Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Smoke Signals - 16 Psychin' Hits (c. 1985?)


This is it. 

This is the album I wish someone could’ve given me 20-some years ago when — head full of Human Instinct and Jesse Harper — I arrived on these fair shores expecting a plethora of the same: head music. I’ve since tried everything I could find: Ticket, Think & Taylor, Space Farm, Space Waltz & Space Case (etc.). I’ve learned about and loved garage psych and paisley pop, academic electronics and exploratory noisescapes. 

But only snippets pop up of smoky, speculative psychedelia, the sort just chockablock with epic groovy noodlin' and lyrics psycho-logically philosophisin' on reality, truth, outer-space and suchlike. 

A recent deep dive into NZ Brass- and Jazz-Rock, and the Fusion connections to the Canterbury (UK) Scene, led unswervingly toward finally sorting this compilation. Brass Rock is a vibe I still struggle with (I’m sorry, Quincy Conserve, I’ve tried) and Jazz-Fusion is a genre so shunned that even its secret fans dare not speak its name. But horns in Aotearoa make sense: brass bands were part of the fabric of society; one only needs the disappointment of op shop record bins to show how many albums of this stuff were released.  

There’s a fair amount of Blues-Rock on NZ records too presenting as heavy psych; despite the sometimes eye-watering tripadelia of the cover art, the sound inside the sleeve is just young dudes riffin’ on old tropes (and I mean dudes — there are only two women on this whole collection). I hear snotty drunken aggression, more booze than pot, and sometimes a chest-puffing competitive cleverness. 

This lot, though, concentrates on grunty grooves -- finding that pocket and digging deeper -- cool-ass sounds to tickle your noodle while nodding that noggin in deep agreement with your personally sparkly inner travelogue: yeah, maaan, yeeeeeah!

I've left off the two biggest hitters, Human Instinct (and Jesse Harper) and Space Farm to kick straight in with a brass-led track from Dr Tree, who are joined by The Fourth Way and the 1860 Band to fuse head with hips; semi-acoustic psych from second-phase Tamburlaine, the mysterious KD3, Lutha and Chris Thompson; Ian Carr's Nucleus and Pacific Eardrum repping the Canterbury Sound; heavy rock from Ticket and the pre-Bitch/post-Clevedonaires Cleves; proggy Ragnarok and Aellian Blade; spiritual soaring from Powerhouse; and electro-psych from Free Radicals.

One wee treat for me is Golden Harvest’s cover of Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’, which reflects Kevin Kaukau’s heavy Hendrix fixation, but swaddled in the glossy disco-funk they’re known for. Stick around for that track's instrumental second half: a kaleidoscopic Kaukau quest drenched in effects, electronics and studio wizardry.

The cover art is from a photo by Theo Schoon of Rotorua mudpools, which has been painted over [Schoon -- who selfishly appropriated Māori art and literally painted over priceless rock art taoka of Te Waipounamu -- can get stuffed]. 

This is the first comp I've seen of just relentlessly heavy EnZed psych jams, and believe me it hits.  

Sunday, July 17, 2022

David Hollis - After All These Years (1979)

'Lost Classic' is a term thrown around a bit by self-appointed taste merchants. Heck, I've posted 50+ forgotten masterworks at Switched Out. Come along then, listener, and enjoy yet another recovered quintessence. 

A coupla decades ago, I left New York and the mushrooming 'New Weird America' scene: a big hazy hug of variegated freaks playing free-jazz, -noise, and -folk. Arriving in Aotearoa as the Chris Thompson s/t album was first re-ished, I was psyched to hear EnZed's take on psych-folk. Looked forward to listening to heaps of that sort of thing. Well there's not really heaps of this sort of thing. But there's y'know, heaps. 

After All...'s opening track 'You Said I Love You' is totally vibe-ulous with that Thompson: tinkling labyrinthine finger-picking in a lightly mediæval-ish mode. 'Phantom Lover' trips further along l'ancien phantastique, frilled with flute, mandolin murmurs and a rubbery bass drum thumping a measured, unembellished 'bwawmp'. Hollis's voice is soft and high, gentle and warm -- even on the slightly mean-spirited blues rocker 'Streets of Desire'. 'Sounds Beneath the Leaves' is a wordless return to idyll form, segueing through sweet birdsong into the heaviest mind-folker on the record, 'Song to Siddhartha': guitar, vocals and 'synthesizor' by Hollis, with hypnotic tabla by the mysterious Dr. Balachandran.   

Side two opens with the title track, a wee sweetmeat easily imagined as a tv famcom theme song -- just conjure up your own 80s suburban domestic mind-montage! The soulful 'Rendezvous' slots comfortably amongst the Ramsey Najm record recently posted here: dual-tracked sax and tenderness. 'I Want To Make Love Loving You' is a super-cute country song: harmonica, fiddle and slide summon a sunny snapshot of country courtin'. 

Then whoa, 'Who Knows' takes us to flowerchild church, floating in a capella polyphonic wide-eyed 60s-style wonderment, Hollis's sun-soaked mellifluity reverberating in your chest and cerebrospinal cavities. 'Deepening' like, keeps us there -- in that kaleidoscopic grassfed sunspotted timelessness; mandolin, tabla and mournful french horn redoubling the sweet reverbed melancholy. 'You Lift Me With Your Love Babe' is the second blueser, then a slow-motion smoky tumble back to the heavy seventies -- drifting along on the feathery 'Sail Cloud'.

My minor quibble about this record is that the compiled order presents a range of styles -- all well-represented, -arranged and -performed -- which are together a bit disjointed. And this is a record that needs to be jointed, got me? Like, the title track is sorta schmaltzy, and the jumpy blues numbers would've made a solid seven-inch a- & b-side -- so why drop 'em in amongst the sleepy-deep stonedness and guileless philosophisin'? 

For you, I've rearranged the tracks into a slightly longer psych-pside (ptwenty-psix minutes) and a pop'n'rock side (twenty minutes) [feel free to re-rearrange -- the magic of empeethree!].  

Side one: highest recommendation! Side two: [bonus tracks]

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Ramsey Najm - The Language Of The Heart (1987)


An utterly unique and ineffably elegant one-off -- a baroque-folk yacht-jazz masterstroke -- from an enigmatic American ex-pat adept on the Ode label, advertised as 'an emotional journey into regions of a heart filled with joy and lament, darkness and exultation'.

Backed by local jazz notables (Brian Smith, Nigel Gavin, and Pam Grey) and mixed and engineered by studio savants (Victor Grbic and David Hurley), The Language of the Heart is heartbreakingly lyrical, constructively melancholy, and meticulously arranged for maximum suavity.

Ramsey Najm was a documentary filmmaker and singer-songwriter from the States, a Palestinian-American who came to Aotearoa/NZ in the 1980s as a self-described '"cultural refugee" from the vast wasteland which is America today'. 

While still based in the US, performer Najm opened for florid folkies Compton & Batteau, the furry and fabulous Flying Burrito Brothers, pacifist power-poppers The Hello People, and honorary Herb Joe Walsh. 

There's not a lot to reference beyond the album's included press release and a few mentions from the early 1980s, when he filmed a pioneering documentary on breakdancing: Breaking: Street Dancing (1982). This doco showed on New York's Channel 13 in June that year, also at El Museo Del Barrio in Spanish Harlem, and won a merit award at 1982 Athens International Film/Video Festival in Athens, Ohio:

'Breaking, Mr. Najm (pronounced nah-zhum) explains, ''is a way that gangs of kids, mainly in the Bronx, but some in Manhattan, can still compete with each other for territory and for machismo. But, instead of doing it violently, a la West Side Story, they do it through dance.'' In the duel by dance, each chosen stalwart tries to out-step, out-shake and out-move the opponent.' (New York Times, June 20, 1982, Section A, Page 2)

In a March 1982 issue of The [Film & Video Monthly] Independent, the New York-based independent producer Najm placed a classified seeking 'intelligent, meaningful, contemporary stories of any length for fall shooting. Prefer existentially-inclined material illustrating angst & conflict in modern world.'

Najm's vocal, instrumental and scripted delivery are all -- always -- humbly, gutsily sincere: on 'Rodeo' reminding me of a breathier, smirkless Townes Van Zandt; and soaring wordlessly in the raranga of sax and keys at the end of 'Nadia'. 'In the Golden Orchard' could be an arena ballad if it weren't so introverted (see also the Pink Floyd-ish fretless bass duet on 'Imprisoned on the Outside'). The minimalist roundabout pianoscape of 'Always a Circle to Mend' is just lightly adorned at the end with sympathetic synth and thrifty kick-drum punctuation; while album closer 'Set My Body Free' pairs Najm's ardently transcendental vocal and his own gentle acoustic guitar with a six-minute soft crescendoing of thick sawtooth billows, seabird-feedback lead guitar, shuffle-chug snare and a wide-stereofield multi-Najm chorale. [Listeners please note: my copy has gentle surface noise throughout.]

In these unsettled days, like many I suppose, I'm spending a fair amount of my after-hours in circuitous soul-searching. The unashamed candour of Najm's reflections on this record gently mesh with his considered instrumentation into deep'n'heavy comfort: like a weighted blanket under an emotional support labrador. A review in the NZ Herald from 22 May 1987 finds likewise: 

'There is a small, rewarding corner where jazz and folk intersect... that's where you will find guitarist/vocalist Najm. [His] easy-to-enjoy vocals, his understated poetic lyrics and the gentle arrangements offer a lot of comfortable pleasures. More soon we hope.'

This is Ramsey Najm's only known recording: an immaculate passed-over opus from a singular, sensitive, self-searcher and his complementarily cultivated ensemble, wrapped up in enchantingly imaginative production. And I'm hopelessly in love with it. 

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Digits - Dog Wrestled To Ground By Underarm Combat Flea (1981)

What a peculiar delight! DIY garage psych from 1981 Wellington, like The Godz and Chrome had a high school basement supergroup jam-band. An unexpected gift from contributor Mick, this record is rare as -- only 200 copies pressed, and probably most of them totally forgotten. Unfair dismissal! Until now, dear listener...

Side one starts reasonably songy-song conventional with 'Friend Who Sits Beside You' -- though not without naïve charm plus some scungy background lead guitar -- but it just gets weirder and better from there. 'Night Time' and 'Vege Man' are wistful acid à la Syd, 'A Throw Away' and 'Modern Viewee' are munted budget Hawkwind ft. Helios Creed, while 'After Sausage' gets all nut-gone flakey. 'Mental Blanco' raw powers its punk roots with angle-grinderish soloing, and 'Perfect Evolution' power pops with filtered white noise, thereminny howls and moog-y bloops. 

Side two is presented as one long piece (though some -subtle and not-so splices are evident) albeit with eight different track titles -- Faust Tapes-style! The linked files include the option of either one long complete side two, or individual best guesses for separate named tracks. It starts strong and there are truly some great bits, but as a side of long-playing vinyl it's maybe slightly omphalosceptically circumlocutory -- and just a wee bit familiar: the sort of smoky jamz I've heard in warehouse gigs from mid-90s Philly to mid-10s Dunedin. Not bad if they're your friends and you've got some cheap beer! I fully dug the whole dang thing though so see how you go, yo.

A long drive and a ferry ride from the FNun releases of the same year: it's post-punk (I guess?) and homemade but unafraid of (admittedly cheap-arsed) studio techniquery: expect hard-panning as stereo-tremoloing (or clumsy psychoacoustic headfuqz), skilsaw fuzz, flanged vocals and/or drums, cheap reverrrrbbbb and whoop-whoop-delays.

Gary Steel interviewed prime Digit Malcolm Pickup and wrote a few reviews at the time. Have a read here.

Source vinyl is quite crackly, but in a warmth-adding rather than hifi-snob-snubbing way. Includes three bonus tracks: The Digits' two songs from 1981's Wellingtonzone comp, plus the sole release from singer/guitarist Pickup's previous group Smashed Executive, 'T.V.' released on the 1979 Radio Windy Home Grown Volume One comp.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

More Whispering Waves - 18 Silken Hits For The Gin Palace Or Crib (c. 1997)

More Silken Hits -- NZ AO-/Soft-/Yacht-Rock from the Seventies and Eighties -- brought to you by the same faceless megacorp who comp'd your Silicon Hits

A second tasteful selection of upbeat soothers -- from love bug Anna Leah’s hooky-af self-penned slow jam to the sound of a seaside afternoon cafe quintet; plus a New Age James K Baxter bossanova, teenage rock’n’rollers now relaxed and all grown up, and ex-‘Nature’-ists salacious snakebit soul. Forgotten and underrecorded folks like Fire Exit and Jade — here rescued from RNZ’s Radio Trax promo LPs — cheek to cheek with peeps on sweet boutiques like Tartar and Charisma, and those on heavy-hitting acronyms EMI, CBS & RCA. 

Sleek, streamlined and satiny, this collection uncovers and uplifts uncoloured funk, throbbing grunty grooves, and effervescent weltschmerz from these tanned and glassy bands, featherlight singer-songsters, shimmering studio whizzes, session legends, rising stars and also-rans.

And Prisms The Ocean

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Whispering Waves - 18 Silken Hits For The Gin Palace Or Crib (c. 1996)

From the folks who brought you the Silicon Hits series, comes the first(?) Silken Hits compilation of the best of NZ's Soft-/Adult-Oriented-/Yacht-Rock.

These tracks from '72 - '83 serve up a soft and sunny coupling of singer/songwriter & soul sensitivities, mixed with disco & funk lubricity and produced in second string Steely Dan sophistication. Sometimes there's sax or brass, maybe a string section, almost always an electric piano. Tune in to tight & dirty grooves, seriously cheesy sleaze, elegant arrangements, pastoral post-disco chill-outs, bouncy soul serenades and country funk ballads.

Dismissed at the time by supercilious hipsters (and now championed by the same), these smooth'n'lite sounds soothe and swaddle and deserve a second and third listen in these nervous times. Suck up the sensual sentimentality, luxuriate in the pricey production, and bob your noggin to the rhythms of Whispering Waves.

I Want The Sand In My Shoes, I Want The Wind In My Hair
 [link removed]

Monday, December 30, 2019

You Were Dancing With My Mind Vol. 2 - 23 More Silicon Hits Of The 1980s (c. 1990)

Folks in Aotearoa are happy to trip to the past via 2LP NZ punk, funk or garage rock comps, and boundlessly bang on about our Flying Nun or Free Noise scenes -- but good-time synth-pop is easily our most unloved genre. Which is a shame, because although it was never a very big or very strong scene in eighties Enzed, we put out some pretty solid tracks.

Volume Two of this series collects a complex, chirpy swathe of minimal wave, electrogoth, Peter Gabriel-/Kate Bush-inspired sophisticated pop, R&B and B-Boy music, a melodramatic Bowie clone, and sweet throwaway love-pop -- all awash in the timeful silicon sounds of Rolands, Korgs, Moogs and Yamahas.

Deep In My Mind I Rehearse The Scene