The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Monday’s song is #59:
The Electric Light Orchestra – Big Wheels
Towering, watery alienation anthem and centerpiece of the sidelong “Concerto for a Rainy Day” on Out of the Blue, 1977, electric piano on the intro and outro absolutely dripping with angst.
New York noir doesn’t get any better than this. With Big Lazy on the shelf, Mojo Mancini has moved in to take over the role of New York’s most deliciously creepy instrumental group. With allusions to the Doors and Henry Mancini, they’re aptly named, blending a stylish dark rock vibe with equally dark Hollywood atmospherics. Their album is sort of an accident: tenor sax player Rick DePofi, Rosanne Cash bandleader/guitarist John Leventhal, drummer Shawn Pelton, Bob Dylan keyboardist Brian Mitchell and bassist Conrad Korsch would get together and jam just for fun, or to blow off steam between gigs and/or recording dates. Happily, they had the good sense to record these jams, realizing that they had genuine magic on their hands. The arduous task of sifting through the tapes fell to DePofi, a professional recording engineer. This is the result. At one point or another, all the songs here sway to a trip-hop beat – and as dark as a lot of them are, there are also several which are irresistibly funny.
The album opens with a characteristically eerie, David Lynch style wee-hours scenario, Leventhal playing terse, tense jazz lines against Mitchell’s organ swells. Gansevoort, named after the street just off the Westside Highway where the album was recorded (and where bodies were once dumped with regularity) is an echoey trip-hop organ funk groove, part early 70s Herbie Hancock score, part sleek stainless steel club music, part Jimmy McGriff. Just Sit, featuring a sample of poet/activist Jack Hirschman, welds watery 1970-era David Gilmour chorus-box guitar to balmy sax over a laid-back funk groove.
Leventhal turns an expansive, sunbaked guitar solo over to DePofi’s tenor on the pensive Clear Fluids, which then winds it up to a big crescendo. The dub-inflected Peace Plan moves from spacy Rhodes piano to a sparse, Steve Ulrich-style guitar hook. The most Steve Ulrich-inflected number here is Let Us Pray, with its Twilight Zone organ, David Gilmour noir guitar lines and a couple of playfully sacrilegious Lawrence Ferlinghetti samples. There’s also a big sky theme, its disquieting undercurrent evoking Bill Frisell; a cinematic mini-suite with smoky sax that evokes mid-90s REM side project Tuatara; the banjo trip-hop of Long Neck, and the echoey, dubwise Slipper Room with its maze of keyboards and a rousing organ crescendo that segues into the next tune. Play loud, play after dark for best results.
File this under psychedelia. If you’re a fan of the dirtier, more ominous textures an electric guitar can create, an entire ocean of them, the Dither guitar quartet’s new album is for you. This is one of those albums that sounds like it was an awful lot of fun to make, in places moreso than it is to listen to. Incorporating elements of noise-rock, dreampop, guitar jazz, classical and the avant-garde, Dither’s dense, hypnotic, overtone-laden instrumentals are imaginative, clever, sometimes subtly funny, other times flat-out assaultive. The influence of Elliott Sharp (who wrote the album liner notes) is everywhere, as is that of Steve Reich. But this isn’t mere layers of drones: with five different composers (including Dither’s own Joshua Lopes) represented, there’s a wide diversity among the tracks here. From the first few seconds, it’s clear that trying to figure out which of the group’s members – Lopes, Taylor Levine, David Linaburg and James Moore – is playing what is a lost cause, but there’s a consistent dedication to thinking out of the box and just simply having fun.
The opening track, Lainie Fefferman’s Tongue of Torns, is a pretty standard Steve Reich-ish “let’s all play the same A chord for an hour and a half” except that this one has a surprise, a shock to the system about three quarters of the way through. And they do it again, and again. Pantagruel, written by Lopes, is the most overtly jazz-oriented work here, serpentine ascending progresssions intertwined through off-key, tone-warping patches that eventually crash, burn and then fade out a la A Day in the Life. Lisa R. Coons’ suite Cross-Sections is a showcase for the group’s exuberant command of every guitar texture ever invented, weaving hypnotically through skronk, atmospherics, muted plucking, a long siren passage, raptly still atmospherics and good old-fashioned noise. The showstopper here (they played this at Bang on a Can last year) is Eric KM Clark’s ExPAT, written for “as many guitarists as possible.” It’s a hearing-deprivation piece, each guitarist sonically isolated from the rest of the group, wearing headphones blasting white noise so as to throw their timing off. Yet the group is not so easily distracted! Ominous and intense, it’s a pulsing, echoing choir of hell’s bells, very evocative of Louis Andriessen at his most insistently abrasive. And yet, its shifts are extremely subtle, drifting apart but then coming together before another slight divergence.
Dither plays the cd release show on June 12 at the Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen St. in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn on a ridiculously inviting bill, a mini-Bang on a Can marathon of sorts with Redhooker, Kathleen Supové and Nick Didkovsky, Elliott Sharp, Matthew Welch, the Deprivation Orchestra of NY, Loud Objects, Mantra Percussion and Florent Ghys, which for a $6 cover turns out to be less than a dollar a band.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Sunday’s song is #60:
The Jam – Private Hell
The vapidness of idle upperclass life illuminated with surprisingly sympathetic savagery in this punk rock classic from Setting Sons, 1979. Bruce Foxton’s incendiary, crackling bassline is one of the best ever.
This is definitely a team effort, which is what you always want with a band but particularly with a cast of free jazz luminaries like these guys. The fun of this album is akin to improv theatre: everybody has an assigned role, the choicest moments being when the blend – or clash – of personalities results in something combustible or funny. Most, but not all, of the ideas they expand on here are thematic rather than melodic or even rhythmic – in an odd way, it’s a very conversational album, if the conversation itself gets pretty crazy in places. Bandleader/trombonist Steve Swell is the man in the tower – he tells the train when it’s time to go or to hang in the station for awhile. Drummer Klaus Kugel is the gathering storm, always about to rain thunder down on the listener and getting every ounce of suspense out of it since he virtually never does. Bassist Matthew Heyner does the lighting – he’s the guy down the tunnel with the flashlight, which is usually off since the atmospherics he puts into play here are pretty dark. Pianist John Blum gets less time in the spotlight than anyone else here – ironically, he seems to be having the most fun. Reed player Sabir Mateen, alternating between alto and tenor sax, clarinet and alto clarinet, and flute serves as Swell’s sparring partner when he’s not jumping all over the place to keep himself warm and ready for the next volley of notes.
The most coherent cut here, the third track has the bass running a modified latin groove, trombone creating a suspenseful noir mood over a scurrying rhythm section. Mateen eventually shows up and Swell won’t make room for him so he bashes in the door – and then Blum gets involved. And it’s back to the noir. Every now and then, there will be a lull as the band figures out what they’re going to do next, which can be humorous but also very effective as a suspense device: on the album’s opening track, listening to Blum stumble around in the dark, not having the faintest idea of where he is or what to do there, and then finally join in with the drums with a nonchalant robustness, perfectly illustrates the kind of unexpected magic this crew can deliver.
The second track has Heyner hinting at a pensive Middle Eastern mode, fluttery flute contrasting vividly with intense, percussive piano. Kugel absolutely owns the fourth cut, practically fifteen minutes of ominous rumble beneath the squall of the horns. The last number features what might be the quietest section of a drum solo ever recorded, Mateen’s solo following with similar laid-back warmth. The recording enhances the murky vividness of many of these performances – it sounds like it was recorded with a central room mic or two, the piano sometimes a strikingly disembodied, out-of-leftfield presence. It’s out now on Not Two Records.
The concert was billed as something of a wild and crazy night, but it was as much about the strength and intelligence of the playing and the compositions as it was about raw excitement. The Grneta Duo+ dedicate themselves to preserving the dual clarinet tradition, which isn’t as uncommon as it might seem, particularly in eastern Europe. Clarinetist Vasko Dukovski won first prize at the International Woodwind Competition at Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, which in the clarinet world is sort of the equivalent of being named guitarist of the year at jambase. His fellow reedman and Juilliard pal Ismail Lumanovski is one of the world’s foremost improvisers in any style of music, perhaps most notably with the New York Gypsy All-Stars. The “+” in the group is pianist Alexandra Joan, a perfect addition with her edgy intensity, confidently wide-ranging virtuosity and also a degree of gravitas. It’s not hard to imagine her in rehearsal: “C’mon, guys, let’s get serious.” As much as this was an evening of sophisticatedly tongue-in-cheek fun, there were just as many moments of flat-out, riveting power.
The trio opened with Bartok’s Romanian Dances, a suite of fairly simple themes that gave the clarinets plenty of opportunity to playfully blend and bend their tones. Dukovski and Joan would revisit a similar suite, Pablo de Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs later on, Dukovski airing out his upper register boisterously over Joan’s cantabile glimmer. The first of two world premieres, Gerald Cohen’s Grneta Variations very cleverly worked permutations of a cantorial theme (without any particular liturgical connotation, the composer explained beforehand). A recurrent fanfare with the clarinets grew with increasing degrees of disquiet, juxtaposed against a series of increasingly more comedic motifs; Joan handled her score’s tricky rhythms with a nimble aplomb worthy of Dave Brubeck.
Night at the Kafana, by Nicholas Csicsko was premiered by Lumanovski at Carnegie Hall last year. Interpolating several famous Balkan folk themes within a sometimes bracing, sometimes otherworldly architecture, it hinted at a dance, morphed into a big ballad and then a matter-of-factly nail-biting rondo that the duo of Lumanovski and Joan approached with a nonchalantly singleminded intensity.
Lumanovski then went off-program, leading Dukovski in an improvisation that awed the crowd: both clarinetists are Macedonian, so Dukovski was instantly, seemingly intuitively in on his bandmate’s sizzling, rhythmically dizzying flights, eventually moving from providing a pulse to join in the whirlwind of savage chromatic fun. The last two pieces were a study in contasts, Mohammed Fairouz’ Ughiat Mariam (another world premiere) stoically, stately and soulfully expanded on an understatedly brooding Arabic theme, while Serbian clarinetist/composer Ante Grgin’s Hameum Suite became a delightfully counterintuitive dialogue between two very distinct clarinet voices, Dukovski following Lumanovski’s most brilliantly blazing passage of the night with a suave deviousness, as if to say, “uh uh, that’s not how it’s done” and then picking up with the same lightning attack when least expected while Joan anchored the work with an unaffected plaintiveness. She’s a leading advocate of the music of George Enesco, and that influence could be felt strongly here.
Dennis Hopper died today. He was 74. Put aside Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, The Trip, River’s Edge (Feck! What an unbelievable role, huh?) and all the rest for a minute and consider how many drugs the guy did. Just being able to live that long and maintain any degree of lucidity at all, after ingesting as many substances as Hopper did, is an accomplishment in itself. Or maybe that’s what sustained him. That’s not to say that any of us should emulate that kind of lifestyle, but maybe his own chemistry was a match for all those chemicals – or adapted to them. Maybe there was some crazy substance that’s never been isolated yet, maybe that only existed in him, that actually worked to his advantage.
Hopper famously remarked that he wanted to write a book on the ten best drugs for acting. But he never did. So since this is a music blog, in honor of Dennis Hopper, we present our own list of the ten best drugs not for acting but for playing music. In order: cocaine, alcohol, amphetamine, absinthe, hashish, marijuana, phenobarbital, peyote, opium and valium. Honorable mention to two substances that none of the crew here have ever tried: qat (the drug of choice for most Yemeni and Ethopian musicians) and ayahuasca, popular with the great Peruvian chicha bands of the 70s (Juaneco y Su Combo’s “Vacilando con Ayahuasca” is a classic of sorts).
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #61:
Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
Everybody involved swears that Ian Curtis took a Sinatra album or two home and listened to them all night before recording this – and playing guitar on it (it’s in the video!). And as sad as this is, what a fun song to play – check out the covers by all-female accordion ensemble the Main Squeeze Orchestra – or Dresden Dolls spinoff Evelyn Evelyn.