LITTLE ANNIE AND THE LEGALLY JAMMIN'
Little Annie and the Legally Jammin' finds the veteran artist at a crossroads between the past and the present; between the abrasive dub experimentalism of her early work and the slick sex appeal of modern techno; between brutal, incendiary poetry and lyrical high camp; between the personal and the superficial; between grim reality and airbrushed artifice. That Little Annie "Anxiety" Bandez is so adept at towing this precarious gap while maintaining an unshakable poise is a testament to her singular skills as a vocalist, lyricist, poet, provocateur and chanteuse. Annie's delivery hasn't missed a beat in more than 20 years, riding a similar wavelength as Marianne Faithful, Lydia Lunch and Diamanda Galas, but carving out her own uniquely blaise, street-savvy growl. For The Legally Jammin', Annie brings together a posse of talented collaborators including Can "Khan" Oral, taking a break from the homoerotic electro of Captain Comatose to contribute a series of languid, bass-heavy beats to the album. Also notable are the contributions of Kid Congo Powers, a former member of The Bad Seeds, The Cramps, and the terrific, all-but-forgotten 80's cult band Gun Club. On past collaborations between Khan and Kid Congo Powers, their diverse musical influences resulted in a bluesy electro-punk hybrid uniquely their own, and it's very much on display in the settings they create for Little Annie's satiny vocals. All the songs on the album have a tense, vaguely threatening undercurrent that sneaks invisibly behind the eroticism of the smooth, sparse production. The resonant bass hits and percolating dub echoes are in full effect on the album's provocative opener "Bleach." Annie tells us to "love the sinner, hate the sin/love the battle, hate the war/love the saint and love the whore." Annie keeps a gun beside her bed, "in case success goes to my head/or just in case it don't." She pauses mid-album for a campy, off-the-cuff monologue about a drag queen that displays razor-sharp wit and obscenity of a William S. Burroughs routine. The serpentine industrial throbs of "Blacktrack Jack" supply the perfect counterpart to Annie's laundry-list of apocalyptic imagery: "Phone ringing, kids crying, brakes screeching, heads rolling, tears flowing, pipes bursting...head pounding, pleasure mounting, dreams bursting, pockets hurting, prices rising." The album concludes with a languorously reworked version of "Sugar Bowl," a song from Annie's early-90's collaborations with On U-Sound superstars. The Legally Jammin' is an alluringly sweet confectionary treat from a talented artist. - Jonathan Dean
Knowledge of Bugs, "My Way No Way"
The second release in this year's Piehead series is a stirring, evocative disc from a UK-based musician who goes by "Knowledge of Bugs." There's no way around the Greg Davis comparison for me, so I'm just going to get it out of the way: the things that work about My Way No Way are the same things that make Greg Davis' processed guitar compositions so appealing. Although there's a fair amount of digital artefact and evidence of computer manipulation of these tracks, the organic, emotive nature of the playing still shines through much to the composer's credit. It's nearly impossible to fault Tom Bugs' approach to the guitar because from the looping bits of "The Accuarian" with underlying, amplified field ambience to the percussive lurch of "Heard Through Floor" accompanied by delaying plucked guitar to the soft organ drones that close out "1 Tonne Wheel", everything maintains a consistent space without ever sounding like too much of the same thing. The one strange exception is a narrative-vocal laden track, "Endless Path" that sounds a bit like a ballad that was penned in a lush forest populated by wood elves and magical wanderers. At the end, the narrator bumps into what I picture as wise old wizard who drops the science "Your life is an endless path." The song takes some getting used to, but after repeated listens it makes a nice connection between the more traditional singer-songwriter technique and the post-modern songwriter-digital editor technique that is employed throughout. Knowledge of Bugs has presented another link in the growing chain that connects the digital world of sound design and computer recording to the time-honored tradition of a lone musician playing music because it suits him. So far this year, Piehead is 2 for 2.- Matthew Jeanes
AMM, "At the Roundhouse"
This 1972 recording catches the iconoclastic British improv ensemble around the time of To Hear and Back Again, where the group was temporarily reduced to the duo of saxophonist Lou Gare and drummer Eddie Prévost. This is the interim period coming after AMM's first recordings, those groundbreaking mini-epics of sax and string-strewn factory ambience, and before the group's later, arguably more "mature" phase, marked by the introduction of John Tilbury's piano and a calmer, more subtle playing style. In '72, the temporary absence of Keith Rowe's tabletop guitar and electronics meant the disappearance of nearly all of the colorful industrial abstractions that made the group's early work such an unclassifiable joy, and in response, the duo of Gare and Prévost dips heavily into free jazz for this performance at London's Roundhouse, anticipating their work on Hear and Back two years later. The players are clearly competent and practiced communicators, making the disc's 47 minutes ample time for a few dozen beautiful moments to emerge, but it's easy to feel disappointed with Roundhouse as it's really only a sidestep in the path of a group whose best work lies both ahead and behind. Gare demonstrates a keen appreciation for the free-fractured melodic style of late-period Coltrane, merging with the wayward stabs of Arkestran contemporary John Gilmore; however these abilities had been previously established on the first two AMM records where they found brighter placement within the rich textures of the expanded ensemble, alongside Cornelius Cardew's disembodied cello. The saxophonist is more impressive during Roundhouse's quieter passages where, removed from distraction or compliment, the soft arcs, low warbles, and the other more textural elements of his playing can be fully appreciated (and picked out of other recordings). Prévost's playing is, for the most part, a disappointment. Given the completely alien repertoire of sound I know the drummer to be capable of, his relatively straight-laced performance here becomes my biggest criticism of the disc. Prévost might have been forgiven had he hung back to allow for more subdued interaction with Gare's tenor, but instead he insists on punctuating most everything with tight, exhaustive snare rolls that prove tedious before the halfway point. In contrast to other AMM discs where one unbroken piece receives (seemingly) arbitrary track divisions, Roundhouse's single track includes numerous pauses, which, oddly enough, become the music's biggest asset. Continually easing their instruments into and out of silence, Gare and Prévost are forced to repeatedly regenerate the piece from scratch, molding listener anticipation and crafting an increasingly complex work. Also, the recording leaves a considerable amount of audience noise and room ambience audible, allowing these sounds to blend with those from the two musicians and recalling the famous AMM credo: "Every noise has a note." During particular lulls in the playing, as distant coughs and shuffles enter the mix, I can almost hear the static edge of the absent Rowe's shortwave radio, as if this room and these people were just something he was lucky enough to find on the dial as the sax and drums started to die down. Moments like these are enough to make Roundhouse worthwhile and to remind me that even mediocre AMM discs make for irresistible listening.
- Andrew Culler
BILL FAY, "FROM THE BOTTOM OF AN OLD GRANDFATHER CLOCK"
For better or worse, many artists slip through the cracks, their work too idiosyncratic or esoteric to ignite any interest in the public. As unfortunate as it is when great art is ignored, it creates the perfect situation for record collectors and rare music enthusiasts, who derive endless pleasure from discovering innovative music that was marginalized in its era. Once called "Britain's pop Salinger," a name that is accurate in more ways than one, Bill Fay's unique discography is perfectly suited for a renaissance of interest and enthusiasm. Bill Fay recorded two fabulously rare LPs in the early 70's that combined his acerbic wit, impressionistic lyrics and apocalyptic religious symbolism with huge, Scott Walker-style MOR string arrangements and psychedelic guitar riffs. His songwriting talent is immense, crafting McCartney-esque pop masterpieces that seem entirely alien to the bizarre, hallucinogenic lyrical themes. Both his debut self-titled album and the follow-up Time of the Last Persecution were issued together on CD by the now-defunct See For Miles label, and have since gone out of print. David Tibet's Durtro Records is on the verge of issuing Fay's unreleased third album Tomorrow and Tomorrow. In the interim, British rare-psych label Tenth Planet has released this collection of 25 early demos and outtakes on their Wooden Hill imprint. These demos include never-before-heard songs as well as nascent versions of tracks that eventually appeared on the two LPs. This is an extremely exciting release for Bill Fay converts, but it is far from essential for newcomers, who would be advised to seek out one of his two original LPs. The recording quality of many of the original tapes is rather poor, and the digital conversion doesn't seem to have helped much. Further, Bill Fay's artistic voice is not as strong in some of the earlier material, which seems at first listen a little too similar to The Beatles. Tracks like "Warwick Town" and "Maxine's Parlour" are fine examples of urbane British psych-pop, but they rarely reach the transcendent weirdness of his later work. However, there are many gems to be found on Grandfather Clock. The haunting early version of "Garden Song" included here is startling, highlighting Fay's beatific delivery on spaced-out lines like: "I'm planting myself in the garden/Between the potatoes and parsley/And I'll wait for the grain to anoint me/And the frost to awaken my soul/I'm looking for lasting relations/With a green fly, spider or maggot." Though I have a deep affection for the extravagant string and horn arrangements on the albums, it's fascinating to hear these songs liberated from the dense production. This collection quietly proves that Bill Fay was much more than an amusing footnote in the history of British psych-pop; he was a literate and emotive songwriter of the highest order. - Jonathan Dean
Joel Stern & Michael Northam, "Wormwood"
Stern and Northam are far from an incompatible pair. Both artists have been actively confusing environmental (or "natural") sound and electronic composition for many years, becoming prominent practitioners of an incredibly tactile, dimension-bending style of electroacoustic music. The success of their output is as much a product of new technology as it is the result of the artists' willingness to plumb the depths of the world's rubbish bins, forest floors, and highway shoulders in search of "new" sound devices. Northam, in particular, has assembled a dense body of work based largely on the rejection of instruments with any kind of outside referent, including keen efforts to avoid sound which gives evidence of even the most primitive forms of musicianship (i.e. strumming, beating). The artist gathers sound from a table of indiscriminant objects, where man-made refuse, natural forms, and all combinations in between enter the microphone field and feed the gloss of cracks, scrapes, and sandy shivers that become the basis for his alienating contributions. Northam's music reveals itself as organic but untraceable; by simulating and warping "natural" sounds, he demonstrates an interest in examining the process by which environmental sound is internalized, filed away for easy, often unreliable reference. Northam's sophisticated process of manipulation allows for something like a "telescoping" of sound events to occur, in which certain details are blown up within the already intricate assemblage. Microscopic wrinkles and chirps turn, with surprising fluidity, to craggy landscapes and squealing waveforms, creating subtle dislocations of distance that compound the initial disorientation brought on by traceless noises. The effect is like passing a magnifying glass over a mossy creekbed and watching as small green worlds leap into unexpected life. Wormwood's situation is made more complex by the chorus of high-pitched drones and gentle, processed feedback that rise from each piece, giving the disc's sharper points a soothing undertone and, at times, lifting the surface noise toward snarling crescendos. Based on my knowledge of the artists' previous work, I'm guessing these extended tones are Stern's, though it's possible that he's equally responsible for the disc's grittier textures. Whatever the case, the synthetic quality of the backing sound provides a nice contrast to the mad scramble that remains the music's primary focus, working to create many fine moments of expertly exploited detail and interesting contrast. And while Wormwood hardly rivals some of Northam's grandiose solo works like :coyot:and From Within the Solar Cave, the disc also feels unique and is no easier to pin down.
- Andrew Culler
Nels Cline & Devin Sarno, "Buried on Bunker Hill"
I came to Nels Cline's work by way of the Geraldine Fibbers and I had never heard any of Devin Sarno before, but I was expecting "Buried on Bunker Hill" to be something of a free-jazz style improvised guitar and bass workout. What I got instead was a thick, syrupy collection of drones and crackles and ebbing waves of distortion that is equal parts menacing dark noise and plaintive restrained ambience. If Subharmonic were still issuing their duet series that featured solo guitarists (Justin Broaderick, Page Hamilton, Thurston Moore, etc.) let loose for a side of a record to make any and all amount of noise they wished with their axe of choice, Buried on Bunker Hill would be a crowning achievement to a novel and intentionally limited approach. Where layered guitar and bass improvisational noise often fails me is in its creators' lack of ability to move from one point to another and then another with enough momentum as to seem organic and evolving. Cline and Sarno thankfully don't have that problem here, as they consistently build up to crests of deep, haunting noise and then flow back down to quiet moments that only suggest the power lurking underneath their arrangements. There's relatively little resembling the traditional timbres of the instruments used to make these songs, but when the recognizable guitar phrases surface as on "Only Peace," the atmosphere fades a bit to the background to give the stringed voices a chance to shine. Interestingly, Ground Fault founder Erik Hoffman was himself not sure of how this record could be classified based on his self-imposed series system (I=quiet, II=medium, III=loud) and initially released it as a part of the 'quiet' series. It is frequently quiet and loud and somewher in between so Hoffman's later admission that the record is more of a 'medium' probably makes the most sense. Buried on Bunker Hill is diverse but focused; it's dark but often tranquil and it winds up as the kind of record you can listen to quietly if you want to have some distracting noise in the background, or that you can listen to at full volume if you want to tremble before the monolithic force of echoing sounds crashing over you.- Matthew Jeanes
BRETT SMILEY, "BREATHLESSLY BRETT"
The glam rock era was the first time that popular music openly acknowledged its own superficial tendencies. The first time that the extravagance, glitter and condescension attendant to the rock n' roll lifestyle became an aesthetic badge of honor. Glam, through its emphasis on the primacy of make-up, wardrobe and snarling supercilious attitude, was pop music's first postmodern movement, containing both the substance of rock n' roll, and the commentary on the same. As such, it created a fleeting moment in history where anyone with the right combination of style, poise and bearing could become an overnight sensation, and often just as quickly fade into obsolescence. For every David Bowie, Brian Ferry or Marc Bolan, there were scores of glam divas-in-waiting like Jobriath and Brett Smiley. At least Jobriath, the world's first openly-gay rock star, got a chance to release two monstrously campy and epic LPs before public backlash silenced him forever. The winsome and sinewy Brett Smiley did not fare as well, recording Breathlessly Brett during a flurry of interest by the international music press, only to have the album cruelly pushed aside by an uncaring record industry and shelved permanently. Smiley was the willowy, blonde personification of glam, discovered and promoted like a classic Hollywood ingénue by Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham's vision for Smiley was to elevate the young man to the rarefied status of untouchable superstar before his first single was out. On record, Oldham accentuates the breathy, effete qualities of Smiley's voice, framing it in a series of impossibly dense Phil Spector-style teenage rock symphonies. And I mean dense: in addition to three guitars, Oldham wields orchestral percussion, a full horn section, synthesizers and strings. It's so unbelievably, absurdly overwrought that it somehow achieves a kind of righteous transcendence that makes for an entertaining listen. The muddy, reverb-heavy mix works beautifully for Bowie-style space oddities such as "Space Ace," a diamond in a Velvet Tinmine if I've ever heard one. A cover of Neil Sedaka's saccharine "Solitaire" sounds like a lost cut off of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, replacing Harrison's sincere delivery with Smiley's affected sigh. Brett's only single, the raucous "Va Va Va Voom," stands up next to the best of glam's bubblegum hits. Oldham and Smiley threaten to burst into flames from sheer flamboyance with the ludicrous medley of "I Can't Help Myself/Somewhere Over the Rainbow," sounding very much like Judy Garland stuck in a K-hole. After hearing this magnificent atrocity, it doesn't surprise me at all that poor Brett turned up a few years later with a giant drug habit, starring in a series of pornographic movies. Released 30 years too late to be even slightly relevant, Breathlessly Brett still provided me with some rhinestone-studded revelations. - Jonathan Dean
ABNER JAY, "ONE MAN BAND"
Abner Jay was a classic ragtime song-and-dance man, learning his trade with Silas Green's Minstrels in the 1930's and WMAZ Minstrels in Macon during the 40's and 50's. Lap dissolve to the late 60's, and Abner Jay had transformed himself into a one-man-band and traveling nostalgia revue, issuing a series of private press LPs that now trade hands for ridiculously high prices. Sweden's Subliminal Sounds recently released this compilation, collecting material from three of Jay's best albums. Jay billed himself as America's Last Minstrel Show, and he played an energetic combo of finger-picked banjo and harmonica, working the bass drum with a foot pedal. He introduced each song with bad puns and raunchy jokes, his deep Southern drawl a deliberate caricature of old-time Uncle Tom minstrelsy. It would be tempting to dismiss Abner Jay as a politically-incorrect anachronism, were it not for the obvious talent and intelligence with which he approaches his racially-charged material. By fearlessly accentuating the house Negro stereotypes that defined and imprisoned black performers in the post-Civil War South, Abner Jay is able to transcend them, exorcising the pain of his ancestry. Nowhere is this more clear than in the heart-breaking song "I'm So Depressed," a track so beautiful and haunting that it floored me upon first listen. Beginning as a traditional-sounding blues lament, Jay's voice suddenly shifts into a high lonesome wail, choking back tears and belting out a series of deeply felt emotional cries that express an ancient sadness. "I was born during the hard depression days...My folks were sharecroppers/We had nothing, we had nothing, we had nothing/But grasshoppers/Looking back over my life/O lord, I'm so depressed." On "Swaunee," Jay talks at length about his beloved Southern river, it's legacy and importance. Jay's narration is layered over an atmospheric instrumental track punctuated by the chorus of the traditional song, treated to sound like an old 78. Because of my penchant for outsider music, I have heard hundreds of hyped reissues of vanity pressings and much-vaunted musical oddities. Rarely have I heard anything as impressive as Abner Jay's evocative, recollective race-folk. One Man Band is currently the only widely available edition of his music, making it absolutely essential. - Jonathan Dean
Individual, "180 Bullets Per Man"
I was immediately a little confused upon popping Individual's new disc into the CD player because it sounded almost like the CD was skipping through a copy of Pan Sonic's "Osasto EP" on fast forward. Actually, as I grew to understand, that's a lot of what can be expected from this album of minimal, deconstructed technoise. Each song has a particular rhythm that it exploits for a set duration and the dynamics are created by filters, LFOs, and subtle delay effects more than flourishes of arrangement. Most of the parts of each track subtly fade in and then gracefully exit over time. For this reason, I'd say that 180 Bullets... takes more after the minimal techno and trance mom's side of the family than it does after dad's unruly noise side. Such a simple formula works for Individual though, and the repeating patterns of thumpy kick drums and static bursts begin to behave the way a multisyllabic word does when you say it over and over and over. Are there new rhythms constantly bubbling up to the surface or is my brain just latching on to different parts of the same loop to keep from feeling bored? Either way, it works and none of the tracks ever seem too long. In fact, a few end abruptly on the short side, begging the question of how to tactfully end a piece of music that relies on its monotony and microscopic shifts in scope for its drama. The track titles have an obsessive militaristic theme that I don't really pick up from the music itself, but if it takes reflection on war and bullets for Individual to come up with tracks like these, I hope he keeps at it.- Matthew Jeanes
Paul Wirkus, "Inteletto d'Amore"
Somewhat discontinuous with Quecksilber's output thus far, which has tended to focus on works either more singular in process (Scott Horscroft's 8 Guitars) or more challenging in construction (Ambarchi & Ng's Vigil), Wirkus' third release is, nonetheless, a lovely and substantial slice of autumnal electronica. The one real surprise of Inteletto d'Amore is that the music was created live without computer, via only three mini disc recorders, run through tremolo effects and mixed down. Rather than producing the kind of rough-hewn, shifting sound field that fellow live-from-disc operator Philip Jeck diligently occupies, Wirkus' approach is much more minimal, a largely additive process where warm, melodic fragments pile up with lace-like delicacy, tracing comfortable wall-patterns. The artist's mini discs sample string quartets, piano pieces, and droning amplifier hiss, all extremely welcoming sounds, placed with enough economy and tasteful repetition to create stable pieces, thick with the hazy lull that people like Jeck and Fennesz concoct regularly. What they lack in uniqueness, Wirkus' songs make up with a quality of intimacy that often feels lacking in similar productions, where the music's melancholic or nostalgic focus threatens to push it towards a remote, bookish level of engagement. Each track seems cut from the same slow, thoughtful mold, an easy incline into a tender plateau where melodious fragments graze the inside of grainy string loops or gentle static envelopes. Wirkus' pacing is entirely appropriate given the warmth and level luster of the sounds used, and nothing here suffers from thinning structure or a lukewarm melodic sensibility. Inteletto d'Amore's only odd moment comes in the second track, "Blask," where the artist adds a vocal over the disc's only overtly rhythmic loop (of common amp hum and golden feedback). Sounding eerily like Alan Vega, Wirkus utters a breathy chant that doesn't really connect with the comforts of the record overall, and he seems to know this, calling up a hesitant, last-minute delivery with the same minimal variation as his hypnotic backgrounds. One misstep aside, the disc, while unremarkable, will still demand return listens from most fans of experimental electronica or anyone looking for some absorbing sonic wallpaper.
- Andrew Culler
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