Monday, August 31, 2009

You too (can tell me what CDs to buy)

I've wondered off and on what U2 are like, wandering past their section of the CD shops, and so it just took a little encouragement from Ben McInnes to convince me to dart out at my lunch break and pick up a copy of Achtung Baby.

It's a great album - and, while I understand that it represented a bit of a reinvention of themselves for U2, it is certainly more than enough to convince me to plunge more into their music, with its bigger than life tunes and beats.

The beat draws you in and sweeps you up from the opening synthesizer swirls of “Zoo Station”, and its promise of excitement. The synthesizers dance and spin with the voices – you really do feel like you are on a train, and that it’s going fast. Smooth vocals from Bono become almost like another instrument in the way they blend and entwine with the music, breathing melody into even the album’s moments of most feverish rock. It's all about a new romance, and the world - and the music - are aflame with the thrill of it all.

But by “One”, the excitement of new love has become tempered with fears and regrets of a love already on the brink of being lost. And yet even when the song is saturated in sadness, (“Love is a temple, Love the higher law, You ask me to enter, But then you make me crawl, and I can’t be holding on to what you’ve got, When all you got is hurt”, for example) even then, the music has your body rocking to its irresistible beat.

That seems to be the tone throughout much of this album – a remarkable ability in this music to be upbeat and broken-hearted at the one time.

In “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” we find the music transformed into what seems like a more experimental sound, vast and echoing, giving the song a massive sense of space, as if it’s coming from an enormous cavern – somehow fitting with its message of big hopes that seem destined to come to nothing.

The effects in “The Fly” are no less imaginative, with low voice and falsetto intermingling to create in a strange sound world, with an almost space-age effect, as the song describes stars falling and a universe exploding because of one lie.

But it’s not all about loss and sadness by any means. I found “Mysterious Ways” almost lifting me into the air with its optimism. There is the comfort of “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World” – which could almost be a post-punk reincarnation of “Bridge over Troubled Waters” – and the challenge to keep trying of “Acrobat”.

But the last word is with the beautifully sad “Love is blindness”, with melodies shifting hauntingly from minor key to minor key that are enough to bring tears to any eyes, but above a beat that still keeps you going, and leaves this music pumping away inside of you long after it has finished.

Thank you so much Ben for steering me to U2, and down a path that I hope inclues more treasures even half as good as Achtung Baby!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Drifting into the black with Scott Walker

I discovered Scott Walker via the slightly circuitous route of David Sylvian, reading a review of one of Sylvian's later albums, Blemish, where the reviewer noted that it was weird but not as weird as Scott Walker's later work. I guess I have always been a little drawn to the weird, and so bought Scott Walker's two latest albums, Tilt (1995) and the Drift (2006) a couple of days ago. In some ways, I guess that neither of these albums are like music at all in the traditional sense - especially the Drift - but the enormous power of these sounds, as arresting as they are chilling, shows us once again how many shapes and forms music can take.

the Drift is made of ten horrifyingly bleak tracks (well, nine, really - the last track, "A Lover Loves", provides the album's only glimpse of peace). The music switches from moments of barren emptiness to sudden hair-raising, spine-chilling bursts of sound, coming from haunted combinations of symphonic orchestra, bizarre electronic sounds and even, at one stage, the beat of a baseball bat on a dead animal carcass. Timpani pound beneath dark discordant strings; unworldly winds wail and whine in the night. And Scott Walker's voice is itself both beautiful and ghostly at the same time - an almost operatic baritone, rich and cavernous. The songs have strange lyrics and strange topics - often difficult to understand in any conventional way - such as "Clara", with its ghastly outbursts of terror, inspired by the public hanging of Mussolini and his girlfriend; or "Jesse", eerie and anguished, based on tales of Elvis Presley talking to his stillborn twin brother. The lyrics are strewn with odd, unsettling images, as with the opening lines of "Jolson and Jones", "As the grossness of spring lolls its head against the window" or, in "Cue", "chiming like mouse bells at the birth of a vermin Holy Ghost".

Scott Walker himself says his aim is to create "blocks of sound" rather than a linear flow of melodies and rhythms. The lyrics work similarly - phrases and images, rather than a story.

He's not the first to do that and certainly much avant garde classical music does similar things - but nowhere have I heard it done with such powerful, jaw dropping intensity as here, nor with such evocative use of sounds, combined in ways that surely no one else would ever have thought would work so well. It comes together to produce an overwhelming impact, and you probably need to be in the right sort of space, emotionally, to be able to withstand its force. This music needs to be played loudly, and in the dark. It's nighmarish stuff - but then nightmares are part of life, too, after all.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

In memory of a friend - Smashing Pumpkins "Siamese Dream"

A little over twelve years ago I was sharing a house with a friend of mine, Coby, who tried valiantly and, alas, unsuccessfully, to get me to take notice of a band called Smashing Pumpkins. They didn't play Mahler so I took no notice of them. Sadly, Coby died three months ago today, much, much too young and so, in memory of him and of his bright, crazy spirit, I sat down today and, at last, really listened to Smashing Pumpkins with their album Siamese Dream.

It's such a shame that I didn't take notice of this music until now. I would love to have known what Coby's take on it was. To me, it's an album that seems to bring together two very different worlds, almost to the point where you're not always sure just which one you're in - the empty, materialistic, self-deceiving world of modern America, and the painful, struggling world of human relationships.

The music is incredible in the way it reflects these two levels, swapping between them sometimes with almost brutal abruptness as it shifts from soft and intimate acoustic sounds, like chamber music, to the bashing, smashing electric sounds of hard rock. Rarely does a song stay in one groove - and maybe the message here is that the pain and struggles we endure in our personal relationships are very much a part of, and bound up with, the pain and struggles we endure as a society.

Every now and then we have a fuller symphonic sound added into the mix, giving those tracks a feeling of both lyricism and universality - and nowhere is it more powerful than in "Disarm" where, at least for me, those soaring strings and that ominous bass seemed to so eloquently underline the song's words about shared responsibility, shared blame - "the killer in me is the killer in you".

There's a tremendous balance in the way the instruments and the vocals blend all throughout this album, working as a unit to tell a single story - a story that seems to move from its claustraphobic, get-me-out-of-here beginnings, through a journey of loneliness and loss, and taking us eventually to "Silverfuck" with its suicidal undertones - a track which, musically, is an epic in itself, with its tribal beat near the beginning, swapping with the angry bitterness of the lead and bass guitars, through the slowed, faltering heartbeat bass beneath he words "I feel no pain", and the eerie whispering of "bang bang you're dead" and then ending, finally, in a hellish cacophony of noise.

But things don't end there. There is the strange, ironic, unsettling catchiness of "Sweet sweet", a song about a world drowning in agony and sadness. But the album ultimately ends with a question - "What moonsongs do you sing your babies?" asks "Luna", before finally resting into a gentle, resolved declaration of love.

Siamese Dream is certainly an album that takes you to many, many places - musically, emotionally, intellectually. In that sense, it's pretty daring music but also, maybe because of that, you can connect with it in so many ways - you can be challenged by its messages, you can be moved by its heartache, or you can simply be carried away by its phenomenally good music. Or, like me, you can have all three.

A very, very belated thank you to Coby for introducing me to Smashing Pumpkins. I wish, too late, that I could have shared it with you.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Celebration and longing with Tinpan Orange

Discovering really good new music is one of those things which, like children being born and spring beginning, never stops being special. And all the more so when it happens unexpectedly, as it did for me today when I happened to be walking past Basement Discs in Melbourne and stumbled on their free “live in store” gig for August. It was a local trio called “Tinpan Orange”, with brother and sister Jesse and Emily Lubitz sharing acoustic guitars and vocals, and Alex Burkoy weaving in and out with another guitar or violin. It all came together to create that sort of folksy sound that makes you think someone has just opened all the windows and let the fresh air in.

I of course bought their new album, The Bottom of the Lake, there and then. It's an album full of songs that seem to celebrate and long for simple, true things, with melody lines that have both a gorgeous, unpretentious simplicity to them and yet keep taking quirky shifts, unexpected changes of key, a blues note here and there, blending with guitars and violin or ukulele or mandolin or keyboards, or with the backing vocals of other members of the Lubitz family, to produce a wonderfully unique sound, always dappled with sunlight, always giving itself air and space. The arrangements, and the unity, in each of these songs is just phenomenal.

Most of the songs are sung and written by Emily Lubitz, whose voice is like fresh water - clear and soothing - and her songs comfort you like a bowl of warm soup in the winter. It's comfort food for the soul. Even when the words are telling you something sad, her music is assuring you that it'll all be all right in the long run.

Two of the songs are written and sung by Jesse, with a sort of smokey, whispering voice that you just want to snuggle into. There's almost a Leonard Cohenesque darkness shrouding Jesse's songs, but their message is really every bit as much about valuing the good and the true as are his sister's. "Round 'n' Round", for example, seems to tell us about the masks we put on, and believe in, and "Fitzroy St", about the ways we close ourselves to our own, and each other's pain.

The album finishes with a beautifully tender, poignant song, "Saudades", a song about loss and regret and yet its sadness ultimately only goes to underline the album's thread of nostalgia, and love of the sunlight, all the more.

The only thing I didn't like about this album was that it finished. But that was easily fixed - I just pushed the play button and started all over again.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The fragile tenderness of Antony and the Johnsons

I had neither heard, nor heard of, Antony Hegarty until his version of Leonard Cohen's "If it be your will" was played at the funeral of my dear friend, Rohini, earlier this year. It was music of heart-breaking vulnerability and beauty and seemed to belong so totally with that sad and tragic day. Antony's voice is one that hurts and soothes in the one breath, aching with a soul that is broken and resilient all at once.

Since then, I have bought all his recordings and I have been listening today to Antony and the Johnsons' latest album The Crying Light. It is an utterly beautiful album, its songs full of a tenderness, a sort of comfort for anyone who, like Antony himself, knows what it's like to be on the margins, to be vulnerable, to be alone, to be sad. And that's pretty well all of us, really. To me, this music is rather like being held in someone's arms - but in arms that are themselves trembling and vulnerable.

There are songs like "Epilepsy is dancing", which seems to be a celebration of difference, a refusal to be turned into a pathology. There are songs like "One dove", which finds solace and comfort in its own fragility. There are songs like "Another World", with its sparse, empty accompaniment, bidding a sad farewell to the earth itself. Listen to that song's haunting, otherworldly flute at the words "I'm gonna miss the wind"! There are songs like "Daylight and the Sun", with its passionate yearning for light and warmth, somehow taking us to the place where agony and ecstasy intersect. And then there is "Everglade", the album's final song, fading into a sort of gentle, sunlit, eternity which, for me at least, brought to mind the breathlessly beautiful ending of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.

The songs are full of imagery about childhood, about connection to the earth, about yearning for the light, and about the comfort and healing that comes from a something as simple as a kiss. Despite their sadness and vulnerability, though, they are songs that give you hope, and leave you feeling better than when you started. This music always, always makes me want to cry, but also to smile ... reminding us, I guess, that happiness and sadness are only a step apart.

Antony's voice, like his music, is just incredibly beautiful, but always hanging on the most fragile of threads - this music, and this voice, have certainly known their share of pain. Part of you feels afraid to touch it, in case it will break - but another part of you knows that it never will.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Seedy and seductive - Tom Waits "Rain Dogs"

When you start listening to this album you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in the 1930s Berlin cabarets of Kurt Weill. The rhythms are raucus, the instruments have the harsh sound of the underworld, and you are breathing in the dingy darkness of a smoke-soaked nightclub. But this is the mid 1980s, America, and it's not Kurt Weill, but the amazing gravel-rough voice of Tom Waits luring you, seducing you, one moment - accusing you, assaulting you, the next.

Rain Dogs is certainly a very theatrical album - you can't help but picture the stage when you listen to it. The music is sometimes incredibly harsh, almost deliberately alienating - beating out at you with a strange mix of pitched percussion, accordion, upright piano - almost warning you not to come too close to it. And yet, ironically, it has an incredible intimacy to it, too - you feel it is in the room with you, sharing a drink with you, telling you its seedy, sleazy tale.

The music has its more gentle moments, too - as in "Hang Down Your Head", "Time" and "Downtown Train" - but, even there, there is a roughness to its consolation and comfort. There is no time for sentimental self-indulgence here - you know that this music has a hard life, and it won't allow you to rest in one spot, wallowing, for too long.

I found Rain Dogs to be a superb example of how music can express itself, and particularly how it can express its musicality, in such diverse and unexpeced ways. There is nothing typically or traditonally "musical" about Rain Dogs - the instruments are harsh and uncompromising, hardly anything has a singable "tune" to it, and, of course, Tom Waits' voice must be, in the conventional sense, one of the most "unmusical" voices ever. And yet this album is just bursting, exploding, with music - it draws you into its grimy sound-world and, before long, you can't help but feel that this is music at its most honest, its most human, its most real.

A great album - and, needless to say, only the beginning for me of a growing collection of Tom Waits.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The boiling brew of Miles Davis

I don't know if Miles Davis's iconic and ground-breaking album, Bitches Brew, was the first in which he used electronic effects to distort and enhance the sound of his trumpet, but it is certainly one of his most famous and, as I could see today while I listened to it over an over again, deservedly so. When you combine his extraordinary skill as a musican with some incredibly innovative recording techniques, you end up with something that is understandably recognised even now, forty years later, as having been a turning point in jazz. There is just so much in this phenomenal album, and it has such a massive impact on the development of jazz music since its release in 1969, that it wouldbe impossible to even begin to do it justice here. So the best I can do is talk a little about the impact that its title track has had on me, and on what I heard in it.

That in itself is a great deal. "Bitches Brew" is actually the second track on the album but is arguably the most substantial. It plays for just under 27 minutes - but they are 27 minutes full of the most amazing sounds.

It begins with something like a faltering, hesitant heartbeat from the bass, punctuated by discords from brass and woodwind. But this is really just a background for the grotesque, echoing fanfare that soon screeches and bounces in all directions, almost apocalyptic, from Miles's trumpet. It must be one of the most arresting beginnings to a piece of music - like a dark, haunted, twisted version of the opening of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, made so famous in Stanley Kubrick's movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But the music soon gives way to a lumbering, swaying rhythm, punctuated by increasingly insistent cries from the trumpet, spurting and stabbing away in this underworld against the seedy, smokey music from the drums, electric piano, soprano saxophone and bass.

To me, the trumpet here is more like a human voice than a musical instrument - tortured, deranged even, screaming at you from the something very deep within itself.

After a while we hear the faltering heartbeat, the strident discords, and the doomsday fanfare of the trumpet again.

But then the music seems to become even more sinister, it bubbles away in the background, ominous and dark. The bitches brew is simmering.

For a while the trumpet takes on a more angry, insistent role but then, before it has really staked its claim to anything, it gives way to the rest of the music, as if it is being dragged down into the boiling brew - it melts into it, and is drowned.

But, of course, this is Miles Davis so things can't end like that and, sure enough, the trumpet re-emerges one more time, with a last restatement of the opening fanfare, ascending and descending, like Phoenix rising from the ashes, and falling back into them again.

I didn't know that the trumpet could produce sounds like this. Its role in this track is really awesome - it has you rivetted whenever it's playing, and it has you waiting for it whenever it's not. This really is the most incredible of albums and, with its amazing, unprecedented sounds, larger than life, it is not just ground-breaking - it's earth shattering.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dulling the pain with Morphine

When Greg, my brother, warned me not to listen to Morphine's Cure for Pain, their second album, I'm sure he knew full well that, at the first opportunity, I would throw myself into it. So two full hearings of this amazing album accompanied me all the way up to Melbourne today on the train and then again tonight back at home.

You expect an album with a name like "Cure for Pain", played by a band with a name like "Morphine" to have at least some sort of dark side to it - and it certainly does, but in ways that, at least for me, were very unexpected.

The first thing I noticed about this album was its unique sound - mostly produced by a baritone saxophone, a two-string bass, drums and the rough, almost Lou Reed-like voice of Mark Sandman. Add to that some swinging, swaggering beats and you end up with something that isn't quite rock, isn't quite jazz, isn't quite blues, and yet is somehow all of these at once.

But, to me, the undisputed hero of this album is the sax. It dances, it slides, it swings, it grumbles - always throwing everything else into its shadow ... quite literally, really, with its dark baritone tones. It is always the soul of the song - sometimes in dialogue with the singer, sometimes actually underlining his words, as in the line "It's all wrong", in the song of the same name, as if to tell us that here, for once, the singer really is telling us the truth.

The songs are all pretty bleak - and even where there is a hint of pleasure, it's always deceptive and illusory, like the drug induced hopes of "Let's take a trip together", or the distant, cold and out-of-place praise that the singer heaps on his ex-lover in "In spite of me". (Interestingly, this is one of the only tracks on the album where the sax makes no appearance at all.) Or even the sleaziness of "Sheila", with the sleek, slick bounce of the sax and its sordid sexuality.

The album starts and finishes with two short purely instrumental tracks. It opens with "Dawna", which does, indeed, sound like a dark, grey dawn. And it ends with the unimaginably eerie and haunting "Funeral for Miles Davis" - once again, without the sax as if, with Miles's passing, the soul of the music had passed too.

This is a tremendous and superbly original album. It's an album that certainly does swing and dance - but always only in the shadows. And, as we learn so clearly from the album's title track, this music is not about finding a cure for pain, but about searching for it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Put forward what is hidden - Staff Benda Bilili

Staff Benda Bilili's first and so far only album, Très Très Fort, draws you into it with its first few bars; and its soft, seductive, distinctive African beat tells you in an instant that you are in for that unique unbridled celebration of life that can only ever be expressed by people who have experienced untold adversity and hardship.

Within a couple of seconds you hear a strange, piercing, exotic plucked music - otherwordly and yet clearly from the hand of someone who knows their way around this music: its spirit every bit as much as its sounds.

Welcome to the streets of Congo, and the lives and art of a group of paraplegic, homeless musicians, who play makeshift, homemade instruments while they sit on makeshift, homemade wheelchairs. That strange exotic instrument is in fact a single string, stretched between a tin can and piece of bent, flexible wood. It is plucked by a seventeen year old homeless boy who manipulates the pitch by moving the wood backwards and forwards, changing the string's tension. He does it superbly. The last time I was that bowled over by someone plucking strings was when I first heard Jimi Hendrix. The two are nothing alike, of course, other than in the utter sincerity and earnestness with which they play.

Theinstruments might be makeshift, but the music most definitely is not. It is spontaneous, full of vitality and life. Its disparate rhythms and melodies and tones have that amazing mix of old and new, a feeling of being organic, and of lasting forever. You could listen to it in a century, and it would still sound new. Its bits and pieces - different things coming at you from every direction - all blend together in a way that tells you that these are a people who have an enormous sense of community and cohesion - not just with each other, but with the very streets on which they live, even with the cardboard on which they sleep, as the song "Tonkara" tells us.

I don't know a lot of African music, but the characteristic earthiness of its beats and sounds could surely not sound more in place than it does here. The name of the band, Staff Banda Bilili, means "put forward what is hidden" - and this album certainly does that. It's music that makes you smile because, quite simply, it's music that is itself so full of joy.

But that's not to say that these are happy songs. The words are often anything but. "Black man, get up, stand up, Africa is being destroyed" says the opening song. The second song urges parents to get their children vaccinated against polio - far from just a tokenistic health warning in this place. This album is not about hiding from life's adversities - how could these people escape them anyway? - but it is rather about allowing the human spirit to shine through those adversities, and its light is all the brighter because of that.

This album was recorded in the open, on the streets on which it was born. Listen to the sounds of hands beating on drums, of voices singing with an openess and an honesty that you just don't create in a recording studio. And listen to the sound of that amazing one-stringed lute ... haunting, exotic and exhuberant all at once. Listen to all of this, really listen to it, and I defy you not to think of your life just a little differently afterwards.

Très Très Fort means "Very, very loud", which is exactly how this unique and extraordinary celebration of life and diversity should be played.

Another great 3PBS discovery!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A tragic farewell - Nirvana's In Utero

I gather it is fairly widely felt that Nirvana's final album In Utero was also Kurt Cobain's suicide note, and it's pretty difficult to hear it in any way other than this. Its words are bleak, and full of an angry despair and its music is uncompromisingly dark. There is nothing in this album that is designed for the pop charts - but there is certainly a lot in it for anyone who feels ready to glimpse into the tortured soul of a man who has lost all hope and happiness.

I doubt that anyone has ever drawn parallels between Kurt Cobain and Pyotr Tchaikovsky before, but I couldn't help but see the similarity between this album and Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony. That, too, was written just before its composer died - quite probably through suicide - and that, too, pours out all its anguish, despair and anger in a truly heart-breaking eloquence, to the point where you almost feel voyeuristic, eavesdropping into someone's else's innermost demons.

That's how I felt, listening to In Utero. It's surely amongst the most powerful, most shattering music that I have heard. The music is unrelenting - it never lets you feel comforted or complacent; it grabs by the throat and shakes you and makes you look into its face. And then, of course, there is Kurt Cobain's voice - almost intentionally off-key, rough and alienated. Listen, for example, to the way he draws out the word "sad", skirting, unsettled, around the note, in the line "I miss the comfort in being sad" in "Frances Farmer will have her revenge on Seattle".

Sadness and anguish are expressed in so many ways in this album - like the way the music cries out and then dies out in "Pennyroyal Tea", or the false promise of happiness in "Dumb", or the screaming guitars at the end of "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter". And then the sad irony of a hint of a tune in "All apologies" as if, in saying farewell, the music, and its composer, at last finds something vaguely like resolution.

It's a superb album - not something you listen to lightly; but certainly something that captures, with incredible power, the darkest depths of human despair.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Björk's Debut (and mine)

It was Björk who was really my first inspiration to venture out of my classical comfort zone and this album, Debut, is her first. It was also really the first of hers that I listened to properly and, listening to it again today, I am reminded why it captured me so much. I know that Björk's voice is not one that appeals to everyone - and it is certainly very distinctive. After years of listening to the cultivated precision of operatic voices, the widely and wildly varying tones of Björk's voice initially jarred a little for me; but it didn't take long to realise that "different" is not the same as "less good" and soon I found I was being carried away by those incredible adventurous sounds she produces - whether it's crying out from the depths of her raw, primal soul, or floating, angelic-like, in the stratosphere.

You get both of these in the opening track, "Human Behaviour", which, with its animalistic timpani beats, straight from the jungle, is really breathtaking. But every song on this album is, I think, a masterpiece. There is always an interesting combination of instruments - stings, harps, keyboards, brass, woodwind, every conceivable flavour of percussion - mixing in ways that always create an utterly unique sound, which always sounds just right.

Every song is so expertly, and originally, crafted. There's the way the light suddenly starts to shine, in "One Day", with the words, "the atmosphere will get lighter and two suns ready to shine just for you". And there's the dance beat of "Big Time Sensuality", so excited and sensual, and you are instantly a part of the heady atmosphere of the two lovers' first weekend together. And the way, in "Aeroplane" that the music suddenly turns exotic and foreign, when Björk sings "I'm taking an aeroplane across the world to follow my heart". Or the way "Violently Happy" is just bursting at the seams with unsettled, restless, unfulfilled energy. There's the sparse loneliness of "Anchor Song". There's the overwhelming, frightening swirls of "Play Dead".

It's this unique way that Björk creates a whole world, unique, original and yet totally convincing, in every one of her songs and throws her voice, with all its shades and colours, into everything she does, that makes this album such a stunning debut - for me, almost as much as it is for Björk.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A sad walk in the sun with Grizzly Bear

I discovered Grizzly Bear, and their latest album Veckatimest, on 3 PBS FM a few weeks ago. The opening track "Southern Point" is just a stunner - layers and layers of music and rhythms and instruments and voices, building upon each other in a way that just makes you stop whatever you're doing and listen to its sheer energy.

The album as a whole takes a lot of gentle twists and turns after that, and in some ways the whole thing reminds me of a piece of classical music that I have loved for a long time, even though the two things don't actually sound even remotely alike - a set of piano pieces by Ravel called Le Tombeau de Couperin (which means "At the tomb of Couperin").

The Ravel piece was written around 1915 partly in memory of some of Ravel's friends who had died in the war and partly as a tribute to the music of the French baroque. It's music full of sunlight, but sunlight that is now viewed through eyes darkened by sadness and loss.

And that's exactly how Veckatemist sounds. At first you might think some of its tracks are just dripping with sweetness ("Two Weeks", the album's second track, for example), with its soft ooh-aah vocal harmonies. But then when you listen a few more times (and if ever there was an album worth a lot of listens, it's this), and you hear the words, and you realise that these songs are all about a sunlight that has already begun to fade and that the music is taking you not for a happy frolick, but for a nostalgic walk, in it.

The songs are not exactly about loss - they're more about the tension between distance and closeness, space and place, longing to be home and longing to be free. And the music reflects it all so well - each song its own blend of simplicity and complexity: melodies that never quite do what you expect them to do, always hovering over, and entwining with, unique mixes of instruments and incredible shifts of beat and rhythm.

And, like so many good albums, there's an incredible sense of unity, and of a journey, here - with themes and hooks returning here and there (like, for example, "Our haven on the southern point is calling us" in the first track and then, "And the crowds that light the carnival are calling us home" on the third), reminding us that we're not just listening to a collection of songs here, but to a story. And it's a story which, though set in the sunlight, ends in the twilight, with the sadly beautiful "Foreground", which seems to find a sort of rest, a resolution, in its sadness - such a moving balance to all that vigour and excitement of the opening track.

Veckatemist is quickly becoming one of my favourite albums and Grizzly Bear, one of my favourite bands.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Discovering a classic - Led Zeppelin IV

When Alison mentioned Led Zeppelin the other day, I was inspired to listen again to my (so far) one and only LZ album - Led Zeppelin IV. I guess there's not much I can say about an album as classic as this because everyone already knows it so well. Everyone except me that is. Listening to it today, it brings back, in an instant, memories of my brother playing it when we were kids and even then, if I dared to be honest, I would have had to admit that it was a phenomeal sound. It's an album that takes you on a real journey and, somehow, that opening track, "Black Dog", feels almost like a call, a summons, a challenge to follow.

I don't know enough (yet) of the words and their message to know fully what these songs are about - but the music journey is in itself enough to make this album pretty extraordinary, and certainly a great rejoinder to anyone who wants to claim that rock music is simplistic and one-dimensional. Led Zeppelin IV just covers so much territory musically - it screams and shouts its hard rock to you, and then seduces and caresses you with its gentle folk, and then, just when you're feeling comforted, it bludgeons you with its heavy metal.

I guess "Stairway to Heaven" is the best example of all this, but you get the same thing, on a much more epic scale, when you listen to the album as a whole and see what a rich and diverse journey it takes you on. Can that really be the same band playing the almost oriental mandolin jingle of "The Battle of Evermore" that later pounds out those primal riffs of "Four Sticks"?

I think Led Zeppelin IV is a great example of why it's good, whenever we can, to listen to albums in their totality. Everything here just fits together so well and, when you really throw yourself into it, you're left just exhausted by the end. It's little wonder that now, almost forty years after it was recorded, some people are still arguing that nothing has quite reached its heights, or plummetted its depths.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Three bourbons in the garage

I'm not entirely sure just what "garage rock" is - but it must, at very least, be what I'm listening to today: the Beasts of Bourbon, with this absolutely sensational box set that I bought yesterday, containing the band's first three (and I think best) albums: The Axeman's Jazz, Sour Mash and Black Milk. The first of these three albums was actually recorded in one of the band member's garage, as a kind of a dare, and in a single afternoon. The other two, I gather, were a bit more planned but they all have a terrific sense of the Aussie pub low-life to them - rough and dirty, and usually more than a little bit tongue-in-cheek (listen to "Hate Inside" on Sour Mash, for example: a song about a guy who hates and ultimately kills everyone, his dog, his kids, his wife, himself, all to a gentle country strumming beat).

It's music that comes from the guts - disgruntled and raw. The Beasts of Bourbon just cry out to be listened to with a bottle of cheap grog in some grungy garage. I don't know if this music is meant to mean much more than this - but that's more than enough, because it just does it so well.

Thanks, Marty, for introducing me to the Beasts!!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Nothing as it seems

The first I ever heard of Pearl Jam was when they were coming to Melbourne over 14 years ago and the tickets to their concert went on sale the same day I was trying to get tickets for the Australian Open tennis. I almost missed getting tennis tickets, and did miss most of the day's work, because of all the ridicuously long queues at Ticketmaster. I felt incensed that my love for tennis was being sabotaged by a band I had never heard of and who was surely just like all the rest of that "non classical" genre.

But history takes funny twists and turns and today, when the tickets for Pearl Jam's next Melbourne concert again went on sale, I was once again caught up in the Ticketmaster queues - but this time to actually buy tickets for Pearl Jam, which I will be going to in November. Thanks Scott and Fiona for letting me tag along with you and hopefully, with two people in their 20s at my side, I will only look one third silly.

So nothing is as we think it will be and, not surprisingly, today I have been listening to Pearl Jam. Their album Binaural is the only one I have, but it's a great album and there is a kind of dark, absorbing depth in their sound tha just takes you in.

The track "Nothing as it seems" is the one I wanted to mainly focus on here. It's a slightly unsettling song about being out of place, dislocated, in a home that isn't what it seems to be. The words are full of alienation and a sense of not really belonging and were, I gather, written by Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam's bassist, about his own childhood. When you listen to the words, knowing that they are about a childhood, they're incredibly tragic.

But it's the music that is the most tragic of all. An acoustic guitar strums away with a droning, descending electric bass which just seems to drag you down further and further, with the electric guitar putting in its bit here and there, at first moaning sadly and then becoming more and more insistent, crying out to be heard and comforted.

I noticed this song only a little when I first heard it, playing through the disc today, but read the story about what it was about, then listened to it again, and felt myself swept up in it totally. It seemed at first just a saddish song - but, look into it a bit more, and there it is in all its deep, dark tragedy. Nothing is as it seems.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Being greeted from LA by Tim Buckley

Always one to take the wise advice of my big brother, I'm listening now to Tim Buckley's Greetings from LA. It certainly does exactly what Greg said it does ... a whole lot of styles and flavours brought together. Some of those rhythms are just wild, with Tim Buckley's voice wailing and winding above it. I don't know how music like this is created - how much of it is written ahead, how much is improvised ... but, in any case, it must call for an incredible ability for musicians to be in touch with one another - just listen to the way the strings and Tim Buckley's voice weave around each other on "Sweet Surrender". I'm not sure which is the most incredible - to think that that sort of thing can be rehearsed, or to think that it isn't!! Great stuff, however it was made!

Welcome to my blog

Hello all. So - welcome to the first post of my second attempt at blog. I think it was about a year ago that I tried to start a blog going discussing the relevance of Marxism in the 21st century, but everyone, including me, got bored with that after about a week and it just fizzled out.

But now, I thought that a slightly more accessible topic might work a bit better - a chance to discuss music. As most of my friends know, I've been spending the past couple of months immersing myself in all the music that I have somehow ignored for the past fifty years - anything belonging to that rather strange genre that I always knew only as "non-classical". Well, it's certainly genre that is a lot richer, a lot more complex, and a lot more exciting than I would ever have thought.

But if there is one thing almost as good as listening to music, it's listening to people talk about music - about what they like, why they like it, what it says or means to them. That's my purpose here - to talk a bit about what I'm listening to from day to day, and to hear about what you're listening to, too.

So join in and see if we can get this one rolling!!