Thursday, December 31, 2009

At the end of another year - remembering 2009

I’ve had a rather long-standing tradition on New Year’s Eve of picking out a piece of music which I feel somehow captures for me my experience of the year that’s ending. It’s a bit of a self-indulgent tradition, really, but it’s one that has always been kind of cathartic. A really bad year about 14 years ago felt just that little bit more bearable when it was summed up with the catastrophic tragedy of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony; the apocalyptic fog in the air that filled 2001, with its threats of world terror and its macho flexing of American muscle, seemed to take on a new perspective when I listened to Messiaen’s intensely spiritual Quator pour la fin du Temps.

For me, 2009 has been an especially good year. It has been a year where things seem to have gone well for me on a whole range of fronts but two events in particular have made it, even by high standards, a unique year. One was the discovery, at the ridiculously late age of 50, that there is more to music than what you find in the classical catalogue. And the second was the unexpected discovery of new love barely five minutes after I had stopped looking for it.

Two of my earliest discoveries in my new music journey were Björk and Antony Hegarty. I discovered them both in different ways – Björk mainly through the encouragement of my friend Marty R, and Antony through hearing his heart-wrenching rendition of Leonard Cohen’s If it be your will at a dear friend’s funeral earlier in the year.

So it is scarcely surprising that, when the two of them came together on a track on Björk’s latest album, Volta, I would be pretty interested. But when you add to that music of stirring passion, building in its intensity and fire into something that seems to fill the entirety of space, set to the words of Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev (used, incidentally at the end of one of my favourite Russian films, Tarkovsky’s Stalker), you end up with something pretty amazing.

The Dull Flame of Desire is a song about the innocence, the passion, and ultimately the power, of love. In the hands of Björk and Antony it becomes a piece that stretches beyond the limits of the human body and reaches into every corner of the soul. The two voices – each unique in their power and vulnerability – start off almost shyly, against music that is, at first, dominated by majestic, sweeping brass. But, as Björk’s and Antony’s voices curl around and entwine one another, building upon each other, soaring, subduing and then soaring again, each voice feeding and being fed by the other, the brass slowly, imperceptibly, recedes into the background and it’s the sound of the human voice, and the primal, passionate heartbeat of drums, that fills the air. It’s an incredible experience, overwhelming in its humanity and its intensity – a hymn to the all-conquering strength of love.

When I first heard this music I was driving in my car and was so taken by it that I literally had to pull over to the side of the road and let its power wash over me. And as I listen to it again today I am reminded, even more, of why this music affected me so deeply. It’s music that captures so much of what love is all about – love at whatever level, in whatever form, we experience it. It shows how love steps forward with shy, faltering steps, but then is nourished as much by what it gives as by what it receives and, through this, grows and ultimately dominates everything. It’s an incredible piece of music from two of the world’s most original and talented artists.

I hope that some of what is conveyed with such beauty in The Dull Flame of Desire has been part of your experience of 2009, and that it will go with you into 2010 too.

Thanks especially to Marty R, Greg and Scott for introducing me to so much wonderful new music and, of course, to dear Wayne for introducing me to new love. And thanks to anyone who has been dropping in and having a squizz at this blog from time to time. Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Summer testosterone - She Fuzz

I'm not going to pretend that I am able to identify too closely with a band that proudly proclaims that it likes singing about girls but, with the first few bars plucked out on the guitar of Geelong-based She Fuzz's self-titled debut EP, sounding a bit like a rusty old kombi hurtling along an unmade road, you knowcan't help but feel like joining them for the ride.

It’s music that instantly invokes sand, surf, beer and testosterone – energetic, full of life and with the kind of jaunty rock personality that makes you want to drop whatever you’re doing, call up some mates, and get down to the beach.

Each of the five songs on this disc seems to create its own unique take on the age old theme of summer and sunshine. There’s the feel of rolling wheels, the start of a journey, in ‘The Commute’, where the destination doesn’t seem to matter as long as it’s fun; the almost 60s-esque vocals from Tom Gibbs in ‘Holly’, against catchy instrumentals that seem to paint pictures of sand dunes and a shimmering blue ocean, morphing almost seamlessly into the groove and swing, and hint of shade, of ‘Lemon Tree’. There’s the 2/4 pub beat of ‘Mystery Man’, with its ridiculously good guitar work; and, finally, the more hard rock infused riffs of ‘Exposed’, where the music ends the day like all good summer days should end – sexy and sweaty.

If She Fuzz was a diary, you certainly wouldn’t want your mother to read it but, as it is, it’s only a CD and so chances are that even she will be able to bop along to its good, solid rock/pop vigour.

It’s great to see local artists creating such good music with such a local flavour to it – music where you can almost smell the salt in the air, mixed with the aroma of an ale or two, blowing from the shores of Torquay.

Thanks to Spinning Half Studios in Geelong for a great EP. It might not be enough to make me turn, but it's more than enough to make me wanna have fun.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Some Australian soul - Cookin' on 3 Burners

After all the hype and hullabaloo of the past few days, and all the manic rush leading up to it, it's kind of nice to be able to spend today lazing around, chilling, and grooving away to some great funk/soul. There can hardly be better music to do that to than an album that I bought only a few days ago but which I have heard promoted and praised on 3PBS a great deal over the past couple of months - Soul Messin' by Cookin' on 3 Burners.

Cookin' on 3 Burners is an Australian funk trio, with guitar and drums and Hammond organ, and their music seems to somehow capture the soul of a summer-sodden country - the sort of music that is impossible to listen to without reaching for a beer, and feeling that you have been catapaulted back to the 60s, where rhythms and melodies swing and groove and nothing that happens in the world seems all that bad.

Mostly instrumental, but occasionally joined by vocalist Kylie Audlist or Fallon Williams, the music of Soul Messin' has that sort of authenticity to it that always feels new and honest and vibrant. It would be hard for a bad day to not beome a good day when you listen to music like this.

I'm still not entirely sure where the boundaries between soul and funk and blues are drawn but, in any event, they seem to be deliberately blurred here, so you feel that you are indulging in all three at once - the flattened tonality of blues, the catchy handclapping rhythm of soul, the smoothed-out tones and harmonies of funk, all coalescing here into music that feels like it belongs to the summer and to a world where hustle and bustle just don't have a place.

Every track on this album makes you feel good. But, if I could only take one track with me to my desert island, it would be 'Dog Wash', where the Hammond organ is just so irresistably laid-back, the beat syncopated in a way that makes you feel that this is how rhythm was always meant to be and that anything different would be unnatural and distorted, and a melody line that could convince even my own dogs, who hate the bath, that a bath is fun.

The album finishes with 'The Proving Ground' - much more subdued than anything else, lulling you into a wistful, nostalgic sleep, with a steady uncomplicated beat, and some fantastic guitar work that seems to almost be weeping for a world that has been left behind, like music playing as a tribute to its own memory.

It's a shame, really, that we can't all spend our lives cookin' on 3 burners because Soul Messin' certainly puts a convincing argument for living life exactly like that.

Thanks, as always, to PBS for the excellent music!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas at the highest Altar of them all

It's pretty difficult to think of something to listen to on Christmas Eve that can somehow be linked to the theme of the season, but isn't too hackneyed or cliché. So, I thought an album with the title Altar sounded at least vaguely acceptable on the first count and the fact that it is performed by a collaboration of American drone metalists, Sunn 0))) (pronounced 'sun', I'm told), and Japanese noise trio, Boris, made me think it was a pretty sure bet on the second, too.

I first heard this album quite some time ago, driving home late at night, with the radio tuned to Julian Day's tremendously exciting, interesting and daring programme on ABC Classic FM, New Music Up Late. The subterranean drone of unfathomably deep bass guitars, garnished with percussion that gave the music a dark ambience rather than a beat was far too colossal a sound for my puny little car radio, but I could pick up enough of its earth-trembling vibrations to know that this was something as significant to music as black holes are to the cosmos. The electric guitars, drums, synths and occasional vocals all merge here into one intense, monolithic mass - ar once rich and sparse, thick and austere, impenetrable and yet sucking you into it, as if it were a vacuum.

But not everything on Altar is dense nothingness. Unexpectedly wedged between the thick, endless night of 'N.L.T.' and the groaning, sliding, haunted blackness of 'Akuma No Kuma' is the gentle, yet somehow still droning, minimalist airiness of 'The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)', where Jesse Sykes sings forlornly against a couple of guitar chords, and a lonely waltz beat, finding a sort of peace, some rest, within the dark.

In 'Fried Eagle Mind', Wata (Boris vocalist) does the vocals, spectral, ghostly, like mist rising from murky marshes, beneath which countless lives and secrets lie buried.

But the longest - and arguably the greatest - track on the album is the final 'Blood Swamp', where drone dominates everything, sparse and frightening, absorbing you into its oblivion. The droning bass seems to descend deeper and deeper into its own void, turning in on itself, while straggling guitars tiptoe ominously above. It's music that envelops you in darkness, no matter how many lights you have on while you're listening to it.

So does something as nihilistic as this have a place on Christmas Eve, when most of the rest of the Western world is listening to songs about reindeer and babies in mangers surrounded by lambs and gold? Well, at least for me, this music is big rather than bleak - its darkness is the darkness of enormity, not of desolation. It lets you look into the vastness of the universe, and to be somehow enshrouded in it, and maybe even to be comforted by the realisation that it is so much bigger than mangers, and sleighbells, and you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The things we really need

Wandering through Melbourne's jam-packed streets today, on my way to yet another Christmas lunch, in the midst of yet another Christmas shopping spree, I was struck by a man bustling along a little ahead of me, stopping people now and then to ask for some spare cash. Everyone seemed too busy to give him any attention, let alone any money and, before long, he was out of my sight and my thoughts. But then, a few minutes later, I caught up with him again. He was now sitting huddled on the pavement, almost foetal in a corner, head buried in his hands, sobbing uncontrollably, inconsolably. He was dishevelled, dirty, destitute - probably about 30, maybe even younger.

Of course, he was only one of millions who will be doing it hard this Christmas and, no doubt, the harsh plight of world poverty, and human suffering, will be discussed over many a roast turkey on Friday. But, for me, music is always the place I find myself wandering to when I try to understand and capture the things that happen in this world - the happy things, the tragic things, the brutal things, the silly things: they're all there in music.

So I began pondering what music would capture the plight of that man, weeping alone in the centre of the city, two days before Christmas. There's probably a lot - but the music that seemed most appropriate to play tonight as my little, self-indulgent (and, for him, totally useless) tribute to that man was Johnny Cash's final and posthumous album American V: A Hundred Highways. This was recorded when Johnny Cash was literally on the threshold of death - blind, ill, his voice trembling with the weight of the years. But it's a voice, which, despite its frailty, or maybe even because of it, is strengthened all the more by the consoling, resolved soul that has, after all, always been the real core of Johnny Cash's music.

Every song on this album weeps with that special, unique mix of loneliness and community, sadness and joy, richness and loss, with a resignation, a tired, weary farewell to life, that seems to acknowledge everything sad in the world, and yet still hold onto peace and hope.

The songs are unadorned with anything other than an acoustic guitar and the smallest handful of instruments. But everything is arrestingly powerful - like the dark and shattering 'God's gonna cut you down'; or the sad, mourning 'On the evening train'; the reassuring, comforting 'I came to believe'; the consoling, grounding 'Four strong winds'; and the liberating, full-stop of 'I'm free from the chain gang now'.

But the title of the album, A Hundred Highways, is actually a line from the Rod McKuen song, 'Love's been good to me', which Johnny Cash sings here in a way that makes you believe that its message of finding love once in a while along an unsettled, homeless life journey is, indeed, the real secret to peace.

And perhaps the lesson this album teaches us is that it's that love, even more than a home, or material abundance, that we need most of all - whether we are piling the next helping of roast turkey on our plate on Friday, or weeping, penniless, on a street corner in the middle of Melbourne.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The pinnacle of prog rock - Jethro Tull "As Thick as a Brick"

It must have been an amazing thing back in 1972 for a band to release a rock album that not only included a flute, a harpsichord, a lute, and strings, and adding timpani to the percussion, but that also had only one song, spread over two sides, and lasting almost 45 minutes.

And not only that but, at a time when music often stripped down to its rawest elements, Jethrol Tull's Thick as a Brick heaped theme upon theme, mixed them in with each other, stacked them on top of each other, turned them around, inside out and upside down, discarded them and then brought them back again, made audacious leaps from one key to another, and from one time signature to another, as if they were trying to outdo even Bach at his most musically complex.

So it could have been a complete flop - and probably would have been were it not for the way the music, with all its complexity and epic scale, draws you in by the simplest of approaches: by just sounding irresistably good. Its rhythms are hypnotic and catchy, its dry tonality is unadorned and immediate, despite all that's going on within it. It's music that feels like you should have heard it before, even if you haven't.

The music wafts between rock and folk and classical, at times sounding almost like Irish dancing, with its jaunty flute, at times like electrified Mahler, with innocent tunes transposed into minor keys and given a hint of grotesquerie, at times as uncompromising and dark as anything to have emerged from the heaviest and hardest rock, aggressive and dense, with guitars screeching and riffing against raging percussion.

And it is played just so incredibly well - listen to the precision of the drumwork, the tightness of the ensemble, the way nothing seems to pause for a breath, the way instruments poke their head in here and there, to just add a line or two at the right time, as we are taken through the strange tale of poetry and war, and of the falsehood of modern capitalist values.

Thick as a Brick is one of the earliest, but still one of the best, things ever to have emerged under the banner of "prog rock". It takes you on a whirlwind journey, so rich in music and ideas, that, when it finally comes to a rest at the end, you just want to go back to the start and do it all over again. And it's a journey worth taking many times because there will always be something in the landscape that you are sure to have missed before.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Red of Tooth and Claw - the raw sound of Murder by Death

You could be forgiven for not expecting a lot of subtlety from a band that calls itself 'Murder by Death' and, to be sure, their album Red of Tooth and Claw shows us a violent, hate-filled soul in all its rawness, where every song sounds rather like Nick Cave rubbed down to the bone by gravel and dirt. It's a cycle of songs that plays like a macabre post-punk parody of Schubert's Winterreise, where a man wanders, dislocated, connecting only with everything harsh, hard, hedonistic and hateful.

The music is driven along by rough, dark tones - a beat that drives forwards and never lets anything rest, aflame with a fire that burns rather than warms, and that gives out smoke rather than light.

But the thing that stops this album from being just a one-dimensional, if still potent, portrayal of the dark side of life, is the brilliant addition of cello into the ensemble. Against the harsh electric guitars, the rugged, rough baritone of Adam Turla, the cello sings and cries, shining an unexpected light of heart and humanity into the black. The music might be red raw, but with that comes pain, and hurt, like the way the cello wails with yearning and grief throughout 'Black Spot'.

You don't usually expect to hear a cello in music like this, and it's what gives the whole album a depth and a soul so that even when it is at its most violent and hateful, like in 'Rumbrave', or at its most hedonistic, like in the raw sexuality of 'Fuego!', or at its most arrogant and defiant, like in the opening 'Comin' Home', you can't help but feel a kind of empathy with the story, and the man, you are listening to, nor can you help but feel a sense of loss when, with the funeral-like beat of 'Ash', the music seems almost to be mourning the death of its own soul. Is there anything, other than music, that can give that many shades and levels of expression at the one time?

The closing song, 'Spring Break 1899', leaves us with a cynical, empty image of a man who, it seems, will always wander aimlessly and meanignlessly, through towns and "bars full of girls who all know me by name they all drink the same drinks and they all fuck the same". But, even here, things are not straightforward - where the question, "Is it you? Could it be you?", yearning and searching but not wanting to find, is ultimately answered by the cello in a song that, even after all that we have been through, sounds almost tender.

Red of Tooth and Claw is a brutal, even harrowing, album - but it shows us that even the rawest and roughest of souls feel pain, and the blackest of hearts still beat and bleed.

Thanks to Lucas for this recommendation.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

An unholy holy alliance - Marianne Faithfull and 'The Seven Deadly Sins'

I tend to have a bit of an obsession with always wanting to listen to music in its original form and in its original language - but when you get Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht translated into English by someone of the calibre of W H Auden, and sung by someone of the Weillian credentials of Marianne Faithfull, it would be the deadliest of deadly sins not to give it some attention. Hence today's post is devoted to this absolutely stunning version of the absolutely stunning masterpiece The Seven Deadly Sins, originally Die Sieben Todsünden.

If you don't know the work of Weill and Brecht, you really should - and you probably already do anyway. Songs like Mack the Knife from Die Dreigroschenoper or the Alabama Song from Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny tend to get covered left right and centre. Well, left, mostly - the savage satire of Weill and Brecht is deeply grounded in the principles of Marxism and anti-capitalism, which ultimately saw Brecht hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.

But nowhere is their attack on the evils of capitalism more severe, nor more savage, than in Die Sieben Todsünden, which tells the tale of a family sending their two daughters (Anna and Anna) out into the world to make money. Anna I is the practical one, Anna II the emotional one. Not surprisingly, Anna II doesn't get to say much - just to cry a little when she has to sell herself to make money in Boston, and to long for their return to their little home in Louisianna. But they are two sides of the one coin ("together we've but a single past, a single future, a single heart, a single savings account", Anna sings in the Prologue)

In each big city they visit, Anna and Anna encounter one of the seven deadly sins - transformed here into the horrors of capitalism and of the lust for money, always with the brilliantly cynical satire of Bertolt Brecht's lyrics, and Kurt Weill's unfrgettably bittersweet music, steeped in the traditions of Berlin 1930s cabaret and yet always with its nose turned in sneer at everything sacred.

The music flows along with a jazz-like swing in the opening Prologue; dances with an acerbic waltz in 'Pride', stabs along in a brutal march in 'Envy', and always with one foot on the opera stage and the other on the street.

The family, urging Anna and Anna on through their journey, chastising them from the wings for not making enough money, is sung by a fantastic quartet of two tenors (The Annas' brothers), a baritone (their father) and a bass (their mother - yes, their mother).

But Anna (and Anna) is (are), of course, the hero(es). Marianne Faithfull was already renowned for her Kurt Weill work before she recorded The Seven Deadly Sins and her voice, especially her late voice, is just perfect for this smoky music of the working class - declaiming as much as singing - and you can easily see her sitting on a bar stool, smoking a cigarette, seducing you into joining her journey through the sordid cities of America.

Although The Seven Deadly Sins sounds a bit like a cabaret-opera, it is in fact a ballet and so, even by Weill's standards, it has strong, hardy rhythms that sweep you along and sweep you up so, even just sitting listening to it, you feel a little puffed out at the end.

I tend to think it's the best thing Brecht and Weill ever did together - and for me, a passionate fan of both of them, that's saying a lot. If you want to hear it in the original German you should track down either the old Lotte Lenya, or the newer Ute Lemper, recording - but if English is your language, or if you just want to hear a sensational performance by a woman whose voice is as close as any to what this music needs, then go for this one. It's a stunner.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A crooked path back to familiar territory - Them Crooked Vultures

First, my apologies for yet another long delay between posts here. A new love life certainly plays havoc with blogging responsibilities and has even interrupted some of my CD/OCD purchasing behaviour.

But, even so, it doesn't take away from the thrill of new discoveries and today's was one that, judging by the sales figures, pretty well everyone else has already discovered over the past few weeks - the self-titled Them Crooked Vultures: a new coalition of Dave Grohl, Joshua Homme and John Paul Jones. With a trio like that - built from the remnants of Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, and Queens of the Stone Age - even I know enough to expect good things.

It's an album that certainly takes you back to the territory that these immensely talented musicians have traversed so famously and so well in years gone by - the solid, brutal sound of hard rock, where everywhere you look there are riffs and a beat and a tonality that keeps dragging you down a little deeper into its hard, granite-hewn underworld.

But this is not music where everything is left to its own devices - something which would be pretty easy to do with talents (and presumably egos) as huge as these - rather, it is crafted with a sense of precision and planning that nevertheless doesn't seem to lessen its gutsiness or energy. Just listen to the hooky pulse of 'Reptiles' to see how music can be contained and vibrant at the same time.

But perhaps most of all, it is the feeling of community that makes this album outstanding - a feeling that this trio have found a connection with one another, and that it binds them together like a musical umbilical cord, nourishing each other, giving each other life and breath.

The songs are unashamedly and squarely rooted in the traditions of hard rock. As my brother said, most of the tracks make you want to get out your old Led Zeppelin records and listen to them to hear what the original sounded like.

But that doesn't by any means make the music simply derivative. This is the rock of the 70s, the 80s and the 90s, all tempered and transformed with the electric, eclectic energy of the 21st century, where guitar riffs dance with primal drum beats, like they do in 'Interlude with ludes', or with cavernous, horror-movie vocals, like they do in 'Warsaw or the first breath you take after you give up'.

It's music that travels back to old, loved territory via twisted, crooked paths, all of which have their own share of treasure on offer. And Them Crooked Vultures do what vultures do best - they grab the bits they want from whatever they find along the way, and claim it as their own.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


After about two weeks of having bought no CDs at all, I somehow felt it was not completely wrong for me to lash out a bit today and, even though it was $73, and even though the bills are piling up around me, the fact that it was a 7CD set AND of the complete studio recordings of Creedence Clearwater Revival pretty much put paid to all other considerations.

As I write this, I'm only part way through Disc One - the debut self-titled album that opens with the cracker of a song, 'I Put a Spell on You', which already feels prophetic. There's a raw honesty to this music, like it is taking rock back to the place where it belongs, that certainly is mesmerising, and I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if I were to play this thing backwards at half the speed I would find some subliminal messages there along the lines of "you are going to listen to this and not be able to stop until you've been through the whole seven discs and then you're going to go back and do it all again".

Of course, I grew up with Creedence Clearwater Revival - but, like so much else, my experience of it was mostly hearing it, and ignoring it, as it wafted through the house from my brother's record player. So to be hearing it anew now, wafting through the house from my own sound system, really feeling its earthy beat, and its easy but uniquely creative blend of rock and country and roots, all for the first time, is kind of like discovering a youth that I somehow let slip past.

And it's the way this music seems so grounded in the soil and toil of an earthy life that perhaps strikes me the most about it - the gutsy guitar riffs, the rough and ready vocals, the sweaty masculinity of the melody lines and harmonies. It all gives the music a sense of connection to people, a feeling of unpretentious humanity, a feeling that, while it is undeniably the child of the 60s and 70s, there is a kind of universality there, something that will always feel relevant and fresh.

I'm very much looking forward to continuing this journey through the catalogue of Creedence Clearwater Revival, punctuated here and there by those famous hits that even I, even in my early years of musical narrowness, could not help but be taken by - 'Bad Moon Rising', 'Down on the Corner', 'Proud Mary' - while still discovering a lot of unexpected treasures along the way.

It's never too late to rediscover your roots.