Reviews of new releases from Bill Nelson, Cowboy Junkies, A Winged Victory For The Sullen: three of my favorite 2011 recordings.
BILL NELSON Fantasmatron
Be Bop Deluxe founder Bill Nelson brings fresh potency to the term “prolific.” Since disbanding Be Bop in 1978, he’s recorded and released close to 85 (yes, eighty five) solo albums, nearly all on his own labels. Most are instrumental works completed in his home studio in England; every year or two he surfaces with a vocal “rock” album like Fantasmatron. It’s a finely-wrought artrock workout, full of the elements that have distinguished Nelson’s music over four decades: passion, melody, whimsy…and a certain undefinable quality that can only be described as, well, Bill Nelson.
Nelson’s obsession with retro-futurism is a constant, in both his lyrics and album design; the man still appreciates fins on his cars, rockets in his lyrics, and art deco in his ideal home. Appreciating this sort of thing requires some suspension of cynicism; it helps to remember that Nelson’s not some thrift-store hipster in white-frame sunglasses and an ironic t-shirt. At 63 years old, he’s been loving, living and playing this stuff for a long time.
It also helps if you’re okay with tasteful reliance on human[e]ly-programmed rhythm machines and a vocal delivery that can, to the uninitiated, border on the Bowie-esque. Bill’s left behind a lot of the overtly rockist tendencies (sorry, I was channeling Robert Christgau there; won’t happen again) and glam sensibility that distinguished some of Be Bop Deluxe’s output. There’s still a significant array of artrock and progressive tendencies at work here, but Fantasmatron is quality electronic music delivered with gusto, intelligence, chops, humor and intensity.
Any hack lauding Nelson’s pursuits would be laughably remiss if he or she didn’t center their screed around Bill’s mastery of the electric guitar. Fantasmatron is a great showcase for this talent; most of the audio samples below highlight the album’s solos. The man can do things with an Ebow that make lesser guitar mortals kneel, and when he steps out for a characteristically ripping solo excursion, he takes you on the trip with him, whether you’re willing or not. And, naturally, getting the most out of Bill Nelson’s guitar playing requires as much volume on your end as can be mustered, so prepare appropriately.
Sonically, this album was recorded and mastered on the bass-heavy side. There’s not a lot of tonal balance here, and/but the album benefits from it. Bill uses a lot of reverb, echo, flange and phase, and likes to spice his music with lots of audio filigree, mixed-meteaphorically speaking. The resulting mix can be very dense. Headphones help, but they can also be a tad claustrophobic with music this layered and bass-y. When aired on a good system at healthy volume levels, the overall impression is that this is a many-layered and lushly-produced affair.
The first song that makes me sit up in my seat and spin the volume knob clockwise is “The Captain’s In The Wheelhouse (Fabled Quixote)”: instantly memorable verses with lyrics that come across as both quaint and modern, delivered with Nelson’s trademark croon:
…swapping space with some of his best guitarwork in years:
(and no, that’s not a CB radio coming in over your expensive speaker cables during the coda, trust me).
Next up, the title track: this used to be called “electronica,” a term that has become about as useful as “ambient”. It’s almost as if Bill applies the steampunk aesthetic to his music; current audio technology is used to give the track a nostalgic feel– if you’re nostalgic for late-90s electronic experimental pop, that is. C’mon, let’s see those hands!
“Slinky Incantations” continues in the euphor-o-pop vein of “Captain’s in the Wheelhouse.” Layered, orchestral synth arrangements are dotted with sustained chords and topped with…a flute solo? (we agree to not hold this flute solo against Bill. We pretend it’s merely a spectre of “Suppers Ready”-era Peter Gabriel reminding us that the instrument can be of use when applied with tasteful restraint– occasionally).
“Lights Shine When We Dream” is a meandering fantasy piece that seems best taken as bookends to another exceedingly lovely Ebow excursion:
Airier and catchier than most of the songs here, “A Reliable Bicycle and a Map of the Heart (Trip Two)” leads with a seductive intro of collaged sounds before proceeding through an equally sweet and alluring verse where Bill waxes poetic about pedaling and its metaphoric (and otherwise) romantic possibilities. If radio didn’t suck– and yeah, radio really sucks– and there was justice in this world, the song would be played in heavy rotation and we’d all be better for it. So there.
Why did Bill hide the two catchiest songs towards the end of the CD? “My Wild Atomic Wedding Day” continues in the same infectious realm as “Reliable Bicycle.” What we have here is a compulsively propulsive arrangement, all chattering rhythm machines triggering syncopated synths, crisscrossed by playful guitar lines and summed up with a bridge that’s catchier than the chorus. And some of the most intensely tuneful guitar solos on the album happen here. The whole effect is dizzying and more than a little Todd Rundgrenlike (more about that guy in a future PS Tracks piece, mark my words) in tone. Oh, and Bill murmurs “weirder than you thought” throughout the song. One might muse that this is a feature, not a bug.
The album ends with “Art Is Long and Time Is Fleeting,” featuring the sort of found vocals that characterize most of Nelson’s instrumental work, and especially recalling the Trial By Intimacy box set (1984) period.
This is music that’s both singularly odd– “weirder than you thought,” indeed; who else would make an album like this?– and immediately accessible. You could do worse than send Mr. Nelson your hard-earned cash for this CD. He’s had some bad luck with labels and managers over the years, and we need to reward him for his clear, romantic vision and tenacious will to entertain us.
You can buy the CD here:
I’d love a decently-pressed LP of Fantasmatron, or, failing that, 24/96 FLACs, but at this time these dreams seemingly aren’t meant to be.
With 85 or so other releases to pursue, delving more deeply into Bill Nelson’s catalog may have to wait, for now. Here’s a couple more favorite tracks:
1982′s The Love That Whirls (Diary of a Thinking Heart) contained a song called “He And Sleep Were Brothers” that needs to be recapped in all its flanged autoharp glory, especially the beautifully druggy sax solo by Bill’s brother, Ian, and an equally disorienting Eastern-flavored closing section.
And what review of Mr. Nelson’s output could claim to ever be complete with a rhetorical bow to the most tearjerking-est guitar solo ever– and I do mean EVER– to be played, natch, at volume levels that might cause your speakers’ very hardwoods to weep in commiseration?
Yes, the from 1976′s Sunburst Finish, the Be Bop Deluxe classic “Crying To The Sky”:
and now…with more Mellotron!
COWBOY JUNKIES Sing In My Meadow
“The past two weeks I’ve been going in everyday and blasting my face with overdriven everything, trying to come up with a sound that is rude and ugly, but at the same time, is just plain fun to listen to. I’d send the days mixes off to Pete, Marg and Al every night and they’d get back to me with their comments and I’d adjust and tinker and tweak and try and see if I could get it all just a little bit louder, a little bit nastier, a little bit more gnarled and grouchy and crotchety in keeping with our age and temperaments[...]I want to make this the album that you put on when you’re trying to clear your living space of partygoers that have overstayed their welcome and you find your new BFF when that one person says, “hey, this is pretty cool….what is this?”.
I can’t come up with a better description of Cowboy Junkies’ Sing In My Meadow‘s aggressive, grungy simplicity, so I borrowed that paragraph from Michael Timmins’ blog to give you some sense of what you’re in for once you dare invest in this album.
If your experience with Cowboy Junkies is dominated by The Trinity Sessions, prepare to be surprised. Meadow isn’t some gentle Americana classic meticulously recorded in a church. Its tracks seem more often than not borne of late-night jamming, the lyrics sometimes tossed-off in afterthought, and the production is quick and dirty in the truest sense of the phrase. The three Timmins siblings and bassist Alan Anton have come up with an album that will make you rethink what you think you know about Cowboy Junkies.
From a hi-fi standpoint, owners of 2.1 systems may well delight in this album, if only to shake unsuspecting listeners from their seats. The bass and drums on most of “Sing” have a visceral, almost seismic effect.
The album lurches to a start with “Continental Drift.” Everything seems to be preamped to eleven; even the harmonica is distorted. Michael Timmins’ guitar crackles like a bonfire built by a white person, and Alan Anton’s bass and Peter Timmins’ drums do simply infernal things while setting up a base for Margo Timmins to drawl and snarl upon.
“It’s Heavy Down Here” is only two chords– but they’re REALLY great chords. The song lumbers languidly with Alan Anton’s detuned (I think) bass taking the song into some mighty depths. “Heavy” is a chorus in search of a verse, but hey, that just gives Margo more chances to find different ways to try to sound spooky while she sings the title.
“3rd Crusade”, is maybe about as funky as Caucasians can get. It’s also one of the only commercial songs here, and it might actually get played on the radio if such songs got played on the radio (and, uh, yeah, if Margo didn’t say “shit” in the first verse).
A fuzzed, tremelo’d guitar line jangles through the introduction of “Late Night Radio”. This one’s pretty accessible, too; Margo’s voice is purdy as ever and there’s hooks and riffs and, of course, a sweetly nasty guitar solo. One reservation: It’s difficult to pretend the lyrics aren’t as cheesy as they are; the “come away with me” line at the end of the chorus seems like something Donald Fagen might sing with a sneer, just to see if you’re paying attention.
One of the more mainstream tracks, the title song is a sultry, rocking, bluesy harmonica/dobro workout that’s not going to disappoint fans.
If you loved the opener, “Continental Drift,” you’ll like “Hunted”. Some sassy vocal stylings from Margo top off Michael’s fuzzed wah-wah workouts while the rhythm section once again bounces off the walls.
Let’s say the reader’s tastes run more towards the brooding, bitter end of the spectrum, and you still like your music feedbacky and (there’s that word again) distorted. “A Bride’s Place” may be your particular cup of strong tea:
For those who prefer mushrooms as opposed to tea leaves at the bottom of their cup, and whose life is consumed by a neverending search for frenzied psychedlic raveups a la Yo La Tengo’s lengthier live epics, you can’t beat the closer, “I Move On.”
Sing In My Meadow is one of those albums that sounds better and better as it gets louder and louder. And if you’re inclined to sample demon alcohol while you listen, this one may develop into one of your best drinking buddies. It’s just that good.
CD, LP and digital files are available from:
(I suggest that anyone ordering the vinyl ask this fine company to please use stiff cardboard squares as packing material– there but for the grace of the merciful Canadian and US postal services did my $30 LP show up unwarped/in one piece. It was packed loosely into a 1″ thick cardboard mailer with nothing but an insubstantial layer of bubble wrap stuffed around it).
A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN (self-titled)
Stars of the Lid member Adam Wiltzie collaborated with composer Dustin O’Halloran for this debut on the Kranky label. It’s an all-instrumental album that’ll interest folks into Harold Budd, Nooten/Brook and This Mortal Coil’s more restrained/acoustic mood pieces. Fans of Stars of the Lid’s woozy drone aren’t going to run screaming from this one, either.
Unlike the Cowboy Junkies and Bill Nelson albums, this one’s a quiet, contemplative, neo-classical work. It’s a perfect late-night wind-down and its understated beauty sounds especially wonderful when paired with an elderly cabernet (I’ve field-tested this, yes).
From the press materials:
“The duo agreed to leave their normal home studio comfort zone and develop the recordings with the help of large acoustic spaces, and to hunt down a selection of 9ft grand pianos that had the ability to deliver extreme sonic low end. Other traditional instrumentation was used including string quartet, French horn, and bassoon, but always juxtaposed is the sound of drifting guitar washed melodies. The recordings began in one late night session in the famed Grunewald Church in west Berlin on a 1950s imperial Boesendorfer piano and strings were added in the historic East Berlin DDR radio studios along the River Spree. One last final session in a private studio deep in the norther cusp of Italy on a handmade Fazioli piano, and the final mixes took place in a 17th century villa near Ferrara, Italy, with the assistance of FRANCESCO DONADELLO. All songs were processed completely analogue straight to magnetic tape.”
As an appropriate farewell to 2011 and hello to 2012, let’s talk about the opening track, “We Played Some Open Chords And Rejoiced, For The Earth Had Circled The Sun Yet Another Year.” This is a gorgeous, somewhat morose piano piece that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
“Requiem For The Static King” parts one and two connote the moody ambience of 4AD’s Pieter Nooten/Michael Brook classic “Sleeps With the Fishes.” I’m assuming that the slow, overlapping washes and pads are treated guitars. These pieces are in memory of Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous.
AWVFTS’s minimalist chamber melancholia continues with “Minuet For A Cheap Piano Number Two.” Some swelling bass notes set the foundation beneath winsome piano notes.
My favorite piece is next, another 4AD-ish tone poem that recalls the vibe of side two of Eno’s “Discreet Music.” And you can’t beat the title with a mortar and pestle: “Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears”.
“A Symphony Pathetique” is another moving, subtly impassioned piece that seems to breathe and expand as it plays out. And clocking in at nearly 13 minutes, it has lots of room to expand.
There’s something about the muted elegance of this album that, perversely, conveys a sense of exhilaration. A good example is “All Farewells Are Sudden,” the closer.
A Winged Victory For The Sullen’s album is available on CD and LP directly from Kranky Records:
Best I can tell there aren’t high-resolution downloads available.
In closing…if I may cheerlead for a bit: please support independent music and buy these albums, especially directly from the bands/labels. Amazon is all well and good for some things, but the artists and labels make more money when you buy from the source.
Thank you for reading (and listening!). Here’s to a meaningful, productive, and, above all, healthy and peaceful 2012.