Pick of the Week #19
Mo' Outliers
By Beppe Colli
Apr. 28, 2021

Had another look, found those (it's the second batch).

Jim Aikin
Light's Broken Speech Revived (1993)

A much-appreciated writer of science fiction books, Jim Aikin was once one of the best editors in the glory days of US monthly Keyboard, alongside such illustrious colleagues as Tom Darter, Dominic Milano, and Bob Doerschuck. People who managed to go hand-in-hand with the times while at the same time never forgetting about the past, all possessing a formidable understanding of both music and technology, working with great honesty and showing an uncommon attitude when it comes to work ethic that can still work as a model, economic resources permitting.

(One can't forget about the available resources: it takes a lot of time and expertise to really investigate an instrument in depth, otherwise one has no choice but to accept what the manufacturer says as the truth. The same goes when it comes to software, mixers, and the like.)

Aikin also cultivated a "philosophical" approach - in such monthly columns as Other Windows - in a "pragmatic" framework.

I was not really surprised to read that Jim Aikin had released a CD, which I immediately bought. With a "pragmatic" approach that I'd call "typically American", the CD liner notes clearly stated Aikin's appreciation for "live music played by humans" (Aikin is also a fine cello player) while saying "(...) I think there's a virtue in working within your means, in getting the most out of the tools you have at your disposal".

All the music featured on the album had been produced via synthesizers and computers through "MIDI sequencing", Aikin alerting readers that no "automatic process" had been used, and that in order to have five minutes of music he had worked for more than a hundred hours.

But what about the music? Well, I have to admit that the CD left me a bit cold - too many expectations on my part, maybe. Or maybe I unconsciously expected the music to be more "experimental" in both composition and timbre. But once I had recalibrated my listening faculties, I had no problem appreciating the - almost Bach-like - clarity of musical developments, their being "dressed" with appropriate styles which once in a while made an influence apparent - Kerry Minnear, Keith Emerson - but only as colours in a palette, not as copies; more than an hour of music that was never tiring.

This is the kind of album one listens to for decades, so I was curious to know if it was still available. I was pleasantly surprised to see it listed on Bandcamp (readers are invited to pay special attention to the track called The Sergeant). I also noticed there were quite a few more albums by Jim Aikin listed, whose existence I totally ignored.

Meanwhile, I hope a memoir about Keyboard magazine will appear.

Rain Dances (1977)

I'm quite certain that in many homes the presence of an album by Camel is not an oddity, but it is in mine. Readers will be surprised to know that my personal antipathy for the music released by this group sits on an irrational basis: a track taken from the album The Snow Goose - which I'll define as "a humble theme for flute" - was the intro to a radio program that started right at the end of my shift at the radio station, so I could not avoid listening to it every day. What's more, the guy who hosted the program was a personality definitely "leaning to the right", as I had noticed first-hand when we both attended high school.

Not even the fact of having two musicians whose work I greatly appreciated - bass player and singer Richard Sinclair, from Caravan and Hatfield And The North; and wind player Mel Collins, a former King Crimson - becoming members of Camel could make me change my attitude.

Many years later I happened to find - on sale as a "special offer" - a copy of the original German edition on Decca of the album Rain Dances, produced and engineered by Rhett Davies, whose work I usually liked. Bought it, though my personal exploration of the music of the group ceased soon after, with my purchasing Breathless (1978), produced by Mick Glossop, which I also found on sale as a "special offer". I have to admit Rain Dances soon became part of the list of albums I usually listen to when I want to listen to... nothing in particular.

Which is precisely my point of view when it comes to Camel: most of their music had already been played before by other groups, also better.

But I believe that on Rain Dances - at the time of the album's original release the music press made a lot of fuss about the presence of Brian Eno, who at the time was the "flavour of the week", but if one doesn't know about it, one won't notice - everything sits in the right place.

The instrumental parts are tasty and appropriate, the vocal melodies captivating, the guitar solos don't outstay their welcome, there are fine timbral items, the mostly instrumental Side Two is never boring... no real minuses. Those who don't know "the originals" - but please notice: these are not "copies" - will find this album "perfectly fine".

Comparing Camel to Supertramp circa Crime Of The Century, produced by Ken Scott, one could say that Supertramp wrote songs that when dressed in different clothes made the giant success of the album Breakfast In America a possibility. While Camel never wrote that kind of songs.

Listening to the album a few days ago - Andrew Latimer singing upfront, Richard Sinclair singing in the back, a bit to the right, both with individual "ambience" and equalization - it dawned on me that the kind of listener who once listened to this music with great attention is nowadays a rarity, so that the kind of skillful care that was the main virtue of an album such as Rain Dances makes it a magnificent ruin.

Jerry Garcia/Howard Wales
Hooteroll? (1971)

At the time this album was originally released - I was still in high school, and the guy who played this record for me was a couple of years younger, wonder where he got it from: maybe an older brother back from London? - Jerry Garcia was a "mythic, legendary" figure, with the Grateful Dead as the underground favourites who had recently released Live/Dead, featuring the long live version of Dark Star.

Nowadays there are not many around who still remember the "countercultural" framework of this music - wonder what people make today of such movies as Easy Rider and Zabriskie Point.

From what I know, the meeting of Garcia and (piano, organ player) Howard Wales (a jazz guy, sounding halfway between Jimmy Smith and Larry Young: best I can do) was born in the fire of many "jam sessions" where Garcia played on "different" chords.

At the time we originally listened to this record, we "just listened, you know", also thanks to its non-existent liner notes (no recording dates, no mention of a recording studio, the CD edition I own fully respecting the original silence). While it was only recently that I read about a "conspiracy" to make the group switch record labels, of which this album is a part: a tale so convoluted as to give me instant headache.

The compositions are clearly by Howard Wales, sometimes featuring a "swinging" Hammond organ, while at times showing a pianistic sense of calm that would work perfectly well as a movie soundtrack. Other instruments appear: saxophone and trumpet, flute, bass and drums, rhythm guitar. A leading character live, here Garcia is a featured player in the framework, with great wha-wha solos, and a few fine clear guitar parts. While at the time the guitar style that came to my mind as a point of comparison when it comes to the more extroverted moments here was Frank Zappa's (whom Garcia had obviously listened to, up to Hot Rats), a recent fresh listening made think of Peter Green's The End Of The Game, both for the wha-wha and the "clean" parts (the framework being completely different, of course). Which is somewhat paradoxical, since those albums were recorded at about the same time.

Stuff (1976)

A soul-funky dimension of great taste, music that's well-played, exuberant and lively, with fine use of chords, featuring those keyboards one would expect - a Hammond organ, a real grand piano, a Fender Rhodes electric piano - playing off each other, two different-sounding guitars, for a sound that in those days was all over the radio and as a backing for many different singers (some of the musicians playing on this album were also featured in Paul Simon's movie One Trick Pony, also playing on the movie soundtrack - which definitely deserves a listen).

I'm sure the names of the players - Eric Gale, Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, Steve Gadd, Gordon Edwards, and Chris Parker, some of them, at least - will ring a bell (check Wikipedia for their enormous discographies).

Stuff is also the name of the group's first album, which was followed by More Stuff and Live In New York. Strong sellers, too, in the neighborhood of half a million copies.

There are no "songs" here, but there are lotsa melodies and grooves. Listening now, one can't help but notice how "mechanical"-sounding today's grooves, these "home-made" songs featured on the album really sounding "from another time".

Let's not forget how jazz composer Carla Bley fell in love with this album, and this group, soon recording the great, catchy, album titled Dinner Music, which features those players. I have to confess that while listening to this album I've tried singing some of those melodies Carla Bley composed for her album, and you know?, sometimes it works.

Morton Subotnick
Touch (1969)

Having a look around, I see that Morton Subotnick is nowadays "the guy who made Silver Apples Of The Moon", the pioneering work of electronic music. It was 1967, and the featured synthesizer was the one invented by Tom Buchla, with no keyboard, as a perfect means of "sonic exploration". Here I'll say - it's not an original thought - that thanks to an LP one could buy in a record shop one could listen to a work of "experimental classical music" ('cause that's what it is) at home, with no need to visit a concert hall, but in the comfort of one's home, maybe after smoking a fat joint (those were the days, the affinity of Californian cultural climates for experimental music being quite well-known).

This writer has always preferred this work by Subotnick, Touch, which I bought (a sealed copy) in the early 70s: the cover is definitely from the first edition, while the vinyl could be from an early repress; this being the original mix.

To give readers a clear idea of the time elapsed, I'll say that I was completely unaware of the existence of the analogue sequencer, which is a fundamental part of this work. Hence, my difficulty in trying to understand how a human hand could possible play the fast flurry of notes that sometimes travels between the stereo channels.

A very stereo album, by the way, with sonic bursts coming and going, percussive storms, an obvious influence from East Asian metallophones, a dialogue of sonic layers on different planes, in different channels.

There are three real vocal sounds - "t" "ou" "ch" - and four tracks of synthesis, the pieces appearing on the two sides presenting a "fast, slow, fast" and "slow, fast, slow" type of development.

Lotsa silence, impressive dynamics, great emotions. Once in a while one is reminded of Tod Dockstader's dramatic work, while at times the cavernous sounds and the "artificial marimbas" sound surprisingly similar to sounds featured on Frank Zappa's Jazz From Hell.

I have to admit that, for reasons of practicality, I recently listened to this work as appearing on a CD re-release from 1989, and being definitely underwhelmed: sometimes it happens that after not listening to a work for many years one doesn't find the same charm that the work still possesses in one's memory. But then I remembered that the CD edition I own was re-mixed, re-equalized, and given a new dose of reverb.

(The CD also gave me a big scare: at the end of the piece, while I was sitting in complete silence, suddenly a female voice appeared from the speakers, pronouncing quite loudly these words: "There is in the British Museum an enormous mind". I had completely forgotten that this CD edition features two different works, the second starting almost immediately after the end of the first.)

So I got my original LP out, turned the amplifier volume to the right, and the music came out clear, expressive, still new and fresh, a real sonic exploration, not like a "frozen fish". Those who search on the Web, be careful what you listen to.

(Though at the time sales for this kind of music were quite remarkable, Columbia did not spend much when it came to the quality of the vinyl. My copy of Touch, released on Columbia Masterworks, is not an ocean of silence. But sitting beside it, to remind me of the "glory days of vinyl", there's a copy of Subotnick's Until Spring, on Columbia Odyssey: it's an original pressing from 1976, that I tried in vain to listen to last week, and I perfectly remember the reason why: a sealed copy, the vinyl album was placed inside the cardboard cover with no inner, the album being made of the worst recycled vinyl one could find; those were the days after the first Oil Shock.)

Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Apr. 28, 2021