Friday, 6 July 2018

David Byrne ‎– Music For The Knee Plays (1985)

Style: Contemporary Jazz
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass..
Label ECM Records

01.   Tree (Today Is An Important Occasion)
02.   In The Upper Room
03.   The Sound Of Business
04.   Social Studies
05.   (The Gift Of Sound) Where The Sun Never Goes Down
06.   Theadora Is Dozing
07.   Admiral Perry
08.   I Bid You Goodnight
09.   Things To Do (I've Tried)
10.   Winter
11.   Jungle Book
12.   In The Future

Baritone Saxophone – Ernie Fields, Bill Green
Drums – Paul Humphrey
Percussion – Bobbye Hall
Saxophone – Don Myrick, Ernie Watts, Jackie Kelso, Pete Christlieb
Trombone – Dana Hughes, David Stout, Fred Wesley, Garnett Brown, Phil Teil
Trumpet – Chuck Findley, Harry Kim, Nolan Smith, Ray Brown , Rich Cooper
Voice – David Byrne
Composed By – David Byrne
Conductor – David Blumberg
Producer – David Byrne
Arranged By – David Blumberg, David Byrne
Engineer – Joel Moss, Mark Wolfson
Mastered By – Greg Calbi
Mixed By – David Byrne, Dominick Maita
Mixed By [Assistant] – Mike Krowiak
Photography By [Backsleeve Bottom] – Glenn Halvorson
Photography By [Backsleeve Top] – JoAnn Verburg
Design – David Byrne
Design [With] – Michael Hodgson
Illustration [Cover Drawing] – Robert Wilson

The CIVIL warS: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down was set to be experimental theatre director Robert Wilson's most massive achievement to date. Best known at the time for his 1976 five-hour operatic collaboration with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, Wilson was leading troupes from six countries in the production of CIVIL warS, a 12-hour avant-garde opera that would premiere at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Although Wilson lost funding before staging the full production, several smaller versions of the play were individually performed around the world. "The Knee Plays", the American contribution scored by David Byrne, premiered in Minneapolis in April 1984, and had its vinyl release on avant-jazz label ECM the next year. 
"Knee Plays" is Wilson's own term, contrived to describe the connective vignettes that link the larger sections of a production, allowing for set and costume changes. Byrne signed on to produce the interstitials for CIVIL warS, and his subsequent performances have been comprised solely of the adjoining sections, which hold together rather well-- as well as one of Wilson's non-narratives can, at least. Nonesuch's current release of Knee Plays-- for the first time on CD-- adds eight previously unreleased tracks and a dense recollection of the pair's mind-meld by Byrne himself. 
In many ways, a collaboration between Byrne and Wilson was perfect. Most obviously, Byrne's work with Twyla Tharp and Jonathan Demme on The Catherine Wheel and Stop Making Sense, respectively, indicated a keen interest in similar sorts of theatre, as well as the ability to pull off a collaboration with often wonderful results. The pair's stylistic and procedural similarities run deep as well: Both Byrne and Wilson had gained reknown by mastering the use of patient, tourettically clipped and repetitive phrases and gestures; they also shared a fascination with antisociality (at times, mental illness) and the mundane realities of everyday life. They even looked similar, in a tall, geekily dashing sort of way.

Originally envisioning a Japanese drum ensemble, Byrne instead opted for music more in the vein of New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band-- a perfect fit for a play inspired by the Civil War and scored by Byrne, at this point seemingly fascinated by all art with strong cultural resonances. From the opening track, "Tree (Today Is an Important Occasion)" to the quintessentially Byrnian spoken-word closer "In the Future", the music is variously light, dramatic, authoritative, and empathetic. Byrne's ethnomusicological streak in full force, several sections of his score were adapted from traditional music: "In the Upper Room", "Social Studies (The Gift of Sound)", and "Things to Do (I've Tried)" are faithful gospel adaptations, and "Theadora Is Dozing" comes from the Bulgarian folk tradition. 
Byrne, like Wilson, treats simple behaviors with the utmost delicacy and curiosity. In the essay included with the Nonesuch re-release, Byrne discusses his decision to accompany the music with narration (by himself, of course) as part of the Dadaist and Surrealist traditions: "None of these (text pieces) was directly related to Bob's 'story' and they were certainly unrelated to the stage 'illustrate' things that are happening on stage with music or text is redundant." Anyone familiar with the liner notes to Stop Making Sense will recognize the narration over "Upper Room", for instance: "Being in the theater is more important than knowing what is going on in the movie." Similarly, "Things to Do" is a numbered to-do list ("Number 25. Putting houses next to bumpy things/ Number 26. Shaking things next to other things"), and both "Tree" and "Social Studies" approach everyday activities from the perspective of a stranger to Western culture. The most successful of these is the original closer "In the Future", on which Byrne shows off his knack at predicting technological and social trends, ending with "In the future there will be so much going on that no one will be able to keep track of it." That statement seems applicable to most any historical era, but who's quibbling? He's right. 
The most striking characteristic of The Knee Plays reflects the most overlooked quality shared by Byrne and Wilson. Both artists are deeply invested in appeals to their audiences' most basic human sympathies, yet their approaches are often misunderstood as cold by those who can't meet the work on its own terms. Extracted from its theatrical roots, Byrne's score holds up remarkably well, a testament to his unique vision at the time of its composition-- coming at the end of one of pop music's most fascinating creative streaks. 
Eric Harvey / Pitchfork

Rain Tree Crow ‎– Rain Tree Crow (1991)

Style: Pop Rock, Experimental, Ambient
Format: CD, Vinyl, Cass.
Label: Virgin

01.   Big Wheels In Shanty Town
02.   Every Colour You Are
03.   Rain Tree Crow
04.   Red Earth (As Summertime Ends)
05.   Pocket Full Of Change
06.   Boat's For Burning
07.   New Moon At Red Deer Wallow
08.   Blackwater
09.   A Reassuringly Dull Sunday
10.   Blackcrow Hits Shoe Shine City
11.   Scratchings On The Bible Belt
12.   Cries And Whispers
13.   I Drink To Forget

Producer – R.T.C.
Engineer [Additional Engineering] – Tim Martin
Words By – David Sylvian
Written-By – R.T.C.
Mixed By – David Sylvian, Pat McCarthy (tracks: 2 & 3, 6 & 7, 11), Steve Nye (tracks: 1, 4 & 5, 8 to 10, 12)
Mixed By [Assisted By] – Al Stone (tracks: 1, 4 & 5, 8 to 10, 12)
Art Direction – D. Sylvian, Y. Fujii
Design – Russell Mills
Photography By – Shinya Fujiwara

"Oh boy, another Japan-related project. Wow, Tox, you're so unpredictable." I know, I guess I'm just a sucker for those guys. Fortunately, this means I can be brief when it comes to the history of the group: they were an early example of "new romantic" (a form of synthpop that used the electronic equipment of the time not only for rhythm, but also to create a lush sound), and a relatively famous example of a band that would include elements of ambient in their music, most notably in their minimalistic hit single "Ghosts". Due to personal conflicts, they disbanded at the peak of their popularity; the live album Oil on Canvas ended up their highest-charting album in the UK and in Japan. The members went on to other projects afterwards. 
The group and the solo records aside, however, there exists one particularly fascinating part of the Japan canon. In 1989, the four members of the group -- songwriter/vocalist David Sylvian, the late bassist Mick Karn, drummer Steve Jansen and keyboardist Richard Barbieri -- came back together so as to work on a new album, under the name Rain Tree Crow. The story of this is a bit mysterious, the most important elements of which appear in a fascinating 1996 interview with Mick Karn, along with a 1991 interview with Rain Tree Crow themselves: originally, this was meant to be a new long term pop-oriented project (six albums!), but it took 2 years to record the album, and they had run out of money, at which point their label Virgin offered more funds if the record was released under the name Japan. This was only resolved by David Sylvian chipping in his own finances. Not only was the resulting album not very poppy altogether, but Sylvian had ended up a dominant part of its creation, having reworked much of the material before it was released, which made the album more a solo project than a group effort. Rain Tree Crow came out in April 1991, hit #24 on the UK Charts, and is the last project to include those four musicians, as Mick Karn sadly died of cancer in early 2011. 
Without that context, Rain Tree Crow was an album that eluded me to incomprehensible levels, and in so many ways. Even now, where do I start? Oh, I know: take a good look at the album cover. Here's an alternate version. It sure feels lonely, but on the other hand, it's more than just a desert landscape; what is that blue-ish strip on the right, and why is it missing on some versions of the album? What are those sort of lights piercing through the clouds? What are those rocks arranged into a path on the ground, and what is up with those utility poles? There is a feeling of mystery to all this, and with that comes the idea that there is a logical reason for it, a desire to find out more... but this is all that came out under the name Rain Tree Crow. There were no live RTC shows, no B-sides aside from "I Drink to Forget". Rain Tree Crow is an album with very little history to it. 
Fortunately, the 1991 interview further expands on the record proper. The first important thing is that many of the songs on it came about as a result of improvisations: the group would jam, and after a while, it would gel into a song. Coming into Rain Tree Crow with that in mind, everything makes sense: aside from a few songs that obviously have a structure to them, the material has a very "improv" feel. Tracks such as "Red Earth" carefully introduce new instruments and cautiously explore melodies that are very sparse, either being a short succession of notes or a long tone. "New Moon at Red Deer Wallow" is a good example of this: opened by a one-minute passage led by a comforting/chilling synthesizer line accompanied by a bass clarinet, the song has the latter instrument make slow and steady improvisations over a rhythm that, at the same time, evolves also. As a result of this approach to playing, that song isn't a masterpiece in terms of melody, but it is amazing beyond compare thanks to its atmosphere. 
Speaking of atmosphere: ever since I've first listened to Rain Tree Crow, I've been wondering what was the exact "theme" of the album was. Well, the 1991 interview mentions that the tracks bring up imagery of an Arizona desert, and they definitely sound like that. David Sylvian also stated this desert atmosphere plays a role in the album's continuity and lyrical themes, how this location relates to the idea of death and desolation; a condition that reflects on both the relationships of the four musicians, and those outside of the group. This is entirely correct: there is a feeling of emptiness that permeates the album, sometimes in the songs that are more uplifting (those would be "Big Wheels", "Red Earth", "Blackwater" and "Blackcrow"), and that is helped by the fact that the music is either slow and atmospheric, or fast-paced and minimal. This is also demonstrated by the keyboards and the percussion: the former is often a big part of the backdrop of some songs, adding to the style of the record, while the latter varies greatly from one track to another due to the diversity in percussion instruments. 
Now that I got the basics of the album down, I can talk about the songs, and as would be expected of something I'd consider a masterpiece, they all go far beyond these basics. The opener "Big Wheels in Shanty Town" is the most powerful track on Rain Tree Crow, and it's loads of fun: backed by a fast-paced percussion rhythm, the song evolves over its 7-minute course with some excellent interaction between the instruments, namely the keyboards, the brass instrumentation, and the guitar. At times, there is also a short vocal bridge that seems to be in an African language, which further aids the desert atmosphere without making it sound reminiscent of a specific country, if that makes any sense. "Big Wheels" serves as a perfect entry into Rain Tree Crow's soundscape, as it sounds the less desolate in tone, but it's still really mysterious: nothing is more intriguing than that opening noise, followed by a voice sample that says something along the lines of "dreams do come true". 
It's immediately followed by "Every Colour You Are": in contrast to "Big Wheels", it's a very somber tune, and one of the few non-jam tracks in Rain Tree Crow. It's definitely a simple song (in fact, it could have easily been a single), but what makes it great is the effectiveness of the hooks, coupled with the atmosphere and the thick instrumentation. The title track is a lot more minimalistic, consisting mainly of a few percussion instruments, pipes, and a synthesizer, all of which play while David Sylvian sings: it's a very chilling, mystical song, led by the vocals that almost sound like an incantation. The lyrics are a delight too: sparse, metaphorical, not pretentious or blunt, something I'd actually want to interpret. "Red Earth" lightens up the mood, as it's the most joyful song of the album: it starts off by focusing on the percussion, with occasional keyboard tones, but an awesome guitar line pops up in the middle, adding a bit of Spanish flavor. 
"Pocket Full of Change" is another big favorite of mine. It has very little progression, -- even less than "Every Colour You Are", in fact -- but it hardly feels too long (it's got a length of 6 minutes). I couldn't pinpoint a key part of the track, because everything is essential: the chilling keyboard backing, the steady instrumentation, David Sylvian's vocals, the slow pace, everything works. It's also surprising to hear a clear pop structure in here... well, more or less. There doesn't seem to be a real solo or bridge: instead, the verses alternate with short instrumental passages. Along with that, there's a false ending about three minutes in, but it doesn't last long. "Boat's for Burning" is barely a minute long, and it's more of a transition into "New Moon", but it's still a nice interlude. 
I imagine that "Blackwater", the lead single, is a particular highlight for a lot of people who've listened to Rain Tree Crow, and I can easily see why: this time around, the aesthetic of the record is used to create an optimistic, uplifting atmosphere, and instead of a desert, it brings up imagery of water and its regenerative properties, just like what David Sylvian says in the 1991 interview. Indeed, "Blackwater" has a gentle, healing feel to it, and it's just a great song to relax to, what with the soft drumming, the focus on calm synthesizer/guitar tones, and David's remarkable vocal performance. It's got a great chorus too. "A Reassuringly Dull Sunday" is a short little instrumental, definitely something that feels improvised, but whereas someone would consider it little more than an interlude, I wouldn't consider it less than an essential part of the experience. I suppose that would be more a testament to how much I listened to it, really, since I easily remember how it goes. 
"Blackcrow Hits Shoe Shine City" brings back most of the energy that "Big Wheels" had: this is another jam of sorts, and the most rocking song on the album. My only issue is that it takes 2 minutes for this improvisation to REALLY kick in, and the final minute has the song slowly come out of this jam and end, but what the hell, I still love this song, and the two minutes at the middle are nothing short of great, with lots of power... just not as many hooks as the other long songs. Really, I can say the same thing about "New Moon". "Scratchings on the Bible Belt" is another instrumental: as with "A Reassuringly Dull Sunday", it doesn't seem like the melodies gel that much, but I don't mind that. It lets off the energy of "Blackcrow", but doesn't set in a particular mood, and there's a lot of charm to the way that the instruments wander around somewhat aimlessly. 
Finally, "Cries and Whispers" is both a calming and dread-inducing closer: it has its large share of relaxing melodies and hooks, and it ends the album on a quiet note, but there is a sadness to it, mainly in the vocals and lyrics, and when it ends, it's sort of like seeing the sun fall from the sky and make way for the night, or rather have the moon and the stars disappear from sight, leaving you in complete darkness. If you have a recent CD re-issue, there is also "I Drink to Forget": it sounds even more like an improvisation than "Reassuringly Dull Sunday" or "Scratchings", but I've grown to consider it an important part of the experience itself. It really fits for such a minimalistic song to be put at the end. 
Now, before I tell you to buy Rain Tree Crow, I'll repeat myself and admit there are weak points that some will find much more of an issue than I do: from a structure standpoint, the songs continually change, and this inconsistency can be a bit frustrating if you only like the full-fledged songs or the improv tracks. Along with that, some of these tracks are not that great melodically, such as "New Moon", "Blackcrow", "Scratchings" and the other short tracks. This is an album that I love for its atmosphere, and it sure helps a hell of a lot that multiple of the songs are amazing in their own right, but I can't speak on behalf of everyone in that regard. Still, if you are interested in a record with not only great songs, but a unique atmosphere, you HAVE to pick up Rain Tree Crow, because it's got just that, and much more. 
Martintox / the escapist