Thursday, January 5, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 1/6/12 - Guided By Voices and Sun Ra

By this point, indie-rock reunions have sprung into an unsurprising, even expected occurrence. It’s becoming as dependable as the changing of the seasons that every few months a defunct, well-loved, much-missed band will be getting back together, possibly for a tour on the strength of a classic album to be played in sequence. Folks these days either choose to dig this phenomenon, dismiss the practice, or take it on a case by case basis (that’s my position), but time was that the very idea of indie reunions sharply divided the small segment of the populace who cared about the bands in question, half salivating like Pavlovian canines at the prospect of being able to glimpse a group that broke up six days after they discovered them, the other half incensed at the unadulterated nerve of a revered band daring to soil their legacy by getting back together obviously for the bucks and recognition. This latter attitude was/is more prevalent in folks that haven’t yet been stricken with the harsh reality that grownups under late capitalism have to make a living somehow; either get the band back together or take that job as an assistant manager at Home Depot. Maybe majoring in Russian Lit wasn’t such a smart idea. Personally, I find reunion activity far less bothersome than stumbling onto a (once) meaningfully resonant song being used to sell buckets of fried chicken, but maybe that’s just my hang up. I’d actually site two indie reunions as the impeccable yardsticks upon which all others must be judged: Mission of Burma (one of the greatest of all rock bands finally getting something resembling their due) and Dinosaur Jr. (in two words; emotional healing). It was also huge that both units recorded new material that registered as more than worthy of their storied reputations. This is the tack now being attempted by the “classic” lineup of Guided by Voices, and it’s a smart maneuver. This incarnation of the band featured vocalist/songwriter extraordinaire Robert Pollard, guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell, drummer Kevin Fennell and bassist Greg Demos, and in the mid-‘90s they proved an absolute machine of disheveled song form spread over an impressive spate of now revered LPs; ambitious, sloppy and angelic while obviously hung-over and reeking of cigarettes. Crowned by the press as ambassadors of low-fi, like their other American counterparts Pavement and Sebadoh they didn’t really fit (or quickly outgrew) that descriptor. Instead GBV in their Scat/early Matador run felt like an improbably solid set of classic rock played through an AM radio and then run through a Cuisinart, the whole mess then stitched together with day-glow yarn by a clove-smoking corduroy-clad freckle-faced seamstress. The results were familiar yet fractured. And classic-era Guided by Voices was very much about records, so any rejoining of forces that didn’t include new material would’ve been anti-climactic at best. Their new album LET’S GO EAT THE FACTORY has just been released, but please don’t sleep on the DOUGHNUT FOR A SNOWMAN 7-inch that hit racks last month (last year!!!) amid all the holiday hoopla. The A-side title track is a brilliant piece of ‘60s psyche-tinged and Anglo-inspired pop foofery, led in by cheap lilting flutes before settling into a snapshot of Move-inspired guitar glisten. Quality foof is always at a premium, and while the 1:44 of “Doughnut…” is a bit (or a lot) of a tease, this specific incarnation of GBV was always a teaser of the highest order; part of the rascally appeal of the band was how they would frustrate expectations across the board, not just in song lengths but in the half-dozen or so pop/rock modes of the songwriting and delivery. It’s nice to know this bunch is able to tap back into an operational groove quite similar to their mid-‘90s modus operandi. Regardless, the rainbow-sugar ache of “Doughnut…” is right up my alley, so I’m not carping one teensy bit. But the flipside really conjures the GBV or yore with four tracks spread across its wax. “So High”’s forty seconds is the excerpted flute bit from the A-side in its entirety, and that’s a fine gesture. But the manner in which all of the brief passages blend into a tattered and inspired collage of fragmentary song spirits really proves that these gents are totally on top of just what made them such a valuable collective. Nothing hits the 90 second mark, and “Fish on My Leg” even includes the lyric “clown prince of the menthol trailer”, which GBV diehards obviously know was the title of a 1994 EP released on Domino. That the tune feels like it could’ve been recorded as far back as ‘87’s SANDBOX (and yes that’s definitely pre-“classic” era) gooses my gizzard but good. B-side closer “One Two Three Four” is an outstanding bit of Tobin Sprout’s widely underrated song craft (check out his ’96 solo-joint CARNIVAL BOY if you don’t believe me), sounding like a piece of ephemera from '80s-era R.E.M. if the Athens boys had somehow been more influenced by The Lemon Pipers and less smitten with the Byrds/Velvets. It’s twee but still stately, and it’s a fantastic closer to a bite sized morsel of GBV’s reignited essence. Asking for another BEE THOUSAND is ludicrous, and it’s too early to really gauge LET’S GO EAT THE FACTORY’s level of quality (initially it feels great but somewhat lesser in roughly equal returns), but if they manage to stick together they might just prove capable of knocking out another masterpiece. Here’s hoping.

The music and art of Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount aka Sun Ra is one of the truly unique gifts of the 20th century. Often categorized as belonging to the avant-garde/free/experimental wing of jazz music’s complex architecture mainly due to the mammoth discography of his indefatigable and often downright remarkable (not to mention improbable) big-band the Arkestra, the man was simply unable to be roped in by the structural rigidity of any one genre. And of all the musicians that defined the original avant-jazz impulse, he was essentially the last (save for perhaps Albert Ayler) to be widely accepted and canonized as a master of advanced improvisational strategies, though this doesn’t mean he’s close to getting his stately mug immortalized on a postage stamp; a dozen years into a fresh millennium and nearly two decades since his death Sun Ra can still be a polarizing figure. And it’s not just dastardly moldy conservative figs that are planting sticks firmly in the ossified mud of convention. Some drastically serious fringe sound connoisseurs persist in decrying Ra’s inherent theatricality and mystical eccentricity as being inferior to the far more direct recording/performance approach of (for one example) fellow avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. Of course this po-faced attitude misses the point of the music’s multi-faceted pleasures by a couple thousand miles, but if the uncomprehending or disapproving didn’t hinder Sun Ra while he was alive then it shouldn’t get under the skin of his fans in the present; the fathoms deep imagination and personality of such an uncompromisingly brilliant figure will likely set off the killjoy buzzers in those ruffled by his charms for decades to come. In 1992 Evidence Records commenced a beautifully done reissue program that combined a vital batch of previously quite rare Arkestra releases onto twofer CDs, a project that culminated in ’96 with the appearance of the double-disc compilation THE SINGLES, an endeavor of heavy, loving toil that made it abundantly clear just how splendidly eclectic Sun Ra was from the very start. Upon absorbing THE SINGLES first disc, one aspect that many youthful partisans of the Arkestra needed to wrap their lobes around was just how deeply Ra embraced ‘50s vocal group dynamics. It’s important to understand that lots of folks during this period were introduced to him through punk rock, or more specifically from the mass exodus into other sonic realms after punk started getting boring or at least overly predictable. It was common knowledge at this point how Sun Ra had evolved out of the pre-bebop tradition, working early with singers like Wynonie Harris, Lil Green and most notably as pianist /arranger for the big-band of Fletcher Henderson. An absolutely crucial figure in the history of “hot” jazz, Henderson’s fine body of work also serves as a direct influence and stylistic anchor for the subsequent decades of Ra as groundbreaker. That the Sun man’s “out” was intrinsically tied to the “in” of Henderson (or Don Redman or Sir Duke his own distinguished self) was no surprise, but a tangible and non-fleeting link to doo-wop was a bit of a head-scratcher at the time, and ultimately in the best way possible. Back in ‘09 Miriam Linna and Billy Miller, the fine husband and wife team that fuels Norton Records’ unending excavations into the worlds of exemplary crud decided to wax up a stupendous group of LPs collecting the fruits of Sun Ra’s “doo-wop-era”, much of it previously unreleased, and anybody that’s a sucker for the undying charge of uncut American brilliance should stock up on all three. INTERPLANETARY MELODIES is a particularly strong entry point, presenting a wealth of distinct material from within a form not particularly noted for its vistas of diversity. The record combines recordings actually issued on extremely limited 45s via Ra’s legendary and vastly significant artist-run label Saturn with unreleased songs captured through a crude but effective ‘50s-era home tape machine, and the mix of relative polish and warm raw sparks is a beauty to behear. The Cosmic Rays display an elevated panache on the opening five tracks, particularly on the two issued takes, and if given the extra promotional muscle from an established label (like Chess, to pick an imprint based in Chicago, Sun Ra’s operational base at the time) they could’ve easily developed into chart material. In contrast to the Rays’ modest but rather obvious pop inclination, The Crystals’ “Honey in the Bee Box” initially feels like a zonked if rather limited lark. Clearly a rehearsal tape, featuring bits of laughter and even audible discussion, it’s only after listening a few times that the participants sly transformation of the tune from an inspired goof to an instant bit of oddball pop brilliance becomes plain. Courtesy of the Nu Sounds comes “Spaceship Lullaby”, a striking piece of Ra arcana that pushes the by now firmly established vocal group sensibility into the realms of pure sci-fi spectacle that eventually came to define the many permutations of the Arkestra; lyrically the song directly references both “Interplanetary Music” from WE TRAVEL THE SPACEWAYS and “Rocket Number Nine Take Off From the Planet Venus” from INTERSTELLAR LOW WAYS, and its slightly over two minute running time justifies the price of INTERPLANETARY MELODIES all by its lonesome. In addition, “Africa” (also by the Nu Sounds) is a crafty piece of exotica influenced grooving that should inspire an appreciative doffing of the lid from any Chico Hamilton fan. But the whole damn show might just be stolen by the two cuts featuring Juanita Rogers. “Teenager’s Letter of Promises”, credited to Rogers and Lynn Hollings with Mr. V’s Five Joys was already available on THE SINGLES, but any appearance from its booming, echo-voiced narrator and tales of adolescent love-battles is a welcome one. However it’s an a cappella rendition from Ms Rogers titled "Love Letters Full Of Promises" that’s enough to make even the most hardened heart lean against a chilly lamppost and shed a tear of commiseration. It’s certainly true that Sun Ra doesn’t play a note on this track, but the manner in which the guy’s spirit infuses the whole of INTERPLANETARY MELODIES, even those moments where he’s in a more limited or advisory role, more than makes up for the lack of abstract firepower that infuses so many of the Arkestra’s masterworks. This record, along with its two equally essential counterparts, spotlights an enormously successful period of growth from one of modern music’s true giants. It’s an indispensible piece of the intricate jigsaw that is the lifework of Le Sony'r Ra, a panorama that’ll easily transcend a couple hundred lifetimes spread throughout the incalcuable reach of galaxies infinite and unknown.

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