Monday, December 29, 2008

The Week in Listening 12/15 - 12/21

12/15/08- The Red Crayola- Parable of Arable Land LP 1967
The Red Crayola- Coconut Hotel LP 1967
The Red Krayola- God Bless The Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It LP 1968
The Paper Chase- Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know CD 2000
Milford Graves and Don Pullen- Nommo LP 1967

12/16/08- Milford Graves and Don Pullen- Nommo LP 1967
Silver Jews- Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea- CD 2008
Eddy Current Suppression Ring- Primary Colours CD 2008
This Heat- self titled LP 1978
The Sundowners- Goat Songs EP 1994
Miles Davis- The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel Disc One 1965

12/17/08- Lee Morgan- Charisma LP 1966
Archie Shepp- The Magic of Ju-Ju LP 1967
John Coltrane- Live Trane: The European Tours CD Disc Two 1961
Sonic Youth- Sister LP 1987
The Chills- Kaleidoscope World LP 1986

12/18/08- Various Artists- Daptone Seven Inch Singles Collection Volume One CD 2006
Shuggie Otis- Inspiration Information CD 1974
Herbie Hancock- Sextant LP 1973
Cat Power- The Greatest CD 2006
Judee Sill- self titled LP 1971

12/19/08- Marvin Gaye- Let’s Get It On Deluxe Edition 2CD
Tony Williams’ Lifetime- Turn It Over LP 1970
Jimmy Giuffre- Free Fall LP 1962
The Jim Hall Trio- Jazz Guitar LP 1957
Marylin Crispell- Labyrinths CD 1987
Animal Collective- Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished 2000 CD
The Great Unwashed- Collection CD 1992
Various Artists- A Million Dollar$ Worth of Doo-Wop Volume 3 CD

12/20/08- David Grubbs- An Optimist Notes the Dusk CD 2008
Tortoise- Mosquito/Onions Wrapped In Rubber b/w Gooseneck 7” 1993
Alan Licht- Plays Well CD 2001
Fugazi- The Argument CD 2001
Palace Music- Lost Blues and Other Songs CD 1997
Calexico- Convict Pool CDEP 2004
Yo La Tengo- Little Honda CDEP 1997
Mogwai- EP+6 CD 2000
Mirah- C’mon Miracle CD 2004
The Microphones- The Glow Pt. 2 CD 2001
James Blackshaw- Celeste CD 2004
Suni McGrath- Seven Stars b/w Fantasia 7” 2008
Beirut- Gulag Orkestar CD 2006
Sun City Girls- You’re Never Alone with a Cigarette: Singles Volume One CD
High Places- self titled CD 2008
Shawn David McMillen- Sampler CD 2008
Mighty Flashlight- self titled CD 2002
The National- Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers CD 2003
East River Pipe- Poor Fricky CD 1995
Mazzy Star- She Hangs Brightly CD 1990
Sufjan Stevens- Illinois CD 2005

12/21/08- Archie Shepp- Blasé LP 1969
Art Ensemble of Chicago- Go Home LP 1970
Joseph Jarman- As if it Were the Seasons LP 1968
Dave Holland- Conference of the Birds LP 1972
Anthony Braxton- Trio and Duet LP 1974

MONDAY 12/15- Mayo Thompson’s Red (C)Krayola is one of the longest running and most enigmatic underground concerns. The band’s earliest material has been a recurring source of inspiration from within the underground over the years, and the reputation of those releases as some of the best outsider expression to arise from the second half of the ‘60s is secure. The thing to remember if you haven’t heard them is that in Texas they do things in the extreme. That’s where Red Crayola were formed, releasing records on International Artists, home of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and others. They recorded three records during this initial phase, but only two were released at the time. All of them are fantastic and individually unique documents of an era and of Thompson’s beginnings as an artist of major importance.
The first one is most easily integrated into the general psychedelic tendencies of the period. But that doesn’t mean its sound is anything other that singular. It crosses wild freak-outs of collective free-form splatter with a curious and hard to define conceptual aura and in the process comes off like a field recording of a large pack of hippies who drop out of art school and go completely off their nut. The majority of the record’s tracks are bluntly titled just that: Free Form Freak Out. It’s far less about good vibes and more concerned with an explosive exorcism of all that was so oppressive about the decade, hence: "War Sucks", one of the tracks on the album with a distinctive title, which combines with "Hurricane Fighter Plane" and "Transparent Radiation" (covered by New Zealand’s Pin Group and Spacemen 3, respectively) to form a triangle of moments that highlight the extreme territory that was being examined and also shows how influential the record has been since its release. Even though it’s an unabashedly psychedelic recording (the back of my budget reissue states File Under Psychedelia), its extremity has never been integrated into the lore of hippiedom. Instead, its reputation as a high watermark of the oddball ‘60s fringe stands tall, having influenced weirdo punks (Texan's Really Red), indie-rock bands (see above), and young experimentalists (David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke, for two).
The second Red Crayola recording didn’t see release until Drag City brought it out almost thirty years later. Coconut Hotel is so unlike its predecessor that it shouldn’t be surprising that the label refused to release it. Minimal instrumental segments that blend into a soundscape that’s like a thousand miles away from any kind of rock experimentation to see release at the time, it totally eschews even the slightest relationship to the debut or to rock structure in general. Many of the segments are only seconds long, and if you turn to glance at your CD player’s display and find it on track forty-two (like I did) while absorbing the sound as one long occasionally baffling sonic experience (like I did), then perhaps you’ll understand just how off the path and in the deep weeds Thompson and his cohorts were at this point. It’s a head-scratching thing, but it has a weirdly twisted intellectual pull.
God Bless did see release, however. Instead of a return to the sound of the first record, the modus operandi is to apply the unadulterated minimalism of Coconut to a batch of structured songs with lyrics (and some moments of pure experimentation) and in the process land smack dab in the middle of ground zero for a certain strain of art-rock. There is sparseness to the sound and friendliness with the often high concerns of academia on display here that’s different from the expansive qualities of much rock experimentation (and Parable, for that matter); the brevity of the tracks and the direct somewhat poppy structure they sometimes adhere to share an intellectual discipline and a lack of reliance on established norms (genre tropes) that smacks of the atmosphere of the university instead of the rock scene. I’m guessing that this record would please listeners that have a predilection for the music of Robert Wyatt, ‘80s David Thomas (or Pere Ubu in general, actually), David Byrne’s assorted non-Tropicalia inflected solo work, or Jim O’Rourke’s albums of song based material. This is my favorite of these three releases, and it’s maybe the place for the uninitiated to start, since it’s the one that bares the most (loose) resemblance to Thompson’s later work.

The Paper Chase first entered my consciousness as one of many bands on the Kill Rock Stars label. I made a mental note to look into them, but then a good friend hipped me to their first, pre-KRS effort, and I’m quite pleased with that state of affairs. The sound follows a post-rock path into a bruising experimentalism that still retains a songlike center and is dripping with a strung-out emotional intensity that just begs to be played loud. Integrated into the sound is a production based enhancement of dynamics that really increases the weight of the music as it unfolds, deepening the strident down tempo quality and enhancing the tug of its sweetly abrasive angst. The seeds of the record’s success lie in its focused delivery: nothing is sloppy or offhand. This is a slowly boiling study in torment, and I look forward to hearing more.
The Graves/Pullen record is a rare jewel from the guts of free jazz in the ‘60s. Released on LP and never issued on CD, it’s been talked about in hushed tones for about as long as I’ve been clued in to outsider sounds. And since the internet is such a great equalizer, people without the stature of Thurston Moore or John Zorn can actually get to hear this thing. It’s a drum/piano duo that matches the loose and at times explosive rhythmic mastery of Graves with Pullen’s unique approach to avant-piano, full of silence and small abstract gestures only to erupt into sharp note-clusters that defy the explicit forward momentum that’s such a large part of most jazz pianists’ approach (simultaneously sounding distinct from the sound of Cecil Taylor, who plays in a similar fractured style, but which is often specifically ABOUT momentum). Graves is also distinct from his peers in free-drumming, having a sweeping joyous clatter to his style, which is very much in the mode of percussionist, with all kinds of non-typical material is in his arsenal and equally unusual ways of utilizing them (my introduction to his playing was a video clip of a trio with bassist William Parker and horn manic Peter Brotzmann, where Graves was playing a cymbal with his forearms). These guys come together and produce a fine, hard to define spillage of bang and thunk that never sounds tossed-off. Rather, it drips with the interweaving of intense non-linear communication and leaves off plenty of sparks. Having to experience this through download means I can’t read Nat Hentoff’s back cover liner notes while listening, but them’s the breaks.

TUESDAY 12/16- This Heat is one of the only bands to land squarely in the middle ground between prog-rock and post-punk. In the process they’ve been name-checked so many times that for a while, when the records were quite scarce for a suburbanite, the two syllables of their moniker took on a proportion that was almost oppressive. You couldn’t read a goddamned fanzine (or CMJ, for that matter) without some big-city hipster going on and on about This Heat This Heat THIS HEAT. By 1994 I’d found vinyl copies of all kinds of roughly similar (and out of print) material (Wire’s Pink Flag, Pop Group’s Y, the Wanna Buy a Bridge? comp), but this band eluded me for the longest time. Well, those days a long over and I must say that the debut release by This Heat is simply an amazing record. These guys simply don’t sound like anybody else, and because of this the music is just ridiculously contemporary. Scratch that. If this album came out last week it would be hailed as ahead of it’s time. Because of the proggy background of the band (though I can’t think of another prog-rock group that are even in the ballpark of This Heat’s sound) they bring a musically adept approach to the beginnings of the post-punk phenomenon (too wide open to be called a genre, or at least that’s the way I feel today) that contrasts with the more basic (but often refined and quite effective) musicianship which gave so much post-punk it’s appeal. Lots of post-punk groups were influenced by Can, but This Heat is a legitimate extension of that band. And Eno, for that matter. Anybody into those last two as well as Faust, Neu!, or the UK post-punk thing in general that hasn’t heard This Heat needs to get on the ball quick. It’s not just for big-city hipsters anymore.
The Sundowners was a quick spurt of low-fi in the trappings of collaboration between Will Oldham and Bill Callahan (a.k.a. Smog or (Smog) or Chan Marshall’s and Joanna Newsome’s ex) in their younger, less refined days. I’d never heard it until now, and it slid by me so fast I thought I was listening to a homemade cassette that was mail-ordered from an address found in a hand written ad in the back pages of Dagger zine. Which means it slid by me really good. It’s noticeably less damaged than the early Smog stuff I’ve dug, and it finds Oldham much closer to the locus of the home-taper experience than I ever thought I’d find him. What an unexpected turn of events.
Miles at the Plugged Nickel is for some the apex of the guy’s output. After avoiding his work for most of the fist half of my twenties, partly due to Davis’ antagonism to other more avant-garde musicians and also misinformation about the electric period, I borrowed a copy of the original two LP of the Plugged Nickel recordings, and was given a lesson in knee-jerk reactions. It’s often said that this specific moment in Davis’ vast discography is the closest he came to free playing, and regarding the pre-electric stuff that’s probably right. I’m just getting introduced to the extended box set incarnation of this week long engagement, so I’ll have much more to say when more time has been spent. That may take a while, so patience, please.

WEDNESDAY 12/17- Lee Morgan is a cat that I pretty much ignored for a long time. His rep as a Blue Note mainstreamer didn’t call out to me while I was immersed in noisier, less accessible music, whether jazz or no. But he did play (quite well) on one of my favorite Blue Notes, Coltrane’s Blue Train, so I never dismissed him or anything. And in the last 5-6 years, I’ve come to enjoy many of the more inside releases from the Blue Note label, so Morgan’s been getting some playing time around the manor. Charisma finds him with a killer group. Jackie McLean and Hank Mobley on reeds, Cedar Walton on keys, Paul Chambers on bass, and the always dependable Billy Higgins on drums. This was my first play with this one, and it largely served as the soundtrack to dishwashing and floor mopping, so I can’t get too deep into what makes this one special. I do feel confident in describing it as a very inspired date, and it lessened the monotony of my chores. There are still some big gaps in my Morgan education that need filling, but I get the feeling this one will rate highly when I have a more complete picture of his recorded legacy. It’s about as in-the-pocket as contempo jazz gets in this era, but the skill level and imagination on display seems to elevate it above the norm. If this style of jazz speaks to you, then I’m guessing you’d find Charisma to be a good one.

Loose, raw, bluesy, and angry: these are all words that apply to the sax playing of Archie Shepp. He was one of the first players involved in the ‘60s jazz avant-garde that I listened to, after Coltrane and Coleman. Impulse! was fairly attentive to putting out his stuff on CD back then so it was possible to get a handle on his sound up close and personal and in the process come to a better understanding about the free jazz scene of the era he helped to define. The Magic of Ju-Ju was never released stateside to my knowledge, so this record is fairly new to me. It fits solidly into what Shepp was throwing down during this period, however. He had a unique approach; thick with the intertwined history of the music and those who made it and drew inspiration from it, barbed with questions demands and ruminations on the state of racial inequality, and infused with a jagged and exploratory vigor that made him quite a polemical figure in the heady days when he was ramping up to his peak. Unlike Coltrane, there was no middle ground with Shepp. You either were with him or against him, and that seemed to be the way he liked it. This record is a deep plunge into the roots and rhythms of Africa and how they were/are connected to the American phenomena of jazz, and also a lesson in how examining this influence could extend a new direction for the music. The title track is over 18 minutes of prime Shepp, wailing, musing, laying back, pushing forward and interacting with his fellow players. It’s quite a blowout, but it’s not quite at the level of the celebratory groove insanity that was pretty much perfected on the BYG/Actuel records he released not long after this. This is not to infer that it’s something less than great. I haven’t heard a record by Shepp from this era that isn’t still an incendiary document, and any understanding of Fire Music flows directly through his stuff.
The Coltrane material from the live box above, at least what I’ve heard so far is the classic quartet with Eric Dolphy added, and this was really the sound that started it all for me RE: jazz. I bought a cheapy import disc from my local mall called Abstract Blue (I still have it), took it to my apartment and had the top of my head blown clean off. The second disc of this box begins with the exact same brain-flaying burn-through of "Mr. PC" that opened Abstract Blue and it finds Coltrane skronking like a madman, Dolphy running through some fine upper register motion, and Elvin Jones going absolutely apeshit crazy towards the end. It’s like everybody decided (except McCoy Tyner maybe, but he was the default grounding presence in Coltrane’s band) to recast the tune (from the classic Giant Steps) by throttling it and removing any traces of polish or decorum from the piece. It still gasses me how much sheer inventive chutzpah this band had, so much that it created all kinds of controversy over the intrinsic worth of the music. The recordings captured on this box are one substantial part of what’s possibly the most influential and important body of work to come from jazz in the second half of the 20th century. Truly essential.
Sister is a cornerstone record for me, and my discovery of it directly led to my interest in non-rock specific sounds. These guys, along with Minutemen and some of their indie peers weren’t shy about praising various forms of music that fell outside the boundaries covered in the typical fanzine or small-press mag of the time, and I really ate it up. Cynics often dismissed this as mere hipster name dropping, but personally I always thought this bellyaching reeked of a snide laziness or an excuse for narrow-mindedness. It’s not like it was particularly hard to find much of the stuff being referenced. But anyway, this has almost nothing to do with why Sister is such a great record. It is essentially the middle step in the development of the line-up with Shelly on drums into one of the great rock bands of all time. Evol to Sister to Daydream Nation is simply an amazing progression, and the growth on display here is hard to find fault with. It features some of their most perfectly realized songs ("Schizophrenia", "Tuff Gnarl", and "Pacific Coast Highway") while making strides in refining the overall expansionist sound that influenced a few tons of bands over the following decade or so. And it really holds up. There’s so much beauty spread over Daydream Nation that the smoking symmetry of this one is sometimes devalued. If I could only own two of their albums, this one and Daydream would be the easy picks, and certainly nostalgia over their impact on my impressionable mind plays a part in that. But nostalgia is a hard damned thing to avoid. You just need to be sure what you’re being nostalgic about is worth it. This is, and then some.
Regarding the big four of ‘80s Flying Nun/New Zealandic sounds, The Chills were often loved. I can’t deny that the others, The Clean, The Verlaines and Tall Dwarfs, didn’t rank higher in my personal pantheon, though. And this really hasn’t changed. But I can’t deny that The Chills sound better at this point than they did when I was just a young upstart. I’ve really come to terms with the uncut love of the pop muse that figures as the band’s raison d’etre. There was always enough buzzy guitar action in the works at this stage (they later ended up on Slash, where I pretty much lost track of them) that I could swallow them whole without any unpleasant aftertaste, but I was still a few years away from getting turned on to both The Beach Boys and much of the at times lilting pop-psyche that is the core of much of this stuff. The Verlaines did similar things, but had an approach that was more direct while being a little less classicist. All of this is to say that The Chills haven’t lost an ounce of what made them such a thrilling and exotic presence. I’ve just grown into them.

THURSDAY 12/18- The Daptone sound is impossible without the revolutionary funk-science of the most cooking James Brown units, but what’s so essential to why they matter is how it straddles a line between homage/return to basic principles and a living breathing relevance to what’s happening right now. This duality reminds me of both the brute old-school intensity that’s revolved around Billy Childish for almost three decades (a rediscovery of Link Wray/early UK Beat-rock) and the spread-out sweetness of many of the new-ish instrumental folk pickers like Jack Rose (basically descended from Fahey/Kottke/Basho/Lang) In all three cases the parties involved serve as a history lesson while refusing to let the music exist with anything less than a sodden vitality. This collection of singles holds all the ridiculous energy that any single disc assemblage of Brown inspired soul/funk/R & B does, but is injected with the blunt reality that it’s happening RIGHT NOW. This isn’t retro, it’s inspirationally classicist.
Shuggie Otis is/was a guitar wielding weird-meat who never achieved widespread success largely because he was so hard to pin down. He’s known to folks who’re keyed into the folds of deep-hippiedom (playing with both Al Kooper and Zappa) and to soul music scientists. The above album isn’t really a lost record, but it should have been much bigger than it was. His song "Strawberry Letter 23" was a smash hit in cover form for The Brothers Johnson, and anybody who has an interest in ‘70s soul/R & B (particularly in the album format) needs to hear this. The bonus tracks from an earlier record called Freedom Flight are less genre definable, and add a nice coda to the more straight ahead material. Too bad Luaka Bop didn’t give Freedom Flight a stand alone release.
Since time has allowed for a reevaluation of jazz music’s Fusion Era, Sextant can be appreciated for the fine recording it is. But you can also play it between records by Can and Kraftwerk and really feel the unity. In this sense, it serves as a part of the scope of references that refined what Tortoise has done in the post-rock field. Apparently this record wasn’t a big seller, and Hancock subsequently moved into a more commercial direction. This seems to be the fate shared by almost every non-Miles/McLaughlin fusion record that I really enjoy. For every Sextant there are numerous crap albums from Al Di Meola and Spyro Gyra. I remember listening to Hancock’s subsequent record, Headhunters, twice. Once was in a music class in eighth grade, and the other was courtesy of a acquaintance who was much more taken with fusion than I was at the time (or now, for that matter). That was almost fifteen years ago, and my reaction was that of indifference. I’m pretty curious to go back to it now to see if my opinion has changed. My feelings for Sextant are quite high, however. The level of experimentation and the engaging sounds that result is very attractive, and if records like this were more common during the fusion period it’s obvious that the era wouldn’t have such a dodgy rep. It fits well with electric Miles and early Weather Report, and if you are taken with them and haven’t heard this then you know what to do.

Chan Marshall’s progression from a left field uground presence of note in the ‘90’s to her current position smack dab in the middle of the thick of this decade’s indie affairs has been an enjoyable thing to watch develop. Many find her flightiness to be an annoyance or at least a weakness, but that’s not my thinking. As her recordings become more inclusive and welcoming to those with less rarefied interests she’s managed to keep her finger on the pulse of a deep vein of fertile sounds, partially due to her decision to surround herself with such strong musicians (she reminds me a bit of Jeff Tweedy in this regard). The other aspect relates to her own ability as a songwriter, singer, and interpreter of cover material. The Greatest is a very nice, deep listen. It really reveals how strong Marshall’s connection is with older root forms. Maybe I’m way off base, but I can’t help thinking of Dusty Springfield being produced by James Luther Dickenson (which never happened, but should’ve) in relation to this thing. The use of Memphis stalwarts like Teenie Hodges really adds to the late-night ‘70s soul sessions feel that inspires me to make this hypothetical allusion, and this baby has a sweet veneer. And she seems built to last in numerous ways that many current indie flavors (I’m not calling out any names) don’t. I love bumping into her work, and look forward to this happening for some time.
Judee Sill was the first person to release a record on David Geffen’s Asylum records. I was curious upon first hearing about her, but only took the plunge with this listen. I’m glad I did. I wasn’t knocked out of my chair onto the floor, but that’s not what this record is trying to do. It reminded me quite a bit of gradually developing pleasures to be found in the work of Laura Nyro, and one listen made it clear that I’ll be visiting her work many times. Things didn’t go well for Sill’s life and career, and it’s difficult to not take this into account when hearing this record, but the impression that I was given told me that any extra-musical factors were quite minimal in relation to this album’s success. If Nyro and Joni Mitchell are part of your diet, than I think including Judee Sill would complete a nice trifecta.

FRIDAY 12/19- Many prefer Stevie, but I’m an unabashed Marvin man. His ‘60s work is just flipping fantastic, and he stands for me as the one Motown guy who made the deepest and most immediate transition into the next decade. Let’s Get it On, in this expanded and I’m guessing exhaustive double disc incarnation, shows how bold his transformation was. This record is two great things at once: a tightly packed and expertly rendered deep soul slab that can work for solitary listening while also being perfect as the soundtrack for Extended Huggin’ Kissin’ and Lovin’. For me he sits with Al Green at the top of the heap for this sort of thing. I like how this set was assembled, presenting the original record in its entirety on the first disc with a few extras afterwards, and dropping all kinds of extra material on the second. This provides the goods for soul geeks (like me) without disrupting the massive flow of what makes the recording such a big deal. It’s just a fantastic document of a great artist at the peak of his powers.
My little dip into the fusion realm inspired me to think on Tony Williams, and how I’d not spent enough time with his Lifetime material. The band on Turn it On is a monster: John McLaughlin on guitar, Larry Young on organ, Jack Bruce on bass, and of course Williams on drums. It has been so long since I’ve really listened to any Lifetime stuff that it’s hard for me to give it a satisfactory assessment. It makes me want to get reacquainted with the debut Emergency!, and then spend some more time with this one. Turn it On is an unusual record that doesn’t really call to mind any other fusion outfit. Williams’ unusual vocals will be a sticking point for some, but I dug them okay. The addition of Bruce seems to make this a strong candidate for those who are keen on the phenomena of rock band’s dabbling in jazz, instead of the other way around. I’m thinking Soft Machine. McLaughlin just slays on this thing. My interest in William’s has been rekindled by the offhand listen to this record, and he also plays on the Plugged Nickel box, so I see a lot of the man’s playing in my near future.
Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall are two extremely interesting players and these two albums, while new to me, are important for a variety of reasons. The Hall record is his debut as a leader, and it has suffered some serious abuse at the hands of a horrid producer who both edited and added overdubs to subsequent reissues of the material, which is bad enough, but the unedited masters no longer exist. This seriously sucks for a variety of reasons. Hall is easily one of the greatest jazz guitarists to appear after bop, and it would be nice to hear the album in its original form. Bassist Red Mitchell and under recorded pianist Carl Perkins suffer most from the editing, which is a crime since Perkins’ is such an interesting musician. The out-of-print CD reissue that I downloaded thankfully doesn’t include the overdubbed drums of Larry Bunker, and it’s hard to chalk up the decision to add them to anything other than hubris, for the music clearly needs nothing, being a warm and deep inspection of familiar tunes with Hall already possessing an assurance in his sound and a maturity in his communicative skills that’s quite striking. Mitchell sounds great as always, and Perkins is unique and completely in the spirit of things, equal to the task at hand. The record’s so good through the flaws of tampering that I can only hope to stumble onto a copy of this original LP in some antique mall that doesn’t know its worth, where I’d snatch it up so fast my physical movements would make the whooshing sounds you hear in cartoons. Yup.

The Giuffre record is a masterpiece of outward bound clarinet playing from a guy who should be much better known. Giuffre’s abstract approach to his instrument on this record is often expressed in solo terms, working through a riveting range of demanding sound ideas in a way that’s quite distinct from any other avant-garde approach that I’ve heard from the period, but he does have the fine contributions of Steve Swallow on bass and Paul Bley on piano, and when they are integrated into the framework the sound becomes a bit more familiar if no less distinct, if that’s not too vague. Free Fall is easily one of the most striking jazz listens I’ve had recently, both in terms of ambition and in simple pleasure. I don’t think it’s currently in print, which is a drag. If your interest is peaked, the music shouldn’t be that hard to find (I found it, after all), so start looking.
The Great Unwashed was a brief flare-shot into the sky above ‘80s New Zealand. Existing initially as a duo of ex-Clean brothers David and Hamish Kilgour then adding another early member of that band in Peter Gutteridge for the final stage of their lifespan, the sound is very much a continuation of The Clean’s sound, though it has even more of that band’s casual, for the hell of it brilliance. I bought this on tape in the early ‘90s (along with a Gordons cassette) and promptly lost track of them (the format was notorious for that sort of thing). It’s cool to get reintroduced to it.

SATURDAY 12/20- This was largely a day for indie rock, though the latest from David Grubbs, like much of his work, is quite experimental in nature. This is not to imply that songs aren’t to be found. It’s just very slippery in its lack of taggable qualities. This also shouldn’t imply that this new record is a cold distant listen. I found it quite satisfying and look forward to further installments.
Tortoise are a band that work best for me in the live setting (which is opposite of Spoon for instance, who appeal to me most on record), but the recordings that I have are all pretty great to varying degrees. The Mosquito 7”, unheard by me until recently, ranks quite highly in the scheme of their studio work. The playing is fantastic (as it always is with this crew) and the sound at this early stage of its conception lacks the refined quality that developed later. I like that refined aspect just fine (sometimes I love it, even) but can’t deny that the lack of it hit a certain special spot. Paradoxically, I’ve spent more time with Standards, TNT, and the recent A Lazarus Taxon collection than the first record by these guys, but this agreeable little missive makes me think that’s been a mistake of oversight on my part.
Alan Licht’s Plays Well is a stone blast, and a great example of low-key experimentalism. It makes me smile, which is something that a lot of roughly analogous work doesn’t do. It drips with some extended Velvety string repetition, and Licht’s guitar playing across the running time of this disc is of very high quality. His wild manipulation of a disco record reminds me of a similar recording from Terry Riley, but the piece is also distinct in its expressive verve. This record is one of the first things I’d play for someone who had the false impression that the realm of the experimental is an exclusively foreboding place.
My personal favorite Fugazi record remains In On the Kill Taker, but all of their recordings give me a charge to differing degrees. I’m generally of the opinion that the band got better with age, with Guy Picciotto’s thorough integration into the weave of the sound. His strong (at times arty) presence seemed to ignite Ian’s songwriting, singing and guitar playing away from his default sweet-spot and into less familiar areas. In the process, they became a band that was less about the delivery and refinement of a certain sound and message and more about taking that sound into unexpected and appealing places. Of course, Lally and Canty are also a part of this turn of events: this band always felt like a collective expression of equality that’s comparable to (but also unique from) groups like Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma, Shellac, or even something like the Godspeed/A Silver Mt. Zion experience. The Argument is very likely the last record we’ll ever see from these four as a unit (barring vault clearing releases), and that’s okay in a bittersweet way, because they’re all involved in quality work in the here and now. This is a strong coda to one hell of a band, so strong that the unavoidable aura of finality that comes with it is lessened significantly by the reality that they went out while still being a vital, inspiring group. That’s a sweet thing to consider.
The whiff of the fumes from this collection of early Will Oldham material always takes me back to a certain time and place. I wasn’t the happiest of people then, but hey, I’m not the happiest of people now. Some things don’t change apparently. But Will Oldham changes like a chameleon. And like that animal, you always know it’s him. The point in my life that this disc takes me to was always improved by the depth and irreverence of his loose and loving application of older musical models, and I can still remember playing "The Ohio Riverboat Song" (on 45) like a dozen consecutive times and being unable to shake its weird pull. It still impresses.
Calexico is a great band. This EP might be my favorite thing from them that I’ve heard, mostly because they do bang-up version of two songs from a couple of my favorite bands, Love ("Alone Again Or") and Minutemen ("Corona"), but also for the gripping emotive qualities of the title track and for the increased effectiveness of it’s brevity. I know some folks who give EPs the short shrift, and that’s as valid a way of approaching things as any, but here’s one that can’t be shrifted shortly. Calexico’s strength, at least here is in how their ability as players allows them to inject the songs with a power that never oversteps into flashiness (in this way they remind me of Lambchop and even Yo La Tengo). It’s about the communicative effect of songs and emotion. I’ve played this one a lot since picking it up and it continues to feel twice as big as it actually is.
Speaking of Yo La Tengo, the Little Honda EP blares so righteously on its title track cover of the reliable chestnut from The Beach Boys that it can’t be ignored either. Ira’s guitar is in typically outstanding form, and his solo on "Little Honda" in particular is a great example of the grandiose simplicity of stun-mode. But this trio is possibly the best vessel of cover-song science currently going. The reading of William DeVaughn’s "Be Thankful for What You Got" is evidence of that. The mode the band is in on this release is like the essence of the greatest oldies-station ever programmed wrapped up in one of Lou Reed’s old sweaty t-shirts. Take a deep breath.
I like Mogwai. Frankly, I don’t pay them as much attention as I should. Instrumental guitar centered post-rock is the name of the game at the point of the above release, and listening to it is a solid diversion. They really don’t fall too heavily into a default sound at this point (don’t know about later, I’ve been bad at keeping up with them), mixing in varied influences and sounding generally inspired. These guys used to catch a lot of guff from hard-asses as being sort of junior league experimentalists, but I think that’s a contrarian way of thinking. They’re not the most earth shattering band to hit the CD racks, but I don’t think that’s their intention. This stuff works on its own terms, and it sounds good to me, and if that’s the case, I think its good enough for a lot of folks. Maybe you’re one of them. I wonder what Joe Dante thinks.
Mirah and The Microphones are two great examples of why pegging the K sound is a mistake. Do people still peg the K sound? If not, it’s true that many once did, and even back then it was a problematic generalization. Mirah sounds closest to what some people think of when they compartmentalize the releases from this label, but it is injected with a sweet veneer of strings and a late night feel (Pink Moon-diggers should like this one, though it doesn’t really sound like Drake, just kind of feels like him to me) that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard from the K imprint. It’s maybe true that Mirah’s voice isn’t all that far from the quality vocalisms of K standby Lois, but that shouldn’t be a big deal.
The Microphones are a seriously different proposition, while still having sympathetic ties to what Calvin Johnson is continuing to refine with his label. I’m really just beginning to listen to this rolling project of Phil Elvrum’s in earnest. Previously, I’d listened enough to know I liked it, but hadn’t tread much further. The Glow Pt. 2 is considered by many to be his best work, and it gives off an aura (a glow, if you will) that makes it clear why it’s so revered by fans of the Neutral Milk Hotel/early Decemberists’ axis of sound. And I’m a fan of that and then some, so it looks like I need to get cracking. This also has a good late night allure, but also feels like it would sound great in the first hour of sharp early summer sunlight after a judiciously experienced all-nighter. I need to try that sometime.
James Blackshaw is a newbie to me. I can’t imagine that anybody who finds the thrust of prime Fahey dipped in a mildly psychedelic mixture an attractive experience would not groove to this one. I’m going to be downloading more on the strength of this record, and I’ll add that the quality control displayed thus far by the Tompkins Square label is nothing short of exceptional. The ease and lack of expense with which you can hear their stuff (EMusic plug) is also admirable. Blackshaw is a main mover in the new acoustic movement that’s partially defined by Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem compilation series, and it’s like an explosive rebirth of the serious heft from the best years of Fahey’s Takoma label. I’m psyched.
Suni McGrath is also on Tompkins Square, is also squarely in the wheelhouse of new as old as new acoustic spillage, and is also recent discovery for me. Unlike James Blackshaw, he stretches back to the ‘60s as a recording artist, recording for the Adelphi label, and I’m quite intrigued. Like the Frank Fairfield release I’ve written on recently, this is a 7” release with available downloads, and I’m happy as a clam that this stuff is getting documented on an actual tangible format. The two songs here spurt by pretty quickly but leave a nice impression and the tangle and weave of these recent acoustic developments is likely going to take years to fully appreciate.
I might be a little late to the game, but I really like the debut release by Zack Condon’s Beirut. Largely inspired by Balkan folk music, the sound is thick with old world instrumentation (horns, accordions, various acoustic strings) and a morose atmosphere that escapes any flirtation with pretense by including such touches as drum machines and an engagement with contemporary song craft and production. I’m still getting a handle on it, but it has an appealing slow burn that I’ll have more to say about later.

The surviving members of Sun City Girls (the brothers Rick and Alan Bishop) would surely spit venom if you called them an indie-band, but I think it’s fair that a large chunk of their record sales came from buyers who could roughly be described as consumers of that niche. They’ve been around so long that they predate the indie nomenclature, initially hanging on the wonderfully weirdo fringes of the late punk circus. In those days, they were boosted by Placebo Records (home of skate-punk staples Jody Foster’s Army), and they marched forward from the demise of that label (and the punk scene in general) to land squarely in the thick of the following decades deep underground. Sun City Girls was always a bit hard to pin down, never settling for one specific angle and often displaying an acidic, sardonic humor that perhaps cost them the fandom of more uptight avant-garde types. The fuck you spirit of punk was always a part of their delivery, and the way they psychedelicized and often battered everything from assorted styles of ethnic music to ‘70s soul hits to Fugs covers was always a treat. The above is a collection of work released on singles in the period when they were perfecting a damaged and comely take on Middle Eastern music that’s best absorbed by the Torch of the Mystics LP. The stuff here is nearly as great, however. Sun City Girls are one of the great “rock” trios of all time, while also being one of the most confounding. To put it simply, they never get old.
Speaking of the deep underground, Shawn David McMillen has some strong pedigree in relation to this vague scene, playing with members of Charalambides and in bands such as Warmer Milks and The Abrasion Ensemble. This nifty little four song sampler that Tompkins Square has available shows him to be working within a sun-baked psychedelic acoustic sensibility. The stuff would be downright fantastic as the soundtrack for a loose filmic rumination on ragged and dusty landscape, but I’m not sure if they still make that sort of thing. Shit, cameras are cheap these days (or they will be soon). Maybe we could make our own. We’ll need some plaid shirts (preferably with buttons), a rusted-out stretch car, a boom box, a cowboy hat, a shot gun, a manual typewriter, a case of Whip-Its in the trunk, an Afro-wig, Wayfarer sunglasses, a few packs of Blackjack chewing gum (accept no substitutes), a gallon of cheap tequila, some kazoos, a rattlesnake, and at least six cartons of unfiltered cigarettes. Man, this thing writes itself!
Mike Fellows is essentially the main guy behind Mighty Flashlight, and where ya’ been Mike? If you don’t know, Fellows is quite the musical trooper. He was in the cathartic Dischord Revolution Summer-aries Rites of Spring (as well as Government Issue and Happy Go Licky), the way underrated Teen Beat unit Air Miami with Mark Robinson and Bridget Cross, and has been a valuable sideman for both Will Oldham and Silver Jews. It appears he engineered this years’ quite strong release by faux fat-boy field-rockers Endless Boogie, so he’s not far from the campfire. Mighty Flashlight frankly should have put out more than one album. I don’t want to bum Mike out (Like I know him personally or something. Sheesh) with a reference that’s maybe to obvious or overplayed, but the initial feel to this baby is similar to the bent folkiness of early Beck. A lot of this comes from Fellows’ voice, which is in same sleepy-stoner realm as Mr. Hansen. So much for aging DC punks keeping alive the flame of Straight Edge (joking, people). If Beck never turned you on, I’d still try this baby out. And not to insult Jade Tree (the label that released this), but I think if this record had been released in Drag City or even Matador, it would have a larger fan base. I know without seeing them live, I’d probably never have bought this. Not that Jade Tree isn’t home to some fine bands. But I digress.
I scored this record by The National like four years ago for around three bucks or so, and now their bigger than pizza. They live up to the adulation in my estimation, so this was a steal. In some ways it reminds me of a more rocking American Music Club. At times. A lot of it doesn’t remind me of anything more specific than new manna for the Legions of Leonard, as in Cohen, as in black cardigan sweaters with chapbooks of poetry in the pocket, as in you look like the kind of girl I’d like to date (It’s 4:08 in the morning, and I’m getting a little loose, okay?). Actually, Tindersticks have been mentioned in relation to this band, and that sounds sorta sound. It’s been a long time since Tindersticks has invaded my ear space, but I always liked them (in an era, like right now, where there were a whole lot of bands to like). I missed seeing these guys play in a big dusty field a couple summers back, but I don’t know how they would have gone over. They seem like rock club music to me. A dank, tightly packed rock club full of cardigan sweaters and the people who love them. Where’s my camera?
Where a lot of the capitalized references in the previous paragraph (as well as the main subject, natch) have a take on downtrodden sonics that appropriately adaptable to romanticism (and romancing too, certainly), FM Cornog’s East River Pipe leaps beyond that and into a lyrical murk that festers like a blister of human frailty and ugliness. The hook however is that his songs have an unfettered pop structure that is quite catchy and at times almost sunny sounding. The initial idea seems to be that he’s trying to make the causticity of the words somewhat palatable, and the record does go down at first like a thick sweet slug of cough syrup. What develops over time is the unavoidable friction between the two elements. I don’t know another art form where this kind of dichotomy is really achievable. Slapstick comedy, perhaps? Cornog hints at the depths of despair that Hubert Selby Jr. immersed himself and the reader in through his masterpiece Last Exit to Brooklyn, but the sentiments are surrounded by a sound that’s a bit like the equivalent of a non-techno poppy Magnetic Fields (while often employing the same style of brittle instrumentation). I’ve been gradually falling under the sway of this stuff for a few years now, and it’s proving to have some real staying power.
Since we’re on the subject of staying power, the debut from Mazzy Star has it in spades. She Hangs Brightly takes me back even further than the Palace Music CD. Most people I knew were unaware of the relationship this group shared with Paisley California, namely Opal and Dream Syndicate through guitarist David Roback. Hope Sandoval was the focus point for many, and it’s pretty much impossible to deny her strong presence, but I always dug Roback’s sweet continuation of the Paisley Underground’s examination of the psychedelic west coast. I was doing a passable job at hiding the fact that I was a miserable wretch at the point this record hit the stores, but that doesn’t get me down today. Like Will Oldham, Mazzy Star was a salve to the sores of life. Today it plays like the soundtrack for struggle and survival. We all have our personal greatest hits of endurance, don’t we?
Sufjan Stevens typifies the specific swaggering chutzpah of biting of more than you can chew. If he actually finishes this 50 states thing I’ll eat a sock. Hell, if he completes thirty-five I’ll eat a mitten. I’m confident. But if he only completes five more of the quality of Illinois, he’ll go down as one of the all time greats. I’m just as confident about that estimation. Illinois was simply the best non-jazz record of it’s year. That’s going to make some people huff and puff, but go blow someone else’s house down, will ya? The ridiculous level of invention and imagination that saturates this thing from start to finish just doesn’t decrease over time. I’ve listened to this probably close to fifty times, and on this particular instance, with the lights off and the volume up, it was as revelatory as the tenth. What’s going to be crucial to this baby’s staying power is how particular it sounds. Yeah, Illinois can be somewhat corralled into the place where Jeff Mangum and Colin Meloy strut their conceptual stuff, but he doesn’t really sound like either of them. And the way he folds an influence like Phil Glass into his sound is just spectacular. I’m tempted to say this is a perfect record. It’s only a smidgen less pleasing to me than In An Aeroplane Over the Sea on a personal level, and the thing’s only a few years old. If you’ve spent time with this and feel that my previous sentences bleed with hyperbole, please rest assured that I’m sincere. In fifteen years we can compare notes. Again, I’m confident that I’m not swinging wildly with the pronouncements.

SUNDAY 12/21- Shepp’s Blasé is from his BYG/Actuel period. He was smoking hot at this point, pretty much unrestrained by the decorum of the Impulse! Label, but because his tenure with that company overlaps and post-dates the BYG recordings, this part of his artistic geography often gets underestimated. Where records like Fire Music and the way underrated Live in San Francisco feel like a passionate and disruptive (and righteous and demanding) presence from inside the walls of oppression, the BYG stuff, all recorded outside the US if I’m not mistaken, takes on a bold, at times accusatory, and at other moments unmitigated freedom (not necessarily structural, to be clear) that might be the best way to appreciate the guy. He was a complex ball of ideas that didn’t really run out of gas until the end of the ‘70s, and if you want to hear what Free Europe sounded like in 1969, this is a great place to start. Vocalist Jeanne Lee steals the show, by the way.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago is another essential group of free jazzers who did the expatriate thing along with Shepp and a host of others, and Go Home is an extremely rare nugget from that period that was apparently released on the Galloway label and I don’t think has ever been given a legit CD reissue. I nabbed it from the internet, and it’s a good one. It lacks the gusto of the more lauded releases from their Euro-stay (A Message to Our Folks and A Jackson in Your House in particular), but that’s not really what they were striving for. The AEoC were a versatile unit capable of going outward with force and musing inward with a collective agility, but always displaying an abstraction and commitment to progress that made them unpalatable to finger-snappers and cocktail-sippers. The collective aspect also meant that they were not in the tradition of jazz as defined by musician leaders and soloist expression. Much of free jazz in the first decade of its existence was really a reexamination of the dominant post-bop model, but AEoC really tapped into the unique heart of Coleman’s possibilities and in the process grasp a thread of jazz history that is tied to the early New Orleans experience of Armstrong, Oliver, Ory etc. Go Home is important (featuring some nice work from Fontella Bass), but if you’re new, hit the more bandied about titles first.
Joseph Jarman was a member of the Art Ensemble, and this Delmark release provides a window into the early explorations of avant-Chicago. Windy City staple Muhal Richard Abrams is here, as is a young Fred Anderson, John Stubblefield (later of Miles’ Get Up With It), and Thurman Barker. It’s also the only appearance to my knowledge of vocalist Sherri Scott. There are more moments of ruckus on this record than Go Home, so if you need that sort of thing it’s here. I might prefer it to Go Home at this point as well. It may not be fair to really compare, but it does seem true to me that the general aesthetic principles that came to be associated with the AEoC were getting refined on the earlier recordings by future members of the group. All of this early material is essential to understanding just how expansive and adaptable the loosening strictures of jazz conception were in the period of its initial neglect. This stuff was almost entirely ignored, and that’s a big part of the reason they ended up in France. This isn’t an unusual reaction to greatness, and it’s nice to know in this case that it has a rather appealing ending.
Anthony Braxton is on Conference of the Birds. So is drummer Barry Altschul, the great horn player Sam Rivers, and bassist Dave Holland (it’s his date). Holland appears on Trio and Duet, along with Musica Elettronica Viva member Richard Teitelbaum on synth and percussion and Leo Smith on trumpets. That’s really all I can say at this point. Except that they both sound excellent on one listen. And that Braxton and Holland both smoke.

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