Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Harriet Tubman's "Araminta"

Harriet Tubman is the rubric chosen to represent a power trio of veteran musos who are accustomed to working the territory where free jazz, funk, and heavy rock intersect. Guitarist Brandon Ross has long been a mainstay in the groups of Henry Threadgill, Cassandra Wilson, Lawrence "Butch" Morris, and Oliver Lake, among others. His axe's blues-drenched song is refracted through a composer's sensibility and an array of electronics. Bassist Melvin Gibbs honed his craft with leaders like Ronald Shannon Jackson, Sonny Sharrock, and Henry Rollins. He lays down a foundation of shifting tectonic plates and slings thick-textured notes around like shards of obsidian in his solos. Drummer J.T. Lewis is equally at home subdividing the beat behind R&B divas, straight-ahead jazzers, and "outside" improvisers. With his bandmates in Harriet Tubman, he engages in three-way discussions where any man can dominate the conversation at any given time.

On Araminta -- the name given at birth to the band's namesake abolitionist -- their trialogue is joined by the trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, that most Milesian alumnus of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who's been doing career defining work in his seventh decade with a series of suites commemorating the American experience (the latest of which, America's National Parks, topped a lot of year-end poll lists last year). Together, they create a music that is simultaneously intentional, free-flowing, and spontaneous.

"The Spiral Path to the Throne" opens the proceedings with layers of shimmering electronic sounds, giving way to a series of solo exchanges over a dense rhythmic underpinning. Ross and Gibbs raise architectonic structures on "Taken," before "Blacktal Fractal" -- inspired by designs on Shoowa textiles from Congo -- is energized by some of Wadada's most salutary playing. "Ne Ander" lumbers with crushing heaviness before the lovely lyrical interlude that is "Nina Simone." The album's climactic tour de force comes with the one-two punch of "Real Cool Killers" -- which combines dub ambiance with heavy psychedelic sonics -- and Smith's composition "President Obama's Speech at the Selma Bridge." On the latter piece, the players conjure a storm over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with Gibbs and Lewis' thunder following Smith and Ross' lightning, evoking the memory of past struggles to summon strength for those to come. The closing ballad "Sweet Araminta" is a respite, a blessing, and a benediction.

Perhaps the uncertain days we're entering will bring a resurgence of freedom music. We'll have to wait and see, but for now, Araminta provides the kind of sustenance that your psyche and spirit have probably been craving.

Stream, download, or pre-order the physical CD from Sunnyside Records here.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

GR's "Propel Tension on Polyester Base"

It was one of the most electrifying shows I've ever seen in my life. In 2009, the Gunslingers, a French trio that had managed to book a U.S. tour on the strength of a blazing album, No More Invention, and the advocacy of Julian Cope, came and blew the roof off the Chat Room, a tiny dive on Fort Worth's not-yet-gentrified Magnolia Street. Gregory Raimo, the Gunslingers' alpine-lidded frontman, jabbered gibberish like a demented alien, did a nice line in Sharrockian chaos-slide, and conjured a feedback apocalypse by spiking his guitar neck into his borrowed Fender amp, proving that you don't need big gear to make an unholy racket.

He didn't need the other Gunslingers, either, apparently. On his own, under the rubric GR, Raimo has produced four albums' worth of intriguing psychedelic murk, mostly overdubbing all the instruments himself, collaborating with obscuro '60s wizard Michael Yonkers on 2007's The High Speed Recording Complex. His newest, Propel Tension on Polyester Base, compiles a bunch of analog recordings done at different locations between 2008 and last year. The tracks range from droning rave-ups in the grand style to experiments in musique concrete weirdness to splendiferous space rock.

The opening "Perforation" sounds like a surf movie soundtrack composed by Ennio Morricone and played by the Exploding Plastic Inevitable-era Velvets. "Vertical Take-Off," in two parts a la the Isley Brothers, is almost Gunslingers redux but with more melodic guitar moves, which take Uncle Lou's needles-on-red "I Heard Her Call My Name" tone in a more stately and majestic direction. "Violet Piss In Snobbish Eardrums" -- great title! -- allows us to imagine Raimo fronting Kraftwerk, while the dark, fingerpicked "Ritual to the Decadent" plumbs the same emotional depths as late-period John Fahey. "Altostratus" blasts off for Hawkwind territory, ultimately depositing the listener -- along with the ghost of Mitch Mitchell circa Ladyland -- in the middle of the title track's pulsing throb. "Down the Hidden Shade" features shimmering guitars behind Raimo's cryptic pronouncements, proving that the cat's still out to lunch -- same place Sun Ra used to eat at.

You can stream or download the whole thing at the link below, but this is the kind of noise that's best heard on sweet, sweet vinyl. (Click on the "Order LP" link on this page.)

Friday, January 06, 2017

The Drawer Devils' "Hail Satin!"

Drummer Hank Tosh has an illustrious history in Dallas garage rock, with stints in the Deadites, Stingrays, Gospel Swingers, A Feast of Snakes, and Bipolar Express under his belt. More recently, he kicked the traps behind the instrumental Ape Hangars until he got the urge to do "some more hard edged stuff -- I guess we could call it heavy psychedelic punk." With Ape Hangars bassist Ryan Coplen, Britt Tucker from the Jesus Lizard-esque IBU on rhythm guitar and vocals, and L.A. surf band vet Mike McHenry on lead guitar, Hank formed the Drawer Devils -- a moniker extrapolated from a line in a John Lee Hooker song. The band wisely chose to record in Fort Worth, at Cloudland, with Britt Robisheaux and Robby Rux co-producing.

Their debut full-length for Dreamy Life, Hail Satin!, is a mix of originals and covers of band faves. "Screaming Rummy," originally by the '80s Cali outfit the Beguiled, kicks the door open with an explosion of garage grease in the grand style, replete with pounding beat, stinging riffage, and howling vocalismo. "Swampland," from Aussie post-punks Scientists, drags rockabilly through an oozing morass of reverb and tremelo. Dead Moon's "Psychodelic Nightmare" ups the dementia quotient a few notches, while "Lucifer Sam" seethes with menace only hinted at by the Syd-era Pink Floyd. Among the 'riginals, standouts include "Feelin' Low," with lyrics and a cadence inspired by a dream of Hank's, and "SpaceGhosts," which represents a whole new level of heaviness. There's stylistic continuity here, but within that, there's a lot of variety. With this release and an all-original EP set to follow, these Drawer Devils are a crew to watch.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Ten things I liked in 2016

1) Helping Dennis Gonzalez hang his art exhibit at Grackle Gallery, and hearing his new band Ataraxia Trio in one of their first performances. I'm looking forward to hearing the recordings they just completed, after a few more months of sound evolution.

2) Hearing Sarah Ruth Alexander and Gregg Prickett perform their darkly spiritual music twice, also at the Grackle. (Do I detect a theme here?) The first time, it was material from her solo cassette Words On the Wind, with atmospheric interludes from Gregg. The second time, it was Far From the Silvery Light, the album that they released under the rubric They Say the Wind Made Them Crazy, in its entahrty.

3) Taking 3/4 of X_____x to dinner in the Denton town square when they played at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studio (RIP) in January, and realizing as we listened to the VU's Matrix tapes on the way back that at least two of them had the memory of seeing the Velvets at La Cave. Hearing X_____x's stately version of Albert Ayler's "Ghosts" live was an unexpectedly moving experience. Bonus: Getting to hear Craig Bell's "New Haven era" compilation aka Darwin Layne on sweet, sweet vinyl.

4) Watching Half Cleveland perform live via the wonders of live streaming. Getting a shout-out from Harvey Gold. Becoming obsessed with Robert Wyatt's "Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road" after hearing Harvey sing it on Tin Huey's disinformation.

5) Hearing Nels Cline's Lovers, on which David Breskin performed the same service for Nels that George Martin did for Jeff Beck on Blow By Blow -- to wit, providing a context for his amazing guitar playing that emphasizes his gift for melody. Learning that Breskin also produced great albums by Mark Dresser, Kris Davis, and my guitar obession-o'-the-moment, Mary Halvorson, that dropped this year. And that he's currently at work on new ones by Halvorson and Chris Lightcap. All I ever need is something to look forward to.

6) Playing Stoogeaphilia shows with Tame, Tame and Quiet and their "brother bands" BULLS and Heater. Realizing that while my years are catching up with me, playing music with good friends is still the best catharsis your money can buy.

7) Seeing George Takei in the film of Allegiance with my middle daughter while in other cities, my sister watched it with one of her daughters, and one of her other daughters watched it with her boyfriend. Powerful, moving, and topical. And yeah, I'm a sucker for Broadway musicals, but more Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe than Lloyd-Webber or, um, Disney.

8) Geeking out on Anthony Braxton, whose work I've underappreciated, with the help of intarweb buddy Charles Young and Sound American. Music's a deep well; how fortunate are we.

9) Reading Nick Blakey's meticulously researched and well-written liner notes to Smog Veil's worthy "Platters du Cuyahoga" series, three volumes of which (Mr. Stress Blues Band, Robert Bensick Band, and Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade) dropped this year. When you encounter someone who does what you do, only better, the only thing you can do is take your hat off. Mine's doffed.

10) Watching Jim Jarmusch's Stooges doco Gimme Danger at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff ("the one where they caught Lee Oswald," as I'd explain to out of town friends) with pals including Sir Marlin Von Bungy's son, who's a couple of years younger than I was when I saw the Stooges play the Cincinnati Pop Festival on my parents' TV. Then again, when I was that age, I hadn't seen Joan Jett and Cheap Trick live half a dozen times, or worked the smoke machine for my father's band. Lucky kid.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Mo' David Breskin: Kris Davis, Ben Goldberg, Mary Halvorson

One of this year's pleasant surprises has been the realization that two of my favorite records of 2016 -- Nels Cline's Lovers and Mark Dresser's Sedimental You -- were produced by the same man: poet/journo/record man David Breskin.

Lovers was the culmination of a series of Breskin-produced Cline albums that, to these feedback-scorched ears, represent the guitarist's very best recorded work. But Breskin was primarily known to me as the man who, as both Musician scribe and producer, helped to bring Ronald Shannon Jackson's music to prominence back in the '80s. Besides producing Shannon's breakthrough albums Mandance and Barbecue Dog, which highlighted the titanic drummer's abilities as a composer, Breskin also did the honors for Pulse, on which Shannon played solo drums and declaimed poetry; Smash and Scatteration, a guitar synth-heavy encounter between Bill Frisell and pre-Living Colour Vernon Reid; Strange Meeting, a meeting of minds between Shannon, Frisell, and Melvin Gibbs (under the rubric Power Tools); the Albert Collins feature, "Two Lane Highway," on John Zorn's film noir homage Spillane; and a series of albums for Zorn and Frisell's longtime drummer of choice, Joey Baron.

As a producer, Breskin does much more than merely capture what went down in the studio. Through extensive pre-production discussion and planning, he helps artists to clarify their concepts, then presents their work, when possible, with materials -- packaging, liner notes, videos -- that engage visual and tactile senses to provide, as he says, "the best delivery of the album/concept." And he continues to work with interesting, multifaceted musicians.

By now, the daring pianist-composer Kris Davis, whose work has invited comparisons to Cecil Taylor, has a dozen releases under her belt as leader (including two with the cooperative trio Paradoxical Frog), but she's never been heard to as good advantage as she is on the Breskin-produced gems Save Your Breath and Duopoly.

On the former, released on Clean Feed in 2015, she leads an octet -- Infrasound -- that includes four (count 'em, four!) bass clarinets as well as guitar, organ, and drums, playing material that was performed live after only two rehearsals, one on the day of the show. Some of the charts employ progressive rock dynamics, and drummer Jim Black combines the instincts of a rocker with the anarchic spirit of Han Bennink.

On the latter, released on Pyroclastic this year, she plays an original or standard and a free improvisation with each of eight duet partners: two guitarists, two pianists, two drummers, and two reedists, none of whom she'd recorded with before. (My faves: pianist Craig Taborn, drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore -- both new names to me -- and clarinetist Don Byron. You'll have your own.) The duets were recorded "live" in the studio, with no rehearsal or post-production fixage. The resultant tracks appear on the disc in a "symmetrical, palindromic sequence" with the duet partners paired by instrument, and "what [Breskin] calls a 'mobius twist' in the middle," so the partners' improv pieces appear in inverse order to their composed ones. These highly intentional encounters form a seamless unity, and the accompanying DVD provides a fascinating window into the performers' process.

Together, these albums show the depth and breadth of what Davis is capable of: now oblique and minimalist, now mysterious and foreboding, now turbulent and roiling, always challenging and rewarding.

One of Infrasound's clarinetists, Ben Goldberg -- also a participant in Cline's 2006 Andrew Hill tribute, New Monastery -- has an incandescent CD/double LP of his own that Breskin produced back in 2013. Orphic Machine, a 2015 Royal Potato Family release, would have made my "best of" list for that year, had I heard it then.

Goldberg composed a song cycle with echolalic lyrics about poetry that were drawn from an academic treatise by the late man of letters Allen Grossman and sung by the ethereal violinist-vocalist Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat/Sleepytime Gorilla Museum). Behind a three-horn front line, the accompaniment is suffused with the textures of Kenny Wolleson's vibes and chimes and Myra Melford's piano, and anchored by the tandem of bassist Greg Cohen (Masada/Ornette Coleman) and drummer Ches Smith (Mary Halvorson), with Nels Cline contributing two of his finest recorded solos ever. On "Care," Cline manages to invoke the spiky spirit, if not the pentatonic letter, of vintage Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, while on the title track, he unleashes his full electronic arsenal in a face-melting sonic apocalypse.

Goldberg and Breskin also collaborated on Short Sighted Dream Colossus, a scintillating trio disc with guitarist John Dieterich (Deerhoof) and drummer Scott Amendola (Nels Cline) for which Breskin provided conceptual and design input. Goldberg's work has done as much as his fellow klezmer enthusiast Don Byron's to affirm the clarinet as a jazz instrument, and his compositions on Orphic Machine occupy a space where fans of pop, classical, and jazz can all find something to enjoy.

Since emerging from Anthony Braxton's tutelage a decade and change ago, guitarist Mary Halvorson has stayed busy, with a plethora of appearances in contexts as disparate as the improv trio Thumbscrew, a solo guitar opening slot on tour with Melvins frontman King Buzzo, and Marc Ribot's Gamble and Huff tribute project, the Young Philadelphians, not to mention a discography massive enough to rival even Cline's.

Since 2008's Dragon's Head, she's showcased her burgeoning composer's chops on a series of recordings for Firehouse 12 at the helm of an ever-expanding group built on the foundation of bassist John Hebert and the aforementioned drummer Ches Smith. On her latest offering in that series, Away With You, which Halvorson co-produced with Breskin and Firehouse 12 honcho Nick Lloyd, she's up to an octet, which includes Susan Alcorn's molten-silver pedal steel for added piquancy. The compositions are darkly ruminative, with multi-horn polyphony that's occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Hill's '60s heyday, and the leader's six-string prowess takes a back seat the ensemble sound.

As I type this, Breskin is at work on Halvorson's next album, as well as one by bassist Chris Lightcap that will feature Cline and keyboardist John Medeski. Stay tuned...

Friday, December 09, 2016

Things we like: Tin Huey, John Cale, Heater, BULLS, Bad Times

The Buckeye State may be on the verge of enacting an abortion law even more restrictive than ours down here in Texas (sans the burial/cremation requirement), but Ohio remains the secret music capital of America. For proof positive, here's Tin Huey, Akron's prog-band-in-New-Wave-band's-clothing, reunited in 2004 with all original members, including Tom Waits' longtime reedman Ralph Carney and late, lamented bassist Mark Price, captured in stellar video and OK audio by students from a local community college. Imagine an agreeable collision of Soft Machine with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band with hot chops, slick songwriting, and a wiseass sensahumour, and you've got the idea. (Principals Harvey Gold and Chris Butler continue in the tradition as Half Cleveland, who've been featured here more than once before.)

Today's mail brought a candygram from the gods in the form of the Domino Records reish of John Cale's Fragments of a Rainy Season, a fave of mine since its original appearance on Rykodisc back in '92. It's the purest manifestation of Cale the songster, accompanying himself on piano or guitar, playing songs from his whole catalog, and my preferred way to hear 'em. The limited edition CD or 3LP comes with a bonus disc that includes eight previously unreleased performances, among them a version of "I'm Waiting for the Man," the song I obnoxiously yelled all night for the first time I saw Cale live. In the liner notes, there's a blurb from Malcolm Gladwell, of all people, 'splaining that it was Cale who whittled down Leonard Cohen's original version of "Hallelujah" (which ran to 18 pages of manuscript) to the one Jeff Buckley covered and we all know and love (perhaps too much) today. Well, as I live and breathe.

These days I don't get out much, so the only time I get to hear bands play is on those rare occasions when the li'l Stooge band gigs and I can book shows with ones I'm innarested in. Back in July, we played at Lola's Stockyards with Heater, a band of superannuated (they say) punkeroos who've discovered that being Dad is totally compatible with playing a fierce '80s style that takes its cues from all the usual D.C. and Mpls suspects. They're the kind of tatted up Dads who wear Descendents T-shirts to "Meet the Teacher" night, but onstage, they explode with a fury that's impossible to fake. They have an EP ready that's currently streamable or downloadable digitally. Physical copies of the record will have to wait for that perpetual pacing item, artwork. Use it to heat up the house this weekend.

Next weekend the Stooge band will play inside the saloon at Lola's, doing two sets just like we used to at the old Black Dog Tavern (RIP). Joining us on the bill will be BULLS, one of Heater's "brother bands" (Tame Tame & Quiet is the other). Fronted by singing drummer Ricky Del Toro, BULLS plays a stripped-down but highly emotive post-punk style marked by jarring dissonance and desperately declaimed vocals. Their 2015 cassette EP on estimable FTW indie Dreamy Life is sold out but still Bandcamp-available. They're about halfway through a newie with Britt Robisheaux at Cloudland as I type this.

Speaking of punk and things Britt recorded at Cloudland, Rip in Peace is the fourth (!) album by Bad Times, a trio fronted by Denton-based Renaissance man Alex Atchley, who writes fiction and draws comics as well as making music that ranges from the one-man-band Naxat to the D&D-referential Hack and Slashers and the Devo-esque Blank-Men. Rip in Peace is Bad Times' most fully realized effort, and proof positive that angst needn't end with your teen years. Atchley says it's the finest record he's worked on, and I'm inclined to agree -- until the next one.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Exterminators' "Product of America"

Ain't no punk like an old school punk, and I sure as shit don't mean Blink 182 or Green Day. As the first generation of punkeroos that teethed on the Ramones and Sex Pistols hits 60, it's worth noting that playing this music meant something different than it does today, back when the people who lived and loved it had to seek it out -- not just rekkids (back in prehistory, before the intarweb made everything instantly available) and zines, but like-minded individuals, and audiences were likely to be less-than-sympathetic to the point of physical violence. So bands like Phoenix, AZ, desert rats the Exterminators started where, say, the Stooges ended up -- playing to flying beer bottles heaved by hostile cowboys and bikers.

Formed in '77 by the Clark brothers, Doug (aka Buzzy Murder, guitar) and Dan (aka Johnny Macho, voxxx), the Exterminators were part of a nascent punk scene that included the Consumers and the Liars (who morphed into Kray-Zee Homicide, and whose drummer Don Bolles wound up replacing OG Exterminators drummer Doug Goss). They played a handful of shows before Bolles and bassist Rob Graves decamped for L.A., leaving the Clarks to continue their punk odyssey with bands like the Feederz, the Brainz, and Mighty Sphincter, sometimes including songs from the Exterminators' unrecorded repertoire in their setlists.

Earlier this year, the Clark brothers and Bolles met up in a Phoenix studio with Meat Puppet Cris Kirkwood handling bass and production chores, and bashed out the tunes they'd played as teens, live and raw ("either first take, or as close as possible," Bolles writes in his engaging and informative liner notes). We can only imagine what the Exterminators sounded like in their youth, but as mature men, they attack the tunes with sabre-toothed fury and lots of fire in the belly, Dan Clark shredding his vocal cords while brother Doug blasts out crunchy chords and shrieking leads over a slamming riddim section that just won't quit.

Some of the songs on Product of America -- short, sharp shocks of adrenaline, vitriol, and bile -- echo the hard rock of the time, while others predict the heavy music that would follow. The titles tell the story: "I Hate You" (credited to "Some Kid From The Neighborhood"), "Destruction Unit," "I Don't Give A Fuck," "Sometimes I Don't Know." The closing "Serena II" is a surprise: a poem from Samuel Beckett's Echo's Bones, declaimed with dark menace by Dan Clark with guitar sound painting by his brother in the manner of Saccharine Trust. A cathartic rush from start to finish; highly recommended.