Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's New?: 6.16.2011

Bits and pieces, old and new, so on and whatnot. . .

The The — Dusk (1993)

Although very popular as one of the big budget alt-rock bands of the late 80's and early 90's, The The is nearly forgotten these days. Poor Johnny Marr; some of his best post-Smiths was distributed amongst what have now become footnotes that only dorks like me know about (that would be Electronic and the topic of this review, The The). As The The is essentially Matt Johnson's guise for himself and whoever he happens to be recording with at the time, you have to approach every single album under the moniker as an entity unto itself. I've had a rough go of things with the band, honestly. I've bought up (and then traded back in, a few months later) the whole of the group's 80's output two or three times over. And yet, the past time I did that exact same thing, I held onto everything from Burning Blue Soul through Mind Bomb. I put in the work, vigilantly listened through headphones on the bus and several walks around town and I guess I finally got it, because I found the band's four 80's albums taking up nearly permanent residence on my iPod. Dusk though, is another chapter entirely. My best initial description is that it's Mind Bomb meets Burning Blue Soul. That big budget production and decidedly resonating left-field songcraft meets full on artsy tunefulness. As always, Matt Johnson is melodramatic as hell. But, in many ways, this feels like his true masterpiece — the big, overbearing finale that he's been working towards all along. 'Slow Emotion Replay' is pretty much godlike. Arguably Johnny Marr's best recorded harmonica performance accompanied by Johnson's most earnest lyric ever ("Everybody knows what's going wrong with the world, but I don't even know what's going wrong with myself") combine for a magical moment. The overtone here is, as opposed to Johnson's outright anger at religion, a genuine disconnect with social interpretations of what "GOD" is or may be and a complete plunge inwards to explore that very same topic. If it weren't all set to a totally great big budget (arguably dated, but nonetheless appealing) slightly Americana tinged musical backdrop, it may not have the resonance that it does. But when Johnson sings the chorus, "If you can't change the world, change yourself and if you can't change yourself, change your world" on the album's closer 'Lonely Planet' it feels very honest and maybe like he actually believes it. Affecting stuff. Shouldn't have waited so long to check it out. Arguably the band's best album.

Miles Davis — Aura (1985)

A tough turkey, to be completely sure. I love Miles, without question but I have firmly avoided his 80's material after being duped (i.e. Yes, I'm taking shots at Scott fucking Yanow again). However, a friend of a friend (who happens to be a novice Miles scholar in his own right), mentioned to me (at a chance meeting) that Aura is really the only 80's Miles that stands up with his pre-retirement material. And, first things first: it sounds NOTHING like his other 80's albums. That's for damn sure. It's a kind of modern classical/free funk hybrid. And its compositions were by a Danish guy (by the name of Palle Mikkelborg) who based the chords on letters from Miles' full name. And it's the last album that Miles recorded for Columbia (and, subsequently, the last one he had nothing but good to say about; his own words: 'Masterpiece'). The 80's cliches of big, overtly echoey drums, cheesy guitar effects and borderline embarrassing synthesizer sounds are present. But, in his solos, Miles sounds truly inspired. In the middle trilogy of tracks 'Green', 'Blue' and 'Electric Red' he sounds invigorated and inspired, not intimidated, by the overtly "modern" production sounds. I mean, hell, I praise for David Sylvian, Jon Hassell and Talk Talk albums of the same period for essentially the same things that I've subtracted points off of Miles' 80's output for so long. A lot of reviews I've read compare this to Miles' work with Gil Evans and while I definitely don't hear that, I guess I do get it now because, in addition to (awesomely) sounding like an inspiration to David Axelrod's 90's albums, I hear a definite similarity between what Mikkelborg and Miles were doing here and what like-minded rock bands were doing within the context that they knew. Very heady and nearly soundtracky music. I guess, consider it Miles' last truly artistic hurrah. Just be ready to deal with dated production.

Mazzy Star — Among My Swan (1996)

Oh, Mazzy Star. How I heart you so. This band. And this album! This fucking album right here! Have accompanied me through a lot in the last few years. And yet, I've never actually owned it. Bless and curse the internet all the same, in that regard I guess. Certainly their least exploratory and safest album, Among My Swan still strikes me as Dave and Hope's overall most accomplished album. It's also definitely their most acoustic-based. Things like 'Cry Cry' and 'Disappear' are downright pastoral, when you really take a step back and consider it. Will Reid's feature on 'Take Everything' is an indie dork landmark and really representative of the whole album: a boozy, slow-paced haze of an album. It's always been my favorite of the band's three albums and it's pretty darn relevant, even fifteen years after the fact. Loverly music, through and through.

Mazzy Star — So Tonight that I Might See (1993)

What the band is remembered for, and rightly so, as it's a darn fine album. Of course, the big hit was 'Fade Into You' and it still holds up after this long. But I still prefer the quieter, more acoustic-based side of the band. 'Five String Serenade' is unstintingly wonderful and things like 'Unreflected' and 'Into Dust' only make me happier. The title track ends things sounding like Crazy Horse meets the Pentangle and I can't help but think that this is one of weirdest hit albums of the 90's.

Jon Hassell — Fascinoma (1999)

I mean, Jon Hassell just does something else entirely all the time. Is it jazz? Is it new age? Is it ambient? No, not quite. And yet, it could easily fit into any of the above. I think I've actually found the manifesto for people who have the boldness to ask me what his music sounds like. And it's on this album. His Martin Denny-meets-electric Miles makeover of 'Caravan' (retitled here 'Caravanesque') is an in-general statement of purpose for a master. Funny how this album is now over a decade old and yet, it still sounds completely new and wonderful. I really should have more Hassell albums around. No excuses.


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