Thursday, May 21, 2020

CHORD's "CHORD III"

A few days before the package containing CHORD III arrived, my wife and I were watching our way through Jim Jarmusch's filmography. While we agreed that 2009's The Limits of Control is probably his weakest film (NB: we haven't seen The Dead Don't Die yet), both of us dug the way the director used the Japanese doom metal band Boris' music (including snippets from the albums Feedbacker, Rainbow, Smile, and Pink) to set the mood for his cryptic tale of an assassin, and the way the music's reverberating harmonics rubbed up against the movie's gleaming surfaces.

In recent days, I've been reading, studying, and thinking a lot about the reasons why people respond as they (we) do to music, inspired by convos with an old ally who, like CHORD co-creator Nick Didkovsky, lives in Brooklyn and programs generative music software.

One of my buddy's gurus is David Huron, who has written extensively on the neuroscience of music cognition. In his 2016 tome Voice Leading: The Science Behind A Musical Art, Huron writes about the importance of continuity in the perception of an auditory stream: "Compared with most natural sound-producing objects, musical instruments are constructed so as to maximize the period of sustain....In the case of the guitar, solid-body construction and controlled electronic feedback became popular methods of increasing the sustain of plucked strings." Huron also highlights the difference between the different types of expectations listeners hold, which are based on knowledge of the specific piece of music (veridical expectations) or knowledge of a style of music or music in general (schematic expectations). He also distinguishes between analytic (detail-oriented) and synthetic (totality-oriented) listening.

Since the first, eponymous CHORD EP appeared late in the summer of 2018, Didkovsky and his collaborator Tom Marsan have been asking the musical question, "What happens when you remove loud, distorted electric guitars from any formal context where the listener might have expectations?" One result of this extreme closeup exercise is that every detail and nuance in the two instruments' interplay is thrown into brilliant relief. If the debut was a bold, bracing "proof of concept," CHORD II, released at the beginning of 2019, displayed a more expansive dynamic and expressive range. Now, CHORD III represents Something Entahrly Other.

About a third of the way into the album's 15-minute opener "martyrs," my wife looked up from her computer and asked, "What's this?" -- a sure sign that something noteworthy is occurring. Starting slowly, the guitarists weave webs of dissonance, a flat 2nd trill like the one that opened Alice Cooper's "Halo of Flies" briefly raising its head, the metallic clangor of industrial machines blending with the blare of sirens, foghorns, alarms, and tolling bells, Godzilla shrieks like the glisses that were my favorite part of the first MC5 album, acidic midrange tones spraying partials across information-dense layers of sound, raking behind-the-nut harmonics, finally achieving a singularity of sound like every Hendrix plane crash and the Graves At Sea show circa 2004 that made my body feel like it was turning inside out, ending the only way it possibly could -- with a trailing wisp of feedback. Didkovsky confirms that "martyrs" established itself as the cornerstone early in the album's germination.

While it's whack to ascribe programmatic intent to instrumental music (tell it to poor old Dmitri Shostakovich), it's hard not to hear the album's longest track, the 17-minute "draw near," as a soundtrack for the pandemic, its slow build evocative in the same way as Boris' Jarmusch soundtrack of the "Deserted Cities of the Heart" Cream once conjured. Ten minutes or so into the piece, a pulse appears, gradually morphing into a feedback waltz of unexpected grace and brutal beauty. The gentle chiming of "it was" provides a brief respite before the anguished soul cry of "help her" that closes the album. For those with adventurous ears, CHORD III could be just the catharsis you've been seeking, at a historical moment when such is at a premium.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Things we like: Humanization 4tet, Patty Waters

Two months into quarantine, with our state government giving the go-ahead (unwisely, I think) for businesses to reopen before our infection rate is under control, a package in the mail from Clean Feed Records in Lisbon brought some surprising wonderment from close to home, reminding me of some days and shows gone by.

It's hard to believe that it's been almost two years since Portuguese guitarist Luis Lopes' Humanization 4tet played shows in Dallas and Fort Worth that I attended, in the company of good friends after spending some time off the set. The Dallas show -- the group's first together in seven years -- was a tad shaky, but things were sounding more cohesive by the time they rolled into Fort Worth, with three more shows under their belts, and by the time they entered NOLA's Marigny Studios a week later, they were firing on all cylinders. Believe, Believe, the document of their interaction, reminds me of nothing so much as the duet performance by Nels Cline and Julian Lage that I witnessed at the Kessler in Oak Cliff back in 2015. It was the last night of their tour, and from the opening notes of their set, the two guitarists sounded like they were resuming a conversation that had been interrupted moments before. That's the vibe on this recording, too.

All four musicians in Humanization 4tet -- besides the leader, that'd be Lisbon-based saxophonist Rodrigo Amado and a pair of estimable brothers from Oak Cliff, Aaron Gonzalez on bass and Stefan Gonzalez on drums -- are agile improvisers capable of playing with great intensity, which is in ample evidence here. Just listen to Amado's composition "Replicate I," where Stefan's snare splatters beats to match Lopes' shooting sparks of Sharrockian skronk -- but there are some surprises, as when they open the proceedings with the bluesy strains of "Eddie Harris" (a tune by bassist Bill Lee -- father of film director Spike Lee -- that former Mingus tenor man Clifford Jordan cut for Strata East in 1973) before exploding into Stefan's "Tranquilidad Alborotadora" (which the Gonzalez brothers previously recorded with both Yells At Eels and Unconscious Collective). Perhaps the best moment here is Lopes' "She," an Ornette-like dirge that finds all four men in a more ruminative frame of mind.

A couple hundred miles further south from here, Houston's Nameless Sound provides an invaluable function, bringing world-class creative artists to H-Town to perform and teach in public schools, community centers, and homeless shelters. (Austin's Epistrophy Arts has a similar charge.) Founding director David Dove is a gifted improviser in his own right, whom I once saw point the bell of his trombone at the floor of Fort Worth's Firehouse Gallery to use the building's pier-and-beam foundation as a resonating chamber -- making a speaker, as it were, of the house. Back in April 2018, Nameless Sound brought pioneering avant-jazz vocalist Patty Waters to town, fronting a trio led by her 1960s ESP-Disk label mate Burton Greene, with drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mario Pavone. An Evening in Houston captures their performance.

It's been over five decades (!) since Waters astonished listeners with her primal scream rendition of "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," taking the song places even Nina Simone never imagined and blazing a trail for vocal daredevils like Linda Sharrock and Yoko Ono to follow. These days she eschews such stratospheric explorations, but her voice retains its expressive quality in the same way as Billie Holiday's did when all she had left was her phrasing (which was all she needed, at the end of the day), or Joni Mitchell's did after years of cigarettes obliterated her high range. Her Houston set list pays tribute to Holiday with versions of "Strange Fruit" and "Loverman," and revisits a couple of items from Waters' 1966 College Tour album ("Hush Little Baby with Ba Ha Bad" and "Wild is the Wind") that demonstrate her capacity to convey anguish is undiminished. Throughout, the intimacy of her delivery is a great strength.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

"Peon" by Captain Beefheart (solo guitar cover)

I asked Ron Geida to tab this out for me 20 years ago, and it's taken me this long to learn it. If I live another 20 years, maybe I'll learn something from Trout Mask Replica.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Pinkish Black & Yells At Eels' "Vanishing Light in the Tunnel of Dreams"

Styles, genres, and categories don't really mean a lot in music -- they're marketing conveniences, no more. I've long maintained that anyone can play with anyone else, as long as everyone involved listens and allows the others space. So it was no surprise to me around this time last year when I got wind that Fort Worth's dark, heavy experimental duo Pinkish Black were convening at Cloudland Studio with Dallas' free jazz family trio Yells At Eels. While the bands' approaches to composition and improvisation diverge widely, their stature and shared respect gave their convergence the potential to produce something substantive.

They had a mutual admiration society dating from the days when brothers Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez used to book all-ages punk shows at their parents' Oak Cliff home. Aaron and Stefan had played thrash metal under the rubric Akkolyte before luring their free jazz eminence father, trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez, out of musical retirement to form Yells At Eels in 2001. (An early Yells At Eels composition was entitled "Free Jazz Is Thrash, Asshole.") Pinkish Black drummer/synthesist Jon Teague had subbed for Stefan on a memorable 2008 Yells At Eels gig, and had participated in the improv project "Age of Disinformation" with Aaron that same year.

Typically, Teague and his bandmate, keyboardist/synthesist Daron Beck, deal in spectral atmospherics and monolithic slabs of sound, replete with menace. Yells At Eels is more of a tug of war between the relentless energy and restless invention of the brothers' bass and drums and the grounded spirituality and lyricism of their father's trumpet. On Vanishing Light in the Tunnel of Dreams, the merging of these entities comes about by degrees.

The opening "Meditation" finds Pinkish Black creating a sound world for Yells At Eels to inhabit. "Slow Cascade of Tears" is introduced by Stefan's marimba before Dennis and Aaron make their melodic statements in turn, over Teague's thunderous backing. Aaron Gonzalez particularly shines on this date, whether wrestling deep, woody tones from his acoustic bass, or laying down elastic lines on electric, summoning the spirits of Jack Bruce, John Wetton, and Yannick Top on "Heatstroke Mirage." When Dennis kicks on his harmonizer pedal and blends his sound with Daron Beck's swirling accompaniment, the transformation is underway. The title track opens with a lengthy ambient section before the conversation is joined, its spaciousness reminding this listener of the moody drone pieces on Don Cherry's Brown Rice album.

The culmination of this journey comes on "The Sorrow of Guernica," which dwells on more immediate concerns than Picasso's anti-war masterpiece -- because in the months before the session, Dennis Gonzalez and both members of Pinkish Black had been dealing with health issues, and this music is suffused with awareness of mortality as well as the urge to achieve transcendence. Stefan Gonzalez's marimba tells that story, in the way he backs his father's somber song and then follows his brother's elegiac solo with a tortuous, yet melodic one of his own. Beck makes his own brief comments before the close; Teague anchors the whole piece with assertive sensitivity.

Cloudland's Britt Robisheaux, whose yeoman work helped make Pinkish Black's Concept Unification their strongest work yet, did a masterful job of capturing every element and nuance of this music as it went down, and Daron Beck mixed and mastered it during the pandemic lockdown. Released on Stefane Berland's estimable French indie Ayler Records, its beauty and majesty are eminently worthy of your ears.

Monday, April 06, 2020

FTW, 4.6.2020


Everything changed on 3.13.2020.

It seems kind of silly and pointless to be writing about music when thousands of people are dying from Covid-19, others are putting their lives at risk to save the virus' victims or to keep the rest of us going, and many are facing a scary and uncertain future, as the crisis lays bare the inequities in our economic system and the inadequacy of our for-profit health care scheme. When this is over, one hopes we will do something to rectify these conditions in the long term, now that ideas people were dismissing as "crazy" just a few weeks ago have been implemented as emergency measures. We can and must do better going forward.

My wife is working from home now, and it's inspiring to hear the care and commitment she and her coworkers show for their students and their families as they figure out how to do distance learning for nonverbal, medically fragile students. Like school districts everywhere, Fort Worth's shifted on a dime in the wake of the pandemic, when their IT folks were already in the process of restoring their network after a malware attack that hit just before spring break. I'm always proud of her and the sweet folks she works with, but never more than now.

Myself, I feel like Uncle Lou wrote in "The Kids" on Berlin -- "I am the waterboy, the real game's not over here." I started journaling again, more for therapy than posterity, but honestly, there's not much motivation to write when my free-floating anxiety has me checking social media for news every few minutes.

Live streaming seems to be the thing now. A muso bud (who also has a straight job that, so far at least, remains secure) was lamenting how the quarantine is going to kill live music "forever." I suggested to him that forever is a long time, and in the short term, at least, when the bars and clubs reopen, there'll be an explosion of pent-up demand. After that, who knows? Maybe people will develop new pastimes. We've already seen that the best way to get Americans to exercise is to tell them not to leave their homes. And after a certain amount of enforced leisure, even folks who habitually eat all their meals out might learn how to cook.

I'm now regretting that I missed Gregg Prickett's as-yet-unrecorded Monks of Saturnalia at Denton's Sweetwater Grill and Tavern a few weeks ago, and hoping the fact that band members Drew Phelps and Jeff Barnes are li'l d homeboys will ensure that they have more gigs to come there. We'd recently caught the first set of Rageout Arkestra's most recent Shipping and Receiving stand and left with a copy of the CD-R Clint Niosi recorded at a Rageout performance in Denton awhile back. While it's a representative document of what these improvisers get up to in their sets, you miss little spontaneous moments like Chris White prowling around, taking advantage of the fact that you can hear his trumpet over the band even without amplification, joining the dancers or "attacking" the guest guitarist. Or an interval at the show we saw when Parker Lunsford cranked up a DC go-go groove, then later, when he tried to get the band to shift into 6/8 but they just weren't going for it. Look forward to seeing these guys again, when we can.

It's important to remember that musos need to get paid, and one hopes that folks who are taking advantage of the plethora of live streams that sprung up overnight with social distancing are also kicking some coin to the performers. In general, we won't tune in unless we're willing to pay whatever we would have paid as cover for a show -- the same way that we won't eat out (under normal circumstances) unless we have enough scratch to tip 20%.

That said, we have watched a couple of the free live streams from NYC's Metropolitan Opera -- a Saturday afternoon staple of my childhood (the overture to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is indelibly etched in my memory from when it was the intro music to the broadcasts my old man used to tune in). And I couldn't resist the opportunity to hear Richard Thompson (whom I could never afford to go see when he used to appear at Caravan of Dreams fairly regularly) playing and singing from his living room in New Jersey (his "Keep Your Distance" having become a sort of theme song for social distancing, at least in my world). Auggie even jumped up to have a listen, and didn't lie down on the keyboard, disrupting the transmission, the way he did with the opera a couple of nights before. I could spend the rest of my life practicing hybrid picking over drones, and still not be worthy to hold Mr. Thompson's coat.

Have also been watching weekly talks by historian Heather Cox Richardson, whose "Letters from an American" has become a welcome read in my daily email, providing levelheaded analysis of the political news of the day, and whose How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America is an essential read on how we came to this historical moment. She's on Facebook Live discussing current events in historical context at 3pm (Central) every Tuesday, and the broader arc of American history at noon (Central) every Thursday. Worthwhile.

Other than that, have been enjoying playing DJ for my wife (when she's not on a Zoom call). Have to observe a few different conventions than I'm used to: can't play the same record over and over, for one. And she really doesn't like prog rock. She does, however, really like Ronnie Lane, so we've been spending a good amount of time with Ooh La La -- An Island Harvest, a double CD's worth of toons from the songwriter who always took a backseat to more flamboyant frontman in the Small Faces and Faces, and finally got to step out front with his own band, Slim Chance. This stuff sounds like nothing else -- equal parts old-timey Americana (country, blues, Dixieland) and English music hall, infused with a rustic sensibility not unlike the one that informed the first (good) three or four Rod Stewart solo LPs.

Also spinning Chicago-based guitarist Jeff Parker's The New Breed a good bit -- a hip-hop/jazz hybrid which whets my appetite to hear his new Suite for Max Brown when I am buying things again (as soon as the quarantine came down, it was like somebody threw a switch and all my "want" circuit breakers were deactivated; probably the result of being raised by Depression-era kids). I have yet to hear a record on the International Anthem label that I didn't like.

Last but not least, Trees Speak is a Tucson-based duo whose debut full-length Ohms is out on estimable UK indie Soul Jazz (which usually releases only archival material). They use an arsenal of gear including a mellotron, synths, and analog F/X to produce a sound that's alternately ethereal and atmospheric, organic and groove-oriented, bearing the stamp of '70s German bands like Kraftwerk (when Florian still played the flute), Neu!, and Can (minus the vocalismo). Good soundtrack for meditating and contemplating, activities we've more time than usual for these days.

Stay home and flatten the curve if you can and if you can't, please take care, won't you?

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).