Friday, 22 May 2015
Lick My Decals Off, Baby is finally officially released. Allegedly remastered, it's embedded within a de-luxe 4-disc boxed set of material, much of which was already easily available.
I would really like to post a rave review of this release, as some other Beefheart fans have done. But I don't feel I can honestly do so. It's an expensive set, and a lot of the content - two of the four discs: The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot (i.e. two albums, or 50% of the material) - has long been easily available elsewhere.
The only stuff that forms the exclusive 'previously unreleased' material, falls into two categories: Lick My Decals Off, Baby has never until now had an official release on CD, whilst the out-takes, officially at any rate, have never been released at all. I already had the vinyl release of Decals, so for me that doesn't constitute the great undiscovered gem type of stuff one might've wished for. But it might well do so for any gams of Trout mask Beef who haven't heard it before. For those lucky listeners, I'd say this is undoubtedly a five star affair, simply for making Decals more easily available.
The reason I bought this lavish and expensive boxed set was to finally own an official CD release of Lick My Decals Off, Baby, the post Trout Mask album that really is a work of maverick musical genius. That album, on its own, would certainly have merited five stars (or ten, frankly). As mentioned above, I already had these recordings, on vinyl (see my previous post about it here), but I had long wished for the day when it would come out as a decently remastered CD. But, frankly, I just wish it had been put out as a standalone entity. Being forced to buy The Spotlight Kid (a 3 or 4 out 5 album) and Clear Spot (5/5) again, when I already had perfectly good versions of them, was annoying. And the CD of our-takes has nothing on it that makes me think, 'wow, here's some long lost jewels to admire!'
For those who don't know much about the Cap'n and his cohorts, a brief synopsis of the contents:
Disc 1: The absolutely sublime and totally essential Lick My Decals Off, Baby, featuring the Trout Mask era band, plus second drummer and percussionist Art Tripp. If you know Trout Mask Replica, this follows on nicely, being equally intense and crazy, but more focussed and tightly executed. All the musicians involved are brilliant - witness such beautiful instrumentals as Peon and One Red Rose That I Mean - but the much put upon and recently ignominiously ejected (literally!) John 'Drumbo' French deserves special mention.
French had acted as musical director on Trout Mask and, under the brutal dictatorship of the Captain, he helped give birth to a totally unique and new style of music, and also of drumming, both of which have never really been properly understood or absorbed into the mainstream. Despite being fired - Beefheart also, very meanly, left his name off the Trout Mask credits! - and replaced as musical director (Zoot Horn Rollo took on that mantle), French recorded the brilliant drum parts, sometimes augmented by Art Tripp on a second kit. Some of the twin-kit rhythmic chemistry, on tracks like Bellerin' Plain for example - a wonderful example of this band at the peak of their powers (film footage of the band from this era is really somethin' else) - is, well... I'm listening to it now, and words fail me... genius!
Beefheart's lyrical muse is in full spate as well. This isn't music for all occasions, as it's mostly really quite intense. But it's tremendously wonderful, and there's nothing else on this good earth quite like it. The band practically explode under Beefheart's free jazz sax solo on Bellerin' Plain: I'm a fan of some of the intense near free jazz such as late Coltrane, but most of what is usually referred to under the banner free jazz is, frankly, aural torture. Here the squalls of sax over the tempestuous rhythm section are simply sublime.
Just as Alice Coltrane made certain experiments (Infinity is a beautiful album) whose ideas were destined not to be fully explored, thanks to adverse critical and popular reaction, Beefheart and co. pointed a way that could have been usefully further explored. Japan In A Dishpan finds the Cap'n and the band doing just that, but, for my money, it works better when it's a small moment within a much bigger musical conception, as at the end of Bellerin' Plain.
There's plenty of lyrical humour ('I want to find me a woman that'll hold my big toe till I have to go'!), and there are even some tender or relatively mellow moments; the two aforementioned instrumentals are beautiful jewels, and titles such as Woe-Is-uh-Me-Bop and The Buggy Boogie Woogie show that even in his 'weird' period Beehfheart and his band could vary the feel and turn down the weirdness without losing the intensity.
Beefheart's pessimistic eco-philosophy is expounded on the lyrically poignant and musically wild Petrified Forest, and his interest in evolutionary history as it feeds into these ideas is further worked out on The Smithsonian Institute Blues. Although it's not an even or easy listen, Decals is truly brilliant. Even the cover artwork is great, and they also recorded a weirdly surreal black and white promo video for the album (not, sadly, included in this package).
Disc 2: The Spotlight Kid - This might perhaps, by ordinary standards, be a fine album. But in the Beefheart canon it's merely pretty good. Beefheart and the band don't sound like they have the same extraordinary focus and zeal they had during the Trout and Decals era. The album is more patchy, confused, and less intense.
Some of the tracks here, like 'Glider' (a personal favourite) even sound like they're returning to the pre-Trout riffing blues of the Safe As Milk and Strictly Guaranteed period. Essentially the hyper-intense experimentalism of Trout and Decals wasn't landing the band any economically sustainable work, and so they were drifting back towards a more 'normal' sound world. There's plenty of good music here, but it's not Beefheart or the Magic Band at their best.
Disc 3: Clear Spot - Rather interestingly, Beefheart and his musical minions showed incredible flexibility, and could be at their very best at seemingly contradictory musical poles along a widely divergent spectrum - from the Dadaism of Trout and Decals, or the tightly focused and more commercial sounds that can be found on Safe As Milk (I'm Glad), here on Clear Spot (Too Much Time, My Head Os My Only House Unless It Rains, and Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles), or even on Bluejeans and Moonbeams (Observatory Crest).
Clear Spot manages to mix some of the most mainstream sounds these guys would make with some of their still quite experimental stuff. So you get the sweetness of the three aforementioned ballads, the ballsy New Orleans bluesiness of Low Yo Yo Stuff, Crazy Little Thing and Long Neck Bottles, through to the weirder numbers like Circumstances, Big Eyed Beans From Venus, Golden Birdies, and the superb title track. Where The Spotlight Kid was all over the place in a slightly unconvincing way, this is all over the map but still has real focus and conviction. It's also, thanks to Ted Templeman, one of the best produced albums in the Beefheart oeuvre.
Disc 4: Out-Takes - Some artists have material lying unused that makes you think, once you hear it, 'why the hell was that kept under wraps?' As a Beefheart nut, I find all this out-take stuff interesting. But, in all honesty, it's not like being a Steely Dan fan and then discovering the sublime 'Canadian Star', a Becker and Fagen track that Steely never recorded, on Dr Strut's 1979 album, or hearing Tom Waits doing his early pre-Foreign Affairs version of Burma Shave, live at Austin City Limits, over a chord cycle nicked from Summertime.
Instead this is like a glimpse into the Beefheart/Magic Band musical sketchbook, fascinating for diehard fans, but not necessarily throwing up much stuff that stands strongly on its own feet in comparison with the officially released material. One thing thing that might surprise newcomers, but won't surprise died in the wool Beef fans, is to see how much of his latter period stuff (e.g. Harry Irene, Dirty Blue Gene, etc.) had its roots way back, about a decade before it would see commercial light.
So that's the music. Why else might you fork out for this de-luxe set? The four discs come in nice card facsimiles of the album covers, and there's a pretty little box - well, it's quite chunky actually - with a red ribbon to help pop out the discs and the booklet. The booklet is okay, if a bit cloyingly and even self-consciously hagiographic. Having interviewed John French for Drummer magazine (the interview, alas, was not used ), and read books by him and Bill Harkelrod... well, as much as I admire Beefheart the artist, I'm not sure how nice a man he was!
If you're new to Beefheart, I wouldn't suggest starting here, and if you're already a big fan you might feel complicated, as I did, about duplicating stuff you already have. But then again, you might feel, as some of the other reviewers over at Amazon UK clearly do, that Beefheart's genius, and the talents of his musical sidekicks, merit the expense. Despite my misgivings I did. And I am glad to have Decals as a remastered CD. But, despite Decals and Clear Spot both meriting the full five stars, I don't think the whole package does. So, this is an essential release, for me at least, but it's not perfect.
 If you're interested, you can read the Drumbo interview here: [link]
Sunday, 10 May 2015
Saturday, 17 September 2011
Friday, 16 September 2011
Betjeman's original book covered twice as many churches (approximately 5000). This new shiny hardback coffee table version is lavishly illustrated, and as a result cuts the number of churches covered in half, at roughly 2,500... still plenty! First I'd like to point out before going any further that I'm not Christian. I am, using A. C. Grayling's pithy phrase, a naturalist and free-thinker. Nonetheless, I, like this country and our culture, am steeped in the ever-evolving Christian tradition (I was brought up Christian, and went to several churches, none of which were deemed beautiful enough for inclusion here!). And the legacy on our landscape, and in our lives, from our language to the sights and sounds we deem typically English, are all bound up with the history of Christianity. And, regardless of all this, some churches are just very beautiful. I've often liked stopping at a random church and wondering around inside, connecting in my own quiet, personal and meditative way, with all that life and history. So this book was a must.
I confess I know little about Betjeman outside this book, except that he was a poet, and indeed poet Laureate for a while. When reading his introductory essay, it struck me that Betjeman chooses to spell the word 'show' using the rather archaic British variant 'shew', which is fittingly antiquarian, but irritates me mildly, as I feel, and indeed my brain is wired, through learning commonplace English, to think that it should be pronounced to rhyme with shrew, stew, brew or few, of for that matter pew: that's how it looks! In light of this I was not initially sure I go with the TLS quote on the cover which effusively describes Betjeman's introductory essay as 'pure gold'. In fact at first I found it more crabbily and fustily conservative (rather like some of the church wardens you may bump into when visiting churches using this book), if very erudite and occasionally quite funny, as for example: "If the path leading... wealthy unbelievers ... key from there." (p23) Well, that's certainly priceless, but not necessarily because it's 'pure gold'!
He also, as well as making some very prescient remarks, says a few things, which, to my mind at least, are a little odd, such as "It must be admitted that spirituality and aesthetics rarely go together." I guess this depends on you how you define spirituality, a nebulous term at the best of times. But many admirers of culture, including eminent scholars of religion, for example Diarmid MCulloch, stress the great contribution religion makes to our aesthetic culture. Quite apart from own mainly Christian heritage ( which has plenty in it that's clearly pagan), one need only think of the incredible non-figurative arts of Islam, the rich iconography of Buddhist mandalas, or the great traditions of religious music, to wonder if perhaps Betjeman has made a mistake with this particular pronouncement. In the context where he makes it, it is more plausible - he's lamenting the restorations and addition to a church that are, by and large "practical and unattractive", and begs that we remember "however much we deplore it ... [these ugly things] have been saved up for by some devout and penurious communicant.' Whilst this sonorous phrasing has an appeal, its rendering of the 'spiritual' is open to debate. And the quote that follows is dour Puritanism, and despite England's break with Rome, I don't think that Christianity, or humanity, for that matter, was suddenly and totally bereft of aesthetic awareness. Indeed, that's more than half the attraction of this book: these churches are frequently very interesting, and often, in part or in whole, quite beautiful. It I'd true, there are some horribly oppressive Christian buildings across these islands, and even some of the churches we've visited using this book belong in that category, but fortunately they're in a minority. however, when he follows his line of thought to the conclusion that "Conservatism is innate in ecclesiastical arrangement" I can't disagree. But perhaps this pinpoints the difference between religion and spirituality?
"Who has heard a muffled peal and remained unmoved?" Well, ironically part of the appeal of hearing church bells to folk like me, nowadays, is the comparative rarity with which you hear the sound. In the times where I've lived close by a regular ringers church what has annoyed me is not that "they are reminders of Eternity" (in the whole I get along well with Eternity and any reminded I get of her), buy that I'm being reminded of a belief which I don't share, and a belief whose omnipresence, and even perhaps omnipotence, is, thankfully, receding.
One little criticism is that the photos which illustrate points being made in the introductory text give only the village/town name, and then the church name, but not the county. This could very easily been included, and would have been very useful in determining if the church shown is within easy reach. So, for example 'EAST SHEFFORD: ST THOMAS', which happens to be on the page I was on when this shortcoming struck me, could so very easily have been 'EAST SHEFFORD: ST THOMAS (Berkshire)'.
Monday, 12 September 2011
But, at the end of the day, as Jason Ankeny says, over at the allmusic.com preview for Blue, "Unrivaled in its intensity and insight, Blue remains a watershed." Amen to that!
Gary Burden - Art Direction
Tim Considine - Cover Photography
'Sneaky' Pete Kleinow - Guitar & Pedal Steel Guitar
Russ Kunkel - Drums
Henry Lewy - Engineer
John Mayall - Composer*
Joni Mitchell - Audio Production, Composer, Guitar, Keyboards, Piano, Vocals
Stephen Stills - Guitar & Bass
James Taylor - Guitar, Vocals
Steve Thompson - Composer*
* Mayall and Thompson share composer credits with Joni on one track, 'California' (credited as Mayall, Mitchell, Thompson), all other songs are solely Mitchell.
Joni's third album starts with the familiar duo of guitar and vocals, sounding, initially at any rate, very much like her first two records. 'Morning Morgantown', is an evocative, descriptive song, and finds Joni sounding elfin and youthful as she sings "The merchants roll their awnings down / The milk-trucks make their morning rounds". But then piano steals quickly into the mix, as do subtle percussive sounds, already heralding developments which, by the end of the album, make this a real departure from her previously super-minimalist soundscape.
Track two, 'For Free', is newer territory yet, being the first fully fledged piano-based song to appear in her recorded catalogue. It's also the first time we hear Joni sounding self-conscious, guilty even perhaps, about her status in the 'music biz', a theme whose implications she would explore ever more as her career developed. And it also anticipates the rather bleakly melancholy vibe, which, coupled with her distinctive touch on the piano, here taking form as a rolling triplet-based feel, which would be such a characteristic part first really big album sales-wise, the justly lauded and famous 'Blue' album.
'Conversation' adds subtle brushwork drumming to Joni's stealthily expanding palette, also adding recorder and flute ('For Free' already having brought in clarinet) to her own ebullient harmony vocals, and us the first time she sounds a bit catty: jealous of another ladies' man she writes scornfully of her rival "she speaks in sorry sentences, miraculous repentences, I don't believe her"!
Track four, the title track, sounds melodically and harmonically very like earlier songs, but the degree of maturity and sophistication she's attained by this stage is staggering. It's also wonderful for being a celebration of womankind. What a great subject for a song! Clearly showing that she's more than a narrator or purveyor of self-indulgent confessional emotional catharsis, she celebrates a gaggle of her female Laurel Canyon companions. How wonderfully unlike the self-aggrandisement of the seemingly never-ending tides of successive 'me-generation' style rappers and pop tarts this is: these ladies won't pop a cap I'm yo' ass, or diss you cuz you aint got enuf bling or rep or whatever, they'll perhaps bake you some brownies instead. And any song where the lyricist celebrates chubby kids and cats - "all are fat, and none are thin" - is alright with me. Go Joni!
'Willy' presages the piano-centric vibes of Blue, and it's beautiful, but like Blue, it's so shot through with, well, blue. The melancholy edge to much of Joni's music is the aspect I find simultaneously alluring, compelling, and disturbingly narcotic.
The intro to track six hints at things to come, from Hejira to Hissing Lawns and Paprika Lawns. Called the arrangement, the title is clever for not just describing the lyrical content, but also the side of Joni that is pure composer. It's not exactly 'classical' music, but it's certainly boy just pop either. The chord she ends with is sublime, as are the challenging lyrics: 'you could've been more' she admonishes, over a chord that is neither pop, classical, jazz or any other 'type', it's pure music, sound, chemistry, humanity... genius!
The back-to-back brilliance of Chelsea Morning and Woodstock illustrate Joni's effortless seeming excellence: one minute she's, pardon the phrase, tossing off an upbeat acoustic 'folksy' ditty, whose darker message - "pave paradise, put up a parking lot" - seeps through despite the ebullient harmonies and the slightly forced sounding laughter as she delivers the casually brilliant sign off, and the next she's looking to her electric future as she tinkles on (oops, sorry again) an electric piano. Again, whilst she celebrates the blissful innocent apotheosis of the flower power generation at Yasgur's Farm it's already elegaic, and despite the optimism of those times Joni still locates us firmly outside paradise - "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."
And all this leads to the masterpiece that is 'The Circle Game'. Not amongst her most famous songs, it's nevertheless amongst her best (mind you, her catalogue is littered with jewels). Where STAC felt self-conscious, TCG feels totally natural and uncontrived, and yet STAC kind of paved the way, preparing the ground, if you like.
Joni's first two albums already marked her out as a new and brilliant voice in modern music, and with each new recording she just seemed to blossom and grow. If you don't already own this album, you really have to buy it. And yes, I know, Joni's rich enough to not need your dollar (and often sounds more than a little bitter these days, perhaps making her Starbucks deal strangely appropriate). But art this good deserves recognition and reward, all the way down the line.