Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
For those music fans inclined to the making of lists, naming and ranking favorites is one of the great useless pastimes, half fandom and half polemics masquerading as aesthetics. For those making lists about punk rock, it's polemics squared, if only because among the confrontational genres, punk is contrarian by nature—there cannot logically be a best punk band ever, as that achievement would probably not be considered “punk” by some angered malcontent. So I will not make a list of my favorite punk bands for the moment. Instead, I will discuss my favorite late 70s British cult band: the Swell Maps. They are not the best, certainly, or the most influential, or even the most obscure, or the punk-est, but their dim caterwauling and sloppy racket are, to me, the quintessence of inspired do-it-yourself before that slogan was even a slogan. A loose band of anywhere from three to six members, they wrote songs and made sounds and put them to tape at home, starting in the early 70s, not because they wanted hits or fame, but because they liked messing around and making noise. In fact, terming them ‘punk’ is probably a mistake; they were neither political nor even ideological, unless trying to write Can and Faust and T. Rex songs at home using limited technology and even more limited chops constitutes an ideology.
As a functioning, record-releasing band, they only lasted a few years, 1977-1980 to be more precise, and while they barely played any live shows, they were able to gain some press due to exposure by the British titan of independent music-making, John Peel, who allowed them to record three sessions for his radio show. They released four singles and two full-length LPs, first on their own Rather Records label and later on Rough Trade. After breaking up on an Italian tour in early 1980, principals Nikki Sudden, his brother Epic Soundtracks, and Jowe Head all went on to toil in the furrows of indie rock, usually with modest success at best; sadly, both Sudden and Soundtracks (né Adrian Nicholas Godfrey and Kevin Paul Godfrey) have since passed away.
For a band that released rather little during its floruit, the subsequent treatment of the Swell Maps catalogue shows signs of overcompilationism and botched-reissue-ism. At present their discography is confusing and distressing. I will discuss their official catalogue in a later posting; for now, I would like to right an egregious wrong and submit, for your listening pleasure and education, the three Peel Sessions which the Swell Maps recorded for John Peel. There are many classic Peel Sessions which have been released and admired by collectors of punk and post-punk noisemongery: at the top of the list are the mammoth and wonderful 6-CD sets by the Fall and the Wedding Present, but the briefer collections by the Gang of Four and the Only Ones are actually terrific introductions to those bands, as well as proof that they could play live-in-the-studio with precision and fire; the Only Ones have admitted that their Peel Sessions surpass their official releases.
The fact that the Maps’ three Peel Sessions have never been formally reissued is a shame, especially since together they make up forty-four splendid minutes. With buzzing shards of punk, eerie and ominous drones, and a slight obsession with World War II imagery, this is amateur music at its best. Any aficionado of the era probably already knows their albums and singles, but hearing these songs alive in the studio is a delight, especially since punk bands are often less well documented. There are also some surprises, with Lora Logic (of Essential Logic, X-Ray Spex, and the Raincoats) adding wild fun saxophone to Session #2, and two otherwise unreleased tracks (the PiL-ish “Bandits One Five” and the moody “Bleep And Booster Come Round For Tea”). If you’re a fan of Wire, the Fall, the Homosexuals, or the Pop Group, you will find something to enjoy here.
The Swell Maps: The Peel Sessions
5. Vertical Slum
6. Forest Fire
7. Midget Submarines
9. Bandits One FivePeel Session #3: 18 March 1980
14. Big Empty Field
NOTE: Tracks 5-9 were released on the 1981 double-LP rarities collection Whatever Happens Next…, which has never been issued on CD. Sound quality on these is far from ideal, but generally quite listenable. If you have better copies of any of these sessions, please let me know.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
- Tell You About My Job Where Damage Isn't Already Done EP 2002
- Bad Reputation Annie Laurie EP 2002
- Falafel Annie Laurie EP 2002
- We Climb The Wired Fences Pulling Our Weight EP 2003
- Someone Else Pulling Our Weight EP 2003
- The City Limit Pulling Our Weight EP 2003
- I Don't Need Love, I've Got My Band Why Won't You Talk About It? EP 2004
- The Things That Went Wrong Ewan EP 2004
- Deliverance This Past Week EP 2005
- I Don't Like This This Past Week EP 2005
- Let Me Have This This Past Week EP 2005
- Värnhem This Past Week EP 2005
- Flow Flux Clan Remix The Worst Taste In Music EP 2006
- Industry Standard Remix By Differnet The Worst Taste In Music EP 2006
- The Room, Tarzana Freddie And The Trojan Horse EP 2008
- Closing Scene Pt. 2 Freddie And The Trojan Horse EP 2008
- David (Rice Twins Remix) David EP 2009
- In America Heaven's On Fire EP 2010
- Stay Off Route Never Follow Suit EP 2010
- Never Swallow Fruit Dub By Pistol Disco Never Follow Suit EP 2010
Friday, January 7, 2011
The life of the obsessive music geek is little better than the lot of the most desperate recidivist heroin junkie; what's worse, the addict has no methadone, no way to escape the disease discophilia: there's no cure. What normal people see as record stores, bins of LPs, or iTunes, are, to the addict, the source of untold riches and secret delights--dealers, basically--and no amount of willpower can pry the addict away from new doses, no single recording can slake the thirst for long. I went down this forking path long go, when, as a depressive and misanthropic teen, I discovered that the best way to illuminate the dismal vale of tears that is adolescence is to find records that shake off the grouchy. Many, many hundreds of small, glittering musical epiphanies later, I am no further along in the Sisyphean task which I set for myself at the age of seventeen: to find, and acquire, and enjoy every single Good Record and Good Song by Every Artist, Ever. But the good news is that I can sit down and play only excellent songs for days, if not weeks, on end, in the process turning bad days into better days and good days into great ones. The bad news is that discophilia has left me weary and broken; for every glorious fix, there is a botched reissue, an unfindable lost treasure, a pernicious record company, a brilliant band that breaks up, an geometrically-expanding list of new music to check out, and, perhaps most importantly, a bank account that says, simply, no more! In the context of such difficulties, I am happy to report that some discoveries make all the trouble and toil worthwhile, if only for those fleeting moments when to be a human being, alive and alert, is a pretty damn good thing.
Exhibit A: Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo by Sandy Bull.
Recorded in 1963, this sparkling gem of a record is the sort of album whose exquisite beauty and invention is so remarkable that you wonder how Sandy Bull is not a household name or the honoree of at least, I dunno, a commemorative postage stamp. I've been spending a lot of time lately trying to calm mental static with acoustic instrumental folk music. More placid and contemplative and airy than jazz, this sort of music--mostly from the 60s and 70s--is in my opinion one of the better ways to wrangle with your thoughts and rearrange your disputations. The most famous artisan in this genre is its ostensible inventor, the sainted John Fahey, whom I will discuss in another post. Fahey led me to Robbie Basho, and to Peter Walker, and Peter Walker led me to Sandy Bull, and now I am leading you to Sandy Bull. Using acoustic guitar, banjo, and electric guitar, often unaccompanied but sometimes with percussion (by Ornette Coleman’s drummer, Billy Higgins), Bull combines folk tunes, jazz, classical, Arabic, and Indian classical music, blurring styles and song structures; this is music beyond genre. The first side of the record is an astonishing 22-minute excursion which is more or less a raga, but with American jazz colors, and appropriately entitled "Blend"; I cannot think of other folk artists recording side-long instrumentals in 1963. Bull's prescience and creativity are even wilder, if possible, on side two, where he translates the usually-shlocky (to me, anyway) Carmina Burana into a eerie backwoods banjo hoedown. Other tracks are folk adaptations of classical and gospel music. Bull recorded a few more albums in the 60s and 70s (the second of which, 1964's Inventions for Guitar and Banjo, is a worthy successor to this one) before succumbing to drug problems. But Sandy Bull's music, a brilliant exercise in the combination of guitar and imagination, is an example of why I continue to devote my time to the search.
Here's "Carmina Burana Fantasy":
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Monday, January 3, 2011
The last full-length by Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, 2008’s pretty-good Trouble In Dreams, was the first Destroyer record which wasn’t a departure from the one that preceded it; it felt like an album of outtakes from 2006’s masterful Rubies. Bejar’s stylistic zigzagging has gone from bedroom 4-trackism to literary glam to mini-MIDI symphonies to sprawling indie rock, and so it may not be a surprise to learn that the new Destroyer is basically, well, disco. As an artist who likes to leave a breadcrumb trail through his oeuvre, Bejar dropped a few hints that this new record wouldn’t be Rubies, Pt. III. Those who bought Rubies on vinyl were treated, on side 4, to a 24-minute ambient deconstruction/remix of Rubies themes entitled “Loscil’s Rubies”, perpetrated by Bejar’s friend Scott Morgan, who records as Loscil. Then in 2009, Destroyer released the vinyl-only Bay of Pigs EP, which featured the utterly bizarre and wonderful 14-minute title track, which is more or less ambient techno over spoken word poetry (note: "Bays of Pigs" is included, in slightly edited form, on Kaputt); on the B-side was “Ravers”, a slow ambient version of “Rivers” from Trouble In Dreams. Fans used to Bejar’s militant stylistic iconoclasm didn’t bat an eye at such an experiment, but worries about when and if a new Destroyer LP would ever surface were not quite allayed by 2010’s Archer On The Beach EP, another vinyl-only slab with two very dark and bleak tracks that seemed to be a kiss-off to music and art altogether. So when a new full-length was announced, shortly after Archer On The Beach, fans were relieved, even though the press release contained more ominous notices (“The hopelessness of the future of music… The pointlessness of writing songs for today…” See here).
New Destroyer music is always cause for rejoicing here at Medium Rotation; that Bejar has not only made a new record, but an excellent one, is proof that his experimentalism continues to pay off. I described this record earlier as disco. And yes, there are basslines, and the LinnDrum, and backup singers, and (sometimes) choruses. More importantly, though, this record is warm and inviting, melodic and up, each track hummable if not danceable. In the press release, Bejar cites Bryan Ferry’s 1985 Boys and Girls and Roxy Music’s 1982 Avalon as inspiration, and fans of those great albums will see the musical similarities. He also cites 80s Miles Davis, and while that was not the trumpeter’s best decade, the trumpet on Kaputt is uniformly creative, gilding the album with jazzy filigrees. Kaputt is almost certainly Destroyer’s most accessible album, even though the lyrics are as inscrutable and abstract as ever. Lyrical nonsequiturs and dark poetic musings over a disco beat are not entirely unprecedented—check out Bejar favorite Nite Flights, the influential 1978 LP by The Walker Brothers, or Scott Walker’s 1984 Climate of Hunter, both of which sound like sonic precursors to Kaputt; likewise, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992) sound a bit dated today but have similar musical and lyrical themes, such as fighting the darkness with light. Bejar will likely continue his artistic struggle. In interviews (like this one at Paste Magazine), he is honest about the difficulties of his art. But Kaputt is a beautiful and uplifting record, and despite its difficult genesis, despite its ominous title (“kaputt” is German for “ruined, broken, finished”, and, hint-hint, “destroyed”), despite the lyrical puzzles which Destroyer fans will be vainly attempting to unravel and decipher over the next few months, it shows that Bejar knows that creation sometimes involves destruction.
Kaputt is out on January 25th on Merge Records on CD, LP and digital download.
Here's the title track:
Update: The vinyl version comes with an extra track, a 20-minute ambient excursion called "The Laziest River" which takes Eno and "The Boys Of Summer" gently downstream. If you liked the last two EPs, this will definitely float your boat.
Destroyer, "The Laziest River":