Swinging Modern Sounds #10: The Interactive Playlist

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464539482_543167181eThe original idea for this blog was to find my way to things that were unreleased, self-released, and unsigned, and in this installment I’m going to take my mission seriously for a change. Since I’ve been writing these notes, I’ve been polling friends near and far—as well as complete strangers—for interesting music, and a great many people have written in with suggestions. I have to say, I really love the aspect of blog-writing that makes it possible for people to write in almost immediately to respond to what I’m thinking about, and I like the interactivity of the medium. That said, many people wrote in to suggest exactly the kind of thing that this blog resists, which is to say bands of boys with Marshall stacks and double kick drummers. Or pop bands that are just, as yet, unlucky enough to be well-known. There are probably many music writers out there looking for this kind of next big thing, but my feeling is that the next big thing is what makes pop music dull these days. I offer instead a playlist that is somewhat against the grain as far as “indie” music goes these days, the obscure, the experimental, the ancient, each devoted to the project and the vision instead of the results.

l_4bf0a88104dc6fff8f9794d6356dde6cTwi the Humble Feather

It’s really interesting how influence works in contemporary popular music. Somehow I assume that influence will always be predictable, verifiable, that people will be influenced by certain indelible voices: Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles. Maybe some artists come back into fashion, like Leonard Cohen, and suddenly they make a mark. But otherwise things proceed in an unsurprising way. How can you fail to be influenced by these seminal bodies of work? It’s pretty arresting instead to hear a new band that is completely indebted to Animal Collective, and not just the Animal Collective as we know them now, but a very specific period of Animal Collective, namely their earlier incarnation as sort-of psych folk band, as indicated, e.g., on Sung Tongs. I could go on at some length about Animal Collective, and probably will some day, but that would, in this case, fail to account for Twi (which rhymes with why, and, yes,on the list of band names, this will go down with Toad the Wet Sprocket as one of the more bizarre and inexplicable). Twi are very compelling in a lovely and subtle way. They are largely acoustic, pointillistically so, and are really great players (and I’m never sure about this with Animal Collective—I often think that it’s Animal Collective’s laptops that are the good players), and the sound amounts to a fusion of contemporary folk-influenced independent stuff with serious new music, West African music, Balinese monkey chant, and so on. This is a rich stew of indigenous music, then, with the barest of pop veneers. Influences get digested, you know? Remember when everyone sounded like Nirvana? A couple years later none of those bands sounded much like Nirvana anymore. Individuation is inevitable, in music, and when an inclination is followed to its conclusion, there is the uniqueness inevitably discovered. I assume this is what’s going to happen with Twi. They appeared on my horizon via Alec Bemis from Brassland (who also led me to The Clogs, a new-music side project of the members of The National whom I really like a great deal). I expect Twi will only get better. And they are already very very good.

(More about Twi at Friendly Ghost, the collective that is releasing the album, or, I suppose, helping the band to release it.)

1170358061_mThe American Opry

This amazing find came courtesy of my friends Laura and Tim, who ran into this guy at a Will Oldham gig. I understand that Will Oldham is powerful force in contemporary music, and I too like those early Palace albums (especially Palace Brothers), but let us set aside Will Oldham and speak instead of this American Opry guy. The concept seems to be, based on what I can dig up on up MySpace, a newfangled approach to the field recording idea made popular by Alan Lomax. Chris, I think that’s his name, just goes out and records regular people singing and playing. He also seems to work as a fieldhand. (His note on the MySpace page is a pretty incredible combination of manifesto and critique of self.) As with Lomax, Chris seems to be attracted to the regional and the indigenous (I mean, he’s not going out to record electronica at some club), and therefore to preservation, but with a slightly postmodern spin on the whole thing: it’s not the 1930s anymore, and lots of these players have satellite tv and a wifi connection, and maybe they have their acoustic guitars wired up to their Facebook pages. Still, the field recording concept is noble and sublime, now as ever, and I am often as moved by music played by “non-musicians” or hobbyists as I am by music played by virtuosi. I guess it’s the whole range of possible musics that make listening such a way of life. This guy, Chris, the American Opry guy, seems to have that kind of spirit, the listening spirit.

Dan Friel

Electronic music is challenging these days. I suppose it is challenging because most of it just does that one thing, the house music thing, and we have just gotten used to it being used according a rigid template of clichés. All those faceless house music compilations with semi-clad Brazilian beauties on them and names like Techno From Rio, or some shit, the same fucking breakbeats in the same fucking places, and the same boring sine waves being played on the same sampled analogue synths. It’s a dead medium, and it does nothing but delude people with too much disposable income or too much ecstasy, into believing they are having a spiritual experience. When they are not. They are just getting separated from their cash. Don’t get me started. That said, when an electronic artist comes along who doesn’t traffic in these cliches (Mouse on Mars, or Oval, or Matmos), it’s so refreshing. The secret, I figure, is melody. When the electronic beeps and blips come closer to having actual melody, then they become, well, sort of funny. And when they are funny, they are so much more interesting. Joelle Sun, whom I met on Facebook, and about whom I know nothing but that she likes robots, told me to listen to Dan Friel, and I was really delighted by the encounter. He has another band, I am told, and perhaps that band is more conventional. But this is electronic music that sounds like what your Casio would play if it drank a cocktail of battery acid, absinthe, and crystal meth. I don’t think there’s a sample on the whole thing. (I think sampling is not really very defensible at this late date. I know that an accelerated culture prefers collage, blah blah blah.) Friel engages the Indian, raga-like component of early electronica, the part that produced the early Tangerine Dream albums, and Terry Riley, but he also seems to like roller rink music, and guitar feedback, or things that sound like guitar feedback, and free jazz. He lists Sun Ra and John Fahey as influences, and you can hear it.

The Mercantillers515400869_m

John Domini, a very interesting novelist who teaches at Grinnell College, pointed me toward his daughter’s band, and my feeling is that his daughter’s band is good and is well on their way. Not long after, he included me on an announcement for a gig by his cousin’s bar band in New York City. I don’t think he was under the impression that I was going to be seriously interested in the bar band. But wait! This is not a bar band, except in the way that the Pogues were (are) a bar band, which is to say that the Mercantillers have that reckless, out of control quality that can be calibrated only with a lot of heart. By their own account, they mix country and traditional Americana with sea chanteys and some originals, but such a description doesn’t quite capture the punk rock uptempo quality of their emotional register. The instrumentation consists of a brace of guitar players and 515493807_lrhythm section augmented by banjo, accordion, and some horns. The vocals sound, uh, not overrehearsed—in a very agreeable way. Intonation is not considered an essential quality of the singing. Guys go ARGGGH in the background now and then. In short, this is the kind of band that plays for all ages at neighborhood cultural centers, as well as at bars. The Mercantillers have a couple of albums out, and I hope they make many more–without ever encountering a click track or any other studio invention that slicks up their sound.

Less the Band

Adam Rapp, who I think is mostly the singer here, and the uniting force, is best known as a playwright, and an extremely good one at that. As I understand it, he made this band to do some live performing in the course of a play that he wrote, after which the band kind of took on a life of its own. The doubt one might have about such an endeavor was that is was too performative, you know, rock and roll in that Broadway kinda way. Like Meatloaf or Ellen Foley. Maybe Adam or the others would sing too well, you know? On the contrary, there’s something refreshing about this band, or what I have heard of it. They really have a band sound, and it’s an old kind of band sound. I mean, they are a little bit slick, but slick at sounding like a CBGB’s band circa 1979. There’s a little Velvets in here, and a little X, a little Wire Train, a little Mink DeVille, a little power pop (Plimsouls), and a little Tom Jones. You could do a lot worse. And here’s the best part! They self-released the album! This band plays at Mercury Lounge, opening for this hip band and that hip band–they are extremely well connected, as they would be—but they released the album on CD Baby themselves, and they have stayed true to a pretty stripped down and self-generated career model. I am willing to bet there aren’t any managers or publicists breathing down their necks. They do what they do because it’s pleasing them to do it. In fact, you could say that about just about every band on this list, and that’s something to be honored and appreciated, self-determination.

dd/mm/yyyy

My friend Emily went to see these guys at SxSW, just because she liked the name, and you have to admit that this is a very good band name. They are from Toronto, which seems to be a place that has generated some fine music recently, and this band is no exception. I suppose that they are post-punk, making use of some of that same late seventies, early eighties stuff that has motivated a number of British bands a few years ago (I’m thinking of a set of influences that includes Wire, Pere Ubu, P.I.L., early XTC, etc.). But dd/mm/yyyy are so concerted, so hell-bent, that they sort of transcend that era in their relentless devotion to tricky tempo changes, vintage analogue synthesizer (sounds like one of those homemade oscillator kits), slapback echo on the vocals, and sheer noise. Everyone seems sing, or lots of people in the band sing, so they get away with nice counterpoint, or what passes for counterpoint when you’re shouting a lot. The arrangements, in the kitchiness, are not unlike another great Canadian band, Do Make Say Think, but since Do Make Say Think are an instrumental band, dd/mm/yyyy carve out some space by virtue of being song-oriented. There’s a cartoon-y earnestness to the eccentricity here, as if they just discovered how to play in 5/8 or in 9/8, but as a result the whole feels incredibly enthusiastic, new, and unpretentious. In a way, dd/mm/yyyy are already too well known for this blog, but since they were new to me, I’m including the recommendation here. This is the best new band I’ve heard in a while.

Blind Buddy Moody

He’s really blind, and his name is really Moody, and I don’t think he’s any relation to me, but you never know. Most of the Moodys go back to one British wastrel from the 16th century, who fished King Henry (can’t remember which one) out of a lake. Anyway, Buddy is from Tampa, and he plays old country and western music, which is the only kind that makes any sense, and his originals sound as old and written in stone as his classics. He yodels a little and plays acoustic guitar and harmonica and dobro, and his voice is a rich baritone with a little microtonal warble that recalls Tennesse Ernie Ford. On MySpace there’s a fair amount of audience talking during the live numbers, and that gives the recordings a very historical feeling. You can imagine this guy playing by himself on some busy thoroughfare, and I guess that’s how Randy Polumbo, an old friend of mine from college days, heard Buddy. Outdoors, at some art fair in Florida, as I recall it. As with The American Opry (see above), this is a music of an actual person playing an actual guitar, and summoning up a genuine time and place and locale. (I recommend, especially, his stunning recording “Mule Train,” replete with simulated mule calls). This is how human beings make music when their musical inclinations are not being concealed or cosmetically surgered by machines. You can learn a lot about civilization from listening to this kind of thing.

Bonus find: Grand Duchyl_a41d2a0d3d7142c1a96039131691fed9

This is a unrestrained shout-out for a record that was until recently only released in the EU (I think that situation has now been remedied by Cooking Vinyl records). It’s the newest project from Black Francis (of the Pixies)–here collaborating with his wife Violet Clark. It’s the most interesting side project Francis has ever done (I have always found Frank Black solo work a little challenging for some reason–as if he wants to resist what makes him great in the first place). These are pop songs–with a lot of Pixies resonances. But there’s something else going on here too, and

it’s not only Violet Clark’s voice, which has a sultry sixties girl group quality. The chemistry between the singers is palpable, e.g., and you start to realize, upon considering this chemistry, that what made the Black Francis/Kim Deal partnership great was not the friction, it was more that Black Francis’s intensity just sounds really great counterposed with a woman’s voice. At one point Kim and Francis must have had really good chemistry too. Meanwhile, a lot of this record borrows from eighties Britpop. There’s a Cure/New Order/Jesus and Mary Chain quality to the way the keyboards work, and to the way the melodies are constructed. But the whole thing is also really ragged, as if a lot of it were made at home, or by the two of them without much interference from producers or other musicians. There’s a lot of drum machine on it, in fact, which is the sine qua non of cheapness these days. And yet the offhandedness is charming and Francis sounds fully engaged, exalting in working with someone he really cares about, and the songwriting is great, and both singers are allusive and complex (it’s not a Black Francis album, that is, on which his wife merely appears), and the hooks really grow on you. I count myself as a passionate Pixies fan somewhat disappointed by how that band has been treated by history (and I think the band is its own worst enemy and this is part of the problem), but this album kind of makes the old magic apparent all over again.

In conclusion, let me say that these are all provisional listening experiences, and I don’t entirely trust provisional listening experiences. It’s better to listen to something for a long time, and, in fact, I often like albums better when I resist them at first. When there is work associated with understanding songs, their treasures are more valuable. Nevertheless, these are artists that were suggested by friends and readers of what I’m writing here, and that informal circulation of enthusiasms is part of what makes avid listening exciting–coming upon the buried treasure without knowing anything about it–so I offer this grab-bag of surprises that have passed the irritation test recently, with the hope that those of you out there will continue to send me suggestions. Lots of them. It’s a big part of what makes this blog fun.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →