Scott Walker - The Drift (4AD)
Having seen my recent post on the return of Scott Walker to the public eye for the first time in a decade, a few people in my orbit rolled their eyes while others concurred with my excitement; in other words, this is a guy you don't really sit on a fence about. But, having heard this new album The Drift, I give the Gas Face to the naysayers (especially Christgau who once called him a "lame version of Anthony Newley"), the former Noel Scott Engel's return is completely astounding. I'm not quite sure yet if it has taken things a notch above the greatness of Tilt; like that record, it is completely unrelenting as a statement of dark, apocalyptic artistic vision that needs repeat visits to full absorb. Walker, clearly keeping up on world events and tying them to the grand scheme of history, takes a similar approach happens here, but now the iris closes even a bit more to let even less light in. Surreal soundscapes cloak Scott's wounded voice with no musical similarities to anything else on the map while also drawing from weird claustrophobic cues from 20th century avant-classicists like Penderecki and Ligeti (and while many artists can claim they're on board with these influences on a non-classical record, Scott does it here without pretension). His sound designs mirror nothing else in memory, and just his employment of ideas themselves spin my head 360. In a way for me, the best music arises in a half-sleep state, where things reveal themselves in a sublime way that you might not really comprehend listening in a fully aware state, and somehow The Drift captures that feeling while you are in that fully awake state. "Cossacks Are" charges in with mutant guitar figures looped right out of some Plutonian spaghetti western, and on this album moreso than Tilt, silence is used to greater effect as a weapon to induce tension, quite often broken violently by walls of alien sounds thrown at you. And I'm talking outta the galaxy: huge hordes of synths (horns?) splatter against a wall and slide down repeatedly, guitars strum bad chordings with no rhyme or reason, everything teeters on the verge of collapse just as some new startling segment unveils itself, and I kid you not, this Satanic duck voice punctuates the ending of "The Escape", a song allegedly about Donald Rumsfeld. You see nothing coming at you in the distance with this one.
As if this all wasn't enough, lyrically the album is Walker at his most oblique; it's full of Tilt's arcane, cryptic poetry tumbling obscure references and couplets around but here they solidify an overriding sense of American history (Walker is an ex-pat that became a teen star in the UK in the 60's) looked at in a somewhat classical European sentiment of writing. It's an album about decay and darkness (Walker's voice itself has gone from strident to fragile); Elvis and his still-born twin somehow become the dialogue revolving around the Twin Towers, images of corpses "noseholes caked in black cocaine" and a 12 minute elegy to the brutal fate of Mussolini's mistress ("Clara") are among bleak images thrown about. Then you get the much-talked about "I punched a donkey in the streets of Galway" as a chorus. I mean, what is going on here? In a way, this, the slapping of bacon for percussion somewhere herein, and the Donald Duck thing have added an air of humor to an otherwise unrelenting record, but in another way, these also add up to the extreme fucked-upness of what exactly is going on which make it all the more disturbing. Scott Walker took his sweet time making this and in many ways this is the best, and most unique record out there this year. A few Real Audio previews via WFMU broadcast here ("Hand Me Ups", "Cossacks Are", "Clara" played in a row).
Various - Tete de Bebe (S-S)
Oh, the French and their music. Yes, we all love to laugh at the Gitanes-huffing septegenarian speaking obscenely to Whitney Houston, deify the likes of lookers like Gall, Bardot, Dutronc, Hardy, but rarely does the issue of France's absolute kickass punk rock scene get the headlines, which is a damn shame. And unfortunately the stuff that does trickle into American punk consciousness is rife with bands playing up the kooky-beret-and-Pepe-le-Pewisms that frankly bore the shit outta me. On the better side of the coin though, you have Metal Urbain's Stooges-go-synth-destruction "Panic" which might be up there with the best punk singles of all time (and they were still amazing screaming total hell when they reunited for a US tour that stopped at WFMU's Record Fair!), and a whole new breed has taken the torch and blasted the rocket off yet again. Somewhere along the line, California's wickedest weird-punk label S-S has become the prime importer of this stuff, distributing and putting out Francofreaks like Cheveu and Dragibus, and in recent years a few other cool artifacts have trickled into the station from bands like Lili Z and Volt, whom all seem a bit intertwined personnel and vision-wise. This new vinyl comp Tete de Bebe neatly wraps together the more ragged edges of France's more treble-endeared proponents of modern music including the four above-mentioned outfits plus some unknown-to-me peops like Les Club des Chats, Lawrence Wasser, and Cheb Samir and the Black Souls of Leviathan (and I understand a few Belgians are tossed in there). They all share a common thread of crude production, definite fandom of Chrome and maybe some of the LA weirdos of yore like Beelzebub Youth, Nervous Gender and the Screamers, but there's a healthy array of deviation and also awareness of some of the bluesy electromutants like Doo Rag. Great. Volt's "Kein Mensch" (Real Audio) here.
Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid - The Exchange Sesssion Vol. 1 (Domino)
One of the more inspired recent directions in modrn electronic music is the incorporation of living breathing free jazz musicians into the proceedings; former drum-and-bass duo Spring Heel Jack opened a huge floodgate in the last five years by dragging such animated figures as Evan Parker and Matthew Shipp into clearly a mutual evolution for both parties. Here, their formerly over-the-top rhythmic pounding had given way to a new kind of space and shape in electronic music where subtle samples, bloops, and tweaks now sat side by side with some of the most cerebral and colorful improvisation action going. When Fourtet, aka Kieran Hebden, entered this realm with longtime free percussionist Steve Reid on Reid's recent Soul Jazz release, the outcome was interesting but not as mindblowing as one would have hoped. The communication between the two though seems to have gained a real foundation on the new full length Exchange Session Volume 1 recorded last April, the two are starting to bounce off of each other much better. Reid, now 62, has backed Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, and even James Brown, and might be the last person you'd think could mash it up with someone known for quietly sculptured electronic soundscapes, but the two meet on some very intriguing common ground. Hebden infuses some actual African rhythms to his work and while the two sometimes flounder around the frayed spats of electricity going on, they moreso lock in and invent some intriguing new vocabulary together. They recently performed live together on WFMU's This Is the Modern World with Trouble (Real Audio), and in effect even furthered their dialogue beyond what went on with this record. And at presstime, Volume 2 is just hitting.