Sunday, January 31, 2010

In love with a dying Earth - Midlake 'The Courage of Others'

It was quite some months ago that Marty W sang his praises for Midlake’s album The Trials of Van Occupanther. I bought the album there and then, concurred with his admiration of it, revelled in the Texan quintet’s soft folk-rock, and have been meaning to blog about it here ever since.

But Midlake clearly were not waiting on the verdict of this blog to decide whether or not another album was a good idea and so, in the meantime, have produced The Courage of Others, a pensively beautiful album that grows like soft moss out of the autumnal ground laid by its predecessor, its textures danker, its colours darker.

But it’s not the moss that you find on the floor of a lush forest, but rather the moss that grows in old, cold places, for The Courage of Others paints a world that has grown tired, and the music seems to shed its leaves as it tells its story, stripped down, most of the time, to acoustic guitars and drums and Midlake’s exquisite soft sad harmonies, with electric guitars and keyboards appearing only here and there, shining silken light on the bare branches of the music – not to illuminate it so much as to allow it to cast shadows.

And yet it’s not that these songs are quite apocalyptic, or doom-laden. It’s rather as if they are weeping for a much loved Earth, and it’s this fondness for the Earth gives the music its warmth, even when it is at its saddest.

The album paints its picture in the first track, ‘Acts of Man’, where Tim Smith’s voice, featherlike but by no means weak, seems to fall to the ground, half floating like leaves, half falling like tears.

They are tears that weigh down more heavily, sobbing, through the electric guitars of ‘Winter Dies’ but even here, as everywhere on this album, the music always retains its gentle flow, its sense of resignation, if not quite resolution.

A more solid beat underpins ‘Children of the Grounds’, but it is less the stride of surety than the stomp of destruction, “where they jump on your back and sing/Leave an imprint on your shoulder blades”.

The album’s darkest moment comes in its penultimate title track, where deep tolling harmonies in the bass give way to a lonely, desolate flute that dances with a wailing electric guitar, leaving nothing but a sense of lost hope.

But the album finishes with ‘In the Ground’ where, unexpectedly, the music picks up, springing to a new, if fragile, life as a “rose wakens now in the joyful air, in the sun there among the ruined ones”. But it’s only a respite, not a reprieve, and we are told not that the end has been averted, but just that it “remains unseen” and, when the song, and the album, finishes with an ominous knell from the depths of the acoustic guitar, we know that the song’s final challenge to “Bring the town/From all her cries/From all her wounds/From her sighs/And she’ll try/Mending all she can” is put to us only because there is so very much at stake.

This is certainly a dark album, but not really a depressing one. The pictures it paints are beautiful, even in their bleakness. They are pictures of a weary, worn and waning world, but a world that, even when it is lamented, is still loved.

The Courage of Others is music that has been put together lovingly, tenderly, where its many threads, often delicate and vulnerable, its simple strands of sound, have been woven together in just the right way, so that they hold each other together in a fabric that, even in its simplicity, is rich and absorbing and enduring.

Belated thanks to Marty W for introducing me to Midlake.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tales of the unexpected - Gillian Welch, 'Time (The Revelator)'

When Jenny O’Keefe, PBS FM’s new (and, incidentally, fantastic) new Breakfast Spread co-host suggested yesterday morning that Gillian Welch’s album Time (The Revelator) was one of the best albums ever, and then played ‘My First Lover’, and I found myself bopping along to its bluesy country beat as I made my way to South Geelong station, I already decided that I would have to buy it. Then, at work, when Marty W told me what a fantastic album it was, I knew I had been steered in the right direction; but it was when the sales assistant at the CD shop, after I had paid for it, told me that she thought it was her favourite album of all time, that I really felt vindicated.

But none of that meant anything next to the authority of the music itself – music that is, by its simple reliance on its unadorned honesty, its own best advocate. These are songs that sit down beside you, guitar or banjo in hand, and tell you how they feel – intimate stories, sometimes sad, sometimes wistful, sometimes heartbroken – but always leaving you feeling that you have been there, too, even if you haven’t.

It’s the way this music creates such an instant and intimate connection with you that makes it so easy to fall in love with it, and to let it take you wherever it wants to go.

Gillian Welch makes a lot of a little in achieving all this. There is just a guitar, or a banjo, and her bare, unembellished vocals and, of course, the music that she creates with them – music that has the closeness of country, the distinctive twang of bluegrass, and then little unexpected and quirky twists here and there, like the odd but strangely appropriate discords in the album’s opener ‘Revelator’, where the guitar feels like it’s going out of tune, but only because Gillian is twisting the pegs.

But maybe nowhere is the spell more bewitching than in the closing track, ‘I Dream a Highway’, almost fifteen minutes of gently rocking sadness, lazy and forlorn, where there’s only the bare bones of a tune to hang onto, but it’s enough, and the music holds you in its arms, hanging onto you for its sake as much as for yours.

There are some people who can do anything with the most meagre handful of ingredients – people who can go to the fridge, find a bit of mouldy cheese and a lump of broccoli, think of ways of making them special, and turn it all into a gourmet meal that you savour forever.

That’s what Gillian Welch does here – she takes a couple of ingredients, blends them, wields her magic on them and transforms them into something that is hers (and ultimately yours) alone.

Listen, for example, to the slow and pensive flow of ‘Dear Someone’ – where there’s not one bit of it, neither its gentle, meandering pulse, nor its wandering, melancholy melody line, that sounds really unfamiliar, but where they come together in a way that has a sad beauty that, even to your own astonishment, you feel you’ve never come across before, like a flower in a garden that you unexpectedly notice when it unexpectedly blooms from a branch that has always been there.

Music’s endless capacity to create the extraordinary out of the ordinary, to tell tales of the unexpected in ways that make you feel like you belong to them, is part of what makes it so everlastingly fascinating, and Time (The Revelator) is surely the lay-down misere evidence of how it can be done.

It makes me feel kind of good about the world when radio announcers, work colleagues, and CD salespeople, can all be so attuned, and so right, as this.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Goth in a box - Bauhaus 'Mask' (Omnibus edition)

I will freely admit to being somewhat vulnerable to fancy packaging when it comes to buying music, which isn’t a particularly good thing but at least it drove me to pick up a copy of the newly released Omnibus edition of Bauhaus’s Mask from Melbourne’s Missing Link records yesterday.

Bauhaus, despite their German name and traces of krautrock influences, are in fact an English post-punk goth-rock band and Mask, released initially in 1981, is undoubtedly one of their very best albums.

Its relatively short ten tracks all create their own special sense of doom and gloom, through dark and brooding words set to dark and brooding music in dark and brooding colours and tones.

The music comes to you mostly through a rather cavernous acoustic, where the murky shadows seem to crawl out before you, like in the long, crying, electronics over bleak bass beats in ‘The Passion of Lovers’.

Each track on Mask takes you into a different space, with different shades of darkness enshrouding each of them, be it the strange, dehumanised, mortuary world, that we hear in the dry, cold, impersonalised beat of ‘Of Lillies and Remains’; or the grimy underground world of ‘Dancing’, with its demonic sense of energy, like a dance party for the undead; or the desolate, sad and empty tonality of ‘Hollow Hills’ where the music slithers and slides slowly, hopelessly, along.

Tracks like ‘Kink in the Eye 2’, ‘In Fear of Fear’ and ‘Muscle in Plastic’ are more vigorous, but with a sour, dour energy that makes you feel that if you met this music in a dark alley it would punch your lights out.

In ‘The Man with X-Ray Eyes’ an unrelenting hammering beat sounds like nails going into a coffin, ready for the album’s closing title track – a sweat-drenched funeral dirge, where it could be the cortege of humanity itself that drags and staggers past you to a slow, incessant beat and wailing vocals and electronics. It is interrupted towards the end by an almost jaunty little melody but, before long, that too is dragged down into the pit.

Mask is a powerful, magnetic album that seduces you with its darkness and then assimilates you into it. At times I almost expected to hear Nick Cave emerge from the music’s sullen squalor but Bauhaus are the real pioneers of this music and, like many pioneers, it’s the people who follow the paths that they laid who become the most famous.

Of course, goth-rock is probably not the healthiest thing to be listening to, especially if you’re having a bad day but, when it’s performed like it is here, where you don’t just get the gloom but also evocative uses of sound and tonality that each conjure up their own unique vision of the night, it is worth taking the risk.

And when it is packaged in beautiful cardboard slip cases, with little plastic sleeves like the ones you used to get when you bought vinyl, and there are two additional discs of extras, and a book, and a really nice box, then, really, resistance is futile.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The many sides of loneliness and loss - Eels 'End Times'

Most of us know how music can tug at the heart-strings when, at the tragic end of romantic films or operas or musicals, little snatches of happy themes return, slower, darker, reminding us of what once was, but is now gone, as we reach for the tissues. But perhaps even more poignant is the way music can tell us, even at the beginning when everything is happy and good, that it is all doomed to sadness, like the way the lovers are entwined in bed at the beginning of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and we know, even before they do, that it will end unhappily.

This is how Eels' newly released End Times begins, with its simple opening song about happy love in happy times, 'The Beginning', but where the sad, minor key strumming on the acoustic guitar makes it clear that what we are hearing is not a celebration, but a memory.

Eels is, in fact, essentially Michael Oliver Everett, who generally prefers to be known only as E and who, with a little help from friends playing drums and horns and a bass guitar here and there, but who does all the rest - the vocals, the guitars, the harmonica, the banjo, the harmonium, a hammond organ, and countless other things - himself, becomes Eels.

End Times tells the story that music has been telling for as long as there has been music and for as long as people have fallen out of love: fourteen songs of loss and loneliness and the journey that all of us go through when we experience them.

There's the grim determination to survive in the solid rockabilly of 'Gone Man'; the wistful memories of youth, when loss seemed easier to bear, in 'In my younger days', where soft, electronic howls cry out in the distance, haunting and lonely; the tender sadness and regret of 'A line in the dirt'; the inconsolable emptiness of the album's title song, with its sobbing little guitar phrases, repeated over and over like a dirge; the bitter regret and recriminations of the superb bluesy rock of 'Paradise Blues'; the attempt to accept aloneness with quiet resignation in 'Nowadays', but where the sad phrases of a cello, and the heartache of a harmonica, tell you that the line between being alone and being lonely is a narrow, narrow line indeed; the self-aware pathos of 'Little Bird', where thin, bare music reflects a tired, frail heart, crying out to be mended.

It's these subtle uses of music's tools that make Eels so good at his trade - little twists and turns that belie the simplicity of much of the music and turn it instead into a profound and revealing glimpse into the experience of loss.

End Times is not a happy album and, even when it balances the sadness of the opening track's memory of happy love with a quiet belief in survival in the closing 'On my feet', again with a simply strummed acoustic guitar, now in the major key, even then we feel the music's poignacy much, much more than its optimism. But it's not music that wallows in itself - it tells a sad story not to make you cry but simply because it is sad. Not that that will stop you shedding a tear or two, by any means.

Thanks to Greg for introducing me to Eels with the earlier, and superb, tribute desire of Hombre Lobo - another great album. See if you can buy the two together and get a discount.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The curiously quirky pop of Kate Miller-Heidke

Perish the thought that anyone would think me (a) a musical snob, with a disdain for anything pop, given my remarks equating Madonna with Vivaldi (see 18th January) and (b) unAustralian, given my disdain for Australia Day (see 26th January), so I just wanted to prove today that I can really admire music that is both pop and Australian and so, heading back to work today after yesterday's (admittedly barbecued lamb free) public holiday, I set my iPod onto Brisbane born Kate Miller-Heidke's latest album Curiouser and turned up the volume a far as it would go.

Kate Miller-Heidke almost didn't become a famous pop singer and was in fact on the precipice of turning to Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (which is almost the same thing) when some of her earlier pop work began hitting the charts. It's good that she took the hint of public opinion, because Curiouser shows just how good music can be when you combine a really well-trained voice with some clever and original compositional talent and a desire to appeal to a record-buying public. They are three elements that don't often come together, not only on the same album but, indeed, in the same artist.

It's probably the first of these that you notice first - the way Kate Miller-Heidke's voice seems to slide and slither so effortlessly across her vocal range, jumping strange, random intervals as if that's the way music has always been sung, and floating easily and gracefully onto notes that, if they were any higher, would only be able to be heard by dogs.

The song themselves are clever and quirky, with rhythms stumbling along in a kind-of-clumsy, kind-of-cute, way as in the album's opening 'The One Thing I Know', or in the deceptively innocent, but ultimately poignant, narrative of 'Caught in the Crowd', where the music seems to go along with the words as easily as the song's protagonist goes along with her bullying peers. In 'The Last Day on Earth', Kate's voice seems to jump a couple of octaves, swooping into the clouds, just for a note here and there at the end of a phrase, creating for you the dream-like, whimsical world she is telling you about, where old love is re-kindled while everything else ends. A youthful disdain for the hippy, revolutionary 60s comes to you via a delightfully laid-back rhythm and a defiantly jolly, jaunty melody in 'Politics in Space'.

The stories told in these songs, with their slightly nostalgic or sad or even bitter words set to jaunty, bouncy, idiosyncratic melodies, come across with a good-humoured tongue in their cheek, as if they are always laughing at themselves just a little; and it's perhaps this side of Curiouser that makes the album so easy to like.

Curiouser somehow finds a balance between depth and lightness in songs that make you want to smile and dance, and yet they always leave you thinking that they are perhaps telling you something about yourself - about your broken dreams, your deceptions, your insecurities - that you prefer to keep hidden. The honesty of Kate Miller-Heidke's singing allows you to confront it all if you want to, while its sunny beauty allows you to just keep on dancing if you don't.

Thanks to Fiona for the recommendation.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The history of Australia Day

It’s Australia Day in Australia today. It’s a day in which a lot of Australians take enormous pride, and yet it commemorates an event that is perhaps one of the most shameful in our national history – the invasion of the land by white settlers in 1788.

So it seemed somehow appropriate that I marked the day by listening to the music of one of our most celebrated and exciting indigenous bands – Yothu Yindi, and their superb iconic album, Tribal Voice.

The defining song of this band and this album, and arguably of the whole indigenous struggle for rights and recognition, is ‘Treaty’, an amazing piece of music that brings together traditional aboriginal music and modern rock, a wonderful metaphor for the song’s plea for reconciliation between cultures. Its droning didgeridoo, underpinning modern keyboard and electric guitars, bear testimony to its proclamation, “This land was never given up/This land was never bought and sold/The planting of the Union Jack/Never changed our law at all”.

It’s this perennial connection with land and nature and people that dominates this music, just as it dominates the cultures of the people who create it; and its fusion of traditional and modern elements not only makes the music instantly accessible, but gives it the vibrant lifeblood of optimism, of hope, of belief in the day when cultures will thrive alongside one another, each learning from and growing from the other.

This fusion produces some arrestingly wonderful results, like the energy and vitality of ‘Maralitja’, or the way the traditional chants of ‘Dhum Dhum’ lead seamlessly into the upbeat call to “stand up for your rights” in the album’s title track, with some sensational pounding beats from the didgeridoo, like a primal animal singing modern rock.

It is a shame, in so many senses, that, in strolling down the streets of Australia’s towns and cities today, you are much, much more likely to see Australian flags fluttering in the wind than to hear the sounds of Yothu Yindi wafting through people’s open windows. But, even so, Tribal Voice is still a thrilling listen, and an enduring challenge to all of us. Just as John Lennon famously imagined that the world could one day live as one, so, too, does Yothu Yindi hold to its hope that “the waters will be one”. And it’s that hope, rather than the events of 26 January 1788, that makes Australia Day something worth marking, if not quite yet something worthy of celebration.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Globally warmed by Boris and Merzbow

Having spent time on this blog both with Japanese drone trio Boris (15th October, 2009) and with experimental noise artist, Merzbow (aka Masami Akita) (28th October 2009), also from Japan, I thought it was worth spending a little more time now looking at what these incredibly inventive musicians are able to do when you put them in a recording studio together.

Boris with Merzbow have produced a few recordings together but, for me, one of the most interesting and absorbing is their single-track, hour-and-a-bit epic, Sun baked snow cave. It’s music that comes to you from a very different place, and that touches you in a very different way, from much of what you might be used to. Just as the music of the last couple of days, from Sam Cooke and Dusty Springfield, seems to grow from within, the music of Sun baked snow cave seems to be speaking to you from all around you, as if it is the Earth itself creating its haunted, breath-taking sounds.

At first, that earth is a lonely, barren place where, for over 15 minutes you hear just random, forlorn, lone notes, plucked out of the emptiness, on an acoustic guitar, graced with nothing other than occasional ebbs and flows of distorted noise, like a dormant sea tossing in its sleep.

But soon the acoustic sounds begin to give way to longer electronic notes, still lonely and empty, underpinned by Boris’s trademark drones. It conjures up incredible images of an old, tired Earth, empty and molten, where stark winds blow nothing across nothing.

Slowly, almost without you noticing it, new layers are added to the sound – like when those forlorn, solitary notes transform into screeching, wailing electronics; and when you begin to hear unfathomably lonely howls echoing around you, as if the sun baked snow cave is a grave to thousands upon thousands of the ghosts of creatures annihilated in the planet’s demise.

The darkness and the heaviness slowly dissipate, and the drone gives way to the sound of a quietly foaming, fading sea, with solo guitar notes once again plucking themselves out of the nothingness, nostalgic, elegiac, bidding everything farewell.

This is music that is very much written by the paragraph, rather than by the sentence. You have to hear it, and absorb it, in its totality, and with absolutely nothing else to do while you listen to it. It is music that will surely say different things to different people, and the sense of world’s end that seems to me to fill its every moment might not be what you would hear in it. The album sleeve itself, indeed, includes four lines that seem to hint at something rather less apocalyptic:

The roar of a (gigantic) wheel as it turns uncontrollably.
I vaguely recall it in a warm snow cave.
A boom like a chorus of thousands of cicadas heard under the sun.
Such a stories desire to be born.

Whether these lines are meant to convey the eternal authority and force of nature, or to pay tribute to its memory, the music that they inspire and reflect is a phenomenal experience. Sun baked snow cave is a place for reflection, a place where the intimate and the universal come together – a place where you are reminded yet again of the endless range of stories that music has to tell, and of the endless range of ways in which it can tell them.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

... and then there's the unadorned soul of Sam Cooke ...

With so little attention given to soul on this blog, it seemed somehow wrong to just let things rest with the blue-eyed work of Dusty Springfield yesterday and, in any event, the brilliant artistry of her music led me flicking through the embarrassingly small soul section of my CD collection for something else to keep me in the mood. I didn’t have to look far and, when I put Sam Cooke’s Night Beat into the player I realised why I have so little soul to choose from – it’s just impossible to find much that’s as good as this.

Sam Cooke’s output was pretty extensive for someone whose life was as tragically short as his but, even with a couple of dozen albums to his name, nowhere is his astonishing voice, dripping with that matchless mix of beauty and heartfelt, tell-it-as-it-is emotion that I have always found to be the trademark of soul, more wonderfully, nakedly on show as here on Night Beat.

There is little to listen to on this album other than Sam Cooke’s voice. The accompaniments are sparse, discreet – there to support the voice or, at most, to complement it, but never to intrude upon its simple, unembellished beauty. Listen, for example, to ‘Lost and Lookin’’, almost a capella, with its bass and cymbals beating slowly, unobtrusively in the background as if they, too, have been hushed, awe-struck, by the spell of Sam Cooke’s voice. And what makes that voice so unique, so memorable, is the way it weaves its way through the music, bleeding out its innermost pain to you, in such an unadorned way, without ornamentation, without affectation. It creates an intense, lasting bond, a holy trinity, between itself, its music, and you.

Really good soul always has a feeling of improvisation about it – a feeling that the music is growing as it’s sung, each note dying for the next one to be born, music that breeds from within itself, and that draws you in there too, so you are a part its birth. This is the way Sam Cooke sings these songs, right from the opening lines of ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’, where his voice wavers and wanders, finding notes in unexpected, unexplored places – notes that touch just the right spot, showering you with emotion not by histrionics but, simply, by music.

Night Beat is a superbly structured album – songs that sneakily seduce you into sharing their sadness; songs that make you cry, that carry you along a journey of quiet, gentle sorrow but that don’t leave you depressed and yet, as if to assure you that all is ultimately well, farewell you with the album’s closer, the wonderfully upbeat ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’.

I can't help thinking that Night Beat is the album that the human soul, when it is at its most heartbroken and forlorn, would choose to take onto its desert island – not to wallow in its misery but rather because then, with Sam Cooke’s glorious artistry, it would at last feel understood and, despite its sadness, never really alone.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Never ending nor beginning - the soul of Dusty Springfield

Even now, forty years later, I can remember how spooked I was as a child by Dusty Springfield singing 'Windmills of your mind'. There was just something about the way its melody, its tonality, its flow, captured the endless, aimless spin of the words. Whenever I heard it, it always left me unsettled; but I could never, ever, flick the switch of my little transistor radio to turn it off.

And listening today to that song, which I have hardly heard at all in the last four decades, I am taken back, as music always seems to do, to that time and place when it first made such an impression upon me and, noticing little things that had skipped my attention before, I can see why it did, and why it still does. Its exotic, unconventional instrumentation, with strings and zither, and how at the line "the world is like an apple whirling silently in space" the violins turn into a psychedelic fuzz, haunted, mysterious, other worldly.

But 'Windmills of your mind' is only one song on what many people believe to be Dusty Springfield's greatest album, Dusty in Memphis. It's an album that is bursting at the seams with classics that still seem to define that blue-eyed soul, which, although growing from roots laid in America, never blossomed more beautifully or more elegantly than in the voice of the English Dusty. Whether it's in the swinging bounce of 'Son of a preacher man', or the sad and bluesy soul of 'No easy way down', or the gentle attempt to comfort you in 'Breakfast in bed', or the wistful 'Just one smile', Dusty's cool voice, hovering somewhere between pleading and tears, but never veering from the note, always touches something deep and enduring within you.

Mostly, these songs are pretty short but always Dusty Springfield turns them into little vignettes, little sketches of humanity that are full of a longing that you know will never really find rest. And yet in spite of its restlessness, or maybe even because of it, you just keep coming back to it.

Dusty in Memphis is one of those classics that will always be great, always special, always significant. It is music that endures because its soul, and its singer's soul, endure - taking you by the hand to places that always seem somehow hauntingly familiar, as if they have always been a part of you, and always will: "never ending, nor beginning ... as the images unwind, like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind".

It's always such a joy to rediscover old favourites as treasured and as wonderful as this.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Chilling to the xx

For some reason that probably says more about me than I would care to admit, I often identify music less by its genre than by the type of drink that seems to go with it the best. When you listen to Pearl Jam or Rage Against the Machine, you just feel it would be wrong to drink anything other than beer. You really can't mix Nick Cave with anything other than rum, and Tom Waits begs to washed down with a good whisky. And Grizzly Bear just demands a nice chardonnay with subtle hints of different flavours and aromas and after-tastes. Madonna would probably lead you to a really bright green cream-based cocktail.

So, when I listened for the first time a couple of nights ago to the relatively new London based band, the xx, I didn't think so much of dream pop and chillout as about the fact that I had no idea how to make a martini.

The xx's self-titled debut album was released in August last year. The music here is soft, understated, whispered - music that walks its fingers over your body as you lie beneath a summer evening sky, giving you that faint little warm tingle that feels so good when you need to put the day's, and the world's, craziness behind you.

Every song on this album is superbly, carefully crafted, as if by a sculptor, where even the jagged edges are noticed not for their roughness, but for their interesting texture.

The vocals of Romy Madley Craft and Oliver Sim are hushed and sensual, dreamy, against guitars, beats and keys that build eloquent, sunset-hued landscapes, painted in ways that landscapes have never been painted before, where foreground and background are merged. Listen to the languid sliding bass electronics at the end of 'Fantasy', easing into the faltering, hesitating 'Shelter', sounding like the earth holding its breath for fear of waking you from the dream into which it has lulled you.

The xx give their music a lot of air, spacious without being sparse. The beat is slow, but never drags, the music giving each note time to be appreciated before moving onto the next one, and yet it never loses its sense of easy, flowing momentum, like in the long vocal phrases against pulsating guitars and beats in 'Infinity', building in a seductive crescendo that embraces you and then lays you gently down.

Xx takes you into another space - a world that is full of dreams and, like most dreams, seems both familiar and foreign at the same time. It's a place, and an album, that you really don't want to leave.

Discovered on the shelves of Melbourne's Polyester Records.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jay Reatard RIP

Jay Reatard’s sudden and still unexplained death last week, at the age of 29, shot an enormous shockwave amongst his fans and friends and family and yet, it seems, sent little more than a tremor through the world’s broader music stage. It’s not that people didn’t like his mad, frenetically turbo-charged garage punk enough; it’s just that not enough people knew it.

I still don’t quite understand how some music, and some musicians, seem to capture the attention of the spotlight so quickly, and others don’t. If it had anything to do with the creativity and inspiration and talent of the artist, Jay Reatard’s passing would have registered on the music world’s Richter scale every bit as loudly, every bit as violently, as does his music in the veins of anyone who listens to it.

But it was enough, at least, to inspire me to plunge into his debut solo album, Blood Visions.

Blood Visions is an album that fires its adrenalin and energy at you like bullets from a machine gun. None of its 15 songs last much more than a couple of minutes and some of them much less than that but each gives you such an instant hit that, by the end of the album, you feel you’ve just had 15 shots of Red Bull.

The whole album lasts for only around 30 minutes, but it hardly draws a breath, even between tracks, and neither do you. Its pace is relentless, but not even for a nanosecond does it lose its focus, its razor edge precision, where every note, every beat, is fired at you faster and sharper than laser light.

It’s astounding how much Jay Reatard manages to achieve in such tiny spaces of time, like the way the tonality unexpectedly descends a semitone, dragged down by its own weight, in ‘My Shadow’, or the way the vocals come at you like percussion in ‘Death Is Forming’ and ‘I See You Standing There’, or the ferocious sound wall that’s built at the end of ‘Oh It’s Such A Shame’, or the nail-biting dialogue between vocals and instrumentals in ‘Turning Blue’.

The album leaves you wired and breathless but, like Jay Reatard’s life, it is over far, far, far too soon. But what it produces in such a small snatch of time is so full of power and force that it’s enough to give you a black eye.

Blood Visions is sensationally good and grimy garage punk, and thanks to Melbourne’s Missing Link Records for its enthusiastic advocacy of the music of the insanely talented Jay Reatard – mourned far too soon, and far too little.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Back where I belong - Kasumi Trio

After the comfort and predictability – and, yes, I admit the fun, too – of Madonna yesterday, I thought I needed to get back into my more trusted discomfort zone today and delve into something a bit freaky.

And where better to go for that, as least when it comes to music, than Japan? And so I was delighted when today, rummaging once again through the shelves at Missing Link, I managed to stumble across a newly released album, called Oh! Gimme You, by someone called Kasumi Trio, a psych-folk band made up of bits of three other Japanese bands: the avant-garde folk oriented Tenniscoats, the psychedelic rock leaning LSD March, and krautrock-influenced noise rock band Fushitsusha.

I thought that seemed like an interesting enough combination to get me out of the dance steps that were still occasionally appearing today at inopportune moments. And as soon as I heard the gentle acoustic guitar embroidered by weird, eerie electric noise and a sort of droning voice half singing, half whispering, eschewing everything that is squarely grounded in Western tonality, I knew that I had found the sort of jolt that my musical sensibilities were looking for.

The album opens with the appropriately titled ‘first session’, music that gives you really only the barest bones indication of what you are in for, as if it is laying its cards on the table but not yet telling you how it will play its hand. Soft guitars and drums pluck and beat at random, while electronic sounds squeak and squawk around them. Already we know we are in a strange place where familiar and alien worlds come together, and talk.

Some of these tracks, freaky and weird as they are, are, at first, surprisingly accessible, like the utterly haunting but beautiful ‘Cabbage butterfly’, where a simple, strumming guitar is overlaid with what sounds like the noise of oceans and wind and bizarre bird cries, coming from another, dark and ghostly, world.

But the gentleness, and the accessibility, of these songs are deceptive. Beneath the smooth, placid surface disturbed, unsettled things rumble and murmur, like the way 'tokotoko patapata' seems to stroll along, calmly, easily, and innocently enough at first, to steadily plucked chords on the acoustic guitar, but then strays into a strange, weird fog where little spurts of electric noise change the shape and colour of old and familiar things, leaving strange shadows on the music of the guitar, which keeps plodding through it all, its gait ever so slightly thrown off-course; or like the way ‘Middle session’ seems to drive itself along at a pace that is both hushed and hair-raising, with its soft heartbeat drums, and creepy marriage of electric and acoustic guitar, sounding like they are whispering together, plotting sinister things. Or the way the spectral vocals of yu in ‘Summer is over’ sound like a haunted child, rocking, singing a soft lullaby, possessed by demons.

It’s this uncanny mix of the soft and comforting with the jagged and jarred that makes Oh! Gimme You such a fascinating and unsettling album. It’s like it is taking you into its arms, rocking you softly and peacefully, but whispering the stuff of nightmares into your ears as you fall asleep.

The material girl living in the material world seems so very, very far away.

Monday, January 18, 2010

In bed with my demon

At some stage we all have to confront our demons. Like a few years ago when I faced my pathological fear of heights and jumped out of a plane. Or a few days ago when I bought an album of bagpipe music (see 14th January). But probably no step has been harder for me to take than today when I walked up to the counter at JB Hi Fi with not one, but two, Madonna CDs in my hand, and didn’t even pretend that I was buying them for someone else.

It has been an unnerving experience. As Madonna’s second and possibly most popular album, Like a Virgin, blares through my speakers, and as I contemplate what on earth the neighbours must think of me, I find, totally against my will or power, that I am bopping and dancing around the house, looking for (but thankfully not finding) the itsy-bitsy shorts I used to wear to dance parties, where the right mix of chemicals was able to make both my body and my dancing much more presentable than either were even then, let alone now.

There’s something pretty sinister about this music, the way it makes you do these things you wouldn’t normally do – twisting and jumping in ways that you never would think you would do, singing along to songs that you never would admit to knowing; the way it makes you forget your old, tired, decrepit bones and joints, and perform all those dance manoeuvres that are probably actually responsible for your current state of orthopaedic ruin.

While I’m not going to pretend that I have found new depths in this music or new dimensions that I never thought were there, there is something kind of incredible about the way its simple, straightforward elements – its catchy tunes and its bouncy rhythms – are able to be maintained so continuously, holding your attention, keeping you pumped. Even without chemicals, you find yourself staying on the music’s high.

Nothing ventures very far away from safe, trusted diatonic keys; the rhythms don’t explode in crazy directions that make you feel you need to revolutionise your understanding of traditional mathematics to work out the beat; and you can usually count on one hand the number of chords that you’ll hear on any track. And yet it keeps you engaged, it keeps you going and you find it’s embarrassingly easy to give into the temptation to listen to “just one more song”. Even the most self-assuredly sophisticated music critic would have to acknowledge that it takes more than just good marketing to make so much out of so little.

When I listen to all these songs, and even to the more varied and adventurous later album, Like a Prayer, I can’t help but be reminded of what someone once said of Vivaldi – that he didn’t write hundreds of concertos, but rather wrote the same concerto hundreds of times. But even hundreds of years later, people are still listening to most of those Vivaldi Concertos, and not just in lifts, or when they’re on hold on the phone, either. There’s undoubtedly a place in everyone’s world for things that are just fun – American sitcoms, chocolate, cricket in the backyard and, let’s admit it, even Vivaldi and Madonna.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The history of everything in just 16 hours

It would be a travesty, a sacrilege, for me to run a music blog and to never mention the piece of music that, for me, has always overwhelmed, surpassed, and outshone everything else that has ever been created. Not to mention that fact that I would never go to Valhalla when I die.

I freely admit that it’s a bit cheeky to include Richard Wagner’s mammoth operatic quadrilogy Der Ring des Nibelungen as a single entry in a music blog – but Wagner did always conceive it as a single work and I have been listening to it today so, somehow, I reckon it qualifies.

Wagner’s Ring is, in fact, four operas or, to be strictly correct, it is 'A Festival Stage Play for Three Days and a Preliminary Evening'. The ‘Preliminary Evening’ is Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), and the three days are, respectively, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie -a valkyrie being a generally large breasted woman dressed in battle armour with horns sticking out of her head), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). It’s a massive tale about the beginning of the world and its end – a tale where gods and giants and ugly subterranean dwarves mingle with mortals and demigods and mermaids and warrior maidens and a dragon and all kinds of things, battling over a golden ring that has been fashioned out of a piece of purely and innocently beautiful gold but that has, in being so fashioned, become the vehicle for world domination. Everyone lusts after it. Anyone who has read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings will know that the whole thing ends in a cataclysm of fire but that, out of the fire, a new and redeemed world is born.

But it’s not the story that people remember the Ring for. It’s the music. It begins with an almost sub-audible, sustained E flat from the double basses, which have had to tune their strings down a semitone to play even the first note of the score, giving it a watery, primeval, subconscious sort of feel. From there, another note is added, and then another and, for what seems like an eternity, you feel yourself swimming amidst the universal consciousness of an E flat chord.

And then, 16 hours later, you find that the music has taken you from the beginning of time to its end, capturing every height and depth of human experience – the love, the hate, the rage, the peace, the beauty, the ugliness. You travel down mine shafts where a cacophony of anvils pound away; your climb a rainbow bridge into the heavens to music of psychedelic richness; you fall in love to music where unutterable tenderness walks hand in hand with unspeakable sadness; you see people die unjustly, and you feel the rage of everything you hoped for going wrong, all told in a sad and twisting phrase on the cellos; you fly through the air carrying the bodies of dead warriors with grotesque glee, squealing and howling to music that really does sound like horses galloping on the clouds; you feel the boisterousness of male adolescence, and you sit under the shade of a tree in the forest; you discover sex on a mountain top, with a sky so blue and brittle that you dare not look at it. You hear gloomy prophecies about the end of everything and then you watch it happen, played out before your eyes, where everything collapses because of human greed and malice but where, even out of the rubble, love is resurrected, and thrives, to soaring violins that transport you to eternity, and lay you to rest at the same time.

But, most of all, all of this is brought to you in music of such incredible power and eloquence that you are almost afraid to let it take hold of you because you know, once you do, you will be in its grip forever.

Wagner builds all of this through the simplest of devices – he assigns little phrases of music to this or that idea, to this or that person or place or thing, and then welds them all together with incredible ingenuity and artistry, so that a simple downward scale, representing the authority and law of the gods, makes you sit up and shudder whenever you hear it; or so that, when you hear the majestic harmonies of the Valhalla theme behind Sieglinde's sad tale of her wedding day, you know that the strange old man who walked into the festivities and looked at her, and glared at the others, was Wotan, the king of the gods.

He uses his ginormous orchestra to the full - every instrument getting, at some stage or another, its place in the sun, showing its colours, or all them blending together in the titanic force of those big, loud, steam-rolling passages for which Wagner was so famous.

It’s unfortunate, if not entirely unjustified, that Wagner’s music has become associated with some really bad stuff – Hitler, neurosis, excess, helicopters – but, even so, people keep coming back to it, and I suspect they do so simply because it is just so, so, so good. As Mark Twain famously said, Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds. If you listen to it without prejudice, it will make every hair on your body stand on end. It will make you cry. It will give you nightmares. It will make you ring up someone dear to you and tell them that you love them. It will make you treasure our planet and it will make you treasure the people who share it with you. And, most of all, it will make you marvel at the power of music and at the way that music can muster its resources to say almost anything at all.

Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen isn’t something you play on your iPod while you negotiate your way through your local public transport fiascos. Nor is it something that you go along to at your local Opera House, dressed in your respectable finery, applauding politely, and with dignity, at the end. It’s something you listen to with passion, with gusto, prepared for the possibility that your heart and your guts will be shredded and squeezed and twisted and tortured in the process.

But, by time everything comes to an end with an all-embracing, all-releasing, D flat major chord, you know that somehow or other Wagner has put back together everything he pulled apart.

It took Wagner 25 years to write the Ring, and it will take you a good 16 hours to listen to it. But where else could you hope to find the beginning and the end of all things squeezed into such a teensy-weensy bit of time?

Friday, January 15, 2010

The sun and shadows of Beaches

You would expect that, living by the beach, I would have taken much earlier notice of an album called Beaches by a band called Beaches – and a local (well, Melbourne, anyway) band at that. Actually, I did buy their album sometime ago but, somehow or another, put it aside and I have only just now gotten around to sitting down and giving it a serious listen.

I’m still pretty bad at working at genres, and Beaches really defies traditional placement anyway – but if I had to sum it up in one word, albeit a double barrelled and not terribly good one, I’d call it “pop-drone”. Of course, you could hardly get two genres more disparate than pop and drone, but there is something about the way Beaches manage to build catchy, hooky phrases into a thickly woven, repetitively patterned fabric of sound. It’s like little brightly coloured bricks of sound have been copied, over and over, layered on top of each other, to erect wonderful walls which, once built, present you not with neat little songs about this or that, but with dense landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes.

Beaches begins with some deceptively light and breezy tracks – tricking you into thinking that perhaps this is going to be a languid, lazy day lying in the sun. But by time you get to ‘The Rip’, with its tribal beats, its tonality dragging you down into dark minor key depths, where strange creatures howl, you realise that this journey is not all sunshine and light.

The sense of mystery and strangeness intensifies with ‘Horizon’ and ‘Eternal Sphere’, dreamlike and dark, until the fog and mist dissipates with ‘Ramblin’’ and you feel you are surrounded once more by light and yet a light that, somehow, now seems to be broken by shadows, or at least by the memory of them.

Beaches is full of these changing pictures and colours, not so much within tracks as between them. But what happens within the track is always every bit as dramatic as what happens between them – tunes that seem to emerge out of the thinnest thread of an idea, growing organically, dynamically, as the five women who make up this band feed, and feed off, one another’s musicianship, creating, almost telepathically, it seems, a community of sound through powerful electric guitars; solid, sometimes aggressive, sometimes secure, drums; and occasional vocals that blend into, rather than pit themselves against, the instruments.

Beaches are not just places where you go for summer holidays. They are places where you can see things: big things, bad things, sunny things, scary things, safe things, strange things. And Beaches lets you immerse yourself in every one of these. It lets you splash and giggle in the shallows; and it lets you drown and go to pieces in the depths; but i always somehow seems to bring you back to bask in the sun.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

David Watson the Brave - Wax and Wane

I have to confess that the bagpipes is one of the few instruments that I have never really been able to bond with. I don't know if that's because of hearing 'Scotland the Brave' a few hundred times too many, or something to do with my distaste for kilts, or just simply that it has alwas struck me as instrument that doesn't seem to have much character, except perhaps when you hear it played on a really good documentary about the Scottish countryside.

But, given my newfound commitment to be open to anything in music, when I was burrowing through the experimental/noise section of Melbourne's Missing Link music store today, and came across New Zealand born David Watson's album of avant garde bagpipe music, Wax and Wane, I thought I had better give it a go.

Wax and Wane is an album that boasts a fascinating array of musicians, playing bagpipes, a bass guitar, drums, keyboards, an accordian and a turntable. It's a mixture you can hardly imagine being able to tolerate being in the same room together, let alone pooling their talents and their creativity to produce music.

But that's exactly what they do on this album, with some incredibly interesting results, always stretching the boundaries of music into new territory, some of which seems so good, so right, that you can't believe it hasn't been explored before, and some of which is so strange and weird that you might wonder at times what planet you're on.

Listen, for example, to the sensational 'Blue Out' - with bagpipe riffing that, if played on the electric guitar, would rival anything that Jimi Hendrix ever did. And then listen to the absolute madness of 'Metal Rat', with seemingly random noises coming from all directions, with spits and pops and crackles of sound, and bashes of drums and then, out of nowhere, it seems, the haunting sound of the bagpipes playing what sounds like a nostalgic elegy to souls long dead behind nightmarish batterings of percussion, and screeches of electric noise. There's the awe-inspiring drones of 'Mescalator', the crazed assault and battery on 'Auld Lang Syne' in '2:47 am'. In 'Dead Hand' there are moments where the bagpipes screech and squeal as if they were Miles Davis's trumpet. In 'The Snakes', the pipes really do seem to slither and squirm like reptiles.

Unlike the incredible precision of yesterday's Rammstein, Wax and Wane is an album where everything sounds spontaneous, improvised, experimental. It's music that seems to grow as it grows. You feel that everything is being done for the first time and that a lot of it might never be done again - but, however odd and unexpected the results might be, you can't help but feeling kind of privileged to be hearing it, and being curious to hear more.

Wax and Wane might not be enough to turn me onto 'Scotland the Brave', nor to change my opinion about kilts, but it has certainly convinced me that the bagpipes have a lot of character after all. They just needed someone like David Watson to have the skill, and the nerve, to coax it out of them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The power of industrial Germany - Rammstein

When German industrial metal band Rammstein's latest album, Die Liebe ist für Alle da, begins you could be excused for thinking you were listening to the opening of a modern opera about the world's apocalypse. Choral and orchestral chords murmur and echo and a cavernous voice chants to us of the end of waiting and of the promise of a legend.

But the pounding beat of electric guitars and a massive battery of percussion breaks in and Rammstein announces its own name with a strength and authority that is commanding and arresting; and the sound of metal bashing metal, like a huge factory machine, pumps pistons of steel-like sound through your veins.

But Rammstein don't just play good metal, they play good music, where each song is structured with enormous ingenuity, like the breathless pace of 'Waidmanns Heil' with its dramatic key change half-way through, and played with astonishing precision, like the military beats and rhythms, like rapid gunfire, of the album's title song.

The music is given shape, too, by its contrasts, throwing moments of acoustic gentleness in amongst the metallic ferocity, as in 'Frühling in Paris', or massive brass chorales, as in 'B********' (which, incidentally, is a nice way of saying 'Bückstabü', which, as far as I can work out, doesn't actually mean anything - but Marty R may be able to enlighten me further on that), or the haunting, eerie, nursery-rhyme simplicty underpinning 'Roter Sand', like a spectral version of the Brecht/Weill 'Mackie Messer', giving me, I fear, nightmares for a long, long time.

For me, it is ultimately this bottomless pit of innovation and creativity with which Rammstein infuse the metal/industrial genre, combined with their gob-smacking musicianship, that makes this band, and this album, such a thrill. Everything moves at a lightning pace and, by time it ends, you feel you have to go back and listen to it again, if only to try to take stock of the massive store of ideas it contains.

Liebe ist für Alle da is one of those truly sensational albums that is able to combine the accessibility of being immediately engaging with the ongoing fascination of being inventive and inspired. You'll like it after one hearing and after one hundred you might begin to know why.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Solid Aussie rock - Goanna's Spirit of Place

I had never even heard of early 80s Aussie rock band, Goanna, until Wayne introduced me to their (more or less) only album last night - but then I hadn't heard of hardly anyone until a few months ago, so that didn't necessarily mean much. But then a quick check with my nephew revealed that he hadn't heard of them either so it made me think that maybe this band really was one that never got very far into the limelight.

But when you combine some good solid Australian rock with music that seems connected to the Australian landscape, the Australian spirit, with its indigenous roots and its eternal sense of wandering and restlessness, you can't help but wonder why this music never became more popular. It flows with a soft rock beat, and overflows with catchy hooks that bring you in, hook, line and sinker, before you have even noticed their deeper, more serious edge.

Spirit of Place is far from just an album of simple songs about an easy life in a sun-drenched land. They are songs full of yearning and often of anger - like in the anthem to Aboriginal land rights, accusing as much as pleading, of 'Solid Rock (Sacred Ground)', perhaps the first piece of rock music to incorporate a didgeridoo; or the challenges to hold onto what you know to be right, brought to you via the folk-infused vocals of Roslyn Bygrave, stirring and rousing in 'Stand yr' Ground', moving and inspirational in 'On the Platform'; or the way gently weeping electric guitar phrases urge us to remember our debt to the land in 'Children of the Southern Land'.

These songs are tremendous examples of what can be done, and of what power can be wrought, just by employing the trusted basics of music - good, unpretentious melodies and solid, reliable beats - with conviction and musicianship.

Spirit of Place is a good way of showing that music doesn't have to break into totally uncharted territory to sound new and innovative - it just has to have some honesty, some point, some spirit.

Thanks Wayne for introducing me to Goanna, and to these brave and spirited songs that speak to us as loudly now, and as earnestly, as they did in 1982.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Body and soul united - Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen's Book of Longing

If there is one good thing about buying Christmas presents for people when they’ve already got them, it’s that you end up being able to keep them for yourself.

And so it was that I managed to acquire a copy of Book of Longing, a double CD release of a song cycle of the music of Philip Glass and the poetry of Leonard Cohen, which I had bought for my friend Philip, a great fan of his Glass namesake.

Philip Glass has become a bit of a household name these days amongst people who like music that strides both the classical and the more popular genres but that still challenges conventional norms, is original and, without being easy-listening, is easy to listen to.

If you are at all familiar with Philip Glass, you will recognise Book of Longing as his work within a second or two of hitting the play button. The swirling phrases, where few more than a couple of notes repeat over and over, with subtle changes to time and beat that make even its catchiest moments almost impossible to tap your foot to, spread out across solid, diatonic harmonies that shift and change like fractured light, are all Philip Glass trademarks that make his music so instantly recognisable and so immediately hypnotic.

Glass has employed this style, and made it work, in a staggering range of contexts – such as his epic five hour no interval surrealist opera Einstein on the Beach, his almost (but not quite) conventional Violin Concerto, his movie music to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi/Powaqqatsi/Naqoyqatsi trilogy, his David Bowie inspired first symphony and now this, his 2007 adaptation of Leonard Cohen poetry.

The music is performed by a small ensemble of musicians, with a soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass baritone providing the vocals alongside some spoken lines from Cohen himself.

The poems follow the grungy, slightly sordid paths, with their perennial struggle between body and soul, that you might expect from Leonard Cohen, vagrant songs that reach for the salvation of the stars from the damnation of the gutter – sometimes with a twisted humour, sometimes layered with lust, sometimes dark and depressed, always with a kind of gruff, almost naïve, immediacy.

It’s not a style that you would expect to lend itself easily to structured formality of Glass’s music, nor to the precisely articulated and intonated singing of an operatic quartet and there are times when you can’t help but notice that these poems were not originally written for this music.

But just because something is done differently to how it was originally planned doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, and, as always happens with Philip Glass’s music, you find yourself getting drawn into it very quickly, captivated by its mesmerizing, magnetic pull. There are moments of slow, contemplative, gentle meditation; others of frantic, frenetic, whirlwind energy (like ‘Puppet Time’, for example – maybe the one poem in the whole cycle where you can hear Philip Glass in the words before you’ve actually listened to the mjsic); and some incredibly beautiful passages for the solo instruments, such as the almost Bach-like passage for solo cello, or the jazz-like chromaticism of the one for solo saxophone.

If you’re expecting regular, rough and ready Leonard Cohen, Book of Longing is sure to disappoint you. If you’re expecting regular Philip Glass you might at first be a little bemused to hear lines like “See what you’ve done to me/As if you give a shit/I used to live behind a line/But now I’m over it” sung to the measured Glassesque pulse. But if you are ready for some of the best poetry Leonard Cohen has written in his later life, set to some of the best music Philip Glass has written in years, this is sure to hold you captivated, and will probably lure you back for more.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Whether he's dead or not, long live the King!

There's nothing like an anniversary to get you rummaging through the back of your CD shelves or, if you're like me, to get you off to the closest CD store to buy the music that everyone else bought years ago.

Depending on your theory about whether he's really dead or not, today is either Elvis Presley's 75th birthday, or the 75th anniversary of his birth. In either case, it's a good excuse to listen to the music of this man who has had such an iconic place on the rock 'n' roll stage since he first stepped onto it with 'Heartbreak Hotel' in 1956, until long after he left it with his final public performance in June 1977.

I have a tendency to be a bit obsessive about buying original albums rather than compilations but, for someone whose career was so characterised by the release of hit singles, it seemed not totally disloyal to break my own rule and purchase the 3CD Sony compilation Elvis Presley HitStory. It's a tremendous collection of 91 tracks, spanning the whole of the Elvis career and pretty well every hit he recorded.

When you listen to his work all brought together like this, you can't help but be staggered by the enormity of his output - not just in quantity but in variety, too. You swing to 'Hound Dog'; you rock wildly to 'Jailhouse Rock' and gently to 'Wooden Heart'; you feel lonesome, even if you're not, when he sings 'Are you Lonseome Tonight?', you want to go out and do something outrageous when you hear 'Blue Suede Shoes', and you remember what it's like to fall in love when he reminds you of it in 'Can't Help Falling in Love'; you cry a little to 'In the Ghetto', you feel his pain in 'Suspicious Minds', and you want to comfort him for it in 'Crying in the Chapel'.

I suspect that I'm no the only person who listens to a collection like this and seems to be constantly thinking, "Oh yes, I forgot that Elvis sang that one". There's just so much there.

There's not much that can be said about someone like Elvis Presley that hasn't already been said thousands of times already - his genre-defining style, his rich, seductive voice and, of course, that pelvis.

Elvis Presley Hitstory is not just a very generous tribute to this unforgettable artist who still causes men and women, regardless of where they stand in relation to the sexuality fence, to drool and swoon - it's also great to listen to if only to remind you that music can have an easy, uncomplicated tune, and still be marvellous music.

No wonder Elvis Presley has so many imitators, and so many who refuse to accept the proposition that he is dead.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A smorgasbord of consciousness - Devendra Banhart

I had never even heard of American-born, Venezuelan-reared, Devendra Banhart until a couple of weeks ago when I received a rather urgent sounding SMS from Scott, my nephew, telling me that I had to listen to him. With all the chaos of the Public Holiday Season, I didn't get a chance to go out and buy any of his music until yesterday - but now, with his latest album What Will We Be already almost worn to oblivion by playing it so many times, this very unique artist has already reached a pretty prominent position on my list of very best discoveries.

His music is hard to categorise for a whole lot of reasons - not least because it is so individualistic anyway - but also because it shifts from place to place in the most unexpected ways, sometimes between songs, sometimes within them. It's like a string of beads, with different shapes and different colours, but where the thread links them, and makes them seem to belong, together.

And that thread is, of course, Devendra Banhart's unique musical stamp - a stamp characterised by jagged, angular phrases, often articulated through the percussive precision of acoustic guitar and piano, which give the music a solid, instantly recognisable, framework within which everything else grows and flourishes.

There is an almost stream-of-consciousness feel to much of this music, with new ideas emerging out of nowhere to replace old ones, like a seed blown in from somewhere, germinating, growing and ultimately blossoming. You see this in songs like 'Rats', where an electric guitar lends moments of hard rock to a background of funky blues that then gives way to bits of dancey pop; or in 'Brindo', where the album's ever-present world music roots, Latin-American infused, actually break through the ground, grab you by the feet and hold you in place, while the rest of your body sways to the music's eclectic beats and rhythms.

What Will We Be weaves its unique, freaky, folk-like thread through the boppy poppy beat of 'Baby', through the nostalgic jazz/blues trumpet of 'Chin Chin & Muck Muck', through the reflective sax and carillon-like tolling of 'Maria Lionza' - through everything, really.

The album is a smorgasbord of ideas, nothing ever resting in the one place long enough to grow mould, and every flavour blending and contrasting with everything else in a way that makes you know that this is the work of the one very, very clever, and daring, chef.

If you don't listen to this album closely enough, you might think it was cobbled together, with a whole lot of half-formed ideas thrown into the spotlight, each for its own 15 seconds of fame, and then forgotten. But listen to it properly, and you will see that it is in fact a brilliant mosaic of modern life - where things rush past, are savoured for a moment or two, sometimes for a little longer, sometimes a little less, but where someone is able to pick out each bit, blend it with each other bit, and infuse it with that special, secret, unifying, defining, ingredient.

In What Will We Be that 'someone' is, of course, Devendra Banhart, and his personality and character give this album that special, distinctive flavour that you will, I'm sure, want to try in many, many dishes yet. I look forward to sampling the rest of his output.

Thanks, Scott, for one of your very best recommendations.