.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}



Ashes to Ashes

The flickering flame of a beach campfire, the dull orange at the end of an urban cigarette – both stand as synecdoche to our own timed ends, if one would read it that way. The kids still listening to Rage Against the Machine might vibe the heaviness behind a grainy b&w of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk mid-auto da fe (who got licensing for that shirt, anyway?) but otherwise, immolation is low on the radar these days. Still, it lingers on the edges of our consciousness, occasionally surfacing in disturbing reminders (i.e., Moussaui's rendition of "Burn in the USA").

“Ashes and Dust” locates a post-breakdown Lee Perry at Channel One, not so much rising from his recently-burned Black Ark studio as sifting through the cinders. “Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is ashes and dust,” the chant begins, expanding into a paranoiac’s bad dream about conspiracies both high and low, leavened with its fair share of pointed humor: “I don’ wan’ be baldhead like Bob Marley.” All this on top of a dub of Augustus Pablo’s infectious “Vibrate On,” made more ominous by dissociated outbursts from other Perry productions (the spoken-word intro to “Water More Than Flour” gaining a particularly surreal edge in its new context).

Scott Walker’s luridly lush 4 holds more smoldering gems than any other release in his back catalog. “Boy Child,” which I’m not posting, has to be the best song of 1969 that doesn’t sound like 1969 (please, soulseek 1 through 3, but this album is worth every import penny). Taking some time off from his Jacques Brel worship, “Angels of Ashes” hitches its train to Leonard Cohen’s tin star, easily fitting with that troubadour’s “Sisters of Mercy.” Singing that “the angels of ashes will give back your passions again … and again,” Walker’s battlefield of love (apologies to Benatar) takes on poignantly cosmic overtones. Phoenix-like, the lover renews himself from romantic disappointment, only to perish in another, suffering both the burden of failing agape’s high standards and the shame of settling for mere eros. Walker insightfully imagines a middle way -- “There’s no starting or stopping where there is no right or no wrong” -- that is to say, devoid of genuine standards, one has no honest choice but to wander, practicing discernment while suspending judgment (“If your humbleness shows, then I’m sure that they’ll take you along”). There is no coming in under the shadow of any steadfast Rock here (sorry, Eliot). A handful of dust is ultimately just that, and nothing more (forget the early 90’s New Zealand free noise band – I have). Even the religious threat shrivels from this light, where there is nothing to fear more than fear itself.


Broken Flowers

Lilys records have always afforded a new chance to re-evaluate the band, as two are never made in the same mold. The gap between the austere shoegaze of Eccsame the Photon Band (1994) and the Kinks-inspired speed rush of Better Can’t Make Your Life Better (1996) was only two calendar years, but it represented a paradigm shift of sensibility. Lilys founder and former-wunderkind Kurt Heasley has been able to find support for his ideas, but the players don’t always hang around for the next one; his turnover rate approaches that of Mark E. Smith (“if it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s the Fall”). Such dramatic moves are all part of Heasley’s frequently-fascinating vision. Lately, however, things have fallen a bit flat.

Case in point: the new Lilys album, Everything Wrong is Imaginary. The title lands with a thud, presaging the clumsy reshuffling of the back catalog that follows. Given Heasley’s cornucopia of propensities, however, the result is still pleasantly varied. It’s just that, in the light of past success, the new stuff just doesn’t sound that fresh or inspired. The strange 80’s-production fixation of 2003’s Precollection has been thankfully curtailed a bit; however, it’s replaced by some heavy-handed production touches. The developing groove of opener “Black Carpet Magic” gets smothered in keyboards halfway. Other choices are just as puzzling -- the credits list three drummers, but programmed percussion dominates. I can’t say that this kind of music benefits from such synthetic textures, though it is used to great effect on the funk-vamp “A Diana’s Diana.” That song has already proven to be a blog favorite, so I’ll forego posting it for one of the more palatable pop numbers, “The Night Sun Over San Juan.” It's unfortunate that personal issues in Heasley’s life prevented him from spending time in the studio, ceding that input to collaborator Michael Musmanno. I have to think that the album would sound more fleshed out had things gone differently; I get the sense that these are demos with some other mentality superimposed on top of them.

For comparison, I offer you “Who Is Moving” and “More Than That Is Deserved” (both from Better Can’t Make Your Life Better). “Who Is Moving” is Heasley at his prime, an infectious stomper with great darting guitar work and an infectious melody. “More Than That Is Deserved” is a bit of a bonus track, having been featured only on the UK version of the album, which came out two years after the domestic release and in a totally different stereo mix (the US original was in something called “double mono”). It’s a bit of a mess, too, with Heasley slurring the vocal as backwards-tape effects clash with strings, tablas, and an otherwise punchy chorus; nevertheless, it still impresses, its sum greater than the parts. And if you’re wondering what I meant by “austere shoegaze,” here’s “The Turtle Which Died Before Knowing,” Eccsame’s unassuming centerpiece.


We, the People

A few years back I was drawn to a reissue called, clunkily enough, of the people/by the people/for the people from The Common People, the only LP put forth by an otherwise undocumented psych-pop group. The CD's on an Australian label, Ascension Records, though the record originally came from the opposite side of the Pacific Rim: L.A., more specifically, the late-sixties L.A. of Love and the Byrds, a dissolute cocktail of idealism and abuse that drove the old hippie flag down.

Googling The Common People yields defiantly irrelevant results, but perhaps the lack of back story is just as serviceable as the truth. Simply put, The Common People sound wholly imitative of the sounds common to their place and time. Besides the aforementioned bands, there’s the organ-driven languor of the Doors, and singer/guitarist Denny Robinett sounds like a hoarse Roky Erickson. The distinguishing characteristic of the album, then, is the presence of composer/arranger David Axelrod (most notorious for dragging the Electric Prunes to church for Mass in F Minor). Although this was the selling point of the reissue -- it neatly coincided with Axelrod’s own brief resurgence -- it sounds as if he wrote only a few charts on songs that pad out the album’s front-end.

The liner notes are worth quoting in full, as they do full service to the lyrical dippiness going on:

We share wines of a different world
we share minds too far apart
our dreams will never meet in reality
the follies of our past
never will bring the light of death
to the others
of whom we are all brothers
a man has the right to be a man
his soul is only for those who wish to
understand his mind
the beauty of his words makes the
listening something that
comes from his environment
and forever will your world be
in peace.

“I Have Been Alone” is one of the better strings-soaked numbers. “Girl Said – Know” was only a year after “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” and it shows.


The Other Talking Heads

Television Personalities are, through their various lineups and sounds, the vehicle of dedicated pop fan Dan Treacy. They’ve got an album due soon on Domino, but their true relevance is behind them (and whose isn't?). TVP started in the late 70’s, when the punk explosion suddenly encouraged legions of bedroom enthusiasts to not worry about technical talent. “Part-Time Punks” was the single that enchanted John Peel, and helped to hasten their lasting popularity in the UK. It stands as a classic scenester-diss song: “They pay five pence on the buses, and they never use toothpaste, but they got two-fifty to go and see the Clash tonight!”

From 1981, their first LP …And the Kids Just Love It remains a mod-pop benchmark. Recorded in three days, the LP is a scrappy but endearing gem. “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives” is too twee for its own good, but songs like “This Angry Silence” and “A Picture of Dorian Gray” demonstate a compelling mix of introspection with youthful vim and vigor. It’s hard to believe that it’s still unavailable domestically. If Secretly Canadian can throw down the cash to reissue all the Nikki Sudden solo records, why not the more listenable TVPs?

After the stopgap demos/re-recordings of They Could Have Been Bigger Than The Beatles and the dayglo acid pop of Mummy Your [sic] Not Watching Me, Rough Trade passed on The Painted Word, which, in the estimation of Creation Records’ Alan McGee, ranks with Sister Lovers and “any one of Nick Drake’s LPs.” An unexpectedly dark, unmelodic album, The Painted Word showcases a more complicated, diffuse mentality. Songs range from sounding like the Velvets (the sweetly devastating opener “Stop and Smell the Roses”), Jonathan Richman (the stark but earnest “Someone To Share My Life With”), to straight-up post-punk ("You'll Have To Scream Louder"). I have to think that the presence of Swell Map Jowe Head helped muddy the waters, at least musically. The bleak slice-of-British-life lyrics, which Treacy indulged in as early as "Diary of a Young Man" from the 1st LP, occupy the entire canvas this time around. Billy Bragg, or a clinically-depressed Ray Davies, would be proud: there isn’t anything that could safely be called twee here. The former wide-eyed depiction of Sixties starpower has shaded into the harsh 80's reality of dependency and depression. Case in point: “The Girl Who Had Everything” which also, curiously, features a rather Richard Butler-esque vocal from Treacy. TVP has hovered close to this tone ever since, with Treacy behaving increasingly erratically between disappearing acts.