Friday, March 30, 2007

McDonald & Giles (1971)

Back when I was in high school, my closest friends were three extremely talented musicians who played together all the time in our friend's barn. I spent many stoned hours listening to them and fantasizing about joining in, but since they were already a drummer, bassist, and guitarist, I didn't think there was anything I could contribute. Well, in part because I was a big Jethro Tull fan at the time, but also because I wanted to take up an instrument that I wouldn't have to worry about any one else playing better, I chose the flute. So, when I was looking for the second King Crimson album, In the Wake of Poseidon, at my local music store and the clerk (who happens also to be the front man in a up and coming local psychadelic band), suggested I also check out former King Crimson band members McDonald & Giles' sole album, McDonald & Giles, adding that it had really great twittering flute bits, I was sold.

There are plenty of places on the internet that can explain the lineup of King Crimson and how much it has changed over the years, so I am not going to get into that here. Suffice it to write that Ian McDonald and Michael Giles were in the band for the 1969 debut, In the Court of King Crimson. So, if you like King Crimson's first album, I highly recommend you listen to McDonald & Giles. Instrumentally, it is similar to King Crimson's first album and parts of their second album. Mood-wise though, this work is much, much lighter.

The first song, "Suite In C Including Turnham Green, Here I Am And Others" is an 11-minute sonic ride. Being a suite, there are many melodies here. Worthy of note is Steve Winwood's organ playing and piano solo.

The second track sent me looking through the soundtracks to Wes Anderson films because I was sure I had heard this track before. It has that same kind of obscure, catchy quality as so many of the songs being found on some of the more excellent independant films these days. The melody for this song, "Flight of the Ibis" was written by McDonald and the original lyrics written by Peter Sinfield. However, when McDonald and Giles left King Crimson, McDonald maintained rights to the melody of this song, but Peter Fripp kept the rights to Sinfield's lyrics. So, if you play "Flight of the Ibis" and then "Cadence & Cascade" off of King Crimson's second album, In the Wake of Poseidon, you can imagine what the original composition sounded like because that King Crimson track has the original lyrics penned by Sinfield.

The third song, "Is She Waiting?" is a quiet love song of just piano, guitar and vocal harmonies that reminds me of something the Beatles might have done.

"Tomorrow's People - The Children of Today" is a gem. This song really exemplifies what great musicians McDonald and Giles are. Michael Giles' percussion throughout this album is so completely solid. In particular, his percussion work drives this song. There is also the "twittering flute bits" in this song that perfectly exemplify why the flute is an essential element of psychedelic rock, in my humble opinion. And the horns, man, the horns here are so...this is just a great song. You can listen to it below.

The last collection of songs on this album would have composed the entire B side of the original vinyl version of this album (though I have the album on CD). There are six parts to "Birdman." This collective song takes all the melodic elements of the album's previous pieces and puts them all together in this extended opus. There are the catchier pop riffs, we have the horns, including flute courtesy Ian McDonald, hand clapping (yes!), jazz, organ, psychedelia (sounding a bit like Pink Floyd circa Atom Heart Mother), and clear, mythical lyrics. Furthermore, this song bookends beautifully with "Suite In C Including Turnham Green, Here I Am And Others."

This album should have recieved wider acknowledgement because it surely would have been appreciated had more people known about. From what I have read, aside from when it was released on vinyl, McDonald & Giles has only been relatively recently available on CD other than as a high-priced Japanese import. So, now you can get it. I fully recommend this album. It is a treat.

I have, by the way, taken up the flute again. Dreaming once more of making my way into a rock outfit, hopefully something folky and psychedelic.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Olias of Sunhillow (1976)

I think it is useful to think of bands as systems, whose sound is an emergent property of the whole. Not too sophisticated a notion, but interesting to keep in mind when listening to solo projects, such as I did when listening to Yes vocalist Jon Anderson's premier solo album, Olias of Sunhillow.

I came upon Jon Anderson's Olias of Sunhillow on a list of concept albums I found on the Internet. I am definitely a Yes fan. However, of the numerous albums that Yes band members have put out during their solo careers, this is the first solo work I have listened to. It has taken me a couple of weeks of consistent listening to really get into this album. The Auricle has had to overcome an aversion to some of the more ambient sounds here; the synthesizer work smacks too much of new-age music for this ear at times. Admittedly, it does help to know that this album came out in 1976, before (to my knowledge) that particularly awful ambient, "mystical" music decidedly developed a genre for itself. Were it not for Anderson's stellar voice and lyricism this disc would not have remained in my player long enough for me to realize that is actually overall a very fine album.

Anderson's work here sounds a lot like Yes only thinner, though not any less multi-layered than Yes' work. Really there is not much to differentiate it from something that Anderson put together alone rather than with his other band mates except that he is not as skilled as his Yes band mates at their various instruments; Anderson's mastered instrument is certainly his vox. I haven't quite found there to be similar ambient, "mystical" sounds on any of the Yes albums I listen to (1969-1977).

The narrative/concept of this album has the same quintessential mythopoetic quality that Anderson brought to Yes. The story is developed out of the concept artwork created by Roger Dean for many of Yes' album covers. According to Dean, the collected artwork created for Yes' album covers illustrates a tale about a planet that breaks apart and whose inhabitants are whisked away to safety. The architect of the glider, Moorglade, which rescues the four tribes of this destroyed planet, is one Olias of Sunhillow. The Moorglade is featured prominantly on the cover of this album but can also be seen on Yes' Fragile. Apparently, Roger Dean is trying to raise enough money to put together a full-length animated film, called Floating Islands, which will tell the Yes album covers tale complete with Yes musical accompaniment.

So, I am not saying very much about the actual sound of album here because, well, if you're already a Yes fan then you already know what it sounds like (well, plus the ambient bit). If you don't know Yes' sound then, well, hopefully it won't be long until I put together an extensive review of the Yes discography that I appreciate. Conceptually, I think the fact that Jon Anderson chose to tell the story of Roger Dean's album covers is completely awesome. I haven't heard any of Anderson's (or any other Yes members) other solo music, so I can't personally compare it to anything from his solo catalogue. However, what I have read is that Olias of Sunhillow is Anderson's best solo work. Unlike his later solo work, on this album, Anderson played all the instruments including guitar, harp, drums, and synthesizer. Clearly Anderson is an all around skilled musician, but I don't think the instrumentation here is of the same high quality as Yes'. Conceptually and lyrically, though, Jon Anderson does not disappoint at all. I definitely think it should be included in any Yes fan's catalogue with the understanding that when the part is taken from the whole, the emergent sound invariably changes.

Jon Anderson - Flight of the Moorglade

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

new list of music

There are now two lists composed of musicians and albums. The section "the Auricle hears:" lists music that I am currently listening to. The second, original section, "within earshot" has been changed to "out of earshot," however, still lists music that I have just heard about, but have yet to actually fully listen to. Someday when I am much less busy, I will be more prolific with my blog entries. At this point, my goal is to review an album a week.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Silver Apples (1968) / Contact (1969)

I can't remember right now how I found out about these guys but they are pretty far out. After looking twice while I was out of town for a couple weeks, I finally went looking for this two-for-one at my local music store, Bullmoose, and found a blank name card for them. Thinking that even this store, which tends to stock obscure music had failed me. Not so, it turned out they had categorized the Silver Apples as electronic. This genre overlap is actually quite apt for this avant garde 60's duo; it seemed fitting their name cards were in both places. I was telling my wife about this group and she immediately pointed out to me that their name is a reference to Yeats' poem, "The Song of Wandering Aengus," part of which goes thus:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

[Of further interest: I have now also discovered that the title of a compilation album that the neo-psych-folk musician Devendra Banhart compiled, which is a good primer for this genre, is named after the last line of this poem. Probably not at all coincidental.]

So, if you are a fan of electronica, you will probably dig these guys if for nothing else than for (what should be, if it is not) an eminent place in the annals of this genre, but especially if you are also in to psychadelia. Their sound is spacey, ethereal, and busy with hypnotic, thumping and droning and pulsing and whirring and clicking beats both electronic and percussive. One of the members, known only as Simeon, constructed an eponymous machine described in the liner notes to their debut album as "nine audio oscillators and eighty-six manual controls...The lead and rhythm oscillators are played with the hands, elbows and knees and the bass oscillators are played with the feet." The drumming, courtesy Danny Taylor, compliments these aural curios with beats that seem precursory to those tracks now found on programed drum machines. Taylor used two differently tuned drum kits set up side by side so that he could switch to whichever tuning would most compliment the Simeon's sounds. The lyrics are, at times, psychedelic fairy-like musings, which makes for an unexpectedly intriguing and pleasing juxtaposition. At other times, I can't even really pay attention to the words because the sound is far more interesting.

One absolutely fascinating bit of information I discovered about the Silver Apples is that they were commissioned in 1969 by NYC's Mayor John Lindsay to write a song to act as the soundtrack for the mass viewing in Central Park of the Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon. The song was called "Mune Toon" apparently but I have yet to be able to find a place on the Internet where I can get a copy of it, not even sure it was ever recorded. According to an interview with one of the band members, the mayor declared the Silver Apples "the New York sound."

Silver Apples - Program

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Neon Bible (2007)

I was playing six degrees of separation today with a friend and discovered that I am three degrees of separation from Rasputin and two handshakes from Fidel Castro. All very fascinating, yes. But you should also know that, as it turns out, I am just one make out session from Win Butler of Arcade Fire. Basically, I have practically kissed the lead singer of this band. (Now, if only he were actually David Bowie instead of someone who can sometimes sound like him...wistful sigh).

My wife and I saw Arcade Fire in Asheville, NC a couple years ago and it was one of the funnest (up there with The Flaming Lips) concerts I have been to. I was checking out the tour schedule for this latest album Neon Bible (2007) and found that the closest they will be to my home now is at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, which I might try to make in May with my brother-law.

It took me a few listens all the way through to really find my appreciation for this album, which I have learned is not always a bad sign. I really like Arcade Fire's sound and this album is not a significant departure from their first album. It is a bit darker, the moody instrumentation is complemented by the addition of pipe organs, military choir and a hurdy gurdy. The well crafted introspective and retrospective lyrics and melodic harmonies are joined with the same strong element of pop danceability that is such a definitive part of the group's sound, making the body want to move outward whilst the moody lyrics lead inward. Their sound has developed, becoming more extravagant perhaps, but without changing all that much, which is good (for now, at least). In short, Arcade Fire have a signature sound that has matured. If their first album, Funeral, was a child on the precipice of teenagedom and life changes, then this album is a full on teen struggling to make sense of some of those life changes (not to mention those high school french classes). The mood is heavier, the messages are a bit more sophisticated, but that grandiose pop danceability still connects us back to the child before the storm. In my opinion there are few contemporary bands around that have this kind of unique, developed artistic signature. I look forward to hearing where Arcade Fire is going to go with future work, but this Neon Bible will hold me over until then.

If you want to hear how much Win Butler can sound like Bruce Springsteen, then listen to "(Antichrist Television Blues)". But here is what I think is the strongest song on the album:

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Animals (1977)

It seems appropriate to start with the the band and the album that flips all my switches: Animals (1977) by Pink Floyd.

This album is still as amazing to me now as when I first heard it, though I can't say as I recall when that was exactly. When I was a junior in high school, my friend and I went to stay with my aunt in London for a week during school break. Somehow I caught wind that the building on the cover of this album actually existed, was called the Battersea Power Station, and was in London. I think I had seen something in an English newspaper at the time about an attempt to do something with the defunct building. Some musical pilgrimages end at the Père Lachaise Cemetery where Jim Morrison's is entombed, some in Memphis, Tennessee at Elvis' Graceland, or for others perhaps making it to a sermon by the Reverend Al Green. For me, at seventeen, my musical pilgrimage concluded (or had it just begun?) at the Battersea Power Station. It remains one of the most surreal sights I have experienced. It was like I was looking at a giant cartoon that had been plopped down in the middle of a city. Seriously bizarre. Not like any other visual experience I have had before or since. I think parts of my brain melded or crossed over or something, I don't know. The recent movie Children of Men by the director Alfonso Cuarón aptly pays homage to this brilliant album (I won't tell you where the reference is in the film because I think it will be best to just notice it).

Being my favorite album, I could mention many things about this album both from my own life and as Pink Floyd data. I am going to limit myself to the most fundamental pieces of information to know about this album if you intend to listen to Animals for the first time. Most importantly, Animals is based on George Orwell's allegorical satire Animal Farm. Each of the songs is named after an animal (pigs, dogs, and sheep) that appears in Orwell's novel representing a particular social class. The first and last song on the album ("Pigs on the Wing, Part 1 & 2") apparently were written by Roger Waters to his wife at the time. Both of these songs are solid, but no match to the three fucking fantastic pieces that compose the core of this gem. (Could it be that these relational bookend songs are Waters' offering of a more optimistic insight on enduring such a bleak and depressing, albeit rather accurate, outlook on society?)

As an ensemble, Pink Floyd has had quite the dynamic history. Interestingly this album was produced when some significantly troubling relationship issues were emerging within the band, which ultimately, I think it is accurate to say, led to Waters leaving the band (marking, in my opinion, the dissolution of Pink Floyd). David Gilmore's guitar work is as present and necessary as Water's lyrics. Rick Wright's keyboard work, however, is sparse, though immensely effective when used, further dredging the already dark abysmal instrumental mood of Animals. Nick Mason's not-to-be-forgotten rhythmic drumming is so very solid, as always.

Friday, March 9, 2007

the superlatives

There are albums that have bad, good and great songs. There are albums that have all great songs, the albums that can be listened to without having any forced listens or skipped over songs. But then there are the albums that take it to the next level and tie all the typically disparate songs together into something more cohesive. More than anything, the Auricle has an affinity for such albums. It matters less what the style of music is and more how cohesive the songs and theme are. Some albums' cohesiveness is narrative in style, while others is more conceptual. I had not actually broken these works down into these different camps until I went a-searching for those concept albums that the Auricle had neglected to inform my starving brain about. What I have discovered is that there are conceptual albums based on a thematic cohesion and then there are conceptual-narrative albums intent on telling a story, thereby cohesive. Similarly, there are song cycles and rock operas, which may not be very different at all, but I am too tired right now to figure out the distinctions. For the purposes of writing this blog, I will refer to both the thematic and narrative concept albums simply as concept albums when speaking about them generally. Here is a rather comprehensive list of concept/narrative albums. There are the greats who have helped set the standard for concept albums: Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Genesis, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, The Who, Frank Zappa, Yes, and on and on and on. Then there are the newer bands doing some solid concept album construction such as, of course, Radiohead, but also Pedro the Lion, The Flaming Lips, Neutral Milk Hotel, Smashing Pumpkins, Grandaddy, The Microphones, Sufjan Stevens, and on and on and on. And that's just rock. There's still Marvin Gaye's brilliant soul artwork. Over time, I will get to many of these artists and their concept albums since they manage to be cycled in pretty consistently.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

out of earshot

I have an ongoing list of bands and albums to check out. Some of them I have already researched or heard but do not own, others I still need to do some reading up on. Generally, I use Allmusic to read about a band and, especially if there are numerous albums in their catalog, to determine those albums that are most immediately notable. Of course there are many amazing albums that get overlooked, but as a starting point this method has worked well so far.

If I want to hear what a band or musician sounds like, I use Pandora. This is a program utilizing data from the Music Genome Project, which is about the greatest idea ever. I highly recommend reading up on this program and project if you have not already. Math and music and more, yes yes yes. There is even a podcast where the music analysts talk about different techniques used by musicians.

Back to this ongoing list of music that I want to check out: in the margin I have listed these bands, and sometimes specific albums, in the section called "out of earshot." Suggestions and opinions on this list and its music are always welcome.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

it's not up to me

Well, there are already plenty of places on the Internet where one can find out about music, however, obscure or popular it may be. People far more knowledgeable than I have critiqued bands' artwork. I am, however, a fanatic, perhaps even a freak. Play me a couple seconds of a song and chances are good I will be able to tell you not only who it is but also why the band broke up, what their best concept album was (more on that later), or who they've toured with. I am not so much bragging as I am confessing, acknowledging that, yes indeed, I have an affliction. The story some of my friends of old will tell every now and again: I once tried to kick my nicotine addiction by promising myself that I could spend money that would have otherwise been spent on smokes, on new music. A good plan in theory only. It was inevitable that my addictions would converge, as they did, into buying new music nearly as frequently as a pack of smokes from the store next over.

What pleases the Auricle changes. I don't think I have a say, but I never do complain. Its all cyclical I am noticing. The tastes are varied and often blend. I sense a common thread though, a mood perhaps. I'm still not sure. But I have discovered that there is music to match every possible permutation of emotions available to me. And since I am a slave to my would appear that the venom and the antidote are one in the same.