Kronomyth 6.0: THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER AFTER …HAPPILY EVER AFTER. Japanese Whispers collects the trio of post-Pornography singles (“Let’s Go To Bed,” “The Walk,” “The Love Cats”) and their backsides. It represents a radical departure from the gloomy past, introducing the giddy (if still idiosyncratically analytical) sound of The Cure’s next phase. At this stage, The Cure were in a kind of stasis/hiatus, releasing singles in lieu of a proper album. But what singles they released! You’ll find the rich, dark sonic structures of the past on songs like “The Dream,” “Just One Kiss” and “Lament,” but the real story is the domesticated bliss exhibited on “Let’s Go To Bed,” “The Walk” and “The Love Cats.” They are absolutely charming, not the first word to come to mind when describing Pornography or Faith. I always had the sense, listening to Pornography, that Smith had entered an even darker world by album’s end. Apparently, he was walking toward the light at the end of a dark tunnel. Everything before Whispers is bit of a downer, really, as brilliant as it is. Beginning with “Let’s Go To Bed,” Smith and Tolhurst began writing the band’s happily ever after: manic to be sure, but driven by a secret joy inside. The image of cats/pets plays prominently in the lyrics, suggesting that Smith had indeed found some form of domestic happiness, or at least had got a pet to pass the time (they do make you happier). Maybe the band should have recorded all of their albums as singles (Head On The Door does sort of feel that way), since it brings out the sweetest side of Robert Smith. I know, Japanese Whispers is technically a singles compilation (i.e., product), but it’s an important transitional record that, for latter-day Cure fans, will speak their language more than the dark musings of the past.
Kronomyth 3.0: AND THE BLIND WALLS CRUMBLE, UNKNOWN, O’ERTHROWN. An early adventure in the jungle of jazz, featuring the first stable lineup of Weather Report in the full throes of their avant-garde phase. Initially released only in Japan, Live In Tokyo is similar to those contemporaneous Circle recordings, except where Chick Corea and company were traveling without a map, Weather Report retraces the groundbreaking steps taken on their first two albums. The songs are presented mostly in medley form; only the classic and eternally classy “Orange Lady” arrives unbundled. The performances are noisier than I remember and open to exploration. There are some new instruments added to the mix as well: a distinctly Oriental-sounding string instrument on “Orange Lady,” a couple of experiments with oral/facial percussion, some creative distortions of the keyboards, flutes, etc. In a sense, the band follows an established path, but is free to explore the fringes and sometimes wander off into the woods, only to return a minute later. Circle inverted that approach, which made their music challenging to follow, but you’ll willingly follow Weather Report for ninety minutes as they unpack and uncoil their early repertoire. Highlights include the second medley (side two) and “The Moors,” which I’ve always enjoyed. A higher ratio of noise/dissonance may be offputting to some; Live In Tokyo is probably the noisiest release in their official catalog. Fans of avant-garde jazz, however, will appreciate the dismantling of blind walls in the search for new musical vistas. I’d rank this as the most essential of their live records, although it’ll be a bit costly no matter how you acquire it, since the double-elpee (now double-disc) set has never received a stateside release.
Kronomyth 3.0: WHAT WILL BE THE SACRED WORD? There’s a poem by Amiri Baraka, “Ka’Ba,” that closes with the lines “We need magic now we need the spells, to raise up, return, destroy and create. What will be the sacred word?” In a sense, Baraka and Fela Kuti were looking for the same thing. The title track, “Why Black Men Dey Suffer,” is more than a cogent argument for the African condition set to music. It’s a magic spell of sorts, designed to cure African nation-states of a centuries old malaise that has taken the form of slavery and colonialism while erasing the culture and even the co-fraternity of Africans. The song begins as a military march of drums joined by percussion, guitar, bass and electric piano, shifting the rhythm as new instruments are added until it morphs into a kind of religious chant that Kuti refers to as a kanginni koko. From that point on, Kuti assumes the role of a cantor/griot, recounting the history of African suppression from abroad and calling for a unified Africa. As his most overtly political song to date, “Why Black Men Dey Suffer” was a rallying cry for African independence, both in thought and art. The result is a powerful message wrapped in a mesmerizing groove. The album’s other song, “Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality,” takes more provincial aim by using Lagos’ rich (Ikoyi) and poor (Mushin) neighborhoods as proxies for a broader discussion on class distinction. Here again, the music is a single, massive groove that Kuti uses effectively to stage his message. Why Black Men They Suffer became a kind of template for subsequent albums from Fela Kuti and Africa 70, which arrived with surprising frequency and were structured more like extended singles with one long song on each side. As with several of the 70s records, Ginger Baker makes a guest appearance, although I couldn’t tell you if he was filling in for Tony Allen or playing alongside him.
Kronomyth 5.0: O, HOW SHALL SUMMER’S HONEY BREATH HOLD OUT? The classic Van Morrison albums, of which this is one, are special. You don’t simply listen to them, you reunite with them. They begin with a joyful embrace (in this case, the freewheeling “Wild Night”) and what follows is a deep and familiar conversation about love, childhood, nature, the mystic and the majestic. Tupelo Honey has a more countrified feel than most Van Morrison albums, a point that has occasioned me to compare it to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, although that comparison sells both artists short. You’ll find a quiet strength to songs like “Tupelo Honey” and “Lay Lady Lay” that is at once chivalrous and luminously warm, tart touches of steel guitar and arrangements that wrap around the music like a pair of old blue jeans. I’ve always seen this album as an open love letter to Janet Planet, who is featured prominently on the album (both visually and musically through frequent backing vocals). “I Wanna Roo You” and “When The Evening Sun Goes Down” are pretty gestures, but it’s the powerful “You’re My Woman” that stands as the album’s grand romantic play. Maybe it’s all a gilded fairytale, but who am I to turn a well-played prince and princess out of doors? The album also includes as succinct an explanation of Morrison’s muse as you’ll find anywhere, “(Straight To Your Heart) Like A Cannonball,” the affecting “Old Old Woodstock” (one of my favorite tracks on here) and “Moonshine Whiskey,” one of those songs (like “Madame George”) that Morrison seems to personally inhabit with his whole being. I admit that Tupelo Honey didn’t immediately floor me, but it’s stood the test of time, and what is art if not a kick in the crotch to cruel time?
Kronomyth 1.0: FREE AS A BYRD. Roger McGuinn’s first album is all over the map: blues, jazz, country, folk, rock, and one song performed on the banjo and Moog synthesizer (“Time Cube,” in case you’re curious). The guest list is an impressive one that includes all of the original Byrds, Bob Dylan and Bruce Johnston. And yet, somehow, Roger McGuinn was roundly ignored by fans and FM radio stations alike. It’s too bad, since the album deserves an audience (at least Brian Eno seems to have picked up a copy, to judge by the cover of Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy). The Byrds’ albums were often eclectic affairs, and McGuinn returns to the same haunts on his own: Dylan-inspired folk rock (“I’m So Restless”), airy/jazzy David Crosby songs (“My New Woman”), songs about planes (“Draggin’) and authentic folk songs (“Heave Away”). McGuinn also steals a page from the Byrds-inspired Eagles (“Lost My Drivin’ Wheel”) and prefigures the island feel of “Don’t You Write Her Off” on “M’Linda.” Where the main Byrdman fails on his first album is in creating a clear persona. He takes pains not to try the same trick twice, and the album’s scattershot approach is its undoing. It’s an interesting record, often engaging, but I couldn’t tell you where the man’s loyalties lie after hearing this album: folk, jazz, pop, rock. This can be filed under “too smart for its own good” if you care, with a caveat that it’s too smart to ignore.
Jean-Luc Ponty’s new American label, World Pacific Jazz, wasted little time in marketing their jazz violin phenomenon. Ponty was quickly paired with WPJ mainstay Gerald Wilson and his big band for an album of mainstream jazz/swing, Electric Connection. Wilson wrote the arrangements, Ponty provides the solos and a few original compositions, George Duke plays the piano, but the connection never really happens. Most of the time, Ponty’s violin seems out of place in the music or, more to the point, Wilson’s arrangements make space for the violin but rarely make good use of it. The idea of a violin in a jazz setting, especially one so free and fluid, is a novel and exciting concept. In my opinion, it deserved a novel and exciting setting, not a standard set of jazz/swing/funk that might have come from the soundtrack to a second-rate crime film. The rhythm section of Paul Humphrey and Bob West is at least sympathetic; Duke is criminally undermiked. If you’re interested in Ponty’s earliest work, I would start with the live recording at Thee Experience featuring the George Duke Trio. That show was an electric affair which gave the violin plenty of breathing room. On Electric Connection, unfortunately, the violin is something of a caged bird. You’ll encounter some nice solos (“Hypomode Del Sol,” “Forget”) and perhaps develop a deeper appreciation for the violin as a jazz instrument, but nothing on here will change your world. The kindess of critics toward this album is likely due to deference to the violinist himself; the music itself is merely adequate and ill-fitting.
Kronomyth 1.0: A BREATH OF FRESH AIR. At the fringe of the Woods of the Seven Trees, peer animals not to be believed: velvet moles and gentle giants and wander-giraffes of static science. Venture in a little deeper and you’ll discover another creature, one of air and strings and sound, tempter and tempest, queenly crowned, a spirit of air that curves between trees and blows through the brain like a crooked breeze. I have, it seems, lived an arid life until now, content to walk along the fringes and mistake it for a proper venture. (See what a fool I’ve been, I haven’t lived my dream!) If you enjoy the music of Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator and have yet to make the acquaintance of Curved Air, lungfulls of Air Conditioning are in order. There are, sadly, just a handful of such treasures for the hearty traveller to discover beyond the known wonders (Yes, ELP, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Rush, etc.). Gentle Giant and VDGG are among those first unexpected encounters, and more than a few would-be explorers have made camp there and gone no further, certain that they’ve hit upon Solomon’s Mine (and, in a sense, they have). But delve deeper into the woods and you’ll discover smokecurls of strange voices and violins intertwined with pot and Pan. It would be easy to point to the music of Renaissance and John Cale for a parallel, but Curved Air arrived at the same time, and so you might see this as a broadly sweeping muse who put her benediction upon a multitude at once, from whence strange flowers grew called Cale and Renaissance and Curved Air. In Air Conditioning, you’ll encounter a different sort of siren on the roxyfied “It Happened Today,” a bit of calesthenics on “Stretch,” the sisyphean “Screw,” the weird and wonderful “Blind Man,” the classical colossus “Vivaldi,” and that’s just on side one. The second side includes more of the same: “Hide And Seek,” “Propositions” and “Situations” might all be considered classic Curved Air tunes, with a winsome instrumental (“Rob One”) and classical coda “(Vivaldi With Cannons”) thrown in for good measure. It’s a pity I didn’t turn on Air Conditioning sooner instead of fanning myself with the same old records. A better beginning you couldn’t ask for; now if I could only find what happened to their happy ending…
Kronomyth 4.0: LIVE/DEBT. The band was a hundred kay in the hole after the ambitious Aoxomoxoa and, figuring better Dead than in the red, stayed out of the studio for their next release, Live/Dead. One of the first (if not the first) 16-track live recordings, Live/Dead captured what was best about the band: the magic interplay that happened on stage as the band navigated strange, familiar avenues. Seamlessly stitched together from several recent shows, the set begins with what is likely the most beloved version of the quintessential Dead song, “Dark Star,” played here at an uncannily unhurried pace. “Dark Star” consumes all of side one, and belongs with the best sonic spelunkering of its day (Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream), yet manages to be a much warmer interstellar journey than “A Saucerful of Secrets” or “Zeit.” Side two features a fine retelling of “Saint Stephen” and the first recorded appearance of “The Eleven,” which was a song of sorts (an instrumental with bits of song encased in it, really) that provides the perfect bridge between “Saint Stephen” and the Pigpen workout, “Turn On Your Lovelight.” Live/Dead closes with the powerful “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” the trippy “Feedback” and the after-dinner mint at the end of the great feast, “And We Bid You Goodnight.” Live/Dead succeeds at delivering the Dead’s live show to your doorstep in the order they intended it. If Aoxomoxoa proved a poor investment in studio resources (and I would think the album has since recouped its costs), Live/Dead was an inspired stroke of genius, leveraging the enormous investment that the Dead had already made in their live shows and wisely capturing all of the nuances in sixteen tracks of color. Together with their next two records, this is the peak of the legend of the Dead.
Kronomyth 6.0: SHORT LIVE CREAM! Recordings of Cream’s live shows in San Francisco from the Spring of 1968 sprung up on two posthumous live records: the cleverly titled Live Cream and the equally cleverly titled Live Cream Volume II. Fans snatched them up, of course, and a few critics even creamed themslves with purple prose to praise the dead, but both records are nothing more than a cash-grab by the labels. Proof that this was a planned heist: they separated the material from the first and second albums, so that Live Cream in effect became Fresh Cream Live and Volume II became Disraeli Gears Live. As a bonus (not really, since the entire record runs less than 40 minutes), Live Cream features a studio outtake, “Lawdy Mama,” that will be instantly familiar as the original version of “Strange Brew.” For almost any other band, these live perfomances would have been pulled out of the vaults, dusted off and tacked onto the album remasters as extra tracks. This being Cream, however, the tombs had long been raided by the 1990s. There is pleasure to be had in hearing the band tear through versions of “Sleepy Time Time,” Sweet Wine” and “N.S.U.” Clapton is an absolute fiend on guitar. But if the live material on Wheels of Fire and Goodbye didn’t rock your world, you can leave this stone unturned. Now, I did enjoy the next installment, Live Cream Volume II, a lot more, in the same proportion that I enjoyed Disraeli Gears more than Fresh Cream. Cream had changed considerably since their first album, and you get the sense that they were approaching this early material with a grandiloquent eye. They hadn’t worked out the arrangements to support the longer run times, apparently, and so what you get is a lot of soloing, some of which is amazing while other sections seem stretched thin. Live Cream isn’t the first (or second or third) Cream record you need to buy, but there’s still marrow in these bones, provided you’re in the wight frame of mind.
Kronomyth 10.0: I CHANT BE GONE LONG, YOU COME TOO. Untethered and touching all of the cosmos at once. That’s the impression I have of Mwandishi; that it’s as much a spiritual quest as a musical quest. Everything about this album suggests a new beginning. There is a new band (only Buster Williams remains from the Fat Albert experiment) and, more importantly, a new purpose. Hancock asked the band members to take new, African names, as if the entire Mwandishi experience were a rebirth and, of course, it many ways it is. The sounds captured here are unlike anything Hancock had done to date. For the listener, the sensation is like living in a waking daydream. The music could be said to exist in a kind of spiritual stereo; instead of left and right channels, there are conscious and subconscious channels. In the conscious channels (the present), you have the perfect solos of Eddie Henderson, the rhythmic painting of Hancock, the profoundly alien sound of Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet and Buster Williams’ mantric bass. In the subconscious (the timeless), you’ll find the lush rhythms of Billy Hart and Leon Chancler, Hancock’s soft and dreamlike Rhodes and Julian Priester’s sheltering trombone sounds. Mwandishi only contains three tracks, which blend together to form a single journey. The opening “Ostinato” is a spiritual ceremony of sound that makes the unorthodox sextet (trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet) seem a divinely inspired configuration. “You’ll Know When You Get There” and “The Wandering Spirit” are ethereal, unfolding, spectral, majestic. From a production standpoint, Mwandishi is one of the most impressive-sounding jazz albums to date; the placement of sounds in the stereo mix opens a new dimension to the music. It seems that each new Hancock album raises the bar, but Mwandishi raises it to a higher level of consciousness. For many listeners (myself included), this album marks the beginning of Hancock’s most fascinating phase.