Friday, August 31, 2012

Baroness & Frank Ocean: They Came From Beneath The Genre

Strange bedfellows? No, just great music.
After about an hour of pushing through the crowd at Comic Con last year, trying to take it all in without losing track of my kids, I found myself on the second floor of the Javits Center. As the kids browsed through the fan-made goods, I looked down on the main level at the milling crowd, bedecked in costumes, bedazzled in piercings and tattoos, or in some other way representing their niche of the scene, when it occurred to me: I am so not a geek.

Sure I love Frank Miller and Alan Moore, Battlestar Galactica and (the original) Star Trek, Miyazaki and Pixar, J.R.R. Tolkein and Jeff Somers, but I don't go all in where their respective genres are concerned. I think it comes from being culturally omnivorous - my interests are so broad that I end up cherry picking across the landscape of creativity and getting deeply attached to what bubbles up from various genres.

If i am a geek, it's for music in general. In my more self-righteous moments (we all have them), I think of the things I end up liking as being the "best" or "one of the best," although that is likely an aesthetically indefensible position. There's probably an anime freak out there who can explain how Miyazaki is watered down, or a comics guru who will tell me Miller sold out years ago, but I think there are solid reasons why they rose above their cohort. So what does this have to do with Frank Ocean and Baroness?

Each can be aligned with a genre, R&B and metal respectively, yet each has a broader reach than many of the artists associated with those genres. Maybe their own interests and tastes are wider ranging than other metal and R&B musicians and that translates to something that sounds richer to me.

Since I am a music obsessive but not a metal head, what attracted me to Baroness in the first place? I admit it was their slightly goofy and effeminate name as well as their habit of calling albums colors (Red Album, Blue Album, etc.) that made me think something different might be going on with them. Then I heard a song a couple of years ago on Lars Gotrich's annual Viking's Choice edition of All Songs Considered and it was excellent. Having absorbed the complete discography of the equally fantastic Mastodon, I was ready to have some new heavy sounds to enjoy and delved in. While they lack Mastodon's unique advantage of having three great but very different vocalists, I found their music to be very exciting - passionate, technically profound without merely being virtuosic, and with a sure sense of structure, dynamics and melody.

This year they gave us a double album, Yellow & Green, with the first disc representing the more brutal end of the sonic spectrum and the second exploring more lyrical territory. Naturally, this kind of stretching out was bound to cause some controversy in their fan base, but I think Baroness always had a higher ambition beyond ruling the sludge metal roost. Even their earlier releases showed cognizance of the dictum of "light and shade" handed down from Jimmy Page, so the development of their sound should be no surprise. What makes Yellow & Green (and Baroness) so great is that while it is their most expansive release they also sound more focused than ever. Melodies are better defined and modulated, the guitars of John Baizley and Peter Adams are layered with more complexity, not to mention astonishing assurance and swagger, and the rhythm section of drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni plays with perfect sensitivity to the nuances of each song. Blickle especially is showing a new versatility and, at times, even playfulness.

Yet Yellow & Green is in no way a compromise. The more I listen, the more it's two halves feel of a piece - there are reflective moments on Yellow and bludgeoning moments on Green - and the more it seems to be the kind of grand artistic statement that can't be contained by genre. So if Baroness finds the rune-carved gates of "metal" closed to them, they should be easily embraced by music fans everywhere. Here's wishing them a speedy recovery from their recent bus accident.

As for Frank Ocean, his purported genre, R&B, has been an even less reliable source than metal for music I like. Others have taken the time to figure out why that may be but I'm going to focus on Channel Orange, his latest record, and how I came around to it. Ocean first came on my radar last year and although his association with the ridiculous and over-hyped Odd Future collective was a turn off, his great singing on Kanye West & Jay-Z's Watch The Throne was undeniable and his mastery of social media made him seem very accessible. His first album, nostalgia/ultra, got caught up in bureaucratic delays and was finally released on his Tumblr, free of charge. As much as I wanted to like it, I found it ultimately disappointing. While it has its moments (Novocaine is a modern classic, like a sung blog post), it often succumbs to some of the kind of mush-mouthed self absorption I associate with unreasonably popular people like Drake, while also being melodically flat. Listening to most of it left me feeling blah and unsatisfied but also with the intuition that there was something to the guy.

In the months before Channel Orange came out, we were treated to a lot of talk about Ocean in the wake of his announcement that he had been in love with a man and was bisexual. This was a brave thing to do as there are fewer more homophobic cultures than that of hip hop and R&B. But while this was fascinating in a TMZ kind of way, in the end the music is all that matters. If he was going to deliver more emotionally shut-down, unengaging stuff like most of nostalgia/ultra, I was done. When Pyramids was leaked on Soundcloud, I was intrigued - a nine minute epic is definitely going against genre - but still not quite getting the hit of pleasure others were reporting.

Well, thank goodness for Spotify. It was last chance time for Ocean as I clicked play on the streaming service. Couple songs in, Sweet Life started up and I was hooked. Here was the whole package - a lighter than air groove, clever lyrics and gorgeous singing. The song proved to be the gateway to his wondrous world and an album full of delights for the ear, the heart and the mind. This is a collection of sumptuous textures, delicate funk and a window into a searching intelligence that is rare in any corner of music. The only exception is the wretched pandering of Super Rich Kids, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ocean needs to ditch the Odd Future gang and fast.

Channel Orange is solidly a post-Kanye record, especially as far as subject matter goes, with it's mixture of the high-minded ("If it brings me to my knees/It's a bad religion") and the down and dirty ("Now it's mosh pits and wet tits//I think I need a cold shower"), yet it pretty much ignores the method of a Kanye West record. There is only one sample credited and most of the sounds come from a top notch crew of studio honchos like Matt Chamberlain on drums and Charlie Hunter on bass and guitar. Guest spots are few and far between, with John Mayer thankfully unnoticeable and Andre 3000 stealing the spotlight for two spectacular moments. So Frank Ocean brings us the best of both worlds - solid craftsmanship and ultra-fresh songwriting - and I hope his talent burns for a long time.

Perhaps the genre-busting work of both Ocean and Baroness will have a salutary effect on the rest of metal and R&B and there will be more wonderful musical cherries for me to pick. What records or songs have you saying "I don't usually go for this kind of music but this sounds GOOD!"?


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

[kāj], Cage & Me: A Guest Post on The Glass

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the [kāj] ensemble's 100 Waltzes for John Cage as a guest post on The Glass, Chris McGovern's blog. Catch up here

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Music of Romitelli, Talea & Kaminsky

How does new music come into your life? It could be a podcast, a magazine, a personal recommendation, one of those cute little notes on the shelf of a good record store, a streaming service, or even the radio. Sometimes, unfortunately, it comes through the death of a friend. Ralph Kaminsky, who died in January, was the second husband of an old family friend of mine. I hadn't seen him frequently but knew him as a passionate devotee of music, mainly Wagner, and as a mentor to young musicians, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some time in the past decade, that had changed.

While still a Wagnerian, he had become deeply involved with the new music scene, especially in New York. I learned this at his memorial service from the obituary his widow prepared. My surprise quickly turned to admiration. He had become a patron and passionate supporter of an area of the arts that can sometimes lack for friends. As is the custom, the obituary suggested a few places to make a donation in Ralph's memory, with one being particularly close to his heart: The Talea Ensemble. I like to think that I'm fairly au courant - I know my Eighth Blackbirds, my JACK Quartets, my Bang On A Cans - but here was an established new music group in my own backyard and I had no inkling of their existence.

I explored their website and made a donation. They seemed to be up to some very interesting stuff and it also turned out that they were wonderful people as well. Elizabeth Weisser, violist and Development Director, sent me a nice email, thanking me for the contribution, and an even nicer note. In the months since, I've seen three of their concerts, attended their gala and become friendly with Beth and Alex Lipowski, the percussionist and Executive Director. Both of them joined my team for the 3rd Annual Hope & Heroes Walk (an event near and dear to me personally and professionally) - talk about nice!

Despite being founded in 2007, Talea has only just come out with their first album: Anamorphosis, focusing on the work of the late Fausto Romitelli. What a perfect choice - this is the first Romitelli on an American label (Tzadik) and all five works are world premiere recordings. There is a spirit of public service and impassioned ambassadorship - call it proselytizing, if you will - about everything Talea does so this makes fits right in to their overarching project. It is hard to imagine better acolytes to spread the gospel of Romitelli. As always, their playing is superb and never academic. The recording is gorgeous, simultaneously warm and crystalline, with a sense of the dimensions of the space inhabited by the instruments that makes the album immediately engaging.
Romitelli was born in 1963 and was firmly a member of the rock generation. A quote from the CD booklet says: "Ever since I was born, I have been immersed in digital images, synthetic sound and artifacts. Artificial, distorted, filtered - this is the nature of man today." He also mentions that an "increasing importance is given to the sonorities of non-academic derivation and to the sullied, violent sound of a prevalently metallic origin of certain rock and techno music." His final work (2011) was called An Index Of Metals, after a piece by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno on their album Evening Star.

For all that, the pieces on Amamorphosis have more in common with the work of Messiaen, Boulez, and Ligeti than with Nine Inch Nails or King Crimson. Very few of the sounds here would be mistaken for rock music but it is in the DNA of the way the drums push the rhythm along in Amok Koma, in the glacial surfaces of La Sabbia Del Tempo, and the distorted guitar of Blood On The Floor, Painting 1986. Like Gerard Grisey, to whom he pays homage in the second part of Domeniche Alla Perferia Dell'Impero, Romitelli was a master of orchestration. He seems to embody the essence of each instrument he chooses to compose for, with a deep understanding of their characters and possibilities. The bass clarinet figures in the Grisey homage evoke nothing other than the opening of Rhapsody In Blue, a signature work by another pioneer of mongrel music who died too soon - and that's just one example.

Romitelli's mastery of arrangement and structure makes for a lush and inviting sound world even when the music is at its spikiest, and Talea delivers every note perfectly. If "new music" is not in your repertoire or if Romitelli is unfamiliar to you, start here.

Ralph Kaminsky's death brought music into my life in another way when his wife generously asked me if I wanted to look through what remained of his CD collection after they donated the bulk of the contemporary music recordings to Talea for their library. I was very moved by the offer and had a pretty good idea of what I would find: Wagner, and lots of it. I am now the proud owner of three Ring cycles instead of one and second and third recordings of nearly every major Wagner opera. There was also some Mozart, Verdi, Strauss, Berg, and miscellany, most of them impeccable recordings and some out of print. This is a true gift to me as I agree with my brother in law when he says "Opera exists in the mind" - and the more recordings and approaches you can hear and see of a work the closer you are to grasping its totality.

I am grateful to Ralph and his family in so many ways for bringing all of this great music into my life and am happy to give these recordings, so lovingly assembled, a good home. Slowly going through the two boxes of CD's has been a real treat. Although my wife is not an opera lover and hopes to never hear Verdi's Don Carlo again, we were surprised at how delightful we both found Wagner's early work, Die Feen. That my wife now has a favorite Wagner opera is a whole other kind of gift!


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Matthew E. White: Seeking Transcendence

Matthew E. White & Band, with 
guest Steven Bernstein(second from left)
Using a line from an artist's most famous song in the same year as one of their biggest comebacks shows some serious spine. So when Matthew E. White sings "And this loneliness, it won't leave me alone/It's such a drag to be on your own" - lifted from Jimmy Cliff's Many Rivers To Cross - you know that despite the laid back vocals and soul-ballad tempi of many of his songs, the guy has a steely artistic temperament. Personally, that's just how I like my sort of mellow folk/rock/gospel/psych/pop/Americana artists to be. Jonathan Wilson has it, Father John Misty has it, even Jeff Tweedy has it. Alex Chilton? Hell yes. Without that toughness that kaleidoscopic swirl of influences becomes the master of the artist instead of the other way around. The fact that White gives Cliff songwriting credit simply proves White is a gentleman - no surprise as he's from Virginia.

The song with the Cliff couplet is called Will You Love Me and White opened his NYC debut show with it at Mercury Lounge on Monday, August 20th. He took the stage with five compatriots: Trey Pollard (piano/pedal steel), Gabe Churray (keyboards), Cameron Ralston (Bass), Pinson Chanselle (drums), and Scott Clark (percussion). The make-up of his touring band was of serious interest as his terrific album, Big Inner (Get it? He helpfully explained the pun to us), is lavished with plangent strings and plush brass arrangements. Obviously, adjustments would have to be made to translate that wide canvas to a touring ensemble. While I'm not going to say I didn't miss those glorious embellishments, I think White made the right decisions, with the percussionist being an especially canny choice.

White has been on the VA scene for quite some time and told the crowd that the album had been in the works for two years. However, aside from an album release show in his hometown, this was his concert debut as a leader. That was only slightly apparent in the group's sound, which, while rich and full, didn't 100% gel. But it was close, close enough that with a little road testing, it should be a thrilling experience.

Ultimately, I think White seeks transcendence and Big Inner delivers that in spades. But getting to that place in the studio over years of recording is different than standing on stage and transporting a room full of strangers. Fortunately, a busload of VA fans were in the room to provide a level of comfort. Also, the joy and friendship between the players was beautiful to see, especially when Steven Bernstein showed up with his slide trumpet and joined in on the last song. Bernstein is well known for his playing and arranging with groups like Sex Mob and the Lounge Lizards, and has been an inspiration and mentor to White.

During the epic Brazos, which also closes the album, the groove locked in and Bernstein brought the heat on his horn. White put his head back, closed his eyes and chanted the circular lyrics. He was willing himself into that far away space and taking us all with him. It was a privilege to go along for the trip.

After the show, I stopped by the merch table and picked up Big Inner and the accompanying 7". While paying, I overheard a guy say "I just couldn't believe I was watching Matt on stage and when he started swaying I was like, I've been watching that sway for 15 years!" Thanks for letting the rest of us see you sway, Mr. White.

Friday, August 17, 2012


There's a band called The Yardbirds playing at City Winery next month. Go ahead, laugh how there's only two original members left and how neither of them is named Clapton, Beck or Page. If you're feeling especially cruel, you could even laugh that only one of those members (drummer Jim McCarty) is currently well enough to make the gigs. But the fact remains that the wonders of their Beck-era classics like Shapes Of Things, Heart Full of Soul, Still I'm Sad, Over Under Sideways Down, etc., are often used to delineate the moment when rock & roll became rock. Incorporating eastern modes, chants and British folk into a brew that never lost touch with the blues, here was where the music finally cut loose it's moorings from the world of Wynonie Harris and Hank Williams. Thanks to The Yardbirds (and of course The Beatles, The Who, etc.), a new plateau was reached, a launching pad for the rest of the century and beyond.

This is where Radiohead comes in. I checked a major item off my to do list on June 1 when the spectacular show they've had on the road this year touched down in Newark. I'm not going to give a blow by blow account or review as so much has already been said about Thom Yorke & Co., and this tour. Suffice it to say that reports of a religious experience are not overstating the case, which is especially amazing when you consider they were playing in an arena packed with 20,000 people. The King Of Limbs material sounded exponentially stronger and the set list was constructed with a DJ's ear. That said, there are a couple of musings that settled in my consciousness as I communed with their gorgeous music.

Two or three songs in, this thought: Radiohead represent the pinnacle of the power and promise of rock. They were born in a white hot flash on that launching pad in 1965 and they do not look back. Their sound incorporates the gamut of possibilities that have spiraled outward from that nebula, from chilly electronica to caustic Lennon-isms and from epic space rock to stripped Nick Drake. As wide as their spectrum is, they fairly well ignore black music, except for dub and reggae, and hip hop's distant edges of the chopped and the screwed. They do not boogie nor do they implore us to follow Spinal Tap's dictum to "Have a good time, all the time," but they are a rock band through and through.

And this is where the second thought drifted in: has any other group brought music of such subtlety, adventurousness, emotional depth and, goddammit, quality to an arena audience? I think not. And is that huge audience built on the back of the somewhat regrettable Creep? I also think not. Sure, Creep was a huge hit that fit the post-grunge playlists inhabited by the likes of Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, but that was 20 years ago - many in the audience were still in Huggies at the time. The utopian in me feels that they draw the crowd because they deliver something that simply cannot be found elsewhere: an uncondescending look at alienation, loneliness, the magic of connection and the ability to triumph over those who would seek to destroy us - and all that to a non-pareil soundtrack of fascinating and involving music, anchored by Thom's liquid-honey tenor and main guitarist Jonny Greenwood's shooting-star sprays of sound.

My musical universe incorporates sounds from the dawn of time and around the world, a wider array than that encompassed by Radiohead's songs. But perhaps because my own time dawned near 1965 and 1966, and I grew up in the aftershocks of the big bangs of Rubber Soul, Roger The Engineer, et al, I feel a special connection to their music. In any case, I am grateful for the opportunity to experience Radiohead's trajectory from those miracle years to now, especially in a live setting. Hope to see you at the next show.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Clipse Collapse?

The ticket and the promise.
The road has never been smooth for the brothers Thornton, otherwise known as Pusha T and No Malice (formerly just plain Malice), who make up Clipse, one of the most spectacular duos in 21st Century hip hop. Since they formed the group in 1997, Clipse has been associated with five major labels, including a desultory stint at Jive, which saw their second official album's release delayed by two or three years. Fortunately, they kept working, issuing a series of mix tapes including We Got It For Cheap, Vol. 2, which can hold its own with the best hip hop albums of the century. Their last album, the somewhat patchy Til The Casket Drops, came out three years ago.

Since then, they have been busy working on their own, with Pusha reaching an even bigger audience as one of Kanye West's closest G.O.O.D. Music associates, and No Malice publishing a memoir called Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind & Naked. So when an email from Songkick dropped in my inbox announcing a Clipse concert at the Highline Ballroom on August 15th commemorating the 10th anniversary of Lord Willin' - one of the greatest rap albums ever - to say I was excited would be a gross understatement. Considering the way the world of hip hop is so future-fixated, the very idea of the show was radical, which only fueled my fire.

I will not lie. As I repeatedly hit refresh on the Ticketweb site, waiting for tickets to become available, I pictured myself in a packed theater with the Neptunes game-changing beats blasting, my hands in the air, shouting along with the sharp, nasty rhymes. When I finally had the e-ticket in my hands, I projected myself so thoroughly into this reality that it was almost as if the concert had already taken place. If you're a fan of anything, I think you know what I mean.

The bad news.
But it was not to be: last week I got an email from Ticketweb saying the concert had been cancelled. The way the whole thing went down, I wonder if it was ever real to begin with. Pusha T, who is very active on Social Media, has never mentioned the show, or it's cancellation, and the Facebook page for Clipse hasn't been updated by them since 2011(!). Strange to say the least and soon to become just another twist or turn in the Clipse story.

In the meantime, I'll just have to put my top down, set my chrome spinning, and pay my own personal tribute to the glorious artistic achievement that is Lord Willin'.

Fortunately, Pusha T is coming on strong on the new G.O.O.D. Music releases, No Malice hasn't lost a step and a new Clipse album has been promised for 2013.