Saturday, April 28, 2012

Skysaw's "Great Civilizations:" Return from the Fall

Keeping track of all of my listening for the year of 2011 with the intention of creating a comprehensive year-end list had some unforeseen side-effects. By the time fall came around, I was being incredibly critical. It’s not that I was enjoying what I was listening to any less, but I was certainly starting to formulate some ideas about what I wanted the final list to look like. There were some really great albums that I summarily dismissed based, in retrospect, on picky details. Because it was the fall, they had no chance to “make a comeback” and redeem themselves in light of my own predilections.

For example, last September I was introduced to Skysaw’s debut album Great Civilizations. I discovered this project from Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain by trolling various mid-year lists in the summer. It was described as “progressive, symphonic pop,” and its cover certainly corroborated this description. After spying it at a local record store, I began circling it like a shark. The circles closed into a spiral when I came across this little ditty.

I have always been a somewhat lukewarm Jethro Tull fan, but a fan nonetheless. This tune felt like a fresh post-Mellon Collie interpretation on the Tull sound, and I found that quite appealing. With this earbug planted firmly in my head, I finally purchased Great Civilizations to coincide with my return to active duty as a school band director. It shared rotation time with the new Opeth album and the tUnE-yArDs, though, so Great Civilizations got sort of swept under the rug due to the greatness of its year-end list competitors.

It’s kind of a shame, too, because Skysaw is the sort of “under the radar” group that I would like to be able to promote more often on the blog. In the big scheme of things, it may have gotten less attention than I would have liked. The truth of the matter is, however, that some albums just sound better after they have been forgotten and returned to. This evening, as I was getting the Little One ready for bed, I casually put Great Civilizations on as background music, and found that it’s actually a great album.

(Sorry about the quality of the above clip. I really like this song, and I really wanted to post a live video of them, and this was the best one available. It’s hard to get a good read on bands that fly under the radar.)

The songs do have a prog-rock sound to them, mainly due to their complex melodic and rhythmic aspects, but they are generally short-formed, tightly structured, and pretty memorable.  Obviously, there is the flavor of Ian Anderson’s idiosyncratic warblings, and some harmonic figures are reminiscent of Queen while some guitar textures recall Hackett-era Genesis. Overall, however, there is relatively little direct quotation of original prog sources.  Skysaw seems to be great prog simply because they do not try so hard to be great prog.  Instead, they walk that fine line between complexity and accessibility, pooling their impressive musicanship to craft melodic riffs and textures that have the momentum of a roller coaster.  As a result, Great Civilizations is accessible enough to be worth checking out, and deep enough to be rewarding in the long term.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

April Roundup: This Thing Called Life

In recent months, I have intended to come up with some sort of meaningful summation of what has been going on in these roundup posts.  Sometimes it's easy.  Something's going on, and it just comes out.  Other times, a voice, which sounds suspiciously like that guy Jeff from Coupling, repeats "come on, write something sensible!" over and over.  This shuts down everything.

But, things have happened.  The elephant in the room, of course, is that my longtime feline buddy Mork passed on last week, and I'm still having a hard time.  I've talked about it here and there, although I think that publicly, I played down the gravity of his condition.  Maybe I was reluctant to accept it myself.  Regardless, I don't want this to become a blog about me grieving for a pet.  I will say, though, that he and I were strangely and uniquely bonded.  Thinking back on it, I think that he is the only being that was still around from the the life I led in the late 90s.  He was, in Lost terminology, my constant. Now that he is gone, I acutely feel has absence in the house. 

In other news, I had over 100 students compete in solo and ensemble contest last weekend, and came away with 60 first divisions and 25 second divisions.  Considering when I came to the program, there were only 75 students total, this is pretty phenomenal.  What's even more phenomenal is watching students hear their musical voice blossom due to the work that they have invested in themselves, some for the first time.

Its human nature to compartmentalize.  I did not feel the sorrow of Mork's passing when that astonished 6th grader proudly announced to me that they had gotten a 1.  Nor did I feel any gratification when I came home expecting to be greeted by a longtime companion whose lights were quickly dimming only to find that the house is empty.  The piece to work on in all of this is, I think, to realize that these feelings and sensations are not separate at all, but are part of a unified experience that we call, in the words of Prince, "This thing called Life." 

Meaningful?  I don't know - that's your experience.  I just like music.  A lot happened this month on this front, too....

Willis Earl Beal - Acousmatic Sorcery: Beal's field recordings from a lonely apartment in somewhere, Chicago brims with vision and potential. I'm really looking forward to his upcoming "junkyard techno" project.

"The Year in Rush" Sub-Roundup
Rush - Hemispheres: Rush invested a  lot into Hemispheres, and the result is nothing short of staggering. It is probably, in the classic sense, their progressive rock masterpiece.

Rush - Permanent Waves: I really, really enjoyed going back to this one. Like 2112, I kind of did not want to let it go.

Rush - Moving Pictures: Its pretty amazing that I can still get so much joy out of listening to this album. Although I will admit the first few tracks might be little threadbare for me, once Limelight kicks in, I'm totally hooked.

Rush - Signals: Rush is able to change their style dramatically from one album to the next, yet still sound identifiably like themselves. Signals is just the right mixture of sameness and difference to follow-up Moving Pictures.

Field Music - Plumb: This brilliantly complex, adventurous, sincere, and accessible album is presently contender for album of the year. After almost three months in rotation, I purposefully took it out so that I can enjoy coming back to it later.

The Grays - Ro Sham Bo: An absolute power pop classic. Worth every penny you will spend tracking it down and buying it, which is much easier to do today than it was in 1996.

The Soul of Mbira - This great collection of Shona Mbira music reminds me how much I miss my ethnomusicological studies. There is a depth to this music that just can't be gleaned out of context.

Men at Work - Business as Usual: If you have an ear for the 80s album, Business as Usual holds up pretty well. Perhaps it didn't change the world, but it did define a time.

Spock's Beard - Beware of Darkness: Spock's Beard was still finding their way on their sophomore release, but it sows all the seeds that would soon sprout into their idiosyncratic brand of progressive rock. The Doorway is a particularly fine moment.

Miike Snow - Happy to You: Their sophomore release is more quirky and symphonic in scope, but I'm not sure that the songwriting, which is what I liked so much about their debut, is quite as solid. That album took quite bit of simmering to reveal itself, though, so I should probably give this one a chance.

Grimes - Visions: Considering how early it is in Boucher's career, Visions is a solid collection of synth-pop.  On its own, I'm not totally convinced that it lives up to all the hype, but I have high expectations of her future work.

Nine Inch Nails - Pretty Hate Machine: Reznor was doing some pretty innovative and interesting things in 1990 to bridge the gap between techno, industrial and punk. I just don't think that I have enough angst anymore to keep up with Reznor's self-flagellating melodrama from this period, though (if I ever did).

Junius - Reports from the Threshold of Death: Junius crosses boundaries in a way that has piqued the interest of fan bases that are usually quite insular. Metal, prog, shoegaze, synth-rock, and a myriad of other styles merge seamlessly under the vaguely Simon Lebon-esque vocals of Joseph Martinez.

The Mars Volta - Noctourniquet: I've been on board with The Mars Volta since their debut, but have had reservations about nearly every album since. Noctourniquet is the first in a very long time that has really stuck with me.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Days, The Grays, and the Life of Mork

The sound of live music in Dallas during the 90s was generally a wash of post-Smashing Pumpkins groups vying to be "The Next Nirvana." Due to the gentle flapping of Jellyfish's wings, however, there was a powerful undercurrent of melodic rock aimed at reimagining the work of the Beatles. I was caught up in this undertow during my stint as a semi-professional rock musician. As a result, for several years the majority of my diet of "new" music was coming from power pop bands, many of them local to the Dallas area.

One of my favorites from this scene was The Days. This amazing trio had brilliant songwriting and stellar three-part harmonies that distinguished them from the crowds of unfocused, jangly pop groups. Additionally, they turned out to be three really nice guys. The Days' debut CD, The Mystery of the Watched Pot, was enviably good. Like the output of many independent bands from the pre-internet 90s, however, this great album is probably doomed to obscurity. I can't guarantee that there are any copies still in existence besides the one in my collection. Streaming clips and MP3s of The Days seem to be nonexistent and the only footage that I have found of them is this early and pretty murky clip from Club Dada.

(UPDATE! Streaming Days track found!  Also, album available here! Enjoy!)

Even with all of the available resources of the internet, relating a really good impression of what they were like when I was into them may be nearly impossible. However, the Days included many great cover songs in their set lists, and this one by The Grays fit them so well that I was convinced, for a very long time, that it was a Days original.

This track, written by Grays guitarist Buddy Judge, is from their singular 1994 release Ro Sham Bo. This album is also relatively obscure entry and has long been out of print, but it is an incredibly important recording in the 90s power pop timeline.  In retrospect, The Grays was a supergroup of incredible musicians before they became super. In addition to Judge, the Grays were also led by Jason Falkner, who had just left Jellyfish in frustration due to lack of creative input, and a young Jon Brion on bass whose studio career had just barely begun. Although all of these musicians had impressive resumes when they formed the Grays, their careers were still mostly in front of them. 

With three distinct songwriters the group, Ro Sham Bo could have been easily been uneven, but the album is unified by their common melodic interest and shared harmonic vocabulary, which allowed the divergences in their writing styles to add variety.

I had a copy of Ro Sham Bo in the mid 90s, thanks to the emergence of CD burning technology and the generosity of Paul, the Days' drummer. I eventually purchased a legit used copy from Amazon. Both this and The Mystery of the Watched Pot are amazing albums that are absolutely worth hunting down. They also have a personal nostalgic value because they mark off a period of time, one that I have been contemplating today in particular.

Mork hanging at the sink, circa 2005
Rick, the Days’ bassist, took a turn singing lead on their cover of Nothing and was the granddaddy of my cat Mork, who I lost this morning after a long and happy life.  Mork originally came from world of live gigs and bass rigs that existed long before I was a teacher or properly tied a white belt around my gi.  He traveled as my companion free of condition through some incredibly difficult times and saw me into happier ones.  I loved and appreciated him in ways that I am sure he did not fully understand, but I am convinced that, given the gift of words, he would have said the same about me.  Mork was, and probably always will be, the only cat I ever had the honor of really knowing.  I will miss him terribly.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 4: A Pivot from the Wide to the Deep

And with one very loud tick of the clock, the 70s became the 80s. Rush traded their robes for skinny ties and streamlined their sound, but still maintained an incredibly high level of musicianship and artistic integrity. Their work during the early days of this period features the last of their extended length output, although these compositions are so tightly structured and executed that they seem to suspend time. Natural Science, from their 1980 album Permanent Waves, is an enduring Rush favorite that, once initiated, cruises effortlessly from beginning to end, all the while revealing Peart's increasing success in addressing poignant, philosophically inspired concepts.

Oddly, there is very little footage of Rush specifically from 1980, but in the process of looking, I ran across this imperfect and incomplete clip of The Spirit of Radio during a soundcheck on the Permanant Waves tour. It shows the massive keyboard rig that Geddy was dragging onstage to execute what was, in retrospect, a relatively rudimentary sequence. Still, employing a sequence at all in 1980 was pretty innovative.

Listening back to The Spirit of Radio in its entirety, however, is an entirely different matter.  I am still amazed at how many ideas are folded into its relatively concise running time.

The Spirit of Radio by Rush on Grooveshark

It was characteristic of Rush’s approach in the 80s to refine their sound by simultaneously expanding and contracting. Shorter songs became more prevalent, but they also became deeper in terms of composition, texture, and concept. The creativity and energy of this particular era of their work inexorably drew me into Rush's dedicated fanbase.

I was not alone.  I remember walking into the band hall as a freshman during lunch to be met by a swirling, menacing tapestry of guitar and bass, woven by a couple of upper classmen. Mesmerized, I stopped in my tracks until they sputtered to a stop, laughing. The song they were playing was Tom Sawyer, and to this day, that kaleidoscopic first exposure to the song still hangs in the air for me. Having only a small taste of Rush's catalog at the time, I was convinced that I needed to dig deeper.  Within a year, I had my own bass, and I was wearing out copy after copy of Moving Pictures, vainly attempting to learn this tune and every other bass lick Lee could throw out. Their classic no-nonsense instrumental YYZ became a two-year project.

YYZ by Rush on Grooveshark

Needless to say, I know the songs from Moving Pictures very, very well, so much so that it is difficult to free them from the layers of experience that have settled on top and listen to the album “as is” rather than “as was.” I will spare you the tempting but probably exhaustive track-by-track review.  Suffice it to say that it was awesome back then and its still awesome today.  One track that stlll seems particularly fresh, however, is Limelight. In addition to being an amazing song with a brilliantly structured instrumental section, it also contains some of Peart’s most personally revealing lyrics.

Although still defiantly experimental, by 1981 Rush had refined their sound into something relatively accessible for those who were willing to listen. Moving Pictures was the axis upon which their sprawling experimental past turned into a more succinct approach, and it represents the period of Rush’s career that I wholeheartedly bought into. While it is probably Rush’s most popular and essential album, it most certainly defined who I was and who I would become in my teenage years.  It is in a class all its own.

The previous post in this series is here.
The next post is right here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The "Weird Girl:" Grimes on "Visions"

It was a presentation on Cumbia-influenced dance music, and I thought it was interesting and thorough enough.  The young presenter used historical reconstruction to enrich his analysis of the music's current form, which, as you might guess, is the sort of ethnomusicology I am into.  One attendee, however, was not so satisfied. In the discussion that followed, he raised a hand and said "I notice that you didn't address gender in your paper. Could you talk about this please?"

I was annoyed.  That's sort of like saying "That was a really interesting detective novel you wrote, but I noticed that there were no spaceships in it." With its specialized vocabulary and fluid concepts, gender is a revealing lens for research, but simply put, it doesn't have to be included in every single research agenda. The presentation didn't purport to address gender at all, but, similar to nearly every conference I attend, someone insisted on steering the discussion towards gender in order to play "gotcha" games with an otherwise strong presentation.

I am no gender studies expert, so I tread very lightly into that realm.  However, synth-pop chanteuse Claire Boucher's persona on her new album as Grimes is too interesting to ignore. Visions is permeated by a distinctly feminine ease that is scaffolded on a historical framework established by empowered women innovators like Blondie and Madonna.  Boucher’s carefree, countercultural image, however, is post-Material Girl and post-Girl Power. It is girlish, but it doesn't rely on gender alone to make a musical statement.  Instead, Boucher puts her musical imagination at the forefront of Grimes' overall message.

Because she doesn't emphasize her cutisimo girlishness in text, Boucher has the latitude to make more nuanced statements in her visual representation. The video for Oblivion places her "weird girl" persona in hypermasculine situations, sometimes to arresting effect.

Visions gets a lot of its power from these kinds of juxtapositions. The album art looks like it could belong to a metal or skater band, but its synth-pop leanings confound this first impression. Its atmospheric depth has the polish of high-end 80s production, but its attitude is defiantly independent and DIY. Due to this latter characteristic, Grimes is sort of the independent music media darling right now. I believe it’s mostly deserved, because Visions is a good album that is particularly relevant to current indie music, especially in regards to empowering contemporary feminine identity.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Men at Work's "Business as Usual:" Under a Bigger World

I think it was 7th grade when she came to school wearing a Men at Work t-shirt. As was the tradition back then, her shirt commemorated their performance the night previous at the Frank Irwin Center. Many were envious, and she milked this attention for all it was worth by gushing about the performance. The band’s ubiquitous presence on MTV made her the star of the show for a day, but these days the public awareness of Men at Work is quite different. Although lead singer Colin Hay maintains a low-level (but artistically successful) solo career, history generally remembers Men at Work as the one-hit wonders that did "that song about the vegemite sandwich."

This song is from Men at Work’s debut Business as Usual, an album I revisit regularly - moreso than most of my 80s-era catalog.  Over the years, it has earned the designation "pop classic," which is relatively rare for an early 80s album.  In truth, it has transcended the date of its release.  I don't see it as necessarily "belonging" to that time, partially because I did not pick it up during the band’s heyday.  It found its way into my collection around the time that I began playing cat-and-mouse games with Columbia House's "ten CDs for one cent" deals.  Overall, a good buy - there is certainly no lack of hits on the album.

The association that these songs have with the early 80s is the result of MTV’s hype machine in action, steering cultural energy towards singles that would burn brightly for awhile and fade. To this end, there was a subtle suggestion back then that Men at Work were Australia's answer to The Police, and stylistically this is somewhat justifiable. Although Men at Work employed a similar New Wave reggae in their style, they had a distinctive ground-level earthiness that distanced them from the intellectualized approach of their British peers. More subtly, they used reggae's exotic associations to capitalize on the "down underness" of their Australian identity, which had quite a bit of value in the 80s when the world was still relatively big.

Touching The Untouchables (Album Version) by Men at Work on Grooveshark

From a certain perspective, this and some of the other non-radio tracks might be considered “filler," but most of them are actually quite good in their own right.  Due to its consistency and distinctive sound, Business as Usual has found its way into rotation again and again over the years.  I have often played with the idea of  getting the album’s follow-up, Cargo, to see if it stands up to its predecessor.  Not too seriously, though, because it has been on my Amazon list since 2003.  In all honesty, it wouldn't be the first time I owned the album.  Cargo was given to me on vinyl as a birthday present in my youth and was one of the few records I ever owned, but I've never gone back and added it to my CD collection.  I don't think I have heard it in its entirety since 1983.  Perhaps the time is coming soon for me to remedy that.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 3: The High Progressive Period

The success of 2112 brought Rush, in their own words, their “freedom,”so on the albums that followed, they fully committed to the progressive rock paradigm. While there are not any side-long suites on A Farewell to Kings, Rush’s prog-rock identity was evident in the expanded palate of sounds that pervade the album. Geddy Lee’s synth interests began to take a more significant role, with melodies being prominently featured on cutting edge Moog and Taurus technology. Peart’s drumset also expanded to include chimes, mark tree, glockenspiel, temple blocks, and a variety of orchestral percussion, turning him into a one-man percussion section.

A Farewell to Kings seems noticeably confident and clear of vision, and contains Rush’s first real success as a songwriting outfit. There have always been short-form works in Rush’s catalog, but Closer to the Heart is particularly accessible in both message and form, which has kept the song in their playlist for decades.

My memories of Rush’s early catalog generally converge on 1987 and revolve around high school events and friends from that year. For example, I went skiing for the first and only time in my life that year with a group of friends I met in band. I have not thought about this experience for many years, but I’m quite sure that I had A Farewell to Kings on a Walkman tape deck during this trip because listening back to it brought back a vivid flash of the cabin in which we were staying.

Back then, I did not fully understand the unique genius of Alex Lifeson and his role in Rush.  Lifeson accessed impressive technique in his dynamic and often blistering solos, but he always provided enough space for the rest of the bandmates to engage in their characteristic flash and bang. There is no better example of his intense, tasteful expressiveness than on the album’s centerpiece, the epic Xanadu.

My memory episode with Hemispheres is different, but no less vivid. An upper classman friend of mine, who happened to be the drum major, was very nice, cute, smart, and totally out of reach, and she would carpool some of us under classmen home. She had a jeep, and she liked to use the country roads on the outskirts of south Austin to avoid downtown traffic. I remember discussing the complex philosophical and technical virtues of Hemispheres as we rode through the countryside with the top off.

The Hemispheres suite (or more properly, Cygnus X-1 Book II, as a conceptual continuation from the last track of A Farewell to Kings) represents the pinnacle of Rush's early experimental work. Combining the science fiction and fantasy imagery from their past with the overt philosophical overtones of their future, it tells the tale of ancient Greek archetypes that fight for dominance in the fate of man. Compositionally, it is one of Rush’s most complex works, as well, and as a result it is perhaps a bit more impenetrable than 2112.

Their instrumental voice, however, which began to show its potential on the 2112 Overture, blossomed on Hemispheres, and is featured throughout the album. One of the finest instrumental moments in Rush’s entire oeuvre is the ten-minute thrill ride La Villa Strangiato. This tune got me through ear training, because I used its main riff as an internal reference for I, IV, and V throughout my first year.

The two short-form songs on Hemispheres are also important because they predict the general format that would pervade their output for years to come. Both songs are roughly four to five minutes long, with verses written around an instrumental exploration. Although The Trees is the usual representative Rush classic from Hemispheres, in recent years, I have become a strong proponent of the rhythmic power that propels Circumstances.

Hemispheres serves as the endpoint in an exploration that began on Caress of Steel. To date, they have not revisited the long-form suite as a compositional format. In fact, the majority of their output hangs in the four to five-minute range, which seems incongruous, considering their reputation for writing long songs (just ask Steven Colbert). Regardless, Hemispheres effectively ended Rush’s "high progressive" period, but also subtly predicted the band’s next arc, as they refined and streamlined their sound for the advent of the 80s.

The previous post in this series is here.
The next post in this series is here.