Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Week in Listening 1/26 - 2/1

1/26/09- The Chris McGregor Septet- Up to Earth CD 1969
The Left Banke- The Complete Recordings 1966-1969 CD

1/27/09- Sam Rivers- Fuchsia Swing Song CD 1964
Bon Iver- Blood Bank CDEP 2009

1/28/09- Elizabeth Cotton- Freight Train and Other North Carolina Songs and Tunes CD 1958
Bon Iver- Blood Bank CDEP 2009

1/29/09- Bon Iver- Blood Bank CDEP 2009
Hamilton Streetcar- self titled LP 1969
Phantom Orchard- Orra CD 2008
Loose Fur- Born Again in the USA CD 2006
Archie Shepp- Live at the Pan-African Festival LP 1969
The Go-Betweens- Lee Remick b/w Karen 7” 1978
The Mekons- Where Were You b/w I’ll Have to Dance Then (On My Own) 7” 1978
Stiff Little Fingers- Suspect Device b/w Wasted Life 7” 1977
Weirdos- We Got the Neutron Bomb b/w Solitary Confinement 7” 1977

1/30/09- Bettie Serveert- Palomine CD 1992
Yo La Tengo- And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out CD 2000
Various Artists- Africa Cameroon- Musiques du Cameroon- Bakweri Bamileke Bamoun Beti LP 1965
Various Artists- Africa Burundi- Musiques Traditionelles LP 1967
Band of Horses- self titled tour CDEP 2005
Band of Horses- Everything All the Time CD 2006
Souled American- Flubber CD 1989
Various Artists- Free Improvisation: New Phonic Art 1973, Iskra 1903, Wired 3LP 1974

1/31/09- Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant- Sister Phantom Owl Fish CD 2004
Mary Halvorson Trio- Dragon’s Head CD 2008

2/1/09- Free Music Quintet- Free Music 1 and 2 LP 1968
Yo La Tengo- And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out CD 2000
Sharply dressed young men standing idly by the water

MONDAY 1/26- Left Banke were more than one hit wonders, but not really by much. And they can’t be described as an album band either, since they only released two slabs before breaking up the first time, and the second LP was just a collection of singles. “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina” are unmitigated classics of baroque pop, the former a very strange mix of thick strings, fragile vocals, steady rhythms and a proudly foofy horn bit. A #5 chart hit and a staple on oldies radio, it’s sneaky in its weirdness but incredibly confident in its ability to sound like one big teardrop. The second single is also very worthy, if a bit less sure if itself. The rest of the first eleven tracks make up the contents of the first LP, and they total a sum of fine whimsy. The remainder of the disc feels a bit lesser, but they just might turn out to be growers. It’s also possible to OD on the sheer fragility of this sort of sound, so isolating the later portion of this OOP release could prove revelatory. One thing is pretty certain: if you’ve ever thought the sight of a skinny downtrodden girl moping down a sidewalk in a raincoat was the most beautiful and bittersweet image on earth (and hey, who hasn’t?), then this stuff should warm some considerable cockles.

TUESDAY 1/27- The title track opener to this too short follow up to the very impressive debut For Emma, Forever Ago does a good job of calming any worries over Justin Vernon’s consistency. “Blood Bank” is moody folk-inclined strumming with building distorted touches, and while a long list of comparisons can be rolled out to indicate what’s going on here, that’s not really a bad thing at all. This track feels a bit like a less rustic M. Ward, more college town coffee shop and less party in a pumpkin patch. Dig? “Beach Baby” increases the pass the hat feel of the proceedings, possessing the kind of “SHHH!!! be quiet!” aura of one dude playing for a dozen cats on a nowhere Monday night while just enough snow falls outside to cover the sidewalks and the dude makes barely enough cash to buy a decent but cheap bottle of wine to take with him to see his girlfriend and to let her know it was okay that she couldn’t get off work to come see him play. There will be other chances. Maybe he’ll go through his set again in the living room while she rests her head in his lap, the dude sitting on the hard wood floor, the beautiful couple sharing the wine as candles burn and homework goes undone. It’s that kind of song. When the steel guitar comes in it provides a hint of the sort of boho-country tendencies that were common at the ‘60s tail-end. Then it fades out like the B-side of a single bought for a buck in a store on Bleecker St. while Fred Neil stood at the counter jawing with the cashier. Good stuff, in a nutshell. “Babys” takes a sharp but non-disruptive change of direction, returning to a bit of the Sufjan-ist feel that oozed from For Emma. And “Woods” tackles some vocoder terrain without feeling tossed off or like a deliberate attempt at being eclectic. It stands out yet seems right. The only thing that doesn’t feel right is the length of this EP. It’s just too goddamned short. It’s like only getting to make out for five minutes. Give us some tongue, Justin!

Ms. Elizabeth Cotten
WEDNESDAY 1/28- Elizabeth Cotten’s greatness was loose and slippery, yet still had the all-encompassing warmth to tug on the emotions of hipsters and squares, drunks and abstainers, and wrinkled and wiry great-grand moms and ADD addled cretins in short-pants. This combination of an eclectic, very personal style and the ability to retain a direct wide appeal (Harry Smith’s “Social Music”) has contributed to her lasting relevance. In some ways she reminds me of a gal Leadbelly, with some of the smooth string dexterity of John Hurt. But when she sings it’s impossible to compare her to anybody. Possessing an off-center delivery that unkind souls might call amateurish, its beauty is specifically related to the joyous non-pro aura that rides with her nimble, complex yet sweetly melodic guitar picking style. Cotten’s approach to the banjo is tough, forceful and non-polished, and her vocals shift when she switches her instrument, sounding deeper, less raspy and more androgynous. This distinct adjustment in style drives home just how thoughtful an artist she was, finding a specific voice in each situation. And her guitar playing really is spectacular, able to summon enough sharp, sweet tension and melodiousness to carry non-vocal numbers and make any additional musicians unnecessary. Her work seems likely to connect with both folk audiences and those more solitary mavens of American Primitive guitar expression. So it’s great for gatherings AND those times when the foul images of one-too-many hollowed out strip malls makes you want to be nothing but alone and connected to sounds made in an era before the rot took over. Cotten’s a sure-fire cure for cultural cancer.

THURSDAY 1/29- Based on one listen, Hamilton Streetcar positively screams “studio-project”, and is about as dated as high-healed sneakers. Apparently there are Lee Hazelwood connections, which are some great hooks to have, but this stuff is not that stuff, being cut for the Dot label after they left Lee’s custom LHI imprint. Less than a minute in I began wondering if I’d made some kind of mistake. Over the top vocals and a blitz of “hep” strings floated around me, and while the kitsch aura never really subsided, there were some interesting moments. The songs are all connected into two side-long suites, and it’s impossible for me to not imagine some “enlightened” (i.e. he dropped some low-grade acid once) character in a badly colored suit and turtleneck combo thinking this was really going to “make it” with the “kids”. Guess we all know how that one turned out. At the same time, lack of authenticity doesn’t equal illegitimacy (except when it does), and there are spots where there’s smoke if not fire, particularly in the rhythmic department. I did listen to the whole thing. And I didn’t laugh all that much. That said I don’t know when I’ll get around to spending time with this again. But since I currently have fifty miles of hard drive, I think I’ll keep it around.

Loose Fur's Born Again in the USA
Those who love Wilco and don’t know Loose Fur are missing a big part of the picture. Though ironically Born Again, the second album from the trio of Jeff Tweedy, Glen Kotche and Jim O’Rourke is less boundary fucking than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Side bands/projects often find an artist tapping into the urge to swim in choppier, less charted waters, but this record feels less like an opportunity to get loose and let some or all of an intangible “it” hang out and more like public woodshedding or an attempt at reinvigoration. It’s been well documented that Tweedy followed his artistic ideals instead of $$$ in the transformation of Wilco into a progressive and at times experimental (though still primarily rock inclined) group from their distinctive perch as high-toned graduates of alt-country. Loose Fur played a big part in this and the music included here is loaded with tough, smart hard rock numbers, plus detours into things folky, some crisp keyboard based jaunting, and even a little bit of mild stretching out. The whole thing radiates the feel of some left field early ‘70s LP that’s acquired cult status, though it’s not really comparable to anything specific. That’s nice. There is much to absorb here, and it never feels like a side project.

Mr. Archie Shepp
Live at the Pan-African Festival is a brain-blasting sustained interaction between the mainline of jazz freedom at the end of the 1960s and the deep heritage of Algeria’s native musicians. This essentially means that some burning and complex rhythmic ferocity is unleashed and Shepp (along with trumpet player Clifford Thornton, trombonist Grachan Moncur III, drummer Sunny Murray, pianist Dave Burrell, and bassist Alan Silva) meets it openly with some fine mastery of his (their) own. His horn is in particularly rough and bluesy form, working in some thoughtful sustained grooves while the percussionists percolate with depth. Along the way improvisatory ideas are interweaved into a dense fabric that slowly builds to a boil and provides explicit evidence to the connection between incendiary African roots and the essence of what’s (arguably? Perhaps) the USA’s greatest cultural entity. Sure, this show could’ve been better recorded, but complaining about it makes me feel like an impudent jerk. That there were microphones here at all is reason to give thanks. It’s not only urgent and beautiful, it also shows just how wide open the avant-jazz scene really was in this era. This isn’t jazz as a finger snapping good time, its jazz as a conduit to greater understanding, and the fact that it flows so righteously makes it a total keeper.
The late ‘70s punk era yielded so many great goddamned singles that a distorted and snotty pileup of days can span by without reaching any drop off in quality, mainly because the era was much more diverse and shrewd than it’s sometimes given credit for.
The Mekons possess a sly artfulness that might be a turn off for those who demand unadorned bangers from the basement of Berry worship, but any inclusive personal aesthetic to the form will likely get a lift from the inspired perturbation on display on this, the bands second single. The sawing violin and loose gnawing guitar of "Where Were You?" helps to motor a cyclically simple but voluminous stream of accusatory alienation. It feels too short like the best punk singles do, features engaged bass playing which many punk singles (even great ones) don’t, and positively begs for repeat play. The flip has me in a more Gang of Four-ish zone, which is cool and makes sense, since they were on the same label. The Mekons have been survivors from the original Brit punk wave in the best sense, refusing to wear out their welcome while moving far afield of their basic din. They still feel like punks, though, which just might be the best compliment you could pay them.
If pissed-off righteousness intertwined with melodic velocity is what you’re looking for, than early Stiff Little Fingers is about as solid an example as you’ll probably find. "Suspect Device" was the first single, a furious little ditty that had the sweet audacity to be so coherent in its oppositional fervor that it couldn’t be casually dismissed by stodgy grumpuses as the ranting of knuckleheads. It has the power to make a person raise their fist in the air and articulation to let that person know that their fist is flailing for good reason. Those who disdain protest punk as a lot of hot air with little musical oomph should relax in this case (at least), since the primary goal of SLF as they galloped out of the gate was to throw off some serious sonic sparks. Easily the least arty of the early Rough Trade bands, these guys are about as punk as it gets. This combines with the next single and the first LP (Inflammable Material) to form an undeniably blunt and raw statement that I’ll rank as the best Irish punk band of all time. The Undertones have the best Irish punk single (“Teenage Kicks”, natch), but for sheer authority challenging ruckus, nothing Irish I’ve heard beats the SLF.
Weirdos aren’t my favorite Cali punk group from the late ‘70s, but I do consider the A-side to the above 7” to be one of the absolute cornerstones in the genre. The Dangerhouse label was pretty faultless in my estimation in documenting a batch of bands who’s collective noise still stands up tall to this day, and they did it for the most part on singles, which helps to place it in a fine tradition that spans all the way back to the unseemly birth of rock-n-roll. "Neutron" sticks to the ribs primarily because it features such bombast: where The Germs were riveting through ineptness and unpredictability, The Dils were stone faced with a density to match, Black Randy was a cagy prankster who still gets people’s hackles in an uproar, and X were unashamed classicists huffing the fumes from their younger cohorts, Weirdos had a Dadaist approach that while similar to fellow Dangerhouse mates The Deadbeats, combined with an explosive musical force (big riffs, bruising songwriting, bold throat action) to give the impression that this shit was designed to crumble buildings and negate stolid ideologies. A big part of Weirdos appeal was the sustained art-college prankster sensibility, but without considerable musical heft they would only be a curio at this point. I’d heard a whole lot of punk by the time this single graced my ears, and it still slapped me a good one. A good one? A GREAT one. And "Solitary Confinement" is just as tasty.

FRIDAY 1/30- Bettie Serveert’s Palomine is a fantastic record that had diverse if not widespread appeal when it came out back in ’92. They could turn on fans of more classic song-based indie sounds ala Yo La Tengo, managed a grip on the attention of Dinosaur Jr. fans due to their loose congruence to hard-rock sensibilities, were pretty enough to gain the approval of the burgeoning indie-pop underground of the period, and were still heavy enough to pass muster in the presence of the partisans of noise in the Amphetamine Reptile/Touch & Go stripe. I happened to dig all off the above, but most people didn’t, and Bettie were a great common ground band to play when a bunch of people with twains that didn’t normally meet were hanging out in the same room. The record’s ultimate success lies at the crossroads of songwriting and delivery. Both the tunes and the execution are well developed and compliment each other fully. In this sense they really remind me of Yo La Tengo, which is a band that equally stokes song lovers and those that swoon over deft execution of ideas (not necessarily technical proficiency). They don’t really sound like Georgia Ira & James, and they sound even less like Galaxie 500, but they remind me just as much of that band: where Galaxie smartly applied VU moves to their own distinct approach, Bettie Serveert do something quite similar to Crazy Horse. They sound nothing like a knock-off of Young and Co, but FEEL like they’ve absorbed ideas from that band to their own unique ends. They don’t try and break new ground but instead reliably weave tried and true elements into a powerful whole, with Carol van Dyk’s vocals being particularly well suited to the instrumental dynamic. Debuts don’t get much stronger than Palomine. This bunch should’ve been a hell of a lot bigger then they were/are. There isn’t a thing obscure or difficult about them. It’s just well played melodic rock music, and I can’t help but feel they suffered significant neglect.

Mention the name Ocora to any heavy fan of native music from around the world, and it’s almost certain that you’ll be smiled upon. Then you’ll be asked if you have any Ocora’s to spare. What’s an Ocora? It was a French record label started in the late ‘50s by Charles Duvelle and Pierre Schaeffer to document the particular “folk” sounds of specific regions. Africa, India, Vietnam, Laos, Tibet, Yugoslavia, and many other countries were given spectacular overviews, and the music can run from entrancing to strange to familiar to surprising. The two volumes above are a portion of the intense spotlight the label gave to the African continent, and they are as gripping as anything I’ve heard from the Nonesuch Explorer series. And the depth of recording is spectacular, so strong in fact that it still sounds great after being ripped to mp3. No, I don’t have any Ocora vinyl. Some of the stuff has been reissued on CD, but reissues are often dodgy, and I’ve not taken the plunge. You got any Ocora’s to spare?

Band of Horses often get compared to My Morning Jacket. This makes sense, but there is a marked difference. Where MMJ have a strain of eccentricity and brassiness about them (particularly on their classic It Still Moves disc), BoH seem to favor a more straightforward approach that’s essentially about kicking out tunes that sink emotive (read: not emo) hooks into brain folds. I’m just now really latching onto their stuff, but both the discs I’ve played feel like serious winners to me. What led me to pay them more attention was “Funeral” from Everything All the Time. One song does not a great band make, but when you have a song as powerful as that one it’s likely you’ll have some more tricks up numerous sleeves. And they do. But “Funeral”, man what a sweet hunk of anthemic sadness that is. Last thing I’ll mention relates to the descriptor I’ve seen these guys (and MMJ) get tagged with, that is “Southern Rock”. That’s a stumper. I like pre-twang Allman Brothers as much as the next person (assuming the next person isn’t my Aunt Glenda, who HATES the Allmans), but what gives here, exactly? Southern Rock pretty much stinks up any room that holds it. ZZ Top was blues rock. The Band was from fucking Canada. Asleep at the Wheel was country swing and Commander Cody was roughly analogous to that genre as well. Little Feat? I consider them closer to The Dead’s early ‘70s studio stuff than anything rocking below the Mason/Dixon line and east of the Mississippi. The Outlaws sucked, and Lynyrd Skynyrd is a goddamned blight on my existence. If you dig Pure Prairie League and Marshall Tucker Band, hey good for you. I don’t, and these last four groups are what I think of when Southern Rock is mentioned (The elephant in the room is Black Oak Arkansas. Malkmus likes them, but I’m leery of any band with a song called “Happy Hooker”.) I’ll bet a bushel of ducks that Band of Horses is NOT listening to The Outlaws. They might be listening to The Band. And Dylan. Lots of people moaned about the genre descriptor New Weird America, but at least that made some real world sense, since the artists populating that scene were openly into things like Clarence Ashley and Bascomb Lamar Lunsford. I can’t cotton to Southern Rock as anything other than a putdown. My hang up, I guess.

European Free Improvisation may be descended from avant-garde (free) jazz, but it is ultimately best served to consider it as its own distinct genre instead of tagging it as a branch of the outré jazz continuum. Certainly the two can rub shoulders: Zorn and Chadbourne, Braxton, and a slew of Euro free jazzers, some of which appear on the legendary Free Improvisation triple LP from 1973. Free improv is a genre that I’m often in the weeds over from a writing standpoint, though it’s pretty immediate what sets it apart from avant jazz, which almost always holds onto some sort of momentum or connection to particular rudiments of its form, even when it appears to have forsaken overt swing completely. Free improv frankly conjures a different sonic environment, where silence, the examination of textures and the combination of different ingredients adds up to a unique geometry that differs from the feel of an aesthetic being stretched to its limits as a method of re-ignition. No, free improv feels like the beginning of something in a different way. It can sound academic and cold one minute and then appear giddy and hyper the next. And then silence. And then a rumble of drums that almost coalesces into recognizable form. This detours abruptly into a flat but diagonal horn line, a bit like someone moving down an amplified sliding board in rubber pants. Rattles, plucks, clangs and more silence. A gang of melancholy clowns rubbing on balloons. What a forlorn sound. On this box New Phonic Art 1973 are made up of personalities most associated with 20th Century classical composition, a bit of a supergroup of minor names in the field, the only one that I’ve heard elsewhere being Michel Portal, the others being Vinko Globokar, Carlos Roqué Alsina and Jean-Pierre Drouet. Iskra 1903 is a trio that in other contexts could throw down some fine Euro-avant-jazz (and has): Derek Bailey on guitar, Barry Guy on bass and Paul Rutherford on trombone. Wired are tangentially involved with Krautrock due to the presence of notable German musician and producer extraordinaire Conny Plank. The Wired disc is the one that’s probably most immediately approachable to those who have gone “out’ in their rocking-out, but have yet to dip their ears in these kinds of waters. The whole thing is a brilliant tour through abstract sound, and I can’t recommend it more to those looking to expand their aural pastures.

Ms. Mary Halvorson

SATURDAY 1/31- Mary Halvorson is one of my favorite personal discoveries from the past year. Besides being a member of Anthony Braxton’s amazing current group, she has her fingers in all kinds of pies. A thrilling and dare I say original guitar player that can adapt to a variety of situations, Halvorson tackles her instrument and communicates with her cohorts with such freshness and energy that she's surely poised for a long stretch of creativity. Her work with Trevor Dunn’s band spans back over four years, but even then she possessed incredible proficiency and an obvious sympathy for Dunn’s modus operandi with Trio Convulsant, which is spatic, almost atheletic jazz-metal that makes most math rock sound like radio jingles. The stuff is simply all over the place in the best possible way. The kicker is that the music never looses an emotional connection, always avoiding becoming an exercise in dexterity. One of my favorite releases on the Ipecac label, Sister Phantom Owl Fish takes the sort of heaviness that’s associated with The Melvins and injects it with a hyperactive angularity that’s a bit like being gang-jumped in a Surrealist museum by a pack of metal heads that are on a very strong jazz-prog bender. Intimidating yet euphoric.

Dragon’s Head is from Halvorson’s trio with Xiu Xiu drummer Ches Smith and Andrew Hill alumnus John Herbert, and it’s a different affair, yet still quite attractive due to her numerous skills as a musician. Her compositional abilities are simply startling in addition to her amazing sound (tough as titanium nails I tell you) and the sheer adeptness that she shares with Smith and Herert in navigating the terrain she’s mapped out is the liquor soaked cherry on top of the whole thing. Compared to the amphetamine spazz journey that is the Dunn disc, Dragon’s Head may sound somewhat more explicitly (not conventionally) jazz oriented, but it’s actually quite a bit acquainted with rock of a more experimental strain, and I’d recommend it to anybody who gets sweaty over the sounds of Deerhoof, Zu, old Don Caballero, the more eclectic corner of the Thrill Jockey catalogue, and even Slint. I’m not really pushing this is jazz-rock per see, but it does have some serious crossover appeal that more flat out avant-jazz lacks. No, this is solidly a jazz record, but it pushes into all kinds of new areas, which is what the best jazz always does. Ultimately it’s Mary Halverson’s music. I can’t think of a better compliment. Get ready, because she’s going to be around for a while.

SUNDAY 2/1- The Free Music Quintet album is one of the more obscure jazz discs from the ESP label, featuring two side-long excursions into huffing outsider exploration, and it’s a must for anybody that wants to understand just how widespread and diverse the whole free jazz movement actually was. The names involved in this group aren’t exactly prolific, though percussionist Pierre Courbois and trumpeter/bugler Boy Raaymakers have been on a fair amount of recordings. The others (bassist Ferdy Rikkers, saxman/flautist Peter Van Der Locht and violinist/vibist Erwin Somer) are more mysterious figures. Everyone here assists in the percussive realm, and that should give a pointer to the direction this baby is heading. One direction anyway. The end of side one kicks up a righteous storm of can-rattle, but along the way there’s some well-blown and rough horn skronk with a small early patch that felt like a murky free jazz response to Roland Kirk’s riffing circa We Free Kings. There is some acceptable fluting, moments of sharp trumpet shrapnel, and a large overall gust of collective expansiveness. Side two isn’t as wall pinning in its sonic landscape, but it still sounds quite worthwhile. Recorded in a barn in Holland, this definitely lacks the production depth that militant audiophiles might require, but a big part of the ESP Disk appeal is how non or underproduced so many of their records were. The aura is stark, basic and hot, and The Free Music Quintet howls mightily from the Days of Rage.

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