Sunday, October 23, 2011
DTSS! will have to go on hold for a little while, but I'll be back soon, catching up with Madlib, telling you all about Matana Roberts (our new musical champion!) and some other good stuff.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
When I wrote about Zomby’s debut album, I was struck by how it looked backwards, flirting with the line between music-as-art and music-as-discipline. “Maybe” I said “Zomby is making one last nostalgic stop before launching into the wide unknown.”
I guess this is the wide unknown. Shorter than his first (it’s a hair over 35 minutes), Dedication could easily be mistaken for another of Zomby’s many EPs. Packaging music as an album rather than an EP gives a listener certain expectations, though. Traditionally, the EP is interstitial and transitional, taking artistic risks in a safer, below-the-radar release likely to only be heard by people predisposed to be root for you. The album, on the other hand, is expected to be a fully-formed statement with a cohesive structure.
One thing carried over from Where Were U in 92? is Zomby’s preference for short tracks crammed together end-to-end with sudden transitions (or, put another way, without transitions.) Those short running-times (along with nervy syncopation on tracks like "Digital Rain") might remind you of the L.A. beat scene, but without the textured warmth that gives Teebs and Flying Lotus their playful bent, Dedication has the dead stare of an NES game-over screen. On Where Were U, this was the quick-minded excitement of a bedroom-studio raver ready to party. Here, though, it’s more like the fractured conversation of someone who is deeply distracted. The inner jacket, in stark white-on-black text, says “Dedicated to BDM 11.11.46 – 25.06.10”. I know a quick Google could probably fill in the gaps, but if Zomby thought I required more backstory, he would have written liner-notes.
What is clear is that this is music in mourning. Everything is dark here. The minimal cover lists titles like “Witch Hunt”, “Vanquish”, “Riding with Death” and “Things Fall Apart”. The second track (“Natalia’s Song”) is so pretty and eager and desperate, not only the (probably sampled) female vocals, but also the minimal, Burial-esque percussion and the swaying synths sulking through their dirge chords. It’s one of the few tracks given a chance to develop, (at four minutes it is by far the longest on the album) but it still strains against some plastic sheet trapping it against the ground, as if it wants to take off into something cathartic but never does. On “Witch Hunt” gunshots (the saddest sound in the world) are used as percussion.
Everywhere, crisp synths with sharp, digital timbres, loop in big empty warehouses, with reverb ping-pong against cement and steel. There are no breaks or breakdowns, and the clouds never part. Even a guest spot from Animal Collective’s Panda Bear does nothing to break the cold, morose spell.
This is a record with an emotional purpose singular and clear. I actually find the unrelenting gloom to be a little overwhelming. The way incredible moments like “Vortex” are cut short is almost cruel, but I found myself with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome while listening to this. Dedication made me uneasy, and it captivated me totally. Comparing it to Where Were U in 92? reveals considerable range on Zomby’s part, and I’m sure both records will occupy unique roles in his slowly-growing body of work.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Here's the paradox: Madlib's music is, on the one hand, deeply intertextual and, on the other hand, perplexingly insular. To the theory that music can only be about itself, The Bad Kid offers a revision: His music can only be about other people's music. And, repurposed and scrambled as it is, much of it (in one way or another) literally is other people's music. Hijacking is Madlib's art, and he's brilliant at it. When he's not curating or sampling the work of others he's interpreting it with Yesterday's Universe, naming tracks after his heroes, or aping their styles and rhythms.
In theory, this project should be deeply intertextual, connecting to and reflecting the work of others, but it is strangely self-contained, and the resulting music functions best as an obsessive binge. I don't listen to Madlib's music in a rotation with other music. Instead, I listen to Madlib almost exclusively for a chunk of time, and then forget him until the next big Madlib Kick. This is not because he's made about 700 albums, or the fact that his work is diverse enough to be a complete musical diet. It is because his music only makes sense according to the laws of nature in Madlibland.
You can think of this place as underground hip-hop's version of The Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. Direct routes are forbidden, and the ground is littered with long forgotten artifacts and debris. When I'm not there, I'm not interested in it and I can't see the appeal of this erratic, scattered mindspace. I'd rather go somewhere safe and warm like Abbey Road. When I feel that specific pull to Madlibland, however, I have to answer and like the Stalkers who lead passengers through The Zone, I have an obsessive compulsion to evangelize the experience.
Among this terrain's most distinct features are the jagged, abrupt changes. Beats and verses and grooves tumble out of the toybox with no obvious structure, sequence, or any transitions a Q-switch couldn't provide. At any moment, any idea can halt or start right in the "middle" of things. Quick cross fades and chaotic sound collage make it impossible to get your bearings. This infuriates outsiders, delights the die-hards, and has never been more prominent than it is on the Medicine Show. If that's not by design, it's a very happy accident. There's something transitory about these volumes, and the release schedule, flexible as it has turned out to be, makes the series something no one will even try to follow unless they are perfectly tuned to Madlib's ADHDJ wavelength.
Low Budget High Fi Music is a microcosm of Madlibland. Inconsistent, messy and scattershot, this volume is vault material (most from around 2005, some more recent) put together like those 1970s Miles Davis records that were pieced together from various late-60s sessions (think Water Babies and Big Fun). The archival nature doesn't bother me - Madlib's release schedule rarely corresponds to when the music is actually made, particularly in the Medicine Show, which has reached as far back as the 1990s. The execution is a little lacking, though. When Teo Macreo spliced and overdubbed those Miles Davis jam sessions, he sculpted them into something more cohesive. Cohesion has no place in Madlibland, and on Low Budget things are even more scattered than usual. Verses fade in and out in medias res, a Beastie Boys cover is split into two (a little here, and some more of it there.)
I wish Madlib employed a more judicious editor (I humbly volunteer!) and I wish he would expand the stable of MCs who rap on his beats, but this is how you listen to prolific eccentrics – you take the good with the bad. Thankfully, the good (the short Loop Digga instrumentals, for example, and the Strong Arm Steady remix) outweighs the bad, and the listening experience is an adventure. I’m going to be sad to see the Medicine Show end.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
"Mike, if Prince wrote a song about peanut butter, it would sound like this." Nate’s Prince impression was a profound relief. If there hadn’t been one other person on the dreaded Youth Retreat who could make a reference like that, I might have lost my shit.
The Midwest Christian-youth culture in the 1990s was obsessive about what pundits call "the culture wars." There was a cottage industry of embarrassing simulacrum with pseudo-Christian themes, syrupy earnestness and budget-priced production. People in church would actually say things like "They’re sort of like a Christian Pink Floyd, Mike, you’d like them!" Please, friends, contain your nausea. This nihilistic conformation to the ways of the world filled a void created by a party-line mantra that "secular music" was evil. A woman who volunteered with the youth group once tried to explain what a troubled lost lamb she had been. "I even owned a Led Zeppelin album," she told me. It was a lonely moment for me: By that point I owned every Led Zeppelin album, even Coda. I just assumed that my fondness for “The Battle of Evermore” wasn’t likely to be a priority for Jesus.
On this retreat to a Washington D.C. convention, however, it was a priority. (These trips away from home and family are called "retreats." The irony, dear reader, is yours to unpack.) Our youth pastor Jason told the busload of smiling, pimple-marked teenage faces under his guidance that certain among us had brought secular music and were listening to it on the bus. This weekend was supposed to be about drawing closer to God, he said, and those things were distractions.
Of course they were distractions, Jason. Other than talking to Nate about our shared interest in David Lynch and Radiohead (what another kid in the youth group called "all that weird stuff you guys like"), the only thing getting me through the ordeal was the little wallet of CDs in my backpack. Without that, I might have grown up to be Christopher Hitchens.
When our bus stopped at a shopping mall so we could eat in the food court, I slipped away to Harmony House with the money my mom had given me for food. I bought The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway because I had seen a magazine article about progressive rock and I was working my way through the sidebar of "essential albums" with each band name, title and trippy album cover retained like a shopping list of holy relics. By this point I was already obsessed with Fragile, Aqualung, 2112 and In The Court of the Crimson King. Genesis was next in line, even though material put out by more recent incarnations of the band made me reluctant. (The guys that sing "I Can’t Dance"? Seriously?)
Prog-rock was a good fit for an archetypal dork like me. The compulsive rhythms and coitus-simulating guitar wankery of traditional rock music didn't speak to me in any way other than to bitterly remind me of all the fun my schoolmates (the worldly counterparts to the youth group kids) were supposedly having while I listened to Gentle Giant in my parents' basement. Anyway, songs about cars and girls were utterly pedestrian and I fancied myself too sophisticated for that kids' stuff. The satirical theatrics and surreal, stately pomp of Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer was music from another place, music that WAS another place, and I loved that alternate universe, contra-Pete Townshend, sans Green Day. (I know what you're thinking, jaded music snob, but stop right there. The circus-show wackiness and extensive musical vocabulary employed by 1970s prog is no more bloated than the "three chords and TRUTH" pretension preached by Joe Strummer and it’s a hell of a lot more creative than the stolen blues and statutory-rape fantasies of The Rolling Stones.)
Back on the bus, I discreetly leafed through the liner notes. The lyrics were included, along with an absurdist prose piece ("Autoghosts keep the pace for the cabman’s early mobile race...") by lead singer Peter Gabriel (The guy that sings "Shock the Monkey"? Seriously?) that ostensibly explained the rock-opera plot. My little portable CD player, perhaps the most cherished Christmas gift in my young life, sputtered into operation and I heard the opening cascade of piano arpeggios fade up like stage lights. I stared out the window at passing cars and buildings, occasionally pressing the headphones tight against my ears to hear the quieter passages over the hum of the bus engine and the chipper, chaste silliness of my peers.
This is an ideal headphones album, and not just because a young Genesis fan doesn’t want Mom and Dad to hear lyrics like "Erogenous zones, I love you! Without you what would a poor boy do?" (The hilarious answer, delivered in the song’s climax: "Without you mankind handkinds though the blues!") On headphones, the dense arrangements, meticulously produced and stereo-panned, surround you in a subterranean cathedral built from Steve Hackett's inventive guitar, Tony Banks' alien synths, Mike Rutherford’s thick bass lines, Phill Collins' bursting, technical percussion (before he was Lord Pantywaist of the Soft Rock Kingdom, he was an amazing drummer) and Peter Gabriel's arsenal of cartoon voices. Lamb creates the kind of atmosphere that makes you forget you're trapped on a bus with thirty kids who think you're weird. As that bus carried us to the nation's capital, I was winding through purgatory with Rael.
Rael. Or as he’s known in the title-song, "RAEL IMPERIAL AEROSOL KID!" He is nether the grim narcissist of Pink Floyd's The Wall or the hippie messiah of The Who's Tommy. This is a much more dangerous story than those classic rock bitchfests-of-the-famous. Rael is a New York punk rapist who burns things for fun and descends into an underground afterlife that exists only in Peter Gabriel's twisted imagination, where he chases his genitals into a tunnel, or something like that.
I was enraptured with this album. It was dramatic and theatrical, contrasting chaos and serenity, building careful countermelodies and quirky chord changes. The melodies were familiar, but strange, like nursery songs shredded and patched back together. The phantasmagoric allegory in the lyrics particularly captivated me. This wasn't the hollow motivation-speak that I thought surrounded me at church, and it wasn't the winking worldliness that I thought surrounded me at school. This was uncomfortable. There was some dark territory here; rape, castration, damnation, that part where Rael has sex with the snake women and then they die and then he eats their bodies… It took some figuring out. It was ambiguous and confusing. Paced with a number of tension-building passages, it required patience. Filled with meta-textual detail, (quotes from other pop songs, lines about Lenny Bruce, etc.) it presupposed prior knowledge. It demanded a reaction from the listener in order to complete the experience.
Apart from Genesis and Nate's Prince imitation, the retreat was embarrassing or boring or upsetting, depending on the moment. There were loud, earnest presentations. There was dull, swaying "praise music" and lots of showy public prayer. I was terrified at how many products were being sold in the name of Jesus, and when I mentioned to the youth pastor that it reminded me of that business in the temple when Christ chases out the profiteers, he stroked his goatee and said I might be on to something. Of course, this event was not about the Christ depicted in the gospels; it was about Sanitized American Jesus, who lacks all the danger, creativity and disturbing viewpoints of his scriptural counterpart. Real shame, that. I loved danger, creativity and disturbing viewpoints. Whenever I had a free moment, I was back between headphones, absorbing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which was filled with all three.
My youth pastor worried that the dangerous messages in the music I liked were distracting me from his ministry and he was right, but this distraction was the very escape I needed. In the denouement of Peter Gabriel's mad narrative, Rael sacrifices himself to save his brother and the Imperial Aerosol Kid is redeemed. The world is haunted and frightening, but if we learn to lay down our lives for others, somewhere in all this mystery even the most troubled lost lamb has hope for redemption.
A dangerous message indeed.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
What roots Jaar most firmly in the "electronic music" camp is the way many of these tracks are structured according to the addition and subtraction of layers. Like Legos, each element is designed to fit with every other element. Jaar's pacing is uncanny, never hurried, never tedious, and when something new is added it is not just an insular earworm - it alters what is already present by subtly shifting context. During "Keep Me There" a piano part cycles and cycles, and when an extra sprinkling (of three simple notes) is dashed in, the original piano cycle is suddenly new again, changed by its relationship with the surrounding elements.
This isn't just a series of loops and grids, though. Not only does Jaar play some lilting live piano (meticulously edited, it seems, but basically live) on "Sunflower" and the two similar tracks that bookend the record, he performs some bona fide pop songs (the whimsical "Problems With the Sun" and the monochrome neon synth-pop gem "Space is only Noise if You Can See"). It’s a testament to Jaar’s big-picture cognizance that these tracks sit so nicely alongside things like the marshmellow synths on "Colomb" and that vocoded Demis Rousso soundalike crooning through "Balance Her In Between Your Eyes".
I hate this guy a little, because he's only 21 and this record accomplishes everything I've tried (with a tragic lack of success) to accomplish in my own paltry attempts to make electronic music. What a jerk, right? I mean, the audacity! It's a safe bet that Nicolas Jaar isn't interested in burrowing into one little niche and staying there. Future projects could take him anywhere, and envy aside I hope they do.
Friday, April 8, 2011
1. Kid A
2. OK Computer
3. In Rainbows
5. The King of Limbs <---------------- (Not bad!)
6. The Bends
7. Hail to the Thief
8. Pablo Honey
I never thought I would describe a Radiohead record as playful and sexy, but here it is. When I was in junior high, OK Computer hit me like a freight because I was paranoid and pretentious and it was too. Hail to the Theif came out just as I was developing an interest in (and by that I mean "a chip on my shoulder about") politics. In 2011 I've mellowed out quite a bit, and even if I wouldn’t describe myself as "playful and sexy" I will say I’m far less concerned with sneering technocratic rebellion than my teenage self. Like so many of their previous records, this one kinda hit me at just the right moment. I came home on a Friday after an emotionally exhausting substitute run at a local high school, found out it was available A DAY EARLY and collapsed to it. Just what I needed.
This is a good one. I even like the latest installment in Thom Yorke's quest to write "Pyramid Song" as many times as possible (this one's even better than "Pyramid Song"!).
I saw Radiohead do a webcast on the internet in 2007 or so. Part of it was the band acting as DJs and they played Fela Kuti, M.I.A. and Burial. MF DOOM claims he's making an album with ThomYorke. "Excuse me, I noticed you like the same bands I like - let's be best friends forever." See, Radiohead take influences from all these different things I like (Penderecki, Autechre, Can, Mingus, The Stone Roses - even Flying Lotus on this one) and then spit them back out as pretty pop songs. I'm on board with that project, and I think it's fine that Radiohead's influences (the usual stuff loved by insular music nerds like you) are so prominently displayed on the sleeves of their fashionable fair-trade jackets. This band is like a filmmaker who is so immersed in the oeuvres of the auteurs that his own work is covered in Bergman sauce and minced Ozu. What's-a-mattah, you don't like a little Ozu on your pulp?
We were playing this at my after-school job and these were the reactions:
First Coworker: "I don't like this. It's just a bunch of sounds."
Me: "That's what music is - a bunch of sounds."
First Coworker: "Yeah, but this is too... different."
Second Coworker: "It's like being in a tripped-out video game."
Third Coworker: "I'm glad we're listening to this because this music makes me feel really good."
Third Coworker wins.
My girlfriend, upon discovering that after three years of silence Radiohead put out an album that is 38 minutes long, said "That's all they've got after three years? In that time, I earned a doctorate." She did, too, and I perfected my Thom Yorke impression. It scares little kids and old people.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
Check out this excellent and astute write-up from Feminist Music Geek. I agree with what she said and won’t bother to repeat, but I would like to ask one question: When we talk about this album (and let’s be honest, provoking analysis, criticism and controversy is a big part of Odd Future’s creative endeavor) are we contributing to the delinquency of a minor?
The video for Earl’s eponymous track (the one where he raps about using roofies to commit date rape, using a trumpet to sodomize a girl, eating human flesh mixed with feces and how his purpose on this Earth is to commit hate crimes against Catholics) features Earl and his friends mixing an assortment of substances (pot, apparently, some cough syrup, liquor and something from a prescription bottle) in a blender, drinking it, and vomiting before injuring themselves skateboarding, having seizures, and bleeding from their eyes, nostrils, and nipples. A kid pulls off his thumbnail. A kid pulls out his own hair. A kid pulls out his own teeth. A lot of it is probably fake, though I doubt Odd Future would admit that, and if it isn’t fake, this is child abuse because Earl was SIXTEEN at the time.
Sorry to be the square, but maybe we should be a little more concerned about what happens to a kid who grows up surrounded by the voices of music-nerd hipsters praising him for his hostile, bigoted hate-speech and his dangerous antics.
His mother’s rumored decision to send him to boarding school, keeping him away from his Odd Future friends, seems like the logical, responsible thing to do. Smirking bloggers and Odd Future fans crying “Free Earl” are suggesting that they would be willing to deprive a teenager of an education and a healthy life just so they can hear some more music that they will like. That attitude is callous and hateful.
I heard someone praise Heath Ledger recently for “Basically giving up his life for his art.” I don’t buy the premise that the method-acting that went into Heath Ledger’s work on a Batman sequel ended his life, but if it’s true, then I wish that movie had never been made. When an artist suffers for his art, that art (no matter how much other people like it) will never outweigh the suffering. The well-being of any person is more important than any work of art. I realize that some suffering can’t be avoided, but some suffering can. If I find out animals were intentionally killed during the production of a movie, I won’t watch it. That movie shouldn’t exist. If I find out a kid’s life was derailed by his participation in the making of some rap music, I won’t listen to it. I’m not saying this is the case here, but it might be.
I am in no position to diagnose Earl or tell him what to do, but the possibility that his lyrics cross the line between shock-theater and symptoms of serious psychological problems, or the possibility that his participation in Odd Future could have a damaging effect on his educational and professional future is reason enough for me to bow out.
In the song discussed above, Earl snarls at his critics: “Try talking on a blog with your fucking arms cut off.” I guess he’s talking to me so I’ll respond: Earl, try applying for a job when typing your name into Google brings up the rape-obsessed rap music you made as a teenager.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
I was never good at playing that thing, suffering derisive critiques from my classmates, blushing at the accidental squawks and squonks, and always sitting in Last Chair. (For those of you who've never had the experience, school bands place kids into savage hierarchies so everyone knows who is better than who. It makes music into a sport.) I remember another band teacher offering me this constructive criticism: "Well, you need to work on your posture and staying on the beat, and staying in tune, and your articulation, and your tone, and your vibrato and... basically everything." Message received. Enthusiasm gone. (Let's just put on fascist costumes and be a halftime show.)
I remember waiting for class to start, sitting in the hard plastic chair in the band room, blowing aimless air through the big brass body, not letting the reed vibrate, just listening to the gentle rushing. I remember clicking the keys and getting to know their individual sounds - this one a click, that one a thump - and noticing how the timbre of even this atonal air was changed by lifting my fingers and pressing them down again. And most of all, I remember wishing I could find my own voice, but instead forcing myself to stay inside the lines so no one would notice how awful I was.
When I graduated from high school, my saxophone collected dust in the closet of my childhood bedroom, which had become a graveyard for toys, books and other mementos from my unhappy schooldays. I went to college to earn a teaching degree, discovered electronic music and hip-hop and began obsessively making music from samples, eventually adding various silver and black boxes. (I've been told those machines make it possible for "non-musicians" to make music. But wouldn't the act of making music mean that they they are... never mind.)
I only started playing the saxophone again when I discovered Ornette Coleman. What inspired me wasn't just his music (brilliant, emotional and nourishing as it is). I was inspired by stories of jazz pundits and purists with batons up their butts calling Coleman a charlatan, smugly deriding his work as random and un-technical, even violently attacking him (Max Roach did this, seriously) because they thought he sucked. Ornettle Coleman said "There is no single right way to play jazz." If the way Ornette Coleman plays is wrong, then being right is for assholes.
I once had an argument with an insufferable college classmate (now employed, presumably, as a high school band teacher). I suggested that while there are certain skills that are useful in making music, we could also, alongside those, teach kids to find their own voice. There's no wrong way to play music, after all, and you can't objectively say that some music is superior to other music.
She retorted, dismissive, that there is a wrong way, and yes you can say that some music is objectively superior. I assume she meant the powdered-wig cannon - they don't teach ragas in high school (too brown) and they sure don't encourage funkiness (too black). Snapping, she announced that she knew all about this stuff and I didn't. "And we're done talking about it," she said.
I wasn't done talking about it, though, and I don't think I ever will be. Are you keeping alive an art form you love, music teacher? Or are you unable to distinguish between resuscitation and taxidermy?
A few weeks ago, a Canadian label called Constellation (you know them as a post-rock epicenter) put out this album by saxophonist Colin Stetson. It's the middle part of a trilogy tethered around a compelling narrative that Mr. Stetson hopes to adapt as an accompanying graphic novel. Most of the album's compositions are pieces for unaccompanyed saxophone - alto, tenor and bass.
You can find a lot of information online about the process used to make this record (first takes, a thousand microphones) but the maestro himself said in a recent interview that he "would like for people to appreciate the album musically whether they knew how it was made or not." It's pretty cool that he thought to put a contact mic on his throat, but what really matters is how thrilling this music is. It is knock-me-out powerful.
We've heard unaccompanied winds players before. Anthony Braxton's revered For Alto is the example most often cited, but Jimmy Giuffre, Albert Mangelsdorff and Lester Bowie have all done it. And it wasn't always pretty music. They played their instruments the wrong way. (Check out Roscoe Mitchell's Sound to hear an embryonic Art Ensemble of Chicago - Bowie included - doing things with instruments that get band stuidents sent out in the hall.) Colin Stetson's musical Aufhebung builds on that tradition (can you imagine a beautiful world somewhere where Anthony Braxton's music is considered traditional?) and carves a daring new trail. Often, the booming bellow of a bass saxophone is all the bulldozer he needs.
Colin Stetson is finding beauty in the sounds that I tried to suppress during my ill-fated formal training on an instrument. The tapping of keys – clicks and thumps – that fascinated me are employed brilliantly here. This is music I could never have dreamed of making, but I wish I could have.
Though there are respites, much of this music is sonically destructive. I love this, in no small part because I am at a point in my life when destruction is beginning to take on positive connotations. The collapsing of structures and of meaning is a caving-in but also an opening-up. I am beginning to see stable philosophies as spiritual death, and the only escape from them, as far as I can see, is a kind of intellectual kenosis. It’s lonely out on that cracking limb, like playing the saxophone all by yourself, but this desolation is every bit as provisional as the monuments crumbled behind us. I can hear that in this music. (There are shades of Albert Ayler's music, turning abrasive sax sounds into spiritual catharsis.)
During "Judges" Stetson's voice writhes through his horn crushed by the tapping of keys and the reedy cycle of notes around it, and what I hear is anguish. Anguish is not incompatible with hope, though. They're kissing cousins and any good gospel singer knows that. Stetson says that particular piece "specifically speaks to the themes of this record — those being isolation and the pendulum swing between fear and transcendence" and that "all of the music in this series is my attempt at creating a personal gospel canon, not out of dogma, but rather from the human experience alone."
This makes perfect sense to me, but in case it wasn't clear enough, Stetson brings Shara Worden aboard for an honest-to-G-d gospel song ("I Just Can't Keep from Crying Sometimes") that you might have heard before. It's perfect here. People forget how terrifying gospel music is and should be. It's about anguish and death and mystery. Comfortable people can't have gospel music, (though they can keep what passes for it in their glitzed-up mega churches) and every now and then we need to snatch it back and let it howl.
People on the internet want to call this one of the best albums of the year but that's pointless, not because it's only March, but because this music is too adventurous, nourishing and powerful to be dropped into someone's dumb contest. It's not a sport. Just let this be amazing. Let it mean something to you. That something might be different for you and for me and for Colin Stetson, but there is no single right way to respond to this.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
According to the liner notes in the 2004 reissue, the music on this album was recorded in 1971-72 for a label that refused to release it. Too lengthy, too interested in “ethno-fusion”. Record companies are stupid sometimes. Christian Burchard, the drummer, sold the tapes to a little label called Brain Records and they released it soon after. Now it’s regarded by many as a canonical Krautrock classic.
Krautrock’s psychedelic Teutonic trance is one of the most insular genres in music geekery, and while NEU! 75 is one of my favorite albums, and I like Can, Faust, Amon Duul II and Kraftwerk, so far I’ve really only scratched this genre’s surface. There is, thankfully, a contingent of record hounds that focuses deeply on narrow avenues like this, tracking down positively everything, and I’m glad they’re around to dig through the mountains of forgotten recordings, sorting chaff from wheat and boiling it down to a Beginner’s Guide. (It must be a full-time job –becoming a leading expert on Afrobeat or Chicago House or something. I’ve often wondered how these specialists find time for variety.)
So I’ve been told that beyond the aforementioned staples, Embryo is the place to start digging deeper. Curiously, this album (reputed as one of their best) is a bit afield from what I imagine as “Krautrock”. The Motorik rhythms you expect are supplanted and augmented by tricky, spastic drumming (including hand-drums) and the bass is fluid and always moving. Embryo are remarkably funky - I’d be shocked if I found out no one has ever sampled the first fifteen seconds of “Call”.
Embryo despised commercialism and embraced expert musicianship and spontaneity, relying on first takes, few (if any) overdubs and a frequently-changing line-up. Listening to Steig Aus, the spontaneity is obvious. After the pretty into (complete with a sample from Moroccan radio), “Orient Express” has all the wah-guitars and a rubbery bass and chugging organ you’d expect from a good old fashioned jam session. I hate the phrase “jam session” because it makes me think of stoned white guys playing blues licks for a tedious eternity (followed around the country, no doubt, by admirers in vans adorned with tie-dye teddy bears). Embryo doesn’t sink too deeply into that “crunchy groove, mahhhhhn” quagmire, thanks to their chops and ability to listen to each other, but this track still isn’t particularly dynamic. Everyone just kind of freaks out.
“Dreaming Girls is a big step up; moodier, more spacious. The music breathes and builds. For me, though, the album’s highlights are the complex drums-and-marimba section and Edgar Hoffman’s ensuing violin terror in the closing “Call”.
Percussion instruments and rhythms picked up on the bands travels through Africa are sprinkled in, tantalizing, but are never pursued as much I would like. There are little percussion breakdowns here that could go on and on and I wouldn’t complain. Maybe I’m a sucker for drums. I’d just rather hear rattling layers of percussion than rocking-out organ, but that’s just me.
The three tracks here are sequenced to give you a sense of wandering farther and farther away from home. I like that. I don’t know if this will satiate your Krautrock cravings, exactly, depending on what you expect, but it’s an enjoyable release from musicians who are obviously very talented.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
The usual criticism thrown at everything put out by Brainfeeder, the California-based label headed by Flying Lotus, is "It sounds just like Flying Lotus." Copying Flying Lotus is so hip, even Radiohead is doing it these days, but Teebs is taking a few cautious steps in his own direction. Listen to Flying Lotus' Los Angeles. Did you feel that basement claustrophobia? Hit your head on that rusty pipe? Were you astral-travelling in the dark? Teebs, in contrast, is all daylight, open windows and comfy armchairs.
Ardour sounds like music designed to accompany reading, which is the best and worst thing about it. I love records that wrap around you like a blanket, as this one certainly does, but I also expect that music will be able to function also as the object of a close, engaged listen. And that's where Teebs could stand to improve.
These tracks are remarkably, almost admirably static. It takes a lot of confidence to allow your music to remain this austere, and the absence of sudden shifts or contrasting dynamics focuses the listener’s attention on the compelling textures created by Teebs’ laptop-mangled samples. I like, for example, the juxtaposition of crystal-clear samples with lo-fi, musty counterparts (see "While You Dooo" for reference).
This close attention also exposes the music's flaws, however, so a music-blogger's gotta nitpick. For every two or three details that work, there's one that doesn't. Example: "Arthur's Birds" is too long and marred by amateurish use of dynamic over-compression that makes the shimmering chords dip with every kickdrum hit, pumping obnoxiously like someone fiddling with the volume constantly when you're trying to listen to something pretty. The same thing Happens on "Felt Tip."
For the most part, these tracks are too short and disconnected for the album to succeed as ambient headphones music, but too swaying and quiet to really hold my attention. It’s an awkward middle ground. Nearly every track has something that will make you say “Oh, that’s cool” right before your mind drifts back to grocery shopping or the weather or other music. Not a good sign.
The best stuff is fantastic, like the romantic soar of "My Whole Life" or the gentlebreezefeel of the appropriately titled "Wind Loop." Honestly, I love the basic approach Teebs takes throughout, even if this isn't as fully-realized as I would hope. I'm eager to see where he goes from here. The nice thing about labels like Brainfeeder is their willingness to let artists develop rather than dropping them right away if the debut isn’t a smash-hit. Teebs is giving us something to look forward to.
Monday, March 14, 2011
I can say without reservation that this album rules. Do you like jazz? Do you like funk? Do you like things that are awesome? If so…
I love the warm, slightly murky production and the heavy, deep soul this band brings to the plate. Bill Cosby (who, incidentally, was also known to moonlight as a comedian) directed this intrepid band (credited on the LP jacket as "assorted mysterious musicians") through two albums in the early 1970s. This first one is from 1971. The liner notes cite Miles Davis (especially his "latest ventures" – which would have included the superlative Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and Live-Evil) as the main influence, along with Mingus, Duke, and Gil Evans.
It's the Miles Davis influence that matters most. We're treated here to a pair of side-long compositions (not unlike Jack Johnson or the first disc of Bitches Brew) constructed from long vamping takes pieced together via tape edits (the liner notes mention that this band is unlikely to appear in person because "this is a recording band. There are too many things to set off, to isolate, to edit down, so that it sounds like what I want it to sound like.") Repetition and groove are the key; ostinato bass and layered percussion provide a churning bed for open, Wayne-Shorterish sax lines, slinking guitar and Cosby's twinkling electric piano.
The first side is "Martin’s Funeral", Martin being MLK. Cosby's liner notes describe the funeral procession for the assassinated civil right leader, and how the long slow walk took on different shades; hostile, conversational, depressed. An elegiac four-chord vamp, (which some of you may have heard elsewhere), cycles around for that slow walk, interrupted by ominous percussion breakdowns or blurred by the twitching of dissonant guitars. Program music usually doesn't work too well in a jazz-funk setting, (no time for tone painting, we gotta vamp and blow!) but the picture is vivid here, and the music is sad or hopeful or whatever, depending on the moment or the listener's present predisposition.
"Hybish Shybish" allows the gang to rock out a bit more. Cosby’s chops ain't bad, and the group is loose and daring. Listen for that electrifying harmonica! That acoustic/electric piano duet! The rolling and tumbling congas and cowbells!
It's a shame there was only one follow-up to this album, an almost identically-titled record that came out soon after. I'm keeping my eyes open for that one.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
So here’s something I’m a sucker for: funky soul/jazz laid confidently down by total pros cutting loose. It’s 1967 and Rufus Harley is recording his third album for Atlantic Records. He’s got a vision, he’s got a great lineup of players, and he’s got his set of bagpipes.
And there’s another thing for which your humble narrator is a born-every-minute: unconventional instrumentation in jazz. You know those beautiful Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane records where the harp becomes the funkiest thing known to man? Who would have guessed? If that can work, I don’t see why the bagpipes are any different.
And Rufus delivers, right? On the eye-bulging opener “Sunny” it is pure joy to hear him charge through those funky congas, piano, bass and drums like a bleating badass. That particular song has a bouncing-around-the-room quality I can’t resist. Excellent. Well-played, gentlemen. Off to a great start.
Next up, the title track opens like a rousing spiritual-jazz hymn (complete with “Yes, Lord!”) and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear Alice Coltrane drop in for a bit with her shimmering harp. That doesn’t happen, though. This is a Rufus Harley album, so it’s a solo on the bagpipes. And here’s the first sign of trouble: The notes are perfectly selected and the accompaniment is dynamic and sympathetic, but bagpipes are simply incapable of anything resembling vibrato or dynamics. Notes trail off until a sudden stop or a leap into the next note and every one is blasted out with an identical timbre. It’s actually kind of a relief when the pipes take a rest and Oliver Collins delivers a skillful piano solo.
The following rendition of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is kind of middling. “Amazing Grace” is so often played by kilt-wearing bagpipers, so why not this one? Rufus Harley makes it work pretty well, against all odds, but I’m not requesting it for my Viking funeral.
The second half of the record is actually stronger than the first, in no small part because Harley puts down the pipes to pick up some woodwinds. He’s really good! “Ali” swings and pops around a slightly cluttered but very soulful flute solo. “X” winds around a spazzing, staccato sax line, and “About Trane” is a worthy tribute to the oft-tributed Saint John of the Tenor. It's all classic stuff - not quite A Love Supreme, but what is?
I feel bad saying it, but this album’s big draw is a pretty ineffective gimmick. When an employee at Detroit’s People’s Records (tangent: people who work in record stores are usually insufferable snobs, but the fine gentlemen at People’s Records should be commended for their kindness and impeccable recommendations) excitedly told me about Rufus Harley, two things stood out: a) Rufus was compared to Dorothy Ashby (prompting a mental “yes, please” from this eager jazzophile) and b) “BAGPIPES!”
As good as it is, there isn't a lot to distingush this record from thousands like it other than the bagpipes, and they are the weakest link. Kudos to Rufus Harley for blazing his own trail. That’s something I admire. And the bagpipe performances here are far from a failure, they are just not as exciting as the music he makes when he chooses a more conventional axe. The bagpipes are the least expressive instrument designed by human hands.
For those keeping score: The opening track and all of side two are terrific. Keep an eye peeled for a copy of this album, just don’t scale Kilimanjaro for it.
Friday, February 25, 2011
Michael Stohrer: My listening habits make Leviathan inaccessible to me. Untangling this complicated (and often jarring) series of sudden shifts and convoluted motifs demands an attentive listen, and I typically associate “attentive” listening with calm moments, headphones, and a soothing cup of coffee. In that context, I can be still and engrossed while I concentrate on, for example, In a Silent Way. You have to focus to really grasp that record, and it invites a calm, meditative listen. This record, on the other hand, demands an equally attentive listen, but one that is anything but calm. I just don't know how to listen to it. Maybe it should come with a complimentary inflatible punching bag.
Manny Fewer: Or maybe you should just stop being such a big baby girl and get some metal in your blood.
Jesse Howell: This album doesn't wait for you to get your cup of coffee and get settled into an armchair- It throws you right out on the churning open waters. I can't think of an album I've listened to recently that could conjure up such vivid imagery and sustain it throughout the listen. I feel a part of the impossible task and the epic journey. Michael mentioned the sudden shifts, and I have to agree that it is often jarring and exciting. Unexpected (and good) transitions are something I really enjoy in music. This album is full of them. Can you guess which one, (about mid-album) that I flipped over?
Jordan Carr: I find myself having to revise my listening habits with this album as well. I'm not unfamiliar with heavy metal but Leviathan strikes me as a nearly impenetrable wall of sound. This album does not expect you to passively listen. It demands your attention regardless of your wishes. At first this turned me off but upon repeated listening I found myself struck by how much the sound mirrored what I imagine the icy, unforgiving ocean would sound like if it could rock my face off rather than simply drown me. The driving pulse that punctuates much of the album evokes images of barreling toward glory and/or destruction.
Michael: Pardon me while I get stupidly heteronormative: A lot of classic metal has an androgynous element, particularly in the shrill vocals (not to mention feathered hair) of bands like Iron Maiden. Those elements are totally absent in Mastodon’s music, which lacks anything I would associate with femininity. Moby Dick, a story where women are basically non-entities, is perfect subject matter.
Jordan: This could easily have turned into a rather silly concept album. I rolled my eyes at the Norse themed lyrics but, in context it all seemed appropriate. On a raw, emotional level, this works, although a part of me would have preferred some sections with greater musical contrast. I'm thinking some passive section interrupted by the crushing drive. Working off of something as epic and dense as Moby Dick requires a very complex structure to not merely the music but the overall structure of the album as a whole.
Michael: I would have liked more contrast, too, but I realize that this non-stop pummelcrush works on a conceptual level. Chasing a whale across the ocean in order to kill it is a very macho kind of derangement, and the participants in this doomed errand are in immediate danger of being crushed, suffocated or swallowed. Fittingly, the music on Leviathan relentlessly crushes, suffocates and swallows the listener. (It does this, of course, in a sea of testosterone.)
Jordan: Complaints aside, if I was to go hunting for my white whale I would choose this before anything softer.
Jesse: One thing I appreciate about Leviathan is the variety of voices you hear. It really seems to pry into the hearts of the each of the cast of characters in the story, and tell each different perspective. How do you prepare your heart for an inevitable disaster?
Monday, January 24, 2011
Based on a sci-fi concept laid out in the short narrative in the liner notes, Solar Life Raft is set adrift in vast floods over the post-civilization East-coast. Scavengers discover sounds, the last remnants of dead cities now up to their penthouses in melted polar ice. Survival and loss haunt every moment, and so does hope.
The mix was put together by turntable theorist DJ/rupture and his Dutty Artz co-founder Matt Shadetek. Starting with an imagined setting and then selecting music to score it sounds like a recipe for contrivance, but /rupture and Shadetek select songs that suit the narrative abstractly. You won’t hear them spinning Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” or anything like that. Like any good musical project, this leaves room for your imagination.
Listening to music is better than watching movies. Movies (with a few rare exceptions) constantly tell me exactly how to feel about everything, employing a million trite manipulations (the most egregious of which is, ironically, the musical score) to force everything into a tight interpretive box. Some music does this too, and that music is boring to hear and boring to write about. Solar Life Raft is exactly the cure for that tedium.
There is a certain wobbly, sea-sick quality to Dubstep that fits in with however you imagine this particular post-apocalypse: Tempos are slow and swaying, with deep foghorn synthbass, sounds reverberate across the endless waterscape and the sampled or dubbed vocals (like the snippethook in Babylon System’s “Get On Up” and the mournful singing in Pulshar’s “Mr. Money Man” respectively) sound preserved or submerged, echoes and ghosts of prophets whose warnings went ignored. When Nico Muhly’s Lanskyesque piece “Mothertongue: Pt. 1” makes an appearance, cutoff and resonance knob-twiddling is creatively employed to simulate what it sounds like when you bob up and down in water, your ears submerging and emerging, sounds muffled and then clear again.
This mix was made the old-fashioned way: in real time, on actual turntables. It’s seamless and technically perfect, other than the occasional moment where two records in incompatible keys are layered, (although that clang of dissonance may be by design, or a happy accident accepted for the extra ear-tension.) The peaks and valleys are sequenced perfectly, like a tightly structured film. The most emotional moments come at just the right time, and the ratio of blissed-out mood beats to sing-along moments is perfect. When it ends, I feel like I've had a complete experience, adrift in the dubby floods.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
This is a party. When I hear music like this on FM radio, the DJ tells me we're bringing it back to the Old School as he wishes Anita Baker a happy birthday and middle-aged listeners call in to say "Oh you know I've got to hear some Commodores tonight." Requests, dedications, maybe a friendly Old School vote (Cameo vs. Morris Day?) and I do not change the channel. This is Disco and Funk; in-pocket drums that anyone can dance to, and the sharp edge of slapped basses and early digital synthesizers.
This mix isn't intended as a repudiation of the creeping racism and homophobia that fueled Discophobia; we can leave watered-down gender transgressions to Lady Gaga's Disco-pastiche. This is all about smooth grooves and easy syncopation, Earth Wind, Fire and Chi-Lites and someone whose name is Bootsy (Player of the year!)
Of all the mixes in the Medicine Show so far, this is my favorite. Madlib is clearly growing as a DJ. His mixes in the past were haphazard listens, tumbling through a pile of musical excerpts and funny sound clips with little cohesion. I usually didn’t mind, though, because no matter what genre he was mixing, he always brought incredible finds to the (turn)table. Black Soul (Disco) is no exception, but what makes this his best (and most re-listenable) mix isn’t just the selections themselves. This is a focused, skillfully assembled mix with an impeccable sense of timing. Madlib knows just when to kick it up a notch and just when to slow it down.
The transitions aren’t complex mash-ups, usually they’re just well-timed Q-switching, but they get the job done. (For example, listen to how James D. Hall steps aside for Don Blackman during the second track, or how Caroline Crawford segues into Brief Encounter during the third.) The easy groove never stops for long here and we even get a few brief beat-matched overlaps, something we haven't heard a lot on past Medicine Shows.
The trade-off might be that this mix isn’t stamped with Madlib’s trademark lunacy and the mixing lacks “personality” or whatever, but I’m fine with that. A mix shouldn’t be about the DJ. It should be about the music he plays. Mixes can liberate music from the cult-of-personality that sucks the fun right out of it and sticks us in a dull blogging rut when we should be dancing our asses off. The fact that Madlib is so willing to let his selections be the star shows confidence.
I first heard this on a drive between Dearborn and Ypsilanti at the end of a day-long trawl through Metro-Detroit’s finest record stores. My friend Brett was driving, blissing out and I saw people in other cars nodding their heads in time, as if they were listening to the exact same thing. I wanted to call Madlib and tell him "Great work, but you know I've got to hear some Commodores tonight."
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Jesse Howell: I've listened to Music for 18 Musicians a number of times, and it doesn't ever seem to lose its impact. So when I woke up in the middle of the night, no longer able to sleep, putting on M418 seemed like a reasonable idea. So in that dead silence of early morning I snuck downstairs and slipped on a pair of headphones and got down to business.
What I quickly realized is that M418 may be the most successful abstract work of art, ever.
Abstract art is often non-representational, that is to say devoid of subject matter. Maybe it becomes just about color, or shapes, or texture. Maybe it is just about the sheer joy of slopping paint around on a blank canvas. Like a good abstract painting, M418 doesn't spell out how the listener is supposed to encounter it, or what meaning he/she should receive from it. However, it points to something. What that is isn't exactly clear, but there is a source involved, which is inspiration for the work. It invokes different responses out of different listeners: M418 is a blank canvas where the listener can paint his/her own meaning. The type of imagery that M418 evokes is vast and relatable to an audience in many different ways.
I think back to the times I have listened to M418 in the past. Sometimes I was alone, other times I was with a group of friends. Sometimes we just listened in silence, other times we talked as it played. What I can say about it is that in every encounter with this piece of music, something special has happened. M418 is the kind of piece that is transformative. It has the power to transform the listener, and at the same time is adaptive. M418 simultaneously absorbs and permeates any context. I remember listening to the piece with Michael Stohrer, and as we sat on the dorm floor we remarked how the sound of cars outside did not detract from the experience. No, in fact it added to the experience. In this way “noise” became part of the “music.” Thank you, Mr. Cage.
Michael Stohrer: Jesse pointed at things in the music while we listened, as if these sounds were happening in the space around us. The strange thing is that I always knew exactly what he was pointing at. We used to talk about the emotional content of this piece. Someone could dismiss this as “wallpaper” but like Jesse said, it is a blank canvas. I would say it’s more like a mirror. This music is too visceral to allow us to make meaning intentionally and cerebrally. What happens is spontaneous. During a joyful evening with friends, it percolates and swells with jubilance. During a lonely winter morning, it mourns and embraces the listener to offer comfort. It reflects whatever I bring to it: apprehension, love, agitation, reflection. The music is undecidable, each listener makes involuntary meaning with each unique encounter.
I don’t listen to it very often, maybe once a year or so, and nearly every listen through it sticks with me, including the very first: On my freshman floor we kept our doors open and I heard something coming from the room across the hall. It was a series of notes, repeated in a rapid cycle. I stuck my head though his door and asked my floormate Nathan “What is this music?” It was “The Grid” by Philip Glass. Eager to know more I asked the librarian later that afternoon and he told me, grinning, “We have some Philip Glass, but you don’t need that.” He led me to the CD racks. “What you need is THIS!” It was Music for 18 Musicians. Sitting on the industrial carpet in my dorm room, I listened on cheap headphones. That was a very short hour. The Philip Glass piece had shocked me with its uncompromising sterility, and while 18 didn’t sound entirely dissimilar (at that time I was totally unacquainted with the canon of minimalism), I couldn’t get over how warm and human Steve Reich’s composition was.
Jesse: M418 may be the most human piece of art. It is has the steady pulse of an assembly line or a freeway, but entirely organic. The patterns that comprise M418 have the life of a breath, gradually rising and falling. Phrases build gradually over time. The repetition and overlapping of phrases form patterns that interweave themselves and become much more complex than they would be on their own. The phrases are economical, not overly complex, but add up to a gestalt-y percussive sense of movement and poly-rhythm. There is an added sense of variation in tempo that I can only describe as human error, although hardly detectable, which adds to the celebratory and joyful nature of this work.
There is additional variety in the voices of the different instruments. The attack of a voice is different from a woodwind, from the mallet instrument or a stringed instrument. This variety is haptic, and you can feel your attention shift between these contrasting tonal qualities or textures. In this way the focal point is continually shifting, as no one instrument takes the lead, but gradually swells and falls like the others. Perhaps the most steady or continuous element is the mallet instrument that forms a sort of rhythmic framing for the piece.
It makes me wonder how I can translate that much hope life, change and dynamic breath into my own work. M418 makes it readily apparent how static or fixed imagery can be in other art works. How do you allow for more than one access point for viewer? More than one interpretation? More that one response? I go back to the thought of the adaptability of this piece of music, and its ability to fit in any context. M418 says it without saying too much.
I might be able to relate a couple of visual artists that evoke similar responses or share some characteristics to M418. I'm not sure if they approach the same totality of vision of M418, however. In the sense of the breath or life in M418, the artist Oscar Munoz evokes a similar feeling; of ephemera, life/death and impermanence. And in the sense of economy and distilling a phrase down to its most basic blocks that point to something greater, I think of the artist Piet Mondrian.
Michael: I’ve always loved records that were pieced together unnaturally with special effects like overdubbing, editing, looping and time-stretching. These records are like animation, depicting sound events that never actually took place and creating surreal visuals - alien landscapes, amorphous nebulae… I can love a real-time recording of a performance - a good hard-bop record, for instance, can conjure a thousand emotions - but the visual is always that of musicians playing instruments in a room. Strangely, Music for 18 Musicians actually IS a recording of musicians (guess how many!) playing instruments in a room, but it conjures images that are incredibly alien and abstract. There’s something spatial to this music, something that allows Jesse to point to specific sounds. And without any imposing programmatic elements (I’m glad this piece isn’t called “Visions of Manhattan” or “Requiem for Gettysburg” or something like that) the inescapable visual element, created by each listener, is always new and changing.