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.

CHRIS CUTLER & FRED FRITH – 2 Gentlemen in Verona (2000)

Review by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho

Cutler & Frith are a pair of avant-garde rock musicians and multi-instrumentalists, who gathered in the city of Verona to do some live improvisations. This album was a result of that concert, and was then named after one of the lesser-known Shakespeare plays. The track listing pays further homage to that play, as all tracks are titled “Act X, Scene Y” and have subtitles that reference characters and actions as well. Having never seen the play, I cannot say how tight those references are, though.

The “acts” by themselves don’t seem particularly consistent. Act 1 is composed of three “scenes” featuring the duo on the instruments that made them notable, drums for Chris and guitar for Fred. It was a good session of noise-making, overall. The first two scenes in Act 2 feature non-verbal vocals, screeching guitars and a tighter percussion, for a very dark and intense effect. The act mellows out and turns electronic on the third “scene”, unfortunately, and while it later gains on intensity and features some cool guitar wailing, it never follows up on the earlier vibes. I guess that is the flaw of improv music in general, while they touch many good ideas, they don’t carry them till the end.

Acts 3 and 4 are very similar to each other, with the jazziest percussion. Given that they consist of a single track each, they really should have been a single act. Act 5 starts as a sort of sound collage, but then turns into a military march. The encore is bluesy, and perhaps the best thing here after the early Act 2. Frith is a good guitarist, but he plays very little guitar in this album. The main “attraction”, to me, was Cutler’s beats, great throughout the record, and notable particularly as the saving point in the weaker tracks.

Listening to this live, watching the two gents perform all that crazy stuff, would be a great experience. Listening to this in my house hampers the immersion, and I can’t really enjoy this more than an interesting oddity.

THE STOOGES – Metallic K.O. (1976)

Review by: Charly Saenz

First thing I love about this album: it was recorded by a fan friend with an open reel machine: Cool. 

Want more? It began its story as a bootleg, in 1976, an important year as Punk scene was just getting stronger. And yes, many listeners will find Punk colors here, but beyond the attitude (and the “explicit” lyrics), what I find here is pure rock and roll.

I hear Jerry Lee Lewis, I hear the Doors (I would almost expect an “I’ve got my mojo risin'” on “Head On”), lots of raw rawk, no prisoners taken.

“Gimme Danger” is the kind of song you buy an album for. Its mid tempo is hot, it’s menacing, as Iggy, like a tired but anxious monster sings “There’s nothing in my dreams/Just some ugly memories”.. 

The thing is, obviously the Stooges had some massive fun onstage, and they didn’t give a damn for anything except to play and play. Harder, dirtier. That’s the spirit (“There’s not enough chaos in music”, said Jim M.), that’s what you do when you’re into this rock and roll business; you have fun, you have your say, and eventually they’ll come to you, the fans, the believers. Even if it takes years to find out you ever existed.. 

And that’s how you get stuff like “Rich Bitch”, a song that is almost built brick by brick.. Live. Because it wouldn’t work, the guys just kept missing the beat; but you have Iggy and he’ll make it work, right? Incredibly long, but who cares? This is a serious bootleg, that’s all. 

And there at the very end you get the “Louie Louie” we can only expect from Iggy and his partners. Three minutes of pure blood and sparks, a repetitive guitar, a somehow misplaced piano playing to fill in holes.. Not a plan here, indeed. We’re going nowhere, we’re just rocking. Gimme more. 

Nah, that’s more than enough. Probably the only live albums that should exist are bootlegs, after all. And seven songs long, and let’s go home.

Play it loud, baby.


ASSIGNED BY THE HOST: Great Overlooked Artists
Review by: Eric Pember

This album is an unusual case to me. The concept is fairly clever, and one I probably would’ve loved had I listened to it when I was a teenager. Now, however, it just kinda sounds bland to me.

I dunno exactly why. I tried to read RateYourMusic reviews to try to figure out what exactly my issue was, and I saw the name “The Black Crowes” thrown around. I find them to be similarly bland, so that might be my issue here. 

Just to be clear, I don’t dislike all throwback roots-rock. I love The Black Keys and The White Stripes, and I’ve intended to listen more to Calexico for a while now. There’s just something about this that doesn’t quite click with me. It might be the oddly sterile sound, which you can say about The Black Crowes but not really any of those other bands (regardless of your overall feelings on them).

It’s not necessarily the case of having nothing to say, because it’s not like Dan Auerbach has anything to say either, but The Black Keys still sound good more often than not. It’s just that the sound is itself personalityless. 

The only track that really works with me is “The Line”, and that’s probably just because I’m a sucker for meaningful sprawl. Even then, it doesn’t quite click with me like The Boo Radleys’ The White Noise Revisited (to name an example of a truly mindblowing ending track) does.

Apparently, this is fairly atypical of the rest of their discography, so I might still need to listen to it. Their other stuff has been compared to Jesus and Mary Chain, so I’d probably like it just for that alone.

JOSEF K – Entomology (2006)

ASSIGNED BY THE HOST: Great Compilation Albums
Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn

A compilation of sorts, so I’ll discuss each song shortly: 
“Radio Drill Time” reminds me somewhat of Talking Heads.
“It’s Kinda Funny” has funny disco sounds in the chorus.
“Final Request” moves a bit in Madness territory, with some added distorted guitar effects.
“Heads Watch” sounds a bit like the Jam, fronted by Lou Reed in the late seventies.
“Drone” is again sung by Lou Reed over a nervous bassline.
“Sense of Guilt” sounds very English, circa 1980, when indie groups wanted to show how dependent they were on 60’s psychedelic sounds and effects.
“Citizens” is a little more funky, still basically bass, guitar and drums.
“Variation of Scene” is notably slower (someone is even walking through the music). It sounds as if the singer desperately needs a change of scene.
“Endless Soul” speeds up again. I can easily imagine this being sung by Patti Smith. Nice song.
“Sorry for Laughing” is a very simple song, with bass and rhythm guitar again “doubling up”, making it sound rather one-dimensional. The underlying melody is quite nice, but it’s a bit demo-like.
“Revelation” again features very nervous sounding guitar, but I’m finding it difficult to describe the songs in words that I have not used before.
“Chance Meeting” is a nice song, but it’s ruined by the nasally sounding vocals. Imagine this being sung by Jeff Buckley and with some rearranging…
“Pictures (Of Cindy)”, another nervous song. I must say the mood, the melodies and the instrumentation do not vary a lot over the course of this album.
“Fun ‘n’ Frenzy” gets the frenzy across in a good way, but where’s the fun? Another late 70’s, early 80’s English sounding song. This time the singer is mixed into the background a bit, and there’s another guitar.
“Crazy to Exist” is mixed the same way, and is indeed taken from the same album, The only fun in town. Just imagine that album being the only fun in town!
“Forever Drone”, similar somewhat muddy mix, not related to Drone
“Heart of Song” sounds a little more funky, but still quintessentially English.
“16 Years” is also a little funky, with an ever so slightly more prominent bass, at least in the intro. The guitar (synth?) that plays the main “melody” sounds a little like a speeded up Gary Numan.
“The Angle” is better produced than the songs off the album The only fun in town, but the song is not so good.
“Heaven Sent” is rhythmically a bit more varied (not enough to call it complex or sophisticated however), but other than that, it’s another English pop song with a nervous singer urgently suggesting you do something, or urgently telling you how he feels.
“The Missionary”, while generally a nice position, alas, as a musical statement it does not fulfil.
“Applebush” is a nice song. It may be partly due to a sense of relief that it’s over, but it’s on the whole a little happier, almost Piper at the gates of dawn-happy. The last two songs are Peel sessions, at least showing, if proof was needed, that they know how to recreate their studio sound perfectly.
What to make of it? 60’s inspired pop music as made in (mainly) England at the end of the 70’s into the 80’s is in many ways more interesting than 70’s glam rock that also got revived again in the early 80’s (by Spandau Ballet, ABC, etc). If you liked the genre in the 60’s, there’s nothing wrong as such with later artists copying that style. But it is of paramount importance that compositions are good, musicianship is good and singing is good. Here I think Josef K fails to deliver.
They may proudly wear their influences on their sleeves (seeing as these come from one of the greatest eras in modern pop music), but if there’s no substance, no individual talent and no creativity that takes it any further, there’s not much to love. Is it utterly bad? No, but if it’s not better than the original, it does not really add anything and, most importantly, it simply does not entertain so much as it’s way too repetitive. I guess some underground groups like Josef K deserve to stay there. Ultimately, this is NOT a hidden gem by a sadly overlooked, very talented artist.

THE ABYSSINIANS – Satta: The Best of The Abyssinians (2015)

ASSIGNED BY THE HOST: Great Overlooked Artists
Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Reggae is not my thing. The thing closest to reggae that I own, and actually quite like, is a set by Toots and the Maytals on Dub side of the mule, a live album by Gov’t Mule. I always plan to buy a Bob Marley greatest hits compilation, so that the genre is represented in my music collection. That guy wrote or performed a few famous reggae tunes in the seventies such as No woman, no cry, Get up stand up, One Love and Could you be loved. What I like about him is that he was also sort of a symbol for Jamaican reggae culture: Rastafari, ganja and dreads, but reggae fanatics probably consider him a crossover artist who sold out.

What do I like about reggae? Well, hmmm.., the music is usually happy and quite rhythmic.
What do I not like about reggae? I hardly ever focus on the lyrics, but I would not be surprised if the lyrics are on the whole a lot sadder than the music would suggest. Vocals tend to sound whiny. I think that as a genre it’s way too constrained by the rules. That does not bother me with, say, bossa nova or blues, but with some styles, reggae and tango being prime examples, the ’structural and formal homogeneity’ bores me to death from the second track.
Especially the (rhythm) guitar, and sometimes a keyboard, on the off beat (alternating with the bass) annoys me. As far as Caribbean / South American music goes (or basically anything south of Cajun/Zydeco), this is by far my least favorite music style.
So, so far this review is more a confession about my taste, but I wanted to inform you, dear reader, about where I come from.
This album has not convinced me of the intrinsic value of reggae music. It’s probably well played; I liked the fact that sometimes they sing together and that horns play a prominent role in some songs. The dub medley (versions) suggest that some versions have been updated or remixed, sometimes quite interesting to hear (once), for instance some ‘echoey’ effects.
But, still my ears fail me, I just cannot get into reggae. It’s actually easy on the ears (compared to lots of jazz such as Eric Dolphy, or prog like Magma and the like), but in the end it’s too meandering. As it was assigned to me by someone who likes reggae and/or considers this a reggae masterpiece, I suggest that reggae lovers check it out for themselves. It may indeed be a lost milestone in the history of reggae.
Because of my ‘relationship at arm’s length’ with reggae, I feel not even qualified to determine if this is good reggae. In fact, although I did like the first song (Satta amassa gana) when I heard it for the first time, as of this moment I’ll postpone my decision to get a compilation by Bob Marley indefinitely.

JAMES BROWN – Live at the Apollo (1963)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn

In a possible new series of Important Live Albums, this is an important and powerful first entry. Later, James Brown would sound even less constrained, on “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, and downright funky on “Sex Machine”, “The Payback” and the like. But this is where it in many ways started: a half hour album, recorded on October 24, 1962 in NYC and released later in 1963, with some added applause (the version I own is fleshed out with another “generous” 10 minutes, basically single mixes from some of the other material).
Even at over 50 years of age, with old-fashioned background singing, musical accompaniment that’s still carefully sophisticated rather than outrageously funky, this album is a testament to the vision of James Brown. Obviously, in showmanship and musicality he ultimately paved the way for Jimi Hendrix and even Prince, but most importantly, here he created (at least in the perception of the public) his James Brown persona, the hardest working man in showbiz, and modern dance music as a genre.
Compared to other white (Everly Brothers, early Beatles and Beach Boys) and black artists (Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, later Curtis Mayfield and others) of the time, this was anarchy, plain and simple. His delivery and his stage presence (and the call and response singing) created a type of mass hysteria and fainting girls (or so I imagine) that were unprecedented at the time. And yes, parts of this had been heard before, as he had been working (hard) for the five years leading up to this album. But this was the live album that cemented his reputation.
With hindsight it’s easy to point out that it’s way too short and that the applause feels artificial in places. The musicians (drummer, guitar and organ especially) play way too subdued and they don’t do James justice. James shines however: he cries, he screams, he orgasms all the way to the Hall of Fame. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not just a great little dance album, it is an important album. Get it!