Archive for the ‘avant-garde’ Category

Hundred Word Reviews for May 2015, Part 3

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

I’m not complaining; it’s a good problem to have. But even after culling the ones I don’t like (and skipping the ones that impress me only mildly), I still end up with a massive pile of albums for review. And when said pile gets out of hand, I do a string of 100-word reviews. I’m right in the midst of that now; today’s collection features artists that fall more or less into the jazz category.

Nekozurashi – Ahostractions
This Osaka-based collective is led by composer/arranger/guitarist Koota Tanimura. The group’s sound distills a wide array of influences, including free jazz, big band, rock, hip-hop and more. Those who came to appreciate jazz form a rock-oriented point of view are likely to enjoy this disc, and will discern echoes of Grand Wazoo and Waka/Jawaka-era Frank Zappa. The tunes always swing, and sometimes swing for the fences. And there are even some ginchy pop songs (sung in Japanese) thrown in; those recall Absolutely Free-era Mothers crossed with, say, The Mops, and approached with a sensibility that recalls Le Sacre du Tympan.

Jason Miles and Ingrid Jensen – Kind of New
The album title is a play on Miles Davis‘ immortal Kind of Blue, but it’s not hubris for this team to reference the master; Jason Miles was Davis’ keyboard player for several years. This delightful disc features Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, and while the tracks occasionally evoke memories of Davis’ Jack Johnson period, the groove and melodies are rooted in a more accessible foundation. Mellow but never, ever falling into the tepid “smooth jazz” trap, Kind of New works equally as well as rewarding subject of active listening as it would for groovy background music for your next cocktail party.

The Aristocrats – Culture Clash Live!
Truth told, The Aristrocrats aren’t most people’s idea of jazz. But while the trio – shredding guitarist Guthrie Govan, monster bassist Bryan Bellar and drummer extraordinaire Marco Minnemann – rock out with the best of ‘em, they do in fact come from a jazz sensibility. Those who enjoy the pyrotechnics of a Steve Vai or a Joe Satriani definitely need to check out this group. There’s a bit of overlap between the tracks on the live CD and the live DVD in this package, but they’re different enough not to be redundant. Fun instrumentals include “Sweaty Knockers” and “Blues Fuckers.”

Jack DeJohnette – Made in Chicago
A giant in the jazz-rock fusion world, drummer DeJohnette was an early member of the venerated Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This live disc finds him reuniting with old friends and musical associates including sax/flautist Henry Threadgill and ECM head Manfred Eichler (the latter mixed the recording). That said, this isn’t fusion; it leans in a much more improvisational/exploratory direction, with little in the way of rigid meter or conventional melody. Put another way, it’s the kind of thing that those who dislike jazz point to to support their view. Recommended for fans of the abstract and adventurous.

Chris Potter Underground Orchestra – Imaginary Cities
Another title from the venerated ECM label, Imaginary Cities often feels more like modern classical music (of a most accessible kind) rather than jazz proper. But as soon as one acclimates oneself to that style, the music shifts into some highly melodic movements that give the various players in this large ensemble their chance to shine. The expansive title track is a four-part suite that makes up the bulk of the disc, and it’s exceedingly effective at conveying a wide range of moods. Beautiful, contemplative stuff, Imaginary Cities is worth your undivided attention. A sublime triumph from start to finish.

More to come.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 2

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Next, it was drone time. The minimalist work of the duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen (joined by three additional musicians) was delivered in the bright, daylit room at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The hypnotic vibe of the group’s work lent itself to simply sitting back and closing one’s eyes. But AWVFTS was having none of that: mid-set, they stopped (“Usually, we never stop playing during a set,” they told us) and asked everyone to stand up instead. Fair enough, but I for one found it more enjoyable when relaxing.

Apparently the Kronos Quartet (described elsewhere as “the hardest working act” at the festival, and rightly so) didn’t have the opportunity to rehearse much with avant garde legend Laurie Anderson before their set. You wouldn’t have known it, though. A near-capacity Tennessee Theatre audience witnessed the somber “Landfall,” a work by Anderson that recounted her personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina. There’s always a winking, slyly humorous undercurrent to Anderson’s work that belies her reputation as an avant garde performer, and the Quartet conveyed a similarly informal approach, even while following a written score.

Max Richter is a modern classical composer, and his “The Blue Notebooks” is a piece performed on piano with string accompaniment, and a seated woman in formal evening dress reading brief written passages in lovely “RP” English. Modern classical has an undeserved reputation for being solely atonal, angular and jarring; Richter’s work is nothing of the kind: it’s elegiac, stately, beautiful and evocative. “Infra” did not feature the spoken-word component but was equally enjoyable. The intimate setting of The Bijou (an old theatre that has been home to many great performances I’ve enjoyed in the past) was the perfect setting for Richter’s work.

Unfortunately, by this point in the weekend, the cold that I had been denying was starting to overwhelm me. I stuck around long enough to take in part of tUnE-yArDs‘ set, and I am sure that had I been able to stay for all of it, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly. Brightly-colored costumes and a stage setup that put percussion out front (literally) were the hallmarks of their lively, uptempo set. They reminded me of a less-mannered Talking Heads with far more appealing vocalists, and their playful manner seemed focused squarely on having a good time and sharing that with the gathered audience.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it was all I could do to stay vertical, the head cold having overtaken me completely. I ventured down by the railroad tracks to the funky Standard for a performance (“installation” might be a more apt term) by Tyondai Braxton, presenting a work he calls “HIVE.” Braxton’s avant garde bona fides are without question: his father is jazz multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton. The younger Braxton’s work is based equally on percussion and modern technology. “HIVE” was originally commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, but its arty beginnings belie its modern, techno-leaning qualities. Five musicians, each seated atop a table-sort-of-thing, are armed with all manner of sound-producing devices. Lights and fog are part of the scene, too, placing “HIVE” somewhere between highbrow art installation and all-night rave soundtrack. And it was very loud.

Unfortunately, after that, it was home and bed for me. As a result, I missed sets by Bill Frisell and others, but my overall impression of Big Ears Festival 2015 was one of awe. Big Ears is easily the best-run major music festival in the region. Bringing together the best characteristics of a festival (wide variety of artists in a compact area and timeframe) while minimizing or even eliminating its less-appealing aspects (crushing crowds, intimidating security, AC Entertainment and everyone else involved with Big Ears continues to do an amazing job, and in doing so they attract not only discerning music fans, but top-notch talent the likes of which are rarely seen nor heard in such a setting.

Bringing together this caliber and variety of notable and groundbreaking musical artists is in and of itself a staggering feat. Doing so outside, say, New York or San Francisco is even more impressive. Taking the expertise gained from successful staging of massive festivals (Bonnaroo, for example, takes in more than 80,000 concertgoers) and applying those skills to a relatively small-scale, city-based festival, AC Entertainment has created and sustained one of the most remarkable festivals ever in Big Ears. For anyone interested in where “serious” music is headed in the 21st century, a springtime trip to Knoxville Tennessee can provide some clear direction. I hope I attend again in 2016.

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Festival Review: Big Ears Festival 2015, Part 1

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Typically, I don’t make a point of attending “kickoff events” at the start of music festivals. My thinking is that they’re generally an opportunity to spotlight the event sponsors and so forth. That’s all well and good, but it’s not, strictly speaking, entertainment. But since I had gone to Moogfest 2014‘s opening event and enjoyed it, I figured, why not do the same in Knoxville. Plus, I was there, and no other music events were scheduled until later.

Lucky me. True, the event did include some speeches, but even those were worthwhile. Festival organizer Ashley Capps (he of AC Entertainment, the outfit behind Bonnaroo and many other high-profile festivals) gave a heartfelt speech that helped attendees understand the answers to two reasonable questions: Why Big Ears? And why Knoxville?

But the real highlights of the opening event were four musical performances. First off, Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man staged a “popup concert.” Rather than make use of the stage, they set up their stools and music stands on the floor in front of it – all of six feet from where I had situated myself – and played a brief, unamplified set. It was sublime, and held the audience (a near-packed room at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s Ann and Steve Bailey Hall) spellbound.

After that, we were treated to onstage performances from Hildur Guðnadóttir (futuristic-looking cello and vocals treated by sonic effects and looping), a sight-impaired teenage pianist Tate Garcia (an exceedingly clever mashup of his own arrangement of works by Scott Joplin, George Harrison and Chopin), and finally vocalist Breyon Ewing. In less than an hour’s time, the gathered audience had the essence of Big Ears Festival laid out in front of them. Things were off to a superb start.

Igor Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” is one of those classical pieces that you know, even if you don’t know you know it. A reading of the work formed the centerpiece of the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, and the onscreen visuals that accompanied it (dinosaurs, not Mickey Mouse) seared it into the memory of those who witnessed it. The work remains popular, and received perhaps its most innovative and outré reading by The Bad Plus on their 2014 album The Rite of Spring. The group (pianist Ethan Iverson, upright bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King) is nominally a jazz trio. But they’re jazz musicians playing classical music, and playing it with a rock (or progressive rock) level of power.

Whole sections of the Bad Plus’ take on Stravinsky’s work might be unrecognizable to those familiar with the original work, but the trio’s reinvention of the piece was thrilling; one couldn’t turn away. The interplay between the three was remarkable; even though they were working from sheet music (as did nearly every Big Ears performer I saw, yet another thing that makes this festival unlike any other I’ve witnessed), there was a jazz musician’s mentality of unspoken communication at work.

The trio followed up Stravinsky’s work with a set of their own original material; avant garde rarely gets as accessible as The Bad Plus.

Later on Big Ears’ first night, I caught a set at The Square room featuring guitarist Steve Gunn and his band. Musically conventional – at least compared to most of the other acts on the bill – Gunn and band showcased the guitarist’s impressive fretwork. Gunn’s not a flashy guitarist, not at all. But his powerful music was the closest thing to rock music on the entire three-day schedule. It was also plenty loud, not that that’s a band thing. (No doubt Swans were much louder, but having witnessed part of their punishing set at 2013′s Bonnaroo Festival, I made the decision to avoid a repeat.)

After a visit to a local used record store (something I try to do in every city I visit, because every town has its own used-record character), my Saturday list of performances began with Kronos Quartet onstage at the massive and beautiful Tennessee Theatre. Joined by Americana artist Sam Amidon on vocals and banjo, the Quartet applied their multigenre-spanning expertise to folk songs. At this point I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’ve ever taken in so much live classical instrumentation at one time before.” But it was lovely, and I even sat still for music that included banjo (one of my least-favorite instruments).

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Rick Wakeman, Cannonball Adderley, and Me

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

Today I’m going to indulge in a brief change of pace. I’d like to tell you about a pair of reissues with which I am involved. I won’t be reviewing either title – what would be the point? – but suffice to say that if I didn’t think they are superb albums, I wouldn’t have written the liner notes.

The first, reissued earlier this week, is Rick Wakeman‘s final album for A&M Records, Rhapsodies. This 2LP set capped his association with Herb Alpert‘s label; the Yes keyboard player’s first album – The Six Wives of King Henry VIII – remains his best-selling (and arguably best) album, but Rhapsodies is a successfully varied lot as well. Though he had employed vocalists on some of his earlier A&M albums (even Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record, another album reissued with liner notes by yours truly), for Rhapsodies, Wakeman stuck to his strengths: piano, organ and synthesizer. A crack band is on hand, and as often as not they play in what might be termed a disco fashion, but the results are not nearly as gruesome as that description might suggest. Flashes of humor are shot through the album, and save for an interesting misstep (a bizarre reading of Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue”), Rhapsodies is a highly recommended album. My liner notes contextualize the album and even sort of review the tracks therein.

Out next week is an album that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve written often about how the music of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley changed my life, serving as my adult gateway into jazz. (Audrey and I even had “Mercy Mercy Mercy” played at our wedding last year.) Adderley’s final project was also his most ambitious: a sprawling double LP that combined Broadway, blues, folk tale, avant/free jazz, funk and more. Big Man: The Legend of John Henry was met with mixed reviews upon its release shortly after Adderley’s untimely death. But it’s a fascinating album, with a modern-day allegory that (to my mind, anyway) spoke to the Black Power concerns of the early 1970s through the retelling of a Reconstruction-era folk tale about the “steel drivin’ man.” Famed actor Robert Guillaume (known to a generation as Benson, a core character on Soap and later a self-titled sitcom) got one of his first big gigs providing vocals for this album. And Mr. Guillaume consented to an interview with me, which formed the basis of my extensive liner notes. I also did the package design for the reissue (which includes the entire work’s libretto) and got my first (co-) producer’s credit on an album.

At present I’m writing liner notes for another upcoming reissue, Iron Butterfly‘s classic Ball LP, which will be out later in 2015. With luck, there will be other projects to tell you about in future days.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 3)

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Bill Kopp: So the actual sessions for Panorama City took place ten years ago?

Paul Lacques: Actually thirteen; we did these sessions in 2002. Y’know, we feel kinda bad. We did the sessions, and thought, “That was weird.” And then we went our separate ways. Then Marc went into mad scientist mode, and sent some mixes. But we didn’t know what to do with all of this. In a way, the mix that evolved over a decade into something that could be on a CD.

BK: I suppose it’s fair to say that the free-form approach you brought to the sessions was informed by everything you had heard and done before. And so now you’re thirteen years older. How do you think the sessions might have been different had you recorded them in 2015 instead of 2002?

PL: That’s an excellent question. We all would have been in a million bands since, but I’ve go to say that I think it would be fairly similar. Maybe some more advanced concepts. Maybe different effects boxes that the guitar players are using.

But we’re pretty much who we are. The band is made up of some pretty strong personalities. I think it would have been fundamentally the same. Stew came out in the fall [2014], and we did a live show. We didn’t know the songs at all; we just played ‘em. It was kind of live renditions of song he knew but we didn’t! And it went really well. I think our love of the unknown is still intact. So I think the sessions would have turned out just as well if they had been done today, because we’re just as naïve and willing to try new things.

BK: Panorama City is an unusual project, to say the least. Do you think that the American Composers’ Forum got what they bargained for with the end result?

PL: They’re very cool. We lost touch with them over the years; there was a period when we were doing some pretty avant-garde music, and someone heard it and interpreted it as “modern classical!” [laughs] So we’re hanging with the Cal Arts serial, atonal musical academics with their banks of synthesizers. Some of the meetings were crazy. We’d do some song, us being this brash rock band. And I think half of them were offended.

But the people that ran it at the time – the L.A. chapter – were really pushing us and helping us. And they actually suggested that we write the grant. And it was very open-ended; that’s the thing about this forum. It’s made up of people whose main goal is to break the rules of what’s considered music. So I think they had no expectations. If anything, it might have turned out a little more reasonable sounding than they had expected. They might have been expecting white noise or an Ornette Coleman kind of chaos. But oddly enough, it didn’t turn out that way. It turned out far more structured than any of us had guessed. And to me, that’s the most surprising thing about the whole project: it sounds like pop music.

BK: I wonder if that’s because fundamentally, you have a popular music sensibility. So that even when you’re being experimental, the music is grounded in, for lack of a better word, accessibility.

PL: For sure. We all grew up playing Rolling Stones songs, blues, and country music. For Marcus Watkins and myself as guitarists, country and blues is sort of our first vocabulary. Our bass player Marc Doten was raised on more of a jazz band [foundation]. He can play classical piano. Same with Joe [Berardi, drummer]. They went to music school. And Marcus has developed very sophisticated skills over the years. I’m probably the least schooled at this point.

We all came up with a shared taste for what I guess could be called the experimental. But we come out of rock, for sure.

Thank you for appreciating what we’re doing. It’s not for the faint of heart!

Panorama City will be released on April 14, 2015 on 11 Foot Pole.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 2)

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: The press release that accompanies my copy of Panorama City also uses the phrase “group ESP” when describing the interaction among you and your fellow musicians. I chuckled when I read that, because while I understand what was meant – an unspoken communication among the musicians – the avant-garde music also reminded me of the kind of thing that came out on ESP-Disk: The Fugs, Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra, for example – all what one might term “outsider” music. Do you feel a kinship with those sort of exploratory artists?

Paul Lacques: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. And occasionally, the textures will sound a little…I’m not even sure what the category is. Experimental? The tonalities certainly go out on a limb, and that is how we approach our music. It’s not like, “Oh, we accidentally played a major seventh over a minor sixth chord.” That is how we think as a band. We look for melodies that are kind of on the fringe of consonance. We look for memorable phrases, but they can be quite dissonant.

It sounds kind of like…I don’t expect people to believe it, but we did start reading each others’ mind. You’ll hear the band switch on a dime. And hearing it now, I truly don’t know how we decided to change keys or chords, but we did. We weren’t looking at each other and signaling; we just felt it.

One of the things we’ve done is to make all of the raw tracks available. So you can hear it as it was played. We really hope people check that out, because you can hear the changes happening without any cues. It was an interesting experience, for sure.

BK: As we’ve touched upon, Stew recited his more-or-less free-form lyrics live while you played. Did the cadence of his lyrics affect the organic direction that the music took, or did you more or less tune it out while you were playing?

PL: We were very much listening. We could hear each other really well; we were gathered in a fairly tight circle, and Stew was in a vocal booth. (He also played a lot of guitar, keys, and melodica.) He was very much “in the room” with us. We were definitely supporting what he was doing, and responding to it.

Our approach was sort of, “We’ve got this recording date with this singer/songwriter Stew, and we’re pretending like we have charts to play.” Like a good Wrecking Crew or backing band, yeah. You support the lyrics, once they’re in.

BK: The difference being that in your case, it was done on the fly, spontaneously…

PL: A good studio band…you know, there’s that movie about The Wrecking Crew coming out. They played on hundreds of hits, and they were making licks up on the spot, too. They didn’t have two days to work on a song; they were expected to crank out at least one song in a couple of hours. If they were hot, they’d do a couple of songs. They made guitar licks and so forth up on the spot; that’s what they were hired to do.

And that was part of the model for us, too: “First thought, best thought.”

BK: So said Allen Ginsberg

PL: Yeah.

My personal mission is to steer people toward the long versions, so they can hear them as they were played. If they like the CD, they should explore the extended versions. Rather than imitating conventional music, this is what we did.

BK: The album clocks in under an hour, and it’s tightly edited. That is the exact opposite of what you started with once the sessions were over. But the extended tracks version you mention clocks in over four hours. Would you say that the album represents the “best” of the sessions, or is it just one perspective on them?

PL: I’ve got to lean toward the idea that it was just one distillation. If someone else had edited it, it would have come out completely different. And the tracks on their own – the seventeen-minute versions – I find them just as listenable, if slightly more dramatic. We left a lot of good solos out, some amazing bass and drum stuff. It’s just not there, because when you start with seventeen minutes, you’ve got to make some brutal choices.

So rather than a best-of, it’s one angle, one pathway into the swamp. And I think Marc did a fantastic job. Someone else could have carved a completely different path, and it would sound much different.

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On the Fringe of Consonance: Double Naught Spy Car + Stew (Part 1)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

The members of Double Naught Spy Car don’t seem put off by the genre labels that (cough, cough) certain rock writers tend to apply to musical artists. In fact they’ve offered up a label of their own to describe their sound: “spaghetti/jazz/prog/surf/twang.” Now, if that doesn’t confuse listeners, their music just might. On their latest album Panorama City, the southern California quintet are joined by singer/lyricist Stew, formerly of equally-though-differently-quirky group The Negro Problem.

The project that gave rise to Panorama City started its life more than a decade ago, the product of a grant from the American Composers’ Forum. The resulting tapes languished for years, but now they’re available in both edited album form and in their raw, largely unaltered state.

I spoke with guitarist Paul Lacques about the development of the grant-financed sessions into a finished product that is decidedly avant-garde, yet somehow still accessible. And I’m also pleased to present a Musoscribe World Premiere in advance of Panorama City‘s April 14 release: the track “Bumpin’ Morton Subotnick” (see link below).

Bill Kopp: The nature of improvisation is that you free yourself from preconceptions as to where you’re going with the music. I understand that’s how a lot of late ’60s and early ’70s Miles Davis sessions were done. But then Teo Macero and Miles would splice, chop, edit, and reassemble the results into something they liked. Frank Zappa did something conceptually related: he’d take tapes of his live guitar solos, extract them from the multitracks and then craft new studio backing around them. To what extent did you engage in post-recording “sculpting” of these tracks?

Paul Lacques: Our bass player Marc Doten did the lion’s share of it. For example, if we had a seventeen-minute song, we needed to trim it down to four and a half minutes or so, maybe six minutes. So eleven minutes vanish right there. I think he moved a few things around, but the general flow is somewhat how we played it, but with big sections chopped out.

I think, as we were doing it, we had in our minds, “Maybe we’ll chop this up someday.” I don’t know; it really was leaping into the unknown when we started doing it. We didn’t really even talk about it. We just wrote this grant [proposal], promising to make songs up on the spot. Those were sort of broad instructions. But we actually did do it; one of us would just start playing, and the others would just fall in. The rule of improv is that you don’t leave your partner hanging.

So we did that. Somebody starts with a crazy drum or guitar lick, and we would literally follow along, thinking, “Oh, that’s how the song goes, okay? Well, then my part should go like this…” And then Stew would come in – sometimes right away, sometimes he’d wait five minutes – with some lyrics he had scrawled that morning or the day before. He’d go looking through his notebook for something that might match the groove. And then when it started sounding like music, he’d start singing. There were literally no second takes.

But to get back to your question about shifting order, it’s about 75% in the order we played it, with sections moved around.

BK: So did you do things like pulling the fader down on one of the guitars, taking things out of the mix?

PL: Oh, yeah. Sure. And you can hear it, where one guitar is very low in the mix. Because we didn’t have isolation, you’ll still hear it a little bit, but we definitely did some post-recording arranging with faders. There was a fair amount of manipulation done to the original tracks.

BK: I couldn’t help but notice that the press release that accompanied Panorama City seemed to go out of its way not to mention Captain Beefheart. Within my musical frame of reference, the music of Beefheart is the closest thing to what you’re doing on this album. Do you consider him an influence, and if so, in what ways?

PL: I agree. “Beefheartian” is the number one adjective that I would use. But the process we used was the opposite of what Beefheart did. I think he basically had a slave shop going, where he’d make his players learn his crazy parts absolutely verbatim. And they’d rehearse them until people were ready to run out of the desert shack and take their chances.

But that was very much the opposite of what we did. Still, it does sound like some Captain Beefheart stuff. Especially the guitars; there’s some really angular guitar playing and tone.

We were heavily influenced by Beefheart when we were growing up; all five of us. So I would embrace that influence, certainly. And I do hear the similarity in sound, sometimes.

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Album Review: The Residents’ Commercial Album

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Ex-Turtles and Mothers vocalists Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) used to have a nationally-syndicated radio show. One recurring component of the merry duo’s program involved spinning records by some of their musical peers. The thing is, they wouldn’t play anywhere near the whole song: after they felt like they had given listeners the gist of a song, off it went.

The thinking behind that practice was simple: once you’ve heard a minute or so of a pop song, you’ve pretty well heard everything it has to offer. The rest is repetition. This is true (perhaps to an alarming extent) for most pop, rock, blues, country, soul, funk, and r&b. In fact I apply that thinking whenever I’m doing one of my periodic “smash or trash” exercises to determine which submissions get reviewed. (Because of the complexity and shifting tone that are hallmarks of jazz and progressive rock, music of those genres gets a more thorough once-over).

But I didn’t invent the idea, and as much as I love Flo and Eddie, they didn’t come up with it, either. Neither, perhaps, did The Residents, but they may well have been the first musical artists to explore the idea in depth and then craft an entire album by applying its principles.

That’s the underlying premise/concept of the group’s 1980 album The Residents’ Commercial Album. Certainly not commercial in the most popular definition (as in, accessible and lending itself to mass marketing), the Commercial Album takes its name from the fact that each of its forty tracks are exactly sixty seconds long…like a television commercial.

Across forty tracks, The inscrutable collective that is The Residents explore the pop landscape from their skewed perspective. But in its own twisted way, Commercial Album is – by Residential standards – fairly accessible stuff. Stripping their compositions down to the most basic elements, The Residents still endeavor to give listeners what (in other contexts) would be considered a verse and chorus. Often the vocals are delivered in the peculiar sung-spoken style that is the group’s trademark, but other times there’s actual singing (sometimes by guest artists including Lene Lovich and Snakefinger, both of whom have more, um, accessible vocal tones).

The instrumentation on Commercial Album‘s tracks varies from exceedingly minimalist (say, one synthesizer and a drum machine) to fully-developed “band” type arrangements that feature multiple musicians (or at least multiple overdubbed instrument parts). Occasionally, the tunes fall into a samey-ness of meter, but then – knowing The Residents – that characteristic may be a way for the group to wordlessly comment on the generic nature of much of what passes for pop music.

There are some catchy tunes here, as well. The first two cuts (“Easter Woman” and “Perfect Love”) are nothing if not pop-leaning in their construction and delivery (note that when it comes to matters of accessibility, The Residents are graded on a curve). It’s worth noting just how far The Residents traveled musically between their debut album Meet the Residents (recorded 1974, but not widely released until 1977) and Commercial Album just a few years later. For pop-attuned ears, Commercial Album is far easier to take than the group’s first disc. But the changes/refinements The Residents made to their music in the interim didn’t dilute their vision a bit: Commercial Album is as weird and wonderful as ever.

It’s also worth pointing out just how difficult it is to create forty distinct songs that are all exactly the same length. Some groups have almost achieved that kind of thing by accident (see The Ramones‘ early catalog for evidence) but doing it on purpose is some sort of accomplishment in and of itself.

That The Residents’ Commercial Album is listenable and entertaining start to finish is a testament to the group’s quality of vision. The 2014 CD reissue of the album by MVD doesn’t offer anything new in the way of bonus tracks (a 1988 reissue had ten) or liner notes(!), but then The Residents’ Commercial Album has always been just fine the way it is.

By the way, four more of my Residents reviews (and an interview!) are HERE.

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Best of 2014: Concerts

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

One of the many pleasures associated with living in the small mountain city of Asheville NC is access to great live music. I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Atlanta, where going to a concert often meant traveling to a sports arena, and watching the tiny performers from the nosebleed seats (where you’d get a “contact high” from the pot smoke).

Here in Asheville, I go to shows that have anywhere from a few dozen to just over a thousand people in the audience, and the bands are up close and personal (especially when I have a photo pass). Because my town is such a go-to destination for touring acts, I get the pleasure of seeing high profile performances in small venues. That just wouldn’t happen in other cities.

I go to a lot of shows here in town. That said, I travel to regional festivals fairly often as well. Looking back on 2014 – an especially eventful year for me all ’round – three of my four favorite concert events were festivals.

Big Ears
Designed as a relatively small-scale festival with a decided emphasis on the edgy, this Knoxville TN festival presented a long list of fascinating acts, few of whom do the festival circuit as a rule. The scale of the event meant that it felt almost like a series of house concerts. Highlights included Marc Ribot, David Greenberger, Steve Reich, Television, Dean Wareham, Rachel Grimes, and Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood.

Moogfest
This one’s a sentimental favorite: it takes place in my hometown; it honors the late, great Robert A. Moog (a man whom I was lucky enough to meet a number of times), and it features some great music. Without a doubt the highlight of 2014′s Moogfest for me was meeting and interviewing Keith Emerson, but the three-day event (all within walking distance of my home) was packed with memorable experiences.

Musical Box
For me, Genesis lost their magic not long after the departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. This Canadian tribute group recreates said magic in a most authentic fashion, both visually and aurally. It’s a total experience, and from the packed house at The Orange Peel that night, I’d say that classic 70s progressive rock still has a significant following.

Transfigurations
In celebration of ten years of success, Asheville’s Harvest Records staged a festival that leaned toward the delightfully eclectic. For me the highlights were Quilt (modern psych), The Clean (Antipodean janglepop), Reigning Sound (garage rock), and Lee Fields & the Expressions (soul). Transfigurations featured all of the best things about a festival, and none of the negatives.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t make note of the Zombies show here in Asheville as well. Four decades on, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (and their bandmates) have still got it.

More 2014 best-ofs to come.

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 3

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

Today’s four feature music from acts based in Europe or southeast Asia.


Three Minute Tease – Bite the Hand
A few years ago, American expatriate Anton Barbeau relocated to Germany, and then he commandeered Robyn Hitchcock‘s old band mates Andy Metcalfe (bass) and Morris Windsor (drums); the resulting trio serves up some fine dark-hued powerpop. On their latest, Bite the Hand, they’re joined (on vocals) by wonderful husband-and-wife team Khoi Hunyh and Karla Kane from The Corner Laughers, and on one track, the legendary and still-active Keith Allison (Paul Revere and the Raiders) on guitar. But it’s Barbeau’s voice songs at the center of it all, from the anthemic opener of “Bravely Fade Away” right through to the end.


Dewa Budjana – Surya Namaskar
Though Budjana’s Indonesian, listeners won’t hear much in the way of “world music” on this progressive/fusion outing. Featuring former Frank Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and sought-after session bassist Jimmy Johnson, this is a melodic trip through the instrumental progjazz world. The influence of John McLaughlin is one Budjana wears on his sleeve (and, as the gatefold photo shows, on his chest as well; I have the same t-shirt). The album occasionally sounds like mid 70s Jean-Luc Ponty sans violin. Stinging guitar runs and knotty bass figures atop crackling drums makes this electric outing a delight for fans of the genre.


The Group – The Feed-back
Here’s a very strange – and until now, extremely rare – album: an avant-garde noisefest featuring Ennio Morricone (yeah, the spaghetti western soundtrack composer). But this sounds nothing like the soundtrack from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This collective of composer/players officially bore the moniker Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, hence the shortened Il Gruppo (“The Group”). Sounding like a cross between Freak Out! Mothers, Can, and The United States of America, it’s a weird yet wonderful foray into the outer reaches. It’s also not miles away from the kind of thing you’d hear on Bitches Brew.

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