A vehicle for New York drummer/producer Anton Fier’s restless musical talent, the Golden Palominos evolved from edgy downtown supergroup — at one memorable show, the lineup included Fier, David Moss (drums/noise), Arto Lindsay (guitar/vocals), John Zorn (reeds), Bill Laswell (bass) and Jamaaladeen Tacuma (bass); the double rhythm section packed a wallop in unison, but more often the players broke off into intense and fascinating duets and trios — into a band whose art-funk amalgam firmly defined its restrained, elegant grooves. The Palominos’ diverse sound (this is one band that never warranted accusations of repeating itself) arises from the different sets of musicians assembled for each record.
The Golden Palominos — an above-average avant-funk album — would have been a milestone if it had sounded anything like the Palominos’ New York gigs. With guitarists Lindsay and Fred Frith, Laswell and Zorn on hand, it sounds like a more aggressive version of Material. The Palominos add (Mark Miller, Fred Frith, Nicky Skopelitis) and subtract (most often Tacuma and Moss) players while preserving the basic material, tossing in a couple of new things (“Hot Seat,” a song mostly by Miller, and “Cookout,” a Fier percussion piece). Some of the more avant touches (the rhythm section’s off-center funk, the angular guitar and, for the time, adventurous rock use of turntables and other hip-hop techniques) now sound dated, but “Monday Night” and “I.D.” are still fresh. That album (minus one track, “Clean Plate”) was subsequently repackaged on A History (1982-1985), which also contains, in its entirety, the poppier Visions of Excess.
The second phase of Fier’s Palomino experiment took an entirely different direction, converting a loose caravan of talent into an unstable side-group which sporadically performs and records in countless permutations and combinations. Visions of Excess is a brilliant neo-pop album of tuneful, lyrical songs featuring such luminaries as Michael Stipe, John Lydon, Richard Thompson, Jack Bruce, Chris Stamey, Henry Kaiser and Jody Harris. As producer, drummer and co-writer of the songs, Fier is on stylistically unprecedented ground careerwise, but his control and taste are impeccable. A version of Moby Grape’s “Omaha” sung by Stipe is a truly incisive piece of ’80s psychedelia (with a crazed Kaiser breakdown solo) that sounds like a pop hit; “(Kind of) True” and “Buenos Aires,” both starring talented newcomer Syd Straw, are equally memorable. Lydon’s “The Animal Speaks” is, well, the sort of vitriol to be expected of him. Just so no one should forget where this project is coming from, the LP closes with an Arto Lindsay extravaganza, “Only One Party.” Essentially a revue of 1985’s semi-underground stars and sounds, Visions of Excess is one disc everyone should own.
Straw is also featured on Blast of Silence, which (omitting “Brides of Jesus”) is contained on A History (1986-1989). With such folks as Peter Blegvad, T-Bone Burnett and Matthew Sweet on hand (but notably not Stipe or Lydon), the Palominos here move from pop into rarefied versions of country, folk and blues. The songs assay their styles while subverting them with unexpected touches — the hand drum on the countryish “I’ve Been the One,” guitarist Nicky Skopelitis’ searing wah-wah coda on the folky “Something Becomes Nothing,” the poppy acoustic guitars underpinning the bluesy “(Something Else Is) Working Harder.” The previous rotating ensemble work raised expectations of the unexpected, but the plain Blast of Silence has nothing to equal its predecessor’s extraordinary content. Except for Straw singing Peter Holsapple’s “Diamond,” the material isn’t especially interesting; the performances are routine and the darkening outlines of a repeatable formula discourage faith in the future of Fier’s creative vision and energy.
The rest of A History (1986-1989) is devoted to all but one song (“Over”) from A Dead Horse, the first Palominos record to employ a consistent track-by-track lineup (Fier, Laswell, Skopelitis, Numbers Band guitarist/vocalist Robert Kidney and vocalist Amanda Kramer, ex-Information Society). All seven songs are in-house creations (three by Kidney, four by Fier/Skopelitis/Kramer); Kidney’s plaintive singing and Kramer’s multi-tracked harmonies provide a surprisingly pleasant alternative to playing spot-the-star. The band’s weakest album is tasteful and restrained to the point of blandness, with the exception of Kramer’s moody “Darklands.”
This Is How It Feels feels much better. Loosely based on Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, the album moves the Palominos into a sound focused on hypnotically elegant grooves. New singer Lori Carson’s breathy voice, pinned between eroticism and ennui, captures Greene’s ambivalent relationship to temptations of both the flesh and earth. The album also features Lydia Kavanagh fronting a fine version of “These Days” that owes more to Nico (who once recorded it) than to its author, Jackson Browne.
With two monster bassists in the house (Laswell and Bootsy Collins), Pure enters a realm of unbridled sensuality. There’s a post-coital languor to Carson’s singing on “Little Suicides” and the title track. The lushly atmospheric guitars (mostly by Skopelitis and Knox Chandler) swaddle the grooves and vocals in a rich, druggy haze. Pure can be heard as post-modern makeout music, and could certainly be packaged with candles and a bottle of wine. The remix EP contains six Pure-ities reconfigured by Bill Laswell, Bandulu and New York ambient auteur Terre Thaemlitz.