Sunday, 29 April 2018

Brown Acid: The First Trip - Various Artists

Provenance: I can't quite remember where I read about this collection, but the concept behind it intrigued me: once the Summer of Love had petered out into paranoia and ennui, darker, bleaker sounds started to permeate the counter-culture. The rise of bands like Blue Cheer, Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly in the USA (and Deep Purple, Black Sabbath in the UK) heralded a turn inwards; pain, confusion and angst bubbled away under thick slabs of Hammond organ and fuzzed-up bass. As you can imagine, most of this was very cool.

However, not every band was destined to enjoy the success of the aforementioned artists. Hell, many didn't even get to release a full-length album (though Night Sun did, and that's some shit you need to check out). It doesn't necessarily mean they sucked, however.

As somebody who is well, well into the original Nuggets compilation (the greatest ever compilation album?) I am the perfect rube for a collection of obscurities from the hard rock / heavy psych scene. Fortunately, the good folk at RidingEasy Records have got me covered with their lovingly curated Brown Acid series. Not only do I get to listen to bands with hip names like Raw Meat, Bacchus, Snow and Josefus, but the label ensure that all the artists featured get paid for their efforts. I'm all for fair-trade downer rock 'n' roll. I got the first four instalments for Christmas last year, so without further ado let's take the first trip together...

Review: I think the highest compliment that can be paid to Brown Acid: the First Trip is that each and every track has made me want to crank my amp, plug in my wah and wail away with pentatonic abandon. As the liner notes state, some of the cuts here are not much more than demo recording quality, but Steely Dan aside, since when has perfection begat true genius?

That's why I'd rather listen to the slightly out-of-tune stun guitar on Snow's 'Sunflower' pummelling my ears into submission than the pabulum served up on top forty radio. I can't be sure as I wasn't there, but songs of this ilk sound like they were played by people who gave two damns about rocking out, or perhaps just wanted to impress the local girls; either way, two noble ambitions.

There's no little ability here either, though if I was going to try making comparisons with better-known artists, I'd be hard-pressed to veer from Uriah Heep. In a good way, most every band on Brown Acid I sounds like Uriah fucking Heep. If David Byron sang on Zebra's 'Wasted' and you told me it was Uriah Heep, I would've believed you. I guess some songs sound like early Edgar Broughton Band, and Bob Goodsite's quirky instrumental 'Faze 1' could be a funky Groundhogs album cut, but listen; if you like bell-bottoms, Les Pauls, the Open Mind's 'Magic Potion', patchouli and lava lamps, absolutely nothing on this collection is going to disappoint you. Absolutely nothing.

Still, me being the contrarian I am, the cut that really stands out for me is the most atypical of the bunch. Fizzing with the kind of upbeat groove that powered Edgar Winter's 'Free Ride', Texan band Josefus' 'Hard Luck' is perfect road trip fodder. A significant element of the pure enjoyment this song engenders comes from the hyperactive, elastic vocal performance by Pete Bailey. It's difficult to describe, but if you can imagine if Arthur Brown (he of 'Fire' fame) was born west of the Mississippi you'd be in the right ballpark. Approximately.

If any of what I've written has sparked an interest I'd urge you to head on over to RidingEasy and drop some notes on Brown Acid: the First Trip. For that matter, just in case I don't get around to reviewing the subsequent albums in this series, I can recommend trips one through four. Whether it's the bludgeon of Zekes' 'Box', the witchiness of Lenny Drake's lo-fi swamp-psych 'Love Eyes (Cast Your Spell On Me') or the Todd's (great name) lysergic tub-thumper 'Mystifying Me', there's something for all the family!

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Alice - Tom Waits

Provenance: This was one of the ten Tom Waits albums my wonderful partner Sea got me one Christmas. Thought it about time I reviewed another of these buggers.

Review: I don't have many albums comprised of music written specifically for plays - by my estimation, two, both of which are by Tom Waits. One is The Black Rider, and the other is this darkly shining shard of anthracite, Alice. God damn, this is good. But then again, so much of his 'latter period' stuff is. That he hasn't released an album since 2011 is a minor crime - to paraphrase Alan Partridge, "come back on, Tom Waits, and play some more."

For the record, I've never seen the play Alice, so I don't have any real sense of narrative on which to hang this song cycle on. There's a part of me that dearly wishes I do get to see a production one day and another part, the one that enjoys the play of the imagination when it's coupled with music, that does not. Waits' music on Alice conjures up vivid moods and atmospheres at every turn; and maybe I don't want the innerspace universe I've built around it to be disturbed.

On Alice, Waits visits many different styles and switches masks with ease, but there's always a unifying element that is hard to define. Whether he is bellowing out angular Beefheartian rollickers replete with junkyard percussion, or tentatively nosing his way through a torch song, it's indelibly Waits. Which is what? A kind of Pop High Gothic, a kind of Low Jazz and a relish for the macabre every bit as full-blooded as Edgar Allan Poe. He's a barroom versifier, sweeping profundities from the floor 'round 'bout closing time, but also able to fashion a song about fictional 19th century nobleman Edward Mordake that is wrapped in the faded, crumbling elegance of Grey Gardens. About the only time I was transported from my reverie during the first half of the album came during the early stages of 'Kommienezuspadt', purely because Waits sings in a voice that sounds uncannily like that of Herve Villechaize, he of Fantasy Island fame.

(NB: I would be the first in line if Tom Waits were to release a song that consisted of him screaming 'ze plane, ze plane' whilst, in the background, a honky-tonk piano fell down a flight of stairs.)

The other element that I think has percolated to the surface throughout Waits' career, and is in evidence here, is a clear love of acoustic instrumentation that is warm and wobbly. There are dashes of electric guitar here and there, and sometimes Waits does use a Mellotron (one of the most underrated - and underused - instruments in popular music?), but my goodness, one has to just stand back in admiration at his dedicated to the fucking pump organ. What a wonderfully asthmatic sound it has though! Any song it features on thus sounds like a tuberculosis-wracked cabaret has-been, desperate for one final turn in the limelight. Glorious.

Located somewhere between Nat King Cole, Captain Beefheart, Lou Reed, Kurt Weill, nursery rhyme, Cormac McCarthy, late era Scott Walker and Jimmy Webb; that's where you'll find the Tom Waits of Alice. Hell, there are even faint echoes of post-millenium Bob Dylan, with Alice acting as the drunken, perverted uncle to Love and Theft and Modern Times. It's a disconcerting, seductive, sad, wry (someone should write something in-depth about Waits' sense of humour - just not me), startling journey, but one of the most rewarding ways to spend fifty minutes of your life. Immense.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Bright Mississippi - Allen Toussaint

Provenance: There's three things I am sure of in life; I want my coke to be diet, my football to be catenaccio, and my piano players to come from New Orleans. Just take a look at some of the luminaries to come from the Crescent City - Dr John, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint.

When I was in New Orleans (my favourite American city - and the least American city?) I was fortunate enough to catch the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, playing the trad stuff unamplified in a small room. It's rare, I think, to see musicians of that calibre performing without any kind of PA in such an intimate venue; and from the moment they kicked into 'Sheik of Araby' I was captivated.

When I heard that Allen Toussaint had decided to make a jazz album that honoured the legacy of New Orleans I didn't need any more encouragement to go out and buy it.

Review: Sheer, unadulterated joy.

It genuinely feels like a privilege to hear the ensemble of crack musicians Toussaint gathered for this album to perform with such casual virtuosity. What could have been a tired jog through a clutch of musty old standards instead feels like a vital, ebullient celebration of a city and the music to which it is umbilically linked. It's both remarkable that The Bright Mississippi took a mere four days to record, and yet totally believable, as the sound is so organic that one imagines the band all set up in the room together, running through two or three takes and picking the best of the bunch. If there are overdubs to the live sound, my guess is that they are minimal.

From the very first bar of Sidney Bechet's 'Egyptian Fantasy' one can sense magic swirling around, but for me the album really moves into the realms of the sublime during 'St James Infirmary', a song I've heard many different times in various iterations but rarely does it reach such a degree of majesty as it does here. From then on, everything is immaculate - whether it's a sleepy-eyed rendition of 'Winin' Boy Blues' from jazz's ur-pianist Jelly Roll Morton, an iridescent 'Day Dream' (Duke Ellington) or my personal highlight, a languid interpretation of Django Reinhardt's already wonderful 'Blue Drag'. It might even top any version I've ever heard played by the Belgian master.

Every performer on The Bright Mississippi acquits themselves superbly, though I feel special mention should go to both trumpeter Nicholas Payton and clarinettist Don Byron. The contributions they make to each song on which they feature elevate each piece, with Payton playing some especially imaginative solos. However, the name on the CD is Allen Toussaint, and so it's only fair to pay attention to what he's playing.

Fortunately, Toussaint rises to the occasion splendidly. His playing is light and supple, hands moving across the keyboard with the twinkling grace of Fred Astaire in motion. Toussaint rarely elects to bang out big meaty solos, instead accenting his stylish playing with clusters of dancing notes, little trilling figures that complement the more sinuous sounds of the trumpet and liquorice stick (check me out using that hepcat jazz lingo, daddy-o). However, for all his panache Toussaint is also a two-fisted New Orleans piano player, and that generous, wide-open easy-rolling blues sound is given voice on King Oliver's 'West End Blues' and the traditional number 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee'; and I wouldn't want it any other way.

In every sense The Bright Mississippi is a triumph. The sound is such that it almost feels tactile - can you taste that thick Gulf air on your tongue as you luxuriate in the music? Do your eyes prick at a hint of cayenne pepper and onion? It is, of course, illusory; the jumbled symptoms of an imagination stirred by aural stimuli. But goodness me, what stimuli! I find in such situations that it's best just to sit back, pour a measure of something expensive and laissez le bon temps rouler.