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.

THE WAILIN’ JENNYS – Bright Morning Stars (2011)

Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken

I was going to start this review by pointing out how the fact that the name of the group was a convoluted pun on Waylon Jennings was probably the most interesting thing there was to say about them! Truth is I originally found Bright Morning Stars to be massively soporific, to the extent that I had to force myself to listen to it all the way through. And it’s no understatement to say that I really struggled to summon up any kind of enthusiasm for it. But before I continue on my way to the eventual denouement of this little tale, let me give you at least a smidgen of background on the band itself. 

The Wailin’ Jennys are a female vocal harmony trio in the country-folk-roots mould. They hail from Canada — the band was formed in Winnipeg on the Eastern edge of the wide Canadian Prairies — and the record, Bright Morning Stars, their fourth album, was first released in 2011. My first few listens I’ll admit to having them down as the kind of placid, overly sincere music that you might associate with say a feminist knitting circle, or a tiresome but particularly self-satisfied coffee shop. It’s not that I have any kind of problem with country music or folksy americana (set aside for the moment the fact that it’s Canadians that made this) in general: no, not at all. Indeed a lot of my favourite music would easily fit that description, or at least fall within the overall sphere of influence of those genres. It’s just, well, I couldn’t escape the whiff of cliche emanating from the album, and I found it to be an awfully dreary and generic affair at first — but let me emphasise that ‘at first’ here. 

But even more than that, I was put off by the fact that the whole album seemed stuck in a sort of low energy trap, which isn’t much help when you consider that — and realise I am in no way proud of this — my main mode of listening to music nowadays is over headphones at work. And, well, I have enough problems concentrating on anything for more than a few minutes during working hours anyway, so the additional torpor induced by Bright Morning Stars made it a challenge to get through, especially on balmy afternoons with the sunlight streaming in through the blinds. I was after something much more ‘stimulating’ and so felt slightly resentful that I had to listen to the record and at least try and be half-way fair to it for the review.

Like I said this was originally gonna be a dismissive review, but at certain point my subconscious intervened and took a firm stand on behalf of these three mellifluous if lethargic folk maidens. It happened one morning, round about dawn, that I was in that strange and vulnerable hypnopompic state of mind between sleep and wakefulness, when I heard, or more accurately was haunted by the sensation of, a serene chorus of female voices, siren voices, singing a song that was so comfortingly familiar it was as if I’d known it for years. Except I hadn’t known it for years, I’d known it for about a week or so; waking up with the residue of those blissful voices still ringing in my mind, it took me a minute or so before I realised where it was I’d heard that song before — at which point I was fairly taken aback. I mean I certainly hadn’t expected to be won over so quickly, and my mind become suddenly so attuned to a record that just the day before I’d struggled to listen to all the way through. Where I had previously perceived an insubstantiality to Bright Morning Stars, an insipidity that seemed reflective of mediocrity and a lack of imagination, I now found myself listening to music that was weightless — yes — but that also sounded graceful and inspired: the melodies were not lukewarm and aimless, as I had first taken them to be, instead, transformed by time and the deeper workings of the brain, I appreciated and was able to applaud their delicacy and refinement. 
Folk music is at its best when it sounds timeless — especially, that is, when the songs themselves are new; that’s the craft. Each record, each performance, is supposed to fit seamlessly into the tradition, so as to ensure that there aren’t any jolts of the sort that used to occur every so often in rock and pop. Indeed once upon a time rock music and popular music used to thrive off of breaks in continuity, these challenges to the old order, only to emerge energised and newly relevant to yet another generation of young people. And so it would seem that the strength of folk music lies in precisely the type of continuity that rock and pop music once used to spurn; it’s not that folk music doesn’t progress at all, but that it’s always at a far more stalely pace. Pondering over these thoughts I asked myself if that which I had initially identified as the Jennies’ genericity — and that I took such an immediate reaction against — might not in the end actually be a point of strength. What matters in the end, at least as far as the genre is concerned, is the deeper resonance of the music, and on that score the Jennies are startlingly successful; they’re a revelation. The tl:dr, then, is that the Wailin’ Jennies are responsible for some very fine music here (in all senses of the word fine): music that manages to seep down into your subconscious and make itself absolutely at home there, without your really realising it and, maybe without you really wanting it — after all what if you don’t like knitting circles and self satisfied autumnal coffee shops — and isn’t there something a bit sinister and even a bit frightening about that? (8/10)

ULVER – ATGCLVLSSCAP (2016)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Christian Sußner

Well, shit.

In the previous two rounds of the Only Solitaire Review Game, my luck wasn’t that great. I was assigned Preservation: Act 1 by The Kinks, which I found mediocre, and Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater, which was pretty enjoyable if overblown. Neither one was an album that I truly loved or at the very least was intrigued enough by to want to revisit immediately.

It’s perhaps ironic that this album, which is mostly a canvas of ambience rather than a set of songs a la its predecessors, is the one that grabbed me so strongly, but there you are. Perhaps it helps that, unlike The Kinks and Dream Theater, whose reputations precede them, Ulver is a group I was utterly unfamiliar with going into the listening experience. Regardless of the answer, despite its daunting length (80+ minutes), it’s a record I want to revisit almost immediately.

I never would have known this album was mostly recorded live had I walked into it blind. True, it consists of multiple live shows overdubbed on top of one another, and additional studio trickery has been applied, but the sound is so pristine that even then it’s hard to believe any of it was recorded in front of an audience. It’s comprised of dense sonic layers, sweeping synths and chiming bells and swirling guitars and pounding drums piling on top of each other in a sound that’s misty and enticing rather than an overblown Phil Spector mood. Apart from two penultimate tracks, there are no vocal melodies, merely vague chanting and vocalizing that serve to supplement rather than dominate the music.

Without driving melodies or intricate structures, it would be easy for the songs to turn into so much ethereal self-indulgence, noodling their way into a directionless new-age haze, but this thankfully doesn’t happen. Lack of melody doesn’t mean lack of direction or power, and the record has those to spare. It’s not very helpful to say that it sounds like many great SF/F stories read, but that was the thought that kept recurring to me as I listened; there’s an otherworldly, beautiful aether that runs throughout the music. The only place this falls apart comes with the aforementioned duo of penultimate songs, “Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen)” and “Ecclesiastes (A Vernal Catnap)”. It’s here that vocal melodies become prominent, grounding the music in a way that doesn’t really suit it and injecting a force of individual personality where it isn’t wanted. This is especially damaging on the latter track, whose lyrics consist mostly of a recitation of a passage from the titular book of the Bible. Beautiful poetry, obviously, but it can’t help but feel canned when it’s sung over music; it smacks of empty pretension, as if the artist felt he had something important to communicate but fell back on a Biblical text because he couldn’t be bothered to say it in a new, interesting way. Yuck.

This misstep aside, however, this is an engrossing and frequently gorgeous piece of work. It’s already a part of my iTunes library, and I hope upon further listens to uncover a myriad of new things to appreciate.

MESSER CHUPS – Surf Riders From the Swamp Lagoon (2011)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Alex Alex

The album’s very first note strikes me as particularly familiar. That rich defiant reverberating guitar sound… where have I heard that before? A tune plays in my head but I can’t remember the name, it’s an instrumental… Found it! It’s 1958’s Rebel-‘Rouser by Duane Eddy, the master of twang.

Just like Duane Eddy back in the 50’s, Messer Chups seem to build their career mostly upon instrumentals, though Eddy’s were essentially rockabilly while the Chups’ are fundamentally surf rock. Eddy’s recordings almost always sounded like soundtracks for some Western film, even when they weren’t. Similarly, Messer Chups sound like a soundtrack for some old B movie. There’s an obvious reason for this: most of this album’s melodies are drawn from old films, tv shows or albums (some are instantly recognizable, others are more obscure).

What’s interesting is how all these tunes are reinterpreted and fitted into the Chups’ own twisted scenery. Swamp Lagoon is definitely not the Beach Boys’ sunny California. This is a darker, weirder and more adventurous world which sounds just like if the B52s were throwing a party in Planet Claire for the creature from the Black Lagoon.