Archive for the ‘avant-garde’ Category

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.

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.

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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Album Review: Magma — Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï / Live 1974

Monday, August 4th, 2014

To some – okay, to most – the idea of a progressive jazz-rock group performing music in an obscure language of their own making might seem, laughable, pretentious, or…laughably pretentious. But science fiction based concepts weren’t all that unusual for bands of the 1970s, especially European prog outfits. So if one can set aside reservations about the lyrical approach, then the music retains its potential to impress on its own merits.

It’s relatively easy to take this more open-minded approach when it comes to a band such as Magma, because that group – founded in 1969 by Christian Vander – probably would have sung in French, which you probably don’t speak any more than you do Kobaian. So for Anglophones, the music of bands like Grobschnitt (and, to a lesser extent, Gong) and Magma can be judged from a musical standpoint, which makes more sense anyway.

Magma’s convoluted story-songs concern themselves with the story of refugees from the planet Earth, searching the galaxies for a new home in the wake of their old planet’s ecological catastrophe. But to these ears, Magma’s music is instrumental with, let’s say, some odd vocalizations.

In the period 1970-1978, Magma released six or seven studio albums (depending on how one counts), and a pair of live sets. The first of these, Live/Hhaï, documented a 1975 Paris concert that included two of the six movements of their 1973 opus, “Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh.” That extended piece never appeared in a complete version on a live Magma album until this newly-released 2CD set, Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï – Live 1974 (yes, Magma makes things quite difficult for anyone attempting to cite song or album titles in print). The sprawling “MDK” runs in excess of thirty-five minutes, so for fans of the group, this new set represents the first opportunity to hear it in its entirety.

As with many of their European prog forebears, Magma’s music is heave on strident percussion. As the group’s leader, visionary and lyricist and drummer, Vander was in the ideal position to push the group in the direction he sought. The particular lineup that is featured on Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï would never make a studio album; by the time they entered the studio to record a followup to MDK, guitarist Claude Olmos had departed, to be replaced by – of all people – Welsh guitarist Brian Godding, late of Blossom Toes.

So there’s at least two reasons for any fan of Magma to want this album: the rare set list and the rare lineup. But what about the rest of us: why would we be interested? The answer is pretty straightforward, if one is a fan of that challenging nexus wherein rock, jazz and experimental music all convene. Intricate meter changes, hypnotic and dexterous electric piano lines, and unpredictable shifts in tone and volume: all of the characteristics that make up the best (and, true, the worst) of progressive rock are all here in copious amounts. After a few minutes of listening to the music, the obscure vocals – though quite prominent in the mix – take on the role of just-another-instrument. Vander does introduce each piece in Kobaian, his voice treated through what sounds like a ring modulator. It’s odd stuff to be sure, but also oddly alluring.

The second disc features two more extended tracks: “Kourusz II” is a lengthy drum solo that would not appear on record in any form until a 2000 CD of the same name collected two and half hours of Vander solos. The space-rock-meets-space-classical a la Holst piece “Theusz Hamtaahk” is even longer; it, too would remain unreleased in any form until the early 1980s.

The 2CD set was originally recorded for and broadcast by Radio Bremen (Germany), and that should tell most listeners all they need to know about the recording quality of this set: it’s excellent.

Put simply, Zühn Wöhl Ünsaï is some crazy stuff, but for the adventurous, it’s well worth the trip. And for those already familiar with the weird and wonderful world of Magma, it’s an indispensable addition to the shelf.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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