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.
Clara Engel: Visitors are Allowed One Kiss
self released (2016)
On the vast information highways of Twitter I found this stunning self released album. Clara Engel is a musician and artist working out of Toronto, Canada. Visitors are Allowed One Kiss is her 8th independent release, and it bears the sound of someone with a singular vision and total control over her art.
Her Bandcamp page describes these songs as avant-blues which makes total sense on listening. Each track is built around a slow, simple, repeating guitar line. Imagine this guitar as the sun with a galaxy of atmospheric noises, subtle percussion, synths, and stringed ambience trapped in its gravitational pull. The combined instruments provide gentle support for Clara’s rich and textured voice. She sounds strong and unwavering, with a subtle huskiness that calls to mind a far more mysterious version of KD Lang.
Her songs are filled with Gothic vibes and haunting romance. Tales of swans, owls, mandrakes, shipwrecks and frost. They are both literary and fantastical, aching with melancholy but not depressed. Like reminiscing over dog-eared photos of old friends and lost loved ones, feeling blue but alive with cherished memories.
Clara has collaborated with some interesting folk on these songs, some of whom share similar aesthetics. Aiden Baker provides a cloud of warm bass drones on a few tracks, and it isn’t a stretch to hear the dreamy moods of his Nadja project in Visitors are Allowed One Kiss. The enigmatic Thor Harris plays xylophone and percussion here and there, which did not surprise me because while completely different sonically, Clara’s atmosphere and use of repetition is a distant relative of late-period Swans.
However, both those bands are mere markers when attempting to describe the unique world of Clara Engel. I highly recommend visiting her Bandcamp page and showing some support. I’ll be be revisiting soon to dive into her earlier recordings.