Saturday, December 25, 2010

Harmonia - "Dino"


This collection of music appreciations would be incomplete without something on the German bands from the '70s loosely grouped together under the label "krautrock." Rather than highlighting an obvious masterpiece, I feel like picking out a perfectly generic track to draw out a few things about why this retroactively reified genre rules so hard.

This is from the debut of Harmonia, which was two the dudes from Cluster and Michael Rother from Neu! (who was also an original member of Kraftwerk) cloistered in a studio making side project recordings that often exceed the considerable excellence of their primary bands. The track fades in and and out, and in fact these recording sessions sound like an extended summoning of a mood, rather than a conscious laying down of a "piece," much less of a song -- I suspect that each track on the album is culled from a much longer jam. The mood summoned captures, as well as anything in the krautrock corpus, a perfect balance of mechanical propulsion and pastoral beauty. The three musicians (jamming live and overdubbing, I imagine) tightly weave together simple synth and guitar parts so that none is ever quite in the lead -- the entire lattice of sound is at the forefront in way that I don't think is too farfetched to call baroque. Every phrase marches along, or enters and exits, cleanly and clinically, as though assembled on a cost-efficient music assembly line. The miracle of the thing, though, is that it does this without sacrificing warmth. Maybe that's not much more complicated than the musicians having a bunch of really sweet analog synths. The only thing that doesn't sound pre-programmed is Rother throwing in some short subtle guitar phrases that color in the spaces but pass up the chance to take the stage and solo.

At the root of the thing is the interlocking of drum machine in dead-simple 4/4 and bass in lightly syncopated 7/4. This groove make the track downright danceable if you're the sort of person who likes to dance to rock music. I'm not one of those people, but I'm in luck because this track -- along with the rest of the album -- can be heard as pure ambient music as easily as it can be heard as music to move to.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Busta Rhymes & Ol' Dirty Bastard - Woo Haa!! Remix

I don't have to tell anyone who was alive in the '90s about the original version of this song, but it's my experience that most people don't know this remix. It's also my experience that this might be the weirdest act of rapping committed to tape. If that's not true, I'd love to hear what's weirder.

The track starts almost identical to the original, just a notch slower, but wait. . . what's going on in the background? Yes, buried in the mix, hollering and howling like a drunk singing in the subway, it's the Ol' Dirty Bastard. This anti-intro hardly prepares the listener for the insanity that follows once we can mostly make out what ODB is saying, and once we can clearly hear his positively Beefheartian vocal melodies. He turns Busta Rhymes's song -- which, with its tritone bassline and eerie "yaa yaa yaa" chorus, was already pretty cartoonish and irreverant -- into something that can hardly be heard as pop music.

Busta opens telling us how dominant his squad is, to which ODB responds that "we on some outerspace shit like you watch Star Trek." It's pretty clear from what follows that "we" might just be ODB and his various personalities (Big Baby Jesus, Dirt McGirt). Each free associatively nasty ("I had a wet dream that I was boning Jody Watley") or crazed line is half-rapped/half-sung/half-shouted in a different psychotic voice, and many are elongated long in to the next line as though the rapper is too drunk and high to realize that something else is going on. One could in fact speculate on the state of the Wu Tang maestro's consciousness, but whatever was going on the recording studio that day, it must be acknowledged the advanced musicality involved in taking rapping to this level of experimentation.

If you don't buy that, take a listen again to the third minute of the song. After a trippy bridge where several of the sounds play backward and both men rap simultaneously kind of like they don't want you to hear what they're saying, Busta seems to try to bring the song back to earth with a verse of fairly conventional content and meter. ODB will have none of it, though, as he comes in at 2:59 with a half unintelligible verse (what does he say about a "fungus bowl"?) that's based around a short melodic phrase that has nothing to do with the rest of the song, and is laid down with a rhythmic sensibility as free any free jazzman's. The verse ends with two seconds (3:18-3:20) during which he sounds like he's choking on his tongue. . . then spits out that phrase one more time.

Oh, and the video's pretty weird too.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Terry Riley - "Keyboard Study #1"

Keyboard Study #1

All praise due to the University of the Pennsylvania's Ormandy music library for this album. While working at Penn I spent a bunch of time digging into Ormandy's deep deep shelves and this was one of the very best finds.

Despite several years of listening to Terry Riley's discography, I'd never heard of these pieces -- Keyboard Study #1 and Keyboard Study #2 -- and the names certainly didn't suggest that they'd be anything special, particularly vis-a-vis the vision-quest-ish appellations of most of Riley's best songs. But it turned out to be one of my very favorite Riley works and, accordingly, one of my very favorite minimalist compositions.

Kicking off without the slightest prelude and ending abruptly 22 minutes later, the track keeps a joyfully upbeat and major key pace without ever getting dull. The left hand part* plays simple arpeggios (mostly just octaves and fifths?) in constantly changing metric patterns that are impossible to count (at least for me -- readers who went to music school, please comment otherwise to the effect of "it's in alternating measures of 17 and 15, duh") but still imply enough of a 4/4 to rock solidly. I could probably listen to just that part and be as happy as I'd be listening to any Charlemagne Palestine recording. But the right hand part makes the track as much fun as a great pop song, filling in quick melodic syncopations that repeat enough for you to start humming them but never overstay their welcome. Fittingly for someone with a Who song named after him, Riley has a rock and roll understanding of not boring his listener with repetition for repetition's sake. Tell me you didn't pump your fist and headbang a little when the chord changes for the first time at 5:05. Tell me that and I'll tell you that you ought to listen to this track fifteen more times to get your ears right.

The performer here, by the way, isn't Riley himself, as on most of his recordings, but some guy named Steffen Schleiermacher. For the record.

*I have no idea if the two voices are actually played by left or right hands -- for all I know it's two separate tracks -- but, you know, I mean the part that functions like a left and right-hand piano parts would, more or less.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Grateful Dead - "Blues for Allah"

Blues for Allah

Revising one's own views is one of the great pleasures of maturity, and I've been happy to have to reevaluate the Grateful Dead in the past year.  I had and liked a Dead greatest hits tape when I was 14 or so, and I'd always thought knee-jerk Dead hatred was immature (and in many cases epitomizes punk's aesthetic conservatism), but I'd also never thought there was any reason to delve into the Dead's catalogue, or even to go out of my way to listen to any of those greatest hits.  I remember how "Uncle John's Band" goes.   It's nice.  Whatever.

But thanks to my friends Jake and Eliot I ended up being in a Dead cover band last April 20th.  I thought I was agreeing to do it as a joke, but after some deep listening and a practice or two I was ready to argue -- and I currently maintain -- that at their best the Dead were a late-'60s / early-'70s genre-bending psychedelic band on par with early-Floyd/Barret or the Byrds or the Band or the Soft Machine or any of the other bands more readily revered in independent record stores across the land.  I'm still not sure why people think it's worth listening to a million different versions of their live shows, and I still think Jerry Garcia lived twenty years too long, but I'll maintain that they have some fantastic songs and go to some genuinely far out musical realms.

"Blues for Allah" represents both the Dead's serious songcraft and their far-out-ness.  I learned about the track when I was asked to be in a choral performance of it by my friend Nick.  Yes, 2010 will forever be known as the year of the Grateful Dead Cover Bands. 

The song opens with a country guitar lick (reprised to conclude the free-out section) and moves seamlessly into a proggy druid melody (about some weird vaguely Muslim stuff -- I'm not asking anyone to buy that Robert Hunter is a good poet) over a some subtly free percussion.  Any fan of the band USA is a Monster cannot deny this section.  The preceding long midsection is the sort of whoa-now-I'm-on-drugs-. . .-weird part that some listeners may find to represent exactly why they think of the Dead as idiotic, but at this point in my musical development I can see the spirit of what they're going for and the impressive extent to which they're achieving it.  The percussion, bass, and rhythm guitar play around with cohering into regular parts nicely while Jerry Garcia's guitar sings over the mess, taking long rests to avoid falling into anything like a traditional lead guitar free-out role.  There are cricket sounds, which are a little corny, but I also kind of love.  Then at about the seven minute mark a poignantly jazzy slide-guitar / trombone melody starts to bring us back to not-(necessarily)-on-drugs song land.  And what a pleasant land that is, as the last section is a gorgeous sing along chorus with Garcia doing exactly the sort of guitar playing he's either loved or hated for.  I guess I love it now.  At least in this instance.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Flying People - "FU = (Heart)U"

FU = (Heart)U

First in a presumably occasional series of posts here about my friends' music.

The Flying People were (are?) a project of Philly bedroom genius Michael Bonfiglio. I only know of his music -- and his amazing comics and other art -- because his bedroom used to be next to mine a few years/apartments ago.

This song is brilliant little construction, from the drum programming to the Zombies/Kinks/Elephant6 harmony bursts. And of course the lyrics rule. They rule all the way through, but I'll highlight just the line I've been quoting for years: "If you love somebody let them go / well I don't think so / 'cause that's called not loving someone, you asshole."

Autechre - "Pen Expers"

Pen Expers

It's hard to pick a track to highlight by British computer-music kings Autechre, since it's tough to remember what the hell happens in any of them (say nothing of their nonce titles).  This one, from the devastating-all-the-way-through Confield, stands out for starting with what could almost be a hip hop break beat.  Of course it's cut up almost instantly and sent through some mysterious sonic filtration system, but it still maintains boom-bip syncopation and solid head-nod-ability for the first couple minutes.  

Autechre are masters of the slowly evolving abstract transition, and at 1:22 some of the sandpaper sounds take on pitches, suggesting and slowly building into the power-ballad chord progression that almost fully shows itself around 2:48.  For the next few minutes the chords continue to gesture towards a ballad while the brilliant complexity of the funky scratchy sounds make you think that maybe all free-out drummers should just give up and learn how to program. 

At 5:30 there's a rare abrupt change and we get a reprise of the boom-bip part from the beginning.  It's much more chopped up, though, in the manner of Squarepusher and other lesser proponents of this genre.  No major diss on Squarepusher/Warp/et al, but for my money no one has used the ability of computer software to make abstract sound with as much beauty and funkiness and tact as these guys.

This is not a genre I'm on top of, though, so anyone reading who can recommend something on par with this track, I welcome recommendations.

The Advantage - Air Fortress

Air Fortress

The Advantage were a dead serious Nintendo cover band. It's easy to do fun nostalgic cultural reference, but not at all easy to do the revisionist practice of finding great art in the sea of mass marketed crap. I know plenty of people already take video games seriously as an art form, but during all those hours of staring at our little avatars trying to get to the right side of the screen, did it occur to us how good the music was that was looping on each level? Maybe not, and maybe because some of it wasn't. Thankfully the dudes in the Advantage did the easy work of finding the best of the Nintendo music and the hard work of arranging it for rock quartet.

Their two albums are both fantastic from start to finish. The track here is from Air Fortress. I never played that game and have made no attempt to research it, much as I have no nostalgic relationship to most of the Advantage's music. It can be heard out of context for what it is: great prog rock minus the fat of narcissistic virtuosity.

Worth noting: the drummer, Spencer Seim, played guitar in Hella -- who maybe is going to reunite? and who I'll surely end up writing about here.

Rod Poole - "December 96"

December 96 [excerpt]

This album came into my life in a weird way. I stole it from my old roommate Jesse unintentionally, having somehow become convinced that it had been long-term-loaned to me by my music colleague Jake. I'd imagined this story that Jake had told me to check out this guy playing an hour long improvisation in just intonation. It sounds like something that would have happened, but Jake denies it.

And so I would look at it in my old house for months -- maybe years, I can't remember exactly. But every time I thought about finally giving it a listen, I was defeated by the cover.

And even more by the back cover.

Terrible, right? The front makes Poole look like it's some soulless Yngwie-ish music school chief, while the back looks like a stock image found by the search terms "rootsy folk." In this context, I imagined the use of just intonation was probably a gimmick that this guy was using to market himself as a new important voice in the guitar festival circuit after the failure of his prog band and the disappointing sales of his album of Bach chorales.

But so then I stole it accidentally and, only this summer decided to listen to it. . . having no idea I was in for a heavy minimalist masterpiece. This clip is from the middle of the thing, which is a 50-minute single-sitting improvisation. Poole starts off with some Derek Bailey-style dicking around, which I skip past every time, but then comes into a long section of arpeggios played with what the aforementioned Jake and I usually call True Minimal Spirit -- repetitive just to the point of sounding mechanical, but always with a rock and roll sense of not letting a chord or riff overstay its welcome. Poole varies his right hand patterns to add and subtract notes and little flourishes to and from a few base chords, moving us purposefully through an ethereal tonal field that's only made more otherworldly by his altered tuning system (see Wikipedia on just intonation). I'm also particularly inspired when he pulls out the rubato: dragging and rushing phrases in a way that I find as touching as any version of the Moonlight Sonata (as at the beginning of this excerpt, and again at about 15:55). Or more touching, since this is something I've been doing on acoustic guitars for years, but never with the minimal stamina of this recording. Or Poole's other album from the same period, The Death Adder, which I also stole from Jesse. And which I'll give back.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Don Caballero - "Haven't Lived Afro-Pop"

Haven't Lived Afro Pop

The first post here can't not be a Don Caballero song.  I guess that's mostly because the blog itself is named for a (not quite as good) track from a (not quite as good) album.  It's also because Don Cab has consistently been my favorite band that's not already other people's favorite band, and the album this track is from seems to me to be their best.  

I first heard Don Caballero at a friend's house the night I graduated from high school.  It took a few months to fully come around to how different it was from what a high school kid thinks rock music is supposed to be (just not having vocals seemed experimental at the time), but by my first couple years of college I was obsessed with 2 and What Burns Never Returns (their first one, For Respect, is pretty forgettable, directly attributable, I've always assumed, to Ian Williams not having yet dominated the songwriting).  The music seemed impossibly dense for a standard line-up rock band, and it was repetitive just up to the point of ridiculousness, but also constantly in motion.  I hadn't yet heard Steve Reich et al, and so the classical minimalist move of mechanical repetition with subtle variation was brand new to me.  Nor had I started liking the drumming of Bill Bruford or the various other prog drummers Damon Che draws on so heavily.  What I had heard was a lot of other late '90s math rock bands, and the music of Don Cab seemed so much more purposeful than its contemporaries.  It's complexity was confident, and the dense patterns created by the guitar and bass were playful and fun in a way, say, June of 44 could never be.  The opening beat of "Slice Where You Live Like Pie" sounds like you could rap over it, while the guitar entrance sounds like an arpeggiator malfunctioning.

And, then, there I was, nineteen, having seen Don Cab a couple times that year, thinking this is pretty much my favorite band that's not the Beatles or Fugazi and these dudes drop American Don.  At this point Ian Williams had muscled the other guitar player out of the band and had taken over all composing with the help of his various looping pedals and a new bass player who was happy to assert no personality on his instrument.  He has also somehow managed to talk Damon Che into chilling out and submitting his drumming to the music more than ever before.  (After a hostile break up, Che would start a Don Cab cover band with him as the drummer and go tour for several years claiming to still be the band.  I saw it.  It was okay).  On this track, Williams's loop-generated compositional style is realized more fully than anywhere else.   For the first four minutes it's all short tight melodic phrases layered on top of each other, coming fairly evenly, every four or eight bars.  The guitar and bass are clean-toned (as throughout the album) and we're mostly in a joyful D-major.  The song title, which I've always assumed should be seen vis-a-vis the idea of "living the blues,"* refers to the afropop guitar lines that Williams draws on so heavily here, not as homage or pastiche, but as faithless inspiration -- though I would only more fully hear that years later when I started listening to highlife and soukous, etc.  Then at 4:02 that ass-kicking bass line comes in, the tangle of guitar patterns has its last minute of glory, and at 5:24 we get a demonstration of how a such a tangle is constructed.  At 6:53, Che is cut loose to drum like he did back in the day.  His crazy long fills rule, of course, but in a way that can't touch the beauty of the rock-minimalist masterpiece that they conclude.

*My high school music teacher said to the jazz band when we complained about having to be at school at 7am to practice: "You've gotta live the blues to play the blues."