Monday, August 29, 2011

August Roundup: A Fly on the Freeway

In May, I moved into a new apartment, and in my roundup I apologized for being too busy to post consistently.  Well, true believers, August has made May look like a lazy Sunday afternoon.  Life has transformed yet again, and at the end of this month I can call myself a father.  I admit that it feels pretty weird to don that title, but it also feels natural and right. 

As predicted in July, I have posted relatively little this month, and only small percentage of what did make it out is informed by experiences in the car (which was the original mission statement of the blog).  Truth of the matter is I have not spent that much time in the car recently, but rather in hospitals and nurseries.  Still, music seems to grab my attention no matter where I go, admittedly because I often seem to place it in my path.

Regardless of my change in parental status, summer has come to an end.  I have one week left of leave before I become a fly on proverbial windshield and return to a school year already in progress.  Also, the “CrossFit project” has been a resounding success.  I’ve dropped about fifteen pounds and feel great and the car, although a secondary listening venue for this month, does play on.

Arena - Pepper's Ghost:  Inspired by the success of Yes' Fly from Here, I revisited this 2005 release and decided that it is probably the last album I will ever buy by this frustrating neo-prog outfit. Frustrating, because instrumentally I really, really like them, but their overall melodramatic cliché factor makes them an unshareable commodity.

Brendan Benson - The Alternative to Love:  Before he garnered some added visibility by shacking up with Jack White in the Raconteurs, Benson suddenly showed a new maturity on this album.  It features some of his finest songs and his most adventurous production.

Tyondai Braxton - Central Market:  This album is still blowing my mind.  I can’t decide whether to have goosebumps or burst into tears when I listen to it.

K. Sridhar & K. Shivakumar - Ocean of Sound vol. 2:  A masterful rendering of raga Todi featuring violin and sarod.  Shivakumar's violin performances are particularly captivating. 

Mastodon - Crack the Skye:  Finally watched the DVD that came with this 2009 release and fell in love all over again.  It’s like Hemispheres for the drop-tuned generation. 

Blackfield: While Porcupine Tree was dabbling in darker, more metallic terrain, Steven Wilson’s 2005 “side project” with Aviv Geffen shines brightly.  Blackfield may not totally eclipse the bolder work of Wilson’s parent project, but it does emphasize the strength of his songwriting skills.

Pinback - Autumn of the Seraphs:  A collection of quirky pop tunes driven, unusually, by a killer and distinctive bass player.  I can’t seem to get it to stick to my ribs, but I enjoy listening to it when it is on.

The Rolling Stones - Goat's Head Soup:  I have had this album sitting in my collection for nearly twenty years and have never really listened to it.  As usual with the Stones, it has more attitude than substance, but there are some outstanding tracks.

Jakzsyk, Collins, and Fripp - A Scarcity of Miracles:  This subtly masterful album can hang in the background or withstand meticulous study.  It may not be as commanding as King Crimson’s best work, but it still succeeds at being a meaningful listen.

Trichy Sankaran - Laya Vinyas:  A full album of mridangam (A South Indian drum) solos might seem exhausting, but with a little concentration, Sankaran’s mindblowing virtuosity is undeniable.  In fact, he kinda rocks.

The Mars Volta – Octahedron:  I doubt anything that the Mars Volta releases will ever beat out De-Loused in the Comatorium in my book, but Octahedron is a step in the right direction.  It has the kind of focus that distinguishes their better work from their more meandering releases.

Fitz and the Tantrums – Pickin’ up the Pieces:  An unflinching blue-eyed tribute to the funk and soul of yesteryear.  It’s infectiously energetic, undeniably catchy, and actually pretty good, especially for the closet Hall and Oates fan.

On a final note, I am not purposefully overlooking the Indian music examples in my playlists.  Nothing would make me happier than to put Trichy Sankaran's performance of the Kriti Padavini up there between Mastodon and ProjeKCt 7.  This release, and others like it, is a little obscure, though, and finding streaming examples is proving difficult within my current resources.  I will keep my eyes open for solutions.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Baby Jenga, Chapman Stick, and a New Prog-Girl

Day/night confusion is a real problem.  Getting the Little One to sleep during the hours that she is supposed to be sleeping is an art form.  At two weeks, there is only so much you can do, so often you have to just grin and bear it, but we try to pay attention to the stimulus that seems to relax her enough to hit the event horizon.  A combination of pacifiers, rocking, wedges, and whatnot will usually do the trick.  However, due to the fear of SIDS, pediatricians seem to suggest that most babies avoid sleeping with such props for any length of time, so recently, my wife and I have taken to playing a game we dubbed “baby Jenga.”  In order to play, you take a sleeping baby with all of her sleeping props in place and then remove them one by one without waking her. 

One of the sleep props is, of course, music.  While I don’t want to “program” my child to go to sleep every time she hears a raga, the hypnotic quality of eastern Indian music does seem to lull her to an extent.  One night I tried shakuhachi music with mixed results.  Last night, though, my wife came out of the nursery and said “I think that your daughter may be more of a prog-rocker than an ethno-baby, because she really loves that Stick album that’s playing now.”

Japhlet Bire AttiasTwo weeks old and I’m already proud of her musical tastes.  The album that was playing was Mexican Stickist Japhlet Bire Attais’ psudeo-self-titled 2008 release, JBAI was exposed to many great Stick albums during the course of a study I did on the Chapman Stick community, and JBA one of my favoritesIt is a seeming mishmash of original Stick tunes, jazz standards, and covered arrangements.  Despite the variety of its track listing, however, the album coheres incredibly well due to the consistency of Attais’ Stick voice.  He subsumes his influences throughout JBA in a way that makes it a very special and, I think, unique contribution to the growing Stick repertoire. 

In addition to the obligatory unaccompanied solo tracks that are found on any Stick album, JBA also features a revolving door of support personnel, ranging from standard drum and guitar to more esoteric pairings for the Stick’s unique voice.  One of my favorites is the track What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?, a haunting duet between Stick and bass clarinet. 

Like a lot of Stick music, JBA is too rock to be jazz and too jazz to be rock.  The instrument is often adopted by players with backgrounds in both genres, but the instrument itself is not really at home in either.  Thanks to Tony Levin’s contributions on Discipline, however, the instrument is more often associated with post-80s progressive rock.   Attais explicitly dances with this relationship on JBA, which features two arrangements that clearly connect to and elaborate on progressive rock and the King Crimson family tree.  One of these tracks is a compelling arrangement of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Trilogy

Doing a convincing arrangement of a keyboard-based piece on Stick is a difficult endeavor, and Attias’ version is technically compelling.  On their own, ELP was an influential progressive rock band, but Greg Lake formed the band after leaving his post as King Crimson’s lead singer.  More directly, Attias also closes with a beautiful rendition of King Crimson’s Islands, the track that also closes their 1971 album of the same name.  The original prominently featured a cornet solo, while this instrumental version is a Stick and tenor sax duet.  Mel Collins (the same Collins that recently rejoined Fripp) played a significant role during that era of King Crimson, however, so the saxophone is a natural, organic choice to express the song’s melody.

Both of these tracks reference a path in progressive rock’s history that eventually meets the Chapman Stick’s in an important way.  The points that they reference, however, lie much earlier in the timeline, and the performances are excellent examples of 21st century Stick technique.  Most importantly, Attias manages to get these songs to stand alongside other arrangements with roots in other genres, unified by his idiosyncratic approach to the instrument. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Introductions in the Hospital: Miles Davis and Shahid Parvez

Eighteen hours after that Friday morning, I found myself waiting in the hospital room for my wife and our newborn baby daughter.  Long before all this, I had been charged with the responsibility of providing music for the birth and recovery process.  When it came time for labor and delivery, there really was not too much room for music, but very soon, I would be introducing my daughter to the ocean of sound into which she had been thrown.

Obviously, I took this responsibility very seriously.  We all hear music in the backgrounds of existence much more than we realize.  Although this ongoing musical exposure often occurs beneath the level of our perception, I think that it matters.  In fact, I think that it is a powerful inculcating force, despite often taking disembodied and mediated forms.  I certainly did not expect the little one to start bobbing her head to anything I put on in the first hours of her life, but I was convinced that the first strains of humanly organized sound that she heard would have some sort of impact.

Kind Of BlueWhen the room suddenly burst into activity, I turned on the MP3 boombox and spontaneously chose Miles DavisKind of Blue.  Mr. Connell, one of my high school jazz mentors, advised me that if I were to have one jazz album in my collection, it should be Kind of Blue.  I passed on that advice to students and friends for many years before I really appreciated the album’s depth. 

Kind of Blue seemed appropriate in this instance because on the one hand, it is hardly an offending or jarring listen - it can hang on the edge of silence even at a perceptible volume.  In my more adrenaline – fueled High School days, I would study or read by it.  Later, though, after transcribing parts of it in jazz improv classes, I found it impossible to do anything but sit and listen to the album in stunned admiration.  Davis showcases a deliberately lyrical style that now demands my attention.  I took great joy in humming his solo in Freddie Freeloader to my daughter as she looked up at me in what looked like awe.

SitarIt seemed impossible to follow up that masterpiece, so I changed gears entirely by choosing another album that I came to appreciate during my ethnomusicology studies, Shahid Parvez’s Sitar.  When I was first exposed to Eastern Indian classical music, I found it to be beautiful and soothing, but I had great difficulty coming to understand its underlying structure from a practical standpoint.  This particular album is the one that made the whole thing fall into place.

To make a long story short, there are two interacting forces in Indian classical music: raga, its melodic aspect, and tala, its rhythmic organization.  In performance, the players explore these features within certain well-defined rules to create and release tension, similar to the way in which classical composers use phrasing and harmony.  I knew all of this from a theoretical perspective, but still had difficulty really hearing it.  Watching a video performance of Parvez performing raga Bageshri, however, with a little coaching from my teacher Poorvalur Sriji, allowed me to see and hear the system work for the first time.  In a flash, the competitive interplay of Hindustani styles opened up.

Both of these albums are relatively mellow to listen to from a superficial standpoint, but more subtly, are also musically expressive and intellectually engaging.  We stayed in that room for four days, transforming the sterile hospital room environment into a place that would hopefully be much more in keeping with the surroundings that she would eventually go home to.  I took great pride in the fact that, although most other rooms on our floor had televisions blaring into the hallways, when we opened our door, music and conversation spilled out.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Satisfying Interruption: Tyondai Braxton's "Central Market"

Traditionally, I am not possessed by school spirit, but I do like playing drums.  Who doesn't?  Last year, at the school district's annual "employee pep rally,"  I hid in plain sight by beating the skins like a rabid gorilla.  This maneuver was so successful that I received several requests from my campus coworkers for repeat performance at this year’s pep rally.  Sounds easy enough - I show up at 8:30 am to make my contribution to the school by playing drums really, really loud.  Everybody wins.

The evening previous, however, my wife’s obstetrician had set up an ominous sonogram appointment with our perinatalist at 7:30 am.  With our daughter’s due date just ten days away, an early call like that rang with a bit of urgency.  There was the possibility that it was nothing, but it was enough to ensure a bit of a sleepless night.

That morning, I set up a pretty rickety set of last-second arrangements with some staff members and, perhaps naively, envisioned myself beating the odds by walking into the gym and playing the part of the dutiful school band director at the last possible minute.  For this to pass, my wife and I went early and in separate cars to the appointment.  When she pulled up beside me in the empty parking lot, I grinned and rolled down the window with this blasting through the speakers.  .

Uffe's Woodshop by Tyondai Braxton on Grooveshark

Her perplexed reaction was pretty much what you think it might have been, and, as you might suspect, it was particularly satisfying.
Central Market
This track is from Tyondai Braxton’s 2009 album Central Market, which I have had on the radar since I heard he left Battles.  As much as I have been shaking my fist at the sky over his departure, I have also been keen to extract and isolate the role that Braxton played in the groupIt seemed totally insane to me that anyone who is interested in producing contemporary avant garde music would walk away from the experimental success of Mirrored.

Central Market, however, seems to go much further than mere experimentalism.  It blurs the traditionally Euclidean division between chamber music and rock in a way that was simply not possible within the confines of Braxton’s previous project.  When I began spinning it at the beginning it this month, the album’s playful energy and symphonic palate immediately brought Zappa’s orchestral work to mind: an oeuvre that is a source of constant inspiration to me.  I can't help but post this amazing piece as an example.

Although Zappa’s background and subsequent “day job” was as a rock musician, his passion was the orchestra.  Through little more than a few trips to the library and a whole lot of creativity, he created a unique style that, I thought, might have been more of an aberration in the chamber music repertoire than a new postmodern direction.  Braxton’s Central Market confounds this assumption by harnessing a similar, but distinctive, conceptual vitality.

It’s not all strings, kazoos, and sixteenth note triplets, though.  Additionally, Central Market sometimes bears a striking sonic resemblance the second side of King Crimson’s Three of a Perfect Pair from 1984, a distinctively noisy part of the 80s Crimson repertoire.  This live performance of Dead Strings, Central Market’s closing track, shows Braxton looping up a cacophonous cyborg storm.

I think that many solo careers are supported more by the ego of the artist than true creative vision.  A few artists, though, seem to be justified in going solo, simply because their musical concept spills beyond the possibilities of their originating projects.  Although his track record is pretty short as of now, Central Market might indicate that Braxton fits into this category.

Dead Strings was playing as I pulled into the hospital’s parking garage at 8:45.  Needless to say, I never made it to the pep rally.  The perinatalist immediately sent us to the hospital, where, for the next eighteen hours, selections from Central Market danced through my head.  The next day, still dressed in my band t-shirt and khakis, I was the proud first-time father of a healthy baby girl.

What happened at the hospital is another story.....   

Sunday, August 7, 2011

King Crimson's Altered Hypothesis: "Red" and "Discipline"

After the last post, I got a request that I suppose was inevitable: “What albums do you personally recommend as an introduction….to King Crimson?”  Writing a succinct post on a group that came to fundamentally define my musical tastes seems nearly impossible.  Far be it for me to dodge a bullet, though, especially considering what I went through to discover them.

The first album I heard by King Crimson was their 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King, but it was 1980's Discipline that shook up my musical conception in ways that took years to unravel.  I could easily fill a book with all of the memories and experiences that the album conjures up. It is currently my number one desert island disc, a position that it has held for decades, and it is going to take a really, really intense record to unseat it.  From an objective standpoint, however, Discipline is just a blip in King Crimson’s decade-spanning career.  Once they clicked for me, I eventually purchased their entire studio catalog.

Creating a historical reconstruction of their career, which would have to cover forty years and seemingly inexhaustible roster changes, could also span several chapters itself and would probably be interesting to very few.  Two of their most successful albums, however, just happen to sit right by each other chronologically, if not temporally.  The stylistic difference between the two represents a significant change in direction that would steer the course of the band for the remainder of their career.

Their 1974 release Red was the final album of a lineup that, in addition to the band’s “musical director” Robert Fripp, featured Yes drummer Bill Bruford and bassist/vocalist John Wetton (who would go on to find fame with Asia in the early 80s).  Red is dark, dissonant, claustrophobic, and often nightmarish, but is also sublimely beautiful.  This particular version of the band had the capacity to harness these juxtaposing extremes with intensely musical and virtuosic performances.

Red is an absolute necessity.  The following video of Starless is a gem of a find and, although it has some tracking problems, I would suggest stretching your attention span enough to watch the whole thing.

Fripp disbanded King Crimson shortly after the release of Red, which suggests that this performance might be a rarity.  Even so, it was recorded in 1974, and a case could be made that it predicted styles that would not emerge for decades.  I recently heard a note-for-note cover of its dissonant  instrumental title track find a home on a death metal band's set list, and the “crescendo-to-explosive-climax” structure of Starless has almost become its own genre - “post-rock.”

After a few years of production, side projects, and reflection, Fripp saw fit to reconvene the group in 1980 with a significantly different lineup.  He retained Bruford, but brought in Tony Levin on bass and Stick and ex-Zappa guitar mutant Adrian Belew on vocals and guitar.  The stylistic difference between this group and its predecessor is nothing short of staggering.  It was incredibly difficult to pick just one song from Discipline, but I think that, in terms of accessibility and adventurousness, Frame by Frame epitomizes its best attributes. 


On the surface, this is a great song with a beautiful melody.  With no video available in the 80s, though, it was not readily apparent that the guitar line in this song was actually two guitars playing in contrasting time signatures, rather than a delay effect.  Even more unimaginable, Belew was singing as he did it.  Live and effortlessly.  Then there was the inexplicable Stick, and the fact that Bruford simply chose not to use a hi-hat for the whole album.  It was rough for my high school mind to conceive, but the more I looked at it, the more I liked it…..

This version of King Crimson did more than just change members – they changed the hypothesis of the band’s fundamental experiment.  Most noticeably, the polymetric interplay between Fripp and Belew would become a foundational aspect of future incarnations of the band.  Furthermore, I would argue that Discipline is the very first "math-rock" album.  When I am moved by Battles' best work, or go jump on Rumah Sakit's polymetric rollercoaster, my appreciation is framed by this particular era of King Crimson.  

King Crimson became one of the few bands that threatened the ultimate superiority of Rush in my musical hierarchy.  These two albums, I think, are great representations of two very different incarnations of the band, both of which were groundbreaking in their own way.  More importantly, I think that they show the sort of “turn” that Fripp took going into the 80s from the traditional idea of what progressive rock was to what it would become. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

"A Scarcity of Miracles," Waterfalls, and Sirens

During the recent negotiations of a house sale, a potential buyer wanted whack off a couple thousand to install a water fountain in the back yard that would “drown out” the noise from the road.  As I stood in 104 degree temperatures and watered the yard with a scalding hot garden hose, I pondered this proposal, along with the fact that it is, quite frankly, impossible to keep a lawn green in Texas right now. 

Its a well-traveled corner that the house sits on, but it is hardly a major thoroughfare.  There were cars driving by, but to my ears, it mostly seemed like delicate whooshing, and certainly nothing that would keep me up at night.  I was about to dismiss his proposal as utter nonsense when an EMS truck defiantly revved up its siren full-blast directly outside, rattling my naked eardrums.  No way any two thousand dollar waterfall could combat that.

In Mozart’s day, Vienna was quiet enough that fire signals could be given by the shouts of a scout mounted atop St. Stefan’s Cathedral.  Now, our moments of “silence” are actually times when we "just" hear the air conditioner, or the cars whizzing by outside, or the stomping around of our upstairs neighbor’s children.  You can hardly stand in front of a burning house and yell “fire” in a way that anyone will pay attention to.  It's no wonder that music has generally become noisier.

Deception of the Thrush: A Beginners Guide to ProjeKctsNow King Crimson, there’s a noisy band, or at least a band with a long history of an incredible potential for noise.  For a brief period in the 90s, its ever-shifting lineup evolved into a six-member paint-peeling beast that whose group improvisations threatened to crumble under their own weight.  In response, band master and philosophically aloof guitarist Robert Fripp encouraged the various members of the groups to create ProjeKCts, smaller satellite ensembles whose purpose it was to “research and develop” the potentials hidden within the larger group.  There is a good compilation of the work of these groups called Deception of the Thrush. Put it on at your next Thanksgiving dinner and see what happens.

Scarcity of Miracles-a King Crimson ProjekctMany of these ProjeKCts were pretty noisy and improvisational in nature, but King Crimson, as a larger unit, was not just about incendiary group improvisations.  Fripp also regularly explored atmospheres and ambience as readily as dissonance and angularity.  A recent collaboration with Fripp and several King Crimson alumni has received the “ProjeKCt” label, A Scarcity of Miracles, by Jakszyk, Fripp, and Collins, and it represents a much different aspect of King Crimson's multiple personalities.

This group, ostensibly “ProjeKCt 7,” is composed almost entirely of players that have played with King Crimson from different eras of the band’s career, not the least of which is the “dream team” of drummer Gavin Harrison and bass guy Tony Levin.  I am also happy to see the role of 70s King Crimson saxophonist Mel Collins acknowledged, and, as always, Fripp's guitar tone is nothing short of inspirational.

Guitarist and vocalist Jakko Jakszyk stands out a little in this line up due to the simple fact that he has never actually played in King Crimson proper.  Still, he has a stocking at the King Crimson family Christmas, although by way of the back door.  Jakszyk played guitar and sang in the 21st Century Schizoid Band, a group made of up King Crimson alumni who, with Fripp’s blessing, covered selections from the band's 60s and 70s back catalog: songs that have been effectively retired.  His inclusion into this ProjeKCt allows that recent reincarnation of the band’s past to be folded into the complex King Crimson lineage.

Its classification as a “ProjeKCt” allows A Scarcity of Miracles to somewhat sidestep the issue of being considered a “true” King Crimson album.  Although they are generally remembered for their angular proto-metal and polyrhythmic excursions, King Crimson has always counterbalanced their aggressive side with dreamy, soothing ballads, even as far back as their first album.

A Scarcity of Miracles is an outlet for Fripp's melodic and atmospheric side.  It’s more like a flowing waterfall than an explosive siren, but it still harbors a satisfying depth.