CANCAN Harvest 1C 066-45 099 (1978)

This is the last album that CAN recorded before disbanding (though they later reunited).  The conventional narrative is that the band went downhill from 1974 onward.  Is that fair?  Yes and no.  While the post-’74 material is by no means as pathbreaking, there is still much to like about it.  The self-titled CAN (renamed Inner Space for some reissues) grapples with popular music of the day, which is to say disco, funk rock, even reggae, jazz fusion, and more.  This ranges all over the place.  Some of it (“A Spectacle”) even locks into a proto-hip-hop breakbeat-style groove.  “E.F.S. Nr. 99 (‘Can Can’),” a rendition of Jacques Offenbach‘s iconic “Infernal Galop” composition, is sometimes greeted with a sneer, but it’s actually great!  CAN had a sense of humor, which was one of their admirable qualities when it shone through, and this particularly sunny song is much less pretentious than a lot of other CAN genre tributes of the prior few years.  Of course, the opener “All Gates Open” is really a song that ranks among the band’s best, with a moderate tempo, a mechanical rhythm with hints of ambient music, and a jammy, laid-back mystical quality evoked by the lyrics.  “Safe” and “Sodom” are other particularly good ones.  “Sunday Jam” is a dud, with cheesy smooth jazz trappings, but it proves to be the only dud on an otherwise fine album. 

Don’t let the haters sour you on this, which is a good one for anyone with open ears (that is to say anyone who doesn’t limit CAN to their sound of the 1968-74 period).  This has much more of a sense of purpose than the last couple CAN albums, which had good songs here and there but tended to kind of drift about aimlessly.  It is sleeker, more immediate and more accessible than earlier CAN recordings, but it is no worse off for any of those qualities.

CAN – Out of Reach

Out of Reach

CANOut of Reach Harvest 1C 066-32 715 (1978)

Widely regarded as the worst CAN album — it was for a long time omitted from a reissue program.  No doubt, this is not music quite like what the band was making from 1968-74, for a number of reasons.  This comes across as a bit slight most of the time.  And another reviewer was probably right to say, “About half of this is merely OK; the other half is terrible.  I’ll leave you to decide which half is which.”  And yet, on the whole, this is passable enough.  If there is a parallel, it would be The Beach Boys when they brought in Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin, and in the years that followed when the band flirted with disco and such.  In CAN’s case, it was new members Rosko Gee and Reebop Kwaku Baah from Traffic.  There is a pronounced shift here with a focus on club/disco music and easygoing, grooving prog rock.  If there is one thing that annoys urban elites, of the sort who are the main body of supporters of avant garde acts like CAN, it is to dally with the music of the uneducated rabble, which is a big part of the demographic of disco, and groove rock.  There is a tendency to consider any engagement with disco (or groove rock), and its fans, to be inherently slight.  Maybe, or maybe it is just elitist bigotry?  Frankly, Rosko Gee’s songs (“Pauper’s Daughter and I,” “Give Me No ‘Roses'”) are not bad, just quite different from the sort of music CAN fans were accustomed to from the band.  But this is just like Fataar and Chaplin’s contributions to The Beach Boys (“Leaving This Town,” “Hold on Dear Brother”).  Still, this is a pretty middling album at best, and much of it feels worn out.  But taken entirely on its own terms it works adequately enough as background music.  That is not much of an endorsement, which the album wouldn’t deserve, yet in the right setting it sounds perfectly okay.  The better songs are in the middle of the album (the end of side one and the beginning of side two in the original LP format).  Should I feel bad about kind of liking this, mediocre or not?  Nah.

Faust – The Faust Tapes

The Faust Tapes

FaustThe Faust Tapes Virgin VC 501 (1973)

Faust was never a “commercial” sort of band.  But following complaints of low sales they switched to a new label and producer Uwe Nettelbeck struck a deal with a new label, Virgin, where he gave them Faust recordings for nothing and the label released them at a discount price (a full LP for the price of a single) aimed at the British market.  This proved to be boon for the band, with the album becoming their best-selling and most widely known by a substantial margin.  It is stitched together from bits and pieces of recordings into two seamless “suites” of sort.

As fragmentary as the recordings are, and despite the jumps between disparate styles, bits of highly melodic pop appear with some regularity — like a the catchy, rhythmic blasts of fuzz guitar that begin about seven minutes into side one, which provides a mini-song that irreverently confronts a state of mechanical, detached and indifference.  I once told someone that the band Deerhoof‘s album Reveille sounded like The Beatles had replaced Paul McCartney with Yoko Ono.  Regardless of whether that held in that case, it isn’t an entirely bad description of The Faust Tapes.  Certainly, casual pop listeners will be put off.  Yet that is kind of the point.  This is music that pays no deference to commercial, mainstream pop/rock music, even as it accepts that sort of music on the same terms as everything else.  The resultant amalgam of sounds allows the music to shift from the dour to the sprightly and back, and back again, with the impression that the listener is hearing only the best bits.  Or not.  Suffice it to say, there is an impudence at work that is ready and willing to clash with the status quo while at the same time winning over adherents with a likable goofiness and almost absurdist humor.  Definitely an important (however unlikely) statement from one of the bands that fought the good fight.

For more, read an excellent review here.

Leonard Cohen – Death of a Ladies’ Man

Death of a Ladies' Man

Leonard CohenDeath of a Ladies’ Man Warner Bros. BS 3125 (1977)

If it’s anything, this album is frustrating.  It is basically two entirely different albums smashed together — and they go together like oil and water.  Phil Spector provides a dense, rich backdrop in which Leonard Cohen’s songs and voice seem entirely lost.  At his most effective, Cohen’s music has a personal intimacy that seems to speak directly to the listener.  Spector’s music, on the other hand, revels in a kind of jubilant — even garish — kind of festive quality, which is fit for dancing and get-togethers.  Together, Spector and Cohen are a match made south of heaven.  On Death of a Ladies Man, Spector is doing what he always does, hardly different from anything he did with The Ronettes, etc.  He doesn’t give an inch.  Cohen is writing some excellent songs, ones that embody a late-Seventies come-down and are filled with an incisive sense of resignation and disappointment.  But finding your way to Cohen’s astute lyrics is far more of a chore than it needs to be.  As a singer, Cohen is unsuited to this kind of musical setting.  His limited vocal abilities don’t exactly allow him to pull a voice like Ronnie Spector or Tina Turner out of his back pocket.  That puts more of the blame on Phil Spector for the underwhelming results.  Even if the musical backdrop is fine in and of itself, it needs to suit the star performer.  Spector’s production would have befitted, say, Scott Walker (now there was a missed opportunity!).  Here, it’s all wrong.  This record is a minor disaster saved only by the fact that concentrated effort reveals a lot of substance in Cohen’s lyrics.  As an aside, it is interesting that some of Cohen’s vocal duets with Ronee Blakley distinctly recall Bob Dylan‘s with Emmylou Harris on Desire from a year earlier (and Dylan, along with Allen Ginsburg, makes a cameo appearance here on “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”).

DJ /rupture – Minesweeper Suite

Minesweeper Suite

DJ /ruptureMinesweeper Suite Tigerbeat6 MEOW045 (2002)

Did you know that there are really only two kinds of people? Well, there are.  One kind are globalists, who believe in a overarching hierarchy of things, with all people and things with each in its place and, axiomatically, problems arise from people and things being out of place (or unhappy with their place).  The other kind are universalists who think that basically everybody is equal, with everyone and everything having direct access to participate in life and society and problems arise when people and things are denied equal treatment.  While there are degrees of each, these are very obviously mutually exclusive positions.  Guess which side DJ /rupture’s music falls on?  The latter, or course.  Minesweeper Suite is a DJ mix album that splices together music from around the globe, putting it all on an equal footing.  In a way, this is precisely the kind of thinking explored in Michael Denning‘s book Noise Uprising, about music in the early days of electrical recording technology.  DJ /rupture (born Jace Clayton) looks for connections between music from different parts of the planet, and opportunities for complementary mappings for the beats and melodies and timbres.  So, in a way, this is music that seeks to locate a universal folk music, inclusive of, well, everything (sort-of).  It maybe stops short of including all kinds of music — this is mostly the music made by and for the poor, the humble, the minority, and those outside the grip of hegemonic global media, which translates to the music of the Global South.  But isn’t that precisely what somebody interested in universalism would do, break from the globalist system that imposes a narrow band of “mainstream” music on everyone else?  The alternative to all that that Minesweeper Suite presents is a rootless music that easily floats among many possibilities.  Whatever bits of “mainstream” music are included in the mix tend to get no special privilege, but are also given honorable and supportive treatment.

In a 2008 essay, DJ /rupture said this about his genre of turntablist music:

“DJed music develops in the great centers: London, New York, Paris. But the artists make much of their living in forays to the periphery. To state culture bureaus, our music sounds like art and the ‘avant-garde,’ a means of prestige. To kids coming of age in a world of technology and unhinged capitalism, our music seems to sound the way global capital is—liquid, international, porous, and sped-up.

Yet our sounds are also a vocabulary for those who detest the walled-off concentrations of wealth, and steal property back: the collectives that build their own sound systems, stage free parties, and invite DJs to perform. The international DJ becomes emblematic of global capitalism’s complicated cultural dimension.”

As for the specifics of the music, there is a lot of Jamaican stuff, Indian, North African, and old and new American R&B and soul.  The bass tends to feel loud, to the point of developing a round, liquid and kind of giggling effect, with a noisy, overdriven edge.  At times it creates a foreboding quality, almost like the good parts are buried under a impossibly massive and impenetrable deluge, though most of the time the music has a hopeful quality that looks toward promising possibilities.

You can download this album (and others) for free from DJ /rupture’s web site.

Patti Smith – Trampin’


Patti SmithTrampin’ Columbia CK 90330 (2004)

The title track is quite good (it’s indebted to Marian Anderson‘s version from He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands), as are “Radio Baghdad” and “Gandhi” (“Cash” is decent too).  The rest is dreck.  Most of this is just over-polished, boilerplate stuff played by a band lead by noticeably over-the-hill rockers.  The songs often sound stiff, like the rote hard rock of “Stride of the Mind.”  Gung Ho may never have really achieved a level of excitement, or offered anything of anthemic power, while Trampin’ does reach those heights.  But this album also scrapes the bottom of the barrel of feigned significance on “Jubilee,” “My Blakean Year” and “Trespasses.”  Unfortunately, the merits of a few really nice songs are lost amongst the rest of this miserable garbage.

Sensational Nightingales – It’s Gonna Rain Again

It's Gonna Rain Again

Sensational NightingalesIt’s Gonna Rain Again MCA 28033 (1972)

Soulful, mellow gospel produced by Ira Tucker of The Dixie Hummingbirds.  This lineup of The Sensational Nightingales featured Horace Thompson, Brother Joseph Wallace, Charles B. Johnson and Willie George Woodruff.  The group was among those top-flight gospel acts that updated their sound to contemporary tastes into the 1970s.  With accompaniment led by a reverb-heavy guitar, the smooth, simple vocals are all catchy and inviting.  The sound is vaguely similar to The Swan SilvertonesI Found the Answer, The Consolers, and probably lots of other gospel of the day on Peacock Records and Nashboro Records.  There is some filler toward the end, but I can’t help but really enjoy this.

Sly & The Family Stone – The Woodstock Experience

The Woodstock Experience

Sly & The Family StoneThe Woodstock Experience Legacy 88697 48241 2 (2009)

I think it’s great that the complete performance of Sly & The Family Stone at Woodstock has finally been released — it only took 40 years!  What is amazing is that the band has a long-standing reputation as having put on fierce live shows in their prime, yet other than a few stray songs on festival compilations they never released a full-length live album.  That always seemed incongruous.  Now, finally, at least the Woodstock performance is available.  It starts off inauspiciously with “M’Lady,” which is followed by an apology for the bad sound and a plea for corrective measures.  After that, the sound does improve, even if it’s still not perfect.  The group certainly did have a complex sound, with vocals coming from just about everybody, a horn section, and lots of interaction from all the performers.  The music placed stiff demands on the still evolving equipment of the late 60s.  Anyway, when the band gets rolling, they are quite a force, regardless of the sound problems.  They focus on a lot of uptempo, funky numbers with a lot of drive.  Rose Stone‘s organ takes a prominent position.  This is just a great performance, and I can only hope that a band as successful as Sly & The Family Stone–led by a noted producer no less — recorded more live material that will be released some day.

There are a few things to be said about the packaging here.  A whole series of “Woodstock Experience” collections were released featuring Woodstock recordings of an artist/group together with the studio album they released beforehand (in this case, Stand!).  The cynic in me looks at this as a crass marketing move, given that live Woodstock performances are likely to appeal mostly to fans who probably already have the studio album — forcing them to repurchase it to get to the new live material.  Though these seem to be priced such that you aren’t totally ripped off if you are repurchasing.  More significant is the inaccurate designation of “previously unreleased” material.  “Love City” is denoted here as previously unreleased, which is incorrect because it was released on the 1994 comp Woodstock Diary.