Category Archives: Experimental Rock

Album Review: Histoire de Melody Nelson

If Serge Gainsbourg’s decades-long musical career—spanning everything from French pop to blues rock to reggae—could be said to have a single, unifying thread, it was personality. Musical underpinnings changed; his artistic voice (even as his actual vocals deteriorated over the years from habitual cigarette use) remained constant. Equal parts filthy and poetic, strangely forward-thinking and stomach-churningly regressive, Serge Gainsbourg’s lyrical persona was an unmistakable one.

And yet, despite the scores of albums released during his lifetime, a few brilliant, some great, and none less than interesting, one—Histoire de Melody Nelson—seems to tower over all the others in the popular consciousness. Nor is it particularly hard to see why; in fact, for someone looking to get into Serge Gainsbourg’s (admittedly rather intimidating) discography, this is as solid a point of entry as any.

Lyrically, it’s one the tamer Gainsbourg releases. Sure, it centers around the album’s protagonist, a wealthy, middle-aged man, seducing a 15-year old girl, but examining the individual songs, there’s relatively little of the black humor and deadpanned filthiness that characterizes much of his other stuff. The story, for all its squeamishness-inducing premise, is actually played fairly straight—which is, perhaps, the joke. Wordplay abounds, but it’s generally more in the “me l’as dit → Melody” style of pun—clever, understated and above all, classy—rather than, say making “pour quelques pennies” sound like “pour quelques pénis”.

The story, such as it is, goes as follows: Gainsbourg, while riding his Rolls-Royce down the street, knocks over young Melody Nelson as she rides her bike. (“Melody”) She introduces herself, and before long he grows hopelessly infatuated with her. (“Ballade de Melody Nelson”, “Valse de Melody”, and “Ah! Melody” trace this steadily-mounting obsession.) He eventually takes her to a brothel-like mansion with rooms for rent (“L’hôtel particulier), where the pair consummate their love. However, soon after she grows nostalgic for Sunderland, her home, and so returns there by plane (“En Melody”) only to have it crash. In the end, alone once more, our narrator speculates about South American tribes who supposedly pray for plane crashes, and the album ends (“Cargo culte”).

If that sounded short and not particularly impressive to you, it should. The focus of Melody Nelson is pretty clearly not the plot, but rather the lyrics, in which Gainsbourg displays an almost novelistic command of imagery and detail in painting his bizarre little scene, and the instrumentation.

In fact, if I had to pick one defining characteristic that has, over the years, made Histoire de Melody Nelson Gainsbourg’s best-known, best-loved album, it would be that instrumentation. This release marks his only collaboration with famed French composer and arranger Jean-Claude Vannier, and the two of them quite simply work wonders here. The album’s then-unique combination of dense orchestration and funky, rhythm-driven rock still sounds fresh today, and I think that fact ultimately lies in the unique angle from which Gainsbourg and Vannier were approaching it. Plenty of contemporary artists gussied up their straightforward guitar workouts with strings and harpsichords and other similarly “artsy” instrumentation—relatively few were coming at it from the other end, by bolstering baroque chanson numbers with krautrock-inspired drum fills and saw-toothed solos. It’s perhaps because of this that the album’s orchestral elements never seem tacked on, but rather just as integral to the songs as the more straightforward rock stuff.

Now, that’s not to say these two musical sides of Melody Nelson blend in equal measure on every song. With both “L’hôtel particulier” and “En Melody”, the harder-edged elements dominate, while “Valse de Melody” and “Ah! Melody” hew much closer to straight orchestral pop. To hear a true synthesis of the album’s orchestral and rock instincts, you have to look to its opening and closing tracks. (Absent the choral vocals present on “Cargo culte”, they’re essentially identical on a musical level.)

First comes that magnificently seedy, creeping bass, courtesy of Dave Richmond. A fuzzed-out guitar starts to lope rhythmically through the background, and the next thing you know, a clattering drumbeat enters to underpin the proceedings. It’s past the three-minute mark before any strings appear at all, but when they do, it’s as just another instrument in the mix, swooping and swirling around the session musicians (who, it should be noted, included such names as “Big Jim” Sullivan and Alan Parker)—not to mention, of course, Gainsbourg’s intermittent, almost-whispered vocals, first relating the tale of how he first came to meet Melody Nelson, and then the state he’s left in following her death. Both songs are master classes in blending these seemingly disparate musical elements without coming across as either too sappy or too overblown, and they alone would likely have secured Histoire de Melody Nelson a place in the musical canon.

I say “alone”, but those two tracks actually take up almost half the album. That’s another element that tends to stand out to people curious about Gainsbourg’s magnum opus: how short it is. There are only seven tracks, and of those seven, three come in at just two minutes or less. It’s yet another curious dichotomy of Melody Nelson: the arrangements breathe excess, but the album itself is an incredibly lean collection of tracks. The whole thing reads as more of a song cycle than a proper rock opera, and that was likely intentional on Gainsbourg’s part; in 1971, to create an art rock album that clocked in at less than half an hour was practically a statement on its own.

Gainsbourg had never attempted anything of this album’s conceptual or instrumental scope before, and while many of his releases after this were concept albums as well (I would particularly recommend L’Homme à Tête de Chou for the Gainsbourg novice) he never tried to recapture the unique majesty of Melody Nelson. Maybe he figured he’d be incapable of it; maybe he simply felt he had said all he wished to say in that particular style. He would go on to stranger, and more diverse, material, but Histoire de Melody Nelson remains perhaps Serge Gainsbourg’s most perfect album—breathtakingly conceived, impeccably realized, it stands as one of the most unique releases in the modern-day popular music canon.

Album Review: Ege Bamyasi

"...carrying my own in the afternoon..."
“…carrying my own in the afternoon…”

 

Bizarre aesthetic, chaotic discography, seemingly incalculable influence on later artists, not to mention a sound so forward-thinking, mainstream music still hasn’t caught up with it after four decades—Can is, in nearly all respects, the quintessential cult band. Granted, it’s hard to imagine them ever achieving more commercial success than they currently have; too repetitive, too sprawling, too noisy—in a word, too weird. It’s not as if the band’s inaccessibility was a conscious move—as “Spoon” and “I Want More” show, they could write something that passed for pop—it was just the kind of music they made. And what music. During Can’s peak period (spanning roughly from their debut, 1969’s Monster Movie, to 1974’s Soon Over Babaluna) the band blended everything from psychedelia to world music, with heavy doses of the electronic and avant-garde whenever things got too approachable. The descriptor “futuristic” didn’t do it justice. Can were creating their own musical language, one based equally in Lou Reed and Terry Riley, and they changed up the formula on just about every album.

Selecting any one release as a band’s best is always hard when they’re given to changing their sound on a regular basis; if they’re doing something different on each one, straight comparison can seem pointless. Do you prefer the raw, fuzzed-out rock of Monster Movie, or the smooth ambience of Future Days? Soundtracks’ droning tranquility or Tago Mago’s dark experimentation? Still, while objective quality is basically impossible to determine, accessibility is not—and going off of that metric, 1972’s Ege Bamyasi wins out by a pretty wide margin.

Ege Bamyasi was Can’s follow-up to Tago Mago—their most focused record, coming after their most chaotic—and it’s clearly the point at which they decided to rein things in a bit. Centerpiece “Soup” is the only track that comes close to the insanity of their previous stuff; the rest of the album is easily the tightest collection of songs the band ever released. It sees Can easing up on the tape loops and Stockhausen-inspired musique concrète in favor of more straightforward, world music-influenced songs, usually following traditional verse-chorus structures. Not to call it “poppy,” per se—play this at a party and you’ll probably get some fairly strange looks—but it sounds like it originated on Earth, and that’s more than can be said for some of Can’s other albums.

Opener “Pinch” is a 9-minute descent into a bubbling cauldron of complex rhythms, warped guitar, and electronic effects. It boasts probably the most indecipherable lyrics on the album, stretched around a skeletal drumbeat and underlined every now and then with a sharp whistle like an exclamation point. This is the densest Ege Bamyasi gets, instrumentally; elsewhere on the album, we find fluid, psychedelic balladry (“Sing Swan Song”), jazzy keyboard-pop (“One More Night”) and paranoid, shuffling stutter-funk (“Vitamin C”). Each song has a distinct feel to it, and none of them overstay their welcome—another thing that makes it ideal for people trying to get into Can.

Ege Bamyasi isn’t nearly as avant-garde as Can’s previous work, but it does have its moments—look at how “Vitamin C” disintegrates into the beginning of “Soup”, or the not-quite vocalizations that are subsumed into the rhythm track of “Spoon.” That particular song is a bit of a paradox; building on the band’s earlier work with drum machines, it’s simultaneously their poppiest track and the strangest one in the context of their other work. Still, it’s a great single, one that shows Can genuinely stretching itself, and it provides a relaxing closer to Ege Bamyasi in much the same way that “Bring Me Coffee Or Tea” does for Tago Mago.

Beyond that, it’s a very colorful album, and probably the best produced in Can’s discography. The percussion, on which many of the songs hang, is dry and oddly hollow; its near-continual, insectoid rhythms keep everything chugging along nicely. It’s a cliché to say that someone treats their voice like just another instrument, but it holds true here: Damo Suzuki’s wonderfully off-kilter vocals twist and bend their way through the mix, snapping from a soothing whisper to an unhinged squawk in a matter of seconds. Holger Czukay’s bass adds a badly needed bit of low end to the proceedings, and Michael Karoli caps the whole thing off with his atmospheric, wailing guitar tones. The end result could easily have turned into a clattering, atonal mess, but Can’s rigidly hypnotic approach to building a groove holds strong. (You can attribute that mainly to Jaki Liebezeit’s almost superhuman command of rhythm.) I wouldn’t call Ege Bamyasi “funky,” exactly, but it’s certainly the most danceable Can ever got.

If this album fails in any way, it’s that it all seems fairly second nature to the band. Can were a group that excelled in pushing boundaries, but there’s nothing here that feels like a challenge for them in the same way as, say, “Halleluwah.” This isn’t something that should affect your enjoyment of the album on its own terms, but taken in the larger picture of Can’s career, Ege Bamyasi is merely a very good album —as opposed to some of the truly monumental works that had come before. Think of it as an appetizer—tastefully arranged, impeccably executed, but giving only a hint of what truly lies in store. Consume it, enjoy it, and then move on to Monster Movie or Tago Mago for the full experience.


 

Essential Listening: Pinch, Vitamin C, Spoon

 

 

Album Review: The Seer

The Seer is the twelfth studio album by experimental rock band Swans, released in 2012 on Young God Records. It was the second album put out by the group following a 14-year hiatus from recording; the first, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, was released in 2010.
“…I am bruised, but I am raised…”

 

Swans have always been a band that reveled in obliteration. They built their reputation back in New York’s no wave scene as perhaps the darkest, most crushing act in a musical scene not short on brutality, and the band hasn’t aged into sentimentality so much as a more fully realized bleakness. Back in their early years, they were adopting new styles just as quickly as they threw old ones to the wayside—the common thread in their music largely being basic human cruelty—and this mentality carries over into Swans’ post-reformation albums. Even nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find another legacy act that cares less about its own legacy. The band remains unequivocally forward-thinking, and The Seer is the best evidence of this since 1996’s Soundtracks For The Blind.

The first thing most people will probably notice about this release is the length—at nearly two hours, The Seer is one of Swans’ longest albums. The title track alone is over half an hour, and in the hands of a lesser band, The Seer might well have turned out what is politely termed a “brilliant failure.” Swans are not one of those lesser bands, and they spend every minute of the album justifying its length. The songs here are built on repetition, as is the norm with Swans, but the innovation here is in how the broader instrumental palette lets that repetition build. “Mother of the World” builds off of a harsh two-note guitar riff, at first accompanied in lockstep by frontman Michael Gira’s panting, and then subsumed into the rhythm section. At the halfway mark, the song cuts out, and when it reappears, it’s as a roiling, apocalyptic surge—a pretty good metaphor, all things considered, for Swans’ newest incarnation.

This is, by and large, fairly abrasive music to listen to if you’re not already a Swans fan. When repetition isn’t the word of the day, it’s walls of noise, or ambient soundscapes that sound like they belong on a David Lynch soundtrack. But at the core of it all is what Swans has always done best: convey power. Whether it’s on the blackened, industrial groove of “The Seer Returns” or the towering slow-burn of “The Apostate,” Swans sound more like a force of nature than a band. The Seer feels monumental, and not just because of its runtime: in its variety, and the range of emotions expressed across it, the album feels like its own, self-contained world.

Gira has referred to The Seer as “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” When most bands Swans’ age hype up their latest project as their best, it comes across as a fairly desperate grab for attention; after listening to The Seer, Gira’s assessment doesn’t seem too far-off. If 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky was the band getting back on its feet, with a sound more heavily indebted to Angels of Light than past Swans albums, then The Seer is Swans taking flight, with an ambition that far outstrips all but a few items in their back catalog. The main distinction of their post-resurrection output is in taking the raw, utterly crushing sound of albums like Filth and blending it with the more delicate, avant-tinged style Gira has favored in his side projects since, and this is where those two approaches finally come together on equal ground. Look at the back-to-back ballads “The Daughter Brings The Water” and “Song For A Warrior”—the album’s most beautiful, approachable moments coming after one of its most abrasive and experimental, in “93 Ave. Blues.”

Lyrically, The Seer feels almost mythological in its scope. Songs carry abstract titles, and when lyrics consist of more than a single, repeated phrase, the final picture is often disturbingly detailed. “The Seer Returns,” in particular, has some of the band’s most chilling lyrics, deadpanned by Gira as the song creeps along. Swans have moved on from the petty cruelties of their early work to something just as frightening, but on a cosmic scale—and musical backing to match.

And yet, The Seer ultimately doesn’t come across as a nihilistic undertaking. Whatever else, the album builds up a sense of awe by the end of “Lunacy” that doesn’t dissipate for the remaining 10 tracks and 113 minutes. There are moments—the point when “Avatar” appears to end before soaring back to life has to count among them—when The Seer feels genuinely transcendental. Gira has said this of the album, and it seems as fitting a summation of Swans’ accomplishment here as any: “My friends in Swans are all stellar men. Without them I’m a kitten, an infant. Our goal is the same: ecstasy!”


Essential Listening: Mother of the World, The Seer Returns, Avatar