ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: SUNG TONGS (FAT CAT RECORDS, 2004)

My intro to Animal Collective, coinciding with significant buzz around what some were calling “freak folk,” others were referring to as “the New Weird America.” Sung Tongs is definitely resonant with some of that stuff (see: Devendra Banhart, Espers, Sunburned Hand of the Man, etc.), though it’s also got vestiges of the band’s earlier, more abstract noodling, while simultaneously feinting toward the neo-hippie-crowd-pleasing path they’d embrace later on.

14 years and many stadium tours later, this is still a great album. Many of the uptempo songs (which is most of ‘em) come across like a skewed recontextualization of the Beach Boys (with occasional nods to more global influences (“Sweet Road,” e.g.)) — it’s got that same kind of ecstatic embrace of simple major-key melodies and complicated vocal interplay, but then forced through a haze of off-kilter instrumentation and studio wackiness. The effect is weirdly catchy and awfully endearing. That’s balanced, though, by more pastoral moments (“The Softest Voice,” “Visiting Friends,” “Mouth Wooed Her”), where sweet voices — sometimes effects-laden, sometimes not — swoop around lazily over freely strummed acoustic gtrs and bubbling electronics. Personal favorite cut “We Tigers” sounds like a summer-camp soundtrack — with pounding tom-toms, wordless “whoops” and insistent falsetto harmonizing — before suddenly shifting, out of nowhere, into some vocal hocketing that’s gotta be a nod to the Ramayana Monkey Chant. Killer.

I probably haven’t listened to this record in almost a decade — how awesome that it’s still every bit as thrilling as it was back then…

LOUIS ANDRIESSEN: DE MATERIE (NONESUCH, 1996)

Louis Andriessen is one of my musical heroes. Starting out as a dabbler in all kinds of post-WWII styles, he developed, in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, into a real rabble-rouser in the then-staid Dutch art-music establishment. Along the way, he worked with free-improv/free-jazz players; set up the electronic-music think-tank STEIM; picked up influences from rock and American minimalism; and started writing voracious, ferocious, incomparably challenging and rewarding music that sounds like no one else. Total force of nature; may he live to be 200.

My favorite piece by Andriessen is De Staat, based on Plato’s The Republic — but my copy is a FLAC, so doesn’t fit into the scope of this project. Fortunately, De Materie (“Matter”) is a close second. Scored for voices (solo and choral) and an eclectic large instrumental force, and a rumination on the relationship between the material and spiritual worlds, it’s in 4 parts, running almost 2 hours in total. (This recording, the only complete one, is conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw and features Asko | Schönberg and members of the Netherlands Chamber Choir.) I only had time for one of the parts today, so I chose Part 4, with which I’m least familiar. (Parts 2 (Hadewijch) and 3 (De Stijl) were favorites of my teacher Steve Jaffe, and I studied ‘em earnestly in his composition seminar.)

It begins with a slow, patient alternation between two high-register chords — scored for metals, keyboards and plucked strings, and ringing sonorously in the silence between them — with occasional punctuations by quick figuration in the low winds. After several minutes of this, the music gradually settles into a pavane-like slow dance, with the harmony and orchestration evolving so subtly you don’t really realize it’s happening. (This patient rigor in timing and instrumental shading, and the way it suspends my expectations, is what really makes Andriessen’s work so powerful for me.) By the time the voices enter — intoning passages from sonnets by Willem Kloos, around the nature of death and desire — we’re over halfway through the 28-minute running time, and the tempo, harmony and texture have intensified dramatically AND imperceptibly. The climax brings Andriessen’s Stravinsky-love right to the fore, with wailing brass and thick choral scoring… before collapsing into near silence. The ending is an almost-solo reading of excerpts from Marie Curie’s diary and Nobel Prize acceptance speech — alternating back and forth between her singular triumph and her tragic loss (i.e., the death of husband Pierre), and accompanied by a return to the opening sonarties.

Spectacular.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. As big a fan of Andriessen’s as I am, I’m woefully incomplete in my knowledge of his VAST catalogue. I’m especially out of touch on his early work (pre-1970) — so I’m gonna put it to myself as an additional challenge to try listening to at least one piece of his, per week, that I don’t already know.
  2. Speaking of incomplete knowledge, this Wikipedia project on “music students by teacher” is pretty imposing.
  3. Would be an interesting thing to study who cites Andriessen as an influence, and why. The obvious folks (Bang on a Can collective, Icebreaker, etc.) aside, there is really so much going on in his work that I feel certain other composers have absorbed important lessons that aren’t so explicitly heard (i.e., things other than the rhythmic rigor and instrumental surface).
  4. Go back and re-read The Apollonian Clockwork, Andriessen’s rumination (with Elmer Schonberger) on his understanding of Stravinsky. I remember it being curious and thought-provoking, but other than that I’m blank on specifics.

No complete version of the recording online, but here’s a live performance of the entire thing!!! <3

LAURIE ANDERSON TWO-FER

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.)

…AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD: SOURCE TAGS & CODES (INTERSCOPE, 2002)

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.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  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.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  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.

MARYANNE AMACHER: SOUND CHARACTERS (MAKING THE THIRD EAR) (TZADIK, 1999)

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.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  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.

HERB ALPERT & THE TIJUANA BRASS: WHIPPED CREAM & OTHER DELIGHTS (A&M, 1965)

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.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  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!!!

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.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

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