Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Q1-09 Update

Every good institution should have quarterly updates and GWILT is no different. And since this is a completely not-for-profit outfit, really the only thing I can report on here are the albums I’ve obtained so far in the year. I believe I’ve managed to pick up all the ones I’ve been looking forward to as well as a couple that I wasn’t aware of until the 11th hour, which always makes for a happy surprise.

The album I’ve been most anticipating, and which has in every way lived up to my expectations, is the latest offering from Robyn Hitchcock (here again with his Venus 3 supergroup), Goodnight Oslo. I still maintain that as brilliant has his career has been since his Soft Boys days and onward, his output of the past ten or so years has easily been his strongest. When he finally shed the Syd Barrett skin he’d been (perhaps unintentionally) wrapped in sometime in the late 80s, he was finally able to embrace the 60s as an era and not just one facet of it; though admittedly with albums as fantastically strong as Fegmania, I Often Dream of Trains and Gotta Let This Hen Out, etc, I know I’m really stepping out on a limb here (and please feel free to disagree if you like). While he may not be churning out as many quirky ditties along the lines of The Man with the Light Bulb Head, My Wife and My Dead Wife or Brenda’s Iron Sledge, there’s still enough head scratching oddness here to make his lyrics as equally obscure as they are poignant. RH has always been steeped in allegory and has learned well how to maintain the offbeat without becoming a washed parody of himself. I believe much of this has come with further maturity and an extreme comfort within his persona, as his recent releases have been much more relaxed (though no less excellently executed) as his frantic (almost violent) days with the Egyptians, etc. As always, he’s making commentary on the things he feels like, whether its relative or not to the immediate music/social environment is secondary or even in spite of, and the fact that he comments at his leisure makes his entire catalogue relevant whether it’s 1986 or 2013 (and yes, it’s coming kids). And as for the music on Goodnight Oslo, it’s all here -- the funky jaunt of the opener What You Is (complete with “hey, hey” female vocals), the achingly Beatlesesque (if in nothing else harmony) I’m Falling or a tune I’m sure Uncle Bob wishes he’d written himself, Hurry for the Sky. There’s also plenty of his neo-retro-pop-la-la, which could fit well with most any RH era: Your Head Here, Up to Our Nex, Intricate Thing and the bonus e.p. track I Just Wanna Be Loved. Even casual fans will at the very least enjoy this record for a background/party listen and true-to-the-faith believers, well, you know better than I…

One of this year’s surprises was a new release from Chris Isaak, Mr. Lucky, and his first since 2002’s Always Got Tonight (if you don’t count his Christmas and live albums), which I found to be a rather maudlin and tedious affair. Mr. Lucky, however, is Isaak back on form. Not that he ever much strays from his 50s crooner via Roy Orbison motif, but has been known to dabble in various styles and grooves (while maintaining his lyrical bent towards lost, forsaken and unrequited love) that don’t always mesh well (with this listener anyway). And while Mr. Lucky does have its slight flaws for this reason (and when I say that, I say it with the affection of a fan who’d rather hear a flawed CI song than anything by Big & Rich or the like…did I just compare Chris Isaak to Big & Rich?), there’s still a lot of classic, classic CI on here. If nothing else, Chris could have been a singles artist (had the world only picked up on more than Wicked Game), ‘cos he can definitely turn a hook and the album’s second track (and I believe lead single) We Let Her Down is one of those catchy, mid temp, downbeat pop slices that makes the late 30 something gals with the long hair and the low cut tops rock back and forth to a semblance of something called rhythm. And yes, that’s a good thing. We’ve Got Tomorrow digs back into Holly-like Crickets bounce and then incorporates a horn section that makes it an equal candidate for either the Porter Wagoner or Lawrence Welk Shows. Summer Holiday, We Lost Our Way and Very Pretty Girl are all standard though standout Isaak that could have been found on any of his “heyday” albums, with the latter almost sounding sinister enough to be an outtake from his 1987 self-titled sophomore effort. Of two duets, his retake with Trisha Yearwood of Speak of the Devil’s Breaking Apart is a competent but ultimately pointless affair as Yearwood’s presence does nothing to the overall interpretation of the song and would have served better as a surprise guest appearance live instead of taking up space here. His new to this album I Lose My Heart with Michelle Branch is old school CI in a country mood and the guitar lick is one of the best of the album. Casual fans probably won’t be interested in this album and would be better off picking up the flawless Forever Blue or “the one with the hit,” Heart Shaped World. But for big fans this is (to me) a return to form and a much appreciated “welcome back” after a seven-year silence. Also, check out the Chris Isaak Hour on A&E/Biography channel. It’s good stuff.

My other purchases thus far in 2009 are Morrissey’s Years of Refusal, a true “true to form” return to his more halcyon days, especially pointing to Vauxhall and I (though some of my “die hard” Moz fan friends are still not impressed by his “comeback”), Pet Shop Boys’ Yes, which was another surprise and, the few times I’ve had a moment, a truly immediate and delightful listen and John Frusciante’s The Empyrean, which I’d really been looking forward to but as yet have not had (made) the time to give a listen. But stay tuned for possible updates on these and other albums as we continue to explore the music of 2009.

(As an aside, to be honest with you, the disc currently getting the most spins is the Rosebuds October 2008 release Life Like, which is everything retro pop music should be in today’s oversaturated age.)

I’m also going to take this opportunity to announce a new “series” of reviews called the Random Release Review. This is where I’ll be going to each shelf (20 in all) of my CD cabinet and (turning my head) picking a CD at random, be it album, ep, single, compilation or one of Karla’s that I’m in no way familiar with. The first five have already been selected and the first one begins with the letter B (or the band does at any rate). Stay tuned for that hopefully within the first week of April.

Until then, check out my friend Greg’s music blog, The Inconsiderate Mixtape, for his take on music that’s great and not just good. I know there’s a way to add his link to the side over here, but until I figure that out, just click above and bookmark.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Verse-Chorus-Verse, Phooey!

In the tradition of Brian Eno, John Cage (and Cale), Faust, Cluster, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, Roger O’Donnell and heck, even yours truly, George Harrison’s 1969 solo sophomore effort “Electronic Sound” is one of the earliest excursions into the experimental deconstruction of popular music and the fleshing of found sounds. And it’s a darn fine album to boot. If Harrison ever wanted to shed an audience in his or any other era, this was the record to do it. Recorded entirely with a moog synthesizer, these two lengthy pieces are less songs than they are disconnected ideas of what music is made of, and since the idea of the solo balladeer has been in existence for centuries, even what music could be. Aside from a few schools of drone or discordant contemporary classical, there wasn’t much out there that really challenged the verse-chorus-verse mentality of western music in any genre. Even free-form jazz had a semblance of structure, a beginning and an end, a key you could fine notes to whistle in and instruments you could recognize. But here is found little more than a collection of colored noise and a few stray notes following each other to nowhere. You will not find a melody, a beat, a rhythm, a pattern or anything resembling any sort of structure, but you will find textures, atmospheres and an overall mood. And really, isn’t that what music is about, the conveyance of a particular feeling? Joy, despair, regret, get-down-and-party, these are all emotive platforms from which thousands of songs have been built, so who says that you have to have two verse-choruses, a solo and a repetitive outro to make it any more or less a song?

One of my more recent listens to this album, and you really have to listen for it to be anything more than background banter, was around 2am while feeding Fox a bottle. The emotional package I received at this time was something akin to fear and there were moments when I thought some of these snaking non-patterns were literally, even purposefully splitting open my brain like an apple. It was possibly the closest I’ve come to a musically enhanced acid trip without ever dropping and I can imagine that anyone under the influence would be in for quite a ride (from which they may conceivably never return).

The second and final release on Zapple Records (the other being John & Yoko’s “Unfinished Business No. 2: Life With the Lions”), fans at the time would, or at least should, have known that this record was not going to be “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” or “Piggies” or even “Within You Without You.” It’s no wonder that it didn’t chart, but in a time when stretching the boundaries of the mind through art was all the rage, you’d have thought it would have been a bit more well received critically. But with hindsight critics have warmed up quite nicely, hailing Harrison as a pioneer far ahead of his time. And what’s exceptional about this album is how well it’s held up over the years, simply because it was created for no time, to fit no style or conception of music, but to simply exist as it, an account of what can be done and considered if you only get out of the box.

Here’s a snippet, a vid clip montage from mainly the Beatles era and various interviews, including an extended one with Ravi Shankar. Odd, but will give you an idea.