Neil Young and Crazy Horse
In a review of 1977's That Obscure Object of Desire, the last film made by the late Luis Bunuel, Pauline Kael noted the relaxed confidence of the director's work; after decades spent absorbing every aspect of the cinematic medium, he was able to achieve effects for which he had once strained with an ease and a maturity that were quietly breathtaking. In terms of his typical artistic approach, Young has little in common with this cheeky visionary--he is earthy and direct, whereas Bunuel tended toward surrealism of an especially brazen sort. Nonetheless, Broken Arrow calls to mind Kael's observation in that it eschews broad strokes and audacious experimentation in favor of a seasoned, profoundly satisfying recapitulation of past glories. The album begins with three tracks--"Big Time," "Loose Change" and "Slip Away"--that amble along at a methodical pace; the shortest of them is over seven minutes long. Yet Young and his longtime supporting crew (guitarist Poncho Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina) invest them with enough internal tension to prevent them from meandering. Young's guitar solos are amorphous, yes, but they're also purposeful; the spontaneous nature of his plucking and his willingness to take listeners on tangents that may not pay off immediately are more important than linearity. As for the words, which Young croons as languidly as possible, they can seem simplistic when placed on the printed page. But when they're heard against the backdrop of these haunted desert-scapes, lines such as "There's no one around/Just a mirror and you and me/And the TV sky" (from the hushed, mournful "Music Arcade") echo with a hippie wisdom that's unexpectedly moving. Not every track here hits such pinnacles: "This Town" is a silly throwaway of the sort Young seems to place on every album, while the concluding "Baby What You Want Me to Do?" is a lengthy blues cover (complete with crowd noises) that's far flimsier than the epics that precede it. But for the most part, Broken Arrow bespeaks Young's continuing indispensability. As many rockers age, their music becomes increasingly staid and formulaic. Young's is deepening--and it's a beautiful thing to behold.
Alpha & Omega
Sound System Dub
Last year this New York-based label released an extraordinary compilation titled Dub Revolution: UK Roots, High Steppin' to the Future; now the company has issued full-lengths by two groups featured on that sampler. Sound System Dub, the first domestic release by Alpha & Omega (the moniker used by the veteran duo John Sprosen and Christine Woodbridge), is itself a collection, featuring remixed "specials" that span the pair's recording career, from their 1988 debut, Daniel in the Lion's Den, to their latest, Safe in the Ark. The material as a whole represents the spiritual side of techno: Trance-inducing basslines push to the front of the mixes as haunting, computerized voices chant the gospel in the background. Of particular note are the previously unreleased "Africa/Ethiopia" and the mesmerizing "Dub Flute," a wonderful remix of a song first heard on the Alpha & Omega disc Watch and Pray. The Bush Chemists' Dub Outernational, meanwhile, probes the digital, tribal face of dub. The act's main men (Dougie Wardrop and Paul Davies) make music on equipment that would make Bill Gates jealous: Their gear includes a 24-track Soundcraft board, an Atari 1040 computer, an Akai sampler, a Lexicon reverb unit, three keyboards and two Boss echo chambers--and that's just for starters. As this equipment list suggests, the Chemists create a high-tech sound; machine-gun snares, video game blips, squeals that come out of nowhere, and an all-around faster pace lend the music a jungle mood. The sounds on Outernational are so strong that listening to it on a good stereo can actually leave you feeling dizzy and a little queasy--sure signs of success for connoisseurs of the British dub sound.
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World Saxophone Quartet, With African Drums
David Murray Octet
Dark Star: The Music of the Grateful Dead
Saxophonist Murray is the common element linking these two recordings, and though he's no longer the young bomb-thrower who set scenesters on their tea kettles with Flowers for Albert, Ming, Home and numerous other attempts to expand the jazz vocabulary, he's certainly not going quietly into the night; he continues to squawk and squeal with the best of them. Still, both Four Now and Dark Star demonstrate his current willingness to inject at least a modicum of accessibility into his projects. While the World Saxophone Quartet (presently featuring Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake and John R. Purcell) has, since its 1977 inception, displayed impeccable improvisational aptitude, its frequent insistence upon performing without additional instrumentation kept some observers at arm's length. However, the addition of drummers Chief Bey, Mar Gueye and Mor Thiam (who also appeared on the Quartet's Metamorphosis, from 1990) instantly draws one into this sonic universe; the insinuating "Dakar Darkness," in particular, stunningly blends Murray's bottomless tones, African percussion and a graceful Lake poem. The Dead tribute is more overtly commercial, obviously, but even though the concept suggests pandering, Murray is such a rigorous player that he avoids most of the pitfalls inherent in a piece of this kind. To many observers, these songs represent the Holy Grail, but to Murray, they're just collections of notes, and he consistently brings them to life. Murray and his octet (featuring Fort Collins-based trumpeter Hugh Ragin) initially stick close to the original melody of the opening track, "Shakedown Street," then shatter it into a million joyous pieces. Later, the instrumentalists dance and skitter through eleven minutes of "Samson and Delilah" and give the title cut an eerie, occasionally cacophonous majesty. Fans hoping for cautious Xeroxes of "Uncle John's Band" will be disappointed, but more adventurous types will be grateful that Murray deemed this material worthy. Thanks to his renderings, it most certainly is.