Album Reviews

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti “Before Today” (4AD, 2010)

homepage_large.8df288c5Previous releases and performances by L.A. iconoclast Ariel and his rotating players (which sometimes included R. Stevie Moore and John Maus) had a feel of pop songs gone astray, drifting into listless hiss, or maybe fragments and collages akin to Throbbing Gristle. But eventually he found the musical foils necessary to breathe new life into his bedroom rock and roll fantasies, and the results really culminated on the 4AD released “Before Today” and haven’t stopped since.

Many tracks are reworked and given a new sheen, like “Beverly Kills” and the totally anthemic “Round and Round,” and each side includes interesting choices of cover songs such as garage rocker “Bright Lit Blue Skies” and the African guitar pop instrumental “Reminiscences.” Ariel and co. string together Jackson Family-funk, power pop and soft rock songs, all of high quality. The most important change isn’t even the recording fidelity, but the fact that this may be Haunted Graffiti’s first release that comes across as a genuine album… Each track is put in it’s proper place from front to back, and despite all the genre leaps it feels like a real cohesive piece of work.

Most of these numbers would be oddly enjoyable to the average listener, but if there is any real insight into Ariel’s head it can be detected on “Menopause Man,” a sub-grooving number about being who you are, with emphasis on gender identity. Shades of Genesis P-Orridge maybe? Perhaps a few notches off… Anyway, all tracks within come across as slightly askew pervo-pop, but “Before Today” is an example of how punchy and professional Ariel and his Haunted Graffiti are these days. -Wade

Black Moth Super Rainbow “Dandelion Gum” (Graveface, 2007)

Black-Moth-Super-Rainbow-Dandelion-Gum-album-cover-artworkComing out of nowhere (actually, rural Pennsylvania), Black Moth Super Rainbow are quite an enjoyable anomaly. Working with samples, synths, vocoders and a living, breathing rhythm section, BMSR produce a sort of electronic psychedelic pop informed by all sorts of contemporary sounds.

On “Dandelion Gum,” a mid-period release, it all comes together in the best possible ways. “Jump Into My Mouth and Breath The Stardust” is meditative with it’s acoustic guitar samples and sounds somehow folky, despite vocoders heavily transforming vocals. “Melt Me” is a pure sugar rush for your speakers with fat electronics, maracas and a killer bass line. And “Rollerdisco” sounds as if it was disco-edited library music from a PBS channel; hipped-up space age material reminiscent of Stereolab.

Side one is chock full of these meshed, unique tracks. Side two has a few detours; many of the songs are simple demos or snippets. One is even called “Untitled Roadside Demo,” and just off the cuff you can tell that the players here have found something special with each other. Recommended if you’ve ever liked a Ghost Box release, The Books, or library music in general. – Wade

John Coltrane “Ascension” (Impulse! 1966)

albumcoverJohnColtrane-AscensionOh boy, don’t let the opening blowout scare you, there is plenty of great form and “fun” to be had listening to this transitional album from Coltrane. Since the members recorded here run a list as long as my arm, I’ll just let you know that this was a big band of all-stars veering into free jazz like a great ship running through a tropical storm.

Crewman here can obviously play, and every last one of them went on to do great things (apart from one young trumpeter who, apparently not long after this recording, lost his mind). The album itself is made up of two long takes, two sides only. It’s the same piece performed with some solo changes. When the ensemble is working together it’s often claustrophobic, difficult finding room to breath, but just as often solos open up for a minute to two, giving each member a chance to grate their timbres.

And once in the midst of a beautiful solo from Hubbard or Tyner, or in the final duet between Davis and Garrison, you may find your own footing and wonder how you arrived where you are. A feeling you get when your overstressed mind finally makes a realization that whatever the challenge, it’s all just noise and it’s all of no real consequence. Tension and release. It’s what makes this music so appealing to those that charge on. -Wade

Black Dice “Mr. Impossible” (Ribbon Music, 2012)

mrimpossibleIf I was hard-pressed to name a group important in music after the turn of this last century, live or on record, then Black Dice would probably make that list, near the top. Not quite affiliated with any subculture in the DIY/noise/hardcore contingent, they have always been carving their own path, going after what sounds good to their particular ears.

That’s good, because taking a feedtube of straight punk, or avant-garde, or whatever “out” material that’s lying around is a sure way for a group to marginalize themselves these days. The Black Dice instead listen to Carly Rae Jepsen or Cheap Trick or AC/DC or a local Disco station around Brooklyn… And that’s how we see what’s beneath all the tones, feedback and strange electronic romp; skewed and fragmented pop and rock hooks otherwise recognizable across America.

So here on “Mr. Impossible,” the last offering we have by the Dice who are now a trio, we have probably their tightest and most accessible album to date. It can still have people running from a room, but the hooks made by their strange machines are all live, and sometimes they can swing, even appearing conventional at times. And there be lots of hooks! Opener “Pinball Wizard” could rival the Peter Gunn theme if 30 seconds of it were inserted into some new crime series. “The Jacker” is a whirring, back-to-the-start groover that eventually breaks out and escalates wildly. And “Spy vs Spy” harks back to their older material; more cerebral, full of druggy loops.

It’s quick and easy to compare the Black Dice at a glance to the No Wave camp of artists that made NYC home. And the ultimate aftermath of that: groups and individuals working with anything, taking shape and eventually regressing/progressing to either rock-out or groove. Yeah, Black Dice do that, but it’s a new century and there are new forms to mesh. -Wade

 

Dalis Car “The Waking Hour” (Beggars Banquet, 1984)

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Now this is an interesting piece of New Wave… an album where the members hardly ever met up and sent material to one another, patching vocals and rhythms together, wherever. And what members; Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy broods and self-taught bassist Mick Karn of Japan plays just about everything.

Dalis Car, named after a short Beefheart instrumental, only produced this one full length album, “The Waking Hour,” and it’s a humorless chunk of vinyl that I’d say is akin to PiL’s “Flowers of Romance” but a bit more listenable. No John Lydon caterwauling for one, but also these meditative sub-groove tunes put you in their strange headspace a bit more effectively.

Mick Karn’s bass lines really are the star of the show here. No other bass has his sound, though he lent his abilities to Japan, assisted Murphy here and did session work with Gary Numan. The best example of his style really comes through on the track “Artemis,” an instrumental with simple drum patterns, percussion and horns all sliding by Karn’s fluid, fretless work. Peter Murphy is more or less himself, but he is a bit more tame on this release, which is all the more fitting for such coldly produced material, and I mean that in a good way.

The meeting of minds for Dalis Car was promising, but unfortunately, by the time Karn and Murphy had reunited to make new material, Karn entered a battle with cancer and quickly succumbed. “The Waking Hour” is not only of interest to fans of Japan and Bauhaus, but a great slice of New Wave that could have potentially led down some interesting avenues. -Wade

 

The Minutemen “What Makes A Man Start Fires?” (SST, 1982)

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Being a pop culture staple now, many album lists cite “Double Nickles on a Dime” as The Minutemen’s number one release with a bullet. And being that it’s a double album chock full of material, it may seem like the only pieces of vinyl by them you would have to pick up to get a feel for who these guys are.

A few better and much more timely reviews are available from rock-write gods Richard Meltzer and Byron Coley on the topic of this full length, “What Makes A Man Start Fires?” – but I’ll tackle it anyway. After “Paranoid Time” and “The Punch Line,” this LP draws the line between the Pedro boys and a lot of the punk-funk material being released across New York and a whole lot of Europe. The songs are longer, change grooves more and more frequently and have a quality many of those groups lacked; combustion.

Yes, The Minutemen were a rock band and not just a West Coast post-punk outfit per se, or at least not in total. Songs, songs not tracks, like “Fake Contest” and “The Anchor” for a start, have undeniable grooves, and they could be extended dance numbers, but their short, punchy lengths and D Boon’s trebly guitar and spouting keeps them right in their very own proper rock context.

Meltzer: “…they told riffs, both unviable and viable, where to get off; used em’ only as suited their fancy, by which I don’t mean they were fancy ass fashioners, I mean they stripmined their musical souls…” and Coley on upping funky post-punkers: “…brings the band one conceptual step closer to the mainstream and demonstrates a firm grasp of (and delight in) the genre that previous demi-funk sorties inferred.”

For borrowed start/stop grooving of R&B and homemade rock, this is their most fleshed-out effort… and it was probably their transition point! How many groups pull that off? -Wade

 

The Flying Lizards “The Flying Lizards” (Virgin, 1979)

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London was home to many interesting musical artists of the late 70s, and The Flying Lizards may be one of the most shadowy outfits of the day. Made up of experimental musicians interested in pop music, their ranks included emerging music journalists David Toop and Vivien Goldman (the latter being a sort of Marianne Faithful type) and a number of improvisers.

On this self-titled debut, excursions into dub, sound collage and dressed down disco make a great backing for frilled or deadpan lyrical deliveries. “Her Story” simply describes itself as a love song with no need for further investigation, while “Russia” just lets the beat ride, sounding a bit like a Talking Heads “Remain In Light” outtake.

While the Lizards do experiment with pop forms, one of their only efforts to succeed at charting was their enigmatic cover of “Money.” Quote unquote singer Deborah Evans stripped down monotone delivery is prominent and in stark contrast to the shambling instrumentals and backing run-down by the Lizards, turning the cover into a cult favorite. It even meanders into an extended, dubby, musique concrete mess of sorts.

Many members of the Flying Lizards dispersed further underground or into obscurity. This debut is a real lynchpin of new music from post-punk London and still sounds exciting today. -Wade

 

Guided By Voices “Fast Japanese Spin Cycle” (Engine, 1994)

Fast_Japanese_Spin_Cycle_EPReleased the same year as “Bee Thousand” and about a thousand other EPs, “Fast Japanese Spin Cycle” represents a time when Guided By Voices were often on point with their prolific output and produced more hits than misses.

Clocking in at just more than ten minutes, this EP contains some of Robert Pollard’s best pop fragments. Opener “3rd World Bird Watching” begins with only piano and vocal accompaniment of the most perplexing variety. Strangely or maybe logically, the near esoteric quality of Pollards lyrics work fine the more condensed and punchy he keeps his numbers. This continues whether the songs have pop hooks such as with “My Impression Now,” or simply attack in bits like “Snowman.” Repeated listens are easier with shorter track times, so these ditties seem to create pathways in your brain that worm Pollard’s bizarre statements into your mind.

The B-side is even more interesting, with radically altered versions of previously released material. “Marchers in Orange” is less hazy, more rocking, while “Dusted” sounds much more improved in about every way. “Kisses to the Crying Cooks,” part of the medley that opens GBV album “Propeller,” is also acoustic and more poignant.

If there was any time to mine GBV material, most releases from 1994 are still a sure bet. “Fast Japanese Spin Cycle” is the cream of their pop-rock collage crop. – Wade

 

 

LA Vampires By Octo Octa “Freedom 2K” (100% Silk, 2012)

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21st Century music has led to some pretty interesting permutations. Sounds and rhythms and equipment that was forsaken by underground rock purists (in America) suddenly didn’t register as taboo anymore with a younger generation hungry for new styles to consume.

Like labels Olde English Spelling Bee and DFA, the work put out by the California tastemakers of Not Not Fun and their dance-oriented offshoot 100% Silk mix the spirit of underground autonomy with adventurous production. Not Not Fun’s founder, Amanda Brown, releases albums under the name LA Vampires, and produces one-off projects with many of the her labels stablemates.

On “Freedom 2K” she took a shine to house producer Octo Octa, who makes sleek and shiny tracks in comparison to other label affiliates. Whereas previous LA Vampires output was murky and bubbly, a fringe dance interest, this album can be seen less as an outsider work and more like something you might really hear in a high-end club. Tracks “Wherever Boy” and “Freedom 2K” are lush, golden tracks for clubbing. “His Love” and “Found You” may be just as suitable for a chill-out room or home listening as they are on the floor.

Slender beats and hardcore bass shifts all over, “Freedom 2K” is a great introduction to an underground label that that doesn’t see dance-music making as a curiosity, but as a future. -Wade

 

Gap Band “Gap Band VI” (Total Experience, 1984)

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Well into the pioneering of electro-funk, Gap Band ringleader Charlie Wilson was set on producing a solo effort. But it’s best that he stuck with his brothers and gave the group another solid release; don’t let the indiscernible title of “Gap Band VI” fool you into thinking that this was just a push of the Band’s scraps or B-sides either…

The Gap Band’s brand of funkateering walks the line between P-Funk heavy and Prince post-disco, but with an ear that’s always craned toward the charts and the dance floor. Tight, punchy and future-forward, tracks like “Video Junkie” also employ plenty of machine washes and electronic squiggles that lend a feeling of paranoia. “Disrespect” acts in a similar manner, but embellishes the vibe with high-end percussion and whistle blurts.

Top single “Beep A Freak” is the real crown jewel though, with it’s hovering, ever-present beeper tone and electrobass growls. What might come off as a really dated track (it references pagers, after all) is actually an ouroboros pop-trope about just wanting some double-meaning contact. Put a tight band and a beat behind that and you really can’t fault that kind of songsmithing. -Wade

 

Saccharine Trust “Paganicons” (SST, 1981)

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As well known as SST may be in America courtesy of releases by the near unswayable Black Flag and underground rock staples Minutemen, Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth, much of their roster still goes unnoticed. And even when Saccharine Trust got name-dropped by Kurt Cobain they still managed to slip into the ether.

Not that SacTrust really made it easy on themselves; their brand of rock isn’t as dope-smoking friendly as their more popular San Pedro brethren or the Puppets. Their first release “Paganicons” is actually about as conventional as it gets for them, and it’s still a challenge; but this EP is also tight interplay, great changes and aberrant lyrical prose from front to back.

Vocalist Jack Brewer comes across as if he’s just breaking through pubescence (that would change), or belting out his voice for the first time in his life, and his way of delivering just-so stories differs greatly from any other known punk rock affiliate of the day. And accompanied by a killer rhythm section, one of the final guitar heroes of our age, Joe Baiza, really trucks along with lines that would evolve into some of the most inventive playing put on disc, or on stage for that matter.

Going track by track would really be redundant, since each one is a great story or feeling conveyed. The voices at work are really unlike any other outfit before or prior, and their touring reactivation in the U.S. and Europe has finally gained them much deserved attention in recent years. – Wade

 

Miles Davis “Live – Evil” (Columbia, 1971)

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Ah, the magic of 70′s Miles is timeless. And while some would claim “On The Corner” to be his best disc produced by the ace Teo Macero, I’d voice that “Live – Evil” has got it beat by a mile. Cut up from a number of performances in a seamless fashion, maybe inspired equally by the Dead and Hendrix, Miles and company plus John McLaughlin produce spacious skeletal rhythms, full-on extended funk medleys, feedback tinged segments that never meander and short, affecting balladry.

Opening track “Sivad” spills out immediately in a gush of percussion and slows down a touch to show off the new bastardized, amplified direction of Miles work. “Little Church” and “Selim” go solo-less, with each track being surprisingly pastoral, melancholy. Those last two cuts are by Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal, who went on to play with Davis, and they stand as some of the best highlights on this disc.

Also worth mentioning is the great panoramic interplay between McLaughlin and Davis on the side one closer “Gemini / Double Image.” Sounds like a walk home from a particularly hard night and not far off from what today’s noiseniks might try to emulate (with a bit more high end), only by way of swapping instruments for an array of effect pedals and industrial clangor…

Go on? James Brown might be cited just as much as Hendrix for influence on “What I Say” or “Funky Tonk,” syncopation minus the vocal commands. Miles is really modern and on top with this piece, he runs the voodoo down and his synthesis of styles works well… Critics of the day wouldn’t call it jazz; but who needs a label for it when it’s so ahead of it’s time? Miles ahead, as usual. -Wade