Thursday, August 30, 2012

Great Albums: 44 - Ready for the House (Jandek, 1978)

A certain person will be along in a moment to claim that I'm being wilfully obscure, but nowadays Jandek is a cult classic, not a scary wierdo.

That's right, isn't it?  For years the story was more important than the music - the mysterious singer/songwriter who could neither play nor sing very well, releasing one or more albums a year for decades, every one attributed to the non-name 'Jandek' (well, except this debut album, which was originally credited to The Units), the only clues to the real person behind this most outside of outsider music being the polaroids which make up most of the album covers.

Since Jandek unveiled himself (admittedy as the Representative of Corwood Industries) in Glasgow a few years back, some (not all) of the mystery has gone and, possibly as a result, the music is getting a re-appraisal and, you know, there's something about it which is pretty special.

On first listening Ready for the House can sound like a joke - Emo Philips wailing over an untuned  two string shoebox guitar being played by a mentally deficient, tone deaf mentalcase.  But even on first listen there's an occasional phrase, a certain intonation, an unexpected set of not quite discordant twangs on the guitar, and you find yourself wondering - is it actually funny?  Is it even meant to be?

I think the latter, myself.  Jandek's not a con or a joke or an elbroate tax dodge.  There's real emotion in his signing and the lyrics - on this album more than any other - are terrifying at points.

Take the opening track 'Naked in the Afternoon'.  Stick it on in the car as you drive through the pouring rain one dark winter evening.  Put it on repeat.  And I bet you that you'll be starting to feel down and a little bit unsettled before you get tn miles.  It's creepy, and disquieting and even scary.

The rest of the album continues in the same vein, until the final track (the only electric one) finishes in mid-sentence (and then completes on another album entirely!).  It's not Brothers in Arms or some Joe Satriani guitar wankfest, but then that would be the antithesis of Jandek - soulless but competent, all pretence and style, no heart.  Ready for the House is all heart, it's just that that heart's been mangled and torn until ti sounds like nothing else you're ever likely to hear.

Go on, give it a try...

Naked in the Afternoon
What Can I Say, What Can I Sing
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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Great Albums: 45 - Delay: 1968 (Can, 1981)

OK, so it's a complilation album, really, and of outtakes at that.  But those lovely fellas at WasistDas asked me to have a think about this album for a project of theirs and, you know what - it's my favourite Can LP.

Yeah, it's Malcolm Mooney, not Damo Suzuki, and the dynamic is totally different.  Originally intended to be their first album (aparently to be named 'Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM') and rejected by the shower of clueless clowns who evidently ran music at the time, it languishe din the doldrums of bootleg land for over a decade before been issued in 1981, on the back of Can achieving a degree of mainstream success.

It's an odd, fractured sort of album, and a diffuclt one to pin down.  At this point in time, Can sound like a proper rock band, albeit a messed up and disjointed one.  Touchstones for the sound of Mooney-era Can aren't the usual fellow travellers, NEU!, Tangerine Dream and Faust, but US freakout bands like the Red Krayola.  Mooney can't sing in a totally different way from the way in which Suzuki can't sing, but  it's a strangely hypnotic failure all the same.  Lines repeat over and over again (famously, Mooney is supposed, in his last Can gig, to have reated the same two words over and over again for three hours, before collapsing), Mooney yelps, screams and whines over the top of some great soundscapes (the rest of the band are as good as they were when amazing everyone on Ege Bamyasi et al) and amongst the freakishness genius tentatively pokes out its head.

(Dying) 'Butterfly', 'Nineteen Century Man" and 'Little Star of Bethlehem' in particular are as close to actual 'songs' as Can ever got, ever, but every track - even the very short Pnoom - are worth a listen, if only to hear Mooney's paranoid, druggy mutterings combine with the sound of the US psych scene, all wrapped up in Teutonic drive.

Mooney didn't last long, incidentally - he's on one proper album, Monster Movie plus the reunion Rite Time, this LP and a chunk of the recently released Lost Tapes and that's it.  He left the band in 1970 on mental health grounds and seems to be in good health now, recording as recently as 2006 and working on his art, unlike other casualties of the time.  Best of luck to him, I say, and thanks for this.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Great Albums: 46 - The Marble Downs (Trembling Bells and Bonny 'Prince' Billy, 2012)

A friend of mine is fond of saying that you can compile a sensible Worst Ten Hollywood films list without once stepping outside the back catalogue of Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while I'm not so sure of that (any Top 10 with no Braveheart or The Incredibles is nonense, IMO), I am inclined to say that you can create a Ten Great Albums and never leave the ouevre of Mr Will Oldham, in his many and various guises.  Like Bowie, he's going to pop up in this Top 50 more than once...

This first entry though is his most recent release, in company with Scottish alt-fok band The Trembling Bells.  It starts like, well like nothing else you're likely to hear this year.  'I made a date (with an open vein)' sounds like it should be a miserable dirge but instead it starts off with over two minutes of repetitive yet pleasant instrumental layered with Lavinia Blackwell's equally repetitive but wordless vocal, then some drums kicks in and what may be the most unlikely opening lines to a love song ever.

"I made a date with an open vein/And with scarlet matter emblazened your name"
 The song continues in sinilar vein - brilliantly unexpected lyric, great melody, two excellent voices, clever instrumentation - and in doing so sets the template for the rest of the album.  Not every track reaches the heights of the opening song, but a couple - 'Riding' (as bleak as call/response tale of incest and death as Nick Cave ever managed - and, in passing, a far better version of the song than the solo version which appears on the Palace Brothers 'Lost Blues' album ) and 'Ferrari in a Demolition derby' (proving intense can also be funny) are on a par with anything I've heard this year or last, and even the 'weak' songs have lots to recommend them.

Like I said there'll be more Will Oldham (as Bonny 'Prince' Billy, himself or Palace Brothers) to come, but this is worth savouring for now...

Spotify Link to Album
I Made a Date video

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Great Albums: 47 - Extricate (The Fall, 1990)

In 1990 Mark E. Smith, the driving force behind the mighty Fall, had just divorced his wife and one-time Fall guitarist Brix Smith. The band, for years a cult favourite championed almost exclusively by John Peel, were surfing an unprecedented wave of popularity after Brix pushed Smith into recording far more poppy and commercial tracks (both 'Victoria' and 'Ghost in My House' had charted in the top 40 in the preceding couple of years while the ballet soundtrack LP, 'I am Kurious, Oranj' had gained the band favourable reviews from other than the usual music press suspects).

Those of us who loved the Fall approached this new, first post-Brix album with more trepidation than usual (and, tbh, you approach every new Fall album with more trepidation than optimism - he's a cantankerous and unpredictable old bugger, MES). The presence of Martin Bramah, invited back into the Fall fold 11 years after leaving, was a reassurance though - even if Smith took the Fall all the way back to their late seventies punk roots, with Bramah it'd at least be competent (he'd played on the brilliant Live at the Witch Trials).

The first single off the album 'Telephone Thing' was a bit of a concern.  I saw Smith do it with dance floor types, Coldcut, and - with the exception of the reference to elderly Easteneders' actress Gretchen Franklin -  can't say I thought much of it.  Shades of bandwagon hopping (as Madchester dominated the music scene) are not accusations usually aimed at the Fall, but they could have been at that point.

But I needn't have worried.  The LP, when it came out, was a fabulous synthesis of MES' love of old rockabilly songs, memories of Brix poptastic hooks and a completely unexpected but excellent dip by the singer into crooning on the slow lovesong 'Bill is Dead' (which came top of Peel's Festive 50 that year).   I've seen it  mentioned that song began as a parody of the Smiths, which seems unlikely - it sounds nothing like the Smiths - but whatever it started off as it ended up being the highlight of an album which already contained the brilliantly scabrous 'Sing! Harpy' and 'Black Monk Theme', the pop genius of 'Popcorn Double Feature' and the simply fantastic 'Chicago Now'.  It's a shame that Smith only really uses his crooner voice once more (on the following year's 'Edinburgh Man') but maybe it would've got boring if he'd over-used it. 

What I wouldn't do for Fall album as good as this nowadays...

Spotify Link: The Fall – Extricate
"Bill is Dead" on SnubTV

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Great Albums: 48 - Secrets of the Beehive (David Sylvian, 1987)

Stripped down to their bare essentials, with Sylvian's soft as Andrex voice whispering huskily in the middle of everything and Ryuichi Sakamoto's string arrangements draped over anything left over, these songs are as near to perfect a collection as any songwriter has ever managed. 

When I was a stuent, my flatmate, Alistair, had the album, not the cd, and for some reason when he put it on alwyas started with side two. Which meant I always started with a track which is now mid-album, 'When Poets Dreamed of Angels'.  With fantastic spanish guitar and Sylvian's stylised, impersonal, velvet voice counterpointing a lyric about wife beating, violence and medieval poetic imagery, it felt like the place the album should start, rather than the actual first track, the brief, conversational 'September'.  Re-listening on cd though, 'September' is exactly right - sparse piano and a brief (just over a minute) sketch of a couple lying to one another in what I tend to assume is continental autumnal sunshine (the September sun - now 'so cold it blisters' is revisited in one of the last tracks, 'Let the Happiness In').  From there, the mood wanders up and down without ever settling on one, unless the faintest scent of nostalgic melancholy counts.  Which I think it does, not least because nostalgic melancholy is my favourite kind of melancholy.

Sylvian's voice is so high in the mix (in a good way) that at times he's almost all you can hear, which is no bad thing with a voice like his, but there's still space for Sakamoto's lush (damn, I promised myself I wouldn't use the word 'lush' in this post) strings and some lovely bursts of trumpet and what sounds like double bass  and jazzy piano(on 'Mother and Child'). He never did anything even approaching this good again, but most people never do so even once.

Spotify Album Link
Sylvian singing 'September' live, 1995

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Great Albums: 49 - It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best (Karen Dalton, 1969)

 Such an unexpected album, this.

Following a snippet in some music review or other, which described Karen Dalton as a white Billie Holliday, I found a copy of her debut album, put it on and ended up playing it half a dozen times in a row.  I don't really understand the Billie comparisons, or the suggestion that some might find her voice difficult to listen to.  Like a quieter Janis Joplin who *really* liked a ciggie, or a half-cut bar singer slurring wonderfully into her drink, every track is a mix of blues and folk, with a bit of country thrown in for good measure.  It feels to me like an entire hippy commune turned into a series of songs, something reinforced by my later discovery that every song on the album is a cover version (of tracks written by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly and Fred Neil).

I say later discovery because I had no suspicions that they weren't all originals, so completely do they feel like the singer's songs.  On the best tracks - 'A Little Bit Rain', 'Ribbon Bow', 'Sweet Substitute' - the weary, druggy voice is better suited to mood and lyrics than pretty much any other singer I can imagine.  The best track of all though is the one which feels slightly out of place, the 'proper' blues 'Blues on the Celing' - though it's horribly ironic that the refrain 'I'll never get out of thse blues alive' proved to be true.

Sadly, though Karen Dalton lived until 1993, she only recorded one more (more popular, but inferior) album and succumbed to AIDS after to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.  This album though is a better epitath than any numbe rof more prolific singers have ever managed.

Spotify Link
Dalton singing 'Hurts me Too' live

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Great Albums: 50 - Madness Presents The Rise and Fall (Madness, 1982)

So 50 great albums, eh?  Not - obviously - the 50 greatest, since that's a value judgment of massive proportions, possibly requiring a metric which is beyond me.  Not even My 50 Favourite Albums, since there'll be a band I've never hear dof along any minute now with an album which requires me to listen to it fifteen times a day for the next two months and which would spend those entire 80 weeks in my Top Ten.  Just 50 albums which, on the day in question, I happen to think are great, for one reason or other (I might mention the reason, I might not - depends if it has anything to do with Doing It, I suspect - it could go all 50 Shades of Grey in here quick as fuck, you know.  Or not.  Annnyyyyway....)

The Rise and Fall - Madness (1982)

This was the first album I ever actually asked someone to buy me.  It was December 1982 - and wait,  stop there.  That's actually quite odd, since I've always thought that the first albums I ever owned were Now That's What I call Music and Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, but I got them from my dad at Christmas 1983, and this predates that by a year (I definitely got it for the Xmas it came out because Scott got it too,  and we wouldn't both have got an old record for a present.)  There you go - JNT was right, memory cheats.

Madness were Scott and my favourite band by the length of Princes Street, even though we could only really hear them on the radio (and also possibly via the Greatest Hits' LP, Complete Madness - which came out even earlier, and which I listened to compulsively, thus confusing my personal Timeline of Music Ownership even further!) and this album had already been called Madness' best by the Edinburgh Evening News!

It didn't disappoint, for all that it was a long way from the pop ska of their singles.  Though I didn't realise it at the time, Madness presents The Rise and Fall to give it its full title, started off life as a concept album, revolving round memories of childhood.  The concept quickly got dropped though you can still catch glimpses of it in songs like 'Our House' and 'Rise and Fall' itself.  Instead, the LP is a fantastic fusion of all sorts of unexpected bits and bobs - Indian influences, olde-time music hall, foot-stomping ska, political commentary - even a bit of jazz.  It's been described as the 80s version of the Kinks' excellent 'The Village Green Preservation Society', and they're both albums about Englishness (much like Blur's 'Parklife' in the 90s and PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake' in the last decade) but I think it's better than the Kinks' release, because there's a huge amount of energy and positivity amongst the pop nostalgia and underlying strands of melancholy.

Spotify Link: The Rise and Fall
Our House video

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