Archive for September, 2006

What’s spinning, individual songs edition

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

I’ve recently been listening to some albums with clear standout tracks and as a result have been trying to compile a kind of greatest-hits CD with the music that’s been spinning in my room for the past month or two. There’s a mix of new and not particularly new, and it’s a generally genre-less affair. The songs I have chosen so far (in no particular order):

  • Yo La Tengo - “The Story of Yo La Tango” (I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass): Classic epic noisy stuff from these guys that I’m going to see live tonight. Great way to end a pretty great new album.
  • Mastodon - “Sleeping Giant” (Blood Mountain): The obvious highlight on this album that I’m otherwise still a bit lukewarm about. Some unforgettably majestic guitar melodies here.
  • Christina Aguilera - “Still Dirrty” (Back to Basics): Dumb lyrics (actually not the norm on this album, at least on the first disc — but let’s not talk about the atrocious second disc) mitigated by a seriously bumpin’ production job.
  • Espers - “Moon Occults the Sun” (II): Melancholy, dignified indie-folk that should appeal to a lot of prog fans with their adventurous arrangements and crystal-clear, seductive vocals (both male and female). Another great album closer of a song.
  • Final Fantasy - “This Lamb Sells Condos” (He Poos Clouds): The album title is awful and some of the songs are, too. This is a hugely (over-)hyped album, but on this song at least they get it right.
  • Amon Tobin - “Sordid” (Permutation): Not new at all, but a barn-burner of a breakbeat song thrown into Tobin’s otherwise pretty jazzy sophomore album. Funny, I first got into Tobin through, of all things, a Coke TV ad (that used “Deo” from the next album).
  • Black Bonzo - “Brave Young Soldier” (Lady of the Light): This stuff isn’t generally my thing — this album was a perfect eMusic download rather than CD purchase for me — but there’s some cool stuff going on in this song.
  • Ephel Duath - “The Unpoetic Circle” (The Painter’s Palette): Any band that reminds me by turns of Cynic, Opeth and Pan-Thy-Monium can’t be anything but stone-cold awesome. This is one of the more accessible tracks from what is IMHO their best album.
  • The Coup - “My Favorite Mutiny” (Pick a Bigger Weapon): Disappointing album overall; I think Boots Riley and co. are really losing it. But this would have been a great song even on their old classic records.
  • Tim Berne’s Hard Cell - “BG uh-oh” (Feign): One of the more hyper-kinetic tracks on this album, and one that I was lucky enough to see live (performed by a slightly different ensemble). Berne is still one of my absolute favorite currently active “jazz” artists.
  • Boris - “Pink” (Pink): The title track from this album is one of the more aggressive tracks on a very aggressive record. Sludgy metal at its finest, with a touch of Japanese noise-rock zaniness.

Recent shows - Gjallarhorn, Cline/Kotche, Carl Grubbs

Monday, September 25th, 2006

Time for some live show recaps — saw three last week and will be seeing two more (Yo La Tengo and Massive Attack) this week. The first one is the one I mentioned in the previous entry: Gjallarhorn at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. This is a Finnish folk group, although they apparently hail from a small isolated region of Finland where Swedish is actually the primary language. Their music is pretty firmly in the style typified by the Northside label’s group of artists — traditional Nordic folk music (in this case, Finnish, Swedish and Norweigian) arranged for different instruments with a rock influence creeping in at times. Without a doubt the centerpiece of this band is vocalist Jenny Wilhelms, who has a remarkable set of pipes and put them to good use, particularly on the rather adventurous final epic song (sadly I’ve forgotten the title). Otherwise, most notable was the band’s use of a rather absurd-looking large, blocky instrument that I thought was a mutant didgeridoo but turned out to be a sub-contrabass recorder (!!!). The mere fact that such an instrument exists is amusing.

Overall, Gjallarhorn seemed like mostly straight-up rockified folk music with a few interesting twists thrown in. They are listed at ProgArchives (a website in which debate about a band’s “progginess” gets seriously intense) for some reason, but there are definitely more interesting Nordic folk bands out there. Jenny Wilhelms’ vocal performance was worth the trip to the Kennedy Center, though.

The next day was a solo/duo show from Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, both current members of the almost unbelievably popular indie-rock band Wilco. I had no idea what to expect from this one, but came away pretty delighted. Cline was up to his noise-freakout tricks, playing a dense, intense, and pretty shockingly inaccessible set full of electronic manipulation and looping. I’ve never heard him any noisier than this; maybe a good point of comparison would be the ear-shattering chaos of Immolation/Immersion, the trio album with Cline, Wally Shoup and Chris Corsano. If there were Wilco fans in the audience hoping for a solo guitar rendition of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” well, they probably headed for the doors after about thirty seconds.

I found Kotche’s solo percussion set to be more interesting, actually, and I’m inspired to go check out his solo records. He played a pretty wide variety of things, including a Steve Reich piece and a really awesome composition called “Monkey Chant for Solo Drum Kit,” which ostensibly was a setting of a Hindu epic story with each character represented by a different instrument. Kotche was endlessly creative with timbres, eking all kinds of sounds out of his kit, even revealing for “Monkey Chant” a table covered in small boxes containing… chirping crickets! One of the guys standing near me said, “I’ve officially seen it all now.”

Cline came back onto stage to play a couple final pieces with Kotche as a duo, and these were also pretty great — Cline was no less aggressively avant-garde, but tempered his volume and overall intensity a bit to allow the nuances of Kotche’s playing to shine through. Overall this was one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, up there with the Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura show in terms of both how demanding it was and how enjoyable it ended up being. Too bad I won’t get to see these guys again when Wilco comes into town next month.

Finally, last Saturday I made the trek up to An Die Musik in Baltimore with my girlfriend to see Carl Grubbs do his John Coltrane birthday tribute concert. This was a fun one as well; Grubbs stuck exclusively to Coltrane’s more accessible repertoire, which was too bad, but the playing was tight and energetic and the setting was, as always, fantastic; An Die Musik has become one of my absolute favorite venues. I only recognized “Naima” and “Giant Steps” — ironically the only two pieces that were actually announced — but one of the pieces I thought might have been inspired by “My Favorite Things,” although maybe that was just because Grubbs played soprano on that one (which also happened to be my favorite of the set). They only played for an hour and I felt like they never really stretched out to their limits, especially the drummer, but I had a good time.

I also meant to go see the Ed Palermo Big Band in Baltimore last Thursday, but three nights in a row just got to be too much, and work was interfering anyway. And Forever Einstein played in DC on Saturday, but I decided to go to An Die Musik because I thought my girlfriend would enjoy that more. Oh well, too much live music of interest is a good problem to have, anyway.

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic live video

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

Fans of this Cuneiform band might want to check out free streaming video of a full Birdsongs of the Mesozoic performance from back in 2003. This was at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage — a sweet venue with a free concert at 6pm literally every day. Last year I saw Los Jaivas there, and they regularly get interesting world, folk, Americana, etc sorts of bands there. Virtually all the old shows are archived in the video database, too — although I can’t get the Los Jaivas video to work and have e-mailed them about it.

Incidentally, I went to a show there on Tuesday (Gjallarhorn), but more on that later.

Zorn gets $500,000… what now?

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

The big news today is that John Zorn has won the so-called Macarthur “Genius” grant, the same one that Ken Vandermark won a few years ago, that pays out half a million dollars over five years. Folks in the avant-garde community are having predictably mixed reactions over this one. On the one hand, Zorn isn’t particularly cutting-edge these days and hasn’t been for several years. More, the dude already seems to have a hell of a lot more resources than plenty of other equally deserving semi-underground artists out there. Giving him $500,000 for even more Masada live releases seems almost perverse.

On the other hand… he’s still John Zorn, still one of the more fiercely independent musical minds out there, and it’s cool that he’s getting recognition from the establishment (the Macarthur Foundation is large enough to be considered part of the proverbial “establishment,” I think — even though they have given this grant to folks like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman etc). So, congrats to him, although I hope that instead of expanding the Tzadik release schedule to 5,000 releases per year instead of just 4,000, he uses the funding to take a radical left turn, maybe starting a brand new label for underground artists with a completely different bent. Or at the very least maybe he can now tour outside of New York City and Europe.

Jem Godfrey to prog critics: “Enrol on a writing course”

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

This morning I wasted nearly an hour of my life (and my workday) trying in vain to buy tickets to the just-announced Wilco show next month at the 9:30 Club here in DC. Wilco was one of the absolute best shows I saw last year; I got lucky and snagged a ticket then while all my friends ran into a brick wall (damn thing sold out in just a few minutes). Well, I didn’t get lucky this year. Oh well. Nels Cline is playing a solo/duo show with fellow Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche the month before, so I’ll let myself be satisfied with that.

Someone at ProgressiveEars posted an amusing rant by Jem Godfrey of Frost* about the quality of prog reviews. If I understand correctly, Godfrey is a pop musician who consciously decided he wanted to make a “prog” album. Not surprisingly, the result (Milliontown) sounds, uh, self-consciously “proggy” and is pretty much like 90% of the other utterly forgettable stuff on the InsideOut label: competent but ultimately inconsequential (even though it all garners rave reviews at your usual prog sites). But that aside, Godfrey’s criticism of prog reviewers is actually pretty much spot-on. Basically, he takes prog reviewers to task for not being good writers like the pros are: prog reviews, he says, read like absolutely dull, lifeless “shopping lists.” They lack wit and color.

To which I would point to a few of the reviewers on this site for the sake of counter-argument; but they are the exception. I myself often feel like my own reviewing is totally uninspired and dull. Most of the time when I read reviews on other prog sites, I feel the same. The fact is, these are all amateur writers — they are not professionals and expecting them to be as engaging as professional journalists is a little unreasonable. I don’t get paid to write music reviews and there’s probably a good reason for that. (Which doesn’t mean I’m not trying to improve my writing, of course.)

Then there’s his closing paragraph:

To these people I implore you: buy a Dictionary. Buy a Thesaurus. Enrol on a writing course. Anything to prove you deserve to do this thing that you’re very serious about and would do a lot more of if it wasn’t for the football, the wife, the kids, the dog, the dayjob, the pub, your mates, the TV…

Then you can call me names and I can take you seriously.

Aside from the rather funny “enrol on a writing course” thing, to which a snarky ProgressiveEars poster responded, “Physician, heal thyself,” this conclusion seems all wrong after an otherwise good rant. Just because someone isn’t a professional writer, his or her opinions aren’t worth taking seriously? Just because the average prog reviewer has, you know, a life, doesn’t mean he or she is worth listening to? Kind of smells like Godfrey is sitting on a high horse looking down at this scene because he’s more than just a prog musician, he’s a pop musician and is used to getting reviews from the big boys. This amateurish prog underground thing isn’t good enough for him.

Well, his slick, professional music strikes me as awfully boring, so I guess we’re all square. Anyways, he still deserves kudos for urging prog reviewers to learn to write. It’s true… there’s plenty of them out there who can’t.

Amazon Prime: uh oh

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

Today I got in a small order from amazon.com. They have offered me a free three-month Amazon Prime trial, under which anything I buy gets shipped to me by two-day UPS for free. This is normally a $79/year service. I never understood why someone would pay that much, but now that I have it, it makes a lot of sense and is really a prety brilliant marketing move. Now that I don’t have shipping charges to worry about, I can order from Amazon almost at will, even if it’s just one puny CD, and it shows up at my door two days (sometimes only one day) later. The only problem is that I feel slightly dirty for doing so knowing that this is exactly the kind of thing that could put the final nail in the coffin of independent and brick-and-mortar music and bookstores.

Anyway, today I got the new CDs by The Mars Volta, Mastodon and Yo La Tengo. First impressions of each: The Mars Volta’s Amputechture sounds, well, whiny. Nothing particularly stuck in my head, but then again I’m listening at work and not really focusing on the music. Too early to tell even whether I’ll like this or hate it. Mastodon’s new one sounds way more straightforward, especially in the vocal department, than their previous stuff. At some points I was shocked to find myself drawing comparisons to Dream Theater (though, thankfully, not James LaBrie). Uh oh! Last, Yo La Tengo’s new one is, first of all, the best-titled new release in years: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. This would be an awful name if it were an album by a punk or a metal band. But a Yo La Tengo album? Hilarious. And it’s good, too, reminding me more of the heyday of, say, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One instead of the super-slow droney pop of their more recent work. The first and last tracks especially are classic feedback-drenched epics.

Musique Machine: good reading

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

A recent discovery of mine is Musique Machine, a website with a large archive of short but very well-written reviews, covering all kinds of avant-rock, indie-rock, jazz, metal, and some prog and even prog metal. They seem to review almost all Cuneiform and lots of Tzadik releases, among other stuff of interest. Cool articles too, with some unexpected stuff like an interview with Ron Jarzombek of Spastic Ink, in which the interviewer actually asks good questions and holds his ground when Jarzombek disagrees with him on stuff like the artistic merits of hip-hop. Highly recommended browsing and one of my new favorite music sites.

Also recommended reading is Julian Cope’s Krautrock book from 1995, Krautrocksampler. But wait, you say, it’s long out of print and impossible to find! Well, true. Except I just found that the vast realm of the Internet happens to include in its domain a freakin’ scanned PDF of the entire book! I don’t condone intellectual property theft (for the most part; don’t ask me about pharmaceutical patents!), but if it’s literally the only way to get your hands on it…

The Mars Volta, soaked in piss

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Surprise, surprise: Pitchfork’s favorite punching bag, The Mars Volta, get an over-the-top bad review for their new album, Amputechture! The first sentence alone contains the phrases “piss-soaked indulgence” (piss-soaked? really) and “bombastic, mouth-foaming performances.” Pitchfork’s attitude towards this band borders on the comical, and I’m happy to see that the tradition continues in fine form.

I’m pretty excited to hear Amputechture myself, having heard that it’s a long way from the, uh, piss-soaked indulgence of last year’s crappy live album.

On a more positive note, this Sunday’s New York Times had a long article about Mastodon, another exciting modern band with a new album coming out. There’s lots of name-dropping of 70s prog bands and early metal groups.

And finally (links galore today), Dusted just published a feature-length article about the This Heat box, Out of Cold Storage, that I still need to get my hands on.