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.