Sunday, May 10, 2015

Austin Psych Fest (Levitation) 2015 Day 1

Event: Austin Psych Fest (Levitation) Day 1
Venue: Carson Creek Ranch
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 8 May 2015

Introduction: I had such a good time at Austin Psych Fest last year, even with the many minor faults, that I couldn't wait for it to come around again this year. Unfortunately, I have been so busy with other activities that I knew I couldn't go all weekend, so I just picked one day. Sunday features the first reunion of the 13th Floor Elevators since their breakup in 1969, which would be an amazing sight to behold, but I went with Friday, primarily for the opportunity to see Tame Impala, whom I missed my chance to see at Austin City Limits in 2013 due to a rainout. Ironically, this week in Austin has seen record-breaking rainstorms, so I knew going into it that it would be rainy and muddy. This was not at all my first experience with rain-drenched outdoor concerts, so I figured I could deal with it. The worst part was just that the festival grounds had to be reconfigured, as the riverside Elevation Amphitheater was not tenable.

Unlike last year, the grounds didn't open until 3pm, with the first band starting at 3:45. I rode my bike downtown during a downpour around 3pm and waited for the shuttle while seeking shelter in a covered doorway. A group of three Australians joined me, and after they quickly grew impatient, I joined them in an Über ride to the venue. (Thanks again, Steve and Caroline!)

I started with Hundred Visions. I was fairly disappointed by their noisy, thrashy punk sound and quickly departed to Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback. I wasn't entirely sure what to make of them. Thrasher is an old school Inuit folk musician hailing from Aklavik in the Northwest Territories of Canada. I admired his spirit (and he sung and spoke plenty about spirit!), but his performance was not actually very accomplished. Part of his claim to fame at the moment is the appearance of several of his older songs on the recent Native North America, Vol. 1 compilation. He played "Spirit Child", which he claimed to have forgotten until he heard it again on the collection, but most of his songs followed a similar pattern: rapid, heavy strumming on an acoustic guitar; shouted, nearly strained vocals; a not-so-steady pulse on a bass drum; and vocal and tambourine accompaniment from his partner, Linda Saddleback. I dug his message and ageless energy, but he could benefit from a little variety of style.

[Willie Thrasher & Linda Saddleback. Note that this is the weather-afflicted relocation of the Elevation Amphitheater.]

Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel: I was immediately surprised that the centrally-located figure on stage, the bassist, did not have a mic and did not appear to be a frontperson per se. In fact, it was rather ambiguous who, if anyone, led the band. The two keyboardists on either side of the stage both contributed vocals, as did the drummer. Usually, all three sang together. I was pleasant surprised at my own confusion as to what was happening on stage, and it was all the better in that the music was great. It was groovy and bright with a deep psych vibe.

[Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel.]

Ringo Deathstarr: I had missed them at SXSW, despite that I was rather excited by them. Their studio output sounds straight of 1990, as if they were still right in the middle of the shoegaze phenomenon. Their sound might be a complete ripoff, but the recordings are just so good that I don't care. On stage, they come off like much less of a My Bloody Valentine soundalike, instead leaning in a heavier, harder direction. Unfortunately, in the absence of the thick psychedelia I was expecting, there wasn't much left. They were missing a lot of what I thought made them special, but they still played a fun set.

[Ringo Deathstarr.]

The Holydrug Couple: This late addition to the lineup turned out to be a most welcome bonus. Hailing from Chile, they play a classic psych sound that they have thoroughly mastered. They had great keyboard and guitar sounds and a great groove. The highlight was probably an instrumental featuring the lead vocalist on percussion effects and keyboard. I appreciated their careful integration of various effects into their total sound without letting them overwhelm the instruments and thus come off as gimmicks. They ended with a long, drawn out space jam.

[The Holydrug Couple. This is sadly the last picture I managed to capture!]

Holy Wave: I'd just seen them at SXSW, but enjoyed their droney, stoner groove enough to want to see them again. I like that their vibe is mellow but still full of movement. Their five members really blend in with each other well.

Indian Jewelry: I'm still not sure what to make of this band or their name, but I was encouraged enough by their recordings. Live, they were less ethereal and gauzy than I was expecting, and perhaps a little more dancey and effect-oriented. Instead of coming off like some kind of cousin to The Cocteau Twins, they were something of a mess, lost somewhere between electronic dance music, trance, and spacey psychedelia. There was lots of fuzz bass and a dense web of effects. It was bizarre and hard to make sense of.

DIIV: I think I thought this was some sort of dreampop band, and while most of their songs were dreamy or hazy, only occasionally did a pop sensibility emerge. It was more some sort of spaced out rock, but their three guitarists didn't exactly make the most of their instruments and I was left waiting for the music to take me somewhere. After every song, they repeated some variant of the words, "Hello, we're DIIV from New York. This is a new song."

White Fence: Their basic sound might be somewhat derivatively based in 60s garage rock and classic psych, but I loved it all the same. They were a tight band and the music came together well. Several times, they broke free of their chains and let loose into a long space jams.

Spiritualized: I've always admired the Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, even if I've never followed them closely. My legs were strained and my eyes couldn't take the light show, so I had to sit down, but I could still hear them well. In additional to a full backing band, bandleader Jason Pierce also employed two backing vocalists to add harmonies. The set was very mellow, but very precise. Musically, it was warm and pleasant; it felt like a dream that I was being slowly guided through. It was never jarring or grating or ugly. It also seemed like every single song was about drugs, including the twisted turnaround of "She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like a Hit)". "Electricity" and the Spacemen 3 sendup "Walkin' with Jesus" were standouts. The setlist has been posted online:

01. Here It Comes (The Road, Let's Go)
02. Lord Let It Rain on Me
03. Electricity
04. Shine a Light
05. Electric Mainline
06. She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)
07. Soul on Fire
08. Oh Baby
09. Rated X
10. Walkin' with Jesus

Tame Impala: I finally got to see them and I was not disappointed! They played most of their amazing Lonerism, a few tracks from Innerspeaker, two new songs to be released on Currents, and a few instrumental jams that have only been played live (and in some but not all cases, released on last year's Live Versions). The grooves were solid, the musicianship was tight and impressive, and they delivered everything I could've wanted. They switched things up on several songs, adding jam sections and extended instrumentals throughout, making it a constant pleasure to try to figure out where they were going next. This was also the live debut of "Eventually". They played for about 80 minutes, and while I would've loved an encore, they wrapped up around 1:45am and I think the festival was supposed to be winding down by then. Here's the setlist (with some help on the details from here and here):

01. Intro Jam
02. Let It Happen
03. Mind Mischief
04. Sestri Levante
05. It Is Not Meant to Be
06. Why Won't They Talk to Me?
07. Elephant → Mind Melt → Jazz Prog Odyssey 3070
08. Be Above It
09. Alter Ego
10. Eventually
11. Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind?
12. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
13. Apocalypse Dreams

Final Thoughts: Sadly, the story does not end here. Last year, I had some trouble getting on the shuttle back downtown, but this time around was far worse. I'm still not clear on what really happened, but after I got in the line, two buses filled up, departed, and never returned. We were told they were stuck due to mud and traffic, but after the traffic cleared (along with the entire parking lot), they were still nowhere to be found. As taxis and Über rides started diminishing the remaining crowd, we became increasingly anxious as nothing really happened. At one point, a couple hired security staff members even openly mocked us for asking where the buses were. Around 4:30am I finally caught a ride in a taxi with a few other stranded attendees. This issue has been somewhat addressed on the festival website, the Facebook page for the shuttle, and personal email interchange, but it was rather upsetting. I finally got home around 5:30am. (Last year it was about 3:30am, which was bad enough.) Apparently, next year they will be using a different service, and in the meantime they've added extra shuttles.

Hundred Visions: D
Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback: C+
Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel: A
Ringo Deathstarr: B-
The Holydrug Couple: A-
Holy Wave: B+
Indian Jewelry: C
White Fence: B+
Spiritualized: A-
Tame Impala: A+

P.S. Here's where the Elevation Amphitheater was originally supposed to be:

Friday, April 24, 2015

On the Meaning of Krautrock and Kosmische Musik

After spending a great deal of time listening to a large variety of bands labeled "Krautrock" while reading and reviewing Julian Cope's Krautrocksampler, I started thinking about the term and what it really means. Cope, like many others, criticizes the term as being a lazy British invention that collected together a disparate set of unrelated bands under one label. Nonetheless, Cope uses the term extensively to the point of naming his book after it. He and others have claimed that the term was derived from Amon Düül's first album, Psychedelic Underground (1969), which contained a track titled "Mama Düül und ihre Sauerkrautband spielt auf". By the time Faust titled a song "Krautrock" on Faust IV in 1973, it was already done in a spirit of jest and parody.

Plenty of other terms were used in and outside of Germany for the various forms of "new" music coming out of German-speaking countries around the late 60s and early 70s, but the most common one (in Germany, at least) was "Kosmische Musik", i.e. "cosmic music". Cope cites Amon Düül II's debut album, Phallus Dei, and Can's debut album, Monster Movie, both released in 1969, as the first rumblings of this movement. Whether those two albums really represent that term well is questionable, but the core of the idea was music that was progressive, forward-looking, future-oriented, and perhaps psychedelic and drug-induced. Then and now, Kosmische could mean proto-ambient music or it could mean trippy guitar jams.

[The first pressing of "The" Can's Monster Movie.]

Part of the problem is that these two terms, Krautrock and Kosmische Musik, are not necessarily the same thing. Krautrock is often used as an umbrella term for all German rock bands of the era, and Kosmische sometimes is as well, but this rather confusing and ignores the nuances of both terms. It would seem that originally they did mean two different things, albeit with substantial shared ground. In fact, if I may indulge in the art of organization and categorization, I would say that there are at least six distinct styles or trends or genres of music that came out of Germany in the Krautrock era. Here's how I might break it down:

1. Space Jams, Psychedelia and Acid Blues Rock: This may be the largest grouping, but what unites it is a predilection for long guitar-based jams. Bass and drums go without saying, and keyboards are often included as well. Vocals are optional. These songs usually "rock" in some sense, perhaps owe something to jazz or the blues, and often have a psychedelic, trippy, "far out, man" aesthetic. Examples include Guru Guru, The Cosmic Jokers, Kraan, the first side of most Ash Ra Tempel albums, many early Amon Düül II songs, much of Agitation Free, and maybe even Annexus Quam. Xhol Caravan is perhaps a soul-derived variant of this, and Embryo might be a particular jazzy version. These bands excel in energy and virtuosity and usually have good grooves. The downside is that they are sometimes lacking in substance and prone to self-indulgence.

2. Progressive Rock: I'm using this category for bands that sound like they may as well have come from the British prog rock scene – except that the vocals are distinctly accented and sometimes even deliberately bizarrely intoned. I'm talking about "progressive" in the sense of bands like Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson: complicated song structures, intricate arrangements, bombastic sound, exploratory vision, and so on. The German bands in this vein aren't necessary derivative, but this is perhaps the closest grouping to any segment of mainstream Anglo-American music. I would include bands like Jane, Birth Control, Grobschnitt, and later Amon Düül II. This music is usually full of surprises and a good mix of intellect and fun, but can also be over-the-top and excessive.

3. Experimental, Academic, and Sound Collage: This might be the earliest variety, arguably descending from Karlheinz Stockhausen's compositions such as Telemusik in 1966 and Hymnen in 1967. Most of these bands come from an art school background and liked experimenting with sound and unusual methods of sound production. The "studio as instrument" cliché could easily be applied here. Much of this music is arrhythmic, and all of it is instrumental. This is pre-synthesizer, but in the heyday of tape loops and studio ingenuity. Unconventional instrumentation (for rock music, at least) such as flutes, violin, bells, and glockenspiel are common. Good examples are Kluster, early Cluster, early Tangerine Dream, Organisation, and early Kraftwerk. Autobahn is right on the line and perhaps the last prominent example. This is music that can easily be derided as overly "academic" in the sense of not being particularly listener-friendly. There is a lot of creativity and a wealth of ideas, but only a minimal attempt to address these traits to the interests of a conventional listener.

4. Ambient and Cosmic Soundscapes: Although Brian Eno might be credited (correctly or otherwise) with spurring the genrification of ambient music, I would argue that Komische bands were the initial instigators. (Note that Eno did not disagree and in fact recorded albums with Cluster and Harmonia in the 70s.) These bands preferred long, slow moving, spaced out sonic explorations. Most of these bands are instrumental, most used synthesizers and electronics, and only occasionally did they dabble in rhythm. The best of the bunch include Tangerine Dream, Cluster, the second side of most Ash Ra Tempel albums, Klaus Schulze, Cluster, Harmonia. Popol Vuh also fit here, although they also ventured into more "world music" directions. Note that most of the major players of the third category migrated to this style in a matter of a couple years. Much like later, more widely accepted variants of ambient, this music is too easily regulated to "background" status, and often suffers under the strain of focused listening. Nonetheless, as "mood music" they usually succeed in establishing a nuanced, textural playground.

5. Space Folk: This might be the smallest subset, at least as far as my knowledge goes, but I think they deserve a unique space. These acts play some version of folk music, where vocals, acoustic guitars, and various forms of hand percussion are central. This is more than just standard folk music in that there are psychedelic tendencies, extended song structures, and sometimes even a jam atmosphere. Bands that belong here include Amon Düül (in particular Paradieswärts Düül), Witthüser & Westrupp, Hoelderlin, and the second half of Amon Düül II's Yeti (which are improvisations that in part include members of Amon Düül). For fans of folk and psychedelia, these bands represent a unique variant of conventional folk music. Prog- and hard rock-oriented types may be put off by the overly hippie-like aesthetic and the relatively subtle energy.

6. Innovative Rock: This is the hardest group to pin down and typify. I think these bands are what really drove the British idea of the existence of a unique German genre of music (i.e. Krautrock). These bands could perhaps be described as progressive or psychedelic, but they don't really sound anything like Anglo-American prog and psych bands. These bands are loosely "rock" groups in some fashion, but often have jazz influences. They are usually rooted in conventional rock instrumentation, but seem to favor keyboards and electronics. The key is that the music is almost always rhythmic and driving, with a very strong propulsive energy and a certain restlessness. It's no surprise that the punk and post-punk movements clearly owed a lot to these bands. I'll admit this category is something of a catch-all for bands that don't easily fit elsewhere, but I think that's actually the point: these are musicians that really transcended their antecedents and their surroundings and made something truly new. The difficulty of ascribing existing titles to the style is perhaps why Krautrock became such a pervasive term. The key bands here are Can, Faust, Neu!, Kraftwerk (from Autobahn through Trans-Europa Express), and La Düsseldorf. I might also include some more overtly electronic acts like Wolfgang Riechmann and later-period Kraftwerk. I think the bands in this category are practically faultless and thus represent the best of German music from the 70s.

[The inner sleeve of Kraftwerk's Trans-Europa Express.]

It's hard for me to hide that I think the bands in group #6 are the best of the lot. They have been my favorites since I first started looking into these various movements, and they still are now. That's not to say I don't like bands from the other divisions, but I tend to find them a more mixed bag. There are exceptions, such as Harmonia, whose blend of ambient, experimentation, and pulsing rock I find delightful, and Paradieswärts Düül, which I find surprisingly beautiful. Conversely, Julian Cope seems to enjoy an odd mixture from each group except #2 (the straight prog groups). We mostly agree about the strengths of #6, but we disagree on many of the other details.

More important than my preferences, though, is the nature of the categorization. There is an inherent problem with making a rubric such as this in that the divisions are somewhat arbitrary and overlapping. These groupings all share plenty of attributes, such as nontraditional song length and an explicit sense of looking to the future or outside of the norm. These supposed divisions are really spectra within a multidimensional field of possibilities, and most bands don't fit perfectly under any single label. Some bands are particularly challenging: Can skirted many styles all at once, and both Cluster and Kraftwerk made several distinct changes over their careers. Then there's Ash Ra Tempel, where the two sides of their albums are consistently divergent.

[Cluster's Sowiesoso. This is the cover of the CD reissue, which was the back cover of the original pressing, but I actually prefer it to the original cover.]

So does "Krautrock" just mean "German music that rocks", i.e. groups #1, #2, and #6? Does "Kosmische Musik" equate with the proto-ambient music of group #4, or does it also include the cosmic rock of group #1? Or does it stretch to include anything vaguely cosmic, spacey, other-worldly, or "far out" (presumably groups #3 and #4, but possibly also #1, #5, and #6)? I think it is problematic to call all German music from this era "Krautrock" (why not just call it German music and drop the slur?), but at a minimum I do think the sixth category deserves some special recognition – bands like those really didn't exist anywhere else.

The problem with "Krautrock" and "Kosmische Musik" is that they've been used so many times to mean different things, sometimes overlapping and sometimes explicitly distinct. I propose that we either drop those terms or decide on specific meanings for them. In the meantime, we should group these artists by their actual styles, as I have, or perhaps by the historical associations they had with each other, be that based on record labels, geography, or some other metric. I would like it if we called all of this music "progressive German music" and perhaps restricted "Krautrock" to group #6. We could call group #1 "German cosmic rock", #2 "German prog rock", #3 "German cosmic experimental music", #4 "German cosmic ambient", #5 "German cosmic folk", and #6 "German innovative rock". Maybe then we would have terms that actually mean something consistent!

One final note: the Freemans' The Crack in the Cosmic Egg lists, in addition to all the bands I've mentioned and plenty more I haven't, a few bands from the late 70s Neue Deutsche Welle movement. This is somewhat surprising only in that it seems hard to find fans of both Krautrock and NDW. Much like punk and post-punk in England, NDW consciously rejected much of what came before, or at least digested it into bold new forms. The problem here is that the Freemans' choice of NDW bands is rather inscrutable. They list Din A Testbild but not Einstürzende Neubauten; D.A.F., Der Plan, and Pyrolator but not Abwärts, S.Y.P.H., or Palais Schaumburg; and Nina Hagen (probably just because her band was once part of Lokomotive Kreuzberg) but none of the other various German punks like Mittagspause, Male, The Wirtschaftswunder, or Fehlfarben. I consider these aberrant inclusions in such a list to be unwarranted, as the punk/NDW scene was really quite a different movement.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Julian Cope - Krautrocksampler (1995)

Title: Krautrocksampler
Author: Julian Cope
Publisher: Head Heritage
Year: 1995

I inherited an interest in Krautrock and Kosmische Musik in the good old fashioned way: through my dad's Kraftwerk records and an older friend in college that lent me his Neu! collection. I eventually started picking up remastered Can CDs, and when I left the USA to live in Germany for a year, I decided I would make a habit of digging through record stores in search of treasured old German albums. With great persistence, I managed to find a good batch of Neue Deutsche Welle albums, but I actually had a very hard time finding Krautrock records. It turns out those albums usually have complicated histories of limited pressings by various labels, authorized or otherwise, and they always sell at high prices. The only exceptions were La Düsseldorf, whose incredible first two albums I found at cheap prices, and Wolfgang Riechmann, whose lone album was a lucky find.

I continued my search upon return to the States. I started finding expensive Faust and Amon Düül I/II reissues, and with the income of a full-time job, I could finally actually afford them. Somewhere along this process, I started to hear about Julian Cope's Krautrocksampler, supposedly the premier source of information on these bands and others. I knew Cope well from The Teardrop Explodes, an excellent post-punk band, so it was believable that he could be an authority. However, the book was long out of print and impossible to find, just like most of the records. At one point, a bartender overheard me talking about it and claimed that he'd just sold his copy for a couple hundred dollars. This was the stuff of myths – again, much like the records.

Eventually I managed to acquire a copy. It's actually a rather slender book of only nine chapters and about 140 pages. It's also very poorly edited, rather poorly written, questionably accurate, and highly subjective. That doesn't make it a worthless book, but I was quite disappointed by the lack of an attempt to be balanced, objective, thorough, methodical, consistent, or comprehensive. If you manage not to worry about those things, and somehow excuse the occasional ableist language, it's at best a mildly enjoyable read, mostly because Cope lets it play out more like a fabled story instead of a historical document.

The book starts off with some background information covering the roots of Krautrock, such as the 60s student riots, The Monks, leftist politics, Karlheinz Stockhausen, the commune movement, Yoko Ono, and a general desire to make new music that wasn't just rooted in Anglo-American rock music. But after the comparatively well-written, organized, and thoughtful first two chapters, the remaining seven are each dedicated to a particularly notable band or two. These chapters are dominated by Cope's overwhelming predilections for storytelling and hyperbolizing, which prevent the narrative from getting sidetracked into things as trivial as facts. His language gets even more casual and excited to the point that it becomes hard to trust his opinions. (Example: "It's hard to feel spiritually satisfied by Neu 2 but is truly pretty fucking good.") While such nontraditional descriptions of music can sometimes be clever and enlightening, they often leave you wondering just how subjective those experiences are.

While the sections on Neu! and Can are mostly reasonable, the section on Faust has been hotly contested, and the Amon Düül section lacks any great insight. The book really veers into total mythic territory for the sections about Ash Ra Tempel and the Cosmic Couriers. There might be some truth to the wild tales of Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and his mostly unwitting gang, but the whole thing is hard to take seriously, especially since Cope is so fanboyishly fond of the Cosmic Jokers albums. These albums may have had their moments, but they were constructed under questionable circumstances and sound quite dated and indulgent today.

The last fifty pages of the book take the form of an appendix of Cope's top 50 Krautrock albums, reviews of these albums, and several prints of album sleeves. Some of this content is great to have, but most is rather trite. In particular, his choice of the best albums of the genre is very strangely distributed. He generally selects the first three or four albums by his favorite bands, along with everything related to the Cosmic Couriers. But why exactly is Amon Düül II's Tanz der Lemminge excluded? Where did Moebius and Plank's Rastakrautpasta (1980) come from, if almost everything else on the list is circa 1969 – 1975? There are also albums like Guru Guru's UFO and Klaus Schulze's Cyborg that were hardly mentioned in the primary text. (The Guru Guru choice is especially questionable, since their next few albums after UFO are actually better.) It's also incongruous that several albums by Popol Vuh are in the Top 50 when they were largely ignored elsewhere in the book. And considering Cope's tastes, it's certainly odd that Agitation Free are only mentioned in a tiny extra blurb on the very last page of the second edition.

Cope is allowed to have his own preferences, but he does a disservice to his work by lacking consistency and failing to even mention countless other bands that were part of the same movements. He clearly downplays the influence of Kraftwerk (only listing their practically forgotten 1970 debut album in his Top 50), despite that they are probably the only Krautrock band in the mainstream consciousness (although in fairness there is plenty of information about them elsewhere). He might also be right to dismiss bands like Jane (too hard rock) and Embryo (too jazz fusion), but what about bands like Annexus Quam, Hoelderlin, Paternoster, Xhol Caravan, Grobschnitt, or Kraan, to name just a few? These bands might be second-rate to the bigger names he does cover, but it is inaccurate to pretend that there were only a few players on the scene(s).

The final straw for this book is the number of typos and mistranslations. Many, many German words are misspelled, and it is clear that no one fluent in German ever proofread the book. "Aufspielen" means "strike up", not "speak out", and "Gelt" should be "Geld", and it means "money", not "gold"! How is it that these errors still made it to the second edition? Mistakes like these only further reduce Cope's legitimacy and reinforce the notion that his perspective is that of an outsider.

Supposedly, Cope has not reprinted the book in many years because he admitted there were too many factual errors and realized there were greater authorities on the subject. While I think Cope is right, unfortunately, most of the existing literature suffers similar faults. There don't even seem to be any remotely comprehensive German-language works on the relevant movements. (I'd love to be proven wrong.) Compared to Cope's book, Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and Its Legacy (2010; edited by Nikos Kotsopoulos) seems similarly short and incomplete, and the relatively new Future Days (2014) by David Stubbs also seems heavily opinionated, just with a different set of biases (see here and here for reviews). The best-looking publication might be The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, first published 1996 as a book and later as a CD-ROM. It seems to aim to be the most comprehensive guide, but judging by the "light" version freely available online, it lacks a certain amount of critical analysis. It's also worth remembering that AllMusic,, and Wikipedia (especially if you read German) generally have a lot of this information, too, along with the scanned album sleeves.

For better or worse, Krautrocksampler is still considered the most important resource on the subject, probably just because it got there first. If Cope opened the door, then I'm thankful for it, but his work cannot be considered authoritative or definitive. While the upbeat and enthusiastic tone gives the book an encouraging rush of energy, the poor language and many typos and errors render the book ineffectual and unsatisfying. He does cover a lot of great music, so I would hate to think that the low quality of the book would reflect negatively upon the subject matter. Seek out these bands, but follow some other guide.

Score: D+

P.S. Next up: a post about the terminology and scope of Krautrock and Kosmische Musik, along with a few opinions of my own on the bands in question.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Brian Eno - A Year with Swollen Appendices (1996)

Title: A Year with Swollen Appendices
Author: Brian Eno
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Year: 1996

At first, once you get past the introductory remarks and explanations, you can't help but wonder why you are reading someone's private diary. Brian Eno makes no attempt to mask the fact that A Year with Swollen Appendices is really just a journal, and it takes a while to appreciate why there is anything worth reading in it. You gradually begin to appreciate the moments of brilliance interspersed among the mundane, and realize that if he can manage to squeeze so many great ideas into what is merely a personal journal, you are only the scratching the surface of his vision.

Since Eno initially was just writing it for himself, the diary mostly describes the everyday human minutiae of existence that even a famous musical producer has to go through. He describes his family in detail, he documents what he cooked for dinner, he mentions various personal sexual preferences, he diverts his attention with vacations, he attends parties and ceremonies and film screenings, he meets with friends and famous names, and of course, he spends plenty of time in his studio. Most of these activities are profoundly boring, but a few are profoundly fascinating. It helps that Eno's language is clear and clever, such that even his descriptions of the mundane can be uplifted by his tendency to make simple comments that belie his peculiar ability to see the world from unusual perspectives. After describing a meeting with a Hollywood director, he writes, "How determined people seem to be to aim for exactly the same target again and again." Reflecting on the film Basquiat, he critiques the nobility of the "artist's struggle" and muses, "Funny people don't make films about the struggle of being a postman or dentist." He has a similar ability to pick the perfect quotes from others, in particular the utterly absurd lines spoken by his young daughters. These moments are a large part of what makes the book worth reading.

The other main draw that makes the book worth reading is all the appended material, such as excerpted emails, explanatory footnotes, and the actual appendices. This supplementary material is where Eno truly shows the breadth and depth of his ideas and his abilities. Large sections are devoted to his thoughts on emerging technology (he is mostly unimpressed with the directions chosen) and to the ongoing fighting in Bosnia (he is deeply involved with War Child). Some of the appendices are so good that they could be published independently as essays. (Maybe that's what blogs are for now.) Several presage ideas that now have mainstream currency. A few of the standouts are Axis thinking (as opposed to binary divisions), Celebrities and aid-giving (self-explanatory but thoughtfully handled), Culture (as in, what does that term really mean?), Defence (and how it is budgeted), Sharing Music (as in, sharing credit and thus how musicians get paid) and Unfinished (in reference to media, as a better term and goal than "interactive").

There is one other major reason to pick up the book, and that's for the references to the various major recording artists that Eno works with throughout the year, namely David Bowie, James, Jah Wobble, and U2. These sections are often less exciting one might expect, as Eno often just describes tedious details and personal frustrations, and many songs are referred to by working titles which aren't always easy to cross-reference with released versions. This is especially the case for James, where the sessions were inconclusive, the band re-recorded most of the material with other producers, and the finished album (Whiplash) wasn't released until 1997. It also turns out that he never meets with Wobble and has just sent him multitracks to remix and reconfigure.

The sections with Bowie and U2 are more interesting, but for different reasons. Eno has long relationships with both of them, but seems to think of them differently. Bowie appears as a longstanding friend, someone with a similar manner of thinking, with varied interests and a lot in common. The album they create together (Bowie's Outside) is challenging, forward-looking, deeply nuanced, and for the most part, quite good. It's one of Bowie's career peaks, and when he calls Eno while touring to tell him how well things are going, it's no small pleasure to hear it.

Eno's relationship with U2 is perhaps more complicated. He clearly gets along with the band quite well, shares many interests with them, and respects their musicianship and ability to inflect their music with strong emotion, but between the lines one can detect some reservations about the sincerity of these emotions, and Eno is fairly critical of other aspects of the band. He mentions that U2 are in the process of acquiring a hotel, which Eno balks at. It also seems like no coincidence that in the middle of recording with them, he writes a lengthy bit in his journal about his rejection of religion and mysticism. At any rate, the album they create together (Original Soundtracks 1, released under the collaborative pseudonym Passengers), is rather good, but somewhat unlike other U2 albums, if for no other reason than Bono's vocals are distinctly downplayed.

A strange part of the book is reading about various events but not quite realizing what all is happening unless you look it up elsewhere. The most obvious are just the album release dates that largely go unmentioned, but there are many others. On September 12, Eno is suddenly Modena, Italy, performing two songs live on stage with Bono, The Edge, and Luciano Pavarotti. Little context is provided, but it turns out this was part of an annual concert that Pavarotti hosts for humanitarian causes, in this case the Pavarotti Music Centre of Mostar, Bosnia, and the concert was even officially released! At another point, he suddenly is working feverishly on The Help Album, a charity album produced by War Child. In fact, Eno spends quite a bit of time devoted to and writing about War Child and the war in Bosnia. I probably know more about the war now than I ever did from hearing about it as a child and reading about it in high school history classes.

If there is a downside the book, it's the relative inconsistency and the annoying difficulty of sifting through the tedious details. Eno mentions many, many names, and most are left without context. These could be famous names that I don't recognize, but surely it isn't worth looking up every single one, and so I just let those parts be lost on me. The book requires a lot of flipping back and forth, in part to try to cross-reference names and places, but also to go read the appendices as they are mentioned in the primary journal text. The appendices are almost all first-rate, but they are essays and stories and emails of disparate natures. The journal is cohesive in the sense that it is linear, but it too changes over the course of the book. Some days he writes very little or even nothing, other days he goes on at length about one issue, or he discusses a series of trivial matters, or he excerpts from email correspondence. And at some point in October, he decides to publish the journal, so his style gets much tamer, more organized, and more expository. It's not actually all that distracting, but sometimes I felt like I was spending too much time wondering about what was left out or what was worth looking into further elsewhere. Actually, maybe that isn't a bad thing.

Finally, I will leave you with a few more of my favorite quotes from the book:

"Oblique Strategy: Take away as much mystery as possible. What is left?"

"Do very hard things, just for the sake of it."

"It's the sound of failure: so much of modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart." (This is in reference to things like the prevalence of distortion in rock music.)

"Instead of thinking of people as male or female, think of a multi-axial field of possibilities running between these two poles. Then look at people as disposed throughout it -- and capable of shifting when mood and circumstances require. Encourage exploration. Encourage new hybrids."

Score: B+

Bonus scores:
Outside, by David Bowie: A-
Original Soundtracks 1, by Passengers: B

P.S. I very much appreciate that he believes backing vocals solve most problems, but I disagree on the part about oyster sauce.

P.P.S. Certainly the figure cited as Eno's advance from Faber and Faber in the introduction (100,000,000₤) cannot be correct. Was that a typo or what?

P.P.P.S. It used to be a joke in some of my early posts that I would somehow find a way to mention Brian Eno in every review. After all, he is something of a godfather/patron saint/significant reference point for many or most bands I like. I gave up on dropping his name so frequently, but I still could if given the challenge!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico - Live 1972.01.29 Le Bataclan, Paris, France

Artists: Lou Reed, John Cale, & Nico
Venue: Le Bataclan
Location: Paris, France
Date: 29 January 1972
Album: Le Bataclan '72
Release Date: 19 October 2004, 10 December 2013
Label: Alchemy Entertainment/Pilot, Keyhole

Typical tracklisting:
01. I'm Waiting for the Man
02. Berlin
03. The Black Angel's Death Song
04. Wild Child
05. Heroin
06. Ghost Story
07. The Biggest, Loudest, Hairiest Group of All
08. Empty Bottles
09. Femme Fatale
10. No One Is There
11. Frozen Warnings
12. Janitor of Lunacy
13. I'll Be Your Mirror
14. All Tomorrow's Parties
15. Pale Blue Eyes [Rehearsal]
16. Candy Says [Rehearsal]

This is one of the most popularly bootlegged concerts in the history of these three performers. It's quite a special moment, as this trio hadn't performed together since Nico separated from the Velvet Underground in 1967, and they never would again. Here, they share each other's songs, and the whole thing is done acoustically. If that weren't enough, Cale plays two songs he never released ("The Biggest, Loudest, Hairiest Group of All" and "Empty Bottles", which was given to Jennifer Warnes), and Reed's solo songs ("Berlin" and "Wild Child") are played in rather different arrangements than appeared on record. Even if the musicians are clearly a bit out of practice, and the instruments aren't always quite in tune, this is a very special concert.

But everyone seems to already know that, and what I really want to address is the legitimacy of this album in its commercially released form. The 2004 release by Alchemy Entertainment (with a Pilot catalog number) is supposedly legitimate, but I've always been skeptical. Pitchfork, Wikipedia, and the Fear Is a Man's Best Friend John Cale fansite all list it as an official release. But then why didn't the album appear on any of the musicians' primary labels, most of which are major industry players? A bit of research into Alchemy Entertainment's catalog shows a rapid string of releases, all of dubious quality, all circa 2004.

Take for example the Joy Division albums Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979 and Preston 28 February 1980, both live albums with long histories of releases on dubious labels. Both are supposedly "official" releases, yet have questionable quality, idiosyncratic errors, and features common to all bootleg versions. In the meantime, Joy Division enthusiast The Analog Loyalist has notably compiled and remastered a much improved and substantially more complete bootleg version of the Les Bains Douches concert. If the commercially available version was indeed an official release, then why is The Analog Loyalist's version obviously superior in every way? Why do the "official" albums have a history of releases on dubious labels like NMC/New Millennium Communications (some of which share the Pilot catalog numbers) and Get Back?

Note that the Bataclan album has a similar history of multiple labels (including some of the same as the Joy Division albums!), all of which seem dubious. The most recent release (and the one I ended up with) is on Keyhole, which appears to be a relatively new bootleg label, and clearly known as such even to – every catalog item is listed as "Unofficial"!

Furthering my skepticism is that the various versions of this album contain several errors. "All Tomorrow's Parties" is often labeled as an encore (it was not, as far as I can tell). It is also sourced from an audience tape instead of the soundboard used as the primary source. These are the same sources that have been traded as bootlegs for years upon years, and this "official" version is not remastered, more complete, cleaner, or better in any capacity. Worst of all, the whole thing plays conspicuously slow, presumably because it was mastered at the wrong speed.

I am not the only one who is skeptical about the legitimacy of these releases, and according to this thread, John Cale even took action against the pressing of this album at some point. Richie Unterberger's White Light/White Heat also confirms that Lou Reed was not pleased to learn about the album. I am curious to find more definitive answers, so if you have additional information, please share it. It's worth noting that I am certainly not against trading bootlegs of unreleased material, especially if the artists have approved such trading (as they often do). What bothers me is the idea of people making money off of these recordings without anything going to the artists in question. Anyway, why buy bootlegs when trading of lossless audio is so easy via torrents and sites like the Live Music Archive?

Score: B+

Sunday, March 29, 2015

South by Southwest 2015 Final Thoughts

Like last year, after writing up all my thoughts about the bands I saw at SXSW, I still have a few thoughts left to share about the event as a whole. First, though, for the sake of reference, here is the list of all the bands I saw with links to the reviews:

Day 1: Fotogramas / Marineros / Dead Leaf Echo
Day 2: Talk in Tongues / Mai Dhai / Mother Falcon / TV on the Radio
Day 3 (parts 1 and 2): Hundred Waters / Alvvays / Will Butler / Title Fight / Twerps / DJ Windows 98 / Deerhoof / Think No Think / Golden Dawn Arkestra / Holy Wave / Merchandise / Moon Duo / Songhoy Blues / The Pop Group / Gang of Four
Day 4: The Shivas / The Lemons / Today's Hits / Gap Dream / Courtney Barnett / Run the Jewels / Homeshake / Kate Tempest / The Church / Tanya Tagaq
Day 5: Spencer Mackenzie Brown / Bruiser Queen / Psychic Heat / Something and the Whatevers / CS Luxem / Gateway Drugs / Swervedriver / The Church

Like last year, I made a concerted effort to see international performers and a few things outside of the rock and pop universe (e.g. Mai Dhai and Tanya Tagaq), but I got to see a few old favorites of mine (The Pop Group, Gang of Four, The Church), a couple recent favorites (Hundred Waters, Merchandise), some bands from my Midwestern home turf (see day 5), and a variety of bands that I didn't know well or at all. I again found it difficult to decide what to see, and although some of my choices really paid off, others were not as successful.

Part of the challenge comes in balancing competing interests. Should you see bands you know and love, should you look for bands with high profiles or encouraging recommendations that you think would be good to see, or should you hunt for new discoveries and great bands still under the radar? The bigger-name stuff might have longer lines and more crowded spaces, but sometimes ends up being a great opportunity to see a band in a smaller, more intimate venue than they normally play, and sometimes it's just an opportunity that you wouldn't otherwise bother to take or even get at all.

I went for a mix of things, which came out with equally mixed results. The day party I saw at Beerland on day 4 was a lot of fun, even if only one band (The Shivas) really impressed me. Considering my love of The Church, I had high hopes for the relatively bigger-name bands playing before them at Emo's on day 5, but I ended up sorely disappointed. And with no idea what to expect from the I Heart Local Music day party at Shangri-La earlier that same day, I thoroughly enjoyed the event. I missed my chance to see bands like Spoon, Real Estate, and Viet Cong that I was rather interested in, but I did get to experience TV on the Radio, Courtney Barnett, and several other rising bands.

I think if I did one thing right, it's that I followed my suggestion from last year and tried to focus on finding venues or areas with good lineups and doing less running around all across town. This worked out especially well for me on day 3, where I hung out at Pitchfork's showcase at Mohawk all afternoon and then Levitation's showcase at Hotel Vegas all evening. If nothing else, it's certainly easier to pick one or two places to spend your night instead of trying to decide on six bands to see that happen to all be at different venues.

A complicating factor with SXSW is that most bands only get 30 or 40 minutes to play, and to maximize exposure and compensation, they play several events, both official and unofficial, sometimes even in one day. Some bands really step it up for these short showcases and manage to compress their energy. Some bands seem to need more time and space, be it for proper soundchecking (e.g. The Pop Group, apparently), the widescreen scope of their sound (some bands just sound better in bigger places), or the sprawling, extended nature of the songs (e.g. The Church, apparently). It can be hard for bands to get it right and make a good impression in such a short burst.

The last thing I want to say was that this year's SXSW definitely felt toned down a bit from last year. I'm not the only one who noticed this. It wasn't just the increased barricades and police presence in response to the fatal accident last year, and I also don't think it was just because of the rain that fell on at least three days. There was a little bit less going on in general, not as many mega-high-profile acts, and just barely not as many people in the streets. I think there might be changes afoot, although what I don't know. Are the incredible number of copycat festivals having an effect? Is Austin reaching the limits of its tolerance? Has SXSW just grown too fast? I suspect it's just hard to keep up the intensity year after year, and maybe SXSW needs some rethinking to keep it cutting-edge.

[Sixth Street from the rooftop of Maggie Mae's on day 4.]

Saturday, March 28, 2015

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 21 March 2015

Introduction: I started my day at I Heart Local Music's day party as part of the Midcoast Takeover at Shangri-La. They had been forced to move inside due to continuing rainfall, but that just meant the audience got a more intimate show and we could be closer to the performers, so it wasn't a bad deal.

Spencer Mackenzie Brown: Spencer and his four bandmates offered some solid music that resided somewhere in the realm that could be called Americana. I don't always like that term nor the musicians that are described with it, but I thought Spencer and his band had a great blend of indie rock, folk harmonies, and just a hint of country rhythm. The bassist was great, the drummer was good, and the vocals were just right. They might not be revolutionary, but they certainly put on an enjoyable show.

[Spencer MacKenzie Brown at Shangri-La.]

Bruiser Queen: Although this event was focusing on Lawrence, Kansas bands, this punky duo from St. Louis managed to sneak in. The frontwoman had a powerful voice and great energy, and she proved it by really throwing herself into her singing and guitar playing. She was a very physical performer, which I think works well for a band like this. The drummer wasn't showy but accompanied the singer perfectly, and even contributed some backing vocals, too. The lyrics were standard fare, but the two musicians were so tight that the music was far more than the sum of its parts. They were fun to behold.

[Bruiser Queen at Shangri-La.]

Psychic Heat: These four dudes went straight for the gut with a very intense, hard, punky style. The musicianship was decent, but it was missing an element of depth. The audience didn't seem to mind, as a few people started moshing in the small space they had available. I did appreciate some of the swirling guitar sounds I heard, evidencing traces of psychedelia. Someone has kindly put their setlist online:

1. Mortal Concept
2. Stargazer
3. How Many Licks
4. Elixir
5. Anxiety Eater
6. In Two

[Psychic Heat at Shangri-La.]

Something and the Whatevers: This band is quite an experience. They are nominally a three-piece with a high-energy style, but they play as if they are the backing band of a robot leader. Their entire set was carefully timed with a laptop, hidden behind what appeared to be a giant cardboard mp3 player, such that between every song, a robot voice would speak to the audience and announce songs. They had a punky spirit, but considering the use of a drum machine and that one of the members played keyboards, I think punk might be too limiting here. It was an intense performance that was hard not to want to watch every minute of. The lyrics covered ground such as hitting the snooze button too much, locking one's keys in the car, general self-deprecation, and general self-description. It was probably the most postmodern performance I saw at SXSW.

[Something and the Whatevers at Shangri-La.]

CS Luxem: Last on the bill for I Heart Local Music's part of the event was CS Luxem, an indie rock three-piece with some tricks up their sleeves. They too had punky elements, but they didn't let themselves be constrained by that. They had great dynamics and had more nuance than just always being loud and in-your-face. It did seem, though, that they played a rather short set.

[CS Luxem at Shangri-La.]

At this point I took a break from things to walk around downtown with a couple friends. We walked past the Fader Fort and started hearing the many conflicted rumors as to whether Kanye West was the surprise guest that night. (He wasn't.) We ended up just eating some food and taking it easy for a while before splitting up to follow our own paths. I bike across Town Lake and headed south to Emo's, where I stayed for the rest of the evening.

Gateway Drugs: I thought this band had some promise, but when every song came off as just dirty, over-distorted, heavy, hard rock, there wasn't much for me to appreciate. The bass frequencies noisily overwhelmed the sonic spectrum and the vocals where mixed very low. There was no nuance, subtlety, or grace, just loud guitar rock. They also had a strange habit of sampling a brief section of each song as it ended and repeating it through the PA until they started the next song. The only parts of the set I actually liked were a few sections where the noise had just a shade of psychedelic beauty, but those were infrequent moments.

[Gateway Drugs at Emo's.]

Swervedriver: I was actually fairly interested in this band on the basis of their original shoegaze roots, but unfortunately, they've really moved away from that direction over the years. Instead, their sound was just a lot of guitars in a 90s alt rock mode. It was surprisingly bland and tame – there just wasn't a lot of melody or rhythm or really anything that stood out. It was mildly rocking but just not exciting. Most of their setlist has been posted online:

01. Autodidact
02. For Seeking Heat
03. Setting Sun
04. Rave Down
05. These Times
06. For a Day Like Tomorrow
07. [Unknown]
08. Deep Wound
09. Son of Mustang Ford
10. [Unknown]
11. Duel

[Swervedriver at Emo's.]

The Church: This band is the real reason why I was at Emo's. After the slight disappointment of seeing them the night before, I was particularly excited at the prospect of them playing a more traditional set length (90 minutes). Here's the setlist (with some help from here):

01. Is This Where You Live
02. Delirious
03. Laurel Canyon
04. You Took
05. Metropolis
06. Toy Head
07. Vanishing Man
08. The Disillusionist
09. Old Flame
10. Reptile
11. Block
12. Under the Milky Way
13. Miami

[The Church at Emo's.]

The Church were in much better form on this night. They seemed more comfortable and in control. They again opened with the sprawling, extended "Is This Where You Live", and again played many long, slow-burning, crescendoing songs, but they also played a bunch of other types of songs, which made for a much more dynamic and enjoyable show. They even played some of their hits! Singer/bassist Steve Kilbey was actually fairly humorous and engaging throughout the set, unlike the night before, where he had cited a lack of time to be able to joke or banter. When announcing "Metropolis", he said it was the time of the show where they were going to play their last hit, but it wasn't the one we thought it was. ("Under the Milky Way" has been a more persistent part of cultural history, but it was released in 1988, whereas "Metropolis" was 1990.)

"You Took", from their second album, The Blurred Crusade (1982), was a major highlight, a great song with a good bass riff which they stretched out with extensive guitar interplay. Sadly, there were no other pre-Starfish songs (except the aforementioned "Is This Where You Live"), but we were treated to two consecutive tracks from the excellent Priest=Aura (1992). Of course, I think both "The Disillusionist" and "Old Flame" are actually fairly weak representatives of that album, but they still have their nice parts.

Naturally, the real excitement came in the form of the two best tracks from Starfish: "Reptile" and "Under the Milky Way". Both were extended with two long guitar solos. The latter song actually seemed a bit mellow or tame, almost as if they were intentionally underplaying it. It was still a beautiful song, but the first guitar solo (the ebow/bagpipe-esque one as heard on the recording) was unspectacular, and it wasn't until the ending and second solo that it picked up and got more wild.

The Church might be aging, but I admire them for following their own path and not just playing to expectations, even if I prefer their jangly guitars to their spacey progressive tendencies of late. The band has lost some of their nuance with the departure of Marty Willson-Piper, but replacement Ian Haug did a decent job of filling in for him. Kilbey is a great semi-mystical frontperson, and Peter Koppes is an excellent guitarist, albeit one who seems to shy away from the spotlight. Together with drummer Tim Powles, they played a lot of strong material and closed the festival on a high note.

[The Church at Emo's.]

Spencer Mackenzie Brown: B+
Bruiser Queen: B
Psychic Heat: C
Something and the Whatevers: A-
CS Luxem: B
Gateway Drugs: D
Swervedriver: C
The Church: B+

P.S. I Heart Local Music's write-up of the show at Shangri-La can be found here.

P.P.S. Big thanks to Fally!

[Edit 2015.04.26:] P.P.P.S. An incomplete setlist for Swervedriver has been posted here:
1. Autodidact
2. For Seeking Heat
3. Setting Sun
4. Rave Down
5. These Times
6. For a Day Like Tomorrow
7. Last Train to Satansville
8. Everso
9. Duel