Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Y Is a Crooked Letter

Noise rock can save the world. Not "noise"; noise rock. My thing is, why isn't everyone just super into noise rock? Why don't all the bands play noise rock?

Noise rock is like punk minus the punk, plus metal, minus the metal, plus rock, minus the guitar solos, plus noise, but like, the sound noise, not the genre "noise". It's all riffs, all structure, lots of melody, delivered exuberantly, with lyrics heavy on the absurd and clever, buried under the instruments so you can hear that there's goofy ecstatic voice but you can't tell what it's saying. No guitar solos, ever. No jamming, all compositions planned. Lots of yelling. Sometimes instead of songs it's just crazy awesome-sounding experiments like banging on stuff or making animal noises - usually that's just the breaks in between the songs to put you in the world.

I know, right? It's perfect. No annoying poetry, no hippy jazz, no telling you what to do, no brooding. Just joy. It's like playground music.

Yes. This is, in fact, a genre. It's not just one awesome band. It's a whole genre, and it's called noise rock, at least that's what I always call it - there's never been a clear consensus on what to call it and no one's even sure it's actually a genre and there's not usually a scene of bands doing it, cause instead it's usually just a few bands that hang around in a sea of punk and metal and other underground-ness, cause I guess most people prefer, you know, "musicianship" in the form of, like, poetic-sounding, non-absurd lyrics that you can hear over the music, guitar solos that showcase your ability to mindfully participate in a jazz-like collective making of music, and like, I dunno, being told what to do. And brooding. And metal. Angry, crunchy riffs. And smooth, funky beats, and butter voices silkily sexing your mind.

Well, I do like that last bit. Maybe noise rock can save the world, with the help of R&B. Also I like rapping sometimes. And pretty songs played on cellos and stuff. And symphonic music, so long as no one's singing all opera style over it. Sorry, digression.

What I mean is, this post here, it's about noise rock. Noise rockers don't have a costume, except for band T-shirts of bands like Ponytail, and they don't have a hair style, except "unkempt", and they don't really piss anyone off, except maybe punk rockers occasionally, and their parents. Noise rock is this awesome perfect thing in the negative space between well-defined movements.

Sometimes I forget it, what with all the music archiving and multiculturalism and inclusivity I'm trying to achieve through my records, but damn, just damn. The best bands are always the noise rock bands, always and forever. Mae Shi, Melt-Banana, Lightning Bolt, Deerhoof. It just doesn't get any better! For real, y'all.

The Lowdown are as noise rock as it gets and I'm super psyched Frances picked out this CD Y Is a Crooked Letter (yo that's a listen or buy link y'all, you know what to do) by them cause I hadn't listened to it in forever and it's so freaking awesome. They have a shitty sounding keyboard that anchors every song with a catchy riff, a hysterical male singer who sounds like a female half the time, bashy bashy drums, and a blanket of noise over everything. They play medium fast. Every once in a while there's a song that's just them chanting some nonsense or banging on something, instead of being a song. They sing this:

This ain't no fuck you revolution
This ain't no bullshit solution
This ain't no fuck you revolution
This ain't no final conclusion

And this:

Before metaphor, we swept irony out the door
Now we hide, our rides have all left & left us behind
Our egos born, we try to pin our balloons down to the ground
Present, future, past, we're left clinging to the mast
Whoa, the storm, desperately we grasp form
We're not lost! Everything that surrounds us is right there...

And you can listen to the CD a million times and still never make those words out cause of all the noise and the freaky chirping wails the dude does instead of singing.

It opens with harmony ooooing directly copped from the maybe best band ever in the whole world, Monoshock, who ruled the Bay Area five years before the Lowdown came up. Monoshock was more of a psych band. I'm kinda wary of these modern psych bands, Boris and Purling Hiss and Birds of Maya and stuff, cause even though it's loud and leviathan, they kinda rely on repetition and, yeah, guitar solos, which puts me to sleep after a while, and is just a little bit hippyish. Sorry y'all. But Monoshock, different story. They were like a noise rock psych band.

Wait why am I talking about psych? Oh yeah so there's this little Monoshock nod on the Lowdown CD, and also this one guy from Lowdown is in one of the biggest psych bands from the aughts, Comets on Fire. I guess that's a pretty good band, but I'm gonna play this Lowdown CD a lot more. That's just me.

Noise rock. Save the world. How? Joy, exuberance, for one thing. Keeping your brain active, for another. Meaning through inference, artful implication. Obliqueness. Don't say it, spray it!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Dog's World

Did you know? Mondo Cane, its sequel Mondo Cane #2, and the "mondo" genre they spawned were all about
white folks gawking at the titillating practices of brown folks normal Americans examining the fascinating customs of other cultures. Way to be, swinging Sixties! It sure is a dog's world.

Picture this - a disc jockey visiting the Big Apple from the sleepy, provincial City of Brotherly Love. I stopped into the office of Creed Taylor, of MGM-Verve, to meet him. The talk got right into music - of all things. Creed was trying to analyze the mysterious alchemy that had made Kai Winding's More such a pop smash. The message I delivered as a representative of the nation's D.J.'s and their audiences was simply, "Give us the most powerfully arranged waxings you can of that unfathomable element of music - pure melody."

The public demanded powerfully arranged waxings; this was the mysterious alchemy. This and pure melody. Nothing too taxing, please.

Kai Winding? Kai Swinging is more like it! He was a cheezy jazz trombonist, but here he gels the pop mostly with sweet, sweet Ondioline, which swings kinda like a Vox Continental or a Farfisa, but is more, um, piercing and subtly nightmarish? Like a carefree day at the amusement park, or bubblegum.

It doesn't get any more cartoonishly Bob-Newhart-straightening-his-tie than this, folks. This and a short rainbow horizontal striped dress and some high boots and the phrase "a-go-go" and a manhattan are all you need. I guess you also need a nice wooden bar in your basement and some shagg.

You think you need shagg, but you don't need shagg. No one needs shagg. Bugs'll eat it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Peaceable Kingdom

I have two recordings of Randall Thompson's The Peaceable Kingdom. One is by the San Jose State College A Cappella Choir conducted by William Erlendson, and appears to be from about 1956. This review from 1958 is by someone who apparently can't stand the piece (the snippet tantalizes with disdain: "...the less said the better. It sounds for all the world like the sort of stuff church organists write for each other by the yard. Incredibly awkward, stilted..."). The other is by the Whikehart Chorale, conducted by Lewis E. Whikehart, about 1965.

Thompson's text for the oratorio is taken entirely from the book of Isaiah. It dramatizes the choice of path. You can choose iniquity or righteousness, and you will be rewarded according to your choice. As George Clinton said, Good thoughts bring forth good fruit, bullshit thoughts rot your meat.

Here's what you should do: say to the righteous that it shall be well with him. (Make sure it's a man.) They will eat the fruit of their doing. Don't bother talking to the wicked, because they will be sorry. The reward of his (remember, it's only men we're talking about here) hand will be given to him. Look at my servant: he'll sing, he's so psyched. You, on the other hand, will cry and howl because you're fucked. Serve.

Who's wicked? Partiers and smug fucks, apparently. Them who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight. Them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, that continue till night, till wine inflame them. And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine are in their feasts. They think they're pretty smart now, but will they laugh so loud when they're anally raped by giant scorpions for eternity?

The stuff that's bound to happen to the wicked people sounds an awful lot like what happens to people when other people disagree with them on points of ideology, theology, and/or resource distribution. Everyone that is found shall be thrust through. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes. Their houses shall be spoiled and their wives ravished. (Remember, only men can be wicked - ladies, make sure you don't marry a wicked man or you'll get ravished. Either way I suppose you'll burn in the lake of fire, you know, cause of Eve, but at least if you marry a righteous man you can avoid the rape on earth.)

Drink their blood. It's ok, they were on the wrong path. You know you want their blood.

When you hear a police siren, are you like, "Thank god, they are upholding the law," or are you like, "Oh shit, throw that out the window!"? As it happens, the day I'm writing this, a friend is telling me how he picked up the "legendary" Coven record Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls. Coven, who kinda sound like a goth Jefferson Airplane, are famous for having a song called "Black Sabbath" a year before Black Sabbath's first record came out, and for having a dude named Oz Osborne in the band (not the same guy), and for getting their record pulled due to controversy about connections between the counterculture and the occult.

Choose your path. Witchcraft destroys minds and reaps souls. Sin makes it hard to contribute. If you're on the drugs you're not working. If you're not working, the harvest will rot on the tree. Pollute your body and you pollute the body of mankind (again, ladies, you're not part of this. You can go on and get back to your washing now).

The baby boomers were like, fuck that noise. We're gonna do what we want. They did all kinds of drugs and sin and went on to complete dominance of the cultural conversation for half a century. Rock revolution ended the war, liberated consciousness, and ushered in tolerance and humanity. Thank god for those hippies and their class and race privilege that allowed them to go down the sin party path and still enact civil rights and women's liberation. Thank god they only ever used their cultural power for good, and thank god that from their position at the pinnacle of cultural power they figured out how to protect their own money and interests so their values would propagate through the generations. They reached across the generations with their message of love and hope. Thank god they ended war. Thank god they ended racism. Thank god that money isn't fast replacing whatever used to be called humanity.

Symbolic capital.

In the new world, the ones with privilege don't have a harvest to reap. The new world figured out resource distribution. Technology makes things take less time, like travel and communication. More time to do drugs. The old world rules as a code of practical conduct are less relevant when the new world makes you a god. Now, from your godly position, you can exploit technology, pay less for more, and blame the outcast for their sloth.

Decisions are hard. Drugs, money, rape, power, privilege.

Ok so now that I blamed the baby boomers for everything, back to the music. Thompson's Handel-y runs and beautiful, crowd-pleasing counterpoint sections butt up against clangs of dissonance and jerky shouts, which are also crowd-pleasing. He mixes the old world and the new but never gives up the pop sensibility. Didn't he know no one was supposed to be doing that shit in 1935 Harvard Tanglewood world? Pick your dogma: twelve tone or neoclassical. What's all this free style mixing? It's like he thought it was 1975 or something.

You'll never find a recording of The Peaceable Kingdom whose cover isn't this wackadoo painting of the same name by Edward Hicks. That's because the painting inspired the piece, as noted in this 2001 Harvard Magazine biography by Elliot Forbes:

That summer [1935] the Worcester Art Museum acquired a version of The Peaceable Kingdom by the American primitive painter Edward Hicks. Thompson went to view the painting and became aglow not only with what he saw but also with the biblical passage portrayed (Isaiah, 11:6-9), which ends: "For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." Like Hicks, Thompson was drawn to the theme that the wicked will be destroyed and the good will go to heaven.

What a humdinger, that painting. Actually, Hicks made tons of versions of it. In this amazing criticism by John Braostoski, I learned that Hicks (who had followers called "Hicksites"!) was passionate about the damage that the material world could inflict on the human spirit, but ultimately identified the struggle for peace as an inner one. Peace. Decisions.

I face a choice between two recordings of the Thompson piece. In the Erlendson, they have that annoying fake British accent that choral groups do, roll their R's, and generally attack the piece with a block-headedness that feels, yes, smug and self-righteous. They know who's on their side, and they know the answer. The Whikehart abounds with juicy nuance and delicious dynamics. They sing without affect. They are asking the question.

Contemplate your choices. As you do so, look at these anime avatars singing Thompson's most famous piece, "Alleluia", in little computer voices. Relax, it's gonna be ok.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Each day I'm trying to grab onto another recorded experience. It's a constant re-validation of my own choices. I make notes on the records so the me of 2053, or the record collector who gets my records, or my future biographer, will know what I thought in that precious 45-minute window when the record commanded my full attention. These little time expenditures are constant mirrors whereby I re-evaluate my relationship with the world.

Lee Michaels is pretty. His lion's mane frames a delicate face atop a lanky figure. The other guy in the band is "Frosty", a big awesome dude. Lee sings and plays organ, piano, and bass; Frosty makes huge funk beats, and someone named Drake Levin plays guitar.

First I was bummed out that it was "blues-rock". Then I was still bummed about that. I played through the pain and it's been worth my time. I'm feeling mellow and chill. The nice sounds sound nice. The voice deepens a little. Little hooks come out and say hey. Shimmering organ says, hey man, come on in, the water's warm. There's a cajuny accordion on the last song.

For the cover, we get Lee and Frosty chilling in the mellow natural hewn wood studio. Frosty's got a cig and he's holding it like a joint. Yeah, man. Right on. They're surrounded by instruments, cause, man, we're musicians, you dig? On the inside of the gatefold we get lots more pics of Lee and Frosty hangin' out in this totally chill forest. It's probably a redwood forest cause, California, you know? In one they're like, just sitting with a bunch of trees. In a few others they're on this totally nice deck. There's one on the deck where Lee's chilling with these two leopards.

Leopards? Whoa. Right on.

Frances said they were cheetahs, so maybe they're cheetahs. She wasn't surprised at all to see them there.

Back to the time slippin' into the future. Lee covers the Bobby Womack song "Games" on this record: "Just give me games to play, and I'll be happy for another day." If you are doing it right (or wrong, or even just "doing it" at all) then you'll make something. Do it with your mind fully engaged in the present. What's the value of the product? I didn't enjoy this record at first, now I love it. Some records I never love.

Lee's voice is full of emotion and soul, deep and gravelly on one side and high and delicate on the other. He produces funky, warm, comfortable arrangements of his occasionally topical, always direct songs. My favorite track on the record is the first one, "Mad Dog", which Allmusic's Matthew Greenwald says has a funky backdrop driven by some things that give it a funky backdrop. Apparently it's about the pigs busting the hippies with excessive force, but I would have never picked that up. I usually have a hard time hearing lyrics - I tend to focus more on the tune and the way it's sung; I hear "Mad dog mad dog, blah da blah da blah da blues rock". After I read that song review I re-listened twice and my mind still drifted away, but I did hear him say something about a "license to kill" in the last verse.

C.T.F.O. Every minute has value if you let it.