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Music Consumption: Naked City
01/10/1999 Naked City: Absinthe

Naked City (with John Zorn): Absinthe

Some beautiful, disturbing ambience from the purveyors of usually brutally punishing noise. I found this used, resold by, I'd guess, a fan of the brutal stuff. It's not the Naked City you know, but the Naked City you don't.... It was pretty inspiring to me, however. It's interesting that the only time I can get into Bill Frisell is when he's playing in Zorn's environment.

11/22/1998 Kaffe Matthews: live

Saw Kaffe Matthews on the 19th, at the fine Millvale Industrial Theater. I'm not sure what the other dates on her tour are, but it's well worth checking out her shows if she's playing anywhere near you. She uses a (Mac-based) sampler to recontextualize and layer the sounds from her violin and from the performance space. The performance was fascinating, consisting often of long drones that picked up additional resonances and changed (and even stopped) on a dime, creating a new space for listening. It's always interesting to listen to someone who obviously has chops, but isn't much interested in displaying them. She seemed much more interested in investigating the violin as a sound source and investigating the sampler. (You're probably thinking "Violin + processing gear= Laurie Anderson," but you'd be wrong--Matthews is much more interested in sound than in language or stories, at least in the way Anderson is.) The only downside to the evening was that the first part of her set was troubled by a bad connection between her violin and the board; it was like a picket fence obscuring the view of open land, but she went a good way toward incorporating it. Eventually, it stopped cropping up, giving us a clearer view. Her "CD Bea" gives a suggestion of what it's like live, although I liked the rumination-on-a-particular-evening feel to her live performance.

11/05/1998 Dub Narcotic Sound System: Out of Your Mind

Saw Dub Narcotic Sound System last night, touring in support of Out of Your Mind--fantastic. A great dance party band. Years ago I saw Beat Happening in a small gallery, and it was intense--no distance between the band and the audience, great energetic playing and singing, and Calvin staring the audience in the eye, thumping his chest with the microphone, and rolling around on the floor. It was actually, at times, pretty frightening (particularly during the song that would later be recorded as "You Turn Me On.")

Dub Narcotic is aggressive, too, in this case about making you dance. Not in a hectoring way, but by aggressively creating music that makes dancing inevitable. This is particularly true with energetic new drummer Heather Dunn (her live contribution adds a dimension of excitement I now wish I was hearing on the disc) and excellent bassist Chris Sutton, keeper of a mighty groove. The guitarist/keyboardist Brian Weber adds a barbecue flavor to the mix, and Calvin shakes, wails, jumps, and moans his way into your brain like a low, funky foghorn. They're like a Stax/Volt house band with a punk spirit, and if they can't make you move, you're dead.

The beauty of the show was its democracy--fans were down on the stage (the show was in a university auditorium, a much better place to see bands than bars are), dancing with the band, and the vibe was total punk-rock-do-what-you-want. You don't need lots of equipment to shake a room, just lots of enthusiasm. All the rockier numbers off of Out of Your Mind were highlights, although "Belly Warmer" stands out for me, maybe because they happened to do it after I requested it, but more likely because it's a great groove tune, and God knows the world needs more of those.

11/03/1998 Don Caballero: What Burns Never Returns

It was interesting to pick up the "Trey's Dog's Acid"/"Room Temperature Lounge" 7-inch single, and note the changes made in the two pieces as they were combined into the astoundingly beautiful "Room Temperature Suite" from What Burns Never Returns.

11/03/1998 Don Caballero: live

Saw the first show of the current Don Caballero tour. While the rotating bass chair has rotated again (this time ably filled by Storm&Stress bassist Eric M. Topolsky), they were in excellent form, seemingly loose in attitude while tight in timing and performance. Damon Che's drumming sounds as though he has more than the usual number of limbs--he's Pittsburgh's answer to Elvin Jones--but I was paying as much attention as I could to guitarists Mike Banfield and Ian Williams (who's always worn his guitar much higher than anyone else I've seen, except maybe Duquesne University music school graduates). They've incorporated a kind of Stanley Jordan (method, not style) two-handed tapping into the guitar lines, which adds an additional level of grace and complexity to the music. When I was able to get a clear line of sight, I was able to watch how the parts were separated from each other (it's with more room for flexibility than you'd think).

Their live sound is never quite as defined as it could be, probably a function of having good engineers on their studio stuff. Still, check them out. (It may or may not be your last chance; the show was billed as "possibly the last ever" local show, but guitarist/spokesmodel Ian Williams observed that "Pittsburgh's always trying to kill us off with these 'it's over' rumors.")

09/30/1998 Joel R.L. Phelps

Just picked up a bunch of CDs: "3" by Joel Phelps: the Downer Trio. Absolutely essential listening. Full of space, mystery, and intense healing, the way American music should be. It's what you should put on when your soul's just sick with worry, fatigue, and misery--or at least when you're aware of this as a possibility. (I'm not saying this is the state I'm in, but I can definitely see how it would help.) And it works even if that isn't your frame of mind. I'll note that there is a detectable country influence here--an honest late-20th-century post-slowcore kind of country. A few weeks ago, I was listening to WRCT and happened to hear "Hope's Hit," which grabbed me until I could buy it. A mere couple of mouse clicks stand between you and this powerful music.

09/30/1998 Storm&Stress

And the Storm&Stress CD, which shows the kind of noise that can be made by three people with conventional rock instrumentation and radically individual goals. And it's from (or was from, anyway) Pittsburgh.

09/30/1998 Seam: The Pace is Glacial

Got Seam's The Pace Is Glacial. It's exactly what it should be. "Little Chang, Big City" should be a hit. The other songs seep into your head and won't let go. Preview it at Seam's Southern Studio's site. Then order it, or beat a path down to your local mom & pop record store, or run the risk of missing a deeply satisfying experience.

09/30/1998 Don Caballero: What Burns Never Returns

A week or so ago, I picked up Don Caballero's new one, What Burns Never Returns, again excellent. "Room Temperature Suite", "Delivering the Groceries at 138 Beats per Minute", and "In the Absence of Strong Evidence to the Contrary, One May Step Out of the Way of the Charging Bull" are standouts on a CD that towers over puny mass-marketed "alternative" music like a double-its-normal-size Chrysler Building. No, Don Caballero is not a member of the band.

09/30/1998 Bedhead: Transaction de Novo

Also got Bedhead's Transaction de Novo. Excellent and appropriately dreamy. I've had to perform some difficult mental tasks over the last several days, and this has helped my concentration immensely. The kinds of sounds they got with three guitars are particularly impressive--ranging from layers of noise to piano-string clarity. Shame they broke up.

08/28/1998 Rachel's

Getting crushed with work, but I've been way getting into Rachel's, another of those ubiquitous Louisville-Chicago-etc. bands. It's another instance of the MPEGs working as a promotional tool--they're way up on the acquisitions list. Check out the MPEGs available at the band's Southern site; they have one each from their three apparently excellent CDs: "Handwriting", "Music For Egon Schiele", and the recent "The Sea & The Bells", which features the song currently lodged in my head, "Rhine & Courtesan."

You can listen to the sample tunes with MacAMP, or with Winamp if you're a Windows person.

08/14/1998 The Halo Benders

The Halo Benders are one of Calvin Johnson's projects, with Built to Spill's Doug Martsch and others. "Foggy Bottom," a song from the new CD Rebels Not In, is excellent, and I can't get it out of my head (not that I want to). You have no excuse not to check it out at the Southern site of The Halo Benders.

08/14/1998 Southern Records

Lately I've been using MacAMP to listen to (legal) MPEGs. Southern is the European distributor for many fine U.S. independent labels, and for some bands they have downloadable songs (entire songs, not just excerpts). As a promotional move, it makes sense: while I find myself less willing to pursue bands I've heard about that didn't sound like what I'd hoped, I have a number of new must-purchase items on the list.

08/14/1998 Seam

I'd lost track of Seam over the past several years, but the advance single, "Little Chang, Big City," from their upcoming CD The Pace Is Glacial is close to perfect. The CD is out in September. By all rights, you'll hear this latest single all over the radio, but we know there's no justice in mass media. In a better world (one in which they would have made their announced May ship date?) this would be a required top-down, cruising the summer highway tune. But don't take my word for it. Go ahead, listen to the MPEG, and sleep in front of the door of your Mom-and-Pop record store, waiting for it to come in.

08/14/1998 Don Caballero: What Burns Never Returns

Also worth mentioning is the new Don Caballero CD, What Burns Never Returns. Hard, beautiful, and complex. Once again, an MPEG is available at Southern, so you have no excuse not to give them a listen.

08/14/1998 Bedhead

I'd heard good things about Bedhead, and was thrilled by the song available from Southern. It's from their last CD, Transaction de Novo. I hadn't been so sure of them after hearing an excerpt from a review site, but they were good. There's a Bedhead site at "http://www.brainwashed.com", apparently the official site, which indicates that they broke up almost two weeks ago.

08/07/1998 random listening

Listening to Tim Berne's Paraphrase again, as well as Patti Smith's Horses.

And one of the Great Lost Bands of the 80s and 90s, the Volcano Suns. Drummer/Vocalist Peter Prescott went on to play guitar and sing in the now-defunct Kustomized and now Peer Group (no web page yet, sorry). Bassist Robert Weston is now in Shellac.

One of the best shows I'd seen in, oh, 90-91 or something, was the Volcano Suns in Pittsburgh, Easter weekend. I've seen interviews with Robert Weston, once he was in Shellac, alluding to him being happy "as long as he doesn't have to wear a bunny suit." This was the show they were talking about. This was the tour in support of their fine recording Thing of Beauty, which I quickly bought. It's punk that ages like wine or cheese, just getting increasingly better. There's a bunch of songs on this CD that by all rights should have been hits: "Barricade," "No Place," "Soft Hit," "Man Outstanding," "How to Breathe," "Arm and a Leg," "Fill the Void," "Noodle on the Couch," the cover of Brian Eno's "Needles in the Camel's Eye," the covers of the MC5's "Kick out the Jams" and Devo's "Red Eye Express," and I could go on. Anyway, that's what I'm listening to.

In the course of looking up this information, I came across Roger Miller's Mission of Burma page. He's now in Binary System. And I found another article on Mission of Burma in the Worcester Phoenix.

06/23/1998 Pere Ubu: Pennsylvania

Still listening to "Pennsylvania". I was going to list favorite tunes, but when I do that, I end up listing all of them. They're all stuck in my head, on a rotation depending on mood and whatever other factors dictate these things. Let yourself in for the same pleasure by buying it.

It's interesting--when I check out the lyrics on the Ubu Projex web site, they aren't as evocative as the whole of the music and the lyrics together. And when I look at lyrics from their older songs, songs I know well and have had in my head for years, find that I often have the lyrics wrong. I also find that I prefer the mishearings, maybe because they've become familiar and have grown associations I'm not willing to give up. An example might be found in the lyrics for The Modern Dance, specifically "Over My Head." It's an intensely haunting song, and the line "This will pass, and this will, too" is one I'd always heard as a much more desolate "then she says, 'I miss me, too.'" Well, seems desolate to me.

06/23/1998 Jandek

On a similar note, I'd had similar experiences with the music of Jandek. One of his songs, "Long Way," is mostly made up of the lyric "It's a long way" repeated several times. When I first heard it (late at night, with the volume turned way down) I heard it as "It's a long way/down the hallway." A friend and I talked a lot about this, and he ended up using my misheard line in a song of his. Mishearing is a creative act. It can be silly or nonsensical (like in the "'S'cuse Me While I Kiss This Guy" books on mondegreens), but I don't think it's given enough credit as a means of coming up with something new. The most creative thing you can do with what people say to you today is try to misunderstand it totally.

So creativity is in opposition to communication? Well, maybe. Or at least narrow, minimally layered communication. Even after you figure out what the person wanted to say, whatever that was will now take on an additional nuance, ideally an absurd one, vastly increasing the value of whatever was said.

06/20/1998 Pere Ubu: live

Saw Pere Ubu last night, and I'm listening to the new CD, "Pennsylvania", which I bought at the show. It's good, but I need to concentrate on it more--I'm doing too much to delve into the sonic multi-layeredness of Ubu. The show was good even though David Thomas appeared to be suffering from a throat ailment (I'd heard he was sick, and at one point he referred to the room as being too cold for his throat).

What's interesting in listening to the CD after hearing the live versions is that I really notice the difference between the two guitarists in the studio (Jim Jones and Tom Herman) and just Tom Herman live. I love Tom Herman's playing--it's always surprising, sometimes sad, and occasionally shocking, in some wildly divergent choice he's made, that somehow seems exactly right. I find myself wanting more space around Tom's playing on the CD (a continuation of the two-guitarists-or-one debate) although I can see myself liking the denser interplay on the CD. His tone, too, is spooky and spacious, tending toward a clean sound of steel strings through a Fender amp. His slide work is riveting, too, and slightly cold (and I mean that as a compliment), a result of his using the slide on a concert-tuned (or standard tuned) guitar. He's not to be missed, either with Ubu ("Pennsylvania", or the first three records), Tripod Jimmy (early '80s; his slide work and compositions are pretty amazing), or, I'd imagine, with his new project, "I Am Your Conscience", which I haven't yet heard.

Robert Wheeler's EML synth and theremin playing are also vastly pleasing. The theremin is probably the most theatrical of instruments. While body language is important to playing many instruments (guitar playing, for example, often seems more fluid and natural when one "uses" one's whole body to play) there's a sense in which it really doesn't do anything. In playing the theremin, every twitch, shake, and grimace has an effect on the sound.

Michelle Temple and Steve Melman are a fine rhythm section in Ubu, as they've been in the Vivians, although somehow they seem more dynamic here. Maybe it's the available space and fluidity of the music. OTOH, seeing them with R. Scott Krause and Chris Cutler on drums, that was fluid, stretching time. With Temple and Melman, the rhythm section really drives, and has its own melancholy expansion of space and concentration of power.

David Thomas's voice is unlike anyone else's in rock. You might find a distant neighbor in jazz or maybe '50s pop. I'm not sure why I say this; it's just what comes to mind. (Maybe it's a result of his singing the Jimmy Durante "good night" song to those in the audience who persisted in trying to applaud the band into an encore after the house lights were up, CDs & T-shirts were out for sale, and half the drum kit was broken down for removal.) It ranges from a primal whine to a subdued, slightly crackly croon, and watching the man perform is to watch someone juggling and wrestling with the big concepts. (And the last two times they played the Pittsburgh club Graffiti, one could watch him wrestle a bad monitor mix.)