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30 January 2010

Carla Bley / Paul Haines - 'Escalator Over the Hill' (JCOA)

Actually, you know, Escalator Over the Hill is my favorite chronotransduction ever. Why can't avant-garde jazz have their own Jesus Christ Superstar? As notorious as this is for being an overblown pretentious pile of art-wank, if you actually listen to it you'll find a pretty good time. There's only a few triple LPs that I think are deserving of the length, and this is one of them. A Lot of People Would Like to See Armand Schaubroeck ... Dead is another, but it'll be years til we get to it. Sandanista is not, and something about that forthcoming Joanna Newsom triple gives me a bad, bad feeling. But let's get to Escalator - the lineup is amazingly great, and I could fill this post naming the luminaries who blow 'n pluck on these six sides: Bley and Mantler, of course, and then Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri, Jack Bruce, Don Preston, John McLaughlin, Linda Ronstandt (!), Roswell Rudd, Michael Snow (!), Jimmy Lyons, Enrico Rava, Leroy Jenkins, Dewey Redman .... and that's not counting the unsung heroes like Paul Motian (who drives the drumkit throughout). I am a sucker for Bley's style of brainy big-band deconstructions; I love Tropical Appetites and a lot of the songs here follow a similar pattern, though with Paul Haines' perplexing lyrics. There's a lot of great, soulful movements here; the whole set opens with Roswell Rudd's trombone aching in pain. This Hotel Lobby Band comes back and forth like a Greek chorus, with other smaller breakout groups driving forward the story and the band returning - used to great effect at the end of 'Holiday in Risk'. I'm not going to be a literary critic here, so you won't get any comments on the themes present in the lyrics (mutation, India, conflict, the body, etc.). But as one who enjoys delicate, female-driven songwriting, big-band swing, and weird electro-acoustic sound fuckery -- this has everything for me. It's amazing how incredibly consistent it is over two+ hours. I guess this took a few years to assemble so Bley really could take her time to keep the wheat from the chaff, you know? But while "it's all good", there's still highlights. Linda Ronstadt really has a shit-hot voice, and whenever she takes a tune, it slays ... check 'Why?' on side 2 if you don't believe me. I wonder what this stage production looked like? I can only imagine actors dealing with sounds like the ring-modulated piano or the calliope bits. Jack's Traveling Band (which is McLaughlin, Bley, Bruce and Motian) rip it up in rock-fusion fury on side 3-- to the point where you can only dream of an offshoot LP. It resembles Tony Williams' Lifetime on more than a surface level, though contained into a five minute "rock song" and somehow fitting in place with the rest of this. They come back in 'Rawalpindi Blues' and get a bit more room to explore, when McLaughling busts this nutty guitar line that is super staccato repeated notes. The piece goes into this weird chanted "What will we ever do with you?" vocal part over what sounds like AMM or something, and then the theme is taken up by the other recurring band in Escalator Over the Hill -- the Desert band. They actually appear earlier on side 5 to introduce the Eastern section of the story. This is where Jenkins shines, though it's also copiloted by Don Cherry's ethnoclouds of trumpet (and later his vocal glossolalia). The cello (played by Calo Scott) has a tambura/Bharat vibe, and these sections feel like a slice of curry-flavoured gristle in the middle of wedding cake. Overall, cause it's been a few years since I last listened to this, I'm kinda blown away by how good it is. I could probably go to this at any point during the last ten years and found something in there to reflect on my current interests. When I was into jammy, spacey rock explorations I would have enjoyed the Jack's Traveling Band sections; when I was interested in oblique songwriting, well, pretty much all of the parts with singing would apply. Free jazz? Of course, and more restrained improvisations are all over this, too. Outsider, NWW-listy sounds? Sure, they're the glue that holds this together really. There's also a few tunes where the voice drifts over the instrumentation in the same way that outsider/free folk does, which I can't explain any better. 'Oh Say Can You Do?' on side four (which is voice and calliope) is what I'm talking about. Ethnic free explorations: see the Desert band, above. Complicated art-rock ideas: the whole thing. Right now what I take from this the most is the idea of composition as a means of liberation, not control. This is a pretty tightly knit triple LP, probably the most tightly knit 3xLP I can think of except for maybe that one Vitamin B12 release. But at the same time, it invites exploration across a shitload of different genres, and can probably be studied to the point of microscopic detail.

20 January 2010

Blank Dogs - 'On Two Sides' (Troubleman Unlimited)

The cover art to this feels a tad silly now, as the identity of Blank Dogs was shrouded in mystery at the time of release -- though now, it no longer is, so an opportunity for a cool album cover was squandered by putting a photo of a dude with a blanket over his head. But at least it's designed nicely, just like the bumpy post-punk-influence pop ditties here. These "bedroom punk" tunes are probably quick to record and he sure pumps them out on this (and other) releases, but they're really solid here. 'Ants' kicks things off with the formula that works, unchanged, across 12 songs. Canned drums, cheap synth icing, repetitive simple melodies, jangly guitar notes around the edges and some killer guitar crunch when the time is right. Vocally it's moaning, affected, distorted, and weirdly catchy. 'Blaring Speeches', 'Calico Hands' and 'The Lines' are particularly strong, and when you've listened to this a few times they all start to blend together into a mishmash of hooks. I don't find myself singing along as much as I tap/bash my fingers on the desk when listening. But maybe that's cause I have to strain to understand the lyrics, which is more effort than I'm willing to put in. Could 'Pieces' be the pinnacle of office punk, perhaps? Though the obvious comparisons are early 80s mileau like Magazine, early Cure, New Order/Factory stuff, etc -- I actually hear a bit of 90's indie rock in 'Three Window Room', the closing track. For some reason this unfolds like a classic Magnetic Fields track to me, maybe just in the way the chords move. I admit I haven't kept up with the slew of output to follow this but at some point I could see myself needing more.

13 January 2010

Blackalicious - 'Nia' (Quannum)

A return from the holidays finds this sore thumb waiting in the Underbite, a throwback to that innocent summer of '00, a time that I always want to reminisce about cause it's before 9/11 and therefore everything had yet to "change". But the reality is that I was just another white avant-leaning indie kid in college who dabbled in hip-hop -- at least, if it was scribed as being particularly artistic. This double LP ranked near the top of that mountain, which probably explains why it's still here. It's almost ten years later and man, what a weird listen this is now. Primarily this is because I have no interest or connection in the hip-hop genre at all, and in fact feel so removed from black American 'urban' culture that the stylistic/genre affects strike me as nearly alien today. What I can't deny is how strangely good this music is. I don't ultimately understand (or care) about the elements that make a rapper good, such as flow or style or whatever. (I do have an unfortunate memory of being stuck listening to some shithead babble about how great Eminem's "flow" was, while waiting to get the cheque at some shithole diner at 3 AM -- an experience that probably did as much to drive me away from hip-hop as anything else). However, I can understand that Gift of Gab manages to convey something really visceral and Chief Xcel's rhythms are strangely infectious. I expected to put this on the 'sell' pile, or at least declare the double LP length to be far too long, but I have little to complain about. There's a few diversions from direct rap that stand out, such as "Ego Trip", which sets a Nikki Giovanni poem to some beats and manages to be an intense fireburn of black feminist energy. Also "Cliff Hanger" is, I think, about the film The Golden Child or if not, a nice surreal dream anyway. These dudes know how to weave a tapestry of soul/jazz/rap styles, without sounding needlessly retro: take 'As the World Turns' for a really nice example. I don't really care about "positive" lyrics but there's an intellectualism that's evident here, in addition to all sorts of obscurist samples like Finnish jazz guitarists and the Move. Lateef and Lyrics Born pop up, being the necessary guest stars to do the whole rap collective thing (and after all, Quannum Projects was a noble venture). Subtleties are there too - offbeats on the drum programming, mild vocal asides, and tiny tonal twangs in every corner. 'Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme' gets into a dark disco minimalist groove, with that hip-hop way of singing that became a lot more prevalent over the next decade. But this is a million miles from the overproduced gizmos that adorn commercial rap. Though Xcel pastes things together with great attention to detail, it avoids having any sort of shimmer; 'Beyonder' has a great retrofuturist 80s feel which is what I'm trying to describe. Now I'm tempted to seek out that first Latyrx album, which I remember as being even better than this. Maybe it's time for a personal hip-hop renaissance?