Cameron Mizell is the great pastoral jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell. Like Frisell, he has a laser sense for a catchy hook, a spacious approach to melody, a fondness for the unconventional and a flair for the lurid that occasionally bares its fangs from deep in the shadows. Mizell’s latest album Negative Space – streaming at Destiny Records – is a trio effort with multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters. Mizell is playing the small room at the Rockwood on March 13 at 7 PM.
The album’s opening miniature sets the stage, a brief, resonant Frisell-style tone poem of sorts, just a couple of tersely exploratory guitar tracks and a little cymbal work from Salters. Big Tree takes those hints of unbridled gorgeousness and, to paraphrase Richard Thompson, really brushes those treetops, a series of soul-infused echo phrases. The slowly swaying Yesterday’s Troubles, Mizell’s distorted riffage paired with Whiteley’s echoey Rhodes piano, sounds like Beninghove’s Hangmen covering a set piece from Quincy Jones’ In the Heat of the Night soundtrack.
Likewise, Whiskey for Flowers hints that Mizell’s going to plunge into Marc Ribot noir, but instead hits a warmly vamping pastorale shuffle that builds to an unexpectedly sweet Jerry Garcia-ish peak (it’s inspired by couple-bonding: Mizell’s wife has come to share his appreciation for the hard stuff). By contrast, Take the Humble is a crescendoing funk shuffle that owes more to Booker T than to, say, Scofield, especially when it comes to Whiteley’s organ solo.
Mizell builds a slow burn over Whiteley’s ominously circular Philip Glassine piano phrases on the album’s cinematic centerpiece, Clearing Skies, rising to David Gilmour epic grandeur, Whiteley channeling blues through the prism of REM balladry. Don’t laugh: it works. Likewise, Get It While You Can, a punchier take on the Grateful Dead version of the old folk song Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.
Barter reaches from spare and then expansive Booker T-ish verses toward Pink Floyd grandeur. A Song About a Tree would be a standout track on any Frisell album, a luscious song without words assembled from catchy electrified bluegrass hooks, drifting matter-of-factly further into space. Unfolding has such an odd rhythm – at heart, it’s a reggae anthem – that it almost seems like the drum was a last-minute overdub. The album’s title cut has an ECM feel, Whiteley’s waves of piano building and then receding way too soon: it could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would complain. The final track is part Dark Side of the Moon majesty, part cinematic Ribot menace. Beyond the tunesmithing here, the absence of bass makes this a great practice record.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #681:
Pink Floyd – The Final Cut
While the rest of the world watches the events at Fukushima unfold, we’re going to sneak another Pink Floyd album onto this list. Where armageddon right now looks like a water table saturated with plutonium, Roger Waters – and pretty much everyone else in 1983 – saw the world ending in a deluge of atom bombs. Part murderous response to the fascism of Thatcher and Reagan, part continuation of The Wall to its logical extreme, this was once rated one of the ten most depressing albums of all time by a fashion magazine – reason alone to make it worth owning. The raging hiss of vignettes like The Post War Dream, One of the Few and Get Your Hands Off My Filthy Desert put everything in historical context. It’s hard to imagine a more poignant requiem for lost time than Your Possible Pasts, nor a more plaintive war widow-to-be’s lament than Southhampton Dock. The Hero’s Return is beyond sarcastic; The Gunner’s Dream floats cruelly down to end in a fatal plane crash. And The Fletcher Memorial Home is a musical death warrant for some of the era’s evillest despots, among them Thatcher, Brezhnev and Begin. The gorgeously quiet, completely apt piano ballad Paranoid Eyes and the sweeping, epic grandeur of the title track complete the picture along with the sludgy metal anthem Not Now John (a big FM radio hit) and the rhythmically tricky, pensive end-of-the-world tableau Two Suns in the Sunset. Antiwar songs have seldom been more powerful. Here’s a random torrent.
Trying to follow up a classic is inevitably a thankless task. What do you do after you’ve recorded your Dark Side of the Moon, written your Foundation trilogy or painted your Starry Night? Conventional wisdom is that it’s time to move on, completely shift gears, flip the script and defy comparisons with your masterpiece, even if it might need a concluding chapter. Veteran California art-rock band 17 Pygmies have taken the hard road with their new album CII: Second Son, a sequel to their 2008 tour de force Celestina. That album, based on a short story about love and betrayal in outer space by guitarist/bandleader Jackson Del Rey, is a lavish, majestic, cruelly beautiful song cycle (we picked it as one of the 1000 best albums of all time). This one is similar, right down to the elegant silver packaging, but it’s more of an instrumental suite, sort of like Twin Peaks in outer space. Again, it’s based on a Del Rey short story, a twisted, Rod Serling-style cliffhanger included in the cd booklet. If the plot is to be taken on face value, heaven is autotuned: which makes it…what? You figure it out.
The opening instrumental sets the stage. It’s a retro 50s noir pop theme done as lushly orchestrated space rock, Angelo Badalamenti meets ELO at their eeriest circa 1980. With layers of guitar synthesizer, electric piano and string synth, it’s a lush, hypnotic wash of sound. They follow it with the first of only two vocal numbers, a 6/8 ballad sung with quietly menacing relish by keyboardist Meg Maryatt (who thankfully is not autotuned) which illustrates the story, that she’s landed in a place that’s too good to be true. Richly interwoven themes and textures follow: creepy music box electric piano, an ominous March of the Robots, backward masking, mellotron, pulsing waves of sound and a mantra of “shut down this process” that repeats again and again.
A variation on the ballad emerges from a long, hypnotic vamp: “There’s a hole in the sky,” Maryatt intones, spellbound, and then the strings go totally Hitchcock, fluttering with horror. “The sky, cold to the sight…” White noise echoes; an offcenter piano waltz, disjointedly disquieting synthy interlude and something of an operatic crescendo with a spooky choir give way to distant, starlit piano that morphs unexpectedly into a methodical, slightly funky Atomheart Mother-style art-rock vamp with distorted guitar and organ. They leave it there on an unfinished note. On one level, it’s a pity all this grandeur and suspense has such a hard act to follow. On the other hand, as lush, unselfconsciously beautiful psychedelia, it stands on its own. And as Del Rey has made pretty clear, this story isn’t over yet: if this is Foundation and Empire, we have what will hopefully be his Second Foundation to look forward to at some future time. It’s out now on Trakwerx.
Much as there are innumerable great things happening in what’s become known as “indie classical,” there’s also an annoyingly precious substratum in the scene that rears its self-absorbed little head from time to time. Newspeak’s new album Sweet Light Crude is the antidote to that: you could call this punk classical. Fearlessly aware, insightfully political, resolutely defiant, it’s a somewhat subtler counterpart to the work of Joe Strummer, Bob Marley and Marcel Khalife even if it doesn’t sound like any of them. Sometimes raw and starkly intense, other times lushly atmospheric, this new music supergroup of sorts includes bandleader David T. Little on drums, Caleb Burhans on violin, Mellissa Hughes on vocals, James Johnston on keys, Taylor Levine (of hypnotic guitar quartet Dither) on electric guitar, Eileen Mack on clarinets, Brian Snow on cello and Yuri Yamashita on percussion.
The first track is Oscar Bettison’s B&E (with Aggravated Assault), a swinging, percussive Mingus-esque theme set to a blustery trip-hop rhythm with a noir organ break, and pummeling drums as it reaches an out-of-breath crescendo at the end. Stefan Wiseman’s I Would Prefer Not To – inspired by Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, master of tactful disobedience – builds from austerity to another trip-hop vamp, Mack’s plaintive melody and Hughes’ deadpan, operatically-tinged vocals overhead. From there they segue into Little’s title track – essentially, this one’s about Stockholm Syndrome, a love song to a repressive addiction. As before, this one starts out plaintively, builds to a swirl and then a disco beat over which Hughes soars passionately. It’s as funny and over-the-top as it is disconcerting, and the big, booming rock crescendo with its cello chords, distorted guitar, strings and winds fluttering overhead leaves no doubt what the price of this addiction is.
Missy Mazzoli’s In Spite of All This holds to the hypnotic, richly interwoven style of her work with her mesmerizingly atmospheric band Victoire. Violin swoops and dives gently introduce wounded guitar-and-piano latticework, which extrapolates with a characteristically crystalline, unselfconsciously epic sweep as one texture after another enters the picture, only to leave gracefully to make room for another. Brenschluss (the German term for the tip of a ballistic missile), by Pat Muchmore alternates apprehensive, spoken-word passages evoking early Patti Smith or recent Sarah Mucho with tense atmospherics, overtone-spewing metal guitar and a tricky art-rock string arrangement that builds to a conclusion that is…pretty much what you’d expect it to be. The album closes with Burhans’ Requiem for a General Motors in Janesville, WI, a long, cinematically evocative, extremely Lynchian composition that seems to be modeled on Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. As it picks up with slide guitar, vocalese, and dramatic drum crashes, it could be Pink Floyd’s Any Colour You Like for the 21st Century – although that would be Requiem for a Ford Plant in…probably somewhere in Mexico. The album’s out on New Amsterdam Records on Nov 16; Newspeak play the cd release show for this one this Sunday, Nov 14 at Littlefield at around 9. If the album is any indication, it could be amazing.
We’re officially on vacation, so this week’s additions to the 1000 best albums of all time are ones previously featured in our three years’ existence. Over that time, we’ve found out that discovering a classic album is 10% being able to spot it for what it is, and 90% simply the dumb luck of knowing that it exists at all. Tuesday’s album is a prime example:
In their practically thirty-year existence, 17 Pygmies have played quirky new wave, postpunk, ambient soundscapes and artsy, Fairport Convention style folk-rock. This is their masterpiece, an eleven-part symphonic rock suite about love and betrayal in space based on a short story written by bandleader/guitarist Jackson Del Rey. A theme and variations, its rich, icy layers of guitars and synthesized orchestration fade in and out of the mix, alternately hypnotic and jarring, with echoes of Pink Floyd, the Church, the Cocteau Twins, and echoing in the distance, Del Rey’s pioneering noise-instrumental band Savage Republic. Its centerpiece is a menacing, droning twelve-minute feedback instrumental punctuated by bassist Meg Maryatt’s gorgeously melodic, ruthless riffage. A major rediscovery waiting to happen: released on Trakwerx in 2008, it’s still available.
Every day, for about the next six weeks anyway, our best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #41:
Pink Floyd – Your Possible Pasts
As poignant a requiem for lost time, and various tortured pasts, as has ever been written, Michael Kamen’s piano stark and plaintive against and all the railroad siding sound effects:
They flutter behind you, the banners and flags
Of your possible pasts lie in tatters and rags
From the brilliant and vastly underrated Final Cut album, 1983.
Haunting and hypnotic, Thomas Simon’s new album is a suite of eerie, mostly instrumental soundscapes evoking both Syd Barrett and David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd as well as Bauhaus and, when the ghostly melody begins to take a recognizable shape, Australian psychedelic legends the Church. Incorporating elements of minimalism, sci-fi and horror film scores as well as goth music and oldschool art-rock, it’s an ominous treat for the ears. Over a murky wash of drones, Thomas’ guitar rings, clangs and occasionally roars, moving in and through and then out of a swirling sonic whirlpool, frequently churning with both live and looped percussion. The reliably brilliant Dave Eggar adds layers of cello in the same vein: a flourish here and there and tantalizing snatches of melody that inevitably give way to dark atmospherics.
The title track is much like what Pink Floyd was going for on One of These Days – a staggered, swaying drumbeat, a series of low drones swooping and out of the mix and a forest of minimalist reverb guitar accents. Simon will pull off a hammer-on quickly, or add a silvery flash of vibrato a la David Gilmour – and then send the lick whirling over and over again into the abyss. The second movement, In the Middle of Nowhere, sets a distantly nightmarish scene – a tritone echoes in the background, fading up and back down as the guitar moves ominously and modally around the tonic – and then the cello leads the drums in, and the headless horsemen are off with a gallop. They bring it down to that macabre tritone hook, then bring it up, then back down again for over fifteen minutes.
The third movement works a simple descending hook over a trip-hop loop, sparse piano over washes of guitar noise. Up Against the Wall is a maze of backward masking and disembodied textures, sort of a synthesis of tracks one and three. They take it down and then out with stately yet raw guitar. The closest thing to a coherent song here, Altered Planet evokes the Church with its washes of cello and guitar: “Where we going, we need somewhere to hide” becomes “Where are you going, there’s nowhere to hide,” sirens appearing and then fading out before the guitar finally takes it up in a blaze of distortion. Somewhere there is an epic, dystopic film that needs this for its score. Maybe it hasn’t been made yet. Simon’s sonic palette is actually far more diverse than this album might indicate – his live shows can be very lively. Thomas Simon plays Small Beast upstairs at the Delancey on June 14 at around 9.
One of the challenges of writing about music is to be quick enough to spot a genuine classic when it appears. This is one of them. Raw yet ornate, ferocious yet intricate, Norden Bombsight’s debut album Pinto hails back to the early 70s but adds a snarling, desperate punk edge that’s uniquely their own. It’s sort of the missing link between Pink Floyd and Joy Division. It’s art-rock, but it’s not prog; it boils over with anguished intensity, but it’s not goth. The current band they most closely resemble is New York gypsy-punk-art-rockers Botanica. Guitarist David Marshall plays with a raw, vintage 70s tone that enhances his unhinged, fiery attack on the strings over the nimble, melodic, shapeshifting rhythm section of Jonathan Gundel on bass, Julian Morello on drums and Derrick Barnicoat on percussion, loops and processing. Frontwoman Rachael Bell holds down centerstage with a savagely beautiful, wounded wail, adding starkly eerie keyboard textures as well as incisive mandolin. Norden Bombsight’s lyrics match their music, fragmented, ominous and disquieting. This is an after-dark album, one that resonates best by the light of a distant streetlight, or no light at all.
Like a vinyl record, it has a side one and a side two, each of them a suite. Side one opens with a dark, stately three-chord progression, the backup alarm on a garbage truck screeching evil, mechanical and assaultive in the distance, building to a desperate gallop and eventually back again, evoking late 70s noir art-rock cult favorites the Doctors of Madness. The song segues into Four on the Lawn, a feedback loop fading up to Bell’s accusative, Siouxsie-esque vocals over a reverberating, swaying march, burning David Gilmour-esque guitar chords against upper-register piano. Another segue takes them to Help Desk, noir cabaret as Procol Harum might have done it, Bell’s organ and then electric piano holding gentle but firm against the stately punch of the guitars, which finally cut loose in a forest of wild tremolo picking at the end.
Side two begins with a pretty lullaby for solo electric guitar, followed by the towering, 6/8 anthem The Raven. “You won’t have my yellow hair/Lay me down to rest/You left me there,” Bell laments. “I’ll never get you back to the town of West Haven” – whatever that means. Marshall’s reverb-drenched tremolo guitar climbs with an unleashed fury, and then back down again into Snakes, which with its staggered, tango-ish beat and southwestern gothic ambience reminds of the Walkabouts. The band brings it up, then down again, into the scorching Nektar-style stomp of Altercation, shifting time signatures unexpectedly into a wild, circular organ-and-guitar-fueled jam straight out of Remember the Future, and an unexpectedly funky outro. Catchy and resolutely swaying, Virgil evokes the Grateful Dead, but not so grateful now that they’re in Hades: “Virgil, you’re out of your jurisdiction, now you’re just another man with a gun,” snarls Marshall. The album ends with its most overtly Pink Floyd-influenced number, slide guitar blasting like an August sunset over blacktop. And then it stops cold.
As intense as this album is, Norden Bombsight are even better live. They play Matchless tonight at eleven; watch this space for future shows.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Thursday’s song was #119:
Pink Floyd – Paranoid Eyes
Quiet, understated, picture-perfect alienation ballad from the vastly underrated Final Cut album, 1983. That’s Michael Kamen on subtle, tasteful gospel-infused piano.
And today’s song is #118:
Elvis Costello – Ghost Train
The Nathanael West-tinged tale of Maureen and Stan, two showbiz wannabes destined to fail, maybe spectacularly, right from the song’s first watery, swaying guitar chords, Bruce Thomas’ bass filtered to make it sound like a tuba. Another classic track from Taking Liberties, 1981.