Quick Hits

Things bringing joy to Mudville since Casey has struck out:

1. Super Furry Animals
Q: How have I completely missed the recorded output of these Welshmen? A: The Manic Street Preacher’s The Holy Bible turned me off 90s rock from Wales entirely, it being overhyped, generic post-grunge guitar rock that made me long for Bush and Candlebox. Listening to Songbook Vol. 1 makes me think pop music could have been so much more interesting if SFA were huge in the place of other UK bands – namely Oasis, Blur & Radiohead. Though all of these band did some great stuff, “The Man Don’t Give A Fuck” is just masterful.

2. The National
I thought their last album(Alligator) was boring, generic, and entirely wasteful of my time and attention. Their upcoming release Boxer is none of those things. Though my first impression was a little “meh”, further listening has really opened it up for me. It is an understated grower, mellow but not sleepy, orchestral without being twee or precious.

3. Q-Tip
How many unreleased albums can one legend accumulate before his label puts something out? I’ve mentioned Kamaal The Abstract before; now I have a copy of Open which was supposed to be out in 2005. He was even giving interviews and making the press rounds before it was shelved. Not as experimental or as steeped in the 70s as Kamaal, it is instead a melding of the neo-soul sound that peaked around the centuries turn and classic hip-hop beats. Reportedly, Q-Tip is reworking some of this material for his yet untitled 2007 release. Expect it to be shelved once recording is completed.

4. The Rub
Brooklynradio.net hosts The Rub radio broadcasts as downloads. DJ Ayres, DJ Eleven and Cosmo Baker have been doing shows entitled “The History of Hip-Hop”, and thus far have done eleven volumes covering 1979-1989, with one show dedicated to each year. Great way to either remember the songs of your youth or get a lesson in the roots (or a little of both, as has been the case for me).

5. Frank Zappa
I’m a Zappa fan but not a fanatic, and I greet each new release from the vaults with a bit of skepticism. The latest “new” Zappa release, Buffalo (a show from the 1980 band, wherein the band rock the crap out of upstate New York), shows Frank and co. at their most powerful and technically adept. Whether tearing through an incredibly fast version of “Keep It Greasy” that highlights Arthur Barrow’s bass-playing ability (imagine the speed of the solo from Rancid’s “Maxwell Murder” as the backbone of an entire track) or nearing a metal version of Steely Dan with Steve Vai’s guitar work on “City Of Tiny Lites”, this latest bit of Barko-Swill is a keeper.

Cold Chillin’

I was out running errands, listening to disc 3 of VU’s The Quine Tapes and found myself in a mall parking lot replaying “I’m Waiting For The Man”. Again. And again. I had to have sat there, listening, for over half an hour. The entire experience was strange; I had listened to both the song and the album numerous times, but it was as if I had never heard it before. The version recorded on November 27, 1969 changed my perception of how the song could be interpreted.

Let me make the assumption that there is at least passing familiarity with the version of the track from The Velvet Underground & Nico. Aggressive accompaniment (Reed & Morrison’s staccato fretwork, Cale’s atonal Jerry Lee Lewis percussive piano), with jittery, anxious vocals by Reed in a first-person tale of an addict. This, in my listening experience, was also the model for the live performances, both before and after Cale’s departure (see 1969: Live and disc 1 of The Quine Tapes, where the song’s structure is essentially the same, though the band wanders a bit and lack some of the propulsion Cale’s piano led to the proceedings).

Now to jump back to the recording from 11/27/69. From the start there is a difference. Where the early recordings had immediate motion, even if by 1969 they were somewhat unfocused, this is shambolic. There is no jitter, shudder or motion. The rhythm is lethargic, as if the band was laying down instead of laying it down. The drop in tempo turns the the lead guitar from pointillist dots and sharp punctuation to swirly, hazy ellipses (I hope people are used to my groan-inducing turns of phrase by now). Reed changes his vocal style from the crisp nervous diction, staccato shake and focused craving to one of relaxed ambivalence. He’s adding verses – seemingly on the fly – riffing off of the circular motifs of the guitar to remember:

Ever since I was a little boy
Had the strangest dream
Everything that I saw
Didn’t seem to be what it seemed

The whole performance is dreamlike. Milky. There is a floating feeling throughout; just the tiniest tether of Moe Tucker’s solid beat, a pulse that makes it all real.

As the song drifts past the nine-minute mark, the singer finally scores:

Go on up to a Brownstone, up three flights of stairs
Everybody’s pinned you, but nobody cares (oh no)
He’s got the works, gives you sweet taste
Then he’s gotta split because he’s got no time to waste
I’m waiting for my man

This is a significant change; the original lyric is “Then you gotta split because you got no time to waste” (You can hear Doug Yule, Cale’s replacement, is singing these original lines in the background). The change is indicative of the entire take – where once was a tale of craving, of needing the fix, feeling the fire ripping at the guts, desperately trying to keep it together just long enough – the need now switches to the seller, who has other mouths to fill, so to speak. There is now a reason for this wistful, strolling take on the song; the singer is already fixed, just picking up more before the hunger ever hits. By tweaking these few words there is a sea change of meaning (the several added verses are mainly color, though their mere addition is further indication of the lack of urgency on the part of the singer), and the last verse changes tone from “leave me alone, the future doesn’t matter” to “Hey, I’ve got it under control, we’re good for now”:

Hey baby don’t you holler – darling, don’t you bawl and shout
You know that I’m feeling good, gonna work it on out
I’m feeling good, feeling so fine
Until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time
I’m waiting for my man

“I’m Waiting For The Man” – The Velvet Underground, as performed 11/27/69

[Note: This is a piece that has gone through many incarnations. It was the first thing I wrote last spring when I was thinking of blogging again (in fact, it is on the web in the original incarnation, if people want to try to find it), and was revisited as a “test run” for a podcast idea last fall. I was unhappy with both attempts as they stood, so decided in the wake of the Guitar amps post to revisit and revise. It isn’t quite there yet, but I think it is stronger than before. Makes me wish I had an editor, or had ever taken a comp or journalism class.]

What To Do When What You Do Won’t Do

“She Sells Sanctuary” – The Cult
In the latest iteration of the ongoing Great Music Geek Survey, Alex made this his choice for “What song can make a shitty day seem less shitty?” He’s right you know. It makes everything alright, even shitty eighties drums.

“Rain” – The Beatles
Speaking of drums, Ringo gets a great deal of crap for his drumming, which is injustice writ large. 1966 was Ringo’s year. I love that the song was played faster and than slowed in the studio to get the somewhat woozy instrumental sound.

“Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp” – Led Zeppelin
The big cats at the birth of “heavy metal” sure could swing! Zep & Sabbath had stunningly good rhythm sections, though except for John Bonham they remain relatively unsung. John Paul Jones is all over this – bends and slides, supple and swinging. Robert Plant’s casual power also duly noted.

“Cinnamon Girl” – Neil Young
As I near my eighth wedding anniversary, I still can be happy the rest of my life with my cinnamon girl. Though my exclamation’s of joy aren’t as tentative and shy as Neil’s wondrous “woo” as the song nears it’s end.

“Leaves That Are Green” – Simon and Garfunkel
Whatever is making that chukka-chukka backing sound (is it the autoharp with strings muted?) is my favorite rhythmic device of the moment. Quietly perfect, with Simon confidently singing right in the sweet spot of his vocal range.

“Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” – Ian Dury
There is no American parallel to the one and only Dury. Swinging, sexy, punk with a piano solo. There is nothing tentative about Ian’s yelping exclamations, or the fervency of his belief that “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll are all my brain and body need”.

What’s the Amplitude, Lou?

A while back, when raving and drooling over the David Bowie & Stevie Ray Vaughan rehearsal bootleg, I mentioned a Velvet Underground bootleg entitled The Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes. Recorded at a club called The Boston Tea Party (in Boston, natch) on March 15, 1969, the Velvet Underground run through a set of songs from their first three albums, with a couple of oddities thrown in. I’m sure if you were there, the show was comparable to other sets from that year, captured on the official albums 1969: Live and Bootleg Series, Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes, as well as numerous boots. However, in Boston that early Spring we find either the most incompetent or ingenious taper of the day; instead of setting up his gear to get the sound of the P.A., we get a recording made from in front of Lou Reed’s guitar amp.

So how does it sound? Pretty much how you would guess from the title. On the quieter tracks like “I’m Set Free” and “Jesus”, the mix is just a little off, with vocals quite discernible if distant; both Sterling’s guitar and Moe Tucker’s full kit are relatively audible; Doug Yule on keys or bass comes across a bit muddled (in my experience, most bootlegs from this era lack any sort of clarity on the low end). Lou is crisp and loud on these tracks, but not overwhelming. On anything that has even a hint of rumble and drive, from mid-tempo tracks like “Beginning To See The Light” to more up-tempo songs like “What Goes On” and “Sister Ray”, Lou’s guitar sound is almost all you hear. Tucker’s snare and tom come through just alright, often barely enough for the listener to keep the tempo in mind, while the vocals might as well be in another room and the rest of the band almost ceases to exist. “Sister Ray” has enough space here and there for the keyboard to come through with the expected vamping familiar from other live versions, but is regularly dunked deep below the surface of the oceans of squeals and feedback Lou is marshaling.

A good example of this “so in-your-face from the get-go as to be unbelievable” sound is the opener, “I Can’t Stand It”. It is joined in progress, though pretty close to the beginning. Lou is playing the riff cleanly, bending a note here or there for emphasis; Moe Tucker can be heard above, cymbals crashing, snare and tom just laying the barest groove, steady and simple; far, far, away you can hear Lou singing, and if you know the song you can follow along, filling the gaps where he drops below audibility, “If you just come back it’ll be alright”. It’s moving along as you expect, and that groove is there, almost undeniable. But at 1:50, Lou let’s go and everything drops out besides a quiet thump, an occasional snare snap. Wailing single notes bend and scream, to be replaced by jagged chords, to be supplanted again by bent notes and peels of noise. It isn’t beautiful; there is no hint of Hendrix-style lyricism, or the fluid explorations of Clapton in Cream; it is a growl, an attack that goes on for the next 2:40 before a sharp ending, as Lou prepares for the next verse and chorus, and Sterling Morrison can be heard playing the main guitar figure across the stage. One verse, one chorus, then 30 seconds of vamp-into-noise to bring the song to it’s end. Over half the song is blaring guitar, growling, vamping, moaning, howling, stark. Other songs touch this burning ember, but none reach the same incandescent glow.

In a lot of ways this recording is a novelty. There are good recordings of this same band just a few months later, where the mix is more even and the interplay and variation that made them such a reputable live act is readily apparent. Yet, I keep listening to this weird document, as often or more than the official recordings mentioned above or the highly recommended Live at End Cole Avenue bootleg (the full Dallas show that some of the 1969: Live recordings are pulled from, in better quality than the official release). There is something exciting about this album, such a harsh, bright spotlight on Reed’s soloing, so in your face and astounding. It isn’t the Velvet Underground as a band but Lou Reed, Noise Impresario.

It is such a singular thing that it has a webpage dedicated to it, complete with audio samples. Praise Ye The Lord, indeed.

The Majesty of Rock

Now that power is restored, no large trees are threatening to fall on my house and nearby dams are no longer near the breaking point, I’m able to share my most metal evening.

Saturday night I headed up the road to Portland to catch a show by Relapse labelmates Minsk and Rwake (Which I now know is pronounced “Wake”. The well-known silent “R” rears its Rhead). For this one night they were joined by local metal mavens Conifer and Ocean, who bookended the show.

I was excited to hear Conifer as this was originally scheduled to be a release party for their first record in a couple of years. Unfortunately, they had no new product to unveil and were not forthcoming on the reason beyond a cryptic comment about mastering I got from the drummer after the show. The short set (they played about 20 minutes) was comprised of new material, which, to my ears, seemed to have more “swing”. A weird statement when it comes to describing instrumental heavy post-rock, but the rhythm section came closer to a stoner groove than say, Pelican. It was definitely a good development and I look forward to hearing how this translates onto disc. As I said, the set was short, and felt like it was cut off as they were building momentum. Luckily, I should be able to catch them again soon as they’ve been playing around lately working the new material into shape.

Minsk followed after a quick equipment shuffle (with three band’s amps piled on stage, Conifer’s drummer actually played on the floor in front, facing his bandmates). I was hoping for a great performance as I’ve really grown to love their latest album, The Ritual Fires Of Abandonment. They did not disappoint as musicians; a very tight and powerful rhythm section where the bass really drove the propulsive elements, allowing the drummer the freedom to add lots of color and counterpoint, coupled with a guitarist whose tone varied from soft, almost classical sounds to full down-tuned sludge of ear-hurting intensity (I wisely wore earplugs). Sadly, the vocalist was not on the same level as the rest of the band. He was adding washes of noise and fuzz with a keyboard which limited his role as a front man, leaving the band without a visual focal point. This made their 15-minute dirges a little tough to swallow; the crowd had to just wait for the song to build and build till the eventual release, and there was little to capture them in the meantime. This would all be excusable if it was perfectly done (I’ve seen a band enrapture an audience by sheer precision and force of execution), but beyond his stationary stylings, the singer had issues. Several times he seemed to almost lose his place and then take too long singing the verses, and at one point the band had to audibly slow down to get back in sync. I don’t want to speculate as to what might have been the cause, but it did detract from what was, musically, a very skillful and powerful performance. The set was again short; four bands made the night more a showcase than a typical concert. Minsk may have been better served by a different set list, as closer “White Wings” (a straight forward stoner-doom burner) had the crowd moving and the singer was on point.

Rwake took the stage next and my expectations were kind of low. I haven’t warmed to their recent album Voices of Omens; I find the vocals way too forward (and guttural x2) for my taste. The music sounds great though, and I hoped live the balance would be more to my liking. I am glad to say it was all I could want and much, much more. I knew nothing about the band, so when a Peter Jackson lookalike (he wore a LOTR shirt to make it even more apparent) and a slight women with ass-length dreads came to the front and just ROARED I was surprised. When a dual guitar wave of brutal doom crested high overhead I just smiled and felt my filings rattle. They reclaimed the crowd from the near apathy of Minsk’s set and got feet moving and head’s banging. I have a soft spot for drummers who sing along though there is no mic in sight; it shows total commitment to the band. Their drummer was right there, flailing and wailing, even mouthing the samples the female singer was triggering to start the songs. Visually, they were perfectly balanced; stage right, the heavy-set male singer and the twin hirsute stick figures of the rhythm guitarist and bass player; center was the drummer; stage left, the small female singer and the lead guitarist, who looked like Kyle Gass impersonating Rick Neilsen. Rwake was both tight and loose, playing as one core but unafraid to let things shake about. The crowd was singing along to songs from all three of their albums, and the band was definitely feeding and feeling this devoted audience. At least three times the lead singer talked about how this was there first visit to Maine, how great Portland was, that they would be scheduling a stop here on their next tour this summer, and how much they loved us all. Of course, I talked to him after his set and he started the conversation by saying, “Thanks. I’m so fucked up now, man. You ever Robo?” and then looked past me into space. It is probably safe to assume a good portion of his stage banter was empty platitudes, but it worked to keep the crowd in the palm of his hand.

After a sweaty, pounding 40 minute set, the gear was switched again and local stalwarts Ocean took the stage. For those of you unfamiliar with Ocean, they are a reduction – a distillation, if you will – of doom to some sort of primal essence. Stoner sludge, like that of Rwake, has energy and motion, even at its slowest. Ocean is like the sludge that has settled to the floor of it’s namesake and is just moments away from lithification; you may think there is motion, but you have not the ability to detect it. On record they are dark and heavy, a down-tuned note in place of a chord, another sounded just a beat past when the listener expects it, the slowest of slow builds to reach a dying pulse and then dropping back toward zero, all over a 20+ minute time frame. I realize, mere moments into their set, that the album doesn’t do them justice. Partly it is because I don’t have a soundsystem that can put out the necessary volume; they are so loud, so bass heavy, that my jeans ripple against my legs with every note. The sound is moving such a volume of air as to cause my bones to hum and after a few minutes I feel that I am vibrating in resonance with their music; I am hearing an internal harmonic they are not playing. It isn’t painful (I’ve been at shows where the bass is so heavy I’ve felt nauseous and seen people throw up), but strangely uplifting. I’ve never felt as part of a show, if that makes sense. As in sync as the other three bands were (overall this was one of the most professional shows I’ve seen), Ocean’s oneness was unique. It is very hard to play so slow and controlled, to keep adrenaline at bay; their sound is also so spartan as to highlight even the slightest variation in speed or attack. The four men moved and played in near perfect alignment, and though their sound was dark (and I assume their few lyrics were as well, but another case of guttural-itis made them completely unintelligible to these ears) the crowd was elated. The deep bending head-banging of both band and audience was something to behold, as they reared back and rocked onto their heels, only to plunge down to waist level with each cascading strum (sadly, my head-banging days are long gone, a victim of neck and back injuries a decade ago). Ocean played only one song, and nearly stole the show with it.

It was my first metal show in roughly fifteen years. It won’t be fifteen until the next.