Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Age, adventure and accessibility in music ... what direction are we going?

Well, once again, it's good to be back and, while I have been listening to some great music over the past few days, I thought that instead of writing about that at the moment I would rather talk about an issue that has been playing on my mind a little for some time - the question of how musicans seem to change the style and flavour of their music over time.

In classical music it is pretty well axiomatic that composers' later music is more adventurous, less conventional, than their early music. The early music of people like Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, even Mozart, is much, much simpler, easier to understand, even easier to listen to, than their later work, which generally breaks more rules, explores more uncharted territory, and is more innovative and daring.

And yet in non-classical music, it seems, more often than not, to be the other way around. Bands start out breaking all the rules, creating and playing music that respects few if any boundaries and then slowly, over time, their music becomes more mellow, more accessible, more 'popular'.

Of course, my own knowledge of the whole vast non-classical domain is still very scanty and it's likely that for every example I could cite of musicians moving in one direction, someone could cite examples of others moving in the other. And yet it's a trend that seems to be prevalent enough and wide enough, at least in much of the music I have been listening to, to have made a impression on me. I look at bands like my beloved Einstürzende Neubauten, the music of Sonic Youth, Flaming Lips, Hunters & Collectors, Swans, Muse, Tori Amos, Diamanda Galás - and, for the most part, their earlier music seems more uncompromising, more "out there", than their later work.

Obviously, there are exceptions - musicians like David Sylvian and Scott Walker, for example, and even to some extent Björk, who have done some incredibly daring stuff in their later albums. But they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

I'm not sure why this is and, while it would be tempting to ascribe it all to the pressures of commercialism, and the need to produce music that sells, I'm not sure that that explains it totally. A band like Einstürzende Neubauten, for example, never seem to have been particularly fussed about commercial success and, at any rate, great artists - which many of today's musicians clearly are - can never really stem the flow of their creative juices, no matter how strong the pressure to make a buck might be.

Even Wagner, who was as easily seduced by the lure of a few extra Deutsch Marks as anyone could possibly be, and who decided to temporarily abandon his massive, epic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and to instead put his energies into something that would bring in some money and to therefore write a popular romantic opera ended up in fact writing Tristan und Isolde, a work that has been credited with revolutionising modern harmony, and turning music into an entirely new direction forever.

So, what is it that drives these changes in style and appoach in today's musicians? How big a part does the demands of an increasingly commercialised music industry really play, or is it just that we now live in times where we become more mellow, rather than more daring, in our old age? Or to people just run out of new ideas?

Or have I got it all wrong anyway and is the real story that today's musicians, every bit as much as yesterday's, still do become more adventurous as they develop and mature, and I have just been listening to the wrong stuff, or listening in the wrong way?

Thoughts would be very welcome ... !!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Feelin' good in The Promised Land with Lil' Band O' Gold

I will freely admit that I have been focussing on some pretty hard and heavy music over the past little while and so it seemed only right that today, just as I am about to vacate my blogging responsibilities yet again for another few days, that I at least leave you with something a little sunnier. And, as usual when I am trying to think of something new to turn my attention to, the 3 PBS FM Breakfast Spread has again come to the rescue with an album they have been playing quite a bit over the past few weeks – The Promised Land, a brand new release from Louisiana based swamp pop supergroup, The Lil’ Band O’ Gold – who, incidentally, are playing in Melbourne today at yet another gig that I failed to organise myself for.

I gather, from what I have heard and read, that every member of this band is famous for something or other in their different musical histories, with names like David Egan, Richard Comeaux, Dickie Landry, Warren Storm, CC Adrock, Steve Riley, Pat Breaux, Dave Ranson, Kenny Bill Stinson, Tommy McLain and Lil’ Buck Sinegal. But, needless to say, I haven’t heard of any of them and so have been in the rather delightful position today of being able to just sit back and listen to their music without having much of an idea of what to expect. Which made what I discovered only all the more wonderful.

The lively dancing rhythm and blues of the opening ‘Spoonbread’ take you right into the dance halls of rural Louisiana and that’s where you stay for the whole of The Promised Land, having a whale of a time, even when you are shedding a tear or two to ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’, or to ‘Hard Enough’, or even sobbing out loud to ‘Memories’(despite its unashamed sentimentality), made just that little bit sadder by the way the saxophone sings so inconsolably in the middle.

But the feeling that sticks with you most of all through this album is the unbridled joy that The Lil’ Band O’ Gold seem to have in performing it, adorning those earthy, rustic zydeco textures with the extra little bit of richness that comes when you add in a couple of saxophones and some keys, breathing new life and colour into old faded sepia photographs so that, even when it’s bopping and pounding to a rock beat, like it is in ‘Runaway’s Life’, it feels like it has transported you back right into the midst of times that you only know about from stories that your grandparents told you.

This is the music that you listen to when you’re having a bad day, and it will turn it into a good day; music that makes you feel all warm and good inside, like you do after eating macaroni cheese; music that makes you want to dance the old fashioned way and to dress up to listen to it; music that makes you feel all warm and nostalgic, like it does in ‘Dreamer’ with its old and friendly piano.

But don’t for a moment think that this is just a modern copy of old music, because it’s not. It captures a spirit, a time, a place, and delivers it to you, resurrected and amplified for the 21st century – like in the big and booming sounds of ‘The Last Hayride’ – from the hands of a team of musicians who clearly love what they do, and who love the roots from which they have sprung enough to keep them alive by allowing them to continue to bloom anew.

Wherever you are, wherever you’ve been, and wherever you thought you wanted to go, The Promised Land is a place in which you need to spend some time. It will do you good.

Thanks, as always, to Matt and Jenny on the PBS Breakfast Spread for their unerringly great choices of music to kick off the day and to fuel yet another little spurt of economy stimulating possibilities for me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A big comfy bed with bumps – Angels of Light and ‘We Are Him’

I don’t know if there is such a thing a country post-punk but, if there is, I think I have been listening to a cracking good example of it today. I stumbled across today’s music only a couple of days ago, when I was, not surprisingly, browsing through an Einstürzende Neubauten forum, seeing what other EN fans were listening to, and discovered a clip of a bloke called Michael Gira singing a song called ‘My Brother’s Man’, and was fascinated by its gritty originality. I did some research and pretty soon learned that Michael Gira had been dubbed the Nick Cave of America, that he had led an interesting experimental rock band called Swans, and then a somewhat mellower, but no less interesting, one called Angels of Light and that the song I had just listened to was part of their 2007 album, We Are Him.

So I went out and bought it and, while it doesn’t sound really anything like Einstürzende Neubauten, I can see why a follower would want to listen to this, too.

The comparisons with Nick Cave are perhaps a bit misleading, but not entirely. Listen to the way the vocals howl to command in ‘Promise of Water’, for example, against an unrelenting, slow, steady beat, or to the disgruntled grunginess of ‘My Brother’s Man’, the song that got me here in the first place, with its rich yet ruthless layers of sound, electronic noise whirring against heavy pounding guitars, or to the sick, hypnotic lure of Gira’s dark, gravel-worn vocals in ‘Not Here/Not Now’, and you feel some of that same animalistic grotesquery that Nick Cave is so famous for.

But there are quieter moments here, too – moments that almost border on being tender, like in the first half of ‘Sometimes I Dream I’m Hurting You’ – and, even though you feel it’s with poisoned lips that the music is kissing you, and even though the gentle moments always give way to the harsh ones, it has a subtlety that, for me at least, Nick Cave never really seems (nor wants) to capture.

Within songs, even more than between them, the music alternates between passages of full, strapping sound, like in ‘The Man We Left Behind’, elaborately orchestrated with electrics and acoustics blending like family, and moments that are more sparse and empty, a voice singing an almost conventional country ballad against an acoustic guitar strumming a few almost conventional chords.

But nothing’s conventional here and the originality of this music lies in the “almost”. ‘The Man We Left Behind’ is, after all, a song about addictions that still hold you and its overstated simplicity is really just a deception to make you think that its message is benign.

What you notice all throughout this album are the ways – the little ways as much as the big ways – in which things divert from music’s more well-trodden paths. Listen, for example, to the way the title song gives a droning, haunted hue to what would otherwise sound almost like gospel music, or to the twisted sarcasm given to the jaunty, jolly banjo of ‘Good Bye Mary Lou’, partly by the heavy thud of the beat beneath it, partly by the uncompromising bitterness of the lyrics above it (“Paint your face and sharpen your teeth. Choke yourself on ancient meat. Mary Lou – Fuck you”).

‘Star Chaser’ closes the album, sad and elegiac for something that is lost but that leaves demons not yet fully exorcised, as Gira’s final words “You live on in me …” are sung over and over in music that builds and builds, searching for a climax that it never finds and instead dies suddenly away, its unresolved passion left lingering in you, long after Gira and his Angels of Light have moved on.

The music of We Are Him is not difficult to like but that doesn’t mean that it’s straightforward. If anything, it’s its accessibility that makes it so interesting, so unique – music that gives a new twist on the familiar; music that looks like a big comfy bed but turns out to have a whole lot of sharp and bumpy bits in it that never allow you to really rest.

It’s all told in the album’s cover – a cute, brightly coloured painting of a cuddly doggy in a shirt and tie, and of pussy cat in a police uniform, surrounded by little birds and cakes and a teddy bear: it’d all be sweet and adorable, were it not for the bones, the gravestones and the ominous black raven that are there, too.

This music is a great way of discovering that the cosiness of country and the punchiness of post-punk are not really that far apart after all and, just as you discover dark things hidden in the uneasy quiet of Einstürzende Neubauten’s Silence is Sexy (see 17th February) so, too, do you discover them here in the shifting changing moodiness of Angels of Light’s We Are Him.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The sultry, surly sexiness of Lydia Lunch, 'Queen of Siam'.

As I go through this phase in my life where, it seems, all musical roads lead to (or, more often, from) Einstürzende Neubauten, it is perhaps not surprising that it was while listening to Kalte Stern, their compilation album of early recordings, that I first discovered Lydia Lunch, providing the weird and wacky declamatory vocals for ‘Thirsty Animal’.

It was an interesting enough voice, yelling and tottering on the edge between music and speech, to inspire me to seek out her debut solo album, Queen of Siam, released in 1980, amidst the New York aftershocks of underground no wave post-punk.

It’s hard to describe this music – identifiable perhaps more by what it isn’t than by what it is. In some ways it’s a kind of anti-music: slightly off-key, spoken more than sung, flirting with jazz and blues without actually really embracing them, let alone committing to them, while still holding onto its love/hate affair with punk, pretending to be its subservient, compliant slave, while all the time cheating behind its back.

You get the best sense of where this album is taking you in its opening track, ‘Mechanical Flattery’, sultry and steamy, where a kind of drug-fuzzed sexuality stretches itself out in front of you, seducing you and repelling you at the same time.

She whispers her way through ‘Gloomy Sunday’, making it sound utterly freaky, as if she is already halfway dead, leaving ‘Tied and Twist’, with its dirge-like pace and a melody that always falls off the note, to play at the funeral.

Things become a little more upbeat with ‘Spooky’, seductive and playful, but you can’t entirely escape the feeling that you’re playing with the devil and, by ‘Los Banditos’, you get the sense that the music is feeding you poison while it's swinging its hips in front of you.

So even when the music is lazing along in the doldrums, like in the menacing, strolling, omni-hating ‘Knives in the Drain’, it has a sordid sexiness to it, but it’s a sexiness that, even in its most energetic moments, like in the purely instrumental, jazz-tinged ‘A Cruise to the Moon’, is always more than just a little surly or, like in ‘Carnival Fat Man’, jaunty and grotesque, even downright rude.

The album closes with ‘Blood of Tin’, a short, crazed stream of (un)musical consciousness that goes nowhere, leaving the music, and you, hanging, wondering where you’ve been and where you are, unsettled and yet strangely lured into this weird, glazed-over world.

Queen of Siam is music that deliberately doesn’t fit in. It’s music that stands on dark street corners, on its own, homeless, half-dressed, half-naked. But don’t dare assume that it’s for sale or it’s likely to sock you in the mouth.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Armenian lament - Diamanda Galás and Defixiones, Will and Testament

Well, it’s nice to be back. And if there’s one good thing about neglecting this blog for nearly a week, it’s that it has at least given me time to find something that I really didn’t expect to find – an appropriate segue for last weeks Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. (see 18th March).

As I mentioned at the time, the highlight of that album was, for me, the devastatingly powerful ‘Armenia’. Blixa Bargeld himself once noted that Einstürzende Neubauten’s song titles often have nothing to do with the content of the song, and so I have really no idea whether ‘Armenia’ is about Armenia or not, but it was nevertheless enough to get me listening to Diamanda Galás’s Defixiones, Will and Testament, her utterly shattering elegy to the victims of the early 20th century genocide of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek people.

There are only a couple of degrees of musical separation between Einstürzende Neubauten and Diamanda Galás, both pulling traditional music to pieces and putting it back together again in ways that confront you, in ways that are meant to sound hard and unpleasant, both creating music by taking sound and voice to their most unmusical extremes.

While Diamanda Galás can certainly produce an awesomely good album of conventional(ish) songs (albeit it in a totally unconventional way) (see 19th October, 2009) she is surely at her best when she produces her single-vision works that take an idea, bash it and smash it and drench it of everything it has to give, and mould it all into a solid monolith of artistic brilliance. She did it in Plague Mass, her lament for the religious, political and social slaughter committed in world’s response to HIV/AIDS, and she has achieved it again in this, her indictment not just of the atrocities of one war, but of all the wars that raged then and now and that will rage into the future, where, be it by bullets or bombs or indifference, humans mutilate and massacre each other.

Defixiones, Will and Testament is a lament but, as you might expect from Diamanda Galás, with her terrifyingly gruesome voice, snarling at the bottom of the human register, screeching at its heights, and her pounding out of savage discords on the piano, there is not a hint of sentimentality here. The thousands upon millions of dead souls that cry out here are made strong in death, and they are relentless in their accusations not only of their killers, but of all of us who have stood by and watched them die.

The music itself is a chillingly effective mix of influences – everything from the traditional music of the lamented people through to avant-garde opera – Diamanda’s voice spanning its famous four octave range with the sort of commanding power that knocks you over from the moment you hear its wailing chant, as high as the sky one moment, as deep as the underworld the next, against a stony subterranean drone, in the opening incantation ‘Ter Vogomia’, itself the first part of the mammoth six part almost liturgical opening, ‘The Dance’, taking us into the very blackest heart of genocidal hatred and torment.

Diamanda’s voice moves from sombre chanting to half spoken recitation to mournful moans to gut-wrenching cries of anger and anguish, sometimes supported by her ferocious piano work, sometimes by that static, haunted drone, sometimes with the winds of uncounted years of unnamed deserts blowing, empty, in the distance, sometimes, like in the harrowing ‘Holokaftoma’, with the screams of what sounds like a whole race of slaughtered spirits.

There’s the sad, sorrowful song of a boys’ choir, singing excerpts of an Assyrian Mass against a recitation of martyrdom at the hands of Ottoman butchers in ‘The Eagle of Tkhuma’; the sombre drum beat of ‘Orders from the Dead’ pounding beneath Diamanda’s grim accusations from the slaughtered masses, “the man unburied who cannot sleep in forty pieces … the girl, dismembered and unblessed”. There’s the wild shifts of mood, from demented screams to listless quiet in ‘Je Rame’ (I row), and the way ‘Artémis’ seems to shift from a ghostly French torchsong, to an exotic middle-eastern lament and back again, giving way finally to a terrifying rendition of the American gospel blues 'See that my Grave is Kept Clean' – here human suffering is the same no matter where it happens, or who it happens to.

This is music which, with not all that many resources – a voice, a piano, and a handful of backing effects – sounds epic, colossal, partly because of the titanic power and range of Diamanda’s voice, partly because of the unbridled intensity of what she does with it, partly because of the way she turns the piano into an extension of the darkest depths of her soul, and partly because she has this astonishing knack of creating music that, even when it is at its most still, shakes you to the core, because you know that it is only lurking in the dark, waiting to pounce on you, like in ‘Birds of Deaths’ which howls out at you form the depths of its own despair, from its dirge-like chant, into passionate lament that grabs you by the throat, as if to ask you why you have allowed all this to happen.

Clearly, Defixiones, Will and Testament is not music to listen to if you want something to calm your nerves at the end of a stressful day. It is remorselessly brutal and grim. It is a eulogy, but it is also a lesson, a reminder that the blood of human atrocities is on all our hands when we stand by and watch them happen.

Defixiones, Will and Testament will take you into the very core of humanity’s darkest horrors, and its deepest suffering, but it is a journey you will regret taking only if you let it shake you without letting it teach you, too.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The art of madness - Einstürzende Neubauten's 'Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.'

I have been trying and trying to think of a rationale, other than that I just like them so much, for writing here about Einstürzende Neubauten for a record fourth time but, really, the best I can do is to say that I would be writing about them a whole lot more if I didn’t have to consider the strange, and for me totally incomprehensible, possibility that some people reading this might not be quite as enthused about this stunning band as I am. Truly, I could quite easily write an entire post about every track on every album, and still not feel I have said enough.

But as much and all as I have already said about Einstürzende Neubauten, it would be wrong not to at very least also focus on what is arguably their best work of all – their second full album Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. (Drawings of Patient OT), released in 1983.

Not quite as stark as Kollaps (see 3rd February), its predecessor from two years earlier, Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. is nevertheless a severe, gruelling piece of music and, every time you listen to it, it seems to dig a little deeper into the darker regions of the human condition, a little deeper into the pits of your own being. There might be hints of melody, even chord progressions, here – but they're rare and you can only decipher them by peering into the shadows cast by the music’s harsh, austere percussion from the trademark bits of industrial debris – scrap metal and power tools – and its creepy snatches and loops of recorded noise, and, of course, the insanely raw and wild vocals of Blixa Bargeld.

The Patient OT of the album’s title, and its seventh track, is in fact Oswald Tschirtner an Austrian artist who developed schizophrenia after serving in WWII, and lived as a psychiatric patient for some 60 years until his death in 2007. And certainly this music plunges right into the heart of madness – a madness that really does seem here to live and to thrive in the shadows of war: and not just the wars that nations rage against each other, but the wars that rage within us, too.

Blixa’s lyrics are unrelentingly nihilistic – full of images of savagery and death – but always brilliant in the ways they grab words and pull them apart and twist them around, deconstructing and reconstructing language just as the band’s sounds deconstruct and reconstruct music.

The album opens with the violent ‘Vanadium-I-Ching’, with smashing and clanging bits of metal against a gruesomely brutal heartbeat, pulsating in some dead-sounding industrial bass drum. It leads into ‘Hospitalistische Kinder/Engel der Vernichtung’ (Hospitalised children/angel of annihilation) with absolutely freaky child-like mutterings, like a nursery rhyme being sung from a lonely pit at the heart of insanity, ushering in more apocalyptic aggression, as the words fight their own demons: “und ich will nicht länger warten/Bis Gottes unendlicher Hoden/Endlich in Flammen aufgeht/Engel der Vernichtung/Engel der Vernichtung/Eingeschlossen in Schlafsaalträume” (and I will no longer wait/until God’s eternal scrotum/finally goes up in flames/angel of annihilation/angel of annihilation/locked in dormitory dreams).

‘Abfackeln!’ (Torched!) pounds with fury, Blixa’s famously raucous, screaming anger calling out for release by the burning of human souls through self immolation, while ‘Neun Arme’ (Nine Arms), creeps along in the dark.

‘Herde’ (herds), with its weird, course horn-like moans, and ‘Merle (Die Elektrik)’, with snatches of pre-recorded speech against saws and drones, helps set the stage, partly animalistic, partly freakily clinical, for the album’s title track, which rages in a chaos of industrial noise, and violent beats, freaked out, it seems, by its own self-exterminating bedlam.

This fever of noise falls and rises over the next few tracks, but it never really stops to breathe properly and then, just as you feel yourself swept up in its pace, almost at home in its crazed and crazy world, everything suddenly turns into an ice-cold black, and you are in the midst of what is surely one of Einstürzende Neubauten’s most stunning pieces of work, ‘Armenia’, with its unrelenting, pulsating drum beat beneath a choir of ghosts humming mournful phrases of an ancient Armenian folk song, echoing in a bottomless pit of darkness, with little snippets of metal clattering and clanging, infinitely lonely, and a power tool whirring somewhere in the background, cutting your soul into a million pieces, and Blixa crying out in the most blood-curdling screams you are ever going to hear, anywhere. “Sind die Volkane noch tätig?” (Are the volcanoes still active?) he asks, in the most haunted of whispers. Whatever the volcanoes represent – the destruction of nature, of humanity, of the mind – yes, the music answers, they are still active, smouldering in the dark.

‘Armenia’ has been recorded a number of times by Einstürzende Neubauten but I think the version that we hear on this album is the one where we hear it at its most spine-chilling, frightening, best. It is an utterly devastating experience.

A track like that is a hard act to follow but, here, it is managed perfectly with ‘Die genaue Zeit’ (The exact time), the final track on the original album (although not on the CD releases which invariably include a few bonus tracks). ‘Die genaue Zeit’ has a kind of barren, empty, cold feel to it, to words that describe a flat, sanitised world that has no soul, no character, no identity. ‘Wie spät mag es sein?’ (What time could it be?) the song asks, over and over, as Patient OT himself may well have done in the aftermath of a lifetime of numbing treatment at the hands of a dehumanising mental health system.

Over the past several weeks, I have found myself so bowled over by the eternally changing, always reinventing, creativity of Einstürzende Neubauten to the point where it is pretty close to impossible for me to consider that anything they do is less than perfect – but, still, even I will admit that even they probably never did anything quite as superb, quite as outstanding, as Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.

It is severe, savage music, uncompromising, challenging your senses, your brain, your soul at every twist and turn it takes down its hard, clamorous corridors. But if you want see how music can shake you to the core, and leave you aghast at its ferocity and power, built from the carnage of a factory floor, then Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. is the place to go.

By the way - I'm going to be away for a few days and am unlikely to be able to attend to the blog ... but I'm looking forward to sharing more music with you next week, upon my return. Remember - post something here, too, at any time, and let us all know what you're listening to!!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The free and vibrant spirit of Santana's 'Abraxas'

For someone like me, who is used to listening to music written by composers who died hundreds of years ago, forty years is not a long time in music – and yet, even so, it seems an awfully long time ago for something as invigorating and fresh as Santana’s classic second album Abraxas to have been produced.

Santana’s performance at Woodstock, which I saw for the first time last year when the 40th Anniversary DVD was released, was for me perhaps the most amazing part of a festival that was literally glowing in a psychedelic blaze of amazing parts – that energy, that vibrancy, that bringing together of cultures and genres, that sheer and unbridled joy in making fantastic music; all of that that was so bouncing and bursting with life on the Woodstock stage is captured here, too, on Abraxas.

Abraxas is largely, but not totally, an instrumental album and, at least for me, it exudes a wonderful sense of spontaneity, music that seems to be exploding out of the land in which it has gestated, land that just can’t contain that much energy any longer.

That land is, of course, a vibrantly multicultural one. There are flavours of salsa, rock, blues and jazz – the wonderfully earthy rhythms of congas and timbales, effervescent with energy; the rock driven electric guitar and the square, solid pounding beats of a rock drum kit; the cool vocals of Carlos Santana, the keyboards, taking on whatever mood or tone they need to, right from their opening flourishes, like an opening of a nineteenth century Piano Concerto, at the beginning of ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’.

There’s the sexy, seductive ‘Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen’; the jazz-infused ‘Incident at Neshabur’, with its eternally shifts and changes of beat; the fantastic fusion of North and South America in ‘Se A Cabo’.

Even in its slower moments, like it is in the smooth, serenading ‘Samba Pa Ti’, Abraxas has a kind of inner energy to it, that kind of joy and enthusiasm that you take with you into your dreams, long after you’ve gone to sleep.

Abraxas is understandably and justifiably recognised as one of the greatest albums of all time – arguably Santana’s finest moment, and certainly one of the most important contributions to what was then still an emerging new rock age. It allowed rock music to take risks and to embrace other worlds, to take its audiences to places they had probably never thought of visiting. Unfortunately, commercialism and big business stuck its nose in and, before long, this sort of free-spirited creativity, which let music breathe in new, different, open spaces, became more the exception than the rule.

If there’s a happy side to that tragedy, it is perhaps that it means that we have come to treasure Santana and Abraxas so much the more.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

... and replugged - P J Harvey 'Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea'

Well, we’ve now seen Thom Yorke the Radiohead frontman (28th September 2009) and Thom Yorke the soloist (yesterday), it seems only right that today I give some attention to Thom Yorke the backing vocalist. It’s kind of hard to imagine, I know, but when the person he’s backing is someone as sensational as P(olly) J(ean) Harvey then it’s hardly surprising that even someone of his stature is more than happy to be in the background.

P J Harvey’s album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was released in 2000, and it’s music that goes into those dark and dirty crevices of the human experience, music that pumps with its hard headed beats, music that has had everything good and bad and ugly driven through its veins.

Her disaffected, howling good voice comes at you, gloves removed, right from the opening ‘Big Exit’ and straight away you know that this is a voice, and that this is music, not to be messed with. It’s hard, and it has lived hard but, precisely for that reason, you know it has a lot to tell you, and that there’s a lot you can learn from it.

Listen to ‘A Place Called Home’, and you will see how beaten and broken a voice can be, and yet still have guts, and even a heart, at its core. Even in its gentler moments, like those in ‘One Line’, with piano and marimba, only seem calm because they have managed to smooth over for a while the urgency and unrest that lies beneath them.

There’s ‘Beautiful Feeling’, dark and moody, P J Harvey almost chanting at times, alongside Thom Yorke, his voice respectfully mirroring hers. But it’s really only ghosts mirroring ghosts and somehow you can’t entirely escape the feeling that P J Harvey is at her best, and her most honest, when she’s angry and disaffected, like she is with a vengeance in ‘In The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore’ where she sings “speak to me of heroin and speed/just give me something I can believe”, almost as if she was coming forward to the footlights, giving you the moral of the album.

Thom Yorke comes to us full bore in ‘The Mess We’re In’, his voice sliding into his falsetto stratosphere as hers muses and reflects, hurt and bitter, around him – both of them, it seems, resigned and resolved to their forever crumbling worlds.

But this is P J Harvey’s album, not Thom Yorke’s, and her place here is in the limelight, and nowhere more so than in ‘Kamikaze’, surely the album’s wildest moment, where her voice screeches at heights almost too extreme for humans to hear, music that has become crazed and defiant only because it has been hurt just once too often.

And so, in ‘This is Love’, we don’t have a skerrick of tenderness but, instead, all the guts of the very best blues mixed with all the grit of the very best punk. This is love unromanticised, “my dirty little secret”, sordid, seductive.

The gears, if not the course, change for ‘Horse in My Dreams’ – music that is now mournful, a dirge, where a piano tolls its way through, grim and deathly, as Harvey’s voice, saturated with world weariness, drags itself from note to note, raising itself a notch only to have the gravity of its own torment yank it back down again.

Perhaps there a kind of bleak, begrudging resignation in the closing ‘We Float’ – just as there was in ‘The Mess We’re In’ – a steadiness in the beat, an almost learned helplessness in the words (“One day we’ll float/Take life as it comes”). But it’s all told to you by that stark, warn, troubled voice which, even in its bleakest, most defeated moments, you know is never really going to lay down and die.

Thom Yorke’s presence on three of this album’s 12 tracks is crucial, and adds just the right amount of ghostly chill to this harsh, harrowing music. But Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is P J Harvey’s music and, even with someone of his stature holding her hand from time to time, these streets, smeared with all the grit and grime that those stories dump upon them, belong only to her.

Belated thanks to Marty W, who told me about five months ago what a fantastic album this is.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Radiohead unplugged - Thom Yorke's 'The Eraser'

While, as with so much of the music I have written about on this blog, I was an embarrassingly late bloomer in discovering Radiohead so late in my life (see 28th September 2009), it took me only five minutes from seeing what a great band they were to see, too, what a great solo performer their lead was.

Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, is in some ways a safer album than much of what Radiohead have produced, less erratic in its moods, more unified and predictable in its tones, while in other ways it takes more risks, relying much more on spacey, almost experimental, electronic sounds, where strange an unlikely musical colours are not so much juxtaposed, as blended.

But here, as with Radiohead, it’s Thom Yorke’s unique and wonderful voice that makes the music so instantly recognisable as his work – not just because of how the voice sounds, fragile and wraithlike, but also because of what he does with it, floating it in the sky, dragging it in the gravel, a voice that strays far enough away from the note to sound slightly disembodied, other worldly, but not so far as to lose its spacey musicality.

The Eraser is an album drenched in melancholia, and you feel it from opening title track, with Thom Yorke’s slightly eerie, slightly ethereal, falsetto, wafting, trying to find a home within the gentle, heartbroken beats of the piano.

The sadness of the opening track stays with you for pretty well the entire album, but with a voice and a musicianship as rich as Thom Yorke’s, it takes you through many shades, and talks to you in many tones – whispering sometimes, like it does in the pensive, self-reflective ‘Analyse’, muttering in resentment other times, like in the darkly brooding ‘Black Swan’.

The music behind the voice is every bit as interesting and, despite its first glance appearance of sameness, every bit as nuanced as the Thom’s voice. Listen to the way a piano chimes and bleeds tears into the otherwise sure, square beat of ‘The Clock’, held together by droning bass, almost medieval, and then to how that same drone returns, transformed in ‘And it Rained All Night’, like there’s a plane coming in to land, ominous, in the midst of a midnight storm where the notes, like the music’s tonality, are pelting down, splashing up for a second or two, and then hitting the hard, dark pavement again.

Or notice the way the sounds become more spaced out in ‘Skip Divded’, where the synthesized, synthetic electronic sounds bubble and burp around Thom Yorke’s voice, more disgruntled and unsettled here, until in ‘Atoms for Peace’ a kind of comfort seems to blend in with those spacey, dislocated sounds, almost bordering on, without quite crossing into, hope.

The last two tracks bring a kind of richness into the mix, with the sound of sustained strings, like twilight on the sea, mixing with the nervous electronica, and the ill at ease beats, in ‘Harrowdown Hill’ – stings that in the closing ‘Cymbal Rush’ have melted into sad, open harmonies, now more like the sea than the twilight, as if the music is now coming to you from underwater, already drowned, while Thom Yorke’s voice cries its tears from somewhere far above.

The Eraser is not just another Radiohead album – it has its own distinctive flavour, focussing, as it does, on its own patch of ground – and yet it would not have been possible without them, as Thom Yorke himself acknowledges in the album’s liner notes. As such, it is as much as a testament to the collective skill of the band as it is to the individual skill of its lead.

But, apart from all that, The Eraser is just great music – music that twangs at your heart, but, thanks to that strange, unearthly voice of Thom Yorke, still leaves you feeling that, even when you think you’re submerged in sadness, there’s something holding you, keeping you afloat.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Industrial cello - Iannis Xenakis

Industrial music, with its blurring of the lines between what we traditionally call music and what we traditionally call noise, has been phenomenally important in expanding the territory on which musicians can create their art. As tempting and all as it is for me to go on and on, yet again, about the way Einstürzende Neubauten has demonstrated this in their use of unmusical things to create music of staggering power and originality (see 17th February, 10th February and 3rd February), I thought today I might instead focus on the way the same boundary has been transgressed from an entirely different direction, through the unconventional use of an utterly conventional instrument in the solo cello music of Iannis Xenakis, turning one of music’s most romanticised and softly beautiful instruments into a source of savage violence, aggression and grit.

While Xenakis, the experimental Greek composer who died in 2001, doesn’t really sound anything like Einstürzende Neubauten, it’s not at all surprising that they cite him as one of their most important influences. He, just like them, created music from scratch – breaking down all the conventional structures and rules and, like the architect that he was, and the anti-architects that they are, builds something new and different and endlessly interesting out of all the bits and pieces of rubble that are left after the demolition of everything has gone before.

Xenakis wrote two pieces for solo cello – Nomos Alpha, written in 1966, and Kottos, in 1977. For someone like me, who first really noticed the cello, and fell in love with it, through hearing the autumnal, elegiac beauty of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, these pieces by Xanakis couldn’t possibly be further removed from what the cello had come to mean. Here it no longer weeps with tender-hearted poignancy; it doesn’t sing, drenched in noble emotion; it doesn’t flow in a smooth, calm legato. Rather, it screeches, it screams, it crashes, it bashes; it is percussive and brutal; it has no regard for its own, or your, safety; it takes itself and you and music to limits where you feel that all three might break and never be able to be put back together again.

There are parts of Nomos Alpha that sound more like an electric guitar than a cello, with screeching high notes, like some demented, drug-affected bird from another planet, swapping places with droning bass, sliding and skidding, hitting notes that have no name, no place on the conventional western musical scale. There are moments of frenzied chaos, where it is impossible to believe that it’s only one four string instrument making all that noise, and that there’s not an amp somewhere nearby spurting out electronic feedback.

When this was written, in 1966, no one had ever heard the cello sound like this before and, even now, it’s remarkable – fierce and frightened, music where melody and harmony are dismantled and replaced with grabs of sound and noise, each creating its own unfathomably deep chasm of darkness or its own piercingly, blisteringly, bright shaft of laser light. For some stretches the cello’s bottom string is tuned down an octave, giving it a bizarre, droning, watery sort of sound, adding to the whole creepiness and alien feel of the music.

Kottos is no less savage, opening with a fierce, angry snarl at the bottom end of the cello’s range, which builds to a harsh percussive music that dominates most of this piece, scarcely relenting its ferocity, even when the beat moves into the cello’s usually brighter upper register: here, everything is coarse and jagged, like barbed wire.

The cello music of Xenakis, like the rest of what he created, is not comfortable listening. It’s music, like that of Einstürzende Neubauten, that could not have been created other than in a time when humanity had developed an unprecedented array of technologies for making things that destroyed and needed to be destroyed. And it’s the remnants of their destruction that makes this powerful, gritty and daring music not only so good, but possible in the first place.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A welcome ghost from the past - Jimi Hendrix 'Valleys of Neptune'

A new Jimi Hendrix recording, forty years after his death, is not something that anyone can easily ignore, especially when it boasts 12 never-before-released tracks, and so it was understandably pretty difficult for me to walk past the displays of Valleys of Neptune in the local CD shop today without grabbing a copy.

Valleys of Neptune really is a new album, and its 12 tracks really are previously unreleased. They’re all studio recordings and all, with the exception of ‘Mr Bad Luck’ and ‘Crying Blue Rain’, which had their bass and drums recorded and added some twenty years later, are original recordings that have just never made it onto the commercial market until now.

There are not really a lot of surprises here but, with Hendrix, you don’t need any because what he does is just so good, and there’s just so little of it available, that even more of the same is like gold, even if it does take forty years for it to arrive.

Pretty well everyone in the world knows Hendrix a lot better than I do and so anything I say is going to be at the risk of sounding hackneyed and superfluous and yet, even so, the impression that his music has on someone discovering it for the first time is like nothing else – and so, in that sense, this album is going to be almost as big a treat for others as it was for me.

The album has some fantastic tracks on it, full of those long, intense interludes where Hendrix withdraws into his guitar and into music where the very guts of who he is are laid bare, with all their blood and blisters, far all the world to see and to share. You just can’t listen to this music without a bit of you bleeding and blistering with him.

The title track is a stunner – its easy, laid-back flow embellished with that trademark guitar work that trips and skips along, blithe despite its heaviness, through the beat of the music.

And there’s ‘Bleeding Heart’, where the guitar really does beat and bleed, as if it was made of flesh; or ‘Hear My Train a Comin’’, with that blazing blues rock that Hendrix did so well, the guitar screeching and wailing at the upper ends of its range, Hendrix playing the notes as if they are coming from somewhere inside him, which in some ways is exactly where the guitar always was for him. How else could he find those impossibly difficult notes and still make them sound so innate, so unaffected? It is, incidentally, a great track to play to anyone who thinks that Hendrix couldn’t sing.

There are the sensational syncopated rhythms of the cover of Cream’s ‘Sunshine of your Love’, first in the guitar, which in time gives way to some ostinato percussion and then returns to do its devilish dance of seduction, pouring out all its lurid, gritty sexiness.

‘Red House’ begins gently, tenderly almost, falling into a strolling, sauntering beat where the guitar almost whistles as it goes along. But it whistles through cut, charred lips, eventually building up its own momentum, its own voice, telling its own story, tragic and impassioned, as if the music has stopped strolling along and is now huddled in a corner somewhere, crying and anguished.

It’s all vintage Hendrix – whether it’s the stream of consciousness guitar line in ‘Lover Man’, the sturdier rock beat in ‘Ships Passing Through the Night’, or just that jaw-dropping way he turns a screech into a wail when he takes the note down a notch, like in ‘Fire’ – and every bit of it is worth the wait.

Valleys of Neptune might be everything you’d expect it to be – and that’s exactly why it’s so, so good.

Friday, March 12, 2010

East meets West - Japan's 'Tin Drum'

Having spent a bit of time here over the past week or so talking about experimental music in all its different shapes and sizes, I am reminded of how much I’ve neglected the work of David Sylvian on this blog. Other than talking about his beautiful if relatively conventional (relative being the operative word there) Secrets of the Beehive some months ago (see 4th September 2009), he has really not had much of a look in here at all.

It’s a pretty serious omission, really, not just from someone who claims to have a penchant for the strange and daring in music but also simply from someone who claims to enjoy good music, whatever its form.

David Sylvian has done a lot throughout his music career and, while some of his later solo work is really interesting, and certainly well worth the extra bit of effort you might need to put into it to get to understand and appreciate it properly, like his most recent album Manafon or its predecessor Blemish, both kind of art-rocky albums that use improvisation and experimentation to slowly build their fascinating worlds of sound, much of his earlier work, particularly with his band Japan, is every bit as worthy of your time.

There’s little disagreement that Japan’s greatest moment was their last: their final studio album Tin Drum, released in 1981. It uses strange sounds playing in strange tonalities, tunes jumping in strange intervals to strange rhythms, all coloured by the rich and velvety voice of Sylvian himself, to produce a wonderful musical landscape where oriental and Western worlds have been melded into one – exotic, exciting, extraordinary.

The oriental flavours in Tin Drum are created, as you might expect them to be, by drawing on some of those most instantly recognisable aspects of Japanese and Chinese music – the use of the five note pentatonic scale, the leaping melodies, the distinctive instrumentation with its characteristic reliance on tuned percussion.

Listen to the way these elements come together, and how creatively they’re developed and mixed and built upon, in ‘Canton’, for example, or how they’re pulled apart and reassembled to create a whole new sound, the future growing out of the remnants of the past, in ‘Visions of China’.

There’s the slightly tender, slightly haunted, world of ‘Ghosts’, where strange, spacey electronic sounds, still plucked, it seems, from the pentatonic scale, tip-toe along, sending weird and wonderful sparks of sound ricocheting off one another; and there’s the jaunty opener, ‘The Art of Parties’, where dance music is turned into high art, with beats playing off each other in all directions while the melody line, where notes jumps to and from each other at impossible intervals, mixes in and becomes its own layer in the rhythmic hype, just as it does again in the closing ‘Cantonese Boy’.

Tin Drum is a great example of the ways that music can do what politics, diplomacy, and bombs have never been able to do – the bringing together, the melding together, of cultures and identities into something that reflects the individuality of all its elements, while blending them into something that, in itself, is new, exciting and rich. Almost thirty years after its release, Japan’s Tin Drum still sounds new, and still has a lot to say.

My thanks, yet again, to Marty R for the recommendation.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shoegazing in the depths of a dead sea - The Besnard Lakes

If there’s one thing that can take on as many shapes and moods and nuances as music, it would surely be the sea. And just as we saw the sea yesterday, through the music of The Beachniks, bathed in sunlight, sea spray blowing onto the shore, today, in the Canadian shoegaze band The Besnard Lakes’ new release, The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, we see it submerged, dark and murky, in the shadows of a black sky.

If the album cover is anything to go by, with its image of a night set ablaze in balls of fire, this music is not meant to be giving you a sanguine, pretty view of things. And certainly its ten tracks, building rich soundscapes of dark harmonies and tones, with layers of eerie electronic sound, guitars riffing with a kind of gentle anguish, sad pianos, piercingly high falsetto vocals, create a creepy, ghostly world where everything feels it could be on the edge.

And yet the music’s dark ambience is neither depressing nor menacing. There’s a sadness, a melancholy, here, but not a fury. It’s as if the earth, and its vast oceans, turned black with the ashes of human negligence, are shedding their own tears rather than raging a fight of retaliation.

Listen, for example, to the gentle melancholy of the opening two-part ‘Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent’ where, out of a dream-like nothingness, we hear the sad echoes of something already lost, across vast, calm, but infinitely sorrowful waters; or to the sense of mystery in the dark rumblings that open ‘Land of Living Skies’, again in two parts, morphing into a haunted, caressing song with soft, tender vocals, hurt but still beautiful.

The closest the album gets to anger is perhaps in the strong, strident beat of ‘And This Is What We Call Progress’, but even that leads into ‘Light Up the Night’, soaring like a passionate elegy over massive chords, heroic even in defeat.

The album closes with ‘The Lonely Moan’ – which, still rich and spacious, really does conjure up images of a lonely, unfathomably vast sea and yet not one so much that drags you down into bleak and ominous depths, but rather one on which you sail away, sadly, alone, but somehow at rest.

There is a strange and wonderful beauty in this album’s sadness, perhaps thanks to the way it paints its pictures, dark as they are, with such love and affection. If The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night takes you on a journey, it’s a slow and pensive journey – one where you stop to look at the skies, set alight by fire rather than by sunshine but which, even so, are beautiful; one where you sail across seas that are dim and lifeless, but that still contain the memories and souls of a million years, many of them magnificent and grand.

This is intensely introspective music – it shows you a big view of the world, but through very personal eyes. It strolls along in that ambient, shoegaze sort of way, dense with sound, one thick moment blending into the next.

The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night is not music to dance on the beach to – you’ve got the Beachniks for that – but if you want to submerge yourself in the ocean’s darker depths, this is the album to take you there.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reggae on the smell of salty air - The Beachniks

I’m sure I’ve commented here before how one of the wonderful things about music is its inexhaustible ability to surprise you. Whether it’s through musicians who do things in completely unexpected ways, and they turn out just right, or whether it’s simply by finding something wonderful that has been there for years and you just didn’t notice it, music really is a bottomless pit of riches.

Of course, for me, those discoveries and surprises are coming thick and fast with so much music - even music that everyone in the world, except me, knows - being unknown to me until now.

But one band that I discovered purely by a chance chat over drinks the other night has been one of the more delightful of those discoveries – Victorian surfcoast-based Beachniks, with their debut album from 2002, The Many Moods of the Beachniks, and their follow-up Trombone Bay, two years later.

You’d expect music from the surfcoast to be pretty breezy, to have the smell of salt air in it, the feel of sand in its toes, and the taste of a cold beer on its palate. The Beachniks has all of that, but that’s only a very small part of the experience of this band’s music, which brings a much more cosmopolitan experience to the beach. There’s the cool breeze of reggae there in Murray Walding’s rhythms, waves of jazz infused brass from Jeff Raglus’s trumpet, and an easy pop flow in his vocals; a jiving, funky undertow from bassist Evan Jones.

The debut album’s many moods are all bathed in sunlight, sometimes sheltering a little pensively in the shade, like in ‘Auntie Jean’, sometimes out there dancing in the cool glow of a summer sunset, like in ‘The Mountjoy Parade’; the lumbering laziness of ‘L.A.G.O (Late Afternoon Glass Off)’, with its laid-back rhythms, its settled, not-worried-about-anything bass, roused with a drink or two from the brass and Randall Forsyth’s guitar.

Trombone Bay takes you a bit further afield, with some more spacey, psychedelic flavoured music, like in ‘Crater 41’, and ‘The Rhyll Thing’, with electronics that take the ocean across to other galaxies; or there’s the brief but beautifully pensive ‘Gellibrand Quirk’, with its soft, sustained harmonies pulsating beneath a sad, romantic trumpet that holds you in its arms while the waves wash around you; and, of course, there’s the sensational title track, with boppy Latin beats and a trombone that laughs and sneers and sings and dances and does a whole heap of things that I never knew a trombone could do.

It’s great to see music as original and as likeable as The Many Moods of the Beachniks and Trombone Bay coming from local musicians (well, local for me, anyway) whose main aim is simply to create good music, fusing genres and then putting their own stamp on it – music that brings bits from this or that corner of the globe, and beyond, and mixes it all with some of that sea air, with that special smell to it, that blows in from the ocean, only between Queenscliff and Apollo Bay, and only when the wind is just right.

If you get a chance to catch the Beachniks sometime, it’ll be worth it – wherever you are, and however far you have to travel to get there.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Crossing the line - Boulez conducts Zappa

One of the best things about experimentalism in music, like experimentalism in most things, is the disrespect for boundaries. Even if it means venturing into ugly, dangerous, or even just drab and boring, territory, the willingness to venture into unchartered places always raises that eternally exciting possibility that something new and wonderful will be discovered.

It’s refreshing that there are skilled and daring adventurers to be found in pretty well all musical genres, but what is especially interesting, and especially exciting, is when a couple of them, wandering outside their own respective home worlds, happen to bump into each other, and put their heads together, as Pierre Boulez and Frank Zappa did when they collaborated on Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger.

Pierre Boulez is one of the most important, and in some ways one of the most serious, of modern classical contemporary composers. He brings a whole lot of elements into his music – electronics, pre-recorded tapes, expansions and contractions of sounds and speeds, conventional instruments, unconventional instruments, mathematically ordered notes, controlled chance – all meticulously structured with the sort of pure mathematician precision that we have probably not encountered in music since the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Frank Zappa, who had absolutely no respect whatsoever for any musical boundaries, and who seemed to have left his mark on pretty well every bit of musical territory, was probably most of all at home when he was carrying bits of dirt from everywhere and building his own unique bit of land, eccentric, cynical and satirical and serious all at the same time.

Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger is the result of these two iconic musical innovators coming together and, while all of the music on this album is written by Zappa, it would be a mistake to understate Boulez’s influence on it. Boulez was obsessive about precision in music – both in what he wrote and in what he conducted and, on this album, thanks to that obsession, and the amazing meticulousness of his orchestra, the Ensemble InterContemporain, we hear a level of detail and intricacy in Zappa’s music that we may easily miss on a lot of his other recordings.

Boulez in fact commissioned the title track, which opens the album. As with all Zappa’s descriptions of his music on the album, there’s a pretty absurdist type of scenario given in the liner notes for this piece, giving you a bit of sense that maybe it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously. But, whatever story it’s meant or not meant to tell, the music itself is fascinating, with different tones and colours swapping with one another, orchestral instruments often pushed beyond their usual range, brass sliding, woodwind screeching, percussion tinkering and sparkling, strings shimmering, rhythms shifting ground every few seconds. It all would seem chaotic, were it not being created by such inspired musicians as Zappa and Boulez, who manage to weld all these strange strands into something weird, yet oddly cohesive, with its strange splashes of colour and its odd convergence of lines, like a painting by Jackson Pollock.

‘Dupree’s Paradise’ has heavier moments, along with more readily recognisable Zappa-esque rhythmic work, where the piano is brought into the fold, with jazz-like chords and syncopated rhythms pitted against a dark-toned orchestra, in a piece that pays tribute to society’s outcasts and misfits, gathering in a bar on a Sunday morning, in music that shows how, together, they can all belong and, even in the darkness, radiate their own colour.

Four of the album’s seven tracks actually don’t use Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain at all, but instead are performed on Zappa’s Synclavier, or his ‘Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort’, as he calls it. It’s probably better to get Wikipedia, rather than me, to explain exactly what a synclavier is other than to say that, as its name might suggest, it’s a kind an electronic synthesizer sort of thing.

It produces some incredible sounds, like in the dark and haunting music of ‘Outside Now Again’, part harpsichord, part marimba, part drums, part organ, a reworking of the guitar solo from ‘Outside Now’ from Zappa’s amazing opera(ish) Joe’s Garage (see 13th September 2009)

Even darker is ‘Jonestown’, a work that drones and clangs in the aftermath of global death, electronic sounds creating an eeriness and sense of doom, infinitely more apocalyptic than the religious dogma, in the name of which so many lives have been lost.

When a musician like Frank Zappa, who never seemed to take himself or anyone entirely seriously, collaborates with a musician like Pierre Boulez, who always seemed very serious indeed, the results are bound to be fascinating. And, here on Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, they certainly are. It shows that the line between the serious and the cynical, just like the line between the classical and the non-classical, is never as sharp as we sometimes think it to be.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Arise ye workers from your slumber - The Internationale

It is Labour Day today in Melbourne and, while it is nothing short of an outrage that I have so little proletarian music in my collection, at least there are 32 different versions of The Internationale floating around in my iPod – and what better way to mark today than to listen to that great battle hymn of the working classes in languages ranging from Arabic to Zulu?

The words of The Internationale were originally written in 1871, in French, by Paris revolutionary, Eugène Pottier, its music written in 1888 by Pierre De Geyter, a Belgian-French socialist composer.

Since then, it has been translated into the languages of pretty well every country where working people struggle against exploitation and oppression. It’s something of a testimony to the universality of music, as much as of the proletarian cause, that this fairly straightforward march-like song, rallying the masses to join its ranks and fight the last decisive battle, has been able to blend into so many different cultures, taking on something of their flavour while holding to its own instantly recognisable core.

Anyone can, and does, sing The Internationale. Folk singers can sing it with an acoustic guitar; a bunch of workers can sing it, marching along the street; a mass choir can sing it with a huge orchestra pulling out all stops. It’s interesting to see how the different versions take on these different characters. My French rendition, from Rosalie Dubois, is as gutsy and guttural as a cabaret song; Cuban workers sing it as if it’s a victory dance being played on the streets; the Russians sing it like a holy hymn, choir and orchestra massed together like only the Soviets could do it; Billy Bragg turns it into a 60s protest song, even though he actually sang it in the 90s; the Germans sing it, more than anyone else, like a march; there’s a smoothness to the Hebrew version; an avant-garde sort of jauntiness in the Japanese version; the Welsh saturate it in harmonies; the Hindi version is almost gentle, a song of passive resistance more than of revolutionary battle. The Tuvan throat singers change it completely into a sort of primal chant; there’s a cool, dance-like flow to the Greek version, while in Arabic it has a kind of exotic tint to it, in a version that you could almost see Sheherezade dancing to. The Koreans and Romanians sing it like an anthem and the Kurdish version, with its hand drum beat, really does sound like it has come from the hills; the Yiddish version is bare and unadorned, while there’s an Estonian version that is almost like symphonic metal; the Zulu version is sung a Capella, still somehow embedded with African rhythms; the Swedish version is surprisingly grand, with bass drums and brass pounding away beneath a massive choir, while the Thai version sounds like it’s coming from a lonely hill in the mist. There are others there too, of course – Turkish, Catalan, Hungarian, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Finnish, Vietnamese – but you get the drift.

Of course, some would say that The Internationale was never meant to be listened to just as music – that it’s an injunction to arise from apathy and fight for justice and equality. But then music is never really “just music”. It always inspires something in you, if it’s half decent. It might inspire emotions, thoughts, memories, hopes, ideas or, of course, action. But there’s always something in you that is somehow just a little bit different after you have listened to good music.

When you listen to all these different versions of this simple, marching anthem, and reflect on how it has found its way not only into so many nations but into the very heart of their working class cultures, stirring them to make the music their own, and respond to its call to raise the clenched fist in the name of universal humanity, then you begin to see that The Internationale really is very, very good music indeed.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The ambiguities of music - early krautrock and Can's 'Tago Mago'

When Tricky’s trip hop took us yesterday into such unexpectedly dark and menacing places, without losing a skerrick of its composure, I was reminded yet again of how wonderfully multilayered the moods and shades of music can be. Music seems, like no other form of human expression, to be able to capture so much, so many things, all at once, to breathe hot air and cold air onto you in the one breath, to soothe you and unsettle you with the one handstroke, to arouse you and poison you with the one kiss.

These ambiguities and strange interactions occur in all of music’s cultures and periods and genres but, arguably, those musicians who have played with their art on the edges of convention, the experimentalists in music, have often achieved this in the most stunning and striking ways. Not that all experimental music is about creating those ambiguities but, when experimental music does it, it often does it very, very well.

Which leads me to today’s music – the 1970s Cologne-grown krautrock band, Can and their classic 1971 release Tago Mago.

A predecessor to my now obsessively-compulsively favourite musicians, Einstürzende Neubauten (see 17th February, 7th February and 3rd February), Can use music, where weird electronic sounds fuse with more conventional instruments, to create and sustain finely nuanced moods, but moods that always feel just a little out of the normal scheme of things, like what you might feel in space, slightly disembodied, slightly other-worldly. It creates a strange effect on you, one part freaky, one part soothing and, here on Tago Mago, Can exploit to the full their ability to play with your senses.

When the album opens with ‘Paperhouse’, the music could almost be mistaken for conventional rock, with its guitar riffs, singing and screeching above a steady, forceful beat – but, when you start to see the ways the music builds upon its elements, taking a fragment of a phrase here, or bit of a beat sequence there, and uses them as little bricks that, replicated, build the real structure of this music, you realise that there is nothing conventional about this music at all and that, even in 1971, when rock was still in its youthful days, Can were breaking ranks and doing their own thing. The pace speeds up and slows down – and you know, even here, on the opening track, that this is an album that calls you in for the long haul.

In ‘Oh Yeah’, with its thunder and rain opening, making way for that hypnotic, beat and those long, sustained electronic chords, you know that you are slap bang in the heart of 70s krautrock. But then, just as the music has you trapped in its gaze, ominous keyboards intrude from nowhere and everything halts, if only for a second or two, before the hypnosis returns, now a little darker, a little more sinister, than it was before. Nothing here stays as you expect it to for long.

Tago Mago’s centrepiece is ‘Halleluhwah’, over 18 minutes long, and both the emotional and the musical core of the album. The mesmerising electronics bubble away in the background, creating a creepy, uncanny feel where the musical styles above it and around it come from all directions. From nowhere, a piano pops in for a few seconds, tinkers away as if it was in a jazz bar; electronic noise hovers and buzzes in the ambience while the funky drumbeat continues, unfazed; the guitars riff away, in the shadows of rock, unbridled, untamed; vocals come and go, sometimes seeming to chant some tribal incantation from another place, another time. It’s all weird and strange, like dreams where unlikely images appear, uninvited, unexpected and unrelated, making their own kind of sense.

‘Aumgn’ and ‘Peking O’ both take you into pretty creepy territory, with strange vocals – groaning in ‘Aumgn’, babbling in ‘Peking O’ – eschewing everything conventional in rhythm and melody; music that is cool, cold even, but haunted to the point that, when you listen to it, it’s hard to resist the temptation to look over your shoulder and reassure yourself that no one is there. For a while the curtains seem to part in ‘Peking O’, opening to a new view of things, still exotic, still weird, but somehow now more fascinating than freaky, despite its bits of grotesque gabble, its screeches and screams, tottering on the edge of madness. Here we have moved far outside of the boundaries of conventional music and yet every sound, every beat, every pitch, is placed just where it needs to be, orchestrated with the care and precision of the most intricately designed symphony.

‘Bring Me Coffee or Tea’ ends the album in a calmer place, where the music settles down a little, chilled out and at ease with itself, yet still holding you in its gaze, its hypnotic repetitions of little fragments of phrases, not quite minimalist, but magnetic and mesmerising just the same, and just as much.

Even more than their contemporaries Kraftwerk, Neu! and Tangerine Dream, Can broke open a lot of the musical boundaries of the day, and helped pave the way for a whole new stream of modern music, one where both classical and non-classical innovators got music to do things that it had never done before. But it’s not only their daring innovation that made Can so important – it was also their ability to remember the importance of engaging their audiences, of speaking to them at a level that resonates with the way people think and feel.

With sounds and rhythms and tonalities that had never been heard before, Tago Mago touches emotional and psychic crevices that have always been buried, criss-crossed, deep inside every human being.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Trip hop with Tricky - the cool menace of Maxinquaye

If yesterday was a bit of a tribute to the way music can make us feel good even when it’s telling us sad things, then it seemed only apt to stay on topic for a bit and listen today to the music of that enigmatic English musician, who places some hip hop on the table, puts a layer of rock on top of it, garnishes it in some art pop, turns down the temperature a few degrees and presents to you his music that, even though it’s oozing with melancholy and unease, even though it is plagued by its own demons, still somehow manages to lay you down somewhere lush, and to breathe its cool, smooth air over you. I listened today, of course to Tricky’s classic and never equalled-even-by-Tricky debut album, Maxinquaye.

Maxinquaye sets its tone from the beginning and while it’s a tone that might change its shade now and then, they are always cool colours that shine on you here, like the coolness of the moon – a pale, reflected light rather than one that radiates warmth. It is music that creates its chilled and chilling feel through a wide, spacious sound – with smooth electronic melodies that slide along and with vocals that are hushed and haunted, yet seductive, adding to the music’s moody ambience.

We are here in the heart of trip-hop, a distinctly British answer to hip-hop – more restrained, more subtle, more musically sophisticated and emotionally ambiguous than its American counterpart. And if there was to be an Olympic Games for dance music, then Maxinquaye – even now, fifteen years after its release – would surely be the British entry.

The album opens with ‘Overcome’, with its cool, mysterious ambience, sliding electronic line and laid back tempo, takes you into a cool, dark place, with just enough of a hint of mystery to be frightening.

This is where you stay for pretty well the entire album, in a strange place somewhere at the intersection of panic and chill out. There’s the more jagged beat of ‘Ponderosa’, metallic, industrial; but with soft, whispered vocals from Martina Topley-Bird, echoed by Tricky with snatches of lines, hints of grunts, half sexual, half bestial.

In ‘Black Steel’, there is a harder beat, Martina’s vocals now in that rapid-fire half-sung, half-recited poetry which here sounds musical in a way that not many other hip hop or trip hop musicians seem able to achieve. But the beat gives it a slightly menacing feel – music that, even though it wouldn’t be out of place at a fashionable inner urban drinks party, is not to be messed with. It is followed by ‘Hell is Around the Corner’, where Tricky’s dry, disgruntled voice, strolls along to a steady, sauntering beat – easy, unhurried, unfussed, but mean and out of sorts, like ‘Black Steel’ coming off speed.

In ‘Pumpkin’, a slow, lumbering bass, with a brooding, melancholy vocal line, gives the music a gloomy, troubled feel, and its tonality seems to always have the feel of moving downwards, like you are lying back and sinking gently into the dark. And there, with ‘Aftermath’, a slithering tempo, slinks around and over you, dark but marked with strange colours, creating a cold beauty, like the stripes on a snake.

Maxinquaye’s most pained music comes in the appropriately titled ‘Strugglin’’, more overtly bleak than anything else on the album where a strained little figure struggles in the background and seems to be trying to drag itself up from ground, but just can’t get anywhere. Here, Martina’s vocals are more anguished – it’s the first time you hear her shouting, and it’s a hurt, wounded shout, while Tricky mutters along beside her, and eventually without her, just on the wrong side of sanity.

The album closes with ‘Feed Me’ - a song about the complexities and the ambiguities of human relationships, where the music flows along to a fluid, bass-driven beat, but something icy-cold is injected into its veins by the tinkling of electronic keyboard percussion which ultimately is the only thing left of the song and of the album.

This must surely be one of the greatest debut albums ever – its perfectly polished sounds, its intricately balanced and counter-balanced moods, its smoothness, its coolness, and its ever-present sense of menace. It is music that makes you the feel that you are in one of those glamorous bar lounges where the lights are so dim that you can hardly see, and with plush seats and cool expensive drinks, and waiters who serve them to you without you noticing they’re there.

But there are unsettling things looming in the darkness, and Maxinquaye will take you there if you let it. Otherwise, you can just sit back, enjoy the stylish surroundings and let the shadows look after themselves.

Belated thanks to Marty R for introducing me to Tricky, and to Maxinquaye.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Uplifted by the blues - Lightnin' Hopkins

I’m not sure if I’m weird, or if I’m missing something, or if everyone finds listening to the blues to be strangely uplifting – but I do, and so I was a pretty easy target when, a few weeks ago on the PBS Breakfast Spread, presenter Matt practically ordered his listeners to buy Lightnin’ and the Blues: The Herald Sessions, the music of Texas country bluesman, Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Whatever explains the effect of the blues on me, you’ve got to admit that Lightnin’ Hopkins is pretty nice to listen to. His generally slow and easy rhythms; the familiar, straightforward 12 bar chord progressions that don’t need to be dressed up in anything else because they sound just fine, just right, as they are; the contemplative commentary from Lightnin’s guitar, swapping lines with his earthy voice, sauntering over all those blues notes and then diving down into rugged bass depths, with voice and guitar together carrying the world-weariness, the melancholy, of the music like it was an old friend – it all somehow eases itself into your soft and gooey bits, and nestles itself there, curled up and purring.

The constant exchange between guitar and voice, like a conversation over a glass of whisky, on a back porch in summer, or by an open fire in winter, is perhaps part of what gives this music its ability to somehow feel calmed and comforted. It’s like the vocal line pours out its soul, its woes, and the guitar replies was some sage advice and a reassurance that “yes, I know what you mean”, and all of sudden things aren’t so bad anymore.

Most of the songs here are true to that same form – but it’s a form that works well and, even when it’s occasionally punctuated with something more upbeat, like ‘Lightnin’s Boogie’ or ‘Lightnin’s Special’, it’s nice not to have the music’s spell broken. It’s nice to let it flow over you, like cool water in summer, and then to be able just to bathe in it and not to have to think about too much other than how good it all feels.

Not that it’s exactly what you’d call “feel good” music, though, not in the traditional makes-you-want-to-go-and-hug-your-children sort of way. Here the cool waters are not the pure crystal clear lakes that you find nuzzling at the feet of mountains, with little flowers floating on them, but rather waters that have flown through mud and grit and that feel good because sometimes getting all grubby is just the best thing in the world to do.

Made in 1959, this album has been around as long as I have and I would be over the moon if I could have aged as well as this music has: still looking good and graceful, still sounding stylish and sexy, and still able to drink the whole night and not have a sore head in the morning.

You can really pick out practically any song on this album to see what Lightnin’ is doing here – other than those couple of boogie interludes, and the final ‘My Little Kewpie Doll’ (before you get to the bonus tracks) – it’s all much the same.

That might be cause for complaint with some musicians and on some albums but, when the music, and what it does to you, is as good as it is here on Lightnin’ and the Blues: The Herald Sessions, it’s only all the more reason to do exactly what Matt told you to do, and go out and get the album.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

From the heart of Stalag VIIIA - Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time

It was not because of any particular design plan that the last few days of this blog have all been concerned with the music of the persecuted – be it the impoverished streets of Edith Piaf’s France (Monday), the celebration of Bob Marley’s struggle for the emancipation of his people (Tuesday), or the rage against depression and oppression in the Manic Street Preacher’s grim picture of modern life (yesterday).

They are all very different pictures of very different experiences of what it is to be held down under the fists and forces of others. It wasn’t a plan to devote almost a week to such bleak stuff but, since we’re on the topic, it would be inexcusably remiss of me not to round things off with a look at one of the most astounding pieces ever to be written from the heart of darkness – Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time).

Messiaen was an extremely innovative French composer who wrote music for much of the twentieth century, until his death in 1991. Even some of his earliest music, like the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps, written in 1941, still sounds incredibly modern with its disregard for conventional tonality and time – rhythms going all over the place, often without a bar-line in sight, melodies that pick notes from left, right and centre, and coalesce into harmonies that crash and clash to create complex vistas of colour and sound that can storm the heavens or shatter the earth or rock a baby to sleep.

Messiaen is an important figure in modern music, and his students included composers such as Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, themselves amongst the most important influences upon modern experimental and rock music.

During WWII, Messiaen became a prisoner of war and it was during his time in a German Stalag that he wrote the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps. He wrote it to be performed in the prison camp, which it ultimately was before some 400 freezing prisoners in January 1941, and so made use of whatever musicians and instruments he could get, which resulted in a pretty odd mix for a quartet – a violin, a clarinet, a cello and a piano.

Given its name, and the conditions under which it was written, you’d expect the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps to be pretty gloomy stuff and, while the music certainly comes from somewhere deep in the dark, it looks out into light.

The title actually comes from a passage in the Bible where an apocalyptic angel announces the end of time and, for Messiaen, a passionately devout Catholic, this spiritual imagery was always critical to his music.

His other passion was for birds and he in fact thought of himself to be as much an ornithologist as a composer and always throughout his music you will find the meticulously captured, if stylised, music of birdsong – not the simplified, cheesy, birdcalls that seemed to always pop their heads into nineteenth century music, but complex, chromatic streams of sound, reminding you that most birds don’t sing in the neat and tidy eight note keys of modern Western music.

All of this comes together in the eight movements of the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps. There is the utterly haunting ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ (Abyss of the birds) for solo clarinet, which really does sound like a bird singing to you from a dark, deep place, weary and sad, but singing nonetheless. There is the ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ (Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets) where the four instruments play a wild, frezied dance, in unison, to a jagged, irregular rhythm, feral and furious, yet bold and full of authority, too. There is ‘Fouillis d'arcs-en-ciel, pour l'Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’ (Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel who announces the End of Time), where Messiaen’s other obsession – colour – spreads itself from instrument to instrument in a translucent blaze, sometimes floating thinly in the ether, sometimes pounding, like lightning bolts, onto the ground and up again. And, of course, there is the unfathomably sublime ‘Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus’ (Eulogy to the Eternity of Jesus) for cello and piano, with its companion piece, ‘Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus’ (Eulogy to the Immortality of Jesus) for violin and piano: two pieces, the fifth and eighth in the Quartet, that are still, almost static, even while the piano beats its gentle heartbeat and the strings soar above in the place where peace and sadness and love and hope all come together, and hold each other.

It’s not hard to believe that this music comes from where it did. In a way, it’s like the French modern classical version of Bob Marley’s reggae – music that finds its hope in its despair, music that sees the oppression of people as all the more reason to believe in their value.

Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps is, more than anything, an intensely spiritual piece of music and, while Messiaen always understood that in the Catholic sense, here, like in most really spiritual music, it’s really much broader than that. Here the music speaks to that indefinable bit inside you – that bit that knows how to despair, to rage, to love, to hope; that bit that knows how to live without limits; that bit that knows the blackest blacks and the brightest whites and still has arms big enough to embrace them all.

I know I’ve babbled on quite a bit about this music – but, even so, I feel I haven’t even scratched the surface of its significance, its power and its beauty. Although Messiaen is far from the mainstream of classical music and even though performances of his music still tend to empty concert halls of their more conventional audiences, recordings of the Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps are pretty easy to find, often reasonably cheap to buy, and always, always, worth, a thousandfold, the 50ish minutes it will take you to listen to it. It’s music that reaches into whatever heart of darkness you might find yourself in, takes you by the hand, and half gently, half tripping over in its own excitement and passion, leads you to the light.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The harsh unholy bible of Manic Street Preachers

If yesterday Bob Marley showed us how to find hope in the hopeless, and an affirmation for revolution and survival, there arguably could be no greater argument for the noes than the music I’ve been listening to today – Welsh alt-rock band Manic Street Preachers, and their bleakest of the bleak 1994 release, The Holy Bible.

Here, the grim side of life is laid out for us, austere, unprotected, uncovered other than here and there where it might occasionally be scantily dressed in anger or cynicism. But it’s clothing that is ragged and worn and, in any event, only draws even more attention to the music’s overall nakedness.

The album was recorded not long before the disappearance of the band’s lyricist and guitarist, Richey Edwards – a disappearance that, fifteen years later, is still unexplained, and has been accompanied by all the usual theories and sightings. But there is little doubt that Edwards was severely depressed at the time of his disappearance and certainly these songs give voice to that depression. Ands it’s not just an internal despair at a private, personal plight – but a despair at a world that destroys and dehumanises everyone who inhabits it.

It’s not easy to write, or even perform, music to words that are sodden in this much despair, without resorting to clichés or melodrama but here, with Manic Street Preachers’ post-punk hard-edged rock, their barbed, razor-sharp riffs, their dark and driving bass, their acute sense of how tone, tonality and emotion all relate to each other, the music becomes the real til-death-us-do-part partner of the lyrics’ nihilism, like the way the guitar’s melody line twists and contorts, winces, to the desperately bleak words of ‘Of Walking Abortion’; or the creeping, sinister serial killer’s riffs of ‘Archives of Pain’; the descending harmonies of self-loathing in ‘Mausoleum’; or the apocalyptic bassline as the holocaust is mourned in ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’.

But all of this comes to you via the usual trappings of hard rock – loud, heavy guitars; harsh, hoarse vocals; and thumpingly strong beats. It’s as if The Holy Bible might have wanted to be just good, solid rock – music that could have been something great to dance to in the heavier, harder hours of a night of dancing – but the lyrics always send it in other, less certain, less secure, directions. And so that’s where it goes.

The music of The Holy Bible certainly has an angry, slashing edge to it, sometimes frighteningly so; but it is also music that has at times almost fortified itself against the anguish of the story it tells, as if its message has been carved in cold steel.

Listen, for example, to the album’s centrepiece ‘4st 7lb’ an almost matter-of-fact statement of anorexia, starting off with a punk-like energy, frenetic, furious, and yet vulnerable, until suddenly, halfway through, the tone and the tempo are taken down a notch or two, as if the blood is being drained from music as much as from the person telling its tale. It creates a chilling effect and yet there’s a nonchalance in the way it’s done, as if dying of malnutrition while you’re walking along the streets is the most natural, normal thing in the world.

The songs are each ushered in with a little snippet of dialogue – usually something from radio or television – giving the music something of the feel of a commentary, which, in a way, it is: this is the world seen through the darkened eyes of depression, told by the music as if it was reading the daily news in hell, sombre and solemn, but never sentimental.

But don’t think for a moment that this music has sublimated its emotions – rather, it’s the music of emotions that have been rubbed raw, emotions that show blisters and scabs and open wounds instead of tears.

The Holy Bible is severe, savage music and, every time you listen to it, you find it has somehow submerged itself into the depths a little bit more than when you heard it last. It’s an unflattering view of humanity, but sometimes music has to take us to those dark and dismal places because they are, after all, a part of life – or at least a part of the experience of it.

Manic Street Preachers, beset, as they ultimately were, by their own tragedy, have created here an amazingly powerful and persuasive picture of those dark places – unsympathetic, unembellished, but the sort of picture which, with all its darkness and shadows, is sketched in incredible detail.

Not all that unlike Kurt Cobain’s last will and testament in Nirvana’s In Utero, (see 22nd August, 2009) Richey Edwards has left a farewell note here in The Holy Bible, told through the uncompromising music of his bandmates – gloomy and gruesome but, even so, a towering musical achievement.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Out of the heart of darkness - Bob Marley's 'Exodus'

Yesterday, when I wrote here about Edith Piaf, I talked a little about the way her music seems so eloquently, and so simply, to summons a place, a time and a culture. But surely the real prize for conjuring up the images of a culture – right down to its colours, its smells, its wind, as much as its social and political heritage – must rest with reggae.

Reggae is a music that is tied, perhaps more than any other genre, to the people who create it – not just the people playing the instruments and singing the tunes, but the people who have built the culture that those instruments and tunes express.

And nowhere, of course, do you find reggae more poetically, nor more powerfully, expressed than in the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Bob Marley’s 1977 album, Exodus, was recorded in the wake of an attempt on his life. And yet here is music, not held down with grim internal despair, but rather bursting with the life and energy of resistance, renewal and hope. You hear it in the beat, with those infinitely complex reggae rhythms, crossing over one another, full of energy and diversity; you hear it in those melodies that seem to capture the music of the human voice, of the human narrative, as if this was how they were really meant to be expressed: not with the smoothed-out legato of conventional Western music, but with the jumps and bumps of real life. You hear it in the instruments, that are always ablaze with spirit and soul, at the place where struggle and freedom, where love and oppression, meet. And you hear it, of course, in the voice of Bob Marley himself, as much a part of the music’s pulse as are the beats that dance beneath it. It’s a voice born in the sunlight, but raised in the shadows: cool but with an inner fire; a voice that knows what it is to suffer, but that believes in liberty no less.

The jiving, jaunting beat with which ‘Natural Mystic’ opens sets the pace, and the spirit, for this album, with its message of hope tinged with its hint of melancholy – it is music that finds something to celebrate, something to believe, in the air, even in the face of violence, oppression and death.

This what seems to always lie at the core of the pulse of Exodus – a pulse which, even allowing for the natural vibrancy and energy of reggae, always beats just that little bit harder because you know it has so much more blood to pump through its veins – the blood of a whole history of oppression and a whole future of liberation.

The title song drives forward to a march that you want to be part of – this is a movement not just of determination, but of festivity – festivity in the spirit of its people, and in the liberty that they know together they can achieve.

But not everything is about politics and struggle. There’s time for fun, too – like in the upbeat ‘Jamming’ or the slender, seductive ‘Waiting in Vain’ – music that is laid-back, like Sunday mornings in summer.

But then maybe in a way these moments are just as political as those that march down the streets, or that call upon the people to fight for justice – because here we see the reason for the fight; here we see the life, and the love, that is being reclaimed.

The synthesis of the political with the personal is as vital to this music as it is to the culture from which it springs. Every song here is political, every song is personal. These are songs that proclaim a people’s escape from one life and a return to another – songs that are about what people fight for collectively, for the sake of what they can treasure and cherish individually.

Here, on Exodus, you can begin to understand where that nexus between the political and the personal, the communal and the individual, comes from, and how songs about the celebration of a lover are possible only because they appear on an album alongside the celebration of a culture, and its struggle for emancipation. Here there is a blurring of the boundaries between what is in the heart of a person, and what is in the heart of a people.

It is a good omen that music like this, which seems to grow from the place where hope and hardship intersect into a tree where celebration and struggle entwine, is so optimistic, so full of light, so that when it tells you, as it does in ‘Three Little Birds’: “Singing/Don’t worry about a thing/’Cause every little thing gonna be alright” you really do find it incredibly easy to believe.

Monday, March 1, 2010

From under a Paris lamplight - Edith Piaf

It’s pretty hard to know what to write about Edith Piaf, without sounding trite or repeating what everyone else has already said, or both. And it’s not easy to know where to begin in choosing her recordings, either – especially for someone like me who has fairly chronic compilationphobia. But, of course, Edith Piaf died before the LP had scarcely been born and, in any event, her music is too central both to the love of music and to its history to avoid taking the leap, choosing something from the 50 million “best of” albums of her music, and giving her a spot in this blog.

I eventually settled on an amazingly cheap 3CD compilation from EMI, with 72 tracks and 3 hours and 46 minutes of music. In some ways, it does a disservice to Piaf to have so much of her music here in one place. She sang in a time where music was performed and savoured in songs rather than in albums, and it easy to skim over the trees when there is so much wood to navigate through, and to gasp at.

But, even so, hearing Piaf like this, track after track, you find yourself so plunged into those grim, impoverished French streets of the 40s and 50s, that their shadows begin to seem familiar, and you begin to feel almost a sense of comfort and home beneath that smoky streetlamp under which legend, if not history, said that she was born, and to which her voice, so full of unpretentious, unromanticised tragedy, strident and yet defenceless, always seems to return.

Piaf’s voice is, of course, one of the most recognisable (and, incidentally, one of the most imitated) in popular music. And yet it is perhaps also one of the most difficult to describe. It’s not quite musical, in any traditional sense, and yet when it sings, it is almost impossible to imagine the song sung differently; it’s not quite a strong voice, but it has guts; and its emotions are harsh and raw, yet still always quivering in their vulnerability. But none of that is quite it, either. Piaf’s voice, like her music, is what it is not because of the sum of its parts, but because of the grubby, smoke-filled bars on grubby, smoke-filled streets, in which it has its roots. This is music that belongs as much to the French underclass, as it does to Edith Piaf.

It says a lot about Piaf’s artistry that you can assemble a selection of 72 of her best, and still feel that you haven’t had enough. There’s a good deal of territory traversed in Piaf’s musical output and, while pretty well all of it might be steeped in shadows, you see here just how many shades there are there. There’s the strident, sardonic march of ‘Padam, Padam’; the haunting, tolling knell of ‘Les Trois Cloches’; the operatic grandeur of ‘Miséricorde’, the harsh irony of ‘Bravo Pour Le Clown’, the sad emptiness of ‘L'Accordéoniste’, the caustic dance of ‘Milord’, the brave resolve of ‘Exodus’, and, of course, the famous staples, like Piaf’s early signature ‘La Vie En Rose’, and her later ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’, both bringing their own little slithers of hope and light, frail and yet determined, in through the smoke and fog.

And yet for me it’s not so much these shifts and changes of nuance that hold me captive with Piaf, but more her wonderful ability to use her voice to conjure up not only a time and a place, but a whole social milieu, a whole way of life, of struggle, of poverty, and of grim, gritty resolve to survive against whatever odds the more privileged classes have left you. So, even if you don’t understand a word of French (which I don’t) and even if the CD doesn’t come with words and translations (which mine didn’t), you know what these songs are saying to you.

Edith Piaf has, of course, been covered and biographed (and blogged, no doubt) more than probably any other popular singer – but, ultimately, it’s her music that tells her story the best of all, and that pays her the greatest tribute.

72 songs on 3CDs for $10 might seem an incredible bargain, and it is – but I can’t help but notice that there’s a 20CD set, apparently as close as you can get to being a complete survey of her work, floating around the internet shops too …