Mutant Music (2001)
The benefits of doing a weekly radio show is that you get to advertise yourself to the music world and make some great contacts who are all too willing to grace your airwaves with their presence and share some of their newest material. About two years ago (on Terrastock III weekend as things would have it,) I had the honor of interviewing Erik Wivinus. As a member of three of the best psychedelic bands in Minneapolis (Salamander, Gentle Tasaday and Skye Klad), Erik's been keeping my head spinning for years and it was during the recording of some of these Skye Klad sessions that he took time out to chat. It's a pleasure to report that the results far exceeded the marvelous teaser that he sent me earlier, an advance copy of "Mind's Eye" (a different version of which leads off the proceedings.) "Vespers," for instance, calls to mind Ian Curtis leading Hawkwind through an amphetamine-fueled "Master of the Universe," while "Killer Goodnight" finds Peter Murphy fronting Sabbath with Mr. Mojo Risin' nodding gleefully in the wings. Gothic Death Metal, anyone?
"Sleep At the Bottom" applies the brakes somewhat, being more atmospheric, but still dark and foreboding. The catchy (!) chorus is straight outta Bongwater territory and the wind tunnel guitar FX hover in the air like frozen breath on a cold winter's night in the local cemetery. "Debutante" marries Joy Division's industrial clatter with Bauhausian histrionics, while the ensuing half hour trilogy of "Ionosphere," "Taxaphene" and "Amber" sets the controls for the heart of the sun with a baggage compartment stocked to the gills with everything from Floyd and Hawkwind to Fields of the Nephalim and Love & Rockets blaring full blast on the stereo.
In sum, fans of Nordic Death Metal minus the axe-wielding, church burning murderers will find a lot to endorse. If your tastes run more towards dark, gothic, atmospheric, sonic assaults with the specter of Ian Curtis presiding over the proceedings, by all means seek this out.
Wholly Other (2001)
Eponymous side project from Christina Carter (Charalambides) and Heather (Ash Castles on The Ghost Coast), these two long drones (descriptively entitled "Holding" and "Breath Threads") slip into a Vulcan mind meld and don't release their grip on your psyche until long after the disk is placed back in the jewel case. The ladies sing, chant and occasionally howl like sirens beckoning sailors to their demise, but the real treat is that steady chord organ drone, embellished by bells and other haunting percussives. At times, there is a spiritual aura and a religious fervor to the playing and chanting, but always, there is that long drone - relaxing, hypnotic and meditative. It's been done before - Terry Riley's Reed Organ pieces come to mind as well as, to a lesser extent, Kendra Smith's work with the Guild of Temporal Adventurers; but, if something is executed as well as this, I don't mind hearing it over and over again. Now if I can just get that ringing out of my ears.
The Allison Effect
Camera Obscura (2001)
Scott Grimm has at long last made the album that we’ve been waiting since the start of his solo project. All it took was reuniting with fellow ex-Mike Gunner John Cramer (in effect the creative team behind the Mike Gunn's Almaron).
Solo efforts like mister Grimm’s have a ying and a yang - benefiting from complete control and being hindered by the very insular nature of the project. While this album is fully written by Grimm, the inflection and lyricism of John Cramer's musicianship and (most notably) vocal work give the Dunlavy a warmth that it has severely lacked. Take the showstopper "Rob Walks In" where John's drumming, guitar work and vocals make Scott Grimm's material soar. I don't think a great line like "Rob walks in dreaming of silver" would quite sound as cool without John's ability to make the goddamn thing live. The track is just a fucking mind blowing moment in rock music. For a few minutes you forget that music these days seems less of an artform that a cynical corporate product - taking your money for a cheap escape. This is music approaching infinity - meaning something, nothing, everything. It's a fucking experience!
The rest of the album is more typical Dunlavy work that leaning more toward the instrumental. "Sassy" is a sparse surf bass number that doesn’t quite hold my interest because if you follow a track like "Rob Walks In" then you'd better not fuck around. "Lacerating" has some great moments but suffers from too many parts that don't lead anywhere. "Lacerating" has a great opening that recalls the rhythmic feel of the wonderful album opener "Woe Be to Croton" but, instead of working things from the ground up like "Croton", "Lacerating" tosses in a break which leads to a riff that goes nowhere. The closing number "Better than Sleep" succeeds by patiently and organically (with one notable exception - see the transition between the 1st and second riff) building small pieces into a grand whole. When John's guitar kicks in, it all starts falling together and by the time the vocals fall in the picture it's like pulling back from the pixel level exposing the grand picture. It is cinematic, expansive and gorgeous.
Hazz and Company
Unlawful Noise –1976
Atavistic/Unheard Music Series (1976 reissued 2001)
A friend of mine once commented that he hated many free jazz guys because they just wail. I think that that is a horrible reduction of what happens in this form of music. Kees Hazevoet's ensemble is a classic example as to why this music isn't JUST wailing but something that takes a deep level of musicianship and communication. Take the dense opener "Unlawful Noise". It begins with the wind instruments interacting like worker bees. It's manic yes but there is communication. As the excitement builds they shake their asses, screech, honk, and sing melodies, sounds, rhythms, commotion, and emotions. It's all data being shuffled around back and fourth mutating and leading the group into a swarming frenzy, pausing at times to listen, and then rebuilding the joyous clamor. The second piece (Agitprop Bounce) is a bit more restrained and emphasizes Hazevoet’s wonderful playing. I should mention that great players like Peter Brotzmann and Han Bennink play here? Yep, it's a pretty amazing cast and cats I've never heard of (e.g. drummer Louis Moholo) are just mind blowing.
It's a wonderful performance that shows that if you are willing to open your mind past the Ken Burns /Wynton Marsalis view that jazz falls under specific boundaries, you will realize that jazz isn't some static language that must be adhered to in a strict sense to be truly JAZZ. Jazzis and has been a living, breathing, and robust language. Check this CD out and you tell me that Jazz was dead for the 70's like Burns and Marsalis would have you believe!
The Winter is Coming.
Sugar Free (2001)
"Embrace the Crimson Tide" (the CD opener) is one fucking clever bit of work. Combining an "All Tomorrow's Parties" hypnotic vibe and a shameless Hendrix chorus is pretty sneaky and it fucking works. The pounding drums percussion march you along whether you want to go along or not. It's a musical black hole that you can"t help be sucked into.
To it's detriment the, rest of the record though suffers by being standard Elephant 6 material. Not that it’s bad, but we’ve been here before. “The Great Society”, for example, is a cute song that satisfies psychedelia’s love of children’s music. Sure, the harmonies and arrangement are effective but again we’ve been here before. On the other hand, “Green Sea Days” is an exception to poppy psychedelic mechanisms of the Elfs and its simple arrangement shows how sometimes less is more. Don’t get me wrong, I mean this is a beautifully produced record and this review probably sound worse that it is intended to be. The harmonies, textures and arrangements are top notch but when I listen to music I want to feel like the drive was worth it. “Embrace the Crimson Tide’ is one such worthy journey, the rest feels more like you are visiting a cool place but only got taken to the chain restaurants.
Mr. Lady (2000)
Le Tigre can pretty damn silly. I mean who has the balls to kick off with such a shameless retro new wave number like “Deception” (complete with Peter Hook-like bass line) and make it work Scott Grimm once told me that when you hear a cliché done in a way that sound fresh you realize why it became a cliché in the first place. I mean on paper this first song sounds really fucking awful but in practice its got a brilliant vibe that you can’t help but be absorbed into. Uh, ok let me give you this analogy. Recently, I went to a karaoke party. Beat and defeated from a day of work, the last thing I wanted to do was walk into a room with Karen Lawrence singing “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” at full shrill over the top tilt! Goddamn it! I wanted a nice bed! On paper I should hating this but by an hour or so, I could not help but wake up and join in with the cheerful revelry despite my initial negative vibe. That is what this is…goddamn shameless good vibes.
Dig the 60’s go-go vibe of “Hot Topic”. It's irresistably slinky and funky. My personal favorite, “What’ your take on Cassavetes”, is smart, sassy, and it’s got a fucking great groove! “The The Empty” with its 3 chord punk stylings rips and kicks all in their path! Heck that’s just the first 4 tracks… it just goes on and on. Here we have musicians who put together some classic rock music that is rooted in that snotty punk tradition but is also intelligent and fresh. Viva Le Tigre!
Fatal Flying Guilloteens
The Now Hustle for New Diaboliks
Here is the debut form Houston’s premier live outfit. I pity any band that plays on a bill with them because they are such a goddamn unstoppable force of energy! For better or worse, this energy that makes their live shows so insane and memorable is, on their debut album, under control. In place of anarchy, you have a clear representation of the material and the band’s sharp musicianship. Brian’s guitar is something to be envied. Dig his riffs on “Burn to Shine” - it crawls up on you and once the rest of the band kicks in you are fucking dead…down on the ground not knowing what hit you. Meanwhile, “Rawhide 2000” has a guitar and drum interaction that leaves you in an epileptic fit of rock. Keep in mind that Garage is pretty bare so as a drummer you’d better learn to fucking pound those drums like a mother fucker because records like this live or die on the drummer and Mike’s drums are up for the job –pounding and leading the charge on every song. Not to be outdone, vocalist Shawn has the snot dripping from his nose as he shouts his way through the songs - you can almost feel the spit hit you in the face when he shouts. If I have one recommendation to these guys it’s that the cowboy/Texas shtick (long integral to their live show) get a rest next time around. It’s funny now but I have one word for bands with too much shtick – Gwar.
Kudos should be given to the great Tim Kerr (not to be confused with Tim/Kerr records) who does a fine production job and not to mention some nice slide work. Mike Vasquez’s engineering is as usual top notch. I guess I should plug his lovely Sweatbox Studios - one of Texas’ best and most band-friendly studios. This is another gem to come out this studio.
Touch and Go (2001)
Do I have to even review this? I mean we all know this band is one of the most continually impressive bands in the world. Once again we have incredible drumming, imaginative guitars and memorable melodies. When something like this seems so effortless is usually is quite the opposite. These are people who have obviously built their craft over the years to a point where you are no longer impressed about being impressed. Dig the way a song like “Walt’s Dizzyland” is put together. A simple bass line layered with a mechanical muted guitar rhythm, a simple cowbell kicks a meter with drums playing off of this beat, then a ripping guitar lick leads to the urgent vocals that bring the song together. It’s all small pieces that build to a powerful whole. This is what makes the EX such a wonder! Rock bands have a tendency of highlighting one or two members but this is an ensemble! It is an ensemble that understands how to work with each other – how to communicate. It’s what music is all about and as long as bands like the EX exist Rock music has a future.
William Parker & Hamid Drake
Volume 1: Piercing the Veil
AUM Fidelity (2001)
I recently saw the Die Like a Dog Trio live and could not get over the rhythm section. They were funky, driving, and just a hoot. Hamid Drake is just an incredible drummer that should make any drummer go home and hang their head in shame while William Parker is probably the best jazz bassist living. Live they are incredible but never flashy. While this CD is not quite up to seeing them live but it still captures something of that experience.
“Black Cherry” is a nice funky opener but fades out just when it seems it is about to take off. “Chatima” along with the title track highlight Parker’s bowing while Drake follows behind keeping it all together. “Heavenly Walk” is a fun little percussive duet that is as humorous as it is engaging. I guess that is what is so nice about this little CD. The two players here are just so comfortable and laid back with each other that there is no pretension or one-upmanship.
Drake and Parker play an array of instruments from the expected bass and drum to the more exotic shakahachi and tablas. One of the better examples of this is “Nur Al Awar” with Parker’s North African flavored reed work. “Chuamg Tzu’s Dream” and “Bodies Die/Spirits Live” are nice testaments to the fact that Drake is as impressive with his hands as he is with his sticks and the latter brings about some wonderful reed work form Parker.
All in all it’s a wonderful record but it’s biggest strength (it’s laid back casual air) is also it’s greatest weakness because the sheer force that these two kick out live is never brought to the fore and to a degree that is something I had hoped that this CD would capture. Hopefully volume two will bring that side of these two out.
Matty and Mossy
Fleece Records (2001)
From the first song the uniqueness of this band makes itself known. Here is one of the most gorgeous records to come out of Houston in recent years. It seems the trip to Kris Bishop’s studio at Athens, GA. has been worthwhile.
The guitars are somewhere between the slinkiness of Slint and the jazzy vibe of the Sea and Cake. Janna’s vocals an expressive tour de force. Dig up a copy and tell me you can resist the gentle swing of “Fattress” with its light vocals that dance as guitar lines fall like leaves. Or dig my favorite song “Trojan Radio” with its Sonic Youth like guitars opening up that 3rd eye. "Trojan Radio" is probably one of the best pop music moments you are bound to hear this year. Sure some influences are somewhat apparent but aside from the ill-advised “Shark Week” (whose Frank Black mimicry seems as out of place as it is derivative) the influences are transformed into something fresh and new and that is what anyone should try to accomplish with any first album.
Dan De Chellis
Hush. This is one quiet record. Forget listening to this passively. This is something that requires your undivided attention. Dechellis’ improvisational ensemble is one that works inside a space. You feel that you are not so much walking in on a musical conversation (which is what this is) but hiking into a rich landscape of sound. On piano we have Dan Dechellis whose playing is inquisitive and exploratory. Gary Fieldmas’ percussion is wonderfully understated and pictorial – playing a variety of percussive sounds from drums to what seem to be stones. Katt Hernandez’s violin weaves in and out the landscape like a bird while James Coleman’s theremin reminds us that Lev Termin’s instrument is more than just a gimmick. Finally we have the eloquent voice of Anita DeChellis whose operatic voice is perfectly suited to improvisation.
What’s so interesting about this is how the players seem to be connected yet separate. Like when you take in a vista - one mountain is to your left, a valley to your right, a bird is overhead, rocks being kicked below you. These are things that are disparate yet in a way are communicating you the viewer to form a one complete and united picture. It’s pretty impressive and here’s hoping that someday they will make their way down to Houston so I can see this imaginative ensemble live.
General Ludd Music (1997)
Tangerine has to be Bill Foreman’s best work. I first heard “The Snowband’s a Feather Bed” on The Global Low-fi Underground compilation and it is still as gorgeous as ever. The instrumentation, lyricism and arrangement are to die for. What is amazing is that contrary to what I had believed this is completely a solo effort. Yep, Mr. Foreman played all the instruments here. “Walls” is a joy with its oddball flute and “Where Has My Blanket Gone” recalls Brian Forden’s “La Belle Epoch.
The album’s low-fi quality is charming and revealing and throughout this album what comes across from this is a joy of discovery. Foreman is playing with narrative and instrumentation and that thrill of experimentation comes across to the listener. It is a fresh view of the world and sometimes that is all we need.
The Tiller’s Lament
General Ludd (1998)
If talent were a commodity appreciated in this world Brian Forden would be set for life. Here is an example of what musicians should strive for on every level – writing, musicianship, and production. As a writer Forden is easily one of the most brilliant folk musicians out there. Yet, Forden doesn’t really come from a folkie tradition he merely performs his music in a simple and honest way.
That is what I love about this record - the raw honesty of his work. Consider the lonely plaintive “Scarecrow” an acoustic guitar, a quite percussive and Forden’s very bare and almost whispered voice. The performance evokes such a unique emotional sense of place that the world almost seems to shrink as Forden’s world engulfs you. It’s a world is that moves at a slower pace and allows all it’s beauty to sink in. More up beat but just as moribund is “Where the Wind Will Blow” which evokes an almost dreamlike sense of melancholia. It’s curious how, even with drums adding power, Forden’s vocals and guitar keep it all so intimate.
Forden's musicianship and arrangements are top notch. The guitar is wonderfully recorded and the very physicality of his playing really comes across bringing all the rattle of the strings, the warmth of the wood, and the very essence of the instrument’s soul. For an example of his skill of arranging consider his reworking of Marcy’s Playground’s (!) “A Cloak of Elvenkind”. Who would have thought that this song was so gorgeous and eloquent? A simple narrative about a boy whose secret stash of fantasy items becomes majestic here by breaking things down to their essence and establishing a sense of place never established in the original. Consider how he builds to the bridge of all things through a clever use of harmony that again makes the music so personal and real that you feel that you yourself have come across the main narrator’s very personal secret. In “Simon” Forden’s guitar work is just gorgeous, inspiring and uplifting- his hands trickle down the neck and play off of his vocal melody. “Adeline” has a Syd Barret feel and the quiet almost hidden chord organ adds a lovely texture.
I could go on and on about how this is one of the great lost records of the 90’s. If anyone has any brains they would give this a proper re-issue (no offense to the wonderful General Ludd label) and allow it to find it’s deserved larger audience. In fact, I asked a DJ friend of mine (Jeff Thomas) to listen to this and he liked it so much that he played it on KPFT. Not surprisingly, he received a huge response from his listenership. If you still don’t believe me, General Ludd has now made the whole CD available as a full MP3 download. Download any of these and tell me that it is not one of the best things you’ve ever heard.
The Goblin Market
Camera Obscura (2001)
Admit it you are sick of hearing about me rave about Jeff Kelly. Well, guess what? I’m going to do it again. Here the Green Pajama’s head honcho joins his band-mate Laura Weller for yet another solid addition to the Kelly lexicon. Weller’s musicianship and vocals are a perfect compliment to Kelly’s in the Pajamas and here we have the two as a simple duo.
The idea of the project is to add music to some literary figure’s poems and on it’s surface it seems kind of pretentious but in practice it works very well. I find it curious how Kelly seems to personally favor Christina Rossetti yet his best lyrical fit is Emily Bronte. In fact the two Bronte pieces are easily the best pieces here. “Oh mother I am not regretting’ is one of Kelly’s best songs ever. The simple melody and arrangement compliments Bronte’s work so well that I would think she would return to thank him if she could. The interpretation of Bronte’s “The Night Wind” is equally as impressive and only goes to further demonstrate how good a fit her words and his music really are. The other standout track is the three-song medley of “Song for Christina/ A Nightmare/ Highgate”. Here a Green Pajamas classic, “Song for Christina”, is given a harpsichord treatment and “Nightmare” comes across more effectively and freaky thanks to Susanne Kelly’s vocals. This leads to Laura Weller’s strongest moment on the album – the Jeff Kelly penned “Highgate.” Her vocals work beautifully and Kelly’s (?) sweet guitar provides a beautiful harmony. Ghostland is a lovely work and here’s to hopes that these this is the first of many from this wonderful project.