Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Difficult 2014—Part One

2014 had some ups and downs, like any other year. The ups were good, the downs were utterly terrible. Losing my father-in-law this summer was the biggest blow. It was awful, but he went out in typical Charlie fashion, calling the shots right to the end, and we were all there for him.

Overall, I had my health, my job, and my friends, I played plenty of music and took some nice trips. I got to see Yes, King Crimson, Nik Turner's Hawkwind and (Steve Hackett's tribute to) Genesis all in the same year. I'm truly a lucky individual.

I didn't make much of an effort to keep up with new music in 2014. This year's four-part roundup will comprise 21 albums that I bought and enjoyed. There's a bunch of honourable mentions and reissues that won't get full blurbs, but I'll which collect in a future post. As was the case last year, I'm not assigning numbers to these entries because honestly, I couldn't tell you if there was an appreciable difference in quality between album #12 and #11. Just assume that I'm saving my absolute favourite stuff for part four of the roundup.

SLOUGH FEG—Digital Resistance (Metal Blade)
The first song on Digital Resistance, “Analogue Avengers/Bertrand Russell’s Sex Den,” reels and jigs most proggily; a ways off from the Maiden/Lizzy galloping harmonies we’re used to from Slough Feg. The title track brings back the British/Bay Area steel, and we’re off on another solid collection of Slough Feg material. Some of it sounds a bit too familiar, but then a song like “Laser Enforcer” jolts you back to the reality of just how fine a band this is. Hats off to (now ex-drummer) Harry Cantwell for playing like a cross between Brann Dailor and Bun E. Carlos. Drum performance of the year! CD

GOAT—Commune (Sub Pop)
Commune is a solid album, but it didn’t blow me out of the water the way their debut did. The riffing is less chunky, moving instead towards airy trills that remind me of Six Organs of Admittance or Popol Vuh. Their rhythm section remains solid, though, leaving no doubt that this material would work live. “Gathering of the Ancient Tribes” concludes the goatritual in fine goatstyle, bringing back some of the afro-psych heaviness of the debut. GOAT are holding steady. It’ll be interesting to see if they find bold new ways to be weird on the next LP. Vinyl with die-cut cover and MP3 download

PINHAS/YOSHIDA—Welcome in the Void, PINHAS/AMBARCHI—Tikkun (Cuneiform)
"These two new albums...document two of Pinhas’s latest collaborations. Together they paint an expansive, vivid portrait of his globetrotting, playing-in-the-moment modus operandi." Reviewed in full here. CD/DVD

MOGWAI—Rave Tapes (Sub Pop)
Rave Tapes is confident, measured and often very pretty. Mogwai always impress me. By now it’s pointless to think of them as part of any movement. It’s not instrumental post-rock, it’s Mogwai music. They can do what they like. On Rave Tapes they’ve expanded their sound in subtle ways, working synthesizers into their music without changing their basic approach. They retain their eeriness and dark humour (on “Repelish” they sample a Christian LP warning against subliminal Satanic messages in rock music: “They sing backward in human voices”) and go brightly cinematic when it suits them, as on “Deesh,” which recalls eighties Genesis jams like “Home by the Sea” and “The Brazilian.” I’m more than OK with that. Green vinyl with die-cut cover and MP3 download

SHELLAC—Dude Incredible (Touch and Go) 
I kept up with Shellac through their first singles and couple albums, then I lost track of them. Dude Incredible’s arrival seemed a good time to catch up. Turns out they’re keeping it real tight. This excellent album’s main problem is that it never quite recovers from the excitement and terror of its opening track, which builds from a typically taut Shellac groove before breaking into a gallop that’s more like “Run to the Hills” than anything Big Black ever did, while Albini shouts about male bonding and hand-to-hand combat—I interpret it as a mock epic about a bunch of Jersey Shore rejects or businessmen out on the town...which is probably wrong. “Holy shit!” is the only possible reaction to the onrush. So what if the album never hits that peak again? Hearing these guys playing together is a pleasure, especially on some of the twisty bits on side two. Vinyl, includes CD

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tago Mago: Permission to Dream, by Alan Warner (33 1/3 Books)

One of the best things about Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series is how much leeway the writers have. They’re free to use autobiography or fiction, or concentrate exclusively on the minutiae of rock lit—music analysis, interviews, an artist’s history, release dates, critical reception, press clippings—to tell the story of the album in question. Alan Warner definitely mixes his modes in his volume on Can’s Tago Mago (1971). We learn about the author’s developing musical interests and record-buying habits as a teenager isolated in small-town Scotland during the late ’70s. Stepping away from his personal history, he also gets down to the nitty gritty of the double album itself; for example, detailing the tape edits on “Halleluwah” (side two of Tago Mago) and interviewing several Can members about their time recording the album. The interviews are also tinged with autobiography, because as Warner explains, he has befriended and even collaborated with the band in the years since he dedicated his debut novel Morvern Callar to Can bassist Holger Czukay.

The autobiographical sections are fascinating and hilarious. I’m predisposed to being interested, though, as I’ve been an Alan Warner fan ever since my wife-to-be gave me The Sopranos to read right before we started going out. His descriptions of his interior life as an “aloof, pretentious, eccentric” boy fumbling his way towards musical sophistication are priceless. Curious to push through the heavy metal vernacular of his peers (“Each one of my friends was emotionally sympathetic and spiritually aligned to the activities of Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow,” he says) he buys dodgy post-breakup Sex Pistols albums and a Weather Report LP with a compelling and mysterious cover, and finds much of interest, especially in the latter. The search for anything by Can, inspired by John Lydon referencing Can and their drummer’s “double beats” in one of the weekly music papers, leads him to the big city, Glasgow, and the Virgin Megastore where he eventually acquires the holy grail—Tago Mago.

Any serious music fan can relate to the impressions that Warner describes on his journey to Can—the unforgettable impact of an album’s arrival, and the profound meaning that an inanimate object can instantly possess: “I remember the euphoria of being on the train home, splitting the cellophane wrapping all the way around, to peel it completely free and open up the concealed centrefold sleeve…” Passages like that make me I think, Okay, Warner, can we have 200 more pages of that, please? Tell us about all your records, man!

However, it’s a 33 1/3 book, and the format won't allow for 200 more pages, so Warner uses the second half of the book to discuss the history and philosophy of analogue tape editing, the evolution of the band, and the genesis of, and curiosities to be found within, the tracks on Tago Mago. He includes snippets of conversations with Michael Karoli, Irmin Schmidt, and Jaki Liebezeit, purveyor of the double beats. For some, having only half a book devoted in-depth to Tago Mago might not be enough. There is plenty more Can documentation they can seek out. I was left happy, and curious to hear more of the Can discography, as well as hear many of the members’ solo releases, which Warner often references. I was inspired to get out the album and listen along as he detailed each track. And by the end of the book I was an even bigger fan of both the author and his subject.