Saturday, October 31, 2015

Nels Cline and Julian Lage @ The Kessler, 10.29.2015

Nels Cline might be my favorite guitarist working today, so when the opportunity arises to see him in my favorite listening room, I'm right there. Besides the fact that the sound and sightlines at The Kessler are superior to every other Metromess venue with which I'm personally familiar, it's also smoke-free (which I now see as an advantage), without the parking hassles that usually come with attending a show in Big D.

Most of Nels' recordings I've heard have him in electric band contexts (although I'm a big fan of his multi-overdubbed solo outing, Coward), but this particular evening found him in the company of 26-year-old wunderkind Julian Lage. I was pleasantly surprised to see a sizable crowd on hand (200, by artistic director Jeff Liles' count), and technical director Paul Quigg gave us a quick rundown on soundcheck ("a modal exploration, some bebop, and a little Django"). Their incandescent duet album Room was recorded in 2013 and came out late last year, but we were fortunate to be catching them at the end of a swing through the Northeast and Texas, when ten nights of playing together had added heat as well as illumination to their dialogue.

Thus, they started their set as though continuing a conversation interrupted just moments before, shadowing each other telepathically, Nels playing with his head down, chopping away with that aggressive right hand, while Julian watched him intently throughout the performance, almost dancing on the guitar with a lighter, more fluid movement. The tones they got from their tee-tiny ZT amps were warm and full. Although Julian plays with a flatpick, his classical training is evident in his left-hand dexterity, while Nels' jazz background shows up in the kinds of chord inversions he likes to play. It was interesting to observe their contrasting approaches when they'd play unison and counterpoint, or trade off repeating parts and solos. Much of the material they played is composed, but both men approached the music with great freedom and spontaneity. Nels seemed to delight as much in backing the younger musician as he did in soloing, playing rolling arpeggios behind Julian's darting lines. It was musical communication at its best.

Luckily, Liles shot video:

FZ's "Roxy: The Movie" (Part Three)

Last time I watched the DVD. This morning I'm listening to the CD and thinking about What It All Means. To begin with, the disc doesn't include the "I'm the Slime"/"Big Swifty" sequence due to length (as is, it's 70 minutes). For the reasons I enumerated earlier (no overdubs, no "Village of the Sun," no "Son of Orange County"/"Trouble Every Day"), it's not a replacement for Roxy and Elsewhere, and I can't imagine listening to it when the DVD is also available. But it's a thing.

In this age of super-deluxeness, with labels scrambling to wring the very last shekel out of the dying CD format before all the boomers croak, we're confronted by phenomena like the perpetual reissuing of the entahr Velvet Underground catalog on a five year cycle, with each upgrade including newer and more cosmic live stuff that makes one wonder "Why were they sitting on this stuff for so long?"

With Gail's passing, the question for the present day Zappafan becomes, "What direction is the Family Trust going to take with FZ's legacy under Ahmet's stern employ?" To date, the irritant has been a steady stream of new releases presented without enough information to allow the discriminating listener to decide whether or not the New Thing is worth throwing down hard-earned coin for (the underlying assumption being that fans will buy anything with FZ's name on it, regardless of the content). And Gail fought long and hard to maintain the value of FZ's work in the marketplace; when Rykodisc wanted to discount the catalog, it was a deal-breaker.

With the "100th official album," Dance Me This, supposedly representing the last work FZ completed during his lifetime, one wonders if there's anything left in the barrel besides scrapings like the ones Experience Hendrix has been releasing for years. And how much of what's left do you really need to hear?

As for Roxy: The Movie, with all the bitches, gripes, and complaints I've got to inordinate length to communicate, the bottom line is this: If you ever gave a shit about FZ, you'll want to see this. It's his best band, caught on film at a very special moment in their trajectory. The gusto and humor with which they tackle the challenging arrangements is truly something to behold. And his solos are liquid fire. Put this together with Roxy and Elsewhere, A Token of His Extreme, One Size Fits All (and, if you're a maximalist, You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, Vol. 2) and this band can be said to be well documented. So there.

Friday, October 30, 2015

FZ's "Roxy: The Movie" (Part Two)

Last time I enumerated all my reservations and doubts in the run-up to this release. Now it's here, and I couldn't wait to view it. Some initial impressions:

The movie starts with Frank describing to the Roxy audience the technical issue (sound synchronization) that will wind up delaying the film's release for 40 years, by way of introduction. How weird is that? Then the Mothers start with a leisurely blues that turns out to be "Cosmik Debris," in a version that's much more naturalistic (e.g., funkier) than the record. The band is relaxed (bassist Tom Fowler puffing on a cigar while he plays), Frank's vocal is less mannered, and he has some fun with his Mutron auto-wah.

"Penguin In Bondage" is the first tune that's familiar from Roxy and Elsewhere, only here it features instrumental solos that were cut from the record, as well as a stunning thematic section that leads into the "Dog Breath"/"Uncle Meat" medley that was also featured (replete with annoying edits) on A Token of His Extreme and (in full orchestral magnificence) on The Yellow Shark. Here and elsewhere, Ralph Humphrey shines as the linchpin of the percussion section. By the time A Token of His Extreme was taped, Ruth Underwood and Chester Thompson had mastered the material to the point where Humphrey's absence isn't missed, but at the Roxy, he was clearly the glue that held the section together. I would never have guessed that without seeing this movie.

An example of audience conduction (previously demonstrated by FZ on Australian TV and viewable on Youtube) leads into the "lounge version" of "Inca Roads" on which all the melodic contours are in place, but the introductory section still hasn't gained the rhythmic thrust of the One Size Fits All version (the basic track for which, in case you're joining us late, was from the TV show documented in A Token of His Extreme). At one point, Frank directs an errant cameraman to focus on Bruce Fowler, not himself, during Fowler's trombone solo. There are other instances later in the program where a camera misses the most crucial musical action.

First big disappointment: While you can hear Napoleon Murphy Brock singing the last words of "Village of the Sun" at the beginning of "Echidna's Arf," the song -- one of my favorites -- is missing from the film. Perhaps the sound sync problems were too severe, or somebody dropped a camera like D.A. Pennebaker did during Hendrix's "Can You See Me" at Monterey. Notwithstanding the Bruce Botnick credit for the remix, the film soundtrack is notably inferior to Roxy and Elsewhere (I haven't listened to the "soundtrack" CD that comes with the DVD yet), and the camera inexplicably focuses on Frank when the percussion section is playing through their hairiest parts.

At the end of the piece, the percussionists play through the form of "Cheepnis" (which is the next song the full band plays), evidently for some sinister future purpose (overdubbing?). It's interesting to hear "Cheepnis" sans overdubs (what ...and Elsewhere meant, evidently) and realize that backing vocals and the whole "Here comes that poodle dog, bigger than a blimp with a rhinestone collar..." section were added later. No segue into "Son of Orange County"/"Trouble Every Day" here, either, so you still need A Token of His Extreme if you want to see versions of those. Wha-wha. Second big disappointment.

"I'm the Slime" features FZ on real wah and segues into "Big Swifty," the solos-with-conduction from which became part of "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing" on Roxy and Elsewhere. "Bebop Tango" lets you see all the audience participation action that you could only imagine while listening to the album. Behind the credits, you get to see the band in the studio, working through an early version of "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow."

The extra DVD shit gives you a different version of "Pygmy Twylyte" than the one that appeared on the album. In thisun, GTO Pamela Miller, the future Mrs. Michael Des Barres, performs a "simulated Mothermania event" that mainly seems to make the musos who are the objects of her attentions uncomfortable (she stays away from George Duke entahrly). This segues into "The Idiot Bastard Son," which Nappy Brock still sang beautifully in Oak Cliff with the Grandmothers of Invention a couple of years ago. And "Dickie's Such An Asshole" is mo' blues, albeit with political subject matter. The Reagan years would inspire FZ's greatest social commentary, even if you don't include his testimony before the House of Representatives as part of the "Project/Object." From today's perspective, calling out Nixon for the bungled burglary and missing tapes sounds almost quaint...and innocent.

Still have to listen to the CD, so to be continued here...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

FZ's "Roxy: The Movie" (Part One)

It's taken so long (40 years) for this artifact to make its way to public release that my attitude toward its creator has evolved from fanboy adulation to...ambivalence.

Back in '74, when the double album Roxy and Elsewhere arrived just in time for my freshman year of college, my previous experience of FZ had been as a source of yuks and gateway to "weird" music. My first Zappa album had been a shitty compilation of edits from the first three Mothers of Invention LPs, released as part of MGM's "Golden Archives Series" after label prez Mike Curb dumped all the "drug-oriented" artists -- not just the Mothers, but the Blues Project, Tim Hardin, and the Velvet Underground, too -- from the roster. My best middle school bud and I memorized the lyrics to "funny" songs like "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" and "Concentration Moon" the way we'd later memorize whole Firesign Theater albums. Then I bought Weasels Ripped My Flesh -- and hated it. But I kept going back and listening to the Sugarcane Harris blues and what I later learned were Zappa's conductions on Side One, "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue," "Oh No," and "The Orange Country Lumber Truck" on Side Two, and became so adept at ripping the tone arm off the record to avoid the feedback blast of the side-closing title track that I was prepared to do the same trick with "L.A. Blues" when I got the Stooges' Funhouse.

In the fullness of time, Frank's penchant for making fun of squares and hipis seems lazy and obvious, and his "satire" of the pop styles of the day doesn't hold up as well, 50 years down the road, as the stuff he was mocking. Still, there's stuff that signifies on all of the early MOI albums, including the race riot-inspahrd "Trouble Every Day" (still topical, goddammit), the song "Absolutely Free" (which I now hear unironically; Elvis Costello was right), and all of the doo-wop pastiche Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets (which my bad-acting buddies and I used to sing along with, having grown up surrounded by greasy vocal R&B). On the latter, Ray Collins' voice, simpering on the first two MOI albums, can be heard in its full magnificence, as it was meant to be. Better still are the kludged-together MOI albums Frank released after breaking up the band in '69: along with Weasels, there was Uncle Meat and, best of all, Burnt Weenie Sandwich (the first side of which remains one of my favorite FZ things of all ti-i-ime).

Where the trouble began: once I'd investigated the list of names in the Freak Out! liner notes (since superseded, I suppose, for a younger generation by the "Nurse With Wound list"), a lot of FZ's music became superfluous. Who needs "King Kong," f'rinstance, when you've heard Trane? Or Waka/Jawaka when you've heard Bitches Brew? Or the musique concrete on We're Only In It for the Money when you've heard Frank's idol Varese?

Also, seeing the Grandmothers of Invention play some of my favorite FZ stuff a couple of years ago made me aware of the Achilles heel of all the Zappa concerts I religiously attended for years (usually on Halloween Night in NYC): how much dreck you had to sit through to get to the good stuff -- every time. The best FZ show I saw was probably the one at the Palladium in '76, part of the run that was recorded for Zappa In New York, and even those nights were full of bullshit like "Punky's Whips," "Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me" (a joke Uncle Lou did better on Growing Up In Public as "So Alone"), and "Illinois Enema Bandit," in addition to the usual obligatory "Dinah-Moe Humm" and "Camarillo Brillo." The exception would be the '88 tour (which I missed), where the setlists were more uniformly stellar (as though FZ knew it was going to be his last one).

Watch the DVD of Baby Snakes and see the wall-to-wall dumbshits in his rabid Noo Yawk audience ("Zappa! He's a pissah!") -- and hey, I was one of 'em (although I missed the nights that were filmed during that particular run because of work or lack of money, I forget which). After Frank recovered from having his neck broken by an insane fan during a concert in London, 1971, he came back with two albums -- Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe -- that basically pandered to the lowest common denominator of teenage rock fans from my age cohort, and they did their job well.

An extramusical aside: My wife and I used to watch that movie while eating dinner on the floor with our cats, every Thanksgiving. That is, until we got to where we couldn't enjoy the bits with Roy Estrada and the sex doll backstage after reading about the ex-Mothers bassplayer getting arrested for molesting a young relative in our town after serving time in Cali on a similar offense. (He copped a plea and drew 25 years, without parole.) Too creepy. Now I can't even enjoy the "Crying Mexican Pope" routine on Weasels.

By the time Baby Snakes was filmed ('77), the original Mothers, where bar band R&B cats (Estrada, Jimmy Carl Black) played alongside old experimental heads (Bunk Gardner, Don Preston) and classical refugees (Artie Tripp, Ian Underwood), were long gone, their places taken by chops-mongering gunslingers who went with Frank to get their tickets punched (as he noted in The Real Frank Zappa Book). While some of the new guys (Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew) had actual personalities, the overall character of the band had changed. From the Dadaist days at the Garrick Theater (which the guy I worked for in high school had actually witnessed), Frank's show had evolved into a slick, professional entertainment (not that there's anything wrong with that).

That was the year I got off the bus, after seeing Frank at the Felt Forum in Manhattan on Halloween, then driving 90 mph all the way to see him again in Hartford, where he played the Exact. Same. Show. Things got even worse in the '80s. For evidence, view the DVDs Does Humor Belong In Music? and The Torture Never Stops, if you must. The steely precision of the band's playing is only matched by their self-conscious "zaniness." [NB: A perusal of the Zappa Gig List for the year in question would seem to indicate that my chronological memory is faulty. But I still have the vivid impression of seeing two identical FZ shows in different venues, when the year before, Captain Beefheart had played notably different sets a couple of nights apart.]

What makes Roxy: The Movie the Holy Grail of Zappa fandom is that it captures FZ with what seems, from today's perspective, like his very best band, in an intimate setting, playing for an enthusiastic audience at a moment when his music was reaching a new plateau, before it became rote. The eight piece band is stacked with aces. To begin with, Frank was beginning to find his tone and voice as a guitar soloist. On his earlier stuff, even the highly regarded Hot Rats, his melodic imagination was hamstrung by his technique. Later, he got a lot more facile at note production, but his solos -- always over static rhythm -- took on a sameness that they didn't have in '73, when he was probably jazzed to be playing in front of an audience after two years on the mend, and had agile rhythm players who were more comfortable improvising than the ones in earlier lineups.

His singing voice having dropped an octave following his '71 injuries, Zappa -- who couldn't seem to keep the condescending smirk out of his voice after about '67 -- was wise enough to realize that he needed help fronting the band. Besides the leader, the Roxy lineup had two expressive and very different singers -- the exuberant saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock, who Frank found playing in a Waikiki bar band, for soul grit, and keyboardist George Duke, a veteran jazzman (Don Ellis, Cannonball Adderley, Jean-Luc Ponty), for falsetto wit. Between them, Brock and Duke developed a humorous onstage rapport that felt a lot more natural than the intentionally comic banter between the leather-lunged ex-Turtles, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, that fronted the '71 Mothers. (For One Size Fits All, FZ upped the vocal ante by adding R&B "Gangster of Love" Johnny "Guitar" Watson to the mix, planting his band solidly in P-Funk territory.)

Besides Zappa and Duke, there were two other quality soloists -- percussionist Ruth Underwood and trombonist Bruce Fowler -- whose instruments also gave the '73 band a broader textural palette than the lineups that preceded it. Underpinning it all was the rhythm section of Bruce's brother Tom Fowler (ex-It's A Beautiful Day) on bass, and the twin trap sets of studio pro Ralph Humphrey and the jazzier Chester Thompson. All in all, a formidable unit.

While it's understood that Roxy: The Movie's release was delayed because of a flaw in sound synchronization, for which it took years to find a technological fix, FZ and his Family Trust have certainly wrung a lot of dollars over the years out of fans who were hungry to see video of this band. First there was The Dub Room Special, a 1982 melange of footage from the '74 TV session that produced the basic tracks used for "Inca Roads" and Florentine Pogen" on One Size Fits All, the Halloween '81 NYC show that was broadcast on MTV, and stray claymation from Bruce Bickford, the artist whose work was featured in Baby Snakes. A Token of His Extreme, released in 2013, gives you more from '74, nothing from '81 (now a separate release on its own, the aforementioned The Torture Never Stops), but retains the Bickford. So, f'rinstance, while Frank is soloing on "Inca Roads," you get to see his claymation likeness "soloing" instead. Annoying edits mar the otherwise wonderful "Dog Breath"/"Uncle Meat" medley. An improvement, but still a frustrating release.

To be continued here...

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Alice Cooper's "Pretties for You" Reconsidered (Or Considered)

It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I missed it.

Three members of the original Alice Cooper band were appearing at Good Records in Dallas, ostensibly to sign copies of bassplayer Dennis Dunaway's book, and play a set. It wasn't unprecedented; my buddy Geoff from Philly, who still makes pilgrimages to see bands, had once seen drummer Neal "The Rockin' Realtor" Smith perform in the conference room of some hotel with the Bouchard brothers from Blue Oyster Cult. But Alice was scheduled to play Dallas the following night; wouldn't it be funny if...? In the event, my man-date bailed, and I wound up having something more important to do, anyway. But my 14-year-old self was still steamed when I saw on social media that Alice had indeed showed, and they'd played a full set, with a ringer replacing deceased lead guitarist Glen Buxton. So now I have a new "concert I most regret having missed," right up there with the Remain In Light Talking Heads at the Palladium in '80, and Uncle Lou at the Bronco Bowl in '96.

But if I'm honest, I was only an Alice Cooper fan for about a year, approximately from Love It To Death to Killer, after seeing them do their feather pillow autodestruction act in Diary of a Mad Housewife, and Alice getting a pie in the face (as mythologized by St. Lester in his famous Stooges screed) in the TV broadcast of the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival.

Killer -- which I bought with my '71 Christmas money along with the 'orrible 'oo's Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy and, most crucially, the Stooges' Funhouse -- was where I got off the bus. Even at the time, the relatively complex arrangements of "Halo of Flies" and "You Drive Me Nervous" -- on which the band admirably extended their reach (Bob Ezrin moving from the basic rock of Love It To Death and Mitch Ryder's Detroit album toward, ultimately, The Wall) -- sounded almost quaint next to the Stooges' primal thump-and-roar, and the shock-horror shtick at the end of Side Two seemed a lot less dangerous than what Bro. Ig 'n' the Ashetons had on offer. I tried listening to it again a couple of years ago, when I stumbled on a copy at HPB, and found it to be one of those records from my misguided yoof -- Mott the Hoople's Mott is another -- that just don't resonate the way they once did with the passage of time.

Still, I was fascinated to learn recently that NYC noisician Nick Didkovsky -- one of the minds behind The $100 Guitar Project -- is hosting a week of shows at John Zorn's East Village spot The Stone, culminating in a performance of AC's debut album Pretties for You in its entahrty on Sunday, November 8.

Pretties for You is an album I never paid much attention to until Big Mike Richardson (bless him) laid a copy on me earlier this year.

One wonders what Zappa thought of these guys when he signed them to his Warners boutique label. (Probably something in between "freak show" and "$$$.") If nothing else, FZ afforded them the freedom to be themselves; who else would have given a previously obscure band license to produce their own debut LP? On Pretties for You, Furnier & Co. introduce themselves as veterans of Brit Invasion copyism (two Back From the Grave-worthy singles as the Spiders, back home in Phoenix), audibly enamored of the Pretty Things during their psychedelic phase, 3/4 time, Moby Grape-esque vocal harmonies, and sub-Keith Relf harmonica solos. Perhaps the Didkovsky revival will lead to a re-appraisal of Pretties for You as a lost masterpiece of Meercun psych, at least among NYC folk, in the same way as Uncle Lou's Julian Schnabel-documented revival of Berlin (speaking of Bob Ezrin) caused folks like your humble chronicler o' events to reassess its value.

I would be remiss here if I failed to render proper tribute to Glen Buxton, who in hindsight seems like the archetypal post-psych, pre-Heavy Meercun hard rock guitarist. Listening to his recorded work allows one of A Certain Age to experience once again the thrill of discovery and freedom that came from bending a heavy gauge (Black Diamond?) guitar string a half-step with fuzztone for the first time. In relatively short order, Buxton graduated to command of the shuddering double-stop bend, a trademark of Robin Trower in his Shine On Brightly Procol Harum daze (and more recently employed to good effect by Samuel C. Murphy of Down-Fi/Deezen/Gizmos et al.). It's a pity he became unreliable enough in the studio to warrant his replacement, on record and ultimately on stage, by Ezrin's guitar-slingers-of-choice, Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. The trebly sting of Buxton and Michael Bruce's twin SGs was an essential component of the best AC stuff. They'd first need to move from L.A. to Detroit (home of Hunter and Wagner, as well as the Stooges) before they were able to get to their tones together. But I digress...

"Titanic Overture" opens the proceedings with what sounds to these feedback-scorched ears like a sinister reimagining of Little Anthony and the Imperials' '64 hit "Going Out of My Head," played by Bruce on mellotron and leading into "10 Minutes Before the Worm," which could almost be a whimsical Piper At the Gates of Dawn outtake, out-of-tune backing vocals and all. (Buxton in particular was a huge fan of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, which explains later AC Floydisms like "Black Juju.") "Swing Low, Sweet Cheerio" is the first developed composition, a jazz waltz like the Yardbirds' "Turn Into Earth," with lots of instrumental stretching out in the manner of the day ('69).

"Today Mueller" offers a brief glimpse of the showbizzy AC to come, before giving way to "Living," a galloping freak-out in the style of the one in the Pretty Things' "Mr. Evasion," replete with swooning harmony vocals worthy of the Brit band's Povey-Waller-Twink lineup. This is followed by the side-closing "Fields of Regret," which sonically predicts the evolution of psych into something darker and harder edged, and includes a mid-song recitative (over string-scraping noises) that could be seen as a precursor to the "Bodies need rest" business in the middle of "Black Juju."

Second side kicks off with "No Longer Umpire," another waltz with "spooky" vocals, followed by the live-recorded "Levity Ball," which fakes you out in the beginning by sounding like they're going to play "My Little Red Book," then alternates a pulsing, descending line with gently ruminative sections, highlighted by vocal harmonies, to create a fair simulacrum of the shifting mindscapes of psychedelic experience. "B.B. On Mars" is a quick rocker that boasts feedback-oozing, Floydian guitar, while "Reflected" is the messier psych blueprint for what was later Quadrophenia-ized into "Elected" on Billion Dollar Babies, leading into the acoustic pastoralism (in 3/4, again) of "Apple Bush."

"Earwigs to Eternity" name-checks an earlier incarnation of the band (for the Earwigs is what they were called when they were miming to Beatle records at high school assemblies, before buying instruments and learning how to play them) in the same way as Easy Action's "Return of the Spiders," and is the probable basis for the Beatles comparison St. Lester made in his pan of Pretties for You in Rolling Stone. He'd change his tune about AC after he and they moved to Detroit, same as he would about the MC5, whose debut LP he also panned in the same publication. (My own favorite AC tune is Love It to Death's "Second Coming," which agreeably combines White Album Lennonisms with Procol Harum-like pseudo-classical chord changes, before being overshadowed in everybody's estimation but mine by the song it leads into, "The Ballad of Dwight Fry.")

"Changing Arranging" serves as a summation of all the band's favorite devices -- waltz time, harmonies, fuzzy guitar -- which makes it a fitting conclusion to the record.

Didkovsky's Pretties for You band looks to be a labor of love, including a vocalist (Paul Bertolino) that regularly performs with an AC tribute band, and the father-and-son engine room of Glenn (drums) and Max (bass) Johnson. I don't make pilgrimages to hear bands anymore, but if I was in the Apple the second Sunday in November, best believe I'd be there.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Men of Extinction's "We Made It Ourselves"

You never know what Jim Colegrove's going to get up to next. Last time out, the once and future Juke Jumpers/Lost Country honcho was revisiting his roots with an instrumental rockaroll album. On this latest outing (which, like its predecessor, is Amazon-available), he's teamed with fellow singer-songwriter-guitarist Roscoe West, familiar of Kinky Friedman and T-Bone Burnett, who, in a previous life (as Bob Barnes), played bass in the Elite, Paschal High School's answer to the Beatles, and later, in the Yellow Payges, an L.A.-based Yardbirds-Who derivation that we even heard of as far away as Lawn Guyland. Together, the two men have come up with nothing less than a 21st century Meercun version of the Kinks' masterpiece, The Village Green Preservation Society -- albeit from the perspective of a couple of geezers who actually possess the world-weariness that 20something Ray Davies only affected.

Lyrically, Colegrove and West survey the absurdities of life here in the Future with a mixture of bemusement and droll wit. "Evolution's Not Fast Enough For Me" contemplates imminent ecological disaster in a manner reminiscent of Billy Sherrill-era George Jones, replete with weeping steel guitar and fiddle. "I Used To Think It Mattered," an Eddie Cochran-esque rocker, catalogs the mundane litany of petty concerns from our info-overloaded age. "Jane's Name Is Jane" examines gender reassignment, while "Lap Band Dance" ("...played by the Lap Dance Band") has some fun with physical fitness fads. "Sorry, I Thought You Were Someone I Knew" presents a classic dilemma in bouncy Western swing style, and "Trapped In Amber" is another country weeper, on the subject of stasis. "Bible On Her Lap" is a tongue-in-cheek character study worthy of Chuck Berry.

An auspicious pairing, and another welcome communique from the man whose band I saw more than any other my first couple of years in Fort Worth. If you love American song and periodically consider closing your Facebook account because you find the uncivility of the discourse upsetting, We Made It Ourselves could be right up your alley.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Stumptone's "Spark"

Not long ago, a friend of mine (luthier extraordinaire Mitchell Cigainero) asked if I didn't think the music I play (um, guitar-based rockaroll) isn't obsolete. This gave me cause for pause at the time, but then, a little more recently, a younger friend (muso-scribe Alex Atchley) gave me a take on it that wouldn't have occurred to me: that with the intarweb making every style and genre of music that's existed for the century-plus since the advent of sound recording instantly and perpetually available, nothing is obsolete.

Like a lot of music-obsessed folk who came of age in the '60s and '70s, I've spent an inordinate amount of time wondering how popular music could have progressed so far, so fast, and then stopped. Put it in a bigger frame and realize we're just a century out from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring premiere. It's hard to imagine a musical event having such impact today. (Sub Ornette's NYC coming-out, aka "The Battle of the Five Spot," if you like. Same principle applies.) It seems to me, in light of Mr. Atchley's observation, that we're now in a period of neo-classicism, in which all of the ancestral heritage that's been documented since Edison's cylinder is being digested, absorbed, and recombined, and the only "progress" being made is incremental.

Thus, almost 50 years after Revolver, the persistent popularity of psychedelia should come as no surprise. To these feedback-scorched ears, psych comes in two flavors: the sensory overload variety, and the heightened awareness variety. The former, beloved of people that teethed on punk and metal and anyone else who revels in excess, is best typified by the early works of Pink Floyd, the Flaming Lips, and Mercury Rev. The latter, more accessible to those with more sensitive ears and nervous systems, is exemplified by the later works of those three bands (in Floyd's case, maybe "middle period," i.e., pre-The Wall, might be more apropos) and the deceptively gentle-sounding masterworks of tormented artists like Brian Wilson and Arthur Lee. Both strains attempt to replicate a state of seeing the world through fresh eyes, with a child's sense of wonder (albeit through some crazy filters) -- which is not a bad way to engage with one's actual physical environment, as opposed to the way today's perpetually plugged-in, ever distracted children of McLuhan move through our auto-tuned nightmare.

The patron saints of psych, Floyd's Syd Barrett and the 13th Floor Elevators' Roky Erickson, were daring pioneers who skirted madness while exploring the extremities of expanded consciousness. Stumptone's Chris Plavidal -- a quiet, unassuming family man who makes his living as a photographer -- is an improbable inheritor, but with Spark, he's delivered the most satisfying psych record I've heard since Beck's Morning Phase.

Like its predecessor, 2007's incandescent Gravity Finally Released, Spark was recorded at the Echo Lab in Argyle with engineer Dave Willingham, a Plavidal collaborator for two decades, who provides shimmering studio ambience, setting the songs like scattered gems amid dreamy soundscapes. Its release (under the title Adventures in Magnetism) was rumored around this time last year, but has been delayed because Plavidal wants the record on die-cut vinyl -- Stumptone recordings always come beautifully packaged -- and such things take time. (I heartily concur: The Romance of the Artifact lives!)

The song structures are simple, with occasional melodic surprises. The magic comes from the way Stumptone's musicians will use anything -- harmonica, brass, a snippet of feedback -- to enhance a harmony, suffusing its edges in a soft, warm glow. Plavidal builds his music from the ground up, blending acoustic and electric textures, starting with his voice and guitar, which draw on folk and blues sources in the same way as Nick Drake's did. He's played a few "Stumptone" gigs solo, or with just Mike Throneberry's drums to accompany him -- which the skinsman does with more sympathy and subtlety than one might expect from a muso who's done the duty with spacey Mazinga Phaser and the garage-y Marked Men. Once-and-future Sub Osloite Frank Cervantez is an ideal guitar foil, a tone scientist who expertly fleshes out the sound without stealing the spotlight, and Plavidal returns the favor by sitting in on trumpet with Cervantez's main band, the ambient duo Wire Nest. Peter Salisbury -- who lives in Denton, played with Plavidal in Baptist Generals, and sits down when he plays -- is the utility musician, and contributes bass, keys, and backing vocals when present.

Song-wise, there are a few highlights. "Mutiny" is a mutated country blues worthy of mid-period Fleetwood Mac, which makes oblique commentary on the current political scene ("Don't you tread on me, motormouth...Keep your panic to yourself"). The album's zenith is probably the sequence of "Penny Lea" (for Plavidal's wife) and "Good Times" (hold the Easybeats/Nile Rodgers allusions, please), both of which take highly personal moments and make them universal, leading into "Adventures in Magnetism," a sonic tour de force.

Like the quality of light through a window at a certain time of day, Spark's pleasures are fleeting, but beguiling enough to make you want to sit still long enough to experience them, again and again. While the album is definitely psych of the heightened awareness variety, Stumptone has it both ways, with a cassette EP's worth of sensory overload in the form of two 15-minute tracks of exploratory mess and noise: brisk and bracing stuff. Release date for both remains to be determined. Keep an ear tuned.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Thinking Plague to North Texas Come (In January)

Thinking Plague, 2015 
L-R, standing: Robin Chestnut (drums), Mike Johnson (leader-guitar), Dave Willey (bass)
L-R, sitting: Mark Harris (reeds), Elaine di Falco (vocals, accordion, keys), Bill Pohl (guitar)

It takes a special kind of dedication to make a career playing challenging, non-commercial music. Since the '90s, Bill Pohl had been a prophet without honor in his hometown of Fort Worth. A preternaturally fleet and fluid guitarist, he co-led the progressive rock band The Underground Railroad with pianist-drummer Kurt Rongey, recording two albums, doing a modest amount of touring, and playing local gigs to small but devoted audiences. His major local impact was on his collaborators (including Big Mike Richardson, Henry the Archer's Matt Hembree, Magnatite's Sam Damask, and The Cosmic Trigger's Tyrel Choat) and his guitar students. In 2012, after careful thought and consideration, he followed his high school sweetheart to Colorado...and found his tribe.

The opportunity came in the form of an invitation from guitarist-composer Mike Johnson to join Thinking Plague, the venerable and venerated prog band Johnson formed with bassist-drummer Bob Drake in 1982. Over the last three decades, Johnson and his revolving cast of players (28 at this writing) have had a complex and convoluted history, creating a body of work that spans six albums (so far), with another in the works.

Asked (by phone, from his home in Colorado) what has sustained him through his band's lengthy trajectory, Johnson said, "Some kind of compulsion or insanity. I grew up in a time when it seemed that a person could do serious music and make a living. Having a full-time day career [now retired, the Navy veteran worked for years as a community college counselor] and the band required me to have two different personas and two different stores of energy."

His band's uncompromising sound, inspired by modern symphonic composers like William Schuman, has invited comparisons to the British band Henry Cow, whose similar stance set them apart from the more mainstream prog bands of the '70s. That connection was cemented by Thinking Plague's third album (after two self-released recordings), In This Life, which was released in 1989 on Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler's label, and included the participation of his bandmate, guitarist Fred Frith, on one cut.

While on a brief East Coast tour in 1988, Johnson said, "We went to visit Fred Frith in his tiny apartment on the top of a building [in New York City]. He told us, 'If you want to do this, you have to give up everything else in life.' I realized that the window of opportunity in my life for me to do this was closed." That realization proved to be liberating. "I thought, 'It's never going to happen. I'll just do what I do. This has given me great satisfaction and purpose."

On In This Life, ensemble dynamics are emphasized over solo pyrotechnics, capped by the untutored, punkish vocal stylings of Susanne Lewis (who beat out Jill Sobule of "I Kissed A Girl" fame for the gig). In parts of the album, the confluence of Mark Harris' reeds and Shane Hotle's keyboards recalls Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, while elsewhere, African and Balinese percussion colors the sound.

"I'm a determinist or positivist when it comes to aesthetics," Johnson said. "Everyone's music is not equally good. I see it as a hierarchical evolution that transcends time. The more effort the listener invests, the greater the reward should be. I want to utilize more dimensions -- of dynamics, of meter. My brain paints musical events. I follow my head where it goes, and imagine the music from the top down. My mission is to raise the level of rock music, to put more content in the form."

In 1996, bassist Dave Willey and vocalist Deborah Perry -- from Boulder-based outfit Hamster Theatre, with whom Johnson had also played -- joined Thinking Plague. Two years later, the band began a relationship with Maryland-based indie Cuneiform Records. Their Cuneiform albums In Extremis (1998) and A History of Madness (2003) are fan favorites, widely hailed as classics. On the former, Dave Kerman's drums give the music a hard-edged attack, while on the latter, the presence of ex-Sleepytime Gorilla Museum drummer David Shamrock allows more textural variety, with solo features for Matt Mitchell's piano and Harris' saxophone.

Cuneiform also released Early Plague Years (2000), a remastered reissue of the first two self-released Thinking Plague albums, and most recently, Decline and Fall (2012). That album, which fulminates lyrically against societal malaise, introduces another exceptionally adept singer, Elaine di Falco (a multi-instrumentalist whose previous collaborators include Soft Machine's Hugh Hopper), and drummer Robin Chestnut (who plays on one track and has since joined the permanent lineup). Decline and Fall's gleaming, high definition sound contrasts starkly with dystopian lyrics like "eat more / think less / drink more / sleep less / die more" ("Sleeper Cell Anthem").

A daunting development for listeners searching for Thinking Plague's music: in the last few years, a number of their CDs have gone out of print for the first time.  The only ones still being pressed and distributed are their last disk, Decline and Fall, and the recently reissued In This Life. Internet sellers demand premium prices for Thinking Plague CDs. "It's hard for labels to make a profit, when downloads don't make enough money," said Johnson. "Our CDs sell, but it's only a trickle. People don't pay to download albums, only single tracks, and there are pirates in Russia and other places where you can't touch them, making large files available for free, or charging as though they were legitimate entities."

Earlier this year, Thinking Plague ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund studio expenses for the recording of a new album, which is scheduled for release on Cuneiform in September 2016. "Tracking has already started, at home, for the guitar parts," said Johnson. "We want to use a really good studio to make the acoustic instruments -- piano, drums, reeds -- sound gorgeous." While still uncertain who'll be working on the album mix, Johnson said, "We want to make the mix interesting, and sort of psychedelic, but with authentic acoustic textures."

On January 10, they'll make a rare visit to North Texas, performing at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff with free jazz/heavy rock juggernaut Unconscious Collective, which teams brothers Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez from Yells At Eels with another astonishing guitarist, Gregg Prickett (They Say The Wind Made Them Crazy, Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society). (Wheels within wheels: Pohl has made guest appearances with Yells At Eels both live and on their albums Pictogram and Geografia.)

Unlike earlier, bicoastal lineups, the current Thinking Plague, said Johnson, "is local -- or at least within 70 miles. This way, we can rehearse at least somewhat regularly, and have some polish when we perform." Band members' commitments can make practice schedules sporadic, which necessitates homework, Johnson explained: "Elaine is using a Helicon TC pitch shifter to create her own background vocals -- sometimes up to four harmonies, which she 'plays' while singing. Bill is playing keyboard parts on guitar, some of which I wrote charts for, some of which I let him figure out."

For the Texas tour -- which includes dates at the Church of the Friendly Ghost in Austin and Rudyard's in Houston, as well as the Kessler (with a San Antonio date still in the works) -- Johnson promises a varied set, with two or three songs from each of Thinking Plague's albums except the first two, and a couple of as-yet-unrecorded pieces from the new album: one that's "gamelan-like," another that's "80% in 3/4 time, with a pulsing groove -- to show that you don't need to play in an odd meter to be cutting edge."

Composing for the two-guitar lineup, without a regular keyboard player, has caused Johnson to become "even more classical" in his approach. In rock, he says, the traditional approach is to contrast single-note lines with "chunky sounding chords or 5ths, or strumming with fingerpicking." For Thinking Plague's next album, he envisions "two fuzz guitars playing sustaining single notes, each interacting as a separate voice with the woodwinds and even accordion. It's a monophonic contrapuntal approach, using chromatic harmony and independent movement of lines, where each note creates a new expectation."

If that sounds wonky, his intended effect doesn't: "To put power and emotion in the music."