Monday, January 5, 2009

The Week in Listening 12/22 - 12/28

12/22/08- The 6ths- Wasp’s Nests CD 1995
Luna- Slide CDEP 1993

12/23/08- Steve Lacy- One Fell Swoop CD 1986

12/24/08- Steve Lacy- One Fell Swoop CD 1986
Galaxie 500- On Fire CD 1989

12/25/08- Yosuke Yamashita Trio- Chiasma 1976
Annie Gosfield- Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires CD 1998

12/26/08- Annie Gosfield- Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires CD 1998
Family Underground- Ancient Shadows LP 2005
Swell Maps- Let’s Build a Car b/w Big Maz in the Country/…Then Poland 7” 1979
The Who- BBC Sessions CD
The Jim Hall Trio- Jazz Guitar LP 1957

12/27/08- The Feelies- Crazy Rhythms LP 1980
Jimmy Giuffre- Free Fall LP 1962
Bardo Pond- Set and Setting CD 1999

12/28/08- David Candy- Play Power CD 2001
Mark Dresser- Banquet CD 1997
Tony William’s Lifetime- Turn it Over LP 1970
Miles Davis- The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel Disc One 1965

MONDAY 12/22- Stephen Merritt’s ability at pop song craft is well documented in the work of Magnetic Fields. The 6ths was his revolving indie-celebrity vocalist project, and it’s nice to see that it retains all of its charm as it makes inroads into its second decade of existence. The album’s success rests squarely on the writing of Merritt (who sings one track himself), but the main attraction is hearing a varied cast of emoting throats tackling the work. As should be expected, there is much savvy moping, as well as heartbreak, bitterness, defiance, and even some enthusiasm for passions well remembered. Every damn tune here has that incredibly wise use of ‘80s tech-pop plasticity that largely dominated his stuff during this period, and the songs are structured like standards from some alternate, infinitely better universe. Wasp’s Nests comes on like a modest exercise in mutual admiration, but leaves a lingering impression of expressive achievement. It’s obvious that much thought went into the finished collection, yet there is nary a whiff of self-importance or, for that matter self-promotion. There are too many great turns from the array of vocalists to list them all, so I won’t. My personal high point would be Mark Robinson of Unrest on a tune that would possibly be the greatest karaoke song ever, if only more people knew about it. Stephen Merritt’s career apex is probably the 3-disc 69 Love Songs behemoth, with The Charm of the Highway Strip not far underneath. For me, this falls just behind Charm in a photo finish for second place. It’s superb work all around.

Dean Wareham is a fantastic guitar player and also a distinctive, effective vocalist (he’s one of the singers on Wasp’s Nests). The best evidence in support of his guitar playing remains his work in Galaxie 500. The music of Luna often reigns in his ability on the instrument in favor of sweetly accessible, sometimes strummy, and always smart pop sensibility, and this is cool. There are post-Galaxie exceptions, though, and the Slide EP is one of them. This is a covers heavy addendum to the band’s debut record Lunapark, and it’s probably my favorite thing from them. The twin high points are the soaring string expansion of Beat Happening’s stone classic “Indian Summer”, and a sublimely reverent run through of The Velvet’s “Ride into the Sun”. But the stomping reading of The Dream Syndicate’s “That’s What You Always Say” isn’t far behind. Nor are the three originals for that matter. As Luna evolved, they sort of became a default party band for me, something that I could connect with that was also easy listening enough to not raise the hackles of others. And a nice beer-buzz makes them sound even better. Slide remains a different proposition however, mainly due to the grand lengths of Wareham’s guitar. If you’ve discovered Galaxie 500 through a love of Damon and Naomi, and haven’t dabbled in the work of this band, I’d say that this is the place to start.

TUESDAY 12/23- I’ve already posted elsewhere on this meager blog about the talents of Steve Lacy. The main subject of that entry was his first two recordings. One Fell Swoop dates from the period where his reputation as a jazz great was ensconced and he was releasing a high volume of diverse work. It features the familiar rhythm section of Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass and Oliver Johnson on drums, lacks the piano of Lacy regular Bobby Few and the vocals of his wife Irene Aebi, and adds free-sax great Charles Tyler. This is a relatively recent acquisition for me, but I’m comfortable enough with it to make a few minor observations. The first concerns the lack of piano. Lacy’s music is well suited to the instrument: in addition to Few, his extensive work with Mal Waldron is well documented. The decision to not include a pianist on the date isn’t explicitly detailed, but it seems likely to me that with the addition of a presence on reeds such as Tyler the piano was eschewed because it didn’t fit the specific conception that Lacy had for the recording date. I wouldn’t even mention this but for the sweet reading of Monk’s “Friday the Thirteenth”. The excellent liners by Lars-Olaf Gustavsson mention that the decision to record it was rather spontaneous, and this fact says a lot about Lacy’s thought processes in relation to his music and also how he approaches the work of Monk. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that Lacy values Monk’s unique and splendid technique on the instrument, but what's most important for him (it seems to me anyway) is how that technique, how the very instrument Monk played advanced the music to its finished form. And Lacy then examines that finished form and gets to what’s intrinsically great about it without being tied to Monk’s very individual playing style or to the piano period. He’s certainly not the only musician to do this, but when Lacy goes there it is with richness through his love of the music and his deep knowledge of what makes it vital. Plus his playing is just badass. And so is Tyler’s, for that matter. Anyone who has only heard Tyler climb into the outer-reaches of free-skronking (but always with skill and creative vigor) on records like Saga of the Outlaws may be surprised at how relatively restrained the man is here. This is not to infer that he’s anything other than gripping in his interaction with Lacy’s wonderfully abstract template. On the contrary, across the whole disc Tyler plays with assertiveness and warmth, particularly on baritone. One of his original tunes “Ode to Lady Day” is included for good measure. The rhythm players add much to the proceedings, Bob Thompson’s cover painting is outstanding (wish I had this one on LP), and the whole thing is just another small but essential aspect of the canvas that is the work of Steve Lacy.

WEDNESDAY 12/24- If I were forced to pick a favorite record by Galaxie 500 I’d certainly scream “FASCIST!” All three of the band’s full-lengths have so many fine moments of non-slavish Velvets appropriation, explosions of superb psyche guitar, appealingly weird but natural lyrical tangents, and an overall depth that’s loose and pretty and mildly surreal that settling on a personal fave is an exercise in futility. So I’m not going to do it. Nobody can force me, for I am a free man. Now, it’s true that when the trio of albums Galaxie spurted out to a largely indifferent public while they existed (the vast majority of the band’s current fans were probably still in short pants when Today came out) are punctuated with the inclusion of their EPs the evaluation of the works gets a bit muddier. The edition of On Fire that I currently own is from the lovingly assembled Rykodisc box set (now out of print) where the three B-side tracks from the Blue Thunder EP are tacked on, and while that fucks with the specific reality of On Fire’s original form, it really makes for an elevated listening experience. The band made tangible sonic progress with each release, the debut being the most obviously tied to things Velvety, the second mining concise and unique psychedelic ideas into the experience, and the third refining their sound and extending it with assurance and increased dynamic dexterity. The extra tracks on this edition of On Fire are specifically from the period of the second album, and having them included doesn’t feel in any way disruptive. Instead it exists like a lush and extended epilogue. The covers of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity”, The Red Crayola’s amazing “Victory Garden”, and Joy Division’s majestic “Ceremony” pepper a totality that’s easily one of the most expressive and lasting documents (and bands, natch) of its era. If you doubt me, just listen to the open track “Blue Thunder”. Its soaring transcendent melancholia still manages to kick my ass almost twenty years after it was first recorded. If I were politely asked to pick a favorite ERA (or period, or epoch) of this band, I’m rather confident that after some consideration I would declare this to be it. It’s pretty damn faultless in my estimation. And just think: it might’ve never happened without the drum set of Conan O’Brien. That’s enough to make me forgive him for Max Weinberg.

THURSDAY 12/25- The depths as heights of the free jazz experience really knows no bounds. Thinking that there is an end-point of summation in the genre will eventually be revealed as hubris. The level of abstraction really requires a commitment to deep listening which by extension means an investment in time, and on top of this there were a serious amount of recordings, many released in small quantities by neglected artists, so any kind of legit finality is almost impossible, particularly when considering that the style is still alive and kicking in many different forms. This unconquerable well of goodness is one aspect of free jazz’s appeal. Where the conservative approach to documenting the movement often paints it as an aberration, the reality is that it was a widespread and essential development that affected the music on a global level with a diversity of approaches. As evidence, here’s the Yosuke Yamashita Trio of Japan. I still know very little about this guy, but jeeper’s creepers, this baby really throws off some scorching sparks. There has been a small batch of alternate names for free jazz over the years, and I avoid using most of them for different reasons: the New Thing just doesn’t make sense in a way that’s more deeply ironic somehow than the term Avant-garde, Ecstatic jazz is frankly a bit dorky, and Energy Music (or Energy Jazz) is maybe just to obscure for personal comfort. But the last terminology was used, mostly in my experience around the iconoclastic and beautiful sound creation of Cecil Taylor, and here it seems like a nice reference point in lieu of more substantive thoughts on the band, because this stuff is just full throttle. Turn the volume up on this, and watch how quickly you can clear a house of unwanted guests. Yamashita’s piano abuse doesn’t really remind me of Taylor, but rather Dave Burrell when he was anchoring those monstrous large groups on the BYG/Actuel label (Burrell’s Echo seems like an acceptable kneejerk reference to what this baby sounds like), or maybe even the sweetly cacophonous sounds of Alexander Von Schlippenbach’s early Globe Unity groups. The rub is that this is just three guys. And I’ll add that it is more than just sonic terrorism. It is an endurance test to be sure, but it also always retains a tangible connection to creative expression. Maybe it’s a test for the band, to see how far out they can go while still communicating something lasting. Or maybe I’m just grasping. Whatever I’m doing, I can safely say that this record is a formidable beast. Tangling with it is a treat.

Annie Gosfield works in the vast terrain of experimental music. She has a batch of releases on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and this is my first dip into her work. The sound on this disc moves around quite a bit, initially reminding me of non-dance oriented industrial music minus the sometimes aggressive qualities it pushed into, later it develops the plinkity-plonkity aura that I associate with some types of modern classical composition, and it ends in horn based territory that’s a bit like some unnamable corner of the Euro-improv scene. To be clear though, this recording has very little if anything to do with jazz. The Rova Saxophone Quartet does appear, but don’t let that appearance be deceiving. Gosfield uses a sampler to shape her work, and the way the whole is structured is really a different animal from improvisation. But it’s a fine animal and I look forward to getting to know it better. Hats off to Annie.

Annie Gosfield

FRIDAY 12/25- Family Underground is from Denmark, and they are all about the drone. They are also about some rumble, and a little bit of freak-out. I just stumbled onto them via the web, and I’m pleased that I did. This recording was a vinyl only affair on the Qbico label from Italy. It is way out of print I’m sure. This makes me want to check out more of their stuff. I’ll keep you
Swell Maps is often remembered in punk lore for “Read about Seymour”, and yeah, that’s an absolute classic of arty punk splatter, but the occasional gloss over of their subsequent work from within the punk context is inappropriate. To call the Maps punks is an inaccurate descriptor. They were really post-punk experimentalists whose earliest stuff just happened to drip with the defiant gush of punk energy. This marks them as distinct from a group like Alternative TV who clearly began as an excellent punk band and seemed to embrace a defiant plunge into experimentation in the face of what Mark Perry felt was rampant punk conformity. Swell Maps do have a core audience that knows of their greatness however, and in their own way they are as important to the development of post-punk as any of the other Rough Trade artists. "Let’s Build a Car" was their third single, and it still has plenty of punkish energy, but the true colors have risen to the surface. The other two tracks on the record effectively document what the true objective of this band really was: a ramshackle junkyard-ish approach that made them markedly different from any of their running mates, and presented the duality of assuring their place in the post-punk hall of fame while also, at least in my estimation, landing them in a position where they have lacked the kind of posthumous adulation that’s been given to The Raincoats, or The Pop Group, or even early PIL. Swell Maps have adamant partisans, just not as many. Sometimes the critical discourse on them leaves the aftertaste that they are more respected than loved. But I for one do love their sometimes twisted and regularly tweaked stew of brilliance, and hell, maybe the big slide of consensus on these guys just hasn’t happened yet.

I’ll face up to the fact that I can be a bit persnickety regarding certain rock bands from the ‘60s that have taken on the mantle of “classic”. And I’m that way in some respects RE: The Who. I don’t think Tommy is a good album. Sure, there are a few good songs (don’t ask me to name them right now), but it also has the atrocious “Pinball Wizard” and heaps of some of the worst conceptual straining that I’ve ever heard. I’ll save the manifesto over how Tommy was a prime example of the antithesis of what was really great about the rock and R & B that influenced this band and made them so interesting in the first place. Personally, I think Who’s Next is far superior to Tommy (and it seems that others share my opinion, so I don’t think I’m making any wild claims here), and that Quadrophenia largely succeeds where Tommy fails. My reason for going into this isn’t to be contrarian. No, really. Tommy’s “I’m Free” appears toward the end of BBC Sessions, and while that song is one of the least bothersome to me from its album, I must say that it’s nearly the low point of the CD in my estimation. “Long Live Rock” takes the cake as the flat out worst track (rather pungent), but everything else rises above the level of “I’m Free”, much of it by a country mile. Even the strummy grandstanding of “The Seeker”, a song I’ve often felt ambivalence over, is preferable to me. “Relay” is from Townshend’s Lifehouse project, and I’m still undecided about it. But the earlier material is cool. The obscurantist in me (which often combines with my persnickety rep and inspires some raised eyebrows) qualifies that The Who weren’t as great as the mainstream adulation seems to indicate. But I really feel that way about every band or artist that gets the mainstream “classic” treatment except for Hendrix and Dylan (and if you would’ve asked me about Bob ten years ago, I’d have mouthed a few backhanded compliments and then proceeded to start praising Phil Ochs). The reality though is that from about age 12 to my freshman year in high school the early brute sneering and defiant R & B worship of The Who really served a personal need that would later be meet with punk rock as the pains of adolescence festered and burned. These days, I can’t deny that I value the molten gusto of The Creation’s “Making Time” or loads of stuff from a relatively unheralded band like Downliners Sect much more. And I’m always tempted to praise a group from the aboveground canon such as The Small Faces over The Who. Obscurantism, persnickety, contrarian, whatever. I will say that I find “ I Can’t Explain” to be the best of their established hits, with “Pictures of Lily”, “Substitute” and “The Kids are Alright” not far behind. “My Generation” is great enough to withstand the grind of being overplayed. It’s a drag that only three of the above songs were actually recorded in the BBC studios. But there are other positive moments to be found here (“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, anyone?). I won’t deny that I’d rather listen to a collection of the complete High Numbers recordings, but I’m that kind of guy.

SATURDAY 12/26- Bardo Pond has been around for quite a while, and it’s been seven or eight years since I first spun one of their CDs. I saw then live sandwiched between the bonkers noise shenanigans of Magik Markers and the magnificent Dinosaur Jr on that band’s first reunion tour a few years back, and I thought their heavy psychedelia with droney touches was just fantastic in that setting. For some, it might seem a little unseemly to follow the brilliance of Jimmy Giuffre with the grimy rock-based gunk of the Pond. Posh, I say. For one thing Bardo at their best (like the stuff from the absolutely essential Harmony of the Spheres comp on Drunken Fish, and like here for that matter) share a seriousness of purpose with a jazz master like Giuffre that makes just as much sense as segueing into Bill Dixon or Alan Shorter. Bardo Pond are primarily a deep listening experience, which is why they are often one of the only “rock” bands that many discerning listeners continue to connect with after they leave the genre behind. The attention to detail and the avoidance of rockist trappings make them a real breath of fresh air, particularly in a glutted indie-field where generics and the embracement of cliché for short term gratification can be frustrating. Make no bones, Bardo Pond are a long term band (in fact they remind me of the Grateful Dead in some ways). And they can kick up a lot of heat. Anybody who likes the sound of instruments expertly falling into a pattern and then just riding it (to the point where you feel like, shit, I’ve ALWAYS been in this groove) that isn’t hep to this band needs to make a serious correction. Same goes for folks who love the more recent metallic molasses crunch of Sun 0))) or Om. If the gatefolds of your double albums all smell like weed, you need this yesterday.

Bardo Pond's Set and Setting

SUNDAY 12/28- David Candy isn’t really David Candy. He’s actually Ian Svenonius. Besides a few songs by The Cupid Car Club, this was the only chapter in Ian’s conceptual shebang that I didn’t know, and thanks to EMusic, that’s a thing of the past. Because this didn’t have the longevity or live performance brilliance of The Nation of Ulysses, The Make*Up or Weird War, I know I’m not the only person who missed this boat. And thus far I’ve only taken a sail on it once while making a salad and half watching college basketball with the volume down. So I didn’t really listen to it I guess. It was a nice soundtrack/backdrop though. Sure as shit better than Dick Vitale. I did gather that this is the least conceptual and most forthrightly hommage-laden project that Svenonius has engineered. If the puckish, flowery side of late-mod behavior gives you the heebie-jeebies I’d stay away. But I’m cool with it. It kind of makes me want to watch Blow Up in a silk kimono.

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