Friday, April 29, 2011

Three Off the Cuff

So Borders it seems has filed for bankruptcy. This is sad in a lot of ways, a big one being that I’ve picked up a lot of good music from them, mainly on lunch breaks, for the past ten plus years. While more recent releases were priced at the ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? level, you could get a lot of “classic” artists for $9-11, sometimes less, and so I fattened my collections of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground (yes, I got into them late because I HATED them until I was around 24) considerably from their shelves. Also, Borders is where I first took a chance with X, the Go-Betweens and Love. Bottom line, they’ve been good to me.

The one where most of this went down, over in the Brentwood Kroger area, discontinued the bulk of its musical selection quite some time ago (an early sign of trouble brewing). Thankfully, for nostalgia’s sake, it seems to be hanging in there. But the one in Cool Springs (all you out-o’-towners following this?) has begun liquidating merchandise at reduced prices. So, a few weeks ago JT and I went to go check out the deals when things were at 30%. I think JT got a Milli Vanilli remixes album and I picked up three CDs at a reasonable bargain.

They are as follows…

Phil Collins – No Jacket Required: JT has been praising this album in recent months, calling it good pop, etc, so this one came highly recommended by him. Even though he’s sort of a dummy, the price was right, so why not? Phil Collins is one of those musical enigmas. Back when I was a kid I knew him as the lead singer for Genesis, fronting the mega hits from Invisible Touch with a sappy sincerity that reached me enough to end up purchasing the album. I remember when I learned that he was also the DRUMMER for Genesis. WHOA, a drummer that sings?? My world just expanded... And then, a bit later, that he wasn’t the original lead singer, but that Peter Gabriel was (…the Sledgehammer dude, no way!!) and that their music back then was “really weird.” (These days I’m a decent fan of the Gabriel era stuff and I still think it’s “really weird,” even by prog rock standards.) So that gave PC some “skin cred” when heretofore (or maybe theretofore?) I’d just sorta written him off as another goofy pop singer. Of course later on when I got into Eno and saw that he played drums on cuts from classic albums like Another Green World, my mind was sufficiently blown and I had an a) newfound respect for Phil even though I b) lamented his nosedive into adult contemporary pop cheese (long before he was at an age where that was inevitable).

But having said all of that, No Jacket Required sorta is but really isn’t “pop cheese.” Yes, the big hits like Su-su-sussudio and Take Me Home are the kind of watered down New Wave that was topping the charts back in 1985 and, with the exception of Don’t Lose My Number, I was never a fan of any of those singles either then or even much now with nostalgia. What ultimately makes this album work are the non-single tracks, which prove that not only could Phil write a hit pop tune, but he was also still in touch with his more experimental roots. I would stand any of these cuts up against and ultimately above all of their sizable hit single siblings any day of the week. But what’s nice is, after a few listens, I began to appreciate the subtle nuances that even the hits have when taken in context of the entire album, which speaks volumes for the integrity of the music and for Phil as a “legit” musician, even as he was becoming a pop icon. Only in the 80s, kids, could you be balls out Top 40 cheese and still rather cool – though let’s face it, Phil Collins was a bit of a dork even back in 1974.

Long story short, No Jacket Required was a great purchase (yes, JT was right…), and really works as an “all you need” from Phil Collins. Sure, there are some stray tracks here and there that are fine, but the only really, really good one is In the Air Tonight, and let’s face it, we’ll all hear that one in random retail stores about a billion more times before we die.

The Jayhawks – The Bunkhouse Album: Every established band has to have a first album, a starting point for the general public. Sometimes this is the best thing they ever do and sometimes it’s the seed of greatness yet to come. Still, other times it just is what it is and nothing more - a root, a footnote, a foundation. For the Jayhawks this is certainly not the former, and while it could arguably be lumped in with that middle bit, it’s really more of the latter type album – there, step one. They were still several years and licks away from the lush textures and rich harmonies that would create alt-country classics like Hollywood Town Hall and Forever the Green Grass, but that doesn’t mean The Bunkhouse Album (or Tapes as it’s often referred) isn’t a batch of well written and nicely executed songs. The problem here, if you want to call it that, is that these songs are good, sometimes great, but they’re not overly original in sound, as the Jayhawks are very much wearing their influences on their collective sleeves. In this case its Dylan channeled through Gram Parsons, which is especially evident in the prominent use of slide guitar and, to a lesser extent, vocal delivery. But that being said, this is an even set of solid rockers providing plenty of toe tapping upbeats, sing along choruses and countrified one-liners to make you snicker. The real issue is that several songs in things start sounding a bit the same, and there’s nothing to really break the monotony of verse, chorus, verse, guitar solo. Also, hearing this one after the aforementioned masterpieces, it’s sorta hard going back. Sure, in 1986 they were something of novelty, and probably sounded fresh and promising to a batch of like-minded folks who were tired of New Wave, had no interest in hair metal, but maybe weren’t familiar with the Flying Burrito Brothers (or simply appreciated the nostalgic nod). Essentially this is an album of the times and a stepping stone for some great writers and players to get “that” out of their system and start creating something original. If you’re expecting Forever the Green Grass in an embryonic form, then The Bunkhouse Album is not for you. But if you just like good music, then I think Borders still has another copy.

Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Through the Devil Softly: I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the “cool” thing about alternative music breaking in the early 90s is that a lot of lesser known, cult status bands who had been slogging away in “you won’t find their albums at Target” obscurity finally got a bit of a mainstream pay off before either breaking up (as a result) or fading back into the ether. While Mazzy Star hadn’t been around too terribly long before Fade Into You was a sleeper hit in 1993, they had members who stretched all the way back to the Paisley Underground scene of the early 80s, a movement whose only chart success outfit was (if you can believe it) the Bangles.

But all of that is neither here nor there.

I was never a big Mazzy Star fan, though Fade into You is an undisputed alt-classic and So Tonight That I Might See an excellent album. This is really more a result of under exposure due to lack of time, ‘cos I certainly like what I’ve heard. So, with Mazzy Star on hold and vocalist Hope Sandoval pursuing a solo deal the past decade or so, I thought it would be cool to catch up on lost ground and see what she was up to…and of course, the price was right. Long story short, Through the Devil Softly (which is an awesome title) is everything you’d want and expect from a Hope Sandoval related release. Dreamy, atmospheric and understated, this is basically a warmer, even more subdued and generally less noisy version of what she was doing with Mazzy Star fifteen years before; not so much a step forward as a further fleshing of an already cultivated and wonderful sound, which is fine. While a perfect backdrop for quiet, relaxing evenings at home or an easy night drive (or while your kids are screaming downstairs), don’t attempt to jazzercise or run a footrace to these tunes, ‘cos you’ll get lost in the haze and wind up with the rest of us in some dusky, western desert town. All joking aside, Through the Devil Softly is a nice offering of delicate, transcendent pop, not intending to take the world by storm or trying to top any charts, and just as likely to snag the attention of an interested ear as So Tonight That I Might See. The similarities with each album are enough to attract a listener fully into the fan base, while the subtle, but noticeable, differences offer proof of a flower that continues to bloom.

Monday, April 25, 2011

No Need for a New Wheel

I’m always excited when a long lasting and long time favorite artist comes out with something new. With some artists (no names here) there’s the inevitable worry that said release is just another late career attempt at staying relevant or simply cashing in or whatever. But really, I try to keep faith in older artists, with the thought that a creative mind once can be so again.

A stigma on many artists once they’ve hit the 10 year mark (or less) is that their new work is invariably compared to their “classic” output. That’s fair enough and only natural, but at the same time it’s often not fair. An artist must mature and grow or they simply stagnate. Sometimes the directions taken aren’t obvious or favorable, but the listener should try and appreciate the integrity of those decisions. (And even as I say this, I can think of loads of bad reasons to change a sound, but I’m pretending like it’s a perfect world where all musicians choose art over money, etc.)

With Brian Eno I never have that worry. And while I may not readily enjoy (and certainly don’t own) everything he comes out with, I can always appreciate whatever it is he’s doing (and with whomever) at the time.

Eno gets the “older stuff” bone thrown at him a lot, with critics (and fans?) expecting the second coming of Another Green World, Discreet Music or Apollo (to name but a few of his earlier classics). There’s a lot of “pressure” on him because, for all intents and purposes, Brian Eno (aka Brain One) is the godfather of ambient music and has broken much of the once fallow ground in the fields of experimental and electronic music, especially in regards to instrument manipulation and the creation of broad sound palates. (I think I know what I’m talking about here.)

Basically, he’s expected to reinvent the wheel with each new outing.

This is ridiculous, of course, and while many of his early albums have separate sounds and voices of their own, they also carry a unique personality that is distinctly Eno, with many of the same traits, tricks and mysterious studio magic he is so infamous for. And this can be said about many worthwhile artists from Bob Dylan to the Cure. (I’ll bet you that pairing will never happen again.) Just because an artist further explores already treaded (but not necessarily charted) territories, doesn’t make that release any less meaningful, significant or, where it really matters, enjoyable.

Eno got a bit of this lash from critics with his last proper solo release, his first foray in years into “pop” music, 2005’s Another Day on Earth. The basic idea seemed to be that it was adequate but uninspiring. Rubbish. It was fantastic, and while it may not have blown down any genre walls, it certainly proved that the creative juices were still flowing and quite potent, and I’ll honestly take it over Here Come the Warm Jets or Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). So take that, classic Eno.

Not that Eno pays attention to such things. He is a true artist focused on what he’s doing at the time and then moving to the next project. He certainly doesn’t care that I thought his latest collaboration with David Byrne was “nice but boring,” and likely (as with so many things out there) I will find the moment when that album hits me in the head like a hammer and then wonder why I didn’t “get it” the first time. (And no, I did not compare it to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, because frankly, how could you?)

With that said, enter his latest release, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, a collaboration with producer/composer Leo Abrahams and electronic musician Jon Hopkins (whose soundtrack for the 2010 indie flick Monsters, fyi, is awesome).

As with most Eno releases of the past 25 or so years, Small Craft on a Milk Sea has received mixed and often muddled reviews. Depending on the source will depend on how seriously I take either, and I’m not here to dissect them. I’m not even sure why I even mention it, maybe I was making a point. Or missing one.

Anyway, this album is basically broken down into three categories:

• Quiet, melodic vignettes
• Loud, atonal rhythm workouts
• Lush, atmospheric soundscapes

Of these, the second area is where he’s dabbled the least, and most notably during his 70s krautrock stints with Cluster, et al, so provides a bit more of a “new roll” if you will. 2 Forms of Anger is especially effective, punching out of the speakers like a race horse through the gate and building up layered intensity until everything ends with a rush of silence. The immediate follow up, Bone Jump, is a retro post-funk workout that would play nicely during the bizarre dream sequence of say a Dario Argento flick. And while there are the known elements of house and acid thrown in (Flint March, Horse), they are indelibly passed through the Brian Eno filter, with arcs of noise and planes of sheer sound uncovering near-melodic nuances your typical club DJ would never notice.

Meanwhile, the first and last bits will be the most familiar to fans of Eno’s work, and are excellent examples in both categories. This is simply pleasant and well-executed sound sculpting as only Eno and friends can provide it, touching back to albums like Music for Films, some of the Ambient series or his outings with Robert Fripp. There are moments of touching beauty and great, open distance, always harnessed and coalesced by the gentle, guiding hand of the master. Opening track Emerald and Lime creates the perfect platform launch with the floating sense of leaving on a voyage, encountering adventures both pleasurable and tremulous along the way and arriving at last in the twinkling star ether of Late Anthropocene, safe but mindfully stirred.

Basically, where you’re being taken, they don’t need wheels.

All metaphors aside, there’s nothing really earth shattering going on here – unless you just like to be blown away by good music. I’m not saying you’ve “heard all of this before,” I’m just saying that these things have been done before, possibly better, definitely worse, but the end result is a meaningful, adventurous and highly enjoyable offering from one of contemporary music’s foremost (non) musicians.

But of course all of you Eno fans already know this.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Of Skins and Heart - 30 Years On

I’ve talked a lot about Aussie outfit The Church and some of the related off shoots in these pages. Today, April 13, marks the 30th anniversary of their debut album Of Skins and Heart. (I guess technically that was yesterday in Australia.)

I remember picking this album up for $5.99 on cassette my freshman year in college, with a couple of newly acquired friends, at the Cool Spring Galleria. About five minutes later I met Alan Jackson. And I had green hair.

To tell you that I listened to this tape until the writing wore off and the reels got all loose and fidgety would pretty much indicate my die-hard devotion to this album, and for years it was my top pick of The Church’s catalog. In some ways it still is, and yet it’s really hard to compare the releases of those first few years to anything they’ve put out since the early 90s.

As far as debuts go, however, this one has everything:

· Obvious influences: A bit of a 60s psychedelic revival going on

· Indications of things to come: While this is undeniably pop, the cryptic lyrical imagery and unabashed guitar interplay (and the ability to solo) is an embryonic state of the extended, freeform “jams” of more recent efforts

· Youthful fervor: These guys truly believed in what they were doing and it shows

· Top notch songwriting: More on Kilbey in a bit

· Taut, well-executed yet relaxed playing: It’s called confidence

· An overall air of mystery that three decades later has not only stayed intact, but has only enhanced with age, despite their 80s mainstream success and recent accolades from the more knowledgeable portions of the music press

Musically speaking, this brand of Byrds jangle through a post-punk filter didn’t break down any genre barriers, or set a blueprint for thousands (though probably hundreds) of other like-minded young musicians to take note and follow, or start a revolution, or make much of a huge splash (initially) far outside its home country. It’s good enough to have, it just didn’t.

Cover of 1982 European/American Release

What it did do, however, was set the wheels in motion for The Church to begin their own distinctive musical journey, one unlike most any other act in rock history. And while there have been plenty of the typical high marks and pitfalls that pinpoint many a band’s career, everything was always played off in a way that was very uniquely The Church. This is proven by the fact that no matter what was going on, from label woes to personnel fall outs, the music always came first, reflecting the time, the place and the mindset of the band as they were at the moment (especially after 1990), and not that of the music scene either flourishing or collapsing around them (and often proving the latter with each successive musical triumph).

Steve Kilbey’s songwriting came to print full formed, and while it has grown immeasurably since the opening notes of For a Moment We’re Strangers, many a songwriter (including this one) would give his eye teeth to be half as mature, creative, insightful and ridiculously melodic as Kilbey was in 1980. And while he tackles more “rock recognizable” territory on this album than any other, even obvious relationship songs are littered with obscure, often puzzling imagery, and yet delivered so casually in that butter melting croon it all seems quite believable.

L-R: Marty Willson-Piper, Richard Ploog (he didn't play on the album, but was in all associated videos), Peter Koppes, Steve Kilbey

Equally as important as Kilbey’s songwriting (and of course bass playing) is the dual guitar force of Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper. Their shimmering interpretation of each song takes everything to the next level; both raw and elegant, boisterous and subdued, they state everything necessary by often remaining quite understated and overly unobtrusive, allowing each part to blend in with the rest to better enhance the overall quality of the song. While still far away from the dancing serpents that would create albums like Forget Yourself (Peter is still taking most, if not all, of the leads here), their ability to play off and compliment one another is especially evident on “the one that started it all,” The Unguarded Moment, and, personal favorite, Bel-Air.

And I would be remiss without giving Nick Ward, their original and practically unknown drummer, a nod for providing some of the best fills and emotional accents not only in The Church song list, but of rock music in general.

At the end of the day, Of Skins and Heart might not be the album I would steer a newly interested listener in (I think Starfish still holds that privilege), but it wouldn’t be a misstep either, as even Untitled #23 points to some of these more primitive moments, which in turn point right back into the present/future.