Monday, June 28, 2010

ALBERT AYLER TRIO: Spiritual Unity

Albert Ayler - Spiritual Unity
ESP-Disk was named for founder Bernard Stollman’s interest in Esperanto, a universal language designed to unify mankind in peace and understanding. The label’s original aim was to release recordings of songs and spoken-word projects in this new language, but today ESP-Disk is best known for releasing the music of free-jazz giants like Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra.

It’s fitting, then, that the label’s story starts with this 29-minute fireball recorded in one quick summer session in 1964. LBJ had just signed the Civil Rights act into law, Barry Goldwater was on the cover of TIME magazine, and A Hard Day’s Night had just opened in theaters. The musicians arrived, microphones were set up, and this half-hour of music was apparently recorded in a half-hour. No outtakes, no overdubs. Regarding Ayler’s trio, a catalogue description included in the liner notes of other ESP releases reads “American youths brainwashed by the big hype of plastic fantastic rockshuck are only now beginning to recognize the quiet giants of world music among whom stand these three.”

Yes, the kids thought the Beatles were pretty cool until this hoarse horse of a saxophone wail obliterated all that “Ticket to Ride” nonsense. By 1965, Beatlemania had totally tanked and Ayler-fever was sweeping the nation. Nary a sock-hop could be heard that didn’t include a partner-dance to Sunny Murray’s free-time drums, heard on this recording in crazed monaural sound, and bassist Gary Peacock was the new teen-heartthrob, adorning the bedroom walls of a million swooning girls.

I know. That didn’t happen. But while the Beatles brand is fused to videogames and lunchboxes and all varieties of received nostalgia, Spiritual Unity enjoys a sleeper-hit, classic-status reputation to this day. It’s easy to see why. This record has huge, brassy balls.

It’s not what they do, it’s what they DON’T do. Chords? No. Time signatures? Barely. Rules? Of course not. Look at your copy of any ESP-Disk release and you should see the label's motto printed on it somewhere: “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk.” Imagine the meeting between Ayler’s trio and a three-piece suit at Major-Label headquarters. “Fellas, we want to give the kids something to dance to, can you play something NICE for a change?”

Thankfully, that didn’t happen either. With total creative freedom, these three “quiet giants” made an incredible racket, walking a duckling/swan tightrope in boiling tension for a relentless 29 minutes. That’s a short running time, but I’m not sure our faint little hearts could withstand much more than that. The manic clatter never lets up and it’s an exhausting listen in the best possible way. Whenever I hear this record I feel like I've been splattered in the sweat pouring off of these three. Ayler’s caterwaul is such odd, fractured beauty as he speaks in tongues with his trembling vibrato and his kamikaze phrasing spirals to abrupt stops. When he lays out, the spotlight falls on Peacock’s prickley audiopuncture bass, darting around in spasms and seizures. All the while, Murray’s drums ramble in paragraphs without pattern or meter. I suppose “Spirits” is this trio’s version of a romantic serenade but I don’t recommend you play it on a first date, unless you’re trying to scare away timid suitors.

Don’t be put off by all this iconoclasm. While the Ayler Trio operates with very little rhythmic structure or conventional harmony, there’s always something to latch on to. The singsongy theme that introduces “Ghosts” (included in two different “variations”) sets the right tone; playful and energetic. You’re not going to be able to sing the stuff in between from memory (though your attempts to do so would be a great submission to Youtube) but give this a chance, rock-and-rollers, and hear that ecstatic energy you dig so much pushed through a warped prism of total musical freedom. That jubilance is the attraction. This isn’t austere, alienating music for graduates of the abrasion-endurance-test school of music listening. This is genuinely fun! These guys found their new language, and it’s not Esperanto - it’s AYLER.

Just a couple of years after this debut, John Coltrane got Ayler signed to the Impulse! label, even including him on Ascension alongside people like Pharoah Sanders and John Tchicai. In the late 1960s, Ayler put out some quickly-dated, accessible records that just weren’t EXTREME enough for his purist fanbase, and by 1970, he was dead (suicide, apparently.) The candle that burns twice as bright… Thankfully, Ayler left behind a body of work that demonstrates the kind of fearless music that is made when “the artist alone decides” and the creative process is not tethered by market concerns and “plastic fantastic” hype.

Friday, June 25, 2010

FLYING LOTUS: Cosmogramma

Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma

On his latest record, Flying Lotus races through seventeen complex and creative tracks in forty-five minutes. Without a tracklist, you might never know where one title ends and the next begins. That’s not because it all sounds the same, (it doesn’t) but because the individual tracks, far from being self-contained, fit together so perfectly into this cohesive, well-sequenced suite of oddly inviting music.

The boney gangle of 2008’s austere Los Angeles was persistently claustrophobic and the album felt like a collection of sketches, but on this follow-up FlyLo lets the music breathe and develop. The organic polyrhythmic lope you expect from him is augmented with a larger sonic toolbox, including string arrangements and other live instrumentation. It’s no less spacey, but far easier to warm to.

Some of the songs even feature sung hooks, and the vocals (by the likes of Thundercat, Laura Darlington and some guy called Thom Yorke) are as singalongable as anything we’ve ever heard under the Flying Lotus name (save for maybe Gonjasufi’s infectious cameo on Los Angeles).

The contributions from guest musicians are great, most notably Thundercats’s fluid bass pyrotechnics and Rebekah Raff’s harp.

That harp is one of the most obvious links to FlyLo’s heritage (Alice Coltrane is his Great Aunt), along with the way “German Haircut” and the aptly named “Arkestry” pair lo-fi jazz drumming with saxophone solos played by Ravi Coltrane. Rather than let these elements of 1960s spiritual jazz tie him down to the past, though, FlyLo adopts and adapts them to suit his purposes. A nostalgic homage wouldn’t be as true to the music of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane as a record that continues to push boundaries they way they did.

The reference points are obvious, (video game music, post-Donuts instrumental hip-hop, the rhythms of jungle and house) but this is as fresh and unique as anything I’ve heard in a long time and it’s a pleasure to hear it now, before the inevitable onslaught of Flying Lotus imitators makes it seem less special. There’s an ease to the ideas here, the open approach of a musician carving out his own space and kicking down doors like its no big deal. Even if some of those inevitable imitators make a more sophisticated or complex version of this music, I doubt anyone will ever make it with the same kind of fearless joy.

Any list of the huge-grin-inducing moments here will be incomplete, but some of my favorites are the ping-pong percussion on “Table Tennis”, the scat singing that introduces “Do The Astral Plane” and Todd Simon’s trumpet-playing on that same track.

The “Flying Lotus sound” is perfected here. No matter how programmed or looped the percussion is, it swings with humanity instead of snapping artificially to a computerized grid like hyper-perfect robot drums. Compressor-overload kicks pummel surrounding sounds, synthy tones are glitched and gutted, voices are timestretched and pitch-shifted, but no matter how tweaked and trimmed, these sounds are weirdly, beautifully soulful.

Monday, June 21, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 6 - Brain Wreck Show

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 6 - Brain Wreck Show
For better or worse, this is the mix I’ve been waiting for Madlib to make, not for the content (“global psychedelic, progressive and hard rock & funk circa 1968-1976”), but for the execution.

A great DJ mix repurposes pre-existing material in a context that gives it new life, combining portions of disparate works in a self-contained, linear experience (whether for discotheques or living rooms) that voyages from valley to peak, tension to release, in a meticulously-paced arc. Along the way, the DJ reveals unexpected connections and contrasts between the original works, but you’re free to just revel in the music, totally oblivious to all that label-spotting and dancefloor-critique. The DJ did the legwork for you, combing through tons (literally) of records to find that one song, sometimes that one little part of a song, that will complete your musical life.

Madlib’s mixes, on the other hand, usually seem less about creating a new experience from repurposed records, and more about drawing attention to the original recordings. They’re sort of a demonstration for record hounds, put on by the ultimate record hound. Flight to Brazil was a tour of a specific region’s diverse musical landscape, and 420 Chalice All-Stars was an aficionado’s take on a particular genre, and both pointed listeners down specific paths of cratedigging inquiry. That’s why the lack of original track information alongside the Medicine mixes, while understandable from a legal standpoint, is so frustrating.

Finally, though, Madlib has made a mix that isn’t about the source material, but about the mix itself. While taking on an impossibly broad category as his unifying theme, for the first time on any of his mixes he has cast his pet treasures in a new light. It’s just too bad that this light is kind of ugly.

This is the most chaotic and abrasive of Madlib’s projects, interspersing noisy, psychedelic rock music with long sound-collage interludes. Early on, a man with a heavy accent singing a Spencer Davis Group song prepares you for an upbeat excursion through a DJ’s favorite obscure rock and roll. It’s a red herring, though. The songs here are smothered in mangled sound and frequently cut surprisingly short. Just when you start getting into a song (like the melodic tune in the first half of the third track) it is interrupted and rescinded. Attentive listeners will hear material they have heard sampled elsewhere, but what stands out more than anything is how much of the mix relies on spoken-word interludes, spacey intros and “freak-out” portions of songs. At times it feels like the “rock” has been taken out of this psychedelic rock. I think that may have been the intent. When a bluesy saxophone solo pops up in the second track, it’s run through a gauntlet of mixing effects and covered with barely identifiable sounds so it lurks and scowls where, on the original record, it grinned. Brain Wreck Show’s album cover, depicting anthropomorphic rabbits mid-coitus, suits the hallucinatory feel of the mix perfectly (as do the paranoid liner notes, compiled from an unidentified creationist text about Israeli dinosaurs, Chemtrails conspiracy theories, some DJ Quik lyrics and slightly-tweaked excerpts from a controversial book written by one of the founding Seventh-Day Adventists.)

I’m not opposed to music that is jarring and abrasive (can’t get enough Einstürzende Neubauten!) but this mix tries my patience as it descends deeper and deeper into a paranoid Labyrinth of disembodied voices and hallucinatory sounds. Sirens! Screams! Novelty records!

Psyche-rock as far back as Freak Out! and Sgt Pepper’s has always incorporated found sounds (Stockhausen-lite? “Poème Électronique” by way of The Mothers of Invention?) and it makes sense that this is one of the elements of that music that Madlib would hook onto. However, while the interludes on Before the Verdict were tangents at best and distractions at worst, the atonal found-sound here doesn’t feel like a break from the main attraction. To a great extent, it is the main attraction. How you feel about much of this CD will depend on how you feel about sound collages and tape-music.

There has always been an element of musique concrète in Madlib’s projects. Technically, all sample-based music is concrete music, but Madlib, moreso than almost any other hip-hop producer, frequently finds space on his releases to push closer and closer to “Williams Mix” territory. On this mix we have plenty of that, like the dissonant section in the fourth track covered with anti-drug PSAs read by the Looney Tunes or the extended “Eighteen nuns!” bit. This stuff is, from a listening standpoint, my least favorite part of Brain Wreck Show, but in the context of Madlib’s developing methods, it’s actually more intriguing than the songs.

We can think of this mix as analogous to the unaccompanied solos Lester Bowie plays on the second disc of All The Magic or Jimmy Giuffre’s solo clarinet experiments on Free Fall. The turntable/sampler set-up is Madlib’s primary instrument, and with this mix he’s pushing it to new places. A musician who doesn’t explore will surely stagnate. Not every experiment will be a success, but if iconoclasts played it safe, they wouldn’t be iconoclasts, and a lot of our favorite music would never have happened.

I’d like to see Madlib take some of this approach and develop it on future mixes, scrambling and mangling songs even further, blurring the lines between “beat-tape” and “mix”. There are three more mixes to go in this series, and it will be interesting to see how they’re put together.

In the meantime, we have reached the halfway point, and July’s release, High Jazz, sounds very promising.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

MADLIB: Medicine Show No. 5 - The History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000

Madlib - Madlib Medicine Show: No. 5 - History of the Loop Digga, 1990-2000
This may as well be called Beat Konducta in the 1990s. The fifth Medicine Show release, and the third to feature Madlib’s original work, is a mix of production Madlib farmed out on beat tapes as he was making his name in the 90s.

Hearing the work a favorite artist did in his formative years can, if nothing else, illuminate that artist’s development and the roots of his more recent work, but History of the Loop Digga is more than just a chronicle of Madlib’s dues-paying. While it is fun to spot the signs of things to come (Quasimoto cameos, that “grass increases creativity” sample from “America’s Most Blunted”), this record is a work that stands on its own.

Part of what makes this such a perfect listen is the massive volume of ideas. There are 34 tracks here, but the indexing is pretty meaningless, since most tracks feature two or more distinctly different beats, and there are a thousand little snippets in between to tease us with the thought that Madlib’s vaults are bottomless. The mixing and editing keep things moving at a fast clip: an incredible beat will pop up and then get yanked away in as little as thirty seconds. The only way to bounce back from cutting something like that short is to immediately hit us with something just as good or better, and that is what happens here. This structure is made possible by the fact that ten years of work (from a notoriously prolific artist) are being whittled down into what fits on one CD, and the fast pace is a smart move because the full-length versions of these tracks would, presumably, be pretty repetitive since they were designed to accompany rappers.

Despite how they were intended to be used, I like listening to these beats without rhymes. This way, I can imagine the infinite possibilities, the endless ways a thousand different MCs could rock this beat or that beat. And this must be how producers like Madlib listen to music; imagining the infinite possibilities, how that break or this bassline can be flipped a thousand different ways.

Among all the breaks and basslines here a few recognizable samples pop up, and while I don’t want to get anyone into trouble, I’ll just say it is particularly cool to hear samples from two of my favorite concept albums: a legendary soul singer’s underrated album about his divorce and a Detroit-based jazz harpist’s unjustly overlooked song cycle based on the poetry of Omar Khayyam (I get chills whenever anyone samples that album).

Madlib circa the 2000s samples things no one else would think to use (dig that prog-rock sample in Madvilain's “Strange Ways” for example) while Madlib circa the 90s uses a lot of material you would expect a hip-hop producer to use, but it’s the dish that matters, not the ingredients.

And this is a dish for connoisseurs, one focused more on skill than innovation. This is, naturally, closer to Lootpack in sound and approach than anything else in Madlib’s catalogue. And while the production isn’t as daring as, say, Beat Konducta in Africa, it’s amazing how Madlib’s distinct verve comes through even in this more conservative boom-bap milieu.

As samples of strings, vocals, horns and pianos, (frequently digitized by hardware, bit-crushed and compressed) weave around snippets of speech (locked into the beat or hovering over it) and rapping (acapella tracks scratched on turntable), the drums swing with a classic in-the-pocket bounce. Kick drums are heavy and snares are solid brick, not as sneaky as some of Madlib's more recent beats.

One of the things that makes Madlib’s production so diverse and addictive is the way he’s willing to allow a beat to be sneaky. If you want to know what I'm talking about, listen to Beat Konducta Vols. 5-6. Not everything is a hard four-on-the-floor that even accountants can dance to. This is why Madlib works so well with Guilty Simpson: Guilty’s rapping is all about punching you in the mouth with words, and over those sneaky beats (see “The Paper” on Medicine Show No. 1 for reference) he doesn’t have to compete with a louder-than-bombs BOOM on every downbeat and his voice can be the muscle.

Of course, the opposite can also work, like C.L. Smooth rapping in his incredibly, well, smooth cadence over a booming Pete Rock beat. In the final portion of History of the Loop Digga, we’re treated to some rapping along those lines, laid back vocals in tandem with hard-nodding drums. It’s all pretty solid rapping (courtesy Declaime, Wildchild, Madlib himself, and others), but nothing that will change the art form forever. What makes this portion of the record so enjoyable is how loose and fun it is, like we’re listening in on a few pals just messing around, putting down lyrics and making records for the sheer joy of it. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

It’s impossible to get bored with this thing, and you can’t shut it off halfway through, because everything is tied together in a well-sequenced and cohesive whole. There are several reoccurring sounds, like the “Surgeon General’s warning” and a certain James Brown grunt that show up over and over. Likewise, the sample in “Episode XIV” comes back, for exactly one downbeat, in the next track, used as a transition. Those little touches make this a more immersive listen, a journey from point A to point B instead of a bunch of unrelated ideas thrown at the wall in a see-what-sticks melee.

The album art veers away from the consistent aesthetic found on all the other Medicine Show releases so far, (a visual unity akin to the classic Blue Note covers from the 60s), replacing it with a hyper-violent Blaxploitation comic by Benjamin Marra. (Note to record companies: liner notes that are comic books are awesome.) The incongruity of the artwork, as well as the archival nature of this release, make it stick out in the Medicine Show a little, and I think it would have found more success as a stand-alone release, since the “Volume 5 of 12” tag might put off listeners who aren’t Madlib fanatics. If the Medicine Show eventually goes out of print like Madlib’s Mind Fusion series from a few years ago (impossible to find, trust me!), I hope this one sticks around or goes to a second pressing, because it’s easily in the top tier of Madlib’s releases.

I don’t want you to think that I am some kind of biased Madlib fanatic, but I do want you to know that this particular album is an incredible, joyous listening experience made for music lovers by a music lover. Stop surfing the internet and go get it.

Five down, seven to go. Up next is another mix, and then, as rumor has it, the Medicine Show is going full blown jazz for a couple of months.