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REVIEW – Rudy Simone: ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ album, 2000 (“shot through with aftershocks of abandonment, dispossession, self-doubt and the battle to stay afloat”)

2 Feb

record-rudysimone-putthesun

Shot through with aftershocks of abandonment, dispossession, self-doubt and the battle to stay afloat, Rudy Simone’s debut album doesn’t resolve the questions she’s raised before. It doesn’t round off those battleworn displays of uneasy heart from the previous year’s ‘Personal Cloud‘ EP, nor does it offer clear clues about where she’ll be travelling in the future.

Fresh as she sounds, Rudy already has plenty of past. Originally from Buffalo, New York State (where, as Rita Seitz, she sang in various obscure bands during the early 1980s) she turned emotional refugee later in life and crossed the Atlantic to Liverpool, where her own songs emerged amid a landscape of acoustic sessions and nightclub rushes. Most debut albums are a statement, however crude. This one’s a scrambling steeplechase across Rudy’s emotions and her spiritual restlessness. It stays true to the disruptive collisions between the life singing in the head and the life that lurks outside. What ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ resembles most is an attempt to wrap up Rudy’s fraught baggage in a big, unwieldy brown paper package; to tie it together with guitar strings and beats, to spray it with disco glitter and then set it free somewhere down the Mersey. Drifting seawards, it comes unstuck and reveals itself.

Attempting to cram in all her gushes of inspiration, Rudy ends up with a confusing whole. Seemingly at random, songs appear in alternate acoustic and instrumental alternate versions; there are two takes on the eerie Kill The Cult Of Cool single, and a trancier reworking of Personal Cloud. ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ ends up as an anxious, fractured goodie-bag, unsure about whether floaty beats are better than strumming, and telling repeated stories in different tones. Don’t expect track-by-track coherence – but do expect plenty of understated feeling, a maverick DIY pop sense in full effect, and some determined songcraft. This album is a necklace-worth of interesting, often touching episodes.

In some respects, Rudy fits in with that rough wave of confessional women emerging in the 1990s via trip-hop and indie rock, including the two Beths (Gibbons and Orton) and Juliana Hatfield. There are some similarities to Jane Siberry; though Rudy is more loosely strung, she shares elliptical, Siberryesque feminine perspectives, blown about by impressions and finding solid little truths in the midst of abstraction. But for my money the artist whom she’s closest to is Lida Husik. Both Rudy and Lida resist committing themselves to any one musical approach or way of looking; both seem suspicious of tradition or sturdy craftsmanship. As with Husik, Rudy’s wispily sweet vocal belies her determination to discover and envision things her own way, learning from time and from chance. Both, too, are peripatetic and intuitive to a fault: they’re both quite prepared to walk into mires of embarrassing self-conscious fluff if that’s where an idea takes them (in Rudy’s case, a misplaced James Brown tribute called Bony Little, giddy and apologetic, in which she bangs on forever about her skinny white ass).

For this album, the club dance elements have triumphed in Rudy’s big bag of sounds – as they did on Husik’s ‘Green Blue Fire’ album four years previously. Techno producer Sheldon Southworth, a.k.a Diffusion, is a vital collaborator for half the album. He’s the Beaumont Hannant to Rudy’s Husik, adding his own club-friendly trance sparkle to hers and replacing guitars with the zing of electronics. For The Secret Sayings Of Jesus, Rudy whispers god-inside Gnostic philosophy, floating it like evangelical thistledown over Diffusion’s bright trance beats and aquatic keyboard textures. Despite her trippy tones, hypnotically soft, the chant is a desperate prayer rather than navel-gazing. It’s a counterpoint to the other songs, which make up a travelogue of delusions to be overcome in oneself or endured from others.

Vanity’s Car perks its way through cheerful Euro-trance and Soft Cell gurgles, but Rudy’s lyrics dwell on how the wrong kind of excitement can lessen a person’s grasp on reality – “amazing how far you’ll go when you lose control – / I’ve got to get out on my feet / and be the things I always wanted to be.” The fallout is clear: “I might be sitting in your living room / but I might as well be in another country,” Rudy protests on Can’t Go There. “You can drive if you wanna, but I prefer to stay on my feet… / ‘cos you’re so blind, you can’t see that it’s right across the street.” Warm swelling synths, glinting funk-wah guitar, and house piano echo that communal gospel glory which Primal Scream tapped on Come Together. Rudy’s own hopes of connection, though, are dissolving.

While Diffusion’s contributions are valuable, there’s no question that Rudy remains convincing on her own. The brief pure-dance diversion of Mentallium hurls rapid drum’n’bass kitfire headlong into chilly trance electronica: to wild things up a little, Rudy mixes twitchy diva calls, jazzy double bass and kettle drums into the instrumental. Out on the other edge of her music, she abandons beats and boxes. A blues-y acoustic guitar version of Vanity’s Car brings its warnings closer to the surface, no longer masked by shiny bodywork. Part pop-plaint, but mostly blues rant, the all-acoustic Water’s Edge sees the banalities of love (“Sometimes I’d like to kill him, / but I always gotta thrill him”) splinter in a glare of rage. Wailing like a cross between PJ Harvey and Etta James, Rudy walks the shoreline, grappling with a moment of agonising choice. Violence is poised within her, ready to strike inwards or outwards, and only the lone conscious voice of the song cries out against it. “Don’t go, you’ll only make your mama cry / Don’t go, you’ll only fuck your baby’s mind.”

As a single, Kill The Cult Of Cool got lost in the no-budget wilds which sank so many others; yet its emotional hop-skip-and-jump was a remarkable coming-together of ideas and instinct. It still is. Broody horror synths, laceworks of folk guitar and a patchwork of voice snippets quilt together into something haunted, defiant and transformative. In keeping with the rest of the album’s repetitions and revisitings, the song gets a double outing (the Derision Mix transforms it into radiophonic electro-funk replete with glitchy scratching and whooshing, frothing Vangelis synth splurge) but it’s the original that really matters. Something of a signature song for Rudy ever since it first showed up on ‘Personal Cloud‘, its cohesive spirit remains clear as its splintered voices ask for compassion, pray for guidance, plant down stubborn feet. “I was the quiet one in school, never made any trouble,” stammers a sampled man; “I don’t care what you say, I’m not crazy,” Rudy adds quietly. It’s full of struggle, though never precisely clear what that struggle is – the claw back to sanity out of the creeping horrors? a defense of alternative thinkers and scapegoats? – yet it’s also affecting in a way in which few things that I hear are.

The spine of the album, though, is the title track and Personal Cloud. The former’s a grieving white-girl rap about a marriage snapped violently in half: here, Rudy sounds as soft-spoken but as wide-awake’n’dreaming as Margaret Fiedler does while puzzling out dreams in Laika. Almost cushioned by the pain, she lets moments of heartbreaking reproach crest over it and into the words: when she murmurs “you say you’re following your heart / I say fear has played a much bigger part”, real agony glints. In a new take on Personal Cloud (remixed by M@2K into radar blips, ambient funk and blue-light electronics) more displaced degrees of mourning are added to Rudy’s grapple with addictions, love and loneliness (“I wrap my lips around a cigarette instead of you…”). Her voice flutters, weightless and bereft: a hydrogen balloon un-anchored by faithless hands.

Maybe ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ is not the album Rudy Simone’s capable of. It’s more like several different shots at an album: all crowded into the kitchen together, taking anxious and uncomfortable refuge. No clear clues; a spinning signpost; but indications of an effective, if scattered, talent – one worth investing some love in.

Rudy Simone: ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’
Phat Lady Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R-only album
Released: 2000

Buy it from:
Extremely rare – best found second-hand.

Rudy Simone online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

REVIEW – Peggy Green: ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’ album, 2000 (“defiantly post-RSI pedal steel guitar music”)

16 Oct

Peggy Green: 'Songs Of Naka Peida'

Peggy Green: ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’

Imagine working at something for the best part of twenty years. Perfecting it to your best ability, gaining a reputation and respect; making a decent living as well as finding a way to make it speak for you, give you another voice to communicate with. And then, all at once, having it taken away from you.

This is what happened to Peggy Green. Up until the point when repetitive strain injury gripped her working hands in 1990, she was one of the most respected pedal steel guitarists in New England; not to mention also crafting her way in private as a six-string player and songwriter. Subsequent neuromuscular complications during the ’90s robbed her, at various times, of the ability to use the blocking and rapid picking techniques which are the staple of pedal steel playing; to work the crucial left pedal of her instrument; to walk anything further than short distances without crippling swelling of the hands; or even to play for more than ten seconds. It’s the kind of situation which unites musicians – via both the heart and the pocket – in a cold sweat. The cut-off, seemingly irrevocable.

No, there isn’t a glitzy TV movie outcome. Peggy has recovered partially since then, but not completely. These days, you won’t find her duelling onstage with Buddy Emmons and Bruce Kaphan; or burning up Nashville pedal steel playoffs with a revitalised, zippier technique; or wearing Dolly Parton hats while having her hand shaken by the President. Life often doesn’t let us wallow in such easy tears and such feel-good endings. But what life can be is dignified.

Constrained by the cold facts of injury, Peggy could have retreated into honourable retirement, taking another job and accepting her loss as some kind of act of God. What she’s done instead does involve acceptance. But humble defeat? Not so. ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’ is a defiantly post-RSI album of pedal steel guitar music, played on a couple of custom built acoustic instruments built by legendary pedal steel maker Paul Franklin Sr. Dubbed “ped-a-bro”s, they merge the penetrating “jump-at’cha” sound of dobro resonator guitars with the flexible bends and glides of conventional steels.

As you can imagine, these are naked instruments – the kind which won’t hide a players errors behind a comforting wall of amplified smoothing. They’d be a challenge for a player in prime fitness, let alone one with hand problems, but Peggy’s chosen to make her way on them. Having accepted the limitations imposed by RSI, she’s dispensed with the flash and trickiness she could previously deploy for showboating country musicianship. Now she’s concentrating on a slow, considered, delicately melodic way of playing – clipped in approach; tailored to avoid the spasms, locks and numbness of the condition: a way in which she can, as she puts it “achieve that old connection between my soul and my hands.” She’s also elected to record in a way which makes every creak of the ped-a-bro mechanism and every shift of the player’s stool discreetly audible, so that you can hear her at work.

It works wonderfully. Peggy offers sparse, slowhand, bluesy playing nourished by lonesome American roots; at the same time she offers short, shallowly-picked notes with an exquisite attention to placement that’s associated more with East Asian music (with the yang ch’ins of China, the kotos of Japan and the assorted zithers of Carnatic music). These precise patterns can – at the right moment – be lifted off the map and up into the air, with just a push on a pedal. All of this is achieved with a patient grace and melodicism, the kind which wouldn’t shame Bill Frisell or Martin Taylor. Not that there isn’t some therapeutic wrestling with demons here. Titles like Achin’ Deep Down In My Bones and Fair Affliction assure us of that. But most of ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’ is – while never transcendently happy – remarkable in its serenity.

There’s also a background concept here. The album has a speculative yarn attached: a self-referential creation with strong flavours of Ursula K. LeGuin. In the stricken, disaster-oppressed Continuum society of the future, Naka Peida is the name of a character – the Continuum’s Chief Archivist. Each song on the album is linked to a story of the rediscovery of Peggy’s music, and its connection and implications to both Naka Peida and the Continuum. Evidently Peggy’s not interested solely in her own healing.

The music travels on, learning from places as it goes. There’s the graceful glissandi of Koroen; the tart, sparkling Indian cascades of Love’s Last Chance; the welcoming Japanese formality of Nakahama (named after the location where most of the album was both written and recorded) or the curving Hawaiian warmth of The Pedalist or Wrong Stop Blue. If the music doesn’t necessarily draw from a sense of place, it can draw from time instead. One of the approaches Peggy uses is to place herself in a particular moment. Goodbye To The Twentieth Century was recorded in Osaka on Millennium Eve, and comes out as the most hopeful piece on the entire album. Affected by its Japanese setting, it also revels in its vertiginous, playfully lovely slides and swoops, in the celebratory birdsong harmonics. For a moment, Peggy even lets the ped-a-bro sing with the jazzy bends of Billie Holiday.

The three-part Improvisations In The Moonlit Dawn (billed by Peggy as being “the closest you can come to sitting with me while musical ideas are being born and tried out”) comes from a February morning, closer to home in New York. It’s more sober (Five Note Blues is positively respectful) and more American (you could even expect Robert Johnson to be moaning over Evening Turns). Finally, it’s brasher when the punchy, multiple stop-and-slide slowhanding of Make Way For Dawn makes its presence felt. Assertive, muscular and far more assured than you’d have expected, it still loses none of the delicate melodicism of the rest of the album.

“My struggle against the adversity of my injury makes me the player I am today,” notes Peggy. Whatever she may have been before the axe fell, she’s a pretty remarkable player now. Without much of a big sound, without banner-waving, this album is quietly inspiring and humbling: even profoundly moving.

Peggy Green: ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’
Peggy Green (self-released),  MHG737 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 27th June 2000

Buy it from:
CDBaby, CD Universe or iTunes or Amazon MP3 Store.

Peggy Green online:
Homepage

REVIEW – Rudy Simone: ‘Personal Cloud’ mini-album, 1999 (“contradictory shards and half-formed knots of feeling”)

14 Jul

Rudy Simone: 'Personal Cloud'

Rudy Simone: ‘Personal Cloud’

“I wrap my lips around a cigarette / instead of you,” mourns Rudy Simone on the title track of ‘Personal Cloud’. Her voice pipes and teeters on a precipice of reproach. It’s gently, perpetually, pulled back by beautiful harp-like guitars and throaty bass synth. Here’s a lullaby for the betrayed, somewhere between the sweet hyper-conscious dissolve of a Jane Siberry ballad and a Rose Royce disco symphony. Clasping heartbreak to itself, like an addict in recovery, and gently rocking to soothe; while allowing all of the contradictory shards and half-formed knots of feeling to swim free for a moment, a float of voices and words knocking against each other.

“I thought I was drowning, it was only rain./ Thought I felt fire, it was only smoke. / Never leave me… / Oh, will this world take you from me? / I tried, I tried to leave it alone…”

‘Personal Cloud’ is all about this kind of mixed, eddying feeling. Intensities and unravellings. Throwing vitriol and clinging to loyalty. The need to stab the same person you might be begging to pick you up off the floor two hours later. And if it wavers dramatically – both in its musicality and in its consistency – that’s only in keeping with what it’s about, as Rudy explores her emotional devastation using various forms of music. Club elements invade baggily-hanging acoustic confessionals. Wobbly jazz singing gatecrashes trance-dance. Free association yanks a tune bloodily from its roots. Throughout, moods swing like road-signs in a gale, confusing direction.

 “I swear sometimes I wish an alien will take you from this planet / then I turn around, y’know, / I never meant it,” frets Rudy on Velvet, an all-over-the place straggle of guitar, cello and drums where jealousy, need and pride disrupt each other. At one moment, she’s showing the lover her boot and the door  (“Go on out / take your place and find the one who does it all for you,”). At the next, she’s turned the full blowtorch of greedy sexuality onto him to melt him back down again (“It don’t fit into your plans to be so selfish / when all that velvet is waiting for your kiss…”).

Puppet strings yank themselves; kissing lips bruise on gritted teeth. A foot slides, caressing, up a lover’s calf. The same foot turns and hammers a heel, hard, into his instep.

This kind of tense no-man’s land is a stressful place to be. Sometimes there’s a wordless protest, as expressed in Galactica – cosmic trance-techno, where the lonely cry of a star-burned keening synth is cheered up by a flamboyant crash of bells and bucked up by a roguish, tarry bubble of club bassline. Alternatively, Stronger Than You Know meanders along on its skinny guitar and string synths, changing its shape, like a girl dancing drunkenly across treacherous ground, knowing where to put her feet but lurching dangerously close to disaster. It seems fey, but only because it’s discovered a different kind of resistance, dissolving again to escape damage – “Oh, you’re kicking light, / you’re punching air.”

The militaristic Bjork-ish beat of Glimmer Of Hope, the tension of guitar and listing punchdrunk voice, belies its positivity – “I see a glimmer of hope in the clouds / and it’s all I need to see my way out of this.”  On Feel Like I Belong, the club electronics bang and bubble under one of Rudy’s sweetest bluesiest sighs, and bloody experience is weighed up – “memories can drown if you let them – / just because you can it doesn’t mean that you should.” Only the drunken brooding of surly fuzz-guitar suggests there’s something wrong behind this particular attempt at finding peace.

record-rudysimone-ktcocFar more satisfying (in terms of comfort, anyway) is the spooky guitar and spiralling trip-hop of the haunted single Kill The Cult Of Cool – remarkable in any context, particularly moving here, it sounds like a night’s spiritual battle committed to tape. On the single cover Rudy, visibly haunted, stared down fear out of a circle of tall, slender flames, and the song’s occult, speaking-in-tongues feel is still immediate. Over Gothic movie keyboards, Rudy delivers a Buffy-esque putdown in a cool, girl-with-a-mission voice – “I’ve got nothing but derision for your apocalyptic vision. / Anti-amorous, not glamorous. / Time to kill the cult of cool,” – before rolling off into a weird, syncopated mixture of American indie, sampledelia and trip-hop in which everything seems to slide gracefully in and out of time. Ruminative, sandpapery hip-hop beats do the slippery shuffle-and-collapse in the basement. Frail raga-trance vocal melodies drape themselves in irregular folds over the roof. White noise, static radio fizz and heart-monitor bleeps struggle in and out of the mix: a dreamy staircase of guitars (including a spaghetti-Western dobro) twangs at the heart of the chorus.

The rest is a weave of lost-girl chant and coos, a multiplicity of voices flipping backwards and forwards, a narcotic nuzzle towards solace. “Help up, I shall bless,” keens one line. “Ooh yes, honour – there’s no-one there…” murmurs another. Rudy duels weightlessly with other wounded voices (“I was the quiet one in school, never made any trouble…”) and absentee gods before declaring with quiet assurance, “I don’t care what you say, I’m not crazy.” The fact that this happens at the beginning of ‘Personal Cloud’ – and not as a tidy resolution at the end – suggests that this isn’t the first time she’s had to take up arms against her own crowded inner sea of troubles.

Uneven, unsettling, and mixing awkward un-coordination with gliding grace, ‘Personal Cloud’ reveals the wayward talent of a potential cult heroine – unafraid to grasp at the chaos and trash of the battered heart.

Rudy Simone: ‘Personal Cloud’
Phat Lady Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R-only mini-album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Extremely rare – best found second-hand.

Rudy Simone online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

REVIEW – Bears in America: ‘Bear Tracks’ EP, 2011 (“the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle”)

5 Jun
Bears In America: 'Bear Tracks'

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’

I wasn’t sure whether I’d be getting some straightforward nature music, or an EP celebrating stocky gay men in the Appalachians. A part of me is a little disappointed that it wasn’t the latter.

Bears in America are elusive and oblique enough to be called just about anything – but the name fits. They sound like large, vague furry things; as if they’re moving past in secret, just out of eyeshot, grazing on the debris left behind towns and people. You hear their rustles and mumbles; you turn around; but they’re too difficult to spot clearly unless they want to be seen. They make small, gentle noises; generally much smaller and gentler than they are.

Matt Gasda (previously of Electioneers) and Daniel Emmett Creahan (instigator of various quixotic tape-music labels such as Prison Art and O, Morning) make up the band. They’re based in Syracuse, New York: a university town which, once upon a time, was a swamp. It sounds as if Matt and Daniel spend quite a lot of time dreaming about what it was like back in the Syracuse swamp days, and whether some of that time still soaks into today. The three tracks on here (allegedly recorded in basements and closets, and possibly while half-asleep) even feel waterlogged. While the songs themselves are light – barely sticking to the eardrum – the instruments are heavy; from the rumbling, staggering piano to the guitar which sounds like the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle, half-buried in the mud.

At times, it’s like listening to an ancient, rural version of No Wave or a Steve Reich process chant – its back turned, its hat pulled down over its eyes, caught up by the waterline and engrossed in an endless pulse which it’s found and has tuned into. Wrapped in repetition, Rain King rumbles like a prayer, Matt singing “Put your trust in the rain king, / who’s going to move the mountain?” in a piping murmur while dark thunderheads of piano notes build up in the background. The Beta Band used to tap into sketched sounds and feelings like these back at the beginning, when they were still a well-kept secret. Bears in America sing and play as if they always want to remain that kind of secret, piping in music from a ghostly, gentler country.

Ratsbones spreads out the minimalism over six minutes. There’s a limping, leaning piano fragment; a drape of organ texture; a set of delicate vocal canons. Later on, there’s the sound of oyster-shells crunching. Melting together reticence, frail reedy singing and hypnotic structure, this is part Robert Wyatt reverie, part mournful Gavin Bryars ritual. The incantations themselves begin as no more than shack-mutterings (“Rat bone, the windows of the night”) but build to soft earnest cries (“The soul is leading me out, bleeding me out… / to the lamp-light, to the lamp-light and the soul…”) All feeling, no clarity. Clearer that way.

For Slipstream, Bears in America get up out of their huddle and turn around. You can almost hear them crack a gentle smile as they deliver a shimmering fragment of folk song based around a hushed and ebbing guitar figure, a jingle of ornament, a blanket of blurred marimbas bobbing like light-flecks on the skin of a river. It’s also a love-song of sorts, Matt singing “You are the lovely oak tree’s daughter / I’m just the lonely secret water” while immensely quiet passing sounds ruffle the air around him. At at one point the guitar starts to toy with a harder Velvet Underground pulse but the song is too liquid, too giving, to retain that kind of edge. It reaches one reedy arm back towards Nick Drake and River Man. The other stretches forwards towards something more forthrightly psychedelic, wrapped in echoes and various backwardnesses.

The song ends with a hooded country-folk flourish. So too does the EP, amid a soft cloud of hoots and murmurs as the band amble away. They vanish into the wilderness again in a rustle of battered hats and lowered eyes, as if they’d never been here. It’s not clear whether we’ll ever see them again. More than a little magical.

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’ EP
Bears In America, no catalogue number
download-only EP
Released: 20th January 2011

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Bears in America online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp

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