Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Face of the Night (For Octavio Paz), 1981, acrylic on canvas

...Robert Motherwell

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

So this weekend we had a toss up between the Cramps live, current Dallas hyped darlings of the moment Polyphonic Spree and Japan's Mono. Figured the Cramps will always come back around, I'm not a big Polyphonic Spree fan, THOUGH I do think their debut LP is pretty solid in an "I wanna be big band version of the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev" sort of way, and the whole hippie cult angle is cute. There are worse crimes ya know? Like wanting to be the Strokes. Speaking of plagiarist tendencies, quite a few bands under the post and drone rock banner seem hopelessly enamored of Mogwai's gently spiraling guitar crescendos, which in turn builds on Sonic Youth and Bark Psychosis arty types.

The young and pretty quartet Mono definitely went to the school of Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor, etc, and graduated with honors. Their studied combination of delicate melodies and ear-splitting noise delivered with quiet/loud dynamics is as predictable as the sunrise, and as torrential as a hurricane. Live I was truly knocked out with the same sort of brute force. Almost every song builds from a lazy bit of minimal trance guitar to a dissonant rush of howling feedback and bottom end sludge-riffing, like a cross between shimmery Windy and Carl and earthshaking Black Sabbath. But the constant orchestration and overall predictability of their set can wear thin over time. Thankfully they called it quits before that point ever came. Fly Pan Am was set to be on the same bill, but cancelled. Curious if it has something to do with the last time GYBE came through this part of the country they were all detained for national security purposes in Oklahoma the day after their Ft. Worth show.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Dusted Goldmines and Heartbreak Hotels

One of the more unheralded tunesmiths in the US psych underground is Matthew Smith. The multi-instrumentalist, audio engineer, Detroit OG and all around cool dude leads the bubble gum acid pop explosion, Outrageous Cherry; lends his talents to Cary Loren's (Destroy All Monsters) mystical acid folkies Monster Island; is a founding member of the sad and lonesome Volebeats; and plays extended improv jazz/acid psych workouts that sound like undiscovered Krautrock classics with the duo THTX.

The Volebeats never really hit it off with the indie rock crowd, let alone the general public. A few twang pop aficionados and Bloodshot obsessives may've stumbled across 'em, but mostly word of mouth is their strongest supporter since they hardly play any gigs outside of Detroit these days and have little in the way of public relations. Brian Crook (of the Renderers, Terminals and Flies Inside the Sun) turned me on to 'em, and he doesnt even live in the same hemisphere. It's all the more interesting given Detroit isn't really where ya go to make it as a country group in the first place. Seems these boys like doing things the hard way, though some might just call it the wrong way. Still, the truth is the Volebeats have actually done it the right way, from the first album, Ain't No Joke (Gadfly Records) originally issued 15 years ago and featuring two different lineups, on up to hidden classics like The Sky and the Ocean (Safehouse) and The Mosquito Spiral (Third Gear), featuring a more solidified group of graceful practitioners of what Gram Parsons liked to call Cosmic American Music.

With the Voles, cover selection and performance is an art form, too. Just like with all those great bands in the 60s--the Beatles, Byrds, the Band, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix--a well chosen cover adds a bit of a twist to expectations and even points the listener somewhere new. The Voles relish musical revisionism more than most, often turning songs on their head and revealing new layers of meaning. That's what makes Country Favorites (Turquoise Mountain) such a goddamn bittersweet beauty. It's still understated and delivered at a mostly shuffling pace with warm vintage production. Things are roughly split down the middle between catchy downcast originals and covers by folks like Roky Erickson, Serge Gainsbourge, the York Brothers and Funkadelic. And yes, they recast Slayer's "Die By the Sword" as a smoky, psych folk/country anthem to the evil that men do. And I can't put into words the magic conjured on "Maggot Brain." Lovers of early 70s Pink Floyd will be dazed and seduced.

Another fella that's been kickin around just as long (hell, longer!) and enjoyed an equal position of ignored genius is Mr. Howe Gelb. The Arizonian and folk mystic has been one of the most consistently mesmorizing songwriters in the underground since the mid 80s as the leader of the evolving ensemble, Giant Sand, rolling out album after album of weird grungy roots rock, rockabilly punk, lounge jazz and more while continually defying expectation and classification. There's much to find under the 'Sand, from early 90s indie guitar romps like Ramp (Restless) to the mid 80s psychobilly workouts of the debut, Valley of Rain, a bit closer to the Gun Club's stuff from around then. My current favorite is still 2000's Chore of Enchantment (Thrill Jockey), an oblique slice of country blues, psych rock, weird noise, jazz, folk and good old fashioned Crazy Horse inspired metallic fury. Funny how Wilco gets pegged for reinventing the wheel with Foxtrot, when Giant Sand already did it better two years before.

Aside from the occasional solo album and odd appearance, Giant Sand remaines the one thing you can count on, evolving and getting older, but always with some valuable common threads: Howe's croaked voice, like a young Leonard Cohen crossed with a giddy Lou Reed; his immaculately sloppy guitar skills; the quality and depth of his material.

Is All Over the Map is Chore's followup, not including 2002's inspired covers collection, Cover Magazine. It's also Giant Sand's first album of all new songs since 911, which Gelb manages to elegize in the haunting scorched noise cum folk pop of "NyC of Time." It basically says what a lot of media pundits and talking heads have already, but with an economy of prose more reserved for Charles Bukowski (or Lou Reed). Simply one of the finest Giant Sand songs you'll hear. "Remote" comes damn close to as good with a kicked up rockabilly storm that again has me thinkin' prime Gun Club and features a guest vocal from one Scout Niblett. That's another great thing about Giant Sand. Ever the master of smooth underground hip charisma, Gelb has roped in some of the greatest female voices in folk and pop in harmony roles. The rest of Is All Over the Map the title says, not necessarily as cohesive or instantly satisfying as Chore of Enchantment from start to finish, though things eventually cohere into more than just the latest (and greatest) Giant Sand album. It's more like a postcard sent from the Arizona desert with one of those cutesy little hearts affixed to one corner.

Steve Earle, the former junkie/current musical activist, says in the liner notes that the rush was on to get The Revolution Starts Now (Artemis Records) released before a certain election was rigged, er...decided. And the Twang Trust delivered. The Beatles love of opener "The Revolution Starts...", broken into two parts, is a real beaut, as are the honky tonkin "Home to Houston" and the protest ballad "Rich Man's War." The slow burning "Warrior" sounds halfway between his classic Train Comin' Round the Bend period and the Doors. Things get goofy on "Condi, Condi," before some Cheap Trick worthy power pop in "F the CC" shakes things up with an angry hoot and holler: "Fuck the FCC / Fuck the FBI / Fuck the CIA/ Livin' in the mother fuckin USA!" Damn, Steve! Yet the question remains; who the fuck's listening?

Sunday, September 19, 2004

...classic albums of the 90s...

Jessamine The Long Arm of Coincidence (Kranky) An early masterpiece in this storied label's catalog, The Long Arm of Coincidence is also a pivotal 2LP in Jessamine's short discography. Though quite a few great singles were released and collected on a self-titled 2LP, only three studio albums ever hit the racks. The first self-titled was a lethargic fuzz drenched punk psych dream, falling somewhere between classic, cryptic Krautrock and the shimmering shoegaze of the early and mid 90s. It was mastered too low, so that perfect face-melting/hair frizzing volume seemed perpetually out of reach, but even then Jessamine always had something that set them apart and demanded attention, well three things really: Dawn Smithson's beautiful, laid back funk/shoegaze basslines, Rex Ritter's acid-fried guitar sorcery and Andy Browne's eerie, bubbling synth work, all delivered in a clean, uncluttered mix beneath icy, stoned boy/girl vocals that seduce and sedate. You might never use the words "wall of sound" when describing a Jessamine album, though one occasionally rises in more subdued fashion. Floating, dreamy, creaky, minimal, haunting, addictive, hallucinatory--all more applicable terms. The Long Arm of Coincidence falls somewhere between the lidded space fuzz of the debut and the more jazz funk of their swan song, Don't Stay Too Long, carefully walking the tightrope between the two styles, making it the perfect reason to shut out the world at large, load the hooka and stare at the cracks in the wall upside down for the rest of the day. No one sounds like Jessamine, except for maybe for Fontanelle, but that's another story.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

2004 is simply a watershed year in the experimental/psych underground, but then I said something similar last year. A few more reasons why: The free folk impressionism of Päivänsäde, a Finnish ensemble that deftly defies categorization. On the limited Tamminauhat/Tulipesä - Tapes CD-R (edition of 150, impressively packaged in green corrugated cardboard on the Dutch Whistle Along label) the ensemble conjures forest ghost symphonies from ethnic noise makers, shakers, flutes, chimes, bowed saws--all strikingly captured live. I don't really hear any guitars, but I think they're in there too. An intense yet subdued drone clamor where the instruments blend into dense aural shafts of light that pierce the morning mist. Puhalluspelto, their vinyl debut for the always dependable Eclipse Records, is more readily available and probably a more dynamic slab of their fractured folk groove. If the debut CD-R is ghostly and "ambient," Pulalluspelto's 9 tracks take on a wider variety of improvisational peaks and valleys, from the barely there opener to the awesome tribal stomp of "Sadelkaa Meneen"--equal parts No Neck Blues Band and Yahowa--and there's even some ethnic jazz that any Sun City Girls freak could dig into.

Got my hands on an advance copy of Isis's Panopticon (Ipecac), and I'll say here and now it's their best album, maybe the finest heavy metal trance inducer since Spiderland. Has a similar meditative quality, but it's a massively produced in its own right. Fantastical drone METAL from Aaron Turner and friends (his solo guise, The House of Low Culture, comes highly recommended for those enamored of Labradford, Main, Coil and other drone-scapists) for fans of Swans, Godflesh and even Mogwai.

Volcano the Bear released one of the scariest records I heard in the last few years in The Mountains Among Us (Beta Lactam Ring), and though they can be a bit hard to get into, I've never been disappointed with any of their albums. Still fans of their more whimsical side, and there is one, will probably be happier with Guignol, and particularly The One Ensemble of Daniel Padden, offering a slightly sunnier kind of experimental folk psych soundtrack music, which as heard on The Owl of Fives (Textile) and the self titled debut (Catsup Plate) makes me more content then the fattest bowl of the dankest dank, with acoustic guitars, piano and violin conjoined as soul-searching meditative journeys. Swinging further out on the experimental vine are Tetuzi Akiyama, Tim Barnes and Masutfumi Ezaki on Futuro (Quakebasket), a live performance captured at Cafe Futuro in Osaka at the end of 2003. It's an extended journey through some very out free jazz clatter that won't sound too off the beaten path to those who've fallen in love with Japan's Onkyo music scene. Space plays a large part here, as tension is poked and prodded from a variety of oblique angles with Akiyama's random jarring strikes and squiggles on guitar conversing with Barne's subdued percussive clatter and Ezaki's unconventional trumpet "playing." Difficult is an understatement, but the rewards are there for the patient headphones listener and fans of avant folk and other "free musics".

Faktory is the Futurians official debut CD, this time for Soft Abuse, recently relocated from Florida to New york, which given the relative grime factor of a release like this one, might make sense. Still, that beautiful Sky Green Leopards record had a decidedly more equatorial vibe to it, and these days Florida is about as violent as a Futurians song anyway! Think it's bad now, wait till November. These New Zealanders don't like to fuck around too much with things like mic placement or mixing, though Faktory does somehow manage to sound different than all of their other albums--more compressed and fucked up at the same time--resulting in a totally putrid hybrid of bubblegum punk and no-wave scunge that's gonna appeal to Wolf Eyes and X-Ray Spex fans alike and scare away most everyone else. The doomed synth dirge "Big Fish" plays out like the apocalypse stuck in a time warp.

Down shifting to another New Zealander of much note, David Kilgour never wastes my time, and Frozen Orange (Merge) is yet another brilliant collection of meditative psych and indie pop that features at least three different classic tunes in gems like "Living In Space," "Rocket" and particularly "Head Full of Rolling Stones," a tribute to a band and an attempt at the perfect escape. No one can write a heart-surging fuzzy sing-along like Kilgour, and he does it here repeatedly. Guess it's no surprise that Aerial Pink's Haunted Graffiti 2's The Doldrums comes via the Animal Collective's label, Paw Tracks. The results are a sticky glob of fuzz pop and beat-boxed percussion. Yes, apparently all the drum sounds come from this guy's mouth, lending things a definite cracked rhythmic base for some mightily damaged fuzz pop that I've had trouble getting my head around, and I usually love this sort'a stuff. The jury's still out.

No such reservations with Greyscale's Cruel Machine, another solid signing for the head-trippers at Australia's Camera Obscura. Silver liquid flows through these expansive drone instrumentals all doused in a fine shimmer of delay with guitars, pedal steel, bass, synth and percussion, and some industrial found sounds, weaved into a graceful meandering drone psych spell worthy of Grimble Grumble, Paik and Bardo Pond, though leant a more Southwestern touch with the pedal steel. The High Lonesome Sound of The Satyrswitch on the other hand sees Minneapolis musician Jason Kesselrin (also of Sky Klad) unleashing a slightly twisted take on traditional folk and raga with vocals that fall somewhere between Syd Barrett and Lee Hazlewood. So yeah, it's gonna make a few people crinkle their faces, but his busy, dexterous fingers do plenty of talking too, and I personally don't mind a little twang. Color me seduced.

Very happy Thrill Jockey re-released (as an expanded CD with the Wayne EP) Prairie School Freakout by Eleventh Dream Day late last year. The '88 LP is arguably the high point of this storied band's career. Recorded live with basically no overdubs, it's the sound of a young group kickin' out the jams hard and fast, fully indulging in its love of Neil Young/Crazy Horse, making it ripe for hippie punks who dig the rockin' parts of Yo La Tengo albums and the so called Paisley Underground.

Plastic Crimewave is the freakizoid behind the excellent Gallactic Zoo Dossier fanzine, as well as an underground rock god in his own right. The self-released Blinding Pink Sun CD-R is a collection of solo live recordings which sees him stepping away from the full band psych of previous releases and directly into the pink sun void with delay drenched guitar-scapes that fall somewhere between Mathew Bower's early work in Total, Fushitsusha and a languid solar wind storm.

Finally, the new LSD-March album, Kanashimino Bishounen on HP Cycle is a fucking monster, or at least every bit as worthy of my time as their recent CD on Last Visible Dog. Garagy guitar psych enthusiasts who like it raw and burnt will find their skulls effectively (and blissfully) decimated by the seductive fury of this trio.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

If you write enough good things about people's limited musical musings, promos will arrive at your door, and rarely they'll even be worth your time. It's hard to find the right ratio of aural gold to drink coasters. Marissa Nadler's Ballads of Living and Dying was definitely a very good'un. Daniel Patrick Quinn's Severed From the Land (Suilven Recordings) is another. This mini album is a sweet, sad minimal pop surprise. I love-love-love the first three albums by Brian Eno, and Robert Wyatt's work from the same time is just as good, so it's somehow reassuring to hear a 23 yr old lad from Edingburgh weave such an accomplished art pop dream on a debut that's without question in debt to those two masters, but at the same time there's traces of the expansive post rock of later Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis in his meandering melodies. Across six songs Quinn combines minimal drones with simple pop and good old fashioned English whimsy in a way that makes an immediate impact in just over a half hour. Epic and intimate at the same time, should make a fine soundtrack for watching leaves fall in the next couple months.

Øyvind Holm, founder of Norway's psych pop merchants, Dipsomaniacs, has started his own label, Cutwater Records, and The Kulta Beats (apparently named for the Finish Lapine Kulta Brewery) are his first signing. These young fresh fellows keep it loose and rollicking across 11 songs that have an immediate bouncy appeal from the start--fans of any number of Elephant 6 acts could dig this--but like the Dipsos, and a few more ambitious Nuggets bands, there's a couple epic garage psych workouts interspersed among the hooks, organ and cracked vocals that dominate. Early Floyd, Zombies, Sonics fans need to kick out the jams with these brash upstarts.

Disposable Thumb Recordings has been the primary outlet for the solo recordings of Kelly Burnette under the name Orange, Manifold over the last few years, and other folks, including the eminent UK sound sculptor Simon Wickham-Smith. I've heard a few releases from the guy recently, and I'm inclined to agree that this is probably his strongest of the lot. Broken up into 6 pieces, Rapt evolves from a collage of fractured, layered chants and primitive drones during the first half hour to a full on wall of some of the most enveloping fuzz I've ever heard from the man in "Meiji13." "Perihelion" is drawn out in oblique rays of primitive drone and bow work that explores some fairly intense headspace in its 11 minutes. The last three tracks are "a setting of three poems by Mary Oliver" that defy literary conventions, to put it mildly. Support Kelly's hurricane recovery fund!

Monday, September 06, 2004

It's funny. When we're little, those we look up to usually greet our distresses with a warm, casual smile. Maybe a hug. We're just children, ya know? Wait till we get older, then we'll know what real trouble is. But the older I get, the more I come to realize that things aren't so different in those younger days than they are now. They're just much more obvious and less cluttered.

When a kid has a breakdown it's called a tantrum or hyperactivity. When an adult does, it's called depression or "borderline personality disorder." There's a dozen different names and explanations for good old fashioned human insecurity and ten times more negative manifestations of it. This has something to do with why I really do value the so called coming of age/teen drama/comedies, including those that made John Hughes rich in the 80s and more recent entries, such as Elephant (babbled poetical about here), and most of Francoise Truffaut's oeuvre, which is often either about adults acting like children or vice versa.

Of all these movies that speak to the so-called human condition through the hearts and minds of young people, a new one arrives with a sense of focus and clarity I've never really seen before. Mean Creek, written and directed by a first-timer, Jacob Estes, starring a bunch of kids I barely recognize (save for the young Culkin of course), is one of the most brutally honest, funny, sad and ultimately moving films I've seen in a few years. The same sense of hyper-socialism that casually informed Welcome to the Dollhouse or Dazed and Confused, and intensely saturated the very similar, and as good, George Washington, is much more than just a coming of age story, or an afterschool trauma drama. Like Lord of the Flies, or my favorite Heart of Darkness, it's an unflinching journey into the soul from all sides, centered around the planning and implimentation of a typical teen prank that goes wrong, and...then what? That's the question that's always left in these stories.

The strength of this movie comes in the murmured, unsure answer. The naivity of its younger characters, the cocksure, but really no less enlightened, posing of the older ones, are performed by actors that draw the kind of life-like characterizations that you instantly want to get to know better or get as far away from as possible, or both. Each character breaths with his/her own convictions and sense of responsiblity, some more cracked than others. Do we really ever get any wiser than we were at 12? The answer to that question is what burns deeply here. The climax is a moment of quiet, measured bravery that reaches beyond age and class and left yours truly all sorts of wet-eyed. I could say more, but why ruin it? The future is a blank canvass. Take your brush in hand.

Friday, September 03, 2004

My favorite Neil Young record is On the Beach. It's a sad, chilled out retreat from a world of pain and disease, littered with haunting lines that may have spoke at the time to Young's resentment of an image driven, soul devouring "business" like pop music and by extension a world easily duped by hollow pop stars and lying leaders (nothing new, eh?), but ultimately it's a statement about stepping beyond that anger. It's about doing what he sings on the slow blues trance of the title track:

I head for the sticks with my bus and friends.
I follow the road, no I don't know where it ends.
Get out of town, get out of town...
Think I'll get out of town.
Cuz the world is turnin'...
And I don't wanna see it turn away.

On the Beach is something of an answer to the anger and sadness previously exorcised on Tonight's the Night. It's one of my favorite albums precisely for this reason. It's about confronting your fears and demons more than ignoring them, and ultimatley moving on. It resides on a similar plane as Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom and few others (Can you think of any? Blood on the Tracks comes close) in terms of spiritual transcendence. Too many songwriters ultimately lose the moral/human struggle fought in their music, whether by surrendering to those demons, or simply forgetting what matters most. In the end success is a personal meter no society can really measure.
Success is probably just a state of mind, and the mind being what it is--one's best friend, one's worst enemy--spirits can erode like old, wet newspapers. Though it takes those shitty moments to see the golden ones, no one ever said it was an easy process to live through. With On the Beach, Young's driving right through the muck of life to a beach of gold sand and moving in for an extended stay. It's not the prettiest, yet in its own way, with its unflinching honesty, it's about as beautiful an album as you'll ever hear. I tend to think of the relocation simply as "living in the the moment" or... consciousness. Like good jazz. Few people are really there on a minute by minute, day by day basis. Myself included. Osaka's Nagisa Ni Te lives there. It's a place where the cell phone signal doesn't register. The sky is rarely overcast. The foliage is always in full splendor, and the wind never stills.

The duo of Shinji Shibayama and partner Masako Takeda, plus a few friends, has crafted some of the most moving, timeless folk pop of the last decade. Albums like On the Love Beach, The New World and Feel all do more than just capture the musical possibilities of great songs and moving performances. They serve as templates for a deeply felt, spiritual existence. The beauty observed from this vantage point embodies transcendentalism in its purest state, with their lush pop majesty serving as a most serene, mind cleansing lookout.

It's tempting to see this dreamlike, atmospheric pop haze as inaccessble and distanced, but that's probably the most common mistake in approaching the music of Nagisa Ni Te. It's barely abstracted at all. On the contrary, their images are some of the most resolute, concrete descriptions of love and life I've come across. Their performance merges a traditional, and quite approachable, pop base with subtle, impressionist studio trickery that is often so quietly disarming that new layers of understanding wait to be further revealed on 4th, 5th and more listenings. And did I mention they use a mellotron tastefully? Who does that today? This is music made with the same attention to detail and texture as a film by someone like Tarkovsky or Zhang Yimou (pre Hero, which I LOVED btw). Like P-Vine labelmates, Low, Shinji and Masako bid the listener to approach music, and the world, from a more intuitive place, where words like "skill" and "competition" have little to no meaning, mastery is a state of mind, and grace is as simple as a flower, which I suppose would make this album The Same as a Flower (Jagjaguwar).

Thursday, September 02, 2004

This is a gift from a girl. The only thing I love more than the moon just may be kitties. Kitties. Ooooh, kitties...such soft, furry, ingenious little dictators. Kitties often seem to hate me these days, but I keep chasing them, petting them, hugging them, just so I can let them dig in and lounge against my belly and make that ingratiating purring sound, halfway between an outboard motor and an old motel bed massager. That sound, those vibrations--make it all okay in a way that words or human contact never really can. Even if all the kitties seem to usually just run for cover lately, I will always be one to chase close behind, just for the chance to hold them in the unforgiving prison of my arms.

Speaking of collections of cute animals, I saw a regular gaggle of them at Emo's in Austin a couple nights ago in the form of Animal Collective, Black Dice and another band called Porch Fock (or Frog). The AC left me a bit flat. Don't get me wrong here, but any cute costumes and my two favorite songs ("Leaf House," "We Tigers") off the new record were MIA, leading me directly to the age old questions, "Can they truly recreate that bouncy, layered vocal whoop funk thing live?" and "What's the point without costumes?" But all funnin' aside, what they did do was create a strangely harmonic, constantly flowing disjointed pop racket that I quite enjoyed, but I could also see how my AC virgin rockin' buddy in attendance was a bit less than impressed, especially in light of the infectious space punk angst quotient of the trombone/scuzz inflected Porch Fock (or Frog). They were actually pretty rad, had me thinking, "We're in the midst of another one of them art punk revivals, are we not?" as well as "This may not be such a bad thing." And finally, "Fuck the Strokes."

Black Dice was a pulverizing subharmonic mudslide of heartbeat-skipping power electronics and dissonant bliss washes. Three guys--one on guitar, the other two working a bank of effects pedals and samplers--created a racket that was just phenomenal from where I was standing about ten feet from the stage. Bubbling, coagulated pools of sound so thick I was walking across them and slowly sinking, eyes closed, head back, body asway as I went down for the count over and over. The live performance definitely fills in the gaps left by their oft fascinating, yet still uneven, studio releases. Those with pacemakers need not apply.