Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dealing with CT: 'Nailed' and beyond

Plenty of times, when listening to Cecil Taylor (either live or on record), I've taken notes, diligently trying to process what I was experiencing. I've listened to a lot of Cecil Taylor this week—all recorded, of course; to my knowledge the Maestro hasn't performed live since last year, when he dueted with Min Tanaka after receiving the Kyoto Prize. For much of that time, I've happily let my pen fall pretty much slack. My jaw, as well.

To digress, I have these Cecil Taylor phases. They've been a fixture in my life for more than a decade (and an intermittent central theme on DFSBP). Periods where I need his music—often a certain phase or group—in my ears more or less constantly. Until this week, it had been a little while, maybe even a couple years, since I'd gone really deep with Cecil. What kicked off this latest listening jag was the troubling recent news of Taylor's swindling at the hands of a contractor. It's an outlandish story, one that would be absurdly comic if it hadn't happened to an 85-year-old man, let alone one who happens to be, in my opinion, one of the greatest artists who has ever walked the earth.

In keeping with my post last week, which only brought up the recent Sonny Rollins New Yorker flare-up so that I might do my best to dismiss it and deflect attention elsewhere, I feel the need to shoo away this real-world Cecil insanity. Let's hope and trust that he's getting the legal help he needs, and let's not fixate on the incident, reduce the man to a caricature—the batty eccentric he's being portrayed as. (Maybe I've been guilty of same.) Let's use the opportunity, rather, to get back in touch with his art, which is what matters.

So, the note-taking, or lack thereof. I just spent a restorative near-hour with "First," the 52-minute lead track on Nailed, a Taylor quartet record (with Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Tony Oxley) on FMP that, like a bunch of other Taylor FMPs, is available as a Bandcamp download through the noble efforts of Destination: Out. (I'm grateful to Seth Colter Walls for pointing me toward Melancholy, recorded a few days after Nailed—SCW singled it out as one of the more precise, coherent Taylor large-group recordings, and I fully concur.) While listening to Nailed today, walking around Crown Heights, I scrawled down just a few hyperbolic phrases: "Raining down of hell, or heaven"; "Nobody has ever come close to describing this experience."

I guess with that last one, I was thinking about all the times I myself had written about Taylor, and how much I'd read about him. (After flipping back through Howard Mandel's Miles Ornette Cecil during the past few days, I've been reminded that the lengthy CT section in this book is perhaps our definitive contemporary Cecil Taylor reference work—the key early-Cecil text being, of course, the lengthy CT section in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business—containing as it does both an honest critical grappling with the essential unknowability of Taylor's art, and a wealth of intermittently lucid interview material with the man himself, and with key collaborators ranging from Dominic Duval and Jackson Krall to one Max Roach.) And how inadequate all those words felt in the face of what I was hearing. Eventually I stopped writing phrases and began jotting down only time codes, denoting moments when, basically, I was in blissful disbelief. The other night, while listening to the equally marvelous Celebrated Blazons (another 1990 CT set available via the D:O/FMP Bandcamp, recorded a few months before Nailed; the band here is the divine Feel Trio, with Oxley and William Parker), I wrote, at one point, "How could this have occurred in, like, human life."

So you reach the end of words, the place where there is no substitute for the listening. And why would you want there to be? I have about ten time codes here referring to different sections in "First." Interestingly, many of them refer to moments that don't feature Evan Parker. With all due respect to EP, he almost seems like an onlooker during this performance. He's in the mix, of course (there's a nice Parker/Taylor duet section around the 30-minute mark), but he also lays out for long stretches. It's hard to blame him. The amount of sustained "Are you fucking kidding me?"–level intensity in this track is almost comical. During the trio sections, when Guy and Oxley are going full-tilt, which they are most of the time, you get this riot of sound, a flurry of sonic event. I've dialed up one of my notated time codes: the 26-minute mark. Taylor scampering across the keys with his patented frenzied whimsy, sounding simultaneously savage and mirthful; Oxley approximating wind whipping through a junkyard, furnishing a mist of thuds and scrapes and clangs; and Guy tearing through—or attempting to—the thicket of sound.

Collective mania around the 34-minute mark. All four players this time, racing and gushing. You can feel the Englishmen's desperation: "How long can this guy keep this up?" (A long, long time. I think it was in the Nailed CD booklet that I first read Oxley's classic quote, maybe my favorite thing ever uttered about CT: "To play with Cecil Taylor you need the stamina of an athlete and the imagination of a god.") There's a brief respite around the 40-minute mark, with Cecil ramping down, segueing into his classic murmuring warm-up/cool-down motif, which I think of onomatopoetically as bangada-banga… bangada-banga-banga. And then he can't resist speeding up again, going back in for one more assault. Again, Parker is laying out here. Guy is playing with the bow. Pure mayhem around 43 minutes, more flirtation with the warm-up/cool-down, and then the flailing madness returns. There is something so magical about the outpouring of energy in these moments. You can't get this anywhere else in life, this sort of incandescent freak-out. When it's musicians of this caliber doing the freaking out, and you get to pay witness, it's like seeing/hearing God. 

Buy Nailed if you don't already own it. Drop the needle at 45:40. Let this splatter of precision and brutality just happen to you. I don't know how to talk about music like this. I don't know why you would, unless you, like me, have an obsession with trying to process your own relationship to sound, or you, like me, are trying to encourage others to listen. In moments like this, the engagement of player and, ideally, listener, is total, the level of detail infinite. There is so much of that on Nailed, and on Celebrated Blazons too—and in the ’88–’90 zone of the CT discography generally, with all those divine European encounters. 

Some of the thorniest moments of Nailed come around 49 minutes. The velocity and density decrease here, but not the jagged intensity. All four players are taking their last stabs, measuring their blows instead of flurrying maniacally. And Taylor gets the coda. Around 51 minutes, he quiets for good, musing with consummate restraint. Guy and Oxley providing perfectly attuned accompaniment. There is less than a minute to go in the performance, but this last section is a mini mansion of mystery. All the wildness that's come before, slowing to a trickle. Just like the barrage that precedes it, this ending brims with purpose and precision. That is Cecil's gift to us: total concentration, total conviction, whatever the dynamic zone. He is always, always, always going for it. That is why I have collected his records and attended his performances obsessively over the past decade-plus. When I go and commune with CT, I'm never disappointed. We can't all live in that zone every day, but when you take the time out to really sit with this music, you feel a kind of solar heat. (And you might, as I have, worry that the man is aging and, selfishly, that you might not get to see him perform again…)

We have to appreciate him now—even in the wake of this week's insane real-world news, we have to refocus and remember what the point is: CT is still here. His music is a rich bounty. There's a ton of it. Dip into whatever period you choose—1978 and ’88–’90 seem to call out to me most often—and spend real time there. Put down your pen, your phone, anything that's getting in the way. Let words go; let time go; just deal with CT. It's one of the best feelings I know.


Other treasures I've turned up during my current Taylor fixation:

*A 1970 live performance with Jimmy Lyons, Sam Rivers and Andrew Cyrille. CT's fierceness and frenzy here are almost unbearable. Till yesterday I had absolutely no idea that footage of this band (heard on The Great Concert of Cecil Taylor, from ’69) existed. The CT portion starts around 11 minutes in.


*A genial, charming, lucid 2013 interview, in conjunction with the Kyoto Prize. Definite parallels with the lovely CT episode of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, which you can grab here. I've said before that CT is impossible to interview. That's unfair. He was impossible for me to interview, when I visited him in 2009 for the Time Out piece linked above. The truth, I think, is that he's simply selective re: whom he'll converse with linearly and warmly—certainly his right.


*Some fascinating audio documentation—boots from a series of 1998 shows—of an unusual, short-lived Taylor quartet with vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassist Santi Debriano and drummer Jackson Krall, augmented in spots by Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas. (For an easy MP3 download, scroll down a bit in the comments and check out the links provided by "mew23.") The Locke/Taylor chemistry is really something to behold. Another fascinating oddity is the Taylor/Parker/Oxley meeting with Anthony Braxton. I think this group played a few times back in ’07; audio boots are floating around, though I can't find any active links at the moment. (Can anyone help?) There is this tantalizing snippet on YouTube:


*A complete stream of Burning Poles, a live-in-studio performance (date uncertain—’90/’91?) by the Feel Trio plus percussionist Henry Martinez. I remember renting this ages ago on VHS and being somewhat baffled by the pacing—at that time, I wasn't accustomed to CT's famously circuitous invocations/introductions—but rewatching this morning, I was just extremely grateful that we have a proper video document of this band.


*Again, I'm in disbelief that this exists: a video from CT's 1974 Montreaux Jazz Festival performance, which would be released as Silent Tongues, simply one of Taylor's greatest recordings. The balance between abandon and deliberateness that, to me, defines CT's work has rarely been captured so well. The passage that begins at 9:27 blows my listen—listen to how Taylor sets up this repeated figure, a two-handed run up the keys, and then mutates it, first answering with his patented declamatory left-hand pounds and then upending the call-and-response structure with a tempestuous flurry. Then at 9:50, he begins this sort of see-saw motion between a version of the aforementioned chilled-out warm-up/cool-down figure and these manic action-painting outbursts. Throughout this clip, the clarity and speed of execution are astonishing. As I've described above, later CT has its own magic, but during this period, he seems superhuman.




*All the Notes (full-length documentary by Chris Felver from about ten years back; as accurate a portrait as you're going to find of what it's like to actually spend time in CT's presence; essential)

*Imagine the Sound trailer (incredible 1981 doc w/ CT, Archie Shepp, Paul Bley and Bill Dixon; see the full film at all costs)

*CT live in studio, 1968 (w/ Lyons, Cyrille and Alan Silva, the band from the album Student Studies)

*CT w/ the Art Ensemble of Chicago (need to give this one a good, hard listen, along with the record this group made together)

*2 Ts for a Lovely T on Amazon MP3 (less than $12 for a download of the entire 10-CD box?! I've heard a few discs of this limited-edition Feel Trio set, and the thin sound quality—drastically inferior to, say, Celebrated Blazons above—has always turned me off. But at this price, I can't resist giving it another shot.)

*Q'ua: Live at the Irridium [sic], Vol. 1 (another reconsideration; I've sometimes been on the fence about CT's mid-’90s–through–early aughts working trio with Dominic Duval / Jackson Krall trio, but this one is sounding awesome to me at present. Pluses: rich recording quality; Krall's organic, swinging feel—so different from Oxley's alien sound factory; engaged, sympathetic playing from Duval and soprano-saxist Harri Sjöström.)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Somewhere we've never been: Farmers by Nature at ShapeShifter Lab

The debate over the now-infamous "Sonny Rollins" New Yorker piece continues. I'm not going to get into what I think of the original article, or the points made by its various supporters and detractors, or even Sonny's own response, mainly because I think both the incident and its aftershocks are beside the point. That point being: music ("jazz," or what have you) as an actual human practice, happening now, in real time—rather than an idea to be lobbed about abstractly.

I bring up the Sonny business mainly because I read Justin Moyer's jazz-bashing response in The Washington Post yesterday, and then went out to see a very satisfying night of what you might call jazz—the Aum Fidelity–backed double-record-release bill of Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp and the Farmers by Nature trio (Craig Taborn, William Parker and Gerald Cleaver, pictured above, left to right) at ShapeShifter Lab; and a trio set by Travis Laplante, Mick Barr and Nick Podgurski in a Clinton Hill living room, part of the Home Audio series. One of Moyer's points ("There’s not much difference between a screechy performance by avant-garde saxophonist Peter Brötzmann from 1974 and one from 2014") stuck with me—the idea being that "free jazz" always sounds the same. I've seen enough supposedly free performances to know that, when it comes to the post-Coltrane/Ayler tradition, at least, "free" can indeed refer to a well-rehearsed script. I happen to love Peter Brötzmann—’74, ’14, whenever—and I think he's a much better listener/collaborator and more diverse performer than he's given credit for. But yes, you go to see him, and you know that a certain flavor of ornery, macho catharsis is going to be part of the deal.

But I take issue with the idea that actual freedom, actual improvisation, is a myth, and that, to cite another one of Moyer's points, improvisation is overrated as a rule. Again, I agree with him in the macro sense. Moyer writes, "…the fact that music is improvised doesn’t make it great." Amen to that—I think the idea of improvisation (or any other philosophical construct that informs music's creation or performance, be that serialism, or graphic scores or Conduction, or what have you) being presented as an inherent virtue of that given piece of music is b.s. I'm really only interested in the result, and very often songs, or more generally, compositions, are what I'm after. As a metalhead, I love riffs; as a jazz guy, I love melodies—Ellington, Mingus, Andrew Hill, etc.; as a lifelong pop fan, I love hooks.

But, in some cases, improvised music appears before you as a kind of miracle. Watching Farmers by Nature last night, I felt like I was witnessing the honest-to-God creation of something out of nothing. It wasn't free jazz, or any other kind of calcified thing. It wasn't self-important about its method. It was just an honest shot at doing what improvisers ought, ideally, to do every time, which is not simply to empty your closet of every idea you might have stuffed in there, but to deal with the moment, with its possibility, and to listen, really listen, to what your collaborators have to say, and concern yourself with supporting those ideas, as well as the overall continuity, as fragile as a bubble, of the collective statement.

The set had a real elegance of design to it. Parker started out solo, and the other two slowly built up a kind of murky groove, rising out of nothingness. From there, over roughly an hour, the music visited roughly six or seven different zones, like track demarcations on an album. Each proceeded logically from the one before, and never arrived till the group had fully explored the prior area of inquiry. I remember an episode of fractured funk, with Taborn and Cleaver clanking out jagged accents, completing each other's sentences; an exquisitely chill section that felt almost like placid bossa nova; a couple of frenzied Taborn flights, where he came off like a short-circuiting cyborg, juxtaposing single, percussive notes from different registers of the keyboard; a long unaccompanied Cleaver solo that took full advantage of some expert tom-tom tuning—the drum kit was really singing, in the melodic sense—and ramped up to torrential density; and maybe most profound of all, a section featuring Parker on arco. I don't think I've ever heard a double bass cry out with such grain and elegy and deep feeling as it did last night in Parker's hands. Taborn accompanied with superhuman restraint, serving up quiet yet extremely resonant chords.

So, yes, sensitivity and restraint are a big part of why this music succeeded. But as I attempted to describe above, the group raged plenty as well. I think what impressed me so much was, again, this sense of continuity, of each player's—and the trio's, as a collective unit—awareness of the overall arc. Too often, long sets of improvised music follow a predictable quiet-loud-quiet shape. This felt more like a suite, with each movement taking on its own special mini contour. The band went for the climax when it was there, but they never milked it. Intensity was only one color on the palette. And the same goes for the hierarchy of the music, as it were. For long stretches, the band played in a way that seemed totally collective, i.e., sans soloist, almost in the way that groups like the Necks improvise. But, as with the varied dynamics, collectivity was just one strategy. During plenty of other moments, the more traditional soloist-plus-accompanists concept was very much at play. Each of the three players starred in turn.

Most amazing to me, though, was how the moment, the actual spontaneous unfolding circumstance, seemed to drive the set, as much as the will of any one player, or even of the trio as a whole. I'm thinking, for example, about how Gerald Cleaver's smallest cymbal—the size of a splash, but with a more ping-y, less tinny sound than I've often heard out of splashes—turned out to be something like a central character during the last 10 or 15 minutes of the set. Throughout the performance, Cleaver moved this cymbal around the kit—sometimes it was perched on its own stand to his right, sometimes it was resting on the hi-hat stand above those cymbals or on the floor tom or snare. So, in the middle of one such transfer, Cleaver happened to drop this little cymbal. He reached down beside the bass drum and picked it up, and then he went to put it back on its original stand to his right. But this act became, in and of itself, a sort of tic or weird fixation. He didn't just replace the cymbal and go on playing the full kit. He began obsessively, continuously spinning the cymbal around on the stand, eliciting a faint little creak. The other players didn't seem to directly respond, but as Cleaver turned the cymbal around and around, it was almost like he was drawing the accumulated momentum of the set down into a final moment—draining the water from the tub, funneling the creative material out of the air. Taborn and Parker gradually quieted, and Cleaver was striking the still-spinning cymbal with a wire brush, almost inaudibly. He stopped spinning it and continued whacking the brush into the air, engaging in movement but producing essentially no sound. And that was the end of the set.

I trust that none of the above episodes, the high-intensity Taborn solos, the Parker arco feature, the concluding Cleaver small-cymbal mini drama, were planned. Befitting their group name, the three musicians actually were harvesting moments, turning them over, wringing out all their potential. The overall result didn't sound anything like any stereotypical idea of "free jazz," or any other style of improvised music I can think of. But at the same time, it wasn't alien; it felt fully logical, narrative, directed, harmonious, complete. The set lasted for exactly the right amount of time, and for the band to have played a single note after the ending would've felt (to me, at least) superfluous. This Farmers by Nature set wasn't great because it was improvised; it was great because of, as I've attempted to describe, the brilliance of the various individual moments and the coherence of the overall form. At the same time, I think the set's uniqueness, the fact that what happened last night hasn't happened before and won't happen again, was part of its immense appeal. We shouldn't fetishize the means of production—how something was made, or according to what principle—but when something truly special arises from a certain method, or lack of method, it's good to remember that, yes, that method has potential. It is absolutely no guarantee—not whatsoever—but improvisation can, under certain circumstances, take both players and audience somewhere they've never been. Last night's Farmers by Nature set reaffirmed that fact for me. As always, I'll be staying tuned.


P.S. My focus on the Taborn/Parker/Cleaver performance isn't intended to slight the other sets I saw last night. Both were fierce and beautiful. Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp burrowed ever further into the special kind of poignant, stormy melancholy—doled out in three- or four-minute chunks, the so-called Cosmic Lieder of their album titles—they've been creating as a duo for the past few years. And Travis Laplante and Mick Barr, both scarily extreme, virtuosic and idiosyncratic musicians, unleashed their respective aesthetic selves, but with no sense of autopilot whatsoever, building something collective and response-based, with help from Nick Podgurski's expertly tension-ratcheting percussion, moving imperceptibly from sparseness to brutal density. A hell of a night all around.

Friday, August 08, 2014

My favorite songs of 2014 so far

This year, I've been on the lookout for songs. Gravitating toward that hard diamond of perfection that only a concise, confident single (or album track that plays like one) can provide. I grew up on American Top 40, and even later, when I ventured down the extreme-metal path, brief video clips were guiding the way. Sipping and savoring is great, but sometimes you just want to gulp your music in a concentrated shot and feel it go straight to your head.

I don't know if 2014 has been a particularly good song year, or if that's just where I'm at. I find myself thinking in mixtape terms, listening—to new, recorded music, anyway—from a bite-size, instant-gratification perspective. (Then again, there are albums like La Dispute's Rooms of the House, which strikes me as a post-hardcore insta-classic, grabbing me as complete, immersive experiences.) Here are ten of my recent jams, all released since January.

1. Alvvays - "Archie, Marry Me"
This one is more teleportation device than mere song. It takes me somewhere else, so readily and completely that I feel like it ought to come equipped with some sort of "Do not operate motor vehicles…" warning. We speak of bittersweetness, and it's a cliché, until it's expressed as perfectly as it is here, as balmy melancholy, a sing-songy portrait of a life perched between adolescence and adulthood—or at least that's how I hear it. The deadpan lyrics (I really like the opening: "You've expressed explicitly your contempt for matrimony / You've student loans to pay / And will not risk the alimony") whisk me away to a sort of smart/lovelorn indie-film wonderland, like the best of Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson. Yearning crushes set against the nerdy backdrop of academia, e.g. Overall, "Archie" is the kind of thing a "twee" skeptic—which I can sometimes be—might hold at arm's length initially; but then you move in a little closer, and you realize resistance is futile. P.S. I'm learning to love the whole album, i.e., the self-titled Alvvays debut, but the special exquisiteness of this track is really hard to ignore.

2. Future Islands - "Spirit"
Yes, "Seasons" (you know, the Letterman one) is a megajam, and the perfect wave for this fascinating Baltimore band to ride into the popular consciousness. But the song I play the most off the shrewdly titled Singles is "Spirit." It's a more dancey, insistent track than "Seasons," and, maybe better than any other Future Islands song, it sums up the band's weird alchemy—the transformation of apparent ’80s kitsch and stagy theatricality into transcendent emotional catharsis. If you've seen Future Islands live, you know that Sam Herring means every word, e.g., "For dreams come to those who let them in their guarded room." And the song rises and swells to meet the sentiment.

3. Sia - "Hostage"
Sia's 1000 Forms of Fear is so filled with concentrated pop bouillon, I have to take it in small doses. As anyone who's heard "Chandelier" can attest, the choruses on this thing are monstrous and unrelenting—elated, yes, but often quite sad. "Hostage" is the record's saving grace, its moment of pure giddy fun. Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi helped out on this one (I believe he also turned up on Sia's last LP, the very good We Are Born), and the track captures a bit of the lift of that band's fizziest material. "Hostage" embodies a real dance-in-front-of-the-mirror-singing-into-a-hairbrush vibe. The verse gets you dancing, and then, just before the :30 mark, the chorus comes gushing in, with Sia unleashing that glitzy belt, and as in the vertiginous "Chandelier" refrain, singer and song ascend to a peak of almost unbearable ecstasy.

 4. Mastodon - "The Motherload"
With help from producer Nick Raskulinecz, Mastodon has been pushing hard in a pop direction lately. The two resulting albums, The Hunter and the new Once More ’Round the Sun, work best in atomized form: Swallowed whole, they can be a bit cloying; you often feel the strain of an elementally "epic" band shoehorning itself into a radio-friendly format. But a few times on each record, Nick and the boys get it (it being the Perfect Mastodon Single) so, so right. Case in point, "The Motherload." This song proves, to me at least, that drummer Brann Dailor is the best singer this band's got. He sells this one with so much soul. And it doesn't hurt that the composition itself perfectly balances Mastodon's trademark burly drive, as well as the rock-and-roll swagger that's become a key part of their vocabulary, with a hooky pop imperative. I also love "High Road," Once's lead single, but "The Motherload" is the one that absolutely will not dislodge itself from my brain.

5. White Lung - "Snake Jaw"
Within seconds of throwing on Deep Fantasy, I was on board with White Lung. It's a fierce, relentless album that weights its punk and pop imperatives equally. But this song in particular is just above and beyond. I'm a sucker for bridges and post-choruses, i.e., when songs suddenly veer into a new zone, a place of deeper urgency, instead of just reprising what they've already shown you. This happens constantly in "Snake Jaw," a very short song. When I first heard the post-chorus section at :49, with guitarist Kenneth William busting into hyper pop shred mode, and singer Mish Way responding with soaring melodic wails, I completely lost it. That kind of overdrive and abandon (see also the Sia above) is what I crave in my singles. And the crazy thing is that there's a whole other, equally anthemic, bridge type section after the second chorus (1:36). "Snake Jaw" presents way more musical information than a two-minute song has any business presenting, but somehow, the maximalism feels absolutely logical and coherent.

6. Lana Del Rey - "Brooklyn Baby"
Lana Del Rey's lesser material can sound rickety, corny and/or tedious, but when she nails it ("Video Games," duh), the vibe is thick, immersive and absolutely irresistible. This song is pure camp luxury. She's juxtaposing her trademark sad-ghosts-of-Hollywood feel with hipster-satirizing lyrics. "They judge me like a picture book / By the colors like they forgot to read." Is she talking about herself here, about all the flak she got early on for coming off as artificial and manufactured? Or is this another part of her character portrait of a stereotypical NYC wannabe? ("Well, my boyfriend's in a band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed…" "My jazz collection's rad…," "I get high on hydroponic weed…") That's another thing LDR's best songs do: embody what they're sending up, send up what they're embodying. You can fixate on the meaning, or you can just coast along on the sensation; either way, "Brooklyn Baby" is a triumph.

7. Juan Wauters - "Sanity or Not"
The shortest song on this list, and maybe the most efficient. Juan Wauters does what all the best singer-songwriters do: crafts a persona and embodies it to a T. Check out his old band the Beets, see him live, listen to his (very, very good) debut solo record, N.A.P.: North American Poetry—however you experience his work, you're getting a pure dose. The intention, the "character," if you will, are clear within seconds. The aloof sage, the slacker genius. (That album cover!) The Uruguayan in New York—bewildered but never baffled, always cool, in the spiritual sense. "Sanity or Not" epitomizes what my friend and ex–Time Out NY colleague Jay Ruttenberg meant when he wrote of the Beets that they "straddle the border of folk and punk." Both defiant styles, but also concise and, despite their shared anti-virtuosic stance, deliberate. Wauters is the dude in the shades, strumming away, yes, but a song as perfect as "Sanity or Not" doesn't just happen. 124 seconds of bliss.

8. The War on Drugs - "Red Eyes"
Like Lana and Juan, Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs has also crafted a character, both in terms of persona and in terms of song. He is the sort of everydude of dad rock, the culmination of the ’60s troubadour figure as filtered through the ’80s "mature period." It's no small feat that he has everyone who listens to him grasping for lofty comparisons. Is he Dylan? Petty? Springsteen? Knopfler? Simon? Henley, even? He is all that is "rootsy" in great modern American pop; the unabashedly glossy version of that idea. Folk transmuted into product, but the thing is, it sounds and feels real—to a child or disciple of the ’80s, maybe even more real than the "real" Americana that underlies it. In its entirety, I find the latest War on Drugs album, Lost in the Dream, a bit much: draggy and bloated. But this song is pure FM-radio righteousness. The "Whoo!" moment at 1:48, and what comes after, cements "Red Eyes" as an essential addition to the road-music canon; that elegiac guitar/keyboard melody that's straight of the Bruce playbook—man… During these moments in "Red Eyes," the entire War on Drugs project propels itself from the realm of pastiche into the realm of the classic. Like Lana, Granduciel seems to be merely mimicking the real deal until, suddenly, he's embodying it.

9. Cloud Nothings - "I'm Not Part of Me"
You don't want to throw around the word timeless, but what are you supposed to do with a song like this? Here and Nowhere Else, the latest Cloud Nothings record (I love pretty much the whole thing), and especially this song, are all about the expertly calibrated balance of salty and sweet, grittiness and hooks. The fuzz on the guitar and the gravel in Dylan Baldi's voice, combined with the precision cut of the song's melodic arc. Name your touchstone for this sort of thing: Hüsker Dü, Nirvana, or maybe even the Stones, Beatles or Who. It's the thing that pop-minded rock and roll does best, and when you hear a great example of it, like "I'm Not Part of Me," there's no gulf between the present and the past. The canon is sacred, but it is also accessible; a new song, if good enough, can take you where all those great old songs did. As the album title says, you hear a track this well-written and rawly, real-ly performed, and for that brief stretch, you're here, in that song's own present, and nowhere else.

10. Say Anything - "Judas Decapitation"
It could be said that at this point, Max Bemis, leader of Say Anything has a formula, that his manic mixture of self-deprecation and vitriol is sort of like a mask of himself that he dons whenever it's time to write another song. I talked about the idea of persona above, and I think that applies here: Isn't making a character (caricature?) of yourself part of the singer-songwriter's job? I think so, and it's part of why I compared Bemis to Woody Allen when I first wrote about him. He's taken the classic neurotic-Jew shtick and updated it for the internet age. Bemis hit the bullseye with his Say Anything debut, …Is a Real Boy (note the reference to being a "dot-dot-dot real man" at 1:40 in "Judas"), and in a certain sense, more of the same is superfluous. But then you hear a song like "Judas Decapitation," a tightly composed pop anthem disguised as unhinged brainspew, and you realize that Bemis has actually gotten better at what he does. Sloppy, sincere, satirical, completely over the top. He's talking about this snake-eating-its-tail phenomenon, the "confessional" singer-songwriter ("speaking brutally of myself to gain traction," etc.) and the supposedly adversarial audience/media, each needing one another, feeding one another, spinning around in a perverse loop-the-loop. The breathless, frantic quality of the music fits the message perfectly. We've heard this from Bemis before, but never this hyperdistilled, this frenzied and fun, peeved yet pop-savvy.


I also love these:

Max LeRoy feat. Kitty and Sad Andy - "Brush Me Off"
What a jam this is. I've listened on repeat so many times. Kitty is a master of the "making it look effortless" school.

Antemasque - "4AM"
The concise, hooky Omar-and-Cedric is back, and I am psyched. This whole album is outstanding. Can't wait for the official release.

P.S. Major oversight! Bob Mould's "I Don't Know You Anymore" is a glaringly obvious punk/pop/rock/etc. mini masterpiece.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Idris Muhammad

Sad to say, I'm only catching up to Idris Muhammad now, the week after his passing. I enjoyed this archival Wax Poetics interview—"See, I'm a natural drummer."

A quick online trawl led me to a few choice items:

One of those monster inside/outside (or, more accurately, oblivious-to-the-division) line-ups—Don Pullen, Sam Rivers, Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman, Nathan Davis, Santi Debriano—that reminds you how many great jazz allegiances were forged in the ’80s and ’90s. This group, known as Roots, made a few records, but as far as I can tell, the lineup above only appears on 1993's Stablemates. (Checking out Roots reminds me that I really need to spend some time with The Leaders, another roughly contemporary collective that featured Blythe and Freeman.)

I grabbed this record, Kabsha, from 1980, after sampling it on iTunes, and it's exactly what I hoped it would be: lean, swinging, funky, unfussy, beautifully recorded small-group jazz. The quartet lineup indicated on the cover (Muhammad, George Coleman, Pharoah Sanders and Ray Drummond) sounded fascinating, but I'm almost glad that the two saxists only appear together on one track (plus an alternate take). There's just something about a sax-bass-drums trio, especially when your focus is the drummer. Highly recommended.

I'm also intrigued by this:

Much as early Lifetime or Mahavishnu Orchestra seems to represent fusion before "Fusion," this Muhammad album—featuring Grover Washington, Bob James and other crossover/cutout-bin staples—seems to represent smooth (or pop, if you prefer) jazz before Smooth Jazz. I feel that with nearly any style, the embryonic, before-it-had-a-name incarnation is generally worthwhile, and this is no exception: I love it. At this stage of the game, the smoothness is so tasty—and, it must be said, Muhammad's flow so, yes, natural—it feels almost punk.

What other Idris Muhammad do I need to hear?