“The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death” by John Fahey – Review

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At the beginning of my first year of college I bought Transfiguration online, listened to it a couple times and put it away. I couldn’t hear any tunes and I was routed by the prospect of fifteen instrumental tracks of acoustic blues, which I didn’t really enjoy at the time. When the school year ended I pulled it out again and found that I liked the first four or five pieces. “Orinda Moraga” was the first to open up, then “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean”; and I took a new pleasure in the convicted slide playing of “I Am the Resurrection.” From there I grew fond of the first side, refusing on principle to skip any tracks (even “Beautiful Linda Getchell,” which I now like) and dug slowly into side two.

My initial intense love (for awhile I called it my second-favorite album, after Tribute to Jack Johnson) for The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death has worn off by now, and I feel ready to evaluate it a little more critically. I dislike the proximity of “How Green Was My Valley” to the nearly identical “The Death of the Clayton Peacock,” although the former is the better song and the latter really does remind me of the peacocks that wandered around the RV park where I worked and listened to the CD last summer. (That high-pitched guitar squawk is nothing like the truck-horn call of a real peacock, but together with the soft rhythmic strut of the bass notes it makes for an apt and funny tone poem about them. I appreciate it.) If they were farther apart both would be more enjoyable. I also think the “Old Southern Medley” is too long, and its good parts might have been better as separate tracks. Other than that I find it hard to complain about The Transfiguration.

I must note two things. First, a lot of people seem to hear this as a “calm” album like the rest of John Fahey’s earliest recordings, which Bob Christgau dismissed as a “fantasy of sodden deliverance.” The Guardian too ascribes “an almost Buddhic meditativeness” (never mind the lame conversion of an adjective into a noun, and the fact that Fahey was a professed Christian who got briefly into Hinduism) to The Transfiguration and lumps him in, for some stupid reason, with the “new age” musicians of the Nineties. Maybe he did make that kind of music at some other point in his career; I wouldn’t know, I only own this and Of Rivers and Religion. But The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, on the whole, is not for meditating. Whenever I play it in the car I want to jump up and down to “I Am the Resurrection” and “101 Is a Hard Road to Travel” and “How Green Was My Valley,” and I yearn and reminisce to “Tell Her to Come Back Home” and “Poor Boy” and “St. Patrick’s Hymn” and “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean.” Sure, some of the compositions are “calming,” but they’re the boring ones — “Bicycle Built for Two” or “Clayton Peacock” or the six-minute medley, for example. If John Fahey is calm, it’s only for the same reason that Mississippi John Hurt could be called calm: because you, the listener, are not paying any fucking attention.

Which brings me to my second point: water never rises above its source, and the John Faheys of the world rarely surpass the bluesmen who influence them. If you don’t believe me, listen to Canned Heat or Kaleidoscope (the American band) or any other record-collector artist from the Sixties. John Fahey was one of them, trawling thrift shops for 78’s and stealing tunes and picking patterns and whole freakin’ songs, and he thought like one of them. But even though they loved the music those collector guys lived in a whole nother world not only from the blues people they copied, but also from the kids of their day, and whether or not they liked it they were in love with a tradition that had become totally irrelevant to the times. Yes, a lot of them recorded great rock covers of the old songs — I made a playlist of those for the 11/29/18 episode of my radio show. I love the rock and roll they made out of old blues, and maybe you do too. But do you have any acquaintances who do? (I mean, if you do I envy you.) The artists who “made it” in the Sixties either weren’t collector bands or they cleaved to/defined the loud, rhythmic, rootless new rock paradigm successfully. Beefheart, Hendrix and the Stones come to mind as dedicated blues fans who made the shift and made even better music than their heroes. John Fahey, fortunately or unfortunately (I, a metastasizing snob for Twenties blues, vote “fortunately”), didn’t go rock until the Nineties, after he was located by his fans in my own college town of Salem, OR.* Even in his life habits he was a creature of the blues, never of rock music, and he would never beat or even equal his friends John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten at that game. His compositional habits were too…white. But we received at least one superlative record under his name.

*When I learned about the re-discovery of John Fahey in an Oregon homeless shelter, I laughed out loud for two minutes because it perfectly paralleled how he yanked Bukka White and Skip James out of retirement in the Sixties. Kinda mean of me but then again, he literally found James in a hospital bed and persuaded him to go on tour, which is inarguably much worse, so fuck him.

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“Pigs of the Roman Empire” by the Melvins & Lustmord – Review

coverNo, it’s not the best Melvins album. There are things they could have stood to reduce or eliminate: the last two minutes of “Safety Third” are unnecessary, and “Toadi Acceleratio” is only alright. The whole album, however, is an encouraging reminder that when metal guys get old and begin to branch out, they can do some cool stuff.

Besides, it’s not like Melvins fans can complain about them being inconsistent.

Kevin Rutmanis, ex-bassist for the Cows, took the Melvins’ perennially temp bass job for a short but productive period in the early 2000’s. The group embarked upon a string of cooperative efforts in the Rutmanis period: Fantomas’ Millennium Monsterwork, two albums with Jello Biafra (Never Breathe What You Can’t See and Sieg Howdy!) and, of course, their collaborative album The Crybaby, part of a three-CD “trilogy” with The Maggot and The Bootlicker. (They also turned a dozen “producers” loose on their old songs for a remix album which we do not discuss in polite company.) Perhaps it was their involvement with the Ipecac and AmRep record labels that prompted them to cross-pollinate so, but whatever the cause they applied that same ethos to their 2004 record.

Pigs of the Roman Empire is still very different from those other team projects, though. For one thing, the Melvins made it with a total nobody — ambient-music auteur Lustmord, who had apparently scored some movies that Buzz Osborne liked — and the two artists actually developed and recorded entire songs separately, where either the Melvins would make a backing track to be adorned with electronic bleeps or Lustmord would send them a noise bit to write riffs around. The only track for which they were in the same room is the titanic “Pigs of the Roman Empire”, a twenty-three-minute centerpiece which alternates between lowercase noise and molten Swans-style jams.

Even if it’s cool, though, that behemoth track still isn’t the best on the record. For that go to “Pink Bat”, which begins with Japanese-style white noise and quickly segues into five blistering minutes of hardcore punk topped by the only enjoyable Adam Jones performance since Tool’s “Lateralus.” Some dude set it to clips from a John Woo’s Chinese action movie Hard Boiled, available on YouTube, and the results are pretty spot-on. The other two fantastic tracks on Pigs are “The Bloated Pope,” whose belching drop-C riffs and structural economy remind me of Kyuss, and “The Idolatrous Apostate,” which features Buzz Osborne’s artificially lowered vocals, softly murmuring synths and the percussive sound of a broom. In other words, the Melvins.

Overall, this is probably the best Melvins album we got in the Oughts decade. I’m still chewing on A Walk With Love and Death, their 2017 record, because it’s fucking strange. Not sure about the “soundtrack” disc, but the tracks on the “song” disc are enjoyable. Good or bad, though, I don’t think it’ll turn out to be as awesome as Pigs of the Roman Empire.

The Real History of the Ninth Amendment (the Band)

I spoke on the phone a few weeks ago with Mr. Joe Saputo of Saputo Technical Illustration, Inc., after corresponding with his son, a record collector named Andrew Saputo. In February the junior Saputo created an artist page on Discogs for his dad which listed him as a former member of the Ninth Amendment. For those of you who didn’t read that post, I found the Ninth Amendment’s one and only album in a Goodwill bin in 2016 and haven’t looked back since. I praised the songwriting and enthusiasm of these kids (I thought there were five of them at the time, and that the people on the back were their parents) and wondered if I would ever find information about them, since their names were not listed anywhere on the sleeve. And so, one day, I googled them again and found that Andrew Saputo had listed his dad as a member, and I followed the submission links to find his account and send him a message requesting to talk to his Ninth Amendment member(!) dad. Several weeks later he returned my message and said he’d contacted Joe already, and his father was ready to speak to me.

Joe Saputo and I set up a day to talk about the Ninth Amendment. He had a LOT of information to give me and it included more than a few interesting tidbits about the music and the people in the band.

First and foremost, Mr. Saputo told me, the Ninth Amendment was not actually a spontaneous group. “This group was created by the music department of…Newbury Park High School,” he declared, specifically by music teacher Glenn Scott, who is credited as producer and the author of all the songs. (Scott appears in the near-right slot on the album’s back cover.) Mr. Saputo had believed that the album was recorded in Scott’s own studio, but I ventured to disagree: Saputo was unsure about whether Scott actually had his own studio at the time, and I knew that Dean Thomas of Two:Dot Records often recorded performances of high-school plays and musicals (one of which is actually in Joe Saputo’s collection) to make most of his living. He might have done the same for a school-sponsored pop band. Also, the runout matrix begins with the letters “HRH,” which I think stand for “Hendrickson Road House.” Thus, I cautiously vote that Soft Sunshine Soul was, in fact, recorded at the Two:Dot studio in Ojai.

Mr. Saputo also gave me the names of the people who appear on the sleeve. Those on the back are not at all the parents of those on the front, as I had originally thought because of Glenn Scott’s mustache. All of them except Scott, second from the right on the back cover, were students and members of the band. Joe even labeled the lot of them for me in these edited photographs.

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Drums              Vocals              Vocals         Vox, Percussion  /Guitar, Vox, Songwriting

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12-string guitar            Vocals              Bass           Vox/Guitar/Songwriting      Vocals

All of them except Scott were seniors, the cream of the school’s music-program crop. Joe Saputo, then a junior, joined the band the following year after it had been renamed the Haymarket Riot and they recorded a single at Capitol Records’ L.A. studio; so far no one has come forward with a copy to put it on Discogs. (The fact that at least four other logged bands were also called “Haymarket Riot” in the exact same period has augmented the headache involved in finding one.) (Apparently Marty Simonds, the bassist (middle of the back cover), was also a member of the band Santa Fe with Joe Saputo during the early ’70’s.) When Joe’s class graduated, the school took on the rising seniors that year and called the group Newbury Park for the next two years; this band also released two records, Newbury Park and A Taste of New Wine. There is no record of what happened afterwards.

Joe also sent me photos of an album he had in his collection, a recording of a school play he was in titled Somethin’ Stupid. It was also was released under the Two:Dot label. It’s not all that surprising but it’s not on Discogs; if I could discern more info from the photographs I would enter it.

I publish this piece to disseminate a little information, rather than to draw grand conclusions. If anyone else is as curious about the Ninth Amendment as I am, and wishes to learn about them, I hope this was illuminating.

As for the music, I described it already in the first article I did on this album. Read that if you want to know about my experience with the record, the link is in the first paragraph.

Also, this Ojai Times article is a fantastic source of information on the Two:Dot studio. It really helped me a lot when I was initially looking for knowledge about this strange new album I had discovered, and while the Ninth Amendment never shows up in it, it still taught me a lot. Definitely read it.

“The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull” by Earth – Review

cover.jpgOn Discogs the most common genre tags for Earth’s The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull are “Avant-Garde” and “Experimental.” This is bullshit. Earth’s fifth big album (they have a half-dozen weird minor ones in between the big-ticket records like Earth 2 and Pentastar and Hex that I don’t really count) is pure comfort food. Dylan Carlson tells us he listened to a lot of Neil Young before making it, and I can believe it — Bees features loads of slow but solid riffs, played on both clean and crunchy guitars, that remind me of After the Gold Rush. The “rock” instruments (electric bass, drums, rhythm guitars, sometimes standup bass) play the riffs that push the…uh, compositions forward, and Carlson the arranger abandons the sparse feel of Hex; Or, Printing In the Infernal Method and goes whole hog for more textural instruments like piano and organ and cello and lead guitar to add the colors he probably has trouble playing (maybe even envisioning) himself. Such instruments sound best when they work over the top of his motives: Bill Frisell’s feedback guitar on “Engine of Ruin” and “Omens and Portents II,” for example, or Steve Moore’s disciplined use of the piano and organ in “Hung From the Moon.” The compositions, this time, live up to Earth “repetitive” reputation: unlike on Hex, where the motifs developed slowly as they played, Bees songs consist mostly of two or three riffs played over six to nine minutes, with improvisations on top. It’s less satisfying but more beautiful, and about as easy to zone out to while driving. And the environment it suggests is different, more lush and lively. Where the feeling of Hex (which I confess I still prefer) was that of expanse, its cadence that of travel on a horse or on foot across majestic expanses, Bees is as static as an oasis. Its songs burble along like water through a brook and all around is light and goodness.

Also, a few weeks ago I snagged a copy of the 2018 silver vinyl from the Southern Lord website. It features the bonus track “Junkyard Priest,” which I’m hoping is better than most Earth D-sides (Hex “Untitled” = eh, “Badger’s Bane” = ugh). Plus, it’s gonna have that gorgeous cover art twelve inches up and across. Lucky me.

“Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)” by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Review

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Unlike many people, I am glad the Bat Chain Puller album got canned and wasn’t released until 2012. The shelving of his first decent work in years was the first of several setbacks that led to Captain Beefheart’s final trilogy of albums, a significant event in the odyssey of a guy who had made repeated moves at the mainstream and was each time rejected. He was affable and in high spirits upon the release of Shiny Beast, according to at least one interview, and expected that now that he had abandoned the tiresome simplicity of Clear Spot and those albums everyone rags on he would be received well. He got great reviews for his new album and all the fans were hyped: the Beef was back!

And of course the promotion got fucked up and no one in the philistine United States took much interest in Shiny Beast and the European issue was delayed by two years for no good reason and the hype had died in the meantime. He didn’t gain much of an audience and his next two albums show his disappointment: Doc At the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow are obstinate, noisy and above all cranky. The fucked-up-ed-ness of his record-business misadventures had crushed his aspirations, but they seemed to do wonders for his creativity. More on those later.

The first of his final run of records is all the better for having been re-recorded. Some of the tracks, particularly “The Floppy Boot Stomp” and “Bat Chain Puller,” were better on Bat Chain Puller, but no one had them around to compare with for thirty-four years and ultimately the definitive released versions are still very good. And the reverse is also true: tracks that improved for Shiny Beast are heads and fucking shoulders above the unreleased versions. “Candle Mambo” and “Harry Irene” sound very nice in their final forms, but most of all I praise “Owed t’Alex,” which in its Shiny Beast version stands as one of the greatest Beefheart songs. The Bat Chain Puller take is beholden to a weird lyrical scheme which doesn’t mesh as well with the lyrics, and the sound is disappointing; on the Shiny Beast “Owed t’Alex,” Jeff Tepper’s slide parts yearn when clean and burn when distorted, the majestic trombone-guitar riffs evoke a chugging trans-desert journey, and the Captain himself pitches in with his meanest fucking harmonica solo on record. The band also reworks the clomping Mirror Man-style “Big Black Baby Shoes” into the careening, beautiful “Ice Rose,” which is distracted for only a short period in the middle, and blusters through a galumphing but still powerful new track called “You Know You’re a Man” — not Beefheart’s first macho song (or macho sentiment, if his Spotlight Kid-era interviews are credible), but by far the most goofy fun.

Some of the tracks composed after the rejection of Bat Chain Puller are less stellar. For one I fail to see what everyone loves so much about “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” which is not only cheesy but also presents Beefheart as a sexual “monster” (an unappealing idea, I imagine, for most women), and “Love Lies” just isn’t memorable. It’s also too long. And the mix, while it is bright and novel and promotes all sorts of previously unutilized textures and instruments, is also not of especially high fidelity and begins to grate a little after a while. Even with these flaws, however, Beefheart and a new Magic Band managed between disappointments to deliver a hearty and colorful comeback. And I, at least, would call it one of their best.

“Los Angeles” by X – Review

X Los Angeles

Let’s start by saying that I may not be fair to X. I believe that punk should never have anything to do with major scales, and this has always been my position; I don’t care if X came first, that shit reminds me of Green Day. I think several of the tracks on Los Angeles are set back by Billy Zoom’s insistence on playing the major seventh as a power chord, like he does on “”Your Phone’s Off the Hook” and the forgettable version of “Soul Kitchen.” I accept the use of same technique in “Sugarlight” because G is a key of pathos and I can live with a little misstep when it’s attached to a hook like that.

The songs besides are rambling and strangely structured, with John Doe and Exene lingering on key phrases from their beatnik cutup bullshit lyrics and giving the verses weird numbers of beats and bars. The inner sleeve is printed with the words, pasted together serial killer-style in different fonts at crazy angles, and they make only a little more sense read than sung. Los Angeles definitely takes some getting used to.

I have listened to it for about eight months now and am starting to like a lot of it. Most of the songs are anchored by the fascinating choruses that keep me coming back. I wish I were more impressed by the verses, which sometimes forsake tunes to highlight the band’s…uh, ambitious lyrics. “Sugarlight,” of course, is the exception, with dynamic melodies throughout the verses and an absolutely killer hook. I really adore that track. Rhythmically X are more L.A. punk than hardcore, and even then they’re only a little closer to the Germs than to some kind of fast Seventies hard rock. They also play at the only two speeds hard rock bands know, sorta-fast and slow-ish. They tiptoe on the hi-hat too much for it to be called rockabilly, which is obviously what Billy Zoom wants to play, and they never approach a good solid hardcore doop-chick* so the songs just kind of move along. Maybe I’m not listening to it loud enough.

Los Angeles is fun in parts and genuinely brilliant in a couple (“Sugarlight,” title track, “Sex and Dying,” “Your Phone’s Off the Hook”). I think it’s a little uneven and I rarely listen to the whole thing, but I’m not a fan of typical punk so I can’t speak definitively. You can decide for yourself. Your punk friends probably have higher opinions of it than I do. Let them convince you. Talk about it. Make music friends, like I never had. But decide for yourself.

*For a kickass example of this, see the Misfits’ “Demonomania.”

“Discipline” by King Crimson – Review

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I’ve always thought that John McLaughlin was a sloppy, amateurish and overexuberant musician and had only three things going for him: his technical facility, a knack for deracinating Indian music enough to make it palatable to American rock audiences, and a bitchin’ band (the Mahavishnu Orchestra in its first two or three years). Now imagine that he one day acquiring the self-restraint necessary to make even better music than Birds of Fire — music that was based primarily around tunes and tight structures, not inconsistent bursts of inspiration. He was allowed to thrive in jazz because of its emphasis on improvisation, so no one could detect what a spaz he was. I think the secret to Jack Johnson lies in the fact that Miles made him slow down and comp instead of wanging away at a million miles per hour. Patience.

Discipline.

Now imagine that this reformed McLaughlin, with his new concentration and understanding of how an audience would hear his playing, met up with the Talking Heads. They would commiserate over their love of non-Anglocentric music — McLaughlin for India, David Byrne for Saharan and Central Africa — and decide to make an album together. And McLaughlin, knee-deep in guitar synths and funny pedals by the end of the Seventies, brought a lot of these into the studio. And the Heads would bring their drum machines and their bongos and all sorts of funny instruments into the studio, and maybe grand architect Brian Eno would lay down wiggly pissy guitar solos as McLaughlin realized how badly he needed to calm down and decided to put improvisation aside for a little while.

Yes, it is ridiculous to describe what King Crimson was working at entirely in terms of what other bands were doing (or might have done), but whether or not the album contains strong traces of those other bands’ works is moot because Discipline is fucking superb. Almost every track is powered by a tight, lithe group performance that bears little resemblance to the clanking medieval monster that was King Crimson in 1974, and where (like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, actually) they used to play around with time signatures tentatively, like records they didn’t want to scratch while cleaning, here the Crims bat 15/16 and 7/8 and 13/77 round and round like the Insurrections or the Magic Band — they are fully baked and ruthlessly rehearsed for Discipline. I only wish they had forced Adrian Belew to sit down and compose a tune for ALL of the ones he sings on because “Frame By Frame,” “Matte Kudasai” and the chorus of “Thela Hun Ginjeet” have fantastic melodies.

Master musicians, developed in their chops and unafraid to cover somewhat old ground with a vengeance — now that is the meaning of craftsmanship. I have heard some other tracks from their other ’80’s albums and it seems that they put the rhythmic bend and flex, which makes Discipline’s best backing tracks so groovy, aside for inept 4/4 rhythms with little feel. Too bad. At least while it lasted we got this fine recording.

Look at this clip of them performing “Elephant Talk.” Robert Fripp smiles.