SWINGING MODERN SOUNDS #22: Son of Interactive Playlist

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Rick Moody shares the music he’s listening to now thanks to suggestions shared by others:

From its inception, the idea of this column has been to explore independent, unreleased, never-to-be-released, unsigned, bootlegged, and other somewhat neglected forms of music, with the eventual hope that you the readers of these lines would supply me with leads on more of such things. In this way the column would be legitimately co-created. This particular episode attempts to pick up the thread, the interactive thread, with a bunch of examples of things that I heard because other people suggested I listen, often in settings that have nothing to do with how we used to consume music, i.e., at someone’s house on a stereo system. This is a sort of postmodern playlist, therefore. Before I start, though, let me just remind you: if you are hearing unreleased music that you think I ought to write about, let me know, and I will track it down.

*Clogs, The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton (Brassland)*

Clogs, as many of you may know now, are a side project of the band called The National, who themselves are now  justifiably celebrated (New York Times Magazine!), though they don’t mean very much to me—in the same way that Arcade Fire means nothing to me, and Shearwater means nothing to me, and Fleet Foxes mean nothing to me. Why these bands mean nothing to me is because I resist deadly earnest straight boys with amplifiers and something to say. That said, I think The National plays exceedingly well, even if I don’t like the vocalist all that much, and am uninterested in the narrative conveyed by the lyrics. The good news for me, then, is that there exists a side project that has none of the problems I associate with straight-boys-with-amplifiers. The side project is more in the let’s-not-call-it-classical serious music category. The compositions are mostly by Padma Newsome, who is from Australia and who plays violin for The National, though he went to conservatory (as I believe Bryce Dessner, the guitarist for the National and the Clogs also did, and I think this is how the two met), and can clearly play with great facility and feeling. The Clogs on the first two albums (Thom’s Night Out and Lullabye For Sue) also included a drummer and a bassoonist (!), Thomas Kozumplik and Rachael Elliott, though the third album, Stick Music, for my money the very best, is more experimental and more about banging on violin and the guitar in ways for which these instruments were not designed. All Clogs releases (including the fourth, Lantern) are on Brassland, the label owned and operated by the National, which is a slightly obscure new music label. Everything on it is fabulous, unimpeachably good. It’s worth buying anything if it comes out on Brassland. Having said all this, I have to offer that for me the new Clogs album makes a quintessential error: it tries to be an album of songs. In the past, Newsome sang now and then (with his slightly stiff choirboy voice), but only occasionally, in order to mitigate the sameness of instrumental albums. But on The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton there is a lot of singing, some of it recognizably by Newsome, some of it by soprano Shara Worden, some of it consisting of Matt Berninger (vocalist of The National), and some of it consisting of Sufjan Stevens. In a way, the Sufjan Stevens approach is an influence throughout, self-evidently, because the songs are slowly developing, incrementalist, less classical and more cinematic, but with a church choir squeaky-cleanness that you would not have found on, for example, an earlier Clogs number about how to prepare turtle soup (from Lullabye For Sue). I can imagine that with all the cultural impact of The National, it is tempting to want to maximize the potential for the Clogs, too, but when these musicians decided, on Stick Music, to go for something more violently new, something occasionally dissonant, something that indie rock fans were liable to find more challenging, they made their best record of all. There are good songs on The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton, but there’s also stuff that seems more predictable. The whole kind of reminds me of Steve Hackett’s Voyage of the Acolyte, in that it is unapologetically prog rockish. This is a bold ambition, because in some circles anything progish is highly embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to me to me to admit that I know what Voyage of the Acolyte sounds like, for example, and I grew up with prog (because there was no punk rock yet). If you want the great starter album by Clogs, try Thom’s Night Out or Stick Music. And save this one for when you want to sport your geek.

*Amy Denio, unaccompanied voice and digital delay, The Stone, 4/2/2010*

For those of you not in New York City, The Stone is John Zorn’s club, opened a couple of years ago, and situated on Avenue C and 2nd Street. As far as I can tell a lot of the nights are curated, and in this instance Robin Holcomb, the great pianist and songwriter, picked Amy Denio to play. Amy, you will remember, if you’ve been reading these posts since the beginning, also plays sax in The Tiptons Sax Quartet, whom I admire greatly. But she has also played in an avant-rock band, the Pale Nudes, a sort of experimental Eastern-European outfit called Die Knödel, and on her own, as guitarist, accordionist, saxophonist, singer, composer, arranger, you name it. She is one of those unstoppable musicans, like Zorn himself (and thus The Stone is a perfect venue for her), who just can’t be pigeonholed, although I think when she is alone in the middle of the night she probably sings something halfway between Armenian duduk music and Indian ragas. For the show at The Stone, she was by herself, promoting the first release on her own Spoot Music label. The album is called Tutto Bene, and consists mainly of her accordion-based stuff. But in person she decided to ignore the album, more or less, and simply to improvise. With her digital delay box. Some of these improvisations had to do with the songs on the album, but most did not. Some were completely of the moment and consisted of Denio saying to the audience, “Let’s come up with a rhythm,” which the audience (this author included) then percussed while Denio belted out something over the top. The something-over-the-top consists of a voice that has to close on four octaves, and which has overtones at the top and the bottom, so that she sounds somewhere between Don Van Vliet and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, only higher, since she can do both soprano and contralto without batting an eye. I love extended vocal technique stuff. It gets closer, for me, to real human emotion than just about anything. So there were passages of real uncanny power in Denio’s gig. She has something, and she takes the audience somewhere, and the somewhere is more punk rock than Woodstock, but it has elements of each. There’s no us and them, no proscenium, just something shared between performer and audience, in which the performer can’t exist without the vigorous participation of the audience. I loved this show, and if you are lucky enough to live in Seattle, where Denio performs more often, make sure you take advantage of her proximity. There are few people out there, if any, doing what she does.


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and most recently a volume of essays entitled ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. The Wingdale Community Singers, in which he plays and sings, have released three albums, of which the most recent is NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH (on Blue Chopsticks/Drag City). His new novel will be released in 2015. More from this author →