What we're listening to
"Ballad of the Lights" was performed by a friend at the late Arthur Russell's funeral, which is as strong a proof as any that it is an important entry within his vast and diverse songbook. This two-song 10-inch vinyl release couples it with another recording from Russell's many studio collaborations with Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg's recitals within "Ballad of the Lights" almost come off superfluous, except that they set the glory of the song's resurrection-like structure in greater relief. The B-side, "Pacific High Studio Mantras," is a Buddhist chant accompanied by instrumentation, and perhaps not intended for commercial release. (Ginsberg himself hinged back and forth about whether it should presented in this fashion.) Bob Dylan even figured briefly within Ginsberg's and Russell's endeavors, but with so few of them available, it's hard to discern whether "Ballad of the Lights" is their best work. That it's pretty great is clear, even if coupled with portraits by Archer Prewitt that play into the more cloying aspects of viewing artists as icons.
THE SOFT MOON
The Soft Moon
It's no surprise that the debut album by Bay Area musician Luis Vasquez is dark and densely claustrophobic — nor is it a surprise that it's excellent. It kicks off with one highlight from his earlier EPs, "Breathe the Fire," where his whispered vocal — dancing over doom-laden bass and guitar worthy of Pornography-era Cure — manifests maximum sinuous menace. The death dance of "Circles" is more Sister of Mercy-like, but really, Vasquez transcends well-known goth and more obscure dark wave poses and influences through sheer intensity of focus. "Sewer Sickness" might be the album's darkest and most compelling black pit, as Vasquez's susurrant vocals take on the quality of a malevolent primal incantation.
She Was Coloured In
Like Gold Panda, Solar Bears counter a dodgy name by delivering solid tunes. She Was Coloured In is more melodic than most recordings on Planet Mu. "Children of the Times" mixes Johnny Marr-caliber guitar shimmer with a Vocoder chorus that is sure to evoke comparisons to Air. Likewise, the title composition places Air-y elements up against Aphex Twin-like ambience. Enjoyably ham-fisted prog keyboard flourishes dive in and out of techno terrain on the title track. The chord changes and underpinnings of "Head Supernova" evoke Angelo Badalamenti's scores for David Lynch. The riddle of Solar Bears is whether all these touchstones or influences add up to an act with its own identity or — perhaps no less an achievement in 2010 — a generically beautiful album.
(Light in the Attic)
When an excellent songwriter disappears, his or her voice remains. There is proof of this in the recent issuing of Connie Converse's priceless previously-private recordings, and now in this reissue of the 1969 debut album by Jim Sullivan, a ten-song collection that fuses orchestral ornamentation and plainspoken brevity. Sullivan vanished into the New Mexico desert one day in 1975, but his musical legacy is being revived, and rightfully so, as the best moments here are reminiscent of better-known contemporaries such as Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. All the doomed young men: there's something eerie about the funereal string intro of the opening track "Jerome," yet Sullivan's music also possesses vitality and good cheer. Best of all is "UFO," a graceful piece of baroque pop (and quintessential example of a California paranormal mindset), adorned with echo-laden effects that Malibu kinfolk and relative survivor Linda Perhacs might appreciate.
Golden Haze EP