soundstreamsunday #86: “Ocean Rain” by Echo and the Bunnymen

echoIt’s like they couldn’t help it, all the British bands that invented themselves in the wake of the Sex Pistols.  As hard as they tried not to, they created some of the loveliest pop music one can imagine, with smarts and restraint and pretension, lots of pretension.  In their willful endeavor to be a serious, art-y band in an evolving psych-goth-pop scene, Liverpool’s Echo and the Bunnymen were not the equal of Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Cure or even Simple Minds, but they had it in them to produce one of their era’s best records in 1984’s Ocean Rain.  As unique as it is in its genre for its use of an orchestra the album nonetheless captures the period, as romantic impulses toward grand gestures infused particularly British music with a youthful, surrealistic poetry — it didn’t always work, of course, and didn’t always need to work to be successful: if you were to ask me to name an album that summed up 1984, I’d point to, among others, Ocean Rain, even as I was a teenage metalhead.  But it’s not a perfect album.  Singer Ian McCulloch’s reach as a lyricist at times exceeds his grasp, and two of the record’s tracks (“Yo Yo Man” and “Thorn of Crowns”) threaten to bring down Ocean Rain‘s otherwise glistening pop dramas and diminish the band’s full flowering.

The title track closes the album, and “Ocean Rain” is a study in building pop ballad tension across five minutes of orchestra and guitars, with McCulloch and the band finding peaks and shifting down, delivering lyrics perfect for 80s college angst.  Echo and the Bunnymen would never be this good again, but they really are so good on Ocean Rain that nothing else compares to this jeweled and flawed masterpiece.

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 #85: “Oil on Panel” by Wovenhand

wovenhandconcertLike Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes — last week’s soundstreamsunday entry — David Eugene Edwards brings to American folk, rock, and country an utterly unique, instantly recognizable voice.  Unlike Pecknold, Edwards toils in relative obscurity, which is a shame, as for the last 20 years he’s brought a wide-eyed intelligence to songs extending darker traditional themes, shimmering with christian imagery, to bracing goth soundscapes.  While you could make favorable comparison of Edwards’ bands, Denver’s 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, to Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, the better starting point, should we need it, might be Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or perhaps the old testament.  Or Carravagio.  With a voice both commanding and vulnerable, Edwards brings to his arrangements sonic chiaroscuro, breathing life, momentum, and dimension across acoustic and electric instrumentation tuned to his songs’ subjects.  Compositionally, he is a painter looking, I think, for balance, perhaps reflecting his relationship with his faith.

“Oil on Panel” is from Wovenhand’s third album, 2004’s Consider the Birds.  Referencing the act of painting, three of the deadly sins, Roma, and Yeshua, the song captures the direction Wovenhand was charting as it set out in the early aughts, into-the-christian mystic, highly refined, mannered, powerful.  With a windy, buzzy ambience overlayed with piano and distant strings, the song blossoms into near-orchestral grandeur halfway through, Edwards telling a story heavy with images invoking less a narrative than a feeling, of being unmoored, freighted with guilt but defined by faith.  If the edges bleed it is not without purpose.  “I paint them roughly, I paint them in my sleep.”

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.

*Image of Wovenhand in concert by Colin Gentile, 2015.

soundstreamsunday #84: “Your Protector” by Fleet Foxes

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Fleet Foxes is a progressive rock band in the same sense Gazpacho is, where what they’re getting at is a total environment or vibe rather than a particular baroque form of electric music with rock instrumentation.  I read recently what I think is a good observation, that their third album, 2017’s Crack-Up, has an appropriate home in Nonesuch, which started as the classical wing of Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records, but in recent years has extended its reach to artful achievers in what we might otherwise think of as the rock world.  It’s the right label for a band that doesn’t like to rush things.  Their previous record, Helplessness Blues, was released in 2011, after which songwriter and lead singer Robin Pecknold, by then a rock star, decided to push pause and go to college and wait for the muse to revisit.  It did.

In a rock world where everything is “post-,” Fleet Foxes shares with the other intelligent American bands of their era — thinking Spoon, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Shearwater — a smart melodic sensibility and a complex vocal approach to its music, atop an intense but restrained musicianship.  With a sound instantly identifiable, in its harmonies the band reliably draws comparisons with the Zombies, Moody Blues, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and while I get it I don’t really hear it, maybe because I find Pecknold’s lyrics darker, funnier, better, or maybe because there’s no smack of the hippie, despite the hair, that so defined those groups.  I think if anything Fleet Foxes taps into the reverb-drenched sound of 90’s Britpop, the adventurousness of the early 70s British folk scene, and the impressionistic poetics of Dylan‘s best work.  Even while being on the inside there’s an outsider’s sensibility.

“Your Protector,” from Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled debut, is like a puzzle you turn in your hands trying to figure out how it comes apart.  I can’t really parse it, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a happy story, while the galloping, western-movie chorus is an inscrutable, spine-tingling chant difficult to forget.

As you lay to die beside me, baby
On the morning that you came
Would you wait for me?
The other one
Would wait for me

The live-in-studio version here shows the band in full flight, as part the second series in Nigel Godrich’s From the Basement program, and includes drummer Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) soon after he joined the group.  There’s a sleekness to the work that speaks volumes on the meticulousness of the band’s constructions: the simplicity of the arrangement, the power in its dynamics, the harmonies.  The air crackles and sparks.

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: “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.