Monday, November 02, 2009
How does something this good go so long without being discovered? The Numero Group has finally brought these AMAZING psych-rock recordings to the light of day after they (the songs, not the Numero Group) spent forty years fermenting in a cellar somewhere in Rockford, Illinois. Pisces pulls you right into their uniquely dark but gentle atmosphere in the span of about six seconds, and once you’re there, you’re there. It is very mystical and very beautiful. I can't really describe it in concrete terms, but the words I would use in a metaphoric description are "dream," "lush," "foggy" and "verdant." For recordings that were never released, the recording quality is improbably good, the production is brilliantly suited to the quality and intent of the songs, and the songwriting is top-shelf all the way through. I’ve seen a few people pick this one off the shelf and put it back again because they only want Numero to do soul, but it's really worth a second glance.
This is what the Vivian Girls would sound like if they were better at playing their instruments. Also, if they were a Swedish pop band. Liechtenstein has harmonies that are far more harmonious, and plenty of icy new wave vibes. It's only 20 minutes long, but it doesn't fuck around.
I generally think having some context is a good thing when listening to music: knowing who the artist is, when it was recorded, what the circumstances were... this usually provides some helpful perspective. But with Tilt, I think that gets in the way for a lot of people. In light of his highly successful (if often overlooked in hindsight) career as a pop star in the 60’s, the temptation is to look at Tilt almost as a cautionary tale, to listen to it only for the purpose of thinking, “what the hell happened to this guy?” But the fact of the matter is that Tilt stands better on its own -- it defies any interpretation based on the context of the world outside Scott Walker’s imagination, which has never made sense to the human race at large, regardless of what time period you’re talking about. Tilt is a masterpiece of isolation. Huge, alien sounds ring out in a massive empty space. Armies of percussionists pummel drums, and plenty of things that aren't drums. Walker had an orchestra on hand so he could take them to places that I don't think anyone is too emotionally comfortable with. And Walker’s warbling, menacing baritone floats above it all. It’s a whole world unto itself: it is dark, it is vast, and deserves to be explored at great length for those looking for an experience in composition far beyond the pop realm.
This album generally got worse reviews than Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and from a certain perspective, that's accurate. Yoshimi has the hits: if the Flaming Lips are remembered in 100 years, it will be for "Do You Realize?" and that one Cat Stevens song that they "wrote." But there are also big lulls that encourage you (or me, at least) to skip ahead to the hits. At War with the Mystics is not only more of a consistent record, it's a really consistently good album. There are no songs worth skipping -- except maybe the first couple of tracks, which were unfortunately the ones that were promoted. The synthesizers achieve a pleasant orbit around Jupiter, but that doesn't stop them from accompanying some good, fun rock tunes. "It Overtakes Me," "Mr. Ambulance Driver," and "Goin' On" will never be as remembered as "Do You Realize?" But they do guide along an album that works far better together as a whole.
This is a really apt title: allowing myself to like it was a process of giving up some of my pride. When I first heard "Such Great Heights," years ago when I didn't know who it was, I loved it right up until I got that sharp burst of pain when I found out that it was a Ben Gibbard project. I've never understood the appeal of Death Cab for Cutie, and the thought of liking one of his albums was anathema to a 20-year-old music nerd who was mainly into angry punk stuff. But eventually, I relaxed, and admitted to myself that Gibbard or not, these songs were too good to pass by. Any song on the album could have been chosen as the single and it would have been just as successful. The album is largely electronic, and it sounds pretty clean as a result, but at no point does it lose any warmth, or any sense of the emotional baggage that worked its way prominently into the songwriting. Give Up will comfort you and make you happy, but only when you're ready to be lonely and sad.
If you've ever heard this record, you don't need to bother reading this, because you already know. Muswell Hillbillies is, without a doubt in my mind, the pinnacle of Ray Davies' songwriting career, one of the pinnacles of 20th century music, and one of my "desert island"* records. Davies had been working for some time on striking a balance between British and American songwriting traditions. He wears his influences on his sleeve, finding just the right contours of country and rock and roll to fit into jaunty British music hall numbers. Some of the more rocking, big-arrangement numbers sound almost like T. Rex, and others sound like the source material for every good idea Jeff Tweedy ever had. Davies' notoriously dark sense of humor runs rampant throughout, throwing jabs at welfare-state bureaucracy, over-consumption of both alcohol and tea, and girls who are too skinny. If Village Green was the Kinks' response to Sgt. Pepper, then Muswell Hillbillies is the response to anyone who thinks the Kinks were just a Beatles knockoff.
*A "desert island record" is one of those records you mention when someone asks you what records you could bring with you if you were going to be stranded on a desert island and could only bring five albums with.
My feeling is, if I have to justify to someone why I like industrial music, then they haven't heard The Land of Rape & Honey. It's got beats you can dance to, pummeling guitars, dark and magnificent spaceouts, a name that will piss off just about any Republican you can find, and the drugged up lunatic who's in charge is shouting a lot. It sounds great, ad I can't think of much else you can ask for from a rock record. Never, ever forget how awesome Wax Trax! was in their prime.
Ass-kicking rock and roll from the blackest pits of Andrew Eldritch's smack habit. Goth rock from guys with worn-out motorcycle jackets and aviator shades. Evil and full of testosterone, but with a beat designed and ready for the dance floor. The Sisters of Mercy had a phenomenal career, but this is the pinnacle. Get more, but start here.