Saturday, 20 October 2018

Steven Brown ‎– Half Out (1991)

Style: Modern Classical, Experimental, Synth-pop, Minimal
Formay: CD, Vinyl
Label: Les Disques Du Crépuscule, Materiali Sonori, LTM

1.   Decade
2.   A Quoi Ça Sert L'amour
3.   San Francisco
4.   The Thrill Has Gone
5.   Moaning Low
6.   In The Still Of The Night
7.   Voodo
8.   Out Of My Body
9.   Violorganni

Bass, Drum Programming – Nikolas Klau
Guitar – Chris Haskett
Keyboards – Ivan Georgiev
Synthesizer – Drem Bruinsma
Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Harmonica – Luc Van Lieshout
Voice, Saxophone, Clarinet, Tape – Steven Brown
Mixed By – Gilles Martin
Producer – Nikolas Klau, Steven Brown

"His reeds recall the keening of John Surman or Jan Garbarek, his ravishingly simple grand piano the spaciousness of Satie. But when he plugs it in, his sequencer kicks like a burro. Brown is also a closet romantic. He has a penchant for lyrics that resemble automatic writing, and his gravity counterbalances Reininger's wackiness in Tuxedomoon. His fuck-off-and-die sublime brass/electro on Miles in Moskow, which blows both Lalo Schifrin and the Davis himself out of the water, is actually a Whitmanesque rumination on love. In fact, the entire CD (check his blowsy, cross-dressed cover of Billie Holliday's Moaning Low) seems to be an Imagist celebration of male-male romance"  The Wire (08/2005)
LTM Recordings
Not to minimize the great work that the LTM label has done dusting off the extensive back catalogs of labels like Factory and Les Disques du Crepuscule, but when I hear something like this Steven Brown album, it makes me wonder if their time and energy might be better spent on more worthwhile archival projects. 
Brown was, of course, a member of cult avant-garde band Tuxedomoon, the San Francisco collective that pulled up stakes and moved to Belgium in the mid-1980s. Last year LTM reissued a couple of albums by fellow Tuxedomoon alumnus Blaine L. Reininger, and it's actually a little weird how similar Brown and Reininger's solo material sounds, especially considering how little it resembles their work in Tuxedomoon. For their solo projects, both artists developed a distinctly MOR style of urbane, jazzy pop music with literate, world-weary lyrics. Luckily, Blaine L. Reininger's albums were saved by his prodigious talent on strings and his use of neo-baroque chamber quartet orchestrations. Steven Brown has no such saving grace however, and 1991's Half Out, his third solo album, suffers from "adult contemporary" blandness and an annoyingly overcomplicated production style. Each track is filled out with loads of superfluous compositional elements: keyboards, horns, emulators, synthesizers, strings, drum programming, accordion, guitars and backup vocals. It's all a bit exhausting, making relatively minimal tracks like the point-counterpoint "Violorganni" (a duet with Reininger) a welcome respite. For the majority of the album (and the four extraneous bonus tracks), Brown's music seems over-calculated and pseudo-sophisticated, from the tiresome opening monologue ("I've got a million things to say but I forgot. I could write a book but I lost my pen."), to the ill-advised Cole Porter cover ("In the Still of the Night"). In an effort to prove how intellectual and literate he is, Brown name drops Jean Cocteau, randomly breaks into French and Italian, and spins some incomprehensible yarn involving "Willy Loman with his Flemish Reader's Digest." Frankly, it's all a bit pompous, a collection of empty artistic gestures that don't seem terribly substantive. I seriously doubt I'll be giving Half Out another spin any time in the near future.

Fire! ‎– The Hands (2018)

Style: Free Jazz, Jazz-Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Rune Gramnofon

1.   The Hands
2.   When Her Lips Collapsed
3.   Touches Me With The Tips Of Wonder
4.   Washing Your Heart In Filth
5.   Up And Down
6.   To Shave The Leaves. In Red. In Black
7.   I Guard Her To Rest. Declaring Silence

Producer – Andreas Werliin, Fire!
Drums, Percussion, Effects – Andreas Werliin
Electric Bass, Double Bass – Johan Berthling
Tenor Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone, Bass Saxophone, Electronics – Mats Gustafsson

There are reasons to consider the 2018 release of The Hands as an important one for Fire! It was in 2008 that saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werlin first came together as a trio with the idea of a fresh approach to improvised music. Given the groups that the three were in at the time—Gustafsson in The Thing and others, Werlin in Wildbirds and Peacedrums, and Berthling in Angles—it was all too easy for Fire! to be branded as a supergroup, something that the group name, complete with that exclamation mark, did nothing to contradict. Their first album, You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago (Rune Grammofon, 2009) did not dispel such talk either; if anything, its mix of jazz and post-rock encouraged it. 
Despite the crispness of the trio's music, driven along by Berthling's bass, Fire! recordings have often not featured the trio alone, opting instead for collaborations with guest artists, including such luminaries as Jim O'Rourke and Oren Ambarchi on their second and third albums. In addition, from 2012 onwards there has been the added complication of the Fire! Orchestra, a star-studded ensemble of up to thirty players that was built around the trio, which has issued four albums to date and remains active. The upshot of all that activity is that The Hands is the first album for some years by the core trio Fire! 
The good news is that the album's seven tracks, recorded in May 2017, in Sickla, Stockholm, display all the qualities that led many listeners to love the trio back in 2009. Right from the start of the opening title track, the music is propelled by a very unjazzlike bass riff that owes more to heavy rock. When Gustafsson's sax enters the fray, it seems as if electric guitar could be just as appropriate. All of which is reminiscent of Cream bassist Jack Bruce's oft-repeated comment, "Cream was basically a free jazz trio with Eric [Clapton] playing the Ornette Coleman part without knowing it. We just didn't tell him he was Ornette Coleman." Well, Gustafsson isn't Ornette but at times he could pass for 1968 Clapton... and it is such blurring of boundaries by Fire! that is at the root of their popularity. As in any successful trio, be it jazz, rock or whatever, all three players are essential ingredients that fit together as a unified whole, each dependent on the other two. 
Together the seven tracks here total under thirty-seven minutes, the dark, heavy, nine-minute "To Shave the Leaves, in Red, in Black" being the only one to exceed five minutes. With Gustafsson deploying various saxophones plus electronics, Berthling on bass guitar or double bass, and Werlin employing feedback as well as percussion, there is plenty of scope to vary the soundscape as well as the mood and tempo, so the three are never close to getting into a rut. Along the way there are surprises too, including occasional sound samples such as the muffled voice that opens "When Her Lips Collapsed." The biggest surprise is saved until last; the closing track, "I Guard Her to Rest, Declaring Silence," is a slow-burning, brooding piece taken at a stately pace, allowing every note to be savoured. It is a terrific way to end a great album. Fire's best album yet? It would be almost impossible to argue otherwise...
John Eyles / All About Jazz