Laughter

the human race has one really effective weapon


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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

Listen to “Pick Up and Run”:

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The Monthly List: April’s Top 10

photograph by Kevin Baird

Solar Eclipse – “Ring of Fire” – photograph by Kevin Baird

The only new album on the list this month comes from the Phil Minton/Audrey Chen Quintet on Sub Rosa. Everything else is a reissue or a new collection of older music.

Impulse’s release of John Coltrane’s complete Sun Ship sessions snuck in right at the end of April, but didn’t make the list because I was too busy listening to MeditationsCrescent, and Interstellar Space to notice. Coltrane has been almost the only thing I’ve wanted to hear for the last two weeks and I don’t see any sign of that streak ending. Repeat plays of Crescent and Meditations were broken only by Human Ear’s reissue of Michael Pisaro’s Tombstones and Machu Picchu’s re-release of Inside the Shadow. Both are essential and I highly recommend seeking them out.

The first half of the month was also dominated by reissues. Recollection GRM’s Xenakis LP is outstanding, as is MCR’s treatment of Where’s My Towel/Industry Standard from Austin’s Big Boys.

As always, formats posted are the ones I own. Others may be available. If you like any of the samples I link to, please buy the album. You can find numerous retailers carrying these titles at the bottom of this page.


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Review: Autechre, “Exai”

For every stubborn fan who thinks their best period ended with LP5, there are plenty of others who have found something to love in Autechre’s post-Confield run. Expectations and ideas about what Autechre should sound like aside, there’s actually plenty there to love. But Exai is one of their best albums, period. Forget about their past work. Without the shadow of Tri Repetae hanging over them, these 17 songs prove to be among the most hypnotizing and dynamic the duo has ever made.

Nevermind that Exai, Autechre’s 11th proper album, comes on two CDs and four LPs. It’s neither too long nor too taxing, and anyone with an attention span longer than a goldfish’s will find it easy enough to appreciate. Listen to it one disc at a time—or one side at a time—if going through two hours of music all at once sounds unappetizing, but don’t trust anyone that says it is poorly edited or too difficult to swallow in one go. Exai is littered with catchy melodies, intricate rhythms, and unexpected twists that make listening to it fun. It’s also beefier and more tightly woven than anything Autechre’s produced over the last couple of years. Instead of treating them as separate elements, Brown and Booth once again bind their melodies, rhythms, colors, and textures together, creating a geometric sound that gives their songs depth, structure, and a sense of completeness that’s long been missing from their music.

Even when songs like “irlite (get 0)” turn on a dime and meander into weightless, pixelated wastes, the duo maintain a feeling of cohesiveness by sticking to the palette and logic they’ve developed to that point. Exai leaps and turns in on itself this way, jumping freely from tightly wound passages to looser ones without falling apart. Not that there are many places where it could fall apart. Beats resolve into airy, stuttering loops and melodies disappear into a storm of snapping drums, but through all the twists and turns are familiar sounds and signposts: bright synth pads reminiscent of Aphex Twin take center stage on “T ess xi” and “cloudline” bounces with a rubbery melody and vocal effect funky enough for Squarepusher or Daft Punk. Autechre make it their own by using density and unpredictable variation to move the music along rather than tension or the usual structural devices.

But Sean and Rob have never relied on big builds or easy payoffs to make their music exciting. On Exai they’ve struck a middle road through the roaming looseness of their last two albums and the mechanical logic of well-loved classics like LP5 and Tri Repetae. Finding this road has obviously inspired them, or I don’t think they’d present two full of hours of music at once. Not everything on the album is equally excellent—the second disc is definitely the stronger of the two sets—but there’s nothing I’d want to cut. Digging into this music, stumbling on its nuances, and letting it work its magic is part of the fun. At two hours long, there’s plenty of time to get lost and forget about expectations and preconceived notions. Repeat listens offer up hidden patterns, previously unseen red threads, and a better lay of the land. Exai offers some upfront pleasures, but needs a little time to fully sink in. Once it does it sounds even better.

In fact, Exai’s biggest problem isn’t its length. It’s that albums like LP5 and Tri Repetae came long before it. They’re 15 and 18 years old now; as old or older than most people’s favorite pets. But these records aren’t going to die on us and we can listen to them anytime we want. In the meantime, it’s worth giving this new dog some time and attention. It knows a few tricks the old ones didn’t.

Exai is available on Warp Records
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com

Falconetti as Joan of Arc


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Loren Connors Scores “The Passion of Joan of Arc”

still from the Passion of Joan of ArcCarl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc has a new soundtrack thanks to one of my favorite guitarists, Loren Connors. It’s available as part of the new Blu-ray edition of the movie from Eureka Video in the UK. Unfortunately, Eureka links directly to Amazon.com for all purchases. I don’t normally support that company, but I don’t know where else to find the movie yet. It comes in a regular and a special “Steelbook” edition, which Amazon currently lists for approximately $29 US. It includes two soundtracks, newly translated English subtitles, an alternate “Lo Duca” cut of the film, and a 100-page illustrated book.

Wire Magazine has posted a Vimeo preview of the new Connors soundtrack, which I’ve posted below. I first saw Passion via the Criterion Collection edition, which features Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light soundtrack. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better movie. If you’ve never seen it paired with that music, I highly recommend it.

And here’s a piece from Einhorn’s soundtrack:

some record shelves


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The Monthly List: October’s Top 11

Coltrane and Ali playing together

photo of John Coltrane and Rashied Ali by Omar Kharem

I put the monthly list together approximately every four weeks to review the records I’ve enjoyed most in that time. I hear at least 50 or 60 new records (EPs and singles included) every month thanks to my job, but this list isn’t restricted to new music. It’s just a way for me to keep track of what I like and listen to the most, new and old. Albums may repeat themselves from month to month and links are provided for anyone interested in checking the music out themselves (check out the “Get Music” links at the bottom of this page too). This month there are 11 records on the list, eight of them new and three of them from last month. Of the eight new titles, three of them are eMego titles. I have a bunch of new Erstwhile and Gravity Wave cued up for listening too, but haven’t gotten around to all of them yet. That’s what I’ve been listening to the most since November started. Formats listed are the ones I own. Releases may be available in other formats.

October’s 11, in no particular order:

Brotzmann playing a huge sax


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Morning Wake-Up Call: Peter Brötzmann’s “Machine Gun”

The Peter Brötzmann feature in this month’s issue of Wire magazine has me busting my copy of Machine Gun out again—and admiring the first decent Wire cover in ages. Machine Gun sounds better to me now than it did when I first heard it 14 or 15 years ago, when I was 15 or 16 years old. I remember hearing the opening saxophone blast for the first time and laughing, both out of surprise and because it delivered exactly what the album title promised: a scary, rapid fire blast built up from three saxophonists, two bassists, two drummers, and a lonely pianist. Brötzmann’s intensity and volume is mentioned in nearly every review his music gets (for good reason), but there’s a lot of great humor and subtlety folded into his music too: listen long enough to the song below and you’ll hear what sounds like a riot passing through a football game at a university. The Complete Machine Gun Sessions is currently out of print, but according to the Atavistic website you can find it at places like iTunes or eMusic. Recommended listening.

erstlive 010 cover


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Review: Christian Wolff/Keith Rowe, ErstLive 010

Keith Rowe and Christian Wolff have been playing together since 1968, when Wolff first performed with AMM in the UK. Their history together goes back further, a part of the turbulent musical and political eddies set in motion by the New York School and Cornelius Cardew in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. But this performance, recorded live at NYC’s The Stone as part of Jon Abbey’s AMPLIFY 2011 festival, marks their first recorded appearance as a duo. It’s an inspired pairing. Together they produce quiet, sharp, and surprisingly gorgeous music that exemplifies the still radical ideas they started exploring over 40 years ago.

The political side of Rowe and Wolff’s music isn’t always apparent, but it’s there, hidden in plain sight. Looking for it can be enlightening, but is unnecessary. The music they make together on ErstLive 010 stands all on its own. It is by turns gossamer thin and concrete, whisper quiet and abrasive, lucid and impenetrable. Keith’s contributions consist of physical noises drawn and scratched into the strings of his table-top guitar, along with live radio broadcasts and the buzz of electrical signals emanating from various electronic devices. Christian’s contributions are on the piano and guitar. He hammers on the piano’s keys, pulls and mutes the strings, and drums on its body, preferring to play around the piano rather than directly on it—the way pianos are typically played. At the guitar he makes small sounds; plucks a solitary note here, draws a bow across the strings there, and then sits quietly back waiting for the next move.

Both musicians punctuate their performances with these (near) silences. Their pauses break the performance up and keep it from coalescing, which means all the focus is on the discrete cells of sound they produce. Ideas are ventured and tweaked, and then left behind. Seconds pass and only the tiniest sounds are made. Keith sketches out an idea, and Christian climbs over it with the occasional crescendo. It all sounds very deliberate in retrospect, but as it’s happening, anything seems possible. Wolff the composer and Rowe the improviser make the line between their methods difficult to spot.

The quiet and deliberate pace of the music also calls attention to the performance space. September 4th was a hot night at The Stone, but the air conditioning and fans in the room were turned off while Keith and Christian played. With those noises out of the way, I wonder what other sounds were audible in that room. The recording itself, helped by Joe Panzner’s excellent mastering job, is clear and close to the musicians; many of the tiniest sounds they make are audible, but I’ve yet to catch a noise from the audience, or from outside.

And that strikes me as odd, because each time I have listened to ErstLive 010, some environmental sound has crept covertly into the music: the sound of clothes tumbling in the dryer downstairs, wind and rain pressing against the windows outside, the low hum of traffic in the distance. Even with headphones on, I’ve mistaken sounds coming from the neighbors upstairs for something in the mix. Without Rowe and Wolff physically present to contextualize the music, my neighbors and environment unwittingly participate in it, and I think that must have been true at The Stone that night, too.

After I noticed this the first time, the music transformed for me. It bled into the walls and out into the neighborhood. In his April 1998 interview withPerfect Sound Forever, Christian Wolff remarks that he has “a strong anti-rhetorical feeling – I don’t think that music should be manipulative. It should be there and people should be able to do with it what they can and what they want… So there’s that kind of attitude about a musical work. It should just be itself and relatively free from manipulation and calculation to the extent that it’s possible.” ErstLive 010 exemplifies this. At the right volume, in the right circumstances, it can hide in book shelves, seep into the wood floors, and camouflage itself in sounds as small as a breath. Rowe and Wolff’s receptiveness to these tiny sounds, maybe even to subconscious and unintended ones, makes this effect possible. And the more open the music is, the deeper and more remarkable I perceive it to be, and the easier it is for me to spy the political and social ideas that have, at times, influenced their writing and performing.

The album ends unexpectedly, to the tune of humming amplifiers. I failed to notice it ending the first time. And the second. And even the third. In fact, I always fail to notice when the album ends unless I pay attention to the track time. Eventually the performance stops, but the sounds continue. They just happen, the way that many environmental sounds seem to. It’s as if Rowe and Wolff are disappearing into the music as they go, using it to get past or away from themselves. By the end, it’s as if they’re not there at all.

note: Joe Panzner’s name was initially misspelled “Panzer.” Sorry about that. Jon Abbey also writes that this was Wolff and Rowe’s first full-length performance together, not just their first full-length album. They’d played together once before, during the 2010 Christian Wolff festival in Boston, but that was only a short set. 

ErstLive 010 is available on Erstwhile
Audio samples available at Brainwashed.com

cover of Express Yourself by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band


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Morning Jam: Express Yourself!

“Express yourself!” I’m trying, man. I’m trying.

By Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Several members from this band ended up playing with Bill Withers on 1972’s Still Bill. And in 1988 N.W.A. sampled “Express Yourself” for their own “Express Yourself,” from Straight Outta Compton.

Bill Withers photo


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Ain’t No Sunshine Marathon

I woke up the other day humming the vocals from Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” for no reason at all. Must have heard it somewhere on the radio or TV without consciously acknowledging it. Too many songs get stuck in my head like that, usually ones I don’t like. But “Ain’t No Sunshine” is one of my favorites, and after listening to it a handful of times, I started wondering who had covered it, and whether their covers were any good.

Below are a couple versions from Bill Withers, and then all the covers I could find; the good, the bad, and the laughable. If you can’t get this song out of your head, Kenny Rogers and Sting are here to help. The Michael Jackson, Freddie King, and Roland Kirk covers are must-hears, though. Killer stuff. Before you scroll down, here’s some info on the song, all from Wikipedia:

Ain’t No Sunshine” is a song by Bill Withers from his 1971 album Just as I Am, produced by Booker T. Jones. The record featured musicians Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass guitar and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums, as well as Withers on lead vocals and guitar. String arrangements were done by Booker T. Jones, and recorded in Memphis by Engineer Terry Manning. The song was released as a single in September 1971, becoming a breakthrough hit for Withers, reaching number six on the U.S. R&B chart and number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The song was originally released as the B-side to another song called “Harlem”. Disc jockeys played “Ain’t No Sunshine” as the single instead, and it became a huge hit,[2] the first hit for Withers.[3]

It was released on his 1971 debut Just as I Am and in 1972 it won a Grammy for best R&B song. Before releasing his first album, Bill Withers was a factory worker responsible for manufacturing toilet seats in 747s. Anyone interested in tracking down his records will be happy to know that 4 Men with Beards is reissuing his first two records on 180 gram vinyl in late November. Just for fun, I tacked “Harlem” onto the end of this post, so you can hear the A-side that the DJs neglected to play.

The original:

 

Live on The Midnight Special:

 

Michael Jackson nails it, from Got To Be There (1972):

 

And Freddie King turns in a killer version of his own, live:

 

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, from Blacknuss (1972) Both MJ and Kirk opened their albums with Withers’ song:

 

Scott Walker—yes, that Scott Walker—from Any Day Now (1973):

 

Mobb Deep feat. Raekwon. Can’t figure out which album this comes from:

 

DMX, from Exit Wounds Original Soundtrack (2001):

 

Woven Hand, from their 2002 self-titled album:

 

Of course Me First and the Gimme Gimmes have a version:

 

Jose Feliciano, playing it live on The Englebert Humperdinck Show in 1972:

 

Nancy Sinatra, the B-Side to 1973’s “Sugar Me”:

 

Eva Cassidy, with the same twist:

 

Aaron Neville and his mole give it a shot:

 

Tracy Chapman and Buddy Guy:

 

Lenny Kravitz manages not to murder it:

 

Sting embarrassing himself with David Sanborn:

 

Kenny Rogers brings the laughs:

 

Dopethrone growls it out:

 

and, finally, “Harlem.” The A-side to “Ain’t No Sunshine”:

shot from the ZBC studios


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The Monthly List: September’s Top 15

The Monthly List is just a list of my favorite records from the previous month, with links to audio, video, and reviews where possible. Titles may or may not be new releases and some records may or may not be repeated from month to month. This month there are 15 records on the list, next month there may be only eight or nine; the number isn’t fixed. If you’re interested in buying the music, you should check out the “Get Music” links at the bottom of the page; some of those sites also provide sound samples. Formats listed are the ones I own. Releases may be available in other formats.

So here are September’s 15, in no particular order:

Strategy 2012 cover art


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Review: Strategy, “Strategy”

Paul Dickow has reinvented himself. His newest release as Strategy is a huge surprise and an even bigger statement. It comes out left field on the fledgling Peak Oil label four years after the last Strategy full-length. A series of 12” records released in the last year by Under the Spire, Endless Flight, and 100% Silk are its closest brethren, but none of them sound anything like this. Paul’s rhythms are bolder and his melodies sharper this time around. Lyrics are featured prominently throughout and the atmospherics that once defined his sound have been toned down in favor of tighter instrumental performances and punchier songs. Coming along with the new sound is a gaggle of new collaborators, including Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard), members of the Evolutionary Jass Band, and Scott Ryser of Units.

“Sugar Drop” is the first song on the first new Strategy album in four years. As far as I can tell, it signals the death of the old Strategy and the start of something new. It begins with a familiar but hollowed out sample from “I Have to Do This Thing,” then quickly cuts away to a stomping rhythm and Paul singing “I’ve got a sweet tooth.” But, the vocal bit isn’t a sample. It isn’t repeated or blended into a haze of effects. Instead, Dickow continues with verses and a refrain, a keyboard solo, and a band-oriented sound that gives equal space to all the instruments. “Objects of Desire” continues down the same path, with strong, funky rhythms, vocals pushed to the fore, and a brighter overall sound that favors instrumental separation to fuzzy atmospherics. Had I not recognized the opening sample as a Strategy sample, I might have checked to see if the right album was playing.

Dickow’s writing is also more concise this time around. Side A gives us four songs in just 17 minutes, only one without vocals. That terseness lends the first side lots of momentum, which culminates in the manic pulse of “Baby Fever.” Horns, fluttering synthesizers, and a thumping rhythm section all dance together before boiling over into a sax solo that absolutely explodes from the horn. The lyrics in this song’s first half sound a bit mismatched to me, but by the time the sax is done wailing, the vocals have ceased to matter.

It’s a barn-burning side-ender that segues naturally into side B’s first song, “Friends and Machines,” which utilizes the same horn and rhythm combo found at the end of “Baby Fever.” This time around, the combo anchors an instrumental jam that’s lead by a staccato guitar part and a bubbling assortment of hand drums. Cooler sounds and a more relaxed vibe permeate this song—and the whole second side—but cooler does not mean duller. Dickow continuously adds layers and new elements to this song, building tension and then releasing it through his use of texture and color.

The album ends with “Saturn’s Day” and “Dilemmas,” two slow-burning numbers that effectively open the parachute and bring the album slowly back to the ground. Both remind me of Paul’s work with Nudge and Fontanelle, partly because they are even more band-oriented than the songs on the first side. There’s even a guitar solo on “Saturn’s Day.” Heady and druggy sounding, they’re more soaked in reverb and echo, too, and closer to Paul’s past efforts as Strategy. Maybe that’s an indication that he’s erasing the boundaries between his various projects and drawing them all together, becoming less encumbered in the process. Dickow’s writing may have become more concise and structured over the last four years, but somehow Strategy sounds looser and better than ever.

Strategy is available on Peak Oil
Sound samples are available at Brainwashed.com