Hope For Agoldensummer, "I Bought a Heart Made of Art in the Deep Deep South"
Hope for Agoldensummer
Every year I hope that there will be at least one record that I'll fall in love with. I pine for the kind of record I'll want to put in the player every time I sense that I'm around speakers or a pair of headphones; the kind of record that I'll wear out from constant abuse and wind up buying again and again; the kind of record I want to give everyone I know as a gift for no other special occasion than just being alive. It's rare that such a record comes along and usually at the end of the year I'm left making year-end lists and voting in polls for albums that were great, or fun, or inventive but not quite life-changingly beautiful. There aren't many records that make me want to re-evaluate my beliefs about music and about people, and even fewer that manage to transcend all the mess of a music industry full of empty promise promo sheets and groundswells of hype. Thankfully as the year draws to a crisp wintery close, I've found a record that does. Hope For Agoldensummer hails from the deep south and the music they make together oozes the rustic, porch-swing spirituality that one might expect, but with uncommon grace and warmth. It would be easy to play in cliches and revive the jug band for the Converse and hoodie-wearing indie set, and someone somewhere is no doubt trying to get that to work-but that's not what Hope is about. Principal songwriter and free spirit Claire Campbell anchors the group with a soaring, soulful voice that is comforting even as it's aching. Her sister, Page, harmonizes and occasionally takes the lead with a deep voice so strong yet so nearly ready to break that I find it impossible not to want to sing along just to make sure that the songs keep going. And while the voices and the words are undoubtedly the stars, the accompaniment of cello, slide guitar, accordion, and a simple brushed drum kit is sparse but so incredibly perfect that it makes me wonder how the songs could have been written any other way. Drummer Jamie Shepard's enormous bass drum gives the songs a deep, dusty and hollow heartbeat of a rhythm while the simple glockenspiel melodies and spaghetti western guitars give the otherwise authentic, down home atmosphere a hint of something bigger. This is family-made music, right down to the honest-to-goodness sisters who sit and sing and bring audiences to tears, and it follows in that vividly southern tradition of families gathering around to sing and commiserate and tell stories set to song. Heart of Art is a slow, almost mournful album full of songs about loss and regret and shame and yet it winds up being celebratory in its belief that music is strong enough medicine to cure any ill. Like an album of murder ballads where the only cause of death is a broken heart, the record keeps finding new ways to pull at the deep, recessed, cynical heartstrings until the only way to beat Hope is to join them. When people who never appear to suffer try to craft songs that are uplifting and hopeful, it always seems too glossy and too strong to mean anything. These songs acknowledge the pain and the anger and the hurtful, hateful things that people can do, but somehow the songs carry on, the musicians carry on, and as a listener, I carry on because I believe in where we are all headed. When the whole band sings "we come together/ and we work/ and we fall apart/ I play music because I'm in love with silence and sound," during the triumphant album closer, "Laying Down the Gun," it's impossible to resist the thought, the hope that music really is a magical tonic for all that ails you. I'm finding new songs to fall in love with every time I listen to this record, and new, unexpected moments of clarity and insight. Most of all, I've found the record this year that reaffirms my faith in music, my love for music; it's the record that reconnects me with other people through the simple tradition of song, and for that I'll be forever thankful. - Matthew Jeanes
JAN DUKES DE GREY, "MICE AND RATS IN THE LOFT"
This is the long overdue CD reissue of one of the most mythical, sought-after albums from the British progressive folk scene of the early 1970s. Right up there with classics like Comus' First Utterance and Simon Finn's Pass the Distance, Jan Dukes De Grey's 1971 LP Mice and Rats in the Loft is a brilliant work of psychedelic folk with a seething undercurrent of malevolence. Apparently having learned a lesson from the artistic and commercial failure of their first LP, 1970's Sorcerers on the Nova label, the duo of Derek Noy and Michael Bairstow enlisted drummer Denis Conlan, and quickly disposed of all notions of pop songcraft to which they might have initially aspired. Instead, they recorded the distinctly uncommercial 19-minute sidelong "Sun Symphonica," a breathtaking, dynamic work of epic genius, fusing together at least five separate musical movements into an unfolding narrative that begins with a hippie paean to the sun and proceeds through progressively darker and more twisted realms. The instrumental bridges are brilliantly conceived, referencing the medieval idiom popular in British folk of this period, but impregnating it with an energy that smolders with intensity and immediacy. Effortlessly wielding 12-string guitar, violin, cello, flute, clarinet, recorder, harmonica and a dizzying assortment of percussion, the trio plays with all the poise of an experienced jazz ensemble, but produces something altogether heavier and more psychedelic, as if Amon Düül II had restricted themselves to acoustic instruments and decided to compose a soundtrack to The Wicker Man. As the "Sun Symphonica" trudges on through its many moods and phases, it gradually becomes clear that a distinctly pagan formula is at work, and the solar imagery is quickly eclipsed by its more primordial counterpart: the devil in the form of dead, bloated corpses covered with maggots rotting under the intense noonday sun. By the 15-minute mark, the track is a swirling maelstrom of simmering instrumental fragments flying around the stereo channels in a lunatic dance, as the "sunshine" mantra returns once more, where in a savage irony it has been transformed into a terrifying hex. Unfortunately, the album never again reaches the maniacal heights of Side A, but where it does go is nearly as fascinating. "Call of the Wild" utilizes the voices of all three band members to create dizzying vocal harmonies in a song which celebrates the savage nature of man, and advocates the expression of inner, suppressed primalisms. By the halfway mark, the song experiences a radical break with structure and turns into a seething echo chamber of wicked guitar improvisation. The final track is also by far the strangest, the eight-minute title track, which creates a hypnotic whirlpool of electric fuzz guitar over which Derek Noy narrates in great detail a ritual human sacrifice with a zeal that would set H.P. Lovecraft's hair on end. Mice and Rats in the Loft is uneasy listening at its finest, and Breathless' first-ever CD reissue does an admirable job of reproducing the cover art in their foldout digipack. The booklet contains new liner notes by David Tibet, which should come as no surprise, as the influence of this album can certainly be felt in Current 93 efforts such as Thunder Perfect Mind and Tamlin. Anyone interested would be advised to pick up a copy of this limited reissue before this masterpiece fades back into obscurity once again. - Jonathan Dean
"HOW TO KILL THE DJ PART TWO"
Tigersushi is obviously trying to exceed the benchmark they set for themselves with last year's Miyage mix orchestrated by vegan DJ collective K.I.M. This double-disc mix is billed as the second volume in the How To Kill The DJ series, and is by far the most schizophrenic, eclectic and downright random collection of tunes ever presented under the pretext of a continuous DJ mix. The first volume was a relatively tame affair mixed by Ivan Smagghe, containing a standard cross-section of danceable material drawn from vintage 80s sides, with a full complement of newer electroclash and dancepunk material. Part Two, as conceived by DJ Optimo, takes a completely different tactic, preferring sheer volume and eclecticism to any notion of consistency. His bizarre behemoth of a DJ mix fuses together close to 70 tracks from a myriad different styles all over the musical mapfrom 70s psychedelic funk and rock to 80s Detroit techno, from leftfield disco to completely tangential trips into outsider, avant-garde and industrial noise music. On this particular voyage, it's not at all surprising to hear Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf" rubbing shoulders with Carl Craig's "Demented Drums," or later to hear Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods" fade out into The Langley Schools Music Project's version of "Good Vibrations" (for the uninitiated, the LSMP is a gymnasium full of Canadian grade school kids playing gamelan percussion and singing guileless versions of famous pop songs). Because of the sheer number and variety of songs selected for the mix, Optimo does not let any track play for very long, editing most down to one or two minutes, and endeavors seamless transitions between each, even when attempting something insane like fusing a mashup of Akufen and Monte Cazazza to a mashup of Nurse With Wound's "Two Shaves and Shine" with Blondie's "Atomic." I'm aware that this sounds completely fucking insane on paper, but it somehow succeeds. If it's not very satisfying in the sense of a dance-friendly party mix, it does appeal on a purely intellectual level, as hidden connections are revealed between disparate strands of music that might have been thought nonexistent. For all of my DJ ambitions, for instance, I never would have thought of gluing the bubbly tropicalia of Os Mutantes' "A Minha Menina" to Pablo's classic "Cissy Strut," but it sounds amazing. The second disc, entitled Espacio for no apparent reason, forgoes the short-attention-span mixdown of the first disc in favor of letting each song play out in its entirety. As such, it's more of a "chillout" disc than the first, as thee infinite beat is not kept in perpetual motion, and tracks such as the Angelo Badalamenti theme to David Lynch's "Mullholland Drive" or Arthur Russell's beatless voice-and-cello "Another Thought" could by no stretch of the imagination considered dance songs. Kudos to Optimo for including such excellent, if completely random selections as Sun City Girl's "Opium Den" and The Only Ones "Another Girl, Another Planet" on the same disc. For sheer eclecticism and varied musical taste, Optimo's How To Kill The DJ Part Two is the one to beat, although beyond the initial novelty, I'm not sure what particular use it has for the average listener. - Jonathan Dean
JUDEE SILL, "JUDEE SILL"
4 Men With Beards
The 1970s was the decade of the singer-songwriter: a golden age in which anyone with passable guitar skills, decent vocal ability and a handful of good songs could land a recording contract. But just as in every other era in popular music, the most original artists tended to be largely ignored in favor of easily digestible, crowd-pleasing pap. In a decade in which Joni Mitchell and James Taylor were selling out football stadiums, an artist like Judee Sill had no chance. Sure, Judee had the same MOR production values and soulful twang as a Carole King or a Carly Simon. She had the same ability to pen honest, heartfelt lyrics that spoke to the universal human condition. Sure, her debut album was produced by Graham Nash and Bob Harris (her ex-husband and the producer of Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon). And yes, she was discovered by David Geffen and signed to the Asylum label, home to Mitchell and scores of other successful singer-songwriters. However, she also had a penchant for complex occult religious symbolism and a melancholy streak that could become downright depressing. She also struggled with a lifelong heroin addiction, a fact she never shied away from in her lyrics. Her songs were about yearning, romantic or spiritual, often both in one song. Judee navigated a wholly unique lyrical world full of angels and prophets in the shape of children, messiahs and demons in the shape of ex-lovers, and God and Satan as ever-present influences in her life. On her solitary radio hit "Jesus Was a Cross Maker," she resurrects a familiar Gnostic idea, comparing Jesus to Satan and vice-versa, pointing out the essentially enigmatic nature of both good and evil, and the hedonistic call of both. It's frankly not surprising that Judee Sill's music never caught on with a bigger audience, considering lyrics like these: "Once I heard a serpent remark/'If you try to evoke the spark/You can fly through the dark/With a red midnight raven/To rule the battleground'/So I drew my sword and got ready/But the lamb ran away with the crown." All of this coexisting with seemingly innocuous 70s folk production: warmly resonant nylon strings, gentle orchestral fills and the odd flourish of flute or clarinet. Adding to the strangeness, Judee's voice is almost always heavily filtered, fed through several doublers, triplers and harmonizers, lending an oddly psychedelic plasticity to her deceptively pastoral songs. Judee Sill is an incredible debut album, one that deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of listeners. For years, it's been impossible to find this album or it's follow-up Heart Food outside of expensive Japanese bootlegs of questionable pedigree, or the super-expensive Rhino Handmade CD editions that came out earlier this year. Thankfully, 4 Men With Beards, a specialty vinyl reissue label out of San Francisco, has rectified this situation with a pair of reasonably priced vinyl reissues presented exactly as the original albums were upon their initial release, right down to Judee's personal message to the listener: "May you savor each word like a raspberry." - Jonathan Dean
JUDEE SILL, "HEART FOOD"
4 Men With Beards
Released in 1972, Judee Sill's second album is very much in the same mold as her debut. However, for this, Sill took greater control over the production and orchestral arrangements as David Geffen granting her complete artistic control. The result is an album full of arrangements that are a closer match with her cosmic lyricscelestial vocal harmonies, baroque horns and church organ, shades of gospel music and the ever-present vocal multitracking that is Judee's trademark. More occult and religious imagery again, with a new thread of directness and honesty only hinted at in her first album: "I've been looking for someone/Who sells truth by the pound/Then I saw the dealer and his friend arrive/But their gifts looked grim/Now I'm tired of hanging on...Beautiful pearl, o when will you reappear?" The yearning for spiritual cleansing and reawakening is palpable throughout Heart Food, which despite its Chicken Soup for the Soul title, is nothing less than a cry to heaven from the darkest depths of hell. It's an absolutely remarkable album, and one that, if there were any justice in the world, would be mentioned at least as often as critically-acclaimed mediocrities like Carole King's Tapestry or Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark. In "The Phoenix," Judee prays for salvation and rebirth in the midst of an eschatological nightmare: "On phosphorous wings the phoenix floated/The fires froze and the sea was hushed/And when I tried to speak, the sun imploded/And the ware will wait in my guts/Till the devil bites the dust." I don't think I'll ever get tired of the odd paradox of these songs, with lyrics worthy of David Tibet's most apocalyptic nightmares coexisting with muted easy listening-style arrangements for guitar, piano and strings. Heart Food's finest moment comes with the final track, the seven-minute "The Donor," in which Judee Sill builds a stunning choir of layered voices singing the Kyrie Eleison, transforming the liturgical hymn into a haunting, ritualistic call for mercy from a cruel and arbitrary God. After a long silence, the album oddly concludes with a brief Irish jig. Heart Food was Judee's swan song to the world, as the album again failed to ignite the interest of the public, and she dropped out of society, disappearing into an underworld of drugs and prostitution, only resurfacing with the news of her death from a heroin overdose in 1979. - Jonathan Dean
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