Saturday, 19 May 2018

Boz Scaggs – Some Change and Dig

Some artists, one feels, never quite achieve the broad recognition that they deserve. Perhaps fundamentally reserved and modest in nature, they may not have that uneasily defined ‘star thing’ that would help them to make that final leap into mainstream media coverage and ‘end of year best albums list’-style ubiquity. Instead, their lot is, it seems, to carry on crafting excellent albums and playing superb shows – in other words, doing great work year in, year out – but never quite enjoying the status that they may not themselves crave, but their fans probably do on their behalf.

US-born guitarist and singer Boz Scaggs falls firmly into this category. First coming to prominence during an early (and often spectacular) incarnation of the Steve Miller Band, Scaggs’ subsequent solo career went stratospheric with the 1976 release of Silk Degrees. An apex of ‘70s pop-soul, the album features Scaggs backed by session royalty drawn from the ranks of Little Feat and Toto. ‘Lowdown’, ‘What Can I Say’ and ‘Lido Shuffle’ – all harmony-laden and very much built for cruising down a Californian freeway – became FM radio perennials and are still stalwarts of Scaggs’ live sets today.

Silk Degrees' multi-Platinum success would make it a tough act to follow – and the albums that Scaggs recorded during the rest of the 1970s (Down Two Then Left, Middle Man) were less consistent and sometimes a little too close to MOR. Perhaps wisely given the production-related sonic catastrophes that befell many of his contemporaries, Scaggs largely sat out the 1980s as he explored alternative careers as a restaurateur and vintner. His sole album of the decade, 1988’s Other Roads, had some strong moments, but with Some Change six years later he was not only back on form, but offering what I would suggest is the best album of his entire career.

Going into this project, it appears Scaggs was apparent of the need for a reset, so it makes sense that he decided to review his approach to recording. Always under-valuing his own abilities as an instrumentalist, Scaggs didn’t contribute guitar to many of his ‘70s hits, preferring to leave it to the crack session players who he felt were in a different league. But on Some Change, Scaggs the guitarist is back in full effect, and it’s a joy – his spare, bluesy, ‘in the pocket’ style the perfect complement to his most pared-backed recordings since the early ‘70s.

With Scaggs also playing some keyboards and bass, the long roll-calls of session players are no more, although there are still a handful of individual-song contributions from the esteemed likes of Booker T Jones on B3 organ, Fred Tackett on acoustic guitar, and Marcus Miller, James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson and Nathan East on bass. Scaggs’ main accomplice, though, is his co-producer Ricky Fataar, a former member of the Beach Boys whose fantastic drumming is the foundation on which these 10 subtly funky tracks are built.

The opening ‘You Got My Letter’ is a ringing statement of intent, its call-and-repeat guitar parts pushing the track through four infectious, bluesy minutes. If it's blues you are seeking, though, the title cut is the real deal – a rock-solid groove is enhanced by Booker’s B3 and a sequence of rippling solos by Scaggs that should have dispelled his reservations about his own playing forever. And he’s never sung better, either, although it must be admitted that his soulfully yearning vocals can lift even the least distinguished material.

Co-written by Robben Ford and Michael Omartian, ‘Call Me’ re-asserts Scaggs’ nice sideline in quirky pop balladry, although the high-point of flat-out gorgeousness here is ‘Sierra’ – chock-full of longing and featuring one of Scaggs’s most beautifully crafted melodies. Drawing to a close with ‘Illusion’ – its opaque groove riding along on Miller’s characteristically nimble bassline – and the more emphatically bluesy ‘Follow That Man’, Some Change was a subtle triumph; the kind of album that improves with repeated listenings over years.

Never the most prolific of writers, Scaggs has tended to include multiple covers on many of his subsequent albums, with the exception of Dig, which was written with ‘70s accomplice, keyboardist David Paich, and guitarist Danny Kortchmar, among others. A very different beast to Some Change, Dig is much more polished – not always to its benefit – but on ‘Payday’, ‘’Call That Love’ and ‘Vanishing Point’ it all meshes rather beautifully. Alas, the album – like Dylan’s Love & Theft – had the misfortune of being released on September 11, 2001, and consequently came and went commercially. More recently it has been re-evaluated and its best moments continue to pepper Scaggs’ live shows.

Still touring each year as a solo act, and occasionally with Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald as the Dukes of September, Scaggs is the very definition of a class act. Evidently modest and retiring in nature, he is – to return to my opening observation – simply doing ‘great work year in, year out’. Now 73, Scaggs has a new album out at the end of July, Out of the Blues, whose lovely, harmonica-enhanced lead track, ‘Rock and Stick’, suggests there’s still plenty of life yet in his distinctive take on soulful blues-rock.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

From Croz to Sky Trails: David Crosby’s glorious late-career renaissance

By any standards the last five years have been phenomenally productive for the estimable David Van Cortlandt Crosby. Having said goodbye to Crosby-Nash, Crosby Stills & Nash, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and other permutations thereof amid no little personal acrimony and a profound weariness with the apparent fate of the ‘heritage’ act to “turn on the smoke machine and play the hits” once again (as he remarked during his recent interview with Alec Baldwin for the excellent Here’s the Thing… podcast) Crosby charted a course for a considerably more exciting renewed solo career in the company of mainly younger musicians, notably his son and keyboardist/producer James Raymond, and bassist/Snarky Puppy mastermind Michael League.

The result has been an extraordinary sequence of albums, to date comprising Croz (2014), Lighthouse (2016) and Sky Trails (2017), but one that shows no sign of abating as Crosby has been back in the studio in NYC in recent weeks to record another new album. Crosby’s own earlier struggles with addiction have been (very) exhaustively documented, but suffice to say that in later life he has evidently found a genuine contentment – something underlined in many recent interviews – that has paved the way for a sustained creative renaissance.

The first song on the first of these releases, Croz, provided a strong indication of the resonant songwriting and gorgeous playing and singing that were to come. Structured around a long, uncoiling melodic figure enhanced with glistening pedal steel and perfectly measured transatlantic guitar overdubs from Mark Knopfler, ‘What’s Broken’ is a stunning opening statement of intent. The creative silence that had endured since Crosby’s last release (as part of CPR) in 2001 was finally over, and the distinctive Crosby melodic/harmonic music/life-force was back in full effect.

On the 10 ensuing songs Crosby, Raymond and producer Daniel Garcia established a meticulous, textured production aesthetic that has permeated all of his recent releases. An unsurprising focus on Crosby’s solo and harmony vocals – still in remarkably fine form in his mid ‘70s – is typically augmented by deep-soak synths and intricate layers of acoustic and electric guitars. Few verses are exactly the same, with new sonic embellishments at each pass lending colour and underlining the obvious time and attention that has been lavished on these recordings. Bar to bar, there is always something new to delight the ear, from the telegraphic-style guitar parts that course through ‘Dangerous Night’, to the sprightly jazzy shuffle that underpins lovely album closer ‘Find A Heart’. 

After such an extended studio layoff, Crosby was understandably buoyed by the enthusiastic reaction to Croz and embarked upon a series of tours that – in a welcome contrast to many of his peers – have emphasised his dynamic new material just as much as the older perennials. The related surge of interest in his work also brought Crosby into contact with some of the most exciting younger players, not least Snarky Puppy – the frequently jaw-dropping jazz/rock collective (just check their album with the Metropole Orkest and conductor Jules Buckley, Sylva) – and their regular collaborator, the gifted jazz/folk singer/songwriter Becca Stevens (best first listen: recent album Regina).

Here were sympathetic creative talents, eager to press ahead with ambitious new music, and it was in the company of Stevens and League that Crosby crafted his 2016 album, Lighthouse. This release was more pared-back, reflecting League’s desire to construct a song-sequence primarily around vocal stacks and acoustic guitars in an echo of Crosby’s 1971 solo debut, If I Could Only Remember My Name.

More topical than its predecessor – Crosby’s compassionate, lifelong Democratic credentials evident in his lyrical focus on the dispossessed and marginalised – Lighthouse arguably features some of Crosby’s best-ever vocal performances. The stacked vocal sections on ‘Look In Their Eyes’ might well stop you in your tracks; the more instrumentally expansive ‘The City’ finds Crosby and League’s voices blending seamlessly. A gorgeous effort all-round, not least because of the cover photo by Eduardo Teixeira de Sousa, Lighthouse was a guaranteed shoe-in for end-of-year album lists.

No sooner had Lighthouse been released than Crosby was immersed in sessions for another full-band album, this time produced by Raymond. Arguably the finest of the three recent LPs, Sky Trails was released six months into the Trumpian reign of horror – a subject about which Crosby remains bleakly comic in his regular Twitter epistles – and urges a return to empathy and love amid depressing global times. But lest that sound a little too worthy, the album also features a handful of his strongest-ever melodies and some sublime 'in the pocket' ensemble playing, perhaps best sampled on the Steely Dan-esque, horn-tinged opener ‘She’s Got To Be Somewhere’ and exquisitely arranged, righteously angry ‘Capitol’.

Next up is a reunion of the Lighthouse line-up for an album that Crosby is tracking ahead of another extensive tour this summer. With so many of his contemporaries having abandoned the studio altogether (not entirely unreasonably, it must be acknowledged, given the catastrophic impact of streaming on artist income), Crosby’s continued creative renaissance is something to be treasured. It is evident that he remains utterly infused by the joy of creating new music, and is also aware of its critical importance as a tonic to these profoundly dispiriting times. Long may he, and his wonderful collaborators, go on lighting up the darkness.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Wire’s third-phase greatness, Read & Burn 03, and the resurgence of the EP

There are few British bands with a more fascinatingly tangential history than Wire. Rising to prominence during punk’s peak year of 1977, but possessing considerably more in common with the eclectically minded artists now often bracketed together under the term of post-punk, Wire’s trajectory has been characterised by periods of intense activity followed by lengthy hiatuses. In each new phase of work they have pursued often quite contrasting sounds and approaches – and, in the 1980s at least, sometime with decidedly patchy results – but always with a sense of vaulting ambition and an undimmed interest in ideas that put many of their contemporaries to shame.

The three studio albums released in their first phase – Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 – remain set texts for anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of late 1970s musical currents. Fizzing with striking musical ideas and a growing mastery of atmosphere – often a profoundly unsettling one hinting at some unspoken dread that is particularly apparent on 154 – these albums are testament to a group whose total was always more than the sum of its parts. The contrasting personalities of the four members during the first two decades of the band’s history – Colin Newman (guitar/vocals), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), Graham Lewis (bass/vocals) and Robert Grey (drums) – meant that Wire was an always unstable alloy. But at their most inspired – the bleakly disturbing ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ and ‘Being Sucked in Again’, the unexpectedly breezy art-pop of ‘Outdoor Miner’ and ‘Map Ref. 41°N 93°W' – there was no one to touch them.

As with practically every major act of their era, the 1980s were less kind as Wire struggled to adapt to the production mores of the time. An over-reliance on programming and drum machines lends much of their 1985-1992 phase output a curiously detached and static quality, and the resulting reduced role for Grey – always a phenomenal live drummer – ultimately led to him quitting the band. Fortunately, a third and continuing return to active service in 1999 – with Grey fully restored as the engine room of the Wire sound – has been much more satisfying, both artistically and commercially, as Wire have rightly come to be seen as one of the most creative bands of their generation.

Somewhat unexpectedly, this has been achieved despite the exit of Gilbert – generally regarded as their most experimentally-inclined member – in 2004. His permanent replacement, Matthew Simms, is perhaps the most conventionally musically gifted player the band has ever had, lending much of the group’s recent input some deliciously unexpected but entirely apposite sounds and textures. But it was a series of three EPs recorded before, during and after Gilbert’s departure, entitled Read & Burn, that signalled the band’s return to its finest form since the late 1970s.

A great deal of the material included on Read & Burn 01 and Read & Burn 02 would ultimately surface on 2003’s astonishingly brutal Send, which is by some distance the hardest and most uncompromising release of Wire’s long career. Primarily based around simple but effective Gilbert guitar riffs, Send was shaped by Newman in the then-new Pro Tools recording software at his newly-built home studio – a laborious process that yielded jagged and jarring results. Wire were back, these releases seemed to say, and in a far bolder way than nearly all of their contemporaries.

It is, however, the later Read & Burn 03 EP – released in 2007 – that remains my favourite of the series. Incorporating the final contributions to the band made by Gilbert, this third EP represents yet another decisive evolution, with a more electronic feel welded to some of the band’s most striking melodies in many years. Comprising four tracks and a total duration of 25 minutes, the result is an entirely compelling musical statement.

If ‘No Warning Given’ and ‘Desert Diving’ are relatively accessible, electronically-treated pop/rock songs, the opening ’23 Years Too Late’ is unlike anything else in the Wire canon. Over nearly 10 minutes and several distinct sections, Lewis speak-sings some of his most beguilingly abstract lyrics, periodically giving way to Newman’s more traditionally soaring choruses. Given a suitably euphoric remix one can even imagine it might have become what used to be termed a ‘dancefloor’ hit, but even in its original form here it is one of the most exciting examples of post-‘90s electronic rock.

Although Wire have yet to release any further EPs, the digital music era has seen an increasing number of artists rediscover the joy of the shorter-form release. Robert Wyatt has often spoken of the more concentrated pleasures to be derived from working on four or five songs at a time, and he has made a number of wonderful EPs himself (collected in the late ‘90s in the terrific box set entitled – reasonably enough – EPs). In a period where listener interest in a full album has significantly waned, while the one-two punch of a single may feel a little too transitory, the EP constitutes a logical compromise for acts wishing to make a serious artistic statement. If there are many of us who continue to mourn the seemingly terminal decline of the album as a coherent body of work lasting 40 to 50 minutes, the revival of the EP does offer some cause for optimism in what can often feel like a period of time in which the significance placed on music is continually being downgraded in favour of background pacification and portable convenience.

As for Wire, the group has gone from strength to strength over the last decade, touring extensively and releasing six excellent albums, of which Red Barked Tree (2011), Change Becomes Us (2013) and Wire (2015) are arguably the finest. With work set to begin on their 17th studio album later in 2018, they show no sign of lapsing into inactivity once more – this third phase representing a creative renaissance unrivalled by their post-punk peers. For now, those curious listeners wishing to identify a starting point from which to investigate the considerable Wire back-catalogue could do much worse than acquire a copy of Read & Burn 03.

From Chavez Ravine to The Prodigal Son: Ry Cooder’s late-period renaissance

Speak to the more casual listener about the work of Ry Cooder and they are most likely to cite his extraordinary collaboration with Cuban musicians in the Buena Vista Social Club project, or his evocative 1980s soundtracks for directors including Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) or Walter Hill (Crossroads). The more well-informed might also refer to his brief tenure as a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, or his productive sideline as a session guitarist for Randy Newman, Little Feat, James Taylor, The Rolling Stones and countless others.

Mentions of his post-2005 solo career renaissance are likely to be fewer and farther between, but it’s surely only a matter of time before that changes. Having busied himself with soundtracks and collaborations since the 1987 release of Get Rhythm, Cooder’s return to solo formation in the Noughties with Chávez Ravine was as delightful as it was unexpected. Like many of his contemporaries, Cooder had succumbed to the overly bright and somewhat synthetic production tropes of the era on some of his later 1980s albums, but here he was fully restored with a live, organic, warm sound that put his instrumental skills – and those of his distinguished guests – to the fore.

Drummers Jim Keltner and Joachim Cooder (Ry’s son), trumpeter Jon Hassell and vocalist Lalo Guerrero were among the contributors to an album that told the story of Chávez Ravine – a Mexican-American community demolished in the 1950s in order to build public housing. Rapturously received upon its release in 2005, it proved to be the first instalment in a loose trilogy about America past and present that subsequently took in My Name Is Buddy (2007) and I, Flathead (2008). Each new release found Cooder revelling in various roots music styles – from fairly straight-ahead blues to country-folk and bluegrass – to frequently devastating effect. After years of serving other people’s artistic visions, it was wonderful to have Cooder back in full effect.

But although this trilogy continues to win new fans – and reward repeated listens by those who have already been converted to its eclectic charms – I would argue that the pick of Cooder’s late-period is his next release, 2011’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down. In the wake of the 2008-10 economic crisis, I can clearly recall anticipating the release of some incendiary, Woody Guthrie-esque musical statements about the local and regional misery unleashed by the failures of global capitalism. From the younger generation of performers, these were almost entirely unforthcoming, so it was with some relief that Cooder tackled them with no little force on the 61 scorching minutes of Pull Up Some Dust…

There is rage, frustration and a desperate desire for the whole-scale return of empathy and other core human values writ large throughout these 14 songs, with the titles themselves – ‘No Banker Left Behind’, ‘Quick Sand’, ‘Humpty Dumpty World’ and ‘Lord Tell Me Why’ – generally being an accurate indication of the lyrical contents therein. Musically, it’s perhaps the most direct of Cooder’s late-period works, with the blues influence more discernible than at any time since the 1980s. There are also fewer guests, with Cooder and his son Joachim handling the majority of instrumental duties – no bad thing given that Cooder’s guitar parts on the likes of ‘Humpty Dumpty World’ and ‘I Want My Crown’ are some of the finest and fieriest of his career.

Ultimately, the tone is of sadness and resignation at the then-current state of affairs – but still with the small, distant hope that the tide could yet turn in favour of the many, not just the obscenely wealthy few. It could be compellingly argued that subsequent events have finally extinguished that hope, and in light of the damning comments made about the Republican Party on both Pull Up Some Dust… and its 2012 follow-up, Election Special, one can easily imagine Cooder’s sense of horror at the possibly terminal catastrophe of the Trump regime.

We may soon find out for sure given that Cooder’s forthcoming album is being trailed as “a deft commentary on our ailing moral state”. Due for release on May 11, The Prodigal Son will feature a mix of Cooder originals alongside interpretations of songs by Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Roosevelt Graves, the Stanley Brothers and others. The two tracks to have been released at the time of writing, ‘Shrinking Man’ and ‘The Prodigal Son’, both strongly indicate another blues-infused classic; a extended live-in-the-studio version of the title track posted to YouTube in March (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEUIZWyieAk) is utterly spellbinding.

On a path that is very much his own since the mid-Noughties, but one which holds the promise of a greater communal future, Ry Cooder shows no signs whatsoever of going gently into that good night. Now in his early ‘70s and with his first major tour in many years taking place this year, Cooder remains a master composer and performer, and we should throw every plaudit we can in his direction while we still have the opportunity.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Ryuichi Sakamoto – async

A journalist once remarked of a later Bryan Ferry album – in a not entirely positive sense, it must be said – that his latest creations were less akin to songs than “exercises in tonal resonance”. My interpretation of this comment is that Ferry had become more fixated on textural production and studio finesse than traditional concerns such as melody. Certainly, in the case of Ferry, an admitted perfectionism has led to some fairly anodyne results along with plenty of fantastic moments. But for Ryuichi Sakamoto, async’s relative eschewing of conventional structures and melodies in favour of intensely atmospheric – and often just plain intense – assemblages of digital and analogue keyboards, sudden blasts of noise, voice samples and natural world sounds has given rise to an unblemished triumph.

async is by turns meditative and deeply unsettling – an apposite combination for a man who was diagnosed with and treated for throat cancer during the early stages of work on this, his 16th solo album. Inevitably, the episode was to profoundly inform the composition of async, with Sakamoto discarding his original sketches in favour of (as he remarks in the album’s liner notes) the concept of “a soundtrack for an Andrei Tarkovsky film that does not exist”. Long-term followers of Sakamoto’s work will not be surprised to discover that he has been drawn to Tarkovsky, whose films – which include the original version of sci-fi classic Solaris and the extraordinary late-period work The Sacrifice, wherein a middle-aged intellectual seeks to bargain with God to prevent an impending nuclear armaggeddon (see it – no, really!) – are often highly contemplative and bordering on the mystical.

Although there are a few guests (including spoken word contributor and long-term collaborator David Sylvian) and percussion and string ensembles on a couple of tracks, the vast majority of the sounds are created by Sakamoto himself. The album begins as it means to go along – viscerally – with ‘andata’, in which an acoustic piano and pipe organ are steadily submerged beneath a tidal wave of noise. Like much of async, it is difficult not to perceive this as an awakening with regard to personal and collective mortality, although one should be wary of interpretations that are too literal.

Broadly speaking, the more accessible compositions are clustered at the start and end of async. Between times there is a sequence of varied and occasionally disturbing textural pieces, of which ‘walker’ is perhaps the most affecting. Electronic swooshes and blasts of unidentifiable noise augment the heavy, rather boggy-sounding footsteps of the eponymous walker on his her or way to… well, who knows? (The other unspoken question here, of course, being 'which of us really does?') Lasting a mere four minutes but feeling like it could easily go on for four times as long, ‘walker’ is testament to Sakamoto’s ability to shape a simple but striking mood.

Both a careful further evolution of Sakamoto’s ambient soundworld and – structurally at least – something of a marked departure from his previous music, async is an extraordinary piece of work. Hardly built for the daily noisy commute, it is instead an album surely best enjoyed late at night, alone, and in a calm and centred mood. But make no mistake, it is not ambient music as that term is generally understood; the sounds and textures explored here are likely to take the listener to a far more intensely reflective mental place. 

async was released in 2017 and has now been supplemented by an almost equally compelling album of interpretations by artists including Oneohtrix Point Never, Christian Fennesz and late film score composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose sudden death at the tragically early age of 48 was announced in February 2018.

Fortunately, Sakamoto appears to have indefinitely delayed his own appointment with the inevitable, having made a complete recovery from cancer. Once again, the prolific musician and composer – always one of the most questing of his generation – is involved with a host of solo, collaborative, movie soundtrack and live projects. Doubtless there is much, much more to look forward to from Sakamoto, but for now async takes its place among the most inventive and emotionally compelling of his remarkable career.

Monday, 2 April 2018

King Crimson - THRAK

To claim that VROOM and THRAK – companion releases from 1994 and 1995 – constituted a full-force return from King Crimson after a long silence would be to risk a dramatic understatement. In a career characterised by fiery explosions of sound and unexpected artistic detours, the consecutive EP and full-album releases feature some of the most consistently extreme music in the entire King Crimson catalogue.

More on this anon – but first a little context. In a band history that has been characterised by a pattern of intense activity followed by lengthy hiatus, the 1981-84 version of the band was short-lived yet remarkably productive. Eschewing the earlier, more classically progressive repertoire, the early ‘80s line-up – which saw group founder and sole mainstay, guitarist Robert Fripp joined by guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Bill Bruford – adopted a more concise but equally adventurous approach to composition and recording. 

Comprehendible in a post-punk context of bands such as Magazine and Talking Heads (with whom Belew had previously toured and recorded), the KC of this era was nonetheless possessed of its own distinct sonic character and musical chemistry. All phenomenally gifted players, KC developed an almost telepathic level of interplay on stage – and, unlike some other phases of KC, they also managed to translate this to record. The beautifully playful and inventive Discipline (1981) remains the pick of this line-up’s three studio albums, but the subsequent Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984) also have their share of sublime moments.

With all four members always engaged in parallel solo projects and session work, King Crimson lapsed into another extended bout of inactivity, and it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that Fripp began to consider a reunion – this time guided by his vision of a Double Trio with two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers. So it was that after various additional members were considered, the ‘80s quartet of Belew, Bruford, Fripp and Levin were joined by drummer Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn, who in addition to fretted and fretless basses was also an acclaimed exponent of the Warr Guitar (American-made ‘touch’ guitar that combines both bass and melodic strings on a single fretboard) and Chapman Stick (10 or 12 stringed instrument that can be used to play bass lines, melody lines, chords or textures).

If VROOM saw the new formation finding their way into a potentially fiercesome new sound, THRAK was the full, 56-minute fruition (several tracks from the EP reappear in new versions). It’s hardly surprising that the expanded line-up – and, in particular, the addition of a second drummer – should serve to ratchet up the sonic impact of the ‘80s KC; but nothing in that line-up’s repertoire could prepare listeners for the untrammelled, trouser-flapping power of THRAK.

The opening pair of linked tracks, VROOM and Coda: Marine 475, do a fair job of setting out THRAK’s stall – chunky, near-metallic constructions that also herald a welcome return by the mellotron to KC’s instrumental palette. But it is the first (relatively) conventional song, ‘Dinosaur’, that really pins back the ears – a chewy six-and-half-minutes of surprisingly accessible choruses and scorched-earth guitar solos. It’s an instant-classic addition to the core KC repertoire, and unsurprisingly proved to be a live favourite for many years afterwards.

It is not, however, the most extreme moment on THRAK – not by a long way. That honour falls to the frankly brutal ‘Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream’, placed near the end of the track-listing and probably unsettling many first-time listeners with its complex time signatures and nightmarish instrumental sections. It’s a bizarrely compelling listen and absolute confirmation – should it have been required – that KC remained entirely relevant in the mid ‘90s, more than 25 years after its first studio recordings.

Lest anyone think that THRAK is exclusively an exercise in sonic trauma, it should be noted that the middle section of the album contains some of the band’s more poised, melodically-gifted material. It’s hard not to feel the guiding hand of Belew behind the exquisitely airy ‘People’ and ‘Walking On Air’, with the latter being one of the most conventionally gorgeous entries in the KC catalogue.

Beautifully recorded during six weeks of sessions at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, THRAK would be followed by extensive global touring. But there were some creative and personal differences (especially between Fripp and Bruford) in the six-piece line-up, whilst its sheer size meant that it was always economically problematic. So it was with a more compact configuration minus Levin and Bruford that KC returned to the studio in 2000 to record The ConstruKction of Light and, a few years later, The Power to Believe and Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With EP.

Another lengthy hiatus ensued before the 2013 emergence of a three-drummer line-up that has led to some of the most ecstatic notices of the band’s five-decade live career. Having initially focused on the late ‘60s and early ‘70s repertoire, the band now successfully amalgamates material from all phases of its history into what is effectively a retrospective show – albeit one that throws up plenty of fresh sparks and features a reasonable dose of new material . By all accounts, this particular ensemble – which sees guitarist Jakko M. Jakszyk take over vocal duties from Belew – is also the happiest of the band’s many formations.

Too often lumped in with the prog mainstream when in fact they are a far stranger, more eclectic creation than that term implies, King Crimson is simply one of the most interesting bands in any genre – period. Discipline and 1974 power-trio-led Red are more accessible entry-points for the new listener, but if you want to be sure you can handle anything this beautifully visceral band can throw at you then THRAK should be your first point of call.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider

It is relatively rare in jazz to encounter a musician willing to use the studio to layer and sculpt their work in the way that a rock or pop artist would do as a matter of course. Of course, there have been some very notable exceptions – two of the most obvious being Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, with several of the latter’s most celebrated albums (eg. In A Silent Way) being primarily created in the editing and mixing – but they largely belong to an earlier time as the mainstream of instrumental jazz seems to have gradually shifted back in favour of an entirely ‘live in the studio’ philosophy in recent years.

One of the most consistently innovative jazz performers of his generation, Brad Mehldau has employed both approaches over the years on solo, trio and larger group efforts, to equally winning effect. Outside of jazz he is perhaps best known for his startling reinventions of pop/rock material such as Paul Simon’s ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’, Jeff Buckley’s ‘Dream Brother’, and Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’. But increasingly it has been his own self-penned material that has attracted the lion’s share of plaudits.

It was certainly with his original material to the fore that Mehldau embarked upon the recording of his 2010 double album, Highway Rider, which remains arguably his most ambitious release to date. Although featuring some more conventional modern jazz pieces – in particular the thrilling second-disc highlight ‘Into the City’ – Highway Rider is more notable for its experimentation with unexpected instrumental colours (check the woodwind and percussion on opener ‘John Boy’) and classical structures involving full orchestrations. 

Indeed, one of the most striking compositions here, ‘Now You Must Climb Alone’, dispenses with Mehldau’s piano entirely in favour of Samuel Barber-esque strings. The piece that it flows into without interruption, ‘Walking the Peak’, is similarly widescreen in feel but more tied to the norms of jazz thanks to the addition of regular accomplice Joshua Redman’s tenor saxophone. 

Elsewhere, there is a compelling sense of space and openness in evidence on many of the compositions here, notably the title track – which is founded upon an endlessly skittering drum part by Matt Chamberlain and gradually builds towards a gently euphoric climax – and the highly percussive ‘Capriccio’.

The various artistic excursions undertaken throughout Highway Rider finally reach some kind of unified destination on the closing pieces of the second disc, ‘Always Departing’ and ‘Always Returning’. The chamber-sized orchestra conducted by Dan Coleman returns for two pieces that move through several distinct sections but which are frequently anchored by some thrilling ensemble playing and Mehldau’s prodigious gift for melody. 

Beautifully recorded by Gregg Koller and Eric Caudieux, Highway Rider must owe some of its remarkable cohesion – given the undoubted diversity of the material – to the involvement of producer Jon Brion. Through his work with Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, Robyn Hitchcock and others, Brion became a virtual byword for artistic rigour and integrity during his late ‘90s rise. Today he remains in-demand as both a producer and, increasingly, a film score composer, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird among his many credits.

Together Mehldau and Brion produced something truly special during the three weeks of sessions at Hollywood’s iconic Ocean Way Studios that resulted in Highway Rider, and it is to be hoped that they are reunited on a future project. In the meantime, should this album whet your appetite, there is a lengthy discography of other Mehldau releases that are worthy of your time, of which I would recommend House on Hill (2005, recorded with the Brad Mehldau Trio), Modern Music (2011, with fellow pianist Kevin Hays), and Ode (2011, again with the Trio) most enthusiastically.

Coming right up to date, Mehldau has just released (as of March 2018) a new album, After Bach, pairing solo performances of compositions by Bach with Mehldau-written pieces that were inspired by them. It’s a dense, near-70-minute work, and as such I don’t feel I have begun to get to grips with it yet – but as with most of Mehldau’s work, I have no doubt that it’s verve and inventiveness will repay repeated listening over the weeks and months ahead.