Tuesday, October 30, 2012

October Roundup: Besieged by Details

Although I like to keep things positive on the blog, I have to admit that October has been a particularly trying month. In many facets of my life, I have a lot of people that rely heavily on me, and usually, I don’t mind being the person that plays an active role in holding things together. There are stressful and seemingly endless details with the house that need ironing out, though, and with the move coming up next month, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. Along with that, it feels like my work responsibilities have taken more energy than usual. With all of these stressors, being “the rock” seems a little overwhelming, and I’m a little ashamed of feeling that way.

When I get overwhelmed, I tend to let go of details and just plow forward, just trying to get where I am supposed to be when I am supposed to be there. In some ways, however, life is created out of details, and very often, my disinclination to stay organized and communicate my plans comes back to get me. I may get to where I need to be, but I’m not always prepared, which makes me even more frustrated, stressed, and ashamed.

This is when I rely on people to reciprocate and help hold me together, especially in the organization department. I am fortunate to have an amazing support structure that is willing to help.  When I am feeling pressure, however, I can sometimes take support as criticism, and I react defensively, which is also unfair.

I am incredibly thankful for the people around me, especially when they are patient with my weaknesses. I only hope that I have the grace to thank them when I feel besieged.

There are still no streaming tracks available for:

The xx - Coexist: I get the feeling that The xx said everything that they are going to say on their first album. Although Coexxist is a pleasant enough listen, it seems inexplicably vacuous in many of the places where their debut was meaningful.

However, the rest of the month pretty much sounded like this:

Grizzly Bear - Shields: There are not many current bands that are able to balance accessibility and abstraction the way the Grizzly Bear does. I would stop short of calling it flawless, but it is certainly an engaging, rewarding listen on many levels.

Jellyfish - Spilt Milk: Perhaps it takes a bit more of a page from Sgt. Pepper's than Revolver, but to even be considered amongst that kind of company is a compliment. Spilt Milk was, and is, a great album that was the source of an even greater tour.

Jason Falkner - Presents Author Unknown: This is one of my favorite albums from almost any Jellyfish-related release. Its incredibly strong and idiosyncratic, and is inextricably interwoven with my experiences from around its release.

Imperial Drag: I have not listened to this old gem it in many years, and it’s held up incredibly well. It has gotten a somewhat new lease on life with me the past month.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer - Tarkus: I think that this coheres as an album much more effectively that ELP's debut, but it is also inconsistent. It has some of the great music, sandwiched between brief intervals of filler.

Death Grips - Money Store: I picked this album up on a bit of a whim and although it blew me away at first, I soon had some second thoughts. I woke up this morning, however, and decided that Money Store, like the work of Ministry and Rage Against the Machine were in the 90s, is equal parts ingenious and disturbing

Radiohead - Amnesiac: There was argument posed that perhaps it is unfair to hold Amnesiac to the same standard as Kid A because it was not constructed to hold together as an album. I do see the point, but since the album is my unit of consumption, I see Amnesiac as flawed compilation with some great material on it (sorry!).

Storm Corrosion - With a name like Storm Corrosion, this disc is not what I expected at all. It’s an inversion of nearly every assumption you might make about a Michael Ackerfeldt/Steven Wilson collaboration.

Seryn - This Is Where We Are: This is a serious grower. Its "Peter Gabriel meets Appalachia" ambience has insidiously wound its way into my favorites.

Änglagård - Viljans Öga: Änglagård is cinematic and technical almost to the point of absurdity. Their attention to detail and intuitive sense of melodic flow, however, fortifies Viljans Öga with a tone of serious, studied musicality.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Knives Out: Grizzly Bear's "Shields" and Reinvention

In 2001, on an uninhabited stretch of road between Denton and Allen, I decided that Amnesiac was a bust. Radiohead had presented rewarding challenges with every album up to that point, but after struggling with it for quite awhile, I could not convince myself that the jarring differences between its burbling sound experiments and jagged songwriting would have a payoff like Kid A did. I shelved it and forgot about it

Several months later, however, during a rather innocuous set of standards, a UNT graduate jazz combo slipped in a genuinely moving rendition of Knives Out. It brought to my attention the song’s unsettling harmonic dissonance and challenged me to reconsider the original recording. Retrospectively, my opinion of Amnesiac is a bit higher (even though it’s still still one of Radiohead’s patchiest albums) but I view Knives Out as one of the finest songs in their oeuvre.

The combo that reframed the song for me earned my respect for focusing their intellectual and artistic energy on a song so obviously against the grain of jazz tradition. You don't often find that kind of idealistic innovation outside of the academic setting. Certainly, the audience for that sort of thing is quite limited and difficult to engage, especially back in the pre-YouTube era of the early 00s. These days, however, virtual music performances can sometimes serve as a creative venue for encounters like this.  One such performance played a role that led me to Grizzly Bear's most recent release.

Ever since I got Veckatimist last year, I have pondered Grizzly Bear’s deeper musical potentials. That album exhibited a level of musicianship that might indicate that there was more to them than meets the ear, but they are also indie darlings right now. Very often, indie sites have their own agendas that are not too dissimilar from the ones that guided record company promotional practices in the past. I have been very cautious about jumping on board the Grizzly Bear bandwagon simply because I want to make sure that I’m engaged by the band's musicality and not the hype that surrounds them. Therefore, when news of Shields started trickling through the feed, I was carefully interested. One night at Aikido Summer Camp, however, this video came up through my feed as I was getting ready to crash for the night.

Keep in mind, this guy isn’t even in the band, and he's not playing jazz.  Still, the amount of respect that this creative and skilled percussionist paid to Grizzly Bear in arranging an orchestrally-styled part to Sleeping Ute, a song that had not even been officially released yet, is a tribute to his belief in its broader intellectual potential.  For me, Shields went from being a curious interest to a must-have.

When it was finally released months later, it made an incredible first impression on me, so much so that I was afraid that it would burn brightly and proceed to collect dust. After being with it for awhile, however, I think that Grizzly Bear’s praise is mostly well-deserved. In addition to Sleeping Ute, I also connected almost immediately to Yet Again.

The production on this track, and on the album as a whole, captures an ambience that recalls Radiohead back in their early days when they were more like a band and less like a project (an identity shift that I think they were struggling with on Amnesiac). Listening to the laid-back, Keith Richards-esque strumming in this song, there is no question that Grizzly Bear’s music is generated by human hands. Additionally, their brilliant melodicism makes their work more inviting than that of Radiohead, sometimes reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham’s quirky approach to pop songwriting. Lyrically and musically, however, they paint abstract, impressionistic pictures with the potential for multiple interpretations.

As an example, my first impression of Sun in Your Eyes, with its asymmetrical time signatures, rolling drumming, and desolate lyrics, was programmatic: a metaphor for a lonely, tumultuous sea voyage. I was a little disappointed to discover that there was scant lyric reference to support this imagery, but also impressed that this notion came entirely from the musical content.  My musical impression seemed quite clear, but the song's text pointed in a different direction.  Multimodal layers like this one can frequently be found in Grizzly Bear’s music, and the most interesting ones don’t always neatly coincide. Like Radiohead, they have ruptures between abstraction and clarity that leave lots of room for subjective interpretation, and therefore, creative reinvention.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 3: Getting Into Imperial Drag

Jellyfish deliberately used the familiar melodic and harmonic conventions of yesteryear as a nostalgic vehicle for expressive musicianship. That band cratered under the weight of its own talent, but a few years later, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. and touring guitarist Eric Dover reconvened under the name Imperial Drag. Although this project was stylistically different from Jellyfish, it operated under a similarly constructed identity. Instead of recalling The Beatles and other late 60s/early 70s pop groups, however, Imperial Drag’s image scaffolded on the conventions of T. Rex and glam rock.

Overnight Sensation by Imperial Drag on Grooveshark

I was not aware at all of Imperial Drag’s relationship to Jellyfish, at least not at first. Sometimes an album’s artwork catches my attention, and their debut, with its shiny foil star and rainbow bolt, jumped off at me from a record store wall display. The back cover was no less attention-grabbing, as it showed two teenage girls with imaginary Imperial Drag fan club schwag all over their room, fondling their vinyl copy of the album. In the late 90s vinyl was considered to be completely dead, so in the context of the Imperial Drag’s cultural climate, this reference carried quite a bit of weight. Overall, the album looked like a prop from “That 70s Show.”

I ended up buying Imperial Drag purely out of curiosity, but I was won over by the band’s compelling songwriting and impressive musicianship. It wasn’t until I started looking at the liner notes that I put the pieces together.

Imperial Drag had a low-key hit from this album in the mid 90s characterizing the orgiastic sexuality that is part and parcel of late 70s nostalgia. Although not all of their lyrics are so obvious, rarely do two stanzas go by in any given song without some sort of innuendo or double meaning sneaking in. Sex looms so large on Imperial Drag that it’s hard to tell if its presence is tongue-in-cheek or if Eric Dover has a somewhat perverse side.

The album was sorely, but predictably, overlooked, which stands as a testament to the myopic nature of the late 90s music press. The little attention that they received for the album as a whole was generally negative, perhaps because it existed in a time when esoteric, folkish genuineness was more valued than clever semiotic play. In any case, the search for “The Next Nirvana” was so blinding that many great bands were left in the dark to fend for themselves. Imperial Drag ended in a flash and its members, again, split off into various projects.

Getting into Imperial Drag was one of the first steps I took as I began to follow Jellyfish’s members. Although Roger Joseph Manning has been extremely prolific, I have not followed Eric Dover after the band’s demise. I do know that he went on to play and sing in Slash’s Snake Pit, and also performed as a side man for Alice Cooper. In researching Imperial Drag, I also found that he has a new project called Sextus, which I have not examined too closely as of yet. Perhaps in the near future.

The previous post in this series is back here.
You can see where it goes next right here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Änglagård's "Viljans Öga:" Progress and Continuity

I was primed for a new release from a band like Änglagård. Despite my efforts to keep my prog box shut with the Jellyfish project, its top was blown off by the release of Rush’s Clockwork Angels and Astra’s The Black Chord earlier this year. Once I caught wind of Viljans Öga, I became determined to purchase a legit copy, hopefully from as close to the band as possible. Unsurprisingly, however, getting a hold of a new release by this incredible but relatively obscure Swedish band involved a little more diligence than a simple trip to the local record store. I lurked and lurked on their site, and when the CD release was announced, I placed my order immediately ….and waited.

It took over three weeks for Viljans Öga to travel halfway around the world to my mailbox in Texas. In the meantime, my eager anticipation was tempered by the nagging fear that, after reforming nearly two decades since their last album, and without founding member Tord Lindman, Änglagård might have somehow watered down the distinctive approach to that put their albums so many “prog classics” lists.

It was quite common for progressive bands in the 90s and early 00s to innovate simply by becoming heavier and more metallic, but one of Änglagård’s many strengths was their ability to keep the classic sounds of 70s progressive rock vital and fresh without nostalgically aping the styles of yesteryear. I hoped that Viljans Öga would be the next chapter in Änglagård’s career, and not a whole new story.

Finally, a package showed up in my mailbox with all variety of customs stamps in unintelligible languages, and I quickly discovered that my apprehensions were unfounded. Änglagård retains their characteristically explosive, complex, and somewhat gothic brand of progressive rock. Viljans Öga is a comprised of four long, linear instrumentals that, at first listen, don’t seem to follow normal structural logic. Superficially, they appear to be unified by a melodic stream-of-consciousness that is driven by an instinctive understanding of the nuance needed to travel through a wide array of styles and dynamic extremes with ease and grace.

Repeated listens, however, reveal the subtle melodic structures that undergird their songs with a sense of cohesion, which, considering the breadth and depth of what they are doing, ensures that their work never spirals out of conceptual control.  Often, it is the role of the vocalist to help hold things together, and although Lindman did contribute some vocals on their debut, Änglagård is better known for their instrumental aspects. In his stead, the impressive flute playing of Anna Holmgren takes center stage. This, along with classic Rickenbacker bass, mellotron, and Hammond organ sounds, makes Viljans Öga seem like an aggressive but respectful reinvention of every instrumental break that Genesis ever produced.

(I'm not super-pleased with the sound quality of this clip, but it does show the current band playing a track from Viljans Öga.  I've included the studio version below for sake of reference) 

Snardom by Anglagard on Grooveshark

Änglagård was, and is, important to the progressive rock community because they successfully tread that fine line between progress and continuity. On the one hand, Viljans Öga doesn’t sound like a rehash of the work that made them progressive rock innovators, but it is a logical step forward by the same band.  It was certainly well worth the wait. In a larger sense, however, Änglagård clearly have a predilection towards the sounds of classic prog that aligns them with tastes of even the fussiest prog fan, but their multifaceted and virtuosic compositions are distinctively novel. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 2: "Spilt Milk" at Lunch

In 1993, I took a hiatus from my undergraduate studies and moved back to Austin.  By this point, I had listened to Bellybutton hundreds of times, and I was fortunate to pick up a promo copy of Jellyfish's follow-up.  There was a lot that I liked about Spilt MilkIt had the same amazing songwriting, and in terms of its production, it was a major step forward from Bellybutton. Initially, however, I did not connect with it in the same way as I did its predecessor, mostly, I think, because I did not share it amongst a circle of friends. Coming from the close quarters of Bruce Hall and its denizens to living at home with the fam, I had relatively little time to hang out and listen to music with a close community of people.

I did notice, however, through my fellow Blockbuster Music employees and the friends I did periodically hang out with that year, that the microcosm of Jellyfish fandom in Bruce Hall was not alone.  Inexplicably, however, the band remained the secret favorite of dedicated music connoisseurs only.

I also think that their lack of success also took a subtle toll on the band.  The sublimely dark commentary on "life as we know it" that pervaded Bellybutton was replaced by a somewhat more cynical and sarcastic undertone on Spilt Milk. Additionally, there were some significant personnel changes.  There was now a dedicated bass player and background vocalist in Tim Smith, but Jason Falkner, who played guitar and sang backup on the first album, left the band to pursue his own solo career.  A close look at the liner notes indicated that Jon Brion provided backup vocals and guitars on Spilt Milk, so in my mind, he was the “new” guitarist.  In reality, however, he clearly was not considered to be stepping into Falkner’s shoes as a full member, and instead, guitarist Eric Dover joined the touring lineup.  In other words, Jellyfish's roster was less inclusive, but the band's sound expanded.  This inverse relationship led me to think that the band had simply become a studio project.

Sebrina, Paste And Plato by Jellyfish on Grooveshark

All of these factors set me slightly ill at ease, but still, I put Spilt Milk in regular rotation while I was working at Blockbuster Music and advocated for it at every turn.  At one point, the staff was offered promotional wristbands to this funny little thing called South by Southwest. In light of the spectacle SXSW has become, its relative scale was almost humorous. Just a few clubs were participating, but In retrospect, I did not really take advantage of the access that $25 wristband granted me. I picked it up quite casually, with the sole intention of seeing Jellyfish for free at Liberty Lunch.

Austin music history reveres Liberty Lunch, and granted, a lot of amazing music happened there. It was the site of my very first live gig ever, so perhaps I should revere it, as well.  In my memory, however, it was pretty much like a lot of mid-level music venues. It was a little dank and smelly, with picnic tables for furniture. In any case, seeing Jellyfish there was probably the last time I went before it was torn down in the late 90s and a thankless high-rise apartment building was plopped on its gravesite.

I was a bit dismissive as the band took the stage, but I immediately noticed that the rumors were true: drummer Andy Sturmer was indeed the lead singer, and he did indeed play standing up at the front of the stage. Awesome. I was taken aback, however, as keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. walked away from his keyboards to play guitar for All is Forgiven , a surprisingly cacophonous opening statement. My initial incredulity gave way to awe, however, as, softly and precisely, the backup vocals made their first entry.

(Quality on the above vid is a little spotty, and its not from the Liberty Lunch gig, but we're lucky to have access to anything Jellyfish twenty years down the pipe.  Hopefully, you get the idea)

It was one of a handful of times in my life where my idea about what was musically possible instantaneously expanded. I simply could not believe my ears. I craned my neck to see if anyone had a finger on a keyboard or a foot on a pedal to trigger a sample, but all I saw was four mouths effortlessly singing. Their voices were so precise and blended together so seamlessly that they cohered into an instrumental life of their own, carrying as much weight as single musician on a guitar or keyboard.

Queen was well-known for their vocal prowess, but I’m not sure that, even at the height of their arena-rock prowess, they could have reproduced what Jellyfish did in Liberty Lunch that night. It was readily apparent that their individual and group musicianship far surpassed the genre in which they were playing. Once I appreciated the incredible virtuosity of Jellyfish’s touring lineup for the Spilt Milk, tour, and the fact that they could match the sound of their studio work in a live setting, it reframed the album as a recorded piece.  Bellybutton was the album the broke the band for me, and is still probably my favorite, but today that distinction is only by a narrow margin.

Within a year, the band had quietly broken up and the various members spread out into the music underground.  All of them stayed active, however, and for music fans willing to do the research, it is quite apparent that the incredible musicianship that represented Jellyfish has had a far-reaching influence.  I chased them from one project to the next, which led me down a musical path that I am still following today.

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