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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Icarus – Paul Winter/Winter Consort (1972)






I knew nothing about Winter Consort when I spied this record at Dada Records. It was in the Jazz section and I grabbed it because its cover photo of rock reclining hippies alerted me to something interesting inside. The spread of exotic instruments on the gatefold also appealed. All Music notes that Paul Winter became one of the earliest exponents of world music when he formed the Winter Consort in 1967.

As I sat on my couch listening to this record my girlfriend came in and laughed out loud, saying that it was “drama teacher music.” I laughed too and imagined a drama teacher (who was a hippy in the sixties) rocking up to his class in track suit pants to do an interpretative dance about the pathos of the setting sun and the only guy in the class who appreciates it looks just like Napoleon Dynamite. Icarus could easily be the soundtrack to that scenario. Don’t let that put you off though; this record certainly has its moments.

The lead track – Icarus lives up to All Music’s description and comes across as hippy world music with its floaty arrangement. Better is Ode to a Fillmore Dressing Room, which I discovered is perfect for contemplating the sun dappled leaves of a pot plant. Great sitar on this track too. The Silence of a Candle is an earnest hippie minor key reflection with vocals, reminiscent of the song cycle California Saga off the 1973 Beach Boys Holland album. It’s both good and bad at the same time. The final two tracks on the first side are simply great. Sunwheel features slightly discordanent horns. It is plaintive and yearning but then has a fantastic little organ vamp (the Bush Organ mentioned on the back cover?). Juniper Bear charms with tabla and evocative classical guitar. I got up to change the side feeling impressed.



The second side begins with Whole Earth Chant – a mini epic with tabla and a host of typical jazz-fusion flourishes, mainly from various melliferous keyboards. All The Mornings Bring features more keyboard noodling, but as with the other tracks on this LP it grows on you after multiple listenings. The last two tracks are perhaps the best  - Chehalis And Other Voices features obo and classical guitar over a beautifully expressive arrangement. Minuit is simply sublime with a lilting melody and massed vocals that swell and fade gently. The track comes across as an affectionate ode to the ideals of hippidom. On the third play I realized that I had once heard this track many years ago whilst driving back from a party late at night on RTRFM and it provided one of those rare moments when a track comes out of left field and provides you with exactly what you wanted to hear in that moment. Finally after all these years I got to hear it again.

This LP is notable due to the fact that George Martin produces it and it also features some top jazz musicians like David Darling, Billy Cobham and Ralph Towner. Some weird instruments are utilized – a bush organ, a contrabass Sarrusphone and a mridangam, whatever they are! Check out the photo of some of the instruments from the gatefold picture.



This is a charming record that is a little dated but should be enjoyable to anyone interested in the less explored margins of jazz fusion or even world music. Put your trust in the sun kissed hippies on the cover and track a copy down. I checked and it’s available on vinyl around the place. It will transport you back to a time about four years after its release when a bunch of punks sat around wondering just what was worse than a hippie? A jazz hippie! 

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Loaded – The Velvet Underground (1970)






Anyone who cares about rock music should know about this record, or at least know about The Velvet Underground. I love their records and if I really had to endure having to choose just ten records to keep, then this album and at least two of their others would be there.This album is often overlooked for their first album, or even their third and it is sometimes seen as somehow inferior to the rest of their work. Loaded is perhaps their most accessible record, but that does not mean that it’s a poor quality affair.

If you are new to The Velvet Underground then this is perhaps the best place to start (although you could endlessly argue otherwise). Here’s where the band threw everything at producing a record that would actually sell, but it didn’t work and a disgruntled Lou Reed ended up leaving due to management and song editing reasons. Another important aspect of the album is that, despite being credited as such, the great Moe Tucker did not play drums due to a pregnancy. Instead four other drummers, including Doug Yule’s brother – Billy Yule, banged away on the skins. Once you’ve listened to the Velvet’s for a while you can pick the difference.



The reason why this album has the honor of being the subject of my first main post on Closed Groove is because I recently bought a Record Store Day copy pressed onto pink vinyl. I couldn’t resist basically. Also my original copy of this record, which is a stock standard 1980’s re -release, begins with a series of loud pops and crackles, which reappear throughout the album. Such character was gained from a record player on which the stylus was never changed throughout my entire teenage years (note – change your stylus at least once a year).

The first track is the straight out pop of Who Loves the Sun, sung by Doug Yule in his best little boy voice (that’s him on the cool in the studio photo on the back cover). It’s a knowing pastiche of sixties pop and it’s also bliss. There’s just so much that’s great about this record, from the cough at 1.06 into Who Loves the Sun to the immortal twin tracks – Rock ’n’ Roll and Sweet Jane. These two tracks epitomize what’s great about the Velvet’s, including some of the best rhythm guitar playing you could ever hope to hear. Also Reed’s vocals rival Iggy Pop’s when it comes to definitive rock & roll phrasing.



The rest of the album plays to what were the Velvet’s latter day strengths - well-arranged songs big on tense ensemble playing and great rhythm guitar. Cool it Down comes on like a night in a downtown bar drunk on second-hand despair. New Age is a dorky blue –eyed soul number that Yule sings with a fragility that evokes hope within the tragedy of a life gone sour. The final minute and a half invites drunken sing-a-longs whilst sitting on a dirty couch with the streetlight coming through the window - try it sometime.

Amongst the many highlights is the up-tempo rocker Head Held High, which was mooted as a possible single, and it may have worked too. The country rock of Lonesome Cowboy Bill is one of my favourites on the album. Richie Unterberger’s great book – White Light White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day (2009) notes that this song is a reference to an Andy Warhol film, but previously I’d read that the song is in fact about William Burroughs. If you listen to the lyrics they sound like a bunch of metaphors about the life of Burroughs, which is perhaps a flawed notion, but I’m sticking with it.



I Found A Reason is soulful doo-wop sung by Yule and he nails it. Yule was a really underrated singer, although I would have loved to hear Reed sing this song. Yule sings more on this album due to the fact that at the same time the band were playing a run of gigs at Max’s Kansas City and Reed’s voice was giving way under the strain. The back-up vocals (a great love of mine) are spot on and its warmth really comes through on the vinyl. Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ is blue eyed soul to die for and is a great way to end the album.


If you haven’t played this album for a while then get it out and give it a spin. It’s perfectly sequenced, with a beautifully warm sound and fantastic songs. The Velvet Underground had more soul, street smarts and humanity than most other bands from that era and god knows we still need them now.

                                      "Hey man, it's pink vinyl!!"



Sunday, 15 July 2012

Stating the Case for Vinyl






In the February 2012 edition of Mojo Magazine Jack White has this to say about vinyl:

“It’s still the best medium for music to be delivered on. You should expose kids to it like you expose them to books.”

Vinyl has survived reel-to-reel tape, cassettes, eight tracks, CDs, DAT and it will survive MP3 downloads.

So renouncing boomers, lapsed Gen Xers and download only Gen Yers, it’s time to buy a turntable and experience the real sound of music. I’ve been through my own period of not buying or listening to music on vinyl. After being a teenager in the 1980’s, buying vinyl and amassing a collection of a couple of hundred, I bowed to the seemingly inevitable in the early 1990’s and bought a CD player and I didn’t buy any vinyl again for five or six years. Luckily I did not sell my neglected collection.



It wasn’t until I was studying in the mid to late 1990’s that I started buying vinyl again, simply because it was cheaper to buy second hand. Here’s where I rediscovered its superior sound, its warmth, the smell of the cardboard sleeves and full sized artwork. Most importantly it was the sound that grabbed me – that warmth and the full impact of the bass and drums. It was a revelation.

Even so it took a while for me to be convinced. After years of listening to the plastic ‘perfection’ of CDs I heard every pop, crackle and rumble produced by the needle in the groove. After I started to buy newly released albums on vinyl I would have internal arguments about whether I was doing the right thing investing money in these imperfect objects. But the imperfections are all part of the organic experience of analogue sound and you come to embrace it and love it. You can have a meaningful relationship with your vinyl and it is a rewarding one.

Closed Groove is basically a tour of my record collection with its coloured vinyl, special editions and obscure classics. Although I’ll comment on the music I’m not particularly trying to be a critic, more an enthusiast encouraging people to take a trip down to their record store and reacquaint themselves with the vinyl record. Hopefully via this blog you’ll get to discover some new music, be reminded of great music you’ve neglected and most importantly be inspired to buy a turntable and make a start on your own relationship with vinyl.