Wednesday, August 01, 2012

More Can to consider...

The French have a marvelous word, "introuvable," which a friend of mine once translated as "unfindable." "Unobtainable" is the usual rendering, "rare" or "lost" might do as well in a pinch, but I think his word choice had more nuance. The amazing German band Can has just released a three-disc set of "introuvable" or "lost" tapes, though it appears that they actually pretty much knew where they were all along. Now they've been combed over and the best material from the thirty-plus hours of rediscovered archived tape reels is now in the public sphere for all to consider, and even for those who think they've heard all that Can has to offer, I think this set offers some surprises. For just one indication, try "Graublau." Here the Can commandos demonstrate for other members of the Krautrock school how to really do that whole "motorik" thing. That's a start...

I once described Can to someone as "the sort of a band that might have resulted if Karlheinz Stockhausen had decided to supervise a merger of the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground." That doesn't begin to cover their strange synthesis of styles and techniques, but it's a beginning. Two of their members DID study with Stockhausen, keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and bassist/sound designer Holger Czukay. Schmidt eschewed any conventional keyboard role, rarely playing supporting chord progressions or melodic material, instead producing unearthly textures and slowly-building gestures. Czukay's bass playing was a model of economy and he studiously crafted a lean foundation that would support the widest possible array of harmonic options. Jaki Leibzeit, a former member of the Manfred Schoof Quintet, was their drummer, one of the most remarkable, hypnotic time-keepers in all of rock. Michael Karoli was their guitarist, a soloist of endless invention and gorgeous tone. His lines had an effortless fluid grace; he seemed incapable of repeating himself.

But the thing that made them remarkable, especially in their prime, from about 1969-74, was that elusive element known as "chemistry." In combination with their two notable vocalists, Malcom Mooney ('68-70) and Damo Suzuki ('70-73), they set a new standard for invention and productivity, and they sounded like no other band in the world. Their last studio album came out in 1989, and the statement remains true to this day. The Lost Tapes material is largely taken from this "golden age;" most of the tracks are from ca. 1968-'72, a handful from '74-'76. The compilation was assembled by Irmin Schmidt, aided by his son-in-law, Jono Podmore.

"Chemistry" is an oft-abused term, sometimes implying that the parties involved played no active role in the result, it was merely a happy accident. Maybe, but I think that in most cases it also means that the parties involved have (or had) an understanding of the implications of their working together, an awareness of the potential and thus a responsibility to realize it. In the case of Can, this took the form of thousands of hours of rehearsal and improvisation. (I once read in an interview that they rehearsed daily for ten years, several hours a day.) These would be recorded by Holger Czuckay and then edited into a compact, coherent form. The bulk of the material on The Lost Tapes is material that they saved from these sessions, but never found the right context for release.

I recently played a class of mine "Halleluhwah," from their greatest album, Tago Mago. Within seconds of the opening, the entire class (none of whom had ever heard of Can) was utterly mesmerised, heads nodding in time, throughout the classroom. (If you know the song, you know what I mean. If not, try it; you'll do it too.) The class was astonished to learn that it was released 40 years ago, even more astonished to learn that it was recorded without multi-tracking. Edited down to its eighteen minute length from a two-hour improvisation, it remains as as powerful as the first time I heard it.

As was the case with a lot of great bands, I came to their music late. The first Can album I purchased was a compilation called Cannibalism (on LP) sometime around 1979. I was struck by how utterly timeless and unrooted their music was. Listening to "Father Cannot Yell," the first track of theirs which I remember hearing, I found myself falling into that state of bafflement, where all the elements seem to indicate one thing, but you find yourself unmoored and experiencing something completely different. They sounded like a rock band on the surface. Instrumentation, rhythms and energy all supported this concept, but their progressions didn't seem to go anywhere and they made musical choices that most bands would have avoided. I didn't know what to call it. Now, I'd just call it "Can." They became their own genre.

The other aspect of them that took me forever to discover was that their live shows were nothing like their recordings, in that they made no effort whatsoever to reproduce those recordings onstage. I never had the opportunity to hear them live, so I could only go by what I heard on their studio albums. Recently I began listening to the many live recordings that circulate among fans, and discovered I had only a partial measure of their greatness. Having listened to a fair number of live recordings from this era, their performances used their "songs" in the most general sense, as a template for improvisation, not a work to be performed with any consistency. I've heard live versions of "Mother Sky" that bore only the most vague relationship to the studio recording. Performances would often feature "spontaneous composition," wherein the band seemingly telepathically united to form a new work on the spot. This ability surpasses other "jam" groups (IMO) such as Phish or the Grateful Dead, in that their pacing is flawless and the interplay between the musicians is completely integrated. They are listening, to one another more than themselves. [Update] A comparison of the studio version of "Spoon" with a live version from 1972 makes this argument more vividly than I ever could.

Can essentially broke up in 1979, long past their musical peak. They had moved ("progressed" seems an inappropriate verb here) from playing live-to-two-track to working in a multitrack studio and with that much of their spontaneity was lost. As Irmin Schmidt noted, "In the very end, we were not listening to each other any more, which was giving up the main thing, the heart and soul of Can." The reformed in 1986 with Malcom Mooney, and made an album Rite Time (not released until '89), but their era as a group had pretty much ended. Michael Karoli passed away in 2001 after a long battle with cancer, and the possibility of a reunited Can passed with him. They played on one another's solo projects (some of Holger Czukay's solo albums are essentially Can productions), and have carefully protected and maintained their recorded legacy. The Lost Tapes simply expands and deepens that legacy.

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