Sunday, February 27, 2011

Recording Ambience: Jarre's "Oxygene" Thirty Years Later

I am not the most devout fan of Jean-Michael Jarre, but I know his work.  I used to hitch a ride to school with a guy who would listen to “Magnetic Fields” and “Oxygene” regularly and my dad was also a fan.  When the CD player showed up in our house in the mid-80s, “Rendez-vous” was one of the first things that hit the tray.  In general, though, Jarre’s work was too soothing for my teenage ears, and by the 80s his image had turned a little cheesy.  He mostly went in one ear and out the other at the time.  There were, of course, exceptions:

Recently, though, as I listen to Ratatat or the “TRON: Legacy” soundtrack, Jarre keeps coming to mind.  I think that his contribution to electronica is under-recognized, so this week, I decided to take the bull by the horns and listen to his breakout album “Oxygene” critically, perhaps for the first time ever. 

A caveat - Jarre wasn’t that great of a keyboardist, but I don’t think that piano technique was his priority.  He was a synthesist, and as a craftsman of recorded ambience, he was quite the innovator in his day.  When “Oxygene” was released in 1976, there was no ProTools or Ableton, and computers ran on little paper cards.  Jarre was working with 8-track recorders and ARP synthesizers, and considering these tools, it’s a testament to his exploratory vision that the ambient depth of “Oxygene” is so impressive.  Its spooky sci-fi vibe is organic and immersive in a way that subverts the technological conditions under which it was constructed.  It’s actually a pretty innovative ambient achievement.

Unfortunately, the “ambient” label would not come to exist for another twenty years when bands like Enigma started to have some success in the late 90s.  As a result, Jarre ended up in the 80s “New Age” bin more often than not.  In 2007, however, he re-recorded a “live” version of “Oxygene” using vintage keyboards, complete with attendant video clips:

Considering that your phone could probably automate what all four of those guys are doing while downloading an app in the background, this performance may seem a little archaic.  If, however, you can imagine a much younger Jarre in an early 70s apartment studio multitracking this whole mess by himself, I think it deserves quite a bit of credit.  

Back to the original question: why does so much of my current listening remind me of Jarre?  I think that my early exposure to Jarre laid the foundation for my understanding of electronica’s ambient potential.  Contemporary synthesists construct ambience as a matter of course, but I seem to be particularly attracted to artists that use actual keyboard sounds like the ones that Jarre used.  His brand of “imaginary space opera” from this era provides the perspective from which I currently listen to electronic music.

Friday, February 25, 2011

February Listening Roundup

February is drawing to a close, so the time has come for another roundup.  I have talked about some of these albums in other posts, so I'm sure you have already formulated opinions on a few of them.  If you want a place to share those opinions, there is a discussion group attached to this blog over on Facebook called “Spinners.”  Some interesting bands have been brought to my attention over there.  Bringing obscure and mainstream music to light is the central point of this blog, but to be really successful it takes dialogue.  So……the prize!  One vintage concert t-shirt (Living Colour ‘88) is in the mail to the guy who suggested the Secret Chiefs 3.  Thanks for that one.

Here’s what’s been in play for February:

Scott Walker: “Tilt” – I saw the “30 Century Man” documentary last fall, and have been slowly getting into Walker’s limited solo ouvere.  He is the master of an ambience that I admit I don’t fully understand, but that I find fascinating.

Deerhoof: “Deerhoof vs. Evil” - I’ve blogged a lot about this one - I’m sure you can decide if it’s for you.  We’ll see if it ends up as 2011 top ten.

Ben Butler and Mousepad: “Formed for Fantasy” – This album is at its best when it avoids guest vocalists.  The instrumentals (which are in the majority) are friggin’ awesome.

Sean Lennon: “Friendly Fire” – Quite possibly a personal pop classic.  Engaging and heartbreaking.

Miike Snow – Can an album I bought last year be a favorite for 2011?  As Kinky Friedman would say, “Why the hell not?”

Astra: “The Weirding” – Again, I blogged at length about this retro-prog gem.  It’s really quite good at what it does. 

Budos Band III – Looking forward to seeing these muziqa afro-beaters in Austin soon, so they may come up again next month.  If this album is any indication, the show will be awesome.

Secret Chiefs 3: “Book M” – Noisy hard-rockin’ electronic sympho-funk with a deliberate Persian feel to it.  Last track is a cover of Muziqawi Silt by the Wallias band in the style of Parliament.

The Par Lindh Project: “Mundus Incompertus” – An early 90s retro-prog album that I thought I’d come back to.  Not sure why – I think maybe Par Lindh takes his reverence for Keith Emerson a little too far.

Ratatat: “Classics” – Another good one from these guys, but maybe not the best.  I am not sure I would have bought into them as much if I had started here - still simmering, though.

Jean-Michel Jarre: “Oxygene” – All of this electronica I have been checking out recently made me want to get back to the roots of my personal electronic music taste.  Considering it was made over thirty years ago, "Oxygene" is quite a magnificent piece of work (too bad it got lumped in the "new age" bin at the time).

Zorch: “Demo” – This has a concept and energy that I find appealing – and it comes with its own volume knob!  The EP format sometimes does not hold my attention, though, so we’ll see how long it keeps.

Coming up in March, I have Metric’s “Fantasies” and “Sezzions” by Mouse on the Keys ready to spin. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Quick Word About Zorch

We were headed to the car after the Deerhoof show (I promise I’ll let it go after this) when we heard some electronic ruckus coming from the Mohawk’s inside room.  It sounded like some kind of post-90s rave freakout, but with the undeniable sound of live, and very active, drumming. It literally stopped us in our tracks.  Our interest must have been obvious, because a person walking by nonchalantly muttered to us “they’re pretty badass, actually.”  We decided to go back in and check it out.

The band playing inside, which I recently tracked down, was a local Austin band called Zorch.  Like Ben Butler and Mousepad, Zorch is a high-tech drum and keyboard duo, but their approach was much less funky and much more intense.  They were dishing out some really amazing musicianship, actually, but inside that little room at the Mohawk the performance was nothing short of ear-bleedingly, painfully loud.  I actually think that I felt parts of my hearing being erased by standing in the room.   Check out this video – except imagine it at, like, jet engine decibel level.

Obviously, as a duo with a pretty full sound, there is some automation happening in Zorch’s music, but if you watch the video carefully it allows you to see how the tech never runs amok as an end in itself – just like it oughta be.  The keyboardist sets up the arpeggiation to keep the intensity up while focusing on other aspects of the song (bassline, etc).  For the drummer, of course, it’s no secret.  His feverishly Bozzio-esuque hyperactivity rises to the challenge of keeping up with the machinery.

So, even though I did not stay long at their show (out of self-defense for my hearing), Zorch made enough of an impression on me to look up almost a month later.  I downloaded their EP earlier this week, and it captures them.  If you are turned off by the poppier aspects of my blog entries and want something a little more experimental, you’ll like them – it’s got my interest this week.  Plus it’s free. Furthermore, after acquainting myself with the recording, I think that I might be open to checking them out live again, only armed with earplugs this time.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors: Deerhoof, Ratatat, and Live Persona

Not too long ago, the sound of a person’s voice was never far removed from his or her mouth.  With telephones, computers, and speakers lurking in virtually every corner of our existence, that idea seems almost laughably quaint.  Today, it hardly seems miraculous that I can talk to my wife across town without actually physically being there.  That we take this for granted has significant ramifications on our musical consumption.  In the midst of all of the smoke-and-mirrors that follow the recording process, it is particularly easy to forget that music is generated by human hands.  The studio version of a song is a fixed ideal, and is often not reproducible in a live performance.

For me, however, a band's live persona is an important component of the overall listening experience.  It does more than just put a face on the musicians – it also allows me to see the musician’s conception of their own music.  When I went to see Deerhoof in January at the “coldest show ever,” I hoped I would be able to better appreciate their recorded output, an investment which is just now starting to pay off.

For the musically curious, which is who this blog is supposed to be for, I would suggest "Deerhoof vs. Evil" as a good entry point for the band.  It has been in regular rotation ever since that show, and something is starting to happen with me and that recording that is hard to describe.  Yesterday I woke up with this little ditty firmly planted in my internal radio.  The video showcases Satomi's quirky "Laurie Anderson meets the grunge scene" persona.

Studio versions of songs are often unrealistic in a live setting, though.  Some bands hire extra musicians who were not part of the creative process to recreate the studio on stage.  Deerhoof takes a different approach, stripping the song down to its barest persisting essence so that it can be performed by the group’s core members.  I attribute my new perception of "Deerhoof vs. Evil" to a conceptual framework provided by seeing them perform live.

For comparison, here's a pretty good amateur clip of "Super Duper Rescue Heads!" from that January show.  Check out the similarities and differences between this live version and the version from the "official" video, particularly in the drums and guitars. 

On the flip side, some styles of music are created entirely in the studio, and live performances are complicated by the expectations of the original.  For example, if it seems like I am sort of on an electronic music kick, I squarely place the blame on the duo Ratatat.  Back in the day, if I liked a group, I would avidly collect all of their albums.  I am less inclined to do that these days, but Ratatat is the first “band” (if a duo can even be a band) in awhile that has me eyeballing their entire catalog.  I got “LP4” last Fall, and that is as good a place as any to start if you are curious. Be prepared, though: within months, I got “LP3” (which has a surprise on it for Horror Remix fans) and I just put “Classics” in rotation.  Ratatat’s sliding guitars, swirling melodies, and hallucinogenic beats keep me coming back for more.

Beyond this rather superficial description, however, it is difficult to stylistically pin Ratatat down.  Late 80’s electronic pioneers The Art of Noise come to mind, although Ratatat is definitely more West Coast and less British.  Mike Stroud’s guitar work suggests the epic walls of guitar that Brian May built with Queen, but within an electronic context reminiscent of Daft Punk (yeah, THOSE guys again).

Now granted, I might not be the best authority on Ratatat’s performance practice.  I was looking forward to seeing them live, but the show was sold out by the time I got around to getting a ticket.  That’s the price I pay for procrastinating. As a duo with pretty complicated music that is known for a good live show, though, it does beg the question: how do they render their music in a performance setting?  From what I have gathered, Ratatat employs sequencing to fill out parts that cannot be covered or that are impossible to acoustically recreate.  To draw attention away from this aspect of their performances, they meet the smoke-and-mirrors head-on by putting on an audio-visual lightshow spectacle.

There was a time in my life when I would have been critical of this "play-along" approach, but as sequencers become ever more reactive, I have come to appreciate the emergent specialized musicianship that accommodates them.  On the one hand, Ratatat showcases guitar in a way that humanizes their performances.  Beyond that, for Ratatat (and for Rush, too, for that matter), virtual instruments allow the musicians who are primarily involved in the creative process to perform at a level that compares favorably to the expectations set by the studio recording.  Ratatat's music is essentially larger-than-life, and to strip this away for a live performance would fundamentally change what the band is about.

This final clip is a Deerhoof encore, of sorts. It catches Greg's monologue on the weather, Satomi's attempt to get feeling back in her hands, plumes of steam coming from the band's mouths...and of course, an energetic performance that would be difficult to capture in the studio.

Finally, in other news, I am considering offering prizes for musical suggestions that contribute to the blog.  Keep your ears open.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Where Have All The Theme Songs Gone? Daft Punk and "TRON: Legacy"

Although I am not a huge fan of soundtracks, every now and then I will pick one up.  I appreciate that TV and movie scores are one of the last arenas in which instrumental music still has the public’s ear, and some compelling scores exist.  For me, scores are most interesting when they work on their own as standalone compositions or when they evoke a particularly distinctive atmosphere that brings the movie back for the listener.  The best ones do both, but I feel like I rarely hear either in most contemporary scores, so there are not many that I get into these days.

Soundtracks did play a significant role in my musical concept, though, particularly John Williams’ work in the late 70s and early 80s.  I have a youthful memory of listening to the original Star Wars soundtrack on my parent’s LP, trying to match the pictures on the inside sleeve with the music.  Furthermore, it was impossible to be a public school band student during that time and not play some of Williams’ work.  I think his work stands on its own quite well, and still helps to keep the sound of the orchestra fresh to contemporary ears.

The thematic style that Williams and other composers used during this era has seemed to fall out of favor in recent times, a tendency reflected in other soundtrack genres.  In the early 90s Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack to Twin Peaks was hugely successful in merging atmosphere with melody.  Listening to this soundtrack out of context in everyday life brings back the uneasy surreality that the show created, making you want to peek around corners and talk in poorly executed backwards-masked accents.  Seriously.  I did it all the time.

Now run the clock forward a decade to the "theme" from one cerebral, metaphysical drama to another:

Meh.  Granted, the “theme sound” from “LOST” became iconic in itself, and as a piece of soundscaping it is interesting.  It doesn’t, however, make for particularly engaging listening on its own unless you have a really short attention span.  Now, I certainly don't pretend to say that I could do any better, but considering but how much thought and imagination was invested in the show itself, it seems a little lackadaisical.

Alas, these days, a movie or TV “soundtrack” is usually a compilation of songs that may or may not even be in the originating work.  This works well for the Showtime’s “Weeds,” but that show's producers are quite meticulous about how songs are chosen and placed.  Most of the time, this format doesn't do anything for me.  So, when I heard that Daft Punk was doing the soundtrack for “TRON Legacy,” I thought I might get a theme song out of them, but that was as much as I had hoped. Fitting Daft Punk’s cerebral house-style of electronica seemed to be too perfect a match to actually see light of day. 

But...I have to hand it to them, Disney does have a history of cleverly using of popular music stars, particularly with their 90s animated features.  Elton John is still banking on the “Lion King,” and Phil Collins extended his career by a few more years with “Tarzan.”  These stars lent credibility to Disney’s films by the virtue of their top 40 identities.  With Daft Punk, however, it was a significantly more compelling choice.  Their identity points to a rugged cyberpunk intellectualism that coincides beautifully with the existing TRON universe.  It was no stretch to see that if Daft Punk was given free reign, they would do something that would, at the very least, be appropriate and possibly interesting.

Fortunately it was true, and the resulting “TRON Legacy” soundtrack is actually quite clever and enjoyable on many levels.  Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack to the original TRON blended the orchestral with the synthetic, and Daft Punk’s foray into similar styles is even more seamless than its predecessor.  It is equal parts James Horner and Jean-Michel Jarre, carefully balancing the digital and orchestral with the nostalgic and innovative.

This is the closing credits track.  It encapsulates the idea of soundtrack pretty well in its entirety, particularly when it opens to the orchestral part towards the end.

The soundtrack excels admirably at conveying the bombastic grandeur of a TRON film.  In addition to its overall atmospheric strength, it also has compelling melodies, as well – perhaps to its detriment.  When taken out of the context of the movie, the main TRON theme begins to feel a bit overused.  In other words, Daft Punk is not quite poised to dethrone Williams as the king of clever thematic score composition (although some clever arranging might produce a usable concert medley).  The "TRON Legacy" score may not quite stand on its own as a "work," but I think that the movie would not succeed as well as it does without it. As someone pointed out, although the movie itself is pretty good, as an extended Daft Punk video, it’s quite amazing.

Plus, that theme IS pretty memorable.  And it sounds good in traffic.  Go figure.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Four Hands of Ten: Paul Slavens and the Dead Kenny G's

The setting: August 1989.  My parents had just walked out of my dorm room in Bruce Hall at the University of North Texas.  For the first time, I was alone and acutely aware of the changes I was about to go through, and to say the least I was in a state of silent panic.  My roommate, whom I owe a debt of gratitude for putting up with me as I learned to be a roommate myself, suggested we go see a band called Ten Hands.  Music can be a salve when life changes around you, and Ten Hands not only provided the soundtrack and many Thursday evening social events during that confusing time, they also ended up being an influence on my personal musicking (their bassist was the first person I had ever seen play a Chapman Stick).

Ten Hands struggled to “make it” in those pre-internet days, and, sadly, despite having incredible material, stellar musicianship, and great, great live shows, after probably too long they fizzled out.  There were many incarnations of the band, but my introduction came in the form of a tape called “Kung Fu….That’s What I Like.”  If you were around me at all during this period in my life, I probably stuffed that tape down your throat like it was the cure for what was ailing you.

Ten Hands released three CDs, but I have to say that if you were not there during the time that they were in their ascendancy, you missed it.  None of their recordings came close to capturing what the band did live, and filming a band in those days meant lugging a huge and unsexy camcorder around.  As a result there is very little documentation of them in their prime.  The album that should have been their breakout was “Be My Guru,” which you can still get, and its good, but due to a production problem, you will have to turn up your stereo ridiculously loud to even hear it.  I’m afraid you just had to be there.

Just because a band dies off, however, does not mean that its members do.  Some members of Ten Hands became sought-after studio musicians, while others quit the music scene altogether.  Last year, two ex-Ten Hands members had albums that made my personal top ten, and since you are probably not going to run across these albums anywhere else, it’s time for more medicine.

For all intents and purposes, Paul Slavens was Ten Hands.  He was the lead singer and primary songwriter, and his charismatic humor and musical ability was the glue that held the band’s performance together.  After the band dissolved, he eventually became a bit of a personality in the Dallas/Fort Worth area as a radio host.  His self-titled radio show plays every Sunday night at 8 and it’s a great source for getting exposed to new music (that’s where I got into Deefhoof).  Until recently, Slavens was also known for his longstanding Monday night gig at Dan’s Bar in which audience members would tip him to create a song based on a title that they would provide.  These improvised songs were always entertaining, often pretty good, and sometimes ingenious.  Just don't ask for any Ten Hands songs.  Trust me on this one.

Last year, he released his first solo album, “Alphabet Girls Vol. 1,” which is pretty ingenious all the way through.  Each title in this collection is based on a woman’s name that starts with one of the first 14 letters of the alphabet.  In lesser hands, this concept might be considered a constraint, but Slavens effortlessly imbues each piece with unique character.  In some cases, it is not hard to visualize the archetypical smoky piano bar that may have inspired songs like “Abigail” and “Frieda.”  In others, though, the bar is closing and the pianist who has exhausted his role as an entertainer reveals a more intimate and intellectual side in compositions such as “Clara” and the minimalistic “Janice” (this latter song has my favorite lyric delivery of almost any song in 2010).  This is a radio performance of the “L” entry, “Lucy:”

On the total other end of the stylistic spectrum, percussionist Mike Dillon was a very early member of Ten Hands.  Dillon went on to form his own group Billy Goat, and performed with several experimental groups such as The Black Frames, Critters Buggin, and, most visibly, Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade.  His most recent project, however, is the Dead Kenny G’s.  

I know, right? Best.  Name.  Ever.

At least the most appropriate.  Undoubtedly, Kenny G stands for everything that these guys are against: musical ignorance, record company intervention, commercialism, disingenuous performances, managers, et cetera.  These guys are angry and cynical, and have the chops to really drive that point home.  Getting these three innovators onstage in a live setting is like watching nuclear fusion up close with no sunglasses.  Of particular note is saxophonist Skerik, whose electronically altered “saxophonics” never pushes the instrument past what is essentially a saxophone sound.

Additionally, I suspect that Dillon is a soundman’s nightmare.  The entire right part of the stage is dedicated to his percussion setup, which includes drumset, vibes, tabla, electrics, timbales, a whole mess of effects, and God knows what else he is messing with when he disappears.  It’s not just all for show, either - he plays all of it.  Often, he plays vibes and drumset simultaneously, holding combinations of sticks and mallets in both hands.  Still, he plays as if he just can’t get enough sound out of what he has in front of him.

Gotta say, it’s hard to capture that on a recording, but The Dead Kenny G’s album “Bewildered Herd” is right up there with Mr. Bungle and John Zorn as some of my favorite avant-garde punk-jazz-whatever out there.  Incidentally, the ghost of Fela haunts this band, too – they were covering “Zombie”” for awhile.

I apologize for making this one a little longer than usual this time, but there are multiple threads between these two CDs that make me resist breaking them up.  The main point is, despite having watched these two musicians grow in totally different directions (and grow they have), that first Ten Hands show in 1989 is still reverberating in my listening today. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Budos Band and Fela (OK, mostly Fela).

I take a lot of stock in music suggested by my friends.  Clearly, I don’t run out and immediately purchase everything that people tell me to check out.  If something seems like it may be interesting, however, or aligns with something else I am listening to, I will definitely put it on my ridiculous and ever-expanding Amazon wish list.  If the stars align properly, a suggestion will eventually find its way into my player, sometimes months or even years later.  For example, the “subject under study” on this post, The Budos Band, came up on my Facebook feed in December, I believe,  They caught my ear, and, following this process, I discovered the album “Budos Band III” sitting on the shelf at one of my new CD store haunts, End of an Ear.

Now, the reason that The Budos Band caught my stubborn ear so readily is due to the obvious tribute they pay to Fela Kuti.  I threw out his name off-handedly in a previous roundup, but if you are not familiar with Fela, I would check him out right away.  He was a socioculturally fascinating Nigerian musician and the desire to sum up his life story here is nearly irresistible.  There is, however, a really great documentary on Fela called “Music is the Weapon” that is worth sitting through.  I think the whole thing is up on YouTube now, but here is an excerpt.

Fela created a style of cross-pollinated African popular music he called “Afro-Beat,” characterized by extended polyrhythmic grooves and improvisation (among other things).  Fela released a ridiculous number of albums in this style between the 70s and the late 80s, but if you want a place to start, get the album “Zombie” and go from there.  There is something about that particular album that is unique.  From there it is up to you, because if you like one of his albums, you will probably like all of them.  For better or worse, they are more of the same, although he did lose a little focus in the late 80s (probably due to all of the beatings he received from Nigerian police).  Even so, I get a new album from him every now and then and I have rarely been disappointed.

Now, back to the Budos Band.

Although there is also a “voodoo mariachi” menace lurking about in the Budos Band’s work, the presence of pulsing ostinato grooves and hyperaggresive unison horn lines clearly indicate to me the influence of Fela’s Afro-Beat.  Additionally, and obviously, if you have ever come within 50 feet of a bari sax, “Budos Band III” no-brainer.  This guy's name is Jared Tankel, and he gets that thing to bark just like that all throughout the album.  He’s also an impressive soloist, which, as a bari sax player, takes a specialized understanding of the instrument’s unique potential to execute well.  Transcribing classic bebop or John Coltrane’s soprano work won't necassarily provide that on its own (although it doesn’t hurt).

But I digress....

“Budos Band III” also shares the consistency of Fela’s work.  If you like “Black Venom,” you will probably like the whole thing (although I have to say I am not particularly behind the bizarre minor-key “Day Tripper” cover, “Rippert Yad”).  I don’t know if it will grow to be a personal classic or anything that dramatic, but I have been enjoying it this week as I burn up the road between San Antonio and Austin during TMEA this year.

Giving "That Thing" a Name.

Although it is the primary goal of this blog to kind of “spread the word” on music that I happen to be listening to, I also use it as a place to sort of reify ideas that spin around in my head, but never see the light of day.  I had a pretty amazing experience today that I wanted to get down somewhere, and this ended up being the place to do it.  I apologize if it is a little off the beaten path.

I teach music as a profession, presently as middle school band director.  Teaching ballads to young bands is pretty difficult, because it requires them to access a component of their musicianship that transcends the “little black dots on the page” (that would be the notes).  Some directors skirt the issue altogether, but I believe that young players can play expressively if prompted properly (contrary to popular belief, middle schoolers do have emotions).  For this particular piece, however, I have been struggling to give this emotion a name, or even try to describe it.

Currently, I am in San Antonio at the Texas Music Educator’s convention, and today I pondered this problem as I visited the exhibits.  However, as I looked through the scheduled events, I saw that Ed Smith was doing a vibes demonstration.  Now, I was fortunate to have had many great teachers during the course of my music studies, but Ed Smith has been a constant source of musical inspiration to me since I played in his Gamelan at UNT.  From a purely musical standpoint, I never, ever, ever get tired of hearing him play.  The truly inspiring thing about Ed is that he seems to be in a constant state of wonder about the world in which he lives.  For me, this comes out clearly when he performs. 

Anyway, I decided to go support him and he, predictably, blew my mind - especially with one of his original pieces.  The piece was inspired by John Cage’s prepared piano work and the playful “Calder’s Circus” exhibit/performance.  He placed beads, toys, and other objects on the vibraphone, playing with them by striking them or dragging them over the key, or striking the keys and allowing them to buzz as where they sat (there is no video of this one.  If one turns up, I promise you will see it).  As he played, the things he played with also played the instrument in their own way.  The youthful exuberance of the performance really moved me, and as I listened and sort of choked up a little, the emotion that I feel when I hear “A Childhood Hymn” in my head came to have a name.

The feeling is best described as passionate, unconditional conviction – the kind of conviction you feel when you absolutely and completely have faith in something that cannot be empirically proven or when you believe in your heart that something is inarguably true.

Maybe it’s different for you, but that’s what seemed to make sense to me.  Even from a practical standpoint.  After today’s convention, I had the opportunity to play shakuhachi at the Austin Museum of Art.  I intentionally tried to access this feeling during my performance and it seemed to open up new and musically gratifying ground.  So thanks, Ed, for continuing to inspire me and, undoubtedly, many, many others.     

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Slow Simmer of Miike Snow

Despite my ideal mindset of being an open-minded listener, when it comes to popular or contemporary music, I listen critically.  These two opposing tendencies can sometimes make it difficult to discern if the artist is being disingenuous or if I am just being stubborn and closed-minded.  The process of trying to figure that out usually requires repeated listening, and I will often let an album “simmer” for months in the hopes that it will “open up” to me.  Sometimes I wonder how patient I should really be.

Like many people, however, my favorite albums end up being the ones that that I am initially ambivalent about.  With a few exceptions, like Mew and the first Mars Volta album, if I immediately like a recording, its days are numbered.  So, to keep from listening to the same old stuff (or things that sound too much like the same old stuff), I try to push through this initial resistance.  The reward is to have those songs bring back this time in my life later and be able to say being able to say things like “I was really into Miike Snow when your mom was pregnant with you."

Although it is sometimes tempting to do so, I don’t want to dedicate too much blog space toward extensive artist biographies.  I personally find it interesting, but you have Wikipedia for that.  I will say, however, that Miike Snow the band grew out of Miike Snow the production project.  The band was constructed around a sound that was created in a studio setting, resulting in pretty interesting and innovative technological approach to performance.

I found out about them through Pandora through an M83 seed last summer.  Like M83, they could be broadly categorized as “electro-pop,” perhaps with a stylistic family tree that branches back to A-ha and the less sunny side of Howard Jones.  Unlike M83, though, Miike Snow did not really grab me at first.  It did, however, give me a slightly familiar, vacuous feeling, like I just did not “get it.” Although I did not like it, I did not dislike it, and for some reason it seemed to stay in the player when other CD’s came and went.  Several times, I would take it out and it would somehow find its way back in.

“Moments” with specific songs from Miike Snow began to occur.  The song “Burial” turned the insanity of a Renaissance fair into a contemplative moment, and in another instance I caught myself singing “Animal” at work.  The real kick to the head came, however, when I heard “Faker” out of context on Pandora during a house clean.  It stopped me in my tracks, even though at that point I had been listening to Miike Show for several months.  With its eloquent piano accompaniment, it seemed much more intimate than my impression of Miike Snow as an electronic outfit.  I was overlooking the songwriting aspect of the band, and when I went back and listened to the entire recording with this mindset, I realized it had several great songs on it, perhaps even a couple of astounding ones.  Additionally, all of the songs were intended for listening more than dancing and they often made a pretty straightforward lyrical point.  

It’s pretty ridiculous that it took me six months to figure that out.  What can I say?  I’m stubborn.  At least I know I am.

After that, I found this clip and it brought the song “Silvia” to life for me.  I think its kinda funny that, when people with electric guitars experiment in performance, it’s called “jamming,” but when electronic musicians do so, it’s called “remix.”  The sound on this clip is a little thin, and the bass is lost in the mix, but I think it shows how these musicians do their stuff in an up-close and personal way.

I will warn you, if you choose to look into Miike Snow further, there are some live clips with performance issues that are hard to ignore.  I think that they are most likely the result of the band working out the complexities of getting the studio to come to life on stage.  Their more current video clips are quite impressive, however, and I think that they have improved dramatically as a live outfit.  With all of the electronics involved, the easy solution would be to merely play along with a sequenced backing track.  For Miike Snow, it seems to be important that human hands directly control all of the sounds in real time.  That is something about them that I really, really appreciate. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Astra's "The Weirding" and Musical Patina

It seems like have been I emphasizing a lot of high-polish pop music. I don’t want to give the wrong impression about my interests - although the last post focused on a couple of bands that play on the 80s, that’s not the only flavor we got on tap at this yogurt shop.  Additionally, I don’t want to drone on and on about nostalgia, because it’s probably only interesting to me, but I’d like to use the band Astra, another current favorite, to illustrate what I mean by the term "patina."

Patina refers to the process by which a piece of art is distressed to give the impression of antiquity. For example, say you purchase a new Victorian-style table. Initially, because it comes from the present, it looks new. When it is “antiqued,” however, it is sort of beat up in a specific way that makes it seem like it comes from a different time. It makes the table seem more authentic, even though in truth it is a contemporary work. It has been patinated.


Since nostalgia is a longing for an idealized past in the present, the idea of patina is important, and I think that music can also have a nostalgic patina. I initially came across "The Weirding" through the Dutch Progressive Rock Page’s review section.  It was when it caught my eye again and again during my regular Waterloo Records walkthrough, however, that my well documented past of prog-rock snobbery kept me circling like a shark. Seriously, check out the cover:

The Weirding 
Despite its 2009 release date, "The Weirding" looks like a post-apocalyptic 70s Roger Dean cover on a terrible trip. Any prog-rock nut would be bonkers not to give this a second look. Still, I am a cynic, and it took the independent suggestion of a couple of well-versed music fans who were complimentary of Astra’s live show to get me to move in for the kill (you know who you are - thanks, guys).

Astra is a pretty underground group at the moment, so they don’t have many high-end performance videos floating around. Check out this really interesting fan-made video to “The Rising of the Black Sun” to get an idea of where they are coming from.

This particular track has a Hawkwind-ish vibe to it, but the entirety of “The Weirding” is almost like a “Where’s Waldo?” of psychedelic and progressive references.  I can pick out traces of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” – era Rick Wakeman, just to name a couple.  The patina I hear on this recording comes from the production, especially as it relates to the drums.  They sound a little boxy and flat by current standards, but are very reminiscent of way the drums sound on the 1969 King Crimson track “In the Court of the Crimson King.”  I suspect that this is an intentional decision to lend "The Weirding" an atmosphere of authenticity.

Although the sound quality of this next clip is a little blown-out, it provides an idea of what Astra is up to in a live setting.

Here, the patina is more visible. Sure, they look the part of the space rockers, but check out that pretty white thing under his right elbow – the mellotron. The mellotron was and is an unwieldy and fragile pre-moog keyboard instrument that was the cornerstone of the Moody Blues’ early sound. Why use an actual mellotron, though, when modern sampling makes lugging such a beast around and keeping it in tune a moot practice? For musical patina: to give the impression of antiquity and authenticity, despite the fact that Astra is a contemporary band that is referencing a certain stylistic period.

Please keep in mind that none of this is supposed to be a slam on Astra. I am totally invested in the era of psychedelic prog that they are so effectively playing with, and I like the way that they are doing it. It is because they are so good at it that I can hopefully make sense of this patina idea and refer to it later.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

McAllen Roadtrip Roundup

I took a road trip to McAllen this weekend to visit family, which is a bit of a drive. In no small part due to the open-mindedness of my wife, the usual modus operandi for music on a road trip is as follows: I pick out a handful of CDs that she selects from on the road, with the unspoken understanding that I leave the more self-indulgent and noisy stuff out of the mix. Usually, this works in my favor (although I am not sure if she has forgiven me for sneaking that KTU disc in on the trip to Dallas last month).

Anyway, I got a chance to listen to some stuff that I have not listened to in awhile, and this quick post is a “shotgun review” roundup of what we listened to on the road.

Jade Warrior: “Floating World” – Very eclectic instrumental recording from 1974 with a strong “world music” and jazz fusion vibe. A wide dynamic range makes this a difficult listen on the road: quiets are very quiet, louds blow the speakers up.

The Flower Kings: “Space Revolver” – One of the more successful 90s progressive rock bands, and one of their better recordings. The Flower Kings are usually pretty good, but some of their albums could do with just a little self-editing.

The Shins: “Oh, Inverted World” – I never think that I want to listen to this recording, and I always enjoy it when I do. It has a strummy 60s pop vibe, dark, abstract lyrics, and a tendency to be heard in weird places (“New Slang” came on the speakers during dinner at House Wine).

Ratatat: “LP3” – A favorite from last year that will eventually be part of a Ratatat post, once I figure out how I can describe what they are doing. Currently, I am rolling with “rave music you aren’t supposed to dance to.”

Astra: “The Weirding” – Unapologetic 70s retro-prog that I got into towards the end of last year. Sounds like Rick Wakeman playing for “Echoes”-era Pink Floyd with a young Ozzy singing.

Yeasayer: “Odd Blood” – Still a little unsure on this one, but the late-period Oingo Boingo-isms keep me in a holding pattern. Some good live footage of Yeasayer is out there.

Talking Heads: “Remain in Light” – Before they burned down the house, the Talking Heads were doing some relatively innovative stuff. The influence of Fela Kuti is palpable on parts of this one.

Bjork: “Medulla” – Her “mostly vocal” album, and an artistic high point in her ouvere. Bjork has an amazing ear for sounds, but sometimes I get the impression that she is not sure what to do with them.

Fleet Foxes – Described by one reviewer as “the Beach Boys of Winter.” I really can’t top that.

Japhlet Bire Attias: “JBA” – My favorite Chapman Stick album, I think – if for no other reason than the beautiful bass clarinet duet “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?”  The novelty of the instrument takes a back seat to the strength of Attias’ musical concept.

These roundups give me a chance to spit out some stuff that may interest some of you, but that may get lost in the shuffle (so to speak). They’ll probably show up from time to time. I’ll be back to regular listening next week. Some people have already offered suggestions for further listening, too, and for that I thank you.