soundstreamsunday #96: “Huey Newton” by St. Vincent

stvincent1It’s no real surprise that “Huey Newton” is not about Huey Newton but rather the rabbit holes of internet searches and the semi-free association that can result.  St. Vincent’s self-titled fourth album (2014) is full of these tricky ‘scapes, it’s second single, “Digital Witness,” a frugging Beefheartian horn romp through the minefield of social media and probably the catchiest song you’ll ever hear about our accursed blessings.  Annie Clark’s musical and lyrical smarts match the task of knotty commentary, so even as she obliquely declaims she does so riding a wicked beat, multiplexing fluid melodies with giant, nasty riffs shooting distorto-style from her guitar in subtle nods to Hendrix, Fripp/Belew, and other noise monsters of yore.  She is a musical polymath, a pop loving prog rocker with, importantly, a penchant for the editorial process, and as such working with hitmaker Jack Antonoff on her latest record, Masseduction (2017), is a supreme act of sincere irony.  It is a gauntlet waiting to be picked up by the Taylor Swifts of this world, for certainly St. Vincent has no need for the pop audience but, eventually, many of today’s iHeart radio stars may yearn for the legacy Annie Clark has already built.

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“Huey Newton” is part cool-down dance nugget and part ZZ Top riff rocker, a product of an Ambien fever dream, where synthesizers are really guitars and basses are really synthesizers.  It all comes off sounding as if it and the entirety of the album was the most exciting of adventures to undertake, a feeling reinforced by a 2014 interview Clark did with Marc Maron, where she acknowledges her guitar skills but seems grateful that she’s “not so masterful that the magic is gone.”  Imagine, that there should be magic and not just mastery, allowing in the dark wilds….  In producer and fellow Texan John Congleton, who also produced Strange Mercy (2011), St. Vincent has an able partner (the ZZ Top reference is for real — Congleton’s a big Top fan).

Two performances of the song here: from the album and from an appearance on Letterman in the wake of the record’s release.  Both are devastating in their way, and recall for me, more than anything, early Roxy Music, with its skewering adoration of pop, the best kind of love letter to the muse.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

Time Has Shown The Wiser: Fairport Convention at Fifty

It came about this way: I received a 180-gram reissue of Genesis’ Trespass for Christmas. In a documentary on the making of the album Tony Banks said the band’s first truly progressive work had been inspired by listening to groups like The Nice, Family, and Fairport Convention.

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Fairport Convention? I think I once saw a passing reference to “progressive folk” applied to their work, and was familiar with their definitive album, Liege & Leaf — a statement on their growing affinity with the English folk tradition. While Trespass has some folk-inspired moments it’s anachronistic to say Liege influenced Genesis’ 12-string arrangements and composite chords. I went back to Fairport’s debut, Fairport Convention, recorded in November 1967 (man, something about British bands and fall recording sessions) and released in the spring of ’68.

Oh my.

Continue reading “Time Has Shown The Wiser: Fairport Convention at Fifty”

soundstreamsunday: “Closure” by Opeth

Opeth2Turns out the best Swedish death metal band of the 90s and early oughts was listening to those Bert Jansch and Popol Vuh records all along.  And such grooves are not as unrelated to Opeth’s charge as first glance might suggest.  Having spent the better part of a decade determinedly NOT (no, never) dancing around the DADGAD maypole in the relatively quiet interludes of scorching song suites lasting upwards of 20 minutes, Opeth bookended their 2002 LP Deliverance with 2003’s Damnation, and the acoustic drone floodgates opened.  Prog polymath Steven Wilson, who’d helmed the band’s production since 2001’s Blackwater Park, found in Opeth’s singer/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt a like-minded soul who, after a blistering half-dozen LPs replete with growls, blast beats, and super doom — though never rote, and always smart — needed some wind in the sails.  Unplug, let the mikes breathe a bit, leave the distortion pedals at home, I can imagine part of the conversation going, and so it sounds anyway on the recorded evidence.  Damnation is a masterpiece, a quiet, spacious death metal record, a grim yet lithe prog album, and with that said and with that description, no, it sounds nothing like the Cure, but it may appeal if Disintegration is your cup of tea.  It’s Wilson’s and Akerfeldt’s best and most dramatically pioneering record (although Opeth’s Wilson-less Ghost Reveries, from 2005, is maybe most representative of their work until the band’s real act two began with 2008’s Watershed).

Soon after Damnation‘s release the band took their show to Shepherd’s Bush in London, and there recorded 2004’s live Lamentations DVD, long since a YouTube staple.  Just as “Closure” anchors Damnation, its live cousin fills the same role on Lamentations.  The show is worthwhile to watch in its entirety, as Opeth takes some giant steps, with jazz-touched atmospherics and restrained but potent jams.  The band acknowledges its debts while shrugging off the diehard metal kids who came out for blood (they’d be given their due anyhow in the harder part of the show, and even in the Damnation section it ain’t exactly MTV unplugged).  If there’s a point where Akerfeldt became who he is, it’s on full display here, an artist who, as he appeals to his audience, is confident in his direction.  Just glorious.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Wave” by Beck

BeckWhen Beck walked a talking blues over a sample of Johnny Jenkins’s cover of Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” for “Loser,” his giant 1994 hit, there was an aesthetic purpose lurking underneath its vibe of off-the-cuff spontaneity that, 25 years later, continues to infuse his work with vitality.  While “Loser” itself is marked by the wild west feel of early 90s indie rock, with all its many faces, Beck’s subsequent work shapes that freedom into something beyond any particular rock and roll era — his catalog reflects possible trajectories across time rather than a simple series of destinations.

Morning Phase, released in 2014, is Beck’s ninth, an “acoustic” record that ran away with a clutch of awards and praise from critics.  All deserved.  He makes a pallet on the floor in support of his considerable vocal power and melodic finesse (things he’s not always interested in showing off), rich strings and rolling rhythms stacked beneath a lyrical prowess speaking of a talent well-nurtured:  if he’s not always successful in his endeavors, Beck is an active creator not inclined to coast.

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In its length, in its lyrics, “Wave” appears a slight, slip of a thing.  But in its undertow it is a song of deep release, a beautiful orchestration of removal, isolation, perspective; and so reminds me of King Crimson’s Starless and John Wetton’s treating the lyric as if he’s singing an emotionally interior “Jerusalem” — the land falls away, and you are at sea.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Starless” by King Crimson

kingcrimsonKing Crimson appeared in 1969 as an island, on the far side of the bridge joining a tiring psychedelic scene to a studied, if no less freaky (for its age), “progressive” rock.  In its nearly fifty years the group’s membership has drifted in and out through orbits around guitarist Robert Fripp, his steady hand and heart dissolving and reforming Crimson as there is music for it to play.  As Fripp assembled the band’s third incarnation, Crimson was riding a wave of popularity the rewards of which didn’t settle entirely well with him, and in promising a more difficult, rockier terrain he was able to lure drummer Bill Bruford, looking for a similar fresh start, from megaprog juggernaut Yes.  With violinist David Cross and bassist/vocalist John Wetton, the band created three albums in quick succession, ranking among their diverse best.  1974’s Red, the last of the trio, is an able summation of Crimson to that point, before Fripp forcibly retired the band (he would let Crimson lie dormant until a brilliant, left-field return in 1981).  The music is a metallic, abrasive take on contemplating the dying of the light, its mood no doubt reflecting Fripp’s, and his band’s, growing uneasiness.

In its lyric, “Starless” is an extension of the previous album’s title, Starless and Bible Black,  but the resemblance more-or-less ends there.  It has more in common with the grandeur of Crimson’s first record, In the Court of the Crimson King, mellotrons drifting into Fripp’s signature sustained tones, with Wetton’s vocal part an overtly dramatic (such was Wetton’s m.o., but here it works) preamble to a long instrumental passage as heavy a piece of jazz metal fusion as has ever been created.  For all his professorial demeanor and seriousness, Fripp loves a good stoner riff, and the tension he can build around such beasts — harmonic, exploratory — separates him from the pack.  Brainy, yes, but beguiling, gorgeous, devastating.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “I’m So Tired” by the Beatles

paul john mixing white album 68Released in November 1968, the White Album did a Pollock on all the principles of freedom the Beatles had been shaping since 1965’s Rubber Soul kicked off their long, disciplined freakout, and splattered the canvas with every elementary Beatle colour: rock and roll, British music hall, folk-and-pop, country, novelty songs, in no apparent order or thematic unfolding.  In its elemental, revelatory mess and as a rock double album it bears resemblance to Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (1966) or even Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (released just the month before), and if you took the long view you could, I suppose, think of it as part of the strengthening trend in the late 1960s towards the belief in rock music as art.  While The White Album may not be a lot of things to otherwise die-hard Beatles fans, it is very definitely Art.  Self-conscious Pop collage.  If the grinning nods-and-winks of yore are replaced by the dour four studiously not having a good time together during these last years of their existence (or perhaps merely shrugging the veil of idolatry), the music gives the lie to this not being good for the rest of us and for popular music in general across the timeline of centuries.  That Abbey Road and its blueprint for rock’s next steps was still in their future is almost impossible to believe.

“I’m So Tired” is a late Beatles-era Lennon masterpiece, a song of yearning and uncertainty.  Its central line,  “I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind” is both a call of desire for Yoko Ono and, in its cultural context, maybe the expression of the need to cool off for a bit, get some bearings amidst the drugs and money and politics and war and bullshit.  This is what makes great songs.  And of course it doesn’t hurt that there’s a lazy kind of rhythm to it, torch ballad sway giving way to hard rock march in the B section.  Twice through and out, nothing to it really, but in its barely 2-minute glory it contains in its molecules everything the Beatles were and would be.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Can I Sit Next To You” by Spoon

spoonThe connections are clear, right? Michael Karoli’s cousin and girlfriend were the cover models for Roxy Music‘s album Country Life (1974); Spoon names itself after a song by Karoli’s band Can; and if Spoon isn’t America’s Roxy Music then I’m buying a ticket to Cologne and getting this all figured out for good.  Spoon is the rock art band of the moment and of many previous moments, their career now in its twenty-somethingth year.  Released this spring, the band’s latest, Hot Thoughts, along with LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, gives the lie to what is otherwise a general truism: rock bands are a young person’s game.  A killer set of songs with a sustained, youthful definition, Hot Thoughts makes me search my brain for other great rock records made by folks who are my age.  A real, original rock record.  With guts and balls and great songwriting and absolutely no fat.  Not something worthy of elder statesmen or something celebrated by NPR for the maturity of its grizzled veterans, but damn, something that makes you want to dance and call out its lyrics without having much of a history with the band (and I don’t).

When Britt Daniel sings “I’ve been working on a plan, yeah” on “Can I Sit Next To You” he makes it feel like the most important words ever uttered.  Part of this is his voice, which as rock vocals go is, as my 10-year-old would say, “savage, yo” (really).  A mix of John Lennon, Iggy Pop, and Lee Mavers, Daniel can do falsetto soul back-to-back with a nasal/glottal/punky growl.  This was the territory of the giants of early 70s British rock as it morphed into pub and punk, the White Album (yeah and maybe some Marvin Gaye…and Can…) in one hand and a lager in the other.  So, everything is a hook but all the hooks have a Martin-esque depth of detail, flourish, and care, and a slightly shifted off-ness that makes it a slow, satisfying grower.  When in the middle of the song the bulbs pop and the keyboards go eastern psychedelic, it opens the horizon and we’re getting a thumbnail funk view of the Arabian Peninsula.  Sick — maybe the Cure would have thought of this but wouldn’t have been so economical, and there is whiff of “Fascination Street” lingering in the background.  Jim Eno’s boss kick drum brings it back to old school, and if you’re like me you’re waiting for that crazy keyboard bit one more time, and it does come, hallelujah.  With all it makes me think about, still…this is a conjuring music, an act of devotion not imitation.  Song ’bout kicks and the lengths you might go to.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.