Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Doctor Nerve's "LOUD"

Last year was a busy one for guitarist-composer-programmer extraordinaire Nick Didkovsky, with two releases on his Punos Music label -- Vomit Fist's Omnicide (short, sharp shocks of black metal fury from a trio in which he plays with his drummer son) and CHORD II (sophomore outing from a duo with Tom Marsan in which they explore the pure sonic possibilities of loud, distorted electric guitars) -- garnering "best of year" nods from around the blogosphere. Now he's starting 2020 with the first new music in a good while from Doctor Nerve, the heavy prog outfit he's led since 1983.

When I say "prog," I mean Canterbury or Rock In Opposition rather than something that'd come packaged in a Roger Dean cover (not that there's anything wrong with that; I anxiously await the imminent arrival of The Wire scribe/Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes' latest tome A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock and the 1970s). Didkovsky has the bona fides, having collaborated with both Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper (in the long distance power trio Bone) and Henry Cow mainstay Fred Frith (as a member of Frith's Guitar Quartet).

Doctor Nerve uses rock instrumentation -- your basic guitar-bass-drums trio (including a rhythm section that can probably read flypaper) with a concert virtuoso on piano and a four-piece horn section whose members can all solo -- to achieve classical dynamics. The result brings to fruition everything Zappa and Beefheart promised (minus the silly FZ shit), but is more brutally visceral. Their pinnacle of raw intensity was 1995's Skin -- until now.

LOUD lives up to its name, and it's clearly been made with those who appreciate The Romance of the Artifact in mind: colored vinyl, stunning cover/poster artwork by Masato Okano, an insert illustration by the aforementioned Marsan (whose artwork graced Nerve's debut LP Out To Bomb Fresh Kings), and a back cover photo collage that pays homage to Humble Pie's Rockin' the Fillmore and Queen's debut LP. The tracks began life on an unmastered, tour-only CD-R, but for LOUD, Didkovsky re-cut all his guitar parts and had the material re-mixed and mastered for maximum impact. Bonus tracks on the CD and download include alternate versions of all the tunes with Didkovsky's guitar solos replaced by heavy friends including Henry Kaiser, Mike Kenneally (about to hit the road with a Zappa repertory band, opening for King Crimson!), Robert Musso, Frith Guitar Quartet bandmate Rene Lussier, and others equally dextrous.

At the top of Side One, "If You Were Me Right Now, I'd Be Dead" opens with a pummeling riff and bass clarinetist Michael Lytle's vocal and instrumental approximations of Godzilla screams, giving way to a solo by Didkovsky that's both tortuous and richly detailed, before the horn section takes it away with ascending polyphony and incandescent trombone and trumpet solos. "Painting With Bullets" puts free jazz in a blender with technical metal, and the results are scrumptious, particularly when Didkovsky unleashes a solo that skirts the edges of tonality.

Turning the record over, "Meta 04" is the album's most RIO-like item, featuring tempos that shift like a drunken boat and Yves Duboin's most striking soprano sax work here, leading into Didkovsky's wild, feedback-fueled ride over a choppy ostinato that reminds me of something from Lick My Decals Off, Baby. "Uses Probe Form" is a mesh of complex, interlocking parts that, after a particularly fine trombone solo (kudos, Benjamin Herrington), locks into a groove section that overlays the chant from "A Love Supreme" on the beat from Captain Beefheart's "Click Clack." (Interesting coincidence: bassist Jesse Krakow has anchored several Beefheart repertory ensembles.) Then Didkovsky solos with extreme abandon over horn cacophony.

There's so much happening here, and it all unfolds so quickly, that before you know it, you'll find yourself going back to the beginning, to make sure you really heard what you thought you did (as I've felt compelled to a dozen times since this arrived). As Nick would say, Rock On!

Monday, February 03, 2020

Eamon Ra's "Meat Bones Chemicals Electricity"

Eamon Ra is the performing alias of Eamon Nordquist (Sterling Loons, Truly), who's been kicking around the Seattle music scene since the '90s, but apparently teethed on the same '60s Brit pop psychedelia (Beatles, Kinks, Pretty Things, Small Faces, Who, Zombies) that I did as a snotnose back in prehistory. His solo debut, Meat Bones Chemicals Electricity, arrived accompanied by a nifty self-illustrated comic book which also contains all the lyrics in a font that's more legible than CD slicks or web pages, and immediately pulled me in with "Future History"'s chiming 12-string, lilting background vox, woozy mellotron, gorgeous melody, and disarming invitation: "We're staying together forever because we're a family / And I love you" (less cloying to the ear than it might seem to the eye).

A strong Ray Davies influence emerges on "Pitchforks and Torches," a retelling of the Frankenstein saga which includes the album's title phrase, a recurring theme (along with "future history") on an album that, in its unassuming way, takes on nothing less than the human condition itself. Nordquist's ability to craft a beguiling tune shines through in "Kiss Someone You Love," with its Bolan-esque vocal and more snazzy 12-string action. "Fun To Be Had" evokes the saucy, sassy, music hall-loving side of the Kinks -- who also made ample use of a mellotron in their evocations of bygone Brittania.

Turning the record over, "Waiting for the Morning" is a heavy psych pounder worthy of S.F. Sorrow-era Pretty Things, with ex-Screaming Tree Mark Pickerel kicking the traps in exemplary fashion (although it should be noted that the drumming here, by a revolving cast of tub-thumpers, is uniformly excellent). "Happiest Day In History" is another sweet, upful embrace, offset by the self-explanatory "Simple But So Complicated," which recalls the Kinks of "Afternoon Tea" and "Dead End Street." Instantly appealing, Meat Bones Chemicals Electricity is the Candygram from the power pop gods all you Brendan Benson and Marshall Crenshaw fans have been waiting for.

Downloads are available now. Watch the Bandcamp page for pre-order info on vinyl (due out March 6).

Sunday, January 12, 2020

FTW, 1.11.2020

Magic Maze Records is a floating crapgame of musos revolving around guitarist-vocalist-synthist Michael Eppinette, who fronts garage-psychsters The Cosmic Creeps. His bandmates -- drummer Scott Ladouceur and bassist-guitarist Tony Pirrone -- play together in a variety of configurations, including Fissure 8 (doom metal with Pirrone on guitar), Mike 6 (metal rap fronted by the eponymous Mike), and Possible Shapes (spacey tribal improv with Mike on sruti box and my 20-year friend Aaron McClendon on pocket trumpet). All of the above were on the bill at the Grackle Art Gallery last night.

Watching Ladouceur kick his traps, I couldn't help but think of Rush's Neil Peart, whose passing was announced yesterday. While I have to cop to not having been a Rush fan, one has to respect the Canadian drummer's commitment to precision and craft, which it was easy to discern the young Texan shares. Sometimes you could see him reaching for something just beyond his grasp, but his groove was always mighty. (The beauty of performance is that nobody knows what you're going for, only what they heard.) The crowd of friends was appreciative. His string-playing pal bore a certain physical resemblance to my teenage guitar mentor (although hopefully he is less troubled than that long departed dude), and listening to the way the two musos interlock their rhythms, the time they've spent playing together (six years, a fellow listener told me) is palpable. What I could hear of McClendon's horn sounded fine, but he needs to get on the mic if he's going to play with a powerful electric band. I look forward to hearing these players again.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

End of Teens top 10

I spent a lot of this decade focused on things other than music, so I'm not going to attempt to pick one record for every year. When it started I was in a couple of bands, still writing for rags and voting in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll (note the egregious typo in my last ballot, an indication that my attention was elsewhere). Now I guess I'm "retired," although I still jam once a month with a couple of sets of cats and write when I want to because it's a nervous habit. Going into 2020, we're living under a Chinese curse ("in interesting times"), and as Jim Morrison (of whom I'm not a fan) reminds us, "The future's uncertain and the end is always near."

Peter Laughner, Peter Laughner (Smog Veil): My most anticipated release of the last 20 years. A performer whom I discovered via St. Lester and Clinton Heylin's scrawl as a proto-punk avatar, dead at 24, reveals himself over 5 LPs and 50 tracks to be more multifaceted than one could have imagined -- Dylanesque songwriter, post-Richard Thompson guitarist, but the secret influence proves to be...the Lovin' Spoonful! Music's a deep well; how fortunate are we. And Ohio is the secret music capital of America.

Young Mothers, Morose (Super Secret): A Texan supergroup, led by a ringer from Oslo, this is what it would sound like if free jazz, hip hop, and grindcore had a love child. Terrific live band, too.

Tyshawn Sorey, The Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi): My pick for artist of the decade. Part of a generation of composers and improvisers following in the footsteps of the AACM's Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and Threadgill (others: Mary Halvorson, Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Matana Roberts), the percussionist-pianist-trombonist Sorey, whom I first heard on Fieldwork's Door back in 2008, has done more interesting work than anybody I can think of, and lots of it. For my two cents, this 2016 album, on which his trio meshes with a string quartet, is his best recording so far.

Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch): Like Patti Smith, maturity becomes her, and much of her late-period work is focused on grief and loss (which, after all, are what we all wind up dealing with). This album (and the movie it accompanies) have been more useful to me personally than anything else on this list.

Chris Butler, Easy Life (Future Fossil): A social media coat-pull led me to this idiosyncratic masterpiece, the first record since Brian Wilson's 2004 Smile that I played so much (particularly the song "Beggar's Bullets") that it drove my wife to distraction. A universal coming of age story morphed by history (its creator was a student at Kent State in May 1970) into a cry of political rage.

D'Angelo, Black Messiah (RCA): I am now at the age when everything new I hear reminds me of something old. But if those things are (as in this case) Prince, P-Funk, and There's A Riot Goin' On, can that be bad? Particularly if the songs are memorable on their own merits (which they are).

Beck, Morning Phase (Capitol): Over the years, the Silverlake slacker has proven to be an artist of greater depth and variety than "Loser" might have made you think. I don't hear the Laurel Canyon comparisons this got when it was new. To these feedback-scorched ears, it sounds more like a successor to the Moody Blues, which, surprisingly, I find agreeable.

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly (Interscope): State of the art hip-hop from the end of the Obama era. The dialogue at the end of the record seems poignant now. Kendrick couldn't see what was coming anymore than we did.

Mark Growden, St. Judas (Porto Franco): Perhaps my favorite solo performer of all ti-i-ime, now settled and off the road. My wife and I had the extreme pleasure of watching him develop this material live over a couple of years (and once booked him to play in our backyard for a friend's birthday). Dark cabaret suffused with longing.

Various, Tweenage Shutdown (Illustrious Artists): I had to look this up on Discogs to make sure I didn't imagine it. Had a copy of this when it was new, now sadly mislaid. Cute little Aussie kids playing ripping garage rock covers on vintage instruments. More than just a novelty.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

FTW, 12.27.2019

I love the temporal indeterminacy of this time of year. My wife and I enjoyed a leisurely day, viewing the Gordon Parks exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum (go see it before it closes on Sunday!), enjoying leftover fish curry (our project for her winter vacation is breaking the seal on the Instant Pot), then realizing there was a show at the Grackle Art Gallery and strolling down the street to see it.

The Grackle's a labor of love for Matt Sacks and Linda Little, and a haven for music I dig that nobody else in Fort Worth is booking. Through the agency of Kavin Allenson, I've seen performances by favorite performers like James Hall, Bill Pohl, Gregg Prickett, and Sarah Ruth Alexander, and also was able (via Kavin's monthly Straw Drawing Improv Jam) to reacquaint myself with musical performance and become part of a community of musos that I enjoy mightily.

Last night's show started out with one of those musos, the endlessly inventive guitarist Darrin Kobetich, playing a solo set on 12-string and oud. Darrin's constantly creating and performing in a variety of contexts. This night found him deep into a Fahey/Kottke "American primitive" bag, using metal fingerpicks, open tunings, slide, percussive tapping, and chiming harmonics to create free-flowing inventions with galloping forward motion. On oud, he seems tapped into some deep and ancient source, although its roots aren't readily apparent.

Topping the bill was Darrin's pal from Austin, the peripatetic troubadour Ralph E. White. I'd previously heard Ralph a decade or so ago, when he was doing a nice line in experimental bluegrass with a looper pedal. Since then, he's traveled as far as West Virginia and Kentucky, and his music has taken on a more folkloric cast. Accompanying himself on accordion, fretless 6-string banjo, electric guitar, fiddle, and kalimba, he sings stream-of-consciousness songs that sound as though they emanate from some haunted Appalachian holler.

Listening now to Colours of Time, Kavin's new CD under the rubric Breaking Light. It's an agreeable collection of ambient excursions, extemporized on guitar with loops and delay, redolent of Fripp Soundscapes, mid-period Floyd, "Dark Star" Dead, and lots more. Kavin has been doing pop-up Breaking Light performances at various locations around town. The release show for Colours of Time is set for January 3rd at GROWL in Arlington (with a guest artist who may or may not be Warr guitarist Mark Cook from Herd of Instinct).

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Denton, 12.19.2019

I'd had plans to attend another show, but when I saw online that guitarist-composer Gregg Prickett's Mingus-inspahrd quintet Monks of Saturnalia -- my favorite band o' the moment, based on two Oak Cliff gigs I witnessed earlier this year -- would be performing at Sweetwater Grill and Tavern in li'l d (a hometown gig for bassist Drew Phelps and multi-reedist Jeff Barnes), I quickly changed 'em. (Any Denton excursion is also an excuse to crate-dig at Recycled Books and Records, my favorite place to record hunt that isn't the Princeton Record Exchange.)

The first time I caught these Monks, Barnes and tenorman Steve Brown hadn't yet had time to rehearse the material, and the second time, Barnes was absent and Brown was under the weather. This time, the unit had clearly had more time to become familiar with the charts and each other. The ensembles were cohesive, with areas of freedom within the structures, and first-time drummer Chris Holmes (whom I'd previously seen fill in for Frank Rosaly with the Young Mothers a couple of years back) providing the dynamic variation that this material demands.

The compositions are mostly by Prickett, and carry Mingusian titles like the opening "This Is A Lie, or The White Man's Truth," or the minor blues "(Not Because I Have To, But Just for the Hell of It) I Pledge Allegiance." Another title, "No, No Salt," comes from a dream that Phelps remembers Prickett recounting, where "I was about to be executed by a firing squad, and they asked me what I wanted for my last drink, and I said tequila, and they asked me if I wanted salt..."

A spaghetti Western-sounding theme of Phelps', which formerly galloped, now unfolds at a more leisurely pace, with a free section. The musicians played a minor key version of "Frosty the Snowman," Phelps said, "because we're good sports." There was also a bit of demented surf music worthy of Naked City, with Phelps on electric bass. Perhaps the night's most transcendent performance was the closing "Kika's Canon," inspired by the pack of wolves Prickett once lived with (really!), which featured Barnes soloing plaintively on soprano (earlier, he was also effective on bass clarinet), and Brown summoning the spirit of Booker Ervin.

Later, the tenorman expressed surprise that there'd been people dancing ("This is really our crowd," he enthused). Prickett said he might combine the Monks of Saturnalia with his classical-improv unit Trio du Sang for some shows, and indicated that they might be ready to record by mid-2020. Catch them if you can; you owe it to yourself. This material teems with life like the best Mingus compositions, and this lineup is packed with talent and just starting to hit their stride.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

FTW, 12.14.2019

About 20 years ago, when I first proposed the idea of an instrumental R&B band to Robert Cadwallader (RIP), he replied, "We can't go onstage without a singer. They'll kill us!"

That was before the backing musos from Brad Thompson's Undulating Band morphed into Bertha Coolidge -- who have their annual reunion next month, and whose Black Dog Tavern gigs provided an entryway to jazz and improvised music for lots of folks -- and Confusatron evolved from a downtown busking trio (back when such was possible) to an eight-headed hydra that used to regularly raise the Black Dog's roof a couple of years after Bertha folded.

Some of that spirit was present last night at Shipping and Receiving, where Rage Out Arkestra played a rare engagement, with Barber Mack opening.

There are a lot of streams that meet up in both of these bands. Rage Out's master percussionist Eddie Dunlap and keyboardist Joe Rogers played together in Master Cylinder, a Canterbury-ish fusion band that released an LP on Inner City way back in '81. They subsequently worked together for years in the pit band at Jubilee Theatre, for whom Joe composed dozens of original musicals. Also in that band was Chris White, a triple threat on bass, flute, and trumpet, who only plays the winds in Rage Out. Chris was a mainstay of the Black Dog's long-lived Sunday night jazz sets, where tenorman David Williams was also a regular. Trap drummer Parker Anderson (Dead Vinyl) and percussionist Diudonne Samudio came out of Mondo Drummers, the hand-drumming and percussion ensemble Eddie has taught and led since 1994. Guitarist Darrin Kobetich (Boxcar Bandits, Agita) met Eddie while working on a production for Hip Pocket Theatre, and they briefly played together in a surf/spaghetti Western-themed band a couple of years ago. I remember bassist Danny Stone from nights with pianist Johnny Case at the old Sardines Ristorante; more recently, he's been gigging with blues cat James Hinkle.

Barber Mack was originally formed in 2006, but returned from a lengthy hiatus a year ago to hold down a Monday night slot at Lola's. Josh Clark, son of blues guitarist Jerry Clark, hit the scene in 2005 and quickly made a name for himself playing drums and percussion with seemingly everybody, finally forming a band with brothers Matt and Andrew Skates from Confusatron. He hooked up with guitarist Ron Geida (one of my favorite clear thinkers -- an imperturbable cat whom Kobetich says has "that Chet Atkins thing") and bassist John Shook in a reggae band called Kulcha Far I that toured, but fell apart on the road, leading to Barber Mack's formation. Josh actually quit playing for ten years, operating a bike shop down the street from me for some of that time. His always-stellar chops have gained maturity and depth, and a year of regular gigging has given Barber Mack a solid band dynamic. On this night, they were joined by Chris Watson on keys.

Both bands draw on multiple musical streams: jazz, funk, blues, rock, reggae, "world music" (Joe Rogers initiated a nice Indian-flavored interval near the end of Rage Out's first set). Gone are the days when a jazzer of my acquaintance watched Confusatron for an hour before sniffing, "It sounds like one long vamp waiting for something to happen" and hitting the door, or another would walk off a gig the moment he saw a Fender bass onstage. All the players have big ears, both in terms of being open to different genres and listening to each other.

In the brief hearing I had, Barber Mack seemed the tighter of the two ensembles. They recently broke the seal on an early Sunday night gig at the reopened Moon. I need to hear more of them. Rage Out played with more abandon, with Eddie directing the band from behind his percussion array. (I once saw him play for an hour at a school for medically fragile, multi-disabled kids, playing for each of 70 students in turn, finding something each of them could respond to. He's a special musician who elevates any ensemble he plays with.) Chris White would walk off to the side of the stage where people were dancing, while Dave Williams held center stage, blowing one muscular solo after another, and Darrin danced to his left, squeezing out stinging, blues-inflected lines through a Univox amp that used to be his dad's, bowing his Les Paul a la Song Remains the Same Page at one point. I could stand to witness a lot more nights like this.