Michael Karoli & Polly Eltes – “Home Truths” (1984)
Michael Karoli is sometimes easy to miss (for me) in his contributions to Can–dominated by Jaki Liebezeit’s incredibly inventive beats and Holger Czukay’s sonic textures–and I’ll confess, his soloing is occasionally the thing that detracts from the focus and force of later Can. But he seemingly followed some of the same obsessions of his bandmates, post-Can–especially reggae/dub and a penchance for a blissed-out quality of songwriting. His lone post-Can LP, with Polly Eltes (on whom I can find little information, but who apparently sang on Eno’s ‘Taking Tiger Mountain,’) will be a major find for fans of the Raincoats ‘Odyshape’ and after albums, the Slits’ “Earthbeat” phase, and the Rough Trade/west London sound in general: it’s playful, percussive, warm, sophisticated but unaffected. This is one of few post-Can projects that seems readily in-print and available (along with Liebezeit’s Phantom Band’s third LP, ‘Nowhere’) and is expanded with three fantastic tracks not on the original 1984 issue, so be sure to pick it up if you enjoy this track. [For more Can and post-Can music like this, be sure to check out two recent Can-centric mixes at Musicophilia.]
Jane Birkin – “Kawasaki” (1973)
Birkin’s work here is indelibly imprinted with the signatures of Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier in top-flight ‘Melody Nelson’ mode, and that’s hardly a bad thing: those whirling strings, spare funky drums and bass, weeping guitar, and balanced temperaments of dynamism and melancholy are effective as ever. But Birkin’s half-sung, half-breathed vocals add a nice counterpoint to Gainsbourg’s more earthy speak-sing. The coy, coquettish album cover doesn’t hurt.
The Carter Family – “Wildwood Flower” (1935)
Music so sturdy, simple, direct, and affecting is rarely achieved, especially that stands the test of so many decades. The clean melodies of the Carter Family are clearly from another time, virtually another world, yet they call forth an elemental, essential musical understanding in any American. And perhaps they tap into the foundational strains of “folk musics” everywhere, and speak universally.
Nico – “Frozen Warnings” (1969)
Neither Nico’s contributions to the Velvet Underground, nor the lovely ‘Chelsea Girls,’ could suggest the breathtaking mystery and utter timelessness of her first two incredible albums, ‘The Marble Index‘ and ‘Desertshore‘. Those records might also be the best examples of prime John Cale at the crossroads between his avant-garde and drone-based experimental work, and his “friendlier” singer-songwriter work. Dark doesn’t come close to capturing the shimmering depths of this work; and from a purely sonic standpoint, this is minimal but careful production at its finest, surely influencing later masterworks like Talk Talk’s beloved couplet or Arthur Russell’s more introspective work. This track is relatively “pretty,” but even the more challenging tracks remain stunningly beautiful and emotionally gripping. [Nico is featured on one of my favorite mixes at Musicophilia.]
The Shaggs – “I’m So Happy When You’re Near” (1969)
Most people would hear The Shaggs and think, “that’s just wrong,” but for some of us, it’s just so damned right it simply had to be. The musical expression of “sticktoitiveness” at its best, the young Wiggin sisters may have been coerced into making music in a way that might require a call to CPS today (being taken out of school on the basis of their father’s premonitions and delusions of grandeur). But from the sound of things, once they got going, nothing was going to stop them. And so the seemingly avant-garde clashing of tempo, melody, alternate-tuning, and deconstructed pop forms and subject matter flows forth as though it were the most natural thing in the world–for these girls, it seems to have been, and there is indeed a logic to it all, once the listener acclimates. Many never will, but for those who do, The Shaggs scratch an itch that more considered un-pop music (Captain Beefheart, LAFMS et al) can’t even reach. Just don’t dare call it kitsch–we love this music wholly on its own terms. [The Shaggs are featured on two Miniatures mixes at Musicophilia, including work from their lovable but more “normal” later recordings.]
Betty Harris – “There’s A Break In The Road” (1969)
Betty Harris is great, Allen Toussaint is a legend; the lyrics here are an iron maiden of don’t-fuck-with-me clarity, and the vocal hook is no less deadly-sharp. The bassline is timeless, and the feedback howls make your hair stand on end. But I can’t lie: it’s Ziggy Modeliste that makes this track the indelible mind-blower it is. One of the master’s best, the beat rides on its edge full-speed for the duration, never settling into what other drummers would consider the normal expression of the rhythm. If d’n’b had ever really had half this power of the beat–this is the feeling, sped up, it was going for, it seems–I’d be listening to it every day. This was the b-side of the single?!?
Leda – “White Clouds” (1978)
“White Clouds” caps off a mini-them this week on Musicophilia Daily of less-heard music by well-known artists. The album attributed to Leda is perhaps the least likely offshoot of Tangerine Dream, apparently created by Peter Baumann. Even on the dancier/disco tracks there’s a definite touch of the cosmic TD sensibility, and it’s apparent on “White Clouds”. Floating female vocals are doubled by a sanguine synth line, above double-time arpeggiated synths and “epic” drums. It’s a lot of fun, and you should grab it from the Synopsis Elektronika blog. [And if you get going on the electro-space-disco trip, you can hear more Leda on the ‘Les Rythmes du Monde‘ “box set” at Musicophilia.]
Fever Ray – “Dry and Dusty” (2009)
I have Jon at Portland’s Anthem Records to thank for The Knife. In curmudgeon mode, I’d written them off, guilt-by-association with that farming implement-entitled nexus of hipster ephemera–to my loss. Jon got me to listen to ‘Deep Cuts,’ and I was instantly won over–the warmth, the electronic buzzing, the wonderful melodies, the taste of experimentalism: who could resist. ‘Silent Shout‘ was released the next year, and while I missed the pop sensibilities at first, the album now strikes me as a classic of the genre. Fever Ray is the Knife in all but name, with little appreciable fall-off from the main body of work despite being the work of 1/2 its personnel–it’s no singer-songwriter side-project or noodley indulgence. That multiple-personality-disorder vocal approach is as haunting as ever.
Nina Simone – “Black Is the Color Of My True Love’s Hair” (1966)
Of all the Queens of vocal jazz, when she’s at her best (and with the most sympathetic production) nobody tops Nina Simone, for me. Her voice isn’t the unbelievably singular instrument of Lady Day, nor does she have the stylishness of Sarah Vaughan; but the tremble, shake, just-controlled fire and depth of her voice makes the emotional impact of her ballads greater than anyone else. Hers is the voice of wisdom, hard-won, of grace amidst the day-to-day. This is one of those tracks that makes my hair quite literally stand on end every time, and brings a lump to my throat, imbuing a traditional tune with immense heartbreak and a sense of meaningfulness (in political context) that is astonishing. The use of space in the mix is absolutely mastered here.
Pauline Oliveros – “Bye Bye Butterfly” (1965)
Oliveros seems like one of the least po-faced and self-serious of the early electronic/minimalist/musique concrete pioneers. It’s not that she didn’t take her work seriously–it’s just that she possesses an eclecticism and verve that doesn’t call to mind tweed jackets and wooden pipes (she writes books with titles like. Rather than seeing music as the purview of the ivory tower (although she was a moving force in the study of experimental sound), she promotes the idea of music being everywhere–requiring attention, perhaps effort to discover, but not “education” or “correctness”. She seems to think a great deal about the relationship between spaces and sound, something I find greatly appealing–although my career is in preservation architecture, it is the sound of St. Pauls which strikes me most fully, for example. This early piece creates a cavernous soundscape, constituted of echoing sheets of modulating sine-waves and pastiched orchestral and operatic samples, creating a web of sound that is definitely not pop music, but which I find quite viscerally appealing. Like a sensitive AM radio, you sort of have to tune to the right wavelength, but once you’re there I think you’ll find it rewarding. [Pauline Oliveros is featured in the complex web of sound found in the Somnambulist mix at Musicophilia.]
Yoko Ono – “Mindtrain” (1971)
I’m not even going to address the misconceptions about Ono as a person or re: the Beatles, other than to say they’re nonsense. If the recording personnel on Ono’s early albums are any indication, it’s clear that the Macca killed the Beatles, not this mind-expanding artist. I’ll grant that her vocal approach makes her no Carol King, but she never wanted to go down easy (in art, in life) and I think she gave Lennon balls, not took them. John Lennon never rocked like he did on her first two albums (not to mention Ringo, too) and the album he recorded simultaneously to her first. This track is a Krautrock-or-Fela-level stretch-out, kicking into a fully-fledged-funky groove and never letting up; Klaus Voorman bounces things along nicely on the bass, the drums slowly build the train-like churn from a breakbeat stomp into a Faust-like barrage; and John shreds and shards the guitar like a slightly-more-in-control-than-usual Sonny Sharrock. Ono’s freak-out vocalising (if you can’t call it “singing”) pushes the whole thing into the stratosphere. She’s like nothing you’ve ever heard; unless you’ve heard the stronger and more innovative women in music she surely influenced/freed up from post-punk onward. This is one time to open your ears and pay no mind to the haters. [Yoko Ono appears on a ‘Le Tour du Monde’ mix at Musicophilia in a singer-songwriter mode, with a track that uncannily anticipates Big Star’s gutting “Holocaust”.]
Anja Garbarek – “Stay Tuned” (2001)
You’ve got to be doing something right if you make a sufficient impression to draw both Robert Wyatt (known for working his Midas’ touch) and the sadly elusive Mark Hollis (Talk Talk) to work on your album. Neither appears on this track, but the Spirit of Hollis is evident; and Wyatt payed the further compliment of covering this track brilliantly on his last album. She seems to be regularly compared to Stina Nordenstam and Bjork, but I’d hardly take that as an insult. This track begins a nicely spooky build of organ, nearly-spoken vocals and electronic-interference noises, but the clincher is the ecstatic release into its lush, seductive chorus (of sorts). [Anja Garbarek appears on the Musicophilia mix ‘Tall Stories of Evil Gris-Gris‘.]
Hot Gossip – “I Don’t Depend On You” (1981)
Hot Gossip were a “sexually suggestive” and “risque” dance troupe who for whatever reason also became a minor but enjoyable little sidepiece to the Human League/B.E.F./Heaven 17 post-punk story with their album of covers in 1981. This track is a cover of a track by the Human League originally released under the name The Men, a bouncy little dance-funk synth-pop confection in the post-punk to New Pop transitional style.
Emmanuelle Parrenin – “Topaze” (1977)
I can guarantee you’d never match this track to its cover. Parrenin’s ‘Maison Rose‘ is an odd one, but fascinating: mostly pastoral in the Drake/Bunyan vein, but with bits of an edge that remind me a little of Laurie Anderson or Brigitte Fontaine or Linda Thompson; quite lovely and worthwhile. And then there’s this track, that seems like it’s from another album; but also from another time and place: abstract wailings ostensibly derived from a hurdy gurdy (the link with the rest of the album) are wrapped around a booming, single-note bass tone and then. . . holy shit, that beat: all echoed, sliced up, turned around, and utterly cool. Where this came from out of this artist, I don’t at all understand; Like a cousin to This Heat’s ’24 Track Loop, it’s simply out of nowhere. I’ll leave it for you to supply what genres it anticipated and by how many decades. All I know is, I can get completely lost in this beat, on repeat.
Karen Dalton – “Katie Cruel” (1971)
For me, Karen Dalton is at her best when she’s at her most spare, and this might be my favorite: jittery banjo, bittersweet voice, and aching fiddle, knitting a tale of loss and regret. This is where she transcends “folk revival” or “singer-songwriter” (or “Billie Holiday of folk music” comparisons) and simply creates pure American music, out of time, beyond any single persona. [Karen Dalton is featured in a wide-ranging ‘Le Tour du Monde’ mix at Musicophilia.]
Memphis Minnie – “Ain’t No Use Tryin’ to Tell on Me” (1935)
People talk about Betty Davis as a huge influence on Missy Elliott; but Memphis Minnie was an empowered woman who didn’t mince words, a good half-century before either of them. This track conveys personal-politicking that wouldn’t sound unfamiliar to anyone who has felt blackmailed even in 2009. Lizzy Douglas’ lyrics simply told the truth, in direct and precise language. Plus the music is still catchy as hell, 70+ years on.
Joni Mitchell – “California” (Live, BBC, 1970)
Singer-songwriter is for me like prog, metal, ska-revival, punk: a whole lot of utter detritus, pierced by moments of absolute brilliance. For me, Joni Mitchell is the absolute pinnacle–‘Blue’ was one of the first albums I ever identified as a “favorite” as a small child (my mother would sing us Joni songs and play her guitar, her hippie youth waning but still vibrant, as lullabies). And it remains a top-10 album, a quarter-century later. Her voice aged well, in my opinion, and at this point I find later albums more “interesting,” and beautiful in their own ways–but ‘Blue’ is a solitary achievement, and it still makes my heart ache in a wonderful way however many hundreds of listens on. Plus, I just love that dulcimer sound.
Björk – “Domestica” (2001)
Björk has had innumerable boxes and re-packagings and CD2s, but she’s yet to do the most obvious and essential thing: a b-sides compendium. Which is a shame, because she’s got at least one very strong album’s worth of non-remix b-sides. This is a personal favorite, an ode to the “mundane,” simple things in life, unabashedly celebratory, with some of her warmest production for fans of fuzzy electronics. [Björk is featured here with a lullaby, here with an instrumental percussion piece mixed with Vivaldi, and here with Robert Wyatt in a duet with Indonesian Kecak at Musicophilia.]
Low + Dirty Three – “Down By The River” (2001)
As low has subtley thawed their musical tendencies and expanded their emotional qualities over the last 15 years, one byproduct has been that they’ve become one of the most successful “cover bands” around, able to make a piece their own. Here they stretch out Neil Young’s murder ballad into a itchy, dark burn for nearly seven minutes before purifying into their Carter Family-like emotional immediacy, making the song sound both experimental and like an Appalachian traditional. I’m not so keen on Dirty Three normally, but Low gives them a solid center around with their loose style fits effectively, adding a great deal of atmosphere. [Low is mixed here, here, and here at Musicophilia.]
Ut – “Safe Burning” (1989)
Despite getting started in New York in 1978, most of Ut’s recordings come from England and the mid- to late-1980s. That’s ok–the No Wave spirit stayed strong with Ut, so this recording from 1989 is still prime post-punk, for fans of Sonic Youth, Au Pairs, Glenn Branca, Y Pants, and the more ambitious sides of Riot Grrrl and revivalists like Erase Errata. Their last two albums, ‘In Gut’s House’ and ‘Griller’ (from which this track is taken) were reissued last year, and both are great. [Ut will be featured on an upcoming series of further ‘Post Post-Punk‘ mixes at Musicophilia.]