Okay. I’m going to write two words and I don’t want you to judge me. Because believe me, no one is judging me harder than myself right now. But please hear me out. ‘Smooth jazz.’ Yeah I know, but lately I can’t get enough. I blame politics. From Trump to the homophobic idiocy of the marriage plebiscite, there’s no doubt in my mind that psychotic lunatics control the word. And in this time of uncertainty and chaos, the smooth inoffensive, funky warmth of Grover Washington Jr and George Benson have offered me a peculiar kind of solace.
It started innocently enough, I found A Wilder Alias, the 1974 album from husband and wife vocalists Jackie on Roy on Creed Taylor’s legendarily smooth CTI records. With wordless vocals and funky fusion sounds from saxophonist Joe Farrell and percussionist Steve Gadd, it was loud, adventurous and playful and I was seduced by the gatefold packaging. So when I spied George Benson’s 1972 White Rabbit, with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Ron Cater and Billy Cobham I couldn’t resist. It’s so funky smooth, possessed by swinging yet safe covers of California Dreamin and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit. From Deodato to Ron Carter, Bob James to Freddie Hubbard its all been CTI. Creed Taylor had produced at Verve, brought Coltrane to Impulse and was given free reign on CTI to blur jazz and pop to bring jazz to the masses. In this crazy mixed up world it’s the only thing getting me by.
Whilst every producer at some time in their career makes a soundtrack to an imagined film, imagined soundscapes are a little rarer. This is where sound art and exoticism combine, creating an ethnographic hyperreal representation of an imagined faraway place. Filmmaker and sound artist Carlos Casas’ ‘Pyramid of Skulls’ (Discrepant) was inspired by the people of Pamir, Tajikistan and Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov’s notion of a ‘common task’ for humanity. His work is a re-imagined memory of his 6-month stay in the region back in 2015, with snatches of music and found sound, creating a collage of sounds that have never previously existed together By selecting, layering and processing, Casas has crafted a highly personal exotic world that’s full of possibilities and open to all manner of interpretation.
Between the strange obscure sounds and textures of this and also Discrepant label boss Gonçalo F Cardoso’s recent Visions Congo LP, there’s these gentle unexpected moments of bliss, where everything coalesces into gentle rollicking hypnotic rhythms. Cardoso’s recordings in the great lakes region in Uganda, Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Zanzibar form the basis of Visions Congo. Again, it’s an imagined fourth world where snatches of thumb piano or percussion exist alongside field recordings, newscasts, choirs and cicadas. It’s exotica musique concrete and it’s fascinating.
Finally, if you’ve been enjoying the sound design of the Twin Peaks revival, Lynch’s producer Dean Hurley has just released a collection of ambient soundscapes used in the show. You can find Anthology Resource Vol.1 on his bandcamp.
Three nights ago I dreamed I was in a barn in rural Virginia filled with farm equipment with which Mark Linkhous was recording his new album. Wearing welder’s glasses and greasy white t-shirt he sang some demos and we were eager to hear how the addition of a hay bale maker and chainsaw would alter the tunes. I woke up devastated. I’ll never get to hear this album because Mark took his own life in 2010 after a lifelong battle with depression and addiction. What he left behind as Sparklehorse is remarkable, particularly in the depth of emotion that I wasn’t equipped to comprehend in the mid-late nineties.
Back then I connected with his noisy upbeat distorted vocals, and studio experimentation. Yet listening back now to 1995’s Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot and 1998’s Good Morning Spider all I hear is fragility and frustration. It’s spiritual outsider music, a personal artistic vision unencumbered by whatever was happening around him. We later learned that he laboured over his lyrics, agonised, doubted and dreaded his music’s reception. Linkhous may have re entered my subconsciousness because I recently began listening to the podcast S-Town from the makers of Serial and it’s impossible not to connect with the despair, frustration and humanity of those who can’t fit into the world around them. It’s such a waste. In Linkhous’ case he couldn’t even bring himself to record vocals on 2005’s Dark Night of the Soul because he though no one cared. Decades years later I feel like I’m only starting to understand his musical vision.
Library music is the holy grail of record collectors. In nondescript covers often with barely any information about the musicians for hire playing the tunes within, they were designed as background for film, television and radio. The beauty is that notable composers often slummed for quick cash, using aliases to hide their shame. Whilst there were numerous examples of top 40 rip offs and smooth jazz, occasionally artists would be let off the leash to engage in all manner of avant garde experimentations. And that’s the gold. They’ve been sampled extensively by hip hop artists, and have become a source of inspiration for a small niche of artists attracted to the freedom, wilful experimentation and moment in time nature of the music.
One example is UK’s The Focus Group, who mine British psychedelia, Italian horror movies and eastern European animation for inspiration, creating an exotic collage of sound that lingers in the past – reminiscences of memories that were never truly were. They came to prominence via 2009’s compelling collaboration with Broadcast, Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of The Radio Age (Warp), though have continued to release tantalising collage music where exotic instrumentation, processed samples and fragments of electronics collide. It’s the work of Julian House, co founder of Ghost Box (a label that specialises in hauntology), who’s new album Stop-Motion Happening With The Focus Group (Ghost Box) offers woozy fragments of eccentric aged audio memorabilia that could have come from anywhere in the last five decades.
For Hip-hop all you need is a mic, some beats and you are off spitting, rhyming and pouring out your heart. For marginalized communities it is the preferred medium for protest music – more immediate and relatable to young people than folk. It’s hard to think of a more marginalized place than Northern Mali. Their recent history is one of conflict, with religious extremists seizing control in 2012, only being forced out 12 months later by a French led military intervention. Gao is in Mali’s North East, where you can go no further without leaving the asphalt behind. Whilst it’s not without its struggles, with a suicide bomber killing 50 in January, over the last decade it has become a hotbed of some of the most distinctive hip-hop you will ever hear.
The music is remarkable, a unique localized take on Western hip-hop, with syrupy autotuned vocals, gentle cheesy synth pop loops, and electronic percussion. It was discovered by Sahel Sounds boss Chris Kirkley at an MP3 market in Bamako in a folder marked ‘Gao Rap,’ and he has spent the last few years sourcing and licensing the material with assistance of one of Gao’s biggest rappers diezz d. Gao Rap – Hip Hop From Northern Mali is an astounding collection, demonstrating music’s unique ability to evolve across genres and geographic boundaries and in the process becoming something totally unique and fascinating. It’s raw, lackadaisical and endlessly creative, one of the most surprising collections of music you will hear in a while.
In 1966 Alice Coltrane replaced McCoy Tyner in her husband John’s band, appearing on seminal albums like Live at The Village Vanguard Again! When he passed she carried the flame as bandleader on incendiary albums with fellow bandmembers such as Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali, though during this time she was also clearly suffering from the trauma of losing her husband and the responsibility of raising four children alone. Introduced to Swami Satchidananda her healing and spiritual enlightenment began, and her musical style evolved, exploring deeply spiritual music on the extraordinary 1970’s world music tinged Journey in Satchidananda.
Whilst her early music as leader was about free music, her four albums on Warner Brothers from 1973-78 are a remarkable evolution into a whole new form where free-jazz meets devotional music that was her own unique vision and less in the shadow of her late husband. 1976’s string and organ workout Eternity in particular is jaw dropping. By 1983 she was a spiritual leader in a Californian Ashram she founded, only performing and distributing cassettes to her followers. These tapes continued her remarkable development, experimenting with her own vocals (for the first time), synthesizers, harp, a 24 piece vocal choir and eastern percussion. Seriously there is nothing else in existence like this music. Luaka Bop are releasing a compilation of her Ashram tapes, entitled World Spirituality Classics Volume 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda on the 5th of May and it’s nothing short of the sound of transcendence.
Do you remember when films used to be interesting, used to be dangerous, challenging or even a little bit wrong? I do, because that time is now – provided you get out of the multiplexes and tear your lips from Marvel’s bloated teat. The best film of the decade is the Greasy Strangler. It’s demented and stupid and really really sweet. It’s a horror movie for the Tim and Eric generation where awkward pauses, bizarre catchphrases and absurd gruesome murders create and endearingly heartfelt world. There’s never been anything else like it. Featuring a cast of idiosyncratic unknowns, aside from Elizabeth De Razzo (Eastbound and Down) there’s an abundance of wrongness, gratuitous absurd nudity and some very surreal humour. Also disco.
The score is remarkable. Andrew Hung (Fuck Buttons) has created a strangely innocent carnival style chiptune music. It’s like a Nintendo game mashed with slightly frenetic cartoon music, which would be fine, except for when these heartfelt off-kilter chipmunk vocals appear and it breaks your poor innocent heart. It’s the most ridiculous beautiful music you will ever hear. If Hung released this without the context of the film he would be committed. It’s that good. And of course its been picked up for some kind of candy coloured vinyl edition by Death Waltz. The film has just been released locally by Monster Pictures with a bunch of extras including footage of a bus ride they inexplicably took to Ballarat with stars Sky Elobar and Elizabeth De Razzo. Weird.
From Goblin’s excessive near operatic soundtracks for Italian Giallo director Dario Argento (Suspiria) to John Carpenter’s (Escape From New York) synth experiments for his own films to Fabio Frizzi’s peculiarly sinister scores for the likes of Italian schlockmeister Lucio Fulci (Zombie), it’s safe to say that old school horror movie soundtracks are back. Thanks to the likes of Stranger Things and Death Waltz, those old synth scores of the 70’s and 80’s are increasingly being not just reissued, but mined and re imagined by folks like Pye Corner Audio and Repeated Viewer with a distinctively modern spin.
Giallo Disco is a label that focuses on this retro futurism, drawing from Italo Disco, Krautrock, electronic music and those incredible scores from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s run between Berlin and Vienna by Antoni Maiovvi and Vercetti Technicolor; both of whom produce their own take on horror electronics. Giallo Disco album covers are a dead giveaway, they’re nostalgia for a misspent youth, of having the bejesus scared out of you late at night watching way too many slasher films. They’re just about to drop to two new albums, Haex-Hrll (aka DJ Overdose)’s taut futuristic electro saga Further From The Truth, and the bleak cinematic funk of New York based Colombian Fiero’s Modus Operandi EP. Fiero in particular could be coming straight from the 70’s, with a sound somewhere between Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter, like much of Giallo Disco’s roster, it’s a driving synthetic score to an imagined thriller.
Last year’s Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, a Don Cheadle fantasy with car chases, and a fictionalised white Rolling Stone journalist isn’t entirely what Miles deserved, but it did highlight his electric period. Listening to this music it’s so forward thinking you can understand how earth shattering it was. Not just for the listener, but also for his collaborators many of whom would subsequently chase their own muse: jazz-fusion.
Keyboardist Joe Zawinul composed the title track and appeared on Miles’ 1969 album In A Silent Way, and would go on to much acclaim via the Weather Report. But his 1971 solo album, simply titled Zawinul, which features his own gorgeous, atmospheric take on In a Silent Way and contributions from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, is jaw droppingly soulful. Many consider it the unofficial first Weather Report album.
Keyboardist Chick Corea’s (Bitches Brew) fusion group, which also featured guitarist Al DiMeola, Return to Forever, is often cited as the premier fusion ensemble. Like many in the genre they would subsequently get a little too clean and impressed by their own dexterity, yet 1975’s No Mystery is the balls out Latin funk of four blokes strutting, on an album that is dedicated to L Ron Hubbard.
English Guitarist John McLaughlin (Bitches Brew), developed perhaps the most ferocious fusion in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, yet I prefer his 1977 ode to Indian classical music, Shakti, with tabla legend Zakir Hussain, which with acoustic guitar is almost an antidote to the aggressive spirituality of Mahavishnu.
What do Kentucky Fried Chicken and Peter Weir’s little known and criminally under-appreciated 1977 existential horror, The Last Wave have in common? Starring Richard Chamberlain and David Gulpilil, the film that delves into Aboriginal culture and dreamtime in an urban setting. The score was composed by Charles Wain. Wain was a curious figure.
Firstly, his score is a remarkable mix of synthetic cues and experimental electronics, using the Arp Odyssey, the Arp Solina String Ensemble, and guitar as well as manipulated didgeridoo. It effortlessly manages to conjure a deep existential dread, and in this post Stranger Things, post Mr Robot world it could’ve been made yesterday. Secondly if you check IMDB this is Wain’s only credit. Ever. Thirdly if you Google ‘Charles Wain’ you will discover it’s an astronomy term – another name for the ‘Big Dipper.’ All of which is highly suspicious. Who was this enigmatic figure?
Melbourne label The Roundtable’s first ever release of the soundtrack (along with John Barry’s lost score to Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout) illuminates things a little more, and this is where it gets weird. It’s where CC corn chips, Kentucky Fried Chicken and petrol jingles collide with high art, because Wain is in fact the pseudonym for television and radio advertising jingle guy Wayne ‘Groove’ Myers. If you watched Australian TV during the 70’s and 80’s his jingles are firmly etched in your frontal lobe. Yet this score is his experimental side. One thing’s for sure “You can’t say no,” to this deep and remarkable work…Sorry…