Intermission III [End of "C" Part 1]

We’re at the end of another letter–however belatedly–and with it at a nice, round fifty different artists touched on. Left behind are handfuls of alternate albums, a scattering of singles, and, in this case, nothing but more singles and albums from the artists touched on. It’s likely not a surprise that Coheed and Cambria compose a reasonably large amount of the remaining items. The Clash were the only band that matters (are the only band that mattered? How do we deal with that now? Is it still in the present, even though they are not? With, of course,  Requisite requiescat in pace for Joe). In fact, beyond them, there’s a bit more of Elvis CostelloCursive, and The Church, no one left much to linger.

If I had my druthers–some of which I’m working on for future letters intentionally, sometimes just as coincidence of normal purchase, sometimes deliberately  to see them here in the future. Of course, my friends ask me about artists here and there–no, sadly, I don’t have any Can on vinyl (I did get into them through vinyl, interestingly–while I was not big on John’s copy of Tago Mago in college, I grew into it after appreciating my dad’s copy of Ege Bamyasi on LP), Carcass would continue to run a bit counter to the tastes of, well, almost everyone I know of reading this but I’d welcome appearing (and looked into, but Earache doesn’t do heavy pressings, and there are some albums I’d be less pursuant of), I’m sure a few friends would appreciate a bit of Wendy Carlos‘s work appearing (and my friend Kyle who passed me Wheels of Fire does have some himself), and a copy of Cocteau TwinsGarlands would not go unloved in my hands either. CCR is a long-time love, but, like a lot of ’60s artists I grew up appreciating, I’ve never run after their material on vinyl. It probably wouldn’t be too much trouble to run into The Crucifucks (it’s self-titled, if you’re wondering), which I guess proves it doesn’t quite hop into the “needs” pile for my records.

It would be nice to have the self-titled Clash or In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3–but at least those two bands did get to have a chance under the needle.

A mess of real life is intruding on my ability to do this–devoting the 30-90 minutes to listen, the handful of hours to write is not always easy, though some days a few could be worked in, I’d prefer not to rush through or half-ass any of them, as I own records I like, and I don’t want to disrespect those works in comparative effort to those I give the time they deserve. Certainly, there are  releases and bands I like more and less, and albums I like more and less, but I’ve never had much truck with trying to run extreme comparisons between largely unrelated works, so that doesn’t much factor into it for me.

So, bear with me if you’re in for this–I am still on it, and working out the timing kinks as best I can. I do get recommendations on occasion, but haven’t always got the funds to throw at them (or even the ones I’d like myself!), though I’m not as opposed to them as I may come off. Thank you kindly to anyone sticking around here–and, most importantly–to anyone who has given one of these records a chance upon reading. I love a nice affirmation like anyone else, but I write this for the music, not for my writing.

We’ve got 23 letters to go, and I imagine a good number of both expected delights and surprises.


Day Fifty: Cursive – Burst and Bloom

Saddle Creek ■ LBJ-35

Released July 24, 2001

Produced by Mike Mogis and Cursive
Recorded by Mike Mogis
Mastered by Doug Van Sloun

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sink to the Beat
  2. The Great Decay
  3. Tall Tales, Telltales
  1. Mothership, Mothership, Do You Hear Me?
  2. Fairy Tales Tell Tales

If one checks back, one finds that I actually stated my next item on the block would be Cursive’s Happy Hollow. However, as I sat for a moment and considered that I had a Record Store Day exclusive on coloured vinyl (marbled yellow) and that release was one that was singled out by a friend (the words “so good” in a few incarnations came up, occasionally with profane emphases) as quality in the career of the band…I considered that perhaps I could once again write about an EP released by a band from whom I also own a full-length LP. Most pertinently, I guess, my good friend Brian–one of my most reliable folks for discussing music, which can be difficult for many in light of my erratic listening habits–is the person I most strongly associated the band with.

A few years back (around 2010-2011), an FYE (I apologize if the name shoots a dart of cold through your heart, fellow music aficionados) was purging a veritable truckload of bizarre, seemingly random CDs from numerous sources. In and amongst them were both a slew of the uninteresting and small dotted points of curiosity and excitement. I walked out with stacks of albums from numerous bands, some of which I had a bit of familiarity with (like Converge), others I’d never heard of but would come to like quite a bit (Manchester Orchestra, Hot Cross, Coalesce, Boysetsfire, The Dismemberment Plan), some I’d heard of from my dad but never listened to actively (John Hiatt, Peter Case, Bruce Cockburn), and some I had heard from other sources and couldn’t assign any sound at all despite this, like The Fall of Troy and this band–Cursive.

What I found myself holding first was actually Cursive’s Happy Hollow, which seemed like a find when it jumped out at me, but became the ever more enthusiastic matching pair and then set when I found The Ugly Organ and Domestica. I was enthralled pretty quickly, and slowly gathered singles and split releases, but alongside them–and first–Burst and Bloom and Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes. It wasn’t until one of my most ambitious Record Store Days that I ended up finding any Cursive on vinyl though. This EP was the first one I’d picked up, one of a run of 1,500, and the last I’d grab before a chance meeting with Happy Hollow at a later date.

“Sink to the Beat” starts the album on a rather playful note, single notes sliding gently up and down guitar strings, and Tim Kasher’s voice metallicized with an electronic filter, the subject somewhat “meta” as he sings: “I’ll try to make this perfectly clear I’m so transparent I disappear/These words I lyrically defecate upon songs I boldly claim to create”. His voice stops and Clint Schnase’s drumming joins, loud but recorded as if with a single microphone and in the corner of a room. If we were unsure that it was Schnase, Kasher erases any such doubt, his voice no longer filtered and the drums no longer far off or single-mic’d: “Clint steps in to establish the beat 4/4 hip hop and you don’t stop/This unique approached to start an EP intended to shock, create a mystique/A cheap strategy, a marketing scheme building awareness for the next LP”–it’s a musical version of XTC‘s Go 2 album cover.
However, unlike that (terribly fun and clever) Hipgnosis-designed cover, Kasher is speaking for himself, and begins to wave the description of the music into the song itself. Where Hipgnosis took an intentionally neutral but confessional tone, Kasher’s is conflicted and emotionally bare (as his words and voice usually are, to be fair). He compares the group to others (Fugazi, Shudder to Think) and to a local scene (the early 90’s in my recent haunt of some years–Chapel Hill). His voice is near monotone, listing as if about to run out of breath, but it suddenly begins to gain range as he sings of the way melodies can worm their way into your head, but then questions it with the thought that they “are like a disease/They can inflame your misery/They will infect your memory they haunt me”. It blurs the lines between what he is writing (singing) now, what he has heard himself, and how each affects him and others–in fact, he transposes the use of memory and melody when he repeats the line–now memories are like infectious disease, worming their way into melodies. After that repetition, his voice is quieter, and Matt Maginn’s bass appears for the first time, the melody softening with his voice, as do Schnase’s drums: “I write these words with a motherly intuition/I shape these sounds into harmonic apparitions”. Clint speeds the beat through his words, and then leaves behind the beat Kasher first described, but he starts playing with increasing force and distorted guitar whines in. The song explodes on the force of Maginn’s booming, rhythmic bassline. The clean, sliding guitar strings are gone–in their place is the sheen of jagged splashes of distorted reverberation, reverberation that solidifies into distorted knots of mid-range lead, which disappear on a drum hit.
Stripped back to the melody of Maginn’s entrance, Kasher is quiet again, but the majority of the melody is in the newfound cello of Gretta Cohn, which rises to the speeding splash of cymbals that “Stops….and bursts under pressure…” All ride, bass-kicks and extremely restricted muted guitar chords chopping in anticipation, Kasher sings quietly: “Let it burst and bloom” and driving slashes of distorted guitar, sawing cello, pounding drums and bass roar out as Ted Stevens joins him in screaming, “Hit song!” “Let it/Burst and bloom!” Kasher yells over and over to the song’s end.

After the release of “Sink to the Beat”, we’re given reprieve in the opening moments of “The Great Decay”: forward-leaning rapid picks at single muted strings hum with potential energy, released in distorted, loud, but subdued versions of the lick, Schnase picking up a peculiar alternation of snare and bass that jerks at the song like a twitching puppeteer. “This is the bed that I have made”, Kasher cries out suddenly in punctuated monosyllables, Stevens responding, “This is the grave where I will lay,” in kind, letting Kasher finish: “These are the hands where I will bury my face”. Another set of traded lines is followed by the monotone stutter of guitar riffs and then Maginn’s bass in prominent place below a quieted Kasher, who opens his throat again before the line even ends. Cohn’s cello rides in an interesting place for a band that alternates loud and quiet like this–it’s not the sound of quiet, clean, acoustic moments, nor a simplistic expansion of the distorted guitars, it’s another thread in the overall sound, moving through the first portion of loud distortion. “Give in, give in, give up!” Stevens and Kasher scream as if coming to either climax or abrupt end, but the song continues naturally, melding the unexpected melodiousness (relatively speaking) of Kasher’s harsh voice and the crunch and dissonance of his and Stevens’ guitars.
After three minutes, the song seems to stop, but instead its taken up by piano and organ¹, the piano sounding in-room like Clint’s first drum entrance, the organ sustained on all notes and caught between the sound of a church and Vincent Price movie, electronic sounds wiggling and warping their subtle way in around the two, gradually increasing to a mild cacophony (if that’s possible) of tuning strings, squeaks and creaks.

“Tall Tales, Telltales” builds from the same sounds “The Great Decay” ended with, guitars creeping in with slightly demented singular notes that gain a palm’s mute when Clint begins to pound fervently at his snare, a near-martial sound that slowly works a bass-kick into itself. “Now and again you’ll remember the sound/Of the sails waving helplessly”, sings Kasher, and it feels like the rise of snare, cello and guitar now sounds like maybe it’s the sway and rock of a ship, threatening to completely escape a sailor’s control. The cello breaks away, mournful, and the guitars crumble, splinter and spike, increasingly distraught but calming momentarily as if broken by waves. “But they send you no sign/Hold on sailor, hold on brother/Steady the vessel” Kasher begins to sing passionately, his voice wrapping itself around the commands, as if trying to calm the sailor, though it seems like a command given from the distance of remembrance or observation, rather than direct and intimate contact. Staccato, dramatic pounding of snares and wiry guitars suggest control may soon be lost, building a tension that is eased by the second guitar, until Kasher’s voice returns, now talking about the afterlife, dead reckoning, ghosts–a sense of doom, fate, and inexorable conclusions begins to wash through it, but there’s a release, the chorus falling away slowly to rapid, muted chords, the wandering sheets of feedback, and the fade of everything else–is it relief, and what kind? We’re not too sure.

Side Two starts with “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” the fuzzy interference of connected circuits playing across the guitar riffs Matt answers with thick, thumping bass under which Clint’s beat drops to eight notes on the hi-hat. The guitars break free of their riff and work outward from their simple beginnings and introduce Kasher’s voice back to the record, everyone continuing on their path but now joined by Cohn, whose cello slips between them to draw low notes that ache from out of the guts of the song itself. When the next lines start (“Your starving – it’s burning for the nutrient it can’t have…”), they are ended with a clatter of strikes at guitars, jarring in the otherwise light backing.  Stevens whispers his line: “Calling out to homebase, do you read me?” Kasher continues as quiet, “Emergency: we’re floating endlessly”, and Clint’s snares pound the song back up to volume.
“You’ve been created severed from life and limb/Stranded an infant/On the front step of the universe” Kasher and Stevens sing out together, and then the song shifts into a sort of cruising territory, with a delightful flourish of a hammer-on on the guitar that ends easily on Kasher’s word: “Now lost–Forever.” Schnase gallops to the zig zagged guitars, Cohn comes in with a cello part that could easily have sounded pasted in, playing such a different melody, but instead fits perfectly into a space no one else occupies, and leaves Kasher and Stevens calling out from their astral abandonment: “Mothership, mothership, do you read me?” “Does anyone…” Kasher continues, then whispers “…hear my siren song? Maybe I’ll be rescued before too long”. His efforts to be heard (“Calling out to homebase one last time”) are countered by the response of Stevens (“The signal faded out the ship is gone”), and we find ourselves back at the chorus (“You’ve been created…”). Continuing as it did before, Tim screams the final words: “Now lost–FOR-E-VER!” and the climax holds its volume and energy clattering and crashing to a sudden stop.

The last minute of the song is a rumble of bass set to a rapid drum machine, and the brittle pulls of a rapidly picked guitar, the drum machine credited to A.J. Mogis, Kasher’s words garbled and watery and incomprehensible. While it’s coded as part of the song on the CD, the distinct pause leaves the grooves implying almost a separate “interlude” of a track on the vinyl.

“Fairy Tales Tell Tales” starts with immediate drama, Clint bearing down on his toms as Ted and Tim scratch upward at their guitars. “Let’s pretend we’re not needy…” Kasher sings over nothing but hi-hat and Matt’s rumbling bass pulse, though his words are stressed by forceful punctuation from snare and distorted guitar. Those drums nearly disappear from the next lines, though the picking of guitar strings now joins him, and the guitar and snare return. Cohn enters with rueful strings, the emotion of her cello enhanced by the rock instruments “Low lives hiding in dives/There’s no feeling drinking, sleeping with strangers”, Kasher sings and the instruments crash together, Clint now bashing at drums and cymbals, guitars peeling out slicked screeches of chords, yanking back at reins momentarily. Cohn’s cello does not leave for a moment, but finds itself spotlighted with only Maginn’s guitar and the cold, cave-echo of Kasher’s quieted voice. Clint rejoins her with the propulsive pounding of toms that brings the song back to its sonic apex in volume and power. Kasher’s words vacillate between fatalistic depression, vague misanthropy, and the strangled despair of desperate pleas for some chance and hope beyond this. “So who is it that whispers in your ear?” whispers Kasher, guitars, drums and bass answering loudly with the dramatic riff they’d not yet had time to forget, “A haunting voice blows in through the window…” he continues, and the instruments do not hesitate in again blasting out a response. Kasher sings on, but the instruments drop away as he begins the line, “A needy, pleading apparation”, only a fuzzy, periodic guitar riff staying with him, and his voice and the band explode: “Crying, ‘Who am I if I’m alone? I hardly exist at all/Let’s pretend that we don’t need anything anymore from anyone./I don’t want to feel anything anymore – Let’s just pretend.'” And then it closes, brilliantly:
The band crushes down at their now-familiar riff, and “We’ll live,” he sings hopefully alone, the splash of colour that is that riff answers, “Happily,” and as it returns to crash down, he finishes–“Ever after.”

Cursive occupies a lovely spot in music, for me. I was suddenly stricken by how much they remind me of other bands in the hardcore-inflected wave of “emo” in the late 90s, the kind that tends to be more abrasive, aggressive and post-hardcore in sound–particularly heard in another band I do very much love: Piebald. There’s a sort of shared oddity to the two: Tim Kasher and Travis Shettell (Piebald’s primary vocalist) are both quite limited singers with respect to clear ranges, but both use the stretches and cracks of that limitation to wonderful effect. Similarly, they both started from a rather more basic song structure that diversified and changed over time. Of course, Piebald ended up going in a very different direction eventually, but there’s an interesting intersection somewhere around this time.

Kasher has readily woven the lyrics of this EP into a unified whole, though with neat enough movements that it can easily be split into separate components. “Sink to the Beat” inserts personal emotion into the more concrete action of songwriting, and the calculated movements of marketing that action into a career–his intentions, his reactions, his attempts to control and failures to do so. “The Great Decay” follows a thread of this, the loss of identity and the wasted time in a world that drains both, amounting to less than is expected or intended–much as intentions in songwriting may be lost, subverted or wrested away by the moment. “Tall Tales, Telltales” shifts it into metaphorical grounds–a sailor at see attempting to maintain a vessel’s course through storm, pondering absently the thought of being “lost beneath/a substance so dark, yet elementary”, and then passes the thought immediately to keep at the standing needs of the ship. “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” is another kind of ship–a spaceship, of course–abandoning a crew member, and navels and “your mother’s loving grasp” melding it into more personal abandonments and losses. “Fairy Tales Tell Tales” is nothing but attempting to make something of a relationship when it feels as though such a thing is inherently impossible, that pretense is a necessity for it to work, pleading to the other to take this route, to keep sense and meaning in life.

There’s an overwhelming sense of inevitability in this, but it’s contrasted with the boom and crash of music that plays beauty and melody in, against, and even with dissonance, harsh sounds and abrasive moments and instruments–there’s hope, heavily oppressed by that feeling of inescapable failure, but hope nonetheless, stretching out a hand and begging for relief from this, believing it’s possible but unlikely to reach. It would be depressing, but for the fact that that hope seems to be consistent, lasting and determined, even in desperation.

I am glad I went with this EP–it hits something different from what I remember of Happy Hollow or The Ugly Organ (the two albums I’ve heard most), striking me as more personal and bare than either is, more intense in that sense, if not the musical one.

  • Next Up: Darkest Hour – ?

¹The album contains no specific credits, so it’s easy to place the band’s members into the roles of their primary instruments (and identifiable voices), but the less commonly used instruments–your guess is as good as mine. If your guess is better, I’m guessing it’s not a guess.

Day Forty-Nine: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Fiction Records ■ BEG A 65

Released April 18, 1985

Produced by Robert Smith and Mike Hedges
Assistant Production by Chris Parry and M L S
Engineered by Mike Hedges and Mike Dutton
Assistant Engineering by Nigel Green and Andrew Warwick

Side One: Side Two:
  1. A Reflection
  2. Play for Today
  3. Secrets
  4. In Your House
  5. Three
  1. The Final Sound
  2. A Forest
  3. M
  4. At Night
  5. Seventeen Seconds

I don’t remember now how I found myself listening to The Cure. I think it was finding the video for “Lullaby” (meaning I probably saw it on the same tapes that led me to Marshall Crenshaw and listening to more Elvis Costello), but I’m really not sure. It meant I kept an ear out for Disintegration, but was never sure what to do with the rest of their discography. Someone I know–forgive me, for once, I can’t remember who–posted video of a live performance of “Killing an Arab”,¹ and I finally found myself asking: what album do I go to next? Pornography was a quick response, and I filed it away mentally–I’d picked up Bloodflowers on somewhat a whim, but had listened to it only a few times, and “Killing an Arab” told me there was something else back there, an entirely different style than what I’d heard so far.

I finally picked up a copy of Pornography, and soon found myself picking up every one of the deluxe-ified Cure remasters I saw (each came with a bonus disc of demos and live material from the time frame surrounding the album in question), Seventeen Seconds and Faith following rapidly behind Pornography, and all of it being settled when I purchased Three Imaginary Boys four months later (about a year ago). My ever-referenced used vinyl haunt last year, Hunky Dory, happened to have a copy of Faith on vinyl, though–the owner mentioned a copy of Pornography waiting in the wings, but, alas, it never appeared when I was there. In a sense, though, that has its benefits: I already really liked Pornography, but had only listened to most of the other albums a few times. That it was Seventeen Seconds and not Faith (they are the two immediate predecessors to Pornography) was even more fortuitous, as that album had stuck with me far better than Faith ever has.

If, like me, you only know/knew the Cure for songs like “Lullaby”, “Lovesong”, “Pictures of You” and similar, “A Reflection” might strike you quite immediately for its simplicity and its rather open structure. A repetitive twang sounds very quietly in the background, and then a single guitar and piano chord blares out–though it’s apparent after the initial surprise that it’s not so much blaring as at a reasonable, average volume. Smith’s guitar continues to strum single chords at the first beat of each measure, while Matthieu Hartley’s keys take that downbeat and plink and plunk up from it to link each together. The tone is somber but vaguely inhuman, the feeling of nature making that somberness a sort of flatline of feeling: instinct, not emotion. And then, Smith unexpectedly brightens the guitar, just slightly, but at the next chord it’s fully there, the song feeling like a peeking light is now coming up over the horizon, still slow, spacious–but it loses this quickly and finds itself at the initial darker chords and generally downward stride of the opening. A distant yawning wail fades in with a sort of obscured sound, and then fades away, and the song ends on a chord that simply is not, this time, followed by another.

“Play for Today” suddenly ups the tempo, Lol (still “Laurence” at this point) Tolhurst playing a beat that fairly well shifts it–a dance speed, really. An expulsion of air–electronic, one imagines–helps to punctuate the song. Smith enters on confident harmonic notes that seem to linger and consider their next movement, even as those changes seem practiced in the performing. Simon Gallup drives the majority of the melody on the pulsing eighth notes of his bass, until Smith takes the reins and his harmonics become clean, clear, but very warmly toned chords, running at the same tempo and rhythm as Gallup’s bass had been. “It’s not a case of doing what’s right/It’s just the way I feel that matters/Tell me I’m wrong/I don’t really care/It’s not a case of share and share alike/I take what I require/I don’t understand/You say it’s not fair”, Smith adds the first words of the album. The song travels at a fair pace, as established by Lol, but Smith’s characteristic down-turned voice (though still in the infancy of what it would later develop) and his stripped-to-minor chords imply a downbeat sense that’s more misanthropic or apathetic than it is “depressed”. For all that Tolhurst set the beat, his drums are low-key, the heads all dry and short, keeping a backing role to the swirling of warm guitars played coldly.

Simon Gallup establishes the tone of “Secrets” with a lead bassline that draws a melody and then slides downward to abandon it and joins the newly-entered Tolhurst in the rhythm. Smith, having played short, controlled palm-muted rattling with just enough release to give it clear and pretty tone, takes up the reins, alongside Hartley’s keys. Single chords from Hartley accentuate the start, while Smith’s playing loosens the muting just enough, while increasing the volume in kind, to give him control. Gallup’s playing is minimalistic, Tolhurst’s is a heartbeat of kick and very light hi-hat that gives a spine to the track while staying off and behind. Smith’s vocals are quiet and almost hidden, a distant, more passionate echo almost a flare that leads back to their whisper. His guitar, though, continues its lead role, briefly wandering up and down chords in dissectionary ways, but never takes the song past the subdued sound it shows so clearly in his vocals.

“In Your House” is Tolhurst’s kick at its most heartbeat-y, snares on the offbeat being the attack to counter this. Robert’s guitar is all murky single picking, steady and almost mysterious, the lower notes drifting up and down the neck while the higher ones that follow them are almost the same each time. Gallup’s bass is at its most active, bubbling up along the heartbeat kicks of Lol. Warping washes and heavily electronic keys dot the track periodically for texture, Smith again seemingly bored in his singing, or perhaps just darkly, callously confessional. The guitar leaves its incessant picking at the same notes only briefly, only a mild shift upward, but one that takes the song on a reasonable sidetrip into a kind of questioning, a wisp of smoke beckoning supernaturally outward that dissolves after the gesture.

A reverberating key sounds–think the Kinks’ “Death of a Clown”²–to open “Three”, a seemingly random set of  reverberating keys is strewn across it, distant mumbling hiding far behind it. An actual dance-like beat drops in from Tolhurst, the keys continue in their diffuse pattern, the track pounding hypnotically until it clears away in an abrupt electronic noise seemingly like a ball dropped and bouncing lower and lower to short frequency vibration.

Intended as an instrumental of great length, “The Final Sound” is a slightly dissonant clutter of sustained and echoing keys, growing in their low-end murmurings of somewhat disturbing nature, the keys climbing in fumbling fashion, wandering up and down before the volume drops out–the tape ended, and there was no money for another. (Really.)

The lone single from the album, “A Forest” is moody, dark, electronic waves, a cold echo of single-picked guitar slowly gathering up to a slow walk in tempo over it, but rising in pitch just a bit. A soft, unusually high bass lick loops around once, trying to pull the song up. Tolhurst’s drum machine like beat pops in, a bass followed by a light snare roll on the second beat, repeated consistently. Robert’s guitar returns with a faster (though still economic) version of that first riff, the guitar less dry and far off, curved and warm instead, though it only lasts one run of the riff, the second time going up and then running into a more speedy lead before dropping off. Lightly phased muted chords take over guitar, Gallup’s bass bouncing along faster than Lol’s drums. Robert sings in the most wonderfully rapid, rhythmic way, perhaps the most immediate and engaging vocal on the album (no wonder it was a single!). Hartley takes the keys up into a sonorous hold, Smith opening the guitar again for a mild crescendo that crashes into his voice’s renewed presence. At the end of his last word, his guitar jangles and strums out to an ending that drops drums and a bass spliced to half its beats, the guitar rising and spreading outward and upward and into the ether, leaving the steady thumps of Simon behind.

Rich and entwined guitar chords splay across “M”, a panning wash of white noise sweeps in Simon’s bass and Lol’s light, simple drumming. One of the few instances of lyrical chorus, “You’ll fall in love with somebody else/Tonight” is matched to the staccato thud of bass and drum, nodding up and down with both. Smith actually follows his final words in the song with the steady picking of an early rock style lead or solo, which wanders up and down and around until it finally settles on a high pitch it holds nervously, dropping off only with the rest of the song.

The most wonderfully fuzzy bass appear when we come to “At Night”, Lol’s drums spare, clean, and dry, but the intermittent fuzzy driving riff lending a sort of sneer to them–yet, driving though it is in construction, it’s quiet and comes off more as actual “fuzz” than it does a crush of even nihilistic dismissal. Hartley has a few well-placed, reedy keys texturally intertwined with those standing elements, buzzing lightly but with a hint of majesty, or at least gravity, about them, despite their relative lightness. Robert’s voice is hiding in the middle of the mix–surrounded by the darkness of night, perhaps–and it brings out the clean guitars, which use their lovely clean jangle alone, but carve a dissonant swathe through the returned fuzzy rumble of Simon. Gallup takes the opportunity to play a plodding rise of pitch through his fuzz, climbing slowly at each measure’s new note. This style is taken into a sort of lead at the end of the track, Smith’s contrasting clean guitar brilliantly acting as the dissonance to the harsher fuzz. A buzz of electronics hangs over the final moments, even as Lol’s drums fade out alone.

The song that has always stuck with me most on the album–perhaps because it’s the last one you hear, perhaps because it’s the title track, perhaps because its title is apparent in the song, or just maybe because it’s so damned good–is “Seventeen Seconds”. Lol counts the beats on the hi-hat, alternating snare and bass only at the beginning beat of each measure (seriously, it’s unbelievably noticeable in its pace). Smith enters  after five bars, a circling guitar in the languid, part-calloused, part-moody, all downbeat style that he employs throughout the album. Simon gives a little more emotive performance here, his bass line characterized by diminishing bends that eventually become steady eighth notes that continue to build the song up to a full drumbeat from Lol, allowing Simon’s bass to return to a melodic role at the same pace. It’s a minute and a half before Robert’s voice comes in, waiting for the song to reach its full sound before he begins. His words are that of ending, as if recapping the prior tracks on the album, telling us everything to this point was all fated and inevitable. “Seventeen seconds/A measure of life/Seventeen seconds…” he sings, his guitar suddenly energized to emphasize those words. Simon’s bass returns to its plaintive bends, Lol’s drum slows back to its snails pace, Simon disappears, Robert frays, and we’re down, again, to just Lol’s crawling beat.

Okay, if nothing else, putting that showstopper at the end of the album was a brilliant move. It hasn’t got an expected construction in any sense. Sure, the build up, tear down approach to instrumentation has been done, but the way that Robert sings those last phrases is just–there is nothing extra, no fat, and yet it’s also not exactly a hook, or anything else like that. It’s just phrases thrown out there, though they have their meaning in context. That they don’t actually end anything, but the song also seems to respond to them, appropriately, makes it that much more brilliant. It’s brilliant because it’s not at all obvious. It doesn’t feel designed, yet it feels perfect.

For a band that ended up lush and dreamy and dramatic and maybe even melodramatic, the album is sparse, spare and light. Its tone is what you would expect, whether you know the Cure at a glance, or just by reputation, though it predates the most familiar images of Robert Smith (who wore no makeup, kept his hair short, and wore snazzy, if peculiar, suits at the time). It’s been dismissed as “soundtrack-y”, but it’s not at all. It’s minimalist and atmospheric, but it’s all creating a mood for an album, not for images or movies or unsung words or anything else. It’s a cohesive whole, and a stunningly good one. I may still prefer the likes of Pornography³, but this listen gave me a new-found appreciation for why I always liked this album at least a bit, and never found it boring or iffy. It’s really quite good, and an understandable favourite for many (and if it isn’t, it ought to be).

  • Next Up: Cursive – Happy Hollow

¹If anyone finds yourself aghast at the title, Robert Smith has “retired” the song for that reason. Of course, it was originally written in reference to Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, and had nothing to do with a suggestion or nonchalance about the title’s subject. Okay, well, not about Smith’s nonchalance anyway.

²Holy cow that feels like a pretentiously obscure reference (in context, at least, because I don’t imagine many people associate the Kinks and the Cure beyond “British bands”), but it was what I thought of immediately when I heard it.

³If we remove the formatting, this entire thing is going to read very, very strangely.

Day Forty-Eight: The Cult – Love

Beggars Banquet ■ BEG A 65

Released October 19, 1985

Produced by Steve Brown
Engineered by Steve Brown and Mark Stent

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Nirvana
  2. Big Neon Glitter
  3. Love
  4. Brother Wolf; Sister Moon
  5. Rain
  1. Phoenix
  2. Hollow Man
  3. Revolution
  4. She Sells Sanctuary
  5. Black Angel

Despite being a band I remain cursorily familiar with (at best), I actually wrote about The Cult twice on the last blog, once in bite-sized form regarding their fourth album, Sonic Temple, and very early on regarding the Beggars Banquet “Omnibus Edition” releases, which included this very album. I still have no idea what to make of them in more “global” terms than my own personal one, but I’ve found myself gravitating more and more regularly to their work, as proven by my eventual acquisition of this record (another of my more excited purchases from Hunky Dory. It is, so far as I can tell, actually a UK original from ’85, but I’ve never been too fussed about such things (even if I do find the thought neat and vaguely exciting).

“Nirvana” opens the album with a simple drumstick count from Mark Brzezicki (of Big Country), but Billy Duffy (though still credited at this time with the more officialese William H. Duffy) fans out a single chord from the guitar with the immediately pulsing bass of Jamie Stewart, Brzezicki now matching that pulse with hi-hat and off-beat snares. Duffy slashes guitar melody over this, big and broad, Ian Astbury descending from above with some simple “Oh, oh, oh yeah!” that seems to turn the band toward the verse as a whole, Brzezicki now embracing primarily snare and bass kick, Duffy’s crunchy riffs muted but escaping at the end of each of Astbury’s lines. Astbury’s voice is broad, wide and big, in keeping with Duffy’s guitar stylings, gnarling up in their unmuted freedom with a hook of a riff that builds up the tension–“And when the music is loud”, Astbury sings, and then it is just that: the initial melody was that of the chorus, and now his voice soars over the riffs Duffy started the album with, but held back a bit to let Astbury control that chorus like nobody’s business. At the midpoint, a start-stop bridge, emphasized largely by Brzezicki’s drums, but sounding best in the slippery, open riffs of Duffy. Billy goes into a coiled chug of muted riffing with the most delightful little branches of released strings that slowly manages to morph into a rising, rising, and rising solo that eschews the sense of “show-off” completely, being utterly appropriate for the song’s movement.

“Big Neon Glitter” is not bright and sparkly as one might think, single-picked, muted guitar strings with relatively light distortion echo just slightly, and are undercut by a sliding bass from Stewart that seems to fade down as it slides off of its notes, Brzezicki rolls into snare and bass hits, which slowly increase Duffy’s confidence, finally cementing it with a snare build that releases the strings, putting the same riff into a more complicated pattern, one that makes use of open strings for space,. Brzezicki, too, opens up, pounding the skins with a more primal–though just slightly restrained–force, before Duffy reaches into the heavens with another shining, high progression. “Drag me back/Drag me back drag me back drag me back” Astbury enters to say, seemingly repeating himself in a sense somewhere between hurrying the slow-moving and sinking into relaxation. Duffy’s guitars become more spaced apart, Brzezicki pushing the song forward, but Astbury making his notes count at the speed he feels appropriate, which isn’t always the tempo Brzezicki is setting. The bridge sees Brzezicki putting four on the floor, Stewart’s bass sliding up forcefully then back down with energy expended, Duffy’s guitar running tight circles around the rhythm section, Ian only briefly fading in with rhythmic vocalization that leaves as fast as it comes.

The title track makes for one of the best cases for the value of Billy’s overdubbing of guitars on the album–or, at the very least, one of the most apparent cases. He starts alone, playing a riff that goes on four beats and stops cold, but is picked up with a bending lead lick that overlaps just slightly with the riff’s return. The riff stays steady, while the higher lead lowers itself over a few steps, and then becomes a much more spacious, lower one that paves the way for Ian’s voice. Stewart mostly follows that standing riff, but fills the gap after its second run with a few beats and a downward slope. Ian keeps the power in his voice, but tunes it more toward a small crowd than the far reaches of a field, his words now leaving to let Duffy’s guitar lead return, experimenting further with its own range. A monster tom beat keeps the forward movement under Ian’s lengthy “Oh…” and lets Billy’s lead just burn and sail on through the rest of the track. The latter half of the car encompasses Astbury’s second lyrical set, half-desperate repetitions of methods of escape set to the varied poundings of Brzezicki and Duffy’s steadily high lead. A wah-wah warping of his lead carries it out through the end, Astbury improvising more and more steadily alongside him.

“Brother Wolf; Sister Moon” is the most explicit acknowledgment of the Native American aesthetic Ian favoured (actually, I think he still favours it). Duffy plays a low, arpeggiated chord over and over, joined subtly by bass kicks from Brzezicki, but most apparently by the flickers of mournful wailing that come from another of his own performances. It’s the kind of track you’d at least half expect to half spoken word lyrics, but Ian continues to make the most of his voice, his lyrics not even going in the story direction you might expect from the music and title, instead running on his favoured approach of a set of lines that are repeated in a fashion that is not always distinctly verse-chorus-verse. “And blow my fears…” he pauses, then sings “…away,” and Brzezicki drops his drums more strongly into the track–still a simple, steady and slow beat, but the snare drum echoing, and Stewart’s bass quietly rising up to join it in volume, too. It’s a hypnotic track, a slow fuse, but a burning one; when Duffy takes up the reins from Astbury and begins a solo that doesn’t much violate the song’s tempo, he doesn’t take that fuse and explode, so much as burn it brighter, Stewart’s keyboard part adding the most expectation to the track, high in the track and repeated with a melody that implies an eventual release, Ian repeating his lyrics before he pauses again, this time his word returning the song to its origins, a recording of an actual thunderstorm blanketing the track in one of the most musically appropriate moments for one I can recall.

Released as a single shortly before the album itself, “Rain” riffs more like “Nirvana”, though the steady four-on-the-floor from Brzezicki is given a speedy feel by his eighth note responses on the hi-hat. At open, Duffy’s guitars play as slowly picked chords on the one hand, but rising wails of lead. Mark releases his grip on the rapid beat slightly when the introduction ends, though, a subtle tambourine maintaining the eight notes, but most of the beat stuck to bass-snare-bass-snare pulsebeats. Duffy’s lead fades for the verse, his riffing turning to partly muted chugs, that open back up (though quietly) with Ian’s voice, which leaps along the tops of Billy’s high-reaching chorus lick. The return of the rapid opening beat allows Stewart’s bass to make itself known, before it gives way to the martial drumming of Mark and the shattering, tightly knit riffs that launch the song back into its chorus as the song finds its close.
Wah-wah is the order of the day in “Phoenix”, apparently a technique Billy picked up simply because there was a pedal in the studio, and not one he normally kept in his repertoire. He lays down a warbling riff, to which Ian replies “Yeah!” and Brzezicki adds a pair of kicks and then a steady beat to. Duffy’s lead burns off into the atmosphere and leaves behind a more restrained riff that mirrors Stewart’s bass, before it finds itself unable to be controlled and begins to spiral out from that simpler base, as Ian repeats “Fire, fire, fire…” in a way much calmer than he would do a few years later in “Fire Woman”. The wah allows Billy to wrestle out a song-length lead that gets neither boring nor too showy, and never stable and repetitious. It gives the whole thing a sort of “tougher” sense, not quite aggression but just pure strength.
“Hollow Man” is built on a steady foundation of  Stewart’s bass, one that ties down the free-floating riffs of Billy just long enough for Brzezicki to wrest control away and pull Duffy back down to earth for a riff that locates Ian’s voice and brings the song into a more distinct form that it carries onward. While a few songs on the album have backing vocals, they are most apparent here, in the only instance where they are the voices of Duffy and Stewart, echoing the words of Ian, at a vocal expression more of us can wrap our heads around. The lead riff Duffy follows with is like a rising flame that burns the rest away to leave nothing but a slightly tremolo-quivered ringing chord, and a bass-kick, snare-rim tap, which is itself burnt away with that same flaming riff, and leaves the verse’s structure intact in its wake instead. Billy’s lead begins to become wiry and aggressive in its bonds to the rest of the song, fighting more and more until the final beat of the song is let go.

Downtempo in a style very different from “Brother Wolf; Sister Moon”, “Revolution” has a thumping bassline and another of the more steady beats Brzezicki lays down. Duffy’s guitar is relatively subdued, though it doesn’t starve for volume or presence. Ian is similarly restrained: not quiet, not restricted in power, but kept at a reasonable medium largely, though his singing style doesn’t lend itself significantly to this approach and he throws a few tricks in here and there. At the chorus, though, he sings out into the distance, “There’s a revolution!/There’s a revolution!” with a kind of clenched-fist passion, though he spends most of the verses questioning the nature of revolution, the meaning of images, and the strength of either. It’s anthemic in an entirely different sense form “Nirvana” or “Rain”, which is exemplified in the deliberate pace of Duffy’s solo–it’s a fist raised more in solidarity, a glimmer of hope in rain, than it is a fist raised to punch at the air, or as a symbol to represent an undimmed effort despite exhaustion. The Soultanas (who are responsible for the album’s other backing vocals) appear with choral “Ahhs” and repetitions of the title word, all of it seeming to imply a non-specific revolution–not a theme song for a particular one, or maybe even any of them, yet not far off in tone from what one might be.

“She Sells Sanctuary” is a track the band was originally inclined to omit from the album, as it was released months earlier as a single, and was recorded with their then-drummer Nigel Preston, whose undiagnosed mental illness left him out of the band due to increasingly erratic behaviour. It’s chopped down from the lengthy runtime of the single (6:59 to 4:22), but still has a big sound that belies its comparatively short running time (it’s also now the second shortest track on the album, after “Rain”). The watery, ethereal guitar that starts it turns quickly to the burning rock of the song’s primary riff, which is expanded by the use of a clean guitar’s sound on the same riffs. Ian’s voice is in top firm, his mouth, his lungs open wide for every word. Nigel’s drums are steady and consistent, as is Stewart’s pulsing bass, but the Billy and Ian trade their energies throughout, soaring vocals for soaring leads, occasionally overlapped but never treading on each other. It briefly morphs into a vaguely psychedelic passage backed by steady 4/4 kicks, but it finds itself immediately becoming a final anthemic run through the verse and then a slow devolution into that watery opening guitar again.
The rapid song-end strumming that opens “Black Angel” is a complete distraction from what it becomes, a more clearly defined but still rapid riff is suggested, but replaced with a sped-up funereal clean guitar line that the distortion matches in volume, melody and rhythm. Reverberating chords let ring at the beginning of each measure suggest a desert’s desolation. Ian sings at his most gentle and quiet, but the kicks Brzezicki places behind him open his voice: “It’s a long way to go/A black angel at your side”…it’s a chorus that trudges with its words–it’s a long way to go, his voice says, not suggesting giving up, even sympathetic, but not just stating the facts, though maybe with a hint of confidence in the ability to finish the trip anyway. Of course, this is a trip with death, if “black angel” didn’t make that clear enough, the line is sometimes clarifed to “The reaper at your side”, nevermind “Journey on to the eternal reward”. It’s the theme of a journey, too intimate to be relegated to soundtrack status, but it would not be out of place there all the same–a cloaked figure pushing on through winds and sand, the hazy mirage of a black angel waiting off to the side. Brzezicki turns to a martial beat, implications of a steady march, and Duffy lays it over with his prettiest lead, which weaves around keys from Stewart, the mournful sound of a long journey that nears end but is still far off enough to be distant. “It’s a long, long, long goodbye” Ian begins to sing, and then it all wraps suddenly.
If you’re wondering, the symbols next to each song’s description are those that are placed in the back cover’s  tracklisting, as well as interspersed in the lyrics. If you actually blow up the picture of the cover in my hand, you’ll find that, oddly, the two sides are “reversed”: Side Two is above the central Cult wings, just below the band’s logo, and Side One is below and above the album title. Oddly, the back cover also shows the symbols in a row–and they’re reversed in the same fashion. Other pressings undo this choice, but I’m left wondering if it was intentional or accidental. I also wonder a bit if the symbol for “Hollow Man” is intended for “Black Angel”, though there are certainly enough death symbols in Egyptian mythology that that might be one as well (it’s not one I can place, so I’m not sure, myself–and perhaps it’s not so obvious as that). Each is of course drawn in the oblong shape that indicates a cartouche–but more than one is clearly taken from other cultures (a yin/yang appears in the one for “Revolution”, for instance).
The Cult has an interesting sound, and they’ve got a weird reputation. All the reviews included in the Omnibus edition prattle on about how they seem to be trying to bring back the ’60s, and other such tripe, and use this “against” them, despite the fact that it is not inherently good or bad, and Billy himself comments on realizing this, saying that he learned that Pete Townshend, for instance, was not automatically a boring old dinosaur just because Steve Jones (of the Sex Pistols) said he was, and that he had to “unlearn” a lot. I found all of this quite endearing: I’ve never been one to truck much with the reaction of punks as purely relevant to all music, much though I appreciate the shakeup–music can always use that.
What they actually sound like, though, is vaguely influenced by their imagery and their name: it’s music that carries on long enough and in fashions that use enough repetition that it could easily be thought of as mantra or chant, the kind of sounds and words that could fit with a darkened room lit only by large flames–not as a means of pretension or silliness, but as the right atmosphere for the sound. And sometimes it’s too big and loud and janglingly bright to fit in that space, but it seems right anyway. 
Indeed, this seems to be why “gothic rock” is attached to them as a label, at least in their early days (notwithstanding lingering associations from prior incarnation Southern Death Cult, which is a pretty cool name, you have to admit)–but they’re often pictured at the time (including inside the gatefold) in endless necklaces and paisley for Duffy, or the same excess jewelry and a leather jacket for Ian. There’s a sort of flowingness to their aesthetic as people that gives an oddly believable metaphysical sense to their image and sound. Astbury’s lyrics help this, but most importantly, none of it comes off as contrived or overtly naïve, it just comes off as aged, goth-y mystics who like to play rock. That might sound silly to some, I suppose, but it tends to work quite well for me, considering how they carry it off–neither taking it too far, nor seeming to chafe at its implications.
It’s nice, if nothing else, to see a band that is willing to create their own sound, not deny the past, and still come out of a scene (and a label) more known for the peculiar and “arty”.
  • Next Up: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Day Forty-Seven: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

Warner Bros. Records ■ BSK 3673

Released April 28, 1982

Produced by Richard Gottehrer and Marshall Crenshaw
Engineered by Thom Panunzio, Jim Ball [Assisting]
Mastered by Greg Calbi

Side One: Side Two:
  1. There She Goes Again
  2. Someday, Someway
  3. Girls . . .
  4. I’ll Do Anything
  5. Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.
  6. The Usual Thing
  1. She Can’t Dance
  2. Cynical Girl
  3. Mary Anne
  4. Soldier of Love
  5. Not for Me
  6. Brand New Lover

Another of my “Black X” titles that indicates a $1US purchase at Musik Hut, I first heard Marshall Crenshaw via the same tapes that introduced me to the video for “Oliver’s Army“, though the song I saw a video for was “Whenever You’re on My Mind”, from Crenshaw’s follow-up to this album, Field Day. I knew the song wasn’t on here, but figured for $1 I’d live, and figured I knew “There She Goes Again” and could justify the purchase with that. It was an unusual choice: the “Whenever” video cropped up a few times in those tapes, and the first few times did nothing for me. At some point though, it suddenly clicked and ran through my mind pretty regularly. So, seeing this at that price (being a non-major classic rock title, it also ensured it was probably in really solid condition, which it is), I figured–why not?

“There She Goes Again” was not, as it happened, the song I was thinking of¹ and this was apparent as soon as I heard it for the first time. Marshall’s brother Robert lays down a steady rock beat and Chris Donato puts in a somewhat dryly produced thickly-picked bassline, while Marshall himself drops a clean, light melody on guitar. His tone is bright and clear, the sound largely simple, but the actual playing a bit more complicated than it suggests. It’s reminiscent of the sounds that would soon permeate independent rock, in the power-pop sectors: ringing and melodic, finger-picked and gaining its impact from the energy used to play. The song as a whole is reminiscent of early rock like Buddy Holly (Crenshaw’s voice carries some similar phrasings, in fact), and feels lean and mean, the simple trio set-up very apparent, but the production keeping even that stripped of frills. Crenshaw’s vocals have a head-shake to them as he sings, “How I lost her/I’m not sure I know but/It makes no difference now I try/I get that feeling when she drives on by/And there she goes again with another guy.” His brother and Donato throw their voices in to strengthen the beginning of many of the lines in harmony, as well as the chorus, which sweetens Marshall’s lead, which is less openly sad than it is self-defeated.

Having never heard it before I bought this record, I never would have guessed that “Someday, Someway” was Crenshaw’s biggest single, but apparently it was. It’s not that the song seems like a surprising single, or a surprising hit, just that it failed to permeate with any apparent longevity. A catchy riff, some handclaps, “ooh”s from the boys in back, and a chorus that insinuates itself readily. The “Ah oh ahaw” that fits into the chorus is even more reminiscent of the vocalizations of Buddy Holly, but Marshall’s vocals are more sweet and spry in the whole track than they were on the previous one. On a few verses, he actually has an echo on his voice, which gives it the charm of a simple production trick at analysis but just a little more kick as a pop song.

“Girls . . .” has an introduction that is brighter than the title’s repetition as a hook, with harmonized “Ahh-ahh, yeah” vocals and all kick drums. Donato enters with a strong, short slide of a note, and brings with him the extra percussion of guest Michael Osborn, who mans conga drums in the back, allowing Robert to trade to the snare. When the title comes in, repeated in a fashion that’s far from Mötley Crüe’s later refrain of the same–less a frothing look at a sexual smorgasbord from which one expects to acquire at least the number of girls mentioned, than a sense of concentrated overwhelming experience. Donato’s bass is strong and deeper than previously, and Robert’s drums are more forceful. The tone is darker in a way that doesn’t imply a negative emotion, so much as an intensity of thought. There’s a lovely play with harmonies toward the end, overlapping each of their voices singing “Wild”, answered only by backing vocals with “Yeah-eah”, and a brief and subtle solo that doesn’t make much of a big deal about itself.

Donato’s bass is the order of the day with “I’ll Do Anything”, the sound less dry, more funky and further up in the mix, given its chance to define most of the melody, with ringing guitars (again, think power pop) largely functioning more as a chiming rhythm to the bass’s melody. There’s a kind of pull to the music that’s accentuated by Marshall’s vocals, which he modulates through most of the song, holding few pitches for any length of time. He burns out a lead and solo halfway through that are capped by the dug in vocals that are my call for the song’s real hook: “I’ve gotta send a message/Gotta send it to your heart from mine”. Probably the most unique song in the whole of the album as the instruments and his voice all seem to be played, arranged, and mixed with a very different emphasis.

“Rockin Around in N.Y.C.” has a nervous tension to it, the guitar tightly coiled and half deadened by it, Robert’s beat pounding a boundary around the building energy, Donato’s bass appearing only intermittently, until he’s let loose and the song’s energy is released by the chorus: “So round and round and round we go/Through seventeen lines in a row/Take a hold of my hand and come with me/We’ll go rockin’ around in N.Y.C.”, which ends abruptly after that last letter, allowing the following verse to coil tension back into the song. A loose, sliding set of riffs carries the song into a fade-out and let’s the tension become more of a quiet danceability.

Carrying in distinct rockabilly strains, “The Usual Thing” Tony Garnier on “slappin’ bass” for a easy-paced track of handclips and the country-inflected guitars that indicate that rockabilly influence. Of course, like much of Crenshaw’s work, it hints a bit at other early rock styles, with the faintest echos of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” hiding within its grooves. A double-tracked vocal reminds of that same era of music, though the song twists and turns into more contemporary movements quite regularly, though it’s not above the beat of vocals that builds anticipation for the instruments that follow. Crenshaw picks out a steady, non-showy solo into the end of the song, which ends in the familiar fashion of repeating the final line, even finally stopping with the three-chord-beat punctuation that seems to show up most often in oldies cover bands to announce the end of a song.

A distinctly surf guitar intro gives “She Can’t Dance” a different feel at the outset, but the verse opens into the ringing guitar that he uses throughout the majority of the album. The chorus is sung by the group as a whole, though, and gives a more easy pop feel to the whole thing. The bridge adds a whole lot more hook to the vocal, and then a solo that burns it up in classic fashion. It’s also one of the two songs on the album Crenshaw isn’t credited as writing alone, having been joined by Rick Cioffi and Fred Tood in the process.

“Cynical Girl” might easily be the best track on the album. A jangle-y riff that acts as backdrop to the song has the interesting addition of bells to establish melody before Marshall starts singing, which is where the melody is most clearly established. His voice treats his guitar as an outline to work withing the boundaries of, and it it actually has an interesting approach to the idea of love, as a kind of naïve and optimistic romanticism is married to the idea of looking for love in mutual cynicism–though it is cynicism about “the real world” and the rest of it. No doubt Marshall was aware of the contradiction, but the way he sings it betrays nothing of this contradiction.

The distinct and emphatic fingerwork and cheerful tambourine of “Mary Anne” hearken back more to bands from the ’60s in a way (perhaps the Hollies and “Carrie Anne” though it doesn’t actually resemble that particular song too much). It’s a bit  Byrdsian, but it turns in another direction when Marshall begins singing the verse, which is actually the right kind of serious for the Mary Anne he is singing to, who is “As down as [she] can be”, though he’s encouraging her to “Go on and have a laugh/Go have a laugh on me”. There’s some lovely harmonizing on the chorus, though, with the rest of the group singing the light variations on the lyrics that indicate many harmonized parts in songs. It leaves the song with the feeling that most of the lyrics were actually Mary Anne’s name, which is entirely appropriate, as it is the puzzling out of how to cheer her up.

While it doesn’t stray too far from the album’s sound, “Soldier of Love” is interesting and a bit unusual–it seems to draw influence from girl groups and the other R&B/soul sounds of the 1960s, though perhaps as it was filtered through the semi-contemporaneous rock groups of the same era. There’s a walk to the bass, a series of eighth notes that lead to quarter notes, thus lending them more weight and giving the song a certain swing. Guitar chords are used more in service of that bassline–none of this is terribly surprising, as the song was originally a soul single for Arthur Alexander (written by Buzz Cason and Tony Moon), and was covered by the Beatles in a BBC studio session (it strongly resembles a lot of their earlier cover material, like “Anna (Go to Him)”–which Alexander himself wrote–or “Baby It’s You”, a hit for the Shirelles, too). The boys in back get to even put in some “Sha la la”s, but it’s the big halt, defined by a snare hit, before the chorus that really makes the song go.

Robert lays down a steady 4/4 on the snare in “Not for Me”, which gives it a propulsive feeling like a lot of work from the groups that would record the songs that “Soldier of Love” was drawn from, though it resembles more of the Spector-y wall of sound-style drums, and Crenshaw’s vocal line (and his very voice) sound like something more appropriate for the year the album is released. “I know definitely/That it’s just not for me”, he sings, and the way his voice rises and suddenly dips is interesting and appealing, but odd. 

“Brand New Lover” is probably the most “modern” of the songs on Marshall Crenshaw, though it’s built from the same essential parts that create the nostalgic hints in all of it. The active bass of Donato and the circled strums of guitar jangling in a style that crosses R.E.M.’s with rockabilly. It’s upbeat and dance-y, but it also includes the kind of “a little bit louder now” repetition of “right now” in the middle to keep its influences present in mind.

I sometimes find it difficult to write about the music I know least well, or have enjoyed only briefly and occasionally, and Crenshaw’s stuff in particular gives me some trouble because of the nature of it. It’s pop without question: well-written, well-played, and even rather unique, actually, but its uniqueness is somewhat indefinable, as it isn’t so much about the melding of elder influences, nor about their limited role, nor even about the fact of those two exceptions. It’s a voice that hasn’t been heavily replicated, nor that is a replication itself, that has skill and craft in spades, but all honed to the fine point of clear hooks and simple construction. I can’t explain accurately, then, the appeal of his music, except that it does what pop should: it connects.

  • Next Up: The Cult – Love

¹In fact, I was thinking of the song by–no, not the Velvet Underground–the La’s, which was covered by the Boo Radleys and Sixpence None the Richer and seemed to hover around everywhere in a small respect throughout the 1990s. Oops?

Day Forty-Nine – Needle-Scratch: Dan Friel – Total Folkore

Thrill Jockey Records ■ THRILL 324

Released February 19, 2013
Recorded by Dan Friel

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Ulysses
  2. Windmills
  3. Valedictorian
  4. Intermission #1
  5. Velocipede
  1. Scavengers
  2. Intermission #2
  3. Thumper
  4. Landslide
  5. Intermission #3
  6. Swarm
  7. Badlands

My last blog was actually named for a song by the band Parts & Labor, about whom I eventually wrote there,  and this was partly in the interest of a title that implied the aim I had, and partly as a result of my overriding love of the band, particularly the album Mapmaker. After they released the follow-up to that one, though (Receivers) I actually caught them live with my friend (and former manager) Gerald who had introduced me to them with that lasting and evocative phrase, “Music to melt your brain”. At that show, I expanded my awareness of their work by picking up BJ Warshaw’s Shooting Spires album (by his side/solo project, Shooting Spires, of course) as well as Dan Friel’s then-exclusive release (barring an extremely limited EP I am FAR too late for), Sunburn. Sunburn was a quick little release, 7 tracks and less than 20 minutes, and released on what could’ve been a 3″ CD but was instead a neat little partially clear one. It was the noisiest, strangest, most experimental side of Parts & Labor distilled, devoid of vocals, yet still imbued with hooks.

I intended to pick up the followup, Ghost Town, but things got a little maddening around that time, and it slipped by me. I did actually pick it up eventually, and it continued the aesthetic of Sunburn pretty openly, but with the increased fidelity that had begun to show up on Parts & Labor records around the same time. The tones and sounds Friel chose were indicative of the kind he was working into those records, though the solo nature of the project lends a different fele to them.

The magic of social media was the method by which I was informed that more solo material was forthcoming–a 12″ here (“Valedictorian/Exoskeleton”), a digital single there (“Thumper”)–and so when the record itself was announced, I was finally pushed over the edge by the fact that I’d started this blog, and it would mean an opportunity to talk about Friel’s solo work here. Perhaps that’s an odd reason–something like the reverse of a label sending me a promotional copy, but it was the final reason (coloured vinyl was icing on the cake, of course). I actually ordered it directly from Thrill Jockey, who were kind enough to notify me before shipping it that they were now bundling the LP with his previous 12″ (the “Valedictorian/Exoskeleton” one), and, since I had ordered both already at the same time, I was going to be getting the bundle price. I don’t know if a bunch of people did this, if it was a systematic decision, or if some kind soul just saw what I’d ordered and decided to cut me a break. Kudos to the label in any case, and you can grab the same bundle from the same link above (which I’ll go ahead and admit I recommend now).

I’ve had the record for about a week, and have been resisting listening to it because I do write here, and it seems like I shouldn’t break things in before their time here. However, I’m currently backlogged by two days in my normally more alphabetical progression, and was already planning on multiple entries for my day off anyway, so after waking up this morning, I decided I’d just go all-in with the idea, break the pattern and do so for the fact that I, for once, have a new release in advance (I’m still waiting on my copies of Eels’ Wonderful, Glorious and the deluxe vinyl for Coheed and Cambria‘s The Afterman, as well as a stack of stuff from Bill Baird, including his new album). I haven’t got much reach, but a “zero day” review for an artist I appreciate seems like the right thing to do–so I’m doing it. I’ll return to our regularly scheduled alphabet following this–hence the sub-title “needle-scratch”: this is an abrupt and sudden inclusion, and one that may mark a new, intermittent trend.

When you begin Total Folkore, “Ulysses” may throw you off a bit, depending on what you are expecting. A tone that grates in the sense that alarms do drops and holds for a moment, before a murky, distorted electronic beat begins at a very deliberate pace. Friel largely works in analogue sound manipulation, usually a keyboard with a stack of pedals all over it to modify the sounds being produced (live, at least–but I can’t imagine the studio is hugely different). This rumbling stomp is enhanced by revving squeals that all come together into one higher pitch, which gives way to the melody of the song, a catchy and appealing one that obscures the impression of purely abrasive atonal noise that the unfamiliar might be left with at first glance. It doesn’t speed the tempo of the song up much, though it is a bit faster than the underlying beat. It periodically frays into that same, unified note of noise that introduced it in the first place. Even in the space of a song almost thirteen minutes long (to call this a record for his solo work is an understatement: he hit half of that on a single song, and even that one was a good minute longer than the next longest) it’s hard to describe the feeling of Dan’s style. The melody does mutate and change over the course of the track, finding points of increased atonality and other moments of sweeter clarity. About a third of the way through, the melody circles upward like it was shot there, and some atonal pitches give way to a sort of pause: the beat dissolves into a series of foot-step like stomps, accented by fanning buzzes that rise up and disappear, shift in pitch and length. A pillar of sound that seems to shoot off distortion and pitches like crackling bolts and the seemingly acoustic rhythm of metal on glass appear and manage to return the song to its origins, enhanced by the “soloing” of that central tone’s modulations, throwing off sparks and flames as it runs forward, even doing so without the beat for a moment. It’s reminiscent of the layering of digital electronic music, strains added and removed as the song progressed, but with all the messy semi-unpredictable elements that come with analogue equipment.

“Windmills” sounds like a crowded, urban environment played at about ten times its regular speed, overlaid with the crinkled, limited bloomp of 8-bit-esque drum machine kicks and a skittering curl of melodious repetition, though the “environment” sound somehow fuses into a single buzz that permeates all of it. It’s like a broken dance track, almost, the beat still strong but the melody’s downward stroke giving it a sudden halt at each repetition.

Being the track “truly” released as a single, “Valedictorian” has all the hallmarks of latter-era Parts & Labor Friel sounds: the rhythm is built on a noise that more resembles a guitar, chugging along on a single chord for eight rapid beats at a time, though a drum-style beat is added later to fill the bottom end. The melody is the scratchy distortion of a rounded kazoo sound, though it first appears in swirling, ethereal form, undistorted, at the very opening of the song, and continues to hide in the background. The focus is pretty clearly on the “kazoo” form, though, as the “rhythm guitar” and the shortly appearing drums work at a regular pace to draw the lines underneath it. It’s interesting the way Friel uses them: they’re like a combination of lead guitar and vocal lines in the way that the song is built around them, as they seem to both draw out the melody of the song and “sing” out a rhythm that is codified to the beat established by the song. It’s worthy of its single release, being one of the less abrasive and catchiest of the songs on the album, the melody a great hook in spite of its strange manifestation. Keep an ear out for the introduction of a sort of piano-esque layer to the “rhythm guitar”.

There are three “Intermission” tracks on the album, and the first sounds largely like tuning rapidly through radio stations to create a rhythm, though it crackles just a bit too much to actually be such a thing.

A big soft-bottomed synth-style sound controls the beat of “Velocipede”, which ends up weaving something more like a set of varying melodies into its whole sound than a melody and a rhythm. A falling melody that harmonizes into a slowly rising one is around the same place in the mix as the pitched-beat synth, and has hiding in it (if one listens carefully) the viola of Karen Waltuch, which adds little bits of connective tissue to that central sound. The song seems to expand as it goes, ending in the two primary parts alternating in isolation from each other.

The introduction to “Scavengers” implies a scattered and expansive kind of track, but as all the sound collapse into each other and then out of existence, the determined poundings of sixteenth (at least) notes in rubbery bass-style keys begin to nimbly dance away in the background, as the sweeping squeal of electronic noise that is the signature of careful turning of knobs to modulate sound wails over top, the brilliant introduction of a drum machine beat gives the song serious legs–about eight of them, even if it’s only adding five beats (1,2,3,4&). It’s like a melding of pretty noises and the harder end of acid house–something to that effect. An absolute standout on the album, for its sheer energy.

The second “Intermission” sounds like a busy street corner or a train station, with the mostly clear, tube-like snakes of noise seeming to echo out alone and unnoticed–I like to think it’s the sound of someone like Friel acting as a strange, electronic busker, the crowds treating this as no different from an acoustic one. Largely that unfortunately means ignoring, but there’s something pleasing to me about the idea that someone is out on a sidewalk or up against a tube station wall playing strange, slightly dissonant (slightly in this case, anyway) electronically blooped melodies and no one is angry or swearing at the “weird noises”, but taking it as just another example of solo musicianship.

“Thumper” was released to music websites as the “single” for the album, and it’s no wonder. While “Valedictorian” made sense as an isolated physical release last year, “Thumper” carries a more distinct distillation of this album’s sound and the variegated sound of Friel as a solo artist. Another rapid beat, this one a mess of fuzz and chattering, though a booming stomp lands at a steady pace with it. The melody is piercing, gaining speed as it develops, hinting an upward turn repeatedly before it turns back down. Then the melody curls back in on itself and a new yammering beat slides in on top of the rest, shifting pitch steadily, and eventually being joined by a rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place in the more frenetic works of Squarepusher. Echoing out over nothing but the booming thump (ahem) of the low end of the beat, the melody soars out like a lone and proud beacon, but it’s rejoined by the wild yammer that carries the song off to–a sudden swipe, as if the song were wiped away.

The beat behind “Landslide” calls to mind a marching band, or at least the chest-mounted bass drum style of playing that goes along with one, though with a bit more soul than the most well-established pieces for such groups. A harmonized melody with little swirls of noise alongside it cruises in before holding, a new one developing underneath that seems to move along precociously in its simple changes in pitch. A chugging fills in behind it and fills the gaps that were left, but the piece suddenly drops all but the melody and a harsh buzzing beat in the midrange. The melody seems to almost lose pace briefly, but it’s actually an echo from another sound reproduction that’s just mirroring the melody slightly out of step. The buzzing beat, which is like a charging, riff-based guitar lead, takes over, but it’s chopped and re-arranged electronically, halting and turned up and down, the song becoming increasingly chaotic and tangled, with the melody its only rescue, played in isolation but for its companion swirls and squeals. And so it pounds off into the sunset.

The last “Intermission” has the sound of a train crossing, though interspersed with it are the tweets and bleeps of keys, a gentle and sustained, slow hum of a melody hiding deep in the background as the three beats of a sound I’m convinced is not (but is modeled after) the warnings of an approaching train insistently plays out.

“Swarm” has an introduction composed of the kind of stretched swells of electronic noise to no backing in its introduction that mark some of my favourite Parts & Labor songs, but the rhythms that follow are like an orchestra of power tools and industrial machinery, sampled and clanking to a defined beat. The melody is filled with nervous energy, trying to escape the boundaries set on it by the knobs that control its sound, attempting to work its way past each turn of them Friel gives, and seemingly succeeding partway through, a deep vibrating hum taking control of the song from below and centering its flares and tattered edges. The deep hum takes over like a rhythm guitar asserting its riff as the anchor of the song, but it all disappears in an industrial buzz.

The album closes with “Badlands”, matching a booming kick with snare follow to a melody that at first seems to just buzz and crackle, but soon resolves into a rollercoaster of melodic motion, riding up and down varying crests of electronic “bloops” that don’t seem to repeat themselves with much regularity, or even function as octave-changed repeats. There’s a kind of chorus where it disappears in favour of aggressive buzzing, making the track something like an industrial metal bit, but being betrayed by the appeal of a bright and cheerful melody.

The first thing that struck me about Friel’s solo work came from “Dead Batteries” on Sunburn, which I vaguely suspect is named because it either came from them, or because it does just sound like the limited output of a device’s dying batteries attempting to force regular work through. While the melodic style echoed the sounds he added to Parts & Labor, it was immediately apparent that nothing like the restrictions of vocal pop work were going to be applied to this music.

Total Folkore is not an exception to any of this: it’s abrasive, atonal, dissonant sounds sculpted into pretty, catchy little ditties, in complete defiance of the roars, squeaks, and theoretically grating aural palette they are built from. If you aren’t prepared for this, you might either find yourself plugging your ears too soon, or fainting dead away at the way that these two things are melded, completely without a sense of pretension or contrived experimentation. Like his prior two releases, Friel sounds like he’s making music from noises he appreciates himself, turning it into songs he likes the sound of, unconcerned with being specifically unique, or with being palatable to the point of homogenization or softening. The harsh elements, the aggressive, the speedy, the forceful–none of them really even seem like a direct and active contrast with the melodies or the catchy portions of songs, so much as part of an overall sound that just happens to be built from the two of them.  The new emphasis on rhythm, in contrast with the occasional absence and lighter focus on the last two is welcome and helps to bring a more complete and less skeletal feel to the work as a whole.

This isn’t an album that’s going to be ground-breaking in the sense of the kind you stick on a shelf and proudly look at, knowing you own a piece of history–if it breaks ground, if it holds a place it could easily deserve, it’s going to do so as it plays out of speakers, under needles, streams of binary data, under the light of lasers. It’s not going to be an album that you “have to” listen to, it will be one you want to listen to–maybe you will “have to” as well, but that will be secondary to desire, or will soon give way to it. It’s not the sort of thing you can readily expect if you haven’t heard this kind of music before, at the least in the form of bands that work it in with “normal” instrumentation, but if you keep your ears open and allow for the grating sounds to unexpectedly coalesce and become something enjoyable, you’ll find that’s exactly what they do.

Day Forty-Six: Cream – Wheels of Fire

RSO Records ■ RS-2-3802

Released August, 1968
Produced by Felix Pappalardi

In the Studio
Engineered by Tom Dowd and Adrian Barber

Side One: Side Two:
  1. White Room
  2. Sitting on Top of the World
  3. Passing Time
  4. As You Said
  1. Pressed Rat and Warthog
  2. Politician
  3. Those Were the Days
  4. Born Under a Bad Sign
  5. Deserted Cities of the Heart

I’ve traded records only a few times, and on occasion had some passed along from friends for similar reasons to trades, but without the actual “trading” portion of it. My good friend Kyle–with whom I once lived, alongside my friend John–dropped a few records (and some CDs) on me when he was in the midst of moving some time ago, as well as a few when I moved out of the apartment the three of us shared. As he doesn’t have the more technical expertise John has poured into equipment (as the one of us who has owned a turntable longest), he has had a turntable with a useless belt, pre-amp issues and various other things that precluded actual vinyl listening for some time. Between that, the move, and the fact that he planned to sell most of them, he gave me dibs on those records as a consequence of our friendship. Most of them reflected the variance in our tastes–John edged toward the truly weird and the normal-but-less-popular-classics as far as vinyl, Kyle edged toward progressive and improvisational classic rock, and I edged toward a weird mix of pop and post rock when we all lived together–and so I didn’t know the albums as well as I might have (and, to some minds of course, “should” have).

Most of the records I gathered from him over the years have sprawl as a hefty component–a natural side effect of the kinds of bands involved, I suppose. Of all the Cream albums to have, it almost makes sense that it was Wheels of Fire, but it could be coincidental, considering it’s also one that contains some solid tracks to the less interested in musicianship, too. I never got as far into Cream as he did, or really as much as any of my friends did. As I’ve mentioned before, my introduction to Clapton was through his solo material, and mostly the recordings that came much, much later. I did eventually pick up Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears on CD for myself, though I’ve given them cursory listens at best–enough to get a feel for their sound, but not to really burn any of their work into my brain’s repertoire.

To be totally honest, when he asked me if I wanted Wheels of Fire (going through the titles he was planning to sell one by one, asking about each), I thought, “Sure, I’ve always liked Cream songs, and I should listen to them–plus I know that one has at least a single or two that I know,” and had no earthly idea this was a formatting relative of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach and a handful of others: a studio LP paired with a live one. Knowing this wouldn’t have dissuaded me, but it likely would have had some effect on my nonchalance or mild enthusiasm. If there’s a Pink Floyd album I can’t sit through, it’s that one, whatever that may or may not say about me.

The collective inference you may or may not have made but I will now spell out is this: I’m not a musician, have never really aspired to be, and generally appreciate rather than enjoy extended improvisational music. I’m not a jam band person, either, largely–it’s possible for extended live workouts to appeal to me, even strongly, but largely they fall on at least semi-deaf ears with me. I’m not, as a result, going to get too far into the live portion, and it may leave this with the most negative comments I may ever write in this blog about the music to which I’m listening–which doesn’t necessarily make them negative, as I’m quite positive in general, just significantly less positive in this case.

If there’s a song I identify first with Cream, or at least the one I did most when the name was just a band name to attach to songs (as opposed to even the other simplistic assignments–“early power trio”, “supergroup”, “a band Eric Clapton was in”, et al.), it was “White Room”, without a doubt. “Sunshine of Your Love” may (quite reasonably) come first for many people, but “White Room” is it for me. The dramatic fall of the introduction–which I long thought was a vocal recording of multiple “Ooh-ooh, ahh-ahh”s (apparently live, it sometimes was) over Ginger Baker’s timpani, but is actually a strange recording of Clapton’s guitar, one string bent as far as he could (the others apparently removed to allow for this), and then overdubbed in a few different recordings–lends a good bit of drama to it as both a single and an album opener, though the framework of the song’s primary portion is, in a general sense, a recognizable “rock song”. Jack Bruce’s voice has just the right tenor–the kind he used for “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (which more musically inclined folks say is also musically similar), the kind that tells a story, but in this case given just a bit more melodiousness and “oomph”. Ginger’s drums are given their full space with their stretch between the left and right channels, sharp, clear and powerful from the playing alone, not just the recording and production. Clapton, of course, works in some wonderfully vocal and responsive wah-wah leads, which rarely occupy the same rhythms or melodies. The song was also one of my first introductions to the idea that a song could be named for words in the song that aren’t the chorus–an early lesson, of course, but a peculiar one. Speaking of the chorus, though, the way Bruce takes the power out of his voice and goes to such a gentle falsetto is brilliant for the strange, somewhat esoteric lyrics and the dramatic, psychedelic tone of the song itself.

While Baker and Bruce each co-wrote a chunk of the album’s studio songs (a roughly equivalent number), Clapton’s contribution was the selection of two songs to cover, both unsurprisingly coming from the blues. The first, “Sitting on Top of the World”, eases pretty slowly into being, but comes to life when Eric works in his first lead, fuzzy and felt, a little pause in the middle giving it the snap of its own flavour. Bruce and Baker really step back to let Eric (and his multiple overdubbed selves) shine on the instrumental portions of the track. Jack’s vocals are some of his most actually bluesy, which is not a style he often goes for, being more completely invested in performance (betraying, I suppose, his jazz background) than feeling. His bass is more able to insinuate itself into the feel, though, even as it is clearly relegated to supportive role by even the rhythm portions of Eric’s playing, though those function only to fill out the song itself. His leads drive it, with no question, and somehow manage, despite their intensity and regularity, to work as a part of it, rather than a display of prowess. Baker does have a wonderful faltering beat toward the end of the song that melds right into the stop-start nature of the main rhythm riff. This is, of course, Howlin’ Wolf’s arrangement of the song, though it was written and first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks’ Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatman.

Leaving Eric’s love of the blues behind, “Passing the Time” is one of the most acutely psychedelic tracks on the album, in the sense of bizarre, spacey instrumentation (Bruce mans a calliope, producer Pappalardi takes on organ pedals, and probably viola, though no one is credited for strings on the track, and co-writer Baker plays glockenspiel) and a sound that seems most appropriate for a serene introduction to a cultish animated movie. There’s an introduction that implies something else, haunting vocals over pounding drums from Baker–but they cross-fade into this strange fluffy but sort of quietly odd song. “Passing the time/Passing the time/Everything fine” the song suddenly pumps itself upward to guitar driven, rapidly-moving and harder material, Jack and Ginger seeming to compete for speed and control of the song, until they cross-fade again into the calliope and glockenspiel oddity of the song’s earlier portion. It’s strange, but actually kind of appealing.

Credited in all parts (except “high hat”, which goes to Ginger Baker of course) to Jack Bruce, “As You Said” is a rather pretty track, a mix of acoustic guitar and cello, alongside Bruce’s voice. It continues a bit of the psychedelic vein of “Passing the Time”, but reflects more on the artists that would record such music in acoustic and simple fashions, the odd studio trick the only concession to true weirdness (his vocals are occasionally modulated). The big downward slope of the cello is affectingly beautiful, though the whole song slides along without its clear rhythm: the hi-hat blends into the acoustic guitar’s strums nicely, giving the song its actual rhythm and a bit of extra sound without making itself explicit. It reminds me a bit of the way psychedelia could manifest itself with the Beatles–unable to escape the hooks and the prettiness, despite the unusual musical choices.

You would think “Pressed Rat and Warthog” would at least be an extremely strange song–and it is, but not as strange as the title might suggest. I thought perhaps an instrumental of a kind (there are a large number of those with very weird titles, because instrumental sounds could mean various things to various people, of course!). Instead, though, it’s Ginger Baker telling a story–to be fair, a weird one that fits the title (which names the two main characters, in fact), and is obscure enough to warrant that weird title, and its place on an album with such a psychedelic cover. Pappalardi actually controls a lot of the actual music’s sound, contributing trumpet that sounds like a respectful tribute to our “heroes”, with the backing for Baker’s actual recitation being backed by his own complicated drumming, very deliberate guitar chords and largely to-the-point basswork from Bruce. Out of nowhere at the end, just after Pappalardi’s last blow of the trumpet, Baker begins to work the drums into a frenzy and a wild and intense guitar solo comes flying out of Clapton, as if phased in from another recording, only to be faded out with the rest.

“Politician” is built on a slow, burning groove of a riff from Clapton, which almost steals the low-end away from Jack as he sings lyrics that merge a sleazy come-on line with the sleaziness of politics. The shmoozing attempts to court voters or women, showing no real allegiance to either, and even claiming one lean in place of another–the song is filthy on multiple levels, including that guitar riff in particular. Clapton does lay some leads over it, but they are icing and decoration (the appreciable and tasty kinds) over the steady, deliberate beat and the ride Baker nails it all down with. Jack works just the right kind of tone into his calls of “Hey, baby, get into my big black car…” to match the very sense of the lyrics and their unpleasantness.

With vocals that seem to be dragged around by the song rather than worked to accompany it, “Those Were the Days” brings to mind “Tales of Brave Ulyesses” in a slightly different way from “White Room”, as it matches more closely the style Bruce sang that previous track in. Musically, the song is interesting because it goes from a nicely complicated, signature Baker beat and a reasonably heavy guitar riff to the peculiar introduction of marimba and particularly tubular bells from Baker and Swiss hand bells from Pappalardi. While Bruce and Eric sing the chorus together, Baker begins to take the opportunity to work out, and leads the way for a scorching solo from Clapton that fades away with Baker’s relent to the regular beat (though it is not, in general, a completely “regular beat”) and the familiar verse and chorus melodies.

Clapton’s taste returns with “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the Booker T. Jones/William Bell song made famous by Albert King via Stax (remember how I said John’s taste ran to the less-popular-but-classic? That album was one of the reissues I remember him picking up–one of his first blues records). Unfortunately, this time it shows a bit that this is Clapton’s choice–Baker’s drums are good, they are well-played, as is Bruce’s bass, and his vocals are good too, but they don’t have the fire of the blues. Clapton recorded it later as a solo artist, and he got the kind of feel that blues vocals are based on: deep downs dredged up and forced out, while Bruce feels more like his focus is on the singing than the feeling. Clapton is alone in really feeling out the groove of the song, even if it is Baker laying down the beat to establish it. It’s not a bad performance–far from it, these are all expert musicians, but Baker and Bruce have technical skill attempting to mesh with pure feeling, and it just doesn’t quite gel as well as it should. Were it not a cover of such a classic, or even instrumental–it’s largely Bruce’s voice that feels wildly out of place–I could have no complaints.

The studio album closes with “Desert Cities of the Heart”, which pounds forth from wildly strummed acoustics (courtesy of Bruce, who again appears as vocalist), a mostly frenetic drum beat from Baker that is punctuated quite emphatically with four very concrete beats. The sudden introduction of strings (primarily Pappalardi’s viola, though Bruce also contributes cello again) slows the song for a moment, Bruce dropping his energetic bass to a steady monotone, and Baker keeping his drums back to allow the strings their space. Clapton’s solo is of a different stripe than his prior ones, actually seeming to sound more like a ribbon of sound than the squealing high tones of his bluesiest work, quavering just slightly. It’s a no-questions-asked winner for the album, and this may also be Baker’s best studio drum work on here, ending with the crash of all instruments in unified style, but with a scattered end of toms that puts the proper grace note on the studio work.

Live at the Fillmore¹
Engineered by Bill Halverson
Mixed by Adrian Barber
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Crossroads
  2. Spoonful
  1. Traintime
  2. Toad

In general, I tend to be inclined toward the views of many who can pass on live albums. It varies from group to group of course, and is often at least partly dependent on the material, performances, venues, time frame and numerous other factors in determining whether the recording interests me personally–while I’d like to be able to treat the entirety of my writing here as a means of evangelism and advocacy, I am like anyone else and do not like everything I hear. That Cream had not previously recorded a studio version of Clapton’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” makes it a worthwhile inclusion for certain, as it is one of the most wonderful and blistering excursions into classic blues the group ever put together. It’s followed, though, by the extremely extended recording of “Spoonful”, another blues classic they recorded, but this one previously appearing in studio form on Fresh Cream (in the U.K., at least–yep, one of those again!). The live album is primarily intended as a showcase for the musicianship of the group’s members, with Side Three devoted to a focus on Clapton’s guitarwork, but the sixteen minutes and forty-three seconds of it is a bit much. “Traintime” is to show off Bruce’s harmonica work, and does the job, but also begins to falter on the “enjoyment vs. appreciation” test, which redlines on “Toad”, a showing for Ginger Baker’s drumming.

I like Baker’s drumming–a lot. I like a lot of drummers–I often surprise myself here with how often it’s the drumming that stands out to me. But drum solos are something I think tends toward the interest of drummers and drummers almost to the exclusion of everyone else, in terms of enjoyment. Appreciation can transform into enjoyment when you appreciate what’s occurring and the skill involved more directly, but that enjoyment can falter without that kind of appreciation. “Toad” I even found myself cursing when I thought it had returned back to the melody it carried in its original incarnation (also on Fresh Cream), only to be subverted again by more of Baker in isolation. The group improvises well on both of these extended tracks (though there’s a bit of a disconnect toward the latter half of “Spoonful” that grates a bit, where a few directions were attempted at once, but quickly reassembled), but it’s just exhausting. Perhaps another mood might change my stance, but this has often been my reaction to extremely extended versions of previously lengthy-but-reasonable (6:30 and 5:11 respectively) tracks.

■ ■ ■ 

The studio album surprised me a bit in its psychedelic excursions–not because it had them, but because they were so willfully experimental. The notion of Cream as a power trio, as a hard rock originator, as a tight and steady band influenced heavily by the introduction of the blues–this kind of coloured my perception of what to expect from even psychedelic portions–thinking more in the veins of “White Room” than anything else, while the peculiarities of “Passing the Time” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog” were something else entirely. Perhaps that’s an indication of Baker’s aesthetic, but Bruce did contribute “As You Said”, which was unusually acoustic in instrumentation.

After listening, I think I appreciate the record more in general, but remain more pleased to have it as an extra branch of my collection–one I am glad to have, but not overtly passionate about–more than as a personal pleasure. These things do, however, often age well, and it may be that pulling it out at a later date will cause me to reconsider–maybe even the live album.

But I rather doubt that one.

  • Next Up: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

¹3/4 of these tracks were actually recorded at the Winterland Ballroom, not the Fillmore. It’s just the title given for those two sides. The Winterland was owned by the same promoter (Bill Graham) and did eventually become the locations of both The Band‘s Last Waltz and the Sex Pistols’ final concert.