Saturday, May 15, 2010

Revisting the lunar ladscape - the Flaming Lips does Dark Side of the Moon

At 15 years of age I cried inconsolably for hours when I discovered, in the recording of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which I had finally managed to buy after what seemed like an eternity of saving my pocket money, that there was a line sung by a group of Valkyries which, according to the score, was supposed to be sung by only one. You see, I just don’t like people tampering with the original. And it’s an obsession that I have never really outgrown.

So it was with some trepidation that yesterday I bought The Flaming Lips’ new reworking of the entire Pink Floyd masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon. But the Flaming Lips have been such an interesting band, and they seem to have a knack of doing such wacky things with music while still retaining both the music’s, and their own, dignity, that it was really impossible to avoid seeing what they had done with this music, which even today, 37 years after it was recorded, is still fairly universally hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time.

Taking on something as iconic as Dark Side of the Moon calls for an incredible sense of balance between, on the one hand, loyalty to the original and, on the other hand, recasting it into a new light. You have to find the right mix of flavours – the known taste of the old and familiar and trusted, and the surprise of the new and unknown. Have too much of the first, and you are really just doing a cheap and probably uncreative copy; have too much of the second, and you will have destroyed something great and people will hate you forever.

It was a balance which somehow Hans Zender miraculously managed to find, I think, when he recast Schubert’s awesomely devastating song cycle Winterreise for modern chamber ensemble and it seems that The Flaming Lips might just have managed to pull off the same thing here too.

Their version, clocking in at one minute shorter than Pink Floyd’s, follows the original pretty well note for note. But the notes are given here a 21st century makeover, troubled and harangued by a world where the descent into madness is a global phenomenon, where it is the society, rather than the individuals who inhabit it, that is sick. The music here is given a coarser, more jagged edge, an electronic intensity that cuts into veins that the original flowed through.

So here the old alarm clock that ushers in ‘Time’ has become a harsh, grating siren; the passionate howls of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ have become tortured, anguished screams; there’s an extra urgency to ‘On the Run’ where, as in so many places on this album, it seems that the private suffering of the original has been taken up by a whole world of crazed souls, spiralling downwards in a black hole of torment.

And yet in all of this, there’s always a certain tongue-in-cheekness about it all, and you are never entirely sure how seriously you are meant to be taking it. Listen, for example, to their quirky, almost jaunty version of ‘Money’, which, both confronting and humorous, somehow manages to just fall short of parody. You can’t help but feeling that the Flaming Lips, with their expanded ensemble including Star Death and White Dwarfs and Henry Rollins and Peaches, are having oodles of fun making this recording, even in its darkest moments.

‘Us and Them’ sounds perhaps even lonelier and creepier here than when Pink Floyd did it, the saxophone of the original now replaced by freaky electric plucked noise; ‘Brain Damage’ brings tears to the eyes, just as it always has done, the background choir now transformed into an electronic, space-age sort of whirring sound, almost like something from a B-grade science fiction movie, but haunting in a way that only The Flaming Lips could really manage to make it.

By time the cast come to the footlights with the anthemic final words of ‘Eclipse’, you feel that the journey you’ve been on has, once again, been an epic one. The landmarks that you remember so well from 1973 are all still there – transformed, painted in new and sometimes garish colours – and, while you will still want to go back and look at your mementos of the original trip, seeing it again as it has become today, is still a wonderful, and disturbing, thing.

I might never know why all those extra Valkyries sang that line in my first ever recording of The Ring – but I can certainly see why The Flaming Lips chose to do what they did the Dark Side of the Moon. Maybe this is what I needed to enable me to move on.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A bit of an update ...

Well I know it's been a long time between drinks as far as posting onto the blog has been concerned - but it has by no means been a drought when it comes to music discoveries over the past few weeks.

With time colluding against me as it has been of late (albeit for happy reasons) I have nothing even vaguely approaching the time to write about the music I've been listening to in anything like the detail it deserves; and yet some of it has been so extraordinary that, even in the busiest of schedules, it would be criminal not to at least mention it.

Probably the first of these is the most recent - a trio of bands that played at Melbourne's Evelyn Hotel in Brunswick Street Fitzroy last Saturday night. They were the Brothers Grim & the Blue Murders; Kira Puru & the Very Geordie Marones; and Mojo Juju & the Snake Oil Merchants. I was at the gig because I had heard the last of these on the ever-reliable PBS Breakfast Spread a few days earlier and so was already ready for what a stunning act they were going to be, with their gutsy, punky, brooding cabaret music - the sort of thing that Brecht and Weill might have written had they lived now rather than seventy odd years ago.

But what I wasn't ready for was the sensational acts that supported them - raw and rugged blues-roots from Brothers Grim and then some shady, wine-soaked soul from Kira Puru - a voice with that shivers-down-your-spine sort of dark, archetypal beauty that lures men and women to their doom.

All of these artists had new CDs on sale at the door and, needless to say, I bought them all. You can read a little more about the night, and my thoughts on it, at the PBS website ( in the reviews section.

The other big discovery over the past few weeks, again thanks to the PBS Breakfast Spread, was a fantastic Melbourne-based music performance project called The Escalators. Their debut CD Wrapped in Plastic is the sort of music you put on when you have been able to hit the pause button on everything else that's happening around you, and you can let yourself just be swept away in its flow: a flow that, carried along by the tides of abstract, improvised jazz, follows no pre-mapped course, takes you along routes and through places that no GPS could pinpoint, but that, in its seamless, organic way, seems to reach into something deep and secret within you, touching the quiet places, like in 'Log Lady', or the chaotic places, like in 'James: Boy on a Motorcycle'. It is music inspired by the filmwork of David Lynch and shares the dark abstraction that is so much his trademark. It's music that creates itself from its own seed and grows by the rules set out in its own DNA and, as such, seems to bring order and disorder together. It's like the sort of jazz you might expect to hear in a space where your senses are let go for a while, leaving you feeling kind of unsettled in places, kind of haunted even, and yet you can't escape the feeling that this is music that grows out of things that you yourself are part of - music that alienates you and embraces you in the one breath. Drug-induced jazz, perhaps.

And so far, I've only been able to touch on the locals. There was the wonderful discovery of Joanna Newsom, too, with that remarkable voice of hers, half child-like, half wraith-like, and her stream-of-consciousness music in her 2006 album Ys and her 2010 epic Have One On Me; there was the expansive metal of My Dying Bride, the lush lounge of the new release from U.N.K.L.E, Where Did the Night Fall, and heaps of amazing stuff from 1980s experimentalists Nurse With Wound, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, Cabaret Voltaire and, more recently, Current 93.

And then there was the unspeakably moving blues of Eric Bibb's Booker's Guitar and, of course, lots and lots of Diamanda Galas who, I am convinced, can take any music, hold it by the throat, and make it do exactly what she wants it to do - which is always something staggeringly powerful: music that thrusts four octavs of nightmares into your head and makes you actually want to confront them.

So, all in all, not a bad way to spend a few blog-free weeks!!