I have been accused of resorting to hyperbole to an excessive degree in these reviews, and ok, the size 200 shoe fits, but I know my heart leaps to the heights on the bar chart that measures the things I love. I am in no way a fierce man, but my love is a fierce love when its true and I truly love the recordings of Richard Youngs. He's one of the few left that still rankles my adolescent need to convey, to turn you on to something, even if its against your will.
Which is exactly the situation in which I found myself recently with reissue on vinyl of Youngs' two most important albums Advent and Sapphie. I failed to read the fine print that these were VINYL releases when I enthusiastically agreed to write my thoughts on two of my favorite records. I've had these beacons of light on CD and mp3 numerous times, but my zealousness with which I chose to promote them and choices in dodgy computer hardware have rendered them to ether. I routinely have around 1000 albums floating around on my laptop and I lament that 900 of them fail to be either of these records.
I say all this, because I haven't had a record player in about 6 years. I toted my treasured collection of albums around with me for eons, until one day in a tiny cramped apartment in Redmond WA, I realized I had not listened to a single vinyl album during the course of my lease, not one. These records, for the most part had been moved to more states than times they have been played, so I unloaded the lot. The rare and cool records boxed up to a friend in Chicago who I knew to have a stronger heart and sense of history than I, the rest unceremoniously traded at one of the Emerald City's finer used music establishments, spending my trade money on about 10 CD's I probably forgot about by the time I got to that cursed floating bridge separating Seattle from the mainland. The return on investment here was all catharsis, plain and simple, and decided then I would embrace the future and ne'er go back.
Now I can barely be troubled with a CD except to rip it to disc so the robots inside my computer can handle the storing, cataloging and flipping of records. That said, I felt these two records deserved to be heard under the appropriate warm scratch of a needle, so I went out in search. I know one acquaintance that has a working set-up, but he is rather insufferable when you and not he is helming the playlist. Another is more indulgent to my enthusiasms, but it turns out his hi-fi is on hi-atus and this in fact prompted him to unload his molding opera collection in as expedient a manner possible. And none of my hipster friends have a working set up. OH they have one, to be sure. Love my vinyl, man. But its needs a fuse, needs a new needle, is all the way across the room, man. They are all proving to be the useless louts I suspected they were. I should cart them up to Seattle to see if I can trade them all in and get my albums back.
Short of taking these records up to Guitar Center and trying the patience of the guys running the DJ section, I instead resorted to the plastic future-as-now of iTunes and dispensed with my fruitless quest, letting my golden fleece fall flaccid in the Aegean so I could get to the business of listening.
Advent, first recorded in 1990, the earliest work in Youngs' peculiar songbook, is perhaps the most punk rock moment in the rather uneventful history of recorded serial minimalism. The first 11 minute segment consists of an almost imbecilic but piercing piano pulse that persists through out the record. His voice sounds both alien and frail here, intoning about falling apart through a cheapo echo unit. Majestic. Fans of Robert Wyatt's similar strength-through-weakness will understand the close charm of his gentle but insistent wail. His voice falls off after 4 minutes and we are left with nothing but that pulse. John Cage said "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." Youngs apparently picked up that challenge to the 8-minute mark, anyway, planking away like a mental patient on the same two note riff. It is irritating, no way around it, but irritating in a way that scratches an itch you didn't know you had. At one point he jumps up an octave with one hand, and this barely perceptible shift parts the clouds and opens up a vista of rainbows. Its like the two minute Ramones version of Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach", or Lamonte Young's "Well-Tuned Piano" both pieces pounding out enlightenment through minute repetition and expanse. Richard Youngs trumps both these heralded motherfuckers with two fingers in a tenth the time.
The second section creates hat "OH SHIT" moment in every listener, when that same pulse comes back, this time serving as a columned hall for a lilting, squawking, half-named Salome of an oboe to dance around. There is a finger of snake-charmer in his oboe playing, a touch of Master Musicians of Jojouka, and a whole fist of crazy. In the first part, you wonder if anything could be better/worse than that piano pounding along by itself, and your question is answered by an oboe. It becomes more beauteous, more savage as it goes along, the piano sticking the most rigid of plans and the oboe darting like a manic hummingbird through every trick and trill the player (I suspect an novice, since it is what my enthusiastic but completely unlistenable clarinet etudes sound like, to me anyway) it is exuberant and dedicated and Free, most of all. The problem with minimalism, ironically, is that those guys are too hung up on the rules. To me, the real sense of minimalism and its potential for enlightenment lie here, where order and chaos fuck wildly under the stars.
The final section comes on more of a blur, like you are not even sure if the oboe and piano are there under the exquisite feedback drenched guitar racket, but that piano pulse cuts right through like the knife it is. This section is the long one, clocking in at 18 minutes, but is somehow the warmest and the least confrontational. Its use of guitar noise as a space filler echoes that of Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" that came some 25 years before it, and My Bloody Valentine, destined to smear the windshield some 5 years after its arrival. Once you've been through the mill of the first track, this is a walk in the park. Tom Waits is a fan of music like this, having said of the similar "Jesus Blood Hasn't Failed Me Yet" by Gavin Bryars that after a while, "the room fills up with water." Music like this requires dedication. You would think you can passively suffer/devour singular pulses for 40 minutes at a stretch, but you can't, you have to act. You have to meet them on the mountaintop or get the fuck out of the valley. And trust me, the view is stunning up on the mountain.
The order gets the best of you when the breakdown occurs at the 13-minute mark. The piano starts to disappear and return, the guitar and oboe start operating in concert, wails of feedback start to form a melody of their own it seems. The train has been derailed. The piano tries to keep up, tries to get funky a little but ultimately gives up the chase. Color starts to drip and fad from the monochrome canvas this record had painted up to this point to reveal a pastoral sunset, light of humanity piercing over the horizon for one last gasp before it gets swallowed up by the night. Once it finally fades/dies/ceases to exist/suffers whatever kind of existential endpoint one can attribute to it, you are left standing on the grid, alone, blinking, wondering for a second where the world just went.
Youngs' 1999 masterwork Sapphie is a simultaneously similar and completely different piece. Structure similar to Advent, Sapphie is three extended majestic explorations of classical guitar and voice, and is perhaps the most pure and heart-wrenching example of melancholy ever put to tape. Youngs recorded this piece after the death of an Alsatian beraing the album's name, stripping away the reliance on advanced recording and guitar theatrics he explored in the interim since Advent. The simple guitar figures are scarcely more complicated than the two-note orangutan pulse of Advent, but they are perfectly aligned with my alpha waves, bringing everything down it its level of calm and sadness. Imagine if Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" was slowed down just a notch and allowed to continue on through the end of time, until the drugs kick in, until the embers burn out. "Soon it Will be Fire" is the name of the first piece, but the title like the lyrics, hardly matter, since his echoed voice, struggling to exist at the zenith of his range (but don't we all struggle at the zenith of our range) is so poetic and soulful and perfect. The song is 9 minutes long, perhaps just long enough to bury a beloved dog or watch a train carrying your love away disappear to the vanishing point.
"A Fullness of Light in Your Souls" takes on a more determined gate, its simple repetitive phrases serving more to bolster up the lyrics. Young's voice exhibits the right amount of unattainability, of lacking-a-foothold that only grief can instill. Sapphie reverses Advent's mounting diffusion by becoming more pointed as it continues while still maintaining the static tension from first note to last.
The melody that forms the 18-minute "The Graze of Days" is laid out before us like a blueprint before the vocals take hold. It is a profoundly sad melody, but not a requiem really. Its more of an extended sigh, each ounce of breath in that sigh purging a little more grief that kept us warm, bracing us for the chill of moving on. The passage that lives around the 8 minute mark, a simple minor scale run that bobs up and down against the stillness of the surface water like a snake is one of the most beautiful things ever. Were I ever shot into space, I'd keep a spliced loop of that passage to kick in when and if the boys in Houston regret to inform me there is nothing they can do and I just have to float it out to the end. Like its lengthy counterpart on Advent, the stars come out here, but much calmer, without fanfare. It's the same experience as being outside and not having noticed it grew dark until it is dark
Which is how it is with life and death. If Advent is a birth album, where things become more clear the more things are piled on, where the jumbled parts of experience begin to dovetail and form meaningful shapes and make some goddamn sense for once, Sapphie is the subsequent dismantling of that order. Both meted out on the onset of a pulse that blurs into the background and is only really recognized when it is gone.
(Alex V. Cook's book of rocknroll observations, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' is available now from the SideCartel)
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or