Saturday, May 30, 2015
Monday, May 25, 2015
Sunday, May 17, 2015
Ever since the first groove was inscribed on a wax cylinder, there were conscious efforts to improve sound, to increase the "fidelity" of the recording to the originating sonic material. And things did improve rather rapidly, with excellent sound becoming a common possibility in the 1940's, leading to the HiFi movement of the 50's, which saw a barrage of albums released strictly on the merits of how well they exploited the possibilities of the modern stereo system.
For sure, there were still lousy sounding records released, mainly in the realm of burgeoning rock & roll, which got by on the charm, passion and energy of the performers and the indelible nature of the songs. But that was not for lack of trying, simply the result of substandard equipment and low investment in technology. By the early 60's, however, good and even great sound was to be expected, from the crystal clarity of EMI's Abbey Road Studios heard on The Beatles albums to the punchy but crisp Motown Sound.
That all changed with White Light/White Heat by The Velvet Underground, which sounded "bad" on purpose and had some record buyers returning to the store to exchange their "defective" purchase. From then on, all bets were off as producers and bands realized that murk, muffle and distortion could actually be an asset, giving their songs weight, depth and mystery. Low fidelity was also a way to grab on to the slipstream of past masters from the realms of country, blues, etc.
One band that sits at the nexus of all this is Hi Sheriffs Of Blue which had an incandescent, elusive existence in the early 80's. They arose from the ashes of Girls, the Boston band whose sole released output was the extraordinary single, Jeffery, I Hear You, produced by Pere Ubu's David Thomas. Due to the provincialism of pre-Internet society, I was completely unaware of this backstory when I stumbled on the Sheriffs in either Tier 3 or the Mudd Club and was smitten with Mark Dagley and co.'s almost ridiculously discordant and angular take on blues and country. Years later, when "country punk" became a thing, I talked up the Sheriffs till I was hoarse, but to no avail.
This was partly due to their spare catalog, traversing three labels and consisting of merely three 45's (one split with John Miller) and a 12". Ain't But Sweet 16 was their first single, a semi-rockabilly number with a thin sound that made the record sound like it was already used. My Big Vacation was on the flip, an even odder song that slotted in with some of the No Wave stuff that was bubbling up. The third held Cold Chills, one song split on both sides like an early James Brown single, a malevolent grind that might have given Howlin' Wolf pause.
I saw them any time I could and even talked to Dagley around the time of what would be their final release, the 12" EP, which contained the incendiary 19-80 Now! and three other songs. While still unmistakeably the Sheriffs in all their lurching glory, the sound was a little cleaner and richer, filling my head with visions of an underground favorite poking its head aboveground. Dagley seemed to indicate that they were ready to ride the wave wherever it took them and that there were imminent plans for a full-length follow up. It was not to be, however. By the time I started investigating why their fairly regular gigs had evaporated, word came down (might've been Ed Bahlman at 99 Records who told me) that Dagley had broken up the band and moved to an ashram.
I tried not to take it personally, but if you were a Sheriffs fan, it was a personal thing in the first place. So last year when I saw that the eminent Byron Coley was releasing something called NYC 1980 my music fan heart went pitta-pat and I ordered the thing with only a minimum of info. I figured it would be a collection of all their releases with maybe a live track or two. Turns out that Coley dredged up seven cuts of live and rehearsal room tape, all from before that first Sheriffs single. Even better, he hopes that NYC 1980, released in a limited edition of 500 LP's (download code included), is the start of a series.
It's all rougher than raw, cassette-deck, single-mic stuff and I wouldn't have it any other way. The first track is 11 minutes of live mayhem, comprised of five songs, including My Big Vacation. The hi-hat sizzles like static, the guitar hacks out chords, the bass throbs, the vocals howl and you are there: NYC 1980. But this is not pure nostalgia (although it is a little) because the Sheriffs were so on the edge of what was going on back then. Dust My Blues is a gritty take on the Elmore James classic that makes the Black Keys sound like Journey, while Big Duke is a nasty, spectral little boogie that barely grips the rails for 1:39. Blue Door, Black Door is a skronk western swing that's even shorter, a perfect overture to the real find of the collection.
White Street Shuffle, maybe part of a longer jam, fades in, and like your eyes adjusting to the dark, gradually takes shape in your ears as an improvisatory workout of the type only true masters ever achieve. Moments of it sound like Miles Davis in 1973, the Velvets in 1969, or Fela in 1977. In short, it swings, in a fractured way of course, and makes me feel fully vindicated in my assesment that the Sheriffs were one of the great bands. The dry, unfiltered sound means that the playing has to stand on its own, with no help from reverb or any other sweetening. Where Were You When The Lights Went Out comes next, a below-Fi avant jazz blast that barely holds together - even the tape sounds near the breaking point.
The album closes out with a live take of Cold Chills that staggers along, steady but almost enervated, until it just stops. While the Sheriffs were great players in their way, I realize now that one of the radical things about the project was the removal of virtuoso instrumentalists from the blues, and studio slickness from country. In the decades that followed the demise of Hi Sheriffs Of Blue, countless artists have gone back to that well in an effort to revitalize rock music from the ground up. But no one did it like them.
For a while I was monitoring Feeding Tube Records losing a little more faith in Western Civ every time I found they still had unsold copies of NYC 1980. So when I saw Byron Coley at the WFMU Record Fair recently, the first thing I said to him was, "Did you sell out those Hi Sheriffs albums yet?" I tried not to make it sound like an accusation. He assured me that they had and that he was still talking to Dagley, who's mostly a painter these days, about further releases. Whew.
Even if you can't get NYC 1980, Feeding Tube has much to explore "on the fringe of obscurity," as their motto would have it. Coley pointed me in the direction of a couple of gems you might want to jump on.
Owen Maercks is a cutting-edge guitarist who put together a band of Bay Area heavyweights, including Henry Kaiser, and made an album of left-field rock in 1978 called Teenage Sex Therapist. All the copies they pressed went for promotion and when that marketing plan failed, the album sank without a trace.
The other winner Coley handed me was a 40th anniversary reissue of Lost At Sea by Glenn Phillips, the guitarist for the legendary Hampton Grease Band. Part of their legend is for having the second-worst-selling album in Columbia Records history, a music-biz nightmare that led Phillips down a path of total independence.
Lost At Sea was self-recorded and self-released but is only slightly self-absorbed. Phillips is a great proponent of the high-technique high-emotion style that devotees of Carlos Santana and Duane Allman will find instantly appealing. The songs on this instrumental album are alternately pastoral and ferocious and have an open-air feel that is truly lovely. This is a record made by someone who cares and I can't help caring about him in response.
The reissue comes with a second album of previously unreleased material, a side of studio jams that presaged Lost At Sea, and a side of live takes played in its aftermath. The first side is especially wonderful but both are welcome additions to what I hope will finally take its place as an American guitar classic - at least in the 500 lucky homes that get to own one.
No fear if you get sold out of Phillips, though. Byron Coley and Feeding Tube will sure to have something else to fill the gaps in your collection - even the gaps you didn't know existed.
Friday, May 08, 2015
Missy Mazzoli's new album, Vespers For A New Dark Age, last Thursday night.
The house band, if you will, was Victoire, the sleek chamber ensemble led by Mazzoli and featuring a versatile lineup of violin, clarinet, two keyboards and double-bass. This group has only grown stronger as a unit since I last saw them at the River To River festival three years ago.
At LPR they first took the stage in support of Noveller the nom de guerre of Sarah Lipstate, a guitarist and composer. Noveller's loops and layers, played on a gleaming Fender Jazzmaster with a full assortment of pedals and boxes at her feet, interleaved seamlessly with Victoire's rich palette of sound. The collaboration had me paying full attention immediately, shaking off what my daughter calls "Thursday tired" without a thought.
The real fireworks began, however, when Victoire exited stage right and left Noveller to her own brilliant devices. Each piece, many from her recent album, Fantastic Planet featured precisely assembled components adding up to monoliths of extreme beauty. A fuzzed chord progression would become the underpinning for a diamond-etched light show of arpeggios, which would in turn support a soaring melody, sometimes played with a bow.
Naturally, I couldn't resist mentioning Jimmy Page in a Tweet. Let's face it, he is the icon when it comes to bowing an electric guitar. But we also have to face the fact that much of the mileage he got from breaking out the horsehair was due to a certain transgressive thrill in addition to the suitably evil sounds he made. By contrast, Noveller's use of the bow is both technically more solid and musically more purposeful. Not the first time a student has overshot the master, if only in this one aspect.
Other reference points in her music are the classic albums by Fripp & Eno - No Pussyfooting came more readily to her mind when I chatted with her after the show. She also mentioned Glenn Branca, although thanks to technology and her skill she only needs one guitar and some boxes to sound like an orchestra. Good thing, too, because when I saw Branca at the Mudd Club back in the day, I worried one of his many guitarists was going to fall off the tiny stage. I heard echoes of Bill Nelson's more abstract side in her music but she hadn't heard of him. His stuff is just in the air these days, I think. Although Noveller is more than happy playing on her own, she could also probably sit in for David Torn in Bowie's band should the need ever arise.
Noveller has been honing her craft since 2007 and it showed in her precise touch and command of electronics, which combined with an assured flair for rock rhythms (and rock moves) made for a consistently exciting and involving set. Unlike some other recent artists who started out as "solo loopers," she seems to have no eye on the pop prize, which is refreshing. Needless to say I bought her last copy of Fantastic Planet and highly recommend that you find a way to hear it as well.
Mazzoli and Victoire had been watching, rapt, as Noveller dazzled the crowd and returned to the stage with barely a pause, along with three singers from Roomful of Teeth, to perform pieces from Vespers. While Mazzoli described the eight movement work as "irreverent," the result of her fine-tuned compositions and the rich billows of sound created by Victoire was moment after mesmerizing moment of rapturous sounds, often producing sensations of soaring and falling. In short, it was transcendent, which is what religious music was supposed to do in the first place.
Instead of any traditional Latin or hymnal text, Mazzoli has used poems by Matthew Zapruder for the words of her vespers. However, without the poems in front of us, this was a purely musical experience. The vocals were often in a style derived from plainchant and the words were not intelligible. I'm looking forward to enriching the experience with the poetry at a later date. The singing was virtuosic, in any case - bell-clear and impassioned. All of the players were fantastic, but special note must be made of Olivia De Prato's violin work, which was outrageously good. She's also a member of the Mivos Quartet and Ensemble Signal, so there are plenty of opportunities to hear her.
The album features Wilco's Glenn Kotche on percussion, although he was not present at LPR and no attempt was made to recreate his contribution. Nothing felt lacking, however. Note must also be made of Lorna Dune's role in Victoire, as keyboard player and all-around electronics whiz. Dune produced the Vespers album, which ends with her remix of Mazzoli's A Thousand Tongues, an older work originally for solo instrument (viola or cello), vocals and electronics. Dune's take, which also closed Victoire's set, is wonderfully fleshed out with layers of pulsing keyboards and somehow achieves an effect of featherweight gravitas. Watching Dune and Mazzoli performing it, one couldn't help but be moved by what appears to be a deep collaboration - long may they reign!
There was a welcome pause in the proceedings after Victoire left the stage, giving me a chance to collect my thoughts after all the intense music we had heard thus far. The stage was reset and Glasser was soon before us. Glasser is Cameron Mesirow, a phenomenally talented singer, producer and dancer who has been making records since 2009. While her albums have done well on the Billboard Dance charts, they are a far cry from the EDM that makes up most of that list. Her music is highly rhythmic, but also seeks to do more than just provide uplift or move the crowd.
She started her performance on the contemplative side, singing in her clear soprano to a backing of koto and clarinet, which somehow managed to be simultaneously spare and richly atmospheric. Her movements were precise and provocative, emphasized by her well-designed costume of a form-fitting sweater and a skirt slit almost to her waist. There was no hint of burlesque, however: this was artistry of a high order and almost entirely devoid of kitsch. She seemed sweetly surprised by the audience's explosive reaction and quickly nodded to the sound engineer to start the next track.
Song after song followed, all with beats that could compete with the best out there and singing that sounded effortlessly beautiful. It was hard to sit still, but I don't think my neighbors at nearby tables would have appreciated me standing up. In any case, Glasser was the star and I was riveted. An appearance by her would be an event under any circumstance, but this was Missy Mazzoli's night and we were eventually treated to another collaboration when Victoire came back and supported Glasser on a couple of new songs. Just as when they joined Noveller, it was a perfectly beguiling combination and those on stage seemed just as pleased as we were.
The overwhelming impression of the evening was of musicians at the peak of their talents, supporting each other and exploring all the ways highly structured compositions and richly orchestrated sounds can create music that satisfies on a number of levels - emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually.
Perhaps all of these joint efforts will appear on future releases. I'm especially eager to hear what Glasser does next as her last album was in 2013, and she seems to have even advanced since then. But these are all protean artists and where they go from here will no doubt be a complete adventure. For now, the lucky people of Minneapolis and Cincinnati will be the only others to hear what we heard at Le Poisson Rouge. If I could defeat the time-space continuum, I would sign up to do it all again in both cities.