Monday, August 18, 2008

Best of 2008: Now It's August - Pt. 2

This is the second part of the selection, from the whole of 2008 up until the month of August. Part One was posted recently here, and a previous selection started in April. The third part of Now It's August will be six songs from Irish artists.

August - Part 2 (it's looong)

4. Patti Smith & Kevin Shields - Performance I, Part 1, of The Coral Sea.

5. Grails - 'Take Refuge' from Take Refuge In Clean Living.

6. Matmos - 'Supreme Balloon' from Supreme Balloon.

Patti Smith & Kevin Shields

The Coral Sea is Patti Smith's elegy to her close friend Robert Mapplethorpe - the photographer who took the iconic cover image for Horses - who died of AIDS, aged 42, seven years before the publication of the tribute in book form in 1996. The double-CD set is a live recording of her reading of The Coral Sea accompanied by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine on guitar. There are two performances, both recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2005 and 2006.

It's a long disc - this is the first of six tracks that make up the first performace, and as of writing I haven't even got around to the second disc and performance, which is supposedly broader and more energetic. On this track, Shields's guitar rises very slowly from being barely audible to having a physical, moving presence in the recording, while the whole disc captures the full climactic arc. Even if this part is less exciting or attention-grabbing, it wouldn't make sense to start anywhere else.

Patti Smith and Kevin Shields are important artists for me - and for most other people, to a greater or less extent, I would imagine - for two respective records: 1976's Horses and 1991's Loveless. Essentially, that goes without saying. Patti Smith - whose other output is far more prolific than Shields - although as I only have Easter and Radio Ethiopia, I can't speak too much about the overall quality of her work; though those two are very good, even excellent in places. Kevin Shields has achieved a lot of recognition for doing very little after Loveless, recent MBV reunion notwithstanding. He did do the Lost In Translation soundtrack, play with Primal Scream, and did a lot of work on Gemma Hayes's latest album, The Hollow of the Morning. However, it is little enough to make an appearance like this interesting, and considering the calibre of the artist he is playing alongside, very interesting indeed.

I won't pretend to be arty enough to be able to enjoy this album effortlessly, but I do enjoy it, and I think you should too. Free associative poetry, shaped into a mostly prose tribute, about a deep and philosophical human relationship; balanced with ethereal, cacophonic guitarwork; it is art. Sometimes the metaphors seem overworked, especially when isolated by Patti Smith's either soft or declamatory delivery - an ocean takes on the appearance of a "Rothko"; or was that Roethke? But elsewhere, it's a truly emotional, literary as well as sonic experience.


Grails can be marked down, for me, as yet another great find from Zen and the Art of Face Punching. Last year's epic, but highly focused album Burning Off Impurities made it to the top five of his 2007 list and introduced me to their Eastern-influenced, post-rock charms. I still like his explanation: "Grails are not new-age. They are incredible-age."

(I was looking at some earlier Grails stuff, specifically the album The Burden of Hope, and found via that local Portland musician Timothy Horner played violin with Grails as well as on the post-Moss Icon project Breathing Walker. Only connect...)

Take Refuge In Clean Living is no Burning Off Impurities, for a variety of reasons. But it is Grails, and that basically means it's awesome. Really, to my mind, Grails are quite possibly the best post-rock band around today, and that's in quite a wide genre. Part of their own appeal is the breadth of musical styles. Grails is somewhere between metal without the guitar distortion (thanks, josephlovesit), 'spaghetti-western'/'eastern' rock, stoner rock and Godspeed-like classical post-rock. The more recent origins of Take Refuge In Clean Living are described below:

"The 2006-07 touring incarnation of Grails included good friend and drummer Ben Nugent, allowing Emil Amos to switch to third guitar for the band's live instrumentation. The DNA of this "guitar-dense" lineup allowed for new types of songs and bigger melodies. In early 2007, the then-five-piece entered Steven Lobdell's (Faust) Audible Alchemy to document the new songs written with this augmented sound, and the resultant sessions make up Take Refuge In Clean Living. (The group has since returned to the original four members). Opening with a nod to Syd Barret's Pink Floyd, the album begins with Morse Code before dropping into one of the heaviest slow-burn grooves in the Grails canon. Sounding something like Hawkwind and Ravi Shankar scoring Bladerunner, it's lysergic and earthy in a new way. The rest of the album moves from blissful Eno-inspired ambience and epic Morricone rock hymns to an unexpected take on a Ventures tune that returns the listener back to the very beginnings of instrumental rock music."

( review)

With the Dionysian cover art, the album feels like a slight indulgence in the territority of jam bands. The first half of 'Stoned At The Taj Again', 'PTSD' and '11th Hour' (the Ventures cover) doesn't particularly jump out at me, although there's plenty of interest there to explore over time (I'll have to wait until I get the LP.) It's the second half, the pairing of the two songs 'Take Refuge' and 'In Clean Living', which attracts. 'Take Refuge', which in the words of one review "pushes the band far East past the gypsies and into Mahavishnuvian grandeur", opens with Eastern drums and drone (the later blending almost perfectly with the close of the preceding Coral Sea track) more reminiscent of Burning Off Impurities than anything else on the disc so far. However, it's not a simple retread of that album's sound, but something different and of equal if not better quality. A few introductory guitar chords, a winding Indian lead-in, and then the bass-heavy, mind-melting distortion begins to kick in. Briefly and softly at first, then louder and more sustained, until the riff becomes more and more obviously stated and reaches to dominate the song, although it always keeps a sense of separatedness, bleeding into non-duality.

After just about three-and-a-half minutes - the optimum length for a pop song, or so it's said - 'Take Refuge' drops back into a quiet, moody organ interval for a moment before starting all over again, but with the pieces all arranged in place so as to reach the heights again with pleasurable speed. The centre of the song, that heavy guitar riff, is unusually rock-ish in the context of the clean, almost Velvet Underground-like jangly sound of Burning Off Impurities. Its appearance reminds me of the last song on Envy's side of their forthcoming Jesu split EP, 'Life Caught In The Rain', which featured a similarly prominent and oddly out-of-place hardcore riff. In both cases, of course, what results is a fascinating, melodic hook. Deeply infectious, fluid and worthy of Junior Kimbrough's psychedelic blues, 'Take Refuge' shimmers with a clarity that only I suppose true stoner rock could. And as if to further the effect, the closing track 'In Clean Living' echoes the grandiose riffage with its own, ascetic, piano rendition.


Matmos - the San Franciscan/Baltimore duo of M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel - are named after an extraterrestrial lake in the 1968 film Barbarella, which is also the name of the original groovy lava-lamp manufacturers. So it's not necessarily normal Hardcore for Nerds fare. In fact, the only reason I encountered their music was the fact that they were headlining the bill for the first day of the Future Days festival this year, with Si Schroeder and on the day of my 21st birthday (live review here.) As it turned out, it was a very impressive show on both counts, Si Schroeder and Matmos, with the latter having the added benefit of discovering a new artist. Perhaps an acquired taste, this album is either the duo's "latest offering of found sound scavenger hunt stylized schizophrenic video game soundtrack perfection" (Burning Down The Dreams of Forever) or a record with "an ambient title track that goes nowhere beyond wiggly test-tones for 24 minutes - a long time to go nowhere, no matter the concept." (The A.V. Club). Naturally, that 24-minute long track is the one I've chosen for this selection; partly to go with the general theme of largesse and expansiveness, but mostly because it is a really interesting, if aggressively ambient (is there such a thing?) piece of - firmly electronic - music.

Supreme Balloon appears to be Matmos's sixth release for the Matador label, and a move to "a purely electronic direction" and "crafted entirely out of vintage synthesisers" (allmusic review). I don't know enough about electronic music to make any connections, but I think if I were to describe this as Dan Deacon for advanced learners I wouldn't be too far off. Road describe it as:

"...another suitably bonkers collection of weird psychedelic electronica from matmos but also one of their most coherent and beat friendly collections to date. imagine what the bbc radiophonic workshop people would sound like jamming with mouse on mars and you are at least getting a bit closer to the sound of matmos. its full of throbbing moog like sounds with plenty of pulsating aphex twin like drum patterns. you wont be dancing to this too much but as ever matmos never fail to stretch the boundaries of modern electronic music. may 2008"

Admittedly, I found this song to be largely torture live - at full volume, after having been on one's feet for about an hour previous, and having imbibed a modest amount of alcohol - but that's not to say it wasn't interesting to listen to, and some people (mostly hippies, from what I could see) even managed to get dancing to it. Pitchfork - who give the album a decent 7.5 - describe 'Supreme Balloon' as "a chasm-wide, slow burning bit of analog psychedelia that conjures up very obvious comparisons to Vangelis and Tangerine Dream in their mid-70s heyday". They also manage to include the phrase "eponymously-titled". But of course.

In fact, the album aside from this title track might be a bit too odd and diverse for me to spend much time listening to it this year. The double LP is tempting, however...

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