Monday, January 10, 2005


As a quick recap for anyone who wasn't reading last week, David Cunningham was the guy behind The Flying Lizards (the band that did that wacky cover of the song Money, often heard on news programs about conspicuous consumption).

Before that, though, he had recorded an album back in 1977 called Grey Scale. It's basically an experimental record and sort of sounds like The Flying Lizards with every single aspect that might be considered catchy or "pop" removed. That includes the rhythm section. No vocals either. If you thought that The Flying Lizards' schtick involved removing all the "pop" from pop songs, you have no idea how far this can be taken.

It's made up of two kinds of pieces: side A consists of "Error Systems" which involve playing a repeating phrases until you make a mistake, then incorporating the mistake into the phrase. Side B puts the emphasis more on manipulated tape samples. Both sides have the potential to be excellent room clearers at the end of a party. Descriptions of this album from the web site:

"... a whole bunch of those toy monkeys who bang little cymbals when you wind them up but they're playing little pianos and water glasses and synthesizers instead, and some run out of steam before the others and you have to rewind them and then the sound changes slightly"

"Your mom gets really stoned and goes into the kitchen to make dinner, but instead of cooking she starts hypnotically banging and tapping on all the pots and pans and utensils... making a strange music that only she can understand"

You get the idea. Here's track three from Side A, Error System (C pulse group recording) and here's track two from Side B, Water Systemised.

Several years later, David Cunningham teamed up with downtown Manhattan composer Peter Gordon (last seen in this blog back when I wrote about a record called New Music From Antarctica) for a record called The Yellow Box. This one, I like a lot.

People who play on the album include John Greaves (of Henry Cow) and Anton Fier (Feelies, Lounge Lizards, Golden Palominos). I'm not sure there's an official name for the kind of music that's on this album. It's got too much going on to be ambient, it's got a little too much rock and jazz to be classical, but for the most part it's not skronky and/or arch enough to really qualify as downtown experimental (by which I mean that, with a few exceptions, it doesn't sound like either John Zorn or David Byrne were ever in the room). It makes use of a lot of sampled sounds (via tape, not sampler), but it's not exactly industrial or music concrete or anything like that. And at times it can be quite melodic, but it's sure not pop or "early post-rock".

The closest comparison I know of might be Simon Fisher Turner's work, much of which is/was movie soundtracks. In the liner notes, Peter Gordon talks about, "treating musical materials which [he] produced as 'found objects'" and that might be the best description: an album full of found objects. David Cunningham talks about making the album like a painter, and that seems like another good way of looking at it. But I want to stress that it's not especially abstract or all that hard to listen to. There's definitely a musical focus for most of the songs.

Unlike Grey Scale, this one is on CD. From it, here's Are You A Fish? and Citizen. I want to strongly encourage the use of headphones, partly because there are lots of neat little details and partly because I find that this doesn't really work well as background music (it's generally more jagged than Simon Fisher Turner's stuff).

For what it's worth, I'm not sure that The Yellow Box is the kind of album that grabs you by the throat on first listen, but I can honestly say that I listen to it frequently. It has a lot of variety, and I really wish that I knew of more records like it. I'll probably post one more track from it tomorrow, but I'm in a rush today.

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