Saturday, September 25, 2010

49. OOOH! (Out of Our Heads)

49. OOOH! (Out of Our Heads), Mekons (Quarterstick, 2002)

Formed as a punk trio at the University of Leeds in ’77 before a reinvention in the mid-’80s as a more nuanced, expanded unit exploring British folk and American country music through a lens of sardonic and literary commentary, the Mekons have recorded regularly since their inception, with only the Fall matching their continuity and longevity.  Much like the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, the Mekons have demonstrated an acute if sometimes ambiguous socio-political consciousness; for the Mekons, this often operates out of time.  Anyone expecting their fifteenth LP, OOOH!, to be a direct analysis of the new post-9/11 world, then, may be confused to instead find a set of songs that opaquely invoke ritual, myth, and dissent from present-day England to the pagan sects of the pre-Saxon wilds.  OOOH! began as an art show of the same name—the bulk of Mekons are also visual artists—revolving around, well, heads. History and mythology contain a slew of famous heads: the decapitated ones of Anne Boleyn, John the Baptist, and Jayne Mansfield; the allegedly frozen one of Walt Disney; the beguilingly poisonous one of Medusa; and a garden variety of various types of heads—shrunken, floating, missing; decorative heads placed on buildings as sentinels or superstition; the mo’ai stone heads of Easter Island. The songs of OOOH! use these stories as inspiration.

Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem opens the album with a ghostly intonation of its title’s acronym that sounds like a wolf’s howl.  Clattering percussion strikes up and Jon Langford directs a call-and-response group vocal.  “The sword is sharp/the arrow swift/the witnesses all seeing,” he sings, the rough-hewn arrangement suggesting a band of battle-worn troubadours heading for their final confrontation.  The possibility of death is clear, of it resulting in “two brass farthings on my eyelids,” as sung in This Way Through the Fire, but as members of the Commonwealth-era radical groups listed in Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem would tell you, such is the risk of fighting for one’s cause.  Much of the album addresses the solitude and introspection possible in the midst of such communal activity.  In Bob Hope & Charity, the ragged-band sing-along continues although the story is of a flagging comrade hoping for telepathic connections with his mates.  Tom Greenhalgh sings a version of traditional folk song Lone Pilgrim, about a private epiphany about redemption of the righteous.  Susie Honeyman’s sad violin accompanies Sally Timms as she admits on the album’s quietest track, Hate Is the New Love, “how we still love the war” and “When we say we’ve had enough/We know we really want more.”  Winter, with a largely acoustic but boisterous and ramshackle arrangement featuring harmonica, fiddle, Turkish saz, and prominent tambourine, shows optimism for calmer times after a pagan winter spent naked and drunk “in the belly of the beast.”  The first verse of the Greenhalgh-led Only You and Your Ghost Will Know addresses a lonely traveler whose friends have died; in the second verse, he himself has frozen to death on the road.  The album’s downbeat denouement, Stonehead, closes the proceedings with a reminder that one day, like the frozen traveler, “our memory will vanish from the memory of the world.”  Its concepts may be less immediate than those of other Aughts-model Mekons albums (see #83 and #104), but the rewards of OOOH! are lasting and it is the always engaging group’s strongest album of the decade.

Highlights: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Only You and Your Ghost Will Know, Winter, Bob Hope & Charity

Sublime bit: When the title chorus of Ghost kicks in after the group vocal of “First the chill and then the stupor/Then the letting go.”

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

50. A Star for Bram

50. A Star for Bram, Robyn Hitchcock (Editions PAF!, 2000)

The Aughts began slowly for veteran British songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.  His Warner Bros. contract ended after three albums (including Mossy Liquor, the vinyl-only companion piece to his Moss Elixir album, both ’96), leaving him without major-label support for the first time since ’86.  Between ’00 and ’03 he quietly issued three albums on his own Editions PAF! label.  This trio included Robyn Sings, a live double album composed entirely of Bob Dylan covers, much of which had previously appeared as an extended appendix to the Warner-issued, promo-only ’97 single for his song Beautiful Queen.  The recycling of promo-only B-sides following the loss of a contract might seem an inauspicious move, were the performances not strong, sought-after material likely rejected for full release by Warner.  Two years before Robyn Sings, though, slipped another unusual album, A Star for Bram.  Released “under special license from Warner,” it arrived with the feel of a fan-club album and cover art almost replicating that of Jewels for Sophia (’99), his final Warners album.  Often diminished as a mere collection of Sophia outtakes, Bram indeed includes two songs that appeared on the Warner-issued, Sophia-supporting promotional EP entitled Rare Jewels.  While the Aughts would be Hitchcock’s most prolific decade, A Star for Bram was just one of a string of albums from the decade comprising outtakes, old material, or other oddities while masquerading as new releases.  A Star for Bram is unique among its colleagues, however, as it is arguably stronger than any of the four “real” new LPs that Hitchcock issued in the Aughts.

Bram is a tempered, darker sibling to Jewels for Sophia.  The Warner album is bright, often raucous, and comical; one can almost imagine a Warner executive opting against Bram’s less immediate songs and saying, “We want the funny songs, the ones where you talk about vegetables a lot.”  While the two albums’ most haunting song (No, I Don’t Remember Guildford) does appear on Sophia and Bram is not devoid of levity, Bram is the more subdued record.  It opens with two understated acoustic numbers; the second, the gently shimmering I Saw Nick Drake, is like a transcription of a dream, with Hitchcock meeting the long-dead British folksinger, doing chores together, and interacting in the surreal ways that only the subconscious can manifest; it is built on a transfixing repeated guitar figure and joined by Hitchcock’s highly reverbed wordless humming between the verses.  Judas Sings (Jesus and Me) and I Used to Love You are both stripped-down ballads, the latter using only voice and piano.  Bram’s electric numbers outnumber the unplugged entries, but these, too, are largely subdued.  A minimal, sax-tinted groove supports the skeletal boogie of Adoration of the City; the mild skiffle of The Philosopher’s Stone features just Jon Brion and Hitchcock, the latter adding melodic accents with a “harmony machine.”  The record’s two expository highlights are Nietzsche’s Way, its title punning on Spirit’s 1970 song Nature’s Way, and a new studio recording of Hitchcock’s nostalgic travelogue 1974, which previously appeared on the ’98 in-studio live soundtrack Storefront Hitchcock.  A final thread connecting the album to Jewels for Sophia is a dub version of that album’s Antwoman that gives the lilting original an ominous tint.  Hitchcock’s departure from the major-label system may have resulted in a circuitous new pattern of record-making, but as long as his catalog continues to generate albums as reliable as A Star for Bram it will be worth following.

Highlights: 1974, Daisy Bomb, Nietzsche’s Way, I Saw Nick Drake

Sublime bit: Those spectral, wordless choruses of I Saw Nick Drake.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

51. Just Beyond the River

51. Just Beyond the River, James Yorkston and the Athletes (Domino, 2004)

James Yorkston hails from Fife, Scotland, also home to Fence, a musicians’ collective and label borne of Kenny Anderson’s bankrupt record shop.  Anderson has recorded over two dozen albums as King Creosote; but, of Fence artists in the Aughts, it was Yorkston who held the highest profile.  His demo, recorded after a spell with various rock groups, attracted influential DJ John Peel and resulted in a ’01 solo 7” on the Bad Jazz label.  Entitled Moving Up Country, Roaring the Gospel and credited, for reasons unforthcoming, to “J. Wright Presents,” it is a soulful, sleepy shuffle that he reworked for his ’02 debut LP Moving Up Country.  After one more split single and a compilation appearance, Yorkston signed to Domino and issued a bevy of singles and EPs with them before his first full-length.  Yorkston remained part of the Fence community even after signing to a larger label, working with its artists including The Pictish Trail (aka Johnny Lynch, Fence co-director) and UNPOC.  Yorkston’s own work descends from Scottish and Irish folk music, guitar-based but with traditional instruments—whistle, pipes, accordion, fiddle, bouzouki.  His folk-based songs are often slow and deliberate, his voice rarely straying from a narrow range; the result is far from the celebratory jigs and reels associated with the traditional music of Yorkston’s homeland. 

Yorkston’s second full-length, Just Beyond the River, again recorded with a loose association of musicians dubbed the Athletes, utilizes stronger compositions and more focused playing for a sound more starkly emotional than his previous works.  On his debut LP Yorkston employed former Cocteau Twins bassist Simon Raymonde as producer; for River, he uses Kieran Hebden, who records electronic music under the moniker Four Tet.  Hebden’s own work incorporates guitar, piano, and other acoustic instruments, and he leaves no trace of synthetics on Yorkston’s album; as with Raymonde the collaboration appears incongruous, but Hebden conjures a haunting, sometimes hypnotic aspect setting River apart from Yorkston’s other Aughts works.  Several songs are skeletal, quiet affairs (We Flew Blind, Hermitage, This Time Tomorrow), and are countered by the swirling, push-and-pull, full-band arrangements of other numbers whose simple details—like the brushed drums in Heron—create both tension and resolution.  Shipwreckers builds to a swell, just as the storm that drives it subjects to shelter near a warm hearth, before flickering out like faded embers at sunrise.  In Banjo #1, Yorkston’s vocal melds with the banjo’s cyclical churn, matching the lyrical tension of a man apologizing to a leery prospective lover for his “need for clamour/my clumsy touch/and Catholic roving eye.”  Two of the album’s highlights are its sole traditional numbers: a variation of the ancient European murder ballad Edward is the album’s most chilling song, the desolate arrangement and Yorkston’s triplicate repetition of the final word of every line creating an unnerving effect; closing song The Snow It Melts the Soonest has a firmer arrangement yet, like Banjo #1, mesmerically blends Yorkston’s vocals with the instrumentation.  Yorkston recorded prolifically throughout the Aughts, and after this second full-length issued three more LPs and a host of singles, EPs, and limited-edition items.  Just Beyond the River and its quietly gripping, tempered undertow is a close contender for the finest among these many releases.

Highlights: Shipwreckers, Banjo #1, Edward, The Snow It Melts the Soonest

Sublime bit: The fleeting, tense half-steps of the violin that press through the between-verse instrumental passages of Shipwreckers.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

52. Monsoon

52. Monsoon, Preston School of Industry (Matador, 2004)

Scott Kannberg, AKA Spiral Stairs, co-founder and guitarist of Stockton, California-based erudite slacker kings Pavement, owned a sizeable batch of unfinished material after the band’s embittered ’99 dissolution.  Author and singer of fewer than a dozen of the group’s nearly two hundred songs, Kannberg brought a more linear lyrical style to Pavement that countered frontman Stephen Malkmus’s penchant for stream-of-consciousness wordplay.  Freed of the limitations of his former group, Kannberg was the only member aside from Malkmus to release solo material in the Aughts (bassist Mark Ibold worked with Free Kitten and Sonic Youth, but issued no material of his own).  In ’01, Kannberg released the EP Goodbye to the Edge City on his own Amazing Grease label; rather than use either his given or stage name, he named his new project Preston School of Industry after a notorious boys’ reform school near his hometown of Stockton.  Edge City is an engaging set of five songs ranging from the good-natured acoustic shuffle of Somethings Happen Always, with a horn part and, on the coda, a children’s chorus; to the muted introspection of How to Impress the Goddess Pt. 2; to the pop rave-up The Spaces in Between, the most ebullient track to come out of the Pavement organization thus far.  Kannberg would expand on these forms with the first PSOI full-length, All This Sounds Gas (also ’01).  The most striking aspect of Kannberg’s new music was its apparent sincerity, devoid of the sarcasm and brattiness that lent Pavement an aggravating charm yet ensured their sizeable catalog would be short on guilelessness.

The second PSOI album, Monsoon, is an even more affable outing than its predecessor.  A shorter, breezier affair, Monsoon is built on the twangy acoustic-guitar jangle seen on parts of Edge City.  Opening cut The Furnace Sun and mid-album highlight Her Estuary Twang are bright pop blasts with cheerful wordless choruses and bountiful hooks; the charming Walk of a Gurl ambles more slowly than its poppier cousins and includes a whimsical harmonica accompaniment.  So Many Ways is almost a country ballad, its gentle pedal-steel drift giving the album its most peaceful moment.  Line it Up most directly recalls Kannberg’s Pavement work (specifically his Hit the Plane Down from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain), with its slanted, cyclical riff and hectoring vocal.  Guests on Monsoon include Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5, who plays mandolin on two tracks, and four members of A Ghost Is Born-era Wilco on the track Get Your Crayons Out!  Monsoon would be the final recording of the Aughts to bear the Preston School of Industry name.  In ’09, Kannberg reclaimed his Pavement-era stage name Spiral Stairs when he issued the LP The Real Feel.  Promotional activities for the album, a glossier and mildly bluesy effort than the loose grooves of PSOI, were interrupted by the unlikely—and wildly popular—reunion of Pavement.  While Kannberg’s solo efforts have been largely overshadowed by Malkmus’s, all have merits; Monsoon is the most pleasing of his three solo full-lengths and one of the most agreeable works in the Pavement family tree.  (The Australian Monsoon on Trifekta Records came with a second disc titled Live in Chicago 2002 Bootleg from a tour supporting Wilco.  This audience-quality recording is now more widely available via download, and is frequently mislabeled as coming from a 2003 concert.)

Highlights: Her Estuary Twang, The Furnace Sun, Caught in the Rain, If the Straits of Magellan Should Ever Run Dry

Sublime bit: The blissful exclamations of “ba-da-ba” on the choruses of Her Estuary Twang.

Read the NOYOUCMON mission statement here.