Alice Coltrane – Universal Consciousness

Universal Consciousness

Alice ColtraneUniversal Consciousness Impulse! AS-9210 (1971)


Although not as immediately likable as Journey in Satshidananda, released the same year, Universal Consciousness is nonetheless built on a more radical concept.  Both albums blend Indian music with jazz, but Universal Consciousness (as perhaps the album title implies) reaches for a transcendental synthesis or non-duality, but fought for on a specific intersection of American Jazz, and Indian and European classical musics.  So it is difficult to precisely point to any substantial parts of this as “jazz” in any traditional sense, or as Indian music in any traditional sense, juxtaposed with each other.  This is instead a new synthesis or hybrid that incorporates all those things.  Coltrane plays harp and organ.  These are deployed in unconventional ways, both as glissando-based walls of sound and ethereal, almost disembodied notes that do not seem to be played by human hands.  What is most striking about the album, though, is the use of strings.  Coltrane wrote the string arrangements herself, with transcriptions by Ornette Coleman.  The dissonant string harmonies vividly evoke much the same feeling as some of Coleman’s orchestral jazz works like Skies of America.

This one is a puzzling and intriguing album in the best possible way.  But newcomers should start elsewhere perhaps.

Bert Jansch – It Don’t Bother Me

It Don't Bother Me

Bert JanschIt Don’t Bother Me Transatlantic TRA 132 (1965)


People tend to like this much less than the Jansch albums that bookend it (Bert Jansch and Jack Orion).  While it certainly scales back the displays of virtuoso fingerpicking from his eponymous debut, the casually evoked moods here seem of the times in a way that neither the album immediately before nor after this did.  It is more earthly and transparent.  And it leans toward wistful and somber reflections on the new possibilities of 1960s counterculture.  This is close to John Fahey of the era, but with vocals that add a new dimension.  I for one think this is another great one — up there with Jansch’s very best.

Nilsson – Nilsson Schmilsson

Nilsson Schmilsson

NilssonNilsson Schmilsson RCA Victor LSP-4515 (1971)


Something I’ve observed through the years is the utter vacuousness of so much pop music from Los Angeles.  Yes, that is a commonplace observation.  L.A. is/was a cesspool.  But what that observation hides is the way that L.A. provided some unique opportunities for refugees from the East Coast.  Harry Nilsson was one of those.  Rightly or wrongly, he was in a state of crisis in New York, and relocated to L.A.  What this meant was that he had the opportunity there to work though his New York problems by way of his music, for whatever reason free from the hangups that would have dogged him in New York.  In a few years, he acclimated to L.A., and, after brief period of sanguinary transition, his music eventually became rather tediously blithe.  He lost touch with a New York frame of reference, and the L.A. frame just came across as complacent, slight and insular.  But, getting to the point, Nilsson Schmilsson came from the brief Goldilocks moment when Nilsson was this affable New York joke-ster out of his element, ready to appear on the cover of his album in a bathrobe, stoned and holding a bowl of marijuana, the photo out of focus.

Often in the conversation of “best albums recorded with a studio band,” this covers a range of song styles from ballad, to novelty, to rock and roll rave-up.  Reviewer Patrick Brown sums this up admirably:

“To me, this is an utterly charming album from beginning to end. I can’t understand how anyone who’s ever had a regular job could fail to be attracted to the first three songs, how anyone who’s been in a relationship that didn’t go as well as planned could fail to enjoy ‘Down’ or ‘I’ll Never Leave You’ or ‘Without You,’ how anyone with a rock and roll heart could fail to enjoy ‘Jump Into the Fire,’ or how anyone at all could fail to enjoy ‘The Moonbeam Song’ or ‘Let the Good Times Roll.’ Maybe this just shows my lack of imagination though. Regardless, I do find it nearly irresistible. Nilsson sings about real stuff but never takes himself too seriously, always seems to have his tongue hovering somewhere near his cheek when it’s not firmly planted there. But it’s not just novelty, I swear it. I mean really, most people do have to wake up, drink coffee and head to work. Why aren’t there more songs about that?”

It is tempting to expect Nilsson to kind of give up the charade, get to his real, unironic core message/personality.  But what endures about this album is how that moment never arrives.  He holds up the various commonplaces of commercial music and, rather than ridicule them, just sort of oddly embraces them as slight pleasures.  As it turns out, there is no deeper meaning.  What has the impression of being a joke ends up being ridiculously sincere — almost a precursor to comedian Andy Kaufman.  You just sort of have to recognize the banality and ironic irony (a kind of double negation) of this spectacle of commercial rock.  It is a beautiful anti-climax.  This is a record that accomplishes “nothing” so very, very well.

Bridget St John – Songs for the Gentle Man

Songs for the Gentle Man

Bridget St JohnSongs for the Gentle Man Dandelion DAN 8007 (1971)


Bridget St. John’s Songs for the Gentle Man is frequently compared to a number of other folk/rock artists of the late 1960s and early 70s.  The most common is that she sounds like a combination of Nico and Nick Drake.  Others cite Judy Collins‘ work with Joshua Rifkin on albums like In My Life.  One could even throw in Vashti Bunyan.  The Nico comparison is mostly right with respect to tone and timbre of their voices, especially when comparing Nico’s debut album Chelsea Girl.  Both had a husky, deep voice; hardly identical, but Nico is still the closest comparison among reasonably well-known folk/rock singers of the era.  Nick Drake combined folk and orchestral arrangements, but he had a surprisingly different approach, with melancholy that is scarcely present with St. John — it’s a somewhat strained comparison.  Judy Collins is the most important reference point.  She pioneered a type of folk that was kind of the obverse of Joan Baez.  Baez made music that combined bel canto singing (with shrill, heavy vibrato) with homespun folk guitar playing.  Collins instead used elements of showtunes to shape a singing voice that was still based in homespun folk music, then added refined Euro-classical orchestration (by Rifkin).  The problem was that Rifkin was inconsistent, and, sorry to say, operating somewhat at or beyond the limit of his abilities.  St. John took a similar baroque sensibility, through orchestration by Ron Geesin and John Henry, and applied it over homespun (yet adept) vocals and guitar.  Unlike Baez, who often seemed to compromise the folk elements to the dictates of established operatic pop forms, St. John (like Collins) tries to keep each sphere intact.  The strings add sophistication without diminishing the expressiveness of the vocals.  And the arrangements and orchestration on Songs for the Gentle Man are uniformly excellent.  This style of orchestrated folk would slip away in a few years, as the rock music came to dominate folk music.  Then the approaches of Paul Buckmaster (with Shawn Phillips, etc.) and Tony Visconti (with T.REX, etc.) would make similar strides in combining orchestration with rock, albeit in a very different way.

Speaking about the song “City-Crazy,” St. John said that she “sometimes felt not ‘stop the world I want to get off’ but ‘slow the world down, I want to stay on!'”  It reflects the entire album as much as that one song.  This interest in a slower pace of life is a bit like Vashti Bunyan’s musical portrayal of radical rural simplicity.  But St. John has a more urban sensibility, just slower than the bustle of actually existing urban life.

Songs for the Gentle Man was not a revolutionary album, but it took ideas that were percolating in the folk/rock scene and perfected them.  This is not a particularly immediate album.  It may take a few listens to appreciate fully.  But there are few better listening choices for a bright summer morning or afternoon (this is definitely not nighttime listening material).

Barry Adamson – The King of Nothing Hill

The King of Nothing Hill

Barry AdamsonThe King of Nothing Hill Mute CDSTUMM176 (2002)


Barry Adamson, the maestro of fake soundtrack music, has a firm conviction to the devilishly absurd.  His ridiculousness is part of his appeal.  He is a collector, suggestor, director and actor.  The illusory story lines hinted at on his albums can pull emotions and moods out of practically nothing.  He takes the listener places.  Plenty of new experiences are waiting.  The King of Nothing Hill fits a sleek action thriller, the sorts with spies, international intrigue — that sort of thing.  While it sounds like an exotic, action-packed journey, it is still pop music.  It is just on the fringes.  That seems like a comfortable home for Adamson.

“The Second Stain” and “Twisted Smile” pulse with monotonous vamps until the mood envelops everything.  The songs point, prod, and push.  Bass and keys alone can rush listeners back and forth between the highs and lows. Adamson can pick you up and place you carefully in new surroundings, ready to experience the moments as they arrive. You have to be open to the possibilities, true.  If you’re not willing to budge then Adamson’s efforts might be an annoyance. He does have a talent for always being inviting though.  You have to be quite closed-minded not to be swayed a little.

A funky workout session takes place on “Cinematic Soul” (cribbing a bass line from “Sing a Simple Song”).  Adamson can be as brash and glitzy as anyone and still pull it off.  His material may be described as rather composed, but it can boogie too.  Then more surprises come when “That Fool Was Me” has the sultry soul comedy of him singing, “only a fool would leave you / and that fool was me.”

The King of Nothing Hill makes considerable use of electronics and sound effect samples.  There is sometimes an erratic pursuit of a number of different styles, but Adamson uses those shifts to convey a sense of changing scenes in a movie.  The effect can be a bit demanding over the course of the rather lengthy runtime of the album though.

As Above So Below, the predecessor album, had more lounge jazz/acid jazz and bleak, blaring trip-hop pushing it ahead even if it subdued the pseudo-soundtrack impressionism.  Both efforts toy with kitsch.  All things said, the albums are about equally good, just in different ways — if anything this album has more cohesive and focused individual songs even as it lacks some of the elusive intrigue overall.

The King of Nothing Hill is refreshing.  Almost a decade and a half after its release, it has to be given credit for capturing the feel of the sorts of action thriller films it evokes.  Granted, the lyrics go beyond what pure soundtrack music would normally do, by suggesting visuals to accompany the music (like the line, “I don’t even know how the gun got in my hand” on “Whispering Streets”).  But that’s part of the fun of this approach to music.  And Barry Adamson is still basically the only one doing what he does.