Submitted for your consideration: perfect pairs that have been engaging my two ears and two eyes for the past two months, recalled as a Michigan summer enters its last hurrah …
Three of A Perfect Pair: Live Albums
I’m thrilled that Esoteric Recordings’ reissue series from British folk-proggers Renaissance now includes 1976’s Live at Carnegie Hall; recorded over three sold-out nights at the legendary New York venue, this set has been a favorite since high school days. It captures Renaissance’s essence: Annie Haslam’s clear soprano vocals soar over Michael Dunford’s spacious acoustic guitar, John Tout’s supple piano and keyboard work, Jon Camp’s agile bass and backing vocals and Terry Sullivan’s orchestral drumming. Members of the New York Philharmonic join the band for most of the set, bringing out the delectable French and Russian flavors of extended classics like “Can You Understand”, “Running Hard” and the “Song of Scheherazade” suite. A bonus disc of BBC session versions show that Renaissance could conjure up the same magic without the orchestra as well. If you don’t know this worthwhile band’s music, Live at Carnegie Hall is a perfect introduction.
As is a pair of new live albums from the Norwegian trio Elephant9! Recorded during an extended Oslo residency, Psychedelic Backfire I and Psychedelic Backfire II (the latter with Dungen guitarist Reine Fiske sitting in) are two sets of unremittingly scorching jazz-rock improvisation. Organist/keyboardist Ståle Storløkken spins out one mesmerizing solo after another, whether by himself or trading licks with Fiske, while bassist Nikolai Hængsle and drummer Torstein Lofthus stoke relentless, hard-driving grooves. Whether subjecting Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to a Bitches Brew-era Miles-style breakdown or building unstoppable momentum on “Habanera Rocket”, the music captured here is endlessly inventive and thoroughly compelling.
Perfect Pair 2: “Complete” Box Sets
Esoteric has also done Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks justice with the eight-disc Banks Vaults: The Albums 1979-1995. Unlike bandmates Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford, Banks never developed a high profile as a solo artist — but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Banks Vaults documents his various approaches, from the concept album A Curious Feeling through obscure film soundtracks to collaborations with vocalists as diverse as Marillion’s Fish, Nik Kershaw (both on 1991’s Still) and Wang Chung’s Jack Hues (1995’s Strictly Inc.). It’s probably true that, as Genesis went pop, Banks’ writing style remained a touch too proggy for the mass market — which is why 1983’s neglected The Fugitive stands out as a refreshing exception, hitting a sweet spot between the two genres and drawing the listener in via Banks’s remarkably personable vocals. This box probably isn’t for Gabriel-era Genesis purists, but you may be pleasantly surprised if you give the albums mentioned above an unbiased listen.
Bill Bruford’s Earthworks Complete, on the other hand, is as far from commercial as you can imagine; between and beyond his later stints with King Crimson, Bruford pursued his thoroughly individual take on jazz, together with a crop of hot young British players. The first Earthworks (featuring multi-instrumentalists Django Bates and Iain Ballamy, with Bruford focusing on the combination of pitched electronic percussion and a standard kit) chased a brash, unique fusion of worldbeat, avant-garde structure and lyricism; the post-Crimson band (featuring saxophonist Patrick Clahar, then Tim Garland) settled into a considered yet exciting take on the classic jazz quartet format, spiked with odd time signatures, occasional re-imaginings of Bruford’s early jazz-rock repertoire, and drum solos aplenty. 20 CDs and 4 matching DVDs (most recorded live) provide a exhaustive cornucopia of cool compositions and spirited ensemble work. And, to paraphrase a Bruford composition title, you’ll never hear him and his compatriots play anything the same way once.
Perfect Pair 3: “Album/Era” Box Sets
Speaking of exhaustive, King Crimson’s Heaven and Earth is the deepest dive yet into Robert Fripp’s bottomless archives. Subtitled “Live and in the Studio 1997-2008”, this baby documents the extended path to 2000’s crunchy The ConstruKction of Light (remixed here with new drum tracks, due to the loss of the originals) and 2003’s metallic The Power to Believe. With the collapse of THRAK’s Double Trio, Fripp proposed the “FraKctalization” of Crimson into smaller improvisational configurations — known as ProjeKcts 1-4 and X. The always creative, frequently jaw-dropping fruits of this extended R&D process are all here: 52 live ProjeKct sets, 9 spin-off albums that complement TCoL and TPtB, 10 hours of live video from Crimson’s 2000 European tour, and further concert action from 2001, 2003, 2006’s ProjeKct 6, and 2008 (the first Crimson to include Gavin Harrison on drums). The complete package, on 18 CDs, 2 DVDs and 4 Blu Rays, is immersive, overwhelming, and unmissable for the serious Crim fan. (Like me!)
But for once, King Crimson has competition on the immersive and unmissable front: the new Tangerine Dream box, In Search of Hades: The Virgin Recordings, 1973-1979. These were the years where Edgar Froese, Christoph Franke and Peter Baumann (with Monique Froese playing a crucial, consistently unsung creative role) wrestled with the vast musical potential of early, barely controllable synthesizers and electronic keyboards. The results, captured on eight studio albums and three previously unreleased improvised concerts, were ground-breaking and extraordinary: breathtaking symphonic suites of dark ambient washes, pulsating sequenced riffs and electronically treated standard instrumentation, woven together into organic structures of uncanny, compulsively listenable variety — and, yes, unstoppable momentum. Today’s electronic music owes a vast debt to Tangerine Dream albums like Phaedra, Ricochet and Stratosfear, and this set (remixed by Steven Wilson among others) shows why. Universal Music had to order a second pressing of In Search of Hades to meet demand; check it out for yourself below.
Perfect Pair 4: Rock Reading
The passing of Mark Hollis has brought a new edition of the 2012 tribute book Spirit of Talk Talk. To quote publisher Rocket88’s blurb:
Filled with art director James Marsh’s fabulous designs and photos from every stage of the band’s career, the book includes a preface by founder member Simon Brenner, contributions and tributes from musicians, friends and fans, plus a heartfelt afterword honouring founder and leader Mark Hollis.
The eight pages of new material include brief interviews with band members Lee Harris and Paul Webb (who didn’t contribute to the original edition), more photos and the above mentioned afterword by music journalist Chris Roberts. Talk Talk came a long way from the Duran Duran clones that I saw open for Elvis Costello back in the summer of 1982, and Spirit of Talk Talk is every bit as enigmatically beautiful as the music they made on The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. It can be ordered direct from Rocket88 or Burning Shed.
But I’ve also just finished an equally enjoyable, though breezier read — Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe. Bassist for pioneering pub-rockers Brinsley Schwarz, buddies with retro-king Dave Edmunds in Rockpile, one of Johnny Cash’s sons-in-law, Lowe wound up in the producer’s chair for Elvis Costello’s first six albums almost by accident, providing a compellingly brittle, brash sound and Costello’s first hit, “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding.” With a disappointing solo career on the skids, Lowe reinvented himself by leaning into the gentler end of country, soul and pre-rock pop. The man himself is appropriately rueful about his checkered past, but also as wry, witty and humane as his best songs (check out “You Inspire Me”, for one). Author Will Burch — himself a drummer and songwriter for 1970s New Wavers The Records — captures the tumultuous ups and downs of Lowe’s life story with appropriate candor and grace.
— Rick Krueger