Thursday, July 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "My Spanish Heart" by Chick Corea

Chick Corea's My Spanish Heart needed to be a double-length album merely for the fact that he could not otherwise have shoehorned three completely disparate genres into a single vinyl record. Well... three is other people's math; not mine. This is apparently a 'fusion fusion' record, jazz-rock fusion further fused with the Spanish music tradition of Corea's ancestors. However, maybe it's because so many years have passed since Bitches Brew but fusion doesn't feel like two different genres in one to me: it mostly feels like jazz played on inappropriate instruments. In the case of Corea, a keyboardist, it appears to be trad jazz when he sits at a normal piano but 'fusion' when he sits at the horribly squelchy 1970s electronic keyboards that have, more than thirty years later, rendered much 1970s work unlistenable.

Happily, Corea plays both kinds of keyboard (and more) here. The genres on display here range from authentically Spanish to authentically synthwank, but most of the tracks fall, true 'fusion' style, somewhere in between. More to the point, Corea takes his varying keyboard instruments, assembles a jazz band, tosses in a string section and a brass section, spices it up with some Iberian percussion, and then adds a handful of female backing vocalists whose sole purpose is to melodically proclaim 'aaah' from time to time on what remains an instrumental package. Then, he reassembles these ingredients in a different combination for each track, giving the package a feeling of highly diverse eclecticism, even as tracks run into each other or are bundled together in four-part 'suites'.

Now, I have to be honest with you: I don't know a thing about Spanish music, and I don't know a thing about jazz. Both have their terminology and their particular approaches to discussion; I'm clueless to all of that. But where a jazz aficionado might find himself obliged to take the Spanish elements in without understanding their origin, and where the Spanish music fan might feel the need to take in the more American jazz moments without asking too many questions, I personally find that I have something in common with both of those people.

But so what? The excitement of discovery is very much what this disc, with its rather horrid front cover picture of Corea in a toreador outfit, presents the listener with. So let's discover, shall we?

My Spanish Heart

Side one
  1. Spanish Fantasy, Part One (6:06)
  2. Love Castle (4:45)
  3. The Gardens (3:12)
  4. Wind Danse (5:00)
Side two
  1. The Hilltop (6:16)
  2. Armando's Rhumba (5:19)
  3. El Bozo, Part Three (5:03)
  4. My Spanish Heart (1:37)
Love Castle: keep (side one, track two)

The first three tracks on this package run together in a kind of 'suite', but throughout this package I've felt free to ignore suites. In any case, this is a strong opener, primarily piano with fretless bass and hyperactive drums until the second half, when it rises and rises to include a not-too-annoying synth (the only time we'll hear it on the whole side one of the double) and, very briefly, the brass. Throughout, however, the stars of the performance are the 'aah' girls, giving the whole piece an enjoyably memorable 'hook'.

It's an arresting beginning for the double, though it's not my beginning. Instead, it's my track two.

The Gardens: keep (side one, track three)

After 'Love Castle', this brings the tempo right down, maintaining the piano and the fretless but this time bringing in a wonderfully expressive violin to set the mood. Though Corea's rather incredible piano playing is more than up to the task by itself. Toward the end the tempo picks up, and the spell is shattered a little, but it remains excellent, the sound of three talented musicians in the same room at the same time working off of each other. I know, I know, that's what jazz is, right?

As it is on the double, I have kept these two tracks side by side, let them run together as Corea envisaged. That means. of course, that it's my side one, track three.

Day Danse: lose

'Danse' is with an 's', and I presume that this track is a faithful take on a particular Spanish idiom. The instrumentation remains more or less the same, though there are two violins this time, and we also hear the first of those handclaps-as-percussion that are so prominent in Spanish music. It's easy to imagine this being performed in a small, intimate room to the accompaniment of Spanish dancers. But for me, it's a bit too disjointed to fully work as a piece, though it has moments of extreme beauty.

My Spanish Heart: keep (side two, track four)

Not like this, though, which is one hundred seconds of truly sublime beauty. I'd call this an 'étude' if I really knew what that meant, but it's a simple and gorgeous piece for solo piano until the 'aah' girls come in and somehow manage to render the listener absolutely speechless. This is absolutely gorgeous music, not a moment wasted, designed for maximum emotional effect.

It might not be that everyone out there loves this particular piece as much as I do, but really it's the finest part of the album. And as such, I give it pride of placement as the final track on the whole album. So where the double finishes with grand statements, my single finishes with a fragile little wisp of a goodbye.

Night Streets: lose

The name just sounds like dated and overinflated 1970s pre-punk studio music, doesn't it? And it doesn't disappoint: yes, there is a piano, there is brass, and there are bursts of Spanish percussion. But this is very much a 'fusion' piece, and its squeaky would-be funk is precisely why the genre is so maligned.

The Hilltop: keep (side two, track one)

Corea clearly didn't invest all that much effort in making names for these tracks. I don't know if this song really evokes a hilltop, but perhaps it evokes a journey up to one; again the ingredients are primarily piano and fretless bass, but the overall mood is kind of 'new age' - which is not an insult by any means - and the piece is indeed evocative of a journey. I don't detect much Spanish influence here, really, or much jazz-rock fusion either. But that's not a problem, because Corea's piano part is highly melodic and quite enjoyable. Who'd have thought I'd be calling something 'new age' and yet still liking it?

I don't have any particular reason for starting side two with this piece, above and beyond the fact that that's what Corea does too.

The Sky: lose

Okay, I'll be straight with you: the reason I'm not including 'The Sky' is that I've never heard 'The Sky', so I don't know if it's any good or not. How is that possible? Well, in the early days of the CD, a disc's upper limit was 73 minutes, so the odd double that clocked in at, say, 75 minutes would actually be released with tracks removed as opposed to on two discs. So the version of My Spanish Heart that I own does not feature this track at all. And it's not on YouTube or anything... so I'm left with a fair supposition: that if this is the one track that the record company decided was least essential, it's not likely to show up among my list of most essential tracks, right? Well, hopefully.

Wind Danse: keep (side one, track four)

The 'aah' girls are all over this particular piece, which makes it of a piece with the opening 'Love Castle'. Like that first piece, as well, squeaky synths are all over the place. It's a decently composed piece but you can't overcome the nagging feeling that it merely crosses a boundary of good taste, at least by the standards of 2012. It's what you might call 'kitschy', though that word is often used when people attempt to defend what really, artistically, can't be.

And yet I include it. I found this a very confusing album, really, filled with moments of sublime beauty reinforced with horribly aged artistic decisions. If nothing else, at least tracks two, three and four on my side one (of which this is the fourth) do make a kind of 'suite' of my own imagining. One that doesn't really have much to do with jazz or Spanish music, but is certainly of its era. And having them side by side like this allows you to shuck off your cynicism and just enjoy them for what they are, whatever exactly that is.

Armando's Rhumba: keep (side two, track two)

I have no idea what a 'rhumba' is, though I guess this is one. From start to finish, this seems authentically Spanish to me, with most of the hallmarks I associate with Spanish music. The violin and the handclaps are well prominent, and you half expect people to start calling out 'olé!' (they don't). It's easy enough merely to enjoy the genre, but in addition it's in service of an expressive and joyful vertical melody line that I dare say would be enjoyable regardless of genre. The track is five and a half minutes long and yet seems to go by in a blink of an eye.

After a side one that attempted a consistent feel, my side two is very much 'all over the place'. To that end, then, track two is the perfect place for this particular piece.

Prelude to El Bozo: lose
El Bozo, Part One: lose
El Bozo, Part Two: lose
El Bozo, Part Three: keep (side two, track three)

Excepting 'Armando's Rhumba', the entire second disc is given over to two extended multi-part 'suites'. Normally that might disqualify a double from consideration here, but in this case each of the two 'suites' is divided into four parts, which I feel free to break up and consider as distinct 'entities' (Chick Corea might hate me for that). So really, for me, they are eight different 'songs', really. The first four, a suite called 'El Bozo', feature some of the double's most grating moments. The prelude is a piano piece of little consequence, but the next two parts are short segments for sci-fi sounding farting synths, sounding like something out of Doctor Who. At two minutes in length each, they still last far too long and threaten to render the entire 'El Bozo' suite as unlistenable synthwank, until the five-minute long Part III comes along. Featuring the robotic synth, on yet another setting, as its lead instrument, this much-longer part would seem to be 'more of the same'. And yet by bringing in a Spanish rhythmic feeling and putting a big-hearted melody over top of it, the piece winds up reminiscent of the very best moments of 1970s 'Sesame Street' cartoons or after-school documentaries. And that is no insult either; the piece is sweet and difficult to resist, outdated synth burbling an attraction now and not a detraction.

So indeed what I do is take the lengthy part three, as track three on my b-side, and can the rest. And then the extreme stylistic variations in my side two start to seem the very point: as if the varied elements that were 'fused' to create this project were unfused on side two: authentic Spanish music, urban American synth music side by side.

Spanish Fantasy, Part One: keep (side one, track one)
Spanish Fantasy, Part Two: lose
Spanish Fantasy, Part Three: lose
Spanish Fantasy, Part Four: lose

At just shy of twenty minutes, 'Spanish Fantasy' is by far the album's most ambitious moment, a culmination of sorts of all of the album's various moods and feels in a piece that is highly composed and structured as opposed to improvised. The first 'movement', the highlight of the whole suite, is the most dramatic and most authentically Spanish moment, taking as much from classical idioms as from folk idioms (and sounding like no kind of jazz at all) and using every acoustic instrument in the whole studio - strings, piano, brass, bass, percussion - in service of a highly complex piece that jerks back and forth from mood to intricate mood. It's a display of virtuosity, yes, but one that never fails to be melodic. Within seconds of the beginning of Part II, a rock drum kit enters along with a booming synth, and these two new elements serve as the main focus of the movement: this is practically one five-minute-long drum fill. And while the drum work is rhythmically inventive, it appears that the balance of virtuosity and melodicism has been discarded. Part II is impressive but not overly enjoyable. Part III is three minutes of dramatic and intricate solo piano, shining the 'virtuoso' spotlight on the album's band leader himself. And yet the same caveat applies: where this is technically impressive, it feels more than a bit like showing off. Part IV, the conclusion of the piece and of the whole double album, has the same complex feel of Part I, but this time combining the 'fusion' instruments (i.e. the synth and the drum kit) with the Spanish instruments. The drum is hyperkinetic in a surprisingly 21st century way, and yet the keyboard conspires to give the listener a headache - in a sadly unsurprising 1970s way. The piece winds down in an attractively dramatic way, but by then it's too late.

The only part of this suite that catches my attention is the first part - and that first part works so hard to be a 'dramatic opening' that it made sense for me to make it my album's opener, as track one on side one. It's a bit deceptive, since it isn't jazz at all and sounds little like the remainder of the album. So it serves as a kind of 'psyche!' opening, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "Yeti" by Amon Düül II

'Kosmische' is what they'll have you call it if they want you to be politically correct. 'Krautrock' is what they'll refer to it as if they don't care about that. Both terms are pretty stupid, and in any case the music that was coming out of Germany in the late sixties and the seventies didn't necessarily have a distinct 'sound' to it, not enough to merit the creation of a new genre label, anyway.

Or is that really true? You'll never hear of a person who, say, loves Can but has nothing to say about Faust. If someone happens to know who Ash Ra Tempel are, you can safely bet they've heard of Neu! as well. This group of musical acts, which also feature a healthy amount of cross-pollination between them, are always mentioned in the same breath. And, more critically, never mentioned otherwise. I mean, this is pretty damned obscure stuff, stuff you'll never stumble across on a radio dial or while surfing YouTube. Not if you're not specifically looking for it.

Which is a damned shame, because much of the 'Krautrock' canon is pretty incredible music. Having first heard the name associated with Kraftwerk and with David Bowie's Berlin era, I presumed the genre to consist primarily of clinical, efficient synthesiser-based pieces: German engineering applied to vinyl.

That could really not be further from the case, especially not in the case of this double-album and the band that created it, Amon Düül II. Yes, that's II as in 'two', and there is also an Amon Düül I, a different band (who guest on the final track of this album) borne of the same hippie-era commune as this band (and also, as fate would have it, of the insurrectionist Baader-Meinhof Gang). The shorthand on Krautrock is that post-war Germans were seeking to create a native form of musical expression indebted neither to the schlocky Bierhaus music of German AM radio nor the blues-based 'Anglo-Saxon' idioms of American and English FM radio. Yet most of Yeti sounds perfectly in keeping with what long-haired hippies of England were producing at the time, be that stoned mantra-rock or gnomic heavy metal; it's more than a little derivative, but that's only an insult inasmuch as 'derivative' is a bad thing to be, and it's really not: I would say that a lot of this album improves on the acid-casualty music is seems to ape. A lot, I stress, but not all. Some of this album isn't very good.

Well, what is it? It's ten songs over four sides, though that actually breaks down as 2, 5, 1 and 2 per side. The second disc is given over to 'free-form' improvisation, while the first disc consists of more structured compositions (the reason why side one has only two tracks is that the first one, 'Soap Shop Rock', can more accurately be described as a 'suite').

Given my personal musical tastes, you might guess that my single-disc version of this project would take more from the first disc than from the second disc. It would be deceptive, though not actually untrue to say 'I merely removed one song from each side of the disc' - but a simple application of math will reveal that that means my six-song single-length takes five of its tracks from the first disc of the double and only one from the second. Why? Well, I'm not averse to improvisation. But it seems to me that if I'm listening to a band 'jamming', I need to hear, well, I need to hear something that stands out, that distinguishes the end product from any of a million other moments of collective improvisation regularly performed and recorded in all corners of the world; something to make me say, 'wow, the band gelled in a truly unique way right there'. And while the jam segments aren't by any means bad, they're generally quite listenable, those particular moments are rare indeed. There's little on disc two that you sense Amon Düül II couldn't have pulled off pretty much any time they pressed 'record' in the studio.

On the other hand, disc one is overflowing with creativity, inspiration, and - yes - embarrassment as well. Where a lot of Krautrock is rather amazingly timeless, this particular album could have been produced in no year but 1970, and has aged as well as the era's bell-bottomed jeans have. That's not a bad thing; it just means the music needs to be approached as a period-piece more than as a living, breathing thing.

It's been this 'Better as a Single' project that has brought me into the below-the-radar world of Krautrock, and I must admit I'm quite enjoying the discovery. A lot of pretty amazing stuff came out of Germany in the late sixties and early seventies. Here's a particularly interesting slice of it.


Side one
  1. Soap Shop Rock (13:47)
  2. Cerberus (4:21)
Side two
  1. Archangels Thunderbird (3:33)
  2. Pale Gallery (2:16)
  3. Sandoz in the Rain (9:00)
  4. The Return of Rübezahl (1:41)
Soap Shop Rock: keep (side one, track one)

Starting and ending with the same catchy electric riff, 'Soap Shop Rock' crams enough musical incident into the thirteen minutes in between to last four different songs - which makes sense, since it's a four-part 'suite' of sorts. With the exception of the third part, which is about a minute's worth of piss-take quasi-operatic vocals, the entire suite seems very much to fall within the 'rock' realm. The first part is a rocking and screaming song structured so tightly it seems to pass in barely a minute. The second part is a bit looser, with a prominent bassline and more 'declaiming' spoken vocals (as occurs throughout the album, the lyrics are in English but are of no real importance to the overall effect of the music). The second part seems to be losing its bearings a bit, devolving into a jam, when the brief 'sonata' segment appears out of nowhere (the component parts of this suite seem cross-faded as opposed to played as a single composition), soon enough giving way to the longer fourth part which features some completely fabulous 'exotica' violin, which is very much the focal point of the final minutes of the suite. The whole thing is wonderfully inventive from start to finish, and even where it doesn't 'make sense' in any conventional way, it is still a real joy to listen to - even if it seems hopelessly self-indulgent on first listen.

With that lapel-grabbing opening riff, this is a great way to introduce the album. Starting with the longest song is a risk (well, it's the longest song on my single-length if not the double), but the fact that it's not really a single piece but a suite makes me not mind. Anyway, what's wrong with a little risk?

She Came In Through the Window: lose

This starts off with a very attractive riff, played 'cleanly' on an electric guitar on an album where the electric guitars otherwise tend to be distorted. Bongos come in and that swirling gypsy violin from the previous track reappears, and by the one-minute point you're ready to declaim 'album highlight'. The problem is that the song doesn't end there - but it doesn't go anywhere either. There is no forward momentum at all. Once the spell has been woven, it merely stays there, content to stay in one plays at the violin and whatever the other lead instrument is get progressively squeakier.

Archangels Thunderbird: keep (side two, track one)

The idea that Krautrock was trying to escape American/English influences is comical in light of this track, a song which, from its crunching guitar riff to its shrieking lead vocals, from its come-from-nowhere organ moments to its Tolkeinesque mood, is as heavy metal as Spinal Tap, and as easy to take seriously as well. I practically burst out laughing the first time I heard this slice of would-be Zeppelin, but somehow it manages to grow on you, for all its preposterousness. Maybe it's the very insincerity of it that is somehow attractive. Who knows?

I had a hard time sequencing my side two, and for a stretch wanted to finish the disc with this OTT monstrosity. But I couldn't make it work, so instead it's the side opener.

Cerberus: keep (side one, track two)

This is the first Amon Düül II track I ever heard, and it really is a great starting point: after a rather pointless slurping sound as an introduction, the song itself comes in, a hippie-era riff evocative of points east played with confidence and no small amount of technical acuity on acoustic guitars and bongos slowly converts itself into a harder piece played on swirling electric guitars and a plodding drum set. It's a pretty amazing piece of work, beautiful and frightening as well, earthy and cosmic at the same time. A true album highlight.

This and 'Soap Shop Rock' are probably the most user-friendly tunes on the disc, so it might make sense to fill side one with the radio-playable stuff. But in fact the main reason I put 'Cerberus' as track two on side one is because only two of the six songs I chose are primarily acoustic, so they needed to be on opposite sides of the disc.

The Return of Rübezahl: keep (side two, track four)

At a mere 100 seconds, 'The Return of Rübezahl' is less a song than a decent collection of catchy electric guitar riffs. The track is certainly memorable, and you imagine most early-seventies prog-rock bands would seize on the riffs here and expand each of them into a ten-minute epic. It's just as well that that's not what Amon Düül II do, as one of the more enjoyable aspects of Yeti is how brief throwaways sit alongside the extended pieces.

I actually conclude the album with this little track. Why? Well, I see it as a bit of a coda after the nine-minute jam that might logically serve as the conclusion. So it's kind of a 'Her Majesty'-style situational prank. But in addition, side two is the nine-minute epic and three briefer tunes; putting those three little bits all side-by-side seemed to diminish their individual charms.

Eye-Shaking King: lose

Though the whole of Yeti is not uniformly 'heavy' in a guitar-bass-drums way, side two certainly stands up with the metal of the day. 'Eye-Shaking King', the longest song on side two, would be a rather conventional piece of plodding metal shrieking and riffing were it not for the curious decision to bury the lead vocals under so much studio manipulation that it seems like another instrument in the mix. An acid-addled guitar solo brings the song through its middle section, but by the end it's all just become a bit silly and tiresome. TIme for a change of pace, I reckon.

Pale Gallery: keep (side two, track two)

A little swamp-like thing, little more than a grungy riff, thumping drums and a few random noises over top. Probably redeemed mostly by its brevity - it has the good sense not to outstay its welcome, and as such intrigues but does not annoy.

This didn't really seem to fit anywhere else. I didn't really even have a compelling reason to include it at all. But... anyway, here it is - track two on side two.

Yeti: lose

Oh boy. Eighteen minutes and twelve seconds. For what it's worth, I want you to know that I didn't just immediately discount the album's title track on seeing its inordinate length. I mean, I get it; Yeti (the Abominable Snowman) is a massive, lumbering, vaguely exotic creature, and Amon Düül II are trying to evoke the creature - or more to the point, like so many early seventies' side-long jams, they're seemingly attempting to soundtrack a drug trip. The track is not without merit - in all probability it coheres and rewards more than, say, (the) Pink Floyd's side-long epics of the same vintage. It takes fully six agonising minutes of dicking around for the ensemble to find a groove, but once they do they ride it as hard as they can for another six minutes or so, an unrelenting rush of excitement and the clear and definite highlight of the jam piece. The groove collapses in the twelfth minute, and the third part of the piece is a simple riff played with a wah petal, competing for attention with various other instruments attempting to maintain the 'trippy' vibe for a few minutes before fading out with no resolution. This third part isn't that bad either, really, but unlike 'Soap Shop Rock', invention is in short order here. Eighteen minutes is almost two percent of a person's entire waking day, and that's way too much to spend on this particular indulgence.

Yeti Talks to Yogi: lose

This particular jam doesn't seem to be a direct continuation of the eighteen minutes of side three, but it might as well be - it starts off by replicating exactly the mood that 'Yeti' fades out on. Pretty soon, though, it's been replaced by a walloping drumbeat over which the other instrumentalists play sustained drones, as if waiting for their chance to break into a melodic groove. Which, needless to say, never really arrives. The male and female vocalists show up about half a kilometre away from their mics and attempt to give the piece a focal point, but they're just buried in the muck by then, and the track comes to a natural conclusion after six-some minutes, having accomplished nothing at all.

Sandoz in the Rain: keep (side two, track three)

Sounding like nothing else on these four sides, this nine-minute improvisation barely even qualifies as an Amon Düül II song, as one of the guitars, the vocals and the bass are performed by members of estranged sister group Amon Düül I, and the flute is also played by a guest musician. No matter, really, as the result is something quite special. It's improvisational, but clearly played from a designed structure. The drums rumble like timpani, the acoustic guitars build to a crescendo, the vocals rise and fall in dramatic fashion, the violin, flute, bongos and whatever else is there all compete for space in the sonic space, and yet the overall feel remains a kind of graceful calm throughout. After the bluster of so much of the previous three-and-a-half sides, this nine-minute comedown feels like watching the sun rise after an all-night party.

This is the double-album's closing track, and it quite obviously seems like a closing track. It's not quite my final track, but as track three of side two, it definitely functions as the 'climax' of the album - before a brief little addendum that follows it. It's interesting that an album filled with bluster should have such as pastoral moment serve as its climax. But hey; 'interesting' is where Amon Düül II live.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer

Donna Summer's death in May of 2012 turned out to be just one of many, another in a tragic list of back-to-back celebrity passings, to the point where she seems, in death as in life, to be little more than 'something somewhere between Whitney Houston and the Bee Gees'.

While that's a horrible take on her considerable legacy, it is a testament to how confused Summer's place in musical history is - undisputed queen of a genre that has been badly maligned down the decades, top-notch singer in a genre that values machines, moral Christian famed for sex-kitten purring and decadent paeans to fleshly love, and all-American girl who flourished in a very European idiom. And lastly, a humble, reluctant celebrity promoted with so much hubris that not only is this current album, her most famous a double-album, it is rather amazingly one of four consecutive double-albums released between 1977 and 1979.

Bad Girls was designed to launch Summer as a 'breakthrough' artist, to expand her audience and her palette beyond a limited genre whose star, Summer and team correctly surmised, was already starting to fade. In that it launched two number one singles and was the best-selling album of her career, it was a marked success. Measured by the album's ability to eke out a new career for its singer, though, one would need to consider the project a failure: disco is all Summer is remembered for, and disco remains the defining sound of this album and of its very best tracks - the flirtations with rock guitar or conventional balladry remain irrelevant distractions next to the main business of a repetitive drum beat with which to while the hours away on the dancefloor.

Sadly, of course, disco was also Summer's downfall. Rehabilitated though it might by now be, disco was eradicated from the public's consciousness in the 1980s with a fervour that approached Stalinesque. Anybody with the 'taint' of association with disco failed commercially, as they floundered to find new niches in a post-disco world order. Summer fought with her record label, fought with her faith, and fought with a public image as a vapid sex-obsessed piece of fluff. A cover image of Summer as a tarted-up hooker hanging by a lamppost was never going to help with that, but the contents of this album offer lots of dignity: the dignity that comes with creating memorable, expressive music designed to bring listeners to a dance-induced state of bliss. That within a few years of its creation people would give into the knee-jerk conservative impulse that this studio-crafted music 'sucks' is an expression of blinkered bigotry at its worst. It's a relief that Summer lived long enough to see her reputation salvaged.

Bad Girls

Side one
  1. Hot Stuff (5:14)
  2. Bad Girls (4:55)
  3. Dim All the Lights (4:40)
  4. Journey to the Center of Your Heart (4:36)
Side two
  1. All Through the Night (6:06)
  2. On My Honor (3:32)
  3. Love Will Always Find You (3:59)
  4. Our Love (4:52)
Hot Stuff: keep (side one, track one)

The shorthand on this track is that this is Summer's 'rock-disco' crossover, but I have to admit that all these years later, it's tough to hear quite what this has to do with rock music except for a slightly distorted electric guitar riffing away in the background and, of course, a solo that shows up at the song's halfway point. More interesting, in my opinion, is the cheesy little arabesque keyboard line that serves as the song's actual main hook. And it does have to be mentioned that Summer really was a hell of a singer when she wanted to be. The song is probably a bit overlong, to tell the truth (on an album shorn of the side-long excesses that marred her earlier albums), but it's still quite irrepressible.

I didn't immediately make this my track one just because it was track one on the double and Donna Summer's biggest hit. But it's certainly an attention-grabbing tune, and it makes more sense opening the album than stuck somewhere in the middle.

Bad Girls: keep (side one, track two)

This song, the album's title track and Siamese twin to 'Hot Stuff', couldn't care less about crossover success, really - it's unrepentantly dancefloor-oriented, with brass all over the place, propulsive rhythm guitar, disco whistles, and backing vocalists singing all kinds of nonsense in counterpoint. It is a lot of fun, but it could have been a lot more fun - what's holding it back is a strangely 'moral' take on the topic of prostitution: Summer was always the most reluctant of libertines, and while maybe that tension added a lot to her career as a whole, this particular track could use a little more abandon.

Most of this album is programmed to run together seamlessly into twenty-minute segments of music - album covers of the era called this NON-STOP DISCO MIX! For my purposes, it means that songs which seem like natural bedfellows on the double do so on the single as well - and so as this follows 'Hot Stuff' as side one track two on the double, so it does on my smaller album.

Love Will Always Find You: keep (side two, track three)

The only song on side one of the double not to have been released as a single, this song, with its simplistic vocal melody and cheerfully inane 'Latin' horn line, is admittedly a bit of a throwaway on an album without many of those. And yet its silliness is completely infectious, and its cotton-candy charms are a good deal of fun. It's empty, it's insignificant... but hell, isn't that a compliment for a disco tune?

My single-length summary follows the flow of the double to such an extent that it might even seem like I wasn't trying. But I did have my reasons... In any case, this is the sole track on my entire eight-song album that is greatly removed from its overall position on the album, moving from early in the album to late in it, as side two, track three - a 'pick-me-up' after a two-song slow segment.

Walk Away: lose

Like the best funk, this particular tune grooves hard while somehow seeming laid-back and unhurried. And like the best funk, it features an amazing clavinet line. It's a well-constructed song, yet for some reason it fails to take flight. Well, I guess it's walking, not flying. Plus it's got a sax solo. Who in God's name invented the sax solo?

Dim All the Lights: keep (side one, track three)

I first had this top-two single down as an unfortunately generic ditty tricked up with timbales and digital effects on the vocals until a quick glance at the songs Wikipedia page showed me that (a) it's a solo composition (intended for Rod Stewart, of all people), (b) Summer holds a note for sixteen seconds in it, and (c) you can use it to check if a watch is running at the right speed. This all made me listen to the song, and its great rhythm guitar line and propulsive chorus, with fresh ears. And I liked what I heard.

This track, and the one that follows it, winds up being a second two-song suite. Since I had an overall idea of the flow I wanted for this album, the last-minute addition of this track presented a bit of a conundrum for me: it obviously needed to be next to its Siamese twin, and that meant that those two tunes would have to be tracks three and four on side one. The overall flow is good, but unfortunately the slow introduction means that the NON-STOP DISCO MIX! that is side one gets interrupted. Ah well, so be it.

Journey to the Center of Your Heart: keep (side one, track three)

Prog-disco! Now that's exactly what the world needs! Well, the lyrical conceit and the guitar riff at the beginning are as close as the song gets to progressive rock, really, as the noodling synth line belongs equally to the two genres but that propulsive guitar line and that amazingly kinetic brass arrangement could belong to nothing but the world of disco. In any case, this is a deliriously giddy song, well aware of just how silly it is and profoundly unconcerned. This is great party music. Hell, it's great music for pretty much any purpose.

This is side one, track four, as explained above.

One Night in a Lifetime: lose

Bad Girls manages more melodic and sonic invention than one might have thought possible within the disco genre, but it is a double-length and, as such, is bound to fall victim to the problem of 'filler' that plagues all double albums (and is my very raison d'être on this site). A sustained side and a half as an impressive achievement, but the quality control sinks just a bit here, as this song - which, with its piano lines and memorable chorus, is not all that bad in isolation (and almost made my final cut) - represents a dip in quality to 'merely decent disco music'. There's nothing to embarrass across these four sides, and it's a strong album indeed whose weakest moments are when it's 'merely decent'.

Can't Get to Sleep at Night: lose

By now that relentless disco drumbeat has been carrying on, unchanged, for more than half an hour, and the songs are starting to sound the same - this particular one features a jolly roller-rink organ and a few other 'personality' quirks but otherwise little else to distinguish it. It's a decent enough song in its own right, but by now, at the halfway point of this double length, the listener really just calling out for some diversity.

On My Honor: keep (side two, track two)

After two sides (a full disc's worth) of non-stop disco, the album is programmed to 'take things down a notch', with a full side of slow-tunes. Inasmuch as the best disco often resembles R&B balladry with a double-time dance beat, and seeing as this is clearly the music Donna Summer wanted to sing (her name is on the writing credit of every song on this side, two as solo compositions), this side ought to be a highlight. While it's quite good, though, it's kind of beside the point, in that what one really wants from Donna Summer is ultimately dancefloor abandon. In any case, this track, the album's shortest, is a beguiling little thing, a well-constructed ballad with a chorus melody reminiscent of a million songs before but with a moving vocal performance that really sells the song. And there's a steel guitar, right out of Nashville. And you know what? It sounds good. Donna Summer must have been some sort of musical alchemist.

I wound up including two of the slowies - two in eight is 25%, or a decent ratio for a disco performer trying to expand her repertoire. But the question of where to put them is vexing; putting them side-by-side would not normally be my first choice, but I have this time, with this one in particular being side two track two, so that you can either view the whole album as having a slow-dance segment toward the end before ramping it up to end on a high (like high school dances were always programmed) or following the utilitarian format of the original in allowing you to conveniently skip over half a vinyl side if the rhythm is moving you.

There Will Always Be a You: lose

The problem, of course, with slow songs is that it's more difficult to dress up a substandard song with sonic accoutrements. Not to say Summer doesn't try, with a strange little quasi-operatic introduction and a hushed ambiance. The vocal melody is decent enough too, but the overall effect is underwhelming, and filled with the sense that this kind of thing is perhaps not the best use of Summer's ample talents.

All Through the Night: keep (side two, track one)

With a spoken introduction just as preposterous as any other spoken introduction in history, with an obtrusively synthetic synth line dropped on top of the otherwise organic arrangement, with a six-minute running time, and with melodic similarities to every other song ever to bear the title 'All Through the Night', this song doesn't start out very promising. But as it kicks into gear and reveals itself as a lighters-aloft stadium anthem ranking right up there with 'Purple Rain', its many glories reveal themselves. This is a wonderfully dramatic piece that tugs all the right heartstrings - with cynicism perhaps, but with precision too.

Side two, track one, for reasons explained above, under 'On My Honor'. I put this first and not that because starting the side with the spoken-word intro seemed pleasingly perverse.

My Baby Understands: lose

With a more active drumbeat than on the rest of side three, with a vocal delivery that reaches the level of 'guttural' at times, and with odd outbursts of crunchy electric guitar, the best word to describe this one final slow-song is 'interesting'. Unfortunately, 'interesting' is not the quality that determines what makes the final cut and what doesn't.

Our Love: keep (side two, track four)

After the slow-song side three, side four ramps the tempo back up for a sustained twenty-minute blast of sequenced 'deep' dance music at its most European. The three songs on side four have a kind of sequenced pulse much more evocative of the club music of the 1980s and 90s that it influenced than the disco genre that influenced it. This particular track isn't much of a song, really, with a chorus that consists of little more than a single sentence shouted over sequenced and artificial-sounding drums (that actually are a dead ringer for 'Blue Monday' half a decade later). And yet somehow it's completely wonderful - ecstatic, profound and moving. This is music for long after midnight, after you're already soaked in sweat and after you've shed those early-evening inhibitions. This song could, indeed, 'last forever'.

And I finished the album (side two, track four) with its most ecstatic moment, pushing ahead into the eighties and indicating roads soon to be taken, though not by Summer herself, who was about to lose the plot, musically.

Lucky: lose

This particular tune has several ingredients that ought to make it successful: the sequenced pulse is evocative and hypnotic, the song Summer sings over top of it quite attractive. The mood throughout is sensual and ethereal. The main problem with it, though, is that it's essentially 'I Feel Love' part two, sounding more or less exactly like that earlier revolutionary single but suffering, as it's bound to, from diminished returns. That earlier single is jaw-dropping from start to finish. This repeat is too much of a good thing.

Sunset People: lose

The final track on Bad Girls is also the longest one. It's a peculiar tribute to the Sunset Strip and, more to the point, (sonically at least) to roads in general - in a way, it's Giorgio Moroder's take on Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn', overlong at a quarter the length. The tempo is bizarrely uncertain, lurching forward and dragging backward as it attempts to convey a sense of mood it never quite grasps. The whole thing is far too formless and uncertain to really leave much of a positive impression.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "Sandinista!" by the Clash

How can you tell when it's all gone to a band's head? When they follow up a successful double-album with a sprawling triple album more than twice its length. When they take the tentative genre departures of the double and turn it into a break-down-the-walls genre mix so extreme they leave no room for the band's original genre itself. When the single album's worth of decent material gets buried so deep amongst sometimes-infuriating offcuts that it manages to get almost completely overlooked.

Sandinista! is a ridiculous, overblown piece of hubris. But it's not worth the scorn that's heaped upon it, really - even if it's got more than its share of tracks which are entirely deserving of scorn. This is a sprawling mess absolutely designed for a project like this, an interactive journey into the Clash's collective mind where you get to play the role of 'editor', since they most obviously won't.

This thirty-six track album was apparently borne out of an idea the Clash had, quashed by the record company, to release a 7" single every month for a year. Which makes twelve, and in fact that math makes sense: twelve serviceable a-sides, twelve decent but less compelling b-sides, and twelve pieces of ephemera designed to be 'bonus track' bait for the twelve-inch. You can almost divide Sandinista! on these lines, and to a certain degree, with a bit of juggling, you'll find that disc one contains the would-be singles, disc two the serviceable b-sides and disc three the weirder 'filler' (note that the actual choice of singles from this project was highly suspect, to the point that of the three singles pulled from this album, I've taken only one onto my single-disc version, binning the other two).

Still, that doesn't mean disc one is the best and disc three the worst. The three discs aren't that different from one another, though the third one contains the lion's share of the 'dub versions' that are scattered throughout this disc and largely (and undeservedly) give it its reputation as 'bloated with filler'.

There is an unpleasantly dilettante-like feel to the way the Clash seem keen on trying out every genre out there, from calypso to gospel, from rap to rockabilly, from jazz to disco. From brass bands to marimbas, pinball sound effects to backwards-tape sound collages. They take on these varied genres with a rather unfortunate lack of sincerity, and spend so much time 'experimenting' that they pretty much entirely look over the genre of punk, the genre that birthed them and with which they remain most closely identified. The one significant exception, though, was reggae - a music that by 1980 the Clash had become so good at that it had really overtaken punk as 'the thing they do best'. The reggae tracks here, and the dub versions as well, are nothing like the half-hearted 'touristic' genre excursions we see elsewhere on these discs: they're the 'real thing', as deeply felt as anything the Clash ever did. And they're also largely the highlights of these three discs, so much so that my single-length is almost 50% Jamaican-influenced music. I only take one of the dub versions, but none of them are outright failures or even unpleasant to listen to.

That accolade is reserved for the absolute nadir of the Clash's recorded career (with Mick Jones), also to be found here: the Clash's desire to expand their palettes and move beyond the conservative impulses of their fanbase is admirable. But when it comes to such contemptuous moves as playing a song backwards and calling it a different piece altogether, or bringing in a few kids to re-record some of their punk-era classics... such nose-thumbing moves would have destroyed lesser bands and did much to undo the populist notion of foregoing royalties in order to keep the price of the bloated project down.

So all told, it's completely ridiculous that Sandinista! has thirty-six tracks and lasts 144 minutes. The Clash had all but lost the sense of concision and cohesion that had made them such an arresting and era-defining act just a few years ago, and amazingly, after a double and a triple, Combat Rock would also have been a double had the label and management (and half the band itself) revolted against the unwavering tendency toward excess. And yet while there's no dissent that Sandinista! could have used some slimming down, there's no agreement at all on where those cuts would be made: the record label put out a 12-track promo disc called Sandinista Now! that attempted to showcase the highlights, and yet merely seven in twelve songs overlap with the contents of my single-disc.

Don't worry: they were out-of-touch corporate suits. Mine is better...


Side one
  1. The Magnificent Seven (5:28)
  2. Junco Partner (4:53)
  3. Washington Bullets (3:51)
  4. Kingston Advice (2:36)
  5. Somebody Got Murdered (3:34)
  6. One More Time (3:32)
Side two
  1. Police on my Back (3:15)
  2. Up in Heaven (Not Only Here) (4:31)
  3. Corner Soul (2:43)
  4. Charlie Don't Surf (4:55)
  5. Rebel Waltz (3:25)
  6. Version Pardner (5:22)
The Magnificent Seven: keep (side one, track one)

The album's opening track and best-known single is, of all things, a rap tune. This predates even Blondie's 'Rapture' as an appropriation of rap by a white rock act, though that as a stat means next to nothing all these decades later. In fact, you don't really even notice that it's rap if it's not called to your attention; Strummer's flow is such that it feels more like a pop song with a rather monotonous melody. But the rhythm section somehow manage to be amazing while aping the Sugarhill Gang aping Chic. And Joe Strummer's lyrics, political at a time when that was all but unheard of in rap, are alternately excellent and ridiculous. Strummer is definitely the highlight of this song, though, going on and on and on about everyman's everyday life, and whatever else pops into his head. It's all a bit silly, and yet somehow it's wonderful too. How's that work?

An arresting opening track on the triple, it remains so on my reduced single-length. Though it certainly doesn't exactly sound reassuring to people wondering if this punk band has betrayed its roots.

Hitsville U.K.: lose

If you have a thirty-six track album, do you still front-load side one with singles? Evidently so: second track, second single. This one, however, is entirely unworthy: a decent attempt at a kind of Supremes-like Motown rhythm track is smothered under a grating singsong-y melody sing by Ellen Foley, better known as the girl in Meat Loaf's 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light'. Apparently the lyrics are in defence of independent record labels (by a band signed to CBS), but it's tough to imagine this ditty would have much street cred. Except on Sesame Street, I suppose.

Junco Partner: keep (side one, track two)

Sandinista! is a ridiculously eclectic album, and while many of the experiments miss the mark, there are occasions here where it comes off brilliantly. What are the odds of an ancient jump blues tune being resurrected with a reggae beat and a squeaky busker's fiddle being anything but hideous? And yet the result is completely wonderful, and I'm not even sure how. It's got a lot to do with Joe Strummer again, singing with a ridiculous accent but with a world of heart, genuinely excited about their new role as meeting point of diverse global folk music traditions. Can't see the mohawk-and-safety-pin crew digging it, but it's great stuff.

I had a notion that I should put together my twelve-track twelve-inch by alternating 'rock-influenced' tracks with 'reggae-influenced' ones. That didn't quite happen, but you will find that reggae tracks have even track numbers on my project. The triple gives a prominent spot to 'Junco Partner', and I do even more so, moving it forward one place to spot two on side one.

Ivan Meets G.I. Joe: lose

This is, wait for it, a disco tune played by ex-punks featuring video-game noises and Cold War lyrics. Digest that for a minute: is that not the single most dated description of a piece of music ever? Even if you weren't born in 1980, this song will transport you right there. But not in any desirable way, as the song seems calculatedly designed to make Topper Headon's sole lead-vocal turn seem comparatively less annoying.

The Leader: lose

A brief little throb of a tune, more rock and roll than punk. It speaks about corruption in politics, or something like that, but really the verses are relevant only in that they lead into, and build up to, the single-line refrain which serves as the song's only real focus. Quite inessential.

Something About England: lose

An ambitious track, with a brass band, piano, a fiddle, 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary', and all kind of little parts to it (like a suite of less than four minutes or something). The lyrics seem to be saying something about England down the years... but the sad fact is that the whole end result is merely too messy to pay all that much attention to.

Rebel Waltz: keep (side two, track five)

This track regularly gets overlooked when people discuss Sandinista!, and I wish I knew why; I see it as a quite elegant and evocative little experiment: it actually is a waltz, with an inessential baroque harmonium less important than a resonant line played on guitar, most prominent in the extended introduction before the beat kicks in. Sandinista! has more genre experiments than you can shake a stick at, but this is perhaps the least self-conscious of all of them. And it's really quite beautiful in its vaguely European way.

Finding the right home for this track was a tricky thing. In the end I put it as track five on side two, next-to-last. Or, considering what my closing track is, you could consider that one a 'coda' and this one the actual conclusion.

Look Here: lose

A cover. But really 'Jimmy Jazz' played much faster, and just as unpleasantly hackneyed. The fact that the Clash could play several genres expertly doesn't quite mean they could pull every one off.

The Crooked Beat: lose

I've heard this called a 'Guns of Brixton' clone, but I don't hear it. What it has in common is an asymmetrical reggae pulse and the two lead instruments (vocals and bass) being performed by Paul Simonon. But this is just a bit too 'crooked' for its own good, drums reduced to mere echoed noises like a ruler on a school desk and the song deconstructed to the point that it's almost impossible to pick out. There are some interesting ideas here, beneath Simonon's flat monotone, but not enough, I'm afraid.

Somebody Got Murdered: keep (side one, track five)

Apparently, this track was intended for use in a movie but was left on the shelf: that's appropriate, because there's a decidedly widescreen cinematic feel to this track, not only in the hushed lyrics observing the death of an anonymous stranger but also in the lush guitar-saturated musical accompaniment, a deliberate chord progression that closely follows the melody, enhancing the slightly dazed feeling of regret. All told, it's a beautiful piece, professional but still heartfelt.

My side one is comprised largely of songs from the first of the three records on Sandinista!, which is perhaps not that surprising. Track five on side one might seem tantamount to 'burying' this exquisite song, but it fits the flow quite well.

One More Time: keep (side one, track six)

While the Clash had been messing around with reggae styling since their début, it`s amazing by now the extent to which they've assimilated the sound. This is not `reggae-punk`or anything of the kind, it`s merely an expertly played self-written reggae song. It`s really an impressive piece of work, with a memorable chorus and with some amazing bass playing. There is echo, but not so much. It enhances, not distracts. Not yet, anyway.

This follows straight out of 'Somebody Got Murdered' on the triple, so I thought I should preserve that pairing on my single-length. So as that track is number five, this is number six on side one, the side-closer.

One More Dub: lose

Dub is no small part of this album, with quite a few 'dub versions' of otherwise existing tracks, mostly to be found on side six. Now, I like dub. Quite a bit, actually. But it rarely sits well alongside other kinds of music: it's consumed differently, in a different state of mind and to a different end. This here is the only occasion on Sandinista! when the original and the dub are put back to back, and the effect is essentially to create a seven-minute extended remix. I would consider this one of the best dub versions on the album, and quite worthy in its own way of release. The main reason I choose to overlook it is because I feel that one 'dub version' is the right number for my single-disc edit, and there just so happens to be a dub version that I prefer to this one.

Lightning Strikes (Not Once but Twice): lose

Side three starts with the sound of a radio DJ, something that crops up quite a few times on this side. It goes from there into the album's second and final rap excursion: a less Sugarhill-influenced musical backdrop over which Strummer spits and slurs in precisely the same flow as 'The Magnificent Seven' - seriously, listening to the two back to back is like listening to a 12" extended mix of a single song. Diminishing returns, though (despite the song title), perhaps because what he has to say isn't overly interesting.

Up in Heaven (Not Only Here): keep (side two, track two)

How exactly did the Clash go from punk clubs to open-air stadiums, in just a few scant years? Well, songs like this provide some kind of an answer: this is not punk at all. It's music designed to play on 'rock radio', but what makes it fail to be a sell-out concession is its uplifting feel; this is somehow a truly glorious song, something that makes you feel better about your lot in life, and while it's probably just as artificial a feel-good sensation as anything any 'classic rock' band ever perpetrated, somehow with the Clash you want to believe it's sincere. Plus you get weirdness at the end, whether or not you asked for it.

My original impulse to alternate rock tunes with reggae tunes fell apart when considering the first half of side two. I just couldn't get over the sense that side two needed to start with a one-two punch of 'rock' music. Now, this is not especially abrasive, but it is rock. I tried making it track three, but it didn't work. So damn arbitrary logic; here's my side two, track two.

Corner Soul: keep (side two, track three)

Why do I like this tune? I'm not really sure: it's understated, and to a certain extent fades into the background unnoticed, despite strangely violent lyrics and an accordion. It's probably that great chorus with its whooping background vocals. That must be it. Or maybe it's its lowered reach; rare on these discs, this is no type of experiment or showboating but merely the Clash delivering truly melodic and memorable music. Just to prove they can, if they so choose.

I'm pretty sure I didn't realise, when putting this in the doldrums of side two, track three, that I pulled off another two-song-set replicated from the triple, just like 'Somebody Got Murdered' leading into 'One More Time'.

Let's Go Crazy: lose

Reggae was a rock-influenced genre anyway, so the Clash and other white musicians found themselves able with varying levels of success to 'accommodate' the genre. However, reggae is merely one of many Caribbean genres, each of which would have been quite prominent in the yearly Carnival festivities in London that the Clash seem to have genuinely enjoyed attending. And seeing as how Sandinista! features the Clash tackling as many as a dozen different genres, it's perhaps not surprising that they would attempt a Carnival-style mix of Caribbean music. But it's dilettantism as this point, as they may well like calypso and other forms of Caribbean music, but they don't feel it.

If Music Could Talk: lose

The trick here is that Joe Strummer recorded two entirely different lead vocals for this track, hard-panning them so that one appears in the left speaker only and the other in the right. A studio trick that at best constitutes a 'good idea', but it's in service of an unpleasantly slick saxophone-led musical backdrop, and the whole thing is profoundly uninteresting.

The Sound of Sinners: lose

Since they take on so many genres here, it ought not to surprise us that the Clash also take a stab at American gospel music here. The thing that's bizarre is that they almost pull it off. But where you rarely question their sincerity on the other genre experiments on Sandinista!, on this particular track you can't avoid the feeling that the whole thing is merely a tongue-in-cheek send-up (particularly once Tim Curry comes in at the end playing an avaricious preacher). Then the question is, 'why?' The track is not a parody, and it's not funny - it's enjoyable merely because it's a competent take on a sometimes-enjoyable genre. But do the Clash themselves enjoy it? And if they don't, why record it?

Police on My Back: keep (side two, track one)

Though it's a cover of a late-sixties stomper written by, of all people, Eddy Grant, this track is noteworthy for being, on this incredibly eclectic genre-hopping album, the sole track on the whole project that could be considered 'punk', i.e. performed in the genre that brought the Clash to fame. And it really has to be mentioned that they really are adept at this sort of thing. It's a full-group shout-along as they rush through a listing of the days of the week (he has to do a lot of running from the police), half-buried beneath delightfully crunchy guitars. It's merely 'side four' on the vinyl, but it's the halfway point, start of the second CD and time for a rush of new energy. And damn does it feel good.

The halfway point is exactly where this song needs to be, so that's where I put it: side two, track one.

Midnight Log: lose

130 seconds of echoed rockabilly with a barroom piano and a kind of melodica sound: attractive, but not overly memorable. God knows what Strummer is talking about in his Presley swagger.

The Equaliser: lose

Another reggae-ish track trumped up with violin. And with odd sound effects and with loads of echo as well. This is the dub version version of what might be a pretty decent tune. As much as I like dub and studio manipulation, though, I can't help finding this almost-six minute tune self-indulgent and not very enjoyable. What would it have sounded like if it were more disciplined, I wonder.

The Call Up: lose

God knows why exactly, but this was the first single released from Sandinista!, the 'teaser' for the album. And shy of 'Mensforth Hill', it's tough to imagine a less appropriate track. It's not that bad, but it's an oddly glitzy five-and-a-half minute studio concoction of no recognisable genre that harangues in a repetitive melody about enlisting in the USA army. Considering it's the only single on the second through sixth sides of this album, it's doubly peculiar. And it goes on way too long.

Washington Bullets: keep (side one, track three)

Though never a single, this might well be the album's most celebrated track: an astutely written take on international politics and American interventionism with some criticism of Moscow and Beijing added to provide balance. It's quite impressive, and definitely an album highlight (in addition to being the title track). However, sonically it's more than a little gauche, with a rather overly prominent marimba line serving as the main instrument. It's quite 'adult' music, 'sophisticated' and more than a little bloodless. And, though it's redundant to point it out, not very punk at all. Plus, after the 2:45 point, it becomes progressively more annoying. This doesn't really sound like I like the tune, does it? I do, though.

This is track three on side one on my twelve-track, a sudden rise to prominence for a song buried deep on the triple. But it is a central part of the disc, and pushing it up to the front gives the album a more prominently political feel than the sprawling triple has. And after all, it is named Sandinista!

Broadway: lose

This atmospheric tune builds up slowly across the minutes, creating an interesting if not overly noteworthy mood before falling into dissonance. This tune was noteworthy enough to give its name to the Clash's career-overview boxed set, for some reason. Incidentally, the song itself is only 4:53. The remainder is given over, not for the last time on this album I fear, to one of the keyboard player's kids singing an old Clash. Aww, cute, said no-one.

Lose This Skin: lose

This track is written by an old 1960s leftover named Tymon Dogg, who also sings it in a highly peculiar and much-derided voice. His violin is also the primary instrument. This song gets a lot of bad press, but I think it's quite an attractive composition, and the voice? Well, you can get used to it. Hell, we got used to Axl Rose, right? My beef with the song is not its quality so much as the fact that it's not properly a Clash song but entirely a Tymon Dogg song with backing by the Clash. And what's the point of that?

Charlie Don't Surf: keep (side two, track four)

This poor tune is stuck in a particularly weird part of the album, and I think it fails to get its due props because of that. It is in fact an atmospheric reggae-like take on American involvement in Vietnam. It's kind of a dry run for 'Straight to Hell', which is a better song. But it's no slight on this track to say it's merely not as good as one of the Clash's very best songs. It has a hazy atmosphere courtesy of a kind of phased sitar-sound. The track is much more down-to-earth than that description, though - at least till the end, as the song slowly disappears into a studio-created haze. Fascinating, and overlooked.

There is a bit of a reggae pulse to this song, but it doesn't feel reggae. Still, I give in an even-numbered placement as track four on side two. The fact that the song both starts and ends with 'atmosphere' meant it needed, really, to follow a song with a cold close and precede a song with a cold opening. Well, I tried.

Mensforth Hill: lose

This is apparently 'Something About England' played in reverse, with all kinds of random voices and sound effects thrown over top, what might charitably be called a 'sound collage'. What most reviewers and Clash fans down the years have called it is less printable. And they're completely right: it's an inexcusable load of nonsense.

Junkie Slip: lose

Another 'rebel music', the Clash were able to accommodate their love of reggae in an unashamed fashion. Their skiffle/rockabilly fantasies, however, always had to be snuck in in a semi-ironic way, for fear, I guess, of seeming musically conservative. It's a pity, because the genre does lend itself to creative variations, as we hear at the moment. This is a messy but quite interesting mess of popping basslines and vocal hiccoughs. Cute, if not revelatory.

Kingston Advice: keep (side one, track four)

This song starts out with a barrage of special-effects vocal treatments, and by this part of the album we might well have found ourselves bored of studio trickery. Yet here's the weird thing: this song bursts to such exciting life when the chorus arrives that suddenly whatever intentional weirdness they stick over top seems less of a hapless attempt to make a generic track distinctive than an obvious addition to an already excellent track. Buried and unloved, this is still a great track.

I put this overlooked track on side one, track four. And I won't pretend that it was irrelevant that this resulted in having a song called 'Kingston something' follow a song called 'Washington something'. Makes you expect this one to be a kind of part-two.

The Street Parade: lose

Bursts of what sounds like a steel drum link this song to the would-be calypso 'Let's Go Crazy', but where that track is a failed take on a particular genre, it's tough to say exactly what this even is, being a messy mix of varying sounds seemingly being played at different tempi over top of each other. It doesn't come close to coherent, and by the end you'll just be left scratching your head, if you can even be bothered to wonder.

Version City: lose

"Version City": While three of the six songs on side six, the 'dub side', are indeed versions of songs appearing elsewhere on Sandinista!, this particular track isn't. It's actually a propulsive semi-reggae tune with an unexpected but welcome harmonica. It has a pleasantly sloppy quality that unfortunately lapses entirely into messiness at certain parts, not least of which the rather bizarre introduction that kind of spoils the effect.

Living in Fame: lose

Producer Mikey Dread toasts on this, a 'dub' version (so to speak) of 'If Music Could Talk' that has an enjoyable though not overly dubwise propulsive quality to it. Dread isn't very easy to hear and it turns out to be easier to tune him out than to listen to him. A valiant effort and quite listenable indeed, but not one of side six's high points.

Silicone on Sapphire: lose

I'd call this a dub version on 'Washington Bullets', but it really isn't - if anything, it's an instrumental version of that song with a mess of sound effects and random voices stuck over top. And since the instrumental backing track is what I like least about 'Washington Bullets', I can't find much to recommend this particular piece of fluff.

Version Pardner: keep (side two, track six)

"Version Pardner": Here it is, the only dub version on Sandinista! to make my final cut. So let's talk about why: well, first of all, I love the original and it's genre-blending assurance. This dub version preserves a lot of the original but takes it a good deal further, being essentially a journey through different moods, a little noise here, an off-key melody there. It's strange stuff, messy like this whole disc is, but somehow wonderful.

And the only dub version I choose gets put in the most logical position on the album: the final track, number twelve. Why? Well, I think it belongs, but I admit it's a bit, well, 'supplementary'. In a sense, it's like the album closes with 'Rebel Waltz' and then this is a bit of a 'bonus track'. For an album that just doesn't know when to quit. And isn't Sandinista! quite obviously that very album?

Career Opportunities: lose

Probably more hated than 'Mensforth Hill', yes this is indeed an early Clash hit remade as a jokey little ditty sung by two kids, sons of the keyboard player. Seemingly, the Clash hate where they came from enough to belittle a great early tune of theirs as cheesy family fare - realistically, this is probably meant to be a situationist send-up like the disco covers on Malcolm McLaren's Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle soundtrack. But there's no reason on God's green earth you'd want to listen to that either.

Shepherds Delight: lose

Really, was it ever in doubt that they'd end the album on a WTF moment? I don't think anyone would have suspected acoustic instruments and barnyard noises, but who could underestimate the Clash's willful contrariness by now?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "Soundtracks for the Blind" by Swans

"Swans" is a pretty generic name, one that could fit a band in any number of genres. This two-cd set has an empty, generic cover whose main focus of attention is merely a grey circle. The album's title, Soundtracks for the Blind, is pretty interesting, but still gives little clue what its contents might be.

And I wish everyone could discover this album the way I did, as a completely empty slate, with no idea who was making the music or what genre they thought they were working in. That gives the experience a sense of wonder, of mystery. A sense of discovery. SO you might just want to stop right here...

If not, let me start with what Wikipedia calls this album. They, or rather some user or users somewhere, call it 'experimental, post-punk, post-rock, art-rock, minimalism, ambient'. If that's not enough, the article itself also adds 'dance music' and 'punk rock'. It is 140 minutes of incredibly varied music that makes a virtue of its incoherence. By and large, though, you can find two major stylistic approaches in amongst the genuinely breathtaking diversity: The first is a kind of post-rock influenced gothic sound, lengthy ten-plus minute epics with a Tortoise or Godspeed You! Black Emperor influenced musical backdrop over with a man (whose name is Michael Gira) moans in a vaguely Nick Cave-like way (on occasion, a woman of many voices called Jarboe sings instead). The second, quite removed, is what I've been calling 'sound collages', static soundscapes built from various musical or non-musical sonic elements. Aural abstract art, I suppose. Each of these features at least one extended vocal sample, a 'found' element, a monologue or snippet of discussion sourced from God-knows-where. That leaves perhaps as much as a third of the album as 'detritus', more or less completely random tracks from any of a multitude of genres.

Apparently, Soundtracks from the Blind was compiled in part from tapes from the Swans' shelves; outtakes and archives. To that end, then, it's arguable whether or not to consider this a studio catalogue album or a 'compilation' - compilations, of course, not being what we're about here at 'Better as a Single'. It seems, upon listening to the album, though, that the album is not a collection of outtakes so much as a new piece of work based in part on elements recorded years before the album. Not to say it's coherent, mind you: it's even less coherent a project than a good many artists' 'greatest hits' packages. Hell, it's more diverse than some various artists albums I've heard.

Which leads to a bit of a problem on my part. This album is two full-length CDs, twenty-six songs, and my job is to cut it in half. But when messy incoherence is a virtue, what difference does it make if the project lasts 150 minutes or 75? Surely one ladleful of stew is no different from two or three ladles, right? Or is it possible to tease a coherent narrative from this mess? Well, I have tried, and not by favouring one 'genre' over the others, either, but by discarding much more than 50% of the project, leaving a mere eight songs I could easily imagine being released on a two-sided slab of vinyl. Having said that, though, I should mention that my album is just shy of an hour and, lengthwise, not all that much shorter than either of the two discs on the double, but the big difference is that each track gets to have its own discrete identity as opposed to being merely another part of the kaleidoscopic rush of semi-random ideas. So it's an album of songs, as opposed to a suite. Does the result hold together as an album? I'm of the opinion that it does, but in a very different way to the two-disc original.

On a personal note, doing this particular album has really helped reawaken in me the 'thrill of discovery' of new music that gets harder and harder to tap into as the years go by. Swans have apparently been around, in one form or another, since 1982 - thirty years now - operating under the radar in a variety of mostly confrontational genres. 'Swans' means little more than 'Michael Gira and whoever he happens to be around', but still, as a body of work, Gira's legacy is impressive, formidable, and not always entirely listenable. Still, a whole world to explore - if you can find it.

Soundtracks for the Blind

Side one
  1. Red Velvet Wound (2:02)
  2. Helpless Child (15:47)
  3. I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull (6:39)
  4. All Lined Up (4:48)
Side two
  1. Secret Friends (3:08)
  2. YRP (7:47)
  3. Minus Something (4:14)
  4. The Sound (13:11)
Red Velvet Corridor: lose

The album opens with three minutes of what we might call 'dark ambient'. This is not a song at all but merely a construction of sound - an abstract collection of layered noises whose overall intent is to create an unsettling and vaguely paranoid feeling. It does so, while at the same time I must add remaining what you might well call 'beautiful', and as such it is a decent introduction to the album, intriguing while giving away little of what is to follow. There's nothing wrong with it, but I wanted to start my single-length with a different song called 'Red Velvet' something or other.

I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull: keep (track four)

The first of several of what I call 'sound collages' on these two discs, this is a slow-shifting piece comprised of various found sounds, in this particular case a strange manipulated vocal sample that gives way to a rather rollicking rhythmic band rumble that then, out of nowhere, drops away to reveal a vaguely 'aboriginal' sounding whistle. which serves as a prelude to a lengthy vocal sample. Most of the 'sound collages' on these disc feature such samples, people recorded from various sources talking about various things. This particular one is less interesting than most of the others, but it sits on top of a gamelan-style soundscape of rare beauty. These six and a half minutes hardly cohere as a 'song', and in fact you could easily mix all of the 'sonic collages' on these discs together into a giant piece lasting more than half an hour. But this is how the material is presented on these discs, and in that regard this particular slice of sound is perhaps more enchanting than others.

My eight-track single-length turns out to be four vocal songs and four instrumental pieces (well, five and three, really, but the vocals on one of the tracks are beside the point, so it doesn't count). It seemed to make sense to me to alternate them, and that was a main guiding principle in my overall programming of the eight tracks. That left this song as side one, track three, following the epic that it precedes on the double. My side one is almost entirely taken from the original's disc one and my side two was, without exception, taken from the second disc. Which I swear was coincidental.

Helpless Child: keep (track four)

At almost sixteen minutes long, this is the longest track on the album. And perhaps surprisingly, it is a 'song' as opposed to a 'sonic collage'. So how does a song last sixteen minutes? Well, after a rather unconnected introduction that lasts two minutes, the song itself begins, a moody groan of acoustic guitars, vibraphones and those slightly overwrought 'angsty' baritone lead vocals of Michael Gira. With the glacial tempo and deliberate nature of the song's construction, these minutes pass by quite easily. At the seven-minute mark, however, the song takes flight as it gradually becomes a roar of electric guitars, keyboards and drums. The pace doesn't pick up a bit, however, and it remains plodding through nine minutes of slow-building intensity. Admittedly, this is boring as hell if you're not in the mood. But if this catches you at the right moment, it's sixteen of the most transcendent minutes you'll spend.

This is one of two huge epics that I chose for my eight-track album (they are half the entire length of my resulting project). Obviously it makes sense to put them on opposite sides of the disc, and in fact I almost open and close with them. Not quite, though: I have a brief little introduction to the album. After that opening, though, I throw you in the deep end. This is my track two on side one.

Live Through Me: lose

An unassuming little piece of backward-sounding keyboard atmospherics and a rather frantically strummed acoustic guitar. Too little really happens in the piece for it to catch your attention or to reward repeated listening.

Yum-Yab Killers: lose

The first track in a four-song an 'oddities' set with a high WTF value, this particular beast is, of all things, a live recording. And perhaps this is indeed what the Swans sound like live, or at least did at a particular point of their long and storied history. If so, however, I prefer them as a studio entity: this is some rather horribly unpleasant screaming female vocals over an oddly martial drumbeat, a kind of second-rate grunge with none of the elegance so readily apparent elsewhere on these CDs.

The Beautiful Days: lose

The first half of this track is a meticulously constructed drone, a rather harrowingly dark piece of primal noise. At about three and a half minutes in, a child's voice enters, looped and sing-songy. The effect is absolutely shattering, the single darkest moment in a very dark two hours, and conclusive aural evidence that there is no god. One of the finest moments on the entire album. The problem - and it is indeed a very big problem - is that the track goes nowhere after that. The child's loop goes on too long, and the mood never really shifts enough to either build or release tension. A sample at the end about masturbation helps with the creepy tone, but by then (after over seven minutes), the spell has dissipated.

Volcano: lose

'Volcano' is a kind of deconstruction of, of all things, house music. The peculiar thing is that so much effort has clearly gone into the creation of the sunshine melody, a kind of breathy poppy ditty perfectly welcome on any early-nineties radio station, that the inevitable layers of noise and general weirdness don't entirely seem like a punchline: is this track sincere, or is it making fun of the genre it recreates? The uncertainty disappoints, in the end, as it is never resolved, and you're left unsure if you've just listened to an enjoyably weird house track or an elaborate ruse at your expense.

Mellothumb: lose

A mellow strum, an effective, simple little guitar-based mood piece, is gradually drowned out by a massive roar not unlike the sound of an airplane. And that's all. Rather pointless.

All Lined Up: keep (track seven)

After a rather lengthy series of experiments, we're back to what passes for conventional songwriting on this album. An entirely beatless composition made up of vocals over top of sonic oddities (plus a piano) suddenly, occasionally, bursts into screaming life with an attack of guitars and drums. This is the classic soft-loud-soft-loud dynamic taken to its logical extreme, but somehow it works as a piece, evocative not of Pixies alternative music but somehow of Nine Inch Nails in a more introspective moment.

I'm happy that I finish out the sides with vocal pieces; it seems a bit more 'substantial' than going to needle-silence off an instrumental. That means that this particular track ends off side one.

Surrogate 2: lose

This is a dark ambient piece, an unsettling drone (sounding like a cello) with some various noises on it. It's really not bad at all: upsetting, but not in an easily definable way, and yet still somehow rather lovely. I wanted to include it, actually, but I couldn't make it work with the others, and ultimately I'm not upset I didn't include it. But for an offcast, it's quite a good listen.

How They Suffer: lose

With one of the two speeches in this track being a man describing (in more detail than you'd need) his sight difficulties, this is, I suppose, the album's title track. It's another sonic collage, and the part in the middle is a rather elegant semi-ambient piece that could have shown up on a Brian Eno album. It ends with a medical interview with an elderly patient. Two people who suffer, I suppose.

Animus: lose

This particular eleven-minute epic served in a way as the 'single' from the album, released in advance of it on an EP. While it was hardly about to tear up top 40 radio, it's a canny choice as a single in that it very much 'sums up' the album, being another example of the moping, pseudo-gothic 'post-rock' genre featuring Gira's elegant basso profondo, but one that rises not so much into a volatile mass of wailing guitars so much as a more unusual mix of varying songs, conceptually similar to the 'musical collages' elsewhere on display. The effect is intriguing, but falls a little short of 'enchanting'. It's still a worthy listen, and a worthy conclusion to the first half of this lengthy two-disc set.

Red Velvet Wound: keep (track six)

This odd little fragment is a waltz, sounding pre-rock, European and perhaps beamed in on a shortwave from a distant galaxy. Like 'Volcano', it seems to be sending up the genre it's also meticulously set out to replicate, though it's less ambivalent, and as a result more enjoyable. It's gradually drowned out by noises that also sound interplanetary in origin.

I'm quite fond of this little slice of confusion and wanted to include it. Gira starts off the second CD with it, and I like the idea of using it as the opening track for the whole thing, probably because as a genre experiment it reveals nothing of what's to come - also, the clamouring, mauling noise that engulfs it rather is more revealing, and as the sound of 'conventional music' being destroyed by an ugly/beautiful sound, it's perhaps quite a telling introduction to the album.

The Sound: keep (track six)

The post-rock 'epics' on this album all have several traits in common: firstly, they're all vocal pieces that, somewhere before the midpoint of the track, allow an instrumental 'rush' to overtake them. Secondly, they all have similar tempi and arrangements. 'The Sound' has the requisite vibraphone during the quiet bit and the requisite walls of distorted guitar during the loud bit, but adds to that what seems like a harmonium, droning the track's two-chord progression throughout. And in this case, while the rather attractively yearning vocal melody gets sidelined just a few minutes in by the (titular) booming whoosh (which never picks up the glacial tempo even a nudge as it gets louder), it comes back at the ten-and-a-half-minute point for a diminuendo that, together with a series of music boxes and that insistent harmonium, creates a fully satisfying sense of rise-and-fall.

Any of these epics could have made a decent album-closer. Gira puts this one near the beginning of disc two, the post-rock epic he chose to follow 'Red Velvet Wound'. I put another in that place, though, and this is the one I choose to conclude my entire disc, as track four of side two.

Her Mouth is Filled with Honey: lose

This particular sonic collage springs to life with a trebly ringing like an alarm, an unpleasant sound that grates on the ears for the first eighty seconds of the track and is enough by itself to disqualify this track from inclusion. A pity, though, as the remainder is quite impressive, a highly unsettling wash of sounds with urgent voices and whispers.

Blood Section: lose

This sounds, of all things, like an excerpt from a jam band on stage in mid-flight. Some rather hyperactive drums lay on top of, well, on top of not much more than a series of guitars playing the same riff over and over again. There's nothing exactly wrong with it, but it reminds me of why I don't listen to jam bands very often (or at all).

Hypogirl: lose

A strange little track (less than three minutes long): a simple little acoustic-guitar-based strum over which Jarboe makes like Billy Corgan, of all people, sounding very male at times. Unfortunately, what she mostly sounds is comically histrionic, and by the end you're not upset to have her go away.

Minus Something: keep (track eleven)

'Minus Something' is a sound collage, too, much like the others. Yet it plays more like a 'composition', and as such a distinct entity, than the others. The vocal recording this time out, a man talking about his own malaise, is more interesting because it's a semi-poetic, descriptive passage. And what follows that is also more interesting: a rather hazy but still alluring piece built around a flute, a vibraphone and canyons of noise. Static, and yet still beautiful.

I put this as track three on side two, second to last on the whole disc, right before the closing epic 'The Sound'. I suppose it's kind of a 'summary' of the album before its epic finale begins. Or maybe it's just the only place this song fit. The other 'sound sculpture' is also track three, on the other side.

Empathy: lose

For an album with such an amazingly broad palette of sonic colours, it's surprising how closely the vocal pieces stick to the same sonic template, starting out quite similar to one another and differing mainly in the way in which they take flight, which they inevitably do. 'Empathy', at less than seven minutes, is the shortest of them (imagine an album where 6:45 is considered short!) and probably the most inconsequential; its condensed length is due largely to the fact that it doesn't take flight exactly, settling for a quick crunch of a middle section before returning almost immediately to another verse and fading away, in fact, in a wordless whisper. Nice, but rather more-of-the-same.

I Love You This Much: lose

One of the lengthier of the sonic collages on the album, this is really quite uncategorisable, a rather aggressive heaving noise that gives way to a collage of what might be a church organ playing for the moaning souls of the damned. Quite exquisite, really, but then unfortunately it gives way to a mere dull roar of what might be white noise with a ride cymbal on top. A rather disappointing phase that goes on all too long. Not bad at all, really, but not quite worthy of inclusion.

YRP: keep (track one)

After a bizarre and unrelated introduction, this settles into a peculiar slow-burning groove, exotica post-rock vibraphone over layers of atmospheric guitars. On top of this Jarboe alternates Kim Gordon-like spoken verses with a kind of atmospheric wailing serving as the chorus. A few cycles of this, and then the song gets overtaken by loud, slamming guitars. The whole thing is very feminine, even under those thudding and droning guitars, and really quite beautiful.

Jarboe's only significant vocal performance on my album, 'YRP' stands alone. So I put it between two instrumentals, and that would be as track two on side two.

Fan's Lament: lose

Just as 'Blood Section' seems like an excerpt from quite a different band, this little minute-and-a-half burst sounds, of all things, like a stadium-filling 'heartland rock band'. I wouldn't be surprised to hear this tacked onto the end of a song by Nickelback or Bob Seger or something like this. And the most bizarre thing is that it still doesn't seem out of place on this album.

Secret Friends: keep (track eight)

An instrumental, though one with vocals: Gira's voice shows up singing wordlessly in the vein of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western soundtracks, an obvious influence on this beautiful piece. However, they don't appear till the midpoint of the track, and the main instrument, presumably a keyboard but vaguely flute-like in a way that calls to mind 1970s documentaries, keeps the piece far away from Italy. This is the one piece on these two discs you could play most readily for anyone without fear of hurting their delicate sensibilities - hell, it could actually be played on radio - but that's no insult, for it's truly an excellent piece.

I use this to start my side two. It's an attention-grabbing piece, but it's still short enough to serve as 'introductory' and atypical enough to have a similar effect to 'Red Velvet Wound' on side one.

The Final Sacrifice: lose

Though it's followed, for no reason I can surmise, by two random little snippets, this is clearly designed to be the album's climax. It takes more than three and a half minutes to get the the vocal entry, vaguely Christian imagery sung so slowly and deliberately that it's tough to make them out. The requisite vibraphone and ride cymbals are accompanied, this time, by an unobtrusive string part that is actually quite enchanting. For the only time on the entire album, Gira allows his vocals to rise from a gloomy whisper, belting and growling in order to bring a dramatic intensity to the track. And it's here that the track fails for me: the caterwauling vocals strike me as almost laughably overwrought, and brings a kind of adolescent sense of angst to the piece. This track lacks the crashing waves of guitar noise the other 'post-rock' pieces have, probably because the vocals attempt the same dynamics. The track ends with a burst of applause and a 'thank you very much', though it doesn't sound at all like a live track.

YRP 2: lose

Call these last two track 'bonus tracks', short bits with similar names to other tracks that appear after the album should logically have ended. This noisy piece of nothing is seemingly nothing more than a single guitar crunch from 'YRP' repeated over and over again as Jarboe screams over top. Pointless.

Surrogate Drone: lose

The track 'Surrogate 2' is indeed based on a drone - not this particular one, though. This is in fact just two minutes of a white-noise drone. And while it's not bad as white-noise drones go, that's not saying much.