Bruford Levin Upper Extremities – Etude Revisited (90s – 41)

May 11, 2014

More jazz, but of a completely different hue.

By 1999 I was completely aware of the work of King Crimson, and the jazz sidelines by drummer Bill Bruford. I loved his Earthworks band, and especially his appearance on David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury album in the 80s, with stick player Tony Levin and trumpeter Mark Isham.

Upper Extremities was a partial reunion of that line-up, minus Isham but adding Chris Botti and with Bruford and Levin taking the lead. Bruford is in fine form here, with Torn adding brooding, droning guitar and Levin the intricate patter underneath even the drums. I was captivated.


Hamish Moore and Dick Lee – Concerto for Bagpipes and Jazz Orchestra (90s – 42)

May 11, 2014

In the last post I mentioned bagpipes playing jazz. This is it. One night Robyn Johnston on the Planet played a night of instruments forgotten or generally joked about: viola, tuba, tap shoes, banjo, steel drums playing the Beatles, flower pots – you named it, she played it, and generally played in ways you would not have expected.

Thus the bagpipes. I love this track. I used to play it at 8am if I had problems waking up – the bagpipes would shock awake a tired brain. I had some strange ideas at the time but they were generally harmless. Like playing happy music when I felt sad to give me a pick-me-up. Those at high school thought this was mad – they listened to melancholic stuff, kept the mood. I only did that if I felt physically tired, not mentally upset. But I digress.

Later I would hear bagpipes in a very different jazz setting, Bell and Rasler piping it up in support of Jah Wobble and Evan Parker. I loved that music because I already had the toolkit to deal with it thanks to Moore and Lee.

This was only one of two tracks I ever heard from the pair but the droning bagpipes suddenly made sense outside of a folk or marching setting.


Christy Moore – Me & Rose (90s – 43)

May 11, 2014

You may notice in this countdown I am freely genre-hopping. This how I consumed music in the 90. My (relative) realignment with the mainstream wouldn’t happen until arguably 2000 when I started reviewing. Before this I plucked music as I found it.

Chrity Moore was connected with those I had already been aware: he was the lead singer of Irish folk group Planxty with Paul Brady and Donal Lunny, whose own work appeared on those radio shows I heard late at night on the ABC – shows which also which also played electric banjo, multi-dubbed double bass or bagpipes playing jazz.

One night they played this 13 minute story, full of irreverence and dubious reminiscences. For a while I could recite great slabs of it. I’m not sure why I loved it, maybe because a lot of folk was either technical and fast or slow and serious.

This was neither, just entertainment, and I was entertained.


Elliott Smith – Waltz #2 (90s – 44)

May 6, 2014

It was everywhere in ’98/’99. It was almost the official 2UNE song. This was perhaps the first communal act of song loving I was involved in. Not just liking a song someone else had recommended – this was played, talked about, requested, loved by a group of us. All my years of musical isolation, whether in the small country town or by having a show of unpopular music on radio, I had kept myself away. I played nothing to bond over. And though I was getting my Indie/Alternative chops by 1998 but I was exploring alone.

Until Waltz #2. It grabbed us all and demanded our attention. It’s a song I can name names with – all my friends who were fans. No other songs before this make up such memories. Other tracks would come, and some may pop up here. But Waltz #2 is the original and best of them.

And what grabbed us? The beat, thudding, knocking off time. The pointlessness of it all, the emotions bubbling under the surface of the monotone singing. Disco 2000 this is not. For once we didn’t tell the narrator to give it up. Some people were past telling. For a group of late teens and early twenty-somethings – these were feelings we were still trying to work out ourselves. The song was a beacon and a lodestone. It contained no answers but we could all relate to it. And we requested it on each other’s programs. And we bonded over it without ever admitting we were doing so.

Later, Smith’s Figure 8 album was one of the first I reviewed in print. Despite being a good album, it wasn’t the same. We didn’t bond over it. The moment had passed and we had moved on.


Machine Translations – Out To Sea (90s – 45)

May 5, 2014

Somehow, at the very end of the 90s, I got in contact with Way Over There records, who sent a couple of things to me. That they had already sent the radio station some things in previous years was something I discovered later, and what I discovered later was the first two albums by J Walker, aka Machine Translations. Before I found these, what they sent me was his third album, Holiday In Spain. And on it was this glorious track.

This was before Machine Walker got big, for whatever value you give bigness to regular play on Triple J. Before Amnesia, Poor Circle, A Most Perculiar Place and the other great tunes. Holiday In Spain as an album showed an artist on the cusp between gloriously ramshackled DIY and slickly recorded quirk. Way Over There for a bit of a distro deal with BMG at this time, and maybe a little of the money flowed into production. Even if not, Walker had honed his skills perfectly. He was already known for producing other Australian acts and now he turned his skills fully onto is own songs.

Out To Sea became a regular on my radio show – often as a closer. The halting nonsense lyrics, the wide-eyed sadness in the strings, the guitar tearing at it all. This song had coda written all over it even though it wasn’t the last song on the album. Considering Australian Indie/Alternate was going stale (in some corners) around this time, this song was blessed relief.

Machine Translations would promptly sign for a bigger label, but Way Over There didn’t survive. The home of Disaster Plan, Wally Gun, Mississippi Barry and the Snuff Puppet Band ran out of money and time. It was a sad death but not the first label nor the last to go but sad nonetheless making Out To Sea the perfect coda for them, too.

Hear the song here.


Red Russian Army Choir & Leningrad Cowboys – Sweet Home Alabama (90s – 46)

May 5, 2014

The single most exciting New Year’s Eve of my childhood years was at my Grandma’s unit. As a family we did nothing for New Year’s, but my Grandma’s unit that year – where I slept on a trundle-bed in the loungeroom – had something I didn’t have in my home town: SBS television, Australia’s ethnic TV station.

In previous years the ABC used to put on great documentaries on New Year’s Eve – I remember a corker about Mel Brooks one year – but by this time this was being replaced by Cher live.. again…

SBS, on the other hand, easily filled the gap. Firstly there was my first ever viewing of Dinner for One – an SBS tradition on NYE – and the other was the Leningrad Cowboys & Red Army Choir’s Total Balalaika Show. And it was bonkers.

I must have heard of the Leningrad Cowboys because I videotaped the show (and dubbed it onto cassette). I can’t remember my first encounter – I think they were at the 1995 edition of Womadelaide – but this concert on the TV blew away any ideas I may have had that classic pop was boring. The Cowboys – that hair – those boots – showed me pop was there to be fun. You would think this would be obvious, but I was pretty serious about music at this point.

Add to this the Red Army Choir – did they understand the lyrics they were singing? I did assignments on the fall of the Soviet Union. I read Tom Clancy. That this choir – the face of the other side – was singing these tracks with gusto would have unthinkable to me a couple of years earlier – well within my lifetime of political understanding.

Fast forward to 2000, and the night before a first kiss the girl in question and I watched the Leningrad Cowboys Do America after I found it in the video store. Perhaps the least likely romantic lead-up to a (admittedly short-lived) relationship I can think of.


On Oldfield

April 15, 2014

After all this time, someone let Mike Oldfield write songs with actual lyrics.

On the bright side, this track is the best thing I’ve heard him do in years.


The Kathryn Tickell Band – Signs/Phil The Greek (90s – 47)

April 9, 2014

It must be nigh on 15 to 20 years since I heard either track, both coming from the 1993 album Signs. Tonight I set out to find them, and find them I did.

Kathryn Tickell plays the Northumbrian pipes. I had used to think bagpipes boring but when I first heard these tracks on release, I was in the middle of my Mike Oldfield rage. This meant I had heard Paddy Moloney on the uilleann pipes guesting on Oldfield’s albums. Moloney added a flurry of folk to a rock setting – a typical Oldfield sleight of hand – which for me recast the pipes a marching instrument to one of great subtlety and range. Already with an appreciation of folk – Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero soundtrack had started that – Oldfield taught me folk could be the basis of something new, different. The folk I was interested had to have a sense of otherness, unexpectedness – this an interest in, for instance, folk rock ala Steeleye Span.

Then one night Robyn Johnston on Radio National’s The Planet spun these two tracks by The Kathryn Tickell Band.

Signs is a cover of Prefab Sprout’s When Love Breaks Down, mixed with another tune called The First Time. At the time I wasn’t familiar with the Prefab track (though I was not long for buying that band’s From Langley Park to Memphis album on cassette) but I obviously recognised a well-written tune when I heard it. Hearing Tickell now, being more than familiar with McAloon, Smith and co’s original, I’m even more impressed with what she has pulled off. Replicating McAloon’s vocals lines is hard enough for an aspiring cover singer – to successfully gain something of McAloon’s fragility on pipes is startling.

Phil The Greek – medley of Fill The Tankard and The Greek Tune – is harder to place, and of the two tracks is the one which flashing into my memory whenever I see Tickell’s name every few years. The slow, droning build-up of Fill The Tankard – textured and subtle – again recalled Oldfield, but I would later link with other artists like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra or ambient electronica producers. The Greek Song provides energetic relief, but the incessant circling of Fill The Tankard was another little step down the path of fascination in variation and repetition which would go haywire when I eventually heard drum n bass.

So here they are on the incredibly hard to find Signs album. Enjoy


Brothers and Systems – Trace Elements (90s – 48)

April 8, 2014

X-Cat: meaning ex-catalogue. These CDs were in the 2UNE catalogue, but were considered by several year’s worth of station managers to be too obscure (Karen Rameriz – this was country Australia), weird (Philip Glass’ Low Symphony) or just plain unlistenably bad to sit with in the drawers under proper categories like Rock, or Australian, or Dance. So they were stowed away in the back of the station, a shelf of their own, unloved.

Until I turned up searching for the obscure and weird for my radio show. (The unlistenably bad really was bad…)

One of the albums I found was by Brothers and Systems’ album Transcontinental Weekend. Even now I can’t tell you anything about them. In fact I can’t remember anything about the album except this closing track, which I semi-regularly used to close my radio show.

With only a hazy idea of hip hop, funk and sampling I was quite taken. The cool organs, snatches of sax and jangly percussion matched the sort of the jazz I liked at the time – funky but bits of synth in: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, or maybe 90s John McLaughlin. Less of the boring acoustic stuff, this had sounded futuristic to me.

Of course, Trace Elements is not jazz, rather jazzy, thrown together in a studio in 1992 by a man on a computer (really, this is all I know). Yet to hear Paul’s Boutique, Loaded or any other sample based tunes flying around, this instead became my introduction to studio wizardry in which bpm wasn’t as important as style, sample selection, cheek and a little humour. In 1997 I was very much in a drum n bass and ambient house zone. But Brothers and Systems linked jazz, hip hop and funk together, helping me to see connections I hadn’t yet cared about. Of this I am forever been grateful.

The radio station’s X-Cat was eventually placed in the centre of the room, and we were told anything left in two days would be donated elsewhere or thrown out. The station had run out of storage space. I couldn’t let this track go, so I rescued the album. It is safe, though admittedly it is now sitting in my own X-Cat – a cardboard box in storage. One day it will be free again.


Jean Michel Jarre – Calypso part 3 (live) – (90s – 49)

April 3, 2014

This video – indeed the entire Paris concert but this closer in particular – still gives me goosebumps. Wow. The ending is so tight my body used to tense up until the final musical release. The giant puppet costumes, the fireworks, the light show, the steel drums! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better concert video.

This was played one afternoon on the ABC. In the early 90s the ABC used to play arts documentaries every Sunday afternoon, and I would always consult the TV guide to see what was one. Somewhere in the midst of “boring adult art” – classical music, opera, some but not all visual art – there were gems of culture which hadn’t reached Gilgandra – and that week they listed this concert. Come the afternoon Peter Ross was typically dignified, though with a glint in his eye and a hint of a smile, as he introduced it to the audience, while I was ready at the video player to press record.

I knew Jarre. I was a kid who grew up with electronic music. There it was on the TV and movie soundtrack: Beverley Hills Cop, Fletch, anything Vangelis or Jan Hammer scored. It was there on TV adverts. Into this mix was Oxygene, one of those electronic tracks which one heard even if you never heard electronic tracks.

When my mum bought our first CD player in the cusp of the decade, her first purchase was a four-disc compilation of cheap knock-offs of famous electronic tracks: Popcorn, Genetic Engineering, Axel F, Crockett’s Theme, Chi Mi; even Tubular Bells gets mangled into something synthy. This put names to half-remembered memories while introducing me to new tunes (Genetic Engineering being of the most fondly remembered).

Of course Oxygene and Equinox were on the discs. What surprised me was subsequently finding out my aunt – seemingly so old and conservative – had both the original Jarre albums on cassette. These I borrowed and a fascination with his work ensued.

After this came the Paris concert on the ABC, who then played the Spanish concert a year or so later. I was ready again with the video player. I dubbed both onto cassette and would listening to them at night with the light off.

Once I hit Uni my then best friend was a fan and lent me the Hong Kong concert; he then went out for ages with a girl whose dedication to the work of Jarre was far more intense than the height of my cooling interest in Mike Oldfield. If Jarre recorded it, I heard it. And if the two of them didn’t have them the radio station did. It’s where I heard Laurie Anderson and Adrian Belew guest on Zoolook.

One of the pair lent me the Waiting for Cousteau album, from whence the Calyspo suite came. It was good but not as good as the live version. Partially it was a visual thing.
Steel drums are meant to be seen. Watch the massed band with Jarre, grinning and swaying.

I first heard steel drums on Seseme Street in my youngest days, where some kids on the street were taught to make a steel drum from an old metal barrel. It sounded exotic, exciting. I was not yet at school. They have long fascinated me. Years later I heard the Beatles “She’s Leaving Home” covered on the steel drums, more recently Katzenjammer’s celebrated cover of “Cars”. For me steel drums were always fun to listen to; seeing them with Jarre was confirmation they were fun to play – the shared energy, the wall of sound.

Add in Jarre’s typical swirly sound samples and pulsing beat and this for me is his finest moment. Other songs might be more emotional, deeper, but none match the energy and joy of these seven minutes.