ANTIPOP CONSORTIUM: ARRHYTHMIA (WARP RECORDS, 2002)

I totally forgot about this one! I found it on the new-release shelf while DJing at WXDU; on a whim, I spun “Ghostlawns” during a set, and was instantly captivated. Antipop Consortium are an experimental hip-hop crew from NYC; this record is a total mind-melter, with stream-of-consciousness lyrics skittering fluidly over simple but hyper-creative beats and out-of-left-field production flourishes (sudden bursts of distortion/delay/compression/sampled-operatic-vocals that surprise me every time). Plus, the de rigueur vignettes are really good/weird — e.g., “Tron Man” starts off as a mundane radio call-in skit, but quickly turns ultra-dark. No single track stands out — it’s just a solid, fascinating listen from beginning to end.

The “experimental hip-hop” designation got me thinking about my own history with rap and hip-hop. I was in elementary school when I first became conscious of rap — so, this’d be the era of Grandmaster Flash, Newcleus, Whodini, etc. — and it is no lie to say that it ALL seemed totally foreign and experimental. I’m almost certain that the same could have been said about virtually every new musical treed at the time of its appearance. With rap, though, it also had, in my case, a great deal to do with the circumstances of my surroundings. I grew up in a small rural community on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge in Virginia, with a largely-invisible non-white population — both in number and, sadly, by dint of systemic segregation. Hip-hop, being the product of black-and-brown urban culture, came from somewhere well outside of my experiences — but I was totally fascinated by it regardless.

By junior high and high school (mid-1980s), rap had become a pretty serious market force, although it was viewed with suspicion and hostility by many of my peers. For some, the problem was that it was “noisy” or “nonsense” or “not really music”; others were less veiled in their dismissal of rap as “n***er music,” music to which only “n***ers” and “n***er lovers” listened. (I’m ashamed to admit that I rarely called my peers out for using those terms at the time.) History proves that every black-originated form of American popular music — from jazz and blues to early rock ’n’ roll and soul — was subject to the same white-supremacist discourse. But I didn’t know that history then — I just knew that rap was (a) controversial, (b) not like other music, and (c) totally mesmerizing, in spite (or more likely because) of (a)+(b).

I never developed any real collection of hip-hop; over the course of my life, I’ve probably owned no more than about 50 or 60 rap/hip-hop records, in any format. But I’ve remained a casual fan throughout my life, and particularly to the stuff that seems, to me, to represent the original, rebellious and self-made spirit of the movement. I guess what I’m getting at is that, for me, “experimental hip-hop” almost seems like a redundancy — the best hip-hop, in my mind, is the weird stuff. From Kool Herc to Doug E. Fresh to Public Enemy to A Tribe Called Quest to Missy Elliott to Kool Keith to, well, Antipop Consortium, making my head spin with the unexpected is what makes the form meaningful and exciting to this old dude.

Whoo, this got long-winded. Point is, Arrhythmia is a great record that pushed my brain into unexpected places — v. cool.

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…

…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.

A FRAMES + HASIL ADKINS

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.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  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.

ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE & THE MELTING PARAISO U.F.O.: ELECTRIC HEAVYLAND (Alien8 Recordings, 2002)

Collection of 3 (or 4, depending on how you see the first track) face-melting long-form psych/noise explorations. Opener “Atomic Rotary Grinding God/? Quicksilver Machine Head” skitters unpredictably but effortlessly between spaceout synth bliss and gonzo, crushing improv-rock, in one 16-minute FUUUHHH. Intermezzo “Loved and Confused” is in ABAB form; the A sections dial the tempo back, leaving ample space for dive-bombing vocals and woozy electronic-and-guitar call-and-response, while the B sections set the controls for the heart of the sun and find it glowing with Kawabata Makoto’s insane fretwork and sheets o’ feedback (natch, for an album whose title references Hendrix). Closer “Phantom of Galactic Magnum” goes from placid to nightmarishly roaring in about 90 seconds, and then stays there for 17 minutes — an admirable feat o’ stamina, but kinda monochromatic for my tastes, esp. when the rest of this disc’s so damned good. Still, the rest IS damned good.  Bonus points for all the ‘60s/‘70s stoner-rock references in the titles, AND for them actually feeling relevant to the sounds therein.

Also, gotta say, Alien8’s packaging kicks ass. Sturdy Kraft box, with simple silver-on-black exterior and a bleached-out full-color photo spread across the interior fold, plus a tidy black envelope for the disc itself. I’ve a few other of the label’s releases coming down the pike; they’re all beautifully rendered, so expect further slavering.

THOUGHTS FOR LATER:

  1. ABAB — and non-recursive form generally — is something I should explore more in my own work.
  2. I don’t think I’ve previously ever listened to either of the AMT records in the morning hours — definitely not twice in two days. Would be interesting to study effects of listening at different times of the day… maybe.
  3. Interesting how tuned in I was to the recording quality this time around. It’s super lo-fi, which is perfect for the presentation — just don’t remember having taken note of that before.