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.
*Daniel Higgs, Devotional Songs of Daniel Higgs (Open Mouth)*
This is one of those musicians of whom I should have heard long before now. I am not sure how I managed to miss out, and I am chagrined. Higgs is best known as the singer and lyricist for Lungfish, a sort of post-hardcore indie band from Baltimore who have released a good number of albums on Dischord Records. They therefore (perhaps explicably) sound a little bit like Fugazi, except with something more decadent about them (and by decadent I mean not concupiscent, nor drug-addled, but in the tradition of Maldoror ). Like Half Japanese, Lungfish seem as though they could only have been produced in Baltimore–with all the devastation and hard-living of that locale around them. Higgs’s solo work, however, is of a completely different cast. For example, there is nothing ironic about the title here. The jacket seems to have the words Praise God on it, and I take it that Higgs means not some readily available interpretation thereof, but some Gnostic god to whom he has direct access, and who has had a profound impact on Higgs’s prophetic language, somewhat in the way that he also affected the ecstatic language of, e.g., the prophet Mohammed, or Rumi, or William Blake. Higgs’s imagery is all romantic, overwhelmed, thirsty, and devoted (“I am Christ among us, I am among the Christ”), as though he has had some conversion experience that occurred not in church, but in the psych ward, or in the deprogrammer’s stirrups, or in the sway of some very apocalyptic Midwestern militia. Now, you might suspect, since Higgs is the singer in Lungfish, that there would be scant instrumentation on Devotional Songs, but actually there’s plenty of banjo and (I think) guitar and jew’s harp, and some other electrical things that I can’t exactly identify. The sound, in the main, has the kind of raga-inflected modal intention of some of Sandy Bull’s early work, but with the countercultural kookiness of Robbie Basho. (On YouTube, you can find a couple of clips of him playing, like here, and here he even plays his guitar in exactly Basho’s posture, with a cheek against the guitar.) Except that those artists were given some kind of imprimatur by the musical establishment—they had acolytes—while Higgs is operating far, far outside of the musical establishment. He is playing mainly by himself, and for himself. You can hear a dog barking in the background, and there’s a lot of tape hiss (in fact, the original release of the album was on cassette, that completely neglected form of the past), and he refers in an aside to the crows of his neighborhood, even opens the window at one point, hoping to invite in “the crow sound,” and it’s reasonable to suppose that all of this dream-inflected devotion was all made on old-fashioned four-track that Higgs actually purchased back in the eighties. Not that he needs the extra tracks, as there are no overdubs that I can hear. Just voice with droning string instrument. Maybe he bought some blank cassettes at the Wal-Mart in his neighborhood in Baltimore. Higgs’s voice has the kind of weird, academic exclamatory style that you associate with old guys who occasionally appear at Druidic ceremonies in their spare time, when they are not working as nightwatchmen, and Higgs, himself, sort of resembles one of these guys, a musician, therefore, in almost total revolt against everything popular and rock and roll, and who has grown into a total belief in and confidence in the imagery of his exile. As such, he’s incredibly satisfying, and this recording has to count as one of the truly odd and arresting discoveries that I have recently made.
Recently some provenance-free sounds came to me via a friend via a friend via a friend, and at first I had no idea if these sounds were officially released or not, just a web address and a free download, though of course nothing happens in a vacuum, and some researching indicates that the author is one Nate Wooley, who has collaborated with my band mate David Grubbs. And in fact this Nate Wooley has a website and a slightly moribund blog, and a MySpace page (but I’ll let you find that one yourself). And yet for the duration of the column let’s persist in not-knowing, at least for a moment, because as long as I don’t know anything about Nate Wooley, he is an example of how music circulates these days, when it’s pretty hard to go to the record store and browse—an activity that, in my middle teens, occupied the greatest portion of time spent apart from sleeping. I really miss those days. A lot of this browsing took place in Concord, New Hampshire, where I went to high school; the record store there was called Pitchfork Records (this was well before the current Pitchfork Media empire), and if I remember correctly one of the proprietors was a woman, probably in her later twenties, with long straight hair of the sort favored by the young Joni Mitchell. She had glasses, and I remember overhearing her say one day that she never went to rock shows anymore because they had a dangerous quality, and this was probably in 1975 or so, and she was decrying the stadium show as it was conceived then. Where would she be now? When the big corporatized festival gig is part of regular life, and is, in the end, one of the few remaining ways for musicians to make money on what they do? If I was then fifteen, the proprietor of Pitchfork was in her late twenties, and so now she’s getting near to social security age. I’m pretty sure that Pitchfork doesn’t exist anymore (I haven’t even been in Concord in a while, but maybe someone from the area will read these comments and provide the necessary back story). I don’t even think it existed ten years after I lived in Concord. Anyway, when I went into Pitchfork, I went through everything in the store. I didn’t just go in and look for the new album by the Rolling Stones or Little Feat, or whatever. I went through every record in the store. And, as I have said before, I often bought things just because I liked the feel of the album or the cover. (The first album by Roxy Music! Diamond Dogs, by David Bowie!) In these inherently postmodern days in which there are fewer visual analogues for the music, really, no package, it’s very strange to chart how a piece works its way into your consciousness, and the Nate Wooley composition, which when it came to me had no context at all, is a great example. I believed, for reasons that are obscure, that it was a piece for brass instruments, and this is true. It’s for brass and computer enhancement, and it lasts twenty-five minutes or so, and it gets increasingly busy, increasingly ornamented, increasingly expansive, as it goes on. If the definition of ambient, that Eno coinage that is so much abused by history, is music “as ignorable as it is listenable,” then I suppose Wooley’s piece is ambient, in the sense that you can enter into the development anywhere (in this way it’s also like La Monte Young’s brass pieces). It extrudes melodic material, and most of this material is not dissonant, but it doesn’t resolve into triads and happy tonic chords, at all. It leaves a lot of melody suspended, awaiting resolution. You wait for resolution, and while you are waiting, a new line is added, some of these lines are low, sub-sonic kinds of things, all of them having a slightly brassy cast. It should be a string piece, the way it develops, but it isn’t. It’s like a symphony for musical saw or sheet metal. The lines should be unplayable by a player of wind instruments, and that’s where the technology comes in. The electro-acoustic encounter, the mix of conventional instrumentation and processing, is, for me, probably where I learn the most these days, certainly more than I learn from purely computer-based music in which algorithms just play out their encounters with fixed cycles per second. From electro-acoustic music I learn about what’s possible and what could be possible, even as I also learn to reject categorically certain approaches (anything with fixed electronic percussion, let’s say). Nate Wooley is meditative, abstract, and electro-acoustic, without being New Agey, hackneyed, or predictable. I still think these are laudable goals, that music can involve and extend space and mood without being stupid about it, and that’s why I keep listening to this piece, though intially I had almost no context. (Well, okay, eventually I did contact Wooley, to try to learn more, and he sent the following: “That track is indeed me. It is an excerpt from a piece called ‘The Almond’ which is a long tape loop piece made from 8 notes on trumpet recorded in 14 different ways, then combined to created different timbres and psychoacoustic effects. Here is where the piece comes from originally www.compostandheight.com which is a UK based download label. The full length piece is about 72 minutes long and I’m trying to get it out right now. The title comes from an Althusser footnote in his book “For Marx” in reference to Hegel.”)
*Ted McDermott/Thatcher Keats*
Two more items along similar lines. A certain friend I have never met (also a very contemporary arrangement, right? friends with whom you have been writing for some time without ever having met them?), Ted McDermott, sent me a mix he found online, on some site that exists just to collate “guest mixes,” or whatever you call them now, and because this friend, Ted, and I, share a certain love of things that drone, the salient example being Souled American, about which Ted wrote a great piece for The Believer, likewise Scott Tuma, who used to play in Souled American, and who now makes really good solo albums that sound like they are played in an internment camp reserved for refugees from the Old Time, Ted thought I might like this “guest mix.” Of course, like any “guest mix,” it comes with copious notation about the inner workings of the obscurities named within: Daytime Television, Rainbro, Dreamers Cloth, Harry Pussy, the last of which the narrator describes as “legitimately terrifying,” but I don’t think he means the band name. Despite the documentation, I not only don’t believe these bands exist, I am not sure that the curator, called “Fred Thomas from City Center,” exists either, though maybe saying that in public, in an Internet setting, is not the wisest thing. Is it libelous to say that a person doesn’t exist? If you are in one of these bands, Rainbro, or Dreamers Cloth, tell me if you have heard of the other bands mentioned above, and tell me whether I should genuinely believe all these bands exist. Or that he non-existent Fred Thomas exists. Fred Thomas, I dare you to reveal yourself. One of the things that Ted McDermott loves, I think, in selecting this mix, is that the obscure bands all seem to be playing in such a way that it sounds like the various players might not have been in the same locale at the same time. This is especially true of “Sex Problem,” by the band whose name I impugned above. This piece appears to have been recorded live in Ypsilanti, in 1998. In fact, Ypsilanti, which has the best place name ever, and which is where my wife’s best friend from high school lives, comes in for another note here: “Two new Ypsi jams on my friend Thom’s label Pleasuredome tapes. I like them both so much for opposite reasons. Deathwish keeps things moving and never stays on one idea too long. Strangebrew exhibits patience and concentration beyond regular focus, deep into some death-lock stare.” Now that is rock criticism! The other thing that I think Ted McDermott likes about the mix is that in the middle of it there is a recording of “Boy With a Thorn In His Side” by the Smiths which sounds like it was obtained by putting a microphone up to the radio. And, then, later, there is “Positively Fourth Street,” by a band that is listed as “Jerry Garcia Band or Grateful Dead.” It is inconceivable that the same guy (the putative Fred Thomas) likes both Garcia Band/Grateful Dead and “Untitled” by Deathwish. This is just somebody trying to display catholicity for the sake of catholicity. Maybe Ted made the whole thing up. I note for the purposes of candor that Ted McDermott is now attending writing school at the University of Montana, and maybe one of his fictive projects is inventing the sort of person who would make up this set list. He is trying to create a believable and complex character, Fred Thomas. He is only moderately successful.
Thatcher Keats, who is a great photographer, and actor, and all-around Renaissance person (see his photo blog here), is one of those music enthusiasts who occasionally mails around an mp3 when he stumbles on something really unusual, to a mailing list that has grown longer and longer over the years, and which now includes a fair number of underground musicians and tastemakers. Recently Thatcher sent around a really great Syd Barrett obscurity (unavailable on Barrett, Madcap Laughs, or Opel, that is), and last week it was something from the Runaways that I hadn’t heard since the seventies. At one point, he found some really obscure Last Poets stuff, a band/poetry ensemble that just about everyone should hear, especially since they do black militancy in a way that makes Wu Tang sound like a bunch of dinner theater actors; and he had some unreleased Jimi Hendrix that he was circulating not long ago too. And so on. Part of this curatorial function used to be undertaken by radio, which happens to be a form that I loved, and which has been effaced by the march of capitalism. In this city where I live, for example, New York City, there is no good radio at all, excepting WKCR, the Columbia station, WFMU, the venerable indie station, and WFUV, from Fordham (on occasion). The rest of it is a wasteland, owing to the high rents required for office space and transmitter. A good example of what is lost is the likes of Vin Scelsa, an old and passionate music hound from the free-form radio school, who refuses to be cowed by Sirius/XM, where he sometimes works. Vin talks as long as he wants, plays what he wants, knows about everything, has impeccable taste, and stages a protest at the first sign of institutional hypocrisy. Or that’s how it looks to an outsider. He’s a guy I admire a lot. But free-form FM radio was birthed at a specific moment, and it doesn’t seem that there will be another Vin Scelsa who has access to the airwaves in the way he once did, and, instead, now there are people like Thatcher Keats and Ted McDermott, who proceed with enthusiasm and curiosity, and who then make their friends beneficiaries. In this way you can, still, learn about things you would otherwise never encounter, as when you were able to riffle the stacks in your local, vanished record store. If you want to be on Thatcher Keats’s mailing list and receive his occasional finds, you can e-mail him at [email protected]
*Kid Millions, Man Forever (Brah)*
Readers of the fine print will recall an amendment to my piece about Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which appears at the end of the comments section there, in which I spoke about recently having seen a performance of that piece rescored for chamber ensemble. The next night, by chance, I then went to hear Oneida, the venerable Brooklyn band play. Three sets, mostly improvised. The similarities in style and affect were not lost on me, and so I was unsurprised to learn that Kid Millions, the drummer for Oneida, had also just seen the Metal Machine Music concert up at Columbia. Just as I was, Kid Millions was powerfully moved by the extremity and ambition of the rescored Reed piece, whose miracle was not only in its shocking loudness (earplugs at the door), but the sheer implausibility of the whole—just arranging the piece was a miracle, and this was reinforced by beholding the demanding playing involved. Kid then returned to the Ocropolis, the studio where Oneida records in Williamsburg, and got down to thinking about what he could record in response. A response of the valedictory sort. The result is a new piece, Man Forever, which will be released in early summer (on Oneida’s label, Brah, which is distributed by the excellent Jagjaguwar), and which essentially comes in two sides (like an old fashioned vinyl album, which I believe is how it’s going to be released: as lp and as download), entitled “Man Forever Part One,” and “Man Forever Part Two,” each side basically an entire piece scored for multiple drummers and some electric something or other, some swamp noise, some freight trains, some BQE, some electric guitar, squawling in the rear. The drumming is not, I should point out, at all groove-related. On the contrary, Kid seems to have attempted to come up with the hardest possible thing to play, which is a sequence of rolls. The drumming is so graceful and post-rock-ish that it really resembles that strange mid-sixties period of free jazz wherein people went way beyond what was previously likely or feasible and made up some shit, notwithstanding Mingus’s comment that “you have to have something to solo over.” Millions does not need something to solo over, he just goes, and the electric something-or-other (let’s say it’s guitar feedback and that is part of the hommage to Lou Reed) is merely a description of some of what the drums area already doing, instead of vice versa, which means that the drums are the lead instrument in this valedictory, and the guitar is the sound bed on which the drums take place. It’s a crowded and serious piece, that much should be obvious, but you kind of settle in with it and it feels somehow gentle (in a way that Metal Machine Music never does), somehow possessed of a lightness, despite its physical requirements, which must have been overwhelming, and when side one gives out, with some three minutes remaining, and the sound of cymbals is repurposed with tape effects or software improvements, it’s a relief, it’s a residue of physicality, it’s the forever part of “Man Forever,” at least for three minutes, because there has to be a little dynamic variation, because what happens if there is no dynamic variation, because what is the form that has no dynamic variation, “side two” opens with even more air, the rolls even more African, even more Elvin Jones, and there’s real space in the kit, as if taking off from the breakdown of the wall of provocation at the end of “side one,” and at least initially the electric squawls are just shimmering in the rear of the piece, like some echo of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s late seventies remixes; indeed, there’s a bit of dub reggae to the piece at the opening of “side two,” but it then moves into a condition of reprise, sounding a bit more like “side one,” as it develops, into a slightly increased diet of noise, unto its close after some fifteen or sixteen minutes. What does it all mean? It means that noise is still possible, and that the younger players have not, despite the sediment of history, missed out on the lessons of the minimalist era, and that the younger players are still hearing something in those sonic possibilities. They are hearing what came before, and they are finding ways to make it work in a vocabulary that is familiar to them, and in this case that means that guitar feedback (which, it’s fair to say, is now a feature of nearly any recording that features an electric guitar) is replaced with drum rolls, which are themselves a reaction against the rigid four to the floor of so much pop music these days. Kid Millions, who, as drummer, is unsurpassed in his generation, finds an opportunity with slippery polyrhythmical approaches here, as if to say that the human drummer is the thing that is most controversial in the age of the click track, so there’s no pulse, no melodic home, no melody at all, really, just the thunderous ebbing and flowing of multiple rolls and fills, to replace the massaged rhythmic pulse of the Pro Tools era. It’s a provocation, yes, and a welcome one. And with the provocation comes a fair amount of dizzy joy, and a ritualized release of dammed-up energy. As with the original Metal Machine Music. Only more so.
And here’s a video of a piece by Gyorgy Ligeti from his brief Fluxus period, in which a hundred metronomes wind down. It’s about eight minutes long. Starts out like the worst racket you ever heard in your life and becomes more sublime as the machines begin to stop. Maybe because it’s satisfying when people stop using metronomes. This is a punctuation mark on a discussion of rhythm that has been ongoing, in my own heart and imagination, for more than year now, and it indicates what is best about the music made by machines: it is best when the machines reveal their frailties, and behave more like humans. It’s best when the machines stop being machines.