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As usual, my too-open mind willingly processed vast sums of music from every genre this year. (I even like Puffy!) Here’s what I can most readily recall…
Spiritualized’s Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space took over my brain more often than any other rock album in 1997. The English group’s third CD is a heartbreaking, soul-stirring collection that references everyone and sounds like no one. Head(case) Jason Pierce mixes a varied palette of gospel, psychedelia, and late-’60s pop into a sound that simply comes out blue. Ladies and gentlemen documents Pierce’s breakup with his longtime girlfriend and his subsequent descent into drug use as he attempted to fill the void (though can a man who has regularly used since the mid-’80s really be described as having descended?). Pierce softly delivers lyrics like “Home of the Brave”‘s “I don’t even feel it/But Lord how I need it/When I’m not with her I’m not all myself/Sometimes have my breakfast right off of a mirror/And sometimes I have it right out of a bottle/Come on” as if they were lines from a love poem, while his production skills and obsessiveness force Brian Wilson comparisons.
Spiritualized’s album logged lots of play time, but it wasn’t a huge surprise; I’ve been a dedicated fan of Pierce’s work for almost 10 years, ever since his days with Spacemen 3. But Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister not only is that rare release that dazzles with its lyrical intelligence, it features some of the strongest, smartest pop I’ve heard since the Smiths. And it came out of nowhere. After an impossible-to-find debut, Tigermilk, the swoonworthy sounds of this mysterious British septet made their way into wide release with Sinister, only for the band’s U.S. label, the Enclave, to fold when its bungling parent company, EMI, restructured. Led by singer, dreamer, and dandy Stuart Murdoch, Belle and Sebastian refuse most interviews, hate being photographed, and insist on being prolific, having already released three EPs since their album came out. Fans who have fled the indie-pop fold because, well, they’ve grown up and realized Hello Kitty paraphernalia and a bowl haircut look awfully funny on a 30-year-old should welcome the opportunity for their lapsed faith to be reborn.
Other CDs that rocked and rolled my consciousness include Modest Mouse’s rangy, earnest, and hypnotic The Lonesome Crowded West, Plexi’s glam-rock/Psychedelic Furs hybrid Cheer Up, the Promise Ring’s hard-charging emocore collection Nothing Feels Good, Radiohead’s epic art-rocker OK Computer, Built to Spill’s epic indie-rocker Perfect From Now On, and the Boo Radleys’ overlooked psych-pop jewel C’mon Kids.
On the local front, the Make-Up’s two rousing albums, Make-Up After Dark and Sound Vérité, were prime examples of the band’s smooth integration of gospel, dub, and punk into performance art. While the Monorchid blasted out of the gate with the exquisitely spastic and energized Let Them Eat the Monorchid, Chisel bowed out of the scene with the overlong goodbye of Set You Free. (among Free’s 17 tracks, however, are some of the best Britpop songs you’ll hear this side of the Atlantic.) And Tsunami returned with its strongest album yet, A Brilliant Mistake.
But the albums that rocked the most in 1997 were first released around 25 years ago. Beginning with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew in the late ’60s and continuing through 1975, when ill health forced him to temporarily retire, Miles Davis spoke in an idiom musical linguists are only now beginning to understand. The five double-CD reissues of early-’70s electric MilesIn Concert: Live at Philharmonic Hall, Dark Magus: Live at Carnegie Hall, Black Beauty: Miles Davis at Fillmore West, At Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East, and Live-Evilpreserve a huge slice of the history of music whose impact is today felt more in the electronic and post-rock scenes than in the jazz world.
Davis played endless, nameless music (confirmed by saxophonist Gary Bartz, who in Live-Evil’s liner notes writes, “Then as now, I never knew the names of the songs. We were playing music”) built from slim themes, fat bass lines, explosive sonic swirls, and barren silences. Influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sly Stone, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix, Davis organized sound like a magician, pulling doves and lions out of the same sonic hat. It’s strange that this music is having such a profound effect on underground musicians, because in much of the Western world, at least, it hasn’t been available since its original release. (Japanese CD reissues started making their way into this country in the early ’90s, but at $45 a pop they were fixes too expensive for all but the most severe junkies. I became an addict right around that time.) Hagiographers looking for the patron saint of today’s newest sounds could write volumes on the Prince of Darkness.
Dave Douglas has probably studied Davis. Not just because the two bandleaders play the same instrument but because Douglas shares Davis’ aversion to safety and stasis. On Sanctuary, a double-disc import-only release on John Zorn’s Avant label, Douglas noisily swings with a crowded but loose octet featuring bassists Hilliard Greene and Mark Dresser, sampler operators Yuka Honda and Anthony Coleman, fellow trumpeter Cuong Vu, saxophonist Chris Speed, and drummer Dougie Bowne. But on his newest release, Stargazer, Douglas guides a tight sextet through a series of tunes written or inspired by saxophonist and composer (and longtime Miles sideman) Wayne Shorter. Instead of doing the 50th version of a Shorter standard such as “Footprints,” the adventurous Douglas takes his arranging skills to lesser-known Shorter gems, from 1959’s “Pug Nose” all the way up to “On the Milky Way Express,” from the saxophonist’s generally scorned 1995 soft-jazz album, High Life. And earlier this year, Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio, featuring guitarist Brad Schoeppach and drummer Jim Black, released Live in Europe. Black also plays in Bloodcount, an N.Y.C. quartet led by saxophonist Tim Berne. Bloodcount’s two albums this year on Berne’s Screwgun label, Discretion and Saturation Point, are sprawling displays of free jazz and avant funk, spurred by Black’s ingenious rhythmic attacks.
D.C. got a chance to see Black perform with the Ellery Eskelin Trio thanks to the efforts of Transparent Productions, a group of volunteers who use their own time, money, and energy to stage forward-looking jazz shows. TP helped bring the likes of Joe Morris, David S. Ware, and Joe McPhee to town, allowing audiences to hear first-class musicians without having to mortgage the house or take a second job. By keeping door prices low at various venues in town and having no drink minimums (and then giving all money made to the musicians), Transparent is performing an invaluable service to the city’s music scene. People have mourned the death of jazz in the District ever since WDCU went off the air, but that station’s conservative playlist didn’t include any of the underground artists Transparent promotes. This collective is providing a forum for truly fresh, creative improvised music, stealing jazz away from the neoconservative, bourgeois clubs that price their shows out of reach of much of their prospective audience.
Numerous jazz reissues, from box sets like John Coltrane’s The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings and the monolithic Bill Evans set on Verve (18 CDs packaged in a steel box) to individual albums like J.J. Johnson’s 1960 J.J. Inc. and the umpteenth reissue/remastering of Davis’ Kind of Blue, filled this year with new versions of the old. But Good People, by saxophonist Javon Jackson, Nothing ever was, anyway: Music of Annette Peacock, by pianist Marilyn Crispell, and You St., the accomplished debut by local saxophonist Peter Fraize, proved that, despite what burned-out listeners say, there is still plenty of life left in jazz.
Other than Miles, perhaps no one was better served by reissues than composer Paul Schütze. In a little over a year, the Australia-born, England-based electro-acoustic musician had no fewer than eight of his records rereleased, while he contributed six new titles to his catalog. From a new album of improvisations for organ and percussion, Nine Songs From the Garden of Welcome Lies, to electric Miles-influenced CDs with his band Phantom City, Site Anubis and Shiva Recoil (LiveUnlive), to reissues of the gamelan-influenced New Maps of Hell II: The Rapture of Metals and film soundtracks such as Isabelle Eberhardt: The Oblivion Seeker, Schütze navigated an enormous galaxy of sound. He is my artist of the year. (Beautiful new expanses traversed by other sound explorers include .O.rang’s Fields and Waves and Labradford’s Mi media naranja.)
As the language of electronica became increasingly codified, lending itself to exploitation by TV commercials and cartoons like Prodigy, I had to struggle a little bit to keep my attention trained on the media spectacle attending it. The Chemical Brothers delivered the funk with Dig Your Own Hole, and Springheel Jack continued to expand the definitions of drum ‘n’ bass with Busy, Curious, Thirsty, while Björk’s Homogenic showed she’s not afraid to not be popular, and Portishead’s Portishead showed why the members of this genre-defining band should be pop stars. And it was good to see that in the year in which Rakim returned, Coldcut, the duo responsible for the epochal remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” came out with Let Us Play, a masterful collection of abstract hiphop and its first album in four years.
Tiny Brit labels like Blue Planet (Plug’s Drum ‘n’ Bass for Papa), Law & Auder (excellent compilations like Eastwestercism and the Avantgardism series), Sub Rosa (Vedic presents Rhythmic Intelligence, one of the better comps of Asian/Brit electronica), Spymania (which shares the numbingly fast, jazz-fusion junglist Squarepusher with the bigger Warp label), and Lo Recordings (the Further Mutations comp series) are pushing the envelope of electronic music. Like flecks of gold to a miner, these labels’ releases prove to the resourceful listener that valuable music is still out there, you just need to be patient to find it. Which is why, despite my luck in receiving a ton of promo CDs, my indefatigable little credit card carries a balance that would shock Donald Trump.CP