January 25, 2002 (link)
No real time to write at the moment, but one quick note: the second volume of the Electronic Toys compilation is not nearly as good as the first, but does have a nifty track, "Sonik Re-Entry", that was written in...1957?!...which makes it quite a bit ahead of its time. It's written by Tom Dissevelt and Kid Baltan, taken from their LP Song of the Second Moon, which is apparently a minor legend (I haven't heard it). The harmonies on the track are smart and interesting, and it has something of that quality that was the charm of tracks like "Catching Game" and "Ambling Antics" from the first volume -- i.e. playful and a bit silly, but good-natured, infectious, and undeniably tuneful: if you hear "Catching Game" even once, the melody will probably stick with you for quite a while. Said playfulness-and-tunefulness is what's otherwise sorely lacking from Volume Two, most of which just isn't memorable or appealing -- it sounds much more calculated and stilted (as though they were already anticipating the exotica collectors who, decades later, would hunt down their records in order to smirk at them). There's nothing of the romp about it, if you will, and it ends up feeling too clever for its own good.
January 17, 2002 (link)
On the other hand, David Gilmour's acoustic concert ("Meltdown") last June was pretty decent, from what I've heard of it, and came closer to capturing the sound of vintage Pink Floyd than anything they've done since 1977. There are a couple more shows coming up sometime this month, but they're all in London, and I've neither funds nor plans to fly over.
I'm generally a pretty dim bulb when it comes to lyrics, but after reading them, I couldn't help but wonder: is Pinback's "Tripoli" a song about Jesus? (I'm not sure whether this thought is patently obvious or patently absurd. Certainly, the line "He's gonna go down and he's gonna come back again" makes me wonder.) Or maybe it's just a song about fireworks, I've no idea.
I have a batch of Phish tapes, dating from 1993 to 1995, that my friend Mark (aka Ferret) gave me about five years ago. I hadn't really given any of them a fair shake, but I dug them out and have been playing them as I work. They're very frustrating; pretty much everything Phish put out on record after about 1993 was just crap, so whenever they play new material, my interest plummets. If any one of these tapes were all crap, it'd be easy to get rid of it with a clear conscience -- but instead, you'll have several boring tracks of new material, followed up by a brilliant take on older material like "Reba" or "You Enjoy Myself". There's one particularly ace version of the latter -- dating from June 23, 1995 in Waterloo, NJ -- where, in the G major section early in the song (the part with the rocking sixths, right after the part in 7/4), Trey suddenly starts playing huge, floating, heavily-delayed chords that just hang in the air. It sounds nothing like what most people would associate with Phish, and reminds me a bit of the ending of certain live versions of Low's "Prisoner". Or, later on in (I think) the same concert, "Run Like An Antelope" goes further and further afield, culminating in the kind of highly chromatic folding-back-in-on-itself collective improvisation that is such a big part of what I like about these guys. At one point, they were damn near my favorite band -- but, like pretty much all of my favorite bands have done, they went on to focus on a kind of music that just isn't interesting to me at all. If you can disregard their subsequent albums (practically everything after A Picture of Nectar, though there are a handful of good tracks on Rift), and tune out their obnoxious fan-base (which isn't their fault -- why would-be hippie frat boys seized on this band is a sad mystery to me), you're left with a body of work which at its best is just incredible. I really wish I'd known about them back when they were still at their most exciting; I've had no real urge to go to their concerts since, just as I've had no urge to go to any of the Pink Floyd or Roger Waters concerts of the past decade -- I'd rather throw my money behind someone doing new and exciting work, rather than submit myself to the somewhat macabre experience of seeing a cheap imitation of something I used to love.
January 9, 2002 (link)
It's interesting to speculate how much Revolver's feeling of pushing-the-envelope is accentuated by its sequencing -- specifically, ending the A-side with "She Said She Said", and the B-side with "Tomorrow Never Knows". For me, there's something almost ominous about it that way, especially having "Tomorrow Never Knows" end the album -- it literally does go off "into the void", leaving you with a feeling that I suppose could be called "unresolved", but is somehow more sinister than that. (Interesting parallel -- the latter part of "Contronatura" vs. "Tomorrow Never Knows". Both songs are highly repetitive and cyclical, and both end their respective albums cryptically, with a sense of foreboding and prophecy.) "She Said She Said" isn't as menacing (and the effect of having it end the A-side is of course lost on CD), but I still get that feeling of boundaries being tested, of something explosive being said. Perhaps my impression was heightened all the more by the fact that I grew up with the American version of Revolver -- which omits "Doctor Robert", "And Your Bird Can Sing", and "I'm Only Sleeping" -- and got to know that version long before I ever got the CD (which uses the British version and restores the missing songs). The album seems leaner and a bit less playful without those songs, all of which are fairly genial.
In any event, it can't have been an accident, sequencing the album to end each side with its most daring song. I suspect they knew exactly what they were doing.
The NOVA episode that I talked about back in May 2001 turns out to be called "What Einstein Never Knew". That's the one that had a lovely, slow blues over the ending credits, one that I'd still like to dig up if I can. At least I know the name of the show now...
Primus's Suck on This makes me want to make devil horns and thrash my head about. I can't listen to the whole album loud enough without getting tired ears, but it's still a great album. I'm a big sucker for use of polytonality in "aggressive" music -- for instance, I've always loved the moment in "Right Off" on Jack Johnson when, after having been in E throughout the beginning of the song, John McLaughlin suddenly jumps to B-flat while Michael Henderson is still in E, and right at the same time, Miles enters for the first time, starting his solo on a loud, high note that only heightens the sense of unresolved-ness. The collision is fantastic, tense and dissonant and raucous.
Similarly, I love the way that Les Claypool's bassline in the second half of "Groundhog Day", which is basically in C-sharp minor, collides head-on with Larry LaLonde's countermelody in E minor; it gives the whole thing a kind of harmonic edge and sophistication that's a far rarer commodity than I'd like. Their tendencies towards atonality are a big part of what grabs me about Primus -- though I really haven't given them much attention since the mid-nineties, and haven't heard anything else as good as Suck on This. (Really, I base my entire appraisal of Primus on that one brilliant album. It's interesting that Primus don't get cited with Cheap Trick and Frampton on the list of "bands whose best releases were early, live albums"; maybe I need to give Sailing the Seas of Cheese another try sometime. Pork Soda wasn't too engaging, though, and Tales from the Punchbowl didn't grab me at all.)
They often get compared to Rush, and I can't say the comparison is invalid -- after all, the first song on their first album starts with a Rush quote! And yet the two bands are miles apart in attitude and approach. Personally I think that, odd as it may sound, the Pink Floyd influence on Primus is probably underestimated -- after all, the evidence is there: they've covered "Have a Cigar" on record, and Claypool has of course covered the entire Animals album in concert. Claypool's bass playing is obviously millions and millions of miles away from Roger Waters, and yet I can hear an influence there -- and also, perhaps more tangibly, in his vocals.
Hmmmm. So what other bands are openly atonal, or polytonal, in a structured (or structured-seeming) way? I'm not thinking of drones (Stars of the Lid) or noise bands, nor even the likes of "A Saucerful of Secrets". There's probably some Mr. Bungle that comes close, but something like "Carry Stress in the Jaw" isn't what I'm thinking of, either -- that's not really atonal at all. The live tracks on the B-side of Weather Report's I Sing the Body Electric are a bit closer to what I'm thinking of. And of course there are Phish improvisations, like that on "Union Federal", that head to similar territory.
Jeez -- Phish, Weather Report, Pink Floyd, and Primus! I'm losing my indie credibility here. Not that I ever had nor wanted any...
I wonder what my life would be like if someone had turned me on to early AC/DC and Black Sabbath when I was in my early teens? Probably not too different. Still, I had a lot of friends who were into metal and punk, and I probably could've gotten more hooked by Black Sabbath than I ever did Metallica, who I never quite got fully into -- it was always an acquired taste, though I still like Ride the Lightning and parts of ...And Justice For All. Similarly, what if my sisters had been into the Sugar Hill Gang, instead of A-Ha and Wham? After all, I was listening to Thriller obsessively -- it was the first album I owned (the Eurhythmics' Touch was the second) -- would it have been that much of a leap? But I'm glad I grew up listening to my sisters' music, I think I made out well from it. My eldest sister, as I recall, listened mostly to whatever was on the radio -- which meant "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)", "Dirty Laundry", some Cars songs, and similar stuff. My middle sister did too, but also was into stuff like the B-52's and Squeeze -- both bands for which I still have a soft spot -- as well as The Rolling Stones. (She also liked Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Psychedelic Furs, neither of which really grabbed me.) And my youngest sister liked the A-Ha and Wham, but also liked a lot of music from the '60s and '70s -- she made me tapes of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (So Far), the Big Chill soundtrack, and a 3-tape set called Spirit of the '60s, and I pretty much wore them all out. (I still have all of the above, save the last tape of Spirit of the '60s, which got eaten a long time ago.)
That last exposed me to a lot of less-familiar stuff from the era, like Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" and the Lemon Pipers' "Green Tambourine", as well as to more common stuff that I might not have otherwise heard, like The Byrds and Sly and the Family Stone. Listening to WZLX out of Boston also set a lot of my future interests and listening habits; I still remember the first thing I ever heard on the station, which (as I was browsing through the radio, looking for an alternative to the beer-rock station out of Manchester, NH) caught my ear because it was so left-field: "Jackie Blue", by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. And I heard Cream for the first time on WZLX, and "Have a Cigar" and "Wish You Were Here", and "Glass Onion", and "Lucky Man", and many other songs, all of which I used to sit and tape (whenever I heard something I liked) with my cheapie little component system which my sister was kind enough to give me. They used to have something called the "Perfect Album Side", during which they would play, you guessed it, one side of a classic album; the only one I remember for certain was Sgt. Pepper, which among other things proved memorable as their copy had the locking groove at the end, which I'd never heard before and, come to think of it, may well not have heard since: is it on the CD? I only have the American version of the LP, which apparently doesn't have the lead-out groove or the "dog cut" (a 20000 hertz tone, right before the lead-out groove, that Paul had them put on the album just for dogs).
Oh, the new iMac looks like a damn lamp. I don't like it.
January 7, 2002 (link)
I've been skimming/re-reading an old favorite, the Twilight of the Gods trilogy by Dennis Schmidt. I hadn't read them since seventh or eighth grade; the writing doesn't always hold up very well, but there is something compelling about his integration of various historical mythologies (especially the Sumerian/Babylonian), although by the third book the storyline is laboring under the weight of so many different cultural references that it gets a bit silly. Still, I think the power and credibility of the story is considerably enhanced by drawing upon things that people really did believe in, back so many years ago. Obviously, I can't really be objective about these books, since I enjoyed them so much when I was younger, and they did leave a real impression on me; I still get a bit of a thrill out of reading the climactic battle of the second book, a massive collision of Babylonian demons straight out of the Necronomicon, including Gilgamesh's nemesis Humbaba, the giant with a beard of human entrails!
Speaking of which, everyone reading this should read the original Epic of Gilgamesh, if you haven't already. It's a great story in and of itself, but there's also something to be said for reaching across several millennia and realizing that, a handful of details aside, Gilgamesh was preoccupied with essentially the same thing that haunts us today -- and speaks of them in terms that are, perhaps surprisingly, not at all alien to modern ears. (From what I can tell, the Sumerian conception of the afterlife was extremely grim.)
Sometime next week, when I've finished off the last of my pending freelance work, I will:
January 6, 2002 (link)
I've had many recent thoughts I wanted to put here, but obviously I haven't gotten around to writing them down -- and naturally, I've forgotten most of them...
Dave Holland is normally a musician of consummate skill in just about every department -- intonation, phrasing, speed, rhythm, time, and whatever else -- and is one of my favorite bass players of all time. However, his Life Cycle album on ECM is a solo set on which he exclusively plays cello, an instrument with which he's not normally associated...and unfortunately, though he's a bassist of the highest order, Holland is just not a first-rate cellist.
ECM is run by a man named Manfred Eicher who is notorious for perfectionism, and there are a lot of running jokes that involve using his name as part of the label's acronym -- i.e. "Eicher-Controlled Music" and that sort of thing. (Short digression: a friend of a friend once had a recording session there at which he recorded two different takes of a particular song. One take was far more electric and powerful, but also had a fairly unimportant wrong note at one point, whereas the other take was cleaner but lifeless by comparison. My friend's friend wanted to use the livelier take, but Eicher insisted, and said something to the effect of "I do not release records with mistakes on them." So my friend's friend walked out. I think the record got released, though I'm not sure whether it was on ECM, or which take got used.) Given that perfectionism, it's surprising that this album got released with so many pitch problems (especially on Side Two). Cello is a very demanding and "naked" instrument, and you really can't get away with playing it out of tune -- it just sounds bad, in a way that you certainly don't need to be a trained musician to notice. I'm also not the biggest fan of Holland's cello tone, which is a bit bright and "phase-y" for my taste -- though since I only have the album on tape, it's hard to say whether the mastering to cassette might've exacerbated the problem, as I've found that ECM cassettes are sometimes of sub-par quality. I've never been a big fan of solo cello, anyway -- I enjoy it in ensemble writing, but it's not among my favorites as a solo instrument. Interestingly, though, the passages that Holland plays pizzicato tend to appeal to me more; part of that is because I tend to think that's what he's best at -- after all, he makes his living playing pizzicato, for the most part -- but it's also a real relief from his comparatively strident cello tone. There's also a bit more of a feeling of space when he plays pizz, and it makes a nice change -- particularly since you don't hear very many cellists who can play pizz with the kind of phrasing and two-fingered speed that a master bassist (ha ha) can pull off.
Finally, Holland's compositions on this set just aren't that interesting to me -- either they come off as simplistic riffing (lots of double-stops in fifths), or they lack profile and seem aimless and meandering. D.H. has written many great jazz songs ("Conference of the Birds", "Four Winds", "The Oracle", and others), but in this solo context his compositions don't seem to have a strong enough formal element (and structural use of rhythm) to create a sense of forward motion and propulsiveness, and they don't have enough of a meditative or understated quality to work on a slow-time level, either. The song titles come off as a bit pretentious, too; I suppose "Conference of the Birds" and the like could've seemed pretentious if they hadn't worked, but since they were married to such great tunes, the issue never really came up, whereas on this set, the music that goes with "LIFE CYCLE: Inception / Discovery / Longing / Search / Resolution" (which is the suite that takes up Side One of the tape) just doesn't justify the title (nor its uncomfortable resemblance to the section titles of A Love Supreme). So while Life Cycle isn't really bad or anything like that, none of the songs really provide any kind of convincing narrative, and so -- other than the pizzicato passages -- there's not really anything in the album that engages me.
Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
The Once and Future King, T.H. White
Sophocles II (Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes), Sophocles, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore
The Moon and Sixpence (on tape), W. Somerset Maugham, read by Robert Hardy
Tom Brown's Schooldays (on tape, abridged), Thomas Hughes, read by Rowan Atkinson