Friday, July 17, 2009

Gimme Five

Jim Webb & Michael Mooney

Jim Webb writes:


After spewing forth some verbiage recently on mega selling bands Bachman – Turner Overdrive and Grand Funk Railroad, it seems like the right time to unleash our personal Top Five most underrated bands/artists. The only qualifier I would like to add to my list is that for me they not only had to be making great music that is overlooked by the masses; but also consistently played by me. I have bought and enjoyed a lot of cult favorites through the years (Big Star, Magnetic Fields, Tortoise for just three), but that doesn’t mean they were regularly played after initially checking them out. How much you actually listen to a given cd has to be the ultimate measure in anyone’s personal rankings of favorites – whether the group / musician is known or unknown. To summarize the immortal words of our ex-Secretary of Defense and neighbor Donald Rumsfeld – “There are known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” I will apply Rumsfeldian theory in a musical context, rating each musician / group after a brief description of their work.

1.) Bill Nelson

Bill is a very talented guitarist who was the leader of U.K. 70’s rock band Be Bop Deluxe, and has been releasing his own solo recordings since the early eighties. Prolific would be an understatement since he has forty -eight full length cd releases since 1991. He works in a variety of styles from three minute slices of electro- pop with vocals, to half hour instrumental tracks that weave electric guitar with washes of synth and percussion that always have a strong melodic content. A one man band that works out of his home studio, his music never has an overly slick feel to it, and he always gets a great sound on his recordings. His piece de resistance for me is his 6 cd box set released in 2002 titled Noise Candy. When is the last time someone released six hours of new material? It covers the full gamut of his sound palette from guitar dominated rock tunes, to futuristic cosmic cowboy music and everything in between. With that many releases over the last fifteen plus years, one of his knocks is that parts of his recent work start to sound too similar. Anything he’s done since ’91 is very consistent, and the current period from 2002 to the present will be remembered as The Golden Age of Nelson. Bill’s still going strong though at age 61, and even with his extensive back catalogue I’m still greedy for more.

Rumsfeld Rating – Known Unknown.

Bill has been around the block, and some people might remember him from his Be Bop Deluxe days, but he hasn’t been played on American radio or done a proper tour of the U.S. since the 70’s.

2.) The Bevis Frond

Nick Saloman is The Bevis Frond. He’s another guitar maverick from England who has been making music since the late seventies. Nick is a totally different kettle of fish than Mr. Nelson. Saloman is a throwback to the late sixties when psychedelic guitar ruled. I’m not talking about the clean guitar leads of Jerry Garcia, but a blazing fuzz thrash that at times explodes out of your speakers a la the MC 5. Miasma was the first release in 1986 and was soon followed by Inner Marshland and then Triptych. If Jimi Hendrix style guitar is your cup of tea then hop aboard, and I’m not talking about the Stevie Ray Vaughn variety of safe blues rock, but the anything goes guitar freak outs that made America the home of the free in the sixties. Nick is a solid songwriter and guitarist whose recorded work is only hampered by his limited vocal range. Some people might say his early four track home recordings are too lo-fi in quality, and that he seems to be trapped in his bedroom with a lava lamp playing endless guitar solos. I’d counter that he’s simply stuck to his guns, and hope he finds a way to keep making great music. Any of the first three cd’s are worth hearing, and Through the Looking Glass, New River Head, North Circular, and Son of Walter are also prime examples of Nick Saloman’s musical creativity.

Rumsfeld Rating – Unknown Unknown

A few rare club tours in the early 90’s but The Bevis Frond are a classic below the radar group.

3.) Muslimgauze

Bryn Jones was a 22 year old white male from Manchester, England when he began his musical odyssey in 1983. He was heavily influenced by the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, and was outraged at what he considered to be Israeli racism and human rights violations against the Palestinian people; he vowed to champion their struggle. He taught himself to play various hand drums, and then became highly skilled in the intricate rhythms and patterns of Arabic percussion. All of his subsequent cd and song titles referred back to the Middle East conflict, and referenced events, Arab towns and Islamic imagery that are all bound up in this continuing struggle. The music besides frequently having a Middle – Eastern flavor is heavy on a pounding percussion bed that lets various tape loops and recorded Arab voices drift in and out of focus. Repetition plays a large role in the sound world of Muslimgauze. Repeating percussion tracks add to the hypnotic quality of his work, but the flipside to this is that some tracks just go on far too long without enough variation. Another musician with a large body of work, Muslimgauze has over one hundred different releases. At one point I had every one. Obsessive, check. Compulsive, check. I’ve since whittled it down to my key 30 or so titles (does that make me more normal?)Some are more stripped down bass n’ drum oriented (Lo Fi India Abuse), others more unrelenting in their rhythmic attack (Arab Quarter). My favorite are the cd’s that combined his intricate percussion with voices floating in and out of the mix like a dry wind blowing over the Sinai ( Al Zulfiquar Shahed, Return of Black September). If you only wanted to try one, I would go with the three cd effort titled Fatah Guerrilla. You get a little of all his different styles on this one, if you don’t like Muslimgauze after hearing this – don’t even try any of the others. Bryn died of a rare blood disease in 1999 and in my opinion the vault releases that have come out since then are for true fanatics only. They are sparser of the rich ideas that were abundant on some of his work that was released while he was alive.

Rumsfeld Rating – Unknown Unknown

Muslimgauze only ever played a handful of live dates, very little media coverage

4.) Jackie Leven

He released his first LP Control in 1971 while living in Madrid (Spain) under the stage name of John St. Field. It has since become a sought after folk, psychedelic classic for its haunting tales with unusual vocal arrangements. He was also the main writer, vocalist in the band Doll by Doll that was active in the U.K. rock scene from 1978 to 1982. After a brief attempt a solo career he retreated into a haze of drug and personal issues that took a number of years for him to sort out. He returned to the music scene with his 1994 release entitled The Mystery of Love, is Greater Than the Mystery of Death and has been averaging about one new cd per year since then. What puts Jackie on this list? A great voice and a unique vision that compels him to write about what most other singers have ignored. His songs will at times confront issues of loneliness and despair, or choices made in life with a frankness that will be too raw for some. There is a beauty to his words that makes me want to mention his influences like poet’s Rilke or Akhmatova over other modern day solo artists who simply churn out their personal dairies in boring detail. Leven’s way of doing things is definitely outside the box since he has Robert Bly and other guests regularly recite poetry on his cd’s in the space between the recorded songs, and he has also never toured the United States. If you’ve had your fill for a while of American songsmiths like Lyle Lovett or John Prine (whom I both like), or can’t seem to get into Dylan and the old warhorses anymore, give Jackie a try. He isn’t always soothing if you only want some happy music after a long day at work, but for discriminating tastes Jackie might just become your new favorite bottle of singer/songwriter wine. Personally I wish he would rock out more, we’ve seen that side of him in Doll by Doll, but that part of his music seems to be in the past. In thirty years of listening to him I’ve rarely gotten tired of hearing about his many traveled roads and the experiences on them.

Rumsfeld Rating - Known Unknown

Jackie has a small but devoted following in Germany, Norway and the U.K. When is that loveable fat bastard going to do a U.S. tour?

5.) The Flower Kings

Good god, how did a progressive rock band from Sweden sneak into the top five? Two words – Roine Stolt. He is the lead guitarist, sometime vocalist and chief songwriter for this group that began in 1994. All of the classic 70’s elements of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson are present in their sound, but that never bothered me like it has some of their critics. If Stolt and Co. can unleash an epic that is as good as Yes’s Close to the Edge (Stardust We Are), what do I care who their influence was on a given track? They do have a 59 minute song titled Flower Power, so some warnings need to be issued. If you have absolutely played out your Genesis and Yes cd’s, this is your band. I think their best period is from 1999 to 2002 which includes Space Revolver and the two cd release Flower Power. Their more recent work (Paradox Hotel) just hasn’t had the great songs that made their earlier releases so strong. This is not overplayed music by Prog-fusion tech heads that lacks passion or feeling. Roine Stolt writes in a variety of styles, but usually has great melodies attached to his down to earth lyrics. Too bad only their European audiences (and a few rare U.S. club tours) have been able to see what they’re up to.

Rumsfeld Rating – Known Unknown

The Flower Kings have played Europe semi - regularly and the occasional Prog Festival in the U.S.

The next time I’m in Taos I’ll see if Don Rumsfeld wants to get together for a scotch, and listen to some of these cd’s. What he thinks about them at this point is an unknown unknown.-Jim Webb

Michael Mooney


Here are five regular rotation selections from me (chronological):

1. Mellow Candle (Swaddling Songs- 1972) - Rumored to be the worst-selling LP in the history of Deram Records, Swaddling Songs is one of the Great Lost Albums of Rock. Sort of Prog, sort of English Folk, and sort of neither, it’s a one-of-a-kind recording that, for me, conjures up that in-between time of the early 70s (before the rot set in) when anything was possible. I probably play this CD more than any other. Reissues abound.

Also recommended: The Virgin Prophet (demos)

2. Kleenex (aka LiLiPUT) - The best Punk group not from the English-speaking world, Kleenex personifies everything that was right about the late 70s DIY musical revolution: fun, spirited, and slightly ridiculous. They should have been huge.

Kleenex’s Complete Recordings are readily available as a double disc set from Kill Rock Stars, and it’s great.

3. Microdisney
– Ironic before irony became just another stupid pop culture device; creators of yuppie-baiting yuppie music. Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan joined tuneful Pop with trenchant lyricism and created the anti-80s. Self-loathing but proud, spiteful yet compassionate, Microdisney foretold a future that, unfortunately, appears to be coming true: “No faith, no love. Nothing.” Whistle while you work.

The best: Everybody Is Fantastic (1984), We Hate You South African Bastards retitled Love Your Enemies for CD release (1984); The Clock Comes Down The Stairs (1985); Peel Sessions (1989)

The other two: Crooked Mile (1987), 39 Minutes (1988)

4. Ian Masters
(Pale Saints, Spoonfed Hybrid, E.S.P. Summer, I’m Sore, Friendly Science Orchestra, Wing Disk, Ashioto, Sore & Steal, etc.) For 20 years now Ian Masters has been creating some of Pop’s most adventurous music. Best of all is 1992’s In Ribbons, Pale Saints finest moment and one of the greatest recordings of the last 50 years.

Also recommended: The Comforts Of Madness (1990), Mrs. Dolphin (1990 EP compilation)- Pale Saints; Spoonfed Hybrid (1993), Hibernation Shock (1996)- Spoonfed Hybrid; E.S.P. Summer (1995); new Sore & Steal out soon.

5. Fovea Hex (Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent- 2006/2007) - Mellow Candle composer/vocalist Clodagh Simonds returns with a stunning 3-EP series (Bloom, Huge, Allure), and help from notables like Fripp, the Eno brothers, Carter Burwell, and Andrew McKenzie. The theme here seems to be Loss, and that notion is reinforced by the ambient solemnity of the recording. It’s hypnotic and quiet, yet also deceptively musical. Above all, though, is that delicately beautiful lived-in voice. I could listen to Clodagh Simonds sing all day long, and normally begin every Sunday by playing this set in sequence. Available individually or complete from Janet Records, Dublin.
-Michael Mooney

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