

Zomby - Where Were U in '92?
Somehow, Zomby got it into his head that his first full-length shouldn’t continue in the direction of the fantastic string of dubstep singles that put him square in the sights of subgenre-naming vinyl-only headz worldwide, but should be a 39-minutes-and-change fireball that affectionately recreates the sound of early 1990s jungle, with slight forays into the house and techno sounds of the day. If he had asked me, I would have said “In 92? I was in elementary school, learning to write in cursive, where were you, Zomby?” and then I would have told him to just make a whole album that sounds like “Liquid Dancehall”. Zomby, being a gentleman of sound mind and impeccable taste, would no doubt have had the wisdom to ignore my advice and make this album instead.

Most of these fourteen tracks have short running times and no real beginning or end, slamming into each other in an end-to-end brick wall of beats. This may inspire fantasies about delicious full-length versions of these tracks hiding on DATs in Zomby’s closet, but the album doesn’t quite play out like the DJ mix you might expect. The lack of smooth transitions echoes track one’s title (“Fuck Mixing, Let’s Dance”) and emphasizes Zomby’s preference for straight-banging dance music over careful sonic (or vinyl) manipulation. In this music’s delirious ecstasy (pardon the pun,) you can hear a bright-eyed nostalgia for a dance music culture before LTJ Bukem and the like “elevated” jungle into the polite terrain of smoother (and more arrogantly named) “intelligent drum and bass". This is not the refined sound of soundtracks and car commercials, and the aerobics-class cheese melted into much of this music bolsters its unpretentious, raving sincerity. Sincerity; not reverence. This album never feels like devotion so much as celebration.

Plenty of artists have traded in received nostalgia for a bygone slice of pop (The Poets of Rhythm, The Darkness, The Pipettes) often with enjoyable, if not durable, results. Sometimes this is ironic pastiche and sometimes it is affectionate imitation, but either way, it smells suspiciously like an admission of defeat, as if we have reached a cultural dead end and our record-buying future holds nothing for us except reissues and star-studded tribute albums. Will there be no John Cage or Grandmaster Flash of tomorrow? Maybe I’m jumping the gun. Maybe Zomby IS the next John Cage (although I like him better as the first Zomby.) Maybe Zomby is making one last nostalgic stop before launching into the wide unknown. When the liner notes proudly proclaim that this record was made using only early 1990s gear, it’s a big flashing clue that Zomby is... not crossing, but flirting with the line between an art and a discipline.

Approaching music as a discipline is rarely a good way to get me running to the record store with my hard-earned substitute-teaching money in hand. This kind of approach gives birth to many breeds of mutant snobbery, from the theory-head sanctimony of too-smart-to-like-the-Ramones music majors to the arch-conservative, Wynton Marsalis attitude that continues to turn jazz into a dusty wax museum instead of a thriving art form. Rebel! Reject! Renounce! Be a cultural heretic, a pop-apostate! Musicians obsessed with the past are doomed to repeat it. Or imitate it. Or cover it. The lecture blurted out to kids in Pink Floyd t-shirts: “Don’t let the Keepers of Taste stagnate the airwaves! Find your own heroes!” That being said, if you’ll pardon this dispatch from the Village Green Preservation Society, maybe there is something to be said for glancing back over our shoulders, even turning around for a moment or two…

Bob Dylan’s debut album was a precedent for Zomby's. Dylan began his career with a troubadour-repertoire of traditional folk songs and one original, the Guthrie tribute “Song to Woody”. Famous as an innovative, forward-thinking pioneer (although I might dispute that reputation), Dylan started out with a record as backwards-looking as possible. His conection with this tradition grounded him, and gave him a foundation on which he could build his ragged, thin-mercury folk rock. Charles Mingus is also admired for keeping alive embers of the jazz tradition, but his other foot was always placed firmly in the avant-garde. Traditions change, and an artist can inherit them without being enslaved by them. A great musician can expose the tradition’s un-mined facets, or use that tradition as a jumping-off point or a warm-up as their unique identity is developing. Sticking close to a tradition can also be a sneering (and probably deserved) finger-in-the-face to staunch demagogues like me who think music has to innovate in order to have value.

The music on Where Were U in '92? is too much reckless fun to be judged simply as craft, but the imitation is too exact for it to not be judged as a discipline. I am sure that this album will be listened to and discussed very differently in light of Zomby's work in the future. For now, though, I can enjoy it without the burden of any context other than possibility. I’m not sure what Zomby’s intentions are, but I think he might tell us “Fuck Criticism, Let’s Dance.”

Friday, March 20, 2009

KRAFTWERK: Minimum-Maximum

Kraftwerk - Minimum-Maximum
If you’re interested in exploring Kraftwerk primarily for their historical importance, you’ll want to hear their classic 1974-1981 studio albums: Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World (and if you can, snag a copy of the apocryphal 1973 gem Ralf & Florian.) If your primary interest in Hütter, Schneider and The Other Two Guys is less academic and more musical, however, Minimum-Maximum, a compilation of live performances form a 2004 world tour, is a great overview, and as close as it comes to one-stop-shopping for Kraftwerk.

I don’t know how much of this music is actually “live” in the sense that it is performed in real-time by human beings, but that’s beside the point. Or maybe it IS the point. I know that audiences at this show were treated to an audio-visual experience masterminded by four identically-dressed Germans standing at four identical podiums, each with a laptop – the logical update from the punch-card synths used to make the famous studio versions of these songs – and I doubt that much of the show is improvised, even if these synched computers are under the complete control of their operators. It’s possible that the members of Kraftwerk would tell you that the opposite is true, that the operators are controlled by the machines. This is the group, after all, who designed robots to take their place during concerts. Kraftwerk, since the close of the group’s infancy (that is, since the release of Autobahn), has always been primarily conceptual, and their meditations on the union of machine and man have provided the framework for and drive behind all of the actual beats and melodies. The focus may be bicycles, spacelabs, pocket calculators or laptops, but the sentiment remains positive, embracing rather than retreating from this cybernetic coupling.

With the fresh timbres of more contemporary equipment, the close kinship between the music of Kraftwerk and Ralf and Florian’s Detroit lovechild is more apparent than ever – not that anyone needed a reminder that techno was born at some imaginary intersection of Cass Avenue and the Autobahn. The fact that bedroom producers from Belleville, growing up so close to George Clinton country, heard the funk in THIS is one of those electrifying miracles of modern music. Personally, I originally didn’t feel this music luring my hips into any kind of movement, much less the endless bodily hedonism of a warehouse dancefloor. In fact, while working at a Michigan video store one summer, I began to notice that the exploratory Kraftwerk binge I’d been on (I was working backwards from Aphex Twin, you see,) had rubbed off on me considerably by leaving me in a state of comfortable emotional numbness, speaking in short, efficient sentences and moving with slight, controlled motions. (As impressionable as I apparently was that summer, it’s a good thing I was listening to Kraftwerk and not NWA.) Subsequent exposure to techno, however, particularly that of the Derrick May variety, has opened my eyes to the funk, no matter how rigid and asexual, that thumps like clockwork in the Man-Machine’s chest cavity.

As for the emotional numbness, that view of Kraftwerk was deflated by a rush back to Trans-Europe Express after a classmate in college told me that “Some of Kraftwerk’s music is sooo sad…” The melancholy is there, but like the funk, you have to look for it, for that steel and wires heart that looks like gears in a watch.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

DAVID AXELROD: Seriously Deep

David Axelrod - Seriously Deep
David Axelrod’s Seriously Deep has obtained a reputation as a Holy Grail for crate-diggers. Long out of print and filled with breaks and beats that scream “Sample me!” it is exactly the kind of hidden treasure that aspiring hip-hop producers would go nuts for. Much of Axelrod’s current notoriety, in fact, stems from the frequent use of Axelrod samples in some rather noteworthy hip-hop productions. (For instance, fans of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… are advised to seek out Axelrod’s wonderful Songs of Experience to hear a familiar piano line.)

Listening to a David Axelrod album, it’s easy to see why he’s sampled so much; his production gives everything a full (but not over-polished) sound, and he lets his compositions stretch out and develop, which means a lot of loop-able stretches of just drums or just drums and bass, particularly on this album. “Easy to sample” does not necessarily translate to “Fun to listen to,” but there’s another quality to Axelrod’s music that makes him appealing to sampling and non-sampling listeners alike: his penchant for evocative, cinematic grooves.

On Seriously Deep, Axelrod’s haunting string arrangements take a backseat, leaving the emphasis on Rhodes piano, syncopated clavinet, saxophone and, above all, a lock-tight rhythm section. This album is all about low-key, simmering funk. Perhaps the direction taken here is partially due to the fact that Axelrod, unusually for him, didn’t produce this album himself, leaving those duties to Jimmy Bowen and Cannonball Adderley, (Axelrod had produced several records for Adderly before this album was made), and is given a “Composed, Arranged and Conducted by” credit. The fact that anyone, particularly someone who is not also playing an instrument, is credited with “composing” gives you an idea of what this like. It’s funky jazz fusion, not too far removed from Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock, but with more structure than is usually heard in this kind of thing. The musicians don’t have room to noodle, and use their limited soloing space efficiently.

Axelrod doesn’t offer flowery melodic lines here, and often the other instruments seem like they’re just the icing on a great big drum cake, something to fill in the sonic empty space around the drums and percussion played by Ndugu and Mailto Correa, respectively. Frequently, everything else drops out, leaving just naked drums. The second-in-command seat is occupied by Jim Hughhart’s rubbery, assured (read: bad-ass) bass-playing.

Typically, jazz-funk isn’t focused on creating a setting or atmosphere, evoking, if anything, a sun-warmed Detroit sidewalk or a stoned house party. Even when working in a typically earth-bound mileu like this, however, the perennially cinematic Axelrod can’t help blasting into space; not the cartoon galaxy of Parliament, but a spooky, extra-terrestrial slow-drive. This record, album-closer “Reverie” in particular, takes its pimped-out groove to all kind of mysterious and seductive places. Occasionally, some dated synth-tones threaten to break the spell, but after a few listens you don’t mind.

This album is now readily available, thanks to the fine folks at Dusty Groove America, who reissued it in 2008. It appears to have been mastered directly from a mint-condition vinyl copy, and while there is a very brief dropout in the left channel during track two, and a tiny bit of static during track six, the sound is otherwise terrific; warm, clear and unhindered by the compression and questionable EQ-tinkering that often plagues digital remastering. It's a more-than-welcome release.