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 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

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

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Autumn Jumbo Fun-Pak: Onset/Offset Cassette Comps (1983-87)

Digging back into the fertile fields of the 1980s Christchurch underground. Many of these songs were comped on the Krypton Ten 2xLP, but now you can listen to them in all of their 35-year-old, 'tape-saturated', hissy and disintegrating glory! Read all about Onset/Offset in Andrew Schmidt's article here

20 Krypton Hits Volume One (1983)

Krypton Green (1984)

Krypton Red (1984)

Krypton Amber (1984)

KVEETWO (1987)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Besser and Prosser - Dark Wind/Spring Rain (1986)

New Zealand Composer Edition: New Music For Violin and Piano, by Jonathan Besser & Chris Prosser.

Both artists have been involved with electronic music, though I've only heard Besser in Free Radicals. But this part of their practice is evident in the record's opening suite.

Extended techniques expand the timbres in the Three Impressions of 'Dark Wind': in Part One, reverberating wooden raps and clouts on bodies of piano and violin, strummed piano wires and whispery un-rosined bowing wheeze huff and heave like the sea; Part Two's tinkling keys ground the flutter and swoop of birdcalls/-flaps/-hoppings chivvied from the fiddle; whilst Part Three feels electronically augmented, with low piano strings struck odd-chiming like ring-modulation, and paper slipped 'twixt the violin strings sizzles and snaps 'midst buzzy sawtooth scything. Unambiguously bewitching.

Best Prose