Sunday, September 29, 2013

Explosive Atoms In Brooklyn

Thom Yorke is a wise man but I have to admit questioning the wisdom of booking Atoms For Peace in 20,000 seaters like the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn. While it is true that getting tickets when they first went on sale took a little work, there wasn't nearly as much browser refreshing as when tickets for Radiohead (his "other" band) went on sale a year prior. Atoms For Peace, while labeled a "super group" by many, is musically more esoteric than Radiohead and has none of the halo of that band's now ancient hit single to propel it. Having experienced the excellent sound Radiohead was able to achieve at the Prudential Center in Newark, I was more open to going to an arena show, especially in an even newer building. The thought of a half-empty arena was not so appealing, however, and when tickets were still available on the day of the show, it seemed my fears might well be realized.

After a great feast at Habana Outpost, my daughter and I walked into Barclays shortly before 8:00pm. The merch table was swarming but there was no line at security and the trip to our seats was unencumbered. I couldn't remember where we had ended up and was slightly surprised that the best seats I could get at my price point were up against the wall, at the very top of the arena. I had likely picked them because they were just slightly to the left of being dead-on to the stage. Our section, like many, was nearly empty, and the standing room on the floor held only a smattering of people.

Shortly after we arrived, the opening act took the stage with no fanfare. Performing in front of a small screen with clever hand-drawn animations was a computer/keyboard jockey and a drummer. A quick Google revealed that this was James Holden, an electronic musician, producer and DJ. The sound was complex and dynamic, with the human drummer adding a real kick. It was reminiscent of Fuck Buttons but seemed to have more of a point than their sometimes exciting but simplistically accretive music. Layering cool sounds together grows tiresome if there isn't real compositional backbone giving structure to the sounds. Holden's architecture held my interest and was enthusiastically received by the other early arrivals. If the IDM (intelligent dance music) idea interests you, his latest album, The Inheritors, is well worth seeking out.

Holden's 40 minutes passed quickly and and when the lights went back up, there were definitely more bodies in the building. While the roadies readied the stage, we listened to Duke Ellington - a little off-center but I never tire of his band's effortless swing and brilliant arrangements. I'd be curious to know if that was a band choice or just the venue's default soundtrack. I could imagine creating more anticipation for the Atoms For Peace sound with a mix including the likes of Fela, Miles Davis and SBTRKT.

In any case, soon enough the Atoms were on stage and launching into Before Your Very Eyes..., which also opens their album, AMOK. Nigel Godrich, producer of Radiohead, Beck and others, and Yorke wielded guitars with intricacy and muscle, while drummer Joey Waronker and percussionist Mauro Refosco created an underlay of simmering polyrhythms, and Flea, bass player for Red Hot Chili Peppers, stalked the stage while pummeling his four strings. The five of them were instantly locked and it was immediately apparent that the sound would be more dynamic and colorful than the heavily cut and pasted music on AMOK.

As always with Thom Yorke, there's a startle: that voice. It fills whatever space it's unleashed in, and seems to fill you up as well. It is simply one of the marvels of modern music and was in spectacular shape from the very first. Yorke's breathtaking and enormous singing might be one very good reason for choosing a large house like the Barclay's, as it seemed to find its full expression swooping around the rafters, among the pennants celebrating the past glories of the former New Jersey Nets. Even from our seats in the gods, his dancing was also a sight to behold. He seemed to latch on to every facet of the rhythm and interpret it in a remarkably loose-limbed fashion. Some find Yorke's movement style amusing - it is certainly easy to parody - but my feeling is that he is essentially an introvert and the dancing is not for display or entertainment but rather his honest reaction to the music, which so deeply involves his body and mind.

People continued to arrive and the center was nearly full by the fourth song, the spacious and sleek Ingenue. Based on casual observation of the people around us, I suspect some of the late arrivals were fans who couldn't believe their luck and some were more casual concertgoers who caught wind of a buzz around the show. Having more life forms in the space improved the sound, which was already pretty good, and also ramped up the collective energy. It was sheer perfection when the band dug into the deep groove of Stuck Together Pieces, one of the funkiest tracks on AMOK, and the cheer that arose when it ended was spine-tingling. If there were any doubters in the crowd, they must have been fully sold by that performance.

And It Rained All Night, from Yorke's 2006 solo album The Eraser, came on like the heavy black trains described in the song, and the intensity level rose even higher with the crucial pairing of Harrowdown Hill and Dropped, which were nearly overwhelming in their power. By this point, Atoms For Peace were doling out art rock of the highest order, with Dropped taking on a steely physicality that sounded like a Di Suvero sculpture in sound.

My mind kept trying to come up with ways to describe the sound I was hearing. The image of a cross-section of earth arose, with the percussion represented by the churn of insects and worms under the surface, the grass, trees and other plants standing in for the shapes and colors of the bass, guitars, keyboards and electronics, while Yorke's voice was all the living creatures that roamed and flew about, and even the golden sun shining on it all. This image worked for me somewhat, because it allowed for the way the layers in Atoms For Peace songs tend to remain discrete, each existing on its own plane, but also dependent on interaction with all the other elements to come to life. Even with the darkest songs, as far as content goes, there was a joy radiating from the five men on stage. They were fully engaged, playing at the top of their abilities, and exactly where they wanted to be. It was a privilege to witness.

I had a feeling Yorke would pull out either some old songs or a great cover or two but was still surprised during the first encore when he sat at the upright piano and started to sing Rabbit In Your Headlights, his collaboration with UNKLE from 1998. Co-written with DJ Shadow, the haunting song found new life in the Atoms arrangement. They followed it up with a fairly obscure Radiohead song, Paperbag Writer from the 2004 Com Lag (2Plus2IsFive) compilation. Coming as they did after a performance of Yorke's 2009 song Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses, the three songs constituted a mini-retrospective and clearly displayed the continuity in his work regardless of his collaborators.

By the end of the encore, there was no sense that the band had held anything back, but still the lights stayed down and Duke Ellington remained silent. After a few minutes pause, they returned and generously played two more songs, both from The Eraser. Atoms For Peace (the song) was adapted beautifully from its original version, with Flea parceling out the notes of the baseline as if he were just discovering them, and the comforting folk-derived melody enveloping the audience. It seemed almost inevitable that they would end with Black Swan, with it's darkly triumphant chorus: "We are black swans, black swans (but I made it to the top, but I made it to the top)." The song's bitter refrain of "This is fucked up, fucked up," was mined more for its rhythmic possibilities than the well of anger in the album version. I couldn't make out Yorke's face in that moment, but I felt a wry grin as he appreciated the transmutation of his dark night of the soul becoming an occasion of musical bliss not only for the ensemble on stage, but for the assembled in the audience.

The lights went up, the Duke returned, and we made our way through the excited throng back to the merch table, which was once again swarming. After buying t-shirts, my daughter and I went outside. There were groups lingering in the plaza, including a circle of friends sitting around one of the lights in the pavement. I got the impression they were trying to preserve the moment and I felt the same way.

AMOK is a great album and has made for fascinating listening since its release earlier this year. But I couldn't help thinking that it might sound slightly wan compared to the visceral and explosive music that filled the Barclay's Center on Friday. Perhaps Thom Yorke has a philosophical objection to live albums, or at least ambivalence, but I would urge him to reconsider and put together an official record of what he and his Atoms For Peace compatriots have been able to achieve on stage. It was tremendously exciting as it happened and should not be allowed to simply evanesce. I know it will stay with me for some time.

This short clip gives a hint of the moment when Harrowdown Hill ended. Get to the show and hear and see for yourself.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Multiplicities Of Genius, Part One

I try not to toss around the word "genius" too casually, but there are those individuals who clear a large amount of artistic space and define it in such a way and with such an expansive impact that the term must be used. Another defining characteristic of genius is that some of their output is often misunderstood. Sometimes it is their early works that are dismissed, as in the case of Pierre Boulez, and sometimes it is the late works, as in the case of Sly Stone. Fortunately, we have occasional attempts by the record business to address the works of musicians as a whole, creating opportunities to reassess and understand the big picture. These usually take the form of door-stopping, wallet-straining box sets that are driven as much by commercial considerations as musicological concerns.

In the case of Oeuvres Complètes, the stunning 13 CD set of the music of Pierre Boulez, it's difficult to imagine the intrusion of commerce into its creation. While it does consist of mostly previously released works, it is also extremely affordable at about $56, less than $5 per disc. I suppose if Deutsche Grammophon were to sell 5,000 copies they would consider it a success. Oeuvres Completes is more of a labor of love by composer and label, and a wonderful gift for those of us who have been trying to grasp the mercury of Boulez's music since the first time we heard his now-classic work, Le Marteau sans maître.

This handsome black box is also somewhat of a practical joke. As long as Boulez is alive, his work is never complete. Not only does he continue to compose (although at 88, he's slowed down a little), but he's also known for continually revising his pieces, sometimes over the course of decades. As the first sentence of the massive booklet states: "More than anyone else's, Pierre Boulez's oeuvre has not known completion and never will." Flip the box over and it even says "Pierre Boulez: Work In Progress." So, a snapshot, then - a time-lapse photograph of nearly 60 years of compositional innovation.

Of the newly released music, the most substantial is the 43 minute Dérive II, which expands on Dérive I in both length (the original is just under six minutes) and in number of players, with an ensemble of 11 as opposed to six. Suffice it to say, it's nearly worth the price of admission - a shimmering series of rhythmic dialogues and melodic explorations. The title means "drift" and it fits, but it feels like a drift with a purpose. For the music of Boulez, Dérive II is a fairly placid listening experience, albeit with an undertow of unease. As one would expect from a modern composer, there is plenty of angular sturm und drang in other works. While he is often depicted as cooly rational, there is often the sense of an emotional maelstrom to his sound world. Speaking of the sound of Boulez, I got into an hilarious debate on Amazon when I gave a quick review of this set and mentioned that that his music often features "fantastic melodies." Someone else took issue with that and quoted Boulez as saying he had "no need" for Rachmaninoff, as if that rendered him incapable of producing notes in a sequence that could be defined as melodic. I also have no need for Rachmaninoff and other composers who dull the ear with their heavy handed application of swelling "tunes." There is melody in Boulez and active listening will reveal it. (In any case, six out of seven people found my review helpful, so take that!)

The range represented by the included works is remarkable. There are pieces for solo instruments, imaginatively assembled chamber groups, and full orchestras, occasionally featuring solo voices and choirs, and often limned with advanced electronics. Discs 1-11 feature the Oeuvre in chronological order, from 1946's Douze Notations for piano, to Une page d'ephemeride, also for piano, from 2005. The 12th disc contains historical recordings from 1950, 1956 and 1964 of works that are repeated elsewhere, giving us a chance to get a sense of Boulez's process.

The early recording of Le Marteau sans maître, while slightly brittle in sound, has a jazzy briskness that is replaced by a more contemplative quality in the version from 2005. Le Soleil des eaux in the 1950 recording of the second version is theatrical, with a tinge of hysteria and mostly lacking in the emotional impact of the fourth version from 1965. Crucially, Boulez added a mixed chorus to support and interact with the soprano, as opposed to the tenor and baritone in the earlier take. One of Boulez's earliest works, the Sonantine for flute and piano, written when he was just 20, is represented on the bonus disc by a stunning performance by Severino Gazzelloni (flute) and David Tudor (piano). This is a fully mature work that is essentially Boulez's shot heard round the world, heard here in its first definitive performance. In a word: electrifying.

Disc 13 is an hour long interview in French from 2011, which is fortunately transcribed in the extensive booklet. Boulez describes his process in general, recounts his life-changing encounter with Olivier Messiaen, and gives a brief autobiography of booing. He also delineates the precise difference between his form of improvisatory writing and that of someone like John Cage. Ever brash, he states, "...the responsibility of a composer is a responsibility that exists. If you simply spend your time playing 'heads or tails' to write a note, I say no. Because there, there's no grammar, there's no style, there's no form, there's nothing!" Grammar, style, form - three words that can be taken as a manifesto fulfilled time and time again by Boulez's remarkable music.

If you have any interest in modern classical music from the time immediately following WWII to the present, if you listen to bands that name-check Messiaen and Stockhausen, if you want to travel the edge of the cutting edge, this set is essential. Two more caveats about this "complete" business. In the case of Dérive II, there is an earlier 25 minute recording that is now "composition non grata," although it is still in print. There may be other such instances and in the interview we learn of published works that have been subsequently excised from the canon. For example, in the case of Poesie pour pouvoir for tape and orchestra from 1958, Boulez says the electronic part is "thoroughly insufficient" and "not worth the trouble" to revise. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to listen for myself and while it is a fascinating work of its time, he is exactly right. Pardon moi for ever doubting you, Maître Boulez.

Next time: The genius of Sly Stone as encapsulated in the new box set, Higher.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Repaving The Way To A Fantastic Fall

Others have probably pointed out that not everything Justin Vernon touches turns to gold, but he's had such a charmed career since his Bon Iver debut in 2007 that I think it bears restating. Just a few months ago, in fact, he met up with a couple of old cronies who perform occasionally as The Shouting Matches and released Grownass Man, about 40 minutes of pointless blues rock. Maybe it was fun at the time, but he should have left it in the garage or released it for free. While The Shouting Marches is certainly the least interesting of Vernon's many side projects, others such as Gayngs and Volcano Choir have been hit or miss affairs. The one Gayngs album was almost one long 10cc-inspired inside joke (to be expected with the regrettable inclusion of horrid Har Mar Superstar), while the first Volcano Choir album, Unmap, alternated between classic Vernon and self-indulgence.

While I enjoyed Unmap, it didn't live on my iPod for very long, unlike both Bon Iver albums (and the Blood Bank EP), which remain there to this day. It was starting to seem as though, aside from his spectacular contributions to Kanye West songs, Vernon's best work was always going to be as Bon Iver. But now all that's changed, with the release of Repave, the second Volcano Choir album. While it's still a collaborative effort, with the six members listed in alphabetical order, the sense that we're getting the full Vernon is evident from the opening track Tiderays. Introduced by an organ drone and a circular acoustic guitar figure, Vernon's voice enters loud and clear and cuts straight to your heart. The lyrics are occasionally oblique but also descriptive and relatable: "You wake up/Soft denim on the floor/Spent nights last sleeping like two fours." Tiderays builds up to a rousing finale that feels completely organic, which may be a good word to describe the whole album. While there are startling moments, like the processed vocals in Comrade, nothing feels forced, as Unmap often did.

It helps that Comrade features a towering performance from Vernon, with his falsetto sounding more assured than ever, along with a new toughness in the lyrics, which may be a result of all that time spent in the company of Kanye and Pusha-T. The fourth song, Byegone, features a massive ascending guitar riff that should be on the radio and will surely be transcendent in concert, along with the "Set sail!!!!" refrain. While its lyrics are nearly incomprehensible wordplay, the brilliant arrangement and passionate vocals communicate very directly. The same can be said for Alaskans, with it's spare instrumental backing and its crystal-clear note of regret and loss.

Keel is another stunning falsetto outpouring, with its outré poetics coming to a focal point at the heartbreak of "Just stay here/Stay here just loving me/or just STOP bloody loving me." The album closer, Almanac, has a stomping beat when the drums come in, and goes out in an anthemic haze of stately guitar and vocal susurrations, ending a perfectly sequenced and soul-satisfying album. Follow @VolcanoChoir on Twitter and Instagram. Also, try to catch them on tour. Having seen Bon Iver in the past, I can safely say that Vernon is one of the great performers of our day - he gives his all, every song.
Repave is merely one album that, along with the masterful Hesitation Marks from Nine Inch Nails and the slyly groovy AM by Arctic Monkeys, is leading the way to what is shaping up to be a spectacular series of fall releases. Here are just a few that I'm looking forward to.

Jonathan Wilson - Fanfare: Following up 2011's wondrous Gentle Spirit, genius producer, guitarist, songwriter and singer Wilson is expanding his sound with legendary guests like Graham Nash, David Crosby, and Roy Harper, along with Pat Sansone of Wilco, Father John Misty and others. Get tantalized with Dear Friend.

The Darcy's - Warring: These moody Toronto-based art rockers got my attention with their pitch black full-album cover of Steely Dan's Aja, but their self-titled debut proved they have a number of arrows in their quiver. Warring should only further establish their great sound. Take a trip on The River.

Juana Molina - Wed 21: It's been nearly five years since we were last mesmerized by this former TV star from Argentina. I am more than ready to get obsessed again. Here's Eras to start the induction process.

Jonwayne - Rap Album One: A series of mixtapes, the last three on cassette, has established this Bay Area rapper-producer as someone to watch. And based on Reflection, he's playing for keeps on his debut album.

Matthew E. White - Big Inner: Outer Face Edition: Like the slow-burning songs within, White's first album has taken its sweet time getting properly noticed. Capitalizing on the growing interest, he will be putting out an expanded edition with five additional tracks. This is one case where I will feel no conflict buying the album all over again, if that's the only way to get the new songs. Have a taste of Hot, Hot, Hot and the others.

There have also been rumblings from the camp of Brooklyn titans TV On The Radio, with a new song from them and an upcoming release from Tunde Adebimpe's side-project, Higgins Waterproof Black Magic Band.

Whatever else comes down the pike between now and the first snowflakes, a musically memorable autumn is a certainty. What new releases are you anticipating?