Sunday, February 28, 2010

A tapestry of the old and the new - the guitar of Matt Stevens' "Echo"

The guitar has been around for a long time. For around 3,000 years, in one form or another – and, while it has always been an important and loved accompaniment for singers of almost any genre, culture or skill-level, it is in its role as solo instrument where the most interesting work is happening and where the amazing diversity of this instrument really comes into its own.

Rodrigo y Gabriela were, of course, powerful advocates for the musical vibrancy of the guitar (see 9th February); but so too is Matt Stevens, a London musician and composer who, in his fantastically creative online album, Echo, uses the guitar, and a sampler, to build layers of sound where invention is stacked upon invention in music that bursts open every seam that had once hemmed the guitar in.

The layers of the music are vital here; and there is always so much going on that sometimes, if you let yourself wander off and do something other than listen, you might miss the things that have made this music special. It’s like watching a huge dance, where the steps that the little girl is doing somewhere in the middle of everyone else are just as important as the massive leaps of star who shines in front of the footlights.

Echo is always injecting you with shots of energy, giving the music the feel of inexhaustible life, like when you leap out of bed on a morning that you just somehow know is going to be a good day. The first shot comes with the album’s opener, ‘Burning bandstands’, where strapping chords, spurting out like bullets, detonate into music in which the shards of light left in the explosive aftermath seem to be calling you to join in their dance.

Matt Stevens seems to be able to make his guitar contort itself into whatever shape or form the music asks of it, like with the percussive energy of ‘Airships’, over which an almost pensive, contemplative melody sings, creating music that is both forceful and vulnerable at once; or grumbling and buzzing, just as you would expect a song called ‘Flies in the Basement’ to do.

But Echo isn’t just about adrenalin and fireworks. Listen, for example, to ‘Snow Part 3’, with its sad and fragile melody over slow, bare, bowed string chords, with a sort of Elizabethan ambience, as if, after all the sparkle that has gone before, you are watching another world, sorrowful and cold, through a window and you are reminded that even the brightest, bounciest sparks die out eventually.

The world we leap into with the track that follows, ‘Chasing the Sun’, however, is not the cold snow at all but one where all the vim and vigour of Latin rhythms spring and skip again, but are ultimately underscored by deeper, darker, sustained strings, as if to warn us, it seems, that that other, colder, world is not as far away as we might have thought.

‘Spencer Park’ slogs in with a steady, striding stomp, stopping every now and then to look around the open spaces and to breathe in the fresh air that it has created with its wonderful little trickling phrases that burst out of the pounding beat, like magic. Its partner is ‘West Green’, where those little trickling phrases now broaden into a steady flow, tumbling over huge, spacey, electronic rocks and into creepy, crawly crevices of sound, giving the music its sense of the exotic, which, even with its sure and steady beat, leaves you feeling that it has taken you to a new place, wild and wonderful.

The little phrase has grown to full adulthood in ‘Jubilee’, now strong in its own right and hovering off in its own directions, while the beat that had once given it birth itself now explores new territory, descending into the depths here, morphing into percussive chords there, putting its own unique stamp on this vibrant family of sound, that has now grown up so well.

‘Doll’s House’ brings the album to a close, where the layers of music gather and separate and gather and separate, until we again hear those bullet chords that we had heard at the beginning, now reinforced with what sounds like an orchestra of a thousand guitars, rich and brilliant, waving a kind of fond farewell to you as the music dances off into the distance, leaving you basking in its glow, while not quite letting you forget its shadows.

Echo is a great example of what a creative and talented musician can do by combining enticing music with innovative use of sound, against a backdrop where tradition is something to draw from, but never something to be tied to. It’s music that weaves its own tapestry from old threads and new threads, allowing both to be seen in a refreshingly different way.

Echo can be downloaded on a “pay what you want” basis, from Matt Steven’s website at Believe me – musicians like this are worth whatever support you can give.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A little boat in a big sea - Shearwater, The Golden Archipelago

If you can imagine vast and lonely seas, with mists laying upon them, lights from wars flashing over them and from the moon falling onto them, and lost boats sailing across them, looking for a haven somewhere from somewhere, everything silent and still, then you can imagine the world that Shearwater’s newly released The Golden Archipelago conjures up for you.

This Texan quintet, using mostly acoustic sounds to paint their fog-laden pictures, where pale greys and blues and silvers blend and melt into one another, create music that is seeping with atmosphere on this, their sixth album, and their first since their stunning Rook, released in 2008.

In some ways, and despite a track like ‘Corridors’, which pounds with muscle and vehemence, rapid drums and frenetic repeating keyboards, like Philip Glass with bad attitude, The Golden Archipelago is a mostly quiet, contemplative album, always giving you the feeling that its music is adrift, small and alone in an immense space, a space within which, somewhere, a home, a refuge, might lie, but the mists and fogs are too thick to find it.

Listen, for example, to the deep, majestic notes from the piano’s lower register in ‘Landscape at Speed’, as if the music is telling you, as you sail along across the waves, looking for a place to rest, how bottomless the ocean is beneath you.

Or to ‘Castaways’, with vocals that seem to float on the wind, where you can almost feel the salt blown onto your face as you listen to it, but where drums and keyboards seem to reverberate in an endless, empty expanse, and you wonder if anyone, or anything, other than you and the sea, is there.

The music here is always tinged with the colours of the sea, and always of a lonely sea. Its melodies flow like the sea, its rhythms heave and haul like the sea, its harmonies build and break like the sea. And as you travel its journey, looking you’re-not-quite-sure-where for you’re-not-quite-sure-what, you feel an odd mix of awe and terror at the vastness of the space in which you are lost.

Just as the music mixes these images of smallness with vastness, the words often mix images of the sea with images of war, and images of nature enraged and of nature at peace, of searching, of fleeing, and, of course, of drifting. You are travelling here in troubled times through troubled waters.

Shearwater create some beautiful sounds on this album, lush and rich with colour and texture. The frail falsetto of Jonathan Meiburg gives the music its feeling of vulnerability; the tinkle of the piano casts little shafts of light, restful or frightful, onto the surface of the music; coloured percussion, with mallets and marimbas and drums that seem to breath as much as to beat their rhythms, give the music shape and depth and turbulence; and guitars that, with their brilliantly ebbing and flowing strum, really do sound like they could have grown out of the sea, or the sea could have grown out of them.

But the Golden Archipelago here is a dream much more than a destination – elusive and illusory – and by the time we have come to the album’s closing ‘Missing Islands’, hard on the heels of the desolate and disillusioned ‘Uniforms’, a song that grows from a single long, dark, unshifting note into an enormous prayer for home, the hope of finding the haven has been abandoned, and we are journeying back to where we came from, still lonely, still lost, with the horrors of war now buried beneath us in the deep and slow pounding drumbeat of the ocean.

The Golden Archipelago paints a vast canvas, and it would be a shame to take out this bit or that bit and turn it into a single, which will, I know, undoubtedly happen. But if you can listen to this album as an album, then do – its sentences are beautiful and powerful, but ultimately it’s the paragraph that tells the real story, and that carries you away with it.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Letting in the light - Leonard Cohen, Live in London

It’s not that I have a penchant for older men with deep voices worn raw by a rough and rugged life – but it really would be wrong to write about Johnny Cash (see 22nd February) and Gil Scott-Heron (see yesterday) and then not write about Leonard Cohen.

Those long, late nights where I sat drinking scotch with my friend Creos, listening to the scratchy voice of Leonard Cohen on scratchy vinyl records, seem like they could have been just last month, but they were in fact almost 25 years ago now. And yet, when you listen to Cohen’s release from last year, Live in London, you realise that some memories are like some voices – they grow old only in the most superficial of ways, but their core, the bit that makes them real, never really ages at all.

But Cohen’s music is, for me, entwined with even more poignant memories – memories of my friend Rohini who loved Leonard Cohen like she loved anyone who put their toe into life’s less settled waters, and whose birth and death all her friends and family are marking today. And so, more than anything else, it was in Rohini’s memory that I listened to Leonard Cohen today.

Live in London is a generous double album, spanning over two and half hours and 26 songs, all of them but one by Cohen. When he recorded it, he was only a few weeks from his 74th birthday and, as you might expect, his voice, always ragged, is now more ragged still and, while he always sang softly, he now sings – or speaks when the notes are not quite there anymore – in what has almost become a whisper.

But it’s the heart and soul of Leonard Cohen that has always mattered the most and here we see how it has aged like the very best red wine, better even than what it used to be, with those songs that always seem to say so much to you, speaking to the soft and aching bits inside you, soothing them with the music’s old, worn, calming hands.

He opens with the shadowy dance of ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ and you are reminded from the outset, in case you had ever forgotten, just how haunting and darkly evocative Cohen’s music and words are, and how you can hear them over and over again and still the hairs on your arm stand to attention, and still every tear you have shed suddenly feels just a little less lonely.

Cohen takes you through all his greatest songs here. There’s ‘The Future’, ‘Ain’t No Cure for Love’ ‘Bird on the Wire’, ‘Everybody Knows’ ‘Suzanne’, ‘First We Take Manhattan’ and, of course, ‘Hallelujah’ – still a song that makes you stop whatever you’re doing and say “wow”, and a song that, even with Jeff Buckley and even with K D Laing, has never been as good as when it is sung by Leonard Cohen.

There’s plenty of others, too, that I know less well or not at all, but every one of them seems to be a favourite of his audience who always cheer at the first hint of a recognisable phrase. These are well worn songs, in every sense – like the soles of old but enduring shoes, songs that are tired, but in a good way, in the way that things are meant to get tired: not grumpy and inattentive, but restful and at peace, because they have done so much, been so far, soared so high.

Cohen’s voice might no longer be a strong one, but neither is it a faltering one. It holds you in its grip, never failing to make you quiver to its trembling, yet restrained, emotion, and you don’t dare take a breath for fear that you might break its spell.

As Cohen himself tells us many times throughout this album, he is supported by a superb band of musicians here, like Dino Soldo who blows not just his breath, but his very soul, into a huge range of wind; or like the smooth and gorgeously harmonised vocals from Sharon Robinson and Charley and Hattie Webb, sometimes as much Cohen’s partners as his backers, like in their arresting, softly prayerful, version of ‘If It Be Your Will’, or their pure and hushed A Capella cover of Guy Singer’s ‘Wither Thou Goest’.

This is one of those live recordings where it’s a good thing that the producers decided to leave in much of Cohen’s conversation with his audience – it shows a humility, a humour, and a humanity that is as much a part of the experience of the album as the songs themselves, if only because they show us, like the notes and the words, a little more of who Leonard Cohen is.

However great Leonard Cohen’s earlier albums may be, Live in London is surely going to be one of his most important testaments of all, because here, conversing and singing to the people who love him, the people who have often shared that hard and lonely journey out of which so much of his music grew its thorns and blossoms, we hear him as he is meant to be heard – that old, worn and wrinkled voice, pouring out its bruised soul, unembellished, but eternally beautiful.

Vale Rohini – this music belongs to you:
"Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering;
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The loved and lonely streets of Gil Scott-Heron's 'I'm New Here'

I didn’t listen to Gil Scott-Heron’s latest album I’m New Here in the way he said to listen to it. And I should have. In the album’s liner notes he says that there is only one way to listen to a new CD: not in your car or on a portable CD player through your headset, but home alone with no one and nothing to distract you, not a phone, nor anything else that makes a noise, but to listen to it in comfort, undisturbed and uninterrupted, all the way through.

And that’s what I should have done but, instead, I bought the CD, loaded it straight onto my iPod and played it in the train on my way home from work. It was not the way to listen to this album – a work which, in all its unromantic, unsentimental rawness, is so powerful, so moving, that it brings the sort of ungarnished emotion to your heart, your gut and inevitably your eyes, that sadly just doesn’t seem to have a place on peak hour public transport.

Gil Scott-Heron has something of a reputation as the godfather of rap, but to describe him as that would be to miss both the grandeur and the simplicity of his art. There’s an enormous gulf between what we experience on I’m New Here, and the commercialised world of today's hip hop.

This is not the jiving rapid-fire dance poetry of disenfranchised youth, but rather the unadorned, unfiltered musings and music of an ageing black man who has done it hard but who still has a soft love for life, for its bumps, its scars, its troughs, its pits. It’s the sort of unglamorous love that finds a place in the hearts of those who lie in the gutters and don’t expect to see the stars – just the pavement is enough.

The music’s story is told in between the brackets of the opening and closing tracks, the two-part ‘On Coming From A Broken Home’, a heart-wrenchingly poignant tale about the women who raised him, told without even a skerrick of self-pity or sentimentality, narrated over pulsating, chugging electronic loops, borrowed from Kanye West and transformed here into something that gives the story its sense of resolution but not resignation.

The pieces surrounded by this tale take us to the darker corners of life: corners where drugs and demons and death confide and collude with each other in music where Scott-Heron’s gruff, gravel-worn voice, as deep as dirt, bleeds the blues, sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, over deep, dark drum beats, sad cellos, or a lonely, barren acoustic guitar.

So when Gil Scott-Heron strolls along with the devil beside him, to sauntering blues, as he does in ‘Me And The Devil’, you stroll there too and it almost feels that your shadow could mingle with theirs and no one would notice.

In the title song, there is softness in the dark, and even hope, with strummed guitar and whispered vocals that tell you that everything comes full circle in time. ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’, with its melting, darkly sustained instrumentals, stabbed with piano and strings, and soulful vocal line, really does make you feel that there is comfort in the blackest night.

This ray of light always seems to peep through the dark, be it in the words, the music or even just in the embracing warmth of Scott-Heron’s voice, like in the ‘Running’, simply spoken over an unsteady heart beat in the drums, or in the more ominous ‘The Crutch’, where haunted music resonates in a dim, abandoned ambience. This is the ray of light that gives this album its sense of hope, its sense of humanity, no matter how bleak a world it inhabits.

Between the more substantial tracks are short interludes, where we hear a line or two of off-the-cuff speech, not necessarily saying all that much in themselves, but still a vital part of giving this album the feel more of a private memoir than of a collection of songs. It’s a story that you hear not because it is being told to you, but because you are eavesdropping.

This is music and poetry that grows raw and naked from its gritty, earthy roots. I’m New Here takes you on an ugly, unsettling journey through an unwelcoming, unattractive world. But it puts its arm around you when it takes you there and it helps you to believe that even here there is a kind of beauty, and something to hope for. It enfolds you in its arms, rough and ready and with the stench of the street, but it’s the embrace of music and poetry that is honest almost to a fault.

Things comes together in I’m New Here in ways that they rarely do anywhere else – hopelessness and hope, emptiness and richness, poetry and music. The lines have never been more beautifully, nor more boldly, blurred than they are here.

Thanks to Greg and to PBS for bringing this phenomenal album to me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A world banquet mixed just right - Vampire Weekend's 'Contra'

Every one seems to be listening to Vampire Weekend these days. And so, while I don’t like doing things just because they’re the done thing, I thought I should give them a listen and, sure enough, I discovered what a great listen they turned out to be, about five minutes after the tickets to both their upcoming Melbourne concerts sold out.

Still, their latest album, Contra, is good enough that listening to it over and over is at least going to be some consolation for not being able to see this really very interesting, highly polished, young American band live.

I want to focus here on Contra, Vampire Weekend’s second album, even though the general consensus seems to be that their first, self-titled, offering is their best. But I assume that Contra will be the main focus of their tour, and so it seems only apt that I punish myself properly for not being better organised, and spend some time here talking about how good this music is.

The music is, like I say, polished. It brings together the soft shuffling beats of South Africa, much as Paul Simon once did, into the more mainstream territory of modern soft rock, in a rather structured, planned kind of way, like an arranged marriage. You never get the impression here that the music’s different parts just somehow stumbled across one another on the street and decided to hook up and have babies. But it’s a marriage that turns out happily nonetheless, with partners who, with the right coaxing and cajoling, really seem to have been meant for one another all along.

But it’s not just the coaxing and cajoling that have made things work. The bits of music that make up this marriage are well travelled and multiculturally aware and they bring a kaleidoscope of world experience to their union. There are bits of Latin American, and bits of South East Asia, and bits of India – musical flavours that are rich but never overpowering so, even when it’s all mixed together, you can taste each ingredient, even if sometimes in this panoramic context, you can’t quite put a name to it.

Right from the opening ‘Horchata’, with its swirling keyboards, and especially in the irresistible jive of ‘California English’, the music bounces and bubbles in fresh air and open spaces so that even the quieter moments, like the easy flowing ‘Taxi Club’, seem full of healthy energy.

‘Cousins’ is perhaps the closest Contra comes to sounding contrary but even there the ,music, with its frenetic drums pounding along, makes you feel more like going for a good run to let off steam than going out and shooting someone.

Vampire Weekend give us music that is always elaborate and carefully crafted, where guitars and hand drums and piano and harpsichord and strings and an assortment of percussion from pretty well every corner of the globe are all there, playing their part, adding just the right shade of just the right colour at just the right time.

By time you have finished listening to Contra – and it closes, as you might expect it to, in just the right way, with the beautifully reflective ‘I Think Ur a Contra’, its cello putting you to rest like sunset – you feel you have had one of those happy, healthy days, full of energy and life and colour: one of those days you always treasure, ahead of one of those blissful sleeps you never remember.

Many thanks to Tess for her enthusiastic advocacy of Vampire Weekend. I may have missed out on a ticket to the gig, but I’ll be bopping along just as much, just the same.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A dish served cold - Rodriguez 'Cold Fact'

If yesterday’s Johnny Cash read like a tribute to a man who had turned his back on a shallow world, but kept a warm heart nonetheless, it is still worth remembering, if you really want to get back at a world that has let you down, that the advice of the famous adage is that revenge is a dish best served cold. No one really knows who first said that, but it could well have been the motto Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, the sixth child of poor working class Mexican parents, born in 1942 in Detroit, Michigan, who grew up to become know just as Rodriguez, the man who sang songs about inner urban poverty and emptiness and put them together in a fantastic album, released in 1970, called Cold Fact.

The music of Cold Fact isn’t easy to genreise, even though its style has a kind of familiarity about it that can sometimes mask the originality of the music. Incidentally, I’m not sure if “genereise” a word but, if it’s not, it should be, and that’s usually how words are made, after all.

Ironically, the music’s familiarity probably comes from the very thing that makes it unique – the way it captures a whole host of genres, imbues itself with their spirit, and ends up being all and none of them at once. So we feel it’s a bit like folk, but far too harsh and jagged to really be folk; or a bit like rock, but far too cool and silky to really be rock; or a bit like blues, but not really using many blues notes or blues chord progressions; or a bit like soul, but not really. There are hints of Latin there, but it’s not really Latin.

What it ends up being is an album of smooth, cool flowing music, with Rodriguez’s funky, streetwise tenor voice sauntering along, not so much spitting out its venom and malice at the world, and the women, who have done him wrong, but singing it, nonchalantly, just to show them, and you, that he has been fortified rather than bruised by the blows they have dealt him.

Cold Fact opens, though, not with rage, but with respect – albeit the somewhat sardonic respect for a drug dealer in ‘Sugar Man’, perhaps the most famous, and arguably the most unsettling, song on the album. It’s unsettling because it’s so smooth: a song that craves the “answer that makes my questions disappear”, a song where a snort of coke is one of the only real things in a world where hearts have “turned to dead black coal”, but a song, with its soft sway in its minor key, that finds a kind of dark contentment and rest in its own precarious, perilous life.

I’m not sure if he finds Sugar Man or not, or if Sugar Man gives him some bad drugs, but for the rest of the album Rodriguez is in a pretty bad mood. Whether it’s towards women, like in ‘Only Good for Conversation’ with barbed bluesy electric guitars, almost on the brink of rock, where he sledges “the coldest bitch I know”; and in the cruisy swing of ‘I wonder’, where he seems to already know the answer when he asks “I wonder how many times you had sex and I wonder do you know who’ll be next”; or whether it’s at the empty, heartless world of modern urban living, like in the monotone, rhythmic mantra, almost hip hop, of ‘This is not a song, it’s an outburst: or the Establishment Blues’, where he wryly observes “Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected/Politicians using, people they’re abusing/The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river/And you tell me that this is where it’s at”; and in the bitterly ironic ‘Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme)’, singing of “A story of pure hate/With pictures between/A tale for your kids/To help them to dream”, complete with children’s chorus.

These songs might take you through some of life’s and love’s darkest alleyways, but they do it an easy stroll because this is their home after all – a hated home, but a home nonetheless. And it’s a hatred fuelled not by the fire in their belly so much as by the ice in their veins. Maybe the music has grown out of the dislocated 60s, but they are not dislocated songs – rather, they are songs that know only too well how located they are. And it’s not in a good place.

And yet, to mosey through such bleak territory and to still keep its cool, maybe this music got the goods from Sugar Man after all. It’s music that sounds almost too good to be true – music that always has a bit of a smile on its face: it’s just that you’re never entirely sure what the smile means or where it comes from. Cold Fact is a very tempting, and very delicious dish – but just know that you eat it at your own risk.

Many overdue thanks to Lucas for the recommendation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Cashless world - Johnny Cash: American VI

One of the many wonderful things about music is how it never ceases to surprise you in the ways it can speak to you. You might think it speaks to you through clever, new melodies that take you to unexpected places, or through wild untamed rhythms , or just through those amazing performances that leave you gobsmacked by their sheer musical prowess. And then something comes along that flies in the face of all of that, something that takes your breath away, something that sends goosebumps down your arms or tears down your cheeks, and you are left wondering, yet again, about what makes music work.

Something like Johnny Cash’s final studio recordings, the ‘American Recordings’.

These albums are not what the rule books tend to suggest good music should sound like, and yet still somehow they hold you, rock you like a mother rocks her child, and make you feel that everything will be all right.

And nowhere is this stronger than in the final of the series – American VI: Ain’t no Grave – released only a few days ago. Here, Cash’s voice is unsteady, and out of breath and with a range of about a quarter of an octave; the songs are mostly predictable and with tunes and beats like every other country song you have heard; there's about three chords throughout the whole album. And yet the experience of listening to it is like no other.

For the most part, American VI is produced simply, with only a track, or a phrase, here and there embellished by the producer. So what you get most of the time is the rough and rickety voice of the dying Cash. But it’s a voice that weeps with conviction – a voice that celebrates the hardship that has rubbed it raw, and a voice that believes with every worn and haggard chord, that it is bound for paradise.

The opening and title ‘Ain’t no grave’, with solid, steady footstomps, almost like a death-knell, beneath a plucked banjo sets the mood for this album – a walk towards death, but one where the gaze is ahead to something comforting, something longed for, rather than something dreaded or feared.

‘Redemption Day’ follows the same path, with the deep peal of its bass echoing as if in a cavern, but one where there is a pathway through that leads to freedom.

The only song here that Cash wrote himself is ‘1 Corinthians 15:55’, building from a shaky, staggering opening with bare guitar and wobbly voice picking out the notes almost, it seems, as they go along, but building almost imperceptibly in its strength and solidity, so that you see that that unsteady opening was not a blemish but part of the story.

While not everything here is about a journey to death and the afterlife – like, Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For the Good Times’, or Bob Nolan’s ‘Cool Water’ – everything seems to somehow be about moving on from something or yearning for something else. They are songs about simple things, and songs that find meaning in their simplicity.

So there are no unexpected twists and turns in these songs. The melodies and the rhythms always go where you expect them to, the harmonies are uncomplicated and generally pretty sparse, and all of the songs sound vaguely like you have heard them before. But, in a way, that’s the point. The message here is that the enduring things in life, and beyond it, are the things that have been there all along and, whether you take that message from a religious angle or from another, or even you don’t believe it at all, Johnny Cash, faltering voice and all, certainly delivers it here with conviction. Listen, for example, to 'Satisfied Mind': a song where wealth is shunned and riches are found instead in ordinary humanity, a song where everything is unadorned and straightforward because it just wouldn't make sense for them to be anything else.

American VI is packaged as simply and as tellingly as the songs it contains: a black and white photo of Cash as a child is on the front cover, a photo of a window with his thin reflection as an old man on the back. The booklet cover is of an old, wrinkled hand – presumably Cash’s – writing some music. Together it all says a lot about why this album is important: an album where memories, age and music come together, frail and yet somehow enduring.

It’s one heck of a way to say goodbye.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Music from the border - Calexico 'Feast of Wire'

Calexico lies on the border of California and Mexico and, while it’s not exactly the home of the Tucson Arizona based band of the same name, their music is very much inspired by the blend of American and Mexican flavours and so it was surely an apt name for this country/roots/tex-mex sextet to adopt.

Their 2003 album, Feast of Wire, has been sitting, unattended to, on my shelf for some time now and, on a sluggish summery Sunday afternoon like today, it seemed just the right thing to reach for.

Not that you should expect Calexico to be a simple dialogue between its American and its Mexican influences. If you’re looking for something to have in the background while you sit and snooze in the sun, sipping on your tequila, then Calexico will be sorely wasted. This is music that takes in a whole lot of layers and dimensions all at once, music that gives everything a tinge, a tint, of something else. It’s music that deserves a close listen.

The richness of the sound, often full with soft harmonies, strings and guitars, belies the country/folk-like unfussiness of the music, spiced here and there with the zing and zest of Mexican brass. This is music is very much music of the border.

And yet Feast of Wire takes a very unusual journey along that border, mixing Latin and American sounds and colours, creating a sound-world that is cosmopolitan not only by its infusion of cultures, but by its blend of light and dark. Here the conventional ideas about what makes music, and ultimately life, happy or sad are broken down and always each seems to be part of the other. It makes for an emotional complexity that somehow you feel could not have been achieved in music that did not straddle itself across two cultures, as Calexico does.

The effect it leaves you with is strange – you are left a little pensive, and yet somehow strangely comforted, too. There’s a sense of wisdom here, a kind of laid back, slightly weary, warmth to the music – music that, even from the opening bars of ‘Sunken Waltz’, feels like it has seen a lot.

For me, perhaps the most potent expression of all this is in ‘Black Heart’, which flows with sad, languid strings, haunted and troubled, descending like a heart sinking into hopelessness, like tears falling – it’s music of strange, poignant beauty and seems to capture much of the tired, worn out weariness that permeates this album, with songs that are often tottering on the edge between a harsh life and a good death; sometimes falling over it, like in the deceptively bouncy suicide tale of ‘Not even Stevie Nicks …’.

The music of the descending strings works a little like a leitmotif throughout the album – reappearing here and there, like in ‘Dub Latino’, where it returns electrified but still sad and lamenting, or in the lonely ‘No Doze’ where, now given first to a solo guitar and then eventually to cellos, it brings the album to a restful, if still heartbroken, close.

And yet these songs, sad as they are, seem to somehow avoid being depressing – listen to the gentle, smooth flow of ‘Woven birds’, its yielding, calming harmonies, or to the contemplative beauty of ‘The Book and the Canal’, with cold piano and warm cello, and you begin to see that here sadness is not so much a hostile intruder, but a comforting friend.

Or listen to ‘Across the Wire’, with its Tejano horns casting a deceiving, illusory light on the song’s bleak words about a world falling apart.

Feast of Wire is a truly unique album – one that is able to present all these contrasts without making them sound like contradictions. It’s an album that will lift your spirits and calm them at the same time – an album to shout and clap to, and to be quiet to.

Thanks to Marty R for introducing me to Calexico.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

From Russia (and back again) with love - Zulya and the Children of the Underground

Given the last two days’ references to revolutionary matters, I guess it was inevitable that I would turn sooner rather than later to the music of Russia and, while Zulya Kamalova is a Melbourne-based singer, with a Tartar rather than a Russian heritage, her album Валсь пустоты (и другие песни на русскую тему) (The Waltz of Emptiness [and other songs on Russian themes]) is sung entirely in Russian and, in any event, is so good that it is really inexcusable that I have left it this long to write about it here.

In fact, even well before my still relatively recent Road-to-Damascus conversion to non-classical music, Zulya and her band, The Children of the Underground, had come to my attention, and taken me by storm, right from when I heard them one afternoon on ABC Classic FM.

But, despite the crystal clear purity of Zulya’s voice, sad or vivacious, vulnerable or invincible, at less than a nanosecond’s notice, this music has its roots much more in Russian folk, than in anything vaguely approaching Western classicalism. In part this comes from the unmistakeably Russian flavour produced by the Children of the Underground themselves, with their mandalaika, piano accordion, and bits and pieces of exotic tuned percussion, like xylomarimba and berimbau – which sound great, whatever they are – but it comes, too, from the rhythms and tonalities of the songs, often shaped by earthy beats that conjure up images of peasants dancing on the steppes, or on the veranda of a dacha, yet with folk-like tonalities, never hovering far from a minor key, nor from that sense of hardship and melancholy that we so often think of as characteristically Russian. Listen «Не все ль равно?» (“Does it matter?”), for example, to see how easily it all comes together.

And yet this music is much more than just reworked songs from Russian folklore. The songs are very much created as music of the here and now, songs of a modern world, albeit one with a long and treasured memory of its rich, though hard, culture. Listen, for example, to the album’s opening «Всё» (“Everything”), with its smooth, cool, almost jazz-like verses against its lively folk-dance chorus, almost making you think of those Cossack dancers that used to tour the West from the USSR and show us that, despite everything we were led to believe, there was more to Russia than an iron curtain after all; or to the wistfulness and dispossession of «Дети подземелья» (“Children of the Underground”) – clearly a song that is meant to capture much of the essence of what these musicians are about – to a sprightly, restless beat and a melody that leaps and jumps in and out of what might once been its safe, sure folk home.

There are some songs of almost unbearable beauty here, too, like «Неспроста» (“Not without reason”), where Zulya’s voice soars effortlessly well above the stave, in a simple, pensive song about the heartache of waiting for love, believing in it, but afraid of it, too. It’s a song, with its soul steeped deeply in sorrow, and yet still believing and hoping that it has a purpose, that could come only from Russia. Nor could the bigger-than-life existential crisis of «(У) меня нет дома» (“No(t) home”), come other than from Russia, sad and yearning, but growing into a massive choral anthem to homelessness and hopelessness that somehow manages to never become entirely bleak, as if the soul, even when it is at its most lonely, feels itself to be part of something bigger and grander.

Валсь пустоты (и другие песни на русскую тему) is an album of amazing music – music that sounds both old and new, like a modern telling of an ancient, eternal tale. And yet, despite its sense of the eternal, it seems to have a sense of transience about it too, to no small degree driven home by the sounds of trains, and station announcements, interspersed between many of the songs. This is a world where everything is rushing past, and where the enduring things could easily pass us by if Zulya and her band were not here to help us notice them. These are the Children of the Underground, after all – as much children of the eternally restless lower depths of life as of the Russian Metro.

Friday, February 19, 2010

... and where the revolution is headed - Future Of The Left

After yesterday’s journey into the northern Sahara deserts with the revolutionary Tuareg nomads, I couldn’t help but return to the question that plagues me constantly these days – just where are revolutionary politics headed in this increasingly globalised, increasingly capitalised, 21st century world of ours? Well, I ran a blog on that very issue for about five minutes, a year ago, and gave up when I ran out of both ideas and enthusiasm. Now, it seems, I have descended to the ultimate bourgeois depravity of looking for the revolution not in the collective rage of the proletariat, but in music.

And so it was in that spirit that I found myself today reaching again for another PBS discovery from last year – an album called Travels with Myself and Another, released last year by a Welsh garage punk rock band with a name that, for me, is irresistibly alluring: The Future of the Left.

The songs on this album are certainly the songs of the disgruntled and dispossessed. But they are a disgruntled and dispossessed whose rage is peppered by a sardonic and sometimes self-effacing wit, which leaves you feeling that, even if the revolution is a little off the rails, at least everyone is still able to have a bit of fun and, given the brawny energy of the music itself, some hard and heavy dancing too.

The rough and raspy vocals of Andy Falkous give the music an angry punk-like feel, but it’s far from just tuneless screams, even when there might not in fact be that much of a tune there. Rather, the music is given some body, some composition, some form, by the way those vocals are integrated into the fuller picture of riffing guitars, pounding keyboards and a driving, beefy beat. There’s nothing here that doesn’t need to be there, and yet still it sounds substantial, full-bodied like a meal of meat and thickly mashed potatoes.

Listen to the opening ‘Arming Eritrea’ to see just how well this can be done, and how the music fills itself out.

The rallying cry of ‘The Hope that House Built’ is perhaps the album’s poster song – its hearty, vigorous march, almost unaware of the blackness of its words, “Come join, come join our hopeless cause!” It’s an acerbic jibe at many a social change movement, singing their songs of protest as they fervently stride into irrelevance. And the cleverly tongue-in-cheek ‘Throwing Bricks at Trains’ mocks the rebel who boasts their part in the ineffective bloodless coup preceded not by a politically organised underclass, but by “slight bowel movements”.

But, even with their bleak pessimistic view of the insurrection, Future of the Left is a band whose real enemy is the establishment, with lines like “If I love what I kill and I kill what I love/ am I worthy? … So I eat what I fuck and I fuck what I eat/am I worthy?” to the angry, raucous, unsympathetic music of ‘I am civil service’; or its barbed sneer at the commercial world that has lulled us all into our comfortable apathy in ‘Drink Nike’.

The distance between the warm and vibrant revolutionary community of yesterday’s Tinariwen and the garage punk disillusioned harshness of The Future of the Left is a vast, vast ocean. But ultimately the energy of Travels with Myself and Another, even when it’s a dark and angry energy, is spiced with enough wry humour, and fuelled by enough boiled blood, to make you feel that there’s some excitement to be had in reigniting that old rebellious spark and, in spite of its incurable cynicism, it leaves you with more than just a hint of hope in the future of the left.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A revolution in the northern Sahara - Tinariwen

I have to confess that I don’t know much about Mali and its political history, nor about the role that Tuareg nomads have played in that history, but I have read enough to know that it has been a tortured and painful history, where people have been displaced, and where struggles for a home have been fought on the land of one of the poorest countries on the planet.

The life of the nomad was the life of the warrior, a life that endured struggles to survive alongside struggles against exploitation and the co-option into Libya’s own political agenda.

It is in this troubled context that Tinariwen began to form in the late 70s, a band of young Tuareg men who, along with their heartfelt identity with the deserts of the Sahara, felt inspired by the music of the West, of Africa, of Algeria, of Morocco. And so, oscillating between their job as soldiers for Gadaffi, and their job as musicians for the displaced Tuareg people of Mali, they began to develop their own unique musical identity – nomadic, cosmopolitan, revolutionary and indigenously African.

But despite their tumultuous beginnings, the musicians of Tinariwen tend to shun their image of gun-toting musicians, and instead see themselves as musicians first and foremost. But they are musicians with a warrior history and, of course, their music, like all music, is the child of their culture, and of the political context out of which it grew. And so, inevitably, there is the music of the warrior here, as much as there is the music of the desert. This is what comes to us via their most recent release, their album Imidiwan.

But it’s not so much music that is openly rebellious, not music that is there to rally the masses to revolution, but rather music where revolution, and the struggle against oppression, is part of its essence, part of what makes it what it is, so that when a song like ‘Tahult In’ (My Salutation) salutes the anonymous revolutionaries, it does so to a steady pulse, like blood flowing through the veins, much more than blood being spilt on the battlefield.

The music’s spiritual flavour is there from its opening moments, in the gentle, welcoming flow of ‘Imidiwan Afrik Temdam’ (My friends from all over Africa). But they are revolutionary words, and it’s as if the revolution is being offered here as a place of community, a place of comfort and hope.

You can smell the Saharan desert dust swell around you all throughout this album, but cultural boundaries are always being crossed here, too, and rock and blues are never far away. Listen, for example to, ‘Tenhert’ (The Doe), with it strong blues/rock guitar riffs, or to the bluegrass plucking guitars against African vocals in ‘Intitlayaghen’, or to the almost Middle Eastern drone flanking African drums in ‘Kel Tamashek’ (The Tamashek People).

Tinariwen means “deserts”. It’s a plural word, and that’s an important thing to remember when you listen to this music – music that grows out of a multicultural history and looks to pluralistic future.

The music of Tinariwen is spirited, optimistic music – music that celebrates the freedom it strives for, music that can find a sort of universality of community in its own embrace of so many cultural influences.

But it is also music that ultimately cannot escape the struggle that always lies beneath it, around it, and in it and nowhere is this more poignant and haunting than in the hidden extra track that appears after the final ‘Ere Tasfata Adounia’ (He who values life) has finished – a quiet, contemplative instrumental track that seems to conjure up images of a desert that has been forsaken, but that still lies in wait for its people to return to it.

Imidiwan means “companions” – or perhaps “comrades” would be a more apt word for this music that reaches out an arm to you, that welcomes you like you have come home and ultimately makes you feel that you are already a part of the ranks of its revolution.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The creepy sound of the quiet - Silence is Sexy

There are three things about our world that I think I would find impossible to explain to an alien, if one was ever to visit here. One is the logic of a monarchy; another is why some words are swear words; and the other is why Einstürzende Neubauten are not the favourite band of everyone on the planet.

Yes, I know this is now my third post on this relatively obscure German industrial noise band in as many weeks and that, in continuing to rave on about them so much, I risk either turning the greater portion of my meagre readership away, or else encouraging them to go and buy the few remaining Einstürzende Neubauten CDs that are still left on the shelves of Melbourne’s Heartland Records, before I can clock up enough credits in my weekly CD-buying ration to be able to get them myself.

But just yesterday I added Silence is Sexy to my collection, the band’s 2000 release, just as fascinatingly original as the debut Kollaps (see 3rd February) and their most recent Jewels (see 7th February), and just as different from both of them and they are from one another.

While Einstürzende Neubauten is most recognisable by its musical use of industrial noise, with its bits of scrap metal being pounded by power tools and by bits of flotsam and jetsam from a long-dead engineering age, the thing that marks this album is, rather, its use of the lack of noise. It mingles silence with near silence, swelling now and then to creepy quietness and only very rarely being interrupted by massive bashes of noise, which only go to make the silence seem more potent, and freakier.

Most of the music here is characterised by creepy crawly bass lines, music that stalks you on one note, while weird and worried sounds tinkle above them behind mournful, mostly spoken, slightly sung, vocals.

The effect is sometimes nightmarishly eerie, like music of the undead, as in ‘Sonnenbarke’ or ‘Alles’. And sometimes it is caressingly lewd, like in the cool and creepy smoothness of ‘Die Befindlichkeit des Landes’, or in the title track with its increasingly evocative chant of the title words, interspersed with stretches of total silence, leaving your heart beating as you wait for the music’s fingers, half hot, half cold, forever erotic, to brush over you again, until eventually its spell is broken when a whole crowd chants the words at you, no longer sensual, but banal and cheap and voyeuristic, and you are left feeling that the lights have been turned on, breaking the darkness, breaking the silence, and you have been caught in the most compromising of compromising positions.

Even the more upbeat moments, like the short and wry ‘Newtons Gravitätlichkeit’, or the brusque ‘Zampano’, punctuated by sharp rapid-fire metal percussion, sound spooked because of what surrounds them.

And when noise does burst in, it bursts in with spectacular grotesquery, like it does in the middle of ‘Redukt’, where the shouts and smashing metal, which burst every now and then into nervous quiet of human self-contemplation, sound like a vile, vicious slave-master whipping his hordes on and on, like a death march that is already dead.

Silence is Sexy is in fact two discs. The first ends with ‘Total Eclipse of the Sun’, which even with its soft, if somewhat barren and empty, string harmonies, still manages to sound eerie, with chilling percussive keyboards that sound like hollow human bones tapping together in the night.

The second is devoted to a single work, the 18 and a half minute ‘Pelikanol’, where a slow vocal chant, repeating the whispered incantation “Nur zur Errinerung: Bittermandel/Marzipan/Pelikanol” (Just for remembering: bitter almonds/marzipan/school glue) over and over, above a sinister ostinato beat from metal strips, breaking glass and a droning electric drill motor, creates a chilling, horrendous world, hideous and hushed like everything else on this album, but conjuring up images of bizarre Kafkaesque insects buzzing around you, of freakish screeching, of a hell that holds you in its grip, like you are dirty dancing with the devil. Here the sexiness of silence has become repulsively seductive. It must surely be one of the most frightening things I have ever heard, and yet I couldn’t, just couldn’t, turn away.

All throughout this album, there is the blend of the conventional with the unconventional, of guitars and drums with television sets and rubbish bins. And then these musicians make it all sound like nothing else you have heard before. Even when the sounds themselves are not that strange, they sound strange.

Silence is Sexy is an incredible testimony to Einstürzende Neubauten’s seemingly bottomless pit of creativity, and of their ability to make the unmusical musical, the ordinary extraordinary.

I'm sorry, but I just don't understand why countries spend millions of their currency on enabling centuries old families to live in opulent palaces where they do little other than make small talk with world leaders and have sex scandals, nor why some words still get bleeped out of TV shows that allow all kinds of violence and human exploitation through the keeper unchallenged, nor why Einstürzende Neubauten are not everyone's favourite band.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The innocent allure of Lou Reed's 'Transformer'

I remember, when I was about twelve years old and even more naïve then than I am now, how much I blushed when my cousin showed me the cover of Lou Reed’s Transformer. It’s not that I had any moral objections to a photo of a man with an exaggerated erection in his jeans, it’s just that I never expected to see it on a record cover, and especially not in the presence of my cousin.

Still, I understood little about the underworld in those days, and even less about its role in music. At that age I had scarcely progressed from Rolf Harris to Beethoven in my musical development.

But as I listen to the music of Transformer again today, there is still just a little part of me, deep inside, that wants to blush. At the risk of describing this music with a totally absurd oxymoron, it seems to me to have a kind of innocent sleaze about it – music that strays into the dark and seedy part of town without ever having meant to go there, and then finds itself irresistibly drawn to its shadows and sordidness.

It’s a world of sex and sexuality, of drugs and dingy nights; but it’s a world that is presented to you unadorned, told with a naïveté, a simplicity, in music that sometimes dances along to a merry rocking jing-a-ling, like in ‘Hang’ Round’, or else has an oomp-pah jollity to it, as in‘Make Up’, or a merry sing-a-long bipping and bopping, like in ‘Satellite of Love’, or in music that just flows along as easy as pie, while giving you a sleazy wink of the eye, as in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.

Not that these songs are just simple little ditties with rude words. There is often a subtle, undercurrent of irony here, which, when you sink yourself into it, can become almost disturbing in the way that it relaxes so easily into its own uneasiness. Listen, for example, to ‘Perfect Day’, a song that would be kind of nice, if kind of corny, if it was really about the simple things it at first seems to be about but which, when you realise that it’s actually about heroin, is one of the most heart-wrenching things you will ever hear.

It’s this interplay between sunshine and shadows, between simplicity and seediness, between ease and sleaze, that makes Transformer so darkly alluring, music that beckons you to join its game before telling you that the gambling stakes are going to be your very soul.

It was surely a towering achievement that Lou Reed, on this his second album, was able to achieve such a subtle balance of colours and moods in his music, music that does so much while pretending to you that it is doing so little.

I no longer blush when I see the cover of Transformer, just maybe feel a little embarrassed that a man of my age can still feel the urge to follow where its music wants to take me.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A three cornered world - The Melody of Rhythm

With the ever-so-slightest hint of encouragement from Jenny O (see comments, 30th January), and then more earnest encouragement from my nephew and my boss, and despite more fervent attempts at dissuasion from almost everyone else I know, I have been teetering on the edge of getting a banjo for a couple of weeks now. But since PBS included The Melody of Rhythm, a fascinating triple concerto for banjo, double bass, tabla and orchestra, as one of their feature albums last week (which I bought today), there is now little more than a bee’s dick separating me from a purchase which, I fear, everyone within earshot of me may soon come to regret.

It reminds me of one day, about 23 years ago, when I was so bowled over by a recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, that I went out and bought a cello in the hope that I might learn to play that goose-bump-inducing opening.

It has been a different journey with the banjo, however. Until very recently, I had thought of it as a colourless, characterless instrument. It didn’t seem to have much by way of a range in pitch, and even less in dynamics. But then, listening to it a little more carefully, hearing it blending with the likes of Gillian Welch and Neko Case and Eels, and Middle East and Mumford & Sons and, of course, Sufjan Stevens, I have learned that what I had once dismissed as a lack of personality was in fact just a very clever, and very dry, wit.

And when it’s played sensationally, its notes picked out at the speed of sparks crackling off a fire in the American Wild West, as it is in the hands of Béla Fleck, you can’t help but marvel at what this instrument can do. And when you partner it with the gruffness of a double bass, and the exotic earthy percussion of the Indian tabla, you find bits of the world coming together in ways that even the most optimistic musical diplomat would have never thought possible.

But The Melody of Rhythm was not an easy album to find. With Béla Fleck on the banjo, and Edgar Meyer on bass, it could easily have been in the jazz section, and with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the classical section would not have been too much of a long shot, either. But with Zakir Hussain on the tabla, and with such a cosmopolitan infusion of sounds throughout the music, I thought the world section would have been the best bet. But I in fact found it in the country section, the last place I thought to look, despite the unmistakeable bluegrass influences throughout.

'The Melody of Rhythm' is in fact the name of the three movement concerto which is the centrepiece of the album, both thematically and in its place on the disc itself. It plays like a spirited dialogue between the orchestra and the trio of musicians, each bouncing ideas off one another, building them and elaborating them, at times speaking over each other, at times one finishing the other’s sentences. It hovers between eastern and western tonalities, bluegrass and jazz rhythms building the bridge between the two.

In some ways, the banjo seems to dictate the pace of things in the first movement, the double bass in the more lyrical second movement and the tabla in the more percussive finale. But always the three solo instruments play as a family, all so different in personality and yet all very much from the same gene pool. Their diversity is alive and vibrant in the solo passages, their commonality in those of the orchestra.

The playing is phenomenal. The banjo and tabla play like twins, their frenetically fast beat in perfect sync, one with the other. The bass bursts with life and colour, stretching itself to new limits, sometimes giving a kind of jazz swing beneath the bubble and boil of its siblings, sometimes veering off on its own lyrical journey.

On either side of the concerto are three pieces just for the trio, all derived from, or somehow connected to, the music of the concerto.

‘Bahar’, ‘Out of the Blue’ and ‘Bubbles’ all help set the stage for the bigger orchestral work, building the tonal world, and letting us hear just what incredible voices these three instruments have.

The three pieces that follow the concerto, ‘Cadence’, ‘In Conclusion’ and ‘Then Again’ are a little more adventurous, more unconventional in their musical flavour, playing even more outside the instruments’ comfort zones than in the earlier pieces.

The Melody of Rhythm is a wonderful, superbly constructed musical journey – a journey that shows you sights that you might never have taken the time to notice before, and lets you see just how interesting and colourful they really are.

Now I can’t wait to get a double bass, some tabla, and an orchestra, and play the whole thing myself.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Missing Melbourne's sludge - Grey Daturas

As far as I have been able to ascertain, Australia has not been particularly big on the experimental music scene and, while I am more than happy to be corrected on that, it’s nevertheless still a great shame that Melbourne-based noise-rock trio, Grey Daturas decided to call it quits just a few weeks ago, after nearly nine years of very interesting music.

Their music has feet in a number of experimental camps – there’s a bit of drone there, a bit of noise-rock, a bit of pure avant-garde experimentalism, a bit of heavy metal, and a bit of a whole lot of other things that probably don’t have names. The music is essentially improvised, building dark layers of sounds from low riffs that tramp and clump through thick mud, pounding percussion that crushes rather than beats its way through the music, and a cacophony of electronic noise that enfolds everything, and you, in a nightmarish ambience. Amps and microphones are as much a part of the musical ensemble as are guitars and drums, with feedback and static noise and looped echoes all contributing their own extra coatings, sometimes caked in sludge, sometimes wrapped in barbed wire, to the music.

Grey Daturas’ final album, Return to Disruption, captures all of this. Its tracks more or less alternate between heavy drone-laden epics and shorter, noise-based, tracks that create a sense of space to the album, a sense of walking through different places. Some of those places, like the opening ‘beyond and into the ultimate’ seem to be packed with dense, raging volcanic fire, spewing out electronic lava at lightning pace, even while the inert drone of down-tuned bass guitars grumbles below. Other places are desolate and spooked, like the short title track, with ominous deep drums beating quietly in the dark, and eerie metallic clatter reminding you of things that go bump in the night. You wander amidst frightening screeching sirens in ‘balance of convenience’, and through a long, dark passageway, with low drones for walls, in ‘answered in the negative’, where the music’s deep and drudging guitars riffs keep pushing you further, with more power and more momentum, while your heart thumps to a terrified and terrifying beat. ‘undisturbed’ is anything but undisturbed, with electronic creaks and shrieks, and a slowly beating drum, like primeval pain has been awoken from centuries of sleep beneath the earth. The places into which ‘demarcation disputes/unity’ and the closing ‘neuralgia’ take you are dark and menacing, with sound that builds from emptiness, and from a quietly pulsating beat, to a creeping upwards little riff that repeats over and over, and grows more and more confident, and weaves in amongst music that ends up so thick that it could be made out of molten lead.

Return to Disruption is scary music but it’s music that is worth getting scared for. It uses the raw elements of some of music’s darkest genres to build its own unique and powerful sound. You need to play it in the dark, on a night when everything else is still and when you don’t mind too much about freaking out the neighbours.

I saw Grey Daturas performing in Geelong not long ago, when they were supporting the sensational Lightning Bolt (see 30th November, 2009) at the Nash. While Lightning Bolt were the main attraction that night, Grey Daturas were sensational to watch, and to hear, too – the way they hunched into their music, building sounds that deepened into one another, swirling and black, each musician moving from guitars to drums to amps throughout their long single track performance. I certainly had no idea that that was to be the last time that I would see them and, if I had, I would have thrown myself at their knees and begged them to stay.

But, as it happens, Grey Daturas have called it a night and, while Return to Disruption, is a sensational way to say goodbye, I am certainly very sorry to see them go. Horror movies are going to be a poor and puny substitute.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Popping with Pop Levi - The Return to Form Black Magick Party

If you’re born with a name like Pop Levi, as Pop Levi was, then chances are that you’re going to become a pop singer. But chances are that you are going to want to rebel against the expectations a bit too, and, if you do end up becoming a pop singer, you’ll probably be a fairly unconventional one.

And that’s exactly what English born Pop Levi did. Not that his passage into a music career was an easy one, despite learning the piano at three, singing in a gospel choir at seven, writing his first song at 12, and playing with a few semi-successful bands here and there as he grew up. He eventually launched his solo career in 2007 with his fantastically zany debut album The Return to Form Black Magick Party.

It’s an album that seems to dance and prance its way in and out of a whole heap of musical genres, affectionately poking fun at all of them, sampling bits of boogie here, bits of glam rock there, a touch of blues somewhere else, a bit of folk, and even a bit of experimental noise thrown in every now and then.

The Return to Form Black Magick Party bursts with energy – explodes with it, in fact, right from the opening ‘Sugar Assault Me Now”, which really does make you feel like you have just had some intravenous red cordial.

The songs bop and hop with dazzling, zesty sounds, heaps of instruments, most of them played by Pop, all tripping along to a solid beat that sweeps you up and swings you around. It makes you dizzy and then it makes you giggle.

The songs are full of catchy little hooks, but always with little twists in them, as if the music is almost a parody of itself at times. Pop Levi’s chipmunkesque voice gives you the vague feeling that it might all be just a dream – but it’s a brilliantly happy dream and you certainly won’t be in a hurry to wake up from it.

‘Blue Honey’ has some wonderful blues riffs chugging through it, while ‘Pick-Me-Up Uppercut’ sounds like it’s on amphetamines, out to score for the night, never mind who or what. ‘Skip Ghetto’ is quieter, slower and, with strummed guitar and meandering flute, could almost bring a tear to your eye, even while you find yourself wondering if there’s maybe a hint of mockery in its sweet pathos. But, then you’re back in the 50s, tarted up for the noughties, with the rock n roll swing of ‘Dollar Bill Rock’.

The strange and spacey ‘See My Lord’ morphs into the solid blues rock of ‘Hades’ Lady’, an ode to the femme fatale, an anthem to seediness, with a dark, jaunty 2/4 beat and jangling keyboards.

The album closes with the more wistful and poignant ‘From the Day That You Were Born’, like a song the Beatles might have written, had they grown older, and sadder, together.

The Return to Form Black Magick Party is an album that shows just how interesting pop can be, if you bend and stretch its edges a little. Its music is a little like a small child who wants to taste everything sweet and colourful on the table all at once and who, while becoming maybe a little hyperactive, and behaving a little oddly, as a result, nevertheless ends up being the life of the party.

Belated thanks to PBS for another great discovery.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Recovering in Los Angeles with Flying Lotus

In my younger days, when I could go to dance parties without a total loss of dignity, I was intrigued by the whole concept of “recovery parties”. I imagined that they would be quiet little things, where people sat around in cool, dimmed, well-aired rooms on nice comfy lounges, sipping orange juice, chatting about nice gentle things, maybe with a little bit of Enya in the background.

Of course, they were the absolute opposite – they were crammed, hot venues, where people looked as tragic as they felt; with drag queen make-up running from bleary, dilated eyes down surly, smoke-stained faces; body hair already poking through unclad torsos that were at least ten years older now than they were five hours earlier; the smell of beer, already stale before it was poured, wafting amongst the pong of every imaginable, and unimaginable, bodily fluid; and, of course, music, just as loud, just as raucous, just as far removed from the whole concept of “recovery” as the head-banging (for me) hardcore (for me) stuff that had already destroyed everyone’s eardrums the night before.

Well, at least that’s how the music seemed to me back then, back in those days when anything that wasn’t written by Wagner or Mahler all sounded the same. In fact, though, I now have no idea what music they played at those “recovery” parties, but if I was organising one today, the first album that I would reach for would undoubtedly be Los Angeles, the 2008 release from Steve Ellison – better known, at least to his record-buying followers, if not to his Great-Aunt Alice Coltrane, as Flying Lotus.

As soon as Los Angeles begins, with its crackles and pops of old vinyl, and its pulsating chords in big soothing harmonies, you find yourself slowing down. And it’s an album that somehow manages to keep you there, even when its pace becomes more frenetic, and its sounds and textures more eccentric. The music’s electronic swirls and flows and bubbles and squeaks create a wonderful fresh, chilled ambience, held together by beats that seem to be built from bits of South America and bits of Africa, soothed and smoothed by cool air, and a cold cocktail, mixed just right. It’s like you are swimming on an ocean floor, where strange, exotic creatures and colours abound, sliding and slithering around you.

Throughout the album, there’s a nice mix of sounds. The pitch slides or jumps from one note to the next with an ease that belies the originality of the music – music where all that’s conventional in tonality and harmony seems to have been long since forgotten, and instead a hypnotic dreamworld, where everything is strange, and yet all of it has its own inner sense and logic, has sprung to life.

The music blends effortlessly from track to track, taking you on a musical panorama that spans from the gurgling effervescence of ‘Breathe. Something/Stellar Star’, where something like random handclaps are scattered amongst a cool, sliding fizz of electronica, through the plodding tread of ‘Camel’, with its exotic metallic sounds against a soft, subdued harmonic hush; and the tribal vibrancy of ‘Hot’ where sounds pound and throb in a kaleidoscope of primal electricity, as if Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps has been remixed for a laser show on a stage where people dance with one foot in the future and one in prehistory. There’s the smooth shake of ‘Parisian Goldfish’, swimming around an energetic tin can sort of beat; the breezy, distant reverie, like a song interwoven with gangly electronic tentacles, in ‘RobertaFlack’; and ultimately the quiet, childlike hum of ‘Auntie’s Lock/Infinitum’, where the music puts its feet up, and quietly goes to sleep.

Even now, well into my musical renaissance, I don’t know a lot about dance music, but I know enough to know how alive with originality Los Angeles is, how hypnotic its sounds are, and how its rhythms and endlessly, but seamlessly, changing colours and textures have a strange ability to energise you and to calm you at the same time. This really is music to recover to.

Discovered over the Polyester Records sound system one day, not long ago, when I really went into the shop to buy something else entirely.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A beacon for dark nights - Lamplight

New local music is always a wonderful thing to discover and so, even though Brunswick-based folk-rock ensemble, Lamplight, has been together for a few years now, I only first discovered them a few days ago when, once again thanks to Melbourne’s 3 PBS FM Breakfast Spread, I caught a track from their self-titled 2008 album and was left breathless by the rich, expansive splendour of their sound – music that seemed both grand and intimate at the one time.

A little bit of internet surfing put me onto Vitamin records and, before morning tea, I had ordered a copy of the album, which arrived today.

Lamplight produce a sound that is difficult to describe – it has the warmth, the sincerity and the unpretentious flow of folk, but here it is dressed in opulent strings and keyboards and drums, acoustic and electric, giving the music a feeling of space and size that you don’t normally associate with folk, but still retaining the sense of closeness and camaraderie that you don’t normally associate with prog rock.

The array of musicians that have been assembled for this album pretty well constitute an orchestra – but not one that is there just for a big sound. Rather it is used sparingly, its different bits and pieces used only when they have something to say, a colour to add, a texture to lay.

Lamplight takes you on a journey across the seas – but they are human seas, and the ships that carry us across them are small and vulnerable, built from each of our dreams and hopes, our search for love, and our search for a place to rest.

But the journey is a rough and dangerous one, the seas are littered with sharp debris, and the hope and belief in love that the songs try to hold onto is always shaken by something bigger, and more ghastly, right from the moment that human dreams are first launched to the dark harmonies of the album’s opener ‘Ship in a bottle’.

‘A sun that will not rise’ takes us into a realm of frustrated hopes, but it’s a realm met by music that feels ready to do battle with the elements that threaten it, with strident strings and piano and percussion.

Nowhere are the seas more brutal than in ‘Swallowing the key’, where inanimate darkness banters with turbulent, tumultuous electric violence, battering you around, to images of “Volcanic vomit, charred and charcoal comet .. Crater in the earth, shallow grave rebirth”. Or there’s the more haunted ‘Image house’, where we watch clouds that “are fighting out in the sky .. And the sparks they make hit the ground and fly”, to music that bawls in dark, storm-laden skies, with creepy, wavering vocals and wailing electric guitars.

But the music seems to take a turn into calmer waters when it starts to acknowledge its own defencelessness, its own need for a haven. In ‘Capsize’, we see that ‘this oar cannot move all the water’, and the grandeur of the music seems to rest in the recognition of what lies around it, with Kirsty Morphett’s voice finding its strength not in the defiance that we heard from Mijo Bisan in the earlier tracks, but in resignation. The purely instrumental ‘Amour’ that follows is not a romantic, rosy picture of love, but sad and wistful, its solo violin singing a song of almost medieval heartache and loneliness.

Solace and hope, if they are found at all, are found in the fullness of what lies around us, as in ‘Time is now’, where we “soak the warm, cool sunrise .. It’s all you have in this rolling moment”, to music that finds here a sort of meditative peace that it has not known until now.

But ultimately love, if not the belief in love, is lost, and in the soft, sad ‘One piece to you, one piece to me’, the treasure of love is left at the bottom of the sea, still beautiful, but now left for each person to carry one piece each, as each goes their own way to music that wavers between moments where it is achingly fragile and others where it finds strength beyond itself, and grows, a little sadder, but a little surer, than where it started.

The images of the intimate human heart, and the vast sea and sky, are always entwined with one another on Lamplight. And the music captures the interplay with breathtaking beauty. Its eight tracks are generous, full, rich pictures of a tragic voyage doomed from the outset to shipwreck. But because there is a power and an expanse here that goes beyond the experiences of lone souls, you are left feeling, even when everything comes to ruin, that the sea, and the music, will somehow bring you to shore.

Thanks to Jenny and Matt at the PBS Breakfast Spread for bringing this unique, this hauntingly beautiful album to the morning airwaves.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Two chiles and a child - it's all voodoo to me

Feeling a little more prolific today than usual, and realising that I blogged yesterday about a track that paid tribute to other music, when I hadn’t even blogged about the original, I thought I would take really lash out and write a second post today.

True, I did mention Jimi Hendrix some months ago (see 22nd September 2009), and you can go back and look at that post at your own (and my) risk if you want, but the music that was the focus of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s tribute from yesterday’s post was one of the really iconic guitar solos of all time, for some people rivalling even Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain (see 20th November 2009): Hendrix’s Voodoo Child.

Now the first thing that gets confusing about this music is just what it’s called and what version of it you’re talking about. First, there’s the 15 minute blues jam, which appears as the fourth track on Hendrix’s final studio album, Electric Ladyland. That’s called Voodoo Chile, a deliberate misspelling of “child” because that’s how Hendrix says the word.

But then, the final track on the same album is called Voodoo Child (Slight Return), with “chile” now deliberately misspelt as “child”, thus making it correct (confused yet?). That track is a bit over five minutes long and is quite different to Voodoo Chile, but based on essentially the same material. This is the version for which Hendrix is most famous, and to which Rodrigo y Gabriela pay tribute on their album 11:11.

Then there’s the almost nine minute Voodoo Chile Blues on the Hendrix compilation album Blues, which is essentially another (and obviously shorter) take of the 15 minute track that appears on Electric Ladyland.

Of course, he then went on to do different Voodoos live, including at Woodstock, some of which were recorded, but essentially these three are the main ones – at least as far as I can decipher.

If you start with the famous one – Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – you are starting in a good place. The guitar work on this track will leave you agog, with its amazing use of the wah-wah pedal, turning the guitar into another voice, with its bluesy-rock beat, its razor sharp edges, stabbing and twisting into Hendrix’s own harsh and battle-worn vocal line, and then wandering out into space.

There are some amazing riffs here, where the guitar pulsates on a note, turns around on itself, threatens to choke the music but really only incites it to become even more rebellious, soaring and searing in its own blood and sweat.

It’s an amazing sound and, for me, it felt like the music was striding along the edges of gutters, where America’s dispossessed sit with syringes hanging out their arms, and yet it refuses to be demoralised by the squalor around it, and instead shakes its fist at an unhearing heaven, and moves on.

Voodoo Chile is slower, more blues than rock. But the guitar still pulsates and stabs and twists, just as brutally as its successor does, and it still looks just as desperately at the skies that are still just as sullen, just as silent. But here the music allows itself more time to contemplate what it says and does, as if its stroll down streets littered with human pain is sadder here, if no more sober. There are times when the notes seem to hang in the air, or to be on their knees before you, crying in anguish; and there are times when they seem to be standing over you, Promethean and defiant. There are heart-torn heights and inconsolable lows. For me, at least, this is music that gets better the longer you have to listen to it.

Voodoo Chile Blues is very much like Voodoo Chile, but shorter and yet no less determined to wend its way into your veins. Both were recorded at the same session, both tell the same story.

A little over half way into each track, there’s a long, trembling, shaken note that eventually dies into the pit but then rises again, like a phoenix, from the ashes. The music sings its tragic song again, saunters along its harsh and alienated world, looks up and curses the sky again, and you know that ultimately nothing will ever really defeat it because, even when it is staggering on its last legs, and even when it is bloodied and filthy, it has a purity and an honesty that will always keep it going just a little bit longer.

And perhaps there is no greater testimony to the enduring power of this music than the way Hendrix was able to continually reinvent it and yet always it sounded like he was creating it for the first and only time.

And when all is said and done, it probably doesn’t matter how much you confuse the different versions – they’re all good, and they’re all worth listening to, and they all deserve to be on any list of the greatest guitar solos of all time.

Along with Maggot Brain, of course.

A rediscovered pearl - Janis Joplin

Having given my blog a bit of a makeover yesterday, and rewritten some of the bio bits, it occurred to me that one of the most important landmarks on my musical journey has been disgracefully ignored so far on this blog – Janis Joplin. I hardly took notice of Janis when my brother first bought one of her records back in the early ’70s. Things more or less stayed like that until about ten years ago, right when I was in the midst of drowning myself in Mahler and Messiaen, when I happened to hear again that amazing voice on a documentary about her life and death. And so I not only went out and bought some of her CDs but even re-watched Bette Midler in The Rose. I could have done without The Rose, it turned out – one of those movies which, at least for me, is never as good when you watch the second time. But I kept Janis and, even now, she just seems to get better and better.

Janis’s blues-rock is iconic – that raspy, guttural voice, plucking notes out of the dirt and grime of human pain, and turning it into a celebration of passion; that way she screeches and screams from the heights, the way she grabs the depths by the balls; the way her music builds its thrust, its fire, its nerves with each breath, swelling to an orgasm of intensity; the way her music is reborn with every note.

These are the things that made Janis Joplin so extraordinary, the things that sent audiences aghast when she first started singing to them in the ’60s, but arguably there is nowhere where she really captured the essence of her style like she did on her album Pearl, still incomplete at the time of her death in October 1970. Here on Pearl, with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, she seems to have at last found a band that understood the importance of being her band, rather than of her being their singer.

But it’s not that it’s just a backing band. You just need to listen to ‘Buried Alive in the Blues’ – left without Janis’s voice when her death, the day before she was due to record the vocals, intervened – with its deep, funk-driven bass and its wild electric guitar and organ, punctuated by keyboard blues, to see how well this band understands the place where blues and rock intersect. Rather, it’s a band that provides just the right space in which Janis can breathe and create, because it knows that that’s where its energy comes from too. It’s a band that has an ego, but an ego that grows out of hers.

Pearl abounds with moments that make you think that music should only ever be performed like this – raucous and raw, music where the musician’s innards pour out at you, music that might well cut you to pieces if you stand too close to it.

There’s the way Janis builds to the visceral howls of ‘Cry Baby’; the laid-back, worn and torn roughness of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’; there’s the way the sweet opening of ‘Trust Me’ becomes harsh and anguished, like from a woman who has known too little trust.

But perhaps the most telling moment on Pearl, the moment that seems to capture so much of who Janis was, is the lonely, unaccompanied, unadorned ‘Mercedes Benz’, speaking to you in all its honesty, even while it staggers along, half on show, half hidden away in private, like a shy, slightly awkward, slightly bold, schoolgirl in front of a class, singing a song she has made up, not sure if people will admire her for it, or laugh her out of the room. Of course, they did both to Janis, and 'Mercedes Benz' is a gruff, cynical little song which, in less than two minutes, seems to capture so much of the emptiness, the false promises, of the capitalist way, of the world of rock and, as it turned out, of the life of Janis Joplin.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A hair-raising ride with Rodrigo y Gabriela

One of the many great things about music is the way musicians can constantly surprise you with their capacity to make extraordinary sounds out of things that you thought were familiar. Einstürzende Neubauten do it with scrap metal and power drills, but Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela do it with a couple of acoustic guitars.

Their guitars might still sound like guitars, but only insofar as the bodies of Romanian gymnasts still look like bodies. Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero make their guitars contort and leap and spin and skip and trip and twist in ways that guitars are just not meant to be able to do. In the strong and supple hands of Rodrigo and Gabriela music becomes not just an art, but a power sport, too.

Rodrigo y Gabriela were originally famous for their covers, but their latest release 11:11 is made up entirely of original material. And yet the album proudly displays its influences, with each track dedicated to another musician, and each track reflecting something of that artist’s work, transformed into the unique flamenco/rock/folk/metal fusion that makes the music of Rodrigo y Gabriel so unique, so distinctive.

And so the album opens with ‘Hanuman’, dedicated to Carlos Santana, and bursting at the seams with those energetic and stupefyingly complex Latin rhythms. From the opening bash of chords, you know that here the guitar is as much percussion as it is melody.

Not surprisingly, ‘Buster Voodoo’ is dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, where snippets of Hendrix’s iconic ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, mixed in with bits of screeching acoustic feedback, are taken and converted into something that would be called Latin Blues Rock Acoustic Metal, if there was such a thing.

But most of the music on this album can’t really be called anything, because no one has ever quite done any of it before.

Rodrigo y Gabriela’s own musical heritage is rooted firstly in metal, and certainly they have retained that intensity, that inclination to shun anything that sounds like a gap, a pause, a bit of wasted space. The music is often hard and edgy, holding you by the throat even while it summonses you to dance.

But the music here is also full of a diversity of texture that you don’t typically associate with metal, and that Rodrigo y Gabriela achieve only by investing it with the richness of their own culture, like the infinitely changing Latin hues that flicker and glimmer in ‘Triveni’, where the music seems to subtly change colour every time you look at it. ‘Logos’ begins to sound like Metallica played over Bach before it eventually trails off onto its own gentle, amiable melody and leads you straight into the leaping rhythms of ‘Santo Domingo’. You can taste the East in ‘Savitri’, with its frenetic dance to the Hindu god of the Sun.

But there are slower, gentler moments, too, like ‘Chac Mool’, where the guitar’s hesitation is more like music holding its breath than music taking time to rest, until it allows itself to breathe just a little before exploding into ‘Amam’, a track that sends you wild with its energy, celebrating the Sanskrit word for the only deathless part of the human body, and eventually joined by the blood-letting electric guitar of Alex Skolnick, leaving you feeling like really might be invincible.

The album’s title track is its last – dedicated to Pink Floyd, and bringing in the sophistication of prog rock, picking out forlorn melodies above the beat, but spicing it all with the flavours of a Peruvian cajón, a box drum made out of wood and slapped with the hands and then eventually adding a lonely piano just when you think the music has faded away.

11:11 is an endless journey of surprises, where there are sharp turns on hair-raising bends, exhilarating dips and impossible climbs, everywhere along the road, but where nothing slows down and you just hold on tight and revel in the thrill of it all, and you find yourself trusting the skill of who’s at the wheel and you just let yourself gape and gawk in wonder at the endless range of new bits of scenery that you get to look at.

Monday, February 8, 2010

By the grace of Jeff Buckley

I decided today that a change of pace was called for and that, after exploring the uncharted territory of music’s most extreme outer limits with Einstürzende Neubauten twice over the last week, something more mainstream was in order – if only to prove that even the more mainstream can be remarkable. And so today I turned to one of the greatest classic albums of all time: Jeff Buckley’s Grace.

From the moment that Jeff Buckley’s heart-drenched voice oohs its way into your soul at the beginning of the album’s opening ‘Mojo Pin’, and then floats into heights that make you cry, raining soft tears onto you, you know that this is going to be an amazing album. His is an astonishing voice, capable of conveying a whole human soul just in the way it wavers around a note, the way it trembles around a beat, the way it pours out everything it has got.

Jeff Buckley is, of course, a legend – and it could be tempting to say that his tragically early death has perhaps become as integral to that legend as the music itself. But when you listen to Grace, you become quickly aware that this music that was always destined to be extraordinary.

Listen to that album’s title track, and to the way Jeff Buckley’s voice wails and cries and then screeches and then, in the song’s chorus, just when you think it has wrenched every bit of pain out of you, it descends down a notch, as if the music itself is sobbing, breaking and bleeding your heart just a little more.

There isn’t a single track on this album where Jeff Buckley’s voice doesn’t sound like a miracle. Like his father, Tim, he has this remarkable ability to produce music that seems to ooze naturally out of every pore of his being. It can be quiet, hauntingly sad and desolate, like in ‘Lilac Wine’; it can howl with all the guts of rock, like it does in ‘Last Goodbye’; but always its rich textures, its profound musicianship, come to you as pure heart, untainted by the music, or the voice, of mere mortals.

You get a bit of a glimpse of how he achieves this when you listen to ‘So Real’, and notice the way the voice trails off onto notes that seem to be plucked out of the ether, as in the title line – notes that surely have come out of the singer’s soul, rather than just from a page of notes. Everywhere you look, Jeff Buckley disregards the conventions and stability of music for the sake of its core and its soul. He makes the music say what the inner depths of his heart want to tell you.

His rendition of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, soaring in a bare celestial falsetto, is almost too beautiful to listen to, like the song of an angel mourning in private after learning of the death of her most treasured human life.

The arrangements on Grace work like a charm with the full-bodied voice of its singer. They are arrangements that become whatever they need to be to echo whatever Jeff’s voice is doing at the time, like in the tentative, trembling guitar work in his famous cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’; or the way the gentle, unobtrusive backing grows into a heartfelt chorus, with guitars and drums swelling with Jeff’s, his wails reflected in theirs, in ‘Lover, you should’ve come over’; or the way pounding guitars and drums underscore Jeff’s shrieking rock in ‘Forget her’; or the haunted, ghostly repetitions on the electric guitar, creating a mystical sea of sound on which Jeff’s voice floats and pitches throughout ‘Dream Brother’.

There is just not a bad track here, not even a mediocre one – and, more than anything, that’s because of what Jeff Buckley does with the music and with his voice.

It can be very easy to fall into clichés with an album like Grace – to wonder what might have been had its creator not died so young, and to muse about how special it is because he did. But ultimately it’s the music itself that makes this album the phenomenon that it is – music that takes you off on its cloud of beauty and pain, of passion and heartache, and leaves you floating up in the heavens long after it has left you.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Industry for the noughties - more Einstürzende Neubauten

I try on this blog to keep my choices of music diverse – partly in the hope that it will keep you reading it and partly because that’s kind of its point anyway: to show the richness and marvel of music in all its variety. And so, if it was a little wayward of me to blog on Iceland’s music both yesterday and the day before, it must be positively mutinous of me to blog again today on the same band that I talked about only a few days ago (see 3rd February): Germany’s Einstürzende Neubauten.

But I’m justifying it on two grounds. First, they are just so good – easily my most significant musical discovery since I first plunged into the music of Björk (there we go – Iceland again) about eight months ago. Second, their latest (2008) album, Jewels, is just so totally different from their first album, Kollaps, the focus of Wednesday’s post, that it’s almost like listening to a different band anyway.

But only almost. There’s still the metallic clang of bits of scrap metal, still the abrasive noise of industrial tools, and still, of course, the endless commitment to experimentation and to creating music out of the unmusical.

But, whereas the sounds of Kollaps were mostly savage and severe, the uncompromising sounds of a huge factory banging away, or the stark desolation of an empty warehouse, Jewels is a much more mellow affair – gentler sounds, not so much with the rough edges smoothed out, but rather with the sharp bits scratching their way into you covertly, instead of slashing you to pieces in one blow.

The concept behind Jewels is as fascinating as the music itself. The band’s front man, Blixa Bargeld, assembled a set of 600 cards, all with little phrases on them indicating different, usually enigmatic, musical ideas – ideas that had arisen in one way or another from any of the band’s preceding oeuvre. The phrase could be as vague as “here and there”, or clearer, like “on the third beat”, or more directive, like “stomp”. For each of the album’s 15 tracks, each member of the band would take a small handful of the cards and use them as the basis for creating their own particular contribution to the piece. Usually, no one would tell the others what was on their card, but would interpret the phrase in a way that would inform their music, allowing them to build ideas from the ideas and then ultimately to integrate them all into a cohesive piece, where the four musicians work as one, despite the different and random directions they were each coming from.

So, when Blixa draws the cards “motor” and “spring” and “noise gate” for his part of ‘Epharisto’, he decides to muffle an electric drill with a glove, and run it across a huge metal spring; in ‘Die Ebenen (werden nicht vermischt)’, Rudolf Moser’s card “something for everyone” becomes a carton of beer bottles, turned into surprisingly haunting music just by having an air gun blown across them, punctuated with Blixa’s dropped aluminium rods (“aluminium” and “do not play” and “inorganic”) and underlined by Alexander Hacke’s Brazilian drums (“to cut the top”) and by Jochen Arbeit’s finger bells (“a small object”).

It’s the sort of thing you find a lot in avant-garde music – different ways of including the elements of chance, and of each musician’s own choices, as equal partners in the music’s creation. But, of course, interesting musical ideas are useless if they don’t produce interesting music. In the wrong hands, it can be ridiculously gimmicky, and can go disastrously wrong. But in the hands of Einstürzende Neubauten, with their long tradition of being inventive and of exploring the outer reaches of music’s no-go zones, it is really just another creative extension of their normal modus-operandi.

And so, from the opening of the album, ‘Ich komme davon’, with its hisses and metallic squeaks, you know you are on industrial territory and you stay there, even when the piece's Brecht/Weillesque rhythms and vocals join the fray.

Jewels is full of Einstürzende Neubauten’s distinctive use of sound, albeit more subdued, less aggressive, if no less haunted, here than before. Huge, ominous percussion, dull and dead, beats beneath the surface of ‘26 Riesen’. There’s the deceptive gentleness of ‘Hawcubite’, eerie in this context, with its little clinking bin and metal disc, making the catchy melody only all the more creepy. Water drips give a hint of a gentler, more hospitable, world to the stark coldness of ‘Jeder Satz mit ihr hallt nach’, while an air compressor on a corrugated wall, together with an amplified bass-piano-string-chitarra, creates a softly menacing undertone to ‘Magyar Energia’, with its chanted vocals, coming from a dark, primal world. Even the more conventional instrumentation of ‘Am I only Jesus?’ sounds other-worldly here, with its microphone percussion, zither, and spooked vocal harmonies.

Jewels tiptoes in the dark and sinister places that Kollaps stomped through – but, in a way, it is only all the more spine-chilling for that. But, however you experience this album, the intensity and wealth of its invention are what strike you first, and what leave the really lasting impression on you.

Even whispered in the dark, this music resonates with its originality and vision.