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Reviews: Julianna Barwick's "Pacing" b/w "Call"

Pacing b/w Call

In the ever-growing tower of records for which I’ve written a largely completed but ultimately unpublished review, Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place ranks near the top. To my credit, I did get my act together to write 50 words for its placement as my favorite album of 2011, but that blurb lacked the real estate to explain my specific application of Barwick’s music. Since no one else will know that I’m repeating myself, allow me to explain it now.

When The Magic Place came out, I was having trouble falling asleep. In a very simple sense, too much was on my mind. I found that listening to a few ambient songs on my headphones was an immense help—I wasn’t falling asleep with earbuds still embedded, but after those songs, I was sufficiently decompressed that I could fall asleep quickly and calmly. The problem was finding the right songs for the task. So many favorites from the genre had caveats: Stars of the Lid’s music gradually accrues a devastating emotional resonance; Tim Hecker’s compositions are rife with tense dichotomies; Grouper offers unsolvable mysteries that are both beautiful and unsettling; too few of Brian Eno’s ambient masterworks resolve within a reasonable timeframe. I got significant mileage from The Dead Texan’s “The Struggle,” Grouper’s “Heavy Water (I’d Rather Be Sleeping),” and Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent),” but The Magic Place shuttled these songs off the decompression playlist.

It took the opposite arc to Stars of the Lid’s And Their Refinement of the Decline; whereas that album’s arrangements turned from polished drones to cutting chord progressions, the looped vocals of The Magic Place transformed from attention-grabbing siren calls to calmly mesmerizing choirs. (This process hasn’t happened for either of Barwick’s first two releases, 2006’s Sanguine and 2009’s Florine, which are worthy practice runs but too reliant upon coloring outside the lines to qualify as relaxing.) “Keep Up the Good Work” started out as the strangest song from The Magic Place, a layered invitation to run my ship aground, but evolved into a supremely comforting swell. After listening to a few tracks from The Magic Place, my mind would arrive at an anxiety-free locale, ready to peacefully drift off to sleep. It was a miraculous, wonderful gift. (It’s worth noting that after my daughter was born, I no longer needed this routine. Lulling ambient music is unnecessary in the presence of sheer exhaustion.)

Since The Magic Place, Julianna Barwick has explored different terrain. The Matrimony Remixes EP offered pleasant but inessential reworkings of “Vow” and “Prizewinning.” She collaborated with Ikue Mori on FRKWYS Vol. 6, which applied her ethereal vocals to glitch electronic compositions; paired with Helado Negro for Ombre’s Believe You Me, contributing as much live instrumentation as vocals to the full-bodied songs; and made worthy guest appearances on Koralleven’s celebratory “Sa Sa Samoa” and Sharon Van Etten’s superlative Tramp. But the “Pacing” b/w “Call” single marks a welcome return to The Magic Place.

It’s not a straight recapitulation of its predecessor’s successes—the fruit-covered piano of the cover image signals the aesthetic shift. “Vow” and “Flown” from The Magic Place utilized piano, but placed it as one piece among more prominent and more plentiful vocal loops. On this single, the reverb-heavy chords take equal footing to the vocal loops on “Pacing” and supplant them entirely on “Call.” It’s strange to hear a Julianna Barwick song devoid of singing, but “Call” finds remarkable depth in its simple lines.

Just like The Magic Place in 2011, no piece of music so far this (admitted young) year has grasped me so thoroughly as “Pacing” b/w “Call.” As long as it took me to elucidate my primary application for Barwick’s music, this single is on constant loop because it works in far more contexts than decompression.

The Haul 2010: Brian Eno's Music for Films III

Brian Eno, et al – Music for Films III LP – Opal, 1988 – $4 (10/15 Reckless Records, Broadway Avenue)

Brian Eno's Music for Films III

In my review of David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno, I noted the drop in coverage depth starting in the mid 1980s. Prioritizing his output in the 1970s and early 1980s—specifically Roxy Music, No Pussyfooting, his first four solo albums, Discreet Music, the Ambient series, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, and Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Remain in Light—dictates that you’ll read more about albums you’ve likely heard instead of those you haven’t. This situation makes perfect sense. Those are touchstone recordings. Comparatively few people would buy a book emphasizing Eno’s generative art experiments, Nerve Net, collaboration with John Cale on Wrong Way Up, and production duties for James and Coldplay. Yet the unfamiliar terrain of Eno’s late ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s output would have benefitted from a clearer guide. Unlike the 1970s, when it seemed Eno could do no wrong, Sheppard’s speedy run-through (and occasional dismissal) of Eno’s later records indicates inconsistent and frequently unrewarding results. I cite Wrong Way Up and Nerve Net because those are the only two albums I was encouraged to track down. Certainly that can’t be it, right?

My standard “leap before you look” move would be to do a deep dive into the back nine of Eno’s catalog, to become that clear guide I wished for, but I’ve been warned by Sheppard and I will heed that warning. The only three post-1985 Eno albums I’ve heard are 1988’s Music for Films III, 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today with David Byrne, and 2010’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams (an album Dusted just eviscerated). A conservative estimate of true solo albums and major collaborations puts an additional twenty albums between 1988 and 2008. Yikes. If the sheer number isn’t enough to dissuade you from a deep dive, perhaps the lagging sonics of Music for Films III will do the trick.

I didn’t approach Music for Films III with high expectations. The first Music for Films volume is the rare ’70s Eno LP that underwhelms, since too many of the short, incidental pieces sound inconsequential without the foregrounds of their intended context. Its first sequel came in 1983 as part of the Working Backwards box set, but Music for Films II was mostly a dry run for the superior Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, containing a few of its tracks and introducing the trio of Brian Eno, Roger Eno, and Daniel Lanois. Music for Films III comes five years later with a change of address—Eno left the sputtering EG label and began his own Warner imprint called Opal. For Opal and Music for Films III, Eno brings in some familiar names: Daniel Lanois, Roger Eno, Harold Budd (from Ambient 2 and The Pearl), and Laraaji (the sole performer of Ambient 3). He supplements them with Michael Brook, Misha Mahlin and Lydia Theremin, and Led Zeppelin’s own John Paul Jones.

A collaboration-heavy Eno album should be no surprise, but Music for Films III is more compilation than collaboration. Of the thirteen tracks on the original vinyl pressing, Eno goes solo on two, collaborates on three, produces three, mixes one, and abstains from involvement on the final four. The results, predictably, are scattershot. Unpredictably, the Enos fare the poorest. Brian’s “Saint Tom” and “Theme from ‘Creation’” suffer from dated synth palettes. Roger’s maudlin “Quixote” would best score a scene of a daytime soap opera in which a main character is exploring a cave. The late-night piano on Roger’s “Fleeting Smile” feels too familiar. Laraaji has the biggest gap in quality, with the modulated vocals of “Zaragoza” sounding thoroughly out of place in a bad way, while the untreated thumb piano on “Kalimba” (heard in the background of “Zaragoza”) stands out with its welcome simplicity. The spooky theremin on Misha Mahlin and Lydia Theremin’s “For Her Atoms” is too identifiable as such, lending an overt ’50s sci-fi air. Harold Budd brings out his usual blurred, new age piano tricks for “Balthus Bemused” with diminishing returns.

Music for Films III isn’t a total wash. Daniel Lanois acquits himself well in his three collaborations with Brian Eno. “Tension Block” is an appropriate name for a dense, bass-driven exploration of Middle Eastern percussion. “White Mustang” is an unnerving callback to Apollo, whereas “Sirens” takes that feeling and shifts it underground. A few contributors also excel. The echoing guitar lines of Michael Brook’s “Err” could stretch out over canyons. The biggest surprise is actually John Paul Jones’ “Four-Minute Warning,” a sound collage of horns that snowballs into cacophony. Did I overlook Led Zeppelin’s free-jazz album?

Beyond the mish-mash of styles and the confounding mix of collaboration and compilation, the biggest problem with Music for Films III is its specificity. Let me explain. The original Music for Films let me down because too many of the incidental pieces weren’t immediately evocative. But for the specific purpose of making music for use in imaginary films, emphasis on the plural, that makes sense. Limiting the contexts for a given piece ultimately limits its utility, and this series is all about utility. Evoking a very particular scene, like the daytime soap opera cave exploration in Roger Eno’s “Quixote,” limits a song’s potential application. It’s not the presence of poor tracks on Music for Films III that lessens my enthusiasm for the twenty years of unexplored Eno albums, since those can be written off as failed experiments from an artist prone to experimentation. It’s the idea that the model is failing that’s truly disconcerting. If I learned anything from On Some Faraway Beach, it’s that Brian Eno loves his models.

Reading List: David Sheppard's On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno

David Sheppard's On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno

Is it possible to undersell Brian Eno? Between his involvement in the creation and/or production of a towering stack of classic albums and his semi-accurate statements that he invented ambient music, * his legacy speaks volumes for itself. But therein lies the most wonderful aspect of Brian Eno fandom: there’s always more to find. Between his rock-oriented solo albums, ambient albums, world music–informed albums, and a steady stream of collaborations of all three varieties, not to mention those essential producer credits, Eno’s relentless creativity provides seemingly unlimited avenues to explore, especially if you enjoy differentiating between minimal ambient landscapes.

This broad swath of material is often bound together through the mythology of Eno, embodied by those Oblique Strategies cards he created in 1975 with Peter Schmidt. Yet sifting through the mythology (often self-created, since Eno’s a master of subtle self-promotion) to reveal the history is quite rewarding. I caught a glimpse of him at work in Hugo Wilcken’s excellent 33 1/3 volume on David Bowie’s Low, but that’s just one brief segment of Eno’s career. Fortunately David Sheppard’s well-researched On Some Faraway Beach fills in most conceivable gaps in this knowledge, documenting Eno’s upbringing, his aesthetic shaping in art school, his tenure in Roxy Music, his ventures into heavily collaborative solo recording, his high-profile production duties, and his more recent forays into visual art and political commentary. Have I mentioned the women? It documents them quite well.

Much like the Zane Grey biography I proofread for the University of Illinois Press (a remarkably entertaining read even if you care nothing about the pulp Western author), On Some Faraway Beach’s biggest revelation is its subject’s sexual appetites. I’d assumed that Bryan Ferry’s debonair profile received most of the female attention in Roxy Music, but Eno’s flamboyant style and more extroverted demeanor earned him the lion’s share of female attention. It even contributed to the strife between the two that eventually led to Eno leaving/being forced out of the group. The details of Eno’s lust—his supposed appearances in a few pornographic films prior to his musical fame, his vigor and stamina keeping his unfortunate tour roommate up all night, the Polaroid photos which catalogued his conquests, the autobiographical origins of “The Fat Lady of Limbourg”—can be difficult to reconcile with the calm beauty of Music for Airports, but it certainly makes sense with the more graphic allusions of his first two albums. Eno’s romantic life has some less sordid details as well, including writing the lovely “I’ll Come Running” for his then-girlfriend Ritva Saarikko (a Finnish photographer who took the cover portrait for Before and After Science) and the ongoing personal and professional success of marrying his manager, Anthea, in 1988. Perhaps the most revealing anecdote is a quick story about Eno’s flirtations with women on New York City streets in the late ’70s, approaching random strangers with semi-systematic approaches.

Brian Eno in the 1970s, credit unknown

That idea of strategic chance dominates the discussion of Eno’s own music and production duties. Beginning as an avowed non-musician musician, Eno picked up second-hand tape recorders en masse to see how each one varied in sound. By the time he joined Roxy Music, he was quite adept at plumbing the depths of his synthesizer for new sounds, if still naïve of musical theory. Much of his solo work relies on three conditions: bringing in talented collaborators, challenging them to leave their usual approaches behind, and forcing himself to think on the spot. This emphasis on process resulted in both the pruned beauty of Another Green World and the elongated, frustrating genesis of Before and After Science; the improvisational collaboration with Robert Fripp on No Pussyfooting (which cost practically nothing to record and yet sold as astonishing 100,000 copies) and the detailed collages of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with David Byrne; the ease of working with Daniel Lanois and brother Roger Eno on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and the contentious work with John Cale on Wrong Way Up. What On Some Faraway Beach stresses is the variety of these situations: sometimes Eno turns on a loop machine and records an ambient classic with infuriating ease, other times he tinkers endlessly on the final product.

Eno’s production career shares this range of process-dictated success, with the key variables being the artists’ willingness to experiment and the level of additional help Eno had in the studio. I was quite surprised to learn that Devo—having gallingly declared that their debut LP would be recorded by either Brian Eno or David Bowie (who’d agreed, only to back out due to scheduling conflicts)—were the most resistant to Eno’s oblique strategies, with Mark Mothersbaugh later regretting their know-it-all attitude. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Eno’s heavy involvement in Talking Heads’ Remain in Light might be the most artistically fruitful and hands-on record on his credit sheet, going so far as Eno’s request that the album be credited to “Talking Heads and Brian Eno” (after all, he wrote the vocal melody for the chorus of “Once in a Lifetime”!), but Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz hardly shared David Byrne’s brotherhood with Eno. Weymouth even went as far as reinserting her deleted bass performances after Eno left the board. Eno’s involvement with Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy finds a healthy middle ground between these poles. With Tony Visconti helming the sessions for Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger, Eno was free to come in for a few days, challenge the status quo of the recording sessions, and leave once things had been adequately toppled. By Lodger this arrangement had lost some of its spontaneity, but Bowie lauded Eno’s involvement and eventually collaborated with him again on 1995’s Outside.

On Some Faraway Beach loses steam once it hits the mid-80s, specifically with the discussion of his involvement on U2’s albums. While those albums—particularly The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby—provide enough interesting anecdotes (like Eno getting so sick of the endlessly fussed-over “Where the Streets Have No Name” that he nearly trashed the master tape or the fact that the infinite sustain guitar the Edge played on “With or Without You” was one of just three in the world) to keep me moving along, the depth of the treatment doesn’t match the earlier eras. Condensing the 20+ years from The Unforgettable Fire to the completion of the book in 2008 to a mere 70 pages results in too many projects getting tossed into veritable laundry lists. To wit: Eno’s involvement in Slowdive’s Souvlaki receives a mere half-sentence of discussion. Whether it or countless other projects from the ’90s and ’00s deserve equal attention to, say, Remain in Light is debatable (one I pick up in a review of Music for Films III), but it’s impossible not to feel the rush of wind when Sheppard puts the pedal to the floor.

Brian Eno now, credit unknown

Given Eno’s remarkably prolific nature, the lack of a discography appendix is disappointing, specifically because On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno piqued my interest in so many of his albums—both familiar and unfamiliar. This discography provides a good start, but Sheppard’s informed opinions into these albums provide a wonderful road map, as long as you’re willing to do some serious flipping back and forth with the index and add a bunch of entries to your musical shopping list.

Don’t dawdle on these shortcomings. On Some Faraway Beach hits all the right big notes—it contextualizes Eno within the various phases of his career, it reveals the strategic choices behind some of his best work, it illuminates the corners of his very long, very storied career–and most importantly, it provides countless “Did you know?” anecdotes for your next Eno-themed dinner party. (The most curious fact? Both Brian Ferry and Elton John auditioned for King Crimson’s vacant vocalist slot in 1971.) Almost assuredly you have some form of an “in” for Eno’s catalog, and unless it’s one of his later albums or production jobs, On Some Faraway Beach is bound to increase your appreciation of it. Trust me—I spent a solid two weeks listening to Another Green World over and over again, marveling at one of my favorites with renewed interest.

* Here’s my take on whether Eno invented ambient music: No and yes. No, he was not the first or the only person to come up with the idea of passive listening. Erik Satie coined the term “furniture music,” contemporary composers like John Cage, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley became practitioners of particular forms of it. But if we’re talking about the roots of modern ambient music—the minimal landscapes of Stars of the Lid, Labradford, Eluvium, etc.—or “chillout” electronic music, yes, Eno is the primary forefather of those movements (if by no means the sole influence). Coining the term “ambient music” certainly helps his case.

The Haul 2010: Cluster & Eno's Cluster & Eno and Burial's Burial

Along with the next few entries, these two self-titled LPs come courtesy of a 50% off used vinyl sale at the Norwood, MA Newbury Comics, the only location to carry it. They certainly had a lot of overpriced '80s wax to clear out, but fortunately there were some keepers in the lot.

10. Cluster & Eno – Cluster & Eno LP – 4 Men with Beards, 2007 [1977] – $6 (Newbury Comics in Norwood, 1/24)

Cluster & Eno's Cluster & Eno

I knew when I picked up Old Land, the compilation made from Cluster & Eno’s two LPs, that I would end up buying at least one of the original albums. I did not anticipate it happening so soon, but the price being right on the reissue pressing of the first of Cluster & Eno’s collaborations expedited the process.

What impressed me so much about Old Land was that the compilation held together as an album, with the synth-heavy side A deriving exclusively from 1978’s After the Heart and the comparatively somber side B primarily pulling from this 1977 collaboration. As expected, Cluster & Eno sticks with the somber ambience of those songs. Of the five songs new to me, three explore an ambient combination of subtle background synths and twinkling foreground piano. “Ho Renomo” and the short, nearly classical “Mit Samaen” are quite lovely. With its pulsing drum beat, “Selange” is the bridge to the remaining two new-to-me songs, “Die Bunge” and “One,” which branch out into new terrain. “Die Bunge” finds a cantering electronic pulse, like a futuristic cow-poke striding slowly into the horizon, and “One” predicts Eno’s later foray into world music on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with droning sitar and African percussion. These new songs are all worthy additions, but I’ve gone back to the closing track, “Für Luise,” most frequently. It features an alien cooing sound that’s at once friendly and eerie.

In hindsight, it feels like Eno took the lead on the first collaboration, and then Cluster’s electronic tendencies came to the forefront on After the Heat. If you’re interested in the Cluster side of things (or one of Brian Eno’s best vocal songs, “The Belldog,” which I seem to twitter about every week), start with After the Heat. If you’d prefer to stick with Brian Eno’s ambient explorations, Cluster & Eno is one of his better efforts in that field.

11. Burial – Burial 2LP – Hyperdub, 2006 – $6.50 (Newbury Comics in Norwood, 1/24)

Burial's Burial

When I went through best-of-the-decade album lists, Burial’s Untrue was one of the most frequent albums to appear that I hadn’t yet heard and had some desire to check out. (If you want to read that as a slight against Animal Collective, please, go ahead.) To be entirely honest, I’d missed the entire UK garage / dubstep / grime scene. My first, admittedly filtered taste was Burial’s collaboration with Four Tet on 2009’s “Moth” / “Wolf Cub” EP, but finding this marked-down copy of Burial’s first, self-titled album seemed like a good invitation to dip my toes in the pool.

It doesn’t take long to survey Burial’s instrumental palette: anxious rhythms, subwoofer-rumbling bass pulses, chopped-up vocal samples, unnerving synth noises, crackling surface noise, and the occasional affecting keyboard melody make up the bulk of these tracks. The lone exception is “Spaceape,” featuring Spaceape, which incorporates the British MC’s moody monologues. That song is the biggest indicator of my initial point of comparison—which I fully expect to embarrass people better-versed in electronic music than I am—which was Tricky’s early trip-hop albums, specifically the ghostly remnants of a track like “Overcome” from Maxinquaye. To be entirely frank, the specific reference point doesn’t matter as much as the idea that Burial is the ghostly remnants of it.

The highlights of the album demonstrate just how effective this dark, chilling mood can be. “Distant Lights” could be the sound of a club from a block away. Its chopped-up R&B vocals trim the fat, leaving only the choicest cuts. “Forgive,” based on a sample of Brian Eno’s glorious “An Ending (Ascent)” from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, could very well be the inversion of Eno’s own space exploration, choosing instead to peer up at the moon through gray smog. “Pirates” has flashes of energy, like car alarms triggering in the distance. I’m stuck on this idea of spatial distance playing a huge part in Burial’s songs, since each track feels like it’s been carved away from a larger original work, pulled away from an wider view. My mind keeps going to what’s absent.

It’s unlikely that this site will turn into This Month in Dubstep/Grime anytime soon, but as an uninformed glance into one of electronic music’s more prominent developments, Burial is a solid offering. I’ll certainly check out Untrue down the line.

The Haul: Miles Davis's In a Silent Way and Cluster & Eno's Old Land

A late-summer trip to the greater Gloucester area justified by my wife’s trip to a nearby craft fair. I won’t complain.

112. Miles Davis – In a Silent Way LP – Columbia, 1969 – $5.50

Miles Davis's In a Silent Way

It’s unclear why I didn’t connect the dots and realize that yes, I enjoy the fusion-era Miles Davis that I’ve heard, and yes, I really enjoy the fusion-era Herbie Hancock that I’ve heard, so picking up In a Silent Way, which started Davis’s fusion era and on which Hancock plays electric piano, was just too logical. The answer is likely that Davis’s discography is downright overwhelming. Beyond some of the obvious touchstones, like the birth-issued copy of Kind of Blue, the fusion staple Bitches Brew, and the light, folk-influenced Sketches of Spain, it’s easy to get lost in such a sea of albums. I’m profoundly lucky that I washed up on In a Silent Way, since it’s filled me with a renewed vigor for the early days of jazz fusion.

What strikes me the most about In a Silent Way is how well each side flows, which is a credit to Davis and producer Teo Macero, who chopped up the initial recordings into moe manageable structures. Each side still has a definite flavor throughout, but the imposed structure keeps the soloing on point. The electric piano of Hancock, Joe Zawinul, and Chick Corea and the guitar of John McLaughlin create a constantly shifting foundation for each piece. Tony Williams’ drumming remains minimal throughout, which prevents the album from sounding too “rock,” but it also contributes to the drifting atmosphere of the LP.

I’ve seen a few mentions of this album’s impact on ambient music (Brian Eno named the instrumental “Zawinul” on Another Green World after this album’s organist, Joe Zawinul), and having just listened to a few Eno albums in the past few days, I can see some similarities. There’s too much going on, too much structure, too many solos to say that it’s anything more than an influence, but during the build-up of “In a Silent Way,” it’s hard to deny the similarity in atmosphere.

113. Cluster & Brian Eno– Old Land LP – Relativity, 1985 – $9.50

Cluster & Eno's Old Land

A compilation of the two earlier collaborations between Brian Eno and German experimental/ambient/electronic group Cluster, Old Land features songs from their 1977 release Cluster & Eno and their 1978 release After the Heat. Given that I’ll probably end up buying both of those releases down the line, this purchase was likely a mistake, but I needed my Eno fix.

Old Land does a remarkably good job with its sequencing; it feels like a well-thought out album, not a hastily put-together cash-in. Side A is heavier on both synths and Eno’s vocals, side B pulls things back for more of a somber, lonely feel. “Broken Head” sounds like the lurking futuristic background music of a mid-1980s science fiction film until Eno’s typically bizarre lyrics add another strange layer to the mix. “The Belldog” has a twinkling, descending melody, but it’s Eno’s lyrics that grabbed my attention: “I held the levers that guided the signals to the radio / But the words I receive, random code, broken fragments from before.” The song peaks with “I lose control and at last I am part of the machinery,” which involves such a bizarre joy for being one with technology that makes perfect sense for Eno. The introduction of strings in the song’s final minute is wonderful. The backwards vocals in “Tzima N’arki” are both beautiful and alienating, which is the best description for side A. Side B features a couple of lovely moments in the piano of “Warmut” and the strings of “Old Land.” I expect to play side B more often, since it’s among the finer sides of background music in Eno’s catalog, but “The Belldog” ranks among his best vocal tracks.

The Haul: Roxy Music, Ornette Coleman, Wipers, Brian Eno, Gang of Four, Regulator Watts, and King Kong

89. Roxy Music – Roxy Music LP – ATCO, 1972 – $6.50

Roxy Music's Roxy Music

Part of the delay involved with publishing these entries in chronological order is that certain albums need longer to sink in than others. I’ve pulled out Roxy Music’s 1972 debut LP a few times, listened to it all the way through, and thought “That’s a great album, but I’m at a loss for what to say about it.” It’s considerably easier to digest a Gang of Four EP or a Regulator Watts LP in one sitting since they’re in more specific genres that I’m familiar with (post-punk and DC post-hardcore, respectively), whereas my experience with glam-rock is limited to big names like Bowie, T. Rex, and Roxy Music / Brian Eno. When I checked out online reviews to see the critical appraisal of Roxy Music, I came across this sassy Robert Christgau review:

From the drag queen on the cover to the fop finery in the centerfold to the polished deformity of the music on the record, this celebrates the kind of artifice that could come to seem as unhealthy as the sheen on a piece of rotten meat. Right now, though, it's decorated with enough weird hooks to earn an A for side one. Side two leans a little too heavily on the synthesizer (played by a balding, long-haired eunuch lookalike named Eno) without the saving grace of drums and bassline. B+

That is some serious burnsauce on Eno, a personal attack that of the kind I got in huge trouble for doing in a live review during my Signal Drench days. (Specific reference: saying that the male bassist of an indie-pop group, Mondo Crescendo, looked like a female Matthew Sweet. The female singer of that band, also the bassist’s girlfriend, did not respond kindly to this aside, and compared my review to the Spanish Inquisition. Was it mean? Sure. Was it true? Yes.) Similar pain for Kari-Ann Muller, the female cover model, who later married Mick Jagger’s brother. I agree with most of the discussion of the aesthetics of the album—its glam sheen is artificial, sure, especially Bryan Ferry’s curious vocal trills, but it’s mesmerizing in its off-kilter way. I prefer Eno left to his own devices, but the synthesizer on side B isn’t distracting. Overall, Roxy Music is more consistent than Stranded, but none of the songs stood out to me as much as “Street Life,” “Mother of Pearl,” or “Song for Europe.” I suspect after a few more listens, “Re-make/Re-model,” “Virginia Plain,” and “The Bob (Medley)” will equal those favorites, but I’ve accepted that my appreciation of Roxy Music will be a very gradual process.

90. Ornette Coleman– The Shape of Jazz to Come LP – Atlantic, 1959 – $6.50

Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come

It’s embarrassing that I’ve gone this long without picking up a copy of The Shape of Jazz to Come, the first jazz album that gave me the sense of “I’ve got it!” that I kept hoping would hit me when I picked up a classic from Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Looking back, it’s strange that this album hit me, since I’m sure that part of its appeal is being able to recognize the jazz conventions that it casts aside, but perhaps the prior emphasis on chord patterns was my stumbling block.

Translating my eureka moment to words is a rather daunting task, so I’ll just mention a few things that still stand out to me. 1. The connection between Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, especially on “Lonely Woman,” is astounding. It’s hard to imagine that Coleman could have pushed jazz in this direction without a partner who could speak his newfound language. 2. The beginning of “Peace,” which is far quieter and harmonious than the two tracks which preceed it, could not embody its title more. 3. Billy Higgins’ drumming is constantly active. When he gets a drum solo at the end of “Focus on Sanity,” it feels overdue. 4. Much is made of the lack of a pianist providing a chord structure, but Charlie Haden’s bass lines are more than enough of a foundation. Between Haden and Higgins, I never feel like Coleman and Cherry are flying completely off the rails. 5. The very idea of unpredictable melodies seems impossible, yet strains from this album are still running through my head. That’ll do for now.

91. Wipers – Land of the Lost LP – Restless, 1986 – $12.50

Wipers' Land of the Lost

I’d never run across a non-reissue Wipers LP before this trip, but I had my choice of a just-in copy of Land of the Lost for $12.50 or a regularly filed copy of Follow Blind for $9.50. I chose Wipers’ fourth album over their fifth for a few reasons—the cover’s a thousand times more interesting (reminding me of Men at Work’s Cargo, an album I pored over as a youth), the music’s closer in style to 1983’s Over the Edge, and Mark Prindle gave it eight out of ten to Follow Blind’s mere six of ten. Two more points! That’s only $1.50 per point.

Typical to mid-80s Wipers, side A is filled with blues-y hard-rockers like the title-track, side B is filled with more slow-simmering fare like “Nothing Left to Lose” and “Different Ways.” I prefer the latter, since there’s a broader spectrum of guitar tones, and Greg Sage’s guitar tones are what hooked me on the Wipers. Prindle’s dead-on about weaknesses of the album—it’s just not as creative, as inspired as its predecessors, and some of it comes across as Wipers-by-numbers. Since that issue intensifies on Follow Blind and Sage’s other late 1980s releases, Land of the Lost may be the second-to-last Wipers LP I buy. (Someday I’ll get Is This Real? and give it a real shot, but I’m not in any rush.) Too much of Sage’s post-Youth of America output chooses to mirror the less interesting half of that record (“Taking Too Long,” “Can This Be,” and “Pushing the Extreme”), rather than the epic guitar explorations of the title track, “When It’s Over,” and “No Fair.” I’m sure there are good songs on The Circle and Silver Sail, but Land of the Lost seems to be the start of the descent.

93. Brian Eno – Music for Films LP – E.G., 1978 – $9.50

Brian Eno's Music for Films

After my overwhelming enjoyment of the recently purchased Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, I was eager to continue filling out my collection of Brian Eno’s ambient releases. I had my choice between Music for Films or two different copies of the Eno/Cluster collaboration Old Land (which, as I learned later, is a compilation of the highlights from their two previous LPs, 1977’s Cluster and Eno and 1978’s After the Heat), but I opted for the former because I knew what I would get. As it turns out, that might not be the best thing.

Music for Films is comprised of eighteen short pieces intended to be the incidental music for imaginary films. Maybe my imagination was lacking today, but few of these songs are particularly evocative. I’d much rather hear some of the shorter instrumentals from Another Green World (“The Big Ship” especially), some of which were included in the original pressing of Music for Films.

93. Gang of Four – Yellow LP – Warner, 1980 – $4.50

Gang of Four's Yellow EP

My Gang of Four collection is telling: there’s the wheat (their first three LPs: the superb Entertainment!, the solid if dry Solid Gold, and the mixed bag Songs of the Free) and the chaff (a needless remix 12” for “I Love a Man in Uniform,” their 1984 live album, At the Palace). Most GO4 sections are filled with the latter, whether it’s their 1983 album Hard, its accompanying single for “Is It Love,” or that ubiquitous “I Love a Man in Uniform” EP. Yellow, a 1980 EP that was included as bonus tracks for the reissue of Entertainment, may very well be the last piece of wheat left out there, unless the Another Day / Another Dollar EP suckers me into buying some live recordings along with its two exclusive songs.

Of Yellow’s four songs, two appear in re-recorded form on Solid Gold, although “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time” fits in with Entertainment!’s razor-wire aesthetic. “He’d Send in the Army” works better with Solid Gold’s comparative heft. The flip side features two older songs, “It’s Her Factory,” a melodica-heavy song that drags a bit, and the ironically chipper “Armalite Rifle,” which ranks as the highlight of the EP. Mixing the old with the new is less enticing nearly 30 years later, but between “Armalite Rifle” and an excellent version of “Outside the Trains Don’t Run on Time,” I got my money’s worth.

I’m still never buying Hard.

94. Regulator Watts– The Aesthetics of No Drag LP – Slowdime/Dischord, 1997 – $4.50

Regulator Watts' The Aesthetics of No Drag

Credit the strength of Kerosene 454’s At Zero for me taking a chance on another peripheral mid-1990s DC group issued on Slowdime/Dischord. I wish I could also credit Hardcore for Nerds’ remarkably thorough exploration of the Hoover family tree for this purchase, but I found it after the fact. It did remind me that: 1. I should really check out Hoover already; 2. I’m familiar with Abilene, another Hoover offshoot; and 3.Hoover bassist Fred Erskine was excellent on the instrument in June of 44 (his vocal turns, however, were less than stellar). Only Hoover singer/guitarist Alex Dunham is present in Regulator Watts, although drummer Areif Dasha Sless-Kitain did a tour of duty in fellow DC post-hardcore merchants Bluetip.

The Aesthetics of No Drag is filled with such trickle-down DC economics; from its stylish Jason Farrell (of Bluetip and Retisonic fame) designed artwork, to Alex Dunham’s occasional vocal proximity to Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto and Girls Against Boys’ Scott McCloud (only on “Pemberton Red,” but it’s a telling rumble), and to the immediately evocative jagged riffs, Regulator Watts is a DC band through and through. The opening track “Mercurochrome” shows absolutely no mercy with its relentless blast of noisy post-hardcore fury, but later songs like “The Ballad of St. Tinnitus” take a more dynamic approach, punctuated of course with strangled guitar lines and shredded vocal cords. The atonal edge of these songs wears on me after a while, but the trickles of melody tide me over. Regulator Watts stress the hardcore half of post-hardcore, whereas I prefer the post-, but there are enough moments of convergence to name The Aesthetics of No Drag a worthy buy.

95. King Kong – Me Hungry LP – Drag City, 1995 – $6.50

King Kong's Me Hungry

King Kong’s a strange, near mythical figure at the fringes of 1990s indie rock, a downright curious Slint offshoot whose descriptions in The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, the All Music Guide, and message boards all emphasize a goofy, childlike approach to music and a stylistic kinship to early B-52s albums, i.e. the exact opposite of Spiderland’s refined atmosphere. I knew I wouldn’t find any of the post-rock featured on more prominent Slint offshoots like The For Carnation and Papa M (hell, drummer Britt Walford plays on the Breeders’ Pod), but curiosity got the best of me. I had to check out what Tweez-era bassist Ethan Buckler left the group to pursue.

Well.

Me Hungry (deep breath) is a concept album/opera about a caveman and a yak confronted with the oncoming ice age, a cave woman, and a sabre-tooth tiger. Amy Greenwood’s likeable female vocals narrate the story, but Ethan Buckler sings all of his lines in character, meaning that you hear a lot of “Me fear the sabre-tooth tiger” sung with a straight-face. The stripped-down rhythm-and-blues backing is strangely austere and downright compelling on the instrumental beginning to “The Crow,” but it mostly serves to move the whole caveman opera along. I’d usually complain that such novelties should be limited to a seven-inch—ideally an etched, single-sided seven-inch—but me require character development and plot, so I’ll let the LP length slide.

For most Homo sapiens, Me Hungry is best viewed as that curious footnote you never get around to referencing, but if you must hear one Slint-related concept album about a caveman and a yak… uh… good luck finding any other options.

The Haul: The Smiths, Brian Eno, New Order, Cocteau Twins and Harold Budd

Mystery Train might be my favorite place to go record shopping. The trip to Gloucester is long enough (about 45 minutes from Somerville) that I can’t justify going very often, but every time I come back with a pile of great music I certainly wouldn’t find in Boston. The just-in bins are overflowing, the records are reasonably priced, and virtually every genre has great finds. Someday I’ll head up to Mystery Train with a Record Store Day budget and stock up on jazz, Cocteau Twins EPs, and contemporary composers, but for now I’ll make the trip every few months—it had been at least six since my last trip—spend a few hours there, and go through a painful process of elimination.

The key to Mystery Train is exploring all of the additional, unpriced stock under the bins and off to the side (and going on a day when the owner’s available to price them for you). Here’s the simple logic: certain things that were overwhelmingly stocked in 1988 are now much harder to track down. I remember one particular trip when I “hid” a number of understock finds (The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, Morrissey’s Viva Hate, Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, American Music Club’s California among others) because no one was able to price them for me, and thankfully my cache was still in its hiding place during my next visit. This trip’s understock find was The Moon and the Melodies, but I didn’t have as much time to explore as usual.

68. The Smiths – Hatful of Hollow – Rough Trade, 1984 – $12.50

The Smiths' Hatful of Hollow

Virtually every record store has a plastic divider for the Smiths, but it’s becoming increasingly rare when anything actually occupies the slot. Judging by the reasonable prices on eBay, it’s not because the primary Smiths LPs are particularly scarce. There are plenty of singles, limited pressings, hard-to-find EPs, live bootlegs, and import editions to hunt down, but if you’re just interested in The Smiths, Meat Is Murder, The Queen Is Dead, Strangeways Here We Come, and Hatful of Hollow, you should be able to get them for around $10 apiece or cheaper if you can find a combination lot. Good luck finding any of those in a metropolitan store, however, unless there’s a pricey reissue in stock. The reason for this absence is that the Smiths are the vanguard artist for the 1980s division of the vinyl revival, much like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the standard-bearer for 1990s indie vinyl nostalgia. Striking artwork, an ever-expanding cult audience, a comparatively limited catalog free of extended club mixes (cough, The Cure)—all of these help create an immediate, broad demand for the titles. “Oh, there’s a copy of The Smiths! Grab it!” The difference, of course, is that Aeroplane is still in print, which let it hit #6 on the top vinyl sellers for 2008. (Somehow, In Your Ear in Cambridge still has the gall to charge $25 for a used copy!) I’d previously mentioned the limited edition run of reissue Smiths singles, but they’d be wise to do entry-level priced copies of those major LPs and cash in huge. Forget these $18 picture discs and $27 colored vinyl editions; do $12 single LP pressings in 120 gram vinyl, and then switch to indulgent, 3LP collector’s editions a year later. (Edit: I see that Vinyl Collective is taking pre-orders for reissues of the Smiths' four full-lengths, with 2008 remasters courtesy of Johnny Marr, but at $24.49 they're twice what I'd recommend charging.)

It’s not like the Smiths are above cashing in. Hatful of Hollow was the first in a series of compilation releases to combine singles, b-sides, and alternate takes of their songs, catering to their fans’ desire for the original BBC Radio 1 recordings of early songs. I personally started out with the Smiths’ studio releases, but like Floodwatchmusic has discussed, such compilation releases may paint a more accurate picture of the group’s successes. I’m up in the air about my preferences, but the recordings of “Hand in Glove” and “What Difference Does It Make?” are more immediate here than on their self-titled LP and in total, six versions (and one completely exclusive song) aren’t available elsewhere. That’s not nearly as bad as the “Here’s our greatest hits compilation with one completely new song!” trick that so many bands pull. I’m not enough of a Smiths devotee for such a ruse to work on me, but if I come across Louder Than Bombs or Rank, you can guess what’s going to happen. I just know that it’s far more likely to happen in Lowell, Salem, or Gloucester than in Boston proper.

69. Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno – Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks –E.G., 1983 – $6.50

Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks

I recently attended a special performance of the Boston Pops for MIT’s Giant Leaps, a symposium on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. The performance of four-sevenths of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” featured narration from Buzz Aldrin and a series of short films for the respective planets. (Only Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Uranus were performed.) Aside from a brief introduction relating his experience journeying to the moon, Aldrin’s narration was penned by a college professor, with the flowery language fitting the occasion but not the speaker. As a culmination of the symposium, the event made sense, especially the post-intermission set list of sci-fi theme music (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, Star Wars), but even with one of the first men to step foot on the moon helming the show, it felt strangely routine.

There are, of course, different ways to honor and represent the event, and my musical proclivities align more closely with Brian Eno’s 1983 Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks LP. I debated whether to buy it, already owning four of Eno’s ambient LPs, but Apollo’s specific focus makes for a truly inspired listen, perhaps even more so than Eno’s ambient series. Originally recorded for use in Al Reinart’s For All Mankind documentary (eventually released in 1989, now available from the Criterion Collection), Apollo hardly requires a visual accompaniment to evoke mental images of space travel. Eno’s liner notes explain how “the television coverage left me unsatisfied… the fear of boring the public had led the editors and commentators to present the transmissions from space in an up tempo, ‘newsy’ manner that was unsympathetic.” Ultimately this “[obscured] the grandeur and strangeness of the event.” In line with that thinking, these twelve songs drift between wonder, somber perspective, eerie chills, and the overwhelming quiet that Aldrin mentioned during his introduction. The centerpiece is “An Ending (Ascent),” a calm suite of echoing beauty. I’m interested in seeing For All Mankind, but Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks is a marvelous piece on its own accord.

70. New Order – Ceremony LP – Factory, 1981 – $6.50

New Order's Ceremony / In a Lonely Place

I always check the Joy Division and New Order slots in record stores, even though they’re usually filled with copies of the latter’s mid to late ’80s singles. (Yawn.) Finding the 12” for “Ceremony”—the original pressing, as it turns out—was a treat, like when I’d picked up the original Factory issue of Joy Division’s Closer from Record Exchange for eight bucks. The version of the single even matters, surprisingly enough, beyond its higher value. The first pressing of “Ceremony” features different performances than the second pressing or Substance, since Gillian Gilbert is present on the re-recordings (among other changes specified in the Wikipedia entry). It’s essentially a difference between sounding more like Closer on the original pressing and sounding slightly more like New Order’s Movement on the second. Not a huge difference, it’s an interesting evolution from Joy Division without Ian Curtis to New Order as its own entity, key since Ian Curtis penned both songs.

“Ceremony” is floating around in a few frustrating, if tantalizing forms with Curtis on vocals, including a live version from Joy Division’s final concert on Still and a salvaged rehearsal recording on the 4CD Heart and Soul box set. Blasphemy, perhaps, to prefer the New Order version over these rough Joy Division sketches, but having Curtis write his own eulogy is too perfect, too affecting to ignore.

71. Cocteau Twins and Harold Budd – The Moon and the Melodies LP – 4AD, 1986 – $6.50

Cocteau Twins and Harold Budd's The Moon and the Melodies

I’d initially pulled a copy of Harold Budd’s Lovely Thunder from the just-in stacks, recalling his collaboration with Brian Eno on Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, perhaps my favorite of Eno’s ambient series. I’d checked Amazon reviews to confirm that it was worth hearing and found out that “Flowered Knife Shadows” had appeared in a slightly different form as “Memory Gongs” on Budd’s collaboration with the members of the Cocteau Twins, The Moon and the Melodies. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to find that album?” as I milled about the unpriced stock around the edges of the store, only to find a copy of The Moon and the Melodies just before leaving. Sorry Lovely Thunder, you’ll have to wait for another visit.

I credited Cocteau Twins for this album instead of the members’ names out of sheer laziness, but their biography mentions that they went to great lengths not to credit their band name, since they didn’t want The Moon and the Melodies to be misconstrued as a proper Cocteau Twins album. Yet the Cocteaus were dead-on when they mentioned in a 1989 Sound on Sound interview that “it turned out more like four songs that sounded like us and four songs that sounded like him.” For those keeping track, “Sea, Swallow Me,” “Eyes Are Mosaics,” “She Will Destroy You,” and “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” sound like Cocteau Twins, “Memory Gongs,” “Why Do You Love Me,” “The Ghost Has No Home,” and “Bloody and Blunt” sound like Harold Budd. “Bloody and Blunt” and “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” do the best job of merging their respective strengths, but with Liz Fraser only singing on the four “Cocteau Twins” songs, there’s only so much bridging that can occur. I’m not deriding this stylistic split, since drifting between the approaches adds to the half-asleep atmosphere, but Budd’s collaboration with Eno seems like a more natural combination of aesthetics.