Monday, January 25, 2010

I’d Love To Turn You On #1: The Orb - Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld

We spend so much of our time buying, selling and listening to the latest releases that we sometimes forget to plumb the depths. Every one of us here got in to record store thing, at some level, because we have a deep interest and curiosity about all kinds of music. Most of us are collectors to some degree or another, and one of the abiding joys of collecting is to pull out the rare, beautiful, little known or downright obscure album and turn on a friend. Sometimes it's a classic that needs to be shined up and put back on the top shelf. With that in mind we are going to revive a column we used to include in our newsletters called, appropriately enough, I'd Love To Turn You On. This will give our super collectors and musical academicians to wax poetic about their favorite albums (or movie or book for that matter).

In 1991 when this album was released the dance music revolution was in its infancy. It was just staring to break out of basements and tiny clubs and explode into what, for better or worse would become “the rave scene.” With the gelling of the scene the music started to adhere to rules, and fit specific needs - mainly to keep the dance floor throbbing until everyone stopped rolling. In 1991 the music was still wide open and somewhat unclassifiable. Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is the realization of the promise that this music held. The Orb’s first album was experimental, highly ambitious and free from any genre restrictions. In many ways, because of its success it paved the way for a far less interesting form of music, but what pioneering album cannot be accused of that? If every droney, out of key, noisy rock band was laid at the Velvet Underground’s feet, they would need much bigger shoes. Doing it first often means doing it best, and Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld proves that notion as neatly as The Velvet Underground and Nico does for its era.

Opening with the single that would become their most identifiable song, “Little Fluffy Clouds” remains one of the most irresistible and unforgettable songs of the era. The title is derived from the primary sample: a clip of Rickie Lee Jones describing what the skies looked like when she was growing up in Arizona. Orb mastermind Alex Paterson builds a luscious soundscape around this sample that burbles and whooshes with interesting embellishment but never drops the beat for a moment. It achieves the seemingly impossible - it is the embodiment of intelligent dance music. I guess you could drop the “dance” and say it is just intelligent music. The fact that you can dance to it is icing. As the tracks unfold on disc one, one realizes that this music has as much to do with Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, Negativland or Mike Oldfield as it does with Paul Oakenfold or The Chemical Brothers. It is part of a long tradition of willfully avant-garde music informed equally by minimalist classical, popular rock and early experiments in electronics or what the French termed Musique Concrete. Each song on Adventures opens up a new world of sonic collage with a different beat structure beneath it. In fact, some songs have no beats whatsoever and are more akin to ambient experiments bringing together sweeping landscapes with a fascinating array of musical and spoken word samples. Much of the sampling on this album relates to human exploration of outer space, and the choice of subject matter is completely sympathetic with its surroundings. It almost feels like one is exploring uncharted territory while listening to this album. How many albums can you say that about? Amazingly, much of it still sounds pretty groundbreaking all these years later.

Much of the success of Adventures is based on Alex Paterson’s deft use of samples. Unlike much modern music, his samples never dictate what the melodic or rhythmic structure of the song will be. They act as poetic devices that give the songs depth - the music is created by Paterson, and he uses the samples as lyrical as opposed to technical inspiration. One never feels like he is just riffing off of someone else’s musical innovation. That is the big problem with sampling in a lot of modern music; it takes the place of a genuine idea. Not so with The Orb; there is clearly an artistic mind behind the music that is brimming with ideas of its own.

Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld closes a couple of hours later with the Orb’s second most renowned song; “A huge ever growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the ultraworld.” A seductive, snaky rhythm pushes its way through a barrage of cosmic synth waves lapping on the inside of your skull and gives way to a sample of 70’s songbird Minnie Riperton’s otherworldly voice singing her signature song “Loving You.” Instead of using Riperton’s song to inform the melody of his own work, Paterson just lifts her voice singing and it floats above The Orb like some angelic choir looking down approvingly. The song then shifts off into worlds that are alternately meditative and energizing. There are single mixes of this song that stretch to over 20 minutes, but the version on the album comes to a halt after about 18. The song did revive interest in Riperton, who died at a tragically young age, and it’s hard to imagine it would not have met with her approval. As the album ends the listener is left in a state of exhausted bliss, having figuratively traveled to other worlds. Not for the faint of heart by any means, Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is a big glorious slice of dayglow pie that will fill you up to the brim with musical ideas and big beats. This album is neither a poppy dance confection, nor is it a mere vehicle for special effects, it is, rather, a serious attempt to take the listener on a voyage. The fact that Alex Paterson and company actually achieved this goal is monumental, the fact that it is such a good and enduring album almost 20 years later is miraculous. -- Paul Epstein

Magnetic Fields - Realism

The Magnetic Fields continue their playful love-hate relationship with pop music with Realism, a new album full of love songs, un-love songs, plus the sort of absurd humor that the band's always enjoyed putting across - the new title "The Dada Polka" might serve as an overall header for these types of songs. And Realism spends its time equally bouncing between songs that, if not actually sincere reports from songwriter Stephin Merritt's own heart, could at least be applied to real-life situations and the sort of humorous and/or precious little ditties that they relish. So if he sounds genuinely tongue-tied with infatuation on the Brian Wilson-ish melody of the lovely "I Don't Know What to Say" or if Claudia's vocal on "Always Already Gone" reflects the weariness of a relationship that hasn't worked for so long that she can't remember how it went sour it's sure that he'll pull the focus back quickly to the dainty "The Dolls' Tea Party" or precede it with "We Are Having A Hootenanny." By my count, he's reporting on love and meaning it about half the time - six cuts out of thirteen - and this is where he's invested not just his emotion, but usually his melancholy as well. It's a given that he's put his gift for melody there too, and he doesn't spare it on the remaining seven cuts, which split the time between the precious and the simply humorous, songs which oftentimes still manage to slip in something to say, as when "The Dada Polka" - surely what should be the most ridiculous song here, right? - offers this advice to listeners: "Do something / Anything / Do something out of character / It won't kill you." Basically, it's the new Magnetic Fields album, full of the type of clever, well-crafted songwriting we've come to expect from them, but with unexpected flashes of the genuine. And like all its predecessors, this one cultivates its own sonic identity. Merritt has stuck with his "no synth" creed and instead made acoustic instruments sound like synths, but here instead of faking synth-pop as on i or dressing the band up as the Jesus & Mary Chain as on Distortion they've chosen to explore "folk." It's a dangerous concept to put across one of the most sincere forms of music in the hands of a committed ironist, but between his gift for simple melodies and his unusually sincere-sounding approach to some of these lyrics, I think he manages to nail it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Amchitka - The 1970 concert that launched Greenpeace

This 2 CD set completely came out of left field. A show that was largely unknown to collectors that signified an event (the birth of Greenpeace) that has also not been given the historical gravitas it deserves. The artists represented (Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs) also run the gamut from more famous than they’ve ever been (Taylor) to not given their correct historical due (Mitchell) to largely forgotten (Ochs). The resulting musical experience ranges from interesting and poignant (Ochs) to thoroughly enjoyable (Taylor) to sublime (Mitchell). Ochs’ set, while politically bracing and well-played sounds like the voice of a man whose time had come and gone. And that, unfortunately is exactly what it was. Ochs always toiled in the shadow of Bob Dylan, and as the 70’s dawned his political righteousness seemed hidden beneath the blanket of Watergate and the close of the Viet Nam debacle. As the realities of American life crumbled around this modern day Paul Revere, the general reaction of the public seemed to be “yeah, tell me something I don’t know.” James Taylor, on the other hand is the consummate workman. What his shows lack in spark and inspiration are compensated for with always-to-be-counted-on guitar playing, his consistently pleasing voice and a grip of better-than-average songs. He performances rarely rise to a boiling point - he is terminally mellow, but he never fails to offer a pleasant evening of music. The sweet 7 song set he offers up is heavy on the “Sweet Baby James” material, so how bad could it be?

The real main event here is Joni Mitchell’s mind-blowing performance. Her voice is one of the real gifts of Rock and Roll and her easy manner with the audience is charming throughout. Her 10 song set is full of great songs and big surprises. The first surprise comes during her first song (“Big Yellow Taxi”) when it magically, almost accidentally, drops into “Bony Moronie.” Mitchell claims it as a song she remembers from teenage dances in her hometown of Saskatoon. It is a charming and totally unexpected moment. She follows with a great selection of tunes from her best albums performed with superb guitar and dulcimer accompaniment. There is a previously unreleased song “The Hunter” (an outtake from “Blue”) and then toward the end she busts out another revelatory surprise when she takes her song “Carey” directly into Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” again as if by accident. She then slows it down and invites Taylor onstage to duet with her. They sing it with different phrasing and step on each other a little bit, but the overall effect is pure magic. One can’t help but be amazed that this great performance has sat on a shelf all these years.

The package also contains a lovely booklet with great photos of the event, and the profits from this release help fund Greenpeace (one of the few vestiges of the hippie era that still carries some serious political and moral resonance), so one can feel extra good about this purchase. Do yourself a big favor and pick this one up.
Paul Epstein

It Might Get Loud

On the surface this might seem like a vanity project designed to make some already famous rock stars look even cooler than they already are, and at some level that is exactly what this is, but when one digs deeper this turns out to be one of the best movies ever made about the creative process, the intricacies of stardom and the abiding love affair rock music has had with the electric guitar. The premise is simple enough: put three huge rock stars from three different eras in a room together and let them talk about and show off their electric guitars. When the stars are Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes) it seems obvious that this will be no ordinary jam session, and it most certainly isn’t. In fact, very little jamming really goes on at all. The majority of this fascinating film is taken up with each of the guys talking about their love of and mastery of their instrument. It quickly becomes clear that each of these guys; Page the elder statesmen, Edge, the mysterious, reserved technician, and White the hot-shit, brash new kid all have an uncommon relationship with their instruments. Their accomplishments as songwriters, rock stars and humanitarians are put in the back seat so that they can show us how much they love their axes.

The film really has two components. The first is the time they spent together on the soundstage rapping with each other and showing off licks. For instance in one scene (actually found in the bonus material) White teaches the other two one of his signature licks. It is totally simple, but both Page and Edge mutter “brilliant” as they try to play it along with White, who looks like it is not lost on him that he is teaching Jimmy Page and The Edge one of HIS songs, and they are hanging on his every word. The second component follows each guitarist individually as they retrace the steps of their own development as musicians. These moments hold the greatest treats as Page air-guitars to a Link Wray single in his very own man-cave, or The Edge shows us the bulletin board in his high school where U2 drummer Adam Clayton put up a notice for “bandmates wanted” or when Jack White, with the aid of a young actor, teaches himself at 9 years old what the blues are all about. Through deft editing and unprecedented access to the musicians, we get a view of some very famous people as they have never been seen before. They appear, for all the world, to be exactly the same kind of fanboys that those of us who love them actually are. The thrill of seeing Jimmy Page teach the riff from “Kashmir” to two other rock stars is really cool, but to see him as a vulnerable teenager talking about his love for skiffle music and hopes to one day be a medical researcher really opens your eyes to how human these guys are. Yes, Page is the wizard, the most devilish man in rock history, but really, he’s just a kid with a handful of 45’s and a dream to play guitar, and that makes this an incredibly insightful film for people who like their Gods to have feet of clay. I have not enjoyed a movie about rock music as much as this one - maybe ever.
Paul Epstein