Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Book Of Fab

They were the Japage 3 (detail of a photo by Jürgen Vollmer)


My wife and I are big fans of The Compleat Beatles, the 1982 documentary that chronicles the story of the Fab Four from beginning to end in a scant 119 minutes. Consistently entertaining, the movie perfectly captures the wonderful arc of their fascinating and incredible journey in a way as satisfying as great fiction. When the Anthology series came out, we relished all the new details along with the astonishing footage and wonderful unheard music, but we missed the concision that made the earlier film so much fun.

So when I heard about Mark Lewisohn's All These Years project, which is to be a three volume history of the boys from Liverpool, with the first book, Tune In, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages, I was slightly unsure whether it was all too much. Would this be a trainspotters account, full of dull facts and inane arcana that add nothing to a tale already well-told elsewhere? Since it was Lewisohn, I had to see for myself. After all, he wrote The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, which is one of my favorite books about them, along with several other books that contribute to his reputation as a thorough researcher and lively writer who tells it as it was, without hagiography.

I'm pleased to report that Tune In is an unequivocal delight, a thrilling Dickensian epic page-turner that will without question go down as the definitive book on the subject. As each chapter went by, as the unlikely twists and turns continued to accrue, I continually asked myself How is this ever going to work? How are these dead-end kids (and in Ringo's case almost really dead - the doctors told his mother three times he wouldn't survive the night after he was struck down with peritonitis at the age of six) ever going to become The Beatles? And even when they do become The Beatles, how are they going to become any good? And when they do become good, how are they going to get from Love Me Do to Love You To - and beyond?

I still don't know how Lewisohn answers that last question as Tune In ends on the eve of the recording session for their first album. But let me tell you, even though I sort of know the end of the story, the suspense is killing me. So how does Lewisohn pull off this feat of legerdemain? Part of the answer lies in the notes at the back of the book, which lay bare the incredible synthesis of primary source material, prveviously published works and original interviews that it took for him to arrive at his engaging narrative. Another one of his secrets was "spending six hectic months" in Liverpool, which lends an unmatchable atmosphere to the book.

As an example, read how he describes the epochal moment in 1961when Brian Epstein made the journey from his Nems music store to the Cavern Club to see what all the fuss was about:

"The club was just a two-hundred-step walk from Nems, but November 9 was one of those smoggy, cold early-winter days in Liverpool, so damp that smuts glued to skin, so dark that the sooty buildings lost detail and car headlights couldn't put it back. Flights were canceled at the airport and foghorns groaned over the Mersey sound: the cawing seagulls and booming one o'clock cannon. The businessmen [Epstein and his assistant Alistair Taylor] picked a path through narrow Mathew Street, between Fruit Exchange lorries and their debris, and at number 10 Paddy Delaney showed them along the dimly lit passage and down the greasy steps."

This is how it's done, and it's just one of many, many moments that he expertly brings to life. Another thing that makes the book essential is how those twists and turns end up straightening out the story by adding the missing steps, such as the role of music-plugger Kim Bennett, whose persistence and vision kept The Beatles chance of getting a recording contract alive when Brian Epstein was meeting brick walls at every turn.

Lewisohn's solid musical sense further informs his writing, detailing the entire context of the milieu of the early Beatles, from influences to competition, and includes a clear-eyed look at their own burgeoning talents. Trust me, when he calls a tape of jam sessions featuring John, Paul and Stu "inexplicably, a horror," he's dead on. And if you've ever read Mick Jagger's assertion that the Stones were Willie Dixon and The Beatles were Luther Dixon, that will all become clear here.

Tune In will also give you an endless supply of anecdotes for conversation such as the pure gold of the time when Stu Sutcliffe sold half a painting for enough money that John was able to convince him to blow some of it on purchasing a bass guitar and amplifier. This was something no one else had been willing to do up to that point, and became a crucial step in their evolution. Why only half a painting? Well, it was heavy, painted on two boards, and after carrying one part of it, Stu and his friend Rod Murray just got distracted on the way to collect the other half...

Read it - and then join me in the wait for volume two.

 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mnd Movies



There will come a time when the summer will end. The days will grow almost unnoticeably shorter and there will be a fragrance in the air - almost just a memory - as the first leaf browns, then dies, fluttering to the ground dry and crisp. Passing thoughts of fun times had and as yet un-had will skid across your mind and you will consider unpacking your weekend bag fully for once. But not yet. There's still a little time. What will it be? The Bolt Bus to Boston? Or the Jitney to that friend of a friend's share house out east? The ocean will be cold.

Those summer jams are starting feel a little aggressive, almost dictatorial in their imprecations to dance and have a good time. Something a little cooler is called for, and that's when that download from Stones Throw, still sitting in your DropBox, comes to mind. Yawn something...Yawn Zen - that's it. By Mndsgn. You've heard his slippery electronics in a collabo with Jonwayne on one of those cassettes but aren't sure what else he has to offer.

The first track, Yawn, is more of a question than an answer. Two chords strum back and forth and a little squelchy synth explores the places between, sliding into Homeward with its ticking drums and more querulous chords. Sheets lopes along deliberately, vocals drifting through the mix. What are they saying? Not important: you're into Frugality now, which alternates something almost funky with the inner thoughts of R2D2. Robot dreams. Exchanging is like breathing, which is scientifically accurate. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. More vocals, ba ba ba and something about where we belong. Sounds about right. Where else would you be right now? Breathe in, breathe out, exchanging your inside with your outside. Drift off.

Convert brings you awake slightly, with it's half-remembered wisp of a Mount Kimbie groove. No need to move to it, though, you're basking in the Arklite now, glass chimes tinkling and sparkling in the golden rays. Camelblues navigates by sonar, its blip...blip maintaining a steady distance from the shore. There's a sketch of a love song in there, like a dangerous text re-written and then deleted. Commitment...it's so committal. Txt (Msgs) might be the one that gets you up, at least to plug your phone in. There could be a dinner invitation on the way, or at least a call for drinks before that rooftop bar goes under mothballs.

Damn, it's AM. Slept through. Or is that just the name of the song? Chimes tinkle, gentle waves lap the shore, and then you are up, for the Afternoon Shuffle. Open the fridge, some leftover Chinese and an iced coffee. What's new on Netflix? The line of light on the ceiling has grown diffuse and then disappeared as the sun goes behind the building across the street. Zen brings the moment to a close, 12 songs passing in an instant. But what is an instant? And what is a moment? Is a minute different than an hour, qualitatively speaking? Did this day even happen? Ting. There's that text. Companionship and cocktails await, beyond the dusk. You just have to get there.

Mndsgn's Yawn Zen, a "study in the absence of struggle," is out on August 26th, just in time for the last days of summer. Check your Txt (Msgs).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Beck: The Central Park Shuffle

I don't always buy the t-shirt. There has to be a synergy between the quality of the concert, the design of the shirt, and the price. As my daughter and I made our way into the Rumsey Playfield Summerstage area for Beck's concert on July 1st, I took note of the shirts at the merch booth. Cool designs, decent prices, but even though I just declared Morning Phase the best album of 2014 (so far), I still didn't buy right away. For some reason, I've never seen Beck live before, and the one bootleg I heard (from the Newport Folk Festival in 2013) was a little uneven. So, he was going to have to seal the shirt deal from the stage.

First up was The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, who took the stage right around 7:00 PM, while the sun was still hot. They came out strong with Too Deep, which kicks off their terrific album Midnight Sun, before burning their way through seven other songs from the album with barely a pause. It was an impressive display; Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl were in fine form and have assembled an extremely able band to bring these songs to life. I would especially like to know who the other guitarist was - his work was stellar throughout, often coaxing nasty or strafing sounds out of a big Gretsch. Some in the audience weren't so impressed, however, and preferred to talk - their loss.

The GOASTT ended with a cover of Syd Barrett's Long Gone, which was fleshed out brilliantly from the spare original and fit their sound, and Sean's voice, perfectly. With The Dakota only blocks away, I couldn't help thinking how proud Sean's father would be of him - after all, he wasn't born playing guitar like that, or writing songs like Great Expectations. While I've loved his work from the beginning, he continues to evolve and has shown impressive growth in the last few years since we saw The GOASTT at the South Street Seaport in 2010. The main difference is that now the songs match the strength of the band. Make up your own mind when they play a free concert in McCarren Park later this summer.

Before we knew it, The GOASTT's gear had been removed, the audience had tightened up, and Beck came out with six other musicians. They had barely spread out across the stage when they launched into Devil's Haircut from the classic Odelay album. It sounded fantastic and I suddenly realized that I had woefully underprepared my daughter. Morning Phase was the first album of his I've loved in a while and is the one we've played the most recently - but it's really only one side of Beck, as she was learning quickly. "I think you're going to want a lot more Beck on your iPod after this," I whispered to her. She nodded enthusiastically.

The crowd had exploded from the first fuzz-guitar riff and were now boogieing happily as the sun set, but no more so than Beck's band who just seemed amped. They lept nine years into the future, playing a glammed up take on Black Tambourine from Guero, which easily bested the studio version and kept the energy up. Soul Of A Man was warmly received but dissipated quickly when Beck launched into an unbelievable a cappella version of One Foot In The Grave, accompanying himself on the harmonica. He's a slight man, narrow in the shoulders, but he seemed larger than life as he roamed the stage in his dapper attire, blowing and singing for his life. The crowd ate it up and I flashed back to seeing Bowie at the Garden in 1983; I'm not sure I've seen another performer play the crowd with such skill, all the while making it look easy. At one point he mentioned that this was the first time he had played Central Park...legally. If he ever has to return to busking you can be sure his guitar case would runneth over.

He returned to the mic stand, put on his guitar, and conjured up The New Pollution, another blast from Odelay. It sounded beefier than the album version, thanks to the three guitars and two well-equipped keyboard players (including former Jellyfish Roger Manning) and clattered to a halt to ecstatic applause. Beck then related how he wasn't sure how to order the show, whether to start slow and build up or vice versa. He decided to sequence the set like a W: up, down, up - "you know what a W looks like!" On the left side of the stage, Smokey Hormel, for it was he, strapped on a mandolin while Beck and multi-talented Jason Falkner (who looks uncannily like he could be Beck's brother) picked up acoustics. The beautifully conceived background changed to a bucolic scene and they began Blue Moon from Morning Phase. This was what I had been visualizing in the months since I bought the tickets: standing in the night air listening to a perfect rendition of one of Beck's brilliant new songs. The reality was even better, as they brought a little more energy and drama to the song and, despite a few instances of feedback, the sound was rich and beautiful.

Lost Cause from 2002's Sea Change continued the acoustic set, which was completed by a gorgeous take on Country Down from Morning Phase. In eight songs he had covered six albums spanning nearly two decades of work and I found myself gaining a whole new appreciation for his achievements and talents. It also dawned on me that he was putting his whole career on shuffle play. Bowie crossed my mind again as the band struck up the title track to Modern Guilt. While the assumption of characters and personae is in no way as pronounced with Beck, like Bowie he has created a space for himself where he can pretty much do anything he wants. Also like Bowie, he's a great dancer and a bit of a cipher. Even though there are certain things we know about him - a bad breakup precipitated the introspection of Sea Change, he's a Scientologist, he's currently happily married to Marisa Ribisi - we connect with him on stage mainly due to sheer skill as opposed to self-revelation.

He's no robot, though - he forgot a few of the words to Modern Guilt, blaming it on the weed smoke wafting up to the stage; maybe it's because it's not a very memorable song. Think I'm In Love from The Information (2006) always sounded a little like an Odelay outtake but was engaging and propulsive here, driven by Justin Stanley's mesmeric bass, working that Taxman groove nicely, before the virtuosic band morphed it into Donna Summer's I Feel Love - jaw-dropping and delightful. Then came the moment it seemed many were waiting for: the bluesy slide that opens Loser. The crowd roared and it occurred to me the sheer cussedness Beck must have had to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder. He delivered it without apparent reservations, feeding back on the energy of the audience and rapping far more nimbly than he did 20 years ago. We all sang along with our own versions of "soy un perdedor" and the Rumsey Playfield became a total party - maybe the best party in town. The urban strut of Qué Onda Guero kept it going, pushing the sweaty mass towards ecstasy.

Beck's shuffle button then ended the party brilliantly, with a moody, fractured take on Paper Tiger, which led into a set of three songs from Morning Phase. Heart Is A Drum was pure bliss and the vocal tour de force of Wave was flawless, seeming to draw on a deep well of emotion, mesmerizing the listeners. Waking Light was even more epic than on the album, and as the finale crashed and burned, I thought: "This is it - the perfect end to the show, an apotheosis, as it is on the album."

Of course I was wrong. Three more songs followed, ending with a duo from Guero, the playful Girl and the slamming E-Pro, cunningly giving us all a chorus of "na-na na-na-na-na" to sing along with as we danced him off the stage. And of course there was an encore, including hilarious versions of Sexx Laws and Debra from Midnite Vultures, his r&b flavored album from 1999. He gave us the fully monty of James Brown spins and moves, even dropping to the stage, only to have Sean Lennon come out and throw a cape over him. Fun. The fun continued with the real final song of the night, Where It's At, another stomper from Odelay. As the band slid into a vamp on The Rolling Stones's Miss You, Beck introduced all the players and gave each one a little solo spot, including Lennon, who delivered a nice little tambourine jam. Eventually, they returned to Where It's At before cutting it off and linking arms to bow and soak in the applause and well-earned ovations.

Despite some ups and downs in his career, Beck is a master performer with a deep catalog to draw from - why he ignored the chameleonic Mutations (1998) in the set list, I'll never know - who is at the top of his game and currently on the road with the best band and tour of the summer. Catch him. Did I buy the t-shirt? Hell Yes.

Do the Central Park Shuffle on Spotify (minus One Foot In The Grave).

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Make Time For Black Hours

Listen. It's a storyteller's trick, this command to lean in and pay attention - it may just now have worked on you, in fact - and one Hamilton Leithauser deploys with great effectiveness in 5 AM, the opening song from his brilliant debut solo album, Black Hours. "Listen...summer's coming," he intones to the accompaniment of piano and strings, "Slow down...don't chase crowds,'cause I'm right here." It's a mini-overture to both song and album in which he's literally instructing you how to engage with his music. Then the arrangement of strings and winds gains fervor along with his voice: "Do you ever wonder why I sing these love songs? When I have no love at all? Is the life you seek filled with senseless ease? Do you need someone just to cool your blood?" The rhythm section of upright bass and tambourine brings Kurt Weill to mind - but with lyrics by Faulkner and sung in a gleaming tenor to pierce your heart.

Of course, it's all a feint - "I'm right here," he sings, all the while he's constructing this lovelorn persona. Call him "Hamilton Leithauser" if you want to distinguish him from the actual person of the same name. Observed from the outside, Hamilton Leithauser (the real one) seems to be someone who values deep human ties and connections. After all, his wife, Anna Stumpf, sings on one track and has been on tour with Leithauser, playing keyboards and singing back up, while her brother, Nick, is the tour drummer. Paul Maroon, who co-produced and plays guitar on most of Black Hours, is, like Leithauser, an ex-member (or on "extreme hiatus" from) The Walkmen, the band they formed in 2000.

The Silent Orchestra picks up the pace, almost like a film's first scene after the credits. Leithauser's string arrangement has the sweep and pluck of an old Peggy Lee number, with piano and Marimba upping the bounciness. "When you get bored of your mind, come and find me," Leithauser sings, issuing the invitation with which all art summons us. The combination of the two-step beat with the dark and vaguely surreal lyrics is incredibly effective. This is a landmark song. As thrilling as it has been to hear Leithauser's development over the course of The Walkmen's catalog, he's taken another leap here.

The third song, Alexandra, is one of two produced by (and co-written with) Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij. It's shamelessly romantic, with a huge beat, wheezing harmonica, and Batmanglij's irrepressible backing vocals. Like their other collaboration, I Retired, it's one of the lighter tracks on Black Hours. In the movie I'm creating in my mind around the album, these two songs are performed by the character onscreen as he tries to get his life back on track.

11 O'Clock Friday Night returns us to the more subtle and complex sound of the first two songs and has quickly become an essential part of my musical life. Some compositions just entwine with your soul in an ineffable way, like they've always been there just waiting to be heard. Morgan Henderson, of Fleet Foxes outdoes himself here, playing bass, percussion and marimba. Both he and Richard Swift, who drums on most of the album, are as important to Black Hours as Leithauser and Maroon. That said, St. Mary's County finds Leithauser in full crooner mode, singing over piano and strings. As on the rest of the album, his phrasing is precise and original.

Self Pity begins with a ghostly sound that leads into a two-note riff, with Leithauser singing in a spooky high register. Halfway through, a near reggae beat is introduced along with a dub influence. It's entirely unexpected but feels completely inevitable. Writing a song with a turn like that is a sign of real skill, and one Leithauser pulls off on more than one occasion. I Retired does it, too, sliding into a woozy singalong that wouldn't be out of place if sung by Elvis Presley with The Jordanaires. It's just to the right side of jokey, and sensibly fades out.

I Don't Need Anyone has a patented Maroon guitar figure that any fan of The Walkmen will find familiar. Leithauser gives his all, powering over the strings and organ. "Don't know why I need you. I don't need anyone," he sings, a universal cry of the lonely person trying to put a brave face on their solitude. Even if you know Leithauser's wife is right there with him in the studio, singing back-up, you believe every sad word "Hamilton Leithauser" sings. Bless Your Heart stars out in a ruminative mood, pushed along by Morgan Henderson's bongos and Amber Coffman's dreamy vocals. Then the beat picks up in another one of Leithauser's crafty transitions, with the song gaining a epic fervor as he wails wordlessly. Another spellbinding song and one that will stay with you.

Unless you have the deluxe version of the album, The Smallest Splinter is the final song. It features an indelible melody and finds "Hamilton" seeking redemption ("Give me a kiss and tell me I'm alright) and forgiveness ("Show me the man who never disappoints"). It's a fitting end to Black Hours, completing a satisfying song-cycle and a strong argument for the album as a form. And yet...the vinyl release comes with an additional four songs on a one-sided 12" (also included in the tracks available for download in a variety of formats using the code provided). They're also available on iTunes and I strongly recommend that you make the investment one way or another.

These are in no way B-sides. All four songs are as strong as anything on Black Hours proper - in fact they may be more essential than the two Batmanglij songs. Not only do they occupy the same emotional territory, they expand the sonic palette a bit, whether via the the hymn-like horns of Waltz or the Neopolitan sweep of In Our Time (I'll Always Love You). The latter song also contains a hopeful ending to the movie in my mind: "Today is the day/That we're starting again/If I don't look the same/Well that's gotta be a good thing." Utrecht, however, finds "Hamilton" alone again, with just his acoustic guitar and a bed of strings, and the final final song states bleakly I'll Never Love Again. The story, if there is one, fills in a little here: "You liked your hollow world/I guess you're just that kind of girl/And now you'll never know why/ You were thrown to the dark/from the center of the spotlight," and finally: "Your songs may live on, but I don't sing'em." Credits roll, and the silenced audience files out of the theater.

Black Hours is the culmination of everything Leithauser has been working toward over the last few years, a vision of timeless, elemental singing and songwriting that harkens back to the past while remaining resolutely of the present. His work here vaults him to the highest rank of contemporary artists, and one with a bright future irregardless of what happens with The Walkmen.

He can deliver this material live, as well, based on the short set I saw at the BAM Harvey Theater as part of WNYC's Radio Love Fest. The charming suavity he displayed with The Walkmen was still in full effect along with a coiled excitement about his new songs. The band was great and will likely get tighter with a little more time on the road. They'll have plenty of opportunity as he is touring extensively throughout the summer and fall, both on his own and opening for Spoon and Broken Bells.

And what of the othe members of The Walkmen besides Leithauser and Maroon? None of them are sitting on their hands. Revered drummer Matt Barrick is also a talented photographer and will surely have no trouble getting session work. Peter Matthew Bauer and Walter Martin, who shared bass and organ duties in the band, have new albums of their own out, with varying success. Martin's record, We're All Young Together, calls on a who's who of indie rock (Karen O, Nick Zinner, Matt Berninger, Alec Ounsworth) to put across songs supposedly for the whole family - to my ears it's a smug as a Laurie Berkner album, from the overly cute lyrics to the affectedly casual way he sings. Not for me. Bauer's Liberation!, however, is an appealing and slightly ramshackle affair, with hints of the folkier sides of The Rolling Stones and The Faces. His voice is very relatable, reminding me of Paul Westerberg at times, and the songs are sturdy and sometimes soaring. It's a solid, enjoyable album and seems to hint at more places to go for him.

 

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

2014: Mid-Year Report


When it comes to eating, I believe in a balanced diet. Like the other day, when I was ordering a mango, strawberry and blueberry smoothie. The other person waiting at the cart said, "What, no banana?" I told her that I had already had a banana that morning and that the mango would give the smoothie plenty of body. I failed to mention that the banana had been atop a waffle, drenched in maple syrup and sprinkled with toasted pecans - all part of a balanced diet.

When it comes to music however, all bets are off. If I want to gorge myself on James Brown or Wagner, or if all I want to listen to is hip hop or instrumental music, there's no earthly reason to reconsider. I follow my muse and feed my soul without any external obligation. However, I do occasionally take stock and note what I'm not listening to just to make sure I'm not missing out on anything. Over the years, I have noticed that most of what is in heavy rotation is dominated by males. Besides my beloved Holly Miranda, brilliant Björk, delightful Hollie Cook and a few others, female artists I love have been few and far between. It's not for lack of trying as I'll listen to anything once. Neko Case, St. Vincent, Tuneyards, Sharon Van Etten, Tori Amos, and many other critical darlings just do not do it for me - I'll say no more.

No problem there, right? I'm just feeding my soul. Except - I'm also feeding my 15-year-old daughter's iPod and I want to make sure she's exposed to plenty of music in which she can see herself reflected. So, in early this year I asked her, "Would you like to have more female voices on your iPod?" She said yes, so I began to marshal the troops: Björk, Hole, The Raincoats, The Slits, Emmylou Harris, Solex, and other wonderful records from the past. Then something happened: before I had a chance to start loading anything onto her iPod, I noticed that I was listening to more women's voices than ever. Problem solved! The culture had come through - for my daughter and for me, something which you will see reflected in the list below.

The Best of 2014 (So Far)

1. Beck - Morning Phase A few months have not diminished the glory of Beck's achievement - in fact, it's only gotten better.

2. Hamilton Leithauser - Black Hours I'll have much more to say about this extraordinary album soon.

3. Breton - War Room Stories - America may still be sleeping on this London-based band, but they keep moving forward, adding an orchestra to their patented blend of post-punk rhythms and contemporary electronics.

4. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness Her first album, Half Way Home from 2012, showed a beautiful voice married to a promising songwriting talent, but added up to a somewhat one-note affair. There was definitely something going on, but barely a hint of the commanding artist that we hear on her second album. Her decision to open up her sound to a full band and work with producer John Congleton means that her songs now find full flower with intensity and variety. Touching on the elemental power of bedrock artists like Hank Williams and Roy Orbison, her voice emerges fully formed on this instant classic. Each song gets the arrangement it deserves and the respect Congleton has for Olsen comes through loud and clear on White Fire, a stunning song that does not attempt to improve on Olsen's voice and haunting finger-picked acoustic, and Enemy, which sets her voice far in front of some whispery strumming. Hi Five, Angel, high five.

5. David Greilsammer - Scarlatti & Cage Sonatas This addicting collection is an inspired dialogue across the centuries, expertly conceived and brilliantly played by Greilsammer. Piano record of the year.

6. Hollie Cook - Twice You don't have to know that Cook is rock royalty (her father is Paul Cook, drummer for the Sex Pistols) to fall in love with her lighter-than-air voice and blissful take on reggae and lover's rock. Working again with British reggae savant Prince Fatty, they concoct a fantastic follow-up to the 2011's debut album. Adding strings, harps and loads of atmosphere, Cook and Fatty have again made a perfect summer album. Now there is a bit of imperious steel to her voice, too, which keeps the whole enterprise from dissolving like sugar under a waterfall. I can't get enough.

7. Hospitality - Trouble This Brooklyn-based trio ably dodges the sophomore slump by adding a dose of darkness to their sound and further exposing the protean talents of Amber Papini (singing and songwriting) and Nathan Michel (production, percussion, songwriting, etc.).

8. Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas This Aussie singer-guitarist takes a little Nirvana, a dash of Lou Reed, a few shakes of Noise Addict-era Ben Lee, and adds her own wry twist with songs about asthma attacks, failed romance and being young. Everything is a little woozy and behind the beat so you feel dragged along, almost by the sheer force of her personality. Live, she takes things further, increasing the dynamics of the songs and rocking hard. She's clearly become a better musician than when she recorded the songs collected here, but no less fearless, which bodes well for her future.

9. The GOASTT - Midnight Sun The full on psychedelic freak out I always knew Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl had in them. Great songwriting, too, full of wit and imagination. Catch The GOASTT at a free concert in McCarren Park on July 30th.

10. Isaiah Rashad - Cilvia Demo Even with a good album from Mobb Deep and an almost great collaboration between genius producer Madlib and young gun Freddie Gibbs, this has not been a stellar year for hip hop. Rashad, however, is on to something. Signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, the same firm that helped break Kendrick Lamar big, he's put together an extremely strong debut. Equally thoughtful and filthy, Cilvia Demo is laden with gorgeous, lush beats, creating a very involving experience. Even with no less than nine producers, the album holds together very well and Rashad is clearly enjoying the radical dissonance between his nasty lyrics and the beautiful music he's selected. One to watch.

11. Kate Tempest - Everybody Down Another hip hop bright spot comes from a far more unlikely source. Tempest is the youngest poet to win the Ted Hughes Award but has also been honing her flow for the last dozen years. Both talents come to the fore on Everybody Down, a song cycle about the confused collisions of young people trying to make it - and connect with each other - in today's England. Producer Dan Carey crafts forward thinking grooves that move the body as much as Tempest's lyrics touch the emotions. The album somehow reminds me of Vikram Seth's novel-in-verse, Golden Gate, in that it uses a very structured format and some familiar tropes to tell a very individualized, particular story. We'll see how the accompanying novel, due in 2015, handles the material. Tempest's husky voice is surprisingly versatile, modulating and taking on the tones of her characters in a real tour de force show of skill and theatrical talent. And people who read the New York Times are still wondering if hip hop is music.

12. Kojiro Umezaki - (Cycles) Shakuhachi virtuoso Umezaki uses his evocative instrument and polyglot tastes to connect the dots between head and heart, future and past on this absorbing collection.

13. Glenn Kotche - Adventureland Wilco drummer Kotche makes huge leaps as a composer on the seven movements of Anomaly, performed with the Kronos Quartet, and indulges in his taste for the quirky on several "haunted" shorter pieces. The best of a clutch of releases from Wilco members, although, Macroscope by The Nels Cline Singers isn't far behind.

14. EMA - The Future's Void Erika M. Anderson took a couple of years off after the searing (even tortured) revelations of Past Life Martyred Saints but has returned strongly with the carefully crafted, gnomic pronouncements of The Future's Void. She brings the same emotional commitment (and a caustic wit on So Blonde) to songs that are often about our current engagement - OK, obsession - with technology, that she brought to more personal material. It's hard to tell if she's judging the moment harshly or simply pointing it out, especially when the songs have such a lustrous techno sheen. Maybe this was the music Bowie's girlfriend heard on the radio after she crawled into the holographic television in TVC 15. Whatever her point of view ultimately is, this isn't the first time someone's made a great record by having it both ways.

15. Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal Last year's Light Up Gold so quickly took its place in the firmament of NYC rock, that it's almost easy to take the follow-up for granted - another Parquet Courts record, they're always good, aren't they? In reality, they're still a young band and they continue to both refine their sound and draw more into it. This time around there's also no question that they know exactly what they're doing - and that they are very, very good at it.

16. Siinai - Supermarket Now I've never been to Finland, but if the kosmisch music - both creepy and ecstatic - on Siinai's concept album is any indication of what it's like to shop there, I think Fresh Direct may have a new market to explore. I don't take the concept too seriously, however - this may just be the best Krautrock album of the 21st century. Layering synths with a tangible excitement that's contagious, Siinai have created a compulsively listenable series of soundscapes. Go ahead, put it on next time you're in the Stop & Shop - just don't blame me if you forget a few things on your list.

17. Eno-Hyde - Someday World I'll admit to being a complete dilettante when it comes to Underworld, having struggled to find anything in their catalog as satisfying as Born Slippy. When I heard Eno was working with Underworld main man Karl Hyde I wasn't sure it would add up. Turns out this might be my favorite Eno project since his last collaboration with David Byrne, the marvelous Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Both Eno and Hyde can come off as pretty chilly and cerebral, but they go for a warmly emotional sweet spot on most of the 12 songs here. Standout track Daddy's Car blends nostalgia with Afro-futurism, and The Satellites is suffused with space age optimism. A Man Wakes Up is almost a happier companion to Once In A Lifetime, and if it's chilliness you seek, When I Built This World has it in spades. Slightly proggy sections alternate with robo-Eno singing about how he filled the world he created with regret, guilt, pain and sin. It makes a nice pair with Bowie's If You Can See Me - but some who call Eno a god might want to reconsider. Hyde is in fine voice, avoiding some of the indulgences of his Underworld days, but best of all is hearing Eno's even, intelligent tenor again. They must be getting along as a second album, High Life, is just out along with an app, and perhaps we have Hyde to thank for getting Eno back on stage, at least on TV.

18. Nicole Atkins - Slow Phaser I came across Nicole Atkin's honeyed mezzo thanks to an off-hand reference to her on Holly Miranda's Instagram. While I sometimes wish Holly would lay off the social media and finish her album already (she started her Record A Record PledgeMusic project in 2011!), I am grateful for the pointer to Slow Phaser. This a great well-produced collection of pop songs, with heart, soul and wit to burn. Each song features a distinctive arrangement, with the disco groove of Girl You Look Amazing and the synthesizer throb of Cool People being especially catchy, and Atkins applies her gorgeous voice to her rich melodies and amusing lyrics with welcome restraint. For the life of me, I can't imagine why she doesn't get more attention.

19. Golden Retriever - Seer A duo of modular synthesizer and bass clarinet does not sound too promising, yet Matt Carlson and Jonathan Sielaff have managed to create a varied series of pieces that harkens back to the early days of exploratory electronic music, while still sounding completely up to date. There's simple beauty here, like the bird-songs of Archipelago, as well as the doomy outer-space landscapes of Petrichor, which is somewhat reminiscent of Harold Budd's classic Gypsy Violin. Flight Song is filled with yearning and soars along dreamily like a slightly edgier Vangelis track. While improvisation is definitely a part of their process, there's a sure compositional hand here keeping Seer tethered - and fascinating.

20. Perfect Pussy - Say Yes To Love I've already written about the live experience of Meredith Graves and co., but the album is a slightly different proposition. While some of the free jazz wall of sound is still here, along with sonic references to hardcore punk, there is also a well-deployed touch of pop sheen, especially on Big Stars and Interference Fits. Putting ambient sound art interludes into the mix, courtesy the electronics of Shaun Sutkus and controlled feedback from Ray McAndrew's guitars, adds welcome respite to the onslaught while also providing distance from the churning emotions of Graves's singing and lyrics. While they're not very prolific - there are only eight new songs on the album, which they pad out with four live tracks - it's dense enough that it deepens with repeated listens. With a name like Perfect Pussy, they were always going to attract rubberneckers, but they're in this for more than just sensationalism - I know I get a lot more than that out of this exciting record.



What will the rest of the year bring (besides Morrissey and the long-awaited return of Spoon)?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Perfect Noise

Many years ago, a friend and I descended into a basement somewhere on Houston Street and took a seat in a folding chair. There were plenty to choose from as not many people had decided to make the same pilgrimage.

Soon, an eminently reasonable man with a large saxophone appeared at the front of the room. He greeted us and we returned the favor. He then put the reed to his lips and...good god, what a sound. Unholy squawks, growls, and shrieks filled the air, interrupted for precious seconds by serpentine melodies - or a pause for breath. The performer looked barely in control of what was issuing from his horn, almost as if it were playing him and not the other way around. My friend and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. At first.

This was Charles Gayle, one of the preeminent free jazz players of all time, and as the music continued, we settled down and began to resonate with him. It stopped being funny and became beautiful. Fifteen minutes in and we both had our heads down, deeply involved in the sounds. As we listened, we began to hear the overtones, and to discover the rhythms and melodies contained within them.

We didn't look up until he was finished and then applauded long and hard before returning to street level. Before parting ways we shook hands meaningfully, as people do when they've shared a challenging but rewarding experience.

I had no companionship last night at the Knitting Factory when I trekked out there to see Perfect Pussy, but at least I knew a bit of what to expect, thanks to their excellent debut full-length, Say Yes To Love. Live is a very different story for some bands, however. The record, which is slightly more refined than last year's EP, I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling, is filled with terse songs combining brute force with nuance and electronic sound art with bright guitars and rhythms that gallop, pummel - and swing hard.

As the album title hints, there is an underlay of naïveté to the Perfect Pussy thing, which is embodied perfectly in the fresh-scrubbed (if heavily tattooed) appearance of singer Meredith Graves. On the record, her shouts, screams and squeals are heavily distorted, almost just another texture amidst the squalls and songs. In performance, she attacks each song like an athlete, hurling her body into the tsunami of sound. Graves spent at least some of each song bent over at the waist, her right arm thrown across her back, her left hand clutching the mic, as she attempted to expectorate the lyrics, most of which were indistinguishable from the noise made by the other four members of the band.

While there is some relation to hardcore punk in their sound, Perfect Pussy changed the template a bit by including Shaun Sutkus, who operates a table of electronics that add a wealth of variety and texture to the songs. This puts them in a lineage with Pere Ubu, the Cleveland-based proto-punk band whose original incarnation featured Allen Ravenstine playing EML synthesizers as electronic sound generators rather than to emulate acoustic instruments. Not only does this mean they could do a perfect cover of Life Stinks, but it also means they are prone to allow songs to devolve into feedback laden collages that reverberate and deliquesce with some of the same random quality as a guitar left leaning against an amp.

But most of the show was constant motion as all (except for Sutkus, an oasis of analytical calm) translated the explosive songs into physical forms, each in their own way. Garrett Koloski, bearish behind his drums, seam to deal out the rhythms rather than just play them, while Ray McAndew on guitar and Greg Ambler on bass attacked their instruments with impunity, especially the latter whose head sprayed sweat that caught e light like diamonds. But Graves was the focus of attention, her leaps and whipsaw twists our roadmap to the sections of each song. She was riveting to watch and I doubt anyone in the room was having a better time than her.

As a totality, there was a sense that the members of Perfect Pussy were riding the waves of their own creations, which is what put me in mind of Charles Gayle, along with the appearance that they, too, were reasonable people. And then, after 20-25 minutes - just like that - it was over. Practiced indie band that they are, they were packed up and off the stage in a flash. They're known for their short sets and wisely so, as it allows them to push the intensity into the red while still leaving the audience wanting more. There was no question of an encore, as they had another gig at St. Vitus shortly after the one I saw.

Both concerts were part of the Northside Festival, which meant there was a lot of foofaraw surrounding the show. When I walked into the Knit, I found it colonized by Palladia "a state of the art high-definition channel showcasing the best in music from today's biggest artists." Dont feel bad, I never heard of it either. There were Palladia staffers milling around and a giant logo on the wall surrounded by memorabilia.

Palladia is owned by the same division of Viacom as MTV and VH1 and there were also many people with corporate lanyards on, which led me to worry for a moment that I was the only one who had actually paid to get in. The lineup for the night was "curated" by Linda Perry as promotion for her reality show Make Or Break: The Linda Perry Project, in which the perpetrator of the execrable 4 Non Blondes will search for the "best and brightest new artists to sign to her record label." Perry herself was the MC for the night, introducing the bands, giving away classic albums and telling us what was wrong with music today. To which I would say, don't we have you to blame for James Blunt as well as top 40 fodder by Pink, Gwen Stefani, etc.? In any case, her final message was "It doesn't matter if you don't like me or what I do, just watch the show." Well, OK.

In the end, this was a surgical strike for me to see Perfect Pussy, a hot ticket who usually sell out. I did check out the other bands (Shilpa Ray and Roya), but neither was for me. I believe Meredith Graves & Co. will be with us for a while and I'm excited to hear - and see - where the wave takes them next.

Give a listen to Interference Fits, a standout track from Say Yes To Love and watch six seconds of "scenes from a song performed last night.

 

Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 1


Wilco missed their drop date. Between 2007 and 2011 they reliably put out an album every other fall, but 2013 came and went with no enticing per-order info from Wilco world. Of course, dependability is not very rock & roll and, truth be told, some of those albums showed the strain of recovering from the seismic blast of A Ghost Is Born. Now, nearly halfway through the year, we know the Wilco camp has been very busy what with Jeff Tweedy announcing his solo project, Sukierae, due on September 15th, and prior releases by drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, and The Autumn Defense, which features bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.

All these guys are seriously talented musicians who are crucial strands in the current DNA of Wilco, with Tweedy obviously the most important as it is his voice and relatable human contradictions that drive the sound and emotional tenor of the group. The advance on his record, a collaboration with son Spencer, sounds great, so while we wait for more let's catch up with what the other members are up to.

Mikael Jorgenson (with Chris Girard and Greg O'Keeffe) - The Cheetah Jorgensen came into the fold when Wilco was touring Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and had the job of translating into a live setting some of the more outré sounds Tweedy, producer Jim O'Rourke, and ex-member Jay Bennett had come up with in the studio. His skills with both electronics and piano soon had him a full member of the group, making valuable contributions to A Ghost Is Born and subsequent releases. The Cheetah features Girard, who co-wrote the lyrics to Theologians and percussionist O'Keeffe. The album is full of tantalizing analog synth textures, playful melodies and pleasing motorik rhythms with occasional words from Girard, but it seems somewhat lacking in substance. Check out "Soybot" and decide for yourself if you want to hear more.

The Autumn Defense - Fifth Yep, it's Stirratt and Sansone's fifth album under this name and it continues their run of expert, melodic, 60's/70's AM radio-tinged songs. Very pleasant - to the point of forgettability - but if you're on a long drive and you want to listen to something you don't mind talking over, they've got your number. The collection picks up quite a bit at the end, with the addictive shuffle of Why Don't We, the hazy The Light In Your Eyes, and the psyche-era Byrds of Things On My Mind. George Harrison wouldn't have rejected What's It Take, finishing a great little run that would have made a killer EP. I view The Autumn Defense as a nice exercise that keeps Stirratt and Sansone at the top of their games in between Wilco tours and records. When you see Sansone windmilling his guitar at the next Wilco concert you'll be glad he kept in shape.

The Nels Cline Singers - Macroscope "He walks among us," Jeff Tweedy once said after yet another stunning solo from Cline during a Wilco concert. Cline has been a full-time member of Wilco since 2004 and is without a doubt the most virtuosic member of the band - indeed, he's probably one of the best living guitarists period. His recording career stretches back to 1978 and he has been involved with countless projects and bands, many in the free or avant garde jazz realm. The vocalist-free Singers is probably his most accessible group outside of Wilco and the often volcanic Macroscope may be their best yet. While there's nothing slavish here, there are welcome echoes of Santana, Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra and other masters of sprawling, dynamic music featuring devastating improvisations.

While there is often a tart humor to Cline's work, this is a serious, if quirky, contemporary jazz record without a trace of dilletantism. Cline and and percussionist Scott Amendola have been playing together for well over a decade and new bassist Trevor Dunn has toured with them in the past so they've developed the necessary telepathy to complement each other perfectly as they move through each composition. There's intensity to spare here and plenty of details to savor. Amendola's work is beyond exemplary and Dunn mostly lays back, providing a steady pulse. Check out Seven Zed Heaven, a standout track that has them moving seamlessly from knotty to ecstatic with a burning inevitability.

Glenn Kotche - Adventureland Kotche is the other virtuoso in Wilco, with whom he's played since 2000. It's hard to imagine them with anyone else, so perfectly does he manage everything from tight rock grooves to explosive freak-outs to tricky impressionist clatter. It was no surprise (to me anyway) when he put out Mobile in 2006, a simply great "new music" percussion album mostly composed by Kotche with a touch of Steve Reich. It was a real showcase for Kotche's skills and as well as his dedication in the studio. Adventureland is quite a different beast altogether. Since Mobile, Kotche has been honing his compositional talents, taking commissions and performing with Missy Mazzoli and other leading lights of the avant garde, and the new album shows his writing - and imagination - at full flower.

This is especially true of Anomaly, a seven-movement work for strings, percussion and electronics, performed here with The Kronos Quartet. There is much joy, delight, contemplation and mystery in the piece and all those moods are infectious. The execution is flawless and, listened to as a whole, Anomaly is a very satisfying piece indeed and one I can imagine having legs in the concert hall - if Kotche has made it possible for others to do what he's doing, of course. I say "as a whole" because he has chosen to interleaved the sections of Anomaly with a series of clever constructions, several with the word "haunted" in the title, that are often funny and beautiful - and sometimes downright weird.

I don't use the word "weird" often - after all, what does it really mean? I have a friend who thinks Grace Jones is weird, for goodness sake. But the Haunted Hive, for example, includes what sounds like the processed barks of a dog with its head caught in a fence, random drumming, clattering and bells - and a siren. It's somewhat reminiscent of the more abstract cuts on Pere Ubu's The Art of Walking and makes one wonder if there is a short film we're missing while it plays. Kotche's sense of play, along with his fealty to pop-song concision carries the day, however.

The Haunted Furnace, The Haunted Viaduct, The Haunted Tree House all prominently feature the piano essentially as another percussion instrument and are propulsive little engines in sound. The Traveling Turtle is sheer delight, with gamelan bells and a charming melody - a genuine portrait in sound. Triple Fantasy begins with a burst of distortion and ambitiously includes both Kronos and the chamber ensemble, Eighth Blackbird. It's length of under six minutes is deceptive - Kotche manages to pack a lot of incident into its brief run, once again showing his growing mastery of writing. 

There is a willfully schizoid quality to the way Kotche put together Adventureland, as your mind keeps trying to knit together the split up sections of Anomaly. In that way, the whole record can be seen as another composition, over and above the pieces it contains. Anomaly deserves to be listened to on its own, however, so it's almost two records in one. Great music and a good deal - especially on Amazon, where you can grab it for $5!

The boys in the band are going to have a lot to talk about whenever Wilco reconvenes. We'll pick up the story in September.