Tuesday, November 30, 2010

CD Review: Nels Cline - Dirty Baby

Nels Cline
Dirty Baby
(Cryptogramophone) crypto.tv
(If you don't have the attention span for a long-winded review, skip to the last paragraph.)

Two double-CD releases in one calendar year is enough to raise eyebrows, even when the artist releasing them is guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline. (His Nels Cline Singers released Initiate earlier this year, and I will forever remember listening to it as I shoveled my car out of all that snow in February.) But before he is considered too prolific for his own good, some explanation is in order. Dirty Baby was created on spec, in a sense. It's a collaboration between Cline and poet/producer David Breskin that creates music to go with paintings by Ed Ruscha, which also appear on a large size book of the same name, published by DelMonico Books - Prestel. The late artist came into prominence in the '80s for his "censor strip" paintings, which feature blacked-out censor lines become part of the artistic statement.

The album has one of the most deluxe packages to ever grace a small disc set. It comes in a CD-size box that includes two booklets with a total of 66 Ruscha images, one set for each CD. A third booklet is attached to the disc container itself, with liner notes from Cline and session photos of each of the 16 musicians. This kind of detail and care usually comes only with releases from Rhino Handmade or Mosaic.

The discs - known as Side A and Side B - are grouped thematically. The first consists of a six part, 42-minute suite which Breskin has referred to as "a time-lapse history of Western Civilization," according to Cline's notes. The accompanying images come from Ruscha's Silhouette series, a set of dark, black-and-white-becoming gray images that run the gamut from out-of-focus barn gates to a swing set with the censor strips in the dead center of the image. The music successfully charts the evolution of the synopsis. It begins with a looped acoustic guitar that is joined by harmonica and bass playing a melody that evokes the American heartland. It evolves, adding some great organ flourishes (from Wayne Peet) before some string scrapes show up and things take a turn for the ugly.

After some excellent rural blues from the leader, things get a little convoluted. Cline fires up his loopy Quintronics Drum Buddy (a primitive device that works like a modern drum machine) for some wah wah guitar and '80s style one-note (think Wall-era David Gilmour) which should be a great time, but instruments like the bass come and go without really kicking into something.

The final 12-minute section deftly scores the apocalyptic feelings that are scorching the country, like a post-modern version of Carl Stalling's "Powerhouse." Over his brother Alex's unrelentless "When the Levee Breaks" beat, Cline proves why he is such a guitar hero, as he does his own scorching. The only problem - and it's a big one - is the annoying slowed-down voice that groans every four beats. I understand the context, but it takes away from something really powerful. But it drops out for the last quarter of the piece, leaving a ukulele and banjo noodling away, which comes as something of a reward for sitting through the proceedings.

After the breadth of Side A, Side B caters to the ADD listeners: 33 songs in 51 minutes, one piece for each image in the accompanying booklet of Ruska's Cityscapes. (The title is a misnomer, as each image is more less a series of colors, or one color, with censor strips across it.) If the brevity evokes memories of John Zorn's Naked City, the titles also recall the more violent imagery that band appropriated from various sources. All the titles read like lines from a mob film, like "Do As I Say Or..." to "I Will Wipe You Off the Face of This Earth."

Sometimes all that's missing from the arrangement is the one high, bleating alto shriek that Zorn threw in all of his noisy solos. But as a whole, Cline displays a great deal of breadth with these pieces, never once repeating an idea or reshaping it. He touches on jazz, blues, modern classical, death metal and his own version of Carl Stalling (or maybe that's the Morton Feldman reference he mentions). He even based a few on the rhythmic emphasis of their titles, like "Don't Threaten Me With Your Threats."

Lasting anywhere from 28 seconds to a rare 3:34, nearly all the pieces stand as individual works, rather than movements of a bigger piece. Special mention must be made of "Agree to Our Terms Or Prepare Yourself For a Blast Furnace." In 55 seconds, a xylophone clunk and alarm bell segue into a sonic interpretation of said furnace, all performed completely live.

Dirty Baby features an all-star cast including but not limited to reed master Vinny Golia, Cline Singers Scott Amendola (drums) and Devin Hoff (bass), and Jon Brion (keyboards). This album is also a mandatory purchase. Looking at it from the Big Picture, Cryptogramophone head Jeff Gauthier (who plays violin on Side B) should be given positive reinforcement for releasing such a beautiful artifact at a time when so many knuckleheads say the music industry is belly up. He cares, so you should too.

Buy this set, and put it in a prominent place in your house, where you'll see it everyday. That will motivate you to take it down, put the music on, read Cline's thoughts (which sometimes get a little too self-deprecating, but modesty is a good thing), perhaps look at the images while listening to their corresponding tunes and really get into this music on a deeper level.

Monday, November 29, 2010

ATS anniversary show

This past Saturday was ATS' 25th anniversary show, and the Love Letters got to open the evening, although the mainstream media in town neglected to mention that in their articles. Nevertheless, I felt lucky that we got on the bill to play with them, because it was a big deal show that would bring a lot of post-holiday people out of the woodwork and also because the band was starting right as I was graduating high school way back then, so that was something of a significant period of my life (not exactly the happiest time, but oh well). As a side note, my high school reunion took place on the same night, but naturally I blew it off.

To be honest, I might not have made the reunion if the show wasn't happening because I got sick with some sort of stomach virus that day. I left work early and ending up getting really sick later in the day. But I was determined to play the show. It must go on, etc. Erin, our drummer, went through the same thing the night before, which made me think that something must be going around and that it wasn't just food poisoning.

We rallied what strength we had and got everything rolling in a timely manner. The sound man there was really good. He gave me a lot of vocal monitor which is good because I feel like if I can't hear myself I'll end up veering way off key. Buck used two amps to make sure his guitar projected, and he really got a Bob Mould wall of sound going. Sometimes it was a tad too much. Then I got used to it.

The setlist was written in a way that we managed to segue maybe about half the songs together, and even when we weren't jumping from song to song immediately the breaks were kept pretty brief. I think that kept the momentum going on our end and kept us focused. This followed a practice earlier in the week where we played for a lot longer than usual, running through half the set and then playing the entire set all the way through. By about midway into the proper set, I felt like we were really warmed up and clicking. So that carried over.

To pay tribute to ATS, we covered their "Scarecrow," a great song from their early days that they never play anymore. When Buck thought it was a good idea, I knew we should do it. (His brother Evan wrote the tune, so Buck should know.)

One of our songs, which still has the working/joke title "One Riff Shanley," was written about a year ago as a serious open letter to my friend Pam, who passed away a few months ago. We haven't played it out since she died and I wanted to give it an appropriate intro that tied together the idea of appreciating friends you still have around (the way I try to cope with loss) and the scope of the evening and playing a song like you might not ever get to play it again. I thought I had flubbed the intro and rambled in circles, despite having written down what I want to say. Then last night a friend forwarded me a note that another friend had written about the show, saying how much she liked our set and quoting specifically what I said about the song! Guess I wasn't too far off base.

Between sets, a guy approached me and said our set reminded him of something that he might have heard at the Electric Banana around 1988. He's pretty much on the money, since I'm still writing songs in a similar style to what I wrote back then. In fact the whole evening took us back to '88, really.

Steve Heineman, ATS' original drummer and one of my musical gurus from 25 years ago, wasn't able to make the show because his son got sick at the last minute. Hopefully that'll all work out with his kid. I was looking forward to seeing him again.

By the time ATS went on, I was feeling physically okay, but starting to get tired. I couldn't leave right away because I wanted to check them out so I saw 30-45 of their set. A friend of mine put it best when he said they could play the pants off of any band half their age. Who'd'a thunk it had been about five years since they played together? I didn't see a set list but they were going from one song right into the next.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CD Review: Ches Smith & These Arches - Finally Out of My Hands

Ches Smith & These Arches
Finally Out of My Hands

Ches Smith's percussive know-how has landed him a variety of bands, including Mary Halvorson's trio/quintet, Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, Iggy Pop, and a doom metal/jazz bass-drums duet with bassist Devin Hoff (Nels Cline Singers). So it makes sense that the quartet that he has assembled for his debut as a leader falls somewhere between edgy jazz and brainy instrumental rock. Halvorson (guitar) joins her trio mate, along with Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone) and Andrea Parkins (accordion, organ, electronics), making it a bold combination of players.

"Anxiety Disorder" is a perfect song to kick off an album, for both its energy and its composition. Beginning almost like a Middle Eastern melody, with a droning pedal point and some great dissonant intervals from Halvorson in the intro, its second part of the theme shifts into a descending chord sequence that makes the entire thing sound more like an instrumental rock tune. Before you get too lost in it, Parkins turns into a car engine that won't turn over, wheezing and growling. Smith and Malaby break free along with her, and the whole band lands on a trail that recalls "Interstellar Overdrive," sans pointless doodles. This goes on for just a few choice minutes, and then Smith clicks everyone back into shape to take the theme out, though Malaby blows wild rather than sticking to the chart. If this type of music believed in hit singles, "Anxiety Disorder" would lead the pack.

The rest of the album follows a similar approach of structured heads leading to free improvisation. The compositions themselves vary widely, including but not limited to a slow piece full of tenor lines that have a strangled tone that comes off like a flute ("One Long Minute") to a plethora of stop-start racket and accordion noise ("Disgust for a Pathetic Chorale"). Usually the quartet wraps up the same way they began, but Smith varies exactly how each piece plays out. Halvorson and Malaby close the title track by themselves with an abridged version of the taut, legato theme, after a duel of reed shrieks and guitar skronk. "Sixteen Bars for Jail" just stops.

Smith comes across like a blend of John Bonham and Jim Black, playing thunderous beats like the Led Zeppelin anchor and on a kit that has the crisp attack and fleet direction of the Downtown New York jazz vet. He dubbed this band These Arches as a reflection of the way arches in structural bridges meet and support weight at their horizontal tensions. The arches in this case refer to the compositions, which balance structure and improvisation.

Finally Out of My Hands has a very concise feel to it. At 36 minutes, only one of the eight tracks lasts over six minutes, with most coming in around four. It would have been nice to hear the group stretch out a little more - with a pedigree like this, the results would always be worthy. Still, what's here contains a lot of zing, which is why it's going on my list of best for 2010.

(Side note to Skirl Records - I love your packaging, with 5 1/2" X 7 1/2" signature style covers and wild artwork, but please go with a bigger point size for the credits. I know that makes me sound old but this 40-something's eyes were crossing when I looked inside.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pharoah Sanders - the full review

JazzTimes actually had this review up on their site within a few hours after receiving it. Click here to read it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dreams and reality. And music too.

Woke up this morning with a jolt, worried that I had overslept and that the alarm didn't go off at 5 a.m. like I set it. So I checked the clock - 3:35.
This whole waking up early and getting to be before midnight ("early" in my book) is playing tricks on my head. Somewhere in there, I had a bizarre dream about sleeping in some hotel where there was a roomful of people sprawled out all over the place, and some inconsiderate guy playing CDs all night. Cecil Taylor was in the room too because I think he was playing Pittsburgh.

BAck to reality:
Pharoah Sanders came to town on Saturday and blew our minds. I wrote a review of the show which is going to appear on the JazzTimes website. A link will be forthcoming.

I dang near killed myself getting to that show. That afternoon, the throttle of my car was awry as I was going up Negley hill and the car wouldn't stop until I threw on all the brakes and shut it off. Luckily a kind fella - who of course knows several friends of mine since this is Pittsburgh - gave me a ride to pick up Jennie and Donovan. But I had to renew my AAA, get back over to the car to wait for a tow truck, get home, change out of work clothes and then get Downtown to the show. I nearly walked the whole way from Polish Hill. But luckily the show started maybe 10 minutes after 8. My only regret is that I didn't have coffee in mind and I was coming down all through the show.

Afterwards I finally got some joe at Crazy Mocha and headed back to Polish Hill to see the Harlan Twins at Gooski's. The events of the day, the late coffee and the booze helped make the show feel even more dramatic than it really might have been. They had a new bass player, which explains why Jules (who gave me a ride from Downtown to Bloomfield where I got said coffee) wasn't going to the bar right away. Or at all.

Earlier last week, the Love Letters returned to Arsenal Lanes for Rock 'n Bowl. It was our first show since Erin got back from her tour with Jeremiah Clark. It was spirited but a little under rehearsed. Our big show is the Saturday on Thanksgiving weekend. We're playing with ATS at their 25th anniversary show. That show should be great.

Next assignment on the docket: a preview of Nellie McKay's show at the Warhol. Just talked to her yesterday. What a hoot!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

CD Review: Marc Ribot - Silent Movies

Marc Ribot
Silent Movies

Instrumental music has always evoked visual images to me. It probably has a lot to do with Sesame Street and the way they would combine outdoor films with catchy music that really fit the scene. There was one clip in particular that showed a time lapse image of tree during the seasons, with some fairly free jazz behind it - long trumpet tones and spazzy drumming. For that reason, Herbie Mann's "Comin' Home Baby" - one of the first songs I remember hearing, was loaded with mental imagery - out-of-focus lights during the vibes solo, my dad's voice during the bass solo (he played bass too, so that probably had something to do with it).

Marc Ribot might have been thinking somewhere along that same wavelength when putting together the music for his new solo album. After performing the soundtrack for Charlie Chaplin's silent film The Kid, Ribot assembled this set, which includes music he wrote for a documentary called El General about Plutarco Elias Calles of Mexico, and an unreleased film called Drunken Boat. Some other tracks came from "projects that never existed outside my head," which means he was probably seeing footage in his mind and using that to guide him as he played.

This is not a set by Ribot the skronk man (although there is some nice feedback in "Natalia in E-flat Major," which sounds exactly like the beginning of the garage deep cut "Hot Smoke and Sassafras," for those who are keeping track of such minutiae). This album spotlights Ribot the more pensive and lyrical player. In his notes he talks about the underlying tragedy in the plot of The Kid, wherein Chaplin's tramp tries to create a real family with an abandoned kid. The piece of the same name builds on the sweetness of that story, finding a glimmer in a situation that would otherwise break your heart. The warmth of his playing comes out all over the album, and even when the brittle Ribot tone of his Tom Waits tenure appears on "Empty," it doesn't have as much shrapnel surrounding it.

Silent Movies only comes up short when several of the songs lack something without the visual imagery to accompany them. Many of them feel kind of spare, with chords and some single note melodies on top of them, and neither of them move forward, dynamically or harmonically. They just get a little repetitive. Unless of course, Ribot expects listeners to add their own mental reel of images.

Adding to the solo Ribot guitar, Keefus Ciancia is credited on five tracks with "soundscapes." This credit includes what sounds like faint cymbal rolls that are just loud enough to make you listen closer to make sure they weren't imagined. Other times, he contributes what could either be the ghost of Rowland S. Howard or late night Manhattan street construction. It makes interesting additions to the music and picks it up when the similarities begin to appear between tracks.

"Sous Le Ciel De Paris," once a hit for Edith Piaf, gives the album it's token cover and also closes it out. But before the disc stops spinning, Ciancia adds 1:45 of low atmospheric sound (This is too calm to be called "noise.") It almost sounds like it's meant to evoke the image of Ribot picking up his guitar case and walking off into the night, while the credits roll on the screen.

Monday, November 08, 2010

New music

This Saturday, Pharoah Sanders is playing in Pittsburgh at the August Wilson Center. Before you drop everything and try to find tickets, I've heard that the show is sold out. Maybe it's been moved to a bigger venue, but I can't say for sure.

Two weeks ago, I talked to Sanders on the phone for about half an hour. At first he seemed reticent to open up. It was very much the case of "I just play," but when I asked him about John Coltrane - a subject that I thought he'd be sick of discussing - that's when he opened up. It made me wonder if he's just a really modest guy who prefers not to talk about himself. My story will run in this week's City Paper.

This coming Friday, I'm tentatively interviewing Nellie McKay, who's coming to the Warhol at the beginning of December. I have her Doris Day tribute, Normal as Blueberry Pie, but I'm in the process of downloading her newest work. Don't worry, authorities, I'm doing it legally via a link from her publicist.

And today, I finally finished a review of the four live Jefferson Airplane CDs that Collector's Choice put out. They're all good but I need a break from "It's No Secret" and "The Other Side of This Life."

Just noticed a five-star review of Michael Formanek's The Rub and Spare Change so I decided I needed to pick it up today. He is a bassist who played with Tim Berne's Bloodcount, to name a few groups. Berne is on this album too and so far he doesn't sound like the Berne I know, which is a mark in his favor. As soon as I finish downloading, Nellie, I'm going to try to get all the through The Rub, something that can be rare in this house.