Tuesday, July 01, 2008

All The Fun of the Fair

I’ve been trying to avoid these kind of hastily cobbled together summary posts, juxtaposing releases across a wide range of genres. However, as I’m going to be away with little blogging time from this Thursday, there seems little choice if I’m ever going to get through my mountainous backlog. So here are some musings on some randomly selected new releases…

Flying Lotus – Los Angeles (Warp, 2008)

Here’s one of the most interesting records I’ve heard so far this year and certainly the best album to emerge from the Warp staple in quite some time. It’s from an artist commonly referred to as a hip hop producer but who actually turns out to be something less tangible and more slippery than that (as befits someone who can count the late Alice Coltrane as his great-aunt).

‘Los Angeles’ is an unbroken suite of short, piecemeal ideas that converge into something rather magical and mesmerising. In this sense, it’s probably most closely reminiscent of Scott Herren’s work in his Prefuse 73 guise, although it’s a good deal less scattershot than his albums. The rhythms are simultaneously wonky and crisp, whilst the hazy ambience and overall emphasis on disorientation make the album sound drunk, albeit in an entirely satisfying way.

Fly Lo crafts a simmering, dense and absorbing conflagration of effects and the overall sound is both tempting and sinister. ‘Hot’ is particularly effective in channelling the inspiration of classic hip hop, but refracted through a heavily distorting prism. The mesh of competing rhythms is a mile away from the pounding formula of generic hip hop. FlyLo has produced a music that is more esoteric and prickly.

‘Los Angeles’ might be a soundtrack to the seedier, darker underbelly of life in that most infamous of cities. Much of it sounds ominous, perhaps even slightly bleak, although the album as a whole seems to journey towards something slinkier and lighter. Initially, though, the predominant sense seems to be of something surreal and cinematic – perhaps even Lynchian, were that weird and wonderful director ever to embrace Electronica. The interjecting sampled voices operate in similar terrain to the wonderful sound world created over here by the likes of Burial.

Perhaps this music’s strange terrain is most neatly encapsulated on the uncomfortable but irresistibly compelling ‘Testament’, where Gonjasufi’s pinched vocals deftly bolster the music’s sense of menace and dread. Digested as a whole, this is eerie music, haunted by vaguely recognisable spectres from the past, but pointing to an even stranger future.

Thank You – Terrible Two (Thrill Jockey, 2008)

Thanks must go to Alax of Tapedeck and Meal Deal fame for pointing me in the direction of this one. Thrill Jockey have marked themselves out as one of the most trustworthy of American labels, unafraid to dip more than a big toe into adventurous musical waters.

Unsurprisingly, then, this Baltimore trio ratchet up a pretty relentless and intense noise, at least in part reminiscent of the full-throttle unresolved tension mastered by This Heat in the late ‘70s. Their press release describes them as an ‘athletic rhythm/action unit’ which, for once, would appear to be a reasonably accurate and considered description.

Whilst much of ‘Terrible Two’ appears to be based on unrestrained jamming, the whole package coheres through returning to repeated and easily identifiable touchstones. All of these lengthy tracks are predicated on increasingly untamed combinations of frantic drumming, furious bursts of high pitched guitar strafing and, perhaps most imaginatively of all, interjections of organ dissonance, the combinations of selected notes totally disrespecting conventional harmony.

It’s difficult to know whether there is any kind of compositional logic behind this frazzled, seemingly unstoppable assault, or whether it is simply the result of spontaneous collective inspiration. Either way, this is a memorable experiment, both quirky and confrontational. The best and most ambitious tracks (‘Empty Legs’ and ‘Embryo Imbroglio’) come with real fire and aggression, whilst the closing title track provides a more enigmatic and brooding counterpoint.

James Blackshaw – Litany of Echoes (Tompkins Square, 2008)

The virtuosic, densely layered modern ragas that guitar prodigy James Blackshaw creates are powerfully mesmerising. Part-composed, part-improvised pieces (but by Blacshaw’s own admission with an emphasis on the former), they have a unique ability to reel the listener into a world that sounds unfamiliar and unconventional. Far more than just another guitarist in the Takoma tradition, Blackshaw has already, at the tender age of just 26, made great strides to expand and develop this music. There is little that is archival or retrogressive about his approach.

It’s even more refreshing then that the first sound we hear on his latest work is a different kind of instrument altogether. Blackshaw begins ‘Gate of Ivory’ with an ostinato motif on the piano, and the instrument reappears again elsewhere on ‘Litany of Echoes’, sometimes subtly enmeshed with his guitar work and again as the focal point on the concluding ‘Gate of Horn’.

The tracks in between are lengthy explorations that gradually reveal their depth and resonance. In some ways, the work of Fran Bury on violin and viola is almost as significant as Blackshaw’s by now familiar artistry here, and she makes a major contribution to the tone, mood and harmonic logic of these pieces. Blackshaw and Bury gradually and doggedly develop their themes to their logical conclusions and the results demonstrate a singular discipline and focus.

If this music only amounted to a combination of mental stamina and virtuosic technique, it wouldn’t necessarily be all that interesting or immersing. It’s the overall effect to which Blackshaw services his talents that makes this music so potent. The density of these ‘sheets of sound’ makes these pieces sound vibrant and full, even though there are only two musicians working on them, and Blackshaw only uses minimal overdubbing.

It’s also intriguing that there is no producer credit on this album’s inlay. If Blackshaw did all the recording and engineering work himself, then he has an intuitive ear for capturing sound as well as for composing and performing. There is little in the way of additional effects deployed here – just a reverberation that sounds natural and unforced, which matches the unhurried pacing of the material.

With the developments in arrangement and instrumentation matching the greater ambition of the composition and playing, this stands as an even stronger whole even than last year’s remarkable ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. With that record, he perfected the art of solitary creation – an entirely solipsistic, individualist method of working based on what attracted him to the work of John Fahey and away from predictable indie bands. With ‘Litany of Echoes’, however, he has brought interplay and chemistry back to his music, albeit in a very formal and appropriate way, bolstering rather than diluting the sheer mastery of his craft.

Alexander Tucker – Portal (ATP, 2008)

I was almost dissuaded from investigating this album after enduring part of Tucker’s moody collaboration with Stephen O’Malley at the Maximum Black gig at The Forum some months ago. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood, but it struck me as having all the hallmarks of the really bad category of freely improvised music – wholly based on repetition and droning and coming across as rather flat, uninvolving and lacking real feeling. Compared with the musicality of The Necks or the looser passages of Outhouse’s compositions (or indeed the relentless explorations of Thank You – see above), it seemed rather reductive and tedious.

Tucker’s solo work is rather different though, tied closely to a British folk tradition and occupying what is actually a more adventurous space. Tucker takes the basic template of folk music – lyrics which tell elaborate stories, delicately plucked acoustic guitars, and moulds them into something more liberating and free through the use of layered guitar effects.

Best of all on ‘Portal’ is Tucker’s experimentation with string arrangements and treatments. These work well, adding to a sense of mystery and making the overall flavour of the music seem more surreal and less earthy. Tucker’s drive not merely to modernise folk music, but to develop new processes and means of crafting it, is something that should be lauded. His construction of dense sound collages from loops, sampled performances and treated vocals makes this music sound otherworldly and unusual.

Tucker is always striving to avoid the over-familiar and the safe – on ‘Portal’ he has developed a music that is nuanced and calm, but also sometimes chilling and harrowing (particularly on the punishing ‘Omni-Baron’). Whilst individual tracks don’t stand out particularly, the overall sound of ‘Portal’ subtly embeds itself in the listener’s consciousness.

Neon – Here to There (Basho, 2008)

Two interesting things seem to be happening in the UK jazz music scene at the moment. One is for artists to make more of the intersections between their classical and jazz backgrounds, and to reject the false dichotomy that is too frequently imposed between the two traditions. The second is for established musicians to enter into fresh collaborative arrangements with much younger players. The classical percussionist-turned-jazz-master Paul Clarvis has done this very fruitfully with Blink and now one of British jazz’s most revered figures, saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, has had a rare meeting of minds with prodigious Pianist Gwilym Simcock and the excellent Percussionist Jim Hart, a player mature beyond his years.

Whilst bassless trios are becoming increasingly commonplace (Blink, Tim Garland’s Lighthouse Trio etc), Neon is an even more unconventional set-up, also lacking a drummer. As a drummer listening to this record, I’m struck by the percussive interplay between Simcock and Hart, which is both playful and precise. Simcock displays the remarkable lightness of touch and technical skill for which he is justly renowned whilst Hart’s accompaniments, which vary between the light and spacious and rapid flourishes, are suitably instinctive. Sulzmann remains a muscular and inspired soloist, with a more lyrical soprano sound, although his tenor tone sometimes seems slightly grating here – it’s unclear whether or not this is a quirk of the recording.

Sulzmann contributes most of the compositions here, and they are both nimble and lucid. The best of these might well be the languid, haunting title track which is sequenced perfectly at the heart of the album. Yet Simcock and Hart, as well as being supreme improvisers, are also excellent composers. Simcock’s delightful ‘Spring Step’, which he has also been performing with his own group, is one of the highlights here, whilst the unpredictable lurches of Hart’s ‘Deviation’ demonstrate his considerable imaginative flair. All the pieces demonstrate both the group’s meticulous orchestration and fluid interaction. ‘Here to There’ is a document of the considerable talents of the group’ individual members, but is also a collective enterprise of laudable generosity and mutual benefit.

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (Bella Union, 2008)

I’ve already written a fair amount about Fleet Foxes and their ‘baroque harmonic pop’ songs, having lauded their Sun Giant EP and written enthusiastically about their endearing performance at Meltdown a couple of weeks ago. It’s arguable, therefore, that not much needs to be added about this excellent album, which represents an extension of their My Morning Jacket-meets-CSNY formula. It is, after all, far too early in their burgeoning career for a radical change of direction.

I had initially felt that those hailing it as a modern classic might have been jumping the gun a bit, and I’m instinctively wary of that kind of grandstanding hyperbole. In this case, this is mainly because the quasi-spiritual, nature-obsessed lyrics rather strip it of any cultural relevance. Still, much like The Decemberists, if one yields oneself to Fleet Foxes’ peculiarly arcane world, they quickly repay the investment of effort.

Two characteristic elements of this set strike me that I perhaps didn’t emphasise enough in earlier commentaries on the band. Most of the songs carry the listener on a vivid journey, in strikingly linear progressions that mostly avoid verse-chorus-verse conventions. This is not to say that the songs are without hooks or melodies – far from it – it’s just that they are generally unhindered by structural conventions. Secondly, whilst it would be easy to pigeonhole the group as some sort of cosmic American folk band (particularly on the evidence of ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’), there’s a strong streak of soul that occasionally permeates the music here. Listen to the way ‘Ragged Wood’ suddenly and unexpectedly bursts into life in its final two minutes, or the mellotron shadings of the exquisite ‘Your Protector’, one of the most stirring tracks here.

Perhaps this is why Crosby, Stills and Nash still seem the obvious reference point for this music. There’s not much of Neil Young’s electric sturm-und-drang here – the music is mostly more intricate and meticulous and less furious. There is, however, plenty of the kind of harmonic texturing, hints of blues and soulful undertows that characterised the writing of David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Perhaps this is not the most adventurous of reference points – but then there aren’t many other bands drawing so positively on that late 60s folk rock spirit at this point.

No doubt much will continue to be made of the vocal resemblance between Foxes frontman Robin Peckold and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, but neither can really help the vocal resemblance. This excellent debut doesn’t follow quite as closely in MMJ’s footsteps as the first Band of Horses record did though, channelling the folk dimension a little bit more than the southern rock that informs James. If they develop their flair for arranging, they may yet carve out a distinctive niche of their own. This very promising album certainly shows they have the quality and the appeal to do so. There’s rich imagination in the group’s arrangements and their transcendent vocal harmonies.

Ry Cooder – I, Flathead: The Songs of Kash Buk and The Clowns (Nonesuch, 2008)

This is billed as the final part of what has now become Ry Cooder’s ‘California Trilogy’. The project seems to have reinvigorated him as an artist and, perhaps more significantly, as a songwriter. He had been in danger of becoming more renowned as a patron for the Buena Vista Social Club performers than as a master musician in his own right. Whilst his guitar playing is never likely to fall out of favour, his songwriting had perhaps been neglected until these unique and carefully constructed albums emerged.

The remarkable ‘Chavez Ravine’, as much an anthropological study and dissection of social and political history as a songbook, changed all that. The more whimsical ‘My Name Is Buddy’ narrowly missed out on my albums of the year list for last year due to being a little overlong and one-dimensional, although its social conscience was admirable. I’m just not sure that we needed the anthropomorphic animals-as-humans dimension.

The previous albums examined weighty themes from a now vanished California – some reprehensible local politics in ‘Chavez Ravine’, folk radicalisation on ‘…Buddy’. By way of contrast, ‘I, Flathead’ seems to be considerably more lightweight, focussing on a new character, a dragster racer and bar band musician named Kash Buk, who missed out on a chance at bigger things. The main focus of the set, by Cooder’s own admission, is on ‘honky tonks and dirty blondes’. Cooder himself embodies the character, singing in a peculiar growling drawl that imbues the words with personality and gravitas, and helps make Buk’s story convincing.

This might be the best sounding of the California trilogy, in that Cooder draws a great deal from what are ultimately very skeletal arrangements. Although there are hints of the Mexican flavours that characterised ‘Chavez Ravine’, the main emphasis is on the traditional guitar, bass and drums set-up, playing a heady and enjoyable mix of country and good old fashioned rock and roll. There’s a great classic vintage-valve sound here that helps Cooder seem even further removed from modernity. The playing is consistently excellent, with Cooder and his band attacking the material with as much bite and passion as scholarly vigour.

Even with all the focus on all the fun of the fair, Cooder still can’t resist some political sidesteps. The outstanding ‘Pink-O-Boogie’ not only grooves righteously but also ‘has the thing you Republicans just ain’t got’, whilst ‘Steel Guitar Heaven’ makes reference to union cards and the problems in getting paid.

Perhaps best of all though are the songs towards the end of the album where Kash reflects on his life, on missed opportunities and battles against the melancholy of ageing. The deeply intoned, Waitsian ‘Flathead One More Time’ muses on lost friends and the days of dragster racing and rages against the dying of the light (‘time is all you’ve got…’). ‘5,000 Country Music Songs’ focuses more on the music – and how the opportunity to play with Ray Price proved to be a missed one – ‘those shoes were just too big to fill that year’.

Whilst some might prefer the weightier, more politicised themes of the previous two albums, ‘I, Flathead’ not only concludes the trilogy, but provides it with some much needed balance and emotional clarity. Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon once famously dismissed Bruce Springsteen for writing songs about ‘cars and girls’, but those two subjects get plenty of mileage here, and they seem more than worthy of the exposition. Cooder has created a milieux rarely explored in modern music – as much archivist and academic as he is songwriter, he understands this world and he elucidates it brilliantly.

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