Saturday, April 30, 2011

April Listening Roundup

Another month in the pipes, and I am starting to think about what might be the entries for "album of the year" from the Spring semester.  For now, here's what fed the player in April:

Radiohead - The King of Limbs: The King of Limbs initially presents itself as a tad obtuse, but it soon opens up into a brilliantly arranged collection of atmospheric songs. Its a unique entry in Radiohead's oeuvre that is currently commanding my interest.

Battles - EP C/B EP: Again, a bit more esoteric than Mirrored, sometimes bordering on the hypnotic. Makes me excited for the release of Gloss Drop.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers - Moanin': A straight-ahead combo jazz classic. Great soloing and a driving rhythm section.

After Forever - Decipher: Killer symphonic prog-metal from the early 00s featuring the pristine pipes of Floor Jansen. Her vocals bring Decipher to life.

Philip Selway - Familial: Although his songs seem simple, there is a noticeable depth to Selway's work that is realized elegantly on Familal. Fans of Beck's Mutations might also get into this.

Alash: Contemporary traditional throatsinging from Tuva. If you keep your eyes open, this group and others like it tour constantly - a live encounter not to be missed!

I Monster - Neveroddoreven: A fine collection of eclectic electro-pop psychedelia. It took me awhile to latch on to the narrative of the album, but now I really look forward to hearing it when it comes around.

Gustav Holst - The Planets: I think that several movements from The Planets don't get a fair shake, especially Saturn. Still, there is a reason that Mars and Jupiter are so popular - the latter of these two literally brought me to tears in the car last week simply because it is so beautifully and masterfully crafted.

Trey Gunn - Modulator: This may be a classic for me, although I'm not sure I could hum you a single measure. Its uncompromisingly complex and addictively fascinating.

epo-555 - Mafia: Mafia has a couple of really great songs surrounded by several that have not really grabbed my attention. Not bad, but not great.

Foo Fighters - Wasting Light: Like the Foos? You'll like this - they don't change formula, but I think they turned up the amps to the proverbial "eleven."

TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light: I reserve judgment on this one based on the amount of time it took for me to connect with Dear Science. I think it coheres better than that release, but its clearly still in the simmering stages.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Which Came First? Gunn and Minneman's "Modulator"

In the act of playing with one another in a live setting, musicians are intuitively caught in a constant interplay of complex actions and reactions.  They dialogically feed off of one another.  It is the goal of every jazz improviser to engage in this sort of complex dialogue in a way that seems effortless, belying the countless hours of practice that are required to attain this natural demeanor.  Along the way, it is not uncommon for young improvisers to use “play-along” tracks, which usually rhythm sections playing changes for the student to shred over.  Although this does save the improviser from subjecting other players to his or her learning process, practice tracks present a problem in jazz pedagogy in that they are often musically neutral.   They are frozen and repeatable sonic objects that place no demands on the player to react. 

ModulatorTrey Gunn’s Modulator tackles this issue head-on by taming a particularly unruly sonic object:  a 50 minute drum solo by Marco Minneman (titled Normalizer).  It was Gunn’s task to write a composition based on the solo with the stipulation that the solo itself not be altered.  It would seem that a musician who navigated some of King Crimson’s most technically demanding music should have no trouble with such a project, but in interviews surrounding its release, Gunn reported that creating Modulator was a very difficult conceptual process. 

The difficulty arose because he shunned the idea of releasing an album’s worth merely of “playing along” with Minneman’s solo.  He intended to create the perception that Modulator was dialogic: two subjects interacting rather than one subject reacting to a fixed object.  To accomplish this, Gunn took on the responsibility of crafting ideas that could, conceivably, produce the reaction that was already formed on the recorded solo.  Other times, he takes the back seat to Minneman’s contributions and reacts accordingly.  This process took quite a bit of trial, error, and rewrites, but the end result is impressive and challenging.
Hymn by Trey Gunn & Marco Minnemann on Grooveshark

Modulator is a heavy-duty listen that requires some concentration, but Gunn’s overall musical approach appeals to me so strongly that I had trouble taking it out of the player last summer.  Sometimes, when an album is used as a “soundtrack to life” it becomes closely associated with a specific time and place, and returning to that favorite album from six months or a year before can be disappointing.  Modulator seems to have escaped this vortex.  It did not really bring back last summer as viscerally as I feared it might.  In truth, it almost felt like the first time I was listening to it, although this time I had a pretty good understanding of the content of the album.  I did not, however, think back on how great that summer was or what I was doing as I was listening to Modulator at any given time.  Instead, I am still floored by its overall complexity and conceptual density.

As I have been revisiting Modulator, I wonder what might have to happen to get it onstage in a live setting.  I think it would probably lose something in translation if it were memorized and performed note-for-note.  I see it as possible, though, as long as Minneman and Gunn interacted relatively freely within the rather tight boundaries of the final composition.  The problem would be the esoteric third person covering Gunn’s secondary parts.  Training a musician who was not initially involved in Modulator’s creative process to contribute equally in such a setting might be asking a bit much.

This just in – I’m going to go check out Gunn and Pat Mastelotto as TU tonight at the One World theater.  It’ll be a freakshow, for sure.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rocking the Road to McAllen Again

Another weekend road trip, another bag of CDs for the picking.  Here's what came up...

Taraf de Haidouks - Authentic gypsy music for....well, record producers. Still, considering the Haidouks consist of accordions, flutes, violins and the like, they produce some of the best metal you are likely to hear - in spirit, anyway.

Sean Lennon - Friendly Fire: People say that he is not his father's son, but I disagree. Returning to this album is a joy.

The New Pornographers - Challengers: This is probably my favorite album by this band. Their collective approach to songwriting sometimes produces uneven albums, but here they cohere quite effectively.

Sting - The Dream of the Blue Turtles:There are several Sting albums that I think are mediocre and self-indulgent, but his one has its moments. It is a little dated, but it is a classic within its own pre-Dr. Dre world.


The Yellow Moon Band - Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World: Instrumental psychedelic folk-prog that is energetic and easy on the ears. It won't stick to your ribs – ten minutes after it is over, you will forget what happened - but it is an enjoyable listen.

Porcupine Tree - Lightbulb Sun:  There are many albums by the Tree that I could suggest. Although this is not my favorite, I still think that this band can do no wrong, and they did a lot right here.

Radiohead - Amnesiac: This one got a bad rap in an earlier post, so I felt like it deserved a revisit. I still think that it is probably their least consistent release – it includes one of their best songs (Knives Out) right alongside electronic re-imaginings of kids blowing bubbles in milk.

Black Star – A great album from Mos Def and Talib Kwali. I need to get some new hip-hop.

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion – There was quite a bit of hype around this album when it came out, which it mostly lives up to. It’s a great shimmering, looping, epic collection that opened my ears to the current potentials of electronic music.

Yes - The Ladder - Lots of activity in the Yes camp recently has reinvigorated my interest in their ouvere. The Ladder is by far their most successful late-period album.

Queen - Sheer Heart Attack: Queen is not quite the band that they will become on this pre-Night at the Opera album, but it has a few fantastic moments. They really have to be one of the all-time great bands to ever exist period.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Dream of the Blue Turtles" in Chapman's Class

As a student at Johnston High School in the mid-80s, I, like many other students, aspired to be in Mr. Chapman’s physics class. Mr. Chapman was a younger, “cooler” teacher whose inspiring intellect was offset by a casual, but serious, demeanor. He was an avid fan of the Police, counting Ghost in the Machine as one of his all-time favorites. By the time I had reached my junior year in 1987, however, the Police had broken up and Sting’s first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, had been on the shelves for some time. I remember being involved in several distracting discussions in Mr. Chapman’s class about the literary innuendos embedded in Sting’s lyrics and the virtuosic interactions of the band he had assembled for the album.

That, of course, was a while ago, and revisiting The Dream of the Blue Turtles yesterday was somewhat of a bittersweet experience. Although Sting jumped the shark in the mid-90s, in the mid-80s he was at the height of his creativity and popularity, and his work was impassioned, believable, and relevant. Today, however, some of the songs from Dream of the Blue Turtles are noticeably dated. Russians, in particular, is circumscribed by a cold war ideology that simply does not exist anymore. Having lived through that particular flavor of propagandized paranoia, however, the song does ring naively with the confused echoes of the era.

There are some moments on Dream of the Blue Turtles, though, that I think transcend the time in which the album was released. During his time with the Police, Sting had professed a longstanding admiration for jazz, and to explore this interest, the band he assembled for Dream of the Blue Turtles was purposefully comprised of accomplished jazz musicians. Magic regularly occurred when Sting gave them space to cut loose. For example, when Branford Marsalis takes the reins on soprano sax during the solo section of Children’s Crusade, it is a sublime and intense moment that elevates the entire track.

Although Sting was clearly playing with politics at the time, he also had some more philosophically inspired work. At the time that it came out, Fortress Around Your Heart presented itself as a haunting song with thoughtful, intellectual lyrics, and it strongly appealed to the person I was in high school. I still connect with the song today, but I wonder if the part of me that is still sitting in Mr. Chapman’s class pondering its lyric nuance on the back of a physics notebook is reaching back from the past to move my present-day self. I think it’s hard to say, but my present-day self got a kick out of trying to catch the egocentric Sting blinking in this video – how many times can you count?

It is difficult not to listen to Dream of the Blue Turtles without a small bit of cognitive dissonance. Although he was striving for a jazz-rock aesthetic in this particular album, Sting would later turn towards a clear penchant for adult contemporary soft rock, and the seeds for that eventual change in his approach were unfortunately sown here. Still, for those of us that were there, it was a meaningful and timely album. So much so that the memories I have surrounding The Dream of the Blue Turtles include the many people playing with its meaning in Mr. Chapman’s class. Again, I think that this sense of community that mediated music can cultivate has become less pervasive as the privatized nature of earbuds and playlists encourage us to isolate.

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Challengers," a Marathon, and My Gratitude

In late 2008, towards the end of the “Carrollton period,” I was in the process of fundamentally redefining myself. As a part of this general life overhaul, I participated in the Dallas White Rock Marathon. I was part of a relay team, so I only ran seven miles, but considering the general state of my physical and mental health not six months before there was a lot to be proud of. My contribution probably did not do much to make us more competitive, but I think it is safe to say that our team’s overall goal was more about strengthening the friendship between us than making good time.

Challengers As I walked to the base of Reunion Tower, I was still humming the tune from the car: Challengers by the New Pornographers. I was introduced to this band in the morally ambiguous days of Napster and later I bought the quirky and sometimes angular Twin Cinema on a rainy weekend in Boston. The more musically exuberant and lyrically introspective Challengers was in regular rotation at this time, however, and it just happened to be what was playing as I participated the weekend of the marathon.

Most groups wear their influences on their sleeve, cobbled together into an often clearly identifiable patchwork, but the New Pornographers obscure their influences in stratified layers. They have some vague stylistic associations with Cheap Trick, David Bowie, the Cars, and Genesis (pop period), but overall, the New Pornographers coalesce these styles into their own densely melodic approach. There is hardly a second of Challengers that passes without some sort of addictive hook thrown in the mix somewhere.

Despite this complexity, The New Pornographers write memorable, singable tunes with slightly ambiguous but vivid lyrics. Although vocal duties are shared within the group, having Neko Case in this band is like hiding a weapon of mass destruction. Her vocal delivery invariably breathes a unique life into the New Pornographer’s lyrics, and her songs danced on the edge of my consciousness all afternoon. When the event was over I returned to the car exhausted. Challengers started right where it left off at the base of the Tower, though, reifying the satisfaction and solidarity I felt from a day well spent in the company of friends.

Participating in the White Rock Marathon with the people on my team ended up being very special and important to me personally. Very often, I unfortunately don’t recognize the importance of these kinds of moments until they are long gone. As I relistened to Challengers this afternoon, it brought that day back somewhat, and I wanted to take this post express my gratitude to the people who were involved. Even if you don’t think that you did anything, you did something, and for that I thank you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Aphorisms and Trepidations: I Monster and Epo-555

Again, the pendulum swings.  Earlier this year I was really into lots of off-the-map, experimental stuff, but with the new Foo Fighters, TV on the Radio, and Radiohead albums simmering in the changer, my current playlist looks very post-90s hipster, indeed.  Although it is easy to find an ear for anticipated new releases by longstanding favorite bands, what has my attention right now are a couple of seemingly obscure albums I pulled from a Pandora jag from a last month.
Finding an album that speaks to you through chance encounters like this can often be rewarding, especially when an obscure group stands the test of time.  Obviously, this happened for me with Mew a few years ago, and one of the reasons that I hold them is such high esteem is because they have a distinctive approach that they execute with conviction.  I’m always on the lookout for these kinds of bands.   
MafiaMafia, by Danish band Epo-555, is too obscure even for a Wikipedia listing at this point, but still they came across my Pandora channel through the Mew seed.  Epo-555 is sort of shoegazish, and shares a certain starlit layering and breathy vocal delivery with Mew.  Although hints of The Church’s rubbery guitar riffs periodically poke through (re: Under the Milky Way), my trepidation is that Epo-555 maybe sounds a bit too much like an underproduced Mew in my mind, at least for now.  This is not necessarily bad, but Mafia may not distinguish itself enough to end up being a classic in the long run. 

By far, though, my favorite of the two albums is a 2003 album called NeveroddoreveN (cleverly palindromic, that) by I Monster.  Although the tune Hey, Mrs. immediately grabbed my attention on Pandora, initially the album, when taken as a whole, seemed to lack cohesion.  As I have continued to listen to it in its entirety, though, its eclectic approach to electro-psychedelic pop has emerged as part of the album’s appeal.  As a result it resists clear, concise description.  Here are some attempts that seem to both sum up and contradict any given moment on the album:
NeveroddoreveN is an autotuned carnival sideshow.
NeveroddoreveN is the soundtrack to a 50s commercial with T. Rex on guitar.
NeveroddoreveN does not play favorites between bottleneck slide guitar and vocoder.
NeveroddoreveN is electro-vaudevillian.
NeveroddoverN owes equally to both Portishead and The Beatles.
NeveroddoreveN is broadly psychedelic and beautifully sinister.
NeveroddorevenThese ambiguous aphorisms are meant to pique interest more than anything else.  It is more important to mention that NeveroddoreveN has grown on me, a surefire sign of long-term interest.  I find myself singing various tracks at seemingly random times, and I am starting to look forward to it when it comes around in the player.  These are the clearest indicators that there is something going on with I Monster.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Alash: Living with Tuvan Tradition Today

In the days before Netflix, I was browsing through the DVD rentals at the local Hasting’s and came across a movie called Genghis Blues.  The premise the documentary seemed peculiar: a blind, obscure blues musician, who taught himself a unique singing technique from central Asia, participates in a competition in Tuva, the homeland of the style.  As innocuous as it seemed on the back of the box, the reality of the story itself ended up being far too bizarre for anyone to have made up.  This movie changed my life in some ways, pushing my passing interest in ethnomusicology into a course of study.  If you know me at all, I have at least suggested that you watch the movie, perhaps by forcible coercion. 

The singing style that takes center stage in Genghis Blues is known in the West as “throatsinging,” sometimes known as “harmonic singing.”   From an empirical standpoint, throatsingers isolate certain harmonics that are present in the human voice, creating the illusion that multiple notes are being sung by a single performer.  Here’s a primo introduction by one of the stars of Genghis Blues, Kongar-Ol Ondar.

What a personality.  I love that part when he makes that “I know…, right?” gesture with his hands (:47) right before he revs it up.

This style of singing grows from the nomadic Tuvan worldview, in which all things are animated by a guardian spirit.  For example, when a Tuvan herdsman bounces his voice off of a cliff and listens to the echo, the rock is considered to be an active participant in the exchange.  It is actually singing with the singer, and the interaction is meant as a communication.  Keep in mind, though, that here Kongar-Ol Ondar is just performing on American TV because it’s the cool thing to do – its probably a stretch to suppose that he’s having a spiritual experience on David Letterman.  It is possible, however, that he is creating an auditory “sketch” of a physical place that he has been for the audience, the true meaning of which can only be gleaned by having an intimate knowledge of that place or by actually being there.

Tuvan throatsinging is fascinating when it is mediated, but it is a whole different ball game when there are actual people moving the air molecules around you.  A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to see the Tuvan ensemble Alash at the Crow Collection of Asian Art while they were on tour.  Although I had been a fan of throatsinging for many years by the time I saw them, the live performance was nothing short of phenomenal.  Singing notwithstanding, I was also particularly fascinated by the way that they played their instruments.  It seemed that their interest was often not in specific pitches, but rather in the sounds that we, as Western listeners, would consider scratchy string noise.

Of course, I immediately bought their album to try and keep this performance alive in my memory, which, although still visceral, seems pretty distant now almost three years later.  My interest in throatsinging has been recently reinvigorated, though, by the excellent ethnography of Tuvan music Where Rivers and Mountains Sing by Theodore Levin.  Thus, Alash found its way back into my CD player last week, and I still find it to be an outstanding and entertaining example of the style.  Definitely worth getting into.
AlashAlash self-promote as a “traditional” Tuvan ensemble, but I also think it is interesting to consider what that means in the ever-shrinking post-2000 world.  Undoubtedly, the main reservoir from which they construct their repertoire comes from Tuvan “folk” music.  One of my favorite tracks, however, Bady-Dorzhu's Bayam, features accordion prominently, which really should be no surprise considering Tuva’s history with Soviet Russia.  It is also not uncommon to see classical-style guitars in their set, and never mind the fact that this soloistic music of the nomads is rendered as an ensemble style by Alash.  The exotic nature of the throatsinging style brushes over these subtle culture crossings.  Reciprocally, none of these aspects of Alash’s identity really threaten to overtake their “Tuvanness” in any way.  You want Tuvan music, Alash is a pretty good bet.