Saturday, July 1, 2017

Past Greatness: June '17

Welcome to the seventh 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 find two lauded records competing with a new age Hypnagogic Pop mystery that I can assure you you haven't heard before

The Smiths | The Queen Is Dead
1986 | Jangle Pop | Listen

Albums that ascend above the definition of a classic tend to invite a fair share of cynicism from prying eyes who haven't yet spent time with it. I know I'm no exception to that rule either, as constantly reminding yourself to never judge a book by its cover (or, in this case, its infamy) can only get you so far. That was the case with The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead, a unique case of an album whose complex reputation overwrought the music's sheer simplicity. This is a Jangle Pop record, after all, how staggering can it really be? To be honest, after the first handful of listens, that preconceived pessimism was getting the best of me. I saw a simple album for what it was; a collection of artistic, mid-80's Pop songs that were too concerned with being cool than being fun. But then I awoke one morning with the chorus of 'Cemetry Gates' in my head. Another morning with 'Frankly, Mr. Shankly.' Another one with 'Vicar In A Tutu.' Like a leech sucking onto your flesh, I couldn't shake The Queen Is Dead's musical affection. In many ways, it reminded me of my original experience with the Pixies' Doolittle, an album that now rests comfortably in my top 20 of all-time. The Queen Is Dead is music boiled down to the bare essentials, here only to satisfy why humans are in love with music in the first place.

For starters, let's get Morrissey out of the way. His lyrics, and singing voice, are often the source of contention with The Smiths, since he never shied away from taking a commanding stance on any issue (Meat Is Murder, anyone?). His fierce nature, mixed in with extreme bouts of romantic lullabies, was totally unnatural for a genre as helpless and innocent as Jangle Pop. Even The Queen Is Dead makes a shocking statement in its title, one that admittedly is never delved into throughout the course of the album. But alas, the coexistence of typical 80's romanticism and songs about crossdressers invading churches ('Vicar In A Tutu') and the banality of breast comparisons ('Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others') shows that Morrissey and The Smith's took their songwriting above the standards found elsewhere. In a way, he's comparable to Lou Reed or David Bowie in that sense; the deviance of the former, the theatrics of the latter. Plus, it helps that Morrissey's vocals work so well over Johnny Marr's guitars. So much so in fact, that a more perfect unison would be hard to conjure up.

As I mentioned before, with all the fanfare The Queen Is Dead has received, at the end of the day, it really is just a collection of ten fantastic tracks of varying topics. Sure, the general themes of loneliness, depression, and being outcasted are a looming presence, but that defines The Smiths' discography just as succinctly as this album. The Queen Is Dead stands out purely off the musical fidelity captured within. To me, 'Never Had No One Ever' is the only track that doesn't deserve to be fawned over. It's just too dull and uninviting, like a less magical 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.' Everything else, from the reckless Indie Rock of 'The Queen Is Dead' that almost sounds like a Talking Heads cut, to 'Cemetery Gates'' wanderlust of death, to Morrissey's plastered and paradigmatic vocals on 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side,' is elegant and divine, especially for those lost without a purpose in this world. The Smiths not only made misanthropy beautiful, but caused it to have a rightful place in the hearts of those bearing witness to humanity's woes. To cause such an emotional rift with something so transcendently simple deserves all the praise it can get.

Faust | Faust IV
1973 | Krautrock | Listen

About a month ago, as I'm prone to do when facing boredom in the wee hours of the night, I downloaded around a dozen lauded albums from the past with no clear trail or connecting points. They ranged from Jangle Pop to Spiritual Jazz, Post-Punk to Canterbury Scene, Afrobeat to Krautrock. There was no uniformity to the madness, it was all based purely on intrigue. Which is where we find ourselves with today's LP, Faust's Faust IV. As of this writing, their past works are elusive to me, and that was intentional whilst looking over the strenuous experimentalism found on them. By all indications, IV was the proper starting point for beginners in Krautrock. And let me tell you, that is accurate. The faux-entryway, otherwise known as Can's Tago Mago, only acted as a deterrent for me, being a hailing point for those already head deep in the genre. What I wanted from Can, essentially melodic consistency as seen on the phenomenal 'Mushroom' and the lovely 'I'm So Green,' was flush, ripe, and easy picking on IV, making it my favorite release in the genre thus far.

Perhaps as a welcomed greeting, or frustrating barrier, IV begins with a track simply entitled 'Krautrock.' It's nearly 12-minutes of a begrudgingly built Drone with layers upon layers before it all comes collapsing down thanks to a startling scream to kickstart 'The Sad Skinhead.' There are no words, no sonic shifts, no tonal dynamics, it all oozes into one ugly mess of never-ending noise. And perhaps on purpose, it bears no resemblance to the majority of IV, as if to impede the progress of weary listeners, continuing the haughty exclusivity Krautrock harbored at the time. However, that hurdle actually heightens the rewards post-Drone exhaustion, as if to get the ugly out of the way before the beautiful. That would then make 'The Sad Skinhead' a transitory track, one that presents the future ideas through an ugly platform. Words are back only to put a conflicted racist in the driver seat, confounding instrumentation is too, presenting a giddy, almost naive-like atmosphere that tumbles over itself with janky fervor. By the time 'Jennifer' opens up with those blissful melodies, no one has any clue what IV actually intends to be.

And that's the greatest part of it all. Faust never once lets you rest on your expectations. It'll be rare for one to find three straight songs as incompatible as 'Krautrock,' 'The Sad Skinhead,' and 'Jennifer.' It's as if the genre's upbringing has sprung to life in the form of viable tunes. Krautrock was meant to be wacky, artsy, and filled with conflicting reports on what can and can't be considered good. Here we get just that. To reach the promised land you have to endure a bad trip, but once you're there elation is all you'll see. That begins with 'Jennifer,' one of IV's highlights. The quiet, melodic, and nimble 'Jennifer' tells a love story not through words, but tone. Musical fidelity is omnipresent here, as if King Crimson's more heartfelt moments (like 'Islands') took over for a beat. That is, of course, excluding the noise rage of the final three minutes, but hey, we can't have it all.

IV would be far more disappointing if 'Jennifer's' tease was nothing more than that, but thankfully the pleasant harmonies return for the final two tracks; 'Lauft...Heisst Das Es Lauft Oder Es Kommt Bald..Lauft' and 'It's A Bit Of A Pain.' The former, with title and content purely in French, presents a wonderful world that traverses through the streets of 1970's Paris, or at least a picturesque landscape of the city as found in any painting. The track has two distinct halves, the first finding our vocalist content on living his life, "je n'ai plus peur de perdre mon temps," or "I'm no longer afraid of wasting my time," the second purely a minimalistic Ambient construct that doesn't sound too much unlike what Brian Eno will come to do on Another Green World soon thereafter. I actually see a great deal of Faust's brand of Krautrock in Eno's Art Rock, but I'll save that for another day. For now, we can't go without mentioning 'It's A Bit Of A Pain,' IV's spellbinding closer. The simple acoustic-bent Folk track is easily the prettiest Krautrock song I've heard, and just a delight to bare witness to. The tinged percussion, antsy piano, and most of all, the marvelous vocals and lyrics all help to create a fantastic close that cherishes life's existence despite its numerous setbacks.

There's only two tracks left to discuss, the three-part misadventure that starts with 'Just A Second,' and 'Giggy Smile.' Despite leaping into all sorts of shenanigans, 'Just A Second' is actually just three and a half minutes long, an interesting thing to note given the pace and patience of the longer, less elaborate tracks here. However, it does draw me more towards Can's experimental side, making it my least favorite cut here. 'Giggy Smile' on the other hand, is a joyous celebration that feels more like a part two to 'The Sad Skinhead' than anything. More Progressive Rock influence here as well, mainly with the vocals and jam band-style instrumentation, despite the inclusion of a lengthy god-knows-what that ends the track. I wouldn't even know where to start dissecting the sounds present here; labeling it a circus is as close as I'll get. Point made that Faust's IV exhibits a trove of various styling's, something that is at the crux of Krautrock. Can always felt internal to me, as if they took influence from the same, weird source. But Faust has no limitations for influence, no matter how bizarre ('Just A Second'), corny ('The Sad Skinhead'), or downright normal ('It's A Bit Of A Pain'). True diversity is spread all through this record, and with a high quality in tow, I can't see myself separating from IV for quite a long time.

Trance Farmers | Dixie Crystals
2014 | Hypnagogic Pop | Listen

Every so often Apple Music's New Music Mix presents me with something of wild intrigue. Now sure, the vast majority of that weekly mix are struggling musicians without enough individuality to push them over the edge, but every so often there's a gem in the rough. That's not immediately apparent with the Trance Farmers' Dixie Crystals, because getting past the atrocious band name, album title, and album cover is an endeavor in and of itself. Thankfully, the rewards for doing so are fruitful. Despite the lack of creativity on the exterior, Dixie Crystals contains a style, shtick, and sound on the interior that's unlike any of its competitors in the engrossingly bewitched genre known as Hypnagogic Pop. That's apparent with the short, sweet, and delicious 'Greasy Rider,' a track that's so well etched in Lo-Fi music, with repetitive loops and distant vocals, both in sound and age, that it's hard to believe it's an original composition. That applies to the bulk of Dixie Crystals, as the hazy, Dixieland-inspired soft touch of the 1950's stretches itself out over the concise and candied 29 minutes. A classic case of a nostalgic trip to a time you've never experienced.

Despite the originality of Dayve Samek's work, which, at least to my knowledge, is entirely created by him with no use of sampling, comparisons were made on my behalf to The Caretaker's dense, candid world of the 1920's ballroom. That's how intense the devotion to the past is here, as if we're to take the extremes of Hypnagogic Pop to heart. No song lasts longer than a dream, intent on coming and going without ever settling. They're lucid visions of 'Purple Hay' or a 'Whiteout,' with track titles acting as markers to the incoming aesthetic. 'Lone Star' travels to Texas for a heat-washed summer trip, 'Fume' the sludgy excess leaking from a car's exhaust at a garage, 'Dream Train' a hobo collective wielding guitars and a bindle. All of this contributes to the unmistakable sounds of Americana. Not so much in the present, but a reflection, with rose-tinted glasses, of the past. Almost every song feels drenched in the sun's rays, sweat dripping down the face, exhausted and mildly incoherent. 'Friends' straggles along with panting acoustics, as 'Gas Can' absorbs a distant mirage as nothing but factual. For a find such as this, this current heat I'm enduring in New England's early summer was perfect.

With a duration that fails to reach 30 minutes, it's hard for forgettable material to leak in, and that is the case here. Only 'Gas Can,' which improves the atmosphere but doesn't create something sonically special, can be constituted as filler. Standouts occur in the Dream Pop of 'Lone Star,' which sounds like a lost Spacemen 3 cut, 'Whiteout,' which blazes down route 66 with a Punk-like attitude, and 'When The Right Time Comes,' which returns to the looping mechanisms of the equally as effective opener 'Greasy Rider.' All this together creates an album that sparks a reaction, whether it be emotive or something more imaginative. There's a hefty aura surrounding Dixie Crystals, and it's one that's mainly conjured up through the production. However, that would downplay Samek's role as a vocalist. At times, he needs work, which is likely why he submerged his vocals straight into the production, infusing each to become one. The lyrics, which recall moments of animated bliss, gloomy heartbreak, and relational appreciation, all amount to a finalized product of Americana legend and lore. The topics never feel implanted in the present but rather, an echo from the 50's past, where chivalry, contentment, and formalities reigned supreme. It helps that the music's entirely evocative of this too. Romantic serendipity through a fuzzy stupor.

No comments:

Post a Comment