Archive for the ‘avant-garde’ Category

Album Review: Sun Ra — A Space Odyssey

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

As Kris Needs notes in his excellent and detailed liner notes for A Space Odyssey: From Birmingham to the Big Apple – The Quest Begins, Sun Ra was a practitioner of “garage jazz.”

Today (May 22 2014) would have been the 100th birthday of the man born Herman Blount, though once he rechristened himself Sun Ra he also claimed to be a visitor from outer space. And when he began releasing music under his own name (beginning with 1956′s “Saturn,” credited to Le Sun Ra & His Arkistra), many listeners would be inclined to agree. Sun Ra’s closest antecedent wold have been Thelonious Monk; both men shared a love of dissonance and odd meters. But where Monk worked on (acoustic) piano and generally within a small combo, Sun Ra often worked with large ensembles and – in later years – made full use of electronics. A staggeringly prolific artist, he released more than 100 albums, many of which are quite rare today. His influence is wide: Parliament/Funkadelic owe much to him both musically and in their visual approach, and in my interviews, some surprising artists – XTC‘s Andy Partridge and New Jersey powerpoppers The Grip Weeds – have expressed their deep admiration for his work.

The new 3CD set from Fantastic Voyage focuses on the earliest part of Sun Ra’s recorded career. The first disc (subtitled “Pre-flight”) kicks off with the aforementioned “Saturn” and then quickly moves on to a survey of the session work Blount/Sun Ra did for other artists (plus some early solo/Arkistra sides). The earliest track dates from 1933, with the pianist as part of Clarence Williams & His Orchestra on the Sun Ra original “Chocolate Avenue.”

Most r&b fans will be surprised to learn that Sun Ra played on a number of tracks by well-known artists of that era: Wynonie Harris and Red Saunders’ Orchestra are just two of these. The “Pre-flight disc is packed with 28 tracks overall, about a third of which are Arkistra tracks from the tail-end of the 1950s.

Disc Two (“Lift-off”) features seventeen tracks, all Sun Ra originals, and all credited to various aggregations of his. He changes the spelling of Arkistra to Arkestra, sometimes appending the prefix “His” or “The” and other times adding “Solar” before “Arkestra.” But it’s the music that matters. Whacked-out big band music that surely seemed bizarre then (these tracks are assorted randomly from the period 1956-1968), and while they feel a bit more melodic in the context of the 21st century, they’re still pretty out-there. “Sunology” from 1957′s Super Sonic Jazz is a relatively straightforward number, but some electric piano takes it outside the safe zone. The electric piano runs on “Springtime in Chicago” seem processed somehow, perhaps through a ring modulator. But that’s a nonsensical observation: ring modulators weren’t available in 1956. Nonetheless, Sun Ra did some sort of processing – however primitive – to alter the tone of the instrument. “Sun Song” from 1957 features some otherworldly percussion, slightly off-kilter piano glissandi and weird, gurgling Hammond organ, all (perversely) applied to a relatively accessible melody. The brief solo piece “Advice to the Medics” is built around Sun Ra’s electric piano work, again with a strange, likely intentionally overdriven tone.

All of which leads to an important point. Long before the phrase DIY became a watchword in music, Sun Ra was doing it himself. Most of his recordings are relatively low-budget affairs, many released on his own El Saturn label. It’s unlikely that a relatively straight label such as Riverside or Blue Note would have wanted to release the seemingly unending stream of weirdo jazz that Sun Ra & His Arkestra churned out. And long before the era of the “merch table,” El Saturn releases were normally pressed in exceedingly small quantities (often less than a hundred copies) and sold at live Arkestra shows.

Despite its subtitle, disc three (“Future Shock”) isn’t all that weird, at least not in its first half. Fifteen tracks focusing tightly in on the period 1958-1961 (a time during which he released eleven albums!), these actually represent a sampling of the most accessible music Sun Ra produced. In some ways, Sun Ra’s music here has hints of exotica practitioners Esquivel and Martin Denny, albeit filtered through a jazz/r&b sensibility neither of those men possessed to any great degree. Even a straightforward blues arrangement on “Great Balls of Fire” (decidedly not the Jerry Lee Lewis standard from a year earlier) has atonal horn bursts peppered throughout its run time. “Velvet” is a big band number led by Sun Ra’s Monk-like piano runs; it swings hard and gives solo time to members of the Arkestra. Many of the tracks here are built upon a blues foundation, and seem designed for dancing. “Blues at Midnight” does engage in some thrilling bass and saxophone runs that lean toward hard bop, and “Ancient Aiethopia” is cinematic in its scope. “Space Loneliness” (a single from 1960) is evocative of its title, and features some excellent, dissonant piano soloing from Sun Ra. The disc tosses in a doo-wop oddity: “Teenager’s Letter of Promises” from 1959 by Juanita Rogers & Lynn Hollings backed by Sun Ra’s Arkestra masquerading as Mr. V’s Five Joys. It’s otherworldly and banal all at once, and has to be heard to be believed.

“Bassism” is just what its title suggests: a tune built around upright bass. But fluttering flutes and skittering piano take it in an uncharted direction. The Arkestra continues on its trajectory spaceward with 1961′s “Where is Tomorrow” and follows with three more tasty, edgy cuts from that year’s album The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra. The percussion-centric “The Beginning” feels like what Edgard Varèse might have done had he been backed with the Arkestra. The set wraps with 1961′s “Message to Earthman,” on which the Arkestra is led by a speaking (and shouting! And wailing!) Sun Ra, declaiming his intergalactic message.

Since the subtitle of this 3CD’s set includes the phrase “The Quest Begins,” one can only hope that Fantastic Voyage will grace modern music listeners with another Kris Needs-curated collection of Sun Ra music in the near future.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 3 (Part Two)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

The final set of performances we took in at Big Ears 2014 were all centered around the work of minimalist composer Steve Reich. It was all deeply thrilling, visceral, emotional stuff, the kind of thing that’s quite difficult to put into words. It might sounds like a cop-out to say so, but this is music that must be experienced live. I had never heard most of it in recorded form, so I claim no point of reference. But it was stunning and beautiful in ways I find myself unable to articulate. So instead I offer some photos. They don’t quite get at it either, but they’re cool nonetheless. If you find my writing about music at all resonating with you, just trust me when I tell you that this music was amazing. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead solo, then a couple other Reich pieces by Ensemble Signal.




I don’t consider the word “commercial” a pejorative term, but neither do I consider it an essential component of worthwhile music. Big Ears 2014 was for the most part far, far, far from commercial, but I sincerely hope that the organizers made their earnings goals. Because as festivals go, Big Ears 2014 was well-run, incredibly thoughtful in terms of artist selection, and user-friendly in the extreme. An unqualified success. I truly hope they schedule another one soon, and if they do, I’ll make every effort to cover it.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 2 (Part 1)

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Marc Ribot (Again)
The second day of Big Ears 2014 kicked off with a most unusual event: Marc Ribot seated in total darkness, armed with only a classical acoustic guitar. Above him on the Bijou stage was a projection screen, upon which was shown Charlie Chaplin‘s 1921 silent film, The Kid. Ribot’s charge was to create a real-time audio accompaniment for the film. This he did with amazing skill.

In fact, while this was ostensibly a Ribot solo gig, in fact the guitarist’s presence meshed so seamlessly with the film that it seemed almost not to exist on its own. His highly expressive guitar lines fit so perfectly with the onscreen images – alternately conveying, joy, menace, whimsy, pathos and the other sensations that encompass the human experience – that one could easily forget about them and simply enjoy the movie.

Which is exactly what the packed house did. Fro the entire film’s run time (approximately an hour), the audience, laughed, gasped and otherwise sat enthralled with the antics portrayed by Chaplin and his seven-year old sidekick Jackie Coogan (known best to my generation as The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester). Ribot’s real-time score was so perfectly integrated that one could have been forgiven for thinking it has been pre-recorded. As it was, the solo performance was a tour de force, one not likely to be bettered.

David Greenberger
Greenberger and I have been Facebook friends for years, but as a byproduct of his status postings there, I know of him primarily as a writer and visual artist. So when I learned that he’d be doing a sort of spoken-word piece at Big Ears, I knew I’d have to catch the performance.

It was a thrill. In the intimate setting of the Square Room, Greenberger took the stage accompanied by a lively and expressive upright bassist (Evan Lipson), nimble and nuanced drummer/percussionist Bob Stagner, and Amanda Rose Cagle, a multi- instrumentalist who played piano, melodica, accordion, electric guitar, percussion and Theremin (and that’s only a partial list).

The premise was rather straightforward, on paper at least: Greenberger read a number of shortish pieces (“a dozen and a half or so,” he told us), all monologues by characters based on conversations he’s had with residents of nursing homes. These raged from barely-lucid ramblings to bitter tirades to bizarre, Dada-ish rants that made little or no sense in any context. And they were unfailingly entertaining.

The musical backing was as varied as Cagle’s instrumental arsenal. Always well-suited for the monologue at hand, the trio provided deep tone color backdrops to Greenberger’s monologues. Initially I thought the trio was improvising; it quickly became apparent that they were instead working from a highly structured – although often seemingly abstract – plan. The only pop-culture equivalent I can think of to describe Greenberger’s performance (with the trio dubbed And Prime Lens — an anagram of their mutual friend, collaborator and guiding light, the recently-deceased Dennis Palmer) is the word-jazz work of Ken Nordine. While Greenberger’s delivery is less stylized than Nordine’s, it’s every bit as enthralling.

Dawn of MIDI
The festival guide’s preview of this trio painted an intriguing picture: a lineup that essentially follows the classic jazz trio format (piano, bass, drums) plays a highly repetitive, minimalistic totally acoustic kind of music that evokes the sound and feel of early synthesizer music ad/or motorik. The truth was, I suppose, quite close to that description, but my reaction to it was unexpected.

As my sweetheart and I arrived at the darkened confines of the Bijou, we could barely see our hands in front of our faces as we crawled around looking for seats. Once we found those seats, we sat down and I snapped a few photos. The next thing I recall took place approximately thirty minutes later, when I was awoken by my sweetie’s whispered words: “I have two words for you: water torture.” While the insistently repetitive music had almost immediately lulled me to slumber, it had given my partner a headache. Looking around into the darkness, I saw that several nearby fellow concertgoers were also splayed out in their seats, fast asleep. One guy, however, was physically gyrating his torso and head in (attempted) time with the music. Go figure.

My coverage of the second day of Big Ears 2014 will continue.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Festival Review: Big Ears 2014, Day 1

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Dean Wareham
We arrived in Knoxville in plenty of time to grab front-row seats in the beautiful Tennessee Theatre. It certainly helped that attendance for Wareham’s set was light (the venue filled in pretty well as the performance got under way). A relatively low-key performance free of any sort of visual effects, Wareham’s set included songs form his new (and first) solo album, titled Dean Wareham (“I couldn’t think of anything else to call it,” he deadpanned).

The set also included some numbers from his Luna and Galaxie 500 days; the crowd helped the relatively uninformed among us (myself included) know when one of these was beginning by helpfully applauding a bar or two into the tunes. Wareham’s spouse and musical collaborator Britta Phillips held down a nimble bottom end on her p-bass, while the second lead guitarist added plenty of tone color via understated but highly effective lines on his SG, and some lovely slide work.

Wareham’s tunes hit the sweet spot between indie-rock and catchy, hooky pop, providing a surprisingly accessible opener for what I had assumed would be a rather avant garde festival.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog
That assumption was confirmed, however, with the second set we witnessed this evening. At the Bijou (conveniently located mere steps form the Tennessee Theatre; Big Ears is nothing if not an intelligently laid out festival), thanks in part to the later start time, a relatively larger (adjusted for venue size) crowd turned up.

In general, I often equate seated musicians with low energy, laconic performances (see: Grateful Dead, 1987). But Ribot and his band mates – drummer Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily on bass, percussion and electronics – put the lie to that assumption. Tearing through a set of mostly original material, the trio served up what will stand in my memory as one of the most musically unclassifiable performances I’ve ever witnessed. There was punk-skronk, avant-jazz, and even a sort of weird rethink of heavy 70s rock done in some bizarre time signature that would threaten to break the ankle of anyone who dared try to tap their foot along in time.

While Ribot’s original material was fascinating – especially his acerbic “Masters of the Internet” – for me the highlight was a heavily rearranged take of Dave Brubeck‘s “Take Five.” The basic structure of the tune was there, but the band headed off into myriad exploratory directions, making the chestnut truly their own.

Most assuredly not the easiest of listening, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog brought together the experimental and accessible in a way that was at least intriguing, and at best thrilling.

Susanna
The Norwegian thrush is possessed of a crystalline voice and stately, regal manner. Seated at her grand piano on the dimly lit stage of the Tennessee Theatre, she delivered her icy-cool yet emotionally wrought songs with the subtle aid of a drummer who as often as not played mallets and provided splashes of percussive color rather than a beat) and a guitarist who was equal parts understatement and finesse.

Susanna’s songs conjured strong images in my imagination: cold, grey, desolate landscapes that are somehow beautiful in their own way…that kind of thing. Her songs about death and whatnot are designed to produce just such a reaction, I suspect. Early on in her set, Susanna explained to the crowd that “I am Susanna, and,” gesturing to her bandmates, “we are Susanna.” She further explained that she has released many albums in the last decade, under her own name and other guises as well, and that she has something of a reputation for doing unusual covers (reinterpretations is a better word) of other artists’ material.

She proved this last point by performing an elegaic rendering of Thin Lizzy‘s “Jailbreak.” Slowed to the breaking point, and punctuated with simple yet lovely piano melodic lines, she offered a wholly original concept of the hard rock classic.

More Big Ears 2014 coverage throughout the next several days.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Book Review: Lunar Notes

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Lunar Notes is not a Great Book, nor do the requisite few hours spent with it reveal anything that suggests the author’s intention that it be so. What it is is a look into one man’s experiences as a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band during their most musically fertile period.

In this slim and fitfully revealing volume, Bill Harkleroad – re-christened, as were most Magic Band members, with a new moniker, in his case Zoot Horn Rollo – tells the story of his joining, being in, and eventually leaving Beefheart’s employ. Zoot Horn Rollo was named by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time (#62).

Beefheart (born and sometimes known as Don Van Vliet) was a man who defined idiosyncratic, and contemporary reports strongly suggest that he was a demanding, sometimes vicious taskmaster, often engaging in emotional manipulation to get what he wanted out of his musicians. Harkleroad/Rollo’s account is very much in line with this view, though he does seem to hold back on revealing (or finds himself unable to reveal) what one assumes are even more lurid anecdotes. The reader comes away with the impression that Rollo and his bandmates all fell victim – to varying degrees – to some sort of musical Stockholm Syndrome. Throughout Lunar Notes, Rollo re-asks the why-didn’t-I-just-leave-then question, and his answer may or may not satisfy readers. He didn’t make any money and received little in the way of compositional or creative credit. But simply put, from his standpoint, the music made staying worth it.

Rollo takes the reader through the recording processes that created such revered works as Trout Mask Replica ( a classic, but one of the most “difficult” albums one can imagine) and Clear Spot, explaining the circumstances under which the music was created. Beefheart is portrayed throughout as a man of considerable talents, almost none of which were conventional. He is not shown to have had any fixed ability on any musical instrument save harp (harmonica); his compositional approach through this period often consisted of whistling parts to a band member whose job it would then be to transfer that semi-abstract aural concept into musical notation. Zoot Horn Rollo’s role was originally as The Magic Band’s guitarist, though as time progressed, he fell into this added transcriptionist role.

Beefheart – as Rollo draws him – seemed almost wholly free of the constraints that pop music might apply upon a musician: the songs were often in three different keys at once, and in two or three different time signatures. How that worked in practice cannot effectively be described in words, though Rollo/Harkleroad gamely tries. Though the author does a fine job of explaining things in a manner that doesn’t require deep musicological background, it’s absolutely necessary to have some familiarity with the actual music for much of the book to mean much of anything.

Of course, for the adventurous listener, time spent with any of Beefheart’s albums from Safe as Milk through Clear Spot is time well spent, so making a listen to those a requirement of enjoying Lunar Notes isn’t unreasonable. But to those who don’t appreciate Beefheart’s music, Lunar Notes will be of limited interest.

But, I should add, there are gems here, even for the non-Beefheart fan. Zoot Horn Rollo tells stories –albeit brief ones – of interacting with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, a number of jazz greats including Ornette Coleman, and – no surprise here — Frank Zappa. In fact most of the players who came and went through Beefheart’s orbit had some connection to Zappa; many played in his bands before, during or after their stints in the Magic Band. And that says something about those musicians’ ability and flexibility, because the working methods of Zappa and Beefheart were quite different. Though both were notoriously difficult taskmasters, Zappa brought a musically sophisticated approach to songwriting and arranging; Beefheart, on the other hand, was almost a savant. His method of arranging seems to have involved forcing the musicians to keep playing a song – sometime for hours on end, in rehearsals over a course of many months – until he liked what he got out of them. This, as opposed to instructing or even suggesting what they should play.

Lunar Notes was cowritten by Billy James ( aka Ant-Bee), now an Asheville NC resident and respected associate of many progressive and avant garde musical personalities worldwide. The book was first published in the late 1990s, subsequently going out of print for many years. The 2013 reprinting features the original cover (complete with laughably hyperbolic blurb from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening) in a slightly different shade of purple, but is otherwise the same as the original book. No new content or updating has been added.

Judging by Lunar Notes, Zoot Horn Rollo is a man of solid if unexceptional storytelling abilities; reading Lunar Notes is the the equivalent of spending three or four hours with a really good musician who has some interesting stories to tell, but who doesn’t bring the insight of an actual writer to bear upon the story. Yet owing to the dearth of written material on Beefheart, that’s still enough to make Lunar Notes worth reading for anyone with an interest in the music of Captain Beefheart.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Album Review: The Residents — Mush-room

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Though clearly not the only path, a common direction for a recording artist to follow is this: record and release accessible works, and then – as a loyal fan base is established – develop more challenging, esoteric works. The thinking is that the fans will follow.

But there’s never been anything conventional about The Residents, so – to the degree one can expect anything from them – they can be relied upon to chart their own journey. And so they have: while Meet the Residents was near about as inaccessible, amelodic a debut as has ever been committed to recording medium, over the group’s multi-decade career, they have (again with exceptions) moved in a more accessible direction.

Or maybe music in general has simply caught up with them. On their latest, Mush-room, The Residents display a melodic, cinematic quality that has been a hallmark of some of their work since around the time of The River of Crime (2006) and even earlier. Developed as the soundtrack for a dance performance by Grace Ellen Barkey & Needcompany, the eleven-track Mush-room draws upon sounds and textures from Angelo Badalamenti and others. But the album is decidedly, er, Residential in its foreboding, otherworldly tone.

Yes, the music – largely instrumental – is “dreamy.” But only if one’s dreams are more like nightmares. Mush-room sounds and feels like the impressionistic soundtrack to a deeply disturbing dream. Unlike early Residents albums, the instrumentation is relatively straightforward: many synthesizers are employed, to be sure, but more traditional and acoustic instruments figure into the mix. An early 80s-sounding synth melody forms the basis of the central part of “Musical Chairs in ¾,” and the ghostly percussion and string backing is adorned by some slowed-down singing that is, of course, creepy and unsettling.

“Sticks and Logs” employs an almost pop-classical approach: a yearning violin is accompanied by a lovely – and quite melodic – backing of synths and a relatively straightforward beat. Some stabs of brass add that doomy quality which is so often an ingredient of Residents compositions. Like many of the tracks on Mush-room, it’s an essentially accessible tune with elements thrown in to keep the listener off-center.

“Dung Beetles at Work” employs skittering sequences, koto (or a koto setting on a synth) and feels a good bit like the music on those 1990s Mind’s Eye audiovisual works. The insistent beat likely lends itself quite well to choreography, which is, after all, the goal of this music.

The drawing room piano textures the introduce “Broken Brake” evoke images of ballet dancers, and then the track shifts into a soundtrack-y feel. Relatively conventional wordless vocals actually add to the melodic quotient.

“Yellow Marrow” is as spooky and foreboding as its title suggests. A low hum – not quite feedback – persists throughout the entire track, as otherworldly vocalisms and sounds float in and out of the mix. The track is mysterious and disorienting, suggesting a hall of mirrors or creepy carnival “fun house.” The first side of the record (yes, Mush-room is available on vinyl) ends with “When the Wealthy Were Wise,” a fiddle-led track that strongly evokes mental images of northern Africa.

Harpsichord opens “Song for Grace,” the album’s most spaghetti-western styled track, and its most musically straightforward. It recalls some of the work that French outfit Mellow created for the soundtrack of Roman Coppola‘s 2001 film CQ.

Yawning cellos and plinking acoustic sounds (almost assuredly courtesy of a sampling device) make up the spooky, evocative “Between a Rock and a Hard Space.” Synthetics – Moogy bass lines and canned percussion – are used to good effect for the buzzing, clattering “The Birth of Mush Room.” The piano stabs in the tune suggest something major would be happening onstage, but of course without a video, listeners are left with their imagination to fill in the blanks. A vaguely Occidental vibe pervades the track, which also includes some orchestral passages (or mock orchestral, or ersatz-orchestral; one can never tell with The Residents). Other sections of the suite-like track include male vocalisms that again recall the music of northern African nations such as Mali. Near its end, the track evolves/devolves into a cut-up noisefest reminiscent of “Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life.”

“The Dream I Almost Remember” folds in bits of what sounds like film soundtrack music of the 1930s, modern synthesizer, samplers, crashing percussion and more found sounds.

A sweeping string section introduces “Only Room for One More Mush,” the album’s closing track. It’s among the most “normal” and conventional piece of music on Mush-room, but the breaks that punctuate it classify it as soundtrack music. The track shows – if we needed reminding – that if The Residents wanted to make only commercially-accessible music, they could easily do so.

Mush-room is positioned, then, at the commercial end of the spectrum that is the Residents catalog, but those unfamiliar with said catalog should note that “commercial” is used on a sliding scale here. While Mush-room won’t scare (all) your guests away, it certainly ain’t pop. Nor does it wish to be.

The album’s packaging gives away little about the overall production; other than a couple of photos that suggest it’s both beautiful and grotesque, we know little about what the Mush-room stage presentation might be like. Any other approach, of course, would be inconsistent with what we’ve come to expect from the originators of the Theory of Obscurity.

You may also enjoy more Residents coverage on Musoscribe.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

DVD Review: Going Underground

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Sir Paul McCartney had no role in the making of Going Underground: Paul McCartney, the Beatles and the UK Counter Culture. But to the extent he even knows about it, he must surely approve. As he might say, he’s probably “well chuffed” about it. Extending to feature film length the argument that official Macca biographer Barry Miles (that’s just plain Miles to you and me) made in his 1997 tome Many Years From Now, in the mid 1960s, McCartney – not John Lennon – was the avant-garde Beatle.

The team of docu-filmmakers that brought us Strange Fruit and a host of other thoughtful and well-made music documentaries has been at this game for several years, and they get measurably better at it eahch time. Going Underground may be the best yet, and none of their previous offerings is bad. In Going Underground, the filmmakers employ their standard procedure: talking-head clips of relevant personnel discussing the subject, good BBC-English style narration that avoids hyperbole, and as many audio clips as can be reasonably used.

The talking heads on this one are of special interest, chiefly because (a) several of them were actual participants in the London underground scene in the 1960s and (b) some of them have passed away since they did their interviews for this project, making Going Underground their final public comment on the subject.

Miles was proprietor of Better Books, co-founder of the Indica Gallery, and editor of International Times (for legal reasons referred to as IT). As such he was a linchpin of the underground scene, and – key to this film’s point of view – McCartney’s access point to that scene. So his contribution is crucial to an understanding of the art/poetry/music scene that thrived in mid 1960s London. But John Hopkins (aka “Hoppy”) and producer Joe Boyd were as important. And they’re here, too, weighing in at illuminating length about the scene.

Also on hand are Robert Wyatt and (now-deceased) Mick Farren, both of whom lend weight and humor to the discussion. Lesser-known but nearly as important figures of the underground scene are represented, as well: AMM, a musical collective who are often mentioned when the subject comes up, are nonetheless rarely explored in any detail. But in Going Underground, the avant-garde’s group’s music is excerpted, and drummer Eddie Prevost offers his recollections. For that alone, the film is worthwhile viewing. The knowledgeable contributions of music journalist Chris Ingham (who also composed and played the DVD’s backing score) and underground chronicler Jonathon Greene also add greatly to the discussion.

But there’s much more. Portraying McCarney not as some dilettante observer, but instead as a keen participant, Going Underground uses the Beatles bassist as a vehicle to chart the scene’s rise and fall. Key events are chronicled: the IT bust, the opening of UFO (pronounced in the British idiomatic way: “you-foe”) and the legendary 14 Hour Technicolor Dream. Events that led to the scene’s explosion are examined as well, in particular a poetry reading at Royal Albert Hall (featuring Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg) that woke the sleeping giant that was the London artsy subculture.

At two hours and change, Going Underground has the space to delve into the episodes and trends that were the hallmarks of the London-based movement. By focusing on musical acts such as AMM, Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine, but not ignoring the non-musical side of things, the film presents a fascinating portrait of this influential time-and-place. Highly recommended.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Photoblogging: Mountain Oasis 2013, Part Two

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Some images from the second night of Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville NC. All photos © Bill Kopp.

Photos from the first night are here. More Mountain Oasis coverage to come.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit: Recap Part 2

Friday, November 1st, 2013

On Saturday — the second of the festival’s three nights — I took in two shows of note. I had tentative plans to check out some other sets, but these two were so compelling, I stayed for the entirety of the performances.

Gary Numan
Music fans of a certain age – and perhaps other, younger ones – will recall the left-field Top 40 hit of 1980, Gary Numan’s “Cars.” With its gurgling and keening synths, its stiff beat, and its cold, dispassionate lead vocal, the tune (from his second LP, 1979′s The Pleasure Principle) was quite unlike most of what was played on pop radio, then as now. And while Numan had a back catalog even at that point (as member of the even lesser-known Tubeway Army), the unlikely success of “Cars” would yield the dubious dividend of labeling Numan as that most dreaded of all things, the one-hit wonder.

Clearly Numan himself never got a memo to that effect. Likely he never had major commercial breakthroughs as part of his plan anyway; his musical approach was too unique for such a thing. Instead, he soldiered on, and unlike other lesser-talented denizens of the new wave era, he never went away. Between 1980 and 2013, he’s released no fewer than thirty(!) albums.

And while – as is to be expected with a catalog so deep – those albums vary in quality, and none were major chart smashes, Numan has charted his singular musical path, proving that while “Cars” may have been a fluke, he’s no such thing.

Numan’s latest album is 2013′s Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), and it’s among his finest efforts. While detractors in the old days compared him to “Heroes”-era David Bowie, Gary Numan has never been about aping the style of others. And to those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, those who might have expected him to glide onto a stage filled with synthesizers and drum machines, Numan provided a welcome shock to the system.

Ably backed by a standard – yet industrial(!) strength – rock lineup (two guitars, bass, drums, and two keyboardists), Numan held the audience at Asheville’s Civic Center transfixed. Rocking much harder than anyone could have expected, he moved about the stage ominously yet without artifice; though he occasionally played bits of keyboard (and did a thing or two with an electric guitar), his role was largely to sing the songs and draw all of the attention. This he did well, performing several songs from the new album, plus a scattering of older material, stylistically updated just enough to blow away any nostalgia.

That said, the room came even more alive when the band launched into “Cars.” A group of concertgoers dressed as garden gnomes initiated a conga line through the crowd; their internally-lit pointy caps danced through the packed floor. This was perhaps the only time during which Numan and band commanded less than full attention, and they seemed pleased enough to continue.

Numan didn’t speak to the audience once during his set, preferring to let his music be the medium, and after a quick bow and wave he was gone. But those who witnessed the set – a rarity in the southeastern USA – won’t soon forget it.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
If Gary Numan wasn’t thrillingly downbeat enough for you, all you needed to do was stick around while the stage crews set up for the next act. Unlike nearly anything else in rock – and they’re not really rock at all, come to think of it – Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor can best be described as detached.

It’s not fair to judge them by the standards generally applied to rock acts; they don’t speak to the audience. There weren’t even microphones placed onstage in case one of the nine or so players wished to toss out a spontaneous “Hello, Asheville!” But then that wasn’t likely to have happened anyway. With a semicircle configuration of amplifiers – lots of ‘em – and chairs and stools for the players, it was clear from the outset that this would not be a set filled with visual pyrotechnics from the musicians.

No, as they began their set – initially just a violinist and upright bassist – their slowly-building compositions groaned into being, like an ocean liner being launched into the sea for its maiden voyage. The men and women of GY!BE use volume and dynamics as their tools rather than beat and melody. You won’t come away from a GY!BE show humming their tunes, nor is that the band’s goal. Instead they conjure a set of emotions (perhaps unique to each audience member) that includes horror, dread, joy, exhilaration.

Some players were seated on the floor, working pedals. Some were in chairs. They occasionally seemed to communicate among themselves via nods (or rare whispers) but for the most part, they wordlessly delivered their compositions, shrouded in darkness. Above them, a large screen depicted strange, disorienting and lo-fi images, but these were clearly carefully chosen to match the sounds that GY!BE were making onstage.

When they finished, they left the stage as they had entered it – one by one – and left their instruments droning and groaning behind them. As modern chamber music with more than a hint of influence from no-wave composer Glenn Branca, it was thrilling in its own way, and the audience’s reaction was appreciative yet muted. Anything else would have been incongruous.

If you missed it, coverage of night #1 is here.  And a bunch of photos from night #1 are here. More Mountain Oasis coverage to come.

 Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.

Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit: Recap Part 1

Monday, October 28th, 2013

My sweetheart and I enjoyed the first night of 2013 Mountain Oasis together; while I’d cover nights two and three on my own, this night we managed together to take in all or part of sets by five acts; here’s a rundown of the three most notable.

Half Japanese
We arrived at the Thomas Wolfe Amphitheater ahead of Half Japanese’s show start, and settled into seats a few rows back. But while sitting there waiting – and as the venue began, slowly, to fill – we decided that we’d move up to the balcony. The thinking was that since I’d be in the photo pit for the first three songs, I’d see the band up close for a bit, and then after that we’d prefer seats from which we could view the set more comfortably.

As it happened, the term “photo pit” would be a misnomer insofar as the Thomas Wolfe venue was concerned. Yes, there was a gated-off section up front, between the front rows of seats and the (covered) orchestra pit. But no, we shooters wouldn’t be allowed in it. I never did learn why.

But that was okay; from my vantage point I was still able to snap off some decent pics. The band’s focal point, as always, remains singer/guitarist Jad Fair. Wearing a candy-colored guitar (one that employs his, er, signature tuning), Fair led the band through bursts of songs that were unfailingly short, catchy and silly, all in turn. Half Japanese songs are a mixture of childlike wonder applied (at least sometimes) to adult subject matter.

Or, at least, teenage subject matter. Witness “Sex at Your Parents’ House” (originally on 1987′s Music to Strip By), a delightfully simple and representative ditty from the band’s set. Featuring few lyrics, and featuring them repeatedly, the song nonetheless gets its point across, and expresses a worldview that most of us have espoused, even if only for a brief time many years ago. Half Japanese’s sonic approach is solid: put Fair out front and let him sing his songs and call the tunes, and back him up with a tight, muscular band. One can’t help but think that this is what The Modern Lovers were supposed to sound like, but rarely did.

To cover a moment while a few offstage technical issues were addressed, Fair lit into an atonal “guitar solo” that was little more than random bashings upon his guitar. But y’know what? It was kinda fun. And who knew that Fair’s band – with its off-kilter musical approach centered around a front man with a musical skill set somewhere inside the triangle of nonexistent, savant-like and studiously unstudious – would turn out to be the most conventionally “normal” (and enjoyable) music we’d take in this evening.

Silver Apples
The next set would be wildly different. First of all, the venue was the relatively tiny Asheville Music Hall, a (save for a half dozen bar stools) standing-room-only club about four blocks from the Thomas Wolfe. In its previous incarnation, the space was StellaBlue, a dumpy, dingy dive with dodgy stage equipment, and vocal mics notorious for possessing a pungent odor best not described here. But StellaBlue often booked great music, and the much classier Asheville Music Hall seems to be doing the same.

The stage setup was, in one sense, quite simple. From the floor, Simeon Coxe‘s setup looked like nothing so much as a table with some stuff on it, and a mic stand. Ahead of his set, a few credentialed photographers actually jumped up on the stage to snap photos of Coxe’s rig from the business side. Eventually I did, too, but it was too dark to get anything of value.

Once Coxe took the stage, things lit up both visually and aurally. Simeon Coxe is – there’s no other way to say it – an older gentleman (he’s 75); and with his longish, thinning white hair and spectacles, he looks a bit like a professor. Or a mad scientist. And of course it’s the latter guise that best suits a man who creates music onstage on the fly, using no keyboards. A variety of oscillators and looping devices were the tools at Coxe’s disposal; he used them expertly to build sonic landscapes. There’s nothing especially melodic about what Coxe creates –it’s more about vibe and texture — but neither is it slavishly reliant on overbearing “beats” to the degree that so much modern synth music seems to be.

In fact the drum parts that audiences hear are sampled bits from Coxe’s late partner in Silver Apples, Danny Taylor (he passed away in 2005). While the duo’s groundbreaking self-titled debut album was released in 1968, they went on to release a number of albums well into the 21st century (with a brief respite of some 29 years in the middle). Coxe and his Taylor-in-a-can proved that the older crowd can still teach modern-day knob twiddlers a thing or six. Coxe’s library of modern psych projections suited his sounds quite well, too.

Sparks
This duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael seem to be the exception to fraternal discord in pop music; unlike the brothers Gallagher or Davies (to name but two), this pair seem to collaborate without disharmony. While they’ve enlisted the on- and offstage help of auxiliary musicians throughout their multi-decade career, at Mountain Oasis, it was just Russell on vocals (no instruments) and Ron on keyboards (no vocals). The duo cut an odd-duck profile onstage; minimal lighting – no fog or such things – and no additional visuals meant that audiences at the tony Diana Wortham Theater had two things to look at. Ron sat stonily at his 88-key machine (and rarely changed his settings from a sort of grand piano-plus-strings soundbank) while Russell emoted – often in soprano or falsetto – and strode in wide circles around the stage.

Their music can best be described as a sort of highly theatrical, stagey keys-and-vocal delivery, with more than a strong whiff of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in both compositional style and arrangement (they’re big in Germany). They did manage to contain themselves in the face of persistent difficulty with their in-ear monitors; several times during their set, both men left the stage briefly, presumably to insist upon correction of the problems. From all available evidence, in the end they simply made do with the substandard monitor mix. But as one audience member called out to them in response to Russell’s explanation, the house mix sounded fine.

The evening’s most memorable number – like it or not – was “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?” a repetitive tune (“Practice! Practice!”) that originally appeared on Sparks’ 2002 album Li’l Beethoven. Some listeners find them zany; I’m not sure that word quite gets at their essence. Doubtless an acquired taste, Sparks remained a must-see if only because they’ve never once before performed in North Carolina in the years since they began some 43 years ago.

More Mountain Oasis coverage to come, including lots of photos.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.