Negative Chambers

Yair Elazar Glotman & Mats Erlandsson, 2017

Glotman and Erlandsson's Negative Chambers occupies a space not as populated as I'd expect: ambient minimalism executed with acoustic and traditional folk instruments. Perhaps there's more to this slice of style than I think, but I'm also counting the somewhat reverential air the material maintains. While the instrumentation on each track is sparse, their measured and thoughtful execution bears more in common with modern orchestral composition than ambient electronica. 

field report no.0323-2518

LOCATION: various sites, Knoxville TN
SUBJECT: Big Ears Festival

OBSERVATIONS:
Last year, I only dipped my toe in, testing the waters of the Big Ears Festival. Going for one day, I crammed in as much as possible and left overwhelmed. I was all in this year (though, circumstances necessitated I skip the opening night, Thursday). Arriving for the opening bell on Friday, I dove in, catching 10 performances in the first day alone. By the time I left, early Sunday evening, the final tally was up to 23. I set off for the long drive home, exhausted (in the best possible way).

Without trying to detail every experience, what follows are some of the highlights, as I saw them.

There was no better way to start than catching Roscoe Mitchell's Trio Five. Mitchell's presence and performance served testament to the advanced programming at Big Ears—their ability to attract artists of stature. The Art Ensemble of Chicago founder has remained, since the mid-60s a restless artist. These Trios, the first of which are documented on the ECM album, Bells for the South Side, are mature, searching works. The group was well-versed, each member, though some at least 2 generations Mitchell's junior, were patient and knew when to sit back or lean in. Roscoe's extended solos were searing—especially on soprano saxophone—filled with intervalic leaps and exploding, multi-phonic extended techniques.

Quite unintentionally, I ended up organizing my experience each day into loose groupings. Friday contained, by far, the most jazz-oriented of shows. Throughout the rest of the day, I saw the ebullient Cyro Baptista, Rocket Science (featuring Evan Parker and Peter Evans), as well as Jenny Scheinmann's Mayhem & Mischief (featuring Nels Cline). There was a powerhouse solo performance by Milford Graves—who's experiencing a coronation into elder statesman status of late. Luckily, The Thing's excoriating set made up for a rather staid and mildly disappointing turn by Medeski Martin & Wood.

Even still, I mixed it up, catching Ikue Mori,  and ending the night with a sublime presentation by Wolfgang Voigt as Gas—previewing his new work, Rausch. Along the way I caught an Arto Lindsay set that was by far the best I have seen. His band—lead by the stalwart bassist, Melvin Gibbs— featured two drummers this go 'round, giving his samba inflected art rock witha . powerful, polyrhythmic punch.

Saturday ended up leaning more towards electronica acts. I started the day with an early morning performance by Kid Koala. I didn't know at the time how lucky I was to get in to this show. Over the course of the weekend, Kid Koala would lead a series of interactive performances based on his album Satellite: Music to Draw to, that ended up the biggest draw of the Fest—consistently at capacity, turning people away. In the small Square Room venue, each table was set up with custom mini-turntables along with a collection of color-coded 45s. During the performance, a light on the turntable would give you hued cues as to which record to put on, and a conductor would guide the audience to raise the volume, add effects or scratch.

While Kid Koala's music is not stylistically advanced, he excels at making live experiences that leave you feeling as if you've witnessed—even participated—in something truly special.

I went on from there to see a hypnotic all-oboe chamber piece composed by Michael Gordon, in an Art Museum and Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble in a cathedral. Yuka Honda gave a rare solo performance and Laurel Halo drove her set well past its scheduled end-time, supported by experimental percussionist, Eli Keszler.

I ended the night at the Mill & the Mine, catching Four Tet with Kelly Lee Owens warming up. Four Tet has been on a years-long hot streak that's cemented him as one of the pivotal electricians of the early 21st century. He moves with dynamics in opposition to themselves. It has all the structure and release of classic techno but maintains the loose-limbed unpredictability of improvised music.

Kelly Lee Owens was a shocker, though. Her self-titled debut from last year (which I loved) was no preparation for her live set. Bits and pieces from the album showed up, but only as markers in her continuous slow build to a jaw-dropping display of hard acid house. If any one other than Four Tet was on after her, I would have called it a night then and there.

Sunday was like any Sunday after you've partied for two days in a row. I was weary and a bit hungover, musically. I caught what I could, Tyshawn Sorey's music is impressive and luminous. I'd be lying if I said I've found a way to fully connect with it, but I am no less than impressed by it.

I went on to see a set by the rock band Suuns, which I found a bit of a let-down. I'd say they reminded me of Joy Division, but really it's more like reminding me of Interpol reminding me of Joy Division. It never really lifted off—I eventually found a chair in a corner and dozed off a bit. Later I caught pianist Jason Moran with Ron Miles and Mary Halvorson. While Ron Miles has the longest resume of all three, it's Halvorson who has the buzz. I'd seen her play dozens of times while I lived in New York, so it was a treat to see her on stage again.  

Despite my somewhat disengaged state, the improvised set on Sunday afternoon by Keiran Hebden (aka Four Tet) and Mats Gustafsson (of the Thing) was possibly the best of the entire weekend. Their musical spheres have little to do with each other—yet you could hear each one reaching to the other to find a common ground, in the moment. This was not their first meeting, but like their album with the sadly departed drummer, Steve Reid, I hope this set sees the light of day on record, as it was fucking stellar.

With one more show tucked in—a performance of Steve Reich's newer work, Quartet as performed by Nief-Norf—I was back on the road to North Carolina, overwhelmed (again). Already, I'm pleased to see the Big Ears 2019 lineup taking sahpe, as for the foreseeable future, I plan on making the Big Ears Festival an annual trek.

NOTES: Roscoe Mitchell; Cyro Baptista's Vira Locos; Ikue Mori; Rocket Science; Milford Graves; Arto Lindsay; Jenny Sheinman's Mischief & Mayhem; Medeski Martin & Wood; The Thing; Gas; Kid Koala; Rushes Ensemble performing Michael Gordon; Evan Parker Electro-acoustic Ensemble; Yuka Honda; Sonus Ensemble; Laurel Halo featuring Eli Keszler; Kelly Lee Owens; Four Tet; Tyshawn Sorey; Suuns; Kieren Hebden & Mats Gustafsson; Bangs; Nief Norf performing Steve Reich
PRESENT: AMS

proto-punk street-cred

There's a standardized laundry list of bands that gets tossed around as proto-punk: the Velvets, the Stooges, the Modern Lovers—even prog-rocker Peter Hammill sometimes makes the cut. To that list, I'd add Yoko Ono.

Once reviled as the anti-Beatle that ruined everything—which was of course, preposterous, Yoko Ono has run a lifelong gauntlet of bullshit. Her marriage to John Lennon provided her enormous opportunities, but also brought her art to the attention of people that had zero context or desire to understand or engage with it. She was used as a bad punchline for art-rock jokes. Lately, as rock itself has moved out of the mainstream (again) and it's veered in artsier directions, she's been enjoying a bit of unexpected, elder stateswoman status. Big names are lining up 'round the block to collaborate with her.

If you go back to her solo work in the early 70s, Ono makes a great case for her status as a punk rock progenitor. Those albums feature strident, socio-political lyrics over songs squarely based on barroom blues—sounding off-the-cuff without much of any concern about the 'right' way to play or sing it. That's about as good a description of the early punk albums as I can think of. 

The song driving this all home, for me,  was I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window off 1973's  Approximately Infinite Universe. The title alone is punk as fuck. Over a slopped, funky blues riff, Ono muses about self-determination and escaping from her parents' (and by extension, society's) expectations. While the feminist implications are obvious, It's reach is well beyond, tapping into a vein of pure teen angst—the universal desire to come of your own age; the fount of all things punk rock. 

While songs like Clear Glass Window certainly presaged punk, in many ways, Yoko Ono is also a proto-post-punk artist (if you can stomach such an oxymoron). When her more outré tendencies collided with popular rock forms, as on Don't Worry Kyoko (Mommy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow) she helped clear a path for the utter dismantling of rock-n-roll's structures from within that would happen in the post-punk era.

Somewhere Decent to Live

Space Afrika, 2018

The brand of deep, hypnotic dub pioneered by the Basic Channel label in the late 90s / early 2000s has slowly grown into a sub-genre unto itself. The sparse minimalism of the style, with percussion more implied than anything else, and gaseous but impactful bass, is perhaps easy to mimic but damnably hard to bring to life. Space Afrika rises to the challenge, with an album that carries echoes of the dubbier Vladislav Delay output—not a moment too soon, either, as Delay himself has been AWOL of late, leaving a vacancy to fill in my listening.

Blood on the Moon / Kiss to the Brain

Chrome, 1981 / Helios Creed, 1992

Recently I went on a tear, trying to listen to every album related to the infamous industrial act Chrome. This was no small endeavor: the band (under alternating stewardship) has an over 40-year, near-continuous history (not to mention all the solo albums). It seemed the end of that cycle was a good time to discuss the Chrome in my collection.

The demented and drug-addled industrial rock Helios Creed and Damon Edge made sounds completely outside of any scene or time. I don't know of many or any bands coming from California in the early 80s that bear any relation to them whatsoever. Like backwoods meth cooked up in a trailer, this SanFran duo (along with whatever support they could muster up) runs on cheap highs. Blood on the Moon is their fifth full length in as many years and by far the most 'professional' sound they'd achieved—that is to say the recording equipment sounds moderately up to the task of capturing their mania. Edge's voice comes at you in either low, lascivious, demonic tones or high, pinched, cartoon villain angles. Creed's guitar is chained through enough effects to make chord changes irrelevant, while the rhythm section martials on mechanistically. Chrome are like a seriously a bad acid trip (in a good way).

Helios Creed had the more successful post-Chrome career—at least artistically. Damon Edge's subsequent Chrome and solo records slid into lo-fi synth dirges, sorely missing Creed's acidic splatter. Creed's output could be hit or miss as well, but there was usually at least one or two worthwhile burners per LP. In the early 90s he paired up with the Minneapolis label, Amphetamine Reptile (the perfectly named home for a Chrome project), known for their sludgy brand of hard indie-rock. With the return of guitar rock to radio airplay and the rise of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, there was probably never a better time for Chrome to ascend. Helios did his level best, delivering a trio of blistering industrial barn-stormers—including my pick, Kiss to the Brain. They surely, must have grown the Chrome cult but were still far too oddball to garner wide attention.

Biscuits for… Molasses Movers

My latest in the Biscuits for… series focuses entirely on dance tracks with undanceably low beats-per-minute. If you would like to subscribe to future editions of my podcast, you can search for sndlgc in the app of your choice, or add it manually with this link.

I've been obsessed with slow dance music for years now. Something about the inherent contradiction appeals. To clarify, I mean tracks within a techno dance style that are low BPM, nothing like what would be fitting for raising your would-be girlfriend over your head in a pond in the rain while practicing your routine. The fascination runs so deep, I've tried (and failed) at making a track or two myself. I'm not alone in this fascination. Just check out none other than Andrew Weatherall's recent output, compared to his bangin' techno or skittery drum-n-bass output of the 90s, it's downright lugubrious.

When you tune your ear to a particular concept—something broad but identifiable—how it seems like what you're looking for is suddenly in abundance. I don't flatter myself that I'm spotting a trend. More likely, It's just I'm suddenly tuned into a new frequency and am picking up on what I never noticed before. Whatever the reason, in 2018, I was suddenly stumbling over a wealth of slow motion disco.

Granted it's not all actually slow. Some of these tracks know how to trick your ear into hearing a rhythm slower than what's being played. You probably wouldn't dance to all of it, but each song is firmly from an electronic dance tradition. This ain't early 90s listenin' techno. 

As usual I've chopped it all down to its bare essentials. 30 songs sail by in 80s minutes. True to the Biscuits for series, all these songs are hot off the press—nearly all of them released in 2018, and some just weeks old.

So strap in and get ready to bust a (slow ass) move.

Chloé: Recall (instrumental)
Hi & Saberhägen: Parachute
La Frère: N8TTT
MTV: Snow Ball
Pinklunch: Other Side
Fango: Atena
Commodo: Leeroy
Etch: Defunkt Logic
Novo Line: Triad (33)
Jako Maron: Katangaz
Streetboxxer: Memory Man
Black Zone Myth Chant: Radio Romantica
Krikor Kouchian: Plomo o Plomo
Chromatics: Lady
Suba: Wayang no.8
Move D / Benjamin Brunn: Come In
Marc Romboy: l'Universe Étrange
Overmono: Pom
Heap: Tripper
Low Jack: Brass
Brainwaltzera: Kurzweil Dame (Eva Geist mix)
Masimiliano Pagliara: Small Town Life
Synkro: Automatic Response
Steven Rutter: Memories of You
Sign Libra: Mantodea vs Furcifer Pardalis
Boothroyd: Rinsed
Jonathan Fitoussi / Clemens Hourrière: Ice Tunnel
Happy Meals: Run Round
Dual Action: Cochi Loco
Mønic: Deep Summer (Burial mix)

Heads

Osibisa, 1972

I often shop the new arrivals bin on the Dusty Groove website. From the time I lived in Chicago, they've been veritable resource of discovery—so much more than just a record store. Their sonic niche is not my specialty, so it's always fun to wade through what they have and see what catches my eye. One time, it was Osibisa.

I'd never heard of the band before, but the cover of their third record, Heads, will stop you in your record-flipping tracks. The typography instantly makes you think it's a prog-rock record, with echoes of Yes or Budgie. The warped painting is by Abdul Mati Klarwein, the same artist who gave us Miles Davis' Live Evil. The image is of the sweating, disembodied head of a flying elephant. To make things even weirder, each of the band members faces seem to be emerging from different parts of this demonic-looking Dumbo's face. With exactly that much information to go on, I had to see what Osibisa was all about.

For lack of a better term, they were a funk band. If you try and get beyond that, you end up needing a lot of hyphens. Though based in London most of the band hailed from Ghana, and their progressive-flavored jams shared some DNA with afrobeat. The more psychedelic edges of their tracks remind me of a more percussion-heavy Cymande. They also retain an African feel of call and response—the same one that also informs African American Gospel music. It all ads up to (ahem) a heady brew.

Die Paste, Die Wrong

Gerard Herman, 2016

Gerard Herman Die Paste Die Wrong

It's actually rather rare to buy a record with no information other than the sound. So many things influence us, from what we already know, to criticism and promotion, up to the cover art. I virtually none of that when it came to Gerard Herman's Die Paste, Die Wrong. I knew nothing about Herman, and the Entr'acte label is about as forthcoming as their stark, consecutively numbered covers would imply. I had no information other than what I heard and what I heard were these beguiling electronic miniatures, each built with simple, limited components but each slippery in its construction, hard to pin down.

The Way Out

L.Voag, 1979

Any band that names themselves the Homosexuals, in 1977, is confrontational. Apparently the name-change cost them at least one band member. The Homosexuals were a prolific and squirrelly group, who seemed to form new bands monthly either from desire for obfuscation or perhaps sheer boredom. The box set, Astral Glamour, went a long way to making the bulk of their work as the Homosexuals available again (and more besides) but huge swaths of their other material remains damnably hard to find. Hell, it sometimes feels like you have to be an internet detective just to find out it even exists. Getting the box set digitally also does nothing for sorting out what goes where…

On vinyl, this dilemma is slowly being addressed. The various works of Amos, aka Jim Welton, aka L.Voag have started to see the light of day . Listening to The Way Out is almost a form of archeology. Nobody makes this sort of lo-fi jumble in era of computer-based home studios and auto-tune. It sounds like half these songs were written moments before they were recorded. The magic of it is in how well it works, in all its haphazard glory.

History Sifter: Concept 96

If you still consider Richie Hawtin a titan of techno, you probably live in Europe and go to electronica festivals. Except as a megastar DJ, he's dropped out of any other conversations of electronic music. There's been precious little new material from the Plastikman camp in the last 15 years and the work he built his reputation on remained unavailable on streaming services for far too long. To any casual techno fan, Richie Hawtin had all but disappeared.

Even though you can finally listen to most of his catalog online, I would argue he left out one of his most striking works, and it still remains absent. In 1996, Hawtin released one 12-inch single, every month, called Concept 1-12. Each was a strident, minimal beat exploration using a purposefully restricted set of gear and sounds. They were suitable for only the bravest and most inventive DJs. Reportedly, he recorded the tracks live, in the studio, and mixed each single at the last minute, giving himself little time to fuss.

I never managed to get ahold of more than a few of the original singles—but for a brief period, his Plus8 label offered a large cross-section of them, collected on CD. The Concept:96 collection remains a touchstone of my aesthetic development. In my very unscientific surveys, the people I've introduced it to—some who have little use for minimal electronica—are unananimously impressed.

It's easy to cite a handful of releases that are clearly influenced by the Concept series. Many of them, like snd's makesndcassette, ended up as landmark records in my personal history, as well. I wish I knew why Richie Hawtin chose to leave Concept:96 in the past, while he was bringing the rest of his catalogue into the present. It's too esoteric to change the written history of techno in the 90s (or even about Hawtin himself) but it's still one of the most daring—and therefore, rewarding—albums of his career.

Strangely, it even seems the (also out-of-print) remix record Thomas Brinkmann made, Re:Concept, is easier to find. These versions were made by simply playing the Concept singles on Brinkmann's vari-speed turntable with a sepearate tone arm for each channel—the same device he'd previously used to make versions of Wolfgang Voigt's Studio 1 releases. Sometimes, I suppose it pays to have a gimmick.

Phantom Studies

Dettmann / Klock, 2017

Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock have maintained an intermittent collaboration for the last 15 years. Phantom Studies is the latest their series of singles, but by dint of being a double 12-inch, it also serves as their not-quite-full length debut. While they are offered more room to stretch out, they keep their rhythms aimed at the floor. True to it's title, Phantom Studies is a darker work than previous ones, with tunnel vision bass gone fuzzy with distortion around the edges, and tracks haunted by echoing, half heard voices.

Hymns

Godflesh, 2001

In its extremity, industrial metal is kind of silly. I think you have to embrace that fact in order to fully accept and appreciate the style: buy into the distorted bellowing and pummeling volume the same as you accept the fairies and gnomes of prog rock. It never ceases to surprise me what a dynamic range such a narrow niche can contain, though. Where Ministry is all treble-drenched, cartoonish aggression, Godflesh is stark and harrowing, plowing an excoriated emotional landscape.

At the time of its release, Hymns was the swansong for Godflesh, as JK Broadrick moved on to other projects. It remains not only my favorite Godflesh LP, but one of my favorite guitar records, full stop. The unique sound of the guitars themselves, across the whole album, is worth the price of entry alone. It's as if they amplified the fretboard—so every pluck, strum and chord change is an event unto itself, as well as the resulting note. This clear meeting of flesh, steel and electricity is epic.

Hymns is distinctive in the Godflesh catalogue. It's one their few records to feature a live drummer. Abandoning their distinctive  machine rhythms may have been controversial among their cult fan base, but it perfectly suits the more human and dynamic sound of this LP. The lyrics on Hymns seem more personal as well. Much of the writing is more introverted and filled with self-examination, rather than simply raging outward.

Broadrick was clearly looking to the horizon: the last song on Hymns is titled Jesu, the same as the new band he would debut a couple years later.  In recent years, Godflesh has reentered the fray. After touring their seminal album, Streetcleaner, for a bit, they've begun releasing all new material. Last year's Post Self ranks among their best work. 

field report no.030718

LOCATION: the Mothlight AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Shopping

OBSERVATIONS:
There's an art to making something like a simple rock trio come off as more than just some over-loud pop. There's a performative aspect that, overplayed, will seem just a campy gimmick. Shopping hits the sweet spot. They seem genuinely elated to be on stage, winning and cheering the crowd. Their live dynamic, trading lines in call-and-response, has echoes of the Beastie Boys interplay, hidden in a spiky wrapper of Gang of Four. After the bevy of post-punk-aping bands of the mid 2000s, Shopping's influences may feel familiar, but they have the wherewithal to keep the ball moving forward.

Their frontwoman, Rachel Aggs, is a powerhouse, also leading Trash Kit and Sacred Paws (and previously of Golden Grrrls), and each is a reliable go-to for me. 

NOTES: Shopping; French Vanilla; Konvoi
PRESENT: AMS

The Sound of Silver

LCD Soundsystem, 2007

When LCD Soundsystem is firing on all cylinders, they're straotspheric. Even still, I approach every new missive with skepticism. Any band with that much knowing irony baked in makes it's hard to discern when you're an admiring fan or the butt end of a joke. LCD Soundsystem is practically a musical representation of the early-2000s rise of Brooklyn chic.

I came around to their second album, The Sound of Silver, via the astounding single, All My Friends. Or, rather, the cover of it—by the one and only John Cale—included as a b-side. While LCD, no doubt, wrote an exceptional (and surprisngly affecting) song, John Cale completely hijacks it. When I play All My Friends in my mind, it's Cale's voice I hear. It served it's purpose nonetheless, inspiring me to give the rest of the album a closer listen.

James Murphy & Co. know their craft. There's hardly a modern rock band that can compete with just how fucking well they put tracks together. Every sound in every song on Sound of Silver is in exactly the right, yet somehow unexpected place. They hug every curve, from the storming Us V Them and North American Scum, to the torch song closer of New York I Love You but You're Bringing me Down. The Sound of Silver is one near-perfect prismatic construction after another.  

like imploded pizzas

I was gathering recipes for stuffed tomatoes, looking for a filling, healthy springtime dish. Ultimately, I found myself disappointed by either a bland flavor profile, a lack of substance, or how (not) easy they were to make for a weeknight cook. So I set out to make my own variation, a sort of amalgam of my various failures.  

What I ended up with may not be terribly authentic, but is delicious and efficient. Sure, you could spend the time to make a garlic-basil risotto to fill your 'mats with—if you've got that kind of time on a Tuesday night. In the end, these rich, filling, robust little flavor bombs seemed to me like imploded personal pizzas.

6 whole medium tomatoes
1/2 cup of rice
½ cup of bread crumbs
1 cup of packed basil
1 tbs blanched slivered almonds
3 whole cloves of garlic + 1 more, minced
¼ cup parmesan cut into ¼-inch cubes
juice of ½ a lime
2 tbs olive oil
salt
butter

GREEN
I'd start out by making the pesto. You'll have time while the rice is cooking, but the tomatoes need to be dealt with as well, so… you've got to start somewhere. This part is easy. Wash the basil, throw it in your food processor with 3 whole cloves of garlic, almonds, lime juice, salt and olive oil. Blend until it's pesto. After that's a wrap, preheat the oven to 425˚.

WHITE
The rice is up next: I often start rice by melting a small pat of butter in a saucepan. Once, it's good to go, I'll add a clove of minced garlic and a pinch of salt, simmering until it's fragrant. Then I'll add the rice, stirring it constantly, until there's a light toast on it. Lastly, I'll add twice as much water as I did rice, and a bring it to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the pot—letting it simmer for 15 minutes or so until done.

While the rice is doing it's thing, core the tomatoes, cutting down through the the top in circle, with a paring knife and scooping out the insides with a spoon. (Note: I don't need to tell you to save those tomato innards for stock, do I).

RED
Let the rice cool a wee bit, then combine it with the pesto, parmesan and about ¾ of the bread crumbs, in a bowl. Once you've folded it all together, fill the cored tomatoes with your mixture. Top each tomato with the rest of the breadcrumbs, patting them down just a bit. Line a small casserole pan with parchment paper, arranging the filled tomatoes in it. Place it all in the oven for twenty minutes or so—until heated through and the skin of the tomatoes are crinkling a bit and breadcrumbs are toasty on top. Let them cool (just a tad) and serve warm—I'd provide some steak knives to quarter them easily.

Nippon Guitars

Takeshi Terauchi, 1966-74

I don't own much in the way of classic LPs of surf guitar like Link Wray. It seems a style so thoroughly ingrained in the American collective consciousness—now, repeatedly reinforced by film and TV—that owning any often seems ancillary. When I find myself drawn to surf rock, it's the oddities, like the punked up version peddled by Man, or Astroman?.

Nippon Guitars collects recordings by Japanese guitar guru, Takeshi Tarauchi. The appeal—beyond the impressive fretwork—amounts to cultural re-appropriation. On the cover, Tarauchi and band are in samurai garb in front of a stylized set piece, fit for kabuki. They are hamming it up. On record, a few of the tracks even throw in 'far Eastern' scales—but it's more in the vein of a Martin Denny variation. So are they playing to our expectations, merely playing a part, or are they reframing the representation and hijacking the most American rock-n-roll sound for good measure?

field report no.022318

LOCATION: the Grey Eagle AVL.NC
SUBJECT: Jonathan Richman

OBSERVATIONS:
Jonathan Richman is a bundle of contradictions. He exudes a studied naiveté. His songs appear simple but his performances are filled with subtle dynamics. He plays the everyman while singing in no less than four languages. His music is humorous, filled with grinning turns of phrase or out-and-out punchlines, but he never seems less than sincere. In fact, many of his goofy tunes are, by turns, heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Richman's music endures by virtue of its humanity. In person, he's human-scale—no a larger than life icon on stage. While he possesses charisma and force-of-personality to spare, the show itself feels intimate. For one night only, Richman is your own private Cyrano, serenading you with sonnets galore. I've seen him billed as opening for large scale acts, like Wilco, and I have to wonder how his show translates to such a vast crowd—but I shouldn't underestimate Jonathan, he's more cunning than he lets on.

NOTES: Jonathan Richman, featuring Tommy Larkins on drums; Ané Diaz
PRESENT: AMS; Angela F.

The Guillotine

Hey Colossus, 2017

Hey Colossus had been chugging along for a decade before I heard of them. The Guillotine was my first encounter—and it's a stunner. It's something like their twelfth record (depending on how you add it up) so I had some catching up to do. 

Their earlier earlier releases belie why they're lumped in with sludge metal, and (later) noise rock, but Hey Colossus have outgrown such distinctions. There's an hermetic feel to their work—not so much self-referential as ascending out of their past. Their tunes are tightly coiled, and, when they want to be, brutal. The ragged, live edge of the guitar work is miles away from the Helmet model of compressed, percussive blocks of distortion—which is still the template for so much heavy rock today. Instead, Hey Colossus court a sonic murk, always threatens to become too muddy but lending the songs a fathomless depth. They retain just enough clarity to let melodies rise to the surface, when needed.

It all sounds amazing on vinyl, but I fear the rawness of Hey Colossus is the sort that gets diminished by mp3 compression and streaming.

Audio Umami: Mecca Normal

Pigeon holes are sometimes damnably deep. Mecca Normal, the duo of Jean Smith and David Lester is a fixture of the Pacific Northwest indie-punk scene. They're a major signpost in feminist protest rock; the preeminent proto-riot grrl group. Listening to their mid-90s album, The Eagle and the Poodle, one question kept rattling around my head, though: why are they not a feature in avant rock discussions. Their music frequently experiments in form, texture and expression, more than any of the bands billed as their peers.

Their avant bonafides extend well beyond that. Vocalist Jean Smith had a side project with New Zealand avant-legends, Peter Jefferies and Michael Morley (of This Kind of Punishment and the Dead C, respectively). Sadly, two records they cut together remain out-of-print, even in this digital streaming age. She even has an edgy, (mostly) instrumental solo album to her name—which is nothing to say of what an unconventional vocalist she is.

Why then are Mecca Normal so rarely discussed in those terms?

Again, I'm brought to the conclusion that feminism is like a scarlet letter in criticism. Being a woman who sings about female experience is a frame many can't see beyond. You're forever tossed on the Lilith Fair pile (though Mecca Normal were likely way too outré for that ilk). Which is not to say that Smith shouldn't rightly be proud of her place as a feminist punk icon, but I'd like to leave that aside for a moment and talk about just how experimental her and Mecca Normal's work is.

Let's start with how stark and confrontational Mecca Normal can sound. The precedent for their format—guitar and singer—stretches back to the very beginnings of rock and folk music. It is THE original format. Billy Bragg had already helped forklift the concept into punk rock by the early 80s—but Bragg also had far more ties to traditional melody and songwriting. It's like comparing the Clash to Minor Threat: they're both punk and share significant DNA, but musically they're pursuing different ends.

While David Lester knows his way around a guitar, and isn't afraid of a solid riff, he's equally willing to wallow in dissonance and distortion. The gnarlier aspects of the electric guitar are not just colorations or accents thrown in for decoration, either. He'll linger in them for the duration of an entire song, if need be.

Jean Smith matches him blow by blow. Her phrasing is on time, but she works around the beat, rarely sitting squarely on it. Her tonal range is filled with flat plateaus where she'll draw words out, distending them. I'd like to think it a compliment that the closest antecedent I can find for her delivery is Yoko Ono—even though their styles share little in common.

Of course, here to, I fall prey to my own gripe: I could easily pick a more relevant comparison if I weren't limiting myself to female precedents. Johnny Lydon's haunting warbles across the early PiL albums comes to mind. It's a comparison far closer in time, style and genre—yet I pass it up because we unconsciously limit how we talk about women in music. Hell, when 2 Foot Flame starts really kicking up dust, comparisons to Kieji Haino wouldn't be far off. That would elevate Jean Smith to the same circle as some of the most extreme rock ever made.

Smith, and Mecca Normal, have cemented a place in feminist music history, so let's take a minute to appreciate their other innovations. Let's see about making sure they are mentioned in the annals of avant rock, too. Don't let Smith's words completely overshadow their deeds.

I Was Hoping You'd Pass by Here

Ghost Music, 2018

There's an ongoing debate whether names like indie-rock or punk describe a scene or a sound. Punk icons like Ian McKaye and Calvin Johnson have argued for the former, insisting punk can grow and evolve, even to things that sound nothing like punk today. Others insist we use the term 'punk' describe how something sounds to someone, using shared preconceptions as signposts. At some point, the idea of what punk becomes fixed.

The term indie-rock was coined to describe a particular scene and sound, but naming the genre after bands' affiliation with minor labels has caused no end of confusion as to just what is 'indie'. A wealth of independent labels still ship records in just about every genre imaginable, but there's also a generally accepted 'indie-rock' sound.

Ghost Music nail classic 'indie-rock' so well, listening to I Was Hoping You'd Pass by Here the first time through felt like aural comfort food. It was all familiar and lived in—in the best possible way. The strumming jangle, the ragged edges, the peculiar melancholy cool were all exactly where they should be.

It's more of a feat than it, at first, appears. If you remind me of great indie-rock, but actually pale in comparison, I'll be reaching for what you remind me of. You'd have made a record as signpost. I've found myself coming back instead to Hoping You'd Pass by Here, repeatedly. Ghost Music's magnetic attraction for me is the action that speaks louder than other words.