albums - august 2014
Released earlier this year in a limited vinyl issue and with its full release happening at the beginning of October, the former Spacemen 3 drummer could well make an impression of sorts with this newest long player, after all a lot of people may think that S3 were a duo composed solely of Sonic and Jason, but yes, they also had a drummer and he still makes music too. As a long time S3 aficianado I feel slightly guilty about displaying yet another gap in my musical knowledge (he was a member of S3 for two years in the late 80s) and discovering that this is Sterling Roswell's 6th or thereabouts album just makes me feel a bit humble really. Add to this that he recorded with 60s legend Sky Saxon and you may begin to wonder what all the obscurity is about with Sterling Roswell and his music in the two or so decades since Spacemen 3 finally splashed down. This is of course ignoring the fact that while they're lauded as garage psyche originals and treated with something approaching reverence today, Spacemen 3 were an entirely Indie 80s band whose gig audiences were numbered in the 100s rather than 1000s and had they released an album after 1991's 'Recurring' it could have sounded a lot like this.
Starting with the cheerfully mellow 'Give Peace Another Chance', you could find yourself lulled into expecting 40 or so minutes of undemandingly laid back easy listening, and next track 'Interplanetary Spaceliner' could slip unnoticed into that collection of late 60s bubblegum pop tracks that's somewhere at the back of my CD collection, shades of the Archies and Banana Splits rather than Steppenwolf or Iron Butterfly so far but as the reverberating intro of 'Island Of Ether' takes its metallic hold 'The Call Of The Cosmos' properly leaves the atmosphere behind and the 50s B movie album sleeve no longer seems like an ironic jibe at Sterling's previous bandmates and next track 'Time Is Of The Essence' really does sound like a proper Spacemen 3 number, and a reminder of how influential they were on other bands such as Loop and (less obviously) Ride and Chapterhouse.
A mixture of songs and instrumentals, as the album progresses we get to hear a more varied range of songs and styles than the intro might have suggested. 'The Girl From Orbit' has the convincingly louche instrumentation that the best Saint Etienne and Pulp songs share. 'Counter Clock World' is a mindbending experiment in compressed electronics that actually does sound like it belongs on the soundtrack of some shlocky exploitation flick and is followed by 'Tripmaker' sounding like it's probably the theme from one. Lastly, 'Outskirts Of Infinity' is a swirling kaleidoscopic sound collage that ends irritatingly abruptly just when it might start getting interesting and it always annoys me when that happens, especially when it's the last track on the album.
I like 'The Call Of The Cosmos' a bit less than I otherwise might
for that reason, and I also had a bit of an issue with the determinedly
valve based production sound which while it does often come over as
convincingly late 60s also reminded me about why so many 60s and 70s
albums were remastered for CD - what was acceptable on a 4 speed mono
player doesn't quite cut it on today's equipment and anyone wanting
an authentic late 60s audio experience could just root around for
some crackly old Grateful Dead albums. Copies of 'The Call Of The
Cosmos' are already appearing on Ebay for any Spacemen 3 completists
unable to wait until October, and while it has its flaws there is
a lot for the uninitiated to appreciate about it. You may need your
EQ settings handy though.
Tied to a Star is a totally low key affair, dominated by acoustic guitars and simple arrangements. Itís a marked difference from the wall of fuzz and noise approach that typifies Mascisí stuff with Dinosaur Jr, but itís still unmistakably him. Heís living all over every track. And that lack of change is a great thing.
Itís great because without the emphasis on guitar effects and sheer loudness, Mascisí trademark (the four minute guitar solo disguised as a song) becomes something jangly and delicate. Beautiful, even.
Dinosaur Jrís best songs always sound like the work of somebody baring his soul and then trying his best to hide that fact by mumbling and slurring the words whilst trying like fuck to drown himself out with solid guitar squall. You put an acoustic guitar in Jís hands and everything changes. Itís all still there: the melancholy; the half-abstract, introspective lyrics; the slurred, croaky vocals.
Tied to a Star has all of that, but reinvented. Everything is down tempo. Finger picked guitars sound less like constant solos and more folky than they ever have and on top of this, another thing happens: what would be the repetitive drone of electric guitar becomes meditative and mantra-like.
Tied to a Star does what Mascis has been doing for three decades now. It easily captures the safety and warmth of melancholia, the perverse good feeling that comes from jabbing your finger into a fresh bruise.
Part of a triumvirate of bands that emerged from Berlin in the mid 90s, the other two being Kreidler and Tarwater - a sort of post Communist electronic collective with members appearing in more than one of these bands and all three of them toured together at the end of the 1990s which I feel I should mention as I was at one of those shows. I also need to mention that Tarwater's 2012 album 'Inside The Ships' is a definite contender for 'best German electronic album of the last five years' and while 'Instrument' doesn't exactly sound like a band recording a difficult follow up (only Ronald Lippok appears on both releases but, you know) To Roccoco Rot do sound as if they are straining at the limitations of the whole Krautronica thing. So instead of just record 'Inside The Ships II' they go for a more minimal approach and bring in guest vocalist Arto Lindsay of 70s Noo Yawk electro pioneers DNA, whom you are excused never having heard of until now.
'Instrument' is of course a remarkably well produced and occasionally magisterial record. With approaching a century of combined experience under their musical belts, To Roccoco Rot turn in a masterclass in sequential composition and have lost none of their taste for experimentation, with the video for single 'Classify' filmed in an aquarium where Arto Lindsays vocal might have benefited from the enhanced acoustics because I need to say that his thinly whispered voice is the one aspect of 'Instrument' that doesn't exactly function as intended and 'Instrument' would work equally well with Lindsay's voice replaced by a cello / autoharp / mellotron or some other actual instrument. That isn't to say that 'Instrument' isn't worthy of your listening pleasures, only that the Kreidler / Tarwater / Roccoco collective has produced more innovative and challenging music than their newest release.
For over two decades, the All Saints label has followed a determinedly eclectic and possibly deliberately obscurantist path. It's the label on which Brian Eno has released several of his own recordings, and the label has also played host to works by some well known names in modern composition such as Harold Budd, Sufjan Stevens, Roedelius and has also released solo work by John Cale. Music of this type isn't always what anyone could describe as 'accessible' and the 12 page booklet that accompanies the album does a lot to provide the necessary background to performers some of whom you may think you know something about and others of whom you probably wouldn't know very much. This isn't just an ambient 'best of' though. 'Greater Lengths' is a double album, the first part consisting of tracks from the label's best known artistes and the second a selection of cover versions of some other of their tracks.
There are tracks by both Brian Eno including a 1995 collaboration with Jah Wobble and Can's Jaki Leibzeit, and his less well known brother, the film composer Roger, appears twice. The one real surprise on the first part of the compilation is a track by Led Zeppelin's bassist John Paul Jones, whose 'Four Minute Warning' is a multilayered percussive explosion. Misha Mahin's 'For Her Atoms' is a brilliantly effective combination of low level frequencies and theremin, and John Cale's 1989 track 'The Soul Of Carmen Miranda' is a finely handled ballad with a lyric that Lou Reed might've argued he wrote: 'consigned to the sideshows of history / with the patronised orphans of film', it's a track that could provide a useful introduction to the later work of a musician known to most of us only through his part in the Velvets.
The 'Re-Covers' part of 'Greater Lengths' has music by some although
not all of the performers of the first part given interpretations
by newer artistes such as Machinefabrik, Gavin Russom and Patten,
and it merges cohesively with the first part of the album, although
the electronica quotient is upped notably and Odd Nosdam's version
of Harold Budd's 'Feral' probably has little connection to the original
but these tracks aren't note for note reproductions and deserve a
hearing in their own right. Much more than just a collection of atonal
obscurities, 'Greater Lengths' is a varied and accessible collection