Keith Kawaii - The Crane Engine

It occurs to me that we're probably not going to see those never-before-released "lost early recordings" kinds of albums from present and future generations, like that recent Pauline Oliveros box set on Important, or the Robert Wyatt "68" album from Cuneiform. And I blame Al Gore and his infernal internets for that: where folks used to leave ancient tapes forgotten in dingy attics or abandoned rehearsal spaces, contemporary musicians mostly park their recordings online. Like demo mp3s creaking along on MySpace, time is hypercompressed now, and "early" recordings are likely to resurface only a few years later, especially if their creators continue to make great music.

Such is the case with the Keith Kawaii demos. Dating back to the dawn of web 2.0, The Crane Engine was first seen in the e-wild sometime around 5 or 6 B.S. (Before Spotify). Since then, Mr. Kawaii--perhaps better known as Keith Rankin of Giant Claw, Cream Juice, Orange Milk Records, etc etc--has actually made enough beautiful music and art to fill the span of most folks' careers, so perhaps it's appropriate that "The Crane Engine" has just been released in especially gorgeous packaging by German label/collective Knertz.

I arrived a little late to the Giant Claw party and didn't know about "The Crane Engine" music until this release. With so much awesome stuff happening at Orange Milk Headquarters, a new Giant Claw LP on the way that's reportedly going in fascinating new directions, and never-ending album cover design gigs, Rankin is focused on present and future works. But if you've never heard these tunes before, I highly recommend glancing a short distance into his past and getting into this amazing music, full of left-field pop songwriting and proto-Giant Claw instrumentals that no GC fan should do without.

For folks like me who have only heard Rankin bust out instrumental cable-access-synth-psych-library-music anthems, the first big surprise on "The Crane Engine" will be a few tracks with vocals. I get the impression that Keith is maybe not overly delighted with his vocals on these old tunes, but personally, I really dig his singing on this tape. He's a casual singer, but his pitch control is great, and these are really sincere, ernest takes with a lot of impact. On some pieces like "Paler than Moonlight," the melodies tend toward avant-prog craziness, and you could even call those vocals downright acrobatic, keeping up with weird interval leaps in unison with synths. But most of the vocal-based songs reveal another side of Rankin's compositional prowess: damned catchy melodies. I have been absolutely addicted to "Heart of the Clouds" for weeks now, an incredibly memorable slice of chamber pop happiness that feels like a lost psychedelic radio gem, whirling around elegant, vaguely classical chord progressions. And the album closer, "Find a Way Home," is a singer-songwriter piece, mostly arranged for guitar/vocals, very catchy and heartfelt in an idiom I never thought I'd hear from Rankin. "Man Feelings," indeed!

A lot of "The Crane Engine" is instrumental, though, and these pieces are very much in line with the larger Giant Claw oeuvre. And they're truly phenomenal. While they might lack the really sophisticated arrangements and great sound quality of recent GC releases, they have a sense of fun and immediacy that keeps me turning the tape over for more spins. This has a different kind of live-band energy, too, largely from Keith playing real drums and guitars throughout the album (and damn, it turns out that he's a fine drummer). And that sense of melody: like the best of these vocal tunes, you still have the funky synth tones and prog-meets-chiptune vibe happening in these pieces, but this music puts emphasis on triumphant melodies with a lot of earworm potential. It's not a night and day difference, but I'm hearing these arrangements a bit more horizontally than vertically in comparison to my favorite GC recordings.

The title track, broken into two parts, could really merit a review all its own. It totally nails the urgency of early Giant Claw jams, and it covers the wide stylistic terrain of more recent LPs like "Mutant Glamour," but the drums and occasional wordless vocal embellishments really humanize the piece. It definitely feels composed and arranged with the basic Giant Claw master plan, and given its provenance, listening feels like a bit like being present at the birth of a Haunted Planet. The composition must date to the period where Kawaii transitioned into Claw: the music of early Giant Claw cassette "Erasers Fantasy," for example, apparently made its first appearance in the world under the Kawaii name, and the strutting uptempo "Paper Moon March" found here must be related to the series of piano-driven Paper Moon videos one can still find on YouTube.

The folks at Knertz should really be commended for their beautiful packaging work on "The Crane Engine." As you can see above, the tape and its Norelco case comes housed in a little gray treasure box stamped with the album title, and there is a really cool patch that matches the album art. Super thoughtful, and the digi-abstract artwork really fits the vibe of the music. And it should be said that this recording sounds much, much better on tape than digital. Rankin really pushed the levels on the original recordings, presumably on 4-track, and while that kind of in-the-red approach sounds warm and a touch overdriven on tape, it's a little harsh and bitcrushed sounding in digital.

But listen to it however you'd prefer. Just make sure you listen, because this tape is like a holy grail of the Late Oughts (if there wasn't such a thing yet, there is now). Grab your copy from Knertz here or here.

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