Monday, April 12, 2010

Where have all the flowers .... er, I mean blog posts ... gone?

Well, I'm the first to admit that my attendance to this blog (although not to music) has been a bit slack of late. Which is a shame, really, because writing about music is something that I enjoy almost as much as I enjoying listening to music. But the reality is, of late, time just seems to have been mitigating even my most robust attempts to put aside enough time each day to write this blog, to the point where, every now and then, I have approached the blog in much the same spirit that I approach washing the dishes, which was the last thing that either I wanted or that the music I write about deserves.

So, for that reason, I've decided to take a step back from this blog for the moment - not to abandon it, but just to visit it a little less regularly. The fact is, though, that I keep continuing to discover so much fantastic new music, almost daily, that there are still going to be plenty of times, I'm sure, where I'm just not going to be able stop myself from jumping on here and babbling on about it.

I'm sorry and kind of sad to be shying away from my initial aim, several months ago now, to write about music every day but it's been a lod of fun so far, and I know it will continue to be so in the future too. Just not so often.

I'm not at all sure how many people are continuing to read the posts here - but even sporadic responses to my posts here have been a great thrill for me: a bit, I imagine, like the way late night radio broadcasters feel when someone rings them up and lets them know they're listening.

So a billion thanks to everyone who has popped on here over the past few months and had their bit to say - especially some of my "regulars": Marty R, Patrick, Greg and Matt and Jenny at PBS.

Mind you, there's no reason for my lack of posting to be an excuse for anyone else to follow suit - just put in a reply to this post whenever you feel like it, and especially when you're listening to some music that you think the rest of the world should know about, even in a hundred years if you want to, and we'll see if we can get the ball rolling again!

But for now .... ciao for niao!!


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sailing across the Styx with Swans, 'Soundtracks for the Blind'

I have already written here about Michael Gira (see 26th March) and was so intrigued by the way he managed to get so many twists and turns into his music that it was pretty well inevitable that before long I would plunge into the band for which, I gather, he is most famous – the New York experimental art rock band of the 80s and early 90s, Swans.

Like so many experimental musicians, Swans was a band that never stayed in the one place for long and, in some ways, their musical development was not unlike that of Einstürzende Neubauten, beginning with extremely harsh, industrial-peppered noise and, in time, mellowing their sound into something rather more acoustic and ambient, but still just as disturbing and confronting.

With just over two hours of music, their final album Soundtracks for the Blind, is a pretty mammoth listen. But it covers so much territory, sampling and building on pretty well every phase of this fascinating band’s musical lifespan, that even after 26 tracks, you feel not a moment of it has been wasted.

And yet it would be doing this album an enormous disservice to simply describe it as some sort of cobbled-together compilation of their earlier work. It’s an album which, even with its incredible diversity of music and styles, still has an amazing – epic, even – unity to it, as if to show us that all those strange bits and pieces that the band had been accumulating over the past fifteen or so years really did belong together after all. Soundtracks for the Blind is not just a survey of Swans’ work, but the consummation of it.

The music’s unity is characterised by a few things: its daringness, the enormous spaces it seems to invoke, the vastness of its sound, its cosmic darkness, the slowed-down grandeur of its beat – music that is no longer just rock, but now granite. It’s music that shows that there’s more than just one way to explore the shadows.

But, within all of that, there’s incredible diversity as well. There are soft moments, like the gently undulating opener, 'Red Velvet Corridor', sounding vast and shadowy, but in a way that makes you feel that this journey into the night is going to be a peaceful one. Which, of course, it’s not. It’s journey that is, at best, unnerving – at worst, downright terrifying.

There are the big epic tracks like ‘Helpless Child’ and ‘The Sound’, where Michael Gira’s dark voice, full of foreboding, alternates with long passages of monolithic instrumentals. There are creepy child-like vocals weaving their way through rich, thick oceans of sound in ‘The Beautiful Days’, while ‘I Love You This Much’ blasts out electronic clamour, turning feedback into a sinister flurry of sound, pounded with piercing spurts of noise. There are unusual, and unusually disturbing snippets of recorded messages in tracks like ‘I Was a Prisoner in your Skull’ and ‘Minus Something’; and there’s the grim and aptly titled closing track, ‘Surrogate Drone’ There are wonderful contributions from Jarboe, like her gruff and gritty voice against military drums and heavy bass guitars in the live ‘Yum-Yab Killers’.

Soundtracks for the Blind creates its vast and varied images through an incredibly powerful use of sound – sound where melody and rhythm have been pared down to their skeletal minimum, and where the bones that are left have instead been draped in thick, rich garments of sound, that grow and loom way, way above you casting shadows, frightening and awful.

It is an aptly titled album because the thing you most need to do to really appreciate Soundtracks for the Blind is to shut out everything around you, so that there is nothing left other than the music to weave its way into those dark, rarely touched, recesses of your mind, where even your eyes don’t let the light in.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Classic rock rediscovered and repackaged: 'Love' by The Cult

With the irresistibly lavish packaging of the British recording company Beggars Banquet’s Omnibus Editions, and the man at Heartland Records telling me that this is one of the greatest and yet most inexplicably underrated of all rock albums, I really had little choice the other day but to buy The Cult’s 1985 album Love.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t know much about The Cult until I bought this album, but it’s solid, tightly beaten rock, with just the right tinge of darkness to draw me in at the album’s opening ‘Nirvana’, certainly conjures up much of the almost gothic feel of Britain’s mid 80’s post punk period, shunning the keyboard-driven excesses of prog rock and instead creating its big, full, engulfing sounds with fantastically strong playing of the tried and trusted staples of rock – some guitars, some drums and some vocals. There are some keyboards there, too, but Love is an album that seems more intent on doing a lot with a little, creating its effects by the tautness of its playing, tense, tight guitar work over hard drums, and Ian Astbury’s vocals with their understated gloom, maybe nowhere more powerful than in ‘Brother Wolf, Sister Moon’, where his voice sings and cries above the simple, darkened arpeggios of William H Duffy’s electric guitars.

There’s discipline in this music that, were it not for the conviction and talent of the musicians, could almost make the album sound restrained – but, instead, it just makes it sound all the more potent, like a volcano on the edge of eruption.

There’s the fantastic way notes and chords slide up and back down to one another throughout ‘Rain’, with drums and guitars pelting down in their own storm of hail and sleet, music that revels in the cold, chilled world it creates around you; there’s the awesomely good rock of ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, literally aflame with energy, while a heavy, solid bass line keeps your feet on the ground, so you can’t really escape the sparks that fly in all directions around you, singeing you; there’s the elegiac ‘Black Angel’, music that takes the album, and you with it, into a dark, mysterious emptiness, sailing into a black and barren, far-away horizon.

The sound, especially the vocals, has a dark, cavernous acoustic, giving the music a feeling of some sort of looming doom or, where there’s not doom, of post-apocalypse, like in ‘Phoenix’, where human desire rises from the ashes of destruction and chaos, amidst wild, passionate guitars, burning with primal lust.

Love is one of those albums that people like me listen to and wonder why we neglected the rock genre for so long; but it’s also an album that even those who lived the genre for decades could, it seems, easily have missed – for no reason, it seems, other than it never really got into the limelight of the American market, which only goes to show yet again how fickle and unreliable the marketplace can be.

Love is not an album that smashes down the walls of convention – but, in capturing the dark side of British post-punk so well, so expertly, it leaves its own unique footprints on a musical territory that even now many of us are too easily taking for granted, musical territory that even now, decades after its discovery, is still showing up new little nooks and crannies that many of us didn’t know were there.

This would be classic album, even without the packaging.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The gutsy voice of Ute Lemper and the Weill/Brecht masterpiece 'Die Sieben Todsünden'

In keeping with the religious themes of the past few days’ blogging, and of the season, it seemed appropriate today to turn back to a piece of music that I wrote about here some months ago, the Kurt Weill/Betolt Brecht collaboration Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) (see 9th December 2009). The version I focussed on back then was the English translation, sung so effectively by Marianne Faithfull, but today I thought I’d go back to the German original, albeit in a version transcribed for low voice, sung by the woman who, after Kurt Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya, must surely be one of the leading exponents of his music – Ute Lemper.

As great and all as Marianne Faithfull’s version is, there is something about the music of Kurt Weill, not to mention the words by Bertolt Brecht, that never sounds so inherently right as when it is sung in German. It is music that conjures up images of the Berlin cabarets of the 1930s, even when it is performed with a full orchestra, like it is here and the gutsy, musky voice of Ute Lemper fits in just perfectly.

The music of Kurt Weill straddles the classical and low-brow stage genres and, when it’s peppered with the satirical genius of Bertolt Brecht, as it often is, the results can be amongst the most plucky, powerful stuff ever to come from the 20th century.

But the challenge is to get the right voice for it. A lot of people savagely maligned the singing of Lotte Lenya who, they argued, really couldn’t sing at all. Personally, I’ve always thought she was just right for those strident, demimonde characters that Weill and Brecht so cleverly created, characters which both composer and librettist intended to be singing actors, rather than acting singers.

Ute Lemper arguably tips the scales slightly in the opposite direction. Hers is a much more musical voice than Lenya’s, but by no means operatic or classical and still very much the voice of the stages of nightclubs rather than of operas. But she can capture the whimsical jazz-like lilt of the prologue as convincingly as she captures the raucous gutsiness of ‘Neid’ (Envy). She bellows when she needs to, like in ‘Zorn’ (Anger), while still managing to catch just the right level of detachment and emptiness needed for ‘Unzucht’ (Lust).

Die Sieben Todsünden is, of course, a parable about capitalism. It should never sound sentimental, despite the sad, sorrowful thread that weaves through its story. Its edges should be rough and uneven, and even the passages written for the operatic quartet of the two Annas’ family (two tenors and a baritone for their brothers and father, a bass for their mother), should sound grotesque rather than cultivated and refined.

All of that is achieved wonderfully on this recording, even if some of the speeds are a little slower than I am used to. The family is sung by a pretty honourable quartet of German opera singers, the orchestra is conducted by John Mauceri, one of Leonard Bernstein’s most successful protégés, but the show really belongs to Ute Lemper who seems here to be able to mix all seven of the deadly sins into one awesomely entrancing melting pot of music – sexy, intrepid, indomitable.

Die Sieben Todsünden is, I think, even counting Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s best collaboration – short and snappy but incredibly powerful and, of course, great music. And if you can only ever have one recording of it, you could do much worse than picking this one, with Ute Lemper.

Thanks to Lucas for prodding me to listen to it today!

Friday, April 2, 2010

The universal message and heresy of Easter - Diamanda Galás, Plague Mass

If there is a message that all of us can do well to hear on Easter Friday, regardless of what we believe, it’s that suffering and persecution in the name of religion and bigotry seems to have always been a part of the human experience. And perhaps the conventional church’s condemnation of Diamanda Galás comes not so much from its reaction to her alleged heresy, as from its uneasiness with her accusations of its own hypocrisy and with her powerful message that it was not just the carpenter from Nazareth who suffered unjustly in the name of the established Church of the day.

Her Plague Mass is one of her most catastrophic works, written and performed in the name of people who have lived and died with HIV/AIDS. It’s a work that evolved over several years and is available on CD in a few different incarnations. The last of these is her live recording from the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City, where she performed the Mass in October 1990, presumably without the church really knowing what they were in for or what they had consented to. This performance brings together excerpts from the earlier Masque of the Red Death, also available on CD, as well as adding some new material.

For an obsessive compulsive completist such as myself, it’s pretty disappointing that this recording omits some of the original 95 minute performance in order to fit the whole thing onto one CD, and I have little doubt that anyone who is prepared to immerse themselves in this music would have been more than happy to have paid a little extra for a double CD.

But, even so, it is a phenomenal recording and, cut though it may be, represents that last version of this seminal work, and the only recording to capture it at its most powerful - as a performance piece.

After the opening ‘Were You a Witness’, where declaimed and violent speech weaves in amongst a frightening rendition of ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord’, a pounding drum beat ushers in ‘This is the Law of the Plague’, dragging the music along with haunted chanting from male voices while Diamanda’s wild and bilious voice spits out its venom, its screechingly high notes, its accusations and its madness, music that takes you right into the very heart of unholy rage, crazed with hysterical terror, spewed out in the texts of Old Testament venom and pleas for deliverance.

These wild, unbridled dialogues between rage and horror, Diamanda shifting her voice from register to register, moving between ferocity and ferocity, from screeches to wails to mad babble, are what dominate the whole of this overwhelmingly powerful performance. The texts are taken from some of the Bible’s most gruesome passages, like the horrific visions of apocalypse from the Book of Revelations in ‘How Shall Our Judgement Be Carried Out On The Wicked’, as well as from Diamanda’s own texts, just as brutal and confronting, like the way her wild crazed frenzy gives way suddenly to her guttural cry, “Give me sodomy or give me death”.

You will be shattered by the intensity of it all, like the chorus of screams against the pounding drumbeat in which ‘Let Us Praise the Masters of Slow Death’ climaxes; you will shudder at the solemn horror of ‘Consecration’; you will be confronted by the indictments of moral pomposity and human indifference, staggered by the things that she does with her voice, arrested by the way she turns unrelenting ugliness into art that holds you, aghast, in its grip from beginning to end.

This is music that totally consumes you and everything around you. There is no way to listen to it other than to give it your undivided attention, to let yourself be carried away in its iron grip, to let it shake you and shackle you, to let its cavernous sounds, as they bounce off the cathedral walls, swarm around you and enshroud you, to let yourself march along to the sombre funeral march of ‘Sono l’Antichristo’, to add your plaintive moans to hers in the devastating ‘Cris d’Aveugle: Blind Man’s Cry’ or in her crushing version of ‘Let My People Go’ and her words “O Lord Jesus, do you think I’ve served my time … The eight legs of the Devil will not let my people go”.

As you might expect with Diamanda Galás, Plague Mass is utterly uncompromising. It is frightening, fierce and freaky and it would be impossible to listen to it without being deeply affected by its untamed ferocity. It is music from the heart of horror, minimalist and yet boundless, and you need to be ready for it to give you nightmares.

But when human horrors are committed in the name of holiness, when evil parades as virtue, we are meant to feel unsettled.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Music for Easter? Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, 'Shut Up and Bleed'

At this time of year, where Jesus gets so much press, I couldn’t help but feel that I needed to be listening to something vaguely on topic and, while Lydia Lunch’s first and shortly lived band Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and their compilation album Shut Up and Bleed, is probably not what most of the Christian community would be listening to today, there was enough of a link to make it feel appropriate for me.

Lydia Lunch (see 25th March) formed Teenage Jesus & the Jerks when she was only 17 years old and the band lasted only for a couple of years. But it was enough time for to encapsulate the essence of the New York underground no wave movement – the short-lived but nevertheless influential reaction to punk, deliberately unmusical, harsh and uncomfortable, using guitars and drums and vocals as weapons against, rather than as instruments for, the expression of rock and punk.

There’s an unabashed pride from Lydia Lunch, and her musical comrades, in their inability to play their instruments properly or to be able to sing in key. But there is surely a certain deliberate irony in that because these musicians don’t for a moment play their music badly. But what they do do, arguably, is play bad music very, very well.

Bad music? Yes – bad in the sense of totally unruly, misbehaved, disrespectful. Something that would be expelled from any half reputable school of music. Music that sticks sharp things in your ears; music that hasn’t been toilet-trained; music with psycho-socio-pathological tendencies that even enlightened governments create special laws for, to keep it off the streets.

Shut Up and Bleed is a collection of pretty well all the music recorded by Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. And even though most of the tracks are pretty short, and some of them (‘Red Alert’, ‘Freud in Flop’, ‘Crown of Thorns’ and ‘Eliminate by Night’) are very short, and even though there are several versions of many of them, at 29 tracks this is a pretty generous recording.

Most of the music here is marked by its raucous, bashed-out slabs of notes – not exactly chords – dragging along one minute, pounding away the next, always with a sense much more of place than of direction. This is not music that seems to want to go anywhere, but rather to just let itself loose from where it is. Lydia herself screams out her half-spoken, half-shouted vocals, often in unison with drums and guitars, which, like in ‘The Closet’ or ‘Less of Me’, have their own dialogue with her, screeching rather than riffing, music that feels physical pain as much as it inflicts it.

Then there are tracks like ‘I Woke Up Dreaming’ and ‘See Pretty’, weighed down and heavy, with a bass line and a beat that trudges along, thumping to a pulp everything in its path, with vocals, dislocated and alien, beating out the words, more a percussion instrument than something to sing with. And then there are tracks like ‘Tornado Warnings’ and ‘Sidewalk’ where noise is the protagonist and music, its shadow.

Teenage Jesus & the Jerks may only have been around for a short time, and today there are a lot, lot more people who have not heard of them than there are those who have – but, even so, their influence on music was pretty important. Their music, created in the late 1970s, might not have been the major inspiration for movements such as industrial and noise, but it certainly helped to influence them, and the way it was not content just to pull music apart, but had to go the full hog and smash it to pieces, set the stage for many of its followers to rebuild it anew.

Shut Up and Bleed is hard, gritty stuff – but, as the Christians keep telling us this time of year, suffering is a vital stop along the path to redemption. But what they don’t tell you is that Teenage Jesus & the Jerks is one helluva good way to suffer.