Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Compulsive Cadences

Graeme Todd (alt.Country-Rock)
Track: Blows My Mind (2007)

Somewhere in darkest
Kyoto - at the mysterious Gojo Studios to be precise - maverick alt.country punk-rocker Graeme Todd quietly continues to weave his peculiar brand of magic.

I like Blows My Mind a lot, and not only because I'm acquainted with the artist and producer. Its hooks and raggedy driving guitars remind me very much of Bobby Dylan circa 1965, and there's a lot worse you could say about a pop song.
Not only that, it's a tune with a message, and its lyrical intelligence is matched by a charming and lugubrious vocal: on this recording Todd sounds like the missing link between Johnny Cash and Mark E. Smith.

There are a lot of things wrong with our world these days, and Todd’s latest conundrum wrapped in an enigma (or is it an enigma wrapped in a conundrum?) is a celebratory lament for those unrelenting, unalterable facts of life. Is he singing about love, hate, war, money? Maybe all, maybe none - you decide.

Whatever the answer, a musician who can effortlessly incorporate lines like “Fruitless and compulsive as the cadence of simple sentences” into a pop song obviously has something going for him. The man has talent, and his steam train blows my mind. Play LOUD.

MP3 Blows My Mind: Listen

Rock Dreams

Roy Orbison (Pop)
Track: In Dreams (1963)

I often dream about famous musicians - hardly surprising considering the huge influence they’ve had on my life. During my dreams I'm friends with my idols but remain in awe of them. When I awake I'm disappointed that my imaginings were only fantasies. As Roy Orbison sang, "It's too bad that all these things/Can only happen in my dreams."

The Beatles, my favorite group, have figured most often in my dream life. In my most memorable fantasy encounter I took a dream car journey around New York City with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. They were both charming companions. Yoko drove while John sat in the passenger’s seat, laughing and joking, pointing out tourist attractions along the way. Meanwhile I relaxed in the back of the car, hardly able to believe what was happening. Of course it wasn't happening - DOH! - it was only a dream.

I recently dreamed about Paul McCartney, and
I can confirm he’s a really nice chap. By that I mean his famously perky public image has planted itself firmly in my subconscious. In my dream we shared a few pints at a country pub near his house, and from my experience our Paul can certainly put them away. Funnily enough, I insisted on paying for every round of drinks, but I couldn’t help thinking – even in the middle of my reverie – “Why am I forking out for all these beers? I mean, he could afford to buy the bloody pub, couldn’t he?”

Pleasantly sloshed, we headed back to Paul's country kitchen for a cup of tea. I’m pretty sure this part of the dream derived from an encounter I had years ago with a woman who knew the McCartney family well. It's funny it took me so long to dream about Paul. Perhaps it's because - even though I'm a fan - he hasn't had a particularly deep psychological impact on me.


I’ve had several dreams about the late George Harrison. Usually we are hanging out together at his famous house, and there I am thinking to myself, "Jeez, here I am with Hari Georgeson - Cool!" One time I had the great honor of jamming with George in his recording studio. On another occasion we left his house only to end up walking across the Golden Gate Bridge - in dream terms not so surprising since I once lived in San Francisco. I think the reason I’ve dreamed about George the most is that he always seemed the nicest Beatle.

I’ve never dreamed about Ringo Starr, a reflection of his status in my subconscious Beatle pecking order. Though
I admire Ringo greatly as a musician, I’ve no overwhelming desire to meet him, even in the Land of Nod.

Another trippy encounter occurred in a dream I had about David Bowie. It had a rather bizarre ending. Bowie and I were being driven around rural China in a limousine. I think this dream came about because at that time my close friend was from Hong Kong.

The strange conclusion to the dream came when Bowie asked the driver to stop, handed me a brush and ordered me to start sweeping the road! Naturally I complied - who was I to contradict the Thin White Duke? I was struck by the banality of this denouement, but I later spent a summer working as a street cleaner in London, so perhaps it proves that rock stars are higher beings with the power of prophesy!

Dreams Come True
As a musician in the mid-nineties I had a recurring dream about performing before thousands of fans in a huge outdoor arena. This contrasted sharply with reality - at that time my band was playing to small crowds on the San Francisco club scene. But in 1997 we won a Tower Records song contest and suddenly found ourselves entertaining 5,000 people in Golden Gate Park. Dreams do, sometimes, come true!

there isn't always a hidden meaning to our dreams, I feel in broad terms they represent an interaction between the unconscious and the conscious. Dreams are projections of parts of ourselves. They teach that it's important to be aware of our feelings and how they connect us to our environment. It's clear to me that most of my night-time superstar encounters have been wish-fulfilment fantasies, a reflection not only of my admiration for my idols, but also an expression of my own feelings as a frustrated musician.

Video: "In Dreams"

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Survivor

Yoko Ono (Art-Rock Remix)
LP: Yes, I'm a Witch (2007)

The Rant

If anyone had told me at the start of this year that Yoko Ono’s new album would be a firm favorite, I'd have been skeptical to say the least.

Although I 'm a Yoko fan, I’ll admit that some of her recordings can be, erm, challenging. Easy listening she ain’t.

I’ll go to my grave insisting, though, that Ono produced some genuinely groundbreaking music on early LPs such as Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, Fly and Approximately Infinite Universe (containing the exquisite and heartbreaking Death of Samantha), . And the album following John Lennon’s murder, Season of Glass, is as raw and harrowing an expression of pain as you could imagine.

If that album’s cover, featuring her dead husband’s cracked, bloody spectacles, pushes the boundaries of taste, there’s never any denying Ono’s fearless approach to music-making. For that alone she deserves respect.

I also happen to dig Yoko’s conceptual art, even if one snobbish New York critic caustically insists that “she’s contributed nothing.”

Oh really?

Are we talking the same Yoko Ono here?

That's: key member of the Fluxus movement, innovative performance artist, collaborator with John Cage and Ornette Coleman? Creator of a primal shamanic energy which predates punk feminism? Women's/gay rights advocate who alerted her famous husband - and by extension millions of fans worldwide - to issues of sexual oppression and equality?

Oh yeah. Almost forgot. She happened to be the partner and intellectual foil of the sixties’ greatest icon, and the partial or complete inspiration behind many of his late-period Beatle masterpieces, including Revolution, Revolution 9, (the world’s biggest selling avant-garde recording), Happiness is a Warm Gun, Julia, Don’t Let Me Down, I Want You (She’s so Heavy), Come Together, and The Ballad of John and Yoko, not to mention Imagine (which she co-wrote, according to her hubby) and other solo classics by Doctor Winston O’Boogie.

Having had the temerity to hook an ex-Beatle, Yoko was then forced to endure hostile racist/sexist diatribes from the media - Esquire magazine offensively described her as "John Rennon's Excrusive Gloupie - and assorted Apple Scruffs. She bore this backbiting with astonishing calmness and dignity.

To sum up, she’s a larger than life Asian female who’s made it in a white man’s world and is easily the most famous Japanese woman/artist/musician of all time.

So excuse me, Yoko-haters: which part of inspirational-confrontational multi-talented counter-cultural icon don’t you understand?

I'll admit John and Yoko could bring out the worst in each other. Their insistence that great art should by definition be self-referential was dubious, and they shamelessly documented and mythologized their relationship to the point of egomaniacal obsession. All the squalling and bags and tedious audio-verite albums could get irritating.

But why don’t you try being an iconic genius surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on for a decade and seeif you manage to hold on to your sanity?

Anyway: War is Over - If You Want it. What the hell’s wrong with that?

And while I think about it, let me get one more Beatle bee out of my bonnet: Yoko Ono did not break up the moptops. The seeds of the fabs’ destruction had been sown way before she came on the scene.

So that's that. Wanna take it outside?

The Record

OK. Enough of the ranting and let me get to this album, because it’s a cracker. In fact, IMHO it’s one of the best remix efforts you are going to hear.

Due to her inherent weirdness Yoko is and has long been an obvious and suitable candidate for bricolage, there being so many elements of pop culture, conceptual art and activism in her oeuvre for sound boffins to dabble with. I’ve often felt, in any case, that the rock idiom has not always been the one most suited to her style. Elephants Memory and The Plastic Ono Band, who were recruited for her early works, were essentially Lennon cohorts who played on Yoko’s stuff - at times grudgingly - as a sideline.

If one mark of a successful artist is surrounding yourself with talented contributors, Yoko's collaborators on Yes, I'm a Witch do her proud. The original masters have been pared down to her vocal tracks then rebuilt from the ground up by an impressive gaggle of modern pop luminaries, including Porcupine Tree, Flaming Lips, DJ Spooky and Peaches.

Crucially, the album manages to interweave many flavors of popular music - hip-hop/electronica/rock/pop - without sounding ephemeral or forced. There's a lot of variety on this record, including moments of tenderness, aggression and pure fun, and I think a lot of folks are gonna be pleasantly surprised.

One highlight is Porcupine Tree’s version of Yoko’s classic Death of Samantha, a superb reworking which elevates the song to even more poignant and magnificent heights. Just listen to the sparkling guitars and gorgeous wash of sound on this version. As a big time Stephen Wilson/No Man/Porcupine Tree fan, I’m delighted that this track is going to introduce his name to new listeners.

In a completely different vein, Shitake Monkey’s version of O'Oh is a loping, fun-filled groove, while Jason ‘Spiritualized’ Pierce’s stunning reassembly of Ono's classic Walking on Thin Ice strips the song of its familiar disco context, instead choosing to focus on its emotional terrain. Then there's Anthony Hegarty's delicate and lovely arrangement of Toyboat, underlining the theme of vulnerability which has always been present in Yoko's music.

Though this record is filled with excellent collaborations, my favorite is perhaps The Brother Brothers rock-out mix of the title track. Yoko’s voice is one of strength and purity, and it’s great – not to mention very catchy - to hear her singing “Yes, I’m a witch, I’m a bitch, I don’t care what you say," and symbolically raising a middle finger to her detractors.

John Lennon predicted decades ago that Yoko Ono would one day receive due recognition, and on this LP she cashes in her chips. Yes, I’m a Witch is a catchy, groovy, intoxicating brew which represents complete vindication for Ono and her superb cast of collaborators. A true original, an icon, and a survivor, the dragon lady - 74 years young - has come up with her best ever elpee by quite a stretch.

She Wore Black

The Zombies (Sixties Pop)
iPod Choice: Leave Me Be (1965)

When I was 17 I fell in love with C. At the time I played guitar in a punk band and we met at a practice session. She was a vision to behold - quiet, gentle and unbearably lovely. I wanted her immediately. When we became a couple my friends said we were well-suited and I was a lucky guy.

I adored everything about C. Her sweet, feminine smell. Her lustrous, brunette hair. Her burgundy blouse and frayed jeans. The way she kissed and touched me in front of my envious friends.

That summer we were inseparable. After a prolonged and ecstatic make out session at a party she told me she loved me. I was living on Cloud 9. Could life, I asked myself, be any better than this?

Then the axe fell. Symbolically, the end came at a much-hated sports club, surrounded by wanky rugby men and their handbag girls. C and I danced briefly, then she asked me to go outside with her. She wanted to "talk about something."

A feeling of foreboding came over me. I felt a yawning sensation in my stomach.

The break-up was ruthless and swift. I had become - in a phrase dreaded by ardent young males - "too serious". Toppled from my cloud, I was a has-been, my new address: Splitsville, U.K. My friends were supportive and sympathetically plied me with vodka. Hers reassuringly lied that they had begged her not to dump me. But it was no use. I was shell shocked and stunned by my unsought-for singledom.

As a disaffected swain I turned to my record collection for solace, pathetically seeking out songs of rejection like The Zombies’ classic B-side Leave Me Be. Their paean to teen angst perfectly matched my new pose as a spurned lover: “You’d better leave me be/Till I don’t need her anymore”.

The week after our break-up, C showed up at a local theater where I was performing with my band. In symbolic acknowledgment of our separation she had transformed herself, and to my dismay looked sensational in a black dress with a huge pair of matching black triangular earrings. I've never forgotten those earrings. In the midst of my teen angst, they assumed a mythic importance. Ominous and mean, they were accessories to a crime of passion, dark daggers plunging deeper into an already wounded heart.

A year later, I ran into C at a Christmas party. As she approached me I became dizzy with joy. Now herself recovering from a painful breakup, she confided that she regretted ending our relationship. She held my hand and kissed me tenderly. I wanted her back, oh, how I wanted her. But, confused and unsure, I would not accept her overture. Ugly, vainful pride raised its head, and I chose to leave her be.