Thursday, June 1, 2017

Past Greatness: May '17

Welcome to the six installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. The one pre-requisite I have for this series is that I must have first listened to the album relatively recently. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's albums span five decades, as we find the earthly Afrobeat of 1975's Kuti alongside Slowdive's dreamy 1991 debut and Colin Stetson's 2011 trilogy centerpiece

Colin Stetson | New History Warfare Vol. 2
2011 | Post-Minimalism | Listen

Colin Stetson's work as a renowned saxophonist has not missed my eardrums. The list of collaborators runs like a who's who of post-2000's Indie. Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Feist, and many, many more all requested Stetson's help when a multireedist was needed. And yet, up until a few weeks ago, his name meant little more to me than a footnote of passing interest. Never doubt the silent assassin, for Stetson's solo work, centered around him as the lead, feels just as complete, ambitious, and riveting as any opus he's been featured on. All that, as is well known with New History Warfare Vol.2; Judges, done entirely through live sessional takes, microphones spaced all around a studio. The result is utterly fascinating, a breathtaking piece that shows so much breadth and creativity coming from what's essentially a single instrument. Oh, and Laurie Anderson's here too.

While not highly involved, there's a loose concept flowing through Judges, and it's one that allows Stetson's atmospheric work to find a home in something otherwise discordant. As the centerpiece in the New History Warfare trilogy, Judges acts as the return trip home for those who will soon come to learn that, through war, home doesn't exist anymore. Anderson, through her poetry-corner vocals, makes play-doh of the destructive imagery of war, and helps to illustrate the passion, pain, fervor, and turmoil flowing through Stetson's beaten and bruised lips. Even though she only appears on four songs, Anderson's spoken word sequences are pivotal in understanding the album's deeply-rooted allure. On 'Judges' she only speaks two lines ("What war was that? What town could this be?"), and yet that phrases' purpose speaks volumes. On 'A Dream Of Water' her presence is more intense, intruding upon the listener with panicked freight, forcing distant memories, scatterbrained in recollection, to never be forgotten. 

What shouldn't be forgotten is the fact that, no matter how strong my admiration of Anderson is, Stetson is still the star that deserves attention. Even though I'm thoroughly bewildered as to how Stetson creates many of the sounds he does (that squeal is something else), I can't help but feel my appreciation would skyrocket had I been more familiar with woodwind instruments and how they're typically played. Technical expertise aside, Judges can still be enjoyed off sheer imagination and sound alone. The diversity is something to be in awe of. Sure there's Stetson's classic spooling on 'Judges,' 'Clothed In The Skin Of The Dead,' and 'The Righteous Wrath Of An Honorable Man,' but these tracks would've only detracted from the overall experience had intersecting moments of strangeness and diversion not littered the landscape. That was mostly the case on New History Warfare Vol. 1. However here, his maddening stance defies expectations even more so, and with the help of Industrial composer Ben Frost, moments of brooding musical fidelity find their way into Stetson's post-apocalyptic world.

Unfortunately for me, many of my favorite pieces are merely brushed up upon, used as brief retreats into a memory rather than a full invitation to the present. Stetson's atmospheric spooling feels, more often than not, like a rallying cry for troops marching in on a homeland ('The Stars In His Head'), or ones languishing in defeat under a crushed ton of bricks ('Home'). But it's the memories that win me over. The eulogy of humanities loss on 'All The Days I've Missed You,' Anderson's masterful, stream of conscious prose on 'A Dream Of Water,' and Shara Worden's despondent weeping through Gospel on 'Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes' are just some of the highlights. To be honest, they're only highlights because they're different. Some songs blend into the fray too much, and as a result feel a tad bit like filler. However, without tracks like 'From No Part Of Me Could I Summon A Voice' or 'Home,' Stetson's promise of a world with darkened ashes and barren landscapes wouldn't be fulfilled.

Fela Kuti | Expensive Shit
1975 | Afrobeat | Listen

A few weeks back, knowing an inevitable lull in 2017 listening material was looming, I scoured RateYourMusic's 70's and 80's charts for releases that could potentially fire off my brain's creative half. Genesis, The Smiths, Alice Coltrane, and Faust were just some of the names. There was no single artist I focused on, nor genre, nor year. In many ways, the resulting collection inadvertently turned into a competition of which critically-acclaimed album could tantalize my eardrums and pepper my mind with musical knowledge the most. The winner? Fela Kuti's Expensive Shit. Kuti's impact on the Nigerian nation can't be understated, but it's also one I'm fairly unfamiliar with. His name has certainly crossed by me before, but only in a musical sense. After approximately five seconds with 'Expensive Shit' I knew exactly why. These were the African polyrhythms Brian Eno used to help produce the Talking Heads' Remain In Light, an album which is held in extremely high regard in my catalogue. The minimal battering of Afrobeat welcomes in minute, musical fidelity, something unaccustomed to the musical world in 1975. And while it took five years for Eno to bring Kuti's creation overseas, the result is, undoubtedly, one that allowed the Nigerian artist's legacy to extend that much further out.

For me though, Expensive Shit is the origin point. Kuti's discography is large, looming, and scattered. In this one brief instance, before I inevitably embark on discovering more from him, Expensive Shit is all I know. This allows me to appreciate Kuti's work for what it presents me with, and nothing more. The multi-layered rhythms, the smooth and natural instrumental inclusion, Kuti's English and Yoruba finessing, all breathtaking in their sheer simplicity. Even though he did much more, calling Kuti a musician at heart should come first and foremost. He just understands how sounds work, how they work together, and exactly what to do to get people to listen. How most musicians can make a three-minute song feel natural, Kuti does with 13. Not once through 'Expensive Shit's' duration does it feel tedious or prolonged. And right when it's about to a beaming and booming background chant erupts, adding yet another layer to Kuti's structural madness. On both 'Expensive Shit' and 'Water No Get Enemy,' Kuti's tendencies feel comparable to that of LCD Soundsystem's, believe it or not. James Murphy's knack for looping rhythmic layers atop one another, never muddling the authenticity, is something that Kuti mastered long ago.

Another interesting aspect of Expensive Shit is how Kuti utilizes Funk, Jazz, and Soul through his deeply-rooted landscape. As I must assume, Nigeria in the 1970's was a turbulent place, and thus, the music of creation had to exist as a form of escape. In other words, even though the jubilant horns of 'Water No Get Enemy' fall somewhat in line with the Jazz Fusion implosion in America, the reason Kuti needed it was to empower a crumbling country, not because it sounded good. Ironically, it manifested smiles and warmth precisely because it sounded good. What I'm getting at is that the origin of those horns on 'Water No Get Enemy' likely arose from a much more serious place. They're essential, not secondary. You can add the repetitive female vocals, found on both songs, to this as well. Used as a means to unite, lines that can be easily remembered and sang in harmony was something Kuti understood the people needed. For me, a white man in 2017 America? The political and cultural plea for help isn't as impactful, and for obvious reasons. However, the music, arguably so, hasn't lost its touch. Whereas Fela Kuti's foundation for Expensive Shit lies in the dirt and rubble of 1970's Africa, the music that emerged felt permanent and ever-lasting. The message was for the present, the music for the future.

Slowdive | Just For A Day
1991 | Dream Pop | Listen

In preparation of Slowdive's Slowdive, their first album in 22 years, I felt a trip back to their three-streak run in the early 90's was necessary. This included listening to two albums, Just For A Day and Pygmalion, for the first time. Prior to this experience, Souvlaki was the only work I was familiar with. To me, while certainly commendable in execution, cherished in intent, the laurel's upon which Slowdive's magnum opus resides feels too inflated for its own good. That being said, without Just For A Day and Pygmalion, the merit of Souvlaki could easily be lost. Rarely have I found albums circling opuses to be crucial in respecting the artist's craft, and yet here, without the Dream Pop former and the Ambient Pop latter, Souvlaki feels no more than just another one-off Shoegaze album. Alas, it's not. It's a combination of two halves, both pretty, but both tonally different. While 2017's Slowdive merged the three aesthetics together, resulting in a conflicting embodiment, I much prefer the separation of powers.

Why? Because I can ignore the Ambient Pop third of Pygmalion and focus solely on the swirling melodies of Just For A Day. Certainly a beautiful album, Pygmalion loses me on the values alone, testing my patience around every excruciatingly slow bend. Just For A Day is exciting, rife with musical fodder that eloquently merges the Shoegaze fundamentals with that of the Cocteau Twins. No, it didn't reinvent the wheel like another 1991 Shoegaze album (one that likely, for good reason, overshadowed this), but Slowdive's debut teased the genre's amicable nature without overindulging by creating something bigger than itself. Almost every song is bright, swooning in the radiant hues conglomerating on the cover. A cover which, up until a few seconds ago, was all color and no meaning to me, until I realize it was a girl twirling her skirt. Even better. The sound represented in the vibrancy, the feeling represented in the action.

It's tough to explain specific instances of adoration, as, admittedly so, Just For A Day blends together without straining any fabric to alter the mood. The wall of sound appears everywhere, layering itself over the melancholic vocals, the crestfallen strings, the drudging drums, and the weeping guitars. Introduction 'Spanish Air' showcases this quite well, setting Just For A Day up as some kind of Shakespearian tragedy. However, the air clears just in time for 'Celia's Dream,' which features warm, hazy brush strokes with a childlike fascination. It also features crescendoing synths that bear striking resemblance to Joy Division's 'Atmosphere' and its memorable chimes, a fitting comparison and influence point. Elsewhere, the brightness spreads its touch, as on tracks like 'Waves' and 'Brighter' it feels as if the sun is beaming down on your face. With that in mind, it's not out of the realm of possibility to doze off while listening to this, the Dream Pop genre taken quite literally. Overall, Just For A Day is exactly what I wanted from Slowdive. It's an album made for the people who worship 'Alison' and 'When The Sun Hits,' and nothing more.

No comments:

Post a Comment