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.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cymbal #12:: Unlikely Performances

There are great possibilities in discomfort and bad fits; something which forces the native genius out of a human being. Like watching Kobe Bryant at Rucker Park or Thierry Henry in a small enclosure with teeny goals. Under straitened circumstances, the polish and the varnish disappears, and substance stands revealed and naked. Frauds get exposed, and greatness shines bright.

REM - The One I Love - 2005

The story at this gig, I think, from the comments, is that it was canceled at the last minute and Stipe and Mills do a couple of quick songs. You've heard the song before, but have you heard it so bare? So stripped and cleansed of all the jingle jangle guitarwork.

It's an arena song, really, held up by a suspended bridge of basswork and drums. So when you remove everything but the melody, the ear magnifies it and suddenly it sounds larger, more contemplative. This song is about loss, unlike the one below (at a proper concert in Lithuania). Just listen to that melancholy "fire" explore the unknown night. Doesn't it beat the rallying cry below hollow?

REM - The One I Love - 2008

The second video I came across that raised the hair along the base of my neck (the "hairs", some would say), is this little carefully recorded sniplet of Galaxie 500, captured in staggering anonymity just minutes before they broke onto the scene and released the now-canon On Fire.

Galaxie 500 - When Will You Come Home - 1989

When you listen to On Fire, the sense of wonder comes from how a storm can sound so good, how atmosphere can be so hummable and tuneful. It's the same confusion as biting into haleem causes in the head - how can something soft become solid on biting into it?

The word I reach for is alchemy, because I know no better to convey the wonder at the transformation that takes place. This version leans towards just the melody, just the tune, without the eventual layering on of the guitars and the studio homework. And of course, one of the worst live acts I've ever asked anyone to watch. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cymbal #11::The Connells and the Gateway Song

I came across this song in a green and black Winamp window in the Comp Lab at NLS in my first year. That folder (a then unimaginable 8 gigabytes of music) held hundreds of singles, some forgettable, some unavoidable and a few which were sincerely magical.

74 75 doesn't make any more sense than it did then, but that same conviction in the poignancy of the song holds. I know it's a simple enough melody but a few things make it work. The twin bass notes at the end of the phrase toll out time. The instruments-as-chorus stretch it out endlessly.

The Connells - 74 75

So I went ahead and looked up The Connells, expecting to find the same lack of depth that you'd encounter with a million one-hit wonders. The same sound again and again, slowed down, sped up, chipmunked, whatever.

But 74 75 didn't come out nowhere. The Connells were a local alt-rock sensation in North Carolina for years before they ever got heard outside. It must have taken exactly that kind of relative isolation to stew in the sound of tapes and eight tracks and LPs to come up with the sound in the earlier songs. There are deep melodic basslines, tempo changes, a love for choruses - all inspired- and a product that's actually very very original.

The Connells - Scotty's Lament-1987

Try to put your finger on it. There's some early REM very strong in the mix in the experimentation. Distinct traces of the Velvet Underground, especially in the reluctance to overplay a good thing. A mournfulness in both voice and guitar that could only have been echoing the Smiths transatlantically. For moments, I could swear Johnny Marr was behind that guitar and that chamber tone. There's a celtic sadness which isn't even cheesy.

The Connells - Seven - 1986

Seven, there's no getting around it, sounds like a livelier Joy Division- a Joy Division with groove. That's a bit special, innit?

The sound changed over time, changed many times over. It became nineties pop the sunshiney way. Not half bad, but you've heard this kind of thing many times.

The Connells - Stone Cold Yesterday

But I keep coming back to 74 75. It's the one that opened the door for me. But a song you listen to that much never opens only one door - it's also a door back to a time and place, the green coconut palms and the warm Bangalore sun. Strangely, it also takes me back to a basement with pink curtains and an empty fire extinguisher.

By the way, Cymbal #10 got MASSIVE love. Thanks for listening, folks.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cymbal #10:: Late Night Island Tour

Allegedly legendary hip-hop from the UK. The flavor comes from the sweet electric reggae lite of the backing loop. It's an island sound - but this is an island of improbable coolness, where everyone wears shades indoors as well. This track is set in a bar with reddish lighting, a roof of palm branches lashed together. One side is open to let in the trade wind. There are no lights on the water. People are drinking rum cocktails out of coconut shells and not looking like tools while doing it.

Mark B and Blade - The Unknown - 2000

On this island lives and works King Tubby. Everything is a little hazy where he lives, a little spiritual. Power is provided to his house by the rustiest old dynamo ever created. God lives around the corner.

King Tubby - Zion Gate Dub

Keep walking. Sand dunes. A prematurely old looking haggard man with that vatic look in his eyes, dressed in white pants, is seeking love.

Bob Dylan - Sara - 1976

I was sixteen when I first heard this song, and I can't remember what I thought about it then, except that I liked it. Now, I think about how older people can also be in love, and how there are second chances to things that seem terminally wound up. Desire era Dylan is good a songwriter as Blood on the Tracks Dylan, but less intense. He sits back and steeples his fingers more. You can tell from the amount of descriptive detail in the lyrics- more environment, more weather, less dialogue.

And of course, old friends.

Weezer - Island in the Sun- 2001

What's that I hear, you want two weeks off? :-)

Cymbal #9:: Anthems

What turns a pop song into an anthem? Something that really doesn't need to be performed in mood for it to be successful- the context of which is no longer integral. I came across this video just Pixies surfing, and it caught my eye immediately. The grin on Frank's face when he comes up and the crowd screams. I'm not entirely sure this would have been a scene The Pixies would have enjoyed in their pre-breakup. But when you stop being an actual band, and you become Canon, everything is acceptable worship.

Placebo with Black Francis- Where is My Mind?

The original. Just a great pop song, a mindblowingly good song, but not an anthem by nature, not designed to be an anthem. Anthems like this take time to come into existence, take the love of many people, and the sustained adoration will turn a song not designed to be sung by crowds into just that.

The Pixies - Where is my Mind? - 1988

Placebo, however, releases intentional anthems; songs meant to be adored in crowds. They're simple songs. They have one sharp hook each; there's one little trick to each one. Every Me, Every You is one of my favorites.

Placebo - Every Me Every You - 1999

Somehow, this song makes me feel sharp and cool and cynical and hardcore and want to be more of each. None of which I am, and none of which anyone you want to be actually is. I'm told that at some point you grow out of wanting to be cool. I eagerly await that moment.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cymbal #8::Cheeky Morning Jacket

A man with a guitar, singing about a hot librarian.

You need a pretty dead sense of irony to not see how ridiculous the concept is. Irony, by the way, it appears is the currency of the musical world . If you're "ironic" enough, you can even play Van Halen and Kiss songs publicly, and you will be forgiven. I haven't mastered this irony - I hide my Kiss away, because I obviously enjoy them to a socially unacceptable extent.

It would be merely funny if it wasn't actually a very pretty song. It's still really funny, and somehow that doesn't detract from the beauty of the song. Like movies and plays and books, humor can avoid necessarily cheapening music.

My Morning Jacket - Librarian - 2008

There are moments which really strain the credibility of the enterprise (the interweb? really?) but something survives the stupidity of the concept and dries its wings at the end. It's a tingling sort of song, an indoors ballad, a little delicate and overwrought.

There's a little bounce to it, which reminds me a wee smidge of Golden Brown. I really wish I knew anything about musical theory so I could say something accurate and helpful about why. To my untrained ear, it's just a tumbling set of notes, circling around.

The Stranglers- Golden Brown - 1981

Oh, what a song Golden Brown is! What a lovely little jewel-box fantasy, so self contained and light, almost lighter than air! And the accompanying 'oriental' video- so full of the obvious references that Edward Said (the late great) would have choked on his nargileh if he ever saw it. And it fades out beautifully like a caravan going over the horizon, nods out into the dusty hazy dawn.

It's a hilarious video but I like it, because I like the Orient, and I like things to refer to internally consistent worlds and a little sepia tone does not disturb me. Perhaps, as you being to realize, I have an underdeveloped sense of irony- underdeveloped enough to appreciate songs about hot librarians? Yes. 

Cymbal #7::Sonic Youth - Aging Gracefully

The wires are awash in it. Magazines and newspapers too. The folks at Pitchfork, like a coven of priests hearing that the gospel has been Updated Authoritatively, have declared the month holy and are slathering themselves in worship. The new Sonic Youth album is the indie Lady Gaga, unavoidable and omnipresent.

With dour seriousness, Pitchfork shoved Sonic Youth into a gray room and forces them to make guitar magic, like some labcoated scientist. You can almost see them outside the chamber, watching dispassionately.

Sonic Youth - Antenna - 2009 (Pitchfork TV)

To me, Sonic Youth are the sound of being serious about music, and young and a little bit nerdy. I've spent hours listening to Goo and Murray Street while driving around, listening to the wail of guitars paint canvases across my wall, color the mood of the city electric.

Sonic Youth - Mote - 2005

That's just great rock. As long as you can play that, people will come.

Back when Sonic Youth were younger and cutely self conscious. Lee Ranoldo looks like everyone's ex-roomie. But when I'm older, I want videos of myself caring that much.

Sonic Youth - 100%

And my personal favorite. The mood is wildly overdone, the pathos is overplayed, but with such an eloquent lead, any fiction is forgiven.

Sonic Youth - Disconnection Notice - 2002

Friday, June 12, 2009

Cymbal #6::Funerary Moods

The first time I heard this song, on the Path at the NLS campus, it was on a fairly short lived medium - the mp3 Discman. Destined to follow the 8-track, the 5.35 inch floppy disk, the aurochs and chivalry into extinction. Every Sabbath track I had heard so far had the same fantastic, tantric mix of menace and celebration - all good clean happy metal. And then, this came on, a tour of strings and flute so mournful and choral in nature, that it arrested me immediately, forced me to check my tiny display and start it over. I can safely say that it took half an hour out of my life before I could move on to doing anything.

Black Sabbath - Solitude - 1971

I return to the song, that same haunting melody, the same witchcraft on a hill. Really, the words betray the depth of melancholy this song encompasses. It's not a lovelorn lament - it's an apocalyptic sadness, a wasting away to the end of the world. The music is so much sadder than words can express. Ulver's cover of "Solitude" turns the song into an atmospheric, sluggish lament - an oh so distant mood from the folkishness of the original.

Ulver - Solitude

Thanks for the spot, Hemant; what a great band! There's a trumpet or something in the background and what sounds like a box being blown about by the wind. I can actually feel the wind in this version.

Ulver - Blinded by Blood - 2005

Another great Ulver track with outstanding artwork by Giger. How dark the future can look and sound sometimes. Turn it up. Let it wash over you, full of doubt and lethean suspense, the tinkling xylophone of a demented jester and a chorus of angels.

At times, melancholy catches everyone. The sorrow at the heart of the blues tradition is usually a life affirming thing, but sometimes, it reveals a deeper loss- the inability to deal with the forces that defy meaning. The jive, the swing, the delightful r'n'b ishness - that's the form speaking, but there is none of the bluesman's boast that has been part of the idiom since it's birth.

The Grateful Dead - Death Don't Have No Mercy - 1968

No one here is drinking with the devil.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cymbal #5::The Allman Brothers Band - Whipping Post and the Art of the Jam

You don't have to dig southern blues rock; you don't have to be massively into slide guitars or odd timings or anything at all to love this song. It doesn't even take patience. In fact, I think the basic requirement is pretty much just being human.

The second that bassline kicks in, something big and serious begins, a bassline like that is too good to be used for anything shorter than this anything less monumental. This is the sort of jam that builds a house and then keeps embellishing it. And it all stands on the foundation of that marathon-runner of a bassline. 

The Allman Brother's Band - Whipping Post - 1970

If you're used to seeing lots of recent shows, what may surprise you is the lack of distance , both physically and sonically, between the band members - the sound emerges as from one source, fused and melted together like a chocolate bar. That bassline never actually disappears; even when the bassist hooks off on a brief psychedelic meander, the riff preserves it's memory. 

What really knocks my socks off this jam never loses tension; never lets you off the hook. That takes more than skill - it's something Led Zeppelin never managed to pull off. It takes some sort of knowledge of your limitations, of your place in the art.

I hear Phish used to cover this song a lot, but I can't find it. A pity. I'd love to see the best jam band of our times recreating what I think might be the greatest jam of all time.

And also, much more settled and calm:

The Allman Brother's Band - In Memory of Elizabeth Reed - 1970


I've added a few new folk. If anyone wants me to remove them or add someone else, just holler.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cymbal #4::Neil Young and the Beautiful Storm

Just listen to what is not said here, how between simple lyrics lie acres of endless expression. The inner eye is deceived by one sense into replacing the input of the other senses. The guitar jam in this song is like a long walk through the elements. This is a landscape described in sound.

I close my eyes and I see red deserts under low cloud ceilings, the road leading through the rocks. Where the road ends, the hills start. An endless climb through sharp grass and heather which pricks through the pants, the wind buffeting the climber down the direction he came. At the end of the climb, at least in this version, my traveler lifts off into the storm and flies away.

Life isn't easy but that doesn't mean it's not beautiful.

Neil Young - Like a Hurricane - 1977

Monday, June 8, 2009

Cymbal #3::CBGB - the Places you Remember

By the time I started hearing about CBGB, they were just about to shut the damn place down and I was on the other side of the planet. When I think about it, if it were open, and I did manage to get myself halfway across the world and go, I don't know how much I would feel. There would always be this gnawing doubt that I was functioning on expectation and sensing some kind of presence where there was none.

Still, there are times when presence can be transmitted; can be conveyed, even with a minimum of context. So when I came across this video of Patti Smith shutting down CBGB in 2006 with a haunting, quavering dirge, I froze and felt a prickle down my spine. It's part the quality of the song, and part the funeral sobriety of a last farewell.

Patti Smith - Elegie - 2006

Naturally, one thing leads to another, and before terribly long, I had come across a couple of videos from CBGB that caught my eye. This one is interesting to me because it's just so surprisingly comfortable for GnR at their peak to just drop an acoustic jam without the floodlights and accoutrements of rock gods; to be so relaxed and at ease; there's this pervasive collegiate-jam sense of relaxation, a smell of beer in the air. There's a bit of humour, a little country twang - this could be a bar in Nashville, but it's the CBGB of the Ramones and Blondie - you expect a little more sophistication.

Guns'n'Roses - Mr. Brownstone - 1987

The more "traditional" CBGB acts used to take advantage of the lack of barriers and divides at CBGB to destroy any gaps between the audience and performer. The results could be chaotic and unpredictable, occasionally brilliant and frequently an unholy mess. The same performance could go from peace and love to a riot in minutes.

Two shots from the Bad Brains

 [Which is how you channel a groove]

 [Which is how you work a crowd!]

An entire generation tuned into the alternate continuum of American punk/hardcore/DIY grew up thinking of CBGB as a temple, and those who got to play the stage as gods. Which is why, when Patti Smith reads out her list of absent friends, there's a whiff of immortality. Till somebody nerds it out, the tension evaporates, the show is over and everyone goes home on the subway.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Cymbal #2::Transmitting Paranoia with Company Flow

I came across Company Flow's "Funcrusher Plus" by way of mentions of its reissue this year. Now, I suppose its hard to understand how instrumental the production values were back when it released in 1994, before GZA's "Liquid Swords" and Dr. Octagon's "Octagonecologyst". This is the stutter step of vintage underground hip hop. The menacing floating synth, the stepping beats, the rapid ascent to the first crack of the album, the opening shot "Rugged like Rwanda/Don't wind up far/Or get chopped up".

Company Flow - 8 Steps to Perfection - 1994

This is the hip hop of the lonely examination of the ego, of the man as urban hero, street samurai, gritty and cheap by circumstance, none of which serves to hold him back from the destiny his talent serves him. The structure is too basic for storytelling; but manufactures atmosphere. The hyping is surreal at times, El-P sending us into orbit "Color me Maxmillian/ cause I'm that crazy robot/Teetering on the edge of outer space/Spitting buckshots till black holes surround me" and bringing it all back again.

The video is remarkable for how spare it is; how monomaniacal about the only thing that matters, the flow. Nothing about the city or the sea matters; the surroundings fade out appropriately. It's hard to imagine this video ever getting play on any music channel - it's unwatchable except by a student of hip hop with the album memorized.

Funcrusher Plus is dense as black matter, so dense that it takes half a dozen listens to figure out how the tracks work. But some of the menace, the attitude, transmit instantaneously. The production is paranoid, schizophrenic, drives a man to reach for something to protect himself; the environment is dangerous, filled with hate. Anything might come out of the night that contains the stinging sitar work on my favorite track.

Company Flow - The Fire in Which you Burn- 1994

And with the swagger that runs through the spine of the dystopian masterpiece that is Funcrusher Plus:

"Not the type of nigga to steal any scene too long, son,
I might lace you, leave the EP evidence and then I'm gone

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Cymbal #1::Muddy Waters and The Great American Night

As you may have noticed, NME hasn't been bending over backwards to offer me a job yet.

Therefore, to indulge my musical journalism fantasies, and to keep in touch with a whole lot of people I like a great deal, I'm starting this little music related mailing list, Cymbal. Basically, I'm just going to throw the best of the music and music video links at you that I find while 'tubing in the office. How enterprising, you say.

Cymbal#1::Muddy Waters and The Great American Night

What's really interesting about the first video is how vividly it capture the post-war English hunger for all things rhythm and blues; a hunger which would later find it's voice in the great English bluesmen and rock bands. For just a moment, inspect the set; the barrels, the railroad, the "Wanted" posters, the little bell. For crying out loud, there's a dude in a rocking chair nodding wisely!

The scene is a pastiche of visual cues all pointing (a little self conciously) to the South, the Great American Night, Travel Across Monumental Distances and the Soul of Black Music. The audience sits across the tracks, literally and metaphorically, looking in on a still painting - looking, in some ways, back in time.

Muddy Waters - You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had

And, a version with James Cotton on harp

Feedback? Ideas?