Monday, January 26, 2015

"You don't get it in front of a blackboard, man": A Milford Graves master class

Never enough Milford Graves, okay? His drumming, its presence, the sonic and physical space it inhabits, is one of my musical food groups. As I wrote last week, I'm currently on the lookout for nourishment, hungry for truth and wisdom in music. At that point, I was finding what I needed in Paul Motian (I was remiss not to link to this incredible 1986 Motian/Frisell/Lovano vid, btw), another one of my listening staples. Then I stumbled across the clip above (part one of a three-part Milford Graves master class, filmed last year at the New School, and graciously documented in full by bassist Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic) and my attention shifted. For the past few days, I've been all about this series of videos. I have some thoughts to share on this document, but the most important observation I can offer is that it's precious and essential. I urge you to watch the whole thing.

If you've ever attended a Milford Graves concert, you know that he loves to rap with the audience at different points. He always drops bits of heavy knowledge during those mini sermons, and the above is like a two-hour version. Concentrated, conversational insight. Mystery and majesty. Not capital-T Truth; just the distilled experience of one lifetime. The testimony of a fully realized artist, scientist, healer, scholar.

This master class does have an element of rant to it. Graves is, to cite one of his central principles, which he discusses at length here, anti-metronome and pro-biorhythm. He's anti-machine, pro-man; anti-rigidity, pro-fluidity. Clichéd notions, perhaps, when taken in the abstract, but when coupled with the great sweep of Graves's knowledge, his hard-won authority, seven-plus decades in the making, and with the way he plays—and, it should be said, he barely plays at all during this master class, though there is an intense musicality to the delivery; even when speaking, he's all about rhythmic soundmaking, teaching through song and dance as much as word—his insights take on great profundity. He's anti- bottom heads on drums, anti- overly fussy charts written by non-drumming bandleaders, anti- equal temperament. Anything that impedes flow is suspect.

And there's invaluable history here, both personal history and that of a time and place. Milford Graves (and many Graves devotees will know this, either from call it art, another invaluable Graves-related document, or elsewhere) is, at base, a Latin-jazz musician, a player of the timbales who focused on that instrument and its surrounding idiom to the point that, as he relates here, trap-set masters such as Art Blakey and Elvin Jones meant relatively little to him during his formative years in the early ’60s. His idols were percussionists such as Willie Bobo and Graves's friend and contemporary Bill Fitch, his bandleading models artists such as Cal Tjader. Graves led a Latin-jazz group featuring a young Chick Corea, apparently a fearsome player even at that time. He didn't touch a set of trap drums till ’63, the year before he began working with the New York Art Quartet in the idiom he's best known for, so-called free jazz.

You watch this, and you realize that a musician like this—an artist like this, a person like this—is truly beyond category. "Free jazz" seems so small compared to the worldview expressed here. Graves tells of foraging for herbs, absorbing nature, studying and practicing acupuncture, learning martial arts, playing in Africa and Japan. He's a gatherer and an aggregator, a mystic and a skeptic, a teacher and a student, pouring out notions for you to take or leave. What does it mean to really study music? How far can academia take you? (Bear in mind that Graves taught at Bennington for close to four decades, so he clearly believes in higher education, but he approaches it from a personalized, humane, experience-driven standpoint.) What is an artist's responsibility to an audience? Should you prepare a show, or take the temperature of the room and build a performance based on the environment you find yourself in? Why, fundamentally, do you do what you?

We speak of personalities and presences as animated. If you've ever seen Milford Graves perform, you know he is that, both when playing and when speaking. But just as importantly, he is animating. You leave his presence (even virtual presence) with wider eyes, a broader gaze, a renewed awareness for all that there is out there—the scope not just of music, but of knowledge, betterment, fulfillment, understanding. There's no boundary on this kind of inspiration—it seeps into every corner of your life.

I'm currently immersed in the autodidactic study of double-kick drumming. I've recently signed on as the live drummer for a metal-oriented band I really love called Psalm Zero. I've spent 20 years as a single-kick drummer, and proudly so, but idiomatically, this music demands double kick, and so I've set out on that path. It's tough going, but rewarding—and, more importantly, fun.

And learning should be, if you have the right teacher. Milford Graves is a—not the, because there could never be just one—right teacher. In his view, you learn out of love, not out of careerism or competition or any other base reason. You make a life out of it. You cultivate confidence and humility in turn. You form strong opinions and you make them known, but you make it clear that you only speak for yourself; you never wield dogma like a billy club.

Most importantly, you share. There's a bit near the end of the third part of the talk where Graves speaks about pedagogy, and about how he made a point to actually play with every one of his students. He even goes so far as to say that a teacher who doesn't do the thing they teach alongside their students is quite literally not teaching. Teaching is giving. It's spending time. It's encouraging and helping and inspiring—literally breathing into those one instructs. It's coming to terms with the fact that while books, systems and schools of thought are great, people are greater.

No wonder you leave a Graves performance feeling so renewed, so uplifted. It's because every one is a deliberate act of inspiration. "You don't get it in front of a blackboard, man," he says at around 25:00 in part two, repeating the line several times for emphasis. Nor do you get it—nourishment, knowledge, experience, aural or otherwise—with earbuds squashed in your ears, or when mashing buttons on your iPhone, or sitting at a desk staring at a screen. You get it by being there, either by paying physical witness (I treasure my collection of Milford Graves recordings, but they're nothing compared to the thrill of seeing him live; that's true in the case of almost every great artist, but with him it's, like, mega-true; you have to feel those soundwaves on your skin) or, if you want to do the thing yourself, by putting your body somewhere, temporarily shutting out the world and getting to know it—it being your own private, physical reality and the skill/art you want to make manifest. It doesn't have to be drumming; it could be anything. But is has to be real, not virtual—experienced, not read about. Not in front of a blackboard, indeed.


More Milford Graves on YouTube:

*Steve Coleman interviews Milford Graves at the School for Improvisational Music (2013)

*"Milford Graves and the Japanese"—concert film and documentary, from a Japanese festival organized by dancer Min Tanaka (1987)

*Milford Graves and William Parker, live at Jazzores (2010) [Graves discusses this performance during the master class]

*Milford Graves Quartet (1973) [Some sharp commentary on this vid, and Graves's work in general, via Weasel Walter]

*Milford Graves at the Vision Festival Lifetime Achievement event, via Don Mount (2013)
-NY HeArt Ensemble
-Transition Trio
-Afro-Cuban Roots

*"Speaking in Tongues"—Milford Graves documentary featuring David Murray, Stanley Crouch and others (1982)

*"A Tribute to Milford Graves"—highlights from event held at Bennington College (2012)

*Milford Graves and Japanese percussionist Toshi Tsuchitori—performance and interview (1993)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Just song: The Paul Motian Trio's "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago"

The past six months or so have been a time of change in my personal life. Positive change, in the long run, but not without its difficulties. The other day, a friend asked me whether I'd ever considered writing in detail about what I've been going through. My reply was, in so many words, "Maybe sometime, but not now." None of this is a secret—my amazingly supportive family and friends of course know what's up. But at this stage, there's no need for the details to be anything but private.

Still, to pretend that my life and my writing don't intersect, that one doesn't inform the other, whether I like it or not, is silly. And the same goes for my listening. During the past couple weeks, as a sort of sequel to my chronological Keith Jarrett ’67–’76 project, I've listened to little other than Paul Motian albums, specifically the first chunk of records he made as a leader, from his debut, Conception Vessel—recorded in ’72, while Motian was still a member of Jarrett's band—through 1987's One Time Out, the second LP by his famed trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, and the last Motian album on Soul Note before a long run on JMT / Winter and Winter. I've heard these records before, but I felt them more acutely this time around, and that probably has something to do with my emotional state.

In the second of the two Jarrett posts linked above, I wrote of Conception Vessel that it "…feels beautifully empty of compositional, directional content in the same way that [Jarrett's] Survivors' Suite feels so beautifully full." I've been thinking a lot about this idea of emptiness, or probably more accurately, simplicity, with respect to the Paul Motian bandleading concept. To listen to these early Motian records in sequence is fascinating. You can hear Motian trying out different approaches, from the moody, textural improv of Conception Vessel to the openhearted, melody-forward, almost psychedelic ’70s jazz of Tribute, and on to the sometimes placid, sometimes violent post-Ayler/Ornette saxophone-trio-isms (starring the great Charles Brackeen) of Dance and Le Voyage.

Then Bill Frisell comes along and alters the DNA of the Paul Motian sound. The intermittent turbulence and outright nastiness of the Brackeen years are still in evidence on the early quintet albums Motian made with Frisell (Psalm, The Story of Maryam and Jack of Clubs, recorded in ’81, ’83 and ’84, respectively), especially given that the guitarist was working with a seriously outré sonic palette back then, opting for sounds that sometimes come off as appealingly gnarly, sometimes as merely quirky and even a bit dated. But the romantic, atmospheric side of the Frisell sound was also blooming during these years, and bleeding together with Motian's own like-minded tendencies. The result was that when Motian scaled down the band to just himself, Frisell and Lovano for 1984's It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago, he hit upon a startlingly fresh concept. It's as though the quintet albums, good-to-great as they are, were a kind of training-wheels version of the trio to come, introducing the overall soundworld of the later band, but in a more conventional, less stark format.

To me, the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio is one of the most, if not the most, emotionally resonant bands in all of jazz. At its best, this band strips away all the "head" elements of jazz, the detached, rote quality that the music can embody at its worst, and leaves only heart, feeling—sometimes warm and comforting; other times cold and forbidding—the nerve endings underneath the style, without the protective skin of genre.

In my current emotional state—hopeful, yet also vulnerable and reflective—this music feels like a balm. No other music, jazz or otherwise, will do, because no other music that I know has such a nakedness to it. It's pure affect, setting aside, or seeming to, technique and method and style and convention, and leaving only flow. "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" is, to me, a kind of theme song for this trio. It's the first piece and the title track from their debut album, and in many ways, it's the purest distillation of what made them great.

The track feels holy to me, like a kind of communion with melody. There is nothing but the song, the chant, the murmur. Each player is dancing only with the music, never with "chops" or with technique. It's just a group mission, with the objective of "How can we get closer to the root?" The whole song is the root. There are solos, I guess, but there's really only one sound, and it's the sound of this swaying, haunting waltz, a tune that, once you've heard it, sounds like it's always been there.

Motian wrote many different types of pieces, and this trio with Frisell and Lovano performed them in many different ways. But the "ballads," if we can call them ballads, such as "It Should've…," are the ones that really hit home with me. "It Should've…" feels both minimal and infinite. I hear it and I start grasping for similes that imply both simplicity and great depth: like a smooth stone that you keep in your pocket and turn over and over in your palm, learning every contour; like a game that, as the saying goes, takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.

These concepts speak to me right now, during a time when, partly by necessity and partly by choice, I'm paring down my life, devoting as much time and attention as possible to the people and pursuits I love—family, friends, drumming, listening, writing, reading. I guess I'm looking for mantras, and I'm finding them in the work of Paul Motian. I'm wary of projecting my experiences onto music, of regarding art in a utilitarian way—i.e., "What can this piece of music do for me, right now?" But sometimes your listening ventures beyond enjoyment and into a kind of sonic therapy. "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" has become a kind of chant for me, a North Star, a way of centering.

I can't recommend It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago, the song and the album, highly enough. This trio made a ton of great music together, but there's something about the purity and perfection of this initial statement that really speaks to me. (Read Thom Jurek's take at AllMusic: "This set is made of the kind of music that made Manfred Eicher's ECM such a force to be reckoned with. It placed three musicians in a context that was comfortable enough to make them want to sing to one another.") As I've suggested above, Frisell's guitar language—see the ray-gun tone he employs on "Fiasco," for example—sometimes has a way of grounding an otherwise timeless-feeling album in its early-'80s era, but that's a minor quibble. "Conception Vessel," reprised from the album of the same name, is like a sculpture built from straw, focused and purposeful but also light and porous enough to blow away in the wind. The contrast with the wilder pieces is startling. On "Two Women from Padua," the trio plays a brief theme and then moves resolutely into the anti-gravity zone, speaking an alien language of texture and noise. All of a sudden, the music is the opposite of soothing—it's edgy and almost random-feeling. But Motian drops out and the surface of the sound smooths out; Lovano murmuring and praying through the horn, Frisell buffeting him with clouds of sound.

The band's intuitive motion into and around one another's sounds, the way each player always seemed to take into account not only the other two musicians, but also the immovable fact of the song they were playing, the bubble-thin delicacy of the vibe they were crafting together, only deepened over time. I'd love to embed the first "It Should've Happened…" here, but it's not streaming anywhere. Instead, I draw your attention to this 2005 Village Vanguard performance of the piece, 15 short minutes of bliss:

Watch Lovano lean back around the :30 mark. I relate to the feeling of communion his gesture expresses, the idea that a "jazz club" has become a kind of space station, a place where musicians and listeners alike take no sound for granted, where you don't move on to the next idea till you've fully processed the gravity of the one that came before. Minimalism seems like too pat a word for what Motian himself contributes here, the one-impossibly-profound-idea-at-a-time patience of his drumming. Again, the idea of paring down a performance till all that's left is the essence of the song, filling the room like a mist. Lovano begins to toy with the familiar theme around 3:30, emphasizing its dancing, almost klezmerish quality. Frisell chiming forth—accompanying but also enveloping. The performance is a slow group levitation, determined yet effortless. It's a sonic essay on the pleasures of concentration, of uncluttering. Lovano drops out around 6:30. Motian continuing unperturbed. Frisell intent on doing justice to the priceless vibe the three have built up. Not soloing; just flowing. I'm invoking concepts that seem cliché, but in practice, they don't come along all that often. This band, in its own muted way, exhibited a fierce dedication to this idea—you let the song guide you. Not "jazz," not "theory," not "convention." Just song.

When Lovano reenters to a scattering of applause, I'm reminded—as I am nearly every time I attend a jazz performance—of Keith Jarrett's admonition of the audience on the CD reissue of Fort Yawuh: "There's absolutely no need to clap." He's right, because in a great jazz performance, who's soloing doesn't matter. Yes, solos can be chapter markings, but this performance is all about three musicians who share a common goal simply passing the baton back and forth. Everyone's a steward of the song, so it doesn't matter who's in "front" at any given moment. Motian ratcheting up the groove and tension ever so slightly around 10:40, bringing the song to a low boil, this trio's version of a climax. The theme returning in fragmented form, then in full bloom. Motian's two-handed accents around 12:30 signifying a kind of destination: "We're here at the meat of song." And then the final statement around 13:00, followed by a long trail of, for lack of a better term, song dust—a dispersing of essence.

Attention and care and focus and oneness. Performances like this are like life rafts for me at this moment. Again, I'm not trying to dramatize recent events in my life, nor am I trying to co-opt sound for my own good. I'm just trying to point out how music can inspire and guide, offer a framework for living as much as a sound for hearing. To sing one's song so plainly, with such serenity and determination, seems like the right idea, right now.


P.S. One more gorgeous version of this piece, a 1993 performance from the Motian album Trioism:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"…as long as there's an Earth": Celebrating Charlie Haden at the Town Hall

At some point during last night's Charlie Haden tribute at the Town Hall, I realized that the expectations and considerations I'd walked in with were meaningless. As I attempted to convey last year, upon Haden's passing, I adore this man's music and felt compelled to show up to this public event to pay respects. I also, I'll admit, felt a bit of what they call FOMO—fear of missing out. Denardo Coleman was listed among the participants, and as I had learned over the summer, that meant that Ornette himself might show up. And who could say for sure, I thought, that Keith Jarrett, whose Haden collaborations have been a recent obsession of mine, wouldn't surprise us all and make an appearance?

So when was it that I chucked this admittedly narrow-minded checklist mentality? It could've been when, during a duet by Lee Konitz and Brad Mehldau, I realized that I was witnessing one of the most relaxed and conversational musical events I've ever seen take place on a stage. "Performance" seems almost too pretentious a word for such a casually majestic and—to use a word that Joshua Redman, after his own too-brief turn with Kenny Barron, Scott Colley and Jack DeJohnette, attributed to Haden's own musicality and humanity—empathic duet, which found Mehldau gently buoying that exquisitely sweet, breathy Konitz alto sound, as well as the saxophonist's impromptu scat-style vocalizing. Or during a piece commemorating Haden's love for and collaboration with Alice Coltrane, which featured staggeringly gorgeous harp ripples from Brandee Younger, saxophone work of stunning poise from Ravi Coltrane and Geri Allen's warm, subtle piano magic. (Yes, I'm running out of terms of breathless praise here, a feeling that anyone who was in the audience last night can probably relate to.) Or maybe it was when Dr. Maurice Jackson, an author, Georgetown professor and Civil Rights Movement veteran, spoke movingly about his longtime friendship with Haden, singling out the bassist as one of "too few good white men" and aligning him with Anthony Benezet, an 18th-century French Quaker whom Jackson, in a 2010 biography, labeled the "Father of Atlantic Abolitionism."

What I'm trying to get across is that during last night's proceedings, a certain kind of alchemy occurred, through music and through speech and through the projection of emotion, that made the late subject feel palpably present, as though, at the event's conclusion, Haden's name would be called and the audience would all turn to face him, standing in the crowd or onstage, and honor him with an ovation. Having not attended many political rallies in my lifetime, I can't remember being present at any other gathering where I felt such a strong sense of consensus, shared by audience members and those onstage alike. And the collective conviction was, simply, that Charlie Haden was an extraordinary man and an extraordinary musician, and that these two qualities were inseparable.

Haden's wife, Ruth Cameron, a wonderfully dignified, gracious host throughout the three-hour event, spoke candidly about her husband's struggles with addiction, about how he had always told her that he was "in trouble" as soon as he put down his bass and had to navigate life as it existed apart from music. True as that may have been, Haden must have sorted out his issues to some degree, because nearly every associate who stepped on the Town Hall stage last night spoke about how knowing Charlie Haden and playing with him had enriched their lives. From Cameron herself, who spoke of Haden's sense that it was his mission to bring beauty into the world. To Mehldau, who, speaking after his performance with Konitz, alluded to his own history with substance abuse and how Haden's example had helped him cope. To Pat Metheny, who played a beautiful acoustic medley of Haden pieces and then reflected on his countless collaborations with the bassist, and on how he had shared things in conversations with Haden that he had never shared with anyone else. To Denardo Coleman, who spoke, self-deprecatingly but with great dignity, on his father's behalf, and discussed how Haden had always—from their first session together, when Denardo was only 10—helped him feel happy and at ease, as well as personally and musically validated. To Joshua Redman, who, remarkably, spoke of listening to Haden's many collaborations with his father—Dewey Redman, who had been mostly absent during his upbringing—and how the intimacy he felt radiating from that music actually helped him learn to love a dad he hadn't really even known.

Everyone spoke of Haden's zeal for beauty and positivity, each in their own way: Putter Smith, a fellow bassist (in the extraordinary Mintz Quartet, for one) who had known Haden in L.A. in the ’50s, asserting that Haden's contribution to the language of the bass was a certain kind of profound intimacy, the handling of the instrument as though it were a baby to be cradled. Ernie Watts, saxophonist in Quartet West, which played a marvelous two-song mini set near the end of the show, with Colley on bass, talking matter-of-factly about how Haden's musical language was nothing less than the manifestation of God speaking through him. Haden's friend and lawyer Fred Ansis and friend and record-industry associate (seemingly there was no figure in Haden's life that did not also earn the distinction of friend, along with whatever other role they might play) Jean Philippe Allard recalling with good-natured exasperation their years of fielding Haden's ever-urgent phone calls about session budgets or packaging design, all of which would begin with, "Hey man…" (Haden's religious use of that phrase became an in-jokey refrain throughout the evening), and how despite the day-to-day difficulties, they were always happy to help Haden realize his unwavering commitment to excellence. And the comedian Richard Lewis, who in a video statement spoke of how much he valued Haden's friendship and inspiration and, like Ravi Coltrane, Maurice Jackson and several others, alluded to the bassist's deeply corny sense of humor. ("Charlie—in heaven, if there is a heaven, play bass; do not tell jokes.")

And those who didn't honor Haden's quest for beauty verbally did so through music. As epitomized in the Konitz/Mehldau performance, there was a deep humanity and soul coursing through all of last night's musical events, one that like Haden himself, transcended genre, transcended the notion of a "tribute concert" and felt like nothing less than a collective embrace, an affirmation, with each player summoning an almost superhuman, and quintessentially Haden-esque generosity. Trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, saxophonist Tony Malaby, trumpeter Seneca Black and others taking, in turn, stupendously emotive solos during the Liberation Music Orchestra's rendition of "Amazing Grace" during their show-concluding mini set, presided over by the magisterial, impossibly cool Carla Bley; Ernie Watts displaying, in his tenor work with Quartet West, otherworldly degrees of virtuosity and passion; Henry Butler and Gonzalo Rubalcaba offering solo piano performances (the former also singing) that blended staggering command with wrenching tenderness; Petra, Tanya and Rachel Haden (a.k.a., the Haden Triplets) and their brother, Josh Haden, accompanied by Bill Frisell and bassist Mark Fain, displaying their magical vocal harmony on the gospel song "Voice From On High," an echo of the honoree's own upbringing singing country and folk with his family's band. (We got a taste of that via one of several clips from Reto Caduff's wondrous Haden documentary, Rambling Boy, still sadly unavailable as a DVD or download due to music-rights issues. Can anyone help remedy this?)

There was no intermission, no lull. The unfamiliar faces were as riveting as the stars, the speeches as profound as the music. The event, and here I have to credit Ruth Cameron again, had a real narrative arc; it told a story of a musical life, and gave you a sense of the life in and around that music. There was so much giving, verbally and sonically. What wasn't there—Ornette, Keith or, and this last part was strangely welcome, any sort of imitation, invocation or even recorded representation of Haden's own bass sound; nor did the program feature what to me is the bassist's signature composition, "Song for Che," which had to be a calculated decision—was ultimately irrelevant, because of the bountiful richness of what was.

Any Charlie Haden fan feels, through the countless recordings, through the immense humanity and courage of his sound on the bass, a certain kind of, to borrow the title of one of my favorite Haden albums, closeness with this folk hero of modern music. Last night's event affirmed that feeling, the sense that anyone who knew this man in life, worked with him in music, felt his presence in any way, came away uplifted. As I suggested above, I have a sense that a lot of what I've written here might, to those who weren't in attendance at the Town Hall, read like hyperbole. But just as Haden's various friends and associates related, I felt nothing but beauty, joy and profundity from this event; in short, it was like a megadose of what I feel every time I listen to Charlie Haden—with Ornette, with Keith, with Old and New Dreams, with the Liberation Music Orchestra, on his many treasured duet albums. I thank Ruth Cameron and all the other participants for affirming everything I already knew I felt for this giant of music, for encouraging me to explore all the Haden I don't know (I need to get familiar with the Quartet West catalog, pronto) and for generally illustrating in such a poetic, human way how music and emotion are the same thing, how true artistic generosity, the kind that Charlie Haden achieved, can only be achieved by living a truly empathic life. The story we heard last night is a story that bears infinite retelling. Fortunately, as Richard Lewis put it, with funny yet sincere hyperbole, it's a story—the Charlie Haden story—we'll be telling as long as there's an Earth.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Four free spirits: Jarrett/Redman/Haden/Motian, together and apart

Happy New Year to anyone who might be reading this!

Since I last checked in on DFSBP, I completed my listening survey of the entire output of Keith Jarrett's American Quartet and the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio that preceded it, a body of work that spans just under 10 years, from the May, 1967 session that produced Life Between the Exit Signs to the October, 1976 ones that yielded both Byablue and Bop-Be. I skipped over most of the Jarrett releases from this period that don't feature this band, though I did make time to revisit the pianist's excellent 1971 solo debut, Facing You, and to check out Jarrett's sketchy but intriguing 1971 duo album with Jack DeJohnette, Ruta and Daitya, and his stunted yet weirdly charming 1968 singer-songwriter effort, Restoration Ruin. (Fascinating, and in a way, completely logical, that Restoration was recorded while Jarrett was working with Charles Lloyd and already leading the Haden/Motian trio.) I did take a stab at Köln but it didn't really stick—I enjoyed what I heard but wanted to stay focused on the group recordings.

Conclusions, beyond what I wrote about the earlier records? Listen to these albums! Every one of them is worthwhile. In terms of the Impulse! period and beyond, which starts with 1973's Fort Yawuh, the ones that really struck me this time around were 1974's Treasure Island (which plays like a tidier sequel to the mighty Expectations, discussed in the prior post), The Survivors' Suite, Eyes of the Heart and Byablue. The latter is basically a Paul Motian album as played by the American Quartet, and it's everything you'd hope for from a session of that description. The two ECMs, Survivors' and Eyes, recorded in April and May of 1976, respectively, are mandatory for any fan of these players working together during these years. The former, in particular, is simply overwhelming, that rare jazz album that has a real narrative arc and isn't simply a series of performances. As the years went on, the American Quartet seemed to settle into a sort of comfy way of working, with the wild idiosyncrasy of the early-’70s Jarrett output crystallizing into a more or less predictable aesthetic; that is to say, you know you're going to get roughly one raucous burner, one gorgeous ballad and one world-music-y texture piece per record. There's not a dud among the mid-to-late period Impulse! releases by this band, but I admit that some of them—Back Hand, Death and the Flower, Mysteries, Shades, Bop-Be—do blur together a bit for me.

Survivors' bucks that trend in a big way. It does play with many of the same elements, but it feels entirely other to me, 1) because it's split into two big uninterrupted chunks, 2) because it's so packed with great writing and urgent ensemble performance and 3) because of the marvelous production values, which make the Impulse! American Quartet albums sound rickety by comparison. I only played it through once, but I felt absolutely spent afterward, wrung out. I feel comfortable calling it a classic, and the apex of these musicians' long, fruitful collaboration. I really wish someone had steered me toward this record sooner; seems to me like desert-island material.

Eyes is less monumental, but summons a similar kind of grandeur. An intriguing aspect of this album is the fact that, aside from Hamburg ’72, it seems to be the only album-length document we have of Jarrett, Haden and Motian working as a trio from after the point when Dewey Redman began playing with the group. Yes, Redman is on Eyes of the Heart, but—for reasons I haven't been able to fully verify—half of the album's roughly 50-minute running time goes by before he enters. As several Amazon commenters suggest, the intensity of the final section of "Eyes of the Heart (Part Two)," once Redman does begin playing, is extraordinary, so much so that it almost seems like a strange blessing that he's absent from what came before. Eyes is a mellower album than Survivors', but as with Survivors', the loud sections really go for the throat. ("Encore A" features some of the most ecstatically bashing Paul Motian drumming I've heard.) Chronologically, these albums sit within the greater American Quartet discography, but in terms of the listening experience, they almost seem like a little two-volume side project, during which these four musicians entered into some sort of collective trance and propelled themselves beyond where they went on any of the Impulse! discs, entering a truly elite realm. To me, if you're going to argue, as Ethan Iverson has and I'd second, that Keith Jarrett's American Quartet belongs in the jazz-working-band-hall-of-fame, along with, say, Davis/Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams and Coltrane/Tyner/Garrison/Jones, these are the albums you point to, particularly Survivors'. Both of these are records I need—and, more importantly, want—to spend way more time with.

I'm exaggerating, of course, but in a way, the American Quartet is a prism through which all jazz of this era (late-’60s through late ’70s, a period that's often been unfairly labeled as a low point for the music) can be understood. You have all these strains colliding in one band, currents crossing: alumni from bands led by giants such as Ornette and Miles, collaborators of major figures like Bill Evans, Charles Lloyd and Paul Bley. And just as importantly, you have three other budding bandleaders aside from Jarrett, who were working out their own respective personal aesthetics while helping to shape the group one. Just as Jarrett had when he was a member of Lloyd's and Miles's bands, all of these players made masterpieces under their own names during the time they were in Jarrett's band: Haden's classic duet sessions Closeness and The Golden Number, both recorded in 1976, not to mention the Liberation Music Orchestra's debut, from ’69; Redman's The Ear of the Behearer and Coincide, from 1973–74, albums which I've loved in the past but really need to revisit; and two remarkable Motian records, Conception Vessel (a nearly fully improvised album, featuring Haden and Sam Brown, a frequent American Quartet collaborator, on guitar, that to me feels beautifully empty of compositional, directional content in the same way that Survivors' Suite feels so beautifully full) and Tribute, from ’72 and ’74, respectively. (Also, it's crazy to think that just two months after participating in the July, 1971 sessions that yielded Jarrett's Birth, El Juicio and The Mourning of a Star, Redman and Haden were recording the immortal Science Fiction with Ornette, and that two months after that, they were doing this onstage with Ornette and Ed Blackwell. Still think the early ’70s was a fallow period? That's a rhetorical question; chances are, if you're reading this in the first place, you don't subscribe to that outdated shorthand.)

All of this music above rewards attention. All of it is worthwhile. And the tangled who-played-with-whom account above speaks to something I hinted at in the Jarrett post that precedes this one. There, I quoted an essential 2008 Ted Panken interview with Jarrett, in which the pianist characterizes his trio with Haden and Motian (the one that fed directly into the American Quartet), in contrast with his later group with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, like this: "The early trio represented three free spirits, and I chose them because of that." This "free spirits" concept isn't necessarily novel; it's a driving force behind just about any great jazz. But the way it played out in and around the American Quartet during the ’70s is really remarkable. The same way Miles or Charles Lloyd did, Jarrett wasn't just recruiting top players to staff his groups, he was also growing great bandleaders. The same way everyone seemed to leave Miles a great leader (Tony Williams, to name just one shining example!), or Jarrett and DeJohnette did in the case of Lloyd, so did Jarrett's "sidemen" do the same.

The more leeway you give, the freer you allow "your" spirits to be, the more cross-pollination you foster, the more leadership you inspire, the better your jazz is, the better their jazz is and the better jazz is as a whole. Yes, the American Quartet broke up, but its members took bits and pieces of that aesthetic and spread it ever outward, Jarrett himself into his European Quartet, Motian into a series of compelling groups that culminated in his landmark trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, Haden and Redman into Old and New Dreams (which, though of course primarily Ornette-inspired, could also be looked at as a continuation of the Haden/Redman partnership that started in Ornette's bands and only strengthened in Jarrett's) and beyond.

As with Miles's bands, and many other era-defining partnerships in and outside of jazz, Jarrett/Redman/Haden/Motian was impermanent, non-exclusive. "Fleeting" would be wrong because, after all, these four musicians did play together for the better part of a decade. But what I mean to say is that each artist had somewhere else to go, a personal destiny to fulfill, a freedom of spirit to realize. And these sorts of alliances, groups composed of equally masterful, equally distinctive, equally free spirits, each a born leader and an aesthetic dynamo in his or her own right, are where maybe the greatest pleasures in jazz lie. What a gift that this particular alliance, as well as its countless offshoots, was so well-documented.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"…that revolution period": Keith Jarrett's anti-purism, 1967–’72

"We were in the midst of that revolution period, and I felt that we were defying the norms of the time. That means in all ways… If we wanted to swing, we could. If we didn’t, we didn’t. If the overall context demanded both, we could do that."—Keith Jarrett on his late-’60s/early-’70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, from a 2008 interview with Ted Panken


 "It seemed to me with Keith it was more fun in a way. It was so open and so free that you could almost do whatever you wanted. It was almost like you didn't even care whether the audience was there or not, or whether they liked it or whether they didn't. It was quite different with Bill [Evans]… I think that was the influence of the times too, you know? I mean, playing with Bill there wasn't much rock and roll around, really. But playing with Keith, that was a whole different thing."—Paul Motian, from a 1996 interview with Chuck Braman


I briefly mentioned the recent ECM archival release Hamburg ’72, a live recording of Keith Jarrett's trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, in my 2014 jazz round-up. Since compiling that list, I've fallen down the rabbit hole with this album, and with the Jarrett/Haden/Motian records that led up to it: a series of LPs under Jarrett's name starting with 1967's Life Between the Exit Signs and including 1968's Somewhere Before, a trio of albums culled from various 1971 sessions—El Juicio (The Judgement), Birth and The Mourning of a Star, the first two of which feature Dewey Redman—and 1972's Expectations, a double album recorded before Hamburg ’72, but released after. The pre- and early history of Jarrett's great American Quartet, in other words.

This body of work fascinates me for a couple reasons.

1) You don't hear about it a lot. During the past few years, the American Quartet itself seems to have really gotten its due from Ethan Iverson and others—Iverson's interview with Jarrett, where the latter calls the Redman/Haden/Motian quartet "this absolutely raw commodity," is required reading for anyone interested in this band—but most of that praise tends to center on the group's later recordings, from 1973's Fort Yawuh on. For one thing, until recently, I didn't realize that the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio had laid such extensive groundwork for the better-known quartet. (Just to make it clear, the Redman-less Hamburg ’72 dates from after Redman was already working with the band, at least on record; I'm not sure whether Dewey had played live with Jarrett by the summer of ’72 and just couldn't make that particular gig, or whether he had yet to make his onstage debut with the group.)

2) And here's where the above quotes come in, specifically Jarrett's "If we wanted to swing, we could / If we didn’t, we didn’t" credo, and Motian's "fun," "open" and "free" characterizations: There's something about the broadness of this band's aesthetic that, at this exact point in my listening life, appeals to me immensely.

More on that second point:

When I was first really getting my head around jazz, my primary reference point was Blue Note. I still consider the label's early-to-mid-’60s output to be my personal gold standard for what jazz can achieve. To me, the Blue Note aesthetic is inseparable from a certain kind of purity. Rudy Van Gelder's impeccably clean, vibrant recordings; the stark personnel listings on the back of each record, with each musician typically listed as playing a single instrument, the one he had mastered. Yes, you had your brilliant multi-instrumentalists such as Eric Dolphy and Sam Rivers in the mix, but mostly you had your one-ax champs, your Joe Hendersons and Lee Morgans and Jackie McLeans and Elvin Joneses and Larry Youngs and Bobby Hutchersons and Tony Williamses. No fucking around; no dabbling; these guys just played what they played. And even when the context is freer and more exploratory, such as on Williams's Life Time album, there's a certain kind of focus to these sessions that I found and still find immensely attractive.

It's hard to overstate just how greatly Jarrett's American Quartet, and the trio that preceded it, diverges from the purist Blue Note aesthetic. This is a band that throws that kind of focus out the window in favor of something more mongrel, more open-ended, more porous. You could invoke Motian's descriptor, "fun," here, but that seems to indicate some sort of value judgment. Better to just point out the American Quartet's wild stylistic swings, Jarrett's staunch commitment to multi-instrumentalism during these years, the random percussionists thrown into the mix, the hippie-ish insanity of it all, the overall, yes, raw-commodity-dom of the enterprise. It's such a blender of an aesthetic, and if you're going into the work of the American Quartet or the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio expecting simple Blue Note–ism—three or four dudes playing one role apiece and just getting down to business—you're going to be extremely frustrated by this band.

To get into this music, you have to throw all those expectations out the window. No two pieces on Hamburg ’72, for instance, really sound anything like one another; as with the Quartet, there is no definitive performance by this trio—or rather the most un–"jazz combo"–ish performances could be considered just as definitive as the more straightforward ones where everyone plays their "proper" role. There's the polite, Bill Evans Trio–y "Rainbow"; "Everything That Lives Laments," a two-minute interlude from The Mourning of a Star that's expanded here into a near-ten-minute patchouli texture-quest with Jarrett spending a good deal of the running time on flute; the frantic, scampering, and, yes, suitably Ornette-ish "Piece for Ornette," a chance for all three musicians to really unleash, with Jarrett playing exclusively soprano sax; the super bluesy "Take Me Back," a gloriously infectious piece with a poppy turnaround that, like many of the great early-’70s Jarrett themes, reminds me a whole lot of the contemporary Steely Dan output (I highly recommend watching the video of this performance); and so forth.

That kind of variety was in evidence from the get-go. Life Between the Exit Signs, the recorded debut of the Jarrett/Haden/Motian team-up, is a fascinatingly eclectic piano-trio album that convincingly reconciles Bill Evans with Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, and also advances its own unique concepts. (For example, I've never heard any other piano-trio piece that sounds anything like "Church Dreams.") It's also obvious, here and on the later Somewhere Before and The Mourning of a Star—both of which run the gamut from thorny free jazz to covers of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell—that Jarrett was soaking up bandleading influences from his successive employers Charles Lloyd (note Keith's already-rampant multi-instrumentalism in this great extended performance—he's reaching inside the piano one minute, picking up the soprano sax the next; in this sense the American Quartet and the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio are direct extensions of this Lloyd quartet) and Miles Davis, both of whom built their careers on the idea that populist and experimental impulses shouldn't have to be mutually exclusive, that a set of jazz can veer wildly between crowd-pleasing and self-indulgent modes. (For context, consider that Jarrett was a member of Lloyd's band when he recorded Life Between the Exit Signs and Somewhere Before, and a member of Davis's when he made Mourning, Birth—home of the outrageously funky "Mortgage on My Soul"—and El Juicio.) So you put all these influences together, the Lloyd and the Miles and the Evans and the Bley and the Dylan and the aforementioned Ornette, and it's only natural that you'd end up with an aesthetic as fun and free and borderless and anti-purist as the one documented on these releases.

If Hamburg ’72—and if you enjoy that release, you really want to hunt down the uncut bootleg version (see here, for example) of the same show, which contains about twice as much material—represents the live peak of the 1972 Keith Jarrett Experience, so to speak, Expectations, recorded two months before, represents the studio peak. In some ways, Expectations might be my single favorite Keith Jarrett album, at least of the ones I've explored so far. What this album does is take the eclecticism described above and turbocharges it, studio-izes it, adding extra strings, brass and guitar (on this album, the American Quartet is really a quintet, since guitarist Sam Brown is a full-on featured member of the core band). Expectations is the ultimate anti–Blue Note jazz album, a sprawling beast of a thing that explodes with poppy melody, gritty expressionism and just a general overflow of ideas. Nearly every track presents a different approach to the Jarrett aesthetic. You have your Steely Dan–meets-opening-credits-theme soul-pop groovers, such as "The Magician in You" and the aforementioned "Take Me Back." You have your shaggy, celebratory Ornette homages like "The Circular Letter (For J.K.)" and "Roussilion," the latter of which shows off just how deadly the American Quartet could sound when it stripped down to its "central" elements and simply burned. You have your 17-minute odyssey, "Nomads," which elongates and expands the "Take Me Back" aesthetic into a borderline psych-prog zone. And you have your orchestral, melody-drunk bliss-outs such as "Expectations" and closing track "There Is a Road (God's River)," the latter of which breaks out into a drummerless, down-home Jarrett/Haden/Brown jam that's one of the most outrageously joyful musical episodes I've ever heard, on a jazz record or otherwise.

Again, in setting Expectations and these other Jarrett records against the ’60s Blue Notes I learned to love as a younger listener, I'm not indicating some sort of hierarchy or value judgment. What I'm mainly trying to convey is how expansive jazz is, that it can contain all these different flavors of greatness. During my hard-core Blue Note years, I'm pretty sure I would've dismissed Hamburg ’72, Expectations and other Jarrett releases from this period as unfocused ("Put down that soprano sax, dammit!" "Why are you all playing steel drums?" "Give me some jazz, not vampy pop!"), maybe even pandering. Now, though, I'm in more of a tear-down-the-walls phase. I still want my music undiluted, but that's not the same as wanting it segregated, with the "straight-ahead" over here, the "free" over here, the soul off in one corner, the rock and pop in another. If it's all flooding over you in a single experience, if an artist wants to serve you sushi and rice and beans on the same plate, there's profundity in that, too.

Obviously, and especially in light of Jarrett's career trajectory, leading up to the seemingly more conservative Standards Trio (I say "seemingly" because I haven't yet delved deeply enough into this body of work to feel comfortable categorizing it, and I know that this group has ventured into plenty of experimental areas over the years), the eclecticism displayed on these ’67–’72 recordings was about capturing a moment in time, about, as Jarrett suggests in his invocation of "that revolution period" or Motian in his mention of "the influence of the times," taking the temperature both of the jazz scene and the music scene as a whole. Just like Miles, Jarrett was at this point both an insular and confident bandleader and one obsessed with currency. The result was a true Woodstockian jazz, born of and tied to its age. It wasn't better or worse than the classic Blue Note stuff; it was simply other. And right now I'm loving it both for what it is (wide-eyed, unfettered) and isn't (severe, walled-off from pop). Can't wait to really put the later American Quartet recordings under the magnifying glass and see how they fit into this whole, neverending discussion.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ornette Coleman and New Vocabulary: Old friend; fresh context

Update, 12/30/14: Read an exclusive Q&A with Jordan McLean and Amir Ziv on the making of New Vocabulary here, via the Time Out New York blog.


Black Messiah isn't the only surprise release from a major figure in American music this month. Ornette Coleman has a new record out. Yes, Ornette Coleman.

No, it's not an Event Album like 2006's fantastic, Pulitzer-winning Sound Grammar. New Vocabulary, apparently the self-titled debut by a group of the same name, is a low-to-no-fanfare release on NYC label System Dialing Records. It features OC in a trio with System Dialing principals Jordan McLean (trumpet, the same instrument he plays in Antibalas, and electronics) and Amir Ziv (drums), augmented on some tracks by pianist Adam Holzman, McLean and Ziv's bandmates in the group Droid. Just to be clear, the tracks aren't exactly new; everything on the album was recorded in July of 2009. But as far as I can tell, the album just came out. You can order it right now in a variety of physical and digital formats. Yes, right now. I won't be offended if you simply click over there and stop reading right this minute.

New Vocabulary made, and is making, me think. An unsolicited package containing LP and CD copies of the record showed up at the Time Out office yesterday, along with a press sheet featuring quotes from, among others, actors Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both of whom are also thanked on the record. (No idea what the connection is there.) I'd heard nothing about it beforehand, and judging by the response when I mentioned the album on Twitter, no other writers in my circle had either.

That's kind of cool, no? Like if Bob Dylan randomly turned up as a sideman on some local alt-folk group's Bandcamp demo. This is an odd situation any way you slice it. For many years, I've heard rumors of Ornette jamming with younger musicians, but we don't typically get to hear the fruits of it. And how often is it that the maestro appears on albums not released under his own name? I can think of only a small handful of instances like this: Jackie McLean's New and Old Gospel (on which OC plays trumpet); For the Love of Ornette, an under-the-radar 2010 release by Jamaladeen Tacuma; guest appearances onstage with the Grateful Dead and on record with Lou Reed, as well as the Naked Lunch soundtrack. I'm sure there are other examples that I'm not aware of. But I know enough to know that the release of New Vocabulary is a pretty special occurrence.

For one, because Ornette appears on the entire album. This is no cameo situation; it's an honest-to-God group effort, and OC is a full-fledged member. From what I can tell, the album is entirely improvised. It sounds like a pretty casual affair—the result of a few days spent jamming in the studio. At the end of the ninth track, "The Idea Has No Destiny" (a title that sounds like it could be plausibly be Ornette-derived, as do some of the others: "Baby Food," "Sound Chemistry," "Wife Life"), we hear Ornette say, "You know that wasn't the plan; there was no plan there." It's a good summation of the feeling of New Vocabulary as a whole. There's a certain aimlessness to the recording, a sense of turning on the tape and seeing what happens. When I first played the record, I found myself wishing for a greater sense of structure or direction. Now, on my third or so listen through, I'm relishing the meandering, almost casual character of the project.

What New Vocabulary sounds like to me is a portrait of a guest artist stepping into an established group's insular world. McLean, Ziv and Holzman clearly have an established M.O. as collaborators. Having sampled a bit of Droid and checked out their contributions on New Vocabulary, it seems to me that they're working in sort of a contemporary dub framework, not specifically reggae-oriented, but simply in reference to a philosophy of music-making that values atmospherics, vibe and the malleability of sound as much as melody, rhythm, harmony, etc. They're clearly engaging with elements of electronica and a sort of murky, aqueous funk. You could broadly call New Vocabulary a free-jazz record, but rather than a post-Coltrane soundspace, this group operates in a post-Miles one—touching on the more otherwordly reaches of Davis's late-’60s/early-’70s period ("He Loved Him Madly" comes to mind). I love, for example, the noirish strut of "Value and Knowledge." (Now that I think about it, to throw out another reference point: the overall character of the sound isn't that different from recent albums by Chicago Underground Duo.) There are tracks here that have a bit of a recognizably Ornette-ish feel—some of Ziv's beats, as on "Alphabet," seem to channel Denardo Coleman's jittery, irrepressible grooves, for example; and on "H2O," the drummer gets pretty damn Blackwell-ian—but there's no sense that OC's collaborators on New Vocabulary are making any effort to accommodate him in any obvious way. They're not imitating any OC context that we know—the tracks with Holzman, such as ominous, slow-burning closer "Gold Is God's Sex," really hint at something new, and not just because hearing Ornette with piano has been a relatively rare occurrence—and for that, they deserve serious kudos. It must be pretty difficult to approach your instrument with Ornette Coleman in the room and just play as you normally would.

When I mentioned New Vocabulary on Twitter yesterday, someone asked me, "How does Ornette sound?" He sounds like Ornette! And he sounds fantastic. There are a few moments here where he plays signature licks that any OC fan will recognize immediately with a knowing grin. (Examples: 1:40 in "Bleeding," and :17 in "H2O.") But he's not just going on autopilot during this session; not at all. He's embracing the context fully. He doesn't want to dominate; he wants to participate. It says something about Ornette's composure and confidence as an improviser that he doesn't seem disoriented in the slightest by his bandmates', well, vocabulary. Toward the end of "What's Hotter Than the Sun," the track breaks down into a kind of pure ambiance, with McLean's ghostly, glitchy electronically treated trumpet echoing into the distance. And there's Ornette's alto, dancing away, broadcasting OC's signature rambling, lifeloving joy, but also engaging in real time with the starkly abstract character of the soundworld taking shape around him. You hear a similar phenomenon on "Baby Food," where McLean and Ziv work with pure rumbling, burbling texture, suggesting only the faintest hint of form. And there's Ornette, playing. Fearlessly, yes, but not obliviously.

It's an attitude and an approach that reminds me of this past summer's Prospect Park event. And Ornette's willingness to embrace the moment on New Vocabulary makes the album essential for any OC fan. Is it a great record? That seems to me to be entirely beside the point. What it is, is a document—a very honest, straightforward, unfussy document—of Ornette and these other musicians getting to know each other musically. It isn't technically an Ornette album, per se, any more than it's a Jordan McLean album, an Amir Ziv album or an Adam Holzman album. New Vocabulary is a hang, a jam, a session, a snapshot, a document. It has no agenda, no compositional objective, and therefore, as an album, it demonstrates all the pros and cons of most fully improvised recordings. But if you're in the mood for it and you put it on, you'll hear interaction, engagement, celebration and the establishment of a very genuine group dynamic.

Will there ever be another New Vocabulary record? Will this group ever perform live? Both seem unlikely, but you never know. In lieu of any sequels, I'm glad we have this album. The more I listen to it, the more I appreciate its humility. It has no pretension of brilliance, of instant-classic-hood, and I hope that writers/listeners don't jump to ascribe those qualities to it simply because a giant like Ornette is involved. It's enough that it exists. No, New Vocabulary might not belong on an Ornette Coleman discographical short list, but in terms of a document of what it's like to be in the room with OC as he is now (or close to now), it's essential.

Ornette's sound is absolutely intact, and just as importantly, his ears and reflexes are intact. He's engaging, working as one third (or fourth) of a collective, and nothing more. He steps forward; he recedes; he offers what he can, which is that inimitable sound. And that inimitable way of embracing an improvisational flow. On New Vocabulary, you hear him taking sonic events as they come rather than stepping out in front of the group. There's real profundity in that, especially coming from a veteran of OC's stature.

To listen to New Vocabulary is to visit with an old friend in a totally unfamiliar setting and to realize anew how much you'd missed their company, how life-affirming their presence is, how much beauty there is in the simple sound of their voice and the character of their conversation, the way they view and interact with the world. It's good to see you, Ornette; I've loved your work for years, but I've never thought of you in quite this way.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In the best hands: AC/DC's 'Rock or Bust' and the personalized canon

Yesterday, I headed into work with the notion that I'd set aside some time for D'Angelo's Black Messiah, the inescapable Event Album of the moment. I did end up playing that record through—and digging it quite a bit; I'm looking forward to further spins soon—but I didn't get around to it until the evening. That's because another recent release monopolized my attention: AC/DC's Rock or Bust.

It sounds sort of ridiculous, but yesterday was the day I realized AC/DC was awesome. I know; I know. The rest of the world has known this for, what, something like 40 years. But my response to Rock says something about the way I tend to approach rock, specifically canonical rock. For a long time, I've made a distinction—really relevant to no one other than me—between Classic Rock and rock I consider classic. It's not that I don't trust the canon; it's just that I feel an obligation to see/hear for myself why something is great. In recent years, I've come to look at the canon as a sort of I'll-get-around-to-it checklist. Some event—ranging from a splashy reissue campaign all the way down to me happening to catch a song on the radio—causes me to pay close attention to an artist or band I've known in a superficial, for lack of a better term "ambient" way (i.e., their music is simply a part of the air I breathe, as a music fan of my general age and demographic), to take a deep, personal dive into their sound, and all of a sudden I realize why that legendary-by-consensus artist or band commands the attention and acclaim that they do.

This has happened countless times during the past 20 years or so of my listening life. Bands/artists I knew only as a radio staples (Zeppelin, Sabbath, Floyd) or generally agreed upon poet-geniuses (Young, Cohen, Dylan, Morrison, Mitchell, Springsteen, Marley, Costello) or pop-cultural touchstones (Steely Dan) or my parents' faves (The Beatles, CSNY, Creedence) or even simply vaguely familiar names (The Band, Thin Lizzy, America, The Stooges, The Buzzcocks, Captain Beefheart, The Minutemen) suddenly become three-dimensional to me. Their greatness shifts, in my mind, from something that I've heard others proclaim, to something that I believe and understand. I grew up mainly as a fan of the underground—metal, punk, post-hardcore, indie rock, etc.—walling myself off, as I suspect many teenagers do, to what they see as Everyone Else's Music. I still love a majority of what I loved then, some of it as fiercely as I did, but thankfully, I've chucked—as any sensible listener eventually does—the idea that obscurity has anything to do with quality. Underground music can be great or it can be terrible, and the same goes for the canonical stuff.

Frequently, I find that the canon is absolutely on the money. Darkness on the Edge of Town? Yeah, it's fucking great. Again, something everyone else either already knew for themselves, or took on good faith from a trusted source. I guess for me, it's the "trusted source" part I dispense with. I can't stand at the back of the queue and take the word of someone further up the line; I have to wait till I get there myself and hear it with my own ears. This methodical, or maybe more accurately, stubborn approach to the classics is probably why I still have so many gaps in my knowledge of Classic Rock. Every year, I move a couple names from that mental file cabinet to the one labeled "rock that's classic," i.e., rock that I truly believe, based on firsthand experience and attention, to be great. Everyone has their own theory of listening, and this is mine: I don't think the canon is wrong; I just don't mistake its value judgments for my own. (Nor do I, for that matter, buy its narrow-minded binaries concerning the supposed mutual exclusivity of certain styles.) And thus: huge, gaping blind spots. I've never heard Exile on Main Street or Who's Next or Purple Rain all the way through, to name three examples off the top of my head. Do I doubt their greatness in the slightest? Of course not. I just haven't gotten there yet.

So in the past, AC/DC has fallen into that ambient category I described above. As with my exposure to Zeppelin prior to the point when I took a deep, full-catalog Zep-dive a few years back, I've known AC/DC's output only in a greatest-hits sort of way, which, I've found, is essentially meaningless. Knowing a band via the tyranny of Classic Rock Radio is to almost un-know them, i.e., the listener is actually at a disadvantage when it comes to true appreciation. You grow so numb to the charms of those 5 or 10 songs (in AC/DC's case, "TNT," Dirty Deeds," "You Shook Me…," "Back in Black," etc.) that you develop a kneejerk reaction to the band in question, a reaction that's easy to mistake for an informed opinion. "AC/DC, sure, yeah—I know them. Stop right there; no need to say anything more."

So maybe, as in the case of Van Halen two years back, what I needed in order to begin the process of true AC/DC familiarization, to start myself on the path of loving this band rather than simply being aware of them, was a new album to consider. I often find that new music by an old band can help in this regard. This is probably because I feel like I can come to the latest record fresh. I don't have to listen through all the noise of the canon, the hyperbolic praise that calcifies around a consensus-classic album over the years and tends to obscure the music itself; you start to think of what the critics have said rather than what the artist(s) said, and that is no good at all.

My interest in AC/DC in general and Rock or Bust particular has been slowly building. I heard Eddie Trunk spin some righteous AC/DC deep cuts a few months back; I followed the respectively insane and sad personal sagas of drummer Phil Rudd and guitarist Malcolm Young; I enjoyed typically perceptive and informed Rock reviews by Adrien Begrand and Ben Ratliff; and I gave lead single "Play Ball" an idle spin. I sought out the record itself on Spotify after its release, but when I didn't find it there, I set the matter aside and then promptly got swept away in year-end-list madness.

So, circling back, yesterday I walked into work with every intention of queuing up Black Messiah, both out of a sense of duty and out of a sense of genuine interest. And just as I was sitting down, my friend/colleague Josh Rothkopf, an outstanding film critic who also happens to be one of the sharpest and most well-informed rock fans that I know, asked me if I'd checked out the new AC/DC album. I said I hadn't, thanked him for the reminder and promptly clicked into his iTunes folder after booting up my computer.

And there it was. The glory of AC/DC. A sound I knew but didn't know. A sensation I'd registered but hadn't processed. We talk of simplicity, but we can really only know it in the moment. For the past several years, I've appreciated a ton of frill-less, anti-evolutionary music in the extreme-metal sphere, from Asphyx to Obituary. It may be that, as the aforementioned Ratliff review suggests, there is no more quintessential contemporary rock music than AC/DC's. The pleasures of their rock are so plain to hear that they're easy to miss. All of us who grew up on Classic Rock Radio (shudder) are used to taking this kind of supposedly "surface"-level brilliance, expertise, mastery for granted.

But hitting Play on Rock or Bust's opening track, titled—what else?—"Rock or Bust," I felt AC/DC for the first time. (Maybe, in the immortal White Men Can't Jump parlance, I finally heard them, whereas before I'd been merely listening.) There's something to the way the musicians introduce themselves here. The guitars enter at 0:00 (I assume that Angus and Stevie Young are playing in unison, but we could easily be hearing one of them doubletracked), sounding out a half-time riff, one of those post–"Custard Pie" stompers that AC/DC execute just about as convincingly as The Masters, punctuated with chasms of dead space; then Rudd's drums come in at 0:05, not shattering the silence so much as flicking it aside; guitar-left starts to add a little rhythmic pick chug on the quarter notes, barely perceptible but crucial to the building momentum; bassist Cliff Williams stirs in the bluesy eighth-note throb at 0:10, as the guitars switch to a minimalist B-section lead, repeated exactly four times; the original riff returns at :19, and vocalist Brian Johnson jumps in, on the "and" of beat 2, howling out a "Heeeeey-yeah!" And very soon, AC/DC, their entire glorious whole, is rocking. Sure, further flourishes enter the mix: Rudd's brilliant snare/crash accents on the 4 during the chorus (0:51, for example), beginning right as those patented gang-style AC/DC backing vocals enter; a squealy Angus lead-guitar line (1:01); an added guitar accent on the verse, echoing Rudd's aforementioned beat-4 smash (1:10, for example); a little one-beat turnaround shimmy at 1:15; a righteous Angus solo, segueing into a stylish coda riff (2:36); three final full-band jabs, and a classic four-stroke "dump" roll from Rudd. Johnson provides the running meta-commentary: "We like to shake you down / Know what we're talkin' 'bout / We turn the amps up high / The crowd's gonna hit the sky."

And so forth: Nothing happens and everything happens. This is a familiar idea in rock appreciation: A so-called smart listener/critic attunes to so-called base pleasures and instructs their readership to do the same. But we condescend to a song like "Rock or Bust" at our peril. A job, any job, really can't be done better than AC/DC do theirs on this song, during these 3 methodical, outrageously pleasurable minutes. You pick apart the mechanics; you marvel. You turn your brain off; the thing runs like a dream. Art is the concealment of art, yes. But AC/DC's art isn't exactly concealed; it's just so geared toward the conveyance of pleasure ("The crowd's gonna hit the sky," etc.) that all their slick little moves, their skillful pacing devices, cohere into to a single feeling: that of rightness. A purposeful march toward fun and groove. You toil away in the lab, i.e., practice room, for 40 years so that you can emerge with something that sounds this natural. Obsessiveness channeled into pure relaxation and composure. The driving principle behind a lot of jazz, no? And like AC/DC, jazz musicians often grow deeper and more assured, paradoxically more relaxed and more commanding, as they age. It isn't that AC/DC don't care about chops. There's as much technical geekery in "Rock or Bust" as in many Rush songs. It's just that their chops are deployed to a different end—some meticulously choreographed Rockettes kick-line sort of thing. The music is so drilled, so obsessed over down to its tiniest detail, that you can listen with complete ease. You know you're in good hands—the best hands.

And Rock or Bust holds the listener tightly in those hands for 35 exhilarating minutes. I'll spare you and myself the close read of the other 10 tracks; the whole album is a fucking blast, one self-explanatory, form-mirrors-content song after another ("Rock the Blues Away," "Got Some Rock and Roll Thunder"), songs that have no meaning, no purpose unless you happen to be listening—no, hearing; no, rocking, really and truly, which is to say, bodily, not just in some headcentric, "appreciation" sort of way—to them at that precise moment, in which case they have only meaning, all purpose.

And so the millions who know and love Back in Black and all the rest utter a collective, "Duh," and I say, "Yeah, I know; I'm late to this party, but I needed to arrive on my own schedule." And on to the next, as the Canon slowly and steadily becomes my own.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 top 10, plus

Since I've been covering music for Time Out New York, going on eight years now, I've been compiling year-end top-10-albums lists for print and/or online. This year, Time Out won't be running individual lists; in their place is this aggregate best-2014-albums rundown, chosen by and featuring contributions from various folks at Time Out Chicago and Time Out L.A., as well as me and my NYC colleagues Sophie Harris and Andrew Frisicano. A similarly styled best-2014-songs list is coming soon.

You can read a few of my blurbs in the general list linked above, but I thought I'd go ahead and publish my own personal, all-genres-in-play top 10 on DFSBP. This will likely be the same list I'll submit to Pazz and Jop, and any other general poll I happen to participate in. For readability's sake, as well as for my own sanity, I'm going to try to keep the blurbs here to a more manageable length than those on the 2014 jazz top 10 I posted recently.

One note re: the content, echoing what I wrote here: For me, the day-to-day experience of music is about songs. The records I return to most frequently are, simply, the ones packed most densely with songs I want to return to. The LPs below were extremely useful to me in 2014. I'm not trying to reduce them to some sort of service role, i.e., boiling down their value to how well they happened to integrate into my life; I'm just trying to drive home the idea that for me, directness, concision and memorability have become more and more focal, at least in terms of my recorded-music listening (a totally different phenomenon, I should stipulate, from the live-music experience). The following albums, crammed with great songs, already feel like old friends. Listen along via this 30-song Spotify playlist, drawn from the top 10 and honorable mentions below, and spiced up with a few of my favorite stand-alone 2014 singles.

10. White Lung Deep Fantasy (Domino)

This is simply a great, super-vigorous punk album that rocks like hell and features an extremely specific, consistent group dynamic. Anne-Marie Vassiliou's drums are a minimalist flattening force (kick-snare-kick-snare, ad infinitum), and Mish Way's vocals are a throaty rallying cry, somehow casual and urgent at the same time. The short songs are lousy with hooks. And guitarist Kenneth William is working out of a completely different playbook than any other rock guitarist I can think of: His lines sparkle rather than sear, spraying micro-detailed melodic glitter all over Deep Fantasy. William's lead line from roughly :48 through 1:05 in "Snake Jaw" is probably the most riotously awesome bit of musicianship I heard on an album released this year.

9. Run the Jewels Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)

As I indicated in my Run the Jewels 2 blurb for the aforementioned Time Out list, it was difficult to separate this record from its context, namely a year of race-centric tragedy, outrage and protest. And yes, that context does give the album, specifically Killer Mike's contributions, a special kind of added resonance. But Run the Jewels 2 is simply an excellent hip-hop LP, period, full of thoughtfulness, silliness, badassery, raunch and a general feeling of conscientious engagement. El-P's verses are outstanding, though the album really takes off when his harsh, dense, super-funky beats fuel Killer Mike's rhymes, as on "Lie, Cheat, Steal"; Mike's tongue-twisting "Like, who really run this? / Like, who really run that man that say he run this?" episode on that track is the apex of this brilliant—and, crucially, brilliantly entertaining—work of politicized art. P.S. I found the discussion surrounding Run the Jewels 2 to be nearly as crucial as the album itself; this NPR Microphone Check interview is essential, especially the section concerning the X-rated "Love Again."

8. Mark Turner Lathe of Heaven (ECM)

This is the album that topped my jazz-only 2014 albums list. Extensive thoughts here (scroll down to No. 1).

7. Mitski Bury Me at Makeout Creek (Double Double Whammy)

Mitski played what was maybe the single best live set I saw all year—a solo performance (loud, heavily distorted electric guitar and voice) at Brooklyn Night Bazaar on Halloween. She's excellent as the singer of Voice Coils (guitarist-composer Sam Garrett's fascinating, sui generis prog-pop sextet), but her solo material hit me in a more visceral way: The combination of sing-songy hooks and merciless severity, the latter of which came through not as much in lyrics and delivery as in weighty yet intangible presence, floored me. Bury Me, which features many of the songs Mitski performed in that live set, hits me just about as hard. It's not as harsh, concise or unrelenting as her live show—though the beginning of "I Don't Smoke" gives a good idea of what the set I caught sounded like—but it's just as assured and compositionally sound. There is so much fierce emotion packed into this record, emotion that's matched by the tightness and integrity of the actual songs. Any artist that could craft two alt-pop songs as simultaneously catchy and unsettling, and as different from one another, as "Townie" and "I Don't Smoke" is someone I'm going to pay serious attention to from now on. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

6. Cloud Nothings Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark)

As I wrote of Here in the Time Out list, this is an album with simple, straightforward indie-rock appeal. Because it's so stylistically familiar, it's easy to mistake for something average. But it's no small feat to craft a record this structurally sound, executed with such genuine, unpolished feeling. Insanely catchy songs that rock like hell. Half the time, I have no idea what the term "indie rock" even refers to, but when I hear Here, I think I know: scrappy underdog passion and outpouring of heart, pop smarts mixed with punk abandon. Here and Nowhere Else is as about good as this kind of music gets. "I'm Not Part of Me," discussed here, is such a jam.

5. Juan Wauters N.A.P. North American Poetry (Captured Tracks)

Juan Wauters's set at Baby's All Right back in February, around the time this record came out, was another highlight of my showgoing year. I've been a Wauters fan since he and his old band the Beets stopped by Time Out to play unplugged in 2011. N.A.P. fulfills every promise of the Beets' best moments. In this brilliant 2011 Beets profile, my former colleague Jay Ruttenberg described Wauters as a "nutter with a Cheshire-cat grin." That grin has only grown subtler and deeper with time; Juan Wauters's deadpan is both inscrutable and absurdly charming. (N.A.P. opens with a sort of talk-sung Spanish-folk-sounding preamble, "Let Me Hip You to Something," which begins, stunningly, "I don't like you / You're a fool / Let me hip you to something.") Here, the Uruguay-born singer-songwriter channels his droll sense of humor into a stubbornly laid-back, almost meandering album of heavily accented folk-pop, the kind of music that reminds you that being punk means, simply, being yourself. Wauters is incredibly good at being himself, and as demonstrated here, at writing deceptively casual, ramshackle pop ditties like "Sanity or Not" and "Lost in Soup." But he goes further on N.A.P., accessing more tender and vulnerable emotional zones. The quiet yearning and plainspoken soul-searching in the song "Water" breaks my heart: "Woke up early, feel that itch / What am I doing now in this niche? / Do I belong? / Who is it that I am?" (You have to hear Wauters sing this, of course.) Not bad for a nutter!

4. La Dispute Rooms of the House (Better Living)

As I've written on DFSBP before, I have a thing for the brand of ’90s (or ’90s-inspired) post-hardcore that's sometimes referred to as emo. Emo is one of the most nerdily taxonomized subgenres I can think of; I can't keep up, honestly. But I know when I hear something that mashes on my emo pleasure buttons, like Cossack (scroll down to the bottom of this post) or On the Might of Princes (RIP Jason Rosenthal) or La Dispute. What a serious album this is—that is to say, it takes itself very seriously, and as well it should, because it's hugely moving and substantial. A novelistic narrative, expressed through Jordan Dreyer's sort of talk-yelped vocals and the band's expertly controlled post-hardcore mini epics. I'm not sure how well I follow the overall story, but the emotions—regret, bitterness, fear, nostalgia, fondness, hope—come through loud and clear. Such a fierce and sturdy piece of art, the kind that makes you feel like you're attending a church you can really believe in. Sad and harrowing and raucous and rocking—in a flailing and convulsing yet tightly drilled sort of way—and just brilliant. This was the best out-of-nowhere discovery I made in 2014, i.e., an album by a decently well-established band that I knew absolutely nothing about prior to this. If you like your post-hardcore—hell, your rock, period—weighty and dramatic, and convincingly so, you need to hear this.

3. Alvvays s/t (Polyvinyl)

Another album with a super-sturdy emotional character, though in a completely different way. As I wrote in the mixtape post, Alvvays zeroes in on the best of indie/twee culture and turns it into something profound. "Archie, Marry Me" is an absolutely extraordinary single, and the rest of this album just about lives up to that absurdly high standard. Heady fumes of bookish, post-adolescent emotion, distilled into songs that zip and skip along ("Adult Diversion," "Atop a Cake") or lope and mope in pensive bliss ("Ones Who Love You," the exquisite album closer "Red Planet"). If Here and Nowhere else is indie rock done simply, magically right, Alvvays is the same, but for indie pop. Yep, you've heard this sound before, and nope, you haven't heard it done this well. I must have listened to this full album something like 40 times straight through in 2014, and I'm still obsessed.

2. Antemasque s/t (Nadie Sound)

Another one that got endless spins. Played this damn thing over and over and over. Spilled a lot of ink on it too: see here. I'm so glad Omar and Cedric are back and tapping into the song vibe with renewed vigor.

1. Future Islands Singles (4AD)

They owned the year and, yep, they absolutely deserved it. Some thoughts here and here. An artful and moving piece of work. And so consistent! I love literally every song on this record, though "Spirit" and "A Song for Our Grandfathers" are megajams for the ages. Anyone who saw Future Islands on Letterman and wrote them off as a mere collection of quirks needs to sit with this album, get a whiff of its deep consistency, confidence and composure, honed via years of touring. Future Islands were ready for their close up.


Honorable mentions:

FREEMAN s/t (Partisan)
Here, via Partisan Records, is the bio I wrote for Aaron Freeman, the former Gene Ween, in conjunction with FREEMAN, the self-titled debut by his new band. FREEMAN has its own character—resolutely chill, optimistic, ominous, trippy, tough—but in terms of the inevitable comparison, I honestly think this one ranks up there with the best of Ween. Also, in terms of the exorcising-personal-demons songwriting canon, "Covert Discretion" is a new masterpiece. That track is the standout, but the record feels sharp and inspired all the way through. Given that I worked on the promo campaign for FREEMAN, I don't feel right listing it in an official capacity, but if that hadn't been the case, it very likely would've appeared on the above list. P.S. FREEMAN, the band, is extraordinary live; see them if you can.

Cannibal Corpse A Skeletal Domain (Metal Blade)
Eyehategod s/t (Housecore)
Obituary Inked in Blood (Relapse)
In 2013, my metal consumption centered on new records by old bands. That trend continued this year. No need to make any grand proclamations about the current state of the scene; this pattern surely says more about my own personal tastes than it does metal at large. There's something about established b(r)ands, like those whose names you see above, that really moves and engages me.

These three albums all document bands simply being themselves. As discussed in a DFSBP post last week, for Cannibal Corpse, that means further refining their current Corpsegrinder-era style. These guys are besting themselves with every release, and that's inspiring to see/hear.

For Obituary, "refining" might be a misleading term. As I've written here before, this band's M.O. is decidedly anti-evolutionary; their mission is to obey their initial primal imperative, the adolescent root of their metal. From a recent interview with drummer Donald Tardy, one of the most hard-grooving, gloriously human drummers in all of metal: "It’s not like we worked for years on getting our sound; the sound came naturally because of the instruments that Trevor [Peres] plays, and just my style of drumming." (I also love this Tardy quote from Terrorizer: "Obituary isn't reinventing the wheel. We'll leave that to the other bands that play technical and crazy and try to go beyond themselves with every record. With us, we knew that fans needed Obituary to be Obituary. They don't need us to change; they just need some solid music.") So Obituary does what it does what it does, etc. The shifts between albums are miniscule—mainly matters of production style, or a difference in lead-guitar approach (while riffmaster Peres has been an Obituary fixture—and thank God for that—the band has featured several different lead players over the years).

In the case of Inked, the production was a bit of a sticking point for me at first. The band funded this album via Kickstarter—yes, I was a proud contributor; I got a shirt and a camouflage Obituary beer coozie for my troubles—and recorded it themselves. Overall, the sound is excellent: loud, mean and unfussy. But the drum production in particular took some getting used to. I almost wish the band had brought in an outside producer to help them capture Tardy's kit, because the sound is pretty confounding: super loud, uniform, seemingly synthetic kick drums, the kind that if they aren't triggered/hit-replaced—as Tardy insists in the Metal Underground interview linked above—they might as well be, paired with really rickety-sounding, near pitch-less toms. I'm nitpicking, sure, but the snare and cymbals sound so good, so live, that it really puzzles me that they couldn't achieve a natural, well-blended representation of the whole kit. But you know what? After I listened for a while, I basically stopped caring. This is another very, very good Obituary album. The riffs are memorable, Kenny Andrews's lead guitar is tastefully (read: minimally) integrated, John Tardy's throat sounds as raw and anguished as ever, and the band's patented Southern stomp is in full effect. The sense of groove on this album is straight-up monstrous, and since that's the main criteria by which I judge any Obituary release, I'll set aside my drum-nerd griping and state for the record that Inked in Blood flat-out rules.

Speaking of Southern stomp, the Eyehategod record is stunning. It's not as punishing as the band's masterpiece, 1993's Take as Needed for Pain (maybe the most disgustingly weighty album I've ever heard in my life), but as a portrait of what this band does, the elegance with which it juggles putridity with real wit and swagger, the way it greases each riff—and my God, are there a lot of good ones on here—with that special N'awlins spice rub, Eyehategod is an absolutely marvelous document. (Sorry, I know food metaphors are cheesy, but EHG's music just has a certain kind of rib-sticking appeal that's hard to convey in sonic terms alone.) Such a shame, then, that it doubles as a memorial for drummer Joey LaCaze, who died last summer. Thankfully, he appears on the entire record—and damn, does he ever appear, his inimitable dancing-through-the-muck groove enlivening every track; check that funky-as-hell LaCaze drum break, leading into a masterful lowdown shimmy, at 2:10 in "Worthless Rescue." But how sad that he isn't around to tour with his EHG brothers during a time in their career when they're getting more deserved acclaim (here's Ben Ratliff on the band's outstanding Brooklyn show from earlier this year) than ever before. Let's be thankful for what we have: Eyehategod is heaven for anyone who's ever loved this band. Incidentally, I'd highly recommend Noisey's admirably comprehensive, multipart NOLA-metal doc, Life, Death and Heavy Blues from the Bayou, to any fan of EHG or the scene that birthed them.

RVIVR Bicker and Breathe (Rumbletowne)
Erica Freas Tether (One Brick Today)
What's this? Another masterpiece from the band that made my favorite album of 2013, and an equally impressive solo dispatch from one of its key members? RVIVR's Bicker and Breathe EP embodies everything I loved about The Beauty Between. Erica Freas, represented here with "Goodbyes" and "The Sound," is one of the most galvanizing singer-songwriter-performers on earth today, and Bicker offers further proof. And as Tether, her wise, calmly heartbreaking latest solo EP, demonstrates, she's every bit as riveting in acoustic mode. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp: Bicker and Breathe / Tether.)


More 2014 faves:

Shorties re: 14 other new LPs and 4 archival releases (jazz excluded; shouted out three of those at the bottom of this post) that I loved this year

Battle Trance Palace of Wind (New Amsterdam)
Battle Trance's Travis Laplante is a genuine contemporary NYC visionary. You might remember him from Little Women; Battle Trance, his four-tenor-saxes quartet, is equally extreme, but more about meditation than catharsis, or maybe the zone where meditation becomes catharsis, or vice versa. Experimental music as sustained, prayerful zone-out. Hear this album, and see Battle Trance live at all costs. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence (UMG)
A slow deluge of concentrated atmosphere, via a caricature that the artist born Elizabeth Grant has gradually fleshed out into a complex pop persona. Ultraviolence both lays on its doomed-starlet psychodrama super thick (the title track) and makes fun of its narrator's (or narrators'?) narcissistic self-mythology ("Brooklyn Baby").

Internal Bleeding Imperium (Unique Leader)
Another great new record by an old metal band, whose specialty is a vile, unrelenting and unmistakably New York–y sort of hardcore-infused death metal, where the slow/fast juxtaposition is key. Kudos to Bill Tolley for his idiosyncratic (splash cymbals! tambourine!), unpolished, super-groovesome drumming.

Kayo Dot Coffins on Io (The Flenser)
Depending on how you look at it, Kayo Dot either made the moodiest, most decadent pop album of 2014, or the sleekest, most listenable prog album of 2014. A profoundly weird band—led by Toby Driver; like Travis Laplante, another contemporary NYC visionary—that continues to grow ever more confident, and comfortable with its shapeshifting M.O. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Mastodon Once More ’Round the Sun (Reprise)
Mastodon furthers its pop metamorphosis—shorter songs, huger hooks—with outstanding results. This album is obviously a totally different animal than, say, Remission, but it's completely satisfying on its own terms. "The Motherload" is one of my favorite songs of 2014, and most of the others are catchy as hell too.

Bob Mould Beauty and Ruin (Merge)
"I Don't Know You Anymore" is another one of my favorite songs of the year; "The War" is almost as good. I've been moderately into Hüsker Dü for a while, but I didn't become a serious Mould nut until I heard 2012's Silver Age; this album is stylistically similar and maybe even better. More loud, masterfully melodic rock music from one of the contemporary masters of the form. P.S. I also read Mould's memoir this year, and I highly recommend it.

Karen O Crush Songs (Cult)
A sad, small, deliberately sketchy album with substantial heartbreaking potency. More on K.O. here.

Nude Beach 77 (Don Giovanni)
NYC's best straight-up rock/roll band trades hook-crazed immediacy for a more patient, lived-in sound on a good-all-the-way-through double LP. A rare example of "maturity" without tedium. God, these guys write classic-sounding songs.

Psalm Zero The Drain (Profound Lore)
Two more CNYCVs (see Battle Trance and Kayo Dot above), Charlie Looker (ex–Extra Life / Zs) and Andrew Hock (ex-Castevet) join forces, producing what is, to my ears, the most compact, listenable and gut-wrenchingly affecting album in their sizable joint discography. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Raspberry Bulbs Privacy (Blackest Ever Black)
Speaking of gut-wrenching. Maladjusted midtempo goth-noise-punk filth from yet another CNYCV: Bone Awl drummer turned Raspberry Bulbs mastermind Marco del Rio. P.S. This record grooves like hell. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Say Anything Hebrews (Equal Vision)
Max Bemis proves he's still the king of confessional emo-gone-Broadway brain-/heartspew.

Sia 1000 Forms of Fear (Monkey Puzzle) 
The triumph of the megawatt human voice—many writers, myself included, overuse the word "soar" when describing music, but Sia's vertiginous vocal leaps on tracks like "Chandelier" and "Eye of the Needle" actually seem worthy of the term—and an eccentric pop mind that refuses to let fame compromise her weirdness or vulnerability.

The War on Drugs Lost in the Dream (Secretly Canadian)
Pastel roots-pop bliss, with all the gloss and pathos of the best ’80s dad rock. "Red Eyes" in particular is an instant classic.

Yusuf Tell ’Em I'm Gone (Columbia/Legacy)
Still need to spend more time with this one, but have heard enough to know that Cat Stevens remains the archetypal pop/folk/soul troubadour.



Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young CSNY 1974 (Rhino)
The real monsters of folk. Ragged roots-rock glory disguised as ego-/drug-fueled supergroup excess. More here.

Demilich 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart)
Inspired death-metal surrealism. More here.

Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (Columbia/Legacy)
Finally, the Bootleg Series, after winding through Dylan's career in circuitous, Dylan-y fashion, gets around to the trove we've all been waiting for. Have barely scratched the surface of this, but I can tell that the vibes are thick, the camaraderie deep and the mood often refreshingly light.

Led Zeppelin reissues (Atlantic)
The best rock music, dusted off (but not scrubbed clean) and sounding huge and incredible. We're up through Houses of the Holy now—get on board if you're not already, okay?