I have devoted a ridiculous percentage of my life to the worship of record albums – deploying them in the shaping of my identity, evangelizing for them, agonizing over their creation. I routinely find myself effusing over those that have particularly moved me despite being in no way a critic, music journalist, or musicologist. I relish the freedom this permits: I’ve never been paid, or edited, and need make no claims to objectivity, comprehensiveness, or academic rigor. I shamelessly frontload the work of friends and colleagues, championing what I deeply value (and territorially defend) as my community (a ‘chosen family’ as much social as it is aesthetic).
But I also lack the time or attention span to be a regular blogger. So if not here, where? The below are some examples of the blather I’ve most enjoyed writing about a tiny and relatively arbitrary subset of the absurd number of albums I adore.
In the practice of practicing gratitude (and a desperate attempt to assert that what “we” do actually matters – if I don’t listen to my friends’ music, how the hell can I expect anyone else to – or much less to mine?), I occasionally spurt shout-outs into the vapid abyss of “social” media. I like to think I’ll make a semi-regular habit of this; in the meantime, here are the goodies I can still dig up.
HORSEBACK – less regarding a particular album or their merits in general (however appreciable) than a paean to the art of nomenclature. Particularly within a genre, littered with sub-sub-genres, in which clever and stupid are in truth not so much finely delineated as two Janus-faces of the same coin. Blunt, sonically stark, with gratifyingly Anglo-Saxon mouth-feel. Suitably vague to remain expansively evocative: where and when are we? The steppes of Mongolia? Cormac McCarthy’s blood-caked mesas? The crags of Middle Earth? Wheresoever one must grimly roam, toil, and doubtless battle, irrespective of the ultimate futility of same.
ORANSSI PAZUZU – CAVES! In SPACE! That DEMONS live in! FOREVER!
MYLES BOISEN – Past Present Future. An impeccably warm & gritty recording (duh) of a party trawl through multiple styles old timey and otherwise. So utterly unfussy & humbly confident – not unlike his engineering (duh) – that an overwrought egghead like me can hardly evaluate it…but I CAN tell you it FEELS like a rec room full of old friends all trying to squeeze into the same pair of perfectly worn-in jeans. Sweaty, a wee bit nasty, and all in good fun.
SULT – svimmelhed. There’s an awful lot of brittle, prickly, abstracter-than-thou lowercase improv out there (more than my share of which I’ve been guilty of), but I’m convinced there’s something special going on here. Maybe it’s a cheap shot/failure of imagination that tempts me (half the band being Norwegian) to force connections to Black Metal, but there’s a sensuous grimness, an arboreal pall, branches snapping under so much ice, that makes this bleak midwinter comfort food for the same undoubtedly not-so-healthy part of me that reads Beowulf for fun.
BRISTLE – Future(s) Now(s). It’s hard enough making jazz-derived Creative Music this gnarled or this relentlessly catchy…but BOTH?! No fair. And this smart, and this funny, without being smart-assed. Well, ok: they’re smartasses alright (dig the promo video), but with utmost generosity of spirit. (And c’mon, there’s SKRONK OBOE, and it’s not my fault!)
LOST TRIO – Monkwork. A rumpled tweed with very deep & roomy pockets. It’s no mean feat respectfully re-imagining tradition, particularly such a towering one, without becoming paralyzed by its import or otherwise trying too hard. In a more just world these gentlemen would be drawing JALC paychecks; meanwhile, we’ve got this: a cozy session with ease and warmth that’s a joy to sink into.
Dusted Magazine’s Listed (2009)
At least once upon a time, this stalwart online resource published “a series of music-related lists compiled by our favorite artists” every Friday. Perhaps this link still works; all the same, I’ve stuck it here.
The prospect of trying to pick 10 “favorite” or “best” records makes me break out in hives. It’s as fun, anxiety provoking, and ultimately dorky a process as the college radio DJ sets I remember so fondly (will I look cool enough? will I hit all the subgenre quotas? could I possibly tell anybody anything they don’t already know?) Dusted has already granted me, as one half of EKG, a stab at grandstanding; so now I’m just going to treat it like one of those DJ sets: run with it, not even worry about whether or how to be canonic, totally cheat and make a list of 6 tangent-hopping lists, precariously shoehorned into two broad themes:
I. Identity Formation; or, The Album as Talisman of Narcissistic Personal Narrative
1. “Classic” albums I’ve been completely obsessed with over the past few years that I should probably be ashamed to admit I hadn’t assimilated more than a decade earlier:
Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance; The Stooges – Fun House; Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica; Brian Eno – Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy); Roxy Music – Roxy Music; David Bowie – Lodger & Low; Suicide – Suicide; Wire – Pink Flag
2. Albums I listened to incessantly in high school (most of which I would argue have significant lasting merit beyond nostalgia and camp, even if I’m probably supposed to be ashamed of them):
Skinny Puppy – Mind: the Perpetual Intercourse; Ministry – Twitch; Einstuerzende Neubauten – Halber Mensch; Bauhaus – In the Flat Field; Severed Heads – Come Visit the Big Bigot; Nitzer Ebb – That Total Age; Christian Death – Only Theatre of Pain; Test Dept. – Unacceptable Face of Freedom; Minor Threat – Out of Step; Black Flag – Damaged – and if I’m REALLY honest about coming clean and not trying to look cool, I should probably also mention Depeche Mode – Construction Time Again; The Cure – Head on the Door; The Smiths – Meat is Murder
3. Albums that send time, memory, and nostalgia spiraling down the rabbit hole:
Ike Yard – 1980-82 Collected; Adult. – Anxiety Always; Galaxie 500 – This is Our Music
Finally hearing Ike Yard was a “where’ve you been all my life” moment – it instantly became my Favorite Album I’d Never Heard. It pre-dates and transcends much of No. 2 above, distilling a droll, ice cold pretention and slicing away the histrionics, stretching it taut over a neon grey Liquid Sky grid of ominous throbbing and analog snarl. Joy Division without any of the things that made them lovable, inventing minimal techno a decade too soon in a nuclear missile silo.
The second is the first’s temporal inverse: a band that makes my favorite music of my adolescence now, better and more incisively than many of the antecedents did themselves. They’re the band I hate to love: I can’t help it; they push ALL the buttons that were programmed during countless nights spent twitching, sneering, and sweating in batcave dance clubs.
The third, however, inhabits an entirely different landscape in my brain. I wasn’t that explicitly into Galaxie 500 when I first heard them, but they’ve since somehow become a melancholy, deep-seated need – the Album as Sacrament, something that about once a year, like geese flying south (and at roughly the same time), I’ve got to listen to. I grew up in New England, in a house decorated in browns and burnt umbers, taking great comfort in drippy forests and all things Autumn. Mysteriously, Galaxie 500 has somehow bypassed the context in which I actually encountered them and become retroactively grafted onto that earlier territory of childhood memories, some of which I’m not even sure I actually have. [A footnote: it was a wonderfully weird feeling to meet and work with Damon & Naomi and recognize them as human beings, maybe even peers, and total sweethearts. I tend to focus on music as a real-time, social endeavor, being used by and for actual people within an actual (sub)cultural context – but this was a powerful reminder of the tendency for works of art to nonetheless have an independent life as cultural artifacts, spinning entirely beyond the control of their creators, absorbing unforeseeable associations and significance for total strangers. I humbly hope (and deeply fear – for the downside, cf. The Beatles and Charles Manson, Minor Threat and the whole straightedge phenomenon, Wagner and the Third Reich) that something I make in my lifetime can have this impact, somehow, for someone somewhere.]
4. “Classical” music that reminds me that my years of conservatory training and my orchestral career haven’t been entirely a mistake:
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring; Messiaen – Chronochromie; Nono – guai ai gelidi mostri
(Note that these are all compositions – specific recordings of classical music have never had particular weight for me, and certainly don’t shoulder the same iconic baggage as “rock” albums…)
I doubt that the ballistic impact of The Rite on 20th Century music is news to anyone reading, but its role in my life’s story has a pretty good punch line. I grew up as a band geek hearing classical Greatest Hits on my parents’ stereo and playing in youth orchestras, but I finally encountered Stravinsky rather ass-backwards: via a live Siouxsie album wherein the Danse Sacrale section blasted over the P.A. as they took the stage. How come nobody ever told me orchestras could be so punk?!? The discovery forever changed my relationship with “classical” music, but didn’t stop at the heavily fortified borders of that realm. I suspect that the various mathrock/progcore contortions I’ve gone through over the years have been in large part pathetic attempts to approach an effect – a stylized facsimile of “savagery” and Dionysian frenzy somehow rendered with unassailable Apollonian clarity – that was pretty much nailed in 1913.
Olivier Messiaen’s music is so singular, so transcendent, that it’s hard for me to not gush fanatically about it. He devised his own path out of the modernist-anxiety labyrinth fairly early in the game – developing an idiosyncratic formal system, arbitrary yet rigorous – and then set about the real task at hand: to manifest his synaesthesia (dude could hear colors and see sounds!), his love of birdsong, and his peculiarly mystical, Gnostic take on Catholicism. Really, I could mention any of his mature works, but I’m particularly partial to the way this piece marks a shift to his later style: its implacable, crystalline brilliance somehow sounds ecstatic, awestruck, and sensuous even with all the earlier Romantic goop peeled away. Messiaen makes me wish I believed in God; and in rare, unguarded moments, makes me wonder if maybe I do after all.
Similarly, with Luigi Nono I could list pretty much anything I’ve encountered thus far from the 1980s. Sounds languish and fret on the very brink of silence; time slows and stops as an explicit affront to contemporary consumerist blather. This is the protest music of an old, deeply principled man who has Seen It All: the outraged lefty polemics of his youth have billowed outwards in historical scope and empathy, mourning and embracing human suffering itself.
II. Endpoints; or, A Celebration of Extremity, Audacity, and Dubious Premises Doggedly Pursued to their Illogical Conclusions
5. Career pinnacles (thus far) for folks I’m lucky enough to call comrades (i.e., look how cool I am on account of how cool my friends are)
nmperign/Jason Lescaleet – Love Me Two Times; Cheer-Accident – Fear Draws Misfortune; Mute Socialite – More Popular than Presidents and Generals
Bhob Rainey and Greg Kelley have been consistently kicking my ass since I met them a decade ago. I was just finding my own voice on the oboe, and I had the distinct impression that they were two steps ahead of me on the very same path I was only barely starting to glimpse. Their work together as nmperign has proven catalytic for a particularly cussed generation of improvisers, well informed in the legacy of free jazz, free improv, and the AACM but equally inspired by musique concrete and Darmstadt (minus the dogma) and arising more directly from the DIY cesspool of hardcore and noise. Their unnerving samurai focus, hyper-attention to the grain of sound, and brutalist physicality towards their instruments have simultaneously defined and defied an American take on the bastard pseudo-genres of “eai” and “lowercase.” A gorgeous and harrowing double LP on Siwa crystallized their approach so perfectly that it seemed there was nowhere left to go. The subsequent addition of Lescaleet thickened the stew, spurring them to go for broke, drawing out more explicitly their twisted black humor and absurdist bent, and further subverting any remaining shreds of purist “improve” methodology. The result is epic and ridiculous, and puts a wicked grin on my face every time.
Cheer-Accident are awfully difficult to explain to the uninitiated. They were post rock before anyone knew rock was over, unabashedly prog before it was cool again, squirm-inducingly earnest and nakedly emotional in the midst of an acridly ironic neo-No Wave scene. They’re also a meticulous exercise in self-sabotage: they have a penchant for baffling/delighting/infuriating audiences by derailing fiendishly complex tunes with exasperating Dada theatrics. No one album could possibly tell the full story (Enduring the American Dream probably remains my favorite, and my most common recommendation as an icebreaker). With Fear Draws Misfortune, though, they’re firing on all cylinders without apology. Sufficient creep factor and weirdball curveballs remain for them to be true to themselves, but without the customary bazooka-to-the-foot antics. Those of us in their camp find it incredibly heartwarming to see them on Cuneiform, taking at last their rightful place at the mead-table of prog and RIO’s Valhalla.
As for Mute Socialite, they’re a young band with three exuberant youngsters just out of Mills College (legendary hothouse of experimental music activity in the Bay Area), so calling this a “career pinnacle” is a little disingenuous. But the fourth member who pulled them all together, Moe! Staiano, is a veteran metal & drum basher who’s been working his butt off around here for years (most notably in his industrial-Fluxus Moe!kestra projects and during a stint in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum). This band is a perfect amalgam of the hyperactive no wave/skronk/postpunk axis he adores. No irony; no snarky fashionista posing; no spotlight-glare, spoiled brat bullshit – just unadulterated, overjoyed wielding of the torch of the Herky Jerk. It’s THE rock band I wish I were in right now (don’t get me wrong: I had my chance, it’s my own damn fault).
6. Albums chosen primarily for their particularly jaw-dropping qualities and their ability to send me into paroxysms of hyperbole:
Sinistri – Timing the 183K Pulse; Dan Plonsey – Understanding Human Behavio; Boris – Pink
As Sinistri and in their earlier incarnation as Starfuckers, these freakish Italian conceptualists don’t so much deconstruct as eviscerate whatever style they lay their steely clinical claws on. For this Utech Records release, the experiment is plumbing the necessary and defining features of dub and funk without recourse to rhythmic regularity. Listening to this record feels like rubbernecking the death rattle spasms, decapitated-chicken-style, of a twitching, bony, honky pair of hips freshly severed from their central nervous system.
Dan Plonsey is a Bay Area treasure. There’s a gleeful generosity of spirit and a very earnest, calculated naivete to his music that makes it paradoxically some of the most out shit I’ve ever heard. [An example: the hour-long piece comprising the album Moving About, Humming, Still Our Flowers are Blooming, Under the Old Portcullis is an orchestration for large ensemble of an unspeakably banal, meandering melody he composed by continuously humming for an hour as he went about his daily activities.] I was fairly smugly certain that I’d made the first free improv solo oboe album with entymology: imagine my surprise to learn that an accomplished saxophonist had beaten me to it with Understanding Human Behavio (the title comes from the half-burned cover of a book found in a yard following a house fire), and using an instrument he’d acquired the day before entering the studio. What I didn’t have on my side, of course, were an absolute lack of pretension, a casiotone, and a bucketful of praise songs such as “I’ve Got a Little Oboe in My Soul” and “I’m On Top of the World with an Oboe.” There are very few artists who can consciously make music worthy of Carla Bley’s immortal comment regarding the Shaggs: “it brings my mind to a complete halt.”
I’m a relative latecomer to the Boris bandwagon, but no less star-struck for it. I’ve long been in love with the uncanny ability of Japanese bands (to risk chauvinist reductionism) to completely assimilate and transcend Euro-American cultural models (cf. the early Boredoms’ treatment of P-Funk and the Butthole Surfers, Ruins of King Crimson and Magma, Koenjihyakkei of the same plus Carl Orff). I don’t have an particularly authentic relationship with metal or any form of classic rock, but thanks to this one-step remove and their absolute commitment, Boris at their most knuckle dragging makes it all ok, permitting me to join the party. There’s so much that’s so good in all their hydra-headed modes, but Pink serves as a great encapsulation. Opener “Farewell” disorients so thoroughly by incorporating the ghosts of shoegazers past that I wind up in tears, feeling like I’m watching the final credits roll on a quirky-yet-poignant art house movie of my own life. Especially in the wake of that emotional blindside, the unbridled roar of the next few tracks plunks me down in middle of the biggest biker bar in the world, and all my friends are there, and we and even the bikers all love each other, and everybody’s hucking beer and J.D. bottles at each other and at the walls as hard as they can, and each one explodes in a rainbow of pure joy.