March 31, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Soul Vibrations of Man (Saturn LP)

If Unity presents the more approachable, trad-jazz side of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the next item in the discography shows they were still capable of getting mighty strange during this period. Live recordings from the Jazz Showcase in Chicago in November 1977 were edited down and quickly released as Saturn LP 771, portentously titled The Soul Vibrations of Man (see Campbell & Trent pp.243-244). While original copies are extremely rare, it was reissued a couple of years ago on 180-gram vinyl by El Saturn Research, which is now, apparently, a part of Universal Music. It’s one of those weird and wonderful Saturn LPs, with a cryptically symbolic cover and a metaphysical disquisition on the back, presumably by Ra, regarding numerology, astrology and “The Dead Past.” In keeping with all that, no titles are given for the five tracks, instead, Side A is titled, The Soul Vibrations of Man Part I Volume VII” and Side B, “The Soul Vibrations of Man Part II Volume VII”. Okeydokey! Thanks to Prof. Campbell, Christopher Trent and Ahmed Abdullah, the individual tracks have been identified (Id.)—and it is an unusual set to say the least.

Side A opens with “Sometimes the Universe Speaks,” in its first known performance. Two flutes (Marshall Allen and Danny Davis) play a long, slow, folk-like melody, sometimes in unison and sometimes harmonized but mostly a cappella. After a couple of minutes, the melodies get freer while still coming together on pre-determined chords as the pitter-patter of percussion builds up underneath. Eventually, the melody ends and the drums take over, eliciting cheers from the audience. Suddenly, Ra interrupts with a homily: “Sometimes the universe speaks/And all is silence/Haven’t you heard how loud the silence has become lately?” This might have gone on for a while longer, but instead it quickly fades out. More unaccompanied flutes (possibly three or four) lead the way on the pretty “Pleiades.” According to Prof. Campbell, Danny Ray Thompson, Eloe Omoe and James Jacson all doubled on flute, so it’s possible they are all playing on these tracks. The side ends with “Third Heaven/When There is No Sun,” picking up in mid-sermon, Ra preaching about how “Uranus is the Seventh Heaven,” while the boys in the band echo his every word. Joking aside, this is actually one of the more enjoyable space chants to listen to, with less shouting and a more musical presentation. After a few minutes, Sonny moves to the organ and fingers some chords to introduce “When There is No Sun,” which June Tyson and the guys sing in splendid harmony.

“Halloween in Harlem” opens Side B, a lumbering march that lurches rather than swings, its dissonant harmonies and strained, wide-interval melodies giving off a campy, horror movie air. Michael Ray takes the first solo, his trumpet blatty and smeared, with Sonny following up with a brief organ solo before the return of the theme. Next is an untitled improvisation, with Ra’s organ outlining a ballad form while Ray solos. As the rhythm section quietly joins in, it almost sounds like Ra is playing definite chord changes—is this really an improvisation? Who knows? In some ways, this reminds me of “Taking a Chance on Chancey,” the improvised duet Ra would often play with Vincent Chancey on French horn. Of course, Ray is a very different player—brash and forceful—and he indulges a bit in his trademark echo-echo effect at the close, which gets the desired rise out of the audience. After a blaring space chord, the band launches right into “The Shadow World” and here’s where things get heavy. A series of outrageously intense, high-energy solos follow, with Allen and Davis on alto sax, Eloe Omoe on bass clarinet and, finally, John Gilmore, who shows them how it’s supposed to be done. An incredible display of multiphonic split-tones, altissimo squeals and other impossibly extended techniques; yes, it’s another amazing Gilmore solo! Then Sonny follows up with some wild, mad-scientist keyboards before the side abruptly ends.

Admittedly, the homemade sound quality is not that great, the edits are crude and the pressing is less than perfect—but The Soul Vibrations of Man is still a classic Sun Ra LP. The whole thing, from the crazy cover to the music contained in the grooves, has a deep, mystical vibe which neatly encapsulates Ra’s “mythic equations.” I say get it while you can.

March 30, 2013

Playlist Week of 2013-03-30

iPhone Photo 2013-03-25

* Handel: Organ Concertos, Op.4 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Handel: Organ Concertos, Op.7 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations (Hewitt): Royal Festival Hall, London 2009-04-29 (FM CDR)
* Christine Plubeau/Arnaud Pumir: Église Saint Nicholas, La Hulpe 2009-03-30 (FM CDR)
* Sun Ra: We Travel The Spaceways (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: When Sun Comes Out (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: The Mystery of Being: The Voice Studio Sessions 1978 (Horo/Klimt 3LP)
* Keith Jarrett: The Impulse Years 1973-1974 (d.1-3) (Impulse! 5CD)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12 2LP)
* Mary Halvorson Trio: Jazz Studio Nuernberg 2012-09-26 (FM CDR)
* Secret Keeper (Stephan Crump/Mary Halvorson): Super Eight (Intakt CD)
* Ingrid Laubrock Sleepthief: The Madness Of Crowds (Intakt CD)
* Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House: Strong Place (Intakt CD)
* Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Island/Def Jam CD)
* Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA CD)
* Grateful Dead: De Doelen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands 5/11/72 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 4HDCD)
* Grateful Dead: Dave’s Picks Vol.5: Pauley Pavilion 11/17/73 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 4HDCD)
* Grateful Dead: Go To Heaven (Arista/Friday Music LP)
* Can: Ege Bamyasi (Spoon/Mute SACD)
* Can: Future Days (Spoon/Mute SACD)
* Big Star: #1 Record (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Yo La Tengo: That Is Yo La Tengo (City Slang CDEP)
* Yo La Tengo: May I Sing With Me (Alias CD)
* Yo La Tengo: Painful (Matador CD)
* Yo La Tengo: “Shaker” (Matador CDEP)
* Yo La Tengo: “From A Motel 6” (Matador CDEP)
* Guided By Voices: Propeller (Scat LP)
* Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch 2LP)
* Lambchop: Mr. M (Merge CD)
* Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (Lava/Atlantic CD)†/‡
* Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories (KScope CD/DVD/BD)
* Opeth: Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner HDCD/DVD)†/‡
* Opeth: Watershed (Roadrunner CD/DVD)†/‡
* Opeth: Heritage (Roadrunner CD/DVD)†/‡
* Katatonia: Brave Yester Days (Avant Garde/Century Media 2CD)
* Katatonia: Last Fair Deal Gone Down (Peaceville CD/CDEP)
* Katatonia: Viva Emptiness (Peaceville CD)
* Katatonia: The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville CD)
* Yob: Atma  (Profound Lore/ 2LP)
* The Sword: Aprocryphon (Razor & Tie LP)
* Ray LaMontagne: Trouble (RCA LP)
* Ray LaMontagne: Till the Sun Turns Black (RCA LP)



I resisted the whole “smart phone” thing for a long time—a “dumb phone” served my purposes just fine. I generally dislike talking on the phone and I certainly did not want to become one of those people who spend all day with their eyes glued to its tiny screen, even when having dinner with their friends and spouses—or driving down the interstate. For me, a cell phone is a necessity for safety reasons: being able to summon help and communicate with loved ones when out and about is the greatest gift this technology bestows. But their ubiquity (and humanity’s general stupidity) has made them a pernicious danger—particularly on the roadways. Whenever I see someone driving erratically—too slowly or weaving in and out of lanes—they are almost inevitably talking (or texting!) on their “smart phone.” That’s not smart; it’s dumb. And it scares me! It made me hate the things on principle.

Well, my old flip phone was starting to fall apart: bits of plastic flaking off, it’s battery unable to hold a charge; it was becoming more of a liability than an asset. I liked its small size and simplicity but it was definitely time to upgrade. Moreover, both Lizzy and I were dissatisfied with AT&T, whose cell coverage was spotty at best and almost nonexistent at our home, which is less than thirty miles from downtown Nashville. She was going to be traveling to a remote area of Northern California to visit her dad, where her current cell phone would be useless. That was enough reason for us to make the switch to Verizon—and move up to a “smart phone.”

I went for the iPhone 5—mostly because I had heard such good things about the built-in camera and the various apps you can download for it. I love my cameras but I do not have them with me at all times like I do my phone. After only having the thing less than a week, I am blown away by the camera’s capabilities. The photograph above was taken handheld in almost complete darkness and processed in Snapseed, an app developed by Nik Software. I’m not saying it’s a great photograph (I was just messing around with the phone) but I think it shows how powerful this little 8MP camera is. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing with it and have barely begun to explore all the possibilities.

With its slightly larger screen and glossy Retina display, the iPhone 5 also gives it the edge over the 4 for photographic purposes and, as with all Apple products, the interface is mostly intuitive and easy to use. Of course, all this stuff is purpose-built for interaction with social media, with the apps integrated seamlessly with email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. As a result, I have been posting more to Facebook than ever before. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing—I do not want to be one of “those guys” who can’t put down the phone. But I can see how addictive it can be. 

I’m sure after a while the novelty will wear off and it will go back to being just a cell phone. But I will always have a nice digital camera in my pocket and I’m looking forward to taking more pictures than ever.

March 29, 2013

Yo La Tengo @ Spectrum Culture

My contribution to "Holy Hell!," a new series which examines albums that turn twenty years old this year, is up over at Spectrum Culture. My pick was Yo La Tengo's breakthrough record, Painful, the first of several near-perfect albums.

As it turns out, this is my last piece for Spectrum Culture. I decided I needed to focus my attention elsewhere (like my own projects). By my count, I wrote thirty-something reviews, a dozen or so blurbs and three interviews for the site over the past eight months - that's a lot of writing! It was extremely flattering to be asked to write for them and I'm a little but sad to let it go but there are just so many hours in a day.

March 23, 2013

Playlist Week of 2013-03-23

Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd - Indeterminate CD

* Vivaldi: Concertos & Sinfonias for Strings (Venice Baroque Orchestra/Marcon) (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Vivaldi: Concertos for Two Violins (VBO/Mullova/Carmignola) (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Sun Ra: Super-Sonic Jazz (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Nubians Of Plutonia (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Angels & Demons At Play (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Visits Planet Earth (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Holiday For Soul Dance (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Of Mythic Worlds (Philly Jazz LP)
* John Coltrane: Side Steps (d.4-5) (Prestige/Fantasy 5CD)
* Wayne Shorter Quartet: Without A Net (Blue Note CD)
* Ornette Coleman: Beauty Is A Rare Thing: Complete Atlantic Recordings (d.1) (Atlantic/Rhino 6CD)
* Tom Rainey Trio: Paradox, Tilburg, Netherlands 2012-10-26 (FM CDR)
* UYA: Z (blue) (rehearsal 1995-02-09) (4-track mix CDR)
* UYA: Once Read (rehearsal 1995-04-06) (4-track mix CDR)
* Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: Indeterminate (Improvisations for Piano & Drums) (NuVoid Jazz CD)
* Lee “Scratch” Perry: Ape-ology (Trojan/Sanctuary 2CD)
* Jerry Garcia Band: Garcia Live Vol.1: Capitol Theatre March 1, 1980 (Round/ATO 3HDCD)
* Richard Thompson: Electric (Deluxe Edition) (New West MP3)
* Can: The Lost Tapes 1968-75 (Spoon/Mute 3CD)†
* Yo La Tengo: Painful (Matador CD)
* Guided By Voices: King Shit & The Golden Boys (Scat CD)
* Porcupine Tree: Stupid Dream (KScope CD/DVD)
* Porcupine Tree: Lightbulb Sun (Kscope CD/DVD)
* Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories (KScope BD/CD/DVD)
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/Sony CD/DVD)
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)
* Opeth: Damnation (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†/‡
* Opeth: Jazz Club Nefertiti, Stockholm, Sweden 2012-12-03 (AUD FLAC)
* Kyuss: Welcome To Sky Valley (Elektra CD)
* Sleep: Dopesmoker (Southern Lord 2LP)
* OM: Advaitic Songs (Drag City 2-45RPM LP)
* OM: Advaitic Dub Plate (Drag City 12”EP)
* Grails: Burning Off Impurities (Temporary Residence MP3)†/‡
* Grails: Deep Politics (Temporary Residence CD)†/‡
* The Sword: Warp Riders (Kemado LP)
* Astra: The Weirding (Metal Blade CD)
* Animal Collective: Centipede Hz (Domino 2LP/DVD)



Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: Indeterminate (Improvisations for Piano and Drums) is finally here! Physical and digital distribution will follow shortly via CD Baby but folks here in Nashville can get a copy right now at Grimey's New and Pre-Loved Music, the city’s awesomest record store! 

Richard Thompson @ Spectrum Culture

My review of Richard Thompson's new album, the somewhat misleadingly titled Electric, is up over at Spectrum Culture. One of rock's finest guitarists stretches out a bit.

March 17, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra LPs

Thanks to reader Mark R, I was reminded of a vinyl-only reissue of The Soul Vibrations of Man, which happens to be the next item in the discography. Since this record had never been officially released on CD (and my “needledrop” of an original pressing is a crackly mess), I decided to check it out. I had seen some of these Saturn LPs floating around the record bins, but was unsure of their provenance—were they merely bootlegs of the Evidence CDs? However, it appears that El Saturn Research is now owned by Universal Music Group and these vinyl reissues are legit—almost two dozen so far and three titles (My Brother The Wind Volume 1, Universe in Blue and The Soul Vibrations of Man), which have been out of print for decades in any format. Additionally, there’s a recent vinyl-only reissue of Of Mythic Worlds, a super-scarce LP originally released by Philly Jazz in 1978. All are pressed on 180-gram vinyl, housed in sturdy cardboard jackets and very reasonably priced—a no-brainer for the turntable-enabled Sun Ra fan.

Intrigued, I decided to investigate some of the other Saturn titles in order to compare them to the Evidence CDs, which suffer from some rather heavy-handed noise reduction and compression. Other Planes of There, one of my favorite recordings from the magical Choreographer’s Workshop era, sounds quite a bit more open and dynamic than the CD, leading me to believe it was taken from the original, un-futzed-with tapes. That was all I needed to know: I’m going to have to get the rest of them while they are still available. A look at my playlist from last week will show you how far I’ve gotten on this project and more should be arriving this week. The problem is: where will I put them? Well, there are far worse problems to have.

Incidentally, I wound up spending some time on eBay trying to track some of this stuff down and was amazed to see a large collection of incredibly rare, mint condition Saturn LPs up for auction in the UK. I knew albums like Invisible Shield and A Fireside Chat with Lucifer would attract a lot of bids, but I was not prepared to see these dozens of titles finally sell for such astonishing sums of money: from $600 to over $1300 a piece! Apparently, two collectors got into a bidding war at the last minute, with the victor spending many thousands of dollars to obtain these obscure Sun Ra records. Obviously, there is a market for these things—so, how about it Universal? Why not reissue the rest of the El Saturn catalog? Of course, the schism that developed between Sun Ra and Alton Abraham during the 1970s means that the Phildelphia Saturns are not owned by Universal and are likely stuck in perpetual legal limbo along with the rest of Sonny’s estate. Even so, there are still plenty of Chicago Saturns left behind—like Continuation. And, speaking of Universal, they also own the Impulse! catalog, which includes Astro Black, another classic Sun Ra album that is impossible to find in decent condition for a reasonable price. Come on, folks! Let’s go!

I’ll be back with a detailed examination of The Soul Vibrations of Man next week. In the meantime, go out and grab yourself a copy—it’s a good one.

March 16, 2013

Playlist Week of 2013-03-16

Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing

* Vivaldi: Late Concertos, RV 386, etc. (Venice Baroque Orchestra/Marcon/Carmignola) (Arkiv Prod. CD)
* Vivaldi: Concertos, RV 331, etc. (Venice Baroque Orchestra/Marcon/Carmignola) (Arkiv Prod. CD)
* J.S. Bach: Sonatas & Partitas For Violin Solo (Holloway) (ECM 2CD)
* Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue (Columbia/Legacy SACD)
* Sun Ra: Interplanetary Melodies: Doo Wop From Saturn And Beyond Vol.1 (Norton CD)
* Sun Ra: The Second Stop Is Jupiter: Doo Wop From Saturn And Beyond Vol.2 (Norton CD)
* Sun Ra: Rocket Ship Rock (Norton CD)
* Sun Ra: Bad And Beautiful (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Other Planes Of There (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: My Brother The Wind Vol.1 (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: My Brother The Wind Vol.2 (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Night Of The Purple Moon (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Universe In Blue (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Unity (Horo 2LP>CDR)
* Sun Ra: The Soul Vibrations Of Man (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Of Mythic Worlds (Philly Jazz LP)
* Sun Ra: New Steps (Horo 2LP>CDR)
* Sun Ra: Other Voices, Other Blues (Horo 2LP>CDR)
* Sun Ra: The Mystery of Being: The Voice Studio Sessions, Rome 1978 (Horo/Klimt 3LP)
* John Abercrombie Quartet: Wait Till You See Her (ECM CD)†
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Island/Def Jam CD)
* Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA CD)
* Yes: Close To The Edge (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity SACD)
* Genesis: Nursery Cryme (Charisma LP)
* Genesis: Foxtrot (Charisma LP)
* Camel: A Live Record (Decca/EMI 2CD)
* Chris Bell: I Am The Cosmos (Expanded Edition) (Rhino Handmade 2CD)
* Phil Collins: No Jacket Required (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity CD)
* Phil Collins: …But Seriously (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity CD)
* The Fall: The Wonderful And Frightening World… (Omnibus Edition) (d.1-3) (Beggar’s Banquet 4CD)
* Guided By Voices: Forever Since Breakfast (Matador CDEP)
* Guided By Voices: The Devil Between My Toes (Scat CD)
* Guided By Voices: Sandbox (Scat CD)
* Guided By Voices: Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (Scat CD)
* Guided By Voices: The Same Place The Fly Got Smashed (Scat CD)
* Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador LP)
* Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: LA’s Desert Origins (selections) (Matador 2CD)
* Kyuss: Blues For The Red Sun (Dali CD)†/‡
* Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (Lava/Atlantic CD)
* Porcupine Tree: Deadwing (Lava/Atlantic CD)
* Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories (KScope BD)
* Opeth: Orchid (Candlelight CD)
* Opeth: Morningrise (Candlelight CD)
* Opeth: Morningrise (Candlelight CD)
* Opeth: Still Life (Peaceville CD/DVD)
* Anathema: A Natural Disaster (Music For Nations/Sony CD)†/‡
* Anathema: We’re Here Because We’re Here (KScope CD/DVD)
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End CD)



I got into Steven Wilson via my Opeth obsession over the last year or so—but I have conflicting opinions about his work. Wilson co-produced Opeth’s landmark albums Blackwater Park (2001), Deliverance (2002) and Damnation (2003), mixed their most recent record, Heritage (2011) and joined forces with Mikael Åkerfeldt on last year’s weird and wonderful Storm Corrosion LP. Figuring what’s good enough for Åkerfeldt is good enough for me, I decided to check out some of Wilson’s vast catalog. I was vaguely aware of Porcupine Tree prior to this but thought the name was dumb (and it is)—but I have to admit, their string of albums from Stupid Dream (1999) through Deadwing (2005) are all pretty great, evolving from psychedelic, Pink Floyd-inspired prog through Radiohead-esque post-rock romanticism to nu-metal’s technical heaviness. (Incidentally, these records parallel Wilson’s intimate involvement with Opeth, with Åkerfeldt himself making an appearance on Deadwing). Of course, Wilson is also became well known for his production and re-mix work, revamping progressive rock classics from bands like King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Jethro Tull. As I’ve written here before, the 40th Anniversary editions of the King Crimson catalog are truly definitive. One thing you can almost always count on with Wilson is superb sound quality. A strong proponent of high-resolution digital, his remixes and surround-sound presentations are state of the art.

Nevertheless, there are several things about Wilson that bug me. For one, the sound quality is sometimes almost too pristine. On “The Sound of Muzak” (In Absentia) Wilson morosely sings about the perceived sad state of the music industry: “Soul gets squeezed out/Edges get blunt.” Yet that is exactly what Wilson does to his own recordings, polishing every track to a gleaming, glassy smooth surface with nary a trace of jagged edge or loose end—even when the song might benefit from some grit and grease. Then there’s his dour, self-serious persona and far too many songs about the evils of drugs and the iPod. OK, fine; I’m an audiophile and I love my iPod—please stop treating me like an idiot! Moreover, his morbid fascination with serial killers is an adolescent fixation that seems immature and pathetic in an adult, no matter how clever the songwriting. There is a humorless quality to Wilson’s music that can oftentimes make for dreary, depressing listening. But the thing is: he has such a gift for melody and form that the music is almost always compelling, if not transcendent.

It would seem Wilson needed to break free from the confines of Porcupine Tree to really find his voice and start to mature as an artist. His first solo album, Insurgentes (2008), was wildly diverse, as if he was trying to cram every kind of music he could into one record, resulting in a fascinating but frustratingly inconsistent finished product. Grace For Drowning (2011) was better: obviously inspired by his remixing projects for King Crimson, Wilson hired top-flight musicians for this sprawling double-album of Lizard-esque, jazz-inflected prog. While Wilson’s lyrical obsessions remained constant, the music was starting to open up, allowing for high-stakes improvisation and developing a much-needed edge. A touring band was assembled that was able to take these songs to another level on stage, as demonstrated on last year’s live CD/DVD/Blu-Ray, Get All You Deserve. While Wilson is a serviceable guitarist, Guthrie Govan is a true virtuoso—as are keyboardist Adam Holzman (who played with Miles Davis in the ‘80s), woodwind player, Theo Travis, bassist Nick Beggs and drummer Marco Minnemann. A new song, “Luminol,” was written expressly for this band and debuted on the road (and was previewed on Get All You Deserve). Immediately upon the tour’s conclusion, Wilson quickly demoed an album’s worth of songs and set to work recording with the band in September 2012. The result is The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories, perhaps Wilson’s finest achievement so far.

Well, the first two tracks, “Luminol” and “Drive Home” are certainly some of the most musically satisfying and emotionally riveting songs Wilson has ever recorded. “Luminol” gleefully references every prog-rock-god move imaginable, including tricky time signatures, dramatic mood swings and loads of overdubbed Mellotrons. That would be good enough me but Wilson sings sympathetically (perhaps metaphorically) of a street musician who remains as anonymous is death as in life. “Drive Home” digs deeper: an ambiguous lament for a lost loved one, either real or imaginary, it features one of the most gorgeous, layered choruses in the Wilson canon as well as a spiraling, spine-tinglingly thrilling guitar solo from Govan. The rest of the album fails to live up to the promise of those opening tracks—but only by comparison. “The Holy Drinker” boasts some killer grooves and rocking guitars, but the dirgey, sanctimonious middle section nearly derails the momentum. “The Watchmaker” evokes Steve Hackett-era Genesis with its chiming acoustic guitars and portentous, quasi-atonal coda but its multi-part construction doesn’t quite cohere and its murderous undertones are unnecessarily, childishly creepy. The title track, which concludes the album, returns to another song about grief and longing, a plaintive, post-rock piano ballad surrounded by soaring, redemptive strings. When Wilson sings the refrain, “Sing to me Lily/I miss you so much,” the emotion is eerily tangible despite all the deliberately obfuscatory electronic processing. What is most striking about The Raven That Refused to Sing is the maturity and sophistication of Wilson’s lyrics and subject matter. Sure, death and despair are still central to his concerns—but the words and his singing have never been quite so emotionally direct, as if death is no longer an abstraction to be contemplated at an ironic distance but real, complicated reality.

As usual with Wilson, there are a variety of formats to choose from, depending upon your level of fan commitment and overall audiophilia: there’s the regular CD (which sounds quite nice, actually); a deluxe CD+DVD combo, which includes a 24/48 stereo and lossy 5.1 mix; a Blu-Ray disc with 24/96 stereo and lossless 5.1 mixes plus bonus tracks; and, finally, a super-deluxe 2-LP/2CD/DVD/Blu-Ray package that I believe is already sold out and out of print. The Blu-Ray is fantastic—who needs vinyl when digital can sound this good? I also picked up the CD/DVD combo for portability and the extra artwork, which adds another layer of interpretation to these enigmatic lyrics. Oh, I guess you can buy (or steal) an MP3 if you want—but why would you? Wilson hired the legendary Alan Parsons (he of Dark Side of the Moon fame) to engineer and co-produce The Raven That Refused to Sing—and the sound quality has a heft and solidity that complements and enhances Wilson’s perfectionistic, anal-retentive tendencies. It really does sound amazing—why skimp and deprive yourself the pleasure? Wilson’s eagerness to write for this phenomenal band and naturally prolific nature may have rushed The Raven to market, but it’s a huge step forward in almost every way.

March 10, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra Arkestra: Unity (Horo 2LP)

During the last week of October, 1977, Sun Ra and his Arkestra headlined a week-long engagement at the prestigious Storyville jazz club in New York City and portions of the concerts on the 24th and 29th were recorded (probably by Tommy Hunter) and released on a double-LP entitled Unity by the Italian Horo label in 1978 (Campbell & Trent pp.242-243). It was also briefly reissued in Japan as RCA RV1 9003/9004 in 1979 (Id.). Horo was founded in 1972 by Aldo Sinesio in order to record local musicians and others in the international avant-garde jazz scene, including Giorgio Gaslini, Enrico Rava, Giancarlo Schiaffini, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Lester Bowie and, of course, Sun Ra. Unity was one of three double-albums Sonny made for the label in 1978. However, with limited distribution in the United States, Horo records were always hard to find and are, of course, long out of print. A CD reissue program was announced back in 2009, to be released through Atomic Records but nothing much came of it (and Atomic is now defunct), leaving these essential Sun Ra albums out of reach to all but the most fanatical (and well-heeled) collectors. My copy is a crackly needledrop CDR—but I’d sure love to hear a clean original pressing. It’s an excellent live document from the period.

The Arkestra is at full strength for this appearance, with the usual cast supplemented with Craig Harris and Charles Stephens on trombones, Emmett McDonald on bass horn and Richard “Radu” Williams on bass. This also marks the final appearance of Akh Tal Ebah on trumpet and, unfortunately, he gets no solo space here. Along with Ahmed Abdullah there’s a new trumpeter on board, Michael Ray, who would go on to become a key member of the Arkestra in the coming years. Ray had a background in jazz but made a name for himself on the R&B circuit, playing with Patti Labelle, The Delfonics, The Stylistics and, later, with Kool & The Gang. Ray’s hard-driving soloing was by far the most forceful trumpet voice in the Arkestra since Kwami Hadi left the band in 1975. Besides a tendency to overplay, Ray also liked to mimic an echo effect during his solos, a demonstration of superlative embouchure control but, over time, it becomes an annoying tic. He only pulls this stunt once on Unity (on the Miles Davis tune, “Half Nelson”), but soon it will become a fixture in just about every solo. Obviously, Ray brought something to the band Sonny appreciated—otherwise this behavior would not have been tolerated in the “Ra jail.” As with Clifford Jarvis’s interminable, masturbatory drum solos, Sonny could be over-indulgent with some of his pet musicians, for reasons that remain inscrutable.

The album starts out in the middle of a set, with Sun Ra essaying “Yesterdays” on organ, some wild, dissonant horns coming in only at the very end. After a formal announcement from John Gilmore, Duke Ellington’s “Lightnin’” is up next. Taken at a slightly more relaxed tempo than usual, the band sounds tight and full-bodied, with Gilmore handling the slippery clarinet part with ease. “How Am I To Know?” is presented in its full vocal arrangement, with Gilmore moving to the tenor saxophone. With a breathy, wide vibrato, he evokes both the lush pre-War swing of Ben Webster and the bluesy, hard-bop of Hank Mobley. Somewhat atypical for Gilmore, he plays in a deceptively simple, straightforward manner, staying well inside the harmonic sequence—but it is so deeply soulful and flawlessly executed that the effect is utterly mesmerizing. Yes, it’s another incredible Gilmore solo—just one of many on this album! A peaceful version of “Lights on a Satellite” surrounds Gilmore’s saxophone with fluttering flutes before another couple of classic big band numbers, “Yeah, Man!’ (with Gilmore again shining on clarinet) and Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp.”

“Images” offers Ray his first opportunity to solo at length, alone with the drums. He has impressive technique but he’s a blaster, always playing full-bore with a big, blatty sound. He also knows how to take it progressively out—but Gilmore comes in and shows him how it should be done. The music gets almost unbearably intense as the tenor solo goes on and on and on. Ra tries to rein him in, but nothing doing; he just keeps going. Damn! Gilmore is on fire! Sonny cools things down with “Penthouse Serenade,” a lazy swing number for solo organ and there’s more organ balladry on Tad Dameron’s “Lady Bird.” This then segues into “Half Nelson,” which features barn-burning solos from Gilmore and Ray (who introduces his echo-echo-echo trick at the end). Ra announces “Halloween in Harlem” and slams down on a dissonant organ cluster before the ensemble comes in with the tense, lurching march. “My Favorite Things” again features Gilmore and what can I say? It’s yet another amazing Gilmore solo! Curiously, “Rose Room” and “Satellites Are Spinning” are taken from a concert in Châteauvallon, France on August 24, 1976 (Id.). While a bootleg of this concert circulates, the sound here is quite a bit better. Ra is on Rocksichord rather than organ and the ambience is clearly outdoors rather than inside a small nightclub. Even so, a crossfade puts “Enlightenment,” recorded at Storyville in 1977, in between—a rather odd way to end an otherwise remarkably consistent album.

While there are no outrageous, improvised freak-outs, mad-scientist keyboard experiments (nor tediously overlong percussion jams and space chants), Unity is a classic Sun Ra record—and home to some of Gilmore’s finest playing ever committed to vinyl. Despite the rough and ready sound quality, the accessible repertoire and stellar performances makes this another ideal introduction to Sun Ra’s music for the newcomer. Too bad it’s so hard to find. 

March 9, 2013

Playlist Week of 2013-03-09

Jimi Hendirx - Mono LPs

* Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (Gardiner) (Arkiv Produktion DVD)
* Vivaldi: Cello Sonatas (ter Linden/Mortensen) (Brilliant Classics 2CD)
* Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, etc. (Venice Baroque Orch./Marcon/Carmignola) (Sony Classical CD)
* Vivaldi: Late Concertos RV 177, etc. (Venice Baroque Orch./Marcon/Carmignola) (Sony Classical CD)
* J.S. Bach: Sonatas For Viola Da Gamba (Pandolfo/Alessandrini) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* J.S. Bach: Trio Sonatas (London Baroque/Medlam) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* John Coltrane: Side Steps (d.1-3) (Prestige/Concord 5CD)
* Sun Ra; The Soul Vibrations Of Man (Saturn LP)
* Sun Ra: Unity (Horo 2LP>CDR)
* Sun Ra: Taking A Chance On Chances (Saturn LP>CDR)
* Sun Ra: Piano Recital, Teatro La Fenice, Venezia (Leo/Golden Years CD)
* Billy Cobham: Spectrum (Atlantic CD)
* Rock Candy Funk Party: We Want Groove (J&R Adventures CD/DVD)
* Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA CD)
* Elvis Presley: Elvis At Sun (RCA/BMG CD)
* Elvis Presley: Elvis (RCA-Victor/Friday Music LP)
* Elvis Presley: Loving You (RCA-Victor/Friday Music LP)
* Elvis Presley: A Date With Elvis (RCA-Victor/Friday Music LP)
* Elvis Presley: From Elvis From Memphis (RCA-Victor/Friday Music LP)
* Elvis Presley: Elvis As Recorded At Madison Square Garden (RCA-Victor/Sony-Legacy 2LP)
* Elvis Presley: Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite (RCA/Friday Music 2LP)
* Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol.30: Academy of Music, March 1972 (bonus disc) (GDP 4+1HDCD)
* Grateful Dead: Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY 1993-06-15 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY 1993-06-16 (selections) (SBD 3CDR)
* Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced (UK mono) (Experience Hendrix/Sony LP)
* Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced (US mono) (Experience Hendrix/Sony LP)
* Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love (mono) (Experience Hendrix/Sony LP)
* Jimi Hendrix: Hendrix In The West (Experience Hendrix/Sony CD)
* Jimi Hendrix: People, Hell and Angels (Experience Hendrix/Sony CD)
* Nick Drake: Pink Moon (Island/Universal LP)
* Yes: Close To The Edge (Atlantic/Audio Fidelity SACD)
* New Order: Power, Corruption & Lies (Factory/Rhino2CD)
* Thurston Moore: Psychic Hearts (Geffen 2LP)
* Lee Ranaldo: Between The Times And The Tides (Matador LP)
* Chelsea Light Moving: Chelsea Light Moving (Matador CD/LP+7”)(†)
* Pavement: Slanted And Enchanted (Matador LP)
* Pavement: Watery Domestic (Matador EP)
* Pavement: Slanted And Enchanted: Luxe And Reduxe (selections) (Matador 2CD)
* Wilco: A.M. (Nonesuch LP)
* Wilco: Being There (Nonesuch 2LP)
* Wilco: Summerteeth (Nonesuch 2LP)
* Porcupine Tree: Signify/Insignificance (KScope 2CD)
* Steven Wilson: Insurgentes (KScope CD/DVD)
* Steven Wilson: Grace For Drowning (KScope BD)
* Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing (KScope BD)
* Katatonia: Night Is The New Day (Peaceville CD)
* Katatonia: Dead End Kings (Peaceville CD)
* The Mars Volta: The Bedlam in Goliath (Gold Standard Labs/Universal CD)
* The Mars Volta: Octahedron (Warner Bros. CD)
* The Mars Volta: Noctourniquet (Warner Bros. CD)
* Baroness: Yellow And Green (Relapse 2CD)
* Riverside: Shrine Of New Generation Slaves (Inside Out 2CD)
* Fleet Foxes: Sun Giant (Sub Pop CDEP)†/‡
* Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop CD)†/‡
* Dusted: Total Dust (Polyvinyl CD)
* Wild Nothing: Nocturne (Captured Tracks CD)



I probably should have done a little research on these Jimi Hendrix monophonic reissues before plunking down the cash. If you’re thinking about picking these up, make sure you know what the deal is:

Unlike, say, The Beatles’ mono records, Hendrix apparently had little to do with these mixes, preferring to explore the incipient possibilities of stereophonic records. Moreover, Hendrix had little control over his first album, Are You Experienced, which was first issued on the Track label in the U.K. in May, 1967. As was the usual practice in those days, singles like “Hey Joe,” “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Purple Haze” were left off the LP. But when Reprise the U.S. version of Are You Experienced in August, it included these hits while omitting other tracks like “Red House,” “Can You See Me” and “Remember.” That means a completist needs both versions.

Worse, the original U.K. mono mixes were slapped together for quick release by an inexperienced engineer—and it shows. The vocals are way up front, the bass is bloated and indistinct and it sounds like a blanket has been thrown over the drums. Weird phasing effects are less psychedelic than just a sign of bad tape-head alignment. Some tracks start out sounding fine but then the high frequencies suddenly disappear for no discernible reason. Good grief!  The U.S. version is slightly better but those tracks which appear on the U.K. release are the same bizarre mixes. It wasn’t until the follow-up, Axis: Bold As Love that Hendrix was able to tailor an album from start to finish and while not as satisfying as the stereo mix, the mono LP at least has a consistent sound and character.

That said, these numbered, limited edition mono reissues from Sony-Legacy are very nicely done: all analog, 200-gram vinyl, original artwork—and only twenty bucks a pop. Originals go for big bucks on the secondary market. But be forewarned: Are You Experienced (particularly the U.K. version) is a mess—interesting historically, but a sonic disaster. Axis sounds superb but the only thing it reveals is how much better the stereo mix is. Caveat emptor!


In other vinyl news, the recent Elvis Presley reissues on Friday Music are definitely worth checking out. Ever since bringing Kevin Gray on board, Friday Music LPs have taken a huge step up in mastering quality and have become the standard bearers for “budget” audiophile vinyl. Fetishists may object to the repackaged gatefold sleeves and there is some debate as to whether these are truly all-analog or taken from the high-res digital transfers prepared by Vic Anesini in 2007—but who cares? These things look and sound fantastic. I hope they do the whole damn catalog, stupid movie soundtracks and all. Long live vinyl! Long live the King!

March 3, 2013

Sun Ra Sunday

So now we enter an extremely prolific period in Sun Ra's career: the live double-album, Unity (released on the Italian Horo label); two Saturn LPs derived from an appearance at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago; and one last solo piano set in Venezia - and that's just the rest of 1977! '78 is even more crazy! This is a lot of material to cover and I'm simply not able to keep up a once-a-week schedule and still do the music any kind of justice. Sorry!

In the meantime, enjoy the amusing photo above and a poem by the (space)man himself, which speaks to my predicament:


We must not say no to ourselves
For the greater deed
We must not say can't
If it is imperative that we should
We must not synchronize with anything
Less than art-wise dignity
It is either that we are cosmic giants of
Achievement, or something less than the
Greater super self
Across the thunder bridge of time
We rush with lightning feet to join
Hands with those
The friends of seers who truly say
And truly do.

-- Sun Ra

See you next week!

March 2, 2013

Playlist Week of 2013-03-02

King Crimson - Larks' Tongues in Aspic 40th Anniversary Edition

* J.S. Bach: Sonatas & Partitas For Violin Solo (Podger) (Channel Classics 2CD)
* Maderna: Quadrivium/Aura/Biogramma (Norddeutschen Rundfunks/Sinopoli) (DG CD)
* Berio: The String Quartets (Arditti) (Montaigne/Naïve CD)
* Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings (d.6) (Savoy/Atlantic 8CD)
* John Coltrane: Interplay (d.4-5) (Prestige/Concord 5CD)
* Sun Ra: Some Blues But Not The Kind That’s Blue (Saturn/Atavistic CD)
* Sun Ra: Unity (Horo 2LP>CDR)
* Sun Ra: Of Mythic Worlds (Philly Jazz LP)
* Archie Shepp: Attica Blues (Impulse! CD)
* Archie Shepp: The Cry Of My People (Impulse! CD)
* Kip Hanrahan: Tenderness (American Clave CD)
* Kip Hanrahan: Exotica (American Clave CD)
* Kip Hanrahan: A Thousand Nights And A Night (American Clave CD)
* Marvin Gaye: What’s Goin’ On (Motown/Mobile Fidelity SACD)
* Roberta Flack: Softly With These Songs: The Best of Roberta Flack (selections) (Atlantic CD)
* Gonervill: Gonnervill (Innerrhythmic CD)
* Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (Island/Def Jam CD)†/‡
* Rock Candy Funk Party: We Want Groove (J&R Adventures CD/DVD)
* Elvis Presley: Loving You (RCA-Victor/Friday Music LP)
* Elvis Presley: A Date With Elvis (RCA-Victor/Friday Music LP)
* Elvis Presley: Elvis Is Back! (RCA-Victor/DCC LP)
* Grateful Dead: Europe ’72 (Warner Bros./Rhino 3LP)
* Grateful Dead: Europe ’72 Volume 2 (Warner Bros./GDP/Rhino 4LP)
* Grateful Dead: Paramount Theatre, Portland, OR 1972-07-25 (selections) (SBD 4CDR)
* Jimi Hendrix: Live At Woodstock (Experience Hendrix/MCA 2CD)
* Jimi Hendrix: Band Of Gypsies (Experience Hendrix/Capitol CD)
* Jimi Hendrix: Live At The Fillmore East (Experience Hendrix/MCA 2CD)
* Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield (d.4) (Atco/Rhino 4HDCD)
* King Crimson: Islands (40th Anniversary Edition) (Inner Knot CD/DVD)
* King Crimson: Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (40th Anniversary Edition) (Inner Knot CD/DVD)
* King Crimson: Starless And Bible Black (40th Anniversary Edition) (Inner Knot CD/DVD)
* Camel: Mirage (Deram/EMI CD)
* Camel: Music Inspired By The Snow Goose (Decca/EMI CD)
* Camel: Moonmadness (Decca/EMI CD)
* Camel: Raindances (Decca/EMI CD)
* Camel: Breathless (Decca/EMI CD)†/‡
* Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring (EMI LP/DVD)
* Talk Talk: Spirit Of Eden (EMI LP/DVD)
* Talk Talk: Laughing Stock (Polydor 2LP)
* Mark Hollis: Mark Hollis (Polydor/Ba Da Bing LP)
* Chelsea Light Moving: Chelsea Light Moving (Matador WAV)†
* Porcupine Tree: Stars Die: The Delirium Years 1991-1997 (KScope 2CD)
* Porcupine Tree: The Sky Moves Sideways (KScope 2CD)
* Katatonia: The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville CD)
* Meshuggah: Koloss (Nuclear Blast CD/DVD)
* OM: God Is Good (Thrill Jockey LP)†
* OM: Advaitic Songs (Thrill Jockey 2-45RPM LP)†
* Alcest: Écailles de Lune (Prophecy Productions CD)†/‡
* Alcest: Les Voyages de l’Âme (Prophecy Productions CD)†/‡



After numerous delays, the two-disc 40th Anniversary Edition of King Crimson’s 1973 album, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, finally arrived a few weeks ago. As with the others in this series (which I wrote about here and here), Steven Wilson’s remix is revelatory—especially on high resolution 24-bit/96kHz DVD-Audio. This is probably my very favorite King Crimson album—and it has never sounded so good.

After numerous personnel changes over the years, King Crimson reinvented itself in mid-1972, with a whole new lineup handpicked by nominal leader (and only remaining original member), Robert Fripp: two drummers, including Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir; violinist/keyboardist David Cross; and bassist/singer/frontman, John Wetton. Bruford was riding high with Yes, who were at the peak of their powers and commercial success, but he was looking for a challenge (he got one). Wetton was also looking to break free from Family and Fripp was willing to make him the front man for the new incarnation of Crimson. Cross was virtually unknown; Fripp had met him through Crimson’s work on college campuses. But the most interesting—and fleeting—new member was Muir, who was well known as a member of Music Improvisation Company, the landmark free music collective with guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker. His expansive drum kit, extended techniques and wild-man stage persona transformed the sound of King Crimson and his effect would be felt long after he left the band.

They immediately hit the road, incorporating long stretches of free improvisation amidst slowly evolving new material. In a grudging nod to the past, an encore of “21st Century Schizoid Man” might appease the stunned and somewhat puzzled audiences. Accordingly, the new band was well-prepared when they went into the studio in January 1973 to record Larks’ Tongues In Aspic. However, the cheap and cheerful Command Studios in London was fraught with technical problems and an inept, novice engineer. Although they valiantly tried to capture the dynamic, improvisational aspects of their live shows, no one was particularly happy with the way the record sounded at the time. Wilson’s remix goes a long way towards rectifying this. He admits in the liner notes that he “was a little bit less faithful to the original recording in the sense that I knew there were some things we could do to toughen the sound up a bit to give the album a bit more balls if you like.” I’ve heard this record hundreds of times and the first time I listened to this remix, I heard things I’d never noticed before—mostly little bits of Muir’s meticulously detailed percussion that had previously been buried in a murky, hastily put together mix. Purists should be satisfied that the original can be found on the DVD but I can’t see anyone wanting to return to it.

The extras include the entire album re-imagined through alternate takes and mixes (including Muir’s solo track from “Easy Money”) but the coolest thing by far is the video segment from television appearance on "The Beat Club" in Bremen prior to the album's recording sessions. Opening with an astonishing thirty-minute improvisation, you really get to see the two drummer lineup in action—and how truly progressive this version of the band really was. At times evoking the edgy jazz/rock fusion of Miles Davis’s music during this period (or the guitar-god heroics of the Mahavishnu Orchestra), it also ventures into the sound world of post-Bartokian classical music, with Cross’s violin and flute combined with the dual Mellotrons going to places rock music has rarely ventured. But it is Muir’s presence that seems to lift the bandstand, his antics highly theatrical but also profoundly musical. “I always remember I had an urge to get Robert to let his hair down because he was very controlled in the way he played,” says Muir in the liner notes. “At the TV gig, I really tried  and tried to provoke him.” Fripp (who has plenty of hair in the video), remains as tight-assed as ever, but you can watch him watching Muir, subtly deferring to his lead during parts of the improvisation and at all times playing with a fierce determination. In fact, everyone seems to be watching Muir, wondering what he might do next. It’s all very exciting and wondrous to behold and worth the twenty bucks all by itself. Apparently, the legal hassles involved with securing the rights to this footage  held up the release of this new edition of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic. Well, it was certainly worth the wait.

Muir abruptly quit the band in early 1973, ostensibly due to an onstage injury but in reality because of a deep spiritual crisis. He withdrew to a Buddhist monastery in Scotland for the next several years, only occasionally making music ever again. King Crimson continued on as a quartet but with Bruford incorporating Muir’s textural, atmospheric playing into his more groove-oriented approach. For the hardcore fan of the Jamie Muir era, a limited edition fifteen-disc box set is available, containing every scrap of tape known to exist of this short-lived version of the band. Am I a hardcore fan? Well, the vast majority of the live recordings are taken from audience bootlegs—not my favorite listening material—but I have to say I am tempted. Some music is so good, it’s worth suffering through shitty sound quality (e.g. Sun Ra). This incarnation of King Crimson is definitely in that category. Well, I guess I better make a decision before it goes out of print forever. For everyone else, the 40th Anniversary Edition is more than enough to convince you that this incarnation of King Crimson was truly incredible, both live and in the studio. Wilson’s remix unearths a wealth of detail while retaining the warm ‘70s vibe of the original, revealing Larks’ Tongues In Aspic to be every bit the masterpiece I always knew it was.

March 1, 2013

Sonic Youth @ Spectrum Culture

It was my turn again for "Revisit/Rediscover" over at Spectrum Culture. My subject this time is Sonic Youth's 1986 album, EVOL. I could write a book about this record - there was much I had to leave out! It may not be their best album, but none of them seemed to matter as much as this one, at least to me.