Friday, December 30, 2011

David Axelrod - Song of Innocence

Here's a longtime favorite from producer David Axelrod, who worked with Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderly, the Electric Prunes and others as well as producing a pretty consistent string of solo albums through the late 60's and 70's.  This album and its 1969 follow-up Songs of Experience are notable for being based on the poetry of William Blake and being sampled by quite a few hip hop artists.  While the suite's sound is undeniably 60's, I always enjoy how Axelrod managed to take bits and pieces of several styles and make something that really has no stylistic equal that I've heard.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into the album title (and keep in mind I have no familiarity with Blake's poetry), but to my ears the "innocence" of Axelrod's compositions here is manifest in the simplicity of the riffs and themes (especially in comparison with this album's follow-up).  Most of the songs are built on repeating two-note riffs or ascending and descending scales in deliberately-paced quarter notes, delivered by the orchestral instruments--sweeping strings and a lot of swelling brass.  The creepy string fanfare that opens "Urizen" definitely sets the tone, which is often dark but always groovy.  In my mind's eye I always picture the orchestra facing a rock trio, blasting out the dramatic and cinematic themes while the bass and drums lay down some visceral funky beats and the guitarist (probably the main reason this album gets tagged "psychedelic") cuts loose with distorted soloing.  Bridging the gap between the orchestra's lofty sounds and the drive of the rock instrumentation are a few really well-placed and arranged jazz instruments--piano, organ and vibraphone manage to tie the album's disparate purposes together and enhance the lounge-like atmosphere, as well as provide some of the best details--like the vibraphone breakdown right before the two-minute mark of the oft-sampled "Holy Thursday," which builds into one of the album's most tremendous climaxes.

It may take several listens before the album's melodic cohesion stops sounding like homogeneity, like the subtle twist between the descending two-note riff of "Holy Thursday" and the ascending two-note riff of "The Smile," and subtle shadings like the groovily baroque harpsichord start to poke out.  While it's still pretty far off from the joyousness to be found on Songs of Experience, "A Dream" breaks the album's minor template with lovely restraint.  "Song of Innocence" is an example of one of the best-realized longer tracks of the album, blending some truly sick drumming with dissonant tension in the strings, an uncharacteristically clean volume pedal guitar solo and a dizzying orchestral conclusion.  "Merlin's Prophecy" develops the album's themes with more energy and complexity, progressively pushing the tempo as the track concludes, while "The Mental Traveler" closes the album with a forceful return to the earlier minor textures, including a righteous Morricone-like guitar melody and a dynamic false ending before the strings eerily bleed out into the beyond.

When I share Song of Innocence, it often provokes laughter--it's true that the style is pretty schmaltzy and our ears are conditioned to treat strings and horns as movie soundtrack music, but I find the atmosphere here really great and the session playing rivals many other jazz-pop crossovers of the late 60's--it's easy to hear how influential Axelrod continues to be from trip-hop and beyond.

Get it here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

This Heat - Deceit

It's clear from the get-go that Deceit displays some very apparent differences from the group's debut of fractured tape collage and dark, noisy and mostly instrumental rock.  Indeed, with Deceit, This Heat presents us with an album of songs, jumping from one stylistic experiment to another, sometimes with only the thread of bold adventurousness to connect the two--needless to say, I'm into it.

Deceit is an album where the Eastern harmonies and droning dream rock of an opener like "Sleep" can and do sit immediately and comfortably adjacent to a 6-minute experimental rock (comparative) epic like "Paper Hats."  The latter is one of the album's grandest statements, blending punk-direct, Frith-like guitars (drummer Charles Hayward would later join a re-formed lineup of Massacre) with a hypnotically flowing structure and some really cool production techniques (check out how the riff simultaneously slows down and the miking shifts from direct to ambient room sound around the five minute mark).  The tension between pop instincts and crazy experimentalism is constantly present here, rearing its head when the shambling victory march and strained harmony of "Triumph" gives way to the upbeat post-punk of "S.P.Q.R.," which ironically lists the virtues of the Roman empire, allowing the listener to draw any desired connections to modern nation-states.  Then, only a couple of songs later the group is onto something completely forward-looking with "Shrink Wrap's" pounding tribal beats sounding like some sort of mutant precursor to M.I.A. 

Of the modest number of post-punk cornerstones with which I've become acquainted, this one seems to fuse punk's do-it-yourself spirit with an ambitious avant-garde mission best.  It's funny--saying "I don't know how to play guitar, but I'm going to pick one up anyway and bang out 3-chord rock because I'm PISSED OFF!" is one thing, but picking up the same gauntlet only to throw it down for a purpose this complex and challenging is another thing entirely.  Not that the group is completely untrained, but listening to the dense vocal arrangements of a song like "Cenotaph," it's clear that This Heat doesn't really possess a strong lead vocalist, but that doesn't stop them from crafting multi-part harmonies that slide between consonance and dissonance with liquidity.  Where there's a will, there's a way, and the fact that the power of This Heat's will far outweighs their vocal limits means we get to hear the working-class accents and unruly sneer of classic punk rock over a much more sonically adventurous framework. 

If there's a common thread that prevents Deceit from sounding like a confused mess when the songs jump from filthy lo-fi punk (the end of "Makeshift Swahili") to the Eastern folk rock and brilliantly sarcastic use of historical-text-as-lyrics in "Independence," it's got to be the group's seething rage.  Yes, Deceit is an extremely political album, often focusing on the fundamentals of injustice rather than the contemporary specifics of injustice (the recipe for timelessness, if you ask me).  The epic scope of the group's experimental palette only serves to make their vision of modern governmental oppression even more nightmarish, though their angst does occasionally come across as an anguished howl into the wind.  While not every track blends the group's sonic purpose with song form ("Radio Prague" and "Hi Baku Shyo" are pretty much straight-up collage/tape experiments), Deceit is likely to satisfy fans of both post-punk, modern experimental rock, and even 70's progressive rock and Rock In Opposition for its satisfying blend of energy, composition and musicianship, not to mention a wealth of ideas that regularly manage to outstrip the similar sounds the group's contemporaries were making.  It's easy to see why this album is still hailed as a mainstay of the original post-punk scene.

Get it here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lee Morgan - Search for the New Land

Though I'm gaining more and more of an appreciation for it, I still find jazz to be one of the most difficult genres to critically evaluate.  Since I'm not a jazz musician I have very little knowledge of jazz-specific theory, and though it's easy to tell when a soloist has particularly good chops from the speed, fluidity or emotion of his or her playing, if jazz albums were to be rated on the soloists' skills alone, there would be a lot of 5-star jazz albums out there (though learned jazz musicians may contend that there's a whole lot of space between "good" and "bad" in terms of soloist quality).  So, in evaluating jazz albums with a critical ear I tend to do so both from the perspective of my experience with other types of music and theory, but also more in the way that non-musicians evaluate most music--based on intuitive reactions and emotional response.  Though today's crop of conservative jazz élite probably feel differently, what I'm looking for isn't a theoretically-sound rehash of the same museum-piece territory that was first explored 50 years ago.  Like with most genres, if I'm interested in established ideas, I'd rather go straight to the source and experience them in their original form and hope that any new music I check out has something new to say to make it more worth listening to than the ideas' palpably exciting genesis in the aforementioned classics.  Right now I'm mostly fascinated with the birth and heyday of avant-garde jazz and free jazz in the 60's, and Lee Morgan's 1966 album Search for the New Land is probably a pretty good one to illustrate an album that features fine playing from a number of jazz greats but leaves my emotional and intellectual responses feeling a little cold. 

It's hard to pick holes in this album's lineup, which includes trumpeter Lee Morgan (close off the heels of his commercially successful The Sidewinder), Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Billy Higgins on drums, Herbie Hancock on piano, Reginald Workman on bass, and Grant Green on guitar.  Based on the intensely arty portrait on the cover and the title's provocative title, this should ostensibly be Morgan's foray into the "out" beyond.  Unfortunately, aside from the title track's majesty and moody atmosphere, there's little on here musically to indicate Morgan is interested in abandoning the comforts of hard bop.  For anyone who owns several mid-60's bop albums, the only real draw for this album is "Search for the New Land," which presents a mysterious melody with stately flourishes only to re-state the same melody with a speedier, boppier energy.  I dig this idea, especially since the melody's a good one.  What I don't dig, though, is that Morgan proceeds to show us that his idea of an epic track is just to repeat the same slow melody over and over, interspersed with solo sections for four of the players.  While the music is well-played, there really isn't a whole lot that happens in the track's 15 minutes, especially not in terms of development.  Guitarist Grant Green's solo is pretty simplistic--dare I say boring--and he's so poorly integrated into the arrangement (the only other thing he does is textural octave tapping in the melodic section) that it almost seems like Morgan just included him because "having a guitar seems out."  Hancock and Shorter both deliver enjoyable solos that fit the song's mood well, but I can't help but be reminded of Hancock's own "Maiden Voyage," which delivers a similar feeling with more of a natural feeling and compositional flair.

Aside from the opener, the rest of the album is a pretty straightforward bop affair--"The Joker" is finely-played but unmemorable (at least Green is better integrated into the ensemble and contributes more to the accompaniment and turns in a more interesting solo), while "Melancholee" is the stereotypical obligatory ballad that's easy to pass over unnoticed.  "Mr. Kenyatta" is one of the best tracks to my ears, subtly tense and edgy while at the same time laid back and swinging--exactly the type of composition I think the phrase "post-bop" applies to; not quite in and not quite out.  The closer, "Morgan the Pirate" is similarly satisfying, contrasting some Andrew Hill-like piano riffing from Hancock with a nice, bouncy bop melody. 

While there's far from anything objectionable about this music, it's neither a great hard bop album nor does it deliver on its implied promise to plumb some uncharted depths.  In my nascent attempts to try and articulate what separates a workmanlike, well-played jazz album from a really great one, this album is a god example and reference point to show that sometimes a great lineup doesn't quite click with the magic that elevates the best albums to those rarely-reached heights.  The great thing about jazz, though, is that even with a relative disappointment like this album, it's still a pleasure to listen to and achieves a pretty sizable amount of the pleasure that comes from all well-played jazz.

Get it here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Supersilent - 1

Though I've written a fair bit about free improvisation, I've only written about a couple of groups (mostly AMM and related artists).  Here's something different from a more recent group from Norway called Supersilent.  1 is the first disc of their 1997 debut 1-3, which I've decided (after no small deliberation) to break up into three parts to review despite the fact that the albums are all grouped (like each of Supersilent's numbered releases) in one single-colored package and since each disc is over an hour long.  While it took my ears a while to grow accustomed to the synth-heavy sounds on these albums (I'm used to the comparatively organic sounds of groups like AMM), the music here has eventually become the kind of paradoxically noisy brain relaxant that I've come to look for in the best free improv.

The fact that Supersilent's music is related to free jazz is immediately apparent here--"1.1" opens with 2:30 of drums before the first synth statement.  The drummer's jazz chops is probably one of my favorite aspects about the group's sound--often the longer tracks come down to layering extended synth tones over the top of the kit sounds, which keep things interesting and remind us that there are indeed humans making this music.  The first track also demonstrates the group's interest in both sampling wordless vocals and throwing a little bit of trumpet into the mix, which deepens the connection to free jazz (though the trumpeter's chops aren't especially jazzy).  Things also get satisfyingly twitchy in the first track's second half and in "1.2" when repeating bass synth tones start to contrast the drum beats. 

"1.3" shows the group's interest in both treated sounds (with synths that undergo brilliant changes in timbre and texture) and the power of volume, with densely layered soundscapes made of shrieking synths and pounding drums.  I like how the group manages to keep things kinetic in these places--it's the judgment to ensure an energetic beat (no matter how fractured or buried by abrasive sounds) that (for me) separates this noise from just anybody out there with a keyboard and a big amp.  The final track, "1.4" finds the group toying much more with dynamics, using a repeating minor trumpet melodic motif as a backbone and running past it with a series of percussion and comparatively gentle synth improvisations.  Though the band rarely manages to use silence as an effective tool on this disc, the shift in volume dynamics is a welcome and arguably necessary one (if you're going to try and make it through all three discs at once!).  The melodic fragment is effective but repetitive and predicts the group's later, much tamer forays into more melodic, tonally-anchored improvisations.  While it's definitely a more accessible sound, I prefer the group's more distinctive and energetic early work, but I understand that it sure must be tough to try and achieve success playing such harsh-sounding music.  6 seems to be the group's most popular release, but I appreciate the edge that's present here on their earlier material, which inhabits a niche in the free improv realm that I haven't heard anyone else quite fill.

Get it here.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dark - Round the Edges

Time for another installment of Know Your Enemy--this time it's not the band or the music, but the consumer attitude surrounding the album--excessive hype.  One of the interesting facets of underground and obscure music hunting is that hype is often as common and potent in its ability to mislead as it is when it's found in relation to mainstream music.  Dark's sole 70's release Round the Edges is in my opinion the perfect example of this phenomenon.  It's not that Round the Edges is a bad album, it's just not worth the thousands of dollars that record collectors are apparently willing to pay for the original vinyl run.  There's something about the power of rarity that will always make people certain people say "this is great" or make other people say "I know somebody told me this wasn't that good, but people are paying thousands of dollars so maybe it actually is." 

When you actually get your hands on a copy (probably digital or CD reissue), you'll find that this album isn't some sort of mold-breaking visionary masterpiece, but rather something very much of its time.  Its six tracks are relatively long and the focus is on dual guitar interplay with plenty of fuzzy distortion and the occasional wah solo.  While the songwriting isn't particularly developed or notable in its creativity, the long songs have their moments--my favorite is probably the opener, "Darkside," which boasts a few interesting and distinctive sections including a tom-and-guitar intro, a spacious jazzy section that pits the left channel's open riffs against the right channel's reverbed lead lines, and some faster riffing that morphs into a beautifully crunchy bending lead line.  It's also one of the songs where the vocalist's dour-but-sort-of-jazzy-at-their-best vocals seem to mesh well with the music.  At most other times the singer's smooth, emotionless Eric Clapton delivery seems at odds with the guitars' grit, or at best the vocals just fall behind the much more interesting guitar sounds.

The drum/guitar interplay of "Darkside" returns quite satisfyingly on "R.C.8." but its impact is dulled by some less impressive song construction and shudder-inducing lyrics ("everybody loves a little baby/don't you tell me now that that's a lie") that are even worse than the ones that mar the otherwise dreamy soundscape of "Maypole" with confused attempts at cleverness by likening some chick's appearance to Michael Caine's...yikes.  Fortunately, the album ends pretty strongly; "The Cat" represents a common occurrence with early 70's bands like Dark--when they run out of weird, proto-progressive ideas they always seem to fall back on their late-60's blues roots.  Luckily in this case it's one of the most energetic tracks for the ensemble, giving the drummer a chance to channel Mitch Mitchell and it's even got a spacey middle section so it's not too different from the rest of the album's vibe.  The closer, "Zero Time," is also one of the album's strongest tracks--though there isn't a particularly large amount of intricate guitar work, the main riff makes for a sense of drama and spaciousness that doesn't quite come together in the rest of the album, and the way the vocal melodic refrain bleeds across the beginning of the riff is an awesome idea.

It's clear that Dark was onto something here--there are bits and pieces of good ideas in all the right areas (atmosphere, playing, songwriting) but the common Achilles heel of an insufficient vocalist combined with the album's distant, garagey production hold this one down firmly in the second tier, for me at least.  Not that that's a fatal flaw--a lot of great early 70's hard rock bands required a few years and so-so albums to shed their origins and blossom creatively--but unfortunately Round the Edges is the only Dark memento we've got and the band wasn't able to continue in its promising direction.  In my opinion as a moderate fan of this kind of music, it's good enough to seek out if you're a big fan, but there are quite a few similar albums I'd recommend first that don't require nearly as much barrel scraping for those with a casual interest.  Excessive hype, you are not our friend!

Get it here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz

Though he'd already been prolifically recording for a few years by 1961 and had already thrown down the free soloing gauntlet with The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959, Ornette Coleman's 1961 Free Jazz album continues to stand as a peak among peaks in Coleman's celebrated early discography and as one of the earliest and most fully-developed statements that would define the loose but enduring free jazz movement.  For me, the thrill of Free Jazz is the feeling of looking into a petri dish as something utterly unprecedented happens for the first time.  The album's form intersperses lengthy solo sections (Coleman's saxophone solo is the longest) with rhythmically-composed atonal horn fanfares, a typically labyrinthine Coleman-ian 'melodic' head and a closing duet for each rhythm section duo.  The double quartet (Coleman on alto, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Coleman stalwart Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell on drums) is arranged in stereo, with one quartet on each side.  The result makes the bass interplay much clearer (the bassists decide, for the most part to stick to different octave registers to stay out of each other's way), but for some reason the drums are difficult to discern--reaffirming my usual opinion that dual drum kits are a concept that sounds good on paper but usually comes across as excessive in real life.

This tension between concept and practice is what's most exciting to me about Free Jazz; clearly Coleman thought out the large pieces of the puzzle quite well, but it had still never been done before.  He exhorted his side-men to contribute whenever they felt the urge and play as expressively as possible without connections to any recognizable pieces of music or styles, but the end product swings like a mother and Coleman's instructions didn't stop Hubbard from quoting "Jingle Bells" at one point ("don't pour salt in your eyes, don't pour salt in your eyes").  What always captivates me when listening is the range of development in "freeness" that's on display.  It's almost like looking at that classic image of human development; Coleman and Dolphy had both already reached a comfortable level of freedom in their playing (which is still extremely melodic [at least in Coleman's case] and fluid if idiosyncratic), and Don Cherry isn't far behind, no doubt aided by his tenure in Coleman's quartet.

Of the horn players, Freddie Hubbard is undoubtedly the weak link in terms of freeness, which might be the most interesting in terms of historical context.  His inability to really wrap his brain (and chops) around Coleman's concepts are evidenced in his tentative stop/start soloing which ultimately owes more to the theoretical constraints of bop than any sort of previously uncharted territory (it's particularly evident in the CD reissue "first take" bonus track, where Hubbard's feet are audibly cold and his solo's conventionality comes across as the equal and opposite reaction to the excitement and hurried uncertainty of the song's "first go").  It's funny to hear Dolphy pedagogically prodding at Hubbard during his solo, mimicking the trumpeter's ideas with repeated derangement, throwing in squawking vocalizations and wonky riffs--it's as if he's saying "let it go man, try it like this."  Dolphy's accompaniment might be even better than his formidable solo--when he and Hubbard start team-riffing to Ornette's solo, things get really fun, and though his bass clarinet seems to be miked really poorly, the character of his atonal hooting not only accentuates Coleman's soloing, it pours directly into the raucous, party-like atmosphere that's central to this session.

Finally, and in a more meta sense, Free Jazz is a reminder of the areas of "out" and free jazz that had not yet been explored.  While Coleman's compositional framework abandons many of the classic tropes, it's also still pretty close to jazz tradition in terms of solo vocabulary (compared with some of Sun Ra's stuff, for example), rhythm (compared with, say, Spiritual Unity), and overall composition--Free Jazz still paints (though in broader brush strokes) a quite clear picture of dedicated solo sections and sometimes leans on obligatory building blocks like the extended bass and drum sections (compared with something like the impressionistic structures of something like Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun) in a way that suggests automatic impulse in place of a well-considered original idea.  These are just historical/theoretical observations, though--people who argue about how Free Jazz isn't really free seem to me to miss the point.  It's not about trying to pursue only freedom, but to show how much the jazz idiom opens up to new directions, ideas, and expression of emotion if players and composers start casting off some of the conventions that have become stale.  Sure, this album is cacophonous and not always easy listening, but its richness in ideas and energy remain undimmed and helped catalyze a movement that produced some of the most interesting music made in history of jazz.

Get it here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

James Brown - Hell

One of the popular music phenomena that most fascinates me is when an artist (almost always in conjunction with a label) attempts to recreate a successful album with a follow-up that attempts to in some way recreate the magic of its predecessor.  Harry Nilsson's Son of Schmilsson is definitely one of those albums, but his willful merry prankster approach seems a deliberate (and artistically sound) attempt to undermine his label's hopes for a repeat hit album in comparison with this, James Brown's rapid-fire follow-up to his early '74 hit The Payback.  Sure, it's not an attempt to completely duplicate The Payback's 20 minute grooves, but the fact that it's another double album with a bunch of indelibly funky jams interspersed with a bizarre and jarring segue (this time it's a blaring gong instead of a bunch of background singers going "zzzzzzzoooooo!") makes the comparison inevitable.

If anything, Hell is probably best described as an overreach.  While the quality of the funk is indisputable on tracks like "Coldblooded" and the title track's chainsaw delivery, it's easy to get the sense that the stripped-down essence of Brown's earlier funk masterpieces has become lost in a proliferation of instruments and experiments in eclecticism.  For example, there's the bizarre Latin treatment of the early Brown hit "Please Please Please," immediately followed by the even more bizarre funk-cum-proto-disco treatment of "When the Saints Go Marching In" (which finds Brown pleading cringe-worthily to be "in that funky number").  There are less egregious offenses, like the awkward attempt to update the blues classic "Stormy Monday" and an uncomfortably slick and square update of another classic pre-funk Brown tune in "I Lost Someone" (don't worry, you won't be inspired to throw away your copy of Live at the Apollo).  And then again, there are some guilt free moments in the Parliament-esque (and huge mouthful) "Dont' Tell A Lie About Me and I Won't Tell the Truth About You" and the ideologically confused but utterly on-the-one "Sayin' and Doin' It" (the CD reissue liner notes' attempts to credit Brown with social awareness on the level of What's Going On or Curtis based purely on "Hell," the cover art and a couple other tracks are valiant but laughable).  When the time comes for Brown and his crew to stretch out into some longform funky jams, the results are both tight ("I Can't Stand It") and solid but strangely ho-hum ("Papa Don't Take No Mess"), but never sounding quite as natural as the long tracks on The Payback.

When it comes to assessing the overall strength of this album, it's easy to pick holes in its particular (and ultimately relative) failures, but what keeps me coming back is the experimentation and, of course, Brown's ability to use his voice as an inimitable instrument even when singing the most inane nonsensicalities imaginable.  As I've probably said before, hearing someone try and fail at something uncharacteristic can often be just as rewarding as hearing them succeed at what they already do best.  Brown and company's attempt to prolong the hit magic may not be a complete artistic success, but at this point in his career (as evidenced below) he was on such a roll that any 80 minute double album was guaranteed to at least get your booty shaking--and that's always been the point, right?

Get it here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cheap Seats Part 1: New Album Go!

The time has come--I'm fresh off my first two days at Cloud City Sound Studios in Portland, OR starting work with engineer Justin Phelps on my next album.  Though I've been working on demos for a few months, this week marks the official start of the album as a professional production.  It was an interesting and activity-packed couple of days with plenty of progress made--we tracked rhythm guitar for eight songs and vocals for four.  Although there will be numerous other instruments on the songs, getting a tight and accurate base skeleton of one instrument and vocals is one of the most crucial parts of the process.  Less quantifiably, I'm really glad to get the learning experience portion my first professional studio days behind me--the differences between demoing and recording (my last album was all home recorded) at home and in a professional studio are huge.  On the one hand, at home creative control and patience for perfectionism are absolute.  On the other hand, though, the ceiling for perfection is much higher at a professional studio, and the technical and creative input of a professional engineer like Justin are invaluable.  After I started getting through the jitters and self-consciousness of having to take and retake certain sections over and over, Justin and I were able to get in a good groove and the benefit of his professional experience became apparent--not only does it help to have input from someone who's approaching my songs and arrangements with fresh ears and a well-developed sense of taste, it's also helpful to have someone there to say, "Hey, that take was great, let's keep going" when I would probably continue trying to get every performance detail perfect (in my ears) before moving on.  Most of all, it feels really good to work with someone who is taking my vision and goals seriously and is investing himself creatively in the project--I know it'll be much stronger for it.  Having someone besides myself treat the project as something worthy of that investment is immeasurably boosting to my confidence.

As I continue to create this album I'm planning to continue this "Cheap Seats" series to both document my experiences and in hopes of providing people I know and all of you music "sharers" with an insight into what goes into the production of an album like the one I'm making.  I'd like to dig deeper into some of the unanswerable questions relating to modern music and the life of an independent musician like myself.  These questions include: What is the measurable value of music and music recordings?  What is non-commercial music and what's its purpose?  Is it reasonable for a musician to attempt to make music a paying career, or should music only be pursued as a hobby?  Will more or less great music be created if musicians are poorly compensated financially?  How has modern technology impacted the creation and distribution of music recordings?  What are the reasonable responsibilities of a music consumer?  What does it take to be heard?  While these questions probably sound like the setup for a bitter rant, they are all complex issues with many sides and I'm hoping to get feedback from both musicians and music fans alike.  I'm just as much (or more) of a music fan as I am a musician, and consequently I think these issues are relevant to more than just independent musicians trying to make it big.  If anything, the goal of the pieces will be to show that there's much more to that MP3 or concert you just listened to than meets the ears and eyes.  Welcome to the world of an unknown independent musician and the process of recording a contribution to the vast abundance of music this world has to offer--you've got the cheapest seats in the house!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nucleus - Elastic Rock

In celebration of some of the great jazz I've had the fortune to discover in the past six months, here's a longtime jazz/rock favorite that certainly eventually helped ease me into traditional jazz.  Though it's probably best known today as a member contributor to later incarnations of Soft Machine, British jazz rock collective Nucleus was in actuality a close contemporary of the Softs in terms of pioneering the fusion of jazz and rock music in the UK.  While Nucleus is often written about as "trumpeter Ian Carr's band," one of the things I find most interesting revisiting this album is how democratic the whole thing seems to be, with solo time and composition credits split relatively evenly.  In fact, if I were going to make a guess who the leader is, it'd probably be Karl Jenkins, whose name is on seven composition credits and whose oboe soloing at least partially defines the band's sound.  In any case, though, there's an air of equality about Elastic Rock that might detract just a bit from a sense of personality but also allows the band to cover quite a bit of ground.

Compared with the music of their Canterbury soon-to-be-kinsmen, Nucleus is probably a bit tamer, but also a fair bit more blues-oriented.  Maybe it's guitarist Chris Spedding's unshakable ties with rock music, but songs like "Elastic Rock" and especially "Crude Blues Part 2" are so tied to electric blues (especially considering the heavy backbeat in John Marshall's drumming) that it'd be tough to tie the music to jazz but for the wind instruments.  While the Softs sought to pursue the avant-garde potential in a marriage between jazz and rock by diving into labyrinthine melodies and atonal soloing, Nucleus pursues an altogether more populist mission, discovering possibilities in the space between cool jazz and rock's propulsive beats.  This is excellently evidenced in the hypnotic bassline and hi-hat of "Torrid Zone," which features some of the ensemble's best soloing over a rhythm section that is obviously rock-influenced but somehow retains an undeniably laid-back jazz vibe.

The bubbling, fragile restraint of "Earth Mother" illustrates well one of my favorite aspects of this album--thematic cohesion.  The track partially utilizes the "Torrid Zone" bassline but the group takes the energy in a completely different direction with Marshall's frenetic drumming and Spedding's unpredictable riffing.  The other, perhaps even more dominant thematic chunk is "1916," which opens the album as a melodic fragment over explosive percussion, then reappears (with much more development) doubled by trumpet and saxophone over a wicked Rhodes/guitar groove in "1916 (Battle of Boogaloo)," is quoted in various solos throughout the album, and even returns on the band's sophomore release.  I really love the cohesion that comes from a little melodic restatement, and it allows the band to play with balladry, ethnic flavors and frantic jamming in a flowing progression of short tracks that might seem overly eclectic and tossed off without the thematic context. 

When it comes to Nucleus' particular aesthetic, it would seem that "jazz/rock fusion" pertains primarily to the beat and the inclusion of a not-very-jazzy guitar.  While Marshall's got undeniable jazz chops, the beat tends to get heavier and just a little bit straighter than an actual jazz group, allowing a lot more weight when it comes to emphasizing certain melodic moments or crafting a beautiful buildup on "Twisted," for example.  There is a sacrifice, though, when it comes to rhythmic fluidity--the band members' phrasing during solos tends to be a bit square, ending neatly on those heavy kick drums and spaces created by the rock beats.  I'm sure jazz purists would point to this rigidity as evidence of fusion's inferiority, but I for one am glad bands like Nucleus explored the combination--there's a directness that's not usually found in even the most raucous of jazz, and while the chops evidenced on this disc aren't likely to make anyone throw away their Blue Note collections, it's a far cry from jam band stuff.  Through it all and bracketing any arguments about the historical trajectory of jazz, it should be said that the sounds here have aged remarkably well due to the band's clean instrumentation (electric only in the bass, guitar and Rhodes) and timelessly elegant melodic instincts.  While Soft Machine usually gets most of the props, Nucleus proves (starting here) that there's depth worthy of plumbing in the rest of the 1970's British jazz fusion scene. 

Get it here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Harry Nilsson - Son of Schmilsson

No matter what institution you're a part of, be it politics, academia or just an everyday workplace, it's always good for perspective to have somebody around who's bound and determined to demonstrate on a daily basis that it's all ultimately just a pile of horseshit.  For early 70's rock, that man is undoubtedly Harry Nilsson.  When it comes to being the neighborhood subversive asshole, the usual weapons of choice are humor, satire and mockery, and Nilsson's got them in droves.  As far as I can tell, the only thing he actually cares about is singing ridiculously awesomely.  The rest seems to be an indiscriminate sampling and deconstruction of pop music in all its myriad forms with an emphasis on the puerile.  It worked pretty well for Nilsson on the previous year's breakthrough album Nilsson Schmilsson (though he'd already had successful singles and was well-known for a cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'").  When crafting a follow-up, it would appear that Harry's main goal was to throw the record label's desires to revisit his previous success back in their face with an album so full of jokey throwaways that it was pretty much guaranteed not to be as successful as its predecessor.

And yet, Son of Schmilsson just might be my favorite Harry Nilsson, from its righteous B horror movie cover (and sound effects at the end of the first track) to all of the burping and gargling (for serious) to the kid-in-a-candy-store smorgasbord of musical styles represented here, this album is pretty much a party record all the way.  Old school rock and roll is probably the genre of choice, as in "Take 54" where Harry "sings [his] balls off" to impress a woman who wanders into the studio, or "You're Breakin' My Heart," where Nilsson's sudden profanity sits at odds with the song's bouncy piano riff, or on the fake live boogie of "At My Front Door."  But there's so much more than rock and roll, which obviously isn't Nilsson's musical passion--"Joy" has got to be my favorite, sending up country music with all of the common tropes (spoken word, Latin flourishes, cheesy puns); I can't help but laugh every time when Nilsson sneers "good...bad...good bad" toward the end.  There's also ridiculous pseudo-Caribbean music on "The Most Beautiful World in the World" and sort of a musical theater vibe on "I'd Rather Be Dead," which famously features a chorus of retirement home residents singing about how they'd "rather be dead than wet my bed" (make sure to watch the equally hilarious documentary about the making of this album for more on that detail).

At its base level, though, this is a pop album, full of great melodies, catchy changes and Nilsson's voice and personality pushed to the front by anonymous session musicians playing a million different instruments.  For all the ridiculousness and the fact that the songs are pretty easy to grasp after a couple of listens, Nilsson's voice is (as always) a revelation, silky smooth but capable of brilliant natural distortion and some ornamentations other singers could only dream of on songs like "Take 54," "At My Front Door" and "Spaceman."  Don't tell anybody, but the merry prankster exhibits signs of actually having a heart on the velvety ballad "Remember (Christmas)" and the thoughtful "Turn on Your Radio."  Depending on which way you look at it, these songs are almost all throwaway novelty tunes or this is just a good time party album.  Either way, I think it's one hell of a fun ride with no strings attached and only a slight hangover. 

Get it here.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Catherine Ribeiro et Alpes - Ame Debout

We're not done with you yet, France.  In spite of all of my spirited attempts to express what I do and don't like about music into writing, sometimes it actually feels good to have those words and opinions shoved right back down my throat.  The exceptional work of singer and poet Catherine Ribeiro and her sometime-group Alpes (consisting primarily of guitarist and composer Patrice Moullet) not only defies all of my complaints about excessive repetition, its use of repetition in and across all of the album's tracks is often the precise reason why it's so great.

Rather than attempting to fuse any real recognizable styles of music with lyrics and vocals, Alpes' relationship with Ribeiro is at once more complicated and more elemental.  The band's sound is indeed consistent on most of these songs, formed primarily of repeating hand drum, bass, violin and guitar figures and droning organ and synth tones supplemented by a couple of bizarre instruments (the percuphone and the cosmophone).  The repetitious sounds are stretched long across time--minutes of the same textures, shifting perhaps ever so slightly, but rarely ever responding directly to Ribeiro's vocals rhythmically.  Instead, the music floats like an uneasy sea beneath Ribeiro's, swelling to support her vocals harmonically but rarely (if ever) displaying enough ego to act as anything other than a perfect platform for her existential angst.  For her part, Ribeiro displays peerless skills as both a singer and an actress, projecting a distilled humanity with a powerful, husky low register and desperate, cracking high range, sometimes speak-singing, sometimes freely vocalizing with moans, growls, whispers and frantic pleas.

The superb title track demonstrates the band's unique aesthetic with grace and power, as the droning instrumentation fades in with subtle dynamism and Ribeiro's vocals soar and dive as if she's pacing inside a six foot cell.  A spare organ backdrop is all that's needed to supplement the chanteuse's vocals "Le Kleenex, Le Drap De Lit Et L'etendard," wherein the bitter irony of a line like "je cherche un kleenex" sits bizarrely comfortably next to the singer's pleas to "regarde-moi, ecoute-moi."  The heart-rending "Diborowska" is undoubtedly the most compelling song melodically, with its harrowing "le train en partance pour Diborowska" merging tragically with the song's arpeggiated nylon string guitar and eerie train whistles.  The band manages to assert that its fleeting, gossamer instrumentation can arguably stand alone without Ribeiro's words with a few instrumentals, including the atmospheric "Alpes 1," the bizarre, unintelligible vocalizations of "Alpes 2" and Ribeiro's ghostly wordless vocal on "Aria Populaire."  The album comes to a folky, pounding close with "Dingue," which combines the folkiness of Ribeiro's earlier recordings with 2 Bis with a similar sort of energy to early Leonard Cohen with even more bile and energy in the vocals.

While the compositional elements and harmony employed by this music are really quite simple, there's an emotional expression happening in the combination of the vocals and music that is so rare and direct that I can't say I've ever heard anything quite like it, even in the realm of similar artists like Peter Hammill.  It's almost like the instrumentation is there for the explicit purpose of putting Ribeiro in the zone to extemporaneously conjure her deepest self onto tape, and it's always inspiring to hear.  As much as I'll probably continue to rail against excessive repetition in all forms of music, this album (along with the rest of Ribeiro's work from the same period) is a humbling reminder that there is never one single right way to make music, and the effort to conceptualize and verbalize a musical aesthetic is only an imperfect attempt to reach the sort of unquantifiable magic found here, using incomplete means.  If you can achieve this level of intuitive expression, it doesn't really matter to me how many chords are in the song or how many times you play the same note in a row.  Unfortunately most of us mortals lack the innate spark required and must attempt to find our lesser inspiration by toying with established theory and idioms down in the everyday muck.  It's absolutely criminal that these albums are out of print and Ribeiro's music is even harder to find out about than it should be.

For now, you can find it here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Etron Fou Leloublan - Batelages

Back to mainland Europe and one of the first groups of bands invited by Henry Cow to join the Rock in Opposition festival--France's Etron Fou Leloublan.  Along with the recent Zappa post, this album is a great example of one of the common trade-offs found in experimental rock: if you want to hear some unorthodox ideas, don't expect the album to be uniformly coherent.  As much as I obsess over the album-as-ultimate-pop-music-artistic-statement, I also acknowledge that the effort it takes to produce unique musical ideas is often so creatively taxing that the band seems to have little energy left to expend attentively cultivating their album's big picture--flow, connectedness, uniformly high quality, or even the strength of the individual songs wherein the unique ideas reside.  As a result, some experimental albums turn out to be confused messes, while some more successful ones still tend to come across as good but wildly scattershot and inaccessibly eclectic (to some, at least).  This reality makes the truly great experimental albums full of truly great ideas so rare that they're like precious diamonds to behold.  In pursuit of that elusive ideal, though, I've found a need to shift my expectations when listening to experimental music from album consistency to subjectively evaluating the presence and quality of interesting ideas.  In other words, it can be just as entertaining to listen to a group attempt and not fully succeed at doing something that's never quite been done before as it is to listen to an artist make a thoroughly great album in a style that's already been done a million times.  What better music to illustrate this experience than Etron Fou Leloublan's 1977 debut, Batelages?

The group is surely one of the most curious of RIO outfits, consisting of just a drummer, a saxophonist and a bassist who occasionally plays guitar.  Their roots are unique within RIO too, sounding much less like Henry Cow and with more of a performance art/dance hall vibe.  The epic tracks that bookend the album demonstrate quite well the relative success and failure of an experimental approach, with "L'Amulette et le Petit Rabbin" showcasing all of the group's strengths in one long narrative.  The track opens with acoustic guitar, abruptly shifting to a punk rock-like blast of electric guitar, drums and raw but playful vocals that initiate the ironic tale of the titular "little Rabbi."  The ensuing 14 or so minutes blend the band's ribald humor and vocal/poetic acting with hypnotically interlocking bass and drum figures (probably their strongest characteristic) and cabaret-like saxophone melodies.  The story is pretty absurd and funny, but there's enough feeling in the vocals and musical depth to hold the interest of non-Francophones--like when the beat changes around 9 minutes from dance hall striptease music to bass chording and stutter-stop drum interplay.  While some may prefer more smoothness and dovetailed segues between the different sections of music, I really enjoy the immediacy and surprise that comes when the band jaggedly and instantaneously changes gears from one mood to another.  And if there was any question regarding whether or not you can play difficult, complex music and still enjoy it, just listen to the last two minutes!

Conversely, "Histoire de Graine" offers another longform statement that is much less impressive.  While the narrative elements are still strong, the ideas are fewer and further between, with considerably more repetition.  The vocalist (I'm not sure whether it's saxophonist Chris Chanet or bassist Ferdinand Richard) is considerably tamer than the first track's, and things tend to drag with less energy and more of a feeling of musical stagnation.  Still, it becomes apparent that the goal of the song is a cacophonous crescendo.  While not the most economical ratio of ideas to minutes, the build-up is not necessarily unsuccessful.  In the middle of the two epics we're treated to a solo percussion performance and a 30 second saxophone-led instrumental (both of which reinforce the band's circus-like image) and the fascinating instrumental "Madame Richard/Larika," which features a doubletracked, almost avant-classical bass intro and more of the noisy trio grooves that make the first track one of the best.  Probably the most carefully-composed piece, it's also easier to grasp the relationship between the band's freer and more aggressive tendencies and their inklings as composers.

Like a lot of the uncommercial bands that made up RIO, Etron Fou Leloublan's albums play like snapshots of what they were doing live at the time; they're not so much carefully crafted studio statements (indeed evident by the charmingly lo-fi production) as they are attempts to document the achievements of a group trying (and sometimes succeeding) at combining disparate crazy elements in one place and having a great time doing it.  Though their later albums shed some of the feral energy found here, I'm happy we have both sides of the band documented in order to compare unbridled and spontaneous creativity with a more refined and thoughtful take on some of the same ideas.  When it comes to the tension between searching for perfect albums and interesting ideas, I think this one has enough inspiration to make it worth listening to and keeping in spite of tenuously gelling as a good album--chaos is often beautiful in its own way!

Get it here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Derek Bailey - Improvisation

Derek Bailey is known for two things: being a grouchy old man when he wasn't even old, and for single-handedly creating his own free improvisation idiom on the six-string guitar.  Right up my alley on both counts!  By the time Bailey recorded Solo Guitar Volume One in 1971, he'd already been a prominent figure in the British and European free jazz circuits, performing with people like saxophonists Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann and bassist Dave Holland, and by the time this 1975 album was released he had refined his solo improvisational technique (which came across as a bit tentative in his debut) to the rarefied level it remained for most of the rest of his career.

Listening to Derek Bailey for the first time can be a disorienting--his style is thoroughly and often brutally atonal, arrhythmic and usually very nonrepetitive.  It's also most assuredly the type of music that sounds like an irritating mess if the volume is low and you're only half paying attention.  Crank it up so your surrounded by Bailey's sound world and focus on what he's doing and an exciting (if somewhat cold) sense of adventure-in-logic dominates every move the guitarist makes.

While Keith Rowe is responsible for making equally influential advances in the guitar free improvisation realm, Bailey's music sounds much more like a conventional guitar played to an exponentially "out" degree; in fact, his amplification is so clean it's almost difficult to discern that he's playing an electric guitar on this album.  Though he almost exclusively flatpicks, Bailey's style relies heavily on harmonics, muting and exploiting the instrument's natural sustain and decay.  This can be easily heard on "M4" and to even greater depth on "M8," where Bailey's harmonics and string bends pit two strings against one another on nearly the same note, deftly controlling the oscillation between the two notes as they eerily decay into space.  At other points Bailey embarks on furious runs across bizarre intervals, sporadically halting to interject with brief spurts of silence or allowing a note to ring before again changing direction completely with some explosively percussive cluster chords ("M10").

One of the things I love most about Bailey's style is how fluidly he moves from one idea to the next; though there really isn't any melody to his playing, it's usually easy to discern what is fascinating him at any given moment, and the thrill of his free improvisation is in the headlong rush into whatever the next idea might be.  Sometimes the difference lies in the textural discrepancy between harmonics, standard string plucking and jabbing chords ("M13"), and at other points it might be a digression into exploring the percussive potential of the instrument with skittering string scrapes ("M14") or interjecting taps on the guitar top between the string's tonal sounds.  Finally, and perhaps most subtly, Bailey uses a two-amplifier setup and volume/swell pedals to dynamically pan the output of his guitar, which adds a richness and mobility to his fretboard wandering (especially noticeable on "M5").  While not quite as finely controllable as Fred Frith's dual pickup/output experiments, it's easy to see that Frith's guitar solos owe a sizable debt to the pioneering done by Bailey.

While he's got more epic albums (Aida is often regarded as his best), I think Improvisation is just as strong and is probably a better introduction to Bailey's challenging style because the track lengths are short and can be more easily focused on and digested.  Though my interest in Bailey has been tempered by the realization that his style became formalized mid-70's and didn't develop much further, revisiting his best works reminds me that 1) his style is so radically different from those who came before him that he didn't really need to reinvent himself to maintain his validity and 2) his style is so all-over-the-place that there isn't a whole lot more he could do to develop it further.  Bailey's playing is an inescapable golden standard for atonal guitar as well as an audacious challenge to all followers to conjure something else new and exciting from those six strings.  Please enjoy these pictures of Derek Bailey eating some apples.
Get it here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Gryphon - Red Queen to Gryphon Three

Some progressive albums from the 1970's sound like the compositions could be played in the present and might actually manage to sound a little more modern, while others remain permanently tied to the time of their origin.  British group Gryphon's 1974 third album is surely one of the latter category, and a perfect choice to end the relative drought of progressive material here.  Listening to this album is like burying your head in a synthesized pillow of 70's renaissance heaven. 

Among the numerous progressive groups of similar ambitiousness, Gryphon are distinguishable (on this album at least) for eschewing vocals entirely and utilizing crumhorns, a Renaissance-era woodwind that imbues the band's backward-looking style with some aural authenticity.  Looking at the band's credits, though, it's not a huge surprise they're adept at accommodating the crumhorn--the horn is double-reeded, and Brian Gulland spends half of his time in the group playing bassoon.  Unsurprisingly considering these guys' academic credentials, the virtuosic level of musicianship is one of the album's strongest characteristics.

Compositionally, Gryphon has to be one of the most classically-influenced contemporary progressive groups, neatly folding Renaissance and especially Baroque influences into their songs while still pumping up the amplification with electric guitar and bass, drums and some well-arranged synth parts.  The album's "Opening Move" boasts some of the dreamiest instrumental passages, utilizing gorgeous but tense chord progressions, and juxtaposing a twinkling group sound very much influenced by passages in similar Yes songs with interlocking contrapuntal sections similar to those often explored by Gentle Giant.  Unlike Yes and Gentle Giant, though, Gryphon rarely breaks past the Baroque atmosphere into a more contemporary rock sound.  In some ways, they don't have to because their vocal-free sound doesn't pose the problem of matching lyrics and vocals to such an academic sound, but it's also because they're exploring the fusion of classical and rock to a much deeper extent.  The ebb and flow of tempo and energy in "Opening Move" is abetted by the development of a strong melodic motif and showcases of the band's multi-instrumental talents.

"Second Spasm" features the most overt rock sounds of the album, with the bass and guitar doubling on a boisterous and satisfying progressive riff after a couple of the most intricate Medieval and Baroque passages of the album.  As might be reasonably inferred from its title, "Lament" is the requisite quiet piece, which seems slightly unnecessary considering even most of the mid-tempo pieces here are fairly mellow.  By the time the album closes with "Checkmate," it's apparent that the group's arrangements--replete with synth/piano double runs and multi-flute harmonies--are the album's greatest asset.  While some of the melodies are unmemorable even after numerous listens, there's always joy to be found in the spaces between the multiple simultaneous sounds, and it's clear the band took great care with keeping the sections of their extended pieces constantly on the move and heading toward the next surprising combination.  While the band's sound is uncommercial by even progressive standards and the album will always sound hopelessly dated, this kind of music will always sound great to the converted and acts as a cheerful reminder that there was once a time when bands making music like this could land a record deal and at least have a shot at success.

Get it here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention - One Size Fits All

While his skills as a composer and guitarist are self-evident on everything I've ever heard by him, Frank Zappa hasn't ever really clicked with me as a personal favorite.  I think it might have something to do with the tension between his obvious seriousness and discipline as a composer and player but the apparently complete lack of seriousness when it comes to thoroughly crafting an album or imbuing his songs with anything but the most lightweight of messages.  I know, I know--it's just how Zappa is, but the slapdash composite of dense jazz rock, rock and roll parody and novelty song that makes up most of his fans' favorite albums just hasn't satisfied me to the point of admitting that any of them are really great.

One Size Fits All is about as enjoyable as others I've heard, though.  The dense, twinkling jazz rock that initiates the album with "Inca Roads" is my favorite part; these compositions are fluid, full of little ostinati and vibraphone/vocal runs that precariously and quickly speed through a jaw-dropping number of notes.  Zappa could always build a band, and in terms of musicianship, there are virtually no chinks in the armor here, especially in the rhythm section.  For his part, Zappa's playing runs the typical mix of able but jammy blues-inflected lead guitar interspersed with some more interesting standout ideas.  For example, his fun but repetitive fuzz solo on "Po-Jama People" sounds really familiar, while the twiddly clean riff near the end of "Sofa No. 1" sounds like only Zappa could have written it.  Obviously, I prefer the more peculiar and idiosyncratic stuff, and there's at least an adequate amount of it here, thanks to the late-game clutch pull of "Andy," with more ridiculous vocal arrangements, freely-flowing ideas, and a little bit of atypical guitar playing. 

Though I don't really find the songwriting especially consistent, the sound on this album definitely is--wide open, major seventh, ninth and eleventh chords give the music a happy feel and provide a lot of roaming territory for the vocalists, which are another strength--Zappa's proficient but limited voice is aided quite ably by some of the African American members of his band, including a welcome guest appearance by Johnny "Guitar" Watson on "San Ber'dino," which almost sounds like ELO (sorry, bigtime Zappa fans!).  As a much bigger fan of groups from the Canterbury scene (most of which are undeniably influenced by Zappa's earlier work), I can hear traces of Hatfield and the North in some of this album's intricate jazz rock, but the idea of a group from Canterbury managing to successfully include black American music in their blend is laughable.  In this way, Zappa is to Canterbury almost like extreme fascism is to extreme communism--almost the exact same thing, but somehow fundamentally and permanently separate.  For me, at least, the Canterbury bands usually did a better job of looking at the big picture and creating really solid albums, even if the music gets a little darker and less "fun," and for some reason I find their sense of humor more compelling.  And the problem for me with Zappa's idea of fun, on this album, at least, is that most of the songs are merely just goofy and rarely cross over into a level of humor that actually makes me laugh--"Po-Jama People" seems to be trying to be satirical but the identity of Zappa's actual target remains a mystery to me, while the punchline to all of the verbosity on "Evelyn, A Modified Dog" is merely "arf."  I thoroughly understand that Zappa's "I don't give a shit" attitude is deliberate and is precisely what a lot of people love about his music, but for me it's more attractive in theory than in practice.  He does come close, though, on the rock and roll bum send-up "Can't Afford No Shoes" with "maybe there's a bundle of rags that I can use."

Maybe I just need to keep sorting through the favored albums of the Zappa-converted for a couple more to help me really appreciate the man's music and humor, but for now I prefer the more successful satire of We're Only in It for the Money and Hot Rats is still my go-to for concentrated playing and compositions.  Recommendations welcome!

Get it here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Portico Quartet - Isla

I read about this album while perusing a list of top albums of 2009 on Rate Your Music.  Inspired by the beautiful album art and a perpetual hope that there can still be good new jazz, I took a chance and was pretty well rewarded for it.  To sum up the band's general style, I'd say it's a very modern type of jazz with ethnic elements not unlike those found in places on Robert Wyatt's most recent albums, and owing a pronounced debt to the type of minimalism that Philip Glass pioneered in the 80's.  While this blend will probably do little to satisfy modern hard bop traditionalists or jazz fans hoping for something really avant-garde, it's reasonable to say that the band manages to maintain a delicate (precarious, even) balance within their chosen style and produce a work that avoids most of the obvious pitfalls that style entails.

Sonically, the most distinctive marker of this band's sound is the presence of hang drums played by either or both of the quartet's two drummers.  The instrument's timbre (like a more subdued steel drum) lends an immediately perceptible atmosphere to the music, and the deceptively simple sound of the shifting, pulsing melodic/rhythmic fragments the arrangements call for immediately tie the music to the type of cell construction that the aforementioned Glass and other minimalist composers have now been purveying for decades.   In spite of the obviousness of the influence, the band manages to individualize the concept to their style and the album has a satisfying consistency because of it.

If I had to predict a negative critical assessment of Isla, it would probably be that the band's alto/soprano sax and hang drum sound is too consistent and that the band's style, though incrementally distinctive, is homogeneous within the entire album.  And yet, even listening closely with this criticism in mind, I'm impressed with how often the band manages to surprise and subvert their own formula, even if it's in small and subtle ways.  Every time things start sounding too genteel, some noisy free-leaning squawking like the end of "Su-Bo's Mental Meltdown" comes to break up the niceness (the band uses delay and reverb--uncommon production effects in a lot of traditional jazz--to great effect).  When the melodies on tracks like "Life Mask" get a little too syrupy (many of these melodies owe more to indie rock and pop than they do to anything closely jazz-related), something like "Clipper," with its Latin rhythms, skronking saxophone and kick-ass bassline remind that this is still least in some way. 

In some ways, the songs here aren't as melodic as they could be--"Dawn Patrol" and "Line" seem solely focused on the tension-release dynamics reminiscent of bands like Explosions in the Sky--which makes me wonder why it's necessary for the hang drum and sax noodling to sound quite so tonally-centered; couldn't the absence of a domineering melody be a little more freeing?  When the group does focus on melody though, the results can be beautiful, as on "Paper Scissors Stone," which twists quieter late Coltrane moments with minimalistic repetition, or the swelling emotion of "The Visitor," where it's disturbing how a track that verges so closely to smooth jazz can be so enjoyable and dense with details.  If there's something I'd like to see more of without changing the band's core mission, it'd be more looseness and less rigidity in the rhythm section--the saxophone seems to be the only instrument that's allowed to play around, which only adds to the smooth jazz impression.  You know something's wrong when a jazz band has to self-congratulatorily title one of their songs "Improv No 1" in parentheses, especially when that song sounds virtually the same as the composed pieces!

All in all, I'm looking forward to the next Portico Quartet release--I can see them filling a niche really well and making inroads beyond the European market--but I hope their sound continues to develop, just not too smoothly.  It's interesting to me that a group can create a unique sound purely by combining a couple of well-established genres.  If that's the future of music (and especially jazz, where it's "developed" by being cut with every other musical style out there), we could have much, much less enjoyable music to listen to than Portico Quartet's melancholy dreamscapes, but I'll always hope that there's somebody out there whose imagination stretches beyond merely rearranging pre-existing puzzle pieces.

Get it here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Morcheeba - Big Calm

Morcheeba's second album has been a longtime favorite since I first heard it in a New Zealand airport music shop back in 2001.  Even 10 years ago, trip-hop was on its way out of mainstream popularity, but this album always brings back good memories of my life at the time and holds up pretty well even now that the trip-hop fad has long since expired.  I think it's also another good example of what happens when a large number of good characteristics that pop up disparately in a band's other works align and the result is a thoroughly good album.

Like a lot of trip-hop acts, Morcheeba's status as a "band" is a little nebulous, but less so than some--Paul (DJ) and Ross (guitarist/multi-instrumentalist) Godfrey, and vocalist Skye Edwards.  Personally, I've found the revolving vocalist chair approach of some trip-hop bands a little annoying, and the fact that Edwards' vocals are explored in-depth adds cohesion to Morcheeba as a group.  While there is a bit of session musician anonymity to the wide range of different instruments played on the album, both Godfrey brothers do possess distinctive skills; the beats and samples are both quite tasteful and well-timed, and there are definitely some great guitar moments to liven the album with a more organic energy.

What really sets this album apart from the rest of Morcheeba's (and most other trip-hop acts, for that matter) catalogue is, unsurprisingly, the songs.  Whereas the group's songwriting on other albums sometimes comes across as a little emotionally vacant and assembly-line, the songs here are mostly crafted with more attention, are really adventurous in their eclecticism, and contain some truly compelling moments.  The level of detail on string and orchestral arrangements, scratching as an instrument and chill-yet-upbeat atmosphere is quite apparent on the band's breakout single, "The Sea," but returns in equal measure when the psychedelic sitar/tabla atmosphere breaks open on "Shoulder Holster," and on the darkly seductive "Blindfold."  Edwards' voice is undoubtedly one of the biggest draws here, with its silky smoothness, appealing accent and its tendency to somehow attractively waver off-key (thank goodness this is pre-auto-tune).  I really love how many risks the band takes with its songwriting, taking on reggae/dub in "Friction," more of a country sound on "Part of the Process," less beat-centric balladry in "Over and Over," blues in "Diggin' A Watery Grave," and instrumental psychedelic rock in "Big Calm" (which also features rap vocals) and the brilliantly dramatic "Bullet Proof," which perfectly juxtaposes Paul's beats and samples with rhodes and wailing guitar from brother Ross.  While many bands seem afraid of losing their identity by experimenting with different genres, Morcheeba proves that such experiments can result in the expansion (not abandonment) of a distinctive identity.  The icing on the cake is that the lyrics (not always the band's strong point) are actually pretty strong in places.  Rather than always sounding like vague contractual obligations (though they still do in places), the lyrics like those on the hopeful "Part of the Process" and the exquisite "Fear and Love" ("fear can stop you loving/love can stop your fear/but it's not always that clear") twist common ideas with just enough cleverness and manage to give Skye some emotional concepts to dig into rather than just sounding cool while vocalizing pastiches of unrelated half-baked metaphors and turns-of-phrase.  In many places, though, it's still up for debate whether or not the group even knows what point it's trying to get across.

It's interesting to consider the artistic success of Big Calm in light of later Morcheeba discography--the pleasant-sounding lack of inspiration that would surface on Charango's attempt to recreate this album can already be heard in some of the commonalities between melodic lines and harmonies, and it doesn't take too much of a critical ear to assert that the band's level of emotional investment in the music isn't as high as the desire to make it "good-sounding," but then again that tension usually crops up when you're in trip-hop territory.  The reduction in the dub tendencies of Who Can You Trust and pursuit of pop ideals reached its peak/nadir in the bubblegum trip-hop of Fragments of Freedom, and since 2003 the band has struggled to maintain its identity without self-plagiarizing and falling prey to the reasonable criticism that they don't have much new to say.  Even at their most detached, though, Morcheeba always succeed in offering some mellow listening pleasure--given the current date it's hard to believe they'll ever top Big Calm without completely reinventing their sound, but it'll always stand as one of my top trip-hop discs to reach for as a focused pop palate cleanser right behind the dark experimentation of any Portishead album.

Get it here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Alexander Spence - Oar

I always thought that Skip Spence was the least technically proficient of Moby Grape's three guitarist/vocalists, but that he always made up for it with unmatched manic energy and that unquantifiable magic in his songwriting that few career songwriters manage to conjure.  Of course, by 1969 and the release of this much-celebrated (but still obscure) solo album, Skip (now billed as Alexander) was long gone from the ranks of Moby Grape.  There's a lot of mythology surrounding Spence's departure from the band, his time in Bellevue Hospital and the genesis of this album, which has generated a sort of Syd Barrett-like reputation for Spence as some sort of acid messiah.  While I think it's easy to project an impression of the man's mental state onto this collection of songs, I think it holds up as fascinating and idiosyncratic work without reading too much into or presuming too much about its creator's psyche.

Probably the album's defining characteristic is that it was recorded in seven days with Spence playing all of the instruments (mostly guitar, bass and drums), which gives the album a loose, tentative feel that occasionally comes across as sort of half-assed and shambling.  What continually fascinates me on repeated listens, though, is that the rushed, uncertain mood sort of fades away like a patina being polished to reveal songwriting that's often full of musical nuances and clever wordplay and not nearly as tossed-off as it seems.  Like Syd Barrett, Spence has a reputation for sort of spontaneously firing great material straight out of his drug and illness-wracked brain, but I think he's a lot more in control than the songs' cowboy ballad structures and sketchy, plodding arrangements would suggest.  Take the tongue-in-cheek mockery of Eastern religion-obsessed hippies of "Dixie Peach Promenade," the hilarious wordplay of "Broken Heart" ("an Olympic super swimmer whose belly doesn't flop/a super race car driver whose pit it can't be stopped") or the more somber punning "weighted/waited" turnaround of the country lament, "Weighted Down (The Prison Song)."  Spence clearly has a knack for sharp satire, a taste for evocative images and an eye for the overall structure and flow that is so crucial to "classically" good songwriting. 

While the album's songs veer toward a folk/country ballad style more often than not, it wouldn't have gained its cult status without some overt psychedelia--the opening "Little Hands" has the album's most hippie-ish message and amply demonstrates Spence's ability to blend droning acoustic guitar with clean electric parts for a unique texture.  This palette reappears on the hazy "All Come to Meet Her," the closer, "Grey/Afro," which drones a little aimlessly but pays off with some cool bass/drum interplay at the end, and the album's psychedelic crown jewel "War in Peace," where Spence's delay and reverb-treated whispery vocals float above a sinuous, repeatedly swelling chord progression that finally breaks open with some understated but well-chosen lead guitar notes.  Spence's delayed vocal sound effects twitter in between blooming guitar strums as the song fades out over a forgivable ripoff of the "Sunshine of Your Love" riff.

I sometimes wonder what this album had been like if Spence had demoed the songs and rehearsed a lot more before going into the professional studio.  It certainly would have smoothed the rough edges on some of the wheezy vocals and tightened up the tendency of the drums and bass to emulate drunken lurching (hear both on "Lawrence of Euphoria").  Then again, I think the ragged feel is part of the album's charming appeal--it's almost like a trick, duping the listener into believing the music is garbage when in reality all of the most important melodic, structural and creative elements are there in droves.  Consequently, the low-key sound means the songs are never really obtrusive despite their psychedelic tinges but anyone really paying attention will be rewarded by Spence's craftsmanship, which comes across as confused muttering if the disc is played as background music.  This deceptively casual veneer has got to be one of the reasons this album is so popular with musicians--it's not easy to pull off, and the minimalism of the album's template means the songs could be (and were) embellished in unlimited ways.  I can think of few other albums quite as effortlessly subtle, and none that do it in quite this way. 

Get it here.