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. 

Sophisticated Giant

Dexter Gordon, 1977

Jazz sort of withered on the vine as the 70s trudged on. Free jazz edged further toward niche periphery while fusion was quickly laying foundations for AM lite radio. This steady decline in relevance set the stage for a revivalist jazz movement, with some pining for the days when jazz was synonymous with popular music. 

Enter Dexter Gordon. He sported heavy bonafides, having come up with Lionel Hampton in the 40s and cut some phenomenal original hard bop sides in the early 60s for Blue Note. He became Our Man in Paris for most of the following decade, recording for European labels and rarely heard in the US. When he returned in the mid-70s, Gordon received a hero's welcome: just the man to champion the new traditionalist movement—having opted out of the 60s advances so many found alienating.

Sophisticated Giant is a curious beast though. The large ensemble gathered here includes some heavy hitters in the free- and post-bop movement: Bobby Hutcherson and Woody Shaw (plus others who'd sat in with the likes of Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, and Archie Shepp). The tunes are very nostalgic—tastefully arranged by Slide Hampton—but there's tension in the solos. They have a tendency to stray outside the the sepia-toned confines of the album. Sophisticated Giant ends up an album outside of time, entirely.

Here's Where the Strings Come In / Summer of the Shark / Non-Believers + Staring at Your Hologram

Superchunk, 1995 / Portastatic, 2003 / Mac McCaughan, 2015

Capturing a cultural moment is the sort of feat that requires equal parts skill and luck. Which makes it more amazing that Mac McCaughan has done it three times over. Hell, Superchunk had a such a run, it's fans will disagree about just which album captured the zeitgeist.

For my money, it's Here's Where the Strings Come In. It's where Superchunk transcended their heartfelt pop-punk roots (without forsaking them). In fact, it's one of their more visceral records. What sets Strings apart is its wide-angle scope, giving cinematic more force to Mac's lovelorn musings.

Sometime in the mid-90s, McCaughan began moonlighting as Portastatic. it acted as an outlet for smaller, more experimental work, but it eventually grew to overtake his work within Superchunk. Summer of the Shark is the project's pinnacle. Released in 2003, he perfectly captures the wounded soul of a confused post-9/11 America. There's a couple of indirect acknowledgements of the then-still-recent attacks, but mostly I'm struck by the near-perfect yearning of songs like Hey Salty. Summer of the Shark ranks alongside the best of Superchunk.

More controversially, I would argue that Non-Believers, the first record Mac McCaughan has cut under his own name, ranks alongside the other two. It resonates differently the others: the feelings he's chasing are now more reflective, but not wearier. Non-Believers is synth heavy, marking a major turn in his work, and aligning with the retro-fetish du jour. Non-Believers seems distinct, perhap as it's made by someone who witnessed the synth-pop so many are aping, but wasn't playing it at the time—so it's lived in, from the outside in.

Really though, with all three of these albums, it just comes down to the fucking songs. If I hear one of these albums, I'm humming them for days. These earworm melodies are never tied to trite or half-baked lyrics, so they both delight and fulfill.

(Just for shits and giggles, I also got the limited edition instrumental re-eits of Non-Believers as well. Mac seems like a such an unlikely figure to release a remix album, it was hard to resist.)

Erosión

Ildefonso Aguilar, 1985

The official history of ambient may already be written but the addenda are rapidly expanding. Continued hipster obsessions like vaporware created a cottage industry for excavating forgotten new age relics. Most of it is mere detritus only interesting in ironic context, but Ildefonso Aguilar's Erosión proves a revelation. It would easily fit into the mid-90s isolationist ambient scene, but was a decade too early. It's dark and cavernous atmosphere is too blurry to be on-the-nose moody, which dooms so many of it's peers. Instead Erosión is more abstractly cinematic, casting everyday moments as ominous.

ZLO

Uon, 2017

In the late 90s, the Basic Channel label rewired electronic dub. Bass drops sunk so deep they were more felt than heard. Rhythms were implied with negative space as much as drum hits. Uon pushes these same concepts further out, so far I have a hard time explaining why I think this ZLO is in a dub record at all. Central elements of these songs seem to be missing, but their outlines are faintly visible in the periphery of what's left. The undertow of this has become a riptide the songs themselves can't escape. This is dub as a subliminal force.

Stairfoot Lane Bunker

Special Request, 2017

Special Request Stairfoot Lane Bunker

It can sometimes be hard, distinguishing between straight revival and subtle update. The are plenty of old skool jungle classicists, tweaking the Amen break like it's still 1996 (god bless 'em). Like garage rock, drum-n-bass seems to always be enjoying a reexamination in some corner of the scene—a truth also making it an easy anchor reference for explorations further afield.

Special Request's EP, Stairfoot Lane Bunker, has moments that could easily pass for vintage 'ardcore, but on closer listen it has a dark ambient heart. As much as the beats might skitter and surge, the sea level of every track is an ominous cloud of drone. It's a neat trick, really: upping the tension in every track, making the beats—when they burst free—truly cathartic.

Giraffe

Simon Fisher Turner, 2017

I pre-ordered Giraffe by Simon Fisher Turner, not knowing what to expect. Sure, there was one song to preview, but there's so little of his music available on vinyl, or readily available at all. If you follow him, a new LP is an absolute event. I've tried before to explain SFT's ineffable output, and Giraffe is no easier to categorize. It moves between somnambulant ambient passages to dark isolationist paranoia, only to be interrupted by field recordings. He shows little or no attempt to make sense of it for you. Even many of the sounds with a naturalistic / recorded feel remain wholly unnamable. Giraffe is not an easy album because Turner invites you listen to sound within his own terms and conditions, and that's exactly why it's worth any minor discomfort.

Vermont Versions / Häxan Versions

Vermont & Prins Thomas / Dungen & Prins Thomas

My first exposure to Prins Thomas' work was his remix work for other artists. It's no mean feat to rearrange another artist's work, casting it in a different light, yet retaining a recognizable air of the original. I now rank Thomas alongside the likes of Andrew Weatherall, as a top tier remixer.

Both Vermont Versions and Häxan Versions are collections by artists who let Prins Thomas loose on entire albums—a prospect more interesting than either a hodge-podge of different remixers or a collection of different artists remixed by the same producer. The works still hang together as a whole. It's a complete album seen through a singular, new lens.

The origins of these two LPs could hardly be more different. Vermont is an analogue synth band on Kompakt records making an updated kosmische musik. Prins Thomas' cosmic-disco reworks are not a distant reach. Dungen on the other hand is a rock outfit, operating towards the space-rock end of heavy metal. Prins Thomas respect for the original material gives each record a distinct character, but it's his strong voice as a producer that brings the two ends together.

Leave Corners

Aquarelle, 2017

Not too long ago, the underground was in danger of drowning in ambient drone acts. Luckily the herd seems to have been thinned in the recent years. Otherwise, a fine example of string-and-effects driftwork like Aquarelle's Leave Corners would have easily been lost in the flood. Thoughtfully and tastefully created, Leave Corners pits stasis against melody while striking a balance between pristine beauty and distorted grit. The cello at the heart of these songs lends even the most static stretches a tactile warmth. Aquarelle is more tune oriented than the outer reaches of ambient, though. Perhaps it's best viewed as an electronic cousin to ambient-rock: pop-drone. 

Freedom of Speech

Phantom Band, 1981

Listening to the solo works of the various members of German legends, Can, you realize the band actually was, quite literally, the sum of its constituent parts. They were just amazing parts. Which is exactly why I love Freedom of Speech, by Phantom Band, because it plays exactly like an early-80s band led by Can's drummer ought to.

Though a drummer famous for devilish complexity, Jaki Liebezeit always played with sparse economy. As an album, Freedom of Speech is minimal in measures equal to his beats. Rhythms, cautiously conceal their craft in strident repetitions, while a keyboard or guitar fills are draped about, here or there, as filigree giving the illusion of song. It might have been a dour LP without vocalist Sheldon Ancel's humor, which never tips into novelty. More than once, I thought of John Lurie's Marvin Pontiac album, Greatest Hits (from 18 years later). Freedom of Speech represents a perfect showcase for the skill, restraint and playfulness that made Jaki Liebezeit's contributions to Can otherwise immeasurable.

One Thousand Years of Trouble

Age of Chance, 1987

Long before there was Kid Rock or Rage Against the Machine, their was Age of Chance from Leeds, pioneering rap-rock. I first heard them on the legendary NME C86 compilation, and sometime shortly thereafter, picked up 1000 Years of Trouble, as a cassette. [Quick aside: cassettes may be back in fashion with the ultra-hip, but let's give them one genuine advantage: used cassettes were cheap as shit, and that was kind of awesome to a kid on an allowance.] I can't say I've thought much about Age of Chance since I left for college, but a 30-year anniversary write-up on 1000 Years of Trouble over at the Quietus convinced me to go back and listen again.

With a little time and distance, I have to say Age of Chance aged well. There's something about 80s British rock and rap music. It must not have tasted so forbidden to them, as it did stateside. Maybe rap seemed as much an American innovation, as much as one bound up in race. To a white, suburban kid in America, most hip hop felt like trespassing, but a band like Age of Chance gave me an entrance. In retrospect, 1000 Years of Trouble is more convincing to me than, say, License to Ill. Age of Chance have some real vitriol to vent and enough clattering bombast to back it up. They even were even able to score remixes from hip hop legends like Afrika Bambaataa and the Bomb Squad, which ain't nothin'.

Dance of Magic

Normon Connors, 1974

Years ago, in Chicago, I frequented a pool hall. I didn't play, but they did have an exceptional jukebox. It was one of those CD-varieties, so for a couple of dollars I could cue up all four songs of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters while I drank my beer. It was my first experience with Hancock's work outside of Miles Davis. It didn't take long before I was obsessing about his Sextant-era band, but they only made three (albeit phenomenal) albums. Somehow, it's I only recently realized how much that group, sometimes called the Mwandishi band, did in the small span of a few years in the early 70s. Each of the members had a couple-few solo albums and they appeared in clusters on other, like-minded albums as well, like Dance of Magic, by Norman Connors.

Drummer Connors' debut as a leader is stacked with talent. Featuring none other than Herbie Hancock on keyboards, he brought Eddie Henderson and Billy Hart along, playing trumpet and percussion. Future fusion star Stanley Clarke plays bass, doubling up with Cecil McBee on the first side. While Dance of Magic may not reach for the same depth of abstraction, it does drive in the same advanced, atmospheric grooves the Sextant band pioneered. Connors expands the Mwandishi legacy, adding different shades to my collection. 

Seventeen Seconds

Frankie Rose, 2017

Cover tunes are rarely be for the original artists' fans. Firstly, It's nearly impossible that you'll ever improve upon their beloved songs. If you deviate too much in making the song your own, you'll probably offend. Conversely, if you adhere too closely to the original, you'll wind up simply redundant. The stakes are raised even higher when one artist covers another's entire record from beginning-to-end.

Turntable Kitchen, a quaint little label/purveyor, has begun commissioning a series of just such full-album covers. For her entry in the series, Frankie Rose tackled the Cure's Seventeen Sedconds—which, admittedly seems safer than say, Disintegration. Sure, the Cure has millions of fans, and some are, statistically, bound to cherish Seventeen Seconds above all others, but you're facing better odds. Many who hear this only have a passing familiarity with the album.

Musically, Rose does her best to capture the sound of the Cure's Seventeen Seconds. It's a sparse, moody album, more about ambiance than pop hooks. Without the right feel, it wouldn't pass as a proper cover. The real shift here is her voice: cool and distant, a for more relaxed thing than the young Robert Smith's. Rose's version is dusky and sultry where The Cure's is all angst-ridden nerve endings. By neither imitating nor reinventing, Rose affords us a chance to reassess Seventeen Seconds.

Sonatra

Michael Gordon, 2017

The sheet music for Sonatra (for solo piano) came with the LP—which features Gordon's work performed twice by Vicky Chow (of Bang On a Can): once in equal temperament and again in just intonation. On paper, the piece looks deadly simple, but I'm sure it's fucking murder to execute. Chow maintains a clockwork tempo as eighth notes climb up then cascade down scales in interlocking, two-handed patterns. The insane tension of it would be utterly lost if Sonatra were simply loaded and played as MIDI. Maybe we're so attuned to the subtlest shifts in tempo we inevitably pick up Chow's human fluctuations, or perhaps we're just dumbstruck at her accomplishment.

The work itself is hypnotic in its bloody-mindedness. So much so, there's a hint of disappointment when some slides down the keyboard come in towards the end, breaking the spell. I have a slight preference for the just intonation variation. The resonances clang in unexpected ways, giving a piece of such superhuman rigor a hint of surprise.

Oleva / Life… It Eats You Up

Ø, 2008 / Mika Vainio, 2011

Mika Vainio was a rare artist: he created his space and in the process spawned an entire genre. It's wrong to call his work 'synth' music, it was raw synthesis, without any intermediary. Sounds generated by excess electricity were corralled and wrangled into artful shapes by the simplest of means and deft hands. Vainio's work, solo and as half of Pan Sonic always about, and transformed, space. His restraint spoke as loudly as any of the monumental, distorted swells he would conjure. 

Oleva and Life… It Eats You Up represent those two of the extremes in Mika's work. HIs recordings under the name, Ø (pronounced Ohm), rank among his most delicate. Crystalline tones pop in cavernous halls, long pitches are gently bent across the horizon, a fathomless bass haunts the mix without ever fully surfacing. On Oleva, we get a glimpse into Vainio's influences as he offers up a minimal electronic (and strikingly gorgeous) rendering of Pink Floyd's Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Where Oleva is pristine, It Eats You Up revels in violence. For just this once, Vainio used a more terrestrial sound source: Life is a collection of guitar manipulations. Titles like Ravanous Edge or Open Up and Bleed capture the gnarled crunch of it all. While the the strings give a tactile presence to the death rattle of this guitar, the results are unmistakably Vainio.

Black Peak

Xylouris White, 2016

Xylouris White had been swirling around my usual circles for a some time, but I didn't actually hear their music until I caught them at the 2017 Big Ears Festival in Knoxville. They make quite an impression. Pairing rousing Mediterranean folk forms with a propulsive and elastic post-punk rhythm sounds good, even on paper, but Giorgis Xylouris (on lute and vocals) and Australian out-rock legend Jim White (on drums) have a kinetic interplay that's practically a third member of the band. Black Peak was one of the two LPs I came home with from that day at the festival, and Xylouris White a band I frequently tip friends to.

Before You, I Appear

Sumac, 2017

I knew I wanted Before You, I Appear at first blush. It was on order before I had even discovered it was lead by Aaron Turner (most famously of Isis and my personal favorite: Mamiffer). Remixes of heavy metal—no matter how experimental—feel more transgressive than the original could hope to be. I just don't picture many metalheads out there pining for deconstructions of their favorites; begging the question who the intended audience actually is. Of course, the remixes here—including Samuel Kerridge and Kevin Drumm—are similarly hellbent, so this is no exercise in commercial gentrification and won't be found dropped into many DJ sets. As a noisenik, myself, maintaining a non-committal relationship with heavy metal, it's an unholy marriage (in the best sense).

No Future

Moiré, 2017

Downtempo, like any style striving to remain somewhat unobtrusive, too easily veers into vapidity; becoming ignorable. Moiré avoids this pitfall by infusing blunted beats with acid house tensions. Rich bubbles of analogue bass tip into 303 squelches. In fact, No Future takes most of its cues from minimal techno, which makes it right at home on the Ghostly label, out of Detroit (the minimal techno ground zero). That dichotomy, balancing a head-nodding lope with a simmering pressure from below, rescues No Future from any staid sub-generic boundaries.

Utonian Automatic / Synesthesia / Mandarin Movie / Stars Have Shapes / Double Demon / Beija Flors Velho e Sujo / Primative Jupiter / Some Jellyfish Live Forever

Isotope 217˚, 1999 / Chicago Underground Duo, 2000 / Mandarin Movie, 2005, / Exploding Star Orchestra, 2010 / Starlicker, 2011 / Sao Paulo Underground, 2013 / Pharoah and the Underground, 2014 / Rob Mazurek & Jeff Parker, 2015

Chicago was my home from 1995 until early 2006. Even accounting for a haze of nostalgia, it was a significant time in the city's history of jazz, marking a period of renewal and rebuilding that saw a number of new voices emerge from the city that would become world-renowned figures in improvised music. It just also happened to be home to my very own epiphanies in jazz. This combination has created my undying loyalty to the Chicago scene—which explains why I have 8 recordes by Rob Mazurek (leading various groups and spanning nearly 20 years).

Out the gate, Mazurek showed little allegiance to jazz orthodoxy. Isotope 217˚, one of his earliest working groups, featured 2 members of tortoise: John Herndon and Dan Bitney. Isotope paved the way to reconstituting 'jazz rock's tarnished name. It seems no small coincidence that this band shares (most) of it's name with a 1970s prog band that once counted Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper as a member. He would dig even deeper into this vein with Mandarin Movie, a one-off band that courted genre mash-ups like ambient jazz metal.

Of his more jazz-tinged outfits, the Chicago Underground Duo (sometimes Trio or Quartet) still freely veers into far-flung territories, like ambient electronics. More than any of of his early work, this working group—which always featured drummer Chad Taylor as his principle foil—set the tone for many of his future explorations. There's an emphasis on improvisation that favors abstraction, but never forgets melodic hooks. Meanwhile, the São Paulo Undergeround trio seems another beast entirely, at first. They lean heavily on electronics—often sounding like some particularly outernational downtempo—that balance of abstraction and melody is still the guiding factor.  

Many of Mazurek's larger groups are extensions of the two Underground outfits. The Primative Jupiter LP is a combination of those 2 bands for a set built around legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Exploding Star Orchestra features many of the same players, pursuing some of Mazurek's most most expansive, sprawling creations to date. Stars Have Shapes is handily one his most satisfying releases yet (admittedly, though, the vinyl version is severely edited down from the CD / download version and loses some of the drifting impact).

Most recently, Mazurek's groups have been contracting, bringing it back to base. Starlicker was another one-off, but this one a small tiro featuring John Herndon (of Tortoise, again) and vibraphone wunderkind Jason Adasiewicz. Even in a more traditional lineup like this, you'd still be hard-pressed to prove there were no electronics involved. The playing is dense and all lines blurred. Rob's even been plying more duo records of late (outside of the Chicago Undergound), but Some Jellyfish Live Forever is exceptional among them, a guitar / cornet duo between Mazurek and guitarist Jeff Parker. They've been sparring on-and-off for over a decade now, and it shows in the harmony of their instrumental visions.

Chicago has produced some of the most hard-working, trend-blind musicians in improvised music in the last twenty years. From the rise of leaders like Ken Vandermark and Rob Mazurek to, now, Tomeka Reid, Jason Adasiewicz and Nicole MItchell, means it is not a trend about to relent. New York may well always be the mecca of jazz, but don't take your eye off Chicago for too long.

The Land of Look Behind

K.Leimer 1982

kLeimer.jpg

Between Laraaji reissues, the vaporware scene, and Colin Stetson namedropping Enya, New Age music is enjoying an hipness it frankly never enjoyed before. Amongst all the audio archeology of 80s synth music, there's bound to a few gems amongst all the lesser duds that just are well forgotten. On that spectrum, The Land of Look Behind is a semi-precious stone, at least (topaz, maybe).

Surprisingly, this proto-ambient-electornica work started life as the soundtrack to a documentary on Bob Marley's funeral. K.Leimer wisely avoided trying to appropriate island styles (nary a skank-beat to be found here), instead letting faint field recordings represent the place itself. The icy keyboard tones mixed with chop-shop drumming calls to mind work Richard H. Kirk's would be doing 10 years later. There's a vari-speed tape warble to his loops that would make Oneohtrix Point Never jealous.

Rarely, do soundtracks actually bring out the best in musicians, but The Land of Look Behind would be hard to beat.