Heather Leigh’s new album is a progression in sound and intensity, showcasing first her vocal talent before gradually letting loose with the extreme noise coming from her amplified pedal steel guitar that she’s perhaps most famous for. This album is her most song-based, lyrically oriented album to date. She’s had a smattering of solo albums over the years, as well as having worked with Charalambides and Christina Carter (in the duo known as Scorces), and featured in the bands Taurpis Tula and Jailbreak.
The album opens with the title track, a gently sung folk tune with eerie backing vocals, despite the disturbing title. “Quicksand,” the album’s second of six tracks, consists of a slightly more powerful vocal and introduces her guitar work in a fashion that’s raw but still comparatively tender. This builds up to the third track, “All That Heaven Allows,” a sonic workout that pushes the pedal steel beyond where the listener expects it to go. It’s slightly reminiscent of Zeena Parkins’ amplified harp playing on her album No Way Back, but with even less restraint.
By way of respite, “Passionate Reluctance” brings Leigh back to folkish, gentle singing, and the closer, “Fairfield Fantasy,” eschews the extreme noise for a more expressive style of playing that, with its woozy tonal shifts, is pleasantly disorienting.
This album marks a break from the side-long noise workouts Leigh is known for, both solo and with her dueling partner, drummer Chris Corsano, in Jailbreak, as well as a split from the experimental all-vocal album Cuatro. It shows significant growth and confidence as a songwriter, and, while the earlier material is definitely worth either checking out or returning to, I Abused Animal is a step in an exciting direction.
Lindsay Cooper, like contemporaries Fred Frith, Tim Hodgkinson, and John Greaves, cut their avant-garde teeth in the uncompromising leftist band Henry Cow. Cooper had been playing with the progressive rock band Comus when she was invited to join Henry Cow. The rest really is history, but not a well-known one. After Henry Cow’s demise, Cooper started a band called News from Babel. Both the Henry Cow and News from Babel material are fairly well-documented, but there is so much more to Cooper’s musical legacy that remains largely unknown to any but the most diehard fans. Rarities, Volumes I & II attempts to redress the various oversights in Cooper’s eclectic career as composer and improviser on some of the toughest instruments to bring to any kind of combo – jazz, rock, or improvisatory – mainly the oboe, bassoon and sopranino saxophone.
Cooper suffered for many years from Multiple Sclerosis and had to retire from playing before her time. After succumbing to the disease in September, 2013, plans were made to hold a concert in her honor, with various combinations of musicians performing Cooper’s compositions. Thankfully, there’s a recorded legacy to go with that concert. This 2 disc set is full of treasures. Not all of the tracks are previously unreleased, but the ones that aren’t are extremely rare. Throughout the span of this set we get to hear songs that were originally released on limited edition cassettes or as bonus LPs that came with a subscription.
The set starts out with a suite of 26 short songs written for films and television shows. Other highlights feature a “piano roulette” that was previously unreleased. Also seeing the light of day for the first time is a performance by the band Trio Trabant, formed by Alfred Harth, who invited Cooper and Phil Minton to join. Trio Trabant have only ever released one CD; the music here is from a live performance made available for the first time.
This is an essential album that fills in the cracks between the Lindsay Cooper that most people are aware of, and at the same time is not esoteric enough to be a “collector’s only” item; although labeled as “rarities,” it is an excellent introduction to the varied career of the sadly missed Cooper.
2014 has been a great year for unearthing lost gems as well as finding newly compressed diamonds. Here is a list, in no particular order, of the best recordings released this year, with links to information about each one. Here’s to 2015 and the makings of another list…
Peter Hammill & Gary Lucas – Otherworld (Esoteric)
Phil Minton + Audrey Chen + Guy Segers + Peter Jacquemyn + Teun Verbruggen – Quintet (Sub Rosa)
Phil Minton + Audrey Chen – By the Stream (Sub Rosa)
Both of these albums, released simultaneously by Sub Rosa, feature the unique talents of Phil Minton and Audrey Chen. Quintet was apparently designed to see how Minton and Chen work together in a jazz-improvisation setting, while the duo album was meant to showcase the particular, and peculiar, vocal improvisatory talents of these two artists.
Chen came to free music by way of years spent at a conservatory studying cello. Indeed, she plays cello as well as using her voice on the Quintet album. Compared to Minton, who has been honing his craft for decades, she’s a newcomer, but she’s seasoned enough to have developed her own approach to ensemble and duo performance. Minton, as mentioned, is well-known for his astounding vocal abilities. I won’t begin to list the sounds he’s capable of here, but they are legion, and uniformly uncanny.
That said, both he and Chen seem to be somewhat at a loss for what to do in the quintet setting. Their performances are mostly sublime, but they don’t seem to be able to engage with the other three players: a drummer, an electric bassist (Guy Segers of Univers Zero), and a double-bassist. And the same goes for the trio. One gets the sense that Minton and Chen are in the same studio as the trio, but neither group knows quite how to proceed in terms of the other, except for Chen’s cello playing, which seems very sympathetic to the group. If listened to for the performances of Chen and Minton, this disc can be quite enjoyable. The last two tracks, dominated by the jazz trio, show that they have a tight rapport and can even bring a little funk into the proceedings. It would be nice to hear more from that trio on its own merits.
By the Stream, the Minton + Chen duo album, in contrast, is a thing of wonder. On every track Minton and Chen come across as alien creatures conversing with each other, either as old friends, or as wary strangers, unsure whether to embrace or fight. On this album, Chen forgoes the cello and puts all of her power into her voice. She tends toward a drone in her vocal improvisations, holding one note for extended periods of time, while Minton is everything and everywhere else – the wind, the voice of a commanding soldier, an existentially distraught man at his very nadir, a baby, – all things that seem to wrap, snake-like, around the solid pole that Chen provides with her steadier vocals. Similar to the work that Jaap Blonk has done with Maja Ratkje, these 14 tracks are otherworldly meetings in a universe that you should be glad you only are able to visit sonically. Beautiful, but at the same time frightening, and as with all Minton’s vocal improv work, completely decentralizing.
Reviewing a new Peter Hammill album is never easy, but it’s always fun. Never more so than now. Hammill’s had something of a late-career renaissance, producing some of the most intellectually dense (Incoherence) and emotionally moving (Thin Air) albums in the mid to late 2000s, plus the outstanding Otherworld with Gary Lucas, released earlier this year.
But here’s the fun part: none of those albums, or indeed anything in Hammill’s expansive oeuvre, could prepare one for the sprawling …all that might have been… Welcome to a musical film, where, as Hammill says, the music is both film and soundtrack. Welcome to the world of Alien Clocks and Piper Smiles, to vocals as wild as anything since Hammill’s guest stint on Robert Fripp’s Exposure. And while you’re walking around this sonic wonderland, you won’t be able to ignore guitar riffs lifted straight out of Hammill’s pre-punk Nadir’s Big Chance album, and overall the most sonically dense and widest palette of sounds Hammill’s thrown together to date.
…all that might have been… comes in two formats. The main presentation of the work is meant to be a 70-odd minute audio version of a film. To that end, snippets of songs are woven together to form a kind of anti-narrative that nonetheless gives clues as to situations and predicaments. The film that Hammill’s making, of course, isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster. It isn’t even new. Instead, it plays out like an homage to the French New Wave films, film noir, and perhaps a certain Japanese film called Audition. Hammill’s character comes off as an amalgam of all the tough-guy romantic gangster types with, if not hearts of gold, a sense of existential dread – think Belmondo in Godard’s Breathless or Pierrot le Fou. The unsettling time jumps in Hammill’s work are also a nod to Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour.
The Japanese theme of the last film mentioned isn’t an accident. A good portion of the action in this album takes place in a metropolitan area of Japan. (Perhaps Hammill was doing research during his extended residencies in Japan over the past several years.) What happens in Japan stays between the 0s and 1s of the disc, but we get enough of a sense to know that our character has brought a heap of trouble on himself.
And then there’s the Piper Smile. In a sense, this story, such as it is, draws heavily from several of the faerie myths of the Piper, who gave a gift to a poor soul with instructions to never disrespect the gift. As these tales go, the gift’s recipient inevitably messes up, and is left bereft once more. The woman Hammill’s character is romantically involved with is the Piper. Her gift was narrative.
An unsettling but wholly satisfying piece of work for sure, but there’s more. Hammill is releasing this cine-album as a single disc, but he’s also releasing It as one of a three-disc set. Disc two of this set comprises the full songs from which the snippets that weave in and out of disc one are taken. A curious move, for sure, to release the album of actual songs as an “extra.” But Hammill’s confidence in the cine-album as having enough strength to be the leading card is well-placed. The songs, probably because in some sense Hammill knew that they were going to be spliced up, are themselves full of changes. Almost all the songs go through several dramatic changes and rarely end up where they started. It’s as if one of the epic and lengthy songs by his band, Van der Graaf Generator, was compressed into a five-minute frame, with all the abrupt changes left intact. Disc two, consists of ten excellent new songs by Hammill, which provide a hell of a musical ride of another kind. The third disc is simply four long tracks with improvisations on the main themes presented in the first two discs. A nice listen, but without the punch of the “cine” disc or the “songs” disc.
Hyperbole is its own worst enemy in the genre of music reviewing, so believe me when I say I’m taking the leap anyway and putting my money on this one being the most ambitious and successful album of Hammill’s career.
Van der Graaf Generator – ALT
Peter Hammill & Gary Lucas – Otherworld
Perhaps the least important thing about this furious and hilarious bass, drums, and guitar combo (with occasional brass conspirators) is that the electric guitar player is Mary Halvorson. Along with her bandmates, Kevin Shea (Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and Kyle Forester, she has created People, a band that is aware of the line between avant-garde “post”-rock and improvisational jazz, and is keen on obliterating it. Halvorson, of course, is the jazz critics’ current darling guitar player, and she seems keen on releasing as much music in as many band formations as she can. But in People, she takes a back seat to the overall conceptual humor and chaotic noise.
Which is not to say she doesn’t make her presence felt. There are quite a few spots throughout the album, especially on the few longer tracks, where things slow down a bit and her non-distorted jazz chords pop up. But mostly she’s content to play what’s needed, and sing the lead vocals. This is not to say the album’s uncomplicated; time signature changes abound, complex vocal harmonies challenge the instrumental passages, and then there are the lyrics, courtesy of drummer Kevin Shea.
Lyrically, this album is conceptually self-aware, and precious almost to a fault; its saving grace is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In 1977, Peter Blegvad, John Greaves, and Lisa Herman released an album called Kew. Rhone that could be called a precursor to this album, both in terms of its own way of obliterating the line between jazz and rock (rather than submitting to fusion) and self-referentiality. But where Blegvad and Greaves wrote songs whose lyrics described the artwork included on the album sleeve and consisted of anagrams of the album title, People go one step further, and, seemingly impossibly, lyrically dissect the very songs they’re performing. And taking a run at Lionel Richie.
While the album, oddly, starts out with a New Orleans-influenced brass-only piece that begins in a funereal tone and ends up as a bright, ecstatic toe-tapper, it then abruptly goes into high-speed car-chase momentum with titles like “These Words Make up the Lyrics of the Song,” “A Song with Melody and Harmony and Words and Rhythm,” and the clincher, “The Lyrics Are Simultaneously About How the Song Starts and What the Song Is About,” in which Halvorson and Shea explain to you what you are hearing and urge you to guess what is about to come next in the song. There are also a few songs that, as the album title suggests, take on the lyrics of a certain Lionel Richie/Commodores song: “What’s So Woman About That Woman,” and “Reinterpreting Confusing Lyrics to Popular Songs.” Unfortunately the lyrics are somewhat hard to make out, but it’s clear that Richie is getting the business for the absurdity of his famous and titular line, “You’re once, twice, three times a lady.” People (the band) make fun of the mathematical implications as well as the problematic gender and sexual overtones.
Yes, humor belongs in music. What doesn’t belong is snobbery, and this CD would be a great thing to toss the way of hipsters who have come to disdain jazz and “respectable” journalists for major newspapers who claim that jazz is dead, eviscerated, and irrelevant. This is the new thing.
What’s more exciting than the onslaught of King Crimson merchandise, including the 27-CD “Starless” box set? The 3CD Fripp & Eno live performance in Paris on May 28, 1975. Live in Paris 28.05.1975 is a study in contradictions. Soothing and terrifying, smooth and rough around the edges.
One can’t review a live performance consisting of the material from Fripp & Eno’s first two albums, No Pussyfooting (1972) and Evening Star (1975) without first becoming conversant with those albums. Both of these albums consist of audio tape being run through two loops, each controlled by Eno, while Fripp plays guitar both onto the tape as Eno is manipulating it, as well as “live.” No Pussyfooting comes on like a mental massage if you’re wearing headphones, with its lead in track, “The Heavenly Music Corporation.” Eventually, Fripp forgoes using his and Eno’s effects to make his guitar experimentation sound pretty, and rips into some deliciously evil sounds. The other side of the original No Pussyfooting album is a track titled “Swastika Girls,” which is somewhat off-putting due to Eno’s over-use of found sounds to add to his tape loop. It’s as if he didn’t have enough faith in the process to leave well enough alone.
No Pussyfooting was a milestone for both members of the duo: it sent Eno on his lifelong trip of making ambient music, and, although, Fripp held onto King Crimson for several more years, he learned that he could function musically as a “small, intelligent, mobile unit.” Many of the critics loved No Pussyfooting when it came out; “discerning” listeners, and King Crimson fans especially, hated it. “The Heavenly Music Corporation” was used as “walk on” music during King Crimson’s later tours; by many accounts, the band, sans Fripp, hated it. (You can hear it on the beginning of the live Crimson album USA.)
There is a commitment in listening. It’s Fripp without a floor; that is to say, there’s no band to underpin his diabolical shreds and riffs. Just Eno with his sonic clouds and mirrors. In 1975, the year that this live recording took place, Fripp and Eno’s second album was released. It consisted of shorter songs, and a somewhat gentler tone – the loop felt more like a wash of sound.
The live album, out now in November, throws much of what we know about Fripp and Eno on its ear. The softness of the tunes performed from Evening Star are made into wholly different pieces of music, due to Fripp’s particularly abrasive guitar playing, matched by Eno’s savage tape manipulation, and his interesting looped found spoken word samples. Much of the first two albums are represented here, but the meat of the show is the improvisational pieces such as “A Fearful Proper Din,” and “A Darn Psi Inferno.”
If you loved the first two Fripp and Eno albums, you owe it to yourself to check this set out. If they left you wanting more King Crimson – more Fripp – I’d venture to say that Fripp is as engaging, enthralling, and terrifying here as he is with any Crimson album. Perhaps more so, because there’s nobody else there onstage to soften the brunt. Just Eno, and he only takes the brunt and amplifies it. Essential listening no matter how one feels about Fripp and Eno. This is live, warts and all, with no studio time to smooth out the rough spots.