Friday, 28 January 2011

Review: Ventriloquizzing - Fujiya and Miyagi (Full time hobby)

I interviewed Dave Best of Fujiya and Miyagi a few months before Ventriloquizzing was released. He talked about the fact that the band's new album was the first where they had worked with a producer and that they had gone to Los Angeles to record it. This left me a bit unsure of what to expect. F&M have to date been a band that have sounded very northern European, bringing to mind late night drives through urban wasteland rather than the sand kissed beaches of California. Having now listened to the record I can report that their previous modus operandi appears to be intact - Ventriloquizzing is a direct progression from previous records Lightbulbs and Transparent Things. This is both a relief and a little of a disappointment.

Many great acts from AC/DC to Fela Kuti have sustained a good career without fundamentally shifting their sound. Fujiya and Miyagi are not one trick ponies but its fair to say that many of their songs follow a similar formula - slightly twisted lyrics half whispered over a driving drum and melodic synths. Its a great sound for sure but over the course of an album it has the danger of sounding a little samey. There is no doubt that this record is musically more fully realised than previous efforts, final track Universe in particular employs a female choir to great effect and immediately calls to mind Meddle era Pink Floyd but greater excursion outside their standard palate would undoubtedly yield more satisfying results.

Most of the lyrics are written in the second person, Best addressing someone (a woman) who clearly doesn't meet his full approval. Yo yo is used as a metaphor about mood swing while he accuses his listener of 'not knowing 'which side your bread is buttered on' on Cat got your tongue. The later is one of the funkiest tracks on Ventriloquizzing and along with Tiawanese Boots (a post-modern take on Dylan's Spanish Boots of Spanish Leather) is likely to be well received live. Sixteen Shades of Black and Blue meanwhile kicks off with a riff that is somehow reminicent of Muse before giving way to brooding vocals and pretty synth melodies.

Minestrone is a real highlight 'I heard the sound of the devil's electric windows asscending' creates a wonderful visual picture and the playing (as throughout the album as a whole) is superb. The Brighton four piece also clearly have great taste in music - Berlin-era Bowie, Can and Floyd are reference points and its no surprise to hear that they listened to Iggy's Idiot throughout making the record. I wonder though if its their taste that holds them back? There is little evidence here of throwing caution to the wind, of taking a risk to provide a more rounded and eclectic sound. The humour on show is all very much within the context with which the band frame themselves and very knowing, there are certainly no cheesy moments on show or real surprises (except maybe for the aforementioned final track).

Fujiya and Miyagi have attracted a small but commited fanbase over the last decade and are undeniably cult heroes with a great sound. On current form this is likely to remain the case and that might suit this wonderfully quirky band. If they really stretch themselves however I think they can create something really special - here's hoping...

Friday, 21 January 2011

Interview with Gustav Ejstes, Dungen

In the last few years there have been a number of psychedelic guitar bands who have secured a good payday without particularly having to compromise their sound. Flaming Lips, Animal Collective and MGMT are all spaced out sonic adventurers and yet have managed to break into the mainstream and secure radio play and massive sales. Stockholm’s Dungen are perhaps less likely to breakthrough. All of their lyrics are in Swedish for one thing and ultimately their sound is more complex, jazzy and (dare I say it) proggy than those aforementioned. However, they have undoubtedly gained momentum over five albums – they were recently picked up on the critically acclaimed Amorphous Androgynous Exploding Bubble compilations and they continue to received very positive press whenever they release new material. They are also well respected by their peers, their next single is being released on Jack White’s Third Man records. I recently caught Dungen live in a rare visit to London and can attest to a great live band who really push the boundaries sonically and artistically to leave their audience begging for more. They combine jazz, folk, psychedelia and cinematic sounds with more conventional songwriting to create a heady brew that stimulates the head as well as the feet. I caught up with founder, primary songwriter and bandleader Gustav Ejstes to find out more about this fascinating band.

What were the first records that hit home for you – that set you on your own musical journey?

Are you experienced (Jimi Hendrix Experience), Revolver (The Beatles) and Fear of A Black Planet- Public Enemy
And how did you come to form the band?
I started pretty much all by myself in 1998, making music on a 4-track, playing all instruments by myself, met musicians along the way and some of them i still play with. Like Reine Fiske that i met in 1999.
Who do you regard as your key influences at the current time?
I always return to Aphex Twin's early ambient stuff, the best music ever made.
I’m guessing you like a lot of the German ‘kraut’ explosion?
Not really, haven´t heard much more then the classics by Can
What is your philosophy for the band? You obviously aren’t too concerned about storming the charts?!
Dungen is my songs performed together with my favourite musicians and friends and we are able to get the music spread because of all the wonderful people who like to listen to it. Its amazing and could end tomorrow so we try to have a good time with it.
How do you write material?
Often begins with piano or guitar, then make the arrangements, sometimes on recordings but often just in my head, hook up with the band and presents the song.
You listen to hip hop – do you think this impacts on how you approach composition at all?
I don´t know, I have so many different influences so it´s hard for me to say what comes from where.
You came to wider attention in the UK via the Amorphous Androgynous compilations – do you see yourselves as a modern psychedelic band?
I don´t call Dungen anything specific. That's for those who listen, to make up names for it, but it´s been called that amongst psych, rock, pop, folk, prog and jazz.
Do you feel the need to sing in English at all to reach a wider audience?
No, It´s (singing in Swedish) been working so far, it´s weird in many senses, but even some listeners that doesn´t understand Swedish think it´s better than if it would have been sung in English

What do you strive for in your music?
Make better songs, keep it honest artistically,
What next for Dungen?
Hopefully do some more touring this spring.

The single Oga Nasa Mun is releaased on January 22nd 2011 on Third Man recordings.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Hidden Gem: Eastern Sounds - Yusef Lateef (Prestige, 1961)

One musical genre I can’t claim to be any sort of expert in is jazz. For many years I was deeply cynical – it was, to my ears, self indulgent and tedious. Odd, given that my father had brought me up on a strict diet of Miles Davis. Gradually though, having exhausted most other areas of popular music I was drawn in. Mingus Ah-Um was a significant turning point as was Coltrane’s Crescent but if there is one piece of music that has really led to my increased love of jazz its Lateef’s Theme from Spartacus from the wonderfully exotic, mellow and superbly-played Eastern Sounds - a record that has taught me that only jazz can create such joy in the space around the music itself (which in turn has led to an appreciation of such great musicianship).

The album was a mixture of standards, film themes and Lateef's own pieces. It is not an exaggeration to say that he could claim to be the first western musician to properly incorporate ‘world music’ into his sound having used eastern instruments since 1957 when he began recording as a band leader. By 1961, with the recording of Into Something and Eastern Sounds, he had emerged as the pre-eminent jazz musician using eastern influences in his work (John Coltrane in particular had been experimenting with similar sounds but had not recorded them). Lateef used a variety of instruments including the rahab, shanai, arghul, koto, Chinese wooden flutes and bells along with his tenor, oboe and flute and incorporated the eastern influence into the more established jazz sound of the day, hard bop.

Sounds would be one of Lateef’s most enduring recordings and was one of the last made by the band that Lateef shared with pianist Barry Harris after the band moved to New York from Detroit, where the jazz scene was in decline. The session, recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, was dominated by Lateef’s exploration of Eastern sound, as well as his improvisation. His genius was to situate them within a context that was accessible to Western ears.

His band was one of the best. As well as Harris, he had Lex Humphries on drums whose brushwork was deemed the most deft and inventive of almost any player in jazz. Bass and rabat player Ernie Farrow was no slouch either. The album kicks off with The Plum Blossom, a mellow but haunting oboe, flute and piano piece that comes from an Eastern scale and works in repetitive rhythms. It is second track Blues for the Orient however where things really take off. Harris' playing in particular is outstanding with the piano almost holding the tune together in the middle eight while Lateef’s oboe accompaniment almost moans over the notes as the track veers from jazz standard to eastern souk and back again.

Third track Ching Miau evokes some of Coltrane's work, the tenor saxophone picking out an infectious melody. The band’s version of Don’t blame me ( a cover of a jazz standard) meanwhile starts in contemplative mood, evoking the rainy streets of an American City. This is a masterclass in playing with both Lateef and Harris wringing pure emotion out of their instruments – jazz at its very best.

Both key players also sound great on Snafu, the most upbeat number on an otherwise fairly mellow album. This, to these ears at least, has a slight latin feel. Purple Flower is one of the most understated tracks while Three Faces of Balal is the shortest track at just two and a half minutes but features a wonderful double bass outro which is quite unlike the rest of the record.

Then there are the two cinematic themes - from the aforementioned Spartacus and The Robe. Both are utterly, hauntingly beautiful. Spartacus features great interplay again between Lateef and Harris and is set against a shuffly drum beat. Some argue that it suffers by comparison with Bill Evans' more widely known 1963 readings on Solo Sessions (Milestone) and Conversations with Myself (Verve) but throughout the whole album the respect with which Lateef incorporates the Eastern influences and the emotion with which he plays them make this album a landmark jazz recording which still sounds wonderful some 50 years later. This is a record that relaxes the mind and draws you in to the wonderous world of the possibilities of music. Seek it out.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Album review: The Fall - Gorillaz

I feel a bit unfair writing this review. Not because its scathing - on the contrary, as with most Damon Albarn releases there is plenty of interesting material here. No, its because I'm reviewing this on the same terms I would for any other record - on the music. This seems a little unfair when our favourite virtual pop group have released this material for free (on Christmas day no less) and clearly, to some extent at least, its a collection of ideas and doodles as much as it is a complete body of work.

Having said that, it doesn't lack a defining concept. While Plastic Beach told tales of environmental devistation, The Fall is built around an American road trip with titles as evocative as Phoner to Arizona, The Snake in Dallas and Bobby in Phoenix. I suspect many of these vinegettes were written in motel bedrooms of the towns they are about. Rumour has it that Albarn recorded the whole thing on an Ipad which might explain the lack of variety in backing rhythms - almost all on drum machine.

Most tracks are short and start with electro beats over the aforementioned drum machine and electro basslines (think Stylo) with Albarn singing (droning? I've never been a huge fan of his voice) over the top. The material suffers from a lack of variety in the vocal, particularly as one is used to a great range of vocal performances in a typical Gorillaz release. What this does is actually make the listener almost appreciate Gorillaz even more. You realise that over the years Albarn and Hewitt have coaxed excellent performances from everyone from Mark E Smith to Bobby Womack and that each album they have released is a coming together of some of the greatest musical talent on planet earth. Without this input this release feels a little empty and one-dimensional.

The tracks that work best are those with a hint of real instrumentation. The accoustic guitar at the beginning of Hillbilly man is quite lovely as is the use of piano in Aspen Forest - these tracks seem to have more of a heart which is lacking elsewhere. Ultimately though even these tracks revert to type with drum machine and squelchy electro bass brought back into the mix.

Albarn is clearly still listening to current sounds. The Joplin Spider has an ear-catching bass and shuddering off-kilter beats which bring to mind Flying Lotus while The Snake in Dallas has the sort of cut up R&B groove which has been used to such devistating effect by the XX and James Blake amongst others in recent months.

The subject matter is varied - a sort of state of America today sermon. The Parish of Space Dust has a slightly evangelical feel and roots us in the churches of Texas via Witicha Lineman while Little Plastic Bags might act as a metaphor for the world's only superpower itself 'they don't know where they are going.'

Detroit, as one might expect, is essentially a techno number bringing to mind the abandoned districts of America's once great car-making capital, like a number of other tracks it brings to mind Kraftwerk (that most European of acts on a concept album about America?). The track is only two minutes long though - too short to really draw you in and this leads one to wonder why Albarn has decided to release this material now. There is the making here of a very good album but the ideas clearly need refining and expanding and there is a need for more vocal input - even if only backing singers. The Fall is ultimately a frustrating release and is unlikely to be a record i'll listen to very much. A shame because one can't doubt Albarn's musical talent or his ability to capture the current zeitgiest.