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.