Monday, January 12, 2009

The Week in Listening 12/29 - 1/4

1/1/09- Peter Jefferies- Last Great Challenge In a Dull World CD 1991

1/2/09- Peter Jefferies- Last Great Challenge In a Dull World CD 1991
Souled American- Fe LP 1988

1/3/09- Souled American- Fe LP 1988
Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion CD 2009
Raymond Scott- Soothing Sounds for Baby Volume One LP 1963
Jean-Marc Montera- Hang Around Shout CD 1995
Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion CD 2009
Andrew Hill- Andrew!!! LP 1964

1/4/09- Annie Gosfield- Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires CD 1998
This Kind of Punishment- self titled LP 1983
Bobby Hutcherson- Medina LP 1980
Andrew Hill- Andrew!!! LP 1964

Well, the week began as all work and no play. And then it shifted into no work and plenty of play, with a considerable amount of driving thrown in. The destination was New Jersey, to spend New Year’s Eve with a buddy while being blown away by The Feelies and Yo La Tengo. The terrific Vivian Girls opened, and I’ll save my appreciation for them until another time because I’ll be spending some download dollars on their debut record. The Feelies were just tremendous, full of sturdiness and vigor, blazing through a set that hit so many killer spots it was worth the trip all by itself. The smoking version of “Away”, their great cover of “Dancing Barefoot” and my absolute high-point, “Raised Eyebrows” made for a moving set that had nothing to do with misty-eyed looking back: these cats clearly still have it in spades. That they covered Wire’s “Outdoor Miner” was a total kick. Simply inspirational. Then Ira, Georgia, and James came out to start the year off right. After some festive karaoke tomfoolery, Ira asked the crowd if we knew what it means to be emulsified. Many of us shouted and shook our heads in the affirmative. But clearly there were a few who didn’t and needed to know, because Mr. Kaplan, sage that he is, proceeded to tell us all about it, giving us a couple of saintly minutes of the gospel of Rex Garvin. The rest of the set was a mixture of sounds from their varied songbook, with buckets of Ira’s burning guitar, Georgia’s expert playing and singing (particularly on Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow”), and the solid anchoring presence that is James. By the end, it was like taking a hit of pure adrenalin. But the encore….oh baby. First up: “Autumn Sweater”. Next: a dedication to The Feelies in the form of a flawless cover of MC5’s “Ramblin Rose”. Then: Feelies’ Glen and Bill came out to scoot through a nice reading of VU’s “What Goes On” which could’ve only been topped if they’d specifically tackled the mind-flaying Live 69 version. Finally: Glen and Bill remain and help to culminate the best of evenings by tipping the hat to The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner”. What a gas!

THURSDAY 1/1- I can still remember the first time I listened to Last Great Challenge In a Dull World. I’d just came back from Washington DC where I bought the thing, tore off the shrink rap and sat down to hear a supreme statement of dark, down in the mouth, slightly broken sounding vitality expressed largely through the huzzy quiet distortion of an electric guitar and a huge sounding keyboard. Part of what made it such a memorable experience apart from the very edgy and unique approach for the time was its loose resemblance to the moodier edges of John Cale’s solo work. I’d been grabbing a bunch of Cale’s records used for cheap around that point, and the similarity was really solid without being to obvious. Jefferies had been bubbling under the surface of the New Zealand scene for around a decade when this record appeared (Nocturnal Projections. This Kind of Punishment, Plagal Grind etc), and it was one of the first artifacts of that country’s Xpressway scene to cross my path, along with Dead C’s DR503 cassette (later issued on CD in the US by Feel Good All Over). While many of the players on this label had been a part of the Flying Nun imprint’s heady progress during the ‘80s, by this point interest in lower-fi, less structured or pop oriented avenues created the need for another outlet. Last Great Challenge is a prime example of that exploration, at times spare and abstract and at other moments raw and nervy, while always holding tight to the brooding, downtrodden aura which makes it such a success. Ajax Records released this stateside, allowing for easier consumption, but sadly it didn’t connect with as many people as it should have. It’s a real contender for the most underrated record of its decade, and it’s also one of the best. Any underground rock collection is incomplete without it.

FRIDAY 1/2- Souled American was a band that simply got a raw deal. To put it another way, they were making all the right sounds, but in the wrong time. The fact that alt-country exploded shortly after their demise is a rather dismaying thing to say the least. This is the debut and it really rings out with that special blend of reverence and contemporaneous verve that should define this genre at its best. Of course, when Fe was released, this really wasn’t a genre. The reevaluation of older forms of country/bluegrass/old-timey/Americana as something other than “redneck music” was still a few years off, so this didn’t have a built in fan base the way that Uncle Tupelo or The Jayhawks (or to a lesser extent Freakwater) did. The only thing that was even vaguely comparable that crossed my path at the time was Lucinda Williams, and there is still quite a bit of difference between the polished Bonnie Raitt-ish sound of her and the looser, more eclectic feel of Souled American. They did share a label in Rough Trade, who was in retrospect shooting for some kind of varied retro roster with these two and Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star. Anyway, Fe has the goods of you like alt-country. I had this and Flubber on cassette for a few years and liked them both quite a bit, but lost the tapes and subsequently lost track of the band. I want to spend time with their discography one record at a time, and the results will be documented here. Since there weren’t any tangible audience expectations for their sound, Souled American just let it rip on Fe, and the results are root-deep. The use of acoustic bass is a major plus, the songwriting is superb, and while some of the vocal mannerisms may take a bit of getting used to, they are in no way affected. It’s a real grower of an album. If you’ve ever listened to early Wilco and wished that there were more bands that could pull off something similar to that sound without coming off as contrived, then give these cats a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

SATURDAY 1/3- The late Raymond Scott is a legendary figure in American music. He’s the man responsible for “Powerhouse”, which so many people know from its usage in classic cartoons, movies and commercials that it catapults Scott into serious contention for the most anonymously famous musician of the 20th century. Unlike the great Carl Stalling, he never actually composed music for cartoons (actually, Stalling adapted many of his pop releases into his animation scores), and the true scope of his greatness must include his pioneering work in the field of electronic music and instrument building. He has connections to Bob Moog, Jim Henson and Motown’s Barry Gordy. One of his more interesting projects was a three LP set of early electronic music designed, as the title so accurately stated, to be Soothing Sounds For Baby. One listen to the music on Volume One sort of tips the scales in favor of the absurd and kitschier aspects of the project, and you might end up wondering, like I did, what exactly the formula was behind the conclusion that this was mood music for infant sleepy time. There is a scarcity of babies around my digs at the moment, so I’m not really able to give it a litmus test. The general consensus is that it smacks of stern folly. But no matter. It still sounds intriguing in that very specific manner that’s unique to early electronic sounds. The last track, “Tic Toc” will either drive you batty or it won’t: perhaps it will make you giggle. It made me check to see if my media player was malfunctioning or if the mp3 was corrupt. It wasn’t and it wasn’t. And for a moment, I was soothed.

The new Animal Collective sounds good. I need more time to draw sharper and deeper conclusions, but something notable at this early point would be one specific moment that made me think of the Beach Boys. This is always a nice thing to think of. If you haven’t heard AC and are interested, you might as well start here. If you haven’t heard The Beach Boys I don’t know what to tell you.

SUNDAY 1/4- The Andrew Hill love fest continues. Andrew!!! is an interesting session for a bunch of reasons. This album directly followed Point of Departure and wisely elected to downshift into a different mode, one that is most comparable to Judgment!, the record that proceeded PoD. It’s stands very much on its own, but features an instrumental lineup that was often utilized during the era to get across assorted streams of post-bop and modal expression. This was a smart tack to take, since trying to build on the heights of PoD would’ve possibly been a misstep. Instead this recording simply shows Hill in the strongest light possible as an improviser and composer. His choice of players for the album is unimpeachable and forward thinking: the constant presence of Richard Davis on bass, the eloquent Joe Chambers on drums, Bobby Hutcherson’s expressive vibes and Sun Ra mainstay John Gilmore on tenor. The inclusion of Gilmore is particularly notable since he had so few opportunities to record outside of the Arkestra. He sounds tremendous, very much in a Coltrane state of mind, but in a way that’s distinct from another post ‘Trane tenor man that Hill often employed, namely Joe Henderson. Gilmore is edgier, with a touch more desperation in his tone, basically more sympathetic to the avant-garde of which he was a part but astutely able to apply that sympathy to his playing here in a manner that doesn’t stand in any sharp contrast to the other players on the date. A big part of this directly relates to the progressive nature of the band as a whole, where everybody meets Hill and Gilmore in the middle and the result is some smoking communication. Davis and Chambers are dead solid, Hutcherson is really sharp and energetic, and Hill is full of his usual stuff. He’s so goddamned deceptive in the best possible way. His playing is full of idiosyncrasies and unexpected yet logical turns, but the overall thrust of his sound does nothing to distract from the other musicians. His ability as a group player actually encourages the consideration of the other instrumentalists, so that Hill’s artistry can really sneak up on the ears. Three minutes or so into a tune he can just clobber me with a graceful bit of angular improv, and then just as quickly I’m being grabbed by a tough line from Gilmore or a bit of Hutcherson’s subtle percussiveness. Andrew!!! is a prime example of some minor brilliance.

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