Bokanté and Metropole Orkest – ‘What Heat’ // A beautiful, important record

What does it take to make of good cocktail? The trick is to use the right measuring cups and shakers, a balanced mix of juices, liquor and spices and a splash of creativity. ‘What Heat’ by the multinational Bokanté is such a cocktail. A wonderous fusion of cultures and musical idioms. A blend that reveals new aromas with every sip. A keeper on the menu. Indeed, an important album.

The man behind the bar? Tireless Michael League. As if conquering the world with Snarky Puppy isn’t a fulltime job already, League is head of the GroundUP label, a champion for musician’s rights and a distinctive producer, notably responsible for the sound design of David Crosby’s sublime ‘Lighthouse’ (2016) and more recently, ‘Here If You Listen’. He really must need very little sleep as he also immerses himself in other passions, like mastering Turkish percussion and the art of the oud, a (North) African and Middle Eastern lute-like string instrument.

In Bokanté, League surrounds himself with true masters of their domain. Musicians out of five countries and nearly as many continents. On percussion: Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, Keith Ogawa and djembe supremo Weedie Braimah (who also played on Bill Laurance‘s ‘Aftersun’). On guitar, there’s Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti, two of Snarky Puppy’s usual suspects. And Roosevelt Collier plays pedal steel (prominently on closing track La Maison En Feu).

And then there’s this fenomenal, multifaceted voice, which belongs to Guadeloupean singer Malika Tirolien. Together these nine unique identities make all boundaries evaporate. Just like that.

Seamless fusion

On its second album ‘What Heat’, Bokanté time travels back to the roots of the blues in Africa and the Arabic world, bringing back its finest elements and merging them with delta blues, Caribean music and a range of other influences, until someting new and exciting appears. The acoustic guitar arpeggio’s of McQueen and Lanzetti add western, almost singer-songwriter-like flair. And importantly, the Dutch Metropole Orkest gives wings to Bokanté’s sound.

Michael League and conductor Jules Buckley masterly avoid the pitfalls of the orchestra treatment – as they previously managed to do on ‘Sylva’ (2015), which landed Snarky Puppy a Grammy Award. ‘What Heat’ is all about unpredictable and exploring writing and arranging. Groove and melody come first.

The orchestral backdrop is always stylish, never ever blatant, always right on point. You can sense that these arrangements were intensely polished. But you can’t discern their screws and the seams. The orchestra rocks, soothes and rages in the background. And then sometimes it bursts out with an instrumental flash, to baffling effect.

World on fire

The song closest to my heart? Definitely Famn, which translates as The Woman. It touches a nerve unlike anything I discovered in the past few months. Its off-centre rhythm, deep bass, hissing and ominous strings, the tapestry of voices, the ‘speed bump’ at 02:32, the oud coda, … Chillingly beautiful.

Tirolien’s lyrics (often in Guadeloupean Creole) seem to focus on the state our world is in. Take Bod Lanme Pa Lwen, which means The Beach Is Not Far. The viewpoint of a sunbather or the yearning cry of a refugee on a rickety boat? The final words of the album leave no doubt about Bokanté’s social engagement: “Il est temps d’utiliser notre pouvoir / Maintenant” [“It’s time to use our power. Right now.”]

I’m far from done with ‘What Heat’, that’s for sure. It’s a deep, fun, layered and, dare I say, important album. Because it reflects on the world on fire. Because it’s a mirror of our complex society. Because it shows how boundaries and genres are merely artifects, which we can transcended. Again, ‘What Heat’ is a beautiful, important record.

Machine Gun - Rapid fire History of Epic Jazz

Machine Gun // A Rapid-fire History of Epic Jazz (1960-2015)

Think of a well-known Smiths melody and start scatting: “Some jazz is more epic than other.” It might not be one hundred procent correct grammatically. But as Miles Davis would say: “So what.” He rewrote the rulebook more than once: most notably on modal jazz milestone ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959) and on the monumental – one might say epic – double album ‘Bitches Brew’ (1969), which paved the way for a cornucopia of fusions between jazz, rock, funk and world music.

Miles Davis - Bitches Brew (1970)

So what … is ‘epic’? It’s a feeling, a mood, certainly not a genre. A timeless atmosphere or cinematic quality that oozes out of jazz’s most grand and often groundbreaking gestures. Epic jazz unfolds its stories patiently, sometimes violently, and might deal with matters that transcend our understanding, such as time and space, inhuman suffering and superhuman achievements, …

Here’s a list of records that sound epic or cinematic to my ears, ordered counter-chronologically, honouring the unruly nature of many of these albums. They were released between 1960 and 2015, which raises another question: was 1959, when  ‘Kind of Blue’ (Davis) and ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ (Ornette Coleman), iconoclastic statements in their own right, freed musicians from their harmonic and compositional straight jacket, the year when jazz became more epic?

Kamasi Washington – ‘The Epic’ (2015)

Kamasi Washington - The Epic (2015)Look at Washington’s overlord pose and confident glare, and tell me this album isn’t epic. It spans almost three hours of highly addictive music. A sidemen to people like Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, saxophonist Washington and his impressive troupe of musicians channel everything from Debussy’s Clair De Lune and Donald Byrd’s jazz and gospel choir classic ‘A New Perspective’ to modern soul and Fender Rhodes explorations by the likes of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. An epic of biblical proportions indeed.

Brad Mehldau – ‘Highway Rider’ (2010)

Brad Mehldau - Highway Rider (2010)

Piano player Brad Mehldau doesn’t dwell in the same place for too long. He travels between trio recordings and sharp-edged collaborations. Most recently, he teamed up with Mark Guiliana on jazz-funk-prog album ‘Taming The Dragon’.

Mehldau’s restless ambition reached its peak on ‘Highway Rider’, a 100-minute cycle of jazz and classical music with elements of pop – there’s even a salute to Elliott Smith – and electronica, beautifully arranged and executed by Mehldau’s trio, sax player Joshua Redman and a full-blown orchestra.

Exploding Star Orchestra – ‘Stars Have Shapes’ (2010)

For Exploding Star Orchestra,Exploding Star Orchestra - Stars Have Shapes (2010) a large band led by Chicago musician Rob Mazurak, everything seems to revolve around … the sun. Or should I say Sun Ra? They’re certainly at ease with the cosmic side of things.

Dropping listeners in mid-space, Ascension Ghost Impression no. 2 floats towards complete astral chaos, with gigantic wooshes of sound and near-collisions of cosmic debris. After a brief soothing middle section, the turmoil returns, and then transforms again. Three Blocks of Light represents a different type of avant-garde jazz from outer space, and while Impression no. 1 contains some familiar jazz elements, it’s equally disorienting.

Patricia Barber – ‘Mythologies’ (2006)

Patricia Barber - Mythologies (2006)Deep-voiced jazz pianist and composer Patricia Barber meanders through Ovid’s classical masterpiece ‘Metamorphoses’ and turns it into a thrilling suite on ‘Mythologies’. Despite her often offbeat sense of melody, the album progresses smoothly, propelled by subtle piano, brief sax improvs, spirited percussion and blistering guitar, courtesy of Neal Alger.

On songs like Icarus and Phaeton Barber’s voice is out of this world. Just spell-binding. A timeless album, ‘Mythologies’ clearly flies close to the sun. But never too close.

Electric Masada – ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ (2005)

Masada is the name of a series of insanely versatile Electric Masada - At the Mountains of Madness (2006)klezmer-inspired songbooks written by John Zorn. Versatile? Because these compositions have been interpreted by numerous bands and musicians, both within and outside of Zorn’s immediate entourage. In 2013, Pat Metheny had a shot at taming Zorn’s ‘Book of Angels, Vol. 20’.

Almost a decade before that, a rather extreme ensemble aimed at the Masada repertoire too. No surprise it was one of Zorn’s own groups: the allmighty Electric Masada, which took a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to the music.

Compare the quiet Abidan to the complex and brutal Metal Tov. The obi that goes with double-disc live album ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ puts it right:

“Tight as a drum and hot as a blowtorch, these two incredible live performances will leave you breathless. Astonishing group conductions, searing solos and crazed insanity from one of the most amazing bands Zorn has ever had.”

Pat Metheny – ‘The Way Up’ (2005)

Pat Metheny - The Way Up (2005)Guitarist extraordinaire Pat Metheny and keyboardist-sidekick Lyle Mays took their Pat Metheny Group recordings to the next level with this 68-minute twisting and turning piece of music. Partnering gorgeous melody with bursts of bebop improvisation, and Steve Reich-like pulses with a proggy compositional structure, ‘The Way Up’ is one of a kind.

Metheny had embarked on such grand-scale adventures before. ’80/81′, ‘As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls’, ‘Zero Tolerance for Silence’ (his take on ‘Metal Machine Music’), … anyone? After ‘The Way Up’, Metheny’s next step was to replace his Group by a stagewide construction of automated instruments, the orchestrion, which he dragged aIl around the world.

Dave Holland Quintet – ‘Extended Play. Live at Birdland’ (2003)

Dave Holland - Extended PlayHonestly, the first track on ‘Extended Play’, The Balance is one of the most celestial pieces of music I know. The way the horns parts fight each other, and then fall into each other’s arms, is beyond words. As is the polyrhytmic base provided by Dave Holland (bass), Steve Nelson (marimba) and Billy Kelson (drums). ‘Extended Play’, an ECM release, was recorded live at Birdland in 2001.

Every single track on this massive set is a stretched-out version of a composition that was first recorded in the studio. In other words: Extended. And Play-ful most of the time, especially during the Chris Potter-Kevin Eubanks battle on Prime Directive. ‘Extended Play’ remains a crowning achievement for one of jazz’s finest band leaders.

Jaga Jazzist – ‘A Livingroom Hush’ (2002)

Jaga Jazzist - A Livingroom Hush (2002)The last track on ‘A Livingroom Hush’ by prodigious Norwegian ensemble Jaga Jazzist is called Cinematic. Tellingly, this minor-key noise elegy is the least cinematic of all.

Main composer Lars Horntveth has a sixth sense for grand melodies and brightly coloured arrangements. Take Animal Chin and its huge, textured sound, which couples jazz marimba with electronics and turntables. One great theme is followed by another followed by another … culminating in a strange voyage through Lithuania, which couples Tortoise-like minimalism with orchestrated house. Now that’s cinematic.

The Necks – ‘Next’ (1990)

The Necks are an unusual Australian experimental jazz combo,The Necks - Next (1990) with a very common set-up: piano, bass and drums. For years now, they have been releasing single, looooong compositions as albums, like ‘See Through’ and ‘Mosquito’. Meticously crafted acres of improvised music, time and time again. Debut album ‘Sex’ introduced the format. Follow-up ‘Next’ broke it.

It’s 28-minute centerpiece Pele, which patiently and brilliantly builts towards a gently pounding climax, sets the tone for The Necks’ further career, together with final piece The World At War. The ghostly guitar funk of Nice Policeman Nasty Policeman and the Seinfeld slapp bass of the title song only add to the fun on this overlooked album.

John Zorn – ‘Spillane’ (1987)

John Zorn - Spillane (1987)One of the most versatile composers around, John Zorn had released challenging ‘game pieces’ and a splendid tribute to Ennio Morricone (‘The Big Gundown’), before seeking inspiration from cult crime writer Mickey Spillane. The 25-minute title piece wouldn’t have sounded out of place in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the cartoon/live-action film that hit the theaters a year later. Both ‘Spillane’ and ‘Roger Rabbit’ share the same setting: the 40’s-50’s LA underworld.

Zorn’s jumpcutting technique (from cartoons to harsh reality in a split second), samples and Morricone-mystique all work brilliantly. Besides Spillane there’s a thunderous blues jam featuring Albert Collins (Two-Lane Highway), and a mindblowing modern classical piece performed by the Kronos Quartet (Forbidden Fruit). Together with the Ornette Coleman readings of Spy vs. Spy’, ‘Spillane’ would lead directly to jazz/hardcore masterpiece ‘Naked City’.

John Abercrombie – ‘Timeless’ (1975)

‘Timeless’ begins with rapid-fire interaction between gJohn Abercrombie - Timeless (1975)uitarist John Abercrombie and keyboard player Jan Hammer (the Miami Vice guy). Meanwhile Jack DeJohnette holds everything together with his automatic weapon drumming.

But very soon, the trio sails into calmer water, evocating a wide range of moods: Love Song is a moving acoustic, well, love song. Just piano and guitar. 

Red and Orange, by contrast, seems to predate early 1990s rave music like Nightmares on Wax. And the first four minutes of the title song provide an early example of ambient, while the next part has an elegant repetitive motif, which makes you think of Portishead, or even Radiohead. To top all that, ‘Timeless’ has that cystal clear ECM production. It’s a classic without expiration date.

Keith Jarret – ‘The Köln Concert’ (1975)

Keith Jarret - The Köln Concert (1975)When on 24 January 1975 Keith Jarret finally sat down on his piano stool in the Köln Opera House, he didn’t have the slightest idea of what to play. He improvised his solo concert from start to finish. And still it became the best-selling solo piano album in jazz history.

But even more wonderous than the sales figures, is the fact that Jarret’s on the spot invention maintains a constant quality throughout two lengthy pieces, and knows no boundaries whatsoever – you’ll even find a Laura Nyre-like pop melody at about 02:25 in Part II c. Pressed on two LP’s and released on ECM Records, ‘The Köln Concert’ is a sincere work of art.

John Coltrane – ‘Interstellar Space’ (1974)

John Coltrane - Interstellar Space (1974)‘Interstellar Space’ is Coltrane’s posthumously released, deeply spiritual cosmos voyage. Recorded just five months before his untimely death in July 1967, his odes to Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn and the constellation of Leo are among the final sounds he put to tape.

On ‘Interstellar Space’, it’s just Coltrane, his wildly inventive sax improvisations, and the equally intense drum parts of Rashied Ali. As a listener you’ve got very little to hold on to. No melody to whistle along to. No beat to tap your foot to. This album is lightyears away from his beautiful ‘A Love Supreme’ (1965), which he had recorded just two years before, and therefore a witness of his increasingly restless soul.

Sun Ra – ‘Space Is the Place’ (1973)

Sun Ra - Space Is the Place (1973)It takes just one Google Images search to find out that Sun Ra was a mythical character, inspired by ancient Egypt. As you start digging into his vast body of work, another lifelong obsession emerges: outer space and the future. No wonder he confused audience and critics alike.

‘Space Is the Place’ – especially its sidelong, freeform, cosmos-worshipping centerpiece – is a gentler (i.e. more easily digestible) ode to all things celestial than Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’. And its title track, a whirlwind of repetitive voices, horns and keyboards, is a testament to the genius of one of jazz’s maddest mavericks. But let’s not fall into the trap of explaining too much, as Sun Ra warns in his liner notes:

“What can I say other than the music itself? Music? Yes, to the ears that dare to hear, that dare to hear, that dare to hear. Both the silence and the sound.”

Miles Davis – ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’ (1971)

Miles Davis - A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)The genesis of Right Off, the first of two +25 minute tracks on ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’, is a special one. Apparently, while waiting for Miles, guitarist John McLaughlin started a riff on his guitar. Drummer Billy Cobham and bass player Michael Henderson joined in. Together they built an explosive foundation for Miles’ solo, which starts at 02:19.

In the meantime, Herbie Hancock, who happened to be in the NYC building for some other business, was ushered into the 30th Street Studio to play keyboards. Track two, Yesternow, may be a less succesful cut-and-paste affair, but ‘Jack Johnson’ emulates the power of the legendary boxer it was inspired by. Johnson himself, voiced by actor Brock Peters, had the final word:

“I’m Jack Johnson, heavy-weight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.”

Soft Machine – ‘Third’ (1970)

With tensions within Soft Machine rising, and the sword of DamoclesSoft Machine - Third (1970) hanging above his head, drummer, singer and songwriter Robert Wyatt remained silent on all tracks but one, his own composition Moon In June. The other members of Soft Machine wanted to pursue purely instrumental jazz, a schism which would very soon lead to Wyatt’s dismissal from his own band. All brilliantly described by Marcus O’Dair in ‘Different Every Time’. 

Luckily, the internal dissonance is not evident from ‘Third’. The album comprises four glorious side-long tracks. And though its sound and scope  seem modelled on ‘Bitches Brew’, it was recorded before Miles even released that set. It’s a defiantly idiosyncatric and British sounding record, and arguably one of the all time finest marriages of jazz and rock.

Peter Brötzmann Octet – ‘Machine Gun’ (1968)

Peter Brötzmann Octet - Machine Gun (1968)“This historic free jazz album is a heavy-impact sonic assault so aggressive it still knocks listeners back on their heels decades later”, writes Allmusic’s Joslyn Layne. And she’s not exaggerating. It takes some nerve to get ‘Machine Gun’ out of its sleeve, to put it on the turntable and to let a wild bunch of sax players, bassist, pianists and  drummers trash your ears, your walls and your furniture.

It’s an even bigger challenge to sit through the entire thing. But it will send chills down your spine. Albeit chills that feel like bullets. To quote Layne again: “Much like standing outside during a violent storm, withstanding this kind of fierce energy is a primal thrill.”

Charles Mingus – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)

An orchestrated tour de force divided into four parts,Charles Mingus - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) ‘The Black and the Sinner Lady’ was ahead of its time. It had nothing to do with free jazz. Instead, the record seemed to come entirely out of Mingus’ mind. So much, in fact, that his psychologist Dr. Edmund Pollock provided liner notes to the original album:

“To me this particular composition contains Mr. Mingus’ personal and also a social message. He feels intensively. He tries to tell people he is in great pain and anguish because he loves.”

Anyway, whatever Mingus tried to say, he did so in a heart-stoppingly beautiful way. Incorporating everything from avant-garde to flamenco guitar in neat – in turns elegant and heavy – arrangements.

Ornette Coleman – ‘Free Jazz’ (1960)

Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz (1960)Back to where we started: according to Fred Kaplan, 1959 was the year everything changed. Miles went modal and Ornette Coleman went free, with ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. The latter then further revolutionalized jazz with ‘Free Jazz’: one monumental improvisation – created on the spot by his double quartet – split into two sides.

“No re-takes, no splices”, say the original liner notes. It’s a quintessential stereo record, with a set of horns, bass and drums in each speaker. There’s always someone keeping a familiar rhythmic pulse somewhere. That’s why ‘Free Jazz’ is a more relaxing listen than Brötzman’s ‘Machine Gun’. Still, Coleman provided the original landmark. One which impact on the shape of jazz to come is epic in its own right.

What are your views? Which records did I miss? What about the void I left in the 1980s? And was 1959 a landmark year for increasingly ambitious jazz albums?

Special thanks to Jonas Aerts for his suggestions and feedback.
And to the devoted followers of Facebook-group ECM Records for their input and support.

R. Stevie Moore and Jason Falkner 'Make It Be' Album Cover

‘Make It Be’ by R. Stevie Moore and Jason Falkner – Deranged radio show // Review

Nashville lo-fi legend and “godfather of home recording” R. Stevie Moore (RSM) puts out albums and nutty pop songs with remarkable ease, most of them self-released as tapes and cd-r’s. From time to time indie labels have shown interest in Stevie’s recordings too and at the turn of the century he won a zealous supporter in Ariel Pink, who introduced the bedroom work aesthetic of his mentor to an entire new generation. ‘Make It Be’, the latest in a series of over 400 DIY releases, now marks a new milestone in that wonderfully peculiar 50 year career.  

On ‘Make It Be’, R. Stevie Moore – usually a lone wolf, occasionally a keen collaborator – seeks assistance from power pop stalwart Jason Falkner. The result is a delightful album, destined to one day become some sort of lost, overlooked classic.

R Stevie Moore Jason Falkner Bar None Records

Credit: Bar None Records

Not some random dude

I knew RSM, but Falkner I didn’t. So I did some research and found he’s not just some random dude either. Falkner’s career immediately took off on a high note with well-established band The Three O’Clock, in the latter part of the eighties. Later he joined Jellyfish and The Grays and contributed to music by Air, Beck and even Paul McCartney. Recently Falkner produced albums by Syd Arthur (‘Apricity’) and Emitt ‘The One Man Beatles’ Rhodes (‘Rainbow Ends’). Like I said, not some random dude.

From Fab Four to Phonow Wow

Falkner and Moore share a passion for The Beatles – in typical absurdist fashion, Stevie once referred to them as The Beatlegs. ‘Stevie Does The Beatles’, a Fab Four cover album, dates back to 1975 and when years later Cherry Red Records launched an RSM compilation, it was accompanied by an ironic twist on the sleeve of ‘Meet The Beatles’.

In the introduction to that concise career overview Nuno Monteiro and Richard Anderson wrote about Stevie’s early output: “The albums flow in a simultaneously fluid and fragmented fashion, taking on the guise of a deranged, experimental and highly creative radio show.” That is precisely the feeling you get when you put on ‘Make It Be’.

Meet The R. Stevie Moore mirrors Meet The Beatles

‘Meet The R. Stevie Moore’ mirrors ‘Meet The Beatles’

The first three tracks (I H8 People, Another Day Slips Away and I Love Us We Love Me), all rock solid pop songs, flow into each other seamlessly. What follows is a peculiar mix of hilarious spoken word pieces (Prohibited Permissions), guitar interludes and more addictive pop songs (Stamps, Sincero Amore, Play Myself Some Music).

You’re also treated to a cover of Don’t You Just Know It by Huey Piano Smith & Clowns, breezy meditative synth track Passed Away Today and finally, a rough idea for a blues shuffle dedicated to Falkner (Falkner’s Walk, or more accurately Phonow Wow).

Like a dream. Like a vapor

Most tracks are (co-)written by RSM – some were even fully conceived and recorded decades ago. Those revisited tracks offer the key to what Falkner, a prodigious arranger, is bringing to the table. Falkner gives Stevie’s progressive pop melodies a polish and a more texturized sound, without impacting the uniqueness of the material. If anything, Falkner adds an accessible layer and a Byrds-like sparkle to a body of work that has been underground, unknown and largely unloved for way too long.

Another Day Slips Awayfirst released in 2006, is the one song that will probably occupy a spot in your long-term memory. That’s because of its infectious beat, vertigo-like melodies and telegraph-style lyrics: “Sleep and eat, love, work and play. Another day slips away. Days rushing by. Moving at the speed of light like a dream. Like a vapor.”

Get stamps!

There’s brilliant guitar work throughout. Check out that one-off riff in the middle of I Love Us, We Love Me and the lead playing on Horror Show. That last song took shape in Falkner’s head, hence the Three O’Clock/Dukes of Stratosphear neo-psychedelic atmosphere.

Play Myself Some Music, originally recorded in 1986, sounds like it ran away at an ‘Oddessey And Oracle’ recording session and tripped over ‘Mummer’ by XTC. That’s Fine What Time on the other hand, seems to channel both Barry White and Giorgio Moroder.

‘Make it Be’ – the title another nod to the Beatles? – is full of great influences like that. And Moore and Falkner never fail to paint their own little universe. Moore’s trademark oddball humor is never far away. Stamps, for example, is a high-powered punk song about someone desperately in need of, well, stamps. If You See Kay makes use of cheeky wordplay. And I Am The Best For You features Stevie doing his best impression of Lemmy of Motörhead.

Elsewhere there are genuine heartfelt moments, like Stevie singing “Baby it’s true” in I Love Us, We Love Me and Jason delivering the wonderful Sincero Amore.

Eclectricity

At 18 songs, ‘Make It Be’ is a lot to digest. But if you like your music eccentric and your albums eclectic, chances are you’ll be hooked for weeks. At last, it seems, RSM succeeds in bringing his pop craftsmanship to a wider audience – and rightfully so. With a little help of his friend, Jason Falkner.

Poppel, 'Alright', Sounds Tilburg

Meet Poppel, Lo-fi Janglegazers from the Lo Countries

Poppel is the name of a small and quiet town in the north of Belgium. Nothing much ever happens there. Since a few months, its name got hijacked by a promising four-piece band, comprising more or less local rock aces. Poppel likes to refer to their style as lo-fi janglegaze. Say what? Time to check out Poppel’s first cd release, ‘Alright’.

Poppel Alright 2017 Album Gazer Tapes

The general feeling of ‘Alright’ is one of deliberate brevity and sparseness. Listeners are being to treated to four cool, unpretentious songs, taking cues from Sonic Youth, Ducktails and Real Estate. Rhythmically drummer Lars Baeyens and singer/bassist Fik Dries take a straightforward approach, laying a solid foundation for the twin guitar work by Dries Hermans and Bram Van Gorp.  There’s not an ounce of fat to be seen, musically nor lyrically.

Some lines prove hard to get out of your head. And although words like “I was at your house today // You were not home you were away” may look simplistic, they’re really effective coming out of Fik Dries’ mouth. A craft he perfected with his previous band Believo!, which made some waves in Belgium and The Netherlands.

I’m going to resist the urge to review every song in detail. Just listen for yourself and find out what Northern-Belgian janglegaze is all about.

‘Alright’ is released on Hermans’ own label Gazer Tapes. Earlier, Poppel released a tape called ‘Couldn’t Care Less’, which included modest instant classic I Like You:

On Record Story Day, Poppel played in-store at Sound in Tilburg. Here’s a snippet of I Like You. Come closer!

Poppel share a YouTube channel with Fik Dries’ former band Believo! and Pastel Ruins by Believo! guitarist Dirk Thielemans. Go check it!

Jeff Beck Blow By Blow Produced by George Martin

When George Martin was 49

This week, we lost the world’s oldest pop genius, George Martin. His brilliance radiated beyond The Beatles.

In 1975, his name appeared in the producer’s credits of one of the finest instrumental albums ever: ‘Blow by Blow’ by guitarist Jeff Beck.

By way of tribute, I’d like to share the two songs that Martin both produced and arranged: the frenetic Scatterbrain and the lushly orchestrated Diamond Dust.

 

George Martin Jeff Beck Blow By Blow

George Martin The Beatles Yoko Paul Ringo RIP Apple

Four Die-Cut Sleeves To Die For

The die-cut sleeve is very much alive. To prove it, I handpicked four jaw-dropping pieces of evidence from my record cabinet.

Scissor seventies: early die-cut sleeves

First off, some … background. One of the most famous die-cut sleeve examples – and one of the most ambitious record sleeves altogether – is surely Led Zeppelin’s double album ‘Physical Graffiti’ (1975).
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti - Die-cut sleeve
Designer Peter Corriston cut the windows out of two New York tenement buildings, exposing well-known faces like Lee Harvey Oswald and Laurel & Hardy on the inner sleeves as well as (printed on the insert) the letters that form the album title. Read all about it on Dangerous Minds.
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti - Die-cut sleeve
Also check out the amazing die-cut sleeve of ‘In a Glass House’ by Gentle Giant (1973) on Discogs: “Album comes in a gimmix cover with the center part of the jacket front side being transparent foil with black print on it; there is a printed cardboard insert that provides the remainder of the cover image.”
More recent examples show a more minimal approach to die-cut sleeve design. Let’s cut to the chase.

1. Bowie – The No Inner Sleeve Die-Cut Sleeve

Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: David Bowie
Title: ‘Blackstar’
Label: ISO Records, Columbia, Sony Music
Year of release: 2016
Designer: Barnbrook
Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: in the wake of Bowie’s death, much has been written about every detail of his life and artistry, including the meaning behind the die-cut sleeve design of ‘Blackstar’. But let’s keep it simple. London agency Barnbrook designed a pitch black gatefold sleeve, with shiny pieces of stars at the bottom of the front sleeve, and above that, a big cut-out star.
Bowie - Blackstar - Die-cut sleeve
There is no printed inner sleeve, only a thick transparant plastic sleeve that holds the actual record. Prices for this limited edition clear vinyl edition skyrocketed after the Starman left Planet Earth. It has already been sold on Discogs for 409.10 euro! Insane, but it’s a magical thing!

2. The Durutti Column – The Sandpapery Die-Cut Sleeve

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: The Durutti Column
Title: ‘The Return of the Durutti Column’
Version: FBN 114, UK
Label: Factory Benelux
Year of release: 2013 (originally 1980)
Designer: James Nice / Peter Saville

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

Die-cut sleeve design: the first pressing of this 1980 album was distributed in an iconoclastic sandpaper sleeve, famously assembled by the members of Joy Division. This 2013 reissue pays tribute to that version, albeit with bigger respect for neighbouring record sleeves in your collection.

Durutti Column - Die-cut sleeve

The outside sleeve is off-white. An old Factory Records logo by Peter Saville was cut out and accentuated by the orangy grinding paper that’s paisted on a white inner sleeve. The inner sleeve provides additional information on its remarkable design.

One word of advice: always keep the actual record at a safe distance from its sandpaper sleeve. You might scrape of some great guitar bits!

3. Goat – The Triangular Space Tunnel Die-Cut Sleeve

Goat - Die-cut sleeve

Artist: Goat
Title: ‘Commune’
Label: Rocket Recordings
Released: 2014
Designer: Chris Reeder
Goat - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: Swedish band Goat pushes things to a psychedelic level. Inside the cut-out triangle of the golden outer sleeve, a mind-altering space storm of red and blue seems to be raging, going in circles or coming straight at you, depending on how you insert the inner sleeve. Goat - Die-cut sleeve
As a bonus, this Rocket Recording edition – nomen est omen! – contains eye-catching ‘red with blue splatter’ vinyl.

4. Steven Wilson – The Girls Behind Bars Die-Cut Sleeve

Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
Artist: Steven Wilson
Title: ‘4 1/2’
Label: Kscope
Released: 2016
Designer: Carl Glover
Photographer: Lasse Hoile
Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
Die-cut sleeve design: this release features a sober grey outside sleeve. Four and a half strips of cardboard are cut out, which nicely references the album title.
Steven Wilson - Die-cut sleeve
The two women that peep through the ‘bars’ are on the inner sleeve, captured in a magnificently coloured photograph, that brings to mind the even more intense, heavily filtered pictures of war-torn Congo by Richard Mosse.
Amazing, isn’t it? Which records would you add? Tell me!

Meet Donny McCaslin: star of Bowie’s ★!

Bowie’s ★ is out. I haven’t received my copy yet. Not my fault: pre-order shipping delay at Warner’s … Luckily, the man who once fell to earth already offered a glimpse of his new directions. He released the title track and Lazarus as singles and paired them with deeply unsettling videos. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a well-established NY jazz combo to play a major role in Bowie’s new sound. But it does. So let’s focus on Donny McCaslin. Who is he? How did he appear on the Thin White Duke’s radar? And why should you track down his work?

In short: Donny McCaslin is an insanely gifted, soaring saxophone player, based in New York, just like David Bowie nowadays. When the news of ★’s imminent launch broke, I immediately delved into ‘Casting for Gravity’ (2012). The album sees McCaslin his extraordinary band – including force of nature and Brad Mehldau collaborator Mark Guiliana on drums and electronics – combining all kinds of influences into a strange-yet-familiar jazz melange. Notice their brilliant reworking of Alpha and Omega by Boards of Canada, a performance even Bowie used as a reference during the ★ sessions:

Closer-than-close-knit

Bowie did not just recruit McCaslin. He wanted the entire band. And you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to understand why. McCaslin, Guiliana, Jason Lindner (keys), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and ace guitarist Ben Monder are excellent instrumentalists in their own right, which is just part of the story. Together they create an abundance of ideas and form a closer than close-knit unit.

When McCaslin’s gang reaches for extatic heights, as in Praia Grande, it doesn’t resort to cheap tricks. Instead, it surfs the harmonic waves skillfully and with telepathic ease. The band is equally strong in the angular metropolitan territory of Bend (not too much unlike overlooked Japanese fusionistas Machine & The Synergetic Nuts)

Eno, Fripp, Grohl

Bowie was never really a lone rider. He’s been scouting the country’s and the world’s top musicians for decades. The names of Mick Ronson and Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and blues master Stevie Ray Vaughan will resonate the most. Not to mention one-off guest spots for John Lennon (Fame), Dave Grohl (on Neil Young cover I’ve Been Waiting for You) and Pete Townshend (well, two times … on Because You’re Young and Slow Burn twenty years later).

And what about the excellence provided by lifelong companion Tony Visconti, and by the likes of Gail Ann Dorsey (her Under Pressure vocals on the Reality Tour were spell-binding), Mike Garson (hear his avant-garde soloing on Alladin Sane) and Carlos Alomar (listen to him layering funky guitar with Earl Slick on Stay).

So when Bowie is going to hire a jazz band, you know it’s not going to be some run-off-the-mill combo that never looks beyond Georgia On My Mind or Autumn Leaves. He needs lieutenants who bring their own vision to the mixing table. And that’s why Donny McCaslin’s band, which released the excellent ‘Fast Future’ in 2015, is such a great catch.

Not “Bowie with jazz combo”

Last december, both ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut Magazine’ reported on how McCaslin was instrumental in the making of ★, follow-up album to jack in the box comeback ‘The Next Day’ (2013). Bowie met McCaslin while recording fierce 10″ single Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. McCaslin took the lead in the hefty brass parts, which sounded more forward-looking than anything on ‘The Next Day’, a fine, but fairly conservative album, measured by some of Bowie’s 70’s and 90’s standards.

As the story goes, Bowie dived into ‘Casting for Gravity’ at home, took notes and invoted the entire band into the studio, early 2015. But as McCaslin clarifies in Mojo, it’s not “Bowie with jazz combo”. A claim that’s been intensified by pre-album singles Blackstar and Lazarus.

McCaslin’s star is rising

Donny McCaslin’s involvement in Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ is great in many ways. It transports Bowie to yet another reinvention of himself. Besides, McCaslin is a frontrow witness of Bowie’s current work ethic. A spokesman role he shares with Tony Visconti, while Bowie mysteriously stays out of the limelight. McCaslin’s studio story even reached – somewhat bizarelly – British tabloid ‘The Sun’.

At the same time, McCaslin’s Bowie liaison will no doubt boost exposure for his own work. In a perfect world, he’ll be playing ‘Casting for Gravity’ and ‘Fast Future’, truly great albums, somewhere near you soon. In a surreal world, he’s supporting Bowie minutes before joining him for his long-awaited return to the stage.★

Buy me! Vintage music ads, Part I

Punks, proggers, pub rockers, … everybody wants to sell records. Back in the day, long before we all went online, bands and record labels would have to draw attention to their latest offspring through print advertising. Considering the inventiveness and atmosphere of some of these vintage music ads, it now seems a bit of a lost art. Let’s start off with my favourite example …

Lou Reed – ‘Rock n Roll Animal’ (1974)
Lou Reed - Rock n Roll Animal - Vintage Music Ad

Miles Davis – ‘At Fillmore’ (1970)

Miles Davis - At Fillmore - Vintage Music Ad

Elvis Costello – ‘This Year’s Model’ (1978)
Elvis Costello -  This Year's Model - Vintage Music Ad

Rush – ‘2112’ (1976)

Rush - 2112 - Vintage Music Ad

Kraftwerk – ‘Man Machine’ (1978)

Kraftwerk - Man Machine - Vintage Music Ad

Jeff Beck – ‘Blow by Blow’ (1975)

Jeff Beck - Blow by Blow - Vintage Music Ad

 Iggy Pop – ‘Lust For Life’ (1977)

Iggy Pop - Lust For Life - Vintage Music Ad

Queen – ‘News of the World’ (1977)

Queen - News of the World - Vintage Music Ad

Television – ‘Marquee Moon’ (1977)

Television - Marquee Moon - Vintage Music Ad

Caravan – ‘If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You’ (1970)

Caravan - If Could Do It All Over Again - Vintage Music Ad

Ian Dury – ‘New Boots and Panties!!’ (1977)Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties - Vintage Music Ad

Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties - Vintage Music Ad2Ian Dury - New Boots and Panties - Vintage Music Ad3

AC/DC – ‘Highway to Hell’ (1978)AC/DC - Highway To Hell - Vintage Music Ad

David Bowie – ‘Heroes’ (1977)
David Bowie - Heroes - Vintage Music Ad

 Captain Beefheart – ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (1969)

Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica - Vintage Music Ad

Bruford – ‘Feels Good to Me’ (1978)Bruford - Feel Good to Me - Vintage Music Ad

King Crimson – ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ (1969)King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King - Vintage Music Ad

Jenny Hval - Apocalypse Girl

‘Apocalypse, Girl’ by Jenny Hval – Totally disorienting

The world is a tough place. You can’t deny it. At least when you allow Jenny Hval’s ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ to spread its tentacles into your mind – and I did. The artwork features a woman tripping over a space hopper rather clumsily. Face down.

If we may believe Hval, such uncomfortable situations dominate our lives. The pressure not to make a fool out of yourself is unbearable. A phenomenon the Norwegian chanteuse analyses with an almost painful self-awareness.

Championed by Michael Gira

When in September 2014 noise guru Michael Gira (Swans, Angels of Light) agreed to do a brief Q&A session before steamrolling Brussels’ Ancienne Belgique, he turned up at the eleventh hour. Luckily, he picked some interesting music for the eagerly waiting audience.

Not particularly extreme-sounding, the combination of a fairylike female voice and some seriously disturbing words, was surprising. Later on, back home with ears still ringing, buzzing and roaring from Swans, Google told me the singer was Jenny Hval.

Deceivingly innocent

Hval’s writing style is rather, erm, carnal. Involving a small army of cunts and ‘soft dicks’. Mastering a sense of drama likely learned from childhood idol Kate Bush, Hval sets her angelic, deceivingly innocent voice against a spiky musical backdrop. You’ll understand it doesn’t take ages before ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ totally disorients you.

Hardly a melodic piece, opening song Kingsize immediately shows Hval is capable of tremendous mental leaps. In a matter of moments she mentions bananas rotting away in her lap, cupcakes and a “huge capitalist clit”. Ominous strings and spoken word set the tone. And it’s a grim one.

Fierce social commentary

Take Care Of Yourself dissects what people do to keep themselves happy. Which apparently comes down to: meeting the expectations of others (“shaving in all the right places”) and … masturbating. Hval sounds in turns joking, elegiac and unpleasantly disturbed. While synths paint the scene in ever darker tones.

Only after that there’s room for a more or less accessible song: That Battle Is Over. Hval’s voice might sound heavenly, but excells in fierce social commentary. Specifically about the burden on today’s women’s shoulders:

“Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying
That I need man and child to fulfill me
That I’m more likely to get breast cancer
And it’s biology, it’s my own fault.”

Washed up from a wild sea, Heaven takes the tempo to a mild trot. With pounding electronics and strings and harps spiraling around Hval as she climbs to a higher register. But again, her words are arresting: “I never was a girly girl, forgive me”, reveales that it’s damn hard to swim against the tide.

The pains of being a female outsider

The velvety Sabbath is dominated by the feeling that we have zero control at all. Self-doubt is the starting point for Angels and Aenemia, while the lengthy Holy Land culminates in Hval violently gasping for air.

Despite her unfiltered stream of consciousness, Hval’s message is crystal clear: people are constantly judged – even more so being a female outsider. Taking herself as an example, Hval exposes her inner self as few did before.

Stand-out track:

This review is based on a piece I wrote for daMusic.be in Dutch.

FFS - 'FFS' - 2015 Album Review

‘FFS’ by FFS – Not some kind of monster

Sparks have been going since 1971, Franz Ferdinand surfaced in 2001. Sparks have twenty-two albums under their belt. Franz Ferdinand reached five. Sparks is a duo. Franz Ferdinand is a quartet. And the six of them now form one band, FFS, which just launched a captivating eponymous debut album.

The Franz-Sparks alliance dates back to 2004, when Ferdinand was dominating the airwaves with Take Me Out. The Mael brothers thought it was a cool song and wanted to meet the Glaswegians in their hometown LA. A demo for the song Piss Off stems from that period, but didn’t come to fruition back then. So there it lay … an auspicious ditty, gathering dust. Until the guys bumped into each other in downtown San Francisco.

Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out

“Take us out, Ron and Russell!” – Franz Ferdinand

Born out of that lucky encounter, ‘FFS’ sounds equally spontaneous. Which is a small miracle, given the fact that it must be extremely hard to drag two seasoned bands away from their routines. The danger of creating some kind of monster is real. Especially when – the initial romance waned – both bands realize that this town ain’t big enough after all.

Dramatic falsetto vs. deadpan delivery

Collaborations Don’t Work – an update of Bohemian Rhapsody? – speaks volumes: sooner or later mutual respect will make way for frustration and envy. A fear brilliantly transmitted by the quarrelling between Russell Mael (S) and Alex Kapranos (FF):

S: I don’t need your patronizing
FF: I don’t need your agonizing
S: I don’t need your navelgazing
FF: I don’t get your way or phrasing

Rest assured: Sparks and Franz Ferdinand did not fall into that trap. Both sporting a very distinctive style, they give each other plenty of room to move and breathe. Indeed, what’s making the FFS sound so potent, is the clash of musical contrasts: Ron Mael’s dramatic piano gestures and orchestral leanings against Franz Ferdinand’s guitar crunch, his brother Russell’s falsetto against Kapranos’ deadpan vocal delivery.

Transatlantic humour

Dictator’s Son sees Ron and Russell hopping over a light melody, while heavy guitars vainly try to tone them down. An abundance of great, subtly incorporated ideas aside, most songs are pretty straightforward. Glued together by transatlantic humour and a mildly sardonic tone – what else did you expect?

Sparks - 'Kimono My House' (1974)

“Kimono our house, Franz” – Sparks

Call Girl revolves around wordplay, while Police Encounters hysterically revolves around the wife of a police officer. The Man Without A Tan is about the threat imposed by an all too popular new kid in town, and Piss Off is a Pythonesque way of saying goodbye.

A nod and a wink

To thicken the intellectually amusing ambience, FFS indulges in clever winks to popular culture and auto-reference. For instance on the Japanese-titled So Desu Ne, which mentions both Hello Kitty and ‘kimono’ – a clear nod to Sparks’ 1974 breakthrough album ‘Kimono My House’ (1974). Indeed, the one that made a lasting impression on a teenage Morrissey.

Driven by tiresome cadences, Save Me From Myself and The Power Couple are slightly less memorable. But overall, ‘FFS’ is a surprisingly coherent album. Hopefully inspiring more bands to put their heads together.