Writings on music, stuff, and stuffy music

The Books – The Way Out

The first three albums by the Books established a very consistent approach and result – a wildly creative collage of disparate bits put together in a completely unique way, creating a very singular, identifiable modern sound. They never seemed too interested in making a “catchy” tune in the traditional sense, nor did it resemble any established genre. The Books have always been unclassifiable.

Found spoken word is still at the heart of much of their material, but singing has a more important role. Stand out tracks on The Way Out put a new, vibrant sense of rhythm to the foreground as well as more clearly defined song structures. It feels less abstract and cerebral and more grounded and funky. It’s their best work yet, and the video counterpart of the new material in their live shows is hilarious and super smart.   /< Nov ’10

The posts below are from my old site, from 2004

June Tabor - The Quiet Eye

distinctive release for Tabor with a jazz orchestra worked into precise, piano driven arrangements. Released in 2000, Eye adds a new dimension to her impressive catalog. As always, there’s an interesting selection of material including traditional British folk songs and contemporary writers such as Richard Thompson. Tabor’s voice is compellingly dark, haunting, and beautiful. She makes mature, timeless albums that never pander to current production trends, middle of the road tastes, or the dreaded folk Nazis.

Arto Lindsay - Salt

The third Arto title released on Righteous babe records continues to explore a blend of bossa nova, jazz, hip hop, pop and avant garde. Underneath the snazzy, creative dressings are great songs with fascinating lyrics. There is always weight and substance to his work, a blend of sexuality and intelligence which gives it endurance. All three CDs are innovative, impressive, and highly recommended. Even the cover art is fantastic. When was the last time a CD cover made you run to Google to find out more about the artist!

Bjork - Medulla

A difficult album to penetrate, without the immediate reward of accessible songs, Medulla is the most adventurous and yet least satisfying Bjork title yet. While one could argue that she relies on a thin surface of vocal mannerisms and conceptual arrangements to disguise a lack of dependable material, usually her CDs benefit from an instinct for an urgent melody. Pretentious has never come to mind before when negotiating her work, but Medusa smells a bit like “art damage”. As her catalog grows and matures, this experiment will likely hold a unique place amongst her more popular releases. Robert Wyatt, one of the most charming and iconoclastic voices of the 70′s British prog scene, makes a welcome cameo.

Michael Franti - Songs From The Front Porch

A solo release from 2003 that is marketed as an unplugged, stripped down version of Spearhead’s leading light. The best tracks do just that, but Franti couldn’t resist loading up other tunes with additional beats and stuff. Many of the songs are lighter versions of titles from Spearhead CDs. The guy is awesome at delivering a powerful message in soulful song, and Porch is welcome for expanding the scope of his expression. I just wish it was purely unplugged for an even stronger contrast to the studio versions.

Brian Wilson - Smile

Oh Dear, he re-recorded it. Why not just clean up and assemble the original tracks? The bootlegs gave a grainy impression of what his intent was. One had to imagine the true shape of the work, as we had many of the fragments, but only Brian new how they fit together.

When Nonesuch posted MP3 teasers, it put all concerns to rest. The fact that Wilson waited 37 years to return to his abandoned masterpiece is not only heart warming, it’s a reason to celebrate. Smile is a huge artistic success.

The versions of Windchimes and Surf’s Up in particular don’t compare with Wilson’s original aching vocals, but this is an older man smiling. A testimony of hope and optimism, it’s the story of the amazing struggle of one of the most important pop writers of our times. Smile has surpassed the mythology.

This could very well be the LAST GREAT CD that you really have to buy. The embossed box with metallic ink is an instant classic. As the format has quickly become obsolete to many, it’s fitting that Nonesuch put out such a significant work of art.

Silver Apples - Silver Apples and Contact

Ok I admit it. I saw a picture of this cool looking guy from the 60′s with a crazy home made synth rig in The Wire, and I thought, wow, thats gotta sound weird. Well, it does, but not always in the good way. Damn you Soundscapes for tempting me by racking this CD in the “interesting” section.

A duo from New York, circa 67, who rose from obscurity when their first and second albums were re-released 30 years later. Consisting of an inventive drummer and a vocalist who played a table of oscillators, the SA’s were the first on the block for electronic space rock. Who knows how many of these albums sold back in the day, but one must have ended up in the hands of Suicide, who would start rehearsing a similar sound down the street a few years later.

By the mid 60′s only small amounts of electronic music had infiltrated the mainstream through jingles, station i.d’s, the odd sci-fi soundtrack, and World’s Fair pavilions. When Wendy Carlos started her bandwagon the early synths were only accessible to rock stars and Universities. It took another 5 years for affordable Minimoogs and EMS putneys to end up in the hands of common folk like Brian Eno.

The Silver Apples took a DIY approach and built their own mammoth axe out of Canal Street surplus gear. The inherent limitations of the monstrosity inadvertently forged a minimalist, tribal aesthetic of drones and pulses, the most basic, primal building blocks of music. It was form following function. The intonation from the manually controlled knobs is pretty hair raising at times, but It’s certainly part of the charm. After releasing the two records, the band basically disappeared for 3 decades until a few spins on Dr. Demento and suddenly the re-release warranted a rebirth. Some critics have fostered a mythology around these guys, but why did they stay away from making music that long? It puts the work under scrutiny.

Some of the material is prophetic, other tracks are pathetic, hampered by jive Beatnik poetry and irreverent humour that doesn’t stand the test of time. You can whittle the two records down to a few, key tacks that must have been utterly astonishing back in the day. The interesting thing is how a lot of Electronica resembles these experiments.

Free Design - Heaven/Earth

The third album from the astoundingly talented Dedrick siblings. Originally released in 1969, it reflects the unique aesthetic that all the Free Design records embraced. A highly original blend of soft pop, orchestral ambitions, immaculate 4 part harmony singing, jazz voicings, complex arrangements, and all-is-groovy lyrics. First impressions of Chris Dedrick’s words are the obvious due date on the cutesy wootsey candy bag. It’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s tongue in cheek or not, and that makes it even more fun. It’s impossible not to become completely enamored with these albums however, and suddenly you sense the underlying spiritual quest that he was expressing in many of the songs.

Heaven/Earth benefits from the rapidly advancing recording technology of the period, and sonically is remarkable. Although this band was obscure during their day, they had the luxury of working with the finest session musicians, great studios, and brilliant engineer Phil Ramone. For the snare drum alone in Simon and Garfunkle’s The Boxer, Phil is GOD. Each Free Design album is indispensable, and Best Of compilations don’t do the band justice. The only clunker track is a regrettable take on Summertime  a song usually to be avoided.

Annette Peacock - An Acrobat’s Heart

I loved her voice on a Bill Bruford album from the 70′s, and had heard rumours about an earlier ground breaking LP where she treated her vocals through a Moog. A fascinating artist, I was curious about her most recent release on ECM, a label that changed my life when I stumbled upon it in Art School.

Acrobat’s Heart is definitely not what I expected. It’s a tediously long series of tempo-less, depressing songs that run from one to the next without a single variation in tone. Sparsely orchestrated for string quartet, Peacock accompanies her self on piano. It’s one of the most dour albums I’ve ever sat through, and I’ve given it numerous chances.

Maybe I should have downloaded it first and then decided if I would shell out $25. But I would have thrown it away after the first few minutes. This is one of the overlooked issues with downloading. Buying music made you feel like you made a commitment, and you HAD to give it a chance. Downloading plays into the instant accessibility needs of the day  no one makes a commitment and gives art an opportunity to be understood. How many great albums took you 4 spins before you started to figure it out? People don’t go back to a listening post at HMV to try out the same track 4 times. They decide in an instant. One thing I can say about Peacock’s album, is she didn’t cater to the instant gratification factor.

Veda Hille - Field Study

A beautiful solo album for voice and piano by this Vancouver champion of the idiosyncratic Art Song. Veda is truly distinctive in everything she does, with two sides to her writing that have created tension within her previous albums. A tender, pastoral quality and an angular, aggressive expression. On Field Study, perhaps because of the lack of band bombastics, they seem to blend perfectly.

Her colourful harmonic sense evokes the lofty ground of the impressionists and 20th Century composers, and gives her material a kind of unpredictability that is rare amongst singer/songwriters. Although using a complex musical vocabulary, Veda knows how to craft a song. She often successfully uses a dark, abstract verse to set up a rewarding, accessible chorus.

This material was the result of a couple of commissions, and the unique lyrical content is fascinating. Possessing that rare gift of inventing phrases that stick with you forever, Veda is a true artist who is pursuing a very personal path.

Ryoji Ikeda - Op

An unusual recording for this Japanese minimalist in that he used strings as opposed to electronic sources. The results lack a distinct identity compared to his earlier work. This project doesn’t explore the mind bending, or more specifically, ear boggling effects achieved on his first release, +/-. On that amazing disc he created aural illusions with minimal tones, pulses and ticks. Depending on your position in the room and relationship to the speakers, the listener perceives rhythm in a certain way, but by turning your head you perceive a different rhythm. His freaky use of phasing is truly mind blowing when he does the same effect with the perception of pitch. Those are tracks that I love to play to freak out musician pals who have heard everything. Op is very conventional by comparison, but expands the palette of this fascinating artist.

Gentle Giant - Octopus

The fourth album from 1973 by England’s most endearing prog bands. Like many of their peers, GG blended muso intensive jazz rock, quirky moog effects, dramatic dynamic shifts, thematic development, and fusion interplay. What set them apart was the neat medieval quality to the vocals, sometimes effectively structured in multi layered rounds. This distinctive sound was coupled with catchy melodic hooks to temper the complexity of the arrangements.

The Prog movement developed on the heals of Sgt Peppar and Pet Sounds, albums which advanced the creative boundaries of rock, and set the bar at a higher level. Bands such as GG followed the trajectory of this evolving form, raising the stakes and increasing the difficulty of execution by blending in the streams of jazz/rock and fusion. These players used technical virtuosity as an expression of intensity and passion.

The mass rejection of these values, so overstated in the tear everything down Punk aesthetic, turned Prog’s elitism into musical leprosy. Now that punk has been reduced to corporate muzac jingles to sell breath mints and cell phones to horny teens with low self esteem and no sense of individuality, Prog seems like the most radical counter culture statement around.

Neu! - 75

The third and last album from the German duo that helped define the early seventies Krautrock sound. Though they barely raised an eyebrow at the time, they have since proven to be incredibly influential on a large number of diverse artists. With no precedents for their signature brand of mono chord one beat drone rock, it puts a lot of subsequent music in perspective.

Nick Drake - Made To Love Magic

It was all so much more mysterious before the Volkswagon commercial that gave Nick his big break, twenty five years after his death. Before that spot, which was preceded by a major piece in MOJO, few seemed to have ever heard of him. Only the most hardened know it all music geek would have something to say, and sometimes it was pretty morbid. The urban myth I helped spread was that he had committed suicide at his birthday party!

Here in Southern Ontario he actually got airplay back in the day on early 70′s CHUM FM, and his albums were always racked at Sam’s, but it took a hipster music consultant at an ad firm to spread the gospel and ignite the Drake renaissance. Speaking of morbid, now he’s every singer songwriter’s savior, which drains the magic a bit. To quote Veda Hille, “things are more beautiful when they’re obscure”.

Made To Love Magic fairs much better as a cohesive and better sounding album than the dull cash grab Time Of No Reply. The discovery of a lost song, tucked away at the end of a reel of tape that hadn’t been played for 30 years is certainly bryter, later. This HAS to be Nick’s final bow, so thank God they did it right with helpful essays, mastering, interesting alternative takes and good design.

Nick Lowe - The Convincer

lowe.jpg Such a thoughtful birthday gift, something that I wouldn’t normally buy, and it fits in nicely with my Fix Of Nicks month. This set references early 60′s American pop icons such as Johnny Rivers, Roy Orbison, and Charlie Rich, and the production seldom strays far from being faithful to these inspirations. Many songs come with that “haven’t I heard this somewhere before” effect, and sound like they could have been released when Nick was a youngster snuggled up to a transitor radio. Only the track Cupid, the best of the lot, has something inherently modern about it with a dizzying trumpet that comes out of nowhere. Wait a tic, that actually could be a Magical Mystery Tour lift. Nicked again.

Television - Marquee Moon

tv.jpg This visceral slice of late 70′s CBGB’s rock is resonating with a lot of young bands these days. While a handful of peers from that grimy club eventually reached mainstream success and lost their edge, Tom Verlaine and Co. didn’t last long enough to achieve/lose it. Never having an opportunity to sell out, and only releasing two records secured the group good standing with rock crits.

The sound is as lean as the heroin laced dudes that made it. The liner notes on this beautifully packaged re-issue blab on about how Television rejected the dominant trends of the day, and point a Yankee finger at Yes and Brit prog for being indulgent and out of touch with the streets of NY. Whatever. Meanwhile Television’s pinnacle is the epic title track, which clocks in at a uber indulgent 10 minutes, almost longer than the band’s career. It includes major guitar wankery, and indeed the throttled Fenders are central to the longevity of this work, sounding refreshingly honest and expressive. A bit of volume knob work evokes Steve Howe, but don’t say that to the liner note guy.

Similar to Patti Smith, whose Horses album was an absolute shock a couple of years earlier in 75. She was central to igniting the Punk explosion that quickly became a charicature of bad behaviour. Television is interesting because it preceded, as McLuhan would say, the hardening of the categories.

Ornette Coleman - Skies Of America

skies.jpg Dark, chaotic, scarey, exuberant, claustiphobic, isolated. Ornette’s epic orchestral work is a challenge to sit through as one cannot help but reflect on the state of the states. File under Difficult listening.

Fiest - Fiest

feist.jpg A fantastic set of songs from charismatic x-Torontonian Leslie Fiest and wiz producer/entertainist Jason Beck. The album has oodles of cool oozing out of every nook and groove, with nifty nods to EZ listening and Bee Gee’s disco. Leslie’s voice is remarkable throughout, approaching a Dusty Springfield-like soulfulness on some tracks, while Beck adds tres hip arrangements which always keep tons of space for her guitar chops. Although a different kettle of butterflies altogether, her previous indie release, Monarch, should be hunted down by new fans.

The Free Design - You Can Be Born Again

born.gif From my fave re-release series of all time, the second album from 1968. Chris Dedrick and his 3 siblings start out with an absolute masterpiece of the essential Free Design formula. The title track clocks in at brief 2:30 covering broad dynamics, from quiet intro to blasting chorus. Hooks are everywhere, as are nimble horn lines. Dedrick, a trumpet player and son of a big band arranger, approaches vocals like brass sections. Huge chords of tight intervals delivered with percussive precision are the trademark. Several spiced up covers were used as bait for radio airplay, but dilute the originality of this project.

On the glossy surface Free Design fits in with the EZ listening soft pop of the times, compatible with the high level of craft achieved by Bacharach (Windows Of The World, his only “protest song”, is nicely re-harmonized here) and Jimmy Webb. While the songs on Born Again will never contribute to a Solid Gold Weekend, Free Design created their own unique sonic world. To cast them as a commercially doomed and eccentric 60′s MOR act ignores the striking originality in the arrangements and the expertise in execution (the cream of New York session players were hired). This is Art.

Cocteau Twins - Milk And Kisses

milk.jpg Instead of flowers I bring home Cocteau twins CDs. How New Romantic of me. The final album lacks a single iota of surprise, and the rhythm tracks sound conspicuously recycled from earlier albums, but you can’t dismiss the beautiful songs delivered in their signature style. Although mainstream success eluded them, the Cocteaus were one of the brilliant highlights of British pop from the 80′s. Anyone working with standard rock instrumentation and still able to achieve an instantly recognizable sound deserves a ton of credit.

Good art is informed by the artist’s immediate environment, and in this case it’s the frozen tundra of cocaine addiction articulated with cavernous ambience and dark distant storms of distorted guitar washes. Love it.

The Free Design - Kites Are Fun

kites.jpg As a youngster living across the river from Buffalo, I listened to WKBW during the summer of love. While the play-list reflected the national top forty, it still had regional oddities and the number one song was the title track from The Free Design’s first record.

The entire catalog of this cult-legend sugar pop trio has recently been re-released in North America, starting with 1967′s Kites Are Fun. It fit in with the safe, sunny sound of The Mommas and The Poppas, The Association, etc., but had enough originality and quirkiness to avoid over exposure and mass success. Buffalo proved to be the soul exception.

They reflected the clean cut side of the groovy 60′s, which ultimately cast them as non-relevant. Critical assessment of this wholesome aesthetic has only become favorable in the last decade as a handful of high profile artists with cred have sited Free Design records as inspiration.

While the naive lyrics may often induce snickers, the songs are driven by interesting musical ideas. Without the brilliant, creative arrangements by leader Chris Dedrick, the beautiful genetically matched vocal harmonies of two brothers and a sister would not be enough for this dated material to survive. Half the fun of Kites is discovering where Stereolab nicked some of their best ideas.

The Divine Comedy - Absent Friends

absent.jpg After firing his collaborators following the last gasp of the ironically titled and unusually dark Regeneration album (scroll much further down this page), Neil Hannon returns to his strengths with a wonderful suite of soaring orch pop. Tied together with a lyrical thread, the album has a top to bottom consistency in its ornate symphonic settings. With his smoothy crooning vocal delivery and cheeky 60′s references, The Divine Comedy aesthetic can be written off as a winking man’s homage to Scott Walker. That would discredit the impressive songwriting and grand execution that makes Absent Friends a remarkable sounding album.

Fennesz - Venice

venice.jpg The new 12 track CD from innovative electronic artist Fennesz continues to explore the turf established on his breakthrough Endless Summer CD, and the (hard to find but worthy of the effort) follow up Live In Japan. His work, talked about at length elsewhere on this page, is a fascinating combination of noise and melody, drone and structure. Breaking with the purely instrumental nature of these recordings, David Slyvian contributes a vocal on one song, complementing the collaboration Fennesz made on Slyvian’s most recent CD Blemish (see below).

In interviews he has acknowledged My Bloody Valentine’s monumental watershed album Loveless as an important source of inspiration, and one track on Venice clearly shows the impact it had on Fennesz. Elsewhere on a single track his guitar makes it’s most overt, unprocessed appearance yet. This reveal of the skeletal foundations exposes a casual folky sensibility. The unexpected intersection of this traditional approach with a lap top noise aesthetic is where Fennesz creates a compelling new music.

Eno - Live Shutov Assembly

shutov.jpg The 1992 studio version of Shutov added marginal depth to Eno’s growing catalog of passive ambient music. Realized on synthesizers, the piece wasn’t particularly distinctive in its approach or sonics. His influential ambient ideas were firmly established on several important albums from the 70′s, and many of his subsequent releases failed to raise the bar.

A unique live recording completely changes the significance of the work. This rare, excellent sounding bootleg is from a one-off live performance in Amsterdam where Eno was invited to have Shutov performed by a symphony orchestra. The results are astonishing as the traditional acoustic instruments mimic electronic sounds. Articulated in this manner, the work springs to life and becomes a unique example of Eno’s vision.

Michael Nyman - Decay Music

nyman.jpg A very quiet and beautiful piece for piano that was written early in his career, Decay is a zen study of the evaporation of notes. Those only familiar with his pulse minimalism will be surprised to hear this tranquil, proto-ambient composition.

Ron Sexsmith - Retriever

retriever.jpg Another spring, another album of fantastic songs. After opening a tour for it-band Coldplay he wrote a bunch of hooky pop tunes with catchy choruses. Retriever adds optimism and urgency to Ron’s predominantly maudlin, mid tempo catalog. While his writing is consistently excellent, the albums tend to blur together. The production here is transparent but gives each track it’s own turf, and overall this is his most accessible and rewarding so far.

The bitchy metrosexual in me won’t let the lame cover design off the hook however. How a record company would allow for a total lack of creative effort in a such precarious time is beyond belief. Beyond the front portrait here is nothing to sustain interest or illuminate the material. Retriever is an excellent title and offered enormous potential for a strong concept. This guy is delivering classic records and deserves better.

Kevin Hearn and Thinbuckle - Night Light

nightlight.jpg After thoroughly documenting his showdown with Death on his devastating H-Wing CD, the Barenaked Ladies ivory tinkler returns with a great pop album brimming with optimism and life. Walter Zweifel’s production is terrific throughout, with Hearn’s his limited vocal range sympathetically supported by crisp arrangements. A couple of moments evoke the orchestral-like density achieved by The Flaming Lips. Thinbuckle includes monster players Great Bob Scott and Chris Gardner, who absolutely shine. A few guest appearances including the legendary Mary Margaret O’Hara and yours truly round out this superb collection of songs. The intriguing lyrics allude to the emotional fallout from his harrowing survivor episode, while Lost and Stolen is perhaps the best ditty ever about a knicked axe. Naive and quirky cartoon cover art by Kevin compliment the music perfectly.

David Sylvian - Brilliant Trees

trees.jpg Sylvian’s back catalog has recently been remastered and re-released with respectful packaging. Brilliant Trees starts out with a somewhat superficial track that accurately reflects state of the art-funk circa ’84, but quickly settles into compelling material with less clutter and hype, and more substance. Contributions from St. Kits homeboy Kenny Wheeler elevate the instrumental passages, and a welcome appearance by Jon Hassell hijacks the closing track to his coffee colored world.

Yes - The Yes Album

yesalbum.jpg Their third album doesn’t benefit from keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s consummate flash or mad stacks of gear, and the production hasn’t reached the perfection of Close To The Edge, but “Yes” has terrific songs with wonderful sing-a-long harmonized vocals. Delightful to hear again after 30 years, and I’m totally stumped why the band is dismissed by music know-it-alls.

Cocteau Twins - Four-Calendar Cafe

cafe.jpg They weren’t coming up with anything strikingly new by 1993 and their second to last album never strays from the established Cocteau formula. When the formula is as breathtakingly beautiful as this however, you just want more! Some melodic elements actually sound recycled from earlier songs, and overall it lacks a sense of conviction. Although Cafe doesn’t have the vital spark of invention, this record should not be completely overlooked as it contains many lovely moments. The Cocteaus gave the world some remarkable music that was very much of the times, but also timeless in it’s beauty.