Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Perfect Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Record Fair Thoughts

"Rock'n'roll's a loser's game/It mesmerizes and I can't explain." - Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zurich)

The sheer con artistry of the music biz is never more present than at a record fair. Bands promoted as the next big thing fill the dollar bins while great music that never got its due is lovingly traded for big bucks. The former represents the bad investments of record labels, the latter the missed opportunities. One can't help becoming a bit of a skeptic after living a life in music, whether you're onstage, like Ian Hunter singing the words quoted above, or in the crowd, searching for greatness.

Of course, if you're going to talk about music industry charlatans, one would have to touch on used record dealers themselves. Sure there are books that try to rationalize pricing, but dealers know they can charge almost anything they want to the right customer - the one who just has to have whatever it is they've got. Everyone who has ever sold a record to a shop for a dollar and seen it hanging in the window for $20 knows what I mean. Most of them, though, are music lovers and crucial stewards of our recorded legacy.

These are the kind of thoughts I had early on at the WFMU record fair, but it has such a nice vibe and benefits a great local radio station so they were fleeting. They only returned when I was flipping through a bin and realized it was completely unchanged since the last WFMU event. Those Lee Dorsey CD's are still overpriced, thank you very much. Re-price, rearrange - do something to respect the long memories of music fans! Granted, I'm not a vinyl fetishist and I'm always on the hunt for the new so it's easy for me to be selective at an event like this. But I'm also so unreasonable about music that I could spend a few hours flipping through crates and listening to people rhapsodize about their finds without even buying anything and call it a day well spent.

The first vendor I hit, however, made me long for a sugar daddy. I could've dropped a $1,000 on box sets in a few minutes: Harry Nilsson, Bill Nelson, Leonard Cohen, Wilson Pickett, Miles Davis - all in perfect condition or sealed. Most of them were only minimally marked down, it's true, but the magnetism of such a haul was undeniable. He also had practically every issue of Ace records, the excellent British reissue label. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time immersing myself in his stock. I didn't buy anything at first as I wanted to make the full circuit, but I returned later for Miles Davis Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings - a six CD set for $30 and one of the few Miles boxes I don't already have.

My first trek around the enormous interior of the 69th Regiment Armory on 26th and Lexington was entirely focused on CD's in fact, but I only came up with one other object of desire: George Harrison's posthumous final album, Brainwashed. The reviews were always good for this one and you can't listen on Spotify (although a couple of people have put the full album on YouTube), so I thought $4 was well worth it for the full experience. George had his off moments but he's been my second-favorite Beatle since hearing the dark tones of Don't Bother Me and the brilliantly bitter Taxman as a child.
Going on the last day of the fair can be wise - sure things may be picked over, but people are also willing to deal. On my last go round at the armory, I got sucked by C.J. & Co.'s Devil's Gun album sticking out of a crate accompanied by the words, "Everything's $5 - and if you buy a few, I'll lower the price." The C.J. & Co. Record, featuring the classic title cut, was in good shape and is an out of print Dennis Coffey production so that stayed in my hot hands as I flipped through rest of the stock. Swathes of fantastic Philly soul, early disco and 70's funk kept me going. I struck gold with a sealed copy of Disco Connection by The Isaac Hayes Movement and, in a limited crate of soundtracks, an admittedly ratty copy of Curtis Mayfield's hard to find Claudine, featuring Gladys Knight & The Pips.

The final bin I looked at was 50's rock & roll. I pretty much have most of what I want in that area but I could not resist the album of "Fox Trots with Vocal Chorus by Bill Haley" simply called Rock Around The Clock. I was sold by the beautiful cover and the fact that I recently learned that my son has yet to hear that song. Also re-reading the quixotic tale of Haley in both Bob Stanley's Yeah Yeah Yeah and Mark Lewisohn's Tune In made me think this would be the perfect Haley record to have, instead of a slavishly complete clinically mastered CD reissue. Some music still needs a little smoke and mirrors to get across - or noisy grooves - and for all my sometimes cynical views, I'm always willing to fall in love all over again. Especially for the right price, which turned out to be $15 for all four records. See you at the next fair!