Tuesday, October 04, 2005

From Jackson To Jacksonville

New albums from Jackson and His Computer Band, John Cale, Calexico/Iron and Wine, Bill Frisell, The Bad Plus and Ryan Adams hit the In League With Paton CD player.

There’s a whole plethora of material from across the sound spectrum to cover in this massive post, from the stuttering electronica of new Warp signing Jackson, to the second of three albums this year from the increasingly prolific troubadour Ryan Adams.

‘Smash’, the debut album from Jackson and His Computer Band is assertive, provocative music indeed, but it also comes with the kind of humorous party sensibility that the likes of Daft Punk now appear to have abandoned in favour of charmless repetition. Jackson is clearly someone with a short attention span – his tracks tend to flit rapidly between different sounds and ideas, but they work magic because they are usually anchored with one notable melodic line or texture.

The opening ‘Utopia’ is an excellent case in point. Jackson deploys a dazzling technique in cut-and-paste vocal sampling, but burbling beneath the surface is an insistent ostinato synth figure, veering between two notes in a fashion not entirely unlike the Jaws theme tune. Whilst that memorable piece of music created escalating tension and fear, Jackson’s motif affords the piece an oasis of calm.

The same cut-and-paste techniques recur on the disorientating ‘Rock On’, where we are very much in Daft Punk territory. Here, Jackson allows a possibly unironic love for seventies rock posturing to seep through. It’s a thrilling, highly entertaining track. By way of contrast, the child narrative on ‘Oh Boy’ is slightly sinister and reminiscent of the peculiarly malevolent atmosphere conjured by Boards of Canada on ‘Geogaddi’. This creepy atmosphere is heightened by the interjection of tantalisingly brief backing vocal samples (taken from Roy Orbison’s ‘Blue Bayou’ if my sample-detecting ears do not deceive me), the punctuations left lurking in the background of the mix.

The album sustains its defiantly scattershot approach surprisingly well, and benefits from a typically inspired guest appearance from Mike Ladd on the bemusing ‘TV Dogs (Cathodica’s Letter)’. The mysterious swells, pulses and ghostly choral samples of ‘Hard Tits’ provide further balance, the track sounding more contemplative in spite of its crude title.

Jackson has probably taken influence from the dancefloor disco of Daft Punk or Cassius, but has injected a new lease of life through his own maverick production techniques. He often opts for being deliberately melodramatic and, at its best, ‘Smash’ is a startling and unpredictable beast.

One could be forgiven for expecting ‘Black Acetate’, the new album from John Cale to share a maverick spirit with modern electronic pioneers, but some might be surprised by just how accessible, perhaps even conventional a record this is. Certainly, had the light pop-punk of first single ‘Perfect’ been recorded by McFly, every respectable critic in the land would not even consider devoting column inches to it. It’s rather zippy pacing sounds a little uncomfortable, not because Cale is too old for such amusements, but simply because it doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with the rest of the album.

If anything, ‘Black Acetate’ is further evidence that Cale is no longer pushing boundaries of his own, but rather following where his current influences lead him. His last album, the highly acclaimed ‘Hobosapiens’ saw him discovering Pro-Tools several years too late for it to really be ‘cutting edge’, whilst the foundations of ‘Black Acetate’ have been crafted with two major collaborators – funk producer Herb Graham Jr. and Eels sideman Mickey Petralia.

Luckily, the influences are many and varied. Reviewers have likened startling opener ‘Outta The Bag’ to the Neptunes, but that comparison fails to pin down its appealingly inelegant combination of falsetto vocals, sludgy rock and digitised Memphis style horns. Elsewhere, the playful squelch of ‘Brotherman’ suggests a combination of the classic funk of Curtis Mayfield and the mid-80s explorations of Prince. It depends more on intricate rhythm and atmosphere than melody for its impact. ‘Hush’ even closely resembles the bedroom electronica of Hot Chip – could Cale have been listening and taking note?

Melody plays a more significant role on the lush ‘Satisfied’, which benefits from a particularly strong vocal performance from Cale. The gravel-voiced murmurings and muted atmospherics of ‘In A Flood’ suggest the influence of Bob Dylan’s Daniel Lanois-produced albums. These songs are the album’s engaging and intriguing highlights. It is true that later in the album they do give way to rather more generic, lumbering creations (the aforementioned ‘Perfect’ ‘Wasteland’ and ‘Turn The Lights On’), but in concluding with the remarkable, funereal ‘Mailman (The Lying Song’, the overriding impression of ‘Black Acetate’ is positive.

‘Black Acetate’ may not rival ‘Music For A New Society’ for radical invention, nor ‘Paris 1919’ for songwriting ingenuity, but it nevertheless provides a fascinating document of an influential artist still totally engaged with current musical developments. There can be no obligation on an artist like Cale to revolutionise once more – a grand synthesis such as ‘Black Acetate’ is more than illuminating enough.

Cale’s work is certainly a collaborative effort, as is ‘In The Reins’, a near-faultless new mini album from the dream team of Calexico and Iron and Wine. This is one of those deceptively calm, unassuming accomplishments that will most likely slip through the critical net in the UK. Whilst Iron and Wine have already released one impressive mini album this year (‘Woman King’), there was a growing sense that Sam Beam’s well honed rustic Americana needed a new injection of life. He needed a musical backdrop that matched his richly poetic narratives. By joining forces with the dependably excellent Calexico, he has now achieved this.

It helps that the songs on ‘In The Reins’ are the best of Beam’s career to date – songs that inherit the classic American songwriting tradition of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and Townes van Zandt. Beam has found his own narrative voice here, in much the same way that Springsteen claimed to have found his American storytelling voice with ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’. These songs, through their manipulation of language and their vivid construction of character and feeling, say far more about love, family and the underbelly of the American Dream than anything on Neil Young’s latest maudlin effort.

‘Prison On Route 41’ effortlessly captures a conflict between the protagonists’s jailed family, and the righteous path set out for him by his Virginia. It’s brilliantly realised (‘There’s a prison on route 41, a home to my mother, step brother and son/ And I’d tear down that jail by myself, if not for Virginia who made me someone else’), and delivered with Beam’s characteristic soft tones, which successfully underline its pathos. Elsewhere, ‘Sixteen, Maybe Less’ is a wonderfully subtle memory of love, tinged with a lingering sadness. The closing ‘Dead Man’s Will’ is deceptively simple, and unspeakably moving, a dedication of love from beyond the grave full of regret (‘give this bone to my father/He’ll remember hunting in the hills when I was ten years old’).

Although the songs are certainly marked with Beam’s distinctive stamp of authority, Calexico’s role here is pivotal. The mariachi horns that bolster the fantastic ‘History Of Lovers’ are a Calexico staple, and they elevate the song to thrillingly higher plane. On ‘Red Dust’, and ‘Burn That Broken Bed’, the band hit tremendous backbeat grooves, hinting at the close links between country music and soul. The strong influence of border music pervades throughout, from the strange but powerful interjection of Spanish operetta in the opening ‘He Lays In The Reins’ to the ragged percussion of ‘Burn That Broken Bed’.

This is a quietly remarkable record, rich in wisdom and experience heightened by a manifest love of language, both poetic and musical. It presents a prime example of how brilliant songs can be enhanced through the honing of instrumentation and arrangement. It would be wonderful if the two acts got together to perform this work live – it’s so good that I have to hope it’s not merely a one-off.

Whilst the Americana brigade at Uncut magazine might pick up on Calexico and Iron and Wine’s little gem, it’s unlikely they will make much noise about ‘East/West’, the latest double live album from guitarist Bill Frisell. This is a great pity that emphasises exactly how unhelpful the tendency in the UK media towards specialisation and compartmentalisation can be. Whilst he is known chiefly as a jazz musician, I wonder if there is anyone at work today who can rival Frisell’s instinctive understanding of the American folk tradition. On ‘East/West’, Frisell reinterprets some cornerstones of the American songbook in his own uniquely fluid style – ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, ‘Shenandoah’, ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ (from Porgy and Bess), Leadbelly’s blues standard ‘Goodnight Irene’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s-A-Gonna Fall’ are just a handful of the many highlights.

The concept is simple but effective – ‘East/West’ is a two-disc set containing selections from two concerts, one from the East Coast and one from the West Coast of America. The ‘West’ disc, a trio set recorded at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California with Viktor Krauss on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums is by far the more immediately appealing. Frisell’s playing is at its most lyrical on the sublimely atmospheric interpretation of ‘Shenandoah’ and Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain’, to which Frisell adds a sublime introduction of his own. These selections might well have seemed corny in the hands of a less adept communicator, but Frisell always brings his own touch of class to the material, deploying his trademark effects and guitar loops to craft a meticulously controlled atmosphere.

The group dynamic on this disc is terrific too. Krauss’ bass is relentlessly driving on Frisell’s own ‘Blues For Los Angeles’, combining in dual attack with some thunderous drumming from Wollesen. Another of Frisell’s compositions, ‘Boubacar’, a tasteful exploration into African modes in its original setting on ‘The Intercontinentals’ album, now becomes a much more aggressive creation and one that sits remarkably well with the American material.

The second disc, with Tony Scherr replacing Viktor Krauss on bass, is considerably more reflective and abstract. It requires some work, but is not without ample reward. The version of ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ demonstrates how crucial space and silence are to interpretations from the standard repertoire – what Frisell does not play here is every bit as important was what he does. Frisell’s own ‘Ron Carter’, presumably named in honour of the great bass player, is lengthy, and perhaps a little hesitant, but more concise readings of ‘Crazy’ and ‘Tennesee Flat Top Box’ round things off in style.

‘East/West’ provides an effective snapshot of Frisell’s live work over the past few years, but works best as a distilled summary of his major concerns thus far – a wonderful refashioning of the jazz tradition to incorporate soul, country, gospel and rock. Frisell will play live in the UK in November as part of the London Jazz Festival.

Another jazz act who have brought the music to a wider audience whilst making outrageous creative innovations of their own are The Bad Plus. The band are nominally a piano trio, but forget any preconceptions about what a piano trio should or should not sound like. They are almost entirely devoid of the warm resonances of EST or the polite lyricism of Tord Gustavsen’s trio. In fact, with their inspirations drawn from heavy rock and pop as well as the jazz tradition, they are perhaps even more aggressive in challenging purist ideas than Bill Frisell. Famed for their interpretations of successful pop hits, anyone who has yet to hear their versions of The Pixies’ ‘Velouria’ or Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ should investigate their earlier albums apace.

Their latest set, ‘Suspicious Activity?’, relies less on these bizarre reconstructions of rock hits, and instead emphasises the equally audacious nature of their own compositions. Amidst the familiar gleeful cacophony, there is also a rigorous attention to detail at work, and this may be their most intricate and impressive collection yet. ‘Prehensile Dream’ is angular and confounding, with some extraordinary polyrhythmic piano flourishes eventually giving way to an energised groove. It demonstrates the band’s uncanny ability to extrapolate a simple melodic idea into highly inventive improvisations. On ‘Anthem For The Earnest’, pianist Ethan Iverson demonstrates that he has one of the strongest and most rigorous left-hand accompaniment style in modern jazz, over which he is able to develop a series of conflicting polyrhythmic figures. ‘The Empire Strikes Backward’ (great title!) is supremely confident and radical. Anyone who has previously accused this band of being a goofy novelty act may well have to reconsider their position- Ethan Iverson’s piano playing is powerful throughout, and the trio are brilliant at manipulating the core material into something much more than the sum of its parts.

They still find room for one re-interpretation, this time the familiar theme tune from ‘Chariots Of Fire’, which retains much of the melody, but completely removes the mechanistic strictures of the Vangelis original. It’s an intriguing selection and one that, as usual, they make entirely their own. It complements the original material effectively and it is illuminating to hear the band apply a similar approach to deconstructing a famous piece of music as they do when working on their own music.

Like Bill Frisell, the band also appear at the upcoming London Jazz Festival. I’m actually quite pleased I picked this record up in Canada, as it doesn’t seem to be getting its UK release until November 7th.

Ryan Adams is probably an insufferable tosser, and certainly someone who can knock out serviceable songs in his sleep. ‘Jacksonville City Nights’ is the second of three proposed full length releases this year and, much like ‘Cold Roses’ before it, it’s pretty good, although it lacks that spark of inspiration that made ‘Heartbreaker’ such a striking solo debut. Adams is something of a musical chameleon, and not a true original. For the dire ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’, he dressed himself up in a variety of horrific karaoke disguises, ranging from U2 to Aerosmith. On the opening track here, the honky tonk gem ‘A Kiss Before I Go’, he tries out his best Gram Parsons impression. It serves as a timely reminder of how well he mastered the country shuffle on ‘Heartbreaker’.

Adams sometimes has the ability to sink into a mire of cloyingly mannered vocals which undermines his considerable songwriting talents. The worst offender here is ‘Peaceful Valley’, where the vocal is almost unlistenable but the song is not without its qualities. ‘The End’ could have suffered the same fate, but Adams exerts just enough control to pull it back from the brink, and what could have been overblown becomes an affecting Nashville waltz. ‘Hard Way To Fall’ has a similar stripped back acoustic feel to ‘Peaceful Valley’, but is one of his most straightforwardly impressive songs for some time. The production remains faithful to the original country stylings Adams strives to imitate, and the unwelcome intrusions of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’ are mercifully absent.

He’s actually at his best here when veering away from his comfort zone. ‘September’ is a lush and wistful ballad brimming with emotion, whilst ‘Dear John’ features the vocals of Norah Jones of all people, but remains touching in spite of this. These songs are tinged with regret and longing, but without what some (arguably mistakenly) took to be the dour and miserable navel gazing of the ‘Love Is Hell’ material.
It’s all pleasant enough, and it’s particularly good to hear a gem plucked from the vaults (‘My Heart Is Broken’ was co-written with Caitlin Cary, presumably dating from the Whiskeytown era), but there’s nothing here as beautifully mournful as ‘I See Monsters’ or as cathartic as ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Sad’. Will Lost Highway release the remarkable ‘Destroyer’ album Adams recorded a few years ago with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings?
Well, that's it until the next post, but there's still plenty to catch up on, so expect more imminently.


ryan d said...

i have never heard the song 'julia' by chris rea.

but i like it.

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