Friday, April 28, 2006


Fitted Sweats' latest, but only if you're somewhere where laughing like an insane person is acceptable behavior.

Viva La Reputation!

It takes a bit to get me to post about live shows these days. It's not just cuz I now live in North Carolina and don't see shit. Hey, I made it to the opening night kick-off of Wilco's recent tour*, checked out Dinosaur Jr. reunion gig last month where they actually played new material**, and two weeks ago was dazzled by the high-octane antics of Th' Legendary Shack Shakers.***

But somehow none of them were as impressive as The Reputation's gig last Friday at the historic (read: dilapidated) Milestone in Charlotte. They took to the stage after a succession of mildly engaging freak-folk acts and plugged in their guitars and stared down the scant crowd of 20 people. "We're about to be a lot fucking louder than everyone else here tonight," Elizabeth Elmore said. "And we're not trying to be. That's just who we are." And with that they kicked into their first song, a blistering and propulsive rock tune who's corruscating riff was matched only by the scalpel-sharp lyrics. A bunch of alterna hippy-types clutched their ears and headed for the exit before they even hit the chorus.

Now most bands would hardly give their all for such a miniscule crowd, especially one that they managed to thin out just by virtue of plugging in their instruments. But the foursome didn't hold anything back and actually leaned into the songs, pushing them further than the album versions. They tore through a set entirely composed of their best galvanizing rock tunes like "Bottle Rock Blues," "Either Coast," and "Alaskan" along with a handful of new songs that sounded immediately terrific. The band was clearly having a good time, the sound was excellent, and even though Elmore claimed her voice was shot it had a nice grain that sounded appropriate. They interacted with the crowd, joked with each other, and then ruthlessly ripped the head off each song in succession. It was the sort of display of good faith and sheer artistry that's all too rare these days.

It's shocking to me that The Reputation aren't better known. Despite raves from the likes of Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau, being named "Hot Band" in Rolling Stone, and plenty of good reviews, they seem to fall below the radar of most indie rock fans. That's a shame because Elmore writes some of the smartest and emotionally devastating lyrics going. And the band is tight and ferocious, uncorking stinging riffs alongside subtly inventive arrangements. Beginning with Sarge, Elmore has cut her music from the fairly traditional pop-punk cloth. I suspect some folks give her stuff a cursory listen and decide there's nothing overly special about it. But if you listen closer, the band doles out some crazy rhythms and complex textures while still offering the pleasures of verse-chorus-verse.

And then there's the words. Perhaps they're too easy to miss amid the tumult of the music but it's to Elmore's credit that she didn't become some acoustic troubadour when Sarge split. Because she's got the chops to wipe 99.5% of the confessional singer-songwriters off the map. Her work has a clear-eyed emotional honesty that's both bracing and touched with more than a bit of melancholy. She can unleash torrents of images or practically go haiku and switches effortlessly between intimate confession and character acting. I hate to quote lyrics, but the sparse opening of "New Town" captures the stifling and wary feeling of moving to a new place better than most entire songs: "New town/ fit in/ dumb it down/ hold it in/ stare straight ahead and watch your back/ see it through to the end."

Sadly, the band is now without a label since it appears Lookout! is in dire financial straits. Here's hoping some savvy indie like Merge will give the band the good home it deserves. Elmore's got a law degree from Northwestern so she's not going to go hungry but it would be nice if she could stay on the road and in the studio and out of the courts. So check out the band's myspace or pick up one of their albums - both the self-titled joint and To Force A Fate are highly recommended.

*Alternating between trad alt-country dirges and freeform noise jams makes for a schizophrenic show but the brand new tunes were exquisite - like Abbey Road floating in space.
**Who told them trading vocals like Sleater-Kinney was a good idea?!? But you still can't beat the guitar tone and Lou's amazingly heavy but fluid and hard bass lines.
***Swinging from the rafters an actual description, not a figure of speech.

Heaven (that's how we knew).

High school USA, mid-eighties. Someone much cooler takes pity on you and introduces you to the Velvet Underground. Also Townsend’s Lifehouse, but you don’t hold that against him. Somehow you find your way to Talking Heads and New Order. You’re still taping “Greatest American Hero” off of the radio, though. (Believe it or not.) Cut to college in New England, late eighties. All you hear is U2 and PE and CSNY. One day you catch a local live show. The unknown opening band, also local, is catchy enough. You buy the EP. You catch them a few more times, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not. You buy the t-shirt. You buy the first full-length. You decide: THIS is the band I will take as my own. It’s a good fit. You are hopelessly unaware of any band backstory, which is relatively rich. It doesn’t matter. You buy the next album; it has a gatefold. This feels like the beginning of the end. Then the last gasp on a major label; graduation; oblivion.

Cut to April 2006. The mySpace page. And the recent fond remembrance at a music blog. And: He Is God.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Signifying flunky.

Inter alia:

I come not to bury Evans in praise, but to de-hype him. At Bagatellen, Tom Djll has penned a heartfelt and rich "nonbeliever's appreciation of Bill Evans," and in particular attempts to de-mythify the 1961 live set at the Village Vanguard that has become the widely accepted ne plus ultra of piano trio performance [see Adam Gopnick's 2001 New Yorker piece on this release]. Some alternatingly insightful and infuriating comments down below highlight in a nutshell all that is generous and petty about jazz writers and listeners today. Or perhaps it's just blog posters today. Listen to Evans here. Read about Djll's own music here.

One day, when I was browsing Soulseek folders of people with good tastes, I came across a compilation called "Lux and Ivy's Favorites." So begins yet another FMU blog post crammed full of pretention-free arcana---obsessiveness never seemed so sensible. Anyway, 174 songs with the Cramps garbage-scented seal of approval for you to discover on your own.

One of my best friends was really into the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Violent Femmes, etc, but I thought he had terrible taste in music, and I kept going back to my beloved Mancini tape. New-to-me blogger and jazz composer/bandleader Darcy James Argue running the changes on influences and anxieties. DJA's group Secret Society recently played the Bowery Poetry Club, and this perf was written up by the indefatigable nightafternight blog. DJA generously (and rather quickly) posted mp3s of the outing; check the right-hand column of his blog, though for this most recent concert the year is listed incorrectly as 2005. I will enjoy getting to know this Secret Society, which at first blush claims something from the Gil Evans pile, the Muhal Orchestra pile, the Mingus pile, and the pop pile that contains everything referenced above. It's all about DJA here.

Wiki waki woo-hoo. Some trendspotting, Timo Thompson-style: indie-wiki. Wikis have sprouted for Mission of Burma [turn up PC volume before clicking], Destroyer, and Silver Jews. The aspiring music blogger can also find community via the simple magic of wikification. And for good measure: the wicca wiki.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Coda: 2005.

As a coda of sorts to Jay’s inspiring top ten movie recap for ’05, and just in time to accompany the first flowering of 2006 best-ofs, I’d like to offer my own lightweight remembrance of the year in music. I’m no good with lists—my tastes are artificial enough as it is, and the list-making just seems to exacerbate the tendency—but one new jazz album really stood out for me. So, for whatever it’s worth, here is:

four heartbeats
The Good Professor’s Best New Jazz Album of 2005:
1. William Parker Quartet, Sound Unity

[Statisticians in the house will appreciate that the total pool from which this award stems is somewhere in the vicinity (statisticians love that term) of five.]

From the moment it arrived in the mail last summer, unannounced, a goodwill gift from the princely Stephen J. of Aum-Fi, this record has given me so much pleasure. In a year that featured three outstanding reissues, heralding no less a trinity than Bird, Monk, and Trane, this six-track disk from Messrs. Parker (bass), Drake (drums), Barnes (trumpet), and Brown (alto) stakes its claim for the here and now, while still paying respect to jazz progenitors.

Parker, bless him, writes full-on songs. Sometimes with lyrics (see “Raining on the Moon”), though (bless him) not here. Most of these tunes start out with a strong melodic statement made by the two horns together; the harmonies generated aren’t very far from the twinned lines of the classic Jazz Passengers of forty years ago. The solos that follow typically build on notions introduced by the theme. I guess this makes the album more “in” than “out,” but one of the side effects of an album this enjoyable is that those kinds of concerns couldn’t matter less.

This is a group—these artists have spent time together—I mean, the rhythm section has recorded their own album of duets—and their simpatico with one another is immediately apparent. Drake and Parker are in the pocket so deep they form their own event horizon. It’s also a recording of a group in front of an audience; all six tunes were recorded at two gigs from a Canadian jaunt in the summer of 2004. The fidelity, and separation, is beautiful, intimate—with only minimal audience sound, but the heightened sense of risk and event that only comes when playing live.

Modern jazz can come across as a deeply un-relevant music. Part of Parker’s strength as a leader (of the group, if not the NYC free jazz firmament) is how he combines a groundedness in the present with an awareness of and respect for what came before. The four songs recorded in Vancouver on a July 2 night are folk songs—Spiritual Unity begets Sound Unity—as simple in melody as they are deep with resonances. From Parker’s notes: “‘Wood Flute Song’ is written for the late trumpet player Don Cherry…. ‘Hawaii’ is a song written in honor of Frank Lowe”; while ‘Harlem’ and ‘Groove’ express a strong sense of place (Jamaica, in the latter case) with a beauty that speaks, to this listener, of human possibility and every jazz metaphor having to do with the balance between individuality and common cause.

The album isn’t without its missteps. The twenty minute title track—a stretched out high-wire act that doesn’t achieve the required tautness—was almost certainly a “you had to be there” moment. And as much as I love Hamid Drake, I’ve never been a fan of the drum solo. But these quibbles aside, were a Venusian to land on my stoop tomorrow insisting on hearing something that best represents all that jazz has to offer in the mid-oughts, I would not hesitate before spinning this.

And I'd send him here to buy it.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


Just a reminder that Manchester and the BBC will tomorrow present Ever Fallen in Love? (With Someone You Shouldn't've Fallen in Love With): The Musical.

Happy spring holidays, everyone.

Anxiety of influence.

I've been hanging out with some film fanatics recently and it's interesting how these folks seem to fall into certain camps under the intense sway of a particular critic. Those whose ideas about film spring from the catholic-but-kooky tastes of Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader. Or from the so-wrong-he's-not-even-wrong Dictionary of Film author David Thomson. Or from the brilliant writer and inspired argument-starter Pauline Kael, who Woody Allen astutely described as "having all the attributes of a great critic, except taste." And he wasn't being glib, folks. There's even one person under the sway of the current film critics of The New Yorker - if you can even call them critics. They're more like smug wanna-be comedians who audition their limp one-liners at the expense of the films they're reviewing; their pieces are an endless series of winks.

Anyways these people's fidelity to the tastes and ideas of a single critic struck me as, well, weird. I've come to film with no filter and no classes. I don't need no critic to tell me the movies of Harmony Korine are pure genius - and good thing, because I don't know of any critic who will back me up on that. And it doesn't bother me that every critic and their maiden aunt loves 'Vertigo' because that movie is genius too and there's no money in being contrary just for the sake of it. So here I am patting myself on the back for my rugged individualism in movie taste when I suddenly remember. Oh, shit. Maybe there was no critic who shaped my view of movies so completely, but there was one who did that for music. And I was just as much under the sway of his spirit as my friends were under the tutledge of their gurus.

Two guesses and first one doesn't count. Right: Lester Bangs.

The immortal Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung was foisted on me by an English prof during my impressionable first year of college. I went right to the essay on The Stooges "Funhouse" because my friend Ted had just lent me the album and I couldn't for the life of me figure out what the fuck was going on there. I mean, was this music or just BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAARRRRCCH!!!!! What did it all mean? Lester had some answers and good ones they were, too. Reading him gave voice to some of my pent-up inarticulate musical feelings and showed how obsessing about music didn't have to be a static and undigested thing. You could give some of that love back. Writing about music could be its own artform and creative expression. (Yeah, it hasn't been so much since Lester died and Greil ascended into Harry Smith Heaven, but that's neither here nor there).

That summer, after an operation left me with my jaw wired shut for eight weeks, unable to do more than grunt and salivate over solid food that I couldn't eat, I read Psychotic Reactions back-to-back twice. It was the summer of Lester Bangs, renting tons of foreign movies, and milkshakes. It was the summer of searching out every album Lester mentionned as if they were the holy grail: PiL's 'Metal Box,' Charles Mingus 'Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,' Sex Pistols 'Great Rock n Roll Swindle,' Patti Smith's 'Radio Ethiopia,' MC5's 'Kick out the Jams,' The Godz ESP recordings, Coltrane's 'Africa/Brass,' Otis Rush 'Original Cobra Recordings,' Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. And of course Richard Hell and the Voidoid's 'Blank Generation.' They weren't all solid gold, as witnessed by my copy of The Guess Who 'Live at the Paramount' (a rare example of criticism being better art than the art it describes). But fuck it, I'm glad I tracked down that expensive Dutch import of Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music' on CD. Years later, living on 2nd Avenue while some construction crew was jackhammering the street at 2 a.m., that album was the only thing that could drown out the racket so I could get some sleep!

And even though it seems like Lester became a bit of curmudgeon before he two-stepped off this mortal coil (see latest posthumous collection, the less impressive Bloodfeasts and Bad Taste), I like to think he was a pure spirit when it came to music. He dug what he dug, regardless of trends or non-trends, and trusted his gut so much that he was willing to revise his previously hard-fought opinions in public and in print. Maybe Lester was a pure soul but I know I can't say the same for myself. Because when I listen to a new album there's still a small part of me, the kid with his jaw still wired shut, wondering how Lester might've heard this particular platter. And I know I'm better for it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Fully loaded.

Happy birthday, Herbie Hancock. Long may he mwandishi.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Pop-up books.

This past week PopMatters has been giving Continuum's 33.3 series a thorough going over; I glommed right onto editor Rob Horning's dissenting voice, as he scratches in overly erudite fashion the uncomfortable itch that this series has long provoked in me. (Despite not having read a one; an earlier crab-out of mine almost led to a freebie, but it never came to pass.)

I don’t agree with everything Horning says, and I should add that on some level I really do appreciate the series—it’s hard not to make a mental list of albums worth the treatment, for example, and the serialist in me loves the hardcore design repetition—but when I read: “Devoting a monograph to an album … recasts the record as a curated objet d'art worthy of intensive analysis,” I nodded. (Note to Horning: you might rethink citing Derrida, in French, while critiquing the drive toward ivory towery musical writing. I’m just sayin’.) What is happening in this series is different than what happens in the Greil Marcus-edited Stranded, for example, with chapters from different critics devoted to desert-island discs, or the Phil Freeman-edited update of same that’s to come. A matter of scale, I guess, and degree of fetishization. In the case of Stranded, I’m not left wondering about what was left out; in a series pushing thirty volumes, there’s a tendency to ask why one’s faves are not part of this particular museum.

But the idiosyncratic selections are not my main beef at all, and I’m trying hard to figure out what it is about this series that grates enough to make me dislike it from a distance. I think the problem I have has something to do with that curatorial impulse, how the albums, simply by virtue of being collected and described between hard covers in a formalized series, are invested with a totemic importance that … what? obscures or alters their true meaning / genius / resonances? Nah. As Carl Wilson noted in his blog yesterday, if that happens, “either you’ve got a pretty weak album or a supernally powerful critic.” (A third option is: you’ve got a weak-willed reader who prefers received wisdom and mediated art to first-hand experiences.) Although speaking of totems, the process of turning these albums into books does mirror my own mildly discomfiting experience of turning what started as fan-based record buying into “collecting,” a trend I accept if not embrace.

On the curating tip: I think my distaste is at least partly based on my experience
Taking it to Bugs Meany
in the book trade, as an occasional curator/editor of series. Wherein the Iron law of oligarchy was typically activated, and, whatever the original impulse behind a given series, the point becomes the preservation and continuation of the series uber alles. I have no quibble with the authors, or the editor, and can’t even comment on individual volumes. (Even if the editor did kindly reject a book proposal of ours in recent months.) This is a meta-critique, stemming from one reader’s skeptical take on book series in general. And one who’s having trouble living with his inner curator. For what it’s worth, I also have problems with this series, to name another. I have zero problem whatsoever with this series, however.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Mystical dreams.

Y'all already heard this on NPR over the weekend, probably, but in case you missed it, the Rahsaan Roland Kirk portion [kindly scroll down ever so slightly] of Kurt Anderson's recent Studio 360 show on dreams is well worth the eight minutes it'll cost you, especially the bit at the end featuring Kirk's widow responding to a quotation from her late husband, as read by the interviewer, regarding his seeing music via dreams.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The inevitable end.

Sad to report the passing of Jackie McLean, at 74. NYTimes obit. All About Jazz obit.

In honor, and memoriam, a yousendit-fueled download, from McLean's 1967 album with Ornette (on trumpet), New and Old Gospel. Thematically appropriate, if not JM's shining moment.

"Lifeline" (15 MB)