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.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Things we like: Sturgill Simpson, FZ, Courtney Barnett

1) It appears the universe doesn't want me listening to CDs. The player in my car -- which had become my "deep listening space" over the last few years -- went Tango Uniform the other day, after refusing to reject The Young Mothers' CD I'd been listening to for a week or so. Wha-wha. So it's back to NPR news, which might not be a bad thing. (I've also started turning off the 'puter around 8pm most nights. Sleep better that way.)

2) I'm a little slow on the pickup, so when I first heard Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music a few months ago, I thought, "Gee whiz, he sounds like Waylon Jennings on acid." (He'd been reading A Brief History of Time and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, evidently.) When I got his A Sailor's Guide to Life, I thought, "Gee whiz, it sounds like Waylon if he'd recorded at Stax in '67." I perceive the strength in Sturgill's writing comes from his real-life experience, which includes long periods at non-musical jobs, including naval service. On A Sailor's Guide's "Sea Stories" -- possibly the best song about being in the Navy since Mike Watt's Contemplating the Engine Room -- when he sings, "If you get sick and can't manage to kick and get yourself kicked out of the Navy / You spend the next year trying to score from a futon life raft on the floor / And the next 15 trying to figure out what the hell you did that for," you know somebody lived that.

3) A customer recently got me back down the FZ rabbit hole for a minute. While I've written elsewhere about how my Zappa fandom has diminished over the years (a too-high chaff-to-wheat ratio, even in the heyday), and how DVDs have supplanted old favorite recs like Roxy and Elsewhere and One Size Fits All (in the same way as they have the audio-only versions of live Hendrix, post-Blow By Blow Jeff Beck, and '64 Mingus), I recently picked up a copy of Mothermania, the Mothers of Invention comp Frank put together for MGM when he broke his contract with them -- subsequently disavowed, and out of catalog for years (although I understand the Family Trust has brought it back digitally), but it includes all the tracks he cited as most satisfactory in his '68 Rolling Stone int save the "Pigs and Ponies" side of Lumpy Gravy. (The sequence of LPs that includes We're Only In It for the Money, Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets, and Uncle Meat as well as Gravy -- the result of an explosion of studio productivity while the Mothers were playing a residency at NYC's Garrick Theater during '67 -- is arguably the cornerstone of his oeuvre, although Money's snidely pompous social commentary hasn't aged well.) Missing from Mothermania is the talking blues "Trouble Every Day," inspired by the '65 Watts riots, which may prove to be Frank's most enduring work, along with his '85 anti-censorship testimony before Congress. Give him this: He predicted a "fascist theocracy" here 30 years ago, which is looking pretty prescient right now.

4) When a friend pulled my coat to Courtney Barnett's Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit a couple of years ago, it quickly became my record o' that summer (with lines like "Gimme all your money and I'll make some origami, honey," how could you go wrong?). Her newie, Tell Me How You Really Feel, got my attention with a song called "Nameless, Faceless" that alludes to a quote attributed to Margaret Atwood, making it speak to our historical moment: "I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Men are scared that women will laugh at them / I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Women are scared that men will kill them / I hold my keys / Between my fingers." Barnett's an Aussie from Melbourne -- a country which, in the '90s, seemed to me like an alternative universe America where the Stooges, MC5, Flamin' Groovies, and Nuggets (the music I took much shit for liking when I was a snotnose) were actually popular. She's of a different generation, of course: the one that came of age to Nirvana. (More to the point, she's toured with Sleater-Kinney musos, and they even make a cameo appearance in her "Elevator Operator" video.) Her dry wit and poker-faced delivery mark her as something special among singer-songwriters. She's indicated that the new album's title refers to her "politely restrained" but omnipresent anger, which really comes across in the self-explanatory "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch." But "Sunday Roast" is a gently uplifting valedictory. Looks like I've got my record for this summer. Even without a CD player in the car.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Prophecy Productions: Volur, The Dark Red Seed, Hekate

Although new to me, Prophecy Productions, the German label that released the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices album I reviewed last month -- has been around since 1996. Originally intended for a single release by the band Empyrium, the label has enjoyed huge success in Europe with a catalog of dark metal and neofolk acts including Dornenreich, The Vision Bleak, Alcest, and Sol Invictus. The label's hallmarks include long relationships with artists, lavishly packaged editions, and a close connection with fans. In 2003, Prophecy initiated sub-labels Lupus Lounge and Auerbach Tontrager to release extreme metal and contemporary folk, respectively. Three of their new releases arrived on my doorstep this week.

On Ancestors, the second in a planned four-album sequence, Toronto-based trio Volur plays a darkly ruminative brand of doom music ("not necessarily metal," their Bandcamp page emphasizes), with lyrics steeped in old Germanic myths and spirituality. Laura C. Bates' violin fulfills the melodic role of a guitar here, lending the music a lighter, pastoral quality at times (as on the opening "Breaker of Silence," one of four side-long pieces on the double LP), balanced by the driving force of Lucas Gadke's bass and Jimmy Payment's drums. On "Breaker of Skulls," the ensemble's stately melodic grandeur is offset by Gadke's growled invocation of blood feasts, making Led Zep's "Immigrant Song" sound like the Monkees.

The Dark Red Seed (a "metaphor for the heart") is the collaborative project of guitarist Tosten Larsen and drummer-engineer Shawn Fleming, both of whom also work with Seattle dark folk muso King Dude. On Becomes Awake, their first full-length, they've crafted a richly textured, acoustic-based rock music, replete with horn and string arrangements, that draws on Roma, Indian, and Persian musical traditions for source material. The net effect is like a more somber version of Love's Forever Changes, and the music takes some interesting turns, as in the horn-driven instrumental "The Void," or "The Awakening," which features guitar tones that show the linkage between Link Wray and Syd Barrett.

On their sixth album, Totentanz ("Dance of Death"), the venerable German neofolk outfit Hekate (originally formed by non-musician goth kids in Koblenz back in 1993) combines electronic and percussion elements with classical dynamics and lyrics sung in either English or German -- the latter including their setting of Prussian poet Joseph von Eichendorff's "Mondnacht" (which shares a title with the Franz Stassen painting that graces the cover; the art book edition of the album also includes unpublished ink drawings by the reclusive magic realist Hermann Wohler). As ruminations on mortality go, it's not Mahler, but at its best (as on the Sandy Denny-ish "Spring of Light" or the world music-evocative "Am Meere"), Totentanz can be a haunting, intriguing listen.

These records are just a tiny sample from a big, diverse catalog. Little known in the US, Prophecy Productions represents something like a darker, heavier ECM -- a quality label for listeners of certain taste. Music's a deep well; how fortunate are we.

Friday, May 18, 2018

5.17.2018, Deep Ellum

It had probably been close to a decade since the last time I set foot in bustling Deep Ellum, but when I saw The Young Mothers were stopping by RBC -- the acronym stands for "Rhythm, Beats, Culture" (formerly the Red Blood Club), tucked behind a burger joint on Commerce, and site of Stefan Gonzalez's Monday-night Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions -- on their way to Europe (via Austin), and that the bill was rounded out by Ataraxia and Habu Habu, I had sufficient reason to leave not only my couch and my house, but even my area code (a rare occurrence these days).

First things first: Habu Habu is the solo project of Gregg Prickett, who was Ronald Shannon Jackson's last guitarist and whose own work combines classical fluency with advanced jazz, rock, and improv ideas. In performance, his entire physical being is focused on a still center, from which he spins all manner of sonic tapestries, now caressing the strings gently, now striking them with great violence, always with impeccable control. A ruminative opener, played on his nylon string, was dedicated to "a special person," and filled with heart-healing lyricism. Then he looped percussive noises by rubbing on the strings, over which he overlaid pensive electric chords, out of which emerged a stunning surprise: a version of the standard "It Had To Be You," on which Prickett sang as well as played. (He's been studying standard repertoire with a pianist and exploring the idea of lyrics as a medium to tell stories.) On his closing number, he stacked orchestrated parts to create a dense forest of sound. Prickett plans to revive his Mingus-inspired Monks of Saturnalia soon with Ataraxia's Drew Phelps and Young mothers Jason Jackson and Stefan Gonzalez. I look forward to hearing.

I'd last seen Ataraxia -- trumpeter-composer Dennis Gonzalez's trio with bassist Phelps and percussionist Jagath Lakpriya -- at house shows when they were still feeling each other out, and it was a pleasure hearing Dennis explore different space than the intense one he usually inhabits in Yells At Eels with his sons Stefan and Aaron Gonzalez. Now, Ataraxia's performance commences with the musicians already deep into the music, as though resuming a conversation that they'd started earlier. That's what playing together for a couple of years will do for an ensemble; good (but not obtrusive) amplification makes a difference, too. On this night, Aaron -- just back from a tour with the dark experimental collective Asukubus -- augmented the lineup on second bass, seamlessly swapping accompanying and solo roles with Drew. When Phelps played dancing syncopation against the younger Gonzalez's steady pulse, the music went to a special place. When not cuing solos or otherwise directing the band, Dennis played small instruments, laid down block chords using a harmonizer, and played long, sinuous lines over Lakpriya's primeval groove.

Then Young Mothers roared out of the gate with fierce, jarring visceral power. Theirs is a dense, multi-layered sound where Ivesian contrapuntal lines often divide the ensemble into competing units -- a testament to their attentive listening. Drummer Frank Rosaly was taken ill in Amsterdam, so his place was ably filled by Chris Holmes, who played the music with an authority that belied his last-minute substitution. Stefan Gonzalez's mallets fleetly flew across his vibraphone, sometimes at the same time as he shrieked grindcore style, and he added power on a second drum kit when required. Jawwaad Taylor coaxed a myriad of beats and samples from his laptop, over which he flowed verse -- as on "Attica Black," wherein he conjures a country become prison yard -- and blew circuitous lines on his pocket trumpet. Saxman Jason Jackson has a robust, burnished sound on tenor and baritone, sounding for all the world like Archie Shepp channeling Ben Webster. Leader Ingebrigt Haker Flaten -- whose numerous other projects include The Thing, surely the only free jazz trio to have worked with both Neneh Cherry and James "Blood" Ulmer -- has a muscular attack on Rickenbacker and stand-up basses, laying down pummeling rock rifferama one moment, relentless ostinatos the next, and coaxing pealing waves of feedback from his amp on the climactic piece.

In any other band, each of these men could be the main attraction. The challenge of witnessing a Young Mothers performance is deciding where to focus. Perhaps most astonishing was guitarist Jonathan Horne, who runs his Mosrite through a preamp, tiny Fender and Premier amps, and an arsenal of effects to produce huge slabs of thick-toned sound, sometimes doubling Haken's line, at others blending with Jackson, then soloing with insane abandon, including slashing Sharrockian chaos-slide. His remarkable performance entered the realm of the miraculous in my mind when I learned that he's recovering from having a tendon in his left arm severed six months ago -- he'd been unsure he'd ever play again -- bringing to mind a convo I'd had earlier with Prickett about Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Derek Bailey, and how a performer responds when their physical capability changes. (Horne credited his bandmates' support following his injury as an aid to his recovery.)

As imposing as these Young Mothers were on RBC's small stage, one can imagine how they'd dominate a larger festival stage. It's all there on their new album Morose (check out the track "Black Tar Caviar," which provides a nice summation of their multiplicity of strengths), but this music really needs to be experienced live. How fortunate 30 or so of us were that they docked in Deep Ellum last night. I'll be anxiously awaiting their return.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Cleveland Steamers' "Best Record Ever"

A married-couple-fronted rockaroll band (shades of Blondie, X, and Dead Moon) named after a railway mechanics' bowling team, Cleveland Steamers convened in 2011 as the final project of terminally ill Clevo punk muso Lair Matic. Since frontwoman Meredith Rutledge-Borger joined her husband, bassist-vocalist Cheese Borger, in the lineup, they've recorded two albums for estimable indie Smog Veil with a revolving cast of local-celebrity guests.

On their latest vinyl slab, the optimistically-entitled Best Record Ever, their punk and noir influences coalesce into a cocktail of garage psychedelia that's often reminiscent of Blue Oyster Cult's first two albums, as well as early-Ezrin-era Alice Cooper. High spots of the first side include the sultry, spooky "Dream of Me," crooned by Meredith over a moody backing replete with bluesy organ and sax solos, segueing directly into the heavy, dark menace of "Monsanto," growled with requisite grit by Cheese and juiced with synth F/X that recall early Pere Ubu.

Second side kicks off strong with Meredith riding the propulsive mid-tempo wave of "Hung Up On You," and winds up with the album's two punkest moments: "My Asshole Cousin," in which Cheese paints a picture of a certain subspecies of Meercun that's particularly prevalent at the moment, and the self-explanatory "Shut Up!," with guest vocals by the Plague's Bob Sablack. Proof positive, as if any more were needed, that Ohio remains the secret music capital of America.