Here on this mix you’ll be treated to 3 instrumentals by the recently and dearly departed Prince. Besides the brief number “The Plan” (from 1996’s 3-disc Emancipation) the mix opens and closes with two fourteen-minute tunes (“West” & “East“) from 2003’sN.E.W.S.!
Although this is a record that is generally slept on, I’ve always dug how textured Prince’s multi-instrumentalist work with electric guitar, Fender Rhodes, digital keyboards and percussion is here in a looser–even desultory–context then his more bizarre but generally pretty tight pop and R&B constructs. His guitar twists from a swoon to sparks with little effort and even less notice. Along with the intricacies of John Blackwell on drums, Rhonda Smith on acoustic and electric bass, and Renato Neto on piano, Prince works most intimately with the warm brass of saxophonist Eric Leeds.
Eric Leeds in the Madhouse promo photo
In that regard this LP (all recorded in one day–February 6 2003) could be seen as something of a modern incarnation of Madhouse, the jazz/funk-fusion project that Prince used to surreptitiously release two albums under in 1987 (which, by the way and in my opinion might feature some of Prince’s finest drumming on record). (You can read an article on Madhouse by Miles Marshall Lewis over at Wax Poetics magazine).
N.E.W.S. still has that soulful funk of Madhouse, but oh, with what a wonderful meander!
Here’s the lovely Madeleine Peyroux bringing a piquant, yet lilting sorrow to her 2004 cover of Leonard Cohen‘s “Dance Me to the End Of Love.” My father got me both the record that this is from and her 2009 album Bare Bones, and with every tune whether a cover or original she applies an exquisite amount of dust to her throat.
Originally featured as the opening track to Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions (and likewise Peyroux’s Careless Love from 2004) it’s not often that an album begins with a lyric as evocative as:
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
The Houstons was nothing more than a pseudonym for Japanese film composer Nozomi Aoki on this 45 record that was most likely released as a cash-in to coincide with the moon landing in 1969.
However, with its keening drone and sedate noodling, the B-Side “Sea of Tranquility” is certainly one of the strangest novelty records I’ve ever heard (and they’re all always pretty off the wall, like this au-go-go advertisement for 7-Eleven’s sugar drink the Slurpee, called “Dance the Slurp“).
Entrance (a band fronted by Baltimore-boy Guy Blakeslee, while Derek James provides drums, filmaker/photographer Maximilla Lukacs gives some additional sounds, and the adroit Argentine Paz Lenchantin–best known for Maynard James Keenan‘s side-project A Perfect Circle— provides violin, bass guitar, string arrangements and co-production duties) deliver something equally apocalyptic as it is hypnotic. Released on the 2006 record Prayer of Death—an album of gnarled psychedelic blues “inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead , Delta-Blues legend Charley Patton, and the daily death-vibrations of the Modern World, which seems to be suspended in a State of Total War”– “Pretty Baby” lets a libidinous howl whirl out from a maelstrom.
I recently saw Guy Blakeslee perform solo as the opening act for Father John Misty‘s I Love You Honeybearrecord release show at the Rough Trade record store in Brooklyn, and Blakeslee might have been stripped of some sound but remained as intense and mesmerizing as he is here.
(on somewhat of a side-note I also highly recommend Paz Lenchantin‘s solo album of brief but intimate acid-folk, Songs for Luci. Self-recorded in 2003 in a rented room in the town of Louisville Kentucky, the layers of voice and violin and picked guitar were all rolled out by her as part of a grieving and healing process for her brother Luciano who committed suicide in 2003. I will get around to including some of that on a mix soon I’m sure, but you can watch and listen to a lovely lament from that record here: “Kentucky Hymn.”)
With Townes Van Zandt‘s “Lungs” another apocalyptic and hypnotic tune follows, but this one can deliver without resorting to any Rock ‘n’ Roll bombast. Recorded in 1969 when Texas-native Townes was only 25, simply put, this is one of the most haunting songs I have ever heard.
As a young man Townes was treated for schizophrenia and manic depression using a discredited procedure called Insulin Coma Therapy (ICT). Side effects of this treatment include retrograde amnesia, spasms, and difficulty breathing. You can see how this might have fed into the opening lyric of:
“Well, won’t you lend your lungs to me? / Mine are collapsing.”
Jason Heller wrote a great article for The A.V. Club examining this song and I very much recommend the read. This song feels like a riddle, but one where the solution has been lost down some memory hole. Desperate but with a true beauty, likewise I recommend you read the lyrics pasted below:
Well, won’t you lend your lungs to me?
Mine are collapsing
Plant my feet and bitterly breathe
Up the time that’s passing
Breath I’ll take and breath I’ll give
Pray the day’s not poison
Stand among the ones that live
In lonely indecision
Fingers walk the darkness down
Mind is on the midnight
Gather up the gold you’ve found
You fool, it’s only moonlight
If you start to take it home
Your hands will turn to butter
You better leave this dream alone
Try to find another
Salvation sat and crossed herself
Called the devil partner
Wisdom burned upon a shelf
Who’ll kill the raging cancer
Seal the river at its mouth
Take the water prisoner
Fill the sky with screams and cries
Bathe in fiery answers
Jesus was an only son
And love his only concept
Strangers cry in foreign tongues
And dirty up the doorstep
And I for one, and you for two
Ain’t got the time for outside
Just keep your injured looks to you
We’ll tell the world we tried
“The Plan” –a pleasant squiggle of sound from Prince‘s 1996 3-disc celebration of leaving his contract with Warner Brothers: Emancipation.
Eerie yet with a jaunt to it, in “Onalaska,” Damien Jurado sings: “I went looking for a new direction / Indecisive, undecided.” A sense of searching and yearning is an integral element to the 17 tracks of his newest album, Visions Of Us On The Land.
Yes, this sense of searching and yearning is integral just as it has been to the atmospherics of the two records that preceded this final installment of a loose trilogy beginning with 2012’s Maraqopaand followed by 2014’s phenomenal Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son).
As with Jurado’s prior three LPs (beginning with 2010’s Saint Bartlett) this one is performed with and produced by one of my favorite recording artists, Richard Swift. (Pick up and listen to any record by Swift, and then pick up another and say wow!)
Swift seems to intuitively know where to let a Damien Jurado tune remain skeletal and where it demands to be lush with a soft crush of analog recording equipment, all to serve the music, all to make you feel the way Father John Misty (Josh Tillman) writes in this essay that Jurado’s music makes him feel: “Jesus is out of his goddamn mind, and I want to live in Damien’s America.”
Here’s the James Halland directed video for Visions of Us on the Land‘s “QACHINA” and another for the Elise Tyler video for “Exit 353″:
Alex Hall and Emil Amos (both of the Portland, Oregon based instrumental psych band Grails) have really done well producing music that can whirl like a spool of deteriorating cinema inside your skull with their project Lilacs & Champagne. I’ve already used their tracks on numerous mixes and will certainly continue to do so. I really love their tastes when spinning some samples of dusty vinyl under the layers of reverb drenched instruments and found sound they slather atop.
The track you hear here, “King Of Kings,” comes from their self-titled debut released in 2012, and it sits like a cinder that smolders between your ears!
To the promised land…
To the promised land…
To the promised land…
In a recent review for NPR Timmhotep Aku put it perfectly when he wrote:
“If there is one phrase that captures the overall mood and attitude of Saul Williams‘ latest album, MartyrLoserKing, it’s ‘Fuck you. Understand me.’ The refrain, from the song entitled ‘All Coltrane Solos At Once,’ is both a defiant middle finger raised to humanity’s oppressors and an empathetic hand extended to those who are oppressed (including the unwitting and unwilling agents of oppression).”
I highly recommend all Saul Williams’ work (whether literature, like The Dead Emcee Scrolls, or music, like the brilliant and Trent Reznor produced The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!).
Released this past January, MartyrLoserKing is no exception. Working with producer Justin Warfield, the record features a fevered click-clack clatter and clamor married to melodic chants, hand claps, a somber bounce of drum and bass, and digitally phased rhythms. Of course first and foremost, it also features the intricate lyrical delivery of the supremely talented Williams’ himself.
On “Groundwork“and all twelve tracks, Williams’ words and cadence blister through the beats, either with the beauty of the world or from the injustice imposed upon it. I just can’t get enough of the pacing and sense of play with which he delivers the lines:
Martyr. Loser. Sinner. Beggar. Chooser Chosen. Leader. Of the tribeless. Neither [neether] Neither [nigh-ther]. Nor the only living son of Mr. Lonely Toe spin on that money
New house. New school. New hospital.
New church. New God. New race of the tribe of
Neither [neether], neither [nigh-ther], ruled by either [eether] either [aye-ther]
Son of nonesuch, bewitched by the queen of
Anger. Self control. Tolerance. To and fro
Wisdom. Ecstasy. Memories of her history
Neither [neether]. Neither [nigh-ther]. Won’t be either [eether] either [aye-ther]
Nor the brown dirt
Foot stomp. Hand clap. Groundwork
(Check out the video for “The Noise Came From Here” where Williams walks barefoot through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri , where recently a white police officer walked free after his 2014 killing of an , an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. Williams is accompanied by Brown’s friend, the poet Marcellus Buckley and by local Reverend Osagyefo Sekou.)
Here on MartyrLoserKing, when confronted by the puppets on the hand of The Ape of Ignorance & Greed who bark “it’s all mine now,” Saul Williams does as he has always done; he grits his teeth, twirls his fingers, does a dance, and spits poetry. As always, he urges you to do the same.
“Your Time In This Life Is Just Temporary” is the big finish to Jane Weaver‘s beautiful experimental album where woozy synthetic folk, cinematic pop music, and cosmic-prog ballads ribbon around the more organic elements of her voice and traditional instrumentation: The Silver Globe. Rhythmically crisp through its psychedelic haze, I do consider this record something of a masterpiece (although I’m still in the process of listening to it) and Jane Weaver (who is also an author) seems to be an intelligent soul fully attuned to her attendant spirit of genius. At times throughout the record the coiling analogue sounds and warm, vintage synths seem to softly chew through the morsels of her strong melodies–as rust through delicate metals–leaving wistful crumbs that either evaporate or fuzz over, buzz, and blossom into strange new creatures on the next track.
I’m not sure I can say exactly why but this album brings to my mind a children’s picture-book biography I recently read, Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois. Written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by the fantastic Isabelle Arsenault, the book follows the artist’s creative growth from a juvenile on into adulthood. In a post for her stunning and always stirring blog Brain Pickings (with its stated intention being to aid us to “tap into our mental pool of resources,” which I must say is a bit of my aim with my own blog and these MixTapes–to inspire you to do what you do), Maria Popova states that Louise Bourgeois was “one of the fiercest creative minds and most luminous spirits of the past century.” Elsewhere Popova also depicts the creative process as a “dancing in a delicate osmosis of conscious and unconscious work,” and I think the excerpts from Cloth Lullaby below hint a bit at that:
She loved to work in the warm sun, her needle rising and falling beside the lilting river, perfect, delicate spiderwebs glinting with caught drops of water above her.
Sometimes, they’d spend the night, and Louise would study the web of stars, imagine her place in the universe, and weep, then fall asleep to the rhythmic rock and murmur of river water.
With the remaining fabric of her life, Louise wove together a cloth lullaby. She wove the river that raised her — maternal pinks, blues in watery hues. She wove a mother sewing in the sun, a girl falling asleep beneath the stars, and everything she’d ever loved.
When she was done, all of her spiders beside her, she held the river and let it rock her again.
Along with I’m sure numerous others,The Silver Globe was influenced by Suzanne Ciani; Annette Peacock; Hawkwind; Alejandro Jodorowsky; Mad Max; the work of Barbarella creator Jean-Claude Forest, like his cartoons with Serge Gainsbourg and André Ruellan, Marie Mathématique; the “chemical environment” of her upbringing in Widnes (between Liverpool and Manchester); composer (and another Gainsbourg collaborator) Jean-Claude Vannier; and the soundtracks to European surrealist, new wave, and avant-garde cinema of the 1970s.
art by Jean-Claude Forest for his 1970s comic-strip Hypocrite. After adventures investigating the Loch Ness Monster and being transported to a future Earth, the character Hypocrite becomes involved in a galactic conflict between meat-eaters and vegetarians.
None of this comes as a surprise as Weaver is the head Bird Records, an offshoot in the satellite of record companies and reissue labels co-founded by her husband and DJ/producer, Andy Votel: Finders Keepers, Twisted Nerve, and B-Music. I have loved every single album I have picked up from these labels and only wish that funds permitted me to pick them all up. I highly recommend you look through their catalog and get something that piques your interest.
Other Music in Manhattan carried a ton of this stuff, but sadly (so sadly) I recently found out they will be closing their doors on June 25. Besides being my go-to store for music since they opened across the street from Tower Records in the mid-nineties (I used to work for years in Shinbone Alley off of Great Jones Street one block away) this is where I had such a humorous encounter with Robert Pollard creative force behind Dayton, Ohio’s own spectacular band Guided by Voices (I was later told that our meeting has become one of Pollard’s New York stories that he tells friends).
Alien Variablescollage by Robert Pollard. I now own an original one by him titled Hooked Feather, which I’ll be sure to post a picture of one day.
Anyway, where were we? Weaver’s album itself takes its name from Polish filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski‘s sci-fi parableNa Srebrnym Globie (On The Silver Globe). (You can read a retrospective of his cinema by Daniel Bird for Film Comment Selects here and another one by Ela Bittencourt here).
There is an incredible beauty to this film that I can’t define. It is fractured and fragmented, with amazing bursts of wild creation and life, and dark caverns of ugly human nature. Zulawski explores the absurdity of our human instincts, and the cold opportunistic refuge found in worship. It is a blunt look at the current state of life on earth, god without love, war without reason, life as a jangled mix of pain and anger, with a vain, desperate attempt to make sense of how significant or insignificant we are.
The title is also a homage to the post-apocalyptic visual elements to a film, On The Silver Globe, by Andrzej Żuławski (based on a book by his great uncle) which was put on hold by the Polish government for ten years. Żuławski had already had two films banned in Poland due to political paranoia, he then fled to the free West only to have his next film, Possession, banned by the BBFC who wrongly considered it a video nasty… four banned feature films but he still kept going because he was a true artist at one with his creativity.
She also explains how she uses the image of The Silver Globe as a metaphor:
“The Silver Globe is basically a red herring. It’s like the yellow brick road to the imaginary emerald palace or the house with the golden windows. The harder you try to get there the stronger you become and the reflective ball begins to shine brightly, but in reality the ball is just a mirror reflecting your own hard work and your development as a human being. Once you come to terms with this life gets easier.
Jane Weaver with her children Scarlett and Herbie for The Mothers.
This “development as a human being” is what culminates in “Your Time In This Life Is Just Temporary.” Again Jane Weaver’s comments:
“This is the last track on the album and returns to organic instruments like piano and drums as opposed to synths, which is probably the direction I will go with on my next LP. The Silver Globe has disappeared and the girl has become human, it was all an illusion… human life and love is the prize.
“As a young artist I grew up believing that you had to take certain dictated paths, but you realize it sometimes feels like the electric carousel in Logan’s Run where humans are exterminated at 30 years old… unless you form an underground resistance and find that there is a giant world out there, at which point the central computer self-destructs and society returns to the organic elements and freedom!
“Devising your own independent system is a wonderful thing, with so many multi-faceted social elements to enjoy. On my records and via the label I have tried to create a community and a family working with artists ranging from seven years old to 70 years old with as much creative freedom as possible.”
You can watch the fun Neirin Best directed video for The Silver Globe‘s sort of circus-sideshow-funk-lounge track “Don’t Take My Soul” over here:
Although most of the 1977 debut LP Genie by Bobby Lyle was primarily an instrumental fusion and crossover jazz effort interspersed with R&B vocals, Lyle concludes the record with an unaccompanied piano detour of the standard “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” which is what you’ll hear here. Produced by hard bop trombonist Wayne Henderson (who was also behind Ronnie Laws‘ superb Pressure Sensitive of 1975), overall this record does reflect Dr. Schluss’ 4 out of 5 review on his amazing blog Dr. Schluss’ Garage Of Psychedelic Obscurities: “neon sparkles of 70’s jazz-funk” and “It’s tangible music for me – with the notes forming globs of glowing plasma converting the entire room into a lava lamp. Well, figuratively at least.”
I will not claim that White Chalk is the best record by PJ Harvey, but at times it is the one that fascinates me the most, Then there are times I can’t even make it through its eleven tracks. On this album Harvey abandons her innovative use of distorted guitars and electronics (always arriving with a swell and crush). She also abandons her feminine grow.l This sense of abandon is what most colors this record as she utilizes an unfamiliar piano while singing in a much higher register than usual, which often leaves her sounding like an insane little girl who has been forced mature by a dark world.
More so (and I do not pretend to know any of the real life inspiration behind this record) it always sounded to me like a woman who lost her child and then quickly lost her way. There is an unnerving repetition and austere menace to the music with subtle whines and barely perceptible but lambent shifts to the air; it is the sound of cold attics, it is the sound of collision and erosion where cliffs kiss the sea, it is the sound of white gowns torn by dry thickets.
The lead single for White Chalk was the song “When Under Ether” which likely references these lines from the East Coker section of Four Quartets, a 1943 collection of poems by T. S. Eliot: “[…] Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing – I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.” And that sets the mood for the just under thirty-four minutes that comprise this record. It is a mood of life passing; or as she sings in that very same song:
Something’s inside me
Unborn and unblessed
Disappears in the ether
This world to the next
As Harvey herself said in a 2007 interview with John Harris for The Guardian, “These aren’t just words. They’re songs. They inhabit themselves, really.”
Unlike the condition of rough scribble that marked her previous recordUh Huh Her, White Chalk is complete to itself, but it is not one I would recommend to someone who is curious and unfamiliar to PJ Harvey’s work. It fascinates me that something so brittle could have such bite. Even the lyrics are thin, but in their delivery operate like thin fingers that scratch through a winding cloth to grip you around the throat; such as here on “The Devil”:
As soon as I’m left alone
The devil wanders into my soul
And I pretend to myself
And I pretend to myself
I go out
To the old milestone
You to come there
Knowing that I wait for you there
That I wait for you there
Come here at once
On a night with no moon
Because all of my being is now in pining
All of my being is now in pining
What formerly had cheered me
I am still reeling from the sudden news of David Bowie‘s death on January 10, 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final, harrowing, strange, and truly beautiful record, Blackstar. This parting album is one that continues to elicit a response of real tears while I listen and sing along. In fact I’m still working on a post for another mix that happened to feature his music and coincided with his death.
David Bowie released the album1.Outsidein 1995, and in many ways that was my first true introduction to him as a living artist (I had just turned 15 and was obsessed with Nine Inch Nails‘ The Downward Spiral). Withits subtitle ofthe Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle, I’ve always found it to be quite enthralling, particularly in the insidious manner in which its dense grit and reeling textures work to distress and derange the listener.
His hand-scrawled notes for this album are on display near the entrance to the The Victoria and Albert Museum’s internationally touring exhibit David Bowie Is, and in them you can read:
“Taking the present philosophical line we don’t expect our audience to necessarily seek an explanation from ourselves. We assign that role to the listener and to a culture. As both of these are in a state of permanent change there will be a constant “drift” in interpretation. All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”
To riff off of one of George Steiner’s views, creativity is essentially a diasporic condition. It is exactly this unstable condition that both allures me to Bowie’s work and that makes it difficult for me to write about. He is a moving target (and I a poor marksmen).
One way for me to attempt to describe Bowie’s work would be to borrow Samuel R. Delany‘s introduction to his own 1973 novel of hardcore erotica and cartoon pornography, Equinox:
“This is an artificial, extravagant, and pretentious book […]. But it is honest before its artifice; and in this age of extravagant expressions, honesty is the last pretension.”
Or as Bowie said in his speech at a 1999 graduation ceremony where he received an honorary doctorate from the prestigious Berklee College of Music:
So it seemed that authenticity and the natural form of expression wasn’t going to be my forte. In fact, what I found that I was good at doing, and what I really enjoyed the most, was the game of “what if?” What if you combined Brecht-Weill musical drama with rhythm and blues? What happens if you transplant the French chanson with the Philly sound? Will Schoenberg lie comfortably with Little Richard? Can you put haggis and snails on the same plate? Well, no, but some of the ideas did work out very well.
And then I went on a crusade, I suppose, to change the kind of information that rock music contained. I adored Coltrane, Harry Parch, Eric Dolphy, Velvet Underground, John Cage, Sonny Stitt. Unfortunately, I also loved Anthony Newley, Florence Foster Jenkins, Johnnie Ray, Julie London, the legendary Stardust Cowboy, Edith Piaf and Shirley Bassey.
From which I learned that mixing elements of bad taste with good would often produce the most interesting results. So, in short, I didn’t feel comfortable as a folk singer or an R&B singer or a balladeer. I was drawn more and more to the idea of manipulation of signs, rather than individual expression—a concept that really had its start in the late 50s with Pop Art and by the early 70s I found myself making what British writer Simon Fricke described as “art pop.”
It wasn’t so much about how I felt about things, but rather, how things around me felt.
Earlier up above I used the phrase “memory hole” when writing about Townes Van Zandt‘s “Lungs,” well here on the track “The Motel” Bowie perfectly captures what a memory hole feels like. There is a trace of deranged grace, but that might just be people playing pretend and kidding themselves; it’s all still typically a stagnant affair. I’ve always loved how Bowie makes the declamatory statement of:
There is no Hell…
but then how quickly that phrase is turned on its head and soured by being followed with
…like an old Hell
This song brings to mind certain passages from the 1873 book length prose poem Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) by perhaps the greatest poet of all time (certainly my favorite) Arthur Rimbaud, such as this one (translated by Louise Varése):
–And what of me? All this hardly makes me regret the world very much. I am lucky not to suffer more. My life was nothing but sweet follies, it’s a pity.
Bah! Let’s practice every imaginable grimace.
Decidedly we are out of the world. No longer any sound. My sense of touch has left me. Ah! my castle, my Saxony, my willow wood. Evenings, mornings, nights, days…How weary I am!
I should have my hell for anger, my hell for pride,–and the hell of laziness; a symphony of hells.
I die of lassitude. It is the tomb, I go to the worms, horror of horrors! Satan, you fraud, you would dissolve me with your charms. I insist. I insist! a thrust of the pitchfork, a drop of fire.
Ah! to rise again into life! to cast our eyes on our deformities. And that poison, that kiss, a thousand times accursed! My weakness, the cruelty of the world! My God, pity, hide me, I behave too badly!–I am hidden and I am not.
Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. […] Such a lot the gods gave to me—to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken. And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.
Or later in the same tale where Lovecraft writes:
So through endless twilights I dreamed and waited, though I knew not what I waited for. Then in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky. And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day.
The Minotaur in The Motel
Chris O’Leary on his fantastic blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame has already written an incredible write-up on “The Motel” and so I will present that in excerpts below:
“The Motel” opens in the lobby. Murmured conversations, barely heard over a duo playing in a corner of the room. A garrulous pianist, a secretive bassist. The latter plays a fretless bass […]. Nearly a minute in, Bowie wanders over from the bar, begins singing as if in mid-sentence. For we’re living in the safety zone…living from hour to hour down here. Everything’s provisional, wavering—chords oscillate between F and F-sharp, Bowie often shifts between singing A or B-flat notes. An interlude: synthesizer, Mike Garson’s querying piano, bass fills. Bowie continues: It’s a kind of living which recognizes…the death…of the odorless man…
“Its title suited it. A motel, especially the David Lynch-esque one Bowie’s checked into here, can be a purgatorial place, a shabby limbo (or, more fitting for Bowie’s past, a bardo, a vestibule between reincarnations; see “Quicksand”). Then drums kick in, cementing the song in 4/4, and Bowie sharpens his tone: There is no hell. There is no shame. It’s a (deliberate?) mishearing, an echo, of [Scott] Walker’s “there is no help,” in “Electrician.” Bowie conflates Walker’s line with something he’d recalled from his visit to Gugging Asylum: “THIS IS HELL,” scrawled on a wall in the murderer’s wing. There is no hell…like an old hell. The chorus expires with Bowie hitting his highest notes so far: “it’s LIGHTS UP BOYS.” He builds on his dual references: Lights up, boys: a body twisting in an electric chair; lights up, boys-–it’s not a bar’s closing time, but the morning, when the inmates are rousted from their beds.
“(This line recalls another story, one Walker may have known, if not Bowie: that Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film was to be shot in an asylum. Inmates were brought in, Antonioni put them into formation, was surprised at how well they took his requests, then he turned on his lights for a take. The inmates recoiled and convulsed on the floor. (“I have never seen such expressions of total fear on the faces of any actors…they started screaming, twisting, and rolling themselves over the floor….they tried desperately to get away from the light, as if they were being attacked by some kind of prehistoric monster.“) Antonioni abandoned the film, but the poet Anne Carson used it as a starting point years later, her poem offering that the inmates were only feigning their reactions so that they could roll around and try to kiss each other, stealing a moment of mass intimacy.)
“The entire sequence repeats. A new intro (Garson at his tackiest; he’s the hotel pianist from an old hell), a last verse where Bowie disdainfully rips up stage props, like he once did to the paper skyscrapers of his Diamond Dogs set (“we’re living in a SEA of SHAM“), another chorus. But now Bowie keeps surging, gaining strength, hitting a high E-flat as the song itself solidifies in E-flat major, while Reeves Gabrels slams in with distorted power chords. The lobby’s become a stage in an arena. We’re back at the close of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song that also had begun in obscurity and despair and which had climaxed in a Judy Garland moment. GIVE ME YOUR HANDS! RE-EXPLODING YOU!!! ‘COS YOU’RE WONDERFUL!! LIKE EVERYBODY DO!.
“And here “The Motel” faltered. Its lyric collapsed into gabble; its motion felt strained. It’s as if Bowie needed to have the song “pay off” in some way. This left “The Motel” in a curious state. On Outside, “The Motel” is the blank at the center of the record. Sequenced between the battering “Hallo Spaceboy” and the jaunty “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” “The Motel” can seem like a seven-minute void. It seems actively hostile to the memory. I still don’t know what to make of it: sometimes I think it’s a latter-day flawed Bowie masterpiece, with a grisly beauty; other times, it can seem a failure […].”
While I find a lot to agree with here, I do find that this “seven-minute void” with all of its flaws (and not in spite of them) is a stunning accomplishment. Down here in this Motel, in this safety zone, where they live from hour to hour, one can pretend at times that its not all really an asylum…a labyrinth. But it is. Yet, Bowie transcends it. He takes a path that twenty years later leads us to Blackstar.
I’m certain for many Rufus Wainwright could be considered an acquired taste. I have always adored how as an artist Wainwright allows himself to indulge fully in an operatic yet peculiar style that despite its fondness for pop and cabaret flourishes very often eschews any radio-friendly format but definitely reveals itself as the intensely intimate vision of a songwriter unlike any other. “Waiting For A Dream” comes from Want Two, the 2004 follow-up to the prior year’s Want One.
Both imbued by co-producer Marius de Vries with a baroque beauty that creeps between opulence and languor, these two records should truly be taken as one double record entitled Want, and to my mind this is Wainwright’s finest and most ambitious work. I loved Entertainment Weekly‘s Marc Weingarten description of the album as a “gorgeous meditation on emotional displacement.”
Concerning Wainwright’s talents and my appreciation of them, what first come to mind is his voice. I love how he confidently utilizes his queer voice as a fluid or a thick vapor; it’s something glutinous that can adhere to the rhythm when necessary but more often flows effortlessly through and around his song’s structures. This fluid, as opposed to being measured and then fastened to the length of a musical line as is so common among so many Singer/Songwriters.
However, Wainwright truly has a talent for lyrical detail that revels in his own mind’s idiosyncrasies and his particular observations. With his music the droll, clever, vain, and eloquent fondle the romantic, sullen, and bored–all displaying itself through deadpan camp, poetic pathos, sumptuous melodrama, and above all honest confession. This is all to say I find his music to have personality. Using the lush “Waiting For A Dream” as an example, there is the line “You are not my lover, and you never will be, ‘Cause you’ve never done anything to hurt me” or the subtle variations and display of personality he uses for the three chorus-type structures of the song:
There’s a fire in the priory
And it’s ruining this cocktail party
Yesterday I heard they cloned a baby
Now can I finally sleep with me?
There’s a fire in the priory
And it’s ruining this cocktail party
Yesterday I heard the plague is coming
Once again, to find me
There’s a fire in the priory
And an ogre in the oval office
Once again we all will be so broken
Now can I finally sleep again?
Beginning with his Oscar-winning 2007 film There Will Be Blood, and then again with 2012’s The Master, multi-Oscar-nominated writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has worked with composer Jonny Greenwood to score his films. Greenwood perhaps is most known as the guitarist and all-around multi-instrumentalist for the phenomenal English art-rock group Radiohead. Greenwood’s scores for both of those films were rich in nuance and certainly “cinematic” but were generally focused on conveying an unsettling mood of tacit panic, melancholy, cynicism, and lurking neurosis (much like most of Radiohead’s body of work, which is not to say they share any similarities in terms of song structure or that these soundtracks could be taken as a stand-in for one of their records at all).
With Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film from 2014, Inherent Vice (an adaption of the Thomas Pynchon‘s postmodern, neo-noir, “shaggy-dog” detective novel published in 2009) The director turned to Greenwood for a score once more. Although this soundtrack retains the dense air of mystery and confusion from his earlier work, Greenwood here provides a much more melodic affair with a warm shimmer to it that compliments beautifully the sun-baked and smoked-soft mind of protagonist and private investigator “Doc” Sportello as he juggles his baffling caseload and rambles through the Los Angeles of spring 1970. This is not to say this is the novelty sound of a stoner comedy as it features dexterous orchestration that forms an ambiance of both charm and peril.
For the majority of Jonny Greenwood’s pieces he recorded with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. However, the selection here on this mix–“Amethyst“–is a dulcet solo of drones and acoustic guitar. I do find it lovely to hear some more organic work from a member of Radiohead as, although they continue to create complex albums with breathtaking music, they have increasingly experimented with angles and crowding their compositions with the glitch and twitch beats that technology can produce. I do make that statement based on 2011’s The King Of Limbs, as I have not listened to their fresh release–A Moon Shaped Pool–and am awaiting the physical release later in June.
Amethyst, for those interested, is the little daughter of Hope and Coy Harlingen, two characters entangled into the knotted plot of Inherent Vice.
Eno in the studio, 1973
Despite being a longtime and enormous admirer of David Bowie, Roxy Music, and U2‘s own “Berlin era” of the early Nineties (Achtung Baby & Zooropa) I have only very recently begun to listen to the solo work of incredibly talented and self-described “non-musician” Brian Eno. I am astounded.
Eno’s LP of 1975 Another Green World was released one year prior to when he began his working relationship with David Bowie on the masterpiece Low, and you can hear the germ of a lot of the “treatments” and the idea of “recording studio as instrument” he brought to his collaborations with Bowie and Tony Visconti: the stress on texture and timbre when assembling fragments of avant-pop, the compression, the gossamer drift of a wearied wreckage that also colors the majority of Eno’s later conceptual art projects, the aural flotsam and jetsam. Although this album does prominently dwell in a pliable terrain where the numerous facets reveal themselves through gentle revolutions I do not want to imply that this is an apathetic affair of audio-wallpaper. Another Green World swells with enthusiasm and creativity, but it does require the listener’s immersion into its gorgeous tones.
The songs trawl through layers that squirm like bacteria busy reproducing. Woodblock-like clicks punctuate guitar echoes, strained organs, minimal drones, and tumbles of piano. There is restraint and space, but there are moments where the ruminative temperaments abruptly bounce off their contradictions to tickle like folk and pop, or blister like synthesized soul–all before they disappear altogether. There are moments where you don’t even notice as the dense tapestry has been tossed to dissolve in saltwater tides.
Northern Sea. water color by Peter Schmidt , 1979.
During the months of July and August 1975 Eno and co-producer/engineer Rhett Davies recorded Eno (who plays the majority of what you hear) and guest musicians (like John Cale, Robert Fripp, Brian Turrington, and Phil Collins) at a studio in Notting Hill, London. These sessions were then used and chopped to create loops, tape delays, and otherwise “treated” to create the distinctive song structures and sonic ambiance you can hear on this record. Additionally, all this was achieved with the use of the Oblique Strategy cards (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas), which Eno had developed with German/Jewish artist and friend Peter Schmidt. (These cards can now be physically purchased or there are numerous websites that recreate them like this one). They are printed with aphorisms like:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention
Bridges -build -burn
Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame
Idiot glee (?)
These cards are meant to encourage lateral thinking when met with creative blocks or when simply attempting keep a sense of amusement when tackling any art project. Eno once described these inspirational tools as such:
“These cards evolved from our separate observations of the principles underlying what we are doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated. They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from a shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if it appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.”
The song I present here is the penultimate one of the record and the last to feature vocals: “Everything Merges with the Night.”
From photographer Michelle Repiso film series “Everything Merges With The Night”
Beyond that phrase having such a lovely and evocative sentiment contained within it, I find the tune to be a true tranquil beauty. Sedate, wistful, but it wonderfully captures the addled mind of a figure who has been waiting by the shore for far too long. (I’ve read one reviewer who states that this song concerns “the romantic and social tensions of a Chilean Communist” following the death of Salvador Allende and the overthrow of a socialist government during a coup d’état unofficially supported by The United States and led by the Chilean Army Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973).
Pinochet reviews troops inside the presidential palace in Santiago.
Another aspect of this song that I really love–with its gentle loll of psychedelia and exhaustion, its weird glamour, its ambiguous beauty–one can picture it as something Syd Barrett might have gone on to create if he hadn’t lost his marbles and been subsequently exploited for his mental illness. While I’m certainly not pointing fingers and I’m sure Barrett was increasingly difficult to deal with, my statement of “exploitation” stems from how I’ve always felt about the manner in which his solo work was recorded and then presented. For example, compare the false starts and studio chatter left in on his final records just as they were with another mentally ill and difficult recording artist, the brilliant Uruguayan songwriter Eduardo Mateo on his first solo record of 1972 Mateo Solo Bien Se Lame. While that record is superb, as are Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, Barrett (both 1970), and the compilation of unreleased material Opel, I’ve always had a suspicion that these elements that are typically snipped out before pressing a record were left to help project that you are listening to an “iconoclastic maniac.”
Lester Bangs Coney Island. Roughly circa 1977 photo by Chris Stein: Blondie guitarist and co-host of public-access show, TV Party.
In 1979 Lester Bangs (perhaps the greatest music critic there ever was and who in my opinion should just be celebrated as one of the “Great American Writers”–see his brilliant collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) did extensive interviews with Eno that were meant to be the chapter Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphavillein a larger but unfinished book titled Beyond the Law: Four Rock ‘n’ Roll Extremists (the other three of the four were to be Marianne Faithful, Danny Fields, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins).
You can read the entire Eno section here, but below is an excerpt that I feel gives great insight into Brian Eno’s creative process and hints at the sense of wonder he retains when working on art–that feeling of play I’m sure we all shared as children but some seem to lose or forget when engaged and stressed by our creative endeavors:
“It’s like a painter friend of mine says about when he starts working, ‘it nearly always starts off with me just wanting to play paints.’ It’s getting excited about a sound or a rhythm or something very straightforward, and pushing it along and saying ‘Well, what would happen if I did this or tried that and then that and that, and at some point this set of ingredients that you’ve combined in a fairly dabbling fashion suddenly produce an interaction that wasn’t predicted. That’s the point at which it starts to take off. because as soon as that point happens it starts to dictate its own terms. With the lyrics I have all these tricks and techniques which were first conceived as a way of defeating self-consciousness about writing lyrics, and because I don’t have anything to say in the usual sense. I prefer to let the music prompt something from me. See what that prompts and then examine it after the event. So what I do first is work on the track till its identity is fairly well established, I already know how its gonna sound in terms of textures and time and speed and all that, then I take all that home, a rough mix version of it and I just keep playing it very loud and just singing along with them just singing anything really, and sometimes that anything is just right for it. It’s the only thing I do, I guess, that approaches improvising, because everything else is very pedestrian in the way it’s made. What often happens is that I get an idea of how the words will fall and what their function be rhythmically, so I start singing or placing the syllables in a certain way, and they’re just nonsense at the beginning. Then certain types of sounds will emerge, like a particular vowel sound will suit a particular song. Like, for some reason, the vowel sound ‘i’ suited ‘Baby’s on Fire,’ it’s a sharp kind of thin sound; so then I’m working around two things, which is this vowel sound and this syllable construction, and quite soon words arise from that, and you only need to get about six words out of that for you then to have a good clue of what the song is going to be about. And I know it sounds extremely perverse whenever I explain it, to finally at the end of it all sit down and read it and say, ‘Ah, so that’s what it’s about.’ But what strikes me is that following this process, the preoccupations that manifest are not ones that you’re necessarily conscious of at any earlier point.”
Oh, if you’re still interested in hearing more from Eno here’s a really fantastic and good natured audio one of him being interviewed by genius writer Alan Moore on December 14th, 2004 for BBC Radio 4 show Chain Reaction.:
We end this mix with the aforementioned “East” by the beautiful, loved and blessed artist Prince.
Great mix book ended by Prince’s West & East. (And I’m only half way thru your “liner notes,” which always take me further out –and further in– the tunes selected and their surroundings. p.s. As “East” faded out ,my iTunes random mode kicked-in with “I can’t run…” by Paul Simon; a song I never get tired of listening to. A perfect listening session !
OK, I just finished reading. So much insightful and diverse stuff is packed into it, that brought to mind those magical conversations one can have (when the right stars are aligned) in the wee hours with the best of company.