The Lollipop of Science (O Pirulito da Ciência): A Defective Guide to Tom Zé (Um guia com defeito para Tom Zé)

A guide to the music of Tom Zé.  His professional musical career spanned half a century (and counting), though today many of his recordings are out of print — even in his native Brazil.  What is available in the United States tends to skew toward his later recordings, which has the unfortunate effect of placing some of his finest material out of reach.  His solo recordings are listed below divided into two time periods.  His collaborations are listed separately — some being mere guest appearances while other are more extensive.  Pursuant to the legend below, ratings are assigned to each, though Zé hardly has any bad releases so bear in mind these are just relative assessments.  Links to other resources, including books and films, are provided at the end.

This is still under construction.


Sung and Spoken Journalism (Imprensa cantada e falada): A Brief Introduction

 

Birth Name: Antonio José Santana Martins

Born: October 11, 1936, Irará, Bahia, Brazil

 

Antonio José Santana Martins, who adopted the stage name Tom Zé, was born in the dry interior region of the Brazilian state of Bahia.  He has described his hometown of Irará as “pre-Gutenbergian” (in reference to the inventor of the movable type printing press).  His father won the lottery, which allowed his family to live comfortably in an otherwise poor and arid rural region.  He moved to Salvador, the largest city in Bahia located along the Atlantic coast, to attend the University of Bahia.  He studied music.  He had an interest in composers like John Cage and Charles Ives.  Although Brazil had a troubled legacy as a former Portuguese colony (and briefly was the seat of the Portuguese capital), and was the last country in the western hemisphere to ban slavery, social democratic president João Goulart made some modest reforms and the Brazilian universities recruited professors from Europe to bolster their musical (and other) programs.  A military coup in 1964, supported by the United States, overthrew Goulart and installed a series of military “presidents” who ruled until 1985.  Zé relocated to São Paulo, was associated with a collection of leftist intellectuals in the 1960s, and became part of the tropicália (A/K/A tropicalismo) movement, the most prominent members (tropicalistas) of which were mostly Bahian too.  The (AI5) “coup within a coup” in 1968 brought harsher treatment of leftists and some of the tropicalistas.  While considered a key part of tropicália, he also seemed outside it at the same time, never contained by its key precepts despite his obvious sympathies and contributions.  His career faltered as the 1970s wore on.  By the 1990s he was considering working at a gas station when he was approached by the U.S. musician David Byrne (of Talking Heads), who had come across a Zé record and later sought him out (with the help of Brazilian-raised musician Arto Lindsay) to sign him to a new label.  Byrne was largely responsible for reviving Zé’s commercial career and introducing him to international audiences.  Though in many respects, Zé’s albums on Bryne’s Luaka Bop label are somewhat over-represented in English-speaking countries.

Caetano Veloso has described Zé’s tenaciously archaic yet inventive approach to music as “bizarrely elegant” and his attitude (reflected in his music too) as having an “ironic, distant sense of humor” that is “at once intimate and estranged[.]”  An incident on a plane that Veloso recounts is a fitting summary of a common effect of Zé’s music, when Zé made an absurd request for a particular drink (cachaça) on the plane, then, when it was not available, demanded the stewardess to stop the “caravel” (mid-flight) so he could leave, noting, “we were unnerved by the determination with which [the demand] was made, the sheer imposition of his will.”  Veloso was impressed with how “the sincerity of [Zé’s] defiance exposed the absurd pretense of refinement” around him.  This was in so many ways a fitting metanymn for the entire tropicália movement.  Recurring themes in Zé’s music involve tilting against colonial legacies (in the sense of Frantz Fanon) and making demands that emerge from leftist ideologies deemed impossible in his own time.  Zé considers himself a performer of limited means.  He has referred to at least some of what he does as sung and spoken journalism.  In the 1970s he experimented with what can be called a homemade sampler, and has long utilized homemade instruments (like Harry Partch, or Tom Waits in the mid-1980s and early 90s).

After his comeback in the early 1990s, the influence of animated Brazilian folk dance musics from northern regions, like the forró and coco of Luiz Gonzaga and especially Jackson do Pandeiro, were more apparent in his own recordings.  He continued working long after others would consider retirement.  There is a tenacious sense of experimentation that is constant throughout Tom Zé’s career.  He has toured internationally, though availability of his albums outside Brazil can be limited, even his most famous recordings.



Solo, Part I: Bahia to São Paulo


Tom Zé

Tom Zé (1968)


Release Notes: available on CD, vinyl and digitally as Grande Liquidação

Recorded:

Personnel:

Producer(s): João Araújo

Tier: ♻♻

Key Track(s): “São São Paulo”

Review:   Continue reading “The Lollipop of Science (O Pirulito da Ciência): A Defective Guide to Tom Zé (Um guia com defeito para Tom Zé)”

Oblivians – Popular Favorites

Popular Favorites

ObliviansPopular Favorites Crypt Records CR-065 (1996)


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.

Captain Beefheart – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)

Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)

Captain Beefheart and The Magic BandShiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) Warner Bros. BSK 3256 (1978)


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 labelBat 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 – Bluejeans & Moonbeams

Bluejeans & Moonbeams

Captain Beefheart and The Magic BandBluejeans & Moonbeams Mercury SRM 1-1018 (1974)


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.

I Want More: A Guide to the Music of CAN

This is a guide to the music of CAN.  Releases are divided into full albums, miscellany (mostly archival, soundtrack, and outtake collections), and non-album singles, with each section arranged chronologically by recording date.  Other resources — books, films, a soundtrack filmography, and web sites — are listed at the end.

This is not quite complete yet.


A Brief Introduction:

CAN was formed in the late 1960s in Köln (Cologne), in what was then West Germany.  The band approached rock and pop music with sort of an outsider’s perspective, very much the way pianist/composer Cecil Taylor approached jazz in a unique way from the standpoint of formal training in modern classical music.  There was a tacit affinity in their worldview to the so-called “New Left” movement of the late 1960s.  The band is also cited as a pillar of the “krautrock” movement that sought to reconstruct a new German cultural identity following the defeat of the Nazis by the Soviet Union and allied powers — most of the band members grew up knowing former Nazis.  They did not want to sound like other pop music.  The band’s music draws influence and comparisons to electronic “new music” composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the chance music of John Cage, rock bands like The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sly & The Family Stone, the vamping funk rock of James Brown, and dub reggae from the likes of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.  While band members had great familiarity with jazz, they either couldn’t or didn’t want to play jazz.  They did not work with outside producers or even record in commercial recording studios, instead forging their own path in a do-it-yourself way in which they maintained control over all aspects of their recordings.  Always something of a cult phenomenon, CAN remained critical darlings.  Curiously, or maybe not so much, the band’s audience has primarily been male.  Anyway, even nearly a half-century later the band’s music sounds stunningly fresh and impressive.

Original members Irmin Schmidt, Czukay and David Johnson came from backgrounds in modern classical music, each having studied at Darmstadt with Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Drummer Jaki Liebezeit came from a background in jazz, departing a position in Manfred Schoof‘s band after deciding that the scrupulous avoidance of a rhythmic pulse in free jazz was too constraining.  Guitarist Michael Karoli was a former student of Czukay’s who gave up studying law to be a musician instead.  Schmidt was a working conductor and composer who visited New York City where he was introduced to underground rock and the pop art scene.  He returned to West Germany inspired, and with Czukay committed to starting a rock band.  Johnson soon departed as the band pursued more of a focus on rock than pure avant-garde electronics.  Malcolm Mooney was an American traveling the world under the alias Desse Barama to try to avoid being drafted into the military during the Vietnam War, and ended up connecting with CAN partly out of confusion — he wanted to find a visual artist’s studio but ended up in a musical studio.  Although not intending to be a singer when he arrived in Germany, and having no real experience as such, Mooney helped the band coalesce its unique syncretic approach to music with a strong sense of rhythm.  Anxiety about returning to America and being drafted eventually necessitated Mooney’s departure.  He was soon after replaced by “Damo” Suzuki.  An anarchist by disposition, Damo had left home dissatisfied with Japanese culture through a connection with a pen pal in Sweden.  He had made his way to Germany where he frequently busked on the streets of Cologne and also was involved in a theater orchestra/band.  Holger Czukay encountered him on the street and invited him to sign at a concert that evening, with no rehearsal.

Most band members came from a middle-class backgrounds (in one case more upper class).  This gave them access to unique opportunities and allowed them to overcome obstacles that would have caused the demise of other bands.  For instance, Damo was very nearly deported before Irmin’s connections to West German state radio lead to a high-level government intervention that allowed Damo to remain.  Another sometimes overlooked aspect of the band’s history is that they formed in the wake of the so-called West German “Economic Miracle,” which partly stemmed from the Marshall Plan but was primarily a function of the USA forgiving WWII debts and using West Germany (and Japan, and later South Korea) as special economic development zones — something explicitly and purposefully denied to the UK and France.  In that climate of economic abundance there were funds and materials floating around for artistic projects.  The band maintained a very collective approach to music-making.  Everyone’s contributions were considered at an equal level.  There was no band hierarchy or designated leader.  Compositions, production and similar efforts were credited to the entire band regardless of specific individual contributions.  They also exactly equally shared band income, at least once Hildegard Schmidt became manager.

Achieving modest popularity in West Germany and the United Kingdom, they had some minor commercial success with recordings but had only one regional “hit” song with “I Want More.”  As the 70s rolled on, new members Rosko Gee and Reebop Kwaku Baah (both formerly of Traffic) joined in.  Czukay left the band by the end of 1977.

The band formally split up in 1979.  Irmin Schmidt then founded Spoon Records, and, via a distribution arrangement with Mute Records, CAN recordings are now more available than ever.  A few archival releases dribbled out in the early 80s, as well as some compilations.  A reunion instigated by originally vocalist Malcolm Mooney happened in the late 80s that lead to a new album.  A few additional reunion recordings of individual songs and sporadic reunion concerts took place too.  The former band members mostly pursued solo and other new musicals projects, and often collaborated.



Legend:

Continue reading “I Want More: A Guide to the Music of CAN”

Yoko Ono – Feeling the Space

Feeling the Space

Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band & Something DifferentFeeling the Space Apple SW-3412 (1973)


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.

Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted

Slanted and Enchanted

PavementSlanted and Enchanted Matador OLE 038-2 (1992)


Pavement’s full-length debut album Slanted and Enchanted has remained a critical favorite decades on, sort of the archetype for the kind of indie rock it represented. It reveled in a “lo-fi” aesthetic with tons of slacker charm. Read most reviews of Slanted and Enchanted and you’ll probably be told one or more of the following: a list of influences (The Fall, etc.), personal details about the band members and the history of how the band was formed, and some personal anecdote about how the reviewer discovered or reacted to Pavement. You can read about those things elsewhere. I want to instead write about the cultural significance of Pavement in terms of what they represented in a larger cultural context of the time.

The 1890s were called the “gay 90s” and the 1990s were called the “cynical 90s”. Following a decade of brutally reactionary policy from the like likes Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, cynicism in the 1990s was very much a kind of coping mechanism. In his important book(s), Kritik der zynischen Vernunft [Critique of Cynical Reason], Peter Sloterdijk described cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness”, a kind of purer strain of opium for the masses. That is just the right description for Pavement’s music. Read interviews with the band at the time and later, as well as any of the various books about 1990s “indie rock” and you’ll find much the same set of concerns about not “selling out”, staying “independent”, and so on. And yet, stop and think about what those things mean. It’s all an open acknowledgement of how shitty things are living under late capitalism. But the response is a kind of mild reformism (“economism” if you will), lessening the harsh impact and trying to stand apart from the worst excesses without really fundamentally changing anything. Their cynicism was a kind of self-preservation effort, by demonstrating an awareness of the shittiness all around, and thereby implying that they stood apart from it.  Elaborating on more or less the same concept of disavowal, Mark Fisher wrote,

“Capitalist ideology in general, . . . consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief — in the sense of inner subjective attitude — at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behavior. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.”

Stephen Malkmus‘s lyrics are sort full of non-sequiturs and almost surrealist imagery. The lyrics, delivered with cracked, non-virtuoso singing, are a big part of what makes up the band’s sound. There is a charm about them. These seem like slackers worth rooting for. On songs like “Here,” Malkmus sings, “I was dressed for success / but success it never comes.” This is sort of what sociologists call “strain theory,” when there is a gap between social expectations and really existing conditions and actualities. Different songs here might represent different types of reactions to social strain: retreatism, rebellion, innovation.  The second track, “Trigger Cut / Wounded-Kite at :17,” perfectly fits one of Sloterdijk’s phrases: “coquettish melancholy”.

The music is full of noisy guitar distortion. The drums are a lot looser than on later Pavement albums, and this is album is altogether more legitimately lo-fi than later recordings. Alex Chliton‘s Like Flies on Sherbert is an important precedent for Pavement’s aesthetic in this regard.

Some of the songs seem like parodies of grunge era rock music. This is where the “enlightened false consciousness” angle gets a bit specific. Pavement seems to be parodying the “false consciousness” of others. But doing so doesn’t escape this false consciousness, and that was precisely Peter Sloterdijk’s critique of cynicism — it still retains a connection to that which it purports to reject, and what it does retain, subtly and unspoken, is the same lust for power and prestige, just through different techniques and strategies. Put another way, a parody of false consciousness merely steps away from the most extreme false consciousness while remaining within it, which is quite different than turning from the wrong path to the right path. If we look back to the song “Here,” it certainly contains a critique of the so-called “myth of meritocracy” of the neoliberal era, but it also displays a casual acceptance of it as well. There is a reference to joining in prayer (religion being the original “opium of the masses”), and to waiting, as if someone else will swoop in and change things.

On this debut, Pavement was mostly channeling musical pop culture of the present and past.  They had certainly studied up on everything good about 1980s “college” rock.  But they were putting their own stamp on it all.  That was evident with the album cover — a trashed re-purposing of an old album cover.  Later on, Malkmus’ lyrics got a bit sharper.  By the time of Brighten the Corners, he was witheringly good at capturing the existential anxiety of trying to manage socially imposed expectations, personal desire, ambition, and resigned acceptance of limited possibilities.  But on this debut, the raw energy is a bigger factor.

While it is important to note the band’s cynicism, there was more to their music than just that.  Actually, one of the very reasons they remain one of the most lauded bands of their day is that they used their cynicism to open up a space to slip in some rather earnest reflections on the sorts of anxieties and coping mechanisms that middle-class, educated white people tended to rely on in a time when opportunities were starting to diminish and expectations were being (somewhat forcibly) adjusted downward.  Pavement didn’t rage and despair about it in a nihilistic way quite like, say, Nirvana.  They took a more contemplative approach.  The ironic distance and cynicism Pavement used was kind of a dead end (just like nihilistic grunge/alt rock).  It accomplished the opposite of what it intended.  But I think their music represents kind of a necessary wrong move, to enable those who followed to make the right moves — or, at least, better moves.

Well, I might as well succumb to one of the typical Pavement album review cliches, and talk about how I was introduced to them.  In the late 1990s I was involved in student radio.  A woman (Nora?) worked at the station who was middle-aged, and I think was in a graduate program at the time.  Everybody loved her because she was one of those gracious, erudite types, who treated us young college kids with respect, lending her wisdom to us but seeking to learn from us too.  When talking to her one day she admitted to having fallen out of the loop on what was the latest “in” music, and asked what band was like the new Pavement.  I had never heard of Pavement at the time, so I had to admit I did not know.  But her inquiry encouraged me to find out.  Though I made only a cursory investigation at the time.  I did keep hearing more about them though.  At another school, a classmate of mine who knew I wrote music reviews for the campus paper asked what I thought about Pavement.  His all-time favorite album was Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.  Then a few years later a friend got me a ticket to see James Carter‘s Gold Sounds project perform — this was a jazz band covering Pavement tunes.  I felt somewhat bad for not sharing my friend’s deep knowledge and appreciation of the songs, even if I already had an interest in Carter.  Anyway, now with a much deeper appreciation of Pavement’s music, I can say that Brighten the Corners remains my favorite of theirs, though Slanted and Enchanted is runner-up and is definitely the place to start with this important 1990s rock outfit.

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 want 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.