Tag Archives: Rock

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.

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence

Ultraviolence

Lana Del ReyUltraviolence Interscope B0020950-02 (2014)


Del Rey’s second full-length album made strides over her debut Born to Die (and the Paradise EP) in terms of being a bit more consistent, especially from a production standpoint.  This is more rock-oriented than her debut.  However, the songwriting sometimes falters, or just comes up short, which still makes this seem like a good EP padded out to album length.  The best songs are “West Coast” and “Brooklyn Baby.”  Lou Reed was supposed to provide guest vocals on the latter, but he passed away before he could record them.  A year earlier, she released the song “Young and Beautiful” on the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby, which is more in line with the style of most of her best songs.

Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

Simple Songs

Jim O’RourkeSimple Songs Drag City dc620cd (2015)


Jim O’Rourke has defied expectations his entire career.  His pop albums (Eureka, Halfway to a Threeway, Insignificance, and The Visitor), efforts as a producer, and stint in Sonic Youth garnered him the most attention.  But he stepped away from the limelight and moved to Japan — get the entire back story in the excellent article “Eureka” in Uncut (July 2015)Simple Songs is another pop album, steeped in 1970s prog rock but done up the O’Rourke way.  The music is incredibly intricate.  Hardly a second goes by without some sort of shift in meter, instrumentation, lyrical focus…something.  Yet O’Rourke never makes the music self-consciously weird.  He always keeps the music immediate and catchy.  In a way, this album is a kind of tribute to the music of his formative years.  Though rather than fawning reenactments, he treat the project with unwavering determination, as if he has to earn the right to indulge his favorite pop-rock idioms by putting extra effort into the production.  Lyrically, he is back again with  veiled and not-so-veiled misanthropic rants.  But these are not really mean spirited so much as they are a device to draw in the audience and build a rapport.  Much like trading insults to forge a friendship, O’Rourke alludes to the baseness of humanity, throwing himself in with that ignoble lot too.  While I never formally met O’Rourke, many years ago I was at a concert festival where he played bass in a band and then he stood next to me during Borbetomagus‘ set.  Unlike one of his band members, who played the role of arrogant star, O’Rourke seemed like a perfectly normal guy.  That same normal but talented guy comes through on this record.

Maybe Simple Songs won’t be for everyone.  It is pop/rock music, but of a kind of introverted kind.  But chances are anyone inclined to like this at all will love it.

CAN – Landed

Landed

CANLanded Hör Zu C 062-29600 (1975)


The first CAN album to be recorded with high-fidelity 16-track studio equipment, Landed is mostly a glossier take on the same basic format as its predecessor Soon Over Babaluma.  There is a professional slickness in place of the usual relentless ingenuity.  Not a bad record at all, but still a sign that the band’s best days were mostly behind them.

The Sonics – !!!Here Are The Sonics!!!

!!!Here Are The Sonics!!!

The Sonics!!!Here Are The Sonics!!! Etiquette ET-LP-024 (1965)


!!!Here Are the Sonics!!! is the quintessential garage rock album. The Sonics’ songs touch on such divine subjects as fast cars, dance steps, and cruel women. The lyrics are wonderfully forgettable and !!!Here Are the Sonics!!! gets by through sheer force of will. It’s actually best that the songs just give way to the frenzied power of the band.  Nuance wasn’t even remotely the point of The Sonics.

The band blasts you away with pure rock ‘n’ roll power. There are no slow ballads here!  Their fuzzy-sounding guitars put a twist on that high energy Little Richard R&B, the big beat rock of Bo Diddley, and the noisy guitar distortion of Link Wray. “The Witch” was the hit single that initially catapulted The Sonics into garage rock lore. It has an eerie organ riff that bubbles under the the driving beat and raucous vocals.  Raw energy and visceral drive are more important to this music than finesse.  This became sort of a template for punk rock a decade later.

Gerry Roslie is a big part of what made The Sonics so special. He did pound out some nice keyboards, but those vocals were something else. The album took some time to record because Roslie could only do so many songs before his voice gave out from screaming. The results far surpassed his abilities on paper.

Though the group only wrote a few of the album’s songs, the covers are certainly not filler. “Do You Love Me” is one of the hardest rockers on the disc. “Have Love Will Travel” takes on hometown hero Richard Berry’s song with extreme passion. The thundering bass highlights the sound that became so important for bands referred to as “post-punk”. Rave-ups of tunes The Wailers’ “Dirty Robber” also help the album cook. Letting these hooligans into the studio to destroy these songs was part of some greater miracle.

This album is one of the most important releases in defining the rowdy Seattle rock sound. The Sonics made music that makes you want to turn the stereo to full power, not because you have to but because you crave more of that sound. Anyone afraid their ears may bleed need but step aside. The Sonics went against the grain and liked it; perhaps so will you.

Strand of Oaks – Hard Love

Hard Love

Strand of OaksHard Love Dead Oceans DOC117 (2017)


Sounds like Ryan Adams joined Arcade Fire, and they listened to a lot of Spacemen 3 before heading to the recording studio.  That is to say, this doesn’t exactly break any new ground.  But it does manage some quite satisfactory songwriting and solidly delivers from beginning to end.  Highlights: “Everything,” “Rest of It” and “Taking Acid and Talking to My Brother.”