I’m back, but in a different configuration!
The idea now is that I’m going to write about 10 records I never listened to before, but this time there’s no time limit. So it’s ten records a month? two weeks? three and a half? two months? These ten took a little over a month to listen to. I hope to keep this pace, or maybe even listen to more every month. We’ll see. I’m just happy I found a way to keep motivating myself to listen to new stuff while also taking the time to listen to music I already know and like.
1. Ravi Shankar – Improvisations 
I became interested in Indian music, not sure how or why, but I realized I should check out this stuff. So I heeded some advice and got this record.
I think I’ve been exposed to some elements of classical Indian music through Western music (not the Beatles), so this is outside my “comfort zone” but also familiar at the same time. Speaking of familiarity and exposure through Western music, John Fahey totally “lifted” the first song, Improvisations on the theme music from ‘Panther Panchali’, for On The Banks Of The Owchita from the Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites. However, what he does with it is different enough that both his version and this one are original sounding and interesting to me.
The second track has a western jazz band backing Ravi Shankar, and I find it a little distracting. My cat digs it, though.
2. Curtis Mayfield – Got to Find a Way 
I wasn’t very excited about this record on my first listen. It’s a little more schmooze-y than Curtis and Super Fly and that takes a while to get used to. Also, the first song, Love Me (Right in the Pocket), kind of loses direction after a while. It’s an amazing song, but maybe it could have been five minutes instead of 7?
Overall this record is definitely a lot more “baby let’s turn the lights real low” than all the other Curtis stuff I’m familiar with. It almost feels like that’s his response to Let’s Get It On, or something, but it’s still Curtis, which means it’s some of the best music out there.
3. Curtis Mayfield – Sweet Exorcist 
The first time I listened to this one, I liked it more than Got to Find a Way. Now I’m not so sure. Again, it’s Curtis Mayfield. He was one of the best song-writers, producers, arrangers of our time. This record, though, sounds a little more like “generic” funk and soul. I’m not sure exactly how to explain it, but it’s very different than his other records (particularly Curtis and Super Fly)
4. Ravi Shankar – Ragas & Talas 
It’s tough to talk about this music because I don’t have the language to do so. I have no references and things to compare it to. In this case I can compare it to Improvisations, so I’ll do that. I think it’s a little more hardcore than Improvisations, just in terms of length and the playing. There’s no jazz band backing him here (even though it was just on the one track), so maybe it can be thought as a little more out there.
At the time of editing this post it’s been a few weeks since I listened to this record. It was a weird time. I got really into Indian music for a few days, listened to these records a few times, and then fell of the wagon. I need to revisit them and listen to more Indian music in general.
5. David Bowie – Young Americans 
This Bowie’s faux-funk/soul record. It was recorded in Philadelphia with soul and funk musicians, one of them was the drummer for Sly and the Family Stone!
Bowie himself described this record very well by calling it “plastic soul” and saying, “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.” Pretty much. It’s not a bad record, but it doesn’t have the same emotional impact as the music it’s trying to imitate. Of course, that’s not a bad thing, and I think that the idea of plastic soul is actually cool, and I like “cold” things that groove (like electronic music), but somehow this doesn’t hit the mark in the way I hoped it would. I think that maybe Bowie didn’t commit enough to either direction. It’s not “plastic” enough to be this cool fusion that I was hoping for, and it’s also not soul enough to be, well, soul.
6. David Bowie – Low 
This is a cool record and in some way it’s more eclectic than his records I’ve listened to thus far. He definitely dropped the “show-tune” sounding songs and moved on to stuff that is pretty weird, like Warszawa, and even the happy, peppy A New Career in a New Town is a departure. I like it, but I think some of the other songs take me a little while longer to warm up to because they don’t sound as fresh now as they probably did back then. What I mean is that so much stuff is still directly influenced by it, so it kind of sounds like something I have heard before, even though I think he was the originator.
7. David Bowie – Lodger 
When I first listened to this record I thought it’s the weakest Bowie record I listened to so far, and it might be the weakest, but it’s still very interesting. He maintained some of the “pop sensibilities” from his glam years, most notably in Fantastic Voyage and African Night Flight, and that made the record start slow for me. Then Move On has some elements that kind of throw you off, like the backwards vocals; they totally make the song for me. Red Sails almost sounds a Neu!, and D.J. sounds like a Talking Heads song, which is probably why I thought it sounded familiar.
The more I think about it compared to Low, I think that he definitely went back to the pop stuff. It’s pop songs an experimental wrap, because there are weird elements all over and no guitar solo is “normal”, but then none of the songs totally commits to weirdness like Warszawa or A New Career in a New Town from Low.
8. David Bowie – Heroes 
The last (for me) in the Berlin trilogy.
A lot of stuff on this record sounds like a precursor to the 80s, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Some songs are great, like Heroes (check out the NPR interview with Tony Visconti where explains how they got the guitar to sound the way it sounds), V-2 Schneider, Moss Garden, and Neukoln. So basically, half the record is spectacular.
9. Amon Duul II – Phallus Dei 
I listened to Amon Duul II before, but it was maybe 10 years ago and I don’t remember much of it.
Amon Duul (I and II, I think) get labeled as krautrock, and I don’t know if I hear it in the first track, Phallus Dei. It sounds mostly psychedelic with heavy emphasis on improvisation. The next entry about Faust IV has me writing about what I think is krautrock. I didn’t want to move it here, because I didn’t think of it when I was listening to this record and writing about it.
I hear more krautness in Kanaan, but you know, this doesn’t sound like Neu! and it also doesn’t sound like this next Faust record. The rest of the record sounds to me more like an anomaly to what I consider Krautrock. More in this below.
10. Faust – Faust IV 
Why did no one turn me onto krautrock in my youth?
The first track, Krautrock, sounds to me like the intersection between Can, Cluster or Harmonia, and Neu! There are a lot of similar ideas, like what I like calling the “jet” guitars, and the fuzz-wah on the guitars. There’s some of Can unruly-ness, and the beat, which is a tambourine and slightly percussive and repetitive synthesizer line makes me think of Harmonia and Cluster. Now there’s drums playing a variation of motorik and that’s pretty awesome, too, although I wanted more of the “just” tambourine beat.
Skinhead sounds like it is meant to parody skinheads. It’s obvious from the first few seconds of music and made even more obvious by the lyrics. It’s kind of a joke-y song, but still has interesting elements to it.
Jennifer makes me think of what makes krautrock krautrock, other than being music that was made by German bands. I always see certain elements of the music being used. For instance, people say that it’s the synthesizers and motorik. But a lot of bands of the time had synthesizers, all the prog bands did! And I take motorik to mean a very specific drum beat (snare on the 3, hihat on all four, kick when there’s no snare), or a variation of it, which is what you hear in Neu! but other krautrock doesn’t necessarily have it. The first and most obvious characteristic of krautrock is that they don’t care about traditional song structure. There’s no verse or chorus, they just riff on the same idea for 10 minutes. Then the bigger characteristic is that the music is some form of minimalism. There are a lot of instruments playing – bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, percussion, vocals, but they all play something that is simple and repetitive. For instance, the drums are super stripped down, all simple beats with almost no fills, and when there are fills they too are simple and subdued. So the result is music that is complex and slowly changing, but every element of it is simple. Contrast that with prog where the music is complex, rapidly changing, and every instrument is playing something that is very complicated. Another difference is the way the synthesizers are played. In prog, it’s one sound and the player is playing it like a piano. In krautrock, it’s one note and the player is playing with the sound. And another is that in krautrock they’re not afraid of manipulating stuff after it’s been recorded – editing or messing up with the playback, where in prog everything is supposed to sound like one continuous performance. Lastly, I noticed that a lot of these bands love having two songs in one track. There’s the longer song, which is the main song, and then when it ends, they just tack a slightly weirder, shorter passage to it. Jennifer has it, as well as almost every song on this record. I don’t know if they got that from psychedelic music (I’m mostly thinking of Pink Floyd’s first couple of records), or if it’s unrelated, but yeah.
Taking into account Phallus Dei, I think the best way to describe what krautrock is to say that it’s German experimental rock from the late 60s to the mid 70s.