Billie Holiday: Lady in Satin
Number 986 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
The first time I listened to Lady in Satin I was struck by how sad it sounds. How lost and lonely Holiday appears among all those sorrowful strings and plodding rhythms. I avoided a repeat listen for quite some time. I just couldn’t face the music, so to speak.
It got me thinking about how often I’ve been told that my favourite records, by the bands I’ve admired and followed over the years sound maudlin and depressing. I’ve never understood those comments and in fact I’ve never thought of acts like Radiohead, for example, as making sad music. Instead they have always resonated with me as explorers of complicated moods and ultimately cathartic because they are willing to explore themes that the mainstream prefers to ignore. Brittany Spears and Justin Bieber, as examples, sound fucking sad to me because they’re completely synthetic and escapist.
This led me to think about the amount of sadness that was apparent in old recordings like this one by Billy Holiday. A time when all anyone seemed to sing about was how lost they were without a lover in their lives, as if independence was a faux par. And how all of this sadness seems to be overlooked by listeners because it’s smothered in schmaltzy and inoffensive music.
Now that I’ve braved many repeat listens there’s no denying the charm of Lady in Satin, Holiday’s final album made as she crumbled under the weight of heroin abuse, alcoholism and damaging love affairs. Her voice is strained and crackly, she sounds slightly desperate clinging to her stardom and somewhat aware that she wasn’t going to live for much longer (Holiday died less than a year after its release). At risk of sounding voyeuristic, it’s that emotional tension which elevates this record to a place that I can appreciate. I won’t pretend to be a fan of Jazz singers from any era. But much like Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Hours, this album has an edge over its competitors.
I now realise that Lady in Satin doesn’t carry as much sadness as I initially thought. Now I hear hear someone striving to carry on in the face of adversity. I hear someone struggling and I feel for her. Every time she strains for a note I want her to come out the other end a winner. I hear a thousand stories of highs and lows in her voice, and I want to listen again and again until I know every one of them by heart.
The Ghost: The Hole
Tombed Visions (2016)
I know next to nothing about The Ghost. I stumbled across a review in Tristian Bath’s consistently top-notch Spool’s Out column in The Quietus, which opened with a quote from Tombed Visions, the label that released this cassette: “This is the new Queer improv and it is unreal how fucking good it is.”
New Queer improv? I’m in!
This 40 minute avant-jazz freak out ain’t for the faint hearted. It’s restless and abrasive, and even its quietest moments are angry as hell, which is perfectly justified against an opening monologue warning that homosexuals will destroy the fabric of society. The Hole was released pre-Trump, but listening to it now this piece of 1950s propaganda supporting a white, Christian, heterosexual patriarchy strikes home harder than ever. Its fear mongering message could be applied to any group bearing the label of ‘Other’ – black, muslim, female, the list goes on….
Perhaps my favourite thing about The Hole is that you rarely hear such abrasive, experimental music being made by Queer artists. The scrunching sax, collapsing drum kit and junkyard rubble are a far cry from the spandex and mirrorball cheese of most ‘gay’ music. There is absolutely nothing Camp about The Ghost, nothing sexual either. Even Harsh Wall Noise artist Richard Ramirez, perhaps The Ghost’s closest sonic relative, cultivates a Tom of Finland aesthetic drenched in cheap thrills.
I realise I’ve done little to describe the actual sound of this tape, and to be honest I’m not sure sound is the main point of this release, but as a sonic reference point The Hole calls to mind Sun Ra’s wildest freak outs minus the funk. I’m reminded of the Art Ensemble of Chicago as well, but way, way heavier. The muscular Saxophone work of Mats Gustafsson is also present, without his sense of groove. The Ghost combine all of these references into violent cauldron of political revolt. And their protest is absolutely thrilling to listen to.
Tito Puente and his Orchestra: Dance Mania Vol. 1
Number 987 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Truth be told, this record is a major part of the reason why I haven’t posted in so long. I have a mountain of new music that I’d love to write about but I felt somewhat guilty that I have very little to say about this record.
I guess I want to feel much more engaged with a lot of this older music than I actually do. I want the history of music to send shivers up my spine the way more recent music does. Which is unrealistic because, of course, not all recent music affects me that way either. But still, a record like Dance Mania bores me to my core.
These Mamba jams seem vacuous like the current glut of top 40 music. Void of emotion, and destined for ballroom dance competitions. Sequins, hair spray, fake tan and coral eye shadow. Shoulders back, fake grins and sashaying hips. Is this really what everyone was listening to in the clubs back in the day? I guess the tempo and joy and were infectious.
For me, everything that’s happened in music since 1958 makes it difficult to accept Dance Mania for what it was during its time. I’ll probably never listen to this record again.
Phirnis & Trium Circulorum: Solitary Shards Split
Trium Circulorum (2016)
While Trium Circulorum is a new name to me, I picked up this split cassette based on the involvement of Phirnis. Dave and I have chatted about this Austrian based artist on The Antidote a couple of times now. Previous releases have deftly combined musicality with abstraction and electronica, but his contribution to Solitary Shards is a glorious collage of noise eras past. A series of vignettes that can only be listened to as a whole. Trium Circulorum’s side is awesome too.
Phirnis opens up side A with some Merzbow crunch that exhales into a rhythmic pulse, and then blooms into a flock of birds settling into the trees at sunset. Further on we get the cavernous sound of delay drenched feedback echoing into nothingness. And, at the 19 minute mark an unencumbered head bursting wall of harsh noise that switches into a cracked and decayed transmission from somewhere beyond. He finishes with what sounds like a washing machine or dishwasher, something mechanical but watery, all distorted and frayed and fading out into tape hiss.
Phirnis mentioned to me on Twitter that he really wanted to explore some old school Noise on this release. That vibe definitely shines through. But he manages to do this without smashing your face in, as many records did in the hey days of Noise. His series of sound explorations are a playful homage to the scene as well as shitloads of fun for your ears.
On the flipside, Germany’s Trium Circulorum conjures up a serious dark ambient drone. He traps the listener deep in the bowels of some cave-like abandoned subway where air vibrates through rust riddled ducts, and unexplained things rattle and scatter in the shadows. Occasionally a pipe loses steam, a metallic clank skitters out of the gloom, a low vibration lurks around the corner. This is 30 minutes of blackened unease akin to Abruptum’s quieter moments, or even Burial Hex’s Initiations.
I think the rumours are true. There’s a ‘new’ noise scene burgeoning. It’s been 10 years since Wolf Eyes jumped the shark releasing two albums on Sub Pop and scoring a slot on Lollapalooza. It felt like things simmered down after that. Pete Swanson went mutant techno. Dominick Fernow poured acid over new wave. William Bennett began exploring African rhythms.
10 years isn’t a long time, but lately it feels like artists are revisiting the tropes of noise and exploring the sound with less emphasis on volume and abrasion. Solitary Shards is a fantastic example of this.
Little Richard: Here’s Little Richard
Number 988 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Here’s another record distinctly tied to my childhood. Dad may not have admired Little Richard as much as Jerry “The Killer” Lee-Lewis, but he played the guy’s records consistently.
Of all the 50’s rock n roll my dad introduced me to as a child, Little Richard was especially fascinating to me. I can’t help suspecting that my as yet untapped gay identity responded to Richard’s unusual sexuality. His lightning rod flamboyance and outrageous stage manner. He was strong, crazy, lithe and filled with the threat of violence like a lioness.
Listening to these songs now, it’s the energy that strikes me as phenomenal. His voice is a complete beast – guttural and ecstatic like a preacher losing his mind at the pulpit. Even if you’ve never seen Richard in action you’d be hard pressed not to imagine this man writhing and convulsing and flailing around on stage. Could this guy really have played the piano properly while doing that?
It’s also hard not to think about his homosexuality in the context of today. These songs are all about girls, girls, girls. Back then he was living a heterosexual life, a product of his time, but I wonder how he felt deep down about singing these songs. How does he feel about having sung them today? How did he get away with rocking that eye liner and that hair? It’s freakin’ awesome when you think about it. Liberace was so ridiculously in your face, but Little Richard had style and panache.
Records like this help me understand why rock n’ roll won’t die, and why generations of musicians have appropriated its sound well into the 21st century. The urgency, the fire, and the craziness have transcended time in an era where we chew things up and spit them out at the speed of sound. I realise I haven’t actually described what this record sounds like, so to speak. But whatever. Go listen to it for your self.
Sonic Youth: Spinhead Sessions
Goofin’ Records (2016)
I am a Sonic Youth fanboy. I pick up pretty much everything they release. I also own most of the band members’ solo and side projects. In a discography as vast as the one produced by Sonic Youth’s world it’s natural that not everything is great. But there are plenty of gems, and Spinhead Sessions is one of them.
First up, if you’re not a fan of guitar noodling then read no further. This record will bore you. This is for people who love to get lost in fields of guitars drifting between dissonance and melody. It really is beautiful.
The music on Spinhead Sessions was recorded in 1986 while the band were developing a soundtrack for the low budget underground film Made in U.S.A. The soundtrack was released under the movie’s own title and was rooted in jangly indie rock. Frankly it’s not all that great, and apparently the band weren’t overly happy with sections of their score that the filmmaker chose to use. Based on Spinhead Sessions it appears the band were aiming for a dreamier atmosphere than the sounds that ended up on the film.
All of this took place around the time of Sonic Youth’s killer record Evol (…..now you know where the title of this blog comes from), and everything here sounds like the gorgeous instrumental passages from that period in their career. An aural mirage of ghostly harmonics, ringing melodies, cymbal drift, and pillowy bass lines. The guitars don’t rely on distortion, and the pace never exceeds a twilight sleepwalk. Despite all its eeriness Spinhead Sessions is also incredibly sensual. A dreamy erotica rooted in Surrealism, and JG Ballard’s Crash.
This is one of those releases that may have slipped under the radar right now, but I can imagine being referenced by a future generation of underground musicians mining the Sonic Youth realm for their own sonic adventures.
Number 989 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Frank “Machito” Grillo is credited with merging afro cubist rhythms and Big Band jazz to create both Cubop and Salsa Music. I encountered the Cubop vibe back on the Sabu record but where that sound was sparse and primal, Kenya is a different organism. Trumpets and saxophones stab, wail and croon around a syncopated hustle of bongoes, maracas and drums. Melody is used as a mere support for the rhythm section that propels Kenya through space, time and dance floors.
I had originally written this whole review based on how much Kenya reminds me of 1960s cinema; where white men and women were always dancing out complicated mating rituals to a sultry pastiche of percussion and jazz. Movies where a soundtrack of horns and bongoes accompanied criminals outrunning cops and lengthy car chases through downtown America. That weirdo cultural appropriation (exploitation?) thing that went with movies from that era.
But what strikes me most about this record are the uptempo numbers like Wild Jungle and Cannonology which burst with syncopated percussion just like the UK’s Jungle scene of the 90s. Kenya shares the same rolling but jittery rhythms, the same urgency, the same staccato vibrations. It’s a sound that somehow manages to be frantic and spacious at the same time. I wonder why Cubop and Salsa isn’t referenced more often in relation to the Jungle and Drum n’ Bass scenes? Miles Davis gets mentioned as an influence on these artists and perhaps that’s in relation to his 60s and 70s ‘funk’ works, a period in which he definitely lifted plenty from people like Machito.
The majority of Kenya plays out at half the pace, exhaling a smoky romance. Percussion is still key but the frenzy has been dialled down to a rushed waltz. The vibe remains cinematic though and it becomes clear to me why contemporary musicians like Mike Patton have mined the quirks of this genre to create their own weird and wonderful atmospheres (Faith No More’s Caralho Voador, and pretty much anything from Mr Bungle are good examples of this).
Will Kenya be something I listen to regularly? I’m not really sure. It’s taken me almost a year to get through the first 12 records in this 1001 Albums exercise, and what I’m learning is that these older records have almost been tarnished for me by so many different factors. It’s difficult to step away from how artists have appropriated and reconstructed early musical genres over the years, and too often a record that must have sounded fresh and cutting edge back in the day sounds far too familiar to my ears today. While Kenya is definitely not forgettable, I’m not sure I’ll be dusting it off and playing it again any time soon.
Autechre: Elseq 1-5
Warp Records (2016)
Autechre release an epic 4 hours worth of new music and all the Heads can do is complain about Elseq 1-5 being a digital only release. Who wants to listen to Autechre on vinyl anyway? The very idea goes against everything that Rob Brown and Sean Booth represent.
Autechre are the sound of machines taking over the world and Artificial Intelligence consuming analogue humans into obsolescence, cleaning their cyborg teeth with our bones. The buzz of neon sunsets setting the air alight with static. Data wars between malfunctioning cyber systems desperate for consciousness but damned by right wing optical fibre hardware with silver spoons for mouths. This is the sound of capitalism feasting on its own carcass, and eating 180 gram vinyl reissues for breakfast in a shower of sparks and smouldering wires. This is the soundtrack to every William Gibson novel ever. Privacy is over and your life is the property of some giant, faceless conglomerate that can’t even explain what its own purpose is.
But don’t spend too much time teasing these post-apocalyptic themes out of Elseq 1-5; you’ll drive yourself mad. Come to think of it, sitting through all four hours of Elseq 1-5 in a single sitting would likely push you over the deep end too. However, if you have the patience to gradually explore its digital terroir you’ll find moments of clarity within the malfunctioning madness. The possibility that perhaps the world could be a better place if it actually were ruled by machines.
Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
XL Recordings (2016)
I decided to let this one sit with me for a while rather than join the frenzy of posts that appeared online hours after Radiohead dropped their 10th LP. And what a joy it’s been to sink gently into A Moon Shaped Pool, giving it space to reveal all of its charms.
In the album’s opening seconds, as those cheeky strings ignite a staccato pulse it’s obvious there’s something different going on here. Radiohead sound relaxed, less agitated and more human than they have in years. The electronic rhythms have been dulled down to make room for analogue traditions. Everything sounds live and the band itself appear refreshed because of it.
Life, as in the reality of life and living, are a constant theme throughout. In a return to The Bends era there is something very personal about this record. The band’s politics have been replaced by Thom struggling to make sense of his relationships with those around him. It’s impossible to ignore the end of his 23 year marriage and its impact on A Moon Shaped Pool.
Sonically all 11 tracks are loose and casual. Born of a band jamming together in a room and slowly uncoiling compositions from their instruments. Songs like Daydreaming, Present Tense and Glass Eyes don’t feel like they reach any conclusion per se, which isn’t a negative. Rather they’re enigmatic, haunting and spacious. Daydreaming is particularly mysterious with its lonely piano, romantic orchestral flourishes, and digital debris swirling around Thom’s sweet falsetto before flickering out in a haze of eerily slowed down voices. This is heady stuff.
Deck’s Dark has a 70s soul vibe and a hot blooded outro like you’d never expect from such a serious band. While Ful Stop (sic) channels Krautrock into a 6 minute burner which approaches its crescendo so subtly that you don’t realise where you’re at until they throw you off the bus. Identikit shuffles around a weirdo contemporary-adult take on drum n’ bass, channeling twangy guitars and sparkly synths while Thom wails about broken hearts making it rain.
For my money, A Moon Shaped Pool will go down as a classic in Radiohead’s discography. It’s chill atmosphere and warm, dreamy vibes are a comforting new direction that already feels like home every time I revisit it. And I expect to visit A Moon Shaped Pool often.
Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
Capitol Records (1957)
Number 991 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Jazz is a mysterious, often esoteric thing. It has similarities to Metal in that its fans can be rabid, and its walls can be difficult to penetrate. My knowledge and understanding of Jazz is limited, but if the 1001 Albums list is confirming anything for me it’s that Jazz has been a huge influence on the evolution of popular music. And there probably isn’t a name more popular in the genre than Miles Davis.
I have to confess that despite being a seminal release in the genre’s history, Birth of the Cool is slightly lost on me. The record’s title in particular misleads my uneducated mind: this doesn’t doesn’t sound ‘cool’ to me. It sounds like Miles making music for elevators, cafes and candlelit dinners. It’s not bad, just inoffensive and safe. Birth of the Cool feels like your favourite t-shirt, all warm and familiar. And yet, each time the record finishes all of its melodies slip from my consciousness.
Scrolling around the internet I can read about the distinct lack of vibrato in Miles playing, and the use of multiple melodies played together at once which was considered unusual at the time. I can read long lists of famous musicians who played on this record. But the truth is I much prefer the 70s and 80s versions of Miles. Coked out freak-fests like Bitch’s Brew and On the Corner are much more exciting albums that illustrate the man’s talent for truly pushing the genre into new territories.
Perhaps I’m just too young to appreciate Birth of the Cool.
In comparison, I’m still listening to Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners (number 992 of the 1001 Albums). That record fascinates me and each time it finishes I want to hit play again. It’s melodies will be stuck in my head forever. Brilliant Corners’ odd time signatures and unusual tones are so fucking cool, suave, fresh and fearless in comparison to the casual comfort of Miles’ debut record. For me, Birth of the Cool bears few signs of what Miles Davis was to become.