Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Monday, May 29, 2006

Putting a Face to the Name

Azusa Plane
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: Azusa Plane
Albums: Tycho Magnetic Anomaly and the Full Consciousness of Hidden Harmony; America is Dreaming of Universal String Theory
Source: Promos

In the documentary Looking for a Thrill, musicians talk about the people and things that inspire them. James McNew (from Yo La Tengo), an excellent musician who is also a portly fellow, talks about going to see the Minutemen as a teen. Up until then, he’d always thought of rock musicians as looking (or maybe just being) a certain way. Up on a pedestal, clothed and coiffed just right, those about to rock earned their salutations by being bigger than life and rocking in a way that fit inside a certain set of defined expectations.

And then there was D. Boon. Short, fat, bad hair, wearing an old flannel shirt, and just rocking the place to death. He wasn’t what McNew expected from his rockers, and it showed him that he didn’t have to be thin or handsome or well-dressed or, really, anything in particular. Like the Minutemen said, “our band could be your life, real names will be proof.” They were real and regular guys, and knowing who they were didn’t matter if you knew what they did.

The first thing I knew about the Azusa Plane was what they did. Well, not “they” really – the band is essentially one guy, Jason DiEmilio. He lived out in the Philly ‘burbs, and in 1997 my editor at a local paper passed me a copy of Tycho Magnetic Anomaly and the Full Consciousness of Hidden Harmony, his debut CD, and 7” with an assignment for a review.

I listened. It sounded familiar, but not really like anything I’d heard before. It said “All sounds on this CD originated from a Fender guitar” on the disc’s packaging, and it was both entirely obvious that this was true and sort of unbelievable. This was not a “band” playing “songs” in any way that anyone would recognize: each long track (ranging between about 9 to 25 minutes apiece) meandered and flowed and built and collapsed in ways that suggested the motion and emotion of rock music without actually sticking to its form. Each moment was mysterious and cool and enticing; telling you that it was all done on a Fender got you no closer to figuring out how it was done. The guitar was just a machine that DiEmilio used to sculpt these soundscapes of music that was not quite rock, not quite psychedelic, not quite noise, but had hooks into all of the above and more.

I quickly became a fan. The Azusa Plane played live rarely (I only saw them once, years later, and DiEmilio put together a more standard “rock band” that made an entirely different kind of noise), but he did keep the mystery going with limited-edition singles and weird little releases here and there.

When I started writing about local music for AOL’s Philadelphia office, I decided to dig a little deeper into the Plane. Another full-length was out in 1998, America is Dreaming of Universal String Theory, this one a double disc on his own label, Colorful Clouds for Acoustics (if there’s one thing DiEmilio is most certainly not about, it’s concise titles). I wanted not to just do a review of the album, the thing he did, but a feature about who DiEmilio was. He was friendly and cooperative, and I put it together.

At an editorial meeting, I talked about the piece, and my coworker Todd started laughing. “Jason DiEmilio?” he asked, “I know him! He’s a skinny little kid who was a camera operator at the TV station I used to work at.” Todd went on to describe DiEmilio in all-too-human terms. This mysterious mystical musician in my mind was, in Todd’s description, a quiet, shy, skinny, somewhat geeky guy who did his work and then shut himself in his room back home to make his little recordings. Everything Todd (no fan of noisy/abstract music in the slightest) said lined up with the guy I’d talked to; but his point of view, the face Todd put to the name, was an entirely deflated version of Mr. Azusa Plane. I heard a seer pouring himself through a sleek Fender; Todd saw a music nerd who didn’t go out for beers and talk about sports after work.

It didn’t affect how I listened to the Azusa Plane records – I still find them subtly powerful, somehow always sounding different each time I listen – but it did change how I thought about DiEmilio, at least a little. He was just a regular guy like me (skinny, somewhat geeky; though I was never quiet nor shy), who did some stuff he liked and hoped other people liked it, too. He wasn’t sending his two stone tablets of guitar noise down from great heights, but from an apartment that was probably no different from anyone else’s in and around the city at the time. People who heard his music outside of the Philadelphia area, especially his overseas fans (the Plane had a following in Australia, home to Tycho’s record label, Camera Obscura) heard the music and just had that to judge it on, a somewhat different experience from having a face to put to the music, one that didn’t necessarily look like what they were hearing.

SISOSIG? Hey, I’m finally finished with the A’s! Sure, I’m not quite finished with the first of a couple dozen shelves…but it’s something. Anyway, these are both keepers. To the best of my knowledge, this represents the entirety of the Azusa Plane’s LP catalogue (he did a lot more with singles and EPs) and they’re quite unlike anything else in The Beast. I don’t like String Theory quite as much as Tycho, but as I said, these records always sound a little different each time, interacting with the mood, volume, speakers and whatever else factors in to such thrillingly unusual music.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Pictures at an Exhibition

Ray Bryant
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Roy Ayres; Ray Bryant; Al Cohn and Zoot Sims; Hank Crawford; Rahsaan Roland Kirk; Charles Lloyd; Pat Martino; Les McCann; David “Fathead” Newman; Woody Shaw; Sonny Stitt
Albums: Stoned Soul Picnic (Ayers); Somewhere in France (Bryant); “Live” at the Left Bank (Cohn/Sims); Memphis, Ray and a Touch of Moody (Crawford); Left Hook, Right Cross (Kirk); A Standing Eight (Kirk); Just Before Sunrise (Lloyd); Givin’ Away the Store (Martino, Shaw, Stitt); How’s Your Mother? (McCann); It’s Mister Fathead (Newman); Little Red’s Fantasy (Shaw); Just in Case You Forgot How Bad He Really Was (Stitt)
Source: Promos

Before I started working at an art school, I didn’t really know what a curator does. I’d been to plenty of museums and art galleries, and just sort of assumed that the artist makes the art, and then it gets shown. (It’s sort of like assuming that a musician writes a song, or a writer writes a book, and then…well, the album or published novel just sort of happens.)

In reality, the curator stands as the first line of defense between the artist and the public, applying a trained eye and a sort of developed taste to an exhibition, trying to ensure that the art of the walls makes some kind of sense. The curator can seek to elicit a certain reaction, communicate a particular point, educate, or just make the artist look his/her best.

Joel Dorn is a kind of musical curator. A producer of jazz, pop and R&B records in the 60s and 70s, he worked with everyone from Mingus to Midler, Roberta Flack to Cannonball Adderley. If anyone could be said to have the education and taste that are the curator’s calling card, it’s Dorn.

He was also a Philly guy, which meant when he started up his reissue label, 32 Jazz, I got assigned to interview him. For 32 Jazz, Dorn bought up a boatload of deleted titles from Atlantic’s immense 60s/70s back catalogue and began thoughtfully reintroducing them to the CD age. Each disc came in a distinct plastic jewel case, had all the original art and notes, plus a personal reflection from Dorn about the artist and the music within. Each note ended with an entreaty to “Keep a light in the window,” and a clear directive to enjoy what you were about to hear. He sent me a pile of promos before the interview, and kept me on his mailing list for quite a while after.

The stuff on 32J (and its successor, Label M) cut a wide swath through the famous (Ayers, Kirk), the semi-famous (Cohn & Sims), the semi-forgotten (Stitt, Martino) and some guys more or less lost to history (Bryant, Shaw). But as a curator, Dorn earns your trust with each disc – through a variety of styles and approaches, each disc Dorn rebirthed had something serious to recommend it. Bryant’s solo piano disc, Somewhere in France, is a small marvel; it’s easy to forget there’s not a full band playing as Ray tears through a program of standards and a couple originals. The double-disc sets from Crawford and Fathead (each plays on the other’s albums) make a solid case that they were as integral to Ray Charles’ sound as Brother Ray himself. And Sonny Stitt…he just cooks, playing Bird-ish jazz like he thought of it all on his own.

There’s also the small matter of the sidemen. Check through the notes on these discs, and there’s a parade of familiar names who were hired for the sessions. Ayres has Charles Tolliver, Gary Bartz and Ron Carter on Stoned Soul Picnic; Lloyd’s got Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette backing him up; Booby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton, Jimmy Cobb, Billy Higgins, Anthony Braxton, Paul Chambers, Kenny Garrett, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Joey Baron and Marc Johnson all show up on tracks peppered among the other discs. It’s a treat to hear major guys playing inside someone else’s context, bringing the level way up while also subsuming themselves to the task at hand.

In this museum of jazz’s cutout past, Dorn is a meticulous and big-hearted curator, framing every lesser light in a way that makes him look like a prime Picasso. It’s a gift to be able to do what Dorn’s done here, and it’s a gift he gives to every listener who picks up one of his discs.

SISOSIG? There’s a big ol’ stack of discs on my desk right now, and they’re all keepers, every one. I don’t listen to some (like Kirk and Shaw) as much as others (Bryant, Martino, McCann), but I enjoy all of these. Like a masterwork on the walls of the Met, there’s probably more to see (or in this case, hear) over time, and all of these discs belong in the collection.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

This Just In

Alarm Will Sound
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: Alarm Will Sound
Album: Acoustica: Alarm Will Sound Performs Aphex Twin
Source: Prize

I am trying to get fewer CDs these days, but sometimes I can’t even help it. Cantaloupe Records (the modern classical label run by the Bang on a Can folks) had a survey in a recent edition of their e-newsletter, and I responded. Hey, they wanted some info, and I didn’t mind giving it. Total time invested: 2 minutes.

Then, a few weeks later, I get an e-mail back from them that my survey results were chosen at random as one of 5 “winning entries,” and I could have my pick of their catalogue. Really? Well, OK.

So I picked this CD, wherein more than a dozen musicians, playing everything from oboe and cello to curtain rod and duck call, tackle the songs of electronica pioneer The Aphex Twin from an acoustic POV. And dammit if the thing doesn’t work: the skittering beats are still there (this time, done by man rather than machine), along with the repetitive-but-evolving melodies and counterpoints, and the strange sounds. It doesn’t sound like electronic music or acoustic music, really, but a diggable bastard child of the two (though it’s worth noting that the pair of remixes at the end – wherein the acoustic translations of electronic sounds get reprocessed as electronica – might be the best tunes here).

I didn’t buy this record, or even try to buy this record, but I have it anyway, and I dig it for sure.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Don’t Believe the Hype (Except When You Want To)

In C
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Autoclave; Bang on a Can
Album: Autoclave; Terry Riley/In C
Source: Bought new

With magic, knowing how the trick is done not only ruins the fun, but it also removes the power of the act: you know it’s really a secret switch and a trap door making the bird disappear, which replaces the brief thrill of belief with the dull disappointment of easy knowledge.

The system by which musicians and/or record companies convince you to buy their product is a sort of magic trick, if not a very complicated one. The people selling the music get the people reviewing or writing about the music excited, who are then expected to flip their secret switches and transfer their excitement onto the record-buying public. The reviewer/writer gets excited in a few ways: sometimes he just genuinely likes the record, but even then there’s a craftily assembled press kit, a free copy of the album, maybe a cool promo item like a baseball cap or limited-edition something-or-other, probably free tickets to the show, and often an interview opportunity, which can be its own kind of excitement.

It’s a simple trick, and it works. Once enough of these people get at least a little excited, a low hum begins to build as writers for several magazines, newspapers, websites, etc, all start to project their excitement outward (read enough of them and you’ll start to see a few lines and tropes that everyone is clearly lifting right from the press release). Soon the record buyer has heard the Good News 10 times in a week, and before you know it he really, really wants to buy the new CD by a band he hasn’t thought about in awhile.

The amazing thing about this trick is that knowing how it’s done doesn’t make you immune to it. (This process recently put the idea in my head, if only briefly, of buying the new David Gilmour album, even though I don’t listen to the other 2 Gilmour records I already have and only a fraction of the Pink Floyd I loved as a depressive teen.) I’ve been a part of the machine, and I know how it works, but I still sometimes find it hard to not believe the hype.

This Autoclave record is something I still can’t believe I own. It’s a (very) short compilation of the singles & demos recorded by this (very) short-lived D.C. band, put out by capitol-scene avatars Dischord. The main draw is that it’s the first band of Mary Timony, later of indie-pop stars Helium. Now, I never listened to Autoclave during their 1990-91 existence; I did listen to Helium, and even saw them live once or twice, and never liked them. But when the machine revved up and the rabbit was repeatedly pulled out of the hat, I suddenly had to hear these early, pre-Helium recordings by Mary Timony. I don’t know why. But I bought it, and I liked it about as much as Helium, which is to say not very much. I think it’s kind of boring, if inoffensively so.

But the trick isn’t always malicious. One day at work, I was listening to NPR and John Schaeffer had minimalist composer Terry Riley on the show. Schaeffer is one of those perfect patsies, a professional music geek who gets excited about new records and does so in front of a microphone. He and Riley talked about how amazing Bang on a Can’s live recording of Riley’s classic piece “In C” was, and they played a clip on the radio. And you know what? They were right. It was amazing. I needed to hear more of it. Now. I immediately went to Barnes & Noble’s website, knowing that they had same-day delivery in Manhattan, and ordered In C. Later that day, it was brought to my office, and it still kind of blows my mind every time I listen to its one track, featuring a dozen musicians running through repeating explorations of a chord for 40 minutes. It’s easily the best piece of minimalist modern classical with electric guitar and glockenspiel that I own. Well, it’s the only, but it’s also a perfectly fluffy, two-eared rabbit, drawn flawlessly out of a hat held by a chain of magicians who smoothly conjured up just enough belief in the magic they were selling.

SISOSIG?: This one’s pretty easy: I never liked the Autoclave, and it only set me back $9 a decade ago. No loss in losing it. The Bang on a Can, though, is a keeper, and has already been a gateway drug to other modern classical, a nice new avenue of musical adventure.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Making the Scene

Sonny Sixkiller
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Ashtabula; Asteroid #4; Atom and His Package; Brother JT3; The Delta 72; Fingernail; Franklin; The Friggs; Jugden Mash; The Marinernine; The Lucys; Nerve Generator; Matt Pond PA; Sonny Sixkiller; Stinking Lizaveta; King Britt Presents Sylk 130; Vibrolux
Albums: River of Many Dead Fish (Ashtabula); Introducing…(A#4); A Society of People Named Elihu (A&HP); Way to Go (BJT3); The Soul of a New Machine (D72); So Backwards (Fingernail); Franklin (s/t); Rock Candy (Friggs); Snake Oil & Sippin’ Whiskey (JM); A Little Something from the Weatherman’s Perspective (M9); Anselmo (Lucys); This is 4-Track! (NG); Measure (MPPA); I’m in the Band (S6K); Slaughterhouse (SL); When the Funk Hits the Fan (KBPS130); Doomsday Rock (Vibrolux)
Source: Promos

On average, living in New York is better than living in Philadelphia. Sure, I miss shopping in the Italian Market, and Friday happy hour at Dirty Frank’s was a reliable pleasure. And don’t get me started on the space-to-rent ratio. But it was also sometimes stultifyingly small – the opportunities were limited, the ceiling on achievement seemingly low, and there was no way to avoid the person you wanted to duck for a few weeks.

There was one thing, however, that Philly beats NYC on hands down: the music scene. As in, there actually is one. A reasonably sized coterie of musicians and bands with modest aspirations and a chummy (though sometime also clubby) demeanor. In New York, the bands in “the scene” are chasing major-label contracts (this is where the major labels are, punk) and the sort of national/international exposure that is synonymous with local press here. Before I lived here, I used to complain how New Yorkers acted like their city was the center of the world; now I understand that this damn well is the center of the world, and people need to get over it.

But I digress. I liked the Philly scene. I knew the bands, could catch their action at the Khyber or Nick’s pretty regularly, and there were some bands with members who I was, if not friends with, certainly friendly. It was fun to shoot the shit with Art from The Photon Band, or joke about high school with Jay from Lenola. Then they’d put down their beers, take the stage and rock me just the way I liked it.

Which brings me to the reason behind the very large number of CDs in this entry. All of these were promos by local Philly bands. I got them because, as a Philadelphia Music Writer, one of the tasks at hand was to cover the scene. And it wasn’t usually a chore; it was often a pleasure. Some of the bands (not covered here) were so good that they became part of The Beast’s core – the aforementioned Photon Band & Lenola, plus Caterpillar, Strapping Fieldhands and others. It was fun to not only write about this music, but to know it, know how it fit into a larger picture, even if that larger picture wasn’t all that large in the end.

So I didn’t pay for any of these, and they were part of a glut of discs I felt obliged towards, if not always positively. Many of them are quite good: Ashtabula (a Strapping Fieldhands side project) is weirdly wonderful; Nerve Generator is tightly-wound pop that comes off like a new wave dBs; and anything the Original Sins’ Brother JT put his mind to (here, Way to Go and the Vibrolux disc) is always a loose-limbed lysergic treat.

Then there’s the stuff I have a sort of sentimental attachment to: the guys in the always-rockin’ Franklin were super-nice to me, and knowing them led to the cool coincidence of introducing Lee to their singer, Ralph, only to find out they’d been good buddies in high school; and Matt Pond was always fun to talk to at the bar during a show, the kind of guy who always had something to talk about, but was never a blatherer or a know-it-all (though reviews I’ve read all suggest Measure isn’t one of the top efforts of a guy with some excellent records).

Some of the memories are just weird: I got assigned to interview Adam DiAngelo, the guy behind Fingernail’s proto-IDM electronics, and it was the most depressing experience ever – he’d been kicked out of his mom’s house, then had been screwed over by a friend and had landed in this kind of flophouse apartment/hotel place that was kind of a halfway house for the thoroughly fucked. And Jesse Jameson, lead singer for The Lucys, flipped out and nearly shot himself to death just a few hours after I’d been hanging out with him at the Troc.

There’s also a lot of stuff here I never listen to. Atom & His Package is a single good-natured joke (tinny sequencer and squeaky vocals played as Ween-ish joke punk) that was funny right after college, but not so much anymore; Stinking Lizaveta is doomy prog-metal that would probably be popular now, but was way outside even the underground’s main seam then; The Marinernine is overly general drone that mostly gets by on the fact that M9 mainman Brian McTear is a solid part of the scene (and remains so to this day, as both producer and Bitter Bitter Weeks); and it’s very possible that I haven’t listened to the lame Palace rip-off of Jugden Mash since I reviewed it in 1997.

To the best of my knowledge, very few of these bands are part of the Philly scene anymore. Though I guess I really don’t know: I’ve now lived in NYC longer than I lived in Philadelphia, and it sure felt like I lived there a long time. But I’m out of touch with the place, and what would be the point, anyway? If you can’t hit a small local club and hang with the guys who are there to both see, be seen and be part of the scene, then you’re missing what’s good about having a local scene in the first place.

SISOSIG? I think there’s a bunch to cut here. Atom isn’t something I would want to spend my time listening to (even his synth & giggles cover of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room”), I've got two box sets of Nuggets that make The Friggs irrelevant, I’m never eager to hear Jugden Mash, Marinernine hurts my brain (and ears) when I put it on, Sonny Sixkiller is good pop-rock that isn’t quite as good as most of the other pop-rock I have (but dig that cover art!), and Lizaveta wasn’t something I really liked all that much in the first place.

The rest, though, ranges from solid to good to flat-out excellent. The Beast is stronger for having them, and they’re good reminders of a scene for which I was, to whatever extent, present.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Best Thing Ever

Arrested Development
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: Arrested Development
Album: 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…
Source: Bought new (twice)

Cable TV has so many channels that, inevitably, the folks who have to fill the time often run out of filler. Since it’s expensive to make new TV shows, and seeing as there are so many TV shows that have already been made, it makes a kind of cruel sense to fill today’s TV time with yesterday’s shows. So pretty much everything I loved watching as a kid – from the A-Team and Battlestar Galactica to Happy Days and Mork & Mindy – is out there in TV land (and often on TV Land) somewhere.

That’s fantastically good news, until you actually sit down and watch the shows that used to be The Best Thing Ever in your 8-year-old mind. The A-Team kind of sucks (though please don’t tell Mr. T. I said so…), and the 80s-era Battlestar Galactica just uses the same short clips of special effects over and over (though the new one is so excellent it makes my mind melt a little). Even in the case of Happy Days, I can see what I liked about it without quite enjoying it as much now.

When Arrested Development’s first album came out in 1992, it was positively The Best Thing Ever. In a moment when hip-hop was boundlessly creative (De La Soul, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and lots of others were at their undisputed peak then), this album sounded a piece with the times and also totally different from anything else out there. These guys put blues into hip-hip, a sunny kind of Sly and the Family Stone vibe without sounding backdated, and just great songs. The single, “Tennessee,” was a hit that deserved every moment of chart time.

I listened to this disc all the time. 3 Years… was in my CD player often and always sounded fresh. I liked it so much that when it got stolen out of my luggage on the way to Scotland my junior year of college (someone broke into my bags and picked out all the R&B and hip-hop discs, leaving the rock and pop behind…) I felt I needed to plunk down some more cash to buy it again, at VAT-fueled European prices, so as not to be without it. And we were together again, Arrested Development and I.

The Best Thing Ever sounds, almost 15 years later, only like A Very Good Thing. And it’s not just because I don’t listen to as much hip-hop anymore: when I put on, say, Check Your Head or Midnight Marauders, they still hit me and hit me hard. 3 Years… still sounds nice, but not as head-spinning as it once was. It’s like I can now see the lines the Fonz has to say were kind of cheesy, and while Happy Days is still a quality sit-com, it just doesn’t pack the same punch. “Tennessee” is fun to sing along to, but it’s a summer pop hit from another summer.

SISOSIG? This is kind of a split decision, but I think I’ll hold onto this one. It’s not a bad record – it’s actually very good, better than a lot of stuff I own. I think I’m holding it up against the harsh light of how great it sounded at the moment, when it was The Best Thing Ever, which is slightly obscuring how good it sounds now. And besides – I paid for it twice, so I’m still getting my money’s worth out of it.