HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

28 April 2010

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Untitled' (Ernst)

But wait, there's bonus Brinkmann! Discogs tells me this is untitled, where the label offers "Max Ernst + (square root of 3)". The square root of 3 sounds like the name for some late 90s electronic dude so I wouldn't be surprised if this was a collaboration. Musically we get two very similar sides, bursting with eclectic beats, all quite clean of course. But this isn't just the territory of shiny handbags and glow sticks, cause there's something very soulful about these sonorities. At times the second side reminds me -- slightly -- of worldbeat hybrids, or even bands like O.Rang (not a bad thing, not a bad thing!) but there's also some 70's disco soul as well. It's more Detroit than Berlin, but actually someone who knows more about electronic can make that call, not me. I'm not sure how much I'd ever spin this unless I was having a party, but that ain't happening soon, cause, well, I'm too busy listening to records! I can't imagine ever needing to hear more Brinkmann but I guess this stuff works like that.

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Olga/Petra' (Ernst)

There have been times when getting through 36 tracks of minimal techno seemed like an impossible task, but I'm proud to say I made it. There were ups and downs - maybe even a consistent wave of ups and downs - but at the end of 'Petra', my final entry in the female names series, I felt relief and satisfaction. It helps that this is one of the strongest entries in the series, with 'Olga' particularly probably most successfully realising the idea of "minimal techno". The two tracks here are incredibly stark, unadorned bass drum thuds with little/no variation. It's not a rich psychedelic tapestry, but it's a perfectly acceptable attempt at extreme aesthetics. 'Petra' picks up the pace a bit, with the first track falling into a 1-2 rah-rah techno beat, though again Brinkmann holds back and the piece is marvelously monotonous. Part of me almost wants to hunt down Q-Z because I *hate* incomplete collections, but, they day I bought these, that's all that was available. Possibly, that's all that had been released at the time. I always assumed a DJ died that week and his mom sold his records. My partial collection is not worth holding onto though, so, offers welcome in the comments thread. I have a friend who tries to follow a "format rule" as strictly as possible - if he started buying, say, Dead C albums on CD, then he must always try to get the other Dead C albums on CD, not vinyl. I think he maybe has even passed up some gems because it would break the rule, though given the infrequency of dual-format releases these days (particularly with smaller labels and a more marginal market for physical media) this is probably near impossible. He might be reading this now, in which I say "hi".

27 April 2010

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Monika/Nicola' (Ernst)

The end is near, but first we gotta trudge through four more techno tracks, named after Monika and Nicola. 'Monika' starts with a full on dance party, but it's the second track that gets back to what I'd actually call minimalism. There's a lot of chirping and high-pitched oscillators zig-zagging back and forth, and I like it. I don't think it's enough to keep my interest though; by the end of 'Nicola' I've tuned out, unable to lock into the relentless grooves. I know Brinkmann is really celebrated but it's still dance music to me; I don't think he fights the impulse for the easy dancefloor hook enough, and that stuff is just kryptonite to my ears. Space is good, and on the best tracks I think he achieves this despite the frantic pace. But 'Nicola' thickens up the mix with resonating bass frequencies and wider brushstrokes; I'm sure this approach has its champions but I'm unfortunately not one of them. We've only got one more named Brinkmann to get through, and at the moment, I'm thinking these have to go on the sell pile. They've been cluttering up Dislocated Underbite Spinal Alphabetical Encourage Templates for far too long, and the parts I'm fond of aren't enough to justify keeping them. Maybe there are one or two sides I like, but these belong together as a set, even though I don't have anything past P.

26 April 2010

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Karin/Lotte' (Ernst)

Instead of the two sides of this record representing two personalities, it's somewhat sideways. The Women of Brinkmann series is always two tracks per side, but in this case the first track of both 'Karin' and 'Lotte' bear similarities, and the second tracks too - there's more cross-side affinity than same-side, dig? To analyse this in musical terms, well, the easy way to put it: the first track of each side is fun and the second one is intense and menacing. 'Karin' is so fun that I truly don't enjoy it, as it's upbeat dance clang is marred by excessive vocal sampling. These voices keep urging me to shake my ass or something like that; I try to tune out the meaning and just focus on the human voice as instrument, but alas, I fail to appreciate it. 'Lotte's opening cut is less loquacious but just as bouncy. I enjoy it more, though part of me thinks I've gotten stuck in that horrible rave scene in Matrix 2. Of course, this is eletronical minimalism but it feels like Brinko's lost the plot a bit; it's all right to desire diversity and development in one's work though, so I don't want to fault him for not making record-after-record of 'clicks and cuts'. I've enjoyed the sides that show the more pulsing, dark atmospherics, and the second half of 'Karin' is exactly that. The undercurrent builds up and it's relentless, though hammering with dull thuds instead of the icepick poise.

21 April 2010

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Inge/Jutta' (Ernst)

I might call the first half of 'Inge' the LEAST minimal effort to date. Yeah, the beat is constant, but it shifts gears quite a lot, and is based around a thick, vampy synth organ. The accents are nice icing on this cake but the whole feel changes up a lot and it's hard to really lose yourself in the mindless repetitive thik-thik-thuk that the better tracks in this series achieve. Yeah, you know I'm flipping out every time I listen to this, bashing into walls and shaking my elbows at the mechano-motor. 'Inge's second half retains the artificial submarine seascape but with a more propulsive bass patch. It's also not immune to a few changeups, which if the sound sources weren't so barren and strange would probably feel extremely clichéd. 'Jutta' is practically triumphant, with an open-arms beat that starts to feel a little bit immature once the synthy drum fills start. But it's Brinkmann's stadium rock, I think. After all, he's the rockstar who's made a 12" side to prove he's banged the whole alphabet, right? The doot-doot-doot factor is high on 'Jutta' but that's the way it goes I guess. Please forgive these terrible images I stole from discogs.com out of lazyness; but I guess you get the idea pretty quickly.

20 April 2010

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Gisela/Heidi' (Ernst)

As these go on, I swear they are getting less and less minimal -- or maybe I am just hearing things I never heard before, which is always a way to gauge a minimal product's success! 'Gisela' starts with a rather hip-hoppy vocal sample which pops up a few times as it goes along. This is a testament to partying down, good times, having fun, and shaking booty. There's more upper mids than the last 12" and it's a bit less special, less exotic. But no worries, cause this is one to just cut back and dance to. All proceeds according to plan, particularly across the sides with 'Heidi's first half, but the second half, my god, is a nervous, cluttered nightmare. Brinkmann likes to take it to the dark side now and then; here's another dense, anxiety-driven fever dream to close out the disc. It's effective theatre, yes, but I admit I was already wondering about the next one.

18 April 2010

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Erika/Frauke' (Ernst)

'Erika' begins as a bit of a minimal nightmare - the most rudimentary kick and click, but you're trapped inside a closet where you can distantly hear birds outside but someone in the nearby room keeps making the "error" sound on their PC. It's maddening and effective, and I wonder what LaMonte Young would make of it? This is music that has the ability to affect the body and brain in strange ways, though not in the least bit of a fun dance kinda vibe. The second part is a bit fruity, reminding me someone of a Holger Czukay bassline. There's always a nice juxtaposition between incredibly cris and synthetic sounds, and hissy, thick wooly ones. There are a few keychanges but don't blink or you'll miss 'em. It's quite a lot of gumballs and other goofyness, so it comes as a strange surprise to those expecting nothing but austere German minimalism. 'Frauke' has a hint of ethereal mist, but the synthetic bass pulse is undeniable. It builds up a combo of spastic keypushing and wailing sirens, but all mixed so low they're easy to tune out. A weird effect. The second side of 'Frauke' is even moodier - a repetitive woodpecker pulse is there but it's subsumed by the cloudy ambience. It's a slightly detuned, warped synth pad and you can't help but feel that things are melting, despite the rock-solid pulse. This has been my favourite so far.

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Clara/Doris' (Ernst)

'Clara' is a dark and somewhat pounding number that in it's first half (see, all of these 12"s are four tracks, two per name, so I am treating them as two suites -- although because there's lock-grooves galore, I have to pick up the needle constantly just to get these started) changes things up a bit at the end. But no worries, as the second half returns to it's minimal, muted-bass pounding and never lets up. There are weird gasps - some sharp blocky sounds hiding in the corners of the stereo field and the occasional white noise flourish. It's extremely routine techno but conjures a dark enough woodsy feel to me that I dig it. 'Doris' is different beast entirely. The first half continues along the bassy, wood-block feel but it has a few sampled vocals creeping out, but only a hint! The second half is truly sublime - sounding like all natural percussion samples, this relatively chilled-out track bounces around with some intense tinny clicking and some heavy low-mids eating up the stereo field. It stops and adjusts itself a few times, and ends up reminding me a bit of some AACM/Art Ensemble jams, like on Bap-tizum. Yeah, I know, i tend to like the most organic sounding of the techno records I own, but kill me.

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Axel/Bernd' (Ernst)

Oh yeah, this is why I hate techno - cause it sucks! 'Axel' begins with a streak of white noise that continues over a beat, creating a Tron-type of universe that's probably fun to dance do if you're zonked out of your mind on some shitty pills, but pretty boring to listen to at home. The second half of 'Axel' is the same beat with the white noise pulled back, so there's a little more space to bounce around, but it still does nothing for me. I like music that celebrates humanity, and the sparse, more clicky-based Brinkmann stuff somehow does that through it's repetition and negative space. But this stuff is just like listening to a computer jacking off. Now 'Bernd' is a little better but still too active for my tastes , with the beats all flanged out and jittery. I don't know why this 12" has male names and not female ones; maybe this is the reason for my dislike of it, since it's not really all that different from the female records. I should also take this point to comment on how amazingly strange the surfaces of these LPs look - I don't know if they were cut to have all of these patterns in them, or if that's just an inevitable product of having such repeitive music. But they look awesome and sometimes my tonearm slides all over the place while playing them, making me wonder if this is even a good idea. So cheers for that, Thomas - the flourishes, design-wise, are in the details of the grooves and not in the packaging.

Thomas Brinkmann - 'Anna / Beate' (Ernst)

I've always been the type to say that I hate techno music, which is mostly true. However, I came across the chance to scoop up a cache of Brinkmann 12"s for a really good price - this was in or about 1999 -- so I leapt at it. And I really love these records, or at least I say that even though I haven't listened to any of them in a decade. When I was going on some rant about shitty house music techno Detroit ravers not too long ago, I remember that I had these and said "Wait, I like techno!" I then proceeded to throw on one of these records and my company said "This isn't techno, it's clicks-and-cuts." Well, forgive me for not knowing all of the subgenres of this particular subculture. So maybe it's just clicks and cuts that I like. It's certainly true that the majority of the rhythmic bursts on these 10 records would fall into a "click" or a "cut". The 'Anna' side in particular has a more resonant tone that comes in, like a pipe or bell, but with all of the reverb truncated. It's going to become incredibly difficult for me to describe these records so I'll just turn to the abstract: 'Anna' is a bit like trying to vacuum underneath a sofa, but not being quite able to get there. 'Beate' is two tracks that ramp up the momentum, doubling up on themselves to make me feel pretty nervous. The second one brings in an acoustic bass lick and for a moment the beats stop, and it's just an utterly stupid, cartoonish moment that kinda makes me laugh. Yes, humour abounds in the dryest form of minimal Euro electronica. I could fill this post with my explanation of why I like this and my feelings and interest in "minimalism" but I gotta save something for the next nine.

Anthony Braxton - 'Five Compositions (Quartet) 1986' (Black Saint)

I wonder if Braxton went to his label in 1986 and said "hey guys, guess what, i got a new album for ya!" and the Black Saint brass were like "o sweet what is it called?" and he was all like "Five Compositions (Quartet) 1986" and they were like "wait, didden we just do that?" But this is the next logical step, right? Keep Gerry Hemingway but replace Marilyn Crispell with David Rosenboom and put Mark Dresser on bass. What changes? Everything. Rosenboom is a chop-chop pianist and introduced a much more rhythmic (if not hyperactive) melodic structure, which Hemingway works well with on the toms. The compositions are swirling and dense, and retain the darkly inflected quality of the last LP, only with a somewhat more jazz cloud around it all. They're back in Milano for this (which makes me ask - why the fuck do we English speakers shorten Milano to Milan? I understand difficult foreign names like Köln we might want to make Cologne, or Götebørg as Gothenberg, but, seriously, what English speaker is not capable of saying Milan-O? or Roma?) and the recording quality is a bit murkier, yet strangely dry at the same time. The first four pieces blaze through with few moments of relief - there are the occasional moments of bass/alto sax interplay that really stick out, but generally it's an onslaught. The final track, 'Composition - No. 101 (+31+86+30)' (which has a pictograph that sorta looks like a roll of toilet paper) beings with a very small, quiet section. The drones that are built up are extended breath pieces, with bowed bass and percussion to push them along, and it's not unlike some of the outer-breath experimentations that Evan Parker did with the Electro-acoustic Ensemble a decade later. When the band does come in, they never show their hand, and it's a bit more of the eerie dance I've gotten accustomed to after listening to 10 Anthony Braxton records in a row. But now, sadly, it's time to move on for an even more daunting gauntlet....

17 April 2010

Anthony Braxton - 'Six Compositions (Quartet) 1984' (Black Saint)

Just a year later and we find Marilyn Crispell's piano replacing George Lewis's trombone. And what an incredibly different quartet this is, with just that one change! Of course, this could be attributed to Braxton's compositions, since these six compositions are much tighter and more darkly inflected than 1983's double-pair. At the end of the liner notes, the man thanks the performers for their contributions on this record, with the telling: "After all is plotted and theorized it is still the musicians who must in the final analysis 'make the music live'." My point is, these contrapuntal chord changes, heistations, and slow embarkations into modal melodies can only be written off as improvised to a certain degree. This was recorded in New York so maybe the ugly spectre of mid-80's Reaganism hangs over everything like a cloud. This isn't to say these pieces are miserable or depressing, just not as quirky and bombastic as the band with George Lewis. 'Composition No. 110D', or 'Nickie Journeys into the City of Clouds To Make a Decision' might imply something in its title; of these six pieces, this one straddles the dark and somber tones with some lively, snare-drum accentuated songclouds. Most of these pieces have these very unified moments where the musicians rise and fall together, turning on the same chords in a very regal, march-like manner. Repetition, when used, takes on an almost mind-numbing quality. And Braxton's horn has a much richer reverb on it than what we're used to -- and when he plays flute, it's practically ethereal. Pictorally, the titles are less based on geometric shapes but actually employing weird little icons - a bicycle, a dove, a trapeeze -- and a hooded figure giving a blessing, which also helps with the medieval vibe I get from this. (Just like the robes on the back cover photo of the 1980 piano record!). Side one is actually the slower side, as the last two pieces at the end of side two get into some fairly free-form and dare-I-say "jazz" moments - Hemingway and Lindberg lumber around but can't deny their impulse to swing. Solos are few but nice - Lindberg has a particularly knee-slapping, nervous one that has a pretty nice tinny underbite to it. And we like underbites here. But if this is the second part of a trilogy -- admittedly, not a real trilogy but one that I have invented, where these three album are linked by being a) all quartets, b) all on Black Saint in the mid-80s, and c) all purchased at the same time for £4 each -- then it's fine for the second part to be a bit ponderous.

Anthony Braxton - 'Four Compositions (Quartet) 1983' (Black Saint)

The closing trilogy of our Braxton collection all comes on the Black Saint label, and they keep the flame alive in those dark 1980s. All three of these smaller group compositions pair Braxton with Gerry Hemingway on percussion, and this one with George Lewis on trombone and John Lindberg. It's a smaller lineup than the orchestra madness we just saw, but the side-long 'Composition - No. 105 A' that opens the record is pretty astounding in how diverse and, well, fruity it sounds. Braxton and Lewis explode in a cornucopia of sounds, and the rhythm section alternately prods and propels them, making the whole thing feel a bit like one of those Willem Breuker Kollektief records despite being only a quartet. It's notated to death but it feels so alive, bubbly, and strange that it can't really be placed into any easily definable category. It certainly feels more European than American, and it was recorded in Milano so maybe that has something to do with it. By the end of the 20 minutes you've been taken through flowering, natural gardens and calculated, man-made constructions - but you've never had to leave the tour bus. Side B slows things down a bit, allowing some more emphasis on technique though there's still a fairly plotted map to follow. Lindberg does some good slow sawing on the first track, and the second track ends with Lewis sputtering about his mouthpiece in a Derek Bailey style of liminal catharsis. The parts that circle around a theme are the most enjoyable, because there's a real sense of sugar-coated fun, even as the musicians try to pull each other away from sensibile behaviours. The lock-step 'band' moments, when they gel, are all the more powerful when juxtaposed against the games. But why this description should apply to this record any different than another (by Braxton, or anyone really) I can't really say; this is a time where words fail to sum up what I'm hearing and feeling. This is another recommended one, particularly for those looking for a mashed-up cocktail with a flame underneath.

16 April 2010

Anthony Braxton - 'Composition No. 95 For Two Pianos' (Arista)

Here's a departure from the fun, jazzy sounds of Anthony Braxton - a lengthy piece for two pianos, but actually also for zither and melodica, recorded in an Italian studio in 1980. Thirty years ago! Mr. Braxton himself does not actually appear on this record, but rather we get Ursula Oppens and Fred Rzewski, who are adorned in medieval cloaks at the pianos. I wonder if this title means that Mr. Braxton has composed 94 previous pieces for two pianos, or that this is just his 95th composition overall, which happens to be for two pianos. Plus the other instruments, but I suppose Composition No. 95 For Two Pianos, Two Melodicas and Two Zithers doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But neither does this record! This is total 'head' music, a very structured interplay of pianos that gets a bit tiresome at points. When I feel the stone breath atmospheres it works, though it's far too easy to stop listening. But the melodica really saves the day with it's weird tightening circles, and the zithers are scratchy and tinny in a good way. This is exactly the type of record I would play someone if they wanted to know what "new music" sounded like - neo-classical, overly composed and full of the cold/distant character that people often think about in relation to Braxton. The thing is, the excellence of the past few LPs here have certainly proven that Braxton is capable of the other extreme - of warmth, colour, and expression that is stridently innovative yet reflective of the past simultaneously. These angular, brain-driven compositions have their place but they're not exactly what I reach for when I'm wanting some Braxton. This has stayed on my shelf for so long because I generally love the sound of piano on vinyl, and this is two of them -- and honestly, I dig the cloaks. That this contains Rzewski is perhaps of mild interest, though if you come looking for dirty, mind-expanding MEV soup you won't find it here. I saw Tony Conrad play once and his assistant was wearing a similar medieval robe, ringing some large hand bells occasionally over his dense drones. So maybe this is the hybrid of Renaissance Faire fashion with 20th century avant-garde composition - or wait, that's actually quite a lot of prog.

11 April 2010

Anthony Braxton - 'Creative Orchestra Music 1976'

Jumping off from the concise, quartet-based stuff on Five Pieces 1975, we get this large enesemble masterpiece - in some ways the culmination of everything Braxton 'represents'. He keeps his orchestra on a short leash for the most part, but at some points, particularly cut three on side 2, we hear some of the most fully realised potential of big-band improvisation/composition meetings. But let's start at the beginning - side 1, track 1 is a go-getter, a sprightly or attention-grabber that shows off the potential of what happens when you get 15 talented people together. The tune is concise and everyone is held somewhat in check by each other; solos come out but they're balanced in a brass vs. reeds structure and it's a pretty dazzling opening. And well-recorded too! But then, cut two is 8 minutes of quiet experimentation - with an even larger lineup of twenty. There's MEV guys, AACM guys, and some lesser known names but they all take their time feeling out how they can interact spatially. There's some bass drum rubbing, tuba bleats, and other motifs that people associate with 'smart' free jazz, but it's restrained enough that I would maybe even finger this as a track to pick out as a potential eye-opener for the doubters. Cut three is an experimentation with marching band music and is such really fun and, well, fucking racous. Leo Smith is conductor, and I can imagine him wearing some strange red uniform. The liner notes make a reference to Tutti music but all I know is that is fucking rips. When you flip the record, though, you get a very moody, ECM like exploration that steps through several tonal progressions (while still leaving room for piano tinkles and marimba gurgles). There are improvisational sections but they are like the floss between these heavy, post-classical teeth. I like it, but I've always had a thing for mildewy cobweb jazz composition. Braxton musta really carefully sequences Creative Orchestra Music 1976 to balance the peaks and valleys; these slower bits really work well against the full-fledged rock-out-with-your-cock-out moments. Of which the final cut is definitely that, as mentioned above. Creative? Yes. Orchestra? Well, 20 is an orchestra to me though there's a distinct lack of strings. But not a lack of swing; and even the slower, spatial bits maintain some sort of reflection on 'blues' or whatever it is that is the voice of African-American jazz espression.

Anthony Braxton - 'Five Pieces 1975' (Arista)

Despite the smokiness of the cover image, this is a record of clear skies and full-steam ahead sailboat ventures. The whiteness of the rhythm section (Holland and Altschul) doesn't hold back the groove, and despite Braxton's usual cryptic symbology in his titles (defended somewhat in the liner notes), the tone is really set by the opening track, 'You Stepped Out of a Dream' (penned by Macio Herb Brown). This is an upbeat record, with a loud, crisp recording quality that brings out Kenny Wheeler's trumpet and flugelhorn, and lets Braxton show off his sharp turns and warm sonorities. This is some of the most straightforward Braxtonisms I've encountered, which is pretty funny since it comes sandwiched between the Derek Bailey duets and the third-stream explorations of Creative Orchestra Music 1976. Maybe this shoulda been called Five Easy Pieces 1975 though maybe the makers of that film would have sued. If you're thinking about countercultural matters put them aside; this is a record that really strikes the balance between accessibility and new composition. Side two in particular ends with a very edgy, nervous bassline from Mr. Holland; the brass trumpet feels like fingernails on a chalkboard at times, but it's driven ahead almost like a Neu! track. Toe-tappin', hip-slappin', yeah all those things - I dig it, it's my pick of the LP for sure - and it's certainly a brighter spot than we've heard in awhile here. This of course recalls the Circle band on ECM which is just so so good, except minus Chick Corea and with Wheeler -- but it's similar how that Wayne Shorter tune sets the tone of that, and this also opens with a 'standard'. The Circle record is a bit more exploratory, but it's not like Braxton has anything to prove by this point. No murky clouds here - it's sunbeams, not icicles.

7 April 2010

Anthony Braxton / Derek Bailey - 'Duo 2' (Emanem)

This is the second half of a concert, which was split onto two records, but we only get to hear the second. It starts slow - slow enough that you can imagine they are just getting warmed up again after an intermission. Braxton shifts around between flute, soprano clarinet, regular clarinet, contrabass clarinet, soparino sax, and alto; there's a good bit of flute to start off, as he navigates the edges of the hall's ambience. And how you can hear it! Derek Bailey is dicking about with some prepared fretboard stuff, and the sputtering really echoes, to the point where you can imagine how well-behaved (or non-existent) the audience must be. Bailey is never exactly a smooth operator and here is no exception. When Braxton is flowing, Derek's like ripples in the stream, and when in the middle of side 1 Braxton gets into some proper sax bursts, Bailey feels totally lockstep with him. There are points where it sounds like Braxton is blowing through some cheap plastic tube - whether this is an effect of the clarinets or some weird form of technique, I'm not sure. The choppyness recedes a bit and the two end the side in some sort of dysfunctional harmony. I like it; it's a hell of an exploration of their instruments and it's nice to hear Braxton in a purely improvised setting, so far away from the jazz idiom. On side two, Derek is playing electric and he's rocking that tone/volume knob, creating tonal ebbs and flows that offset Braxton's shrill trills. The reverb, though electrified, still has a mindbending effect. These are birds, covered in coffee grinds, flying into mattresses. At some poinst there's a muddy pond that someone is skimming rocks across, and it ain't always Derek throwing them. By the end of these 43 minutes these guys have gone, almost hyperactively, through almost every sound you could imagine. There's a frantic buzzing alto section at the end during which Bailey is going all Django on us, and you realise why Emanem felt the need to document this meeting for commercial resale - because it is immense.

5 April 2010

Anthony Braxton - 'New York, Fall 1974' (Arista)

This radio statio promo copy fails to put the graphical notation of the titles on the label, so I will use the same standards here. This is Braxton's move to a major label, and from listening to side one you'd think it was a blatant stab at commercial success. The three cuts here are based around a traditional rhythm section (Jerome Cooper and Dave Holland) and it swings quite nicely in post-bop quartet mode. The chord changes are somewhat golden, and it goes quite well with the ghostlike autumnal walk in the woods on the back cover. "Side One, Cut Three" gets the most intense, with a mind-numbingly repetitive bassline over which Braxton's alto and Kenny Wheeler's trumpet can scratch at each other. It's remarkably Apollonian but then again, Braxton is generally somewhat Apollonian (at least compared to other "difficult" composers). Side two introduces some crazyness -- a Braxton/Richard Teitelbaum clarinet/Moog duo opens up, and it's slow and exploratory, with lots of bubbling, gurgling sounds and fast/slow clarinet doodles. It's more of the push/pull we heard in the album with Jarman, but they occasionally lock into sync and make some amazingly mindmelded tunes. Overall, it's the highlight of the record and a nice entry into the Arista catalogue. "'Side two, cut two' is a predecessor to the World Saxophone Quartet, but with Braxton subbing for David Murray. The piece is kinda goofy, almost like an experiment of what they could get away with, with four saxophonists. Braxton's on soparino (which is even higher than soprano), leaving Hemphill to play alto and Oliver Lake on tenor. Hamiett Bluiett's baritone is quite restrained but occasionally it blasts a jarring jolt that makes me sit upright and pay attention. By the end it's an exercise in repetition with everyone playing staccato notes at the same time, and it's not the most enlightening of the man's works, to put it mildly. 'Side two, cut three' returns to the quartet of side one, but with Leroy Jenkins added. It's now 6 years since his contribution to Braxton's 3 Compositions of New Jazz and I daresay it shows a new sense of resignation. It's as slow as the duet with Teitelbaum, but this time there's a full band to enforce the misery. Maybe this bird gets unhappy when he leaves Chicago, or maybe he's anticipating the financial pressures that would virtually kill avant-garde jazz a few years later. Maybe I'm reading into it too much, but, my point is, it's a sad and oblique ending to a mixed grab bag of an album.

Anthony Braxton/Joseph Jarman - 'Together Alone' (Delmark)

These two giants supposedly only ever recorded this one album together, but it's immense. The Jarman side is first, with three compositions that begin slowly. It's multi-instrumental as you'd expect, but the first half is a very slow awakening. Jarman and Braxton tease each other slowly, trying to pull out a strong direction but then darting away when the other commits. This is the title track, 'Together Alone', and I guess that's an apt description. By the end of the side things are jittery and ecstatic, with tons of chimes and percussion clanging about, like a small furry animal trashing about in a skip full of disaprate metal shards. The voices start to come in while you can still hear saxophones, which means - gasp! - overdubs! 'Morning (Including Circles' is the name of this piece and the awakening metaphor continues, though the psychobabble of speech layers up into an indecipherable tangle of fishing lines. When flipped over, there's Braxton's two compositions to ponder. 'CK7 (GN)-436", dedicated to David Berman, begins with some electroacoustic noises quite alien to the AACM aesthetic. There's a buzzing motor sound and some flanged-out space fuzz over the Jarman/Braxton interplay. Occasionally it explodes into a fingernail-on-chalkboard soup, though processed by the big computer in Giles Goat-Boy. I'm not sure if it's distracting to the saxophone duet at the core of these pieces or if it makes things more interesting. I think a whole record of this would be a bit hard to focus on, but when juxtaposed against the more "traditional" (ha!) duets on side A, it works well. So do we have a meeting of the earth-spirit-soul (Jarman) and the turtleneck-wearing technical innovator (Braxton)? Or are things a bit less definable than this? If we listen carefully to Braxton's sax when Jarman is flauting about (or at least I assume that's the breakdown since individual credits aren't listed), Anthony is totally kicking it warm, open and human. The electronic interjections do make it occasionally sound like a giant speck of dirt has just hit the stylus, but maybe that's what he intended. 'SBN-A-1 66K' is the closer, which is the least improvised and most dirge-like moment here. It's a slow, winding melody that stops to rest every few notes. Braxton and Jarman are in-sync, playing contrapuntal harmonies off each other while a triangle randomly clinks about. There's a dynamic of push and pull at work; the lock-step song over a haphazard triangle, sure - but also you can hear little bursts of air and taps behind it all. It's a strangely unsettling thing to listen to (like all of side B, really) but when the low reed tones kick in, it shakes my esophagus.

Anthony Braxton - '3 Compositions of New Jazz' (Delmark)

And thus we begin the Braxton gauntlet, one that runs back-to-back with the Brinkmann gauntlet. What a stunning debut! And even when compared to the other gems of AACM sound resonance emerging around this same era (1968) -- such as Roscoe Mitchell's Sound or the early Art Ensemble stuff on the box set -- 3 Compositions of New Jazz is an incredible explosion of creativity, a new direction for music yada yada yada. But really, as someone who owns ten Anthony Braxton LPs, all of which we are going to explore in the next week or so, this is the one that really started it all and it still sounds great. Maybe we can say that this is a Braxton still exploring his own voice, because these three compositions are modular and fluid, moving from instrument to instrument with nary a pause to reflect. The Art Ensemble of Chicago are of course kindred spirits, but a difference here is a focus on composition rather than group interaction. It's hard not to think some bits of this are improvised, but the vocalisin' is so in tune with the harmonica or violin or trumpet that you know Anthony's kept the reins held tight. The band, by the way, is Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins and Leo Smith, and that's about as powerful of a collection of Chicago artists as you'll get. The track titles are unrepresentable in Google Blogspot's UTF-8 limitations, but side 1's a mission statement if I've ever heard it. Jenkins and Smith lock into some dazzling contrapuntal runs, but then also Braxton comes in with a reedy, woody tone that darts around the convetions of blues and jazz to express his youth and wide eyes. Percussion is limited but oh-so-effective - a sharp click of a wooden block can just bite through everything. Side two begins with some a long piece built around duets. At times Jenkins is sawing away while Abrams is creating circular patterns up and down the piano board, and it's manic and calm at the same time. How does he do it? There's never any impulse for "all in" -- instead this while album is a collection of miniatures. Abrams is a constant throughout the side 2 piece, and when everyone else drops out it becomes an impulsive, honest vision into the misty industrial skyline. 'The Bell', composed by Leo Smith, closes things with a somewhat more attenuated sense of dissonance and drama. There's still an emphasis on open spaces and open forms, but that's kinda what we expect from this gang , right?

Glenn Branca - 'Lesson No. 1' (99)

I'd guess this is Branca's first record, cause he looks like such a strapping young lad on the back sleeve. This is 19 minutes of industrial music, masquerading as a serious chamber music ensemble masquerading as a rock band. The title track, which fills side 1, does little for me. If this is a lesson, what exactly am I learning? There's a manic energy to everything, or maybe I should say a pulsing nervousness; the two guitars chortle along and the tune occasionally explodes into ringing, frantic strumming. I know this is supposed to be serious music but it reminds me of the punkest parts of the Feelies' Crazy Rhythms. Some singing would really benefit this (O, sacrilege!); as an instrumental it feels like kindred spirits with those Birdsongs of the Mesozoic records I listened to awhile back. But side two, if a bit uncreatively named ('Dissonance') is a totally kickass dirge, based around Branca's attempt to murder his guitar. It's stapled to a monolithic 2/2 rhythm and punctuated by Harry Spitz's sledgehammer bursts! The effect is not unlike the VU's 'European Son' but also with a health dollop of Neubauten. When you turn it up loud, it just sounds evil and angry, and despite the relentless beat, somewhat unfocused. It's like Branca is moving through a catalogue of techniques on the electric guitar, and you can be sure the emphasis is on the strings, not the fretboard. I love music that can be slow and active at the same time; this manages to take an exploding ball of energy and hold it in stasis for 12 minutes. After this he started writing (mostly boring, in my opinion) "symphonies" for large electric guitar ensembles, spawning legions of bespectacled imitators (anyone remember that DC band called Tone?) and occasionally striking gold. But this is rooted in whatever rock (or I guess, no wave) scene he came out of and it recalls a time when New York City was still a scummy, dirty place. 45 rpm as well, and on the same label as ESG!

The David Boykin Outet - 'Evidence of Life on Other Planets vol. 1' (Thrill Jockey)

This quintet is actually an outet, and if you are wondering why it's because Boykin is gonna take you to the outer reaches of the stratosphere, man. To prove it, he's thrown on a pair of Zubaz and he's playing his saxophone on a rock, to remind you all of how spiritual and connected-to-nature a jazz saxophonist can be. If he's trying to buy into the whole myth who can blame him? He's in Chicago and there's a hell of a scene there to grow up in. The picture makes him look pretty young and you'd think there wasn't a band since none of them are pictured, but this is very much a group deal. Boykin takes the center a few times for some tenor soloing but lots of the tunage is shared, particularly with the flautist, Nicole Mitchell. There's no point where this thing erupts - it's more concerned with constructing an atmosphere, one of spacey flowing melodic interplay. The tones hover around like a spaceship, with the drummer relegated to atmospheric percussion for most of side 1. 'Astro Lilly' does remind me of something off late 50's Sun Ra, only maybe better recorded. It's gotta be an influence, I guess, with the space imagery, and John Gilmore worship -- but I can't help but feel this is more of a chill out, down in the dirt, salt of the earth kinda record instead. Each track ends with such lackluster applause I'm amazed they kept it on the record -- it's like most of the audience was out in the lobby or something. I jest; there's no reason to rag on the David Boykin Outet, for their only sin is really being too rooted in the post-skronk anti-tradition, and that's no crime if you ask me. There's a lot of nuanced playing and the final track, 'Hypnotic', may not quite live up to its name but it's at least catchy, painting images of smoky air, wooden floors and brown trousers. There's a lot of vocalising but it's recorded sorta weirdly, so it's easy to tune out, though I like it. It's been twelve years since this was recorded and I haven't heard anything about Mr. Boykin so who knows where he is now. It's kinda weird this is on Thrill Jockey - almost like they owed someone a favour or something? I mean, the design/layout of the sleeve is practically shocking compared to the aesthetic they usually push and you think they were putting out Jim Shepard records around the same time as this ... what a funny world we live in. I remember this guy came to town once but it was a solo sax show so I skipped it.

4 April 2010

Box Codax - 'Only an Orchard Away' (Thin Man)

A strange side-project of a Franz Ferdinand guy, this record veers between goofy toy-electro ('Pollockshields Girls') to creepy, undanceable disco ('Naked Smile', 'Missed Her Kiss') to warped canyon-jams ('Like a Rock'). Does it ever stop to figure itself out? Does it have an identity? Not really, but there's some totally retarded drum programming to enjoy while you try to make sense of it. Ah, Germans. A few novelty bits like 'I Swam With the Otter' are just fucking unbearable, but then there's occasionally some goof-offs that work, like 'Do It With Charm', with European street music flair and extemporised lyrics. I mean, most of this record comes off like a total joke but one that is done quite strictly. If I'm struggling to find something kind to say, I'll comment that you can definitely hear the friendship of the participants, and the jokes are actually too strange (or too "inside") to be funny to anyone, so maybe you can reinterpret this as serious 'art' music. The voice of a new generation. What the kids are into. You know. I've been to Pollokshields and the girls aren't anything to write home about, but I'm strangely forgiving of this bit of goofing off.

David Bowie - 'Lodger' (RCA)

Lodger's a weird one because it's not actually that weird; it's considered part of a trilogy with Low and "Heroes" but it's not as dense and avoids the extended synth instrumentals. But there's something simultaneously wooly and rusty about Lodger which is why I've always had a soft spot for it. None of the songs are really catchy enough to be hit singles, and I guess the charts felt this way too. There's a turn towards multiculturalism, such as 'Yassassin' and 'African Night Flight', so this feels nothing like the concrete Berlin walls of Low. Maybe more like a Peter Kubelka film! But motion is the name of the game - 'Move On' and 'Red Sails' grip onto the way the world was becoming smaller at the end of the century. There's something very temporary about the whole thing - the band never gels, the lyrics suggest there's not going to be much happening tomorrow and the album is called Lodger, after all. The post-apocalypticism is most evident on the opener, 'Fantastic Voyage', but I think this track is brilliant because it sounds like it could be on John Cale's Paris 1919 album. So even though we're talking about bombs dropping, time unraveling backwards, etc. it's still has that feeling of sipping a cup of tea and staring out the window at the English countryside. I think Lodger is also interesting because even though it's the most pop-oriented of the trilogy in terms of construction, it's really hard to interface with. Adrian Belew plays guitar all over it and there's a few laser beams poking through the ozone layer, but generally George Murray's farty bass and Carlos Alomar's rhythm guitar keep things relatively contained. There's a lot of creaking in the edges; Eno's presence is so well-integrated that it's possible to ignore him. 'Red Money' is a great closing track that still escapes my brain as soon as it's heard; this is the detached, difficult Bowie, the one from The Man Who Fell to Earth. I've always felt like I never dedicated myself enough to Lodger, merely proclaiming it as "great" and then filing it away before I really could creep into the cracks. The distinct feeling that maybe there's nothing on the other side of the artifice should be troubling, but instead it's where the pleasure lies.

2 April 2010

David Bowie - 'Low' (RCA)

The late '70s Bowie records are enduring favorites among art-rock scholars, Britheads who wear weird sunglasses and people who spend a lot of money on shoes. It's funny when listening to Low now because I don't really know where to place it. I don't think it's an amazing experimental depature but it is definitely cold and alienated. It's a tale of two sides though, positively Lorcalike in it's distinction. The 'rock' side, A, feels pointedly futurist, with a weird (yet Eno-driven) band. The instrumentals at the beginning and end are a little too polished for me; Eno's crazy synths (which are detailed in the notes for each track) recall the early Roxy stuff, but much more serious, much more pessimistic even. Though there are some searing guitar bits and occasional stadium-rock flourishes ('Sound and Vision', right??) I generally feel like I'm driving around some shithole Northern European city staring at concrete 90' angles through a dirty backseat window. I know it's probably side 2 that people get excited about, but 7 times out of 10 I'm gonna go for the pop stuff. The second side, well, it's bleak and intense and thick with synths. I think 'Warszawa' sets the tone pretty well, and you can probably argue there's a pretty good Eno/Bowie balance here. 'Weeping Wall' is the solo Bowie track, a rare example of pure experimentation, and the xylophone surely shows the influence of West Coast minimalism. Well, that and the dense, horizontal sound walls. This is a record that has a place in rock history I've never quite felt was something I could get behind; I must say I like party Bowie, so gimme Hunky Dory or Diamond Dogs any day. But I don't own those records; I own this and Lodger which is *not* me trying to show off my art-rock cards (I have enough other examples of that) but purely circumstance: I only got into Bowie in my late 20s (because as a kid I saw a horrible Tin Machine performance on Saturday Night Live and swore him off forever), and thus passed up all the classic glam-pop albums a million times in my record hunting days, only coming across these late in life at flea markets. This was made around the same time as The Idiot and Lust for Life by Iggy Pop and it carries that same hard, dark side of the 70s Eurotrash vibe that I learned to love about those albums. I assume this could grow to be a favourite, but Lodger goes just a bit further and maybe that's why I warmed to that more quickly. This is on the same shitty vinyl as all other RCA releases in the 70s so maybe it would sound better if I heard a decent pressing.

Bonzo Dog Band - 'Let's Make Up and Be Friendly' (United Artists)

These merry jokesters have a cult following that I have never participated in, but maybe that's just because my only recording is this uneven reunion album. Viv Stanshall is practically worshipped by a few people I know, and I do enjoy 'Sir Henry at Rawlinson End', so it's good to have a 9 minute track about this fictional madland at the beginning of side two. It's a semi-spoken piece that's a jolly bit of fun, indeed. But the music? There's a few great songs on here, but I like the Bonzo Dog Band the most when they take on a weirdo R. Stevie Moore vibe, like on 'King of Scurf'. Their whole music hall/eclecticism thing is nice - I guess it's a sort of lost art - but it's not for me. The humour (mostly) fails to tickle me - 'The Strain', a track about constipation, starts things on a juvenile level. Just because you have an English accent doesn't mean you're any more erudite than an Adam Sandler record. I think I will never be able to clearly articulate exactly where my fine line is with funny songwriting. Why is early Sparks brilliant, but I don't like Dead Milkmen? Why do I like early They Might Be Giants but hate the later stuff? Why do I love Camper Van Beethoven but hate the Barenaked Ladies? (Ok, that's an obvious answer). With the Bonzos, maybe I'm being too harsh - there are a few cuts that I enjoy here, but it feels a bit haphazard and, well, I already said 'uneven' but that's the best word I can think of. The liner notes are a marvelously automatic stream, but again, they would be better if the music wasn't so ha-ha Monty Pythonish. Neil Innes did actually write a lot of the Python's best known tunes, and I sure ate the up in my teenage years. If only I had heard the Bonzos back then! Things just weren't as easy to hear as they are now.