This ever elusive and oft times illusory collective released their earliest recordings well over a decade ago under the ‘Shit Spangled Banner’ moniker on a label called Ecstatic Yod. Many years and many myriad releases later they find themselves releasing a full length on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace. A fully released full length and everything. Not the limited and hard to find CDR’s and LP’s of yore but a CD that anyone can buy in the shops.
The shifting entity that comprises The Sunburned Hand Of The Man has used a constant stream of releases on varying formats to constantly chart their exploration of sound. Their consensual, inclusive approach to the breaking down of musical constraint with an almost primitive and intuitive glee saw them to some extent hailed as forefathers to the weird-folk movement at the turn of the millennium. Sunburned are not pre-cursors to anything. They exist out of step from all, beholden only to themselves and the moment in which they create.
A wonderful example of the Sunburned ethic in action is the (recently beautifully reissued on Eclipse) documentary-like double LP Wedlock, which charted the journey to, and celebration of, band members Paul Labrecque and Valerie Webb’s wedding in isolated Alaska. A riotous and joyous freak out of extended instrumentals seemed to beckon the listener into the jams. The record seemed an invitation to join and celebrate in sound the feelings that so truthfully and simplisticaly seemed to pour from these individuals bought together to share both an emotional moment and their mutual expression of that moment through music.
The sheer scale of The Sunburned Hand Of The Man’s discography and their spontaneous approach to creating music makes it difficult to make any generalisations about specific periods of their career. The collective can involve anybody that is in a given location at a given time (as with Wedlock) or as few as three members clustered around lead and lynchpin John Maloney creating tribal drones live that resemble nothing that they have recorded previously. And yet somehow the mark of The Sunburned consistently courses through all that they touch.
To some extent this release, with its naming of the band simply as ‘The Sunburned’, its singular title of ‘Z’ and the mysterious symbols denoting track titles, represents one the groups most pared down and stripped back releases to date. Gone are the rambles of Rare Wood or The Trickle Down Theory…and in their stead screed walls of sound. Perhaps it is the latent influence of Moore but the sonic reduction of Z is that of a no holds barred attack, closer in spirit to the no-wave of bursts of Sonic Youth at their most raw. The tribal spirit remains with a sense of the whigged out pervading even the albums harsh noise rock moments. During the third track they build a most intense head of steam managing to sound almost like a more cosmic version of Comets On Fire, were such a state possible, while the witterings of electricity bring to mind recent efforts from the Yellow Swans similar attempts at sonic nothingness.
Perhaps The Sunburned Hand Of The Man’s greatest achievement is to create a sense of reaction in the listener beyond the aural. Along with fellow outsider explorers such as Magik Markers and Gang Gang Dance, The Sunburned manage to evoke almost physical reactions in the listener. Shifting of guts, feelings of uneasiness. The manipulation of sound to affect emotion. While Z might not be The Sunburned's easiest listen or most triumphant recording to date it certainly successfully evokes the dread paranoia of Maloney’s intended manifesto:
“Z is about infinity and the double dimension we all live in yet don't fully understand. Z is the sound of that feeling you get when you think you're being watched or followed by the omnipotent one”.
The Midnight Room
With a band name pinched from a tune off The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and sporting an inlay card shot of Marco Fasolo looking the image of The Madcap Laugh’s era Barret it is no surprise that Jennifer Gentle’s second album for Sub Pop mines the same vein of psychedelic pop as the bands beguiling and accomplished debut. This second time around though the loss of the bands second member, drummer Alessio Gastaldello, also seems to have stripped the band of a sense of effervescent positivity. Essential a vehicle for Fasalo’s expression The Midnight Room poses a disturbing but relentlessly gripping listen.
Much is made of Fasalo’s love of Nino Rota’s film sound work as well as his appreciation the scores of Kurt Weill and this influence is none more apparent than in opener ‘Twin Ghosts’ that sets the tone for the remainder of the record: blanched almost to a sepia, cold and sparse and haunted as the title of the track. From the off Fasolo suggests a landscape empty of joy and strangely barren. While the ensuing tracks all utilize piano and chiming guitar to create more fulsome psyche stomps it is interesting that the percussion remains spartan throughout the album. Almost allowing the nightmarish ghosts of the sounds to air uninterrupted. Or perhaps it is merely the manifestation of the lack of Gastaldello’s presence.
Either way it would seem that over the spartan base of haunting soundtrack-like structure the album is ridden over roughshod by what appears to be a psychedelic ice cream van driven by the ghosts of Don Van Vliet in his Trout Mask and Tom Waits at his bleakest Raindogs best, particularly in the tracks ‘Telephone Ringing’ or ‘Mercury Rising’. The album has a dense sense of tone and deep foreboding capturing the very voices that may have driven Barret mad. ‘Quarter To Three’ or ‘Granny’s House’ cause the listener to feel like they are being dragged through Dylan’s 'Desolation Row' by characters garbed in the garish creepiness of The Magic Roundabout as a backdrop organs sigh depressed in the wings.
While the slight upbeat lilt of ‘Take My Hand’ and ‘Electric Princess’ offer takes on the kooky love song skewed so far sideways that you can feel The Coral giving up on The Wirral from here the sense of dread never diminishes. In all seriousness, if ‘The Ferryman’ or ‘Come Closer’ was playing on repeat in The Red Room in Twin Peaks you would all be going insane as soon as you stepped inside. Remorselessly compelling.
Apologies up front here if you don’t share my opinion because for the rest of this review you will just have to suspend your qualms and operate under the aegis that Ryan Adams is one of the great songwriting talents of his or any generation. In fact; fuck your qualms and look at the facts. This is a guy who penned Faithless Street when he was barely 20, has released and made available for free on his website over 300 mp3s in the last year alone and that is on top of the three studio albums (one of which was a double) he released in 2005. He is basically the living embodiment of Gram Parsons with the prolific bent of Dylan and the will to tour of Garcia.
Like him or not just accept that the guy has a huge, restless, hungry and prodigious talent. Having spun the gamut from the stripped down singer-song writer approach of Heartbreaker to the Burrito Brothers pedal-steels of the wondrous Jacksonville City Nights to the piano-led soul searching of 29 and Love Is Hell to the slick production of Gold to the Working Man’s Dead meets American Beauty country rock of Cold Roses, Ryan has done it all. Even his ‘demos’ record, Demolition, had a ballad in the shape of the Gillian Welch duet ‘Tomorrow’ that basically blows holes in every Josh Ritter shaped pretender to the throne in two notes. Jesus, even his Self Portrait style ‘joke’ record Rock and Roll had ‘So Alive’, a single so vital that I clearly remember the usually fairly erudite Ian Camfield exclaiming speechless and hands in air on XFM that: “they’ve done it, they’ve created the perfect single”.
So, we’ve established here that Adams is very good at writing songs. And he writes lots and lots of them all the time And he writes them just like he wants to. This means that sometimes albums are not perfect. He is sort of the anti-Blue Nile in that respect. He releases what he wants, when he wants and if the record company don’t like, sod ‘em, he just releases the stuff online anyway and if they really lean on him he goes and releases something like Rock and Roll just to piss them off. Hell, he even got Love Is Hell re-issued as intended eventually.
The boyish rebel with the will to self-disrupt and destruct is well document. Watching him on stage in Nottingham in 2004 I was struck by how strung out and confrontational even by his standards he was. Two days later he was being flown back to the US with a pin in his arm after falling off stage and having crowd surfed to the bar and back. Recent interviews have revealed that those days were, as many suspected, filled with more than just the red wine he so loved to swig on stage. The very same interviews have also admitted that he is now sober.
So Easy Tiger is a Ryan Adams record born of sobriety. It is also a Ryan Adams record born of something that we really aren’t all that used to. For perhaps the first time Ryan has done that which none of us expected and had a go at making the record that the record company actually wanted him to make. Not in a self-sabotage Rock & Roll manner but in a measured application of his talent to a coherent sense of structured songwriting that met with what he felt was being demanded of him. The title of the album tells us as much, its not like he’s hiding it and calling the record Death Whores of Babylon III or something. Had he had it his way Ryan claims he would have made another dueling rock record with his now seemingly permanent backing band The Cardinals.
Instead we get a polished take on every facet of his craft attributed solely to Adams and an album that it feels was considered as just that: an album. Not so the sketchbook approach that he has in the past shared with Dylan of a record being a ‘record’ of what was played in the studio, snatches of what was relevant or inspired at that given point in time, flashes of genius captured in wax. The MP3 outburst of 2006 has proved a more than ample sketchbook from which to distill and craft these 13 songs and produce an album that on a first listen could seem a little pedestrian but on repeat visits cements itself as perhaps the most consistent edifice of his myriad legacy.
‘Two’ sees Adams take a ‘Harder Now That It’s Over’ melody to a lovely duet with Sheryl Crowe (hence continuing the obligatory duet tradition, see Cold Roses Norah Jones appearance), ‘Off Broadway’ and the harmonica break riddled closer ‘I Taught Myself To Grow’ recall the piano led moments of 29 and Love Is Hell while ‘These Girls’ strips everything down to a finger picked acoustic and beautifully phrased vocal. It is interesting to note, in keeping with the sense of the ‘album as considered work’, that both ‘Off Broadway’ and ‘These Girls’ have appeared previously as sketches in the unreleased albums The Suicide Handbook and Destroyer respectively. ‘Tears Of Gold’ and ‘Pearls On A String’ take Ryan back past Jacksonville City Nights to the ‘Parsons meets Replacements on your sleeve’ joy of Whiskeytown. The stomp of ‘Goodnight Rose’ flags up The Dead once more while ‘Halloween Head’ evokes the grinning goofball humor of ‘Damn Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)’.
If you like Ryan Adams you should now go out and buy this record and love it. If you don’t like Ryan Adams then here is a great place to start.