Tag Archives: Rock

Robert Wyatt – Cuckooland

Cuckooland

Robert WyattCuckooland Hannibal HNCD 1468 (2003)


Maybe the comparison might seem strange, but Robert Wyatt’s Cuckooland is something of a latter-day counterpart to Van Morrison‘s Astral Weeks.  The latter embodied the hope and optimism of the late 1960s.  Cuckooland, on the other hand, embodies the sense of caution and pensiveness, and the limited opportunities for the same sort of agenda 35 years later.  (The political agenda is [new] leftist, as is clear form the liner notes if nothing else).  Wyatt’s album is like a series of vignettes that evoke particular times and places of the past, good and bad, in order to preserve them and carve out some sort of respite from the onslaught of forces trying to erase them — and the possibilities they represent.   While there is a slight sense of resignation in this approach, Wyatt also brings each song vignette to life, as a kind of underground safehouse for those in the know.  As such, most of this leans toward exaggerated theatricality.  It is an appropriate way to make music like this, given that the forces that were at their peak in 1968 (when Astral Weeks was released) were at their nadir when Cuckooland was released.

I do find I have to be in just the right mood to hear this.  It doesn’t garner a lot of repeat listens for me, because that particular mood just doesn’t come along.  But I love Wyatt’s solo piano rendition of “Raining in My Heart” under any circumstance — it is probably my most favorite recorded version of the song.

The Endtables – The Endtables

The Endtables

The EndtablesThe Endtables [AKA Process of Elimination] Tuesday 40983/4 (1979)


Forgotten Louisville, Kentucky punk band.  This was their only release during their existence.  Deserves reevaluation.  That singer might be the epitome of a disaffected punk.  He could hardly sound more disengaged and uninterested he’s so far behind the beat.  Yet the irony is if he really wasn’t paying attention he would probably end up on the beat at some point, by accident at least.  Good guitar too.

Bob Dylan – Shot of Love

Shot of Love

Bob DylanShot of Love Columbia TC 37496 and PC 37496 (1981)


Flawed, yes, but Shot of Love is one of the more compelling Bob Dylan albums for quite a stretch both before and after.  It has a sound resembling a lot of commercial rock of the day, like Pete Townshend‘s Empty Glass.  It is music recorded in high contrast, stripped of subtle shadings and grainy texture.  The major problem, as with Dylan’s next album Infidels, is what was left off the album.  “Property of Jesus,” “Lenny Bruce” and “Dead Man, Dead Man” all should have been dropped in favor of the much superior tracks “Angelina,” “Need a Woman,” “Caribbean Wind,” and, especially, “You Changed My Life” all left in the vault (but later released on Biograph and The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3: (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991) — a demo version of “Every Grain of Sand” with Jennifer Warnes adding vocals rivals the official version and might justify a swap too.  Also, the single B-side “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” tacked on to later versions of Shot of Love bolsters the album.  With those changes, this one would be secular enough, more emotionally bare and open, and would maintain an immediacy throughout.  Dylan is engaged on just about everything here, and his vocals reflect considerably more effort than fans would find in most of his albums for at least a decade or so to come.  This one may not be essential, but if the final tracklist had been done properly it very well could have come close.

Jeff Buckley – Live at Sin-é: Legacy Edition

Live at Sin-é: Legacy Edition

Jeff BuckleyLive at Sin-é: Legacy Edition Legacy C2K 89202 (2003)


Before landing a major-label record deal, Jeff Buckley spent time doing small gigs at coffee shops and other mostly small venues in New York’s lower east side.  He referred to these as his “cafe days”.  After inking that contract, the label recorded him (in hi fidelity) live in July and August 1993 at one of his favorite “cafe days” venues: Sin-é (a Gaelic phrase pronounced “shin-aye”).  The venue was tiny.  As pictured on the album cover, Buckley was basically set up in a corner, without any kind of stage riser, so close to the audience that he might hit somebody with his guitar neck if not careful.  Originally released as a four-song EP in late 1993, a little less than a year before his full-length studio debut album Grace, this was kind of a tribute document to an important phase of Buckley’s career that was coming to an end, as well as a teaser to drum up interest in what was to come.  In 2003, an expanded “Legacy Edition” was posthumously released, featuring two full CDs and a short DVD (only some of the DVD content is from Sin-é, though, recorded in 1996).

The performances are as intimate as the venue.  This is just Buckley, alone, playing electric guitar and singing.  His performances have all the wistful romanticism that would make him a cult star in the coming years — before his untimely death by drowning at age 30.  In the Legacy Edition liner notes (all quite well-composed and informative, incidentally), Mitchell Cohen calls Buckley’s approach a “daredevil’s cabaret”.  It is precisely the right term.  Buckley has a very earnest — almost naïve — ambition that totally undermines what would otherwise be called pretension.  Yet he still puts himself in the spotlight and strives for recognition.  He is going for a kind of intuitive and personal bohemian ethos that, above all, is driven by emotion.  But he relies on a curious kind of pensive and introverted feeling, looking as much to the future and its possibilities as it does the vagaries of the immediate present.  It may not be the sort of thing that appeals to everyone, but Buckley’s fans tend to find his style uniquely appealing.

Buckley’s music cut against the commercial trends of the day.  At a time when morose and almost nihilistic rock, with “raw” vocals was dominant — think “Grunge” rock acts like Nirvana — Buckley was instead developing a repertoire that looked backwards to pop, folk, blues and religious music of the by-gone past, combined with his own songs that leaned on urbanized, mystical pop blues.  He also sang with a decidedly “traditional pop” style of vibrato, like old time bel canto singing derived from opera (epitomized by Édith Piaf, etc.).  While there are a few popular singers who have used substantial vibrato in the rock era, like Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music, Joan Baez, and Jeff’s biological father Tim Buckley, it was increasingly rare.  It gives the music its own incongruous sophistication.

All of the best songs from Grace are here.  That includes a performance of John Cale‘s compact arrangement of Leonard Cohen‘s “Hallelujah,” which became Buckley’s signature song  Quite surprisingly, even as solo performances the arrangements are basically the same as on the later studio recordings.  But in place of the slightly ill-fitting clinical professionalism of the studio band, there is the more immediate charm in Buckley’s do-it-yourself one man performance.  As another reviewer astutely put it, “The performances range from amazing to alright and everything in between. The flaws only make it more endearing, though.”

As to the Legacy Edition, disc one is the better of the two.  Though both have much to offer.  Buckley wears his influences on his sleeve.  There are choice covers.  The second disc slows a bit, due to between-song narratives that seem to go on longer, and a few of the less successful performances are more grating.  Buckley declares himself an unabashed Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan superfan, but his performance of “Yeh jo halka halka saroor hai” induces cringes.  It proves — should such proof be necessary — that Buckley knew Kahn songs by heart, but his voice just isn’t up to the task of qawwali devotional singing.  But for every moment like that, there are two or three like “I Shall Be Released” and “Be My Husband,” where Buckley gives his own memorable take on an iconic song.

In an interview on the DVD, Buckley suggests that he has much more and better things on the way.  Yet, really, Live at Sin-é: Legacy Edition is already Buckley at his best — not his most polished, but his best.  Here he is willing to try things that he is not certain will work.  There is a tentative — and, if you will, “contingent” — quality to this that is absent on his studio recordings.  Those qualities end up being bigger assets than the polish and precision of the later studio recordings (even if Gary Lucas does add intriguing guitar work in places on Grace).

There is much to like about Live at Sin-é: Legacy Edition.  Listeners can admire Buckley’s efforts to succeed through hard work and determination.  They can appreciate his efforts to find continuity with the past while also looking to grow and evolve.  There is also his impish charm and  convincing emoting.  And the song selection is hard to argue with.  Any which way, this collection remains a valuable document of some of the best of what was musically possible in one particular place and time.

Prince & The New Power Generation – Diamonds and Pearls

Diamonds and Pearls

Prince & The New Power GenerationDiamonds and Pearls Paisley Park 9 25379-2 (1991)


While Prince had already demonstrated in the 1980s that his music could be self-indulgent, in the 1990s he also demonstrated an unfortunate willingness to pander.  Diamonds and Pearls is one of the biggest duds in Prince’s catalog.  It opens with a few faux-street-tough songs in the same mold as Michael Jackson‘s Dangerous (released a couple months later).  While not particularly memorable, they are at least listenable.  Then there is the hit title track, a sappy ballad that is quite mediocre.  But then, a bright spot.  “Cream” is Prince in his prime, a sleek: funky R&B song with all the ribald themes listeners expect from the man.  But from there the album drops off considerably.  The rest ranges from the bad to the cringe-worthy.  Prince is trying to fit himself (and his band) into some kind of mold of appearing tough yet vulnerable, seemingly aiming for praise for “triangulating” what the public wants. In hindsight, it comes across as an unconvincing and contrived act.  In the late 1990s Prince famously said in an interview (in which he talked about jumping off pianos) that his career was about the music not about money or the trappings of fame.  Listeners might well question whether that statement held true around 1991 though — or at other times in his career too.  For instance, Prince’s first producer Chris Moon later claimed that Prince was mostly interested in fame when he first entered the music business.

Listeners can safely pass on Diamonds and Pearls and merely pick up “Cream” on a compilation.

David Bowie – “Heroes”

"Heroes"

David Bowie“Heroes” RCA Victor PL 12522 (1977)


“Heroes” has remained one of David Bowie’s finest albums.  Part of his so-called “Berlin Trilogy”, it roughly follows the same format as the predecessor Low, with the first side devoted to art pop experiments and the second side (mostly) devoted to quasi-ambient instrumentals.  But where Low was a poppier version of German “krautrock”, with an emphasis on intensity of feeling, “Heroes” puts more emphasis on songs as such and adds just a bit more disco influence.  The music is strange in that it goes in the opposite direction of commercial trends of the day, drawing from left-field European rock and twisting carefree disco dance music with harsh industrial noise while still eschewing the sound of the burgeoning punk movement.  Bowie was continuing to chart his own path.  And, perhaps, that is part of what makes this elusive music so enduring.

The opening “Beauty and the Beast” is a great one.  While Bowie’s disaffected, contrarian and almost deadpan vocals are something of their own statement, the glimmering guitar and relentlessly bouncy beat fits comfortably in the disco era, even as the song’s icy, menacing edge is different from a typical disco dancefloor hit.  “Blackout” is another song with hints of disco rhythms.  Of course, the likes of “Golden Years” and “Stay” (from Station to Station) and “Fascination” (from Young Americans) had already ventured into disco territory in the prior two years.

“Joe the Lion” is kind of a tale of staggering, hazy, late-night club life, and the hangover.  Once again Bowie’s vocals are a kind of contrarian abstraction.  The song as a whole recalls Iggy Pop‘s minor hit album The Idiot (produced by Bowie), especially stuff like Iggy’s Stooges nostalgia song “Dum Dum Boys” and even the slower more minimalistic “Sister Midnight.”  Guitarist Robert Fripp of King Crimson is on the album on lead guitar, and adds distinctive character to songs like “Joe the Lion.”  The mostly instrumental “V-2 Schneider” (in reference to the Nazi V-2 Rocket, which inspired the plot of Thomas Pynchon‘s novel Gravity’s Rainbow), has similar textures to “Joe the Lion” with a more laid-back delivery.

The title track is a Bowie classic.  It is a romanticized mini-epic, complete with a kind of soaring and triumphant progression.  Producer Tony Visconti used a kind of latched gating effect, in which one microphone was inches from Bowie, another was 15-20 feet away, and a third was across the room.  As Bowie sang louder, the gates would trigger a more distant microphone and mute the others.  This allows Bowie to begin singing the song by quietly crooning, nearly at a whisper, then sing loudly, then practically shout, while the distance of the microphones scales back the intensity of his near-shouting to a slower crescendo.  The effect is something of an audio equivalent of the “dolly zoom” camera technique used in Alfred Hitchcock‘s film Vertigo.  Behind the vocals Robert Fripp  plays guitar with “tuned feedback” and Brian Eno contributed electronic effects.  The album was recorded in West Berlin, during the Cold War division of Germany.  The name of the song references the Neu! song “Heroes (from Neu! ’75).  The song title is in ironic quotes, though the intended irony is somewhat difficult to detect in the music itself.  Yet the drumming is quite different from the “motorik” style of Neu!, more conventional, with the bass kick drum nearly inaudible in this instance.  The song’s lyrics, though, deserve some unpacking.  They describe a couple “standing by the wall”, alluding to the Berlin Wall that then divided the city.  While Western propaganda (still) repeats the fable of the wall going up to keep East Germans in, the reality was that the wall kept Western saboteurs out while also helping to limit a “brain drain” on educated Eastern workers to freeloading Western corporations.  Bowie performed the song in 1987 against the Wall as part of the “Concert for Berlin.”  That concert is often cited as prompting the wall be torn down (which it was in 1989).  Even the right-wing Federalist Society credited Bowie for his role.  Of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall allowed the Western Saboteurs (like Jeffrey Sachs) back into the East, with predictably catastrophic consequences.  Most former East Germans later said they preferred being behind the Soviet “Iron Curtain”, and, according to Der Spiegel, “20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany.”  So Bowie’s song should be viewed skeptically.  But no doubt it is one hell of a catchy tune and this is a spectacular recording.

The second half of the album turns to mostly instrumental songs with ambient qualities — just like Low and Neu! ’75.  These are still songs, though, and are much more compact than anything on Low or Neu! ’75.  “Moss Garden,” complete with Zen-like washes of sound and Bowie playing koto, is arguably the finest instrumental track on the entire Berlin Trilogy.  “Sense of Doubt” and “Neuköln” are both solid tunes too.

The album concludes with “The Secret Life of Arabia,” which has vocals and goes back to disco influences, albeit now with vague middle-eastern references.  This scales back the experimentation of the album, and ensures that pop songs remain the focus.

This album was Bowie’s least popular since his Ziggy Stardust breakthrough.  The title track has become one of his best-known songs, though at the time — like most of Bowie’s late-1970s singles — wasn’t a hit.  While it lacks the sense of wonder and daring of Low, the taut, punchy rock songs of “Heroes” are still pretty great.  What this lacks (if anything) in terms of eye-opening creativity it makes up in determined consistency.

Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

Surrealistic Pillow

Jefferson AirplaneSurrealistic Pillow RCA Victor LSP 3766 (1967)


I just don’t know what to make of Jefferson Airplane.  Can’t say I ever listened to them much other than the ubiquitous singles that crop up in nearly every retro “Sixties” movie that uses “White Rabbit” or “Somebody to Love” for trippy atmosphere or “Volunteers” for rebellious protest attitude.  So, giving a few of their albums available from my local library a try, they now strike me as a band a little short on songwriting skills, at least in relation to their guitar prowess, and forcing themselves to do too many ballads and slower tunes that they didn’t pull off well.  They were at their best doing scorching psychedelic jams, with lots of space for guitarist Jorma Kaukonen to stretch out.  So, there’s good stuff here.  “Somebody to Love” is iconic, and it does highlight the darker side of free love and what was to come in the Summer of Love.  But lots of this feels like filler.   And singer Grace Slick is rather annoying, really.  She’s very didactic.  I found Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 10/15/66 (Late Show – Signe’s Farewell) from the pre-Slick era to be equally or more satisfying, and After Bathing at Baxter’s is certainly the band’s best.  Basically, this album was rendered obsolete a few months later when The 13th Floor Elevators released Easter Everywhere.  Otherwise, if you must have Sand Fran psych, just go straight for early Grateful Dead.  But I couldn’t shake the feeling listening to Surrealistic Pillow that I would rather be listening to Easter Everywhere.

Jandek – Interstellar Discussion

Interstellar Discussion

JandekInterstellar Discussion Corwood Industries 0747 (1984)


Jandek is an interesting proposition.  Interstellar Discussion makes for a good barometer to gauge why it is anyone listens to Jandek albums.  Side one very much sounds like a bunch of young people with minimal musical instrument proficiency banging away in a rehearsal space with a tape recorder running.  The harmonica parts seem almost overdubbed.  While the performances are, by most standards, inept, the guitar does display hints of a very deliberate and unusual sensibility.  Side two is acoustic stuff, like other early Jandek releases but seemingly trying more than usual to be melodic — and possibly failing at that effort.  So, there is something in here, weird outsider art potential, but this does sound like rehearsals on tape.  Actually, this listener subscribes to the theory that this recording is archival in nature and predates earlier Jandek/Units releases.  Some listeners may out of fascination just find a way to like this in spite of its objective qualities.  But, really, this is not as intriguing as other Jandek albums, in spite of its potential.  Given a more careful listen, it’s noticeably less proficient than other efforts.  If this is your favorite Jandek, you’re probably more interested in the myth and mystery than the actual music, or just see it as an affirmation of “be yourself” new ageism.

CAN – Flowmotion

Flowmotion

CANFlowmotion Harvest 1C 062-31 837 (1976)


Flowmotion is very nearly a great album.  Bassist Holger Czukay described it as “innovative and eclectic” and “one of Can’s underrated albums.”  He is right on both counts.  Fans have been sleeping on this one.

The album has a strange reputation.  The opening “I Want More” was a hit single in the UK, and one of the band’s biggest commercial successes of their entire career.  Yet, at the same time, fans and critics have often expressed skepticism at that song and the album as a whole.

Undoubtedly, this album sounds markedly different from what the band had previously released.  There were influences of reggae and disco.  As one reviewer noted, the album has a “casual, Caribbean feel”, characterizing it as “a worthy and sincere engagement with then-current trends (which, come to think of it, is exactly what Can was doing in ’68.  It’s just that ’76 was no ’68.  Should Can be blamed for changing with the times, or is Western society itself the culprit?)”.  The back of the album jacket featured two hexagrams from the I Ching: Hexagram 29, 坎 (kǎn), “gorge” or “the abyss” (in the oceanographic sense), which has inner and outer trigrams that both represent water; and Hexagram 59, 渙 (huàn), “dispersing” or “dissolution”, which has an inner trigram for water and an outer trigram for wind.

The ambivalence to this album — if not outright dislike of it — might be best understood in the context of general trends and the generalized backlash at disco at the time.  As has been well-documented, the “disco sucks” movement was largely driven by homophobic and racist sentiments (even if the individualism it represented could be critiqued on rational grounds).  Disco-bashing has also become a somewhat of a quasi-elitist stance — disco becoming associated with the working class and the less educated.  For that matter, there were many albums going for a “tropical”/”Caribbean” feel around this time, and most were pretty bad.  Flowmotion was probably just lumped in with other music that was chasing fads.  That was probably the kiss of death for its critical reception, especially for a band characterized (sometimes unfairly) as being sui generis and as making music without precedent.

“I Want More” is a light funk-disco dance number, bizarre in having no lead vocalist, only background vocals.  Mostly the singing is a kind of group chant, indistinct and diffuse.  Against an infectious and repetitive guitar riff, there are single note keyboard interjections from Irmin Schmidt while drummer Jaki Liebezeit seems to (subtly) play two layers of rhythm at once, one slow and the other in double time.

“Cascade Waltz” is a whimsical number that crosses a reggae beat and slurred, tropical guitar lines with a formal European waltz (and foreshadows the band’s 1978 single “Can-Can”).  Michael Karoli‘s deadpan vocals add yet another dimension to the song, one seemingly at odds with both the prim formalism and sunny playfulness floating around.

“Laugh Till You Cry, Live Till You Die (O.R.N.)” is kind of the heart of the album.  Karoli is overdubbed on electric violin, guitar and bağlama (a kind of Turkish lute).  This song comes the closest to straight-up reggae.  The balance between genuine experimentation and accessible pop catchiness is spot on.  Jazz records that do this are often described as being “inside” and “outside” at the same time.  If Karoli is the star of that song, he powers the closing title as well — a more than ten-minute purely instrumental excursion with ambient washes of keyboard, menacing swells of bass, and swirling psychedelic guitar solos.  “Flowmotion” is sort of the late-1970s counterpart to the band’s epic “Mother Sky” (from Soundtracks).

“Bablyonian Pearl” is kind of a goofy novelty song.  It seems like a meeting of “Full Moon on the Highway” (from Landed) and “Come Sta, La Luna” (from Soon Over Balauma) over a loopy, slightly reggae-tinged beat.  “…And More” was the hit single’s B-side.  It is kind of a throwaway here, and is also the shortest song.  It isn’t bad, though, and might work as incidental film music.

“Smoke (E.F.S. No. 59)” may have been the band “getting back into the sixties again“. But that sinister, gloomy track is totally at odds with the rest of the album.  It represents a sequencing problem — kind of like the “We Will Fall” problem (in reference to the song from The Stoogesdebut album).  The song itself is perfectly fine, except that it totally disrupts the album and doesn’t belong alongside tunes that are within reach of Jimmy Buffett.

What does all this add up to?  That is sort of the main question this album presents.  There are great songs here.  Yet the album as a whole struggles in places, due to sequencing more than anything else.  Replacing “Smoke” with something more in line with the rest of the songs would have been an improvement — perhaps like “Sunshine Day and Night” from the generally tepid follow-up Saw Delight.  There is also no denying that CAN was still genuinely experimenting, and those experiments pretty much all succeed.  That they could experiment while also making overtures to accessible pop music is a real achievement.  Usually such efforts have a high “degree of difficulty”.  In hindsight, listeners who can get past biases against either pop music or experimental music (as the case may be) might find much to like here.