Thursday, March 31, 2011

CD Review: Weasel Walter/Mary Halvorson/Peter Evans - Electric Fruit

Weasel Walter/ Mary Halvorson/ Peter Evans
Electric Fruit
(Thirsty Ear)

Electric Fruit begins in a way that proves this music won't be a gentle ride or one that's lacking in forward movement. All of these pieces sound spontaneous, with only a few discernible melodies bubbling to the surface. Most of the time they throw ideas at each other that either embellished or stomped on. Evans begins "Mangosteen 3000 A.D." with some squeaks that might send you to the credits to double-check that no reeds were used on the album. Walter joins him with some percussive clatter and splats. Halvorson begins playing it clean and thoughtful, as if she'll play the straight member of the trio, in contrast to these two hams. Four minutes later though, she's kicked on the distortion and starts using the wobbly effect that's become her calling card. It might be a whammy bar, but the sound envelopes the whole guitar so clearly that it's more likely some sort of pedal that bends the pitches. The effect is similar to a wah-wah pedal in that it can make everything start to sound the same before long, and after her last album, it's started to come off like a parlor trick. But for some reason Electric Fruit helped it to start growing on me. Maybe context is everything.

Walter can be one of the most spastic drummers on the planet, and the 15-minute tour de force "Yantok Salak Kapok" includes a skittery drum solo that proves that point. As much as it seems like he enjoys being abrasive and unsettling (see various pieces of the Luttenbachers' catalog) these frenetic performances are more likely to inspire wails of approval. His technique and sense of how to respond to Evans and Halvorson show how open his ears are.

Evans seems to draw on the whole history of jazz trumpet, even if some chapters only last a few phrases. "The Pseudo Carp Walks Among Us" (yes, all five tracks have goofy titles, which says a lot about these three) begins with an unaccompanied solo that purees bebop and '60 freedom with rapid lines and half-valve bends. It doesn't last more than a minute but it gives a greater appreciation for Evans' depth. In "Yantok" he sticks in the mute for some mutant Miles lines that sound delightful amongst the percussion and guitar skronk.

To put it another way, Walter, Halvorson and Evans sound like they're having a blast, and the feeling should be contagious to anyone with open ears.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Playing right now: The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls In America
(Not sure how I feel about this one. I keep imagining a sea of baseball caps.)

While standing around at work today, I was thinking it'd be a nice night to go out to get a drink. Yesterday, I filed my Question Mark & the Mysterians article for City Paper which was a tremendous relief, after all the planning of interviews and transcribing that followed. (Have I mentioned here that Question Mark was on the phone with me for two hours?)

But around 10:30 after finally finishing the second cup of after-dinner-coffee (I had baby duty, which post-poned it) I told Jennie, "Naw, I don't need to go out. There's too much music to listen to here at home."

I spent a good amount of time deleted emails from my address that gets all the music p.r. info, trimming it down from over 2000 to about 1600. Still a lot, but a nice dent. But old knuckleheaded me didn't realize until now, post 1 a.m. that if I had gone to Gooski's, I wouldn't stumbled into Mi Ami's performance. And that Papercuts was at Brillobox tonight, not tomorrow. I don't have any major stake in seeing them, but had I known, I'd've been into either.

On the other hand, I did listen to two albums I need to review, and stayed awake for most of them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More talk about bands and lives

Since I wrote about Trotsky Icepick last week, a few things happened. I played Carpetbomb the Riff, which sounded three times as vicious as I remembered it. What a great album, and a great parting statement. It definitely should've gotten more attention. I think it's probably hard to find and that it was under-promoted. My copy came from a used store and I don't think I've ever seen a sealed one.

Listening to that turned bittersweet after hearing from Vitus. In the midst of his updates on his personal and musical life, he said that the drummer on Carpetbomb, John "Skippy" Glogovac, died of brain cancer a few years ago. Skippy was in the band when they came to Pittsburgh and he stayed at my place. I never knew him deeply, or as well as I knew Vitus or John T-J, but it kind of hurt to hear that he's gone. He was a good egg.

It feels like the last week has been non-stop writing, or hunting down interview subjects and being completely wrapped up in them. The big news is Question Mark & the Mysterians are coming to Pittsburgh for a rare performance. And that means "rare" in this city and anywhere. City Paper is giving me a fairly sizable word-count to write about them, so I talked to Mr ? (Question Mark himself, that is,) for the article. We were on the phone for two hours. You know what it's like when it comes to transcribing a two-hour interview?

Funny, listening back to it, most of what he said made fairly good sense. In some ways, he's a musical character the likes of which you rarely see anymore. In other words, a guy who's as wild offstage as he is onstage. And he seems well aware of his penchant to go on and on when giving the opportunity. I also talked to Mysterians' guitarist Bobby Balderrama over the weekend. That was another hour-long talk too. But with much less rapid-fire discussions. He helped fill in the cracks with background info on the band, which helped.

As I was transcribing the ? interview yesterday, the land line rang. If I'm home during the day and the phone rings, I rarely pick it up. The people who really want to talk to me will call my cellphone first and the calls on the land line are usually telemarketers. When the machine picked up, I heard a gruff, muffled voice: "MICHAEL! It's Mike Watt. I'm calling from the road." I figured I ought to pick up.

Watt was supposed to call the night before for another article I'm writing. He's in town April 10 - which happens to be the night after ? and the Mysterians - and I'm doing a 5 Questions piece on him. He was in a good mood, and we talked about perseverance in the case of adversity, reflecting on middle age (the big point of his new album) and what it's like putting out a record on your own label. Good guy. I felt pretty lucky that I was off of work and that I came right home after my dentist appointment yesterday. Otherwise I probably would've need to roll the dice and hope to talk to him some other time. The article is fairly brief, so I plan to post some good quotes from the cutting room floor on this blog. Stay tuned.

Then while we were talking, the guy who's bringing ? called my cell phone, so I had to call him back. He proved to be the final source for the article, so I was glad to get that done too. The day was starting to feel like "all music writer all the time." It was almost like the old days, except without all the other distractions like phone calls I don't want, and questions from co-workers.

Tonight the Question Mark piece will get finished and we can all rest. Or at least I can. For a minute. Then I have to start compiling all the stuff I need to take to the tax accountant. And then I should start writing JazzTimes reviews. Wish I had today off.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Trotsky Icepick Remembered or Our Life Could Be Your Band

Playing right now: Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble - The Prairie Prophet (Delmark)

(Love his this album has gone from consonant, nice melody stuff to wild AACM blowing in the space of the first two tracks.)

About a week ago, I pulled out Trotsky Icepick's El Kabong album and I liked it so much that I listened to it over and over again. That album in particular came out at a very telling time of my life: the summer of 1989, which I think I've gone on about ad nauseum. But just in case any readers have forgotten or don't know, that was when Bone of Contention began record our first album and I moved into what was probably the best apartment of my college life, in terms of roommates and the adventures we had. I also looked up and found Vitus Matare, guitarist and founding member of the band, on Facebook.

Come to think of it, pretty much every Trotsky Icepick album is connected to some big period of my life. So here's my personal discography on an overlooked, very good band.

Back in 1986, a friend had dubbed me 100 Flowers' album and I was listening to it constantly. I could hear the minimal, arty approach that had inspired the Minutemen but it also had a little bit of a poppy jangle to it that was a nice break from SST power chords that was part and parcel of my other musical tastes. When I heard about Trotsky Icepick, which included 100 Flowers guitarist Kjehl Johansen, I had to get it. Around that time it seemed like all of the bands that I really really liked weren't together anymore (Mission of Burma, Patti Smith and just a few months prior the Minutemen), so any new stuff had to be found by previous members of those bands (i.e. Volcano Suns).

Trotsky's Poison Summer album, in retrospect, turned a corner in my musical tastes. The guitars were very clean, with no distortion and a lot of chorus. The songs weren't tense like 100 Flowers, but they were great examples of what makes pop music good. "Ivory Tour" has some great chord changes, and a great melody from Vitus, where the phrasing of a line from the verse stretches out and almost spills into the chorus. It's a great hook. I could've done without the '80s synths, but I could also overlook them.

I wrote a letter to the band's label, which was the same as writing to the band, and Vitus sent me a copy of the Danny and the Doorknobs' Poison Summer album that came out initially. What the band started out doing was planning on changing the band's name with every album and keep the title the same. (It lasted for just two albums, as I'd find out.) This album was even better. A little more stark, it was just Kjehl, Vitus and drummer John Frank turning ideas into songs - little more jangle, a little more edge, some screamed backing vocals, good times.

The story might've ended there but I noticed a phone number etched into the clear vinyl's inner groove and called it. Turns out it was John Frank, who called back to let confirm my suspicion about his answering machine. Now that's something you'd never find these days - a band putting their phone number anywhere on a release. Unless they were looking for gigs, in which case they'd probably never get a call.

I was doing a fanzine at the time and thought Trotsky Icepick would be a great subject. Because I liked them. Never mind the lack of timeliness. I wanted to talk to them. Vitus and Kjehl were a great interview, with great stories about their anti-marketing campaign/name game and their previous bands (Vitus had played in the Last). Thus also began an ongoing correspondence between me and Vitus - I hope I wasn't too much of a pest - where I sent him updates on Bone of Contention, along with our cassette release and he sent me a tape of all those hard to find singles by the Urinals (100 Flowers' previous incarnation, who wrote "Ack Ack Ack," which the Minutemen immortalized). He also sent me a tape of the band's three videos, along with a t-shirt for their upcoming album. I still own the shirt and keep trying to retire it but I can't. It's held up (much better than my Bongwater shirt) and even if I won't wear it out, it's fine for bedtime purposes.

In the fall of '88, SST released their third album Baby (the one with the shirt). Vitus had sent me a cassette dub of it earlier in the year, which I had played incessantly for anyone who didn't run fast enough. I felt they were on the fast track to underground rock success since SST was still a pretty credible label, and maybe it meant my band's mutant pop sound would find success on that level. Ha.

Baby is the only Trotsky album I don't currently own in any form other than the advance tape. I just checked the band's Happy Squid catalog and saw it's still available in vinyl form so I'll have to order it if I can't find it locally. I can still hear it in my head - a really solid hard pop album, with even more grit and some depth in the lyric department.

By the time Baby came out, John Talley-Jones of 100 Flowers had joined the band as singer. That was really cool to me because John was a big influence on me. Even more than I realized: upon playing 100 Flowers for some bandmates they said, "He sounds like you." If Mike Watt was who I aspired to be, John T-J was someone who I could be.

Some entries on Trotsky consider Baby the band's shining hour, but I really think El Kabong is their best. There isn't a dud track on that album. Listening to it again, Talley-Jones kind of chews up the scenery on their cover of Magazine's "The Light Pours Out of Me" but even that is still pretty strong.

In the fall of 1991, I got a call asking if Bone of Contention would open for Trotsky Icepick. It was a dream come true. Five years in the making. Barb our drummer was getting married that weekend but somehow I convinced her that the show would be worth our while. While that was shaping up I was going through a bad break-up and The Ultraviolet Catastrophe came out with something of a thud. It has some great writing on it, but the production really cut of the low end and played up that chorused out guitar. A cover of Television's "Venus de Milo" didn't sound like the guys I knew. "Barbara Steele" is a really beautiful song once you peel away the Gilmour-esque guitar solo and the Chapman stick (whaaaaa?????????).

At the Upstage Lounge, I think I was so overwhelmed at seeing these guys that I took me awhile to really get into the set. They added at least one 100 Flowers to the set and a few oldies, and brought more kick to some Ultraviolet songs. Then they crashed at my place. I still remember making them coffee on our two coffee pots - the one that brewed, and the one that had a good heating element.

That lineup released Carpetbomb the Riff a couple years later, which was probably the edgiest album in the whole catalog. (It occurs to me I haven't pulled that one out yet as part of my renewed Trotsky phase.) Mike Patton - not the Faith No More guy but the guy from Middle Class - was a strong bass player and drummer John "Skippy" Glogovac gave the band an extra kick. They didn't make it back to Pittsburgh on that tour, only getting as close as Cleveland. And I was too bogged down with my final semester at Pitt to make the journey. I had a vested interest too: John T-J wanted to release a 7" by my band the Pundits, which had been recorded at Kramer's Noise New Jersey studio.

Vitus had left the band before that tour, which seemed like a sad turn of events. Then I think the band broke up not too long after that. John mentioned something about he and Kjehl doing that every few years.

SST released Hot Pop Hello about a year later, a set of unreleased songs spanning the life of the band, going all the way back to the Doorknobs days. Some of the songs sound quite a bit like some of the released songs but I'm with Jack Rabid in his review on This is a really strong album on its own, not a mere hodgepodge of leftovers. Vitus' songwriting skills really come through as there are a lot of his tunes here. Some of those songs have been in my head for the past week.

I posted some youtube videos of the band on Facebook and Barb from BOC and I were talking about them. I commented that for many years I got Christmas cards from John T-J and it was hard to imagine reading a "this is what we did this year" note from the same guy who inspired D. Boon to cover "Ack Ack Ack" (FYI, an additional "Ack" got lost on the way to the Minutemen's cover). You don't imagine your heroes being regular folks like us.

She replied that maybe guys like that were normal folks just like us, too, who happened to play in punk bands too. (A few years earlier my naive sensibilities were shocked to hear Kjehl Johansen was a lawyer!) Their life could be my band.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


The music editor of Pittsburgh City Paper wrapped up his tenure with the paper this week and it just so happens that a day or two earlier, I sent him a detailed list of pitches for about the next month and a half. And I got most of them as assignments. YIPE! Gotta start rolling on them.
But not tonight.
I need a couple nights off from trying to write. I finally finished the Kid Congo Powers article for Blurt a couple nights ago, only to find out the next morning that his new album isn't out until May. I could've waiting a little bit to finish it, but I know if I had, it still would've taken me all the free time I had to finish it. For once I'm ahead of the game.
Last night I crammed into the Brillobox to see Nik & the Central Plains, the Harlan Twins and Low Water. I met up with my long lost high school friend Marta and we got there early in order to catch up before going to see the bands upstairs. We caught some of the Central Plains, most of Low Water (who weren't doing it for me that night) and none of the Harlan Twins because the crowd and the amount of hooch in me made me want to move onto the next establishment, which is this case was Ritter's. Marta and I had been having a pretty involved conversation and I felt like continuing that at that moment. Today at work I kind of regretted missing my favorite local band, but last night it seemed like a good idea.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Tarana's set in Pittsburgh - or leave the house and hear music

Saturday night around 9:45, I had finally put my son to bed and was ready to make a pot of coffee. (Having joe at that time isn't unusual for me.) Then I got a text: "Where are you? Ravish is on next."

I had thought about going to see Ravish Momin's groups Tarana (see previous entry) but it had been a long day at work, and the post-work activity wasn't as smooth as I had figured, so I was feeling to tired up to that point. Besides - coffee. Me want.

But my friend Mia's text got me to rethink the situation. Besides I figured if he's just about to go on, and he's just up the hill, across the bridge and around the corner at the Shop, it's not that far a drive. And this won't be an all-night affair.

When I arrived about 10 minutes later, the previous band was still on, making a high-volume racket. Turns out they were some touring act too, according to a flyer I saw a few days after the show. The brief downtime allowed me to run out and get the coveted cup of joe and come back in time to see Ravish setting up his drum kit.

Taranna, Ravish's band, is usually a trio but tonight they were a duo with violinist Trina Basu joining the drummer. Ravish had a mixer with a series of looped beats going, which framed their non-4/4 grooves. The first couple songs took a little bit of time to get rolling, with Momin tweaking the volume level of the samples so he could hear them over his kit. But in song number two, when the groove was set and he had both hands devoted to his drum sticks, something clicked and there was no turning back.

At times, Basu blended so well with the samples that you forgot where the line between live and programmed was drawn. On one song she was doing call and response with herself, bowing in one register and answering in the other register. One song had what sounded like French horn samples in it, playing a melody that sounded close to a phrase clipped from Henry Mancini's "Lujon" (aka "Slow Hot Wind") but that's probably me reading into it. Momin has always been a physical drummer, clearly getting really into what he plays, and the energy was really contagious during their set. At first the sound mix nearly buried his kit under the samples and violin, believe it or not, but the combination eventually evened out. When the caffeine started to kick in, the way the drums were tuned really appealed to me. I kept thinking, I'm really glad I came to this show. This is really good.

This was one of those shows were several members of the audience thought the between-song banter was directed at them and that everyone wanted to hear their replies (show organizer Ed Um, not withstanding) but even that didn't spoil it.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Where I'm at now

Playing right now: Von Freeman - Doin' It Right Now (Atlantic)
(Von is a real badass tenor player, who's still kicking out some solid music. Anytime you see a Von Freeman album, grab it.)

I nodded off with the laptop on me, fading in and out every 30 seconds or so. When I finally got up, I was walking around for two minutes before I realized that today was Friday and not Saturday. I'm surprised it took that long. Friday night, payday no less, and I'm sitting by myself with the computer. And I don't even have a drink nearby.

I've been compiling a list of upcoming shows in Pittsburgh, in hopes of previewing some of them and it's getting pretty long. Tomorrow night, drummer/percussionist Ravish Momin is back in town at the Shop. He lived here in the '90s and played in an improv group called Ensemble Duchamp. Then he went to New York and before starting his own band, he played with Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre and Sabir Mateen. He's been here a few times with his own group, but I keep missing them. Then on Sunday, a singer-songwriter named Alex Winston is playing at the Brillobox.

Then later this month, a Sub Pop band called Papercuts are coming, followed a few days later by Kurt Vile & the Violaters, who I want to see because my friend Jesse is a member of that band, and I haven't seen that cat since he moved away over 10 years ago.

I finally figured out, with the help of a friend, that I can actually burn CDs from this laptop in such a way that they can be played on regular CDs players. For some reason, any disc I burned previously could only be played on machines that read mp3s. I have a bunch of album downloads that I have to write about and now I don't have to stay confined to this machine to listen to them! Hooray!