Friday, July 17, 2020

Harvey Gold's "It's Messy, Vol. 1"

Harvey Gold was the ebullient voice on Ohio progsters-in-new-wave-clothing Tin Huey's 1979 tracks "The Revelations of Doctor Modesto" and "New York's Finest Dining Experience" (from their long out of print and reissue-overdue Warner Bros. LP, Contents Dislodged During Shipment). More composition-focused than Akron homeboys Devo, the Hueys were role models and exemplars for Cleveland neighbors Pere Ubu in their early stages. In a lineup rife with talent, Gold wrote, sang, and was a triple threat on keyboards, guitar, and bass. Tin Huey fragmented after an early '80s move to Woodstock, New York, with Gold moving on to a successful career as a TV producer while his bandmates Chris Butler and Ralph Carney went on to respectively helm the Waitresses of "Christmas Wrapping" fame, and serve as saxman of choice for the likes of Tom Waits and Elvis Costello.

Finding themselves back in Northern Ohio in the 'Teens, Gold and Butler regrouped under the rubric Half Cleveland. Gold also made recordings as Harvey In the Hall (with former Chi-Pig bassist Deborah Smith Cahan and Half Cleveland drummer Bob Ethington) and Mr. Ray Violet (with drummer David Stephenson and ex-Tin Huey mates Michael Aylward and Stuart Austin). It's Messy, Vol. 1 compiles work with all three units, beautifully sequenced so the songs flow seamlessly and sound all of a piece.

Gold's medium is finely wrought pop-rock songcraft with tinges of psychedelia -- if you dig classic Beatles, Who, and Todd Rundgren, you'll find much to appreciate here. In his maturity, he's adopted the voice of a decent man who experiences ambivalence, loving his comfortable life but feeling overwhelmed by a world careening wildly out of control -- imagine the Jack Lemmon character from Save the Tiger, transplanted to TrumpAmerica and played by late period Lou Reed, and you'll have some idea of what's going on here. Or just listen to "The Fence," which encapsulates everything I just described, plus what a lot of us have been living the past three years and change.

"Eidola (Inadvertently for Ralph)" explores the chronic state of grief that is the human condition, if one is fortunate to stick around long enough. (Besides being memorialized there, Carney provided the "horn orchestra" that shuts the gate to "The Fence.") "Allegheny Lode" is a country rock stomper with guest appearances by Black Key Dan Auerbach (whose bandmate Patrick Carney is Ralph's nephew) and high-flying Byrd Chris Hillman. "Lazy Boy" vividly depicts the way internalized messages from childhood write the scripts for our lives (not to get too pop psychological), before Gold and Auerbach's dueling, Neil Young-esque rave-up guitars provide release. "In Consideration of Joe Strummer" is a horn-driven R&B groover, propelled by a Bo Diddley beat, leading into a slowcore cover of McCartney's "I've Just Seen A Face." "In A Very Good Place" is the album's climactic moment, but there are still a couple of surprises to come. No spoilers here.

It's Messy, Vol. 1 drops on all digital platforms July 24th, with CDs to follow via Smog Veil on September 25th. This, dare I say, Gold-standard material is too damn fine to go unheard.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Jaki Shelton Green's "The River Speaks of Thirst"

I don't have words to write about the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis -- only the latest in a long, long litany of killings of black people by American police, another piece of systemic violence done by a social system that has gutted essential community services at the same time it has remade our police as a military force, and an economy where oligarchs are allowed to amass billions while their corporations are sustained by people who struggle to cling to the barest subsistence. I watched the cities burn in the '60s from my mother's living room, I saw Rodney King beaten by LAPD on the TV in a bar, I sat in my living room with my wife and watched in mute horror as police fired teargas into a residential neighborhood in Ferguson, Missouri, and thought that surely, now this must change.

There is much pain and anger here, and the explosion of support for the value of black lives, with millions of people marching in the street across America and all over the world, may have brought us to a pivotal moment where our original sin must be atoned for and our tab must at long last be paid. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to highlight the weakness of our governance, the woeful inadequacy of our health care system, and the tenuousness of our prosperity. The big, diverse crowds now demanding justice give me more hope than I've had for several years. Here's hoping the momentum can continue.

I don't really have the attention span to write right now. The news cycle has me perpetually distracted; my sleep cycle is jacked. But here's something I wrote on social media a couple of weeks ago that I still stand behind today: "Someone who tells you an unpleasant truth about yourself is not your enemy. They're giving you the chance to be better. The people who are marching all over the country aren't a threat to this country. They're patriots, giving us the chance to do better at living up to those high words written by flawed men a couple hundred years ago. The alternative is a totalitarian nightmare. Time to choose."

And then this arrived like a healing balm in my email yesterday. It's a poem by North Carolina poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green, a writer-educator-activist whose debut album The River Speaks of Thirst drops a couple of days from now, on Juneteenth. Written a few years ago for an online anthology, "Oh My Brother" is a song that's as old as the Middle Passage and as current as today's headlines -- for the killing of black people goes on unabated, by police in Atlanta and in a rash of lynchings that police call suicides.

Green's voice is suffused with the Southern rural experience of her growing up and the sounds she absorbed from her family's record player -- the Last Poets, Nina Simone, Arthur Prysock, Malcolm X. Her shattering evocations of pregnant mothers diving to their deaths in the ocean to escape slave ships, of the dynamic between the descendants of slaves and slaveholders, of trees that hold the memory of lynchings, are intoned carefully, in the manner of a shared confidence.

Producer Alec Ferrell has fashioned simple, unobtrusive backings to frame her words. Green is joined by collaborators here and there -- Jennifer Evans adding a gospel undercurrent to "This I Know for Sure," Durham poet-musician Shirlette Ammons reciting "A Litany for the Possessed," Chapel Hill poet laureate CJ Suitt declaiming "No Poetry," jazz singer Nnenna Freelon echoing her on the title track -- but it's Green's words that are the blood and bones and sinew of this record. Listen.

Thursday, May 21, 2020


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?