New albums by Roedelius, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Craig Leon push the boundaries of pop
If you are anything like me, you are always seeking the union of space and wisdom, both in music and in life.
A handful of artists seem to specialize in touching the blue-white moon that hangs high over the Deer Park on horizon-to-horizon opal nights. These artists look at the moon-shadow of the Bodhi Tree and the olive- colored shadows of the heart-shaped fronds of the Ficus Religiosa, and they transcribe what they find! This music is inconstant of form – it isn’t dream pop, but the pop of dreams — yet precise in its ability to summon tears. Wordlessly, it brings you to whatever time and space you need to go to, whatever memory — cradle or car ride, school hallway or lovesick alley — you need to evoke.
Think of the autumn-colored sound of the instrumental title track of Pet Sounds; think of “Otis,” stately and sad-happy, by the Durutti Column; think of Stuart Dempster’s gray rainbows of cavernous horns; think of Charles Ives, summoning the sound of unanswered prayers; think of the soundtrack to a story you wish you had been read as a child, in a room colored like a never-had dream.
If you are anything like me, you find depth, enchantment, and great evocative power in these tiny giant songs that shimmer or hum with magnificent gravity, sprays and knots of sound that are not only instantly memorable, but also powerful and evocative. See, an inspired artist coloring outside the lines but within the realm of dreams can sometimes condense the whole of Abbey Road into a few bars of music.
A trio of recent albums seems to reference, knowingly or not, this world of untraditional, sad-happy interstellar city/country/Milky Way music. Each of these new releases were made by legends, two of whom can lay claim to being the inventors of vital musical genres.
Let us start with the adamantine entry in this trio. Hans Joachim Roedelius, at age 85, is making music as spectacularly engaging, challenging, shocking, sweet and beautiful as what he was doing nearly fifty years ago, when he almost singlehandedly invented modern ambient music (in addition, his Berlin-based groups from the early and mid 1970s, Harmonia and Cluster, are two of the fundamental and definitive artists of the Krautrock genre). Throughout a rather massive discography (working as a solo artist, a collaborator, and a band member), virtually everything Roedelius has ever had his hand in is worth hearing, and he is likely one of the most wholly consistent recording artists of all time. His entire catalog is bursting with spiky, sensual, silly, elegiac, heavenly bubblegum written in tears. On one hand he is the rightful heir to Satie, on another a primary influence on Bowie, Eno, Moby, Lanois, and anyone else who has attempted to make giant small music or synthetic music that is as wet as summer grape. He is, with no hyperbole, one of the most important musicians of our time. Roedelius’ new album, Lunz 3 (I won’t attempt to count how many he has recorded, though I suspect the number is well upwards of fifty), is his fifth released collaboration with Ohio-based keyboardist and composer Tim Story, and the third they have recorded under the Lunz moniker.
It is inaccurate to label anything Roedelius does as ambient, and Lunz 3 is no exception: plaintive and space-aged, pastoral and punishing, every note of this record is constantly drawing you in, constantly demanding your attention. Released on the wonderful Curious Music label, Lunz 3 is loaded with deeply evocative, winding, chiming, bubbling, sighing and hissing giant tiny songs, some of which will make you feel like your knuckles are cracking and tensing, while others will touch you with dawn-like beauty. Like so very many of Roedelius’s albums and collaborations, it sounds virtually like a greatest hits album – it is that consistent, that engaging. Lunz 3 is an utterly wonderful album, one of the year’s bests.
AUDIO: Lunz 3 (full album)
Our next selection is by another octogenarian legend and genre master, the reggae and dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, working under his occasional nom de plume, Super Ape. Super Ape vs. 緑: Open Door is collaboration between Scratch and New Jersey-based hip-hop producer Mr. Green. It is an utterly strange, compelling, combative, nagging, fascinating, addictive record that defies easy description; it may be misleading to even call it music, it might be better to label it “A Series of Musical Accidents.” In any event, I would be utterly delighted if there were a lot more records like this in the wide, strange world.
This album’s beautiful fragments of rhythm, noise, meaning and nonsense sound like a random transcription of a history of ideas, or like we are eavesdropping on a particularly wigged out and witty tape librarian. Super Ape vs. 緑: Open Door is an elaboration / celebration of the music of random intention, repetition, interruption, distortion, and power. At times, Super Ape vs. 緑: Open Door reminds me a great deal of a weed-hazed version of The Conet Project, that utterly remarkable collection of mysterious recordings of repeated numbers, song snatches, and phrases taken from shortwave stations throughout the world. If The Conet Project sounded like music to you – it did to me – you will likely get what’s going on here.
It is hard to pin down why this short (18 minute) collection is so compelling, so strange, shocking, and lovely. I believe that its seemingly arbitrary but hook-filled topography somehow forecasts a pop to come, when machine noise and street noise and computer noise and the noise of love, hate, and trivia come together to define a new pop for a world with a deeply compromised attention span. For instance, “Callalou,” is an utterly attractive reggae song that lasts barely half a minute, and devolves into another thirty seconds of bird noises and dietary demands. “Hot Fire” is a fantastic, please-sample-me cascading synth riff and shoulder-twisting snare and cymbal bash-out presented with no other context and no attempt at any frame. It’s like we just stumbled across it, then someone turned the channel. In some senses, Super Ape vs. 緑: Open Door seems to pick up on what the Residents were doing very early in the career, when they were inventing a Pop Concrète. Super Ape vs. 緑: Open Door might be an accident, or even a joke, but I like it a lot. It sounds like a strange, talented friend who has taken both Benadryl and Adderall, and the two meds are fighting it out in his consciousness.
Honestly, I think we may be listening to the future of pop here – or a weird alleyway of it, anyway. Maybe Super Ape vs. 緑: Open Door is Ok Computer for a future world with a very short attention span.
AUDIO: Super Ape vs. 緑: Open Door (Full Album)
Craig Leon is a legend, too, and about two decades younger than Scratch and Roedelius. He is probably best known as a record producer (and a helluva producer he has been two, helming legendary albums by the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, and Suicide). However, Leon has had a significant parallel career in electronic composition and neo-classical music. His latest album, Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon, is the next element of a thematic work he began in 1981 based on (quoting from the official material here) “the Mali tribe’s creation myth that the Earth was visited in ancient times by the Nommos, a semi-amphibious alien race who travelled from the white dwarf Sirius B to impart their wisdom to mankind.” Vol. 2 “…expands upon the conceptual cycle based on the alien and mathematical relationships that backbone the creation of art, architecture, science, and music.”
Wow! But don’t worry: This album works, quite wonderfully, without any knowledge of the other pieces of the cycle; nor does the listener need to be familiar with 2018’s Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1: Nommos/Visiting.
Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon is another prime example that the best “ambient” music is hardly ambient, and that these techniques (largely synth-based washes, tinkles, sighs, shimmers, shivers) are a language of power and emotion, and not just relaxation. The aural postcards and encyclopedia entries on Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon sound like breaths of joy and friction clasping hands, the hold music at the airline at the end of the Universe. The tracks vibrate with gravity and grace, that amazing space between accident and intention. Like the Super Ape album, the line is blurred between music and noise, all of which provides the sense that we are tourists walking through a mall at an imagined country, with melodies emerging from the air and dissolving again behind glass or fabric. Leon has built an imaginary world, and he treats this mysterious place like it is familiar territory; and because he believes in it, we believe in it. Now, Vol. 1 was less ambient, more of run than a stroll, full of more metallic clacks and rhythms; and although Vol. 1 gave us more to hang on to (I mean in the peddling on the life-cycle sense), I prefer the courage of Vol. 2, its authentic sense of transporting us to a unknown corner of our universe. This is really a lovely album and strange album, the sound of the snack bar at the astral pachinko parlor.
Long story short, jump on all three of these. The only thing that should limit your concept of pop – the music that walks with you when your mind is full of everything and nothing, and lubricates your laughter and reminds your heart of its highs and lows! — is your own sense of this is mine, this is what makes me feel, giggle, jump, stand still. Jump on all three of these (especially Lunz 3 – how many artists, at age 85, can make one of the year’s best albums?). This is your new pop.
AUDIO: Craig Leon Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 2: The Canon (full album)