This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Venus in Fur - Kira Puru and the Bruise

After the seductive, slightly sordid allure of The Velvet Underground a few days ago, it seemed only right to now devote some blogspace to some more dark and dangerous music - this time a little closer to home in Newcastle based femme fatale, Kira Puru: Australia's own Venus in fur.

If bitch blues was a musical genre, Kira Puru would be its undisputed queen. Her voice has that gutsy granite sound, chiselled out by wine and cigarettes, a voice that can tease and deceive you while it licks its lips at you, from somewhere way up in the sky and then, the moment you look in its direction, drag you down by the balls, down into the hell you deserve, crushing them and you as it takes you there.

If you get to see Kira Puru and the Bruise perform live, you won't regret it - as long as you go armed. She will stand and sing to you, glass of red in one hand, fur stole around her shoulders, telling you what will happen if you cross her. It is music that is borne of the eternal, but deadly, liaison of pain, bitterness and a capacity for revenge that knows no limits. Music that caresses you while it is twisting its knife into you. And yet you fill her glass for her, and then come back for more.

I have seen Kira Puru perform twice now, and have bought both of her EP length albums. The first of each was earlier this year, when her band was called The Very Geordie Malones; the second much more recently, when their name had changed to The Bruise. I'm not sure why there was the name change but there is, in any event, something much more bruised and bruising about their music now - music which, even back then, was hardly sweet and sentimental. Now the voice is a little darker, the music a little starker, the assault a little more fatal.

Compare, for example, the tantilising tingles, the little hint of innocence, with which 'One eye open' lures you to your destruction, the song with which her first self-titled EP opens, with the brutal, no prisoners-taken, attack of 'The liar', the title and opening track of the second album. "Make peace with Mother Earth" the first song advises you, at least giving you a chance to save your soul before your death; "Don't talk to me about anger when I've got a loaded gun" the second song warns, giving you little chance to do anything other than, perhaps, to run.

The music, like the voice that sings it, comes from the veins that are left over when a heart has been ripped out - music that sits by the bar, drinking, late at night, plotting not just how to even the score, but how to win. It's music that still loves, but loves fatally, like in 'Ragdoll baby' with its heavy beat, like a ravenous heart, crying out, "you excite me when you bleed". It's music that knows how to deal with pain, like in the final song of the The Liar: "what's it gonna be/the devil said to me/you can keep the pain/or give your soul to me/take your pick".

The red wine, the fur and the terrorisingly good music of Kira Puru leaves you in no doubt as to what her choice will be.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Softly, sumptuously subversive - the Velvet Underground

Velvet is one of those fabrics that always seems just a little bit naughty. It can be sensual, it can be sexual, it can be sumptuous: and somehow you always feel, before you let your skin rub against it, that you need to take a furtive look around you, just in case someone is watching.

It's not that the music of The Velvet Underground is always quite that smooth - it is music from the underground, after all - but it's music that, even when it is at its most ragged, its most sordid, has a lushness to it, softening the blows of the gritty netherworld, but never for a moment really protecting you from it.

Lou Reed's avant-rock band of the 1960s had a small output - but it was an output that was diverse enough to make pretty well every song on every album interesting; but also unified enough to leave a legacy that helped shape punk and post-punk in a way that the "Velvet Underground influence" is instantly recognisable, and almost always commented upon - the droning, monotone guitars; music absorbed in itself, narcissistic: the big bang of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

The Velvet Underground is sleazy and wonderful - whether it's hypnotically erotic, as in 'Venus in Furs', or whether it's shooting up and screeching in your face, as in 'Heroin', or outdoing Roald Dahl in grotesquerie, as it does in 'The Gift'; or whether it's buggering you with the big, bold, queer epic of 'Sister Ray', or seducing you with the disarming, deceptive, deluded simplicity of 'Pale Blue Eyes', it's all irresistable. It's all music to play loudly when you've got the house and the gin to yourself, music to win over the neighbours, and shock them, all at once.

I don't think Lou Reed ever did anything as good as what he did when he was with The Velvet Underground - or, at least, the really good stuff he did afterwards was mostly just elaborating on what he had already said here (except for Metal Machine Music - but that's going to be another story and another post).

In this music, Lou Reed planted a sumptuous, sensuous, subversive seed - deep, deep blow the surface. And it still grows, somewhere deep and dark in the forest of modern music. Cut your way through the quagmire of commercialism and you will find, hidden but thriving in the gloom, the fascinating fruits of what still lies below, deep below, in the velvet underground.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wishing you a very bent Christmas

I will admit, mostly only in moments when I am caught off guard, that I like Christmas carols. I like them in the way I like jelly beans and musk sticks and all those other things that you tend to enjoy in private because you don't want to admit that you've never really grown out of them.

But, even so, finding a new and interesting take, however freaky, on the old, the trusted and the familiar is always kind of nice. Like Mars Bars deep fried in batter. Or Christmas Carols performed by avant garde (mostly) Japanese musicians.

So, when I happened quite by accident to stumble across an album that opened with Japanese noise-punksters Melt-Banana doing an absolutely insane version of 'White Christmas' and closed with my revered noise icon, Merzbow, doing 'Silent Night' more creepily than anything even drug-induced nightmares could come up with, I just had to get it.

In between those two mad, mad bookends is a slimy, sleazy version of 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' by Secret Chiefs 3, a sort of psychedelic grindcore band from California; 'Here Comes Santa Claus' in a no-wave hip-hop fusion from Japanese indie rock band Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her; a few moments of almost ambient peace, so much needed after all the craziness we've had so far, when Gastr del Sol perform 'The Bells of St Mary' with a stillness that, for me, sounds almost like the serenely beautiful louanges in Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

But it's only a short respite and we get a totally trippy 'Sleigh Ride' from avant-noise artist Masaya Nakahara, aka Hair Stylistics, where odd bursts and blurps of noise are interspersed with creepy bits of sleigh music that fade in and out and displace everything, like a poltergeist. Then there's the 'Parade of The Wooden Soldiers', turned into a haunted, whispered piece of hardcore horror by SxOxB, a weird experimental band that pioneered grindcore in Japan; and, finally before the Merzbow, an unsettlingly childlike rendition of 'Marshmallow World' by God is my co-pilot, a New York gender-bending queercore outfit that sings flat and turns everything, even innocence, into percussion.

The album is called The Christmas Album - so, if you Google it, you are going to get lots and lots of links before you get to this - which, in any event, seems pretty hard to come by. But if you're feeling you've overdosed on seasonal sugar, and you want your musk sticks and jelly beans to freak you out a bit for a change, then this is worth hunting down. The whole thing is over in less than half an hour - but Christmas will never be the same again.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vale Captain Beefheart

It's sad but true, and always has been, and always will be, that we don't think much about the roots of trees. We notice and marvel at what we can see, but so easily forget, or even ignore altogether, the dirty, murky tangle that lies beneath the earth, giving life to everything above.

It happens in music too. And so, when we marvel and revel in the rough and gruff music theatre of Tom Waits, or in the savage disregard for convention and structure of no-wave sensations like Sonic Youth or of post-punk icons like Gang of Four, or in the wild and whacky rhythmic counterpoints of The Minutemen, or in the experimental free jazz of Naked City, it can be very easy not to realise that probably none of it would sound quite the same had it not been for the work of a strange, slightly disconnected, despotic musician called Van Vliet, better known - to the still sadly cultish bit of the music world that knew him - as Captain Beefheart.

Van Vliet died just a few days ago - on 17 December 2010, aged 69 - after living with multiple sclerosis for much of his life. He grew up with Frank Zappa as his school buddy, and their friendship cum rivalry cum animosity cum partnership weaves its way through the music of each of them, of both of them: music that splashes and bashes in the deepest waters of the experimental avant-garde, so that the casual passer-by might be a little concerned for its safety, but which the more observant musical lifeguards will see as the artful displays, and sometimes the showy tricks, of a very experienced, dexterous, athlete.

Surely the greatest, and perhaps also the most notorious, work of Captain Beefheart is his 3rd album - his 1969 classic Trout Mask Replica. It is weird, freaky, music that at first sounds like drug-fucked chaos: as if a slightly crazed lover of blues and free jazz had taken a cocktail of LSD and red cordial and, with a bunch of mates, drunk on a little too much garage rock, and a bundle of home made instruments, had been given access to a recording studio for a few hours.

But the trouble with music like this is that the first sounds are often the only ones people stick around to hear. So, overwhelmed by the bedlam, they miss what the crazies are saying. They miss the order of the chaos: the intricate interplay of rhythms, the counterpoint of guitars, the conscious scorn of traditional melody, where winds and strings slip and slide from notes to non-notes, as if the nuts and bolts of music have been melted down and turned to soup; they miss the way conversation and music are brought together, sharing and comparing little anecdotes; they miss the brilliance of a language that has its own rules, its own grammar, its own syntax, but which is a language nonetheless.

Trout Mask Replica was reportedly produced under circumstances that today would surely have landed its creator in prison - its musicians locked up in a house, with windows boarded up, in suburban Los Angeles, for eight months. They were, so some of the survivors allege, subjected to sleep deprivation, food deprivation, ritual humiliation and abuse, beaten and battered into submission, quite literally, to Vliet's artistic vision. Every note, and every thought behind every note, was shaped, iron fisted, by the Captain. They rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. Some tried to escape. The drummer was beaten with a broomstick for playing some Zappa in his spare time instead of practising Vliet's music.

We can be, and we should be, shocked when we hear stories like this - outrageous, disgusting stories of musical megalomania. But they are stories that have littered music's history and, unless we are prepared to dismiss works like Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen or most of the symphonies of Mahler, then we have to find some way of divorcing great music from the less-than-great circumstances in which it was created. And, while that might be a divorce for our own convenience, our own peace of mind, the fact remains that that violent, vile union produced, in Trout Mask Replica, a brilliant, precocious, genius child.

Trout Mask Replica is one of those albums that sounds like nothing else, and yet its influence can be heard everywhere - more than anything else in the permission it gave for music to break out of even its more unconventional parameters, and to allow itself to be crazy.

Craziness can certainly have its frightening side at times: it can freak you out, it can intimidate you and yes, it can even assault and damage you. But then so too can sanity. So it really comes down to a question of which adventure you'd rather try. Try Captain Beefheart - he's really no more dangerous than the straight and narrow and a whole lot more interesting.

RIP Captain Beefheart - you will be missed, but it's good to still have you with us.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Savage Love

There are some people who can tell the story of broken love so well that it almost makes you want to have your own heartbreak, just to see if that's really how it sounds. People who know how to wallow and rage, soaked in whisky, wrenching every entrail from their gut and heaving it into their throat, pouring out rough, ragged music, worn raw by the hard-living, fucked-up lives and loves of country-blues.

That's how Cash Savage sings her songs - music of the heartbreakers as much as of the heartbroken, and all of it is very, very good.

Her debut album Wolf, which she recorded with her support troupe, The Last Drinks, has only just been released, and it takes no prisoners. This music would kill you if it could get its hands on you - gutsy, guttural, unglamorous music, unsentimental stories of lost love.

Cash Savage has that rare and remarkable ability to start a song in the gutter and then keep taking you deeper and deeper into the depths, with her bleary, bluesy voice finding limitless stores of brutal, bestial energy.

I first discovered this album when the 3 PBS FM Breakfast Spread, my constant source of musical inspiration and the constant undoing of my bank balance, played 'I'm Doin' So Well' a few days ago - a track that, for me, is still the best on an album where every track is exceptionally good. It builds and builds its cries and its heartache, unrelenting, unforgiving, uncompromsing. But then listen, too, to songs like 'For the Goodtimes' or '19 Years', and you will see how consistent a talent this is - music that plies you with the very best whisky while it stabs you in the heart, over and over again.

And, for me, it is no small extra bonus that these are love songs sung by a woman about women. Same sex love songs still don't get anywhere near the airspace that they should. We are, after all, about a fifth of the population but our stories certainly don't seem to occupy a fifth of the love music. Yes, we know that Rufus Wainwright and kd laing are mainly singing about their same sex loves, but you know that from their biographies not from their songs. But these songs of Cash Savage are unambiguously, unfetteredly, unpretentiously queer, and this only adds to their strength.

Wolf is an absolute stunner of an album. It won't break your budget if you buy it from the Cash Savage website, but it might break your heart, and maybe even your balls.