Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Great 2004 Catch-Up Attempt Part 2

Brooks – Red Tape (Accidental)

Released on Matthew Herbert’s label and featuring contributions from Herbert’s horn arranger Pete Wraight, ‘Red Tape’ is one of the most intriguing dance albums of the year. It’s a bold collection, built on the foundation of some simple, relentless beats. What makes it interesting is the sounds concocted around those foundations. This is not a dance album that simply passes off tired old samples as original material. Andrew Brooks has managed to craft a unique sound – a mix of house, rock and sleazy disco.

It’s safe to say that the latter half of the album is a much more successful conglomeration of genres than the first. In the opening ‘Accident’, Benet Walsh’s stark, distorted and somewhat monotonous guitar chords sit somewhat uncomfortably with the backdrop, and the result sounds slightly clumsy. This gives no indication of the wonderful stylistic assimilation that is to come, however, with Brooks transforming PJ Harvey’s overtly sexual ‘Man Size’ from taut rock dirge into disco gem. Equally sleazy is the fantastic single ‘Do The Math’, which has energy and pop hooks in abundance, thanks to a devious falsetto vocal. It’s one of the best singles of the year.

The album benefits greatly from a range of instrumentation, from the aforementioned guitar to wind tubes and saxophones. The percussion sounds also add a slightly industrial tinge (not as in Nine Inch Nails, but rather the sounds of cogs in machines). As with a lot of electronic albums, it takes some time to appreciate and certainly rewards repeated listening.

Alice Coltrane – Translinear Light (Impulse)

‘Translinear Light’ is the first official album from Alice Coltrane in over 25 years. She has recorded plenty of music during that time, but has kept it restricted to spiritual music on cassettes distributed among the devout. It would be wonderful to be able to proclaim this album a new masterpiece. It isn’t quite that – if only because it arguably follows too closely the musical path that Coltrane herself established with her pioneering late 60s and 70s albums. ‘Translinear Light’ therefore suffers a little from familiarity, and lacks the overwhelming power of, say, the extraordinary devotional music on ‘Universal Consciousness’ or ‘Lord Of Lords’. With these albums, Coltrane did a great deal to expand on the spiritual quest initiated by her late husband, and listeners unfamiliar with her history should start here, even though much of ‘Translinear Light’ may actually be more palatable.

Sadly, Coltrane has kept the harp under lock and key for this album, perhaps feeling that she had gone as far as she wished to go with that sound. It always sounded mysterious and otherworldly as an instrument so rarely used in any form of popular music, let alone jazz. Her improvisations on the harp genuinely did break musical boundaries, and may well have altered perceptions of the instrument within the jazz world. Mercifully, her Wurlitzer organ playing proved to be just as significant, and there is plenty of that on display here. That means we get plenty of pitch bending, an unusual and uncomfortable sound at first (resembling if anything a child’s approach to the electronic keyboard instruments), but a sound that, given time, reveals itself as impressively nuanced and variable. Through playing the Wurlitzer, Coltrane achieves an entirely different texture from that created by the acoustic piano, and one that is arguably more appropriate for her assumption of traditional Hindu devotional forms.

To call this an entirely ‘new’ album is perhaps slightly misleading, as it contains material Coltrane originally recorded with her own classic line-up in the sixties, as well as some revisited John Coltrane compositions. This is not necessarily a criticism, in that jazz composers are consistently returning both to old material and to their own key works, particularly when looking to find inspiration after a long period away. Perhaps it should come as no surprise to see that, for Alice Coltrane at least, time may as well have stopped for the past 25 years, so similar are her concerns in the 21st century.

So, why has she stepped back into the limelight now after so long? There is one oblique hint in the liner notes she has composed for this release. She states that ‘in this point in history’, she felt the need once more to assert the true oneness of creation in music. This appears to be a veiled reference to the current global political situation, although Coltrane, dignified as ever, refrains from constructing a more specific outlook. It is in some way satisfying, however, to view ‘Translinear Light’ as Coltrane’s unique response to terror and the war currently being waged against it, an assertion of unity and harmony in a world persistently viewed in dichotomous terms.

The music of course is sizzling – as any band featuring Charlie Haden, the fearsome swashbuckling drums of Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane and Alice herself would have to be. For the sheer explosiveness of the ensemble playing, ‘Translinear Light’ does not disappoint. De Johnette and Haden particularly are in their elements, once again providing a rhythm section that is both uniquely solid and restlessly creative. Frequently, they are able to use their inventive muscle to raise the music to an entirely new level. This is particularly true of a mostly free and entirely fiery version of John Coltrane’s ‘Leo’ that is blisteringly intense. She saves the most intriguing for last with the devotional song ‘Satya Sai Isha’, an insistent chant featuring members of her Vedantic Centre. It is a peculiar assault on the senses, and an unusual sound for desensitised western ears, and it makes for a particularly moving conclusion.

Elsewhere the tone is more subdued, but the group dynamic no less caustic. The opening ‘Sita Ram’ is sublimely meditative, giving full focus to Alice’s Wurlitzer that, if possible, appears to sound purposefully meandering. Some have, rightly, drawn attention to the fact that ‘Translinear Light’ features its fair share of more conventional moments than might be expected, particularly the stately gospel swagger of ‘This Train’ or the spiritual balm of ‘The Hymn’. I don’t see this as a particular problem however. In reasserting her links with a Christian musical tradition, as well as furthering her exposition of Eastern mysticism, Coltrane most likely intends to assert the universal consciousness from which she believes is the origin for all beliefs.

More problematic for me are the moments when her artistry is needlessly diluted. ‘Jagadishwar’ is a haunting ballad, with a lingering and quite touching melody which is spoiled by its reliance on tacky synth pads. This might be a conscious attempt to update her sound, but it leaves her sounding carelessly dated. It might have been one moment where returning to the harp may well have served her better. It would certainly have complemented the melody with a great deal more subtlety. Equally, a new version of ‘Blue Nile’ (originally recorded for the classic ‘Ptah The El Daoud’ album) is not strictly necessary, especially as this new take lacks the tempestuous immediacy of the original.

Despite all this, ‘Translinear Light’ more than transcends its flaws (as well it should, being so overtly concerned with spiritual matters). It is a singularly joyful and uplifting experience at a time when it is increasingly difficult to evoke such elemental feelings. Some awkward choices in instrumentation prevent it from being a true classic, but there is enough evidence here that Coltrane remains a uniquely gifted talent, continuing to follow her own divinely inspired path.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – The Doldrums/Vital Pink (Paw Tracks)

Yet another release associated with the Animal Collective getting reviewed on this blog! Apparently, Ariel Pink handed a copy of his homemade 8 track demos to Avey Tare of the group, who was so taken with it he promised to release it on the Collective’s Paw Tracks record label. Fortuitously, he made good on his promise, and that has brought this unusual, defiantly lo-fi gem of a collection to wider attention. Although Pink claims not to have heard the Collective themselves while he was recording this music, there are at least superficial comparisons that help elucidate why Paw Tracks makes such a comfortable home for this release. Both acts seem to share a fascination with regressing to more innocent times, highlighted by the recurring imagery of campfires and nature. Both also seem to share a questing for unusual sounds much indebted to classic psychedelia, as well as an emphasising of peculiar vocal effects.

Whereas the Animal Collective’s approach involves electronic intervention and frequent use of feedback and high pitches, Ariel Pink offers a more rhapsodic approach. Whilst it’s clear from these rudimentary recordings, occasionally out of tune and badly recorded as they are, that his musical sense is limited, it’s the way in which he wrenches magical sounds from within his limitations which proves most fascinating. The extraordinary vocal percussion sounds provide a loose and muted backdrop for some dense and intriguing arrangements, often using vocal layering to superb effect. Sometimes the melodies are left implied rather than stated, but the effect is undoubtedly mesmerising.

The wonderfully titled ‘Good Kids Make Bad Grown Ups’ sets the scene perfectly, an intriguing, perhaps even confounding, collage of ideas and sounds. ‘Strange Fires’ is more muted – a quiet, peculiar soundscape with a pervading strangeness at its core. ‘Among Dreams’ is as close to funky as a lo-fi project such as this is likely to get, with its harshly plucked electric bass demonstrating Ariel Pink’s complete disrespect for technique. Yet, it is through this abandonment of convention that Pink is most successful. ‘For Kate I Wait’ is deeply melodic, but in a profoundly unusual way. It sounds warped and uneven, but also as catchy as a number one pop single. The whole bizarre and unique project is concluded with the lengthy ‘Ballad of Bobby Pym’, a dense and highly original musical concoction likely to confuse many, but which provides the initiated with ample reward for withstanding this album’s numerous challenges. It’s a bold and brilliant work – an almost anti-musical masterpiece. The CD version has a bonus mini-album attached, ‘Vital Pink’, which, if anything, is slightly more polished than its predecessor, and demonstrates a notable improvement in musicianship. It contains some impressive songs (particularly ‘Until the Night Dies’ and ‘Let’s Build A Campfire There’) and plenty of odd sound effects, but it arguably had lost some of its predecessor’s more alluring qualities.

DJ/Rupture – Special Gunpowder (Tigerbeat 6/Very Friendly)

I’m not usually a fan of the DJ mix album, but DJ/Rupture’s astounding ‘Minesweeper Suite’ collection strikes me as one of the very best mix projects, a staggeringly diverse collection of sounds from around the globe made to sound unified and coherent. It’s one of the rare examples of where the intermediary influence of the DJ actually makes a significant difference to the nature of the material. Following that achievement, ‘Special Gunpowder’ is billed as DJ/Rupture’s first studio project, employing more live instrumentation and collaborations with various vocalists and writers. It has been dismissed in some quarters for being disappointingly conventional, but I would not concur with those views. In fact, it’s arguably closer in both sound and approach to ‘Minesweeper Suite’ than I had imagined it would be. It may be a ‘proper’ album, but it still includes several examples of DJ/Rupture’s remix work, as well as original recordings. More importantly, it is again an impressive assimilation of a wildly diverse array of musical cultures.

If any one style could be said to predominate, it is the influence of dancehall reggae. This might be considered unfortunate, given the current predicament the genre finds itself in, with many of its most talented but uncompromising firebrands perpetuating judgemental and misguided homophobic agendas. Unlike Sizzla, however, this album isn’t coming from a deep rooted extreme take on Rastafarian culture, but rather more from a standpoint which is appreciative of the intensity and sound of the music. Much like the outstanding ‘Pressure’ from The Bug, ‘Special Gunpowder’ is an album that takes a number of specialised genres and makes them palatable for a broader audience curious to hear new sounds. Tracks such as ‘Little More Oil’ and ‘Bonechip’ are brutal, riotous excursions, full of energy and delivered with relentless gusto.

Elsewhere, DJ/Rupture incorporates Latin American and African styles into his extraordinary melting pot. There is also a sense that this music is deeply rooted not only in newer forms such as dancehall, but also in the classic soul and radical disco approaches of the sixties and seventies. Whatever DJ/Rupture is attempting, there is always a sense of knowledge of the music, as well as a considerable love and passion for it. This helps make ‘Special Gunpowder’ a resounding success.

Elliott Smith – From A Basement On The Hill (Domino/Anti)

I’ve delayed writing about this album because I’ve found it incredibly difficult to know exactly what to write about it. Elliott Smith’s tragic suicide last year undoubtedly robbed modern pop music of one of its most gifted songwriters. In some ways, ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ only adds to the sadness I feel about Elliott, in that it demonstrates he was continuing to develop as a songwriter, and that there may well have been even greater songs still to come.

It’s worth pointing out at the outset that this version of ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ is clearly not the version that Elliott had wanted to release. In interviews he described the album as being double album, and characterised by a tension between the acoustic laments for which he was best known, and more challenging, feedback-drenched work. Whilst some of that tension is in evidence, it’s not as dichotomous as Elliott’s descriptions might have implied. Producer Rob Schnapf has instead completed a loving and impressive job of collating some disparate material into a coherent and overwhelmingly affecting whole. All the hyperbole you may have read about this being Elliott’s greatest album is true – it is a collection of brilliant songs, some of them full of warmth and vulnerability, others edgy, unforgiving and resoundingly bleak. It certainly makes for difficult listening, but it is a genuinely moving experience, rather than simply an hour spent wallowing in manic depression.

The softer, more delicate songs are the most immediately appealing. The introversion and isolation of ‘Let’s Get Lost’ are of course thrown into starker clarity by Elliott’s death, and it is all the more remarkable a song for this – a strikingly intimate confession, with Elliott’s double tracked vocal sounding more vulnerable than ever. The guitar playing is also superb, giving the sound a dusty, rustic feel. Whilst I’ve admired Smith’s songwriting since I first heard ‘Either/Or’, I had not really considered him to be a great original before. Yet, listening to this exceptional song, it’s all too apparent how influential he has been. You can hear his approach inform the work of other subtle troubadours, particularly Badly Drawn Boy, Sufjan Stevens and Iron and Wine. Almost as brilliant are ‘Twilight’ and ‘A Fond Farewell’, deceptively simple songs containing within them a wealth of sorrow. The unadorned, untreated vocal delivery makes them even more harrowing. Lesser singers would have resorted to overstatement or bland emoting, but Smith’s approach is considerably more honest and real.

Elsewhere, this album contains some of Smith’s most musically inventive moments. The dual-drummer assault (including a contribution from Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips) of ‘Coast To Coast’ makes for a striking opener. ‘King’s Crossing’ is intense almost to the point of being extreme. The widescreen pop of ‘Pretty (Ugly Before)’, one of the most immediately catchy songs here, is also impressive. The sound here is as big and bold as anything on ‘Figure 8’, but it has been stripped of the Tom Rothrock LA sheen. The results may be slightly less accessible, but the approach seems somehow more honest and appropriate.

Many reviews have focussed on the content of the lyrics, and how this album could be seen as a document more than hinting at Elliott’s fragile state of mind. This is, of course true, and the despair at the heart of this album is biting and devastating. Songs like ‘The Last Hour’ do seem characterised by a sense of doomed finality. Yet, the lingering impression that remains for me is not of a tragic figure caught in the midst of overwhelming personal difficulties, but of a supremely gifted songwriter capable of capturing confessions with extraordinary intimacy, but also capable of universalising his personal experiences into something affecting rather than purely self-absorbed. Listening to ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ is not a voyeuristic invasion of a troubled man’s privacy, but rather startling evidence of how personal torment can first invigorate and vitalise artistry but also, tragically, destroy great artists. After hearing this beautiful album, I don’t have any doubts about placing Elliott Smith with the greats.

Destroyer – Your Blues (Merge)

Destroyer are the ‘other project’ of Dan Bejar of supergroup The New Pornographers, and, perhaps refreshingly, ‘Your Blues’ sounds absolutely nothing like you might expect from a member of that band. Neko Case’s beguiling country albums bring out the twang and the glamour from that group’s sound, and A.C. Newman’s hook-filled ‘Slow Wonder’ album brought forth the pop (perhaps demonstrating that he is the songwriter that most often wins out in the band), but this is an altogether more intriguing proposition. So intriguing in fact that it is difficult to reach an adequate description of Destroyer’s sound. It is almost like folk music, except that it employs swirling synthesisers that give it a less earthy, more otherworldly quality. I’m particularly charmed by the use of orchestral percussion styles, rather than simply marking time – an effect that is completely unusual in pop music outside the symphonic aspirations of something like Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’. The vocals are striking, emphasising phrasing and rhythm more than melody. When combined with the dense textures of the arrangements, it makes for a surprisingly alluring combination.

The opening ‘Notorious Lightning’ is highly portentous, but in the most strangely compelling of ways, its subtle opening giving way to baroque synth string flourishes and impassioned vocals. ‘It’s Gonna Take An Airplane’ adopts a more restrained approach, with flute and keyboards softening the sound. Its charm is also heightened by the fact that it sounds slightly like a folkier version of Pavement’s ‘Rattled By The Rush’ (the actual resemblance has only just struck me as I write this – I knew it sounded familiar!). ‘The Music Lovers’ relies even more on the synthesiser textures, but comes across as melodic and rewarding. Overall, this is an album with a highly coherent and distinctive sound that works exceptionally well as a complete unit.

Lyrically, it is dense, elusive and occasionally frustrating. There’s a certain level of high-minded artiness to some of the more verbose lyrical conceits and! It’s! Heavily! Punctuated! With! Lots! Of! Exclamation Marks! I can’t really decide if this is an attempt at humour, or whether it’s because there’s a certain weighty seriousness to the project. I must concede that I find the heavy handed poetics a slight barrier to full enjoyment of this record, but then I’m a Dylan and Cohen fan, so this criticism may well come across as a little inconsistent coming from me! This aside, ‘Your Blues’ is as hypnotic and enticing a record as I’ve heard this year.

If time allows, there are more catch-up reviews to come – and I’m currently compiling my albums of the year list – and finding the task to be particularly tricky this year!

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