A document of the visceral power of purely acoustic instrumentation, “Magical Energy” runneth over with the impossible drumming of a cyborg Buddy Rich, the controlled squall of reeds and brass, and the unmistakeable timbre of cello strings all deftly fighting for aural space. The songs maintain simple exoskeletal forms, rarely devolving into senselessly abrasive aural one-ups-manship (not without its own merits, of course) but always working towards a bigger and brighter crescendo, even if that is itself succeeded somewhat paradoxically through a single phrase repeated until death. The ability and the inventiveness to produce the music here, so alive and ebullient, without the aid of amplification or processing is an accomplishment worthy of respect, and it’s a total tragedy that this band never gestated another LP. The warm passages of witty saxophonic interplay, jazzy asides absentmindedly stripping into foreboding repetition, and pure, jubilant energy unarguably bursting forth make for a music that is beyond alive, joyously splitting the difference between Albert Ayler and Zs while maintaing a fierce sense of vivacious, breathing singularity.
Purity is very hard to achieve when you produce something that is colored by mitigating factors beyond the scope of the production. Obviously the term is relative and reflexive; the word of the producer, detached from whatever only he knows in his mind, is pit naturally against the word of the potential purity-denier, the person receiving the produced thing and judging it. Even someone like Frank Fairfield, a twentysomething Angeleno living the life, at least superficially, of a pre-World War picker reliant on the busking life for bread, cannot satisfy a real, thorough test of purity. No one is birthed with pomade glistening on their forehead, muscles weary from the memories of fields and metal strings. It’s hard to imagine someone my age, growing up in a place geographically my own, not at some particular moment turning his head and frankly — yes, frankly — making a decision to remove themselves from the present in total. This becomes a response to his environment, a choice so often unafforded to those whose music he aims to breathe new life into. And yet, purity becomes a moot point when you resuscitate your gramophone to hear it wheeze out what I’m sure Frank wishes was a 78 of his own recordings. His voice and earnest method are undeniable and perhaps most importantly, his performance, his physical revival of this pronouncedly untouchable music is believable, full of warmth and exuding purity.
Context is so important, especially when it is at any sort of superficial (or not) odds with its substance. I was given this CDR by Phil Elverum, he of big emotions in terse focus and also fog, the first time I saw him perform live in 2008; he told me that, if not for the fuckwords, it was ideal for broadcast on a college radio station, which I was then a player in. I’m not sure how soon thereafter I listened to it for the first time, but when I did, I listened to it in full without being able to comprehend how I was supposed to react to it. I laughed a lot. The sincerity of, or at least commitment to the performance seemed to belie any sort of in-joke pretension conspired between Elverum and the artists. Now, though, nearly 4 years of popular culture later, it would be too easy to write this entire album off as a Tim & Eric-indebted (despite predating it) pastiche of acid-washed Jack Johnsonisms. But is there more here? I didn’t and don’t know more of the backstory behind PEACE!! or this release. The internet is similarly unaware. For some reason, though, I am never unimpressed by the totally immersive experience PEACE!! creates on this record. The big dumb hippy-rock tropes on display here are so masterfully executed that it’s hard to deny the songwriting. Every bongo (and tabla) slap, every stupid harmony yelp, the recklessly strummed steel-string guitar, and the effervescent, drunk, weirdly urgent “Protest Song Night” karaoke bar vocal performances. Apparently some more relevant veterans of the Northwest covered this music as a tribute band soon after it’s release. When do jokes end?
I first heard of Leo Kottke a few weeks ago on a largely “Classic Rock” station that occasionally has guest DJs and themed shows. I instantly was reminded after investigating his work further that there is so much perfect, pure music that I’ve not heard, that fills voids I didn’t know were there. Kottke was a contemporary of John Fahey, and this, his most well-known record, was released in 1968 on Fahey’s “Takoma Records” label. Kottke is not the experimentalist or artiste that Fahey often is most renowned for; where Kottke mines is the beauty of instrumental possibility. With one guitar, he creates whole, full music that exists in and of itself. Whether by his alarmingly quick and shrewd picking or the exquisitely-recorded metallic squeal of a slide, or both, all necessary timbres and tones are achieved and accounted for. I can hear James Blackshaw becoming acquainted with the possibility of this sound in his teens and his fingers bleeding as he struggles to achieve. I can hear the punk of folk music out of context, the only context folk music can really exist in. But mostly I hear the most totally sincere and committed musicianship expressible, a sort of tangible stock in playing music out of necessity, a truly admirable devotion that is inspiring.
If not for the uncharacteristic amount of swears, you could probably pass this to an indie rock 101er as a collection of early Jeff Mangum demos. Despite Mangum’s outspoken reverence of Knox and Tall Dwarfs, it took me until 2011 to finally open my ears to his pithy, singular songwriting. I can’t help but think of the subtlety (yes, appropriately so but still) lacking from every folk-punk band I’ve ever heard shout socio-economic (and-etceteric) refrains in angst. He’s pissed but expresses his negativity with remarkable tact without allowing it to wholly engulf a song both superficially and formally. Entering his extensive oeuvre through what is essentially a B-sides collection recorded at gung-ho speed on 4-track seems silly, but what better way to establish an emotional connection with songs barebones? Drums are the plectrum’s pulsing strum, bass is accounted for by raised mids, and the highs are all his voice, a glorious nasal Beatles-in-the-basement that is only bettered by overdubbed self-harmony. I can even hear the primordial origins of Belle & Sebastian. A really inspiring, boundless and pure talent.
Polar Bear was probably my first conscious foray into modern jazz, or whatever it is that this music could be classified as. Jazz is so ubiquitous and that makes it difficult to put a finger on what an interesting jazz is and what a mediocre jazz is. It’s funny to think about how much jazz is recorded and promoted and performed every day relative to the acclaim of this particular record. I have no doubt that there is equally commendable jazz in this world, produced well before this jazz. Perhaps my ignorance, or maybe the ignorance of a general populace, is what made this record resonate so positively for me (and the Mercury Prize nominators). Or, maybe “Held on the Tips of Fingers” is a truly remarkable work in and of itself, featuring exceedingly talented musicians mining their genre for everything it has to offer unafraid to distort and reappropriate their findings. Transparently produced, pristinely recorded, but not without dissonance and character. This is excellent music to listen to in almost any situation.
More than I usually do with bands I cherish at the present, I wish I heard Stereolab when I was a kid. I think I would have really liked it at the time, and I feel like hearing this album when it came out at age 9 or 10 (“The Noise of Carpet?”) may have led to a me more habitually positive. I can think back to pre-teen life experiences and hear “Les Yper-Sound” playing in the background as the soundtrack to my mental home movies. I guess that’s what’s so evocative about their music: the timelessness, or the simultaneous feeling of old and new, past and future, that they so effortlessly deal in. Present-positive forward-thinking nostalgia without melancholic underpinnings. Also, talk about a perfectly mixed album.
Turning on a Vibracathedral Orchestra album is like closing your eyes and reopening them to find yourself seamlessly transported into the thick of a very vaguely Middle-Eastern or South-East Asian marketplace, bustling with activity. It’s an attempt of expressing musically that sort of idealized physical experience. It’s like Black Knight or Army of Darkness, slow-motion pans with the diegetic soundtrack crossfading into this, with gangly men selling their wares, beggars, prostitutes, dirt, animals, death, life. The songs don’t end or start and most decisions in the music seem relatively arbitrary. There are constants: buzzing organs, shakers, a general sense of chaotic (but often positive) stress. There is such a distinct world in this music that feels so tangible and real that, more than even any performance I have ever seen by any so-called drone or so-called experimental or so-called artist, I really and wholly believe the sincerity of the physical and mental processes of those that made this, in and of itself.
I’m not the most well-versed in the American Primitive guitar. As a genre, it is so relatively narrow that a lot of what is produced in the style feels without artist; not that it is anonymous, but the music very much stands on its own feet. For me at least. The work is bequeath to its generic conventions more than to the personal style of any one artist, to no trivialization or criticism of the musician. The best music like this sounds like it could be recorded any time in the history of the guitar as an instrument. Tompkins Square, as always, delivers: this collection is very, very strong. All the individual musicians craft distinct tracks while staying within the conscious bounds of their approach and at no point did I or do I ever want to stop hearing the glorious steel-string ringing of fingerpicked Primitives.
Breaking the pattern, here’s an album that is not at all new to me but I feel is perhaps underappreciated. ¡Forward, Russia! produce an aggressive music that was contemporary with the glut of mid-2000s bands mining the Gang of Four/etc. angularity of early 80s post-punk or whatever. There’s an thematic and lyrical ambiguity and careless intensity that together make this album way more relatable for me than anything Bloc Party or similar did. This feels very transgressive and transformative, like listening to the story arc of some heavily melodramatic book where the tension never eases. Here is anthemic music full of spiky dual guitar leads, central-and-high-in-the-mix bass guitar, barebones drumming, and more than anything, exceedingly volatile and overzealous vocals often screeching provocative refrains. That could very well be the dealbreaker for your own ears, but for me, no.