Monday, April 11, 2016

American Insiders: Rust Belt Edition

Three or four years back, Disaster Amnesiac presented the first American Insiders edition. Although I don't feel that it's cringe worthy enough for my Disaster Apologia, I have always been somewhat embarrassed by its rather sophomoric compare/contrast format. The post's taking off point, using Walt Whitman's ideals as inspiration for enthusing about Lonnie Holley and Jandek, was heartfelt, especially in light of my then-current obsession with Leaves of Grass. It just always seemed a rather ham-fisted attempt in hindsight. All that said, two recently acquired recordings, both produced withing the American Rust Belt by extremely unique artists, have necessitated a second installment. No compare/contrast this time. Let's just get right to the great music from Cybotron and Jackie McDowell.

Cybotron-Cyber Ghetto; Fantasy Records, 1995
This disc was espied by Disaster Amnesiac at the small used book shop at Berkeley Public Library. I was initially intrigued by its cover: old monitors and keyboards from the 1990's, piled high in some kind of post-apocalyptic junk heap with an ominous bar code hovering above it all. Looking at the titles, which definitely enhance that feeling, I decided to take the disc, still in its factory shrink wrap, home for a listen. Happy to have, as it turns out! These tunes, recorded and produced by Rik Davis in Detroit, seem to be unified by some kind of grand theological/philosophical conception; it's this lyrical bent of Cyber Ghetto that has Disaster Amnesiac designating it an American Insider. Indeed, the more that I've listened to this disc, the more I get the feeling that Davis is intoning a deeply personal cosmology, one influenced by the sacred texts quoted on the liner note, but personal nonetheless. These lyrics are generally delivered in a cool, calm, almost monotone way. Disaster Amnesiac has felt that Rik absolutely wanted the listener to hear and perceive the messages contained within his words, and his delivery makes sure of that. At no time does any of his message seem off-handed or tossed out randomly. Musically, Cyber Ghetto slides along at a stately pace to match its lyrics. Tunes such as Fragment 17 Phase 1 (Proximian Mythos Cycle) and Chakra 9 (Ghandharva Descending) feature ritualistic feels, while Cyber Jesus and Final Fantasy pick up the pacing somewhat, with the latter being an especially cool fusion of Funk and Psychedelic Rock. The disc's every tune showcase the writing and arranging talents of Davis; they're chock full of fascinating sounds and rhythms, all wrapped up inside of a classy, clear auditory sheen that evinces the great care with which it was produced.  Disaster Amnesiac recalls an Elliot Sharp sidebar in an old issue of Mondo 2000, in which he described a record that he liked as "brain booty". I'd most definitely use that appellation for Cyber Ghetto's music, too. Its very individualistic vision makes it deeply American Insider as well.

Jackie McDowell-New Blood Medicine; self-released via bandcamp, 2016
On it's face, Pittsburgh PA resident Jackie McDowell's most recent release, New Blood Medicine, could not be more different from Cybotron's 1995 opus. Its point of view is much more terrestrial, much less cosmic than Cyber Ghetto. As opposed to the latter, with its other worldly vision, the former's  is far more earthy and rooted, with much of its sounds emanating not from synths or even electric guitars, but mostly harmonium, mountain dulcimer, and banjo. What Disaster Amnesiac always delights in with Jackie's music is the ways in which she blends these acoustic instruments with electronics. Her hybrid sound keeps gaining in breadth and sublime delicacy. Songs such as Thirteen Mothers Rise and ∆∆∆ feature her mystical lyrics paired with simple acoustic strumming and harmonium. The spiritual vibes don't seem to gaze heavenward, but instead give off the feeling one gets when finding the divine within a blade of grass. On Hyperborea and Scrape Dirt Marrow, there are many aural delights hidden somewhat deep within the apparent simplicity of presentation; one must listen closely for them underneath McDowell's ever-effectively developing alto vocals. New Blood Medicine's relatively short duration seems to come to apotheosis with an absolutely stunning version of Micheal Hurley's Tea Song. It's a prime example of an artist using another artist's material as a launch pad for finding new heights of expression. If you're not entranced by this version hours after hearing it, you're clearly not listening. Coming wrapped in sweetly simple packaging, highlighted by nicely rural primitive artwork by Stanley Clough, New Blood Medicine is as fine an example of American Insider as you're wont to find. Jackie McDowell's vision just keeps growing. I'd advise one to let oneself grow with it.

As mentioned in the opening to this piece, Disaster Amnesiac has always felt a bit embarrassed by the initial American Insiders piece. Hopefully this new installment will assuage some of those feelings. I can only hope that the sincerity of both pieces matches that of the artists which they were inspired by, and hope that there are many more similar artists within the Rust Belt and other regions, hard at work and honing their own personal visions.  Please do let me know.

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