Thursday, December 22, 2011

Worth It REISSUES In 2011: #5 - Stephin Merritt

I first heard Magnetic Fields, the band of which Stephin Merritt is impresario, back in 1999 on KDHX, the St. Louis public radio station. It was late at night, the song was "The Book of Love", Merritt started singing in his deep voice tinged with wiseass-ness -- "The book of love is long and boring / No one can lift the damn thing" -- and I chalked them up to another indie band I didn't need to care about, until Merritt sang the chorus: "But I-I-I-I-I-I-I [that's a melisma], I love the way you SING to me", and my heart blew up and I can't believe I didn't crash my car. It's still one of my most vivid memories of being introduced to an artist, akin to being stricken by Ne-Yo's "So Sick" six(?) or so years later. '99 was the year Merritt blew up LOTS of music lovers' hearts, and if nothing since has gripped me like 69 Love Songs, this compilation of B-sides and whatnot comes close. It's full of classically constructed pop songs, beautiful melodies, plenty of wiseassery, and even some loud synthesizer noise in "Rats in the Garbage of the Western World". Fine musical comfort food, and songs like the one below bring me right back to Manchester Road.

Stephin Merritt

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #20 - Locussolus

Hey, here's one of my singles of the year: the Lindstrom and Prins Thomas remix of "I Want It"! At Singles Jukebox I said this:

Imported from the sleek original, the dialogue between DJ Harvey and his female admirer is funny enough, especially if you picture them haggling over a donut, but Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas send their remix to exalted heights of lunacy. The music here is hilarious in itself; I will attempt to correct this hilarity by dissecting it. Some of the hilarity comes from the abrupt, precise marksmanship of the musical elements, horn charts and honky-tonk piano furrowing brows and pursuing serious purposes known only to them — I call this the Evil Choir From “Blue Monday” kaBLOOM! effect. (New Order: greatest comedy band since the City Slickers? Discuss.) Some of the hilarity is referential, with the immensely gratifying sonic punchlines “Shocking Blue” and “Mannheim Steamroller”. And the beat — THE BEAT — combines timing with reference, a giddy twitch recalling the Chemical Brothers’ “Galaxy Bounce”, which — you remember! — underpinned that immensely gratifying scene in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the part where Lara Croft raided all the tombs. 

I was a little nervous to review the album, a collection of singles and remixes, because whaddo I know about dance music, but it turns out DJ Harvey "Locussolus" Bassett is a funny and fun-loving dude whose attitude translates into pop terms. Below: the parts of the PopMatters review that don't concern "I Want It":

(International Feel)

“Next to You”, the flipside of “I Want It”, features a slow strut of a beat and a synth breakdown that sounds more like an Atari breaking down. A female admirer sings wispy come-ons while Harvey offers to eat his shoe in his suavest Right Said Fred croon. It’s the true sound of chillwave. “Tan Sedan” plunders the deathless sound of Canadian Italo-disco group Lime, with Harvey looking for some loving in minor-key desperation as arpeggios gush around him.

Harvey makes his share of downtempo tunes, though he never sacrifices momentum or cool sound effects to do so. “Bloodbath” doesn’t exactly sound like a bloodbath, but it does have ominous white noise in the background, a repetitive three-note chirp, and ruminative strums out of Morricone. The bloodbath, you see, is taking place in the workroom of the lonely leather-clad DJ, his tools analogous to those used by the serial killer, his life a matter of careful planning and steady nerves, his hands always in the right place at the right time. (Harvey used to kill ‘em at the Ministry of Sound.) And “Throwdown” gets the “One of These Tunes Is Not Like the Others” award for most idiosyncratic track on a dance album. Specifically, it sounds like an Oasis ballad. Not a bad one, at that. Pretty chords, some weird guitar throb, and it makes for a nice change of pace.

Harvey’s dry British smirk is plastered across the very notes and beats of his disco music, so it’s ironic that the most annoying song here is also the one that goes for out-and-out laughs. Andrew Weatherall’s remix of “Gunship” has Harvey leering at “thickums” and pontificating about “big girls” and their “two cans of Spam”. Regardless of whether you dig the sentiment, a little of his unhinged drooling goes a long way. Aside from that nadir, Locussolus is varied, body-moving, and endlessly listenable. It’s also full of personality—no matter how far Harvey stretches his instrumental grooves, he can’t hide his cheeky sense of humor. I like his beard.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #21 - Bragado

Sometimes I have the disconcerting feeling that I'm the only person, aside from the band and their lovely cover model, who heard this album. Maybe she didn't even hear it! Judging by the production values of the cover art, Ms. Cover Model could've been photoshopped in from some magazine ad for a gentleman's club, and nobody'd be the wiser, BECAUSE NOBODY LISTENED TO THIS CD. I just got it blind from the library, and I probably could've stolen it without anybody noticing, but it's good! Livelier than most Latin albums I heard this past year. Bragado aren't changing the face of regional Mexican art or anything, but they've got one solid accordion-led tune after another, with lots of what I (possibly incorrectly) call "cumbias" -- uptempo dance tunes that don't sound like polkas, with a beat in 2 instead of 4 and jaunty syncopation -- and even some tunes that you could call rock en espanol (e.g., "Como te Va Con El", a rockin' cover of a song that previously sounded like a syrupy waltz, in the hands of Grupo Zima or whoever). (In case you were wondering, Grupo Zima do NOT resemble jolly ranchers.) For a cumbia, try the one below: "El Mudo", i.e. "The Mute" or "The Dumb Guy". Make sure you keep listening until you hear El Mudo "speak"! (This song annoys the heck out of my wife, as it does all right-thinking people.)

De Pies a Cabeza
(Discos Power)

Apparently this "El Mudo" is a thing, a meme or a trope or whatever -- witness this mindboggling 2009 tune from Chacarron Macarron:

Anyway, the songs aren't all novelties, but they ARE mostly spritely and energetic, and even the polkas and waltzes are full of harmonies and crammed-in syllables and rhythmic invention. Inter-library loan them today!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Worth It in 2011: #22 - Electric Cowbell Records

This boutique label specializes in vinyl singles of synthy new-wave and various international genres, most of it done really well. Bongolia is their first compilation.

Various Artists
101 Things to Do in Bongolia
(Electric Cowbell)

From me PopMatters review -- or, I guess, THE WHOLE THING:

Though not as cool as owning all its constituent singles on 7-inch vinyl, 101 Things to Do in Bongolia is definitely a cheaper way to enjoy the output of Brooklyn boutique label Electric Cowbell. Easier to play in the car, too, where it sounds really good—one indelible driving rhythm after another, it’ll get you across the county with hooks and personality aplenty. MVPs are the horn-driven combo Superhuman Happiness, who deliver five songs full of hooks, riffs, and beats. Their “GMYL” (“God Makes You Live”—a fine sentiment) is super-catchy and chill New Wave; its warm synths evoke sweet and lonely teenage hearts.

Also nostalgic are electro-dudes Amazing Ghost, whose “Tiny Raindropz” quotes both “Band on the Run” and the early ’80s Genesis keyboard sound. LVPs are probably Virginia salsa band Bio Ritmo, whose tunes come across as limp and by-the-book. But NYC’s Spanglish Fly know how to bugalú; Boston’s Debo Band make free-swinging Ethiopian pop; and the two electro-scuzzballs in Talibam! fall apart all over the place but still pack a wallop. Most arresting may be “A Troll’s Soirée Troll” by label owner Jim Thomson and his CSC Funk Band. It’s seven minutes of mysterious gamelan groove, ripe for getting lost inside—just like Brooklyn!

Worth It in 2011: #23 - Jake Owen

When he's not flipping his hair and doing push-ups, Jake Owen is busy smashing the boundaries between country and rock in ways not seen since the heyday of Eric Church and Montgomery Gentry, only he can't put together an album as beginning-to-end solid as those guys. So instead we have this lovely collection of hits plus filler ("Apple Pie Moonshine", I think it's called), sort of the sonic equivalent of watching Clear and Present Danger just so you can enjoy a few amazing scenes and let Henry Czerny's glower melt your schoolgirlish heart. Amazing songs here are the title single, "Wide Awake" (see below), "Alone With You" (sort of Eagles-y), and... why do I get the feeling I'm overrating this album? I dunno, but I'd be glad to play it any time, and it seems like something I'll be glad to put on a few years down the line, whereas the Pistol Annies' undoubtedly superior Hell On Heels already feels played out. I GET IT PISTOL ANNIES, YOU'RE SO GOOD AT WHAT YOU DO. Now let me hear "Wide Awake" again.

Jake Owen
Barefoot Blue Jean Night

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #24 - Group Doueh

The track below captures most of what makes this West African group so enjoyable -- trancelike repetition of off-kilter rhythms, organ and guitar textures that nod to Western rock music, and pure exuberance. Because I'm me, I compared it to Genesis.

Group Doueh
Zayna Jumma
(Sublime Frequencies)

Um, what the heck, I'll post my entire PopMatters review, even though I'm afraid it reads like the ravings of a madman/dork (madmen aren't always so interesting, you know):

Group Doueh plays noisy and exultant music, designed to pitch listeners into throes of bewildered ecstasy. This makes sense—they’re a wedding band. Remember how bewildered and ecstatic everybody was in the first third of The Deer Hunter? Or rather, recall how ecstatic the film making was, with its leisurely voyeurism and its willingness to simply observe all the dancing and drinking in something approaching real time. That filmed observation, almost an hour-long, was itself virtuosic, itself a celebration. Yet it wasn’t real time. The Deer Hunter achieved its ecstasy by masterfully confounding viewers’ expectations of movie time. Doueh’s songs aren’t that long, actually—only one song on their new album tops six minutes—but they capture the same spirit of staggering along in search of joy, unmoored from time’s tyranny. Sometimes Group Doueh struggles for that joy, and sometimes joy seems handed to them by a happy confluence of design and fortune.

In Doueh’s case, the design is in the repetitive grooves laid down by drummer Hamdan Bamaar and a singing all-female percussion section that includes Hamdan’s mom, Halima Jakani. The fortune is in the jamming. Hamdan’s brother, El Waar, plays the keyboards and family patriarch Salmou plays electric guitar and tinidit, an amped lute. Throughout Group Doueh’s fourth album, Zayna Jumma, Salmou leads the group through a mix of traditional griot music and Hendrix-inspired acid rock, riffing and soloing over some heavy beats. You can tell why Western critics love this band from Western Sahara, and why the Sublime Frequencies label took interest. Group Doueh sound familiar yet exotic, and it’s easy to disappear into their ferocious two-chord vamps—at least, until you notice all the wild flailing shit Dad’s pulling out of his strings.

The word “ecstatic” comes up a lot around Group Doueh. Much of that ecstasy comes from the beats, which somehow hurtle from one bar to the next without speeding up. The band portrays this effect in a couple different ways. On most of the songs, drummer Hamdan either anticipates or delays parts of his beat patterns, making every bar sound uneven. Along with that, one element of the monster rhythm section—hand claps or resonant tbal drums—subdivides the beat into two or four, while another element splits the beat into thirds. This uneven two-or-four-against-three leaves you feeling off-kilter, and then the band repeats the off-kilterness. Over and over.

In effect, Group Doueh’s rhythm section normalizes their rhythms’ abnormality, resetting listeners’ sense of groove, of time and its smoothness, of normalcy itself. For ears raised on rock or disco, sinking into a straight back-beat is like sinking into a hot tub, but you can’t sink into these beats the same way. Eventually you grow accustomed to the not-sinking feeling. The band’s tempo remains the same, but life seems to speed forward. This sensation can resemble carsickness. No word on whether Salmou Bamaar’s fingers feel the same way.

Maybe interestingly, other musicians also normalize their rhythmic abnormalities, but to different effects. Norteño band Los Tigres del Norte sometimes delay the third beat of a waltz rhythm to be funny and uncanny. Electronic glitch musicians loop their glitches because it sounds cool, and probably to make important points about the disruptive effects of technology on everyday life, or something. But it’s worth noting that glitches’ normalized abnormalities may have ecstatic implications as well. Says Rob Young in the Wire article “Worship the Glitch”: “Common time… locks you into the tyranny of sequential time; the earthbound temporality that mystics and hermits meditated their way out of”. In their own ways, Group Doueh and Autechre liberate us from such tyranny.

Salmou loves his American rock, so several of these eight shred-fests resemble a really cool classic rock station. “Ishadlak Ya Khey” and “Zaya Koum” have none of that two-against-three stuff. They’re straight-up rock jams with serpentine wah riffs and strident call-and-response vocals. And the closing power ballad “Wazan Doueh” is a gorgeous appropriation of synth-rock cheese, like ‘80s Genesis or something, with El Waar channeling his inner Tony Banks into some very enthusiastic keyboard stabs. Unlike Genesis, there’s frenetic soloing, only two chords, and wild vocal ululating from the rhythm section (jokes about Phil Collins howling “Who Dunnit?” will be considered). Chances are your wedding band was not as remarkable as Group Doueh.

(Way better than The Rough Guide to African Guitar Legends.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #25 - Mikko Innanen & Innkvisitio

In a bizarre instance of synchronicity, my review for this album just came up on PopMatters! I certainly did not finagle the End-of-Year results in any way and this is certainly the 25th best album of the year. Good looking album cover, too!

Mikko Innanen & Innkvisitio

Here is part of what I said:

Ever the good host, Innanen has placed “Panoramic View” between two of the most kickass blowing sessions of this or any year. He composed “Clustrophy” and “The Grey Adler Returns Again” according to “clustonic principles” understood by approximately six people in the world, none of whom are friends with me on Facebook. Even more obscure than Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, clustonics outlines methods of extrapolating melody and harmony from non-repetitive tone rows. Or something. At any rate, “Clustrophy” repeats its nine-tone synth bassline over and over, the saxes buzzing overhead like a cloud of gnats. It’s a head-solos-head tune, accessible to jazz neophytes and elevated by the band’s vibrant tone colors and visceral interplay. (Or vice-versa.)

“Grey Adler” is something else again. It’s introduced by an aggressive group head—another nine-tone row punched out like a paddleball—before everything breaks up into chaos. Kantonen plays a wild atonal synth solo, and then Ljungkvist plays the tenor sax version of a synth solo—dry and choppy, an inhuman squeak, until some longer notes finally remind you that a breathing creature is creating these sounds. At this point, the other guys feel compelled to come in and blow whatever the hell they want, and it’s glorious. Before the final head, we hear a crackling sound, as though drummer Riippa is unwrapping a candy bar, while the saxes play long and slow and Kantonen meditates on the tones of the atmosphere. Over in the corner, Innanen pulls out his slide whistle, because…well, why not? The head may be derived from clustonic principles, but the rest seems like people freaking out in whatever entertaining ways occur to them.

Mikko Innanen & Innkvisitio: Clustrophy (from "Clustrophy") by Mikko Innanen

(Way better than the Black Lips' Arabia Mountain, which doesn't have anything to do with this album but which I've inexplicably seen on at least one Year-End list, so help me out in the comments.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #26 - Paul Simon

Paul Simon
So Beautiful Or So What
(Hear Music)

Sure signs that I am an old man, Rolling Stone edition:

1. Of all the Best of 2011 lists I've read so far, I have the most albums in common with Rolling Stone's, and that includes the PopMatters list to which I contributed. (This album was on both lists.)

2. I've started reading the music articles in Rolling Stone, not just the political screeds; and not just reading, I'm enjoying the music articles! Even the recent "100 Greatest Guitarists" nonsense has gone onto my bookshelf, because they offered just enough technical detail to pique my interest in those (almost exclusively) guys. For instance, someday soon I'll want to figure out what it means that Albert King "used an indecipherable secret tuning, hitting notes with his thumb", so I'll listen to a bunch of Albert King and see how he sounds different than all those other (almost exclusively) guys. Then I'll report back, and this'll turn into a blues blog read exclusively by old men. Lookee, there's Paul Simon at #95 on the list of best guitarists! Apparently he is better than Sonny Sharrock, who is NOT on the list. Should I listen to Bert Jansch? Simon sez Yes! He also sez "Dazzling Blue" off the new album is folk fingerpicking "on top of this rhythm with Indian musicians playing in 12/8". Beautiful song -- simple, in love with wife and existence, with as sure a sense of rhythm as anybody else on this list. In his somewhat soporific PBS special (pledge week!), he was impressive, but he limited his impressive displays to some virtuosic runs he had clearly worked out in advance. Not much in the way of extended improvisationals, in other words, but my, was he fluid.

3. Simon produced my favorite music quote of the year, also in RS: "I put the wildebeest in just to change the sound." (I should figure out which song he's talking about.) In addition to rhythm, the guy's obsessed with sounds -- wildebeest sounds, percussion sounds, sampled sounds, whatever different sounds he can pull out of his guitar and fit onto his records in subtle ways. More than almost any singer-songwriter his age (maybe excepting Neil Young?), Simon knows his game isn't just lyrics-melody-voice -- yet he EXCELS at lyrics-melody-voice. He just throws in all that other stuff, too.

4. (I fear we've veered from the original thesis.) Here's what I said at Sheep & Goats:
“Most folks, they don’t get when I’m jokin’,” he tosses off in a deep Bing Crosby voice only his wife knew about. This occurs in the middle of “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”, with lyrics linking the Big Bang to terrorist bombs, a beat best described as wood-flute hoedown, and a title like a Divine Styler outtake. This album is weird. It’s also effortless, a confident weirdo singing about whatever interests him — this time out, God and love. He hits on a dead lady while waiting in the line to heaven, for instance. But he also attributes his marriage to divine providence, kicks everything off with a preacher-sampling Christmas song, and teaches his kids to add to the world’s beauty like Sara Groves, so I’ll call it a CCM album until God and his only Son pay me a “courtesy call”. Admittedly, it’s groovier than most CCM (or most rap) — two meandering ballads aside, the rhythms subsume all, as is usually the case with prime Simon. How many songwriters would carefully construct a beat out of guitar tremolo, the way he does in “The Afterlife”? Yet he makes it all sound as careless as the album’s best line, “I am an empty house on Weed Street.”

(Way better than tUnE-yArDz' Whokill.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #27 - The Lonely Island

The Lonely Island
Turtleneck & Chain
(Universal Republic)

I have nothing intelligent to say about these guys, but nearly every song contains at least one line that still makes me giggle. And the songs are short. So here's something semi-intelligent I once wrote about their song "I'm On a Boat" (not on this album). And here's the intelligent Singles Jukebox disliking "Jack Sparrow" ("Turns out Michael Bolton's a major cinephile" -- what, because he likes Pirates of the Caribbean and Forrest Gump??) and "I Just Had Sex" ("I think she might've been a racist!"). Don't worry, this is NOT the highest ranked rap album on this list. (Though it is way better than Raekwon's Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang.)


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Farewell to Paul Thorpe, Extraordinary Teacher

How do you make sense of something like this? From the Asheville, NC, Citizen-Times:
The owner of the Asheville Music School died Saturday after falling and striking his head on a sidewalk while doing yard work at his Montford home, police said... Paul Mark Thorpe, 45, of 176 Tacoma Circle, was doing yard work on a steep bank when he apparently fell and struck his head on the sidewalk, according to Lt. Wallace Welch, a spokesman with the Asheville Police Department. No one saw Thorpe fall, but Welch said “it looks to be an unfortunate accident.” Thorpe was dead at the scene when police arrived about 3 p.m. Saturday. 
Paul was my band teacher for three years, from 1989-92 (7th-9th grade), and besides being a really good teacher -- dedicated, positive, adventurous, going above and beyond, all that gold medal teacher stuff -- he was also a hero and, to a teacher-ish extent, a friend. A tuba player, he encouraged me to switch from trumpet to euphonium, a good move for me, and then brought me along to Tubachristmas, a madcap annual undertaking where a bunch of low brass players get together in a public space and play Christmas carols. (I still do this every once in a while.) From that trip, I most clearly remember our conversation in the car. He played a taped compilation of John Williams film music, and he was an obvious fan, ready with an anecdote for each piece, telling me how he and his college buddies used to watch the end credits of the NBC nightly news just to hear the Williams score in all its glory. Shortly after that excursion, he loaned me "Super Mario Brothers 3" -- the man was only 11 years older than me -- to enjoy during Christmas break.

Paul encouraged my love of music and pushed it; if you enjoy this blog, he's partly to thank. For one of our high school concerts he taught us Dan Bukvich's "Voodoo", a gimmicky-but-cool crowd pleaser that's memorized and played in the dark -- he covered up all the windows in the gym where we performed -- featuring eerie singing, flashlights, and lots of percussion. Selling this to a small-town Missouri crowd was a neat trick, but in Paul's mind it was a gateway drug. During one rehearsal he told us that "Voodoo" might seem weird, but it was nothing compared to true avant-garde composition, mentioning an aleatoric piece whose notes were determined by the silhouette of a swimming goldfish projected against a score. (Is that a John Cage piece? Help me out.) 14-year-old me thought that was the coolest, and that attitude stuck with me through college up until now. One of these days you'll see me raving about Reinhold Freidl's completely insane Inside Piano album; thank Paul.

But more than that, he was incredibly positive. Once as I left a lesson, he looked at me with a smirk and said something like, "What's up today? You just seem really happy." Well, if I wasn't before, I got happy then! And after he left town to get his Masters Degree, whenever he came back to visit and I caught sight of him -- randomly walking past him outside the high school, or bussing his table at the local fancy restaurant -- it made my day. I dunno how many people he affected in this way, but he radiated confident happiness.

He maintained this positivity and musical curiosity to the end. Just a couple weeks ago he messaged me on Facebook to see if there was any way of importing this blog to his music school's posts. (Alas, there wasn't.) I was obviously flattered, but skeptical -- "Do the patrons of Asheville Music School really want to read about Gucci Mane or whoever?" He admitted, "Personally, I didn't take the time to read about Gucci!", but was otherwise complimentary. From the look of things, he lived a rich life in Asheville with his partner and the musical community that formed around his school. Losing one of my favorite teachers might seem insensible to me, but to his friends and family, his loss is something far worse. Prayers.

Another great Paul Thorpe field trip: the summer of '91 (I think), he drove me and several other brass players to a drum and bugle corps competition. (Paul: "Do you have any idea what you're going to see at this thing?" Me: "Drums and bugles?") The contest was loud, obnoxious, thrilling, and it prepared me for marching band, which pretty much centered my studies and social life throughout high school. I have to think he would have enjoyed this live version of "Take On Me", from one of my favorite singles of 2011, by the NO BS! Brass Band:

Paul taught me how to play music and how to love music and, along with that, how to love life. What a treasure.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #28 - Dead Cat Bounce

Of the three jazz albums on this list, this one is the most straightahead -- all the tunes are pretty obviously composed, and while the solos get into some rangy territory, they remain within a context familiar to anyone who's listened to the last century of big band or chamber music. In other words, ACCESSIBLE!  I will warn you, there's also a "comedy rock" group called Dead Cat Bounce, and they're hogging up Youtube, so you have to limit your searches with the name "Steckler" if you wanna find these guys. (The comedy rockers might be good, how do I know, especially if they can justify such song titles as "Overenthusiastic Contraceptive Lady" and "Every Time You Shave, A Moustache Dies".) Matt Steckler also has an interesting blog documenting the band's work.

(Way better than Pat Metheny's What's It All About.)

Dead Cat Bounce
Chance Episodes

My PopMatters review:

At times, the members of Dead Cat Bounce sound like they’re playing contemporary chamber music in a recital hall, savoring dissonance for its own sake, honing the exquisite tones from their woodwinds. In other places they’re a hard-charging funk band, with raucous sax solos screaming over a rhythm section that knows how to groove in 9/8 time. In “Township Jive Revisited”, they simply give themselves over to thick, joyful primary chords, wailing with abandon a tune you’ll walk around humming all day. You can tell this is a jazz band because it comprises a bassist, a drummer, and four guys playing sax (also flute and clarinet)—but “jazz” for them is less a genre shackle than it is a sandbox to explore their oddball musical whims.

Most of those whims come from saxophonist, composer, and liner-note philosophizer Matt Steckler, and his songs for the grant-and-commission-funded album Chance Episodes examine “memory’s haphazard way of bringing to the fore seemingly unrelated events, so that an episodic personal narrative is created, as if ‘by chance.’” Well, you gotta write something on your grant application, but someday Steckler should explain how that compositional approach differs from ANY OTHER MUSIC EVER MADE. Doesn’t all music, or at least all interesting music, incorporate seemingly unrelated events? Why, Lady Gaga’s most recent album recounts the actions of a government hooker, Bible people, and some guy from Nebraska! More to the point, music, simply because it’s music and it sounds intentional, creates narratives all the time, almost despite itself. Granted, most such narratives are listeners’ projections. I dare you to listen to an album and not hear it as some kind of “personal narrative,” even if the narrative is very simple—“this album is the Foo Fighters’ rockin’ return to form”, say. Music, like any artwork, challenges us to take up its disparate elements and make sense of them.

Like I was saying, Chance Episodes is Dead Cat Bounce’s rockin’ return to form… Wait, scratch that! It’s actually the sandbox in which they explore Steckler’s oddball musical whims. So not only is there a tribute to South African township jive, there’s a tune called “Silent Movie, Russia 1995” that indeed sounds like a pensive silent movie score with a killer klezmer-derived groove during the solo section. You can practically see villagers dancing in the snow, or whatever Russians did in 1995. (Lined up at McDonald’s?) “Far From the Matty Crowd” and “Salon Sound Journal” surely depict something, since they are multi-part suites that your local jazz combo won’t cover anytime soon. “Matty” is especially adventurous: it starts with a surging group head, all four saxes blowing a long and winding line of melody, until the rhythm section drops out for a free woodwind smear-a-thon, after which drummer Bill Carbone ratchets up some solo excitement, and then we’re back to the head. Like most of the songs here, “Matty” boasts a structure that’s as unique and memorable as its tune.

You know Steckler’s an egghead because he titled the opening song “Food Blogger”, and then stuffed it into classical sonata-allegro finery: theme A, theme B, development, theme A, theme B. But the themes are good ones—A is a gentle midtempo swing that could’ve come from the Shorter songbook, whereas B is a madcap walk that almost sounds like a Raymond Scott rarity. The song’s real draw is its solos. Over one flexible chord, altoist Terry Goss flies free of the beat with torrents of melody. Goss is followed by baritonist and rhythmic subtlist Charlie Kohlhase, who plays with the beat and jabs it from odd angles, like a boxer or a hungry predator.

“Tourvan Confessin’” is the most straightforward tune, the one you might find in a fakebook some day, head-solos-head. Its melody is a slow creeping stalk that builds through complex counterpoint, only to resolve in an unexpected key, like the lights suddenly coming on. Jared Sims’s tenor solo is exuberant, as though he can’t wait to overblow and screech; Steckler’s solo is a bit more studied, but you cut him some slack because he wrote the tune. Along with the resonance and perfect timing of bassist Dave Ambrosio, all these guys are fine players with individual voices. Their best group moment comes in the album closer “Living the Dream”, when they join together for some wild counter-pointillism.

Chance Episodes’ main weakness is that not every episode connects. “Watkins Glen” is memorable mainly for its bowed bass solo, never a good sign. And “Bio Dyno Man” is a study in abstraction, with seemingly random bits of chord and melody falling where they will, but without any sense of momentum, or any compelling reason to listen. Overall, though, Chance Episodes is lively, varied, and vividly recorded. It reminds us that jazz is a useful laboratory for highbrow art music experiments. More importantly, it cooks.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #29 - Chucha Santamaria Y Usted

A sureshot Grammy nominee for Best Album Packaging -- if the Grammys weren't a CORRUPT CABAL RULED BY THE MONEYED INFLUENCE OF STING AND CHICKENFOOT. But I digress! (And anyway, Cabo Wabo serves a fine fish taco.)

Chucha Santamaria Y Usted
Chucha Santamaria Y Usted
(Young Cubs)

My PopMatters review:

They're right -- Fanta ES fabuloso!

Reportedly there’s a concept buried inside the self-titled debutChuCha Santamaria y Usted, something about the complex historical relationship between Caribbean people and the U.S., and how that parallels the complex relationship between hi-hats and synth arpeggios in all your favorite disco genres—I count freestyle, Italo, motorik, the hard-charging Pitbull stomp, and maybe more. The album may also describe how Puerto Rico’s “Fiebre Tropical” equals a tropical fever on the dance floor. Since I don’t speak Spanish, I’m not sure. Thankfully, as with all good concept albums, ChuCha Santamaria y Usted’s music doesn’t need its concept. Matthew Kirkland’s synths play a thinned-out version of early ‘80s hi-NRG, only without the 4x4 thumps. He’s got bass churgles and he’s not afraid to drop ‘em, but the focus is on the treble sounds—mallet percussion and lush Moroder-esque ostinatos that suck you into their rippling propulsion like a wave pool. Singer/wordsmith Sofía Córdova sings in inglés, español, y Vocoder, carefully unfolding her melodies with stately restraint. She never sounds like she’s reaching for the high notes, and her low notes just sort of drift into the heat haze. You’ve been here in your dreams.

(Way better than Tapes 'n' Tapes's Outside.) (Did I already rip on that one?)

Worth It In 2011: #30 - Los Huracanes del Norte

It DOESN'T all sound the same. As proof, I offer the delightful polka "Carmelita", which adds texture-changing tuba and accordion arpeggios on the chorus. There's also a slow cumbia later in the album called "Agua Bendita", and it's gringo-accessible touches like these that help Huracanes stand out from the packs of polkas and waltzes that occupy the regional Mexican charts. 

But even when the songs DO start to sound samey, Huracanes are worth hearing for their singers' close harmonies, their lead singer's rich tone, and their accordion players' inventiveness. We're not just talking flashy runs of notes, here -- the accordionists (I'm pretty sure there's more than one) buzz and float around the singer like clouds of gnats, or comp like jazz pianists, jamming chords into whatever spaces they can find. Listen to more here; way better than Ricky Martin's Musica Alma Sexo (but you knew that).

Los Huracanes del Norte
Soy Mexicano 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #31 - Those Darlins

If we're talking retro-rock that plunders '60s girl groups and the Stones in equal measure, this album is way better than the Girls' Father, Son, Holy Ghost, which wasn't such a bad record (its drumming was probably better), but wasn't nearly as funny as Screws Get Loose, whose songs reject boys who "wanna stick it in" in favor of both eating and playing in the dirt. Those Darlins are maybe the Shangri Las to the Girls' Shirelles, or something. (Yes, I realize the Girls do not actually have girls in the band; just saying.) 

This is one of three (I think) albums my Top 40 will share with the Paste Top 50, which is dominated by saphead indie rock and/or stuff I haven't heard. That's roughly half the number my list shares with the Grammy nominations, out yesterday, where I spotted six (I think) of my album picks. (R. Kelly holla!) Seven if you count the liner notes to Neil Diamond's Bang Years reissue! (I've said too much.)

Those Darlins
Screws Get Loose
(Oh Wow Dang)

Those Darlins' greatest song is "Tina Said", a cautionary tale about addiction and codependence that steals the riff from the Flaming Lips' "She Don't Use Jelly", and STILL manages to sound lowdown and sleazy:

Here's the score so far:

31. Those Darlins--Screws Get Loose (Oh Wow Dang) (indie, country)
32. Buraka Som Sistema -- Komba (Enchufada) (indie, dance)
33. Thompson Square--Thompson Square (Stoney Creek '10) (indie, country)
34. Weasel Walter, Mary Halvorson, Peter Evans -- Electric Fruit (Thirsty Ear) (indie, jazz)
6 REISSUE. Drive-By Truckers -- Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians (New West) (indie, country, reissue)
35. Alexi Murdoch--Towards the Sun (Zero Summer) (indie, folk)
36. R. Kelly--Love Letter (Jive ‘10) (major, R&B)
37. David Banner & 9th Wonder--Death of a Pop Star (b.i.G.f.a.c.e./eOne ‘10) (indie, rap, CCM)
38. Heavy Winged -- Sunspotted (Type ‘10) (indie, metal)
39. Blind Boys of Alabama--Take the High Road (Saguaro Road) (indie, country, CCM)
40. Gucci Mane--The Return of Mr. Zone 6 (Warner Bros.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Worth It In 2011: #32 - Buraka Som Sistema

I'm still working on a review of this one, so I'll be cagey, but it's an electro-acoustic dance album based on Angolan kuduro music, which I've never heard in its pure form, if it even has a "pure form". Think MIA in her "pure form", without any stylistic tangents. Komba is also a concept album (so they say) based on a ritual seven-day wake that Angolan people throw for their dead friends. The music is deep and dark, but also very humanistic. I've said too much! (Way better than Battles' Gloss Drop.)

Buraka Som Sistema

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Worth It in 2011: #33 - Thompson Square

The first, and less favorite, of two country couples on my list, Thompson Square's debut album just got traction this year with their single "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not?", which is big and fine and reviewed by the Singles Jukebox here. "The melody's got some tug to it", I said, but I missed its majesty, how it sounds like the endgame of the entire world depends on the answer to the title question -- in other words, exactly how such a situation sounds inside the head of the nervous would-be kisser.

Thompson Square
Thompson Square
(Stoney Creek 2010)

Though they do some annoying list-the-humdrum-details-of-my-everyday-life songs ("As Bad As It Gets" and "One of Those Days", sort of the mainstream country version of Francesca Battistelli's "This Is the Stuff"), they also have one heck of an extended-metaphor ballad in "Glass", one heck of a hard-to-explain-to-your-kid-in-the-backseat-without-having-THE-TALK ballad in "If It Takes All Night", and lots of good riffs and harmonies. Not as MANY harmonies as that other country couple, which partially explains why Thompson Square are all the way down here in the 30s. But still good.

Listen here; way better than the Decemberists' The King Is Dead, if only because Thompson Square actually get around to explaining why we fight. (To make up, basically.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Worth It in 2011: #34 - Weasel Walter/Mary Halvorson/Peter Evans

This free jazz trio session becomes more enjoyable every time I play it, as drums/guitar/trumpet coalesce into areas of great beauty and energy, only to break down into more scattershot configurations. To way oversimplify things, Evans swings, Walter clatters, and I'm VERY pleased with this as my introduction to Halvorson, who somehow holds them both together with a giant catalog of guitar techniques. If you wanna read more about her, here's the fine Will Layman at PopMatters

Weasel Walter/Mary Halvorson/Peter Evans
Electric Fruit
(Thirsty Ear)

Drummer Weasel Walter is known for his blast beats, and guitarist Mary Halvorson is considered one of the hardest pickers in the biz, so the most surprising sonic quality of Electric Fruit might be its quietness. Fruit is an improvised six-track pow-wow between Walter, Halvorson, and trumpeter Peter Evans. On occasion, these three weirdos push each other into areas of overdriven sonic violence, but more often Fruit sounds like a collective dare: How quickly and precisely can three musicians play together without ever lapsing into a conventional rhythm or tonality?

On “The Stench of Cyber-Durian”—this thing’s got the best song titles around—Halvorson starts with what sounds like a cute little ostinato figure. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe for about 11 notes, until she starts messing with it. Walter darts around her while Evans blows one note over and over, seemingly intent on exploring every possible iteration of that pitch. From there they embark on a capricious 11-minute journey through scritches and scratches, arpeggios and melodies, prettiness and godawful rooting pig noises. Have you ever dropped everything simply to appreciate how many different sounds exist in the world? If so, this may be the album for you.

Even when someone does threaten to start grooving, the other two refuse to succumb. Halvorson, who evinces the biggest bag of tricks, will sometimes offer a lovely bit of Metheny minimalism that threatens to become music you could play at a dinner party. Sometimes Walter and Evans coalesce around her dominant rhythm; more often, they simply mess with it until everything breaks down again, bliddledybloop. This shouldn’t imply that they’re not playing nicely together, though. The interplay of these three musicians often resembles a conversation among highly intelligent people who know they should listen respectfully but, try as they might, can’t stop thinking of stuff to say and so continually talk over one another’s responses. It’s hard-charging interdependence. Think a late-night dorm-room conspiracy theory session or an episode of The McLaughlin Group. (Same thing?)

Halvorson and Walter play their music with lots of hard consonants: Brisk. Brittle. Crisp. Rattly. Lickety-split. (Though admittedly, there’s not much Slack.) Even when Halvorson uses pedals to add blasts of distortion or cool pitch-bend effects, she cuts off her sounds abruptly. This is miles away from, say, a Last Exit-style blowout, where you can get lost in gooey globs of feedback and noise. Every sound here seems intentional, and there’s nowhere for the notes to hide. Because of the nature of his instrument, Evans’ playing is more legato, but he deftly keeps up with the other two and slides through an impressive variety of timbres.

Electric Fruit makes for captivating listening. Whether you’ll feel compelled to play it a bunch is another matter, but I suspect there’ll come a day in the not too distant future when you just wanna hear three music geeks at the top of their game, playing, with obvious care and delight, music that’d sound like the infernal tortures of hell to 90 percent of the yaks you have to tolerate every day. May this deeply social collaboration chase them screaming from the room.

Weasel Walter, Mary Halvorson and Peter Evans - Electric Fruit by Thirsty Ear Recordings

Worth It REISSUES in 2011: #6 - Drive-By Truckers

From writing this review for PopMatters, excerpted below, I learned two important things:

1. My taste in Drive-By Truckers differs from most fans' taste in Drive-By Truckers. Commenter Jamie McAfee kindly summarized it this way: "This was somewhat enlightening in its alternative appreciation. Clearly you know the records, but your appreciation doesn't really line up with the average DBT fan. Zip City and The Living Bubba are pretty central DBT songs, for example, and Ouftit was the big DBT anthem till Isbell left." The trouble is, those songs are pretty boring, and the Truckerz are capable of louder things and cooler guitar tones.

2. You should NEVER EVER state in a review that you don't know what a song is about, because there is undoubtedly some fan out there who has parsed the lyrics more closely than you have and will eagerly set you straight. (ahem... "Carl Perkins' Cadillac"...) You should just always follow Rob Sheffield's tactic of blithely stating your interpretation of the song, no matter how out there. If nothing else, this tactic makes for an extra joke, and jokes are useful and hard to come by.

#6 Reissue
Drive-By Truckers
Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians
(New West)

Here, let’s have some fun. Put on Southern Rock Opera, the Drive-By Truckers’ breakthrough 2001 double album, and play the first few seconds of each song, like you’re sampling it on the digital listening stations of some defunct retailer. (RIP Borders.) With a couple exceptions—the drums and bass that open “Wallace”, Mike Cooley hollering “I think I’m gonna call the PO-lice!”—every song starts with guitars: noodly guitars, foreboding guitars, guitars that have trouble getting started, guitars that have a loose relationship with soul or boogie or punk riffs. DBT can do different things, but their classic sound is meditative electric guitar worship that somehow congeals into song. To paraphrase minimalist composer Morton Feldman, those six strings are their Walden...

[then I talk about some of the boring songs]

Thankfully, as the Truckers’ extensive gay listenership might say, it gets better. Half of these 16 songs are mighty fine, and that number includes character studies like the evil “Sink Hole” and music history lessons like “Ronnie and Neil” and “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”. I’m still not entirely sure what “Cadillac” is about, but its melody rips off “Mr. Bojangles” with such sweet yearning I can’t help but love it. “Lookout Mountain” is massive; “Marry Me” sounds like a lost Stones classic. 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark album is absurdly overrated, but this compilation has the courtesy to cherrypick two of its four rockers. “The Righteous Path” is Hood’s meditation on singing one note over and over again, a righteous path of anti-melody. And “3 Dimes Down”! “3 Dimes Down” is a CRAZY song—the guitar tone from the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, a story about a laudromat threesome, and two verses (no chorus) of perfect rock ‘n’ roll lines. “Three dimes down and 25 cents shy of a slice of the Doublemint Twins”, indeed. Throw in “Let There Be Rock” and that makes five Hoods, three Cooleys, and no Isbells, which seems about right, though I wouldn’t skip Isbell’s “Outfit” and “Never Gonna Change” if they came on.

(Way better than the Eli Young Band's Life At Best.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Worth It in 2011: #35 - Alexi Murdoch

IF YOU LIKE NICK DRAKE THEN YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO ALEXI MURDOCH. Even if you don't often listen to Nick Drake, but he always sounds nice on soundtracks and on your wife's As Seen On TV compilation, then you might want to listen to Alexi Murdoch. If you saw that charming pregnancy movie Away We Go, you have already heard Alexi Murdoch. Gentle acoustic folk with propulsion and dissonance in the guitar, subtle instrumental shading, openhearted grappling with matters of life and death... You know you wanna hear this guy. And what the heck is that on the album cover?

Alexi Murdoch
Towards the Sun
(Zero Summer)

The album is a study in stillness, but a fascinating stillness inside which you can move around. Steve Horowitz, a fine writer at PopMatters, turned me on to this guy. He sez, "Each of the seven tracks offers the same lesson. We are free to walk towards the light or live in the shadows. The choice is ours. No one can make it for us. Listen to that still small voice inside, like the one you hear on the record. You will know what to do."

(Way better than Bon Iver's Bon Iver.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

This Kool and Together Comp is NOT Worth It.

Cymbal afficionado.

Since they read better than my PopMatters review, here are two angry comments from "Donna," who had the sagacity to NOT insult my day job:

Dude, what is your deal.....just saw these guys perform and they killed it... First of all those are old recordings and I personally do not understand why you would bring up someone [Cowboy Troy] from Victoria....Yeah he probably had better contributions but he probably had money to keep making music!!!!!!  This is their first album that has actually come out..Also they were KIDS when they made this.....They did not have the technology they do now to make them sound good.....Like I said not everybody could afford top quality like the Rolling Stones!!!!!!! You are the only one that has said something negative the ONLY one...Even Spin magazine liked them and WHO are you!!!!!!!!!Whatever, before you pass judgement!!!! you should see them at the Lincoln Center in New York on December 15....then judge!!!!! Josh!!!!!!

Plus...people...THESE RECORDINGS WERE NOT MEANT FOR THE PUBLIC THEY WERE DISCOVERED BY CHANCE....JOSH did not do his research skills correctly obviously.... This review is awful and not specific and very bias....they are a damn good band and people you should check them out!!!!!!