I Was Cruel (Island)
Elvis Costello is such a chameleon it’s easy to forget how
well he can rock. A dazzling wordsmith and increasingly flexible
vocalist, he’s spent much of the past five years on projects
only distantly related to rock & roll, like his work with
the Mingus Big Band and soprano Annie Sofie Von Otter. His
first rock CD in seven years proves he hasn’t lost his touch—he’s
only deepened it. Sparked by Attractions Steve Nieve on keyboards
and Pete Thomas on drums, along with bassist Davey Faragher,
Costello has turned in a typically mysterious collection of
tunes. They’re by no means of a piece. They span “45,” a proud
tribute to a quaint recording format Costello values; the
loungy, rueful title track; “15 Petals,” a whirl of a tune
with horns so shiny you can see Costello dancing to it with
a flower in his teeth; and “Tart,” a ballad that caresses
even as it cuts. There’s power and joy here, along with the
kind of startling imagery Costello specializes in. As usual,
he’s all over the stylistic map. But in 2002, the diversity
doesn’t sound strained. Rather, it signals how effectively
and dramatically Costello can present his musical depth, slaking
our appetite for rock that’s sophisticated rather than pretentious.
There’s more than a hint of mystery to the Green Pajamas,
whose music seems to unfold in a twilight state between dreams
and wakefulness. The Seattle group, who have been making intriguing
albums since 1984, find their muse in early British psychedelia:
Think Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett years, the Beatles’ “Rain,”
or Satanic Majesties Request-era Rolling Stones. Nevertheless,
the Green Pajamas avoid the airy-fairy decadence or clever
emotionlessness often associated with that corner of music,
instead opting for a more sober, pastoral take on psychedelia.
And each song is a firm, compact little sweep through the
group’s enchanting world.
Carolers’ Song, a seven-song EP, is another earthy, earnest
collection. Highlights include “Night Boat to Gondal,” which
features an ominous organ figure and vaguely trippy guitar
leads snaking their way around the acoustic foundation, and
the supple rocker “Felicity Cross.” The title track, meanwhile,
is a sweet, driving little number about . . . well, caroling.
(“Come along a-caroling with us/Sing a song of love that wishes/Everyone
a wonderful Christmas day!”) If the track weren’t so darn
melodic and heartfelt, you’d think it was meant to be tongue
in cheek, but that’s where the band deviate from similarly
minded folks such as XTC: The Green Pajamas’ cleverness lies
not in willful irony, but in an uncanny knack for ear-pleasing
Seattle-based banjo player Mike Marlin uses the instrument
for its extramusical possibilities. Eschewing melodicism for
the sounds of scraping, plucking, tapping, and arhythmic scurrying,
he further utilizes a range of prepared objects (including
carrot peeler, rubber dowel, marbles and egg beater). Marlin’s
press release touts his embrace of humor in experimental music,
but, outside of the titling, there’s really nothing here that’s
particularly funny. I know humor is a very personal thing,
but once you’ve thrown down the come-get-your-guffaws gauntlet,
you need to deliver. At least a little bit. After his name
on that same press release is the parenthetical 1962-2462.
That’s mildly funny, standing near the beginning of the 500-year
span as if looking back upon it—not to mention the sheer impossibility
of the duration for a human being. It’s then followed with
the disclosure that Marlin is legally blind. Is he, or is
that a joke too? I don’t know what to believe. At any rate,
I’ve heard funny banjo players, and Marlin is no Eugene Chadbourne.
Which is not to say that his improvisations are without merit.
He’s at his finest when he uses the banjo for its experimental
sound possibilities. Of course, the inverse is that when he
does do some more traditional chording and riffing, it pales,
going nowhere in particular and sounding too random to matter.
Bottom line: not funny, but not bad.
On, volumes 1 and 2
These two discs are a disgrace and a disservice to the memory
of Soft Machine. Volume 1 fares slightly better, drawing
from some studio tapes, but even they suffer from fidelity
problems. The live material, which comprises the rest of the
first volume and all of the second, varies in its problems,
from oversaturated tape to audience recordings that are a
hideous blur (project coordinator Brian Hopper, Hugh’s brother,
even had the lack of sense to open the second volume with
a sonic mess that would have sounded better over the phone).
These are recordings from 1967 and 1968, when Kevin Ayers
was in the band, partly prior to the recording of their debut,
and when they were still within the orbit of Daevid Allen,
who appears on a handful of the studio tracks. The issues
here are all about the extremely poor quality of the source
tapes—not about the music itself. No one should trouble themselves
with anything that sounds this cheap and horrific, not when
there are other worthy documents of the band’s output from
this era available. Even Soft Machine completists should beware
that these two discs will widen the band’s reach across a
shelf, but nothing more than that.