Wednesday, April 27, 2011

98 the Hard Way: Borderline 4s Week One

Rather than do the whole daily update thing for this portion of the project, I'm going to do a weekly post summing up the albums I re-visited and the results of that re-visitation. That way there's some meat to the posts - especially the ones from days that I work when I only have time to really listen to a couple of albums - and a set format that's easy to replicate each time.

So, what's the purpose of this section of the project? Well, like I said in my EP summary post, the ratings I'm working with are basically gut instinct first pass ratings. These had proven to be a bit unreliable in the past, so to try and normalize things and ferret out the growers that I hadn't given enough time to I'm going to give all the borderline 4 star rated albums I flagged another listen. There are a few possible outcomes from that process; either I was overly generous on first pass, was in the general ballpark or hadn't let the given album work its charms on me for long enough. As a result, these posts will summarize the week's listening into four headings...

  • Albums that are getting bumped up into the four star category. These will be further revisited in that section of the project.
  • Albums that aren't getting bumped up, but which would populate the very uppermost tier of the 3.5 star rating. These will get the review and download link treatment as seen in the EP section.
  • Albums that are remaining at the 3.5 star rating's lower tiers. These will just be summed up briefly.
  • Albums that are dropping down to a 3 star rating. Once again, these will be summed up briefly with more emphasis on how they fooled me initially.
So without further ado

WEEK ONE (April 21st-27th)

Total Albums Revisited: 28

Albums Dropping to 3 Stars: 7
  • Song of Kerman The Unamerican Sounds of Song of Kerman (Moo Cow) The passion is there in spades, but the execution isn't. Sometimes an excess of the former can cancel out the latter but not in this case. [6.6]
  • Griver / The Exploder A Split Twelve Inch Recording (Skylab Operations) Griver's side held its ground admirably, but The Exploder's never came close to being very noteworthy. [6.4]
  • Mark Helias' Open Loose Come Ahead Back (Koch) The interplay was enough to convince me that this might be fairly great, but the songs never quite connected.[6.5]
  • Clemencic Consort Troubadors (Harmonia Mundi) Fundamental otherness drew me in on first pass, second pass didn't turn up anything truly noteworthy besides said otherness. [6.2]
  • Michel Doneda Anatomie des clefs (Potlach) I remembered the sporadic bursts of horn playing adding up to a fairly satisfying whole. That doesn't seem to be the case. [6.1]
  • Brass Knuckles for Tough Guys Noise Man Kills Him (Divot) I was swayed enough by the most propulsive moments to overlook the fact that most of the time the songs are weirdly incomplete. [6.4]
  • Teodoro Anzellotti Erik Satie Compositeur de Musique (Winter & Winter) The pieces are still exceptional, especially the Gnossiennes, but the translation to accordion robs them of a lot of character somehow and doesn't imbue them with enough new character to compensate.[6.7]

Albums Staying at 3.5 Stars: 15
  • Marteau Rouge ...un jour se lève (Self-Released) Very, very Ruins-y improv with a decidedly darker tinge to its production. The parts that hit hit hard, but they're broken up by material that's just not quite there yet. [7.4]
  • Fabulous Trobadors On the Linha Imaginot (PolyGram) Comes damn close to being elevated if only because of the loose, zydeco-influenced vibe of the production gives it nice degree of ramshackle charm. Shave it down to 45 minutes and we'd have a much better contender. [7.7]
  • Selfhaters The Abysmal Richness of the Infinite Proximity of the Same (Tzadik) Minimalist jazz that I always come away from thinking 'that should have been boring...' yet never reveals itself as such. May not be exceptional but is certainly recommendable. [7.0]
  • Bruce Ackley Trio The Hearing (Avant) No matter how formulaic it becomes, the juxtaposition of the straight bass lines and Ackley's more uninhibited flights of fancy works consistently for me. [7.2]
  • KCE Japan Sound Team Metal Gear Solid (King) If not for the (necessary given its origins but still irksome to me) recycling of the same general themes in new tempos this might get the plus distinction. What's here is interesting enough though, more Martial Industrial than Video Game Music to my ears. [7.6]
  • Krzycz Trauma (Nikt Nic Nie Wie) At points it's more interesting in theory than in practice, but when the sludge/noise rock/screamo hybrid works and works for sustained periods of time it's incredibly noteworthy. [7.3]
  • Hellworms Crowd Repellant (Alternative Tentacles) Same issue that I have with Victims Family applies here: for all the skill apparent the songs never quite stick. [7.2]
  • Nels Cline and Devin Sarno Rise, Pumpkin, Rise (Volvolo) There's a lot to be said for the atmosphere - tense as hell, sonic equivalent of looking at a nuclear wasteland - but it doesn't get to the sort of queasy-making grandeur that Cline's other albums in this vein achieve. [7.7]
  • The Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra Live in Japan '96 (DIW) The one-two punch of the Dolphy medley and Schlippenbach's "The Morlocks" sets the bar too high for the rest of the material to reach. [7.8]
  • The Keller Quartett Die Kunst der Fugue (Bach) (ECM New Series) Perhaps I've just been spoiled by Yo Yo Ma's Bach cello suites, but this seems far too cold and distant. Excellent composition and performance, but the piece itself doesn't do much for me. [7.3]
  • Komeda What Makes It Go? (North of No South)  Comes across as the Swedish version of Stereolab in both good - impeccably crafted lounge pop! - and not so good - no sexy French vocals! - ways. [7.6]
  • Joel R.L. Phelps and The Downer Trio 3 (Pacifico) Phelps is still one of my favorite vocalists, but bar a few songs here he doesn't seem to be as invested as previously. Still makes his mark, but nowhere near as deeply. [7.1]
  • Black Box Recorder England Made Me (Chrysalis) Slight musically, but Haines' wry, mordant lyrics coupled with Sarah Nixey's vocals give it a certain cachet for me. [7.8]
  • Denman Maroney Hyperpiano (Mon$ey Music) Incredibly interesting sounds come out of this one, but they're also kind of annoying and haphazard at times. [7.5]
  • Susie Ibarra and Dennis Charles Drum Talk (Wobbly Rail) These were two of the most dynamic and exciting drummers in the jazz world at the time, but while they both thrived in ensembles putting the focus on them isn't all it should be. Some splendid moments though.[7.3]
Albums Being Elevated to 4 Stars: 2
  • Shpongle Are You Shpongled? (Twisted)
  • Franklin Building in A and E (File Thirteen)
More on these in the next section

Albums in the Upper 3.5 Star Area: 4

Sea of Cortez Age of Anxiety (Voice of the Sky)
There are three bands at work here. All three bands are heavily indebted to Unwound and Shotmaker in various proportions. All three bands are anchored by some fast-paced but not overly busy drumming. All three bands have a slight desert-baked vibe that makes them sound at a bit of a remove from the rest of their obvious peers. Basically, all three bands are decidedly the same band, but they come at it from three different angles. This is at once the best and worst part of Age of Anxiety, because while it ensures that there's enough variety to keep things interesting it also gives the album a bit of a hodge-podge feel that detracts from the experience a bit.

The first band is the most Unwound-indebted of the lot. Hell, the vocalist in this band may as well be Justin Trosper for all I can tell - same detached, slightly hoarse voice, same inflections. This is the band that gives Age of Anxiety its biggest triumphs, namely the fluidly shifting opener "Break Right Now" and the slow building yet frantic "Reset All Controllers." This is the most consistent of the three units at work here, and given that it's the mode that Sea of Cortez operate in about half the time they're the biggest reason I might hold this up as a high quality hidden gem of a release. If you pared back Age of Anxiety to an EP containing the material in this vein it would be an easy 4 stars from me.

The second band is the most problematic aspect of the release. This is mostly due to the vocalist residing in that weak, thin, reedy range so prevalent among the most run of the mill emo acts of this time period. The band behind him is decidedly on a different level from those acts, but any time that this particular vocalist rears up in the mix it drags the album down enough to be noticeable. Essentially, the tracks on the album that I have the least trouble skipping past if I'm in a more cursory mood are courtesy of this make of the band.

The third band is the most Shotmaker-leaning of the three. They're the one whose songs are the most energized, frantic, driving and focused of the whole album. They're the side of Sea of Cortez that gives them the most character out of the three we're talking about. Unfortunately though, this is also the band that shows up the least often, only really rearing up on the excellent album highlight "Negative Space" and the brief "Discovering the Wonders of the Universe." Actually, scratch that 'unfortunately' - really, the fact that this side of the band is relegated to the background more often than it's given the spotlight is its biggest asset. While I'd appreciate more stuff in that vein all told, the fact that this side of the band is kept on a leash as it were makes their brief moments in the sun that much more powerful.

In the end though, it's the fact that all three of these bands are sides of the same coin that makes Age of Anxiety stand out from the rest of the late 90s emocore scene. The disjointedness it creates aside, it gives the album a degree of depth that so many similar bands of this era would kill for, and a degree of unpredictability that makes each listen that much more exciting. It may be the reason I don't give the album a higher rating, but it's also the reason I find the album much more replayable than most of its peers. [8.0/10]

Dose One Hemispheres (Self-Released)
Dose One is an acquired taste. His voice is so nasal that it makes Aesop Rock sound like DMX by comparison. His flow comes across as haphazard and jagged at first. His lyrics are abstract to the point of impenetrability. He's not normal, in other words. In fact he's incredibly odd even in the realm of the most abstract hip hop. You won't like him, but you will never have heard any thing like him either. Even if you hate him with a fiery passion like some seem to, you can't exactly accuse him of being lazy or formulaic.

The thing is that, underneath all the impenetrable weirdness there's a skilled craftsman at work. That's probably more clear here than on his later output if only because he's front and center for most of the release. It's also his most normal sounding outing, very much rooted in his history as a battle rapper rather than the abstracted realms he favors nowadays, which might make it the most palatable entry point for the uninitiated. Sure, a lot of the beats are a bit substandard and overly minimal for my tastes at times, though the ones that are more carefully constructed - "Spitfire" and "Etherial Downtime" namely - make for album highlights, but the unadorned quality puts more focus on the skill that Dose has as a rapper.

He's verbally dextrous to a fault for one. Just listen to "Spitfire" where he and show-stealer Lionesque - seriously, why has she not done more shit since this? - wind around each other wit ha sort of practiced fluidity that elevates both of their performances if you want an example of that. On the other hand though, he also has a facility with finding these weird inflections and phrasings that sound fundamentally wrong if you remove them from context but sound absolutely perfect in the sphere of the song itself. That's what i mean when I talk about him as a craftsman first and foremost; he's not going to use every moment of this tape to demonstrate his skill in straightforward ways only, he's going to find the best way to work within the song even if it might sound weird or, well, wrong if you pull-quote it. And while this is his "normal" album, it's not without hints of his more avant leanings either. "Etherial Downtime" especially seems like the template for his later triumphs, with its moody piano loop and overlapping vocals that make it stand out from the rest of the album.

So this is probably the least representative Dose release on the whole, but that's probably why it's the one I'd suggest trying first. Think of it as acclimatization; you need to see if you're on the right wavelength to dive deeper into his stuff, so it makes sense that you should go with the toe dip of weirdness that is Hemispheres over something much more rewarding as an album but also much further removed from normalcy like Ha or Circle. You'll probably come out of this with an idea as to whether or not you even want to continue on or not, and it's easy to see why you might not, but you won't go into shock from the outre if you start here. [7.9/10]

Jackie-O Motherfucker Flat Fixed (IMP)
The main word that comes to mind as I'm listening to Flat Fixed is 'transitional.' After two LPs of very, very weird, all over the map freak folk/post-rock experiments, this double LP finds the boys and girl at the core of JOMF honing in on the parts of those albums that worked the best and developing them as best they can. As such it feels like the sort of missing link between the more freewheeling early material and the more expansive and focused stretch of albums that the band released between 1999 and 2005 - which is probably the best six album stretch any artist even tangentially related to post-rock can be said to have. It also feels very much like a dry run for the material from that era, the album where they figured out exactly what worked in what proportions by fiddling around with it more than usual.

What I'm trying to say is that while Flat Fixed could probably be said to mark the beginning of JOMF as I know and love them, that is as the makers of an intensely atmospheric and evocative post-rock/free-folk/jazz hybrid that so few can be said to even begin to approach, it's also oddly incomplete as it were. It's the album where they figured things out, and the process of the figuring was laid out quite plainly in the record itself. You can hear them trying various degrees of the alchemy from their earlier days, most notably on the almost electronic sounding "Dot Riot," in the attempt to get the balance just right. It's the very essence of a transitional album, at once very much a step in the right direction but still a bit too hesitant to pull it off with the right degree of aplomb or consistency.

That's not to say that its a write off though. Even if the early going is a bit choppier than I'd come to expect from this gang, there more than enough to recommend therein. "Turtles" is straightforward and pretty, almost like the material that would make up Flags of the Scared Harp a full 7 years later. Both "Bewitched" and "Ferrarris" are worthwhile even if they don't have the room to breathe that JOMF benefits from the most. "Honey" is almost there, as close as the album has come so far to properly dialing in the right mix of elements, but it hold s back where it needs to push forward and winds up feeling like a missed opportunity. "Dot Riot" is a definite step back into their older style, though it's played much more low key and subtle than that might indicate. The thing is that, "Dot Riot" aside, none of the tracks are bad at all, in fact most of them are great in comparison to the last two albums' material. They're just not quite there in light of what the band could do so effortlessly not even two years down the road.

That said though, when they do get the balance right on the album's final two tracks it's breathtaking. "Wolf Brother Blues" is a seventeen minute suite that would sit proudly next to any of the best songs from the forthcoming run of albums, pretty much defining the JOMF sound from here on out with its seamless blend of free jazz saxophones over an epic folk base. "Crazymaker" takes that blueprint in all manner of new directions over the course of its 24 and a half minute run time, but never goes so far afield that it loses the center. The build up to these two tracks is mildly frustrating at times, though the first 5 tracks are not without their charms, but the payoff is 40 of the best minutes of material JOMF have ever laid down and it's more than worth the effort to get there. [8.1/10]

The Stickmen The Stickmen (Self-Released)
As far as I'm concerned, the key to good noise-rock is that you don't shortchange the rock half of the equation in favor of the noise. It's all well and good to be punishing, feedback drenched noise-mongers, but if you're not also doing something akin to rocking as you do that you've missed the point. In a nutshell, that's why The Stickmen work for me so well. Underneath the intoxicating haze of psychedelic/bludgeoning guitar fuzz and incredibly well integrated turntable scratching that resides at the forefront of their self titled debut album there's an honest to goodness rock band that's pushing things forward in the most driving, insistent but not flashy way possible. It's a balance that's difficult to maintain, and at a few points herein they don't quite get it right either, but when they do it's utterly fantastic.

Let's just get back to that turntable thing though, because that's about where these guys separate themselves from the pack on their best material. You wouldn't necessarily think that turntables would make for a great addition to noise rock, but the way that Matt Geeves works it into the fabric of the band's sound, almost acting like its a second guitar more than anything remotely DJ-ish, allows for the songs to really come alive. More specifically, it lets guitarist Aldous Kelly push out riffs while Geeves provides the texture thus satisfying the noise and rock halves of the equation without stepping on each other's toes. Take "Creep Inside" for instance, where Kelly can devote his guitar solely to the double-picked surf riff at the song's core while Geeves can fill the background with just the right amount of percolating noise to act as an ideal backdrop. It's a unique set up, but it doesn't rely solely on that novelty to get its point across. Add in the perfectly propulsive rhythm section and you've got a recipe for some interesting, inventive times ahead.

Given all that, it's hard to say why I don't like this more than I do. Maybe it's the degree of sameness that can seem to overtake things towards the end, or the fact that the slower tracks don't play to the band's strengths and kinda drag things to a halt. Fact remains that when the band's working on all cylinders, and they are doing that for about half the tracks here, they make some of the most unique and peerless noise rock of any time period. It's a crime that it's so hard to come by - only 500 were made, self released by the band in their native Tasmania and given the reverent tone that everyone in this article adopts when speaking about the band I'd wager that the people who own those 500 copies aren't about to let go of them - but when you do get your ears on it you'll be in for a real treat. Trust me. [8.0/10]

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