Archive | August 2014

(New Album Review) Il Sogno del Marinaio- Canto Secondo

Il Sogno del Marinaio (“The Sailor’s Dream”) are Mike Watt on bass guitar, Andrea Belfi on drums, and Stefano Pilia on vocals and lead guitar. Due to time constraints, they were not completely satisfied with their first album, La Busta Gialla, and so it was on Canto Secondo that they were able to spend more time together working off of one another’s ideas. Canto Secondo, from what I can tell, is a loose concept album set in the American west.

I was excited to check this album out, knowing how Mike Watt has a long-standing interest in experimental music. My expectation, having not looked into Il Sogno del Marinaio before today, was that this would be something really rambunctious that would bring to mind Stormy Six, Art Bears, Etron Fou Leloublan, or any of those other singularly fascinating 70’s Rock In Opposition groups fast slipping into obscurity. Well, this record is a little bit like all that, but it has a charming difference–  it’s much more American, and in a good way. The band make their share of frantic prog-rock jams, but they borrow some influence from American folk-blues, maybe some other stuff that’s less clear. “Skinny Cat”, in which manic, scurrying drums and squawking guitars give way to a solemn march, best sums up the tone of this album. Canto Secondo sees Il Sogno del Marinaio making avant prog painted in subdued, earthy tones– very cool.

This could be the soundtrack to a bleak, existential spaghetti western. The lyrics, narrated by Pilia and Watt’s gravelly voices, mostly tell the story of a lone traveler moving through a landscape of forests and mountains. There isn’t a clear narrative, but one can tell that this is an album about a specific place, and it really takes you a dream-like journey at times, particularly on “Mountain Top” and “Us in their Land”. This is a very good album, and I’d recommend this group, along with Guapo, to any experimental music fan who’s curious about modern prog.

To my Portland readers: Il Sogno del Marinaio will be appearing on September 18th at the Doug Fir Lounge. I’m going to try and make that show, and I hope that I see you there!

(New Album Review) Brad Gibson- Poontet

Here is another great submission from a Washington-based musician, Brad Gibson’s jazz sextet Poontet’s self-titled debut EP.

The coupling of a provocative moniker and album cover to very pleasantly harmonic jazz sounds brings to mind all the really engaging fusion I’ve sampled in my life. Because, like Gibson noted in this interesting piece on the EP, the whole trick is to get people’s attention, because with some art it’s often best to be bold and go all out. Hence, all those fusion albums from the 60’s and 70’s that had really surreal album art that would always arouse my curiosity better than any review or simple description. I’m into that.

The point is that this is fun music that the band had a great time making, and that Gibson has got the right idea of how to promote it. This is very good jazz record that is never boring, and demonstrates a very mature vision. Gibson has a light touch, and one can tell in the perfectly precise momentum of these pieces and the seamless interplay between alto saxophonist Bryan Smith and trumpeter Scott Morning that he must be a demanding bandleader. I particularly appreciated “Twilight”– unpretentious and organic jazz that unfolds rather casually, and everything falls into place seemingly effortlessly. It’s a cool, humble record and I hope that my readers in the Northwest not only check it out but support Poontet. Here is a photo of them, by artist Denney Goodhew:


(New Album Review) Swans- To Be Kind

Those who listen closely to the new Swans album To Be Kind will not only be fascinated by its subtle lyrical thematic departure from the past, but will come away impressed by what is perhaps one of the best albums of their career. The album stretches itself just past the two hour mark, but it doesn’t lag for a second, unlike The Seer.

While the apocalyptic fury of Swans has not lessened over the years, since Children of God, Swans albums have evolved into the monolithic, visionary experiences that audiences expect them to be now. And as Michael Gira has advanced in age, he has indeed softened a little. In the past, Swans focused more on transgressive themes of society versus individuals, or individuals vying for power either in the context of society or in relationships with other individuals. Over time, the subject matter of Swans albums have become more occupied with more intangible metaphysical questions not meant to be answered in earnest.

These grandiose themes are that which keeps most of us returning to Swans. Norman Westberg and Christopher Hahn’s thrilling sonic punishment is probably just there to remind us that this is rock and roll, and perhaps to put us in the right frame of mind to take in the sublime. What’s really interesting in looking over these new Swans records is ruminating over Gira’s cryptic refrains about human nature, the Absolute, and knowledge.

A particularly haunting track is Gira’s tribute to Howlin’ Wolf “Just A Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)”. Indeed, Gira impressively captures Burnett’s raspy holler on the refrain “I’m just a little boy!” But then he takes us down a different path with the lines, “I’m not human! I need love!” Gira makes the unknowable and unquenchable source of human passion the subject of this song– his own passion and Burnett’s even more considerable passion  point the way to the engine inside so many of us.

I should not lie and say that To Be Kind represents the culmination of the Swans history, as the temptation is strong to label nearly all of this project’s absolutely overwhelming albums as these sorts of “culminations”. That assessment is what quite a few people I’ve spoken to or read seemed to give to The Seer, honestly. However, To Be Kind could certainly represent the finalization of the thematic shift that has been going on in Gira’s music for several decades. The Swans of the past (if we don’t count The Burning World, which I like, by the way) was often like a clenched fist– Swans at present has become a hand being cautiously extended in good faith.

“There are millions of stars in your eyes”… and with a line like that, something about this long, unsettling journey we’ve taken with Swans seems to arrive at something like a resolution. Even when we encounter Gira’s lyrical obsession with “As above, so below” on this album (“Love is blood! Blood is life!”), we rest assured that his relationship with these statements is not the same as before– they are simply statements about “what is” that come from a place of “descriptive” detachment. In fact, the most aggressive song on the album, “Oxygen” seems to be confidently expressing defiance at the ghosts that were so often the topics of Gira’s earlier work.

The story of Swans has turned deeper and deeper inward, and now the malaise has been diffused. Perhaps the end of the world is coming, perhaps the essential condition of this world is chaos, but all that is separate from what we know we can control. “I will let it go” Gira intones on “Kirsten Supine”. It’s been a hell of a trip, and though I obviously don’t know if it’ll go any further, I’ll just say I’d be perfectly content if it ended here.

For all of my Portland readers, I hope you’re as excited as I am to see Swans at the Roseland Theater on September 6th. Buy your tickets as soon as possible, as the show is almost certain to sell out very soon. Here’s hoping I see you there, it’s sure to be a good one!

(New Album Review) Has-Lo & Castle- Live Like You’re Dead

So far, I haven’t talked about hip-hop in this journal. I’m not necessarily that into rap, but I try to keep up with some of it, and I’m happy to make my first post on this topic about one of the best hip-hop albums of the year, Live Like You’re Dead by Has-Lo & Castle.

I have mixed thoughts about how hip-hop has panned out in the 2010’s. I find myself listening to Main Attrakionz and Lil B mostly because I have so much difficulty appreciating other modern rap. You see, the late 90’s and early 00’s really were an interesting time for underground hip hop– amid the commercially-minded rap that was released in this period, there was a nearly endless list of releases from lyrically interesting emcees. Some of them were established artists soldiering on from the early and mid nineties, others were just getting on their feet– all the same, they had stories to tell and they loved their art. Now, for the most part, rap is often just so…lyrically uninteresting. For rap to be lyrical, it carries with it the stigma of being “backpacker”. It’s like this: Danny Brown is a hell of an emcee, but the sad truth is that, with his thoughtful content and wordplay, he often seems like sort of an anomaly in the current world of hip-hop. A lot of the other rappers around these days are just making commercial stuff put through an instagram filter, and much of Danny’s twitter rant from a few months back was right on the money– for the most part, it’s a business, and the crowds want stupid shit.

However, there are still some emcees out there making reality raps that read like they were written by a regular person, rather than a pandering star. If you look around, you can find them, scattered unevenly throughout this country, still working their fingers to the bone: two such emcees are Philadephia’s Has-Lo and North Carolina’s Castle.

My attention was drawn to this release by my deep appreciation for Has-Lo’s In Case I Don’t Make It, one of the best rap albums from the past 10 years. Has-Lo’s style, brutally candid, often self-deprecating, but with a very relaxed delivery, gives the impression of a soft-spoken One Be Lo. Castle is Has-Lo’s labelmate at Mello Music, and though he’s a little more aggressive, he has a similar thing going– a lot of introspection and anti-cool.

Both Has-Lo’s In Case I Don’t Make It and Castle’s Gasface were heavy fare, this new collaboration is not! Live Like You’re Dead is mostly tongue-in-cheek messing around to jazz-hop beats– particularly funny is “Hennessy Yak”, a drunken freestyle which takes some lighthearted shots at A$AP Rocky and Kanye West. One feature of this album that’s sort of interesting is the way that it ironically plays around with the “party rap” vibe. On “Yoga Pants”, for instance, the duo assume a tone that’s alternately lustful and mocking. And there’s also a lot of really witty, ironic self-mockery on this record, especially coming from the normally full-of-braggadocio Castle: “I hear socially awkward is the new sexy/God damn I was born in the wrong decade”.

As entertaining as the album is, part of what makes it worth re-listens (aside from the nice production work by Has-Lo, Castle, and Arcka) is the honesty in the lyrics. I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate this aspect of both emcees. In “The Uncomfortable Truth About Stardom”, Has-Lo levels about the frustration of making the rounds from venue to venue trying to stir some enthusiasm out of crowds that don’t want to pay for music and often don’t even dance. And the jokey elements of this album seem to fall in line with many memorable lines about how far the two rappers have come in their struggles to express themselves. And they’ve come pretty far: “Off the bench like a starter on the court/Trying to win the ring that cannot be bought”. You can sense that, in the recording process, the duo have some good times together just reminiscing.

I finally finished listening to Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s new album, and while I liked that, and recognize that that will probably end up being the favorite of the year for many, I honestly prefer this. It’s really genuine and down-to-earth, and I’ll probably listen to it more this year. Check out the bandcamp page for the album, as well as this interesting interview with Has-Lo and Castle at Impose.


(New Album Review) Seahawks- Paradise Freaks

Seahawks’ new release, Paradise Freaks, sees them shuffling a little closer to poptones, if at least for the moment.

I’ve really enjoyed just about every single offering from the Seahawks so far. They’ve just got their own thing going, and it’s hard to sum that up in some kind of pithy phrase. You could say that they specialize in psychedelic relaxation instrumentals that I find to be extremely delicious…I was expecting more of the same here. However, this new album has many vocal features– Maria Minerva, Tim Burgess, Indra Dunis, and Nick Nicely all show up to contribute. In this sense, Paradise Freaks seems to be a bit of a detour from their usual style.

Seahawks’ (Jon Tye and Pete Fowler) albums are usually made up of long-form spacey, droney dubs, with ethereally echoing whispers and saxophones, among other vague samples purloined from 70’s yacht rock, probably attracting many fans of chillwave and vaporwave. It’s hard to pin a genre to Seahawks– there’s a bit of the “relax, man” obsession with reverb and dream of chillwave in there, and a bit of the distanced, arch-intellectual hauntology  of vaporwave too. This group’s general vibe tends to evoke something dubwise, but they’re definitely firmly of their time in as far as there’s also a fair amount of stylistic solidarity with all the spacey laptop music issuing from all these vaguely defined, “often misdiagnosed” idioms out there…

Paradise Freaks is really lovely, and the duo’s decision to make an album with so many vocal features has produced an album of a really weird stripe of space-age pop, yet they have not completely compromised their style. Just as with their older stuff, this new album is a dreamlike tropical fantasy in which a minute can seem to extend to ten. The vocal features reverberate in and out of the mix with grace and mystery. The songs, even the two instrumentals, are not long-form expeditions, mind you, however, they’re in that same nostalgic, gentle style as Seahawks’ past offerings. If you want to get a taste of this nicely refined new album’s sound in one song, check “Moon Turn Tides”, which has a vocal feature from Maria Minerva. Yeah, I didn’t like this nearly as much as Invisible Sunrise, but it’s another fine offering from a very fine group, and it seems to promise a slightly different direction! I wonder where they’ll take me next.

(New Album Review) Juan Carlos Vasquez- Collages

Here comes a particularly intriguing submission from London, Collages by sound artist Juan Carlos Vasquez.

Collages is a work driven by its concept: primarily to take the works of Satie, Beethoven, Ysaÿe, Bach, and Chopin and to translate them into the electro-acoustic idiom. The album is mostly composed of samples of Vasquez’s performances of the works of different composers, radically remixed, to fit the abstraction of the project’s manifesto. One work, “Landscapes” does not come annotated with a composer, and the concluding work is dedicated to Jorge Luis Borges.

Another key to understanding the project is to see that it is also driven by Vasquez’s choice not to disclose his source material. The intentions of the project are shrouded in a veil of mystery, as most will not be able to discern what works of these composers have been drawn from for the project. However, ultimately, one’s level of interest in the source material does not have that much impact on one’s reaction to the finished work.

Anyone with a good ear will discern that this is a superior work in the electro-acoustic field. Vasquez’s work is eerie and jarring– I was particularly impressed with the 8th track on this piece, after Bach. I am not so sure that Vasquez’s take on these works expands our perception of these composers so much as it seems to be his highly idiosynchratic take on his perceptions of these composers’ works. In “Collage 8”, you can hear Vasquez burrowing deep into his most abstract mental reactions towards Bach– the soaring tones from the organ collapse into dissonance, but the tension is eventually resolved with a calm drone. Tension, then release. It’s a very interesting album, and it took me a long time to know how to react to it. I was particularly fascinated by the droning, ominous “Collage 3”, after Ysaÿe. If you were to show me this piece and simply say, “This is dark ambient”, I would’ve loved it, and simply delved into the interesting impressions conjured up by the work. Nearly all of Vasquez’s pieces toy around with this sinister, 12-tone territory, the realm of modern art music and onward. Vasquez’s grasp of structure is impressive– take for instance, the way that a long stretch of dissonance and chaos melts into something more smooth-flowing at the 8 minute mark in “Collage 3” .

Collages is a challenging, fascinating work. Whether its the pleasant undulations of “Collage 5 The Acrobat (After Satie)” or the dramatics of “Collage 1 (After M. Mussorgsky)”, the album will compel you to look back into the works of these different composers with a different ear, and to re-listen to the album itself to try and catch all the things that you may have missed the first two times around.

I strongly urge you to check out this engaging and dreamlike work of electroacoustic art. One cannot help but be feel strongly the impression of Borges, from that closing track– labyrinths that are only deceptively complex, for one need only inspect closely to understand. I have a feeling that I will be returning to it again and again over the next few months, locked in conversation with it, working to uncover its (at the moment) obscure secrets.

Lonnie Holley @ Valentine’s 8/6/2014

The  other night I got an invitation to see Lonnie Holley from my friend Arya Imig at Valentine’s downtown. I had actually never heard of Lonnie Holley prior to that, but his story and my impression of one of his songs intrigued me. It was a relatively early show that started at 8:30 and had ended by 9:20. It was really a very special and intimate night– I had a lot of fun taking Mr. Holley’s work in.

Holley is an artist and art educator who has been active since the late seventies. Most of his work concentrates on working with found objects, painting, and sculpture. Just 2 years ago, Holley tried his hand at recorded music with Just Before Music. He followed it up with Keeping a Record of It last year. Holley’s turn as a composer is very satisfying to behold.

Holley’s music is very serene, spacey soul-jazz influenced music. He comes off to me as the sort of person who would not like his music being classified as “experimental”, and would probably find it to be annoying and ironic that work that is so focused on education and community would be thought of as “outsider music”. Like Exuma or Captain Beefheart, he’s a soulful artist with a pantheistic, abstractly-minded perspective and chosen way of expressing himself– as was the case with those two sadly departed luminaries, he is certainly an “outsider” in the sense of the difference of his point of view to that of society at large, but really, he works off of a musical idiom that is for “the people”. Maybe in a better world he would not really be so much of an outsider.

The songs are often slightly didactic in their tone, which is not surprising, considering that Holley has worked as an art educator for many years. “Extra! Extra! Read all about it…” was the chorus of one of the songs he played, one that seemed to be alluding to the crisis on the West Bank– a lot of Holley’s music is like this, a call to action, or at least to awareness. A need for humanity to educate itself and disseminate knowledge rightly is probably the central theme of his work, and technological concerns as well as other observations about the earth and human society dominate the subject matter of his lyrics. The structure of his songs is fairly open and unhindered– Holley’s wizened voice dangles poetry over simple lines on keys and trumpet. For this show, Holley brought along drummer Stevie Nistor and trumpeter Kelly Pratt. The trio occasionally conjured up impressions of Sun Ra’s space jazz. Improvisation figures heavily in Holley’s style as a performer. “Looking For All (All Rendered Truth)” in particular, was a highlight that I’ll remember for years to come. Later, after the show, he gave out elbow bumps to much of the crowd, including me and some of my friends! It was a night of joyful music and I’m glad that I was there to experience it.