Tag Archives: review

Spinning Presently: Jack White’s Lazaretto

It’s been awhile since I’ve been on board the Jack White train. It’s not that I’ve ever disliked him, my interest in his stuff just seems to be on a sine wave that moves incidentally with his releases. As soon as I heard Get Behind Me, Satan, I collected all the White Stripes albums I could (save their self-titled debut) and followed them until the high point they went out on, Icky Thump. Both Raconteurs’ albums I couldn’t get enough of, and I dug a couple of cuts from the Dead Weather’s two LPs, but that was about it. I was sort of ready to close the Jack White chapter for awhile. When White’s first actual solo album, Blunderbuss, came out, I did pick it up because I knew it would be something that I’d want eventually, but at the time I never really was able to give it the time of day, and that still colours my perception of it (apart from the infectious “Love Interruption”). I have no doubt that will change in the very near future, however, as I have listened to Lazaretto, and it is fantastic.

The very first impression I get upon listening to this album is that White is super happy to be free of the restraints that he had created for himself in the White Stripes. It was Meg on Drums and Jack playing one, maybe two other instruments over top. When Lazaretto starts with “Three Women”, he throws everything down on the table and molds it into a frenetic whole, over the skeleton of a straight-up blues song, his stock-in-trade since debuting. The heavily distorted organ that delivers the riff with an extended time signature sets the tone, as the distortion on this album is such that it in no mean feat to identify the instrument being played. Organ, guitar, piano, electric piano, pedal steel, harmonica, fiddle – throw some synths in there, and you just gotta sit back and enjoy the ride. White has assembled quite a band to back him on all but the final song here (a solo acoustic number, as is tradition), giving him so many more moving pieces to work with; you gotta wonder if he was dreaming up the near orchestral sweep of “Would You Fight For My Love?” while pounding away at the three chords in “Jumble, Jumble”.

Though he is by far most associated with the guitar, the piano feels like it very much makes up the backbone of the album, peeking through at the end of every line and bashing away time behind every chorus, very much expressing the cute and coy riffs he never quite got to on the blocky chord bashing he did with his piano in the Stripes. It lends to the ‘open’ feel the record has. If you can throw layer after layer on top without worrying about limits, you could do worse that having a core piano track, which makes it feel as if White has moved into the “songwriter/arranger” role, moreso than the solo bluesman feel when he wields the guitar (though it is deployed handily for solos), as keeping track of everything that’s going on here is quite a feat in itself. On “Lazaretto” itself, White spits lyric upon lyric over top of a bassline of no lean distortion and a slick rhythm with no relief for its cymbals. The song eventually breaks apart from its rather mean feel to make way for a fiddle soloing on top of the bassline, which seems to come completely from left field, but not necessarily out of place.

In my experience, Jack White likes to hide a gem further down the track list, and Lazaretto is no exception. Right from the introduction of the electronically treated fake laughter to the headbangin’ riff, “That Black Bat Licorice” is a hell of a lot of fun. “She writes letters like a Jack Chick comic/Just a buncha propaganda to make my fingers histrionic” howls Jack before adding “Like this”, as he introduces a quick little high-string guitar riff; “and this” and unleashing the riff again with all the instruments crashing down and down on the same target. He screams about how “I never liked that black bat licorice” over it all, another in the list of little phrases that White uses that gives everything that specific, detailed flavour that you’re not personally familiar with but you know means something to him (as in “Lazaretto”, where he talks about “making models of humans out of coffee and cotton”).

Even though there are a couple of tracks in the middle of the record that drag a little for me (“Entitlement” in particular doesn’t feel as vulnerable as it ought to. There’s a lot going on, which is the record’s M.O., but it doesn’t suit the humble vocal), Lazaretto is a fantastic record and I would definitely argue one of White’s best, regardless of the band associated with it. The feeling that anything can come down the line and that the instruments effortlessly tag in and out while hanging onto a cohesive whole is incredibly exciting and White is a fantastic master of ceremonies while still being able to write a hell of a tune and a hell of a riff.

“Three Women”:

“Lazaretto”:

“That Black Bat Licorice”:

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Toxic Prog Rock Syndrome: Gentle Giant’s Wreck

Gentle Giant is known as the prog band’s prog band. They’re doing stuff that gobsmacked the more well-known bands of the time with their polyphony, weird signatures, instruments and staggeringly intricate vocals.Not only drawing on classical music and jazz but also on renaissance and chamber music figures as well, they took their esotericity very seriously. They occupied a second tier of progressive rock that was arguably more experimental and extreme than their more popular cousins (Genesis, Yes, etc), but never quite reached the same fame due to their inaccessibility (the audience was never a chief concern in prog circles). Unsurprisingly, they didn’t handle prog’s transition to pop in the late 70s/early 80s that well – they called it quits after 1980’s Civilian and have not reunited since.

That’s not to say, however, that the band is completely unassailable. They still aspired to achieving the perfect fusion of mature and pop music, and their songs were always tightly written – seldom in Gentle Giant are there 10+ minute songs or wandering instrumental solos. Everything was packed into the main body of the song, it was just the structures themselves that were operating on a number of different levels.

My favourite track by the band has always been “Wreck”, as it’s actually kind of a catchy tune and represents the band in the position of just trying to craft a good old fashioned rocking stomp that will get people into the song. The problem was that, despite this, they were still Gentle Giant, so you get the impression of these guys writing a rock song but not really getting a grasp of the ‘less is more’ approach. The opening riff starts out well, but starts to wander almost immediately as it feels a couple bars too long and begins to wander around the notes, which actually creates much more expressive riff than you’d usually hear. This leads into the bulk of the song with a simplified version of the opening riff in 4/4 which the vocals overtop follow and end every line with a chorus chanting a very friendly “hey/ yeah-e-yeah/hold on”. This part rocks pretty well and you bob your head as you hear this tale  of an awful shipwreck and the sailors going down in it.

This is maintained for a bit as people get into the groove, until this part, in the middle of the song is interrupted by a violin and harpsichord interview and light vocal flitting around notes almost at random. They last like two minutes before they have to let loose with harmonically complex ditties with fancier instruments (at a later point they fade out the rock part of the song to bring you another interlude with a flute at the centre) in the middle. They knew they had to make it rock and make it complex but couldn’t decide on the synthesis and so just broke them up.

I’m not saying it doesn’t work, however. The main part of the song represents the rage of the sea that swallowed the ship, while the more serene part is a distinct reflection on the cruelty of the sea being where they made their living and is now the thing that leads to their destruction. Thematically, they made it work, but it is such a jarring juxtaposition and a good representation in the attitude of the time that the music they’re making should be utterly unlike anything that was out there at the time. The album “Wreck” is included on, 1971’s Acquiring the Taste, even bears this statement from the band:

“…It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being very unpopular. We have recorded each composition with the one thought – that it should be unique, adventurous and fascinating. It has taken every shred of our combined musical and technical knowledge to achieve this. From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts of blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling. All you need to do is sit back, and acquire the taste.”

Pretty pretentious stuff to be throwing around, but I think the statement was more for the band themselves than the listener – sort of their manifesto in that they did not want to rely on previous musical tropes to build their music off of. Nevertheless, this is a song I always go back to. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard, and I really appreciate that the complexity inherent in the song is woven into its own tapestry, rather than being saved for some extended section, but at the same time I still get to yell stuff like “HEY! Yeah-e-yeah, hold on!”

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God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

Having watched The World’s End the other day, it put me in mind, of course, of Hot Fuzz. That, in turn, put me in mind of Village Green Preservation Society, the only album I know by the Kinks and the only real non-Beatles British Invasion-er album I know intimately. It was Hot Fuzz that first put onto the album, with the title track appearing during Nick Angel’s morning jog through the town, foreshadowing the town’s obsession with its old British ways and fear of change. The album deals with very much the same thing, 40 years earlier.

The title track has the narrators claim to be parts of groups with increasingly silly names, all of which are concerned with sticking to the status quo and trying to upkeep old traditions (“God save little shops/China cups and virginity”), while at the same time preventing any progress or change that might encroach on that goal (“The Office Block Persecution Affinity”, “The Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliates”). Upon hearing this in full for the first time, I was bowled over by the tongue-in-cheek nature of the song, but also the close harmonies and cheery, pastoral feel to the proceedings.

As I implied, it was my first exposure to much if any non-Beatles British Invasion music, and it surprised me hearing the more observational lyrics rather than the Beatles’ love and psychedelia – it gives a little more of a picture of what 60s Britain might have felt like and what the perception of the youth of the time was. Village Green Preservation Society was clearly a dig at the previous generation’s traditions and outrage at the actions of the next one. It’s a tale as old as time, but fascinating from this particular vantage point.

It’s not only a look back at people’s outdated, rural notions, but also of people gone by as well. “Do You Remember Walter?” recounts a childhood friendship, when “We said we’d fight the world/so we’d be free” and “buy a boat/and sail away to sea”. the first part of the song builds up all of the optimism and ambition of youth that, as we get towards the last verse, slowly deteriorates as life gets on – to the younger generation, very much a betrayal of the notions they still hold dear. “I bet you’re fat and married/and you’re always home by half-past eight” ponders the narrator, content in the fact that “people often change/but memories of people can remain” – another example of the way things used to be being much better than they are now.

“Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” was always my favourite track. It has a kickin’ harmonica riff, and, instead of a key change near the end, the song kicks up the tempo and gets faster, which I did and still do think is a brilliant way to kick it up a notch. The narrator goes on about he’s “the last of the good old renegades”, for whom “all this peaceful livin’/Is drivin’ me insane”. “Johnny Thunder” tells the tale of an old renegade – a badass who wouldn’t listen to reason and wouldn’t ever grow up and rejects everyone else pleas for reason, but is still prayed for by “sweet Helena”. Over and over on the album, these youthful figures of badassery are portrayed, but always surrounded by nothing to rebel against and quite alone in their quest – the ultimate fear of your ideals and anger fading away, ’till you’re not quite sure what you’re holding onto any longer.

With a solid 15 tracks – each memorable, cheeky and deftly played – Village Green Preservation Society is an album that I will always return back to every now and again when I’m in the mood, and I always manage to get a little more out of every time. It’s successfully been catalogued with the ‘nostalgia’ stuff in my brain, it’s been long enough. I intend to explore more Kinks’ albums in the future, as their talent becomes more and more apparent as I re-listen, but this album is always going to hold a special place for me in their oeuvre.

“The Village Green Preservation Society”:

“Last of the Steam-Powered Trains”:

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#8: Fripp & Eno – (No Pussyfooting)

(Island, 1973)

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(Image from rateyourmusic.com)

This album has been on the periphery of my mind for quite awhile. Brian Eno I’ve listened to a couple of albums by, but know him chiefly from his role as a producer – with Talking Heads and notably David Bowie (the ambient compositions on Side 2 of both Low and “Heroes” I pretty much attributed directly to him). Robert Fripp I’m familiar with as the demanding commander-in-chief and guitar virtuoso of King Crimson. As such, I’ve been aware of this album for a very, very long time. The thing that kept me away was that I wasn’t sure that an ambient album would be able to hold my attention (Eno has a multitude of ambient albums, but I always stuck to the “rock” ones).

I have to say, I did not find too many surprises here. I didn’t even find a particular amount of hype surrounding this album, but it is seemed to be generally well-liked and by two musicians with a very good pedigree – maybe even because of that mere fact, I had created a myth about it in its own mind. I thought perhaps it was sort of a genre-buster that transcended just ambient music and pulled people to it from outside, based on the musicians alone. I was wrong. It was very much as advertised. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy what I found.

There are two tracks here, each comprising a side apiece, and recorded about a year apart. “The Heavenly Music Corporation” begins the proceedings, as Fripp guitar (the only instrument to be heard for the entire twenty minutes of the song) creeps in, slowly and smoothly, cascading on top of itself over and over again, harmonizing quite nicely on its journey. For Fripp being the one playing, its surprising that there’s no abrasive passage to be heard here, but the aim is clearly a different one from that of King Crimson. There is a drone-like quality in certain sections, though they come in pulses rather than a steady thrum, which gives the impression of the music breathing or being roused to life – a slow meditation between Fripp’s more active solos that appear sporadically throughout the track. The ubiquity of Fripp’s guitar here actually adds to the contemplation and peacefulness to be found here – everything is more or less of a tone, so it groups together much better, as the presentation of a single voice, focused. On the shorter passages, you can hear the phrases linger for a moment before disappearing, rather than the extended notes bleeding over into themselves once again, so each contains a resonance in and of itself on the broader canvas of the streaming, continuous low-end, and begin to pile up as they come faster and faster. The focus moves slowly, as there is only one thing to concentrate on at a time – no extra tricks or bells and whistles. I would not be surprised to discover Pink Floyd had been listening to this album, as there are definitely flavours here which can be tasted in the instrumental sections of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.

“Swastika Girls”, while using the same structure, is quite a different beast. Where “The Heavenly Music Corporation” was smooth, “Swastika Girls” is prickly, and makes use of Eno’s synthesizers as well as Fripp’s guitar. As opposed to a drone as in the first track, a short, crackly synth phrase begins this track, with Fripp sprightly plucking away. The effect is very similar however, and everything begins to meld together as the track progresses, this time calling to mind the serene but affecting introduction to King Crimson’s own “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part 1)”, which had only come out earlier in the same year. This track feels much less ambient than the first, and seems to be more of a latchwork of low-key moments repeated over and over on synthesizer, piano and guitar, which makes the moments that Fripp takes off on his flights of fancy seem that more interesting, as he launches off an angular platform rather than a smooth one.

This, all in all, was a pretty good album. Ambient is not one of my favourite genres, as I usually like a little more going on to grab my attention (the album, being as it is, lacks any beat). But there is clearly thought, effort and feeling put to work in these two tracks, and it will carry off with your mind if you let it.

7/10

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#7: Trioscapes – Separate Realities

(Metal Blade, 2012)

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Now, my relationship to jazz is tentative at best, but I know what I like. And I like this. Trioscapes, as the name would suggest, are a trio consisting of drums (Matt Lynch), bass (Dan Briggs) and saxophone (Walter Fancourt), three of my favourite instruments. Three-member bands have a great appeal to me. Perhaps it because you can clearly demarcate the contributions of each member as they play or perhaps because the playing is uncluttered and allows more room to stretch out or improvise. Either way, I love me a good trio. And this is a good trio.

The first thing that struck when listening to this album was the drumming style of Matt Lynch, which seemed unusual for jazz drumming. No groove-heavy ride cymbal plonking or brushes that could be heard. The drumming is pretty much balls out, hailing deft snare blows on the listener whenever a crevice is available for it to peek through and avalanche upon avalanche of double kick drums. I am usually not a fan of a double kick drums and this is no exception, though I feel that’s more on my end than it not fitting the song. Whenever I hear a double kick blast, I am immediately taken out of the song (and taken to a metal song which I’m not enjoying) – just my prejudice. It fits in with the aggressive style of the music happening, though, suiting the metallic tinge that colours much of the record.

The saxophone doles out meaty riffs and spurious, frenetic improvisations in equal measure here, and having the mid and high ends all to itself, does not feel any obligation to tone down or subdue its attack. The morass of squealing notes reminds me of David Jackson’s (of Van der Graaf Generator) atonal noodlings at times, which is always a good thing. As many sax players seem to do, Fancourt takes his turn at the flute as well, but in a much more subdued manner, as it steals the occasional glance in “Curse of the Ninth”, flitting about to provide an extra layer when necessary.

Dan Briggs’ bass playing is muscular in both tone and style and roves – though with purpose, not nervously – cutting a wide path, and always in lockstep with Lynch’s drums. It hold down the chords it needs to for the sax to go madly off in all directions, but does not once produce a boring or middling passage. Much of the attack comes in the dizzying synchronicity of the rhythm section staying close together for tight passages, with a divebombing of saxophone on top in the high harmony for the finishing touches.

As a sort of fence-sitting jazz fan, I loved the hell out of this album. The tracks never seemed to meander so far into completely aimless noodling (not even the 11+ minute title track) and the musicianship is dazzling. The aggression in their playing can almost seem overwhelming at times, but if you prefer a heavier sound, this is the kind of jazz that’ll suit you to a tee.

8/10

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#6: Various Artists (Linear Downfall, New Fumes, Spaceface, Stardeath, White Dwarves) – Playing Hide and Seek With the Ghosts of Dawn

(Lovely Sorts of Death, 2012)

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Being intimately familiar with In the Court of the Crimson King, I was curious to hear this re-interpretation of the entire album by the Flaming Lips and their stable of bands (most recently seen covering Dark Side of the Moon), and delighted to see that this classic was still influencing and inspiring bands to this day. It’s a monster of an album to approach covering in its entirety, so the effort alone is admirable.

For the most part, I think the performances on this album have managed to capture the sense of shock and awe that King Crimson created initially with their debut album and when they left a crowd in stunned silence in Hyde Park after their performance of “21st Century Schizoid Man”. The squeals are noisier and numerous. This time around, feedback disintegrates into pixels and sharp bombs of clattering cymbals, guitar histrionics, and synth lines are chopped up and spread around the canvas available in bursts, wreaking havoc with the already tentative time signatures.

Having said all that, however, this is not an album that revels in the loose free-jazz excesses that the original album enjoyed – and if it is, the excesses are heaped on top of each other, rather than stringing the listener along with a handful of plucked notes at a time as in the original “Moonchild”. This one clocks in a little under the time of the original and maintains mostly just the nucleus of songs, with plenty of room to go madly off in all directions, should the mood strike them.

The sense of bombast is played with considerably on this version. “Epitaph” is covered in a thick layer of fuzz with a rather humble vocal, which sets the original on its head, and portrays well the sort of lost anguish evoked in the songs lyrics while – turning a grand declaration into a sort of meandering melancholy (though the crescendo towards the end still retains its noisy pomp); “Moonchild”, however, is given the full band treatment immediately, whereas the original sort of crept in on Fripp’s guitar strings and never got too high above a whisper.

My one major criticism of the album is that the vocals seem too familiar with the material and don’t deliver the kind of straight-faced earnestness that Greg Lake did – the melodies are batted around as if they had been heard a thousand times before. There’s kind of an “we all know how the album goes” sort of feel to it, which I think, to an extent, is true – those most interested in checking out the album with be those familiar with the original – but the vocals just seem like a rote addition to the chaos happening in the background. In “The Court of the Crimson King”, a large effort is made of subduing the melody to a static whisper, perhaps to contrast the huge backing track, but it isn’t quite pulled off – the lyrics are too fantastical to pull off such a deadening.

This is quite a fun excursion in re-imagination, especially considering it’s one of my favourite albums and I can see every divergence. The noisiness is great and in the spirit of the original, and it definitely works as an introduction either way – from King Crimson fans to the Lips and co. or vice versa – but it doesn’t quite stack up to the original for me.

7/10

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#5: Swans – The Seer

(Young God, 2012)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

I’ll come right out and say it: I HATE this album cover. If I could feasibly put another image up there I would, but it’s the cover of this damn album, so up it goes. My hatred of it, however, comes not from a critical place – it’s not that I think the execution is poor or that they didn’t try hard enough. As a matter of fact, the execution is excellent and I think it achieves exactly what it sets out to do, as well as encapsulating the album it stands for – it terrifies me. It’s a horrible, frightening image that’s meant to be horrible and frightening, and it hits me on an instinctual, visceral level. I can’t get to it critically, because I have to avert my eyes. Funnily enough, I feel very similarly about the first track of the album.

“Lunacy” is the song I previewed from the album before picking it up, and what a song to pick. It felt like something that I shouldn’t have been listening to before being indoctrinated – like I had stumbled onto a secret ritual chorus that would be the last thing I ever heard. It starts innocently enough, with some neat little chords chopping away on guitar, but then come the voices. It’s not long before they’re swiping at you out of the void chanting the title of the song over and over and over and over again, each time with more menace. You sense that it’s not a bluff, it’s not lunacy in the abstract. There will be consequences. It is legitimately frightening. For all these reasons and more, “Lunacy” is quite possibly my favourite track of 2012.

It’s probably no surprise that the track couldn’t be topped. Which song could compete with the gravity of the first? The model of repetition is played out over and over across the album, however, as phrases are in holding patterns with more and more layers heaped on top of them as the songs build to a climax, as Michael Gira’s Nick Cave-esque vocals make the occasional appearance, his lyrics and melody in flux atop the rock solid foundation of the riffs etched into the walls of noise that make up much of the album’s backing, which never lacks interest.

Feedback, quite liberated from the guitar at this point, swells and washes over much of the proceedings (in lieu of feedback, bagpipes are found to do quite well in a pinch, as on the title track), with the occasional King Crimson-esque free form drum doodle peeking out of the darkness, and mandolin and piano riffs circling over and over, drawing the ear in. The palette is well-stocked and scarcely less than full. In absence of vocals, guitars are wont to muse about and do so amidst adhering to the drone they set forth for themselves. The atmosphere is so thick you could spread it on toast, and is wonderfully creepy. The adherence to repetition becomes almost fatal in the middle of “The Seer” as a back and forth between two chords blasted by the band in unison at varying tempos seems to go on for what seems like ages, but I will always err on the side of self-indulgence in music and the guitar histrionics in between make it worthwhile.

The album moves through a few different moods, though none of them will ease the nausea, and the band makes no apologies either way. “A Piece of the Sky” spends approximately half its considerable running time with the sounds of a crackling fire leading to a wave of noise akin to a folk band having been thrown into a blender, at which point they begin to actually pick up the main thrust of the song. Regardless of whether or not their approach suits you, you trust them in that they have not censored themselves one iota – their vision is seen out to its last. Apart from Karen O’s relatively straightforward turn on “Song for a Warrior”, the rest of the guest vocalists here star as the devil’s choir, evoking the ghoulishness and avoiding the cheesiness of horror movie soundtracks with their sinister harmonies on “The Seer Returns” and “93 Ave. B Blues.”

Though I personally feel that a couple of tracks might have been excised in order for the album to sound a little tighter/more cohesive, this is a triumph of vision. It’s a journey through an almost unremittingly dark world, with a two-hour tour given by its mad prophets with no stone unturned. I’ve not heard a band successfully capture  the kind of immediacy and raw emotion found here in quite some time.

9/10

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