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31.8.05

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew

I believe that Bitches Brew is one of the most mysterious albums in jazz, period.

Alinear, spliced, swampy grooves played in modes or keys somewhere between uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Long sketches that completely collapse notions of verse/chorus in the standard jazz-solo sense. The insinuation of virtuosity but not the harmonic foundation to ground it. Multiple musicians weaving around each other in austere groove and rhythm. Echoes and congas, electric and acoustic instruments (one of my fave combinations), planned and unplanned spontaneity. Obscurity, occlusion and occasionally sharp clarities of melody. Loose cohesion. No major hooks or choruses, but searching stabs of notes (played for echo-decay) cutting through the noodling undergrowth and treacherous quicksands.

Preceded by Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky and In a Silent Way, and antedating Live-Evil and Jack Johnson, we can place the mindset of the album in terms of progression and scope (1969-70 was an amazing period for Miles). And we can look to anecdotal popularity slash impact of the album vis. jazz-rock-fusion and the related after-careers of the players involved. It’s not racially, temporally or ethnically typified; it can’t be offset or contextualised by other jazz works or composers of the time. It’s difficult to read subjectively. We can finger Teo Macero’s constructive mix-methodology, but it’s incredibly difficult to put a finger on the singular essence that defines or centralises the Brew. It is wilfully mysterious.

I don’t mean to imply that mystery is in and of itself a pure artistic criteria to be called upon when all others fail. It can be a mode of interpretation and respect, and it can gauge depth and resonance where literal approaches look for transparent hits.

The tension of the album veers between accessibility and space. It’s not an easy album to interface with; there’s no strong melodic intent or subjective line to adapt. The songs spread themselves over a large canvas without forming a definite formal structure or contour, yet it still feels organic and compositional. Which got me thinking that the kind of people who’d get off on this stuff are painters. It’s very much as though this is composition by other means, by colours or tones or shades and abstractions (or tape splicing as the case may be). With a variety of brushes and secret processes.

I think there may be an undercurrent reaction to free jazz here, filtered through the tonal (electric) approach of a Hendrix or other acid children. Free jazz would just not’ve been interesting to a trumpeter of Miles’ peculiar calibre; his sense of sound and colour had very little to do with literal hard chops and more with sound-setting and ambient feel. Reflected of course in his choice of musicians, with the compositional approach and direction, with the fact that Miles’ stamp is all over this Brew.

Sanctuary comes close to a normal jazz theme introduction, but again veers off into high slabs of single notes. And then it ends; no explicit theme clearly expressed, no definitive statement painted, but a very wide and singular space covered. There ain’t many big-picture risk-takers working in the studio like Miles any more. Baffling.

posted by rino breebaart  # 2:11 pm (0) comments

30.8.05

Christopher Hitchens, Hostage to History — Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger

There is, to my mind, something fascinating and representative about the last half century of political history in Cyprus. Fascinating in the sense of political machinations operating naked and unreserved for all to see; and representative for the rest of us because it exemplifies quite succinctly the Ps and Qs of lite-imperial leverage as fomented by post-WW2 British decay and American ascendance – a formula of state/industrial interest and spin which results in cruel junta governments and massive loss of civilian life (whilst calling itself ‘friendly’ or ‘democratic’ or ‘freedom-loving’). There’s powers of patriotic nationalism and forceful intervention at work; of dirty geopolitical manoeuvres by large parties each working to a private and/or shifting imperial agenda irrespective of the Cypriot people’s needs or wishes. Amongst whom there was a relatively calm social/religious unity, now embittered and torn apart by these forces with the resultant loss of thousands of lives and a partitioning which sees no sign of abating.

It’s the particular failure of the US, the British, the Greeks and the Turks (in that order of influence) that Hitchens focuses on. He singles out Kissinger as the conniving, turncoated real-politician exploiting (or rather, indulging) first the junta Greek government which caused and directed the 1974 coup (and hence Turkey’s ‘protective’ invasion of the North), but he’s also clear in singling out the British handwashing that lay power at Kissinger’s shifting feet in the first place [which as an aside, could have made a forceful extrapolation of the Divide-n-Rule policy exercised by the Brits up into the 50s. This D&R kernel could be argued to have directly led to the four-way exploitation of the Cypriot situation that lead to the invasion. Add to which the background arms deals Nixon made with the Greek junta in exchange for campaign contributions, vis the anti-communist/Cold War power scheme envisaged for the Levant at the time, reflected in the still-active and immune military outposts on the island]. Rich… tapestries.

The chapter on the Greek junta period (‘Dragon’s Teeth’) is forceful and driven by Hitchensian conviction: in the sense that he expects trust for his collation and interpretation of the facts rather than providing well-sourced clarity or thoroughness in constructing the case. Which adds to my second gripe (irrelevant really in face of the book’s professed scope) in that Cyprus has always been conquered and ruled by outside forces, and that hence this frame is the best (if only) way to interpet the modern history as well, by examining purely the most recent batch of external powers in their plays for the island. Which is not to say that on the other hand, the native Cypriots were collusive engineers of their own doom (commonly implied in false reductios that the T.Cypriots and the Gr.Cypriots always fought or never got along), or were misled into accepting at face value the outsider’s promises and conditions; but for instance, it often glosses over how subtle and strangely counterproductive the politics of enosis really are/were from an internal point of view. The Hitch begins his account personably enough with the decisive hospitality, but I got the feeling he loses track of the ordinary people who were swept along by extreme politics and events of a nature intrinsically alien to them. A few humanising anecdotes could really have padded his journalism.With enosis especially (in the sense of the term used up to the 70s), I know there’s still a lot of smarting betrayal felt over the fact that Greece then (1974) did nothing to ‘aid’ the Gr.Cypriot rebuff of the Turkish invasion (the Turks, patient, waited for the right moment to act, aided by Kissinger’s sudden favour and the Greek junta’s collapse (cf. the hapless, destabilising coup on the island – related events); but it’s not often perceived how the Greek junta pretty much directly caused the whole invasion anyway, directing it from Athens with two Cypriot thugs at the helm (said thugs also playing significant roles in establishing the junta in the first place). Enosis then and therefore entailed a collusion with fascism – a fact lost on the Gr.Cypriots looking for such unification, or who now recall it fondly under the banner of EU ratification, washed of all past valence. The prelimenary steps leading to the Greek-sponsored coup of 1974 entailed EOKA-B’s ruthless elimination of non-enosis dissent from the island (which was then in a powersharing, independent phase with T.Cypriots, who got rightly antsy over the extremists. And I mean the worst kind of in-fighting and murder under the guise of national interests – Gr.Cypriots killing Gr.Cypriots). The Enosis rallying cry was before then also the cry against British occupation. How nationalism and independence ever got caught up with the idea of unification with Greece stems back to the language and culture of the majority of the population, but of course it did nothing for the idea of a unified and truly independent Cyprus, which to this day is still a strange and conflicted notion but which should, you’d think, be in the island’s best interest. The island never tasted independence long enough to form a steady sense of it: hence the continued internationalist perspective of the "Cyprus problem" and the continued draw of Hellenic unity. I was put in mind of this again recently by Churchill’s supreme role in the failed and devastating landings at Gallipoli, the necesity of which was only mildly tactically-relevant – imagine telling that to the bluebloods and royalists at the RSL: the greatest Briton sent you into slaughter on a mistaken but wilful whim. I’m just scratching, rather poorly too, at the manifold streams of politics that define the Cypriot struggles – it is a history incredibly dense and rife with disinformation and political slant slash sympathies and contradictions – said complexity the Hitch also glosses over for the sake of urgent declamatory power.

So then, Cyprus is ‘representative’ in the sense of nationalism breeding a peculiar blindness which provides cover for profound exploitations which directly contravene a nation’s (or a people’s) best interest. And thence to the bigger POV, or the shamelessly modern elements of the geopolitics involved: the casual meaninglessness of international treaties and sovereignty in the face of American influence and exploitation of divisive powers. Kindly manipulating foreign policy to suit its ‘friendly’ benefactors and selfish, presidential interests. The dismissive and direly cynical condescension of bigwigs over a little island. Kissinger, shuffling with unaccountable abandon [yes, I thought immediately of the current, switchable White House administration; but also of note is how damned infectious the Hitch’s crusade against the Kiss really is]. Mutual delusion and relative spin, betrayal, polite non-intervention whilst discreetly sanctioning ‘friendly’ interventions, shifting ideological and/or political goals… the basic punctuation of modern American foreign policy, methinks. And a broken, bewildered nation left to mop up the blood.

Hitchens provides some rather cursory additional prefaces which don’t really do much for the current situation re: the EU, except to note that Turkey’s desire for accession stretches way back. The entire book could do with a complete re-edit or re-think (there are several textual errors). I’m gonna add some additional comments when I actually finish the book. I just wanted to get the initial thoughts down. Cyprus is important. It is incredibly unfair to say this vis. the continuing problems, the past victims and the huge number of Cypriots who fled the island, but Cyprus is a test-case of how modern, Western foreign policy fails in the rawest terms, and reveals the cunning expediency of imperialism-lite. How the smaller a nation is, the stronger the efficacy of violence and manipulation is perceived by the greater powers. How the international community is revealed to be quite powerless on matters of nationhood and humanity. Cyprus can teach so much.

posted by rino breebaart  # 9:44 pm (0) comments

23.8.05

The Great Political Excuse now has Commercial Applications

I got a 70s rock musical DVD — it doesn’t matter which one because frankly it’s embarrassing. The movie was pretty forgettable but my attention was snared by the short, unskippable little Copyright ad that preceded it. It’s of a devilish blacksmith (red-eyed and sweaty) forging a © in his smithy whilst the voice-over lays down the evils of copyright infringement. The text runs like this:
The Pirates are out to get you. Don’t let them brand you. Piracy funds organised crime; piracy will destroy our film and video industry. Piracy costs jobs and will destroy our music and publishing industry.
And then, in easy run-on, is this:
Piracy funds terrorism. Piracy will destroy our development and your future enjoyment. Copyright is a matter of fact.
Of course, as this is a dramatically didactic little piece, I can undestand they have to find effective and (un)hyperbolic means to convey a message. But did FACT (and yes, that is the name of the company) have to resort to such (possibly) spurious and inflammatory statements? I’ve had people peddling hot or burnt DVDs at my door, and they definitely didn’t look like the purveyors of desperate hate crimes. I’ve got a feeling that FACT is co-opting the political theme du jour to tap into a little good old fear themselves to get people to take copyright issues seriously. Or am I reading it wrong?

I decided to ring up the Irish chapter of the body. I got a nice but defensive lady on the phone who instantly assumed I was media. No, I said, I’m a concerned consumer. I asked if there was a factual basis for making such an associative claim with terrorism, or reasearch warranting it. At first she said that this is confidential business stuff and hence not discussable on the phone, but she elaborated to say that the company would obviously have a legitimate basis for making such a claim if it did.

I’ve checked out the FACT website and can’t find the word terrorism anywhere on it; so, pending further clarification on the issue (by calling the English office, by follow-up emails, letters to editors etc etc) I’m drawn to conclude that this dramatic but subtly inflammatory statement will not raise more than an eyebrow. Don’t get me wrong, I think Copyright is a serious issue that demands good thinking and a fair reflection of ownership, but I also give a damn about media standards and I don’t want to see important and or dangerous political approaches to rhetoric creep into private consumption. Especially if this cheapens legitimate terminology and debate, so that everyone can start throwing illegitimate terms around to make an impression. I think the link to organised crime is a fair one to make in general, but any objective relation with terrorism is probably closer to our petrol pumps than the nearly 1 in 3 illegitimate videos sold in Britain.

Unless, of course, there are objective and verifiable facts which FACT are withholding. I’m all ears. Because otherwise I’m forced to conclude that there’s a spurious link, at best, between terrorism and organised piracy; and that the claim is merely employed as a subtle suggestion which insults people’s intelligence and good faith, further blurring that once-proud distinction between newsy truth and entertainment technique.

posted by rino breebaart  # 9:13 pm (0) comments

22.8.05

David Foster Wallace, Little expressionless animals

My mind reels. This neat little story has it all: a broad interplay of theme and time, the classic Foster-Wallatian tropes of media and multiple psychological crises, a media king-pin message of absolute surface and uncanny mystery, with deep trauma and precise-definition fanatics. By turns devastatingly funny and poignant, it’s more like a mini-novel condensed into short story form: the multiple streams are established, the oneiric parallels weave in and out (trauma/mediation, surface/autism, sexual definition / power roles / insecurity), all with a defined but finally absent, cataclysmic denouement. There is power in its brevity and breadth: a complete efficiency of narrative means. It gently deflates the mechanics of television to reveal the withered psychological husk of the viewing/entertainment mindset. It is consumingly immersive and it moves irrevocably. It suggests an ongoing, deepening time-scale as well as complete unpredictability. And ultimately, the multiple perspectives arouse genuine pathos. This is modern fictive precision personified.

posted by rino breebaart  # 1:10 pm (0) comments

15.8.05

Funkadelic, Eulogy and Light
Our father / Which art on Wall Street / Honored be thy buck / Thy kingdom came / This be thy year / From sea to shining sea

Thou givest me false pride / Funked down by the riverside / From every head and ass, may dollars flow / Give us this pay / Our daily bread / Forgive us our goofs / As we rob from each other

He maketh me to sell dope to small children / For thou art evil / And we adore thee / Thy destruction and thy power / They comfort me / My Cadillac and my pinky ring / They restoreth me in thee / Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of poverty / I must feel their envy / For I am loaded, high and all those other goodies / That go along with the good god big buck

To your whores / And [what?] grows there / Ahead in time, the unexpected soul-searching beam of the strobe / But now, the stairway looms / And as I rise / The cries of kittens, gray, make way / For there, now near / Here now, gone, alone / I feel my wrist, it flicks the switch / No lights reveal the room or me / She sees, then panics, grabs a light / I scream silent comforts that are not heard / I panic, for I have not said a word / Hysteria hold the room in sway / I run, I back away, to hide / From what? / From fear? / The truth, the light? / Is truth the light?

posted by rino breebaart  # 12:33 pm (1) comments

5.8.05

The Who Sell Out

A word about concept albums. The idea of "Concept" is usually applied too strongly – it’s a very general idea of song theme and continuity in albums and not some over-arching, megalithic artistic statement. Any medium, be it a novel, album or a series of works tend not only to a bigger picture or canvas, but almost inevitably to some kind of narrative cohesion or continuity. When conceived, these threads start out as a big picture idea (Floyd, Smile, Sgt Pepper) but they usually stop before halfway: the writers either lose interest or do whatever else they (or the drugs) feel like doing. Musically speaking, it’s a bit like Prog: so much music tends towards a bigger scale and reach; depending on the available musical talent, everything becomes a series of noodling solos and lyrics about fairies. Music becomes complex. Only rarely does a concept attain that magical, unified whole. I’m thinking Dark Side of the Moon. Sell Out is loosely conceptual but by no means superior to non-concept albums (as an aside, think of how great jazz albums aren’t concept-works, but often strongly thematic and unified).That said, the useless liner notes by Dave Marsh are soaked with gushing hyperbole and reckless drops of ‘classic’ and ‘concept’ and ‘masterpiece’ that really labour the case.

So then, the famous concept of Sell Out is a pirate London radio station with commercial segue-jingles and product placements, often played as gags ("Radio London reminds you: go to the church of your choice", "Drink Easy, Drink Easy, Pull Easy"). Burying great pop within a materialistic joke and thereby playing on the whole commercialism of pop; both critising and inoculating against what just a year or so later in the 60s became the concept of Selling Out. As well as bagging the benefits of these product placements (Rotosound strings, Premier drums). But there’s real smartness in using Odorono, for instance, as a song of pathetic broken-heartedness and disapointment: a peculiarly British kind of intrusive irony slipped in and slipped out before you know it. I think much has been written about Townsend’s songs of guilt and awareness (as opposed to self-consciousness) and here the songs are almost all fantastic. Sly wit and comic suggestion, songs about handjobs, the pangs and fragile dawns of love or tenderness emergent on a field acoustic, ("You take away the breath I was saving for sunrise"). Plenty of songs about suspicion, posed characters and the fine-conscience-detail of casual sex and affairs (the great Early Morning Cold Taxi, by Daltrey).

This being my first Who album, I gotta admit that I never really gelled well with the Who sound: the particular voices, the clattering drums, the aggressive rock bass and wheeling guitars. I liked Pete’s Rickenbacker stylings, but that might be because I like a good rhythm player. I love the idea of "Maximum R&B" but I don’t like the record-setting, ear-splitting volume they played at in the 70s. I laugh at Keith Moon’s dedicated drinks floor-tom (or was that Bonzo). And since the chaps at TalkBass regularly drop Entwistle’s name in their popular bassist polls, I thought it high time to pay a closer listen. (Though, it should also be mentioned that TalkBass draws a peculiar brand of bass player who likes exotic wood construction in 5, 6 or even 7-stringed basses over €2000 in value to no doubt play their meaningless bass solos to other nerds. And Entwistle always trails a poor fourth or fifth after Jaco, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten etc). But there’s much great musicianship on Sell Out. There’s the odd tendency to resort to powerchord phrases here and there but on the whole the emphasis is on song and song content. That said, the Who sound like a bunch of disparates held together only by song: Moon endlessly clattering without rhyme or reason, Townsend in charge but definitely out of the spotlight (see his annoyed, hesitant lead outings), and Entwistle playing the lead role with up-front and clear punchiness (though without groove or syncopation: the worst criticism I can lay at his feet. I must admit to a bias of playing slighly behind the beat and in the pocket as opposed to merely 'on top'). But they're still a very strong band. Daltrey comes out well on this album too: I’m guessing he’s doing most of his own harmonies, because all the songs are quite full in that typically 60s sound-sense of deep reverb and lo-fi deepness. But Entwistle is definitely the lead player of the band.

Track by track then: Armenia City in the Sky is a very powerful opener with a swelling, blistering horn line and some backward guitars, with the bass and drums neatly isolated in the left channel for rhythm effect. Overtly aimed at the psychedlic crowd. Chords later stolen for The Boys Are Back in Town. Mary Anne With the Shaky hand is a sly little boy’s fantasy driven by acoustics and an interesting showcase of how well Moon functions as a percussionist rather than a traditional drummer. Odorono is said brokenhearted pathetic desire and shame piece. Tattoo is a fine come-of-age story with punishment overtones and Leslie’d guitar. I guess this is the most typical Who track: (imminent lost) youth and some fine backing choruses. Our Love Was is pure bitter guitar pop with nice bass counterpoint. I Can See for Miles sounds more like 70s Who with maximum chorus effect. Moon really rips on this one; full of tension. I Can’t Reach You starts like an average B-side vocal but turns into something better: it almost lags on occasion but for a neat descending little bridge. Townsend’s voice is almost too light here. Relax is more pure 60s UK pop. Silas Stingy is the miser’s anthem played for obviousness, but the 'moneybags' line is very clever. Funny to hear an original first in a WhoBoys mash (Brian could’ve done amazing things with the backing vocals). Sunrise is pure tenderness:
You take away the breath I was keeping for sunrise
You appear and the morning looks drab in my eyes
And then again I'll turn down love
Having seen you again
Once more you'll disappear
My morning put to shame

Sometimes I fear that this will go on my life through
Each day I spend in an echoed vision of you
And then again I'll turn down love
Remembering your smile
My every day is spent
Thinking of you all the while
— that peculiar blend of opening to love and spurned opportunity. Rael 1 is a strange kind of battle anthem about Red Chin (?) invasions and yellow flags and naval support. Five minute complex pop with some jabbed and reverbed powerchords at the end. Rael 2 some kind of lullaby. Glittering Girl is snappy Britpop with a big idea about mummy’s rules. Melancholia is straight-ahead despondent rock. Someone’s Coming features horns arranged by Entiwstle, very nicely done; with lyrics about sneaking out under parent’s noses for a bit of nookie. At this point of the disc I wanted to know what was original tracklisting and what bonus tracks — a blatant failure in the liner notes and packaging. Jaguar has heavy chord attack and thundering timps and almost American-sounding lyrics about cars and girls. Early Morning Cold Taxi I really like. Noel Gallagher would give his right eyebrow to be able to write something as Beatle-y and clever as this. That is, it ain’t all that clever, but it’s a natty rock lifestyle song. With a pumping bass-led ad for Coke at the end. Hall of the Mountain King is a great instrumental lark. More fun live, maybe. Girl’s Eyes by Moon ('hello') is pure Beatlism wrapped up in 1964 pop. The second Mary-Anne has more organ in the mix. Glow Girl is about rebirth and crashing planes and supposedly leads right into Tommy: 'It’s a girl, Mrs Walker.'

And that's it. A really full album, I gotta say. Lots of great pop moments. The ads grate after a while, but it might help to know that Daltrey ran up a case of pneumonia sitting in that Heinz bath.

posted by rino breebaart  # 1:08 pm (0) comments

2.8.05

Rediscovering Old Bits

What I really like, is when you’re in a boring or stretched-out situation, and you’re listening to the radio and come across an older track that was a minor hit in the 70s or 80s — it’s on those perennial lists of safe, easy-listening favourites or oldies that live out their lives as filler between commercials, and everyone knows the song because it’s long been absorbed into the culture — and something catches your ear which has never struck you before. I had such a moment with two songs recently, first with Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians’ 1989 hit What I Am. Now, I remember watching this one on Video Hits on Saturday mornings with my wholemeal toast and socks. This was the time when a soft-rock slash folk artists could make it onto the radio. The song still sounds a bit light and undergraduate, which is fine. But of course I didn’t notice the really clever and long guitar solo because I wasn’t into guitars as much then. It sounds like the solo’s been processed through an envelope filter and a wah pedal. It’s very funky and canny without being too noodly. Very cool. Secondly, and this inspired a delving into his works again, is Bowie’s Young Americans. It’s a very committed vocal, and the song’s produced to the gills. It sounds like some pricey session men putting in a hard day’s work for a white soul-wannabe. But it’s the vocal that really kicks — slick and frenetic all at once, packed with a slap echo. It’s singing in the old sense of really putting in a performance on the mike. The production and performance are totally commensurate. From here I got back into Bowie’s hits again (regrettably, only the hits), but I’ve been boning up on the production of Heroes which is a story in itself. Hansa Ton studios, Eno effects on Fripp’s loud triple-tracked (and slightly out-of-tune) guitars, ace musos, a totally committed and large vocal recorded in the room using three gated microphones, that amazing sense of Berlin being just outside… and the song coming together with the vocal last. Inspired.

posted by rino breebaart  # 1:23 pm (1) comments
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