Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 in Review

In this strange year without much live music, my writing here has obviously suffered. I still saw a few shows early in the year, and one during the early autumn lull, but nothing big. Last year was a record number of concerts and reviews for me, and I had no hope of matching that this year. However, I released my first solo song in 9 years and an album from my old band in Austin, and I’m about to release some more music, too. But like any other year, I’ve spent a ton of time listening to music, and like I did last year, I’ll share a few of my favorite releases from 2020.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:
  • The Asteroid No.4 - Northern Songs - The obvious Beatles references are well-done, but so are the Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine bits. This is a wonderful psych rock adventure.
  • Cremant Ding Dong - assorted singles - Great lyrics, great videos, great music, prominent cute cat. Hard to beat that.
  • Cup Collector - Cordum Hominum Renovatio and Morning Cofee and Tea - The former might be CC’s best electric guitar-based drone yet, and the latter is a successful experiment with layers of nylon-string guitar. I hope it’s not absurd to say that Cup Collector has become my favorite artist to listen to while doing lockdown yoga.
  • Elephant Stone - Hollow - Is this an album about the end of the world released before the pandemic reached full fury? Doesn’t matter, the music is rich and the storytelling is prescient. This is my favorite Elephant Stone album yet. The more explicitly pandemic-related “American Dream” single is also good, albeit a bit precious.
  • Holy Wave - Interloper - Their live shows were always great, and now they finally have an album that equals them. They’ve grown far from their garage roots and have embraced a wealth of new sounds, naturally mostly psychedelic in nature. The lyrics are a huge leap, too: “Maybe Then I Can Cry” hit me hard.
  • Hum - Inlet - Is this another album about the world ending, again presumably written and recorded before the pandemic? This album sounds huge and simultaneously vibrant. It’s their best yet.
  • Ian Fisher - American Standards - This adopted Austrian sure seems enamored with Nashville, but the music is tellingly much wider in scope than mainstream country or even the classic 70s pop hinted at in “AAA Station”. The lyrics are even more powerful and self-aware than Ian’s already-high standard. I can read the excellent title track five or six different ways, and I love that I don’t know which is right.
  • Melange & Jacco Gardner - “Ashokh” single - It’s such a shame they only recorded this one song and that the band broke up. It’s a superb, spritely, groovy jam on par with their wondrous Viento Bravo from 2017.
  • Monta at Odds - Zen Diagram and A Great Conjunction EPs - Both are majestic kosmiche space rock from my hometown of Kansas City, and the former successfully covers a great Tones on Tail song.
  • Nation of Language - Introduction, Presence - Is this pure 80s nostalgia? Yes, probably. But is it a crime to want to sound like Simple Minds or OMD? Certainly not!
  • Pia Fraus - Empty Parks - This sounds like an Estonian blend of Slowdive (especially their self-titled album from 2017), Stereolab, and Loveless, and obviously I rather enjoy it. I wish it was a bit punchier, but sometimes soft and warm is nice, too.
A few additional honorable mentions:
  • Khruangbin - Mordechai - Khruangbin seem incapable of making bad music, but this album is merely pleasant. It actually sounds more derivative than their previous albums, and some parts are a touch too silly. Their collaborative Texas Sun EP with Leon Bridges from earlier in the year was also an interesting aside, but where Bridges’ vocals shone, the lyrics didn’t.
  • Mietminderung - Tatsächliche Verhältnisse EP - Their tagline of “rock music in bureaucratically-inflected German generally about interpersonal relationships” really undersells them, but it hits a certain type of dry German humor on the head. The vocals are indeed a bit stiff, but the music is more adventurous. This is the last and best of the three EPs they’ve released this year.
  • Neil Young - Homegrown - The Archives Volume II collection is almost too big to handle, but this forgotten record is a condensed version of the best of the unreleased content. It’s not exactly great and I understand why he shelved it. Then again, it’s also idiosyncratic and emotionally complex, so it’s a shame that it took 46 years to release it. (I’m almost considering buying the box set anyway just for the wonderful CSNY versions of “Human Highway”, though.)
  • Perlee - Slow Creature EP - It starts slow and doesn’t really pick up much at all, but “Charlie’s Song” is quite good. The early-era Beach House vibes are heavy, but the harmonies are a nice extra touch.
And while I don’t like being rude, there were a few high-ish profile releases that I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by. Here are those:
  • Einstürzende Neubauten - Alles in Allem - I love Neubauten, but not this album. It lacks the creative energy and unpredictable spark of their finest works. It’s weirdly restrained and dour. I like the requiem for Rosa Luxemburg, though.
  • Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension - This seems like a retread of The Age of Adz, but with less variation. Some of the lyrics are nice, but I don’t really get it.
  • Other Lives - For Their Love - I really like the idea of this band, and I still think Tamer Animals is excellent, but this one sounds a bit stale. Much like Rituals from 2015, it sounds huge and cavernous, yet lacks anything memorable.
Lastly, there were again some excellent albums from (relatively) recent years that I missed before but picked up this year. Here are some of the best:
  • Lush - Blind Spot EP (2016) - Their only new music after reuniting, and it matches their classic sound in all the right ways.
  • Monta at Odds - Argentum Dreams (2018) - More great space rock with lovely 80s synth sounds, but also featuring Lawrence artist Your Friend!
  • Tocotronic - K.O.O.K. (1999) - Tocotonic took a while to grow on me. The lyrics are subtle and yet evocative. Musically, I think this is their album that’s mostly closed tuned to my tastes.
With any luck, live music will be a viable option again at some point in 2021!

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Cocteau Twins - The 4AD 80s albums

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1, a collection of all the Cocteau Twins’ EPs and singles on 4AD in the 80s. Now I’d like to cover the albums from the same period. The first few mirror the EPs and singles quite closely, but starting in 1986, they begin to diverge. The albums tend to be more focused in specific themes and sounds, and as such, they are a bit less wildly exciting, but still they represent thoroughly solid listening experiences in their longer forms.


Garlands was the first ever Cocteau Twins release in September 1982. It’s dark, post-punk, and gothic, and it’s the only album with bassist Will Heggie. The combination of heavy chorus bass riffs, pointed and thickly distorted lead guitar lines, heavy drum machine reverb, and lots of stuttered vocals makes for a rather harsh sound. It sounds strained and raw, and it doesn’t really vary very widely. I like the creative use of guitar delay, though, and the album sort of presages their later exploration, but it’s much more limited in scope.


Head Over Heels (released on Halloween 1983) is still dark and gothy, but it’s somewhat more exploratory. Most of the instrumentation and tone is similar to prior recordings, but with the addition of some keyboards and acoustic guitars. It was recorded as a duo after Heggie left, but there is still bass, presumably recorded by Robin Guthrie. The production is slightly richer and more vibrant. It’s right on the line of the original gothy sound and something new. “Sugar Hiccup” is of course excellent, but it sticks out a bit. (It fits on Sunburst and Snowblind a bit better.) “In the Gold Dust Rush” is also notably a step forward, and “Multifoiled” is surprisingly playful.


By the time Treasure was released in November 1984, Cocteau Twins had hit their stride. Treasure picks up about where The Spangle Maker EP left off, and even if it can’t quite match that level of consistency, it’s their first really good album. It’s also their first album with bassist Simon Raymonde. It finally shows them opening up and really coming into their own; it’s full of great guitar and keyboard sounds, and Elizabeth Fraser really started exploring the full power of her voice. Almost every song has something cool and creative going for it. “Ivo” is perhaps the most remarkable of the lot, and it’s such an awesome opening track. It starts all dark and spooky like their previous work, but then suddenly tumbles into something grand, full, and bombastic. That’s followed up with “Lorelei”, another solid song that starts right off with insistent guitar and bells, hearkening the coming of majestic new heights. It feels so lush, and Fraser’s voice sounds full of hushed anticipation. The album gets a bit weirder starting with “Beatrix”, and a few songs like “Cicely” and “Otterley” are just a bit too dark and dull. But right at the end of album closer “Domino”, they pull a nice trick and refresh themselves anew.


After a streak of incredible EPs, the band changed gears for Victorialand, released in April 1986. As Raymonde was busy with This Mortal Coil, it was recorded again as a duo. This time, though, there’s hardly any bass or even drums at all, but there is some saxophone from Richard Thomas of Dif Juz. Otherwise, it’s mostly just acoustic or shimmering electric guitar and vocals. The result is sparse and open but still pretty, which makes for a very chill and relaxing listen. Opener “Lazy Calm” takes some time to get going, but it expands beautifully. “Fluffy Tufts” and “Little Spacey” are quite pleasant, too. Just a few tracks like “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” and “The Thinner the Air” are more overcast. The album is a bit short and feels a bit slight, especially after how much they crammed into each of the preceding releases. It feels like a distinct break from everything they’d done before, but it wouldn’t be the last time they’d explore these elements.


Right after the stunning Love’s Easy Tears EP came The Moon and the Melodies in November 1986. With Guthrie back in the fold, this album was also a collaboration with ambient composer Harold Budd. (Strangely it was credited to each of the four contributors as individuals.) Richard Thomas turns up again on sax, too. The result is not at all like Love’s Easy Tears; it’s much closer to Victorialand, but with the notable addition of particularly expressive piano. Most of the album is open, broadly ambient, and instrumental. “Memory Gongs” represents the best of that bunch; it’s just a cool atmosphere, like walking on a frozen pond in the woods, with piano and little synth noises dripping down on the icy splendor. The rest of the album (“Sea, Swallow Me”, “Eyes Are Mosaics”, “She Will Destroy You”) is like normal Cocteaus but chiller, lighter, and more shimmery, but still further on the ambient spectrum than usual. The whole concept feels like a risk, and even if it isn’t stellar across the board, it’s still quite good. “Sea, Swallow Me” is great by any standard. Fraser’s vocals are big and dramatic, and the music swells and shines right in step. The album is not as weird or dark or even as mysterious as their prior work, but the expansiveness and grandiosity can still be found here and there. The latter half of the album is maybe a bit too sparse, but “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” finally turns it up right before the end.


Cocteau Twins finally took some time off at that point. They stopped releasing EPs for the next seven years, and they took a break from touring as well. Their next release was Blue Bell Knoll in September 1988. If this was the condensed best of two years of work, it shows. It’s refined, complex, and exciting, but also bright, beautiful, and almost entirely upbeat. It would seem the band had access to a modest budget, and they made great use of it. It’s not quite as varied and dynamic as Treasure or their best EPs, but it is a return to the forms of those releases. “Blue Bell Knoll” starts the album off on a high note, entrancing the listener with the rolling harpsichord sound. “Carolyn’s Fingers” is one of their all-time best. The heights of Fraser’s voice are wondrous and the music is gorgeous. “For Phoebe Still a Baby” brings the energy down a notch, but it’s still just as pretty. “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat” might be their first sequencer-driven song, and it presages the full, soft beauty of Heaven or Las Vegas. I love the weird spacey sounds, too. The album might rely on a few tried and true formulas (acoustic guitar strums and delay-laden electric arpeggios), but there’s nothing wrong with that when the results are this good.


Heaven or Las Vegas, released in September 1990, is the peak of Cocteau Twins. It’s dream pop at it’s finest. It’s full, stunning, and luscious, with a huge sound, excellent production, and an obviously good budget. It’s the best they’d ever do in the album format. The band was starting to fracture, and this was their last album for 4AD, but you can hardly tell. It’s their most accessible, mainstream, and pop-oriented work, yet doesn’t compromise their vision, scope, or grandeur. It’s also their dance-friendliest music. Every song has something of a driving pulse laying the groundwork for the ethereal layers. It’s also notable for lyrics that started to move back into decipherable territory. The influence of a newborn baby is maybe even discernible. “Cherry-Coloured Funk” is a great title, even if I wouldn’t call it funk, but the “cherry-coloured” part seems to fit. “Fifty-Fifty Clown” and “Road, River and Rail” are slightly cloudier and uncertain, but still lovely. “Heaven or Las Vegas” is one of their best, another one of their songs that just keeps pouring down incredible sounds and vocal lines. “Fotzepolitic” and “Wolf in the Breast” manage similar feats without getting repetitive. Closer “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” starts slow and haunting with the characteristic feedback wails, but then widens into a beautiful chiming chorus. This is the band at the peak of their talents, and unfortunately they’d never quite reach them again.

In their streak of albums for 4AD, Cocteau Twins managed to consistently expand their range, and almost every album was an improvement over the last. It must’ve been magical to see where they’d go next. They ended up in a very different place than where they began, and it’s fascinating to see the progression. It’s also a pleasure to hear how the albums and EPs fit together and show different sides of the band. Heaven of Las Vegas might be rightfully heralded as a masterpiece, but there’s plenty of other good music to be found here as well.

Scores:
Garlands: C
Head Over Heels: C+
Treasure: B+
Victorialand: B-
The Moon and the Melodies: B
Blue Bell Knoll: A-
Heaven or Las Vegas: A+

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Cocteau Twins - Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1 (2005)

Discovering Cocteau Twins is like finding a massive treasure chest that’s barely hidden in the woods, and there’s always more there. I’ve still never found another band that quite matches their bizarre beauty and raw emotive force (and I’ve tried!). The combination of Elizabeth Fraser’s expressive voice and unusual delivery with Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde’s otherworldly instrumentation is magical. The fact that they consistently relied on drum machines takes nothing away from the total wonder of their sound. It took me years to fully appreciate them, but they’ve become one of my absolute favorites.


Cocteau Twins came from the era where EPs were an important format, and they made full use of them. In fact, much of their best music can only be found on them. Thankfully, in 2005 they released Lullabies to Violaine, a collection of all of their EPs and singles spread over four CDs. The first volume covers the 80s, which begins with their early recordings with founding bassist Will Heggie and continues through their prime years up to the release of their best album, Heaven or Las Vegas (1990). In some ways, these two discs are like a greatest hits compilation. They roughly follow the progression of the albums, but that breaks down around 1986. Here I will review this first volume and the EPs it contains.


Lullabies was the band’s first EP, released just after their debut album Garlands in October 1982. Like the album, the EP is very gothy and post-punk and sounds quite indebted to Siouxsie & the Banshees or The Cure from the same era. The music is aggressive and energetic, but also simpler than what would follow. Heggie’s heavily chorused bass and Guthrie’s spidery guitar form the basis for Fraser to exorcise her demons over. Her lyrics are mostly understandable, but sound dark and esoteric. It’s not the most engaging or comforting listen. “Feathers-Oars-Blades” is a strong and upbeat opener, but the rest doesn’t match it.


Peppermint Pig came in March 1983 and continued the same thread as the first two releases. It was the last release with Heggie but their first to feature prominent keyboards. Otherwise it isn’t particularly compelling, and it sounds flatter and less well-developed than their earlier and later recordings. There’s more space, but in an unwelcome, off-putting way. All three tracks are very similar. The rare involvement of an outside producer (Alan Rankine) is telling and was obviously a mistake. The compilation has the edited 7" version of the title track, but the 12" just features a longer intro with more keyboards and distorted guitar, so not much is missing.


Sunburst and Snowblind, released in November 1983, followed right after Head over Heels and is something of an extension of it. The both share “Sugar Hiccup”, the first truly awesome Cocteau Twins song. Sunburst is a huge leap over their previous work, and it’s even better than Head over Heels. They finally started to find their stride despite (or perhaps because of?) the loss of Heggie. Fraser’s vocals became more oblique and more about mood and texture than specific words. Guthrie explored more keyboards and a more ethereal, brighter, and more expansive sound removed from their gothy roots. From this point on, the meaning of their songs became less about the content of the lyrics and more about the emotions that sweep you along with the music. “Sugar Hiccup” isn’t exactly upbeat, but it’s grand and majestic. The choral sound at the end is just lovely. “From the Flagstones” is slower but still comes across as big and dramatic, like walking along the ramparts of a castle. It too features the comforting choral synths, but brings back the heavy chorus on the bass. “Hithero” and “Because of Whirl-Jack” are both driving but tense, and they aren’t quite at the same level. They seem caught between the old and new styles.


The Spangle Maker from April 1984 was the band’s first release with Simon Raymonde on bass. It’s a resounding success and all three tracks are great. “The Spangle Maker” features impressive feedback squalls over what sounds like a huge open landscape. It’s like a slowly brewing storm with strong winds in a desert canyon. Then it finally bursts into a huge final section with choral effects and big keyboards. “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” is more immediate and strident from the start. It’s full of great layered vocal parts, delightful little synth bells, and lots of little guitar effect touches. It’s pure dream pop bliss, and it’s no surprise that it was their biggest single. The compilation features a unique mix, but it’s the best version. The 7" version is similar but shorter, and although the 12" version starts with an extra twinkly section, the mix is less full and not quite as good. “Pepper-Tree” is the band’s first truly bizarre track. Fraser’s vocals are impressively strange; she sounds like an enchanted woodland fairy. The song is like wandering through a ghostly rainforest cave. It’s spooky, mysterious, and fairly removed from pop music, but the experimentation and atmosphere pay off.


1985 was Cocteau Twins’ first year without an album, but they still managed to release three EPs, all of which reveal the band at the height of their powers. Aikea-Guinea came first in March, and it’s practically perfect from start to finish. The title track is again bright, grand, otherworldly, uplifting, and full of layers and beautiful but totally incomprehensible spirals of vocals. It sounds like brilliant birds in flight in the bright springtime sun. The compilation version is a unique mix, but the only difference from the original is that it jumps in cold instead of fading in. “Kookaburra” is similar and very upbeat, but with more shadowy sections. It sounds like a rushing horseride through the fields and then into the woods. The keyboards in particular remind me of The Cure from the same era. “Quisquose” starts darker, with anguished vocals and colossal echo on the keyboard parts, but then it shifts into a brighter section with superb crystalline guitar delay. It’s like a battle between light and darkness or an intense internal conflict. “Rococo” starts minimal, hesitant, distant, and somewhat peaceful, like the calm before a storm or a battle, then breaks into a much bigger, louder, heavier, aggressive section. It’s deceptive, but the sense of space is excellent. It’s also a rare instrumental.


Tiny Dynamine came next in November 1985. It’s full of fantastic sounds and effectively conveyed emotions without relying on lexical content, even if it doesn’t quite match the mind-blowing excitement of the previous two EPs. “Pink Orange Red” starts slow, spacey, and minimal and then expands beautifully with a hint of darkness and regret, but of course the lyrics are the names of butterflies or something. It’s full of towers of delayed guitar and sounds like the twists and turns of some ancient epic. “Ribbed and Veined”, another lush instrumental, has more of the great crystalline dripping guitar parts. It sounds like a rainforest atmosphere, and perhaps there’s a temple or some forgotten structure hidden within where the electronic piano sound comes in. “Plain Tiger” isn’t quite as standout but still has an intriguing blend of light and dark atmospheres. The highlight is the great vocal parts. The mood is conflicted: the first part is tense, the second is anguished, and it’s not until the end that it switches nicely into a more open (and rare) guitar pseudo-solo. It feels like the coming of a prophet or a good omen. “Sultitan Itan” is a rarer example of starting bright and then getting darker; it starts simple and pretty, full of soft bass and guitars, but switches to more intense, dramatic sections.


Echoes in a Shallow Bay, recorded at the same time as Tiny Dynamine and released just a couple weeks after it, is more experimental, less pop, and overall somewhat darker. It’s not as purely awe-inspiring, but it’s still good. “Great Spangled Fritillary” starts weird and uncomfortable, like some mysterious, dark, and cloudy alien planet. It picks up a bit, as if you’ve encountered a strange artifact or an unexpected inhabitant, and it’s full of intriguing sounds. “Melonella” is a dramatic recital of moth names, which is amusingly aggressive and intense for such absurd lyrics! It jumps right in, like preparations or ritual chanting before a battle or escape. Other parts calm down a bit, as if life returns to normal and there is space to find some beauty in the cracks. “Pale Clouded White” is another faster-paced but somewhat darker song. It has a full sound with distant guitar squalls, pounding keyboards and drums, and acoustic guitar strums and choral synth in the choruses. It sounds like warning sirens and high alert, again like running hastily from some threat. “Eggs and Their Shells” is also full of strange and awesome sounds, like wind rushing by towering buildings shining in the sun in a vast, lonesome expanse. It’s not quite as dramatic, though, and doesn’t move like most of the others.


Love’s Easy Tears, from October 1986, is a distinct break between two more subdued and almost ambient albums (Victorialand and The Moon and the Melodies with Harold Budd). It’s closer to Treasure or especially Blue Bell Knoll. They apparently saved all the dramatic, radiant, and upbeat songs that they had for this EP, and the result is flawless. The title track, beautiful and dramatic, is one of their absolute best. Incredible vocals and lush guitars just keep raining down. “Those Eyes, That Mouth” is also fairly upbeat and shimmering, but a bit more driving. It has less variation, but pulses prettily and brightly with chiming guitars and some strange seagull effects. “Sigh’s Smell of Farewell” is mellower and softer, again with great vocal layers. It’s subtler and less overwhelming but still shimmering and clear, and it expands into something bigger halfway through with nice phasing and a grand expanse. “Orange Appled” might be my favorite of them all. It starts strident and bold with great keyboards and expands with bells and vocal layers. It reminds me of a shining palatial metropolis. The bridge switches into an awesome alternate swirling mode, like riding a train through a tunnel in a mountain.


From then on, the frequency of releases took a sharp downturn. The last release on the compilation is the "Iceblink Luck" single from August 1990. The title track is a slightly edited version of the track from the supreme Heaven of Las Vegas. It’s poppy and accessible, and the words are even mostly understandable as was common for that phase. It has the best production values of their career and sounds incredibly detailed. “Mizake the Mizan” is similarly well-produced but is less dramatic and upbeat. It’s conspicuously inconspicuous. “Watchlar” is an unusually electronic track, but it also just kind of carries on without ever really picking up. The single itself is great but the b-sides aren’t really notable; it’s their first release with tracks that feel like just b-sides.

That’s the end of the compilation; unfortunately it starts and ends on lesser notes, but the jungles within are where the real treasure is. However, there were just a few additional tracks from the era that never made it to an album or an EP, and most of them were collected on an extra disc of the Cocteau Twins Singles Collection from 1991. Unfortunately, all four of the tracks on it are rather inessential. “Dials”, the b-side of the "Heaven or Las Vegas" single, and “The High Monkey-Monk”, from a Melody Maker compilation in 1990, both feature great production, but are fairly sparse and open. They sound like second-rate b-sides. “Crushed”, from the Lonely Is an Eyesore compilation in 1987, fits in with Love’s Easy Tears or Blue Bell Knoll, but doesn’t quite match either. It’s the best of the bonus disc, but merely a chill, pleasant stroll. The instrumental version of “Oomingmak” is airy and pretty but offers nothing over the original from Victorialand.

The last stray track is “Millimillenary”, originally from the NME Department of Enjoyment cassette in 1984, but also available on The Pink Opaque best-of in 1986. It’s as strong as the best of Treasure or maybe even The Spangle Maker. It’s less experimental and unusually straightforward and classic pop oriented in its arrangement and structure, but it completely works. It also reminds me of contemporaneous output from The Cure.

Cocteau Twins released some incredible albums in their day, but their run of EPs from Sunburst and Snowblind through Love’s Easy Tears gives even Heaven or Las Vegas a run for its money. This collection is unbeatable in terms of the variety of sounds, mood, and atmospheres. After going on hiatus for a couple years after that album and the ground covered by this compilation, they returned to release another series of EPs and singles (compiled on the second volume of Lullabies to Violaine) alongside two more albums (all compiled on the Treasure Hiding compilation), but they never again quite reached these heights. At least we have this wonderful collection that nicely assembles their finest glories.

Scores:
Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1: A
Lullabies EP: B-
Peppermint Pig EP: C-
Sunburst and Snowblind EP: B+
The Spangle Maker EP: A+
Aikea-Guinea EP: A+
Tiny Dynamine EP: A-
Echoes in a Shallow Bay EP: B
Love’s Easy Tears EP: A+
"Iceblink Luck" single: B-
Cocteau Twins Singles Collection Disc 10: C
“Millimillenary”: A-

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Cremant Ding Dong - "Es muss nicht immer alles wachsen" (2020)

It’s rare that I come across a new song where the individual elements of the music, lyrics, and video all blow me away. Cremant Ding Dong only have four songs to their credit so far, but they’ve already found their stride. Their new single “Es muss nicht immer alles wachsen” is their best yet.

First, the music: it’s solid synthpop with loads of great sounds and angular guitar bits. It’s upbeat and energetic with a well-constructed arrangement. Even better are the lyrics. The whole thing is a humorous takedown of capitalist arguments in an era of big business obliviousness to human suffering. The title and chorus translates to “not everything has to always grow”, and the rest of the lyrics describe things that don’t really need to grow forever (businesses, markets, power, toe nails, capital) as well as a few things that should keep growing (flowers, children, hair, love, trust). It’s clever, playful, and insightful all at once.

And then there’s the video! It’s pure joy. The most notable feature is an adorable cat, but it’s also full of whimsical visual effects and colors. The band is present, but focus more on grooving and playing around than on showing off their individual looks or expensive equipment. A synthesizer makes a brief appearance, and a few shots appear to be from a performance on a stage (such a foreign concept!), but the emphasis is more on movement and color.

The single is available on Bandcamp here and the video can be seen here. The rest of the band’s songs are in a similar style and are also quite good, in particular “Testergebnis”, a song about waiting for Coronavirus test results.


Score: A+

P.S. Thanks to Lutz for the tip!

Friday, November 13, 2020

Sea State 12 (again)

I’d like to share the lyrics to the Sea State 12 album that has now seen the light of day. My last post introduced the album, and I’d like to shed a bit more light on it here.

The eight songs of the album were developed collaboratively regardless of who brought the original ideas. This was the first time that I wrote songs that someone else sang the lead on, and I’m incredibly pleased with how well Susan was able to express what my voice just couldn’t muster. Susan and I both had a lot to say and we clearly had some things we needed to get off our chests. Nonetheless, we tried to have fun with it, and we hope it’s a transformative and cathartic experience for the listener in the same way it was for us.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude for Susan for making these songs and this whole project a reality. We made the music as a band, but the fact that you can listen to it now is in large part due to her efforts to make it happen. I also need to profusely thank Luann; she obviously also played a huge role here, and her pulse, spirit, and enthusiasm are what drive a lot of this music. Great thanks are also owed to Derek, John, and Carter for their collaboration and contributions, and Jim, Scott, Sylvia, and Steve for taking our raw sound and turning into something that anyone else might want to hear. All of these people have made sense of the messy ideas that were brought to the table and worked with them until they became something worth hearing.

And now to the lyrics!


Fifteen Miles

Sittin’ here waiting, waiting forever
Fifteen miles of endless waiting
Might stop breathing, cease all thinking
Fifteen miles of endless boredom
Keep on staring, a room with no view
Fifteen miles of endless nothing
Get impatient, stuck here waiting
Fifteen miles of absent motion

Don’t get upset, this is just the start
If you think it’s bad now, it’ll only get worse

Look all around at a metal wasteland
Fifteen miles of endless plastic
See other faces, look just the same
Fifteen miles of no expression
Start to move but stop right away
Fifteen miles of indecision
No end in sight, no reason clear
Fifteen miles of absolute waste

Look at each other, just pay attention
Stop what you’re doing, put down your cell phone!

Get frustrated at the road
Fifteen miles of thick asphalt
Think about what was here first
Fifteen miles of nothing at all
Try to imagine a different way
Fifteen miles of bikes and trains
Take a chance, try something new
Fifteen miles of anything else

Something is broken, we’ve got it all wrong
We shouldn’t be here, we can do more


Genderfree

The intended meaning of “genderfree” is “freedom of gender”, as in, “liberate your gender”. I’ve always wanted to write an anthem about rejecting the constraints of conventional gender roles, and this isn’t the first time I tried.

Trapped! Trapped! Do you feel constrained?
Detained! Restrained! Do you feel held back?
Attack! Fight back! Does it make you sick?
A trick! A trick! Do you want something more?
A bore! What for! Oh, tell me what’s the use
Abuse! Abuse! I refuse to play
The game! A name! I don’t need the words
It’s forced! Of course! Let’s begin anew

Why are we stuck here where we are?
Despite our choices we only pick from two
Let your imagination loose
There’s a spectrum (or a field) of possibilities
So do as you please, no one to appease

Genderfree!

There’s a mask that you wear someone else put there
Didn’t matter how you felt, it’s the hand that you were dealt
This is where you’ll fit, it’s all that you will get
Throw a fit, make a scene, you’ll just seem obscene
In a world full of chance, there’s only skirts and pants
Despite what they say, there’s no room for play
Stray from the track, you will be attacked
They talk about choice, but you don’t have a voice


No Worries

Lay your worries down
Forget about the past
Don’t mind the busyness
Let your troubles pass

Making big decisions
You find yourself here
Think about your future
Don’t ignore what’s right before you

Lay your worries down
Forget about the past
Nothing to think about
Let your troubles pass

The smell of something burning
Grabs your focus sharp
Feel electric shivers
Must be hard at work

And when the job is over
Lying half awake
Rising to the surface
To face the world as you are

Sleep away the headache
Restore your outward glare
Face the outside world now
Pretend nothing’s changed

But now you are as reborn
Freed from all the chains
Nothing to think about
Let your worries disappear


Watch

It’s the strangest thing
To see it happen as you hit
Right before the eyes
And be powerless to stop it
You can scream and shout
You can plan ahead and be careful
It happens anyway
Despite your attempts to prevent

You can’t make it stop
You can only watch
You can’t make it stop
You can only watch

Well, I stood and I tried to think of
What had just happened, how I was not hurt
Picked myself up
Pulled myself in shape, sat down on the curb
While I looked around
Heart was racing fast, I could hardly speak
A stranger walked up
Tried to make amends, where to even start
If I only knew
I’d say it right away, I wouldn’t hesitate
If I only knew, I wouldn’t wait a blink

It’s the strangest thing
To see it happen as you hit
It’s beyond control
It’s up to the laws of physics
Your feet, they still move
And now you are somehow standing
It’s hard to believe
Despite your attempts to prevent


On the Ground

What did you think would happen here?
Bring all your guns, all of your gear
Raise up the pressure, feel the heat
Scare all the people down on the street

Walking along up to your house
Here they come to ask you why
It doesn’t matter what you say
They’ll have you down on the ground

What were you doing on the street
That’s no place for people to be
That’s why you’ll get what you deserve
They’ll have us down on the ground

Hit the street – as they march on over
Don’t back down – when they tell you to go
Stand up strong – as they make their threats
Rise above – when they force you to the ground

Their true colors have been shown
Look at where they point their guns
Now you know whose side they’re on
They’ll have us down on the ground

There’s nothing left for us to do
Get outside and join the crowd
Smoke will clear across this town
We’ll rise up from the ground


Girl

Be my girl
Baby show me when you come
Be my girl
Let me know it when you come

There’s room for you
Fill me up

I’m into you
Oh so deep
Let’s get you
Into me

Your fever’s risin’
I’m burning up
My bed’s too neat
Fuck it up

I got your number
You got my name
I am the one
Who’ll make you rain

I’ll tell you baby
When we’ve gone too far
When I play you
Like this guitar

Be my girl
Baby show me when you come
Be my girl
Let me know it when you come

There’s room for you
Feel me up


Blue Wail

Some people understand, some don’t
They’ll try to hold your hand, I won’t
Cause I don’t let anyone unmake me

And sympathy
It’s a drug you see
Keep you lookin’ for someone set you free

It’s written on your arms, it’s comin’ from your lips
The sound of your apocalypse
Notes on your guitar, lies that you tell
Blue is the color you make, when you wail

And where you goin’ now, you wonder
Rollin’ through your mind it sound like thunder
Only thing that matter, callin’ you

So you take it on the road, but can’t hide
The reflection in the mirror, you know it don’t lie
Glass has shattered, you’ve fallen through

And it don’t matter what you’ve been told
You know in your heart
you got to let it go
Cause your blue wail and bruises
Are all you leave


Cling

When the world is heavy
Pain and sin
When the light has left you
Sinew and skin
Cling to me

Oh child

When your heart is beating
Pain set in
When you’re bruised and bleeding
Let me in
Cling to me

Oh child

When your bones are broken
You’re livin’ hell
And they’ve told you
Not to tell
Bring it to me

Oh child

I’ll fight forever
To keep you from harm
Put you back together
Where you’ve been torn
Oh child
Oh child
I’ll fight forever
To keep you from harm
Hold you together
Right these wrongs, child
Oh child

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Sea State 12

It’s been about five years in the making, but the album from my last band in Austin is finally out!


Susan, Luann, and I started the band in 2014 as Sea State Six. We immediately set about writing our own material and while we seemed to gravitate to heavy and serious matters, there was always some playfulness in there, too. Most of the album was recorded between 2015 and 2017, but a wrench was thrown in the works when I decamped to move to Berlin. I owe a lot to Susan for still seeing it through from there.

We had the pleasure and fortune of collaborating with several people along the way to getting the music recorded in its final form, and I’d like to thank all of them, including Derek Young, John Hammond, Carter Arrington, James Williamson, Scott Love, Sylvia Massy, and Steve Turnidge.

For the curious, I played bass and I was the primary songwriter of the first five songs (coincidentally). Susan sang, played rhythm guitar, and wrote the other three songs. Luann played drums and was our gifted arranger. Carter played the lead guitar on the record.

I’d like to find a good place to share the lyrics, but for now, I’ll let the music speak for itself. Enjoy!

[Edit 2020.11.10:] If you’re interested in a lossless version, at least Qobuz has it. Here’s the USA shop link and here’s the link for Germany.

[Edit 2020.11.15:] For lyrics, see the next post.

[Edit 2020.12.10:] The album is now on Bandcamp as well!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Bernadette La Hengst & der Chor der Statistik - Live 2020.09.19 Haus der Statistik, Berlin, Germany

This has been a hard year for most people. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve had it as hard as most. That said, it’s probably obvious that I’ve missed seeing live music. It’s one of the only forms of social entertainment that I especially enjoy and engage with. It’s one of the few things that actually makes me feel connected to the world around me. I much prefer writing about live music to recorded music, so I’ve been pretty quiet here. The stress and the anxiety of the world, and particularly in the USA, haven’t helped. I’ve barely wanted to leave the house for six months now. But I have the luxury of living in Germany, and things are relatively safe here. So I finally decided it was okay to see a free, open-air concert in a low-key environment. There won’t be many weekends left with good weather, so I don’t know how many opportunities I’ll have like this before winter comes.

Anyway, the Haus der Statistik played host to an event with workshops, presentations, and live music. The building is the former statistics office of the DDR that has largely fallen into disuse. It sits just off Alexanderplatz in the center of the city. It seems to be indefinitely under construction but in the meantime is home to an artist collective, who have dubbed the area “Allesandersplatz” (“Everything-Different-Place”). The main draw for me was Bernadette La Hengst (formerly of Die Braut haut ins Auge), who performed a set accompanied by the Chor der Statistik, a large, casual choir. These sorts of choirs are in vogue in Berlin, and they seem like a lot of fun. Bernadette made it clear that the choir was open to everyone interested, and she invited the audience to spontaneously join in as well.

Bernadette and the choir played songs from throughout her career, including a song or two from Die Braut haut ins Auge, and consistent themes were solidarity, social and economic justice, and unity across borders. For most songs, the only instrumentation was her guitar, and the songs were arranged to accentuate harmonies and multiple vocal parts. The choir didn’t strike me as a professional unit, but rather a casual collective of people that shared a political outlook and a desire to have fun in a productive outlet. That said, I didn’t hear any jarring disharmony or missed notes, and in fact I was impressed with the arrangements, the performance, and the sustained jovial atmosphere.

The final two songs were particularly notable. The penultimate was a cover of Palais Schaumburg’s classic “Wir bauen eine neue Stadt”. Bernadette played along with a drum machine, which gave her enough space to add some lead guitar flourishes. With the choir singing various overlaid parts, it made for a more relaxed, less skittish rendition. For a song ostensibly about post-war reconstruction with metaphorical overtones of anti-capitalist, independent artistic creation, the scenery was perfect: the stage was surrounded by piles of stone and concrete in the parking lot of a semi-abandoned building from a government that doesn’t really exist anymore.

The final song was a version of Beethoven’s “Ode an die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”), with lyrics adapted from the original by Friedrich Schiller. Taking inspiration from the fact that the music (but not the words) are used as the European anthem, Bernadette (along with fellow choir enthusiast Barbara Morgenstern) composed new multilingual lyrics explicitly embracing diversity and open borders.

This was a thoroughly pleasant experience, and presumably reasonably safe, since there was plenty of room to spread out. If this is how we have to do live music for the time being, I’m on board.


Score: B+

P.S. Thanks to Lutz!

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Le Tigre - "Hot Topic" (1999)

When LCD Soundsystem started making waves in the early 00s, it was easy to hear their first single, “Losing My Edge” (2002), as a sort of mission statement. It’s got a good beat, it sounds effortlessly cool yet anxiously precise, and the lyrics are ironic to the utmost. But even knowing that they were making fun of themselves and their cohort, the list of bands recited as the song nears the end became one of those things where everyone that followed had to prove they knew all of those bands.

I don’t know what the first example is of a song that just lists other songs or bands (was it Nurse with Wound’s Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella (1979)?), but it amuses me greatly that Le Tigre beat LCD Soundsystem to the punch by three years. Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic” is even more direct and focused, although they were being sincere while LCD Soundsystem were knowingly winking while doing it. I’m aware that the latter might be a response to or a mockery of the former, but I hope it isn’t. They’re both good in their own way. But in the long run, “Hot Topic” might be better.

It’s better because it isn’t a joke, and Le Tigre weren’t just trying to prove how cool they were. Their mission was to dance, to fight the patriarchy, and to cite their influences and forebearers. Maybe that sounds awfully pretentious or self-absorbed or trivial. Sincerity in music is often viewed with skepticism according to modern tastes (see “Losing My Edge” for the case in point), but Le Tigre explicitly wanted to have a good time while transmitting their message. In that, they succeeded in full. The beat is solid, the lyrics make their point, and the list of influences is varied and contentious but yet a valuable resource. It’s certainly indicative of a time and a place, but it’s a fascinating and relatively poorly documented time and place, so it’s all the more special.

Some of the choices are obvious (Yoko Ono, Aretha Franklin). Some were just friends of the band (Tammy Rae Carland, Krystal Wakem). Many are artists, filmmakers, and writers, but there are even academics and athletes. It’s quite a list. Of course, no such list can be complete or comprehensive, but as an entry point into a world of queer and feminist icons, it’s still a great place to start learning.

For detailed annotations with portraits and even more links, check out this great article from Slate.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Chromatic Apparition - "Cyclicity"

It's been a long time, but I finally have a new song to share. It's the first release of my new project Chromatic Apparition. The lyrics are what I tell myself to keep myself sane. Enjoy!

https://chromaticapparition.bandcamp.com/track/cyclicity


Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Few Thoughts on The Sound

I first encountered The Sound when I visited Drake Records in Köln just about ten years ago. The gracious owner offered my friend and I a drink and put on Jeopardy after he saw me browsing the New Wave section. I loved it, but for some reason ended up buying Wolfgang Riechmann’s Wunderbar instead. Just a few years later, Edsel Records released two box sets containing almost the entire recorded discography of the band, and I devoured both with glee. I’ve been meaning to write an article about the band and these reissues ever since. Now that I’m stuck inside during a pandemic, what better time to finally do it?

The roots of The Sound lie in The Outsiders, a (sorta) punk band fronted by Adrian Borland. After two albums and EP that already showed the band pushing on the boundaries of punk and independent record production, the band started to splinter. In the midst of a substantial lineup change, the band ended up changing their name to The Sound while recording a demo album that bridged the gap from The Outsiders to the eventual debut album of The Sound. This demo album, recorded in mid-1979, eventually saw release in 1999 as Propaganda. It’s still somewhat punky, but Bi Marshall’s clarinet and saxophone show the band grasping beyond the basic forms. Most of the lyrics are fairly basic critiques of British society and suburban life (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but a few are particularly noteworthy, such as the staunchly anticapitalist “Cost of Living” and the prescient “Music Business”. Three songs would later be rerecorded for Jeopardy and one for the Physical World EP. The album is fairly raw, and although some critics (and members of the band) consider it the band’s “real” debut and even their strongest album, I think it lacks the sophistication, finesse, and subtlety of their best work. It’s still cool to hear them in transition, though, and apparently some of the tracks were recorded with Outsiders member and later lyrical contributor Adrian Janes on drums before he left for university.

After a brief diversion with the experimental Flesh As Property EP by Second Layer (featuring just Borland and bassist Graham Bailey), the first proper Sound release was the Physical World EP in late 1979. While the title track and “Coldbeat” (later rereleased as the 12" b-side of “Sense of Purpose” in 1981) are in the same vein as Propaganda but with slightly better production, the final track, “Unwritten Law”, already shows the band moving in a deeper, darker, and more dramatic direction. This early version is absent from the recent reissue box sets, and although it isn’t as strong as the rerecording on Jeopardy or any of the live versions, it’s still a thrill to hear a primitive version based more around guitars than the brooding keyboards that would define all later versions.

[The Physical World EP.]

The Sound then signed to Korova, best known as the home to Echo & the Bunnymen. The Sound would be forever damned to follow in their footsteps and live in their shadow, although the frequent comparisons were not entirely unfounded. At any rate, their debut album and first release on Korova was Jeopardy in 1980. It’s amazing to hear the quick leap they made from everything they made before then. Despite the hasty sessions and miniscule budget, the result is stunning. Although the production is certainly not at the level of the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles (which apparently consumed all of Korova’s budget, leaving The Sound in the lurch), the immediate energy of it plays to the band’s strengths. The album is raw and still just a touch punky, yet comes across sophisticated and fully formed. “Hour of Need” and the new version of “Unwritten Law” benefit from noticeably more nuanced production. Marshall’s icy keyboards shine, as do Bailey’s throbbing post-punk bass and Michael Dudley’s propulsive drumming. Other highlights are “Missiles”, an unapologetic critique of the military-industrial complex, and “I Can’t Escape Myself”, an incisive assessment of mental health struggles. It’s a great album.


After a tour supporting Echo & the Bunnymen, The Sound issued the Live Instinct EP, shortly before the Bunnymen’s Shine So Hard live EP. While Shine So Hard sounded great and showed the band progressing into their next phase, Live Instinct is something of a regression. It’s upbeat and intense, rough and unsubtle. It’s alright, but offers nothing particularly special. Korova then assigned The Sound the same producer for their second album that had handled the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here, Hugh Jones, and he clearly had his own ideas of how From the Lion’s Mouth (1981) should sound. The result is cleaner, more elaborate, and much more refined, but the quality of the songs doesn’t quite match Jeopardy. The grandiosity and stateliness of the production is a welcome change, but the songs suffer from a loss of energy and power. In the process of writing the album, Marshall was apparently kicked out of the band and replaced by Max Mayers, although Marshall was still credited with cowriting “Skeletons” and “The Fire”, the two songs that sound the oldest and rawest. She has claimed that she wrote parts for all of the songs, and that most of those parts ended up on the final album, but Meyers is credited with cowriting five of the songs. Regardless of the author, keyboards and synthesizers took a more prominent role. The highlight of the album remains the strident opener, “Winning”, a battle hymn for combating depression that foreshadows their later anthems. The album was followed by a non-album single, “Hot House”, another excellent upbeat song confronting some sort of struggle.


The Sound’s lack of commercial success began to grate on both the band and their label, and their third album, All Fall Down (1982), is spitefully uncommercial. It’s dark, challenging, and full of synthesizers and drum machines. It’s much more aggressive than From the Lion’s Mouth and perhaps closer to Jeopardy or Second Layer’s World of Rubber (1981). The album has a poor reputation, but most of its risks pay off. The boldest, most difficult track is the opener, “All Fall Down”, but plenty of accessible moments can be found thereafter. “Party of the Mind” is a great pseudo-pop song, and “Monument” is another superb anthem. “Where the Love Is” and “Calling the New Tune” are strong upbeat numbers as well. The album certainly isn’t perfect, but it grows on me more and more with each listen. “We Could Go Far” is a fascinating floating dream, and the irony that the label insisted on adding the bass drum is painful. The box set includes the original version without it, but ultimately both versions have their charms. The reissue also includes three other outtakes that presumably would’ve been b-sides if they’d released a single from the album. None of them are duds, and the best of the bunch, “Sorry”, was even played live.


After getting dropped by their label, The Sound somehow ended up getting paired with former Factory Records singer/songwriter Kevin Hewick for the This Cover Keeps Reality Unreal EP (1983). It sounds like The Sound fronted by Hewick, but Hewick isn’t as convincing as Borland, and it doesn’t hold together well. The first side is more conventional while the second is quite experimental. The final song, “Scapegoat”, was apparently recorded solo by Hewick a year before the rest. It’s a unique release but not particularly successful.


While on the search for a new label, the band recorded a set of demos that first saw release on the second of the Edsel box sets. Three of the tracks would end up on the Shock of Daylight EP, another three on Heads and Hearts, and the remaining four eventually appeared as b-sides as late as 1987. The recordings are a bit rough and it sounds like they suffered some tape generation loss, but the songs are generally fleshed out and well arranged. Most of the songs already sound fairly similar to their eventually released versions, albeit with simpler arrangements and production. Although the demos are an interesting artifact, nothing about them is better than the final versions, so there isn’t much going for it.

Eventually, The Sound ended up on Statik, and their first release with them was Shock of Daylight (1984), an EP that seems like a huge leap from their past. The six songs are all tuneful but deep, with strong lyrics that are generally less downbeat than before. “Counting the Days” is particularly amazing; it sounds like a love song, yet is ambiguous enough to prevent a simple reading. “Winter” is sparser and gloomier, but the other five songs are all anthemic and strong yet complex. The EP might be the most optimistic Sound release, and it’s cohesive and consistent without getting dull. It’s their finest moment.


This was followed by Heads and Hearts (1985), which continues some of the same sounds and themes and almost maintains the same level of quality. “Whirlpool” is a bit dark, but it’s a powerful description of the depressive energy that can suck you down. “Under You” and “Wildest Dreams” are similar, and they too manage to address mental health struggles without sounding trite. On the other hand, “Total Recall”, “Love Is Not a Ghost”, “One Thousand Reasons”, and “Temperature Drop” are grand and beautiful. “Restless Time” and “World As It Is” are slightly more aggressive and recall their earlier sound, which doesn’t work quite as well, while “Mining for Heart” is a throwback to All Fall Down with its minimalism and openness. The band were apparently disappointed with the album and its production, and while it does have a distinctly 80s sound, it’s only barely dated, and the many synthesizers are rarely over the top. The album doesn’t quite match Shock of Daylight, but it’s almost on par. The b-sides aren’t quite at the same level; most of them are heavy and negative. The box set also adds “Shimmer”, a previously unreleased outtake that tops all the b-sides and fits in right with the album tracks. One wonders how it was overlooked for so long!


To make up for their frustrations with Heads and Hearts and its supposed shortcomings, The Sound quickly released a live album, In the Hothouse (1985). Strangely, only four songs from Heads and Hearts made it to the album, but it also included “Prove Me Wrong”, which would end up on Thunder Up two years later in a similar form. The best track is a frenzied version of “Wildest Dreams” that benefits from a blazing solo, but otherwise the production is rather dry and it hardly even sounds like a live album. It’s not bad, but it sounds more like a best-of compilation than an exciting live album. It doesn’t show much that the studio albums didn’t already, and it sounds too tight and clean. There are plenty of bootlegs that are more dynamic and compelling.

After Statik also ended up screwing over the band, they got one more chance with Play It Again Sam, who released their final album, Thunder Up (1987). By this point, Borland’s mental health struggles were beginning to wear down the band, and the album shows it. The first side is almost too bright and direct, with a surprising abundance of optimism and a lack of subtlety, while the second side is darker and more mixed in tone. Although the band had gradually included more and more band compositions over time, this album is almost entirely written solely by Borland. “Barria Alta” is the lone band composition, and it is the most complex and detailed song on the album. “Iron Years” is a solid pop song, but it comes across just barely over the top. “I Give You Pain”, on the other hand, is a solid slow burner like they hadn’t done since “New Dark Age”. Despite that the band got to work with their preferred producer Nick Robbins, the album sounds fairly dated, mostly because of the cheesy synths. The band apparently prefer the production of Thunder Up over Heads and Hearts, but I think the latter is superior in sound and in songwriting. Thunder Up still has some great moments, but it has less depth and nuance.

[Thunder Up.]

The last item in the Edsel box sets is The BBC Recordings, originally a double-disc album released in 2004. The Read and Peel sessions are attached as bonus tracks to the albums they were promoting while the BBC Live in Concert disc is given its own CD. The Read and Peel sessions both have high production values that might make them even better than the album versions. The Read session in particular sounds substantially better than the versions on Jeopardy, and while the Peel session is about as good as the From the Lion’s Mouth versions, the Peel session sounds more natural and less forced. The highlight is an early, slower version of “Hot House” that sounds like it’s still very much a work in progress. The BBC Live in Concert disc also sounds great and somehow more alive and intense than the studio versions. There’s less variation in the sound, but all the tracks are strong. Ian Nelson again shows up to contribute sax to the same three songs he played on from Heads and Hearts, and his parts are more upfront in the mix.

After The Sound, Adrian Borland stayed quite active in the music world until his unfortunate suicide, although he never again quite matched the same level of quality that he had with The Sound. His solo albums carried on where Thunder Up left off, with less of an alternative or post-punk sound and more of a mainstream pop sensibility. His songwriting was generally still good, but the production was often quite cheesy and dated. Borland was also a member of Honolulu Mountain Daffodils (under pseudonym), a bizarre and playful band led by Pete Williams. While many of their songs are indulgent or uninspired, plenty are creative and successful. The vocals are consistently bad, but the atmospheres and ideas are often quite good. “Also Sprächt Scott Thurston”, “(I Feel Like A) Francis Bacon Painting”, and “Collector of Souls” are particularly noteworthy. Later in his career, Borland also collaborated with Carlo van Putten and others (including Mark Burgess of The Chameleons!) under the name White Rose Transmission. Their albums are well-produced, gothic, and haunting, but the results are again mixed. Some of their music works, but some is drab or awkward.

It’s a shame that The Sound never found wider appreciation. Living in the shadow of Echo & the Bunnymen did them no favors; while the Bunnymen may have reached greater heights, one wonders if The Sound could’ve gone just as far if they’d been given the same budget and support. I’m glad that they persevered despite all the downsides of the music industry and that they managed to find sympathetic labels for so long. The Sound never released a bad album, and their willingness to grow and develop without repeating themselves makes their back catalog quite rewarding to explore. The Edsel box sets are well worth their price and are quite well assembled, even if the Statik albums and some of the rarities are sourced from somewhere other than the original master tapes.

Scores:
Propaganda: C+
Physical World EP: B-
Jeopardy: A-
Live Instinct EP: C
From the Lion’s Mouth: B
“Hot House”: A
All Fall Down: B+
This Cover Keeps Reality Unreal EP: C
1983 demos: C-
Shock of Daylight EP: A
Heads and Hearts: A-
In the Hothouse: C+
Thunder Up: B
The BBC Recordings: B

Further Reading:
Interview with Bi Marshall, Part 1
Interview with Bi Marshall, Part 2

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Hans-Joachim Roedelius & Arnold Kasar - Live 2020.02.27 Roter Salon, Berlin, Germany

Thirteen months ago, I saw Hans-Joachim Roedelius play a small, intimate show in which he told stories, read from his book, and DJed CDs more than he actually played anything live. I loved his wit and outlook, so I enjoyed it despite that it was hardly a “concert” in the traditional sense. Hence, this concert was an easy sell to me: Roedelius had teamed up with pianist Arnold Kasar, which presumably meant they’d be playing “real” live music, which is exactly what I wanted more of. Plus, the show was at the Roter Salon, a side wing of the Volksbühne (which I’d visited and admired last year at the Torstraßen Festival). The Volksbühne is a great venue for plenty of reasons (beautiful, reasonably priced tickets, close to my apartment), and the Roter Salon packs all of that into a smaller, more intimate, cozier experience.

The show was scheduled a bit late, and started later than that, but there was no opener. In the meantime, I watched both Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Arnold Kasar wander through the crowd and chat with their friends. Eventually they got on stage, and to my surprise, Roedelius sat at the grand piano while Kasar stood at a table with a keyboard and various electronics. I’d rather expected the opposite, considering that Roedelius was the aging synthesizer pioneer and Kasar the younger, classically trained pianist!

They started into a peaceful piece that continually evolved through phases as the two musicians changed instruments and techniques. Roedelius mostly played piano but also worked a laptop to control samples and possibly a synthesizer. Kasar played keyboards, synthesizers, some effects boards, and electric piano. The piece was meditative and contemplative yet fluid and expressive. The highlight was something of a piano duel accompanied by a rather screechy violin sample. It was completely non-competitive and non-aggressive, yet fascinating to watch the two musicians complement each other’s parts and build around them. Despite the calming effect it all had on me, though, the crowd seemed a bit restless as the work carried on for about 45 minutes.

Kasar gave a brief address to thank us for coming despite any adversities or viruses, and then him and Roedelius sat back down to perform a shorter, more energetic piece with both musicians on pianos. Roedelius played rapidly rolling appeggios while Kasar added textures. The blend of the traditional piano with the electronic added some nice harmonic variation. I was hoping for another extended work, but it had a more conventional pop song length.

Roedelius spoke up and implied that that was the end, but of course he agreed to an encore. First, Kasar sat down at the grand piano while Roedelius leaned on it adoringly. Kasar’s piece was sprightly, intricate, fanciful, and more in the traditional style of a solo piano performance. Then they swapped places and Roedelius began playing a soft, sparse piece that I quickly recognized. It was Brian Eno’s “By This River”, which Roedelius and his former Cluster colleague Dieter Moebius had cowritten and performed on. Roedelius sang the vocals in his simple, frail, direct, unadorned voice, but hit the notes right on and carried the melody beautifully. It was quite a pleasure, and he claimed it was the first time he’d tried singing it live!

And that was that. They only played for about an hour. It was a pleasant set, it ended on a great highlight, and I know that Roedelius is quite old, but still: I was expecting a bit more. I was a bit disappointed and surprised that it was over so soon. That said, I’d also expected that Roedelius would sit back and let Kasar take the more complicated piano parts, but that wasn’t the case at all. Roedelius still had enough strength and precision to take the lead. Kasar was an excellent foil for him, as his textures, harmony, and traded-off piano parts were a great match. I just wish there had been more.


Score: C+

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Tour of Tours - Live 2020.02.13 Lido, Berlin, Germany

Just about two years ago in the same venue, I saw the Tour of Tours for the first time. Since then, the individual band members have continued their separate projects as usual, but they also recently released their first proper album, A Road Record. It’s mostly a live album from the 2017 tour, but it also includes elements from rehearsals and the backstage. It shows off the breadth of the project and includes something from everyone in involved, including Honig, Jonas David, Tim Neuhaus, Ian Fisher, Town of Saints, Florian Holoubek, Martin Hannaford, Ryan Thomas Carpenter, and Davide Iacono (of VeiveCura). The spoken bits can be a bit distracting for repeated regular listening, but the album as a whole is an immersive, complete experience that captures many of their collective strengths. The production is great and substantially more cohesive than their prior Song of Songs, which felt more like a simple compilation assembled around the title track.

This concert picked up the same threads. The collective naturally performed many of the same songs from the album and from the last concert, but over the course of over two and a half hours, they also threw in some new songs and others that I hadn’t heard before. Every one of the ten members took the lead at some point, including even the quiet percussionists Florian and Davide and guitarist Martin. They also invited their merch seller and the producer of their new album to the stage to play along for a song each. Best of all, they continually traded instruments and even vocal parts. They were already doing that in the past, but this time around, they took it to another level. On several songs, almost every verse would be sung by someone other than the original songwriter/vocalist, which gave the songs a new dimension to grow in. Furthermore, the constant rotation of instruments meant that there were always plenty of little surprises. Most members took a turn on the bass, at one of the keyboards, and on the drums and percussion instruments. Tim Neuhaus sat in on the drums for an extended enthusiastic spell, Jonas brought a brass horn and a vocal effects board, Heta Salkolahti’s violin had a prominent role, and Ian fleshed out the sound with banjo and 12-string acoustic guitar.

For most of the show, all ten members of the collective shared the stage, but for a few songs in the middle, they brought the energy down a bit and let some smaller subsets of the group play with more reduced arrangements. Most dramatically, Heta and Harmen Ridderbos of Town of Saints played a Finnish folk song without accompaniment. It worked beautifully and helped to broaden the mood. With the full band back on stage, another highlight was a bizarre, theatrical interlude led by Ryan Thomas Carpenter in which he spoke-sang an extended take on Sun Ra Arkestra’s “Nuclear War”. For the encore, the band came back for one last round of rousing numbers from each of the main contributing projects. At the end, they again jumped down from the stage and went to the center of the crowd to play a rousing version of “Up in Smoke” and their one collaborative number, “Song of Songs”.


I was again impressed by the collective’s ability to switch things up and keep such a long show interesting. Their various separate projects share plenty of common ground, and there is some risk of building a solid, unified sound, but they fought the urge to blend too much and managed to keep their own unique elements. Their willingness to switch up the songs, arrangements, and individual parts goes a long way to keeping the show fun and engaging.

[Edit 2020.02.17:] Here’s (most of) the setlist:
01. Song of Songs [Partial] →
02. Short Circuit Breakdown [Town of Saints song]
02. Forest Fire [Tim Neuhaus song]
03. Trains [Jonas David song]
05. In My Drunken Head [Honig song]
06. Idle Hands [Ian Fisher song]
07. Stay For [Jonas David song]
08. Miner’s Song [Town of Saints song]
09. Hello [Florian Holoubek song]
10. Star [Hannaford song]
11. [Unknown Finnish Folk Song] [performed by Town of Saints]
12. Climb [Jonas David song]
13. [Unknown] [Davide Iacono song]
14. [New Song] [Ian Fisher song]
15. Crashing Through Roofs [Tim Neuhaus song]
16. Nuclear War [Sun Ra Arkestra cover, led by Ryan Thomas Carpenter]
17. Euphrates [Town of Saints song]
18. For Those Lost at Sea [Honig song]

Encore:
19. Almost Darlin’ [Ian Fisher song]
20. Weak Bones [Jonas David song]
21. As Life Found You [Tim Neuhaus song]
22. Golden Circle [Honig song]
23. Up in Smoke [Town of Saints song]
24. Song of Songs