Friday, May 18, 2018

Best records of 1979

(Unearthed from an online newspaper morgue,  here are my 10 best albums from 1979.-tb)

Image result for art ensemble of chicago nice guysAfter a modicum of meditation, soul-searching, and late-night phone calls, I've decided that this annual autopsy we call a "year-in-review" won't be as grisly as I imagined. In fact, the most outlandish generalization one could make about the state of pop music in 1979 is that it was merely "okay." As in any year, there were plenty of decent albums that passed through my hands on to mine and my writer's turntable, but there was a sizable proportion of discs from new and established artists that fall well-below what one wants to hear. In any case, rock and roll doesn't seem to be dying at the present moment, though I, like anyone else who's been involved with the stuff too much for their own good, would have to have heard more records that reached the highwater mark. What follows are my annual hit-and-run comments on the previous year's more or less notable releases.


Best Records of '79

1) Armed Forces — Elvis Costello (Columbia): Although Nick Lowe's production is at times heavy-handed and strains too often for effect (too much piano, echo chambers, an overkill of vocal over dubs), Costello remains a formidable talent that no amount of cheap garnish can obscure. At best, (more times than not) Costello is dead on target. At worst, he's utterly incoherent and artlessly paranoid.

2) Nice Guys — The Art Ensemble of Chicago (ECM): By definition, avant-garde or "free" jazz is supposed to be difficult for the uninitiated to warm up to, but the Ensemble's latest seems (to me at least) to be the one '79 release in the genre that even Mangione fans can find enjoyable. Nice Guys is a brilliant crazy quilt of styles and strategies, with the shifting textures and colorations of saxophones, trumpets, drums, bass, and a plethora of more obscure instruments proceeding through a fascinating session of unconventional improvisation.

3) Trevor Rabin — Trevor Rabin (Chrysalis) Rabin is a singer-songwriter-guitarist from South Africa who's same-named debut album supplies the kind of mega-rock that Todd Rundgren's been promising for years. Rabin proceeds through a far-fetched array of styles, from Mountainesque heavy-metal, syrupy ballads, McLaughlin-inspired jazz-rock, Zappa-like ensemble virtuosity, through disco and reggae, often blending these incongruous strands into the same song. And, incredibly, it works.

4) Van Halen II — Van Halen (Warner Brothers): Edward Van Halen plays flashy hard rock guitar with admirable vengeance and ingenuity, that is enough for me. That is to say that it's enough for those times in the middle of the night when your brain is wracked by an alphabet soup of your mom's diet pills and the rapid notes from Van Halen's many solos here are the closest you're willing to come to having a large dog rip out your throat.

5) One of a Kind — Bill Bruford (Polydor): The former Yes, King Crimson and Genesis drummer deftly leads a band of superb musicians through a session that combines the best of progressive rock (compositional organization with a rich sense of harmony and counterpoint) and the best of fusion rock (inventive soloing meshing hard-rock dynamics with fleet-fingered technique). Guitarist Allan Holdsworth performs as though in a fluid and fluent state of grace, and bassist Jeff Berlin is someone to watch out for. 
6) Shiny Beast (Bat Pull Chain) — Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band (Warner Brothers): Beefheart, rock's most idiosyncratic avant-garde individualist, is refreshingly in place for once, seeming to have hammered his worrisome kinks and quirks into a form that benefits his talent for constructing fractured, asymmetrical, dada-derived music. Splendid use of free jazz tonalities, urban blues, Caribbean rhythms, and rhythm and blues. The music is as crankishly idiosyncratic as it's ever been (jump-cut time signatures, a free mixing of "free-jazz" randomness and pop song structures, blues and neoclassical shades blending into thick atonal texture) and Beefheart's vocals, one of the raspiest voices anywhere, de liver his dadaesque, free-associative lyrics with the same kind of off-kilter verve.(One would be remiss in thinking that Beefheart's lyrics are without substance or lack meaning: no less than Wallace Stevens, who explored his dreams of a world of perfect arrangements and their contradictions, Beefheart, nee Don Van Vliet chooses to inspect a terrain of imperfect things, material and organic, and forge connections and conversation between them with nothing but the force of applied and intense whimsy. )

The effect sounds like an Unlikely super session between Howlin' Wolf and Alfred Jarry (costumes designed by Max Ernst) . His new Magic Band, featuring ex-Zappa sidemen as Bruce Fowler (trombone) and Art Tripp (drums) , handle the demands of the music with disciplined ease, executing Beefheart 's quixotic time  signatures and self-deconstructing arrangements with a professionalism  that tends toward both perfection and liveliness, usually an unlikely symbiosis in art-rock groups. However cerebral Beefheart's music sounds, though, it should be POinted out that Shiny Beast  is a fun album, full of good humor and strong material. This time out, The Captain is out to entertain and beguile, a work of art that does what any object of scrutiny must do, which is to offer a genius's bluster, blarney and brilliance the only way it can be presented, in your face, without apologies or a phone number for a second date.

7) New Values — Iggy Pop: Iggy, who is the godfather of punk if anyone is, has finally transcended the problems that've too often stopped him from delivering that all-purpose knockout punch. The music is crunchy, cantankerous rock and roll, Iggy's vocals have the appeal of the off-hand remark, and the lyrics succeed in being anti-intellectual without the obnoxious posturing that is the calling card of many whom Iggy has influenced. Iggy proves here that he is the main-man.  That said, and done so sincerely, I fancy myself more an MC5  kind of guy;  I prefer music that gives us the effect of a demolition derby on the other side of the River Styx, relentless metal twisting and screaming tires until the torches lighting Plato's Cave are dosed.

8) Fear of Music — Talking Heads (Sire): Talking Heads, I fear, is more of an alliance with art-rockers like Eno, Roxy Music and John Cale than with the New Wave, but that hasn't stopped me from liking them. Their music has a cleverly controlled graininess that puts them half-way between garage band amateurism and the post-twelve tone rigors of the "new music" conceptualists. David Byrne's lyrics, sung in a voice that sounds as though it might evaporate at any moment, expresses the tortured holistics of the paranoid mind while allowing as little self-pity as possible. This is the work of a refreshingly straightforward sociopath.

9) Rust Never Sleeps — Neil Young (Warner Brothers): Young, who, like Norman Mailer, has been producing advertisements for himself for years to little advantage (self-revelation must attain the universal, not the therapeutic, it's to sit well as something I'd like to investigate), has released a masterpiece of a kind, a rock and roll testament that deals with American icons, institutionalized violence, and the sand-trap of self-love (among other themes). And Crazy Horse helps Young play some of the dirtiest rock and roll of the sear.

10) Squeezing Out Sparks — Graham Parker: Parker bites the head off of everyone who's ever done him dirt with music and lyrics that have the mainstream kick of the old Rolling Stones. Blunt, uncompromising stuff.  To get to the issue that never left Parker's orbit while he was still someone who was interviewed and received a fair amount of airplay, Parker does indeed resemble Elvis Costello vocally. Somewhat, that is, as Parker prefers to talk-sing along with his snarling, while Costello can snarl and croon at the time. And while Costello strains credulity when he strains too often for high notes that refuse to come to him easily, Parker after three songs or so becomes something of that insomniac dog next door who won't stop barking . 

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