Monday, January 28, 2008

There's a really bad Doors pun that I'm not touching

Ok, so we all kind of dropped the ball on Fire on Fire. They got a smattering of praise from their first EP which came out a few months ago on Young Gods. Smattering don’t pay the bills though, so let’s see if we can go one better and see what to make of these people.

The fills on their self-titled Handmade EP (not sold in stores and only $7) are really remarkable. Mostly because the lyrics aren’t anything terrible special, if you press me on subject matter, I can’t tell you what any of these songs are about.

But the music is so good that the literal meanings seem to be beside the point. Note-wise everything is sparse, but they play the hell out of their instruments with what little has been mapped out.

Because all the players are clearly recorded in one room the interplay is a lot tighter. What they obtain is that sort of psychic vibe that bands give off when they know each other too well for their own good. You’re sort of left guessing on which direction each song is going. Crescendos rise and lead nowhere while choruses start at weird moments. And when you think a song is near the end… it goes on for 3 more minutes.

Vocals are shared within the group and treated like percussive instruments. Very blunt and very loud when the occasion calls for it. During group choruses they reach a register I’ve probably never heard before; most likely you’ve never heard anything like it either. Vibrating, nasal, and smooth; almost like Hawaii interludes. Where a bunch of Mainers found Polynesian records though is a subject for another day. Harmonically I feel like this something unique and a little mind blowing at times. Granted we live in the era of the group shout. But not like the wailing of a free jazz trumpet.

A lot of the younger freak folk artists are schooled in hardcore punk and usually aim statement and reiteration approach with a kind of pre-Dust Bowl voice. Fire on Fire, however, adopt a narrative and see it through. The group chemistry is so tight that stretching out tunes to 7 minutes or 8 minutes only tightens the melodies to a finer point.
It’s all about starting out on one key and pounding different stlyes together like railroad spikes until some notion of harmony is achieved.

They’ve got their debut LP slated for this year people. If we let this slide again we’ll all have go up to Portland and become missionaries for these guys

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Canarsie Shuffle

One of the most rewarding indoor experiences you’re likely to have this winter would be to acquaint yourself with Brooklyn Jazz Underground (BJU) a collective of bandleaders which has been gathering a bit of steam for the last year in in the smaller venues of the outer NYC scene.

What they bring to the fold is an avant garde sound with a lot of warmth and ingenuity. It’s tough to give jazz the type of discerning eye it deserves when your not surrounded by it for anything less than a few days at a time. But they absolutely suck you in without any priming. You listen to one piece and feel at ease to gobble up ten more. This is the type of music which strips bare the wall between active listening and instinctive fun . The kind you can never get enough of.

There’s a very light touch at work with the arrangements. The music is pretty but not at the expense of sacrificing improvisation or compositional shifts in time signature. Mostly because the personality within the playing styles is very rich .

Evocations of Brooklyn are laced between the blue notes very comfortably forming a type of floral-urban patchwork. Even if you don’t know Kings County very well, its unmistakable that the collective views the neighborhood with a good amount of intimacy and understanding. It's regional music in the best sense of the word.

I don't
mean to discount the individual achievements of each band by lumping them into a whole. However, BJU has been promoting themselves as a collective and putting forward the idea that individual recognition will greatly benefit from across the board praise. In that spirit I'll critique them in the manner which they prefer to be observed.

Without picking favorites within the collective; start with the ensembles of bassists Alexis Cuadrado and Anne Mette Iversen. After that everything will flow naturally.

Recording wise they’re very much in DIY territory with two compilations out; the second released as recently as January 8 which will be for sale online soon.

Podcast interviews with members of the collective are also available on Itunes for free while their myspace page has material from Vol. 1. Make sure to visit the myspace pages of the respective groups as well

The ensembles have been playing an absurd amount of free shows around New York. You can't buy that kind of goodwill anyway.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Soviet Sludge

In Soviet Russia Bauhaus covers you.

Or something like that.

USSR began as the Bauhaus cover band “Dark Entries” and quickly absorbed members of other 80’s goth/synth bands in or around Athens, Georgia. The results aren’t half bad.

That’s what the left hemisphere says. Travel over to the right and it’s a different story.

With all of the pared down nostalgia in their sound, USSR gives off that vibe you get when you realize the floor is a little stickier than you’d like. Not too sticky, but just enough to bug your feet with the delayed reaction in movements. Primarily because, they wear their influences on their sleeve and it bleeds pretty liberally into the music. In fact a lot of their stuff seems to bleed rather that punch, pacing the music pretty well with the musicians themselves, but slowing it down tremendously.

It’s slimy and that's why I like it a lot , even if it doesn’t pack the sort of intensity that grips you for more than two minutes at a time. But “Dance Floor” does have an insane amount of replay value to make up for it. And the saxophone on “Watch Out” feels very organic and well timed . If they play to their strengths these boys might have potential.

Kindercore signed them as part of their re-emergence after being shut down in 2003 following a protracted battle with their creditors. Starting from scratch has allowed the label more flexibility and even a humbler approach to signing young talent.

One question though. Why name a goth band USSR ? Mascara was rare in the Soviet Union and most of its citizens thought it could never be found in liquid form....only as something resembling black soap. Something to think about.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

What I like and what I need are two different things

“Freudian Vacation" is a term I coined as sort of an immunization to a lot of the rock criticism that we’ve seen for as long as there has been music writing. People often use their pulpit as writers to vent their own psychological baggage, often at the expense of the artist and his work. Sometimes its an insecurity about image and style. Or the venting of one’s inability to actually play or create music that lives up to personal ambition or the lofty standards set by other artists. It can even be the insecurity of a writer to just find their own voice and speak freely enough to seem comfortable talking about the works of others.

Articles become more Freudian than analytical and lend more weight to the writer than the music. Naturally, there are many great writers who give stunning insight and they're to be commended. On the music blogs as well, there’s a lot of selfless championship of new artists which has become vital in recent years. Not all of these musicians are on the top of their game, but having a chance to break through on their own terms is an invaluable tool in an age of big label strength.

Maybe my point is best made by putting forward an actual example. Check out Pitchfork’s review for Le Loup‘s most recent LP. We won’t get into the specifics of the actual record, or even the person who wrote this review. Suffice to say, it gives the short end of the stick to the musicians and turns into more of an op-ed column about the writer’s everyday view rather than what Le Loup have attempted on the record. I apologize in advance for a “mission statement” post. But by making the purposes of these writings clear we can define the parameters of the blog and strike up a better conversation. Tomorrow we’ll have fun.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


For a little while now the output of Library Tapes has been pretty reliable. Sweden’s David Wenngren has used that moniker to craft lo-fi ambient recordings that merge narrow classical compositions with field recordings of sounds normally found in nature and/or of machines no older than the early 20th Century. Guest contributors are frequent but ultimately he controls the sound and, more importantly, the style.

There’s very little tonal color and few planned notes on a Library Tapes record. Music wanders, enters a new domain, searches for a familiar voice, lies down, and then promptly goes to sleep. Narrative-wise it’s repetitive and more than a little forgettable. Conceptually, Wennegren hit upon something effective.

The moods evoked in Library Tapes records tap into the best potential of lo-fi music. Everything seems nocturnal, hollow, and elusive. Immediately you want to hear more but you end up just chasing the same melodies around in circles. It’s lonely music, but rich in spirit and execution. Lo-fi has allowed Winnegrad an avenue to gain the intimacy of the listener while hiding his own voice as an artist. You can’t find any trace of him on these records not even on solo piano pieces. He willfully does not live in his records. Until a short time ago

I’ve just heard Wenngren’s finest moment and it’s not on the new EP or any announced album as of yet. It’s only on myspace designated as a “to be released” work called “Pieces of us Were Left on the Track”. All the trappings of fuzzy recordings are gone and replaced with a clear and consistent voice that is noticeably brighter and far more beautiful than all of his midnight dirges of the recent past. The one “found sound” recoding that is used isn’t an atmospheric choice. Instead it’s placed in a moment of unexpected poignancy. When you hear it, you’ll know.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

"I'd smile a sky from East to West"

I’m sort of savoring this moment right now, because in all likelihood, Baby Dee’s new album, her first on Drag City, has all the indications of getting real big real fast. Judging from the leaked posted on My Old Kentucky Blog, the sound is fuller and jauntier than her previous work and features excellent guest personnel . “Safe Inside the Day” comes out on January 22, making this an opportune time to dive into her older material.

What probably won’t get mentioned in the upcoming critical notices is that, Baby Dee has quietly become one of he most amazing lyricists we’re likely to see for a long time, and maybe even the best of the decade.

I’ve been following her since she was a mainstay in the carnival scene around Coney Island when she played the occasional gig with the Bindlestiff troupe or, more prominently, at the NYC institution Joe’s Pub. Because of her identification as a post-op transsexual there was a condescending tone that surrounded her work. It was always deemed good, but largely dismissed as the product of an over-stylized persona. Gradually, she became the sort of musician only appreciated by a tight circle of independent artists which grew over time.

Right now I’m staring at the lyrics sheet for her 2001 LP “Love’s Small Songs” and all these years later, I’m still shocked that there’s a human being who put this together. There are few cultural touchstones for her work and most of them date back, by her own admission, to various stages in 18th and 19th Century music and literature. This makes the construction of her songs even more fascinating.

Her work has the high optimism of Classical era composers, retaining all of its grace but none of its language. As a result, this is music that is literally unstuck in time, songs that could be written 80 years from now or 200 years ago. There are no dated reference (even linguistically), no junky production values, and painfully simple harmonies with the scantest contrasts. When the music is upbeat it soars through the repetition of choruses, and when its somber it occurs to me that she has created her own culture that the rest of us can only bear witness to.

People have been most critical of her actual voice, which is a low garble that rests at bizarre times and alternates between half-hearted falsettos and spoken declarations. But it is beautiful and the only voice for her compositions that I could ever imagine.

In her heart Baby Dee is the eternal optimist and that’s sort of the cruel trick of it all. The reality is that she makes us cross the threshold into sadness on our own, to the point where we no longer hear her singing.