Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Surfing With Bot'Ox

"Babylon By Car" is a mysteriously titled 2007 single by the French electroduo Bot'Ox. It's not entirely apparent what this instrumental blend of nu-disco and Krautrock has to do with Babylon, aside from an "Arabic"-sounding flat second in one of the riffs. As Congorock taught us, all you need is some music that sounds vaguely exotic to Western ears and you, too, can claim the mantle of Babylon! No complaints here; Congorock's "Babylon" is one of the best singles of the year, and this one sounds pretty good.

It's possible that "Babylon By Car" is also supposed to conjure memories of the Normal's (and Grace Jones's) "Warm Leatherette", a car song that celebrates kinky thrills while being impaled on your emergency brake. That'd speak to our conception of decadent Babylon, for sure. More interesting is the way the song equates Babylon with driving. As I've argued elsewhere, Babylon songs mention driving almost as often as they mention sex, drugs, and phallic towers. Cars can represent freedom; when the Dolls celebrate Babylon's freedom from societal convention, they drive really fast to get there. Cars can also symbolize status and ennui; when Faster Pussycat have nothing better to do in Babylon, they sit in traffic on the L.A. freeway and hurl insults at other drivers, while they make out and do drugs. When Steely Dan wanna have a threesome, they lure the girls into their car and go for a drive. (Maybe Becker and Purdie hang out in the trunk while Fagen sings and steers.)

Americans love cars, but this symbolic meaning of "Car" is more a Western thing than an American thing; after all, Bot'Ox are French, and their music is indebted to Kraftwerk's autobahn. (Although Kraftwerk may, in turn, be indebted to the symbol of the Car in earlier American rock; further research.) In pop music we love our cars, and they symbolize freedom and status. But when we equate them with Babylon, we acknowledge that maybe something's wrong with that freedom and status. At the very least, it's unnatural. But what's natural? And why do we privilege the natural? This is one of rock 'n' roll's deepest tensions -- its pleasures are undeniable and unbeatable, but they might carry you over the edge. When singers use Babylon to celebrate their decadence, they pay lip service to that edge. Sometimes, like Steely Dan, they stare right into the void. And just as Babylon lays bare the void that lurks within Sex and Drugs, when it sucks the Car into its decadent milieu, it reveals that the Car contains a void too. Tack it up, tack it up, buddy, now I shut you down.

Monday, September 27, 2010

This Camu Tao album is NOT really Worth It, though we may wish otherwise.

Or so sez me at PopMatters, whereupon I now inflict my splenetic rage.  It's called King of Hearts, and if you work in the field of underground electro-rap, the album may in fact be Worth It.  For inspiration.  Anyway, RIP Camu Tao.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Albums That Are Totally Worth It: The Q3 Report

Groove Armada are on a boat.

End-of-year lists keep creeping earlier and earlier, and I'm as offended as the next guy. But once list-making season arrives, I'll probably be tied up with a Christmas program of some sort. So, before the deluge, I will put my ducks in a row.

CAVEAT: I can't claim to be definitive. That said, you might find stuff on here worth checking out. So far this year I've consciously processed 164 albums, including reissues and late '09s I missed, which is way more than any sane person needs to hear. However, this barely touches what most of my more esteemed colleagues have heard, and it's roughly ONE TENTH OF ONE PERCENT OF THE ALBUMS THAT'LL BE RELEASED THIS YEAR. Do you believe that? According to the esteemed Mr. Kot, 2008 saw the release of 115,000 albums, only 6k of which sold over a thousand copies.

I have not been picky! My main method of hearing new CDs is the library system, which lets me reserve up to 25 albums at a time for inter-library loan. I regularly go through the list of what's available and reserve what sounds interesting, what other people are repping, or what genres I need to brush up on. Occasionally I just reserve stuff willy nilly, which is how I heard a Christian bachata CD. (Ug.) Some worthwhile jazz and metal I've bought from eMusic on the recommendations of Phil Freeman. I've also received a trickle of promos and listened to MSN Music's Listening Booth.

Of those 164 albums, 69 or so are Worth It. What's that mean? You know it when you hear it, but mostly an album is Worth It if it doesn't feel like a chore to sit through again. Usually "being surprising" and "exceeding genre expectations" play a part. Doubtless my taste will change, and some of my Worth Its and Not Worth Its are pretty borderline. For example, the new Erykah Badu didn't do much for me, but I wouldn't hate you for liking it. Ariel Pink is a different story.

Of those 69, 12 are Totally Worth It. That is, I'd be disappointed if I didn't get to vote for them on a year-end Top 10 list. Thus do I guarantee myself disappointment. Here they are:

You're probably wondering whether you should trust me. (Or maybe my Ke$ha love gave you your answer.) To examine where my subjective interests lie, I've applied some specious statistical analysis to my Worth Its. If we assign each Worth It a point, and each Totally Worth It two points, and divide by 164 total albums, we get a batting average of .494 (synchronistically, also the number of my address). This means that fewer than half of the CDs I listen to are things I'd wanna hear on a regular basis. Given the array of genres in question, I'm sort of surprised it's that high. From there, I've broken my lists down by genre and figured up the batting average of each genre, along with their deviation plus or minus .494. Rap won.

Top 6 Rap (17 albums, .706 avg. +.212):
Sho Baraka--Lions & Liars (Reach)
The Roots--How I Got Over (Def Jam)
Rick Ro$$--Teflon Don (Def Jam)
Meth, Rae, & Ghost--Wu-Massacre (Def Jam)
Big Boi--Sir Lucious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty (Def Jam)
Daddy Yankee--Mundial

I still need to hear Curren$y. Please comment and let me know about other things I need to hear, too. Yes, that is a lot of Def Jam albums. And yes, a Christian rapper made a better album than any of 'em.

Next up is the awkwardly named genre of Melodic Electronic Dance Pop That's Not Rap (MED Pop?), which I assumed would win, before I started factoring in stuff that's like Four Tet but not as compelling.

Top 6 MED Pop (Non-Rap) (20 albums, .700 avg., +.206):
Ke$ha--Animal (RCA)
Diana Reyes--Amame, Besame (EMI Latin)
Sleigh Bells--Treats (Mom + Pop)
Groove Armada--Black Light (Cooking Vinyl)
LCD Soundsystem--This is Happening (DFA/Virgin/EMI)
Kylie Minogue--Aphrodite (Astralwerks/EMI)

That list should probably include salsa albums too, but I don't think they occupy the same space in my listening psyche. Next up, country:

Top 6 Country (21 albums, .619 avg., +.125):
Drive-By Truckers--The Big To-Do (New West) (They object to being called country, so we'll include them in the indie rock list too.)
Jerrod Niemann--Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury (Sea Gayle/Arista)
Trace Adkins--Cowboy's Back In Town (Show Dog/Universal)
Gary Allan--Get Off On the Pain
Chely Wright--Lifted Off the Ground (Painted Red/Vanguard)
Intocable--Classic ('09)

CAVEAT: I'm still working on Jamey Johnson's The Guitar Song. Right now he occupies the same mental space as Midlake's The Courage of Others: sounds cool when it's on, especially on overcast days; expertly recorded; sort of sounds like the interstitial sections of an art-metal CD; and I don't particularly wanna hear it. This doesn't bode well for his inclusion on my list, but I doubt he cares. Wouldn't be surprised if he walks off with a Grammy for Album of the Year, actually.

Speaking of metal, I haven't yet heard enough to make it a statistically significant genre, so I'm throwing it in with indie rock. (If Phil Freeman actually read this, I'm sure he'd be thrilled.) Yes folks, that's WASP with the second best indie rock album of the year.

Top 12 Indie Rock (Including Metal) (44 albums, .523 avg., +.029):
Cathedral--The Guessing Game (Nuclear Blast)
WASP--Babylon (Demolition ‘09)
Sleigh Bells--Treats (Mom + Pop)
Frightened Rabbit--The Winter of Mixed Drinks (Fatcat)
Drive-By Truckers--The Big To-Do (New West)
Vampire Weekend--Contra (XL)
LCD Soundsystem--This is Happening (DFA/Virgin/EMI)
The Like--Release Me (Downtown)
New Pornographers--Together
Art Museums--Rough Frame
Ludicra--The Tenant
Grong Grong--To Hell 'n' Back (Memorandum '09 REISSUE)

Do LCD Soundsystem count? Even though they have major label distribution? I don't understand how these things work.

Our final marginally positive genre is Latin! This includes regional Mexican subgenres like norteno and duranguense, along with Caribbean dance genres like reggaeton and salsa. It'd also include straight-up Latin pop/rock if I'd heard anything good. Diana Reyes and Luis Enrique probably come the closest, and Tito "El Bambino" has some good songs.

Top 8 Latin (18 albums, .500 avg., +.006):
Diana Reyes--Amame, Besame (EMI Latin)
Daddy Yankee--Mundial (Latin)
Los Cuates de Sinaloa--Puro Cartel (Sony Latin)
Adolescent's Orquestra--Sellos de Mi ADN (Venevision/Universal)
Los Titanes de Durango--Los Locos del Corrido
Intocable--Classic ('09)
Luis Enrique--Ciclos (Top Stop Music/Sony)
Los Tucanes de Tijuana--Retro-Corridos

With a few exceptions, the Christian music marketed as such has sucked. Good stuff still exists, though. Yes folks, that's WASP with the best Christian album of the year.

Top 6 Christian (17 albums, .471 avg., -.023):
WASP--Babylon (Demolition '09)
Sho Baraka--Lions & Liars (Reach)
Marvin Sapp--Here I Am
Various Artists--Fire In My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007) ('09 REISSUE)
Nneka--Concrete Jungle (Christian)
Gary Lucas and Dean Bowman--Chase the Devil

And then there's jazz. You really shouldn't seek my advice for jazz, except when I tell you that library jazz is a dire scene. These are likable, though.

Top 6 Jazz (18 albums, .389 avg., -.105):
Henry Threadgill Zooid--This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (Pi ‘09)
Mikrokolektyw--Revisit (Delmark)
Sun Ra--College Concert Vol. 1: The Complete Nothing Is... (ESP REISSUE)
Terje Rypdal--Crime Scene (ECM)
Carlos Barretto--Labirintos
Matthew Shipp--4D

What’s This? A Good Major Label Rock Album?
David Bowie--A Reality Tour

And finally, because it includes the long-awaited-on-CD Bert & Ernie Singalong, one of the most delightful albums ever recorded, here's the list of top reissues.

Top 10 Reissues (Music Made Before ‘09):
Various Artists--Next Stop Soweto: Township Sounds from the Golden Age of Mbaqanga (Strut)
David Bowie--A Reality Tour
Original Cast--Sesame Street Old School Vol. 1 [including Bert & Ernie Singalong]
Various Artists--Fire In My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel (1944-2007) ('09)
Sun Ra--College Concert Vol. 1: The Complete Nothing Is... (ESP)
Youssou N'Dour--Music from the Motion Picture I Bring What I Love
Grong Grong--To Hell 'n' Back (Memorandum '09)
Nneka--Concrete Jungle
Was (Not Was)--Pick of the Litter (1980-2010)
Various Artists--Minimal Wave Tapes

Oh yeah singles, about which I'm hardly authoritative, except to say that these are all really good; and also most of them are actual singles! I checked. (Can you spot the one that's not?)

Top 10 Singles:
"Vida en la Noche"--Daddy Yankee
"All the Lovers"--Kylie Minogue
"Your Love Is My Drug"--Ke$ha
"Paper Romance"--Groove Armada
"Baby"--Justin Bieber feat. Ludacris
"Get Off On the Pain"--Gary Allan
"Praise You Forever"--Marvin Sapp
"Soldier of Love"--Sade
“Alles Neu”--Peter Fox

That's it for today! More will follow at the appropriate time, but I wanted to get that out of my system. Will rap maintain its lead? Will a major label release a decent rock CD recorded in the past year? Will chillwave and crabcore please go away? Stay tuned...

Monday, September 20, 2010

This Sho Baraka Album is Totally Worth It!

Sho Baraka
Lions & Liars

How good a rapper is Sho Baraka? Sho Baraka is such a good rapper that you can't even tell he's doing Christian rap. (Unless you listen to the words, then you can tell.) Sho Baraka is such a good rapper he won a record eight golds in the Olympics' new "rapping while pommelhorsing" event, and he made the judges pommelhorse for him. Sho Baraka is so good they named Barak Obama after him. Sho Baraka is such a good rapper that his tongue turned into a sword and struck down the nations. (At least I think that was him...) He’s so good that when LL Cool J said Hey, I want my flow back, Sho Baraka's tongue sliced out LL's abs. With precision that was DIAMONDLIKE. (When LL’s abs hit the floor, they totally bounced.) Sho Baraka is SO GOOD that, when he raps at Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall asks How do you get to Sho Baraka? But then Carnegie Hall realizes that, even if it practiced practiced all day every day, it'd still suck because it's a building and not SHO BARAKA. Sho Baraka is so good that he made Fiddy lie down with Diddy, in the Biblical sense. Sho Baraka is such a good rapper that Sonia Sotomayor upheld a ban on him in the state of New York. (You can still buy him on St. Mark’s Place, though.) In spite of all that, it was Sho Baraka's stunning testimony that got Sotomayor confirmed to the Supreme Court. That, plus he threatened to slice out Jeff Sessions's abs with his diamondlike tongue. Sho Baraka is so good, he got Five Mics from the one and only SOURCE. (By which I mean GOD.) Sho Baraka is such a good rapper, you’d let him get away with a line like that.

In other words: the guy’s good. He’s got the swagger of LL before LL went all NCIS. (And anyway, JAG was originally a spinoff of SHO BARAKA.) He can make his words spill over the beats and then he’ll land the next phrase like there’s nothing to it. He’ll change up his flow during a song with the offhand virtuosity of a Williams sister on the court. Since Sho knows he’s good, no national tragedy is too big for him to appropriate, in the service of a pretty love song:

“You were patient with your boy in the worst case/
I was like 9/11, the worst date.”

Then he classes up the Civil Rights Movement by comparing it to his love life:

“You can be Coretta, I can be your King/
We can get together, we can have a dream.”

How refreshing to hear a rapper, Christian or otherwise, talking the way real-life husbands and wives talk to one another--skirting the boundaries of taste, winking intimately. Sho’s OK with being slick, another lesson learned from Mr. Smith, but he also knows how to dig deep with his words. (All that oil in the Gulf? Sho Baraka did that.) The “pretty love song” in question is “We Can Be More,” a fidelity ode that opens its third verse, “A lifelong fight, that’s what marriage is.” How many other rappers could make that sound like an endorsement?

Sho’s even better delivering the kind of armchair sociology that only rappers can serve up with swagger. The hard rocking “Revolutionary Died” and “Oh Well” are incisive like Arrested Development or the Coup, but Sho’s revolution involves fewer guns and more Bible study. He can get preachy, no doubt about it, but it’s hard to name a rapper who’s NOT preachy about something, if only his own microphone supremacy. In fact, the job descriptions for “rapper” and “preacher” have so much in common, it’s weird that Christian rap hasn’t come up with more great MCs. I had high hopes for Kanye circa “Jesus Walks” and “All Falls Down,” but he has since switched his style up and watched the money pile up, with mixed results. Like early Kanye, Sho forcefully critiques rap’s empty materialism--and he’s a way better rapper.

Production-wise, Kanye still has the edge on Christian rap. While his talent and cheek have plenty to do with that, so does his ability to bankroll a lot of unique samples. Meanwhile, Sho is one of only four artists on Reach Records, a tiny independent label that’s nevertheless one of the leaders in the genre. Whatever its budget, the Christian stuff has rarely sounded better than it does here. (Sho Baraka is the mother of invention.) Lions & Liars features all kinds of cool synth effects, loud guitars, and the great voice of Erica Cumbo singing over some martial snares. The producers bring a variety of great big beats and hooks that equal anything on mainstream rap radio. (Etiquette dictates I mention Between Two Worlds, the June release from Sho’s labelmate Trip Lee. It features many of the same producers and some decent songs, but it’s not as good.)

Lions & Liars’ most endearing song might be its second one, “Lions’ Anthem,” in which Sho rattles off a great company of everyday saints while making ridiculous puns on their vocations: “Ming works for the law firm out in Las Vegas/ But his favorite thing to do is that Cross examination;” the shoe salesman tries to save “soles,” that kind of thing. Like I said, you have to be a great rapper to get away with that stuff. Sho is, and he does. Mostly it’s the electrifying way he stalks the beat, all ominous boom-BAP and terse guitar. He barely cracks a smile while chewing off his jokes. Yet there’s relief in knowing that this guy, so good at his calling, is willing to celebrate the humdrum callings of other people’s lives, which turn out not to be so humdrum in Christ.

How good is this guy? Sho Baraka is such a good rapper, he might make you appreciate your day job.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Trace Adkins doing "Hold My Beer"

If you're willing to brave the wilds of Myspace, you can stream the whole pretty good Trace Adkins album, Cowboy's Back In Town.   Once there, or at least as soon as you buttress your computer against cookies and pederasts and pederasts named Cookie, you should play the widely-acknowledged highlight "Hold My Beer".  Says the nation's record-critic-of-record Jon Caramanica, "The comical 'Hold My Beer', this album’s high point, revolves around a day of drinking rudely interrupted by the wedding of those doing the drinking."  The song was cowritten by Casey Beathard, at one point BMI's Songwriter of the Year, who's also given us the ace novelties "Drinkin' Bone" (Tracy Byrd), "Cleaning This Gun" (Rodney Atkins), and the Sarah Palin theme song, "Don't Blink" (Kenny Chesney).

"Hold My Beer" features Adkins in the comic role of a bewildered preacher / JOP / nautical captain ("UhhhhI now pronounce you... Y'all."), who notably coins the word "monogamony."  He documents all the wedding's vital aspects, racing through the ceremony to get to the party, where even hillbillies do the macarena.  When the bride crashes into the groom's old flame (about as abruptly as Myspace'll crash yer Flash plugin), she cheekily turns her former rival into a cupholder.  Everybody has a great time, not least the band, who play some cool stutter chords during the final chorus while they shout along:

Hold my beer!
This won't take long.
I want it back, 
And I don't want it gone!

Those words are set to music of the most exultant yearning.  (Can you yearn exultantly?  Sure; you exult in the fact that you have beer, and you yearn for that beer while you're apart.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Sleigh Bells doing "Riot Rhythm"

And it wasn't in a Honda ad!  (Although I tell ya, things being what they are, it's nice to see musicians getting paid.)  No, it was in the car, listening to album-of-the-year contender and future Kidz Bop cornucopia Treats.  The Sleigh Bells' appeal is so broad that a certain five-year-old who's supposed to be napping in the next room is instead singing the lead riff from "Riot Rhythm", which he heard emanating from my speakers:

That riff'll really cut through a crowd!  Sort of like Idina Menzel's voice.  (They should cast her in Les Miz, and then people wouldn't fall asleep.)  "Riot Rhythm" is one of the first four songs on Treats, none of which have any chord changes to speak of.  The guitar, vocal, and synth lines sometimes imply other chords, but everything hovers around that big TONIC, which, as often as not, is also only implied by the melodies.  Like Prince's "When Doves Cry", "Riot Rhythm" has no bassline.  The bass drum sound, which I assume is a synth, resonates enough that it establishes the key at the beginning, even before Alexis Krauss's vocal melody jumps in to help.

As bang-you-over-the-head simple as the Sleigh Bells sound, they're fairly canny composers.  Take our new friend the "Riot Rhythm" riff, which you'll now sing all day long.  The first two notes of the riff are the natural third and fourth of the key; later in the riff, we hear the flat third and flat sixth, which sound unnatural in the key.  If this song had any chord changes -- if that big resonant bass drum started sounding a sixth or a fourth or any other note in the scale -- those two flat notes would make the riff sound like a blues riff, or at least blues-derived.  (You can imagine performers from Irma Thomas to Robert Goulet scatting the first half of the "Riot Rhythm" riff, swinging it, maybe winking and asking about people's hometowns.)  But that doesn't happen, because the Sleigh Bells don't change chords.  Over their inflexible TONIC, the flat notes have no blues connotations at all, and neither does the riff as a whole.  Rather, the riff sounds severe, unbeholden.  It exists in a musical world inhabited only by the Sleigh Bells.

[Concerned parents note:  five-year-old is now asleep.  Soon I need to wake him for his first piano lesson.]

Mark Richardson in Pitchfork: "[A]n even greater source of [Treats's] appeal is how it doesn't sound especially referential...  [Sleigh Bells] gather up bits from all over and use them to create music that puts you squarely in the present moment."  I wish I could put a finer point on that statement because I think I see what he's saying, but we needn't create a dichotomy between "sounding referential" and "putting you squarely in the present moment."  Think of Britney's "Toxic":  a whole song full of blatant musical references out of the past, but it still sounded au courant in, what, 2003?  (Probably still would today.)  Like Sleigh Bells, "Toxic" "gathers up bits from all over and uses them to create music that puts you squarely in the present moment."  Unlike the Bells, "Toxic" does indeed "sound especially referential."  What's the difference?  I'm not sure.  Just as "Toxic" asks us to revel in its Bollywood strings and surf guitar, "Riot Rhythm" asks us -- blatantly, without disguise -- to revel in its metal lead guitar and drumline rhythm.  ("You gotta march!")  But "Toxic" actually sounds like fake Bollywood music with surf guitar, and "Riot Rhythm" sounds like Sleigh Bells.  One's not necessarily better than the other; I just haven't pinpointed the compositional technique that separates the two. 

So, you know, leave comments and whatnot.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Best Thing I Heard Today: Cathedral doing "Funeral of Dreams"

The human brain may be insufficiently developed to digest this song's grandeur.  Loyal readers, if you enjoy smokin' multipartite songs about secular humanist revelations imparted by scarecrows (!), here's your freakin' single of the year:

Here's the blow-by-blow:  our allegorical friend Lee Dorrian, ex-Napalm Death, sets off on a chugging Foo Fighterish journey through Fields of Innocence, when he unexpectedly encounters a Scarecrow (!!) who makes him recite Word Jazz (!!!).  Inspired by this meeting, Dorrian builds a House up in a Tree from whence he can view reality and either an "avatar" or "abattoir" of his mind.  (I totally hope it's the latter!)  He sees that we're all enslaved inside the Matrix, basically, and then the background chorus comes in to chirp "Laaaa, lalala Laaaa!"  How lovely to be enlightened.

Ooh, but then comes Verse 2:  THE EVIL PRIEST!  The priest, a slave to worldly wisdom, misinterprets the beatitudes and tells poor Dorrian that he should submit to the powers that be and sign up for the draft.  Or something.  It's all very "Fortunate Son" at this point, and I'm sure Dorrian would tell me that I shouldn't blame the priest, it's the flawed philosophy of Christianity that's to blame, and the priest is correctly toeing the party line.  Well, whatever.  (The point of "Blessed are the meek" is not that you submit to the first powermonger who tries to exploit you; it's not that you strive to be meek because if you're not meek you're doing something wrong.  No no no, Lee Dorrian--the point of "Blessed are the meek" is that, when you find yourself meek, AND YOU WILL, you also find yourself in a state of blessedness.  If you know where to look.  So next time you're feeling meek, AND YOU WILL, I don't care if you're, um, Bill Gates or whoever, just take a deep breath and read some beatitudes, relax your mind and let your conscience be free and watch blessedness reveal itself to thee.)  Whether you agree with Dorrian's exegesis or not, you cannot deny the searing solo that obliterates your very mind right after this verse, FOLLOWED by the thundering drums + riffs that rock like a mastodon herd.  And then the mastodon beat continues, WITH A MOOG.

In Verse 3 the Scarecrow returns to stage a war protest and pass around drinks.  (I think.)  The song ends with a real scorcher of a coda.  Aside from all the freakiness and multipartiteness that these dudes put into their music, the thing that really stands out is their devotion to great sound.  And not just one great sound, like "oh yeah that's Santana's guitar sound" or something.  No, in addition to their great guitar sounds, Cathedral add goofy sound effects during the Word Jazz parts--mallet percussion and a flourish that sounds like a sitar.  They also like background vocals and keyboards.  There's so much color and play on this album, it's really a worthy successor to Sabbath's Sabotage.  "Funeral of Dreams" is a standout, but the whole Guessing Game album is worth hearing, and possibly the best album you'll hear all year.  Just check out those Youtube comments:

"I can't stop listenning to this album. The only downside is that nobody, not even Cathedral will ever be able to surpass this."

"These guys must really like ELP. This is one of the weirdest songs i have ever heard and it is a work of pure genius."  [Come on, AN ELP COMPARISON!  What else do you need?]

"This album is incredible. May go over most people's heads, but I really dig it."  {Well, THAT'S a little smug.  Surfing in Babylon does not, of course, think The Guessing Game will "go over" your pointy little heads.  At least, not any more than does Ke$ha.  On the other hand, the human brain may be insufficiently developed to digest this song's grandeur--I do not exempt myself.}

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Surfing in Babylon Attends Jazz Fest: Henry Threadgill's Zooid

I keep wanting to ascribe all these naturalistic metaphors to Henry Threadgill's Zooid. And not just zooids! Thickets. Copses of trees. I kid you not, there was a moment during the first song, when Threadgill started playing his flute in the midst of his band's impeccably pointed counterpoint, when I thought I was watching Stan Brakhage's art house classic The Wold Shadow, which, if you haven't seen it, is a silent three minute look at a clearing in a forest that is gradually overtaken by paint applied directly and liberally to the film stock itself. It's meant to represent The Spirit of the Forest, I believe. Whatever, it's strange and beautiful. And Zooid were strange and beautiful. Just as colonies of zooids are strange and possibly beautiful, if you consider them in the right frame of mind, preferably after having read some profound literature re G-d's residence within all, even those things that look like giant spongy goiters.

My main man KGY thinks each Zoooid plays an individual riff or theme for an unspecified length of time, leading to unpredictable aleatoric structures that nonetheless avoid the stink of pure unbridled happenstance. (He described it so much better.) Then they switch to a different riff, but not at the same time, so what you've got is a constantly shifting web of unified sound. The drummer is in the groove, or "pocket," swinging like a gigantic bryozoan sucking the life out of an eel held by a curious child on holiday at the lake, trying to impress his little-seen cousins with his sense of heroic derring-do, because remember, bryozoans are poisonous if you release the wrong juices from their innards, although "innards" is a relative term because we're really talking about a bunch of little organisms stuck together in an apparently homogenous colony for the benefit of all, so whose "innards" get to be "poisonous"? -- I guess what I'm driving at is this: I don't know how bryozoa work, and I dunno how Zooid work, but they work unlike any band I've heard.

Delicate! -- but with the ability to build to a hard-charging unison riff with wild sax solo, in a way that doesn't seem forced at all. Everything they do has been calibrated to present the illusion of freedom, the freedom of nature, which is also an illusion -- you and I are governed by unchanging laws, buckaroo! Without overstating my case (which'd sound something like "Zooid get to the heart of the Free Will Vs. Determinism argument more surely than anyone since Lost"), I can tell you that Zooid sound premeditated and seat-of-their-pants all at once, which, when you think about it, is what most excellent bands and performers are striving for. Isn't that the goal of a Bach prelude -- to make it sound extemporized and perfect all at once? Wasn't that the goal of Weezer's Pinkerton -- to make it sound like Rivers's brain could fly apart at any moment, while leaving that impression marked indelibly on listeners' brains through its use of perfect songcraft? Isn't that what the Stones, the Stooges, Everclear hit over and over? And so! Threadgill has hit upon his own solution, which involves notated counterpoint (we don't know exactly how it's notated), solos by the flute the sax the trombone the cello and the EXTREMELY clean guitar, and an unending but everchanging groove laid down by everybody who's not soloing. Except Threadgill. Threadgill spent large portions of the show sitting down and beaming at the exquisite chaos he'd orchestrated. Then he'd get up and play his flute or his sax, and his lyricism or fire (respectively) was the paint of the Wold Shadow that put us, the listeners, directly inside the copse or the thicket or the goiterous poison blob. As I told the KGY after Song #1, I could've listened to these guys do their thing all night.