The Dream Syndicate – Days Of Wine And Roses (1982)

The Dream Syndicate were a California band but their most obvious influences were New York bands from two different generations – The Velvet Underground and Television. Lyrically they have a very different bent – less intellectual than Reed, less poetic than Television king-pin Tom Verlaine. But the near deadpan vocal delivery is instantly familiar, as is the minimalist approach of the rhythm section. And whilst they developed a potent guitar attack they did that in a rather different way than Television’s twin guitar attack of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.

Indeed the most interesting thing for me about this album is Karl Precoda’s electric guitar work. Sometimes he seems concerned with sheer noise – by which I mean that pitch is not his primary concern . Often he plays with a lot of overdrive and the guitar seemingly on the edge of feedback – or just plain going over that edge. All of which may not sound very attractive as written words, but on the record he makes a truly marvellous noise.

Precoda really gets going mid-album. “When You Smile” has delicious squalls of feedback alongside Steve Wynn’s more conventional rhythm guitar before he essays a solo (actually soloS as he overdubs an additional part) that is short on notes per second but long on muscular authority. “Halloween” (his one composition on this record) has a distorted riff that recalls Neil Young and Crazy Horse – but with more attitude. “Then She Remembers” is a punk thrash with Precoda choking the guitar into submission. He unleashes unusual tonalities and controlled (maybe) feedback on “Until Lately”, the guitar’s wildness rising with Wynn’s vocal.

The band, like so many before and since, initially made their name as a live act and were expected to do well with a record deal. Maybe they were in the right place at the wrong time. They got an album in the stores just as MTV was making it’s presence felt. They were altogether too jarring and edgy for a market turning to AOR stadium rock. Their post-Velvet’s, post-Television sound was, in that era, never likely to be more than an underground proposition and Precoda was one of the casualties of the band’s passage through the music business meat grinder, leaving after a couple of years (the band as a unit didn’t survive into the 90s).

But there’s still time for those of us who missed out in real time to catch up now – and The Dream Syndicate are well worth the time effort and not very large outlay (I buy mostly from iTunes these days). The band have their influences and don’t hide that, but they manage to build on those influences and still come up with something that is rewarding and inventive in it’s own right, they generate genuine energy and drama, and Precoda is a distinctive and potent guitar stylist (or was, he seems to have quit the music business for good after parting ways with The Dream Syndicate).

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Various – Songs For Desert Refugees (2012)

There’s a whole lot of guitar playing going on in the Sahara.

This album was released in 2012 as a charity fund raiser for NGOs assisting the displaced Tuareg people whose natural homeland straddles Algeria, Mali and Niger. It also serves as a handy sampler for those who wish to explore the so-called “Desert Blues” genre.

The opening track is by Tinariwen, the best known of the guitar-based Tuareg bands. It’s previously unreleased, like all the tracks on this album, and they get close to psychedelia with spacey guitar effects and even some backwards recording. The treatment is unusual, but the heartbeat of the song is reassuringly Tinariwenesque.

The language of the Tuareg people is Tamashek. The literal translation of the Tamashek word for the genre of music of which Tinariwen are the best known (in the West) exponents is “Guitar”. And the guitar is very much the point of most of the tracks on this disc. Tamikrest are second up and like so many of these “Guitar” acts they tap into something old and into something far older. I heard that gritty, ringing and (I’ll say it) electric guitar sound and I thought “Rock ‘n Roll once sounded like this.” Then later in the song the percussion and the vocals fall away and the drone (a not uncommon device in “Guitar”) underlying the guitar riff becomes more apparent and I thought “Rock ‘n Roll never sounded like this.” For all most of these players grew up listening to Hendrix, Knopfler and Vaughan they also have one foot in a much older musical world.

The Ibrahim Djo Experience serve up a potent, slide-guitar powered track titled (unsurprisingly once you hear it) “Blues du Desert”. Amanar and Tadalat similarly serve up tasty guitar offerings. But for all the emphasis on guitar not many of these guys are positioning themselves as serious guitar heroes. The exception is Bombino. This CD was my introduction to his music and I was struck by the scope of his solo on the live track “Tigrawahi Tikma” that he offers here. I was listening to the CD in my car and he started soloing as I hit the freeway in Sandton. Round about Wits University two things struck me: The solo was still going on (the track is just over thirteen minutes) and I wasn’t getting irritated or bored by it. It’s a terrific piece of playing with great impetus and dynamics.

The closing track is the odd man out here. The band is Tartit, and the track, like most here, has one foot in the now and one in the way-back-when, but the “now” is trancey ambience, and the primitive aspect sounds more like a tribal dance around a fire. It’s perhaps the one false note here as the piece doesn’t develop much. That said it’s quite possible that I’m an old fart who doesn’t understand trance and club music and it may be a very different proposition in the right space (and head space). It does strike me as the sort of thing that might get more interesting if it goes on long enough – here it gets faded around the five minute mark. Too long or not long enough?

If you are curious about the rock music that has bloomed in the unlikely environment of the Sahara, of if you’ve head the better known Tinariwen or Bombino and want to explore further then this disc will serve you well.

Mike Heron – Smiling Men With Bad Reputations (1971)

This album delighted me the first time I heard it, and it’s never failed me since.

Heron was one half of the classic Incredible String Band lineup. By 1971 the ISB, who peaked early, were starting to run out of puff and Heron had a stock pile of tunes that weren’t well fitted to or for other reasons not getting onto the ISB’s albums. Heron came from a pop background (though the ISB had more esoteric leanings and foundations) so maybe he just had a rock itch to scratch.

No matter the reason he decided to cut a solo album that went down roads the ISB were never going to explore. He and producer Joe Boyd took their time recording it and invited in a bewildering array of musicians so that each track would get exactly what it required. This can’t have come cheap, and the album (without much promotion or a supporting tour) sunk like the proverbial in it’s time. As an aside this seems to be not an uncommon scenario for albums that Boyd was involved with (though the ISB actually did sell well in real time): Great ideas, fine musicianship, original, clever, disappears without a trace and then 20 to 30 years later everybody suddenly realises it was a masterpiece.

Anyway, in my real time I ordered this disc from the late, lamented Canned Applause record shop a few years ago. One afternoon I got a call to tell me my order had arrived. I stopped off at Canned Applause to pick up my CDs, ripped the cellophane off this one on the way back to my car, shoved the CD in the player and was in love before the first track had finished (indeed before I’d got out of the parking bay). About 15 seconds in the intro to the opening “Call Me Diamond” gets a joyous splash of South African township horns courtesy of Dudu Pukwana. It’s downright infectious and bought an instant grin to my face.

Pukwana’s horn arrangement and own solos are well matched to a sort of up tempo soul groove with Heron sounding more like Steve Winwood than the ISB. The rhythm section on this track are Boyd go-to players Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and Mike Kowalski and they do a very fine job indeed with Nicol throwing the occasional Kwela lick into the mix (Pukwana had been teaching him).

That’s the first number, and Boyd and Heron never use a trick twice on this album. The next track, the gorgeous “Flowers of the Forest” (with a marvellous guitar part by some bloke named Thompson) is folkier, softer and has a completely different supporting cast (including, according to the liner notes, Winwood himself though I’ve never actually been able to hear him).

Heron, who played everything bar the kitchen sink on ISB records (and maybe I should double check the liner notes in case he DID put down a sink overdub) confines himself to vocals and occasional acoustic guitar and gets in specialists for every track. So we get a marvellous Indian-tinged orchestral arrangement (and no rock band) on “Brindaban”, Indian folk instrumentation on “Spirit Beautiful” (with clever call and response vocal arrangement) and half of the Who (Townsend and Moon) on the enjoyably hard rocking “Warm Heart Pastry”.

And despite the disparate nature of the individual tracks it all hangs together as a very satisfying whole. Heron’s voice and personality shine through throughout and serve as the common element and every song is interesting. And it’s well sequenced, it flows well from one track to another. The only sour note  is the inclusion of two bonus tracks originally left off of the album. This is a common practice when re-releasing old albums, and whilst I understand the reasons for doing it, it often spoils the flow of a well thought out album that builds and then concludes in a satisfying way. If they put 30 seconds of emptiness between the original ending (the introspective solo acoustic “No Turning Back”) and the first bonus track then it might give some time for the experience to sink in, but too often they’re disruptive (even if they do have Elton John and Jimmy Page playing on them).

The “sixties” (as a musical era, not a chronological decade) were marked by a happy eclecticism and a sense of musical adventure. This album is every bit as good an example of that sixties spirit as anything the Beatles (or the Incredible String Band) did.

Be nice to your fellow commuters.

The law is in action on the Gautrain this morning, telling people listening to music to keep the volume down.

It is a shared space, and some consideration and some rules go a long way. So I don’t have a problem with the rule or it’s enforcement.

I’m not sure that the problem in most case IS lack of consideration. No. It’s equipment. All the people I saw being asked to turn it down had ear buds plugged into their phones. It’s not like they’re carrying a ghetto blaster on to the train. But ear buds are not all equal. Some of them don’t seal that well, and the sound you’re trying to keep to yourself leaks out. And if it can leak out then other noise is going to leak in. So you crank that sucker up a bit louder. And more sound leaks out.

The buds that came with your phone almost certainly don’t sound that great and have a leakage problem. An upgrade will get you better sound (more detail,  less distortion) and bother your fellow commuters (and the Gautrain police) less.

Understand that ear buds don’t HAVE to leak (yours truly did not have his commute time listening interuppted by the long arm of the law, and not just because I was listening to Mike Heron), nor do over-ear headphones, and that on-ear ‘phones almost certainly will.

Then read some reviews. Good reviews will deal not only with things like bass and balance but also with leakage – in both directions.

When I knew I was going to be using public transport I did some window shopping at Sandton City, wrote down the model numbers and prices, then did some googling (having first eliminated all models with holes drilled in the casings, because duh!). Quickly I zoned in on the Sennheisers I was wearing this morning. Doing it this way meant that I was checking out the data for kit I could actually buy. And I could look at insulation as well as sound quality, the eventual upshot of which seems to be that I can listen to a Mike Heron album that has The Who guesting on it and not bother the security person who sat down next to me.

Hint: many earbuds come with several sets of rubber end pieces. Don’t just accept the factory default – try them out to see which offer the best insulation.

Tinariwen – Aman Iman (2007)

Tinariwen are the real deal.

They learned their craft and coalesced into a fuzzily defined band (perhaps “collective” would be a better word) in the midst of Tuareg communities forced into exile and refugee camps by civil wars in the 1960s. Several of them foot slogged it all the way to Libya to serve in Gaddafi’s Saharan regiment. A four year old Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, whose guitar and songs are now central to the band, witnessed his own father being gunned down during the rebellion of 1963. They started working a a unit in 1979 and gigged around the Mali/Niger/Algeria triangle for years before being “discovered” at a festival in Bamako in 1998. In between armed campaigns and displacements they built a rough recording studio and distributed their music by recording for free for anybody who arrived with a cassette (this is a pre-CD means of storing music). This is street cred and non-metaphorical rebellion well beyond most rock and rollers.

Tinariwen are perhaps the most notable example of the “desert blues” genre, though a lot of their influences are more recent. And also much older as their music gives nods to the ancient Tuareg folk music as much as to Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana and Bob Marley.

They make some of the most vital, most potent, most… let’s say it… ELECTRIC guitar-based music available at present. It’s rock, yes, but with a distinct flavour. Like many of the bands from that part of the world (they are not THE SCENE, just part of it), and like Bombino (who I reviewed a few months ago), they eschew the usual rock drum kit for hand claps and dumbeks, and they use clever accenting to create subtly shifting rhythms. They often play in 3:4 or 6:8 rather than in common time. They sing in the Tamashek language of the Tuareg people.

The guitars are sharp, gritty and very authoritative. Ag Alhabib lays down a muscular wah-wah line on “Assouf”, and his guitar repeatedly bursts out of the gate between the verses of the opening “Clear Achel”.

The latter is the first Tinariwen song I ever heard. It was played by Joe Boyd during one of his Lucky 13 podcasts. It was one of the most immediately striking things I had heard in years and it set me on a pre-iTunes (in my little world) treasure hunt repeatedly foiled by licensing arrangements that meant that discs available in, say, Britain could not be delivered to South Africa where somebody else held the distribution rights but wasn’t distributing. Eventually I found Aman Iman (it means “Water is Life”) and Amassakoul at Look And Listen in Hyde Park, one of the few CD stores in Johannesburg with well stocked world music shelves.

I wasn’t disappointed (and I’m still not). I was struck by the way the guitars in the so-called “desert blues” often steered clear of the blues cliches that are so pervasive in Western rock music. I was struck by the way the guitar line would often have the effect of creating another vocal line – a device that Martin Carthy often uses. I was struck by the insistent rhythms, the pulsing bass lines and the frequent, mesmerising use of drones. (the intro to Matadjem Yinmixan is a particulary fine example). The drones are one of the more ancient ingredients in their musical stew – ululations and call and response vocals are others. I was struck by the way they could sound like they were simultaneously plugged into an electric grid and into something very ancient (the drones help a lot here – John Lee Hooker did something similar).

That’s a whole lot of being struck. But what struck me most was the energy, the spark, the uncontrived edge of the music.

Tinariwen are quite simply one of the most exciting guitar bands on the planet, and this record is probably the best introduction to them and to the music scene they emerged from.

Joan Armatrading – Into The Blues (2007)

Early on in Joan Armatrading’s career there were little hints that maybe she had more facility on the guitar than she was letting on. There was that acoustic guitar intro to “Join The Band” on her famous third album for example. But there was always a guitar player on the record and on the road – notably Jerry Donohue on her breakthrough record.

Several things happened as she sought to update her sound throughout the 80s: She moved away from the folk-rock, singer-songwriter format; electronic keyboards became more prominent; her sales dropped and she started to take on more of the guitar chores. I recall seeing her in Swaziland in 1990. For most of the show she either didn’t play guitar at all or stuck to simple strummed acoustic parts. Then for the encores she strapped on a red strat and showed that her guitar chops were far more substantial than anything else in the show had suggested.

If any doubts linger, this 2007 album will settle the matter. She plays everything except the drums, there’s a lot of electric guitar and she’s some way beyond competent.

But enough of this. Let’s get over the revelation – not that big a one really – that she knows which end of a guitar is which and consider why else this album might be of interest.

I would bet (indeed I know) that I am not the only person in the known universe who fell under the spell of her eponymous third album back in the 70s and thought it had all been a bit of a bumpy ride since then. That third album was very good, very consistent with hardly anything out of place – songs, performance, studio players , production all magically came together on one record at one time. The next album sold respectably but was not as near perfect, and the one after that seemed very much like the flogging of a horse until it died. Then she went all pop in the late 70s and early 80s and a greatest hits album from that era would prove that there was still the occasional interesting song with a strong performance (like the bizarre but interesting “I Love It When You Call Me Names”) but also that something got lost somewhere.

It was easy to conclude that she and/or her management had erred in straying too far from the folk-rock, singer-songwriter sound that worked so brilliantly on the Joan Armatrading album. But Into The Blues  makes the case that it’s not the SOUND that was the issue.

This album has two things going for it – OK three if you want to count the guitar playing – and none of them are a return to the sound that she had in the early 70s.

One of them is the consistency of the material.  It’s not really blues throughout – more informed by the blues than an exact reproduction. The songs are pretty contemporary. “Liza” even gets close to hip-hop in it’s middle section. The songs are also minimalist at times – most notably on “Deep Down” which must be the least wordy song she’s written and which, if I’m hearing things correctly, has just one chord to it. “There Ain’t A Girl Alive” is an unabashed stomping rocker – which is not routine territory for her but it works well and presses all the right buttons.

And this is the real return to form: Her strengths, one now sees with 20:20 hindsight, were not a soft rock sound but directness and sincerity that stay just the right side of being overly earnest. And this is what we get loads of here. No clever gimmicks, no trying too hard for a hit, and a focus on her strengths in the songwriting and in the delivery. This includes her vocals which, like everything else about her, are at their best when they’re kept strong and devoid of frills.

She’ll probably never have a hit record again and is now playing to the faithful. That doesn’t make her a spent force.

Loudon Wainwright III – Here Come The Choppers (2005), Career Moves (1993), Recovery (2008)

Wainwright is a uniquely compelling songwriter and an under-regarded singer. Over long career (his first album was released in 1970) he’s not had much in the way of mainstream success but has kept on producing new material and touring – usually as a solo act. I’d been hearing his name for years before I finally got around to taking a listen.

Here Come The Choppers was the first Wainwright album I heard. It’s perhaps not typical in as much as there’s a band (a very good band) on every track and they get some space to stretch out. They’re worth listing by name – Jim Keltner, David Pilch, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. That’s some band. They’re particularly impressive on the opening “My Biggest Fan” and on the surreal title track which relocates a US helicopter attack in down town Los Angeles.

Wainwright turned out to be a pretty smart, witty songwriter. His subject matter is often himself and his own experiences. I often run for cover when artists start splashing their lives all over their records, but Wainwright usually manages to find something more universal within the personal and offers that as a handle to hold on to. It helps that he includes humour amongst the emotions that he bares. This is very evident in that opening track which he based on a real life backstage moment – very large man bursts into the dressing room and announces “I’m you’re biggest fan” – and which he extrapolates into a telling and humorous examination of the relationship between a performer and his fans. He simultaneously takes down himself and the fans (or at least this fan) towards the end of the song
But the biggest surprise
Aside from his size
Is just how hip he is
When it comes to show biz
There’s a triumvirate, a kind of top three
There’s Bob then there’s Neil then there’s me
Naturally Bob’s number one
And runner up, that’s Mister Young

I’m his third man
But he’s still My Biggest Fan

Elsewhere he muses on various members of his family (it turns out he does this a lot) and manages to pack a huge amount of detail about Montgomery Alabama and Hank Williams into a song that is ostensibly about (TV personality, author and songwriter) Fred Rogers.

I got a couple more Wainwright albums and was intrigued, but some how the penny didn’t quite drop. Then whilst on holiday on the UK I bought Career Moves and that nudged the coin over the edge.

This is a live set recorded in one night at the famous Bottom Line club in New York. It’s mostly just Wainwright solo, though he has a couple of long-time associates – Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield – join him for a handful of songs. So it’s representative of his live stock-in-trade – one man, a guitar and a big bunch of songs.

I’ve never believed – as long as I’ve believed anything about music – that you need to have a band to pack a punch, and this album is resounding proof of that. I saw Wainwright in concert in London in 2010 and this album underscores the impression that show left on me – that Wainwright is a very effective live performer. The live show relies very much on his lyrics and his delivery – both of which are excellent. And, as previously observed, there’s a full range of emotion. I remember that in that London show he had the audience nearly rolling in the aisles with one song about a smashed guitar and an airline jobsworth, and sobbing in their hankies the next with a performance of “Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder” that he he dedicated to the then recently late and his ex-wife Kate McGarrigle.

There’s a couple of things about him that are quite un rock ‘n roll (not that he puts himself in that school). He’s well read and educated and, in fact, a bit of a smart arse and he doesn’t hide it. EG the opening track “Road Ode” with a chorus that had the unread me heading for Google to understand all the references.

Out on the road, out on the road
You’re Willy Lohman and you’re Tom Joad
Vladimir and Estragon
Kerouac, Genghis Khan

He’s also self-confessed bourgeoisie
I was raised here in Westchester County
I was taught in the Country Day School
We were richer than most
I don’t mean to boast
But I swam in the country club pool

Wainwright tugs the heartstrings in all sorts of directions, nothing seems to be taboo when it comes to writing a song, and his delivery makes the most of the emotion he builds into his songs.

Particularly good is “Thanksgiving” which uses that most American of festivities to examine the dynamics of families – and to get in a joke.

I look around and I recognise a sister and a brother
We barely see our parents now we barely see each other
On this auspicious occasion, this special family dinner
If I argue with a loved one then Lord, please let me be the winner

2008’s Recovery is an intriguing project. He takes a clutch of songs from his early 1970s albums and re-records and re-interprets them.

The mood is often dark and creepy. In this he is aided and abetted (and encouraged) by producer Joe Henry. There’s something spooky about a 60 year old Wainwright revisiting “Motel Blues” in which the narrator  tries to persuade a girl of uncertain age to spend the night with him. And the distance of age renders “New Paint” even more poignant. The album climaxes with “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry”, the same track that he builds up to on the live album. Interestingly there’s very little difference in the punch between the live solo version and the album recording with fuller backing – which maybe tells us a bit about Wainwright the performer.

Henry also creates a situation that allows Wainwright to function primarily as a singer, allowing his often overlooked vocal talents (notably his marvellous timing) to come to the fore.

So that’s the Wainwright jag I’ve been on. He’s never been a significant commercial proposition, but who cares about sales, right? He was punted as one of several “new Bob Dylans” at the time of his debut. Wainwright was savvy enough to know that he could never be another Dylan and he never tried. But his song writing, whilst very different, is just as worth while exploring – and the heretical truth is that he sustained his form much longer than Dylan did.