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.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices' "BooCheeMish"

Back in the "world music"-obsessed mid-'80s, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares -- a Swiss musicologist's recording of Bulgarian folk songs, sung by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Voice Choir -- made a splash on the Western pop scene when reissued by the 4AD label, home to the similarly otherworldly Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. (Frank Zappa was a fan of those recordings, as were CSN&Y and the Grateful Dead.) Now, The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices is releasing its first album in over two decades, with help from Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard on four of the 12 tracks.

Unlike the folkloric music the choir previously recorded, most of the material on BooCheeMish was newly written by composer Peter Dundakov. Gerrard's contributions were co-written with her regular collaborator Jules Maxwell. Besides the voices, you'll also hear traditional Bulgarian instruments, an array of percussion from various cultures, and stringed instruments which range from acoustic guitar and bass to a string quartet. Bulgarian beatbox artist SkilleR also contributes to four tracks. These added elements don't detract from the mood the voices create; rather, they reinforce the universality of the choir's sound.

Choir director Dora Hristova points out that the Bulgarian vocal tradition requires strong breath to project the voice across fields and valleys. The sound these women make while moving those big columns of air manages to sound both ancient and modern, earthy and haunting. Perhaps it is particularly appropriate, at this moment in history, to hear strong women's voices.

Two songs featuring Gerrard ("Pora Sotunda" and "Ganka") are available digitally now. The full album will drop May 25 in a variety of formats: CD, LP, limited edition SACD, limited edition double CD with 60-page art book, and limited edition box set including art book, LP, SACD, and four LP-size art prints.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Nels Cline 4's "Currents, Constellations"

Besides holding down the lead guitar chair in Wilco (with whom his "Impossible Germany" solo surely ranks among the great rock rides -- sort of a "Marquee Moon"-meets-"Hotel California"), Nels Cline continues to refine the art of jazz guitar. Since teaming up in a duo with classically-trained former child prodigy Julian Lage for 2014's Room (and a 2015 performance at the Kessler Theatre in Oak Cliff that showcased some of the most intense musical communication I have ever witnessed), he's released an album with jazz-funk trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood, as well as the beautifully orchestrated, David Breskin-produced "mood music" project Lovers.

Now, he and Lage are joined by bassist Scott Colley (who's played with an impressive array of artists that includes Jim Hall, Herbie Hancock, and Andrew Hill) and drummer Tom Rainey (a former Tim Berne sideman whom I first heard on Ash and Tabula, an improv date with Cline and Andrea Parkins, and his own Pool School, with Mary Halvorson and his wife, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock). Together, they make a music that veers from jarring dissonance to ruminative lyricism but is always interactive and exploratory.

Together, Cline and Lage are really something special: Imagine two incredibly facile and expressive guitarists, who can mind-meld instead of competing for space. Whether playing "sovereign" solos with support, unisons, or moving dyads, the whole always exceeds the sum of parts, and the rhythm section just allows them to up the ante. The intensity stays high on the freeblow explosion of "Furtive," driven by Rainey's loose-limbed clatter; "Swing Ghost '59," in which Cline seeks to both amuse himself and make a comment on the dearth of swing in modern music by juxtaposing sections of swung and even eighth notes; the crushing groove tune "Imperfect 10;" and "Amenette," a reprise of a tune from Room, the title of which tips its hat to both Scott Amendola (drummer in the all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers) and Ornette Coleman.

The ghosts of Jim Hall, John Abercrombie, and Ralph Towner haunt the ballad "As Close As That," the "chamber jazz" of "Temporarily" (composed by Carla Bley for the Jimmy Giuffre 3, which included Hall), the pastoral "River Mouth" (possibly my favorite piece here, the second part of which is strongly evocative of Towner's work with the band Oregon), and the closing valediction "For Each, A Flower." It'll no doubt be exciting to see the way this material grows in live performance. Sadly, the Nels Cline 4's tour (which opens tonight in Oslo) has no North American stops. Next year, perhaps, Mr. Cline? At the Kessler, maybe?

Friday, April 20, 2018

Dennis Gonzalez's "Star System Compositions"

Best known as a musician, Dallas-based Renaissance man Dennis Gonzalez is also a gifted visual artist, and sometimes his various creative endeavors cross over. A couple of years ago, a gallery in my neighborhood presented his works on paper under the rubric "The Enigma of Divination" in conjunction with a performance by his recently-formed trio Ataraxia. Currently, "Star System Compositions" -- a collection of his graphic scores -- is on display in the gallery at the Baylor Health Science Library (3302 Gaston Ave., Dallas TX 75246) through June 17. Gonzalez's depictions of constellations incorporate elements of collage, pen-and-ink, geometric forms, and standard musical notation. Their subject matter unites the artist's interests in the cosmic, the spiritual, and the musical.

"Orion (For Cornelius Cardew)," for example, pays tribute (in golden hues) to the British composer, who explored similar territory in his collection of scores entitled "Treatise." One of the most visually complex scores in this group, "Andromeda (For Turiyasangitananda Alice Coltrane)," juxaposes a big, golden sun with groupings of colored squares, and Sanksrit writing. "Aquarius, Delphinius, and Orion II" -- a commission from Gonzalez's son Stefan for the improvisational duo Mother II -- has a strong simplicity, dominated by two large circles, with a cropped nature photo around the border. "Proxima Centauri" (illustrated above) is dedicated to Fort Worth guitarist-promoter Kavin Allenson (whose offer of a gig prompted Ataraxia's formation), and will be familiar to owners of the Ataraxia record. "The Heart Asterism (For Carol Gonzalez)," depicts a pattern of stars suggesting a heart, as befits a dedication to the artist's wife. Gonzalez's two-dimensional creations are as engaging as his music. See them while you can.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Allen Ravenstine's "Waiting for the Bomb"

Present at the creation of abrasive experimental rockers Pere Ubu, synthesizer whiz Allen Ravenstine spent 15 years and change with the band and related outfits (Red Krayola, David Thomas' Wooden Birds) before stepping out in the early '90s to take off on a career as an airline pilot. He was pulled back into music after performing with current Ubu synthesist Robert Wheeler during the filming of the 2014 documentary I Dream of Wires. Two collaborative CDs with Wheeler (Farm Report and City Desk, both released in 2013 by Blue Jet Corporation) were followed by a solo CD, The Pharaoh's Bee, released in 2015 on former Henry Cow/Ubu drummer Chris Cutler's Recommended Records label. Now, ReR plans to release Ravenstine's latest album, Waiting for the Bomb, in LP, CD, and digital formats on June 29.

Ravenstine cut basic tracks for Waiting for the Bomb using a Moog Theremini, Doepfler Dark Energy Korg MS 20, Rare Waves Grendel Grenadier drone synth, and a home computer, then had a piano-bass (doubling on trumpet)-drums trio overdub their traditional instrument sounds onto the soundscapes he'd created. The resultant 18 tracks seamlessly integrate the electronic and acoustic textures in a mind-movie soundtrack that includes ghostly ambience, classical orchestration, East Indian pop, and straight-ahead jazz, among other flavors. But is the movie sci-fi or noir? The answer, of course, is "Yes." The title alludes to the pervasive sense of dread Cold War babies experienced growing up, which has perhaps been replaced by something worse. (Does anybody else miss the illusion that the people calling the shots were rational actors?) Most evocative track (to these feedback-scorched ears) is the sustained foreboding of "Out Late." Fasten your seatbelts; Captain Ravenstine is in control...

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Chris Butler's "Got It Togehter!"


When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.
- Chinua Achebe (quoted by my wife on Facebook)

As a music fan, I've been swinging after the pitch since I "discovered" the Yardbirds when I was 13, while the rest of my age cohort was digging Led Zep, Grand Funk, and Sabbath. That's right: I am old. (Remember that Police song called "Born In the Fifties?" Heh.) A few years ago, when I was busy all the time, a friend got me a subscription to Rolling Stone. Now that we are not busy all the time, my wife and I are catching up on the last five years. I'm reading Springsteen's book out of the library, and we're listening a lot to Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves. There are, however, musical enthusiasms on which I stay more up-to-date.

One of those enthusiasms is Chris Butler, whose 2013 album Easy Life -- a coming-of-age tale of its author's Every College Kid life, which was torn asunder by the 1970 Kent State massacre, to which he was a witness -- was the last record (well, CD) after Brian Wilson's 2004 Smile that I had to keep playing and playing (particularly the song "Beggar's Bullets") until my wife politely asked, "Do you have to listen to that so much?" (and she's a tolerant soul, when it comes to my musical enthusiasms).

Butler, once the songwriting secret weapon of Tin Huey and the Waitresses, is perhaps best known for owning serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's childhood home, or for recording the world's longest recorded pop song. As a writer, Butler's a great storyteller, whether his medium is prose, film, or songs. His website is full of examples, which you are hereby heartily encouraged to investigate. Now, he's got a new album out -- available on physical CD via his Bandcamp page (with streaming/downloads to follow via estimable indie Smog Veil; link will be added here when available) -- and it's a corker.

Unlike my first fave songwriter, Pete Townshend -- who did his best work before he was 30 and spent the next decade grousing about it before becoming retrospectively focused in his 40s -- Butler's songcraft has broadened and deepened in his maturity. And unlike my other favorite songwriter, Lou Reed, who had an unexpected third hot streak in his fourth decade, Butler's less concerned with encroaching mortality (Uncle Lou's preoccupation on Magic and Loss, which just might be my favorite album of his) than with the problems of living past the age when you realize that the alternative to being old isn't being young. (He's joked about prohibiting anyone under 40 from buying Get It Togehter! -- "They wouldn't get it." I beg to differ -- but I could also be wrong.)

Here, Butler's subject matter includes an imaginary musician crush ("Songs For Guys"), the joy of winding somebody up till they snap ("New Enemy"), seasonal change as mortality metaphor ("Summer Money"), responsibility as a damper to erotic enjoyment ("Late For Work": "I ran after you like a man late for work...Not like you're late for an exam / In a class you can't stand / In a useless subject that you'll never use again"), reasons to not have kids ("Mommy Glow"), the psychic struggles attendant to quitting smoking (the Tin Huey homage "Nicotine Weather"), and the awkwardness of attending acquaintances' memorials ("Awake;" I won't give away the punchline, but it's a knockout).

The heart of the matter resides in the triptych of "Never Been Old Before" (which captures the desperation of trying to impart your cultural legacy to indifferent youngsters -- "This is the Who on Shindig! / That's a Bugatti!...I was right here on May 4th! / If you say you're bored / You're not paying attention"), "Bitch Box" ("Get off my lawn" from the porch sitter's perspective -- "What do you want? / Just don't hurt me anymore"), and the R&B-tinged "Better Than I Ever Was" (which teases triumph out of having tackled life's trials 'n' tribs).

After that, things wind down with the synth-driven "The Whirlaway" and an alternate take of "Better Than I Ever Was," which reminds us that Butler can shred on a Rickenbacker 12-string better than McGuinn, Reed, and Roy Wood put together (part of the fun of this music is hearing his pop, prog, and psychedelic instincts fighting it out). Lyrically, he undercuts poignancy with sardonic humor -- until "Touch of Gray," a song about his grandfather that he wrote in the '80s, before that Dead song of the same name. The valedictory "Curious Girls" (a '90s leftover, curiously sung by someone other than Butler) serves as a palate cleanser to this feast of song.

When I was 11, I imagined Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends as the sound of what being 21 was going to feel like. Fifty years later, this album is the sound of what I feel like right now. Listen: Chris Butler's making the best music of his life. Hear him if you can.