Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Washed Out: High Times EP [2009]

Washed Out, the stage name of Ernest Greene, seems to be a pretty well-chosen moniker for an artist who songs radiate an echoey, spacey aura, full of home-studio fuzz and (presumably) deliberately low-fidelity sonics. Washed Out has been labeled "chillwave", a nebulous and generally unhelpful term which seems to denote young artists working at home on their laptops who produce low budget, ambient pop with 80s electropop melodies and rhythms. Despite the silly label, there is certainly an aspect of Washed Out's sound that lends itself to chilling out: there is nothing violent or antagonistic in Greene's music, to be sure.

His most recent effort is a brief EP released, appropriately enough, only on cassette. The cassette, with its limited sonic range, is suited to Greene's hazy sound, not to mention his apparently modest ambitions. While the nine tracks on this EP are largely brief and instrumental, they have the lo-fi glow of the 80s all over them, and sound like demos and experiments, which they probably are. If you liked the highly enjoyable Life Of Leisure EP (which I wrote about here), you'll probably enjoy this one too. Get it here.

From Washed Out's High Times EP, here's "Belong":

Note: Also look for Washed Out's beautiful Adult Swim Singles Project track "You And I".

Idling & Moving: Jeff Lynne Pre-E.L.O.

The Electric Light Orchestra were responsible for some of the best radio hits of the 70s: "Evil Woman", "Strange Magic", "Livin' Thing", and a host of others which combined Beatles melodicism with smooth 70s strings and over-the-top production which vied with the Bee Gees, Queen, ABBA, and Supertramp for decadently-produced-yet-accessible pop. But ELO always came off as a unit, a pop orchestra rather than a star showcase, and so for many, ELO leader Jeff Lynne was the guy in the Traveling Wilburys who wasn't immediately recognizable. But while it's hard to call him an equal of Roy Orbison or Bob Dylan or George Harrison, he certainly has made his mark on popular music. Before ELO, he was in two celebrated though little-known (in the U.S.) groups, both of which anticipate his later ELO glory, and which are the subject of this post.

The Idle Race (who were from Birmingham) issued only a few albums in the late 60s, but never had any success in the U.S., possibly due to their unmistakable Englishness, which often limits otherwise excellent UK-based bands from catching on in the States, where British pop has often been the stuff of cultists. Their first record, The Birthday Party, was released in 1968 and, with its brief, witty, catchy songs, comes highly recommended to fans of mid-period Beatles and the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society.

Here's "Lucky Man" by the Idle Race:

Lynne left the Idle Race in 1970 to join fellow Birmingham group The Move, which was led by eccentric guitar wizard Roy Wood and had had a string of zippy hits in the UK. Unfortunately, the Move failed to deliver on the promise of their early power-Mod hits, and followed their excellent self-titled 1968 debut with a couple of loud, prog-ish, and ultimately unfocused LPs. Lynne and Wood started to plot a new group, to be called the Electric Light Orchestra, which would expand the sound of rock to include classical motifs and instrumentation, not unlike some the Beatles' more elaborate creations. In the meantime, though, they still owed their record company some Move product. The final Move LP, Message From The Country, from 1971, is something of a stylistic mish-mash, but has many excellent moments, the best of which look forward to the best work of ELO. Lynne and Wood would only make one ELO album together, after which Wood departed to start his own group. But the ELO ball was rolling, and Lynne would go on to pop Xanadu.

From Message From The Country, here's the gorgeous, sweet-and-sour "No Time":

Monday, August 23, 2010

Preview: Destroyer, "Archer On The Beach EP" [due 11-2-10]

For the second year in a row, the inimitable Destroyer will release a vinyl-only ambient techno EP, this time in collaboration with Tim Hecker and Loscil. What it will sound like is uncertain, but if last year's astounding Bay Of Pigs is any index, then we are in for another wonky, interstellar ride with cryptic lyrics. Ever since featuring a 23-minute ambient remix (by the same Loscil) on side four of the vinyl edition of Rubies (my favorite favorite record, ever), Destroyer overlord Dan Bejar has proven his willingness to escape from any stylistic foxholes. He has recorded extremely low-fidelity bedroom pop, neo-glam rock overtures, fake symphonic torch ballads, folky reveries, and now seems to be heading further into the realm of synthetic soundscapes with half-sung poetic manifestos. His lyrics are so far away from what you would expect from ambient music, so unabashedly non-techno, that their presence in the electronic wash of sound is akin to slapping mustard and ketchup on a glossy sphere of translucent gelatin (example: the lyrics to the 14-minute track "Bay Of Pigs", the backing track of which could pass for a futuristic movie soundtrack, begin "Listen, I've been drinking..."). I hope Bejar will still make full-length LPs in the future; until then, I'll happily take these ambient postcards from the edge. Preorder here from the good folks at Merge, and do it fast—only 1,000 will be pressed up.

For those who missed it, here's "Bay Of Pigs" from 2009:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Battle of the Bobs: Seger Does Dylan

My brother and I have a small obsession with Bob Seger. More specifically, with the track "Night Moves", a phrase tatooed on at least one Portland, Oregon bartender, whom we were naturally forced to nickname Night Moves. When or why Night Moves got his ink is unknown, but I imagine there's a pretty kickass and utterly rock-n'roll explanation behind it. I am guessing that Michigan is somehow involved. For us, growing up in Ohio in the 80s, Seger (not to mention his heartland demographic peers John Cougar, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Money, and the hapless Michael Stanley) was a huge presence on the radio, the Voice of the Rust Belt, always ready with a wistful mid-tempo stroll down memory lane. Unfortunately, the midtempo Seger eclipsed the younger, Detroit rock city Seger of rock'n'roll lore. Before he was crooning "Main Street", "Still The Same", "Like A Rock", or "Against The Wind", Bob Seger was a fiery rock'n'roller, a peer of Detroit legends like the MC5 and the Amboy Dukes. His mid-to-late 70s rock songs ("Katmandu", "Rock And Roll Never Forgets", "Hollywood Nights", the cranky "Old Time Rock And Roll") always seemed strained to me. A famous bootleg called Michigan Nuggets sets the record straight, featuring several of Seger's hard-to-find late 60s shredders. Here's "Persecution Smith", a 1966 single by Bob Seger & The Last Heard. It's a pretty blatant ripoff, both sonically and lyrically, of Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited-era Dylan, but it rocks hard (especially the guitar), and serves as a dose of real old time rock'n'roll.

Bob Seger & The Last Heard, "Persecution Smith":

The Drone Zone: Them, "Square Room"

Most people who have heard of the band Them at all know it as Van Morrison's early band, which he left in 1966 to pursue a solo career. As one of rock's all-time great vocalists, Van Morrison would go on to much greater success, leaving behind his early garage punk days (with Them hits like the timeless "Gloria", "Here Come The Night", and "Mystic Eyes"). The rest of the band, though, soldiered on, and while they did not find commercial success, Them cut five more records before throwing in the towel in 1972. Losing a singer as distinctive as Morrison may have set them back in terms of sales, but there was still plenty of talent in the band, and their post-Morrison records are full of garage rock energy. Moving to the US, they embraced the West Coast psychedelic sound, and in 1968 released the excellent Now And Them album, which sounds sort of like an Irish version of the Doors' first album. Coincidentally, Them had once shared a stage with the Doors, who opened for them during a residence at the famed Whisky-A-Go-Go in 1966. The Doors must have made an impression, as the track "Square Room" shows—it's very similar in tone and length to the infamous Doors epic "The End", with creepy, snaking guitars, but minus Jimbo's Oedipal outbursts. For those who like the music of "The End" but can do without the "poetry", this track will be most welcome. [For the record, I do love the Doors, but sometimes Jim Morrison can grate. Exhibit A: "Horse Latitudes"—'nuff said.]

Them, "Square Room":

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Preview: Stereolab, Not Music [due 11/16/10]

Stereolab are officially on hiatus, but this November will bring an album of tracks recorded (but not used) for 2008's Chemical Chords. Apparently the band had some 30 tracks ready, but decided to save the leftovers for another day, and now they are appearing as Not Music (or, as the album artwork seems to suggest, Snot Music). Annoyingly, the tracklist does not seem to include the six tracks which trickled out either as 2008 tour singles or as hated Japan-only Chemical Chords bonus tracks (the tracks in question are "The Nth Degree", "Magne-Music", "Spool Of Collusion", "Forensic Itch", "Explosante Fixe" and "L' Exotisme Intérieur"). Stereolab fans are used to these shenanigans—few bands seem to spend so much effort creating music which does not seem to be designed for actual consumption by their fans. [Grievance digression: to be a Stereolab completist, one would need about $4,000 to track down and acquire the dozens and dozens of tour-only singles, split singles, vinyl-only limited edition records, compilation cuts, tribute album cuts, collaborations, remixes, and other impossible-to-find sonic detritus. I have about six hours of hard-to-find Stereolab, and that's not even all of it!] Anyway, this record will probably sound more or less like Chemical Chords, which was a pretty good, though not top-notch Stereolab record. As a preview (even though it will not appear on Not Music), here is "Forensic Itch", from a 2008 tour-only single.

Stereolab, "Forensic Itch":

The Drone Zone: Thurston Moore, "Elegy For All The Dead Rock Stars"

Like Sonic Youth? In the mood for frazzled, repetitive guitar noise? Got twenty minutes? Well, you're in for a treat. Thurston Moore's 1995 solo album Psychic Hearts came as a surprise—not because it's a solo effort; all the SYers are busy with various side projects. But most of Thurston's (and Lee's) extraband projects have been experimental free noise workouts. This, though, is a song album, with brief, punkish tracks about Yoko Ono and Patti Smith, and despite Thurston's singing and guitar, it doesn't really sound much like Sonic Youth. Until, that is, the last track, this 20-minute instrumental, which starts off with a simple, repeated strum that lasts for several minutes before gently reaching higher and higher and finally cascading down into a sonic abyss and back out to the stratosphere. It's tempting to see it as Thurston's tribute to Kurt Cobain, much like Neil Young's similarly elegiac and epic "Change Your Mind" from 1994, but nevermind. The track remains a gloriously spiritual use of the electric guitar, and is one of my very favorite pieces of music.

Thurston Moore, "Elegy For All The Dead Rock Stars":

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jason Lytle: Music Meant To Accompany The Art Of Ron Cameron [2010]

It's been a very busy year for Jason Lytle, and consequently for fans of his music. Besides offering tons of home recording to benefit his ailing sister, and releasing a record with his new band Admiral Radley (discussed here), here comes, out of nowhere and without fanfare, a whole new album called Music Meant To Accompany The Art Of Ron Cameron. Available on his website, the album is described as a sort of companion to the visual art of his old friend and skateboard buddy Ron Cameron. Judging from the music and cover art, both Cameron and Lytle share an obsession with the decaying stripmall world of modern-day California, an obsession which Grandaddy fans will find quite familiar. In fact, this is the most Grandaddyesque music Lytle has yet made since that band's demise—a very casual and largely instrumental affair, the songs have titles like "Liquid Hyper Tweeker Energy Drinks", "Lose Weight By Crying! Ask Me How!", and "Waiting For My Phone To Dry", and some of the tracks are basically discarded, depressing, weirdo Grandaddy b-sides, with sardonic comedy and tuneful synthesizers picking apart the follies of California's Central Valley (e.g., the hilarious "D.U.I. BBQ Checkpoint"). Lytle himself is dismissive of these tracks, and on his website describes it as "a bunch of shit". While it's not a major work, fans of Lytle will want to snatch this up soon; Lytle warns, "I don't intend on printing up any more ...and I plan on burning the hard drive that holds the material in a campfire in Zion National park while Mormon Hawks fly above on 100 degree air currents and look on in relief."

1. Waiting For My Phone To Dry 3:46
2. Birds Build Nests In Letters 3:55
3. Liquid Hyper Tweeker Energy Drinks 3:48
4. Lose Weight By Crying! Ask Me How! 2:31
5. At The Mall In Klamath Falls 3:30
6. My Phone Is Still Wet 4:30
7. I Love CA (Intersection Vendor Ending) 6:21
8. D.U.I. BBQ Checkpoint 2:43
9. Dismantle/Rebuild 2:34
10. Indie Rock Freestyle 2:55
11. The Town Where I'm Livin' Now 4:42
12. Still Waiting For My Phone To Dry... 4:13

This is no longer available on Lytle's website, so get it here.

Deutsche Elektronische Musik [Soul Jazz compilation, 2010]

Soul Jazz Records is one of the premier reissue labels. Since the 90s, they have released dozens of excellent compilations of primarily reggae and rare groove music from around the world. Their reissues always feature excellent design and graphics, extensive liner notes, great sound, and value for money, despite the fact that their collections are usually pretty expensive. I only have a handful of them, but the ones I have are all terrific (a favorite being Studio One Soul, an amazing compilation of reggae covers of American soul—thanks, Nancy).

This collection, then, joins the other happy Soul Jazz compilations on my shelf as a well-informed selection of the wilder music being made in Germany in the 70s and 80s. The biggest name in German rock is missing, but you've probably already heard of Kraftwerk, and the lesser-known artists are worth a closer look. One caveat: the title, Deutsche Elektronische Musik, makes it sound like you're going to be spending time inside a Teutonic electrofunk robot, being barked at in German through a vocoder. Sadly, this is not the case, and the collection's subtitle, "Experimental German Rock and Electronic Musik 1972-83", is a bit more accurate, as there is a pretty equal mix of electric rock and electronic synthesizer music here. So, be ready for medieval prog chanting ("Devotion" by Between), lengthy autobahn jams replete with guitar and flute solos ("Hallogallo" by Neu!; "High Life" by Ibliss), and movie soundtrack synthscapes (the aptly named "Filmmusik" by E.M.A.K.); there are even some contemplative folky moments (e.g., "Morgengruss" by Popul Vuh). But other than Kraftwerk, the big names of experimental German rock are here, and you get representative tracks by the immortal Can, Neu!, Faust, Amon Düül II, and others. As an introduction to German 70s rock, it's wonderful, and follows the Soul Jazz tradition of unearthing wild and crazy musics from around the world.

Here's "Auf Dem Schwarzen Canal" by Conrad Schnitzler:

And by Can, here's "I Want More":

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Drone Zone: Stereolab, "Blue Milk [vinyl version]"

"Blue Milk" was always my favorite track off Stereolab's 1999 long-player Cobra and Phases Play Voltage in the Milky Night. At nearly twelve minutes, it take a simple two-chord keyboard figure and rides it into a distorted Milky Way of placid droning, getting increasingly noisier and more beautiful, the soundtrack to interstellar travel or meditative hypnosis. Until recently, I had no idea that the vinyl version was longer by a full five minutes. Those who do not like to get caught in droning astral noise-ruts will run for the hills, but I can attest that this really is more of a good thing, and I thank Deerhunter/Atlas Sound head honcho Bradford Cox for bringing this to our attention and into the light (here). Play it loud, and kiss the sky.

Stereolab, "Blue Milk [vinyl version]":

Cover Your Tracks: The Concretes, "Miss You"

The Rolling Stones' 1978 disco smash "Miss You" does not really give off any sense of longing or pining for a loved one: it's a randy booty call, with cases of wine and Puerto Rican girls. This cover by the Swedish indie-pop band The Concretes, from a 2003 tribute album, showcases that band's mastery of 60s-inspired arrangements and delicate, homespun melancholy. Taking Mick and Keith's afterhours party vibe and focusing on the "missing" in the song title, singer Victoria Bergsman uses her wounded voice and makes the song's "wait so long..." the new chewy center. Bergsman left the band and now records as Taken By Trees; pretty much everything by the Concretes (other than their tepid debut album, 2000's Boyoubetterunow) is excellent, and is highly recommended to fans of Camera Obscura, the Cardigans, Belle & Sebastian, the Radio Dept., and Peter Bjorn & John. The Concretes have a new album coming out in November.

The Concretes cover the Rolling Stones' "Miss You":

Monday, August 9, 2010

Oldies Homework: The Everly Brothers

I feel bad for people who didn't grow up listening to oldies; there are at least a few hundred songs which I would consider as important for the development of the young soul as To Kill A Mockingbird or Macbeth. As the repositories of folk wisdom, the patchwork brilliance of the common parlance, and our very national character, oldies should be protected like our national parks.

The Everly Brothers are among rock's early titans, not perhaps worthy of Rock's Mt. Rushmore (which would, I suppose, have to include Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Little Richard's hair, Buddy Holly, and Elvis), but nevertheless they belong somewhere near the top. The Everlys did their most famous and best work between 1957 and 1960 for Cadence Records. They then signed with Warner Brothers, but record company politics and the British Invasion soon kept them off the charts in the US (they remained big in the UK), even though they recorded for the rest of the 60s. One of the outcomes of this move was that their Warners records are less well known now, as record labels don't like to cross-license hits. A shame, since they cut some excellent material there. Here's a few of my personal favorites.

From 1960, here's one of their very best songs, the rhythmically stuttering, immortal "Cathy's Clown":

From 1967, here's "Bowling Green", a tribute to their home state of Kentucky:

And from 1968, here's the haunting "I Wonder If I Care As Much", from their excellent concept album Roots:

The Drone Zone: Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo

Breathing. Blinking. Heartbeats. Sleep. Eating. Day. Night. Seasons. Tides. Years. From the micro- to the macrocosm, life is measured in increments of repeated, repeating, and repetitious natural phenomena. What seems linear is actually cyclical, only we cannot always see the horizon. The calm and inevitability of basic, natural repetitions are echoed (another repetition!) in music, where rhythms pound out and underline the boom-boom-boom-boom of life, as if our heavy protons and neutrons, like infinitesimally small DJs, spin electrons to keep up the cosmic groove. Okay, so I have been watching a lot of late-night science programming, but I do think there is something innate in the human love of rhythmic sound; there may be some wild souls out there who listen exclusively to atonal and arrhythmic free jazz, but such persistent, dogged contrarianism is itself pretty rhythmic, theoretically speaking.

There is a particular type of droning music which has risen from (I posit) the resounding echoes of the Big Bang, a type of music which focuses on mid-range frequencies that envelop the chest cavity and viscera. It's not really dance music, as dance musics have other bullseyes: the basslines of funk and disco aim for feet and booty, and the high pitch frequencies of house/trance/techno aim for the ears, to drown out sorrow and distract the drugged. Drone music employs simple, repetitive rhythms and fuzzy noise, the combination of which is more likely to inspire contemplation and reflection than fist-pumping. It can be quite boring, if you're not in the mood, or need short-form entertainment. But if you feel like plunging into a meditative river of sound, certain bands have been trying to recapture this elemental rhythm, to harness its energy, and to renew, reuse, and recycle sound (sound is energy, after all, and hence recyclable).

San Francisco's Wooden Shjips combine the tools of the 60s psychedelic garage band (loud distorted guitars, spooky organ, vocals slurred and rhythm section low in the mix) with the past four decades of drone science. So while their name nods at the spirits of David Crosby and Paul Kantner, their music just as often evokes the innovations of 70s European space-rock like Neu! and New York electronic pioneers like Silver Apples and Suicide, and they excel at what they do.

From their second album, 2009's Dos, here's "For So Long":

Ripley Johnson, the guitarist for Wooden Shjips, also has a side project with Sanae Yamada called Moon Duo, which is sort of a lunar sister band to the noisier, louder more solar Wooden Shjips. Moon Duo is slightly quieter and darker—more goth, basically—though utilizing the same patterns of repetitive guitar patterns, keyboards, and from-the-grave vocals; imagine a Jesus & Mary Chain minus drum machines, or the Stooges' 1st album played by the German electropop band Trio. Excellent drones for heart and soul.

From the 2010 Woodsist Records compilation Welcome Home: Diggin' The Universe, here's "A Little Way Different":

Sun Kil Moon: Admiral Fell Promises [2010]

While it's long been a custom for performers to take stage names, trading names like Robert Zimmerman or Anna Mae Bullock for more mainstream-sounding monikers like Bob Dylan or Tina Turner still seems an attempt to create a memorable persona that still remains an actual person. At some point (and I really have no idea when, the late 80s maybe?) singer-songwriters began to use band names. Loner murk-smiths like Sterling Smith recorded as Jandek, Lou Barlow hid as Sebadoh (and Sentridoh), Will Oldham became Palace, Palace Music, and countless others, and Dan Bejar declared himself Destroyer. Singer-songwriters have never been hard to find, and so these name games do help differentiate their product. Occasionally, band nomenclature gets dropped, with Smog finally morphing into the more prosaic-sounding and real-life Bill Callahan. Half marketing, half conceptual game, artist naming remains important, as it determines how long you have to twiddle your iPod rolodex to get to the good stuff.

I am honestly a bit confused about the newest record from Mark Kozelek, an artist who began recording in 1992 with a band called Red House Painters. They broke up in the late 90s, and Kozelek then released a couple records under his own name before getting some of his former bandmates together under a new banner, Sun Kil Moon. He has since released numerous live albums (usually solo), several wild and controversial covers albums (reinventing AC/DC and Modest Mouse as acoustic folk), as well as a couple more Sun Kil Moon albums (usually with a band). The newest record, Admiral Fell Promises, breaks his habit of releasing solo work under his own name—this album is entirely solo acoustic, all on nylon-stringed guitar. Ultimately, I guess it doesn't matter whose name is on the sleeve, and anyone who has followed his career can attest that the man rarely strays far from what he does best, which is hushed, plaintive acoustic folk. The fact that virtually every album he has put out has featured as its cover art a monochromatic (usually sepia-tone) photograph, typically a room or a window or other abstract space, reminds his listeners that they are getting what they paying for: a dreamy, hazy hour of sparkling guitars and Weltschmertz. In terms of making cover art a reflection of the aural contents, only Jandek matches Kozelek (although sound-wise, Jandek is an anti-Kozelek, from another universe where ugly is beautiful).

This is not Kozelek's best album. I prefer his band work; 2003's epic Ghosts of the Great Highway is the best album he'll ever write, a well-rounded song cycle with elegiac tales about doomed boxers and barn-burning Crazy Horse guitar workouts. It remains my most-listened-to album of the entire 2000s. I hope that Kozelek plugs in again, but in the meantime, Admiral Fell Promises is a very sold effort, with the guitar work a joy, as usual. And taking a look at the cover, another sepia daydream, at the very least you know what you're in for.

Note: Orders directly from Kozelek's label, Caldo Verde, receive a four-song EP featuring more wild covers, this time Stereolab and The Jackson Five (!).

From Admiral Fell Promises, here's "Third And Seneca":