130. THE ROLLING STONES – BETWEEN THE BUTTONS (1967)

Baroque Pop, Greatest Records, Psychedelia, Rock Music

For me, the best Stones album by some distance is Beggars Banquet. Although Brian Jones played only a small part in its creation, it was the last and greatest LP to feature the original five. By the following year the band’s sound, as well as its understanding of itself, had altered irrevocably. After Beggars Banquet, while the highs were often ecstatic ones, much of their music became progressively more hackneyed over time, and while some of their records (particularly those made between 1969 and 1972) are amongst the best and most confident they would ever make, never again would they sound so natural nor exuberant as they did in ’68.

The two albums which preceded BB offer a glimpse into the Stones’ orbit before they became self-proclaimed ‘greatest rock and roll band in the world’. The dayglo psychedelic experiment Their Satanic Majesties Request has undergone something of a critical reappraisal in recent years, its excesses (of the sonically adventurous kind) perhaps easier to stomach than those (of the dead-eyed smacked out type) of the ‘70s, so candidly chronicled by Nick Kent in Apathy For The Devil.

But TSMR‘s predecessor Between The Buttons is better still, an effervescent pop potpourri which saw them step outside of their R&B roots to incorporate elements of country and western (‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’), baroque (‘Yesterday’s Papers’) and Kinks-ish music hall (‘Cool, Calm & Collected’,’ Something Happened To Me Yesterday’) alongside their first organically psychedelic inflections.

’67 was the strangest year for the Stones. They would make newspaper headlines for the wrong reasons (the famous drug bust at Redlands) and Between The Buttons – while it performed fairly well in the charts (although not as well as Aftermath) – was somewhat overshadowed by the subsequent court case. A shame, because it’s one of the very best albums they ever made.

On January 15th they ‘spent some time together’ performing their new AA-sided 45 on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan censored the lyric while Jagger rolled his eyes and deliberately fluffed his lines. As was oft the case, the single cuts (‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ / ‘Ruby Tuesday’) were included on the US version of the LP which would be released in February. The UK version, released on 20th January, omitted both. Curiously, when I began building my Stones collection, the US version was more widely available and therefore I didn’t hear the album in the form it was originally intended to be heard, for many years. And when I did, the album finally began to make perfect sense.

The first of the two tracks to make way for the hits on the US version of the LP, contains the kind of embellishments which would remain absent throughout their ’70s oeuvre. ‘Back Street Girl’ sees Jagger lampoon the hypocrisy of the aristocracy, it’s ‘lord of the manor and his mistress’ lyric stapled to one of the Stones’ gentlest melodies, a waltzing companion piece to ‘Lady Jane’, featuring Brian on vibes, Jack Nitzsche on harpsichord with Nick de Caro lending some Gallic charm on accordion. “I wrote this in some weird place which I can’t remember. It’s got the feeling of a French cafe about it” Jagger explained to Keith Altham of the NME. Years later, he suggested it was the only song on the album he was happy with. It’s an album he sorely underestimates.

Brian’s fingerprints meanwhile, are everywhere in evidence, pulling the strings and twiddling the knobs on the second of those tracks, the Bo Diddley on (a)steroids runout ‘Please Go Home’. Jones had big plans then, and his interviews always made good copy. “I believe we are moving toward a new age in ideas and events. Astrologically we are at the end of the age called the Pisces age…We are soon to begin the age of Aquarius. There is a young revolution in thought and manner about to take place”, he told Keith Altham shortly after the album’s release. Maybe one eye was already on the band’s next more explicitly psychedelic project, but those roots were sewn on BTB not only through Brian’s dilettantish peppering of the material with sitars, oscillators and flutes, but also with Keith’s heavily distorted reverb on ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ and the menacing ‘My Obsession’. Sessions were engineered by Dave Hassinger and the hovering dynamics here recall his similarly impressive synchronous work with The Electric Prunes.

On ‘Yesterday’s Papers’ the miraculous interplay between Nitzche’s harpsichord and Jones’ vibraphone hangs like draped finery over Keith’s pulsating generator. Jagger had envisaged the song entirely differently. “It was going to be very straight but it’s ended up donging about all over the place. All tinkling and weird. Charlie said he wanted to think up a weird drum rhythm for it and brought about two dozen different drums into the studio for it, then he asked me if I thought he was getting contrived?” he told the NME at the time. Contrived or not, it is a hugely undervalued gem and for many, the album’s defining moment.

The Stones hadn’t forgotten how to rip it up as evidenced by the delightfully rambunctious ‘Miss Amanda Jones’. ‘All Sold Out’ and ‘Connection’ are feisty little rockers too, the latter’s irresistible staccato guitar riff and prescient lyric anticipating the personal problems to come (“The bags, they get a very close inspection/I wonder why it is that they suspect ’em?”), while the former is ’embellished’ with more superb guitar work alongside Jones’ tone deaf recorder. The mid tempo ballad ‘She Smiled Sweetly’ is less successful, possibly the album’s weakest track, and despite Keith’s versatility his efforts to edify the thing with solemn church organ – Jagger claimed the track was “quasi-religious” – are in vain. Even his bass part is bewildering, as if he’s playing on one string, and a broken one at that. One might guess they ran out of time and everyone else had disappeared for the evening.

‘Who’s Been Sleeping Here?’, a kind of countrified Dylan pastiche, is a peculiar marriage of his mournfully melancholic ‘She Belongs To Me’ with the bawdy ‘Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35′, but against the odds it works splendidly well, with particular credit to Jones’ understated harp playing. It’s also interesting to note the progression from here to ‘No Expectations’ from the following year’s Beggars Banquet. As for the closer, ‘Something Happened To Me Yesterday’, it is one of the oddest songs in the Stones’ canon, and musically at least sounds like an out-take from The Kinks’ Face To Face. As for the subject matter, Jagger was somewhat cryptic: “I leave it to the individual imagination as to what happened. The ending is something I remember hearing on the BBC as the bombs dropped.” A red herring probably – it is more likely to be about his first encounter with LSD. And that experience would of course lead them to unexplored pastures.

It is often overlooked, but Between The Buttons is quirky and ingenious, and if at times a little too polite for some tastes, reassuringly devoid of the rawk posturing to come. It is the Stones’ brightest album, and also their most English – their very own Village Green. (JJ)

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106. VERGOGNA SCHIFOSI – ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK by ENNIO MORRICONE (1969)

Baroque Pop, Exotica, Greatest Records, Soundtracks

For Peter

Vergogna Schifosi (Dirty Angels) is an obscure 1969 Italian thriller directed by Mauro Severino, purportedly a thinly veiled attack on bourgeois hypocrisy (I don’t know for I have never watched it),  given impetus by political events across Europe in ’68. It is probably fair to say that commercially it didn’t amount to much, and the film also has a poor critical standing. The few clips available on YouTube might arouse your interest – they did mine – but that’s likely to be because of the music you hear in the background.    

The soundtrack to Vergogna Schifosi is 23 minutes long. The LP could set you back £25 or so, if you can find it (Light In The Attic reissued it a few years back). In fact, ten minutes worth is really a variation on the title theme, which makes three appearances including as a reprise. Hardly value for money you might think. Well, think again. Entitled ‘Matto, Caldo, Soldi, Morto & Girotondo’, it is very possibly the most beautifully bewitching suite of music I have ever heard in my life. A simplistic nursery rhyme melody with some faintly erotic girly cooing at the beginning – or perhaps that’s just the seductive Italian accents –  gathers inexorable momentum as a swirling spiral of strings, celeste and harpsichord oscillate alongside some choral accompaniment by the I Cantori Moderni di Alessandroni ensuring it’s ecstatic ascent continues via a spectacularly beautiful OTT performance from renowned Italian singer Edda dell’Orso (a veteran of several Morricone film projects including Once Upon A Time In The West) taking us all the way up to Dante’s angelic ninth sphere of Paradiso. Upon its arrival there we have the soundtrack’s second theme ‘Un Altro Mare’, which plays out like a blissfully harmonious marriage between Krzysztof Komeda and Burt Bacharach. These two pieces are so ravishing, so utterly beguiling, I feel guilty for listening to them – as if I have uncovered some unspoken secret fron the world to come. Each time I give ear to it, I am convinced my life expectancy will diminish a fraction further, as if some cruel variation on the law of Karma is invisibly balancing out my euphoria. Perhaps I have heard too much, seen the unseen, tasted forbidden fruit?  But I continue go back, slavishly, for more. In fact the music here – with the exception of a badly dated (and best overlooked) three minute sub-Beatles pastiche near the beginning –  is virtually impossible to dislodge from one’s head. I wonder how I have managed to live without it for so long. 

I am no authority on Il Maestro – I have the odd compilation lying around, but that’s about it. I know very little about him, but have often been tempted by those garish late ’60s soundtrack sleeves. Nevertheless, I have baulked at the thought of purchasing them before now, imagining the films to be of highly dubious quality and the music too expensive a gamble. But if you, like us at TNPC, are a fan of Stereolab and High Llamas, you will recognise instantly an essential ingredient of their sound. I should have taken Sean O’Hagan’s advice years ago when he spoke so enthusiastically of its magic. Morricone’s output during this period was prolific so I expect my late conversion to cost me a small fortune. But this one without doubt is a must have. (JJ)

77. THE BEES – EVERY STEP’S A YES (2010)

Baroque Pop, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia, Psychedelic Folk

  If I said The Bees were masters of space and time, you may imagine them to sound something like Hawkwind. They don’t – but I suspect they have heard a fair amount of Hawkwind. In fact, they’ve probably listened to more records than just about any other band around – absorbing such an extensive array of influences from the popular music of the last 50 years that, listening to their albums, one finds oneself constantly attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to join the sonic dots. The Bees’ genius lies in their ability to sew beautiful new garments out of tired old rags. Some touchstones are immediately obvious – take for example the momentary snippet on ‘Change Can Happen’ where the phrasing and even lyrics are suddenly lifted from ‘That’s The Story Of My Life’ (Velvets’ 3rd) or consider how the fadeout of ‘Silver Line’ recalls the gassy euphoria of The Monkees’ ‘Teardrop City’. The Bees are masters of time because the spectrum of influences from which they have drawn – early Pink Floyd, Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, CSNY, Shack, roots reggae, Tropicalia et al – is not flaunted unashamedly, but is rather woven so inconspicuously into the band’s sound as to make it unmistakably their own. And against all the odds, their music sounds peculiarly modern.

‘Every Step’s A Yes’, their fourth LP, bears all the time honoured hallmarks of the ‘classic album’ – clocking in at 42 minutes (unusually short for the digital age), it’s ten beautifully crafted songs make for a brilliantly eclectic amalgam of sounds: slow ones and fast ones, toe tappers and ballads – characteristics of those indisputably great LPs of the past. It’s the kind of album which many of us middle-aged folk might find reassuringly familiar. In that sense it may be expedient to be a more mature listener (in years) to garner a true appreciation of it. And yet I am always struck by just how fresh and immediate it sounds. Sure, you’ll find nothing revolutionary here. When the album was released in October 2010, empires did not collapse, nor buildings fall. In fact, it’s probably fair to say, barely anyone noticed at all.

The Bees hail from the Isle of Wight. Perhaps that distance from the mainland has accentuated a sense of ‘otherness’. Because of that, their music betrays not the slightest hint of affectation. I imagine they are less tainted than more connected urban artists by the desire to be fashionable, to be part of a scene, whatever that means these days. They have utilised that space, that separate-ness to its full advantage. They use space in more creative ways too. For instance they recorded their debut album (the Mercury Music Prize-nominated) ‘Sunshine Hit Me’ in a small garden shed. The results – a kaleidescopic potpourri – virtually defied science. As if to emphasise their versatility, they recorded the next album at Abbey Road. The Bees demonstrate masterful control of the way sounds are arranged – the way the instruments move away from one another, at times creating beautifully eerie gaps (the keyboard on ‘Island Love Letter’, the strings on ‘Skill Of The Man’ for example).

‘Every Step’s A Yes’ has a relaxed energy (a ‘more mature’ sound, singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Butler stated) while triumphantly showcasing their extraordinary palette. The buoyant opener ‘I Really Need Love’ has all the ravishing freshness of a sun-bursting early spring morning – he’s in love and the whole world’s going to know about it (“I wish that love will come/for each and every one/and I know I’m gonna get me some/in the shadow of the sun”) – with a simple breezy acoustic strum for accompaniment the whole thing then takes off in a swirling crescendo of sitars and soaring strings.

Alongside a brush of harp and crisp stinging guitar lines, ‘Winter Rose’ succumbs to a prime slice of horn-locking Lovers’ rock. In sharp contrast the stark folk-rock of ‘Silver Line’ could have slipped off the run out groove of Moby Grape’s debut album, while the controlled reverb in the panoramic production of ‘No More Excuses’ is astounding – one moment the guitars are like little ripples of water gently brushing the boats on the shore, the next they are twisting psych fizzballs worthy of The Chocolate Watchband or The Strawberry Alarm Clock. The arrangements here are exquisite (fiddle, harp, sitar, clavinette, harmonica, trumpet all chip in with a cameo appearance) but the production is never for a second over-bearing – somewhere between Syd’s Pink Floyd and Lennon twixt Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, it’s sublime harmonies soar effortlessly past steeples and peaks to scale the heavens. 

‘Tired Of Loving’ is a pretty if sorrowful plaint with ear melting West Coast harmonies. Then comes a spellbinding triple salvo: ‘Island Love Letter’ recalls the gorgeous ghostly lullabies of mid-period Incredible String Band or even Vashti Bunyan’s naively delicate charm. ‘Skill Of The Man’ has the sort of languid somnolence which Mick Head strove to perfect on the longer tracks from his superb Magical World Of The Strands LP, except that it is in every way superior. And warmer. And that’s a big compliment. Narcotic oblivion beckons with ‘Pressure Makes Me Lazy’, a blissed out potion of drifting guitars horns and strings. Glorious stuff. The album’s closer ‘Gaia’ (the nearest we have to a hit here), recorded with neo-folk wizard Devendra Banhart, is a rallying climax which abruptly brings to halt the ultra-soporific haze by means of a mariachi flavoured Spanish fiesta, calling to mind the band’s earlier flirtation with Latin sound, their cover of Os Mutantes’ ‘A Minha Menina’.

This is not some sub-Weller ‘worthy dad rock’ studiously indebted to rock tradition and empty posturing. The Bees are music lovers, first and foremost: there are no big egos involved, no lascivious tales of rock’n’roll excess. Instead, ‘Every Step’s A Yes’ is the sort of record you might imagine Syd Barrett, David Crosby or Skip Spence having made if they’d just held it together for a little while longer. Unlike those three however – it’s not a fragile album on the verge of disintegration, but rather an assured and confident work. It might well sound like the best album of 1968, or perhaps 1974. It was comfortably one of the finest in 2010, and if it sounded a little out of step to some at the time, that is only because perfectly balanced modern pop albums are a rare commodity these days. I urge you to get your hands on it – it is truly one to treasure. (JJ)

75. THE HIGH LLAMAS – GIDEON GAYE (1994) / (A) HAWAII (1996)

Baroque Pop, Greatest Records

GIDEON GAYE (1994) 

 To begin at the beginning…Gideon Gaye is a record which creates a self-contained world, a place unto itself with its own cohesion, internal logic and quite possibly laws as well. It’s the kind of record which redeems the tainted notion of the concept album and shows that they don’t have to recount the stereotypical adventures of the intrepid warrior as he sets out to retrieve the golden artichoke from the five-headed basilisk. They don’t even need to tell a story at all, just have a thematic integrity and unity and, amid its recurring musical motifs, there’s a sense on Gideon Gaye of shifting scenes around a community (possibly the one on the cover, where a Gilliam-like collage depicts cottage, cathedral and skyscraper improbably nuzzling up to each other under glowering De Chirico skies), of delving into lives for a snapshot and all this makes Gideon Gaye nothing as fatuous as a rock opera ( something which began and ended with Tommy) but as close as popular music has ever come to its own Under Milk Wood.

Highest Llama Sean O’Hagan has told TNPC, though, that it wasn’t conceived as a fully-formed suite or song cycle but that “it was obvious a musical theme was emerging” as the record took shape. Following the regrettable but perhaps inevitable demise of Microdisney (for further detail, see review 37 – Against Nature by Fatima Mansions, led by O’Hagan’s Microdisney partner Cathal Coughlan), O’Hagan delivered two engrossing if slightly tentative albums which embellished on the Microdisney template of finely etched, compulsively melodic songs, something he tells us culminated in “stifling professionalism-” always an occupational hazard when a major record company is clamouring for a hit.

A far smaller outlet, Brighton-based Target, would have had no such high-do demands and, under far broader influence than he was often given credit for (Albert Ayler, Fred Neil, Cluster) he declares he was ready for a change and “done with the Byrds and guitars.” Many observers, though, didn’t see beyond the layers of harmonies and the tidal melodies, and the obvious – in fact, somewhat lazy – Beach Boys comparisons must have left O’Hagan feeling like a comedian repeatedly entreated to reprise his catchphrase. Speaking of guitars, this was like the common experience of, say, Big Star or Orange Juice receiving the verdict “sounds like U2/Oasis/Coldplay” for no better reason than their preponderance of guitars.

Some were content to infer that the title of The Dutchman was a nod to the Holland album by all those Wilsons but how often did they have such swooning, swooping strings? Would they ever have sung about “streets that were laid with distress”? In fact, I detect several traces of the Bee Gees in the ’60s, when most everything they did was drenched in overwhelming, almost deranged melancholy, though High Llamas, while not averse to poignancy, never once tip into sentimentality. There’s also a wryness to the closing sound effect of a car hurriedly speeding off – what’s your hurry, Dutchman?
And so to the Escher staircase melody of Giddy and Gay, which has more layers than the Earth’s crust. A forthright organ is the song’s motor, yet more harmonies wonder at the “perfect sunset” and strings offer a wordless, five-note refrain which could get heads swaying at Traitors’ Gate. They have sinister siblings lower in the mix which climb so high that they almost require the invention of a new scale – and even get to kick the whole album off with their own opening track, Giddy Strings – while an almost imperceptible guitar tremolos tremulously and shows Duane Eddy a world he could only have dreamed of.

Checking In, Checking Out gathered respectable – if that’s the word I want and it probably isn’t – as a single, not only in its natural habitat of Mark Radcliffe and Marc ‘Lard’ Riley’s nightime Radio 1 show (my constant companion on hundreds of solitary East Lothian nights in the mid-90s) but also earlier in the day on a station busily establishing its laudable, albeit dogmatic, New Music First policy but still retaining traces of its recent, considerably less radical, past. With its spindly piano and acoustic guitar interplay and its sunburst bridge, it was easily comely enough to draw in listeners yearning for a return to the days of “pure quality” but the breaking-point tension O’Hagan produces on his climactic solo and the curious art installation of “dodgy sculptured licence plates” leave little doubt that the landscape of Gideon Gaye is no place for satin bomber jackets.
Landscaping of a different kind figures on The Goat Looks On, a title we should all give thanks for and a song easily worthy of it. A horrified account of disastrous planning decisions (“A supermarket on the hill/The way things happen makes you feel ill”) and the roughshod approach of those who take such decisions (“I’ll take your money, make it good/Take it to another neighbourhood”) set to the richest sound on the album, utterly belying is low-key origins. It does everything you hope a song like this would – it floats, chimes, gasps, swoops, then climaxes with the rhythm, as tethered as the goat itself, galloping for freedom, though the escape seems doomed.

Probably the most controversial song on Gideon Gaye is Track Goes By, not so much for its 14-minute length as for the manner of its going, a coda lasting well over half the song’s length which consists of sustained repetition of a six-note figure, garnished by flourishes of flute evoking Slim Slow Slider from Astral Weeks. On first listen, the title seems too apt – by the third or fourth, while this may linger, and the song may be more suited to the eight or so minutes it’s been known to be given live, it’s accompanied by a sense that the length is essential to make complete our visit to this place of dreamers, loners, artists, bureaucrats and assorted enigmatic animals.

It was, and remains, a triumph for Sean O’Hagan and his associates. It was probably too refined to have made much headway against Definitely Maybe or Parklife but, along with Portishead’s Dummy, it was the real herald of a belated start in earnest to a decade which had begun disastrously with a surfeit of Stone Roses, Nirvana and Wonder Stuff photocopies being taken seriously as contenders, rather than told to sit back down and eat their greens. It can offer a fresh perspective on this oddest of decades and help you to see its best side – not its worst (PG).

(A) HAWAII (1996) 

 One of the more curious entries listed in the original ‘Perfect Collection’ was ‘Discover America’ by Van Dyke Parks. Parks is of course the musical genius who worked with Brian Wilson on The Beach Boys’ ‘Smile’ project, his legacy immortalised by the salvaged fruit of that aborted collaboration, songs such as ‘Heroes & Villains’ and ‘Surfs Up’ now universally recognised as amongst the band’s greatest ever achievements. ‘Discover America’, although not the first VDP solo outing, is a very strange album indeed. Originally released in 1972, it was recorded with members of Little Feat and a Trinidadian Steel Band, largely in a bizarre calypso style. I imagine Sean O’Hagan the founder, composer and leader of The High Llamas to be very fond of it. The Llamas’ second full length album ‘Hawaii’ was released 20 years ago this week, and while the two records cannot really be equated stylistically, nevertheless the way they were conceived is not dissimilar, both being highly idiosyncratic panoptic musical odysseys.

Clocking in at over 76 minutes and featuring 29 tracks (although around ten or so serve as seams between the songs) ‘Hawaii’ was a hugely ambitious project, a sun-drenched compendium of chamber pop, bossa nova, sweeping Fordian (John, not Henry) Americana, pacific bluegrass, old-style waltzes, and Morricone inspired exotica, all glued together by bleary string passages and fragments of space-age electronica, reminiscent of O’Hagan’s synchronous work with Stereolab. The album is best listened to in its entirety; and does not lend itself particularly well to an iPod shuffle. Someone once remarked that if the tracks were rearranged on The Band’s second (eponymously titled) LP, it would be like jumbling up the chapters of a great novel. Well, the rupture to continuity would be similar with ‘Hawaii’, which – while on the subject of The Band – even features a nod to the pine forest wooziness of John Simon’s production, on the marvellously evocative ‘Pilgrims’.

If ‘Sparkle Up’ reminds me – in the best possible way – of the music from both the ITV soap Crossroads and Monty Norman’s Bond theme, then the swooning grace of ‘Literature Is Fluff’ calls to mind the soundtracks to Fellini’s ‘Juliet Of The Spirits’ and ‘La Dolce Vita’, with psych guitar buried beneath a swathe of baroque harpsichord and strings. Both ‘Peppy’ and the single ‘Nomads’ are pushed along by jaunty banjo and brass, while the wistful flute of ‘Cuckoo’s Out’ owes a nod to the dusky late summer languor of Joe Boyd’s production on ‘Bryter Layter’.

‘Doo Wop Property’ and ‘Island People’ once again showcase those strings which seem to yearn for a romantic return to a lost (gentler) golden age of America with as much nostalgia as Welles did in ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. ‘The Hokey Curator’ is short but unbearably beautiful, containing a melting chord sequence ravishing enough to give Burt Bacharach sleepless nights. 

 The closest thing to a centre-piece on the album is perhaps ‘Ill-fitting Suits’, a truly sublime piano piece with slumberous meandering vibraphone, big kisses of brass punctuated with pizzicato, and washes of brooding cello – it makes a welcome reappearance as an instrumental reprise to the album. ‘Dressing Up The Old Dakota’ twists on the last flat note of the verses, giving new impetus to the beginning of each of the following ones, until from the mid-way point the string section and the old ivories get locked in a gloriously discordant tug-of-war. Meanwhile ‘Theatreland’ sounds more contemporary and conventional, the closest O’Hagan gets here to here to revisiting the sound of Microdisney, and ‘Campers In Control’ is R&B a la Llamas with its rising doo-wop rhythm given a shimmering makeover with harmonies befitting the late 60s sunshine pop of The Turtles or The Association. The musicianship throughout is superb, the arrangements beautifully measured, and for that much of the credit should be shared with multi-instrumentalist Marcus Holdaway, whom O’Hagan has credited as “the best musician I have ever encountered [who] has totally visualised the way I work.”

It has been a continual source of frustration for O’Hagan that his music is reduced to something akin to a facsimile of that which The Beach Boys produced between 1966-73. It is unquestionably much more than that. ‘Hawaii’ effortlessly transcends the perennial accusation that it is little more than an omnibus edition of ‘Friends’ or ‘Holland’, being sufficiently capacious to incorporate a veritable potpourri of influences. Speaking to TNPC, O’Hagan recalls: “The critics at the time simply could not keep up. They had no idea where we were going with these influences. There were plenty of British cinema references, a bit too of Gene Clark’s odd floundering LA Sessions, Nina Rota, Bernard Herman, Mingus. No critic heard any of this, even though the clues were jumping up and waving red flags!”

 Nevertheless, ‘Hawaii’ is an album which brought O’Hagan close to a commission to co-create with Brian Wilson a Beach Boys reunion album in the late 1990s. Sean’s brief encounter with the band might read as pure comedy gold (http://uncanny1.blogspot.co.uk/2005/05/brian-wilsonandy-paleysean-ohagan.html?m=1) but one imagines for O’Hagan himself, the humblest of souls, it must have been a most disquieting experience, cathartic even – and certainly, post-Hawaii, the influence of Wilson & co. seemed to be with each subsequent release, ever less discernible.

 The High Llamas never make Top 100 Albums lists, but to those that love their music, O’Hagan is quite simply a musical genius. He is sometimes unfairly criticised for a penchant for slipping all too comfortably into easy listening territory and also for his lyrical obtuseness. As regards the former point, well some people are simply too much the children of 1977 to make allowance for that. As for the lyrics, some have suggested he has cloistered his soul away – taciturn by nature, he seems unwilling to make his music a forum for wrestling with the complexities of existence; some that his rather abstract observations are designed so as not to detract from the sumptuousness of the music, a strategy followed by others such as The Cocteau Twins (few complained of their lyrical ‘deficiencies’). Not so. It is important to remember that O’Hagan’s first songwriting partner was Cathal Coughlan, highly literate, fiercely intelligent, “a writer of such originality and strength, my teacher”. O’Hagan has consciously steered away from writing anything which could be considered emotionally trite in his lyrics, most pop songs being for him “a string of cliche”, and while he acknowledges his own limitations, he has sought refuge and inspiration in the rich poetic strain of wordsmiths such as Parks, Dylan and Will Oldham. 

 And so there is a playfulness to the writing which, rather than invite a personal emotional response from the listener, invites us rather to conjure in our minds specific scenes in the imaginary lives of the songs’ protagonists: (“Take care to avoid the heavy stuff/I give up, this literature is fluff/Trawled through sketches of notes the night before/Chased the baffled employess floor to floor/Hung a ‘do not disturb’ on glass swing doors.”) This is a writer who clearly loves words as much as music, but words of love he shall not write. In their place, he documents the mini dramas of an amateur theatre company unfolding on a creaking old stage or observes a military operation undertaken to cordon off hotel grounds – we listen intently, sufficiently detached from the humdrum of their activities to enable us to create our own little mental retreat, a supine sanctum of uncommonly blissful sound. If ever there was a disc made for a desert island then this is it. (JJ)

61. JUDY HENSKE & JERRY YESTER – FAREWELL ALDEBARAN (1969)

Baroque Pop, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Psychedelia

imageI was never much of a Zappa fan – for me, ‘Freak Out’ was as good as it got – but I must give Frank some credit for overseeing the formation of Straight Records. It’s small catalogue of only 16 albums and a handful of 45s is amongst the most wildly eclectic distributed by any record label. Initially, Zappa envisaged Straight as an outlet for more mainstream artists, allowing it’s partner label Bizarre to focus on experimental/oddball LPs by the likes of Lenny Bruce, Wild Man Fischer and Frank himself. But somewhere along the line the script got mixed up. That the likes of ‘Trout Mask Replica’ and Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’ ended up on Straight and not on Bizarre, seems to indicate that, despite honourable intentions, there was no distinguishable musical demarcation between the labels. It is nigh on impossible to imagine two LPs more audaciously ‘off the wall’ than those two.

Which brings us to Jerry Yester and Judy Henske’s ‘Farewell Aldebaran’, released on June 16th 1969, the same day as Beefheart’s magnum opus ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (catalogue numbers STS-1052 and STS-1053 respectively). The latter, regarded by many as the greatest and most adventurous album in rock history, has a far more enduring legacy than it’s comparatively neglected twin. In its own way however, ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ is as peculiarly eccentric: it is a brave record, not at all easy to fall in love with, and yet an utterly unique and compelling listen from start to finish. It is not strange in the same way that TMR is ‘strange’. TMR, if it sounds wholly impenetrable to some, has a singular vision which might defy easy categorisation, but it’s mixture of free jazz, wild delta blues and ecological concerns gives it a recognisable thematic unity. Not so ‘Aldebaran’, which has an insatiable eclecticism that makes it in many ways an even more challenging listen. It has oft been likened to one of those old record label sampler compilations – ten bands, ten very different sounds – but while this is a convenient analogy to draw, it is a little off the mark. It isn’t ten bands, just Jerry, Judy and a small host of guest musician friends. And if the album has an identity crisis, there are still patterns and motifs which lend it it’s own distinctive aura.

‘Snowblind’, a creeping bluesy howler with a fizzing lead guitar, finds Henske returning from the wilderness years of cabaret performance, wailing her heart out like Janis Joplin with some obliquely gothic lyrics: [‘Fallbrook Sedgewynd gave to Nancy/ringnecks for her coachmen’s fancy/Eggs and emeralds, shocking garters/Devilled prunes to stop and start her/Nancy gave to Fallbrook Sedgewynd/neither nods nor time of day/Love is nasty, love is so blind/Love shall make us all go snowblind.’] Upon closer inspection, it could be a proto-glam stomp, and stands in stark contrast to ‘Horses On A Stick’, a slice of pure bubblegum sunshine pop, reminiscent of The Association (Yester had produced some of their albums) or The Turtles.

After that schizophrenic pairing there are a few songs which are closer cousins, featuring both harpsichord and a theatrical vocal performance from Henske. ‘Lullaby’, sung beautifully in a vulnerable quiver, is a darkly melodramatic way to sing one’s child to sleep [‘The end of the world is a windy place/Where the eagle builds her nest of lace/I rock you asleep in the cradle of end/Listen, baby, to the wind’], while Judy’s instinctive comedic impulse gets an airing on ‘St. Nicholas Hall’. Over some bizarre background overdubs, her vocal reaches a near hysterical crescendo during this fiercely satirical attack on the Church [‘Blessed are the pure in heart
(We need a new organ by June)
Blessed are the merciful
(The old one’s badly out of tune)
Blessed are the peacemakers
(Please send us the money soon)
Sincerely yours in Jesus/Your Dean’
]

Vocal duties are shared on ‘Three Ravens’, one of two gorgeous psych-baroque outings telling tales of knights and maidens and featuring a string arrangement worthy of his friend, the late Curt Boettcher (Sagittarius, The Millenium). It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Left Banke album or even The Zombies genre-defining ‘Odessey & Oracle’. The final coda is sublime making it truly a song to treasure. The other, ‘Charity’, is glorious – it’s folksy guitar might recall once again The Association (specifically their ‘Goodbye Columbus’ soundtrack), but it’s orgiastic organ-driven ending is a masterstroke.

The lengthiest track on the album, ‘Raider’, is the strangest of brews, featuring bow banjo and fiddle, both unceremoniously knocked askew by a clunking harpsichord – if one can imagine a buoyant bluegrass version of the theme for The Ipcress File – a toe tapping knee-slapping classic with great harmonising at the finale. It’s followed by the album’s one weak point – the hazy jazz inflections of ‘Mrs. Connor’ mean it’s the only moment that feels contrived here. The rest of the album if stylistically disparate, manages somehow to feel remarkably organic.

Judy’s strident matronly vocal returns on ‘Rapture’ which once again is unashamedly poetic
[‘Lovers who lie/beneath the night sky/neither speak nor hear/in the perfect stillness/She is near/Her voice in the heart’s blood comes roaring/In rapture they die’] It features a wheezing harmonica and introduces  some Moog (but understated, cunningly rehearsing it’s centre-stage performance on the closing title track), all embellished by strange echo-layered vocal overdubs not entirely dissimilar to engineer Herb Cohen’s work on the aforementioned ‘Starsailor’.

Perhaps producing albums such as ‘Happy Sad’ by a star dancer such as Tim Buckley had opened up new vistas for Yester. The curtain comes down with the staggeringly ambitious title track, where he leaves his Lovin’ Spoonful days for dead with what is undoubtedly one of the very strangest songs of the 1960s. [‘See, she is descending now/Starting the slide/The comets cling to her/The fiery bride/She is the mother of/The mark and the prize/The glaze of paradise/is in her eyes/Her mouth is torn with stars/and brushed with wings/She cannot call to us/She does not sing.’] It’s so ‘out there’, at times I find it near excruciating – a mindbending space Moog prog monstrosity. When those Dalek vocal treatments gatecrash the party you’ll know what I mean. But for all it’s crazed nonsense, on most days I love it to bits. It’s the one moment on the album where Yester sounds possessed. Now there were stars – or perhaps asteroids – in his eyes.

I first read about ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ in Strange Things Are Happening, a brilliantly niche retro rock magazine active (pre-Mojo) between 1988-90. One issue contained a feature on Straight Records. I was intrigued, but tracking down the album proved elusive until I hit the jackpot at a record fair in 1993. At the same event I acquired two other Straight releases, Tim Dawe’s ‘Penrod’ and Jeff Simmons’ ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up’. Collectively, this set me back about £50, a costly business, particularly as ‘Aldebaran’ was the only one of the three with which I was in any way smitten. I’ve long since parted company with the other two, but the music on ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ was different, bursting with ideas, brazenly ambitious, rich in gothic poetry, subtly sublime one moment and hysterically overbearing the next. It had one foot in the past and one in the future, and was maddeningly difficult to pin down…the kind of album you make your own, because you know no-one else is listening. Every collection – yours included – needs a few of those. (JJ)

27. GRIZZLY BEAR – YELLOW HOUSE (2006) / (A) VECKATIMEST (2009)

Baroque Pop, Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia

To propose that there might be a genius or two creating popular music in the 21st century may be anathema to those of a certain vintage. After all, Lennon, (Tim) Buckley, Van Vliet, and co. are no longer with us. Indeed one is liable to invite ridicule at the mere suggestion, but I would venture that if people are prepared to look hard enough there are at least a few, one of whom is Daniel Rossen, co-contributor to the wonderful NY foursome, Grizzly Bear.

Grizzly Bear began as a moniker for Ed Droste who, to little fanfare, released a low-fi debut entitled Horn of Plenty in 2004. For the second full-length feature, the ranks had swelled to include three other members, most significantly 23-year old Department of Eagles multi-instrumentalist, Rossen. Droste’s recruitment policy demonstrated shrewd judgement – in fact it was a masterstroke, Rossen’s widescreen West Coast sensibilities were less a musical appendage than the catalyst for a revolution in the band’s modus operandi.

The first fruits of this remoulding, Yellow House (recorded in Droste’s mother’s house), might sound at first like a bunch of (flamboyantly) half-baked ideas toiling in vain to find conventional form, and could be easily dismissed as such by the more casual, less discerning listener. But as the saying goes: ‘a new home slowly reveals it’s secrets’, so too with Yellow House.

Take the album’s opener for instance. ‘Easier’ patiently emerges from atmospheric woodwind and upright piano before being transfigured by Disneyesque harmonising and then an amalgam of sounds which I can only describe as a fantasia of bluegrass-flavoured Impressionism. Like much of the album, it features banjo, autoharp and glockenspiel, and if someone said to you that it was the most beautiful song they had ever heard, you could not feign surprise.

If Marla’s stalking waltzlike piano conveys a sense of foreboding, it is soon transfigured by a string arrangement which sounds like ghosts escaping from one of Debussy’s tone poems, weaving into the solemnity their alluring supernatural tapestries.

But it is not all rhapsody and capriccio. After a breezily acoustic beginning, the guitars on ‘On A Neck And A Spit’ hurtle, crash and collapse together causing an unnerving pile up, before Rossen raises the tempo with a buzzing (Roy) Harper-esque bastard-folk foot stomp. ‘Lullaby’ does what it says on the tin, until half way in it is violently ambushed by a gaggle of Grizzly guitars. While ‘Knife’ is at least more musically orthodox, and easily the closest to a ‘hit’ here, it’s lyrics  ( I want you to know / When I look in your eyes / With every blow / Comes another lie / You think it’s alright / Can’t you feel the knife?) mean it is unlikely it will find its way into your repertoire of songs to sing in the shower.

There is such a range of genre-hopping versatility on show here, that the result is the creation of something almost uncategorisable, and there is some evidence to suggest the band seek further afield than most for their musical inspiration, in particular to film soundtracks. Consider for example the unearthly harmonising on the incredibly complex ‘Central and Remote’, eerily redolent (3:24-4:03) of Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Polanski’s ‘Fearless Vampire Killers’. And is it just me, or does the achingly beautiful ‘interlude’ on the incomparable ‘Little Brother’ parallel Вячеслав Овчинников’s exquisite music for the ‘apples and horses’ dream sequence in Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’? In each case the meticulous craftsmanship, borrowed reference points or not, is to be admired and cherished.

The closer ‘Colorado’ with its densely layered vocal overdubs has to be heard to be believed. Imagine the Beach Boys ‘Smile’ version of ‘Cool Cool Water’ being recorded by Big Star during sessions for their ill-fated third album and you may get close. It’s a bewildering end to a bewitching album, one that ranks alongside ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Spirit of Eden’ as one of music’s great documents of reinvention.

The last time of any note a group of precocious and wide-eyed musicians in their mid-20s retired to an old house to express with such versatility and virtuosity a new musical language, the result was Music From Big Pink’, an album that changed the course of popular music. No far-reaching influence was to follow from Yellow House but it is an historical document that will surely be blessed with similar longevity. It leaves you wondering: why isn’t all music this imaginative? The answer to that question is no secret. Put a sign up outside that Yellow House: ‘Daniel Rossen: Genius At Work’.

VECKATIMEST

What is implicit on Yellow House is made explicit on Veckatimest; what was alluded to is now clearly defined; what was hidden is now revealed; where there was a sophomoric air, there is now professorial authority; what sounded exploratory has now reached perfect distillation.
I can barely bring myself to talk about Veckatimest for fear of allowing some of it’s magic to somehow escape in a cloud of loquaciousness. It will suffice to mention that ‘Southern Point’ is the best one stop introduction to the band’s music, and that ‘I Live With You’ is one of the most impossibly beautiful things I have ever heard. So let me keep it simple: Veckatimest is very probably the greatest album of the 21st Century so far. (JJ)