Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Solid 96

Today, i enter a succession of live Underworld documents from 1996 with recordings from Roskilde and the US Organic festival.

First (re)impression: It's going to be a solid year.

At first blush, and also taking a gander at the bootlegs chronologically ahead of these, Underworld were settling into a setlist that usually included "rez", "cowgirl", 'Born Slippy", "Born slippy.NUXX", "Juanita", "Cherry Pie/Rowla" (always perfection when played live together", and one or two tracks from "dubno" or previews from the next long player "STITI".
In these two gigs, I hear and sense a jump from a band that was experimenting with what their live show might contain to one that was confident and willing to let a more regular setlist be explored from night to night. Samples enter and exit, Karl Hyde adds some ad libbed revelations, but it seems (if memory holds), that 1996 was a year of fewer tracks, fewer improvs, and instead very solid performances of a shorter setlist. It's all leading up to the mysterious, legendary "European Club Gig" that has been making its way around the internet for many years - a testament to Underworld's live prowess.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Disappear Here - by Hybrid

Something of a review here of an album that has been played pretty much daily, often multiple times, for the past month.

Hybrid: "Disappear Here" (2010, Distinctive Records):

Hybrid have been known for mixing symphonic, soundtrack-inspired orchestration with hard beats and aggressive electronic production since their stunning debut "Wide Angle". That and the follow up, "Morning Sci-Fi" each were split between tracks with slightly menacing vocals and instrumentals that often swelled from lovely or eerie into manic breakdowns.
With their prior LP, "I Choose Noise", i rather feared that they had fallwn victim to repeating themselves. Not only is the album the most break-beat inspired, the orchestral strings seemed a little tacked on. So imagine my surprise and enjoyment when "Dissappear Here" recharged and reshaped the group.
Chris Healings and Mike Truman, producers since the beginning, have now added vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Charlotte james, who's voice drives no fewer than 8 of the 12 tracks, ranges from wounded ballads ("Disappear here", "Salt", "Numb") to in-your-face declarations of empowerment ("Original Sin", "break My Soul"). Many of the tracks have a decidedly live feel and a traditional song structure. Howeever, where Hybrid stick to the strings and beats formula (stunning opener "Empire", "City Siren"), or stir up differentr genres (the mysterious, soundscapy "Green Shell Suit"), they're clearly concentrating on a wider range of emotions.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

1 9 9 5

Today, i continued chronologically with my Underworld bootleg collection, and entered 1995, amazing to think that this was 15 years ago!

Underworld took off with the re-release of "Born Slippy.Nuxx", with the arrival of the "Trainspotting" film soundtrack and some help from Pete Tong. But in 1995, as with the 1994 dates i discussed previously, the live performances were really loose and were drawing on a small catalog (compared with today's canon). But these were also the days to hear the really rare tracks played live. During future tours, you'd be pretty much guaranteed to hear "Nuxx" and "rez" and "cowgirl", along with many other noted singles. But in 1995, Underworld was generating a buzz from their debut, but were not yet a bona fide super group. You'd get sneak peaks at tracks from the next LP ("rowla", "Juanita"), some rare remixes (e.g. UW's remix of "Leave Home" by the Chemical Brothers) and other deep cuts (e.g. "Spikee"- a B side vinyl cut, not readily available until 2003's Underworld retrospective "1992-2002", unless yhou had a VHS of "footwear repairs" or a rarer still comp. cd).

Today i listened to T in the Park -Hamilton, Scotland, 6/8/95 and Leicester University, 10,20,95, as well as the 1995 lowlands festival

Sadly, these boots are not of the best sonic quality, suffering from volume fade outs and audience noise. Someone in the fan trading community commented on the Leicester gig: "You can only polish a tud so much". But still, these gigs are very listenable and free-flowing, in particular Lowlands, which is pretty much one solid hour of mixed tracks.
They also broadcast a few things loud and clear: UW are not afraid to riff on a track for a good 15-20 minutes, nor are they hesitant to throw caution to the wind and give the crowd a solid dose of improvisation. In particular, the Leicester gig has at least four lonnnng improvs consisting of barrages of beats and crazy effects, as well as a killer version of "Mmm skyscraper i love you" that swells to 21 minutes in length.

"oich Oich" makes a rare live appearance here, at least a year before it hit the US on the back of the "Pearls Girl" EP. The original "Born Slippy" and "spoonman" also feature in both shows.

By 1996, the show would become more polished and the setlist a tad more predictable. But in 1995, Underworld were using every weapon in their smallish arsenal of tracks, to great effect.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The sound of bands breaking up...

This isn't (hopefully, thankfully) about Underworld, but...

Don't you hate being late to the party? i have an unfortunate habit, of discovering a band too late - they're on the rocks or have already broken up.

A few examples:

The Borrowers - yeah, you've probably not heard of them. But they made a little indie stir in 1996 wih t heir eponymous debut and college radio tracks "Broadway Mary" and "Jaswant's Rain". At the time, i hadn't heard anything by the band. Instead, my father took my brother and i to a free concert at South Park, outside Pittsburgh, PA, which hosted a summer concert series of both up-and-coming and somewhat established bands. And they were awesome, comprised of multi-instrumentalists (inc. mandolin, and drummers who hit the bass for effect) with a clear passion for songwriting. Sadly, they didn't get the exposure they deserved and after a sub-par self-released album, the Borrowers went on to other musical pursuits. Still, their debt "The Borrowers" on Guardian records, strikes a chord with me.

The Caulfields - Power-pop heroes, and taking their name from my fave book, (err, see pseudonym "holden"), The Caulfields had a minor hit with "Devil's Diary" in 196-ish. I discovered them by chance in a used CD store, attraced both to their name and to their second album ("L") artwork- a photo of the Atomium, the crazy sphere and stick building for the world's fair in Brussels, Belgium (a place i would eventually visit in 2006, taking plenty of photos, much to the amusement/dismay of my travelling companion). Anyway, I bought "L" (1997)first. It's just pure power pop goodness, with clever, ironic lyrics and a hard-rockin' guitar-driven chorus, but not afraid to add the odd horn section. Lead singer John Faye has been very kind to me, and has gone on to a solo career with the John Faye Power Trip and a new band, Ike, which has been high profile in the Philly-Delaware area.

The Prayer Chain - While i was in college, a grad student who was very into Christian rock gave me a bunch of old cassettes. I gave them a listen and lo and behold, i discovered a few bands that i really enjoyed, and they were honestly good, not just praise and wosrhip, but really "alternative" to the norm, with insightful lyric. Some of the tapes were by The Prayer Chain. The one that most drew me in was called "Antarctica" - it's a collection of outtakes from the band's last LP, "Mercury" (referred to in the press as "the sound of a band splitting up") and a live show from ~1995. The outtakes are really agressive and driving ("Loverboy", "Friend or Foe"), not to mention catchy, and in the case of "humb", a precursor to the noise-rock genre. hardly the praise and worship stuff i expected - it was actually very cryptic.

But the live EP was so solid and so emotional, that i dare say i got chills the first time i played it, and that was the middle of summer! Tracks like "Wrounde", "sky High" and "Shawl" emphasize a unique vocal and a 90's alt-guitar style, but with very spiritual lyrics. The band indeed broke up, but were definitely ahead of their peers.

Today is 1994 again

For the first day of revisiting the Underworld bootleg catalog, I started logically enough at the beginning, or, the first recorded shows I own.

10-13-1994 Sheffield University, UK:
Underworld as we know them (in their electronic mode) had been around for a couple of years, and had just released their stellar "Dubnobasswithmyheadman". Yes, that album includes some classic singles, such as "Cowgirl" and "Dirty Epic", and songs that would be live staples for years. But at this early stage, the band wasn't required to play the singles and they really hadn't had any megahits yet. In fact, from the recording, you get the feeling that they are playing to a small, rather indifferent crowd, made even more awkward by the announcer's hearty introductions, to which the band respond by launching quietly into a very lush track, "Thing in a Book"; the show ends with an impromptu encore of "Dark Train" to a surprised announcer who thought they'd gone off for good. The gig itself draws heavily on tracks from the "Dark and Long" EP - provisionally remixes, but actually there are some epic long tracks that bear little resemblance to the original - as well as a few early versions of tracks that would feature on 1996's "Second Toughest in the Infants".

The real joy of this recording is that it's almost continuously mixed and full of beat-driven improvs. I get the sense that the band (Karl Hyde on vocals/guitar, etc, Rick Smith and Darren Emerson behind the mixing desk) were still polishing their chops, doing what they wanted regardless of if the crowd was into it or knew any of the tracks...but the improvisation that has always characterized their shows is present even this early on.
Maybe it's a product of the time, that mixing was a bit more rough around the edges, or maybe it's hearing some of these tracks in embryonic form, but it makes for a memorable recording.

1994 - Tranway, Glasgow, Scotland:
This show was recorded by the BBC, and with that built-in radio audience, Underworld are all business. Unlike the above show's long improvs and transitions, here the tracks are pretty distinct, and they're played quite agressively - nothing soft or gentle in this set! Karl Hyde cuts and pasts lyrics from soon-to-be megahit "Born Slippy NUXX" over top the usually instrumental original version, as well as sticks "Spoonman" on top of the rarely played "Dogman Go Woof". This one was wonderfully remastered by the Underworld fan concert-sharing community (Ride the Sainted Rhythms).

What is this? Why are we here?

I'm a compulsive music collector.

Yes, like you, i really love music. But I have tremendous loyalty to a few bands, most notably Underworld and Genesis (worlds apart musically, but both have served me well), meaning I have put a lot of hours into listening and collecting everything i can get my hands on by them.

I discovered Underworld (outside the rare comp. track) in earnest in 2002. Truly changed my musical directions. Like all obsessions, things (i.e downloading and buying) soon got out of hand. And now, 8 years later, i have about 130 bootleg recordings, not to mention all the LPs, most every single and a lot of rarities/imports.

By no means do i have every gig that Underworld has performed, but i do have the majority of those that have been recorded (in concert or via radio) from 1994-present.

Sure, i've listened to them all, usually as soon as i obtained them. Sure, i have my favorites. But recently we moved and i reorganized by CD collection (yes, i burn all the downloads i enjoy to CD - old fashioned for sure! But mp3s are so impersonal and seemingly impermanent), and it was pretty overwhelming. Why am i collecting these? There are only so many hours in the day to listen to music, and it's mostly taken up by whatever's on my mind /mood at present.

So, in the interest of (1) enjoying again all those moments of magical discovery and (2) somewhat scientifically checking again how the band has evolved their live performances, road-tested songs, and build their repertoire of favorites, improvs, one-offs, and period pieces...

i resolve to play at least 2 and hopefully several Underworld boots per day and record a few impressions. And because Underworld's not all I listen to, I'll probably use this blog to post some reviews of other bands that are rocking my socks, some links to netlabels offering free music by deserving new/obscure artists, and maybe pump my own music/netlabel releases a bit.

And while many/most who read this don't really care about my impressions (because writing about music is ridiculously subjective), i'll keep the posting to the high-points as i see them - e.g. when a new track made the live set for the first time, the first or few recorded versions of an improv or new track that never saw the studio light (as far as we know), the gradual shifting from long improv beat-driven jams to having a catalog capable of sustaining a new tracklist every night, the departure of Darren Emerson, the arrival of Darren Price to the live mix, etc.

I hope that you'll share in the memories and fill in the blanks.