Steve Wilson. On music.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Camera - Radiate (Bureau B)

This is a review of a German instrumental rock band called Camera. 

 But allow me some set up.

First, about "electronic music." Trying to define “electronic music” as a genre is opening the door to a really messy room. And to parse it into infinities of sub-genres is only so helpful.

The origins of electronic music go back a century – to the Futurists, musique concrete, and a host of salon driven aesthetic movements, culminating in the post-WW2 flowering of the genre with composers like Stockhausen, Babbitt, Luening and Xenakis. Early experiments with tape manipulation evolved further with the introduction of the computer to composition and performance.

Of course the advent of computers in electronic music was relatively contemporary with the development of electronic amplification of the instruments central to blues, country, jazz and rock performance. This technically involved what academicians call “electromechanical sound,” a fancy way of describing what happens when you plug in guitars and keyboards. On the other hand, purely electronic sound is produced on devices like the theremin, synthesizer and computer, ‘instruments’ with less tangible acoustic predecessors.

These distinctions, while illustrative, don’t change what’s really a pretty blurry picture.

Nowhere is this more the case than with ‘Krautrock.” Once either an affectionate shorthand or dismissive epithet, Krautrock is now common language, describing a genre with origins in Germany in the very late Sixties and early Seventies. And it’s a genre that has proven durable. The core of artists who spearheaded the genre (Faust, Can, Ash Ra Tempel, Cluster, Neu, etc.) combined electric rock, electronic music, folk and classical influences, high art and pop, the atmospheric and the aggressive in fresh, influential ways.

Of course I pretty much eschewed it when it was first happening. I wasn’t wholly dismissive of the music by any means; it was just that the bits and pieces I heard by these artists didn’t grab me then. That and their hardcore fans were an annoying, proselytizing lot – that didn’t help. Sure, I got a kick out of Kraftwerk (can’t forget Kraftwerk), but not in the profound emotional or visceral way that I did from everything from Nick Drake to the New York Dolls.

I quite knowingly came to the music through the backdoor opened by David Bowie, His “Berlin Trilogy” (the albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger) from the late Seventies borrowed heavily from Teutonic inspirations. So, of course, did his productions for Iggy Pop – The Idiot and Lust for Life, especially the former. And Bowie was collaborating with Brian Eno, who recorded with Cluster and had immersed himself wholly in the idiom. Then British bands, including Wire, P.I.L., and Joy Division/New Order flew their Krautrock colors. Hell, it was everywhere and undeniable.

To be sure I’m still catching up. I Enjoyed the Neu! reissues on Astralwerks, released in 2001. Investigated Cluster a little more, dug a lot of what I heard. So, okay I’m no expert, but I’m learning.

I know enough to know that I dig Camera. 

Camera represents a new generation of Krautrock, endorsed and supported by guys like Michael Rother (Neu!, Harmonia) and Dieter Moebius (Cluster, Harmonia). They’ve developed a reputation in Germany for so-called “Krautrock Guerilla.” This means, basically, that they often show up in public spaces, unannounced and jam out. On their debut album Radiate you can hear how these compositions took root in improvisation. Their sonic approach essentially falls on one of two sides of a balance between driving, machine rock and serene, soundscapes; the latter sounding essentially like what that stuff on “Music for the Hearts of Space” would sound like if it wasn’t so soporific. 

Radiate more or less alternates the rockers and the sound scapes, but even the relative sleepers have their convulsive moments; “Rfid” breaks (at 4:45) from a soothing mix of synthesizer washes and peeling guitar into a “Venus in Furs” drone that powers the rest of the track. “Villon” evokes Talking Head’s “The Overload,” guitarist Franz Bargmann playing elegant, vaguely Arabic lines with a tone borrowed from the halcyon days of psychedelia (think: Country Joe and the Fish’s Barry Melton) while drummer Michael Drummer’s tautly tuned tom rolls and gong-like crashes offer a meditative alternative to album opener, “Ego,” with its driving rhythms, the band here as textured as Tangerine Dream, but as insistent as the Stooges. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Redd Kross - Researching the Blues (Merge)

Red Kross.

I think I first heard them in about 1982. Guitarist Jeff McDonald and his bassist brother Steven were still in their teens. I was a fan of their early glam-trash-punk abrasions. Born Innocent, with killer tracks like “Linda Blair” – good stuff.  From 1984, Teen Babes from Monsanto was as kool as its title; purveying low culture thrills ala Sonic Youth, but the McDonald brothers offered melodic twists well beyond Sonic Youth’s sing to the chords school of songwriting. Neurotica, released in 1987 perfected their sensibility. Its glammy vision - freakbeat, drug through the gutter of the New York Dolls and put through the Back from the Crypt grinder – was Redd Kross fully realized. Even if only Jeff could buy a drink legally.

 I was even pretty thrilled through Third Eye, a chiming, pure pop distillation of their gnarlier selves, released on Atlantic in 1990. My crew played the shit out of it, turned people on to it, but then grunge came along. It was shitty timing for Redd Kross. Their sassy, suburban snarl, unafraid of androgyny, was anything but Eddie Vedder flannel. Their closest kinship by then may have been to bands like Dramarama (a fine, fine outfit indeed), who were still pretty burly by comparison. 

 Redd Kross’ other Nineties releases were fresh, melodic and rocking. But somehow their sound lost some of its distinction as the band shot for a little deeper commercial penetration. Somehow it seemed too safe, too Material Issue or something, after their Eighties stuff. Then, they disappeared.

Fifteen years disappeared.

They re-emerge on Merge Records with Researching the Blues

It is so good. 

It’s the kind of good – so rocking, so stacked with invention and turn of phrase – that its instantly classic songs hit you like a ton of  bricks (“Stay Away From Downtown”) first;  then give way to the subtle hooks of (at first) less arresting songs (“Winter Blues”).  

Title track, “Researching the Blues,” initially inspired by the scholarly, but gritty passions of John and Alan Lomax, is a fond, but scathing rebuke to a friend turning down every wrong street and dark alley (“You just can’t win, strung out on the devil again”).  “Researching” has a brooding, insistent edge that matches the lyric’s darkness. The devil appears again (“the devil inside your head”) in “Stay Away from Downtown.” This song is the embodiment of a power-pop performance, with no neglect in the power department. Jeff McDonald and Robert Hecker’s interlocking, riff off riff, guitar lines propel the song. Drummer Roy McDonald (no relation) holds it all together with rock-ribbed Ringo drive and occasional Moon bursts.  Jeff and Brother Steven’s harmony vocals remind how potent sibling harmonies can be (Everlys, Davies, … you get the picture)  At 2:40 the “yeah, you” vocals hit, the “sha la las” enter at 2:52. Shortly after, you knock yourself upside the head and realize – damn, this is in the same league with Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” – a kitchen sink of power moves and pop turns.