Friday, October 24, 2008


Esbjorn Svensson Trio (Jazz)
LP: Leucocyte (A.C.T., 2008)

The death of Esbjorn Svensson this summer was a huge tragedy for his family and also for jazz fans who recognized the importance of the innovative Esbjorn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.)

Inspiration behind what was perhaps the definitive postmodern jazz group, Svensson constantly expanded the possibilities of the traditional trio, conjuring a daring mix of jazz, classical, rock, electronica and ambient noise.

In some regards E.S.T. were jazz’s counterpart to Radiohead, sharing the British rock band’s edgy ambivalence toward technology as well as the ability to express moments of sublime emotion and quietude.

This was demonstrated to stunning effect on 2007’s Live In Berlin LP - the only E.S.T. record I was previously familiar with - and again here on the staggering Leucocyte.

This superb collection of free improvisation is dominated by two extended suites: Premonition: Earth and Leucocyte: Ad Mortem.

The first begins with a muted funky bass riff which pulses and weaves, gradually being joined by a sparse piano exploration which gradually takes over, building and building until its boldness and intensity is almost too much to bear. It’s an amazing and superb improvisation, a modern jazz milestone which will shake up the purists.

Premonition: Contorted recontextualizes that masterstroke with jarring electronic effects which somehow complement Svensson’s gorgeous piano study. Jazz begins in the otherwordly domain of Supersilent before it slides into a jazzy parallel universe with more than a passing nod to Keith Jarrett.

There are moments where the going gets a tad heavy and abstracted. Still, a sparse piano piece overladen with effects - didn’t hold my attention. Likewise, Leucocyte: Ad Mortem will defeat many listeners, though together with Leucocyte: Ad Infinitum it features a stunningly elegiac chiming piano figure.

Those who dismiss this kind of jazz as contrary, self-indulgent or irrelevant are dead wrong. Constantly reinventing itself, the driving lyricism of E.S.T. was always about jazz’s present, not its past.

While it may not always make for comfortable listening, E.S.T.'s art always comes straight from the heart. A near-classic, Leucocyte’s challenging, beautiful, even disturbing emotionalism stands as a marvelous tribute to a great talent whose genius has been sadly curtailed while at its creative peak.

E.S.T.: From Gagarin's Point of View:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wet Cheese Delirium

Gong (Space-Rock)
LP: Camembert Electrique (Virgin, 1971)

1973 was a strange year.

Flailing at school, I spent my time learning guitar licks from Bowie records, reading existentialist novels and getting spaced out listening to Gong, the stoned freak collective formed by Aussie Daevid Allen after he quit Soft Machine in 1967.

I picked up their psych-out masterpiece Camembert Electrique for 49 pence as a "loss-leader" during the newly established Virgin Records’ introductory promo campaign.

It was the first prog-psychedelic album that grabbed me. Its heavy space rock, free form jazz, electronic experimentation and wig-out hippy humor was like nothing I’d heard.

Another reason this LP captivated my adolescent brain was that my parents despised it in exactly inverse proportion to my newfound devotion.

As I cranked Camembert on my Fidelity “music center”, the cacophonous closing jam Fohat Digs Holes in Space - suggesting an orgasmic cosmic orgy - was greeted with howls of execration by my father. He especially hated Gilli Smyth's wordless "space whispering" - actually a piercing screech that could crack a lava lamp at ten paces.

As you can imagine, his pleas for me to remove the offending platter from the turntable merely increased my desire to spin it with increasing volume and regularity.

If you could get past the caterwauling, Fohat Digs Holes in Space had an ambient, trancelike feel which was way ahead of its time. History shows that Gong were precursors of the fire-twirlers and dayglo armband brigade who typified the proto-ravers of the 1990s. Members of the band later went on to form System 7, Eat Static and other key techno outfits.

Another Camembert classique, And You Tried So Hard, features a splendid lyric which proclaims:

A hand flutters in my brain
Silken cords trembling into the waterfall
Where the wise brown frog
Gives princely advice.

If you’re the skeptical type, maybe you got a problem with wise brown frogs dispensing princely advice, or titles like Squeezing Sponges Over Policemen’s Heads. Or how about Wet Cheese Delirium, the track which closes Side One and features backwards tapes and a stoned French hippy droning the priceless incantation, “Tu Veux Camembert? Tu Veux Camembert?”

Andt if you think that's weird, Camembert Electrique marks the birth of Daevid Allen's tongue-in-cheek Planet Gong mythology - the subject of the band's subsequent three albums. It describes a utopian interplanetary psychic communication between we Earthlings and - ahem - the "pothead pixies" from the distant planet Gong.

Unsurprisingly, the Gong mythology makes a lot more sense if you happen to be stoned senseless. Their songs are about a kind of cosmic freedom, I guess, even if it is the freedom to marmalize your brain with “tea” and “mushrooms”, eat cheese and discover your inner pixie.

Gong were never remotely fashionable, and by the time the New Wave had struck, irrepairable cracks had fractured the prog-rock façade. The days of hallucinating freedom were over, to be replaced by life-changing, punky revelations.

To be sure, no one loved getting high more than my bondage-clad friends, but it had become demonstrably old hat, and - more importantly - fatally uncool, to admit a predilection for such hippy-dippy nonsense.

Moving on to edgier frontiers, I never bought another Gong LP, and when their Floating Anarchy Tour visited my town during 1977's summer of punk fury, I wisely kept my own cheesy counsel.

Oh yes, I had been a fan. But when my friends barked “Fuck off, hippies!” at the patchouli pixies proudly prancing on stage, I - sheeplike in my treachery - unashamedly joined in with their chorus of derision.

GONG, Fohat Digs Holes in Space:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Miles Ahead

Randy Newman (Pop)
LP: Harps and Angels (Nonesuch, 2008)

All hail Randy Newman. This American institution long ago staked a claim to the title of "greatest living songwriter" with his early masterpieces 12 Songs, Sail Away and Little Criminals. His Trouble in Paradise LP (featuring the not-altogether-ironic classic I Love LA) was a key touchstone for anyone living in SoCal in the mid-1980s – me included.

As memory of his early ironic/iconic masterworks has faded, Newman has perhaps become better known for a long line of superlative movie soundtracks, including The Natural, Toy Story and Monsters, Inc (for which he finally nabbed an Oscar).

He's also adapted Goethe's Faust as a musical and his old chestnut Louisiana 1927 became the unofficial anthem of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe after a rousing rendition by Aaron Neville at the Hurricane Relief concert.

But here we are in 2008 and the satirical genius finally drops another big one with Harps and Angels, the title referring to a near-death experience he recently had.

Intelligent, sensitive and capricious, the album is filled with incisive, moving songs which tackle familiar Newman themes: bigotry, political outrage, aging and the perils of American culture. Needless to say, it contains heavy doses of the ironic ambivalence and bare bones emotionalism he's known for.

A Piece of the Pie is a lament for the lost American Dream and a call for his countryfolk to live out the true meaning of their creed ("Living in the richest country in the world/Wouldn't you think you'd have a better life?") As he sympathizing with the plight of illegal immigrants, Newman even takes aim at himself, squirming as one of the “have-mores.”

With characteristic drollness, Korean Parents pokes fun at Asian stereotypes, race in public schools and parental responsibility (“So sick of hearing about the greatest generation / That generation could be you / So let’s see what you can do.”)

Following that, Potholes is an amusingly tart paean to failing memory which anyone aged 40 or over can probably relate to ("God bless the potholes/Down on memory lane/Everything that happens to me now/Is consigned to oblivion by my brain.")

Then comes a bona fide Newman classic. Hearkening back to 1972's Political Science, A Few Words in Defence of our Country is a barbed attack on the most lamentable government in recent American history and its policy of color-coded fear. Its amusing thesis is that the Bush administration really isn’t so bad - compared with Hitler, Stalin, the Spanish Inquisition and the excesses of the Roman Empire!

But for all the mordant, satirical genius on this record, the heartfelt Feels Like Home is the clincher for me. It's tender message of love and gratitude is expressed through deceptively simple poetry which never comes across as trite or shallow.

Musically and lyrically miles ahead of most of his contemporaries, Newman once again demonstrates how nothing beats good, old-fashioned songwriting, and also how depressingly few competitors he has in his field.

So what if takes him the best part of a decade to lay another masterpiece on his fans? When he does, the "bard of barbs" is so awesome he leaves his contemporaries waaay behind. Harps and Angels is a leading contender for album of the year.

VIDEO: Randy Newman "A Few Words in Defence of our Country"

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Everything in its Right Place

Live: Radiohead / Modeselektor
Osaka Municipal Gymnasium

They arrive in their thousands, crammed into air-conditioned train carriages, conveyed by escalator and elevator to the arena concourse.

Approaching the auditorium they form lines to purchase souvenir products embossed with slogans and logos which celebrate their heroes. Vendors stand to attention, expressionless and mute.

Buyers watch with self-conscious anticipation as barcodes are scanned and purchases placed into souvenir bags. Later the shrink-wrap will be torn away as t-shirts and compact discs are removed for inspection. They give off a reassuringly familiar aroma which proclaims a synthetic modernity.

At the entrance to the arena NPO stalls promote environmental causes. Keen-eyed young women seize the opportunity to press reading materials into the hands of concert-goers who have strayed in their direction. But mostly they stand gazing in resigned envy at the busy souvenir stands.

As they enter the arena, audience members are swallowed by the vastness of a space which drowns them in sublime anonymity. The dim lights on the ceiling far above resemble a spaceship from a Hollywood film. It threatens to touch down at any moment, engulfing and consuming the tiny individuals below.

The respectful silence of the crowd is broken by polite scattered applause as the opening act - a duo of German electronic musicians - approach their finale. A perceptible wave of excitement takes hold as the crowd anticipates the main attraction.

Sequestered backstage, the headliners complete their preparation ritual, mentally compartmentalizing familiar sensations of nervous excitement and ennui. When they finally appear they are dwarfed by their hyper-modern stage set.

Fluorescent tubes of white light reach down from the sky. Paneled video screens erected far above display multi-angle monochrome images of the performers' faces and instruments. Artful and precisely composed, they affirm the group’s sense of artistic experimentation, simultaneously proclaiming and - in their obtuseness - distorting the musicians’ celebrity status.

Digitized, assimilated, stored and adored on a million disk drives, the music begins. Yearning anthems contrast with the band's gorgeously combative avante-gardeisms. As the momentum builds, observers slowly enter a state of contented stupefaction.

The singer - a stubborn, uneasy star - remains tightlipped between songs. When he finally murmurs a brief “Arigato”, his cursory utterance is welcomed by a thunderous roar of approval from a sea of faces whose eyes are fixed on his every gesture.

He has accepted long ago the contradictions inherent in his position. He has embraced the freedom and limitations which adulation has conferred upon him.

The artistic explorings which have led him here tonight are beyond the wildest imaginings of those present. But none doubt the sincerity, the reaching for of their idol. He reflects the hopes, fears and insecurities they have projected upon him.

The pristine, numbing perfection leaves no room for surprises. None, in any case, are expected. Everything is in its right place. All that remains is a hushed, orderly migration toward the EXIT signs.