the pataphysical study of randomized sound
In no particular order, with commentary for albums I didn't already talk about in my dusted year-end piece
.Gary Higgins - Red HashBill Fay - Time of the Last Persecusion
I was exposed to this album by WPRB's Dan Buskirk
. It took a little while for the full force of the record to sink in, but after a few listens I came to realize the genius of the record. Time of the Last Persecution
is brilliantly apocalyptic, from the opening chords of "Omega Day" through to the deeply unsettling unresolved dissonance that ends "Let All the Other Teddies Know." Fay's voice is the half-way point between ____ (insert late 60s songwriter whose name I'm forgetting) and Nikki Sudden, and it hides its overwhelming Britishness for all but a few moments in "'Til the Christ Come Back." And despite all the Christ imagery, this is not in any way a remotely Christian album - Christ is more a metaphor for change than a serious messiah. Also of note is Ray Russel's spectacular guitar work, which is clearly on par with anything from his Live at the ICA/Retrospective
double album Jim O'Rourke put out a few years back. As I said in the Dusted piece, Fay and Higgins are connected on a subconscious level, not simply because they both experienced rebirths this year, but because they tap into a similar vein of thought and a similar sonic world, albeit through slightly different channels. v/a - Swinging Mademoisellesv/a - Yellow Pills: PrefillFree America reissues (particularly Archie Shepp's Black Gipsy and Steve Lacy's The Gap)
This series is perhaps the best thing to happen to free jazz since last year's Holy Ghost
box set, and possibly the best to happen to jazz this side of the Coltrane/Monk live recording that I unfortunately still have yet to listen to. I've listened to probably half the reissues at this point, with the Shepp and Lacy standing out, but only by a small margin. I think the Shepp wins on virtue of the mind-blowingly awesome lineup - Clifford Thornton (whose contribution to the series is solid in and of itself), Dave Burrell, Leroy Jenkins (rocking out on viola), and Sunny Murray, and a few unknowns - and the suprisingly great harmonica work that graces "Epitaph of a Small Winner." The Gap
shows Lacy's quintet in fine form, with their usual incredible interplay. Also of note is Alan Silva's badass cello playing on Dave Burrell's After Love
. To call this series essential is a serious understatement.Stereolab - Oscillons from the Anti-Sun
Stereolab's output can be a bit monolithic when viewed from above, with the songs gradually blending together into a single massive, blissed-out groove. And while Oscillons
doesn't entirely sidestep that problem, it still provides a great picture of what Stereolab is about.xex - group:xex
.v/a - New Thing!
One of many great Soul Jazz releases this year, this one stands out for simply having the guts to put together the so-called "new thing" under a single banner. While I don't necessarily agree with the grouping or all of their choices, it's attempt at creating a grand narrative for this arm of free jazz is noteworthy. Plus, Alice Coltrane's take on "A Love Supreme" is sublime (with excellent contributions from Leroy Jenkins, amongst others), Sun Ra's "Angels and Demons at Play" from the mid-50s proves that he really was supremely ahead of his time (all the other tracks on this comp come from the mid 60s and beyond), and some of the lesser names provide interesting tracks. Unfortunately a lot of the main players are underrepresented (Archie Shepp's track is forgettable, Frank Lowe's is just odd, and folks like Pharoah Sanders and Ornette Coleman aren't even there, probably because of copywrite issues, and Soul Jazz's prejudice towards the groovy and dancy definitely colors the choice of tracks here.Dungen - Ta Det Lungt
Technically, this came out in 2004, though it got a released domestically in 2005, so I'm counting it as a reissue. Rarely does a band actually live up to the internet hype machine, but Gustav Ejstes and co's third album is the real deal. Sure, it's sound is straight out of the late 1960s, but the group is so convincing that you can't help but enjoy yourself. Also they take themselves just seriously enough for this not to be just a bunch of dudes getting stoned and jamming on Hendrix tunes, but not so seriously that it sounds like what I imagine Cream's reunion concerts sounded like.v/a - No New York
Sure, it's a Russian import, but it's about fucking time mere mortals could get their hands on this definitive slab of early-80s New Yorkness.Ennio Morricone - Crime & Dissonance
Check out my review
for my thoughts here.
2005: live shows
In no particular order, my favorite concerts of 2005.Sleater-Kinney/Dead Meadow - Trocadero, Philadelphia
If there was ever a time to see Sleater-Kinney, it was this past summer. And if you thought that the scuzzy, fuzzy sound of The Woods
was just some fluke, think again. S-K were a glorious noisy mess, rocking harder than I thought possible. And seeing the riot grrls react to a 15 minute psych jam was worth the price of admission.High on Fire - First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia
Pet peeve: when the music between bands is the same as the music the bands play. This show was all metal and hardcore and that's all they played between sets. However, the big dudes who pretty much held court in the center of the room where the mosh pit would (should?) have been were pretty hilarious.Comets on Fire/Growing/Gang Gang Dance/Bloodlines - Vox Populi, Philadelphia
The lineup here pretty much speaks for itself. It was the middle of July, the room was scorching hot, the music melted the walls, and I left satisfied. Gang Gang Dance was perhaps the highlight, since they were suddenly like a thousand times better than the last time I saw them. Growing was once again marred by a couple blown circuits mid-set (and my companion's hiccoughs throughout their set which mysteriously stopped the second Growing finished) but they still managed to be sublimely gorgeous. And Comets on Fire did exactly what I wanted them to do - monster riffs, full-body headbangs, and awesomenss in general.Two Million Tongues Festival (Gary Higgins, Josephine Foster, No-Neck Blues Band, Jackie-o Motherfucker, etc) - The Empty Bottle, Chicago
I went to three of the four days of this mid-November festival. My first night was definitely the highlight with Gary Higgins and Jackie-O Motherfucker both being incredible as well as a couple pretty cool side stage acts. The second day was kind of a letdown, since people were talking loudly throughout Josephine Foster's set, and Whitehouse was more of a joke than anything (think Sprokets meets Merzbow). And day 3 had a fantastic set by No-Neck, a very awkward set by Ed Askew, and then I had to leave because I was dead tired.Sufjan Stevens - The Metro, Chicago
Gone to skeptically on a whim, this show blew my mind, told me what I needed to hear, and was essentially uplifting at a time when I really needed it. I wrote more about it here
.Deerhoof - Logan Square Auditorium, Chicago
Their records have always been hit and miss in my book, but live, Deerhoof are massive. Alternately catchy and noisy, structured and freeform, sane and insane, the set of songs they did left me wholly satisfied. Not to mention that they're all incredible musicians who are in complete control of every sound they make.Kinski/Bardo Pond - the Khyber, Philadelphia
I really only saw the Kinski set, but all I'm gonna say is that when they played "Semaphore," I nearly shit my pants.Man Man - Terrace Club, Princeton, NJ
Ted Leo also played, but I didn't watch his set; Man Man was the main attraction as far as I was concerned. Despite the complexity of their studio work, it all gets rendered beautifully in a live setting. MF Doom - Abbey Pub, Chicago
Some people I know have been less than impressed by the metal faced one's live show. Not me. His stage presence is something else, a very studied comic book villain, constantly posing with a hand on his hip or in the air. I was disappointed he didn't do anything from the Dangerdoom album, but he covered all the other bases/psuedonyms just nicely.MIA/Diplo - some venue or other, Philadelphia
I really need to see Diplo play a real club. His DJ set, which lasted over an hour, was mind-blowingly awesome. The way he chops up and remixes already good songs is nothing short of amazing. Standouts include his reworking of Outkast's already relentlessly danceable "B.O.B." and his chopped up version of the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian." MIA was good, but not super-impressive.Dungen - First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia/The Empty Bottle, Chicago
Saw these Swedish phenoms twice, though the Philly show was by far the superior. More thoughts here
.Bottomless Pit - Hideout, Chicago
A late entrant onto this list, Bottomless Pit is the new band of the two surviving members of Silkworm, a band that I unfortunately never listened to enough of. The show also included a book reading by Joe Meno and a slideshow by Jay Ryan of The Bird Machine
which were both really entertaining - the slideshow especially because Ryan is a really funny, deadpan, nice kind of guy, but Bottomless Pit were clearly the highlight. Despite the somewhat unfortunate name, their sound is actually fairly demonstrative of a bottomless pit: deep, rich, and full, created by the interplay of a regular guitar, a guitar strung like a 6-string bass, and a regular bass. Tim and Andy from Silkworm know each other's style cold and play in, around, and through the gaps perfectly. The songs were earnest and honest and all remarkably studied without sounding at all forced. I hope they keep this going for a while, because they have enormous potential to do something great. They only played maybe a half-dozen songs, but each and every one was completely satisfying. Also of note: Steve Albini was sitting about 5 feet away from me during the entire show.Sonic Liberation Front - Terrace Club, Princeton, NJ
Great jazz is hard to come by, and this group certainly does that. A combination of Yoruba and latin percussion with free-flying horns, they manage to cover all the bases sound-wise. But despite all their complexity, the most powerful moment was when they cut back to just a guitar and voice and sang a traditional Yoruba hymn to the gods of the sea.Shows I missed that I'm still kicking myself over
Konono No. 1
Year in Review, pt 1
I plan on doing a traumatic harmony year in review before too long, but in the meantime, check out my Dusted Year in Review Piece
I'm gonna geek out for a minute and talk about a fairly rare and expensive record that arrived at the dusty groove
(my current employer) in the past few days. The group in question is named Alexander Robotnick, and their debut (and possibly only) full-length album, C'Est Ne Q'Un Debout
, was released in 1984 and will currently run you about 50 bucks, if not more. The little bit I can gather from a combination of allmusic and the official Robotnick website
is that the group is simply one Maurizio Dami, an Italian producer who worked under a number of pseudonyms, though is only really known for his Robotnick work. So what does this expensive rarity sound like? More or less, it's a great example of mid-80s European disco (not) disco, definitely taking its cues from Neue Deutsche Welle. I hear lots of DAF or Liaisons Dangereuses, and it's definitely from a similar planet as Devo or xex. Which is to say there are lots of ultra-robotic drum machine beats with frantic basslines and nasal French vocals that are more machine than man, though more in a clipped, post-punk style than the Kraftwerkian vocoder. The rest of the music is definitely more accessible than DAF or their kin, occasionally veering on cheesiness which only makes the songs that much more appealing. I almost think it's what Arthur Russell would sound like if he were an Italian robot instead of an extremely human New Yorker, or possibly a cross between Russell and Von LMO, but that's a bit of a stretch in either case. I can't speak for any of the rest of Dami's output, but I will say that this is a solid slab of vinyl, even if I could never afford to lay out $50 for it. And if I can manage to get mp3s of it, I'll try to post them so you all can understand the joy of the Alexander Robotnick.
A couple additional thoughts after listen #3: this album is fantastic because it somehow manages to combine elements of just about everything from that time period into something new and ever so slightly different. There are bits of Afrika Bambaata, Gary Numan, and even the really early Madonna/Otto Von Wernherr stuff thrown in the mix. And then you realize that Outkast had to steal the bassline from Bombs Over Baghdad's breakdown from one of the songs on this album. To say that I wish I had 50 bucks right now would be an understatement.
The Def Jux Manifesto
[ed note: I started writing this post about 8 months ago and then let it get lost in the hubbub of finishing college (as evidenced by the complete lack of posts here between March and September of this year). I was going to revive it in honor of Cannibal Ox getting back together enough to tour - in fact, I would be at said concert right now if Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah could actually get along enough to rap on the same stage. Man, did they put on a fucking amazing live show back in the day.]
I’ll first go out on a limb and say that my knowledge of hiphop from the past 30+ years is patchy at best. I can talk about the high points and am generally familiar with the major figures - the Run DMCs, the Eric B and Rakims, the Public Enemies, the De La Souls, the Nas, the Wu-Tangs, and the Kool Keiths of the world - but go much deeper than that, and I’m at a bit of a loss. Having done a radio show at WPRB for 4 years has exposed me to lots of other bits and pieces of the hiphop world, but I am still in many ways only just starting to really get a feel for some of the grand narratives and so forth that have shaped the direction of the hiphop world. Working at a record store that deals in lots of hiphop vinyl for the past 2 months has helped some, but only marginally. So this whole post might be idle speculation, but I don’t think so.
That said, I have come to the conclusion over the past while that four records from 2001 and 2002 more or less change the face of underground hiphop. Those four records - Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein
, Aesop Rock’s Labor Days
, El-P’s Fantastic Damage
, and Mr. Lif’s I, Phantom
, all on the Definitive Jux record label - when taken as a whole, are just as revolutionary as some of the great albums of the late 80s. All five of you who read this blog should already know these four albums already, and if you don’t, do yourself a favor and listen to them until there are no grooves left in the vinyl. The way in which they rethink the tropes of underground hiphop and synthesize vastly different elements into a coherent whole is something completely new. And the fact that they all came out on the same label with similar sets of aesthetics but vastly different goals speaks to Def Jux’s truly innovative nature, especially in the early years of its existence.
I won’t deal with the prehistory here, other than saying that El-P’s previous group Company Flow is a critical element in all four of these; it’s production values and hiphop deconstructionism set up what all four of these groups would do. They may all back away from the obscenity and scatology of Funcrusher Plus
, but they’re all just as in your face with their agendas.The Cold Vein
comes first, both in chronology and originality. As a first full-length for Def Jux, this is one motherfucker of a starter. Vast Aire and Vordul Megilah spit out raps that alternate between alienated but honest social commentary (a theme on all four of these records), intricate wordplay, surrealism, and what I can only call “Hobbit rap.” It could be said that they stole that combination from the Wu-Tang Clan, but The Cold Vein
feels more like two guys bending words to do their bidding, while so much of Wu-Tang sounds like a big party between a bunch of guys who also happen to know how to put words together. Can Ox are definitely having a good time - how else can you explain in “Raspberry Fields” when Vast Aire quips “The sample's the flesh and the beat's the skeleton/You got beef but there's worms in your Wellington/I'll put a hole in your skull and extract your skeleton/Oh my God, said a word twice” - but any humor is undercut by a kind of bitter irony that is nowhere in any of Wu-Tang’s oeuvre. The Wu-Tang comparison gains a bit of ground in the production, though. El-P creates an intricate, intense, and terrifying backdrop for Can Ox to rap over that would be reminiscent of the GZA if it weren’t nearly as busy. It is arguably El-P’s best production work, even better than on his own album, since it so distinctly matches the mood and tenor of everything Can Ox have to say. The only person doing anything remotely similar to this is possibly MF Doom, but he’s to silly and flat-out weird to ever create anything like The Cold Vein
If Cannibal Ox are Def Jux’s Wu-Tang Clan, then Aesop Rock is their version of Kool Keith. Now, he’s nowhere near as crazy as Kool Keith; he’s got no alternate personalities or crazy album concepts or anything like that. The analogy is only in his voice, which is just as supple and agile as Keith’s and makes itself the center of every song it appears on. Labor Days
is nowhere near as immediately confrontational as The Cold Vein
but it packs a similar punch. The beats are loose, warm, and inviting, and allow plenty of space for Aesop to speak, and when he speaks, it’s on a much more down to earth and “real” (in the sense that it’s not dealing with issues abstractly) than Can Ox. He raps in fables and conversations, dotting them with myriad references to all kinds of things and thus forms a deep connection with the listener who can instantly relate to his sentiments.
The final two albums of the set are essentially younger siblings to The Cold Vein
and Labor Days
. Fantastic Damage
sounds roughly like an even more urban Cold Vein
, though despite having crisp production, I still feel like El-P did a better job with Cannibal Ox’s record. El-P has more b-boy braggadocio and cocky swagger than anyone else on Def Jux, and he brings it out in full force, though his b-boy is probably unrecognizable compared to the regular definition of b-boy. And Mr. Lif makes a great complement for Aesop Rock. They have similar lyrical styles and obsessions, though Lif is more surreal. I, Phantom
is also the closest thing Def Jux would get to a party record at this stage of their existence. But despite their catchiness, songs like “New Man Theme” are still experimental in the way they’re constructed.
You really need to listen to this set of albums as a chunk to get the full effect. In tandem, they mark the beginnings of the 21st century underground hiphop sound. And much like all the developments in hiphop, the changes and advances are both instantly noticeable as new but simultaneously references to what came before. And even though I’m not fully versed with what the underground hiphop scene was like in the late 90s, I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve any single group of musicians making a unified statement of purpose like Def Jux did. In a decade, when we look back at these records, they’ll probably sound horribly dated, but then so does every “great” hiphop record from 15 years ago. It’s all part of the cycle, though I’d like to think that these are the albums that groups will be emulating a few years down the road.