Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I mBostún agus Nua Bedford

D'imigh muid go Maine ar bealach an sean-bóthar Cheanada go dtí ag dul ar ais an Nua Eabhrac, nó chun imeacht in aice láimhe ó Nua Geirsí. Mar sin, thiomáint Léna agus mé triu Maine oirdheisceart (bhí maith liom dha tstraidbhaile ó tSolon agus ag timpeall Jackman go speisealta), le beágan de Nua Hampshire, Massachusetts níos mó, cuid is Oileán na Rhode, agus ansin Connecticut is mó. Ar dtús, chuaigh muid go mBostún, ár chéad uair. 

Ith muid lón im bPortsmouth (NH) gnótach ina teach tábhairne agus bialann mór leis beoir úr seagal. Tháinig i mBostún leis trácht agus thiománaithe feargach. Bhí an bua na Stocaí Deargaí an Sraith Domhan an tseachtaine seo caite, mar sin féin; bhí an cathair go h-áthas ann--ar feadh seal.

Shiúl muid go an Taobh an Thuaidh atá iomlán den saol na hIodáile; ith muid dhá dhinnéar ansin. Thóg muid turas Rian Shaoráil go an Comóntaigh triu áiteannai stairiúl, Reilig nGrainseach, An Óstan Teach Parker, Cuimhneacháin Gorta (suas) go dtí An Sean-Teach Stáit go dtí Halla Faneuil.
Bhí treior turas "Éireannach na Bostún" briomhar agus cliste againn.

Is maith liom Músaem na n-Ealain Fineáil ann, leis uiscedhathannaí iontach le John Singer Sargent. Is é sé mo is fearr leat péintéail: "Luí na gréine ar an móinear" le Robert Trost Williams. Bhreatnaigh muid an Ghleann Hudson le déanaí, an ionad chéanna, b'fhéidir.

Seo chugainn, chuir cuairt go port iascaireachta na New Bedford; thosaigh Moby-Dick ann. Ar raibh tusa ag léamh an t-úrsceal mór, deacair ach tráthúil, agus aisteach le Herman Melville?  A bheith cinnte, molaim chuair fíoriúl agus fíor anseo. Iarraim ag dul ar ais ansuid chéana féin. B'fhéidir, an bliana seo chugainn...?

In Boston and New Bedford

We left Maine by the Old Canada Highway to go back to New York, or to depart from nearby New Jersey. Therefore, Layne and I drove through southeastern Maine (I liked the villages of Solon and around Jackman especially), a bit of New Hampshire, more of Massachusetts, some of Rhode Island, and then a lot of Connecticut. To start, we went to Boston, our first time.

We ate lunch in busy Portsmouth (NH) in a big tavern and restaurant with fresh rye beer. We arrived in Boston with traffic and angry drivers. The Red Sox had won the World Series the week before, nevertheless; the city was happy--for a while.

We walked to the North End which is full of Italian life; we ate two dinners there. We took a Freedom Trail tour from the Commons through historic sites, the Granary Cemetery, the Parker House Hotel, the Famine Memorial (above) to the Old State House and Faneuil Hall. We had a smart and lively "Boston Irish" tour guide.

I liked the Museum of Fine Arts there, with wonderful watercolors by John Singer Sargent. This is my favorite painting: "Sunset on the Meadow" by Robert Trost Williams. We had seen the Hudson Valley recently, a similar place, perhaps.

Next, we paid a visit to the fishing port of New Bedford;  Moby-Dick begins there. Have you read the big, difficult but relevant, strange novel by Herman Melville? To be convinced, I recommend a virtual and real visit here. I want to go back there already. Maybe next year?

Boston Irish Famine Memorial / Cuimhneacháin Gorta (Grianghraf le/photo by Lane Turner, Boston Globe, 11-9-13)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Altan: "Gleann Nimhe/ The Poison Glen": Music Review

This venerable band from Donegal presents its newest recording. Shifting somewhat away from its Narada-label leanings of a decade back into New Age-inflected stylings, this Compass Records release offers a more traditional delivery of tunes, reliable in their familiar conjuring of their Northwestern Irish heritage. At its best, this recalls their standout albums originally released in America on the Green Linnet label.

This is also the first of their many albums since they began around thirty years ago to feature an Irish-language title. It's taken from a place near vocalist-fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh's home. She explains it as a mistranslation of "heavenly" glen, in fact, but that so many legends have sprung up to account for its more devilish connotation that it's been kept in its darker emanation. The band is photographed by Edain O'Donnell, or Photoshopped, among the technicolor of that glen, in a nod to the imagination which improves upon nature. This sly nod to enchantment and misdirection in the singer's native tongue represents a clever turn for this ensemble back to the roots music it plays best.

As the first studio album in seven years (I reviewed their collaboration with the RTÉ orchestra celebrating the band's twenty-fifth anniversary for PopMatters two years ago), this features skilled players. Ciaran Tourish supports on fiddle and whistle, Dermot Byrne on accordion, Mark Kelly on guitar and bouzouki, Ciarán Curran on bouzouki and mandolin, and Dáithí Sproule on guitar and vocals. Jim Higgins guests with percussion that shakes up the rhythm now and then, as on the ballad "The Lily of the West". The line-up may obscure the fact that Donegal's known for fiddlers. Tourish and Ní Mhaonaigh compliment each other with the sprightly, fluid sound of their home turf. Stringed instruments back up the fiddling with propulsive energy and shifting melodies that emerge handsomely in this production.

Reels and jigs alternate, as on all their albums and performances, with songs. Ní Mhaonaigh's confident, yet gentle voice commands attention. "An Ghealóg" laments the death of a bunting on a winter's night; I believe (given all I have is a downloaded file) that Harry Bradley's flute is featured here to deepen the sad mood. The massed backing vocals hint back to fellow Donegal natives Clannad and Enya's approach, but these touches enter sensitively and sparingly.

The next song "Caitlín Triall" narrates an all-too-often tale of unrequited love; while again the vocal arrangement recalls their top-charting Donegal neighbors, Altan prefers to base its material upon simpler studio settings. Instrumental tracks do this efficiently, as on "Eddie Curran's Monaghan Twig" or "The Lancer's Jig" imitating their concert medleys which allow the band to show off its balance of lushness with drive.

The last five tracks, whether instrumentals or songs, slow down the pace markedly. The concentration of a more burnished, less frenetic set into the final third of the album may indicate the band's wish to return to the composed, dignified feel of its Narada-label recordings, but I prefer the entries which move the band into overdrive in playing, as well as those vocal opportunities allowing Ní Mhaonaigh to display her sensitive lyrical delivery within the deftly arranged tunes that show off Altan at its finest as Ireland's leading interpreters of its musical tradition. (Amazon US 3-5-12; PopMatters 4-23-12)

Friday, December 27, 2013

"Rough Guide to Ireland": Music Review

This features both big names and newcomers. From Waterford to Belfast, Kerry to Donegal, despite the recession which has closed down many pubs and forced many young people to emigrate, Irish music persists. As a symbol of defiance, celebration, and endurance, this compilation from Compass Records artists along with other releases introduces listeners to current styles.

Opening with a jaw harp and autoharp, Sligo trio The Unwanted hint at Appalachian roots, with a sly, slippery mood for “The Duke of Leinster/Gardiner’s/John Stenson’s #2”. Solas, a familiar New York City ensemble, offers a sauntering, relaxed (if still briskly sung by Máiréad Phelan) take on the traditional “A Sailor’s Life”, popularized by Judy Collins, Martin Carthy, and Fairport Convention.

The veteran Donegal band Altan reliably delivers “Tommy Potts’ Slip Jig” which complements Solas’ style. Former Solas members vocalist Karan Casey and guitarist John Doyle join for “Bay of Biscay” by the late County Clare singer Nora Cleary. It’s a poignant tale of a ghostly swain visiting his separated lover, and the spare form Casey and Doyle adapt recalls Pentangle’s somber fusion of space and tone.

From County Antrim, flute player Brendan Mulholland’s three jigs “The King of the Pipers/Behind the Haystack/The Maid on the Green” follow to lighten the mood. Jack Talty and Cormac Begley join Clare with Kerry, two lilting traditions blending for the concertina slides “Paddy Cronin’s/If I Had a Wife”.

Andy Irvine, from Sweeney’s Men and Planxty, for nearly fifty years has championed this music, more recently with Patrick Street and Mozaik. He sings a merry tale of a close encounter, “The Close Shave” by New Zealander Bob Bickerton; Irvine’s confident, cocky delivery accompanies his trademark bouzouki.

Athlone accordionist Paul Brock and Sligo fiddler Manus McGuire combine with American country musicians in their eponymous band. Their reel “Moving Cloud” steps along in lively form, with banjo too. Another type of fusion arrives from Iarla Ó Lionáird (Afro-Celt Sound System) who updates with atmospheric production and world music innovations his native Irish-language sean-nós (old style) unaccompanied vocal tradition. His “The Heart of the World” sustains this elegant, dignified blend.

Another popular collaborator, Sharon Shannon (The Waterboys) on “Neckbelly” demonstrates her button accordion skills. These slickly mingle with a hipper, MOR-type of mass appeal backbeat, not to all tastes admittedly, but like Ó Lionáird, this direction indicates the contemporary influences which—as Irvine’s bouzouki illustrates—enter into the Irish repertoire and attest to its continuing relevance.

Fidil, logically the Gaelic name for fiddle, pluck and tap their instrument. This Donegal trio (with a nephew of Altan’s singer-fiddler) features a local style of “bassing” a fiddle at a lower octave than another. This echoes the uilleann pipes of one of that region’s talented players, Joe Doherty. “Kiss the Maid Behind the Byre/Tá Do Mhargadh Déanta” show off this home-turf choice well.

Gráinne Holland, from the urban Gaeltacht of West Belfast, on “Dónal Na Gréine” pulls off a tongue-twisting tale of fittingly a feckless drunk in sean-nós (with the percussive drum, the bodhrán) impressively. It’s back to Altan’s Dermot Byrne on fiddle who with Parisian harper Floriane Blancke join for “Sore Point” which despite its name from a Chris Newman composition flows nimbly.

As well as Donegal, Clare continues to appear in the pedigree of many musicians; Hugh Healy’s concertina (a feature of that county) and uilleann piper Michael “Blackie” O’Connell offer a welcome listen to the latter instrument in the sprightly “The Hut on Staten Island”—-originally for banjo—-and “The De’il Among the Tailors” from Packie Russell, one of Clare’s Doolin trio of famous musical brothers.

Brian Finnegan’s flute and tin-whistle may be familiar from Flook; here he calls three songs after Belfast: “Back to Belfast/Anne Lacey/Eroticon VI”. Given the latter title’s hint of sexiness, they all sound jittery, excited, and impatient. Like Ó Lionáird’s approach, Flanagan’s integrates world music textures into a more accessible version of Irish music which may dismay purists but which probably broadens appeal.

Belfast continues its representation with John McSherry on pipes and whistles, Dónal O’Connor on fiddle, and Francis McIlduff on percussion, pipes, whistles. (McSherry, O’Connor, and slide guitarist Bob Brozman feature on a similarly eclectic, worthwhile bonus disc, Six Days in Down.) A trio titled At First Light, they pair their new “The Pipers of Roguery” with a tune appearing in print first in 1756, “The Hag at the Spinning Wheel”. These both mix the more traditional sounds, given the pipes, with an expanded ensemble’s guitars, for a pleasing depth. It recalls the efforts of The Bothy Band from the 1970s in this layered, sequentially structured mode.

What would a compilation be without a supergroup? Donegal’s vocalist Moya Brennan (Clannad), Altan’s fiddler-singer Máiréad Ní Mhaonaigh, and multi-talented sisters Tríona (The Bothy Band, Touchstone, Relativity, Nightnoise) and Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill (Skara Brae) combine with Manus Lunny for “Wedding Dress”. Recorded by Pentangle in 1971, this concludes this album with a chorus of voices in gentle but firm style, as listeners to Clannad and the bands in this paragraph will recognize.

Recommended for its fair nods to the various types of Irish music now in vogue, this might please experienced listeners who may (as did I) find fresh entries. Despite the promotional material touting the session and live atmosphere of such inclusions, I aver this displays better the sheen that warm production and studio time can give to gloss these tunes. It's not as rough as its title in this series lets on. So, it’s a good buy for beginners who want to explore less raw, more fluid deliveries via the Irish styles found in many releases on the Compass and related labels, which continue to provide distribution for this enjoyable music throughout the world. (PopMatters 5-9-13 + Amazon US)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

John G. Rodwan's "Holidays & Other Disasters": Book Review

Combining personal experiences with cultural critique, blending historical analysis with a coming-of-age memoir, this collection of chapters reveals a scholar’s eye for nuance and an essayist’s knack for insight. This eclectic book examines holidays, both religious and secular, from a perspective of an “anti-theist.” Adopting Christopher Hitchens’ term, John G. Rodwan claims allegiance to not merely denying supernatural belief passively but actively confronting its suppositions.  He thoughtfully critiques a less examined aspect of embedded, mandated, and communal commemorations within American life. Race, ethnicity, occupation, territory, class, school, sectarianism, team, music, patriotism, and parades, after all, characterize many public rituals, as well as denominational celebrations.

Within a short space, Mr. Rodwan roams widely. He begins with a preface praising, from his French visit, the joy of uncorking the first Beaujolais nouveau of the season as the type of personal routine he fervently supports. This differs from ceremonial convention tellingly. “What I like about my not-quite-holiday—personal meaningfulness, deliberateness, secularity, voluntariness and perhaps even an air of cosmopolitanism—highlights what I dislike about many actually existing holidays—impersonal blandness, unthinking conformity, piety, required or expected participation, and stultifying parochialism.” He can imbibe a holiday spirit without being a Scrooge, he assures us, and he carries on with conviviality and cheer. His book confronts the complacencies of observance by contrasting the stories which, in his life or that of those more famous, express freethinking challenges. Instead of following patriotic tradition, social convention, or religious ritual for its own sake, Mr. Rodwan champions choice. 

Martin Luther King Day, belief as expressed in popular music, Salman Rushdie’s fatwa declared on Valentine’s Day, and doubts expressed by a Jesuit priest at his high school and within the literature he had assigned comprise the first essays. Listing these topics conveys their thematic range. During a nimble romp around literary expressions of unbelief, after navigating the many inconsistencies within the Gospels themselves, he nods to Easter’s symbols, appropriated from pagan fertility practices. 

Contrasting the Christian claims of triumph over mortality through a resurrected body and soul with those of hope for rebirth and renewal grounded in the cycle of life rather than a liturgical round, Mr. Rodwan surmises chocolate eggs may symbolize a truer lesson for our offspring. Tearing off the shiny foil, biting into the sweetness, a crumbly shell gives way to nothing inside. “Reproduction via material parents—physical fathers and non-virginal mothers—offers the most genuine hope for victory over death.” This epitomizes his scrutiny of symbols for what they reveal to the careful observer, and his rejection of “narrative ways” by which believers “evade their fears.”  The Bible survives, he surmises, in part from its being passed on by so many faithful, uncritical believers, for devoted generations on end.

Returning to a theme in his earlier essay collection, Mr. Rodwan shifts into an examination of the confidence-man. He uses a few passages gleaned from Herman Melville’s fiction (if much too rapidly given the depth of such intricate sources) to touch on conflicts between faith and charity. He then segues (each of fifteen main chapters gets an interlude) into the tenuous connections often asserted that boxing matches of a particular era embody that time’s mores. The connections with holidays or disasters grow maybe too subtle, but sports continues with baseball season’s opening day as a ritual many flock to fulfill, as played off against Mr. Rodwan’s boredom with that national pastime. 

Still, as when he juxtaposes a scene not from the opening chapter of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (set at the New York Giants’ Polo Grounds), but Mao II (set at Yankee Stadium), where Moonies by the thousands enter into a arranged mass wedding, to show the allegiance of fans to players procured by calculating owners as leaders, Mr. Rodwan’s literary and cultural connections display wit and verve. 

As a native of Detroit, Mr. Rodwan’s continued concern with race and class continues with a survey of the Overground Railroad, the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North’s factories in the past century. Jack Johnson’s boxing defeat of The Great White Hope, Jim Jeffries, attests to another kind of commemoration, the realization that Independence Day and that match’s win on that day both inched equality closer to the reach of more of America’s millions than before the Emancipation Proclamation. Other clashes--between European immigrants, nativist workers, bosses, and hired thugs--peppered Labor Day’s rise and fall as a marker of rights claimed for those in factories and on farms. 

With one-hundred-and-ten numbered boxes, Mr. Rodwan tallies his possessions as he and his wife move from New York City, as it happens exactly eight years after 9/11. He considers the “coarsening and dulling effect over time” which that city exacts from its residents. Despite the cultural enrichment and the culinary delights, he reasons that relocation was always an option in his peripatetic career. He looks at the memorial services, political cant, and spiritual humbug around 9/11. His apt perch as a resident but not a native, enhanced by his skepticism about platitudes and parades, provides us with an appropriate platform to study the reactions to Patriot Day, shutting out the sound bites and slogans.

He moves all around the country, too. Detroit’s infamous Devil’s Night and other Halloweens, Evacuation Day as a now-forgotten party to cheer the rout of the British in 1783 from New York City, Thanksgiving, and finally, inevitably, Christmas occupy the remaining holiday-centered considerations. He cautions against those who, in the name of Yuletide cheer, spread and keep viable as a sacred Christmas that which they as secular enablers sustain, against their own atheistic values and actions. 

He shares advice about the wisdom of whether to join in at other people’s fervently celebrated holy days. Beauty, Mr. Rodwan avers, needs no belief system to affirm it. Wonder and awe exist free of a deity or a supernatural presence. Love needs no commandment. “Submission to an invented higher power can discourage rather than promote curiosity.” Contemplation and reflection may thrive separated from an obligation towards fealty to a higher power. As with the arrival of another year’s fresh Beaujolais, vital traditions may thrive. People may convene, unbidden by Scriptural imperatives. 

Appending a wish-list of those he’d like to see remembered and how particular dates embedded in our national or sacred calendar might be reconsidered in a secular response, Mr. Rodwan concludes with a reiteration of the need for freedom to be extended beyond the often unacknowledged or unchallenged religious affirmations so much a part of public discourse. After all, “freedom from compulsion” remains an expression of liberty afforded to those of no higher belief as well as to all sorts of believers. His excursion might meander, across the nation and its history as well as in his lifelong struggles against God. Yet Holidays & Other Disasters, as its title promises, delivers a wry, sharp look at ritual and routine. (New York Journal of Books 11-8-13)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Public Image Ltd.'s "First Issue": Music Review

1978 opened with the end of Johnny Rotten fronting the Sex Pistols after their tour concluded in an infamous San Francisco gig. Closing that year, the original release of First Issue by his band, Public Image Ltd., documents astonishing growth. Punk endures on "Low Life" and "Attack" but these tracks diminish next to bolder standouts on PiL's prickly, messy ten-song debut.

"I wish I could die" hisses John Lydon, resurrected under his rightful name, determined to shake off the Pistols' "terminal boredom" as the appropriately titled "Theme"'s last spoken words betray. The song shakes and sways over Jah Wobble's trademark bass, into a mix so heavy that Warner Brothers refused a domestic release for the album. (PiL gave in and re-recorded tracks after the label ordered them to, but most of that U.S. version never was released.) Keith Levene's guitar grinds and squeals. Unfortunately, his contribution to post-punk tends to be relegated to a footnote alongside his membership in early incarnations of The Clash and (a pre-Sid Vicious) The Flowers of Romance.

Levene and Wobble invent an anti-rock fusion akin to reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare: supporting a wild-haired wailer: with massive confidence and utter freedom, the pair scratches, thumps, and thuds. Shifting the support from drums to guitar but advancing the bass, this crusty, metallic foundation collides off Jim Walker's slow, bashing, basic percussion. Certainly, dub warped into punk for many of the 1970s rebels against the system, and post-punk as here pioneered plunges the listener into a maelstrom.

Over this squall, which skews rock (Lydon denies it but what category contains this?) into noise, elongated dance, and chant, Lydon lets rip. "Religion" repeats, first as a confession of disgust with clerical hypocrisy in a time when such a naked entry may have surprised listeners expecting rants. Nowadays, contempt for ecclesiastical malfeasance has turned common chat, but even for a singer as controversial as Lydon from a scene known for iconoclasm, this turned a few ears red around me.

I heard this LP as soon as it was imported (given Warner's dissent stateside), as my classmates played it in the music room of our Catholic high school. I admit back then the novelty of the declaimed disdain wore off rapidly, although the musically enhanced reprise as track three stirs its curdled lyrics into a dense, dismal concoction. The song lumbers on, daring the hearer to skip it, but the fingered piano stands out as one offbeat, typically grating moment in a straightforward, mid-tempo, not-quite-rock song. "Religion II" proves less distinctive than what would follow, but its phased guitar anticipates the blistering songs that make about half of this record so distinctive.

It's easy to reconstruct what Warner Brothers feared as "Annalisa" begins. Wobble's bass totters as Walker's drums crash under Levene's hesitantly plucked notes or attenuated chords. I bet this would have been grimly exciting to hear in concert. Lydon recites a tale of a young German woman's demonic possession. After repeated exorcisms, her parents let her perish from starvation. The efficient tom-tom fills and the dryly mastered, claustrophobic ambiance of this in the studio, via this handsome re-release by Light In the Attic, improves on the original CD German import I had long kept safe. It conveys some of the analog starkness sustained on my original vinyl version. Techniques premiered here were perfected on the following year's LP experimental Music Box (again import only, as Americans had to be content with the inferior, re-sequenced Second Edition 1980 version). 

Side Two clatters into "Public Image": a mission statement and a potent, terse, defiant cry: "I'm not the same as when I began/ I will not be treated as property." Suffice to say this swaggering song pummels as it soars. Levene's trebly string-scraping shivers; Wobble's thick thumps resound over Walker's clanging. Lydon demands and commands respect. He clears his throat as this anthem ends.

"Low Life" lurches in. It and the rest of the album, recorded more cheaply as the band ran out of money, suffers somewhat. Promoted as a self-producing and self-governing collective, PiL struggled. Fittingly or ironically settling into a cheaper reggae studio, the original album's final three tracks prove more ramshackle. You can hear the shallower rumbles and the muddier production on the rest of the original album. However, if played loud enough, this and "Attack" recover some of their force.

I played that song relentlessly on my LP, cassette, and  import CD; whichever format I chose, I tried to grasp Lydon's echoed vocals buried within the whirling Levene-Wobble-Walker assault. Lydon's angry at someone: fill in whom you wish among a few possibilities. "Low Life" blends the dub and hard rock sides of the band respectably, although its whirlpool ingredients merit a less cloudy mix. The song as with its predecessor does not move forward much, but its energy sustains a brisk pace.

This will never be said for the closing track. In time-tested form, with an album to finish and nearly eight minutes running time, Lydon's warbles wrap around Wobble's "we only wanted to be loved" sarcastic shrillness. "Fodderstompf" full of chatter betrays the need to fill out the album and forces the listener to submit. The temptation to end this album battles against what might happen next on this track, or not. It's brash amplification, Wobble credited for fire extinguisher, the remnants of a label's advance, drugged attitude, and young men resigned to further alienate whomever expected them to deliver another ten tracks of punk. As anti-punk and proto-dance, it works.

Yet, a more patient consideration of this grating mock-disco may reveal "be bland, be dull, be boring" as the new decade's post-punk creed. Someone in the 1980s concocting hip-hop must have sampled the tinkly, dusted synthesizer trills. "White Lines" always reminded me of that ethereal snippet.

Bonus track "The Cowboy Song" may recall the Rotten-less Pistols in an outtake from the "Ronald Biggs lot" as Lydon dismisses his former bandmates. A tambourine hints at shuffling and the melody at galloping, but this blurs into layers of shouts as a hurried rush over yelps and squelches. Trivia buffs may recall Levene's 1979 project if more by name association than musical harmony as he played with another footnote, the synth-pop outfit Cowboys International. Lydon confirms this B-side's meaning as "nothing political" and merely a put-down of Virgin Records as "a bunch of cowboys" with "six people yelling at once" for a "laugh".

This explication comes via a lively 28 October 1978 BBC Radio 1 interview. For nearly an hour, Lydon's discussion takes up most of the second disc in this reissue. He juggles and often lets drop the usual press-kit questions as the admirably dogged and suitably wry journalist(s?) gamely attempt to keep the informal exchange from descending "into farce" as Lydon explains the dangers of conformity, of Malcolm McLaren's baleful influence, and of the duped public's image of PiL. "I hate rock and roll. I can't stand it. Any type of digression." He claims never to have liked rock, not being old enough for it. "I don't know what I'm talking about because I'm drunk", he avers. "We're not rock. We're noise. Danceable noise." He demeans all his chart-topping rivals, and then decries "ego".

"Do you listen to Irish music?" This Lydon (a son of immigrants) evades. "There must be something positive", his interviewer (I cannot find out whom as I rely for this review on a downloaded file; the CD like its LP counterpart comes reissued with stickers in a lavish package) begs. She learns that he listens to classical music as a respite against "appalling" rock. Determined to escape the music industry's rut, he puts his hopes in PiL. Despite silence, hesitation, and Lydon's concerted gambits, he's steered gently but firmly back to his display of self-deprecating if disdainful, cutting wit. "Who else is there to criticize", he muses, but "in ten years time, I'll be a hero. I can live with my stardom."

Lydon defends his desire for money and success, and toys with his "paranoid" reputation. He accepts it if it helps him avoid the "shabbiness" of a rockist lifestyle.  He enjoys control over his songs, and he insists upon his authorship of "Anarchy in the U.K." But, a jaded veteran almost twenty-three, he tires of repeating the Pistols' spiel. "I didn't go for big publicity scandals", he boasts if in retrospect.

"It was jolly hard getting a band together with no money in the bank." Lydon celebrates his endurance. He also expands on "Religion" as opposition to any institution, "any kind of organized crime"; this rambling chat displays his youthful struggle to avoid the machinations of the music industry. Comparing the interview with the album, recorded part in a studio able to capture the band's talent, and part from sub-standard songs which strain to convey similar sonic textures, PiL's struggle to counter the expectations which had doomed the Pistols and punk stands on First Issue as half-fulfilled, ready for 1979's avant-garde second issue to fulfill the potential of Levene, Lydon, Wobble, and two new drummers. As John Lydon lets hang in the interview: "How many more enemies have I left?" (PopMatters 7-19-13. In shorter, different format to Amazon US 6-18-13)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Chrome's "Half Machine From the Sun": Music Review

First off, this album's funded by Pledge Music, where fans donate to musicians seeking to release tapes or gain control over their songs. Guitarist-vocalist Helios Creed joined Chrome, proto-punk, Krautrock-influenced experimenters in San Francisco, as a teenager in the late 1970s. Drummer-vocalist-tape manipulator Damon Edge and he combined for the band's best work. Creed left, while Edge sustained Chrome's name. After Edge's death in the mid-1990s, Helios Creed sought by pledges to regain rights to Chrome's back catalogue. Creed bought back the selected songs on this recording, apparently "finishing" them up now, all unreleased from the period of Half Machine Lip Moves (1979) and Red Exposure (1980). 

Grinding and harsh, eerie and unsettling: these terms  often describe Chrome. Yet, as Creed remarks in the liner notes, accessible, nearly pop-oriented material entered their repertoire. After all, they were courted by Warner, eager to sign up by the '80s a somewhat amenable to new-wave set of S.F. performers. By the way, the Stench Brothers, rhythm section for singer Pearl Harbour as her Explosions, backed Chrome for a while after the period documented on this eighteen-track compilation.

"Anything" sounds as if David Bowie's "Scary Monsters" warped; synthesizers chirp while melody lumbers. "Salt" also recalls Bowie's Lodger, with its Middle Eastern textures, crossed with a churning tape akin to Cabaret Voltaire's work during this period. "Looking For Your Door" mixes in an economic guitar riff eventually adding keyboards, for a danceable, if post-punk, downbeat delivery. Vocals alternate between Creed and Edge; as my download lacks details, both singers prefer gruff expression to croons or chants. "Going to surrender" drifts into "fantasy in the factory" before this fades away back to the title phrase, after eight-and-a-half dutiful minutes.

From such tracks, it's easy to see why Goth-friendly label Cleopatra had issued so many of Chrome's later recordings. Yet, "Tomorrow Yesterday" and "The Inevitable" enter a spacious realm--if often claustrophobic due to the band's nature. The first jumbles rhythms while the second slows into a descending, measured pattern of guitar, drums, and distorted tape vocals. Much of this is repetitive, so those not fans of influences such as Hawkwind and space rock may race on to livelier selections.

"Fukishima (Nagasaki)" promisingly combines propulsion with more forceful drumming and guitar. Current stoner-space rock bands such as Farflung surely must have listened to such tracks, somehow.  The fact that this song does not sound as unfamiliar over three decades later attests to the subtle influence exerted by Chrome on contemporary musicians at the fringe.

The livelier pace continues with "Charlie’s Little Problem" which allows more varied percussion than usual to enter the mix. If you like Om, you'd like this. These shorter, catchier songs, for me, energize this anthology.

Just over two minutes, "Ghost" ushers in a revenant's appearance. Distended voice, of course, over whooshing effects. "Sound and Light" matches this in a well-sequenced segue into a louder, if also screechy mood. The phased guitar rings with Goth-tinged tones which Creed helped popularize.

The perkier pace continues with "Autobahn Brazil"; again this compliments the work of Cabaret Voltaire's merging of dialogue and voices into more streamlined textures in this era. This song eventually opens into percussive ornamentation, rewarding a long wait. Not all of these tracks build up into a dramatic conclusion. Chrome prefers to play out an idea on tape.

In more conventional but winning fashion, "Sub Machine" structures a churning riff above a straightforward hard rock base. "Morrison" brings a slightly grating background to offset the layers of voices tracked into a short song. For six minutes, "The Rain" stays steady. Like its title, it lulls.

Creed praises "Something Rhythmic" as a harbinger of success. It shows an ear for the radio, alternating a basic keyboard chord progression with a guitar-drums chorus. But I imagine to gain airplay, it might have sounded the same at half of its four minutes without losing its intended effect. What might have been its novelty, one-off B-side? The Devo-ish one-minute "Housewarming Party".

Who can resist a song named "Sugar Moog Pops"? True to its packaging, its synthesizers revolve around a simple drum pattern. Two-thirds in, the rocket reaches outer limits and the energy dissipates into an alternation of the lively and the languid.

In fifteen seconds, "Intervention" comprises but one keyboard excerpt. Concluding, "Sunset" reminds me of Eno's world-music instrumentals from his later solo albums in the 1970s. It points at a calmer, more integrated command of textures which depart from the more frenetic or leisurely tones of the preceding songs.

I started out mentioning Chrome's work as more accessible than its avant-garde reputation may lead newcomers to believe. Half Machine From the Sun: The Lost Chrome Tapes '79-'80 attests to the ability of Damon Edge, Helios Creed, and their fellow musicians to create music that refuses to remain in the mainstream, yet waits nearby to invite the curious listener into its layered atmospheres.

The album can be purchased via Pledge Music

Thursday, December 19, 2013

French Films' "White Orchid": Music Review

Nodding to the British 1980s, this reminds me of the early Psychedelic Furs (think of "India" or "Flowers" on their debut but without a sneer but with all the propulsion), or the guitar-based early, poppier but not silly or theatrical efforts of the Cure. Overall, that decade's sound is sustained with its similarity to the British indie rock of the mid-to-late 80s such as the House of Love or New Order. But, less of the torture of the former and less of the dance-beats of the latter.

That is, there's a strong undercurrent of melody. But, unlike some of their influences, French Films strips down the approach with a more rock-oriented direction, and a straightforward lack of studio effects or lyrical obscurity. From the middle of their album "White Orchid," "Latter Days" is a good example. The beat of "10:15 Saturday Night" by the Cure shifts into a more keyboard-driven mood, as in, say, "In-Between Days" from that band's middle period. "Long-Lost Children" may seem closer to the Chameleons or a less frenetic Wedding Present. "Juveniles" provides a riff-laden hook that draws you in with a combination of chords and keyboard overlay. It's very familiar, such a tune, but it's likeable.

Maybe not as innovative as future albums by the group may show, but it's winning in its simple charm. These five Finns deserve recognition for their embrace of an accessible style meriting revival. Hummable and jangly, this sinks into the back of your mind and makes the day more joyful. (10-1-13 to Amazon US)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Weekend's "Jinx": Music Review

This San Francisco trio, now in Brooklyn, started out noisier with an album I loved, Sports, in 2010. They toured with the Kills and with Wire, and their post-punk take conveyed verve, cogency, and talent. Familiar as it seemed to fans such as myself from templates thirty-odd years ago, it satisfied. Honed and confident, it connected. The Red e.p. in 2011 proved somewhat smoother, foreshadowing the unruffled tone of Jinx now.

"Mirror" opens with calm, nearly New Romantic gauziness, shifts into Krautrock, and then cruises into a melody reminiscent of "The Forest" by The Cure before bassist Shaun Durkan's vocals enter "I feel sick, sick, in my heart" he avers, over and over. However, the light tone of this belies the sentiment, echoed over Kevin Johnson's guitar, heavy with effects. Abe Pedroza's drums provide solid support, if in a very early 1980s manner.

Picking up the pace with a rattling "July" shows off the band's shimmering textures. The downloaded MP3 file provided feels fragile and tinny, but I suppose this production is intentional. Headphones help to plunge you into the sonic sludge, sweetening the mix with burbles and hiss. This nestles into the Slumberland Records label's affection for British-inspired sounds from three-plus decades ago.

As with its labelmates, Weekend thrives on recreating its influences, and having fun despite edging into gloom or at least a wallflower's pose at the night out. "Oubliette" stays consistent, and it jangles in a fashion that churns under the mix, which tries to bury its melody under a wave of distortion. Durkan's voice, while not immediately distinctive, matches the understated feel of his bandmates' music, set on creating a mood--tuneful, but not too poppy despite the frothy surface over the murk.

Durkan sings in a phrasing neither West nor East Coast. Underneath the swirl, a listener may struggle to discern his accent's origins. The geographical specificity suggested by the title "Celebration, FL" fails to define the distant, forlorn presence, recalling New Order, of the guitar patterns arching over this solemn fourth track. "I want to fade away" repeats over a severe drum beat, hacking away at air.

Similar to the first song, "Sirens" begins with a motorik rhythm. The soundstage looms larger, full of mild menace, suiting the title. "Adelaide" proves the loudest song so far, with a more insistent beat. Johnson's bass hums along, although the results seem a bit slight compared to the previous density.

However, Weekend can craft catchy songs, and while lyrics often get subsumed beneath the layers of reverberation, this might not detract from the trio's intent to focus on the overall effect of chiming riffs over waves of darker shades beneath the vocals, which hover between optimism and pessimism. "I want to save you from the world," promises Durkan on "Adelaide".

My Bloody Valentine felt sure to linger, and it arrived via "It's Alright" with its hesitant drums rat-a-tat as the guitars stretched out in slow arcs over a grumbling bass. On cue, the background vocals signaled a struggle to advance through the sludge towards beauty. It's not original, but it's a worthy tribute, as this album is itself, to the impact of Weekend's forebears upon today's admirers.

Each song stays short. Their first album clocked ten compact tracks, and so does this second full-length recording--full remaining a relative term for the wise brevity of Jinx. "Rosaries" sustains the album's quality of consistency, while each song contributes a different mood, subtle yet evident. This turns the nearly wordless vocal backing into a loop, to enhance the circular image of a rosary.

After this, an ominous "Scream Queen" rustles beneath a more industrial opening, before it lurches into a count-off, chanted chorus by Durkan that reaches out of Pedroza's clatter while tethered to Johnson's effects-laden guitar. Durkan paces his bass well here, to let the sinister play off the perky.

Ending this tidy, direct album, "Just Drive" starts off with a confident, hard rocking pound, less evasive than what has preceded it. Guitars here alternate between a drill and a delayed riff, accentuating the by-now typical match of a harsher edge with a smoother delivery that Weekend appears to be perfecting by this stage in their career.

While this may delight those already devoted to the trio's predecessors, it deserves a hearing by newer listeners finding out about New Order, The Cure, Joy Division, or My Bloody Valentine for the first (or hundredth) time. Weekend follows in venerable footsteps. Jinx advances the progress evident already in Red and Sports, and avoids whatever sophomore slump its title may suggest. (PopMatters 8-1-13 and 7-25-13 to  Amazon US)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Ag feacháint Acadia agus Port Nua

Fhan muid in aice leis an gcladach Atlantaigh faoi dhá. Go minic, bhreathnaigh muid áit chomh seo (suas) ina riasc ag imeall Cuan na Doingean, Cuan na Róna, agus Riasc Deas i Maine ar Oiléain an Mhóta Fhasach. Bhí ag thiomáint i bPhairc Náisúinta Acadia, mar chonaic muid radharc go cosúil sin aríst agus aríst eile.

Gan amhras, bhi lá breá ansin. Shúil muid go Cuan na Long agus Oiléain na mBarr fós. Measaim go raibh ag shúil deag mile an Lá na Marbh sin.

Ina ár óstan, thug mé faoi deara cóip an amhran "An Buachaill Choilíneacha Fiain." Bhí óstan ag ainmithne "Castlemaine." Is áit Caisléan na Mainge i gCarrai.

I gCuan na mBarr, d'ól muid ina "Tuirlingt Laoire" bideach: de reir acu is an teach tábhairne na hÉireann soir sna Stáit Aontaithe, Áfach, cúpla bloc soir, ag trasna ón gcé, bíonn an teach tábhairne Tigh Phádraig mór ag dúnta lasmuigh den séasúr, ach go raibh comharthaí dátheangach, i mBéarla agus Gaeilge go nádurtha, go leír timpeall air.

Is maith linn an baile Port Nua ina Oiléain na Rhode trí lá ina dhaidh sin; tá suiomh stairiúl leis áiteannaí lán de Chumann na gCairde agus Gúidiach adhartha agus áruis cáiliúla ag imeall an aillte. Fhan muid i seomra iontach ina Ard-Mheara de Ghrasta a toghail ar Alfred Vanderbilt i 1909. Ar an drochuair, go raibh sé ach oíche amháin.

Seeing Acadia and Newport

We stayed near the Atlantic shore twice. Often, we saw a place like this (above) around Bass Harbor, Seal Cove, and Pretty Marsh in Maine on Mount Desert Island. We drove in Acadia National Park, so we saw a sight like this over and over.

Without a doubt, it was a lovely day. We walked to Ship Harbor and Bar Island too. I reckon that we walked ten miles that All Souls Day. 

In our inn, I noticed a copy of the ballad "The Wild Colonial Boy." The inn is named after "Castlemaine." It's a place in Kerry.

In Bar Harbor, we drank in tiny "Leary's Landing": according to them it's the easternmost Irish pub in the United States. However, a few blocks east across from the pier, Paddy's large pub was closed off-season, but it had signs all around it in two languages: Irish and English, naturally.

We liked Newport in Rhode Island three days later; it's an historic site full of houses of Quaker and Jewish worship and famous mansions along the cliffs. We stayed in a splendid room in Grace Mansion built for Alfred Vanderbilt in 1909. Unfortunately, it was for but only one night.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pond's "Hobo Rocket": Music Review

I requested this as I liked the Portland, Oregon, trio with this name which in the early '90s released three overlooked albums on SubPop. Hoping for a comeback or at least a lost record release, I opened the download link to learn that Hobo Rocket is the fifth CD from this Perth band, founded five years ago and aiming now for an American breakthrough. Sharing ties to fellow Australian psychedelic revivalists Tame Impala, this resembles their neighbors' newest record Lonerism strongly, as three members are in both bands.

Starting off, "What Ever Happened to the Million Head Collide?" will please fans of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. With a vrooming, whooshing production, it takes off and sustains its progressive rock-meets-garage style with aplomb. "Xan Man" compresses the panoramic view into a smaller sonic space, with Cam Avery's drums bashing away under Nick "Paisley Adams" Allbrook with vocals (also credited for flute, keys, guitar) who offers a dreamy, detached presence. It swings from the loud to soft in passages that distort and wobble even as the song tries to stand tall in the crash.

John Lennon's woozy, morning-after hesitancy returns in "O Dharma" with Allbrook's voice, trackes over Jay "Wesley Goldtouch/Wirey B. Buddah" Watson – guitar, keys, bass & backing vocals; Joseph "Shoseph Orion McJam" Ryan – guitar, bass & backing vocals; and Jamie Terry – keys & bass. It's hard from an MP3 file to make out who's who and what's what, but Pond and label-mates Tame Impala favor a lush, rich ambiance, with acoustic and keyboard-dominant quiet interludes within the more aggressive or trippier passages. Burbling electronics work well to bring out the nuances of this song, and sitar effects end this with an appropriate reference to the East.

Songs take different directions in their four or five minutes. Today's neo-psychedelic explorers appear to bifurcate into jam bands and those raised on indie rock who prefer shorter duration for adventures. "Aloneaflameaflowe" could have been recorded by the Portland predecessor Pond, at least in its stumbling opening, where guitar effects hit turbulence. Then, the voice emerges, and it's back to the early '70s with a thicker mood of processed voice and uncertain foundations of melody. Harder guitars battle out of this until Allbrook's voice whines. As if Robert Plant returns and Led Zeppelin struts. The band, however, lacks one overwhelming guitar presence such as a Jimmy Page, and with three players credited, Pond dives into a tropical, murkier atmosphere rather than a crystalline clarity.

"Giant Tortoise" swims up from the seasick segue. I was waiting for a track similar to Pink Floyd's earlier phase, and this passed through that spacy stage before moving into more overdrive, if less interstellar than Lennonesque. The vocals keep nodding back to a post-Beatles lassitude, and the instrumental energy dissipates into restless directions. Pond, for all the relative brevity of each track, makes Hobo Rocket sound as long as a double-album of old, and its model rests on gatefolds and Hipgnosis icons.

To jolt us from one period of the '70s to another, that makes the mumbled vocals on the title track sound almost as if Mark E. Smith of The Fall staggers into the studio. More spoken than sung, gargled and casual, Perth local character Cowboy John's turn at the mic takes a dramatic detour from the previous vocal turns on this album. Overlapping and raw, as if found-sound dialogue more than a lead lyric, this shuffles Pond's influences closer to a more punk or post-punk experimental snippet.

This closes with even more tape distortion before jumping into "Midnight Mass (At the Mission Street  Payphone)"; it starts in Lennonesque tones yet again. This may appeal to those who worship the Smart Beatle, but I found this languid stance wearying, as I have the same touches on Tame Impala's albums. I prefer the more propulsive sections of both bands' dense thicket of a gnarly guitar attack, but Pond won't stay with one groove.

That they do so for more than a minute on the first and final tracks displays them at their best, recalling The Who or Pink Floyd in their more pastoral moments (or counterparts today The Soundtrack Of Our Lives), but this refusal to ape their influences for too long proves an admirable tenacity. Pond manages like TSOOL to freshen trippy classic rock tropes with a calm command of the genre, not for twenty-minute drum solos or stadium-ready riffs, but with a sense of the unexpected. You don't know what will follow in the next minute of any of their songs. That's a recommendation.
(Amazon US 12-13-13 and PopMatters 8-5-13)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Destruction Unit's "Deep Trip": Music Review

Brooklyn label Sacred Bones keeps releasing powerful psychedelic albums from groups reared on classic, indie, and hard rock. Songs opt for brevity. Vocals roar and whine, but without the deeper registers associated with metal today. Guitars, bass, drums thump and thud in a maelstrom.

That description applies to colleagues signed to this innovative label, one of the best small enterprises thriving. That's not to disparage the band, but to encourage you: this is co-produced by Ben Greenberg of label standouts The Men. As with tour mates Milk Music and Merchandise, Destruction Unit crashes off the louder college rock tunefulness of thirty years ago, mixed with a grittier preference for distortion, pedals, muck--if fewer anthems. But (unlike a band such as Wooden Shijps, which while I listen to them seem to lately stay stuck on songs that remain the same), neo-psychedelic bands, in their more compact versions, need to freshen repetition and drones to avoid a short shelf life. This style risks turning stale fast.

This band, a loose amalgamation, originated a decade ago with Jay Reatard, Alicja Trout, and Ryan Rousseau. Evolving from synthesizers into a lo-fi squall and recently a tighter, less ramshackle precision, what distinguishes these five fiery musicians out of Arizona's enigmatic Ascetic House collective, on their first proper full-length? Coming out soon after Void, this shares that record's wider distribution on Sacred Bones, but compresses its heady attack into a consistent claustrophobia. Allow quiet time to turn this up. Play it repeatedly, and what initially rushes past reveals care and craft.

Each song on this firm, abrupt plunge into a cauldron leaves a burn, an acidic tinge, and viscera. Each song's title conveys the sense of it exactly. Brutal, detached, unsettling, it's all bracing jolts as the vehicle careens through the barren soundscape, from its desert origins as dry, hostile, and primal.

Beginning with echoed scrapes, "The World on Drugs" forces the listener downward. Spiraling, this song refuses to take off. Until a hardcore riff slams in. Rousseau's chants overlay melody. Beneath the feedback, Destruction Unit, like its 1980s forebears, sticks in enough hooks. Vocals come closer to downbeat stoner rock than indie rock, a bit of a surprise, but a wise choice. This feels a relief after so many Brooklyn bands aping their British or New York predecessors.

Picking up the same pace, "Slow Death Songs" keeps this well-sequenced album gloomy. More primordial voices, but the early Misfits-like mood turns this peppy as well as poisonous to fit its title.

Slower, "Bumpy Road" waits for the delay of the drums against the guitar; vocals march along in a funereal pattern, evoking ahead a sinister fate for the wayfarer. It's not easy to discern the vocals on an MP3 file provided for review, but I suppose this effect adds to the thicker texture the band prefers.

You may wonder what fellow Arizonans the Meat Puppets might have evolved into if the drugs hadn't taken their toll."God Trip" channels the force of the three guitarists, Rousseau, Jesco Aurelius, and Nick Nappa. They lift this off into a tuneful, if still very messy, excursion glancing around upwards.

Staying aloft, "Final Flight" locks into a Hawkwind groove with Andrew Flores' usually thundering drums fading and Rusty Rousseau's bass far below. Ryan Rousseau's tone insists on taking this journey seriously. Unlike the Meat Puppets, there's no levity to break the tension as this album tightens its hold, and this tightens its grip. It shoves you into its constriction and then, breaking free for a song or two, hints at the transcendent. But Deep Trip refuses to let go of the sludge even as it takes you higher.

Fittingly, "The Holy Ghost" hovers in attenuated manifestation. Guitars wait to transmit feeble pulses. Ryan Rousseau talks as if to himself in his vocal phrasing, until the instruments shake off the fealty to the force. They resist its pull, and as if a rebellious angel or determined demon, Rousseau speaks for those refusing the lull of the faithful departed. Or so I imagine, in my own storyline as I listen. Destruction Unit allows spiritual space within sonic thrust, for you to create your own inner visions.

Punchier beneath the constant whirlwind, "Control the Light" reminds me of Dave Vanian from the Damned, or Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, with commanding vocals nearer those proto-Goth singers' barks. I realize this approach might discourage some; it may muffle this album's power. Rousseau favors a slightly reverbed, slightly British accent, but within this genre, vocal mannerisms may work--as with predecessor Jay Reatard. "Night Loner" stretches out. It adds screechy guitar that points to a Farflung-friendly space rock, if a moment before the crash landing on an alien sphere.

Deep Trip lives up to its name, just as each song does. Form matches content. Whether by the boost of certain chemicals or by the grace of living near a bleak terrain, Destruction Unit means it. They play from the abyss, and reach out to pull you in beside their queasy, addled, bleary, fuzzy selves. (Amazon US 7-20-13 in shorter form; PopMatters as above same date)

Band's website

Monday, December 9, 2013

Disappears' "Era": Music Review

Disappears sustains its somber phase on the sparse Era. As for a timeframe, this updates sounds from three decades ago--postpunk, Goth, hardcore, noise. It harshens an edgy, brutal tone. Gradually growing less accessible in its discography (which can be its own recommendation), Disappears favors aggression overlaying melody, if submerged in distortion and reverberation.

The cover of their first album Lux resembled the minimalist logo for Neu! That German band's Krautrock and the second album, Guider, suggesting a My Bloody Valentine e.p., Glider, plot neatly two starting points for this Chicago band. Brian Case is joined by stalwarts guitarist Jonathan Van Herik and bassist Damon Carruesco. For this third full-length, Noah Leger replaces Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley on drums.

"Girl" begins the seven-track album. Full of shouts, as if "my god" might be shouted as much as "my girl", it conjures up chaos. "Power" reminds me of industrial proto-punk Chrome, exaggerating the menace of Case's vocals, which mannered and drawn out may appeal to fans of this crepuscular  approach. However, the song does not depart from a measured beat until halfway, when the guitars start to jiggle. Variety's needed to offset sameness of such a dismal track. Intentionally dreary, it could still benefit from a spark in the dark.

That may betray my preference for propulsion. "Ultra" nods to the band's earlier work, more beholden to whooshes and whirls, over loops barely discernible as groans or squeals. Suddenly, a filtered mechanical voice breaks into the murky grind. It could be German, it could be English. While this does not depart much from the slow tempo of "Power", the difference matters: the pace gradually increases as textures incrementally build into nightmares, and the chanted, disdainfully muttered lyrics circle back on themselves into an hex. Simple, and kept so by the rhythm section and basic fills on guitar. Good mood music for a cranky mood, as often on this venerable label, Kranky.

The title track evokes a cinematic atmosphere. Again, the gloomy, echoed vocals prove an affectation; for me, this twilit trend threatens cliché, as in pale predecessors when I heard them in the early 1980s. The guitars manage to rise above this with a ringing, repetitive ambiance at the end.

Continuing in this style, "Weird House" plays off the vocals with a call and response burst, and guitars which rouse themselves off the drums for a harder impact. Joy Division's rhythms in their first years can be heard, and this ratty grumble in the instrumentals makes for a slightly perkier result, emphasizing a riff to better effect. Disappears preferred this muffled energy in the best of their previous recordings, and I prefer it too.

The contemporary feel of the metronomic instrumentation opening "Elite Typical" shows promise: vocals remain the same, but the band appears willing to push the song along rather than get lost in a miasma. The guitar spins under and once in a while above a percussive trot, and while the song rarely reaches for sonic clarity on an intentionally over-processed production, the beat works: when Disappears lets itself stretch out into longer passages, it applies its talents best.

Speaking of metronomes, the clicks and hums of "New House"carry the listener into midnight. As expected by now, vocals threaten: "do you remember" becomes an ominous inquiry. Bass plucks and guitars chime over a tapped drum until a hiss emerges and more groans. "It's all around you now. A forest of light won't protect your shroud." Heard at the right, and dark moment, as much in this genre, this conjures up effective menace. "A new house in a new town" suggests less than a bargain hunter's reward for whomever hears this lyrical declamation. The song ends with the suggestion of clicks, again, as footsteps cut off without warning.

More obscure than what Disappears has offered in the past few years, this shift into the grim reveals its decision to turn away from reviving shoegazing or Krautrock. Instead, the band enters a subterranean portal rather than embarks on an interstellar voyage. In this new Era, not a dawn but a descent awaits anyone who starts down this black corridor. (8-26-13 Amazon US; PopMatters 9-4-13)

Band's website

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Red Temple Spirits: Music Review

With lavish packaging thanks to a two-ton letterpress, an iconic feature of elegant releases by pioneering Independent Project Records, this compilation from a Los Angeles underground band of the late 1980s begins IPR's re-launch of its eclectic label. Bruce Licher (Savage Republic, Scenic) created stunning record covers for his label, signing Camper Van Beethoven for its first three albums. Licher also designed my wedding invitations; his hand-fed vintage press, then at the stolid old Nate Starkman building downtown, represented an artistic presence a quarter-century ahead of loft revivals in that industrial district.

Industry churned around IPR's first band, Licher's post-punk Savage Republic. Yet label mates, such as Red Temple Spirits, channeled Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett with The Cure and early Goth to create a tribal post-psychedelic ambiance that meshed well with the direction Licher and colleagues took as the grittier experimentation of their own bands merged with a more expansive, or arid, setting. This led to IPR relocating to the New Age mecca of Sedona, Arizona (now they're in Bishop, California, near the other end of the desert). There, half of RTS also moved, logically.

First, however, chanting William Faircloth (a 1960s singer who had emigrated from England), fronted Dino Paredes (bass), Thomas Pierek (drums), and Dallas Taylor (guitar). These musicians had stints in post-punk and Goth-experimental local bands. Together, they recorded two LPs, separately included in this re-issue with glassine wrappers for these limited edition CDs, in cardboard printed covers evoking bold red and sandstone hues of Tibetan iconography. Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon (1988) rests on Pierek's spare percussion. Taylor's guitar recalls Robert Smith's mid-1980s Cure patterns, as Paredes' bass provides an understated foundation. Over this usually unhurried but sporadically restless backing, Faircloth declaims his lyrics of spiritual solace and social unease.

The songs flow well. There may not be much distinction in mood, but as with albums meant to be heard as a whole, the atmosphere wafts along for the first four tracks of the debut. "Dreamings Ending" asserts itself more forcefully, as if a more up-tempo track from The Cure's Pornography. Rather than imitating that band, RTS relies on Faircloth's preference for simpler declamation than Smith's wails and whoops. This panoramic tone suits the swirl or, more often, the spareness.

RTS favors a mid-tempo pace, allowing it to swoop over a flat terrain of images and sensations. It can roil, as on "Moonlight", or saunter, as on "Where Merlin Played" or "Exorcism/Waiting for the Sun".  Fans of Julian Cope's similar explorations of pagan and occluded culture may like these choices, too. Yet, RTS does not employ keyboards, and sticking to the basic guitar-bass-drums lineup (Faircloth is credited for percussion), keeps the band grounded, instead of reaching the space-rock of its forebears.

Still, Pink Floyd's "The Nile Song" crashes in with a well-chosen, faithful cover, demonstrating RTS can assert itself, and Fairchild can project himself above his previous, usually softer delivery. This continues with "Lost in Dreaming" and "Light of Christ/This Hollow Ground". Listeners to stoner rock such as Om might find congenial company on these tracks, roaming the same stark landscape.

At over an hour, originally a double-LP, Dancing feels as epic as albums by such as Om. A bonus track, the first version of the colonialist -immigrant conflict related as "New Land" (which had been issued as a benefit for Tibet House in very small amounts) keeps the energy upbeat for the second half of this well-sequenced album. Fairchild doesn't command the mike, and this may be the album's one shortcoming. Unlike Robert Smith, Roky Erickson, or Roger Waters, Faircloth remains a more understated presence.

If Tomorrow I Were Leaving for Lhasa, I Wouldn't Stay a Minute More (1989) may not reflect that city's politically fraught status under communist rule, but it does reflect the dissatisfaction with one's existence at the heart of the Buddhist teachings. Faircloth's songs continue to explore restlessness. The slightly brighter production moves along the album (nearly as long as the first, although supplemented now by two bonus tracks, one another take on "New Land") but the shinier gloss, and busier instrumentation, for all its accessibility, keeps the first album's resolute stance of yearning.

Again, the first half of a RTS album sustains a mood. "A Black Rain" opens with more tension, which is needed. Taylor's guitar finally comes alive in "Meltdown" and "Confusion"; it's good to have Faircloth back a peppier melody, Middle-Eastern tinged (as with some of Camper Van Beethoven and Savage Republic, notably). After a slow burn on "Rainbow's End", another appropriate Pink Floyd cover appears, "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun". Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators, an apparent influence on RTS if a muted one, had a spirited song in "Rollercoaster". Dispensing with the electric jug oddness of the original, the band's perkier take allows the post-punk roots of its instrumentalists to show, creating a sharper version that must have sounded great live. For once, RTS strips off the burnished hue of its tunes, to promote more energy.

Bonus track "Exodus from Lhasa" uses effects to create more distance; "New Land" here shimmies in punkier fashion, again a nice surprise. Four 1987 "live demo" recordings are included in early pressings. "Light of Christ" and "Hallowed Ground' either by intent or chance find the vocals phased or lapsed for intriguing alternatives.

Akin to chant or ritual, this post-punk, hypnotic, music conjures up a sameness at times that does not belie its variety and subtlety. Edgy and jittery too, this connects to one's inner state, subject to alteration and mood swings. Red Temple Spirits summons up voices, as an electronic shaman. (To PopMatters 9-9-13)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Black Watch's "The End of When": Music Review

The Black Watch, twenty-two years on and this their seventeenth or eighteenth record, emerged from the early-'90s Los Angeles indie scene. Influenced by jangly pop-rock which possesses the slightly psychedelic tinge of its one-time contemporaries, the band continues to produce intelligent, accessible music. It may beg for a cult following, but the musicians deserve a wider audience.

Led Zeppelin Five, their previous release (reviewed by me for PopMatters, as was founder John Andrew Fredrick's new novel The King of Good Intentions), evoked this style, straightforward in its affable accessibility, yet lyrically suggestive or elusive. Steven Schayer (ex-Clay Idols and the Chills) and Fredrick share vocals. Their twin guitars shimmer with the sheen that fans of Australians The Go-Betweens or New Zealanders The Clean may welcome. David Kilgour of the latter band in a liner note praises The Black Watch's "delightful and thoughtful pop"; the Antipodean tradition of modestly conceived, genial (if often restive or morosely lovelorn) literacy filters through the careful results.

Rick Woodard on drums and Chris Rackard on bass (augmented by producer Scott Campbell) provide steady support. No notes guide me to which singer takes on which song; both vocalists favor a deep, declamatory delivery. This works well in the opener, a charging "I Don't Feel the Same"; "Meg" and "Hardly Nothing Never Ending" continue in a softer shuffle.

"Oh Oh" churns away with intertwined guitars and more energy. The vocal effects show more experimental production, alternating layers which resemble the Anglocentric guitar pop of their origins and colleagues. "Sum" reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock's introspective forays into the soul. It enters a more atmospheric mood which brings out the band's textured arrangements to wise effect.

Alternating a more languid and then layered and quietly clanging pace, "Always Honey" brings out the cinematic feel of the band's song craft. The singers hold back rather than let go, and this may enthuse or frustrate listeners. The band prefers to move the propulsion forward or stay in place musically, so the vocalists remain largely in their own cocooned realm, sounding often downbeat.

With "The End of When", The Black Watch perks up, and the production lets some space in behind the singing. "Of Lovely Surprises" shifts into mid-tempo terrain, and this music for mature audiences emphasizes reflection and self-awareness, beneath the handsome construction. Songs rarely last long.

Beginning "now my heart is black as flowers", "The Spare Side" belies its jaunty beat. This appears typical for The Black Watch. The song slides into a flugelhorn-backed phase, before slipping around on the guitars before jolting back to its jaunty start. It could have been a crooner's hit in 1968: whomever's singing on this song lets himself emote more, and this improves the track's impact.

Same for the penultimate track, the "A Pleasing Dream/That's You and Me All Over". It's four minutes, but it feels epic by comparison with the previous songs. It amps up the band, and this is needed after so much introversion, and polite endurance of whatever failed love leaves one with.

The elegant, if bereft "Unlistening" closes this album powerfully. The guitars roam more lonely, backwards effects deepen the unhinged sensibility, and the brevity of the track heightens its power.

That emotion, lighter on understatement, loosens up The Black Watch. The last two songs of The End of When left this listener with the greatest impact. When the band applies the lessons of psychedelic pop, filtered through the indie rock followers turned musicians of the '80s and '90s who perfected a shambling, graceful honesty on record in New Zealand, Britain, or Australia, its music stands out.

Fans or newcomers cuing up the bonus disc's sixteen songs from their prolific back catalogue may compare the band's seventeenth record with some predecessors. The first two songs, standout cuts from Led Zeppelin Five jump out more aggressively than songs on The End of When. The production sharpens, and the mix pushes the singers forward even as the music swirls better and pounds harder.

Louder volumes and more frenetic tunes express the band's earlier application of shoegazing and post-punk melody into their varied repertoire, along with the gentler approaches favored on The End of When. I've compared Fredrick's songwriting to the late Scott Miller (Game Theory, Loud Family) and the retrospective disc shows their common influence in graceful or grouchy, yet always smart and eclectic, styles drawn from the best from pop-rock these past decades. You even get to hear a song about eccentric Christopher Smart, a nod to Fredrick's training as a Ph.D in English literature, from a few centuries ago; another adds to its title a more recent poet, Theodore Roethke. With sly surprises, this bonus disc expands the ranges reached by a steady and solid, and quite an eclectic, band. (11-3-13 as above to PopMatters; 10-17-13 slightly edited to Amazon US)