Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Genius of Glenn Branca

I'm considering making a series called "The Genius Of" for this blog, but that all seems a bit much currently. I don't know how often I'm going to discover genius-level artists I hadn't previously been enamored with, really, but we'll see. But, of course, I am the final word on genius, right? Right. So I'm torn. Anyway:

Glenn Branca composes symphonies for electric guitars. Sound bizarre, indulgent, even ludicrous or terrible? Possibly. However, it truly only sounds that way, because Branca has produced some of the most interesting takes on the range of the guitar as instrument ever put forth. Indeed, he might be the only man who not only has faith in the electric guitar as something beyond "low" culture, but also has that notion evidenced in a superb discography.

Starting in the late 70's, Branca formed the avant-gardeish groups Theoretical Girls and Static, but he was best known for his tendency to show up in smokey underground New York dens to shred confusingly complex imrovisational pieces. These little creative fits spread word quickly of Branca's singularity in the "scene" of the time, and so his first release, Lesson No. 1 (For Electric Guitar) was met with considerable attention and praise. In that record you can hear the beginnings of Branca's ambitions with his instrument. Eventually, those ambitions translated to Branca composing whole Symphonies of electric guitar in 1981, some of which call for as much as 100 guitars to build huge swirling walls of sound over single bass drum beats. The results are just fantastically engaging for anybody who has enjoyed, especially, post-punk/post-rock, but are certainly also valuable for anyone who has been touched by the versatility of the electric six-string. I've absolutely fallen in love with his work, and so should you.

Highlights include (but are not limited to) Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs At the Gates Of Heaven), The Ascension, and Symphony No.'s 8 & 10 (The Mysteries).

Download "First Movement" from Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs At the Gates Of Heaven)

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Genius of Kate Bush

Recently I've "discovered" the work of British songstress Kate Bush, and why it took me so long I don't know. She's perfect for my musical temperment - poppy, emphatic, a little weird. Going back through her catalog has just been an absolute pleasure. Some have compared Joanna Newsom's voice to Bjork, which is ridiculous, because it's much closer to Bush's alto. Unlike Newsom, however, Bush has a sweetness to her intonations that keeps you feeling like she's about to explode in sobs. Don't get me wrong, her music is in no way dominated by depressive themes, it's just this particular way her voice has of carrying a subtle, underlying emotionality. The quality of her melodies and the centerpiece of her voice transcend even the cheesiness in some of her older work's instrumentation. Just fucking great. I haven't really checked out much of her (supposedly) triumphant return in LP form from last year, Aerial, but from her older catalog a good place to start is either with The Whole Story or Hounds Of Love, working your way from there out to her other works. Here's one of her better singles:

Download "Cloudbusting"

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

2006, Part Ten

GHQ - Cosmology Of Eye (2006)

John Fahey is achieving a sort of strange resurgence in recent years, and with good reason. The man pioneered, arguably, the use of the acoustic guitar outside of its normal means. With that in mind, artists like Jack Rose and Six Organs Of Admittance are quietly nodding to their under-appreciated patriarch with complex layers of acoustic snarl delayed and amplified to striking result. When listening to Cosmology Of Eye I couldn't help but identify GHQ's collaborative efforts as belonging to that small sub-movement. However, where, say, Jack Rose opts for the more traditional incarnations of Fahey's work, GHQ throw in a variety of noises and allow it to build and swell around acoustic guitar resembling Fahey's latter, more experimental work. In fact, they often don't incorporate any acoustic guitar at all, and yet it still all sounds decidedly "Faheyan." A boiling ocean of sounds can be found, ebbing and flowing in symbiosis, only to seperate just as seemlessly as they collided. The result has been described as "Indian raga," and there are some Eastern sounds here, but the album tends to transcend those ties as well. Just a great record to throw some headphones on and listen to, in general.

Download "Black River Apples"

Sunday, March 12, 2006

2006, Part Nine

Tokyo Jihen - Adult (2006)

J-Pop. Jesus, what bad connotations - let's see: anime, anime robots, people who dress like anime robots at comic conventions, people who prefer cartoon breasts over real ones, etc. It is, however, a genre which music enthusiasts must admit is largely unexploited. And here come Tokyo Jihen, who have produced, possibly, the first really valuable piece of music from the genre, transcending the narrow attentions of people who watch too much Japanese Animation on [adult swim], and breaking out into a larger audience. The normal qualities of the style are here: Japanese fascination with jazzy keyboards, cliche American drum soloing, sweet female vocals with rising choruses, incorrect English usage, etc. However, it is put together with such direct precision, so sleek and streamlined and deliberate, that it's almost impossible to not sway your head to. It's the most realized statement from J-Pop possibly ever, allowing it to progress from a weird cauldron of American infleunces to finally sounding distinct. Even regardless of its tyings to J-Pop, the musicians play so intensely and deliberately that it sounds anything but limp, which, arguably, is usually the genre's downfall. Definitely worth a spin, even if you decide it's not your thing.

Download "Shuraba (Adult Version)"

Friday, March 10, 2006

2006, Part Eight

No-Neck Blues Band & Embryo - EmbryoNNCK (2006)

No-Neck Blues Band came to my attention only last year, and they're undeniably intriguing. They're a band that simply take the creative, fiery, spontaneous energy of simply playing with either each other or other musicians, and put it to record. There's very little structure to No-Neck Blues' Band's music, but it comes across so entirely genuine and dedicated to the process of music-making, the true exploration of sounds and the pursuance of musical ideas, that it's easy to think they're a little beyond you (also, they're more jazz-influenced than blues influenced, so the name is inappropriate, although they truly have incorporated almost all conceivable styles in the 15 years they have been making music). It possibly took, then, a collaboration with likeminded "space jazz" band Embryo to flesh out their ideas in a more grounded forum. EmbryoNNCK is just a pleasure to sit back and listen to. It is the sound of creation and experimentation, of music guided only by the feelings it incites in its players. It also resists "weirdness," staying well within the confines of avant gardeism without calling undue attention to any one of its individual parts. Jazzy, beautiful, it's just a great and varied expanse of music. Listen and hear if you, too, can dig.

Download "Five Grams Of the Widow"

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

2006, Part Seven

Danielson - Ships (2006)

I'm sort of falling out love with music that associates itself blatantly with the term "indie." I'm speaking primarily of the heart-on-sleeve, anglocized, twee-influenced acoustic guitar music that has, recently, begun to get even mainstream music's attention. There are definite exceptions - I, like everyone else, thought The Arcade Fire's Funeral was wonderful, for instance. However, it just all has begun to seem a little contrived and unfocused to me lately. Danielson's Ships, therefore, has been a good release for me because it is, by all indications, that very type of music. However, it sheds that sense of hashed-out cookie cutter songwriting that seems to plague other groups as of late. There are some really emotional and weirdly atonal melodies going on here, ones that combine to create a strange but sing-songy aesthetic. The instrumentation is not its distinguishing factor(it sounds Sufjan Stevens/Architecture In Helsinki-ish - "indie big-band"), it's the strength of the songwriting, lyrics, vocal arrangements, and melodies. Definitely my favorite indie darling release of the year.

Download "Kids Pushing Kids"

Sunday, March 05, 2006

2006, Part Six

Herbert - Scale (2006)

For whatever reason, I've ignored the output of electronic/organic composer Matthew Herbert up until now. I have absolutely no idea why. His older work, from what I've tried to catch myself up on, is pretty great and strikingly eclectic. He's done everything from big-band work to electronic soundscapes. Perhaps that is why this album is catching some waves of buzz recently - it seems to marry his disparate styles so well, and doesn't cling to the heavy-handed social consciousness his other recent releases exhibited. Instead, he again employs long-time vocal collaborator Dani Sicilano, crafting a neo-soulish record with unusual sampling and instrumentation. In typical Herbert style, samples are ingeniously and meticulously placed over pulsating beats, carrying the undeniably catchy hooks and melodies Sicilano and company vocalize. A really fun and accessible record with some amazing songs which highlight the strength of Herbert's compositional style. Check it out.

Download "Moving Like A Rain"

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Balls... OF ARTHUR (lolz)

I'm not sure why it's taken me nearly a week to remember to write something about this, so my apologies. This past Saturday, February 25th, I attended ArthurBall at the Echo in Los Angeles. For those not in the know, Arthur Magazine is a hyper-progressive, free publication from the Los Angeles area. It emphasizes free-thinking, mind liberation, open discussions on culture and art, etc. I was unfortunately unaware of its existence until last year, largely due to my Los Angelian displacement here in Santa Barbara. What brought it to my attention was the announcement of something that seemed like a sort of ultra-underground adjunct to Coachella, called ArthurFest. I attended that this past September, and it was a wonderful experience, with some of the best performances I've ever seen (Sonic Youth, Olivia Tremor Control, and a solo Cat Power, to name a few). So when I won tickets to a smaller-scale winter version of the festival, called "ArthurBall", this past weekend, I didn't hesitate to travel back down to my Southern Californian homestead.

What I encountered echoed the "vibe" of ArthurFest - elaborately dressed, twenty-something bohemians with a definite sense of informality and lack of hostility. There was music, yes, but also films, and even a "vibrational healing center", all spread around the Echo Park area. Trying to locate the latter (everything was sort of endearingly disorganized), Jay Babcock, editor and, arguably, the lifeblood of Arthur Magazine saw me staring blankly at one of the little map handouts, and walked me over to the "healing center" a block or so away. He, too, like his creation, was very informal, entirely amiable.

Anyway, music. I won tickets to both days, but on Sunday I was a little too occupied by other "responsibilities" (whatever those are), so I chose not to attend. However, what I saw on Saturday reaffirmed, as ArthurFest did, my faith in underground music and artists:

(all live photos except Colleen's courtesy of Ice Cream Man)

Opening band The Society Of Rockets played a charming set of anthemic guitar music. Behind them and onto them was projected various animations and video clips, which made their music (reminiscent of The Wrens) that more captivating. As best I could tell, the songs concerned lost love and dealing with the approach of middle-age. Very varied instrumentation, including accordion, a theremin, and even a sax section. Really good way to start out the evening.

Finnish/French duo Mi & l'Au performed an intimate acoustic set, which, honestly, was one of the biggest surprises for me of the day. Really hauntingly beautiful and disarming. Their back-story is a little too repeated in the stead of describing their music, but it is undeniably interesting: basically, the two shared a cabin together somewhere deep in the Finnish wilderness, and would spend days playing nothing but music together until a product was reached. Their self-titled album from last year is worth checking out if you're at all into neo-folk revivalism or just pretty guitar music.

The first artist I was previously familiar with was amazing French ambient artist Colleen. Her performance was particularly special because she rarely plays America, and she confirmed this was her first appearance in Los Angeles. Keeping true to the creative process for last year's The Golden Morning Breaks, she crafted soundscapes entirely out of organic instruments, looping cello, guitar, clarinet, chime, and music box melodies over and over again to culminate in these huge, wonderful walls of sound. She was a very nice woman, too, and was appreciative when I thanked her after the performance. Definitely one of the day's highlights.

At around this point I checked out Leg and Pants Dance Theatre, which was a performance piece with fairly disturbing poetics, coupled with electronic tracks, and movement. Definitely interesting, but not a highlight.

Unknown Instructors were the other creative debut happening at the "ball" (the other being Josh Homme of Queens Of the Stone Age debuting the 5:15ers the next day). This was the second time I had seen a side-project of former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, and it was arguably even more entertaining. A sort of free-jam by Watt and two other musicians, the group played a funky din over spoken word recitations, creating a very cool, "head-y" viewing experience. Unfortunately, I was only able to see two "songs."

At this point I met up with my friend Tommy, and we watched a few songs of metal-ish duo OM. I can't find any pictures of these guys (and I'm too cheap to get a digital camera, apparently), but they were interesting. I never knew a 4-stringed bass could emit so much noise. To be honest, however, they weren't really "my bag" - I'm pretty perplexed as to why scenesters/hipsters have recently become fascinated by metal. I understand the quality of musicianship for some of these bands (Mastodon, etc.), but beyond the "drone-metal" being done by Sunn O))) and company, I'm not particularly enthused.

Joanna Newsom is a very divisive artist. The arguments "against" her are fairly varied, but most come back to the rather asinine complaint that her voice is "too weird." I consider this a bad complaint because the music community has embraced other "weirdly voiced" artists, such as Tom Waits, or even Belle & Sebastian's crooner, and not even batted an eye. Joanna Newsom's voice, like those artists, indeed adds to her aesthetic, in my opinion. Anyway, so I'm a huge champion of the lady if you were having trouble deriving that, and this performance was virtually transcendent for me. She didn't play more than three songs from her 2004 release The Milk-Eyed Mender, but hearing her debut her epic new unfinished album was a treat. She would say things during her performance about how she was screwing up occasionally, but it certainly wasn't noticeable - her harp playing is awe-inspiring, and the strength of her overall performance just great. Definitely did not disappoint.

So anyway, praise to Arthur Magazine. Jay Babcock and friends are some of the most fervent supporters of underground culture and music, and they do an amazing job of putting on events. Look out for ArthurFest's line-up this upcoming fall, or, if you're going to South by Southwest this year, check out Arthur's recently announced side-staging, The Happening.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Pitchforkian Music Culture, etc.

Pitchfork (, for better or for worse, has become the face of underground music, and certainly primary ambassador for "indie" music to the larger music "community" (if popular music can still be said to be a community). Their lists of top albums are collected into huge ZIP files and circulated across the internet like canon, their reviews scrutinized and argued about - in general, their opinion carries a huge amount of weight, perhaps too much. It's easy, then, to want to resist their pervasiveness in the underground music scene, and ignore their rather reactionary worship of certain artists. I guess I'm posting this as a way of explaining myself - I'm going to try to, as little as possible, post about albums or artists you might read about on Pitchfork. However, their tastes and mine are inevitably going to be linked occasionally (see The Knife and Destroyer already this year), and it would be dishonest of me to not like an album or artist simply because Pitchfork also does.

Sorry, I'm ranting. I guess all I'm saying is that I'm walking a fine-line here. During my 2006 highlights, if Pitchfork has already praised an album that I consider interesting, I probably won't post about it. This is for no other reason than you will hear about whoever it is, most likely, everywhere, and I would just risk being redundant. Don't get me wrong, if you follow Pitchfork obediently, you will probably have better taste in music than if you didn't. At the very least, they do highlight alternative music exclusively. I'm just trying to provide some alternative to that by highlighting artists I think everybody is ignoring. However, if Pitchfork has yet to praise an album, even if I think they will, I'm virtually obligated to also spread the word. Such is the case with the following two albums, which recently leaked their way onto the internet, and most likely will be Pitchfork fodder. However, they are both so fucking good, any "Pitchforkian" assimilation will be deserved:

TV On the Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain (Due Late Spring 2006)

TV On the Radio, three years ago, were the "it" band in the underground community. Their vocal style, consisting of weird, layered, and distorted harmonies, was entirely unique. Their production style was manic and captivating, a punchy blend of distorted guitar and beats. So, after their wonderful, emphatic Young Liars EP in 2003, their first full-length, Deseperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, was a bit of a dissapointment. It still was great, don't get me wrong, just not quite the indie-rock messiah opus some were (probably stupidly and arbitrarily) hoping for.

It's been a long two years since TV On the Radio began work on a follow-up, and, through the piracy magic of the internet, a rough cut has leaked. And, well, TV On the Radio seem to have lived up to the hype at the best possible time - after it has gone away. The weird vocal style is still there, but this time much more bold and confident. The trip-hopish beats are still there, but are mixed and sequenced in a much more deliberate manner. It just sounds fucking great, honestly. There are so many sounds coming at you that it's easily one of the most listenable yet complex albums to come out of the underground crop in the past decade. Major labels seem to think so, too - TV On the Radio just signed to Interscope. With that in mind, I'm a little afraid of RIAA goonies hunting me down for giving you a sample song. It shouldn't be very hard to find, though (just download a Soulseek client - Do check it out, though, it's a great album.

Listen to: "Snakes And Martyrs/Hours," "I Was A Lover"

The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea (2006)

Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger are producing divisive music. Their first album was perfectly accessible (and largely underrated), but their second, 2004's Blueberry Boat, was this huge, sprawling, really, really, really long masterpiece or farce, depending on who you talk to. Last year they released an album with their atonal grandmother croaking out weird stories of her past, with Eleanor, the primary vocalist of the Furnaces, singing or speaking awkwardly over her matriarch's musings. That album seemed to be the final straw - webzines who previously were Furnaces champions panned it, while others contested that, at the very least, it was entirely unique and indicative of some sort of genius.

The Furnaces seem to have gone into more familiar waters again, no grandmother this time. However, the sprawling songs with many shifts in timing and melody found on Blueberry Boat remain, only this time a little more succinct. In my opinion, this is also Matthew Friedberger's best songwriting and production work to date. Strong melodies only hinted at on songs like "Evergreen" (see 2005's EP release) are finally beginning to sing-song their way into his massively creative headspace more prominently. The result is another work from the Furnaces that seems like a daunting listening task at first, but this time slicked up a bit for an easier transition. You'll find yourself falling in love with first the lyrics and melodies, and while that keeps you listening, the virtual genius of Matthew's little production subtleties will help you realize its lasting greatness. It's really their most well-executed release to date, and one I hope will continue a trend.

Download "Teach Me Sweetheart"