Monday, December 7, 2009

Cymbal #29:: Some Recent Notable Albums

You try and look for it and it slips away. You turn your head and no pattern forms. . Songs flow past you like waves in the shallows. Their choruses remain as feelings, looping around in your head. When you look at the wall, they come back without a context. The year is coming to an end and everyone but me will be able to tell you what it was about. Next year, by the way, is easy. It's a World Cup year, fool.

So, what did I come across that stayed in my head this year?

Bear in Heaven - Ultimate Satisfaction - 2009

I've been playing this album (Beast Rest Forth Mouth) end-to-end while driving around. I remembered where I had felt this same warm physiological wash, the sensuous sound of things dissolving in milk. I went back to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. We all want to be lost, we all want to feel new and strange in this world. Is this not why we travel? Listening to Loveless or Beast Rest Forth Mouth is not travel in the sense that going to Vietnam would be travel. It's travel in the sense of spelunking, of rappelling into darkness and feeling bats rush between you and the womb like walls of the earth.

Converge - Cruel Bloom - 2009

Or you could travel vicariously, by stepping into a storybook, seeing a world of some one else's visions, painted with someone else's colours. In Axe to Fall, Converge have the the best metal album I've heard of this year. Pedal to the metal, balls to the wall, but still not repetitive.

Noah and The Whale - Stranger - 2009

Thanks for the recommendation, Dev! The First Days of Spring is a post-breakup blues album, a trip to the poles of emotion, the journey of healing. I feel odd admitting it, but men do have feelings. Some of them are a lot like this. OK, enough.

Pearl Jam - Got Some - 2009

Backspacer really rocks. I could listen to Pearl Jam do this every three years till the year I die, clutching my copy of Ten and trying not to look embarrassed at how much I love it. I keep waiting for it to stale, for the formula to grow old and sour. It would be comfortable to listen to Ten and see how much less there is to it than I thought when I was fifteen, but it doesn't happen. Backspacer takes me right back to that level of comfort.

Sometimes, you're not going to be surprised, but you could really get used to being at home.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cymbal #28:: The Purported Immortality of Pop

I watched the death of Michael Jackson and the outpouring of grief and simultaneous media wankfest (I'd like to believe the two were not necessarily related phenomena) from some distance. I am too young to have heard Thriller in its vogue, too young to appreciate his music at any level higher than that of momentary observation. I've only ever seen him as the caricature, never as the subject. Of course, this is a bit of a pariah opinion, and so I feel guilty about it and wonder if I am too schooled in only certain kinds of music. Only now dare I voice it. 

You've seen this trip before. It leads to a crushing lack of confidence, collapse in self esteem and ends with the protagonist destroying himself in a grungy hotel bathroom with intravenous drugs. 

So, thanks for your kind offer- I'll desist. The passing of Michael Jackson leaves me unmoved. But the larger truth remains: great pop lives forever.

Big Star - September Gurls - 1974

Pop the beast is many eyed and has fierce turns of mood. I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a statement. The defining trait of pop is not chart position; it has a necessary stylistic content. The hallmark of pop is temporality. It is of this world and defiantly so. Thus it is that a pop metal song requires none of the frosty hooded academic fervor and brow furrowing concentration of more hardcore metal.

Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction - 1992
If it's a nine minute song and it includes a sax solo, is it really pop anymore? Does that not militate against the definition of pop as a genre with content? I can't really tell. I want to say it's axis is temporal, but it's aspirations may not be.
Traffic - The Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys - 1972

Traffic is one of those bands that everybody should have a Greatest Hits collection of. Incidentally, for those who care, Blind Faith, which was (Traffic's) Steve Winwood's collaboration with Eric Clapton, did reform this year for a limited tour. Some folks just keep on keeping on.
Apologies for hiatus. No longer working as a corporate lawyer. All well?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cymbal #27:: The Saga Continues

"She says, 'you can't repeat the past,'/ I say 'You can't? What do you mean you can't?/Of course you can!' "
-Bob Dylan, Love and Theft, 2001.

Like the aging superheroes of Watchmen, the Wu Tang Clan have climbed into the old costumes and rebuilt the owlship. The year's most awaited album in hip-hop, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Part II, is finally out and sink or swim, everyone wants to do a victory lap. A swarm of bees is forming in the sky.

Raekwon (feat. Inspectah Deck, GZA, Ghostface Killah & Method Man) - House of Flying Daggers - 2009

It's all still there with all its charisma and power intact, the easy references to the mythos like an H.P. Lovecraft story. There's no patina of age on it - check the familiar dread rising in your throat even before the Dilla beat starts ravaging your diaphragm - "I can tell you two things. The Hunter had nothing to do with this. And it was not the work of thousands of men. In fact, (chilling pause) there was only five." The beat starts like a slug to the head. By the time the Method Man is rasping his visions throatily, you're already beyond response.

House of Flying Daggers follows in the tradition of the classic Protect Ya Neck lineup. But where Neck had the gritty sound of outlaws passing a mic around an oildrum fire, Daggers has the plush production of a thousand tower tall machines all pumping out darkness, stamping out blocks of chant.

Wu Tang Clan - Protect Ya Neck - 1993

In my opinion (as someone once told me, there's nothing humble about it), the greatest line-up track since Neck is Triumph. It's a brilliant name. Other MCs may boast; Wu Tang puts forth an exhibition of immense power, from which you cannot tear your eyes. No feat shall be repeated. The show starts at dusk.

Wu Tang Clan - Triumph - 1997

Through the marble arches of the imperial city pass first the exotic and bewildered beasts. Crocodiles on leashes; giraffes on leads. Teams of slaves yoked together march with their heads looking down. Soldiers pass displaying immense riches looted and earned in battle. There are amphorae of jewels, a dead king's head on a cushion. The chariots of the commanders progress regally and sage is burnt to propitiate the gods. At the cool white steps of the Senate, RZA tells breathless stories of battles in foreign lands. The historian's calm description follows in Masta Killas verse.

They're all superlative. But if I had to choose, I'd pick Protect Ya Neck. The Wu Tang may now have the power of emperors, but back when they were in the gutter looking up, their hunger made them vicious and their dreams made them visionary.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cymbal #26:: Dirty Deeds Done to Great Tunes


It's Dylan's most oriental tune. He's wearing his cowboy boots but his heart in an eastern desert at night. As an album of scenery and sequences, Desire is vastly underrated/overlooked, even by Dylan fans. It has to do with the Dylan you want to imagine. Would you rather have freewheelin', protesting' Dylan, or would you rather have the gravelly explorer?

As a test, contrast this song with "Don't Think Twice". They're both breakup songs. But where the earlier is a song of anger, the later is song of inevitability by a man in love with the mysteries of the universe. This Dylan is a workman, not a captive of his tools.
Bob Dylan - One More Cup of Coffee - 1975

Jack White can't always sustain  the gravity asked of him. Occasionally, it seems like he understands all the tricks but still can't see the soul of the song. To some extent he does - he invites the desert in and as a result it's more distant than the original.

The test of all versions of the song is what is done to the odd line - "
to the valley below". The original uses it to deliver a touch of panache, a little steel to stir the goblet. Jack White does not understand it. It puzzles him. Therefore, he throws it away with a growl.
The White Stripes - One More Cup of Coffee - 200X

Like a 
reductio ad absurdium, if you push a point too far, you will end up with something completely different and wrong.
Sertab Erener - One More Cup of Coffee - 2003

And how wrong. Look at what it does to the test phrase! I can't even bring myself to listen to it all the way through!

How can a tune be out of time? Don't pure concepts exist and function on a higher plane? Is this not the only universally acceptable cast of Plato's theory of forms? If a mathematical ratio can age, then what makes flesh sentient?

But when I listen to Summer Breeze, I sense a distinct time and place. It's not that the music would be a setting for something of a period, but that the period would be a setting for the tune. It's laden with hooks, like a Brian Wilson song, but not as eternal.

Seals and Croft - Summer Breeze - 1972

I really like this doom-metal cover. The riff is nice and heavy and the lyrics don't slide right off the car-bonnet surface like they do in the original. Maybe this was always the ideal viscosity for this song.
Type O Negative - Summer Girl - 1997

Last and definitely least, you can feel 
this little for a song, maybe, if you don't speak the language in which it was written. How can you be so talented and so profligate as to waste away that hook?
Jason Mraz - Summer Breeze

What a w**k.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cymbal #25:: Nihil ex nihilo

It's been raining in the capital. The roads are washed out. Traffic moves in glitches. Cars are thick smears of paint on a painter's palette, like butter or  jam, waiting to be scraped and smoothed into their background. You've called in to say you'll be late. You've called everyone you could, including people people who aren't sympathetic. Fights are starting and stopping under flyovers. The only beneficiaries are the trees, which have been touched up and have seemingly grown.

On a morning like this, nothing sounds appropriate. Hip hop's bravado echoes irritatingly; metal has too much space to impale itself; happy music sounds silly; classic rock sounds staged and pompous; ambient things cause foot tapping. Needless to say, you can torch all the radio stations. This is the weather for dirges.

Amnesiac is usually written off as Radiohead's least album- a clutch of out-takes and continuations, ribbons of tape left over form the Kid A sessions.

Radiohead - Pyramid Song - 2001

Maybe this is the song that dolphins and mermaids sing to drowning sailors. The compass points are all in place. The two rivers of mystery cults: the Lethe, falling into which is the forgetting of the things you knew, and the Mnemosyne, which is the remembering of all things. Are you doomed to this same territory even in the next life?

Perhaps this is what you deserve for the venality of your days, the sins of omission and acquiescence you commit, the invisible victims of your lack of judgment. Every day you shuffle paper and kill trees. Your car poisons the birds out of the air. The fools you elected in the spring are busy stabbing each other in the autumn, waving finger puppets as standards.

Radiohead - Knives Out - 2001

Worse yet, you know it, don't you? Can't you feel it build up in the wings of your mind? How long will you keep it at bay?

In Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead presented the complete state of the afterlife, as known. It may be gnomic and luminescent. It may be Buddhist and empty even of emptiness. It may be none of your business.

Radiohead - Life in a Glass House - 2001

Thom Yorke hangs between exasperation and wistfulness when he sings "Well of course I'd love to sit around and chat/ well of course I'd love to sit and chew the fat", with the indecision of a man who's gathered his coat and opened the door to see the storm still raging. The violence of everyday persists; we are all still hungry for a lynching.

What does it take to turn a horn section that could have come from a jazz bar in the 1920s into this distilled essence of lethargy? This is music to be played by graveyard caretakers. Those sweet magisterial blasts of horn score the time it takes for things to decay, fruit to rot, the noses to fall off corpses. Like the triumph of a funeral procession, it sweeps the joy from the streets.

No one else is to blame. You have brought this upon yourself.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cymbal #24:: Forty Years Since Woodstock

It's a good day to assess your relationship with classic rock. It's been exactly 40 years since ground zero for the "Sixties" as a creation, as package of phenomena and emotion, even an extract of the spectrum. Viz.: Max Yasgur - unlikely countercultural hero, a raison d'etre for classic rock stations, beads and tie dye and vans, a way for every damn festival anywhere to get uppity.

The problem is that, musically, there's the hint of a doubt that it was just a bit run of the mill, wasn't it? The music had long been released. The greatest bands of the decade had already been to Monterey and to Altamont. Are you sure we aren't reverse engineering the event to get to the music?

The alleged high point of the festival is that cover of "A Little Help From my Friends". In my opinion, it strips the song of it's sly deviance on one hand and its neediness, and replaces it with the anonymous warmth and shriekiness of an arena rock song. It falters in at least three places, emphasizes nothing in particular and has that hideous falsetto going on. And some spastic air guitar.

Joe Cocker - With a Little Help From My Friends

Which digs pretty close to the root of my problem with the "Sixties" qua mythos. It's a warm pablum mashup of love and drugs and irresponsibility. And above all, the endless self congratulation. It's great to drop out and tune in, but one day you might realise you've named a daughter (or worse, a son) Galadriel. The local kidergarten will likely express concern.

Crossby, Stills and Nash - A Long Time Gone

Real magic, and real rock and roll, have evil in them, and hunting and violence and anger. Listen to the drums in the distance, hearts pound at the atavism. Someone must bleed at the stake for the sun to rise.

Santana - Soul Sacrifice

And not I, nor anyone, can deny electricity it's place in the universe.

Jimi Hendrix - Voodoo Child

If you asked me point blank, and gave me no room to weasel, then yes, I'd admit it. I wish I had been there. I wish I had spent those days in the mud watching belief turn the pages of the generational calender. Since I couldn't, I must nitpick. :-)
And of course, a happy Independence Day to all Indian readers!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cymbal #23:: Stories and Videos

Sometimes spareness is actually poverty. Lost for long in choppy seas, you miss lush string arrangements, long phrases and above all, songs which tell stories. Stories require a setting of moods, a dimming of lamps, a shared visual context. And conversely, stories afford you instrumental freedom, lend it a range in which to be understood by species which communicates primarily in words.

Fairport Convention - Hiring Fair - 1985

Sometimes the element of a story need not be things happening one after another. A story is just a way of looking at events - a sense of pacing. Even references can import the sense of story telling - "You were Calamity Jane and I was Wild Bill".

The Magnetic Fields - Two Characters in Search of a Country Song - 1994

At times, going round the circle, you will be asked to tell your story.

Yo La Tengo - Here to Fall - 2009

Aren't the planes mesmerizing?
Been workin', been travellin', sitting on my suitcase and playing my harmonica in lonely distant terminals. Pardon the gap.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cymbal #22:: Easy Listening, Scary Reading & Time Travel

As I know it, the art of recording is so much time travel. Superfuzz pedals, soul samples, every old Fender sold - all of these are sepia tinting tools, machines to explore the fourth dimension. It's all a little sickening at times, but when it works, the audience is exposed to a hall of mirrors, cultural reflexivity - a kind of sonic intertextuality.

Lee Fields and the Expressions - Honey Dove - 2002

The thing about this kind of time travel is that it's not like you get to go into the past wholesale. It's more like you send a container back into the past and hope someone puts something in it. The surreal possibility of sending something into the unknown and receiving possibly cursed magic in return; of converting yourself into a cargo cult.

William Gibson - Hinterlands - Burning Chrome

Bit of a head twister of a read. The sheer unadulterated raw dreamstuff of genius. Burning Chrome is still my favourite collection of short stories ever.

There's the fine line between inspiration/evocation and straight up cogging. Still, it's not as joyless as Wolfmother.

The Black Keys - Things Ain't Like They Used To Be - 2008

Then, of course, there's shameless beautiful tourism. Charmingly, I've seen this referred to as "brownsploitation". Maybe we need a poll, but I, for one, am down with that.

Dan the Automator and DJ Shadow - My Guru - 1999

The album is called Bombay the Hard Way: Guns, Cars and Sitars. I need a copy for the lounge I will one day set up, or alternately, just to help arrange the mishmash that is the 21st century Indian head. Any Indian born in the twentieth century lives partly in Kalyanji-Anandji land, the effect of endless replays of Bacchan movies, movies with Inspectors in them, black rotary phones, garlanded photos on the wall and beautiful chunky suspense music. Just a thin layer of fuzz away. 

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cymbal #21:: Tightening Up

So I've been thinking. I've been going all doom and gloom on y'all, and no one likes a downer. I mean, listening to drone metal all day is all very well, but man, you gotta have a good time sometimes too. And to that end, a reeeeeally happy song.

Archie Bell and The Drells - Tighten Up - 1968

In fact, I'm groooving just sitting here. Can't keep still. Oh no! My shoulders, my behaind, it's all just shakin'. Mmmm mmm that's a tasty morning groove, nice and vibey.

Modernised, and oddly apologetic. Tellingly, off an album called Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics. Why should you have to feel sorry for being happy?

Yo La Tengo - Tighten Up - 2006
So let's play the genre game. Ain't nothing happier than some reggae.

The Untouchables - Tighten Up- 1968

And hey, because metal can be bloody cheerful if it wants to:

Ozzy Osbourne - Perry Mason - 1995
Boss, it doesn't matter how many bats you decapitate on the spur of the moment, we know you're a sweetheart sugarplum. :-)
Apologies for the unacceptable gap between issues. :-)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cymbal #20:: Jack White is like PT Barnum

You have to admire it. The man never wants to quit trying new things. He's a wild uncontrollable ball of blues jam energy.

The Raconteurs & Alison Mosshart - Steady as She Goes - 2008

In this video, he cuts off to the wings to try a new vocal distortion effect (which fails spectacularly, leaving Mosshart laughing), because he's just tired playing a great song which works perfectly fine if you just leave it alone. He's like a little kid with a Hot Wheels set; have you ever noticed how they never leave well enough alone, how they keep introducing new externalities to their immaculately company-provided daddy-set-up loops and ramps?

The reason I'm walking this path is that everyone's talking, whispering, wagging-tongues-and-tails about The Dead Weather, White's latest project, where Jack goes back to drumming like he's wearing a marching hat and Alison Mosshart wrestles with the mic with the intimacy of a family feud. It's an experiment I wish worked anywhere as well as The Raconteurs does, but it lacks the glue of a single set of visions, and of less than that, you cannot make writ.

Like 19th century showman PT Barnum, Jack White brings new things to the brighter lights. Which is how I found The Kills.

The Kills - Sour Cherry - 2008

Lo-fi verve rock, like a primitive bestial tailswipe to the face. The attitude strains halfway through but you see something in it - a conviction that some thing here is worth preserving. Mosshart's voice has genuine presence, the ability to fill up a recording chamber, to leave a fingerprint in the spectrum.

But white tigers, pygmies and strongmen apart, the circus is about the Ringmaster, be it Mr. Galliano from your childhood, the cynical cigar-smelling Barnum or someone closer home. Study this all the way to the end:

The White Stripes - Death Letter - 2006

More than anything, Jack White does what nobody else in music has the balls to do. He throws himself into the fiery pit of innovation and emotion that is the blues and slathers himself up joyfully, gets dirty with it, revels in the lick and the exegesis of it all, on his knees, on his back, makes it his own, sweats and bleeds it out. Many can play the blues bluesy, porching peacefully; but who can rail and pitch funeral hellfire like this man? Who can tame these demons?

And with that, Cymbal is a score of issues old. I'm frankly amazed that I didn't quit after the first five. A stocktaking is in order. Should this continue clogging up your mailboxes? Should this move to a blog (exclusively/as well)? Ideas? Feedback?

Also, anyone who came late and wants back issues, just whistle. You know how to whistle don't you?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cymbal #19:: Sunday Afternoon

Some Sunday afternoons are somber. The coming evening elicits a hyperventilation, a tightening in the chest, an urge to escape and bolt down the nearest hole you can find in the hope that at the end of that tunnel, there may be an entire world where nobody knows anything about you and you can throw your phone and your keys into a bowl of glowing sulfuric acid. You can move to Algeria, change your name, work as a mechanic, and wait till this same miasma descends upon you again.

Tricky - Evolution Revolution Love - 2001

But in other times, the nature of the afternoon is to be the glittering soulful jewel divinely pressed into the day. As the sun perforates your skin, filling it up with light, you feel transparent, just passing through, the throbbing of your veins just an incidental rhythm of the universe. Already you can feel it being written into your permanent memory, a stop point you'll want to point back at and say - yes, right then, I was happy.

Pavement - Cut Your Hair - 1994

For Sunday evenings when you can't feel anything but the passage of time, there's this song. The great sad song, a creation that puts you in touch with half a world of people. People everywhere, staring out of the windows of apartments, looking at ceiling fans, looking silently at eachother, closing their eyes.

REM - Perfect Circle - 2001
The power of the song is in the backing vocal croon, a sound like the wind through trees in cold forests. When I close my eyes I see the women of a Norse village waving off longships floating out onto the dark blue velvet of the cold seas. They don't know if anyone will ever return, and their men are beyond the reach of the voice now, almost beyond sight.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cymbal #18:: Bitter

A friend told me last night that (loosely recapitulated) if one loves music, it becomes hard to feel bitter about it, that you can't think of it as poisoned, only that poison is in its nature. Is that the nature of music, or the nature of affection? Is music some Baudelarian muse that you embrace, thorns and all?

But to feel at home in music is like feeling at home in water, to be able to strike out in any direction and recreate identity through reference and expression. And surely, when you feel bitter, you can bend an arm into a posture. And this posture suits me tonight. I fear it may suit a lot of you, from time to time.

The Smiths - Frankly Mr. Shankly - 1986

Since I was sixteen, in moments of pain or loneliness or doubt, I've always been able to turn to The Smiths as consolers of the lonely - a reassurance that somebody out there had marginally at least worse issues than I. And it's always been pissing off when gay people make the Smiths theirs; they belong to all of sad, depressed, burdened, cursed humanity, and none more than any other.

The Smiths - There is a Light that Never Goes Out - 1986

One senses a bit of division-of-labour with the strings. Johnny Marr and his Incredibly Sapient Guitar speak to the highest chakra, filling it with pathos, but the body, the muscle come from the bass. It's really athletic basswork; and set in a different mood, it would be almost dancy, a reminder to not get ahead of yourself- it's just great pop. Morissey's black humour is painfully arch ("If a ten ton truck/kills the both of us/To die by your side/Well, the pleasure, the privilege, is mine") a bath of melancholy built to wallow in.

Morissey - Every Day is Like Sunday

I can't say precisely why, but this video (the song is fine, just what the doctor ordered) makes me very nervous. It makes me question what the nature of co-option is, in the context of how mainstream past alternatives are becoming. I get really uncomfortable with the culture of complicity - and something about this Morissey patrolling a well lit stage in a seated venue leaves me deeply unsettled, like discovering your personal laundry strung out in the public view.
Apologies to any who feel they did not receive Cymbal #17:: Big Riffs, HUGE RIFFS. You did. It's probably gone to your spam filter; a consequence of my BCCing the whole list. In the future, I'm just going to bung everyone's names into the main box and hope that you can look through the ugliness. :-)

In case you can't find it and want it, I'll forward it upon request.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cymbal #17:: Big Riffs, HUGE RIFFS

F*** Wolfmother. If you want gigantic old school riffs, like Black Sabbath riffs, like bad-ass Led Zeppelin riffs, with the sound of dirty fuzzy amplifiers channeling real guitarists, who can riff and play licks with hones- to-god imagination, you need Sleep. Apparently, if you read the brochure, Sleep's Holy Mountain (1992) altered the musical landscape, hugely influential, changed things, new things, big things etc etc - all balongesh if you ask me - this is sound of primal rock'n'roll, as good as it's ever been, and that never really went away. At worst, it went to sleep.

Sleep - Aquarian - 1992

But note the little difference. Where Black Sabbath went for jaggedness, Sleep smooth the edges and introduce a little funk and play to the innards of the mechanism. Note the little drum fills and the wash of bass - that's not very orthodox at all. It's far clearer the second time around, when the bloodrush of riffage has subsided.

On Dragonaut, there's a little drone shading in the colour, a baseline hum to clean away the silences. (It's reefer music - of course, in case you need to be let in on a little secret, all classic rock is reefer music- that's the way it is.)

Sleep - Dragonaut - 1992

There's a beautiful moment, at about 4:40, as the guitar solo is proceeding and before the gagging, stalling bass/drum breakdown. The bass stops its marching chop and takes a little detour and suddenly you're walking two paths at once, each ear tracing a separate solo. Trippy, dude.

And I'm feeling it right now; riding that vibe. I want to find my shades, lace up my old blue Chucks, put on a sleeveless t-shirt and drive out into the afternoon sun with Sleep playing nice and loud, drive as far in one direction as I can before I'm tired and have to stop.

Of course, with Kyuss on the flip, because Kyuss made the best driving music ever. If I had my little way, every car sold would have a complimentary copy of Blues for the Red Sun in it. 

Kyuss - 50 Million Year Trip - 1992

I hate the fact that this song ever has to end; by the same token, that thirty seconds of reprise makes me incredibly happy.

Since circles end in only one way:

Kyuss - Into the Void 

Isn't that just a fabulous cover? Sabbath, by virtue of being so influential, guaranteed that every one of their great songs would yield at least one cover better than the original.

This Cymbal goes out to all those up late tonight, finding it hard to get through all they have to. May guitars help you defy sleep.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Cymbal #16:: The Rebirth of Mos Def

If you're like me and you've heard the super-macro-phenomenal-superlative-defying-dizziness-inducing wonder that was the Black Star, the name Mos Def means a promise of a match to coloured gunpowder - something new will emerge, blue and explosive. I just listened to the new album today, and The Ecstatic is fabulous. It's giddy and loose and free from gravity or centre. It suffers from ADHD; not only does it hesitate to repeat the same trick, it's so scared of letting any one trick grow old that it nips it in the bud straight up. Each song has enough flow and sample to afford a regular MC three tracks, but Mos Def rips through material like a caterpillar in a Subway salad.

Sometimes, when you think its slow like British trip-hop, it has a trip-hammer at its heart, a relentless beating, putting its foot through the tranquility and haze that suckered you.

Mos Def - Revelations - 2009

What's driving the whole enterprise? Somewhere a fierce genius has awoken, from ashes and ice and the crumbling trophies of past glory, from the faded photographs of late nineties NYC.  And it roars. It is hyperactive and ambitious and wants to own the whole damn world.

Mos Def - Life in Marvellous Times - 2009

I don't want to make this mail-list a vehicle for album reviews, or anything where I pimp one artist, or big anyone up. I am like a child faced with an asteroid when it comes to this one. I'd feel like I was hiding it if I wasn't bigging it up. Get The Ecstatic.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Cymbal #15:: Two Late Night Songs

Stabbing distortion laden rhythm guitars, a swinging lead, drums that don't mind being backstage except for a few seconds of really showing off, and it's a quiet-loud formula. It could be any damn melodic death metal song. But the difference is the single infectious melodic lead, which will not be contained, which will erupt like a fountain stoppered with bubble gum into pipe like mellifluousness. Melodic death is about that very counterpoint, that Ferran Adria tart appearance and the sweet deception revealed.

Dark Tranquility - Monochromatic Stains - 2002

The video looks like just a bit like some scenes of Dr. Caligari's Cabinet, na?


When I was about fourteen years old, Lauryn Hill owned r'n'b on radio. This song reminds me of the strangest thing: darkroom chemicals. When I was in Photography class in high school, I spent hours together in dark rooms, exposing pieces of paper to negatives through large complex metal enlargers that looked as though Galileo would have used them to look at the rings of Saturn, tapering towards an evil snub point and then firing beams of light for carefully controlled seconds. After that, you'd take seemingly white sheets of paper and dip them in (i) developer; (ii) stop bath; (iii) water; (iv) fixer and than some other thingamabob. The nitrates would suddenly blossom as you slopped developer over it and miraculously, the image would form on the sheet in crystal clear black and white.

Lauryn Hill - Doo Wop - 1998

We had a radio in the corner, which would play the consensus best local station, and that year, this song was always there. This and the Beastie Boys "Brass Monkey". But Doo Wop was just so deeply funky, so full of soul and vibe, and just a bit of wisdom ("That's the sin that did Jezebel in"). You'd walk out humming it, with the smell of stop bath on your fingers, acrid and spirituous. And the breaks in the rhyme - that deep little pause between "better" and "watch out"- wow; how does a silence get so melodious?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cymbal #14:: Love Will Tear Us Apart

Close your eyes. Listen.

Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart - 1980

You're lying on your bed, staring at the ceiling, back from school. It's been a cold day and the warmth of a bed is spreading through your body, the blankets bringing you back to some optimum level written into your veins. No one has called or will. You will not go anywhere today. You're not uncontrollably sad, just resigned, in a northern way. You don't want things to be better, because that would be a lie.

That bassline and the drumming at the start never really go away, but they learn to serve the synth and the backing vocals. In a way, the rhythm section is the spine and the synth and guitar are the flesh, filling out the spectrum of sound. But the soul is the vocals.

At the central phrase of the chorus, you can hear that the pain is absolutely real, the tenderness of freshly healed over scrape. Every time a band's greatest strength, it's emotional core, is a vocalist, covers of their songs stick at that point. And no one has quite expressed his melancholy in the same way as Ian Curtis. It's a much deeper sadness than the pain of Kurt Cobain, more human and cultured; less primal. Joy Division are not my favourite depressed English band. This is not even my favourite Joy Division song, but the sadness of that chorus refuses to go away.

An earlier version - also by Joy Division

Faster, earlier, more straight rock and less a tour of the priory. It has its charm, but it doesn't lend itself as well to soundtracking your week. Bands take what they will from Joy Division, and if this sounds more "modern', well, it's what they took.

The Swans - Love will Tear Us Apart - 1988

Break up the pacing, replace the keyboards with female backing vocals, add much  guitar. Suddenly you're not in your bedroom alone. You're in a dark bar listening to a two-piece act. It's arresting, but when you walk out, you may forget it.

As an aside, The Swans really didn't miss any tricks learning from Joy Division, did they?

The Swans - Miracle of Love - 1991

And finally, some girls.

Nouvelle Vague - Love Will Tear Us Apart - 2004

That isn't the same song at all. It's canon now, so you don't really have to be committed to the mood or the tone. And what would these sunny children know of melancholy? And I really wouldn't have mentioned it, if it wasn't for the fact that it has a beautiful fade out, like watching birds fly away in the snowy winter.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Cymbal #13:: The Gleefully Silly 1990s

Scenes always played through my head when I was a kid. I used to imagine the worlds I could not enter, and cursed with an overactive, wildly associative imagination, they would be detailed worlds, with complete soundtracks, or at the very least, a sort of sound.

And this stupid happy-hardcore/ravepop song was the sound of the world I imagined electronic music had unlocked - some sort of pneumatic golden future, a perfect world where everyone was free to wear as much nylon and plastic as they wanted. A great deal of this was fueled by some report in a Newsweek from Berlin's Love Parade, accompanied by pictures of lots of people in thigh-high platinum boots.

Dune - Can't Stop Raving - 1995

In retrospect, it's a fairly retarded song. As was the scene that I wanted to grow up and party in. Large pants, day-glo colors, people dancing spastically. It would all subsequently become cheesy, a joke, hundred of kids with glowsticks dropping E in crummy warehouses. But if you were a kid just about opening your ears in the mid-90s, electronic music sounded defiantly like the future.

In fact, if you want to see how ridiculous this got:

Laila K. - Open Sesame

On the other end of the spectrum was this: Sex and Candy. So languid, so dreamy. One little descending guitar phrase unknots all the tension in your head. Slacker chic was at its peak in the late nineties, at the end of the whole rainbow of britpop.

Marcy Playground - Sex and Candy-1997

I wanted this mans life. I still want this mans life. I want to wake up late and spend the day watching people. Also, what is disco lemonade? Where do I get some? Is it as good as it sounds? Why is no one casting devious stares at me? Seriously.

But, for complete world creation, you have to play with the big boys. No one ever told the director of California Love where to get off the Mad Max bus. Civilization as we know it has come to an end. California is now a desert holdout of mad renegades (with an infinite supply of fossil fuels, presumably). It is never explained what purpose the large wooden domes serve. I can only presume that they cover one of those dance floors we never find empty. The chicks look superbly bored, and there have been no make-up shortages.

2Pac - California Love - 1995

I've wanted a dune buggy like Tupac's for at least a decade now, to ride in likewise style; the small car/hatchback market scene in India is a bit apocalyptic. Besides, like everyone in rap in the 90s, I want to ride with the good Doctor.