MELOMANIA bringing it in with pristine Pop, danceable Rock, free Jazz, growers and deep dive into Kate Bush
[yeah, we went there - but we think you will like the trip]
FLORENCE DORE - Highways and Rocketships [LP/CD](Propeller Sound)
The best part about the latest from North Carolina singer/songwriter Florence Dore is how it immediately takes you in never letting you think that it has been 20 years since her radiant “Perfect City.” Dore’s literate songs are even more reductive this time depending heavily on the sounds of words. In addition, Dore also turns songs over to her crack band (Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby, Mark Spencer, and Jeremy Chatzky. Her voice on “Sweet To Me” bounces all over the place thanks to Mitch Easter and Don Dixon’s classic mid-80’s production. The R.E.M-ish undertones of this one grow on you like kudzu (or even her excellent 2001 song “Perfect City.”) While her music has lost none of its shimmer, it is also fun to hear Dore crank out a dirty surf-tune like “Thundercloud” which it all attitude but a clever conceit to use in a classic been-done-bad scenario. (In addition, her slashing dB-ish pre-chorus/chorus combination is the true knockout punch.) “Highways and Rocketships” is a great take on both the Eighties surge of female singer/songwriters and how the next generation dominates all music today.
BLACK - Human Features [7”] (Optic Nerve UK)
This 1981 single from Liverpool’s Black is the spiritual descendant of XTC’s “Making Plans For Nigel” and the spiritual antecedent of The Smiths “The Headmaster Ritual.” Colin Vearncombe started this project in possibly Liverpool’s most fertile years since the Beatles. Strangely enough, with its large percussion sound and chorused-but-jangly guitar it is less like the Liverpudlian Psychedelia of its day and more like Young Marble Giants and the C86 sound coming. The post-chorus rumble is especially effective. Its B-side “Electric Church” shows even more of Vernacombe’s Gothic crooning that will lead to Black’s international 1986 hit “Wonderful Life.” Yet another in Optic Nerve’s ongoing brilliant Post-Punk reissue series.
Hot danceable music from Yorkshire is possibly a difficult sell. However, when you follow just where their members come from (Yard Act, Drahla, Hookworms, Cowtown, Virginia Wing) is it far easier to see why Holodrum strives for the unity of the faceless/nameless classic EDM-style DJ. The six songs here take their time to build up (single “No Dither” feverishly rushes out of the gate like a classic Downtown NYC from 1981) and draw you into their layered Dance Rock layer-by-layer. “Lemon Chic” is a fantastic opener with its disco beat, machine hand clap, and horn part. Holodrum’s songs are not about fever pitch. They are about landing right on its doorstep - and parking there. Vocals are generally chant-like and repetitive but consistently under the slightest changes. “Free Advice” is deceptive in its pull on you. Where it sounds as dense as any other UK Dance/Rock band, it is largely about control and release. One of its many peaks is the magical push-pull portion in the middle. In true EDM fashion, Holodrum is actually smart enough to underplay this making nearly every break something to savor while it is playing which goes even further to make their big pushes seem as colorful, vivid, and vibrant as a dancefloor in 1979. Dance music is not synonymous with functioning as a “grower.” Holodrum’s best feature is that it has to grow on you to reveal its maze of parts, melodies, and ideas. A promising debut - that could too easily slip by.
RUBBER OH - Strange Craft [LP/CD](Rocket Recordings UK/Redeye)
What is Pop? Newcastle’s Rubber Oh makes the case that in large part it should be both undefinable and familiar. “Strange Craft” is a Synth Rock record that masquerades itself in a blend of heavy riffs (“Nothing”) and distant high vocals (think Tame Impala before the deluge minus the Beatles-isms.) A Rubber Oh track can be so unassuming that their disparate parts catch you off guard (the stomping dreamlike haze of “Dust.”) Their most evident single is the Prog/Glam feast of “Children of Alchemy” which is a bit like The Once and Future Band playing The Flaming Lips. “Strange Craft” often hides so much in its dense surface mix, that you really have to listen to the constellation of sounds and instruments they wield. However, that may be Rubber Oh’s point of existence. Many tracks like “Little Demon” don’t really have a hook per se. However, “the hook” is how well they mix their most discreet melodic ideas with an overdriven bottom. The total effect is quite like a warped Seventies Glam Rock in reverse. (The instrumental “ballad” “Colour Orbit” winds hard underneath a light, frothy jazz-like guitar melody they bend in and out of pitch.) In the end, the whole effect of “Strange Craft” cannot be achieved by either a cursory listen to a few songs or even a couple of passing listens. Rubber Oh seems to believe that Pop in their estimation is giving you a panorama that you need multiple listens to absorb, organize and translate. “Strange Craft” is quite the grower.
GHOST POWER - Ghost Power [Lp](Duophonic UK)
Ghost Power is one of those albums you need to enter unknowingly. Without telling you who is involved, the mystery behind this hallucinatory cocktail music is a much more scintillating experience. Ghost Power is largely a palette of sounds that the duo is manipulating at will to ease you in (the alien surf transmissions of “Asteroid Witch”) and then ease you into yet another stage with minimalist magic (the weird TV theme-meets-Vaudevillian wonderment of “Lithic Fragment.”) Ghost Power can take the tension of “154”-era Wire and layer it with synth sounds until it crackles like a missing piece of the score to “The Prisoner.” The record is rooted in Sixties sounds as rudimentary drum machines hum in the distance and twangy guitars usher in mood changes in the foreground. The most outstanding moment on their auspicious debut is “Grimalkin” which is their most layered composition and mood-altering. Ghost Power has a real grasp on sound manipulation and tension control here. It would be most exciting for them to perhaps score a film next.
PETER BROTZMANN/MILFORD GRAVES/WILLIAM PARKER - Historic Music Past Tense Future [LP](Black Editions)
Four improvisational pieces from three titans of (mostly) Free Jazz. The “Side” tracks here work like rams clashing on some high mountain range. Saxophonist Brotzmann and bassist Parker duke it out conjuring a tornado full of notes, runs, and phrases. We cannot necessarily call them “melodic” because they often emerge from the burst of creativity and power from having THAT level of command over your instrument. Still hearing them duel within the same pitch range is less like the classic “cutting” style solo where an introductory phrase is repeated and more about matching then somehow exceeding the amount of intestinal fortitude behind it. Then there is the great Milford Graves holding it all together from behind his set. The referee at times. The foundation at all times. Breathtaking and yet as dangerous as Free Jazz needs to be.
NDIKHO XABA AND THE NATIVES [LP](Mississippi)
Portland’s Mississippi Records is fast becoming the source of the best forgotten/outsider music. This expertly assembled 1971 reissue puts five disparate pieces of music together that leave you feeling like Cecil Taylor just jammed with Pharoah Sanders during his Neoafricanism period (the brooding beauty of the opener “Shwabada” and its meditative complement “Nomusa.”) The Spiritual Jazz jam “Freedom” speaks the longest in its repeated vocal request and the slow march toward its goal. While the meditative “Flight” and the rousing percussion piece “Makhosi” summon the spirit within not just their music but all music. Despite their low fidelity, these five songs hold together as they blend together in the necessary space to grasp your attention and hold it until the last fade-out.
A DEEP DIVE INTO THE NEWEST ROCK N’ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTEE - KATE BUSH!
Since the great Kate has been blowing up worldwide after “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” finally got the attention it deserved 36 years later, we thought this was a perfect time to explore those first four albums and the now-surging “Hounds of Love.”
Kate Bush likely started writing songs for fun. The child of two “amateur” musicians, young Kate possessed some preternatural talent for writing. Through her writing, she clearly learned how she wanted to sing (in so many voices) and communicate feelings, emotions, and ideas that were largely absent from popular songs. A Kate Bush song is typically not mechanical like most Pop of its day - or even this day. Her passion for music is generally the top layer of her method of musical communication. She is either enticing you to be joyous or amorous with her, or shocking your system with how well she can tell a story with no narrative thread.
Bush is one of the most important artists of the Eighties because as a female singer/songwriter she was given almost complete freedom to express herself (well before Madonna made that a slogan.) There is something so steely about how Kate combines the processes of writing, playing, and recording into one entity. Listening to these albums leaves you with the notion that she never wanted a mistake or accident to land on tape. The level of manipulation of her vocal ideas or melodies from studio musicians to machinery is the continuum of her story. In the beginning, you can hear how well she could obtain all the backing vocal magic she needed to mix her messages and how the feminity of her music would be most notably complemented by the slinky, fretless bass of Del Palmer. During their best moments on these albums, you are sometimes left with the feeling that Palmer’s rubbery countermelodies are often like the snake slithering into her Garden of Eden.
1978’s brilliant “The Kick Inside” is one of the most ambitious rolls of the dice a large conglomerate ever took. Signing Bush at 16 and holding on to her music until Punk ran its course and Prog proved to be all but over was a smart decision. Bush with a passel of studio musicians and wizardry at her disposal is a goldmine. The songs that are the most effective today sound less like typical Seventies production (the still bracing “James and the Cold Gun” - EMI’s choice of single only to be outlasted by Kate’s wiser selection of “Wuthering Heights.”) and more like the elastic, multi-track wonders of today. “Strange Phenomena” is striking in both Kate’s shifting time signatures and content. However, the power in her voice quickly establishes itself. The “love” songs “L’Amour Looks Something Like You” and “Oh To Be In Love” may have been like her romantic wishes come true at the time. In hindsight, there is something about Kate using her high range over the most conventional “Rock” arrangement that speaks to how her self-training at home made her truly one of a kind. The singles remain magical. “Wuthering Heights,” her initial statement to the world is as operatic as “Bohemian Rhapsody” in places and its chorus remains simultaneously gentle but tragic. “The Kick Inside” has aged very well.
Most say that “Lionheart” feels rushed. Honestly, it feels more significant in Kate’s development of thematic writing and the beginning of her use of leitmotifs. “Symphony in Blue” is another airy wonder like “Wuthering Heights” (sadly, the multi-tracked guitars date it.) Its single “Wow” is the best example of a song developing to actually emphasize her voice. Just like her wavering and wandering, “Wow” develops its first half almost without a beat. By the time she reaches the exclamatory chorus, you are sold. A similar theme (in minor terms) emerges in ‘Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake” which seems slight until her multi-tracked vocals help drive the massive chorus. Unlike “The Kick Inside,” “Lionheart” is more of a study in dynamics as Kate develops the rhythm of her vocals (which are expertly tied into her longtime percussionist Stuart Elliott. The historic ballad “Oh England My Lionheart” might have seemed a little overwrought in its time. However, the images she chooses to deify her homeland have only improved with age much like the throwback Pop of the Beatles or the Music Hall storytelling of The Kinks. “Lionheart” while not as revelatory as “The Kick Inside,” is completely underrated.
If “Lionheart” proved to be too obtuse for audiences (and let’s be honest, the meteoric rise of “Wuthering Heights” made her an easy target for parody and the convenient mockery of those who probably did not listen,) 1980’s “Never For Ever” was both a confident package of potential hits and her first signs of maturity. “Never For Ever” remains significant because it feels like an Eighties album (those backing vocals on “Blow Away”) and as she separates her parts and organizes her songs their conventionality actually gives her vocal swoops and dives more room for expression. What might have been crammed into one track on “The Kick Inside,” the standard Rock of “The Wedding List” showcases Kate’s confidence in carrying a song almost like two characters. The march of “Army Dreamers” provides a fascinating opportunity for Bush’s lyrics, cooing, and call-and-response to all pirouettes around the spinning wheel of 3/4 time. As she unthreads the older ideas, not a moment is wasted here. The best demonstration of this newly discovered power is the marvelous “Babooshka.” Her thematic ideas are all quickly brought into focus at first, then Kate beautifully hangs her lilting romantic melody over the cascading chords as a believable narrator. If that simply was not enough, while it is common for the period, the guitar figure that announces the chorus is the perfect simple method of building tension. For once, this buildup absolutely makes her chorus immediately memorable. “Babooshka” for its masterful storytelling and continuing romantic build-and-release is the seminal Kate Bush single. All power and meticulous production whose story and delivery are so believable - the whole product feels as light as a feather. “Never For Ever” would be Kate’s first album to debut at #1 in the UK. While not as cohesive as one might expect, her most confident songs hint at the streams of melody coming on “Hounds of Love.”
1982’s “The Dreaming” is often referred to by Kate as her “crazy woman” album. While it was almost turned down by EMI, the self-produced record has only grown in stature. If anything at its most rudimentary, it solves two problems for Kate. One, as her own producer she learns everything she needs to know by taking her every idea and whim too far. Two, where the first three are light and again feminine - “The Dreaming” takes its inspiration from Post-Punk like The Cure and Siouxsie And The Banshees. By left turning into this bracing set of compositions (screaming and all,) Kate was now seen as an artist. Loud and striking, all the earlier refinements of the first three are stripped away. Kate’s voice sounds like Medea or a Greek heroine who has been violently wronged. “Sat In Your Lap” (actually released as a single a full year before “The Dreaming” hit shelves) uses that gated reverb Peter Gabriel production, synth horn, and a handful of multi-tracked vocal overdubs that likely inspired Prince. “There Goes A Tenner” is alternately playful and languid. “Pull Out The Pin” has one hell of a chorus as she screams “I am Alive” and it descends into cocktail piano cut together with sound effects and orchestral stabs. “Suspended In Gaffa” would have been a tour de force on “The Kick Inside.” In Kate’s hands on “The Dreaming” is becomes a veritable merry-go-round of sound. Like “Babooshka,” Kate is singing with herself (actually numerous selves.) While the production is completely over-the-top, “Gaffa” has its most haunting moments in her quiet lower voice sounding like she has simply had enough. On its surface, “The Dreaming” is designed to shock and physically shake the images of Bush in leotards dancing around out of your head. This is not Kate asking to be taken seriously, this is demanding it “Leave It Open” is brooding with its effect-laden voices. Finally, this is Kate finding her voices. “The Dreaming” is all sheep and an Australian accent. “Get Out Of My House” and “Slamming” are primal, striking songs that are visceral in their use of melody and sound thus predating the confessional threadbare anger coming from women in the Nineties. “The Dreaming” is criminally underrated.” In a world driven crazy by political unrest, economic collapse and a proxy war in the Falklands, Kate was only being honest about being “crazy” - you too would let out the bloodcurdling shriek of “Get Out Of My House.”
With a largely misunderstood record that failed to deliver and her label demanding another hit without months of studio time, Kate Bush built her own studio in her farmhouse. This newfound freedom gave her all the space she needed to satisfy her own needs as producer (perhaps absorbing the lessons of “The Dreaming,”) artist, and commercial entity. On its surface, the smartest decision made in preparing “Hounds of Love” was splitting it into two sides. The first side (“Hounds of Love”) is Kate delivering those hits that EMI wanted. The second side “The Ninth Wave” is her long-form narrative composition that is as melodic as the earlier works and as transformative as the later ones.
“Hounds of Love” is unique in the music of its time because while it was commercially constructed (four music videos all aimed at the new entity of MTV with two directed by Kate) it remains uncompromising in her vision. “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God”) quickly establishes a musical theme for the first side. These are no longer songs of desperation, these are songs about clutching at the differences between people and trying to figure things out. Furthermore, “Running Up That Hill” with its declaration of “switch our places” is far more than just one lover wishing they could think like the other. “Running” is the ultimate assertion of love where lovers become each other.
At this point, Bush has softened the production ideas of “The Dreaming” and tracks like the title cut and “Big Sky” are developed around hours of her recording the sounds she wants into her Fairlight CMI synthesizer. Like sampling in the not-so-distant future and the razor-cut digital production of today, “Hounds of Love” is a triumph of using conventional sounds (outside of composition even) together in an array to make an unnatural, perhaps unheard sound. “Cloudbusting” is the complement to “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God.”) While it tells its own story (which the family approved on the day she recorded the vocals,) the melodic sway of it does even need words or a melody. “Hounds of Love” as side one is the culmination of everything Kate has done - all those dizzying melodies of “The Kick Inside” filtered through the confidence of “Never For Ever” and the intense release of “The Dreaming” into a subtle, powerful set of tracks who romantic overtures are now always pulling you below the surface.
That sense of drowning and helplessness is the central theme of side two’s “The Ninth Wave.” Here over seven songs are drawn together by a narrative of being shipwrecked and only surviving with the blinking light on her life preserver, Kate seems to make either a metaphor for the seriousness of her ongoing relationship and/or a sidelong illustration of that continuum of her career. While she is quietly lulled to sleep by the waves, it seems to be what she learns about her past (“Jig of Life”) wakes her up to realize that her life is fully under her control. With “Hounds of Love,” Kate delivered everything the label wanted (hits, sales, even promotion) and was granted full creative control for the remainder of her career. Having dropped the mask on what her music was on “Hounds of Love,” even today audiences are struck by its magical ability to communicate passion, wanting, and desire all in one piece. Seeing audiences flock to it again after its use on “Stranger Things” could not have happened at a more perfect time. In its time, it was appreciated and perhaps understood. After the primal scream of the last two-plus years, Kate seems to communicate that all of us need those three emotions.
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