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.