Sunday, September 16, 2018

King Brothers' "Wasteland"

Consider the fate of Japanese garage rock in the US: Guitar Wolf, the's, and Shonen Knife ghettoized in Noveltyland, and mighty Thee Michelle Gun Elephant -- signed to a major at home, where they played stadiums with ambulances on standby -- releasing their product via obscurantist indies and consigned to slogging around the rawk dumps.

King Brothers have been treading the boards since '97, and while they're unlikely to become as perennial Meercun faves as their countrymen in Boris and Acid Mothers Temple, their new elpee, released by estimable Berlin-based indie Hound Gawd, comes loaded with enough garage grease and grit to enthrall anyone who owns the entahr Estrus Records catalog. (Indeed, the out-of-control slide guitar showcase "Bang! Blues" could be the handiwork of the late, lamented Immortal Lee County Killers.) I'd had it for several days before I was working in the record store, Ted Stern threw it on, and my ears perked up.

A bass-less trio with instrumentation reminiscent of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (whom they namecheck, along with Guitar Wolf, in Wasteland's liner notes), King Brothers have the audacity to rip off the 'orrible 'oo's "Generation" (in "No! No! No!") and close their album with an unironic, harp-driven cover of the Stones' "Sympathy" (somewhere, Brian Jones shakes his blonde locks and laughs), but they're a lot closer to Boris' punky side than they are to Spencer's garage-blues or anyone's idea of "classic rock."

The real story, though, might lie in their lyrics -- sung in Japanese, but helpfully translated on the inner sleeve. They range from the pure nihilism of "No Want"'s "I DON'T WANT ANYTHING...EVERYTHING IS SO DAMNED PRETENTIOUS" to the more nuanced expression of "Break On Through" ("The time you've lost / Did it become a good experience? / But in the end / It doesn't mean anything / If you haven't changed") and this surprising call to action from the aforementioned "No! No! No!":

You can't forgive if you can't forget
If you think it's wrong raise your voice
Stupid things won't change
If you let it go that's THE END. 

Amen, brother. Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Living Colour's "Shade"

Swinging more than a little after the pitch here, but when this album dropped last September, I was preoccupied with other things.

Shade is the first album since Mark Growden's St. Judas and Lose Me In the Sand that I'd watched come together over successive live appearances (in this case, July 2013 and October 2014 at The Kessler). When Living Colour came through Oak Cliff in 2013, I went to see them with composer Curtis Heath and engineer-producer Britt Robisheaux, who'd both been spending time with Living Colour guitarist-mastermind Vernon Reid's old Decoding Society bandleader Ronald Shannon Jackson.

It was our sad duty to inform Vernon that Shannon's health was declining, and the titanic drummer-composer would be returning to New York City to undergo treatment for leukemia. But something good came out of it. Back in Staten Island at the end of Living Colour's tour, Reid reached out to everyone Shannon knew in the city, and Shannon's final hospital stay included a great many visitors and reunions. "I can't believe Vernon Reid did that for me," a happy and incredulous Shannon said when he was back in Fort Worth, a few weeks before he passed on October 19. At Shannon's memorial service in Fort Worth, there were two large floral arrangements, one from Reid and one from ex-Decoding society bassist Melvin Gibbs. (Reid, Gibbs, and Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun cut a live-in-studio record under the rubric Zig Zag Power Trio in Woodstock back in June.)

Those Kessler shows were highlighted by two covers, which also serve as thematic signposts on Shade -- an album whose concerns include the passage of time, mortality (the included list of musos who died during the album's making is sobering), and roots. Biggie Smalls' controversial and violent street saga "Who Shot Ya?" -- Living Colour's take on which was originally released on a 2016 mixtape in advance of the album -- took on new meaning in the wake of the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by St. Louis police, which occurred just a month after Eric Garner's killing by NYPD. Having watched in horror on my laptop as police fired tear gas canisters into residential neighborhoods in response to community members' protests following Brown's death, it was stirring to hear Corey Glover declaiming "Hands up! Don't shoot" from the Kessler stage -- and the overwhelmingly white, middle-aged audience responding in kind. We couldn't imagine then that the next few years would bring an ever-lengthening litany of police shooting victims, Vegas, Parkland, 3D printable guns, and on and on. Corey being himself, he sings rather than raps, investing the tune with a gospel vibe similar to the extended "testifying" intro he sang before "Open Letter To A Landlord" at the Kessler.

Delta blues legend Robert Johnson's "Preaching Blues" might have seemed out of character for a band of metallic jazz-funk rockers from the hip-hop era -- of which bassist Doug Wimbish, who joined Living Colour in time for 1993's Stain, was an originator, having played in the Sugarhill Records house band -- when they used it to open their 2013 set, but only if one forgot that Reid produced four blues-oriented albums for harmolodic guitar master James "Blood" Ulmer in the '00s, and had planned to do a similar one for Shannon -- whose roughly-sung versions of Jimmy Reed numbers once served as respites in free jazz supergroup Last Exit's raging sets. Living Colour's take on Johnson's classic highlights all four band members' virtuosity over a groove as crushing as history itself. Elsewhere on Shade, "Who's That" reminds us that as a teenage axe-slinger, Reid had his aesthetic formed by Johnny Winter as well as Fripp and McLaughlin, while "Invisible" (shade of Ralph Ellison here?) could be the work of an early '70s blues-rock band like Cactus. Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" -- still sadly on point after 46 years -- serves as a kind of bridge between Biggie and Robert.

Living Colour's lyrics have always reflected the social situation in America at whatever time they were written. Vivid's "Cult of Personality" has seeped back into people's consciousness since the 2016 presidential election, but "Open Letter To A Landlord" predicted this decade's gentrification trend way back in '88. (Who knew when Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing was new that the white "urban pioneer" with the bicycle was the future?) "Funny Vibe" and Time's Up's "Someone Like You" depicted the perils of living while black in a way that's still topical, goddammit, while their 2003 release Collideoscope was as redolent of post-9/11 NYC as both Sonic Youth's Murray Street and Spike's 25th Hour, even when Corey wasn't singing about it overtly.

Shade's originals bespeak boiling-over frustration, but you have to listen closely. The opening "Freedom of Expression (F.O.X.)" sets the scene ("The news you use has been falsified / To use my fear against me inside") before throwing down the gauntlet:

When you have a philosophy or a gospel
I don't care whether it's religious gospel or political gospel
Or economic gospel or a social gospel
If it's not going to do something for you and me right now
To hell with it

"Program" speaks truth even more plainly:

Cops always harass the brothers
They like Clorox bleach
Good for whites, bad for colors
So when they ask to search us
I get nervous
'Cause Mike Brown was shot down
By the people hired to protect and service
Went from the lightning into a dark zone
Millions of dumb people walkin’ around with a smart phone

In troubled and troubling times, part of the artist's task is to bear witness. Our time calls for action, not anthems (although I'll take Time's Up's "Fight the Fight," if forced to choose). Living Colour's sound hasn't changed a lot through their 35-year odyssey from CBGB's to stadiums with the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger was an early advocate) to a five-year hiatus, from which they emerged to play everywhere from metal fests to cruise boats to small listening rooms like the Kessler and the City Winery chain. I'm glad they're still around.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Things we like: Tornup, Mean Motor Scooter, Beck/Holdsworth night

Not writing as much these days as I'm staying fairly busy doing political volunteer work (a day spent pounding the pavement beats one spent yelling at my puter; being a verb beats being an adjective) and working weekends and Dan and Ted's days off at Panther City Vinyl (it's like being 16 again, minus the drugs and painful self-consciousness). We had our "grand opening" celebration after having been open six months in the original location and another month in the new one, across Magnolia from Benito's. Vaden Todd Lewis of the Toadies did a solo set, which was fitting and proper, as he and original Toadies bassist Lisa Umbarger (who'll be playing a sort-of reunion show with original guitarist Charles Mooney at the Ridglea Room on August 4th) worked with Dan at Sound Warehouse, and one of Dan's paintings graced the cover of the Rubberneck album (it now hangs in the store). Also on the bill were Mean Motor Scooter and Tornup.

MMS might seem like Next Big Things, but they've been around for close to a decade now (although their Rick Nielsen-ballcapped Dead End Kids look is a relatively recent innovation). The Stooge band (on hiatus now that Richard's in Colorado) played Inauguration Night 2017 on a bill with them, but I didn't get to see them perform that night. Since then, they've added Rebekah Downing on keys and vox, making them the only Fort Worth band I can think of offhand with four singers. Frontman Sammy Kidd, currently sporting hair in that Black Forest cake shade with no highlights, is a veritable songwriting machine -- so much of one, bassist Joe Tacke says, that they just recorded two EPs and haven't even mixed the second LP yet. Their Hindu Flying Machine album (released on Phoenix-based Dirty Water Records) mashes up surf, garage, and punk in a rough and rowdy manner reminiscent of the Fungi Girls, to which their live show adds another level of energy and excitement, propelled by Jeff Friedman's slammin' traps. Good value.

I first set eyes on Torry Finley a decade ago, when Conscientious Projector was still screening documentaries at 1919 Hemphill, and witnessed a couple of sets by his band Spacebeach (whose guitarist, Jake Rothschild, now leads Yaz Mean, an outfit steeped in '70s jazz-rock fusion that just cut an EP featuring guest shots by Oak Cliff trumpet legend Dennis Gonzalez and whirlwind drummer Christopher "Chill" Hill). In his conscious hip-hop incarnation, it was Tornup's misfortune to release a naively upful and Fort Worth-centric album, Utopian Vanguard (Heart of the Funk), that dropped on Election Day 2016 and got buried in the subsequent shit storm. Now he's got a new album in the works dealing with the prison industrial complex, with each track narrated by a different African-American character, and he plans to perform it live and for video with an expanded lineup (although he can also perform the tunes solo, accompanied only by his own bass and samplers). He's a personable and uplifting performer (he wears his Christianity -- which doesn't preclude cussing in his songs -- on his sleeve) who was easily able to get the crowd on his side, and I'll be looking forward to experiencing his new work.

Torry and the Yaz Mean cats were in the house (as were a who's who of local musos-in-the-know) when Lola's hosted a reprise of last year's incredible Jeff Beck/Allan Holdsworth tribute night, featuring a mighty triumverate of axe-slingers -- Big Mike Richardson, Ron Geida, and Tyrel Choat -- recreating Beck's career-defining masterwork Blow By Blow, and the slight return (from Colorado) of Fort Worth guitar-king-in-exile Bill Pohl paying homage to the late master of fleetly fluid fret calculus. Both bands were anchored by keyboard wiz Steve Hammond and the aforementioned "Chill" Hill, with low-end theory covered by my Wreck Room bandleader Lee Allen for the Beck set and the ever-amazing Canyon Kafer for the Holdsworth.

This year's sets were even more stellar than last year's, with the benefit of more rehearsal time, better division of labor among the guitarists, Big Mike digging deep to blow some solos that were pure inspiration, Tyrel's talk box behaving better (and its owner unleashing a shredding solo that was the apex of an astonishing "Cause We've Ended As Lovers"), and the Allen-Hill rhythm section grooving relentlessly. The Holdsworth set was Something Entahrly Other. Bill Pohl has now transcended his influences and is unmistakably His Own Guy, even when playing familiar repertoire; the air in Colorado must agree with him. Kafer and Hill, who play together in guitarist Chet Stevens' band, have a gestalt that has to be heard to be believed, and when bass and keys strolled near the end of the set, Bill and Chill pushed each other onward and upward with the tsunami-like force of Trane and Elvin at the Vanguard. A couple of days earlier, I'd bailed on the Jeff Beck show in Irving to canvas in Como for Vanessa Adia's Congressional campaign, but I do believe I still heard the best music made in North Texas this week.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Ralph Carney and Chris Butler's "Songs for Unsung Holidays"

Reviewing Ralph Carney's last album back in 2011, I compared it to "a midwestern Bonzo Dog Band with chops," and indeed Carney -- a titanic multi-instrumentalist and go-to sideman for the likes of Tom Waits, the B-52s, St. Vincent, and his nephew Patrick Carney's band the Black Keys -- came across for all the world like the Bonzos' art school eccentric Roger Ruskin-Spear in a jazz classicist mood. It's fitting, then, that before he died unexpectedly last December, Carney collaborated with his ex-Tin Huey/Waitresses bandmate Chris Butler on this gem of absurdist musical humor, inspired by the likes of the Bonzos, Tom Lehrer, and Randy Newman.

Besides being a fave of your humble chronicler o' events, Butler is the composer of the seasonal perennial "Christmas Wrapping," but Songs for Unsung Holidays -- scheduled for a September 7 release on estimable indie Smog Veil -- is a collection of songs about off-the-wall invented holidays, co-written and recorded by the long-distance collaborators in their respective home studios. In this moment when every day brings social media reminders of holidays for every damn thing under the sun (in between the Russian bot memes and news reports of the latest outrages from the obfuscator in chief), it's apropos to have songs to sing on "Introduce A Girl To Engineering Day," "Bubble Wrap Day," and "Salami Appreciation Day."

"Bald and Free" is both a piss-take on the white guy blues (albeit one with sterling harp and guitar from Carney and Butler) and a wiseass rumination on the, um, lengths some gents will go to, to conceal their male pattern baldness (even in a time when the shaven head is fashionable), while "Cheese Ball Day" is a sonic homage to the era when secret prog rockers Tin Huey attempted to sneak under the radar in new wave clothing. The aforementioned "Engineering Day" conflates robotic synths and vocals with What's Going On sax obbligatos and Butler's earnest-but-unromantic ruminations on engineering careers before the two Ohio natives pay tribute to their roots on "Polka Day."

"Gorilla Suit Day" is an old-timey romp, sung by Carney, that puts me in mind of so many things: Leon Redbone, the Evans Vacuum Cleaner guy (Fort Worth-centric reference), the "shake hands with Gonga" scene in Wise Blood; "Put on the suit" indeed. "Day of the Dead" -- the only legit holiday in the bunch celebrated here -- returns to the concern with mortality that permeated Butler's Got It Togehter! from earlier this year. "Bath Safety Day" is a sequel to Chicago's "An Hour in the Shower" that winds up being a case of mistaken holiday identity (who knew Bath, Maine, had a safety day?). Most poignant moment here comes on "Hippie Day," when Carney and Butler's Dead-'n'-Allman (not to mention Marshall Tucker)-inspahrd jamarama gives way to a good old fashioned protest march call-and-response and themes Butler explored in his coming-of-age-at-Kent State 1970 remembrance Easy Life.

Carney was a one-of-a-kind muso who'll be sorely missed. This record is a nice memorial to his joyful spirit. (Another ex-Huey, Harvey Gold, was about to undertake a collaboration with Carney before he passed; the result is here).

Saturday, June 23, 2018

6.22.2018, Fort Worth

These days, it takes a lot to get my lazy ass out of the house. But when three bands I want to see are playing at our old stomping grounds Lola's Saloon, I can make an exception. Lola's, of course, is Brian Forella's successor to the late, lamented Wreck Room, which was our second living room for a few years, back when my wife still lived a couple of blocks down West 7th and even after we moved a couple of miles further west, but I was playing there with Lee Allen every Wednesday night. On this particular night, she brought her camera for the first time in a few years, and we saw lots of good friends that we hadn't for a minute.

Justin "Hush Puppy" Robertson put together an ace bill, topped by local faves, the synth-driven doom duo Pinkish Black (whose new album, working title Concept Unification, is skedded for an October release on Relapse and sounds to these feedback-scorched ears like the strongest set of material yet from these guys), with support from transcontinental free jazz quartet Humanization 4tet (who'd played dates in Houston, Big Spring, and Denton since I saw them play together for the first time in seven years on Monday) and Dim Locator (playing their first Fort Worth gig since Will Kapinos expanded the lineup from a one-man band to a trio a couple of years and some 20 shows ago).

Dim Locator's performance took its place among my "most memorable Will Kapinos moments": the first time I saw him in Deep Ellum with Jetscreamer some 15 years ago; the time he backed Pinkish Black's Daron Beck on a wrenching version of "I Put A Spell On You" at a 2010 memorial show for Beck's Great Tyrant band mate Tommy Atkins (which I've only experienced via Youtube because HIO split right after we played, but yeah); and the times I saw him weaving guitars with Jason Wortham in the recently disbanded Dove Hunter. With able support from Matt Riley on bass and Jeff Barnard on drums, Will's free to explore the possibilities of the rock power trio from many angles. "Like the Allman Brothers with three people," my friend opined. "Like Sun Elvis with more electricity," I countered. As they warmed up, they even careened into Nantucket Sleighride Mountain and Tres Hombres ZZ Top territory. A most satisfying performance from a band I now want to hear more.

A couple of days on the road had tightened and deepened Humanization 4tet's connections, and their enhanced cohesion and communication were evident from the jump. Stefan Gonzalez directs the proceedings from behind his traps, showing more of the explosive force of his Akkolyte and Orgullo Primitivo incarnations than I was accustomed to hearing from him in a jazz context. His brother Aaron Gonzalez's stand-up bass underpinned the sound with rumbling double-stops and guitar-like strumming. Saxophonist Rodrigo Amado has a huge sound on tenor, tinged with the romance of Ben Webster and the untrammeled soul cry of early Gato Barbieri. Guitarist Luis Lopes turned up and dug in more than he had at Deep Ellum's RBC on Monday (having Will's Twin to play through might have helped), kicking on distortion to thicken up his pointillistic lines and jagged chords, using a slide to conjure searing feedback lines. The quartet has stops in Shreveport, Tulsa, and Austin coming up, culminating in four dates in New Orleans that will include a live recording at Marigny Studios. It'll be something to hear.

The rough mixes of Concept Unification I've heard show Pinkish Black continuing to refine and deepen their process, developing simple thematic material into an aural entity that's as richly detailed as it is dark and powerful. Jon Teague's synths are playing a bigger role in their wall of sound, and his drumming wields cathartic violence with precise control. (One looks forward to hearing the recordings that Pinkish Black made this spring with Yells At Eels, the Gonzalez brothers' trio with their trumpeter father Dennis Gonzalez.) Daron Beck remains an underrated front man -- the result, I think, of his propensity to use vocal effects to integrate his singing into the total sound -- and his keys and synths generate as much droning and slashing energy as a couple of guitars might. It's been thrilling to watch these guys evolve over the last eight years, and hopefully their fourth album will propel them to even wider notoriety, here and abroad.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

6.18.2018, Deep Ellum

My first visit to Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions -- the Stefan Gonzalez-curated evening of creative music that goes down Mondays at RBC (the acronym stands for "Rhythm Beats Culture," the room formerly known as the Red Blood Club and before that, a friend informs me, a blues joint going back to Blind Lemon Jefferson's day) -- occurred on a particularly auspicious evening. Humanization 4tet -- a transcontinental outfit comprising a Portuguese front line (guitarist Luis Lopes and saxophonist Rodrigo Amado) and a Dallas riddim section (Stefan on drums and his brother Aaron Gonzalez on bass) -- was making their first appearance in seven years to kick off a short US tour that will also include a stop in Fort Worth this Friday, at Lola's with Pinkish Black. Also on the card: Ataraxia, the jazz/world music trio led by Stefan and Aaron's father Dennis Gonzalez; the estimable, peripatetic Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani; and a new trio teaming bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (The Thing, The Young Mothers) with guitarist Tom Carter and drummer Lisa Cameron.

Ataraxia has evolved a great deal since recording their imposing debut double LP Ts'iibil Chaaltun. The three men are now so deep into the music and each other's heads that from the gate, the body language as bassist Drew Phelps and percussionist Jagath Lakpriya weave their strands of time around Dennis' burnished lines radiates joy and ease. Their short set (plagued by some feedback problems early on) included the Sri Lankan folk melody "Ukusa" sandwiched between two Gonzalez classics: "Namesake" (a highlight of the album and their live shows since their inception) and "Hymn for Julius Hemphill," on which Gonzalez played a flugelhorn that previously belonged to the iconoclastic trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon.

To these feedback-scorched ears, Tatsuya Nakatani took the show. His modus operandi is "sound production by any means necessary." Set up on the floor amid the audience, he started out coaxing a surprising array of sounds from a single gong (on some dates, he directs and performs with ad hoc Nakatani Gong Orchestras) using beaters and bows, the singing harmonics he conjured forming consonances and dissonances, using his kick drum to emphasize lower frequencies and create an aural effect like a summer storm. He moved to a small trap set and an array of small instruments -- cymbals, bowls, beaters and bows -- that he cycled through rapidly, thinking on his feet, always maintaining a constant flow of rhythmic and tonal sounds, in a manner that appeared chaotic but also demonstrated an intimate familiarity with his tools and a hair-trigger musical imagination. Moving back to the gong, he brought the music to a swirling orchestral crescendo that had one misguided listener high-fiving the sound tech, climaxing in a crash that collapsed the instrument's frame, which only made the performance more cathartic.

Humanization 4tet was working through some equipment issues: Saxophonist Amado's horn had required repair of a pad, which necessitated a quick trip up to Denton earlier in the day, and guitarist Lopes was using a teardop-shaped guitar (with a Bigsby!) borrowed from the Gonzalez's after-school music education program La Rondalla due to some issues with his own axe, run through Tom Carter's Ampeg. Amado blows tenor from the bottoms of his feet, like The Thing's Mats Gustafson or The Young Mothers' Jason Jackson. Lopes splinters shards of sound, using only a couple of distortion pedals and a Cry Baby wah, F/X-wise (man after my own heart). Much of the melodic direction seemed to come from the Gonzalez brothers -- Stefan grounding the sound with pure power, Aaron dancing atop his brother's pulse with constant invention. On the final piece, they were joined by dancer Ali Honchell, whose movements fused ballet and modern and brought another dimension to the performance. They'll record live at NOLA's Marigny Studios on June 29.

We had to cut out and head back to Fort Worth before Ingebrigt's new trio started (three old guys who aren't accustomed to being out till 3am anymore), but I hope to catch them on another occasion soon. And will surely be back at RBC for more Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Blankz's "White Baby"

Hardcore (in both senses) record buyers dig their seven-inches. Just think of the L.A. supergroup Off! starting their career with four EPs. Now, Phoenix-based punkeroos the Blankz are going them one better, kicking off their run with a planned series of nine singles, to be compiled as a full-length LP once completed. The concept is possible because Blankz mastermind Tommy Blank, aka Thomas Lopez, is the founder-owner of estimable indie Slope Records. He connected with Jaime Blank (aka Jaime Paul Lamb) during a 2016 session with Jaime's band Moonlight Magic, and pitched a collaboration.

Their first release, "White Baby," has an intriguing theme: Blank/Lopez's background (he's the result of a union between Irish-French-German parents, adopted by a Mexican-American family) and resultant identity confusion. Flipside "Sissy Glue" deals with the time-honored punk-delinquent propensity for sniffing airplane glue. Both are short, sharp shocks, filled with irreverent yuks, sounding like an amalgam of early Ramones (when Tommy was still on board, before they all hated each other's guts) and Devo (thanks to synth player Nikki Blank, moonlighting from all-woman garage outfit the Darts). Ex-Meat Puppet Cris Kirkwood produced. It'll be fun to see where this project goes as the band develops.