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Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds 17th. studio album - ‘Ghosteen’

This isn’t an album review; there are plenty of those already out there. I actually waited to get a hard copy of Ghosteen, even though it’s been. available on-line for over a month. As usual, I love product ‘packaging’, in this case the much discussed ‘kitschy’ cover and the enclosed lyric sheet. Cave and his Seeds seventeenth studio outing, taken along with their live and soundtrack material, on top of The Birthday Party and Grinderman, is one more contribution to one of the most significant bodies of work in the rock canon. So, I’d just like to make a short set of observations about Cave and his not-so-merry men.

The key discussion point, for me. is whether it is appropriate to  who demonstrated a kinship with the techniques of Tsplit The Bad Seeds into two periods of productivity; the Blixa Bargeld/Mick Harvey era, and that of the ‘Warren Ellis period’? Harvey, a multi-instrumentalist, and Bargeld, a guitarist who demonstrated a kinship with the techniques of The Birthday Party’s late Rowland S. Howard, formed an obvious linkage to Cave’s first band. Ellis was a veteran of the Aussie trio The Dirty Three, another multi-instrumentalist, specialising in violin and keyboards’ joined as a junior member of the Seeds in time for 1997′s The Boatman’s Call (which still gets my vote for their greatest work, 12 short songs of immense emotional concision and depth). By the time of Ghosteen, Ellis has become the band’s musical director-in-chief, all keyboard washes and choral backgrounds, church-like in their accompaniment to Cave’s songs of innocence and experience, loss and redemption.

These two proposed incarnations of The Bad Seeds are very different beasts indeed (only Thomas Wydler and Martin Casey remain from the pre-1997 period). It is interesting to follow on-line discussion between Cave obsessives as to the changes that the band has gone through since 1984 and From Her to Eternity. These changes have been gradual and organic. Bargeld left at the cusp of the millenium (the albums of this period, 2001′s No More Shall We Part and Noctorama from 2003 are, coincidentally, the band’s two weakest, imho). Harvey lasted till 2008 and Dig Lazurus Dig!!!, another rather ho-hum affair, which produced few memorable tracks. 2004′s double, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (comparable to Tom Waits’s contemporary pairing of Alice and Blood Money?), and 2013′s Push the Sky Away are The Bad Seeds 2.0 most outstanding records for me. None, however, approach The Boatman’s Call, 1996′s Let Love In (which seems to be the dedicated Cave fan’s overall fave, from what I can ascertain) or Tender Prey (1988), my own particular introductory portal into the band’s universe.

Without labouring the point, the death of Cave’s teenage son in 2015 was a caesura of incalculable importance for the music of his band, without even considering its effects on his lyrics. He doesn’t seem to have recorded an up-tempo composition since the tragedy, andante seeming to be the fastest pace that he can consider. As a consequence, both 2016′s Skeleton Tree and now Ghosteen might be emotionally consonant with Cave’s state of being and are albums of remarkably moving maturity, but as works of art they can both be recondite and rather  monolithic. Understandably, Cave’s previously healthy sense of irony and humour have been largely sublimated. The portrait of the naked woman on the cover of Push the Sky Away now appears to be both flippant and prelapsarian from today’s perspective. One can only attempt to empathise with Cave’s loss and Ghosteen is a devastating listen, but inevitably things can never be as they were in musical terms. We can only be grateful that Cave is still as creative as ever, especially as Tom Waits seems to have retired (Bad As Me came out as far back as 2011), the only other rock writer from their generation that can hold a candle up to the quantity and quality of the Australian’s output.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds 17th. studio album - ‘Ghosteen’

Getting hold of a new release the hard way in 2019: ‘Topographie Parisienne’

I’ve been trying to get hold of a copy of the (relatively) new release of the Bailey/Parker/Bennink Topographie Pariesienne 4xCD release on Fou Records, but have encountered problems, which I think are indicative of how retail factors have changed so much over the past few years. This particular item is an exciting discovery, for those of us fascinated by early European free improv, offering the chance to experience the 1970 Topography of the Lungs line-up, in a later live situation, something which is hard to appreciate for the non-fan of this music. Think of a newly-discovered recording of Tony Williams’s original Lifetime trio from 1969, for example. Of course I want to hear it, and it’s only available in the compact disc format, which is currently about as available as a  VHS cassette, such are the dictates of fashion.

I tried to buy Topographie Parisienne from out current ‘record shops’, a thankless task (oh, for the days of Sound 323 on Archway Road, Mark Wastell’s all-too brief foray into the record retail business). I trekked to Cafe Oto’s small, rather up-itself , selection of arcane, yet improv-friendly stock (which inevitably promotes expensive vinyl re-releases), then moved ever eastwards towards Rough Trade East (a great shop). Nothing doing, however.

Now, I live in London, still  (maybe?) the head honcho of vibrant cities, so was surprised that it was so hard to get hold of this product, but there you go - where does you now go to get hold of a compact disc-only release nowadays, if you wishes to avoid using Discogs or Amazon? Here in self-consciously hip Crouch End, we have a record shop which heavily promotes vinyl records, both new and second-hand, and one is made to feel that compact discs are, essentially, the ghetto-side of the tracks, with regard to potential purchases. I’ve literally seen CDs become sidelined over the years in this particular shop, and shoved into a rather unloved side of the shop (the regular public still seems to like it, however). One gets the sense that asking to order a compact disc would be tantamount to asking for a Betamax tape (not that the young-ish staff would know what that was). Where, oh where, does one go to order a newly-released compact disc nowadays? Especially one that features ‘obscure’ music?

I‘ll tell you where. I ordered Topograhie Pariesinne from Discogs, whats more from a European retailer, thus incurring a £10 P + P surcharge. Poor me.

Moving on, it was interesting to see an article in Saturday’s Guardian about the supposed re-emergence of cassette culture. Where will the few remaining ‘record shops’ situate themselves with regards to this new ‘phenomenon’, I wonder? They won’t be able to flog ancient product for £20 or more, I’d predict.  Wire’s column, ‘Unofficial Channels’ has trumpeted cassette culture for many years, as have several other significant commentators and ‘scenes’, so it will be interesting to see how far this apparently retrogressive movement can progress in our current fixation with one particular old fashioned format (vinyl), in the face of some demand for the restitution of these others. There may well be more fans of compact discs than one might think.

However, I wish to state here my utter dislike of the completely flawed ‘jewel case’ - I’m utterly amazed that major record labels have failed to endorse an alternative to this utterly crap model, with it’s obvious design fault, the dual-hinged connectors that shatter once the product is dropped, or otherwise subjected to stress. I really cannot believe that this fault has not been supplanted, even after nearly 40 years of exposure to continuing consumer dissatisfaction. 

Or maybe I can, sadly.

Fifty Years and Counting...

Reading about the release of Topographie Parisienne, a 4 x CD recording of the Derek Bailey/Evan Parker/Han Bennink trio, live in Paris in 1981, made me think that their 1970 Incus Records (the very first that the label produced) landmark LP, Topography of the Lungs, is now nearly fifty years old. How did that happen?

There seems to be an increasing spate of 50th Anniversary events nowadays, an indication of how far we’ve all come in the world of experimental ‘popular’ music, and an indication of how many groups have persevered over time to continually produce exciting and innovative music.  The opposite to this longitudinal creativity is, of course, The  Rolling Stones, a configuration that has remained in vivo for over fifty years, mainly it seems, to make money and provide its members with something to do.

I’ve been thinking about three forthcoming gigs that I will be attending across November 2019, and the ages of their leaders - Barry Guy (born 1947), Evan Parker, (1944) and Joelle Leandre (1951). Two are in their seventies and one is soon to join them, but these are musicians who are still at the peak of their game, and are always still great to behold and to experience.

It’s interesting to compare them to the American presidential candidates in terms of seniority (Bernie Sanders is nearly eighty), and arguments that suggest that those over seventy years old (like Donald Trump, for example) are surely too old for such an august and challenging position. Probably this is an inappropriate comparison, “a false equivalence”, but it’s one that bears some thought, given the age of both rock music and free improvisation?

I’ve seen several concerts that celebrate the fiftieth (or ‘golden’) anniversaries of the following artists over the past few years: AMM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and, this year, the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and Anthony Braxton (his first recordings). This currently short list will surely grow bigger and bigger as the sixties and early seventies begin to recede in memory, and we should give thanks that there are still so many of that generation who still produce vital and incisive playing for us all to enjoy (”Trevor Watts at 80″, for example). There are very few of the fifties modernists left (Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz are the only ones that spring to mind), so it remains to us to continue to attend and support the occasions when these elders continue to grace us with their continually unfurling work. This is contrasted to putting up with yet one more rendition of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ or ‘Satisfaction’, at a time in which both are surely rather creepy positions for any normal septuagenarian to adopt?

Compilations - A Dying Art?

This piece is occasioned by the appearance, in the latest (November 2019) edition of Wire, of the fifty first ‘Wire Tapper’, a compact disc given away on a regular basis with the magazine and which usually contains around twenty tracks by usually pretty obscure ‘experimental’ artists and bands. Out of this month’s twenty, for example, I’ve only heard of three, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stephen Mallinder and Hieroglyphic Being (I consider myself fairly well informed about music, so it’s usually embarrassing to be proved to be so ignorant!) and often it is even less than this. Generally the Tappers are very much a curate’s egg, and often I just can’t be bothered to wade through eighty-odd minutes of ‘filler’ to sort the wheat from the chaff, but this month’s Tapper really is jolly good, exceptionally so, in fact, so it got me thinking about the history of compilations in rock music across the past five decades or so, and how the format is, arguably, virtually moribund in today’s digital world of ‘adventures in sound and music’.

In my history of such things, rock compilations really started in the late sixties, when record labels, both large and small, decided to take advantage of the burgeoning long player format, and of the ‘underground music scene’ in general, by putting out collections of single, representative tracks of their artists, usually at a cut price rate. For young listeners like myself, these cheap prices were very tempting indeed, and several near-classic products came out of this basic grab bag of the good, the bad and the plain indifferent (and there was a lot of the latter quality, I can assure you). Two examples that I availed myself of, and enjoyed for several months thereafter, were Island Records’ Bumpers, and CBS’s Fill Your Head With Rock, both double albums with striking covers and with generally a very high quality quotient. There were several others, that listeners of a certain vintage will be able to recall with affection, I’m sure. The Harvest Bag, You Can All Join In, The Vertigo Annual...This period ended when the counterculture went ‘overground’ with the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music, in and around 1972. The importance of record labels as a defining factor in a band’s presentation went dormant for a few years, until punk and Rough Trade bought it back with a vengeance.

The ‘Second Age’, as I will call it, is in many ways defined by the popular introduction of the cassette tape, from about 1975 onward (’your cassette pet’, as Malcolm McLaren would have it). This cheap and cheerful technology enabled the average fan to record 30/60/90/120 minutes of music on it’s two-sided format, and thus could potentiate a very handy, bespoke, gift for family, friends and, crucially, for people that you fancied. It provided ’the personal touch’, as it were, which had the added bonus of showing how ‘in touch’ you were (or at least aspired to be, in those days when music provided one of the biggest signifiers of personal style). You generally made the tapes up yourself, but the ‘independents caught up, at the cusp of the decade, the most famous of which was Rough Trade, whose C81 could be bought for a couple of quid through the New Musical Express, then perhaps at its most popular and influential. C81 was essentially a ‘post-punk’ compilation, and ‘every hip home had one’ in 1981. I’m listening to C81 as I write this, and am reminded as to how good most of the tracks still are. Cherry Red’s 1982 compilation Pillows and Prayers is another gem from that time. 

The early eighties also saw compilations that celebrated the previous generation’s mavericks - Julian Copes’ Scott Walker tribute Fire Escape in the Sky, and various records, by labels such Bam Caruso, celebrating sixties psychedelia, in the wake of Lenny Kaye’s epochal Nuggets. All these were as much organic collections as were the latest ‘waxing’ by the likes of U2 or ABC. I certainly listen to Chocolate Soup for Diabetics as much as I do to The Lexicon of Love (which, I know, says as much about me as about the discs concerned).


To be continued

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