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Blood on the dance floor: Miles Davis’ Live Evil

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In the second half of the 1960s, Miles Davis put together what’d be known as his second great quintet: pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. As this group recorded seminal albums like E.S.P., Miles Smiles or Miles in the Sky, Davis’ music began shifting away from strict jazz.

Throughout his career, Davis was always shifting away from the jazz mainstream. He turned down a gig with Duke Ellington while putting together the nonet that’d record The Birth of the Cool, revolutionizing jazz from stuffy big band arrangements into a compact form: a tightly-knit group that would alternate solos between arranged sections of music. Just listen to Move, a song with a composed head, room for soloing and a finish, with everything crammed into a frantic three minutes. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

June 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

One and Done: Six Canadian Bands That Only Released a Debut Record

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Editor’s Note: Originally published Feb. 6, 2012 at Flashfact.org. A postscript has been appended to the bottom.

It’s harder than you’d think to find bands that only released one album. Generally, if a band is any good they have a little staying power. Sometimes even if they’re not any good, too. Even one-hit-wonders seem to stick around for a little while: did you realize Len released five albums? That The Odds released four? Even Jale – a band that only seemed to be around for a matter of weeks – released two albums.

But it still happened. Each of the following bands here were, and in one case still are, very good. But somehow, they left just one album for their legacy, at least while they were still together. And when I say album, I’m talking a full length: something substantial, with more than a couple songs. EPs, compilations and remix albums don’t count. Neither do records released well after the band broke up: do those reflect the bands intent, or was it a way for a label to recoup costs? I’m not counting stuff released if the band went through substantial changes, either: if they added new members and changed their name, I’m considering that a different band.

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Arts & Crafts at ten: their ten best releases

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Ten years ago, Broken Social Scene released their second record You Forgot It In People. With some help from Paper Bag Records, it was the first album on the Arts & Crafts label, with the iconic bar of color down the side. The label started as a way to release music made by the band it’s associates, but within a few years it started releasing albums from outside talent: The Most Serene Republic, New Buffalo and American Analog Set, among others.

Soon, it’d become one of the best labels in the country. Known for it’s iconic album designs, high quality of releases and a willingness to try new things; they were doing digital downloads as far back as 2005. While they’re more or less committed to a certain style of indie rock, the label’s made interesting expansions over the years. In recent years, they’ve released the lush acoustic rock of Timber Timbre, the spooky, powerful music of Cold Specks and even managed to land Bloc Party.

As the label turns ten, I’ve offered up my ten favorite records on the label. It’s something of a fluid list: most of these spots are interchangeable, depending on my mood, and on another given day, I might swap one or two out for a few others. But don’t hold that against them: by and large, Arts & Crafts has been steady in it’s releases. There’s only been a handful of albums they’ve released I’d consider subpar and off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any total flops (although I’m probably not going to be listening to Valley of the Giants any time soon). Read the rest of this entry »

From Chunga’s Revenge to Carnegie Hall: Frank Zappa’s Flo and Eddie years

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A Mark on Music classic, from the Flashfact.org archives. 

In his lifetime Frank Zappa released over 60 albums, a slate ranging from rock to jazz to classical, with stops all over the place: albums recorded by computers, comedy songs, side-long instrumental jams. It’s easy to break his career up into various stages, usually his backing band.

First were the original Mothers of Invention. Later on came the 20-piece Wazoo band, the first of his large ensembles. In between those two came his Flo and Eddie band, maybe the most maligned of his career. If the names sound vaguely familiar, they’ll sound instantly so when listened to: they’re Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the two vocalists from The Turtles. They were joined by multi-instrumentalist (and longtime Zappa collaborator) Ian Underwood, bassist Jeff Simmons, jazz legend George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar, who narrowly missed out on drumming for Jimi Hendrix and King Crimson.

This group released four albums while active, plus another one issued in the early 1990s and a live set released late last year. Most of these albums were recorded live, showing this band at what Zappa must have felt it did best: making jokes and telling stories on stage.

Two of those live albums are Fillmore East, June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A., and each features a long suite of mostly dialogue. Fillmore has the groupie routine, a skit about being in a band and getting action from a local groupie; the other has “Billy the Mountain”, a long story-song about a mountain, his wife Ethel (a tree) and their trip cross-country. They’re both interesting documents of this band, but the jokes haven’t especially aged well. And the best part of this band is hardly shown at all: these guys could play.

For years, the best document of this band was the first album they appeared on: Chunga’s Revenge. It’s sort of a hodge-podge of material, containing a live jam, leftovers from Hot Rats and two scorching instrumentals between a few Flo and Eddie songs.

While the album never exactly keeps a certain feel, it shows a little bit of everything in and shows off everything this band did well: make you laugh, make you scratch your head at how well they interacted on stage and make you play air guitar over some of Zappa’s more ferocious licks.

On the title track and Transylvania Boogie the band rocks out like it’s nobody’s business, while songs like  “Would You Go All The Way” and “Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink” have Flo and Eddie at their funniest: the second is about the musicians union, featuring Rudy (who wants to buy you a drink) and isn’t kidding around (he carries a gun to keep musicians in line). The live cut, an excerpt from a performance of “King Kong” shows the band interacting, playing off each others improvisations and eventually getting the crowd to join in. And “Twenty Small Cigars” is one of Zappa’s most underrated gems: a tidy little fusion number that should be a jazz standard. Despite it’s disparate parts, it’s the most constantly entertaining album this group released.

It’s an album easily lost in the shuffle. Chunga’s Revenge was released in October 1970, the third album Zappa released that year. He’d release two more in 1971 and Just Another Band From LA followed in early 1972. And like most of his albums it was out of print for years, even recently. But as of early this month, it’s been released, with a much better mix to boot: the sound’s a lot dryer, with the drums sounding more crisp and natural and the lower end less muddy than previous CD issues. It’s a great album for those interested in this era of Zappa and it’s finally back in print.

But like I said above, this was only a snippet of this band and mostly studio work, to boot. And this was a band that was best on stage. For those who already know about Zappa and have a bad taste of this era – too many dirty jokes, not enough good music – the Zappa Family Trust put out a four-disc set last winter that does nothing less but revolutionize this band’s legacy.

The set takes its name from the location: Carnegie Hall. It’s a collection of two shows Zappa played there in late 1971, the only time he played (or desecrated, as he says during the recording) this stage. It’s an admittedly long set, but it’s basically two complete concerts and for once, the music’s isn’t limited by a release format.

Two of the songs here are more than 30 minutes long: a “King Kong” that’s stuffed with jamming and solos and an extended “Billy the Mountain”, complete with new passages and solos, that goes for over 47 minutes, a song longer than either live album from this group. Both of these go a long way to showing how talented this band was: they were just as good at improvising for an extended period as they were at a scripted mock-rock opera.

The rest of these shows show this band – Zappa, Flo and Eddie, Underwood and Dunbar were joined by Jim Pons on bass and Don Preston on keyboards and Moog synth – in full flight, from another mock-rock opera (“Divan”, the story of Creation and also a giant couch in the heavens), to precision-level playing on rock passages (the twisting “Sleeping in a Jar”, the jazzy “Peaches en Regalia”) to the poppy “Tears Began to Fall,” a song that should have been a hit for this group (below is a different version of this number).

There’s a few surprise treats, too: an electric blues arrangement of “Who Are the Brain Police”, the early Mothers number “Anyway The Wind Blows” and a grateful Zappa announcing because of union rules, it’ll cost him $600 to play one more song but he’s more than happy to do it before launching into a jammed-out version of “The Mud Shark” from Fillmore East. These may mean little to the non-Zappa fan, but to the converted it’s a big deal: this is an artist who changed how songs were played between nights, let alone bands, and just because you’ve heard one version of “King Kong”, it doesn’t mean you’ve even scratched the surface.

But the best thing about this album is what it does for this era of his music. It’s been long looked over and just jokes and groupie talk. The 1992 album Playground Psychotics did little to remedy this: sure, it had an essential set where John Lennon sat in with the Mothers, but it’s long stretches of dialogue and audio verite marred what should have been an essential release. This doesn’t quite have the same quality as those recordings (it was recorded surreptitiously by Zappa in mono, although it sounds exceptionally good considering the circumstances) and the music isn’t quite as legendary as a Zappa/Lennon jam, but it shows just how good this band could be on any given night.

And this band could be pretty damn good.

(Carnegie Hall is available only through Barfko-Swill. At $42 it’s an expensive album, but when you think about it, it’s about $10 a CD. Not too pricy and a lot cheaper than paying to see Zappa Plays Zappa shamble through similar material.)

Originally published at Flashfact.org Aug 28, 2012

Written by M.

April 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm

When Major Tom Went Post-Punk: David Bowie’s Scary Monsters

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There’s a few clichés in rock journalism: that Bob Dylan’s leftovers are better than most artist’s bests, that the Grateful Dead’s Dark Star is a long song and, biggest of all, that David Bowie is the chameleon of rock, because he’s shifted and changed so much over the years.

David Bowie – Scary Monsters (1980)

In a sense, it’s true: Bowie has refined his looks over the years. If one really feels the need, they can break his career up into several, bite-sized digestible chunks: his Ziggy Stardust period, his Tin Machine period, his mainstream rock crooner period, not to mention a dozen or so more. But the problem with that is how marginalizing it is to his music, which when he was really good, has constantly evolving and changing throughout his most creative period.

After all, he wasn’t always revered in rock circles. After playing in various bands throughout the mid 1960s, Bowie’s solo career started with him trying to hack it in folk circles before he capitalized on the space race with Space Oddity, the iconic song about getting lost in space (even if it’s full of trite rhymes like “Ground control to Major Tom, take your protein pills and put your helmet on”). That song, the best track off his second album, was a hit for Bowie, but what’s often overlooked is what happened next: nothing else from his second album charted, and neither did anything from the next one, either.

It wasn’t really until 1970’s Hunky Dory that his sound started to gel, especially on the hooky pop gem Changes and the crunchy-guitar driven Queen Bitch. He’d continue to refine this sound on his commercial breakthrough Ziggy Stardust and never really left it, even as he flirted with soul, progressive rock and ambient music: all throughout this decade, his albums were good for at least one really good guitar-driven rocker, even the often-overlooked Pin Ups.

So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his creative song swan, the album that capped his most productive period, is dominated by snarling guitars. And make no mistake: Scary Monsters is a great guitar album, with some of the best playing to come out of the late 70s.

Stylistically, Scary Monsters is something of Bowie’s post-punk record. Put it’s raging guitars, screamed lyrics and Tom Verlaine cover right next to a Mission of Burma album and nobody’s really going to bat an eye. It’s got a harder sound than anything Bowie had done in years. The experimentation of his Berlin trilogy – the exotic instruments, slick instrumental tracks, and deconstructed song structures – has been left behind.

This isn’t to say it’s free from tricks. Right from the get-go, it’s got everything from the sound of a needle dropping to frantic Japanese lyrics to Bowie screaming “SHUT UP!” as both Carlos Alomar and Robert Fripp’s guitars careen out of control. And we’re not even five minutes in!

Indeed that opening track sets the tone for this record: it’s Bowie looking back on his career, discarding what he’s finished with and moving on to new things. “To be insulted by these fascists, it’s so degrading,” sings Bowie. Is that a shot at a music press who insisted his best years were behind him? Or is it a sly reference to his Thin White Duke era?

Throughout this record, there’s a feeling of paranoia and anxiety. It goes from talk of suicide (“Put a bullet in my brain, and it makes all the papers”) to madness  (“When I looked in her eyes, they were blue but nobody home”) to alienation (“I really can’t remember last time I saw the light of day”). Even a cover of Tom Verlaine’s Kingdom Come adds to this mood: “Sun keeps beating down on me, wall’s a mile high / Up in the tower they’re watching me, hoping I’m gonna die.” Without a doubt, this is Bowie’s darkest album.

The most memorable track here, and the one that everybody’s familiar with, is his kiss-off to his most famous character: Major Tom. In Ashes to Ashes, Bowie asks listeners if they “remember that guy from space” and spills details about himself, about drug abuse and trying to stay clean. For a guy often seen as hiding behind characters, it’s a startlingly direct song: more than anything else on the album, this is a song about how fucked Bowie had become. It’s easy to forget, but before decamping to Berlin, Bowie had developed both serious cocaine and alcohol addictions.

If Ashes to Ashes was his dismissal of a decade of problems, his re-recording of Space Oddity was the capstone to a decade of success. A track that didn’t make the album proper – it wound up as a B-Side and a bonus track on the Rykodisc reissue – his revisiting of his first hit is more fully fleshed out than the original. It’s more confidently delivered, the work of someone who knows exactly what he can do and how to get it done, and is utterly lacking in the little flourishes that distinguish the original.

The album ends on another version of the title track, It’s No Game. But where the opener is frantic, urgent and driving, the closing track is restrained. The music’s kept in check, the Japanese lyrics translated to English. It’s as if Bowie’s exhausted, his statement made.

Taken as a whole, Scary Monsters can be a little much. But while it’s edgiest album, it’s also one of Bowie’s most powerful: this is him at full power, looking back at a decade’s worth of work, ten of the most creative, productive and successful years in rock. Bowie took a break after this album, waiting three years to release Let’s Dance, and he’s yet to recover the momentum he had here (another rock cliché: every new Bowie album for the past two decades has been his best since Scary Monsters).

But that’s kind of missing the point, too. I wrote above about how Bowie’s career has been divided into sections and chunks. Sure, he changed characters, but the only time he actually stopped something was here. There’s only two Bowie eras: the one that came before Scary Monsters and the one that happened after it.

Originally published at Flashfact.org during July 2012

Written by M.

April 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

The Opposite of Their Name

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The Grammys were on Sunday night, an affair where the music industry rewards the acts who move a lot of product or have stuck around long enough to have cache; even Frank Zappa won a Grammy once and it wasn’t because Jazz From Hell was any good.

It’s a night where the middlebrow, that cruelly overlooked group of artists, get their trophies. Just look at the winners: Gotye, who’s racked up YouTube hits in the 100 millions and hasn’t recorded a fun song since 2008; Mumford and Sons, the folk band of choice for people who don’t like folk; The Black Keys, who dress the part of rock stars and look entirely uncomfortable in the role; Skrillex, the token nod to what the Grammy voters assume kids are into these days.

There was even a few defensible choices: Frank Ocean, Drake, Jay-Z and (somewhat) the Keys, who at least have more chops than Mumford or Coldplay. It was actually nice to see Ocean get rewarded for releasing a smart, ambitious album.

If they got that one right, they got a few disastrously wrong. Taking home the Best New Artist and Song of the Year are the upstarts Fun., a band who has to tell you what they are since their music can’t. In an age of manufactured pop stars, reality-TV based talent searches and egregious self-promotion from has-beens who haven’t gotten the memo, Fun. stands out among the filth. They’re music is banal, boring and dripping with trying to appeal to as many people as possible. They look like an A&R rep’s idea of what cool, urban young people dress like. They wallow around on stage, looking overwhelmed by the idea of actually creating rock and their trophies last night should’ve been the biggest sign of all that the Grammys are worthless inside baseball bullshit.

Dave Marsh once called Queen the first fascist rock band. He argued that “We Will Rock You” was less a command than a statement, in that case, one of domination. In that sense, Fun. is the first Big Brother band. Right down to their name, they exist to tell you what you’re going to have when you listen to them. What they want you to think they and their music are. Their name isn’t a name, a statement or a description. It’s a command ending in a full stop. They’re “fun,” period, and there isn’t anything they want you to do about it.

Never mind that their big hit is a half-baked ripoff of K’Naan’s 2010 hit Waving Flags. Never mind that this Best New Band released their debut album in 2008 or that they’re formed out of the remnants of The Format, who released halfway decent indie pop through the last decade. Never mind that this self-styled indie band’s backed by Warner Bros, through their anonymous-sounding labels Fueled By Ramen. But maybe the Grammys definition of new seems to mean only “new on a major label.”

When Fun. won last night, it meant some actually deserving, and actually new, artists were skipped over. Take Cold Specks, who’s ethereal and downright spooky I Predict a Graceful Expulsion was one of 2012’s best releases. Take Japandroids, who actually rock out without looking like mopey Brooklyn-ites on stage and made music people will listen to in sixteen months.  Take Haim, a talented-as-fuck trio still so new they haven’t released a proper album yet, and still released one of 2012’s best singles on Forever. They’re even signed to a major label!

None of that really matters, though. As far as awards go, the Grammys mean slightly more than the Junos and slightly less than the People’s Choice Awards. After all, they hand them out to any flavour of the month: Bobby McFerrin, Milli Vanilli, Shawn Colvin, Norah Jones. Hell, even Homer Simpson got one. It’s a night for the industry to celebrate itself: reward the acts who sell a lot, help keep some bloated industry giants alive for another year and pat themselves on the back. Let Fun. have the awards. They do a better job of representing their music than anything they’ve ever done.

Written by M.

February 11, 2013 at 4:23 pm

This Is Not A Review of My Bloody Valentine’s M B V

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I think like most self-described rock fans, I was curious about the new My Bloody Valentine album. Over the past few years – maybe even a decade? – there are rumours and talk about whatever their followup to Loveless will sound like and it usually all came to naught. You know the story: it’s coming in a few months, just a couple more, it’s on its way we swear. And it’s pushed back, delayed, quietly slinking away without a word.

This weekend the damn thing finally came out. It’s called m b v (all lower case, with spaces) and it crashed their website within minutes. Maybe because it was the only place the damn thing came out on. So the midnight release date got pushed back to something like 3am London time, mid-evening local, and only then could we all pay $16 for the lossy MP3 download, over $20 for a CD copy and still more for a vinyl edition. It’s a presumptive price: more than both of their albums combined on iTunes or Amazon and for lossy tracks, too. So much for Perfect Sound Forever.

But then, isn’t MBV frontman Kevin Shields supposed to be a sound-obsessed man? Recently, he went back to the 1/2″ master reels to make a new remaster/mix of Loveless. And the new album makes great pains to tell you they recorded on analog equipment. Analog! Even Steve Albini uses digital stuff these days.

The phrase Labour of Love will get used a lot in reviews. So will words like Dedicated and Perfectionist. After all,  Shields is known for his obsessive quest for interesting sounds. It’s why his guitars use strange open tunings, played with the tremolo all the way down and through amps cranked to ungodly volumes. It’s why there are stories about him fretting over amp placement when recording and using something like 30 pedals when playing live.

In a way, every MBV album, even the EPs are part of his quest to find the right sound. Just listen to the progression over the years. On Isn’t Anything, they sound more like actual guitars, but are played with reckless abandon: the chorus of (When You’re Awake) You’re Still In A Dream is a guitar riff rolling out of control. On the EPs, they range between dreamy fuzzscapes (Drive It All Over Me) and fuzzy dreamscapes (Feed Me With Your Kiss). By the time they recorded Loveless, their most famous album, they’d expanded their sound with new textures and sounds, but it was still largely the same old bag of tricks.

The guitars were massive, the vocals were half-whispered and the drums were always there, pounding away in the background someplace. Sometimes everything sounds all screwy, sometimes it sounds like there’s an acoustic guitar added for texture and most of the time, I’m not even sure the vocals are there for anything but texture. I’m not sure anyone’s ever said this as a criticism, but Loveless is one of the most Critic’s Albums I can think of: it’s the sort of thing people will put on a soundtrack if they want to seem arty and hip, the kind of album cool taste makers always keep in eyesight and the kind of thing almost nobody under 20 rocks out to. It’s a fine album and it’s even a fun one in doses, but it’s been praised and highlights and given so many props from so many critics, both self- and professionally appointed, that it’s assumed some mythic status, where it’s the peak of shoegaze and British rock and that whole scene which more or less vanished once Oasis and Blur started putting butts in seats.

So maybe it wasn’t much of a wonder that a followup took so damn long. Music was already changing when Loveless came out in 1991. It hit stores less than two months after Nirvana’s Nevermind came out and in case you’re wondering, everyone under 20 still rocks out to that album. In a burst, alternative rock shifted away from these kind of records and towards the kind of thing Frank Black and Kurt Cobain excelled at: rawer, less polished and infinitely more aggressive, even if their approach to guitars wasn’t all that different (like Shields, Cobain was no stranger to pedals).

Part of the reason Loveless is so beloved by critics is because it was the last of its kind: MBV didn’t have a followup and the scene faded away; Lush, the only other shoegaze band of note, turned to power pop for their final album. So the stories about albums readied, then abandoned, the reunions and gigs without revealing new material and constant promises that yes, the followup was coming, helped give this album its legendary status, the work going into topping it making the original seem more and more impressive. With so much attention paid to a record, making it must have been a daunting task.

So, then, what do we have with m b v? We have an album packed with expectations and hype. It’s in demand enough to crash websites and to charge a premium price for. We have the thing Shields and the rest of the band have been working on for years: if not since the 1990s, then at least over the past few years. And what we have is more of the same: melancholy, throbbing, fuzzy rock. It’s interesting sometimes – I kind of like the warbling guitar on If I Am – but mostly it’s rather dull. The deeper I get into the album, the more I expect some kind of a punchline: people paid upwards of $16 for this?! You mean to tell me it took 20 years to re-create Loveless? Well, I suppose analog equipment can be hard to find these days.

Mostly though, m b v feels like pretension. Just like it’s predecessor, this is an album made for the critics: there’s enough texture, depth and scope here to satisfy two, maybe three editors at Pitchfork, where my sources tell me, one critic gave the album a perfect 10 before going limp and refusing all food and water, craving only another listen of the album. But I find it rather lifeless and tepid: it doesn’t offer much of anything new and when it does, it’s on tracks like Nothing Is, which is little more than a loop played for a minute and a half. That’s a fun trick when it works, but Brian Eno did it a hell of a lot better.

And maybe that’s the best way to really sum this whole thing up: it sounds like something Eno and Fripp would’ve cooked up back in the 70s if they were into taking downers and wine, not occultism and art. But it’s pretty much par for the MBV course: lots of swirling guitars, lots of breathy vocals and, I imagine, a whole lot of praise from the music critics. In the last 20 years, a lot has evolved and changed in the alt-rock community. It’s too bad MBV hasn’t.

Ed.’s noteFlashfact is on “vacation,” as one email put it. And until (if?) it comes back, I’ve moved Mark on Music here. Until further notice, it’ll show up on North of the 400 every Tuesday.

Written by M.

February 4, 2013 at 11:15 pm