Posts Tagged ‘album reviews


From the Shelf: Naked City – The Complete Studio Recordings


I have a copy of this box, but rather than break it down as one large piece, I instead wrote about all the records separately since I consider them individual pieces of music. I followed the order of release, too, not the sequenced order of the box.

Naked City (1990)


The first Naked City record, originally released in 1990, is an interesting showcase for the group. There’s a few covers, a few originals and a lot of blasting noise, bursts of energy and shrieking and wailing. In 26 tracks, it sets the template for who they are and how they sound.


You could even argue that the first two tracks do this. “Batman” opens the record with a Bill Frisell’s chugging, twanging guitar and as the rhythm section kicks in, John Zorn’s sax starts blasting and twisting around. On the other hand, a cover of Ennio Morricone’s “The Sicilian Clan” is a slow, moody piece of ambience: both Zorn and Frisell’s playing are restrained and Wayne Horvitz’s keyboards give colour at atmosphere. Between the two tracks, you get a picture of a band that can play both traditionally and in an experimental style, blasts of noise and colour, energy and restraint, and light and dark.


Really, the whole album is full of these contrasts. Songs explode out nowhere, turn and crash and dissolve into mayhem; others take influence from surf rock (“Demon Sanctuary”), hardcore (“Fuck the Facts”) and straight-ahead jazz (“Latin Quarter”, “Snagglepuss”). Motifs and ideas pop up for a second and dissolve; other sounds wreck themselves apart before they form into something. At their best on the debut, the band is pushing jazz improv into new concepts of energy and form; at it’s worst, they sound like a bunch of talented musicians taking the piss.


Which is where the covers come in: how are people supposed to take covers of everything from Ornette Coleman to the theme songs from Chinatown or James Bond. Is it ironic for A-list New York musicians to cover something so kitsch? I don’t really know. I suppose I could look up interviews or something, but I’m not that interested in the answer. I do know I like their version of “Lonely Woman,” which sounds like it’s being done as the theme song for a police procedural, while the Bond theme leads to some chaotic improv, where the band seems like they’re falling apart but swipes back into form at the drop of a hat. 4/5


Torture Garden (1990)


A short compilation of miniatures from their firs two records, Torture Garden is fast, furious and to be honest, I can’t always tell these tunes apart unless I’m watching the screen, since they’re all just rapid bursts of fury.


Still, there are moments where the band mixes things up. For example, “Numbskull” opens with Frisell’s guitar feeding back, a cool, Fripp-like accent, while “Jazz Snob Eat Shit” is a rapid, almost sarcastic burst of jazzy playing. Personally, I like “The Prestidigitator,” which mixes in crashing glass and barrelhouse piano. It sounds like a barroom brawl. There’s a sense of humour here, although sometimes I wonder if the joke Zorn’s telling is on the listener.


Really though, between the samey bursts of noise and a general feeling of confusion, I think this it doesn’t work as well as their other records. It’s experimental and certainly pushes the boundaries, but it lacks the cohesion of their debut and the focus of later recordings – to my ears, this is all tension and no release. Or maybe I just tire easily of thrashing and screaming? 2.5/5


Grand Guignol (1991)


The proper follow-up to their debut record, Grand Guignol is like an amped-up version of Naked City, right down to the eye-catching, if disturbing, cover of a head that’s particularly sliced open (Big Black did something similar with Headache). It opens with one of their longest performances, the 18-minute title track, which mixes Zorn’s ambient side with scraping bursts of static and playing. It sounds like a collection of their miniatures – and probably it is, if I understand Zorn’s composing style correctly – but as a long suite, I think the alternating waves of dissonance and energy, the way ambient soundscapes give way to furious bursts, makes it work in a way the above compilation doesn’t: it changes the pace every so often; it’s not just ~20 minutes of unrelenting fury and noise.


Miniatures largely take up the rest of the album – there are 41 songs here and most of the rest are about a minute long – which I’m hot-and-cold on; see above for my takes on them. However, there’s also several covers of classical tunes by composers like Debussy, Charles Ives and Alexander Scriabin. Here, Zorn and the band glide through them, giving them a slow, film noir vibe. They make Scriabin sound like the opening theme to a Raymond Chandler flick; the tone of Frisell’s guitar gives the Ives cover an ambient and open ECM-style sound. If I’m being honest, this is probably my favourite of their records. 4.5/5


Heretic (1992)


At the same time, Heretic is both Naked City at it’s best and worst. It’s supposed to be the soundtrack to a S&M film – which seems to me like more of a stunt by Zorn than anything else, but who knows – and the album is basically the group improvising in various forms and styles throughout. They play in different groupings – sometimes it’s Firth, Frisell and Baron, other times it’s Zorn and Firth, etc, etc – and everything was done on the fly.


Which means in one sense, it’s a showcase for the band’s chops: at it’s best, the music is driving and fierce, re-inventing itself on the fly. At it’s worst it’s self-indulgent. A British critic once called Naked City a “bunch of musicians having fun” and depending on your mood, you might dig a bunch of guys making it up as they go along but you may also tire of it quickly. You may think what they’re doing is cool and genre pushing, but you may also find it pretentious. The truth is somewhere between those poles.


Generally, I think this record holds it’s own. There’s a few interesting tricks – is Horovitz drumming the inside a piano on “The Brood?” – and their playing is generally in top form. At the same time, other experiments are interesting but not as compelling. On “Sweat, Sperm and Blood,” Eye duets with Zorn in a series of scats and shouts, wailing and shrieking. It’s interesting in how well they compliment each other, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d put on when friends are over.


Out of all their records, this is them at their most uncompromising and arty. I think it’s generally pretty cool, but also I find it kind of self-important, too: the idea this was meant to accompany a skin flick doesn’t sound so much sex-positive as it does too clever by half, Zorn’s idea of being edgy and provocative, in the same way his covers are. 2.5/5


Leng Tch’E (1992)


Here’s where things all kinda come to a head. On this record, the ensemble plays a long, drawn out composition, “Leng Tch’e.” Recorded on a single day – Janurary 11, 1992, says Wikipedia – this droning, sludgy epic is both sort of powerful and kind of repetitive. All the energy from their short, frantic pieces is here but it’s been slowed to a crawl; Bill Frisell’s guitar roars and dominates the record while Fred Frith’s bass and Joey Baron’s drumming push and propel things forward. And although it’s more of a sit-down-and-listen kinda record than, say, Naked City was, it’s compelling in it’s own right. Especially once Eye starts screaming and moaning and Frisell’s guitar goes nuts.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the cover art: a picture of someone undergoing Death By A Thousand Cuts. The victim is being flayed apart alive, like a medieval saint getting tortured, but was dosed with opium and has a sickening grin, even as his body is getting ritually destroyed. It’s of a piece with the music, slow but pummeling, with Eye shouting, moaning and screaming as the tempo builds and Frisell’s guitar roars, Zorn’s sax wails in a high register and the band keep pummeling, pushing and driving. It’s perhaps not them at their most accessible, but it’s one hell of an artistic statement. 4/5



Radio (1993)


Call it a counterpoint to Leng Tch’e. On “Radio,” Zorn had the idea of a record of shortish pieces that slowly build up and grow in intensity. Not that it opens with like, “Solar” or anything: “Asylum” is driving, frantic jazz with Zorn twisting and turning at high velocity, while “Sunset Surfer” is packed with surf-rock style riffing, but Horvitz’s keyboards lend a nice ambient texture to things. And on “Triggerfingers,” Frisell goes nuts, running all over his fretboard.


But yeah, throughout the course of things, this one builds up in intensity. By songs like “Razorwire,” there’s a growing dissonance and droning, with Zorn making stabs with his horn, while “Krazy Kat” alternates between open spaces and bursts of fury. By record’s end, on songs like “I Die Screaming,” “Pistol Whipping” and “Skatekey” the band is playing hard and fast, blasting waves of noise. And by the end, Eye is screaming, the band is pounding and they slowly fade into the night, starting and stopping and making all kindsa noises.

While it’s an easier listen than some of their earlier stuff, at the same time it feels a little flatter than stuff like Heretic or Naked City. The playing is intense, but doesn’t have the same spark of energy or ambition. Things move and shake, but it’s hard not to think they were running out of ideas; the most interesting parts of this record are when they fall back onto clichés, like the country rhythm they dip into on “American Psycho,” the kind of trick they could pull in their sleep. And compared to earlier stuff, when they fall back on things, it’s not in a way that’s funny or provocative (see: “Eat Shit Jazz Snob”), but feels more like a change of pace. It’s not a bad record, but for all the pounding and fury, I think it shows them running out of gas. 3/5


Absinthe (1993)


And here’s where it all comes to a halt. On their previous record, the music faded to a finish of ambient sounds and playing. Here, the music starts slow and full of reverb and never kicks into the high-intensity music of their earlier records.


This isn’t to knock the record, which is interesting in it’s own way. It’s just a different kind of thing than what they’d done previously: the music drones and vibrates, echoes and shakes. It’s experimental in a way nothing they’d done before was, bringing to mind stuff like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or Nurse With Wound’s Soliloquy For Lilith.


The title’s a fitting one: the music sounds just a shade off, almost hallucinatory. Frisell’s guitar is atonal, while the keyboards create thunderstorms of swirling doom and gloom. Perhaps fittingly, the album ends with static; allegedly, it’s Frisell rubbing his guitar cord around the amp’s input jack.


It’s hard to place this one in the context of their other records since it’s so deliberately different, occasionally deliberately unlistenable. As an experimental concept, it’s hard to judge: how do I assign a rating to noise? And at the same time, it evokes earlier artists as influences, but never betters them. I like Naked City more than I like Nurse With Wound, but even if Absinthe reminds me of them, it’s not replacing my copy of Soliloquy any time soon. As a goodbye statement, maybe it just reflects Zorn, who was bored or exhausted with the concept of Naked City and wanted to move on, so they intentionally made a record ended with noise and fuzz, like a radio station going out of range. All things considered, it’s not bad, but it’s not something I find myself listening to really at all. 2/5


From the Shelf: Various Artists – Louisiana Swamp Blues

From the Shelf: Various Artists – Louisiana Swamp Blues (Capitol, 1996)


In the mid-90s, Capitol released a series of archival blues records. Most of them featured the heavy-hitters of the 60s blues revival (Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, etc) but a few took deep looks into specific scenes. There’s one about Kansas City artists, another about Texas guitar players. But probably the weirdest and coolest one is the look at Louisiana artists: Louisiana Swamp Blues.


Right from the cover you know you’re in for a treat: there’s no artist or even a generic picture of people playing. It’s an accordion, surrounded by a kind of bright aura, and an alligator with a big grin. It’s fitting: accordions dominate the music, which is swampy, damp and raucous. Oh man, is this stuff wild.


There are five artists focused on for this record: Guitar Slim, Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow, Boo Breeding, Clifton Chenier and Boo Zoo Chavis. The only name that’s especially familiar is probably Guitar Slim, who played hard, lived harder and died at 32. He’s best remembered now for experimenting with distorting his electric guitar and being an influence on guitarists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. But that came a little later: the stuff here is from early in his career and is relatively straight-ahead and bluesy. I like it, but the focus here is more on him as a performer (singing and playing), not just his guitar skills. Still, there are some cool stories in the liner notes, like how he’d use a huge guitar cord and play while walking around the club, even walking into the bathroom while playing.

The other name that’s maybe familiar is Clifton Chenier, whose long career playing zydeco lasted into the late 1980s. He’s represented here with several early singles, including “Louisiana Stomp” and “Country Bred,” both of which sound like they were recorded at a house party and certainly fueled some of them: Robert Pete’s drums crash, Morrie Chenier’s guitar chugs away in the background and Chenier’s accordion and hoarse shouting goes all over the place: it moans, groans and sounds downright gritty at times. On songs like “Rockin’ Hop,” he trades leads with the guitar; it’s an amazing mix of R&B, blues and Cajun and to my mind it’s way less sterile than later zydeco stuff you see now on Rounder. It’s brimming with energy in the same way early, lo-fi singles by Gary US Bonds still sound.

The other artists here aren’t as well known, I think (I’m hardly a zydeco expert, in case you haven’t noticed). Garlow, for example, was a guy who played a little guitar and used to get drunk and sit in with bands: in the liner notes, he explains getting his break after “the booze told me I could play as good as the guy up there, so I asked to sit in.” It’s worked pretty well.

The booze may not have worked as well for Boo Zoo Chavis. Both sides of a 1955 single of his close out the record. It’s, um, pretty wild. The band is kind of a mess, stumbling all over time changes and generally sounding like they’re not playing in the same room, and according to the liners, the sessions were also: during recording, the producer heard a crash; when he went in to check after the take finished, Chavis had fallen off a chair but kept playing while lying on the floor. Both sides of his single are the kind of thing I can’t imagine anyone releasing today, but they’re also charming in their own, raucous and dissonant way: it’s party music, played by some guys who were probably partying before they started recording. I kinda like it.


Lastly, there’s Boo Breeding, who is kind of a mystery in the liner notes: it’s alleged to be an alias of Chavis’, but they also discount the rumour; Allmusic, Wikipedia and other sites have no information on the guy. So his music has to speak for him: it’s 50s blues, alternately slow and brooding or quick and energetic. There’s some nice piano playing and singing, but it won’t convince the unconverted.


As a set, this record does a pretty decent job. I can’t say I’m an expert on this scene, so I don’t know if it does a good job distilling the highlights into a package or it’s it just a collection of loosely related sides who were all owned by Capitol records. In a way, it doesn’t matter: the music here is pretty good, even at it’s weakest, and at it’s best, it’s a compelling mix of energy, playing and fun. I’d definitely recommend it, particularly the sides by Chenier. The CD is out of print and can get a little expensive. 4.5/5



From the Shelf: Elvis Presley – Young Man With the Big Beat: Complete ’56 Masters

A while back, after reading Mystery Train for the first time, I went on a bit of an Elvis kick: I ended up with the Complete 50s Masters box, which is great and something I’ll get to another day, and have two discs of this box set on my hard drive.


As the title suggests, this box is everything Elvis recorded in 1956 and then some. There are two discs of studio stuff, basically a whole bunch of singles and stuff from his first record, then a live disc, a disc of raw outtakes and a disc of interviews for good measure. The first two CDs are nice, as far as I remember, but redundant since that’s all on the Complete 50s Masters (assuming you own that set, too, which I would recommend if you only want one Elvis box). The interviews are nice, I guess, although I truthfully don’t listen to them pretty much ever.


That said, the stuff on the other two discs is cool, fun listening. The live disc spreads across three different performances and shows him as an early peak: he’s not just creating rock as him and his band plays a raucous kind of country blues, but he’s having fun, teasing his audience with yelps and moans, and cracking jokes between songs: “we’ve been doing this song for about 25, 30 years,” he says before they launch into “Blue Suede Shoes.” I can almost see him smiling as they goof around during songs and when they crack inside jokes between them. It’s a side of him it’s easy to forget: before the excess, the movies and the pills, he was an electrical jolt on stage.

The sound on the live stuff is okay, I suppose. The Vegas stuff sounds pretty good and the material recorded at the Robinson Memorial has a rough, distorted edge to it, but it’s more than listenable – I think the guitar tone peaking and distorting as the band crashes and thrashes on stage, kind of adds a nice ambience to things. The stuff from the Hirsch Youth Center is more distant, muddy and drenched in crowd noise, but it’s comparable to a C, C+ audience tape. Which is a way of saying I’ve listened to worse sounding Grateful Dead tapes.


The disc of outtakes and studio sessions is also interesting. God knows how these things survived so long; so many other tapes of alternate takes and so forth were wiped and reused, even over a decade later. The most interesting part comes right in the middle, a session showing the evolution of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” The performance doesn’t really change all that much between takes, although Scotty Moore’s guitar solo goes through a series of changes; he kills a take when he stumbles on take 8, for example.

Personally, I always find stuff like this interesting – the disc from the last Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, showing all the alternates of “Like A Rolling Stone” was also great – because it’s kind of like being there in the studio, or at least seeing the daily rushes at a movie shoot.


All in all, an interesting set. This was a big year in Elvis’ history (he signed to RCA, released his first record, appeared on TV and, you know, helped shape modern popular culture) and the set does an admirable job showing in detail: you hear Elvis as people heard him then: a voice coming out of a 45-RPM single, a man cutting a compelling figure on stage and, finally, as a consummate pro, slogging his way through the same song over a dozen times, each time bringing it.


Rating: 4.5/5


Album Review: Ryan Adams – 1989

It seemed like a joke at the time. Ryan Adams, that laconic, slacker alt-country dude, covering an entire Taylor Swift album. He’s a guy known for being “real” – evoking old Springsteen and Tom Petty tunes, essentially – and Swift is known for being “fake,” which is a way for people to denigrate her for having the audacity to try and make lots and lots of money through her music.

Really, it seemed like a joke.

But now here it is, thirteen covers of Swift, as played by Adams and company. And the whole thing is played so straight you might think it actually is a joke.

Back in the early part of the 2000s, it was briefly a thing for white frat bros to release acoustic covers of hip-hop tunes. Their folk-evoking, deadpan readings were supposed to draw out the ironies in the music, the videos juxtaposing upper-class life against songs about being poor. They tried turning a genre into a farce for a cheap, ugly laugh. By and large, these covers were hot garbage, a tasteless joke people forgot about after a year or two.

I feared Adams’ version would be similar: he’d consciously try and draw on Swift’s image as a pop star to get a cheap laugh, the music a knowing wink to those too cool for school, as it were. But here’s the thing: I didn’t get that impression, not once.

I’ll admit I’m only slightly familiar with Ryan Adams. I’ll also admit I’m kind of a fan of Swift; I’ve written a couple of lengthy pieces about her. But regardless, I like this thing. I like how good Swift’s songs sound in the hands of another artist. I like the emotion Adams has poured into his versions, too. I generally like the arrangements, I like the overall vibe and I even like the cover.

The most interesting thing about this record, and the hype cycle surrounding it, involves the duel roles of Swift and Adams. In one corner, Swift is seen as fake because she works with songwriters and producers to fashion her sound. In the other is Adams, a guy who’s seen as authentic because he has the air of doing it all himself. Somehow, in some eyes, he lends Swift’s music an authenticity she could never attain herself.

It’s all a load of horseshit; to those who think her songs weren’t any good, why do they now sound good in Adams’ hands? You can’t polish a turd, but you can polish a gemstone, ya dig?

The most interesting stuff on this record are the moments where Adams sounds the most like his influences. His version of “Welcome to New York” sounds like a Springsteen outtake while “Style” could fit right near early 80s Pete Townshend. If I remember right, Swift said her concept for 1989 was to make music that evoked the year of her birth; Adams’ version sounds like a requiem for the Album Oriented Rock of that decade.

I think my favourite song on the record is Adams’ reading of “Bad Blood.” The original had a lousy video and was arguably the weakest cut on the record, which was a bummer since it’s one of Swift’s meanest songs, a left cross at Katy Perry buried under chants and a cameo by Kendrick Lamar.

But there isn’t really any malice in Adams’ version; instead he comes off sounding like a jilted ex. He’s turned her song into a plea, simply by reversing the gender roles in the song (and to think – he didn’t even have to change any pronouns!). And in it’s own way, it shows that despite the producers and writers Swift works with, she’s still writing country music – and she’s hitting her stride, too.

For the believers, there won’t be any revelations here. I liked Swift’s 1989 a lot and consequently, I like Adams version a lot, too. For the people too cool to like Swift, but like Adams’ indie cred, maybe they’ll swallow some pride and go buy a record with some seagulls on the cover. And maybe some people will find his version a little repetitive; as good as it is, it does occasionally lose focus and it’s minimal rock band arrangements could drag for some listeners.

It may have started as a joke, but after spending an hour with Adams playing Swift’s music, I’m willing to believe a few things:

  • Adams respects Swift’s music
  • Swift’s songwriting is as strong as it’s ever been
  • This version of 1989 is a strong record, saying as much about the former as it does the latter

Rating: 3.5/5


Best New Music of 2014: Pharrell – G I R L

Hello and welcome to an annual tradition around here: our month-long list of the year’s best new music! If you’re new, I’m Mark, editor of Extended Play and a contributor to websites like Bearded Gentlemen Music. Every day in December, I’ll run a short review of what I think was one of the best albums of 2014. Today: big hats and bigger hits!

Last year I was really hard on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, a record I felt was overproduced and underbaked, basking in retread 70s grooves and light on anything original or new to say. I’ve mellowed somewhat on it – I’m inclined to agree it’s Daft Punk stepping back from the overdriven EDM scene and back to mellow grooves – but I still think it’s their weakest album.

I mention this because their song “Get Lucky” was basically a dry run for the record I’m looking at today: Pharrell’s G I R L. It’s a record of light dance grooves, spiky funk and one monster hit.

“You missed me? Well I missed y’all,” says Pharrell at the beginning of “Come Get It Bae.” And while I don’t know if we ever were without him, it’d been a while since he’d dropped a new record. Almost a decade, actually. In the meantime he’d worked with just about everyone: Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Miley Cyrus. But his turn on Random Access Memories seemed to kickstart everything again; within what seemed like a couple of days, Pharrell was on the radio constantly, either on that, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” or his solo track “Happy.”

Originally part of the soundtrack to Despicable Me 2, “Happy” exploded like a firecracker and found its way back on this record. A simple, catchy drum pattern, backing harmonies and little touches of bass, hand claps and keyboard, it’s basically pop distilled down to its bones. It feels nearly skeletal on first listen, but after a dozen times or so, all the little elements start coming into focus: the chorus of voices, a horn adding tonal colouring, overlapping basslines. And the secret weapon of any self-respecting groovemaker: a Fender Rhodes. The lyrics are a little daft, but who cares!

The rest of the album doesn’t have the same glossy effects, but generally things stay at a high level. There’s some nice strings on “Marilyn Monroe” and “Gust of Wind,” a great electro-bass groove on “Hunter,” and “Gush” just drips an 80’s Prince-ish groove, outdoing anything the Purple One has done in years.

Indeed, it’s almost Prince-lite. It’s not as innovative as anything Prince did 30 years ago, but it has a lot of the same dance-inflicted mood and groove. Jangling guitars, bursts of strings and vocals, even the occasional dirty phrase: “I’m gunna set that ass on fire!” At the same time, Pharrell’s not as good an arranger as Prince and he certainly doesn’t have the same guitar chops.

At times, I can’t shake the feeling it’s almost a Curriculum Vitae for him: so many of the names that pop up here are people he’s worked with over the years. I don’t know much about the recording process of this particular album, but I wonder if it happened piecemeal, as he worked with these people. Either that or he’s got one hell of a contact list on his Gmail: Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake, Cyrus, Kelly Osbourne. Hopefully he doesn’t get too busy producing their next records to get around to his next LP.