The Discurator's Den


Round-up of Record Reviews

Original position in magazine: pp 28-32

Contents: Oliver, Two Dollar Guitar, Disobey, Vox Humana, The Beau Hunks, Swans, Dymaxion, Jarboe, Yma Sumac, K McCarty, The Dramatics, Hanna-Barbera music, John Oswald, Connors-Moore, Robert Fripp, Vagina Dentata Organ, Bobby Brown, Philip Glass


Standing Stone
A rediscovered ‘lost’ record from 1974. The tale of this rarity is well-documented on the sleeve. The original record can barely be said to have existed at all; this is more like a reincarnation than a reissue. Oliver was and is a rural lunatic whom we should all cherish, a masterful musician who, in isolation, found his own way to a demented species of Country Blues and lo-key psych guitar strumming. A basic form of ‘pastoral’ imagery is lifted from his environment and reshuffled into threatening configurations on these darkly tinged pieces. A unique sound experience. Oliver could have been this island’s answer to Captain Beefheart, but since his music has apparently had no influence anywhere, this home-made disc remains a shimmering gem of a warped vision preserved in aspic. A vinyl edition of 500 surfaced in 1992. A CD version with extra tracks has been sighted.

Two Dollar Guitar
The Disappointment
A bunch of sketches snatched from Tim Foljahn’s rickety tape player. The opening of side one evokes one of those grainy ’50’s jazz style documentaries of an American town – the mic’s hanging outside the window, traffic’s off in the distance, kids run by underneath bawling at each other and you can faintly hear Tim inside, singing and clunking at his organ. Welcome to Hoboken. The rest of the side mashes Mosquito-y instrumentals, bellicose improvised blues, a spazzed-out folky instrumental and scads of drunken lamentation. Low key, wracked and lovely transitory pieces that would have been lost to the ether if not placed here. Side two is Tim’s hitherto unrevealed industrial / oppressive side, a treat for Whitehouse fans but including a sweet nostalgic air with violin for everyone else. All this wrapped in grey and stitched with gold.

Various Artists
Three Fingers and a Fumb
A document of musical events which took place at Paul Smith’s Disobey Club in 1994. Except it is not a document at all, rather a very eclectic selection from his archive of performances, edited together into two suites. There is no index on either CD, so you have to take it all or nothing – but that’s not a bad thing. You recall that Nothing Short of Total War was another Paul Smith cut-up job, editorialising music from bands on the Blast First roster; there seems to be a side of him that loves mischief, and that can’t let well enough alone. The Disobey events in 1994 were exceptionally good; I’m glad I went to 90% of them. You had to be there I’m afraid, and I’m resigned to the fact that any aural document can only be like a picture postcard from a foreign country. Nonetheless, this does work as an entertaining thing in itself – the edits breath fire into each segment. On first listen I didn’t even try and sort out one item from another – result being a splendid messy rush of unsorted noisy information, downloaded from the Disobey nerve-centre straight to my awaiting workstation. The booklet gives you a visual equivalent of the discs: polaroids or video swipes fed thro the Apple Mac, disrupting readability. A proper survey of the Disobey project has still to be carried out; for the time being, rummage through this little package and you too can wonder why all of London was abuzz with Smith’s escapades.

Vox Humana
This opens with ex-Family Fodder head honcho Alig Pearce singing like Tracy Chapman, but thankfully that’s over and done with quickly. Alig has spent the last few years recording with colourful-sounding characters like Professor Zoom, Gail Tao and The Fishermen’s Friends, as well as some old Family Fodder pals (see accompanying interview) and this is a sampler of the results. Less sophisticated and quirky than the Fodder, and indeed sounding a lot like restaurant music in places, it nevertheless puts an interesting, often psychedelic spin on traditional-style material, as well as providing some nifty modern numbers. And it’s a pleasure to hear Alig’s great lyrics once more.

The Beau Hunks
The Beau Hunks Play The Original Little Rascals Music
USA KOCH SCREEN 3-8706 2 CD [1992]
I’ll be forever indebted to Stan and Ollie, for making my afternoons at a boring council job more bearable. The Beau Hunks, formed for Babe Hardy’s centenary celebrations in 1992, play music that’s familiar to me from those often rewatched videos (I them taped every lunchtime!), not the more famous ‘Cuckoo Waltz’ theme or songs like ‘Honolulu Baby’ (those are mostly from the quill of Marvin Hartley) but the stretches of background music that often sounds like it’s coming from the room next to where the action is, music that (according to the extensive notes in the accompanying booklet) was originally commissioned as a device to cover the build up of tape hiss between dialogue. [Le] Roy Shield was the composer responsible, (though rarely credited) and more than fulfilled his remit. SInce the original recordings have long since disappeared, Piet Schreuders of Holland set about the task of bringing recognition to the man’s genius, reconstructing and transcribing from fragments in dozens of Hal Roach shorts – not just Laurel and Hardy but the (less familiar to UK audiences) Little Rascals and Charley Chase, Schreuders then putting together an array of talents and, using 1930’s recording techniques, creating facsimile recordings that capture the originals’ spirit to a T. ‘Dash & Dot’ is instantly recogniseable from several Laurel and Hardy shorts and sounds exactly like you remember it from the films. It’s gentler than Raymond Scott or Carl Stalling but the way short themes (a laughing oompah, all-purpose Arabian mood music) and descriptive snippets were cut together in the Hal Roach films would seem to be a precursor of both these later men’s work. From ‘Flivver Flops’ to ‘Powerhouse’ isn’t as much of a leap as from the trilling and crashing ivories of the silents accompanyment Shield was replacing. So here you have it, 50 tracks of heel kicking, dust raising jauntiness that create a dangerous nothing-could-possibly-go-wrong vibe using anything from big orchestrations to demented piano and xylophone duels to dixieland. Most of the tracks are around a minute in length and fairly circular, not ‘progressing’ musically but creating a space for Stan Laurel or Spanky or whoever to milk their jokes. A Shield Suspense Medley runs together a series of descriptive passages to make a six minute plus suite of sneaking, running, sliding, yearning and acting ‘miserly’ that runs the gamut of human emotions.

The Great Annihilator
USA YOUNG GOD CD 009 CD (1994)
This one taught me a sharp lesson – don’t neglect the Swans! Having been assaulted by Filth and Cop when issued c. 1985, I simply ignored subsequent releases. What an astonishing development this was – in only ten years too! All the primal urgency is still there, only expanded into a tapestry of textures and tastes. On ‘Mind/Body/Light/Sound’ a lo-fi guitar intro gives way to a symphonic barrage of quintuple tracked guitars, while the low-frequency vocal struggles through the murk; while ‘Warm’ at 4.52 has grown into a delicious melody and a trance worthy of Popol Vuh. Once content merely to slow down all his master tapes to the pace of a chloroformed seaslug swimming in an ocean of glue, Gira now opens up many hidden side-doors and backdrops in his studio space. The early records are a dark room filled with sweaty bodies and maggots. Now he’s let more light and space in, but it’s done theatrically, like he’s building his version of a great Cathedral with stained glass lights, weird statues, and odd colonnaded passageways. Likewise the flat-out brutality and repulsion of the early lyrical content has given way to something far more ambiguous, and much more disturbing. There is a craving for empathy, a healing for their loneliness and pain.

Aha, Sissy Arsonist
An excellent quarter of whammy-bar-on-a-sampler tunes, looping riffs and drones and beats, something like a less academic, less quirky David Shea. Novack and Newell have achieved a natural unforced sound, lots of weirdness jumping in and out of the mix but not so the tracks are overladen. It’s sloppy, sodden, funny and rockin’, ‘Ant’lrd Ally’ with it’s car skids and timebomb ticks has a great espionage drama feel.

Sacrificial Cake
US YGCD8 RTD 381 0700 2 CD (1995)
Two of these ‘Swans Related Products’ came out at the same time, Michael Gira’s being a bit turgid. Jarboe however turned in a supernatural masterpiece. The woman’s a white witch brewing an intoxicating hemlock. Grimm’s Fairy Tales have been refitted for the urban 21st century, imbued with ultra-dark undercurrents of child abuse, sexual violence, and sheer metaphysical terror. One for your Halloween Party, if you want all the Jack-O-Lanterns to get up and dance and send your guests riding home in a black Hearse inside a velvet-lined coffin. The beautiful packaging shows Jarboe chooses her images carefully: there’s an astonishing painting by Edinburgh artist Deryk Thomas on the cover, and a photographic concoction suggesting a Hanged Man/fertility rite.

Yma Sumac
Live in Concert 1961: The Russian Tour
The high drama of Yma’s operatic squawks blasts out again, this time sadly minus the lush studio-enhanced sounds of a full orchestra (a big attraction of the original records) but showcasing her voice, particularly on tracks with Spanish guitar accompaniment only. A live recording it says here, though devoid of atmosphere, even where you can hear the applause – perhaps dubbed in later. What it lacks in warmth, it makes up for in weirdness; not only the oddly muted sound, but the circumstances of its origins. I mean, a command performance from Nikita Kruschev?! It staggers the imagination. The liner notes are translations of the contemporary Russian press reviews, all propaganda and no hard historical information, though the story of the military heroes so moved by Yma’s singing as to tearfully hand her their medals is a classic yarn – makes a change from women fans hurling their knickers. A ‘new’ product from my beloved Yma as far as I can tell – I don’t know of its prior existence on vinyl.

K. McCarty
Dead Dog’s Eyeball: songs of Daniel Johnston
A Tribute to Daniel Johnston Volume 3

A full CD of fashionably Joni Mitchell-ish renditions of Daniel Johnston songs might seem pointless, most people I’ve played this to think so. But I like it and I’m not even much of a fan of Joni and her ever expanding line of disciplettes. Kathy McCarthy takes the elements of Daniel’s originals: the piano; clunky guitar and idiosyncratic pauses; uses them as blueprints and builds the songs up from the bottom, transposing to a full band sound and milling it all through a fetching preppy peppiness. ‘Desperate Man Blues’ f’rinstance transfers gracefully from Daniel moaning over a scratchy gramaphone record to a fullsome lush arrangement with doo wop backing vocals and Nelson Riddlery. Bedlam Rovers try to turn the same trick on the 3rd volume of 7″ tribute discs but it doesn’t work for them. Kitchen Cynics succeeds with a nice Residents-y ‘I Am A Baby’ and Jad Fair wrestles ‘King Kong’ into submission aided by Gilles Reider’s gargantuan poundings and Tim Foljahn wringing gremlins from his pick-up coils.

The Dramatics
This Is International Telecom
Film-maker Martha Colburn puts down her camera, runs into Jason Willett’s Megaphone studios, turns the tape recorder on, shouts “Go!”, they both pick up instruments, flail away for a few minutes, roll the tape back, start it up again, grab more instruments, overdub and repeat the process till they can add no more. Then they invite guests to ice the cake. The results are these ten uncontainable exuberant slabs of noise with an instantly recognisable squelchy compressed energy. Disregarding standard sequencing conventions they leave the best track for the finale – ‘Club Leaf Foot Hopper’ has Eye Yamatsuka blubbering across the telephone and some back and forth between the late Wally the Duck and saxophonist John Dierker whose breezy riffing matches his contribution to ‘Smiling Thru’, the highpoint of the Jason Willet, Jad Fair and Gilles Reider CD Megaphone issued a year or two back. There’s a domestic vinyl version of this record on Lissy’s but it’s worth picking up the CD for Martha’s individually crafted packaging – photos, film strips, xerox, bacofoil, paint, cellophane wrap…

Hanna Barbera Classics Volume 1
USA RHINO R2 71887 CD (1995)
The start and end titles of early Hanna Barbera cartoons – Ruff and Reddy, Huckleberry Hound, etc. come thick and fast, the first fourteen tracks crammed into just six minutes and it’s enough to make the most simple minded cartoon nut feel nauseous – all those chirrupy melodies and the well scrubbed matronly and patronly vocalists who come on like primsters from some well meaning but deranged childrens’ protection league. Then comes the background music for Quickdraw McDraw and the real magic of those limited animation classics comes through. These pieces are long and continuous like the Flintstones’ living room and the Quickdraw McGraw suite flits between two of them – a clip clop lazy wild west theme and a rich clarinets, plucked strings and harp fantasia. Nice to hear ’em dragged out from underneath the dialogue and sound effects. Here too are underscores for Augie Doggie, Snoop and Blabber, Loopy de Loop, Yogi Bear, Magilla Gorilla and the real gem of the collection – Hoyt Curtin’s suite of ‘Flintstones Jazz’ – a swinging rework of the show’s theme, a portion of cocktail mellowness and a cool Mancini gumshoe pastiche. And if you left Mean Streets still not knowing “What’s A Mook?” then the answer’s here – he’s the guy who wrote ‘Scooby Doo, Where Are You?’.

John Oswald
Grayfolded 1969-1996 Part one of two: Transitive Axis
In which Oswald applies his system of Plunderphonics to the music of The Grateful Dead. Oswald appeared at Disobey in 1994 and came over as a rather arrogant and humourless fellow – was shouted off-stage, then proceeded to play some amazing music. He comes ready with a complete arsenal of pseudo-intellectual, banal arguments to justify his sampling and editing antics; he believes that the system of classical notation is exhausted, all possible variants of notes in an octave have been explored, composition is dead, so cut-ups of existing music is the only possible way forward. His first demonstration at Disobey was edits of hours of John Zorn compressed into a few seconds; ‘Why is that better than the real thing?’ somebody in the audience asked. I can’t even remember Oswald’s answer, so little did impression did it leave. The question remains unsolved with Grayfolded; why is it better than The Grateful Dead? It isn’t; The Grateful Dead make this a great record, Oswald’s minimalist interventions serve only to gild the lily. Surely it’s more interesting to work with potentially inert and unemotional sources (which Oswald has done in the past, to be fair) rather than the rich and beautiful tapestry of these several hundred versions of ‘Dark Star’. The time-travel aspect is played up in the sleeve notes – you hear a 1969 guitar solo simultaneously with one from 1988, for example; it sounds great on paper, but you barely notice it when you’re listening. Transitive Axis doesn’t freak you or disturb you the way Oswald’s other work has done, where he simply gives you too much to listen to and your brain implodes from overload. On the other hand, if you like the Dead (as I do) then prepare for an hour of bliss. The CD’s also indexed with 9 reference points if you wish to skip ahead, to Phil Lesh’s section for example, where the tune breaks down into a lovely succession of long bass tones. (These 9 sections are given fancy titles by Oswald, similar to La Monte Young and his named chords on The Well-Tuned Piano.) Lesh allowed Oswald access to the Dead private archive of soundboard tapes; the former, of course, has been an enthusiastic supporter and avid scholar of 20th century avant-garde music for most of his career, and continues to put his money where his mouth is through the Rex Foundation. Part Two of this project is called Mirror Ashes and at time of writing was only available if you buy Part One again, which I haven’t.

Loren Mazza Cane Connors / Thurston Moore
Split 7″
Two sides of guitar instrumentals. Connors’ ‘Dierdre of the Sorrows’ parts 1-4 consists of three unresolved warm ups and a chillingly beautiful and unhysterical adaptation of ‘How Great Thou Art’. Moore’s ‘Just Tell Her That I Really Like Her’ treads a measured rough hewn non-rock path to the rock of ages, everything kep very simple, loose and light, comfortable as a Jimmy Reed blues.

Robert Fripp
1999: Soundscapes – Live in Argentina
UK DISCIPLINE DGM 9402 2 CD (1994)
Even my King Crimson fanatic acquaintance couldn’t stomach this one, which actually shows how good it is. 100% improvised guitar work, building slowly from inaudible noodling to ear-shattering blasts of richness. This is all you could ever ask of a former UK proggie – open-ended, evocative, landscape- painting music. One of the problems with King Crimson (and Genesis, for that matter) was they felt the need for big clumsy meaningful songs to please the stadium crowd – mixing in the abstract arty stuff disguised as ‘solos’. Fripp gives it to us raw and uncut. This disc is as haunting as ‘Through Hollow Lands’ on Eno’s Before and After Science. You recall Fripp’s long-standing association with Brian Eno; the former learned from Eno the technique of deploying two Revox tape machines to produce the early Frippertonics of No Pussyfooting (1972). For his soundscaping hi-jinks these days, Fripp uses better tape decks and a guitar synth – also a Korg, a digi- pedal, and midi technology. Unlike Eno, Fripp clearly thinks this form of ‘generative music’ should still be played by human hands, and shows clearly he is master of the technology – not the other way around. Listen, and you can hear the music has his signature all over it – those odd dischords, notes that don’t quite match – this could only be Robert Fripp, an English oddity whom we should cherish and not cast aside.

Vagina Dentata Organ
Un Chien Catalan
UK WSNS 1994 001 CD (1994)
Jordi Valls made this absurd and brilliant recording, consisting of the sounds produced by his motorbike engine and presumably recorded on assorted ‘real-time’ expeditions on this vehicle. Thus, environmental extra noise is also picked up. Imagine a fixed POV camera mounted onto a bike’s windshield and producing unvarying documentary footage of the road, or the weather / rain / sky / night lights. Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? So slam on this CD and enjoy an avant-garde movie for your ears. I find it a genuinely relaxing sound (and I can’t stand motorbikes!); I heard of a music student taking her driving lessons, who knew when to change gear at the moment the pitch of the engine shifted up to F sharp. She would surely love this record, proving there can be music in all sounds; it is a ready-made drone album. Marcel Duchamp’s spirit lives on. The titles are dada-inspired too – each track a numbered ‘Chant’ (the ‘Chant Deuxieme’ being my favourite for when the engine cuts out and you hear the sound of the wind cutting across the windshield). And check out the Andre Bretonesque descriptions – the caption to track 5 translates as ‘An American bitch wounded by a Catalan Dog filled up with melancholy spermatozoa’. Verily, other primal sex and death references are there in the sleeve art and package, a skull at the centre spindle framed by ‘Death Or Glory’ in chintzy gothic type, and the gatefold reveals microscopic photos of nude torsos and the underlined phrase Un Cadavre in full caps. These might connect to Valls’ other releases, which I believe include records of a couple having sex, and a dying man’s final gasps. I suspect people think records like this are just nasty jokes, but a bold, absurdist mentality is required – it takes some commitment to go as far as getting a CD like this put together, anyone else would lose their nerve at the last minute. Surrealism in the marketplace – it can be done!

Bobby Brown
The Enlightening Beam of Axonda
A scarce and curious reissue of a scarce and curious item, which originally appeared in 1972. Like Harry Partch, Bobby Brown built and played his own unique home-made percussion instruments (designed to be as ‘portable as possible’), and wails away on this recording with a six-octave voice to match Captain Beefheart and my beloved Yma Sumac. His basso-profundo is indeed something to reckon with – it’s recorded so deep as to make your speakers twitch. Overall a beautiful sound, intense and hypnotic, and much more laid-back in tone than say the aggressive electronic attacks of Silver Apples, the United States of America, or Fifty-Foot Hose. The lyrical content of Beam edges towards concept LP territory, alluding to a young man’s personal spiritual odyssey, and quite honestly it’s pretty banal in places, but the listener should try and see past this. The simplicity and beauty of the melodies sit well with proto-African rhythms and percussion, and you can lose yourself in the sun-drenched sound that drips over you like warm honey. There Brown sits on the cover before a Californian beach sunset, surrounded by his bizarre devices, clutching his pet puppy with a beatific grin on his Aryan features. Among the most touching details is the fragment of sleeve note with the self-promoting advert: ‘If you want me to play weddings or concerts, call…’. Listening to Beam, it’s hard to imagine Brown’s brand of eccentric noise as background music to your party, but then that’s Hippies for you. They must have believed anything was possible!

Philip Glass
Low Symphony
POINT MUSIC 438 150-2 CD (1993)
Despite all the warning signs this be well worth investigating. Low to me forms part of the indissoluble trilogy of great Bowie creations, along with Station to Station and Heroes. (Now it seems Glass is also considering an orchestral Heroes). Although I reserve judgement on Eno and Fripp, I don’t reserve judgement on the flaccid and self-indulgent compositions of Philip Glass; only the early work has any tension, the later pompous pretentious operas, such as the interminable Akhnaten, show up how banal his music really is, completely lacking in depth or dynamics, consisting almost entirely of simple repeated arpeggios. However, his orchestral arrangement here for ‘Subterraneans’ matches and in places surpasses the original, finding new nuances of musical tone and arranging them intelligently, somehow suffusing it with more complex emotional layers. The original was probably knocked together in an afternoon using Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ or Bowie’s painted music charts, so there’s a certain irony in finding it ‘writ large’ as a [respectable] proper piece of classical music – somehow, Glass is sold to us a serious composer, where Bowie isn’t. If you can’t stomach that, or the bland posey packaging of this item, I wouldn’t blame you one bit, but there’s more here than meets the eye.