Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bascom Lamar Lunsford - "In the Shadow of the Pines"

In the Shadow of the Pines

I don't generally think there's much point to having a favorite single piece of recorded music, but if I was forced to claim one, this Bascom Lamar Lunsford track might be it. I could listen to Lunsford's delivery of these lines of regret and loneliness on repeat for hours. The words are devastating, but not just bleak: the speaker and his love had split, but he's trying to explain to her that he's had a change of heart and if she comes back they can be happy again. But "in life's dark pathway the sun no longer shines," so she should meet him "in the shadow of the pines." Not too promising for long-term happiness.

This emotional ambivalence is matched by Lunsford's creative enunciation, in his touching nasal Western North Carolina accent over droning banjo accompaniment. Listen at 2:20 to the way he holds out "you" at the end of "you took the ring I gave you" and allows an extra breath before moving on to the next line. Or at 4:09 to the bouncy staccato delivery of "I'd give this whole world gladly once again to meet you there / reunited. . ." In the first case, he might be drawing out the meaning of the line. In the second, I suspect he's just being playful with a song he's sung a thousand times. Either way, I'd rank Lunsford's singing with the art of the best instrumentalists. Not that the lyrics don't help. "I awake from bitter dreaming but to call aloud your name / I sleep again to dream of you once more." Ooof.

This recording is from a session Lunsford did in 1949 with the Library of Congress. As he explains in the intro -- in which his vocal delivery is just about as good as in the song itself (e.g. the pitches of each word in "this old love song" in the first line) -- this song is part of the "fine old traditions of the southern highlands." I'm no scholar of American folk music, but I understand Lunsford's identity to highlight the historicism that music. Lunsford wasn't some backporch hillbilly subject being caught on tape just before he slid away into the mists of time. He was a lawyer and an ethnomusicologist of his own culture: he curated a music festival in Asheville, NC, for many years. There's plenty to say about that, and I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the weird phenomenon of the construction of the idea of American folk music. All that aside, though, I think it's possible to hear in this song a musical mastery that doesn't need context.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hella - "The Republic of Rough-N-Ready"

The Republic of Rough-N-Ready

This is tied for favorite song from one of my favorite albums, so it's tough to want to do anything but offer it up. Maybe with a side of superlatives like "the high point of contemporary progressive music," or "the most brilliant dense music ever made by two people live in a room" (at least in the realm of rock, because I don't want to get in to comparing this to Interstellar Space, but it certainly kicks the ass of anything I've ever heard by the Ruins), or "the most meaningfully busy drumming ever recorded" (again, I'll stick to a rock context for such a claim).

I can say that you should listen to it ten more times if you're hearing it for the first time and it sounds like a big mess of notes and rhythms. That's how I heard it the first time I heard this album -- Hold Your Horse Is, credit for first listen goes to Adam Rigger, fall '03 -- until I got to 2:22 of this track. There's a bouncy almost country-ish guitar lick and a response that goes back and forth three times and never comes back. The phrase was undeniable and I was like "okay, these guys aren't just shredding to show off, this kind of sounds like Yes, or at least like Faraquet." It took me a bunch more listens plus seeing Hella live to realize that all these parts are purposeful and melodic. Not just Spencer Seim's guitar playing, which for all its aggressively physicality (tapping, hammer-ons and pull-offs, blistering picking, etc.) is always subservient to musical phrases. Zach Hill's drumming is even more brilliant in coming off at first listen as an incoherent jumble, and yet ultimately revealing itself as an overcaffeinated deconstruction of rock beats.

Take for example his first set of more-or-less repeated phrases when this song starts in earnest at :10. His phrase starts half a second before the guitar's and plays a part filled with off-accents on the snare, but that ends clearly with a fairly conventional closing statement on open hi-hat. The phrase is so busy and off-time that I don't even know how to start counting it, but it's still recognizably a cut-time let's-get-warmed-up intro part. Sort of. Obviously nothing in those last few sentences is going to express why it's a successful part, but what I'm saying is seriously listen to it again and again until you can hear it, if not understand it. My main man Mike Dooling, formidable drummer and trained opera singer, told me he got some software to slow down tracks from this album without changing the pitch. . . and he still couldn't figure out what the hell Hill is doing most of the time.

Or take one more example: the weird interjection of a chopped-up hip hop beat in isolation at 1:18. Brilliant, and yes, a bit non-sequitorial, maybe even obnoxious (like: we have so many sick parts we're giving them away. . .) but then holy shit that part that comes right after it. They're in 4/4 actually, but Seim has both hands on the fretboard, making thick clusters of clean tones topped off by a sad pretty almost-melody, Hill is sweeping across his set, no time for fills with a part that busy.

Busy at being superlative.

Bygones - "Click on That (Smash the Plastic Death)"

Click on That (Smash the Plastic Death)

Here goes my first foray into writing about something (kinda) new: the Bygones album that I just acquired a few weeks ago, though I'd listened to it online some last summer. Or was that the summer before last?

Bygones is the duo of Zach Hill, the drummer of gold-standard instrumental math rock band Hella, and Nick Reinhart, the guitarist of Tera Melos, a band at the center of what I gather is a thriving scene of music like this Sacramento. Both Hella and TM make non-music-school prog rock, with "pop" belonging somewhere in the genre description of the latter. This side project is what you expect from this background, but so far I like it more than anything I've heard from Reinhart's main band and almost as much as the great works of Hella -- who supposedly will release a new album in classic duo format some time later this year.

The song I'm sharing here has been stuck in my head for days, and this album is particularly good at demonstrating that the point of writing dense music with oddly timed changes doesn't have to be denying the listener the joy of hummable hooks. In keeping with this sentiment, Hill actively sublimates his famously IDM-level virtuosic beat chops (cf. this or anything else on youtube from the Hella Japan tour DVD) to verses, choruses, and bridges. This isn't to say that these guys are just trying their hands at writing pop songs. Hill's busy toms pepper the parts with unexpected accents, and the hummable riffs and progressions rarely conform to a straight metrical pattern. Obviously I don't know anything about how these guys write their parts, but I'm happy to think they share an idea I've had (Jake Anodide gets partial credit for this one): that odd time signatures should be the result of feeling out how long a phrase wants to be, then refraining from putting an extra chugga or pause to make the meter even. This rather than writing a phrase and then dropping or adding a beat simply to translate it from regular rock into math rock.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bonnie 'Prince Billy' - A Whorehouse is Any House

A Whorehouse is Any House

I've maintained for years and will continue to maintain until evidence to the contrary arises that Will Oldham is the best there is at the songwriting style of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, et al. The phrase singer-songwriter irks not just because it reminds one of so much garbage music but also because it doesn't seem to really describe anything musical. Terminology aside, this is a recognizable categorization of musicians, if not necessarily a genre -- right?

Anyway, I call Oldham the best at this. His great songs are at least as sublime as those of the more famous aforementioned, his body of work more varied with more success (not counting his lame album of Nashville-style self-covers), his voice richer and more interesting, his collaborators superior. Oh, and he writes good words. That's not my main interest with most music, but dude has made me love the poetry of song more regularly than anyone else.

And so I'm going to share this one Oldham gem, which shines all the brighter for me as I only managed to hear it on a CD-R a friend copied me years ago of Palace / Bonnie Prince Billy ephemera. A quick search turns up that it was the b-side on a Sub Pop 7" from '99. Apparently it bears the provocative title "A Whorehouse is Any House." News to me.

In a perfect gentle harmony with a woman named Glynnis McDaris (according to Discogs), accompanied by first-take casual/lazy guitar, bass, and percussion (is that someone patting on a table?), the narrator of the song describes following a woman home from a bar, both of them drunk. A classic singalong-friendly chorus -- with all the beauty of a pre-pop folk tune and none of the hokiness of almost all imitators of pre-pop folk tunes -- affirms his love of the pursuit of the woman over the actual attainment: "And I needed so much to have nothing to touch / and I wanted so dear to have nothing so near." Or maybe it's not even that straightforward. Does he lust after having nothing? (Recalling the epic line from Days in the Wake "When you have no one, no one can hurt you" -- that might not seem so epic being quoted, but listen to it sung and be convinced).

Apparently that's not it either, as right after the chorus he's in her room (though "her room is my world"?) and he slips in to her bed, still apparently unacknowledged, and "she doesn't stir, so I saddle up warmer and warmer to her." There follows a transcendent musical goof: four bars of synth sexy time.

And then one more time with that chorus that I can hear a thousand times and keep wanting to hear again.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jimmy Cousins & the Crime Spree - "Coo Coo Brain"

Coo Coo Brain

Jimmy Cousins writes southern rock songs that you swear you heard before, and has the voice to justify such an act.  The last time he lived in Philly I had the good fortune to play bass in his band, along with Jake Anodide on drums and Eliot Klein on keys.  This track is from a CD-R that Colin Langenus from USA is a Monster put together, and which I'm happy to share since I haven't the slightest idea how you'd get a copy if you wanted it.  The disc is half Colin's Brooklyn funk band (with members of Talibam and Gwar!) backing Jimmy, half us (credited as "The Crime Spree"), and a few other tracks to boot.  Several tunes are recorded with both bands.  Whatever.  You'll never hear it unless you really like this song and you come over to my house and ask me to put it on.

The song is a winner from start to finish.  A pleasure of finally getting the CD-R (thanks Eliot and Richie for heading south on tour!) was hearing Jimmy's psyched out vocal doubling, but the song stands even without the manipulation.

I believe Jimmy's in Shreveport now.  Maybe he'll be back at some point.  In the meantime, come over and I'll play you the rest of the songs. 

p.s. This doesn't count as "self-promotion" (see other page of this site) because this was me being subservient to the song.  Jen Rice also played in Jimmy's Philly band, and it could just as well have been her on this track as me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Minor Forest - So Jesus Was at the Last Supper. . .

So Jesus Was at the Last Supper. . .

This song is from a true forgotten masterpiece, A Minor Forest's Flemish Altruism. Sometimes I let myself fantasize that the world of independent rock bands will rediscover and want to imitate this band and its brilliant balance of visceral punk energy stripped of adolescent rage crossed with sly composition stripped of chamber/prog pretense. And that I'll still be going to shows when that happens.

As much as anything, I love that A Minor Forest rocks lean. Their songs aren't simple and they certainly aren't concise, but every element steps in and makes its statement without flailing sonic excess or unnecessary instrumental duplication. I picked this track less because it's one of my favorites on the album -- I love it, but there are ones I love more -- than because it's such a nice illustration of this leanness, despite running for an almost totally linear fourteen minutes.

It opens with a syncopated 4/4 drum beat soon joined by a dead-simple 3/4 guitar arpeggio and then eventually a teutonic slow bass line. None of the parts would be particularly exciting in isolation, but together they make a lattice* as tight as the math rock analog to the parts of a James Brown tune -- that's a pretty loose comparison, but feel me on the syncopated simple-part combo, if you would.

Another great AMF feature is the drummer (I'm pretty sure it's the drummer) screaming starting at 2:38 while the guitar remains undistorted. Hello? How come no one else ever does that move? Why does it have to be that if one dude is rocking out at 11, all distortion pedals must be on?

Other great features are all the other parts and how much they rock. So about that '90s indie post-punk math-metal revival. . .

*It is hearby acknowledged that I used the metaphor of a lattice earlier in this blog. I think it works well for music I like, so whatever. I'm surely the only person who noticed of the four people who actually read these posts.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Circles - "Away With the Tide"

Away With the Tide

My friend Nick Millevoi plays guitar in a lot of different contexts.  Most of it falls in the umbrella of free jazz, or at least of free-thinking jazz moves applied to music in other genres.  He used to be the leader of a band called Cirles, though, which at its most exciting moments played what I like of think of as free rock.*  Free rock, in my lose conception, isn't rock dudes totally shredding with lots of dissonance and improvisation (as in Nick's excellent current band, Many Arms) -- that's more like rock fusion.  Free rock has songs, and songs that would make sense as rock songs of one subgenre of rock or another, but that are being muddied, confused, and ripped apart by the musicians' rendering.

On "Away With the Tide," the plaintive melody and it's slight variation with double-Nick harmony repeat with only a quick break for the duration of the song, ceding the foreground to the two drummers, rumbling faster and slower, like Sunny Murray more than any other classic free jazz drummer (maybe. . . someone correct me if there's a closer comparison).  Despite his formidable ax abilities, Nick approaches his instrument only for accompanying arpeggiation, speeding and slowing, but never varying from his chord progression.   The entrance halfway through of Dan Blacksberg on trombone brings only brilliant coloration of the harmonies, but no wailing.  We're left humming along with the vocals -- and four years after I first heard it I'm still happy every time this song gets stuck in my head -- and marveling at how much better a piece of music this is for lacking the bland drumming of the radio country rock that could accompany that melody.

Alas, after many line-up changes since this recording, Circles has been inactive for a while now. Perhaps we'll find out in the comments section below whether they're "broken up." 

*Yeah, I know, Nick.  Many Arms has songs.  And Storm & Stress, who I think of as the height of free rock, just barely did. Maybe I still need to work on this theory.