The Infuriating And The Sublime
Recent listening, May 2006 
Itís been months, hasnít it? I mean since I managed to last write this sort of thing for Tangents. Between then and now Iíve moved house, and most of my music is still in boxes: LPs in the garage, CDs in crates in the lounge. But the music has kept coming, and Iím beginning to find time to catch up with listening and reviewing.

Highlights of the spring season has to be Donald Fagenís Morph the Cat and Tom Verlaineís two albums, around and songs and other things. You either Ďgetí Fagen and Steely Dan or you donít. Personally I love this kind of intricate, immaculately crafted jazz-lite, where every song is filled with ironic and obscure lyrical allusion, beautiful guitar and keyboard parts, and Fagenís grouchy singing. The highlight has to be track 3, ĎWhat I Doí, an imaginary conversation with the ghost of Ray Charles about love, seduction and music. Masterful! Meanwhile, around continues Verlaineís low-key instrumental exploration initiated on his Warm & Cool CD few years back, although this one has more of a jazzy feel. Many of the short tracks are trio improvisations [Verlaineís guitar plus drums and bass] and whilst itís an enjoyable, low-key affair itís not half as riveting as songs and other things, which does exactly what it says. Verlaine has never received much acclaim for his solo albums in the wake of Televisionís demise, but he should. Intriguing vignettes, elliptical narratives and emotional snapshots are coupled with exceptional guitar and band work. Verlaine has reined in his Coltrane-esque solos since Television days, but the condensed versions on show here are just as engaging and exploratory. Thereís a great live concert from last month floating around on the internet, too, which proves these really are songs, not studio constructs.

Eno worked with Television, of course, on a set of oft-bootlegged demos. Soon afterwards, he teamed up with David Byrne of Talking Heads to produce the seminal My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which brought ethno-collage to a bigger public than other practitioners such as Can and Jon Hassell had. Bush of Ghosts is a damn sight funkier too, and has aged remarkably well. The digital remix/reissue, with the obligatory bonus tracks, is a splendid affair, though I see no need for the Ďremixí artwork, and I wonder why the label or duo felt unable to put back one of the original, and best, tracks that was later self-censored because of its use of The Koran. Anyway, this crystal clear post-punk cerebral-funk is great stuff. As are the Alpha Bandís three albums from around the same time, now collected together and reissued as The Arista Albums. [Inventive, eh?]

The Alpha Band was formed in the aftermath of Dylanís Rolling Thunder Review project, and found T-Bone Burnett, David Mansfield and Steven Soles working together, with guest rhythm sections, to produce intriguing intellectual pop that addressed the religious, philosophical and social concerns of the time. Itís quirky, opinionated stuff ≠ multilayered and multifaceted; a beguiling mix of the infuriating and the sublime.
If that all seems a long time go, music from that era and before continued to intrigue and influence many musicians of today. Not least Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs [phwoar! ≠ sorry about that, but needs must] who, as Sid & Susie have recorded an album of cover versions simply entitled Under the Covers vol. 1. Here we find music by The Beach Boys, The Who, Neil Young, Dylan, The Marmalade, The Velvet Underground, The Beatles and many others faithfully revisited. In fact itís the faithfulness that is perhaps the downfall of this album. Mostly itís an exercise in nostalgia rather than invention, but an enjoyable exercise anyway.

Hard to believe, I know, but Mark Knopfler and his band Dire Straits arrived alongside punk in the mid-70s. Their first album was a breath of fresh air, but production, money and fame soon got the better of them. Knopfler survived of course, and went on to become a superstar who hung out and played with Dylan et al; now we get an album of duets with Emmylou Harris. All the Roadrunning is perhaps also pedestrian, but itís also quite bewitching in a laid back kind of way, although I reckon Knopfler should keep his mouth shut and let Emmylou do all the singing. If you like soft country rock with an injection of rock guitar then you will like this. If you prefer something rawer and honest then pick up Kris Kristoffersonís This Old Road, a breathtakingly good set of new songs. Whilst there are mellow moments here, such as the wistful prayer ĎThank You for a Lifeí, there are also tougher love songs and elegies for friends, and wry moments of nostalgia and regret.

Neal Casal is an often-overlooked singer-songwriter who also inhabits the no-mans land between folk and country. Last year a CD of selected songs proved an indispensable highlight of the year; unfortunately No Wish to Reminisce is the opposite, turning out to be a bland overproduced attempt to hit the mainstream. What are probably great songs if sung in the shower, or live with just a guitar, are here swamped with murky instrumentation and effect. Bleaugh! Casal will remain obscure if he continues to try too hard [or let his record company try too hard]. He must follow his heart and let his songs speak for themselves.
Moving over to jazz, Iíd encourage you to ignore the Sun Ra live release What Planet Is This?, which is possibly the worst-sounding Ra release Iíve ever heard. As you probably know, Iím a big Sun Ra fan, but this exercise in necromancy is a spectacular failure. I have a lot of live tapes and CDs that are far more enjoyable, enlightening and listenable. Much more edifying is Anthony Braxton and Fred Frithís live recording Duo (Victoriaville) 2005, where the terrifying possibilities of electric guitar and saxophones are explored to the full. This is difficult, brilliant, engaging improvisation. Just as good, but coming from the studio, is Dave Douglasí meaning and mystery, recorded by a quintet in New York. Douglasí manages to navigate between improvisation, composition for big band and small group, with one eye here to electric Miles Davis. Douglas is not only a masterful composer and trumpeter, but director, too ≠ here he has coaxed sublime performances from his studio band, encouraging digression and tangent within a tight framework. Knockout!

Meanwhile, American West Coast label Cold Blue continue to release exquisite music rooted in the minimalist. Daniel Lentzís On the Leopard Altar features compositions for voice, keyboards and wineglass and is an aural delight with its overtones, reverb and evocation of song space. Labelmate Chas Smith continues to explore a more jagged soundscape, mixing the noise of metal, jet planes, flute and voice with his own unique handmade instruments. Descent is less surprising than his previous releases but just as careful and intelligent in the way it collages and sculpts sound.

Prefuse 73 could be said to sculpt sound, too, though in a manner more akin to DJ Shadow than Chas Smith. On Security Screenings he collages beats, samples, loops and poetry into a scintillating mixture. I could do without some of the shorter tracks, which donít seem developed or at all substantial but I quibbleÖ Perhaps they help the mix. The Youngblood Brass Band provide a similarly exciting sound on their is that a riot? CD. I confess I came to it via the radio, where they seemed to be a brass jazz-funk band. I was a bit taken aback when I bought this to discover half of it is full-on political rap! But Iíve persisted and now enjoy the unholy alliance of calls for revolution, youthful diatribe and brass instruments over beats & percussion.

Mat Kearneyís rap is a much more sedate affair, indeed some of my friends hate his music and dismiss it as manufactured pop. Well, I like it. Nothing Left to Lose is his first major label release and revisits some of the tracks from his previous independent releases. This is mellow, almost soulful hiphop, with little aggression and no jagged edges. But I find itís mix of piano, acoustic guitar and beats entirely suited to the musings on love and life within, and great late-night listening.

© 2006 Rupert Loydell

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