Saturday, April 18, 2009

Robbie Robertson

With an impressive artistic template that takes in disparate styles like arena-rock, New Orleans cadences, ambient electronica, Native American patterns and Americana country-blues, Robbie Robertson, erstwhile leader of famed folk-rock collective The Band, has long ago stamped his mark as one of the most accomplished rock performers of our time. However, it is a real shame that Robertson these days is reduced to being a cult artist existing on the outer fringes of mainstream rock, occasionally chipping in with production duties or the odd soundtrack contribution, but otherwise, just living off the fruits of his past labours. It's a rather sad fate to befall anyone, let alone one of the more respected members of the rock intelligentsia.

This two-for-one collection from 2005 won't do anything to rectify Robertson's present situation: if anything, it will only appeal to hardcore Band followers who might have missed out on Robertson's solo jaunt the first time around. Encompassing his first two albums (1987's eponymous debut and 1991's 'Storyville') on two discs, it handily serves as a new-millennium replacement for those two above-mentioned, long out-of-print records. Throw in a pristine remastering job and some new liner notes, and it becomes a truly essential purchase for any serious rock fan, never mind the zero commercial aspirations that it holds.

'Robbie Robertson', which makes up the first disc, was co-produced by maverick knob-twiddler Daniel Lanois (who famously worked on U2's 'The Joshua Tree' and Peter Gabriel's 'So'), and bears evidence of the French-Canadian's archetypal expansive, atmospheric sound. This is most obvious in the majestic opening track, 'Fallen Angel', which bristles with all manner of creative effects like found-sound percussion, ambient guitar noises, vocal samples and sculpted synth chords. Meanwhile, tracks like 'Showdown at Big Sky', 'American Roulette' and 'Sweet Fire of Love' are more visceral numbers, replete with the requisite measured guitar pyrotechnics, fortified bass underpinnings and strident drum work.

Robertson also takes some time to indulge in some heart-wrenching balladry on 'Robbie Robertson', not just in the sneakily subtle but highly effective 'Broken Arrow', but also in the shivering, uneasy nocturnal elegy 'Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight'. The album's most dramatic moment comes in the form of the surreal spoken-word narrative 'Somewhere Down the Crazy River', while the concluding 'Testimony' is Robertson's earnest tribute to time-honoured Stax-Volt soul traditions, complete with stately horn charts and sweeping orchestration.

For 'Storyville', Robertson decided to rein in some of the more impressionistic touches so prevalent on 'Robbie Robertson', and introduce a grittier sensibility to the scheme of things. This resulted in earthy, organic tunes like 'Night Parade', 'Soap Box Preacher' and 'Hold Back the Dawn', all of which come complete with brassy, New Orleans-informed R&B textures, post-bop jazz rhythms and a strong dose of Neville Brothers-approved funky soul. The Cajun-flavoured 'Shake This Town' is filled with call-and-response dynamics and murky swamp-blues aesthetics.

Elsewhere, 'Resurrection' sounds remarkably like a free-for-all musical jam in the middle of the French Quarter, while the rough-hewn 'Go Back to Your Woods' is the sonic equivalent of a late-night backwoods spiritual-healing session. 'Breaking the Rules' is another consummate Robertson ballad, a heartfelt plea for understanding from an estranged loved one, and the closing 'Sign of the Rainbow' is a poignant, moving gospel hymn that is considerably strengthened by the backing-vocal support of the Zion Harmonisers.

Simply put, this double-disc is a marvellous testament to Robertson's prodigious songwriting, intelligent production skills and unerring ear for an emotionally charged tune. Even though he isn't as prolific as he used to be, and the powers-that-be have more or less consigned him to the scrap heap of rock history, the contemporary-rock gems assembled here still bear proof to how consequential and engaging Robertson's talents are. They also help to display why he will forever be held in high esteem by more discerning, bona fide rock fans who are still holding out in this era of crass commercialism. An absolutely fantastic and absorbing introduction to one of the rock era's most underrated and noteworthy singer-songwriters.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

DJ Shadow's Endtroducing

In an otherwise capricious record industry, DJ Shadow is truly a real innovator who has gone on to forge an artistic track that is uniquely his own, as well as becoming a well-regarded luminary within the highly competitive mix-DJ business. Shadow, real name Josh Davis, was also one of the key advocates of the integration of visceral rock aesthetics and streetwise hip-hop stylings with other seemingly disparate genres, making him an authentic musical revolutionary.

Shadow's talents are diverse and competent: his turntable expertise is second to none, his sampling selections are logical, and his remixing methods are exciting and resourceful. However, Shadow really stands out by virtue of his production techniques: he has a natural ability for seamlessly blending disparate elements like guitar-rock, orchestral arrangements, synth-pop, post-bop jazz and street-level hip-hop into a singular mix that defied all common conventions.

Early-era singles like 'In/Flux' and 'Lost and Found' were audacious, genre-defying works, but it was Shadow's debut album, the superlative 'Endtroducing' from 1996, that really put his name on the map. The most striking thing about 'Endtroducing' was that it was entirely constructed from a variety of sampled sources, including old-school hip-hop, TV themes, prog-rock, psychedelic funk, polyrhythmic percussion tracks and both modal and cool jazz forms. Under the meticulous direction of Shadow, the album successfully introduced listeners to an endlessly absorbing, constantly shifting sonic landscape that sounded like nothing else that had come prior to it.

Now put out in the inevitable deluxe-reissue format, 'Endtroducing' is still a wholly fascinating beast, more than a decade after its initial release. The bonus disc is something titled 'Excessive Ephemera', and more or less lives up to its name, being a roughly cobbled-together collection of alternate takes, live renditions and demo versions that doesn't really amount to anything substantial. Therefore, it is the parent album that deserves a more detailed revaluation, given its historical stature.

Shadow's almost arrogant artistic confidence shines through forcefully over the course of the 13-track collection, and deservedly so, as well. Key tracks like 'The Number Song' and 'Mutual Slump' are hyper-energetic numbers that not only have Shadow's trademark electronic beats, but are also organised in endlessly fascinating, cleverly inventive hip-hop-informed arrangements, and injected with a healthy dose of rock firepower.

Meanwhile, the deliberately off-kilter 'Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain' resonates with death-defying, highly unorthodox time signatures, and 'Building Steam With a Grain of Salt' is a lumbering electro-blues monster armed with unidentified found-sound samples, an ominous orchestral backdrop and an insistent two-note piano loop.

Elsewhere, the slowly unfolding 'What Does Your Soul Look Like' dabbles in modulated trip-hop textures, and the theatrical 'Stem/Long Stem' is a masterful study in how well orchestral symphonics can merge with synth-pop sensibilities. The unrelenting 'Changeling' bristles with an array of multi-coloured sonic effects, and finally, the contemplative 'Midnight in a Perfect World' could well constitute the ultimate chill-out track, a moody, elegant thing with subdued soul-vocal samples, synth-string sweeps and appropriately nocturnal musical atmospherics.

As proven forcefully time and again, 'Endtroducing' has rightfully earned Shadow instant professional respect from all quarters concerned, and constitutes a key entry in a very selective list of groundbreaking debut albums. Shadow will never produce anything quite as dynamic, authoritative and mercurial as it again, and it's no overstatement to call it a true work of genius. As it stands, 'Endtroducing' remains an unparalleled achievement, for Shadow artistically and personally, and within rock-music history, as a bona fide landmark recording.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


While blockbuster R.E.M. albums like ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Automatic for the People’ might be more celebrated and recognisable by virtue of their massive commercial success and award-winning statures, it is ‘Murmur’, the veteran alternative-rock collective’s debut album from way back in 1983 that remains their most definitive, and also the most representative of their seminal sound. ‘Murmur’ was unique in the sense that it chose to eschew then-prevalent musical fashions of the day like new wave and stadium-rock, in favour of a more nuanced, somewhat ageless sound. The album also helped to pave the way for the college-rock movement, which would go on to become one of the major musical trends of the 80s, spawning such key acts like The Pixies, Throwing Muses and Dinosaur Jr.

‘Murmur’ has now been reissued in a deluxe edition, not just with the requisite remastering job, but also with a bonus disc of a July 1983 performance originally recorded live at the Larry’s Hideaway venue in Toronto. The live disc sounds decent enough, with spirited renditions of early-era classics like ‘Talk About the Passion’, ‘Carnival of Sorts’ and ‘Radio Free Europe’, but it is the original track listing that merits a more complete run-through, given its historical significance and artistic distinctiveness. The songs on ‘Murmur’ work exceptionally in their own ways, and for this, kudos has to be accorded to producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon for imparting a clean and straightforward, yet evocative and atmospheric sound to the proceedings

The building blocks of ‘Murmur’ mostly comprises elements of folk-rock and jangle-pop, as proven in the driving yet measured ‘Radio Free Europe’, the tightly wound, somewhat menacing ‘Pilgrimage’, the gorgeously jangly ‘Laughing’ (which effortlessly captures the sonic essence of the group), and the skittering, Byrds-influenced (and impressively titled) ‘Moral Kiosk’. Meanwhile, slower numbers like the cello-enriched ‘Talk About the Passion’ and the stately piano ballad ‘Perfect Circle’ display a more empathic facet of the band.

Elsewhere, the angular, somewhat atonal ‘Catapult’ signals a brief detour into art-rock, as the band lays down a disjointed twin-guitar groove behind frontman Michael Stipe’s typically idiosyncratic lyrics (“It’s nine o’clock, don’t try to turn it off, cowered in a hole, opie mouth”). ‘Sitting Still’ is a more conventionally-minded rock-out, and possibly the most traditional sounding number on the record, which stands in stark contrast to the just-plain-bizarre ‘9-9’, an outlandish tone poem constructed from random, out-of-time guitar riffs and Stipe’s speaking-in-tongues vocal mannerisms. The concluding ‘West of the Fields’ makes for a perfect finish, as the band conjures up a pastoral, idyllic sonic spot somewhat reminiscent of the peaceful folk stylings of the late Nick Drake.

This reissue of ‘Murmur’ will be a definite boon to those ageing R.E.M. aficionados seeking to upgrade their battered vinyl copies, and also a terrific introduction to one of the most essential rock outfits of our time. Even though nearly three decades have gone by since its initial release, ‘Murmur’ doesn’t once sound passé or clichéd, unlike other musical artefacts dating from that period. A brilliant reminder of how a one of the foremost rock institutions of today sounded like back in their halcyon days.