Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wally Shoup and Paul Kikuchi's "Aurora Distillations"

Paul Kikuchi's a Seattle-based percussionist who releases fascinating recordings of improv wonderment under his own Prefecture Records imprint, when not kicking the traps in the Empty Cage Quartet. He's partial to site-specific performances, and indeed, his latest release -- Aurora Distillations, a duo with veteran free improv altoist Wally Shoup -- was recorded in an abandoned railroad tunnel. But this outing is a lot more virtuosic and jazz-like than recent Kikuchi outings with his ensembles Open Graves and Portable Sanctuary.

By now, free improv has a history stretching back a half-century (at least), with its own pitfalls and conventions -- which is not to imply that there's nothing new to be said in this arena. It's a truism, but it's also true that this music is often more fun to play than it is to listen to, but with players who possess the kind of instinctive ear for musical structure and contrast that Kikuchi and Shoup to, it's never the case here. They understand the importance of silence and space as elements in a sonic design, and the way such negative space places what is played in sharper relief.

In a way, what they're up to here is the same thing as Coltrane was in his late-period duets with Rashied Ali: exploring the root sounds of horns and drums, and their confluence. Shoup initiates "Apparitions" with a few plaintive bleats, to which Kikuchi responds with ghostly rattles. The saxophonist continues to unravel a stream of multiphonics and melodic fragments. The ambience of the tunnel provides the third "voice" in the dialogue. As Shoup ups the intensity, Kikuchi incorporates his trapset into the mix.

On "Deluge," Kikuchi unleashes a series of thunderous, timpani-like rolls on his toms, creating an auditory effect similar to what Boris achieved with Flood. Then Shoup joins in, alternately plumbing the lower depths of his horn's range, uttering woody squawks and squeals, and interjecting plaintive, Ornette-ish interludes of bluesy lamentation. Shoup's solo coda reminds us that an unaccompanied saxophone can be the loneliest sound in the world.

"Aperture" kicks off with tinkling percussion sounds that settle into a groove reminiscent of gamelan or Harry Partch. "Switchbacks" begins with another searching Shoup sax solo before Kikuchi joins in and the two musicians improvise in parallel, tentatively at first, as if regarding each other from a distance, gradually becoming more assertive as they intertwine their thought streams. Overall, Aurora Distillations is a heartening example of the perpetually renewing ability of exploratory musicians to uncover new dimensions of sonic delight. Cop digitally or on sweet, sweet vinyl here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Neneh Cherry & The Thing's "The Cherry Thing"

Hmmm. An '80s pop diva (big hit: 1988's "Buffalo Stance") recording with a jazz trio that's imbued with the spirit of the '60s and '70s avant-garde? Sounds unlikely, but it might be less so in light of the fact that Neneh Cherry's father, peripatetic trumpeter and "world music" pioneer Don Cherry, was an innovative torchbearer of said avant-garde, and the trio -- three Swedes who perform together under the rubric The Thing -- coalesced back in Y2K for the express purpose of playing his music.

And yes, there's certainly precedent for this kind of pairing. One need only think of Fontella Bass, five years after topping the charts with "Rescue Me," fronting her husband Lester Bowie's band, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, on Les Stances a Sophie. Or Indian vocalist Asha Puthli's contributions to Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction album -- one of which, "What Reason Could I Give," is covered on The Cherry Thing. Or Annette Peacock's collision with a brace of Brit jazz and rock luminaries on X-Dreams.

What makes this meeting so fortuitous is the way both Cherry and The Thing manage to be their distinctive selves without compromise, while creating an avant-garde/pop hybrid that's at once challenging and beguiling to the ear. The opening "Cashback" -- the sole Neneh Cherry composition here -- opens with a bristling bass ostinato from Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, over which Cherry makes her entrance, describing an exploitative relationship with sinuous, sensuous sonority before a horn section comes in on the refrain. When Mats Gustafsson's tenor begins its first solo flight, however, the track becomes something Entahrly Other. His sound is a lusty, full-blooded roar, as he explores territory staked out by illustrious predecessors like Pharaoh Sanders, Frank Lowe, and Peter Brotzmann. The contrast between elements is striking, yet the pop-song format accommodates them both easily.

"Dream Baby Dream," by the psychodramatic punk-era duo Suicide, gets a Caribbean lilt from the rhythm section's treatment, bolstered by Flaten's vibes, with Gustafson starting out in a more subdued, almost Ben Webster-ish mood before unleashing another feverish solo, this time backed by electronics. "Too Tough To Die," originally by Brit trip-hop chanteuse Martina Topley-Bird, is the album's first peak, opening with contrapuntal baritone sax and arco bass figures that give way to a blood-simple groove which Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love attack with bruising physicality. As a friend recently said (in reference to Pinkish Black), "it's heavy, but not hard."

"Sudden Moment" is a Gustafsson original and the only piece here on which Cherry sounds like a guest rather than the main event, as she sings the theme in unison with the composer's horn before The Thing takes things all the way "out." Then they bring it back "inside" for a restatement of the theme, as if it were the most common thing in the world. "Accordion" is a Madvillain cover that Cherry spits out with a vengeance, while the musos make this the most seamless and least self-conscious jazz treatment of a hip-hop original that these feedback-scorched ears have yet heard.

"Golden Heart," from Don Cherry's Complete Communion, pays tribute to this project's spiritual/biological father. Listening to it, one is reminded of his '70s works like "Brown Rice" and the album Hear and Now, which seemed to aim for the commercial marketplace without actually hitting the mark. The Cherry Thing is more successful artistically, but commercially, it's doubtful that the mass-ass audience is any more ready for this sort of thing in 2012 than it was in 1976. (I would, of course, be delighted to be wrong about that.)

Cherry and Co. save their best for last. A crushing cover of the Stooges' Funhouse nugget "Dirt" shows just how sexy Ig 'n' those dum-dum boys really were, as much for the interplay between Dave Alexander and Scott Asheton's bass 'n' drums as for anything the little singer was doing. And come solo time, The Thing takes it to the stratosphere for a taste of the "energy freakout free-form" the Stooges got into on "L.A. Blues." The aforementioned "What Reason Could I Give" ends the proceedings on a gentle, lyrical note, with Gustafsson once again channeling Ben Webster, a closing solo from Flaten that recalls Charlie Haden's deep song, and an aching acapella coda from Cherry that'll rend your heart with its unadorned beauty. Overall, a stunning surprise.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

My favorite Stoogeshows

1) Wreck Room, 4.19.2006: Getting to see Matt Hembree go absolutely apeshit onstage for the first time.

2) Black Dog Tavern, 5.18.2006: Sweating into my eyes.

3) Rose Marine Theater plaza, 5.28.2006: There were apparently three or four noise complaints, but because of the way the sound reverberated, the police couldn't figure out where the infernal racket was coming from. Clay Stinnett could, however. Best part: watching four or five little boys from the neighborhood standing up against the wall, trying to figure out what this shit was.

4) Wreck Room, 6.28.2007: My 50th berfday. My sweetie brought a cake and balloons. We played "Marquee Moon" -- our most popular song for exactly a year -- for the first time.

5) Fred's Cafe, 5.4.2008: Watching William Bryan Massey III, his sons and their friends watching us.

6) Chat Room, 6.28.2008: Sir Steffin's "retirement." Richard Hurley, his replacement-elect, presented Steffin with his "Champeen Guitar Strangler" trophy. This might or might not have been the time we had a Perrotti's pizza delivered to the stage.

7) Lola's 6th, 8.31.2008: Paul Metzger, who'd been playing the Sunday jazz gig for years and years, forgot his guitar, so after we were done, I let him borrow my blood-spattered Telecaster.

 8) Lola's Stockyards, 11.14.2008: The Dangits made us work our asses off.

9) Tradewinds Social Club (Oak Cliff), 5.15.2010: Like playing in somebody's living room, with Daron Beck and Dave Coates opening and Wanz Dover playing sax on "1970" and "Funhouse."

10) 7th Haven, 6.27.2010: We played the Fort Worth Weekly Music Awards showcase. Jon Teague made the greatest entrance of all ti-i-ime, and the guy who was helping the soundguy fell asleep in a chair to my immediate right in the middle of our set. We must not have been loud enough.

11) Sunshine Bar (Arlington), 2.19.2011: We like the Shine real much.

12) Basement Bar, 8.27.2011: We made the best payout of our "career." Thank you, Facebook.

13) Cowtown Bowling Palace, 1.14.2012: All of us sick as dogs, two of River Oaks' finest looking on, and I had the worst skull-splitting headache I've ever had on stage throughout the second set. In spite of all that, I think we were collectively in better spirits at the end of the night than I've ever seen the li'l Stoogeband after a show.

14) Sunshine Bar (Arlington), 5.26.2012: Wild//Tribe made us work our asses off.

15) Lola's, 6.20.2012: Our sixth anniversary (two months late) and my 55th berfday (a week early). We played two sets like we used to at the Black Dog, and I celebrated by blowing up my amp (again).

16) The next one. Always the next one...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna hear a track from the new Top Secret...Shhh album?

No word on a release date for the sophomore outing of Fort Worth expat in Austin Marcus Lawyer's groove-heavy mashup project, which (this time around) involves contributions from over 150 musos from all over the globe, but it's currently being mixed at the Fort's New Media Recordings, and you can stream or download a track here:

Monday, June 18, 2012

My scrawl in the Dallas Observer

Regarding four Fort Worth bands to watch. Nice to see that I'm already pissing off at least one of their readers. Sigh.

Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson

Bassist Melvin Gibbs (Defunkt, Rollins Band, Harriet Tubman) has been added to the lineup for Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society when they appear at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff on July 7th. Gibbs was a founding member of the Decoding Society, along with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. Tickets for the show are available here. Below: Gibbs, Jackson, and Reid perform "Ode to Sonny Sharrock" at NYC's Knitting Factory.

Adrian Belew on the History and Future of Guitar Noise

From the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Pinkish Black takes New York

The McCoys' "Human Ball"


I woke up with a song from this album in my head a few days ago, even though I hadn't heard it since 1974 or so, during the "bargain bin" phase of my record geekdom, and found a clean copy online for a reasonable price. Hooray!

The McCoys were, of course, the Union City, Indiana punks whose Tin Pan Alley-penned '65 hit "Hang On Sloopy" is now the official state rock song of Ohio. (Who knew there was such a thing? If Texas had one, would it be "You're Gonna Miss Me?" Or "Tush?") They also hold the distinction of being among the few 'Meercun '60s bands to have their songs performed by their Brit contemporaries: the Yardbirds covered "Sloopy," while the Merseys and later David Bowie did the same for McCoys B-side "Sorrow." (Others similarly honored: Love, Moby Grape, Nazz.)

Their main asset was a guitarist-singer-songwriter called Rick Derringer (ne Zehringer), who was a superior technician to -- if not as distinctive a stylist as -- guys like Leslie West and Joe Walsh. His fleet-fingered fluidity was almost equal to Brit fireball Ollie Halsall's (in the same way that a friend once said that Allan Holdsworth sounded like "Billy Gibbons with ideas"). Anyway, that was the league he was in. I first became aware of Derringer post-McCoys, when he was in Johnny Winter And, a band in which he was a somewhat muted presence (except on his feature "Rock and Roll Medley" from Johnny Winter And Live, an album wherein Richard Hurley says "you can hear the cocaine in the grooves"), and Edgar Winter's White Trash, in which he played the extrovert exhibitionist. He penned "Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo" -- a song that I played in just about every band I had as a teenager -- for Johnny, and later had a poppy radio hit version himself.

The Winter connection and subsequent commercial missteps came about because after leaving the tutelage of Tin Pan Alley songsmiths Feldman-Goldstein-Gottehrer (aka the Strangeloves of "I Want Candy" fame), the McCoys fell into the orbit of NYC entrepreneur Steve Paul, owner of a Manhattan musicians' haunt called The Scene and manager of Johnny and Edgar Winter. In fact, the opening and closing tracks of Human Ball, originally released on Mercury in 1969, were recorded live at The Scene: a Freddie King-esque instrumental called "Human Ball Blues" and a version of T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday Blues" that isn't as good as the Allman Brothers', but does let you see how Derringer got the Winter gig.

Stylistically, the album's all over the map. The song that was stuck in my head was "Only Human," a hipi country song with lilting steel guitar (played by Derringer?) and words that I remembered for close to 40 years even though I'm not a lyric guy: "Only human with your car and your gun / Only human with your race and your nation / If this is human, I've been incorrectly placed / To me it's just a waste of your time / And ain't it sad to see them kill their own kind?" It's followed by "Epilogue," a bit of Brazilian jazz pastiche in which Derringer effectively impersonates Astrud Gilberto while continuing the previous song's lyrical tack: "There's no need to worry any more / The people here have never heard of war / Waking up each morning's such a thrill / For people that don't know how to kill." A little dated and hackneyed, perhaps, but so damn catchy. And there's a rollicking cover of "All Over You," a ribald Bob Dylan song that was demoed in 1963 but not officially released until 2010, which Derringer presumably heard on a bootleg. It's my favorite obscuro Dylan cover besides Thunderclap Newman's "Open the Door, Homer," boasting some fiery Derringer improvs in between lines of verse and a hot solo to cap it off.

The LP's two best cuts come at the bottom of side one and the top of side two, and both of them are examples of "jazz-rock" in the pre-Bitches Brew sense of the term (think Blues Project "Flute Thing," early Jethro Tull and Tull spinoff Blodwyn Pig), replete with horn charts by Blood, Sweat & Tears saxman Fred Lipsius. "Daybreak" opens with some Electric Ladyland-ish backward tape and wah-wah action, with organist Bobby Peterson getting all atonal on piano. The rhythm boys (Derringer's brother Randy on drums and Randy Jo Hobbs, whom I saw with Johnny Winter in '74, on bass) are clearly out of their depth in a jazz groove and play it safe, but Peterson and Rick don't disgrace themselves in their solo spots. Towards the end of his ride, Derringer kicks on the wah and takes things back into Hendrix territory.

Speaking of which, "It Really Doesn't Matter" opens with stratospheric sonics that sound like some of the studio things Jimi was working on around the same time, which wouldn't see release until after his death. Was Derringer a fly on the wall at Electric Lady...or could the influence have been the other way around? The mind boggles. (Nah.) The song itself is a blues with enough chords to anticipate Steely Dan, for whom Derringer did session work in the '70s (although he didn't play the solo on "Black Friday," which this song resembles structurally).

The remaining two songs on side two are a bit of a comedown. "Love Don't Stop" is an okay soul ballad that could have come off an SRC album, and "Clergy Lies" is Peterson's sole songwriting contribution here, a heavy-handed anti-religious rant that anticipates Black Sabbath in the same way as the Yardbirds' "Ever Since the World Began" did. And it ends with the sound of a toilet flushing. The songs, at least, are well played.

A period piece, perhaps, but it was my period. It's nice to have it back on my turntable.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pssst! Hey, kid! You wanna see a Talking Heads concert from 1980?

That's right, you heard right: the Remain In Light lineup, with Bernie Worrell and Adrian Belew on board. I had the chance to see this band, but blew it. Feh. So ahead of their time we still haven't caught up. Thanks 'n' a tip of the hat to Frank Cervantez for sharing this gem.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New Stoogeaphilia recordings online

The li'l Stoogeband's obsessive documentarian, Matt Hembree, just uploaded a couple of Stooge shows from his extensive backlog to his Stoogeaphilia archive: 3.13.2011 from the Doublewide in Big D, and 4.21.2012 from Doc's Records here in the Fort. We have a pair of two-set, no-cover extravaganzas on the books: 6.20.2012 at Lola's (our sixth anniversary as the world's longest-lived one-show band, and an early celebration of my "double nickels on the dime" berfday) and 7.28.2012 at the Cellar (for Billy Wilson, who used to book our "I Wanna Be Your (Black) Dog Thursdays" at the late, lamented Black Dog Tavern). After that, we're going to take some time off to give Jon Teague time to tour with Pinkish Black, and for all of us to work on a Secret Project. Yeah!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Patti Smith's "Banga"

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.
Out of the formless stone, when the artist united himself with stone,
Spring always new forms of life, from the soul of man that is joined to the soul of stone;
Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or lifeless
Joined with the artist's eye, new life, new form, new colour.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music,
Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal imprecisions,
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.
- T.S. Eliot

Watching Patti Smith in the documentary Dream of Life, being interviewed in Manhattan when she was pushing 30 and punk was about to explode, she sounds callow and brash, trying to align herself with the literary eternals while distancing herself from her Catholic upbringing in the Jersey 'burbs. I'll admit to being unimpressed when I heard her debut album Horses on the radio when it was new, back in '75; to my teenage ears, her marriage of poetics with garage rock sounded forced, self-conscious, and lacking in punch. Back then, I was enamored with the sound of amp distortion as an aesthetic standard, and would have agreed with Joe Carducci's dismissive assessment from Rock and the Pop Narcotic: "...a rock critic's (Lenny Kaye) and a poet's (P. Smith) romanticization of what 'rock uh roll' should be; I can't say they were entirely unlearned in this regard but you get my drift." 

After her initial breakthrough, she had a hit penned for her by fellow Jerseyite Brooce Springsteen, then married an idol of mine -- ex-MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith -- and disappeared into a decade of domesticity in Detroit, re-emerging at the ass-end of the '80s with an album co-written and produced by her husband that wasn't the best music from either of them. (For my money, the worthiest confluence of their spirits is to be found in the two Wave songs Fred inspired: "Dancing Barefoot," which might be Patti's best song, and "Frederick," for which she borrowed the chord progression from a song he wrote for Sonic's Rendezvous Band, and sang as Madonna might have.) After that, I lost the thread.

She made a believer of me, though, with a performance at Big D's Gypsy Tea Room back in Y2K. (My future wife was there, too, although we didn't know each other at the time. That night, my sweetie beat a speeding ticket by having the good fortune to get stopped by what must have been the only Fort Worth cop who was also a Patti Smith fan.) Smith had the soundman play Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Hendrix's Electric Ladyland in their entirety before her band hit, and then delivered a performance that earned such a warm-up. Onstage, she had the most spiritual presence of any performer I've ever seen; even more so than Van Morrison when I saw him in Austin back in '79 (although not more than his iconic 1970 Fillmore East "Cypress Avenue" that I saw on PBS when I was 13, but that's the league she's in).

Hers has been quite an odyssey. She's been a rockcrit and Blue Oyster Cult lyricist, poet and playwright, muso and visual artist, best-selling author (2010's Just Kids, the success of which interrupted work on Banga), wife and mother, and endured grief and loss -- the commonalities we all share, but which most of us prefer not to talk about -- time and time again: her husband, her beloved brother, her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, her parents, even her piano player. Experience has brought her dimensions of grace and depth, and in her maturity, her art has finally achieved the transcendence that she was reaching for in her youth. When she interjects a tender "Hey, wake up" in the middle of her new album's opening track, "Amerigo," it's as if she means to rouse the listener from a dream she's conjured of the explorer Vespucci, but then we drift back off, borne away on a bed of strings, and witness him being transformed by the people he meets in the New World. Her voice has the same plaintive quality it had in her 30s, but age has given it added warmth.

Banga is about journeys of discovery, from Vespucci and Columbus to the artist and her guitar player making a pilgrimage, following the stations of St. Francis. (For a performer who fired her opening salvo at the world at large by declaiming the line "Jesus died for someone's sins but not mine," her lyrics continue to overflow with religious allusions.) As she explains in her liner notes, some of the songs were written on a cruise she and Kaye took with French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, while others had their genesis in Puerto Rico, on location with Johnny Depp. (The punk poetess is now a familiar of the famous.)

Being the kind of listener who hears lyrics last, I got a few things wrong the first few spins. F'rinstance, the first time I heard "Fuji-san," her prayer for the people of Japan following last year's tsunami and nuclear disaster, I thought she was singing the Japanese word for "grandfather" ("Oji-san" -- as in Shoukichi Kina's Okinawan pop hit "Hai Sai Oji-san"), and it made me tear up (we do get more sentimental as we get older, and the word triggered my own associations). And on the title track -- one of three songs here inspired by Nikolai Bulgakov's novel The Master and Marguerita -- I thought she and the chorus were singing "Soul Finger" instead of "Say Banga." Duh.

On the latter song, the closest thing to a rave-up rocker here, she celebrates the connection she shares with her audience and with her long-time collaborators: Kaye, who wrote the music for three songs; bassist/keyboardist Tony Shanahan, who wrote the music for four; drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, who contributed the music for "Mosaic;" and ex-Television honcho Tom Verlaine, who solos with typical aplomb on "April Fool" and "Nine." Her children are here, too: son Jackson on guitar for five songs, including a simple but beautifully constructed slide solo on "Maria" (an elegy for the tragically fated Last Tango In Paris actress Maria Schneider) and subtle but impactful adlibs on the Sun Ra-inspired "Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter);" daughter Jesse playing piano on a pastoral version of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" that might have been an outtake from Smith's "covers album" Twelve, but here provides a gentle valediction to offset the horrific vision of environmental apocalypse that climaxes the penultimate track, "Constantine's Dream."

At its core, Banga is as fervent a prayer for the Earth and humankind as were A Love Supreme, Astral Weeks, and What's Going On before it: a soul-healing sound for a moment in history when we could use some soul healing. At 65, Smith retains her empathy and compassion for the younguns; the doo-wop ballad "This Is the Girl" eulogizes Amy Winehouse the same way "About A Boy" did Kurt Cobain, and her apocalyptic fears are driven by a mother's concern for the world her children will live in when she's gone. I'm not sure how this all of this resonates for members of Winehouse's generation, but to these feedback-scorched ears, it sounds like Smith's finest music yet, and gives me hope that perhaps her best work is still in front of her.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna hear a Pinkish Black podcast?

The latest Track by Track with Paul Slavens features the KXT 91.7 FM host talking to Daron Beck and Jon Teague about their self-titled debut album. Listen.

Friday, June 08, 2012

GrandMothers of Invention @ the Kessler on August 14th!

That's right, you heard right: a band featuring ex-FZ sidemen Napoleon Murphy Brock, Tom Fowler, and Don Preston will be at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff on August 14th, doing a show they call "Roxy and Elsewhere and More." This sounds promising. Advance tickets are probably a good idea, if only to ensure they don't lose the booking.

The return of Drug Mountain

Drug Mountain, whose sound mixes black metal clank with free jazz skree, is back from hiatus, recording, and opening a show for Lightning Bolt at Sons of Hermann Hall in Big D on August 28th. Yeah! New to DM's lineup is Denton visual artist extraordinaire Nevada Hill, who also has a new doom metal project called Bludded Head. Thanks to DM supremo Britt Robisheaux for sharing.