Laurie Anderson, Big Science (Warner Bros., 1982)
Laurie Anderson, Home of the Brave Soundtrack (Warner Bros. 1986)

I’ve been trying, and failing, to pinpoint when I discovered Laurie Anderson. But I owned Big Science, on cassette, in junior high school — meaning that, by 12, I cared enough about her to plunk down allowance money for her music. (That cassette got played so much it wore out, and was replaced by a CD in college; when that came up missing after our move to NC, I bought this vinyl copy at Nice Price Books in Carrboro, along with the Home of the Brave soundtrack.)

That memory search highlighted something about my early musical awakening that is, objectively, maybe kind of odd. By the time I was in junior high, I was already aware of, and genuinely liked, music by John Cage, Harry Partch, Morton Feldman, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, and other avant-gardists. I discovered their work on LPs at the Waynesboro (VA) public library. I also have a distinct recollection of watching excerpts of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach on our local PBS station — and that would’ve been even earlier, like when I was 9 or 10.

The point of that? (a) Public cultural institutions had a profound impact on the growing mind of this rural mountain boy, and (b) I’d directly attribute my worldview to that early exposure. (Which sounds a little like a pitch to make a donation. Fine — given the current regime’s blatant disregard for them, all the more reason to step up.)

Oh — the records. Big Science is a masterpiece of restraint, of minimal means used to maximal effect, of tiny non-sequiturs and repetitive motives combining into rich, emotive expression that sucker-punches you when you’re least expecting it. You already know that — and if you don’t, well, anything else I could say by way of description would not convince you, so you should just listen for yourself. The soundtrack to Home of the Brave has a few great moments, but is overall pretty weak, a result of divorcing these songs from their intended context (live, with a full multimedia staging) — so the concert film is the way to go.

You were born. And so you’re free. So happy birthday.

(No full album link for Big Science on YouTube. Just buy it already; Laurie Anderson’s more than earned your money. But obligatory feed of “O Superman (for Massenet),” plus the Home of the Brave concert film, below.)


Oh boy oh boy oh boy, this thing is a MONSTER. It could not possibly hit more of my musical pleasure spots. Loud guitars, by turns dissonant and sweet? Check. Unusual root progressions and melodic bass? Check. Each song a mini-epic with strange but perfect little tempo changes and digressions? Check. Everything cranked up in the mix to saturate the stereo field and nearly drown out the screamy but still-melodious vocals? Hell yes. This record made me weep the first time I heard it, and it still does. Seriously: IT IS SO SO SO GOOD.

One of the many, many things that makes it work has to reside in the tension between (a) what are really, truly, objectively silly/pretentious/overwrought lyrics and (b) the absolute commitment with which they’re delivered. The insert’s artwork is evocative of  nothing so much as the darker passages of an artistically-inclined outsider’s high-school journal.

I guess what I’m getting at is that this record is like the internal soundtrack of the teenage brain — obsessive, romantic, frequently inarticulate, occasionally tortured, often wide-eyed with wonder. That is a precarious aesthetic line to walk, and given how many bands have tried and failed, Trail of Dead’s successful navigation of said is totally remarkable.

Damn it. It’s great.


  1. I have mostly avoided listening to any other albums by this band. (I did briefly own the preceding album, Madonna (Merge, 1999), but I can’t remember much about it.) This is on purpose, because there are many things about their approach that could go so, SO wrong, and I don’t want to see this group as anything other than perfect, in this one burst of expression from 2001-2. That is admittedly weird — and I don’t know of any other musician/artist about whom I feel that way — but let me live with my idiosyncrasies, thx.
  2. Interesting, kind of, to think about the timing of this release, which was right after music journalists had all decided for the umpteenth time that rock was dead, and just before the post-punk revival (Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, etc.) — i.e., as a seemingly isolated little record, outside of any contemporary trend/movement I can recall.

AMM: AMMMusic 1966 (ReR Megacorp/Matchless Recordings, 1989)

Free improvisation is a tricky thing. When done well, really magical things can transpire, which wouldn’t be possible in any other context. When done poorly, the experience (for both performers and audiences) can range from self-indulgent wankery to total boredom. And in my experience, there’s little way to control on which side of the spectrum the session’s gonna fall — which is totally okay, but demands a degree of tolerance and openness to failure that’s outside the norms for most other forms of musical expressions.

AMM were, if not the first, then definitely one of the earliest proponents of free improvisation in the strictest sense — that is, sounds produced by instruments without any reference to other kinds of music, formal constraints, harmonic systems, etc. This disc collects recordings made in June 1966 by the quintet version of the group: original members Lou Gare, Eddie Prévost, and Keith Rowe, plus Cornelius Cardew and Lawrence Sheaff. That first trio was involved with bop and avant-garde jazz, and there’s still some evidence of that — the second half of “After Rapidly Circling the Plaza” features saxophone and clarinet skronk that evokes Albert Ayler et al. For the most part, though, there’s really no ready reference point for the sounds and interaction here — it’s capturing a group of players pretty much inventing a new model for making music together. Opening track “Later During a Flaming Riviera Sunset” is, for me, the most successful expression of the AMM aesthetic — transistor-radio transmissions and woodwind squeals punctuate of a texture that’s painted thick with prepared electric-guitar and piano rumbling, cello scrapes, and scattershot percussion. Other points are not so great, but again, that’s part of the game — and ultimately, my response to this (and some other free improv) is less about “like”/“dislike” than about appreciating the seriousness of intent AND digging on how it sort of forces me to reevaluate assumptions about how music “should” work/be made/sound. THAT I definitely like.


  1. I haven’t checked in on Keith Rowe for a while — I should, as (a) his tabletop approach to guitar made such an impact on me, and (b) I hear he’s doing very cool but different things these days.
  2. Reread Cardew’s writings from his post-AMM period — cannot remember at present what/if he wrote about the experience of playing in AMM and how it impacted his compositional development.
  3. Improvise, as often as possible.


One of only two albums by the late American electroacoustic composer. Maryanne Amacher was mainly preoccupied with the unique aural characteristics of spaces (i.e., site-specific sound installations), but she also worked with the stimulation of “otoacoustic emissions” — that is, creating and combining sounds in such a way that, when played back over loudspeakers, the listener’s inner ears actually produce other sounds in response. (This really is a thing.)

Four of the pieces here illustrate that latter phenomenon, and it is weird and amazing. At a low volume, they sound like little music boxes, with high, interlocking metallic tones… but bump the level up just a bit, and your ears start acting like little speakers. It’s almost as though tiny invisible speakers are floating around your head, pumping out different sounds than the ones coming out of your stereo. Probably the most effective of these pieces is “Chorale I,” where the recorded music is made up of slow patterns of different durations (but with a common pulse), which gradually go in and out of phase with each other, and which are simultaneously subjected to a continuous, linear changes in relative balance and equalization; the sounds “out of my ears” change in unpredictable ways throughout its duration, creating a kind of antiphonal relationship between me and my stereo. COOL!!!

The other tracks are stereo reworkings of what Amacher calls “sound characters” from her installations. Rather than just reproduce the original work (which usually involved multiple channels and unusual speaker arrangements) or recordings from the installations in situ, she’s sort of reimagined them in a way that’s more suited to the context of a CD being played over a stereo. Seemingly static, they work much like a sculpture in a gallery; as you move around the gallery (or your listening environment), they reveal different facets and textures (visual or aural). In other words, they kind of demand motion on the listener’s part, which is a neat idea (to me, anyway). The final track (“A Step Into It, Imagining 1000 Years”) is drawn from an installation she made in the Krems Minoritenkirche; with drones that evoke male voices, it definitely evokes the atmosphere of an 11th-century church.


  1. Remembering how in grad school I engaged in several lengthy and impassioned arguments over the delineation between “sound art” and “music.” Still don’t have an answer for that, though mostly because I’ve come to believe it’s a distinction more meaningful to grant agencies than to artists (i.e., I don’t care to make the distinction myself).
  2. Interesting document of a time when listening to long-form albums over stereo speakers was the norm, and you could kind of expect folks to “hear” the work in the intended way without much effort (beyond the directive to not use headphones). (Read: I’m including a link to the album below for consistency, but unless you hook yr device up to an amp & speakers, you’re not gonna understand this at all.)
  3. Finish up that grant application for your own piece on Appalachian sounds.


I have no idea how this record landed in my collection, though I have a couple of cloudy memories of putting it on during the later hours of parties during grad school — so I’ve had it for a while. I’d wager money on it having been in at least a few of my fellow record geeks’ collections as well…

This is one of this iconic artifacts of mid-60s American popular culture — not the “cool” part (beatniks, pre-Summer-of-Love, Stax-Volt, Beatlemania, etc.), but the prosperous, stable, suburban middle-class part. Like, this totally would’ve been on the hifi at every cocktail party in every mid-century modern ranch house in ’65, probably paired with Les Baxter et al.

The album cover’s timeless, of course. The music? Eh. 12 instrumental takes on food-related popular songs of the era, with an approach to arrangement best described as “entirely inoffensive.” (The “strip-tease” version of “Love Potion #9” comes closest to shaking off the doldrums, but fails.) The extent to which it’s “Mexican” is roughly that to which John Mayer could be called “blues,” or Dave Matthews could be called “rock” — i.e., a half-hearted and pasty white facsimile thereof. It’s really hard to imagine many people enjoying this in a non-ironic way at any point after its original release.

But hey: it sold several million copies and hit #1 on several of the US charts in ’65. And as background noise, it’s no worse than average. So.


  1. Wonder where this fits into the spectrum of the “exotica” movement (Les Baxter, Martin Denny, etc.). Haven’t listened to any of that for some time, though I remember some of it being sort of fascinating in a cultural-tourism kind of way. (Dig up Tim Taylor’s and David Toop’s books on exotica — and didn’t Thomas Frank dig into this in The Conquest of Cool?)
  2. Would maybe also be interesting to research whether any of the ‘90s swing-revival artists name-checked Alpert as an influence.

ALL VIRGOS ARE MAD (4AD, 1994) [compilation]

A 14th-anniversary (?!?) collection of at-the-time unreleased cuts by some of the better-known acts on the label’s mid-90s roster. I’m a lifelong fan of 4AD, having been turned on in my teens. With a knack for spotting and signing the coolest, most laden-with-mystery art-pop bands of the 80s (Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Xymox, Pixies, Throwing Muses, etc., etc., etc.), plus an in-house design team with an eye toward creating beautiful, must-own products, they could pretty much do no wrong for me…

Until the 1990s, that is. Correlating with their expansion from London to a second office in LA, this comp captures what, for me, was a serious ebb in the label’s quality control. Having been burned by a few of their releases around ’92 and ’93 (anyone else remember Spirea X or Swallow? No? That’s OK.), by the time I found this one at a yard sale, my starry-eyed fanboy phase was pretty much over. (Fortunately, everything they put out before that, and quite a few of their subsequent releases, too, remain deathless in my eyes.)

Listening to it 20+ years later… yeah, it’s pretty mnediocre. There are some predictably great offerings (Dead Can Dance’s hypnotic “Rakim,” Red House Painters’ awesome downer “San Geronimo,” the unpredictable multilayering in His Name Is Alive’s “Library Girl,”), good-if-not-super tunes from then-newcomers (the Breeders’ “Saints” and Air Miami’s “Pucker,” both of which appear in better versions elsewhere), and a couple of surprises I forgot about (Heidi Berry’s “The Mountain” is lovely acoustic storytelling; Michael Brook’s “Diffusing” is a solid wash of ambient guitar sounds). But the losers are kinda depressing, especially because they come from usually-reliable artists — the Wolfgang Press, Lush, Pale Saints, and a few others really don’t do themselves any favors here. Ah well, everyone has bad days.

[Shout-out to college-radio programmers/music librarians: over the years, I’ve amassed a number of promo copies from yard sales. From the shredded tag on the front cover, this is clearly one of ’em, though I’ve no idea which station (and, at this point, can’t even remember in which state I was living when I found this). Anyway, if you’re missing this, lemme know and I’ll send it along.]

Listening-free day

Had to take the day off from this project. My daughter was participating in the Odyssey of the Mind regional competition. (Her team won 2nd place, so there’ll be another break at the end of March when they compete in the state tournament — a good thing!) Back tomorrow.


Air Miami: Me. Me. Me. (TeenBeat/4AD, 1995) and “Airplane Rider”/“Stop Sign” (TeenBeat, 1994)

Air Miami = Mark Robinson and Bridget Cross (plus others) drilling down deep into the saccharine-sweet Anglophilic fever-dream of their former band Unrest’s late-period stuff. But where Unrest always maintained an arty edge, the Air Miami agenda is unapologetically bubblegum. Me. Me. Me. looks like a Factory Records product, and sounds like American twenty-somethings infatuated with ‘80s UK indie-pop — which is a super combo, IMO. “World Cup Fever” comes off like a piss-take on New Order’s soccer-tourney anthem; “Seabird” is a slowly-rolling ode to, um, a seabird, and is later answered by the more-rocking “Dolphin Expressway”; “Neely” pairs skittery-staccato guitar riffery with sing-song naughtiness… I’m telling you, there is nary a dud on this piece of plastic, nor on the slightly-less stylized 7” I dug out to pair with it — the latter pressed on purple vinyl, because it was the ‘90s.

Like quite a few in my collection, putting these records on instantly transports me back to a time and place. In this case, it’s the late summer of ’95 in Rochester, NY, working at Java Joe’s, hanging/playing at the Bug Jar, enjoying being alive and in love and not yet fully adult. Even with all the years and events intervening, this stuff makes me feel young and fun again — and that’s not a bad thing.


  1. None right now. These records are so burned into my musical memory that I barely need to play ’em to hear ’em!


A Frames: A Frames (S-S/Dragnet, 2002)
Hasil Adkins: Haze’s House Party EP (Norton, 1986)

1. In August 2002, my wife and I landed in Seattle in the middle of a rambling road trip, and by chance wandered into a compilation-release party at the very cool Re-Bar. There were tons of bands on the bill, all playing 20-minute sets, and most of it was a blur… but one trio, A Frames, made a real impression: robotic and noisy, with a sort of bored/steely stage affect that kept me tuned in from start to finish. So I bought this CD after their set. It’s a short, sweet slab of minimalist noise-punk. Dissonant, interlocking guitar and bass riffs; rudimentary but absolutely dead-on drumming; unaffected vocals that slip between monotone and sweetness (!) while spinning aphoristic evocations of modern dread. “Hostage Crisis,” “Electric Eye,” and “Nobot” (and the latter’s “dub” version, “333333333”) are standouts for me, but there’s not a weak moment (and with 11 tracks in just over 25 minutes, no time for that anyway.)

2. One of my biggest rock-and-roll regrets is never having gotten to see Hasil (pronounced “hassle”) Adkins perform. From all reports and the slew of YouTube videos floating around, he was a force of nature. From the 1950s until his death in 2005, he logged countless recordings of his skewed take on rockabilly, many at his home studio in West Virginia, most as a one-man-band, and pretty much entirely focused on the down-and-dirty side of livin’. Total rawk mythology, and totally great. This 7” EP collects 4 cuts from the early ‘80s: raucous and weird rave-up “Dottie Dottie,” the brooding “Sex Crazy Baby,” shoulda-been-dance-craze theme-song “Do the Hot Pants With Me,” and his hysterical riff on “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” It’s a house party, y’all.


  1. Re A Frames, I am SUCH a sucker for simple-but-discordant musical ideas. Interesting to reflect on how much of my compositional “voice” is informed by post-punk and noise-rock, even if it doesn’t sound much like any of that (unless it does, but I dunno).
  2. Re Hasil, time to hunker down on that book proposal. But not today — it’s almost 80°F and sunny and breezy up in these mountains, and man, it’s been a cold winter.


Off my “usual” schedule today — spent most of the morning putting up shelving in the laundry room. So this’ll be a short one.


My friend Joe (who runs the great micro-label Carbon Records and has played in a bunch of bands, including sq with me) turned me on to Aesop Rock — this must’ve been 2002-ish, since it was the Labor Days album. I never did pick that record up, but this one found its way into my collection.

Aesop was part of a blossoming movement of underground/experimental hip-hop artists around the turn of the millennium, quite a few of whom ended up on El-P’s Definitive Jux imprint. (This is well before the latter’s household-name status with Run The Jewels.) It’d be pointless to try to make any concrete connections between any of those acts’ approaches, but there did seem to be some shared emphasis on off-kilter beats, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and freely-rhythmic vocal flow.

This album is a pretty solid representation of all of that. The best moments for me are when Aesop’s production goes totally bonkers — like “Bazooka Tooth” and “Mars Attacks,” both of which careen around between tempos and textures in a totally unpredictable way. More straight-ahead but also great is the banging diss track “We’re Famous,” featuring turns by El-P. Throughout, Aesop’s spitting is creative and unexpected, and often thematically hard-hitting (“Babies with Guns” is a blistering take on youngsters getting swept up in street violence). At 70+ minutes, and without a thread connecting the tracks, it’s kind of an exhausting straight listen. (I could do without most of the interludes and several of the inner cuts.) But there are some great things on here regardless.