Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Certain Songs Part X: Tourniquet of Roses

The countdown of my top 152 albums of all time soldiers on. The story so far:

Part I (150–152) here.
Part II (147–149) here.
Part III (144–146) here.
Part IV (141–143) here.
Part V (138–140) here.
Part VI (135–137) here.
Part VII (132–134) here.
Part VIII (129–131) here.
Part IX (126–128) here.

Guadalcanal Diary
Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man

Although Guadalcanal Diary was a modest college rock favorite in the late 80s, I did not get into “Guad” until singer/guitarist/songwriter Murray Attaway opened for Robyn Hitchcock in concert in 1993. Murray was touring behind his first (and, alas, only) solo album In Thrall, but I really liked his set, and, a few days later, the record. I then spent many years trying to track down the four Guadalcanal Diary albums, first available on vinyl in used record stores (I spent a lot of time in Bleecker Bob’s on West 3rd St. in NYC), before they turned up on CD. Classified as “jangle pop,” they did seem to owe no small debt to R.E.M., and being from Georgia the comparisons were easy to make. But Attaway’s vocals were far more distinct than Stipe’s, and early on reflected Attaway’s lyrical preoccupations with Southern history (especially the Civil War) and religion. “Trail of Tears” is a fantastic album opener, but the real classic track here us “Watusi Rodeo,” a funny tale of cowboys in the Congo.
Monkeys in the trees just thumbing their nose
At the bull-riders riding on rhinos
Warriors standing with spears in the hands
Wondering what's next from a crazy white man

Natives are restless under these Stetsons
What are these cowboys doing in the Congo
Look like cows but they're water buffaloes
It’s a short album, and boasts two instrumentals (and a strange live version of “Kumbayah”), but is a great debut. 1987’s 2X4 (with the alternative hit “Litany”) is perhaps their most famous record, justly, and Flip Flop (1989) was the hit that should have been, but of the four, WITSOTBM is the one that gets the most play. I was so happy a few years ago to find a new CD version that combines this record with 1986’s Jamboree, even if the latter isn’t nearly as good.

The Flower Kings
Space Revolver
In 2003, I rediscovered progressive rock music—not just the old stuff (Genesis, Yes, ELP, King Crimson) that I was into in high school and later abandoned for a time—but also so-called “neo-progressive” bands. Two of the most prominent of these bands formed about the same time (1994) and began to hit their peak around 2000–2002. The first was California’s Spock’s Beard (see later in this list) and the second was Sweden’s The Flower Kings. Yes, this is how I like my progressive rock—sweeping, symphonic, and Swedish. Roine Stolt is a brilliant guitarist who cut his 17-year-old teeth in the early 1970s with the Swedish band Kaipa. He left toward the end of the 1970s and kind of vanished, since after 1977 anyone who played—or even liked—progressive rock became pretty much a pariah. By the early 1990s, fans were rediscovering (or starting to admit that they liked) the music of Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and all that lot, and new progressive bands were starting to form which took the music of their forebears and expanded upon it—often exceeding it. Stolt released an album in 1994 called The Flower King, which was his return to symphonic progressive rock, and was the pilot project for the band The Flower Kings, which released its first album a year later.

Stolt is a great guitar player, with sort of a Zappa-meets-Jeff Beck style with a little David Gilmour thrown in. He’s also the band’s chief singer (sounding like an amalgam of Roger Waters, John Wetton, and the Swedish Chef) and primary songwriter. Sweeping epics are grounded by a very strong melodic base, but they are not loath to go off on sprawling instrumental flights of fancy. And majestic guitar solos. Lyrics tend to be very positive and life-affirming, and vaguely spiritual, but not oppressively so. I think the band is utterly brilliant. If they have a flaw, it’s that some of their albums tend to be a bit much—that is, they are not shy about releasing double-CD sets, and each disc is stuffed to the limit with music. It can be rather a lot to absorb.

2000’s Space Revolver was the first single-disc set after two back-to-back double albums, and it benefits from its focus and editing. The album is bookended by “I Am the Sun” parts one and two, which is the sort of sweeping epic that is the Flower Kings’ stock in trade. Jazz elements occasionally enter the mix, courtesy of Ulf Wallander’s saxophone. Tomas Bodin’s keyboards complement Stolt’s guitar and the interplay between the two is one of the highlights of any Flower Kings record. Second singer Hans Fröberg (he has the technically better voice but it’s less distinctive) gets a song credit with the lovely acoustic “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got.” “Rumble Fish Twist” is a wild instrumental with some exceptional bass work from newcomer Jonas Reingold. Stolt also loves big power riffs, and this album has them in “I Am the Sun” and “Monster Within.” The strangely-chorused “Chicken Farmer Song” (“I’d rather be where the chicken farmers run”) is a breezy pop song with a great guitar solo from Stolt. The five-minute instrumental climax to “I Am the Sun part two” is a thing of beauty, and ends the record on a perfect note. Their music started to get a lot more diverse as the decade wore on, but Space Revolver stands as the perfect essence of this extraordinary band.

The Residents

And now for something completely different. I had heard of The Residents ever since reading about them back in the 1980s—I knew they were famous for being completely anonymous, known only as four figures wearing giant eyeball masks. As the legend has it (and make of it what you will), the four (apparently) people who make up The Residents hailed from Shreveport, Louisiana, and migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s. Sending out demo tapes of their, um, bizarre music, they took their band name from the envelope of a rejection letter from a record company: it was addressed simply to “Residents.”

Undaunted, The Residents were one of the first “indie” bands, setting up their own record company (Ralph Records, which would eventually become fairly famous for signing non-mainstream acts with names like Renaldo & the Loaf) to release their material. They credited all writing and production to The Cryptic Corporation, and band names never appeared anywhere. And still don’t. (They are still recording, although whether it’s the same four guys, who knows, although the singer sounds the same.) Sometime in the 1980s, one of the eyeball masks was stolen, so the Resident opted for a black skull mask instead. Go figure.

The Residents were always about more than music (they weren’t really musicians, and a lot of their early records were more about deconstructing popular music, with The Third Reich’n’Roll being two side-long “mutant medleys” of top 40 hits of the late 1960s; the advent of synthesizers in the late 1970s gave them a bigger palette than the analog instruments they were pounding on throughout the 70s). They also experimented with the “theory of obscurity” (which they credited to a figure called N. Senada, who may or may not have actually existed), which held that “an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration.” As the legend also goes, they recorded their album Not Available with no intention of ever releasing it, and several years later it was supposedly plucked from the shelves by their record company when they were running late on what would become their much-heralded Eskimo album. (Not Available has got to be quite possibly the strangest album ever recorded, with Eskimo a close second.) They were also early pioneers of merging music and video, long before MTV, and they were early devotees of the nascent interactive CD-ROM movement of the early 1990s (Freak Show was the first of several combination music albums and interactive games they did before the Internet killed the CD-ROM market.)

Anyway, I had never heard a single note from them until a Rhino compilation came out in 1998 and I was curious. It to get into initially, but bizarre enough to warrant further investigation, and I eventually amassed most of their major releases (they’re one of those bands that have tons of EPs and other assorted collections, making completism a bit of a pipe dream). The 1977 release Fingerprince I think strikes the best balance between being experimental and being accessible. It was also toward the end of their analog period, when they still used conventional instruments. They often supplemented their records with actual musicians, such as the late guitarist Phil Lithman (aka Snakefinger).

The opening track “You yesyesyes” starts off sounding like a mutant version of something off Pink Floyd's Obscured by Clouds before the weird horns come in. The first half of the now-typical configuration of Fingerprince (the CD has combined the original LP and a complementary EP called Babyfingers) contains shorter, mutant pop songs—“Godsong” and “Tourniquet of Roses” are highlights—while the second half includes longer pieces like the narrative “Walter Westinghouse” and the epic “ballet” instrumental “Six Things to a Cycle.” “Death in Barstow,” actually far less abrasive (actually quite “easy listening”) on the record compared to the live version from 2010 embedded below, pays tribute to one of their inspirations, avant garde composer Harry Partsch, who died in 1974.
True, Fingerprince may not be as groundbreaking as things like Eskimo or their later work (and 1998’s Wormwood was a contender for this list—I saw them live in L.A. on their “Roadworms” tour and they were great...very theatrical), but it’s the one of their records that I am most likely to put on when the (bizarre) mood strikes me. Currently, they are going through a “narrative” phase, with albums telling entire stories with musical backdrop, kind of like radio drama. It remains difficult keeping up with them!

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