Friday, April 30, 2010

Seth Meicht's "Illumine"

February 3, 2009—If you look for releases that, for no better term, offer “pure jazz,” music devoid of gimmicks, non-musical incentives to profit, or commercial overtones, your best bet is usually the independent labels, those operations with no ties to the three or four major entertainment conglomerates that are responsible for a big chunk of the music produced for consumption today. Not to detract from what the latter do; they still can produce releases of lasting value and interest, just not much jazz. One of the independents any reader of this blog knows I cover regularly is the Cadence/CIMP/CIMPol complex of recordings, a label whose dedication to the music is lasting and indomitable.

Today’s featured recording is one that was released relatively recently. Headed by tenorist Seth Meicht, Illumine (CIMP) features a two tenor lineup of Meicht and Matt Bauder, plus bass and drums. With that format, and the playing involved, they are in the lineage that comes out of some of Elvin Jones' classic configurations, especially the two-tenor-and-rhythm outfits he lead in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. Like those groups, Seth’s band features a steadily driving, propulsive rhythm section and free solo reign for the two horns. There the comparison ends. Meicht and company go about it all in their own way. The compositions are all the product of Mr. Meicht’s pen and they do much to set the tone and mood of what follows. They are no easy blowing heads. Each has pith, grit, and substance. The solo spots by Meicht and Bauder are contemporary in the best sense of the word—free yet rooted in the post-bop tradition. Both horns compare favorably with anyone out there doing such music today and the rhythm section drives the horizontal momentum with imagination and zeal.

If someone pressed me to recommend a single disk that demonstrates where improvisatory music resides today, I would readily mention this one as a good start. Seth Meicht deserves the recognition that I hope will be coming his way soon. Go to the Cadence site ( and find out more.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Yuko Ito Sings Brazilian Bossa-Samba Standards

Today a look at Tokyo born-and-bred vocalist Yuko Ito. She started out in a rock context, recording two albums with the all-girl band Sissy Boy. Yuko then moved to the Big Apple in 1994 and has transformed herself into a jazz vocalist of poise and finesse.

Her new release Mania de Voce (Funny Baby Face) tackles ten standards of the bossa-samba variety, great songs arranged well by Yuko and Itaiguara Brandao. You'll find many, if not most of these songs familiar to you if you have listened at any length to Brazilian jazz.

The band has moments of heat and other moments where the light lilt of bossa is foremost. Either way they give good support to Yuko's vocals. She has a very attractive instrument. Her voice has the punchy rhythmic attack that is so essential to this music. Her pitch control is dead-on. Phrasings show subtlety and the sound of her voice is quite attractive.

She is a vocalist that should get attention. This is some very fine music.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Djam Karet, NEARFest, 2001

February 2, 2009—Ever heard of Djam Karet? I hadn’t until I stumbled upon something about them on the net. I believe they formed sometime in the mid-‘80s and as far as I can tell are still together. I grabbed one of their CDs online, Live at NEARFest 2001 (NEARfest), and have been giving it a listen. Djam Karet (pronounced “Jam CaREY”) is an instrumental rock outfit with two guitars (the second doubling on keyboards), bass and drums. I guess you could call what they do progressive, if you need a label for it. The live set has some room for jamming, not an overwhelming abundance. The bulk of the music centers on tunes and their arrangements and if you want to look for a weakness, it’s there. The numbers seem mostly lackluster; there are only a few that stand on their own as entities that you might recognize and pleasantly anticipate as you listen more than a few times. “Feast of Ashes” is one of them; it has a nice sprawling thing going. More pieces like that and I would be more convinced of their importance. Perhaps this isn’t their best CD, but I can’t be sure, since of course I haven’t heard the rest of them.

The band had been together apparently around 15 years by the time they did this concert, and that shows in the tightness of the routines. But the music isn’t especially pyrotechnical, if you look for that. The main guitar soloist is decent by the standards of the style, and the second fellow can turn in some credible licks as well. Neither is a monster. Nonetheless this is not at all bad music. What’s most remarkable is the longevity of the band. May they continue.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gary Lucas: Solo Acoustic Guitar

Anyone who hasn't experienced the solo acoustic guitar work of Gary Lucas, or who would like to immerse the ears in the many facets of that work, would do well to head over to Gary's site and its solo acoustic page ( There you'll find You Tube links to many hours of solo video footage.

Gary has incredible fingerpicking prowess but can use the slide, or combo strum and pick his way through all kinds of material. He's absorbed a wide spectrum of roots music, especially the old country blues styles, and made them his own. There's a version of the Stone's classic "Last Time," Skip James' "I'm So Glad," "Bali Hai," 1930s Chinese pop, and originals drenched in the heritage of the acoustic and its modes and techniques. But he surely extends those techniques and such, transforming them into major stylistic statements about the Lucas way to play.

He gets a sound that is almost uncanny--listen and you'll understand what I mean. He plays a 1940s Gibson and coaxes from it all kinds of tones, and his playing on a very old, all-metal National Steel Resonator almost sounds banjo-like.

Gary Lucas is the consummate artist, surely one of the major acousticians out there today. That is to put his electric work aside for the moment, but we'll return to him and some recent releases in the coming weeks. In the meantime, spend a little time at his site and I think you will be amazed and pleased.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Soft Machine with Allan Holdsworth

January 30, 2009—Soft Machine had a long and productive run and still exists today in the guise of Soft Machine Legacy. Sometime in the mid-‘70s the group had seven albums under their belt and were in a regrouping phase. Drummer Marshall and keyboardist Ratledge were still on hand from the second and first major phase of the group’s existence, respectively, but there were also several fairly new members as well—Jenkins on reeds, Babbington on bass. They switched labels from Columbia to Harvest and, most importantly, added guitarist Alan Holdsworth to the fold, a young, extraordinary musician at the beginning of his career.

The LP Bundles came out in 1975, simultaneously heralding the beginning and the end of this lineup, as Holdsworth left shortly thereafter to join Tony Williams’ New Lifetime. Just before that a live date was recorded, which found its way recently onto MoonJune Records (check out their site). That’s excellent music but I have already reviewed it for Cadence. Bundles was the beginning of this short-lived incarnation and it is really worth a listen for what Holdsworth brings into the band.

Yes, there is a subtle continuation of the shift from jazz-rock to fusion, if such categories ultimately matter in the long scheme of things. But what is most remarkable is how Ratledge’s initial concept and compositional clarity is widened by Holdsworth’s presence. And there are strong pieces by all members save Babbington. Misty minimalist excursions, forward-charging anthems and everything in between are present. It is a continually shifting prism of light twirling on a string. Well, no, maybe it isn’t. It’s great music. Holdsworth had then much of everything he was to carry forward into his playing with Williams and later his own series of bands: that wonderful tone and melodic sense, the rock drive and the dazzling runs of sophisticated note patterns. I am sorry I missed the album when it first came out. But it sounds good here in the new century. It sounds as good as anything out there now in this sort of bag. Grab onto the disk if you can find it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Unthanks in a Beautiful Third Album

Here we are with a third album by The Unthanks and I am just getting on to them. One thing nice about doing this music gig is the discoveries one makes--thanks to people sending me things.

I listened to this album Here's the Tender Coming (Rough Trade) for the first time out of the corner of my ear and I though well of it. But it was the successive listenings that brought out the nuances. Two beautiful singers from what the Roman Empire called "The Tin Isles," (that is, England) sing angelically. Kate Rusby comes to mind and to me that is an most auspicious boon since I dearly love Kate Rusby. Anyway it's Katie and Rachel Unthank (sisters) singing traditional sorts of folk things and just not any old way. The vocals truly moving, the arrangements sparkling, the lyrics with the narrative poignancy of the traditional ballad. It's about love and its vicissitudes, being a woman in a traditional world, lonelyness, work, hardship, the god-awful toil of the industrial revolution over there or perhaps just poor rural existence.

Some of the songs sound like they've been penned today, some today for yesterday, some clearly yesterday, but the point is that the package combines the best in songstering with just bloody great singing and arrangements that go far beyond the norm.

Here's the Tendering Coming deserves any superlative I could conjure up. This is a fabulous record. If you like Rusby, Sandy Denny and the Fairports and things traditional yet firmly planted in this century, you'll really get with this music.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Christopher Adler, A Bright-Light Composer

January 29, 2009—From the evidence of his latest CD Ecstatic Volutions in a Neon Haze (Innova), composer-pianist Christopher Adler is one of bright lights on the West Coast today. The minimalist style of modern concert music has been a large contributor to the new music heard in the past 30 years, sometimes to mixed results. The key to Adler and his success in this idiom is probably contained in the classic idea of VARIATIONS. This can be opposed to the “process” favored by the early work of Steve Reich and others. With Mr. Adler there is periodicity and repetition, but the forms of change in his music seem to be driven by a non-mechanical musical sensibility not always at the forefront in other similar musics. How can the set of transformations undergone in any particular piece be understood? Adler’s solution is always to create musical interest by letting the variations follow an inspirational path guided by pure invention. What could be a snooze becomes just the opposite.

The five pieces represented on this disk vary also in the ensemble colors available with the instrumentation at hand. The larger group pieces, “Iris” for flute, guitar, cello and marimba, and “Ecstatic Volutions” for acoustic and electric guitars, oboe, bassoon, and piano, create sound color-texture and nicely wrought, idiomatically conceived parts that mesh together for a very interesting aural experience. But this is no less true of the smaller ensemble writing. For example the long standing duet of Adler on piano and Alan Lechusza on winds, here soprano sax, puts in one of the more exciting performances of the disk, “I Want to Believe.” There is a jazz-like attention to velocity and color and a drive to the music that engages. The title cut stands out for me as well in its effective use of guitars and its ability to unveil an arsenal of musical ideas in a relatively short time period. This is music as essential as it is essentialist, no doubt as interesting to play as it is to hear. Listen and you’ll learn as well as enjoy. You might even get the urge to dance. Get this CD at

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Roberto Badoglio: Five-String Bass Prowess

Jaco Pastorious did much to establish the electric bass as a solo instrument capable of standing in the front line with the best of the improvisers. He also played an ensemble bass that used double and triple stops and thus could function as a harmony instrument as well as a single-note anchor in the rhythm section. Of course, he also had a unique sound that has been widely imitated.

Now onto the scene comes one Roberto Badoglio, a young master of the five-string electric bass. His re-evaluation-time (Spice Rack), just out, shows him a player of absolutely mind-bending technical abilities and good musical imagination.

This is fusion. The tunes are just fine as is the backing band. But it is Badoglio's playing that far and away captures one's attention from the very start. He uses the full range of the instrument, plays chords, and plays solo lines that are just short of breathtaking. This is a bassist that plays with the ease and continuity of a fine guitarist. As far as the fusion part goes, it is a bit on the generic side. But who cares? It's the feeling of awe you get listening to this young man have at it that matters! Electric bassists and their fans will be astounded.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Little Axe: Change in Continuity

January 28, 2009—Little Axe is singer-guitarist Skip McDonald and selected friends. The music combines dobro and electric guitar, contemporary rhythms and old-time stomps, pre-urban and folk sensibilities in the Afro-American tradition with the forms of contemporary r & b and rock.

Blues-based yet with a foot in the present, the 2004 release Champagne and Grits (Ryko) gives you a take on the roots that ends up with a music for today. That to me is a most welcome turn of events and I found myself responding to it with pleasant surprise. It’s good music and a good bet if you value change in continuity.

Monday, April 19, 2010

ArpLine Self-Releases "Travel Book"

With artists taking on (often initially) the promotion and distribution of their releases over the net, listeners get the chance to hear good music that might not otherwise get a start in the whirlwind of today's information overload. That is certainly the case with the band ArpLine and their album Travel Book (No Label).

You can log onto their site and "pay whatever you want" for this music. There are some bands out there where this strategy would be no help, since after all mediocre music whether $1 or $100 isn't worth anyone's trouble. That's not true with Travel Book. It's a memorable collation of good melodies and singing with interesting and unusual musical tracks. There's a modern industrial aspect to it, as there is an update on psychedelic sounds. But those are only labels. Listen to the pulsating motor machine underpinning on "Fold Up Like A Piece of Paper" and its contrasting vocal line and you may well become an ArpLine believer. The album is filled with such interesting goodies. They take chances to get a sound that stands out over the many others out there. Sam Tyndall writes the songs and sings the lead vocals. He also shares the programming of altered and electronic sounds with drummer Michael Chap Resnick. It's the overall matrix of tones and colors that most impresses me.

ArpLine deserves your support. Download this album and you'll find an original take on what can be done these days, well put-together.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Keiji & Tatsuya's Musical Alchemy: Everyday Metal Turned Into Gold

January 27, 2009—We come to the final installment in our latest survey of recent Tzadik releases. Today’s is part of Tzadik’s New Japan series and it is brash, uncompromising, yet exciting music. Multi-instrumentalists Haino Keiji and Yoshida Tatsuya team up for Uhrfasudhasdd, a second installment of their fearless assault on the senses.

This is a vibrant music of metal-derived loops and longer cycles using electric guitar, bass, drums, keys, vocals and found sounds in various stages of electronic transformation. It is like a bracing dip in an ice-cold stream—not everybody will welcome the initial discomfort, but those that do know they will feel the better for it afterwards. I did.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Cave Singers Explore Folk-Roots Indie Rock

The alt-indie scene can be exhilarating. Truly anything goes. Anything can be revisited and transformed. Anything can be appropriated, de-appropriated, combined with anything else. . . .

Into this open environment springs The Cave Singers and their recent release Welcome Joy (Matador). They play a kind of folk-infused, rootsy acoustic-electric rock that has a modified deja vu feel. Yes, we've been to similar places before, but not THIS place exactly.

It's a guitar-centered, vocally rough-hewn, originals-oriented band. And it comes together in a way that makes listening a good thing (and with all the music I plow through weekly, I appreciate that!)

They have a direct approach and it communicates. The songs have interest. The band has interest. What more?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Alaska in Winter, The Music, That Is. . .

January 26, 2009—Brandon Bethancourt heads up an outfit known as Alaska in Winter for today’s CD. He plays most of the instruments and writes the material. Their CD Dance Party in the Balkans (Milan) is an unusual mix of songs that have bitter-sweet, naïve and melancholic qualities. Some of it sounds like it came from the Twin Peaks soundtrack in that series' more “innocent” moments.

It is decidedly unusual fare and remains mournfully tuneful throughout. The band and these tracks were born out of a period Bethancourt spent with his laptop in, yes you guessed it, Alaska. When? Winter. The vocals are sometimes vocodered for a robotic despair, sometimes not. Zach Condon sings on a cut. What else? I can’t say I dislike it. I don’t. There are haunted moments. It certainly seems winter-like in its icy outlook on the world. It makes you wish spring would come sooner than it will. [A year later and we have another spring. And so it goes.]

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fred Fried and His Nylon Eight-Stringed Guitar

Fred Fried. He's a guitarist of subtle finesse, beautiful voicings, attractive compositions and a very together trio (Fred Fried and Core). What I take is their third album, Core 3.0 (Ballet Tree), is a genuine winner.

Mr. Fried goes for the lush sound, a sometimes rhythmic post-bossa way of chording and an emphasis on the music that thrives in the moment yet has plenty of structure. He's not somebody who creates rapid fire 32nd note runs. Instead he makes the most of the possibilities of the eight-string to give out with a very full sound.

The trio includes solid contributions from Michael Lavoie on bass (with some interesting solo spots) and Miki Matsuki, drums, a cooker of quiet intensity. Fred Fried is the main voice however and that's just great, given what he plays on these numbers.

From start to finish Core 3.0 gets into a lovely zone and stays there. This will appeal to enthusiasts of the jazz guitar and since it is is so well done, just about anyone else who seeks the meaty musicality with the mellow.

This is the finest album I've heard by Fred. Get it and you'll wish you played like him. I did.

Monday, April 12, 2010

John Zorn's "The Last Supper"

January 23, 2009—The impressively prolific John Zorn has recently released his 22nd (!) volume of music for films, The Last Supper (Tzadik). It is scored for percussion and a small group of vocalists. That might not sound very exciting on the first blush of things, but this is no ordinary music. The vocals are in the wordless, post-Swingle Singer mode and much of what they sing is loosely in the hocket style, which some medieval composers and the Pygmies of the Congo region of Africa have in common. Hocket involves phrases where individuals or specific groups are responsible for particular notes in a phrase, in alternation back and forth. The results for this Zorn creation are repeating and varying lines where male and female vocalists work together to create mesmerizing and musically fascinating results. Zorn is no dogmatist so this technique is used but not overused. The percussion ensemble functions as a contrasting accompaniment to the vocals and also has spots where it takes over and provides layered rhythmic grooves that hypnotically reinforce a kind of primal quality that is apparently an important part of the film.

This music is not run-of-the-mill minimalism, new age tribal drum circle stuff, or anything else of the common run of musics that can be heard ad nauseum as backdrops for modern films or just as backdrops. Neither does the music sound like an afterthought to the film. It stands on its own as a very interesting and innovative musical space. I must say it’s one of my favorite things thus far this year and you should listen to it if you want to shake yourself out of the doldrums of everyday sameness.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Michael Bisio: Triple-Threat Bassist, Composer, Bandleader

January 22, 2009—Bassist Michael Bisio has that triple-threat ability so important for a viable career in the jazz world. He is an extremely able bassist with capabilities that allow him to swing like mad, solo with imagination and maintain an important voice on the free-er channels of contemporary improvisation. He writes and arranges pieces that are well structured and memorable. And he is an astute bandleader, knowing how to pick musicians that each add an important voice to the group sound. All of this is quite apparent in a CIMP release of a 2006 session: CIMP 360: Circle This. The room balanced, record-it-as-it-sounds engineering of CIMP releases works to great advantage with this group. They have a give and take approach to their playing and, with each player attuned to the others, thrive when simply let alone to find their natural group sound.

These are wonderfully seasoned, modern improvisers. Reedmen Avram Fefer and Stephen Gauci contrast well together. Both can be gritty or purer in tone and they adjust their playing perceptively depending on what the other is doing. There are some exciting two-horn improv moments, such as on “Times that Bond,” that stoke fire while remaining phrase-articulate. And their solo spots sum up where modern sounds can go when gifted musicians are allowed free reign. These are players with a rich vocabulary and eloquence of expression. Bisio and Rosen team up as a strong rhythm section that can bear down or support the horns with sound color and flexibility. Bisio’s compositions and arrangements cement the quartet’s direction with variety and subtle nuance.

It’s one of those CDs that can stand endless playing while remaining fresh. That’s because there is nothing stale about it! There is much that is right in the jazz scene of today. And much of that can be found on Circle This. Check it out for a bit of the thrill of discovery. You can find out more or order this CD by going to Once there click on the CIMP banner.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Serena-Maneesh, Unusual Alt From Norway

In my early years in the music business, I came to realize that there were at least two ways to listen to a piece of music in the rock-pop bag. There's a way that attempts to gauge commercial success, in which case you are looking to a song and whether it has enough hookiness to catch the average listener and get them to want to hear it again. Some of that has to do with the repetition of the name of the song, in the classic formula, and it relates to Madison Avenue forms of sloganeering; a form of brainwashing, if you will.

Back in the mid-'70s I was seeking an A & R position after a bout in music publishing and a little previous A & R-production. I had an interview with the then-young Arista Records. Part of the interview process involved picking three or four songs I thought would, or should become hits. Now even though I had placed the song "Can't Smile Without You" with the label and knew Barry Manilow was going to record it, I could not stand the song. Sure, it had all the makings of a hit with the formulas that were firmly in place by then, but I just didn't like it from a musical point of view. I didn't pick that song, didn't get the job and went my not-so-merry way. But it later hit me that I was listening with my musical ears at that point and should have stifled that form of listening for the interview.

I still listen with the non-commercial evaluatory ears when I listen to rock (or other forms of music) and I think I am right in that I tend to gravitate towards the music that gets the indie-alt-progressive-punk categorization in the rock bins, with a little metal thrown in. It is music that purposely disdains the obvious hook, the name-of-tune brainwashing structure, and instead goes for the long form, the long haul, the lack of the sing-song repetitive chorus, the song that doesn't try to sell itself. The commercial formula mostly leads to really bad music and it's part of the problem we see out there with the majors. All they can do is produce records that are designed for huge success. And that makes for a horrible musical result at least half the time. It also leads to boom-or-bust sales figures.

A long intro there but I lead up to my real subject: the second CD by Norwegian rockers Serena-Maneesh, S-M2: Abyss in B Minor (4AD). This is a group that writes songs with a rock-pop veneer, but they are anti-hook songs. A song like "Blow Yr Brains in the Morning Rain" obviously has no aspirations to enter the mainstream, and I think that's probably a wise thing. How many "real" rock acts get in the top forty today? Not very many. Why alienate the audience who will like your music to take a lottery shot in the popularity poll of the great "unwashed masses." That fickle group could well send you packing after one hit, if you are that lucky, and then your career is pretty much shot.

What S-M2 does is avoid all of that. Central to their music is dense wall of sound, the psychedelic sinfonia, with guitars and such blocking out big chunks of musicality. Then there's a very appealing, gentle sort of female vocalist who sings some impressionistically indistinct sorts of songs. The songs take a number of listens to digest, and the obverse side is that this CD can withstand many listens without the fatigue of pop-simplicity brain-stultification you get with that other kind of music.

There's a slight edge of metal here and there, but mostly the band heads you down a cosmic wind-tunnel of lush, spacey sound and doesn't let up until it's time to do so.

Chances are slim that we're talking about a top-40 hit with this group. That's all the more reason to like them. And all the more reason why I would never had fitted in doing A&R for the majors in their heyday. All the better for them and all the better for Serena-Maneesh, who get my attention and appreciation, if they should find that a worthy thing....

Friday: I was thinking perhaps I slightly overstated my case yesterday and want to clarify. I would certainly not be one to disdain out-of-hand the use of a returning chorus in song form. That has been with us since long before the commercial music industry existed and there are many wonderful songs that make good use of the device. My point is only that AS A FORMULA, the hook-chorus does not necessarily lead to good music. When the industry evaluates songs solely on this criteria, some bad music can result. Good song form does not require the chorus-hook, and sometimes liberation from this device can lead to fresh sounding music.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hear Fight the Big Bull for Exciting Big Band Outness, 2010 Style

Guitarist Matt White and trumpet extraordinaire Steven Bernstein put together some provocative charts for the avant-contemporary big band Fight the Big Bull and their new album Gladness in the Kingdom (Clean Feed). White and Bernstein are joined by ten other game musicians in a powerful, rough-and-ready set of pieces that utilize both free timelessness and hard riffing, almost rock intense lines for a very exciting romp through musical thickets overflowing with ideas.

Like some of Steven Bernstein's large ensemble music and Carla Bley's band at its best, there is a healthy unity of the written and the improvised, the free and the rooted pulse music of the modern vernacular. And it's an extroverted, brash, boldly emblazoned sound they get.

Bernstein's raucous trumpet and White's effects drenched psyche-soundscape guitar find good company in the other soloists featured on the various tracks. All are lucid. The ensemble sonority and the many twists and turns in the charts make for an excellently conceived, heartily executed, exciting CD.

THIS is what a modern big band sounds like. Fight the Big Bull doesn't try to recreate successful, hoary old bop charts or swing era niceties. It's music of today. It's excellent music of today.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Digesting Garage Bubblegum with Tommy James and the Shondells

January 21, 2009—The re-appreciation of authentically primitive guitar bands (dubbed garage rock) has had its ups and downs. Face it, some original garage bands were unselfconsciously, downright rotten. . . . all thumbs, grooveless, vocally challenged. And there’s a subtle difference between rotten-interesting and rotten-rotten. But perhaps the worst situation was when a rotten garage band tried to polish up its act.

Perhaps a case in point is Tommy James and the Shondells, whose hits have been collected into a compilation by Rhino called The Essentials. Their first hit, “Hanky Panky” (1966) was rotten even by most standards of the day. It had all the elementary qualities of “Louie Louie,” but was even more basic in that it was a kind of simple riff that followed a blues progression (without much in the way of soulfulness). The lyrics were an abomination, though the slightest bit risqué for the time: “My baby does the hanky panky.” Gosh, can we meet her? I remember even then thinking that this was a throwback, a retrograde product of a teenage world that was rapidly changing. Though the song was ever-present on the airwaves, I knew nobody in my neighborhood that bought the record. It was something one would be embarrassed to own. The Electric Prunes, they were cool. But Tommy James was not. Somebody must have liked them—maybe the girls, I don’t know.

The band went from bad to worse when the Shondells tried harder and harder to create Pop hits of a slicker variety. “Mony Mony” still had that high school dance sound, Fender amps glowing, the bass player trying his best to play a few notes and a compulsively peppy energy level. But there were songs like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “Sweet Cherry Wine” that attempted a kind of pop respectability, trying to join the bandwagon the later Young Rascals had managed to get going. James, et al. didn’t really pull it off. The aspiring garage band musicians I knew reached a consensus. This wasn’t a band with any cache. Those were tunes a local band did not cover without being labeled unhip. So what of this compilation? If you were there back then and you liked these songs, I suppose you still will. The rest would probably best stay clear.

New Music from Annie Gosfield

January 20, 2009—New York based composer Annie Gosfield could be considered my neighbor. I live just outside Manhattan and so am a part of the NY Metro sprawl. Since my tightened budget does not allow for cultural events or all but the most necessary commuting I don’t get into the heart of the city often and it is probably not likely I will make face-to-face contact with her in the near future. Nonetheless we both belong to an invisibly connected universe of cultural workers and, whatever it means, a New York sort of outlook on it.

Ms. Gosfield’s music is well represented on the Tzadik release Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites. Now I find myself responding to her music almost instinctively. Is it the shared aural and cultural values of this metropolis that make that possible? It could have something to do with it. But most importantly Ms. Gosfield has absorbed the vocabulary of modern music to speak it fluently and with originality, and that sounds a chord of resonance with me.

Her short quartet “Lightheaded and Heavy Hearted” comes off skillfully and sincerely as something that comes after late Bartok and brings a personal touch to the genre. The title cut, “Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites” is perhaps the most captivating of the pieces, combining thoughtfully constructed solo violin passages with washes of gongs, percussion and electronics. In its own way it reminds me of my youth and the local hours I spent listening to the family short wave for the sorts of static and bleeps that I believed were raw audio satellite transmissions. I don’t know the truth of that but this music reminds me of what has become of local sectors of outer space in the years following the heyday of the space program and those sessions I had with the radio. Parts of our above-earth space vacuum must be like certain abandoned industrial sectors of Passaic, NJ (I am thinking of Robert Smithson’s photoessays on the latter topic, done in the late ‘60s). No longer functioning as intended (the satellites drifting, perhaps long since out of service), they exist now emptied of their original meaning, there as a symbol of time passed.

The remaining two pieces further explore the sound poetry of where we are now through prepared piano writing of style and earthiness, effective string writing with gongs and percussion, as well as electronically processed sounds of nameless machines and power tools. Gosfield’s music is not exactly casual, but it certainly isn’t formal either. There is a wondrous, restrained expressiveness and interesting juxtaposition of sound classes, none of which wear out their welcome on repeated hearings. I do recommend this disk for anyone who would like to know something of where new music is right now. It’s here, looking backwards to the ended century and the close of the American Machine Age as well as forward to tomorrow and what that will bring. That’s somehow appropriate music for the beginnings of a new epoch.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree

January 19, 2009—I took a look at the Mountain Goats’ site before sitting down to pen these lines. They have a bunch of releases and it appears that bandleader/singer John Darnielle put his most personal thoughts and experiences into the lyrics on the CD up for consideration, The Sunset Tree (4AD), recorded in 2004. Now as an outsider to band lore this doesn’t mean anything to me, other than that he spills his guts obliquely and there are those who will care. Not that I don’t, but hey it’s like listening to a stranger on a train confessing details of his life that you're not really sure what to do with. All I can say is “bully” for this guy.

There are 13 songs of a folksy-songwriter sort, Erik Friedlander plays some nice cello arrangements and the rest is pretty much all Darnielle. His voice doesn’t appeal to me much. It has a chipmonky rasp. Now I can’t say THAT is enough for me to turn something off, physically or mentally, so I didn’t. In fact I listened five times, the fifth as I write these words. It’s an acquired taste, but I’m afraid I haven’t quite acquired it yet. He feeds his kittens, dons or doffs his earphones, wants some lady to kiss him on the mouth. As a youngster I used to overvalue the appeal of my everyday life for others. Perhaps early adulthood makes you feel that way. Now I’m not so sure. This guy has something to say, but I’m not certain that it’s something so urgent you must rush out and pick up this CD. And it's ultimately all in the telling. I don't believe that this particular telling quite reaches the level of "art."

Sweeney Todd: The Broadway Revival CD

January 16, 2009—There was a time when the latest Broadway hit show conquered the musical world with songs that were whistled by the population at large; those tunes were in the repeating memories of people everywhere. Both pop and jazz artists looked to them as a large part of the repertoire. They were all-pervasive. Then came the rock revolution and the sort of harmonic sophistication latent in the song forms of such shows became rare. It was harder for songwriters to think in those terms, harder for the listening public to assimilate a style that was essentially in its declining stages, identified with a pre-rock generation that began to lose its central status on the media scene. Up until then Broadway was Columbia Records’ chief moneymaker and a key part of American musical culture. The peak of the phenomenon probably coincided with Bernstein’s wonderful West Side Story, to be followed by Hair and a gradual decline. How many people knew and recognized the songs from Cats or Phantom of the Opera? Not so many. How many artists covered the songs? Again, few.

The situation seems to persist. And so we turn to today’s music, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (Nonesuch) as performed by the revival cast. Here’s a show that has at least a few songs that have entered the mainstream, with performances by various jazz and pop concerns—notably “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “Not While I’m Around,” and “Pretty Women.” I have heard versions of these by various artists; some come off better than others. But the musical quality of the show is pretty high and there’s a kind of provocative Three Penny Opera vibe in the street theme, the chamber instrumentation, and the off-color, crime oriented story.

This particular cast is very good and the two-CD format gives you a generous dose of the score, seemingly most all of it. It has a vaguely operetta-like feel, and that's not such a bad thing. Both the sound of the music and the plot look backward as they proclaim their contemporary relevance. It is rather enjoyable, no matter what your musical background may be. And perhaps it marks the return of the Broadway hit as part of our overall musical vernacular, or the beginnings of it. Who can say? It’s very decent music regardless.

Composer Chris Dench: Chamber Works

January 15, 2009—Modern concert music remains vividly alive and filled with a healthy vitality. The rigid formalism of the serialist and post-serialist days seems to be gone, the wacky eccentrisms of later Stockhausen and Cage are perhaps not as central now as they were around 1985. What has happened can be looked at on a number of levels. There seems to be a more informal, music-first, words-about-the-music second approach. Innovation is perhaps downplayed for various sorts of sonority. Much of the acoustic-electric and instrumental language is of a flow, a lucidity that communicates with a directness. The sound of jazz-derived free improv and the modern concert piece can be similar on the surface. Both camps have learned something from one another. The improv folks have gotten something of the use of space and sound from the concert people, the latter have been influenced by the spontaneous fluidity and timbre pallet of the improv people. This is a drastic simplification, but good enough for the purposes of this morning’s blog. And in the realm of electro-acoustic and minimalist musics, there are other factors in play too.

With all that in mind we turn to British ex-pat, Australian based composer Chris Dench and his CD of chamber pieces, Beyond Status Geometry (Tzadik). This is a welcome addition to the repertory. Four pieces are represented. The earliest piece (1985-6), a percussion quartet that gives the title to the disk, has a delightful bombastic quality. The two later chamber works, “Light-Strung Sigils” and “Permutation City” have a more conventionally concert oriented sound but are marked by solid invention and inspired levels of performance. The final piece, a solo piano excursion, has a wistful yet robust expressionism that somehow manages to suggest and transcend the piano sounds of Ives and Cecil Taylor while remaining in a world of its own. Dench is well worth your attention and I look forward to hearing more from him.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Neil Young and Some New Protest Music

January 14, 2009—With the presidency of G. W. Bush now ancient history, it’s probably high time to bring up Neil Young’s CD of several years ago, Living with War (Reprise). One thing I appreciate about the course of Young’s long and interesting career is that you can never be sure what he is going to do next.

Now I am not here to tell you what to think about politics (or anything else), but surely Neil spoke to a large segment of the public that had become increasingly certain that the Bush regime was a failure. The CD is filled with anthems expressing the despair of the time. Obviously with a new presidency upon us, these issues begin to be a part of the historical past. But of course issues raised on this album are still with us in a number of ways. Living with War is by no means Neil Young’s best record. It captures a moment, with musical high points that include a rousing version of “America the Beautiful.” May Americans continue to be worthy of those words with a renewed dedication to what is good and great about their legacy. So we go forward to a new chapter in the history of the present.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Reconsidering NRBQ

January 13, 2009—I never paid a lot of attention to NRBQ. They were to me one of those bands who were around, but I never thought to listen very closely. Then I reviewed a recording by NRBQ’s Terry Adams and Marshall Allen, the irrepressible Sun Ra alumnus and now director. It was full of adventure and whacky good humor. My thinking altered, I checked out NRBQ’s Greatest Hit compilation, and that was OK but not especially overwhelming to me. Then I grabbed today’s recording, NRBQ’s Message to the Mess Age (Aardvark). This one had the irreverence and tang that attracted me to the later duet album. On this recording NRBQ has the dada humor of some of Steely Dan, a little of the wryness of the Police, but it is only as a reminiscence, not a copycatting. It’s musical music and it has a variety of moods and grooves. “Girl Scout Cookies” has a sublimely ridiculous lyric that might tickle you. It’s something to hear if you have not.

What’s coming up? A few more Tzadiks, jazz from Cadence and other sources, more rock known and unknown and the beginning of a series on creative commons jamband downloads for those who are curious but limited in funds.

Over the Top with Brown Wing Overdrive

Originally posted on January 12, 2009

Enter the world of Brown Wing Overdrive’s CD ESP Organism (Tzadik) and you find yourself on an electro-acoustic planet that transforms the jaw harp, vocal sounds, percussion, kalimba. electronic tones and world noise into a 45 minute collage that is over the top. It’s a trio of electro-acoustic sound weavers. The transformations of the organic sounds can be pretty simple—echoes, loops, filters, distortion, abrupt splices. It is not a virtuostic kind of sound tapestry. It is rather nutty, though, and there seems to be a certain sense of humor involved.

Disks like these are not for those seeking the peace and solace of cosmic tones. It can be jarring and it does not aim to provide a soporific backdrop to a new age cocktail party. Far from it. It’s a kind of “bad boys play with noise” music, and that can have its attractions. In the dismal season of storm and flood their refusal to cover it all up with pleasantries fits in with the harshness of the climate. Well so it is. Try this one if you want something that participates ever so slightly in another mad world, perhaps not this one. Or perhaps it is, if you follow the news (there's never a shortage of issues to cause concern). Perhaps they are a creative transformation of what is insane in the world right now.