albums - December 2014
Tarwater's take on sample-heavy electronic music, sort of drum'n'bass in slow motion, probably won't be brightening up any corners in the near future, but their unerring output since 1995 has earned the Berlin post-rockers an enduring appeal among today's German underground music. Ronald Lippok's doesn't so much sing as ghosts his way through the band's shifting obsessions with surfaces, open spaces and various other idiosyncrasies (usually linked with water!), and with Bernd Jestram, the duo's unsettling atmospheres don't always give the listener an easy time of it, but they do reward the patient ear. Tarwater would no doubt have taken pride of place on the late great John Peel's radio show.
Adrift is actually the band's 12th full-length release and continues some of the nautical themes of its predecessor 2011's Inside The Ship. Minus some of the clattering percussion, this time the tones are softer and more hypnotic, perhaps signalling a return to some of their celebrated earlier work, albums like Silur back in 1998 and Animals Suns & Atoms from 2000. The band's 'broken pop' ethos is still very much intact, an endearing electronic 'fog' of mystery in spite of the use of cleaner and brighter acoustic samples. Opener 'The Tape' is typical with its luxuriant jazzy overtones (nylon strings, brushed drums and Tarwater's "weapon of choice" the upright bass!), but repetitive synthetic bass and various 'unidentifiables' give the song a slightly otherworldly feel, as Lipok murmurs “I wasn't looking for a channel, I was playing back a tape … like a teenage dream”. 'The Glove' is similarly trancy, the singer's voice a sinister mantra buried in the the song's slinky rhythms, repeating over: “No commonplace, no common cause, too many fingers to fit in the glove”. 'Coconut Signal' tingles the spine in the same way, odd percussive noise and birdlike cooing accompany Lippok's dark references to chalk marks on surfaces, left over from a crime scene perhaps? The key change in the middle shakes the song out of its somnambulistic form … what is it all about, I wonder? And that's very much how they want to play things, the unfolding mood might be quite pleasant if you weren't constantly looking over your shoulder … yes, Tarwater want you to come over to their dark side!
The narrative running through Adrift's dreamlike thread is of ships being cast away in far-off places. 4 Instrumental tracks are scattered liberally, interluding exotic 'eastern' flavours: the lighter strings of the title, strangely brief for a Tarwater album, or brightly atmospheric 'Ray', for example, contrasted with the slower darker ones that remind you of bands like Arab Strap ('Devon Saturday'). On 'Inreturn' the spooked electronic opening gives way to more exotic climes, some Arab drums and Indian harmonium set to traffic sounds whooshing in the distance ... the widescreen possibilities surely no coincidence given the duo's heavy involvement in soundtracks, 2008 French drama 'Give Me Your Hand' their most recent.
Literature is often at the heart of the band's work, like on their debut 11/6 12/10 released almost 20 years ago. On their latest, poetry and verse are nicely adapted to fit the characteristically dark glitchy soundscapes. It's most noticeable when Lippok steps aside to let Viennese poet Ann Cotten read some of her work on 'Homology Myself'. A robot with human feelings explains how impossible life seems, Cotten's voice set nicely to 'humanizing' sitar, tablas and feint chants. 'Log Of The Sloop' and 'The Evening Pilgrims' are taken from the collection "The Man Who Had Forgotten The Name Of Trees" by the English writer and traveller Milner Place, the former possibly the album's de facto title track: “Day comes, my light hands blinded by sun that bonds/Pitch that seems carried us adrift/No bloody winds at all we rowed and rowed/And drift and rowed and drift and rowed”. The story-telling continues on the second of Milner's pieces, and there are more tales of the exotic and strange on 'Rice And Fish' at the album's close.
You can easily get lost in Tarwater's dark immersive sound, but the stand out 'Stone In Exile' brings you down to earth with a jolt, its jittery synths set against a Warp-ed (pun intended!) vocal, more contemporary-sounding as Lippok recounts a fable about a fake vampire (“City-born lunatic/Heating up the jazz club like a vampire/He couldn't make it on trick blood/Throwing a party/Left some tapes/Life happens once/So meet me at the fake date, Sarah says”). They ramp things up again on 'They Told Me In the Alley', junked-out Jean Michel Jarre with its watery sequencers/samplers, turning Europop on its head as Lippok mouths sinisterly “They told me on the street car it's hard to find a cat/They told me in the alley it's hard to find a mat”. The sense of unease is palpable, best not to meet these oddballs on a dark night, The Germans are probably in a sonic place Scottish electronic duo Boards Of Canada would have headed to had they not seen the light on 2013's Tomorrow's Harvest!
This hypnotic electronic music is not dissimilar to bands like The Notwist, Kreidler and To Rococo Rot (Lippok's other concern), but Tarwater's approach owes more to the harsh extremes displayed by Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten or the dark imagery and trancelike qualities of New York synthpunks Suicide. Berlin keeps popping up in people's musical consciousness long after the dawn of Krautrock, but the spirit of motorik experimentalism is very much alive in Ronald Lippok and Bernd Jestram's sonic world. Nobody said it would be easy, but if you let them Tarwater will certainly walk you over to their dark side.
The very cluttered room might've made for a more accurate title,
there are 21 tracks on my download copy of 'The War Room' and deciding
which of them are the actual album and which are bonus tracks has
proved a bit difficult, unless I am in fact listening to two albums,
one with vocals and the other entirely instrumental, which makes sense
when listening to the the entire album(s). The first tracks I heard
from 'The War Room' were instrumentals, such as the quite excellent
'Port Of Call', a mid tempo groove interspersed with crashing synth
runs that had me wondering why Breton were described as a 'great guitar
band' by other reviewers. It's electronica, right? Breton aren't quite
so easy to quantify though, and are the sort of musicians that will
use anything they can find in the studio if it'll do what they want.
Their main concern is making music and leaving it to their listeners
to make what they can of the results. This is entirely laudable and
if Breton were looking to stake their place in the list of Electronic
greats of UK music, then at least half the tracks on my copy of 'The
War Room' qualify them for that. If they occasionally echo the defined
pronouncements of Foals, then that probably arises from their having
toured with Yannis and co. last year. There are also nods to MGMT,
Hard-Fi and M83 in their music, which might give the idea that the
idea behind Breton is to merge the Artrock and Electronic elements
of their own influences and this is done successfully less often than
anyone thinks. Perhaps recording much of 'The War Room' in Berlin
has provided them with an approach less in thrall to the pigeonholing
that UK music always thrives on, where you can be a guitar band, an
electronic band, a rock or an indie band, and stepping away from these
boundaries is traditionally frowned upon. The fact that I've found
myself writing that about Breton when, while they've made a lot of
music and made it very well aren't entirely the most original or attention
grabbing band I've ever heard – I could perhaps list five albums I've
ever reviewed that would merit such description – but that isn't going
to detract from the fact that 'The War Room' in any of its release
formats places Breton at the forefront of whichever or any genre they
Calling him 'the Mozart of the 20th Century' may be over-reaching things a bit, a fans eulogy etc., although the vaults of Frank Zappa's home in Los Angeles are a testament to his prolific nature as an artist: composer, musician, arranger, producer, sonic explorer, film maker … more than 60 original albums and countless sessions archived along the way, and many more unfinished works left to explore after his untimely death from cancer in 1993. The need to re-visit old chestnuts like Zappa's classic 1974 solo album Apostrophe (') is a little more surprising, however?
Often paired with Over-Nite Sensation, put out a year prior to Apostrophe ('), these were the releases Zappa and his manager at the time Edgar Cohen used to launch DiscReet Records, an imprint of Warner Bros. That they were both commercial successes was probably more a relief to the record company than the artist at the time. Zappa had just suffered a number of setbacks in his career, including a nasty fall in 1971 when a deranged fan pushed him off the stage during a concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London. The incident left the singer with several damaged vertebrae which left one leg shorter than the other (something he alluded to later on the 1979 hit single 'Dancing Fool'), and when he recovered from his injuries he also noticed his voice had dropped an octave, too! After convalescing for a couple of years, playing with former members of his original band the Mothers Of Invention and then a jazz ensemble named The Grand Wazoo, many felt that Zappa was returning to the peak of his creative powers. In probably what was more a fit of peak than anything inspired by Warner Bros., in 1973 the artist gathered together a small group of trusted musical hands and they jammed for many hours, obviously in 'the zone' musically, on sessions that would eventually spawn these two great Frank Zappa albums. The players include people like the amazingly eclectic George Duke, famous for his keyboard work in the jazz world, reed player Ian Underwood, and the lightning speed marimba and xylophone work of Ruth Underwood. Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (') encompassed everything that made Zappa great: jazz, funk, rock, attitude, humour. He felt the publicity surrounding all the sexual profanity on the earlier of the two releases distracted people from its musical achievement. Certainly songs like 'Dinah-Moe Hum', a crowd-pleaser because of its obscenity which ultimately irritated Zappa, made him public enemy number one in America among the Republican Right and Moral Majority and a radio playlister's nightmare!
Apostrophe (') seems positively mild by comparison. Rather, it's an entertaining collection of narrative-driven songs which range over many topics, far too many to remain coherent. More interesting perhaps are all Zappa's sonic conceptions, a vast array of sounds and musical styles with a production sophistication well ahead of its time. This feast of riches was almost impossible to keep up with. I wonder if Zappa's session was like the party mice who were enjoying themselves so much they forgot the cats had arrived home. Did he cobble together 30 or so minutes from the 300 hours of spectacular recordings? At times Apostrophe (') does sound a bit like that!
There's the story-telling 'side' of the album (in the days of vinyl, 'side one'l!). 'Don't Eat The Yellow Snow' is a much shortened version of the very successful single (the radio-friendly version that everyone knows is actually a composite of songs on the first side of Apostrophe (')). Ruth Underwood's incredible xylophone playing jumps out at you on songs like 'St Alfonso's Pancake Breakfast', while there's Mothers-style freaky blues on 'Father Oblivion' and 'Cosmik Debris', bandmaster Zappa showing off to good effect his one-octave-lowered pipes. The almost wilful absurdism of his subject matter is very much like the surreal humour of Vivian Stanshall and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
The other 'side' is more grounded in Zappa's earlier work with the
Mothers of Invention, particularly the classic debut Freak Out from
1966, and Hot Rats, the solo album prominent with Captain Beefheart
recorded in 1969. 'Excentrifugal' combines the psych-rock of songs
like 'Willie The Pimp' with the stax-driven blues of Chicago Transit
Authority or bands of their ilk. The title track featuring Jack Bruce
has the airs and graces of classic rock, some lovely fuzz guitar and
a band turning their immense talents to some high-handed dirty blues.
'Uncle Remus' is the piano-driven return to Zappa's commentary on
racial discord of the earlier 'Trouble Every Day', this time with
sprinklings of blues and gospel harmonies joined by some nice boogie-woogie
piano. Zappa always argued that however diverse his music appeared
it all fed into a 'whole'. 'Stink Foot' rounds things off with a return
to more zany narrative, a little like 'I'm The Slime' from Over-Nite
Sensation (many of the songs from Apostrophe (') seem to have sister
tracks on its predecessor). The album's finale is very much a walk
in the park for Zappa and his crew of musicians who all sound well
on the money (you can almost see the dollar signs light up in the
record company's eyes!) and the shaggy dog story prosaic lines: “Once
upon a time somebody say to me/What is your conceptual continuity?/Well
I told them right that it should be easy to see/The crux of the biscuit
is the apostrophe”.
Beginning with 1991's 'Superstition', which contains one of their best known songs 'Kiss Them For Me', and if you didn't hear that properly first time there are not one but two dancey remixes of it included in the reissue, and in retrospect it does sound as if Sioux and the boys were making a defined statement towards what was happening in music right then and in fairness, it also sounds as if they were making a bit of an effort as other tracks such as 'Fear Of The Unknown' and 'Shadowtime', while they're quality slices of punky pop aren't quite the full on mysteries of Bromley that had proved so enduring, what isn't to say that 'Superstition' is in any way a second rate Banshees album as there isn't any such thing. It does sound very much of its time though and like a lot of other early 90s stuff hasn't worn as well as it might. Standout tracks 'The Ghost In You' and 'Little Sister' sound as if they belong on a slightly different album, and Sioux herself sounds less than entirely comfortable with there being more than one keyboard in the band.
1995's 'The Rapture' is the more successful of the two reissues I've
got (the others are 'Tinderbox' and 'Peepshow') and, while a lot of
bands might've been a bit drained after nearly two decades, the Banshees
last album is a band bowing out with more style and artistry than
we might have expected, or exactly what we might have expected. Freed
of the production constraints that had them going a bit ravey four
years earlier, and with John Cale brought in to keep things a bit
more on the level, it's a summery guitar album that has a smiling
Robert Smith lurking amongst its tracks uncredited, jangling his 12
string Ricky while Budgie and Steve turn in unforced and measured
performances that have the Banshees bowing out with a subtle dignity
and at nearly 12 minutes the title track is the symphonic epic that
for whatever reason they had to wait until their very last album to
record. I flicked through 'Superstion' a bit but listened to 'The
Rapture' in its entirety. Not many bands could claim their last album
as their actual best work, and while most people know whether they
like them or not, Siouxsie and The Banshees are undeniably one of
the most iconic and inventive bands of our recent history. These reissues
are a little late though, but Sioux's appeal is as timeless as that
of a silent film star and for a band often unfairly written off as
Goth miserablists, a lot of what the Banshees recorded has lasted
with its many charms intact.
Orchestrated pop music always seems more straightforward than it really is, and generally leaves its creators distraught and tearing their hair out! Brian Wilson lay awake at night hearing all these intricate sounds in his head; it was more of a challenge to get his brothers to hear these, too, and then actually play them right! Pet Sounds, Sgt Peppers, Forever Changes … Cardinal's welcome antidote to grunge in 1994 combined the talents of mercurial Aussie songwriter Richard Davies and US multi-instrumentalist and arranger Eric Matthews and had more in common with the pocket symphonies of Van Dyke Parks and the incidental music of John Williams than anything specifically around at the time. Along with albums like Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs and The Flaming Lips' The Soft bulletin, the duo's eponymous debut appeared to usher in a more optimistic period in American pop music, and offered some hopeful signs about the last superpower that “Contrary to popular opinion, not every version of the American Dream revolves around attaining planet-flattening power, huge embezzled wealth and a line of willing cocksuckers outside the office door”, as NME memorably commented at the time.
Interestingly, Fire Records 20th anniversary re-issue of Cardinal coincides with Flashbacks And Dream Sequences (The Story Of The Moles), a retrospective of Davies' former band, contrasting the raw and experimental qualities of his earlier work with the more polished artifact that is Cardinal.
Melancholy opener 'If You Believe In Christmas' reels you in with
its rich vocal harmonies and Brian Wilson-like orchestrations, although
Davies saves the heart-stopping moment for the chorus line: “You pick
me up, and bring me down down down!”, the song's orchestrations beautifully
arranged and met by Matthews' bright trumpet, bringing the musical
phrasing round and round, stronger each time, a little evocative of
Aaron Copland's triumphal 'Fanfare For The Common Man'. Hard to know
if it was intentional, although there are more of these exquisite
arrangements, something that was clearly on Davies' mind during the
recording of The Moles prog classic Instinct which, coincidentally,
he'd also just put the finishing touches to at this time. So, working
in these ways is what probably makes Cardinal sound so special. On
'Angel Darling', Matthews again provides some nice orchestral flourishes
to go with Davies clean guitar sound, there's also some added marimba.
They drop the tempo down a little on the piano-driven ballad 'You've
Lost Me There', where Davies returns to his festive blues theme: “Delicate
inside, I can't hold a Christmas card/I can see this is not meant
to make sense”. Mysteriously the song then slips into duet, the Australian's
Antipodean burr nicely set against Matthew's whispered almost vocalese.
The music of Cardinal is decorative like the festive season, but in the same way he did in the Moles' album Instinct the Australian living in New York uses the music to send messages home during a sad personal time. The surprising inclusion of 60s cult psychedelic band Mortimer's 'Singing To The Sunshine' is a useful delicate addition, bringing some nice soft-pop harmonies with Davies' hushed falsetto, while jangly guitar 'Silver Machines' is more conventional 70s-style pop Beatles/Byrds. Instrumental 'Public Melody No. 1' delves once again into modern orchestral arrangements, also very welcome, but more conventional post-grunge outlets 'Last Poems' and 'Dream Figure' (a Matthews' composition, one of the few) don't work so well. Relying too heavily on Davies' ear for a good tune, strip that away and you're left with a song like rock-driven 'Tough Guy Tactics', session drummer Steve “Happy Slayer” Hanford's relinquishing the light grip he'd maintained up to that point. 'Big Mink' offers a promising slice of Flying Nun/Antipodean pop which Davies developed so well with his former band, but the production provided by Tony Lash (Elliott Smith's producer) sounds uneven and doesn't really 'fit' with the rest of the recordings. These 'blips' probably reflect the album's turbulent history, originally conceived in Boston with the help of Bob Fay of Sebadoh, but finished off in Portland, Oregon, with Lash and the help of numerous session players. Cardinal was clearly a more ambitious 'canvas' than those involved had either the time or the inclination to really work with.
So, unless you're Brian Wilson, it's best just to paper over these cracks, and enjoy Cardinal for what it was: a refreshing dam that stemmed the seemingly overwhelming tide of grunge, but in its uneven finish not a ringing endorsement of classic orchestrated pop. Instead, the duo laid down useful 'markers' for others to follow. It irks some that Davies didn't get the credit he deserved from the project, but Matthews also clearly played a substantial part in the recordings. The album became a standalone release, a springboard for the respective solo careers of each artist. When the two of them did manage to get back together for 2012's passable Hymns, unsurprisingly the magic had evaporated.
Fire's re-issue of Cardinal contains a bonus CD of outtakes from the sessions, but the precious stone really needed a few more polishes, not less, so little insight is to be gained. However, heard alongside Flashbacks And Dream Sequences (The Story Of The Moles), more of a rough diamond, the release does at least provide another glimpse of Richard Davies' songwriting vision of the 90s, and so offers the chance for re-appraisal. In this regard, it's useful to look back and remind ourselves of Cardinal.