Wednesday, December 08, 2004

MC MC'S ALBUMS OF THE YEAR: PART IV

Top 50 Reissues and Compilations: nos 20-11

20. BRIAN ENO Ambient 4: On Land
because it's all right to drift as long as you don't drift forever then the water has nothing to lean on what could i say to you about suffolk enough others have said it better than i and the future careerists lanois laswell brook are all present but this is before they got warped or not warped enough but then again if you swim sturdily and long enough you end up at tara beyond myth beyond even depth the suffolk styx where on earth did ferry and eno manage to end up in exactly the same place in the wanly yellow summer of 1982?

19. VARIOUS Cambodian Cassette Archives: Khmer Pop & Folk Vol 1
It took 37 years for SMiLE to be completed, but what is perhaps even more profound and saddening is discovering a community, a culture of music and musicians whose lives can never be retrieved. I knew little of Phnom Penh popular (or classical) music before listening to this compilation, assembled from about 150 bashed-up cassettes retrieved from the out-tray of the Asian branch of Oakland Public Library, and while it is always satisfying to discover archives of music which it would never previously have occurred to me to explore, this satisfaction has to be tempered with the horror at the fact that stars like Sim Sisamouth, represented here by the astonishing "Don't Let My Girlfriend Tickle Me" - Cliff and the Shads meet with proto-rai violin and post-acid wah-wah guitars at an obscure crossroads - and the unidentified lady who sings the inadvertently devastating "Birds Are Singing But My Lover Won't Return" (with its union of plunger-mute trumpets and surf guitars, it's the Shangri-Las singing Billie Holiday) most likely had their lives abruptly and brutally terminated by the Pol Pot regime in 1975. Most of these 20 tracks, however, stem from the post-holocaust era, recorded by survivors and/or escapees, either in Khmer Rouge-operated recording studios or abroad (Thailand, Long Island, Rhode Island, etc.). Many of these tracks are devoid of title and/or artist, but one tendency I noted (e.g. Meas Samon's unidentified track 4, and especially Prum Manh's "Two Wives Are Twice The Problem") was that of virtual proto-dub, with Scratch-style echoing vocals and maniacal cackles and decidedly JA-influenced (or was it the other way around?) rhythm tracks. Some from the '80s (Son Thoeung's unidentified track 7) suggest a budget-price Compass Point, all warped bass and treble-heavy birdsong synths. Other tracks are simply unclassifiable, such as the anonymous track 15 which resembles a multi-lane pile-up with Johnny and the Hurricanes and Black Sabbath before a sweet female voice comes in to rescue them all, or the shattering track 19 which sets a quavery male vocal (oddly reminiscent of Gene Vincent doing "Over The Rainbow") against an apoplectic electro backdrop with determinedly out-of-key (or microtonal?) synths which recall, of all things, mid-period Brit acieed anthems ("Xstacy" by Shades of Rhythm in particular).

This compilation might in fact give us a very key answer to the perennial question of "art...what does is actually do?" which is still raised in certain quarters. In relation to human life in general, and in specific relation to human lives bloodily ended and whose history would be otherwise untraceable, art reminds us that once upon a time, other people existed. It is the tool which we utilise in order that we might be remembered; not simply for understanding how life works, but why we bother to live.

18. ABC The Lexicon Of Love (Deluxe Edition)
I'm not sure how much The Lexicon Of Love benefits, or how much it is diminished, by an augmented first CD and second CD of extras, particularly when the "Overture" should strictly speaking have come right at the beginning of the album proper, rather than as an afterthought. Rather anaemic workouts like "Alphabet Soup" - heard here in both its original 12" format and as performed on SwapShop (SwapShop? "Sax equals sax equals sex/In which case Stephen is pornography"???) - indicate an anxiety to move away from the opportunity of being Sheffield's James Chance (and in any case Charlie Collins has that particular role sewn up). The second CD, meanwhile, is largely occupied by a live recording from Hammersmith Odeon in October 1982, at which I was present. Divorced from the extraordinary spectacle of the gig itself (a DVD should really have replaced CD2) this now seems like the unfortunate harbinger of Hucknall hell, resplendent with extended bass and drum solos and a surfeit of metasoulful Fry vocals. It reduces the splendour of Lexicon, an album which on the surface is about the surface - of life, of love, of loss - but deep down is essentially an extended, frustrated meditation on Not Getting Any, a scream at the ultimate failure of signifiers, however glittering ("Date Stamp"), to compensate for the absence of love itself - check Fry's howling crescendo to "Valentine's Day" where he throws out deliberately pained metaphors as proof of their uselessness in healing his incipient pain, and consider also how he gleefully breaks through All Surfaces at the climax of "The Look Of Love" (signalled by that Joe Meek soprano yet again; see also "Snobbery and Decay" by ACT) to exult guiltlessly in the sunshine of "Yippy-yi-yippy-yi-ay-YAY!" And that is hardly reason to forget the sudden revelation of his innate emptiness when he is left on his own at several strategic points throughout "All Of My Heart," the final 'cello-led ascending string lines seeming to act as a shroud neath which he can be buried.

17. JAMES BROWN Soul On Top
A frantic and astonishing 1969 session with Louie Bellson's big band, Oliver Nelson's arrangements and Maceo Parker as featured tenor soloist which more than anything helped me finally to get JB this year. The impassioned "The Man In The Glass" makes Matthew Herbert's Big Band redundant, while the retake on "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" with its scorching interplay between JB's multiphonic voice and MP's nagging tenor, is worthy of, and could at a distance be mistaken for, Shepp or Ayler. The cover's fantastic as well.

16. KEITH HUDSON Flesh Of My Skin, Blood Of My Blood
That'll teach me to say careless things about Five Star mentor/dad Buster Pearson then, as here he is amongst the guitarists on this remarkable 1974 album which more than anything comes across as deep soul transposed to JA; once you get beyond the opening drum earthquakes and Morricone yelps of Count Ossie and the boys on "Hunting," the mood is mellow and unhurried with only a little franticity sometimes materialising (the updated Del Shannon of "Darkest Night," the blissfully effortless way in which the seeming freeform percussion and guitar lines on "Stabiliser" gradually come into focus).

15. EXTRADITION Hush
A full consideration of this 1971 Australian psych-folk reissue can be found in my review of it in the May 2004 issue of Uncut. Nevertheless, this was 2004's equivalent to Linda Perhacs' Parallelograms; a beyond-obscure shortlived group of operatives resuscitated for the age which requires it. Essentially a folk-classical-improv crossover group, a bit like Pentangle fused with the Incredible String Band but with hushed reverence replacing wanton daftness, tracks like "Dear One" - a nine-minute ode to Meher Baba - "Moonsong" and "Song For Sunrise" present us with a vaguely intimidating but finally embracing quietude as out of place today as it was 33 years ago, and just as needed now as it wasn't then, while the extended evolution-of-man percussive workout "Original Whim" draws some previously unheralded lines between the quieter operatives of AACM (somewhere between the Art Ensemble's People In Sorrow and the Revolutionary Ensemble's People's Republic).

14. GILBERT O'SULLIVAN The Berry Vest Of
Uneven but indispensable anthology of the most benignly bizarre pop star who has ever lived; the detail of observation in "We Will" is worthy of Alan Bennett, while "Miss My Love Today" will cut your heart in twelve.

13. VARIOUS Dread Broadcasting Corporation: Rebel Radio
Here for nostalgic reasons more than anything else, a fantastic 2CD package commemorating the great pioneering London pirate station of the early '80s, complete with the greatest jingles in radio history and underrated classic after underrated classic. Includes Peel favourite, 1969's demented, semi-drummed "Pop-A-Top" by Andy Capp, while listening to Papa Levi's "Mi God Mi King" for the first time in some 20 years did make me feel rather emotional for already known reasons.

12. JOHN MARTYN One World (Deluxe Edition)
Again you get a second CD with alternate takes and live cuts, but it remains hard to believe that this record, made in a field near Reading in the summer of punk, was made in the summer of punk. "Big Muff" might be the greatest dub/rock fusion ever (along with Scratch's other major whiteboy production of that year, "Complete Control"), "Smiling Stranger" invents Massive Attack and "Small Hours" makes you want to die in concordance with its fadeout. More in need of rehabilitation than the universally acknowledged Solid Air, this record points more pointedly to Martyn's indirect influences on a certain artist who has yet to appear on this list.

11. CAN Tago Mago
Oddly, until I received the new remastered CDs of Can's early classics, I hadn't yet upgraded Can to CD status - on my shelves they are lined up in their original vinyl sleeves with the United Artists logo and generic inner bag highlighting forthcoming releases by Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Groundhogs and the Bonzo Dog Band. There is a fullness about the inversely cramped sound of the albums themselves which makes me more sympathetic towards the groundbreaking music contained therein. There's something in the aura of "Hallewuwah" and "Aumgn" (herein starts, amongst other things, Happy Mondays) which lends them to become more listenable in the context of having been recorded in the corner of a freezing kitchen in Cologne; like Kafka, Can's art works best in small enclosed (ideally screened-off) areas. One has to admit, though, that the spring-clean given this mix has benefited in that the percussive propulsion so essential to Can's music makes itself much more apparent and, well, a lot more danceable. Dance to Can? Or cry to Can, perhaps - there are few more heartbreakingly lovely endings to a record than "Bring Me Coffee Or Tea."