Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Comic Wow’s New Album is Pure Psychedelic Genius

A couple of weeks ago we invented a drink. We call it Drano. It’s very simple, Tropical Fantasy Blue Raspberry soda and vodka (hey, when there’s torrential rain outside, sometimes you have to make do with what you have in the fridge). It’s the perfect drink, both visually and tastewise, for the new Comic Wow album Music for Mysteries of Mind Space and Time. Playful, tongue-in-cheek, sometimes silly, often ridiculously psychedelic, it’s 1960s-flavored, cinematic rock instrumentals in the same vein as the Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack or XTC’s Dukes of Stratosphear project. And it’s pure genuius: it could be a stoner soundtrack to a long-lost low-budget 1968 Cypriot detective film. With an absurd collection of every rock effect from the era – wah-wah, reverb, echo, melodies sputttering up dubwise into the mix only to retreat seconds later, or panning across the speakers and then back – it works equally well as satire and homage to psychedelic excess, especially because the tunes are so catchy. With a museum’s worth of vintage keyboard patches, banjo (?!), guitar, bass and drums, it has the same kind of WTF, out-of-the-box creative quality as the Peruvian chicha music from the 70s we love so much.

The first track is typical: a distantly Pink Floyd-style melody but with honkytonk instrumentation that telegraphs the ornate art-rock majesty that will appear soon. The second track is also basically a country melody, starting out with banjo and then morphing into an oscillating electro keyb song and again. The unselfconsciously amusing, swinging Jazz Computer assembles an impossible series of electric piano layers, blippy, bouncy and reverberating – and is that an Omnichord? Another track sets woozily oscillating Dr. Dre synth over Penny Lane piano – it’s ridiculously catchy and ought to go on longer than it does.

The next one takes what you can do with a clavinova to its logical extreme and then suddenly morphs into a trippy late 90s style interlude – with a vocoder. After that, a spy theme emerges gradually from a clubby techno vamp with fake horns and Spike Jones effects, switches to a brief, off-kilter Beefheart guitar-and-drums interlude followed by an Alan Parsons Project sequencer-and-synth segment. A march titled Encore Electronics Flute Fax starts out just plain hilarious and then gets ominous and dramatic, then goes for even more laughs with a flute-driven early 70s style chase scene. Chimp on a Pew reaches for trippy menace a la the Electric Prunes, a feel they take to the next level on Minor Hexagons. The longest number is Water Music Treadmill, a one-chord jam that mines dark, thumping, hypnotic Black Angels ambience. The album closes with Meet the Vampeatles which is just plain sick, a tv theme as written by Jeff Lynne and done by the Bonzo Dog Band, maybe. It’s out now on Asthmatic Kitty.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Excellent New Anthology of Dylan Original Mono Recordings Just Out

Studies have shown that a majority of listeners actually prefer the sound of an mp3 to higher-quality recording technology. Which on one level shouldn’t come as a surprise. Stereo never became popular on a mass scale until about 1970, and people listened on tinny transistor radios for a good ten years after that. Mp3s also mask the ineptitude of indie rock musicianship as well as the robotic cheesiness of the last decade’s worth of corporate pop. But for the dedicated minority who prefer the richness and warmth of vinyl, is there a market for an audiophile mp3? That’s what Sony is offering, in essence, on their new Bob Dylan compilation, The Best of the Original Mono Recordings. A listen through the album confirms the quality of the mixes. Many of the songs here are also available on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, a platinum album with pretty much zero collector value available for five bucks or less at just about any used vinyl store, and for serious audiophiles, that’s the way to go. But for those without a turntable, this is a remarkably successful facsimile. To sweeten the deal, there are some alternate takes here with revealing little touches that Dylan fanatics won’t be able to resist. Song to Woody showcases some surprisingly adept fingerpicking: hearing a 1963 Dylan sing about a world that “looks like it’s a-dying and it’s hardly been born” is a real eye-opener.

A solo acoustic take of Blowin’ in the Wind has some strikingly flinty vocals – he probably never sang it better than he does here; a solo version of Chimes of Freedom, with extra verses and a lot of alternate lyrics, is absolutely fascinating. Bruce Langhorne’s masterfully fingerpicked electric lead guitar highlights a beautiful alternate arrangement of Mr. Tambourine Man, and while nothing beats the warmth of the vinyl recording of the opening guitar chord of Like a Rolling Stone, this one’s awfully close.

These reissues also offer a vivid reminder of how brilliantly Tom Wilson and Bob Johnston mixed the electric Dylan. The balance of the instruments on the full-band cuts here stays impressively true to the fidelity of the originals; the few obvious sonic modifications, such as goosing the bass a bit on Tombstone Blues and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, are welcome to the point where anyone hearing this for the first time might even prefer these versions.

Beyond the sonics, it goes without saying that so many of these tracks – album takes of The Times They Are A-Changing, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Positively 4th St. and I Want You – are genuine classics, songs that deserve every bit of their iconic status. And the rest of the cuts – Rainy Day Women, Just Like a Woman, and All Along the Watchtower – are solid choices to round out the album. Along with the previously unreleased Witmark Sessions collection – which we haven’t gotten around to here yet – this is a smart blend of archival research and sonic excellence. It’s up at itunes and all the usual places.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elizabeth and the Catapult Make Smart Popular Again

In case you need even further evidence that there’s a mass audience for pop music that’s not stupid, the response to this album is proof. Elizabeth and the Catapult’s new album The Other Side of Zero didn’t just happen to make the itunes singer/songwriter chart last week: it debuted at #1. But don’t let the category fool you – frontwoman/keyboardist Elizabeth Ziman’s defiantly lyrical, artsy chamber-pop songs haven’t the faintest resemblance to the dentist-office pop of, say, James Blunt or Taylor Swift. Aimee Mann is the most strikingly obvious influence here, right down to the George Harrison-esque major/minor chord changes, the uneasy lyricism and cynical worldview. There’s also a quirky counterintuitivity in the same vein as Greta Gertler, and a purist pop sensibility that evokes Sharon Goldman – both somewhat lesser-known but equally formidable writers. Which is no surprise. Just as we predicted, the playing field is shifting. Watching bands like Elizabeth and the Catapult take over centerstage is as heartwarming as it is sweet revenge: we’ve got a renaissance on our hands, folks. If you’re a corporate A&R guy and you still think that Taylor Swift has lasting power, you might want to think about changing careers right about now.

The group’s previous album Taller Children was more lyrically-oriented; this one is musically stronger, and more diverse. As with Aimee Mann’s work, the production on all but one of the songs here is purist and often surprisingly imaginative, Ziman’s piano and occasional electronic keyboards out in front of a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars and frequently rich orchestration, no autotune or drum machine in sight. The opening track sets the tone, swaying and distantly Beatlesque: “Take us to a wishing well, throw us in and sink us down,” Ziman suggest with characteristic brooding intensity. The next track is Aimee Mann-inflected powerpop with staccato strings; after that, they go in a more psychedelic 1960s pop direction with the insistent Julian, Darling. The understatedly snarling, orchestrated Thank You for Nothing is a study in dichotomies, a bitterly triumphant kiss-off song: “Thank you for laughing out loud even when you don’t mean it…they say hurting is growing if you believe when you say it…” It’s a typical moment on this album: Ziman won’t be defeated even in the darkest hours.

One of the strongest tracks here, The Horse and the Missing Cart is a fervent 6/8 ballad, words of wisdom to a generation who’ve turned yuppie and conservative before their time. Open Book is part plaintive art-rock ballad, part sultry come-on; the wary, sardonic, oldtimey-flavored torch ballad Worn Out Tune builds to a soaring, orchestrated Aimee Mann-style chorus, ominous minor key reverb guitar trading off with a blippy melodic bassline: “All the saddest songs we sing are the ones we can’t get enough of.” The title cut, another big 6/8 ballad features Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings on harmony vocals, taking on a pensive countrypolitan feel with pedal steel after the first chorus. The album winds up with an electric piano-driven indie pop song in the same vein as Mattison or the Secret History, banjo and mandolin adding some unexpectedly sweet textures, and the gospel-inflected, intensely crescendoing Do Not Hang Your Head. The only miss here sounds like an outtake from some other band’s demo session gone horribly wrong, a completely misguided, dated detour into 90s-style trip-hop. Elizabeth & the Catapult are on national tour through the end of the month, teaming up with Tift Merritt on a series of west coast dates; check their tour calendar for cities and details.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 11/1/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #820:

Percy Mayfield – His Tangerine and Atlantic Sides

One of bluesman Percy Mayfield’s albums from the late 1950s is called My Heart Is Always Singing Sad Songs, and it perfectly captures his esthetic. Ironically, it’s not those songs that he’s best remembered for: his first big hit was Please Send Me Someone to Love. A few years later later he wrote Hit the Road Jack, iconically covered by Ray Charles. In 1969, Elvis covered Stranger in My Own Hometown; twenty years later, Mose Allison did a killer version of that one. But Mayfield, an old soul if there ever was one, was the best interpreter of his own material. A star of the West Coast blues circuit in the early 50s, he narrowly survived a 1954 car accident that left him disfigured for life, with a sizeable crater in his forehead (the inspiration for Stranger in My Own Home Town). This is a 2003 reissue of 1962-74 recordings. Mayfield always sounded older than he was: among the 28 tracks here are the shuffling R&B of Never No More; the lushly orchestrated piano blues Memory Pain; the even lusher, far more modern-sounding River’s Invitation; the slow, brooding My Jug and I; the funky, psychedelic Nothing Stays the Same Forever and the Louis Jordan-esque Life Is Suicide. The titles pretty much speak for themselves: it’s some of the most wrenching stuff ever recorded. Mayfield’s stuff from the 50s is equally good: other albums worth checking out are his Specialty Singles compilation as well as the Poet Of the Blues, Memory Pain and Two Years of Torture anthologies. Here’s a random torrent.

November 1, 2010 Posted by | blues music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment