Pick of the Week #18
Five Outliers
By Beppe Colli
Apr. 21, 2021

More and more often, I find myself intent on trying to assess the ratio between the amount of music I own and the sand that's still in the hourglass. But since I can't seem to see very clearly the amount of sand that's left, my estimates vary greatly, according to circumstances, and my moods.

When the odds appear to be in my favour, I like to shoot the breeze pondering the quality of this or that album: quite often, these are not the albums that I'd place in my personal pantheon, but they are of a kind that presents quite a few positive traits, and so they are definitely worth a (re)listen.

Sometimes it happens that I hear myself saying out loud "What was I thinking?", which can both mean "How could I spend my money on this rubbish?", or "How could I possibly be blind to this album's many qualities?".

There's also a specific category: the "outliers" (yep, I studied statistics), meaning those albums that differ greatly from those in the same group or set. And since the environment varies greatly, so do the albums.

I just had a look, found those (it's just a first batch).

Rabbit Songs (2000)

I'm almost sure I bought this album after reading a short review in U.K. music monthly Mojo. There was obviously something in that review that I found quite persuasive, and here we are. My first impression wasn't that great: to me, this was the kind of album one listens to late in the morning in order to soothe a spectacular hangover, after a great night out. So much calm; measured, varied, instrumentation (piano, strings, winds); female vocals of the "folk" variety (no vibrato, no melisma).

Many listening sessions later, I had to admit my judgement had been quite superficial. While a more advanced CD player made it easier for me to enjoy the orchestral timbres. To me, the music appeared to resemble that of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, especially in the sonic quality of the whole, where all instruments appeared played by self-taught gifted amateurs, so giving the music a friendly dimension that avoided any sense of rigidity.

The basic line-up (guitars, mandolin, piano, glockenspiel, vocals) was augmented by drums, double bass, violin, and also - when needed - by a string section, clarinets, flute, oboe, and by an excellent pedal steel as "commentary".

The melodies were "old-fashioned", in an "American" way, the episodes were quite brief - sixteen tracks for a duration of a vinyl album - while lyrics managed to be both simple and profound. Just like the music, the booklet slowly revealed tiny objects hiding behind the main features - sentences and portions of sheet music hiding in full view behind lyrics and photos.

The music press I read at the time never mentioned Hem again, so I assumed the group had split due to the lack of commercial success. In fact, the opposite was true: Rabbit Songs (which I bought as a CD on the Setanta label, out of London) had been re-released by mega-corporation Dreamworks, thus receiving enthusiastic reviews. After Dreamworks went belly-up, Hem found asylum in "indie" territory, later writing and performing the music to a few acclaimed theatre productions.

Unfortunately, recent history has given me the chance to appreciate this album all over again, as a balm for my fried nerves. A recorded sound whose beauty was "normal" at the time, but that is nowadays a rarity, adds a lot to the album's considerable charms.

OP8 featuring Lisa Germano
Slush (1997)

Saw it, bought it, Slush was a title released by Thirsty Ear and distributed by a major. The main deciding factor for me was the name of Lisa Germano, a singer and violinist that I had already read about in the U.S. "mainstream" press (Rolling Stone, Musician). I was completely unaware of anything released by the other featured members: John Convertino, Joey Burns (who in a short while would start the group called Calexico, to much acclaim), and Howe Gelb. Collectively, they were already known under the name Giant Sand (a group I was completely unfamiliar with), and this appeared to be the real selling point of the whole enterprise.

The "opium"-named group (readers are invited to pronounce the OP8 name aloud) offered a lot of music in many styles, all easily placed under the umbrella name "Americana". The recorded sound featured very "natural"-sounding instruments - violin, vocals, the bass drum, the drums especially sounding at times quite hyper-realistic - while also featuring a few more "abstract" moments. A few bizarre moments, too, provided one knew where to look (check the group cover of Sand, the famous duet by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood here featuring the same lyrics, but as sung by a person of the opposite sex).

I really think it's the contributions by Lisa Germano that take this album quite higher than what provided by the members of Giant Sand, which is of good quality but not really astounding. While Lisa Germano offers fine songs and instrumental performances that are technically average but of very good taste.

For obvious reasons, the album didn't have a sequel. Still worth a (re)listen, though.

Salt Peter (1995)

I perfectly remember where I saw the name Ruby for the first time: on the cover of the U.S. music monthly Keyboard, which featured it as the main item of that issue, as a "hard disk pop masterpiece".

I really don't know about "pop masterpiece" - I think "masterpiece" is a bit too much; while "pop" has so many different meanings as to become totally meaningless. But the main selling point was the fact that the album had been recorded and mixed on "hard disk", which meant "with no use of tape", i.e., on a computer (equipped with Pro-Tools): something that nowadays is not even mentioned anymore, which will give readers the perfect measure of the time elapsed.

"Trip-hop with strong industrial traits" should be an adequate description of Salt Peter - a.k.a. potassium nitrate, "used for preserving meat and as a constituent of gunpower" - if one forgets the usual melodic dimension of trip-hop, adding a lugubrious, almost horror-like, dimension, in its stead; even the most captivating moments - there are two or three tracks that could work fine in a club, provided it's of the "dark" variety where people take lotsa pills - don't sound "normal".

Leslie Rankine came from Silverfish (never listened to them), while Mark Walk operated in the vicinity of Skinny Puppy. As expected, this is the division of labour: vocals and lyrics by Rankine; synthesis, samples, and sonic organization by Walk; melodies by both.

The commercial future of this CD (and the group) was implicit in the sound of Salt Peter (the only guy I knew who was aware of the existence of this CD was a DJ who was part of a DJ collective). Today, the whole album is technically "dated", and so any over-dubbings, slices, and timbres sound "old". But listening to it proves that the musical concept was aesthetically sound.

Slow Loris
The Ten Commandments And Two Territories According To (1996)

I perfectly remember something quite funny: Since the CD cover didn't mention the names of the featured players, not the instrumentation, a few years after I bought this CD - by that time, I had both a computer and an Internet connection - I sent a message to Southern Records, located in London, asking "I'd like to know more about Slow Loris". The answer? "Well, we'd also like to know more about them."

Whether they were being facetious or not I can't say, but while at the time the only thing I knew was that the group was from Toronto, today it's possible to find online four groups all called Slow Loris (which should be the name of an animal, while at the time it was said to be the name of a "catch"), and it doesn't take much to know which is which.

Two guitars, bass, drums, a pinch of keyboards, trumpet, the group's repertory sounding as the "skeleton" version of some old-time jazz, with a few sonic "explosions" appearing here and there as a "modern" touch, for that kind of climates where it's not really clear how skilled the players are, and what maturity they possess.

I would have liked to see them live - at the time, I happened to watch many new groups, most of them quite horrible, but I'm of the opinion that "it stinks!" is something that sounds better as pronounced in front of a stage, not in the comfort of one's home - but I don't think the group ever played outside the walls of their city.

An album that still sounds odd.

Kendra Smith
Five Ways Of Disappearing (1995)

By the time (so called) "Paisley Underground" was (for a brief moment) all the rage, I was already an old man listening to different stuff, so I completely missed the Dream Syndicate; and so the circumstance that Kendra Smith had been part of that line-up was for me just a piece of information, with no special meaning attached.

I liked the simplicity of Five Ways Of Disappearing, both the songs and the instrumental moments sounding quite "folk", with a "neo-psychedelic" bent, in a "hippie" dimension that sounded positively "bucolic".

"Colloquial"-sounding vocals, acoustic guitars, a touch of synth, bass, harmonium, a few "psychedelic"-sounding electric guitar solos, with and without a wha-wha pedal, at times the whole reminding me of 60s California groups such as Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane, also Amon Düül II in their "Californian" mode.

The music on this album totally lacks any "spectacular" moments, so any expectations of loud, bombastic moments have to be abandoned. Something I found strange at the time, a few people to whom I had recommended this album as potential listening material refused to do so, their refusal based only on the reason "I'm totally sick of the 4AD sound", even though the last thing one could say about Five Ways Of Disappearing is that it sounds "like a 4AD album" (whatever that means).

Not too long ago I had a look on the Web and I saw that a quarter of a century later this album is still the last one released by Kendra Smith, something which adds meaning to its title.

© Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Apr. 21, 2021