Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The new blog

Well, after a bit of fiddling around with designs and ideas and this and that, the new blog is, at last, up and running. Its focus is a little different than this one, and I hope to keep this one going as well, as I continue to marvel at all the wonderful music that I discover, pretty well literally every day.

But the new blog is a bit more about music on the edge - and, in fact, that's what I would have called it had the name no already been taken. So, instead, take a look at


Saturday, August 14, 2010

The resurrection of the blog

It has been about fifty squillion years since I last posted here, and it's been kind of nice to know that I'm not the only one who has been missing my blogging. So, it seems like it might be time to find the time to get things going again.

With both time and money more limited than I would like them to be, it's probably not going to be realistic to comment on an album a day in the way I did before, so I thought maybe a blog reborn might be able to be updated a couple of times a week, and maybe with a slightly different focus - albums, of course, but also discussions about music more generally: styles, trends, ideas, the things that make music work for us, the different ways music speaks to us, the different things it means to us, the different ways we discover it and connect to it.

It'd be great if I could get a few more people contributing to the blog, too ... not just by responding to my posts, but through contributing their own stuff as well. I'm not sure quite how to do that, but I'll have a bit of a think and a look around. Maybe a new site might be a good idea - perhaps through wordpress rather than blogspot.

Anyway, keep an eye on this space, and I'll get things up and running again soon!!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Revisting the lunar ladscape - the Flaming Lips does Dark Side of the Moon

At 15 years of age I cried inconsolably for hours when I discovered, in the recording of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which I had finally managed to buy after what seemed like an eternity of saving my pocket money, that there was a line sung by a group of Valkyries which, according to the score, was supposed to be sung by only one. You see, I just don’t like people tampering with the original. And it’s an obsession that I have never really outgrown.

So it was with some trepidation that yesterday I bought The Flaming Lips’ new reworking of the entire Pink Floyd masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon. But the Flaming Lips have been such an interesting band, and they seem to have a knack of doing such wacky things with music while still retaining both the music’s, and their own, dignity, that it was really impossible to avoid seeing what they had done with this music, which even today, 37 years after it was recorded, is still fairly universally hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time.

Taking on something as iconic as Dark Side of the Moon calls for an incredible sense of balance between, on the one hand, loyalty to the original and, on the other hand, recasting it into a new light. You have to find the right mix of flavours – the known taste of the old and familiar and trusted, and the surprise of the new and unknown. Have too much of the first, and you are really just doing a cheap and probably uncreative copy; have too much of the second, and you will have destroyed something great and people will hate you forever.

It was a balance which somehow Hans Zender miraculously managed to find, I think, when he recast Schubert’s awesomely devastating song cycle Winterreise for modern chamber ensemble and it seems that The Flaming Lips might just have managed to pull off the same thing here too.

Their version, clocking in at one minute shorter than Pink Floyd’s, follows the original pretty well note for note. But the notes are given here a 21st century makeover, troubled and harangued by a world where the descent into madness is a global phenomenon, where it is the society, rather than the individuals who inhabit it, that is sick. The music here is given a coarser, more jagged edge, an electronic intensity that cuts into veins that the original flowed through.

So here the old alarm clock that ushers in ‘Time’ has become a harsh, grating siren; the passionate howls of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ have become tortured, anguished screams; there’s an extra urgency to ‘On the Run’ where, as in so many places on this album, it seems that the private suffering of the original has been taken up by a whole world of crazed souls, spiralling downwards in a black hole of torment.

And yet in all of this, there’s always a certain tongue-in-cheekness about it all, and you are never entirely sure how seriously you are meant to be taking it. Listen, for example, to their quirky, almost jaunty version of ‘Money’, which, both confronting and humorous, somehow manages to just fall short of parody. You can’t help but feeling that the Flaming Lips, with their expanded ensemble including Star Death and White Dwarfs and Henry Rollins and Peaches, are having oodles of fun making this recording, even in its darkest moments.

‘Us and Them’ sounds perhaps even lonelier and creepier here than when Pink Floyd did it, the saxophone of the original now replaced by freaky electric plucked noise; ‘Brain Damage’ brings tears to the eyes, just as it always has done, the background choir now transformed into an electronic, space-age sort of whirring sound, almost like something from a B-grade science fiction movie, but haunting in a way that only The Flaming Lips could really manage to make it.

By time the cast come to the footlights with the anthemic final words of ‘Eclipse’, you feel that the journey you’ve been on has, once again, been an epic one. The landmarks that you remember so well from 1973 are all still there – transformed, painted in new and sometimes garish colours – and, while you will still want to go back and look at your mementos of the original trip, seeing it again as it has become today, is still a wonderful, and disturbing, thing.

I might never know why all those extra Valkyries sang that line in my first ever recording of The Ring – but I can certainly see why The Flaming Lips chose to do what they did the Dark Side of the Moon. Maybe this is what I needed to enable me to move on.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A bit of an update ...

Well I know it's been a long time between drinks as far as posting onto the blog has been concerned - but it has by no means been a drought when it comes to music discoveries over the past few weeks.

With time colluding against me as it has been of late (albeit for happy reasons) I have nothing even vaguely approaching the time to write about the music I've been listening to in anything like the detail it deserves; and yet some of it has been so extraordinary that, even in the busiest of schedules, it would be criminal not to at least mention it.

Probably the first of these is the most recent - a trio of bands that played at Melbourne's Evelyn Hotel in Brunswick Street Fitzroy last Saturday night. They were the Brothers Grim & the Blue Murders; Kira Puru & the Very Geordie Marones; and Mojo Juju & the Snake Oil Merchants. I was at the gig because I had heard the last of these on the ever-reliable PBS Breakfast Spread a few days earlier and so was already ready for what a stunning act they were going to be, with their gutsy, punky, brooding cabaret music - the sort of thing that Brecht and Weill might have written had they lived now rather than seventy odd years ago.

But what I wasn't ready for was the sensational acts that supported them - raw and rugged blues-roots from Brothers Grim and then some shady, wine-soaked soul from Kira Puru - a voice with that shivers-down-your-spine sort of dark, archetypal beauty that lures men and women to their doom.

All of these artists had new CDs on sale at the door and, needless to say, I bought them all. You can read a little more about the night, and my thoughts on it, at the PBS website ( in the reviews section.

The other big discovery over the past few weeks, again thanks to the PBS Breakfast Spread, was a fantastic Melbourne-based music performance project called The Escalators. Their debut CD Wrapped in Plastic is the sort of music you put on when you have been able to hit the pause button on everything else that's happening around you, and you can let yourself just be swept away in its flow: a flow that, carried along by the tides of abstract, improvised jazz, follows no pre-mapped course, takes you along routes and through places that no GPS could pinpoint, but that, in its seamless, organic way, seems to reach into something deep and secret within you, touching the quiet places, like in 'Log Lady', or the chaotic places, like in 'James: Boy on a Motorcycle'. It is music inspired by the filmwork of David Lynch and shares the dark abstraction that is so much his trademark. It's music that creates itself from its own seed and grows by the rules set out in its own DNA and, as such, seems to bring order and disorder together. It's like the sort of jazz you might expect to hear in a space where your senses are let go for a while, leaving you feeling kind of unsettled in places, kind of haunted even, and yet you can't escape the feeling that this is music that grows out of things that you yourself are part of - music that alienates you and embraces you in the one breath. Drug-induced jazz, perhaps.

And so far, I've only been able to touch on the locals. There was the wonderful discovery of Joanna Newsom, too, with that remarkable voice of hers, half child-like, half wraith-like, and her stream-of-consciousness music in her 2006 album Ys and her 2010 epic Have One On Me; there was the expansive metal of My Dying Bride, the lush lounge of the new release from U.N.K.L.E, Where Did the Night Fall, and heaps of amazing stuff from 1980s experimentalists Nurse With Wound, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, Cabaret Voltaire and, more recently, Current 93.

And then there was the unspeakably moving blues of Eric Bibb's Booker's Guitar and, of course, lots and lots of Diamanda Galas who, I am convinced, can take any music, hold it by the throat, and make it do exactly what she wants it to do - which is always something staggeringly powerful: music that thrusts four octavs of nightmares into your head and makes you actually want to confront them.

So, all in all, not a bad way to spend a few blog-free weeks!!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Where have all the flowers .... er, I mean blog posts ... gone?

Well, I'm the first to admit that my attendance to this blog (although not to music) has been a bit slack of late. Which is a shame, really, because writing about music is something that I enjoy almost as much as I enjoying listening to music. But the reality is, of late, time just seems to have been mitigating even my most robust attempts to put aside enough time each day to write this blog, to the point where, every now and then, I have approached the blog in much the same spirit that I approach washing the dishes, which was the last thing that either I wanted or that the music I write about deserves.

So, for that reason, I've decided to take a step back from this blog for the moment - not to abandon it, but just to visit it a little less regularly. The fact is, though, that I keep continuing to discover so much fantastic new music, almost daily, that there are still going to be plenty of times, I'm sure, where I'm just not going to be able stop myself from jumping on here and babbling on about it.

I'm sorry and kind of sad to be shying away from my initial aim, several months ago now, to write about music every day but it's been a lod of fun so far, and I know it will continue to be so in the future too. Just not so often.

I'm not at all sure how many people are continuing to read the posts here - but even sporadic responses to my posts here have been a great thrill for me: a bit, I imagine, like the way late night radio broadcasters feel when someone rings them up and lets them know they're listening.

So a billion thanks to everyone who has popped on here over the past few months and had their bit to say - especially some of my "regulars": Marty R, Patrick, Greg and Matt and Jenny at PBS.

Mind you, there's no reason for my lack of posting to be an excuse for anyone else to follow suit - just put in a reply to this post whenever you feel like it, and especially when you're listening to some music that you think the rest of the world should know about, even in a hundred years if you want to, and we'll see if we can get the ball rolling again!

But for now .... ciao for niao!!


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sailing across the Styx with Swans, 'Soundtracks for the Blind'

I have already written here about Michael Gira (see 26th March) and was so intrigued by the way he managed to get so many twists and turns into his music that it was pretty well inevitable that before long I would plunge into the band for which, I gather, he is most famous – the New York experimental art rock band of the 80s and early 90s, Swans.

Like so many experimental musicians, Swans was a band that never stayed in the one place for long and, in some ways, their musical development was not unlike that of Einstürzende Neubauten, beginning with extremely harsh, industrial-peppered noise and, in time, mellowing their sound into something rather more acoustic and ambient, but still just as disturbing and confronting.

With just over two hours of music, their final album Soundtracks for the Blind, is a pretty mammoth listen. But it covers so much territory, sampling and building on pretty well every phase of this fascinating band’s musical lifespan, that even after 26 tracks, you feel not a moment of it has been wasted.

And yet it would be doing this album an enormous disservice to simply describe it as some sort of cobbled-together compilation of their earlier work. It’s an album which, even with its incredible diversity of music and styles, still has an amazing – epic, even – unity to it, as if to show us that all those strange bits and pieces that the band had been accumulating over the past fifteen or so years really did belong together after all. Soundtracks for the Blind is not just a survey of Swans’ work, but the consummation of it.

The music’s unity is characterised by a few things: its daringness, the enormous spaces it seems to invoke, the vastness of its sound, its cosmic darkness, the slowed-down grandeur of its beat – music that is no longer just rock, but now granite. It’s music that shows that there’s more than just one way to explore the shadows.

But, within all of that, there’s incredible diversity as well. There are soft moments, like the gently undulating opener, 'Red Velvet Corridor', sounding vast and shadowy, but in a way that makes you feel that this journey into the night is going to be a peaceful one. Which, of course, it’s not. It’s journey that is, at best, unnerving – at worst, downright terrifying.

There are the big epic tracks like ‘Helpless Child’ and ‘The Sound’, where Michael Gira’s dark voice, full of foreboding, alternates with long passages of monolithic instrumentals. There are creepy child-like vocals weaving their way through rich, thick oceans of sound in ‘The Beautiful Days’, while ‘I Love You This Much’ blasts out electronic clamour, turning feedback into a sinister flurry of sound, pounded with piercing spurts of noise. There are unusual, and unusually disturbing snippets of recorded messages in tracks like ‘I Was a Prisoner in your Skull’ and ‘Minus Something’; and there’s the grim and aptly titled closing track, ‘Surrogate Drone’ There are wonderful contributions from Jarboe, like her gruff and gritty voice against military drums and heavy bass guitars in the live ‘Yum-Yab Killers’.

Soundtracks for the Blind creates its vast and varied images through an incredibly powerful use of sound – sound where melody and rhythm have been pared down to their skeletal minimum, and where the bones that are left have instead been draped in thick, rich garments of sound, that grow and loom way, way above you casting shadows, frightening and awful.

It is an aptly titled album because the thing you most need to do to really appreciate Soundtracks for the Blind is to shut out everything around you, so that there is nothing left other than the music to weave its way into those dark, rarely touched, recesses of your mind, where even your eyes don’t let the light in.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Classic rock rediscovered and repackaged: 'Love' by The Cult

With the irresistibly lavish packaging of the British recording company Beggars Banquet’s Omnibus Editions, and the man at Heartland Records telling me that this is one of the greatest and yet most inexplicably underrated of all rock albums, I really had little choice the other day but to buy The Cult’s 1985 album Love.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t know much about The Cult until I bought this album, but it’s solid, tightly beaten rock, with just the right tinge of darkness to draw me in at the album’s opening ‘Nirvana’, certainly conjures up much of the almost gothic feel of Britain’s mid 80’s post punk period, shunning the keyboard-driven excesses of prog rock and instead creating its big, full, engulfing sounds with fantastically strong playing of the tried and trusted staples of rock – some guitars, some drums and some vocals. There are some keyboards there, too, but Love is an album that seems more intent on doing a lot with a little, creating its effects by the tautness of its playing, tense, tight guitar work over hard drums, and Ian Astbury’s vocals with their understated gloom, maybe nowhere more powerful than in ‘Brother Wolf, Sister Moon’, where his voice sings and cries above the simple, darkened arpeggios of William H Duffy’s electric guitars.

There’s discipline in this music that, were it not for the conviction and talent of the musicians, could almost make the album sound restrained – but, instead, it just makes it sound all the more potent, like a volcano on the edge of eruption.

There’s the fantastic way notes and chords slide up and back down to one another throughout ‘Rain’, with drums and guitars pelting down in their own storm of hail and sleet, music that revels in the cold, chilled world it creates around you; there’s the awesomely good rock of ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, literally aflame with energy, while a heavy, solid bass line keeps your feet on the ground, so you can’t really escape the sparks that fly in all directions around you, singeing you; there’s the elegiac ‘Black Angel’, music that takes the album, and you with it, into a dark, mysterious emptiness, sailing into a black and barren, far-away horizon.

The sound, especially the vocals, has a dark, cavernous acoustic, giving the music a feeling of some sort of looming doom or, where there’s not doom, of post-apocalypse, like in ‘Phoenix’, where human desire rises from the ashes of destruction and chaos, amidst wild, passionate guitars, burning with primal lust.

Love is one of those albums that people like me listen to and wonder why we neglected the rock genre for so long; but it’s also an album that even those who lived the genre for decades could, it seems, easily have missed – for no reason, it seems, other than it never really got into the limelight of the American market, which only goes to show yet again how fickle and unreliable the marketplace can be.

Love is not an album that smashes down the walls of convention – but, in capturing the dark side of British post-punk so well, so expertly, it leaves its own unique footprints on a musical territory that even now many of us are too easily taking for granted, musical territory that even now, decades after its discovery, is still showing up new little nooks and crannies that many of us didn’t know were there.

This would be classic album, even without the packaging.