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Review: Jürg Frey/Radu Malfatti, “II” (Erstwhile)

One way to approach Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti’s II is to concentrate on how they shape their music. The numerous small silences that dot the first disc are conspicuous. So is the album’s low volume and the sharp, maybe surprising, beauty with which Frey plays his clarinet and Malfatti his trombone, but form takes precedence over these. Form and the way sounds are formed. Much of what happens on these two discs is the product of the tension between silence and sound, the difference between expression and phenomenon, and the manner in which sounds beget forms all on their own. By subduing material and structure, Frey and Malfatti knock down the walls that sometimes bind music to a fixed path. What lies outside is a sparse and weightless field where music seemingly organizes—and destroys—itself.

II, as the title implies, splits the work of Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti over two discs. The first, a Malfatti-credited piece titled “shoguu,” cuts a strong impression. Long, vibrating tones, stark harmonics, and frequent silences comprise nearly all of its material, though certain tones are so smooth and consistent they sometimes sound computer-generated. The likelihood that computers were used is probably pretty low, but the semblance of that analog hum adds a mysterious and blurry component to the performance.

The noise of a depressed valve, a few unexpected squeaks, and the odd bodily clank of brass or hardwood turns up as well, but for the better part of the five sections of  “shoguu,” a subdued, balloon-like spaciousness holds court. The combination of clarinet and trombone produces delicate music, as restrained as it is gorgeous. Without a discernible structure—and without the usual musical tools, like rhythms, chord changes, and other sonic continuities—the duo’s wavering tones come off as autonomous little events, cobweb-like and fleeting. Some of the melodies are so tenuous they seem almost illusory, like particles of dust that might disappear should the sunlight hit them a different way. Malfatti even hollows his trombone’s lower register out, making it feather-like and buoyant, it’s swelling whole tones like vents of warm rising air.

(Read More… at Brainwashed.com – includes samples)

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Review: Songs: Ohia, “Didn’t It Rain (Deluxe Edition)” (Secretly Canadian)

Didn’t It Rain is the sixth and final Songs: Ohia studio album, the enigmatic zenith of a seven-year run that saw Jason Molina record with no fewer than seven different bands. But Molina never stuck with one group for very long, on the road or in the studio, and he wouldn’t until after 2004’s Magnolia Electric Co. was completed. So it’s no surprise that, for Didn’t It Rain, he traveled to Soundgun Studio in Philadelphia to play with eight musicians he barely knew. That was how he had always worked.

The only two people at Soundgun who had recorded with Jason before were producer Edan Cohen, who, in 2001, manned the boards for Jason’s cover of Boz Scaggs’s “Sweet Release” and Jennie Benford, who that same year sang backup on the Cohen-produced 7” version of “Lioness.”  Everyone else came to the game a rookie. Surrounded by posters of blues musicians from Chicago that Molina had brought with him, they were all asked to play in the same room together and to invent their parts as they went along. Mistakes would be made and overdubs were not an option, so the idea was to keep playing and to capture the performance raw. It’s a strategy Molina had used for past records, but it had never yielded anything as cogent and heavy as Didn’t It Rain.

(Read More… at Dusted in Exile)


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Review: Scott Walker + SunnO))), “Soused” (4AD)

Bish Bosch is an exhausting record that takes off at an exhausting pace. Its first four songs occupy more than half of its total running time, and Scott Walker stuffs every minute of that opening half hour with awkward transitions, asymmetric structures and lyrics that, at their best, speak to the intuitive and subconscious mind. At their worst they necessitate an annotated guide and draw the listener away from the already messy music, pulling them through the twisted and endless avenues of Walker’s varied interests. They’re a diversion that leads to confusion as often as poignancy. Walker casually drops references to Frank Sinatra and communism in Romania, then leaps to astronomy and Roman history, and in the middle he skips through something about the spread of diseases among animals, a topic he laces with images of Hawaii, Pope Julius and dead men in zoot suits.

Connecting unlikely — or invisible — dots can be its own reward, even if the picture it forms is ostentatious. It can also be a distraction, with all of the disparate elements sitting side by side as naturally as a bright red paisley patch on a torn white wedding dress. With Bish Bosch the novelty of Walker’s combinations often swallowed the content, transforming his poetry, music and ambition into a muddy and overwhelming wave. Fortunately, Soused avoids this fate.

(Read More)


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Review: Joseph Clayton Mills, “The Patient” (Entr’acte)

Franz Kafka died of starvation on June 3rd, 1924, his throat cinched by laryngeal tuberculosis. The intravenous delivery of food to sick patients wouldn’t be invented for another 35 years and the swelling in Kafka’s throat caused by the infection made swallowing even water difficult. Forbidden from speaking by his doctor at the sanatorium in Kierling, Austria, Kafka would often communicate with his friends and visitors by writing small notes on scraps of paper. Some such scraps were less notes and more fragments or disconnected ideas, phrases impossible to understand without context. It’s something Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, recalls in the opening pages of the booklet that accompanies Joseph Clayton Mills’s The Patient. “Usually these notes were mere hints; his friends guessed the rest,” he writes. Mills, accompanied by Olivia Block, Noé Cuéllar (Coppice), Steven Hess (Pan•American, Haptic, Innode), and Jason Stein take a shot at interpreting those fragments on this record, using Mills’s textual score to trace a line around Kafka’s final abraded thoughts.

“The goal of this document is to suggest a vocabulary of actions,” Mills writes. “It should in no way be seen as prescriptive or comprehensive, and the sequence of elements in this document should not be construed as implying a particular linear arrangement.”

The 52-page score for The Patient bears only a passing resemblance to traditional musical scores. It contains a couple of references to particular notes in the Western 12-tone system, a few bar lines (one set displays both a treble and bass clef, but is otherwise blank), a few more very precise frequencies for sine wave generator, and even a reference to Wagner’s “Tristan chord,” but the majority of it is filled with suggested actions of the sort written by George Brecht, La Monte Young, and Pauline Oliveros. They read, “play for longer than you think you should” and “image of water/droplets/dew” and “hushed breath/for unvoiced bellows/vocalist/friction on drumhead.”

Together they are enough to constitute a composition, only the number of performers is unspecified and there are no instructions for how to string individual performances together. Participants have only Kafka’s quotes and Mills’s accompanying directions to guide them, along with a handful of photographs, drawings, medical diagrams, story excerpts, and historical summaries. None of it is prescriptive, but all of it sets a very particular tone, which is why, despite the score’s innate openness, this performance of The Patient sounds so compact, controlled, and potent.

(Read More… with samples)


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Review: I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, “Dust” (Secretly Canadian)

The last time I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness released a record, George W. Bush was president, Twitter was the latest social networking innovation, Burial was a new buzz word on everyone’s lips, and James Brown was still alive and touring. The Knife were riding high on the success of Silent Shout and Brainwashed readers were placing records by bands like Wolf Eyes, Comets on Fire, and Xiu Xiu high atop the annual reader’s poll. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness won some recognition that year too. According to Plan nabbed a spot in the top five singles of the year and “The Owl” nearly beat out Boards of Canada’s “Dayvan Cowboy” for Brainwashed’s best loved music video of 2006. Then a seemingly terminal eight-year silence ensued. Now the band has returned with Dust, as if nothing happened. Their lineup is unchanged, Ministry’s Paul Baker is still behind the mixing board, and the artwork is as austere as before. And though much in the music is also familiar, the group’s focus has changed. They cast a wider net on Dust. There’s more variety and the songs are denser this time around, layered thick with circular melodies and crisscrossing guitars.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness open Dust with “Faust,” a song they beat out with surgical exactitude. It’s fast paced, built on a thumping rhythm section, and driven by a simple guitar riff that winds in and out of the lead guitar’s meandering accents. The song twitches with energy, as if the band were just itching to play together again, but the performance is controlled, channeled into a concise, coolly played four minutes. “Come Undone,” and, to some extent, “Stay Awake,” feed on that same energy. A quick moving, tightly wound melody skips through the heart of all three songs, and on each the bass and drums add variety to the already rhythm heavy core. The lead guitarist extracts little hidden melodies from inside that wave of sound and spins them through the air, completing the illusion that these songs are all unspooling as they fall through space.

These are songs the band could have written in 2007 or ’08, after wrapping up their tour for Fear Is on Our Side. They’re white knuckle rockers that burn with the same fire as “According to Plan,” but they are far more insistent, far less translucent, and far from the norm.

(Read More… with sound samples)


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Review: FKA Twigs, “LP1” (Young Turks)

Tahliah Barnett’s first full-length record nearly falls apart just as it should be settling in for the long run. After an intro and two great songs that fill out Barnett’s previously restrained sound, no less than three additional writers and four producers show up for “Hours,” each one contributing to a bloated, awkward middle that feels out of touch with everything Twigs has ever touched.

The guilty party includes Eminem and Lana Del Rey producer Emile Haynie, Florence and the Machine cohort Dev Hynes, instrumentalist extraordinaire Michael Volpe, aka Clams Casino, and Arca, who was Barnett’s primary co-conspirator for EP2. With a bevy of bakers like that in the kitchen, “Hours” can’t help but sound aimless and over done, languid even. And unfortunately Twigs does little to help out as she lays some of her weakest, most blandly provocative lines over the top: “How would you like if my lips touched yours / and they stayed close baby till the stars fade out / How would you like it if I sucked before I bite? / But it wasn’t too hard so it felt alright.”

Paul Epworth, probably best-known for producing and co-writing “Rolling in the Deep” with Adele, surfaces next, notching a writing and production credit of his own into the liner notes. Unsurprisingly, his contribution gives LP1 a borrowed, polished, and radio-friendly sheen, one that veers disappointingly close to cheap AM soul-funk territory with its over-slick, faux-seedy guitar and keyboard licks.

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Review: Marcus Schmickler & Julian Rohrhuber, “Politiken der Frequenz” (Editions Mego/Tochnit Alpeh)

Plenty of records get tagged with an experimental or exploratory label because they’re unconventional. Toss any combination of melody, rhythm or identifiable structure out the window, and you are bound to win a cocked eyebrow or two. Pound whatever’s left out on an old-fashioned synthesizer or slip some shred of musical theory into the mix and presto — you’ve earned yourself an investigator’s badge and maybe a bit more leeway than you might have otherwise had. Not that that is such a bad thing. Unusual instrumentation and perplexing performance strategies have led to many great and interesting places, but just as often they serve to mask fairly conventional and well-worn ideas, as loose and unfocused as they are open-ended.

Then there are records like Politiken der Frequenz, which asks numerous difficult questions and proceeds according to very particular — and potentially revolutionary — notions. Recorded by Marcus Schmickler and Julian Rohrhuber and released by Editions Mego and Tochnit Aleph, Politiken derives a good portion of its digital heat from the peculiar set of influences that burn beneath it. Philosophy, finance, politics, theoretical mathematics and history all meet in its liner notes and, at least to some extent, in the music itself, where prime integers, common denominators and set theory are all utilized as musical resources. The results run from pleasant computerized tones with ambient leanings to hard-edged noise driven by low resolution arcade sounds, number station test tones and glassy harmonies wiped clean by over-processing.

The brief essay that accompanies the record, and that serves as both the album’s artwork and its lyric book, references French philosopher Alain Badiou’s work with surreal numbers in Number and Numbers, German mathematician Julius Wilhelm Richard Dedekind’s theory concerning the nature of real numbers, and historical problems, both philosophical and musical, associated with Pythagorean ontology.

Read more (Dusted in Exile)


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Review: Jacques Lejeune, “Parages and Other Electroacoustic Works 1971-1985” (Robot)

Robot Records’ three-CD retrospective of Jacques Lejeune’s music from the early 1970s and 1980s contains over three hours of heady electronic noise, surreal acoustic transformations, deconstructed field recordings, and disorienting aural splutter. It is a collection that spans 14 years and six electroacoustic compositions: one composed for ballet and inspired by Snow White, another inspired by the myth of Icarus, and others by landscapes, symphonic form, and cyclical movement, among other things. They flash with theatrical flair, jump unpredictably through minute variations, and churn chaotically, tossing fabricated scree and instrumental slag into the air. A 28 page bilingual booklet filled with photographs, drawings, and program notes accompanies the set, along with a 32 page booklet of interpretive poetry. In them, Lejeune, Alain Morin, and Yak Rivais offer up remarkably precise interpretations for each of the pieces, but the writing works much better as a rough guide to the visually evocative clamor of Lejeune’s electric transmissions.

Jacques Lejeune’s musical career began auspiciously, at the famous Schola Cantorum de Paris, a private music school in the city’s Latin Quarter whose alumni include Edgard Varèse and Erik Satie. From there, he moved to the Conservatoire National Supérieur, where Adolphe Sax had once taught and where Igor Wakhévitch would eventually study, and labored under the tutelage of Pierre Schaeffer. He finished his education with François Bayle at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, then joined the GRM in 1968 and became director of the Cellue de la Musique pour L’Image, or The Department of Music for Images, responsible for the production of sound and music for both theater and television.

By 1971 he had finished his first major composition, Cri, which premiered at the Royan Festival in 1972. It was Lejuene’s introduction to France and the first indication that his stint in the Images Department at the GRM had been as formative as the rest of his education.

Early on, Cri delivers brief, sometimes confounding glimpses of particular places and circumstances. Those images are held in focus just long enough to be recognized and then swept away: a marching band stomps through a busy street in the first movement, then disappears into the sound of French horns warming up before a performance; frogs croak in concert with crickets as sheets of tape noise flutter by imitating the sound of water; people laugh and conversations crash against bursting radio signals and gusts of analog distortion. In the second movement entire sentences survive, accompanied by reverse audio and a small gaggle of test tones. Exclamations leap out of the commotion and a radio transmission about Pakistan and the United States floats smoothly by, like a small town seen from the window of a passing train.

Read more… (at Brainwashed, includes sound samples)


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Review: Nicholas Szczepanik, “Not Knowing” (Desire Path)

Halfway through Nicholas Szczepanik’s Not Knowing things take a turn for the dark. It required a full 25 minutes to unfold them, but it takes only a few short moments for Szczepanik to stab his gilded melodies and let them die. First the strings lose their luster, then they grow still and cold, and finally they sink into icy cold waters. Afterward, all that remains of their swaying, sentimental song is a muffled harmonic echo and the barest suggestion that something warm still persists below the surface. But the music sweeps us along, and the symphony finally fades into a wavy blur of shivering tones. The transition is forlorn and paradoxically comforting, like recalling a happy memory and realizing you’re unlikely to experience anything like it ever again.

Not Knowing first saw the light of day in 2011, when it served as the inaugural disc in Szczepanik’s Ante Algo Azul subscription series. It was a brief 18-minute piece on a 3-inch CD-R, extremely limited, housed in a handmade sleeve and sealed with a dedication to Eliane Radigue, whose work served as an inspiration for the music. You can hear her at points throughout the album: in the patient introduction, in the pulsing analog tones, and in the directness of the elements employed. Her influence is clear, but Szczepanik does a lot more than imitate her work.

Read more… (at Dusted)


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Review: Poemss, “Poemss” (Planet Mu)

It has been 16 years since Aaron Funk first appeared as Venetian Snares on a split cassette he released with DJ Fishead titled Eat Shit and Die. Whether by accident or by design, that title turned out to be an almost perfect slogan for Funk’s music over the next decade and a half. His absolute dedication to intensity, choice of subject matter, and juvenile sense of humor have always added up to unnerving, hilarious and sometimes just plain disturbing records, filled with warp speed tempos, oddball samples, and a smorgasbord of unlikely references, from serial killers and sexual violence to Star Trek and Dadaism. Whether he’s serious about it all or hiding a smirk behind the world’s staunchest poker face isn’t clear, but he’s never broken character.

Instead, Funk has consistently raised the ante in one way or another: by tossing Trevor Brown’s beaten and molested dolls onto numerous album covers, or by making music from noises captured while having sex with his then-girlfriend Rachael Kozak, or in the case of Filth, by poking fun at his own perverse predilections with song titles like “Crashing the Yogurt Truck” and “Chainsaw Fellatio.” It’s all been unapologetically idiotic and exciting.

And, at times, despondent and beautiful too, as with Rossz Csillag Alatt Született andMy Downfall (Original Soundtrack). But even Funk’s more muted, less obscenely hostile material shivers with an irascible energy, as if everything he does could erupt at any minute into a storm of nuclear snare rolls and leaden bass kicks, or at least into a cloud of gnarly dissonance. That is what makes Poemss, the first fruits of his collaboration with fellow Canadian Joanne Pollock, such a shocker. Funk hasn’t exactly gone soft, but his always dependable aggression has been put away in favor of something altogether stranger: a collection of delicate instrumentals and catchy pop songs with lyrics about ancient pony hair follicles, glass organs and tenderness.

Read more… (at Dusted Magazine)


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Review: Tara Jane O’Neil, “Where Shine New Lights” (Kranky)

Records hide so many things in their grooves.  We often forget about the time and effort put into them, and about the trials behind them. The platter spins, the needle drops, and the music issues effortlessly from the speakers. What could be easier? But for Tara Jane O’Neil five years, five studios, eight musicians, Hurricane Irene and a Kickstarter program came between her last solo album and Where Shine New Lights, her debut for Chicago’s Kranky record label.

Not that you’d know it from listening. If most performances seem effortless coming from a stereo, O’Neil’s latest sounds inevitable, as natural and as spectacular as a sunrise. Five years gave her time to carve the excess from her songs and instill them with a fragile, suite-like continuity. They range from cloudy, barely-there instrumentals to pop songs painted in shades of white and shimmering yellow.

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Review: Machinefabriek, “Attention, the Doors are Closing!” (Self Released)

The list of Rutger Zuydervelt’s collaborations runs long and crosses disciplines the way most Bostonians cross the street. From records with Will Long (Celer), Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick to soundtracks and scores for Chris Teerink (Sol LeWitt) and Alexander Whitley (The Measures Taken) to sound installations for the Museum Oud-Amelisweerd and Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam — one would be forgiven for thinking the Machinefabriek name covered the work of an entire artists collective and not the output of a single Nederlander from Apeldoorn.

His latest work, Attention, the Doors are Closing!, was produced for the Dutch-Spanish choreographer Iván Pérez, who conceived and developed this piece for the contemporary dance division of the Moscow Ballet. Pérez’s stated intent was to mine the social and psychological complexities of living in Russia, and to do so by placing a special emphasis on the role of intimacy, a concept that he understands rather broadly: the intimacy of taking the bus to work, of hearing your neighbors through the walls, of bumping into someone at work, and the usual suspects, too, like falling in love.

If the music is any indication, the unspoken subtext of the ballet is all tension, fear and paranoia. Zuydervelt taps into these uncomfortable states for the duration of his score, a knife-like, often pitch-black affair that will probably strike most listeners as being unsuitable for dance.

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Review: Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet, “Photographs” (Erstwhile)

After amplifying their homes and magnifying the subconscious; after reshaping kitchenware into instruments and finding voices in the buzz of computer fans, distant traffic, and the crunch of dirt; after transforming the spaces around them and constructing a space-time of their own, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet finally turn the microphones on themselves. And not just on the noises they make, but on the places they grew up, on the people they’ve known, on the ideas that have driven their work, the sounds they love, and ultimately on the past and their memories. Don’t come to the show expecting self-portraits though. OnPhotographs Graham and Jason make enigmas of themselves. We get to see a shadow of them in these pictures, but everything they do and every event they capture points to a subject somewhere outside the frame.

Photographs work by suggestion. Take any photo off the Internet and start asking questions about it: Who is that in the picture? What is it that they’re standing in front of? When and where was it taken, and why from that angle? Who is behind the camera? What we see in them and what they show are inevitably unequal. The image presents the viewer with an apparent set of facts, but without context or witnesses or some personal experience bringing everything into focus, the subjects fail to take definite shape. Something is missing.

So it is with Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet’s music. The apparition of familiarity presents itself to the listener by dint of the material employed: intelligible conversations, fixable locations and precise directions to them, a loop from Kiss’s “Great Expectations”—our acquaintance with sights and sounds such as these, plus the incredible artwork with family, friends, place names, and the images of Graham and Jason as children—it’s as if they’re opening a door into their personal lives, or pointing us to a keyhole through which we might spy a handful of their private thoughts. How could it be otherwise?

To answer that question it’s best to ask another one: what is it that we actually see and hear in these songs? Disc one in this two-disc set begins with “Loss,” in which a pair of anonymous voices explain what the word “loss” means to them. One of the respondents discusses the loss of their grandparents, the other describes a feeling of daily disorientation: he wakes up and is unsure of where he is despite a firm mind, familiarity with the local geography, and a copy of this year’s calendar. As he elaborates, the audio suddenly cuts out. We hear clicking, a compartment opening and shutting, as if the tape needed changing mid-sentence, and then the conversation continues.

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Review: Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet, “Air Supply” (Erstwhile)

A strange spectacle murmurs unceremoniously just beneath the familiar hum of daily life. It’s filled with little dramas and peculiar collisions that sneak by unnoticed—in the empty spaces of the room, out of the corner of your eye—small bits of information slip through the senses’ fingers and fall into the subconscious where they become fodder for dreams. These unremembered fragments are a part of every environment and every observation, but would we recognize them if given a second chance? OnAir Supply, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet resurrect such mental refuse and put just such a question to the test. They may have pointed their microphones at computer vents or the back yard, but what they pulled from those sources is utterly bizarre, to the point of being completely alien.

“Because the Night” starts the show with an illusion. It’s cold outside. Someone is walking down a crunchy dirt road in heavy boots, the fabric of his thick winter coat audibly brushing against itself as he goes. He picks up an old shovel and begins digging a hole, or maybe shoveling snow. A chilly hum floats in the air, a substitute for the icy temperature outside. As he digs, a slow, warbling howl suddenly and shockingly pierces the scene. It moans, then fades, then retreats into the distance. The perspective shifts. Someone tinkers with a plastic box, presses a button, and the activity stops. There’s only that transparent blue tone in the air, and a few quiet noises beeping somewhere in the distance. Winter at the Lescalleet home in Berwick, Maine, where Air Supply was recorded, seems just a tad frightening.

Only the liner notes tells us that the album was recorded in late May of 2010. It’s unlikely there was any snow on the ground to shovel. The fabric noise could be coming from torn sheets of paper, the crunch of boots on gravel might actually be the sound of someone walking through piles of leaves, and who knows where the animal moan came from, but it doesn’t sound dubbed in. Whatever it was, it was right there, in range of the microphone.

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Review: Songs: Ohia, “Magnolia Electric Co. (10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)”

Two forces define Jason Molina’s entire career: work—he was almost obsessively dedicated to his craft—and his band. In 2003 he brought these forces to Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio in Chicago and, with nine other musicians, caught lightning in a bottle. Up to that point Molina had made a case for his being a great songwriter, but on Magnolia Electric Co. he became a great bandleader. Those nine other musicians share the spotlight with him on these eight songs, and rightfully so. They’re an integral reason Magnolia ended up one of the best rock ‘n’ roll records ever recorded.

From his debut 7″ in 1996 until 2003 Jason Molina’s band changed with virtually every new release. He played and recorded with Arab Strap, Richard Youngs, Geof Comings, Jonathan Cargill, Mike Mogis, Edith Frost, Dave Fischoff, Alasdair Roberts, and many others; too numerous to count here.

These are the people, as much as Molina, who made Songs: Ohia what it was. Jason knew this and admitted it in various interviews. With Magnolia Electric Co. he acknowledged it, and practically handed the album over this friends and fellow musicians.

The big themes come first: transformation, doubt, partnership, work, and fate—Jason’s magical lyricism rides on top of these concerns. He communes with spectral guides and ghostly conspirators; presents deserts, flowers, and ghost towns as trail cairns for lovesick wanderers; and draws Comiskey Park together with the ancient light of distant stars. He writes about broad spaces, thoughts, and inner experiences, and then brings them to life with these details. Until, in the album’s penultimate moment, as “John Henry Split My Heart” nearly flies off the rails, Molina reels the band’s energy in for just a few lines. In the equivalent of a rock ‘n’ roll soliloquy, he sings, “Boy what you gonna do with your heart in two?” He replies, “Only if it’s good enough, half I’m gonna use to pay this band. Half I’m saving, ’cause I’m gonna owe ’em.”

Jason Molina was undoubtedly a great songwriter. As his solo albums, numerous solo bootlegs, and the newly reissued Magnolia demos show, he could carry a song all on his own, sometimes just on the strength of his voice. For the 2003 recording session, he had worked out all the lyrics in advance, knew the basic chords and shapes the songs would take, and maybe even knew how everything would fit together. A few of those songs had been tested on the road the year before too, with a band in tow. But incredibly several of the album’s most memorable melodies aren’t there in the demos, or even in the pre-album live versions.

Jim Grabowski’s floating Wurlitzer accompaniment on “Just Be Simple,” Dan Macadam’s dancing violin on “The Old Black Hen,” Dan Sullivan’s angular guitar playing, even Mike Brenner’s lap steel lead on “Farewell Transmission”—they were all almost unbelievably invented by the musicians, in the studio, on the spot, without the benefit of knowing the songs well in advance, using overdubs to fix mistakes, or having rehearsal time. Jason wasn’t kidding about owing them.

That spontaneity gives the music its loose, anything-could-happen feel; the sort of rambling, improvisational quality that causes listeners to draw connections to country and gospel music when they hear the album. Molina’s ideas, what he brought to the table as a writer, pull the record in the opposite direction. He’s the one that makes the music sound tightly wound; it’s his ability as a leader that makes it all sound inevitable.

And that says nothing of the incredible rhythm section Jason had in Jeff Panall and Rob Sullivan, or of Jennie Benford’s haunting harmonies, or of spectacular start on side B, where he gives up the mic to Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett on “The Old Black Hen” and “Peoria Lunch Box Blues.” Jason disappears into both of those songs, making it hard to say where he even is in the mix. They’re his songs sure enough, but it’s the team that’s making them sing. Other bands have worked in a similar way, but few have left so much to the fates and come out the other end with an album that sounds as confident and energetic as Magnolia Electric Co.

To the inclusion of the reissued demos, this 10th anniversary edition adds two studio recordings; one brand new, one difficult to find until now. Acoustic versions for both songs were featured on the demo disc in the album’s limited first edition, but the big draw for anyone who has those already are these studio additions. “The Big Game Is Every Night” was previously available on the Japanese edition of the album, but thank God it’s finally available domestically because it’s stunning, and almost perfectly embodies the entire album. Above a dark, swirling mass of droning strings, Molina delivers urgent line after urgent line of historical images, references, and self-accusations that only he could have imagined. Cutting it from the record must have been painful, but it’s such a massive black hole of a tune that it would have swallowed all the light around it. It makes perfect sense on it’s own, after the album has ended, or on the 10″ that comes with the vinyl version.

“Whip-Poor-Will,” on the other hand, falls a bit flat. The demo version is great, and the studio treatment it received on Josephine is heart-rending, but the Magnolia version simply sounds incomplete, as if Jason and Jennie Benford had a good idea, but couldn’t find a way to make it work with the time they had.

Hearing it reinforces just how perfect everything else is. Unbelievable is a good word for it, and maybe lucky too. But good bands make their own luck, and this band was as good as they come. As good as the ones Dylan had in ’64 and ’65, as rough and powerful as Crazy Horse, at times as heavy and as energetic as Hendrix, Redding, and Mitchell. Together, these ten musicians could go toe to toe with anyone, and that’s not hyperbole. Make no doubt about it, it’s a fact; true like the solid earth. All you have to do to know it is listen.

Magnolia Electric Co. is available on Secretly Canadian
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com


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Review: Anonymous, “Inside the Shadow”

Anonymous emerged from a group of friends who played at each other’s houses in and around Indianapolis in the early ‘70s. They recorded their debut and sole album in a garage in Milwaukee in 1976, the same year that the Ramones and Blondie released their debuts. They pressed approximately 300 copies, but never played a gig, never promoted the album, and released only one follow-up, albeit under a different name and with a different lineup. That one record is remarkable though, a private press gem with excellent musicianship, beautiful vocal harmonies, and imaginative songwriting from their front man, Ron Matelic.

Inside the Shadow was recorded in just a couple of days, but it sounds like it should have taken much longer. Matelic’s songs are lithe, unpredictable things that jump from one time signature and one style to another seamlessly. He juxtaposes colorful choruses with tricky rhythmic patterns and contrasts lilting vocal harmonies with hard edged guitar solos, hiding the seams as he goes. The band’s performances match Matelic’s nimble writing with energy and precision, sounding equally at ease whether they’re drawing out a slow, bluesy chorus or riding on the wave of an electric 12-string’s melody.

As it turns out, Shadow’s eight songs were written over a period of several years; starting perhaps as early as 1972, when Matelic befriended bassist Glenn Weaver. Vocalist Marsha Rollings and drummer John Medvescek were old friends who shared a mutual love for Buffalo Springfield, the Beatles, and groups like Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane, so there was a rapport between them all before they ever rehearsed a song or stepped into the studio.

Their long friendship translated into magic on record. Marsha and Ron’s harmonizing and singing are two obvious highlights, but Medvescek and Weaver make for an impressive rhythm combo. They rarely just keep time, and Ron’s songs give them plenty of room to show off their virtuosity. When Matelic takes off on longer solos or rips into his 12-string, they drive the music forward, accenting it with snappy about faces, big crescendos, and sudden left turns. On the slower songs, they anchor Ron and Marsha’s lighter moments with heavier material, whether that means hitting the skins harder or laying down an extra layer of melody on the thicker strings.

Stylistically Anonymous may wear their influences on their sleeves—Matelic admits to borrowing ideas and melodies from The Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas—but the band integrates everything they borrow so completely that I can’t boil the record down to a particular style or a single source.Inside the Shadow sounds of its time, is maybe even a little anachronistic, but it isn’t just another psychedelic record or rock ‘n’ roll curiosity.

So maybe Anonymous weren’t following the trends of ’76 when they recorded Inside the Shadow, but they weren’t living in the past either.

Inside the Shadow is available on Machu Picchu
Review originally published at Brainwashed.com

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Review: Phil Minton + Audrey Chen Quintet, “Four Instruments Two Voices”

The fundamental elements of singing and vocalizing are easy to miss in most music. All singers, even the very worst, unconsciously coordinate the various processes required to sing musically, so that respiration, phonation, resonation, and articulation collapse into sung phrases or wordless melodies. Phil Minton and Audrey Chen work to undo that coordination. They break their voices down, emphasizing the dental clicks, nasal hums, and various fleshy noises typically masked by melodies and lyrics. Many of the sounds they produce as part of this quintet—which features two basses, percussion, and cello—are the kind most singers would try to play down. By giving them the spotlight, Phil and Audrey are forced to express themselves the same way instruments do.

Four Instruments Two Voices is one of two Audrey Chen and Phil Minton albums released this year by Sub Rosa, both of which focus on extended vocal techniques. This one matches their voices with Guy Segers’ electric bass, Peter Jacquemyn’s double bass, and Teun Verbruggen’s percussion. As might be expected from instrumentalists who have worked with the likes of Peter Brötzmann, John Butcher, and William Parker, the music is improvised and mostly chaotic. But because Chen and Minton’s vocal contortions lead the group, and because there isn’t another wind instrument around, much of the record has a loose and open feel. All the vocal frying and plosive noises they make with their mouths come through loud and clear, from the spit-filled vibrations of their lips to the raspy hiss of their closed windpipes.

Such physical noises make for tense music. When Chen and Minton choke sounds out, my body involuntarily seizes up, and their moans have a way of drawing my shoulders up against my neck. When the band reacts to them in sympathy, the effect is darkly atmospheric and unsettling, as on “Eight” and “Nine.” But not everything is quite so serious. On “Three,” Minton and Chen’s gaseous vocalizations are paired with a squealing cello and a wobbly rhythm section that sounds absolutely lost. It’s hard not to laugh at how ridiculous it all seems, and at times I think it sounds like the musical version of a slapstick comedy.

For “Six” their growls and wordless interjections are recast as part of a quiet drama filled with bird-like whistling, ominous bass melodies, and flitting percussive sounds. The band’s muted performance fosters a calmer atmosphere, and Phil and Audrey both sound more subdued throughout, but it’s hard to tell whether the band is responsible for controlling the mood or if they’re following the vocalists’ lead. Later in the album Segers plays several naked melodies, and I think those color the way I’m hearing the voices. Either way, though the techniques are unconventional “Six” is a relatively pretty song. It’s a solid example of how extended vocal techniques can be used to produce musically pleasant and expressive results without relying on a singer’s vocal quality or resorting to familiar melodic techniques.

In the liner notes Minton writes, “This music is first a matter of extra-linguistic expression, the idea of going beyond the word’s meaning, an exploration that doesn’t stop at letters… but extends to all in-between-sounds made possible by the tongue/oral cavity/breath configuration.” I don’t know if Phil or Audrey’s performances go beyond words, but their fragmented noises and stripped down vocal utterances do get at feelings and expressions differently than conventional singing does. Rather than going beyond anything, I get the sense that they’re digging down, drilling into the voice and looking for meaning and expressiveness where most would hear nonsense. Whatever the theoretical framework is, the content is unique and varied—the kind of music that encourages lateral thinking and hearing ostensibly familiar sounds anew.

Four Instruments Two Voices is available from Sub Rosa
Sound samples are available at Brainwashed.com

Fukushima! album cover


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Review: Various Artists, “Fukushima!”

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that set it in motion are more than a year and half old this month. Ongoing cleanup efforts, which include removing contaminated debris and preventing further radioactive water from seeping into the ocean, will likely cost $15 billion over the next 30 years. As Otomo Yoshihide explained in his April, 2011 lecture, the residents of Fukushima face a difficult future, one made darker by the psychological and cultural impact the disaster has had. In response to that lecture, Presqu’île Records assembled this compilation, featuring superb contributions from the likes of John Tilbury, Greg Kelley, Michael Pisaro, Chris Abrahams, and Annette Krebs. Besides answering Otomo’s plea for a cultural response to the disaster, all funds raised from the sale of this 2CD set go to Japanese non-profit organizations.

Otomo Yoshihide’s April 28, 2011 lecture at the Tokyo University of the Arts is titled “The Role of Culture: After the Earthquake and Man-Made Disasters in Fukushima.” Delivered just one month after the Fukushima meltdown, it recounts and explains the fears and dejection such a disaster can cause, among them concerns about the presence of radioactive material found in Tokyo’s drinking water. But, much of the lecture focuses on the psychological and cultural impact felt by the people of the Fukushima prefecture. How, he asks, should musicians and artists respond to the disaster? What, if anything, can they do to help energize Fukushima so that the prefecture’s name doesn’t become a pejorative term (the way that Chernobyl did) and suffer the pangs of infamy? One answer, according to Otomo, is to find positive cultural associations for Fukushima. That’s where Presqu’île Records comes in.

Comprised of ten recordings spread across two CDs, Fukushima! lends its musical explorations to the prefecture’s name and, one hopes, responds effectively to Otomo’s call for positive associations with the region. It’s also a fund-raising effort, with all the proceeds going to non-profits in Japan. The featured artists come from all over the world: from California to Germany, the UK, and South Korea. But not even a single artist is from Fukushima, or Japan, which might seem strange except that Otomo’s lecture is partially motivated by how he hopes the world will perceive Fukushima in the future. This album, then, is a sign of solidarity from outside Japan.

Disc one begins with a monster 34 minute contribution from AMM’s John Tilbury. His performance of Dave Smith’s “Al contrario” is the longest performance on the CD by over ten minutes, and a curious choice for first song. Tilbury is undoubtedly one of the most talented pianists in the world, but Dave Smith’s composition, which feels clunky and a little straightforward compared to the other songs on this disc, does little to highlight his talents. Its repetitive structure, on the other hand, has a lulling effect that makes its duration less of a problem than it might otherwise be. It’s followed by two absolutely killer performances, and two of my favorites from the entire compilation: one by Magda Mayas, playing inside piano, and one by the quartet of Choi Joonyong, Joe Foster (of English, with Bonnie Jones), Hong Chulki, and Jin Sangtae, who all currently live in South Korea if I’m not mistaken. I’d not heard Magda play before hearing her contribution, “Foreign Grey,” but now I’m determined to find more. The tones, colors, textures, and variety of sounds she pulls from her piano are phenomenal, and the attention she gives to the volume and density of her piece makes it all the more hypnotizing. The South Korean quartet provides “From Dotolim,” a tense and delicate piece that takes textures and material noises as its primary elements. It’s a varied, somewhat subdued performance that emphasizes space and slow development, but its unpredictably and playfulness have me wishing it would go on longer.

Fukushima!’s second monster contribution (this one 21 minutes long) comes from Greg Stuart, who performs Michael Pisaro’s “The Bell Maker” fromFour Pieces for Recorded Percussion (Il faut attendre). Mysteriously dedicated to both Andrei Tarkovsky and Julia Holter, this piece, composed of numerous, tiny bell-like sounds, flickers as though it were fixed in space, not moving so much as hovering. I enjoy it, but find myself returning more to Mark Wastell and Jonathan McHugh’s “Eventide.” It’s huge low-end and hum and oddly lulling rhythm get my attention every time. There’s something vaguely machine-like and lonely about it, and whether by accident or design, it gets me thinking about the power plant and how it must loom over the area. Annette Krebs, Chris Abrahams, Burkhard Beins, and Greg Kelley all contribute solid performances, but it’s the Australian/Norwegian trio of Mural that sticks out in my mind the most. “Fukushima for the Time Being” is unlike anything else on the compilation, actually. It features Japanese flute, gongs, bells, possibly motorized strings and bowed metal, plucked strings, and numerous other sound sources I can’t readily identify blended into a ritualized improvisation with a little theatrical flair. Thanks to the melody provided by the flute, and some regularly recurring patterns, I’m convinced that this piece is a bit more composed than the others, so it sticks out among the other pieces and breaks the second disc’s flow up a little bit. I think it’s a great change of pace, though, and a definite highlight.

More than just a compilation for a good cause, Fukushima! is an excellent collection filled with beautiful music. The variety of talents present almost guarantees that listeners will be introduced something new, too, which is one of the best things any compilation can do.

Fukushima! is available from Presqu’île Records
Sound samples are available at Brainwashed.com


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Review: Steve Noble & Stephen O’Malley, “St. Francis Duo”

Æthenor’s En Form for Blå was one of my favorite albums of 2011, and it was the first time Stephen O’Malley and Steve Noble collaborated on record. St. Francis Duo documents their second meeting, a pair of live performances at London’s Cafe OTO recorded over two nights in August, 2010. With only guitar, percussion, and some distortion, O’Malley and Noble punch out over an hour of very raw and dynamic improvised music. Like their work together in Æthenor, it hews closer to the rock spectrum than to jazz or other kinds of improvised music, but it is their quieter interactions that make this album so satisfying.

I was blown away by Noble’s performance on Æthenor’s En Form for Blå. His drumming made that album, in part because it provided such a strong foundation for his band mates. It was also virtuosic, meticulous, and totally unique. Noble brings that same leadership and energy to St. Francis Duo, which was recorded with Stephen O’Malley at Cafe OTO two months after the En Form sessions ended. But, when I read that Daniel O’Sullivan and Kristoffer Rygg were not involved, I wondered just how Noble and O’Malley were going to react to each other. I imagined droning feedback and whirlwind percussion passing like ships in the night.

St. Francis Duo sounds excellent, though, and it sounds excellent because Noble and O’Malley find a subtle way to make their styles work together. From beat one Noble makes it clear that he’s not going to be swallowed up by O’Malley’s guitar. He pounds out loud, absolutely manic rhythms on his toms, snare, and cymbals for close to three minutes before settling into a dizzying procession of smaller percussive noises. Throughout the record, he answers O’Malley’s more frenzied moments with huge slashes of reverberating metal, thumping bass kicks, and generally unhinged fills, but he also directs the action with his battery of brushes, wires, tuning forks, and rattles.

O’Malley also begins furiously, with feedback and in-the-red string mashing. When Noble shifts gears, he reacts coolly. He turns down the volume and dials back the intensity, switching to a series of slowly played half-melodies made up of dissonance and little bouts of fumbled rhythm. As time passes and Noble moves further into the spotlight, Stephen’s playing becomes close to silent, and there are times when I can almost hear him deciding to pluck a string. Noble’s playing remains tense and propulsive, though, even when O’Malley is at his most reserved. He provides a feeling of forward motion with every sound he makes, even the tiniest ones, so that by the end of the first set he’s put the duo in an ambiguous place. This is improvised music, but with a heavy metal feel that comes almost entirely from the drummer, who is probably best known for playing with musicians like Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, John Edwards, and Alex Ward. Hearing him work with O’Malley in this style is awesome, and it further convinces me that he’s one of the best percussionists going.

On the second night, O’Malley returns the favor as the music veers a little further away from the rock ‘n’ roll vibe. Steve and Stephen still give the audience some noisy passages to chew on (side D closes the album with a bang), but the best action takes place when O’Malley opens his playing up even more and ventures into atmospheric territory. Stephen’s restraint gives Noble the chance to show off his dynamics more, but it also forces him to play the guitar in a way I’ve never heard him play it, and it sounds great. He still pulls a drone and a chord or two from his six-string, but without high volumes to lean on, he has to find other ways to respond to Noble’s never-ending variations. I can’t tell for sure, but I think O’Malley might have even stuck a fork or screwdriver between his strings at one point, perhaps imitating the way Noble treats his drums. Should O’Malley choose to continue down this path on future recordings, I would be anxious to hear it. St. Francis Duo is more strong evidence that he doesn’t need robes or amps that go to eleven to make great music.

St. Francis Duo is available from Bo’Weavil
Sound samples are available at Brainwashed.com

album cover for Bring Me the Head of Kyle Bobby Dunn


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Review: Kyle Bobby Dunn, “Bring Me the Head of Kyle Bobby Dunn”

After last year’s Ways of Meaning, I have a hard time hearing Kyle Bobby Dunn the way I once did. There was something dark and deceiving about that record, something that didn’t show up in the music so much as it did in the subtext, but which changed the way the music felt nonetheless. On his latest album, a two disc set with over two hours of new music, Kyle continues to complicate his message. His ascetic approach is intact and as beautiful as ever, but the same enigma that haunted his last album is all over this record, too, and it’s even more noticeable.

Dunn’s talent for the economical use of harmony and color is so developed that it can be difficult to see past. Abrasive, ugly, or unusual sounds always inspire audiences to ask questions, but pretty ones get an easy pass, as if their prettiness were sufficient reason to use them. Whether by design or accident, Kyle’s music takes advantage of that fact, or suffers from it, depending on your point of view.

Since I first started listening three years ago, his music has become more layered, but not because he has added more instruments or somehow changed his approach. Rather, the added dimensions are the result of his persistent use of the same materials he has always used, plus some help from contextual details like album and song titles. He has become more familiar with the pitches and colors his music employs, and also more familiar with the moods they evoke, so his ability to manipulate those ingredients has increased substantially. As a result, his music has also become more asymmetrical and severe. On a song like “Ending of All Odds,” I hear pretty tones and bittersweet harmonies, but the overall effect is more resigned and ghostly. “Parkland” is made up of mostly warm and enormous tones that stretch on for minutes at a time, but it feels impersonal in places and cold in others. Kyle’s music may be pretty, but I don’t think his pretty music always results from equally pretty inspiration. In the bright, swollen drones he produces, all kinds of nooks and crannies exist, and they are populated by moments of dissonance, shadow, and trepidation. Get too caught up in how attractive the music sounds, or in how relaxing it is, and those moments can go by unnoticed. Once these moments are heard, they are impossible to overlook, and they add a great deal of complexity to his work.

The big, spacious tones that Kyle is best-known for make that kind of subtlety possible in the first place. On this record, they also mimic some of the subject matter with which Kyle is working. Of the 15 songs on Bring Me the Head, at least five are references to locations around Alberta, Canada, and I think one of them (“Complétia Terrace”) was recorded in Banff National Park. His decision to name his songs for these places, along with the length of the album, puts his use of scale, space, and time in the spotlight, rather than the pitches he selects. It is more natural, after all, to describe places in terms of their space and scale rather than by means of pitch.

This separation of space, time, and pitch in his music might also explain why his songs can sound one way, but feel almost diametrically opposite. If he is composing in terms of space first and pitches second, then it is easy to imagine each element developing independently of the other. However he does it, when Kyle puts all his elements together, the result is some of the most beautiful and ambiguous music I have heard this year, and easily one of the best albums of its kind.

Bring Me the Head of Kyle Bobby Dunn is available from Low Point
Review originally published at Brainwashed.com