Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Adolescent Sex (1978)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 3.5/5
As if ye needed any more proof that the 80s started in ’78…

Japan may have never associated themselves with the New Romantics, but you can certainly see why they were lumped in with the movement. The New Romantic bands were a twinkle in Steve Strange’s eye in 1978, but Japan bore many of the style’s hallmarks already, and I’m not just referring to the makeup. Basslines borrowed from funk and disco? Check. Spacey, futuristic synths? Check. An effeminate, silken set of lead vocals? Well, OK – not yet. That’d come later. David Sylvian, at this point, sounded as if he’d just eaten a bowl of small round pebbles for breakfast. He doesn’t sound macho, but he certainly does sound rough, and he’s got one volume: loud. It gets a little grating after a while, I guess – would it kill him to stop shouting for one minute? Then again, it’s not as if the music here ever quietens down much either. No ballads here, that’s for sure – just a bunch of blazin’ loud funk-rockers.

The monotony is a bit of a flaw, and it’s not the only one. Sylvian’s not a great hookster, either; most of his hooks on this album are fairly anemic and underwritten, although he manages to pull a couple of them off anyway thanks to sheer vocal charisma. “Lovers On Main Street”‘s hook barely counts as a hook at all – it’s just the titular phrase being near-tunelessly sung once – but the way Sylvian sardonically transforms the word “Street” into “Strrrrrrraaaaaaaaeeeeeeeeeeet” salvages the whole thing. Then there’s “Wish You Were Black”, which has this pre-chorus segment that feels like it’s building up to a hook before suddenly diving away at the last moment, and it sounds cool enough to make up for the fact that, really, it’s the sound of Sylvian himself diving away from having to write a proper hook at all. S’all good, though, and there are a couple of legitimately good hooks here too if you look. “Communist China” has the best, with its steadily building hook culminating in a grandiose guitar riff, and the title track’s hook isn’t bad either (though the little mid-verse mini-hooks in that song are better). Elsewhere, though, the hooks are barely present at all. Is that a problem? Eh, sorta – some more hooks woulda been nice, for sure, but the album’s got enough riffs and basslines to get by.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but Mick Karn is a really good bassist. He’s not actually at his best on this album, in that he is merely playing really good funk basslines rather than breaking new ground and innovating his own style like he’d do later in Japan’s career, but I’ve no problem with that – all these songs feel super movable and danceable thanks to him. Well, OK, not JUST him – the drumming (courtesy of Steve Jansen) is pretty great too, and there’s always a great guitar riff (presumably contributed by Rob Dean, though possibly also by Sylvian himself sometimes) to complete the groove. Dean’s a pretty good guitarist, but I gotta say most of his solos leave me cold; he gets three big ones here, and two of them – on “Transmission” and “Television” – are fairly boring strings of shredding clichés. The solo he gets on “Suburban Love”, though, is full of enough unexpected twists and tonal experiments to hold my interest the whole way through, and it’s paired with a couple of great synth & electric piano solos. I mean, you could say the entire track is just one big wank-off, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a pretty great wank-off, so who cares? 

I’ve got less to say about the rest, though. “Don’t Rain On My Parade” is a cover (you can tell because it’s got a better hook than Sylvian was capable of writing at this time!), and it sounds pretty much like the rest of the stuff here except with some cool, future-computer synth sounds bubbling away underneath; “Performance” is kinda fun, in that it’s basically a straight-up funk song with 90s alt-rock vocals; “Transmission” has a very nice riff and a nice sense of bitterness… y’know, it’s all pretty good, but at the same time none of it strikes me as remotely essential. Still, I shouldn’t complain too hard. It’s good fun, the guitar tone is pretty consistently nice, and none of the songs are bad; the fact that none of them are really all that good isn’t enough to rain on my parade. I gotta say one thing, though: what was it with the late 70s/early 80s and fascism? Sylvian here sing about “Fascist graffiti” on “Performance”, ABC sang about democracy and fascism on “Many Happy Returns”, Heaven 17 had “Fascist Groove Thang”… I mean, I approve of the sentiment, but why then? It’d been a full 30 years since the vanquishing of fascism in Europe and another full 30 until it’d reappear in bulk. Why can’t we have this sort of anti-fascist music now? Lawd knows we need it…

TYRANNOSAURUS REX – Unicorn (1969)

Review by: Andreas Georgi

Album assigned by: Ali Ghoneim

In the USA, where I grew up and live, T-Rex is known for the one song that was a hit on American rock radio, correctly named “Get It On”, but euphemistically renamed “Bang a Gong”. This is a damn shame because they (he – Marc Bolan, actually) made a bunch of really great and unique albums. I do not know the two albums before this one, but this one is generally considered a step up. “Unicorn” is their 3rd album, and the last featuring percussionist Steve Peregrine Took. Bolan fired him later that year for a variety of issues – drug habits, attitude, etc. In a sense it’s a shame because, even though Marc Bolan was always the driving force of T-Rex – really he WAS T-Rex, Took was actually quite a talented guy. This is the last album before a transition to electric rock and glam stardom over the next 3 albums. Listeners who are only familiar with “Get It On” or with the “Electric Warrior” albums will be quite surprised by this album. This album is still almost entirely acoustic, with Bolan playing acoustic guitar & vocals, and Took on various percussion, harmony vocals and other assorted instruments. There are a number of elements which were definitely played down on T-Rex’s later glam stuff, namely a fair amount of surrealist weirdness and dissonant vocals (“bleating” (as George S put it) and “Punch and Judy” have been used as descriptions) which might be an acquired taste for some. If I had to describe the music, picture a cross of Donovan, Syd Barrett, and themes from Tolkien and William Blake. It’s very much of its time (1969), but does not fare worse for it at all. It’s not dated – it’s timeless! I won’t give a song by song description, but it’s a solid album. The last song features a poem narrated by John Peele.

I would recommend the version of the album with the extra tracks. Most of them are alternate takes of songs on the album and are fine, but no great revelations. There are, however, two versions each of the A and B sides of the single following this album, which still featured Took, “King of the Rumbling Spires” / “Do You Remember?”, both of which are great. The A side is the first Tyrannosaurus Rex song to feature an overtly hard, electric sound, along with a wonderfully dissonant melotron at the end, and is one of their highlights, I think. The B side is great too. The single version features Bolan on lead vocals and Took harmonizing, while the alternate take reverses the roles, with Steve Peregrine Took on lead vocals, and Bolan accompanying. It’s revelatory how good Took is, actually (in both roles). Alas, only room for one ego in the band. Of course the first T-Rex album you should get is “Electric Warrior”, but do not neglect this one or several others which are great. All the albums from this one through “Tanx” in 1973 are must-haves for fans of T-Rex. 

Five stars – Thumbs Up!

This review is also on Amazon here.

PAUL SIMON – The Paul Simon Songbook (1965)

Review by: Charly Saenz

Album assigned by: Ifran Hidayatullah

After recording Simon & Garfunkel’s first album, Paul Simon decided to take a trip through Europe, playing in clubs here and there (sometimes with Artie), to find his own inspiration and in the process also finding his first muse, Mary Chitty (whom we’ll know as “Kathy”), a sweet and shy seventeen year old girl he fell in love with. 

It was 1965 and he recorded this solo album where Kathy even appears in the cover, including some songs that later would become part of the S&G repertoire. 

So this is it, a bohemian solo album of self-discovery and young love. There we find the gorgeous ballads, the most interesting probably being “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” (highly enhanced by the duo’s version a year later) “Leaves that are green”, about the passage of time from the view of an old man aged 22 and the S&G classics, “April Come She Will” (where I probably miss Art Garfunkel a bit) and of course, “Kathy’s Song”: Mary should be proud.

The two great classics for the duo, next year’s “I Am A Rock” and “Sound Of Silence” in these naked performances add another dimension to the folk rock versions we know so well. The first one sounds more defiant every second as Paul reaches the conclusion and “Sound Of Silence” (in singular) becomes a protest song instead of a lament over miscommunication. In the same lyrical line, there’s “A Most Peculiar Man” (it will work better in my opinion in the “Sounds Of Silence” album, also after the great “Richard Cory”, the tracklist order matters, you know). 

“Side Of The Hill” is probably the jewel of the collection; a fantastic song on its own right, would later become the “Canticle”, somehow lost in the beauty of the classic “Scarborough Fair”. That song and the fantastic “Patterns” would be part of “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” in 1966. I think the “political” songs work better here than in S&G’s first album, where the production didn’t really help, and no production is better than inadequate production. “He was my brother”, specially has a perfect tone. “A Simple Desultory Philippic” sounds like a live recording, and that does work for the acid and informal tone of the song (a sincere attempt at a Dylan style, who’s even mentioned in the song). So this album, in songwriting terms, would be the base for the real success of Paul and Artie next year. All of the songs were here. Just needed that “folk rock” blessing (thank you, Byrds) and a witty producer. Kathy would not sit well with fame and would leave the boat, but the songs will stay forever and the mindless promise of love and only love… 

“And so you see I have come to doubt 
All that I once held as true 
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.”

BILL NELSON – The Love That Whirls (Diary of a Thinking Heart) (1982)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Album assigned by: Michael Strait

This was completely new to me, but because of Bill’s involvement with Be-bop deluxe (which I still plan to get into, after hearing it’s a mix of glam and prog, with rock overtones), I was very interested. Bill Nelson solo is very different. Upon first listening I thought this to be a mix between Ultravox/Eurythmics (somewhat intelligent synth pop) and David Sylvian (vocal stylings and overall ambitious epicness). As I’d never heard of him before, you can safely assume that he was not extremely successful in the 80’s and / or that this type of music completely passed me by at the time (35 years ago…). After further listening I can confirm both those assumptions AND explain them.

On the one hand, it IS definitely synth pop, not my favourite type of pop music, which in turn is hardly my favourite musical genre. Especially the drum (computer) sound annoys, and his voice has this quality that I always associate with Talking Heads and the Cure: slightly mechanical, trying to communicate as little emotions as possible, apart from depressed nervousness and general anxiety. In some songs his voice jumps an octave mid-sentence (or mid-syllable), also very much of its time. This sort of explained why it escaped my attention upon release.

However, explaining why it never made it big is actually the total opposite: if you allow for the drum sound and the vocals, this is actually highly intelligent music. There are soaring melodies, reaching almost prog rock epicness. There are weird guitar sounds, suggesting mastery of the instrument, there are nice solos over synth ‘vamps’, there are interesting vibes (still synths, I gather), instrumental breaks that (somewhat) take away the poppy element, a few nice instrumentals and most importantly, there is a level of sophistication that completely elevates it from your general synth pop record. 

In quite a few ways this album for me resembles David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down (and predates it by five years). Now that’s not Bowie’s best album by a long shot, but Never Let Me Down does what it sets out to do as magnificently as 1. Outside. Same here, I feel. Right at the beginning of one of the worst decades for music, with all the silly fashionable synthesizer sounds, synthetic drums and weird vocal stylings, Bill Nelson produces (out of nowhere, perhaps, I don’t know) a highly entertaining pop record. I think his career deserves to be thoroughly researched…

ARIANA GRANDE – Dangerous Woman (2016)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Album assigned by: Michael Strait

Ariana Grande is 23 years old and American, from Boca Raton, Florida. She’s mainly a singer, but plays some keyboard apparently. The first song, Moonlight, starts promising. Somewhat girly, for all those adolescents and paedophiles out there. I do not like the song, but I have to admire her voice, even if she overdoes the girly mannerisms constantly. A little bit like Whitney Houston, albeit a little lower. The second song, Dangerous Woman, suggests she wants to assert herself. It turns into a powerful ballad. Very well produced, but somewhat slick.

The third song, Be Alright, is rather pathetic, your typical American dance number, 1980’s Madonna, with 2010’s production values. 

Into You starts somewhat promising, with a nice bass line. But again the finger clicks join the conversation. The speeded up section sounds a little contrived, but again, I somehow have to respect her vocal chords, no matter how Madonna-y they sound to me. But it’s generic pop.

Side To Side is a duet with Nicki Minaj. It does not add a whole lot to differentiate it from the rest.

It is immediately followed by Let Me Love You, which is a duet with Lil Wayne, obviously a man. Greedy is the worst so far. The ingredients may not be too bad, a 1970’s Chic bass line, some 1980’s Prince hand claps, some 90’s synthesized horns, but the end result is the worst of all possible worlds. Leave Me Lonely, again a duet, this time with Macy Gray, sounds like a 007 song, somewhere between Adele and Shirley Bassey. 

I progressively lose interest. While listening to the rest, I’ll stop giving song-by-song comments. It may be perfect pop, but then I’m no perfect audience for pop. I get the strange feeling that I’m listening to this not to please Michael Strait, but to understand him. Yes, she can sing. Yes, this is (probably) good pop music. It serves a purpose: entertaining the young of heart and mind, getting people to dance, and spreading a message of love, or so I assume. But in what way could this possibly bring music as an art form, or as a way of expressing yourself, forward? 

This is work, this is business (and successful at that), but it has no redeeming value at all. It feels synthetic, loveless, run of the mill girl pop. In retrospect, one could undoubtedly say the same of the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Ronettes and a bunch of other ones in the 60’s, but no matter how formulaic, they were like 50 years earlier and revolutionized the music world in more ways than one!

Imagine an updated Volkswagen New Beetle, in shape and form, to target the same market segment, half a century after the original. If VW does it, it’s charming, innocent nostalgia, building on an archetype. If Toyota would build it, it would look like a silly cash grab. That’s how I feel about Ariana Grande. No doubt, she’s as capable as Toyota, but what’s the deal? I do not feel the need to ever hear this kind of music again; I must be a dad-rocker…

Verdict: she can definitely sing. Her chosen style is rather monotonous and silly; it will get out of fashion pretty soon I guess. I suggest she tries some other things. A bit like Lady Gaga singing with Tony Bennett, but different. For instance a power ballad with Alice Cooper to convince me of her talent in an interesting way.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: SPLIT ENZ – Time and Tide (1982)

Review by: Nina A


Split Enz are one of my most favourite bands ever but for the uninitiated they seem to be perceived as what Neil Finn was doing before he got himself a new band, wrote “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and thereby reserved an eternal spot on vh1’s So 80’s or One Hit Wonders playlists for himself. By the way, Split Enz also had a hit in the US with “I Got You” from the 1980 album True Colours (another Neil-penned track), and although it only reached #53 it went to #1 in both their native New Zealand and current residence of Australia and made them known to the world as this poppy new wave band. Need I say, they were saaaw maaahch moaar!!!!
By the time Time and Tide arrived in 1982, the band had arguably reached their creative peak (or at least their post-1977 lineup had): in a year or two, frontman Tim Finn would become enamoured with his solo projects and disinterested with the band’s career enough to effectively break it up but for now he had a lot to say because he was going through a rough patch of his life. How do I know? Well…
Split Enz had always had “quirky” written on their business card, and the whimsical stage performances and elaborate costumes and stage make-up (courtesy to percussionist Noel Crombie) was what stood out about them but deep down they had enough charming personality to attract a devout fanbase – one that formed as an official fan club way back in 1976 and to this day spends time reminiscing about events, posting pictures and documenting every single detail of the band’s career online. It is obvious that to them (and me) every Split Enz album is special in a different way but the real question here is, if you are not really invested in Tim Finn’s nervous breakdown, or the story of Neil Finn meeting Sandy Allen (“the world’s tallest woman”, as the next line of the song proclaims likely because they had no Wikipedia back then) in New York, or how Noel took on the daunting drumming responsibilities after former drummer Mal Green left the band, does this album have anything to offer to you, listener, and is it really all that good?
In my opinion it is as good as the Enz (yes, fans and press really called them that) get. A significant chunk of the weirdness is gone here, and even the costumes and weird make up are severely toned down, consisting of fitting the subject naval attire, to make way for a somewhat more honest emotional journey. It is really the emotional arc of the three main compositions here – opener “Dirty Creature”, the epic of “Pioneer/Six Months in a Leaky Boat”, which is the centerpiece of this more or less conceptual album with a strong nautical undercurrent (he-he, puns), and Tim’s own autobiography in song format “Haul Away” – that makes the strongest case for this record. The main songwriters of the band post the major lineup overhaul of 1977 have been Tim and Neil, of course, with occasional sweeping instrumental contributions by keyboardist Eddie Rayner but this album is all about Tim and his emotional journey, so much so that it was called “Tim and Tide” by critics at the time. (Neil gets the spotlight on the next one, as fate would have it, but with the very different narrative of loving your wife and bringing a new life into this wide and imperfect world, which would probably be better appreciated by people aware of the joys of family life.)
Another thing this album has going for it is the tight playing on it – Noel Crombie, following his promotion to a drummer, brings a lot of taste and cymbal action to his energetic but steady druming and with Nigel Griggs’ super solid pulsating bass remaining a staple of the band’s sound, the rhythm section carry this album on its naval journey across the seas (more puns!). While Neil still hasn’t developed his trademark sensitive new-romantic vocal modulation that you can hear all over the Crowded House catalogue and his singing can get a bit flat at times, Tim does a fair bit of chewing the scenery on here and balances intimate and theatrical in a very entertaining way. Another good thing about Time and Tide is that despite this being the 80s and keyboard-wiz Eddie Rayner being still very much at the heart of the Enz’s wall-of-soundy sound, the record doesn’t sound dated or cheesy at all. The production and more specifically the arrangements bring out the best in each tune and succeeds in emphasizing the nautical theme – somehow achieving the sound of the sunset-lit sea on the cover. The final strength I wish to address is the pop sensibility, for despite the energy and wit and unconventional arrangements (well, for the world of pop) these are deep down straightforward catchy pop numbers.
“Dirty Creature” opens here with its driving rhythm and a world of metaphors about er… um… psychological struggle? Panic attacks, to be more specific, which are personified by the mythical Māori beast Taniwha. Binding and gagging Tim’s wits and doing other scary stuff. Next up is the gentler “Giant Heartbeat”, which was written on top of a bass line that Nigel Griggs had come up with, and I think it is here where Neil starts really developing his vague lyrical approach about whatever that somehow so sums up the human condition. Anyway, the song builds nicely and ends on a cool held vocal, leaving the floor for “Hello Sandy Allen”, a song about how we’re all really beautiful or appearance doesn’t really matter all that much or something that gets a pass here because it was written before this trope became widely abused, and also Neil seems to have been sincerely impressed by meeting Ms. Sandy Allen and really digested the event and come up with this conclusion on his own. Also, who cares, the song is so catchy and infectiously happy.
“Never Ceases to Amaze Me” is, on the other hand, super camp, and the video has become somewhat notorious with Tim wearing afro wig and the rest of the band dressed in Star Trek suits materialising in this… zoo… in which he apparently works and examining… these strange hu-man ways… yeah, I think the band have since said that this clip is somewhat embarrasing and they shouldn’t have done it. Despite all this however, the track is not a waste at all with some over the top vocal delivery, energetic drums and ascending bass lines. The following track “Lost for Words”, as well as the album closer “Make Sense of It” are a good use of your Tim Finn and his energetic and frantic stage persona, while the more basic Green Aesop midtempo “Small World” is brought to life by the really effective contrast of driving rhythm and shimmery synths and guitars.
This is followed “Take a Walk” – my favourite number on the album – which also rides an energy wave and delivers a coolish piano solo right after Neil shouts “Run. Boy. Forever AND EVEEEEEER”. Now, I think this song is somewhat prone to word salad moments such as “Funny when we move ahead // Never worry what we leave behind // Remember what a friend of mine said // You gotta be kiiiiind”. And have courage perhaps, then? Is your friend really Cinderella’s mom?
Slowly but surely we have made our way to the sweeping “Pioneer” – Eddie Rayner’s only contribution on this album – which does its best to evoke the ocean at night and with its final elated chord even flash a lighthouse’s welcoming flash of light. And then…
This has to be indeed the centrepiece of this album, not only in its emotional sincerity and a strong motif of overcoming but also because it approaches musical epicness with the glorious introduction of “Pioneer” and the wonderfully trailing coda (not to mention a small sailor song-like break in the middle). Apart from resolving to conquer and set free, the song also explores somewhat remoteness and isolation of the antipodean lands, namedropping the history book on Australia “The Tyranny of Distance” as a way to illustrate psychological isolation, I am sure. An interesting fact is that “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” was banned during the Falklands war in the UK because talk of leaky boats was concerning.
This epic is immediately followed by “Haul Away” in which Tim visits chapters of his life while the instrumentation builds from verse to verse. As an additional nice touch, right after he sings “ambition has lost me friends and time” there is a quick sample from “Split Ends” – one of the bands very first songs from way back when a bunch of friends in a quirky acoustic combo were trying to win some New Zealand tv contest for exposure.
A turn to the darker follows on the penultimate “Log Cabin Fever” by Neil, in which a claustrophobic menacing atmosphere builds up until it is released with the line “Time to break away from my condition // Rejoin the human race, see what I’m missing”. And then the song proceeds to rock out.
It is left to the jangly guitars and somewhat drunk bass on “Make Sense of It” to conclude this album.
As for our conclusion, Time and Tide may not be a milestone in any sense of musical development but it is one of those complete package albums. The sound of it is as delightful as the cover art. It is fun and quirky but also resonates emotionally, and not one second of it is filler or boring. With themes of overcoming obstacles and asserting yourself, and some nice nods to seafaring and adventure, all brought out to shine with some tasteful arrangements, I’d say the record even verges on timeless. While Split Enz’s debut Mental Notes is an exhibition artful quirk and offbeat music hall extravaganza, and the hit album True Colours brings you catchy shiny polished new wave, it is Time and Tide, in my opinion, that is the most complete offering in the Split Enz catalogue. But more than that, as I said in the beginning, the real charm of the Enz that won them over their cult following is perhaps not the whimsical presentation of their early days that must have so impressed people. No, I think the reason people still spin these songs and talk about the band fondly is that the Enz are deep down these straightforward kiwi lads, and while earlier albums painted them into this misfit deadpan snarker role, on Time and Tide they look much more like the protagonists of children novels who may have grown up a bit but still have not lost their thirst for adventure. And this is why I’d always recommend this album.

АКВАРИУМ (AQUARIUM) – Навигатор (Navigator) (1995)

Review by: Nina A

Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Am I always glad to spend some more time in the philosophical company of the only Russian musician we have heard of on this blog – namely the great otherworldly bearded bardic guru Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov. He certainly wasn’t always bearded though and while I have no idea what the progress of his facial hair was by 1995, which is when Navigator got released, what I do know is that after the fall of the Berlin wall, Mr. Grebenshchikov had also already tried to use this new opportunity to export his creative efforts to the West. Here, Wikipedia tells us that he didn’t quite make it and this could be partly attributed to the fact that Russian song tradition emphasizes lyrical complexity over hook and drive, which in the West earned him comparisons to Dylan and not much chart success, and I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that his music was considered for one of the two primordial categories (has hooks: “ooh, Beatle-esque pop!!” vs. has an emphasis on lyrical content: “ooh, Dylan!!!”), as you do, in musical critique, with anything that is new.
Saddened with this new development, Mr. Grebenshchikov decided to go full-on Russian apparently and released the so-called Russian Album, a beautiful acoustic folk-rock affair that relies even more on Russian songwriting tradition, and later, in 1995 came Navigator, which continued in this unmistakably Russian bardic vein with some French chanson flavour and bluesy touches (fourth track “Не коси”’s blues guitar contributed by Mick Taylor stands out here) for good measure. The album was recorded in London, so it also featured contributions by Dave Pegg on the double bass and Dave Mattacks on drums. And since it made use of a bunch of additional instruments: strings, flute, recorder, harpsicord, accordion, mandolin, Tibetan drums, I was curious to look to a previous eclectic Aquarium effort, and nothing spells eclecticism quite like a Russian album named Radio Africa with some Chinese characters plastered on top of a photo taken at the Gulf of Finland, for comparison. While on 1988’s Radio Africa the creative use of the additional instruments to drive the beat or make the texture of the music more complex can rock your socks off with delight, here on Navigator these instruments serve more of a background atmosphere role because it is the bardic narration that takes the front and centre. This is especially so on the title track “Навигатор”, which can really be used as a textbook example of a touching bardic ballad. Well, if you are touched by this type of thing, anyway.
And for all the talk of Dylan, I think that namedropping Mark Knopfler would also not be too out of reach here because didn’t Mr. Knopfler also have a reputation for being a young man who writes good music for old people? (at around 40 at the time of Navigator’s release, Mr. Grebenshchikov was not even eligible for a midlife crisis yet). But more importantly, I feel that both Mr. Knopfler and Mr. Grebenshchikov have been able to pull of songs that are pretty much driven by a lyrical narration and have a comforting melancholy sound with remarkable ease. However, while the majority of Mark Knopfler’s narrations are concerned with ordinary life drama, with most of Boris Grebenshchikov’s composition aspire to levels of Byronic spleen and irony paired with incredible erudition, a combination that has over the years become somewhat of a staple for the model tortured soviet artist (and while soviet times are safely behind us, such artistic types still hang around, inexplicably, mostly in the sphere of fine arts and film education, proudly passing this refined tradition onto their students). Still, Boris Grebenshchikov was made to pull this archetype off and make it very likeable: let’s not forget his friendly melancholy voice of ancient wisdom, talent for lyrical detail and the aforementioned erudition that allows him to slip in the occasional religious or mythological detail for full impact. It is really comforting in a sense when he tackles this aesthetic in his music, and whatever the wry commentary in a particular song might be, you’d accept it with the “I know what you’re talking about” reserved for your closest friends with which you’ve suffered the blows of fate together for God knows how long… yeah, the 90s weren’t the most cheerful of eras in Eastern Europe.
Anyway, Navigator is a fine record put together with loving care and intelligence, featuring no less than two accordion-driven waltzy numbers, two bluesy tracks, a rousing folk epic (track 3 – “Кладбище”) and a whole lot of gentle intimate singing in the finest Russian bardic tradition. The reaction it got out of me was “aww, how cute and so very admirably authentic” but it might get some even more cathartic reactions from other listeners and truly cement Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov’s status of everyone’s favourite great otherworldly bearded bardic guru.

CORDEL DO FOGO ENCANTADO – Cordel do Fogo Encantado (2001)

Review by: Tom Hadrian Kovalevsky
Album assigned by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho

and Arcadio could not find his shoes in the thick afternoon heat, sweltering in dread, as they were not on the porch like Valentina suggested. Valentina escaped admonishment by slithering across the smooth polished floors of the upper part and clinging to the sides of the walls. Alberta clapped her hands in the cool murky downstairs salon, her thin leathery fingers gleaming with fresh water from the fountain, and announced that it was time for piano lessons, and Arcadio, without shoe or delicate beautiful tweed coat from the far-off England of the norman men kicked himself out of the low window onto the garden bed, where the thin weeds and ugly flowers that grew and stagnated there wound themselves around his bony legs and tickled his pink flesh, and he let out a girlish little displeased scream, and Valentina rushed to the bedroom window and saw her delicate brother rushing down the lime-green hill, kicking off reeds of tall grass that caught upon his legs. Valentina called for mother mother moTHER MOTHER MOTHER MOTHER ALBERTA quickly, and slammed her delicate little fingers up and down upon the windowsill with a primal anticipation of Arcadio’s capture. She wailed about escaping piano lessons and not being fed dinner and possibly even worse things to come, and banged upon the wooden frame so hard it was audible for miles around, but to Arcadio it sounded only like drums and a joyous singing, a shouting perhaps, almost half in mourning and half in celebration, in a language from another place that he couldn’t understand. 

VARIOUS ARTISTS (Compiled by DAVID TOOP) – Ocean of Sound (1996)

ASSIGNED BY THE HOST: Great Compilation Albums
Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

Something sounds while you walk by. It will keep sounding even when you are not there, and your mind will have been attracted to something else.

Or maybe not. Maybe your mind is still remembering and playing with what you heard earlier.

In the classical music paradigm, a musical piece was something that developed in time. It went to places. It changed, evolved, and in the apex of the symphonic language’s growth in the 19th century, even direct repetition was frowned upon, because it made no sense to embark on a journey to get back where one started. It was an object, and a narrative, the soundtrack of an era where progress was king and the end of knowledge was theorized to be near.

David Toop’s book “Ocean of Sound”, for which this compilation servers as a soundtrack of sorts, deals with the opposite of that. The lazy description would be that it deals with ambient music and similar, but actually it talks about a kind of music that transcends genres; a music that seems to be in a sort of stasis. And so we find here ambient, yes, but also classical music, jazz (free and fusion), musique concrète,treated field recordings (many by Toop himself), rock, electronica… and well known names such as Les Baxter, Holger Czukay, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis (both at their most electric), My Bloody Valentine, Harold Budd, John Cage, and of course Brian Eno.

The best thing about this compilation is the sequencing. Every track flows seamlessly into the next (so much that in some cases an element that wasn’t there before, such as a vocal, prompted me to see that, yes, it was another track, and on a more attentive listening it was apparent that actually the entire instrumentation was different yet I had not noticed). As minimalist music gives way to recordings of chimes, as boat horns and wildlife get juxtaposed with experimental jazz, we understand how time works here. We are not witnessing a journey. We are taking a walk. Our surroundings change – but not with any sense of inevitability. The music is not the same as a minute ago, but in the same way that it changed like this, it could have changed any other way, and yet there’s not a lack of cohesion.

A good summation could be the Ornette Coleman track included. It’s not directed anywhere per se. But even if we could say it’s directionless, it’s not aimless. It’s beautiful music that simply “is”. But if you are preparing yourself to be awash in a sea of rhythmic fluidity and aural massage, the tracklist is subversive since the start, as the album begins with King Tubby’s dub reggae – by no means a kind of music lacking in pulse – and settles for a while in a groove provided by Herbie Hancock first and Aphex Twin later before moving to stiller places just when you thought you were in the coolest club ever. Notice however how the stasis Toop mentioned is still there – all three songs sound like they are moving but in reality they are not actually going anywhere.

The inclusion of Debussy’s “Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune” is a given since Toop sees him as the genesis of 20th century music, and it’s interesting that in the company of the other tracks, this composition, which at its time was revolutionary in that it seemed to paint a still picture – none of the “telling a story” pretensions of Lisztian tone poems – sounds like having a lot of movement in comparison. It works a bit less with the included Velvet Underground song, which I think has too much of a traditional dynamic to fit. In that regard I think the My Bloody Valentine selection works much better. It’s also curious to hear the well-known “Fire” theme from the Beach Boys’ “Smile” here – actually in its Smiley Smile “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” guise, no doubt because it was the only official version of it at the time of the compilation – and noticing how well it works.

By now I think it’s clear that I like the album. That I recommend the album. Maybe you did not make an impression from my words. It’s all right – just go listen to it if you can. After all, to paraphrase Brian Eno’s manifesto, much of this music can be as ignorable as it is interesting. As background noise I far prefer it to TV. But do listen.

Summing up will make me sound like I was getting somewhere, which defeats the entire philosophy of the sonic ocean.

So I just keep on walking.

EDAN – Beauty and the Beat (2005)

Review by: Syd Spence
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

There are many types of disappointing albums. There is the kind that the hype machine has made the album’s reputation grow to monstrous proportions, to the point where anything but the second coming of Pet Sounds would leave you feeling underwhelmed. This is particular popular with the website Pitchfork and their numerous flavors of the month. Then there is the aggravated form of this phenomenon, where it’s not just some hipster journal trying to suck your eyeballs for attention, but from the grand whole of western music criticism. This album is the greatest ever says every learned soul in all of the rock ‘n’ roll journals, but you stumble upon it and it just leaves you flat. I’ve experienced this with many sacred cows like Who’s Quadrophenia or Who’s Tommy. In fact most of Who’s catalogue. Then there is a band who you held in high regard, whose last album really lit a fire in your soul and you are just on pins and needles waiting for that next musical hit. Then they release it and … Oooo boy, is it not as good. Hell, it might even be a good record analyzed by it’s mere lonesome but compared to that last masterstroke it might as well be nickleback. Pretty much the totality of the Rolling Stone’s post Exile records fit into this category, because lets face it, it’s only rock n’ roll and not perfection.

And then there is something different, an album that isn’t bad at all, nor is it of a lesser quality then it’s predecessor. No, the album is so good, so genius, so phenomenal that it’s very existence taints other albums in it’s genre. It’s not disappointing, it just makes all of its competitors disappoint in comparison. Edan’s Beauty and the Beat is one such example of this phenomenon I’ve listened to a multitude of classic hip hop masterpieces, and yes, many of them were good, but none of them hit that sweet spot that Beauty and the Beat hit. Why? Because this record is exceptional in production, lyrics and form.

One click in any musical encyclopedia will mention that this is a psychedelic hip hop record. That alone makes it unique. Now a multitude of hip hoppers may make the odd trippy song or make an ode to a non alcohol/weed/codeine substance (ex. D-12’s Purple Pills), but these were one off tracks and generally the artist got back to the business at hand,whether it be bravado or tales of ghetto living. Beauty and Beat on the other hand, drips lysergia from every pore, especially in regard to its production. 

Edan is an excellent DJ, you can just feel how long he scoured record store crates. searching for obscure samples to use on this record, and boy did he hit a main vein. He pillages the rubble of ’60s psychedelia to fill this album with psychedelic nuggets. As a huge fan of 60’s psychedelia, I’ve always been delighted when I find a song that Edan has sampled on this record and so far I’ve only found two, which are Music Machine’s Hey, Joe and Pretty Thing’s Wall of Destiny, featured on Making Planets and Murder Mystery respectively. That’s quite an impressive feat considering the amount of obscure psychedelia on my hard drive.

Edan doesn’t just let the obscure samples do the majority of the work, like say a NWA’s Express Your Self type jam. No, he expertly blends, manipulates, and adds effects to these tracks. There are weird lazer beams, bubbling cauldrons, backmasked orchestras and god knows what else. All painstakingly gathered to inflame your brain’s novelty centers.. Every note, every sample, sounds just perfectly placed in it’s surreal beauty and it all leads to one mesmerizing whole. Each track progresses into the next making the albums feel less like a mixtape and more like a singular piece, a psychedelic suite of hip hop perfection.

Though the production of this album is phenomenal, this isn’t just some DJ Shadow style record, No this is rap music and Edan is a MC as well. Now his flow is not the best, but compared to the epitome of producer turned MC, Kanye West, he’s a goddamn Biggie Smalls. His style is that of an urban white kid with an abstract flair, like a streetwise kid that went to art school. It’s pretty decent, but I feel his collaborators steal the show on their tracks. For example, on Torture Chamber, Percee P spits a frenetic, terrifying ode to his rap prowess, comparing his rhymes to the heinous murders of famous serial killers. It’s fantastic in conveying menace in a psychedelic stream of cruel consciousness, like he’s the rap Charles Manson.

Though this record does make use of the typical subject matter of hip hop like Percee P’s torturous rap bravado, it tackles something I’ve not heard in hip hop before. It uses poetry to elucidate the psychedelic experience. It reminds me of this sample off this psytrance track, about the mysterious ancient Indian Drug Soma. The sample states, “Soma is not really a plant. Poetry is not really language. Soma is poetry.” or as Edan puts it. “I use pens like hallucinogenics, so who can pretend my music isn’t a beautiful thing.” Let’s use the track Murder Mystery as an example of this beautiful thing. In it Edan uses the hazy dark psychedelic Pretty Things sample to rhyme abstractly. A sample of his verse reads,

I have no idea what any of that means but it’s sounds magnificent. It’s a collection of beautiful surreal imagery, that leads your mind in novel and strange corridors, making you feel like those hallucinogenic pens are beginning to take hold. This abstract imagery is not unheard of in rock (The girl with the kaleidoscope eyes, etc), but I’ve yet to hear anything like this on a rap record. Well, at least in a psychedelic sense, Ol’ Dirty Bastard does seem to convey what I think crack cocaine would be like, but I digress.

The last point I’d like to make is that this album is a brief 39 minutes long, with not a single duff track or lame skit. I can’t think of a single one of my other favorite hip hop records that pull off that feat. Biggie’s Ready to Die has that lame sex skit. Dr Dre’s 2001 has all those songs that aren’t The Next Episode and Forgot about Dre. Hell, even albums that have no bad tracks like say Enter the 36 chambers, go on a bit too long. This record is a sweet 39 minutes and frankly always leads you wanting more.

Edan’s Beauty and the Beat is disappointing in this regard. Edan has yet to make another LP. Yeah, he made a mix of oldschool hip hop tracks (reimagined Edan style) in 2009, but he’s yet to make a proper LP. It’s disappointing, cause the things I would do for some more Edan, but perhaps it’s for the best. It’s better to leave with a bang than make a mediocre sequel. Though, honestly, in these 11 years, I’ve hungered for some goats head soup. Oh well, I guess i’ll just have to endure with whatever hip hop Quadrophenia Kanye’s cooked up as of late. Pitchfork said it was great, so I know I won’t be disappointed.