reviews John Oswald/ The Grateful Dead GrayFolded Swell/ Artifact S/A1969-1996
'He teases out unforeseen possibilities, layering different versions to achieve an untethered effect perfectly appropriate for a long Dead jam'
John Oswald is the Canadian theorist/ producer behind Plunderphonics, the avant-garde sampling unit whose densely remixed collages of others' music were, of legal necessity, never actually put on sale. Small pressings of some were, however, given away - though in the case of Dab, his piratical remix of Michael Jackson's Bad, this made no difference to the beige creature's response, which was to order even the master-tapes destroyed. Others were more amenable to Oswald's work: in Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, he found a fellow experimentalist spirit, and was commissioned to collage up some of the Dead's live shows. GrayFolded is the result, two CDs of selected moments from more than two decades of "Dark Star", the Dead's celebrated improvisational jam, segued into one seamless flow.
It's an extraordinary piece. When Oswald remixes you, it's clearly not just a case of adding on his own drum sounds or bassline. Instead, he teases out unforeseen possibilities in the originals, layering different versions to achieve a strange, untethered effect perfectly appropriate for a long Dead jam. In places here, there appears a choir of about a dozen different Jerry Garcias, digitally synchronised on the same phrase; elsewhere, the guitarist duets with several younger versions of himself in passages that are, literally, timeless; and after around 100 minutes of improvisational wandering, the final dive back into the body of the song is heralded by what sounds like a 100-drummer fusillade, Oswald using the earlier, faster versions of the track (90bpm) to work as triplets over the later, slower (60bpm) recordings.
It's not a totally serious exercise, either. GrayFolded amusingly elongates further the Dead's sometimes infuriating refusal to get to the point of a piece: starting with a 100-member band tune-up session - a glittering shower of guitar notes - the piece meanders in, takes a leisurely look around at the possibilities, then dawdles further, taking as much time as necessary to smell the skulls and roses before really starting the song. Contrarily, the entire hour of the first CD appears again, "folded" over and over into one five-second burst midway through the second CD. Ultimately, what GrayFolded demonstrates is how, despite the great diversity of their approaches through the past three decades, the Dead's essential character remained so consistent. Though they often sounded as if they'd lost the map completely, they were, at all times, firmly focused on their future destination. A long, strange and trippy experience indeed.
Compiled by Donald Fagen from what he considered the best performances of Steely Dan's 1993 and 1994 tours, Alive in America is as squeaky clean and blemish-free as you'd imagine, though how anyone could hope to noticeably improve on such neatly manicured originals is something of a mystery. In places here, they almost manage, though in others the effect is rather of music that's had much of the life ironed out of it.
"Babylon Sisters" sets the scene: the track strolls in, cool as you like, unhurried and assured in its faux luxe perfection; the horns are soft and warm, like sinking into a fur counterpane, and the darts of lead guitar are designed not to penetrate the mood too deeply, but just to prick curiosity.
"Green Earrings" profits from a tart tenor-sax break but, like much of the album, features drumming that is more fussy than it needs to be: by the time you reach "Kid Charlemagne", on which the slick fussiness is appropriate, you're a bit sick of all the flams, rolls and, for all I know, paradiddles that Dennis Chambers inserts at every opportunity.
It's the earliest songs, "Reelin' In The Years" and "Bodhisattva" (amazingly, there's no "Do it Again") that have been changed the most, both having their guitar riff transposed for tricksy horn figures, which serve to hoist the songs from their rocky roots into the jazzier realm of the later Dan LPs. The later songs are more as you'll remember them - buttoned-down, impeccable, with not a whisker out of place. What did you expect?
The Don Dada's back, with a collection of bustling, hyperactive tracks that shows a clean pair of heels to all but the most serious of ragga toasters. Having suffered the slack indignity of Super Cat's mercifully brief "personal appearance" here in 1992, The Struggle Continues comes as a huge surprise to me. This time, he really means business, with some of the most powerfully propulsive rhythm tracks of the year.
The opening track, "Dance", sets the scene, a staccato strut every inch the swaggering equal of Reel 2 Real's "I Like to Move It". "Girlstown", which follows, is even better, an irresistibly bouncy Erick Sermon groove over which the Cat relates his unsurprising affection for the fairer sex. His subject matter doesn't stray too far from the standard itinerary of sex, guns and rote proclamations of innocence, though there are signs, particularly in the later parts of the album, that reflect a long-overdue return to a "roots-rock-culture-reality".
Super Cat's certainly got the taste for it, judging by his applications of Coxsone Dodd and Bunny Lee rhythms, and especially by his duet with Jack Radics on a Sly and Robbie re-tread of Fats Domino's "My Girl Josephine", which puts a tight ska strut on the New Orleans lope.
Casting themselves as "first in the queue at the musical jumble sale", Moloko add a little mutant humour to the trip-hop style. Do You Like My Tight Sweater? mashes together elements of jungle, techno, ambient and funk, then spills a tubful of nonsense lyrics over the top, delivered in a variety of voices by Risn Murphy, the Irish equivalent of Dee-Lite's Lady Kier. Mark Brydon, who constructs the backing tracks, has served time in the avant-funk outfits Chakk, Krush and Forgemasters, and brings that experience to bear on tracks like the single "Fun For Me", whose fizzing synth bassline comes straight out of the G-Funk handbook, and "Killa Bunnies", whose choppy industrial groove betrays his Sheffield background.
The determined unusualness can wear dangerously thin over the course of an entire album, but at its best - "Fun For Me", "Party Weirdo" and "Where is the What if the What is in Why?" - it's as good as anything in its field.
KCRW Los Angeles's radio programme Morning Becomes Eclectic sounds like the kind of show it might be worth waking up for. This second compilation of highlights from their specially commissioned live sessions bristles with spontaneity and diversity: a rolling folk groove from World Party, a rippling piano sonata from Philip Glass, a cool beat-noir travelogue from MC 900Ft Jesus, a quirky sample collage from Cibo Matto, and further contributions from the likes of Joni Mitchell, Aimee Mann, the Cranberries, Tanya Donnelly and Lloyd Cole, all culminating in the wistful wake-up call of Jackson Browne's "Late For the Sky".
Judging by the warm feel and generally high quality, the sessions are relaxed, low-pressure affairs - some measure of just how relaxed can be gleaned by the presence here of the legendarily reclusive JJ Cale, not the easiest man to coax a "Cajun Moon" out of at the best of times - and that atmosphere transfers itself seamlessly to the listener. A definite contender for compilation of the year.
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