October 24, 2016

Scott Walker - Scott 4, 1969

Very deep love for this record, and a very big crush on Scott Walker (no, not that Scott Walker). Walker’s career has been wholly singular, and it’s impossible to accurately describe him, his work, or the thematic ties between such seemingly disparate records without listening to the music itself to make sense of it all. Walker started out in an LA-based pop trio called the Walker Brothers, though confusingly Scott Walker was born Noel Scott Engel, another member of the group was named John Maus (no, not that John Maus), and all three used Walker as their stage names—though for Scott, it bore out over a long and strange career. The group attained enough chart success in the UK that they were briefly considered a sort of inverse Beatles export, with screaming mobs of fans and a Tiger Beat cover to prove it.

As their brief window of fame closed, Scott Walker had embarked on a series of solo records, all called Scott, and all vessels for dark, heavily orchestrated and meticulously arranged pop. Though the music felt traditional and baroque enough to be almost regressive—this was the 60s, after all—the subject matter of the songs was dark and heavily referential. Walker wrote about Joseph Stalin, venereal disease, poverty, addiction, child abuse, and Bergman movies, and he sung the songs in a theatrical, almost Sinatra-esque baritone that belied their subject matter. The joke was always on us: Walker was able to pass off drippingly sentimental delivery as sincerity while barely masking his biting cynicism. His music appealed to the elderly, to the suburban, to those who wanted to cling to tradition as the world and its sounds were being lit on fire. Walker was the Carpenters’ evil twin, with a similarly surgical approach to arrangement and production, and the Bacharach pedigree to back it up. I imagine that Van Dyke Parks, sharing a penchant for thematic exploitation of traditional orchestration, was a fan. Leonard Cohen too.

But for Walker, the real god was Jacques Brel, Belgian master of theatrical showmanship and literary lyricism, and arbiter of chanson as the world knew it. Brel paved the way for Walker’s Trojan horse smuggling of a tortured psyche under a palatable, market-friendly genre. Walker covered Brel nine times on the first three Scott records, with 4 serving as his first entirely self-written release, and it was arguably the best and strangest of his 60s releases. Despite the weight of Walker's persona bearing down on it, 4 attains glimpses of very direct beauty—the weightless "Boy Child" comes to mind—and it readily winks at Morricone's spaghetti Americana. Yet when 4 failed to chart, unlike all his prior releases, Walker asked his label to delete it from their catalog, tried to swing more commercial, failed, and churned out a slew of half-hearted records just to get out of contract. He then all but disappeared for twenty years, reemerging in 1995 with the left-field Tilt as challenging and abstract proof that he had finally allowed his inner demons to break from the confines of polite genre. 2006's even more mutinous The Drift was my introductions to Walker when I was 16—it was the most explicitly avant-garde record I had ever heard—so I can’t listen to Scott 4 without hearing the early inklings of sonic assault, and I love it.

October 21, 2016

Jacques Dudon - Lumiéres Audibles, 1995

"In his 'photosonic' process, Dudon shines light through a series of semi-transparent, rotating discs that slow and modify the light waves’ frequencies; the resulting waveforms are picked up by photoelectric (solar-power) cells connected to standard analog amplifiers."
- Kala Pierson, review in 'The New Music Connoisseur'

"I discovered these very particular waveforms from the beginning of my disk experimentations. Their sonorities, both complex and transparent, are among the oddest, reminding those of inharmonic tones or hisses. Their audition is often accompanied by very powerful psychic effects, the ear recognizing precise textures, paradoxically without being able to give them any determined fundamental pitches. This comes from the fact that graphically, and by analogy with the fractal images, these waves are generated by laws of geometrical development, putting in action the same organizing principles whatever the scale they are being observed at. The synthesis, on a disk, of a white noise, sets a very interesting mathematical problem, which can't be resolved by shapes thrown in a hazardous way, neither by other aleatory parameters, which would only produce a buzz, while a white noise is the undifferentiated mixture of all frequencies. Fractal waveforms are up to this date what I found the most successful for a white noise imitation. In this CD are explored three of these fractal waveforms, with their related intonations: the "Clar" fractal waveform, and its first developments, in "Hexagrammes" (track 8); the "Phi" fractal waveform, starting point of "Fleurs de lumière" (tracks 1-2-3); and the "Mohajira" fractal waveform, at the basis of "Sumer" (tracks 4-5-6-7)."
- Fractal waveforms (excerpt from the "Lumières audibles" booklet)

October 19, 2016

Osamu Shoji - Night Flight, 1979

Album artwork says it all. Exotica-tinged, phaser-heavy Japanese library music, with a whole lot of new age-inspired arpeggiation and sci-fi synth pads. All credits go to the very prolific Shoji, with a note that the Synthesizer "Space-Sizer 360" was invented and supplied by Noriyasu Fukuda. I can't find anything about the synth or its inventor anywhere. Shoji put out a cool 39 records between 1971 and 1987, including what appears to be an entire album of Bee Gees covers--does anyone have this? I need it. For fans of Hiroshi SatoTomita, Joël Fajerman.

October 17, 2016

Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster & Panaiotis - Deep Listening, 1989

Iconic improvisational collaboration by a trio also known as the Deep Listening Band--a play on words, as this album was recorded 14 feet underground in the disused Dan Harpole Cistern in Port Townsend, Washington. The cistern, originally built to hold water for fire-fighting, was drained in the 50s, leaving a space more than 200 feet in diameter with a reverberation time of 45 seconds. The trio brought a trombone, didgeridoo, accordion, garden hose, pipe, conch shell, and their voices, and allowed their sounds to stretch out slowly, like sonar, as if nodding to the chamber's original two million gallon contents. The resulting sounds lose touch with their origins, becoming barely recognizable, what the shifting of tectonic plates or the millenia-long carving of water channels might sound like if they were rendered into music and hit with some heavy reverb. That otherworldly (or perhaps subworldly) quality brings to mind artists for whom space is integral to the sound--David HykesYasuaki Shimizu, Paul Horn (reminder to self to post Paul Horn), and yet Deep Listening is spacious enough to expand into something cosmic. 

Thanks to John Schaefer's New Sounds, which brought me to Stuart Dempster's (also excellent) In The Great Abbey of Clement VI a few years ago, and is also indirectly what brought me to the work of Pauline Oliveros, who's become a personal hero.

October 13, 2016

The Blue Nile - Hats, 1989

To celebrate Listen To This’s 200 album anniversary, I wanted to share a record that feels too big to share on any other day. I mean “big” both in the canonical sense and in terms of its size and weight. The Blue Nile’s Hats is, for many, an all-time favorite and a regular aesthetic reference point, and yet for others it often flies under the radar. I was only introduced to The Blue Nile a few years ago when my housemate BK played “Tinseltown in the Rain” for me in passing one morning when we were taking turns playing YouTube tracks. Had that not happened, it feels very probable that I might still never have heard Hats. I never see it in definitive best album lists, Discogs recommendations, or YouTube playlist crawls, and yet so many music lovers talk about it with the kind of reverence reserved for the most formative, awe-inspiring records. It seems that in spite of an embrace of a new new sincerity and an endless fascination with synthy hi-fi 80’s textures, there’s still a lingering uncoolness about The Blue Nile—or maybe it never made it across the pond in the way it should have. (Incidentally, Hats will be turning 27 years old on Sunday.)

This record has historically been hard to talk about. There aren’t many immediate features to hone in on. The songs are slow and they build slowly, picking up just to a trot on the the album’s centerpiece, “Headlights on the Parade,” which might be one of the best songs ever recorded. Hats evades much traditional verse chorus structuring, instead moving in long, linear arcs. On first listen, you might call it austere, or even minimalist—you might say that there’s not much going on. Slick synth pulses, a drum machine, singing, a bit of guitar. A lot of empty space. But after a few repeats or a pass in headphones (please, please do), it opens up generously, saturated with silver and blue, dazzlingly hi-fi. The devastation is in the details: when the music does less, you can hear more. It’s as sophisticated as sophisti-pop gets. A prim drumbeat is actually a turn signal indicator click, a snare starts to sound like a pipe clang in a parking garage, a horn gets submerged in water mid-quaver, an isolated synth tone acts like a ripple. 

This is what I think of when I think of “cinematic music,” with slews of critics pointing out its painterly qualities, how evocative, falling somewhere between film noir and a graphic novel or even the nighttime bird’s eye of anime. Both Hats and its predecessor, A Walk Across the Rooftops, are sketches of a darkened city with streaks of neon reflected in wet pavement, anonymous buildings, headlight beams leaking through your bedroom window. The residues of people more than the people themselves. Though the record seems to be about a fantasy-noir version of Glasgow—and this is explicitly referenced in the lyrics—it digs at a very specific but ubiquitous breed of late-night melancholy that someone who’s never seen a Cassavetes movie might spend their whole life believing to be unique to them. Songwriter Paul Buchanan wasn’t shy about that intention, referring to their work as dealing with “that four a.m. feeling.” In a much later interview, in which an aged Buchanan walks around Glasgow pointing out landmarks from the making of The Blue Nile’s first two records (including landmarks that no longer exist), he added that “what was so interesting to us was the universal nature of cities, that much of what you would see, intersections or so on, were the same…because Glasgow obviously is not the same scale as New York, but if you just shrunk it down to a corner, it could be anywhere.” Similarly, these feelings could be anyone's, anywhere.

The band famously insisted that all their songs were love songs. Yet for Buchanan, this kind of love is never a straightforward A to B thing—he sings with a tired optimism, knowing full well that he pre-emotively sabotages himself. His love falters, doubtful even as it springs into existence, predestined for failure but still happy to fling itself off a cliff again and again. It’s a lot of questions with unclear answers: “Who do you love?/Who do you really love?/Who are you holding on to?” and “Where is the love?/Where’s the love that shines?” are not rhetorical devices. I think of halting declarations on A Walk Across The Rooftops (which I keep referencing because it feels like such an explicit prequel to Hats): “Do I love you?/Yes I love you!/But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go” and the mantric, unbending “I am in love, I am in love with you,” which are said to convince the speaker just as much as the recipient.

And yet for the listener, the melancholy of Hats doesn’t need to be explicitly lovelorn—this could easily soundtrack the life of somebody who travels too much for business and spends a lot of time in bad hotel rooms. Had I had this my freshman year of college when I completely alienated myself with the excuses of terrible social skills and anxiety, I would have skulked around campus listening to this instead of the Jesus and Mary Chain. It's prime raincoat music, with the silvery chic of Bryan Ferry at his best, the lyrical mythology of Prefab Sprout, the synthetic string sentimentality of OMD, and a razor-sharp specificity all its own. Johnny Black of Q rightly said that “if Hats has a flaw, it’s only that it’s too perfect, too considered.” The band’s engineer, Calum Malcolm, similarly recalled that “they were always particularly sensitive to not doing the wrong thing and making sure it had absolutely the right emotional impact: there were times when I’m sure everyone else felt something was done and then someone would throw a spanner in the works over some little thing.” It’s surgically precise music made by people who, owing to their lack of musical background, invented a language all their own, and the language is still perfect to this day. By the end of “Saturday Night,” the last of seven expansive and heartbreaking tracks, you want to cry, both because of the record and because the record is over. Thankfully Hats lends itself particularly well to repeat listenings.

From “Tinseltown in the Rain”:

One day this love will all blow over
Time for leaving the parade
Is there a place in this city
A place to always feel this way?

October 11, 2016

Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Keyboard Fantasies, 1986

Pastoral, intimate meditations in the gentlest tones from a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer. Vocals are sparse, but Gelnn-Copeland's soulful voice is still what keeps me coming back. Its deep gospel-opera timbre, alongside the lyrics, reveals the inspiration behind the music as a whole. She's like that cool organ lady at your childhood church that you eventually found out was worlds cooler than you imagined. Keyboard Fantasies was lovingly recorded in Glenn-Copeland's tiny home town of Huntsville, Ontario, where she lives to this day. Please consider purchasing this album directly from the artist.

October 6, 2016

[Mix for NTS Radio] Getting Warmer Episode 5

Listen to my fifth episode of Getting Warmer for NTS Radio below. I wanted it to feel like an ideal limousine soundtrack. Email me at jen@listentothis.info for an mp3 download. Image by whtebkgrnd. Enjoy!

1. Cantoma - Maja
2. Interior - Hot Beach
3. Paul Hardcastle - Return of the Rainman
4. Tabo's Project - Feel
5. Ice Choir - Unprepared
6. Regrets - L'avion
7. Colin Blunstone - Touch
8. Joan Bibiloni - Sa Fosca
9. Billy Mackenzie - In Windows All
10. CFCF - Fleurs Laisses Dans Un Taxi
11. Software - Island Sunrise

October 5, 2016

Isabelle Antena - En Cavale, 1986

The best. Cheeky, punchy, synthy bossa-pop (or electro-samba, depending on who you ask). Production by Alan Moulder (Loveless, Siamese Dream, The Downward Spiral, Korn, casual) and Martin Hayles (Orange Juice’s Rip It Up, also casual). Instant gratification in a big way. Six songs written by Antena, plus a cover of Sister Sledge’s “Easy Street.” You might also recognize “Seaside Weekend” as a rework of a track she had originally done with her band, Antena. For fans of Antena, Sade, Linda Di Franco. Pleased to boast that I grew up listening to Isabelle Antena—my dad heard the maddening “Quand Le Jazz Entre En Lice” in a hair salon in Tokyo, where my family was living at the time, and took it home to my mom, who got hooked on it. Enjoy!

October 3, 2016

Muslimgauze - Zul'm, 1992

Hard to know where to start. Muslimgauze was the moniker of UK musician Bryn Jones, who released over 90 albums in his short life (he died suddenly at 37 from a rare blood infection). As more of his recordings are still being unearthed posthumously, his discography is currently approaching 200 releases. The project originated with Jones's support for Palestine in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its nexus, but eventually expanded to encompass his sympathy for other conflict-ridden Muslim countries, and his belief that Western interests in natural resources and political gain were at the root of many of these conflicts. He lived with his parents until his death, but was effectively living in his studio most of the time, often churning out an album a week for months on end. He was so obsessive about his music-making (and showed no regard for how little interest it generated during his lifetime) that he often said he didn't have time to listen to anyone else's music--yet he pulled from so many genres in such a prescient way that he must have been some kind of lightning rod for musical synthesis. His work incorporates elements of dub, techno, drum and bass, industrial, ambient, and traditional percussion borrowed from dozens of ethnicities. Most (and I say most lightly, as I've barely scratched the surface) of his music is built around that percussion--drum kits, drum machines, breakbeats, ethnic hand percussion, pots and pans--and tape loops, which he preferred over computers and samplers despite their much more laborious process.

Zul'm is on the more accessible side of what I've heard of Muslimgauze, and it neatly encapsulates much of Jones's aesthetic. It moves slowly and decisively, building up to frothy climaxes that occasionally feel joyful in spite of the oppressive, clanking weight of the whole thing. Hypnotic stretches of percussion, looping, and vocal samples (in both Hindi and Arabic on this release). I think this was around the time that Jones was beginning to use more spaced out, expansive production, and you can hear that dubby quality working to terrific effect. Zul'm is dedicated to "the unknown Palestinians buried in mass graves in Al-Riqqa cemetary, Kuwait city." Today we might also dedicate it today to the civilians of Aleppo, both the living and the dead.

September 29, 2016

Masahide Sakuma - Lisa, 1984

Beautiful and diverse solo release from Plastics member Masahide Sakuma. The album traverses both mood and genre: ambient minimalism, modern classical, industrial, avant-garde, medieval, and...vaudeville? Acoustic guitar, synth, strings, electric guitar, synthesizer, vocals, samples, flutes and percussion. Some tracks have a sparse cinematic feel suggestive of Mark Isham's Vapor Drawings, which came out the year prior. Lisa is so diverse and strange, it could take years of listening to fully unpack.

Produced by prolific avante-garde jazz composer Seigen Ono, the album is another entry in the phenomenal Music Interiors series released from 1984 to 1985, including a couple albums by Ono himself as well as Yoshio Suzuki. Worth exploring!