Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » May
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Black Earth arrives sturdy enough to dispense with all the shoegaze references. Jesus and Mary Chain just aren’t that great. Seriously. Whether or not Implodes, a Chicago quartet dealing in stoned simplicity, agree is moot. The band’s able to push through tired forebears, forging something of a singular sound, if not unfettered by sonic antecedents. Kraut influence seem to be as easily applied to musics of this sort as anything else. And with Black Earth’s cover being a distant cousin to Amon Düül II’s Yeti (Liberty, 1970), it’s not a fallacious connection to make. Just one that doesn’t matter.

Most of what Black Earth dispenses is doused with reverb to the point that everything but a drum beat finds itself obscured. As a significant portion of the disc is instrumental – or at least includes long passages of what could be extensions of Mills College thesis projects – hearing “White Window” slowly stumble to its conclusion might be the easiest way to understand the group. There’s no recognizable guitar, just washes of sound. Tones masquerading as songcraft. Oddly, the track works whether listeners pay strict attention or head into the other room to finish the dishes. The song’s almost not there. Contrasting that methodical pacing, the following “Screech Owl” works in an acoustic guitar, finding Implodes augmenting its approach just enough to include an instrument not generally associated with music sporting this personality. Quickly, the composition moves back to a heavily distorted and plodding work topped off with distant, moaned vocals and a bit of spoken word.

Listening to Black Earth in its entirety can happen accidentally. With the average song length pushing four-plus minutes and each track being based on roughly the same concept, the disc winds up feeling like sound art one might accidentally stumble upon if walking into the wrong art gallery. Separating Implodes from a wealth of other groups trucking in the ethereal – and Chicago seems rife with that  – is the group’s relative restraint. Sure, drones being merged with pop comes replete with problems, but Implodes doesn’t get too haughty about it. Sometimes the vocals even work out. Try getting “Meadowslands” out of your head.

There’s some Op Ivy lyric about not needing a crowd but a gathering instead. Maybe that was the point of talking to bassist Hannah Lew, who is one-third of the post-punk trio Grass Widow, alongside drummer Lillian Maring and guitarist Raven Mahon. While not plying four-stringed instruments, she wrangles film and video for her band and a wealth of personal, purposeful projects as well. Taking a break from clerking at a properly stocked San Francisco video shop, Lew was able to discuss just about everything from the band’s DIY ethic and her own criticisms of digital media to the eventuality of Grass Widow self-releasing music instead of working, as they have, with labels like Captured Tracks and Kill Rock Stars, who released their 2010 sophomore album Past Time.

Hannah Lew: I think there’s a myth about California [that it’s always sunny and warm]. I’m a native San Franciscan, so I know that myth’s purely myth. You have to plan for all seasons each day here, which is why you see tourists walking around with San Francisco sweatshirts – they were out, they got cold, and they had to buy a sweatshirt.

Skyscraper: I didn’t even know micro-climates existed until I moved out there and someone levied all that on me.

HL: Yeah, there’s a famous gardening book called Golden Gate Gardening, because there are areas of town where you can only grow certain things. You can grow tomatoes in the Mission, but not in the Richmond District.

Skyscraper: When you’re not reading gardening books, you work at a video store. Are you a high ranking member of their staff? How long have you been there?

HL: Yeah, I work at Lost Weekend Video [check out the presumed namesake] and when we’re not playing, I spend a lot of time on movie related stuff. I’ve been there about four years. And yes, I am extremely high ranking. There are three owners here – one of my bosses, Adam Pfahler, was the drummer in Jawbreaker. The other two were [Jawbreaker’s] tour manager and, I think, Dave was the accountant. But when they stopped touring, they opened a video store. That was about 15 years ago.

It’s just friends who work here. Actually, four people who’ve worked here happened to have released albums on Kill Rock Stars. Just pure coincidence. I got my job through my friend Bianca Sparta, who’s in Erase Errata. Ed Rodriguez from Deerhoof and Weasel Walter have worked here, too. We’re just tryin’ to survive as an independent business. A lot of things have changed here. Grass Widow was just on tour for a few weeks. When we came back, three new bars and two new novelty shops had opened. People who work for Google or eBay – all those things are near here; the employees move to the area and have different desires.

Skyscraper: You started a Master’s program in film, but put if off to focus on the band?

HL: I was at San Francisco State, and doing pretty well, I guess. All this stuff happened – my dad passed away, we got crazy offers to go to China. So, I realized it was a bad time for me to be in school. I’ve been able to get my work seen, though, maybe more than if I’d tried to schmooze in film school or go to festivals. I ended up doing music videos and just had a video premiere at The Bay Bridged, a video for Shannon and the Clams. There are some other projects and planning going on right now, but music videos are really a great way for me to work. In a lot of ways they’re the new music single, because the way people download albums, songs rarely get a chance to live as a single. When a music video gets premiered, it lives in its own space.

Skyscraper: Do you shoot everything on film or is it digital?

HL: It’s all Super 8. Actually, I’ve shot a few things on 16mm. But it’s expensive.

Skyscraper: Do you like the process of laying hands on a piece of film?

HL: I think in that color scheme – in colors on film stock, not video. I think in a painterly way about film.

Skyscraper: That’s you sitting in a room by yourself, which is drastically different than making music with two other people.

HL: I was just thinking the other day, the way I experience work with computers – they’re really designed for a person to use alone. But I use computers in a collaborative way. We use GarageBand when we record at our practice space. When I edit, I don’t edit alone, I use programs with other people. I was just thinking, “I’m done using computers, they want me to sit in a room alone. I won’t do it.”

Skyscraper: I saw the video you did for “Fried Egg” and it made me think about Head (1968) by the Monkees.

HL: Also, Norman McLaren did a lot of that floating around stuff. He’s awesome, a Film Board of Canada guy who did a lot of stop motion and animation. He’s definitely a huge inspiration of mine.

Skyscraper: Do you know Anthony Stern? The way you described music videos, in my head, is how in the 1950s and 1960s experimental filmmakers had to turn showing a short into an event. Anyway, Stern made San Francisco (1968) during the late 1960s and Pink Floyd recorded a version of “Interstellar Overdrive” for the soundtrack. But the film’s all real fast cuts of people caught unawares or just in the middle of mundane normalcy, interspersed with trippy lighting effects. It plays into the romantic idea of Bay Area bohemia. Is the throng of garage bands accidentally replicating that vibe and is there a tipping point? Can there be too many bands?

HL: Even you saying there’ve been a throng of garage bands over the last five years – I don’t think any band here would think of themselves as a garage band. I think about what music scenes are in a regional perspective. In San Francisco, there are all these bands that don’t sound the same, but everyone’s friends. The way social networking works here is really different than other places. Maybe it’s just the way I think about it, maybe I’m wrong. But in New York or LA, for example, there’s a lot more social networking and a lot less real community. I feel like in San Francisco, it’s a small enough place that people actually know each other, see each other and are friends. In New York, people have that center of the world kinda thing. So, you move to the city because it already has the trend there. You can just attach yourself to it. I find that a lot of bands there sound really similar. That happens, to an extent, in LA – but bands there seem a lot more concerned with celebrity than bands in San Francisco. They think about celebrity, but not what they can do with celebrity.

I’m really glad to be a musician and filmmaker in San Francisco right now. It’s just a good time – people doing their own thing and getting involved in the community in a real way.

Skyscraper: Out of the three places you mentioned, the Bay’s easily the most livable. It’s interesting that you said each coast is concerned with celebrity, but work with it differently. You’re not gonna walk down the street in San Francisco and run into Cameron Diaz, though.

HL: I’m not even talking about Cameron Diaz. I’m talking about people who I consider my peers. In San Francisco, all these bands are really peers. When we play shows together, everyone gets paid fairly. There’s no concept of, “I’m big now, I’m a celebrity.” My experience playing shows in Los Angeles or New York, bands just have a different attitude towards other bands and I think it has to do with where they come from. They think of themselves as celebrities and treat other bands as protégés, not peers. You can really feel that – that’s the big difference. Bands here, there’s a lot of mutual respect and individuality.

Skyscraper: You’ve talked about bands becoming commodities and emulation in other interviews, but the underground market seems like a small scale replica of major label business.

HL: Just because a band emulates punk aesthetics doesn’t mean they’re a punk band. A lot of people do rely heavily on aesthetics, but it seems just like nods to things in the past that were really cool. There’s semiotic value in the leather jacket, but it’s an indexical reference to a time when the leather jacket was actually rebellious. In this modern context, there’re a lot of references to vintage aesthetics. I love the 1960s, but I’m also fond of these times. I’m more impressed by bands who are individuals and not just ripping off old, cool stuff. There’s a lot of that right now – I like old things, I like old music or older styles. What makes using those ideas unique, what makes it empowering, is for artists to use them in a modern context.

A lot of musicians have different goals and different ideas about success. We get lumped in with a lot of other bands and people don’t realize we have a totally different concept of what success is for us. It can get really annoying to be compared to every other band that has women in it. We’re all female, does that mean we have the same goals? Do all men have the same goals?

Skyscraper: What correlation is there between how Grass Widow projects itself as cohesive concept and your work in film?

HL: One of the things I’m interested in, in terms of filmmaking, is feminist film theory, which brings up some feminist ideas to really profound levels. We’re dealing with the way women are portrayed and the whole idea of the gaze. Women deal with that in a modern context – if you’re in a band, people are going to be looking at you, talking about you, not to you. If women are creating their own images out there, that’s a kind of feminist action – creating images that are meant for women, including women in the audience, and aren’t in the service of men or searching for any type of validation. We think about that stuff a lot, the way our images are used. We deal with people just writing stuff about the way we look on the Internet. If there’s anything we can put out there about ourselves, that’s empowering.

Skyscraper: You seem dubious regarding how media’s manipulated. You’ve talked about disengaging from the digital media circus. So, how do you decide what interviews to do and why do one with us?

HL: We always try to do interviews, because speaking on your own behalf is important. There’s a distinction to be made between having a luddite approach to technology and being critical of the way people use it. You can see people tweeting while we’re playing a show. We just flew across the country, stick with us. People are dissociating right now or performing for the sake of the image they’ve put out there. That’s shaky ground.

With everyone having public profiles, you can voyeuristically stalk someone and use it to your advantage. But none of that’s real – talking to a person and interacting with them, that’s real. Those are the kinds of connections we’re trying to make as a band, not seeing how many friends we can get.

Skyscraper: You guys get asked a bunch of inane questions during interviews – my favorite being “How do you feel about getting signed to Kill Rock Stars,” or if you favor robots or dinosaurs.

HL: I know what you’re saying. Someone asked us what kind of cheeses we like. We’re always trying to take the opportunity to talk about things we care about. Going back to how different regions approach celebrity, there are a lot of people talking about themselves like they’re important. I guess, to a certain extent, I care about where people are from and when they felt confident enough to play music. Sometimes people can’t see past themselves and their own success to the world or the world they want to live in. It’s really apparent in interviews. Our goals as a band are almost the opposite. We want people to feel included and empowered, it’s not really about us. It’s about what we’re trying to provide.

Skyscraper: You not wanting to Tweet while you’re at a show makes you part of the minority now.

HL: That’s the thing, people used to be in those situations, at shows, and feel empowered. Now, people just want to announce that they’re there – they’re performing.

Skyscraper: I’d imagine most people play music for the reasons we’re discussing: to empower themselves or to create community. Do you need to complicate playing in a band with all these other activities, like doing a phone interview with me?

HL: It’s less about empowerment and more about… It feels like people are having things provided for them or being told what they like. That’s disempowering. Things like Last.fm, it’ll tell you 30 bands you like if you type in the name of one group. If something’s on Facebook and 50 people “like” it, the post develops its own presence. I’ve experienced that from playing music – a whole bunch of people will like our band, because someone else cool likes us. I’d rather have people come to it on their own.

That’s why I get bummed when people are tweeting at our shows – just enjoy it. Just be here. Maybe no one will actually know you’re having a good time. Maybe the world can go 15 minutes without knowing you’re having a good time and went to a good show.

Skyscraper: How is making film – since that’s you proclaiming something – different?

HL: The difference is, with the Internet or other media, there’s this sort of immediacy. The reality is, you can read a whole bunch of stuff on the Internet that’s just one person sitting in front of a screen, writing by themselves.

The way I think about songs and music videos, it’s the same realm. There’s a chance to use metaphor and have people interact with the subject matter. It’s not just a person spewing out ideas about themselves. It is a form of expression, but there’s a difference between expression and putting out some identity-thing or a profile that you want people to believe.

Skyscraper: I guarantee, sadly enough, a lot of people spend as much time making profiles as you do writing songs.

Photos (top to bottom): Jean Blackstenthree; Venita Wadsworth; Sam Wolk; JR Tarantinoone.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

There are a lot of parallels to draw here. Dag Nasty’s shifting foundation included a number of different singers – enough to make some joke about Chavo-era Black Flag being better than all that emotional anguish we heard with Rollins fronting the band. But those are West Coast concerns. In DC, it was Bad Brains and Minor Threat ranking as the scene’s impromptu organizers.

Dag Nasty’s always been linked to the Dischord Records crew – Brian Baker being a good reason why. As a founding bassist in Ian MacKaye’s sXe forebears, Baker helped along an oddly melodic approach to thrashy tempos, allowing Minor Threat to move into Nuggets territory with its cover of the Standell’s classic “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White.” Taking the approach to even poppier heights, Dag Nasty emerged during the mid-1980s, preceding most ensembles who could be saddled with being emo templates. If Can I Say (Dischord, 1986) or even Field Day (Giant, 1988) rightly define the band, getting an earful of Dag’s first singer, Shawn Brown, who was with the group for something like six months, should be revelatory.

Dag With Shawn compiles nine songs Dag Nasty recorded with Brown on vocals in 1985, but which were never released. Dischord finally issuing Dag With Shawn says a lot about the recordings’ quality, even if these songs would be reworked a few months later with Dave Smalley on the mic, resulting in Can I Say. Quickly contrasting the Brown and Smalley versions of “Under the Influence” or “Justification” reveals little musical differentiation. The singers even come off relatively similar. But where Can I Say veers off into pop-punk and harmonies, Brown does his best MacKaye impression the entire way through, making verses on stuff like “Thin Line” significantly more engaging. Brown losing his nut, apart from appealing more to early 1980s hardcore fans, seems to urge on Baker and his cohort. The music isn’t actually faster or tougher. It just sounds that way with a more convincing singer, one who doesn’t sound like he kept a journal. Dear diary, this shit rules.

Amanda Palmer is more productive than I am. It’s been four months since I first heard the Dresden Dolls singer’s mostly-live set, Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under. Then, just as the month of April came to a close, she put out more new music — a six-song digital release called Nighty Night, recorded with Ben Folds and others under the name 8in8. It was right around the same time I saw this video of her playing the Shorty Awards, where she sang an “original” song of Twitter status updates. Then there’s her side project Evelyn Evelyn and the many “ninja gigs” she’s always tweeting about, not to mention videos and remixes. But maybe all that’s not a lot for an artist today.

More and more it seems as though there’s less of a wait between releases by my favorite bands and musicians. Half a decade passed between The Downward Spiral (Island, 1994) and The Fragile (Interscope, 1999). Epic spans of time like that don’t seem to happen much anymore, not even for Trent Reznor. Maybe social media is to be credited, or the many recent advances in technology allowing for faster recording, promotion, and distribution. Regardless, an interesting question lies within: Are artists more productive these days than they used to be? Maybe. But what interests me about Amanda Palmer’s new album is that, not all that long ago, it might not have even seen release. Not many labels would have followed up a debut solo effort with a mostly live disc of almost entirely new music.

Palmer is the the female half of the duo the Dresden Dolls, a “dark cabaret” band which retains a dedicated (I guess you could say cult) following. Now on hiatus, they released two full-length studio albums last decade — their self-titled album in 2003 (8 Ft./Roadrunner) and Yes, Virginia… (Roadrunner, 2006). Following that sophomore release Palmer solo, first releasing Who Killed Amanda Palmer (Roadrunner, 2008) and now the similarly semi-self-reflexive Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under. The new album is a concept record of sorts. It has an antipodean theme, which is a word I had to look up and discovered refers to the inhabitants of Australia and New Zealand. I had a sneaking suspicion the word would mean something like that, as the album is billed as featuring songs Palmer wrote or played while touring the two countries during early 2010. More than half of the album’s songs, seven of the total 12, were recorded live at the Sydney Opera House, presumably during a single night’s gig. If this were the 1990s though, chances are the album’s songs would have just ended up as B-Sides or the full concert would’ve been issued as some obscure import. So much about Palmer’s current output really only seems possible because of  her now direct connection to her fans.

The album opens and closes with the Sydney Opera House songs, which, on first listen, gives the impression that everything on the album is taken from that single live set. Certain tracks start to distinguish themselves upon second listen, though, such as “Map of Tasmania,” which soon stands out obviously as a studio recording. And, again, an internet search provides confirmation of what I was pretty sure I knew to be true. Other than “Map of Tasmania,” there are only two other studio recordings on the record, one of which is a cover (itself a part of another of the album’s subsets — three cover songs). Of the nine live tracks, there are the seven Sydney Opera House songs, a performance in Wellington, and a song from the Adelaide Fringe Festival.

Admittedly, the record’s closer, a live cover of Nick Cave’s “The Ship Song,” is what got me re-interested in Palmer and her music. It had been a long time since I last listened to Who Killed Amanda Palmer. But the strength of that cover and of the rest of this new album sent me on an Amanda Palmer fervor, causing me to consume everything I’d been aware of but never listened to — her EP of Radiohead covers, Evelyn Evelyn and her other recent collaborations. From start to finish, this new album further cements Palmer’s standing as a quality songwriter and performer. Whether solo on piano or ukulele or backed by a full band, performing her own work or in collaboration with another, Palmer and her music prove interesting, engaging, and worth repeat listens.

Another Bag of Bones

“For most authors, publishing more than three best-selling novels is a remarkable achievement. For Stephen King, it’s simply his post-retirement scribblings.” This was a point paraphrased ad infinitum with the release of Lisey’s Key, Under The Dome and Cell, but it is only with the release of his latest short story collection, Full Dark, No Stars, that we realize the implications of an author unable to stop writing.

The four stories contained within this volume ostensibly share the theme of redemption but they are more closely linked by the exploration of purpose, of raison d’etre. The ostensible devices have all been used before: in “1922,” the first story, there is a shapeless monster following the narrator from town to town, relentless in its hunger for revenge, waiting only for the story to be told before appearing to bring about its grisly conclusion. Sound familiar? You’re probably thinking of “The Bogeyman” first published in the March 1973 issue of Cavalier magazine, and later collected in 1978’s Night Shift. “The Bogeyman” takes place in a psychiatrist’s office, wherein a nincompoop father attempts to atone for his guilt in the deaths of his children. In “1922,” it is a hotel room in Omaha, in the eponymous year, where Wilfred Leland James types out the confession to his wife’s murder.

Taking a sharp object to the old biddy and throwing her down a well is hardly an original concept, but even less so is the monster which chases Leland down: a mob of rats, grown swollen and grotesque from years living underground, feeding off humanity’s mistakes (both literal, in the case of the late Mrs. James, and figurative, in the greed for land rights which puts her there). If these furry friends should ring a bell, consider “Graveyard Shift,” from the October 1970 issue of Cavalier magazine, which culminates in a cow sized legless, eyeless “queen rat”. King leaves out the queen this time around, but the remaining rats are as horribly deformed as they were 40 years ago.

The second story, “Big Driver,” features a talking GPS unit, a level of anthropomorphism that has been stamped as Stephen King to the point of parody – think Family Guy’s “WOoOOoo, a lamp!” The third, “Fair Extension,” features a shadowy stranger who grants wishes akin to Needful Things’ very own Faustian Leland Gaunt.

Admittedly, King has made self-reflexivity a motif, but it has usually been confined to throw-away call outs and familiar settings (the town of Castle Rock, troublemakers sent to “The Shank” of “Shawshank Redemption” fame). Full Dark’s wholesale appropriation of characters and events is something else, a fundamental shift in King’s story telling.

By taking the same set of bones we are no longer shocked at the skeleton, but intrigued at the shapes and shadows cast. King is free to explore stories rather than tell them. In “1922,” Wilfred James is presented not as a murderer, but as a man confounded by progress. Unable to balance the creeping influence of cities, corporations, and education, his actions become so alien that asking his adolescent son to help commit and cover-up a murder seems downright mundane in contrast to his attempts to pay back a loan.

“Fair Extension” follows the same template. We know that deals with the devil end badly, and it is only when small town folks learn the cost of desire that the devil gets his due and a happy ending appears. But if you want to read that story, Needful Things can be found at your nearest library, as can a dozen Twilight Zone episodes and The Master and Margarita. Instead, King here is free to take that template and indulge in the joy of finally getting what one wants, damn the expense! Especially if the final bill is delivered to another.

Of course, most writers focus on the tangible because tangents are often best left to our own imaginations. Is that why narrative heavy authors like (early) King and Clancy work best on the beach or at airports, where we can read a chapter and then play with it while dozing or distracted? By drawing attention to the space between the lines, King needs to present something our imaginations cannot create. In the case of “1922” and the majority of “Fair Extension,” King manages to do so.

For the other two stories in the collection, his attempts wear thin. “Big Driver” begins with weight and panic, as an author is raped while returning from a book reading. But King seems too willing to move past the consequences of rape to a revenge story with a moral twist that barely twists at all. By the conclusion, the author’s trial serves less as horror in itself, and more as a horrific act (rape/murder/torture) which serves only to set up a tangent on revenge stories.

Where “Big Driver” at least has an excellent first third, the final story “A Good Marriage” fails near absolutely. The bones are there – a wife discovers a horrible secret about her husband – but King does nothing to interest us in these characters or their situation, given that every one of us wrote this story in our mind when images of Austria’s Josef Fritzl broke on the newswires. Whereas “Fair Extension” was a simple idea fleshed out with wit and subversion, “Marriage” is nothing more than a pile of bones better left in whichever closet they were found.

With three hits out of four shots, fans of King should walk away from Full Dark, No Stars pleased. Ultimately, the stories are King as he has always been, but for readers willing to read between the lines, his stories about stories achieves a level of freedom and experimentation long thought behind him. For most authors, a late career revival would be a miracle, for Stephen King it is simply his post-retirement scribblings.

10 Favorite Tracks Sung By Male Vocalists

“Canto De Ossanha” by Baden Powell & Vinicius de Moraes, from Os Afro Sambas (Forma, 1966): That Vinicius de Moraes was an amazing songwriter no one could deny, but I imagine when he first stepped to the mic few thought of him as a great singer – but sing he does, in his gruff and unprepossessing way, delivering his lyrics so convincingly that even though I don’t know Portuguese, I feel I understand every word.

“Sodade” by Bonga, from Angola 74 (Morabeza, 1974): Another part-time singer, Bonga was reputedly a professional soccer player before his musical career. In this case, the rough quality of his voice is less a curiosity than an instrument capable of moving nations – as I understand it, Bonga was forced into exile because of the political power of his recordings. Here he sings a Portuguese standard, better known in the version by Cesoria Evora – but again making the feeling so clear the language becomes transparent.

“Maria Bethania” by Caetano Veloso, from Caetano Veloso (Phillips, 1968): When Caetano Veloso had to leave Brazil during the military dictatorship of the late 1960s, he decamped to London – and the two albums he made there, in English, both embrace his displacement and lament it. Here he sends a lonely musical letter home to his sister, the great singer Maria Bethania, quoting The Beatles along the way. Caetano is another singer known first as a songwriter – it was his sister who had the voice in the family. But like Dylan, no one really sells his songs as well he does himself.

“Tale In Hard Time” by Fairport Convention, from What We Did On Our Holidays (A&M, 1969): Naomi and I are devoted to early Fairport albums primarily because of Sandy Denny. Who isn’t? But Ian Matthews’ lead vocal tracks on them are another, though quite different, pleasure. His plain and plaintive delivery always gets me, especially when wedded to a fine melodic line like this. The Sandy Denny harmony is the final push into addictive territory; I could listen to this over and over (and have).

“True Love Leaves No Traces” by Leonard Cohen, from Death Of A Ladies’ Man (Columbia, 1977): I love the way Leonard Cohen works with backing vocalists – live and on record, he has always chosen fantastic women singers to frame his own less-than-perfect voice, resulting in a union that sounds more-than-perfect to me. On this album he made with Phil Spector, the overblown backing track is likewise more than the sum of its parts. I know Cohen distanced himself from this record, probably for that very reason, but it has some songs I enjoy as much as the more characteristic parts of his amazing catalogue.

“At the Chime Of a City Clock” by Nick Drake, from Bryter Layter (Island, 1970): Another production that the singer later disavowed, Bryter Layter is nonetheless an ideal for me of folk-rock arrangement. The beautiful tones of Nick Drake’s voice and guitar are picked up and responded to by a fantastic array of musicians. It’s true that Pink Moon (Island, 1972), with its unadorned performance, is a much more direct way to encounter all that is remarkable about Nick Drake. But there are so many lessons of arranging and production to be learned from Bryter Layter.

“Pleasant Street” by Tim Buckley, from Goodbye and Hello (Elektra, 1967): The production on Tim Buckley’s early albums sounds to me perhaps the way Bryter Layter sounded to Nick Drake: it’s too much to have added to a singer-songwriter’s work. But Tim Buckley’s voice is so powerful, it always rides above it all, and on this track the groovy 1960s arrangement is nothing but fun, making it one of my favorites of his.

“Tudo Que Você Podia Ser” by Milton Nascimento, from Clube Da Esquina (EMI Odeon, 1972): I first started listening to Milton Nascimento because I had heard his unidentified voice on the radio and couldn’t forget it – all I knew was that it was someone from Brazil, so I started buying records with male Brazilian singers until I finally found the sound again. By that time, I had ended up with a fairly large collection of Brazilian music! This is the opening track to his masterpiece Clube Da Esquina, a group effort by an amazingly talented set of players and songwriters from Milton’s hometown of Belo Horizonte.

“Streets Of Arklow” by Van Morrison, from Veedon Fleece (Warner Bros., 1974): I was never a Van Morrison fan – I think the hits kept me away from exploring the albums. But recently, I read Greil Marcus’ book about him [When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison, PublicAffairs, 2010] and realized there was a lot more than those annoying classic rock tracks. Astral Weeks (Warner Bros., 1968) is as unusual as billed, thanks to its remarkable players – but Veedon Fleece is the album I found that I like the best. On this track, I hear a swing in his delivery that’s more jazz than rock. And the flute sounds like Ghost!

“Wherever He Leadeth Me” by The Impressions, from The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story (Curtom, 1969): Speaking of swing: Curtis Mayfield makes every line move. There isn’t a wasted moment in this track, the arrangement is so precise; dense with instruments yet uncluttered. And that voice. 2:33 of joy for me.

Damon Krukowski was the drummer of slowcore legends Galaxie 500 and, for the past 20 years, has performed as one-half of the duo Damon & Naomi, where he is joined by Naomi Yang. The pair’s most recent album, False Beats and True Hearts, was just released last week on their own 20/20/20 label.

Photo: Norman von Holtzendorff

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

Veteran indie stylists Stereolab are going on hiatus for a while to take a much-deserved rest and pursue other projects after almost two decades of tours and myriad albums, EPs, singles, and compilations, some of them true contemporary classics. Not Music is a very good way to close this long first phase for the cult favorites. Though not among Stereolab’s top three long-players, Not Music is a strong, appealing album with some impressive, streamlined, retro-futuristic creations.

Recorded during the same sessions yielding their brilliant, Motown-inflected Chemical Chords (4AD, 2008), these tracks are by no means leftovers. This is a strong complementary album, apparently informally referred to as Chemical Chords 2 before taking its current title. Reinforcing this connection is a “part 2” of “Molecular Pop” and a radically different, atmospheric Atlas Sound (Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox) remix of “Neon Beanbag,” which opens Chemical Chords. No Odds and Sods, Not Music is rather more like Amnesiac (Capitol, 2001) to its predecessor’s Kid A (Capitol, 2000), harkening to their contemporaries Radiohead.

Stereolab beguiles throughout this album with fascinating rhythms, drawing listeners into their suave, smart sonic world. The drumming is superb throughout, sometimes adding a spirited funkiness to the politicized, theorized, Space Age laboratory of sound. Xylophones, analogue synthesizers burbling and chirping, hypnotic minimalism, beautiful vocal harmonies and leads by Laetitia Sadier (who has recently released a solo album called The Trip and provides guest vocals to a track on Deerhunter’s excellent Halcyon Days album), and unusual time signatures all find their way into Not Music. Insistent, minimalist, perky piano marks the memorable “Two Finger Symphony.” Its production values, using vibraphone, wavering, trebly guitar tonalities, and spirited allegro keyboard quarter-note chords, recall the creative flair of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys from 1965 to 1970, including their classic LPs Beach Boys Today!,  Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, which substituted for the unfinished Smile, and Sunflower. Songs bearing this influence can be compared to The High Llamas but are more rhythmically charged. What might mark this album most strongly, however, is how it delves into late 1970s and early 1980s synthesizer sounds, sometimes Computer World (Warner Bros., 1981) embellishments recalling the mighty Kraftwerk or even some moments from the Pet Shop Boys’ debut Please (Parlophone, 1986). “Silver Sands,” epically running over 10 minutes, uses a motorik beat (you knew that word would appear in here somewhere) recalling “Autobahn” or old Tangerine Dream, modulating into a electro groove recalling Giorgio Morodor productions (e.g. Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”), and pulls off the ambitious feat of maintaining interest over this length.

Thus Stereolab continues to innovate while maintaining aspects of their classic mélange of the hip, melodious, entrancing, and rhythmic.  The insistent and concise “Sun Demon” stands out as evidence of the band retaining its innovation and drive. “Everybody’s Weird Except Me” is winsome and winning, with background vocals seemingly being run through a Leslie speaker to produce a warbly effect. While Not Music isn’t their best album, the disc’s an enjoyable and strong Stereolab release. At this point, we can take stock and reinvestigate the band’s prolific output from the last two decades while Stereolab chills in their respective Space Age Bachelor Pads for a spell.

We’re giving away two (2) copies of Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock, written by Andrew Earles, and two (2) copies of Cheetah Chrome: A Dead Boy’s Tale: From the Front Lines of Punk Rock, the autobiography of the Dead Boys lead guitarist. Both books are published by Voyageur Press. (Read our recent review of Husker Du here.)

All you have to do is be one of the next 200 people to follow us on Twitter and/or “like” us on Facebook (see instructions below), and you’ll be entered to win one of the four (4) prizes. If you do both, you’ll double your chances of winning!

HOW IT WORKS:

(1) Follow us on Twitter at @skyscraperzine and/or like our Facebook page

(2) Post the following tweet to your Twitter account and/or post the following message to your Facebook status to help us spread the word about the contest and the Skyscraper relaunch:

Twitter: I read @skyscraperzine and I want to win, and so should you: http://bit.ly/kcdCez

Facebook: I read Skyscraper Magazine and I want to win, and so should you: http://www.skyscrapermagazine.com/columns/editors-desk-no-2-giveaway [tag the Skyscraper page by typing the “@” symbol before the name “Skyscraper Magazine”]

(3) Two (2) winners will be chosen at random once we reach 500 total followers on Twitter and another two (2) winners will be chosen at random once 500 total people “like” us on Facebook. If your account is selected, we’ll direct message your Twitter or Facebook account to find out where to send your free book! Note: each winner will receive only one (1) book. Existing followers/fans are not eligible.

Special thanks to John Wurm and Quayside Publishing Group (@Qbookshop) for generously providing the prizes.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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Galactic’s always been a museum exhibit. Over the course of its first two albums – Coolin’ Off (Volcano, 1996) and Crazyhorse Mongoose (Zomba, 1998) – the band trucked in dirt-hewn funk stuffs culled as much from Stax as the band’s native New Orleans. The confluence of jazz, funk, and soul wasn’t unique, but came at a time when jam-bands had worn out their intrigue. Insinuating itself into a community soon to become a multi-million dollar phenomena with Bonnaroo, an event which should be rightly understood as the precursor to huge modern indie-fests juking fools outta their money, wasn’t a difficult move. Despite the vast chasm between what Galactic and Widespread Panic played, stoners enjoyed dancing to each, the former allowing for dazed dreadlocks to claim some sort of jazz knowledge. But that was well over a decade back. Theryl de Clouet no longer croaks lyrics for the band and each player is engaged with a wealth of side-projects – and rightly so. That’s what jazzbos do. Continuing on with the Galactic franchise then becomes stable income as opposed to a wild creative outlet.

As a bookend to We Love ‘Em Tonight: Live at Tipitina’s (Volcano, 2001), The Other Side of Midnight: Live in New Orleans collects a handful of offerings which feature a litany of local talent. Trombone Shorty contributes a bit, as does the Soul Rebels Brass Band and Freedia. Most impressive, though, are vocal cuts counting one-time Meter Cyril Neville. The musical connection between Galactic and that earlier NOLA funk outfit doesn’t need any strengthening. But Neville’s willingness to perform alongside an ensemble mining his back catalog points to Galactic’s ability to do it convincingly.

First appearing on “You Don’t Know,” Neville sounds vital enough for it to be the early 1970s again. Opening with a swell of horns, the band falls in line behind his lithe lines detailing another relationship rife with problems. Musically and lyrically, there’s nothing here approaching drastic revisionism. It’s just a solid soul track with a well rehearsed group punching out the melody when Neville takes a few bars off. “Heart of Steel,” the singer’s other effort, gets further into blues territory, almost approximating another NOLA citizen, Dr. John. Still funky, the track’s drastically more swampy with an eerie instrumental break capable of calling up alligators from the bayou. Thing is, reaching back to those albums with de Clouet being featured could have summoned a similar listening experience.

Sure, the Tower of Power still tours, but fans return to 1972’s Bump City (Warner Bros.), not 2003’s Oakland Zone (Or. Music). So, maybe Crazyhorse is more representative of what Galactic was at its peak. But part of that’s related to how we all understand music in time, appreciating a work for the memories it conjures as opposed to what we’re actually listening to. So, if Galactic helps listeners recall past evenings of entertainment, live or otherwise, continue picking up the band’s newest work. Stanton Moore’s solo discs might hold a bit more appeal, but that’s just opinion.

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

For over a decade now, Liverpool’s Clinic have worked in their own freaky corner, releasing sonically stunning records that sound like no one else. While the influences have been obvious and trendy enough – The Velvet Underground, Suicide, The 13th Floor Elevators – Clinic’s recorded output always avoids clichés of the day. More often than not, then, the band seems to operate outside the confines of time.

Following Clinic’s career rewards the careful, patient listener, yet reading critical responses can be frustrating. Some commentators hold Clinic in suspended animation, waiting for a stylistic return to the electro-garage of Internal Wrangler (Domino, 2001). According to these critics, Clinic have been recycling ideas as they move further and further away from their original sound; Pitchfork even went so far as to suggest that listeners only need Internal Wrangler. Nothing could be further from the truth. But unfortunately, this critical view strangles potential listeners’ experiences in a way the actual music – and great music it is – would not.

Undeterred, Clinic keep exploring new sounds as they follow a singular vision. The band’s fondness for exploration has led to a superior string of records, starting with Winchester Cathedral (Domino, 2004) and ending with Do It! (Domino, 2008). The ensemble ditched the sounds of their earlier work and painstakingly developed an otherworldly mix of swampy, fuzzed-out psych, folk, and jagged punk. On these records, one hears a band pushing the elasticity of its sound to the point of snapping. For listeners who delight in such sonic experiments, few contemporary bands prove more exciting than Clinic.

Now, with the release of Bubblegum, Clinic have jettisoned their established sound and mutated into what they’ve always threatened to become: an easy listening chamber pop quartet. This newest incarnation suits the band remarkably well, and from start to finish, Bubblegum is a first rate collection of songs. After a few listens, one aspect stands out the most: Clinic can be any type of band they want to be. In their world, though, one thing remains constant: a maniacal obsession with sound. On Bubblegum, this obsession finds expression through perfectly chosen instrumentation – strings, harpsichords, and acoustic guitars – and bright production values courtesy of John Congleton (The Polyphonic Spree, The Mountain Goats, St. Vincent). Perhaps the most pleasant sound, though, is Ade Blackburn’s voice. While he always flirted with a honey-soaked delivery, his preferred mode remained a menacing, clenched-teethed hiss. On Bubblegum, Blackburn refuses to suffocate his voice and has never sounded freer.

Speaking of freedom, Bubblegum seethes with the stuff in every sense of the word. For example, opening with four down-stroked notes, the hypnotic, sun-soaked “I’m Aware” – the album’s opening track and first single – shatters any ill-conceived notions of Clinic’s stylistic stagnation. Warm, entrancing backup vocals reminiscent of The Sandpipers add rich layers to this acoustic symphony, which is best enjoyed through headphones. To get a visual representation of how listening to this album feels, one should watch the psychedelic puppet video for “I’m Aware.” It’s the perfect visual compliment to the song’s otherworldly magic. Here are some highlights: pink suns spew cloth rainbows, puppets almost combust from happiness, and stars shoot out of stuffed guitars and puppets’ heads. Seriously. And, believe it or not, it’s all oddly beautiful and perfect.

Some critics might dismiss Bubblegum as a left-field attempt to break up the perceived sameness of Clinic’s last four records. Nothing could be further from the truth. Clinic never pander to critical trends, and the seeds of their new sound have been planted since Winchester Cathedral’s “Falstaff.” As a whole, Bubblegum rolls forward with ease and grace, supported by deceptively simple song structures and lovely sounds. Sure, certain songs stand out – the aforementioned “I’m Aware,” “Bubblegum,” and “Freemason Waltz” come to mind – but the best way to enjoy this record is from start to finish. Again and again.