John Frusciante – To Record Only Water For Ten Days

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You don’t throw your time away
Going inside.”

The cover art for To Record Water For Ten Days is oblique and mysterious, quite utilitarian in its simplicity; it brings to mind the design of This Heat‘s album cover, stark primary colors and little expression or implication of the music contained within. In this sense, this works both for and against the record – I’d been a casual Frusciante appreciator ever since I heard Shadows Collide With People back in my teens (ironically, because I liked the cover art), and gave his earlier avant/psych-folk meanderings a shot (It’s worth noting I seriously considered reviewing Smile from the Streets You Hold over this, but again couldn’t find the right words I feel describe my connection to that record. Another day.) and it never really stuck then, but those records are to be discussed another day.


To Record Only 
Water bursts out of the gates with “Going Inside,” shining with a newfound soberity and confidence, all chiming jangle pop riffs and an incendiary guitar solo(?) that somehow manages to sound like a wailing human voice and a guitar at once, and follows as a sort of mission statement and introduction to the record’s head space.
The lyrics on the record vary in subject matter, but are consistently oblique, touching, and full of ghostly soul, and speak of redemption, personal psychedelia, melancholy, love and loss.

As you progress through the record, Frusciante’s impressive variety in songwriting becomes evident with the touching ballad “The First Season” and the plaintive, spacious (no pun intended) “Wind Up Space,” the gorgeous guitar-fireworks-lite of “Ramparts” (the only instrumental on the record along with “Murderers”) and the catchy, single-worthy “Away & Anywhere,” which has one of my favorite refrains on the album. The tracklist is substantial yet short and sweet, with the same dusty, gorgeous atmosphere flowing from beginning to end but never losing the listener’s interest.

I guess it’s worth mentioning I’ve also never really been a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan; I can always get behind the indie rock and psychedelia informed narcotic jams on By the Way or the more melodic cuts on Californication if I’m in the right mood, but pretty much nothing else has ever stuck with me for a number of reasons – mainly that I dislike both lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis’ delivery and lyrics 90% of the time. It’s not really a matter of malice, it’s just never something that appealed to me in my youth so I have not the connection to them many I know do. That changed with my recent revisits to Frusciante’s often incredible but sometimes confounding solo music.

Interestingly it was said at the time that John’s biggest influence writing this material was 1980s synthpop and post-punk bands who did their own synth programming such as Depeche Mode, Talk Talk, New Order, etc.  While it does show in the charmingly off-beat use of clanking drum machines and light synthesizer textures (even a few song structures), I definitely wouldn’t use those bands as a buoy by which to explain how this record sounds. The sound is pretty singular and unlike pretty much anything the man has done before or since – an eclectic enough oevure spanning grunge to IDM that I’d definitely like to do a retrospective writeup on it sometime.

Frusciante has stated during the creation of this record and By the Way he felt very connected to the spirit world and had numerous, frequent visions of spirits while writing; the title of the record comes from a picture of his body as a tape recorder that records water for ten days to ‘purify’ himself and allow for the deepest form of expression through sound and poetry. When I first heard this record, it was at the beginning of an early morning binge starting with Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt all while I was coming down off a strong LSD experience, and I honestly cannot think of a more perfect scenario in which I could’ve heard his music – not to imply drugs are necessary to enjoy anything, but with what I was going through in my personal life and the intense empathy I still felt it put me in the perfect space to learn to love his music.

This is a beautiful, haunting, redemptive pop record worthy of not only Frusciante’s musical legacy, but also a permanent spot in my heart and musical rotation.

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Cranes – Forever

After a couple weeks of feeling uninspired to write, I’ve decided impulsively to do a little writeup on a really good sophomore effort from undermentioned Portsmouth gothic pop/rock dream-weavers Cranes.
Cranes’ career began with a series of EPs and singles, admittedly most of which I have never listened to (a problem I will rectify at some point in the near future) and from what I understand, took a sharp turn in sound somewhere around 1991 for the Wings of Joy debut full-length, which was where I began my journey with their music personally.

They re-imagined themselves as a sort of mostly beautiful, sometimes terrifying, sometimes alien sounding split between the sounds of the Cocteau Twins, neoclassical minimalism, and Dead Can Dance with wildly expressive, Kate Bush-esque vocals – courtesy of lead vocalist Alison Shaw, whose incredible voice ranges from sounding utterly ethereal and touching to starkly alien and frightening. This highly dynamic, melancholic, baroque sound began with the debut and was expanded upon in many ways by  Forever, the record I currently hold in contention with this writeup.

Forever does not take the formula from Wings of Joy and improve upon it as much as it blossoms and refines it into something equally lovely. I can imagine this time was probably the height of Cranes’ popularity as a band, what with opening for the Cure on their hugely popular 1992 Wish tour which is one reason I imagine how this band ever had much exposure at all. It is a fairly eclectic album by my ears, coming out of the gates withthe swooning minor chord dreamfolk of the opener Everywhere, a solid mood-setter, followed immediately by Cloudless, an austere and creepy piece of minimalist ethereal pop punctuated by (pleasantly) dated sounding neoclassical instrumentation and a strong vibe of what I can only describe as evocative of dark fantasy worlds – I think of JRPGs, vampire movies, the Earthsea novels, Castlevania etc. when I hear this stuff. I would be hard pressed to say I wouldn’t enjoy a Cranes soundtrack for a video game!

As we progress through the record there are several other highlights, including what might be my personal favorite Far Away, a lush piano-driven dirge held together by the tear-jerkingly sweet melody and Shaw’s lowkey, childlike vocals. Swells of strings and acoustic guitar bring the song to life as it progresses, making for a gorgeous, timeless piece of out of this world neofolk. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Clear, a chugging industrial-esque piece with police siren guitars(?) wailing in the back of the mix, pounding percussion, guitar riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place on an angrier Joy Division track, and as always, Shaw’s distinctively twee and eerie vocals. Sun and Sky is also very worth mentioning – a power ballad of sorts that stands out for its grungy vibe and interesting use of Shaw’s vocals – perhaps the most conventionally “shoegaze” of any of these songs.

The formula is stretched, repeated, and expanded upon in different ways, but they seem to have a specific handful of formulas they use for songs on this record and it works quite well. There is no lack of diversity in mood here, something which I could see as both a strength and weakness when compared to some of their other work – this certainly isn’t my favorite Cranes record, that’d have to go to the aforementioned Wings of Joy (also Rachel Goswell’s favorite, for all my Slowdive friends!) but as its sibling makes for an excellent companion piece and an album that any lover of gothic rock, shoegaze, dream pop, neofolk or would appreciate in their collection.

Tame Impala – Currents

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2015 turned out to be a really solid year for me musically (if not in other aspects of my life) – Vince Staples’ fiery studio debut Summertime ’06, Jam City’s ethereal, addictive sophomore effort Dream a Garden, one of avant-noise-jazz unit Zs’ best efforts in Xe, and a bold new pair of records from dream pop darlings Beach House (Depression Cherry Thank Your Lucky Stars, respectively) among many others. Wow, I sure ought to make a 2015 best of list, huh? 😉

In any case, today I’d like to discuss an album from a band who I previously enjoyed but had never been particularly impressed by – until this. Currents wasn’t necessarily a love-at-first-listen; this album is actually a considerably more subdued, textural, soulful affair than Lonerism or Innerspeaker before it. It took a couple weeks of listens (a fantastic album to cycle to, if that’s yr thing) before it sunk it way into my heart.

There was hardly a hint to where they were going next with the former record – this record bursts out of the gates with a newfound originality, confidence, and homogenization of different influences. Tame Impala’s sound is fully self-actualized here and it feels great. Perhaps the most notable difference is that no longer is Tame Impala a guitar driven entity – the 60s flower-power guitar psychedelica of their previous records is all but discarded, replaced by an analog synth-heavy layered sound that is equal parts classic UK psychedelica, glossy 70s yacht rock and modern synth pop, and their music has never felt more at home.

The album is also something of a concept record, chronicling the serious breakup and subsequent emotional journey of frontman Kevin Parker. His reverberated, echoing falsetto stretches itself all over these songs, warping and undermining the lush synthesizer gloss, Beatlesque basslines and funky percussion with a genuine sense of humanity and pain. The self-pity isn’t at all saccharine or overbearing, as a certain sense of self-deprecating awareness, sarcasm and dark humor pervades the storytelling. Take this excerpt from the aptly-titled “The Less I Know the Better”;

Someone said they left together
I ran out the door to get her
She was holding hands with Trevor
Not the greatest feeling ever
Said, “Pull yourself together
You should try your luck with Heather”
Then I heard they slept together
Oh, the less I know the better
The less I know the better

However for all of the humor and self-depricating irony present here, there is a genuine undercurrent of mourning and the various stages of grief passing by as the record progresses from start to finish. At the time in my life when I first heard this record, I was (and to some extent still am) in a deep depression over the loss of my ex girlfriend in 2013, and it felt as though Parker and I were in it together – many days this record gave me a reason to keep hope alive, to remember that you can always smile through the hurt, and live to see a newer day with a fresh perspective.

I feel I’ve shared just about as much as I need to without giving away too much – after all, this album deserves to be discovered by eager ears just as I did, so I’ll leave you with the centerpiece ballad “Yes I’m Changing,” which evokes lost love and Twin Peaks in equal measure:

Miles Davis – Agharta

For as much as I love jazz (and all of its various permutations in other types of music, a few of which I have previously written about), I am not that great at writing about it. I am not a jazz musician, I am only vaguely familiar with musical theory and jazz history, so it’s fair to say some degree of detail and historical nuance is perhaps lost upon me. So, disclaimer aside – I’d like to share a few thoughts about this otherworldly, incinerating live document of Miles Davis’ band in his mid 70s electric/fusion period.

At the time of Agharta‘s release, Miles Davis had already well established his trail-blazing work in fusing high-energy psychedelic rock & funk with his own, singular vision of what “jazz fusion” was. Bitches Brew and On the Corner had just began to fade into the rear view mirror. Classic jazz fans, alienated by the atonal, confrontational, alien nature of those aforementioned records and accompanying live performances had been partially replaced by younger, more adventurous fans of rock and experimental music of the time.

Many different lineups had already been burned through, Miles’ health, mentally and physically had begun to decline due to his constant touring schedule and heavy substance use. Not long after the release of Agharta, Davis left music behind for half a decade. The recording of Agharta was part of a short two-off series of shows he played in Osaka, Japan: the sibling recording is known as Pangaea, which we will possibly discuss another day.

The reason all of this is important is because these two recordings, Agharta specifically (for me anyway) have a feeling throughout them of a crazed search through the abyss for vindication, catharsis, and meaning. This truly feels like the work of an artist who had set out what he accomplished to do, but was never truly satisfied – this is the culmination of that need for adventure, pent-up artistry, and emotional frustration coming out all at once.

Davis led a septet for these performances – Pete Cosey on guitar/synth/various percussion, himself on trumpet (and a little organ), Sonny Fortune on alto/soprano sax & flute, Al Foster on drums, Michael Henderson on electric bass, Reggie Lucas on backup guitar, and James Mtume on various ethnic percussion and even a digital drum machine (!). The diversity and variety of sounds here is astonishing, as one would expect and ranges from sublime flute-driven bossa nova fusion to thundering world percussion sections with eardrum-searing guitar improv that’d make Robert Fripp or Michael Karoli proud, often within the span of a couple minutes. It’s worth noting that the versions of “Rated X” and “Black Satin” here are absolutely definitive to me, every time I listen to Get Up With It or On the Corner it’s hard not to throw those on instead.

All in all, this is a lengthy, uncompromising, dense, massive recording of an artist at his artistic and technical peak, creating an uninviting yet endlessly explorable world of sound that you can get lost in for days.. if you’re not scared off immediately. 😉 I wouldn’t listen to this before Bitches Brew or his classic acoustic work if you’re not familiar with Davis, but once you’re initiated and ready for the plunge – Agharta is a ride through Miles’ mind like no other.

Cocteau Twins – Blue Bell Knoll: A Re-Analysis

Ah, Blue Bell Knoll. Not quite the black sheep of the Cocteau catalog (that honor would likely go to their somewhat misunderstood and underappreciated swan song, Four-Calendar Café) but one that seems to be sadly overlooked in favor of Heaven or Las Vegas or Treasure more often than not, and I am no saint in this regard. Thanks to the suggestion of a close friend, I’ve decided to give this record another chance to win my heart the way their other work has. Of course, I am not factoring the sibling-record Victorialand into the equation because in my opinion it stands alone in their catalog as a bit of an anomaly; nothing else they did sounds quite like it. But back to the subject at hand, eh?

The eponymous opening track starts with a gothic, repetitious harpsichord motif, followed by fuzzy synthesizer pads, and Robin Guthrie’s slowly building guitar textures into a gorgeous, lilted chorus of Liz Frazer’s astral vocalizations. It feels like equal parts minimalist hypnotics and maximal 4AD atmosphere, leading into a visceral and darkly psychedelic finish, all revolving around that simple arpeggiated harpsichord. In all honesty I think it’s one of the best openers on any of their records and absolutely gives ‘Cherry Coloured-Funk’ and ‘Ivo’ a run for their money.

The rest of the album varies in sound, and seems to be not only a reimagining of the gauzed-out, 80s-as-fuck 4AD sound of Treasure with crisper production values and more modern sound design all around, but also a sort of prequel to the picture-perfect-dream pop sound they’d go on to perfect with the God-like Heaven or Las Vegas that followed this. However, unlike most transitory records in many artist’s catalogs, this album’s identity seems pretty certain of itself. The focus on Liz’s vocals here is a fairly important distinction as I feel it is one of the album’s most defining characteristics – the presence and clarity of her vocals on this record allow her uniquely addictive and beautiful hooks to shine and worm their way into your brain quickly. Lots of goosebump inducing moments to be found here.

‘Carolyn’s Finger’ is one of the finest pop songs in their catalog – if I’m not mistaken this track was also one of their first to ever receive any kind of US-based pop success, and deservedly. It’s an absolute treat. It stands in solid contrast to darker, plaintive ballads like ‘The Itchy Glowbo Glow’ (probably my favorite song here honestly) which is like a crisp distillation of everything that makes Treasure such a lovely, haunting listen, presented with a newfound confidence and extroversion as they began to embrace the pop sound that’d go on to define their last few records.

Overall, I’d say this still isn’t my favorite Cocteau record; that place in my heart is reserved for Treasure and Heaven or Las Vegas and likely always will be – but it’s certainly a shining jewel of their discography and a superb mid-career effort that helped propel them into the global pop consciousness and cement their place forever in the hearts of lovers of dream pop, shoegaze, and gothic music alike.