Gary Steel has spent his whole adult life on a drip-feed of irradiated silage (um, review samples) from record companies, and for 35 years has been irritating the hell out of average citizens with his withering critiques and caustic asides in publications like the Metro (for which he still contributes a monthly blather), Sunday Star Times, NZ Listener and Rip It Up, his own website and loads of sadly departed titles like RTR Countdown, Tone, Real Groove and the Evening Post, and self-published rags IT and TOM. He remains unrepentant. Here are five albums he’s loving right now…
1 – Scott Walker, Bish Bosch: There’s a cult of personality around the former teen idol turned existential experimentalist that gets a bit tired. That’s just like a smokescreen to deter those who would be better turning their attention to whatever Pitchfork is bleating on about in an over-educated whine this week.
The thing about Scott Walker – and by dint his latest album Bish Bosch – is that you could tweak the old grey matter and study the meaning of it all for, oh… months. The guy obviously oozes out these songs really, really slowly, and each one is like a big hard shit that he’s spent his good time mulling over.
Speaking of which, Bish Bosch has got farts on it, but don’t let that put you off: it’s all in the name of art.
You can intellectualise over Bish Bosch until the cows come home, but for me it’s a deeply visceral experience; a dark, brooding, angry expression that shoots into my senses like a just-tapped oil well exiting the innards of the earth.
I hardly ever listen to it, but when I do it’s always great. My preferred listening place for this is the car, on the open road, when I’m by myself, and it feels like something bigger than music; an audibly transformative whirlpool made of flesh, sinew, bone, brain and organs.
2 – Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill: More often than not, Old Sparky is just embarrassing. Of all the ‘major’ singer-songwriters, he’s let the lamest lyrics out of the stable, the laziest half-excuses for tunes.
But when he’s on, he’s on, and in 2012, we got both polarities. While Americana tried to convince us that Young-style versions of hoary old ‘classics’ might work on some (subversive?) level, and failed, utterly, Psychedelic Pill (on which he once again teamed up with his old mates in Crazy Horse) is my favourite Young in decades.
He’s a perverse old coot, and I often wonder if the guy is close to having some Asperger’s like condition that makes him oblivious to when he’s awful, but at the same time is responsible for his occasional genius.
In any case, Psychedelic Pill rocks, and this double album would be worth its purchase price for the first song alone. Driftin’ Back is an absolute epic at nearly 28 minutes long, and really, not that much happens, but somehow it’s gripping, galvanizing, trance-inducing, and emotionally fetching all at the same time. Personally, I wish he’d got together with The Necks to do a full 80-minute CD-length version. Now, that would have been something.
It’s a damn fine album in toto, and while there are plenty of those rusty grinding guitars, Young also turns on his heartbreaking fragile voice every now and then. And what I really like about it is that Young reflects on age and time passed without falling into that self-referential morose bullshit that Bowie has on the preview to his new album.
3 – Frank Zappa, Sheik Yerbouti: Everyone knows that I’m a bona fide Zappa freak, but it’s a heck of a thing to try and explain to people why his music is so great.
Getting into Zappa is an investment of time and energy, and once you get hooked there are around 100 albums to help drain your bank account, loads of DVDs and the inevitable bios to read.
The main Zappa album catalogue was remastered and reissued in 2012 by Universal, and I’ve had the opportunity to revisit albums I probably haven’t listened to for 10 or 15 years.
One of the real eye-popping re-experiences was 1979 album Sheik Yerbouti, which is a damn good place to start with Zappa if you’re more of a rock guy than a modern classical guy or a jazz guy or an experimental guy or a widdly-widdly guitar guy. [Please excuse the repetition of the word ‘guy’, but for some reason I’ve never been able to figure, women don’t often warm to Zappa’s music.]
In ’79, Zappa had spent years in litigation with his former record company. Sheik Yerbouti was a new start with a great new band featuring players like pre-Bowie, pre-Talking Heads, pre-King Crimson Adrian Belew, and the incredible drumming of Terry Bozzio, and it was an explosive double album (on vinyl) that made accessible many of the Zappa quirks and signature styles.
There’s nothing overtly experimental about this album, and yet, some of the techniques are: it’s fundamentally a live album, but he goes hog-wild with overdubs (every one of them annotated in the booklet) which really elevate what would otherwise have sounded more like a souvenir of a show. There are bizarre conversational and musical links between songs, and on Rat Tomago, FZ tries a technique that took unrelated instrumental parts and synchronised them together. There are also some scorching guitar solos, none of which overstay their welcome, and show Zappa’s interest in sound and texture rather than vacuous displays of virtuosity.
There’s also lots of really funny stuff, including Belew’s fake Bob Dylan voice (and wheezing harmonica) on Flakes, a song about useless plumbers, and some brilliantly observant and useful lyrics about teenage lives on songs like Yo Mama and Broken Hearts Are For Assholes. The latter really helped me get over some emotional upheavals in my late teens: there’s nothing like a bit of tough love allied to a sense of humour. Zappa often railed against pop and rock lyrics for their tendency to encourage sad sacks, dwelling on lovesickness and potential for descent into mental illness, and I agree with him on that.
But it’s the way it all fits together that really makes this album so great. There’s hardly a weak moment amongst its 18 songs, and even its ‘novelty’ tunes like Bobby Brown and Jewish Princess work well in context. There’s a bit of just about everything that made Zappa great here, and needless to say, the new mastering is superb.
4 – Rattle, The Catalogue: Okay, so it’s not an album. It’s the entire catalogue of a superb, yet bizarrely under-recognised NZ record company.
Rattle is the project of former drummer, then producer, Steve Garden, and over the past year it’s been incredibly busy, pumping out fertile non-genre-specific albums utilising some of our best composers and instrumentalists.
Just as the ECM label does in Germany, Rattle acts as a curator for extraordinary projects. Some of them are jazz or improvisation-oriented; others have leanings towards contemporary classical. Every now and then, musicians and composers merge.
But even that puts a limit on what they do. Rattle was the label behind the now legendary albums of re-imagined ancient Maori music by Richard Nunns and Hirini Melbourne, for example, and the gorgeous multiple acoustic guitar extrapolations of Gitbox Reunion.
Its latest releases come in book-like covers – hardback book-like covers at that – and with generous liner notes, and I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t beguile and fascinate. And they’re engineered/recorded with as much care as they’re conceptualized and packaged.
5 – Various, Wellington’s Dirty Secret: Okay, so this isn’t an album either, but it’s a secret wish-list project.
In my mind, I’ve been listening to battered old tapes by groups from Wellington’s post-punk scene made around 1980. Only in my mind, note, because I’m scared to play irreplaceable old cassettes – although there is the odd sound file available on the internet.
I love the uniquely moody, dark, existential sounds that came out of Wellington back then, and it’s such a travesty that through lack of availability or literature on the subject, generations of NZ music fans know absolutely nothing about this small but fertile scene that happened just a few years before the flowering of the so-called Dunedin scene.
The Wellington post-punk scene (also known as ‘the Terrace scene’), lacking the support system that Flying Nun would provide Christchurch and Dunedin bands, produced a few singles, one now rare (and poorly recorded) album, and a few semi-official cassettes before it combusted. Key bands included Naked Spots Dance and Shoes This High, and visiting groups like The Gordons and The Features were spiritual members of this arty, existentialist clique.
I’m hoping that some day, a book will get written, and the music will get some exposure, and assume its rightful place in NZ music history. I’m excited about the new Audio Culture archiving project, because it might just see these undervalued scenes reinvestigated, or at least, put on the map.