Saturday, November 24, 2007

One New Mix CD: The Acid Folk Volume Four
Here it is, my early Christmas gift to you. Making a CDR compilation of classic UK folk-rock has become something of a holiday tradition in our household. Kris always complains that the mixes end up with too much "folk" and not enough "acid". It's ironic, then, that a lot of the more chunky sweater, finger-in-ear, hey-nonny-no tracks on this mix are traditional songs she remembers from her childhood (The Wire's recent acid folk primer was another big influence). And there's plenty of trad stuff on this comp, mark my words.

Nevertheless, there should also be enough flute solos and eastern modes to keep even the most prog-centric hipster satisfied. I'm not sure that this mix quite scales the dizzy heights reached by last year's Volume Three but it features some old favourites, some new discoveries and some really really killer choons.
I've even embedded a DivShare player at the bottom of this post, featuring three of my favourite songs from the comp, for your online previewing pleasure.

I have a handful of copies of the CDR, which are intended to be festive gifts for my friends. So, friends: if you want a copy, let me know ASAP and I'll try to get one to you in time to have your granny tripping out on some Comus after Christmas dinner. If, by some bizarre fluke, you are one of the artists included and you feel that this harmless enterprise infringes your rights, let me know and I'll remove your song from the tracklist.

Anyway, without further ado, here's the track-by-track breakdown:

"Song for the Laird of Connaugh" Bridget St John
Lovely opener from this John Peel-sponsored songbird. When I was first starting to get into music, Peel's "failed" Dandelion label was a bit of a running joke among the British music press. Nowadays, his grooming of psych-folk cornerstones like Forest and Kevin Coyne seems extremely forward thinking.

"Ophelia's Song" Shelagh McDonald

A Mike Barnes recommendation. Apparently McDonald had the same arranger as Nick Drake and the same acid psychosis as Syd Barret. The Drake connection is certainly audible on this delightful piece of chamber-folk.

"Break Your Token" Mellow Candle
One of my absolute favourites here. I first heard of Clodagh Simmonds when she guested on Current 93's Black Ships Ate the Sky. That led me to Simmonds' current output with Fovea Hex - a kind of free-floating ambient-folk collective, featuring Clodagh collaborating with a whole heap of avant-notables, ranging from Eno to Andrew McKenzie of The Hafler Trio.

Anyway, it turns out that, in the '70s, she was in an acid folk group called Mellow Candle. "Break Your Token" sounds quite a lot like Forest (another favourite of mine), as you will discover if you scroll to the DivShare playlist at the foot of this post.

"Who's the Fool Now?" Tim Hart and Maddy Prior
The most straightforwardly folky track on the comp. Two members of Steeleye Span get trad, dad. Talking of "The Span"...

"Blacksmith" Steeleye Span
I stayed away from these guys for years, perhaps traumatized by their atrocious late-period hit "All Around my Hat". Turns out that the band's early material is prime UK folk-rock in the vein of Fairport Convention (from whom they were directly descended) and Trees.

Don't believe me? Just scroll down to the DivShare player at the bottom of the post and hear for yourself.

"Red Wine and Promises" Mike and Lal Waterson
Apparently, the album this song featured on (Bright Phoebus) was The Watersons' attempt to get a slice of the folk-rock action. Disconcerting as it is to hear Lal Waterson's voice backed by, like, instruments, this is a wonderful, darkly funny tune. And you just can't detract or distract from that voice. The Waterson's must have been one of the most truly charismatic musical groups of all time and their charisma is beautifully encapsulated by Lal's defiant tone here.

"Ca' the Yowes" Shirley Collins
Joanna Newsom has been been playing this traditional Scottish songs live quite a lot recently. While I'm certainly part of the whole "Joanna Newsom is a Giantess" faction, I can't believe she'll ever top this version from Shirley Collins, backed by a signature arrangement from sister Dolly. Scroll down to the DivShare player at the bottom of the post and judge for yourself.

"Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair" Davy
Not many people seem to know that this is a traditional English folk tune. Most of you probably think of it as a Nina Simone song, although it's also been covered by some notable US folkies. Admittedly, when it comes to vocal range, Davy Graham is no Nina Simone but I still find this rendition pretty moving and the guitar playing is fantastic, of course.

"Doctor of Physick" Fairport Convention

From Full House, which is kind of their 'Til the Band Comes in. In other words it's the partially-good album that marked the end of the band's classic period. So, no Sandy Denny here but Richard Thompson was still in the band at this point and "Doctor of Physick" is still very much in the style of Liege and Lief etc. Can't wait to hear their Tilt.

"Old Boot Wine" Spirogyra

Flute action! Confusingly this is not the title track from the band's 1972 album of the same name, which featured Fairport alumnus Dave Mattacks on drums. In fact, it's a notably drum-less piece of chamber-folk whimsy from the 1972 album Bells Boots and Shambles. There's a strong possibility that the choirboy-style vocal here is provided by Barbara Gaskin of "It's my Party and I'll Cry If I Want to To" fame!

"Girl from the North Country" Clive Palmer
Fairport weren't the only UK folk-rock act to cover Dylan, y'know. This rendition of "Girl from the North Country" by Incredible String Band founder Clive Palmer is a wonderfully British take on Bob's unmistakable idiom.

"It Don't Bother Me"
Bert Jansch
The title track from my personal favourite Jansch solo outing. This song provides a pretty good illustration of what I was getting at in the recent post where I argued that Bert is the living embodiment of punk rock attitude.

"Bruton Town" The Pentangle
More punk rock! I just keep coming back to that first Pentangle album. It's never been beaten. Even the triangle playing is brilliant!

"The Tale of the Spider and the Fly" Synanthesia

Wasn't Mike Oldfield in this band? Don't tell me. I don't want to know. That whole Barbara Gaskin revelation was quite enough for me.

"The Witch" Mark Fry
Okay, this is where we get into the acid-fried, private press end of things. Flute solos, sitars and it's called "The Witch" fer cryin' out loud! Happy now, hipsters?

"Drip Drip" Comus

Well, if that doesn't get you, then this surely will. An incredibly freaky and disturbing song, with fiddle playing that will blow your mind and vocals that will soil your pants.

You could say that "Drip Drip" is a pretty interesting take on the classic British murder ballad formula, as exemplified by "Bruton Town", earlier on in this compilation. Whereas "Bruton Town" disguises its prurient interest in muderous mayhem behind a thin veil of tragic romance, "Drip Drip" wantonly delights in murder, mutilation and - possibly - necrophilia. Unpleasant but awesome and genuinely epic.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hot Shoe Daze
I'm currently reading JG Ballard's eco-disaster tale The Burning World. The novel, which is beautiful, understated and oddly prescient, takes place during a global drought that causes the land to dry, crack and turn to dust.

I managed to pick up a rather handsome paperback copy (like the one pictured above) for six bucks, at the ever-reliable ABC Book and Comic Emporium. On close inspection, it appears to be a first edition. I imagine it might be worth at bit more than $6, were it in better condition.

Actually, it was in pretty decent condition when I bought it but as soon as I started to read the thing, it began to fall apart. For some reason, the pages have become absolutely dessicated over the years. Every page I turn cracks at the top and bottom, near the spine, depositing a little pile of dust in my lap. This morning, the cover almost fell clean off. Obviously, this all a bit too perfect. Some might say spookily perfect. I personally prefer to call it annoyingly perfect.

This 1960s pulp-modernist book's auto-destruction somehow reminds me of the way Fennesz corrodes his memories of classic rock into dust-flecked abstract electronica. You may remember Fennesz - he put out an album called Venice about a decade ago and hasn't been heard from since.

Fennesz has been on my mind recently because I noticed that the Google search term "Maische" brings quite a few people to this here blog. At first this confused me but then I realized that Maische were a bunch of Austrian shoegazers from the early 90s, who had a singer/guitarist by the name of Christian Fennesz.

To give my fellow Fennesz fans a little something to tide them over until the great man's next solo album (ha!) and to prove to you all that I haven't totally turned my back on embedded multi-media content, I would like to present a Maische song for your online streaming pleasure.

Not too bad, really. Sounds a bit like Ride, who I bloody loved as a 16-year-old. The song is called "This is Your Birthday". It's the last track from the band's 1992 album Brand. I file-shared it from Solarseek but I think the person I got it from got it from a blog called Zero G Sound.

So, you see, the Internet is good for something after all.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"I Don't Know Who That is and I Don't Care to Find Out"
creator David Chase once said that his show was about "people who lie to themselves, as we all do". I'm paraphrasing from memory, so I may not have the quote exactly right but you get the point. One doesn't have to be a sour-faced veteran Hollywood misanthrope to see what Chase was getting at. Some might even say that the socio-economic order that we are all - to some degree - complicit in is so morally abhorrent that, for most people, total denial is the only available strategy for psychological survival. I mean, we're all basically good people, right?

While The Sopranos certainly deals with this denial quite brilliantly, it's actually Fox's Arrested Development that most effectively makes denial the central topic of an extended satire on contemporary society, politics, economics and culture. Sure, it mainly does this through an endless stream of outlandish characters, knob gags, catch phrases and pratfalls but make no mistake, Arrested Development has layers and layers and layers beneath the surface.

The structures of the episodes themselves is extraordinary enough. In many ways, AD is similar to Seinfeld in the way that it splices and folds sitcom conventions into astounding new patterns. But whereas Seinfeld has a specifically sitcom-y approach to deconstructing the sitcom, there's something more literary (or at least cinematic) about the way AD uses foreshadowing, coincidence, captions, narration (courtesy of Ron Howard) etc. etc. to create a bizzare labyrinth of thematic juxtapositions. This reaches its absurd formal zenith during the episode in which Tobias (acclaimed stand-up comedian David Cross) and his nephew George Michael (the astonishingly gifted Michael Cera) unwittingly stage a live-action pastiche of vintage Japanese monster movies.

While Cross and Cera both give virtuoso performances throughout the series - each deploying a method actor-like array of tics, gestures and mannerisms - it seems unfair to single them out among what must undoubtedly be the greatest ensemble cast ever in a US network TV show (featuring Portia de Rossi, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Jeffrey Tambor, among others).

Still, it's worth mentioning Cross and his failed-psychiatrist/actor character because Tobias is present at the central moment of denial in the entire series. Somewhere in the middle of the second season, Tobias confronts his mother-in-law Lucille (played with imperious venom by Jessica Walter) to tell her that - in his qualified opinion - she is suffering from what psychiatrists call "denial". Lucille then delivers a razor sharp, concise assassination of Tobias's character, directly to his face. There's a pregnant pause after which Tobias says something like "Well, if she's not going to say anything, I simply can't help her" before hastily leaving the room.

The thing is that, like most of the characters on the show, Lucille lives her life in deep denial. But with her, denial seems to be an entirely voluntary state, as evidenced by her fondness for phrases like "I didn't understand the question and I won't respond to it." Lucille may seem like the most despicable character on AD but in many ways, she's actually one of the most honest and least hypocritical.

The same might be said of her granddaughter Maeby (played brilliantly by Alia Shawkat). Maeby
and her cousin George Michael are interesting cases because they're still teenagers (and unlike most US shows, the teens on AD really are played by teens). You see, "the Kids" haven't yet learned to work denial seamlessly into their day-to-day lives. For George Michael, this means enduring a constant stream of horrifically embarrassing and traumatic incidents. For Maeby, on the other hand, it means being able to shamelessly exploit the credulity of the adult world for personal gain - much to George Michael's horror. (Notably, one of the few adults on the show who seems to live without denial is the man-child Buster - played by Tony Hale in another of AD's most virtuosic performances).

Cera's character spends much of his time trying to live up to the apparently saintly example set by his father Michael (the show's central character, played by Bateman). The catch here is that Michael is a judgmental and egocentric jerk. His essential lameness is paralleled by the ludicrous faux-charitable antics of his twin sister Lindsay (de Rossi). Don't get me wrong, they both mean well. They're basically good people.

But aren't we all?

(Postscript: The lack of embedded multi-media content in this post has less to do with my recently-acquired aversion to such things and everything to do with the fact that Fox seems to be having some kind of ridiculous crybaby dispute with YouTube. Fear not, though, because it seems that you can stream the entire series online, legally, here!)