[SoundStage!]The Vinyl Word
Back Issue Article

August 2002

Found on Vinyl: Up, Bustle and Out; DJ Food; and Giant Sand

When you hear an album that you really love, how do you go about finding more like it?

Obviously, the first way is by trying other titles from the same artist. But eventually you’ll exhaust that avenue. Besides, if you’re like me, you’ll get restless with this approach and want to explore a bit. After that you can follow various band members around and check out the work that they’ve done with other groups.

Another method of unearthing new music is by working your way through a label instead of an artist. While this is a bit more hit and miss, I’ve found that certain record labels have something of a signature sound. ECM, for example, leans toward ethereal, spacey jazz and more classic stuff that’s best characterized by Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden and Jan Garabek. Most of the ECM LPs that I’ve heard have a very soothing, introspective, spacious sound, which is shown off with great success by the excellent pressings, many of which originate from Germany. Of course, this follow-the-label method doesn’t work with any of the majors. The biggies, such as Warner Brothers, have far too diverse of a catalog to allow for any consistency in sound.

A few months ago I reviewed and recommended a 12" single from DJ Food, a British collective of sound engineers who use samples to build songs and soundscapes. DJ Food records for Ninja Tune, and, after raiding their website, I discovered that pretty much every release is disgorged on LP as well as CD format. Well, that clinched it. I had to investigate further.

Have a cigar

Since Ninja Tune offers Realaudio streaming of each and every release on their website, I was able to listen to a bunch of records and decide what interested me. The first one that grabbed my attention, which was recommended by my buddy Andy, the purveyor of All Things Unusual, was Master Sessions 2 [Ninja Tune Zen58] by a group called Up, Bustle and Out.

Let’s say that you can’t decide if you want to listen to Buena Vista Social Club or Portishead, and the indecision’s driving you crazy. BVSC is relaxing and rhythmic, but those guys are so, well, old. Portishead’s got that dark, groovy coolness going on, but they don’t get your hips a’ shakin’. If only the two would record an album together!

Your prayers have been answered. Master Sessions 2 is one of the most schizophrenic albums that I’ve encountered, but it successfully coalesces into a rich, multicultural, multi-generation soup. The album begins with a slice-of-life piece that sounds like it was recorded in a large, lively hall. The Spanish spoken word segues into a BVSC-like son piece that’s very olde worlde, yet has a refreshing, energetic Latin beat. While it’s not as polished as anything from BVSC, the intro to Master Sessions 2 sets the tone for what’s to come. The opening side is very street level, in that you can imagine listening to this music as you’re buying a drink from a roadside vendor while chomping on a fat Havana, with brown juice dripping down your chin. BVSC, while it’s truly beautiful music, sounds stuffy and contrived in comparison.

Press on to side two, and you’re into a trance-like dub mix that blends sampled jazz (I caught a whiff of "Bird of Paradise") with just a hint of the Caribbean. It’s easy to imagine kids in Cuba creating their own music while still drawing on the traditions of their own ethnicity. The change in style is jarring, and it almost doesn’t work, but there’s something about the physical act of turning a record over that’s like a sorbet between a meal’s courses. It refreshes and clears the mental palate.

Sides three and four continue this pattern, as traditional, unpolished folk music stands back to back with DJ-type samples. Don’t worry though. There’s nothing here that even borders on the dance music you’d hear at a disco (is that what they’re called these days?). All of the modern-day tracks on Master Sessions 2 are smooth progressions that verge on contemplative.

At first I thought that Master Sessions 2 was a bad pressing, as there are a fair number of ticks and pops. I even went as far as to give it a wet wash with my Nitty Gritty vacuum machine, at which point I figured out that the surface noise is actually sampled in, for God’s sake! What sense does that make? I twigged to this after I realized that the dub/trance sides were noisy, while the traditional Latin sides were dead silent, these being flip sides of the same record. Still, the sound quality is very good, as is the quality of the pressing itself.

Those crazy kids!

The other album that I ordered from Ninja Tune was the aptly named Kaleidoscope [Ninja Tune Zen 47]. This is another DJ Food release, a double LP for a terrific price.

Before you get your knickers in a twist, consider this: There’s good and bad music in every category. You don’t have to look that hard in order to find lame jazz, poor classical and lousy rock music, so it should come as no surprise that much DJ-type music is poorly produced, baggy-panted, cap-on-backwards crap. However, you should also realize that this genre, just like every other, can produce a gem. Kaleidoscope is that gem.

I sat here looking at a blank screen for quite a while trying to think of how to describe this music. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I don’t really have the vocabulary. I’m 39 years old and listen to mainly jazz and classical. I have a strong background in rock, but nothing’s prepared me to try and describe a record that contains no live instruments.

Contrary to the group's name, there’s little scratching or other overt DJ-isms, and little that I could get a handle on as being synthetic. Instead, this album is about building a mood and creating an environment. There’s lots of found snippets of conversation cleverly shoehorned in, and as the album progresses, a smooth, relaxing and very infections groove is built. Kaleidoscope never offends or clashes. There’s a definite jazz sensibility contained in this album, mixed in with '60s lounge retro and Our Man Flint wankerism. The nearest I can come in comparison is to Stereolab’s Dots and Loops [Drag City DC-140], which also keeps a low, relaxing electronic beat-box rhythm. Checkerout!

Giant Sand

My deadline for this column is almost up, and I just had to jam this LP in! Giant Sand’s Cover Magazine [Thrill 104] was recommended to me by Rob at Applause Audio here in Toronto. I’m learning the value of a local dealer (for both hi-fi and music) who can learn to anticipate my preferences. Thanks Rob!

More work boot than cowboy boot, more hardhat than cowboy hat, Giant Sand is a combination of countrified twang, Southern rock and swinging blues. Imagine if Neil Young, Cowboy Junkies and David Lynch were all working on an oilrig in Texas, and they decided to jam (God knows what David Lynch would play, though). This album is a rich working-class tapestry that really captures a wide-open-spaces feel.

There’s a level of sophistication to Cover Magazine that belies the simplicity of the tunes. Take, for example, the softness infused into Black Sabbath’s "Iron Man." What impresses me here is not so much the manner in which the band produces a sense of calm from an evil tune. Rather, it’s that they choose to do so.

This quirky individualism doesn’t come at the expense of listenability, though. Every song has a tune, and almost all of the tunes have lyrical, easy-going roots to them. The very first track, "And the Beat Goes On," swings gently, with the backup vocals just a teeny bit out of tune. There’s life and humor here, and you definitely feel like you’re in on the joke. I found myself smiling my rare, happy smile and tapping my toe gently as I enjoyed this song more than any in recent memory.

The sound quality on Cover Magazine is superb. There’s just enough hall sound to let you know that it was recorded in a real space. The bass is tight and extended, and there’s no sense of strain or sibilance in the highs. As far as the pressing itself goes, my copy is flat and silent. Can you tell that I like this record?

If you’re over here slumming because you’re bored of the CD reviews, I suggest you still seek out these albums on CD if you’re unfortunate enough not to own a turntable. This music is fun, fresh and cheap.

...Jason Thorpe
jason@soundstage.com

 

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