Sun Ra – Brother From Another Planet (dir. Don Letts, BBC film, 2005)

Brother From Another Planet is a 2005 film by Don Letts about the inimitable Sun Ra, telling the story of the pianist and band leader as he migrated from a traditional brand of jazz to something altogether other.

Through contributions from fans like MC5’s Wayne Kramer and Sonic Youth‘s Thurston Moore, Ra biographer John F. Szwed, poet Amiri Baraka and sundry Arkestra members, Letts’s sympathetic documentary highlights Ra’s distinctive spirituality and his ruthless work ethic, as well as a pioneering approach to composition that found him an early experimenter with synths and electronics. 

Central Arkestra member and his devoted successor Marshall Allen recounts how intense rehearsals with Ra were, often lasting over 24 hours, with the band playing while walking from their communal living / rehearsal space right down the street to whichever venue they were playing that evening. Drugs were eschewed in favour of workmanlike discipline, even though, to look at the band dressed in glittery, space-meets-Egyptian garb, you’d think the band were off their faces the whole time.

Ra comes across as a sincere and avuncular perfectionist, using astral spirituality as a means of channelling the energy of his particular big band toward an enlightenment that it still might be impossible to fathom today. “People have no music that is in co-ordination with their spirits,” says Ra during the film. “Because of this, they’re out of tune with the universe.”

Thurston Moore, a massive Sun Ra fan and collector, describes Ra’s level of independence and massive body of self-released recordings as the original “music from the bedroom”; a pioneer of the independent spirit that would influence everything from punk to electronic musicians bashing out tracks from next to their beds.

Through archive footage, interviews, live footage and extracts from Ra’s Space Is The Place film, Letts paints a compelling portrait of this incredible, misunderstood visionary, the likes of which we will more than likely never see again.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Sonic Youth – Spinhead Sessions (Goofin’ album, 2016)


The full sessions for Sonic Youth‘s unused soundtrack to Ken Friedman’s movie Made In The USA have finally seen the light of day, some thirty years after they were recorded. In the UK the band had recently signed to Paul Smith‘s Blast First imprint and were about to release their seminal Sister LP after replacing Bob Bert on drums with Steve Shelley.

Despite the transition they were just about to make, Spinhead Sessions – named for the studio where these instrumental tracks were recorded – has more in common with the spooky atmospheres of their Blast First debut Bad Moon Rising.
I reviewed this for Clash. The review can be found here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Electronic Sound: Issue 8 Reviews & Other Recent Writings

Electronic Sound - Issue 8

I haven’t updated Documentary Evidence for a while but that’s not because I haven’t been busy with other writings.

The latest edition of Electronic Sound for iPad is now available. This issue features my reviews of Erasure‘s excellent album The Violet Flame, Olivia Louvel‘s mesmerising Beauty Sleep (featuring one track based around a sample of Recoil‘s ‘Stone’) and a major interview with Simian Mobile Disco about their new ambient album Whorl.

Issue 8 also includes a feature on the fortieth anniversary of Kraftwerk‘s ‘Autobahn’, which includes input from Mute‘s own Daniel Miller.

To read more go to the Electronic Sound website.

Just lately I’ve found myself spending some time at the Milton Keynes concert venue that’s literally on the doorstep of the village in which I live (The Stables) and in the last month I’ve reviewed three gigs at the venue. This marks something of a tentative return to reviewing gigs after a long break. The first was something pretty special for me – Nik Kershaw, whose solo acoustic show I reviewed for This Is Not Retro. Kershaw’s music was what I grew up with and Human Racing, his first album, was the first album I ever owned. My review for that concert, with photos from the Worthing gig on the same tour by my good friend and talented photographer Andy Sturmey can be found here.

I’ve also written two pieces for a local Milton Keynes site – TotalMK – of my other two recent Stables gigs. Dylan Howe’s Subterraneans found the jazz drummer performing pieces from Subterraneans, which sees his band work through jazz versions of tracks from David Bowie’s Berlin period. Howe is a hugely talented drummer who has worked with many different acts in the jazz and rock world, including Nick Cave, for whom he drummed on songs to the soundtrack for I Am Sam with The Blockheads. The other Stables gig was Tom Baxter, well known for getting picked by movie and TV producers when a stirring song is ever required for a soundtrack.

As well as that little lot, you’ll continue to find my reviews in Clash each month – the latest issue includes a piece of mine on the latest Thurston Moore album, which is more than likely the closest we’re going to get to a classic Sonic Youth LP anytime soon.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Sonic Youth – Hits Are For Squares (Geffen / Starbucks album, 2008)

Sonic Youth 'Hits Are For Squares' CD artwork

geffen / starbucks | cd 0602527781778 | 10/06/2008 | track listing

Hits Are For Squares is an almost career-spanning sixteen-track Sonic Youth compilation album. The album was released initially only in US Starbucks stores in 2008 in conjunction with Geffen, Sonic Youth’s home since leaving SST / Enigma (in the States) and Blast First (in the UK) following the release of Daydream Nation. Ignoring the obvious charges of ‘selling out’ by letting the mighty Starbucks put out a compilation album, what’s relatively unique about Hits Are For Squares is that the tracks themselves were all chosen by various celebrity fans (rubber-limbed Chili Pepper Flea, actress Catherine Keener, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and so on) or collaborators (Minutemen’s Mike Watt). Those choices, plus their reasons for choosing a particular track are explained in the liner notes alongside brief notes on the tracks and where they fit into the Sonic Youth back catalogue. And hey, the self-deprecating album title isn’t dissimilar to Hip To Be Square, the 1986 album from Huey Lewis & The News beloved by Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and that’s always cool with me. Meanwhile, the sleeve looks like it’s trying to be an Edward Hopper portrait, the suit drinking his Starbucks coffee shamelessly reinforcing the commercial nature of this album. A ‘caffeine-free’ vinyl edition was released by the band later in 2010.

What’s immediately evident from the selections is that there are way more choices from the Geffen ‘commercial’ Sonic Youth period rather than their earlier independent label period, aside from firm fan favourites like ‘Teen Age Riot’ (from Daydream Nation), ‘Tuff Gnarl’ (from Sister), ‘Shadow Of A Doubt’, ‘Expressway To Yr. Skull’ (aka ‘Madonna, Sean And Me’) and ‘Tom Violence’ (all from Evol) and the earliest track here, the raw ‘The World Looks Red’ (from the Confusion Is Sex EP with Grinderman / Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds / Silver Alert drummer Jim Sclavunos on the skins and lyrics by SwansMichael Gira). In general the tracks lean toward the accessible side of the Sonic Youth back catalogue rather than the more experimental, but that’s what you get when you try and shift your album in outlets of the ubiquitous Seattle coffee chain (Seattle resident Eddie Vedder, incidentally, has a bit of a rant about not liking coffee in his notes to ‘Teen Age Riot’, which is rather like biting the hand that feeds if you ask me, but it’s still funny). Also, most of the tracks are those sung by Thurston Moore; Kim Gordon gets a couple of her lead vocal tracks included (including the annoying ‘duet’ with Chuck D, ‘Kool Thing’ and the beguiling ‘Shadow Of A Doubt’) and poor Lee Ranaldo doesn’t have any of his sung / spoken tracks included at all. Diablo Cody chooses the cover of ‘Superstar’ from a tribute album to The Carpenters which, while pretty, still feels uncharacteristically kitsch for Sonic Youth; far better would have been something from the more radical Ciccone Youth album.

Personally, I’d liken this compilation to the type of coffee you get from Starbucks – in other words a bit watered down, vaguely inauthentic but nevertheless addictive all the same, precisely because it is so accessible. I approached this album having not listened to most of the Sonic Youth back catalogue for some time and it felt like I was hearing these tracks for the first time all over again, ‘Teen Age Riot’ (still one of my favourites from their entire body of work) and ‘Bull In The Heather’ (from Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star) in particular sounding really fresh and unfamiliar, just like I was listening to them for the first time again.

The album also includes a previously unreleased track, ‘Slow Revolution’, which mines a similar vein to Washing Machine‘s long-form ‘Diamond Sea’ (a track I’d definitely have included, though at twenty minutes it was clearly never going to make the grade while the single edit lacks the very expansiveness that makes the song so impressive); like ‘Diamond Sea’, ‘Slow Revolution’ is a languidly-paced number, all Jaki Liebezeit-style drums from Steve Shelley and layers of hazy guitar riffs and Kim Gordon wailing away somewhere in the middle ground like she’s singing in tongues. It’s a far cry from this band’s more blistering white hot punk tracks, but it’s quite beautiful nonetheless; think the Velvets’ ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ passed through a Krautrock filter. ‘Slow Revolution’ is worth buying this compilation for in itself.

Gripes aside, Hits Are For Squares provides a great overview for anyone unfamiliar with Sonic Youth. It’s not as good as my own Sonic Youth compilation tapes that I made at the start of the last decade, but that’s personal choices for you.

I decided to re-post this because I’ve been listening to The Best Day, the new solo album from Thurston Moore which I’m reviewing this month for Clash.

Track listing:

cd:
1. Bull In The Heather
2. 100%
3. Sugar Kane
4. Kool Thing
5. Disappearer
6. Superstar
7. Stones
8. Tuff Gnarl
9. Teenage Riot
10. Shadow Of A Doubt
11. Rain On Tin
12. Tom Violence
13. Mary-Christ
14. The World Looks Red
15. Expressway To Yr. Skull
16. Slow Revolution

First published 2010 / re-posted 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence