Monday, June 30, 2008

Paul Revere and the Raiders-Here They Come!

Paul Revere and the Raiders did not stop the British Invasion. It was a valiant attempt to push Made in the U.S.A. Rock-n-Roll to American audiences, but they just could not halt the flow of music being shipped over from Blighty. Of course, at the time of this release, a lot of British-produced electric music was really good, and frankly the Raiders were as slickly marketed as anything crossing the Atlantic in search of music-generated greenbacks and pussy. That said, for Independence Day, I'd like to tip my tricorn to a great American Rock-n-Roll Band.
Paul Revere was, is, and shall remain a band leader of great strength. Compared to other early Marquee Name rockers, he really does seem to care about how the constituent players in the band sound together. I doubt that even at this late date (July, 2008) Mr. Revere would not care about his band sounding tight and together. Compare this to the willful slop of Chuck Berry or the minstrel show decadence of Jerry Lee Lewis. Unlike those two, Paul wants a band that will kick ass as a band, not as some background rattle to prop up The Name. His economical piano style provides melodic structure on these tunes, but never goes into ersatz "jazziness" or phony honky tonkin'. The fact that this kind of playing is pulled off by a pianist leading a Rock band is amazing. It's beautiful and comparable to someone like Count Basie in it's conception and execution. Listen to You Can't Sit Down or Big Boy Pete for fine examples of Revere's cool, laid back keyboard leadership.
More up front than Mr. Revere is Mark Lindsey. Obviously he was a great choice as lead singer for this band. His voice on the more rocking material (You Can't Sit Down, Money, Oo Poo Pah Doo) is controlled, powerful and effective. His signature "stomp and shout/work it on out!" is just as cool as James Brown's grunt and just as weirdly infectious as Robert Plant's "baby, baby, baby". On the ballads and slower songs he uses a crooner's tenderness of approach. I'm sure that many of the co-eds he crooned to could forget the mop tops from across the pond as he sang. As a plus, he never sounds as if he's putting his ego above the band. Lead singers everywhere, please listen to and learn from Mark Lindsey! His sax on Louie Louie and You Can't Sit Down is raw and wild, a great unleashed sound, riding hot atop of Revere's restraint. This band would have sounded a lot less great, had Mark Lindsey not participated.
At first I was tempted to say that the guitar is not the lead voice in most Raiders tunes. Drake Levin never plays the guitar hero part here, but instead he generally sticks to playing within the melodies. He does step up on occasion, playing really freaky, Dick Dale-like twang on You Can't Sit Down, reverb-ey on Sometimes, or just purely magical on Louie Louie. All of this action happens within the discipline of the tunes, though, and it's both rockin' and sophisticated. Yeah, it's a lead instrument all right. And how!
The Raiders must have felt like Phil Volk was their secret weapon. It's amazing, the way his pulsing bass chords beef up and move the tunes. Here you have a precursor to Felix Pappalardi and possibly Paul McCartney's playing post 1965, in that he lays down thick, swooping chords that the other players can move around on top of. It's a kind of deep melodic voice within the songs, and it's very effective.
If Volk is the Raiders' secret weapon, then Mike Smith is their infantry. His drumming is so tight, so swinging and powerful. Listen to and marvel at his control as he blasts his way through the rockin' numbers, then turns around and just floats the ballads and slower tunes. Why is this man not listed along with all of the other drum monsters of his, or any, era? Take just example from this disc, that being the way he swings through the potentially corny Do You Love Me. That he can make a rather tepid song rock so hard is miraculous. His big beat drives the song to unexpected heights as it's syncopated magic takes hold, especially during the middle call and response rave up. His style is one of those unheralded yet widely copied ones. R.I.P, Smitty, and THANK YOU!
Here They Come! is a fun record. There is no "deep" angst or "meaningful" social critique coming from Paul Revere and the Raiders. Just pure, Red White and Blue colored American good times, juiced by amazing Rock-n-Roll musicianship and hearty irreverence. C'mon, you know that's cool, especially in Summer, especially on Independence Day!
God Bless America. I mean it, man.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hunter's Run by George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham

Science Fiction, along with guitar music, has been a constant in my life. My earliest appreciation of the SF genre came from the amazing (for an eight year old boy) cover art on so many of it's volumes. I can recall spinning the paperback spindle at Patrick Henry Village Library, marveling at the space ships and aliens depicted on those books' covers. Reading and comprehending such books was a far more difficult matter, at least for a few more years. Until middle school I stuck with fantasy (Conan the Barbarian, Chronicles of Narnia, etc.) It was in eighth grade that SF really began to exert an influence. Sadly, this influence was kicked off somewhat askew by the blindingly dull Battlefield Earth (L. Run Hubbard will take your time along with your money), oddly assigned by the hippie 8th Grade English instructor at Heidelberg Middle School. Asimov and Heinlein came after that. Then, thank God, came Cyberpunk. Just as the better Punk bands forced a lot of bloat and pretension out of the Rock process, so too did Cyberpunk for SF. It was just as refreshing for me to find William Gibson et al as it was to really hear Black Flag or the Ramones.
It's often seemed to me that greatest contributions that Cyberpunk have made to the genre have come in the form of humanness. The best of it's writers make people the narrative focus, as opposed to Technology or Hegelian historical narratives. In so many of these novels, even when the setting is in Space, the concerns remain human and earthy. I'm not sure if any of the authors of Hunter's Run are considered to be Cyberpunk authors, but the book's style and narrative can place it within that genre of SF.
Very human and very earthy is Ramon Espejo, the protagonist of Hunter's Run. The novel follows his path as gets into real bad trouble, tries to escape this trouble, and then becomes ensnared as a pawn in a struggle that is much bigger than him. Along the way he must confront the more odious aspects of his character, and the authors do a great job of setting this aspect of the story up and then fleshing it out. In a classic escape through the wilderness type of setting, Ramon is confronted with issues of a more universal scale, and must overcome his own issues in order to simply survive. The changes in his character are never writ large by the authors, but instead are subtle and unfold over the course of the novel. This makes for a character that most any reader can relate to and empathize with. Ultimately, there is a kind of redemption for him, but it's not naive or corny.
The supporting characters of the story are well placed and well edited by the authors. They never out shine the character study of Ramon Espejo and never lead down narrative blind alleys. They provide contrast and dialogue, but never so much as to give the feeling of being superfluous. So too the settings. The story is set on a far flung from Earth planet, but the details are never filled-in so much that there is no room left for the imagination of the reader. Fantastical elements are touched upon, but only ever enough to make the planet seem fascinating and different from Earth.
It must have been difficult for three people to work on a novel, and the authors did a hell of a job keeping their styles seamless for the sake of the story. Recall William Gibson and Bruce Sterlings' clunky collaboration The Difference Engine and contrast it with the excellent flow throughout the whole of Hunters Run. It never seems like two different authors' work, let alone three. Really impressive, that.
Hunter's Run is a fun read, well edited and quick paced. It can be read over longer periods or taken in by small chunks. There is humor, horror, love, longing, fulfillment, angst, and much more in the story. It's focus on the complicated striving of a relatively simple character places it within the Cyberpunk camp. As such, I really dig it. You may, too.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sun City Girls-You're Never Alone with a Cigarette

With last year's passing of Charles Gocher, Sun City Girls will exist only in the realm of memory. Luckily for music consumers, they documented a lot of their work. Some of it is getting rather expensive to be had, but thankfully Abduction has reissued an affordable batch of great work from the band, most of it from 1988. You're Never Alone with a Cigarette is made up of nine killer examples of the band, in prime form, really playing their way to a sound that is theirs alone. Their music is an awe-inspiring mixture of influences and modes, launched from a Rock base, that goes just about anywhere they Will it to go. It's fucking courageous music. Here are a few attempts at describing the amazing sounds on this disc.
Let's start with Alan Bishop. His dense bass chords anchor the group's playing. One would be hard put to find as strong an electric bassist in any era. His playing has similar density to Jazz players such as Charnette Moffatt or William Parker, and the fact that he gets such a rich, complex, and organic sound out of an electric bass is amazing. It's some earthy, hardened, funky playing, and it keeps the improvisatory flights of the band physical. Alan's playing gives Sun City Girls a real heaviness. His Moroccan flute playing is pretty damn sweet, too.
Richard Bishop's guitar playing moves from speedy runs to sweet melodies to mind-melting slide effects. On the longer songs he takes all the liberty he needs, but never sounds bored or boring. His shorter compositions are just beautiful folk music. Like his brother, the closest comparisons to other players must come from Jazz (Sonny Sharrock, Blood Ulmer, Barney Kessell), but his mastery and freakiness place him atop his own guitar hero mountain.
Last but not least is the late Gocher. Here we find a drummer that combines basic elements with extreme subtlety. He often pulses the music with a simple quarter note bass drum thump, reminiscent at times of marching bands, at others of avant-garde music a la Moondog's or Albert Ayler's. Atop this bass drum pulse there is a weave of percussion on the tom toms and snare drum. His approach on these drums sounds a lot like the best tabla playing, in the way it comments upon and shades the melodies. There is nary a cymbal bash to be found. Gocher's cymbal playing often has the shimmering quality of the gongs used to such great effect in the Gamelan music Sun City Girls love(d) so much. His drumming serves as a model for any percussionists who would like to play "World Music". It draws upon elements from around the world, yet clearly is a World unto itself.
Now on to the tunes. There isn't a bad one in the bunch. Especially effective are the improvised trios, in which Sun City Girls interact as if of one mind. Their jams become incredible psychedelic cascades. These tunes are hypnotic and trippy, and the band flows with the telepathic communication that bands achieve from playing together a lot. This is not tightness in a traditional virtuoso based Jazz or improv-Rock sense. This is tightness on the order of the best improvised music. The instruments interact, respond, break off, re-join, and flow on, a collective entity. It's really wonderful to hear. Breaks in the action are provided by South Asian tinged acoustic chants and soundtrack-like bits, which are fun and entertaining. Of particular note is the tune about the doomed Mr. Wilkinson, Harmful Little Armful, lasting a mere forty-three seconds, but packing more punch than any other O.D. tune I've ever heard. The watery chords and brushed snare drum give this song a lonesome, isolated feel. This, combined with the short duration, make for a scary, sinking feeling. I've never O.D.'d on anything, but can imagine that this may be what it feels like to do so.
Cigarettes are bad. Sun City Girls are more than good. Spend some time alone with their music, and imagine Charles Gocher reaching out and giving you a nice, big Germs burn with his eternal cancer stick. Then close your eyes and watch your mind explode and collapse. His band can have that kind of effect on you.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ghost Echoes are for Real

Ghost Echoes are a San Francisco band. "Wow", you might say, "real insightful, dude." I'm not just stating the obvious, seeing as that all three members of the band live, strive and struggle in SF. No, I mean they SOUND San Francisco. Please indulge me while I attempt to explain.
San Francisco is a singular place. There's always seems to be tension in the air. It's a city that is very much defined by the conflicts that occur here. All cities are this way, of course. Most major cities don't have the problem of having only seven by seven miles of space to deal with, though. This fundamental lack contributes hugely to the feeling of being boxed in. Residents of SF are piled closely atop one another at all times. Along with the spacial issue come the long history of social conflict (Check out City Light's Reclaiming San Francisco, and then seek out any older SF native for a counterpoint to that), bizarre weather patterns, and constant influx of new demographics.
Ghost Echoes spring from the morass that is San Francisco. Their original Myspace header read "We're like a mirror of what's fucked-up". I can agree with their sentiment. I hear this, and a lot more in their music. Their sound is defined by a simplicity that rewards the listener with a dense, physical music. Drummer Jonny keeps his kit down to one cymbal (not even a hi-hat, at that), no rack toms, and a really big snare drum. His SF antecedent is the great Tony Fag, who utilized a similar set up for astoundingly physical results in Bomb. Jonny's rhythmic flow sounds like amped-up Rockabilly at times; he drives Ghost Echoes with a relentlessly fast 16th note pulse, occasionally breaking it up with rapid fills on his floor tom. His swing comes from syncopation on the snare drum, placed around the time keeping function of his ride cymbal beat. It's a beautiful thing. Bassist Franz oftentimes carries the tune for Ghost Echoes. He uses a large cabinet and pushes his amp really hard. This combination delivers a deliciously fuzzy melodic sound. During some songs he pumps out frenetic double time riffs for an effect that can almost sound like Black Metal bass. As my pal Colin pointed out, he also bends the bass strings to get a trippy vibrato. Fans of Will Shatter's and Bruce Loose's bass sound can find a real thrill when Franz straps his bass on. Last but not least there is guitarist Jamie. He plays a Rickenbacher hollow body through what appears to be a tube amp. Much like Franz, he drives his amplification system hard. When not playing melodically, his guitar squalls and feeds back in spacey ways. He refrains from from tight power chord strumming, and issues a broad, loose sound within his chord sequences. His playing can remind you at times of Frankie Fix's, and at times of Ted Falconi's. To paraphrase Joe Carducci's musings on 1977 SF band Grand Mal, it's a glorious mess. Ghost Echoes songs are physically powerful, emotional outbursts. They buzz, whir, and then explode. They're Punk songs, for sure. Punk of a sort that seems to spring easily from people dealing with life in such a strange, tense place as San Francisco.
Forgive me, I've spieled before the meal:

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mitchell Feldstein Interview

Lungfish can be a tough band to describe. Their sound is so unique. It's useless to compare them to other bands, from any era of Rock. They seemed to exist in and create their own musical world, unconcerned with just about every aspect of the music industry save for documenting their songs on tape. Their instrumental approach started out simple, and over the years they whittled it down further. On each successive release, the playing grew more minimal. It often sounded as if the players were attempting to go deeper and deeper into each note played. It would be a challenge to find a single wasted note on any of their later releases. The instrumental interaction was characterized by a weave of slowly picked guitar arpeggio, dub-like bass runs, and pattern based drumming. Much as in the music of Minimalist composers, a shimmering sound arises as the sum of the constituent parts. Lungfish is great headphone music in that regard. Live, they were heavy, without being oppressive, and it was fun to watch singer/lyricist Daniel Higgs gesture and contort himself.
I often marvel at the work of drummer Mitchell Feldstein. His simple, uncluttered patterns always sound elegant to me. I love the way Mitchell plays, and have often wanted to see him interviewed. Punk Planet, in their great Lungfish article in 2000, seemed to have neglected Mitchell (see if you can find it for the great interviews with Asa and Daniel). I contacted Dischord Records, who graciously put me in contact with him. Following are questions emailed to Mitchell Feldstein in June of 2008. Enjoy.

Q: What were your early musical experiences? Did you play in bands (school band, high school garage band, etc.)?

Mitchell: I remember my parents always listening to music around the house. My mother played piano. In fact, she even wrote her high school class song. After trying to play guitar for a few years, I settled on drums after my parents heard me tapping along with a song on the radio and asked me if I wanted to play. I still remember listening to the radio, back in the days when AM ruled and the play list was varied, with top hits from Rock and Soul. Never played in the high school band or anything like that. I remember going to Canso's records in Philadelphia with my sister and buying 45 RPM records. I was so excited when two of the records we wanted were and A and B side of the same record [it was by] the Monkees. We jumped with joy when it dawned on us that we could buy another 45. I think our other choices were by the Beach Boys and the Supremes, and the maybe the Four Tops and the Doors. It may come as a surprise or maybe not but I came of musical age before Punk. I would say glitter or Glitter or Glam has as big an effect on me. First concert ever seen was David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars, 1972, Tower Theater, Upper Derby PA. Not a bad way to be introduced to live Rock-n-Roll. I also loved T Rex. Saw them twice.

Q:What bands did you like early on? Were there any drummers in particular that you enjoyed? How about other instrumentalists?

Mitchell: The Kinks were quickly settled on as my favorite band during junior high/high school(and they still are). I still remember the first time I heard a Lou Reed song. I was listening to the radio and heard a song which left me amazed. I would not leave the car until the DJ said who it was; the song was Lisa Says. I think the line about a tongue in an ear kinda piqued my interest. I remember a divide happening in high school when some folks liked Frank Zappa. I smiled and listened to Black Sabbath. Have to credit the late, great Lester Bangs with teaching me loads about music via Creem magazine. I used to jump with joy when the new Creem or Circus or Crawdaddy was available at Haveline Pharmacy, in suburban Philadelphia. The Kinks, the Velvet Underground (John Cale/Lou Reed), Neil Young, Roxy Music, Brian Eno-all early favorites that I still listen to. I think I was more into melody than drums per se. But of course, what young white boy who liked Rock-n-Roll didn't like Keith Moon. I got to see the Who twice with Keith: once playing Quadrophenia and once on the last "Greatest Hits" tour. Fucking mind-blowing. Also, I always liked Charlie Watts as a drummer, and later Levon Helm was a favorite. Music meant a lot to me from an early age and it still means a lot today. Having seen Bob Dylan in 2001, when he was still a guitar slinger, is one of my later musical highlights. It kinda reminded me of Buddy Holly. Lungfish performed Well Alright for several years live, and it was always a blast. As far as other instrumentalists: Lou Reed, Richard Thompson, Neil Young, Preston Long (guitar), and Brian Eno, to name a few.

Q: Did you get into Punk at it's outset? If so, what attracted you to it.? What was Punk like in Baltimore?

Mitchell: Did I get into Punk?!? I helped fucking invent it! I liked the fact that the music was seemingly so connected to an anti-style that anyone could choose as long as they wanted to. I saw the Dead Boys at CBGB's destroy the Damned. I am from Philadelphia so I'm not sure what was happening in Baltimore during the 1970s. I saw the Fall destroy the Buzzcocks, and in fact I think I saw the Fall's first U.S. show. [The] Philly band, Ruin [were] a great unknown band. Bauhaus on their first tour, what an amazing Philly. Dan Higgs saw them in Baltimore on the same tour and we often talk about how great they were. Minutemen, 9:30 Club in WDC (music doesn't get much better than this). I saw the Undertones open up for the Clash and well jeez I kinda thought they were better. Saw the first ever Stranglers U.S. show, man were they good! Several years later in D.C. they were even better. I still hope that Punk is a valid youth movement, and smile whenever I pass through a college campus and see the odd mohawk or punk outfit. I still listen, too.

Q: How about D.C. Hardcore? Did you go to those shows?

Mitchell: No, but I became pretty good friends with one of the guys who helped formulate it!

Q: Did you drum in Reptile House?

Mitchell: No. I saw Reptile House two or three times and they always blew my mind. SO FUCKING GOOD. I actually saw Lungfish in their first incarnation with another drummer, Gary, whose last name I can't spell. They were so good I cried, and told Asa if they ever needed a drummer, give me a holler.

Q: How did Lungfish start? Did everyone know each other, or did you place ads, etc.?

Mitchell: I was friends with Asa from another band we played in. So, when [Lungfish] needed another drummer, they asked me. Baltimore was kind of a small scene, so I knew Danny. Not so much, John. There weren't too many degrees of separation between any of us. When I moved to Baltimore in 1985 I met Joey, a cousin (and bass player in Reptile House) of Danny's, through a musician help wanted ad; this got me introduced to the Baltimore music scene, or at least a portion of it.

Q: Lungfish's rhythm and melodic structure are famously spare and minimal. Was this approach a deliberate decision on the band's part, or did the songs just come out that way without much deliberation? Were there any bands or styles of music that influenced this direction?

Mitchell: I think a lot of the melody is due to Asa and his finely tuned sense of minimal beauty and the power of electric music. Lungfish, to my mind, always did the best we could. [We] never coasted. [We] never sold the audience short, never made "joke" music. The fact that we all were always exploring music by listening to it added to our overall sound. As far as influences, well we each brought our own to the table, the studio, and the stage. I think we are all thankful for the different influences we brought and introduced each other to.

Q: When working on Lungfish music , did you jam/improvise, or were parts pretty much written out beforehand, and then worked up at practice time?

Mitchell: The songs for the most part were written as the result of playing together. There was one album, Sound In Time, I think, that was written largely by myself and Asa by playing together several times a week in his basement over the course of a few months. At some point the seeds were presented to Dan and Sean and the germination took root. I can kinda remember working out parts for the song Non-Dual Bliss, but mainly the songs came from practicing together often, regularly and intensely. Danny's lyrics often [put] the music in focus.

Q: Some of the songs on Lungfish records have a feel that suggests that they were improvised in the studio. Is this the case?

Mitchell: I would guess that 10-15% of our songs were studio creations.

Q: What are some of your favorite Lungfish songs? How about favorite recordings?

Mitchell: I like Shapes in Space a lot. Recording was generally a very rewarding experience. I like Creation Story, Mother Made Me, Jonah, You are the War, and loads more. Actually I enjoyed playing live more than recording. Not by much, but I have to admit I like being on the road seeing things, meeting people, and playing in front of people. Since most of the sessions were done with Don and Ian, either actively involved or there providing support, the sessions were always intense, fruitful and rewarding. Recording with Tim Green in SF was a great change of pace. Tim is a friend and a bad-ass.

Q: What kind of drums do you play? How about cymbals? Any particular favorite piece of hardware that made your sound?

Mitchell: I play Tama drums, Zildjian K cymbals, and recently bought a custom made Maryland drum, a 4.5" snare which is a really sweet drum. My Tamas are made in Japan and may be from 1982 or so. They are the second kit I ever owned. They are the Superstar model (birch shells). Whenever I thought about getting new drums I would play them and they sounded so good. My first kit was a Rogers kit I got when I was 16 or so and wish I had kept. Drum Workshop makes great, tour-worthy hardware, a great hi-hat stand. Actually, I am a big fan of clubs having backline kits, as long as they are top shelf and in tune.

Q: Lungfish is on hiatus. Are you currently playing music?

Mitchell: A couple of years ago I played with Arboureteum for a bit and recorded five or six songs, several of which have been released. Otherwise, not to be obtuse, but I am always playing music, and I believe you have not heard the end of me yet!

Q: Is there any music happening currently that you find amazing?

Mitchell: No Age, Bats for Lashes, M.I.A., Battles, Jeff Parker, Chicago Underground, Tojiko Noriko, Cloudded, Sawako, Banned Books, Itoken, Califone, Takes by Trees, Malcolm Middleton, Sunset Rubdown, name more than just a few. Also, I have been listening to loads of contemporary music, such as Roger Reynolds, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Johnathan Harvery, Brian Ferneyhough, and Charles Wuorinen. Over the past ten years I have also begun to see the beauty in Jazz, thanks to Miles Davis, who has lead me to Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Mccoy Tyner, and Bill Evans. If push came to shove, I might consider John Cale the overriding genius (if that term means anything) of modern music. All time favorites that I still listen to: the Kinks (1964-1974), the Velvet Underground, the Fall, Neil Young, Brian Eno, Boy Dylan, Richard Thompson. I you haven't noticed I tend to take things literally. Thanks for asking..................................

Post Script: thanks to Mitchell for doing the interview, and to Alec at Dischord for putting me in contact with Mitchell.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

X-Under the Big Black Sun

I think it's safe to say that most folks have two or three records that they will always come back to. It's a magical thing. Every time you stop and listen to one of your faves, you find new sound combinations, new intrigue or emotional resonance in the lyrics, fresh nuance in the mixing, etc. Most bands are lucky to have one great song, and so much the better for the listener when an entire release is great. The search for recordings with that quality must contribute in large part to the impulse in so many of us to keep searching out new ones, not to mention the relatively recent impulse to blog about them. Despite the cost, the space issues, the admonitions from loved ones to please stop wasting our time on that stuff, we seek out fresh (at least to us) records. Real pleasure resides therein.
Under the Big Black Sun is one of my life-long favorites. I've had a copy of it in every format (shame on you iTunes, cutting out the beginning bars of the Hungry Wolf!). X always seemed to be a stand-out act from the L.A. punk scene, and for me this one is their pinnacle moment.
Let's start with the rhythm section. You'd be hard pressed to find a band as rhythmically greased as X sound on this one. Obviously D.J. Bonebreak's presence doesn't hurt them on that front. If Chuck Biscuits was the Keith Moon of Punk, I'd say D.J. was said movement's John Bonham. He grounded his band with a solid simplicity, which under further scrutiny reveals layers of stylistic complexity. His drumming drives the tunes here, never overbearing, but at no moment relegated to the background. Billy Zoom's guitar playing slides around all over the beat laid down by Bonebreak. It's very much lead guitar, but always leading from within the rhythm dictated by the song. His sounds are raw without being dumb, and the runs, swoops and dive bombs verge on Ginn levels of dramatic flair. In John Doe we find another bass player that is content to anchor the songs, playing the melody and leaving it at that.
X always seemed to be a band with a definite poetic focus. Vocals and lyrics are obviously going to matter a lot in such a band. On Under the Big Black Sun, Exene and Doe do a great job with singing and lyrics. So often one gets sacrificed for the other, but here there is a balance that's pretty amazing. There is never a sense of Diva or "chick singer" from Exene's voice. Her voice is emotional, and somewhat hot, but it never gets annoying. Her country influences serve her well. John Doe sticks to a cooler, Everyman sort of approach, also country-colored, but you can hear the strain of urban life in his vocalizing as well. Their harmonizing is nicely edited. They pick great moments to leave the singing up to their foil, and great moments to join in. These moments give added impact to the lyrics. Ah, yes, the lyrics. Earlier X releases are characterized by personal lyrical content, an obviously great approach, as opposed to the phony "meaningfulness" of music industry tripe X stood in contrast to. On this album, the lyrics seem to paint from a bit broader perspective, at times sounding like one long rumination on the Human Condition, filtered through an American lens by way of working Los Angeles (in contrast to the Hollywoodland myth of Unlimited Anything America). My sense is that the lyrics describe working the angles just as much as punching the clock. Of particular depth is the GREAT work song The Have Nots. I want that one sent out into Space by NASA.
In recent years I've read review writing that bashes X. I just can't understand this. I can't see how a group this tight and powerful could be written off so easily, especially when compared to so much of the music that was being produced contemporaneously. Yes, the quality of their music began to slide after this one. Yes, they were careerists, I guess. Regardless of all that, Under the Big Black Sun transcends time for me. It's not obscure, but I find it to be rare. It's rarity lies in the way it hangs together so perfectly, in my opinion. I'll always love it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Greg Ginn is a free man. I don't mean this in a "hey, it's a free country" kind of way. It's as if he's shaken off a lot of the baggage from times long gone, and is doing what he wants, without the psychological weight that seems to inform so much of his post-Black Flag output. This is the freedom of which I write. It must have gotten tiresome to be an open target to so much flak from his peers in Hardcore and the three or four generations/variations spawned from that scene. I like to think that he's just finally overcome all that, and is back to creating music from a much more liberated state. That conjectured, let's take a look and listen to Connecting, the debut by Jambang, Greg's latest musical project.
According to their web page, Jambang is without question a jam band. From what I know of this musical approach, the primary concern rests within a group of players using rhythm, and to a seemingly lesser extent, melody, over rather extended periods. Groove is the objective. Within these parameters, drummer Steve DeLollis does a great job. His rhythms on just about every track are downright motorik, which I think are of much more interest and effect than ham-fisted "funky" playing, an approach that makes so much jam music sort of corny. He manages to pare his playing down to a nice essentialist groove for the most part, giving the string players plenty of space in which to color said groove.
Much of the coloring of the music comes from the mandolin playing of Bobby Bancalari. He often uses his mandolin strings for an almost piano-like effect, providing tuned percussion sounds in high registers. This gives many of the songs a kind of sweet bite. Bassist Cliff Samuels stays in the background, just anchoring all of it. Jam band bassists take note! An actual team player in the rhythm section! I bet the rest of the band love him for that.
Last but not least, there's Ginn. His playing sounds really relaxed to me. Mellow? No, just not as high strung as his playing with Flag or Gone. Unlike the guitar's placement way up front in those two bands, in Jambang Ginn holds back a lot. He seems content to lead from a much more reserved place. His guitar melodies are sometimes reminiscent of lines off of Loose Nut and In My Head, and provide the main melodic thrust. They just don't sound as tension-derived as in previous Ginn recordings. Greg also provides a bit of organ and synthesizer action, but in the main sticks to leading with his newly restrained jam band riffing.
If you insist on high energy and fast pacing in your guitar music, you probably won't enjoy Connecting. It's mixed and mastered a bit too cool for those kinds of ears. However, if you're a fan of Greg Ginn's ever evolving sound, or instrumental Rock, give it a try. It's some of the catchiest music to come from SST in quite some time. I'd say just be patient and let it unfold inside your mind.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Pere Ubu-The Modern Dance

I'm surprised to see so few blog entries regarding this killer recording.
I'd like to put aside the usual "crazy out of key man screaming about
how the '70's sucked" stance and focus on some of the tunes and tones that
make the Modern Dance sound so timeless.
Pere Ubu seem to have known from the get-go that great music is made
when ample space is provided to let the music breath. Every song here
has plenty of room to let a listener in. Even the fast paced Peter
Laughner-penned Life Stinks displays this quality. Perhaps this is
why so many Punk oriented writers pay Ubu lip service but fail so
often to write about their amazing sounds? Inside said spaces one is
treated to bass and drum lead tunes that rarely veer into
tunelessness, despite the atonal Allan Ravenstine synthesizer washes and Tom
Herman's deliciously noisy guitar squall. Carducci described Scott Krauss
and Maimones' rhythm section work as "meat and potatoes", and this
works up to a point. There is a kind of simplicity to this rhythm section. That said, these two MAKE this record, with a really
Rocking (as opposed to Rockin'?) swing that moves the tunes.
Listen closely to how well Krauss's drums are tuned, his sweet cymbal
beats, and the patterns that arise around them on the drums. Street
Waves in particular sounds almost as if Elvin Jones had been hanging
around with the band in 1977, trying to keep pace with the wild
Clevelanders assembled therein. Maimone's bass carries most of the
melodies, but let's not blame him for later bands' somewhat weaker
adaptation of this approach in Ubu's wake. His clarity of playing
gives focus to the listener, and, presumably to the players as well.
Herman's guitar runs have a very focused and melodic jumping off
point from which to spray paint. This leaves David Thomas. Yes,
he's prickly. Yes he's fat. Put aside the sociological stuff, and
consider just one stanza:

If it's a joke, mon/then Humor Me!

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a better summation of the
tension inherent within creative endeavors in America. Especially
post-Punk, but presumably pre-Punk as well. The man can write, and with insight. The drum and bass fueled melodies help him too. It would seem that if Ubu relied on more traditional tonal approaches to provide the melodic lines, the VERY untraditional approach Thomas takes would be at best hindered.
The more I write here, the clearer it gets that the Modern Dance is pretty much a bottomless well of great sounds. The 1960’s reminiscent keys on the title track, the “industrial” percussion, Thomas’ pained yelping, etc. I can only scratch the surface. Neither do I doubt that, given a chance, Dave Thomas would most likely tell me to leave my baloney on some other man’s bread. Still, I urge anyone who listens to this one to go in as deeply as is possible. Great treasures await the perception there.