Saturday, August 1, 2015

John Lydon's "Anger is an Energy": Book Review

"In fact, I changed music twice." So claims John Lydon early in these five-hundred-plus pages of recollections. He later boasts that "I changed history." At fifty-seven, living in Malibu, the punk provocateur enjoys sailing and loafing, far from the "dustbin" he came from in London, a son among many in an Irish immigrant family. As he explains the title of his second memoir, Anger is an Energy, Lydon reminds readers that he channels anger for neither hatred nor violence, but to motivate principled, sensible change.

As he covered his upbringing and his career with the Sex Pistols in Rotten: No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish (1994), Lydon may repeat tales of his formative years here. He attempts to get the record straight; he castigates Jon Savage's England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (1991) for its distortions. Lydon's reminiscences, which may provide less insight than expected to audiences who have scoured Savage's book and other chronicles of punk's heyday, nonetheless capture his playful, wry voice.

This book, set down by journalist Andrew Perry, does capture many moments when Lydon enriches our understanding. He speculates on what "a bitter, twisted fuck" he must have appeared at Malcolm McLaren and Vivianne Westwood's SEX boutique as the band was formed. He explains why safety pins were sported. "It was about fallout, having an instant repair kit for when Viv's goods fell apart."

Later, he judges that her "aesthetic counted more to her than the actual physicality of a human being." At ground zero for the punk boom, Lydon narrates McLaren's manipulation of him and his bandmates. He struggled against his wishes, and the other Pistols. He articulates that "my songs don't lecture, they give you freedom of thought, inside of the agenda I'm pushing." He makes enemies. But these are not people, but institutions. Placing no faith in political parties or armed resistance, he instead urges his audience to follow his lead. He forges, in his estimation, a daily struggle with "integrity" to banish a "witch-hunt" against dissenters, freaks, and those the system crushes or hates.

Lydon challenges "punk as a standardized uniform" worn by those with no insights into non-conformity. When it comes to punk, "there are no rules." His disgust with the "Boo Nazis" who replaced the movement's open-mindedness with "rules and regulations" led him to Public Image Ltd.

As for music and the message: "If you're not doing this for the poor old biddy that lives next door and can't afford the heating in the winter, then you don't count at all. Studded leather jackets for all is not a creed I can endorse." Here, you hear Lydon's humanism, the commonsense beneath his sly stance.

He also offers insights into fellow musicians and singers caught up in the spotlight. Not only towards his friends, humble or famous, and his rancorous bandmates, but to such figures as Joe Strummer. Lydon contrasts the isolation of the Clash, who sought fame and big-label success, with the purported socialism and sloganeering that, in his opinion, made them a caricature of the values they mouthed.

Breaking with such contradictions, PiL sought to reform the way bands made music. This is the second of the changes Lydon promoted. He attempted collaboration with Jah Wobble and Keith Levine, two strong-willed individuals. Drugs, egos, and drink worsened the communal situation soon. But the band's second album, Metal Box (1979), issued by musicians barely out of their teens, "is a stunningly beautiful tapestry of high anxiety." They never reached this peak again, and soon, despite what in Lydon's terms appears to be a misunderstanding of their mission, PiL soon became a series of musicians backing whatever the singer felt he wanted to do in the studio and live. Lydon worked with some stunning talent, such as guitarist John McGeoch, but the band never recaptured its first spark.

Like this autobiography and like some of PiL's eclectic earlier music, this narrative resists linear fluidity through italicized interspersions. These deal with his wife Nora (whose daughter, Ari Up, was a founding member of the Slits), Shakespeare, celebrity woes, and bad teeth among other topics. These short excursions lighten the weight of so much detail from Lydon, who appears to have kept journals and archives well in order to draw upon, decades later, in the preparation of this account.

As he admits halfway through: "But I digress here, Sorry, it's the way my brain works." By the mid-80s, Lydon warily suns himself in Venice Beach, determined to leave London for Los Angeles. Working with Ginger Baker, Steve Vai, Bill Laswell, and his band now consisting of Allan Dias, Lu Edmonds, Bruce Smith and McGeoch, Album (1986) defied its generic title and packaging. This line-up persisted until near the end of the decade, when again, PiL splintered and lost its direction.

While Lydon acknowledges the difficulties of funding and handling a fractious lot of musicians, he appears to judge PiL's later music as worthy of acclaim as its earlier recordings. To me, as a fan, I find Lydon faces a blind spot. The band's music after Wobble and Wardle fit more into eclectic rock, but it no longer felt as unclassifiable or as alien as Metal Box, despite that album's humble budget.

However, Lydon understands the challenge. He muses: do people want the "scandal-mongering of a nineteen-year-old? Or do they want to go on a journey of self-discovery?" PiL contributes to the soundtrack of Point Break, Lydon tries out for the cast of the film adaptation of Quadrophenia, and he announces on the inevitable Filthy Lucre reunion tour of the Pistols: "I'm fat, forty and back."

He contributes ads for Schlitz, Mountain Dew and English butter. He appears on a brief-lived Rotten TV on MTV.  He also graces I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and Judge Judy. He likes making nature documentaries: Megabugs, Shark Attack and Goes Ape. He roams about, doing what he likes in and out of music. Unfortunately, the production of Jesus Christ Superstar with him as Herod is cancelled just before it opens. He displays a likeable wit, and learns to handle his fame with grace.

Lydon sums up his legacy. "My songs were echoes of revolution and empathy for people, and certainly not the work of some sneery, selfish little toad." He ends this genial, if garrulous, tale by praising his family, insisting on privacy and celebrating his "hobby" of PiL. In the end, he seeks "nothing but joy to the world." Happy on the beach, caring for Nora's grandchildren, John Lydon lives as he pleases, and as fifty-odd years ago in North London tenements, as he had dreamed. (In slightly altered form to Spectrum Culture 7-30-15; with one word censored, to Amazon US 8-1-15)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Iasc betta anseo


Betta Fish CountryMax.com

D'imigh Caisaide go dti Prág le déanaí. Tá iasc "betta" aici. Mar sin, tá dith uainn chun bheatha é.

Ní raibh mé a chothú iasc riamh. Bhain mé triail as dhéanamh seo. Ach, ní raibh mé ábalta a mheas nuair a chothú an t-am ceart, fós.

Ní raibh a fhoglaim an uair nuair Leon nó Caisaide chothú é, freisin.
Ní raibh a fheicéail siad go minic ar feadh an tsamraidh. D'obair muid agus ní raibh fhios againn chéile.

Bhreathaim an iasc rua. Snamh sé thart. Mar sin féin, nach bhfuil sé in ann maireachtáil leis an iasc eile. 

N'fheadar má tá sé sásta nó feargach anseo. Bheul, tá fhios ag Leon an uair agus an méid bea anois. Measaim go beidh a chothrú aire a thabhairt do an t-iasc.

A betta fish here.

Cassidy left for Prague recently. She has a "betta" fish. Therefore, there's a need for us to feed it.

I have not taken care of a fish before. I tried to do this. But, I was not able to judge when to care for it at the right time, still.

I did not learn the time when Leo or Cassidy cared for it, also. I did not see them often during a week. We worked and we did not know when we'd be together.

I watched the red fish. It swims around. Nevertheless, it is not able to live with another fish.

I wonder if it's happy or angry here. Well, Leo knows the time and the amount of food now. I think that he will take care of the fish. Photo/ Grianghraf.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Kinks' "Anthology: 1964-1971": Music Review


My favorite period of the Kinks begins around 1966 and ends in 1971. So, I was eager to hear this. After their initial hits, a 1965 union dispute barred this fractious band from touring the U.S. for over four years. So, they had to content themselves during this momentous decade crafting assured albums which expanded their lyrical range and musical ambition in deft and literate manner. They left behind their rawer R&B roots, as they blended pop with hard rock, country, music-hall, pub-jazz, and  Appalachian styles. Most of these gain welcome coverage on this box set. Adding twenty-five unreleased songs to total over a hundred tracks, these five discs mark the Kinks' fiftieth anniversary.

On disc one, their first efforts capture well the charm of the British Invasion, but often sound generic, even if pleasing. "You Really Got Me" erupts as the eighth inclusion, with Dave Davies' memorable riff and Ray Davies' growl leaping out. A bit later, a subdued "Stop Your Sobbing" reveals Ray's mastery of the gentler delivery of emotion. Other songs shift from a Beatles to a Yardbirds influence, but the band has yet to leave its own impression on these competent blues-based covers and homages.

"Tired of Waiting for You," in 1965, slows down the speed; it lets Ray's melody find its weary pace. "Everybody's Going to Be Happy" revs up the energy, combining the Beatles' joy with the Kinks' stutter and shuffle, as the band begins to find its own delivery. "Who'll Be the Next in Line" continues this direction, as a slightly sour note, thickened by Pete Quaife's bass, slips into the jaunty rhythms. A wistful "Set Me Free" shines, but "I Need You" recycles their first hit, signalling a need for a re-think.

This arrives as disc two opens with "See My Friends." Its subdued mood hints at Eastern modal melody, amid prescient tinges of psychedelia. The moodier piano and guitar, during a few hushed demos on such as "There's a New World Just Opening for Me," prepare for familiar album cuts like "Well-Respected Man," "Till the End of the Day," and "Where Have All the Good Times Gone." This young ensemble turns to social commentary, melancholy, wit, and nostalgia. This continues as the Kinks enter their reflective period. Suitably, disc three commences with "Sunny Afternoon." Many standout tracks from their first mature set of songs, 1966's Face to Face, complement this transition. Those from the next year's Something Else, mingled with alternate mixes and singles (many of which have been appended to the long overdue re-releases of the band's albums happening the past few years), deepen the Kinks' commitment to record the ambiance when youth fades and regrets increase.

All the same, given disc four starts with the yammer of "Autumn Almanac," its studied stance goes a long way in one or two marathon sittings. That twee song has annoyed me ever since I heard it on a distant predecessor to this anthology, the double-LP The Kinks Chronicles. But that is a quibble. The abundance of inventive riffs, harmonies and poise  dominates as the band, by 1966, learns what it does best. They pursued beauty, and sometimes pain, for the next five years, and they found its articulation in two or three minutes at a time. The albums Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, Lola and Muswell Hillbillies (the last was issued after the end of this compilation) pay tribute to the band's talents, with some of the best music of the later 1960s and the start of the 1970s, no small feat. "This Is Where I Belong" sums up the band's vision, and their preference, as they realized the satisfaction in the quotidian. The bleariness of Dave's "Death of a Clown," the kick of "Village Green," the drama of "Two Sisters," the send-up of "David Watts," the gender-bending of "Lola," the silliness of "Apeman" sustained the band's wry message, rivaling that of novelists, stylists or filmmakers who exploited this era of sudden change, spirited satire, and a flurry of trends and be-ins.

As for the hackneyed subject of a musician's laments from the road, when success exacts its cost, the band managed to create an insightful first-person plural narrative on the concept LP Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround. Sampled on disc five, following the lesser-known and equally intriguing TV series soundtrack Arthur, this 1970 album shakes up the music more, critiquing that industry. "This Time Tomorrow" sums up the excitement and bewilderment of what a rock star's life might be like. "Powerman" finds Dave Davies amplified, supported by Mick Avory's drums, as the band begins to get restive and rowdy, after four years of mostly acoustic and subdued songs. They kept fighting the system which gave to them and took away, and made their frustrations tuneful. The Kinks watched as well as participated, and noted what many of their peers rushed past or paraded as.

Taken as a few songs at a time, the band's determination to convey the happy moments and gloomy times of life satisfies best. Ray's nasal tone, and increasingly affected delivery during this period, as his approach became more theatrical, may distinguish him from certain of his strutting peers in the major rock bands of the later 1960s. It also may have labeled the band's songs from this stretch of their long career as an acquired taste, a set of English oddities, aural curios set on a shelf to dust off and contemplate. Compare this effect to the global tour breakthroughs afforded the Beatles, Stones, Who and Yardbirds. Perhaps forced exile from American concerts hastened the band's insularity. But it also challenged the Kinks to concentrate on their skills, and to examine their homeland closely and honestly. They may have turned older than their comrades, somehow, not in chronology than in outlook, and certainly their words and music attest to a rapid progress into self- and social analysis.

Since then, musicians and songwriters better appreciated the Kinks' achievement. Everyone from Van Halen to The Fall, the Pretenders to Quiet Riot, Yo La Tengo to 2 Live Crew has covered these songs. In this initial stage, covered exhaustively here at last, the Kinks merit acclaim. After this, in the 1970s, they returned to big venues and big hits, when they toured the world (and America) in what evolved after more concept albums on stage into a less ornamented, streamlined arena-rock manifestation. They earned their stadium crowds, but for me, I keep replaying the quieter years after the Invasion and before the megatours and blunt hits. This intelligent, searching and poignant legacy merits this abundant manifestation. These elegant results, first as a series of intricate albums and singles evoking life cycles, villages, the Great War and Australian emigration, musical careerism, local London, and love gained and lost and never had, have pleased listeners like me, all these years.
(Spectrum Culture 12-2-14)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Opal's "Happy Nightmare Baby": Music Review


For over three decades, David Roback crafts neo-psychedelia with a punch, and a sensuous sprawl. Best known for leading Mazzy Star, he co-founded Los Angeles' Rain Parade. They combined indie- punk spirit with the haze of the Byrds and the Doors. Their initial recordings stayed quiet, however, preferring atmospheric yearning over amplified confrontation. After Roback was kicked out of that band, he started Clay Allison in 1983. After a couple of singles, that ensemble changed their name to the more evocative Opal. This was well-chosen, as the jeweled shimmer of that gemstone can reveal transparency or remain opaque. Similarly, the band's sound invited intimacy or turned away from it.

{Happy Nightmare Baby} stands out for its contributions by bassist Kendra Smith. Leaving the band she had co-founded in 1981 with Steve Wynn as The Dream Syndicate, another influential Paisley Underground L.A.-based ensemble, she joined Clay Allison. They recorded a strong first single, "Fell From the Sun," later covered by The Pale Saints. With Keith Mitchell on drums, Roback's new band progressed from a folk-blues blend into a more spacious, looser musical path into eerie introspection.

That's why some of the best songs on their first and only full-length album (SST, 1987) surprise. More assertive, more unhinged, its varied tracks appeal to the upended sensibility that Opal favored as they became confident rather than hesitant. "Rocket Machine" begins with swaggering vocals, crunchy guitar and staggered keyboards. On first hearing this, I swore it was a T-Rex cover. Roback and Smith, who together write two-thirds of these nine tracks, opt for a sinister swirl. One of the standout tracks, its ambitious arrangement succeeds. Taking its time to roam, it deepens its ambiance.

"Magick Power" repeats the title phrase and the riff, as it bores down. Roback's production scatters bits of the guitars, drums, and organ into the background. He keeps the center focused on the clash of percussion and the unruffled chant of Smith. This tension enriches the track, keeping it unpredictable.

"Relevation" features the rambling, slightly country-and-western lope that both Rain Parade and Mazzy Star sustained. It rolls along as one of its shortest songs. Lighter in tone, it ambles smoothly.

"A Falling Star" returns to the glam rock template. Smith's detached vocal challenges the hearer. She waits, speaking between effects-laden guitar, and over Keith Mitchell's tapped percussion. It's over barely after it began. This segues into "She's A Diamond." Anticipating the attitude of Mazzy's Star's vocalist, sultry Hope Sandoval, Smith's delivery again states her confident disdain, this time of a rival for love. Roback chose both his vocalists well; he seems to prefer female singers who hint of danger.

Some of this album recalls the bluesy style of Opal's previous pair of E.P.s. These, collected as {Early Recordings}, explored folksier directions. Mazzy Star took up these often, especially in its latest incarnation, on 2013's eloquent and mature reunion album {Seasons of Your Joy}. These sounds, in rawer form, can be found in Opal's own integration of glam and psychedelia, blues and country, hard rock and spacier excursions. Some may find {Happy Nightmare Baby} tedious if taken in all at once. It suits a reflective or melancholy state of mind, but this beckons as a dark backdrop for altered states.

"Supernova" compresses the insistent, Eastern-tinged guitar and keyboards coupling into a more grating, aggressive tune. Smith's vocals integrate her calm tone into the grittier, more unsettled melody. Roback's arrangement emphasizes a droning background, against a harsher guitar attack. Well-sequenced, this pairing with "Siamese Trap" and its clanging chords and keyboards harmonize. The closing track, "Soul Giver," reprised from an E.P., mixes the organ and guitar, percussion and vocals, into an imperious anthem. These three songs stir the abrasive into the smooth. They invite seduction, yet remain forbidding. Opal's co-leaders write songs that can stretch out and let the groove unfold and wander. Not as catchy as the shorter tunes, they insist on repetition and textured layering.

Still, the concise combination of tunefulness and mystery energizes the title track. Imagine Nico fronting The Doors. Ray Manzarek's keyboard style gains a homage on this song, although I cannot identify whether Suki Ewers or William Cooper plays (both went on to work with Mazzy Star; Aaron Sherer is also credited here, if tersely, and I assume he contributes tabla and/or drums). Both Mazzy Star and Opal stress in photos and presentation only the lead guitarist and the female singer. But both bands benefit from their overshadowed backing musicians. The spare liner notes on their records discourage the acclaim the whole band merits for their subtle or forceful moments enhancing Roback.

The guitarist remains as the only constant in his lineups. Smith left the band during a tour opening for the Jesus and Mary Chain. Sandoval, who accompanied Opal, took over as singer, before the band changed its name once again to become Mazzy Star. That band became much more famous than any of the Paisley Underground. Still, Smith and her colleagues deserve respect for their talents, as this album proves. Smith's sole solo album, cleverly titled {Five Ways of Disappearing} (4 AD, 1995) is worth seeking out for its own enervated appeal. By the 1990s, she was said to be living in a cave in Northern California, raising goats in Humboldt County and playing the pump organ, far off the grid. (2-16-15 to Spectrum Culture)

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Bedhead 1992-1998": Music Review

I revisited this band by hearing these forty-five songs on the long highway between Amarillo and Tucumcari. The setting fit the mood. These tracks, dry, clear, harsh if sometimes lush, reflect Bedhead's Wichita Falls, Texas, origins. This anthology sustains defiant perspectives of a band who stared down ennui, doubt and faith. Two decades on, Bedhead's stark music holds up well. They emerged in the indie scene of the early 90s, but they kept apart from trends or irony. Their sonic perfectionism, lyrical depth and hushed vocals presented five young men with a distinctive approach, separated from louder or trendier outfits now forgotten. Here, all of Bedhead's recordings are reissued, their three studio albums, along with singles and two e.p.'s.

You may own, as I do, Bedhead's original discs. No additional tracks to those three albums appear. But a few rarities add value. Particularly strong are the debut singles, "Bedside Table" and "Living Well," from their earliest stage, in 1992. These show the band in a grittier, if slightly more familiar early-90s indie sound. They channel the guitar attack of Joy Division, while hinting at the Velvet Underground styles in pacing and chords which gained prominence on the three full-length albums on Trance Syndicate (run by King Coffey of the Butthole Surfers). They stood out from that label's acts, the raunchy attitude flaunted by their Texan peers, and the moods of college rock at the time, as slackers and grunge edged aside more introspective artists.

Matt Gallaway's 25,000 word essay (see an excerpt on Salon) appended here tells of his own love of this Dallas-based quintet. Matthew Barnhart's remastering allows every whisper, cymbal, and sigh its proper place. These renderings open up space, so these fretboard squeaks, feedback hums and studio ambiance add intimacy to the vocals of Matt Kadane. His intelligent lyrics about mortality, pain and belief (or its lack) play off the band's music--often spare, once in a while rocking out--memorably.

Each album keeps its own disc, as if to insist upon its integrity. (The set is also available in downloaded files, as reviewed by me, and in a limited-edition vinyl version.) Their first album, What Fun Life Was struts out with confidence. The band pinned its sound down from the start. "Haywire" fittingly piles up busy guitars over a buried voice and matter-of-fact vocal delivery. Its soft-loud alternation may not be novel, and Seam as a worthy peer comes to mind as of 1994. "The Unpredictable Landlord" chugs along, yearning, then chiming. These tinges of country roots enhance many moments on these discs, distinguishing them from a facile post-rock or slowcore category. The brasher remake of "Living Well" shakes up their style, which as a slight drawback throughout these songs can make them (especially if heard all at once on a long drive or lazy afternoon) seem samey. While Bedhead mastered the subdued, troubled sensations on record, sequencing threatens to lull listeners into slumber. Hearing all these songs in order, one longs all the more for lurches into speed.

"Powder" conveys propulsion and dynamics, akin to Slint. However, Bedhead rejects the scorn or poses of Pavement, even as it saunters near that band's own guitar interplay and droll vocal delivery. Matt Kadane emphasizes emotion, rather than irony. His brother Bubba and Kris Wheat contribute guitars which sidle into waltzes, as on "Unfinished," gracefully. This energy dimmed. Their second album Beheaded proved their most somber. Gone were many moments such as that Meat Puppets-inspired twang of "To the Ground" (which even if that riff irked me, at least showed their droll humor). Instead, 1996's sophomore effort sunk lower into self-examination, or self-loathing. Matt's declaimed voice resisted gentle rhythms which infused at least three of these tracks as variations on "Pale Blue Eyes." While commendable as homage, this reverent tone begins to dull by repetition. The guitars reverberating on "Felo de Se" released this tension. These Tex-Mex strums forced that song forward, into a jauntiness which clashed with the singer's stubbornness to give in or to lighten up.

Trini Martinez' glockenspiel, ringing into the emptiness, signals change, as it opens the 1998 album whose title implies the same, Transaction de Novo. Steve Albini's recording balances the mix precisely. Instruments pierce the gloom, as Albini integrates tension. He lets in the dessiccated air of the studio. The tape swirls and incorporates the rattles and jitters inherent in the band's playing and Matt's singing. A dramatic album, it varies amplified with softer songs. "Parade" floats in as if from a country dancehall's door. Then, it lurches into thunder, massing its guitars into a climactic downpour.

As Gallaway informs us, the band did not preserve its takes on tape. Instead, Bedhead recorded over each tape until they got each song down. This accounts for the lack of alternate versions. It testifies to the band's perfectionism. "Extramundane" is one of the third album's catchiest cuts. It digs into a groove until it scrapes it clean. Mathematical rhythms, as Martinez' drums and Tench Coxe's bass lock in, revel in a half-punk, half-folk song recalling the rave-ups of The Feelies. "Lepidopetera" (covered in turn by like-minded colleagues Silkworm, who praise Bedhead as part of a vanishing "weird old America") movingly narrates mortality as from a moth's point-of-view. The guitars halt and hesitate as the moth's trail is charted. The song ends: "{My guardian angel has finally arrived.}" "Psychosomatica" menaces, its guitar and bass threat matching Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook of Joy Division for threat. Yet, as with Ian Curtis at times, Matt Kadane stays calm, refusing histrionics.

Bedhead's comrades in Low, Codeine and Galaxie 500 all covered Joy Division well. But the tweak done to "Disorder" by Bedhead, inverting a key chord, ironing out the tension but keeping it from slack, slowing it down, reveals the impact of post-punk, muffled and smothered throughout much of the band's releases, impressively. Also on disc four, two unreleased Bedhead songs include a sauntering, percolating cover of "Golden Brown" by The Stranglers and the band's own "Intents + Purposes." The latter, the only "new" song from the band, fits in but adds nothing new. The albums make the band's argument best. Their remastering heightens the grainy texture of these challenging, rewarding songs. The results, handsomely curated by Numero, make this a recommended purchase.

(Amazon US 11-15-14 took a few sentences from a draft; as above to Spectrum Culture 12/1/14)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Son Volt's "Trace": Music Review



I asked the record store clerk what was playing, the fall of 1995. She answered with a mumble. "Some Dolt?" "Sun Bowl?" What was she saying, I wondered? I looked confused, so she repeated the name, this time pointing to the cover. Son Volt's debut, Trace, sounded familiar even if the band was new to me. It seems that I had heard that singer before. I vaguely recalled that after Uncle Tupelo fell apart, both of the singer-songwriters were forming bands. Jay Farrar was recording his own album. 

So, this was it. "I like it," I told the clerk. She shrugged. "Me too, but his voice gets to me after too long." Farrar's former partner, Jeff Tweedy, brought the sunnier side to their pioneering alt-country-punk blend. He played McCartney to his co-singer and bassist's Lennon. No surprise that Tweedy's new lineup, Wilco, continued the mix of rock but with lighter tunes, along with Americana and, later, electronics. Son Volt, its name combining two historic studios, hearkens back. It roams up and down alongside the Mississippi River, near Uncle Tupelo's hometown of Belleville, Illinois. It may be a looser version of a concept album, loneliness on a muddy bank.

Its forty-two minutes alternate rock crunch with honky-tonk swagger, and feature desolate ballads followed by slamming power chords. It's starkly produced by the same producer who worked with Tweedy and Farrar before and after their new band's debuts, Brian Paulson. Similarities endure. Unsurprisingly, Trace continues where Uncle Tupelo's last album, Anodyne, left off. But it lacks evidence that Farrar had progressed or dared more. This commitment, over Sun Volt's career, Farrar's solo albums, remains the strength and weakness of Son Volt. I prefer them to Wilco, but I remain in the minority, given Wilco’s great success since.

"May the wind take your troubles away," Farrar sings as the album opens with "Windfall." It is lovely, thanks to Dave Boquist's fiddle, but it risks right away exposing the heart of Farrar's approach.  Coming out of his teens singing with Uncle Tupelo, he already sounded jaded, world-weary, and about to fall into the grave after endless heartache and repeated resignation. Are such lyrics a sign of a young talent adept at channeling traditional tropes? Or, as Robert Christgau, who never liked Uncle Tupelo either, sniped in a take-down of Trace, a sign of stagnation?

These tracks compliment night rides, gloomy mornings, lazy afternoons. For all their amplified attitude, bolstered as on "Live Free," "Route" or "Drown" by original Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, many of the brasher tunes don't leap out as much as they should. Yet, "Tear Stained Eye" steps forward gracefully. Farrar laments: "St. Genevieve can hold back the water/ Saints don't bother with the tear-stained eye." It chugs along steadily, between a banjo and pedal-steel backing. It deserves to be covered by many a bar-band ever since. Similarly, "Ten Second News" crawls along appealingly, if full of despair. "Catching On" sounds most like Tupelo, and balances emotion with verve the best. Jim Boquist’s bass moves this along forcefully.

"Too Early" adroitly adds accordion to the mid-tempo arrangement. A concluding cover of Ron Wood's "Mystifies Me" recalls a Rolling Stones' outtake from their early-1970s country-blues period. With tracks laid down in the early winter of late 1994, this may reflect Farrar’s confusion after his alliance with his longtime friend Tweedy splintered. At least Heidorn had returned.

In closing, this album holds up respectably. Son Volt's next two albums pursued this same style if to diminishing returns. I had to stop my wife from throwing out that pair of CD's, as she admitted boredom. Perhaps not by accident, Farrar then abandoned the Son Volt name by the end of the 1990s for even less inspired solo records. He then tellingly revived the more reliable band name in 2005. That ensemble issues decent albums. Their latest, titled Honky Tonk, pays tribute to the C&W Bakersfield sound. But it often feels indistinguishable from its inspirations from decades earlier. Whether this is progress or complacency, I continue to admire Farrar's voice. Yet, I find myself, like that record store clerk two decades ago, tired of such dogged consistency.

I still wait for Farrar to take more chances, as Uncle Tupelo, and punks, did. And, as a canny Wilco led by Tweedy has done since 1995, to critical and popular acclaim. I'm not expecting Farrar or the reconstituted Son Volt to play stadiums, or jam-band festivals. There's a place for their more stolid, starker, roots-oriented music that challenges complacency and unsettles listeners. But when I play my hometown L.A. heroes such as X, The Gun Club, The Blasters, and Los Lobos, I hear how punk and Americana joined forces to innovate. I think Uncle Tupelo blew doors open. Wilco sauntered forward. Farrar and Son Volt snuck in that barn door behind. (Published 3/15: Holy Hell! Spectrum Culture series of looking back at albums 20 years earlier.)



Monday, July 20, 2015

Damon + Naomi's "Fortune": Music Review

Their music grows more reflective as this couple mature. Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, for over two decades, explore subdued moods on their intimate songs and vocals. After the demise of Galaxie 500, this drummer and bassist continued their partnership, insisting on an organic, integral sense of music that turned inward more than their previous band.

These eleven brief tracks accompany Yang's half-hour video piece, "a silent film with a live soundtrack" of the same name, Fortune. It commemorates both her late father's passing and portraits from the middle of the last century painted by the father of Norman von Hotzendorff. Norman inherited his father's archive, as Naomi had her father's photography. Add tarot cards to the title of this album, which conveys a autumnal, contemplative series of songs.

Recorded and played entirely by the duo, this album is closely miked. Acoustic guitars and reflective keyboards play off gentle washes of snares and a steady bass. The pair had brought their talents to Galaxie 500 in Damon's jazz-based percussion and Naomi's self-taught and insistent bass patterns. many years later, these qualities merge with their voices, intertwined as on "The North Light" beautifully, and on some of the other tracks, separately.

The first few songs set the melancholy but not despairing tone. They blend together. They merge into a tapestry of introspective meditations on loss and recovery. They are dignified, and they drift along.

Halfway into the sequence, "Shadows" stands out as a fine example of the layered, meticulous pace that Krukowski and Yang have mastered. Hushed, it does not let go of emotion, but it cradles it. Damon's yearning vocals over his distant percussion and Naomi's faint backing voice carry sorrow.

"Towards Tomorrow" and "Hurt House" offer lovely instrumental interludes. Yang's "Sky Memories" and allows her a lead vocal. Her contributions to Galaxie 500 before the mike were far fewer than guitarist Dean Wareham, but her unhurried phrasing always complements her measured bass lines.

Concluding with the longest song on an album clocking in at twenty-eight minutes, "Time Won't Own Me" hearkens to Damon + Naomi's signature sound. It's slyly jaunty beneath a shy exterior. It asks for connection; its modest arrangement and hushed delivery confess a desire for closeness. Fortune, another confident expression of this couple's quiet command of music and lyrics, wins us over again. (Amazon US 3-5-15; PopMatters 3-22-15) Artist's website: http://damonandnaomi.com/

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A bheith Gaeilge


Scríobh Anna Hoffman faoi an dúshlán a shábháil ar ár teanga ársa. Duirt sí ina Huffington Post go
raibh an lucht na Gaeilgoirí go mbeadh i dtrioblóid. De réir UNESCO, tá Gaeilge "cinnte i mbaol" anois.

Sainmhíonníon Cuan Ó Seireadáin ó Conradh na Gaeilge an faillí seo mar "béal grá." Mar sin, tá focaíl ach gan an ghníomh ann.  Aontaíonn Cian MacCárthaigh ó Raidió na Lífe go tugann An Rialtas na hÉireann ach "seirbhís liopa" leis an teanga oifigiúil.

Mar sin féin, cabhríonn an staísiún sin i mBaile Átha Cliath foghlaimeoirí. Tá gá le pobal a labhríonn an teanga le chéile, ar ndóigh. Measaim faoi mó chairde i nDroichead Átha ag fás leis Gaeilge.

Ar an lamh eile, ina Gaeltachtaí, tá an scéal gruama ansin. Nuair chuaigh mé go Dún na nGall ina tsamraidh 2007 a foghlaim Gaeilge ar feadh a coicís, ní raibh a daonra áitiúil a labhairt Gaeilge liom. B'fhéidir, dith orthu a labhairt Gaeilge ach amháin eatarthu féin. ach tá sin chuid den fhadhb, cinnte.

Meabhríonn Hoffman dúinn go labhairt "a bheith Gaeilge." Tá sé níos mó ná labhairt. Oidhreacht muid stór ríluachmhar a choiméad beo.

"To Have Irish"

Anna Hoffman writes about the challenge to save our ancestral language. She tells in the Huffington Post that the share of Irish-speakers may be in trouble. According to UNESCO, Irish is "definitely endangered" now.

Cuan Ó Seireadáin of Conradh na Gaeilge defines this neglect as "mouth-love." That is, there are words but no action. Cian MacCárthaigh of Raidió na Lífe agrees that the Irish government gives but "lip service" to the official tongue.

Nevertheless, that station in Dublin helps learners. There is need for a community to speak the language together, of course. I think of my friends in Drogheda growing up with Irish.

On the other hand, in the Gaeltachts, there is a dire situation there. When I went to Donegal in summer 2007 to study Irish during a fortnight, the local people did not want to speak Irish with me. Perhaps, there was a wish to speak Irish only between themselves, but that's part of the problem, sure.

Hoffman reminds us that we speak "to have Irish." This is more than speaking it. We inherit a priceless treasure to keep alive. (Photo/Grianghraf i mBéal Feirste Iarthar/in West Belfast; {"Labhairt cibé Gaeilge atá agat/Speak whatever Irish you have"})

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Chills' "BBC Sessions": Music Review

This New Zealand indie band, one of the late-1980s standouts on the estimable Flying Nun label, arrived in London for three sessions with John Peel. Over three years, the results commemorate the increasing sophistication of The Chills' music, captured live in studio, each set taking a day. The band chose its selections well, revealing a knack for melody and smart content. They progressed quietly, but with determination.

For a meticulous singer-songwriter who labored over the band's material, aiming for accuracy and purity despite the constraints of small budgets, this compilation reveals a somewhat different Martin Phillipps in these radio sessions. His voice is less crystalline, often far less piercing. But as in studio recordings, so here: Phillipps dominates; his vocals merge more thickly into the musical backing in session one, recorded late 1985. The thicker rhythm section envelops his voice, a blanket for his bracing musings.

"Rolling Moon" starts off sprightly, careening into a defiant "Brave Words". "Wet Blanket" and "Night Of Chill Blue" both blend content and form well. These result from The Chills' raw D.I.Y. releases, with limited funds and changing musicians. All four tracks enhance the marine quality of much of New Zealand indie rock from this era, a brisk presence suffusing these bracing melodies.

Line-up changes, as with many New Zealand outfits under a strong singer-songwriter, continued. By mid-1987, a sharper delivery characterizes the next session. "Dan Destiny & The Silver Dawn" resembles its studio version, in a more distinct recording. While I find "Living In A Jungle" too busy with show-off keyboards, the rhythm of "Rain" locks in Phillipps over a perfectly matched guitar. It stands out, and improves on the album version. The singer and band capture the heart of their material, and glide into its soaring, cascading power. Martial drumming grounds "Moonlight On Flesh" with a similarly confident beat, and it shows the band ready for its major label debut in 1990.

That would result in Submarine Bells, a lavishly produced album, and their best known. The final session precedes it, in the last month of 1988. "Part Past, Part Fiction" seems more subdued, as the band finds a balance between its earlier, more varied tunes, and a pop-based craft taking control of The Chills. A comparative rarity, "Christmas Chimes" bounces along modestly, as keyboards and guitar mesh neatly over steady percussion. Keeping the maritime theme that permeated the album to come, "Effloresce and Deliquesce" matches its studio version, allowing listeners to hear how the band could create its patterns live as well as on record, showing in a few minutes many submarine moods.

The interplay continues, as The Chills hit their prime. They swirl among intricate patterns on the closer, the more menacing "Dead Web". Phillipps in later tracks shifts his accent (more pronounced on the studio recordings than on the first session, intriguingly) back to his native twang. He does tend to bury his singing on many tracks, but this may be the choice of post-production, or the rushed pace of four songs per session in a day. But, a careful hearing shows how Phillipps accentuates or cloaks his enunciation and articulation, half-chanted, half-spoken. He may muffle many lyrics here, but this makes them more another layer, atop textured music. These combinations skim and dip, within waves of oceanic imagery, full of Pacific calm or pending storm. This compact compilation should introduce newer listeners to a reliable indie band always worth hearing, and it will remind veteran fans of the endurance of intelligent lyrics, delicate melodies, unpredictable directions, and tuneful charm.
(Edited for Amazon US 11-16-14; as above to PopMatters 11-20-14. Artist's website)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pale Saints' "The Comforts of Madness": Music Review

The songs race along early on, in and out of the industrial moods and tape sounds. “Sea of Sounds” might have inspired Ride, with a melancholy voice floating over a stately wash of sonic textures. Masters’ gentle delivery plays off the brooding arrangement and highlights its somber mood. Speeding up, “True Coming Dream” leaps out of its quiet beginnings, rushing across another combustive combination as bass, guitar and drums click into a volatile churning machine.

I have never heard any group with a similar propulsion. Oddly, “Little Hammer” does not pound, but gently brushes the percussion. Foreshadowing the pop direction the band would take on its next albums, it’s like a halftime rest before “Insubstantial,” which erupts out of a soft start into what the band does best: the soft-loud dynamics that the Pixies and Nirvana popularized for alternative rock. While those bands featured singer-songwriters who were charismatic personalities that cultivated an audience, Masters and crew let their songs do the talking.

The squalls which begin and end tracks highlight what makes each song different, and connects them through Naysmith’s feedback, effects and distortion. These segues upset the art-rock ambiance and keep the tone from becoming too twee or too amplified. This foundation helps statelier songs like “A Deep Sleep for Steven” progress with dignity before the perfectly pitched “Language of Flowers,” which hints at the band’s affection for Echo and the Bunnymen.

Pale Saints smartly cover the subject of a previous Revisit. Their version of Los Angeles outfit Opal’s “Fell from the Sun” boosts the volume and the pace, while keeping the ambling arrangement of the original underneath the loudness.

Opal’s successor Mazzy Star had a minor hit with Peter Blegvad’s “Blue Flower,” and the Saints soon covered it in turn. Pale Saints combined the hazy folk ambiance of Opal and Velvet Underground-inspired bands of the early ‘90s, with a harsher, more experimental tinge that stood out from the likes of 4AD peers such as Lush. Meriel Barham, who was Lush’s original vocalist, is credited as backup musician and singer on the Pale Saints’ debut, but the role of singer-songwriter-vocalist remains in Masters’ control, which boosted its impact and bolstered its range.

The elegant, mid-tempo “Sight of You” is a fan favorite that allows Masters’ choirboy vocal to linger in a cathedral-like setting of airy, soaring instruments. It segues neatly into a last fling with the mechanical drumming that Cooper offers, under Master’s steady bass and Naysmith’s flailing guitar riffs, jerking into slashing chords. “Time Thief” ends with a high-pitched gnarl that would get howls out of Andrew, the Airedale Terrier I had at the time.

The Comforts of Madness made it to number 40 on the British charts in 1990. Barham joined the band full time, and with Gil Norton’s more accessible production, subsequently dominated their sound; and the band lost their edge. Even if In Ribbons (1992) features some of their best songs, their pop turn led to Masters’ departure, and the group stalled after the forgettable Slow Buildings (1994). They eventually collapsed back to the duo of Naysmith and Cooper, who worked together on various projects, while Barham produces electronic music under the name Kuchen.

Pale Saints’ quirky legacy rests in their debut. As with many bands that joined a love of trippier music with post-punk, they did not last long. But The Comforts of Madness is the work of an uncommercial band that could make forty minutes zoom by and reward repeated plays. My dog and I never got tired of it. (Spectrum Culture 5-27-15)
























Sunday, July 12, 2015

Brian Jonestown Massacre's "Musique de la film imaginé": Music Review

As the membership of this band dwindles to frontman and founder Anton Newcombe and whomever he hires, the music lowers its volume. No trace of the raucous neo-psychedelia of the many line-ups of The Brian Jonestown Massacre remains on Musique de la film imaginé. Instead, as the title promises, this soundtrack for an imagined French film provides subdued moods for reverie.  

Starting off the tracks quietly, “Après Le Vin” and “La Dispute” conjure up ambling melodies on Brian Eno’s late-1970s albums. “Philadelphie Story” adds the voice of chanteuse SoKo to dramatize the emotional surge of this ballad. It sounds as if from a French New Wave movie over half a century ago.

“L'Enfer” adds a mid-tempo set of drums, bass and keyboards. Yet it is no longer rock. Over six minutes, it descends by simple progressions into its titular subterranean atmosphere, gloom and not fire. Many songs repeat motifs. The listener can create his or her own mental visions of what these songs suggest.

No credits have been provided in this review disc. It appears as have recent BJM recordings on Newcombe’s own A Records label. The publicity material mentions Newcombe “on behalf of” his band. Recorded at his studio in his adapted home of Berlin, the understated quality of many tracks persists. Newcombe has departed so completely from his previous style that issuing this largely solo recording under the BJM moniker may confuse loyal fans. However, the albums he has issued under the band’s name since his relocation have anticipated the introspection and mature shifts of this latest release.

Asia Argento is best known as an actress in her father Dario’s provocative Italian films. She sings on “Le Sacre du Printemps” but her voice is mixed down. She suggests more than shouts her lyrics in French. At six minutes, this is over double the average length of nearly all the other tracks, many of which pass by rapidly. Like much of this brief album, it is a respectable tune, but no song here can be called a standout.

Later tracks help recover the emotion. Returning to the Eno feel, “Le Souvenir” employs simple keyboards to create a brooding sensation. “Les Trois Cloches” totals a few chimes over twenty seconds. The best song comes late on. Lonely percussion over strings and electronics evoke well “L'Ennui.”

“Au Sommet” closes Musique de la film imaginé smoothly with yet another self-effacing Eno-esque arrangement. The attention Newcombe devotes to his craft, and his predecessors, merits respect. His band may dwindle to him alone, but he may, as this album attests, find a future career in film-scoring. (Spectrum Culture, edited in a different form. 6/25/15. As above on Amazon US 6-28-15.)

Friday, July 10, 2015

Brian Jonestown Massacre's "Methodrone": Music Review

 Although over 40 different members passed through The Brian Jonestown Massacre, the core of the band remains singer-guitarist Anton Newcombe, who started the band in San Francisco 25 years ago. They debuted with Spacegirl and Other Favorites, a lo-fi LP limited to 500 copies, but for most longtime fans, Methrodrone was the first time we heard BJM. Originally released on Bomp in 1995, the album’s 70 minutes blend drones with shoegaze. It’s not a combination they would return to until Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? (2010), but it endures as my favorite record from their lengthy discography.

The band had not yet entered their Rolling Stones phase, but their second-hand psychedelia is already dead-on. The hazy production obscures the ambiance, but still brightness penetrates. Its tracks often compared to Loop, My Bloody Valentine, and Jesus and Mary Chain, the album opens with “Evergreen,” backed by lazy female vocals. But “Wisdom” better expresses the band’s alternating chime and crush, gentle but insistent. Wrapped around a compact hook, it burrows into the listener’s mind. The noisier “Crushed” enters a spacy disorientation over circular guitars credited to Jeffrey Davies and (perhaps) Dean Taylor in an unstable lineup from BJM’s birth.

“That Girl Suicide” clatters along despite its title, pinpointing the time when the British Invasion and its American imitators blurred into acid-rock. The jangle of The Byrds meets the miasma of mid-decade Beatles, with slashes of punk guitar cutting into the dreamy, airborne melody.

Newcombe’s wistful, slight delivery echoes over the layered production and jet-take off dynamics.
Over a distant organ, Newcombe confesses his failures on “Wasted,” which, despite what you might read online, is not a Black Flag cover. “Everyone Says” integrates a woman’s chanted “tell her it’s long ago” under his own voice, as the rhythm section rises. Bassists Matt Hollywood and Rick Maymi contribute solid work to Methodrone. While Newcombe has always taken the spotlight, his many bandmates deserve recognition for their skills at mixing influences from 50 years ago into new tunes.

A few songs drag the album down. “Short Wave” finds Newcombe with a poor British accent over attenuated guitars that recall My Bloody Valentine. “She Made Me” follows with fewer vocals but a similar feel, while “Records” is no more than throwaway feedback and studio noodling. “I Love You” provides a moody if unoriginal ballad to change the pace before the gloomy atmosphere of “End of the Day.”

A bit of Bo Diddley crossed with the 13th Floor Elevators snaps “Hyperventilation” into shape. Rooted more in a groove, this nearly 10 ten minute track could have been a Spacemen 3 cover. Like much of this album’s second half, patience rewards the listener. While some editing might have quickened the pace, that is not Brian Jonestown Massacre’s intent. They make music to crash to, if not (I hope) for “sniffin’ glue” as the lyrics assert. But the clever album title holds up as a signal of its intent.

“Outback” hints at the East in its eerily processed guitar loops. Its four minutes shows the power of drones that BJM harnessed in the studio. This precedes the sluggish raga-rock distorted and elongated into repetitive patterns in “She’s Gone.” These two songs, which closed the original 1995 CD, reveal the band’s interest in textures, creating a sinuous overlay that highlights the band’s circa 1965 interests.

A bonus track added to the 2007 reissue continues this direction. “In India You” mingles percussion washes and plucked strings over Newcombe’s soft voice before guitars crash into the melancholy air. An unlisted track pays tribute to George Harrison’s lyrical concerns and vocal style as more Indian inspiration.

The final four songs on the expanded Methodrone chart the band’s Eastbound expedition from ‘60s London and postpunk heirs to neo-psychedelia. The band became more famous for Newcombe’s antics as seen in the 2004 documentary Dig!. But this early record attests to their songwriting craft and their love of the ‘60s. (Spectrum Culture 7-8-15).

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Buzzcocks' "The Way": Music Review

Nearly four decades on, can a punk band offer inspiration to not only those who were raised with them, but those who never caught them at their peak? The Buzzcocks soldier on, and like many of their peers who decide to do so, they mingle their old tunes on stage with new ones. Every few years, the band tours and shares with its loyal audience both, and here are ten fresh tracks.

The Way opens with a catchy roar. "Keep on Believing" lacks some of the vocal punch of the early, classic songs by Pete Shelley. Dave M. Allen, known for his production of The Cure during their late-80s and early 90s reign, pushes the guitars which Shelley always had the knack for chiming and strumming ahead on the soundboard, but Allen's mix shoves back the voices, away from you.

The band's second singer and guitarist, Steve Diggle, has a deeper voice and gruffer approach than the warble which Shelley perfected in the band's late-70s pop-punk ditties. As that line-up's outlook darkened their lyrical concerns, moving from love to despair, so their songs thickened. Similarly, on Diggle's "People are Strange Machines," the repeated title fronts a brusque guitar riff, a bit more raw.

The title track locks into a groove over which Shelley declaims a mid-tempo lament (as far as I can tell without any lyrics). Allen keeps the guitars ringing, and spreads out Danny Farrant's drum fills to support the backing "ahhs". As with the album itself, the results prove respectable, as much of band's product since Shelley and Diggle reunited in the 1990s, but it must be admitted that, as with many such efforts from reformed outfits, the original musicians and their original efforts stand up best. The band here releases its ninth studio album, but the first three, most agree, remain the band's triumph.

"In The Back" could have been taken from the band's "difficult third album" in 1979. Diggle thickens the texture over a chugging guitar riff, and his blustering voice fits the blunt approach better here. As on earlier records, even more here: Diggle, usually relegated to fewer of his own tracks, here trades off, alternating with Shelley on songwriting and singing. While most of the signature sound of the Buzzcocks remains linked to Shelley, his bandmate holds his own here and balances the sequence.

A plaint against "social media" and "flashmobs" and Twitter opens "Virtually Real" in tense fashion. Shelley's voice is a bit lower than in his prime, and the articulation is less piercing. Allen's production moves the singers deeper into the music than their punk-era albums and singles, but he wisely keeps the guitars at the front. Here, they enter an atmospheric realm, perhaps hinting at Shelley's early-1970s pre- and post-Buzzcocks experimentation with electronic effects and spacious sonics.

In similar mechanical style, Diggle's voice filtered through "Third Dimension" alters briefly, before a more conventional delivery takes over. However, the guitars continue the slight imitation of a glam rock swagger, again integrating suggestions of the music Shelley and Diggle loved as English teens.

Speaking of glam,  "Out Of The Blue" is not a Roxy Music cover, but Shelley's more assertive turn at the mike. Allen for once aligns the guitars with a chance to hear a hint of the support provided by Chris Remmington, which tends to be overshadowed by Shelley and Diggle's twin leads. This song, as much on this album, falls more towards hard rock than punk, perhaps, and therefore points back to the type of music prevalent when punk burst out, and which after all most punks grew up hearing.

I wish "Chasing Rainbows/Modern Times" leapt out more. Diggle's vocals, once more, stay workmanlike, but the song underneath reminds me of the early band, and if let loose from the muddle, may sound great live. After all, a look at the discography attests to their many live albums.

Shelley's "It’s Not You" typifies the current band. It replicates the droning bits of riffs and the cascading drums of the band, but favors a less breakneck pace. It slows midway before returning, as some of the band's early tracks favored, and the song constructions stick to tried and true methods.

Ending with "Saving Yourself", Diggle lumbers along, delivering a declamation against religion. It's not bad, but it's not noteworthy. This could have fit as a middling track somewhere on side two of a hard rock album from 1975, so I am not sure if this is progress.

All in all, this album will meet the needs of fans wanting new songs from the venerable band. But it will remind many fans, as it has me, of the band's earlier work, and may pale by comparison. The Buzzcocks deserve credit for continuing to craft new material, but after nearly forty years, they also risk sounding sometimes like some bands they emulated, or mocked, who started fifty-odd years ago.

(Absent from the MP3 stream provided here to review as this album's official release 11/18, four demo tracks were downloaded earlier to those who pledged support for the Teenage Cancer Fund.)
(Pop Matters 11-17-14 )

Monday, July 6, 2015

Fawn Spots' "From Safer Place": Music Review

This band's name conjures up freak folk, or gently plucked melodies in spring meadows. Recorded and engineered by this York, England, trio in abandoned sheds in a Georgian garden just outside that city, this album to the uninitiated may suggest ballads and its title comfort.
Instead, From Safer Place, the band's first full-length album, unleashes an assault of hardcore and post-punk, as if rather from New York (or at least Brooklyn these trendy days).

"New Sense" roars straight at you, opening this short, intense album (less than 25 minutes), with anthemic back-and-forth vocals barked by songwriter Jonathan Meager. Joined on guitars and vocals by Oliver Grabowski, the pair capture the early-'80s delivery of sharp, tuneful power.

The pace sustains itself into "I'm Not a Man". The band's recording and engineering allows some space into the production. This allows the closing echo of Paddy Carley's drums to resound a moment. Such touches demonstrate how the trio has listened to their forebears, and learned lessons.

Hammering away like a Rites of Spring single from thirty years ago, "A Certain Pleasure" shifts between a loud punch and a catchy jangle. Textural shifts enrich the effect of what could have been a monolithic tribute to aggression. Meager has credited Guy Debord and the French Situationists as influences for his lyrics, but I admit their content, at least on MP3 files sent for preview, eluded me.

Given the band covered Joy Division's "Twenty-Four Hours" on an earlier single, "Black Water" recalls the apocalyptic doom of that seminal group, before it lurches into hardcore, and then back and forth. Vocals remind me of Dischord Records' acts from the 80s onward, and again, these keep the listener alert. The breakneck pace of such movements keeps the tracks fresher, and less predictable. 

As if a lost track from New Day Rising, "Natural Vision" churns a guitar riff into tight drum slams, crunching down the howling into the two singers joining to shout down whatever darkness endures.
The title track lightens the severe sonic mood a bit, although the voices keep harsh. Shuffled guitars above the nimble percussion enable the listener to appreciate this subtly textured arrangement. Like many tracks on this, it ends suddenly, and the density of this recording works best in such bursts.

Repeated listening brings out contrasts that audiences of this genre may appreciate. "Remains" chooses a telegraphic pattern for its main structure, but it opens up moments of calm within the hurricane rush of massed vocals and guitars, quite a knack for only three musicians to create.

I wondered if an Orwellian homage might account for the title of "In Front of the Chestnut Tree". Winston Smith's haunting betrayal as memorialized in another song about such a tree may or may not be appropriate. After all, this song remains an instrumental, as Mission of Burma might have penned.

The gentler strains opening "Recurring Face" don't last long. Another race against time, as Fawn Spots crams in a penultimate blast. "Basque Knife" wraps it up with great slabs of sound trundling back and forth, as the guitars chime over the pounding but adroit percussion. Finally, a voice enters.

This call and response, the delay and the satisfaction, comprises the appeal of this genre. It will please those who welcome the frenzy of loud music conveyed with attention to instrumentation and layers of vocals not quite buried in the thick mix. Fawn Spots' debut promises not only an homage to past masters of this intelligent music, but indicates a worthy heir to those passionate 80s punk bands.
(PopMatters 3-9-15; Amazon US 3-12-15)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

"10 000 Russos": Music Review

This Portuguese trio continues the promise of Fuzz Club labelmates Sonic Jesus. Like their Neither Virtue Nor Anger earlier this year, the Russo's self-titled second album packs a one-two punch. First, guitar-driven drones wallop you. Joy Division's metallic grind, post-punk's relentless beat, and distorted or detached vocals buried in the mix convey texture among torment. Naming the first track after early drummer Karl Burns of The Fall is fitting. Even if this song recalls the Wooden Shijps repetition more than that Manchester ensemble, the next track, "USVSUS" offers a Mark E. Smith-like voice ghosting the fringes of this echoed plunge. It begins with a catchy martial beat, and then kicks in gear harder through the effects pedals. It turns brittle. Heavier, it thrusts itself into Suicide territory, keyboards like sirens. Perky drums from vocalist João Pimenta dominate, over the forceful duo of Pedro Pestana on guitar and André Couto on bass, for an impressive arrangement.

"Baden Baden Baden" and "Barreiro" sustain the intensity. The first complements Joy Division floating into space rock. The second chants over a rapid whoosh, as if heirs to Hawkwind. Finally, the cleverly named paired medley of "Shtakhanovets" and "Kalume" stir tribal beats and hints of Eastern influences. The later moments conjure up the percussive drones of The Black Angels' early days, or the formative ones of P.i.L, when both of those outfits dared to be different. Let's hope 10 000 Russos remain inventive, for this points to a bright, or as the band may prefer to color it, a dark doom future.
(Amazon US 6-24-15)