XIU XIU – Fabulous Muscles (2004)

Review by: Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan
Album assigned by: Ed Luo 

 

Fabulous Muscles might start off innocuously enough, with a bumbling 8-bit circus rhythm and a vague, softly spoken intro, but it doesn’t take long for things to ratchet up a gear and  the listener to find him or herself subject to the first opening barrage of histrionics and to experience the album’s prevailing mood of uncompromising psychic honesty. FM is a paen to emotional incontinence and tormented self-expression, a sort of musical approximation to the effects of primal scream therapy — or else you could also quite easily just dismiss it as one massive grown up tantrum set to precarious, ugly music. It’s supposed to sound prickly and erratic, and you’re supposed to feel like a voyeur for listening into something that sounds so vulnerable, so intimate: all of it pouring out straight from the Xiu Xiu dude’s tortured little soul, pure and unmediated; and uncompromising too, refusing to make concessions to the  more conventional listener’s conventional musical expectations. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy into all that.

Xiu Xiu have been called noise, except that I always feel that with a noise artist like Merzbow the idea is to effect a kind of pure self effacement, to privilege sound above everything, whereas FM, is about employing harsh, dissonant music and awkward, distressed vocals, as a means primarily of manifesting an overwhelming inner turmoil. Interestingly enough Xiu Xiu seem to be at their most effective when they write actual songs. A case in point is ‘I love the valley OH’, which is by far my highlight of the album. It’s a song which I found myself returning to over and over again, both because it has a great hook and because of its emotional resonance. In the end though the problem with FM is that unless you have one of two extreme reactions to FM — either that of rejecting it straight off the bat because it makes you feel too queasy, or that of feeling yourself completely in tune with Xiu Xiu, a kindred at the level of your twitchy jangling nerves — then it makes you feel as if you’re missing out on something. Nevertheless it’s a worthy enough attempt. (7/10)
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SIR HARRY LAUDER – Roaming in the Gloaming (2013)

Review by: Schuyler L.
Album assigned by: Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan

Sir Harry Lauder is a really happy sorta guy. He’s good at drinking whiskey and loves to wax nostalgic about Scotch lassies and purple heather (“more like ‘PUURRPLLEe HAAAAZZZZzzzee,’ am I right now, dads?”) and has a really exquisite talent for rolling his “r’s”… I do wonder, how did he earn his knightship? ? ? (insert more suggestive question marks here).

Regardless of this totally needless query posited to occupy typespace, I must say that to his credit, Lauder only tends to be at the very forefront of the record’s sound about 80% of the time, with another 10% consisting of somewhat forced, explosive laughter… which is all right, really, because that reminds me a bit of the musical accompaniment… somewhat forced!

I am not going to review this one track-by-track, nor even mention a single track at all. And there’s really no point to it, with something as self-apparent as this record, which is one of a slowly growing pool of centenarians. 

You see, the problem is that Sir Harry Lauder is to subtle abstraction as marble is to concrete. 

And by that, I do also mean that he’s really white.

This is the kind of music you play after your luck has taken a bad turn. Perhaps you’ve lost your job, or your wife has left you because of your fantasy sports addiction, or maybe you lost one of your brand new running sneakers in the escalator at work, because you just happened put your foot on the side of it, though you damn well know you shouldn’t do that, fucking asshole.


Because no matter what happens, you can still listen to Roaming in the Gloaming and say “Wow, how awesome it is that possibly on this very day, a hundred-and-something years ago, Sir Harry Lauder was totally getting off in Scotland!” 

DE KIFT – Vlaskoorts (1999)

Review by: Syd Spence
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

De Kift is a band that plays a modern reconstruction of early 19th century cabaret music. All of these tunes seemed born from working class music halls during the turn of the 20th century, and then given a slight discordant modern touch with the odd arrangement or spoken word bit. It’s not too discordant to off shoot the old fashioned songs, but it’s enough to know that the musicians probably own a few Einsturzende Neubauten records. The question though is it any good? And that’s where we have a problem. 

I came to this record with multiple prejudices and inadequacies that hinder my enjoyment. One, It has taken me lots of repeated listenings to jazz, soul, and reggae records to not hate brass instruments. I come from America and the tradition of big brass bands playing in our sports is an endemic anachronism, and I find those old war marches a combination of quaint and shrill. Cabaret brass comes from a similar heritage and despite a bit of a jazz influence on this record, it still has that frumpy uptight feel. 

Two, I really hate accordions. I don’t know why exactly i’m turned off by them. Where i’m from, the accordion is super popular with Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, and perhaps some hidden racism or classism is afoot. It’s the main instrument in tejano music which is a combination of Mexican folk and German polka music. I’ve always loathed it, as well as polka music. Something about the rhythms just seem so sexless, and uptight. And polka is a hop skip and a jump from cabaret, or is literally a subgenre of it. I really don’t know much about European folk brass dance music. In my mind, Europe’s best musical invention was combining synthesizers and disco rhythms, and well, this is a long way from Giorgio Moroder. 

And last, I’m American. I speak one language. It’s ridiculous and limiting, I know, so the parts where spoken word poetry is happening, I tune out. It’s not melodic and I don’t understand what’s being spoken. I have hunch it’s political in some regard but i don’t know. The cleverness or beauty of the poetry is completely absent in my loathsome ignorance.

So I did not like this album, but I feel i have no real way to adequately critique it due to my prejudices. I will say that they didn’t go far enough beyond cabaret cliches to make me question my prejudices. I have heard some gypsy punk and dark cabaret groups that make me second guess my hatred of old European dance music. This just made me want to delete it from hard drive as soon as possible.

RED KRAYOLA – The Parable of Arable Land (1967)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by: Kunal Somaiya

This is one album I heard a lot about, but I actually never listened to it. Now I did, and I can inform you, dear reader, about the results.
A one line review would possibly read like this: “Psychedelic like The 13th Floor Elevators, but without the jug, and linking individual pieces by Free Form Freak-Outs, interludes that sound almost exactly like what they suggest”.
A four word review would read; “Garage rock in 1967”.
It is a challenging listen for several reasons:
·          The Free Form Freak-Outs, are not really composed, and not really music either. They remind me of parts of Lumpy Gravy or early Can
·         The actual songs, such as they are, are all of the droney persuasion and there is not a lot of variation in the 40+ minutes
·         Recording quality is pretty bad, even for 1967 standards, making it difficult to discern any (possible) subtleties.
For me as a dead head, the best way to approach it is like a 40 minute Dark Star: some recurring themes, some collective improvisation in the instrumental passages, sometimes moving into rather abstract territory, leaving the language of music (as if parts of What’s Become Of The Baby are inserted randomly).
“Pink Stainless Tail” is the most normal song, somewhat sounding like The Small Faces, with a more fuzzy bass. By the same token, the title song, “Parable Of Arable Land”, is the weirdest song, sounding somewhat like “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals” (off Ummagumma), working frantically in Brian’s “Smile Workshop”. “Former Reflections Enduring Doubt” is the best song, and a nice one to finish the album with.
Most likely this will not be anybody’s favorite 1967 record (and if it is, that’s quite worrying!), but on the other hand, this is really one of those records that make up the myth of 1967, even after all those years. It only belongs in a VERY comprehensive collection, I’d say.

EARTH AND FIRE – Song of the Marching Children (1971)

Review by: B.B. Fultz
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn

This is an album by a prog(gish) Netherlands band called Earth and Fire. I say proggish because they are unusual for a prog band. Their sound, at least on this album, is more folkish and antiquated than the common definition of prog rock. They’re more like Jethro Tull than anything, and Tull was always sort of a white crow among the British and American prog bands of the time. Earth and Fire with its female vocalist (rare for any prog band) is maybe even more of a white crow.

The opening song is called “Carnival of the Animals.” It is about animals in the forest doing various animal things. My first impression was Jefferson Airplane. Lilting female vocals and a vaguely martial drumbeat. Both the words and the music set the theme for the rest of the album. Storybook lyrics, crisp drum rhythms, and prominent synthesizers dominate the songs. It is very much an album of its time. The synthesizers especially have that early 70s synth sound that was to change in a few years as synths became more advanced. The overall mood, to me, seems more 60s than 70s. There’s a sense of lost innocence and a yearning for a simpler and more natural world.

“Ebbtide” is an idyllic song about tides and gulls. It’s an interesting combination of watery synths, flute solos, random guitar licks, and an almost jazz-like rhythm background. It reminds me of another song, or a few other songs, that I can’t name at the moment. 

“Storm and Thunder” is reminiscent of early ELP, but with more baroque elements. The keyboards are more dominant here than on the other songs.

“In The Mountains” ventures into Pink Floyd territory. The lead guitar is slow and lilting, very much in the Gilmour style. The keyboard as well is more the art-rock of Rick Wright than anything by Emerson or Wakeman.

The closing multi-part suite “Song of the Marching Children” is an interesting piece. I’m not sure I get it, lyrically, but it seems to be about the endless legacy of war, which the human race seems like it will never entirely escape. It sounds like a lament for all the future generations that will have to send their youth off to fight. The very end confirms this idea … all the other instruments fade and there is only the relentless martial drumbeat, the endless march.

Overall impression — a mostly soothing and pleasant album, pretty on the ear, and with interesting moments here and there, but rarely rising above the level of basic prog-folk. Then again, maybe a little basic prog-folk is just what you’re in need of. Worth a listen or two, at any rate. 

The version I located on YouTube had bonus tracks. “Invitation” is the first of them, notable because it rocks a lot more than the original album tracks, so it’s an abrupt change of pace after the solemnity of the album. It’s different, and it’s quite good.  “Lost Forever” is another rocker among the bonus tracks, and it’s also quite good — slow and heavy and brutal, unlike the album. There’s some surprising guitarwork in it too, striking little arpeggio-moments that wouldn’t be out of place in an Iron Maiden song (!) although Iron Butterfly comes closer to describing the song in general (either way it’s a very metallic song). For me the highlights of this band are when they rock. They have a nice heavy sound when they rock, not unlike early Budgie, a band that I like a lot. There’s another new track called “Memories,” not quite as good as the other two, but worth a listen. There are also single versions of “Song For The Marching Children” (not “OF the Marching Children” for some reason) and “Storm and Thunder.” If you seek this album out, I’d recommend finding the version with the bonus tracks. To me Earth and Fire is at their most interesting when they rock.

THE THELONIOUS MONK QUARTET – Misterioso (1959)

Review by: Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho
Album assigned by: Schuyler El Luis

When Schuyler assigned me a Thelonious Monk album, out of all NYC records he could have assigned me, I got the uncomfortable feeling I was going to disappoint him. I’m not the biggest fan of jazz, you see, and I specifically dislike noodling. Still, there was some hope, as I had previously listened to and enjoyed some well-regarded albums, like A Love Supreme and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Maybe I would enjoy this too, and even enlighten myself more on this much-celebrated genre of music.

Well, it saddens me to say that even among the little jazz I’ve seriously listened to, Misterioso is particularly boring. Thelonious is a pianist, and I generally prefer the piano to wind instruments in jazz, so I thought it would be a strong point. But, to my alas, it’s one of the weakest, shiest pianos I’ve seen in the genre. Not that the other instruments are that much prominent. Somehow, it feels like every single instrument takes a secondary role in this record.

Jazz tracks generally start with a pattern that gets repeated or built up for a minute or more, before the improvisation part starts and goes for a while, until the pattern comes back for the end of the song. In the case of the jazz I’ve enjoyed, those initial patterns are usually very catchy, and they linger on my mind, easing in the noodling parts, that I don’t appreciate that much. Misterioso doesn’t even try to hook me, however. The initial patterns are all weak and uninteresting, except perhaps the one in “In Walked Bud”. Too bad this track has the worst solo of all in the disk, starting by the 3-minute mark, which ruins the previously built goodwill. It’s also the longest one, and god, what a chore it is to finish it!

The improv parts feel so dull and lifeless to my not-a-fan ears. I think part of the blame goes to the weakness of the initial themes, but that surely wasn’t the sole factor. None of the instruments seem like they were trying to reach a strong emotion here. It feels like the players were too content in making a sophisticated atmosphere and nothing more. I bet none of them even sweated. If I were to list moments that stood out, I would have to handpick stuff like drum solos, which is a testament to how much I disliked the overall sound. “Blues Five Spot” has a line that sounds like the “Popeye” tune for some seconds before disassembling itself, starting around 3:40. The title track has a growing melody of horns (or other brass instrument, I’m not good at picking them apart) around the 6-7 minute mark, but instead of climbing to a climax it fizzles out and opens the way for more meaningless piano.

I think Misterioso might have been the non-João-Gilberto jazz album I disliked the most. It is a dull long-winded 46 minutes of noise that neither excited the surface of my mind, nor sank comfortably to the bottom as background music. Instead, it made its presence felt all the time, but as an annoyance. It was a bad experience that I don’t wish to repeat.

THE FLAMING LIPS – Clouds Taste Metallic (1995)

Review by: Victor Guimarães
Album assigned by: Syd Spence

“So, it was a warm spring evening when I arrived at Oklahoma City to see its most famous band: The Flaming Lips. And in this hometown-comeback concert, they’re playing Clouds Taste Metallic in full! Wow, can’t wait for that!”

Gods, I surely wanted to have said that sentence just above. And to have lived it as well – you know what they say about the amazing experience that is a Lips concert? Something like 50 bands to see before you (or they) die. But, unfortunately, all that I got was the pleasure of restraining myself to online streaming players. Damn! 

Ok, everyone knows the band, right? Americans, heavily inspired by psychedelic culture and known for their sound experimentations from the 80s to this day. Cool, huh? Clouds Taste Metallic is their seventh album, the last to feature guitarist Ronald Jones, and the last guitar-oriented, traditional rock based album. So, expect lots of good rock songs, all of them as short as 4 minutes, and all sporting great spirit. Expect well-thought melodies, those whose drum tempos, bass lines, guitar solos were precisely orchestrated to fit in together with the smart free-verse singing and bring specific emotions to the listener. Now, add the spaced, poetic, metaphorical lyrics and you’ve got the recipe for a great album.

Well, no one is expected to be spared from criticism, right? I could say the songs are too short, that they could’ve been done in a better, most complex way. Or that the lyrics are, in its majority, too metaphorical, too indirect, in such a way that a full comprehension will require some mindwork from the average listener. No, it’d all be wimpy criticism. One could also say the album is too simple. Come on! They are the ‘good simple’, with discrete touches of geniality all over the album. For me, those small, discontinuous, but ever-present displays of great ideas is exactly what (and one of the many ways that) distinguishes a great composition from a good one. But even with all that praise, I still got the feeling that there was something amiss in Clouds Taste Metallic. As I write those final lines of this review, after listening to the album a couple of times, I still hadn’t figured out what I think they missed. 

At last, don’t fool yourself with doubts or second thoughts: great album from a great band. What more could I say? I wished I’d seen ‘em live!