Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Lennon/Claypool Delirium and Homelessness

Almost immediately after I got back from the cruise, I began to transition into my new position in the North Texas area. Within a week, I was commuting from Austin to Denton, effectively homeless and relying on the hospitality of friends for a place to sleep. I spent a lot of time driving up and down I-35, and it would seem like a prime time to crank through a whole bunch of music, but my in-car CD rotation has remained basically static since the June roundup. This is partially because the CD collection is  still in boxes, but admittedly, I also have had a hard time letting go of this run of music. In retrospect, this collection of albums seems like a thread of continuity though that period.

And it feels as if I am still clinging to them, as they also represent the last vestiges of my Austin life: Weezer [white], A Moon Shaped Pool, The Force Awakens OST, Plastic House at Base of Sky, Some Boots, The Invention of Knowledge, Bottomless Pit, Get to Heaven, and The Monolith of Phobos. These albums all contain frozen moments from those long commutes. Rather then do an extended roundup of albums that I have mostly already addressed, however, the curious case of The Lennon/Claypool Delerium’s The Monolith of Phobos deserves specific mention (also because some readers asked for it).

Although I am a fan of both Les Claypool and Sean Lennon, I would never have predicted them collaborating. Over the past few years, Lennon waded through introspective pop waters into 60’s tinged psychedelia while Claypool, when not fronting Primus, seemed fully committed to the jam-band paradigm. Still, the two have found some common ground and despite the seeming oddness of their pairing, it works.

Any project that includes Les Claypool has to deal with the fact that no matter what happens, comparisons to Primus are inevitable. Despite being far more mercurial in his musicianship, however, Lennon’s nuanced songwriting and melodic strengths provide a compelling counterbalance to Claypool’s penchant for groovy ditties about all the freaks and weirdos he knows.

Furthermore, A quick look at the liner notes shows that the album is, indeed, created and performed entirely by Claypool and Lennon. Lennon has his share of convincing guitar and keyboard leads, but Claypool clearly bears the shredding burden. His bass playing is at an all-time high in terms of its melodic content. Lennon’s greatest strengths shine through as an arranger, but as a drummer, his performance is adequate, if sometimes frantic. While it works pretty well in the classic psychedelic style that they are shooting for, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the drums were outsourced - especially if Claypool is still on good terms with his old Oysterhead cohort and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland.

His presence, however, would endanger the project’s early Pink Floyd feel that, with some reinterpretation, the Delerium is pretty successful at capturing. This takes a little imagination to see: let’s say that if Roger Waters had an affinity for the Isley Brothers and Syd Barrett had not had a psychotic break, they might have developed a similar writing partnership as Claypool and Lennon.  Bubbles Burst is a good example of the way in which their unique characteristics mesh.

The video earned Lennon a bit of ire for its macabre characterization of Michael Jackson. It's important to note, however, that Lennon is not speaking as an outsider. He was one of several young celebrities that was invited to hang out at Neverland back in the day, which earns him the right to describe the experience however he sees fit.  Truth of the matter was, Jackson WAS weird, and just because he has passed on (due in part to his eccentricities) I don’t think that it is necessary to sweep Lennon’s perception of that whole scene under the carpet because it doesn’t portray Jackson in the most positive light. In fact, I think it's even more important because it is an honest recollection of a closed-door scene. Plus, it’s a actually a pretty good song.

And that’s the really impressive thing about The Monolith of Phobos. Despite all its quirkiness, it's an accessible listen. During one of our many family road trips during that month of homelessness, I put it on, fully prepared for the request to take it off and put in Everything Everything’s Get to Heaven again. I was surprised to watch the wife and kids bobbing their heads to the infectious funk shanty Captain Lariat. It became a family favorite that, like the Lennon/Claypool Delirium itself, I could not have predicted.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Kayo Dot: Plastic Houses and Empty Rooms

Kayo Dot started showing up on my radar last spring on the casual suggestion of a reader who was a fan of their earlier “avant-metal” work. Then the eye-catching album art for the their upcoming release started inexplicably appearing on my feed, followed by previews that described evocative “Twin Peaks” atmospheres. These and other subtle suggestions continued until eventually, without even hearing a note, Plastic House at Base of Sky superseded Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool as my most anticipated release this summer as we revved up to move out of Austin.

I submitted to the chaos of impenetrable cross-town traffic for the last time, and Plastic House at Base of Sky revealed itself to be an engaging example of what happens when an experimental metal group decides to hang up growling vocals and blast beats in lieu of apocalyptic anime soundscapes. Using synth textures that recall the heyday of the DX-7, it blurs the lines between guitar and keyboard like Beat-era King Crimson while unapologetically bringing contemporary technique to bear on old-school Simmons electric drum sounds.

Unlike the sleek elegance of 80s King Crimson, however, Plastic House at Base of Sky allows the density of Zappa’s synclavier experiments to collide with the chanting, gothic vocal approach of Toby Driver in a shoegazey smog. In its thicker moments, this texture teeters on cacophony, which imbues its more focused moments with meaning and power. While I am not sure if I totally buy into the “Twin Peaks” comparison, there is a dark, haunting quality to the album that might evoke David Lynch’s unsettling visual approach.

While I will not miss the traffic in Austin, I will definitely miss our house on the hill. Although I knew that leaving would be hard, the move out of the house ended up being more haunting and unsettling than I anticipated. After the movers were gone, I became acutely aware that it would be the last day that I will ever see the inside of that house. I felt my gut sink.

P’s room was particularly heartbreaking. EJ’s room had been a guest room since we moved in, and had only recently evolved into “the nursery” since she was born. P’s room, however, had always been just hers. It was the place that she grew from infancy to a full-fledged member of our team and, more recently, into a big sister. It’s pink accent wall, faux chandelier, white furniture, and Minnie Mouse trundle bed came to reflect her emerging personality.

As I stood in the empty room, these hidden memories the came out to play. I realized that I was not only saying goodbye to the space, but also to the infant that she was when we moved in. I had to go outside and I did not go back. That was it.

Then the next day, very quietly so as not to wake her and the rest of my family, I left my parent’s house in Austin at 5:30 AM with the dog as my navigator to embark on our new life in Denton. It seemed like the person who wrote about the events that led to us building and moving into our house on the hill four years ago was very far away, and I was stepping into a haze of uncertainty. Out of all this chaos, however, I am convinced that our new life will emerge with greater power and meaning. As for P, her new room will undoubtedly reflect the young lady she will become as she enters kindergarten - a person that will blossom from the child she was in our the little house on the hill.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Making a Play: Anderson/Stolt's "Invention of Knowledge"

I have long argued that Yes’ perpetually changing lineup puts the band in the unique position to survive beyond the participation of its defining members. Holding tightly to this theory, I have had quite a bit of fun fantasizing about what that “Nu-Yes” might look like. With the installation of Jay Schellen as interim Yes drummer while Alan White recovers from a medical procedure, three-fifths of my “Nu-Yes” dream team has miraculously found its way to the stage. The creative potential of this line-up is intriguing, but part of me has to admit that it is a little weird. I have some sympathy for fans who think that Yes is evolving into their own cover band, a position that is reinforced by a simple fact:

They have not released any new music.

Simultaneously, former singer and founding member Jon Anderson, who parted ways with the band several years ago, has been passively maneuvering himself into position as the true location of contemporary Yes music. Many of his projects, however, have similarly focused on reinventing Yes’ back catalog, rather than creating new music in the Yes tradition. The exception, however, is Invention of Knowledge, his recently released collaboration with Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings, which, from a certain perspective, might be the best Yes album that has been released in quite a while.

Strictly speaking, and certainly from a legal standpoint, Invention of Knowledge is not a Yes album. It does, however, capture and expand on certain aspects of Yes music in a way that will please many fans. As far as personnel go, the album’s direct ties to the Yes family tree are relatively minimal, but its core personnel offer up an alternate “Nu-Yes” configuration that is, in some ways, a challenge to my own hypothetical group.

I have been a fan of Roine Stolt and the Flower Kings for decades, so naturally in my prog “fantasy football” exercises, I had considered Stolt as a potential successor to Yes guitarist Steve Howe. This was not necessarily because he is a Howe copycat, but because it seemed like he could bring to Yes what Howe brought to Yes, both as a player and a contributor, without surrendering his unique guitar voice. Due to his busy schedule with the Flower Kings, Transatlantic, and other seemingly endless prog projects, however, his inclusion seemed too unrealistic. Therefore, it is a joy to see him realize his potential as a contributor to the Yes sound. Stolt also brings a cadre of outstanding musicians from the Flower Kings collective, not the least of which is go-to prog bassist Jonas Reingold, who dances elegantly around inevitable comparisons to the late Chris Squire by playing in his own distinctive voice.

These musicians certainly have a palpable “Yes-ness” in their musical DNA and serve the music well, but the inclusion of Tom Brislin on keyboards really tethers Invention of Knowledge to the Yes family tree. Like Oliver Wakeman, Brislin was a Yes keyboardist that never really got the chance to contribute to the overall Yes canon other than playing already established parts. Invention of Knowledge gives him the opportunity to show what he could have done for the group during those lost years and perhaps even gives him the leverage to nudge Gleb Kolyadin out of my own hypothetical dream team.

I would call the album a great success that reveals more greatness with repeated listens, but despite this, I am not sure that I ascribe to the camp that wishes Anderson would return to Yes. He is an amazingly gifted vocalist that could literally sing anything and make it sound good, perhaps to his detriment. Yes is known for its complex and often cosmic aspects, but memorable songwriting has always been at the core of the band’s best work. Ever since Magnification, however, I increasingly sense that Anderson has come to prefer a freer, more improvised feel to his work that perhaps might not align with Yes’ ongoing intention to craft accessible melodies within complex structures.

Taken on its own, however, The Invention of Knowledge works because Stolt has a similarly wandering spirit and a work ethic that can bring broadly conceived ideas to their conclusion. I think that their conceptual common ground and collaborative relationship resulted in a more consistent album than Yes’ most recent effort and, as such, could be seen as a compelling challenge to the band’s authority to wield the name.

On the other hand, I am an advocate for the band’s current direction, but unlike some of Yes’ more myopic fans, I don’t think that excludes me from supporting Jon Anderson. Truth is, although I still stubbornly file my Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe disc between Big Generator and Union, I am not convinced that Invention of Knowledge is really the successor, or even a competitor, to Heaven and Earth. It aligns more closely with Jon Anderson’s solo repertoire and probably is more fairly considered as such. It is not hard to secretly indulge in the fantasy, however, that it might be the best Yes album that you will hear this year.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Best Laid Plans: Everything Everything's "Get to Heaven"

I don’t drink or binge shop or other things that people characteristically do when on a boat for a week, but the part of me that likes to stand on the beach and stare out at the ocean really, really likes cruise life.  Last week, I was lucky enough to go on a 7 day trek at sea with my extended family, and I was really looking forward to getting my Father's Day music on the phone, circumambulating the decks, and pondering existence.

Not all music works well in all settings, however, particularly when the entire family is involved. I have to be somewhat sensitive if I am to continue assaulting them with my compulsive listening habits. Out of kindness to them, I did not lean too hard on the new Kayo Dot release, but a cursory spin of Everything Everything’s Get to Heaven definitely caught my attention.  The album's production is immediately punchy, and lead man Jonathan Higgs has a falsetto that just won't quit.  I suspected that the band's quirky, colorful take on British pop would get the whole family moving in their seats.

I was sooo right.

Everything Everything is, in essence, a pop band, and as such they hang their accessibility on great, memorable hooks.  There are, however, theatrical excursions and hidden complexities incorporated in their songs that move away from these central ideas and returns to them in very musically satisfying ways.  The album’s adventurous musicality never detracts, however, and despite being incredibly diverse, the songs still remain coherent and just plain fun to listen to.   I looked forward to absorbing the entire album poolside.

Which I was able to an extent. Within 48 hours, I was, indeed, poolside with Get to Heaven on the player, but I was also in charge of watching P as she played in the kids area.  As a result, my attention was mostly divided as I watched her splash around and make new friends on the boat. It was not quite the focused listen that I had envisioned, but the album’s dancehall overtones layered well with the overall vibe.  Especially this relentlessly infectious gem:

Everything Everything is able to bear the weight of decades of british pop on their shoulders with relative grace.  They inhabit a spectrum that juxtaposes the introspective pop-prog of early Radiohead with the slightly goofy textures of The Gorillaz, perhaps like what would happen if Damon Albarn took a turn singing for Level 42.  I was just considering the implications of this proposed polarity on the dissonance between the album’s sunny musical exterior and the sometimes melancholy nature of its lyrics when catastrophe struck.

We engaged in an almost comical struggle to keep our cabin organized, and in the midst of clean, gently worn, and dirty clothes, I lost my earphones.  Bummer.

Music was suddenly confined to our cabin, which kind of put a damper on my plans to walk the decks and pontificate as I had on my previous cruise experience. Kayo Dot would have to wait.  By this time, however, Get to Heaven had evolved into a family favorite, and I would play some of the more energetic tracks to generate daily spontaneous dance parties in the cabin.

P currently describes Distant Past as her "favorite song," although she, along with my wife, really enjoy Get to Heaven in its entirety.  Admittedly. a few songs seem to be framed as "singles," but the album's most disarming feature is its consistency.  There really isn't a bad track in the bunch, although there might be a few perceived "lulls" after particularly spectacular moments.  Taken on their own, however, these songs are still fantastically creative while retaining their accessibility, which is always a recipe for success in my book.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

June Roundup: The Big Money

Although I have been aware of The Big Money that Neil Peart once wrote about, of late its dominance seems more distinct.  For example, I have had the sense of late that the political abstractions of the liberal “left” and the conservative “right” are nothing more than polarizing  distractions thrown in our path. The Big Money manipulates these ideologies through the media like a season of professional wrestling to keep the public pointing fingers at each other.  This is not to say that the people who invest in these concepts do not exist. In fact, quite the opposite. There are definitely people who are dangerously invested in these ideals and are convinced that the “other” is conspiring to take the country away.

The country has already been taken away, though, and not by the bearded vegan down at the coffee shop, or the guy with the beer gut sitting on his front porch, or even the smug jerk that just cut you off in the orange Ferrari (although he would like to think that the world is his). It belongs to those who have been able to afford it - The Big Money, and I have the sneaking suspicion that it doesn’t really care about us. It’s what shut Uber down in Austin. It’s what gets military grade rifles in the hands of civilians. It’s what keeps standardized testing in schools. It goes around the world. It’s got no soul.

Bernie Sanders gave me some hope that the nation could take steps to evolve this whole narrative into something more functional. That’s why, even after weeks of media blackout on his campaign, I would still like to see Sanders run on a consolidated “progressive” third party ticket. I don’t think it is unreasonable, especially if Trump’s embarrassing campaign continues to crumble under the weight of his own ineptitude. This scenario is difficult to prove or disprove, however, because Sanders’ actual numbers have been consistently obscured by media and voter fraud, both of which are controlled by, again, The Big Money.

Frustratingly, even if Sanders got on a viable third party ticket, there is no reason to think that his presidential run would not be fraught with the same issues of fraud and manipulation he faced in the primaries. I am afraid The Big Money simply would not let him win. Its nervous, though, which implies that the Sanders campaign might have been on the right track.

Now, back to our regular station. Here’s the music that’s been in rotation for the past month or so. I was very fortunate to get some gift cards for Father’s day, so lots of new stuff.

Weezer - Weezer [white]: A new “color” album was just the thing to bring me out of my moratorium on Weezer albums. The band has been more clever than good for the better part of a decade, but for better or worse a couple of these tunes are firmly lodged in my skull and on constant repeat.

David Bowie - Heroes: As legendary as this album is and as much critical attention it has recently garnered, as a whole it did not grab me as much as I had anticipated. I am, however, pondering the possibility that its title track might be an embryonic example of what would later develop into shoegaze.

The Lennon/Claypool Delirium - The Monolith of Phobos: No matter who else plays with Les Claypool in his various collaborations, the project has to deal with the amount of “Primusness” that his distinctive style brings. The Lennon/Claypool Delirium is in no way immune from this phenomenon, but it is interesting to hear him embody the unique character of late 70’s Roger Waters in a 60’s psychedelic environment that stars Sean Lennon as Syd Barrett.

Frost - Falling Satellites: Frost*’s rhizomatic connections to the proggier styles of late period Genesis will undoubtedly please technical neo-prog fans. The album’s melodic strength is brought to life by stunning musical performances throughout.

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool: Radiohead’s newest is not a dense listen. It remains opaque, however, because it is the opposite - it glides from moment to moment and slips through the fingers like quicksilver into the past.

Chvrches - Open Every Eye: I dismissed this album last year because it could not stand up to their incredible debut. With some time between the two and some encouragement, however, I have come to appreciate Open Every Eye on its own merit.

Kayo Dot - Plastic House at Base of Sky: Ponder this: a project with with roots in avant-metal looks to anime soundtracks and 80’s synth for inspiration. The result is a challenging, dense, immersive, and ultimately transfixing experience

Everything Everything - Get to Heaven: Holy poop, what a great album! Everything Everything gleefully sum up two decades of British pop with a distinctive style.

Karate - Some Boots: It almost never happens - walk into a record store and discover something amazing playing on the overhead speakers. Gratefully, that’s how I discovered this great early 00s album.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Interstellar and Time Away

Regrettably, I haven't documented the trials and triumphs of EJ’s infancy as meticulously as I did her sister P. This is due in no small part to the job hunt, but also because EJ had a little trouble getting off the ground in the beginning. She had, to use the pediatric term, colic - which really means that she cried a lot.

And she did cry - a lot. Her sensitive tummy often made her inconsolable, and because of this the late night feedings that I came to enjoy with P were not quite as peaceful as I anticipated. It seemed pointless to have music playing when she clearly could not have heard it over her own screaming. When she finally did calm down, my wife and I both welcomed the quiet.

I had every intention of shaping EJ’s musical world as I have her sister's, but she clearly was going to take a different path.  To start, I started playing “wind down” music between dinner and bedtime.  Music for 18 Musicians was often first choice, followed closely by an album that I had purchased last year during the last push of the Superhero Theme Project but that only clicked for me earlier this year - Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar soundtrack.

This soundtrack received quite a bit of acclaim when it was released, and even though I had not seen the movie, it impressed me when I put it in rotation. In many ways, Interstellar struck me as a relatively traditional soundtrack when compared to Zimmer's more recent work, with strings and organs outlining its grandiose meditations rather than the earth-shattering intensity of Inception or the physics-bending atmospherics of The Dark Knight. Despite its more orthodox approach, it relayed a sense of exploratory fascination that clearly reflected the movie’s scope, even capturing the ominous wonder of a water planet with mountain-sized tsunamis covering its entire surface. 

I thought the Interstellar soundtrack was breathtakingly beautiful at the time, but it did not stick. I shelved it until I finally saw the movie earlier this year. Interstellar, as a film, affected me. It is certainly good science fiction, but one of its underlying messages spoke to me personally in a way that took me off guard, and it drastically altered my perception of its soundtrack.

The movie contains a plot line where, due to the tenets of relativity and space travel, a lifetime passes for a child while her parent experiences hours. In one scene, the father leaves his daughter to go on a mission that he is convinced is for the good of mankind, but that will most likely take him away from her for a substantial part of her lifetime.  As he drives away, she begs him to stay.

This scenario alludes to a real-world paradox that many parents face: they go off to work for the benefit of their families, an act which takes them away from their families. There is a deep, dark fear that we will look up one day from our work to find the children that we have been working so hard for have grown and that we never really took the time to know them. The elegant beauty of this soundtrack also harbors the pain and angst of this heartbreaking struggle. It felt even more meaningful when I went back to work a mere four weeks after EJ’s birth and was expected to act as if nothing had happened. Or as if I was getting more than three hours sleep a night.

Pediatricians say that most infants will grow out of colic, and fortunately that has been the case for EJ. She has turned a corner in the past few weeks and is much more peaceful in the evenings, so I came up with an alternate plan for late night music. Since my old ZEN MP3 jukebox finally bit the dust last year, decided to use my standalone bluetooth speaker.  It sounds surprisingly good for how small it is, so I uploaded five or six appropriate albums (Including Interstellar) on my phone. I was excited about cycling through them.

By this time, however, we were working on staging the house for its sale and the bluetooth speaker got unintentionally packed away in storage in the process. It won’t be seen again for several months. Looks like EJ’s Interstellar experience may be coming back at a future date - but probably in less than seven years.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding a Job: Frost*'s "Falling Satellites"

If you read between the lines on my last couple of posts, it might be apparent as to why I have not posted much in the last few months. I was the one who instigated my family’s move, but as of my last post, I still did not have a job. My lack of success weighed heavily. Despite nearly twenty years of band directing experience, the application process was gruelling, frustrating, and often disheartening. It took precedence over working out, practicing, writing, and almost everything else besides daily family duties.  I felt like any moment I spent away from hammering on applications was a missed opportunity that might have serious repercussions for my family's future.

There were lots of times I wondered if it were the right thing to do. Although my band program was in no way perfect, I was very proud of the successes that we had. Things had changed at my school over the past couple of years, however, and the once positive environment on my campus had devolved. It had become routine for students to disrespect and refuse instruction with very little consequence. I did the best I could to keep that culture out of the band hall, but ultimately I could not fight the tide. I spent a lot of time and energy dealing with behavior issues while good students withered on the vine.  I still felt the conviction to continue shepherding those who sought excellence, but I could not stay in that environment without burning out before retirement. I needed a change

Out of respect for my campus and the good of my kids, though, I had to submit my resignation without actually having any interviews in line. I was committed. I finally landed a very positive interview in a small district within commuting distance of Denton. The program is in need of restructuring, and my previous position allowed me to speak with some experience on the challenges ahead. After the interview, I felt quite confident that I was going to land the job.

I had made plans to go to aikido class in Denton that evening, but I had some free time to kill and I found myself on the square. One of the things I will definitely miss in Austin is going to record stores like Waterloo and End of an Ear to browse the ever-shrinking CD selections, so predictably, I dropped in to Mad World Records. I knew that most of their CD selection is reused, so I was not expecting to find much. I was shocked, however, to find that they had Falling Satellites, the most recent Frost* disc, on the shelf.  Bonus points for them!

I enjoyed Frost*’s debut Milliontown quite a bit several years ago. I always had the sense that, although it would be hard to confuse the two, fans of Morse-era Spock’s Beard would find a lot to like in Frost*. Keyboardist and primary composer Jem Godfrey’s vocals share some timbral similarities with Morse, and the band plays with an energy that recalls the Beard’s driving, rhythmically disorienting instrumental side. In fact, if the Beard had not found success in their current line-up, it’s fun to play “what-if” games with Godfrey leading the band.

Despite my respect and admiration for their work, I did not follow them with much vigor after Milliontown. Falling Satellites received enthusiastic accolades on one of my usual online progressive rock resources, however, and also featured a guest solo by Joe Satriani. These two things earned it a spot on my wish list, and a physical copy sitting on a record store shelf on such a potentially momentous day was just too good to pass up.

Falling Satellites is a dense listen, much more so than Milliontown. Like the best progressive rock, it takes time to get familiar enough with its complexity to see the album’s best aspects. It does, however, have plenty of attention-grabbing passages, both in terms of virtuosity and production. If Frost* were not so clearly led by Godfrey’s keyboard playing, they might even border on prog-metal in some sections. Despite its intensity, however, Falling Satellites sounds very clean, perhaps so much that at times, it loses its edge and teeters on sterility. Overall, however, Frost* comes off more like a particularly fleet-fingered Collins-era Genesis.

Joe Satriani’s appearance is, as expected, fleeting, improvised, and probably mailed in. It is but a moment on the album, but it is a joy to hear nonetheless (below at 3:20). That is to take nothing away from the fantastic work of regular Frost* guitarist John Mitchell, who I have followed since Arena’s The Visitor, but Satriani is a phenomenal player that pushes the possibilities of rock guitar into new realms as a matter of course. Like the best jazz musicians, he takes a few very simple musical ideas and expands them into a full solo.

After floating around the square with Falling Satellites in hand, I made my way back to the car to head towards the dojo On the way, I received a message that I would be offered the job. Without question, I accepted the offer and put another piece of the Denton puzzle in place. It still doesn’t seem real - but what is very real is that I have been able to let go of the application nightmare I had been living in for months. That is a true relief.