Sunday, July 29, 2012

July Roundup: Lovin' the Third Degree

On Tuesday, I am going to aikido summer camp to take my third degree black belt (sandan) test. In my organization, sandan is the last rank that a student can test for. Further promotions only occur through recommendation.  This is, essentially, my last test. Of course, I want it to be representative of the work I have put in and respectful of tradition, so this month has been somewhat consumed with preparations. My idea of what that means, however, has changed over the years.

When I was training for my first (shodan) test in 2003, I was going to the dojo 5-7 days a week, sometimes even twice a day. I was consumed and obsessed with showing the breadth of the techniques I had seen during my white belt ranks.  For the nidan in 2009, life was more complicated, it and did not allow for such narcissism.  I was writing my thesis while moving to Austin and navigating wedding preparations. Training in the midst of these other responsibilities was a great lesson. There was less time spent in the dojo, but I made that time count.  Quality over quantity, so to speak.  

For my sandan test, the responsibilities I have in my life off the mat take even more precedence than on the previous test. Thanks to my wife and family helping with the Little One, I have been able to train 3-4 days a week. Back on that first test in 2004, I wouldn’t have been able to accept this as a test preparation scenario at all, but part of what I am learning from my sandan test is how to integrate my practice into everyday life as a father and husband.

Of course, I’m nervous. I want to represent my teachers and the dojo that made my practice what it is in a memorable way.  I am sure that there are other people that will have trained more for their respective tests, but I can confidently say that I have trained as much as my life allows – and that is enough.

I’m planning on doing a post from camp, but for now I have a very short playlist from this month. I have spent less time in the car, and the albums I have in rotation right now are all pretty compelling, so I really haven’t changed them out very much.

July2012 by Jeff Hodges on GroovesharkNow NowThreads: Thematic patterns and threads show how Now Now, a relatively young band with amazing talent, chemistry, and promise, can make a uniquely relevant pop rock album in the 21st century. I foresee great things from them.

St. Vincent - Strange Mercy: St. Vincent seems to capture the eclectic otherworldliness of Bjork and focus it through a David Byrne-like intellect. Catchy melodies sidle up to cacophonous Moog punishment in a somewhat schizophrenic relationship between noise and melody.

Rush - Clockwork Angels: A good concept album is constructed so that its constituent songs have meaning both in context and on their own. The songs from Clockwork Angels get their flavor from the main storyline, but are simultaneously embedded into wider, more universal concepts.

Baby Lemonade - The High Life Suite: An outstanding power pop album that is just too short. In spite of its brevity, the songs are absolutely stunning.

The Beach Boys - That's Why God Made the Radio: This recent Beach Boys release is perhaps a bit uneven, sometimes veering into the corny. It saves itself, however, with a nostalgic overtone and characteristically excellent vocal arrangements.

Anais MitchellHadestown: A gutbucket folk opera that retells of the story of Orpheus.  These days, "folk" music seems to mean "composed on acoustic guitar," which Hadestown obviously was - but it has much more musical depth than the label might suggest.

Sigur RosValtari: As I previously stated, this is a particularly atmospheric work from Sigur Ros. It does, however, open up into moments of arresting angelic beauty.

Also, not represented on playlist:

Astra - The Black Chord: Good retro-prog can go one of two ways: it can use the sound of a previous group asa blueprint, or it can mix up identifiably classic sounds in a unique way. Astra takes the second path.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sigur Ros' "Valtari" and the Counterculture of Hope

It often seems that the need to halt the conspiratorial and destructive spiral of contemporary greed and ambition is more pronounced than ever, but the struggle to just to make ends meet from one day to the next often takes precedence. For me, this dissonance between action and inaction generates a troubling undercurrent of frustration, shame, and helplessness. I feel even more disturbed when I, an unapologetic music consumer, consider the role that mediated music plays in this system. On the one hand, it has the potential to provide meaning (and perhaps a sinister distraction) in a culture of isolation. On the other, it is also driven by its status as a disposable commodity. This duality is not new, and there never seems to be a lack of countercultural music to represent the anger and rage it creates. There is far less music, however, that genuinely speaks for hope.

The nearly orchestral approach of Sigur Ros hardly gives the impression of countercultural defiance, but clearly, their distinctive mix of Icelandic and non-literal lyrics is a testament to their interest in musical expression over broad visibility. The band's previous album, Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust, was as close to commercial as they have ever released. In comparison, their recent release Valtari prominently features Sigur Ros’ atmospheric and ambient side. Initially, it seems a bit unfocused and meandering, but it is a work of beauty that rewards the patient listener.

Sigur Ros has traditionally mined the narrative capacity of their music by pairing striking images with sweeping soundscapes in their film projects. For Valtari, the band sponsored twelve directors with a uniform budget and gave them the artistic latitude to render their mind’s eye, free of input from the band. The results from several of these projects have been released, and I found Varuo to be particularly moving. Like the album in general, it rewards the patient viewer with a subtle message of isolation, communication, connection, harmony, and transcendence.

Sigur Ros doesn’t explicitly proselytize for hope, but their music carries weight precisely because of its subtlety. From a pessimistic point of view, the majestic beauty of Valtari could be seen as a sedative for the hyperactive; a commodity intended to colorize a grayed-out existence. Conversely, it also leaves little room for doubt that there are human hands and minds at work to represent the poignant beauty of the human condition. This latter perspective is, in my opinion, defiantly hopeful in the face of disillusion, and provides the emotional space for me to be moved by the sight of my daughter sleeping peacefully in the back seat of my car as I struggle through traffic.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Steve Reich's "Tehillim:" Walking, Thinking, and Dreaming

When we finally got to contemporary music in my undergraduate studies, the topic was noticeably rushed. Perhaps this reflected the musical preferences of my professor, who seemed to get bogged down by his passion for romanticism, or perhaps it was because the 20th century was still in progress, but at any rate, we were encouraged to fend for ourselves on the subject. I was enthralled by what little I had heard, and I made a list of composers that I wanted to follow up on if the chance presented itself. Fortunately, this happened in the mid 90s when I was working at the Blockbuster Music in Lewisville. This flagship store prided itself on its dedicated “classical” department. When promotional materials came in from 20th century composers, there was very little competition from anyone else in the store, so I slowly began to check names off the list.

I felt somewhat familiar with minimalism by way of Philip Glass, so Steve Reich, being lumped into the same category in the textbook, earned a spot on my list. In 1994, I picked up a release of Tehillim, which I brought home and proceeded to not listen to.…at all….for nearly five years. Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn.....

In retrospect, I don’t exactly know why I took it off the shelf in 99, but I know I did. I distinctly remember listening to it in my discman (remember those?) on an afternoon walk sometime during the two years I lived in Krum. I discovered this album on that walk.  Tehillim’s pulsing, overlapping complexities ended up being an intellectually and kinetically invigorating soundtrack to an unexpectedly contemplative experience.

This performance starts at 1:39, and it has really nice lighting accompaniment.  When I stumbled across this clip, I was struck by how much larger the ensemble is than I had envisioned, and consequently, how much more complex the piece actually is.   

Although Tehillim has never gotten major rotation in my car, it has certainly remained in my listening orbit.  I regularly revisit it in quieter indoor settings.  Only recently, however, has another listening experience been able to dislodge the meditative walk I took over ten years ago from my memory. When my wife and I first began dealing with the unusual hours that a newborn infant foisted upon us, I set up a dedicated MP3 player in the room by our rocking chair and filled it with different kinds of soothing, intellectually stimulating music. It’s got Eastern Indian ragas, shakuhachi performances, jazz, Indonesian Gamelan, cross-cultual world music, ambient electronica, Stick music, and all manner of other styles floating under its “random album” button. There are also several minimalist composers represented, and obviously, Steve Reich is one of them.

Tehillim gained a new life for me in this venue. I can say with some confidence that a few months ago, the peice kept me from going totally bonkers when it was my turn for the dreaded 3-4 AM feeding. Thankfully, the Little One sleeps well through the night these days, but she still needs a little winding down before bedtime.  The booming lullabies that come from my mouth, however, just don't work like my wife's do. Tehillim, alternatively, serves as a wonderfully peaceful bedtime listen. Although it is calming, it is certainly not intellectually vacuous, like perhaps an ambient album or white noise machine might be. It’s incredibly expressive and deceptively complex to perform, and I can’t help but think that getting those structures in her ear as she drifts into dreamland is doing that growing brain some good.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Two Psychedelic Margins: Curating the World

The late 60s were undoubtedly a revolutionary time in Western popular music. The overarching influence of this revolution, however, was not confined to the West. After World War II, Western popular music served a multitude of agendas worldwide, and, as a result, had wide influence on the local music of many cultures. Some might argue that this was unfortunate, because it diluted the traditional styles that were already endangered due to colonialism. On the other hand, some of my favorite “world” music is the kind in which a detectable local flavor seeps into the anonymous gray of globalized Western popular music. Because these styles were marginalized at the time, they existed briefly, and under the threat of extinction. There are, however, an increasing number of devoted curators who expend quite a bit of time and energy restoring and releasing music from this period that would otherwise be lost.

For example, I love a lot of West African popular music, particularly from the late 60s and early 70s.  Ideologically, This region was coming out from under European colonial rule, and artists found James Brown’s “black and proud” message inspiring in their music.  The looming figure of Fela Kuti, the creator of Afrobeat, casts a shadow that eclipses a lot of the other artists from this era, though, so taking the next step in this arena can be somewhat daunting.  I was fortunate in 2005 to have stumbled across a great compilation called World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love's the Real Thing.  This is an excellent document of localized pop styles from the 60s.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of compilations. Surveys like these can be effective, however, when they are carefully curated and remastered to provide a unified listening experience despite the diversity they represent.  Love's the Real Thing does this pretty well. 

For Christmas in 2010, I got a hold of a similar compilation from an entirely different region, Thailand. The Sound Of Siam : Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz And Molam From Thailand 1964 – 1975 represents a very interesting syncretism between localized Thai music and Western popular styles.  Be warned - it isn’t always as easy on the ears as Love's the Real Thing. There is one track in particular where the bass guitar is just plain out of tune, and goes further out of tune as the song progresses. Casting aside the interest generated by cultural crossroads, within the first three beats of this track, I have a general feeling of oncoming dread.  The rest of the album, however, paints a vivid and adventurous picture of the popular music in this region during this revolutionary time.

I read somewhere that this style of Thai popular music was on local radio in Vietnam during the war, which obviously I can’t corroborate. It seems possible, though, considering these recordings were most likely printed and broadcast through the increasing influence of what would become the Japanese media machine.  Unfortunately, even the most accessible iterations of Asian and African popular music remained unheard in the West.  It boggles the imagination to consider how much the world would have instantaneously shrunk if just one of these groups appeared at Woodstock, but having their recordings to appreciate today, even out of context, is worth the investment.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 10: The Neapolitan Power of the Three

At twenty albums in, and with CDs quickly becoming a thing of the past, how many more opportunities would I have to pluck a new Rush album from a record store shelf? Realistically, not too many, but I unselfishly left that honor to the Little One, who, just days away from being 10 months old, was on my hip as I entered Waterloo Records. I let her pick out a copy (with some encouragement) and she carried it for me to the checkout. Considering the smugly aloof experience I had with the Waterloo staff last year when I bought the new Yes album, I was wondering what kind of reaction I might get when she plopped Clockwork Angels on the checkout counter. This time, I escaped without incident, but I heard snippits of discussion between a group of staff members from across the aisles of the store:

“The new Rush is out…….”

“Neapolitan ice cream?”

“You’re out of control!”

There was a perceptibly snarky undertone to this exchange, but I didn’t really care. Rush showed up at a crucial time in my musical and social development, and the unified persona of artistic excellence and ambition that the Geddy, Alex, and Neil strove for as a unit served as a role model for me. They have been, as I stated at the beginning of this project, “my” band ever since. Nothing that the hipster crew could do or say would ever be able to dislodge that.

Like most fans, I was already somewhat familiar with Clockwork Angels. The first two tracks were released as digital “singles” over a year ago and were also included in the setlist of last year’s Time Machine tour. The rest of the album was written and recorded while the band was engaged in this tour, which is a unique setting for Rush’s recent compositional process. For several decades, the material on their albums was written as the band was coming off a break and preparing for a tour, and Lee once lamented that their albums did not always capture the song's live rendering. Because it was recorded while the band was actively touring, however, I think Clockwork Angels more accurately captures Rush’s trademark live energy.

Unlike many fans, however, I resisted the temptation to examine these tracks too closely. As a single, Caravan, with its twisting time changes and exploratory structure, seemed a bit confounding, but as the lead track to Rush’s first concept album, it’s an explosive opening statement. Arguably, all of Rush’s albums are conceptual, but not since the long-form songs of the 70s has the band tackled the idea of a story with character development and a climax, and they never did so in the full-album format. Peart is in his wheelhouse when he can employ a story as a vehicle, too, especially one with the descriptive richness of Clockwork Angels' steampunk-inspired imagery.

Carnies by Rush on Grooveshark

As usual on Tuesday, I later went to the dojo. I make no secret of my Rush zealotry amongst my fellow aikido practitioners, and before I had my shoes off, a person asked if I had heard the local radio promo that Waterloo Records had released for “new music Tuesday.” The spot posited that if Rush in the 70s was vanilla, and 80s Rush was chocolate, and in the 90s they were strawberry, then the new album was "Neapolitan ice cream."  The cryptic secret explained!

As flippant as this description is, in a superficial way it’s pretty fair. Rush’s recent predilection for mining their own repertoire as a repository for inspiration is more pronounced than ever, and is skillfully navigated on Clockwork Angels. The incendiary, muscular riffing of 2112 and Caress of Steel coexists with the focused, driving intensity of Signals, unified under the melodic emphasis and consistency of Counterparts. Even more exciting than watching these flavors bleed together is the comeback of the instrumental excursion. In the past, these gave Rush’s songs a sense of exploration and return, and that is excitingly recaptured  on Clockwork Angels.

Longtime Rush fans are usually prepared for some sort of reinvention of the band when a new album is released.  Clockwork Angels, however, musically encapsulates the bands history in a way that embraces, rather than challenges, their identity.  It sounds like Rush at their most memorable, which, at this stage in their career, seems to be an artistically gratifying path, not to mention a strategically smart one.  Fans that have felt disconnected from some of Rush's more stylistically jarring experiments in recent decades can jump back on board, while new fans don't have to understand their entire career to get where they are trying to say.

The Garden by Rush on Grooveshark

There is, of course, the danger of empty nostalgia in a situation like this, and there is, admittedly, a nostalgic aspect to the album, but it creates a tone of familiarity for the band's further progression.  In fact, although Clockwork Angels would be a shining end to Rush's long, engaging career, its exuberance makes me confident that "my" band still has outstanding work ahead of them.

To see the previous post in this series, click here.
To start over at the beginning, click here.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Now Now's Threads on "Threads"

One of the original mission statements of this blog is to spread the word on more obscure bands whose lack of visibility doesn’t reflect the quality of their work. However, my recent revisit to the Wondermints and, subsequently, the new Beach Boys brought to my attention how some aspects of my listening is thickly painted with hues from the past.  With the exception of Field Music’s Plumb, which miraculously fires on both the prog and the pop cylinders, the most interesting and fresh songwriting thrown in my current path has been identifiably synth-pop and electronica.  On a reader’s suggestion, however, I discovered Threads from an up-and-coming band called Now Now, and it has me excited again about the potentials of energetic, melodic rock music.

Threads could be read as a young woman’s coming of age diary. Confessionals of this kind are generally typecast as folky and melodic, and admittedly, the relaxed, stream-of-consiousness melodies that interweave to form Now Now’s songs owe something to this stereotype. Now Now’s prodigiously intimate songwriting, however, is driven by the immensity of post-rock and the energy of Foo Fighters. They often conjure a tornado’s momentum and an intensity that could threaten to swallow the ultimately pleasing dual vocals of Cacie Dalager and Jess Abbott. These two never relinquish control, however, which preserves a certain "indie girl" singer-songwriter vibe. As a result, Threads is simultaneously soothing and powerful, and cruises along with a vitality that can’t be ignored.

There is an electric spark to Now Now’s music that bespeaks of a unique chemistry between the band’s members (who, incidentally, met each other in high school band!).  They rely on well-rounded, tasteful musicianship to employ instruments as tools for songcraft rather than platforms for virtuosity.  It’s difficult to describe or empirically pin down Now Now's synergy, but they undoubtedly complement each other in a way that allows their music to transcend.  As much as they sound killer turned-up and electric, however, their songs are also strong enough to withstand reinterpretation.  There are many interesting and surprising interactions between the vocal melodies and instrumental aspects of their music that allows their work to hold up in a variety of performance situations.

There are also hints of lyric threads on Threads. The lead track The Pull is an atmospheric reinterpretation of the title track, and the final, lingering question posed by the album closer Magnet is “can you still feel the pull?”

Magnet by Now, Now on Grooveshark

The answer is yes - I do still feel it.  I usually just want to just start the album over, and I restrain myself to keep it fresh. The songs are infectious and consistent enough, however, to keep coming to mind outside of the listening experience. I was reflecting on the album's bold warp and woof on July 4th while sitting on a hill overlooking Austin, watching fireworks silently light up all over the town’s horizon. From this vantage point, I was finding it was difficult to pick out a favorite track as the album played out in my mind's ear.  This probably means that in the long run, Threads will be a keeper.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Day Begins: "At War With the Mystics" for Breakfast

Two summers ago, I took a Japanese language course, which was horizon-expanding. Last summer, CrossFit was a bit more globally life-changing. This year’s summer project wasn’t as intentionally planned as those at the outset, but it is emerging, nonetheless: roll around on the floor with my baby daughter and try to see the world through her eyes.  As we are discovering that drink coasters have a front and a back and that bubbles don't hurt when they pop, I keep finding the tuneful, psychedelic, but ultimately positive, music of the Flaming Lips to be somehow appropriate.

One evening, I noticed that the Little One seemed to have an affinity for The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, so we adopted this as our daily breakfast jam. I’m pretty sure that she is starting to sing parts of the song in her own 10 month-old way. It’s pretty cute – even cuter than the hilarious video.

In my opinion, the most classic album by the Flaming Lips is The Soft Bulletin, which I got into through my Aiki Brother (happy birthday, by the way!).This album has its own story for me that I will one day recount, but it is worth mentioning here because its impact made it difficult for me to accept their subsequent releases on their own merit. Even though I loyally purchased all the Flaming Lips albums that followed, for a long time, nothing they did ever seemed as good as The Soft Bulletin. When Embryonic was released in 2010, however, and I saw them play live in Denton that summer, I decided that I had done them an injustice by dismissing their back catalog.

At War With the Mystics is an album that was lost in the fog, so it didn't click for me when it was released.  After using it to announce the day nearly every day for the past three weeks, however, it has become clear that the entire album is permeated with a glorious, cosmic genius that only the Flaming Lips can generate. While it is not quite as streamlined as The Soft Bulletin, it certainly has a succession of amazingly musical moments. Some of these are quite arresting, while others take the form of soft, delicate interludes conjured from layers of acoustic guitar and mellotron. In different listening environments, like the car, where I usually listen to music, these more sensitive sections might have been easily overlooked.

For all their well-publicized musical experimentation, stuntwork, and overall weirdness, ultimately, the Flaming Lips are deeply musical, and can embed a simple song within a stunning atmosphere of musical grandeur. The spectacle of their live performance similarly juxtaposes larger-than-life imagery against intimate songcraft, and was what convinced me of their genius.  The Flaming Lips' unique brand of psychedelia somehow avoids being too derivative of Pink Floyd and other past masters.  It is distinctly their own, and really must be seen to be believed.

Overall, At War With the Mystics is a richly textured soundtrack to a morning spent with the Little One.  While advocates of the disproven "Mozart Effect" might take exception to my choice of music, there is a playfully creative demeanor at the core of the Flaming Lips musical concept that I hope my Little One will one day find inspiring.  For now, I happily accept her exclamation "YAYAYAYAYA" as a request to sing.