Sunday, February 28, 2010

A To Z: Heart Food - Judee Sill

There are certain musicians who can take pop music and completely flip it on its head. Brian Wilson's "teenage symphonies" were extra lush song cycles meant that somehow appealed to the rock and roll crowd more akin to liking two-and-a-half minute standard pop tunes. Prior to Brian Wilson and his brothers, Phil Spector created the now infamous "wall of sound"- literally throwing everything into the mix that his recording capabilities could handle. Despite the noise, the songs maintained a feeling of completely literate, interesting and downright intelligent pop music. The Ronettes were making music for high school dances, yet there was artistry there. We can go through every decade of pop music and find specific examples of musicians and bands (and perhaps more appropriately, producers), whose knowledge of what pop music can and should be has constantly pushed the envelope. By synthesizing the best parts of different subgenres of popular music, many of our greatest artists are just that because somewhere in their career they put out music that was unheard of before then. Something new, something unique and ultimately, something that has a lasting impact on the listeners, who find meanings through the sheen of pop and obsess over the music in their own ways.

I've heard the name Judee Sill for years. I'd seen her two albums talked about many times throughout my forays and obsessions into the world of 1970s California Folk Rock. It wasn't until recently, however, that I finally took a chance at giving Judee a listen. Imagine my surprise when I heard music that could be likened those late 70s Beach Boys recordings (my favorite), instead of what I expected to be a mediocre Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon carbon copy with some heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics.

On Heart Food Judee Sill created what is one of the most unjustly unheralded achievements in all of contemporary folk music. Everything is based primarily on guitar and piano, but other stringed instruments get added to the music, giving her otherwise personal and intimate songs a grandiose sense. Sill's singing has a unique quality, often starting her verses at a quieter, softer timbre before barring her teeth and singing as though she has a case to plead to God.

In fact much of the album has religious conotations, references to God and spirituality without being overly zealous. The comparison to Brian Wilson applies in this aspect as well. Story-like lyrics that reference a troubled soul, allowing herself to breathe in the only way she knows how: creating beautiful music.

It's a shame that Judee Sill's Heart Food isn't considered by more to be one of the best records of its time. It's a record unlike any others. It's clearly folk music, but it's clearly pop music. References could be drawn, similarities between Judee and other artists could be attempted, but Heart Food is a record that is all it's own. A record of epic scope, rooted in the most minute details of the artist's voice.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

A To Z: Ghetto Music - Eddie Gale

If seeing the cover photo of this album doesn't make you want to listen to it, obsess over it and consider it one of the coolest things in your collection - you just might not be human.

Eddie Gale standing hooded with shades, his trumpet in hand, with a canine ready to rip your skull off. His backing musicians for the record, similarly hooded, with different instruments, expressionless facades on their face. They have attained a higher power through music and their look is forcing you to follow suit. Powerful.

During the late 60's, every important jazz musician tried their hand at the spiritual jazz movement that Coltrane spawned and mastered. While this resulted in some of the most exciting and invigorating jazz music that exists today, it also caused a plethora of great musicians to release lackluster work just for the sake of being "experimental."

Prior to 1968, Eddie Gale was known as a backing musician of various forms of Sun Ra's Arkestra, as well as playing on Cecil Taylor's Blue Note debut. These are big names and by the time that Gale was set to release his debut under his own name - the recording was entirely funded by Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff, who believed that what Gale was accomplishing with this record was something that could truly shape what jazz is perceived to be and where it can go.

And with good reason. Despite the fact that Eddie Gale's Ghetto Music remained one of the most obscure Blue Note releases for years and has since been remastered on an entirely different label, the album continues to stick out amongst a catalogue of some of the best music the world has ever seen.

The deeply moving album opens with "The Rain" beginning with acoustic guitar and Eddie's sister Joann singing in a style that doesn't seem far removed from Fairport Convention. At 40 seconds, the rest of the 17-member ensemble reveals themselves, a jazz beat pushed along by the two basses and two drummers, the 11 member chorus preaching the gospel. The song alternates between these pastoral folk passages and the louder ensemble moments, with Eddie's trumpet soloing in between. Soon Eddie and his sister find themselves in a duet, his trumpet much louder than her voice. The track builds and builds, repeating "Stop the rain...Stop the rain." When listening, it is hard to think of a more powerful opening track through any genre of music. The next 4 tracks continue the wave of blending gospel and jazz and a little funk, create mass amounts of cacophony that never quite sound like "noise." Gale retains the ability to reign his ensemble inward at the proper time, continuously create musical passages that layer themselves to the point of bursting, before stopping and allowing breath. The chorus keeps things interesting throughout the 40-minute duration, making themselves apparent and noticeable, but never the center of attention, which rightly belongs to the amazing instrumental work.

Eddie Gale's Ghetto Music is one of the best spiritual / protest jazz albums that exists. A snapshot of life in 1968 and one that can still ring true as a snapshot of life in 2010. Powerful music.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

A To Z: Freedom Flight - Shuggie Otis

What did you do when you were 18?

When I was 18 I graduated high school without a desire in the world. I worked my first real job - getting my hands cut up by sheet metal, my lungs filled with asbestos and my hair filled with fiberglass filaments. I started college, or rather, attended classes at a university for a quarter before transferring to a community college that offered me nothing more than the high school I had just left. I lacked motivation, the most creative thing I did was write my 2nd of what has become 7 "Top 50 Albums of the Year" list, in which I claimed Madvillain to reign supreme.

When Shuggie Otis was 18, he released what has become what I consider to be one of the most complete albums of the 70s and perhaps one of my very favorite releases of all time.

At it's heart, Freedom Flight is a blues album - but unlike those albums that came before it, it is a blues so forward thinking without sounding entirely alien, it is hard to pinpoint influences or relatable musicians. Blurring the lines between psychedelic, orchestral pop, floor-stomping blues, Hendrix and jamming in a sundazed haze, Shuggie presents 7 tracks (plus a bonus cut) ranging from lengths of 2:30 to 13:00. The longer tracks that close out the album, "Purple" and "Freedom Flight" might very well be the best instrumental rock songs to have come out by this time on albums that were not completely instrumental.

Shuggie's guitar playing is essential listening. You can hear influences of Santana and other Woodstock luminaries in his plucking, but perhaps the most striking thing is the direct line you can draw from many of his licks to some of Prince's best moments (and yes I know they look alike). Shuggie will almost certainly be remembered as the kid who wrote "Strawberry Letter 23" which was later popularized by The Brothers Johnson or maybe he will be remembered as the guy who put out Inspiration Information a few years later, inspiring many of the best musicians and jazz groups of the next 20 years. Despite this and despite the legacy of influence that Shuggie has left in his short career (he hasn't recorded much over the last 30 years), I honestly think that Freedom Flight is his most important moment. It's an album that says "hey I can do what you do better than you can, and check this out too..."

Freedom Flight is a treasure of an album, and a vision rarely matched.

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Another Electronic Musician - Inflationary

I quite like this new AEM album. Like this video too. Nothing special, but it works. States of Space is out now on n5md. Favorable review on CMG too.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bedroom Community

I would like to see this tour. But hey, I live in California.

Bedroom Community releases have gotten some backlash around the internet. I don't care, these are the best musicians on the planet as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Erykah Badu - Window Seat

Well this is going to be another great album.

A To Z: Eccsame The Photon Band - Lilys

There are certain records in all of our collections that we might praise, but ultimately undervalue. "Yeah, wow that IS a great record, I almost forgot about it!"

I've had Eccsame the Photon Band for years and listened to it quite a few times. At the behest of some friends and contemporaries I was constantly reminded that I should give this album it's due, but typically brushed it aside. It's underrated, under-mentioned, nearly unheard in comparison to similar records of the era. I knew it was good, but it wasn't until recently that I actually realized how good this record actually is.

Always placed within the confines of the shoegaze genre, the Lilys foray into the wonderful world of distorted guitars sounds nothing like Loveless or Nowhere. Listening to the record, you can make out individual guitar chords, hear the lyrics and never feel overwhelmed by the oft-suffocating limits and compression of records that employ sounds we typically deem "shoegaze." Eccsame sounds and feels like it has room to breathe. These are ostensibly pop songs hidden beneath the veil of distortion and slow-tempos. There are instances of extended guitar flourishes and electronic washes, but the pop songs remain just under the surface - seeking their way out of the haze, embedding themselves in your head.

No, this isn't My Bloody Valentine or even Slowdive - this is a less epic Stone Roses, a Byrds album recorded for the autumn, it's almost Yo La Tengo. This album could only be a product of the middle 1990's, a product of every band doing similar things at that time AND those bands' influences. This isn't party music, it's not music to listen to while hanging out with friends. The album is taken in best when you take it in alone. That's what I've done many times over the past week. Do I think it's an all-time classic now? No I still don't, but I don't think I'll ever undervalue Eccsame The Photon Band again. It deserves a place among the giants of the genre and the giants of your collection.

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