Category Archives: Reviews

Spacemen 3 – Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to

Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to

Spacemen 3Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to (Bomp! BCD 4047 1994 [1990/2000])


Originally released in 1990 on vinyl by Father Yod records, Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to was re-released in 1994 on CD in an expanded form that included basically double the amount of original material, and then in 2000 another reissue tacked on a cover of The Red Crayola‘s “Transparent Radiation” (an alternate version of the band’s single).  The original 7 tracks released in 1990 were demos recorded at the home studio of Carlo Marocco in Piddington, outside Northampton, in January 1986.  They are often referred to as the “Northampton Demos.”  Those demos led to a record deal, and most of the demo songs were re-recorded for their debut album Sound of Confusion.  The tracks appended on reissues in 1994 and 2000 were recorded later, but the exact provenance of them is unclear.

These demos and outtakes end up being superior to the studio counterparts.  This belongs to be listed alongside the likes of the demos on disc one of The Jesus & Mary Chain‘s The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides & Rarities, and Bobby Womack‘s “Across 110th Street” demo, as being more classic than the formal studio recordings.  In this case, the title of the album is appropriate (a bit like the M-C-M formula).  This stuff is tripped out and psychedelic, but also crisper and more focused than much of the band’s studio output.  Frankly, this is the best that the band had to offer.  Listeners will definitely one of the expanded reissues, because the additional tracks are very worthwhile.

Royal Trux – Cats and Dogs

Cats and Dogs

Royal TruxCats and Dogs Drag City DC32CD (1993)


Royal Trux’s sound is notoriously, gloriously trashy, and on Cats and Dogs, for the first time, takes on classic rock influences, a few hints of psychedelia, and some overtures to the burgeoning grunge/alt rock of the day, but also retains a noisy quality held over from their early, uncompromising noise rock recordings.  In the next two decades, few would follow in their footsteps, though certain recordings by the Japanese band Boris come to mind.

The adoption of classic rock elements put Royal Trux in line with bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Spacemen 3, who, in the aftermath of the punk era, worked to return to pre-punk melodic guitar solo sensibilities (to a degree).  In a way, this re-established a kind of contercultural continuum after punk had stripped everything back to raw energy and simplicity, going back to the beginning.

Cats and Dogs is really one of the band’s best, in terms of being fairly consistent from beginning to end — and being listenable.  The songs are surprisingly varied.  There are “wall of sound” production techniques, bongos (!), and, yes, guitar solos from the reliably enigmatic Neil Michael Hagerty, who had a way of forging tenuous alliances between melodic hooks and dissonant abstractions.  He routinely attributed his approach to Ornette Coleman‘s music theory of “Harmolodics”, which in practice meant an emphasis on melodic intervals and rhythm over harmony and a fierce insistence on normative “equality” among performers and sounds.  People sometimes compare Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn to former Ornette collaborator James “Blood” Ulmer, though in many ways Hagerty is more similar to Ulmer’s “Harmolodic” guitar style.  But you probably wouldn’t guess that the band had a female lead vocalist just by hearing Jennifer Herrema‘s raspy, growled vocals.  And just because this music is trashy, that doesn’t make it unrefined.  In fact, the hidden strength of Cats and Dogs is that it takes this kind of hazy, druggy, contrarian “townie” music very seriously — even though elitists would not — and these recordings are quite meticulously constructed.  Partly that is due to their expansive view of rhythm, and how it could be used the flexibly hold together a lot of disparate influences — at times the precedents from Captain Beefheart are striking (“Skywood Greenback Mantra”).

Noel Gardner wrote in a review, “As much as Royal Trux are a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in an oily rag, they are a totemic example of greatness in the American rock underground.”  In a way, as much as I might agree with his ultimate conclusion, this is a look at the band from the top down.  From the bottom up, Royal Trux sort of reveled in lower class status, much like San Francisco’s Flipper and the Washington DC hardcore punk scene — of which Royal Trux were quite direct descendants.  To the extent that the band remained “a beacon of inspiration in a desolate cultural landscape” it was partly by carrying on, well after Cats and Dogs, when most of the micro-communities of like-minded musicians, fans and critics dissolved away.

Scott Walker – Tilt

Tilt

Scott WalkerTilt Fontana 526 859-2 (1995)


Scott Walker’s later career has been enigmatic, to say the least.  He got his start singing light pop, and ended up in one of the first successful UK “boy band” rock acts, The Walker Brothers.  But friction over Scott’s obviously superior vocal abilities led to the band splitting up after just a few years.  His solo career burned brightly at first, but his finest work just didn’t meet with enough commercial success, and he drifted into country-pop terrain for a time, then reunited with The Walker Brothers.  Something unusual happened on the group’s post-reunion Nite Flights album, though.  Walker unveiled new, dark, menacing and genre-defying compositions like “The Electrician” and “Fat Mama Kick.”  He released one solo album, Climate of Hunter, in the early 1980s, but, despite an aborted effort with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, nothing further that decade.  By the early 1990s, he had started writing numerous new songs for a new album project finally released in 1995, Tilt.  Commenting on this paucity of output, he said, “I’ve become the Orson Welles of the record industry. People want to take me to lunch, but nobody wants to finance the picture.”

While some of Walker’s earlier works hint at the general contours of Tilt, the album is unique in a way few albums are.  Walker takes pop/rock song structures, strips away some of the most typical features of “rock” music, like a syncopated beat, then adds in industrial noises, obscure orchestration and quasi-operatic singing.  This was partly about taking elements of “high” and “low” culture that don’t typically appear together, and coming up with a hybrid that finds its feet not in fully synthesizing the disparate elements, but holding them in a kind of part synthesis and part oppositional juxtaposition.  This naturally leans toward the counterculture, in that pure “highbrow” arts admit nothing from outside their exclusive remit, save for the occasional “exoticism” or a tactical renormalization of an outside threat.  There are some musical precedents for this kind of approach in the most general sense, namely Nico‘s striking The Marble Index, which took gothic Euro-classical music and merged it with urban folk.  But Walker’s precise musical coordinates are different, and lean on obscure yet decidedly non-mainstream politics — they are overt, yet oblique enough to avoid easy identification with precise political currents.  He also developed a penchant for making his listeners stop and ask, “What?” are least once or twice per album.

If there is any great, lasting achievement here, it is that Walker reconfigures the relationship between singing and musical accompaniment in nominally pop/rock music.  The lyrics are non-linear, often cycling and vamping on brief phrases and sounds that mutate slowly, and they convey almost cinematic scenes, the contours of which are only hinted at.  His goal, he stated in an interview is for his singing to be “not too emotional and not too deadpan.”  The sonic accompaniment adds mood, and moves almost in loose parallel with the vocals, never really seeming like an integral part of the vocals in a harmonic or melodic sense, but linked to the lyrics to expand upon their meaning.  The result is something uncommonly dense.

The opener, “Farmer in the City: Remembering Pasolini” is dedicated to the late Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini.  The next song, “The Cockfighter,” includes bits of text lifted from the transcripts of the trials of Queen Caroline in 1820 (in English Parliament) and Nazi administrator Adolph Eichmann in 1961 (in Israel).  One was about a bill of attainder, a legislative act declaring a particularly person guilty of some crime and punishing them that took on the characteristics of a legislative “trial”, and the other an ex post facto trial, criminalizing conduct after it was conducted.  What commonalities these trials share is murky in Walker’s invocation, though both were constitutionally banned in the United States.  And how cockfighting relates to those trials is anyone’s guess, though it is a gruesome “sport” banned almost everywhere—it is also the title of a 1974 Monte Hellman film.  “Bolivia ’95” deals with the South American country that grew turbulent when national industries were being privatized.  Walker called the title track a “black Country music song.”  What do all these disparate things mean pulled together on one album?  What exactly.  It represents the new opacity and mystification of daily lie under modernity.  There is a part of all this a bit like Thomas Pynchon‘s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, or Goethe‘s Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, or The Renunciants, in which the very diffuseness and difficulty of piecing together meaning is itself the focus.

In an interview more than a decade after the release of Tilt, promoting his next album, Walker said, “Essentially, I’m really trying to find a way to talk about the things that cannot be spoken of. I cannot fake that or take short cuts. There is an absurdity there, too, of course, and I hope that people pick up on that. Without the humour, it would just be heavy and boring. I hope people get that. If you’re not connecting with the absurdity, you shouldn’t be there.”  He cites Kafka as an influence, who used to laugh when reading his writing to friends.

“Bouncer See Bouncer…” introduces a device he would revisit on later albums (as with a bell on “Herod 2014” from Soused).  A repeating sound, not made by a conventional musical instrument, but sounding like a broken metal hinge banging together, chimes throughout the song.  It continues largely independent of everything else happening in the song.

Tilt has held up as one of Walker’s finest full-length albums.  It doesn’t make for casual listening, exactly.  But there is a mocking sarcasm beneath the dark and morbid exterior of these songs.  Tilt remains something rarely imitated, excepting perhaps Walker’s later albums.

Charlie Haden – Liberation Music Orchestra

Liberation Music Orchestra

Charlie HadenLiberation Music Orchestra Impulse! AS-9183 (1970)


Made as a kind of tribute to the Republican (anti-fascist) side of the Spanish Civil War, Liberation Music Orchestra is political music in the same spirit as Paul Robeson‘s Songs of Free Men or the poetry of Pablo Neruda, like España en el corazón [Spain in Our Hearts] (1938) — even if Haden sticks mostly to a tone of determined hopefulness rather than the harrowing sadness of, say, Neruda’s devastating “I’m Explaining a Few Things.”  The music itself falls on the line between folk-inspired composition and free jazz — reference points are The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and, of course, efforts by orchestra members like Don Cherry‘s Symphony for Improvisers, Carla Bley‘s Escalator Over the Hill, and Gato Barbieri‘s “Chapter” albums.  Bley provides arrangements.

Some of this constitutes dissonant free-form improvisation.  Frankly, though, this hardly represents the finest efforts along those lines from this talented group of performers.  It is actually the composed songs with arrangements by Bley that impress the most.  There is always a looseness and warmth, with many of the group passages having a Salvation Army band quality (like Dylan‘s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”).  The use of “sampled” pre-recorded vocals and flamenco-style acoustic guitar are rather unique aspects of this music.

There is a reading of Hanns Eisler and Bertold Brecht‘s “Einheitsfrontlied [Song of the United Front],” without Brecht’s lyrics.  Eisler was a student of Arnold Schönberg, but turned to popular music.  He and Brecht were German communists who wrote the song 1934 at the request of Erwin Piscator, to be used to rally the political left to fight back against Hitler and the Nazis.  The song later became associated with the Spanish Republicans.

The album is about more than just the Spanish Civil War.  Haden wrote “Song for Che” about the recently executed (as an injured, unarmed prisoner of war) Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whom Jean-Paul Sartre famously described as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.”  There is also a recording of Ornette Coleman‘s “War Orphans,” which fits the theme but is not specifically linked to the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War was kind of a sensitive topic in the United States for a long time.  Americans volunteered to fight with the republicans, in what were called the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.  Composer Conlon Nancarrow was among them, but he later moved to Mexico because of domestic hostilities to Spanish Republican sympathizers.  Then there is the term “premature anti-fascist”, coined to demonize because the U.S. government and U.S. businesses tended to align themselves with fascists — though FDR later regretted his decision not to intervene on behalf of the Spanish Republicans.  But by the end of the 1960s, there was much hope that the tide was turning.  It never did, and prospects only grew dimmer in subsequent years.

“Circus ’68 ’69” is Haden’s own composition, inspired by an incident at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention, unfortunately typical of post-WWII Democratic Party politics.  As Haden described in the liner notes:

“After the minority plank on Vietnam was defeated in a vote taken on the convention floor, the California and New York delegations spontaneously began singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ in protest.  Unable to gain control of the floor, the rostrum instructed the convention orchestra to drown out the singing.  ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ and ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ could then be heard trying to stifle ‘We Shall Overcome.’  To me, this told the story, in music, of what was happening in the country politically.”

Haden’s orchestra is split in two, somewhat like Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Gruppen & Carré, with each half operating separately from (and against) the other.  Though it says a lot about Haden’s own sympathies that “Circus ’68 ’69” is followed by a warm reading of “We Shall Overcome,” which concludes the album.

This is something very likable about Liberation Music Orchestra.  It serves its purpose of linking the political struggles of the late 1960s United States to the Spanish Civil War, and beyond.  Even if the freely improvised parts are less engaging, the best qualities of the music shine brightly through all the rest.  This is an album worth returning to often.

TV on the Radio – Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

TV on the RadioDesperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes Touch and Go tg254cd (2004)


A good album, though the presence of some filler (“King Eternal”, “Ambulance” and “Don’t Love You”) and the fact that “Staring at the Sun” isn’t a new song keep it from being a great one.  Still, if you cherry pick the best TV on the Radio songs from various releases up through at least  Dear Science you end up with some of the most interesting rock music of the day.

Willie Nelson – The Hungry Years

The Hungry Years

Willie NelsonThe Hungry Years Sony Music Special Products A22354 (1991)


The Hungry Years — not to be confused with a budget-priced compilation album from the early 1980s by the same name — is one of the most obscure albums in Willie Nelson’s vast catalog.  The original sessions were in 1976 at Studio in the Country, located in between between Bogalusa and Varnado, Louisiana.  There were overdubs in 1978, then the tapes were shelved.  They were found in a deteriorated state in the late 1980s, restored, and then further overdubs were added in 1989 and 1991.  Amidst Willie’s troubles with the IRS, he negotiated the release of The I.R.S. Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?, of which a significant portion of the sales were committed to his tax debt (which was mostly accumulated interest and penalties, actually).  The I.R.S. Tapes needed to to go multi-platinum in order to cover the tax debt, which was overly optimistic.  It was sold by mail via 1-800 telephone numbers, supported by TV ads.  Starting around June of 1991, The Hungry Years was offered to callers as an add-on.  It is not clear that The Hungry Years was ever advertised aside from being mentioned to people calling the 1-800 numbers seeking the I.R.S. Tapes album.  But The Television Group, the Austin, Texas company running the telemarketing, went into bankruptcy, and by February of 1992 the 1-800 numbers were shut down.  While The I.R.S. Tapes was eventually made available in regular stores, it does not appear that The Hungry Years was ever sold through conventional channels like brick-and-mortar music stores.  So that means this album was only ever commercially available for less than a year, and even then only through an obscure call-in mail-order program.  Some discographies neglect to even mention that it exists.

The sound of the album falls somewhere between Sings Kristofferson and To Lefty From Willie.  The songs draw from the likes of Neil Sedaka and Paul Anka.  These were respected songwriters at the time, and even Elvis covered Anka’s “Solitaire” around this time.  Their songs have not aged all that well, though, because they fit too comfortably into the mold of being laments of the white patriarch dealing with having to be an “individual” after second-wave feminism and the decline of trade unionism.  Overall, there are a few too many little curlicues and other ornate features added to the music here.  It might be the overdub sessions — not one, not two, but three — spread out over 15 years that contribute to that, but Willie’s own contributions are partly to blame as well.  His vocals are a little overwrought sometimes, with too much vibrato and too often forced into the upper register of his vocal range.  Though even guest Emmylou Harris does the same on one song (“When I Stop Dreaming“).  He does add some interesting guitar solos on Trigger.  His sister Bobbie gets a good amount of time in the spotlight, which is nice.

There are all sorts of good bits on this album.  The biggest problem is that those good bits don’t ever come together in any unified and coherent way.  They just float around among more dubious elements and arrangements that are a bit off.  For instance, the 1989 overdubs add a horn section — one of the only times one of Willie’s album tried to recreate the style of Shotgun Willie.  But Shotgun Willie had horn arrangements in a classic soul style.  These are merely passable approximations.  The most sympathetic performance is probably the last song, “Carefree Moments.”  But the song itself is not particularly well-written, and a good performance can’t remedy that problem.  So this album always threatens to be really good, but seems to consistently fall short.

This rare album is no lost classic.  Yet considering the sorry state of so many of Willie’s albums from the 1980s and early 90s, this was certainly better by comparison.

Get Right With God: Hot Gospel

Get Right With God: Hot Gospel

Various ArtistsGet Right With God: Hot Gospel Heritage HT CD 01 (1988)


A great set of gospel from its glory days, drawing from the previous collections Get Right With God: Hot Gospel (1947-1953) and Get Right With God: Hot Gospel (Volume 2).  This is all high-energy, up-tempo stuff that rightly deserves the subtitle “hot gospel”.  The slightly crazed vocals, the imagery of fistfights with the devil, the tracts against moonshine, testimonies to the virtues of FDR, it all could probably never be duplicated.  And I say that knowing full well the paltry chance anyone would even try, ever.  There are a few well-known names represented here, like The Five Blind Boy of Mississippi, but mostly these are fairly obscure artists.  Nonetheless, this makes a great introduction to the genre.  There is a significant overlap with the longer and later-released set Gospel – The Ultimate Collection, which also looks pretty good on paper (though I haven’t heard that one).  If one track here stands out from the others, I would have to say it’s “I’m Going to that City” by Sister O.M. Terrell, which can give any delta blues track a run for its money.

Turbonegro – Scandinavian Leather

Scandinavian Leather

TurbonegroScandinavian Leather Burning Heart BHR 169 (2003)


A bit more uneven than previous releases, but with some great highlights like “D.I.B (Drenched In Blood)” and “Wipe It ‘Till It Bleeds.”  Scandinavian Leather has more of a hair metal sound, with Euroboy‘s nice guitar work being quite pronounced.  You’ll probably like these guys if you can appreciate their sense of irony in explicitly bringing out the cheeseball and gay elements ever-present on or just under the surface of 1980s metal.