The Lounge Lizards – Voice of Chunk (1988)
One of the most distinctive jazz outfits of the last thirty years, The Lounge Lizards deal in a sound both smooth and angular; frontman John Lurie’s seductive lead sax lines effortlessly coalesce with shifting time signatures and the occasional guitar wig-out – such as on the title track of Voice of Chunk, their third album.
Sounding joyously loose and freeform – belying the unobtrusive discipline of the melodic and rhythmic patterns which crop up throughout in a kind of motif – it’s an album which seems to buzz with inspiration, both when things are at their most emphatically groovy and their most slyly laidback (‘The Hanging’ is built around the kind of unruffled sax melody that wouldn’t feel out of place on the soundtrack to a 40s noir detective film).
Voice of Chunk is full of personality, and an intelligent sound created by deviating from strict jazz trappings and drawing influence from new wave and funk. ‘A Paper Bag and the Sun’ is essentially an extended looping sax/guitar jam which builds towards the bouncing ‘funhouse at night’ vibe of ‘Tarantella’ (one of the album’s most memorable tracks). ‘Tarantella’ displays the band’s sense of winking humour, from Marc Ribot’s jangling, skeletal guitar solo to the Clockwork Orange-esque group vocals that come in towards the song’s end (“we’re going out tonight to break some things/we dine on lemonade and pigeon’s wings/we’ll set your shoes on fire and then your hair/we’re kind of ugly, but we don’t care”). The overall effect is of an album which laughs at the accusation that jazz takes itself too seriously, remaining accessibly melodic without sacrificing any of its subtle complexity. When Chunk speaks, listen.
Guided By Voices – Vampire on Titus (1993)
Guided By Voices’ sixth album is their most wilfully lo-fi, with endearingly scratchy, unpolished production on eighteen strange little indie rock songs. The tracks here never poke their heads above the two and a half minute mark (and most of them aren’t even that long), making for an album which feels appealingly to the point. Nothing is allowed to overstay its welcome, and it’s clear that frontman Robert Pollard (without doubt the driving force of Vampire on Titus, handling guitar, drums and vocals) was going for something particularly direct on this album, with nods to classic 60s pop and 80s underground US rock.
The musicianship has a charming simplicity, focused not on impressing the listener with technical chops or snazzy production, but instead on creating a softly enveloping sound of fuzz and crackle. The whole thing sounds like it was recorded completely on the fly, as and when the mood struck Pollard, giving the driving, distorted guitar and occasionally muffled (yet still impassioned) vocals a strange cosiness and intimacy.
Sleep – Dopesmoker (1996/2003)
Seminal stoner/doom metal band Sleep’s third album is perhaps the single most uncompromisingly heavy record of all time. Made up of one unbroken hour-long song, it’s a winding behemoth of massive guitar riffs, killer bass playing and infectiously groovy drumming, taking its sweet time to build up imagery of perpetually baked stoner clansmen travelling through a desert on some mystical pothead quest.
But such audacious ambition inevitably caused problems. In 1996, when presented with the astonishingly thick slab of sludgy stoner doom created by guitarist Matt Pike, bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius, London Records were baffled and didn’t know what to do with it. Cutting a long story short, there was eventually an edited version released under the name Jerusalem. And while that version of Sleep’s magnum opus is a good one, almost exploding in slow motion under its own weight and pace, an edit is still an edit. Anyway, in 2003 the longer Dopesmoker was released – and by Al Cisnero’s account, of all versions it’s the closest to their original epic.
It’s a thing of incredible heaviness. Pike draws out gigantic, droning notes, revelling in repetition, as Cisneros colours the desert landscape with Sabbath-esque bass grooves that tumble infinitely across the burning sand. Haikus’ drumming is spectacular; considering the sheer length of the thing, the groove he brings to it is vital. He seems to swing against the colossal heft brought by his bandmates, carrying everything forward with a relentless drive. Cisneros’ vocals are a kind of heaving chant, mixing perfectly with the biblical references and syntax of the lyrics (“creedsmen roll out across the dying dawn/sacred Israel Holy Mountain Zion”; “Arise, arise, arise – the Son of the God of Israel/Jordan River flows on evermore”).
For those with the patience/mindset to experience it from start to finish, Dopesmoker is a hugely rewarding landmark in the stoner/doom genre, and one of the heaviest pieces of music ever made.