Kath Bloom and Loren Connors – Sing the Children Over

Kath Bloom and Loren Connors – Sing the Children Over/ Sand in My Shoe (Chapter Music 2CD)

Kath Bloom and Loren Connors met in 1976 in New Haven, where Connors worked as a janitor at Yale, while Bloom practiced guitar and on occasion worked at a local cemetery. Both Connecticut natives, over the next eight years, they produced at least ten LPs, singles and cassettes together, released in tiny editions on Connors’ own labels Daggett and St. Joan, four of which are being reissued by Australian label Chapter Music. The sound on these first two reissues is intimate and alive, familiar to anyone already acquainted with Connors’ guitar sound, as it evolves from the scratchy dissonance of his nine volume Unaccompanied Acoustic Guitar Improvisations (1979-1982) to his more recent snaky electrified abstractions. These are songs, blues and folk, complete with Connors’ grunts and moans as he accompanies Bloom, haunted perhaps in the same way Connors and Bloom haunted the abandoned industrial spaces of New Haven that they lived in at the time. This is the blues according to Emily Dickinson, Blind Willie Johnson relocated to a slum in New England, the same cold wind blowing, the broken windows different. Sing the Children Over, featuring a mixture of traditional songs and Bloom originals, was the first LP released by the duo, and sounds transitional, exploratory. 1983’s Sand in My Shoe, is a masterpiece from beginning to end – the songs are all by Bloom and she and Connors have a powerful rapport, coiled around each other, but breaking off at strange moments, like passionate but doomed lovers.
Although Bloom is obviously a predecessor of the current generation of experimental folk singers like Coco Rosie, Joanna Newsom and Josephine Foster, and has a similar mixture of fragility and strength, her singing is emotionally direct, and without affectation. Thankfully there’s little of the regression towards childhood that characterizes the current generation, tho there’s plenty of desperation, madness even, in songs like “My Stupid Little Heart”. At the same time, Bloom also sounds quite different to Connors’ later collaborations with Suzanne Langille (especially the remarkable Haunted House records) which are much more sensuous, langorous and erotically charged. Bloom has continued to perform on and off, and her recent Terror (also on Chapter Music) indicates that her voice is still powerful – but lyrically and musically, the new songs sound like standard folk club fare and in a way they reveal how remarkable the collaborations with Connors are.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

Kasai Allstars

Kasai Allstars – in the 7th moon, the chief turned into a swimming fish
and ate the head of his enemy by magic
Crammed CD

Crammed Discs’ first two Congotronics records reintroduced Kinshasa’s amazing Konono No. 1 amongst others to the world beyond the Congo and ethnomusicology, along with the pleasures of the amplified and distorted likembe or thumb piano. The third volume of the series features Kasai Allstars, 25 musicians from five ethnic groups from the Kasai, a region of the Congo east of Kinshasa. We’re told that they speak different languages, have had intermittent conflicts but decided to pool resources and form a “superband”, at the suggestion of producer Vincent Kenis. Apparently this was a challenge because, aside from language issues, the instruments, repertoire, even the tunings used by the participant groups were different.
The sound here is broadly similar to that of the first two Congotronics records, the latter of which featured recordings by the Allstars, as well as two bands whose members feature in the Allstars, Basokin and Masanka Sanyaki. But compared to the groups recorded on Ocora’s remarkable 1986 compilation, Musiques Urbaines à Kinshasa, or a number of the acts featured on Congotronics 2, things here are more orderly – the whistles, shouting, stop and start movements, not to mention Konono No. 1’s signature distortion have been arranged into something that has a more regular rhythmic pulse closer to house or techno. Flashes of Franco’s OK Jazz and the older traditions of Congolese pop surface in the sound.
It’s often delightful and the groove is tough, but it’s hard not to feel mildly suspicious. Without in any way claiming that the distortions of Konono No. 1 are more authentic or representative of anything, there’s a hint of the creeping sanitization of a sound that befell various west African acts such as Youssou N’dour and Salif Keita in the 1980s in an attempt to package them as “world music”. The title is great of course but isn’t it a little heavy-handed in its packaging of “raw” exoticism and Otherness? There’s a certain tentativeness in the music that is probably the result of the attempt to find commonalities in the musics of the different participants. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Fusion” is often unfairly used as a critical label, given that just about everything in the universe is a fusion of something or other, but it all depends who’s doing the fusing. And who’s listening — this is a beautiful record, but I wish it had a little more chaos in it.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

Josephine Foster

Josephine Foster
A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing
Locust CD

by Marcus Boon

Josephine Foster’s quiet, eccentric, folky masterpiece of last year, Hazel Eyes I Will Lead You, set her up nicely for inclusion in the current pantheon of indie-rock/nu-folk heroes and heroines. Anyone expecting a polite, obliging radio-ready follow-up from A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing is likely to be surprised by this set of seven nineteenth century German art songs, words by Goethe and others, music by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann, sung in German by Foster over a mixture of acoustic and squalling, dissonant electric guitars.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is the kind of record that one hesitates to say anything about, after only a week of listening to it – and this itself is of course an achievement. These are beautiful songs, sung beautifully, with beautiful accompaniment. But then there’s the gothic grandiosity of the songs, the doomy black and white cover, the electric arrangements that verge on a parody of prog rock noodling, the big prog concept (19th C art song meets free folk), not to mention Foster’s famously wayward reverb-soaked vocal intensity. Yet, it all works, gloriously so. Foster’s fabulous earnestness is always leavened by an element of self-parody, an over-the-topness which embraces and simultaneously laughs at the cheesiness of the idea of Sonic Youth-Meets-Brahms! while at the same time developing out of that conceptual kitsch something genuinely moving and intense.

This is not a difficult record to listen to, but I am unsettled and awed by the way in which Foster draws us deeper, track by track, into her own particular kind of darkness. This reaches its heaviest, blackest shade on track six’s 11’ 45” skronk meets Minnie Ripperton epic rendition of Schumann and Eichendorff’s “Auf einer Burg”. Just when you think you can’t take it any more, the noise dissipates, leaving us with three minutes of acoustic bitter-sweetness in “Nähe des Geliebten”.

Perhaps Foster is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” here – except of course that Foster knows that under the sheep’s clothing, the wolf outfit remains merely another disguise. Like so many of the greatest pop talents of the last 50 years, Foster plays in a hall of mirrors, not because she enjoys playing games, but because out of this unlikely set of refracted surfaces, something new and true emerges.

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

Josephine Foster – Hazel

Josephine Foster
Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You
Locust (L 68)
Chicago-based Josephine Foster’s Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You has a lot in common with various shining stars of the current new folk scene, such as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Coco Rosie. At first the singing sounds affected, and one is distracted by the mannerisms and deliberate archaisms. Then one notices how beautiful Foster’s voice is and how gorgeous the songwriting here is, and all the isms start to disappear. A classically trained singer, who’s also been part of two other Locust acts, Born Heller and The Supposed, Foster accompanies herself here on acoustic guitar, the vocals sometimes multitracked into delicate lovely tonal spirals. The sound is warm and intimate, displaced in charming ways by the addition of a variety of string instruments, castanets, bells, kazoos and other sonic incidentals. There’s a nostalgia at work here in these songs, that feels like a very far off radio station broadcasting old songs. But the person singing these songs is in fact very close by, and this makes hearing her sing all the more heart-breaking.

originally published in Signal to Noise, 2005.

jongibson

Jon Gibson – Visitations I & II + Thirties (New Tone, NT 6747)
Jon Gibson – Two Solo Pieces (New Tone, NT 6756)

The archeology of the 1970s downtown New York minimalist music continues apace with the reissue of two LPs by one of the unsung heroes of the epoch, Jon Gibson. Gibson, composer, keyboard and woodwind player was a key figure in this scene, playing with La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley in various groups, and as a founding member of the Philip Glass ensemble. Both of these disks are the equal of anything being done by Gibson’s better known collaborators – which is to say that they are remarkable.

Visitations I – II collects two “16 Multi Track-Textured Environmental Soundscapes” from 1973, mixing percussion and flutes with a variety of field-recordings of water, wind and so on. These are lovely sprawling pieces, gently pulsating sound fields, and among the most effective recordings that integrate water sound that I’ve heard. Even better is Thirties, a previously unissued sprawling keyboard driven piece that was a key part of Gibson’s oeuvre in the 1970s. With strong connections to Glass, Reich and Riley’s keyboard works, and showing the influence of Indonesian gamelan, African polyrhythms and Indian raga rhythm cycles that marks many of the key minimalist works of the time, Thirties is a delightfully laconic piece of minimal electric funk, featuring Gibson on keyboard, and a great ensemble including Gavin Bryars on percussion and David Rosenboom on electronic violin. Perhaps the closest comparison is mid-1970s Miles, without the trumpet, guitar and drums.

Two Solo Pieces collects two tracks from a 1977 LP, Cycles, a beautiful 22 minute solo pipe organ drone with a warm, drifting tone, and an untitled raga-like solo flute of great charm. Three previously unissued pieces of great interest follow. Melody IV Part I from 1975 is a David Behrmann-like systems piece of interweaved harmonic clusters performed by the SEM Ensemble in 1975. Melody III from the same year features Gibson’s solo organ in a Glass/Reich systems mode. Song 1 from 1972 is a gorgeous, looping melodic minimal piece that features a young Arthur Russell on cello and Barbara Benary on violin. Truly a treasure trove.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2006.

Henry Flynt and Nova’Billy

Henry Flynt and Nova’Billy
Locust CD
From 1974-75, New York based fiddler, philosopher and conceptual artist Henry Flynt had a full working rock band called Nova’Billy that cranked out a remarkable blend of country, soul, rock and blues jams mutated and abstracted in various ways through Flynt’s compositional techniques and ferocious improvisation. The band folded after a year due to lack of interest in the few gigs they played at downtown art venues like The Kitchen – and, according to Flynt, various members deciding to jump onto the punk bandwagon that was setting up shop at places like CBGB at that time.
Several songs here first appeared on the excellent Flynt collection Graduation, but this stands as the fullest record of the existence of Nova’Billy, and for those new to Flynt’s music and inexplicably averse to 40 minute Coltrane-like free-fiddle and drone explorations, probably the most accessible and enjoyable disk yet issued of this American master. Quite simply, the disk rocks from beginning to end, and, despite Flynt’s aversion to punk, resonates with other marvels of 1975 such as the New York Dolls and early Pere Ubu, though frankly it also sounds at times like vintage Grateful Dead or Allman Brothers. And that is not a bad thing at all.
Having said that, the strange, abstract compositional structures which Flynt uses, while working within recognizable country or soul idioms produce a ferociously complex, ecstatic groove that sounds like absolutely nothing else. The band, which includes Peter Gordon, who was later involved in the Love of Life Orchestra, and Don Christensen, who became drummer for James Chance’s Contortions, are terrific, as is Flynt’s scorching fiddle sound. If there’s a weakness, it’s Flynt’s voice, which sounds weak when he tries to hold a tune, but amazing when he begins to holler and howl, as on the stunning “Sky Turned Red”. It’s unfortunate that there were few or no takers when Nova’Billy were around, back in 1975. Flynt’s vision of what is valuable in music, set out in his 1980 essay “The Meaning of My Avant Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music” is increasingly vindicated by the turn of younger improvisers to “free folk” and other mutant idiomatic musics. Still, Nova’Billy set out a blazing trail which few so far have been able to follow.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2007.

Haino review

Keiji Haino and Sitaar Tah! – Animamima (aRCHIVE/Important)

Drones have been a major part of Keiji Haino’s repertoire for a while, a potent weapon in his eternal war/love affair with a universe which at various times he seeks to dissolve into, manifest inside himself, refuse entirely, and, for the rest of the time, play and explore – all through sound. Animamima, released on aRCHIVE’s excellent imprint in a beautiful book-like package designed by Sun O)))’s Stephen O’Malley, was recorded in Tokyo on June 26, 2004 and documents a collaboration between Haino, with a full armory of drone makers including electric tambura, electric shruti box, electric hurdy gurdy, as well as rhythm box, flute and voice, sitarist Yoshidaikiti, throat singer Fuyuki Tomokawa, and Sitaar Tah!, supposedly a 20 piece sitar orchestra.

The first disk begins with a drone similar to those found in some of Haino’s previous works – “Abandon all words at a stroke” or “So, Black is Myself” and the mini-CD “Shruti Box” for example – serene, majestic, crackling with latent energy. The sound gradually thickens as London born voice performer Fuyuki Tomokawa, throat singer and winner of the Avant garde khoomei singer award in Tuva for two years running, contributes overtone laden vocals that weave in and out of the mix, until it reaches a dense swirling, mostly beatless maelstrom of sound reminiscent of Can’s Tago Mago or Tony Conrad period Theater of Eternal Music with top notch recording equipment and pharmaceuticals. Haino contributes some spectacular flute and gorgeous forelorn falsetto vocals. It goes on for ever and you don’t want it to stop.

The second disk further intensifies the roaring, joyful vortex of sound with Haino’s screaming hurdy gurdy work, before receding after 25 minutes into a throbbing dense mass of slowly shifting resonant strings. The whole 98 minutes is as remarkable as anything Haino has done in a long illustrious musical life. At a time where drone-based music is in danger of sinking into generic cliché, Haino and company have made something bracing, free, yet very accessible, and finally not like anyone else at all.

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

gysin copy

Nothing is True Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin
John Geiger
Disinformation HBK, $27.95

Marcus Boon

In recent years, Brion Gysin, best known as the inventor of the cut up, has begun to step out from the shadows of his co-conspirator William S. Burroughs. While Gysin’s ideas, originally conceived as Moroccan magical techniques applied to post World War II art, literature and music, can be recognized just about everywhere in contemporary culture, as the act of cutting, pasting and reconfiguring found materials becomes an almost universal gesture in all media, Gysin’s own work is being excavated and resurrected, in a retrospective show of his visual art projects mounted by the Edmonton Art Gallery, along with an accompanying book, Brion Gysin: Tuning In To the Multimedia Age, CDs of his sounds works on Sub Rosa and other labels, Back In No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader, edited by Jason Weiss, which gives a solid overview of Gysin’s writings, and now, finally, the impeccably researched, astute biography that Gysin’s life and work has long demanded, by John Geiger.

The book tracks Gysin’s line of flight from Edmonton, Alberta, to London, to New York, Paris and Morocco, where Gysin encountered the Master Musicians of Jajouka and started up a nightclub in Tangiers where they performed nightly. He was always on the make, but never quite making it, his list of friends and associates a who’s who of the post World War II international art scene — writing novels, producing sound poetry, an aborted film script for Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, paintings, performances, yet rarely receiving any real recognition for his work, aside from Burroughs’ enduring support. Although the cut up, which was popularized by Burroughs in books like Nova Express, was originally conceived as applying a montage technique from the visual arts to the written word, it became most influential in rock music, and it was finally in the rock world that Gysin got some recognition, as generations of rockers, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 1960s, to Iggy Pop and Bowie in the 1970s, to the industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, applied the cut up to song lyrics, and to looped recordings of voices, breaking apart received meanings in phrases in an attempt to “rub out the word”.

Geiger’s last book, Chapel of Extreme Experience, was a fascinating look at scientific and artistic experimentation with flicker and strobe effects in the 1950s and 60s, including Gysin’s dream machine, a revolving, trance inducing stroboscopic sculpture. Geiger’s other trade is writing biographies of explorers – and in a sense, this book continues that work, describing the life of one of the pioneers of the exploration of inner space, an explorer who, at the moment where the planet itself appeared to hold no more outer frontiers (think H Bomb experiments in the Pacific in the 1950s, or the Space Program), turned inwards. Drugs, trance inducing machines, games of chance, Islamic mysticism, sound as a universal principle: Gysin played with, and in some cases invented, the whole deck of cards of the post war avant garde. An untimely presence in his lifetime, perhaps we can finally hear and see his full stature today.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

Georges Gurdjieff – Harmonic Development: The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949: A Review

Georges Gurdjieff – Harmonic Development: The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949
Basta DVD with mp3s plus 2 CDs.

Armenian mystic Georges Gurdjieff (1866-1949) placed considerable emphasis on music as a spiritual tool, a manifestation of his ideas regarding cosmic law, and an accompaniment to the various dance/movement exercises that he encouraged his disciples in Europe and America to practice. Gurdjieff was best known for his piano music, scored and arranged by his Russian disciple Thomas de Hartmann. Although Gurdjieff was not himself a professional musician, he also improvised and composed on the harmonium after his famous, well attended talks. In the last two years of his life, his disciples recorded a number of these improvisations, many of which receive their first public hearing on these disks.

Harmonic Development is an exemplary archival production, executed by Dutch musician and producer Gert-Jan Blom. The centerpiece is a DVD with 20 hours of mp3s, containing intelligently restored copies of all of Gurdjieff’s harmonium recordings. An attached 2 CD set includes selected highlights from the recordings. The whole thing is encased in a 140 page book with photos and numerous reminiscences of the circumstances under which Gurdjieff played – in particular at the Hotel Wellington in New York where Gurdjieff took over a suite and made dinners for 50 to 150 people, copiously watered with top-notch armagnac, conducting numerous toasts to all the types of “idiots”, as he liked to call them, in the room, before retiring to the salon to play the harmonium.

The testimonials to the effects of this music on his disciples range from ecstatic to indifferent, though it’s notable that there are few attempts in the documentation to solidly link the “noo moosics” heard to Gurdjieff’s philosophy. While devotees will be moved by these material traces rescued from sonic oblivion on paper tapes stored in a small shed by a pool in a villa in Southern Spain (amongst other places), to the non-devotee the recordings sound like sad Caucasian folk music, improvised around slowly building, simple forms. Or La Dolce Vita-style film music. Or, as a friend said to me, “some dude playing an accordion in a bar”. But there’s something going on that makes you linger with these sounds – contemplative, emotionally rousing, lacking in gimmicks or distractions – music perhaps for concluding something: a dinner, an investigation, a life.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

Group Inerane – Guitars From Agadez: A Review

Group Inerane – Guitars From Agadez
Sublime Frequencies LP
Guitars from Agadez is the second of two recordings of extraordinary electrified guitar music from various parts of the Saharan diaspora issued by Sublime Frequencies this year. Like Group Doueh’s startling Western Saharan fusions of Hendrix and Sahrawi music, Group Inerane will be filed under “ethnic” music, and indeed they are strongly related to traditional musics, in this case Touareg music from Agadez in northern Niger. But setting aside the trademark feminine north African ullulations which explode whenever things really get going, these disks sound not unlike vintage Sun City Girls — amplified, turbulent, complex, abstract while at the same time, hard and funky. In other words, as “modern” as anything made in Europe or America today.
Touareg guitar music was born when these nomads of the Sahara inhabiting a vast desert area spanning parts of Mali, Niger and Algeria were exiled to refugee camps in Libya during political unrest in the early 1980s. Amplified guitars, songs containing otherwise banned political commentary and bootleg cassette tapes became a cultural/political rallying point for performers such as Abdallah Oumbadougou, who also hails from Niger, and the better known Tinariwen, from north east Mali.
Those familiar with Tinariwen will recognise the sound here, but Hisham Mayet, who also made the terrific DVD of music from Niger released by Sublime Frequencies (which also features a performance by Group Inerane), gives a rougher, more lo-fi sound to the group, which threatens to distort and at times disappear entirely in ways that are refreshing after the slickness that still dominates “world music” recording.

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.