Sunday, September 30, 2012

September Roundup: An Eye on Good Fortune

Last night we walked though the new house. The wood only started going up in the last couple of weeks, but even so, we can see the abstract decisions we have made in countless meetings and discussions become real things. When everything only existed in our heads and on paper, it seemed that our questions and concerns were unanswerable, but now we can see those plans come to fruition. That’s comforting.

Superficially, ours is one of the humbler lots in our neighborhood. Several other houses are built on hillsides with striking views, while ours is tucked in the back. When we inspected the room upstairs, however, our friends, The Best Man and The Minister, who will very soon also be our neighbors, asked us if we had noticed our view from our north facing window. In my mind, that window wasn’t going to look into much more than the side of our next-door neighbor’s house. As I came to the window, however, I immediately looked past their sideyard to see a very clear view overlooking downtown Austin.

I was not counting on having much of a view of anything. When we decided to take the upstairs option, however, we got one just by chance. That’s the kind of good fortune that has come my way recently that makes me think that I, and my family, have been living right.

A couple of selections from this month were unavailable for streaming.

Oceansize - Everyone Into Position: This was a mid-00s find that straddles progressive rock and post-grunge rock styles. On the whole, I enjoy it, but it has never seemed to have much of a shelf life in the long term.

The xx - Coexxist: On the surface, Coexxist seems to capture the subdued melodrama of The xx's stellar debut. There seems to be something missing, however, and I'm still trying to decide if more simmering is needed.

The rest adds up to a pretty varied playlist.

Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica: I consider this to be the first album I bought this year, and its also one of the best. It is, perhaps, challenging at first, but it holds up incredibly well under repeated listens.

M83 - Before the Dawn Heals Us: Some fans cite this as M83's best album, which, considering the competition, is quite a tall order. After spending some time with it, however, I think that it just might be true.

My Bloody Valentine - Loveless: This album isn't catchy or even singable, really. Still, it envelopes and washes over the listener in a very distinctive and emotional way.

Rush - Clockwork Angels - I took it out for a week. Then I put it right back in.

I started the Jellyfish project this month with both Bellybutton and Spilt Milk, and it immediately garnered attention, more so than any other post in the blog's history.  It seems like the band's cult status has built a devoted fanbase over the years that supercedes their initial low-key success.

Kill Bill vol. 1 Original Soundtrack: This unique collection of songs is infused with menace and double meaning as the backdrop to Tarantino's masterwork. It holds together by seemingly little more than the strength of the movie's distinctive narrative.

Field Music - Plumb: I always hate to take this album out when it is in rotation. Although it does work as a collection of songs, it is best considered as a unified work.

Brendan Benson - What Kind of World:  All of Benson's releases are phenomenally good power pop, and What Kind of World is no different.  I'm not sure if its my favorite Benson album overall, but it's a great listen.

Seryn - This is Where We Are: After hearing about this band from many of my Denton brethren, I was quite fortunate to have a copy sent to me by a reader. Fortunate, indeed, because I get the feeling that This is Where We Are will be a rewarding long-term listen in terms of musicianship and craft.

Charles Mingus - The Clown: While there were some pretty clear lines of transmission in jazz, Mingus' work seems to exist outside of these traditions. His romantic approach to jazz is virtually antagonistic when placed in its late 50s context.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: ELP has a few amazing moments on their debut that predicts the apex that they would soon reach. At times, however, it seems as if they are feeling out each other's potential in public, which makes the album a bit uneven.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer: The Moments Found in 1+1+1

As a prog-rock fan, I feel somewhat obligated to at least appreciate Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, but their work confounds me.  On the one hand, I recognize that their oeuvre is pockmarked with the kind of self-indulgent bombast that ultimately caused progressive rock to fall out of favor.  Conversely, there are moments in their catalog that represent the finest progressive rock of the 70s, so every now and then I put one of their albums in rotation just to make sure I haven’t missed any of those moments.

About two weeks ago, this great video of them playing Take a Pebble from their self-titled debut came up through my feed, so I revisited Emerson, Lake, and Palmer  this week.

On their debut, the dichotomy between successful group expression and pretentious self-absorbed rambling is readily apparent. Taken as a whole, it’s quite obvious that ELP houses three distinct personalities.  The songs are often structured in a way that gives each player a turn to step to the microphone and show what they have. Even Take a Pebble, a song with memorable sections that feature the band as a unit, digresses into a relatively rare Greg Lake folk showcase followed by an extended jazz-tinged theme and variation section by Keith Emerson.

In the band's defense, ELP was essentially a progressive rock supergroup formed of three already established players. It could be argued, quite convincingly, that they were feeling each other out on this first release. Progressive rock was about experimentation, and the style certainly could bend to include their public exploration of each other's potential. More often than not, however, the ELP captured on their debut sounds less like a band and more like a vehicle for the soloing voices of its constituent members. The chemistry that they would develop on subsequent releases is only sparsely represented.

Keeping that in mind, however, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer is an interesting specimen precisely because of its patchiness. Emerson and Palmer are clearly responsible for the majority of the band's musical pyrotechnics, but Lake’s effortless, expressive, and somewhat folky tenor exerts a force of gravity on his bandmates’ flights of fancy. His songwriting grounds the album while buoying its less focused excursions, allowing the members of ELP to explore each other's idiosyncratic styles.

Lucky Man by Emerson, Lake & Palmer on Grooveshark

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kill Bill Vol.1: Sound and Vision in the Schism

I made a pretty big deal last summer about watching Fraggle Rock and listening to the Flaming Lips with the Little One, and I would not have traded it for anything. There were times, however, that I missed the freedom of doing whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it. This is what made naptime so awesome. If I was on point for my workout schedule and the house was relatively clean, I would sometimes indulge in some kind of hyper-violent and completely child-inappropriate movie, just so that I could feel like I was keeping my dude-dad cred. Of course, it had to be watched at a low volume so that any unexpected explosions wouldn’t wake her up and preempt my adolescent catharsis. One of my favorite entries in this “Quiet Time Movie” series was Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.   I had forgotten just how compelling the soundtrack was, so subsequently, I put the soundtrack in rotation.

It is pretty unusual for me to advocate for a soundtrack comprised of pre-existing music. I’m stubbornly dedicated to the orchestral work of John Williams and Angelo Badalamenti, and I generally find compilations to be commercially driven and musically uneven. Periodically, however, a director is able to curate music that becomes inextricably bound to the experience of their film. When it is done right, it brings the experience back just as effectively as an originally composed score, perhaps with the added bonus of nostalgic reference.

When appropriating songs for soundtracks, obscurity is key. If a song is too widely recognized, it may challenge the viewer’s associations.  Kill Bill shows Tarantino's awareness and mastery when it comes to combining a wide variety of unknown music to his cinematic vision. For example, athough Bang Bang was released nearly forty years before Kill Bill was, it’s clearly Beatrix Kiddo’s theme song.

Kill Bill is a rather bizarre pastiche of cinematic styles that seemingly refers to everything, but actually copies nothing. Its a self-encapsulated world where redneck hitmen and samurai swordsmen coexist in uneasy truces.  Taken literally,the soundtrack is a similar collection of obscure and disparate tracks that, if taken individually, would fall between the cracks of clear record-bin categorization. The distinctive world of Kill Bill, however, can somehow be circumscribed by both the frenetic surf-punk of the 5,6,7,8’s Woo Hoo and Zamfir’s expansive pan flute kitsch.

Where does Tarantino find this stuff, anyway?

Overall, the soundtrack has more high points than low, but it does suffer slightly from its breadth. In particular, I feel like the RZA’s track, Ode to Oren Ishii, which was not featured in the movie, isn’t representative of his best work. I understand that Tarantino is a devout fan of the RZA, but it seems a little off-the-cuff. All is forgiven soon, however, especially two tracks later when Tomoyasu Hotei kicks out the jam Battle without Honor or Humanity. The way in which this song connects with its attendant imagery in the movie makes it difficult to resist the temptation to walk down crowded halls in slow motion. Plus it’s got that great timpani riff in the middle.

Kill Bill is one of those rare instances where director’s cinematic vision is unified with the songs selected for the soundtrack.  As a standalone work, it's particularly evocative, especially for the fanboy.  A simple whistled melody becomes infused with menace as it evokes Elle Driver's entry into Beatrix Kiddo's hospital room.  I doubt, however, that it’s as suggestive for those not familiar with the movie.  Even so, it’s a compelling mix of eclectic music that’s got some real gems hidden in its tracklisting.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 1: "Bellybutton" at the Root

Looking back on the time after I graduated from high school and began my undergraduate degree, I can clearly see how I tried to cling to my life in Austin while a new one stretched out before me in Denton. I traveled with alarming regularity on the weekends, and tried to maintain a career as a record store employee over longer breaks. During my first summer break in 1990, I got a job working at the Hasting’s at Barton Creek Mall. Predictably, I discovered a lot of music during that time. Jellyfish, a band that was brought to my attention by a fellow employee and working musician, was one such discovery. Although their debut Bellybutton seemed like a retro-pop curiosity at the time, in the long term it became hugely influential on me.

Just for context, when Bellybutton was released, 2 Live Crew’s lewd and ultimately substandard rap had created a McCarthyesque witch hunt for profanity and lewdness in popular music. Jellyfish’s album cover, if examined closely, is a naked female body covered in what looks like blue gel toothpaste. When I purchased my copy of Bellybutton back then, it was folded to hide the perhaps more socially sensitive areas of the cover art. I have not seen this in subsequent pressings of the album. Bellybutton found its way into my CD stacks at the end of that summer, and subsequently went back up to Denton with me when I returned to the dorms.

Aside from being located across the street from the music building, Bruce Hall was lacking many amenities back then. Truthfully, we were secretly proud that there was no air conditioning, and that there was one centrally located TV for the entire dormitory. We were often left to ourselves for entertainment, and listening to music was a pervasive social activity. By this time, I had acquired a decently idiosyncratic collection of CDs, so when people would congregate in our room to hang out I prided myself on having a constant supply of offbeat tunes.

Although I was pushing a lot of King Crimson in those days, when Bellybutton found its way into the player, it quickly became the favorite of many. The sunny exterior of Jellyfish’s songs harbors a dark, bittersweet lyric narrative, and for nearly two years, this incomprehensibly well-crafted juxtaposition kept Bellybutton in rotation as it was requested by a seemingly endless queue of people living in my wing. It started with my roommate, but very soon, anyone coming to hang out asked me to put it in. I listened to Bellybutton over and over, and in all those playings, it never really got old.

Instead, the more I listened to it, the more deeply it affected me. As I slowly understood the meaning of Bellybutton, and also saw its meaning unfold to my friends, I realized that it harbored more than dark commentary, but a life-weary angst that belied the age of its members. Concurrently, the harmonic and melodic complexities of the album seemed to have a nearly endless depth which, I would find out later, the band could render live with consummate ease.

Over the next decade, I found that I was not alone. Although Jellyfish never rose far above a cult following, they inspired a whole wave of underground power pop in which I, for a time, also swam. Their career as a band was regrettably short-lived, but their albums and the albums that their members made in subsequent years drove my musical interests throughout the 90s. Just by keeping track of what Jellyfish’s members did after the band's demise, I came across some amazing music.

Earlier this year, I did a retrospective on Rush’s catalog. The length of their timeline lends itself well to this sort of coverage, and as a whole, I think that it represents the role that Rush plays in my overall musical concept. In their own way, Jellyfish played a similar role, but their catalog is so small that a similar retrospective won’t do them a similar justice. Therefore, for this new project, I plan to recreate my ascent up the Jellyfish family tree, and hopefully shed light on a succession of albums that bent my ideas about what were possible in pop music.

To jump to the next post in the series, click here.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Charles Mingus: Chaos, Commentaries, and "The Clown"

When I took my jazz band to participate in the CCCC Jazz Festival in the spring of 2008, I discovered Charles Mingus' Haitian Fight Song.  This piece reinvigorated my interest in his work and its educational value. Years before, as a much younger teacher, I tried to get my band to play Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, but as great as that tune is, it requires a musical maturity that, in retrospect, is probably unreasonable for the average high schooler.

Not to say that Haitian Fight Song is easy, but it does have an aggressive, chaotic energy that immediately appealed to my students. Additionally, it is, in essence, a blues piece, and in my later years as a jazz educator, I strongly emphasized the importance of soloing over blues changes. It all seemed to fit, but I needed to find a model.  Usually, commercially available big band arrangements are based on a specific recording, and I always try to make it a point to find and become intimately familiar with that recording. After some digging about, I found it on Mingus’ 1957 album The Clown.

A bit of patience is required - although it begins at a barely audible murmur, the original version of Haitian Fight Song is a piece of devastating, perhaps almost terrifying, intensity. Within minutes it builds into a transcendent chaos, boiling over into a gripping trombone solo that simultaneously drives and floats, preparing for the next eruption.

The next year, we played Haitian Fight Song, and in my mind, it became the signature piece from my 08-09 band. Additionally, although the usual starting point for Mingus’ work is the great Ah Um, The Clown is now easily one of my all-time favorite jazz albums. On the one hand, I admit that it pulls my memories back the conflicted state of mind I was in when my time teaching jazz in Krum was drawing to a close, but its musical strengths and artistic statement also elevate the listening experience above mere nostalgia.

In truth, I feel that all of the tracks on The Clown are equally affective in their own way. As a whole, they relate a sense of intellect and defiance that society would not catch up to for over a decade. In particular, the album’s title track is a scathing satire with that belies its late 50s release date.

The Clown by Charles Mingus on Grooveshark

As a composition, The Clown is an attention-grabbing expedition through a variety of styles, programmed to enhance the simmering build-up of its plot. Its narrative begins in a bittersweet, almost heartbreaking tone. It unfolds, however, into a disturbing commentary on the entertainment industry and, more subtly, the often wicked expectations of a faceless public audience. I don’t know of a more contemptuous and self- referential send-up outside of Frank Zappa’s usually acerbic oeuvre. Although Zappa never cited Mingus as an influence, and was a bit ambivalent about jazz in general, there is a tenuous conceptual relationship between these two giants that I perceive on The Clown.  In both cases, well-crafted compositions, edgy performances, and defiant narratives speak strongly in the countercultural voice of their time.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"Hybris:" Making Amends with Änglagård

In the 70s, progressive rock was almost popular, but by the 80s it collapsed under its own weight.  In the rubble, the vigilant fans of Marillion and other neo-prog bands kept the style alive, but by the early 90s, prog had become aggressively marginalized by the mainstream media. To be labeled a prog band in the United States was dreadfully unhip, and as a result, bands wishing to “make it” kept their odd time signatures and instrumental passages to themselves or faced the threat of obscurity. Despite this cultural climate, there were still progressive bands out there (particularly overseas) that connected with a relatively small, dedicated audience through word-of-mouth and fanzines, and this scene had its own classic albums that kept progressive rock alive. Swedish band Änglagård bore torch for this era, and the band’s 1991 release Hybris is, for the serious prog fan, a classic.

For the early 90s progressive rock scene, there was virtually no hope for radio airplay, so writing a “crossover hit” like Roundabout, Turn it On Again, or even Kayliegh, was futile.  As a result, the prog from this era was written for a relatively insular and discerning audience, and, like Hybris, it was often unapologetic and demanding. The album is mostly instrumental, and the few lyrics it does contain are exclusively in Swedish. Its somewhat gothic undertones ground a dynamic and angularly explosive reinterpretation of early Genesis and 70s King Crimson.

When Hybris was released, prog’s popularity had dimmed to a flicker, but by the decade’s end, it was reignited via the internet. New conduits of information brought older, less visible bands from prog’s heyday to light, and revealed that the reports of prog’s death were greatly exaggerated. This is where I found out about Änglagård, which was the good news. The bad news was that despite the significance of Hybris, it was out of print and had been for some time.

Here’s where I hang my head in shame. This was also during the time of Napster. Now, I considered myself was one of those “principled” file sharers. My small download library was little more than a research venue for my upcoming CD purchases, which skyrocketed due to my adoration of the album as a format. I never downloaded an entire album by any band – with one exception, that being Hybris. After all, it was impossible to get. When I found used copies, the price was exorbitant, and Änglagård wouldn’t get their cut from me purchasing a used album, anyhow.

Or at least, that was my justification.

Additionally, I was living in the country at the time and using dial-up internet that I was ganking from a friend's start-up company. The signal was hardly reliable, and downloading an acceptable version of Änglagård’s long-form songs was frustratingly difficult. It became my white whale. I would often set file up before bedtime and tie up the phone line all night long as I slept. It took me months to reconstruct the four tracks that make up Hybris. Finally, I had a version with no bumps or drops, and when I printed off extravagant cover art on high-gloss photo paper, I felt like I had worked harder to get that album than any other in my collection.

Jordrök by Änglagård on Grooveshark

In retrospect, my file sharing practices did not last long. I certainly don’t engage in such morally reprehensible activities these days. Seeing many progressive bands, many of whom are incredibly passionate about their work, quit entirely due to the frustration of releasing music and having it effectively stolen is convincing enough. So, I’d like to make amends. I purchased Änglagård’s upcoming release Viljans Öga (their first since 1994!) directly from their site. Converting from Kroners to dollars was expensive, but in truth, I think I owe it to them.