I felt like I was being a negative Nancy this week, but then I was hit with a few records that I thought were exceptional, so maybe I wasn’t? Maybe those first few records were just not that amazing.
1. Mulatu Astatqé – Éthiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974 
This is a compilation (but all but one track are from Mulatu Astatqé) of Ethiopian jazz that is part of a series of CDs of Ethiopian music.
It’s cool. It sounds like soul-jazz or something that would fall into a genre that can be described by those two words. So the drums never swing, the themes are shorter, the bass doesn’t seem to be playing every note on the instrument, lots of electric piano, fuzzy guitars, and the improvisation never gets crazy. It’s the kind of music you find in transitional scenes in movies from the 60s. They do, however, always play in this odd scale that I know I heard before, but have no idea what it is. A thing that I liked is that the theme is always a team effort in the sense that taking away one instrument will change it drastically. Where with a lot of other jazz, everyone just plays the same thing together, more or less, and they sound a little different, but it really doesn’t matter if one player drops out.
My favorite song is the last one, Dèwèl (Bell). It’s a little weirder than the rest.
2. Eric Dolphy – Far Cry 
The first song’s, Mrs. Parker of K.C., theme is kind of nuts. The saxophone and trumpet play the same melody, but not exactly. It’s kind of like how Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry play the melody in Lonely Woman. Here it sometimes also sounds like the band is playing in two different time signatures. Then the trumpet starts soloing and it sounds like the usual bebop to me. Which brings me to this point – I listened to this record 4 times by now, and I’m not sure why it gets labeled as Avant-garde jazz. Some small parts of it might fall into that category, but the record on the whole sounds like bebop.
A couple of songs (Ode to Charlie Parker and Left Alone) have Eric Dolphy playing flute, and it’s an interesting change from the usual brass and reed instruments. It just puts the song in this other dimension.
I still can’t find a song that really grabs me after all these multiple listens. In fact, the whole record doesn’t really grab me. I’m not saying it’s a bad record. I think it’s a good record and I enjoy listening to it. I just didn’t find something in there that totally blew me away.
3. Black Sabbath – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath 
This record has better riffs than Master of Reality, but it also has a lot of 70s elements in it – the type of bridges, the cheesy choruses, there’s even a ridiculous ballad (Fluff) that makes me think of Lick my Love Pump.
What else is going on here? Sabbra Cadabra is a semi-blues/semi-prog 70s song and I don’t care for that too much.
I think I would have liked this record a lot more if I had heard it 10-15 years ago. For me, at this moment in my life, it’s like asking an adult to go back to high school to go through this grade she skipped. I also think that I got conditioned to become a little irate by this music from standing in traffic in Chicago, hungry and bored, wondering what’s on the radio, turning it on and hearing something similar to the music, not to mention the ding dong DJs on those radio stations. Now every time I hear 70s hard rock I think back to that.
Favorite song is Looking for Today.
4. Zu – Carboniferous 
Everyone knows Zu! I feel like around 2009/2010 they were getting mentioned everywhere, and I know I listened to some of their stuff then and liked it, but I do not remember what it sounded like.
Three songs in and I’m not feeling it, but I can see why 2009/2010 me would have been into it. Each song has a lot of small, seemingly complicated parts. They play something for 10 seconds, then move on to the next, and so on until the song ends. Back then I think that was my blueprint to making interesting music. Now I think that it’s kind of bullshit. I still like music that has a lot of complicated parts (I really like progressive rock!), but I believe it needs something else that glues the parts together. Just coming up with crazy parts and playing them in succession isn’t enough.
So this type of bands (Zu, Hella, Lightning Bolt, etc.) are good for the shock factor. When you first hear them you’re blown away by the barrage of sounds, and holy shit the drummer is INSANE, but once you become jaded to that, there’s nothing to bring you back to those records. When I say you, I mean “me”.
Zu made a couple of records with Ken Vandermark. I think I’d like to hear those.
The last track, Orc, is mostly electronics and what sounds like throat singing (Mike Patton, ugh), but it’s probably the best song on this record. So this one is the favorite!
5. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – Self-titled 
This kind of stuff isn’t really my thing. I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s like an OK-ish funk played solely by brass instruments, but everyone sounds so stiff. I’m not saying it’s bad, because I can tell it’s done well, it’s just not my kind of thing.
Ballicki Bone is alright, Satin Sheets too, but Jupiter is the best of the bunch, so that’ll be my favorite.
6. Joe Maneri – Paniots Nine [1963/1998]
This record has an interesting history. The first 7 songs were recorded back in 1963 as a demo for Atlantic (which explains why it’s the most low-fi jazz record I’ve listened to), and the last one is from a Jewish music festival in 1981. The demo didn’t yield a record until 1998 when John Zorn heard it and decided to release it. It was Joe Maneri’s first record!
This is a cool record and my favorite so far this week. Maneri is pretty much the only one who takes solos, so the line between what’s the theme and what’s him soloing is kind of blurred. It’s pretty amazing how he can improvise for 4-5 minutes straight and not run out of ideas. I also thought that he was informed by his contemporaries (I was thinking Coltrane), but he’s also doing things that I don’t think they were doing. For instance, a lot of his licks sound like something you’d hear from a Klezmer band.
I think Mountains is my favorite.
7. Richard Dawson – Nothing Important 
I’m a little speechless. I heard some of Richard Dawson’s stuff before, and it was music “in the folk tradition”, as they say. It wasn’t copying folk (mostly English folk, I think), but passing it through his filter and singing his own songs. It was good, but I wasn’t completely into it, but then I also didn’t listen to a whole record.
This record is different from what I heard from him before. It still has some folk-y strokes (fingerpicking, one guitar), but he took a different turn. It has magnificent, unique, and refreshing guitar playing that is both weird and beautiful. He makes mistakes, but like the real blues guitarists, he incorporates the mistakes into what he’s playing. Like them, he’s also telling a story, both lyrically and musically.
It seems to me that Dawson surveyed folk music before him and figured out how to make something that is inspired by real folk yet carefully not copying it. This is his own twist on telling folk stories with a guitar.
John Fahey would have been proud.
8. Man Or Astro-man? – Defcon 5…4…3…2…1 
I got this record when I saw MoAM last in 2013. Since then the record sat shrink-wrapped on a shelf. Before putting it on I was afraid that it’ll be another surf-y record, and there’s nothing wrong with Man Or Astro-man?’s brand of surf-rock, but they have been doing it for years now.
It’s got some of the surf flair. The guitars sound like they always do, and some songs have the minor pentatonic (?) stuff going, but some songs are just “regular” rock songs, and you can make of that whatever you want. Actually, if I’m being honest, most of their records are a mix of surf-y songs and non-surf stuff. The instrumentals are always surf and the songs where Star Crunch sings are the ones that just sound a little spacey. This one is similar to Experiment Zero in its mix of surf and non-surf. However, it is no match to Experiment Zero.
I choose New Cocoon as the favorite. I’m not sure it’s a representative song, or if it’s even the best one, but that’s the one going on the playlist.
9. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Clear Spot 
I’m not a big Beefheart fan, but I have also only listened to two records – Safe As Milk and Trout Mask Replica. I haven’t listened to the latter in a while, but I could never get into it. When I was young I thought it was just dumb noise, when I got older and more accepting, my impression of it didn’t change. Not sure why. I will revisit it soon.
Anyway, I’m listening to Clear Spot, so let’s get to it. I like it and I think I’m starting to get Beefheart. I think he and his band are billed as really weird music, but at the end of the day, it’s just 60s and 70s rock but played in more interesting ways, particularly the guitars. It’s like a picture that someone hung askew or upside-down. Not entirely different, but gives you a different persepctive. Honestly, I’m not that into Beefheart’s voice. It’s just a little too over the top.
I will probably listen to this record again, I think. Favorite track is Big Eyed Beans From Venus. The studio version isn’t on Spotify, so I picked one of the live ones, but I urge you to look up the studio version.
10. Richard Dawson – Sings Songs and Plays Guitar 
Hmm. Huh. This record is nothing like Nothing Important. This is a white bread, guy playing his acoustic guitar singing terrible, sentimental songs type of record. I can hear in one song, Forest, that he has chops, but it’s still a horrible song. Sorry, I know I said I won’t review records, but this is pretty bad.
Spotify playlist here. Didn’t include anything from Sings Songs and Plays Guitar.