Friday, September 30, 2011

Many Steps to the Stones: "Goat's Head Soup"

I have never really been into the Rolling Stones. My younger years were defined by a progressive rock high horse that arrogantly looked down on their loose mimicry. As time moved on, though, it seemed like I was missing out on something. I noticed it during the first half of my undergrad, when I lived in an un-air conditioned dormitory called Bruce Hall. Bruce was across the street from the music building, so despite its comparatively dilapidated state, it was the ad-hoc “music major” dormitory. I made many close friends there, many of which were incredible musicians and many of which I m sadly no longer in touch with. The whole experience was eye-opening, to say the least.

When I started living in such close quarters with all of these phenomenal musicians, I was surprised to find out that a lot of them were into the Stones. Many of the justifications they used for their adoration sounded uncomfortably similar to those I had for my own unconditional Rush fandom. One of my closest friends, the self-proclaimed Mr. McKoolChords, would often describe Keith Richards as the “best worst guitar player ever.” There were also several Mick Jagger impersonators in my hall that developed heated rivalries, sometimes spontaneously erupting into hilarious competitions.

I describe my undergraduate as occurring in two halves because it was bifurcated in 1993 by a reflective, soul-searching year away from the concerns of the music major. During this “sabbatical,” I continued my retail career as a Sound Warehouse record store employee. One of the few benefits of any record store gig was the promotional materials. Promo CDs, which were arguably for in-store play, could be “held” by employees and adopted when promotion was done. The best stuff was almost always snatched up by the check-in guy. The day that the materials for the remastered Stones back catalog came in, however, he just happened to have the day off and I was fortunate enough to work the early shift. It seemed like the chance to hop on board and figure out what I had been missing, so by the power of the Post-it note, I laid claim to three albums: Exile on Main Street, It’s Only Rock and Roll, and Goat’s Head Soup.

Those three albums have generally sat in my record collection since them. I think I have played the first two a couple of times, but I can’t remember if or when I have ever listened to Goat’s Head Soup. Of the three, it has the least amount of fan support, but I still could not bring myself to get rid of it. Recently, I had a desire to get some new music, but really no good leads on anything interesting. It seemed like it might round out the mix, so after eighteen years, I finally put it in rotation. Despite the criticisms that the average Stones fan seems to level at this album, it kind of clicked for me.

The Stones have always had more attitude than substance in their work, but my recent encounter with Goat’s Head Soup has forced me to consider the possibility that the Stones' attitude may actually be their substance, and possibly their most relevant innovation. By pure charismatic will, the Rolling Stones convince their listeners that they are the sexiest, baddest boys around, despite the fact that they clearly aren’t. I mean, if I was a woman and Jagger whispered in my ear like he does on Angie, I would probably be genuinely frightened. Still, when he does it, it somehow works. This song was always one of Mr. McKoolChords favorites, and it is impossible for me to hear it without thinking of him fluidly switching between the melodramatic wail of Jagger and the drunken swagger of Richards. It is his impersonations that make the song captivating and memorable for me – probably more than the song itself.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

September Roundup: Feeling Centered in the Storm?

I have a newborn baby and a demanding job of my own, and this month I am learning to navigate the push and pull of the new gravitational forces in this constellation.  The baby cries a lot, but she’s really cute.  My students can’t remember their locker combinations, but they are enthusiastic and work hard.  These various ebbs and flows can work their magic on my own centeredness at any given moment in my day.  In any case, my personal music agenda seems to surround these experiences.  Looking back, taking a moment to write about them seems to freeze these moments, for better or worse.

So you’ll excuse me if I continue with the major players from the month of August.  You know the drill.

The Rolling Stones - Goat's Head Soup: This has been sitting on my shelf for, I kid you not, eighteen years, and just this month I got around to listening to it.  The good news - it may actually make a Stones fan out of me after all.

No Knife - Riot for Romance: Looking back, I feel like my post for this album was a little two-dimensional.  Beyond No Knife's indignant intellectualism, there is still a lot to musically listen to and appreciate on Riot for Romance.

the tUnE yArDs - W H O K I L L:  I'm still trying to decide if I like this band as much as I respect them.  Signs, as they say, point to "yes."

Opeth - Heritage: Everything you have heard about the new Opeth album is true.  Its got totally clean vocals and an intentional detuned nod to Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Caress of Steel-era Rush, and a pantheon of other 70s psudeo-prog giants.

Gamelan of Central Java Vol.12 - Pangkur One: An extremely well-produced example of contemporary Javanese gamelan.  Perhaps not for the beginner, but still a pristine recording.  (Note: the recording in the playlist is the same ensemble, but from another disc in the series)

Esben and the Witch - Violet Cries:  Sort of like if Sinead O'Connor hooked up with some druidic cult and got all shoegazy. I would be very, very surprised if there were no subliminal messages floating around in all of the wailing echoes that pervade this album. 

Skysaw - Great Civilizations:  With "Tonight, Tonight" as a starting point, ex-Smashing Pumpkins drummer creates a new band with its own Jethro Tullish leanings.  Proggishly melodic hooks abound, but so do a few troubling musical choices.

Teaching Music for Performance in Beginning Band pt. 1 Disc 1: Yeah, I gotta start picking out contest music for the year, so a certain part of my diet has to contain the Grade 1 literature.  This is often a little grueling, but the investment pays off in the Spring when I find some pieces that I can tolerate for three months but that are also appropriate for my group.

Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil: Even though I have grown to really love this album, I think that the thing that makes Deerhoof so cool for some people is the thing that prevents them from being a personal favorite.  I really like the catchiness of the "ditties" and riffs that they use as building blocks for their songs, but the end result is so jagged and disparate that it is often difficult to gain your bearings in the bigger picture.

Oh, yeah, and it finally rained this month.  It seems that the drought has sapped the average Texan's ability to drive in the rain.  Most just pulled over on the side of the road, dumbfounded.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

the tUnE yArDs "W H O K I L L:" I Am What I Am

If, to paraphrase a certain sailor, we are what we are, then we also become what we practice.  Even worse, although we do get good at the things we work at, we also get better at them in the way we work on them, which can sometimes be detrimental.  Confused yet?  Here's an example: when I was in high school and had my eye on a career in rock music, I figured that once I learned to play bass well enough, I could start working on my singing.  I got better at playing, and I got better at singing, but I rarely practiced singing and playing at the same time.  By the time I reached a certain proficiency at the bass, I had a hard time accepting the detrimental effects of splitting my attention between the instrument and the voice.

This mindset followed me into my college music studies.  I thought that if I just studied hard enough, one day my musical identity would magically spring forth from the head of Zeus as a matter of course: my birthright for all the work I had done.  Although I feel that I am a pretty good musician today, I am hardly the virtuoso that I envisioned myself to be when I was fifteen simply because in my academic studies, I waited too long to begin developing the practical aspect of performance.  Before I realized it, my path had already been carved out.    

With all this in mind, I admit that I am often envious of musicians that have built a musical concept simply by listening to things they like and imitating them without too much formal study.  Of current interest are the tUnE yArDs, a band that defies easy categorization and description.  No matter what you have playing right now, their quirky and innovative release W H O K I L L will probably contrast it in some way - unless you happen to be spinning some central African pop music.

The Afro-pop flavors of W H O K I L L might suggest that it was crafted by music students caught in the orbit of some collegiate ethnomusicology department.  However, Merrill Garbus, lead singer and conceptualist of the tUnE yArDs, has an academic background in the theater - specifically puppeteering!

Puppeteering?  What the heck!  I give up....

Like many, Garbus counts among her influences the “world music” of Paul Simon and Johnny Clegg.  Not so big a deal.  What infuses the tUnE yArDs’ Afro-pop overtones with authority is significant first-hand study experiences in Africa.  Coupled with her unusual performance background, Garbus developed into an aggressive challenge to the standard idea of the female pop/rock vocalist.  With the tUnE yArDs, She commands a devastating range of timbres, singing as sweetly as Prince in androgynous mode and as explosively as any wailing Shona mbira player. If W H O K I L L doesn’t make it into my top ten albums of the year, Garbus will get the prize for best vocal performance, hands down.

In the tUnE yArDs, Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner deconstruct the traditional “band” even further than the “bassless” groups that seem to be in ascendency. Considering the general importance of rhythmic percussion in their influences, being absent a dedicated “drummer” seems a bit curious.  Garbus, however, is one of many musicians like Tyondai Braxton and Imogen Heap who explore the potentials of current looping technology in interesting ways.  She deliberately structures her self-samples to capture the “Africanness” of interlocking ostinato patterns, sometimes sketching out the rippling vocal polyphony of central African Pygmy music.  In the studio version of Gangsta, these backgrounds are subtly distorted to even further emulate Colin Turnbull’s influential 1961 field recordings of the Mbuti pygmies.

And sure, it is morally troublesome that we, as white Westerners, continue to culturally colonize the third world by copying their music and selling it as our own.  On the other hand, the world has gotten a lot smaller since Paul Simon released GracelandThere is a difference between cultivating a musical concept out of personal experience and superficially pilfering the style of the “other” for the sake of adding something new and cool to our repertoire.  The tUnE yArDs’ music is who Garbus is: a commentary on her experiences as a cultural nomad.  Fortunately, she seems to be more concerned with making music than dodging academic issues.  Thank goodness.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

No Knife Cuts through the Haze

On the suggestion of a reader, I had been listening to Riot for Romance for about a week and a half with sort of glazed-over indifference.  Certainly, I found their dual-guitar math-rock leanings appealing, but on a shallow listen, No Knife’s 2002 release shows its age.  This wasn’t necessarily a bad time in music: long-suffering bands from the late 90s were finally finding their voice on independent labels and audiences through digital conduits.  Many of these bands were likable enough, but superficially there was an omnipresent Jimmy Eat World aesthetic whitewashing the indie rock scene, and although I was hearing it on Riot for Romance, I knew I was still skipping across its surface.

My present-day indifference, however, seemed to belie the suspicion that the album had something deeper going on, a suspicion fueled by my adoration of this track.

Last Friday, though, I was primed to jump into the deep end.  Later in the evening than it should have been, I had just seen that last student get in their parent’s car and drive off from our annual “Band-O-Rama” event.  Wrangling over two hundred inexperienced band students (beginners, even!) through a high school halftime show is an impossibly overstimulating game of Whack-A-Mole.  I was exhausted and relived to have navigated the whole thing with only a relatively small amount of confusion and frustration.  I felt like I was in “middle school band director” mode all day long, though, and that persona takes some energy to sustain. By the time I lumbered to the car, I had held my face in that position for so long that I felt strangely disassociated with my everyday existence.  On the ride home, Riot for Romance cut right through this identity haze.

Lead vocalist Mitch Wilson often put guts above nuance in the singing department, giving the impression that No Knife has no small amount of angst to get out.  Overall, though, they had a distinctive intellectual precision that clearly distanced them from their punk or emo contemporaries.  The band seemed to be less concerned with writing clever hooks than they were with creating memorable songs using angular and sometimes atonal dual guitar riffs.  This concept permeates Riot for Romance.

With its deliberate yet defiant aesthetic, No Knife was a welcome sound after playing the role of the unwavering moral icon for the entire day.  I would not stoop to melodrama and say that Riot for Romance helped me find myself, but as an album, it sunk its teeth into me that evening and has not let go yet.  Truthfully, I can’t imagine how I missed it before.  No Knife are smart, catchy, energetic, and just edgy enough to remind you that there is always an establishment to rail against – even if you are part of it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I Remember 9-11: Oysterhead and Marillion

I was walking out of first period after a pretty good jazz band rehearsal when one of my students approached me and said “New York is on fire.”  Now, it’s not unusual to hear weird things like that in the halls of a 7-12 grade campus, so I was a little incredulous.  This kid was a senior who played lead trumpet in my jazz group, though, so I found it difficult to believe that he would spread exaggerated and unfounded rumors.

Judging from the buzz in second period, it was apparent that something was, indeed, going on.  In 2001, however, my campus was not equipped with a TV in every room, and certainly not in the band hall.  I had no way to confirm or refute what was happening.  I would glance in the library every period when I took the roll sheets to the office, but I couldn’t connect these brief glimpses of billowing smoke and chaotic streets into a cohesive narrative.

As teachers, we were instructed to continue with regular classes unless explicitly told otherwise.  As a result, I experienced 9-11 mostly through the students’ eyes as they struggled to make sense of the fractured images and soundbites of the day.  By 7th period, I certainly believed the gravity of the situation, but remained skeptical of the details.  I rushed home at 4:00 and, on my dial-up internet, I downloaded footage (and probably a few viruses) of the two towers going down using Kazaa.  Mortified, I repeated them endlessly.  I finally tore myself away and turned the TV to anything my antenna could pick up (I still don’t believe in cable, by the way) and remained glued to the set for the remainder of the evening.  While I struggled to comprehend the events and reactions on 9-11, I numbly began to work on a painting of Thelonius Monk that I never finished.

The Grand Pecking Order
While the American world was changing, I was coming to terms with another change that seemed important at the time, but receded in light of the events of the day. Primus, one of my favorite bands, announced a “permanent hiatus” earlier that year.  Although I was increasingly ambivalent about the band’s output, I certainly did not want to see them break up.  Later in the year, however, bassist Les Claypool formed the “supergroup” Oysterhead with Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio.  If any band were to be a home for Claypool outside of Primus, it would have been Oysterhead.

I was fascinated by the chemistry between these three very distinctive musicians as it played itself out on their singular release The Grand Pecking Order.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Copeland redeem himself on the drum throne after his stint with 90s yawn-rock outfit Animal Logic.  The material on the album was a little slapdash, but since the band billed itself as a “jam-band” outfit, the band’s fans considered it a loose frame of reference for Oysterhead’s mission statement. 

Connecting with the fans through newly emerging virtual conduits was becoming more common in 2001, and the other album that was rolling when the towers fell owed a lot to these new connections.  Marillion’s Anoraknophobia was funded entirely by fan donations through the band’s website, which was a pretty innovative approach for the time.  Distribution of the album was still patchy in the US, but, merely months before flying changed forever, I picked up a copy in a UK record store during a summer trip in Europe.

After original vocalist Fish left Marillion in the late 80s, the band’s track record had been spotty at best.  Singer Steve Hogarth took over in 1990, and since then they made a couple of great albums, a few bad ones, and very little in between.  In 2001, Anoraknophobia made a good impression on me, and even today I think that it is more poignant than cliché.  Still, it doesn’t represent the pinnacle of Marillion's work, especially with Hogarth at the helm.  It's pretty good, but not the best.

I once alluded to music’s capacity to provide a space away from the everyday, and I think that my memories of these albums are whitewashed with this escapist potential.  Both The Grand Pecking Order and Anoraknophobia seem to float oddly aloof from my emotional effort to come to grips with 9-11 and its aftermath, even though I remember listening to them.  They seem to remind me of the life I had surrounding 9-11 rather than the catastrophe itself.  The images of New York and my concern for the friends I had living there seem starkly silent in my mind as I look back today, ten years later. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Little More on King Crimson: Essential Bookends

People commonly observe that time seems to speed up as life moves forward.  In some ways, I concur: these days, a year does not seem like a long time, but a year is a lifetime to a one-year-old.  In the early days of high school, things moved at a slower pace for me, especially before I began driving.  I used to take off on my bicycle pretty regularly on afternoon excursions during the weekends.  Sometimes I would just ride around and enjoy the freedom of twelfth gear, and others I would visit friends, or maybe…. I would go to the library?

As uncool as it may sound, I admit that there was a brief period that I pedaled up to the Manchaca branch library on my weekend afternoon outings.  This was right after Rush’s Power Windows was released.  That album had singlehandedly opened my ears to progressive rock, and for awhile thereafter I really could not get enough of the stuff.  After devouring Rush's back catalog and discovering Yes and Genesis’ 70s work, I was keen to find more bands that shared their adventurously virtuosic approach to the rock idiom.  Somehow, and I don’t recall exactly how, I discovered a self-titled “Encyclopedia of Rock,” at the library, and I spent several weekends pouring over the entries under the “progressive rock” index, taking notes and cross-checking personnel – all in the name of rock and roll (or something like it).  This was where I first heard of King Crimson.

Once I found out about them I became oddly obsessed - despite the fact that I had not heard a single note of their music.  I even had a dream in which I came up with a King Crimson logo that began appearing on my notebooks, book covers, and quiz margins.  MTV’s agenda at the time did not include the radical musical experiments from the previous decade, so King Crimson’s catalog wasn’t exactly available at the Skaggs Alpha-Beta.  It would require a more extended bike trip up to Sound Warehouse on Ben White to get hold of any of their tapes.

The Encyclopedia indicated that their debut In the Court of the Crimson King was a critically lauded masterpiece, and so I bought it on blind faith.  It wasn’t what I expected.  21st Century Schizoid Man had a few brisk technical passages that satisfied the testosterone-fueled musical concept of my teens, but overall the album was surprisingly mellow and ostensibly ponderous.  It seemed to have more in common with the Moody Blues (my parent’s music) than Rush (my music).  Initially, I did not dislike In the Court of the Crimson King, but it didn’t blow my mind like Discipline later would.

It took me awhile, but did come to see its genius when I eventually got over my myopic prejudice against 60s production.  In 1969, the mellotron was the apex of rock technology, as was multitracking and, in some respects, the electric guitar.  From this perspective, King Crimson’s 1969 debut is actually an astounding piece of work, but in the mid-80s I was too fascinated by pure technical prowess and shimmering production to appreciate its importance and brilliance.  I now view it as one of the band’s best works.

The above video is an incomplete performance of 21st Century Schizoid Man, but one of the few with original audio.  Its a pretty interesting snapshot of the devastating potential of that first King Crimson lineup, as well as their late 60s audience.

Much, much later, in 2003, as an assistant band director, I was teaching AP music theory.  King Crimson’s most recent album, The Power to Believe, came out that year.  Between solfedge drills and part-writing I tried to win over these students to the nuance of King Crimson’s work, using excerpts from Level 5 as examples of polyrhythmic cycling (in particular, the section that starts up at 3:00 or so).

I hope that The Power to Believe will not be the final King Crimson recording, but if it were it would be an excellent curtain call.  In this incarnation, the band was melding the intense proto-metal of Red with the rhythmic cat-and-mouse textures of Discipline.  Virtually every note felt like a culmination of the breadth and depth of the band’s four decade career (especially Fripp's guitar solo at 4:15!), but the overall work was hardly a “best of King Crimson” rehash.  In fact, I struggled to come to grips with the intense virtual drumming style that Pat Mastellotto developed for this version of King Crimson.  The band still strode forward, informed by the momentum of their most successful works.  It seems odd to suggest a place to start is at “the end,” but The Power to Believe truly is one of my favorite King Crimson albums, probably right behind Red.

It’s kind of amazing to think about the arc of experiences I have had because I stumbled across King Crimson’s entry in that library book.  My portal to the band was the material from the middle of their career, but in context, these bookends offer compelling innovations in terms of texture and technique.  For the expanding King Crimson collection, they are fundamental additions – perhaps even interesting places to start.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fitz and the Tantrums: Aisles of Mystery!

It was probably quite clear that I was out of my element.  In the aisle to the left I overheard a woman saying to her friend “….well, here’s how it is: Huggies are better for boys, and Pampers are better for girls.”  As they were playfully crossing things off of their list, I was having a low-level anxiety attack over a choice that should be easy: what bottle system am I going to adopt for the Little One?  If the various packages were to be believed, this choice would have a direct impact on my baby’s growth and my personal sleep potential.  Plus, once you have committed to one brand, you commit to their entire system of valves, bags, sterilizers, warmers, and various other accoutrements, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. 

How had I gotten so far from the comfortable zones in Target, like the electronics aisles or my usual adolescent sneak peek at this season’s action figures?  Well, rumor has it that they know what causes babies now, so the question is somewhat rhetorical.  In gaining the label “Dad,” however, I found that my shopping lists have begun to explode with things found in aisles previously shrouded in blissful secrecy.      

Pickin' Up The Pieces
Fatherhood doesn’t change who I am, though.  Rather, it expands my horizons.  So, although I did have to fumble through a request for maternity pads with an employee whose English was as good as my Spanish, you can bet I took a couple of minutes to stroll though the media isles.  In this particular trip, it was a new release called Pickin' up the Pieces by Fitz and the Tantrums caught my eye. 

Picking up the Pieces was dancing on the edge of my awareness for awhile.  I saw the video for its lead single Moneygrabber about a month ago and it stuck, both visually and musically.

Fitz and the Tantrums have invested quite a bit of cultural capital into Moneygrabber by tying it in to the visual style of the album art.  I liked what they were going for, but with so much riding on that particular single, it seemed unlikely that its reconditioned Motown and Stax schtick could translate into a quality full-length album.  In the late 90s, bands like Fastball and Smashmouth had outstanding singles on mediocre albums, and I’m still not over it.

But, at this particularly weird trip to Target, Picking up the Pieces was what jumped off the rack at me.  As I continued to drive about McAllen on that early Sunday morning checking bizarre things off of my shopping list, I was pleased to find out that Moneygrabber was probably my least favorite track on the album.  Picking up the Pieces is infused with a positive feel-good groove that offsets its rather vapid lyrics.  Player for player, the Tantrums, as a guitarless band, are particularly adept in this distinctive funk style. The keyboardist, however, might just be the band's secret weapon, especially if he is responsible for the smile-inducing bursts of melodicism that hold many of the songs together.

As I became more familiar with the album I began to think that my affinity for Fitz and the Tantrums was grounded in the first record I owned: H2O by Hall and Oates.  Hall and Oates was my first favorite band, and they probably deserve their own post someday, but for now I can say that I heard a correlation between the way that they and Fitz and the Tantrums reinterpret the soul music of yesteryear.  Imagine my amazement (and self-satisfaction) when I found this live clip of Daryl Hall himself sitting in on a performance of Breakin' the Chains of Love

I actually listened to Picking up the Pieces about five times in a row during that weekend stay in McAllen.  It’s pure head-bobbing entertainment with some depth in the performance department.  I suspect that Fitz and the Tantrums are a killer live act, but their album, for all its strengths, may not stick to my ribs in the long term.  For now, though, it did serve to bring a welcome grin to my face as I awkwardly stumbled through the aisles at Babies R Us pondering the possibilities of sleep sacks and ladybug night lights.