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Music Consumption: Silkworm
05/06/2001 Silkworm: Lifestyle

The swagger of "Dead Air" continues to grab me. It's a perfect pop song, in this respect like Wire's "Outdoor Miner," although it rocks a lot harder than the Wire tune. Perfect for traveling.

04/29/2001 Greg Grant: The Disappearance

One recent treasure has come from a friend on the Television list, Greg Grant. While I knew he was a great guy with good taste, his CD reveals him to be an inventive guitarist with a great gift for melody and an understanding of restraint, and I for one am very happy to have heard his debut instrumental disc, The Disappearance.

Greg exhibits a light, subtle touch throughout, in both his guitar playing and in his arrangements, in which two guitars, bass, and drums fit together crisply and smartly, with space for each to breathe. Greg's leads are spare and graceful, and his second guitar lines have a rhythmic and melodic interest of their own. With his melodic bass playing and drum arrangements that support the tunes and yet vary themselves, the effect is something like a whole-band counterpoint.

Greg's tasteful choices of tones and arrangements hit you right off with "Tunnel," an upbeat tune with a loping, locked-in groove. The parts fit together beautifully, and one of the treats here the bass's accents during the verses. It's all about the whole picture, in which everything works together.

His command of atmospherics is readily apparent on "Bass Loop," "Storm," and "November," which both feature lovely steel-guitar-style swells. In "November," the lead and steel accent trade places at the bridge in a striking shift of perspective--one example of the many subtle arrangement decisions that makes these tunes work so well. "November"'s initial echoey sparseness gradually builds to an assertive strength, making a striking return to the spaciousness of the beginning.

The title track is a cool, slippery noirish tune , alternatingly dark with rubbery vibrato leads and coy with muted strums and graceful trills, appropriate for a darkly comic detective film, in which the darkness of the verses builds tension, the bridge refines it, and the chorus resolves it. A similar compositional control of tension and release shows up on "Serpent Straits," in which tremelo and vibrato lead on offbeats that generates a phenomenal amount of rhythmic interest, leading to sparse choruses in which the lead and rhythm work together to evoke open, distant horizons.

As reflective as the CD can get, it's not without its jokes, such as the knowingly comic theme of "Little Steps" (one envisions hired detectives sneaking around a rock club), or the apparently serious "The Blue Waltz," which does indeed invite a slow, elegant turn around a dance floor, but reveals itself to be in 4/4!

Fine, but can Greg rock? Sure! Check out the swaggering "Osler" for starters, in which the rhythm guitar and drums swing hard, and the lead guitar and bass push each other further into bluesy aggression. In a minute and a half, it's over. "Glisten" is another rocker, with one of the most impressive transitions I've heard in a long time, with the tension of the verses (carried by a two-note fuzz guitar accent and one-note bass line) giving way to glorious release in the chorus.

That not enough? "Postcard" is the most aggressive tune on the disc, with hard tremelo-picked leads played with tension-and-release vibrato. The verses consist of that rhythmic interlocking that Greg does so well--and then we're hit with a bridge featuring a glorious edge-of-distortion solo! Greg departs from the song's schema, opening up further places to go...and it tune ends. You're going to have to see him live.

The Disappearance ends with "Demise," an atmospheric piece more delicate than the title suggests, a quiet showcase of guitar interplay inviting you to play the whole thing again. And you will. On the strength of this CD, I hope that we hear more from Greg, and that there will be more of his playing and arranging to listen to. The Disappearance is a great start. You can contact Greg at grnt@yahoo.com.

03/02/2001 Tortoise: Standards

I first listened to it in the PowerBook in a hotel room in pre-earthquake Seattle, and didn't know quite what to make of it. Maybe it was the small, trebly speakers or something, since once I got it home (missed the earthquake by three hours) it really began to grow on me, and fast becoming a favorite--these guys just keep on getting better! The first tune, "Seneca," begins with a turning-on-the-analog-tape sound, followed by 60-cycle amp hum, which amounts to a "we're ready to rock" signifier. And...rock they do. Drum rolls and modal gestures toward Hendrix's "The Star-Spangled Banner," going for two minutes before...it dies down. And then comes the funkay distorted beetz. It's actually explosive, with great drumming and guitar playing. The atmospheric screams-under-an-overpass work well, too as texture, and the next song, the Harry-Partch-influenced "Eros," is a perfect smart cool-down from the first track. It stays good from there, with perhaps a few missteps in the up-up-and-away vibe break in "Benway" and the lurve-music opening of "Monica." But it's all good, particularly the two "Eden" cuts, which have a mighty groove. It's the smartest ass-moving music you'll hear this year. They rock, get funky, atmospheric...it's good.

02/24/2001 Will Oldham: I See A Darkness

I must have played this one for two weeks solid. Obviously mournful and steeped in despair and regret, but there are glimmers of redemption--desperately sexual in "All Around," through the love of comradeship in the title tune, and in the truncated last tune, "Raining in Darling." These songs work so well that he can get away with "bad" rhymes that would sink anybody else's tunes (the end of "Death to Everyone" comes to mind here--it still works, where projects like The New Year are scuttled by their rhyme schemes). "Madeline Mary" brings chills, and all the other songs exact their toll. It's an amazing album.

02/24/2001 Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings of Thelonious Monk

Where to begin? Years ago I used to borrow this from the library--fifteen CDs of everything Monk recorded for Riverside between 1954 and 1960 (or everything that survives, at any rate). Ultimately, someone checked it out and never returned it: thus ended my days of listening to it. I told myself that someday, I'd own a copy, and this year I went for it. It's a collection of treasures from Monk's most fertile period, and revealing, enthralling liner notes. It begins with a disc of standards and a disc of Ellington pieces, when Riverside's Orrin Keepnews was hoping to focus attention on Monk's excellent piano playing skills and his strengths as an interpreter. After these releases, apparently, the public and the critics were ready for some Monk originals, and Brilliant Corners was what he gave them. Probably my favorite Monk piece ever, BC was never played all the way through--too difficult. Every other chorus is double tempo, and the theme is chock full of strange intervals. It's beautiful and sinister. Sonny Rollins does a fine job with his solo, and Ernie Hawkins begins his strong and twisted, but he loses his inspiration. Nonetheless, it's an astonishing, jarring piece. And there's a whole (short) album to go after it.

As collections go, the entire Himself sessions are here, including several alternate takes of "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You," "I Should Care," and 22 minutes of run-throughs of "Round Midnight"--in addition to the released version. But wait--there's more: a gorgeously Monk-ified "April in Paris" and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," and "Monk's Mood" with Wilbur Ware and John Coltrane. If the solo piano pieces on Himself give you the feeling of hanging out in a fascinating smoky bar with no idea what time it is, "Monk's Mood" is like wandering outside and discovering an early summer evening. This, friends, is music.

And...there's more. Club dates. More studio dates. The amazing Town Hall concert, with beyond-lush expanded-horn performances of "Crepuscule with Nellie," "Off Minor," "Monk's Mood," and the thoroughly lovable "Thelonious." ("Even a tone-deaf person could hum it," said Monk.) I have to confess that "Little Rootie-Tootie" and "Friday the 13th" stick a fishhook into my brain and jiggle it around--not in a good way, either. But otherwise, it's all good. And...there's more. Much more. Several more recording dates and performances. Awesome.

02/24/2001 Charles Mingus: Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus

Years ago, I saw the documentary done during the 60s--the one that intercuts fantastic performance footage with the disturbing, emotionally wrenching night before he got evicted from his loft. While one suspects he could have spent that night finding a place for his stuff, he spent it pontificating, drinking wine, playing with his daughter, and shooting a rifle into the ceiling. So Mingus didn't seem fully equipped to deal with the practicalities of existing, but what a bassist and composer. The performances are exuberant and electrifying, and some of that shows up on this disc. I defy anyone to get "II B.S." out of their heads once they hear it. As a friend puts it, there's a very Beat-era feel to this stuff (or so it seems at this remove, although it was recorded in 1963 or so.) The Lester Young theme (aka "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat") is evocative and moving, and the uptempo stuff swings hard like a prizefighter. A true classic.

02/24/2001 Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington: The Great Summit

This excellent two-disc set comes to me a few weeks ago as a birthday present--thanks, Matt! I guess '60s-era Ellington and Armstrong get slagged a lot--their peak days of innovation were supposedly behind them; they were in their 60s as well...but this is, well, a pleasure. Track list to come when I have access to the discs again, but they do some old chestnuts ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Lucky So-and-So," "Black and Tan Fantasy," etc.), some comparative rarities ("Azalea," which Duke apparently wrote with Pops in mind; no one else could handle it and Duke was ecstatic to hear it done the way it was supposed to be), and a new tune ("The Beautiful American"). Perfect for lounging around any time of the day or night.

02/24/2001 Martin Denny: Quiet Village

I've been wanting a copy of this for a while. I swear, if I ever get a phone system that allows hold music, this is it. The version of "Stranger in Paradise" that begins the disc is a slab of pure swankerie, from the thick, melodic vibes to the uptempo bridge with glockenspiel accents. Relaxing, ironically "exotic," and actually exotic, it's a pleasure. There are the requisite Hawaiian kitsch pieces, but so what? When I was a kid, I imagined that adult life involved sitting around in a robe, drinking cocktails, listening to stuff like this. Guess what--it does!

02/24/2001 Kenneth Patchen and John Cage: The City Wears a Slouch Hat

This 40s-era radio play is delightfully surreal, and might be the first recording of Cage's prepared piano percussion. Amazingly, it hasn't been released until now. "Imaginary Landscape" is another radio piece--but played by oscillators and prepared piano. Phenomenal and moving. (I've recently discovered that the narrative is that of the savior coming back to the City in modern times.)

02/24/2001 Tim Berne: The Empire Box

This 5-CD set of his early work shows a somewhat different sonic palatte than I've come to associate with Berne--in some instances, it seems as though he hasn't quite found his voice. (I'm thinking particularly of the, ahem, almost fusiony pieces on disc 2.) He really starts to find his groove as we know it on discs 3, 4, and 5, but there are moments on the others that are well worth a listen.

01/20/2001 Richard Lloyd: The Cover Doesn't Matter

This is the first we've heard from Richard as a leader in quite some time--1987, I think, when Real Time came out. In the meantime, he's worked with Matthew Sweet, given guitar lessons, produced a fine disc by Bibi Farber, and, apparently, been busy working on this. I don't know about you, but when I heard about this CD coming up for release, my main thought was something along the lines of "Richard Lloyd -> hot guitar album." I expected to be moved in places, touched by the songwriting, or melodies, or a sincere turn of phrase, but I was mainly looking for guitars, guitars, guitars!!! Reader, here they are. There are, it must be said, some surprises--the gestures of Zep homage in "Knockdown" for instance--but the guitars are here in abundance, and finely played, too. These aren't just guitars wanking into a vacuum, however--these are guitars at the service of songs, songs with hooks, even! And singable melodies! Word has it that Richard's been working on his singing voice, and while the picky among us may point out that his vocal tone hasn't changed (a sort of rough, reedy voice), he's definitely singing these tunes, as opposed to shouting them (as on previous efforts). A fine development, indeed. (One correspondant has pointed out that he might do well from a commercial point of view to get another vocalist in, but I can make allowances.)

OK. Guitars. What about the guitars, you ask. The guitars are glorious. Some fantastic solos here--"Torn Shirt" is a primo guitar freakout, smoking most of Richard's studio playing with Television, believe it or not. (It's not the same band, of course, but I have to say that the solo's hotter.) "She Loves to Fly" boasts a veritable slew of guitar parts that propel the song, and the similar (and old--the dB's covered this!) "I Thought" coasts atop a perfect power-pop section of guitars. Lyrics are forceful, positive, lusty, and occasionally dark-tinged. There are a few bits of "Raising the Serpent" that seem best for chuckles to me, but it doesn't stop me from enjoying the disc. It all ends on a surprisingly gentle, mournful piece, "Cortege," the tones of which put me in mind of Hendrix's "Wind Cries Mary" (my fave Hendrix tune, btw). This is entirely appropriate for historical reasons (and if you don't know 'em, you're missing some good stories), thematic reasons, and sequencing reasons--when it's all over, I want nothing more than to hit the Play button again, immediately. How many CDs can you say that about these days? Send thy $14 to "Upsetter Music" right now.

12/15/2000 Silkworm: Lifestyle

Yet another best-of-2000. The first three tunes, "Contempt," "Slave Wages," and "Treat the New Guy Right" (this last with a harmony vocal by Heather Whinna) are perfect. Distancing yet inviting, sarcastic yet heartbreaking. The next three aren't quite up to the stellar heights of those first, but with "That's Entertainment," the disc comes back with a vengeance. From there on out, prepared to get laid out flat. Cohen's tunes are great, Midgett's are great, as well, and the Small Faces cover "Ooh La La" slows down the tune to give it the mournful reflection such a lyric deserves. Compared to this cover, the original is a good idea poorly fleshed out. The Silkworm version is a full-grown adult, ready to kick your ass if you don't get it. Midgett's rockin' "Raging Bull" and "Dead Air" are two tunes that should be on radios everywhere, particularly the latter. What a song! Euphoric, downtrodden, abusive, and rocking, it will do more to your head than a full night of drinking.

12/15/2000 godspeed you black emperor!: lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven

I can't stop listening to this. Definitely a top 10 from 2000. I think my favorite sections appear on the second disc--"Broken Windows, Locks of Love" and "Antennas to Heaven," which are both the most nakedly emotional (and redemptive!) parts of this work. They only have their full power, however, in the context of the rest of discs. After all that, "Broken Windows, Locks of Love" (which starts something like 14 minutes into the first track on disc 2), is heartbreaking. It's an assertion of individual triumph even as the world says you've been defeated. It affirms the continued existence of a personal soul even as western science tells you there's no spiritual realm, and nothing awaiting you after death. It's a wordless "Howl" of victory in spite of all evidence to the contrary for our generation. Get with it.

11/14/2000 Colin Newman: A-Z

I've been moved to pick up a proper copy of Colin Newman's A-Z, which I'd had in tape form. It's interesting that I haven't listened to much of this in years, but it all came flooding back. A-Z is indeed good, but 154 is much better. Not To is a favorite, including the brilliant pop of "Lorries." In the Newman catalog, though, the pinnacle for me may be Commercial Suicide--beautiful, moving, and personal all the way through.

11/07/2000 godspeed you black emperor!: lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven

I had the chance to pick up the new godspeed you black emperor! release, lift yr skinny fists like antennas to heaven, and I have been deeply moved. Disc one surveys a darkened landscape of alienation and despair (the kind you'd expect from the capitalist tragedy illustrated in the gatefold). But amid all the apocalyptic gloom, there's hope--notably, that section starting around 18 minutes into the first track on disc 2 where the hip-hop-ish drumming kicks in like the sun breaking through the clouds. The glockenspiel duet is a great touch, as are the field recordings, and the quiet climax of disc 2 induces chills and cures them. But everything on this set is essential--truly one of the CDs of the year. More when I have the energy.

11/07/2000 A Silver Mt. Zion: He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms

A more minimal chamber-ensemble set of pieces from this GYBE spinoff. Moving.

11/03/2000 random listening

A trip to the West Coast once again separated me from my CD collection, but I was prepared this time--I ripped a bunch of MP3s from my CD collection to my laptop. Dirty Three's Whatever You Love, You Are was essential ("I Really Should Have Gone Out Last Night" was a significant part of my mental soundtrack the last time I was out there), as was Nick Drake, Bloodcount's "Loose Ends," and the latest Steely Dan. Things went very well, thank you...

10/24/2000 Bloodcount: Unwound

I've been listening quite a bit to Unwound, the three CD set from Tim Berne's Bloodcount. Drummer Jim Black just explodes on some of these tunes, particularly on "No Ma'am" and "Loose Ends" from discs 1 and 2, which get the most playing time around here. Disc 3 is more, uh, abstract, but it's a fantastic set.

10/16/2000 Nick Drake: Fruit Tree

OK, so I have the black hornrims and the Nick Drake set. Feel free to leave now. I really don't care if "Pink Moon" was in a car commercial--these are great, emotially rich tunes. Some faves: "Time Has Told Me" (sort of a theme song for this fall...), "River Man" (gorgeous, moving, haunting orchestral pop), "Saturday's Sun" (great melody), "Hazy Jane II"--love the open-tuning on the guitar and the peppy horn-based orchestration... And there's more: what they say about Bryter Layter being a perfect album, well...they're damn close to right. Perfect voice, rich melodies, wrenching lyrics that pack a lifetime of sadness--without self-pity--into a few minutes. Check out John Cale's contributions on viola, piano, and celeste (the latter two on the great "Northern Sky"). Check out the three instrumentals--beautiful. Pink Moon was an achievement as well, for such a short disc. In retrospect, it's easy to imagine that you can hear the despair overtake him, but there's some amazing power in here, too. "Place to Be" lays me out flat, and "Parasite" is an astonishing self-criticism, and yet, there's the ray of, well, something at the end, in the disc closer "The Morning." "Sad" is far too weak a word for the fact that his story ends the way it does.

10/08/2000 godspeed you black emperor!: live

godspeed you black emperor! live! A very good crowd turned out for this one. My big mistake was coming a bit late, because I missed much of Comae's set--an electronics duo of Robert Hampson (ex-Main) and turntable guy Janek Schaefer. They were very impressive. Great sparse, sculptural sense of sound and silence. Toward the end, they threw in some loud subsonic waves--ingenious and amusing with great timing. Bardo Pond, the middle act, did little for me--there's a thin line between "dreamy" and "nodding." The low-frequency feedback on the bass was interesting, but it turned out to be unintentional. GYBE themselves were very good--dramatic, emotionally wrenching, and driven by a righteous moral indignation as well as sadness... Movie music for the end of the age. No projections that night--their projectionist was ill with kidney stones--but the music itself was the p-st r-ck equivalent of Ennio Morricone for me, and was cinematic enough. And this was before I heard the CD. It was definitely a stage full of Montréalers, though--there were more people smoking onstage than in the audience...which shouldn't be a surprise, because it was a nonsmoking auditorium. Ah, culture...