2003: Leafcutter John - The Housebound Spirit
It was Keith Fullerton Whitman, right here on TMT in fact, who initially acquainted me with the name Leafcutter John. He answered most glowingly in Leafcutter John’s favor when asked if there were artists deserving more recognition, "Some of the most vital and humanistic yet academic-leaning computer music of this or any time really." I remember this because it piqued my interest at the time that such bold plaudits were going to someone I'd never caught wind of before. Also, that someone with such an organic and folksy name was making computer music. I feebly investigated him at the time, couldn't find much about him, tried to *gulp* download his album, was stymied, and proceeded to ignore KFW's plea and went on like seemingly everyone else (I still can't find many reviews of this album) in continuing to ignore him. Well, not too long ago, I stumbled upon this album, and ever since, I've regretted not heeding the well-informed advice at the time.
This album is sold as one of those Matmos(ish) novelties (no knock on Matmos) featuring samples from a highly restricted set of sources. In this case, the samples all come from items you can find in your home. The reason is that the artist was suffering from crippling agoraphobia after being attacked in public, hence the title The Housebound Spirit. To be honest, I couldn't give a lick. It’s distracting to consider such tangential nonsense. What we should concern ourselves with is the breathtaking sweep of this album. The ‘genre’ ping-pongs around with every track, from KFW IDM sounds to Kid 606-esque cut-ups to avant-classical electro-acoustic to a sparing vocal and acoustic guitar. They're masterfully executed, and, moreover, it’s really an enjoyable collection to listen to. The pacing might be the greatest achievement here, with strikingly disparate tempos residing next to one another cohesively. Similarly, the dynamics in sound are perfectly jarring. And none of this comes anywhere near to conveying the magical experience of listening to this record. This is the truly inspired music that makes people like my self love music. PLEASE, please go out and buy this album. Absolutely one of the most essential recordings I've heard in the past few years.
2. Electric Love
3. If You have an Enemy
5. Walk on my Back
7. Mandolin Work
8. Short Sine
9. House of a Soul
10. For Two
11. All I Could Think of Was Nothing
12. Arches Never Sleep
13. Escape From the Globous Playpen
14. Dead Men Can't Talk, They Can't Do Anything
15. Know Mercy
1978: Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance
With The Modern Dance, Pere Ubu accomplished something almost no other artist has ever accomplished: they created a timeless record. Twenty-six years after its inception, The Modern Dance sounds as jarring and radical as it must have in 1978. This doesn't make The Modern Dance the greatest album ever made, but it certainly makes it one of the most interesting ones. And as a fun exercise, I'm going to review The Modern Dance as if it came out today, on December 20, 2004:
Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi is considered the first absurdist drama ever written and caused a riot on the night of its first performance in France in 1896. In this scatological farce, Pere Ubu (which translates into King Turd) is an obese and vile member of the bourgeoisie who murders literally hundreds of people in his overblown and insatiable pursuit of money and power.
Never before has a band's name fit the group so perfectly. Straight out of Cleveland, Pere Ubu laughs at American complacency and entertainment expectations, beginning their debut album with 30 seconds of blistering and uncompromising guitar feedback before falling into the avant-garage anthem "Nonalignment Pact." At that point, you think the pain has passed. But Pere Ubu has other plans. The pain has only begun, because David Thomas, the human embodiment of Midwest paranoia, begins yelping and squealing over the riffing and senseless electronic squeals as if a whole flock of fire-breathing geese are chasing him in his flying car. And only them does the horror really hit you: Pere Ubu has a bloated mental patient for a lead singer.
And for the rest of "Nonalignment Pact," the catchiest and most fun attempt at garage-rock in years, Thomas blurts the silliest lyrics with such frenzy you start to believe these lines are coming from his heart: "I want to make a deal with you girl/ Get it signed by the heads of state/ I want to make a deal with you girl/ Get it recognized around the world/ You better sign my/ Nonalignment pact." Synthesizer farts, whooshing air noises, and a single-minded groove take the song to heights unseen since "Debaser."
And the Pixies are the best starting point, too. Think Pixies if, instead of creating alternative rock, they had instead created a steady market for dramatized alien rape sounds. David Thomas and friends certainly couldn't have made this album without the Pixies yelping with a fat guy or Captain Beefheart showing the world the power of nonsense. And they've grabbed hold of the spirit of the Contortions, Gang of Four, and every other post-punk or no wave group that wanted to dance. But Pere Ubu has mangled these influences through a strange new filter. It's not blue collar; it's not hipster pretension; it's not anything except really, really frighteningly weird.
And the rest of the album beyond the startling "Nonalignment Pact" makes good on that statement, albeit with less guttural impact. "The Modern Dance" and "Laughing" both stir and brew into creepy and unsettling no wave soundscapes before exploding into jittery dance-if-you-have-a-seizure-coming ecstasy. Saxophones and comically high-end guitars splatter around David Thomas's multi-tracked vocals; making lyrics that sound like a tortured homeless man's diary entry become profound statements about belief and chaos: "If the devil comes / We'll shoot him with a gun."
The wonderfully strange "Chinese Radiation" makes good on its name and announces the second half of the record as the extremely experimental half (because apparently the first half wasn't weird enough). "Life Stinks" is a two minute squeaky fart that comes across as honestly as farts tend to do. "Real World" and "Over My Head" try to match "The Modern Dance" and "Laughing" as a one-two combo, but instead meander and never hit the groove of the formers. "Sentimental Journey," literally six minutes of
moans and glass breaking, even makes a case for Pere Ubu as the shittiest and most pretentious band ever.
But "Humor Me," which ends The Modern Dance, returns Pere Ubu to our previous conclusion: they're the weirdest good band we've got. What starts as a really lame reggae prank (complete with "It's just a joke, mon" Jamaican accent) suddenly transforms into a Pixies-cum-psychedelic dirge with David Thomas sincerely wailing, "So humor me!" over a climactic guitar solo. Did Pere Ubu just end their record with a mock-reggae jam/indie rock anthem? Has a band already bested "Take Me Out" for the Mid-Song Transition Award?
Pere Ubu have announced themselves loud and clear as a rock presence, a rock presence just as soon to implode as to conquer the world. Four records of "Nonalignment Pact" and "Humor Me" will get them David Thomas statues while one record of "Sentimental Journey" will get them shows in friends' basements. The verdict is out on these Cleveland rockers, but maybe that's what Pere Ubu is all about. Is it a joke, mon?
1. Nonalignment Pact
2. The Modern Dance
4. Street Waves
5. Chinese Radiation
6. Life Stinks
7. Real World
8. Over My Head
9. Sentimental Journey
10. Humor Me
1963: Stan Getz - With Guest Artist Laurindo Almeida
If jazz canonization is based on prolificacy, then the alto saxophone virtuoso Stan Getz is certainly guaranteed a seat at the altar. Rather than focusing primarily on jazz innovations over all 40-something albums, though, Getz included a variety of alternate styles from other countries. His most high-profile exploration, which gave jazz its highest popularity since the emergence of big band, was a series of records throughout 1963 that hit on the smooth rhythms of the Brazilian bossa nova. In terms of its popularity, these records could clearly be marked "crossover." Outside of record sales, though, there was another border crossing. Bossa nova was an inherently Brazilian music, never touched by an American player.
So Getz, though having recorded his first bossa offering with Charlie Byrd in 1963, had to be shown the way. That same year, he brought a flood of Brazilian artists to record with him in the U.S., many of whom had been playing for almost a decade. Having roots in bop, though, Getz clearly brought his own feel to languid music.
Perhaps the shining example of the complementary nature of the two inherently different styles is Getz's session with Laurindo Almeida. Throughout the resulting record, Getz and Almeida's style reveal their hard contrast. While Getz emotes all the lyrical spotlight that the progressions would seem to demand, Almeida remains tightly wound around the chord progressions and melodies.
For Almeida, who wrote most of the songs, they seem to be mere exercises; but his impressively disciplined timbre only contributes more to the setting of the music. Getz seems to come in handy for the music when he can offer variation through his own improvisation skills, as well as his ability to channel his emotion into simple staccato runs. Getz is already picking up this skill by the second track, "Outra Vez."
By the final track, "Maractu-Too," Getz is firmly enmeshed in the rhythm while Almeida begins to improvise over his own song's deceptively slippery melody. The trade-off is indicative of what the two styles bring to each other, and, more importantly, how the improvisational element of jazz, when held in check, can produce a more powerful effect.
In terms of chronology, the unification of Getz and a figure like Almeida made no sense for American jazz and its obsession with moving forward. Some pondering the viability of an already-been-done may look to this resurrection as proof of hope across all borders, musical and geographical.
2001: Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions - Bavarian Fruit Bread
Though it sounds like none of them, this seeming one-off of a release from Hope Sandoval easily stands among Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day, Bridget Saint John's Songs for a Gentle Man, and Linda Perhacs' Parallelograms as a dreamy folk classic. It's a breezy, sunny day outside, and I'm just playing this album over and over again searching for the right words to hold it. The thing is, as vaporous as these twelve songs feel, I'm finding myself bowled over by the strength of the songwriting. It's that perfect mix of drift and meticulous arrangements that defies pat conclusions. Much like Colleen's fragile instrumentals, the material is as barely there as it is indelible.
Then there's that voice. A mist-borne bubble of collapsed breaths. A tremble in the embrace of the impossibly healing forces of nature. A cool whisper in a rustling of dense, massive velvet curtains. It never fails to send chills all through me, to the point where I feel helpless against it. And the instrumentation (performed by Sandoval, MBV's Colm O'Ciosoig, and eight guests) almost mirrors this sensation, bolstering as much as deferring to her magical intonations. Bavarian Fruit Bread is just a cut above the rest when it comes to mellow perfection. It never quite loses its grip, even during the barely-there instrumental passages, creating an impenetrable cocoon of criss-crossing blue ribbon.
"Around My Smile" is as sexy as it is wiped out. It's like a vacant tome to feminine allure that, in its dry way, manages to make you acquiesce to the hokey sentiment that Sandoval really does "got it goin on." Then there's the gorgeous interpretation of Ballad of Cable Hogue's "Butterfly Mornings" (with folk luminary Bert Jansch on guitar). Not to take away from Stella Stevens' charming performance, but Sandoval once again takes something near cornball and makes it a thing of dusty, irresistible beauty. If Cable had been directed by Wim Wenders instead of Peckinpah, this is what the song might've been like.
Another highlight is the impossibly soft lullaby "Feeling of Gaze." After a stately cello intro, it melts into a sad sawing rhythm that breaks for a call to celebration like a charmingly weird antithesis of both Madonna and Kool and the Gang's exclamations. If you needed one song to sell you on this album, "Feeling of Gaze" is it. Though the heartbreaking Jesus and Mary Chain cover ushering in the record should be more than enough. Then there's "On the Low," a phased-out, bluesy rhythmic partner to the shoegaze-toned "Around My Smile."
After the near eight-minute Landing-esque murk of "Lose Me on the Way," we are knocked from a bottomless dreaming haze into the slow stirring of an unlisted twelfth track, thus ending what has been an earthy yet gauzy listening excursion on a relatively grounded note, rather than an almost frighteningly ethereal one. Which shows that, as much as this is an album perfect for kicking back, it's also ideal as a harrowing experience in losing oneself in sheer sensuality before emerging back into the terse realm of everyday life.
2006: Andy Ortmann / John Wiese - Recorder Out of Tune
Am I wrong-headed here? Are my reasons for avoiding this release for so long at all valid? Well, my general ambivalence toward John Wiese, I suppose, is pretty easily defensible, if only on purely aesthetic grounds. I can't deny the dude is talented but, as so many noise artists should, he needs to exercise some quality control. He's definitely produced some stuff that kicks ass -- Frankenstein and Dracula Girls Tokyo Headlock absolutely reamed me, not to mention the lion's share of his solo output.
Which smoothly segues to my primary hesitation concerning this disc: it's a collaboration. Wiese does a ton of them, and by and large I find them flaccid and utterly unessential, as I do most noise collabs, even if they do get their own separate name or are the names of the collaborators appended to one another with an ampersand. For all of noise's absurdity, it's the musical ghetto in which I find the most sincere and personal, not to mention the most complex and thought-provoking, products. These are all qualities that must be uttered by a singular voice. Sure, I think it's cool that members of Double Leopards want to play with any and everyone who lives nearby, and maybe it improves their art, but nothing I?ve heard from these other configurations approaches the group of genesis. Every release, and every time I?ve seen them perform, you get an absolute sense of solidarity and understanding, and suffice it to say the whole is more than the sum. There you have it, a specific rant about noise collaborations.
In any case, I didn't particularly see how the pristine productions of Andy Ortmann would mesh with the deth [not a typo]/dumb noise of Wiese (no insult intended). And, consequently, their disparate forms are exactly what make this disc so exciting to me; a marriage of the upper and lower brains, the ethereal with the visceral. Indeed, sometimes Ortmann presses his music to feature some, well, musicality, or perhaps continuity. And Wiese isn't always the most adroit at rendering individual, interesting sounds that stride above the morass. In this regard, we find a near-perfect complement, blending two of the most appealing, but disparate, aspects of noise. I would have no reservations granting this record a perfect score if not for the brevity, so I'll say it now: Andy and John, you have my blessing to continue this collaboration, and maybe even christen it unto itself.
1984: Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade
Hüsker Dü formed when I was born and released Zen Arcade when I was barely a smidgen of the music junkie I was to become. It took a phase of dad rock (literally whatever my pop listened to) followed by a phase of MTV-informed pop, then a hair metal stint, followed by a phase of industrial and alternative rock, before I was turned onto Zen Arcade in high school. It was a friend's cool older brother that tipped me to it, and it's stuck with me to this day. I've grown to listen to a wide array of music, but, in a way, little has changed in what I respond to. Raw emotion and hard rock still gets me psyched about life. The noisier the better, and boy is Zen Arcade noisy. It's still one of the most potent things I've ever heard, and continues to strike an emotional chord that’s as adult as it is adolescent. It's like one long, exasperated, bitter swallow of everything that pushes you to utter despair. When listening to it, the thought of intellectualizing or critiquing the songs feels mind-numbingly anti-climactic. So I figure I’ll just have to rant here.
There was something of that Nine Inch Nails-type lashing out that hooked me to songs like "Never Talking to You Again" and "I'll Never Forget You." You can bet there were folks in my high school days that fit those sentiments to a tee. But as much as there was that sort of run-of-the-mill teenage catharsis, there was an earnestness and urgency to the raw production and rabid playing that made NIN and Smashing Pumpkins seem flat by comparison. Admittedly, I never could stand the noisy sprawl of "Reoccurring Dreams" for too long, yet I could see how perfect it worked as a finale. Now it's my favorite part of the record by far, though nearly every song on here is a classic in the truest sense. Take away the context the band is placed in, and what you have is a miraculous recording more than worthy of one of those classic album docs they do for releases like The Joshua Tree and Transformer. A lot of these songs could - and should - be played on a classic rock station. Zen Arcade is more than just a punk rock staple; it's a solid, infectious and perfectly coalescing collection of songs. I sensed this at seventeen and I know this to be true today.
Bob Mould, as a performer, does that half-singing, half-howling style better than anyone. Every line is belted out as though he were singing while teetering on a cliff edge. It's so simultaneously bracing and heart-rending that a punk novice like myself couldn't help but be taken in by the messy, early-hardcore template they work from. I'm still no punk/hardcore aficionado, but I'll take Zen Arcade over the more pop-embracing Bob Mould or Sugar records any day. It's still that perfect balance of pure pop and utter dissonance that moves me more than anything else, and this album is one of the pinnacles of that type of melding. Though it's as much in the variation from track to track as it is within a given tune, there are plenty of smart, fist-pumpingly great hooks mixed in with the seeming reckless abandon of the performances. The experience is one of becoming at home with indelible songs, as well as feeling like you're mercilessly being slapped around by your inner demons. The record's not comfy, but it's definitely inviting.
What's interesting about this album, upon reflection, is how much of it is just dumb hard rock tropes revitalized. Many of the choruses are as rote as can be, and the lyrics are ridiculously direct. "Standing by the Sea" is as much a flailing, impassioned instant classic (check the urgent bass line) as it is cornball high school poetry. "Hare Krishna" is a goofy, messing around in the studio idea made gripping by sheer cacophony. On "Somewhere," the heroic guitar line takes the banal lyrics, "there's happiness instead of pain" and "dirt is washed out with the rain" and casts them in iron. Heart-on-your-sleeve is rarely this unassailable. It's such a tricky thing that when it works you almost don't want to analyze for fear of upsetting the translation from speakers to the ears to the brain. Fickle folks could poke a million holes in this album, but in the end it still moves people more than it inspires derision. It's just what the doctor ordered when it comes to rock music that’s as endearing as it is fun. I've read a lot of online comments calling Zen Arcade impenetrable and something that cred-seekers cite but never listen to. Without going into this too deeply (we're talking internet comment blurbs here) I'd like to reiterate that this is an immensely enjoyable album. It's one to blast at high volume and air guitar around the room to. It's like Kiss anthems for people who don't like Kiss. And it's nicely filled out with heady interludes (okay, so the tepid piano instrumental "Monday Will Never Be The Same" may be kinda weak -- at least it's short) to keep things from getting too overwhelming.
This is a record for everyone who loves rock music - not just punk rock elitists - so readers new to this band should take note. With any luck Hüsker Dü will follow suit with other great independent acts of the eighties and reunite for at least a show or two. This album alone (along with Everything Falls Apart, New Day Rising and the Metal Circus EP) shows a band well suited to a continued life outside of their heyday. If not, at least we've got this material to keep us tuned in to how a formula rooted in simplicity can translate into timelessness.