Colin Stetson – New History Warfare, Volume 2 (Judges): Round 54 – Tom’s Selection

colinstetson_newhistoryofwarfarevol2.mcIn the first rush of musical discovery, epiphanies come thick and fast. For me, the late 80s introduced so much music unlike any I had already known (or even dreamt about existing) that it seemed barely a week went by without some new band or other literally taking my breath away. Hearing Liz Fraser’s voice soaring away in Gobbledegook, being pounded and pummelled by Mudhoney’s sludgefest, Isn’t Anything’s amazing squall of noise, Tom Waits’ gravel gargling tales of parched weirdness – looking back it is hard to know whether it was my age and relative ignorance that made this time so revelatory or maybe there was just loads more inspiration around then.

Whatever, such moments have become increasingly rare for me in recent years. Sure, music still has the ability to astonish and surprise me but, these days, it’s rare that I listen to something that doesn’t elicit the response, ‘this really reminds me of…[insert: Talk Talk, Talking Heads,  Television, Truman’s Water…]’ or, more likely, ‘someone but I can’t think who’. After all, much of what I like to listen to has been made by artists who have been inspired/influenced by artists that I like to listen to. That’s (partly) why I listen to them!

But DRC has helped me broaden my musical vistas, look beyond the norm and taken me out of my comfort zone…often I am listening to artists that have been selected by someone else, and that frequently circumvents the problem outlined in the previous paragraph. It has also led me to a few albums that I would probably have missed in times gone by…New History Warfare Vol. 2 Judges by Colin Stetson is one of those. And while, even after half a year of having the album in my possession, I am still trying to ascertain whether this is an album I love, it is certainly one I admire and respect, not least because Stetson produces a sound so unlike anything I’ve ever come across before (I didn’t really get the SunO))) comparison that Rob suggested on the evening…there we go again, more comparisons…but then I have deliberately tried my hardest to wipe all memories of Sun O))) from my mind). The fact that this revelatory sound is produced by a saxophone, an instrument that has been around for a long time now and has been wrenched through all sorts of paces by Coltrane, Coleman, Adderley, Parker, Marsalis to name but a few, makes this achievement all the more remarkable. From the very first note of Judges – an ominous yet distant held note that sounds something like a fog horn that fades then reappears four or five times until it reaches a deafening volume – it is clear that Stetson is doing something quite unlike anyone else around (at least, to my knowledge). The fact that he manages this whilst still producing a record that is perfectly listenable, even accessible at times, only adds to the achievement. For those of you who find the demands of free jazz too much, fret not. Judges is nothing like, for example, Coltrane’s Meditations or Sun Ra’s Heliocentric Worlds Vol 2 (‘more’s the pity’ I hear the dissenting voices cry). I’ve always found these two albums amongst the most challenging, discordant and unsettling albums I own. Stetson’s effort, however, offers light with the shade; patterns are prevalent and easy to locate, hooks appear every now and then and there is even a torch song (of sorts) in his version of the traditional ‘Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes’, which features bewitching vocals from My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden.

So, whilst I have yet to reach the stage with this album where I can’t help but pull it off the shelf, every time I do, it digs a little deeper into my affections and makes that little bit more sense to me – the hooks sink that little bit deeper and I feel a little bit more admiration for a record that has introduced me to new sounds and forms whilst teetering on (but never falling over) the line that separates music from noise.

Nick listened: Stetson made an appearance at my other record a club a few weeks ago, in the form of his latest record (New History Warfare Volume 3: To See More Light), which I’d been eager to hear. I was so impressed that I picked up a copy at the earliest opportunity, and it took barely five minutes to decide that I was going to do the same with …Judges. The copy I ordered direct from his Canadian record label arrived yesterday, and I’m listening to it again now.

Stetson’s sound is monumental, elemental, and ethereal at the same time. It is spooky and moving and percussive and, somehow, still melodic. He manages to make a saxophone sound like a synthesiser. The resultant music is fascinating and brilliant, and far more enjoyable and accessible than our fumbling descriptions might suggest.

Rob listened: Couldn’t help noticing Stetson in recent end of year lists. I still had no idea what to expect. Tom’s introduction didn’t make things much clearer, except to say that as soon as the sound started, it all made sense. Incredible, in the true sense of the word. Who said there was nothing new under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:9 did actually – Ed)

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Primal Scream – Screamadelica: Round 54, Nick’s choice

screamadelicaSans a member for the evening I thought I’d take advantage, flagrantly disregard the rules concerned how long albums can be, and play this 63-minute mess/magnum opus/masterpiece [delete as appropriate] by Sabres Of Paradise Primal Scream, which I thought would be good for causing an argument stimulating discussion.

Primal Scream aren’t a band. They’re a shocking shambles. Quite literally for the last 23 years they seem to be whoever is in the studio with Bobby Gillespie and Andrew Innes on any given day. Their best records (this, Vanishing Point, XTRMNTR) are, by and large, surrounded by absolute tripe. I’ve been a fan for the best part of 20 years but for most of the last decade of that I’ve had zero faith in their ability to make a decent record. I still think that Primal Scream, as a phrase, in terms of how it sounds and what it means and the imagery it inspires, is pretty much the best band name ever. And Screamadelica is a great title for an album. And it has a great cover, too.

But it’s a mess; at times an absolutely brilliant mess, granted, but it’s still a mess. The Rolling Stones homages, even if they’re as platonic-essence-great as “Movin’ On Up” (which nicks from CAN as much as Jagger, to be fair) or as bruised and lonesome as “Damaged”, are still, of course, just reductive homages, and seem deranged next to the we-have-lift-off genius that is “Higher Than The Sun” or the amazing, swamp-house-voodoo-dub cover version of “Slip Inside This House”, that awesome sax solo at the end of “I’m Comin’ Down”, the bassline that sinews through “…A Dub Symphony In Two Parts”, the full-on joyous Italo-house of “Don’t Fight It, Feel It”…

But that’s Primal Scream. You have to take the good with the bad, the coke’d cockrock with the heroin blues with the inspired psychedelic-techno-pop-kraut-jazz-disco with the awful bloody country hoedowns. Do they mean it, man? Are they authentic? Trend-chasing? Easily-distracted? Is Bobby Gillespie a fan more than he is a musician? Does it matter? The key question is are they brilliant?, isn’t it? If you describe what they are, what they do, write it down on paper – a whirlwind trip through the entirety of counter-cultural music from The MC5 to Miles Davis to Giorgio Moroder and everywhere inbetween and beyond, on drugs – it sounds like the greatest idea for a rock’n’roll band ever. And, occasionally, just occasionally, they made music that matched that description. Screamadelica, for the most part, is one of those occasions. But even so, rock’n’roll bands are bloody silly creatures, and Primal Scream are the silliest of them all.

Tom Listened: I still remember quite clearly the moment I went off Screamadelica. I already owned the record and liked it well enough but was still getting to know it at the time. It wasn’t long after Primal Scream had released it and, back then, it was a BIG THING, about as big an event as the Indie Dance crossover genre thing managed to pull off. I recall the band performing Moving On Up on Top of The Pops and found myself…hating it. It suddenly occurred to me that, shorn of the music that surrounds it on the album, this was nothing more than a pale facsimile of prime era Rolling Stones. If I wanted Sticky Fingers I may as well listen to the real thing!

Listening at Nick’s the other night, it’s a pity I had such an epiphany as there is much to admire on Screamadelica and the album has laid dormant in my collection, neglected and unloved, pretty much since that day back in the early 90s. But the trouble with Screamadelica, as far as I am concerned, is two-fold. Problem 1: there is about equal amounts chaff and wheat. So for every Higher Than The Sun (astonishing) there is a Damaged, for every Don’t Fight It…there is a Shine Like Stars. Problem 2: the songs I like the most are almost exclusively the ones that sound like they have the least to do with Bobby Gillespie and the most to do with Andrew Weatherall. And that’s where the whole ‘authenticity and does it matter’ argument kicks off. So, to sum up, it was great to hear 5/11 of the album…the other 55% of the record I could live without!

Rob listened: Credit where credit’s due, this was a great talking point album. I don’t particularly object to ‘Screamadelica’ for any of the reasons around authenticity or authorship. There are potentially fascinating questions and can make for fascinating art, but ultimately the result is either good or bad. And I still find this one boring. Sure there are lovely sounds in there and some of them we hadn’t heard before, but I didn’t like it when my friends were telling me it was the future back in 1991 and it leaves me unmoved to this day. Perhaps underpinning my antipathy are some feelings to be associated with intent although as I’ve said, I hope not. I certainly love loads of bands and records which were sucked into the same orbit as this one, and I can’t explain why it seems to matter to me that the Happy Mondays were the real deal, or whether that genuinely affects how I hear this music. Okay, i’ll have one more go at communicating this… It’s a boring record. It doesn’t matter what new ground it may have broken. If Primal Scream were the Rolling Stones and the Stone Roses were the Beatles, well, you can take all four of them and piss off.

Deerhoof – ‘Deerhoof vs Evil’: Round 53 – Rob’s choice

Deerhoof vs EvilDeerhoof sidled their way into my life. I can’t be sure when, but let’s say 2004, some website or other, let’s say Pitchfork, which I can’t be sure when I started reading but let’s say 2004, linked to a Deerhoof EP that was available for free download. Back then, way back then, this seemed an incredible, bounteous novelty so I clicked, saved and, as seems to be the average with free content, forgot.

When ‘The Runners Four’ did well in the End Of 2005 lists, I bought it. I was carefree back then. In fact, I bought almost everything from the Pitchfork top 10 of that year and listened to some more often and intently than others. It was months, maybe more than a year, before I really tried with the Deerhoof record. I found it intriguing, if perhaps a little too sprawling and obtuse for immediate gratification. It did provide one breakthrough however: the realisation that the odd music which had infrequently popped up on my shuffling iPod over the preceding couple of years, with no track, album or artist names, must have been that ignored free EP, now of 2 years vintage. Even heard at arms length, whilst washing up or driving, the ingredients were so distinctive – slanted constructions, meticulous instrumentations and a beguilingly detached Japanese vocalist – and were, once placed, impossible to mistake.

If you’ve only read about this San Franciscan ‘noise pop’ outfit without hearing them – and even now written words are still easier to come by than recorded sounds – then you could be forgiven for expecting a smart-assed barrage of slanting dissonance, jazz inflected jiggery-pokery and obscurantist capering. In fact Deerhoof are one of the most delightful, endearing and rewarding bands around, writing tightly focussed but jubilant songs which absolutely bubble over with ideas, fun and weirdly saccharine hooks. Atop this lie Satomi Matsuzaki’s famously deadpan vocals which perform the neat trick of severing Deerhoof from any immediate associations. It’s a useful, perhaps vital, effect, buying time for the listener to focus on the music and become enchanted, rather than scrabbling to reach the right comparison.

‘Deerhoof Vs Evil’ is their 10th studio album, released in 2011. It’s brief, barely over 30 minutes, and punchy, its 12 songs averaging slightly less than 3 minutes in length. Despite, or perhaps because of, this each track is focussed, polished both in sound and performance, and each packs at least one, sometimes two, maybe three, great ideas be they daring rhythms, nagging or infectious guitar lines, insistent bass-lines or gigglingly gleeful lyrics. Where the band can drag at times, on this record they don’t. Every song is a winner with at least one moment almost guaranteed to raise a smile even on a face as worn-out and hard to move as mine.

Some critics saw this album as a regrettable consolidation from a band they had grown used to hearing break new ground. It’s actually the sound of a band distilling what they do best into a delightful confection.

Tom Listened: I was pleasantly surprised by Deerhoof vs Evil finding it far less discordant and difficult than I feared it would be. That said, Deerhoof are still some way from sidling into my life…I remember finding the experience of listening to this record interesting and enjoyable, but I have yet to feel compelled to pull the copy of Apple ‘O I own off my shelf and give it a spin (it’s one of the few records I posess that I have yet to listen to all the way through), yet I think it’s the idea of Deerhoof and the perceived awkwardness of the music that puts me off rather than the actual songs they sing. I know this makes me weird and I am sure that at some point I will give Apple ‘O a proper chance but, judging by Rob’s own relationship with the band, perhaps this is the way it is meant to happen!

Archers of Loaf – Icky Mettle: Round 53 – Tom’s Selection

icky mettleThe Archers of Loaf first album, Icky Mettle, was one of a seemingly endless supply of skewed US indie-rock records that were predominant in the mid 90s (a genre that was so prevalent that it was even made into the theme of one of Sebadoh’s more ironic songs). And it suffered for it…at least, as far as I was concerned. Angrier and less arch than Pavement, lacking Guided by Voices’ obtuseness, poppier than Thinking Fellers and Truman’s Water; Archers of Loaf were a kaleidoscope of colour in comparison to Girls vs Boys or Fugazi. Yet it was easy at the time to think that they were just another American band nestling amid the ‘Lo-Fi’ section of your local vinyl outlet. But in contrast to some of their more willful contemporaries, time has been kind to The Archers and the band’s (relatively) straightforward approach to song-writing has, to my mind, worn better than many of those more tricksy recording artists operating at that time.

Listening back all these years on, it is obvious that what at first seems like a set of noisy but basically catchy little pop songs actually masks something much more slippery and complex – like so many of the very best records, there is more to Icky Mettle than meets the eye. So it draws you in, ensnares you and then that heady combination of great hooks, shoutalong choruses and dark, furious subject matter guarantees a prolonged and fulfilling relationship. Icky Mettle gives up its secrets piece by piece, and has somehow morphed with the times to remain as relevant and vital today as it ever was, perhaps even more so as so many of its mid 90s rivals have fallen by the wayside; the lack of true inspiration in the chaff from this era becoming ever more obvious with the passing of time and the re-aligning of perception. Icky Mettle’s currency is relationships gone bad, but the playful, catchy songs mean these anthems to lost love are cathartic, not mopey, and there’s never any doubting who’s coming out on top – after all, if you can work it out of your system by screaming at a room full of sweaty youths whilst pummeling your instruments and hammering home your points, it’s got to help, hasn’t it?

Icky Mettle sets it stall out in its very first line – a killer first line in a killer first song that has gone on to become The Archers of Loaf’s anthem. Simply put, Web in Front is awesome. And that line, ‘Stuck a pin in your backbone’ is surely etched in the minds of anyone who ever went to an indie disco in 1994. What a bizarre, beguiling and original combination of words. From the off it’s obvious that this is not a pale facsimile, a cynical bunch of bandwagon jumpers (not that, in monetary terms at least, this was a bandwagon worth jumping on!). No, Icky Mettle is an album made by the inspired, articulate and intelligent minds of Chapel Hill residents Eric Bachmann, Eric Johnson, Matt Gentling and Mark Price. And it’s played with raucous conviction – messy and unconcerned with dotting ‘i’s and crossing ‘t’s but thrillingly real and human throughout its brisk 38 minutes. 38 minutes that can so easily turn into 76, 114, 152… minutes as the addictive qualities of Icky Mettle begin to weave their magic on your heart, bones and synapses!

Rob listened: For reasons Tom has eloquently detailed, I was immersed, or perhaps flailing around, in the depths of this stuff in the first half of the 90s. For some time I would buy records, often seven inches, on the basis of a half-remembered Peel namecheck or even some half-sensed association with some other artist, perhaps based on the cover art or even the name. I certainly never remember hearing Web In Front at an indie disco, so I suspect it was one of these random routes which led me to it (and possible a poorly divined name-connection which then took me on to Wingtip Sloat (anyone?) and, in that case, no further). I’ve been hooked since day one. It’s a great record with all the qualities Tom outlines. I had the pleasure of reviewing their follow-up ‘Vee Vee’ and it’s more polished and straightforwardly rock but even so the strength of the songwriting is undeniable. Clearly the Archers had something forceful going for them even if they never garnered the recognition they deserved.