soundstreamsunday: “Isolation” by Joy Division

ian-curtis- joy-division-wendy-winder-obskur-magazineMusic critics tend to dismiss Joy Division’s posthumous Still as a hit-and-miss collection of studio scraps paired with a lackluster recording of their last show.  And in a specific context — compared to the brilliant Unknown Pleasures and Closer, it seems a bit of a rush job with less-than-pure motivations — this holds some weight, although I’d argue as its own thing Still may be more representative of the band as a whole, and that the live half of the double album contains fiery performances wildly joining hard rock, punk, and synth-y goth music.  My first exposure to Joy Division, over thirty years ago now, was hearing “Shadowplay” from Still, and it gave me the metal thunder frights.  It sounded as if Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis, and Stephen Morris channeled the essence of Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi” through a punk filter, as they sped to the center of the city in the night.  Even as they rode their wave of goth punk popularity their songs betrayed the band’s primary strength: their music was as much about making connections as alienation, masked and revealed in turns by Curtis’s not-waving-but-drowning lyrics and delivery.

When Curtis made good on the promise of his lyrics a few days after the show, the band pivoted into New Order and went on to define electronic dance music in the 1980s.  It’s a remarkable story of artistic continuity in the wake of tragic change, but the strength of the group’s trajectory even before Curtis’s death can be found on Still and on “Isolation” in particular.  Stripped of producer Martin Hannett’s carnivalesque studio tweaks, the song’s live incarnation has a punch lacking on Closer, with Sumner’s keyboards threatening to submerge Curtis’s plaintive singing, and Hook’s and Morris’s stripped bass-and-beat backbone out-crafting Kraftwerk.  The big guitars so much a part of their origins were yielding to distilled, synth-led rhythmic and melodic lines.  While “Isolation” would sit comfortably next to its future cousin, the New Order calling card “Blue Monday,” it remains a place of passage rather than a destination, a liminal space aglow with potential.

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 above.

soundstreamsunday: “Sons of Pioneers” by Japan

japantindrum2A British post-punk band could grow into just about anything in that fertile ground of the late seventies, and Japan proves the point, as over its short record-releasing career (1978-1981) the band moved from a funk punk glitz unit to new pioneers of progressive art rock.  You can see the steam rising off the entire five-album catalogue, the creative engines driving full tilt, inevitably towards early breakdown.  If the end came too soon there’s one more record, 1991’s self-titled Rain Tree Crow, that seals the deal: together, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri, and brothers David Sylvian and Steve Jansen were among the most unique musical collaborators of their era, and should be in any discussion of Talking Heads or King Crimson from this same period, as bands who pushed forward and influenced all musical directions.  In its progression of fashion and music, Japan functioned as an interlocutor, a not-so-missing link, between New York Dolls-style punk and Tears for Fears-style new wave, a Roxy turned Crimson, an achieving Guns’n’Roses cum Duran Duran.

“Sons of pioneers are hungry men,” intones Sylvian in the nuanced Ferry-esque croon he’d been developing since 1979’s Quiet Life, the band’s third album.  I have no idea what this lyric means. But…I like it and its pure sonics and the way Sylvian so naturally handled a lyric as a shaped sound.  “Sons of Pioneers” comes from their last work as Japan, Tin Drum, an album charged with atmospherics, and further demonstrating the contributions and importance of each member, although Mick Karn’s gorgeous playing is a particular show stopper.  His expressive command of the fretless bass pushes and pulls “Sons of Pioneers” across its landscape, as the song takes its time unfolding, enjoying its own groove.  I’m including the live (from the posthumous live record, 1983’s Oil on Canvas) and studio versions because they both kick ass in their own spacious and patient ways, although there is an urgent edge to the live performance.  The concept-y concert footage shows a superlative Japan in its swansong, Jansen with his world beat and Barbieri sino-spacing out the proceedings on keyboards, Karn transporting himself magically sideways and Sylvian, dapper glam hand ever in pocket, delivering the riddles.

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 above.

soundstreamsunday: “Subterranean Homesick Alien” by Radiohead

radiohead - EditedThe figure “singing from the window in the Mission of the Sacred Heart” in ELO’s “Mission (A World Record)”, last week’s soundstreamsunday entry, could be the uptight narrator of Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” from the band’s 1997 tour-de-force OK Computer.  As if in mirrored conversation, those two songs, separated in time by over 20 years but perhaps closer than they appear — in their beam-me-up guitar melodies, keyboarded grandeur and darkening moods — are to me joined at their metaphoric sci-fi hips.

Radiohead’s confidence on OK Computer, in both the intense alienation of the fragmented lyrics and the band’s break with the walls and squalls of mid-90s guitar rock, is a subtle swagger ripe with end-of-the-millenia decaying beauty.  It’s a prog goth triumph, reaching in its many directions to locate the mood of its time, a burred gloaming richly unsettled.  It’s also, I was reminded when listening again to it recently, funny, in the same way that Forever Changes is, or Fight Club, or a mad prophet preaching the end times.  There’s just no telling what the next turn will be, but there is a willful design, and so the satisfaction of a wicked lyric or the resolution of a majestic melodic sequence prompts a smile or a laugh.  The parts come together, a human victory, a denial of the end even as it’s being trumpeted.

The internally rhyming title of “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” a riff on a Dylan masterpiece (and, further back, a Kerouac novel), feels tossed off on the one hand but also maybe the only choice given its narrator’s painting a scene of alien surveillance and his desire, that he be taken “on board their beautiful ship, show me the world as I’d love to see it.”  He’s maybe one of them, maybe wants to be one of them, but who They are is undetermined and in any case moot: the point is homesickness for a place that has to be better, with the “breath of the morning” and the “smell of the warm summer air.”

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 above.

Slowdive: Things New and Old

unnamed-31Reviewing Slowdive’s eponymous new album, their first in 22 years, Clash’s Robin Murray made a statement bound to pique the interest of progarchists:

“It feels at times like early King Crimson, or Pink Floyd’s post-Syd/pre-Dark Side nexus. It’s the sound of a band forgetting who they were, and embracing who they could become.”

That second statement is undeniably true. Slowdive (released May 5 on the Dead Oceans label) is unmistakably the work of the same quintet that disbanded between 1995 to 2014. But it’s not a reunion record of rehashed old ideas. It would also be correct to say the band’s music has more in common with Floyd than, say, punk rock. Among their signature showpieces is a majestic, slow-burning cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair.” But Lark’s Tongue in Aspic? Other listeners can judge.

Guitarist/songwriter Neil Halstead grew up in a home where orchestral music was preferred to pop, and that influence is strongly apparent in tracks like the stirring “Catch the Breeze” (1991). While Slowdive can’t be classified as prog, their body of work has occupied spaces progarchists can appreciate: ambient, avant-garde, dream pop, and experimental, all under the broader classification of shoe-gazing. In this vein no other band sounds like Slowdive.

The cover art for Slowdive features a frame from Harry Smith’s 1957 avant-garde animated film, Heaven and Earth Magic. Composed of cut-out figures set in motion, the narrative includes a sequence involving a female patient sedated for a dental procedure. The darkened profile depicts her state of semi-consciousness, or perhaps heightened awareness. Or both.

Shoe-gazing refers not to the contemplative state of the listener (though it could) but rather the guitarists staring down at the array of effects pedals used to achieve other-worldly sounds. None are better at this than Slowdive’s Halstead and Christian Savill. On the new record that prowess is everywhere present.

But Slowdive also contains a refined attention to detail and form. The pace of the songs is faster. Nick Chaplin’s bass and Simon Scott’s drums thunder out front instead of being obscured by clouds of guitar effects, e.g. “No Longer Making Time.” And instead of a metronomic build-up common in earlier work there are tempo and time changes, e.g. “Don’t Know Why” and “Go Get It.” But as on previous records Rachel Goswell’s voice moves through the mix and around Halstead’s vocals like a spirit, e.g. “Sugar for the Pill,” the album’s emotional epicenter.

The closer, “Fallen Ashes,” may be a preview of things to come. Showcasing Scott’s abilities with laptop software, it embellishes and pushes a hypnotic piano riff to sublimity à la Jonny Greenwood.

Overall, Slowdive is familiar but with more sculpted contours and sharper pin pricks than in times past — a welcomed development.

All of this works from a context of two-decades’ old material still very much in view, still relevant, still captivating. I had the great fortune to catch Slowdive in Carrboro, NC at the next-to-last date on the North American leg of their current tour. Blending half the new album with old material, Slowdive overwhelmed the audience with canyons of sound.

I spotted a few fellow 50-somethings in the music hall. But more than a few of the audience weren’t even born when this Thames Valley gang first started making music as teenagers. Having fallen quickly out of fashion years ago with a press enamored to Britpop and cool Britannia, then beckoned back to life by an emerging cult following, Slowdive have a word for souls fearing rejection without redemption: No, this is what we do, and done well time will vindicate it.

After opening with “Slomo” from the new album the band followed with “Catch the Breeze,” with Savill, Goswell, and Halstead leaning toward the floor, wailing guitars swelling to orchestral heights.

The breeze it blows, it blows everything

And I, I want the world to pass

And I, I want the sun to shine

You can believe in everything

You can believe it all…

During the rapturous finale I glanced to my left. A couple of people were actually weeping. Heaven and earth magic, indeed.

Slowdive at Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC, May 10, 2017. Photo by the author.

 

soundstreamsunday: “Born Under Punches” by Talking Heads

The-Talking-Heads-perfomring-in-Boston

Again with the Eno! Always with the Eno! I’ve said it before here, but there’s no avoiding Brian Eno in any discussion of late 20th century pop and rock, and his work with the Talking Heads is just one more example of his everywhereness.

Having developed a friendship with David Byrne and seeing in the Talking Heads a vessel for pushing forward a longstanding passion for African music as realized by Fela Kuti, Brian Eno produced two records for the band that became central to their story.  But it was on the second of these albums, Remain in Light, where Eno and the Talking Heads — with a significantly fleshed-out band — captured a critical density of sound measuring up to the giant slabs of Afro-Beat/Jazz jams Kuti conducted.  The record, importantly, also marks a point in transit for Adrian Belew, who in a span of three years would go from Zappa to Bowie to Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club to King Crimson, while beginning his own fruitful solo career.  Belew’s presence on Remain in Light (1980) and King Crimson’s Discipline (1981) make the albums a natural pair, as Fripp’s great reinvention of Crimson drew heavily from his new guitarist-vocalist’s recent adventures.

Remain in Light contains only one well-known Talking Heads song, the superb “Once in a Lifetime.”  The balance of the record spins extended grooves cooked up from percussive, bass-driven jams borrowing in their feel from an African music aesthetic, creating a shared kinship too with the Eno/Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, albeit voiced more organically.

This live version of “Born Under Punches” shows a Talking Heads — with Belew, Busta Jones on second bass, Bernie Worrell on keys, Dolette McDonald on backing vocals, and extra percussionists — morphing into a band that, as George Clinton might say, could tear the roof off the sucker, a product of the ever-shifting crossroads Brian Eno always seemed to leave in his wake.

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 above.

soundstreamsunday: “Rudie Can’t Fail” by the Clash

theclashFor the Clash there was no leaving politics off-record or offstage, and more than any of the mainstream punk or post-punk bands, except for maybe Gang of Four, they worked the seam in rock’s goldmine that pitted the disempowered and disenfranchised against authority, entitlement, and impunity.  No mistake their hit cover of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law.”  They gave punk a much-needed edge that went beyond simple nihilism, stoking it with purposeful aggression that, even as an act that in part it was, absolutely rocked.  The Clash were also a band in the way the British loved their bands, from the Beatles to the Faces — laddish, swaggering, a drama of excess unfolding — a story of their empire in microcosm.

I’m a latecomer to the Clash’s London Calling (1979), but I’ve been listening to it on and off over the last 20 years or so, and in terms of British rock I think it’s the natural next step after the Stones’ Exile on Main Street — like that record it is a glorious, sprawling double album by a band so at the top of their game that they became a cultural filter.  Rather than American blues, though, the Clash relied heavily on Jamaican music as a launchpad, investing the songs with an utterly contemporary feel that at once gave the finger to the British post-colonial Man while celebrating the multicultural consequences of empire.  Ironies abound.

For years I honestly thought that the “Rudie” in “Rudie Can’t Fail” was just the name of the song’s central character.  This is because I’m generally uneducated in Jamaican music, where the “rude boy” as anti-hero has been kicking around since the 60s.  It just goes to show what a great song this is, with it’s big undertow of a riff and the back-and-forth singing of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones.  It’s an ebullient shout-fest with horns, a big-hearted victory lap for punk.

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 above.

soundstreamsunday: “Premonition” by Simple Minds

Simple-Minds-resize-3Few bands seem to cause such division as Simple Minds.  There are fans of the early stuff, fans of the later stuff, fans of New Gold Dream…. I never had a horse in that race, since I never particularly cared to follow them.  I liked what I heard on the radio of theirs well enough, it was certainly expertly crafted and, in retrospect, helped define its time.  But recently I felt like mining a bit deeper and came upon their early records.  I understand the early fans’ passions more now, since it’s made clear on Real to Real Cacophony and Empires and Dance that the band was chasing an ambition to recast pop music coming out of the 70s.  That they caught up with it is apparently a deep disappointment for those who read sellout in the tracks of Once Upon a Time, but of course the one — a deeply enjoyable confection of well-honed hooks and musicianly smarts, no matter its commerciality — would not have been possible without the other, a proving ground that was hit and miss, but when it found its mark was incendiary.

“Premonition” has at its center a chunky classic rock riff driven by Charlie Burchill’s guitar, and isn’t too distant from what the Cars and Tubeway Army were doing at a time before the keyboards really took complete hold, combining the ethic of early Roxy Music with a post-punk focus on rhythm (Derek Forbes and Brian McGee brought genius to this band).  Jim Kerr sings with a wide-eyed weirdness straight out of Marquee Moon, while Mick MacNeil’s carnivalesque keyboarding from this time must have influenced fellow Glaswegians Belle & Sebastian (thinking specifically of “Lazy Line Painter Jane”).

This live rendition — though honestly the sync seems odd enough to me and the recording good enough that there may be some yet-to-be-defined disconnect between picture and sound — catches Simple Minds in their early prime (and goes some way to explaining why they were offered a certain song to sing for a certain movie after Bryan Ferry turned it down).  They were catching fire creatively, figuring it out and putting it out live.  That their trajectory afterwards went on to follow that of Ferry et al. is perhaps the sign of one common path in a larger creative process tied to myriad motivations.  Me? If I had to decide which Simple Minds I prefer…I’d take both.

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 above.