Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sound and the City

Artists: Calexico; Giant Sand; Howe Gelb
Albums: Feast of Wire (Calexico); Glum, Chore of Enchantment, Cover Magazine (GS); Hisser (HG)
Source: Bought used (all but Hisser, which was a promo)

Just before the winter holidays of any given year, the record companies gear up for shopping season with a bunch of new box sets. This year, one of the sets is Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia, a multi-disc box that brings together the Gamble & Huff sides that once defined "the sound" of that particular city.

It's strange to think that a place can have a sound. But Motown did its best to support the concept, creating a singular, recognizable sound that got matched up with the idea of "Detroit" (nevermind that the MC5, Stooges and even Ted Nugent could have an equal claim to the place). In the 80s there was an "Athens Sound" coming out of Georgia (which was mostly anyone who sounded kinda like R.E.M.), and lordy knows there was a "Seattle Sound" in the 90s.

But I think that those geographical sonics are often jointly temporal ones. Gamble & Huff nailed down a section of Philly in the 70s as much as Motown sounded like the Motor City the 60s and Sub Pop sounded like the Pacific Northwest circa 1992. Philadelphia doesn't sound like that in the late-oughts any more than Detroit or Seattle sound the same as they once did.

All of which makes Howe Gelb a bit of a curiosity. Starting in the mid-80s, Gelb has been making music that really sounds like the Arizona desert region he calls home. For the most part, Gelb records as the leader of Giant Sand (which for years featured the rhythm section of Joey Burns and John Convertino...who became the nucleus of Calexico), but regardless what moniker is on the cover, Gelb's music has this dusty, wide-open that's big enough that you can hear the coyotes and rattlers and tumbleweeds between the notes. Now, obviously this aural mood is mostly an exaggerated conception of how people think of America's Southwest - but even so,Gelb nails that conception and makes it real for the duration of each song.

I'm not 100% clear on how he does it, but there's obviously a science of sorts to it: Calexico, which is now a longstanding unit of its own, has the same sound-feeling in spades. Joey & John make their iteration a bit more cinematic and bring in more musical influences from around the world, but the desert dust still blows through the band's grooves. Gelb is unlikely to ever be celebrated as "The Berry Gordy of Arizona" or anything like that, but that may be largely because his sound-place isn't beholden to any particular era: Giant Sand, Calexico and Gelb's other stylistic progeny stand just far enough outside of a particular time to sound firmly planted in a specific place.

SISOSIG? While Gelb's sound is weirdly consistent across different band members, production styles and instrumentation, the quality of his releases is deeply erratic. Glum, which was part of his mid-90s grab at the Big Label Brass Ring, sounds a bit compromised and unfocused; Cover Magazine, which has a solid cover-song concept, is better but drags on a bit long without arriving at a solid reason for being. Both of these are pretty unnecessary, though I think only Glum deserves to be tossed (when Cover Mag grabs hold of a song by a like-minded spirit such as Neil Young, Nick Cave or Sonny Bono, it's often effective and affecting).

Chore of Enchantment and Feast of Wire, on the other hand, are career high points for Giant Sand and Calexico, respectively. Each is the sound of a band hitting every mark without looking down, and they both stand the test of as many spins as you'd care to to throw their way. I certainly like to play them loud & often.

Splitting the difference is Hisser. This odd little collection of half-formed Gelb solo recordings sounds like he just happened to hit play and record at the same time every now and then (which probably isn't too far from true). Some of these songs ended up in better, more fleshed-out version on subsequent Giant Sand discs, but most of these tunes and fragments are full of air, dust and flickering half-light. If all of these five discs sound just like the place they're from, Hisser is the one that ends up being the most succinct summation of the desert's natural music.

Monday, November 24, 2008

An Aside

I've been out of SISOSIG? circulation for a little while (has it really been a month?). I'm on track to correct that soon - I, like, totally promise.

In the meantime, Idolator caught my eye with a good think piece on negative music criticism:

I pretty much agree with the writer wholeheartedly. And I'd add that in the instances where a critic does actually write and publish a negative review, the negativity itself can be a kind of positive subject (or maybe just a stunt). From my own background, I'm thinking of a negative review I once wrote of a Fugazi album (End Hits) that came from a place of genuine love for the band - I thoroughly dig/dug them, and so my pan was born of really, really wanting to like the album.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Cast a Shadow

Artists: John Cale; Mo Tucker
Albums: Vintage Violence, Paris 1919, Guts, Wrong Way Up [with Brian Eno ] (JC); I Spent a Week There the Other Night (Mo)
Source: Bought used (WWU); bought new (all others)

History can be a burden. John Cale and Mo Tucker, each of whom has had a career in music nearly anyone could envy, nevertheless cannot make an album that doesn't stand in the shadow of history. They have bodies of work that range from good to excellent (the latter applying especially to Cale), yet every record they've ever made or ever will make is compared to the deathless work they did during the late 60s in the Velvet Underground.

It's been well more than a quarter century since the first VU LP was pressed with the peel-able Warhol cover; can you imagine having to stand in your own shadow for that long?

I'd think it's terribly frustrating, on the one hand. On the other, that ever-longer shadow is also the foot in the door for artists like these. Cale, at least, has a serious background in music and no doubt would have written & recorded music even if he'd never met Lou Reed. But it's equally likely that he'd have garnered less attention and collaborated with a lesser stock of fellow artists had it not been for that earlier breakthrough. And Mo, who'd been laid low, working at Wal-Mart, when she re-entered the fray of music making...well, it's pretty obvious that without the Velvets on her resume, she wouldn't be making records at all.

She must know it, too, because of these two ex-Undergrounders, she is far less shy about wrapping her arms around everyone's collective memories. Like each entry in her small catalogue of post-VU work, I Spent a Week There the Other Night doesn't shy away from the past - Mo dives in head-first. There's a Velvets cover ("I'm Waiting for the Man"), songs that sound like outtakes from the 3rd VU album ("Blue, All the Way to Canada" and "S.O.S.") and contributions from Lou Reed, Cale and Sterling Morrison (mostly separately, but also all at once on "I'm Not").

Tucker sees the shadow and understands its nature. Instead of trying to outrun it, she wraps herself in its comfortable cloth...and makes guileless, pretty wonderful music that always has the spirit of the Velvets in its loose grooves, even when the sound is more garage-y.

It's a smart strategy, but it would be easy to understand someone who wanted to assert themselves outside of the shadow's bounds. Cale, who only played on 2 VU albums (But, oh! What albums those 2 are!) has an audibly more difficult relationship with his past accomplishments. The four discs of his that I have are all over the place: pop so genteel its nearly shiny (Vintage Violence); rock rethought as chamber music (Paris 1919); twisted, dirty-ass rock & roll (Guts, which collects tracks from his 70s Island recordings); and ebullient electro-pop (Wrong Way Up, a thoroughly fab collaboration with Brian Eno). And those are just the ones I own - the rest of his catalog ranges from howling avant-rock to post-classical compositions and nearly everything in between.

Almost none of it sounds like the Velvets, yet in a way Cale's music is almost entirely reliant on the artistic freedoms he helped stake out as he began to cast his initial shadow. Would Phil Manzanera play guitar the way he does on Guts if he'd never heard White Light/White Heat? Would Cale even know Eno if the latter hadn't once been in thrall to the former's accomplishments?

Probably not. Which makes it a precarious balancing act, both outrunning the shadow and making sure you never get too far from it (witness Cale's periodic returns to re-collaborate with Reed over the years). Many artists privately fret over the fact that their fan-base is living on their past accomplishments - anyone from John Fogerty to Francis Ford Coppola can relate, surely - but it also must be gratifying to have those past accomplishments for an audience to hold dear. As Jonathan Richman put it when I once asked him if he gets tired of hearing requests for Modern Lovers songs every night: "It's flattering; those are my songs they want to hear."

SISOSIG? This is a straight flush of keepers. Cale's discs are always skillfully made (which is probably the best thing I can say about Vintage Violence), usually engaging, and sometimes there are flashes of brilliance like the balance of Paris 1919 and nearly every note on Guts. Oddly enough, the real star of the four might just be Wrong Way Up, which manages to be both catchy as the best bubblegum and deep as mid-period Talking Heads. While it was made nearly 2 decades ago, WWU sounds like a perfectly contemporary blueprint for the disc Eno made with David Byrne earlier this year.

Tucker's music shows far less skill and savvy than even the loosest of Cale's tracks...and may end up being better for it. She sounds like she's having the time of her life on every song, and it's hard not to have the same experience as a listener. Mo knows she's getting a hearing because of the shadow she casts from way back, but instead of coasting on reputation she sounds thrilled and determined to earn every moment of it.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

This Just In

Artist: The Breeders
Album: Mountain Battles
Source: Promo

It's hard not to have conflicted feelings about the Breeders at this point. On the one hand: well, this is Kim from the Pixies. And on that count alone, what's not to love?

But on the other end: this is a Breeders record, and that means its own thing, too. Pod and Last Splash are two primo, intoxicating examples of everything that was right and wonderful about "college rock" (in the era of Pod) and "alternative rock" (by the time Last Splash splashed down). By the time Title TK and this new one, Mountain Battles, came along...well, it was stilled called the Breeders, but now it was a different thing. Kim had gone through a long bout with her many demons, and it was not a clear victory on either end. She was still here and had a guitar in her hands, but clearly the demons had put some points on the board.

So despite my everloving allegiance to all things Pixies, I'd been satisfied to have this new one "only" as digital files. Because, truth be told, it's good but not great. And more than that, it sounds a bit beaten-down, lacking the triumphant roll of "Cannonball" or even the cocksure allure of "Iris."

Mountain Battles made it to The Beast anyway, courtesy of a promo copy Lee's wife, Jenn, got from work. And so now I have Kim's latest batch of draggy, druggy tunes on the stereo instead of just the iPod. I wish I could love it in a big way, but instead I'm hanging onto the small things that are there to like: the minimal thwak of "Bang On," the stoned repetition of "Overglazed," the nearly-old-school rocking on "Walk It Off," and the general ability of Kim Deal's voice and songwriting style to get under my skin. And that's enough, I suppose, to make the disc an unconflicted minor pleasure.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Moving On Up

Artist: Uri Caine
Albums: Urlicht/Primal Light; The Sidewalks of New York; Plays Mozart; Moloch: Book of Angels Volume 6
Source: Promo (Urlicht & Sidewalks); gift (Mozart & Moloch)

It is not entirely accurate, but also essentially true, to say that I moved to New York City because of two musicians: Uri Caine and Jon Madof.

Nearly 9 gestational months had passed since losing my gig at the Philadelphia Weekly, and I was making a go at a handful of freelance gigs while looking for a new job. Nothing that seemed like the right direction was in view, so I kept plugging on. The City Paper assigned me to preview a show Uri Caine was playing at The Painted Bride, part of the tour for his mind/genre-bending album of Mahler adaptations, Urlicht/Primal Light. I'd interviewed Caine a few years early, was pretty familiar with his work, and the article was easy to pop out in 30 minutes or so. Plus, I got 2 spots on the guest list for the show.

Lee and I arrived early and hobnobbed a bit in the lobby. Jon Madof was there, another local musician I'd written about a few times. This was the very beginning of 2000, and Jon was a young, still-developing jazz guitarist who had caught my ear; the fact that he was also a fun guy to hang with and talk to made it even better to be a fan of his music. So when I saw him at the Bride, I looked forward to hearing the latest from him.

"I'm moving to Brooklyn," was the first thing he said. Brooklyn? Really? But, but...the scene, man. The Philly scene! Ah, nevermind...Lee had lived in Brooklyn a few years back, so they chatted about the fair borough and what it might be like to move on up to Kings County. Then it was showtime and we went to our seats.

Now, it's important to add here that Caine's music is, more often than not, incredibly complex. Even when he's playing in a straight(ish) piano-trio context or playing sideman in Dave Douglas' combo, he rarely treads the expected path. The compositions and execution are layered with unusual approaches and the friction that comes with banging seeming unlike ideas against each other. And the music he was playing that night--which took Mahler compositions and ran them through jazz (acoustic & electric), rock, funk, European folk and whatever else (plus the presence of a turntablist and chanting Cantor on many tracks). Just one solo, a lengthy violin excursion, sounded to Lee like, "the entire history of Western music." To say the least, Caine's music required focused and attentive listening.

Which I was happy to do, of course. It was a lot of work (gratifying work, but still), and every now and then I needed to let my mind relax and wander. And wander I did: What would it be like to live in Brooklyn? My father had been born there, his family there for a couple of generations. I'd visited pretty much my whole life, from early trips to my great-grandmother's apartment to more recent treks with Lee and JP. Philly had been my home base for half a decade or so...but to be honest, things were no longer really going my way there. No job and no appealing prospects; an intense relationship with Girl C that had just blown up (and hadn't really stopped doing its damage); friends who were starting to move away; and so on. I really only knew one person in NYC, JP, but I was up there often and even had subway tokens in my pocket. I moved in & out of Caine's intense, moving and brain-scrambling music all night, and by the end I had decided to look into the NYC option.

That was Sunday. Monday morning, I called JP and e-mailed a couple of NY contacts asking for tips about where I might look for New York jobs. I got a flood of replies, real actionable stuff, and spent Monday & Tuesday sending off resumes. I figured it was a start.

Wednesday I got a call back from a startup, DealTime. They asked me to come for an interview on Friday. I went, spent the day having a series of conversations that just clicked (including one with the department's VP, who it turned out had been my camp counselor when I was 10!). They offered me the job that day, with a salary roughly double of what I'd expected.

And that was it. Jon Madof (whose music I'll write about in more detail later) had planted the seed, and Uri Caine had created the circumstances to let it sprout. I took the job, I packed up the cat and moved on up to Brooklyn a month later.

SISOSIG? As mentioned above, Caine's music is knottily complex, but also sublimely pleasurable--it's never (well, rarely) so far out as to push you away. Instead, whether he's thinking about the classical canon in a post-modernist framework or just working out some harmonic moves on the keys, Caine's music invites you along for the ride, be it ever so twisty. Primal Light and Plays Mozart are both deep pleasures that never seem to stop opening up with each play. Moloch, part of the latest line of John Zorn/Masada projects, is fabulous solo piano that I'm still wrapping my head around. I wouldn't want to part with any of them, and also look forward to adding more of his straighter jazz dates to the collection.

Sidewalks of New York, on the other hand, is something I can pretty plainly say I will never listen to. More a bit of conceptual curating than an actual Uri Caine record, Sidewalks is a collection of old-timey tunes of/about old-timey New York that is simply too much from the head and not enough from the heart; Uri doesn't connect here, but instead has made something like a novelty record that was never all that novel. This one can go.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Teacher Man, Preacher Man

Artist: Don Byron
Albums: Bug Music; Romance with the Unseen
Source: Bought used (Bug); promo (Romance)

Having a mid-June birthday was kind of a drag as a kid, since it fell just after school ended but before camp started. From K through 12, I never got to have the in-class birthday cupcakes, nor the extra canteen treats that a bunk would get for a camp birthday.

But I got mine once I was a bit older. Now, a Solstice birthday means I'm smack in the middle of Jazz Festival Season, and it's been working out in my favor for more years than the cupcakes ever would have. When the date rolls around each June, there's always a cool jazz gig to go to, and someone willing (or at least gently compelled) to take me. Happy Birthday to me!

There are people, however, that this doesn't always work out for: the family members, girlfriends and now wife who accompany me to these gigs. My jazz tastes start in the straight & narrow, but then meander forcefully away from the center. So while some years there's been a festival gig that was easy for my birthday patrons to swallow (Dave Brubeck & Bill Cosby, which the missus made it through just fine), just as often there's a show that clearly only I'm enjoying (sorry about the Marty Ehrlich & Myra Melford duo, Mom & Dad).

Oddly enough, one of the most successful of the Birthday Jazz Shows was a Don Byron appearance at Philadelphia's fest in the mid-90s. On paper, Don's a tough pill for the casual listener to swallow: playing the clarinet, an instrument that isn't often pushed front and center in post-bop jazz, he is a restless explorer who travels the paths of Klezmer, funk and many avenues of the avant-garde. Sometimes playfully melodic but just as often plangently noisy, Byron can't be pinned down to one sound or style, and as a result toils in fields that rarely catch the ears of the mainstream.

But the reason Byron could get my parents' toes tapping is that he adds an important role to his list of player, composer and bandleader: educator. No matter what context or concept he brings to the stage, Professor Byron always arrives with lessons to impart. He explains what he's up to, gives the audience some specific things to listen for ahead of a tune, and comes back at the end to explain a thing or two about what just went down. You could have never heard Byron's name or any of his albums, or even not be overly familiar with jazz in general, but a Don Byron gig invariably turns into a quick masterclass in the music you're about to hear.

So at the Philly gig, in support of the then-new Bug Music, Byron talked about how & why jazz made the crossover into cartoon soundtracks (the album is comprised entirely of music by Raymond Scott, Duke Ellington, et al, which had been used in cartoons) and even went so far as to explain which instruments would be audibly describing certain bits of cartoony action. When I saw Byron do a free gig at the World Financial Center years later, he was exploring the history of Sugar Hill Records with a large funk/hip-hop ensemble; the lessons that day included a backgrounder on the copious use of kazoos in the tunes, and an examination of the sociological effects of the label. When he was leading a quartet at the Jazz Standard a year or two ago, his notes from the stage about a particular moment in Lester Young's career made the unfamiliar music both familiar and familial.

It's hard to be a fan of Don Byron for any particular sound, or even a specific sensibility, since he's typically all over the map. But he's the opposite of Miles turning his back on the audience to solo into the electro-funk miasma - Byron faces front & center each time, the teacher man & preacher man for what can seem like the entire history of music. He's got a convoluted musical map in his catalog, but he makes sure that even someone forced to take me out for jazz on my birthday is able to come along for the ride.

SISOSIG? Byron's tendency toward constant motion makes it a little hard to settle into his body of work; just because you loved the last thing doesn't mean you'll dig the next one. Aside from some of the sideman dates I've got in The Beast, these two discs are the only Byron albums that I've actually acquired (instead of just hearing somewhere or experiencing at a show). Bug Music is a constant fave - it's both cartoony fun and deeply satisfying music. Plus it's got penguins on the cover, which makes Eileen happy.

Romance with the Unseen
, on the other hand is one of the rare Byron discs is one of the few without a formal concept. It seems like he mostly had just assembled a band that excited him (the wonderful BillFrisell on guitar, Drew Gress playing rock-solid bass, and drummer extraordinaire Jack DeJohnette) and put it through the paces. The tunes include originals, more Duke, classic-era Herbie Hancock and even The Beatles. None of it is revelatory, no lessons are imparted, and not all of it quite catches fire...but on the other hand, I'd be loathe to part with anything featuring Frisell, and Romance is still a reliably satisfying listen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Don't Take It Personally

Artists: Butterglory; Matt Suggs
Albums: Crumble; Downed; Are You Building A Temple in Heaven?; Rat Tat Tat (BG). Golden Days Before They End (MS)
Source: Bought new (Crumble, Temple, Rat); bought used (Downed); promo (Golden Days)

It's almost always a bad idea to meet your heroes, because they'll inevitably disappoint you. Not because you idolized people who aren't worthy of the adulation; it's because heroes function as broad ideas, and it's a crash when they turn out to just be people. Just ask Colin Powell.

There's a kind of analogue when it comes to meeting people who make music that means something to you. It's easy to forget that making art is a kind of distilling process; the final product can create the illusion that the artist thinks/feels just like you do, but it's more likely that there's a starch barrier between the feelings embedded in the art and the actual person of the artist. In other words, the process of making the music can tease the deeper truth out of someone who is not always consciously connected to every nuance of it.

But what does all of this high-minded theorizin' have to do with Butterglory? When they started putting their scrappy little homemade pop-rock nuggets out on vinyl in the mid-90s (a series of singles collected on thebuzzily great Downed), it sounded like there was an entire level of artifice or two missing. The tunes on the full-length Crumble were a mix of cheap studio and cheaper 4-track recordings, but all of them were audibly touched by the hands of real people, an ordinary Joe & Josephine who had the same kind of sounds and thoughts and such whirling around in their heads that I did.

That they were able to convert those sounds into something I (and others) wanted to hear and buy and treasure made them just a little heroic...but not so much that they seemed untouchable. Singer/guitarist MattSuggs had glasses and clothes and ideas that seemed just like mine, which meant the tether connecting me to the music was short indeed.

Lee felt the same way. The slim booklet in the Crumble CD had a mailing address in it (not a PO Box like most bands had, but a real street addy in Visalia, CA!) and the invitation, "Write us." So he did.

And Debby Vander Wall, the drummer, wrote back. Lee wrote again. She wrote back.

Now, she and Suggs were an item, so this was really just music-driven pen-pallery, nothing more. Still, this bore out the feeling of a real human connection with Butterglory's music, and even as the latter albums started sounding slicker (a relative term here) and built by a full crew of band members, something as simple as knowing that the drummer kept up a friendlycorrespondence with my buddy made it even more fun to hear.

And then it happened: the band was coming to Philadelphia for a gig at Silk City and needed a place to crash. Lee offered my little South Philly trinity apartment (he didn't have to ask - he knew I'd be game). Soon it was set thatButterglory was going to rock us and then we'd hang out and now we were friends and wasn't this gonna be awesome?

Lee lugged an air mattress in from his mom's place in rural PA; JP came down from NYC and we bought a case or two of beer; everything was set. We went to the show, and the band was nothing short of delightful (not to mention the great sets by apre- Aeroplane Neutral Milk Hotel and the foxily hypnotic Odes). Then JP and I went back to my place to set things up and Lee would direct theButterglory van to the right place. Sweet!

No one reading this far has been fooled by the hour and change later, Lee showed up solo. He'd had a drink with the band at the bar, during which they'd gotten a better offer: a suburban spot to park the equipment-filled van, and real beds to sleep in. So now we had a fridge full of food, more bottles ofYeungling than 3 guys really needed for a night, and a heaping portion of blown expectations.

And the moral is...well, it's kind of obvious and not really so profound. I still love listening to Butterglory (and also like Suggs' solo debut, though I can't claim to be a fan of his later work), but even though I'm smiling when the xylophone pops up during "She's Got theAkshun" I can't help thinking about how the actual people in this band disappointed me on a personal level.

I mean, I know they did the right thing, but that doesn't mean it didn't kill my Butterglory buzz in a deep way. I hadn't even really met them, either, but the result was the same: Butterglory changed from The Band That Loved Me to just a band I loved. Which was what they had been from the start, of course, but that's a kind of reality check that no one wants to get from their heroes.

SISOSIG? Fortunately, the music Butterglory made during its criminally short tenure didn't lose much luster over the Pen-Pal Incident. From the crackling sugar-rush of the singles (all of which I have on vinyl, too!) to theFeelies-ish sound they'd grown into by Rat Tat Tat, it's all pure joy. This is a band destined to be almost entirely forgotten in the long run, but that short-tether connection I felt to their music is likely to keep them firmly lodged in my noggin' for as long as I can imagine.