Sunday, September 23, 2007

81: A Birthday Letter to John Coltrane

To John,

Today would’ve been your 81st birthday. It’s actually beautiful out: sunny, 81 degrees, blue skies around. The warmth hasn’t prevented the leaves from starting to turn, falling gently onto the pavement with every gust of wind. Those first few notes of “A Love Supreme” perfectly sum up the air out there. It would’ve been a good day for you to celebrate, lots of candles for you to blow out…with your sax.

You weren’t even 40 when liver cancer took you. You had to be on the brink of SOMETHING. I listen to what you were doing. I try and put myself back then, mind blown by something powerful, sounds so extreme they were simultaneously pummeling tradition AND fracturing the sound scaffold. Even forty-two years after Ascension exploded into the jazz scene, it’s still captivating. It’s still pure. It still begs discussion and consideration whenever ears come in contact with it.

What were you trying to do? How far would you have gone had you not died so early?

I always found it remarkable, listening to your records, that one man could so easily define an era with a saxophone. Certain moments have made me emotional while others have made me close my eyes so I can better hear them. I’ve smiled at some moments and been frustrated with others. Every journey you took is so readily available for all to hear, so mystifyingly translated. Some performers lose something in a studio. That didn’t seem to happen with you, though I will admit that I might think differently had I ever seen you perform live.

The turbulence of the 60s was not only conveyed through the generation’s music, but also through your vision. You gave us the Civil Rights struggle, the disillusionment of people, the anger backing Vietnam protest and disenchantment. But, you also gave us the hope that fueled the struggle and opened cognitive and creative doors for all to explore. It’s the type of artistic accomplishment that I’ve always wanted to bring about myself, but I never owned that THING that makes it possible. I envy you for having had it, but admire you for making your own music on your terms. It would’ve probably been easy to keep on writing A Love Supreme, but you had faith that people would understand.

For me personally, the following is why I’m thankful to you:

• Your live and studio performances with Thelonious Monk
• Your solo during Miles Davis’s classic, “So What”
Giant Steps (“Syeeda’s Song Flute”)
The Classic Quartet, most notably Coltrane, Crescent (“Lonnie’s Lament”), Live At Birdland and of course, A Love Supreme
Ascension and Live At The Village Vanguard Again!

I’m convinced, at least from an American perspective, that “beauty” would have never existed if you hadn’t known what it was supposed to sound like. I’m glad, for our sake, that someone was around to press record when you wanted to give us an idea.

Happy Birthday to you.

Letters From A Tapehead

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Album In My Hand Is My Reward

Marnie Stern
In Advance of the Broken Arm
Kill Rock Stars
Released 2.20.07

Rating: 9 out of 10

Upon first listen, and it’s been literal months of listening, Marnie Stern’s In Advance of the Broken Arm isn’t the easiest thing to absorb. Ponder the idea for a moment that someone like Stern remembers every record she’s ever heard and wanted very badly to mash them all together like a protein shake of her greatest hits, figuring that that would make for a unique experience. Guitar-wise, she’s anywhere between Eddie Van Halen and D. Boon. Vocally, a cheerleader tapped her vein while reading Plath, maybe gleaned a couple inflections from The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and fell in love with studio filters. Rhythmically? Too structured for Free Jazz; too chaotic for Prog. In Advance of the Broken Arm is, in a word, “unfocused.” It’s also one of the most original albums you’ll ever hear.

I’ve been dreading this review specifically because it’s been a trial coming up with words to put to this album. As best as I can put it, In Advance of the Broken Arm is in advance of the broken ear drum, the broken thumbs, the broken wrists, the broken strings and the broken concepts of independent music, for the sake of the advance in appreciating what Stern’s trying to do. Hella drummer, Zach Hill, acts with Stern as co-arranger for the album and together they come up with senseless acts of aural violence, an abruptly off-beat mix of hefty, fucked-up, billowing fields of anti-structure. And, as Stern sings “Every Single Line Means Something,” we can gather that she knows what she’s doing. Stern HAS to know what she’s doing: She’s creating her own destroyed brand of sonic notage and expecting us to understand.

Beginning with the thrown-together percussive havoc of “Vibrational Match,” Stern presents herself the cute intellectually charged poet. Her vocal style alone makes one wonder if she spent a lot of her life not being taken seriously, driving her into the bottomless mental depths from which she pulled this music. ”Keep on, keep at it, keep on, keep at it…” as she says in follow-up “Grapefruit,” personal motivation to keep up with the music game or just a pep talk to keep the album running.

“Every Single Line Means Something” is probably the least randomly conceived song presented herein, and even that can’t stick to a definitive backbeat. Still, Stern does succeed at conveying a high level of emotion. Couple that with the album’s compelling chaos, it becomes personal.

The album’s high points:

Stern treats “Put All Your Eggs In One Basket And Then Watch The Basket!!!” like a dissonant jump-rope song, exuding a degree of childlike joy. “Logical Volume” follows like a non-stop air raid siren and mutates into a randomly Scotch taped onslaught of ideas. A Primus inspired bass loop sets off the caffeine crash of “This American Life,” which begs “Mythology come take me away.” “The Weight of a Rock” is straight-up trance, Zach Hill rocking some amazing energy amidst Stern’s off-tune riffs.

“Plato’s Fucked Up Cave,” my personal high point, is as broken as it sounds. Coming off drained and hopeless, Stern monotonously states ”I am blind, but I can dream/I can I can…” over a drunkenly out of sync but emotionally desperate bassline and guitar strum. At points, the music realizes the possibility of escape by speeding up, but then falls back into its rut once faced with the futility of its efforts.

”Where's that diamond ceiling/That I keep getting near/Where's that other feeling/That we'll get when we're out of here”

In the album’s closer, “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling,” Marnie Stern states the following:

”I am not looking to find a pot of gold/The picture in my head is my reward”

What she says has to be true. In Advance of the Broken Arm stands to gain admirers, but its only return will be that she created it. Evading mass-market appeal, evading any conventional understanding of what this is, Marnie Stern is definitely NOT looking for a pot of gold. But, she has come up with something different and honest. In Advance of the Broken Arm is a very loud reminder that constraints can be broken and that emotion can override structure. Being aware of how long ago this album released, I can only hope that someone reads this and gives the album a shot. It may take a couple listens to get it, but you’ll understand eventually.

Letters From A Tapehead

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Thank You, Corporate America, For Putting Some Sincerity Back Into Punk Rock…

Pissed Jeans
Hope For Men
Sub Pop
Released 6.5.07

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Punk rock sucks. Why? I’m glad you asked.

The tycoons, all the business minded professionals of the world are still living in that place so long ago when they were slamming into like-minded leather jacket wearing spikeheads, flipping off Ronald Reagan and swearing that they would never, EVER, go into that Wall Street abyss where the money runs the show and humanity resembles a remarkably intricate apparatus that keeps the economy running. Of course these people would age and eventually find their way into that world. Of course they would be nostalgic for when they could boast about never being a part of it. And, of course, it would make perfect sense for dull, white, corporate cruise ships to be advertised with Iggy Pop belting out “Lust For Life” in the background. Misses the point, granted, but still perks up the ears and makes shuffleboard look so much more bad ass.

Basically, the spirit goes bye-bye, like the hippie optimism that fueled punk rock’s cynicism in the first place. We all wind up serving the Man and are left to reminisce about when we could afford to be self-righteous.

But, punk rock is also what gets you to where you’re headed, so long as you kick and claw your way there. If you can’t necessarily capture the lifestyle, don’t shortchange its effectiveness or its reason for being. It’s remarkably motivational, and in this day and age of cubicle occupancy, it only makes sense that punk rock would emerge not only from suburban malcontents that hate their moms and dads, but also from the straight-laced sector that pays the bills.

Meet Pissed Jeans: Allentown, PA’s own little band of corporate-bred misanthropy. The popular notion that one must be outside the system in order to be “punk rock” is bullshit and, with their album Hope For Men, Pissed Jeans proves it. Hope For Men is raw, unapologetic and capable of turning 9-to-5 into a reason for screaming but not at the expense of having to make a living. Pissed Jeans takes advantage of their angst without complaining, just stating the facts and finding morbidity and pleasure in the seemingly mundane. “People Person” can just be something that solely pertains to singer, Matt Korvette, or it can be something that everyone in the corporate machine can relate to. Either way, it at least feels sincere.

Pissed Jeans experiments with rhythm, but keeps it repetitious for the most part. At times, they willingly risk damning their bare-bones punk approach with hard rock angles, but keep their musical shifts so unpolished that they make perfect sense. Guitarist, Bradley Fry, plays with some Sabbath-inspired riffs in the droning “Secret Admirer” and even hits Nugent territory with the musical shift at the end of “I’m Turning Now.”

Vocally speaking, melody isn’t in the cards. Korvette will either scream in tune or go off into spoken-word tantrums like he does in the eerie “Scrapbooking” or the excitedly divine “Fantasy World:”

…itssss Fffriday night/itssss Sssaturday mornin’/in my fantasy world/sssittin’ in piles of clothes/an’ drinkin’ a soh-DAH/with a slice a peet-SAH/in my fantasy world…”

His approach is that of a male Patti Smith, as he evokes a primal delivery without needing to sound intellectual, just alive and true. There’s no shortage of snarling rock outfits in the world, but this one grabbed my attention and feels too refreshing to be anything other than legit.

Straight ahead rockmanship can be found with the violence inciting power of “A Bad Wind” and “I’ve Still Got You (Ice Cream).” Tom-heavy noisemaker, “Caught Licking Leather,” is a hissing whirlwind of feedback and frustration that shifts momentarily into a straight ahead rock stride and then collapses back into the storm.

Closing track, “My Bed,” is a bluesy garage jam that definitely hits Sabbath-meets-Melvins territory, guitar accentuating every drum hit before launching into a fast-paced bridge that self-destructs into feedback and cymbal rage.

“The Jogger” is the only instance where the album feels off-track, relying too much on effects to power an otherwise strangely conceived soliloquy about, you guessed it, the jogger and its relation to, what I’m guessing is, the Suburban Nightmare. Even “Scrapbooking,” for all its deviation from the album’s established design, makes more sense here as Korvette maintains his frontman signature and attitude. “The Jogger” is approached with more eloquence and, as a result, feels “announced” as opposed to “dreaded,” or even “felt.”

Hope For Men’s title is probably meant as some ironic take on our present state of being, but winds up acting, somewhat, as a hope for punk. The genre itself finally exists, in an evolved form, within a world more people are familiar with: the often-unsatisfying world of corporate complacency and conformity. In their own way, Pissed Jeans have crafted for themselves a way to deal with the strain and are possibly carving themselves out of their daytime rut in the process, which actually sounds pretty punk rock to me.

Letters From A Tapehead

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Joe Zawinul

Today, I heard of Joe Zawinul’s passing. Cancer. Age 75. After having just finished his last tour with his band, The Zawinul Syndicate. He was an Austrian born organist, instrumental in the development of Jazz Fusion. He is probably best known for his founding electric jazz pioneers, Weather Report.

The opening bass notes of “Birdland” are permanently etched into my grey matter, the result of my father’s excited devotion to Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, probably Joe Zawinul’s best known contribution to electric jazz. “Listen to THAT!” he’d say, raising his finger to the ceiling of whatever domicile we were standing in, just so I’d know what to listen for. Prominent in his radar were those distinct fretless bass lines by Jaco Pastorious. Otherwise, he was all about Zawinul, always commenting on how brilliant the guy was.

I could appreciate Zawinul, but I’d never really taken to him. That changed though the first time I heard Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, an album which owes a lot of its being to Zawinul. Being only two tracks and almost forty minutes in length, In A Silent Way is a magically entrancing experience and it was Davis’s first attempt at keeping it electric. John McLaughlin’s hypnotic guitar licks, Tony Williams’s restless hi-hat, those keys that bore the touch of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, Zawinul’s low end organ. And then, of course, Miles and his super smooth trumpet, booming over the gloriously layered subtlety all around, but never quite stealing the show. The second track, “In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” was partly born of Zawinul’s genius. He came up with the bookends to Davis’s piece and essentially supplied the album with its title and aesthetic.

As Miles advanced into Jazz Fusion, Zawinul was there to help him again with Bitches Brew, a milestone record that challenged what jazz could do and where it could go. It pretty much acted as a take-off point for a slew of Fusion acts like McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Zawinul’s own Weather Report. The album gave electric jazz credibility, despite a lot of public scrutiny, and gave Miles a direction that he would continue to pursue through the 70s, creating some of the strangest, boldest and bleakest records of his career.

Zawinul’s “Pharaoh’s Dance,” a 20-minute love song to organized noise that could very well have captured the first signs of trance music, took up one whole side of Davis’s celebrated double-LP. It was the opening of a landmark.

Having played with the likes of Cannonball Adderly early in his career, to being so instrumental in Miles Davis’s musical progression, to being key in the development of Jaco Pastorious as a well-known jazz entity, and being one of the most celebrated figures in modern music, we lost a good one today.

Only a month or so ago, I found a copy of Heavy Weather, sitting rather ragged, almost rotting, in a plastic crate at an outdoor junk sail. The two dollars I threw to the merchant almost felt like a ransom, like I was rescuing these sounds from being chewed into vinyl shards by some trash truck in northern New Jersey.

To Mr. Zawinul, saving your tunes will remain a worthwhile cause. Thank you for what you’ve given us.

Letters From A Tapehead

Monday, September 10, 2007

Very Mundane Awards

As I’m typing this, the MTV Video Music Awards are in full swing. Performers and musicians are winning little astronaut statues, thanking god that their video captured the attention of the American youth market and following up their insipid and insincere speeches with mediocre performances of their big hits. Just like every year.

Making a major appearance tonight on the program is Britney Spears, whom, I’m guessing is performing for the following reasons:

1). Attempting to disprove the opinion that she’s “lost it,” y’know…like her panties.

2). Attempting to take the public eye off her criminal lack of parenting skills. By the way, who was watching her fucking kids while she was on stage?

3). Attempting to remind her fans that, before she was a train wreck, she actually sang a couple songs; forgetting of course that her fans are now ten years older, and hopefully wise enough to leave her bullshit on the shelf.

4). Attempting to see how memorable she’ll be WITHOUT the aid of open-mouthed kisses from aging pop queens and sultry snake handling.


Somehow, Fall Out Boy beat out The White Stripes in the BEST GROUP category, which featured an otherwise unimpressive list of nominees. Maroon 5? Come on. The White Stripes, in the meantime, probably put out one of the best records this year and have done more with two people than Fall Out Boy could do with their four. The consolation here is that, by next year, the MTV attention span will have deleted Fall Out Boy in exchange for another shitty group with “edge.”

MOST EARTH-SHATTERING COLLABORATION winner was “Beautiful Liar” by Beyoncé and Shakira. In someone’s eyes, this is a big fucking deal.

The untalented and otherwise impossible to look at without wincing Fergie, from the extra-lame Black Eyed Peas, won the award for FEMALE ARTIST OF THE YEAR. Meanwhile, fellow nominee Amy Winehouse managed to bring credible soul music back into the mainstream. The lesson here girls, is that if you dance like a slut in Union Jack underwear, your efforts will be rewarded.

Out of a colossally disposable list of songs, Rhianna won MONSTER SINGLE OF THE YEAR and also won VIDEO OF THE YEAR. That one note she can sing with an almost exceptional lack of interest or soul managed to make quite an impression. Well, that and the fact that she’s essentially under JayZ’s “umbahrella – ella – ella – aye – aye – aye…” Poetry, man. ”Under my middlefingah – fingah – fingah – fin – fin – fin…”

MALE ARTIST OF THE YEAR went to Justin Timberlake. I hate to say it, but out of everyone else on the list, this isn’t such a bad choice, though Kanye West probably should’ve triumphed here.

Gym Class Heroes, or as I like to call them, Sugar Ray II, are MTV’s BEST NEW ARTIST in music. These guys beat out Amy Winehouse and whistle-happy Peter Bjorn & John, both of whom make better music. I’m actually surprised PB&J managed to make the list.

MTV: Keeping the “M” in “mundane” alive. There’s no way it still stands for “music.”

Letters From A Tapehead

Thursday, September 06, 2007

John Stanier: Battles with a Tomahawk

Consider Helmet to be one of the best bands you’ve ever heard in your life, even if you don’t really like them. Bringing jazz syncopation into their brand of experi-METAL if you will, Helmet essentially paved the way for the slew of worthless groups that live and die by the Drop-D. Not a winning endorsement for sure, but their records, In The Meantime and Betty in particular, kick the shit out of any nü-metal dance riff.

Consider John Stanier to be one of the best drummers you’ve ever heard in your life, even if you’ve never really listened to him. Adding depth to sometimes one-note riffs with his belled snare and that colossal kick drum, Stanier would take unforeseen opportunities to expand on a song’s rhythm, filling any empty space with a pound. Next time you hear In The Meantime’s title track, or “I Know” from Betty, you’ll understand what I mean.

Consider 2007 to be an interesting year for John Stanier, even if you have no idea what I’m talking about yet. Two releases:

Warp Records
Released 5.22.07

Rating: 9 out of 10

Industry meets jazz. Technology meets doo-wop. It’s difficult to know where exactly to place this band, as the mostly instrumental tracks featured on the band’s full-length debut, Mirrored, flirt with a lot in terms of genres, but seem to center ultimately around the world of tomorrow. New York quartet, Battles, might fall into the realm of “primitively modern.” They aren’t yet ready to abandon the guitar or the basic drum set, but they seem to be looking to at least stretch the boundaries of traditional vocalization or vocal harmonizing. Or, in the case of these guys, traditional “VOX.” It’s actually kind of a dangerous game they’re playing, one that could easily lead them down the poop chute of pretentiousness. But, instead, Battles is making something new: A love song to the digitized and an homage to everything that came before.

With the album’s opener, “Race: In,” Battles not only starts off the album but they also introduce their sound. Starting off with Stanier’s rather characteristic drum work, then leading into picked guitar licks, “Race: In” quickly adds its keyboard compatriots and its vocal harmonizing. From there, “Atlas” compounds on the machined aesthetics, churning away over tom beats while guitarist/keyboardist, Tyondai Braxton sings the song of the robotic chipmunk. In any instance where actual lyrics are involved, effects or speed with which the words are sung, make them hard to decipher. It’s easier to accept them as a musical element and nothing more.

For me, the winner on this record is “Tonto,” a 7-minute jam wherein guitar play is the focus. It may be the only track where modernity doesn’t play a role; it’s all about guitar textures and the flawlessly slowed climax.

Other notable tracks include “Rainbow,” which roars through high-pitched keyboard notes and percussive assault. The mellowed “Bad Trails” plays around with effects and vocal pitch and “Tij” comes off like very quick circus music and gets to be oddly repetitive toward its end. “Race: Out” comes in to shut it all down, fading out with a heavy snare and three-note guitar exchange.

And then you hit PLAY again. And again.

Ipecac Recordings
Released 6.19.07

Rating: 8 out of 10

Up until this point, Tomahawk has been one of the more accessible of Mike Patton’s myriad projects, this being one that actually isn’t his. Experimental, but usually concept free, Anonymous breaks Tomahawk’s two-record mold, seeming to take a cue from the Fantômas model, and comes up with something thematic. In this instance, they decided to try and visit Native American music and see what they could do.

Ex-Jesus Lizard guitarist, Duane Denison, is really into Native American culture, hence the band’s name, Tomahawk. He did some digging and found some late 19th century Indian music and wound up inspired to come up with new variations on the material, some of which appears with its original titles. Anonymous is the result and it’s a fascinating, and respectful, listen.

Sometimes brooding and dark, but always mystic, Patton, Denison, and Stanier, create a truly desert-born piece of ritual rock that is unlike anything you’ve heard before. Its rhythms belong to the Indians, but Tomahawk has not shied away from putting modern touches on aged ritual music, most notably in the entrancing “Red Fox.”

Some of these songs, especially “Mescal Rite 1,” “Ghost Dance,” and “Antelope Ceremony” feature Patton in chant mode, trying to invoke the voices of old. But, he does add his own lyrics to tracks, letting “inspiration” carry some of the album, and not just relying on outright appropriation. “Totem,” at times, hits the unmistakable strides of Tomahawk’s previous albums, though they break into the vocal refrains that return to the ritualistic theme that they do a great job maintaining. The same can be said for “Cradle Song,” “Omaha Dance,” and “Sun Dance” which almost sounds metal at points.

It’s only at the album’s climax where the band drops ritual, and goes a little country for “Long, Long Weary Day,” a lonely guitar piece.

So, for John Stanier, one-time back beat for one of the most underrated bands of all time, it’s been a busy and eclectic year. Two bands, two distinctive sounds and two worthwhile listens. Everyone pays attention to the guy up front, but sometimes the guy behind the scenes is the one doing something different.

Class dismissed.

Letters From A Tapehead

No Ripcord: Keiji Haino & SUMAC

A review of the recently released experi-METAL (buh-dum-chck) collaboration between Keiji Haino and SUMAC is up at No Ripcord .  The album...