Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Snogging with capitalism

While visiting my brother on my way home from work is one of the nicest ways to end the day, it inevitably means that I drink too much wine, and get home too late, to meet my daily blogging obligations as well as I should - which is especially shameful this time because today I have been listening to a sensationally great album from a sensationally great Australian band, which, as far as I can tell, has been getting nothing like the attention it deserves.

The album is The Last Days of Rome and the band is Melbourne lefty-leaning, anti-capitalist, anti-copyright, Snog. My own political leanings mean that I have a tendency to gravitate towards anything that is overtly of the left, and so it's hardly surprising that Snog drew me into its clutches pretty quickly. Its songs berate the shallowness of capitalism and consumerism, the emptiness of modern city life, and the deception under which we all live. It's all stuff that could easily be dismissed as just more disgruntled diatribe against the system, were it not for the startling originality of the music, which convinces you of the seriousness, and the honesty, of Snog's message.

And it does so in the most unusual way - by seducing you with its pop-infused vigour, or its appearance of laid-back ease, or the grandeur and originality of its instrumentation. The music is a kind of grungy rock, but with elements of prog rock thrown in too - an unlikely combination, but one that means that this music has a rawness and a classiness about it all at once.

The centrepiece of the band is David Thrussell, who had a hand in writing all of the songs on the album and whose rough, gravel-grained voice gives things a real working class authenticity, even when the songs themselves are complex and sophisticated, mixing all kinds of genres, from industrial rock to synth pop, creating sounds that are lush and full of life, while still rooted in the dirt and grime of the disaffected masses.

The Last Days of Rome captures a whole host of moods and ideas, from the epic overtones of "One Grain of Sand", through the gentle cynicism of "Vaguely Melancholic", to the intimate, alienating loneliness of "City" or the almost spooky harpsichord that punctuates "Whateverman". Every song gives you another take, another angle, on the ways in which a modern world destroys and devalues humanity - but always to music that is irresistably infectious in the way it combines the liveliness of its beats with the underlying dark hue of its colours.

Snog is a band that has, I gather, constantly reinvented itself - always finding new and different ways to communicate its message about the destructive powers of capitalism - but The Last Days of Rome, with its initial and deceptive appearance of accessibility, in some ways mirrors perfectly what it so eloquently accuses capitalism of doing: luring you in with false promises of an easy ride. It is an album that is much more confronting than what it at first pretends to be.

This album is an encouraging omen, in so many ways, of the future of rock music in Australia.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gothic metal, symphonic doom and Tristania's "Beyond the Veil"

Unable to resist so Wagnerian a band name as “Tristania”, I bought this Norwegian sextet’s 1999 album Beyond the Veil some months ago but have only today had the time to really sit down and listen to it properly.

The album opens like some classical oratorio – distant soprano voices singing a chant-like incantation – into which burst break-neck bashings of drums, loud jarring of guitars, and raucous snarling vocals, leaving us with no mistake that we are in the midst of that overwhelming hurricane of sound that is metal.

I’m quickly learning, though, that “metal” is about as helpful a term for explaining what you’re listening to as “curry” is for explaining what you’re eating. Yes, we know it’s hot and fierce, but it tells nothing of the million nuances and flavours that come under its banner.

In this case, it’s gothic symphonic doom metal – something that, it seems, the Scandinavians are particularly good at and, listening to Beyond the Veil, I can certainly see that they deserve their reputation.

The music is, as you would expect, larger than life: intense, dramatic, and full of every type of sound that the music spectrum is capable of producing – frenzies of riffs that seem to be coming from a throng of electric guitars, batteries of percussion, a choir, an orchestra, icy cold operatic phrases from soprano Vibeke Stene soaring over guttural screams from lead singer Morten Veland and the utterly crazy bass of Rune Østerhus.

Its impact is at times overwhelming – dark, full of the gothic doom that gives the genre its name, achieved through drawing on everything it can to add to the drama and magnitude of the sound. Moments of impenetrably intense sound alternate with moments of thin strumming guitars, or hauntingly jangly pianos or harpsichords. Screams from the pits of hell alternate with ancient church chants. Everything makes everything else seem so much more extreme, so much more itself.

The individual tracks on Beyond the Veil all in one way or another show these trademark qualities, and by time you are few tracks into the performance, you know not to rest too easily into the more quiet moments, like the sparse, chilling keyboards that open “Opus Relinque”, or the single, pure “Agnus Dei” that opens “Lethean River”, always only to be swept away by a tidal wave of metallic noise that picks up whatever lies in its path: the choirs, the orchestras, the keyboards.

Simbelmynë is the album’s only really spartan track – a short but wonderfully spooky piece for solo keyboard – I think for an electronically treated piano – sounding like rattling bones dancing a sad, haunted dance before falling back into their grave.

As a long time and ardent disciple of Wagner, it’s probably not terribly surprising that I would be won over by music of this enormity and power, even though, in some ways, its musical structure and style is, if anything, much more traditional than most of what Wagner did. So the daringness of this music lies not so much in its harmonies and melodies and rhythmic lines, but more in the way it pulls out every stop to build its mammoth structures of gothic grandeur; and in the way it brings together worlds of sound, lets them collide, and then revels in the cosmic explosion that it has created.

Beyond the Veil is an album that has unashamedly injected itself with every bit of energy it has been able to lay its hands on. And it just as unashamedly is out to inject you, too, to make you its addict. Give it just half a chance, and it will.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The exotic colours of an alien world - Radiohead "OK Computer"

Most of my friends have found it hard to believe that I had never even heard of Radiohead until a few months ago and, when I listen to an album like OK Computer, I can understand why they might think that I could not possibly, even in my classical-only days, have allowed such groundbreaking, interesting and wonderful music to pass me by.

But I did, and it did, and so I have been trying to catching up today, listening to OK Computer over and over (which is how it deserves to be listened to), carried away on music that floats like some huge and exotic bird in the sky, marked with strange colours, and emitting strange cries that are sometimes eerie, sometimes frightening, sometimes weeping, always full of music.

“Paranoid Android” seems almost a symphony in itself, gliding through so many different places, at first hovering high in the stratosphere, then descending through roughly cleft rock, and then down into some dark valley, as Thom Yorke, in that remarkable voice that seems to transcend registers, sings with such pleading torment, “rain down on me from a great height”.

There always seems to be so much going on in these songs – rhythms that I would not even dare to guess a time signature for, beautifully placed electronic sounds that create wonderful blocks of music and then join them together, like the sliding glissandi in “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, creating a mosaic of strange, but beautiful textures and hues, each piece a picture in its own right.

There are moments of unfathomable sadness, too, like the haunting “Exit Music (For a Film)” with a simple, minor key acoustic guitar opening that ultimately swells into an anguished, heart-wrenching requiem, “now we are one in everlasting peace”. Or the ominous and yet tormented menace of “Climbing up the Walls”. But perhaps nowhere is the album’s sadness greater than it is when it is rested and at peace as it is in “No Surprises”, a suicide note to a simple, lullaby-like tune that you might sing to children to calm them when they’re afraid.

The album is ceaselessly daring, always trying new things, like in the kaleidoscope of sounds that build up and die away and build up again in “Karma Police” and then give way to a long monologue from a computer generated voice, spurting out platitudes, some more than just a little bit twisted, about how to be happy in the modern enlightened world.

The album ends with “The Tourist”, a transcendentally beautiful song where Thom Yorke’s voice soars in a boundless sky with long, lingering notes that take us with it off into the far, distant horizons that this album has been bold enough to explore, and creative enough to discover.

OK Computer paints and alienated, alienating world with astonishing warmth and beauty. It’s an incredible achievement and every time I listen to it, I find that I have fallen in love with it just a little bit more.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dancing on the cosmic stage with Gang Gang Dance

When Lucas told me that he thought Gang Gang Dance’s most recent album, Saint Dymphna, was his album of the decade, there was little question that I would have to get it. It belongs to that genre of music that seems to be slowly re-emerging after a couple of decades in the shadows – experimental electronica. But if Saint Dymphna is anything to go by, it’s clearly music that has emerged from those shadows very much refreshed and reinvigorated, and ready for a long stretch in the sun.

Things start a bit like an electronic helicopter firing up its engines; there are some flourishes on the electric keyboards and we are catapulted into this album’s unique sound-world. It’s very much a 21st century world, but one in which the voices of a whole cosmos of other times and places can still be heard echoing – tribal beats, 60s psychedelia, 70s experimentation, and sounds that may well have been created on the other side of the universe. This is music for the world’s dance floor.

I love the way we are swept up in a smorgasbord of sounds in “First Communion”, sampling everything together, leaving our taste buds confused but crazy with glee; or the way tones and colours blend into each other in “Blue Nile”, like swirling water, with a hint of Africa in its jangling beats that eventually give way to the cataclysmic pounding that kicks off “Vacuum” and yet which still keeps the river flowing above, now big and majestic.

Sound is always used with amazing creativity and originality on this album, like the way tiny keyboard phrases repeat at lightning speed at the beginning of “Princes”, setting a beat that is taken up by electric drums and ultimately grows into a sort of multi-coloured hip hop. It's just another example of how cleverly and thoroughly everything is thought out here - Saint Dymphna is not an album that just speaks in words and sentences, but in paragraphs and pages, too.

Electronic music can sometimes be pretty confronting, the more experimental it gets, but here even the most bizarre sounds are executed with such musicianship that you begin to realise that there is nothing that can’t be turned into music in the right hands. Listen to the way “Inner Pace” moves from weird waves of noise into a symphony of electronic brilliance, or to the metallic percussion sounds in “Afoot”, bursting with energy and drive, to see just how cleverly this band does its job.

“Desert Storm” is literally ablaze with sound – squealing vocals, some wonderful sliding sounds in the bass-line, chugging electronic chords, melodies worthy of the richest romanticism, all mixing and blending into a massive explosion of music before making way for the dreamier closing track, “Dust”. Here the layers of sound all seem to slowly and happily take their rest, like the whole world bedding down for the night under a sky of a million stars, after the best day of its life.

Saint Dymphna is a bit like being on a very, very fast ride – it gets you pumping with adrenalin, and sends your body’s speedometer well and truly off the dial sometimes – not so much because of the fast pace of the music, but more because of the speed at which its ideas come hurling at you.

If electronic music can stay in the hands of bands as creative and as musical as Gang Gang Dance, then it has a sensational future. Thanks once again Lucas!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sipping cachaça with the world - CéU's Vagarosa

With today being the AFL Grand Final, I did make at least a bit of an attempt to find some sort of appropriately Aussie music to listen to for today’s blog post, but ultimately settled on some world music instead, which, given the global significance of Geelong’s victory today, is perhaps not all that out of place after all.

Brazilian singer CéU’s most recent album Vagarosa was the lead feature album on 3 PBS this week – and, as always with their features, this one was a great discovery.

CéU calls us into her sound-world with a short, simple, almost bare, introductory track, “Sobre o Amore e Seu Trabalho Silencioso”, with its unmistakeable South American rhythms and a small Portuguese guitar-related cavaquinho. This is music of the village, but it leads seamlessly into the real start of the album, “Cangote”, which belongs to a much, much bigger world. This song is very much in the vein of what is to come – a blend of sounds and styles that brings opposite corners of the world together in the sort of easy harmony that makes you think that world peace lies not in the hands of our diplomats and political leaders, but in the song and dance of our musicians.

The music swings and grooves with jaunty electronic organ, sauntering bass and, of course, the smooth, graceful voice of CéU.

It is world music in the deepest, widest sense – music of the world, not of just one place or one people. It has the improvised feel of jazz in magical instrumental interludes that evoke pictures of summer nights and languid dancing, in between the unhurried, happy conversations with friends over cool drinks of cachaça, to which CéU’s singing draws us.

There are some marvellous surprises too – like the Guizado’s phenomenal trumpet playing on “Nascente”, something that would do Miles Davis proud; or the cool, sexy duet with Luiz Melodia on “Vira Lata”, against almost tribal drums, and some sensational harmonies from flute, trombone and sax; or the child-like playfulness of “Ponteiro”, with tunes of almost nursery-rhyme simplicity playing against syncopated, shifting beats; or the way the angular, wooden percussion at the opening of the album’s final track, "Espaçonave", invites extra voices and instruments to join it, bar by bar, transforming into a springy, sprightly song, infused with flavours of the orient, against the sounds of the Amazon forest.

Vagarosa seems to blend so many things together that a more compartmentalised world would tell us to keep apart – simplicity and complexity, tradition and innovation, north and south, east and west. It all combines to create something that, no matter where or who you are, seems to have a little bit of you in it.

Thanks, once again, to 3 PBS FM for another fantastic album!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Eine Kleine Dance Musik - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

With the past few days seemingly filled with music that has, in one way or another, been pretty heavy going, not to mention the fact that the weekend is upon us and we should all be in good moods, it seemed time to change the pace of things once again and listen to something a little more upbeat.

And where better to go for that, without needing to compromise the standard of the music, than the latest album from French alt-dance band, Phoenix. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix certainly is fun to listen to and maybe even, in its own way, a not unflattering tribute to its more famous namesake.

It’s not that I am going so far as to say that Phoenix is the new Mozart – but it is worth remembering that even a genius of Mozart’s stature was able to recognise that good music is not diminished even when it serves no purpose other than to be enjoyed.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is made up of ten songs – most of them more than boppy enough to keep your guests on the floor at your next party, as long as they are happy to dance to music that doesn’t always stay in the expected groove. Admittedly I haven’t been on enough dance floors lately to know exactly what is expected anymore – but, in any event, the changes of beat, the occasional appearance of things like flute and marimba, the unusual shifts and twists in the vocal line, the minimalist flavoured repetition of small melodic figures, or even of a single note, all give the music a wonderful originally and vitality that is a joy to hear.

The music, whether it’s the sparkling, lively, “Lisztomania”, or the more measured, paced, “Love Like a Sunset”, or the rock-leaning “Lasso”, is always bubbling and bursting with energy and light – and yet always in a slightly understated way, like you’re looking at an impressionist painting of a sunny day. This is the pop music that Debussy might have written.

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix will not make you rethink your place in the universe, but then Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart didn’t always do that either. Sometimes just smiling and having fun is enough.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wandering in a boundless land - Klaus Schulze "Virtual Outback"

Some time ago, my friend Marty R mentioned Klaus Schulze to me – a musician who had worked for a short time with Tangerine Dream but had then gone onto drive his own career. Even with my notorious difficulty for remembering names I managed to somehow store this one in file somewhere in my brain and so when I happened to see Klaus Schulze’s album Virtual Outback today at Missing Link records in Melbourne, I bought it.

Virtual Outback has only two tracks – its first, “The Theme: The Rhodes Elegy”, at 65 minutes, is longer than a lot of other entire CDs. The piece itself conjures up, and sustains, a mood of wild stillness, of vast, empty landscapes, and holds onto it for its entirety. I don’t know of any other piece, even in the classical genre, that has been able to do that – to envelop you in a single place, and keep you there utterly entranced, for so long. It is an incredible achievement – and this is incredible, truly incredible, music.

Its sounds blend together the purely electronic with the electronically enhanced – and the result is music that seems to come both from another world and out of the very depths of our own. It is haunting, beautiful - a tribute to the eternity of the earth, and an elegy for its transience.

After a slow, desolate opening, where an oboe sings a forlorn song, sounding like it could be coming from the beginning and the end of time at once, the music picks up momentum, with a beat that may well be the heartbeat of the earth itself. Hovering above we continue to hear the oboe song, being passed now from one instrument to another, sometimes trembling on the electric guitar, sometimes growling in the depths of the cello, but always sounding alone and ancient.

The music builds its picture of vast empty space, which, even with its emptiness, seems to have a sort of life – perhaps because of that heartbeat pounding beneath it. But, in time, the heartbeat stops and voices appear in its place, chanting soft, distorted, ghostly phrases, some barely decipherable words urging us not to ask the question “why”, and you are left feeling that whatever life was once here has now gone, with only its memory left.

The music moves from moments that are so still you are afraid to breathe, through moments where incredibly powerful images and moods arise from the emptiness: stunning guitar work that seems to cry tears for everyone who has ever been sad, and for everything that has ever been lost; drum beats that falter, like a funeral procession that staggers under the weight of too many deaths; small phrases that dance, almost happily, for a moment or two, but then give way to long, sustained notes that waver and slide, softly, like a lonely dog howling from too far away to be comforted.

There is only one way to listen to this music – alone, with nothing and no one to distract you from it. It is music that will surround you, and, after a while, you will almost feel that the line between you and it has been lost. Have it on in the background while you’re cooking the tea, and you will miss its point, and its power, entirely.

The album’s second and final track, “Chinese Ears”, is over in a mere 15 minutes – a little snippet of music after the massive work that preceded it. It was actually written for the Chinese millennium celebrations of 2000/2001 – a project that never quite came to fruition, which is a shame, really, because it is powerful, driving music. It is music that lands us squarely in the centre of modern, bustling China, with electronic keyboards keeping the sound moving at a breathless pace but giving way now and then to more reflective moments, like the lonely, wailing sounds of bowed strings - a cello, perhaps – weaving its ways around phrases from the depths of the ancient orient. Or like the haunting choir, with ominous pulsating bass beneath it, and eerie bamboo flute above it. But always the bustle of the keyboards returns, driving the music, like China itself, relentlessly forwards. It’s music that seems, paradoxically from this composer so famous for taking his time to say things, to capture thousands of years of Chinese history in just a few brief moments.

It’s a fascinating and engaging piece – but one that is not in the least bit connected to its predecessor on the album, and really should not be listened to alongside it. “The Theme: The Rhodes Elegy” is too enormous for anything to stand beside it without being lost in its shadow. Both pieces, if you play them one after the other, detract from each other but, thanks to CD player programming you can, and certainly should, play only one at a time.

An absolutely stunning album. Thanks Marty!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

To sink and to drown - the raw world of Lucinda Williams

Today I have been listening to an album that I surely would never have noticed had my friend Jon not raved about it so much and, more to the point, bought it for me. Lucinda Williams – World Without Tears, tucked away at the back of the country section at JB Hi Fi.

Lucinda Williams’ voice is clear, raw and honest, at times almost unbearably so, but only unbearable because the story she tells is one that all of us are familiar with – the story of love on the edge: on the edge of loss, on the edge of pain, on the edge of meaninglessness; love that is always ambiguous, elusive, confused; love that hurts much more than it comforts, and yet love that we keep searching for and chasing, against the odds. It’s a bleak, grim picture of love that is painted here – but it’s painted in music that mixes its pain, its beauty, and its honesty with such unpretentious ease, that you find you are connecting with it, in spite of yourself. These songs are everyone’s songs.

The picture is set right from the opening song, “Fruits of my Labor”, where a trembling guitar weeps its way through a song of loss and sadness.

But World Without Tears is anything but a soppy, sentimental album. It shows the dirty, hard side of love, like in “Righteously”, with its hint of a brief affair that is over even before it has really begun, to a slow, soft rock beat and some interludes on the electric guitar that are full of a passion, a sensuality, that is as intense as it is brief. Or in the yearning for love in “Ventura”, where despair seems to permeate nature itself, to music that slips and slides in grief, almost like you can feel the soul, and the body, slumping down together, defeated.

Listen to the rough, angry blues of “Atonement” – full of bitterness and rage – but, wow, what fantastic music! Or to the swinging country rock of “Sweet Side”, with its almost scary picture of a relationship held together by a belief that, despite the abuse and aggression, there might be something worth holding onto.

Listen, too, to “American Dream”, possibly the darkest song on the album. It is murky music, spoken more than sung, like someone telling you their bitter, bitter story, after a few too many whiskeys at a bar, and yet you find yourself diving into it, even though you know you might drown there.

The music on World Without Tears is a kind of country/folk/rock mix that takes the best of all the genres and blends them into something that sounds comfortable and familiar, despite the bitterness and sadness of the songs themselves. The result is an odd feeling – almost as if the sorrow and heartache and darkness are just part of the human condition – which, of course, they are.

The title song tells us that ultimately tears are part of life – “If we lived in a world without tears/How would bruises find/The face to lie upon/How would scars find skin/To etch themselves into/How would broken find the bones”. You could say it’s a bleak view of the world – and it is – but, like with so many things, it’s the superb music – bleeding its honesty and rawness from start to finish – that makes it worth listening to, and that ultimately convinces you to stay.

Many thanks to Jon – both for the recommendation, and for the disc! Not an easy listen but, in every sense, a great one!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A really bad album

I know I have been criticised for only ever saying good things here about the music I’ve been listening to – and, while the purpose of the blog is to do precisely that, rather than to be any real “review”, I have at last found something to break my tradition and to pull to pieces.

I was listening today to some bloke called Jimi Hendrix. I see he played back in the 60s, and I guess standards were a lot more relaxed back then, and so things were able to be released in those days that would never pass the keeper these days.

The album is called Are You Experienced? – an irony, really, because obviously this dude isn’t. I mean, really – what’s this bloke on about? He clearly never learned to play the guitar properly. It goes all over the place, hardly a singable tune in ear shot. If John Denver was still alive, he’d be rolling in his grave. Sometimes he can’t even stay on the one note. Sometimes it doesn’t even sound like a guitar. It grunts and groans like it is in some sort of agonised pain or, even worse, like it is having some sort of very sordid sexual experience. I can’t begin to think what sort of person Jimi Hendrix must have been – but we certainly don’t need to have his sexuality shoved down our throat like this, do we? In fact, I suspect that some of these songs might actually be illegal.

If that’s not enough to convince you how bad this music is, then just have a listen to “Foxy Lady”, with its music that clearly can’t decide whether it wants to be blues or rock. And when Mr Hendrix tries to assure his girlfriend “I’m gonna do you no harm”, frankly I am just not convinced.

And what’s going on with the amps and electronics here? There were places where you can actually hear feedback. It’s all terribly rough and messy – uncouth, even.

There is a brief moment of respite when he sings an almost nice little ballad called “May this be love”, but then that’s all pretty quickly thrown to the wolves by a song called “Fire”, which, as far as I can tell, is just really, really rude and is clearly written and sung by someone who never heeded Nancy Reagan’s advice to “just say no”.

“Third stone from the sun” just sounds positively freaky and is clearly meant as an insult to everything good and pure about our planet. It doesn’t even have any words, as far as I can tell – just strange, alien noises that would, if played in the dark, frighten children and maybe even some decent respectable adults, if they had some sort of nervous disposition (as I do).

Then there’s his absolutely bizarre cover of the wonderful Kronos Quartet 1986 classic “Purple Haze”. And, as if it’s not enough for him to bastardise the work of one of the world’s leading string quartets, he has to take things even further and throw in words as well. And just what is “’scuse me while I kiss the sky” supposed to mean? Is it meant to be something religious?

And if a song like “The wind cries Mary” is meant to court the Catholic vote by some oblique references to the Holy Mother, then it just won’t work. It might be a sad song, but I’m afraid this man’s soul is well and truly lost. Well, except for all that music he wrote, and all those albums that just refuse to go away.

All in all, a very, very bad and morally dangerous album. I might just have a little listen to Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland now to see if he improves.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Struck by lightning!

Some bands have a knack of picking a name that seems to perfectly capture what they are and what they do. Lightning Bolt is one of those bands. Their music just throws you to the ground with its intensity and power, leaving you wondering what hit you; and, just as it seems hard to believe that all that force of nature can be set off just by a couple of differently charged atoms interacting with each other so, too, is it pretty hard to believe that this head-blastingly powerful music could be coming from just two musicians.

You would think it was a battery of drums pounding away here but in fact it’s just Brian Chippendale smashing away with a ferocity and speed that would probably leave the average bolt of lightning for dead. It is crazy, crazy stuff, and, when it’s fused with the mad, wild guitar sounds of bassist Brian Gibson (with his bass tuned up to cello level), making the sort of noise that sounds like the planet itself is on fire, and the occasional wild vocal screaming at you from the distance, the whole thing creates an overwhelming tsunami of sound that destroys everything in its path.

I bought two Lightning Bolt albums – Wonderful Rainbow and Hypermagic Mountain – both of which arrived today and both of which are just so unbelievably good that it really seemed impossible to single one of them out. But don’t be deceived by the feel-good colour of the titles: this is music at its most extreme, its most unrelenting and severe, and, not least, its most noisy. It just pounds away at you, like a manic boxer, beating you to a pulp but somehow daring you to come back for more. And you do.

Since my foray into rock music, I’ve had a bit of a penchant for the extremities of metal and noise, but I have never heard it played with such awesome command as here. The precision of the drums, even at this light-breaking speed, and the way that it and the bass weld together, like molten lava, shows that these are musicians with a phenomenal talent.

Thank god or the devil or whoever it is that is responsible for bringing Lightning Bolt to both Melbourne and Geelong for some gigs in November – and thanks, especially, to Marty R for introducing me to this amazing experience. This is music with its phasers set to kill – but, boy, what a way to go!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Layers and layers of sound - Animal Collective

I don’t really have any plan to make my way through Polyester Records’ list of their Top 50 CDs of the last five years in any systematic way but, with a doubly enthusiastic recommendation from Lucas and Marty W, I couldn’t avoid throwing myself into No 2 today – Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.

It’s a very minimalistic disc as far as written information on the album itself is concerned – there’s some nice artwork there, but very few words: a few credits in teensy-weensy font on an inside flap of the outer cover, and a track list in very funky but, for me, totally illegible, print on the inner sleeve. And that’s about it.

But sometimes music has so much going on within it, and says so much on its own account, that anything else would be superfluous, and the music on Merriweather Post Pavilion is that sort of music.

So, at the risk of actually turning myself into superfluity, I will say a bit about this album, if only because the extraordinary fullness and richness of its music, bursting at every seam with innovation and life, exploding in every direction with energy and vitality, left me with an insatiable urge to talk about it. Shout about it, even.

Sound is what defines this album – lots and lots of sound. Every track does two things – it uses sounds that are highly original, and it uses stacks of them. These build up upon each other, creating layers and layers of resonance that leave you feeling that you could listen to the album a hundred times and still find something new in it. Listen, for example, to “Daily Routine”, and the way it starts with some strange stabs of sound from electric organ that build their momentum and then spring to life, with layers of percussion and deep echoing bass and guitars and vocals that grow into a surge of symphonic pop before giving way to massive sustained phrases, where you feel engulfed, like being in a immense cathedral of sound.

Or listen to the tribal drone that underpins “Lion in a Coma”, like some primal beast stirring beneath the earth, while millennia of humanity dance and stomp above it. Or to the quieter, swaying wave of “No more runnin”, where you get to stop for a rest, and to listen to the river stream flowing along beside you in the gentle gurgle and bubble of the electronic percussion and keyboards.

Anywhere you listen on this album you’ll hear music coming at you from every direction: cascades of sound that create a superb sense of space and, no matter where you listen to this music, you feel you’re outdoors.

Ultimately, though, the thing that makes Merriweather Post Pavilion so good is simply that it sounds fantastic. If you had it in the background at a party, it’s sure to be a good party and, within thirty seconds of hitting the play button all your guests would be up and dancing, even the ones who don’t dance. But if you let yourself just sit down and become really immersed in its energy and richness, its sheer celebration of itself, you’ll feel very inclined to tell any friends who come over while you’re playing it to just shut up and listen. And I reckon that would make a sensational party!!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bringing soul to the streets of Melbourne - Bonjah

Pretty well all of us know how soulless a big city can be; and pretty well all of us have been part of those amorphous crowds that seem to bustle along city streets from nowhere in particular to nowhere else in particular. So when, in the middle of a busy Friday lunch break, in the middle of a busy Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne, you find a band singing out a message of hope and humanity, to incredibly good music, it’s nice to see so many people taking the time to stop and listen.

The band is Bonjah and, fortunately for me, they’re also selling copies of their debut album Until Dawn, which, needless to say, I buy.

Bonjah has come to Melbourne, and settled there, from New Zealand; but its lead, Glenn Mossop, hails originally from South Africa and, as a child, joined his family as they sailed the oceans in their home made yacht, looking for somewhere to call home.

The result throws soul, reggae, rock and folk into the melting pot, heated by a flame that burns in celebration both of home and of open spaces, both of rest and of flight.

Until Dawn is all about believing in who you are, and in the life you’ve got, and doing it with honesty, a readiness to dream, and to hold one another’s hands as you do it.

And the thing that gives this album the right to tell you all of that is the way that its music practices what it preaches – it takes hold of your hand, it gives you a reassuring smile, and then it dances with you to those incredible reggae-like rhythms, driven by the drums of Dan Chisolm, and underlined by the percussion of James Majernik. Listen to those percussion outbursts in “Fly”, flying sparks in all directions, and see if you can resist the temptation to feel some optimism. Add to that the comforting but gutsy vocals of Glenn Mossop and Regan Lethbridge (who between them wrote all of the songs on this album) and the solid bass of David Morgan giving it all a backbone, and you’ve really got something to believe in and to rely upon.

But don’t for a moment think that these songs are about closing your eyes to loss and sadness. You only need to listen to the impassioned song of the electric guitar in “Rise and Fall”, or the anguished harmonica that weaves in and out of “The Weight of Imagination” and “Blue Mountain”, to know that this roadmap out of the despair has been drawn up by someone who has been there.

Until Dawn is an album that sings to you when you’re in the darkness, but assures you that there is sunrise on the way – and when it is done with music as good as this, and as honest as this, you’re going to believe in it. And that’s not something you expect to find on the streets of a busy city in the middle of the day – but thank Bonjah that you do!

Bonjah is cetainly a band worth following and supporting. You can check them out on MySpace or Facebook and you will see from there that they are keen to rouse the rank and file into spreading their word. Not only do they, and their music, deserve to be heard - but also all of us who at times find ourselves bustling from nowhere to nowhere, need to hear them.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sufjan Stevens' whirlwind tour of Illinois

Yesterday, Melbourne’s CD store, Polyester Records, did a very dangerous thing. Well, dangerous for me and my bank balance, anyway. They released their top 50 list of CDs for the last five years, and when I saw things as good as Grizzly Bear’s Vekatemist at number 16, it became clear to me that some serious spending now looms ahead for me.

So I decided to start at the top and yesterday bought Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise – the second in his planned 50 album project, profiling every state of the US. Fortunately he’s pretty young because, at the present rate, with Michigan appearing in 2003 and this in 2005, and no more since, we’re clearly here for the long haul.

But if the rest of the states are as good as Illinois, I really do hope that the releases start coming a bit more quickly because, frankly, I just don’t have quite as much time left as Sufjan Stevens does.

Illinoise boasts no less than 22 tracks and nearly 75 minutes of music, taking you on the most amazing whirlwind tour of the prairie state. The songs are all interesting glimpses of Illinois: the famous, the infamous, the spectacular, the banal.

The music itself is very, very original – with keyboards that sometimes whirl and whir at an insane pace, as they do in “Chicago”, or with frenetic little phrases in the vocals that drive along far in excess of any sensible speed limit, as they do in the album’s title track “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” There are tunes that leave you breathless at their life-affirming, hypnotic catchiness, like in “Jacksonville” or “The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders”.

But there are quieter moments too –sometimes unsettlingly so, like in the gentle folk of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr”, a chillingly intimate song about one of America’s most notorious serial killers; and sometimes almost spiritually contemplative, as in “The Seer’s Tower”, with its pondering piano and haunting vocals.

There’s a fascinating array instruments on Illinoise: guitars, drums, percussion, banjo, piano, wurlitzer, saxophone, accordion, flute, glockenspiel, oboe, electric bass, recorders, vibraphone, organ – all of which Sufjan Stevens plays at some stage or another, and then a trumpet, that he doesn’t play, (which adds a beautiful languid feel to “Casimir Pulaski Day”), and a string quartet, and those amazing extra vocals that burst in here and there with the sort of vibrancy that makes you want to stop whatever you’re doing and just jump in the air for a bit.

And then there is Sufjan Stevens’ own singing – a soft, high, voice that somehow manages to sound like it is singing only to you.

But it’s ultimately the way that all of this comes together that makes this album so extraordinary – such incredibly ingenious arrangements where, even with so many disparate parts going in all kinds of directions, so many layers of sound all in conversation with one another, not a note ever seems at risk of wandering off on its own.

The whole thing was for me a glorious explosion of light and energy and creativity. I have already gone out and bought Michigan and can’t wait for the remaining 48 to appear. I never thought I would ever be this enthusiastic about America.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A small step for Pink Floyd and a giant leap for music - Dark Side of the Moon

I have to admit that my knowledge of the history of rock music is still very sketchy but it seems, from what I have read, that Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon was a pretty iconic event in that history – even though (again from what I have read) it wasn’t exactly a quantum leap in style from much of the band's earlier work.

But we know that moon landings are like that – it can be a small step for the person taking it, but a giant leap for everyone watching it.

Listening to Dark Side of the Moon today I could see why it has become so idolised. It is so rich in sounds, in ideas, in music, in message.

It opens, and ends, with a heartbeat and, in between, it takes you along its journey through life’s darker side, with an almost operatic intensity, and yet at times with an almost chamber-music subtlety, that surely sounds as full of innovation and creativity now as it must have when it was first released in 1972.

The languid slides at the beginning of “Speak to me” sound deceptively laid-back. We have already heard the faltering heartbeat and so know that we can’t allow ourselves to become too blasé.

“Breathe” indeed provides us with a challenge – a challenge to choose between hiding from life or living it. But it, too, has a softness to it, a gentleness, that perhaps makes us feel safer than we really are for, before long, we are on the hair-raising ride of “On the Run”, carrying us forward, it seems, on the “biggest wave … towards an early grave” that we had just been warned about.

The ride is brought to a halt with the sound of an alarm clock, and we are in “Time”, a song about wasting time (and life) with trivialities and routines that have no meaning. It’s a brilliantly written song, opening with music where time literally ticks away to the soft beat of the drums beneath dark, ominous chords; and eventually continuing on into a stunning guitar solo that cries out with heartbreaking lament and regret.

A few minor key chords on the piano usher in “The Great Gig in the Sky”, a song without words but certainly not without meaning and message – if this great gig in the sky is some sort of metaphor for death, it is an anguished, lonely image that it paints, surging in passion before dying away sadly into the distance. This is really incredibly beautiful music.

There is a sudden change of pace, with rhythms cleverly created not by drums, but by the sound of cash registers. “Money” is, not surprisingly, a song about greed, and its sarcasm and harshness certainly stands in ruthless contrast to everything else we’ve heard so far – aggressive, restless, angry electric guitars, downward spiralling bass riffs, and angular, unsteady beats.

But greed isn’t the only thing that torments and tortures modern life. There’s violence, division and rejection, too, and we hear tears wept for all of it by the sad saxophone in “Us and Them”. It’s another intensely beautiful track which, like “The Great Gig in the Sky” swells with a passionate love for the life that is being so belittled and trivialised in the modern world.

“Any Colour You Like” is a soft rock interlude for drums and organ into which unsettled stabs from the electric guitar suddenly intrude and eventually take us into what is for me the undoubted pinnacle of the album, “Brain Damage”, and its journey into the loneliness of mental illness. Every bar of this song haunts you, with the forlorn electric guitar sliding and crying in the background and the unspeakably moving entry of female choir, sending goosebumps over every inch of your skin, as you are given the sad, lonely pledge, “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon”.

The final track is “Eclipse” – a song of anthem-like strength, as if here you are really getting the moral of the story. And what is that moral? It is both hopeful and hopeless – “everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon”.

So ultimately, Dark Side of the Moon seems to me to be an album about missed opportunities, and about the consequences of not meeting life’s challenges in the right way. “All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be” says the opening song – and what follows is the story of a life that failed to touch and see the things that matter.

The richness and originality of an album like this was bound to create a sensation – and it did, and still does. But I guess it’s ultimately up to us to decide whether we will learn the lessons it seems to be trying to teach us, or whether we will continue to let the sun be eclipsed by the dark side of the moon.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A journey through the Canadian snow - Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire is a band led by husband and wife duo Win Butler and Régine Chassagne; they hail from Canada and they play music that drives along in the Canadian snow – music which shivers in a cold landscape where families fall apart, and where children die, and where love is found and lost, but which also finds warmth in memories and community.

If you just read the words of their album Funeral, you would think that this is all about mourning and grief, but when you listen to its music you realise that it is rather about acceptance and, ultimately, about moving on.

It is music that is always pulsating with a beat, as much from the keyboards as from the percussion, giving everything a sense of dappled light, and always driving things forward. It is a kind of gentle rock – gentle but strong, sure and persistent, sometimes reinforced by heavy 12 string electric guitar, sometimes by warm violins and cello, sometimes by cold harp or by the street sounds of an accordion.

Even though these songs are about loss and heartache, about dark nights and shadows, the music has an amazing way of feeling like home, built on the foundations of solid, secure harmonies, with bricks made out simple phrases that build and transform into incredibly strong walls of sound that surround you and, before you even realise they're doing it, give you shelter.

The blend of instruments throughout this album is really very original and unique – like a small chamber orchestra, playing with an unshaking precision, a real sense of conviction and, most of all, of community.

Sometimes tracks take sudden, dramatic shifts in tempo, like in “Crown of Love”, and “Wake Up”, which cranks up the excitement in the way that Rossini overtures are famous for doing.

Most of the songs are sung by Win Butler in a voice that, to me anyway, seems to ache with vulnerability and yet to be aflame with passion at the same time – it leaves you on the edge of your seat, and on the edge of tears, even while the music keeps your head marking time with that strapping, sturdy beat.

The last song, “In the backseat”, is sung with goose-bump inducing simplicity by Régine Chassagne – a song about sitting, unnoticed and undisturbed, in the back of a car, looking at the countryside. But then once again the music cranks up, explodes, and Régine’s voice seems to take on a Björk-like intensity as she sings “I’ve been learning to drive. My whole life, I’ve been learning”. The music swells and then eventually fades into the distance and you reaise, maybe with a tinge of regret, that it has moved on.

I really don’t think I have ever heard anything quite like this before, and I wouldn’t begin to guess where it fits in terms of genre or influences – but it’s an invigourating, life-affirming album of very original, colourful music that keeps you captivated from the beginning and leaves you trying to follow after it at the end.

Thank you Lucas for this really stunning recommendation!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The stylish sleaze of Serge Gainsbourg

The cover of Serge Gainsbourg's album Histoire de Melody Nelson is enough to make even some of my heterosexual male friends blush just a little, with a semi-naked young woman clutching a rag doll, looking at you with an expression far beyond her clearly tender years. But this is early 70s France and standards, and age checks, were pretty relaxed then and, in any event, the cover is nothing compared to the lurid ride that we are about to take on this mesmerisingly seedy album.

The ride in fact begins in a Rolls Royce, as Serge Gainsbourg begins to narrate his story in his pornographically sleazy voice against a slow funky bass, a dirty, squalid electric guitar and, eventually a string orchestra that injects strange, twisted phrases, and gives the music a sense of dramatic, maybe even epic, grandeur. Clearly this is sleaze with style.

The story, like the music, creeps and crawls along dark streets, where a driver, distracted by his daydreams, crashes into a bicycle ridden by a teenage girl named Melody Nelson. He whisks her away, dances a slow waltz with her as seductive strings entwine themselves around his whispering, half-singing, half-speaking voice. He teaches her about love in shady hotels with mirrors on the ceiling. And when, in the end, she is killed in a plane crash, he prays for her body to be returned to him, for it to be washed up on shore by the sea, as the haunting twists of the strings are joined by ominous drum beats and a wordless, other-worldly, choir.

It's hot and steamy, icy and chilling, all at once. But from the moment the album starts with those dark and dingy notes from the bass, you are enveloped by this world, you are fascinated by it, you are part of it. The music is sensual, grimy; and yet somehow it manages to loom bigger than the morality that still makes you to shudder at it. The way in which its blues-like rhythms dance with the lush strings creates a sound world that is as irresistible as it is menacing.

To be honest, there is a lot that is pretty unsettling about this album, especially knowing that Serge Gainsbourg was painting his own portrait here. It is, after all, ultimately about a dirty old man and a very abusive relationship with a 15 year old girl. Clearly that's bad, even when it's done to music which, coming at you from its smoky world of red lights and shadows, is undeniably alluring. Histoire de Melody Nelson is, I guess, the ultimate proof that even the devil can write fantastic music.

Thank you Mirek for introducing me to this unique album - this incredible gem of 1970s French sleaze!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Digging in the dirt, and finding the blues - The Black Keys "Rubber Factory"

When Scott, my nephew, told me that I should listen to The Black Keys, I of course did as I was told because his judgement has been unerringly good so far. So I bought and listened to Rubber Factory a few weeks ago, found myself swept away by its bluesy rock beat and its strong gutsy tunes, and I knew straight away that Scott had once again steered me in the right direction.

But then hearing Dan Auerbach, the Black Keys’ guitar and vocal lead, doing some solo work on 3 PBS FM the other morning, I was inspired to go back to Rubber Factory for another run through the album and now I am left thinking that this might even be one of Scott’s best recommendations of all. And that's saying something.

The album opens with a phenomenally good track, “When the Lights Go Out”, just oozing with that wonderful “get down and dirty” sort of blues that I thought no one performed as well as this anymore. “You know what the sun’s all about/when the lights go out” this song tells us – but these songs are not about wallowing in the darkness, they’re about accepting it as part of life and deciding that, if you can’t beat it, you might as well pour yourself a drink and dance in it.

The Black Keys is only two people but it sounds like a lot more than that, the way they bring such a smorgasbord of sounds into their mix – Patrick Carney hammering away on a whole battery percussion, driving everything along, even when the mood is laid back and languid; and Dan Auerbach moving from guitars to fiddle to lap steel with incredible ease. Listen to the plaintive steel whining in “The Lengths”, and ask yourself if this could really be coming from the same hand that plucks out the jazz-like, knife-edge anguish of “Stack Shot Billy”, or the drug-weary numbness of “Aeroplane Blues”, or the aggressive, defiant riffs of “Till I Get My Way”.

Rubber Factory is full of songs that sound like someone has found an old tree, with roots firmly in the soil and dirt of '60s blues, but growing and thriving with a 21st century bloom. It might be a bloom caked in grit and grunge – but that just makes you want to breathe it in, and be intoxicated by it, all the more.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Zapped from Joe's Garage

Frank Zappa's music was something that I know a bit about long before I had ever really listened to it. I knew that he was an ardent disciple of Edgard Varèse - a fantastically innovative and inventive avant-garde composer of the early twentieth century. So when you combine that sort of influence with Zappa's own talent, wit, and politics, you are bound to end up with something interesting and so, naturally, it has been a great experience for me to immerse myself today, at last, in Frank Zappa's mammoth assaut on modern commercialism, Joe's Garage.

Joe's Garage is a kind of opera, telling the story of Joe, a backyard, garage musician who is swept away into a journey through the commercial music world. I couldn't help but see some parallels here with the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht masterpiece, Seven Deadly Sins, and I reckon Zappa here is a very fine match for those two masters of savagery and satire.

His music is very, very clever. It's always got a very cheeky grin on its face, but its wit is sometimes very acerbic, and you have to be careful what you're laughing at because sometimes the joke might be on you.

Things get started with the title song, and its infectious tribute to straightforward, pre-commercial rock. But there's a long way to go yet, and this music will eventually take you through a whole catalogue of styles, all infused and bound together with Zappa's own unique character, running like a jaunty, unpredictable, multi-hued thread through it all, doing interesting, original things with sound at every twist and turn the music takes, like the mock dark blue colours of "Crew Slut", or the blazing show tunes of "Wet Shirt Competition", or the stunning jazz/blues guitar work that pokes its head through all the time, sometimes creating a sense almost of tragedy and pain, as it does before turning around to make fun of itself in "Why does it hurt when I pee?".

There's the brilliant romance of "Sly Borg", while Joe makes love to a gleaming model XQJ-37 nuclear powered Pan-sexual Roto-Plooker, which lands him in all kinds of trouble when the machine short-circuits in the most sordid way imagineable, and he is unable to pay for its repair so ends up in jail as the music morphs via the soft swing of "Dong Work for Yuda" to the hard rock of "Keep it Greasy" - a couple of songs where the brutality of modern commercialism is told through a grotesquely black story of prison rape.

There's the symphonic climax to "Outside Now", as Joe dreams of strangling the executives who raped him - starngling them with guitar notes that don't sell any records - all to some of the most awesome non-commercial guitar playing you'll ever hear, finally becoming infinitely nostalgic and beautiful, if still very tongue-in-cheek, in "Watermelon in Easter Hay".

The journey ends with the delightfully meaningless and trite "A Little Green Rosetta", sung by the story's narrator, the Central Scrutiniser, as a reminder of where we're headed in an inane world of commercialism. But even this track, intentionally banal and just a little too tuneful, sounds nothing short of brilliant in the hands of Frank Zappa - coloured with those quirky, unsettling sounds and chords and noises, telling you that these tunes, even while you're dancing to them, are more than just a little bit scary.

Joe's Garage is a brilliant work in every sense - its message, its lyrics, its music. It all hangs together so incredibly well. It laughs at itself when it pretends to be serious - but with a savage laugh that leaves you uneasy, even when you're laughing along with it.

And if you get the chance sometime, listen to a bit of Varèse too - just to see where all this has come from.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Making every moment matter - Minutemen "Double Nickels on the Dime"

As I understand it, the name "Minutemen" has nothing to do with that band's brief tracks (no less than 43 of them on their album Double Nickels on the Dime) but in fact comes from the Minutemen militia of the American revolution.

Both meanings have their place in understanding and appreciating this fabulous album, released in 1984. Its tracks are never more than two or three minutes long and every one of them, in its own way, seems to be spearheading a revolution - politically and musically, with aggressive songs that spew out their electric bile against convention and capitalism.

This is music of rebellion, coming to you from three amazingly accomplished musicians who learned their craft, it seems, not in conservatoriums of music, but in the garages and streets of the working class. This is what punk music is meant to be - music stripped of all its comfortable trappings: music that is angry, raw and battering you with a rage that is born in the clastrophobic confines of the underground.

And what music! On every track D Boon's wild and angry, almost jazz-like lead guitar does something amazing, blending with and against Mike Watt's funky, sometimes laid-back, sometimes frenetic, bass in a counterpoint that would make Bach drool. And its message is always underlined and driven home by the incredibly tight brute force of George Hurley's drums.

This is not music to relax to - it's not comfort music. It's music spiked with shards of broken glass - but glass broken only because it has been smashed in outrage at a world that is already bleeding to death anyway. Or at a world wallowing in its own middle class apathy and comfort, as we hear in songs such as "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing", or "The Roar of the Masses Could be Farts".

All of the songs are brief because this is not music that is about elaborating or adorning its ideas - it's about letting them rip, about living in the heat of the moment before it has a chance to cool down.

It would be tempting to talk about individual tracks here - like by drawing attention to the fantastic ostinato riffs in "The Glory of Man", or to the almost rock 'n' roll groove of "Corona", or to the percussive originality of "You Need the Glory", or to the punctuating bass drum in "Jesus and Tequila" ... but there's just too many amazing bits of music on this album, so I won't mention any of them. Not even the surprisingly gentle acoustic flow of "Cohesion".

The album starts with a car engine firing up and you are, indeed, in for one wild ride - and yet even that is part of the album's political message, apparently made in reaction to a song protesting the imposition of 55 mph speed limits in America. Minutemen are focussing the light of their protest on something much more important, much more revolutionary, than car speed limits.

So it's kind of fitting that the album finishes with "Three Car Jam" - a kind of jibe, perhaps, at the directions in which political battles are headed, if they're about the wrong things.

So get a copy of Double Nickels on the Dime, crank up both the volume and yourself, and then go out and let down the tyres of a really fast car - even if it has to be your own.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Discussing the Beatles last night in the wake of my inevitable (albeit very financially irresponsible) purchase of the newly released stereo box remasters of all their albums, Greg, my brother, mentioned that he really doesn't like the Beatles all that much. Over the next couple of hours, I think he then mentioned about four or five Beatles' albums as, arguably, "the greatest album of all time" - which not only put something of a question mark over his claim not to like them very much, but also made it very difficult for me to choose just which one to listen to tonight.

I ended up going with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (possibly the greatest album of all time, according to my brother). Actually, this album found its way, along with the White Album and Abbey Road, into my record collection even back in the days when the collection included not only nothing other than classical music but, in fact, nothing other than Wagner.

When I listened to this album again tonight I was reminded why I had made the exception way back then, and let a bit of non-Wagner (the only music genre I tended to not like) through the gatekeeper. It was, and still is, just such wonderfully adventurous, clever, witty music with wonderfully adventurous, clever, witty words - and maybe even, if it's not too long a bow, a little bit Wagnerian in the way that it melded everything together, all its elements, into one superb, integrated whole. The words could never be sung to any tune other than these tunes. The tunes could never have any words other than these words. The songs may have been through heaps of other versions from heaps of other performers over the years, but none of them, surely, have ever sounded as right as the ones here on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I had forgotten just how clever some of these songs are. I wonder how long it took Lennon and McCartney to come up with the sharp, tongue-in-cheek, mocking images that abound throughout "When I'm Sixty-Four"? And how long to get every note to fit every syllable, without even a hint of clumsiness, in "Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!", where the lyrics are every bit as musical as the music? And how long not only to capture that exotic, Eastern sound, with its profound message of humanity, in "Within You and Without You", but also to make the decision to integrate it into this album, where so much else is unadulterated fun, thumbing its nose at everything? Or the idea of turning the whole thing into a show within a show, through the bookend appearances of the title song as the first, and penultimate, tracks? And the almost surreal coda of "A Day in the Life"?

There's just no end to the creativity and cleverness of this album - which, of course, would not in itself be enough to make it so enduringly famous and loved and, were it not for the sheer catchiness of every tune, the irresitable hooks at every turn of phrase, on every beat, this album would simply never have become one which which even people who don't like it, just love.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Music for the broken soul

The latest album of Soulsavers, Broken, has been described, as far as I can tell so far, as some sort of mix of blues, soul, gospel, rock and electronica. I really don't know if all of that can mix together at all but, if it can, and if this album is the product of that, then it is very, very good indeed.

But the first and most important thing to know about this album is that it sounds just terrific - yes, it is dark; yes, some of it is deeply, deeply, sad - but its story is told with such beauty, such intensity - whether it's aggressive, or whether it's gentle - that you cannot help but fall in love even with the sadness.

This album brings together a lot of names who, I gather, represent a pretty impressive line-up - even though, I must confess, none of them ring any bells for me at all. There is Mark Lanegan, Richard Hawley, Jason Pierce, Mike Patton and Gibby Haynes, all having their say. I really don't know who any of these people are, but the sound they produce certainly had a profound effect on me - music of deep, deep darkness which, even in that darkness, seems to manage to somehow find a way of leaving you believing in the light.

Broken brings together an incredible spectrum of sounds and emotions and, of course, genres. There's electric guitars, there's lush strings, there's sparse piano, there's harmonicas, saxophones, organs, a Cedar flute; some of it is heavy, pounding rock; some of it is gentle, swaying folk; some of it is introspective, anguished blues. All of it is like a drug - unsettling and soothing at the same time.

The mood for Broken is set in the first few bars of the first track, "The Seventh Proof" - a slow, purely instrumental, sad waltz, played on piano, woodwind and strings, against a crackling background that makes you feel this music, despite all its depth and emotion, is coming to you from a distance, and from a long time ago. It's a brilliant way of making you feel that all that follows will be, in some way, in quotation marks. A story.

And the story certainly takes you to all kinds of places - angry, sad, lost and lonely - but all of it conveyed with such eloquence and beauty, whether it be by the rough, deep and weary voice of Mark Lanegan, crooning but always musical, or by the aggessive, dark colours of "Death Bells", or by the almost morbid catchiness of "Unbalanced Pieces" telling its tale of dislocation and emptiness ("Gone - Now carry on through seasick seasons/I'm crawling mother, mother, mother, in vain"), or by the beauty of a solo cello against a bare piano in "You Will Miss Me When I Burn", or by the sad purity of Red Ghost's (Australia's Rosa Agostino) voice in some of the album's later tracks (like the heartaching simplicity of "Praying Ground"). Listen to that and you cannot help but feel embraced by it. Even the nightmarish chaos of the jazz-infused "Rolling Sky" draws you in.

There is just no limit here to the ways this album shares with you its sadness and, ultimately, its determination to comfort you. The purely instrumental "Wise Blood", with its contemplative cello against sustained strings, feels almost as if it is closing the quotation marks of the opening track - a slow, gentle sunrise, perhaps, after such a long and difficult night.

But Broken doesn't end there - rather it ends with "By My Side", a slow, restful, even majestic song, sung again by Red Ghost, bringing a feeling of peace and resolution to everything. A full stop.

Broken brings together so many things, both musically and emotionally. I would never have thought it would all fit together - but here it does.

This is yet another PBS discovery for me. It is an album so full of interesting and diverse moods and sounds that you really can't possibly absorb it one go. It shows you that, even in the darkness, there is colour and beauty and, with every subsequent hearing, you discover more of it. It's not happy music - but it is good music, in every sense - and I reckon, no matter how you are feeling before you listen to it, you will feel better at the end.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Johnny Rotten meets Richard Wagner - Nina Hagen

I don't know if operatic-fusion-prog-kraut-punk is an official genre or not, but it should be and Nina Hagen should be its genre-definer, its goddess and its ambassador to everywhere. It's hard to believe that her first album Nina Hagen Band was released thirty years ago - even now it sounds incredibly daring, pushing lots of boundaries - which, back in the 70s, were already pretty broad.

There's nothing but terrific music on this album, and great playing by the band with tremendous guitar riffs and, particularly, incredible sounds and moods coming from the keyboards, creating something which seems to be the product of some sort of psychedelic fusion of the classical and punk universes.

But it's the voice of Nina Hagen that really makes this album the unique and stunning thing that it is. What a voice! She sings, she screams, she shrieks, she speaks, with a kind of animalistic wildness that is bloody scary. You listen to her in the same way that you might watch a caged lion - terrified but absolutely captivated, totally unable to look away.

There's this thing in music called an acciaccatura. It's basially a little note that is sung or played almost imperceptibly briefly before another note, kind of "crushing" into the main note. And sometimes (although much more rarely and more as a twentieth century phenomenon) this "crushed" note might appear after the main note rather than before it. It's an affect you would recognise immediately if you heard it, and usually this crushed note will be of just a slightly different pitch than the main note - a semitone, or a tone, for example. Well, there are acciaccaturas (acciaccaturi??) all over the place in Nina Hagen's singing - and hers sound like they're about two or three octaves different in pitch from the main note. It's the most amazing, crazy effect, her voice shifting from some absurbly high pitch somewhere in the stratosphere to a subterranean growl in a nanosecond. I woul never have thought the human voice could do that.

There simply isn't a dull moment on this album, but if I could only take two tracks from it onto my desert island they would be "Auf'm Bahnhof Zoo", a haunted, epic journey through some seedy train station (I think), and "Naturträne", where Nina Hagen's voice goes into full operatic mode, sounding something like Brünnhilde on acid, and ending up in notes so high that I doubt that even my dogs could hear them.

I don't know why Nina Hagen didn't become a big name in the more mainstream punk scene - she certainly deserves a much more prominent place than she has. It's wild, wild stuff.

Needless to say, another Marty recommendation!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Impossible to be bored

When I first strolled past them on the CD racks, I thought that a group calling itself "The Boredoms" is clearly not aiming for the mainstream market, and so I did kind of wonder what they might sound like. So when Lucas posted a bit about them on my friend Marty's Facebook wall, and I followed a few links, I needed no more encouragement to go out and add something of this incredibly interesting Japanese experimental rock band to my collection. So today, their album, Seadrum/House of Sun joined my pile of new purchases.

It's a funny looking album. Apart from some slightly messy silver and gold artwork on the front of a blue cover, there is nothing to tell you anything about the band, or the music, at all. Everything else is bare. There are no liner notes, not even any track listings. If you look really hard on the disc itself, beyond the single gold ring on a green background, you will see a very tiny printed anti-piracy warning, but that's it. So you need to actually stick it into your CD player even to learn that it's a two track album. I can only presume that one of the tracks is called "Seadrum" and the other is called "House of Sun".

But, really, you don't need any more than that to be able to get into this music or, more to the point, for it to be able to get into you. It's amazing music and, insofar as it speaks at all, it speaks for itself.

The first track, which I presume is the one called "Seadrum", begins with some wordless, even tuneless, chanting - a female voice rising and wafting, directionless, for a minute or so, when suddenly a battery of percussion joins in, pounding away with amazing force and ferocity. The drums beat away pretty well for all of the rest of the 23 minute track, frenetic and ferocious. I don't know if this was all recorded in one take but, if it was, I hate to think what the drummers' gym bills must have been for them to have got themselves fit enough to perform this. It's just phenomenal in its power and unrelenting force.

It's joined before long by a piano, doing the sorts of playing that someone else described, in a review I read today, as being like a cross between Alice Coltrane and Liberace. That's probably pretty accurate - except that I would add that it's Alice Coltrane and Liberace after they've both taken some very, very good drugs. It's just wild: insanely fast glissandi and amazing jazz-influenced improvisations, all the while with the mad beating of the percussion, and still the strange female chanting, mixed in with it all.

The music takes hardly a moment to catch its breath, and neither do you. I was really quite literally gob-smacked by the whole experience.

The second track (presumably "House of Sun") was different altogether. It was a strongly Eastern-influenced piece, with what sounded like quite a big ensemble of eastern instruments, along with guitars and strings and pianos and goodness knows what else, all building this incredible monolithic wall of sound that somehow conjured up for me an image of the earth forming amidst swirls of molten rock, or smoke and mist floating slowly but endlessly in some infinitely vast oriental land.

And for some reason this music also reminded me of an incredible piece by English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis - his 40-part motet, Spem in Alium in which 40 separate solo voices all do their own thing in this amazing feat of complex counterpoint writing. That's what this is like - countless instruments, it seems, going everywhere, and the whole thing coming together in this phenomenal torrent of sound.

I know I am trying to be enthusiastic about everything I write about on this blog - but this album really did just bowl me over. I think absolutely everyone in the world should listen to it, but I realise, too, that there might only be a pretty small handful of people who will actually like it. It's very unconventional, and there is not a tune to hum along to anywhere in its entire 43 minutes. If you play it loud (and you really should play it loud) chances are the neighbours will call either the police or the local emergency mental health assessment team.

But I would not for a moment let any of that unsettle you or deter you because, if you do find that you can connect with this music, it will just leave you awe-struck. Thanks Lucas for the stunning recommendation!

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Doors

I think that probably pretty well everyone in the universe knows this album better than I do, so I’m not going to even attempt to describe it to you here. But its impact on me, listening to it several times since I first bought it a couple of months ago, has been so overwhelming, so profound, that I thought I might talk about that instead.

I was already vaguely familiar with a couple of songs from The Doors. I knew the "Alabama Song" really well, because it is written by Kurt Weill, who I have worshipped since I first saw his opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (from which the "Alabama Song" comes, incidentally) in 1975. I’m sure I had heard "Light My Fire", and "The Crystal Ship", probably a hundred times before; and I knew “The End” because I had seen Apocalypse Now.

But I hadn’t really sat down and listened to any of this until a couple of months ago, and the self-indulgent part of me can’t help but wonder how different my life would be now if I had really listened to this music properly when it first came out over 40 years ago, and if I had let its allure drag me down into its dark, lurid depths. I can’t imagine that, as an impressionable child, I could have resisted its call, if I had let myself listen to it – the dark, seductive voice of Jim Morrison, calling me, in just the first few seconds, to “break on through to the other side”.

And that “other side” is certainly one that you can’t help but be drawn into, even though you know, from your first steps into it, how dark, dingy and ultimately deadly it is. It takes you through moments of vulnerability, like in the almost faltering, hesitant lines of “The Crystal Ship”; moments of insatiable passion, as in “Light my Fire”; or the feverish beat of “Back Door Man”; or the unfathomably haunting steel guitar howling its way through “End of Night”.

But, of course, the undisputed pinnacle of this album is “The End” – towering like a symphony of Mahlerian proportions over everything that had gone before it. Every time I listen to this track it seems to shake me just a little bit more with its intensity, and to bowl me over just a little more totally with its brilliance. Everything seems just so perfectly and chillingly placed on this song, every note, every entrance, every twitch of every instrument, and every sound that comes, ragged and haggard, from Jim Morrison.

The haunting guitar notes at the beginning seem to come out some dark place, like a blackened, beaten face, scared to show itself because of the horrors carved within it. When Jim Morrison’s voice eventually breaks into this eerie soundscape with that line, “This is the end”, I felt I was hearing a man’s most intimate moments of loss and despair – reading his suicide note, almost. He sings a few lines, barren and hopeless, the drum rolls in a spine chilling crescendo and suddenly my body temperature seemed to have dropped a few degrees because I could see that I was no longer listening just to one man’s end but rather the end of everything. This is now a world where nothing is as it should be – all the children are insane, and fear and desolation loom everywhere.

Into this bleak, barren world a tale of Oedipal hate and lust intrudes for a moment, everything is whipped up into some kind of surreal frenzy, and you feel you really might be in the very pit of hell.

But the frenzy dies away as quickly as it started, and we are left with those ghostly snatches of notes, and those haunted, empty lines from Jim Morrison, that we began with – until they, too, die away to nothing.

But, really, there is no way of describing this song that can do it justice. You just have to listen to it, absorb yourself in it, and let it wash over you and, perhaps more importantly, in you.

Every time I listen to it I seem to find something more in it – be it the way the organ drives the music forwards, soft and eerie, in the background, before you even realise it’s there, or a tortured twisted note here or there from the electric guitars, or a beat from a drum in just the place that makes your blood run cold.

Sorry to have babbled on so much about this album and about this one song in particular – but there are some things in music that you feel you could talk about for a hundred years and still not feel you have said enough.

Something brighter tomorrow, I promise!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

60s meets the 21st century, and together they point the finger - The Soundtrack of Our Lives

Today I’ve been listening to a really interesting album that was recommended by Scotti from Melbourne’s “Missing Link” record shop – a great place for finding things that no one else seems to want to stock. The Soundtrack of Our Lives is a Swedish rock band and, like so many things that come from Scandinavia’s music scene, they’re an interesting mix of tradition and innovation. Communion is their newest album. It’s a double CD set – just over 90 minutes, but 90 minutes of powerful, original, cleverly devised music that is, apart from anything else, just great to listen to.

The first thing that strikes you about this album, even before you listen to it, is the artwork, with all its photos of ever-so-slightly too happy faces – at home, at work, at play. But this is not an album about happy families but rather about the falsehood of all that. All throughout this album there seems to be a kind of indictment of the vanity-driven deception and hedonism of the modern middle class dream.

The album starts like an orchestra tuning up … then there’s a beat and a clap and things are off and running with “Babel on”. You are summonsed into its world and, before you've got a chance to ask any questions, you are moving and grooving to some great rock riffs, reborn from the 60s, but alive and kicking with real 21st century gusto, and a real 21st century message to tell.

The album goes through a lot of interesting paths, turning around a lot of interesting corners, at times hurling you along with energy you just can’t resist, at times asking you to stroll for a bit, while acoustic guitars take over, pluck away, and make you reflect. There are moments of introspection, moments of nostalgia, like the harpsichord and trumpet sounds of “The fan who wasn’t there”. There are songs that start off gently, lulling you into a sense of security, but then whip themselves, and you, up into a frenzy. Listen, for example, to "Second life replay", with its smooth, if unsettling and haunting, beginning ("I killed myself today"), transforming, bar by bar, to its feverish, impassioned end.

This really is music that could not have been written without the '60s, and at times I almost thought I was listening to Pink Floyd, but nor could it have been written before now, with interesting 21st century fusions of styles, and treatments and distortions of sound. It brings the two time zones and their different music worlds together in a way that makes you feel they belonged with each other all along.

It’s great music, but it’s by no means just about having a good time – although you certainly do that when you listen to this album. These songs seem to point the finger at all of us, confronting us with the façade behind which modern middle-class life seems so happy to hide. There are songs about how we destroy one another in our personal relationships, such as in “Universal Stalker”, or about how our society does it for us, as in “Mensa’s Marauders”. I'm not sure if I am reading too much into it, but it seems like this album almost means you to enjoy it in spite of yourself - you're dancing and rocking to songs that are telling you how false it all is, and how much damage it all does.

We are shown the absurdity of that façade, and its danger, like in the nuclear fallout of “RA 88”, with its hard rock aggression, its frightening, uncompromising beat: a song as much about our radioactive ideas, as about our weapons, I think.

But we are also shown our own search for meaning, our search for a sense of belonging, like in “Songs of the ocean”, with the words, “No we don’t belong anymore/to the umbilical shore” to music that really does sound like a voyage in a wide, endless sea - music that sways and drifts in some vast, vast space and ends with strings and electronic wails like the sound of some apocalyptic bird cry.

The album ends with “Passover”, where, to a grounded, steady, beat, and with lines like “Don’t pass it on/if you know it’s wrong” and “Somebody’s waiting for you” and “It’s only your life before you awake”, you can almost feel the band coming forward to the footlights, telling you that this is their message: you are part of something bigger, and people are relying on you to do the right thing.

If you don’t feel like plunging into the ideas behind this album, and their fairly confronting message of alienation and scorn (or at least that’s what they seem to say to me), you can still plunge into its music – because there can be little room for discomfort there: it’s just a great way to spend 90 minutes.

Thanks to Missing Link for a great recommendation!

Matt Joe Gow & the Dead Leaves - Long Live the Leaves!

Last night's gig at the Nash in Geelong, with Matt Joe Gow and the Dead Leaves, was so good that I thought it warranted another post - a break with the one-post-a-day tradition of this blog, and with the record, so far, of not posting on one band more than once.

I talked a bit yesterday about their debut album The Messenger and most, but not all, of the songs from that album filled the bill last night. I had forgotten what it was like to feel the floor shake with the beat of really good music - music that's good not just because it sounds good (which it certainly does) but also because it manages to somehow tell you a story without first having to sit you down on the floor, cross legged, and tell you that it's telling you a story. It just tells it.

I had forgotten, too, what it was like to see live music where the musicians really believe in what they're doing. That's something you certainly didn't get too often with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (the last gig I went to) who, even in music of the most intense, heartfelt passion, had an amazing capacity to look bored. Not Matt Joe Gow and the Dead Leaves. You knew this music was coming not just from their instruments and voices, but from something deep within them - sometimes their hearts, sometimes their guts.

Their terrific combination of acoustic and electric guitars, upright bass, and drums, all strumming and beating away at their wonderfully original mix of country and rock made for a phenomenal night before a smallish but very impressed crowd.

I've got a notoriously bad record at predicting outcomes of elections and footy matches, but I reckon I might just be backing a real winner this time when I say that I think this band has a big future.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Believing in the leaves - Matt Joe Gow

I think it's pretty close to forever ago that I last went out to listen to a live band - unless, of course, you count the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra but, as my nephew Scott points out, they only do covers, so they don't really count. But tonight I'm breaking the drought with a band called Matt Joe Gow and the Dead Leaves and so, in preparation for my big outing, I've been spending some time today listening to their album The Messenger.

This music is, as I understand it, fairly securely grounded in alt-country territory, with a bit of folk and a bit of rock grafted on. The combination works wonderfully well and, within the first few bars your foot is tapping, your head is nodding, your body is rocking and you are swept up in the whirlwind of the opening track.

It's a song as full of hope and excitement as it is of warning - "It's best to make the most of this/Fate is know to twirl and twist even the face" - but the music makes you throw caution quite literally to the winds, and you are convinced that it is worth giving life and love a go. It's a fantastic way to open an album.

But winds wreak havoc, and much of the rest of The Messenger is telling you about the damage. They are songs about loss of love, moving on, looking back, saying goodbye and, ultimately, feeling at peace with it all and treasuring the memories for what they are.

All of this comes to us via the earthy, no-nonsense voice of Matt Joe Gow, backed by guitars, drums, sometimes piano, sometimes fiddle, sometimes an incredibly soulful harmonica as in the stunning interlude in "Come What May".

The singing, the playing, the music, the lyrics, all have an honesty to them that makes you believe, and believe in, it all.

The structural and, for me also emotional, centre of the album is "Land Is Burning", a song of cataclysmic grief, where the earth itself seems to be sharing in the loss. But it is surrounded by songs that are easier, gentler, breezier - and you are left feeling that the things that go wrong in life and love are really just part of the journey that we all take, and that we all share. You can't feel alone when you listen to music like this.

Everything comes to a wonderfully poignant rest in the last song, "Up On The Hill", where a man goes back to his childhood home and to his memories of parents breaking up and shattered childhood dreams, and manages to find resolution, forgiveness and peace. It's a gentle rocking, calming song - balancing the scales perfectly to the tornado of the opening track.

The nett result of an album with music as good as this, and structured as well as this, is that when you play the whole thing through, you feel a kind of completeness, like a good meal of the best home cooking you ever had.

Matt Joe Gow and the Dead Leaves' The Messenger is, for me, another great 3 PBS discovery - and while I am far, far too old to be going out to a gig that probably won't begin until close to midnight, this music has given me the energy to almost feel that might be able to manage it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Shelter in the arms of David Sylvian

David’s Sylvian’s music is something that I discovered relatively early on in my venture into the non-classical world, when my friend Marty told me what a superb voice he has. He was right, and it’s music that I keep coming back to whenever I feel the need to just take a breath, reflect, and feel centred again.

David Sylvian’s voice is like a pair big warm arms that fold around you and hold you and, in that comfortable and comforting place, you stay, warm and at peace, while you listen to what he has to tell you.

And, on the album that I have been listening to today, Secrets of the Beehive, what he has to tell you is by no means always bright and happy. You’ll hear him tell you about loss, loneliness, violence, resentment, hopelessness, short-lived happiness.

But he tells you all of this in a voice that is almost a whisper – soft, smooth, seductive, sexy – and in music, mostly slow, sometimes almost funereal, but rich, warm, sustained, secure, even when it’s haunting, like in the eerie sounds and tolling bell of “Maria”.

There will be moments of incredible darkness – and yet a darkness which, even when it hints at being sinister, as it does in “When Poets Dreamed of Angels” and in “Mother and Child”, is never really bleak.

So much is said on this album through the power of the music – music of incredible beauty and strength, even at its most sad, where it seems to be saying “I’ve been there too, and I’m with you now to tell you that you’re going to be okay”.

This is, in fact, what “Orpheus” is all about – tellingly, the only song on the album for which the lyrics are printed in the booklet: “Tell me, I’ve still a lot to learn/Understand, these fires never stop/Believe me, when this joke is tired of laughing/I will hear the promise of my Orpheus sing.”

And the music makes us feel hope, because of its quiet, intimate strength – strings and guitars and piano – always giving you an assurance that the night won’t last forever, as when you hear time tick away on the piano, in “The Devil’s Own”, as the music, and we, wait for the dawn to come.

Listen, too, to the lonely, forlorn trumpet in “Let the Happiness In”, summonsing the slow, subtle change of hue in the music from a cold grey night to a gentle warm sunrise, with the trumpet soaring, singing above it all in a heartaching, and ultimately hopeful, beauty.

There are certainly many sides to this music – there is always a degree of ambiguity in its emotions, and its styles seem to roam somewhere between the slightly avant-garde and the slightly jazz – and it is the sort of album that really cries out to be listened to many times and absorbed a little more each time.

Secrets of the Beehive takes you to a very special place – not a place full of lightness and sunshine, but a place where you feel comforted and safe, and where you know that your tears will be understood, should you choose to shed them.