The punk movement in the United States took place almost entirely in the north. Drawing on the primitive rock of Detroit’s The Gories, Oblivians represented probably the south’s best contribution to punk-inspired rock. Popular Favorites is perhaps the band’s defining statement. The guitars are loud and crunchy. The rhythms are relentless. The lyrics are visceral piss-takes on the travails of a broke working band trying make a living, find romance, come to terms with their place in the world, and maybe also popularize some dance moves. Everything still sounds great more than two decades after it came out. The best cuts tend to be those with Greg [Cartwright] Oblivian on vocals. This album is now out of print but is available for streaming.
After a pair of widely panned albums in 1974, a 1975 collaboration, and a few years without any new albums — much of these travails the result of his entire backing band quitting in the face of Stalinist leadership tactics — the Captain returned amidst the punk era with one of his best. He had actually recorded an entire album (Bat Chain Puller) then lost control of the master tapes as part of a tangentially-related royalty dispute between owners of his label. He and yet another reconstituted version of The Magic Band then re-recorded some of the tracks, and some completely new ones, for a different label. Bat Chain Puller tracks omitted from the Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) re-recordings showed up in later re-recordings on Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow.
Anyway, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) is something of a summary of many things the Captain had been doing in the 1970s along with a few new hot takes. The delivery is slicker, but, surprisingly, that generally works for rather than against the music. The album opens with “The Floppy Boot Stomp,” which signals that it was going to draw from the sort of idiosyncratic music that the Captain had been making in the Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby era but had abandoned in recent years. But the second cut, “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” channels Jimmy Buffett (and maybe also Flowmotion) in service of a statement of hesitant yet macho sexuality — a song reprised decades on by PJ Harvey as “Meet Ze Monsta.” A latin flavor later reappears on the song “Candle Mambo” too. This version of The Magic Band includes a brassy horn section that is somewhat unique, given that other recordings leaned more on woodwinds than brass. “Suction Prints” even sort of resembles punk — the first part of the song has a rhythm not too far off from Iggy Pop and The Stooges‘ hardcore punk B-side “Gimme Some Skin.” “Harry Irene” is a kind of ironic/nostalgic cabaret song (compare cuts like “Jean the Machine” and “Joe” on Scott Walker‘s ‘Till the Band Comes In). Sure, in “Owed T’ Alex” and “Apes-ma” (the one track held over from the original sessions), there are a few throwaway tracks here. But for the most part this album is great from top to bottom.
So how does this compare to the aborted Bat Chain Puller album (eventually released in 2012) this originally replaced? Well, in a way the original is even better — a little rawer, sparer and unified while still in territory that seems uncharted. But the Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) incarnation replaces prominent keyboards with its horn section that adds a new dimension, and the caribbean flavor of “Tropical Hot Dog Night” was completely absent on the original recordings. And the original lacked a song quite that good. The general eclecticism and fullness of the re-recordings is also something different and an asset in their favor. So maybe the new version of the album is better? Frankly, it is pointless to pick a favorite between Bat Chain Puller and Shiny Beast because they are both great. Beefheart fans are going to want to hear both (although the original recordings were officially released in 2012, they fell out of print quickly).
Captain Beefheart released two album in 1974 on the Mercury label in the US and the Virgin label in the UK: Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans & Moonbeams. They both ventured into MOR (mainstream oriented rock) territory. Most Beefheart fans are appalled by both of these albums. The problem is that Beefheart had released some of the most inventive and abstract rock ever recorded. His turn toward smoothed-over commercial pop-rock is not something music snobs ever accept. On the one hand, Unconditionally Guaranteed is pretty dull, save for bits of a few tracks (“Peaches,” etc.) with horn sections that seem like less energetic versions of material off 15-60-75‘s Jimmy Bell’s Still in Town (1976). A clear parallel to the album’s overall turn toward mediocre conventions is CAN’s Out of Reach (1978). Unconditionally Guaranteed was recorded by the same Magic Band lineup that had worked with Beefheart for many years. They all quit after finishing the album. So Bluejeans & Moonbeams was recorded with any entirely new backing band. Some fans give the new band the derogatory nickname “The Tragic Band”. But all this is a bit wrong. Bluejeans & Moonbeams is a pretty decent album. Sure, it bears no resemblance to Trout Mask Replica. But so what? If this had been released under a new band name rather than being credited to “Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band” it seems likely many who hate it would have an entirely different opinion. In other words, the problem here is one of expectations. While this is definitely not one of the Captain’s best, with an open mind this fits comfortably alongside bluesy MOR rock of the mid-70s. This is definitely not a bad album — the same cannot really be said for Unconditionally Guaranteed. If you expect new frontiers to be crossed you will be disappointed by this. But ask yourself first whether such expectations are appropriate.
Modernists play trad jazz. That’s the basic concept, though modernist flourishes seem to grow across the album. Andrew Hill‘s music makes a decent reference point. This is all well played, though the approach is rather circumscribed in places.
Mary Halvorson is one of those musicians who refuses to stand still. Code Girl is yet another wide-ranging album — this time a double album. She is now drawing more heavily from pop music. The album’s production is not the sparse, “live” style that drove some of her excellent earlier albums like Saturn Sings and Meltframe. Instead there are effects and a rich, streamlined polish that recalls efforts to combine pop/rock recordings with jazz by Colin Stetson or on Matthew Shipp‘s New Orbit, and at times the wistful 1980s recordings of Sonny Sharrock (Guitar). To the extent that jazz fusion is an appropriate descriptor for some of this, Tim Berne‘s bands with guitarist Marc Ducret make a decent reference point. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire channels the calm, reflective style of Bill Dixon now and then. One striking feature of this particular band is the presence of Amirtha Kidambi on vocals. Her singing is reminiscent of Asha Puthli‘s on Ornette Coleman‘s Science Fiction but with more of the tone (and vibrato) of Wendy Lewis on The Bad Plus‘ For All I Care. If all this seems like too many comparisons, it is enough to respond that Halvorson’s band displays an awareness of lots of different music, drawing bits and pieces without becoming beholden to any of those influences. The resultant music of Code Girl is uniquely its own while still revealing a connection and affinity to what has come before, even if its historical reference points remain mostly off the beaten path.
In a way, Code Girl seems like a good first crack at integrating more pop elements into music that still retains influences from abstract jazz — the structure of many of these compositions still overwhelmingly show the influence of Anthony Braxton. But Kidambi doesn’t seem like quite the right vocalist, her vocal tone too prim and proper and her bel canto vibrato seeming less fitting than, say, sprechgesang. Halvorson herself sounds great, of course. She’s as good as ever switching on a dime from clean, virtuoso single note runs (like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, etc.) to distortion-laden improvised riffs (like Wata of Boris). In a way, American musicians of Halvorson’s generation are steeped in a digitized, computerized environment that permits a very casual acceptance of chopped up and reconfigured bits with leaps and juxtapositions accepted as a matter of course.
As good as this is, the double album as a whole can seem a bit scattered and uneven, though it would also be difficult to say that any particular songs are failures. While Code Girl can’t quite match Halvorson’s Away With You (arguably her best album to date), it is a welcome confirmation that she has more new ideas and plenty of adventurousness to spare. Here’s hoping that she can fine tune the approach of Code Girl in the future.
Opens with the excellent “Egoes War,” which is an extended percussive workout with some interesting electric guitar snippets, sort of in the vein of Sun Ra‘s afro-futurism. From there things devolve into banal identity politics-based third world-isms and naval-gazing noodling drawn from the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It picks up with “Listening Embrace,” which is reminiscent of early Julius Hemphill, and “Staircase Struggle,” with its in-your-face sung/spoken vocals. On the whole this album is a bit hit-or-miss.
Mary Halvorson is one of the most talented guitarists of her generation. Her approach might be compared to that of Bill Frisell. Both guitarists have eclectic interests, a generous spirit towards collaborations, penchants for odd — almost contrarian — improvisations, and a willingness to employ distortion. However, especially in his later years Frisell has gravitated toward a pastoral Americana in his work that can come across as sedate and complacent. Halvorson, on the other hand, is much more willing to dabble in dissonance and incongruous leaps. That is to say, Halvorson sounds like Frisell turned up to eleven, with a more adventurous sense of composition.
Meltframe is a collection of solo guitar cover versions of generally lesser-known jazz tunes. For the most part, this is yet another tremendous album from Halvorson. She opens the set with a ragged, willfully jagged and loud take on Oliver Nelson‘s “Cascades.” Then there is “Cheshire Hotel” by the French guitarist Noël Akchoté, a sometimes collaborator with Halvorson, with a sort of pop derived melody and an emphasis on rhythmic reverb. Duke Ellington‘s “[(In My)] Solitude,” probably the most widely known composition to appear here, is played with a solemn yet sensitive emotional palette — another of the disc’s highlights. Carla Bley‘s “Ida Lupino” gets an acoustic treatment, recasting the tune’s tender, nostalgic sympathies for a charismatic female actor/director fading from view by newly emphasizing a kind of scrappiness. The album does drop off toward the end, with compositions that impress much less and performances that only occasionally spark interest. So the album is a tad uneven, but most of what is here is good-to-great.
Away With You is much less overtly “jazzy” than, say, Saturn Sings from six years prior. Halvorson seems much like the rightful heir to the kind of music her former teacher Anthony Braxton has been making for half a century. These recordings feature an octet with a horn section playing charts set against abstract solos. The charts aren’t exactly conventional, but they do provide an organized reference point that contrasts with other aspects of the proceedings. In Halvorson’s hands, it isn’t that she merely juxtaposes the strange and conventional, or that she fully integrates them either, but rather she plays those distinct approaches off each other in varying degrees. This lends a dynamism to what she does that seems the key to the album’s success. There is a totality evoked that contains disparate approaches and their synthesis, while extending equal respect to each and all of them. This is how Away With You achieves the much talked about but rarely delivered notion of music that is “inside” and “outside” at the same time.
Yoko Ono’s 1973 album Feeling the Space tends to be relegated to the dustbin of history. But why? This is one of her most “mainstream” pop/rock recordings, relying on a lot of fairly conventional rock-ish genre devices. There is even a faint hint of the ironic/unironic use of kitsch that propelled the Brazilian tropicalistas starting in the late 1960s. Frequently derided by audiences opposed to her basic artistic purposes, often under the blanket criticism of her alleged lack of talent, Ono actually had formal musical training as a child. She proves here — for anyone needing such confirmation — that she can sing conventionally and on pitch. Though by singing in a second language, her Japanese accent lends her vocals a warbly, primitivist quality. The lyrics reflect the heyday of second-wave feminism during which the album was recorded. I happen to find this an immanently listenable album that deserves credit for reaching out beyond the confines of frequently elitist avant-garde practices and into popular forms. John Berger, in “The Primitive and the Professional,” New Society 1976 (reprinted in About Looking), said:
“the ‘clumsiness’ of primitive art is the precondition of its eloquence. What it is saying could never be said with any ready-made skills. For what it is saying was never meant, according to the cultural class system, to be said.”
Ono complicates the primitive vs. professional dichotomy by combining a sense of the primitive with erudite theory and overtly popular forms executed with conventional precision. While few individual songs here stand out like a “hit single”, except perhaps “Women Power,” it is very refreshing to hear music drawing from eclectic genres performed so consistently competently, paired with lyrics that evidence an intelligent moral center. While no “lost classic”, Feeling the Space exhibits many of the same strengths that are also overlooked in CAN‘s albums Flowmotion and CAN from later in the decade, as well as critically applauded features of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson‘s recordings from the early/mid 70s.