Thursday, October 29, 2015

...and you will know us by the trail of dead-Source Tags & Codes (2002)

Artist: ...and you will know us by the trail of dead
Album: Source Tags & Codes
Label: Interscope
Year: 2002

Well well well. Source Tags & Codes, along with Heartbreaker is another album I have listened to hundreds of times, and am really, earnestly revisiting for the first time in years. A while back, I purged many of the indie albums I had bought in high school. At this point, I can proudly say that I really only own the albums that I was really into, and albums I bought on a whim, due to hype or some other factor, are mostly out of my collection. Thirteen years later, what do I make of ST&C?
Coming out the same year as Mclusky Do Dallas, Turn On The Bright Lights, Kill The Moonlight, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Source Tags still holds up incredibly well, for the most part. The album operates in a weird sonic niche, far more aggressive than most of the decade's indie rock, certainly detached from most of the emo roots of the group (except, perhaps, lyrically), and nowhere near as hard as a group like Tool or System of a Down, but far more aggressive than the popular indie rock of the day. In an era where groups like The Kings of Leon or The Killers could get popular, there doens't seem to be much reason that the major label debut of Trail of Dead shouldn't have made the group huge. Though their disputes with their label are well-known and well-documented at this point, Source Tags is, dare I say, probably still a masterpiece.
The album's first two songs are instantly memorable and endlessly replayable, especially for those of us who grew up with the record. "It Was There That I Saw You," opens the album with the band in full force. The sonics of the dueling guitars playing in harmony is fantastic, the way the bass drops in before the verse is perfect, and the song ends with a beautiful crescendo. The big single from the album was "Another Morning Stoner," and with a different kind of dueling guitar interplay, and the song is another winner. In its time, the album was compared favorably to Sonic Youth. The comparison sticks out even from a song structure perspective, with strong verses and choruses in the songs, which give way to guitar interplay (in lieu of a solo), and then back to the verse/chorus, one more time. But the routine really doesn't get redundant, and the songs all work.
As we get to the heart of the album, though the first two and last two songs are the obvious stand-outs, all the middle ground is superb. "Bauldelaire" has a driving rhythm, and refuses to let you lose interest in the album three songs in. "Homage" is harsh and aggressive, but it gives way to three of the more peaceful songs on this admittedly aggressive album. "How Near How Far" comes out of its middle-part instrumental lull better than any other song. "Heart in the Hand of Matter" probably has the most interesting rhythmic arrangement on the album, and though "Monsoon" has some embarrassing lyrics, the song works. We come out of this sequence in the album with the sublime "Days of Being Wild", and close out with "Relative Ways" (other single), a short instrumental piece, and the brilliant title track. Though the group hasn't produced another album nearly this good (though its amibitions remain high!), the group should be proud. Thirteen years later, Source Tags & Codes has 11 perfect songs. It's a wonderful album, and coming from the last days of major label rock (an issue I should try to address in a separate essay), it's unlikely we'll see something like this again.
Given all that I've written, you may think I could go back and listen to this album again and again. Unfortunately, it has a fatal flaw: some of the worst production I've ever heard. In the last few years, and certainly since I was in high school, I've learned more about the loudness wars. Also, just being in a band, I've learned the difference between good and bad production. That doesn't mean everything should be clean. Bee Thousand isn't particularly "well" produced, but the instruments are well-defined, dynamics are there, and the album has personality! Source Tags & Codes on the other hand sounds...not good. Maybe not as terrible as a Taylor Swift song, maybe not as bad as Death Magnetic, but my lord, the drums and bass are nearly unlistenable. For the bulk of the album, the drummer is playing a ride cymbal whose terrible sound quality just obscures everything interesting going on. The guitars, when not playing single notes, are washed away in noise. The bass is present, but only in feel, not definition. In other words, I can hear it's there, but what it's playing is far less clear.
Source Tags & Codes is a masterpiece whose production is terrible, terrible, terrible. It's a shame. Will make fine listening in a car, but on the stereo I now have, it sounds like shit.

Pink Anderson-Carolina Blues Man, Volume 1 (1961)

Artist: Pink Anderson
Album: Carolina Blues Man Volume 1
Label: Prestige
Year: 1961

Pink Anderson's guitar playing and soulful vocals are beautifully collected in this collection. Though it seems he was an active performer for several decades, this represents one of his few official recording sessions. The songs here are intimate and heavily textured. Acoustic guitar is an instrument that is so simple, but can be produced and played so many different ways. On this batch of songs, Anderson sings like he's right in the room with you (without microphone), and strums a mean, full-sounding guitar. A great collection of songs.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Mahmoud Ahmed-Almaz: Ethiopiques Volume 6

Artist: Mahmoud Ahmed
Album: Almaz: Ethiopiques Volume 6
Label: Buda Musique
Year: 2004

The sixth volume of the superb CD series, Ethiopiques which is an ongoing compilation of popular Ethiopian music, features the performances of 70s-era musician Mahmoud Ahmed. The first three songs on this compilation form a sort of suite, featuring a similar bass riff and basically the same chord progression. Part of the reason I want to try to go back and listen to everything I own is because, until relatively recently, I didn't pay much mind to sound quality on releases, and doing so has been fun. This release, however, does not really offer me the chance to analyze sound quality. The whole release is built on the strength of the feel and texture of the performances in these songs which are remarkable. Over an hour of delightful R&B music, slow and fast, hard and tender. Feels like the energy of a James Brown show at the Apollo. Great release!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Agitation Free-Second (1973)

Artist: Agitation Free
Label: Vertigo
Year: 1973

Second picks up right where Malesch leaves off, and we are left with only the best parts of the first album. Thumping bass, beautiful guitar interplay, and a lot more structure than the first side of the first album. The free-form jams and the eastern sound of Malesch have given way to a much more structured record.
I guess I don't have as much to say as I wish I did. The album's centerpiece and best song "Laila, Part 2." A soaring guitar masterpiece that does everything great Krautrock as a genre does. Repetition, throbbing bass, rolling drums, dynamic guitar interplay. This is probably my favorite guitar-based Krautrock album (as opposed to electronic stuff like Ashra).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Agitation Free-Malesch (1972)

Artist: Agitation Free
Album: Malesch
Label: Vertigo
Year: 1972

Agitation Free are one of those groups underrated/under-appreciated by people who like underrated music. Krautrock was a musical movement that was part of the German 1970s artistic renaissance, arguably the first major art movement in Germany after World War II. Groups as diverse as Can, Kraftwerk, Faust, Harmonia, and Ash Ra Tempel/AshRa fall under the genre's umbrella. Malesch is the group's first album, and it is a good primer on what the group could do, as well as what the genre as a whole could do.
The first side of the record, opening with "You Play With Us Today", is freewheeling but certainly not without form. The group uses Middle Eastern-inspired percussion, swirling organ, and pulsing bass to hold down the rhythm while distorted guitars improvise on top of it all. While the first three tracks are separate pieces, they are clearly part of one whole, and flows together.
Things pick up on side two. A little less "experimental" and "spacy" feeling, but the group comes together more to jam and it's a bit more cohesive. If one thing unites the wide variety of music that came from Krautrock's music, it's the repetition in the form, and the second half of the album is slow-building, really well-played, and feels great.
If there's one shortcoming when I hear this album, I know how much I prefer their next album, 2nd which I can't wait to hear next.

Cannonball Adderley-Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live At The Club (1966)

Artist: Cannonball Adderley
Album: Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live at The Club
Label: Capitol
Year: 1966

The liveliness and excitement and presence of this set is fantastic. Rather than the feel of something more avante-garde, blues-based, or even like a standard blowin' session, there is an "on-point" feel to every track here, with everyone firing on all cylinders playing their hearts out. A great live CD, that I wasn't expecting to enjoy as much as I did. Great set. I definitely need to check out more of his albums.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cannonball Adderley-Somethin' Else (1958)

Artist: Cannonball Adderley
Album: Somethin' Else
Label: Blue Note
Year: 1958

Cannonball Adderley's 1958 record Somethin' Else features Miles Davis on trumpet and Art Blakey on drums. The quintet is rounded out by Hank Jones on piano and Sam Jones (relation?) on bass. It's a bit perplexing to me how to approach jazz reviews. There are many jazz albums I can tell a story about and have strong feelings of. A moment or song or performance which often sticks out to me. However, there are likely just as many albums that I've listened to two or three times, and can tell you nothing about. Why is Somethin' Else a Blue Note classic? I really can't say. The best I can do is talk a little about why I like it. Sorry, but a lot of the jazz reviews will be like this.
One of the online acquaintances I used to talk to while getting into jazz (about a decade ago) one time made a disparaging remark to me about Blue Note albums in general, calling them just a "blowing session." Sure enough, there is far less of a personal identity among Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Clark's Blue Note output. As fantastic as it is, I'd be lying if I said one record blew others out of the way. I'd be lying further still if I said those records seemed as well-thought out and carefully orhcestrated as Mingus Ah Um or Kind Of Blue. That's not why I like them, though. The sound of a trio, quartet, quintet or what have you, just going to town on a tune, listening to the thunder of the drums or the way the keys dance around the tune is great. As I get dangerously close to becoming somewhat concerned about audiophile-quality recordings, the sound of a tenor sax or crash of a drum that feels like it's in the room resonates with me.
Somethin' Else is a respected classic, and certainly Adderley's earliest classic. What it really reminded me of, tonight, was the Miles Davis album from a year earlier, Round About Midnight. Davis features strongly in the opening tune, "Autumn Leaves," and his playing is quiet and informs the rest of the record. I'm not sure if the term "blowin' session" applies to all "generic" Blue Note dates, but it's always made me think of something like Horace Silver records, which swing and move quickly. This album, on the other hand, is slow and peaceful. "Autumn Leaves", and especially "Love For Sale" and "Sometin' Else" start slow, and before you know it, build into a larger, more forceful sound. Davis' influence is certainly on this record, and his composition fingerprints are littered throughout.
Bonus track "Alison's Uncle" is a much more standard hard bop tune. The album proper, however, is lush, peaceful, and moving. Art Blakey may be the true standout as well. For someone so renowned for his powerful drumming, he lends an extremely light touch to most of the album, never overplaying. A beautiful record, and that's all I have to say.