Archives for category: Music

The wreath of shining laurel lie
upon your shaggy head
bestowing power to play the lyre
to legions of the dead (From Hunter’s Elegy for Jerry Garcia)

The Grateful Dead had two main lyricists – John Perry Barlow (who passed away last year) mostly composed with Bob Weir. Robert Hunter who passed away yesterday at the age of 78 mostly composed with Jerry Garcia (1942-1995). The Days Between is one of the last few songs Hunter and Garcia wrote and was only performed (though quite regularly) in the last two years of Garcia’s life. It’s one of those dancing about architecture songs – I could talk about it or you could just listen…

Robert Hunter wrote straight up poetry as well as lyrics for the Dead (and others) and the words are worth an investment on their own…

There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
Summer flies and August dies
the world grows dark and mean
Comes the shimmer of the moon
on black infested trees
the singing man is at his song
the holy on their knees
the reckless are out wrecking
the timid plead their pleas
No one knows much more of this
than anyone can see anyone can see
There were days
and there were days
and there were days besides
when phantom ships with phantom sails
set to sea on phantom tides
Comes the lightning of the sun
on bright unfocused eyes
the blue of yet another day
a springtime wet with sighs
a hopeful candle lingers
in the land of lullabies
where headless horsemen vanish
with wild and lonely cries lonely cries

There were days
and there were days
and there were days I know
when all we ever wanted
was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
we told them where to go
walked halfway around the world
on promise of the glow
stood upon a mountain top
walked barefoot in the snow
gave the best we had to give
how much we’ll never know we’ll never know

There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
polished like a golden bowl
the finest ever seen
Hearts of Summer held in trust
still tender, young and green
left on shelves collecting dust
not knowing what they mean
valentines of flesh and blood
as soft as velveteen
hoping love would not forsake
the days that lie between lie between

2003 Sanctuary Records

First of all, The Power To Believe, released in 2003, contains, hands down, my least favorite King Crimson song. Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With is noise without relief and lyrical silliness unmatched in the entire catalogue. And the more I listen to this album, the less I like this song. In the absence of everything else, it’s simply annoying. Belew’s just messing around with words in a way that’s less successful than other such messes. It was okay when it was new, with Elephant Talk. Less so, twenty years on. Another reason Happy rubs me raw is that most of the rest of this album is really intriguing. Eyes Wide Open is one of KC’s most beautiful songs, up there with Matte Kudesai and Cadence and Cascade.

The instrumentals Level V (aka Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part V), Dangerous Curves, and Elektrik see Crimson addressing the tour de force they specialize in with some of their greatest vigor. Elektrik takes several turns through the quiet-loud arpeggiation cycle that the KC classic sound relies on, with bits of keyboard thrown in.

Dangerous Curves has this building crescendo, starting with a quiet keyboard line that pulls in first drums and then bass and guitar, the drum fills increasing in volume, almost like a bolero. Like the best Crimson pieces, you want to think it’s one thing and then it hypnotically turns into something else, before returning and showing you that it was never the thing you thought at all.

kc-tptbThe Belew lyric Facts of Life, which closed out side A is another false start on this album.  (Does one even know if this album was sequenced for LP release? Not I.) It’s musically interesting, but lyrically weak. The foolish aphorisms that don’t lead anywhere lead us to believe that Belew was just noodling some more, while giving the illusion of some kind of profundity. ‘Like Abraham and Ishmael fighting over sand/Doesn’t mean you should, just because you can/That is a fact of life…Nobody knows what happens when you die/Believe what you want, it doesn’t mean you’re right/That is a fact of life.’ I think the conclusion the lyrics draw in each verse isn’t supported by the arguments – at a poetic level, it would be more satisfying if he’d left the title phrase out of the sung lyric.

The title track, shared out in four parts, is the most intriguing thing on the album. Part I introduces the album with Belew reciting the text through a vocoder with no accompaniment:

She carries me through days of apathy
She washes over me
She saved my life in a manner of speaking
When she gave me back the power to believe.

Part II opens side 2 as a light percussion/keyboard wash to which bass and guitar later join. The lyrics are the same, still treated, but handled almost as a mantra, a meditation guided by the instrumentation.

Parts III and IV follow Happy and close the album. In part III, the melody and lyrics are pulled apart and given an almost industrial texture, which is interrupted by the classic Robert Fripp lead guitar. Subtitled ‘The Deception of the Thrush’ (a title which shows up on the Level Five EP which preceded this album’s release), those two or three minutes of Fripp taking over might be the most satisfying thing on the album, especially for fans of the classic mid-70s sound.

So, yeah, it’s a whole lot of really good dragged down by two not very interesting songs. And, listen, King Crimson is my favorite band. Those two songs, if they showed up on a Belew Power Trio album, or just about anywhere else, would probably have me hopping gleefully up and down. In the context of an otherwise serious and intellectually engaging album, they get on my nerves. This is still a four-star album, which may give some idea of how the rest of it grabs me. (Note: There’s a tasty new reissue of this one too and it’s on the wishlist in my head.)

I’ve been challenged to review the catalogue of Gentle Giant, a band I’ve only recently been introduced to and about which I know very little. Watch this space.

 

1994 Virgin

Just over ten years after the conclusion of the Three of a Perfect Pair tour, a new King Crimson release, featuring a six-man lineup, hit the streets, to much rejoicing. But back up. In 1993, Robert Fripp recorded and toured an excellent album with David Sylvian. Sylvian fronted new wave act Japan, after the demise of which he created some very cool, hard-to-classify downtempo solo albums. A Japan reunion in 1990, under the moniker Rain Tree Crow, did not fly. Robert Fripp had played on an earlier Sylvian solo album (Gone to Earth from 1986) and the new collaboration was successful. The band for the album featured bassist Trey Gunn and drummer Jerry Marotta. (Marotta and Fripp previously worked together on Peter Gabriel’s second solo album and Fripp’s Exposure.) Marotta, however, wasn’t able to tour the album. Enter session percussionist (an ex-Mr. Mister drummer) Pat Mastelotto. Check out this article in which Pat recounts flying to England from California on his own dime to audition for the gig.

At the conclusion of the Sylvian/Fripp tour, Fripp regrouped the King Crimson, augmenting the early 80s quartet of himself, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, and Tony Levin with Gunn and Mastelotto. The expanded lineup creates a more interesting sound for certain, though still most definitely Crimson. The first release of this line-up, the Vrooom EP introduces the new four-man rhythm section, an intriguing platform for the interplay of Belew’s and Fripp’s guitars.

Four of the six tracks would be reworked for the full LP release, Thrak. Cage and When I Say Stop, Continue only appear on Vrooom.

Despite the 10-year gap, there’s no grand departure from the earlier sound, save for a greater emphasis, I think, on the intense instrumentals. The 1981-84 quartet didn’t record anything new that had the sheer intensity of the songs Red, Fracture, or Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt II. Fripp made a return to this style in the songs Vrooom and Thrak, the latter forming the basis for many of the Thrak tour’s live improvisations. These sonic onslaughts are balanced with the ballad One Time and the funky Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream which can be seen as descendants of songs like Two Hands and Sleepless respectively.

The Thrak album expands on this balance of the noisy and the quiet. It also features two of KC’s most beautiful tracks, Walking On Air and the aforementioned One Time.

Vrooom opens the album, the arrangement from the EP now divided into two parts, the second bearing the unwieldy title Coda Marine 475. I’ve always been confused that the second song of an hour-long cycle has the word Coda in the title, but there you are. Dinosaur is something of a pop-metal hybrid, like Sleepless or Thela Hun Gingeet, I suppose. Straightforward(ish) lyrics from Belew, ‘I’m a dinosaur, somebody is digging my bones’ might be an attempt to head off judgement of what the band are doing 10 years after their last album, and 25 after their first. (Noting that this is the 50th year of KC, this might be premature.) The song has the sort of soft-loud dynamic that Kurt Cobain (just a few years before) said Nirvana nicked from the Pixies, but it’s also a microcosm of the album as a whole.

Next is the ballad Walking On Air. Belew’s plaintive alto weaves what might be a love song. It’s Crimson, so you can never tell, but it’s one of the two or three most beautiful songs in their catalogue.

The instrumental B’Boom follows. After a short introduction, percussionists Bruford and Mastelotto go head to head. This is the first time KC had had two percussionists since that brief period around the recording of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic and this kind of interplay in Crimson got lost again after this album until Fripp regrouped with three drummers in the front line. The song, at least in its title, brings us back to a long improv performed on the LTIA Tour at the Zoom Club called Z’Zoom. (Note that the Zoom Club gig also included two more improvisations: Zoom and Zoom Zoom which together run for over an hour. The band might be referring back to them in the tracks Vrooom and Vrooom Vrooom. I might have to delve back into that recording.)

The title track, an intense and difficult metal epic follows, oddly reflecting the progression on LTIA from The Talking Drum into Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II. On the tour for this album, Thrak formed the basis for many extended improvisations. I’m not sure if I’ll delve into the Thrakattak album, which is comprised of several of these live improvs. I’ve tried before, but it’s an endurance test, sort of like listening to all four sides of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music without a break.

Thrak concluded side 1 on the cassette release which makes sense. The second half of the album is balanced as a suite between the two parts of Inner Garden, Radio I and Radio II, three pop songs, and the concluding iterations of Vrooom (Vrooom Vrooom and Vrooom Vrooom: Coda).

Inner Garden I and II, are short, nearly a cappella, vocals from Belew. The first leads into the very funky People, in which Trey and Tony battle out the bass line under a lyric that’s not too far removed from Foreigner’s Women. (‘People bowl, people rock, people pay to see two people box’ vs. ‘Women behind bars, women in fast cars, women in distress, see that woman with no dress.’ You be the judge)

Unlike Walking On Air, One Time is a little harder to grasp lyrically, but Adrian’s vocal is lovely and he doesn’t reach for anything beyond what the song calls for. It’s bookended by Radio I and Radio II which a reminiscent of the dissonant Ligeti pieces used in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The vocal portion of the album concludes with Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, another slice of funk. Listen, what I’m calling funk is probably unfair to both the funk genre and to KC’s progressive metal leanings. This song and People may simply be funky because the bottom end of the songs is emphasised whereas in other pieces on the album, the guitars take precedence. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a word salad, but it’s prog, so that too is okay.

The album concludes with Vrooom Vrooom, a restatement of the Vrooom theme, and Vrooom Vrooom Coda which takes the high end of Coda Marine 475 and turns it inside out. It’s a really odd piece to conclude the album on, but it’s as musically intriguing as just about anything else here.

As I often do when writing these reviews, I’ve listened to the album pretty constantly for the last several days and have become more and more impressed with both the compositions and with the composition of the album as balanced halves. As a CD listener, the balance of things was lost on me when the album came out. I can appreciate what the band were after, even though in the decade since Three of a Perfect Pair, the LP format had slipped away.

I give it four stars.

Next up: The ConstruKction of Light.

Where the Dark and the Light Mingle, the debut album from San Francisco’s Gutter Swan, is a song cycle of covers from across what might be called the Americana tradition. Themes of yearning run through all of the tracks, tinged with the seduction and aftermath of indulgence.

The arrangements are deceptively simple. Loryn Barbeau employs the slightest twang in voice which suits the song choices well. Guitarist Steve Egelman pulls gorgeous melodies out of a six-string.

Wayside/Back in Time and Oxycontin Blues (and later in the album the medley of Carole King’s Way over Yonder and Joan Osborne’s Saint Theresa) delve into the desire to be back in a time before addiction took hold. Simple Man gives us just the heart of the rocker from Lynyrd Skynyrd debut album, transforming the plea for a child’s happiness almost into a prayer. Appropriate given the line, “All that you have is your soul.”

All that need be said of C’mon Billy is that Loryn and Steve do PJ Harvey proud.

The first of two Richard Buckner covers, Oscar Hummel, features another straightforwardly beautiful vocal that belies the violence of the lyrics of a lost traveler who mistakenly finds the home of his enemy. (A search reveals that the lyrics are from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection that consists of stories told on headstones.)

This is followed by Beekeeper, a song possibly narrated by a less dead Oscar Hummel ‘You all say I’ve crossed a line, but the sad fact is I’ve lost my mind…All I want is to be left alone, tact from me is like blood from a stone.’

I’m not sure I have a favorite track on the album, but Vocal (supplied by Norwegians Madrugada) is the tale of a possible suicide to which Loryn brings these breathless phrases. Just listen to how she sings ‘Dare not walk through the liiiiight,’ in which light is both salvation and death, howled and then almost whispered as the song ends. *Shudder*

The headlong rush into desire and addiction is best expressed here by their approach to TV on the Radio’s Wolf Like Me. The harmonies in which our narrator is a (were?) wolf seducing red riding hood balance on some sweet fingerpicking. The faster pace on this song is a nice balance to Vocal’s near dirge-like pace.

Way over Yonder/Saint Theresa positions Saint Theresa, another song of an addicted hooker longing to be on the other side of whatever life is offering against a more ambiguous longing for a simple escape. Way down in the hollow is a long way from Way Over Yonder.

gs-wtdatlmWhere the Dark and the Light Mingle concludes with Richard Buckner’s Desire, in which our narrator is done with their last partner, having said too much and too drunkenly, ‘shot my insides out with grief and Mr. Kessler’ and just needs to hit the road. Fed up with life and death and lust and addiction, the road beckons.

Gutter Swan’s two members capture the gauntlet of life, death, love, need, and bit of the supernatural, and so many of the various ways we subvert and support these things. As a collection of songs that work individually, the album succeeds, but it excels as a story. Folk blues, country, singer/storyteller songs woven together. Using such disparate and desperate sources makes something far more compelling than the individual tracks.

Of all David Bowie’s albums, Let’s Dance is one that’s had very little airplay in my headphones. Which might be a shame. I’ve been listening to it lately and trying to place myself in the shoes of someone giving it an honest listen in 1983. Fans had waited three years for a follow-up to Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, his last album for RCA which had spawned minor US hits in Fashion and Ashes to Ashes. In the meantime, MTV had launched and given some airtime to videos from his previous albums. I recall seeing the videos for those two songs and DJ from 1979’s Lodger. That said, the title track from Let’s Dance landed like a bomb on MTV, followed by Modern Love and China Girl. Those three songs and a reworked version of Cat People (Putting Out Fire), originally recorded for the closing credits of Paul Schrader’s film of the same name and released in March 1982, comprise half of the album’s eight tracks. A fourth single from the album, Without You, didn’t get much airplay and didn’t chart.

db-ldThe problem, for me, is that by the time I listened the album in its entirety a few years after its release, those first three tracks had turned into background noise. Modern Love barely sounds like a Bowie song at all – the piano and horns driving the sound instead of the guitar, and lyrics that don’t seem to be about anything at all. The live video didn’t give a story to it. Mind you, that’s what was expected of 80s videos and even 35 years later, when I listen to the songs that did have story videos – China Girl and the title track – I still see the videos in my head. And by the time Modern Love was released as the third single in September, we’d spent the summer being bombarded with tracks two and three.

China Girl is a reworking of a song Bowie had written and produced with Iggy Pop seven years earlier and released on Pop’s The Idiot.

And then there’s the title track. I’ve heard those opening snares and Ah Ah Ahs hundreds of times and tried to feel that moaning ‘tremble like a floooow-ah’. But the album version is a different beast. Clocking in at seven and a half minutes (as opposed to the single/video at just over four), it takes the listener on a different journey. Dub elements which at the time were used to create club mixes sit right in the middle of the album mix and pull it into the fade out.

Without You relies on Bowie’s falsetto, and what sounds like plinking keyboards but is either Stevie Ray Vaughan or producer Nile Rodgers who shared guitar duties throughout. It doesn’t have the drive of the other songs on side A, but as a simple declaration of love it’s not without its merits.

Whereas side one has one song that’s not so well known to me, side two’s Ricochet, Criminal World, and Shake It are all tracks I’ve never listened to much.

Ricochet is proper weird Bowie. Sometimes, its underlying sax lines sound lifted from Low; elsewhere the song is much funkier. Lyrically, it seems to be addressing industrialization and fascism, some of those big themes that he’d explore in songs like Loving the Alien and Time Will Crawl later in the 80s. Moving on, Criminal World is a cover of a 1977 song by Peter Godwin’s band Metro – musically it fits with the rest of the album because Rodgers has arranged it (and the whole album, for that matter) to flow.

And then the album concludes with a throwaway piece of disco/funk called Shake It. Lyrically it doesn’t have much to say – the most interesting lines are ‘We’re the kind of people who can shake it if we’re feeling blue / When I’m feeling disconnected well I sure know what to do.’ In his catalogue, it seems most connected to the discofied John I’m Only Dancing (Again) released around the time of Young Americans. That’s not to say that it’s bad, just that it’s not worthwhile as a Bowie song.

My overall assessment is that it holds together or hold up not as a David Bowie album, but as a Nile Rogers or Chic album that just happens to have Bowie doing the singing and most of the words. Lyrically the album is half-baked and musically, it’s mostly disposable. According to interviews in a recent issue of Mojo, this is, on a certain level, what Bowie was after. At the height of New Romanticism, Bowie heard his own influence on new music and felt the current crop had drained the life from pop. Having not had a serious hit stateside in almost eight years (Fame), he made the leap, and spent the next six years barely involved, by his own admission, in his own music making at all.