1981: Hal Russell - NRG Ensemble
Contemporary improvised music in Chicago owes much of its development to two sets of people – the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the scene around multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell (1926-1992). Now split between Chicago and New York chapters, from its beginnings the AACM was primarily based in the South Side, and provided education and self-reliance to young, black, economically disadvantaged artists. It has birthed and encouraged the work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, reedist-composers Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, trumpeter-composer Wadada Leo Smith, and many others since its founding in 1965. Hal Russell’s work was less formalized in the sense of a specific musicians’/artists’ organization, but nevertheless he surrounded himself with fascinating young players and helped give rise to an equally eclectic scene in North and Northwest Chicago neighborhoods from the mid-1970s until (and after) his death. While little cross-pollination seemed to exist between the two environments, at least on the surface (keeping in mind that the AACM was founded in the midst of the Black Power movement and Russell’s cohort was white), their aesthetic goals likely shared more than they diverged in spite of Chicago’s highly segregated urban landscape.
In some ways, Russell was as much “ancient to the future” as the AACM-ers; he worked as a big-band drummer before adding tenor, trumpet, and vibes to his arsenal and embracing free improvisation, yet retained “swing” and even “entertainment” in light of taking the music “out.” Though somewhat known in Windy City jazz circles, Russell’s name hadn’t made it that far outside when the eponymous NRG Ensemble LP was waxed for Nessa Records in 1981 (also an early documenter of the AACM). His only other commercial release at the time was with the even more obscure tenorman Joe Daley for the latter’s The Joe Daley Trio At Newport ’63 (RCA-Victor), featuring bassist Russell Thorne, a strange hybrid of the jazz/classical “Third Stream” and open improvisation. Russell formed the NRG Ensemble in the late 1970s and it continued even beyond his death, though the group’s most vital work naturally featured his voice. Russell’s conscripts and associates over the years included reedmen Mars Williams and Ken Vandermark, bassists Kent Kessler and Brian Sandstrom, and percussionist Steve Hunt. On this particular date, Russell is heard on drums, vibes, cornet, zither, shenai and c-melody saxophone, joined by Sandstrom, Hunt, reedman Chuck Burdelik, and bassist Curt Bley for a program of six originals (two of which have been added to this CD reissue).
It’s not particularly difficult to hear aesthetic allegiances with the AEC in the NRG Ensemble’s music at this stage; the lengthy “Linda Jazz Princess” has a jaunty swing, crackling with Hunt’s fluid time and Bley’s robust, plastic pizzicato. Following Burdelik’s throaty and economical free-bop tenor, Russell is banshee-like and virile on c-melody saxophone, roguish squeals and harried elisions recalling the young Albert Ayler’s wailing against a more reigned-in rhythmic structure. Wild oom-pah fanfare arises, recalling the early-jazz nods of the Art Ensemble, or perhaps woollier instances of the William Breuker Kollektief, before fragmenting into frenetic collective improvisation, Sandstrom doubling on trumpet and soon emitting a condensed and utterly weird unaccompanied solo. The musicians’ improvisations are clearly directed and arrived at with a sense of rigorous arrangement, as much as they sonically seem to come from left field – witness Russell’s glassine vibes exposition, abruptly yielding to a power trio fronted by Burdelik’s alto. The tendency to switch between a variety of instruments does seem AACM-like, but rather than using diversity as a coloring device, the musicians in the NRG Ensemble are at a continually propulsive back-and-forth, doing the work of parallel small-groups at an orchestrated cutting-contest. “Seven Spheres” closes the initial LP tracks, and is by comparison a tone poem that utilizes pocket trumpet, vibes, and clarinet to augment the more “bent” sounds of Russell’s zither and shenai.
The album’s opener, “Uncontrollable Rages,” seems almost schizoid at the outset as it volleys between violent tenor/drum duets (Burdelik and Russell) and measured vibes/bass interplay (Hunt and Sandstrom). It’s clear that Russell’s loose, delicate drumming is that of “teacher” and Hunt’s ragtime to no-time swirls are those of “student” – all one has to do is compare the former behind his mates’ heel-digging onslaught on “Uncontrollable Rages” with the latter on “Linda Jazz Princess.” Russell’s touch/concept is very light but certainly pushes the music with a master’s brushstrokes. And if titles invoking a frothy rage reminds one of a certain Weasel Walter, well, that’s not entirely baseless: Walter’s longtime outfit The Flying Luttenbachers initially included Russell on tenor, and the group’s moniker was in homage to Russell’s family name. The bulk of the piece is actually quite spare and open, given to Hunt’s gloriously effervescent vibraphone runs, and when the ensemble is in furious motion it’s with a joyous air of fluidity. Following NRG Ensemble, Russell made two more records for Nessa: Eftsoons (1981), a series of duets with Mars Williams, and the Charles Tyler-abetted Generations (1982/1989, released via the UK imprint Chief). He went on to record a series of excellent dates for ECM at the turn of the 1990s, leading to a bit of international recognition in the autumn of his life. But this wonderfully remastered and augmented early set is indispensable for fans of contemporary improvisation and those who want to hear more of Chicago’s creative music roots.
1992: Skullflower - IIIrd Gatekeeper
Swans’ grand triumph in year-end lists and polls seems nothing less than heroic, and it’s well deserved. Their approach is defined by violence with the artistic vision of a rottweiler. Even at their most subtle, there’s always a suggestion of blood engorging veins and curdling around vocal cord; its implications whispered to chilling effect.
They also represent a strain of music that influenced miscreants the world over. The Swans diaspora has one of its best prophets incarnated in Matthew Bower, whose Skullflower project pummels and grinds in a way all its own. Of course, he acknowledges the root of their sound.
Bower came from a much more severe musical background than Swans. Some of the Broken Flag label releases housed some of the most hateful and depraved words this side of the Westboro Baptist Church. Yet, Skullflower weren’t offensive or repulsive. Its aggression is a means to develop a psychedelic sort of art; tribal drums punch the soundscape throughout, guitars pummel with feedback and beat the crap out of the listener with dissonant chords, but it’s aggression is never directed at him/her. The feeling is that the violence is stopped within.
Most of their music sounds improvised but seems to have a direction and craft, something not entirely present in records of this kind. IIIrd Gatekeeper feels like an abstract painting in the way it unfolds and splatters sound in a chaotic but magnificent way. While songs have always been the cornerstone of Swans, Skullflower take the approach and atmosphere of their main influence to make something sprawling, pointing another direction in which Gira and company might go had they taken Bower’s route.
Matthew Bower has had a share of brilliant bands (Total, Pure, Hototogisu, Sunroof!), but Skullflower, like a gang beatdown in the middle of an alley late at night, remains undeniably memorable.
2003: So - So
The unassumingly named duo So didn’t do themselves any favors by opting to self-title their only release. Though considering the songs on 2003’s So are dominated by a tension between the digital and the human, its frustratingly Google-resistant title is only fitting.
A collaboration between German glitch pioneer Markus Popp and Japanese singer-songwriter Eriko Toyoda, So is an endeavor built on bridging divides — divides created by language, by geography, and by aesthetics. That duality comes through on each track, where opposing elements come together alternately supporting each other or sounding downright antagonistic. It’s not surprising that in an interview with Splendid Popp claimed the album’s production was punctuated with fierce arguments.
This quality is most obvious in the treatment of Toyoda’s vocals throughout the album. Toyoda’s presence is enhanced by the processing in some instances — i.e. the warm vocoder textures on “f” — while being chopped to bits and buried in dissonance elsewhere. Listening to the various contortions the vocals go through is one of the main joys of So — soft cooing melodies fit for a lullaby will give way to robotic humming and electronic whirrs reminiscent of an R2-D2 taking a laser to the gut. It’s often difficult to tell whether you’re hearing a woman’s voice being processed beyond recognition or just a simulacrum being wrested form a circuit board.
Those familiar with Popp’s more characteristic work (more Poppular?) like the icy, distant explorations of Oval might be surprised at the warmth of this album. While there are shades of the jittery energy and hard edges you’d find on 2010’s O, this work is generally more accessible. The songs have a melodies, repeating phrases, and an inviting airiness. The track “d” begins with delicate vocal whispers that call to mind Julianna Barwick while the closer “j” has a long, slow white noise burn — current fans of Grouper would be pleased.
Really, despite Popp’s relatively bigger name he’ll only take credit for being “kind of [an] art director;” the majority of the album’s strength’s are Toyoda’s. The composition and processing are largely her own, as are the original recordings from Japan. Listening to her excellent solo work — a collection of fantastic albums filled with whispy vocals and excellent electronic work — Popp’s real success here is exercising such a light touch. Seriously, I have on Toyoda’s recent album Have You Smiled Today? And it’s wonderful. It seems unfair that the majority of information Google can find on So doesn’t put her in the spotlight. Maybe I’m just searching in the wrong language; there are always more divides to bridge.
2002: Casino Versus Japan - Whole Numbers Play the Basic
Bradford Cox would have made a hell of a music promoter if he hadn’t decided to form Deerhunter. I first heard of Casino Versus Japan several years ago from Cox’s best of decade list. The man has a way of talking about a band that makes you want to listen. He’s always been a very vocal music fan, so when he put a weird little electronica album in his top 20 of the 2000s I felt I needed to check it out. It turns out he was justified. Over the years I keep coming back to Casino Versus Japan’s stunning 2002 album Whole Numbers Play the Basic; an electronic record of such warmth and charm.
The comparison people always jump to has been Boards of Canada, but I don’t buy it. Erik Kowalski may dig nostalgia, but he shoots for a different aesthetic with Casino Versus Japan. While BoC creates vignettes and distinct scenes throughout their records, Kowalski is more focused on taking a few motifs and giving them space to develop and breathe over the course of the record. Also, while BoC’s form of nostalgia often has a ghostly layer of creepiness, an album like Whole Numbers is sunny and optimistic as it looks back at the past. Kowalski’s greatest skill is in taking complex and multi layered tracks and making them sound effortlessly simple.
The sequencing is one of the records greatest strengths to the point where instead of individual tracks sticking with you, a certain pairing or run of a couple songs become highlights. The run of tracks from the opener “Variation of the Two” is a strange trip, but it flows like water. The hazy hip-hop of “Moonlupe” gives way to the tranquil but jittery “Aquarium,” which hypnotizes you over five minutes, just to break the spell with the 70 second burst of sunshine that is “The Possible Light.” There are little journey’s like that throughout the record.
A couple years ago I got to see Erik Kowalski as one of the openers at a Deerhunter show, maybe a year after Cox made that list. He came on first, and started performing for a very small crowd. No one there seemed to be familiar with him, and a one guy was complaining that he thought Real Estate was supposed to be opening (for what it’s worth they came on next, looking vaguely pissed, and complained about the sound for most of the set. It was uncomfortable to say the least.) There wasn’t a huge crowd for him, and some loudly talking people didn’t seem to be paying attention, but Kowalski was just killing it, creating his own world on stage and (if you gave him a chance) bringing you into it. Afterwards as he sat at his merch table, I thanked him for his set, checked out his CDs and quickly headed back to the stage. Deerhunter played a great set, but the best part of that night was Casino Versus Japan and I wish I’d told him that at that table. At the end of his artist bio on rateyourmusic.com Kowalski wrote, “One of my goals is to have 50 records created before i die.” That’s a pretty difficult goal, (and the project’s output has slowed considerably), but he shouldn’t worry, because something as utterly gorgeous as Whole Numbers Play the Basic could top 50 records from a lesser artist.
1987: The Replacements - Pleased to Meet Me
By Bill Holdship
CREEM, September 1987
For the most part, I hate rock ‘n’ roll.
Probably not the smartest thing to admit in print, and I wish it wasn’t true. I used to love it. Worshipped it. Thought it was one of the most important things in my life. Just the mention of it could conjure up images that were like magic. In many ways, rock ‘n’ roll had replaced Disneyland. Today, I generally prefer Disneyland.
Because – beyond all the hype and the fakery and the right radio sound and the talentless dreck and the I’m cooler than you isms and the nausea – rock ‘n’ roll was always funny. Elvis was funny. So was James Brown. The Beatles were comic geniuses. Both Dylan and The Stones could be hilarious in their irreverence. Jim Morrison belched into his microphone during the quiet part of “When the Music’s Over” at the Hollywood Bowl. That’s funny. From doo wop through punk, rock ‘n’ roll always had a sense of humor, even when it was being serious or brutal, especially when it was being great. It wasn’t a bunch of “superstars” — probably one tenth of the talent John Lennon possessed — sitting around being more serious and more pretentious and more morose than Lennon ever imagined. Working class heroes, indeed.
For the most part, I love the Replacements.
“It’s not that you hate rock ‘n’ roll,” says Tommy Stinson. “It’s that you hate everything that goes with rock ‘n’ roll.
And we aren’t rock ‘n’ roll, we play rock ‘n’ roll. We aren’t rock ‘n’ roll.”
After a short pause, Paul Westerberg retorts in his gravelly voice that’s only going to get raspier before this night is through: “We are, too!”
“We’re not fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll,” replies Tommy with his ever present laugh. “We don’t wear tight pants and we’re not on the radio and…”
“But that ain’t rock ‘n’ roll,” says Paul. “See, that’s the whole thing.”
* * * *
I don’t wanna make any grand proclamations here or anything, but the Replacements are probably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world right now. And Pleased To Meet Me is probably the best rock LP of 1987, if not the ’80s. If you’ve ever loved rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve gotta love this record.
1983: Daniel Johnston - Yip/Jump Music
Jesse Thorn claims to be beyond irony. Using his popular show The Sound of Young America as a bully pulpit, the ever-buoyant podcast star advocates for a New Sincerity. Sounds refreshing, doesn’t it? A New Sincerity. It comes off as simultaneously intelligent and humane, like a cross between a critical theory treatise and a note from Grandma. There’s a problem though: Thorn’s idea is bunk, and Daniel Johnston already provided a better approach back in 1983.
In his “A Manifesto for The New Sincerity” Thorn points to Evel Knievel as the icon of his movement. The Carter-era daredevil is presented as an irony obliterating figure whose outsized persona and accomplishments put him beyond any academic eggheading.
Evel is the kind of man who defies even fiction, because the reality is too over the top. Here is a man in a red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit, driving some kind of rocket car. A man who achieved fame and fortune jumping over things… [He] boggles the mind.
Essentially, for Thorn, Knievel is beyond discussion; his mythic stature can only be approached in a state of awe. Which is fine for Thorn, because in his formulation, New Sincerity boils down to seeing things as awesome. Here, sincerity means complete uncritical appreciation. To put a point on it, he claims his movement’s credo is “Be More Awesome.” That is his path out of irony: thinking things are neat. It’s a personal philosophy about as much as “Restore America” is a political platform.
Thorn’s millennial take on New Sincerity is plain boring. Its definition of sincere is uncomplicated in a way that suggests complicated and sincere are mutually exclusive. It’s a lazy heuristic through which to engage the world. But here’s the thing: complexity and sincerity are not mutually exclusive. They often have a very direct relationship where the former supports the the latter. This is where Texas comes in.
The phrase New Sincerity was in use before Thorn applied it to his bro-friendly philosophy. It referred to a music scene localized to Austin, TX where the trappings of gen-X prickliness was being eschewed in favor of more direct expression. The embodiment of this sincerity wasn’t a motorcycle-mounted carnival entertainer, but the slightly strange singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston.
Having built a following based on his highly idiosyncratic self-produced tapes, Johnston was already a prominent figure around town when he released his fifth album on Stress Records, Yip/Jump Music. It is not an easy listen. While the tracks have an endearing sing-song quality, the lo-fi production and Johnston’s quavering vocals create a certain bar for entry — a close analog would be the late-60s outside-pop trio The Shaggs. Listen to the opener “Chord Organ Blues” and you’ll get an idea for the aesthetic. The combination of the raw audio quality, rudimentary instrumentation, and straightforward lyrics creates a song that feels overwhelmingly genuine.
You have to keep in mind that this was before the success of twee acts and lo-fi labels like K Records codified these stylistic markers into marks of authenticity. If listening to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances” sounds uncomfortably intimate now, it certainly did in 1983. This track — one of the album’s standouts — finds Johnston delivering a pep talk from a place of real vulnerability. When he sings “Do yourself a favor/ Become your own savior,” the crack in his voice hints that this bit of advice was probably hard-won from personal experience.
The emotional directness throughout Yip/Jump only becomes more affecting when paired with Johnston’s biography. Within a few years of the cassette’s release, Johnston’s eccentricity would give way to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, debilitating conditions that would frequently threaten his life and career. This isn’t to make Johnston out like some kind of savant. His creative triumphs aren’t the result of his emotional difficulty and psychic pain, it’s more nuanced: His triumph is the ability to articulate these interior states. Songs like “I Remember Painfully” work because Johnston doesn’t shy away from letting the world know how he feels, even when it’s awkwardly personal.
This is what makes Johnston’s New Sincerity more deserving of the title. Thorn’s concept is defined by unmitigated appreciation of something in the world; Johnston’s is about unfettered expression about something in himself, even when it’s complex and difficult. It’s self-conscious consumption versus sincere creation. Essentially, it’s easy to think a speeding motorcycle is awesome, but it’s even more awesome to write a song like “Speeding Motorcycle.”