Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Celebrate Bolan

Marc Bolan was, if anything, defined by his contradictions as both a musician and a man. A model who became a dyed-in-the-hemp hippie. One of rock's greatest creators of gleaming seven-inch slabs of three minute perfection, who often extended the songs to great length in concert with long guitar solos and Dionysian percussion jams. A generous man to his fans whose ego often destroyed close relationships when he needed them the most.

The ups and downs of the Marc Bolan story are the stuff of rock and roll legend. From Tyrannosaurus Rex and the underground, to the Top Of The Pops and T.Rexstasy, then straight down to a morass of drugs, drink, and a sometimes quixotic quest for continued chart success. Naturally, according to the strictures of storytelling, there would have to be a return to form, which Marc accomplished in 1977, partially by aligning himself with the burgeoning British punk scene. He connected with bands like The Damned and The Sex Pistols based more on his acknowledgment of the roots of rock and roll in their sound, than to any real understanding of their feelings of nihilism and disenfranchisement. Never mind - the connection and mutual respect between Bolan and the punks was genuine and good for the careers of all involved.

While Marc was certainly capable of pandering, he didn't punk up his sound on his last album, Dandy In The Underworld, which was released while he was touring England with The Damned as the opening act. He just wrote some good songs, especially the towering title track, I Love To Boogie, and The Soul Of My Suit. While the album was well-received by critics, it didn't exactly set the charts alight.

For his next single, he decided to release Celebrate Summer and while still not a punk song, there were definitely nods to his new buddies in the joyful tune. With a briskly chugging beat and a melody straight out of 1957, the track was a simple invitation to engage in the behavior promised by the title. Unless you're a complete curmudgeon, it's hard not to smile at catchphrases like "Summer is heaven in 77," and "Summer's not a bummer, it's a stunner, and it's now!" He also rhymes dance, romance and chance, in case you're wondering. As for the nods to the musical revolution of 1977, in one lyric, he bemusedly warns "Hey little punk, forget all that junk," - likely the message to Rat Scabies, et al, was "Lighten up!" - and for the guitar solo Bolan abandons his usual liquid style for a five second blast of noise. Perhaps he was borrowing from Captain Sensible or he could have been harking back to a decade prior when, as a member of John's Children, he often let loose barrages of atonality from a Gibson SG.

Celebrate Summer, a fairly simple song and no great chart hit, proved to be Bolan's last single: on September 16th, 1977, barely a month after its release, he died in a tragic car accident. The end of summer is always bittersweet and, with Bolan's death, Celebrate Summer became the perfect soundtrack for that time of the year. So take a little chance on a quick romance and dance to Celebrate Summer - in memory of Marc and summer itself - as soon as possible.

This piece originally appeared in issue two of #flatoutfucked, a black & white photocopied fanzine published by the estimable Michael James Hall, proprietor of Marketstall Records, and a fine musician himself.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Immersed In Become Ocean

Helga Davis makes everyone feel at home.

When I walked into The Greene Space on Friday night for the John Luther Adams Become Ocean listening event hosted by Q2 Music, Helga Davis greeted me like an old friend. That's partly because we are, and partly because that's just who she is and The Greene Space is practically her second home. The seats for the sold out event were arranged in pods facing in every direction and the ones in the center of the room were already filled. "Sit anywhere," Helga told me conspiratorially, "just not in front of a speaker. Or in the center." The engineers at Greene had apparently spent hours tweaking the sound so that nearly every spot would have the full benefit of the surround sound. As I gazed around, marveling at the herd instinct and wondering where I should fit myself in, she invited me to sit next to her - decision made.

This would not be my first time hearing the monumental one-movement work. While I wasn't lucky enough to attend the New York premiere at Carnegie Hall last spring, I have been listening to the recording for the last few weeks and it has already become an integral part of my musical life. While it's not quite quiescent enough to be classified as ambient music, Become Ocean does have some of the qualities I associate with Brian Eno's genre landmarks like On Land, in that you can pay full attention to it or you can just sort of let it exist in the same space as you. Also like Eno's work, it has the ability to transform your environment, a sculpture in sound that rearranges the air around you.

While I would hate to assign any utility to this masterpiece, I can say that it's made my commute transpire in an almost otherworldly fashion. I glide through the streets, stairs, elevators, subways, as if at some distance, encapsulated in Adams's meticulous construction.

Despite being scored for a large orchestra that's been divided into three semi-autonomous groups, Become Ocean is a remarkably unified piece. While I can pick out different instruments it's almost as if most of the time the orchestra is the instrument. The music seems to arise from nowhere at first, a resonance with a colorful pattern at its core. It crests and subsides, not quite reaching full volume until seven minutes in, a moment of masterful control on the part of both Adams and the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot's direction.

Nearing the 10 minute mark, that inner pattern becomes more prominent, an endless arpeggio that moves from instrument to instrument, as the volume gradually drops to near silence at 14:05. Rising up again, ever so slowly, the music seems to pick up more motive force, ascending and falling in a rhythm of slow breaths, harps and horns interacting beautifully, until there is an almost frightening surge of sound near the halfway point of our journey. Quiescence returns, but with a slight edge - even at its softest Become Ocean always moves with purpose.

There is another period of near silence at 28:00 when the process of surging and ebbing begins again, but always feeling organic, not formulaic. There's a double climax at around 35:00, loud, but not overwhelming enough to push you out of the music. The final seven minutes move you toward the end of the work with calm assurance. When it does end, you'll wish it hadn't and you'll wonder where 42 minutes went.

Become Ocean is essentially what used to be called a tone poem: a work of a certain length, often with a programmatic aspect, that does not follow symphonic form. While some may associate it with minimalism - or even romanticism, with its focus on the sublime - I get no sense of musical ideology while listening. The music is just is there, perfect, discrete and inevitable. There is, however, an ideology of a different sort behind the composer's intent. The quote from Adams at the top of the press release states: "Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and the sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean."

As you can imagine from that statement, and the conceptual and compositional rigor of Become Ocean, John Luther Adams is a serious man. He even looks serious, lean and ascetic, with close-cropped hair. Fortunately, during two short interviews with Helga Davis before and after listening to Become Ocean, he also proved to have an easy laugh and a twinkle in his eye. "It's a global warming piece," he stated firmly before going on to say that he wanted it both ways, hoping that someone with absolutely no idea of his intent would find their way into the music and get something out of it. Quite remarkably, he also told us that "not a note changed" between the world premiere in Seattle, the Carnegie concert, and the studio. Overall, the process of writing Become Ocean had less revision than any of his other works, which seems to fit with the way I experienced it.

He also described his deep commitment to recordings, indicating that since you can't sit in the middle of the orchestra at Carnegie Hall, hearing the recording in surround sound, as we were about to do, was the ideal way to listen. It was certainly a remarkable and immersive experience, with all the work of the WNYC engineers paying off. While many people closed their eyes for periods during the playback (including Adams himself, sitting amongst us), only one or two people seemed to actually fall asleep. Those qualities of forward motion and almost narrative movement make Become Ocean anything but soporific - it's actually rather thrilling.

When it was over, Helga asked members of the audience for one word to describe the music. We heard "Monumental!" "Surrender," "Waves," "Leviathan," and a few more before she posed the same question to Adams. "Inexorable," was his answer, and he was exactly right. With that response, and based on my observation of Adams during the listening session, I almost get a sense of Become Ocean existing somewhat apart from him, as if he wasn't quite sure where it came from. During the interview beforehand, Helga mentioned that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean. "The piece won the prize," he interjected, somewhat pointedly. Just so - and it takes its place as one of the finest and most accessible works to receive that accolade. Cantaloupe Music will release the specially priced CD/DVD package on September 30th. You really should hear it.


Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Love That Never Was

History is written by the winners, they say, but sometimes winning takes a very long time. For Arthur Lee, there was a trajectory that seemed fairly straightforward through the first three albums of his band Love, followed by decades of fits, starts and blind alleys. But the fact is that little of that had to do with the actual music. And, besides, the cream always rises to the top. Since 1995, the primacy of Arthur Lee and Love has continued to grow, as both a hidden influence on the past and a more obvious one on contemporary musicians.

Now, thanks to the intrepid work of the founders of High Moon Records, we have Black Beauty, an important missing link in the canon now available for all to hear. But first a brief moment of context. The third Love album, Forever Changes is a lushly arranged suite of phantasmagoric songs, a stunning accomplishment that ranks with the best records of the rock era. It is also an anomaly in the work of Arthur Lee. Keep in mind that Love first burst on the scene with an almost punk take on Burt Bacharach's Little Red Book and that their biggest chart hit was 7 And 7 Is, a furious rocker. At the time, Forever Changes sold poorly, which you can blame on philistines, lack of touring - or maybe on the fact that much of the "rock" in the Love recipe to which listeners had become devoted had been drained out of the sound.

While I treasure Forever Changes as much as the next guy, I also love Four Sail, the album that came after, where Lee convened a new version of the group and unleashed some of his most blistering music to date. Hendrix became an obvious sonic antecedent, but considering the fact that Jimi's first appearance on wax was as a hired gun on a session produced by Lee in 1965, one Lee came by honestly.

Between Lee's own eccentricity and the volatility of the music biz it's only natural that there would be a great lost album to resurrect. Also due to eccentricity and volatility, it's natural that the question of whether it's a Love album at all, or an Arthur Lee solo album, would need to be raised in the excellent and comprehensive liner notes. The most definitive answer is that since Lee was willing to release it in 1973 as a Love album then it is one. Also, while the contributions of Bryan MacLean and the other members on the first three albums shouldn't be discounted, it's clear that Lee is the dominant architect of their sound and all that followed.

So what do we get on Black Beauty, after the years of searching and the extensive work reclaiming good sound from a fragile 35 year old acetate, the only source available? Besides the technical aspects, executed with unbeleivable dedication and love, High Moon has also outdone themselves with the CD packaging, housing the disc (a limited edition of 5,000) in a little bound book containing the aforementioned liner notes and dozens of fab photos. I'm sure the vinyl (released in 2012) is just as well done, but they've also also found a few bonus tracks to beef up the original 10 songs.

The opener, Young & Able (Good & Evil) is a bluesy burner that Lee called his "civil rights song," but he was probably being somewhat tongue in cheek as the lyrics mainly refer to the rainbow coalition of females that he would like to get with. Musically, the song immediately shows the chemistry he had with his new band, with guitarist Melvan "Wonder" Whittington spraying off hot leads that mesh perfectly with Lee's rhythm guitar, and bassist Robert Rozelle and drummer Joe Blocker firmly in the pocket. The sound is a bit raw, but still dimensional, with a nice feeling of the room surrounding the players.

Midnight Sun keeps things fiery, with an epic quality that owes a little to Jimi's Axis (Bold As Love), but with no lack of conviction and passion. Can't Find It is a gorgeous ballad, with one of Lee's greatest vocal performances, so natural and vulnerable that it hits you right here. His sadness and confusion are given a different voice in Whittington's alternately weepy and explosive guitar. "Every time I cry my heart out/And every time I play the fool/There's gotta be something in this lonely world for me/But I can't find it." This is pure Arthur Lee, undefended and pleading for understanding and acceptance. As usual he finds the answer in the music; the next song, Walk Right In, is based on a 1929 song by Gus Cannon and his Jug-Stompers, a simple invitation to "Walk right in and sit right down."

Skid is also from a source other than Lee's pen, a product of a one-time collaboration between Riley Racer (Love's road manager) and poet Angela Rackley. Its minor key hue is perfect for Lee and Racer's dobro fills out the sound, while Whittington provides floating accents that are exactly right. One of the biggest surprises of the record is Beep Beep, which marries one of Lee's sing-song melodies to a Caribbean approach. It sounds not unlike a song by The Equals and the chorus ("Beep beep, slow down man 'cause you're going too fast") might be a joking reference to Lee's automotive style. In any case, it's delightful, with harpsichord and steel drums seamlessly incorporated into the track, a rare moment of almost pure levity. Could've been a hit!

Stay Away is a menacing strut with all the cowbell you could want and Lee giving maximum sneer. Lonely Pigs shows the versatility of this edition of Love, with an almost proggy flavor to the refrain. It's an ode to the LAPD, who used to follow Lee around whenever he drove anywhere - both a price of success and a curse of racism, themes that underscore nearly everything here. Lee also makes a rare appearance on lead guitar, playing the solo in a beautiful, liquid tone. See Myself In You is another Lee special, all mid-tempo yearning with an impassioned vocal and and a power that belies its running time of just over three minutes. Strangely, the album closes with Product Of The Times, a live cut from 1970 that features an entirely different band. However, its barnstorming energy jibes with what comes before and inadvertently demonstrates the overall consistency of Lee's music.

Make no mistake, this IS the great lost Love album and any fan of the band that can look beyond the lacy filigree of Forever Changes should grab it immediately. If you're a vinyl junkie, go ahead and purchase it in that format. While the bonus tracks on the CD are definitely an added value, I'm not sure they're essential beyond the needs of completists. The first is the title song from Thomasine & Bushrod, a cinematic obscurity from the redoubtable Max Julien and an awkward fit for Lee. There's also 21 minutes of interview excerpts and three nearly concurrent live performances featuring the Black Beauty band with the addition of John Sterling on guitar. Anybody who's listened to the album won't need much convincing that these players could deliver on stage.

The last extra song is a take on Tom T. Hall's L.A. Blues recorded in 1996 with a band called Ventilator. It's OK, but hardly the sound I want echoing in my head when the album is over. Even so, High Moon have performed a real service with Black Beauty. Get on their mailing list - maybe they'll take on the first official reissue of Real To Reel, the horn-drenched funky soul album Lee delivered to RSO records in the wake of Black Beauty being shelved, and yet another lost gem from the annals of Love.


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Take A Ride With DeSoto

Taking a left turn can be a risk for any artist, especially one in the earlier stages of their career. But if done convincingly enough, with complete sincerity - nay, the dreaded authenticity - left turns become the career and the artist can develop a following of people who will go where they go without hesitation. I suspect that's what will happen with Matthew Silberman's new project, DeSoto.

Two years ago, Silberman released Questionable Creatures, an excellent forward-thinking jazz record featuring well-composed tunes and intense solos. There was also a cinematic bent to his approach - stories were being told through the music, sometimes illustrated with short films. That narrative thrust is the connection with DeSoto's first release, Sense Of Space, which he envisions as "A psychedelic journey down the Pacific Coast Highway while bumping The Chronic." 

While the title refers to the cosmos, it's really inner space we're traversing here. The first track, It's OK To Laugh, starts with echoing chimes and a heartbeat of percussion. A woman's voice speaks to us, half heard phrases that compete with the dirge-like melody of layered oboes (played by Rob Mosher), sometimes answered by a robotic voice. The phrases rise in the mix and gradually resolve into the statement that "We're just high-tech monkeys hurling through space at 1000's of miles per hour on a big wet rock..." OK to laugh? Is there really any other response?

Glowing Grey's clanking percussion starts up like an old train, soon joined by flute and Silberman's elegiac sax, slightly reminiscent of Vangelis's sleazy Blade Runner soundscapes. The drums pick up steam as the song progresses, slowly accreting to an almost funky, tribal beat. Silberman shows some real studio chops here as his sax seems to shoot of streams of sound that echo through the mix. Martial Meditations is almost purely ambient, but melodic like something from side two of Bowie's "Heroes." There's just a touch of day-glo Miami Vice aftermath to it - the shootout over, Crockett and Tubbs observe the wreckage - that injects some welcome levity.

Tripped brings the beat back, a rainswept slow jam that Creed Taylor could get behind, while Ancient Dialogue features found vocals and goes full-on drum'n'bass with buzzing snares and jackhammer bass drums. Roni Size - the field is yours to regain! Tree In The Wind is the sound of hope after rain, plucked harmonics and suspended chords inducing a sense of calm and uplift. 

But it's not so simple. Wednesday brings a sense of uncertainty, with a spare groove, multi-tracked saxes and questioning chords. It builds to a kind of a crescendo, the drums beginning to slam, and then deliquesces, each instrument taking its leave, leaving you with you. But are you the same?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Night's All Right At Baby's

The last time I was at Baby's All Right, the bar-restaurant-music venue in south Williamsburg, it was packed to the gills for The Clientele's show back in July. This past Sunday found far fewer people there for a show headlined by DJ/rupture and celebrating the release of the debut album by No Lands on New Amsterdam Records. But a smaller audience is to be expected if you skitter along the cutting edge, as Rupture does, not to mention competing for eyes and ears with the VMA's and the Afro-Punk Festival.

When my friend and I entered the performance space, Lorna Dune was already on stage, engrossed in her keyboards as people looked on, standing in rows almost exactly one person apart from each other, like trees in a nursery. The last time I encountered Dune was as a member of Victoire, Missy Mazzoli's indie-classical chamber ensemble. She was playing keyboards in that context as well, while also doing some very cool live remixing of Mazzoli's work. Her own music is less challenging yet expertly assembled. Warm layers of fat synth chords and arpeggiated melodies overlap atop pulsing rhythms, shifting and changing. Crescendos are approached but never quite arrive. Lorna Dune's music is not really retro but has strong referents to Krautrock and 90's IDM from artists on the Warp label. In the end, it's a bit static - she was the only one dancing. Right now she might be devoting her more outré impulses to her collaborations, which is fine, but I'll be curious to see what she does next.

DJ/rupture had been standing next to me for most of the set, but I couldn't get a word in. As soon they started breaking down Dune's gear, he dashed to the front of the room, stepping behind his impressive set-up at the left of the stage. He launched in without buildup and quickly had people dancing. He was supposed to headline so at first I thought this was a quick mix while No Lands set up their stuff. However, a night at Baby's doesn't always go as advertised and I soon realized that this was Rupture's set. Perhaps he had magnanimously offered to let No Lands finish the night.

Either way, his work was magnificent, similar to the mesmerizing Mudd Up shows he used to do on WFMU, but somehow both more layered and more seamless. This is the art of the DJ as fine art - but in no way effete. The groove was relentless, spanning electronica, Algerian pop, reggae, hip hop, West African sounds and more.

Watching Rupture work was fascinating. His kit consisted of five cases lined up: a laptop, a turntable, a mixing board, another turntable and a CD controller. "Where's the wax cylinder?" joked my friend. Rupture's level of engagement and control of these devices was virtuosic. His left hand would gently pull back on the turntable, finding the perfect spot on the vinyl, while his right hand was busy doing something on the board.

A high point for me was when he began dropping fragments of vocals from a Rai song and interleaving it with something that sounded South Asian. It was pure hypnotism as the two streams of sound abutted and began to blend. That assemblage cross-faded into some heavy digital dub, complete with air horn, bringing the tempo down before moving into other areas. After about an hour the deeply involving set was over - just like that. He humbly accepted our applause and walked off.

I wasn't sure what to expect from No Lands in the live context. Negative Space came out in July and is essentially a solo project by sound designer and electronic musician Michael Hammond. You might call it a synth-art-almost-pop record, hinting at 80's hit-makers without actually going there. Even with the Linn drums, there's nothing ironic going on in these lush, warmly produced pieces.

The album opens with Icefisher, a gorgeous overture in which sweet chords dialogue with perfectly calibrated distortion before blending into the bobbing rhythm of City, the first song proper. Synths chatter and there's a big, melodic chorus, with Hammond's soft tenor mixed down to join the track as another texture. There's a diffuse quality to Hammond's music, as if he listened to the radio through the wall, half-remembered what he heard, and then tried to play it back using different instruments. This makes Negative Space all the more tantalizing as your mind works to resolve the blurred soundscapes. It's no surprise that he lists I Believe In You from Talk Talk's Spirit Of Eden as one of his favorite songs ever. That song is included in the Mixtape he put together for Q2, along with everything from Eno to Grieg and from Feldman to Scott Walker, providing a fascinating glimpse of his influences.

Pretender has a pulsing beat and, in the corner of the mix, chiming Simple Minds guitar. On Sleep Atlas, he treats his voice heavily, crafting it into a sound not unlike Jon Hassel's cosmic trumpet. Eyesore broods along, with dramatic guitar flourishes, more Hassel-like vocals, and a chorus that opens up like the sun streaming through clouds. Firebride is half-song, half ambiance, like David Sylvian used to do, and there's even biting guitar and a touch of Popul Vuh's pastoralism - sheer beauty. The album ends with the even more ambient Seawall and the blissful meditation of Outside Of You. Negative Space is a great album, an extremely assured debut, and one which should make some noise on those lists at the end of the year.

But here we had a full band taking the stage, with Hammond joined by his brother on guitars, a bassist, and two more members on keyboards and electronic percussion. Their stage presence was appealing and affable if not quite displaying the confidence demonstrated by the album. The diffusion was there, but some of the forward motion was lacking and I could see a listener feeling slightly lost if not already familiar with the songs. But, heck, from what I can tell, this was their ninth show together and it was a great opportunity to observe how the songs were put together. For example, there were a lot more guitars involved than I thought, although they were rarely played straight. Harmony vocals also came into play, with Hammond's brother chiming in on most of the songs.

The set was also a chance to shower some acclaim on Hammond for making such a great record, something the audience did without hesitation. After they finished, I checked in with Rupture as he broke down his gear. His Julius Eastman record from last year (released under his given name, Jace Clayton) was his first foray into the classical avant garde and a complete success, so I asked him if there was anything else in the works. Not in the way of recording, he told me, but he will be performing his work Enkutatash on September 11th in Washington, DC, which will feature the Homeland Security threat level system sung by a chorus using the Ethiopian scale and mixed with an East African harvest song. It sounds like it will be very intriguing, connecting the cerebral and the emotional in a powerful way, just like much of the music that filled the room at Baby's All Right on one of the last Sundays of summer.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Technicalities: ACO's Orchestra Underground

The first flowering of what would come to be known as punk rock encompassed such diverse sounds as the cerebral bubblegum of Talking Heads, the streamlined girl-group pop of Blondie, the artful interlocking explorations of Television, and the sped-up Spector of the Ramones. Soon enough, after a transatlantic crossing or two, punk became codified into a studded-leather jacket and safety-pinned cul de sac of loud fast rules.

Did something similar happen in the world of "new music" or the classical avant garde? Did the seismic blasts of The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg's serialism blow things up to a degree that composers can draw on a limited palette of structures and sonic semi-innovations and still get across as "new?" Can you just deploy some additional percussion, amp up the orchestral clangor and dissonance and call it a day? And what do those European referents have to do with the American tradition? 

That's not to say that all contemporary American composers are beholden to an outdated notion of new-ness. You have artists like Julia Wolfe, Mario Diaz de Leon, Daniel Wohl, Anthony Chung, and even legends like Alvin Lucier who continue to push the envelope of what's heard in the concert hall. It's also not to say that some of what might be called the "retro avant garde" doesn't make for good or even great listening, it's just that it doesn't do it any favors to present it as something earth-shattering.

I put these passing thoughts down to give an idea of some of what I was working against when listening to the American Composers Orchestra's new album, Orchestra Underground: Tech & Techno. Right from the start, without even reading the liner notes, I was dealing with the word "techno," which starts a post-Kraftwerk thumping in my ear as I recall the sounds of Detroit dance music from the late 80's and early 90's. Let's clear that up quickly: there is almost nothing on this collection that sounds remotely like Detroit techno. And much of what we do hear strikes those "new music" chords without being hugely innovative. But it's still damned fine listening.

Justin Messina's Abandon, which was inspired by the above mentioned Motor City music is instead a pensive slow-build that more readily calls to mind the excellent television music of Bernard Herrmann. Its alternating and interacting motifs, driven by a clanking cowbell, effectively build tension over a concise nine minutes. He expertly uses the full range of orchestral colors, with winds, brass, strings and percussion seeking dominance but finding parity, until the witty ending featuring a ticking high hat and a bass glissando. Prior to this, I was only familiar with Messina via his memorable arrangement of John Cage's In A Landscape for Brooklyn Rider - now I'm even more interested.

The album begins with Edmund Campion's Practice, and a quick scan of his bio leaves no doubt that he has completed enough of the titular activity to "get to Carnegie Hall," or at least Zankel Hall, where this was recorded. Also about nine minutes long, Practice starts with a vaguely Spanish fanfare, with muted trumpets, tinkling triangles and skirling flutes, before settling into a calmly relentless forward movement propelled by a slow ostinato from bassoon (I think) and bass. The computers are so seamlessly merged into the orchestra that, to be honest, I didnt really hear them until the end, when a what sounds like a triangle's ting is distended, distorted and eventually flattened into almost white noise. Regardless of how cutting edge it is or isn't, Practice is a brilliantly colorful piece with loads of drama.

Tender Hooks by Anna Clyne is next and it kicks off with a very Stravinskian sound, tension and release happening simultaneously, and a very active drum section. Almost following a sonata form, it quietens down to a brooding segment, enhanced by rumblings, ratchet noises and other electronically-produced accents. Lyrical flutes, brass and piano intertwine with more computer-generated sounds until a snare's hard thwack seems about to kick off a climax. Instead the sound opens up wondrously and then gets progressively darker and stranger. For the last minute, Tender Hooks is quiet and searching, bringing this very satisfying piece to a close.

The final two pieces are each about twice as long as the first three, starting with Neil Rolnick's cleverly titled iFiddle Concerto, which was also included on X10D, the ACO's last Orchestra Underground album. Todd Reynolds is the soloist, playing the "iFiddle,", which "combines the computer and violin into a single musical instrument," according to the composer. At the start, it almost sounds as if the acoustic and electronic impulses are at odds. They seem to go head to head, with the computerized sounds a fractured reflection of what the violin is doing. The orchestra plays a strong supporting role, providing a bed of rhythm, harmony and, especially from the trumpet, counterpoint.

About a third of the way in, we get an amusingly louche and jazzy second section, with Reynolds's line sounding fabulously rich and assured, while also spitting out some wacky electronic shards. There's a pizzicato segment where you can't tell exactly what's acoustic and what's electronic and the last few minutes have a wonderful swagger and a head-nodding rhythm. Some sounds bring to mind the outlandish funk of Jimi Hendrix's wah wah, and the piece ends on a literal high note. The iFiddle Concerto is an entertaining and quick 18 minutes, managing to be both crowd-pleasing and a bit novel.

The final work is by Mason Bates, who's definitely on a hot streak this year. Besides this one, other 2014 releases include his four-movement Alternative Energy, on an album of the same name by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Riccardo Muti (Anna Clyne's Night Ferry is also included), as well as a album of his compositions called Stereo Is King. I hope to have the opportunity to explore those more in depth at another time as Bates is definitely on to something.

The piece here, Omnivorous Furniture, features a drum pad and computer alongside the orchestra, and was (we are told) "heavily influenced by down-tempo electronic with roots in the British hip hop movement." OK, that must have been fun to write, but I don't really hear anything over which Tinie Tempah or Roots Manuva would be inspired to spit a few bars. What I do hear has an American swagger and energy, an amped up Aaron Copland vibe that struts in on giant steps. The computer and drum pad are not so seamlessly integrated, instead they are delightfully obvious, snickering and clacking across the soundscape and daring the orchestra to keep up. An actual four on the floor rhythm does eventually develop for a while, just before a lushly romantic interlude, all plangent strings and warm brass. The final section features bass drum drops like depth charges amid some angular aggression from acoustics and electronics alike, until it all comes to a thrilling halt. This is good stuff, whatever Bates happened to be listening to while he composed it.

In fact, it's all good stuff, and if they had called the album "Reasonably Fresh Sounds from Young-ish American Composers," I would have nothing to complain about. But, I suppose that would be like advertising Volvos as being "boxy but good." Don't let the marketing get in your way - some great listening awaits you.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Bulletproof Spoon

In 1961, sultry entertainer Ann-Margaret recorded I Just Don't Understand, a minor key ballad with a haunting melody that made perfect sense coming from the pen of co-writer Marijohn Wilkin, who also co-wrote the perennial classic Long Black Veil. Producer Chet Atkins gave the song the full treatment, with harmonica, male backing vocals (probably The Jordanaires) and, most outlandishly, a stinging fuzz guitar, apparently only the first or second time such a sound had appeared on a record. The song - and the sound - caught the ear of John Lennon who, according to Mark Lewisohn, just had to sing it. While The Beatles were unable to recreate the fuzz guitar, the song made it into their live set and (after being requested by "Kathleen, Carol and Pauline of Bradford") was recorded at the BBC in 1963.

The Beatles version was essentially lost to history until 1994 when the first Live At The BBC collection came out. By then, people new to the recording were able to bring all their knowledge and feelings about Lennon to bear when listening to the song, investing what could simply be a terrific (if slightly kitschy) relic with extra significance. From what we know of Lennon's conflicted feelings about women - the jealousy, the neediness - its easy to see what attracted him to the song. It's also not the first time he took on a track that had originally been sung by a woman, adding to the intrigue. I Just Don't Understand has had some legs, being recorded a few more times in the 60's and 70's, but no one was searching Jerry Reed's version for psychological insights.

Now we have it resurrected again by Spoon, the one cover featured on They Want My Soul, their first album in four years. They also avoid any fuzz guitar, letting piano drive the song, but there version is interesting window into the emotional territory of the album. Unlike John Lennon, we don't know a heck of a lot about Britt Daniel, Spoon's leader, except that he's a rock & roll true believer, probably as much of a fan of the music now as when he began his career in 1991. As pointed out in the recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Daniel often approaches songwriting analytically, bringing disparate elements from things he loves together in new ways, creating endless nesting dolls of references, inside jokes and homages. Despite those magpie tendencies, Spoon has a immediately identifiable sound, often due to the alternating swagger and vulnerability of Daniel's voice, which has grown grittier over the years and is one of the marvels of rock.

He pushes that burr beautifully in I Just Don't Understand, and all over They Want My Soul, sounding better than ever, but also more defended. We've come a long way from the late-night thoughts of Everything Hits At Once (Girls Can Tell, 2001): "I go to sleep but think that you're next to me." I used to feel guilty playing that in the office after my colleague had been dumped - it cuts to the bone in a way that Spoon doesn't really do any more. The subtext of the album title is "they want my soul - but they ain't getting it." In truth, this is the direction the band has been going in since Gimme Fiction, their breakout album from 2005, and They Want My Soul is their most bulletproof album yet.

That hard, brilliantly textured exterior, perhaps partly due to new production partners Dave Fridmann and Joe Chicarelli, makes for a killer headphone listen, encaging me on the streets of NYC like a Mobb Deep record. Hip hop is not as off-kilter a reference as you might think, as Jim Eno's drums have never been more processed. Let Me Be Mine even has some of the badass Gary Glitter strut of Kanye's Black Skinhead. Inside Out, the second cut, starts with a deep, melancholy groove led by Eno's fat snare, almost outsized in relation to the other instruments. I can almost hear a remix with Chance The Rapper telling a sad story about his grandmother over this beat. Inside Out also features marvelous celestial keyboards which I suspect are from new guy Alex Fischel rather than long-time member Eric Harvey. Fischel came to Spoon from Divine Fits, Daniel's new-wave leaning side project, and his electronic sensibility was one of the delights of their 2012 album.

Eno is the other key member of Spoon and his brick-hard snare is the first sound you hear on They Want My Soul, kicking off Rent I Pay, a great mid-tempo slow burner that sets the tone for the album from the jump. With its aphoristic, pissed-off refrain, it's a bit bitter and as such has companions in Do You, Knock Knock Knock, Outlier, the title track, I Just Don't Understand and Let Me Be Mine, making for a slightly malevolent listen. I don't think Daniel wants us to read too much into that, however. As he said in Paste magazine earlier this month: "...if there's a band that's...doing something vaguely threatening, it appeals to me. I like it." It's as if he's playing with moods and emotions, the same way he assembles the layers of the tracks in the studio.

And those layers sound fantastic, often pairing artfully scuzzy guitars with the sleek gleam of the rhythm section, like a rusted car riding on a chrome-plated chassis. Many of the songs also have a driving urgency that sets the pulse racing, even if you're not sure what Daniel is singing about exactly. Outlier fades in with a pumping bass line, organ stabs, and dry acoustic strumming, lending a windswept air to whatever atmosphere by which you happen to be surrounded. It also contains the priceless couplet "And I remember when you walked out of garden state/You had taste, you had taste." Another classic line comes in the title song: "Educated folk singers want my soul/Jonathon Fisk still he wants my soul/I got nothin I want to say to them." Jonathon Fisk is the name of a song from Kill The Moonlight, Spoon's fourth album, about a kid who bullied Daniel in high school. So you wonder - is Daniel still wounded by Fisk or is he just adding another layer to the glass onion?

In the end it doesn't matter. Spoon has one of the best, most consistent catalogs in rock, earning them the right to be self-referential. They've soundtracked my life since 2005, when I Turn My Camera On triggered an investigation into their past and an investment in their future. They were also one of the bands that made me commit wholeheartedly to the magnicent music of our time and to do my best to stay on top of it, inadvertently leading to this blog. For that, they have my soul. Not to worry, Britt - we don't want your soul, just more terrific records like this one, whenever you and your compatriots are so moved to make them.

Spoon is on tour in the U.S. and Europe throughout the fall.

Catch up with a playlist of some of Spoon's greatest songs.