Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Things we like: Sturgill Simpson, FZ, Courtney Barnett

1) It appears the universe doesn't want me listening to CDs. The player in my car -- which had become my "deep listening space" over the last few years -- went Tango Uniform the other day, after refusing to reject The Young Mothers' CD I'd been listening to for a week or so. Wha-wha. So it's back to NPR news, which might not be a bad thing. (I've also started turning off the 'puter around 8pm most nights. Sleep better that way.)

2) I'm a little slow on the pickup, so when I first heard Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music a few months ago, I thought, "Gee whiz, he sounds like Waylon Jennings on acid." (He'd been reading A Brief History of Time and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, evidently.) When I got his A Sailor's Guide to Life, I thought, "Gee whiz, it sounds like Waylon if he'd recorded at Stax in '67." I perceive the strength in Sturgill's writing comes from his real-life experience, which includes long periods at non-musical jobs, including naval service. On A Sailor's Guide's "Sea Stories" -- possibly the best song about being in the Navy since Mike Watt's Contemplating the Engine Room -- when he sings, "If you get sick and can't manage to kick and get yourself kicked out of the Navy / You spend the next year trying to score from a futon life raft on the floor / And the next 15 trying to figure out what the hell you did that for," you know somebody lived that.

3) A customer recently got me back down the FZ rabbit hole for a minute. While I've written elsewhere about how my Zappa fandom has diminished over the years (a too-high chaff-to-wheat ratio, even in the heyday), and how DVDs have supplanted old favorite recs like Roxy and Elsewhere and One Size Fits All (in the same way as they have the audio-only versions of live Hendrix, post-Blow By Blow Jeff Beck, and '64 Mingus), I recently picked up a copy of Mothermania, the Mothers of Invention comp Frank put together for MGM when he broke his contract with them -- subsequently disavowed, and out of catalog for years (although I understand the Family Trust has brought it back digitally), but it includes all the tracks he cited as most satisfactory in his '68 Rolling Stone int save the "Pigs and Ponies" side of Lumpy Gravy. (The sequence of LPs that includes We're Only In It for the Money, Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets, and Uncle Meat as well as Gravy -- the result of an explosion of studio productivity while the Mothers were playing a residency at NYC's Garrick Theater during '67 -- is arguably the cornerstone of his oeuvre, although Money's snidely pompous social commentary hasn't aged well.) Missing from Mothermania is the talking blues "Trouble Every Day," inspired by the '65 Watts riots, which may prove to be Frank's most enduring work, along with his '85 anti-censorship testimony before Congress. Give him this: He predicted a "fascist theocracy" here 30 years ago, which is looking pretty prescient right now.

4) When a friend pulled my coat to Courtney Barnett's Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit a couple of years ago, it quickly became my record o' that summer (with lines like "Gimme all your money and I'll make some origami, honey," how could you go wrong?). Her newie, Tell Me How You Really Feel, got my attention with a song called "Nameless, Faceless" that alludes to a quote attributed to Margaret Atwood, making it speak to our historical moment: "I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Men are scared that women will laugh at them / I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Women are scared that men will kill them / I hold my keys / Between my fingers." Barnett's an Aussie from Melbourne -- a country which, in the '90s, seemed to me like an alternative universe America where the Stooges, MC5, Flamin' Groovies, and Nuggets (the music I took much shit for liking when I was a snotnose) were actually popular. She's of a different generation, of course: the one that came of age to Nirvana. (More to the point, she's toured with Sleater-Kinney musos, and they even make a cameo appearance in her "Elevator Operator" video.) Her dry wit and poker-faced delivery mark her as something special among singer-songwriters. She's indicated that the new album's title refers to her "politely restrained" but omnipresent anger, which really comes across in the self-explanatory "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch." But "Sunday Roast" is a gently uplifting valedictory. Looks like I've got my record for this summer. Even without a CD player in the car.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Prophecy Productions: Volur, The Dark Red Seed, Hekate

Although new to me, Prophecy Productions, the German label that released the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices album I reviewed last month -- has been around since 1996. Originally intended for a single release by the band Empyrium, the label has enjoyed huge success in Europe with a catalog of dark metal and neofolk acts including Dornenreich, The Vision Bleak, Alcest, and Sol Invictus. The label's hallmarks include long relationships with artists, lavishly packaged editions, and a close connection with fans. In 2003, Prophecy initiated sub-labels Lupus Lounge and Auerbach Tontrager to release extreme metal and contemporary folk, respectively. Three of their new releases arrived on my doorstep this week.

On Ancestors, the second in a planned four-album sequence, Toronto-based trio Volur plays a darkly ruminative brand of doom music ("not necessarily metal," their Bandcamp page emphasizes), with lyrics steeped in old Germanic myths and spirituality. Laura C. Bates' violin fulfills the melodic role of a guitar here, lending the music a lighter, pastoral quality at times (as on the opening "Breaker of Silence," one of four side-long pieces on the double LP), balanced by the driving force of Lucas Gadke's bass and Jimmy Payment's drums. On "Breaker of Skulls," the ensemble's stately melodic grandeur is offset by Gadke's growled invocation of blood feasts, making Led Zep's "Immigrant Song" sound like the Monkees.

The Dark Red Seed (a "metaphor for the heart") is the collaborative project of guitarist Tosten Larsen and drummer-engineer Shawn Fleming, both of whom also work with Seattle dark folk muso King Dude. On Becomes Awake, their first full-length, they've crafted a richly textured, acoustic-based rock music, replete with horn and string arrangements, that draws on Roma, Indian, and Persian musical traditions for source material. The net effect is like a more somber version of Love's Forever Changes, and the music takes some interesting turns, as in the horn-driven instrumental "The Void," or "The Awakening," which features guitar tones that show the linkage between Link Wray and Syd Barrett.

On their sixth album, Totentanz ("Dance of Death"), the venerable German neofolk outfit Hekate (originally formed by non-musician goth kids in Koblenz back in 1993) combines electronic and percussion elements with classical dynamics and lyrics sung in either English or German -- the latter including their setting of Prussian poet Joseph von Eichendorff's "Mondnacht" (which shares a title with the Franz Stassen painting that graces the cover; the art book edition of the album also includes unpublished ink drawings by the reclusive magic realist Hermann Wohler). As ruminations on mortality go, it's not Mahler, but at its best (as on the Sandy Denny-ish "Spring of Light" or the world music-evocative "Am Meere"), Totentanz can be a haunting, intriguing listen.

These records are just a tiny sample from a big, diverse catalog. Little known in the US, Prophecy Productions represents something like a darker, heavier ECM -- a quality label for listeners of certain taste. Music's a deep well; how fortunate are we.

Friday, May 18, 2018

5.17.2018, Deep Ellum

It had probably been close to a decade since the last time I set foot in bustling Deep Ellum, but when I saw The Young Mothers were stopping by RBC -- the acronym stands for "Rhythm, Beats, Culture" (formerly the Red Blood Club), tucked behind a burger joint on Commerce, and site of Stefan Gonzalez's Monday-night Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions -- on their way to Europe (via Austin), and that the bill was rounded out by Ataraxia and Habu Habu, I had sufficient reason to leave not only my couch and my house, but even my area code (a rare occurrence these days).

First things first: Habu Habu is the solo project of Gregg Prickett, who was Ronald Shannon Jackson's last guitarist and whose own work combines classical fluency with advanced jazz, rock, and improv ideas. In performance, his entire physical being is focused on a still center, from which he spins all manner of sonic tapestries, now caressing the strings gently, now striking them with great violence, always with impeccable control. A ruminative opener, played on his nylon string, was dedicated to "a special person," and filled with heart-healing lyricism. Then he looped percussive noises by rubbing on the strings, over which he overlaid pensive electric chords, out of which emerged a stunning surprise: a version of the standard "It Had To Be You," on which Prickett sang as well as played. (He's been studying standard repertoire with a pianist and exploring the idea of lyrics as a medium to tell stories.) On his closing number, he stacked orchestrated parts to create a dense forest of sound. Prickett plans to revive his Mingus-inspired Monks of Saturnalia soon with Ataraxia's Drew Phelps and Young mothers Jason Jackson and Stefan Gonzalez. I look forward to hearing.

I'd last seen Ataraxia -- trumpeter-composer Dennis Gonzalez's trio with bassist Phelps and percussionist Jagath Lakpriya -- at house shows when they were still feeling each other out, and it was a pleasure hearing Dennis explore different space than the intense one he usually inhabits in Yells At Eels with his sons Stefan and Aaron Gonzalez. Now, Ataraxia's performance commences with the musicians already deep into the music, as though resuming a conversation that they'd started earlier. That's what playing together for a couple of years will do for an ensemble; good (but not obtrusive) amplification makes a difference, too. On this night, Aaron -- just back from a tour with the dark experimental collective Asukubus -- augmented the lineup on second bass, seamlessly swapping accompanying and solo roles with Drew. When Phelps played dancing syncopation against the younger Gonzalez's steady pulse, the music went to a special place. When not cuing solos or otherwise directing the band, Dennis played small instruments, laid down block chords using a harmonizer, and played long, sinuous lines over Lakpriya's primeval groove.

Then Young Mothers roared out of the gate with fierce, jarring visceral power. Theirs is a dense, multi-layered sound where Ivesian contrapuntal lines often divide the ensemble into competing units -- a testament to their attentive listening. Drummer Frank Rosaly was taken ill in Amsterdam, so his place was ably filled by Chris Holmes, who played the music with an authority that belied his last-minute substitution. Stefan Gonzalez's mallets fleetly flew across his vibraphone, sometimes at the same time as he shrieked grindcore style, and he added power on a second drum kit when required. Jawwaad Taylor coaxed a myriad of beats and samples from his laptop, over which he flowed verse -- as on "Attica Black," wherein he conjures a country become prison yard -- and blew circuitous lines on his pocket trumpet. Saxman Jason Jackson has a robust, burnished sound on tenor and baritone, sounding for all the world like Archie Shepp channeling Ben Webster. Leader Ingebrigt Haker Flaten -- whose numerous other projects include The Thing, surely the only free jazz trio to have worked with both Neneh Cherry and James "Blood" Ulmer -- has a muscular attack on Rickenbacker and stand-up basses, laying down pummeling rock rifferama one moment, relentless ostinatos the next, and coaxing pealing waves of feedback from his amp on the climactic piece.

In any other band, each of these men could be the main attraction. The challenge of witnessing a Young Mothers performance is deciding where to focus. Perhaps most astonishing was guitarist Jonathan Horne, who runs his Mosrite through a preamp, tiny Fender and Premier amps, and an arsenal of effects to produce huge slabs of thick-toned sound, sometimes doubling Haken's line, at others blending with Jackson, then soloing with insane abandon, including slashing Sharrockian chaos-slide. His remarkable performance entered the realm of the miraculous in my mind when I learned that he's recovering from having a tendon in his left arm severed six months ago -- he'd been unsure he'd ever play again -- bringing to mind a convo I'd had earlier with Prickett about Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Derek Bailey, and how a performer responds when their physical capability changes. (Horne credited his bandmates' support following his injury as an aid to his recovery.)

As imposing as these Young Mothers were on RBC's small stage, one can imagine how they'd dominate a larger festival stage. It's all there on their new album Morose (check out the track "Black Tar Caviar," which provides a nice summation of their multiplicity of strengths), but this music really needs to be experienced live. How fortunate 30 or so of us were that they docked in Deep Ellum last night. I'll be anxiously awaiting their return.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Cleveland Steamers' "Best Record Ever"

A married-couple-fronted rockaroll band (shades of Blondie, X, and Dead Moon) named after a railway mechanics' bowling team, Cleveland Steamers convened in 2011 as the final project of terminally ill Clevo punk muso Lair Matic. Since frontwoman Meredith Rutledge-Borger joined her husband, bassist-vocalist Cheese Borger, in the lineup, they've recorded two albums for estimable indie Smog Veil with a revolving cast of local-celebrity guests.

On their latest vinyl slab, the optimistically-entitled Best Record Ever, their punk and noir influences coalesce into a cocktail of garage psychedelia that's often reminiscent of Blue Oyster Cult's first two albums, as well as early-Ezrin-era Alice Cooper. High spots of the first side include the sultry, spooky "Dream of Me," crooned by Meredith over a moody backing replete with bluesy organ and sax solos, segueing directly into the heavy, dark menace of "Monsanto," growled with requisite grit by Cheese and juiced with synth F/X that recall early Pere Ubu.

Second side kicks off strong with Meredith riding the propulsive mid-tempo wave of "Hung Up On You," and winds up with the album's two punkest moments: "My Asshole Cousin," in which Cheese paints a picture of a certain subspecies of Meercun that's particularly prevalent at the moment, and the self-explanatory "Shut Up!," with guest vocals by the Plague's Bob Sablack. Proof positive, as if any more were needed, that Ohio remains the secret music capital of America.