Monday, November 29, 2010

Steve Hillage - Rainbow Dome Musick (LP Review)

I first became aware of Steve Hillage by listening to and reading about Alex Patterson / The Orb, specifically their 1991 ambient house masterpiece "Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld", which remains one of my favorite LPs of all time.

There is no way in this review I can cover the expansive career of guitarist Steve Hillage, an early (and again current) member of the space rock band Gong, which in its long run has ties to nearly every alternative UK musician. His partner, Miquette Giraudy, has been with him for most of his career, including time in Gong as well as side projects like System 7. In fact, although "Rainbow Dome Musick" is billed as just Steve Hillage, it is actually Hillage & Giraudy.

The 1979 LP features just two songs (albeit at 20+ minutes each): "Garden of Paradise" and "Four Ever Rainbow", the former written by Giraudy and the latter by Hillage. What separates this LP from its 1970s ambient / space rock contemporaries is that holds up well over time. It is very much an atmospheric, lush, swirling soundscape, but it is not cloying, repetitive, or modish. I have a slight preference for "Garden of Paradise", probably because it has a brighter, fuller sound that is closer to the songs by The Orb that I first heard. I want to say "Four Ever Rainbow" sounds more like "deep space", even though I'm not sure what that means.

There is a reason these two songs sound similar to songs by The Orb: if you check the liner notes of "Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld", you'll see that Hillage & Giraudy co-wrote & performed on "Supernova at the End of the Universe" and "Backside of the Moon". In particular, there is a strong affinity between "Backside of the Moon" and "Garden of Paradise". The Orb adds a rhythm, vocal samples, and other 1990s updates, but the essence of the songs remain similar (see also Hillage & Giraudy's work in System 7).

Although not entirely fair to the "Rainbow Dome Musick", due to my order of discovery I can't help but consider it in the context of post-"Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld". The LP still stands up well, but their work with The Orb did take it to the next level.

Standout songs: Garden of Paradise, Four Ever Rainbow.

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 8/10.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

DJ Shadow - "Def Surrounds Us" (LP Review)

Since 2010 is nearly over, so I suppose I should review something actually released in 2010...

The latest DJ Shadow single "Def Surrounds Us" / "I've Been Trying" was released in September 2010 in both digital and 12" formats (an interesting mix of new & old school). I was fortunate to get a official, free download (the window has now closed), and I've been listening to the two tracks and have been conflicted about them.

First, although it is only two tracks, none of the flaws that made "The Outsider" such a terrible LP are present. Whereas "The Outsider" found Shadow exploring hyphy (but adding nothing new), the song "Def Surrounds Us" finds Shadow revisiting the well established genre of drum and bass as well as the relatively new genre of dubsteb (it was actually a tweet from Shadow that turned me on to dubsteb).

But like his flirtation with hyphy before, it is not clear that he's adding something new. As far as drums and bass, I don't hear anything that Plug (aka Luke Vibert) didn't do in the mid-90s (cf. "Drum 'n' Bass for Papa"). As for dubstep, Shadow's work is better than Skream (cf. "Midnight Request Line") but not as good as Burial (cf. "Southern Comfort"). The excellent vocal samples are unique to Shadow, but that's not enough to carry the song. The song does get more interesting from ~ 3:00-6:00, but I would have been more impressed if this had come out before "Drum 'n' Bass for Papa" (1996).

"I've Been Trying" is a totally different song, a slow, bluesy vocal track that sounds like an out take from "The Outsider" (cf. "Broken Levee Blues"). A nice contrast to the first song, but not necessarily a standout.

I'm trying to be optimistic... When the "You Can't Go Home Again" single came out in 2002, I didn't really know what to make of it. But it made more sense in the context of the following LP "The Private Press", and honestly that LP made a lot more sense only after the Japanese-only remix LP "The Private Repress". Ultimately, this single sounds like a vast improvement over "The Outsider", but as I said in that review, I liked it better when DJ Shadow invented genres instead of just participating in them.

Standoutsongs: "Def Surrounds Us", "I've Been Trying"

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 5/10. I thought about a 6/10, but honestly that would be giving him a pass just because he's DJ Shadow.

Chris Bell - "I Am the Cosmos" (LP Review)

Being huge fanboys, Johan, Lee, and I have had numerous discussions about Big Star, who rank with The Velvet Underground with respects to significant influence in the musical community without the corresponding commercial success (Johan even features Big Star in his technical presentations to illustrate the difference between importance and popularity).

The two main creative forces behind Big Star were Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, who were roughly comparable in their roles to McCartney & Lennon, respectively. And while the three Big Star LPs generally receive nearly perfect marks by most critics, I have to break with Lee, Johan, and other critics and confess I enjoy Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos" more than any of the Big Star LPs.

That is not to say that "I Am the Cosmos" is not a flawed LP; it is really just a collection of singles and demos that was posthumously assembled & released by Rykodisc in 1992. Prior to this, the only official solo Chris Bell release was the 1978 7" "I Am the Cosmos" (on the tiny label Car Records), right before Bell's death in an automobile accident. Prior to 1992, the unreleased Chris Bell recordings had acquired a mythic reputation, similar to "Smile", "Chrome Dreams", and other lost LPs.

Because it is a compilation the quality is variable, featuring a mix of artists (including appearances by Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens from Big Star), different studios, etc. The best tracks are sublime & achingly beautiful: the title track "I Am the Cosmos" (two different versions are featured) and its original b-side "You and Your Sister" (three different versions), "Speed of Sound", "Though I Know She Lies"; even spiritual: "Look Up", "There Was A Light". The weaker songs try to emulate Big Star-style, uptempo rockers (e.g., "Make A Scene", "I Got Kinda Lost", "Fight at the Table"), and on these songs the absence of Alex Chilton is noticeable. The slower, more introspective songs work best here. Perhaps the best way to describe them is to say the LP cover art perfectly captures their essence.

Since only bassist Andy Hummel fails to make an appearance, perhaps "I Am the Cosmos" should be considered the fourth Big Star LP. And if so, I would consider it to be the best Big Star LP. I don't understand how these songs could go unreleased for so long, but at least they're available now.

Standout tracks: "I Am the Cosmos", "You and Your Sister", "Speed of Sound", "Though I Know She Lies", "Look Up", "There Was A Light"

Skip 'em tracks: "Get Away", "Make A Scene", "I Got Kinda Lost", "Fight at the Table"

Final score: 9/10.

Bonus Links: YouTube is awash with amateur covers of Chris Bell songs. Here are some of the more well-known versions:

"I Am the Cosmos": This Mortal Coil, The Posies, Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson

"You and Your Sister": This Mortal Coil

P.S. No, I'm not ignoring the role of This Mortal Coil and Big Star / Chris Bell. I'll get to it.