Mekons – Journey to the End of the Night Quarterstick QS60CD (2000)
When I was listening less than a week after Lou Reed died, I contemplated how Journey to the End of the Night (like much of Reed’s later work) represents middle-aged rock. Mekons bandmembers were in their 40s when they recorded this. It is tempered and softened like you might expect a rock album by middle aged persons to be. But it also has noisier guitar (“Cast No Shadows”) and harder meaning in the lyrics than the sort of “adult contemporary” or “dad rock” pabulum that is passed off as what mainstream rock audiences of comparable ages should listen to. But this is music with more substance than that, even when it draws some cues — and it certainly does — from those more insipid genres. Take one of the album’s best songs, “TINA”. It’s the acronym Margaret Thatcher’s brutal regime used to declare: “there is no alternative” to her political program (still in place as of this writing). By that she meant that her cronies in finance, who cast her in the role of “useful idiot”, were given free reign to run roughshod over the UK’s welfare state, selling off public assets for a fraction of their worth and terminating social programs, all to make the rich richer on the backs of the poor and working classes. But this song talks about how “it looks like an accident / caused by the government” but the singer can still say that “I can still dream of things / that have never been / but someday will be.” It’s an attempt to convey how there is indeed an alternative, with a human face, and it’s inevitable. This is the sort of stuff adults should care about, and here it is in a rock song with a light reggae beat. Rather than confining rock to the endless loop and infinite permutations of personal relationships — key amongst the famous compromises in “formal freedoms” granted after the 1968 uprisings–this is making the music about the political. Upping the ante, perhaps, is “Last Night on Earth,” which, if you can believe it, is about the origins of printed money. A few years after this album was released, anthropologist David Graeber published Debt: The First 5,000 Years, which explains how money in human society arose to replace moral debts (not to replace a barter system, as is mindlessly repeated by most orthodox economists). It tells the same story as this song. So this begins, “life is a debt / that must someday be paid.” That is the story of money. Note also that the liner insert for this CD features photos of the signs outside an exploitative check cashing business.
Hey, but all this talk of politics and economics doesn’t really hit you at all at first. The music sounds refined, acceptable. That’s what makes it special. The Mekons certainly have better albums. But with Journey to the End of the Night (sharing its title with Céline‘s best novel, «Voyage au bout de la nuit») they demonstrate a faculty with the most difficult of prospects, that of making rock and roll that is both mature and yet still rock and roll. It’s softened more than most, and unlike Lou Reed they take a few more shades off the driving guitar sound, leaving hardly a guitar solo to be found. Still, it’s all within the realm of rock. As I’ve said before, the concept of middle-aged rock is categorically rejected by many who feel rock is a young person’s game. I think it’s a difficult proposition, a narrow terrain prone to failure, but I think rock should be open-ended enough to allow it, and I think the concept can succeed. Journey to the End of the Night is such a minor success, not without its own flaws.
“In order to express our sense of reality, we must use some kind of symbol: words or notes or shades of paint or television pictures or sculpted forms. None of those symbols or images can ever completely satisfy us because they can never be any more than what they are — a fragment of a reflection of what we feel reality to be.”
Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember (2003).
“The map is not the territory; the map doesn’t cover all of the territory; and the map is self-reflexive (it becomes part of the territory).”
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933).
“the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself.”
Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (2012).
“One sees in effect that if here the signifier is a melting pot in so far as it bears witness to a presence that is past, and that inversely in what is signifying, there is always in the fully developed signifier which the word is, there is always a passage, namely something which is beyond each one of the elements which are articulated, and which are of their nature fleeting, vanishing, that is the passage from one to the other which constitutes the essential of what we call the signfying chain, and that this passage qua vanishing, is this very thing which can be trusted”
Jacques Lacan, Seminar V.
Johnny Cash – Orange Blossom Special Columbia CS 9109 (1965)
Johnny Cash didn’t always make great albums. Sometimes, especially into the 1970s, he was more of a live performer and going to the studio to record was an afterthought. As a result there was frequently a great song or two and a bunch of mediocre filler. In the 1960s he did a number of concept albums. These would often get off on the wrong foot, like Blood, Sweat & Tears opening with an overly-long “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.” Orange Blossom Special fits into his concept album era. It was Cash making overtures to the urban folk revival movement. He had already appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1964, and later that year he was in the studio recording this album. It’s an odd thing really. There is an offhand quality to this, and Cash hardly seems to be pushing himself. But it’s still a fun one. The opening “Orange Blossom Special” is a railroad song — Cash loved railroad songs. It’s a weaker, almost forced performance. But the album picks up. Cash considered himself a collector of songs. So it’s no wonder he came to Bob Dylan pretty early on. While recording At San Quentin he even announced to the audience that Dylan was a great songwriter. There are three Dylan songs here. “It Ain’t Me Babe” is the pick of the bunch. It may just be the definitive reading. “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below),” a duet with June Carter but not a Dylan song, is the other classic here. In all, the song selection is superb. It’s eclectic enough to include The Carter Family‘s standard “Wildwood Flower,” the Irish folk tune “Danny Boy,” and the rousing religious number “Amen.” There may be better performances of some of the songs like “Long Black Veil” and “The Wall” on At Folsom Prison, but the quirky performances here keep things fresh so that even listing to this back to back with other versions nothing would drag. It may take a few listens to come around to this one. But it is such a pleasant, unassuming little album that touches on so many classic themes of love, god, murder and liberty that run through Cash’s entire body of work that fans may find themselves coming back to this one more than most.
Johnny Cash – Now, There Was a Song! Memories From the Past Columbia CS 8254 (1960)
When Cash moved to Columbia Records, his first few albums continued where he had left off at Sun Records. There was a mixture of teen-idol material, now having more elaborate production, with gospel and folk. These early Columbia albums were produced by Don Law. Now, There Was a Song! featured the addition of producer Frank Jones. Law and Jones would continue to work with Cash for most of the decade. Together, the three created a series of concept albums — though the “concept” is more stylistic than thematic here.
Most of Cash’s music revolves around his trademark boom-chicka-boom rhythm and relatively simple instrumentation, with rock ‘n roll influences that separate it from most commercial country music. Now, There Was a Song! paired Cash and The Tennessee Two with a fiddle, pedal steel guitar, and piano, with more conventional country settings and rhythms. The thing is, it works! The covers are perfectly selected — even if “Cocaine Blues” is forced to appear as the censored version “Transfusion Blues”. Cash sounds like he loves these songs and is thrilled to be performing them. He was on top of the world at this point in his career. He was enjoying plenty of success, and drugs and the grind of touring had yet to take their tolls on him. Sure, this one clocks in at barely over 26 minutes, but it’s nice to have nothing but great tunes rather than a set bogged down by a lot of inferior filler. This is one of the man’s most consistently good albums, even if paradoxically it’s probably least representative of his trademark sound and somewhat like a lot of other country recordings of the 40s and 50s.
Sun Ra and His Astro Infinity Arkestra – Pathways to Unknown Worlds Impulse! ASD-9298 (1975)
Just three tracks on this album, but the opener “Pathways to Unknown Worlds” and the closer “Cosmo-Media” are great ones. My friend Patrick says there isn’t another album in the Sun Ra catalog quite like this. It has some of the sparse, fluttering free soloing popular with European free jazz (AKA free improv) players, which Sun Ra had already featured on The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume 2, and even the two Nuits de la Fondation Maeght albums. But especially from about three-quarters into the title track, and throughout “Cosmo-Media,” there are also more electronics, which makes this more like some of the primarily solo keyboard excursions on The Solar-Myth Approach, Vol. 1, even Atlantis and bits of Space Is the Place. Ra was incorporating early synthesizer sounds into a small combo setting, which he would do a lot more of later in years to come (Disco 3000, Media Dreams, Oblique Parallax). The freely improvised soloing found here would not be as relentless in the later years, instead used a bit more sparingly as a change of pace. Still, nothing in the Sun Ra catalog has such abstract soloing while still managing to be a part of music that is mellow and calm — to a point. If that isn’t clear, what I mean to say is that this mostly isn’t played like a continuous wall of noise. There is a lot of space between the notes and some separation between individual performances, but also some semblance of a futuristic sonic fabric at the same time. Bassist Ronnie Boykins plays boldly and he’s a big feature throughout. Rarely is an acoustic bassist so prominent on a Ra album. This one seems like it looks back and ahead at the same time, to things few people paid attention to at any point before, during, or since! The quality of the solos and the openness of the soling will please Ra fans, though newcomers (at least those not keyed into free jazz) may wish to start elsewhere. A reissue of the original Pathways to Unknown Worlds adds a bonus track from the original session that was on defective magnetic tape, restored with the aid of modern technology, plus an entire rejected, previously unreleased album tentatively entitled Friendly Love that is a bit less challenging in the solos and coupled with a more persistent base of percussion (yet is still quite nice).
Brother Ahh (Robert Northern) – Sound Awareness Strata-East SES19731 (1972)
Robert Northern (A/K/A Brother Ah) was a noted French horn player and flautist who worked with Sun Ra, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and others. Sound Awareness, his debut as a leader, features two side-long suites. The first side employs a psychedelic echo/phasing effect like some of Sun Ra’s early 1960s recordings (Secrets of the Sun) blended with Third Stream compositional detail and refinement. An Afro-conscious worldview is also at work, something with quite a bit of momentum in 1972, relatively speaking. That is particularly apparent on the second side with a sort of rapped/spoken word recitation set against a percussive backing.
Marion Brown – Geechee Recollections Impulse! AS-9252 (1973)
Excellent album from Marion Brown, who never quite achieved the renown he probably deserved. Geechee Recollections is sort of a mixture of free jazz and a touch of acoustic jazz fusion. It’s like a more low-key version of stuff coming out of St. Louis around the same time period (Julius Hemphill et al.). There is something pretty unique and likable about this mellow vision of avant jazz. Though Sweet Earth Flying might be a little better-known, this one is my favorite Brown so far.
Anthony Braxton – Six Monk’s Compositions (1987) Black Saint 120 116-1 (1988)
Anthony Braxton regularly played standards — some of those efforts from the 1980s being quite abysmal — but a whole album dedicated to one jazz composer was unique (even if Braxton returned to that concept later). Six Monk’s Compositions (1987) is something of a doppelganger of Steve Lacy‘s Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk from almost three decades previous. Consider this: four of the six tracks here appeared on Lacy’s album, and both Mal Waldron (p) and Buell Neidlinger (b) played on both albums. Braxton is at his most approachable. He strikes a pleasant balance between faithfully playing these great songs and twisting things about just a bit in his solos. It helps that these are Monk‘s songs, where the winding melodies and jittery rhythms seem like a perfect fit for Braxton’s biting, intellectually playful style. This is a rather good Braxton release, and really must be one of his best “straight jazz” outings. “Reflections” and “Played Twice” are standouts.
Anthony Braxton Quartet – Quartet (Coventry) 1985 Leo CD LR 204/205 (1993)
Recorded on the same tour as Quartet (London) 1985 and Quartet (Birmingham) 1985, also documented in Graham Lock‘s book Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-Reality of Creative Music (A/K/A Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton). This was the final show. Supposedly the group made an extra effort to perform well in that last tour performance for the benefit of the recording. Braxton had by this point clearly broken away from the sorts of things he was doing with his first great quartets with Altschul, Holland and Wheeler or Lewis in the previous decade. His compositions and methodologies had undergone great changes too. Each musician has a “territory” specified beforehand by Braxton, which serves to facilitate interaction and provide a starting point, but ultimately there is no limit on what each performer can do in his or her territory. Like composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, he was also using material that could be played simultaneously — he called it coordinate music. In hindsight, these methods laid the foundations for the more elaborate renderings of Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music of the next decade. This double-CD set also includes recorded interviews between Braxton and Lock used as the basis for parts of Lock’s book. The cover photo is of the quartet at Stonehenge, with Braxton wearing one of Evan Parker‘s old coats because he absentmindedly forgot to bring one of his own for the tour.