(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Recording review - Jimi Hendrix, People, Hell, and Angels (2013)

Digging up Jimi's bones, one more time

Jimi Hendrix’s posthumous musical fragments are more plentiful than pieces of the True Cross. While they probably have better provenance than Christ’s relics, we’re still picking over Hendrix’s bones. American culture has always been celebrity-obsessed and Jimi is a perfect candidate: he was charismatic, he transformed the electric guitar and he died young with too much potential. James Dean, Lenny Bruce and John Keats may have all been lost before their time, but unlike them, it’s not enough for us to revisit the work Hendrix released during his lifetime. We can’t let him rest in peace because three studio records and one live album can’t meet our insatiable need for more. Perhaps First Rays of the New Rising Sun or its progenitors Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge might fit into the canon of legitimate recordings released after his death because that was what he was working on at the end. But his music has been packaged and repackaged so many times over the years that it’s lost its impact. By the time Crash Landing (1975) came out, producer Alan Douglas resorted to tarting up the tracks with overdubs, taking them out of their original context. It seems like every inch of audio tape Hendrix touched has been released on one questionable project or another.

Eventually, his family formed Experience Hendrix LLC and took legal control of his musical legacy. Their initial release, the 1997 recreation of First Rays of the New Rising Sun, was very respectful of the songs and Hendrix’s intent. Longtime studio partner Eddie Kramer brought credibility and a fine ear to the project. They followed with South Saturn Delta and Valleys of Neptune, offering cleanly mastered sound but not much new material.

And that’s the problem. The latest release, People, Hell and Angels, is carefully described as a dozen previously unreleased “performances.” Strictly speaking, that’s probably true, although a few of the parts may have been scavenged to create earlier Frankenstein releases. As good as they sound, songs like “Earth Blues”, “Hear My Train A-Comin’”, and “Crash Landing” don’t highlight any new subtleties in Hendrix’s playing. A purist can tell that “Earth Blues” sounds more stripped down than the take on Rainbow Bridge, but the playing is completely familiar and his singing features the some of the same vocal phrasing as the earlier album.

Any rational reviewer would have to ask, “Why bother with yet another post-mortem release?” Unfortunately, the left side of my brain can’t harsh the buzz in the pleasure centers of my right hemisphere. Like an addict, I can’t turn away from the novelty promise of “new” Hendrix songs. The liner notes offer tempting details to tantalize me: Stephen Stills plays bass on “Somewhere”, elements of “Inside Out” would later evolve into “Ezy Rider”, and several of the songs feature a second guitarist, giving Hendrix room for more exploration. The first listen provides the kick of appreciation. The smooth flow of blues-funk jams suggests a coherent intent, where the lazy groove of “Somewhere” sets up the psychedelic intensity of “Hear My Train A-Comin’”. Then I savor the work-in-progress feel of “Izabella”, as his Gypsy Sun & Rainbows ensemble struggles to lock into the stiff beat.

Let Me Move You” and “Mojo Man” are surprising turns, with Hendrix sliding into a sideman role to back other players. The former track showcases saxman and singer Lester Youngblood on a solid blues rocker. This harks back to Hendrix’s work with R&B groups like the Isley Brothers, Curtis Knight and the Squires, and James Brown. His guitar shred sounds great next to the wailing sax, but there’s not much interaction. It’s like the tune was built around his guitar track, so it misses his normal call and response between the music and vocals. The stronger “Mojo Man” also features a sweet horn section, this time with Hendrix’s guitar lines integrated into the soul funk jam. His friends, Albert and Arthur Allen brought the song to him as part of their Ghetto Fighters band project. After his death, several songs would be released featuring the Allen twins on backup vocals. “Mojo Man” was shelved in 1969, but he decided to work with them on it about a year later, seamlessly meshing in his overdubs to add his own inimitable magic to the track. While it’s a bit of an outlier from the rest of the album, the guitar is instantly recognizable and it’s one of the most polished pieces included.

After gorging myself on the album for a couple of days, I start to come down. With a more critical ear, I wonder if Hendrix would have wanted these sketches, scraps and practice sessions to overshadow his completed work. During his lifetime he took immense care with his projects, working out the smallest details and planning out the perfect arrangements. People, Hell and Angels joins with the long line of posthumous releases as a reverse memento mori; rather than reminding us that death is inevitable, they cling desperately to a life long gone. I don’t blame his family and the Experience Hendrix LLC for releasing this latest collection. They certainly deserve to benefit from our obsession if anyone does. It’s the fans like me that are responsible.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Recording review: Merle Haggard and the Strangers, Swinging Doors reissue (1966/2013)

Haggard at his honky-tonk best in a classic reissue

"Cui bono?” When a record label dredges old albums out of the vault, it’s pretty obvious who benefits. Merle Haggard’s Swinging Doors (1966) is one of four new vinyl reissues from Capitol Records, and it doesn’t take a cynic to figure that it’s an easy investment on their part. The album marked his first time at the top of the Billboard country album charts and it featured a couple of strong singles. But even while I question the label’s motives, I can appreciate that the record showcases Haggard at his honky-tonk best. His later songs, like the anti-counterculture “Okie From Muskogee”, may have helped define his persona, but these simple, heartfelt offerings stand on the bedrock of classic country music.

The mastering on this release is crystal clear, but I still hear these tunes with the record hiss of my grandmother’s old Magnavox stereo. Her country albums were old and out of step with the rock music I loved, but a few artists like Haggard and Johnny Cash sounded nothing like hick caricatures. Instead, they were men who had lived and dealt with real problems. Listening to “If I Could Be Him” today, I relish in Haggard’s stoic tone at being the short side in a lovers’ triangle. His acceptance is tinged with pain, but sidesteps self-pity:
I know that you could never trade his love for mine
And I know my dreams can never be
Cause no way can wrong be right
But I’d give the world tonight
If I could just be him instead of me 
The brief guitar solo matches his phrasing, almost sighing in the pauses.

He visits this theme again later on the album with “No More You And Me”, summing up his situation with a painful economy: “There’s you and him/ Me and loneliness/ But no more you and me.” This track comes closest to Nashville polish but still avoids the saccharine strings favored by those studios. In fact, Haggard helped mainstream the classic Bakersfield sound, which rejected syrupy Nashville production for a rawer, guitar-centric approach. Swinging Doors is filled with great examples of this sub-genre, from the riff-driven Telecaster on “The Longer You Wait” to the smooth lead trade-offs between the guitar and the steel on the title track. Following in Buck Owens’ footsteps, “I Can’t Stand Me” even toys with rock ‘n’ roll, letting the twangy vocals and double-stop fills provide the country credibility. Swinging Doors also tosses in a novelty tune, “The Girl Turned Ripe”, which features a rollicking tempo and gleeful vocals. Although it probably worked in its time, it hasn’t aged well. The pre-feminist chauvinism is dated and ‘ripe’ has a different connotation these days.

Leading off the second side, “The Bottle Let Me Down”, is probably the most well-known song on the album. “Couldn’t drink enough to keep you off my mind”; these songs are a staple in country music, but this one is a perfect storm. It has a good narrative arc, clever lines and Ralph Mooney’s singing steel guitar. Haggard’s wife, Bonnie Owens, sweetens his rueful tale with understated harmonies that round out the tune.

This range of material, from tales of quiet suffering to the gospel country of “High On A Hilltop”, shows off the versatility of the backing band. That shouldn’t be surprising; the Strangers’ line up serves as a Who’s Who of the great studio and touring players of the day: James Burton, Roy Nichols, Glen Campbell, and Glen Hardin to name a few. If Campbell is the only one you recognize, you’ve heard the others playing with Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Gram Parsons, John Denver and more.

Capitol may be looking for some easy money on an old album that’s already paid for itself, but it’s a treat to revisit Haggard’s early days. Forget the pop-flavored twang of today’s country music and go back to the source.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

History lesson: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)

Vulnerable brashness is still transgressive

More than 20 years ago, Liz Phair drifted into Chicago’s indie scene and tried to find her place. Surrounded by bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and Codeine, Phair shopped her home-made “Girly Sound” cassettes and built up some hype. After a failed attempt to develop her demos with John Henderson’s label, Feel Good All Over, she connected with Matador Records in 1992 and moved forward on what would become Exile in Guyville. The title referenced an Urge Overkill song, “Goodbye to Guyville” and reflected some of Phair’s distance from the testosterone heavy scene. But Phair borrowed that masculine energy to move beyond the classic female singer/songwriter trope. Her tight guitar hooks and catchy lyrics exuded rock credibility and she offered plenty of brazen words and hard looks. But even as she played the rocker role, she couldn’t bring herself to treat the songs shallowly. She wrote too truthfully and her vulnerability leaked past the sarcasm and defiant facade. From the opening song, she blended softness with a harder edge and set the stage for the whole album.

“6’ 1”” starts with smoothly meshed drums and guitar, supporting a soaring melodic bass line. Phair’s pitch drifts a bit as she whittles away her gigolo subject. Despite her relatively flat tone, her anger burns brightly, “And I love my life/ And I hated you”. This kind of personal reaction would make a great punk song, but the polish of the arrangement gives the tune a more nuanced impact. This defines one of the two thematic poles for the album. Stuck in rock ‘n’ roll Guyville, Phair can’t quite decide between psychologically dissecting her man-boy peers and playing drag king to beat them at their own game. Either way, she grinds her axe against a strawman stand-in. He’s the kind of guy that she understands all too well. In places, it seems a bit heavy handed to be effective, but too many real guys heard the frank girl in “Flower” and missed the commentary, reacting with lust. And it was songs like “Flower” that gave Exile in Guyville its power. The sharpest of these, “Dance of the Seven Veils”, came after the first few tracks of solid rock grooves. If those songs gave a sense of Phair’s independence, “Dance” shocked with the casual profanity of its chorus. The verses have a loose, sing-song feel made creepier by her low-affect vocals. Then she switches to her higher register to feign a kind of sweet femininity. In a dreamy tone, she sings, “I ask because I’m a real cunt in spring/ You can rent me by the hour”. Even 20 years later, this feels transgressive. Today, women may be overtly sexual and their language can be coarse, but this offhand use of the word “cunt” is still jarring. Her deadpan delivery makes the sarcasm clear, but there’s a subtext of accusation. This would come to influence a host of other performers like Mary Prankster and Alanis Morissette, but Phair’s complex mix of damaged weakness and uncompromising frankness remain impressive.

Phair’s songs resonated with national critics, taking high slots in a number of year-end lists. Her original blend of posturing and over-sharing made a strong impression and stood out from the crowd. In spite of the album’s commercial success, or maybe because of it, there was a fair amount of backlash from her fellow Chicago rockers. Phair describes that time as being “kind of at war with indie” where indie was fueled by sour grapes and anger at her criticism of Guyville. It may well have been the feminist challenge in her lyrics that triggered her most vocal critic, recording engineer/music pundit Steve Albini. Reacting to an article by Bill Wyman of the Chicago Reader, Albini seemed to take the album as a personal affront. Writing Phair off as overhyped, it’s telling that his choice epithet is to call her a musical slut, pandering to her audience. Regardless of Albini’s rantings, Exile in Guyville continued to do well with both alternative and mainstream music press.

The album has aged well as modern trends have embraced some of its aesthetics. Low-fi production values, challenging lyrical themes and raw vocals are pervasive in today’s hip, small-scale releases. But Phair’s music still stands out because her short, pithy gems remain tight and compelling. Producer Brad Wood deserves a fair amount of credit, in large part for the decision to record the bass and drums to fit Phair’s vocals and guitar. This gives the arrangements a Japanese perfection: each song is only as busy as it needs to be, allowing subtlety without excess. The weakest element is Phair’s voice – she has a tendency to drone and speak-sing – but this lack of polish contributes a perception of artistic sincerity.

The pace of the album is another factor in its success. The songs flow between catchy rockers like “Help Me Mary” and introspective musings like meditative swaddle of “Explain It to Me”. Phair has credited the album’s flow to its inspiration, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St.. In numerous interviews, she’s drawn thematic and pacing parallels between the two albums, but the linkage seems tenuous at best. Even if that remains a better story than an analytic lens, she does bring a taste of Mick’s brash confidence and plenty of Keith’s guitar feel, especially on songs like “Mesmerizing”. This is one of the best tracks on the album. The choppy, repeated guitar riff of the opening sets up a “Gimme Shelter” groove. Later in the song, the comparison becomes even more apt. The guitar chords and the organ slide into place with a shaker rhythm and a sweet, savant guitar lead settles over the top. It turns out to be one of the longer tracks on the album, but it still delivers a punch with economy and grace.

Even after 20 years, Exile in Guyville is a staple in my listening rotation, along with Phair’s follow-up Whip Smart (1994). The mix of well-constructed songs, sly commentary, humor and surprise keep these albums relevant. Unfortunately, her later recordings haven’t done as well. The further she’s gotten from her Girly Sound days and close contact with Guyville, the less spirit her music seems to have. 2003’s Liz Phair proved to be critical downfall. After conflicts with Capitol Records, she bowed to the pressure to work with hit songwriting team, The Matrix. The resulting pop-oriented songs sabotaged her artistic credibility. Albini probably felt vindicated as many critics and fans decried her for selling out. But Phair’s later missteps don’t negate the magic of her debut album and vulnerable challenge she offered.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Recording review - Steven Wilson, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) (2013)

Prog polymath delivers a stunning solo album

It’s so tempting to be jealous of prog-nerd Steven Wilson. As the post-rock Golden Child, he seems to have it all. It was one thing when he built Porcupine Tree from a one-man, psychedelic in-joke to one of the most significant progressive rock bands, extending his own multi-instrumental skills to collaborate with brilliant players. Then he parlayed his recording experience into producing other bands like Opeth and Anathema, developing a reputation as an engineering iconoclast. When Robert Fripp entrusted him to remix the King Crimson back catalog, it led to additional work with Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. So, while his band and solo work has been defining the new directions of prog music, he’s also been quietly weaving himself into its history.

His latest solo album, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), bridges the past and the present, featuring the engineering talent of famed producer, Alan Parsons. Parsons is well known for his role in creating the tonal magic of the early to mid-1970s with Pink Floyd and others. Speaking to Anil Prasad’s Innerviews, Wilson casually talked about contacting Parsons for the project: “Luckily, he knew who I was and was already familiar with some of my surround work.” With all of his unshakeable confidence and stature, Wilson ought to be insufferable, but his overarching focus on the music and his finely tuned ear mark him as a savant rather than a show-off.

On The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), he turns that ear towards the classic prog sounds of King Crimson, Genesis and Yes. There was a sublime alchemy in that era, where the albums blended a sense of exploration with musical virtuosity. Later, the scene became bloated and self-indulgent, but, like his inspirations, Wilson’s arrangements are tight and directed. The six songs alternate long voyages with shorter, more thoughtful pieces, creating a structural dynamic that matches the sonic range of the album. The pieces are based on a set of ghost stories written by Wilson and illustrator Hajo Mueller. A book containing these stories is included in the deluxe version of the album, along with a four disc set (CD, demo CD, 5.1 Surround sound mix DVD-V/Blu-Ray and instrumental Blu-Ray). Even without the stories, though, the moody surrealism comes through in the music.

The album starts with “Luminol,” a long track that breaks down into a set of vignettes. Opening with a confrontational punch, Nick Beggs’ bass propels the tune forward like a relentless pack of wolves. Splashes of guitar launch the song into a Jeff Beck style jazz fusion jam, complete with a wicked flute solo fluttering by at a breakneck pace. The driving beat locks up momentarily for a freeze-frame, harmonized Yes vocal phrase:
Here we all are
Born into a struggle
To come so far
But end up returning to dust
The song evolves away from the headlong rush into some rhythmically interesting developments before returning the theme. A choppy riff resolves and fades down, setting up a major transition into a looser progressive section that evokes Crosby, Stills and Nash, with sweet harmonies and a floating Stephen Stills guitar lead. The diffuse feel is a relaxing contrast to the pressure of the beginning, but it gives way to an art rock procession reminiscent of early King Crimson. Eventually, Guthrie Govan’s shredding lead guitar pushes the song to resurrect its opening drive. “Luminol” demonstrates Wilson’s vision: it’s full of allusions to the past, but features a crisp, modern edge.

The longer pieces use their larger scope to develop evocative soundscapes. “The Watchmaker” evolves a mellow, acoustic groove into a crystalline fusion before resolving into art rock experimentalism. But “The Holy Drinker” proves more interesting, giving all the players room to shine. Trippy space rock is accented with an angular, spiky lead line. Adam Holzman’s keyboards lay down support for Theo Travis’ free jazz leads and Marco Minnemann’s percussion is phenomenal. After the vocal section, the song runs through a tight, harmonized set of riffs followed by jazz flute before collapsing into an unbalanced, ambient interlude. Despite the lull, the mutated fills suggest hidden threats and dangerous currents, which are revealed with a grinding attack of doom.

The shorter pieces are more tethered, with “Drive Home” and “The Pin Drop” coming closest to Wilson’s earlier work. They feature Porcupine Tree’s lush orchestration and his typical vocal detachment. But the title track that closes the album is my favorite of these three. A tentative piano line provides a Radiohead texture supporting Wilson’s raw vocal. Parson’s engineering is beautiful, preserving sonic detail as layers slowly accrue. The track breathes, slowly blooming into life, even as the lyrics crack with pain and loss. Minnemann’s contribution is subtle until the drums kick in at the five minute mark, when the song fully opens into acceptance. It’s a strong resolution made sweeter by the solo piano reprise of the theme after the fade.

The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is an amazing album. Emotional without being maudlin and technical without being cold, Wilson’s ghost stories offer a multi-faceted view of mortality and meaning. Whether you surrender to the flow or engage with the twisting musical dimensions, it’s a wild, surprising journey. Why be jealous of talent? Just respect the gift.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Recording review - Iceage, You're Nothing (2013)

 Primordial noise from a new generation of punk

The scene is littered with pop-punk bands trying to summon a flicker of bygone fire to animate their pseudo-angst and Denmark’s Iceage responds, “You’re Nothing.” Proving that punk, real hardcore punk, has nothing to do with catchy hooks, You’re Nothing is a muddled mix of hard edges, flailing guitars and inarticulate singing. Like the Sex Pistols or Black Flag, it’s easy to tell that this is no artistic pose; the band is so invested that they almost seem to resent our attention. From classic punk to post-punk thrash, their music is all straight from the gut. Front man Elias Bender Rønnenfelt sells this with raw vocal energy that colors the songs. Sometimes his voice cracks with emo suffering, slurs at the edge of exhaustion or exudes a fiery rage, but it always rings true.

The album’s earlier tracks evoke the sweltering shows I remember from 1983, packed with slamming bodies and ringing ears. In particular, the ironically titled “Ecstasy” is utterly satisfying. The bass-heavy grind of the verse is fatalistic and the monotone vocals reach for detachment, but can’t hide the bruising. Then the band opens up into an up-tempo, West Coast drive that suggests a memory of joy. But the moment is elusive, serving only to accentuate the pain. In the pause before the verse returns, Rønnenfelt’s tired, hoarse voice locks onto the loss, “Pressure, pressure/ Oh God, no!/ Pressure.” As the band see-saws between these extremes with frantic slashes of distortion and relentless drums, the guitars whine like demonic power tools. The song begs for the physical relief of a mosh pit.

Iceage follows this with another simple thrasher, “Coalition,” and then breaks their pace with the moody “Interlude.” Beginning with the ambient hum of amplifiers, a light drone and fluttering vibrations, it evolves into a programmatic piece. Full of subtle texture and heavy tension, it feels like the soundtrack to a set of implacable events unfolding before us. It’s a cool sonic moment but it’s unconnected to the rest of the album. Perhaps it’s intended to separate the straight ahead opening tracks from the more diverse songs that follow.

Sonic Youth-style noise rock (“Burning Hand”) and turgid post-punk (“Morals”) let the band demonstrate a nice range of sound, but You’re Nothing finds its sweet spot with a smattering of Midwestern punker tunes. Evoking a mix of Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, “In Haze” serves as the best example. Chaotic guitar jangle dances around Dan Kjær Nielsen’s busy drum flail while Rønnenfelt’s flat singing is full of snarl and rage. A recurring guitar riff offers a token taste of melody against the pounding tide of noise. Compared to “Ecstasy”, the vocals are all but incomprehensible. Occasional phrases sneak out between the mix and the accent, but the catharsis and emotion are more important than the words. Finally, the song dashes itself against the rocky shore of its ending. The guitar’s last detuned chord twitches reflexively in collapse rather than surrender.

Truth be told, there’s nothing really new here. Countless other bands worked these veins of nihilism long before the guys in Iceage were even born. But that’s irrelevant. Punk strips away artifice, denies ego-driven invention and pits us against waves of primordial noise. Iceage is right, we are nothing, but in the center of this storm, we are together.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Recording review - Team Spirit, Team Spirit (2013)

Thrashy pop has just enough polish

Has Ayad Al Adhamy found what he's looking for? He quietly deserted his keyboards in Michael Angelakos' Passion Pit to pick up a guitar and get his thrash on. His new band, Team Spirit, couldn't be more different than Passion Pit's emotionally-layered. synth-driven sound. The Team Spirit EP wastes no time resetting expectations. Chiming guitars kick off a raw, uptempo pop masterpiece with "Jesus, He's Alright!". The mix of feedback and roughly screamed vocals give the verse a hint of the Cure's "Pictures of You", although the high energy pace leaves the comparison in the dust. The only drawback was that I had an immune response on my first listen, hearing it as an extreme Christian rocker:
You looked so good
And you're alright
Come and save me, save me
 After hearing Al Adhamy describe himself as a devout atheist, I had to go back and listen again. Now the more I hear it, it sounds like someone in "personal" relationship with Christ. In that light, the chorus reminds me of South Park's "Christian Rock Hard" episode. Regardless of how you hear the message, the breakneck punch is infectious.

The five tracks on the EP consistently deliver a steady stream of thrashing pop even as they vary the flavor: a retro touch of Sweet here, some J. Geils there. Their ace in the hole is their ear for the perfect amount of polish. The band plays with abandon, but the arrangements betray an attention to detail.  "Teenage Love" shows a great balance between rock credibility and power pop. The flailing opening gives way to a heavy rhythms adorned with tons of overdrive guitar. But as soon as the vocals come in, the guitars slip down into a light chop that lets the lyrics stand out. The bridge drops the dynamics into a tight drum/guitar partnership. Where a lesser band would settle for a simpler punch and run, Team Spirit breaks the song up into sections giving each a nuanced yin-yang of riff and grind.

The loose, joyful feel of this music may be the perfect antidote to Passion Pit's introspective self-obsession. but time will tell whether this is a temporary distraction or a longer term project. A five song, 17 minute EP is a fairly low pressure environment. I'm looking forward to hearing whether the band can maintain this level of quality for a whole album. For that matter, if I can catch them at SXSW next week, I'll see how they fill out a longer set. I'm guessing that Team Spirit shines in a club setting.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

SXSW - Plan of attack

Long before I started writing music reviews, South By Southwest (SXSW) was on my radar. As someone who loves live music, it wasn't just a music event, it signified a Mecca of entertainment. Just as Frank Zappa satirically summed up 1967 San Francisco as where "the bands all live together" ("Who Needs the Peace Corp?", We're Only In It For the Money), I have this idealistic vision of SXSW as a place where impromptu jams spring up all over the place. Sure, it's a naïve fantasy, but regardless of the reality, I'd be like a kid in a candy store.

If you're not familiar with SXSW, it started as a local music festival back in 1987, but quickly defined Austin as a magnet for musicians and the industry. Now it's grown to an outlandish size, with Interactive media, Film, and Music segments lasting a week and a half. Bands from all over the world come out to create some buzz, make connections, and maybe catapult their careers. Aside from all of the official shows, there are countless unofficial shows sponsored by record labels, media outlets, and others.

This year, I'm finally going to make it down to Austin for the festival. Writing for Spectrum Culture qualified me for press credentials and I'm eager to take full advantage of my time there. One thing I've quickly worked out though is that SXSW is a lot like the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Just as GABF featured more the 2700 beers from almost 600 breweries last year, there's too much for one person to take in during SXSW. Dozens of bands can be playing at the same time at a host of scattered locations. So a plan of attack is vital.

At GABF, I honed my strategy over years of practice and found the best approach is to pick a small list of targets, aim for those, but let the fates intervene. So, I might plan on dropping by New Glarus Brewing, Lost Abbey, Dogfish Head, and my friends at Alaskan, but I'm ready to take advantage of a great beer tip along the way. I'm planning a similar approach with SXSW. I have a small number of bands I really want to catch, but I also expect to improvise my schedule a fair amount. So far, my shortlist includes Local Natives on Wednesday, Flaming Lips on Thursday, and Valleys on Saturday. Of course there are plenty of other shows I'd like to catch and a couple of interview opportunities I'm hoping to firm up, but I'm certain that no matter where I am, the music will be ringing in my ears.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Recording review - Colin Edwin | Jon Durant, Burnt Belief (2012)

 A winding trip through space and mind

Colin Edwin is most well-known for his moody bass work with the progressive Porcupine Tree, but his side projects have tackled contexts from ambient to metal. On Burnt Belief, he partners with guitarist Jon Durant to explore a mix of ethereal space rock and multicultural new age instrumentals. Edwin's expressive playing forms the foundation, but Durant's sense of texture colors each song, creating unique settings.

The early tracks on the album suggest Ozric Tentacles, with sinuous bass, keyboard fills, and engaging syncopation. "Altitude" fades in with a pulsating, liquid ripple. Once underway, fluting synths and a steady beat create a sense of movement. The song hints at the quiet opening of Porcupine Tree's "Arriving Somewhere, But Not Here", but with a more fluid bass line. The guitar soars over the top periodically before dropping back to let the song catch its breath. As the title suggests, the piece clambers ever higher, but with the untethered finish, the song overshoots the top and drifts free to unknown destinations.

From here, Burnt Belief slides into the percussion-driven "Impossible Senses". Hints of tabla and polyrhythm give the song a worldbeat flair. Once again, the smooth guitar meshes with Edwin's slinky bass, but this time it takes on a greater sense of purpose. The repetition of the melodic theme becomes a mantra. Each return reworks the idea a little further, like an expanding mosaic that eventually reveals a larger pattern.

From these spacy beginnings, the album moves into new age realms, with ambient shimmers and fog. The epic showpiece track "Uncoiled" starts with muted swells. Low bells and taps flicker, like a dark house settling around you at midnight. Lightly jarring drips of piano ripple in the hazy darkness, creating a mix of expectancy and disquiet. Wandering the halls, a previously unnoticed doorway comes into focus. Slowly opening, a glowing desert is revealed, complete with Native American flute and soft percussion. Stepping into this new world, sparse elements add to the unreal sensation: metallic harping, echoing piano, and restrained bass. The song eventually coalesces into a hypnotic procession of guitar and bass that continues to support the out-of-body vibe.

Most of the music on Burnt Belief is stellar. Durant and Edwin are natural collaborators. Each voice stands strong without eclipsing the other. There are, however, two weaknesses with the project: one conceptual and the other musical. The duo presents the album as a contrast between faith and reason, inspired in part by Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails, an account of a doomsday UFO cult in the 1950s. But the songs don't reflect that theme and it proves distracting. Ironically, the one track that might draw on that idea suffers from its sense of discontinuity. "The Weight of Gravity" lacks the coherence of the other songs as it mashes up too many unrelated moods. Its slow, meditative start creates a sweat lodge atmosphere. This arbitrarily transforms into a futuristic, electro-psych groove with a sense of purpose which clashes with the opening relaxation. The further drift into an organic fusion jam is less jarring, but lacks any clear sense of flow. While the intention might have been to show the conflict between religion and science, the pair miss their mark.

Despite that, Burnt Belief delivers enough beauty that its flaws can be overlooked. The thoughtful bass line and delicately interleaved guitar and piano on the closing track, "Arcing Towards Morning", cleanses the palate and lets the album end in moment of clarity.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)