So here I am at fifty columns (54, or 55, actually, but I was slow getting this one done and so it’s out of sequence), and five years into Swinging Modern Sounds. Something like 200,000 words, maybe more, have been composed in this enterprise. It seems that this might be a moment to take stock, to consider where the world of contemporary music is, and has been, in the five years since I began writing for the fledgling enterprise called The Rumpus.
Swinging Modern Sounds, a name that came to me on the fly—and which I have sometimes lamented, for its hipster cuteness—was initially conceived of as a space in which I could think about independent or unreleased music, music that was mostly ignored by the big commercial record labels, including live performances or bootlegs. The goal, at the time of conception, was to try to write quickly about things that moved me, in a way that might appear to be, after a fashion, up to date. (So much for quickness! It has taken six months to finish this particular piece!)
In 2009 I was 47 years old, and well on toward an age that might, in broad cultural terms, be considered too old for developments in the popular song. And now, on the occasion of my fiftieth column, I’m not far from 53. My AARP solicitations come fast and furious. I have bodily aches and pains. When I was a young man seriously preoccupied with what they called, in those days, rock and roll, I would have considered a music critic who was almost 53 insufficiently connected to contemporary culture to understand fully what was of interest to me, the youthful listener. When I was regularly reading (and frequently disagreeing with) Robert Christgau in The Village Voice in 1980-1981, for example, he was 39 years old, and I already thought he was over the hill.
This is one thing that has changed for me since 2009; I have gotten five years older. I have become a nearly indefensible age if what I imagine I do is write about popular music. And: I became a father, a situation that dramatically changed my music listening habits (see below).
But even more dramatic changes have taken place in the cultural landscape between 2009 and 2014, with respect to how music is consumed and distributed. Swinging Modern Sounds began, it’s fair to say, with a slightly old-fashioned idea about independent music, one that dated to the late 90s, a period in which independent music could flourish precisely by being oppositional to “corporate music.” That is, a seminal influence on this listener was the experience of listening to Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, and the Minutemen on SST. Or there was the Hoboken Sound, next door over to which I lived in the 80s, and Coyote Records. Or Bar/None. Or there was Dischord. Or Twin Tone. Or Caroline. Or Rykodisc. Or Restless Records. And so on. Independent music was about seizing the means of production, and replacing it with a local distribution system that had a closer, more intimate, relationship with the consumer. I liked this independent idea of production in music, I liked it in movies, I liked it in books.
Swinging Modern Sounds, by virtue of being preoccupied with this oppositional or dialectical model of music appreciation, was not paying particular attention to the 2008 launch, in Sweden, of something called Spotify. In fact, the columnist of Swinging Modern Sounds didn’t even have a smart phone until 2013, and therefore was not an early adopter of many digital conveniences. As late as 2014 the columnist still listened to a piece of laser-encoded plastic called a compact disc. The columnist was not interested in convenience, and favored certain aspects of the physical object—heavily illustrated deluxe packages, liner notes, and/or vinyl. Collector stuff. And in being thus out of step, the columnist was not perfectly suited to music produced, for example, by and for users of YouTube. He felt, at first, that iTunes was sort of a knuckle-headed medium for music consumption. (It now appears that the columnist was right about this last perception, if only accidentally.)
The implication is not only that in these five years there have been new ways of distributing and listening to music. The implication, additionally, is that there are kinds of music that are best suited to these new media. The music, in a way, has changed as a result of changes in distribution channels. For example: today, while I write these lines, I’m listening to the excellent Forgotify, which functions as a catch basin for the 20% of songs that no one ever listens to on Spotify, and on which I have found so much that moved and surprised me (chants in Basque, Egyptian pop songs of the 60s, Chinese boy bands, and so on). In an auteurist world, there would be no reason to bother with Forgotify, which streams a class of music irrespective of its “quality.” But in this contemporary music-listening environment, I think nothing of listening to several dozen of the millions of these lost Spotify songs, including “Before the Sun Goes Down,” from Santo Johnny’s Greatest Hits, he of the slide classic “Sleep Walk.” It’s pretty incredibly that no one has listened to “Before the Sun Goes Down,” but now I have.
Forgotify, then, is an example of a post-auteurist digital models of music listening. Almost all of the popular listening formats sacrifice the identity and career of musicians in favor of the continuity of the stream. The algorithm chooses the music, and while there is the opportunity for you to complain (on Pandora, e.g.), complaining about streaming is like trying to turn a cruise-liner. There was a transitional period, when people used to use their iPods to curate music for restaurants and shops, but increasingly, we are hearing playlists and channels programmed by the software or the corporation, and we are simply allowing the music to be a subscription feature of the landscape. Music, apparently, is something that can be churned out by a licensor with minimal intervention.
The musician is perhaps the initial casualty of all this (as I have argued elsewhere), but the second casualty is the idea of music itself. If you allow yourself to be the uninformed consumer, then you are going to be unperturbed by a heavily quantized and processed music that no longer allows for the human part of the creation of the music. Much of the (to me) significantly tedious electronic dance music that is the leading edge of now is implied in this process.
A post-auteurist musical environment, in which it’s the song, not the singer, is fine from a certain vantage point (and I found after my mid-thirties, in any event, that I was more interested in whether an album was good than I was wedded to certain singers), because it indicates a relationship to music itself as opposed to cult of personality. But from another point of view, it’s a return to a pre-Beatles era of music production in which the Brill Building, or, worse, the Muzak Corporation, are the figurative models. This model of music production is against expression, or it celebrates a music that has nothing to express.
Do we want to let go of a music that expresses in favor of a music whose only responsibility is that it streams? Do we want a music for which the distribution model is always the stream, as opposed to a music in which a person sings into the ear of another person about some of what it feels like to be human? It’s not as black and white as all that—it never is—and there’s plenty of music that still hews to the earlier model, the troubadour model (that John Cage had occasion to detest). Therefore, despite commentary otherwise, I have again heard a lot of music recently that I liked, and I am again moved to compile some examples thereof. The catalogue is below. While it’s possible to find a lot to worry about in the world of contemporary music, there’s always something new to listen to as well, post-historical, outlying, pre- or anti- or minimally digital music. And so maybe there will be five more years of Swinging Modern Sounds.
New Releases by People I’ve Already Written About and Still Really Like
Jolie Holland, who has come in for multiple attestations of excellence in this space, has an extremely good new album, Wine Dark Sea (Anti-), one of her very best, if not the best, uniformly irate, overpowering, full of squawling electric guitars and North Mississippi grooves and Cajun and Texas accents. Sort of like the Velvet Underground if they had done a session with Dusty Springfield and Captain Beefheart. There are a couple of great ballads with the usual Holland tragic forebodings, and one great cover (Joe Tex’s “The Love You Save”). But it’s the big band numbers that sound completely new, and the band, with two drummers, and, on occasion three or four guitars, can do anything. This record hasn’t gotten all the attention it deserves yet, so you can still be on the vanguard.
Open by The Necks (ReR) is my stealth candidate for best album of the last twelve months. The “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” theory, by which an individual embryonic organisms have to go through the history of evolution in order to mature, is sort of how I think about Open—that it rehearses the entire history of music; it derives the ideas of melody and harmony and rhythm. Sometimes it sounds like Indian classical music, sometimes like minimal electronic music, sometimes like dub reggae performed in slow motion. The idea that The Necks are a “jazz band” could not seem to be further from the truth right now, and yet maybe there are a few analogues, at least in terms of the scale of interests: the highly experimental jazz of Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Sun Ra of Disco 3000, or the further out investigations of Don Cherry.
Cuddle Magic are a group of impeccably trained music school youngsters who play very very very quietly, and whose last album, Info Nympho, I really loved. They have made now an EP with toy piano virtuoso Phyllis Chen, an eponymously titled album (on FYO recordings) half given to songs by members and half given to extremely luminous and hovering instrumentals, almost all of which gives pride of placement to Chen’s toy piano melodies. The lyrics (often by Tim Davis, the photographer and poet) are frequently astoundingly good, and the singing, mostly by Ben Davis, Alec Spiegelman, and the very excellent Kristin Slipp, mix up harmonies and contrapuntal lines in ways that are always fascinating. Not household names yet and they should be.
Kid Millions, from Oneida, has launched a bunch of excellent collaborations recently, not only the People of the North project, which is sort of two-thirds of Oneida, or three-fourths of Oneida, and his album with J. Spaceman, but also a rather spectacular duet with Jim Sauter, saxophonist with the venerable and legendary Borbetomagus. This album, Boanerges, on the Doubtmusic label, has a jazz feel, because it doesn’t really have a pulse at all, and as a result it is incredibly inventive rhythmically. And Sauter sounds sometimes like an electric guitar and sometimes like a plane crash, and never like anything conventional at all. This record is hard to play in the vicinity of the faint of heart, because it is demanding, but that makes it even more memorable.
Some of you will remember The Size Queens (about whom I wrote a collaborative piece with my friend Michael Snediker), the glam/poetry/lounge/rock and roll band from San Francisco featuring lead vocals by novelist Adam Klein. They have a great new album out called Save the Plant. The Size Queens already did the impossible: they made three arresting records in a row. I’m referring to Magical Dollar Shoppe (2008), III (2010), and Appetite for Redaction (2011), which is probably the best three-album stretch by a recent indie band I can recall. But then they suffered through the death of their drummer and producer Tim Mooney. It seemed there was no way that they could continue with the kind of striking band sound that had been so integral to their identity, but here they are two years into the afterlife, the post-Mooney years, and they have a new band, with some younger players, and are sounding like a group of musicians again, instead of like a studio entity. And as a result, they’ve made their strongest music since Appetite for Redaction (if you haven’t heard that album, you should—it has a lot to do with Afghanistan). You can find their entire oeuvre on BandCamp, very reasonably priced.
Dysnomia, Dawn of Midi (Thirsty Ear)
I learned about Dawn of Midi from Dave Allen, former Gang of Four bass player and theorist of all things Internet-related. He heard about them from Sasha Frere-Jones. This album, of (sort of) simulated-electronica played on acoustic instruments by jazz players with preternatural discipline and restraint, is infectious and overpowering. You can’t stop listening. The hooks are all in polyrhythms. I can’t help trying to count the entrances and exits, because they are so unpredictable. The bass is the melody instrument. In some fundamental way it’s hard to know how this record got recorded at all, so difficult does it sound to play. One mistake, and the whole thing goes down in flames. In every way Dysnomia is surprising; it’s like Autechre decided to record for Impulse Records, or like your copy of Music for 18 Musicians developed a scratch. Since the record sounds a little bit like a miracle, I’ve spent some months trying to track these guys down, in an attempt to get them to explain how it came to be. And finally, a month ago, I got an official response from the Dawn of Midi European tour. The answers are herewith:
The Rumpus: The title, Dysnomia: a commentary on the misapplication of titles to instrumental music? Or: a commentary on the tendency of jazz tracks to be named after heavenly bodies? Or: does someone in the band really like mussels?
Aakaash Israni, bass: All of the parts in Dysnomia orbit around one another, so we chose natural satellites (moons) for the titles of each section. Dysnomia is the only known moon of the dwarf planet Eris; it also means lawlessness in Greek.
Rumpus: The album takes a sharp turn away from the slightly more conventional jazz (for lack of a better term) you were pursuing earlier, in that it is very groove-oriented, and thus feels, to some extent, composed, or at least carefully assembled? What caused the change to take place?
Israni: For me, it was two things: not wanting us to repeat what we had done previously and knew we could do, and secondly, to make music inspired by the music I’ve been most fascinated with since I first heard/played it (West African and North African music), which uses very intricate rhythmic concepts to induce trance and alter perception.
Rumpus: I have read in some of the writing about Dysnomia that the material was produced primarily by jamming. Is it the case then that the polyrhythms were all generated live, or are some of them brought about by editing and a collage-oriented approach to layering the jams? Were there ever charts?
Israni: All of the rehearsals (and there were about 150) were recorded, and during them we would discuss and/or review the content, but the drum and piano parts were written by our pianist Amino Belyamani (who also has quite a serious percussion background) and I wrote most of the bass parts. In the end six of the nine sections were written this way between Amino and me, and three by Amino alone. The piece was never scored, as we wanted to keep with the folkloric method of aural tradition; we didn’t want reading to get in the way of a visceral understanding of the music.
Rumpus: The name of the band suggests electronica, in a way, and the feel of Dysnomia, at least in terms of texture, is not unrelated to EDM, or, perhaps, more accurately, IDM, like Autechre, let’s say, or Aphex Twin. Where do you guys sit on that music? Is it an influence at all?
Israni: When we came up with the name of the band, we were making freely improvised music and we liked it because it was sort of a non sequiter. We didn’t know that years later we would make an album that would make the band’s name appear deliberate. That said, electronic music was an influence in the sonic palette of Dysnomia—the use of the piano and bass harmonics, the omission of cymbals on the drum kit so as to not obscure the rhythmic dialogues. The rhythmic content is African, as I mentioned, but the sound/timbre being produced by each instrument is definitely somewhat inspired by electronic music. We all spent some time listening to Aphex, Boards of Canada, Autechre growing up . . .
Rumpus: The keyboard timbres are so close to being percussive, or more like a prepared piano than they are like a conventional piano. How did you arrive at these timbres?
Israni: Amino could tell that story; surprisingly it involves Chick Corea.
Rumpus: Was the album always an album-length suite in your mind?
Israni: The idea from pretty early on was for the album to be one piece of music that cross fades from one idea/section to the next, the way a DJ or electronic musician might do, except performed on instruments rather than faders.
Rumpus: How did you order the pieces once you had them? There’s a sense that the arrangement of sections is like in, e.g., minimalism, somewhat free, somewhat improvised, not like there is a heavy dramatic progress to the whole. True? Untrue?
Israni: Much of the album was composed chronologically with the idea of sections rhythmically morphing into one another, so there was not much of an issue knowing which order to put the segments, only how to morph from one to the next. Whether it is dramatic or not is difficult for me to say, but we did think in somewhat of an arc; the beginning of the album is more ceremonial or ritualistic, and feels like the beginning of something large, whereas the end is more pyrotechnic and virtuosic.
Rumpus: What’s also miraculous here is just how tight the trio is at this point. It reminds me in part of the tightness of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, who are similarly gifted with the groove, but also of legendary trios like Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Peacock, or my personal pick for the greatest living avant-garde jazz trio, The Necks. What makes the chemistry so particularly great in this case?
Israni: We had quite a palpable chemistry as improvisers from the very beginning (2007), so that meant there was a certain aesthetic overlap in the way we heard and our note choices. But the tightness/chemistry of Dysnomia, being through composed, is a different animal and is being arrived at quite simply through a lot of practice. We wanted it to sound as tight and grooving as a group of folk musicians who have been playing those rhythms together their entire lives; to compensate for the fact that we’ve only been doing it a few years, we practiced a lot.
Rumpus: What else were you listening to while making the album?
Israni: From Africa: Ghana: Ewe Drumming (we all studied with a Ghanaian master drummer named Alfred Ladzekpo at CalArts, the music he shared with us was and is deeply influential) and High Life (K Gyasi and His Noble Kings). The incredible Mauritanian vocalist Dimi Mint Abba. Berber and Gnawa music from Morocco (Amino has a great collection). From the West: Bach, Arcade Fire, Radiohead. From India: Zakir Hussein’s Maestro’s Choice Series 1 accompanied by Alla Rakha. The instruments are Western, their treatment and the tonal palette of the piece is somewhat Western, the rhythm is mostly non-Western.
Rumpus: What is in store for Dawn of Midi next?
Israni: I would like for each record to be a quantum leap from the last, which means we may need a minute.
No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes, by Amy Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico (DiWuelf Publishing)
I know: mine is a music column and this is a book, but in this case it’s an oral history of a particularly legendary rock club in Trenton, NJ. The book follows the club through it’s multi-decade rise and fall, and describes some of the stuff of punk rock legend—a particularly incendiary show by the Butthole Surfers, for example. Wuelfing’s and DiLodovico’s account is full of loving detail, as well as the voices of all the stakeholders, the bartenders (the famous Jon Stewart was among them), the bookers, the muscle, and, most of all, the fans. I never set foot in this club myself, though I was in many like it, and I loved the account nonetheless. Readers of rock and roll books will love this for its realism, and its good humor, and most of all its sense of community.
The Rumpus: Can you recount the process of the book from conception to publication? I gather it has taken a long time. At what point after the closing of City Gardens did you begin the project?
Steven DiLodovico: I had the easy part; I came along in the middle!
Amy Wuelfing: I began about 15 years ago. It started out as a project to write the memoirs of City Gardens promoter Randy Now, and then just kept expanding in scope. The club was so important to so many people, that I felt it was important to include those stories as well. City Gardens stopped doing shows with national acts in 1994, and then closed for good in 1999. I started working on the book around 1999 or 2000.
Rumpus: While you appear in the book occasionally as a color commentator, we never really get your personal journeys as regulars at City Gardens. Can you tell the story here?
DiLodovico: My whole intro to City Gardens was through WDNR in Chester, PA. I had seen fliers at other shows for City Gardens but it was so far away; I was too young to drive. Through WDNR I met a bunch of friends who were older than me, and who also had cars. City Gardens was always that far-away place to me. Being 14 and living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, City Gardens might as well have been on the other side of the world for me. I think that’s why it took on such a mythic presence in my mind. Sheer distance made it seem . . . I don’t know, almost exotic? It’s weird to call it “exotic” when you consider the aesthetics of the place, but it really was. And then you heard these stories about the place, these legends . . .
Wuelfing: Before I could drive, I would listen to college radio and hear the local concert calendar. And it was always bands I loved, playing at City Gardens. Like Steve, the place seemed mythical to me. As soon as I could drive, I got a fake ID and started going there. The moment I walked in, I knew I had found “my people.” Everyone was cool, but not pretentious. Guys didn’t talk to me, let alone hit on me. It was very chill; everyone did their own thing. You really felt it was a judgment-free zone. For me, it stoked a lot of creativity. You felt like you could do anything there. You made a student film and wanted to show it there? Sure. You formed a band and wanted to play there? You could. I think the atmosphere changed when it became all-ages, as opposed to a 21+, but the place still meant a lot to people.
Rumpus: What as the best show you saw there? The most memorable show?
DiLodovico: I can’t really pinpoint a “best” show, because they all had something amazing happening. Even if it was a shitty show there was always something memorable. My most memorable had to be Jane’s Addiction. I never expected to be moved by them, but I was.
Wuelfing: The Violent Femmes was a big one for me. They were one of my favorite bands, and they actually walked through the crowd playing their instruments to get to the stage. I was raised on arena rock—Van Halen and the like—so to be that close to the band was a big deal for me.
Rumpus: In part, the book is about community, rather than simply being a book about a rock club. What was unique about the community of this rock club? I’m guessing you could have seen shows in Philly just as easily, or, say, in Hoboken, or on the Jersey Shore. What was so different about City Gardens?
DiLodovico: For me, that community was mobile. That’s what made it so great. We would follow a lot of these bands from Philly to Trenton to New York and beyond. The community was whomever you shared these shows with, and a lot of times, no matter what city you were in, you always saw a familiar face. What made City Gardens different were the “big” bands. You just never got the awesome bills that Randy put together anywhere else.
Wuelfing: City Gardens was in the middle of nowhere. Not Philly, not New York, but it was still a big club. That fact that it was so close, and in the middle this dead zone, made the community of people who went there stronger and tighter. It was almost like college, you saw the same people all the time so they became your friends. That was the main thing for me. And unlike the clubs in Philly/NYC, the pretentious element wasn’t really there.
Rumpus: The demise of the club begins to happen in the middle 90s, or so it seems in the book, but that was just in the period when a lot of punk bands, after the advent of Nirvana, were hitting it remarkably big. Why was it impossible to continue finding bands that could fill the club?
DiLodovico: I think the demise began much earlier, but in more subtle ways. The violence, the lawsuits . . . the ‘90s were the culmination of everything that was bad with punk and hardcore. There were a lot of people coming around that just didn’t get it. In the end, Randy said it best by saying it became a job and it was no fun. When you have to babysit kids and coddle clueless parents all the time, I imagine it would wear on you. The music changed, the people changed, the dynamic changed. Which is fine; music and truly great art needs to change and grow. It just seemed that things like slam dancing, which had once been just a natural, spontaneous reaction to music that really fired you up, became a pre-requisite to going to shows, not something that just happened. I think that was when it became “moshing.” And that’s not just limited to City Gardens, either. Nobody likes it when the little brothers come along. It suddenly becomes “uncool.”
The end of City Gardens wasn’t so much a financial thing as it was a paradigm shift. There was such a huge demand for any kind of angsty, guitar-driven rock that just about anyone with a guitar and a hairdo got big major label money. Suddenly there was no thought of grinding out tours, making your own merch, sweating it out in a hotbox with 100 onlookers driving you. People that might have come along and started a new scene kind of focused more on moving to Seattle and making millions. It wasn’t the venue, it was the changing of time. That’s why I think it’s funny when people talk about “opening another City Gardens.” It had nothing to do with the bricks and the building. It had everything to do with the time and the people involved. You can never re-create that. You can only honor it.
Wuelfing: Steve said it perfectly.
Rumpus: Was punk a genre that was uniquely suited to profit from City Gardens as a venue? Would it have been impossible if it were House Music/EDM/Dub step etc.?
DiLodovico: I think City Gardens was more suited to profit from punk. Again, I have to point to the aesthetic: we’re definitely not talking about a place that would suit or sustain any kind of mainstream pop scene. And it wasn’t by design, either. It was a shitty building in Trenton that nobody wanted to invest any money in to fix up. Much like the music that best thrived inside. City Gardens was the perfect club to host punk rock, hardcore, and any other kind of DIY scene that was made by hands-on labor. Neither the music nor the venue really relied on the outside mainstream to sustain it. If you ask Randy about it, he’ll be the first to tell you they didn’t have a blueprint. They just did, and that’s what’s important. Randy booked the bands and spun the records he liked, and that was it.
Wuelfing: It’s important to remember that this was a total mom-and-pop operation. No corporate sponsorship, no Live Nation, no Clear Channel, no “Bud Light Presents…” It was truly anti-corporate. That made it perfect for punk, but it also made it hard to survive.
Rumpus: The book seems to me to have a political layer. The Jersey skinheads were a lot more virulent and powerful than similar groups in, e.g., New York City clubs. My sense of the story of City Gardens is that skinheads had an effect on what had been a more heterodox scene.
DiLodovico: The virulence really only stems from one kind of personality type, though, and it has little to do with Skinhead culture. The sensationalism of these stories sticks with you, sure, but you have to realize that there was a whole culture of skinhead tradition rooted solely (heh heh, pun intended!) in music. There were plenty of two-tone shows and a vibrant scene of skinhead culture, not just at City Gardens, but in a lot of places during that time. It wasn’t all Oi! and hooliganism. Just as there are non-racist skins, there are also non-meathead, jock-type skins. In the grand scheme of things, over 14 + years of history, the Skins were really just another part of a long story.
Wuelfing: The Skinheads for a time found a home at City Gardens. Some were cool, but some were just attracted to the violence of the culture and they are the ones who started trouble. It only takes a few troublemakers to ruin a scene. I think a lot of the other patrons at City Gardens were afraid to stand up to them—until that one fateful day they were confronted and run out of town. Once everyone else stood up and made it clear they weren’t going to be tolerated anymore, the violence began to subside.
Rumpus: There’s not a where-are-they-now epilogue in No Slam Dancing, but one gets the sense that a lot of the regulars simply grew up. Are their vestiges of City Gardens in the lives of some of the former regulars? Or is this just the way of things—old punks grow up and out of some of the aggression of that time in their lives?
DiLodovico: The obvious ones would be the bands that played then who are still playing now. You’d be surprised how many bands who played City Gardens back then still tour regularly, still grind it out like they used to, and most, I’ve found, are still doing it for the love. I think everyone who did significant time at City Gardens finds some way to channel that into their daily lives, even all these years later. There’s a whole generation of kids raised by punker parents that know a side of the world that we (the children of squares) never knew until we went out and found it for ourselves. There are punk rock kids already schooled in the best bands and have a foundation upon which they can build the next DIY scene.
Wuelfing: In Trenton, we have an event a couple times a year called the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market. And it’s like a de facto City Gardens reunion. Everyone shows up with wives, husbands, kids, babies, the whole thing. People grow up and build lives for themselves, but punk rock and City Gardens is still part of who they are. Most of the of the people in the book are still around, still go to shows, still see each other all the time. And a lot of the bands in the book still play. I think a perfect example of that is Milo from the Descendents. He got his Ph.D., works a regular job, has a family and kids, and stil plays punk rock on the weekends. If the music and attitude is in your DNA, it’s there to stay, you just grow up.
The Plough & the Stars, Speed the Plough (Bar/None)
The second edition of the great New Jersey band, The Feelies—the one that recorded a standout release of the 1980s, The Good Earth—emerged as a consequence of a Haledon, NJ band called The Trypes. The Trypes were what happened to the Haledon scene after the Feelies called it quits and came back home to live and work. The Feelies started rehearsing and gigging with some friends from around town, and soon there was a sort of Haledon supergroup that rivaled the Feelies, in the early 80s, for impact in NYC. At some point, in the course of the next few years, The Feelies reformed, with its present and longstanding lineup, and made The Good Earth, and the remainder of The Trypes became Speed the Plough, a slightly psychedelic, folk-inflected, more local outfit organized around keyboardist John Baumgartner and his wife Toni, a singer and player of various winds. Speed the Plough, therefore, represent a very important piece of the mythology and discography of the Feelies (Baumgartner played on various Feelies sessions, and Glenn Mercer and Bill Million of The Feelies played in The Trypes, as Feelies Brenda Sauter and Stanley Demeski also played with Speed the Plough), as well giving a lot of insight into aspects of the Haledon sound that are not as immediately present in The Feelies output (British folk, prog, chamber pop).
Speed the Plough have recently had a second life, in which the children of various members have joined the band, and are contributing a completely new set of interests and sounds to this venerable band. In this very propulsive, rhythmically ambitious second life, Speed the Plough have seen fit to release a sort of sampler of their music from the mid-80s and early 90s, called The Plough & the Stars. It’s an excellent introduction to what they do, including tracks from their most recent incarnation. I heard this band a lot in the late 80s, but I was glad to find out how reliable and consistent their output has been since, notwithstanding the ups and downs of the players of the Haledon scene generally.
This interview with John Baumgartner, by e-mail, took place toward the end of winter. Baumgartner is a funny, smart, and charming analyst of musical circumstance. As shown here.
The Rumpus: Can you speak to the origins of Speed the Plough? I gather it came about like a phoenix rising from the ashes of Feelies “side project” The Trypes, but at what point did it make sense to think of Speed the Plough as a different band? What was distinct about it from The Trypes?
John Baumgartner: I don’t know if it was phoenix-like. I think of it more as stumbling along in the dark, trying to re-invent ourselves after The Trypes broke up, which pretty much happened onstage at CBGB’s after our very last show. We were kind of aware that Glenn and Bill were ready to put the Feelies back together and, in the process, they asked Stan and Brenda to join the band, so there went our rhythm section, at least for a while. When The Trypes started, I wrote the music for lyrics devised by our first lead singer, Elbrus Kelemet. Then, starting with “A Plan, Revised,” I became the primary songwriter. So, by the end of The Trypes two years later, I had the “bug” in a big way and knew that we were going to continue somehow. I kept writing new songs at a pretty good pace and Toni, Marc, and I cobbled together arrangements using taped percussion parts and other quirky instrumentation. If you consider the songs on The Trypes’s EP The Explorer’s Hold, then the early STP material could be seen as an extension of what the later Trypes were doing, rather than a distinct change. I think I was using everything that Glenn and Bill [from The Feelies] had taught us, and tried to become a better songwriter.
Rumpus: From the outside, it can often feel like the “Haledon scene,” the group of bands orbiting around the Feelies, or, perhaps more exactly, orbiting around The Trypes, as having a great deal in common, but what does it feel like from the inside?
Baumgartner: It’s been an amazing evolution of relationships. Coming from our shared musical influences—everything from the Velvets to the Airplane to Jonathan Richman, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and, in my case, Fairport—we found ways to express ourselves using a variety of configurations, starting with the Feelies and Trypes, and extending to Speed the Plough, Yung Wu, and now the Glenn Mercer Band, which I’ve been lucky to be a part of for the last year. It’s a great community. There’s always someone up for playing something new. And, if anything, I think we’ve all mellowed over time and are closer now than ever, despite the physical distance of some of us. As much as some people used to complain and ask “Why the hell do you need all these different bands?” we’ve always felt that each one is unique unto itself.
Rumpus: A prevailing modality in Speed the Plough is the groove. A lot of these grooves, which seem to have West Coast psychedelia as a touchstone, feel like they start with the keyboard parts. Do you evolve the songs from the grooves, therefore, or are you starting with melodies? Does it depend on the song? How has the songwriting process changed over these many years?
Baumgartner: For me, the groove is the thing, the beginning of every piece I’ve written. The melody comes next, followed by the real “work,” the lyrics. Since my son Michael, our lead guitar player, has started contributing songs in the last two years, I know if I put this question to him he’d have the same answer. Finding the groove, whether through jamming or writing on my own, is definitely the fun part. Assembling the parts into something whole is where the work lies. I’d say the songwriting process for me has changed over the years in that I finally feel comfortable with my “style,” whatever that is. I don’t care anymore that I might be using the same changes that I’ve used before in another song, as long as it expresses something new and different.
Rumpus: Like Glenn Mercer, your occasional bandmate, you have largely avoided commenting on the lyric-writing process in Speed the Plough. But from the vantage point of The Plough & The Stars, which assembles a great many years of lyrics, one can divine a few tendencies, or at least make a few guesses.
My guess is that a lot of the lyrics—and I should say that I really admire these lyrics a lot—are not confessional, but, rather, more narrative. That is not to say that the lyrics are not full of pathos, and organized around some kind of emotional purgation, but that they seem to be from the point of view of characters who are not John Baumgartner. Not in the satirical vein of Randy Newman, but with the kind of journalistic detachment of Newman.
Baumgartner: I couldn’t have framed my approach to lyric writing any better than that, Rick. I’ve never really thought it through like that. While some may think of a narrative style as being more of a story-songwriting approach—which is certainly not my bag—your take on it is dead on. I do write mostly from the point of view of someone other than myself. Having been quite happily married for the last 35 years, it would be impossible to write about “love gone bad” or “unrequited love” if I didn’t step outside of myself. I must admit, though, that I’ve been a bit harder on myself about song lyrics in the last few years. I started out writing prose and poetry after college and even had a few things published in small journals, so I think I set the bar pretty high for myself when it came to lyric writing. And I don’t think I’ve really gotten “there” yet. It keeps me going. Of course, when I get stuck I’ll sometimes appropriate a line or idea from better writers than me. There are more than few phrases or sentiments from Cheever, Carver, Lowell, and Berryman in some of my songs.
Rumpus: If I asked you, despite your avowed disinclination to tease out the lyrics, to try to explain just a couple of the songs from the vantage point of a couple of decades, would you do it? I think “Veszprem” and “Lock and Key” are two songs well known to fans of Speed the Plough from its East Side Digital incarnation, and the former is probably the only well known rock and roll song named after a Hungarian city. Can you tease out some of its resonances? And “Lock and Key” has a very elegiac verse about friendship that Rich Barnes quotes in the liner notes to The Plough & The Stars, which furthermore has a rather disarming last line, “If I had a lock and key, they could stay with me,” that seems to have a Velvets-ish emotional complexity to it.
Any thoughts on these from the vantage point of recollection?
Baumgartner: I see we’re drilling a bit deeper now, but thankfully you picked two songs that I think I can talk about coherently. Well, you be the judge.
“Veszprem” was written after my second trip to Hungary, where both of my parents were born. It was in the early 80s, before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Veszprem is a beautiful medieval city about 10 minutes from my father’s village. The line “living on poison” sort of sums up my feeling about what it was like for Hungarians in the dying days of the Soviet occupation, when the end was perhaps in sight but still seemed like it was way out of reach. It was a kind of purgatory and many of my family there really seemed to be “living out life.”
“Lock and Key,” meanwhile, is another song borne out of life experience, this time the disappearance of my best friend (and best man at our wedding), who eventually moved out west and basically fell off the face of the earth. I guess it’s a pretty clear expression of my desire not to let people you love just fade out of your life without putting up some kind of fight. In this case I failed, so I suppose I wrote the song as a reminder to be more vigilant.
Rumpus: A couple of things distinguish Speed the Plough from its peers and neighbors—a bit of folk influence (you can really hear it on the “Blue Bicycle” flute solo, among the extras included with The Plough and the Stars), and also the bits of conservatory and/or prog flavor that hovers around the edges in some of what Toni brings to the band. Are these tonal colors that you work to include in the new multi-generational edition of the band? (As on the excellent string arrangement of “Labyrinth” on the Tag Sale EP.)
Baumgartner: I think our second generation players have definitely made for a more “muscular” Speed the Plough, which I’ve really appreciated. You know, they want to see if the old folks can still rock. But, that being said, they all came to the band with a surprisingly deep appreciation of the back catalog, including the folkier numbers. I sometimes hear Michael in the practice room strumming through his acoustic take on “Aeroplane.” And John (Demeski) tells me that he was practicing along to our songs, particularly those with odd time signatures, long before he joined the band. The same can be said of Marc’s kids during their stint with the band. I think Mike’s songs on Tag Sale, “The Ballad of Peggy Oki” and “Mansion” (which we co-wrote), fit neatly into the catalog. And the songs we’re recording next reflect the whole Plough spectrum from quiet/slow to loud/fast.
If I may digress on the subject of “Labyrinth” (with Toni’s lovely string arrangement) in regard to the lyrics? It’s actually kind of a bookend to “Veszprem.” I wrote it just after my last trip to Hungary in 1998, after the curtain came down. “Labyrinth” refers to a complex series of tunnels that weave through Buda hill. They served as a sanctuary from invading hordes for a thousand years, from the Huns to the Nazis. The lines about “throwing us out and asking us back again” refer to government policy at the time, which endeavored to welcome the exiles back home. And, in keeping with that, they erected a monument in the square of my father’s village inscribed with the names of all the locals who perished in the two world wars. Seeing a list of a dozen Baumgartners . . . well, “write my name just about everywhere.”
Rumpus: What about all the personnel changes? It seems, from the retrospective vantage point, that part of what Speed the Plough is about is collaboration. With Marc Francia sitting out the recent gigs, it seems that the band is you and Toni, but it is more exactly you and Toni and in collaboration with a rhythm section and some phalanx of guitar players. From your point of view, what does Speed the Plough stand for in 2014?
Baumgartner: Yeah, in putting together all the material for The Plough & The Stars it really hit me how many people have cycled through the band. If you’re looking from outside I’m sure it seems like, damn, these people can’t keep a band together. And that might be true. I can only imagine what it would have been like playing with the same lineup for the last 30 years. But, as you know, life sometimes gets in the way. New jobs, relocations, kids, other bands, changing priorities. Those were all factors, for sure. But these days I’m more about appreciating the fact that people have come and gone and come back again. Brenda and Rich came back and contributed some vital parts to our 2012 album Shine, as did our West Virginia guitar guru Michael Lipton on Swerve a few years earlier. And I’m looking forward to a future where we can tap the talents of Glenn and Bill again. That would be sweet.
I think we’ve been really lucky in that everyone who’s played in the Plough came from a real personal connection, rather than from an ad in the back of the Voice (if that’s still a viable reference). Our current guitar player, Ed Seifert, comes from the Feelies connection, and our bassist Cindi Merklee came through Ed. So, I guess Speed the Plough stands for enjoying the community as much as the music. Not that there weren’t some prickly moments over the years. Because there sure as hell were. But I don’t think many of us are inclined to dwell on stuff like that anymore.
One more thing on this topic. It’s real nice to think about the Speed the Plough constants as Toni and me. I guess that’s true. It’s just another thing I’ve never really stopped to think about. But Marc will probably always be a presence in the band. He’s stopped performing with us because of some hearing issues, but his musical sensibilities are still very much ingrained in what we do. His mantra of “less is more” still informs our approach to arranging, as much as it inspires me to break that rule when the moment requires.
Rumpus: STP played on the Maxwell’s farewell concert (in Hoboken), right? If the Feelies reunion was part of what catalyzed the Trypes re-release and perhaps even the Speed the Plough compilation, is there a danger that the end of Maxwell’s is a bad sign of the ability of clubs to weather the fiscal difficulties of the digital age? Where will Speed the Plough and the Feelies play now? In Brooklyn? Does a scene still need a club to happen?
Baumgartner: Yes, we played during the last week of shows and I had the privilege of sitting in with the Feelies during their last stand there. I’d say the closing of Maxwell’s hit us all pretty hard. It was much more than a club to us. The back room was the Trypes rehearsal space for quite a while and the place was home base to an extended community of musicians that has continued for years; decades, really. I’m not the “glass half full” kind of guy who thinks that anything will replace it. We’re just grateful to have been a small part of it. I suspect the Feelies will play wherever they want to, and rightfully so. As for Speed the Plough, we’ll just have to cast our net a little wider. Brooklyn, for sure. And, thanks to the youth movement in the band, we’ll be getting out of town as well. Yes, I think a scene is greatly enhanced by a club like Maxwell’s. I’m still happy to be able to say “we’ll see.”
Some Other Stuff that I’ve Been Listening To That I Really Like
Robert Wyatt’s ’68, which is an official release (by Cuneiform) of some tracks that Robert Wyatt made by himself in the year shown, is basically a dry run for some stuff that would turn up later in the Soft Machine catalogue, and it includes some bass playing by Jimi Hendrix. It has a jazzy feel, as befits Wyatt’s albums (which I love uniformly), but is minimalist in a way that, at least to these ears, frankly recalls Skip Spence’s much-beloved album Oar. I guess these two albums share a genius-alone-in-the-studio quality, and a similar era. Wyatt is playing almost everything himself, and multi-tracking, in the same way that Spence did on his album. Wyatt sounds less agonized, but there is an open space in the sound that is not dissimilar. As usual, Wyatt’s drumming is so open and spare and slippery. And then there’s his very unique voice, his somewhat tragicomic voice. ‘68 is a great piece of the Robert Wyatt puzzle, for those who are interested in his work.
The Thing, Boot! The Thing is a jazz trio named after a Don Cherry song, featuring Mats Gustafson on baritone sax Ingeb Håker Flaten on acoustic bass, and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. They sound a little like a free jazz band, and a little like a punk rock band, and they have a great feel in both directions. Their last album, with Neneh Cherry (daughter of Don Cherry) had some really inspired covers on it, some Suicide and some Stooges. This album, excepting a grungy take on Coltrane’s “India” at the outset, is more free and improvised, without the scaffolding of a standard. It’s a jazz band for people who like noise bands and no-wave bands and the assault of early seventies rock and roll, like Blue Cheer or Vanilla Fudge or, well, yes, Black Sabbath. Here it’s funneled through the free jazz filter, which is not a filter at all, but some kind of splatter gun.
Juana Molina, Wed 21 The revelation for me was Molina’s album called Son, which was released in 2006. It would have been a sort of a Latin American folk album, albeit one addicted to the looping device, except for the squiggles of analogue synth throughout. Wed 21 adds some new pieces to mix. It’s Molina’s sixth album, and it feels confident, adult, and with a bit more electric guitar, and a little less eccentricity than on Son. In a way, it’s a bit ambient, and or perhaps minimalist, with a repetition that suggests its origins in loops and electronic music, even though it doesn’t feel like dance music at all. There’s an African flavor, too, as if all Latin American music has to return to its African origins eventually. Molina sings now with the kind of singularity that I associate with voices like Meredith Monk or Bjork or Nina Hagen, but with a real folk lonesomeness. She doesn’t flaunt her extended technique, or her performative abilities.
Marilyn Crispell I was lucky enough this winter to teach at the Atlantic Center for the Arts at the same time as a couple of great contemporary artists: painter Dana Schutz, and pianist/composer Marilyn Crispell. I had read a lot about Crispell, but had never met her, and despite the vitality and angularity and energy of her playing, which is immense, she turned out, counterintuitively, to be incredibly gentle, kind, and generous. She was easy to be around, full of great stories, up for anything. Crispell’s class at ACA, hand-picked, consisted of a great range of younger jazz players, all of them incredibly gifted, and watching this small ensemble jell into a jazz chamber orchestra in three weeks was rewarding in the extreme.
One night, I went to try to play a little bit with one of Marilyn’s “associates,” as they are called at ACA, a percussionist and very creative thinker about music called John Niekrasz, and by chance there were a few other people in the room, including Ingrid Eel and Matthew Evan Taylor, as well as Marilyn Crispell. We played around, improvising on spare microphone booms and music stands, almost anything but a musical instrument for a couple of hours, sang a lot, and I got to see some of the Marilyn Crispell method up close. I consider these two hours among the most moving experiments in music I have participated in in many years. Marilyn, it seems, lives the improvisation of free jazz, she doesn’t just talk about it in a class setting, or consider it a tool among tools. Which gives her a kind of zen mistress aspect. The music could happen at any moment, it might be happening right now, and the uniting of performer and audience could happen along with it, in ways that we don’t know anything about or did not know anything about before this moment.
I instantly made an effort to come to grips with Marilyn’s back catalogue (there are some thirty or forty years of playing to account for, in Anthony Braxton’s ensembles, and then as a solo musician and with collaborators of many different kinds), and found a great deal to love. Parallel Moments, with saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, is a recent release, and it’s full of lyrical turns and a pensive melancholy that calls forth a lot of jazz history while also preserving an experimental edge. An album with percussionist Gerry Hemingway, called Affinities, is also very strong, and I passionately love This Appearing World , too, with Richard Nunns and Jeff Henderson, an album that features Nunns on traditional Maori instruments, but in a jazz context.
This Appearing World defies categorization (I know, because of the Maori stuff, you are trying at this moment to think of it as the dreaded world music), like those great Codona albums of the late seventies on ECM—but even this would be to underestimate the greatness of the ensemble here. Having said all of this, Marilyn Crispell’s unpredictability and singularity is hard to fathom if you have not seen her play live. Jazz is a live form, after all, and jazz recordings in playback lose the impulsiveness with which they were conceived. And, indeed, in Orlando, Marilyn did a solo performance at a gallery space, and there I felt like I saw things come out of the piano that night, great sheets of chromaticism, chords played with forearms, and so on, that I didn’t know were available to the piano, especially not from someone as down-to-earth and accessible as Marilyn. It was an awe-inspiring performance, that began and ended with Coltrane quotations, but which ventured off into the distant realms of Cecil Taylor or Sun Ra in the middle somewhere, all with a thoughtful and feminine angle that is Marilyn’s own. There is not really anyone like Marilyn Crispell. You should hear her play.
“Love Is an Open Door,” by Kristin Bell and Santino Fontana, from the Frozen soundtrack.
Usually, I reserve a spot in these semi-annual outbursts for at least one artist or track to whom I strongly object (for example, I object to: Hot Chip). But in this case I am instead going to defend a piece of music so abject that almost no critic would be willing to go this far.
If you have a daughter under ten, I suspect, you know the Frozen soundtrack much better than you wish you did. I have seen the film more times than I have seen any recent film, I hate to admit, and in almost all cases I have seen this film involuntarily. I hate the song entitled “Let It Go” as much as the next parent, and if I never hear it again, especially the Demi Lovato version (which sounds like Celine Dion), that’ll be fine with me. Why then do I like “Love Is an Open Door?” The other “hit” from the soundtrack, which is only marginally different in terms of its conceptual vocabulary?
Look, everyone knows that this film is about the two ideas of the feminine, in which Elsa is the woman who achieves individuation by being ice princess, and Anna, the girl who wants to marry the guy on the day she meets him, is the wanton one, and they are obverses, but also sisters, each with characteristics of the other, the yin and yang of the yoni. And yet of these two, ice princess and slut, and the routes into maturation that each role proposes, which is the more loveable?
“Love Is an Open Door,” at 2:07 minutes (slightly shorter than a pop song should be), enacts the unsettling sexual compulsion of the too-ready-to-be-in-a-relationship feminine subject, in this case in two-part harmony, with the lover in question, in which she and he dance in and out of rhythmical unison, perform medieval hocketing, come back together, and profess their fidelity. The chorus, which is exactly incorrect (love is not an open door, because Prince Hans is not a lover but a golddigger), is pursued with an abandon that is all out of scale with what is at stake from a plot perspective. “Love Is An Open Door,” then, is precisely ironic—it means the reverse of what it alleges to mean—and whereas Kristin Bell and Stefano Fontano pursue its Glee-isms without apparent irony, the lower level of the song is always there, contrasting impulsiveness and romantic failure with the loneliness and solitary accomplishment of Elsa’s control. The two of these sisters would make one great queen, you have to admit, if only they could pool their strengths. But that’s not what the song is about; this song is about the rush of the new thing, meeting the guy (or girl) and believing it’s right, even when it most certainly is not right. Bell’s melody line goes up, while Fontana’s goes down on the chorus, as if indicating two contrapuntal possibilities of romance, and it invokes all the promises of the love song while implying that they are shallow and unlikely to bear fruit. I adore the moment in the second line of the chorus when Fontana comes in a beat later than Bell (true love: always late to the party). And I adore the little horn and string doilies of over-arrangement as the thing develops, and the upward modulation in verse two. No cliché has gone unexplored on this song, and indeed the song ends, on the soundtrack recording, with the promise of a marriage that not only will never be fulfilled, it will end with Prince Hans attempting to imprison, root out, or outright murder everyone close to Anna. Not a very good relationship choice!
What should I do about the fact that my daughter, like every other five-year-old girl of her acquaintance, knows every word of every song in this film, and indeed the better part of the dialogue of the whole? What should I do about its reductive ideas of femininity that are only reconciled, just barely, at the film’s end, by doing away with Hans and the Duke of Weselton and through the elevation of Kristoff to his proper role as slacker love interest? There are implacable forces of history and corporate capital here that we are insufficient to arrest, I am afraid, and in denying Frozen and its ubiquity I can do nothing but frustrate the child who wants this cultural awareness, because every other kid her age wants it, and she would not be left out, and I would not be the one her forces her to feel that way. The film was written by a woman, co-directed by a woman (a woman with a daughter!), and it has achieved total market penetration like nothing else but The Sound of Music or Michael Jackson. It is unstoppable for girl children.
But above all the quandary of “Love Is an Open Door”—say goodbye to the pain of the past, you don’t have to feel it anymore—is in the fact that everyone, every single one of us (for example: 14,000,000 views) continues to believe in the promise of the chorus of this song, though it is not in our best interests to do so, and even when our Prince Hans is revealed to be the real whore, the real slut, the one who would marry just to cash out, we still believe. I listen to the song, then, in the the way I watch a car crash in slow motion, with a shudder of recognition at the complexities that lie up ahead after the 2:07 min. are over with. I wish I could put it off for my daughter, romantic love, and maybe I can, for at least another seven or eight years. Then, for myself, I sing the duets of love with love and trepidation, always hoping for the best.