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Strove to find a way to punch people in the face by using the Internet.

9/08/2003

RECORD REVIEWS
Semi-serious ones at that. Written in the last year or so, mostly for the excellent Atlanta/Athens music mag Stomp 'n' Stammer. More recycling efforts for this burgeoning site; really just a wan attempt to make myself look like a productive member of society.

Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones
On this album, much as on his last eight or ten, guitarist Bill Frisell uses chops picked up from the earliest country and blues to construct forward-thinking jazz, accompanying himself with looping, echoing tone fragments through the use of effects. He finger-picks bluegrass phrases one moment and engages in pure, chiming sound the next, often working in some liquid, electric blues.

Not surprisingly bassist Holland, a veteran of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking fusion work, is unruffled by all the willful genre smashing. Jones, an aggressive drummer who accompanied some of John Coltrane’s most propulsive work, mostly sticks to little flurries of brush-strokes and cymbal taps.

Frisell’s stylistic shifts aren’t jarring because they’re consistently anchored with a swirling ambience -- his phrases are punctuated with gossamer note-shreds or sharp, clear ringing-bell sounds. Like all of Frisell’s recent work this album is consistently thoughtful as well as being quite beautiful.

Trapdoor Fucking Exit s/t
I get the feeling that a lot of modern hardcore punk bands incorporate fairly avant-garde musical strategies into their music without really thinking too much about it. For acts influenced by Drive Like Jehu, Slint and Fugazi, the basic available palette now includes oddball time signatures, non-traditional guitar-tunings and a disdain for cathartic or hook-filled choruses. With the exception of the aforementioned bands (and pioneers Sonic Youth, a group that makes its debt to Ligeti, Cage and Stockhausen plain) most of the acts operating in the current underground hardcore scene seem unaware of their music’s distant roots in dissonant 20th century composition.

Hell, the bulk of ‘em likely consider Slint a footnote and Sonic Youth an abstraction if they consider ‘em at all. Information moves real fast these days and the more conformist factions of hardcore are influenced by what their peers did two weeks ago, not by the boring indie-rock some New York City old folks peddle to know-it-all record store clerks.

Possibly named after an album by the impenetrable New Zealand low-fi noise-rock group Dead C, excellent Swedish hardcore band Trapdoor Fucking Exit gives the impression that it incorporates influences that range outside of its immediate social circle, and fans of this music reap the benefits. For its chosen genre, this CD is as experimental as it is fierce.

Opening track Run Idiot Run is a blur of speed and menace punctuated by this great recurring atonal chord that hits hard and rings out like someone slamming the lid on a piano. At one point the song almost dissolves into chaos while someone starts in on the rhythmic handclaps and it’s just breathtaking. While never delivering the impact of the opening track all kinds of brainy little moments jump out of the rest of the album’s blitzkrieg attack and chiming murk and if you’re a smart punk rocker and you know what’s good for you you’ll track this import down or keep an eye out for the forthcoming stateside reissue.

Angelic Upstarts Live from the Justice League
Competently executed and well-recorded punk played by very old British men for an audience quite possibly one-fourth their age. Back in the late ‘70s vocalist Mensi was considered a lot savvier than the bulk of the thugs he inspired. He also had more of a willingness to drill down past the vapid political rhetoric of rock-star bands like The Clash and address specific issues in his songs. (I wonder if he feels stupid about his tune “Guns for Afghan Rebels” now? It ain’t on here, that’s for sure.) Regardless, this is simply an exercise in cheap nostalgia, designed to mine the pockets of youngsters un-ironically wearing spiked wristbands. Any rebellious qualities this sort of thing once had have long since been scrubbed away. Fetishists looking for a trip down memory lane and kids too stupid to sniff out cynical marketing ploys ought to love it.

Rez Abbasi Out of Body
Rez Abbasi, a New York-based guitarist of Pakistani heritage, is a man of formidable talent. Steeped in the traditional Asian music of his family from a young age and a former student of both percussionist Alla Rakha and the Manhattan School of Music, Abbasi is capable of seemingly inexhaustible quicksilver improvisation, simultaneously linear and surprising. Whether playing acoustic or electric, each of his notes here stands out in sharp, crystalline relief -- even during the frenetic rush of the third track, Winners Circle, which could have easily turned overwhelming without Abbasi’s precise phrasing (and clear production).

It’s interesting, then, that for all Abbasi’s technical ability the real star of this CD turns out to be his stunning compositions. Out of Body contains only original songs, in which Abbasi combines the cerebral, deliberate cool of Dave Douglas or quintet-era Miles Davis with the complex, post-Monk melodic sensibilities of Steve Lacy.

Abbasi has assembled a sympathetic group to explore these ideas. He’s confident enough to have them step to the fore when necessary, too: after the first track’s opening moments, Abbasi turns in a low-key vamp while Ron Horton’s trumpet and Tony Malaby’s soprano sax make bright, bold statements. This continues throughout the album, as Abbasi, stalwart bassist John Hebert and rolling drummer Bruce Hall supply an airtight backdrop for the occasional dueling horn solos (Horton also plays flugelhorn, and Malaby also plays tenor sax). It turns out that in addition to being a dazzling soloist, Abbasi can engage in wonderfully subtle accenting and thoughtful counterpoint. He even provides the tasteful tabla introduction to the tune Ganges. Remarkable.

In the U.S., Out of Body is distributed only through Abbasi’s Web site: www.reztone.com.

Girls Against Boys You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See
Artistically, a successful stab at redemption from this band: In the mid ‘90s, Girls Against Boys had started to spin its wheels after a slew of releases on influential independent label Touch and Go. A jump to major label Geffen in 1998 resulted in an implosion; previous fans were underwhelmed by the uneven, slick result Freak*On*Ica and mainstream converts (as well as any kind of discernible label push) were nowhere to be found. It’ll be interesting to see if You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See rehabilitates the band’s reputation – any (relative) commercial success will depend on whether the album is embraced by Jade Tree’s little army of bespectacled emo kids just waking up to music reaching beyond Cap’n Jazz. Most Touch and Go-era Girls Against Boys fans are either working for advertising agencies or dead from drug overdoses by this point and unlikely to notice the album’s release.

Which is a shame, as You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See ranks with the band’s best work. Foremost among its attributes are the atypical two-bass line-up (used for an impressive range of gritty texture rather than rhythmic complexity) and Scott McCloud’s singular half-crooned, half-croaked vocals. As his impressionistic lyrics alternately celebrate and satirize the glamour and sleaze associated with urban nightlife, the band churns out driving, repetitive songs with the ferocity of men with something to prove. The overall sound is impressively thick, the choruses almost uniformly feature oddly affecting, bittersweet melodies and the space-age lounge-lizard atmosphere is intact even at speedy tempos. Welcome back.

Radio Birdman The Essential (1974-1978)
Streamlined, witty hard rock from Australia that features deadpan vocals, medium tempos, slashing guitar solos and some nifty organ playing. This is pitched at, and most definitely will be purchased by, the usual gang of hipsters and record-store geeks that wouldn’t look twice at a Blue Oyster Cult record with a picture of their mom blowing Stone Cold Steve Austin on it. Even though this has a lot more in common with Blue Oyster Cult in structure and attitude than anything else in the racks.

Karp Action Chemistry
Thank Satan for Karp. The now-defunct trio provided a refreshing alternative for those of us inclined to like the velocity and heft of heavy metal but not the contrived evil gimmickry. Karp replaced the tired old poses with smart-ass attitude and healthy doses of absurdity while wielding power like a manic Black Sabbath on whippets. A collection of singles, compilation tracks and other odds and ends, Action Chemistry doesn’t have the cohesion of the band’s masterpiece Suplex. But it’s still very, very cool.

Thin Lizzy Vagabonds of the Western World
A criminally overlooked album and the pinnacle of ‘70s hard rock. Phil Lynott’s soulful voice marries rasp and melody, melancholy and joy in a way rarely heard outside of the Stax/Volt canon, and there’s a good reason why Ted Leo and that guy from Spoon have nicked his style of phrasing (‘cause it’s fucking cool). The guitars sting, harder tunes like “The Rocker” charge like a graceful, effortless premonition of punk and the ballad “Little Girl in Bloom,” with its turn-on-a-dime double-tracked vocals, ambient feedback, simple bass melody and transfixing guitar solo, is actually an album highlight. A perfect record. (For an "underrated albums of the '70s" feature.)

Johnny Cash American IV: The Man Comes Around (American)
Though poor health has shorn him of his full powers, Cash does a pretty good job of navigating through this latest Rick Rubin-designed obstacle course.

Producer Rubin’s propensity for pitching oddball song choices and collaborations at Cash may have brought the singer back into the mainstream back in the mid ‘90s, but the strategy’s results have here degenerated into almost pure crap as the gimmick loses whatever scant charm it once had. Underfed, talentless skank Fiona Apple caterwauling along with the Man in Black on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water? An ill-advised up-tempo boogie-woogie take on Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus? That bullshit will suck all the charm right out of a damn album, I tell you what. Someone needs to be beaten in the face with a cactus until they learn better, and it ain’t good-sport Cash.

The fact that Cash soldiers through it all so well, emerging as noble and unscathed as ever, is a testament to the inherent dignity he radiates. I mean, Rubin and his corny juxtapositions and stupid beard aren’t going to derail the Orange Blossom Special with the musical equivalent of a paintball gun.

Though the covers thing is lame, it’s still a big part of the story here, so it’s worth addressing where the album is slightly more successful at this stuff: much better is the duet with Nick Cave on I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, though even it turns out to fall short of its potential. This Gothic Americana all-star match-up should’ve had all the earthshaking dream-team power of the Hulk teaming up with Superman (or, you know, something) but just seems kind of phoned in. But at least it’s not totally fucking awful. And though it pains me to admit it, the rendering here of shit into gold on some Nine Inch Nails song called Hurt is a dark, brilliant attention-grabber almost on the level of Cash’s devastating version of Cave’s The Mercy Seat (found on the last Cash/Rubin go-around, American III: Solitary Man).

Even more successful, and not surprisingly, are the original songs: album opener The Man Comes Around is as stark and chilling as anything Cash has done, and features a crackly spoken intro (Cash reading from the Book of Revelation) that’s infused with more dread and apocalyptic portent than most death sentences. And the song describing titular murderer Sam Hall’s unrepentant misanthropy is bracing in its bluntness and black humor.

Sam Hall also features the album’s most robust vocal performance. Cash’s recent health troubles are no secret, and throughout much of the rest of this disc he sounds positively frail. This documentation of noticeable decline might be a little shocking, but it’s mitigated by the fact that it feels honest. Cash has always displayed a frank vulnerability that, matched with his resonant, substantial voice and heavyweight subject matter, gave even his simplest songs a remarkable depth and complexity. Though it’s the result of unwanted circumstance, emphasizing this vulnerability has enhanced the humility and humanity of Cash’s art. Which only makes the inclusion of those publicity-stunt cover tunes more despicable.

Though its achievements do outstrip its washouts, American IV: The Man Comes Around ultimately has the feel of a fading light. If Cash went out with this uneven album as his legacy’s capstone it’d be a damn shame, so let’s hope that turns out to not be the case.

Isotope 217° utonian_automatic
Ostensibly an attempt to reclaim funky, free-form fusion from the noodling guitar-tech camp, utonian_automatic comes complete with post-jam studio splicing a la Teo Macero (here performed by Chicago “post-rock” darlings Bundy K. Brown and John McEntire). Perhaps more careful editing would have tightened up these limp workouts, but it’s doubtful. Isotope 217° have been playing and improvising together for several years, but one wouldn’t have to look too hard to find a high school marching band with more dynamic chops.

The drums are robotic and tinny. Solos meander endlessly, devoid of even the fleeting pleasures gleaned from showy displays of instrumental prowess. Much of the album is awash in the kind of analog synth bleeps and burps that have become trite and inescapable in alternative rock. And it never coalesces – without a hardy life support system of robust player interaction, it’s just random ideas kicked out into the open to wilt.

Certainly the band should be commended for employing open-ended conceptual strategies (including echoing dub effects, attempts at creating taut funk that erupt from ambient soundscapes, wobbly slide guitar, etc.) The problem is, none of it really works. Instead of experimental juxtaposition, the overall effect is one of switching channels because nothing good is on.

If this album is meant as a smart-ass parody of insipid, self-indulgent musical excess, it’s brilliant. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Wolf Eyes Dead Hills (Troubleman)
Is there anything more pretentious than the hyperbole of hardcore punk weenies just discovering life beyond their own depleted scene?

No:

“Finally! WOLF EYES crowning achievement, a piece which captures the potential of the band like no other release by them has come before. Dead Hills is a world where NEGATIVE APPROACH has gotten in a fist fight with WHITEHOUSE while beating the shit out of an 808 drum machine, and spat out the heaviest punk rock record ever made. The first time I heard punk rock, it was this sound, pure noise with people screaming at the top of their lungs, tearing into every part of me. Determined to find exactly what was at the bottom, I listened over and over and slowly found more and more each time. Dead Hills is such a record. This is NOT a noise record, NOT an experimental record, this is WOLF EYES as they are. This band is constantly moving forward and constantly changing, making you dance and laugh one night, and crouch and vomit the next.”

That’s the label’s description. Dance and laugh? Crouch and vomit? What the fuck? Nobody does that shit when they listen to this stuff. They just sit around and listen to it, or wash their dishes or read a book or something. Christ. What kind of life does this idiot lead? I’ve only ever seen people dancing and laughing along with booty rap and the shit they play at weddings, like Naked Eyes and the Go-Go’s. And the only times I’ve felt like crouching and vomiting involved bad sour cream or something, not some fucking… album.

And it doesn’t sound a damn thing like the sharp thrash of Negative Approach or the rumbling, “transgressive” sheet-noise of Whitehouse either. It’s a deliberately primitive throwback to the chunky, experimental electronic punk of Throbbing Gristle and early Cabaret Voltaire. Which also means it fucking sounds just exactly like the other two Wolf Eyes CDs I’ve heard. Moving and changing my ass.

Anyway, it’s pretty good, if a bit short.

Dave Douglas The Infinite
Dave Douglas brings his composer’s sensibility to The Infinite, resulting in a sound that’s rich without being dense, atmospheric without being dissolute. In a Silent Way is a clear reference point, but this album also carves out its own identity: The intimate, conversational tones of Douglas’ trumpet and Chris Potter’s tenor sax and bass clarinet are showcased, but Uri Caine’s contrapuntal keyboards are also featured heavily. Married to Clarence Penn’s rollicking backbeat, the funky Fender Rhodes recalls The Meters as much as Miles. For all their languid warmth, Douglas and Potter don’t shy away from displays of passion, either. Pealing trumpet lines frequently soar out of contemplative sections like dawn breaking in fast-forward, and Potter’s energetic soloing gives the song “Penelope” plenty of momentum. There’s an essential humanity found throughout, exemplified in the emotional range of the track “Waverly,” which moves from lyrical, almost mournful balladry to wry playfulness quickly and gracefully.

Despite its prominence in the press materials, focusing on the inclusion here of songs originally recorded by Mary J. Blige, Bjork and Rufus Wainwright would do Douglas a disservice. Keep in mind the long tradition of improvising from pop melodies as well as jazz’s penchant for absorption and what initially seems frivolous or gimmicky becomes conceptually palatable. More significantly, in practice the song selection and sequencing come off seamlessly. The Infinite sidesteps pandering on its way to accessibility, moving from strength to strength without hesitation.

Lightning Bolt Wonderful Rainbow (Load)
Two punk muppets spend an entire album attempting simultaneous breakneck covers of Van Halen’s “Eruption” using only drums and very, very distorted bass. Lightning Bolt is clearly the greatest band in the universe.

Peaches The Teaches of Peaches (Matador)
Potty-mouthed queer-theorist deadpans primitive surrealist rhymes over a ramshackle tribute to the self-titled 1982 album by Vanity 6. Fantastic, as long as you don’t listen to it more than twice.

Placebo Sleeping with Ghosts (Astralwerks)
This is kind of like the Buzzcocks covering Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” only a lot more gay. It’s got the beautifully narcissistic, melancholy feel of glam-era Bowie and clove-smoking British pop from the ‘80s, and should be pretty damn effective as a soundtrack for drama-queen breakdowns for years to come. Or months. Whatever, you capricious little bitch.

Arab On Radar The Stolen Singles (Three One G)
A career-spanning overview of creepy, degenerate bad vibes from this now-defunct band. Often associated with the current crop of groups revisiting New York City’s atonal no-wave scene of the 1970s, Arab On Radar have more in common with the slow-moving, willful cretins of early American hardcore punk, like Flipper and No Trend. Overall it’s like a whining, juvenile-delinquent Captain Beefheart ditching Howlin’ Wolf for, uh, I don’t know… Cough syrup or something. Fun.

Savage Republic Recordings from Live Performance, 1981-1983 (Independent Project Records)
Scenic The Acid Gospel Experience (Hidden Agenda/Parasol)
High volume illuminates these two CDs, bookends to Savage Republic founding member and Scenic head Bruce Licher’s musical career as it currently stands.
Recordings from Live Performance, 1981-1983 is the first CD issue of what was available in 1992 as a double 10” vinyl record. The recordings date from

Savage Republic’s inception, and feature different versions of songs available elsewhere as well as a few not found on other releases.
The crude recordings mirror the songs, which at this stage of the band’s evolution display more exuberant primitivism than the lilting, cinematic wash of sound found on later albums. It’s still a brainy kind of primitivism, reflecting the band members’ art-school backgrounds even if it doesn’t display the group’s eclectic musical references (echoing, bleak post-punk by way of Public Image Ltd., The Cure and Joy Division; droning Arabic and Greek music; soundtracks; psychedelic ‘60s rock and a junkyard approach to percussion) as efficiently as the more sophisticated later recordings.

Listeners who respond to mood more than technicality won’t have a problem with the bare-bones recording quality, which contributes to the overall atmosphere of thudding, high-spirited playfulness. The liberal application of volume removes some of the muddiness from the sound, making each piece of the skeletal arrangements plain and revealing that Savage Republic early in its development possessed the ability to hit and ride a distinct, loping groove that evokes more than mimics the hypnotic early records by experimental German group Can.

Because later versions of the songs are substantially different, longtime fans of Savage Republic will enjoy this document for its glimpse into the progression of a fascinating, unique band. Music fans appreciating the primeval, eternal appeal of pounding on things and hollering will likely get a kick out of this CD as well, even if it doesn’t make for the best introduction to the group’s music.

Slick and polished, The Acid Gospel Experience couldn’t be more different from early Savage Republic. On this instrumental album the five-member Scenic grafts layer upon layer of guitar, synthesizer, effects, vibes, glockenspiel, percussion and all manner of sundry things to build towering aural sculptures that aimlessly drift in the air or whoosh through space with a kind of forward drive not usually associated with ambient music.

Raising the volume here clears out away some of the syrupy gloss that threatens to drown the songs, giving the listener the opportunity to get lost in the shimmering tiers of sound. Supple lap steel and twangy western guitar are some of the more engaging elements found floating over all that glimmering custard; less successful are the ill-advised, jarring sitar flourishes, which would be more at home in some crude parody of “ethnic” music.

Still, one shouldn’t fault the band for its maximalist approach. It makes for an unpredictability not often found in ambient music and it rewards close listening as much as (if not more than) it functions as sonic wallpaper, successfully fulfilling Brian Eno’s dictums for the genre. And its thickly spread everything-goes strategy gives it legs other ambient releases just don’t have.

Special mention should be made of the excellent packaging, which is innovative without sacrificing function: both CDs come in typically attractive, full-color cardboard discfolios designed by graphic artist Licher.

Mario Pavone Nu Trio/Quintet Mythos
Absolutely dynamite forward-thinking jazz from bassist Mario Pavone, who has worked with innovators like Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon and Paul Bley as well as participated in the fabled New York loft scene of the 1970s and Wadada Leo Smith’s Connecticut-based Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum with NY Downtown scene stalwarts George Lewis, Gerry Hemingway and Pheeroan AkLaff.

Pavone is a sensitive accompanist and prodigious musician, and it’s rewarding to hear him pluck, grind and bend his notes, accenting the rhythms here without bullying the other players. Whether through intuition, design or both, he seems to have defined exactly the amount of lateral movement in which he can indulge without sacrificing his timekeeping duties, and he sticks to it.

Pavone is also a composer of formidable talent. Mythos is inspired by the work of piano trios both straightforward and avant-garde, and his songs are rollicking, rhythmically complex and bright, like clear rivers filled with tiny bells and chunks of diamond. Pavone has assembled a sympathetic, revolving cast of players to perform these brash, shiny tunes, but the album’s kernel is Pavone’s collaboration with pianist Peter Madsen, who no doubt held his outside inclinations in check when touring and playing with Stan Getz, Stanley Turrentine and Fred Wesley & the JB horns. Madsen’s pent-up tendencies explode in a rush of zipping, sometimes bluesy, sometimes scalar melodic lines shot through with contrapuntal left-hand work that brings to mind Cecil Taylor filtered through Duke Ellington’s sensibilities, and Pavone gives him plenty of space in which to cut loose.

Matt Wilson and Michael Sarin alternate on drums. Both are propulsive and up to the demanding time changes. Wilson especially has a distinctive, clattering style and can play surprisingly forcefully with brushes. Tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and trumpeter Steven Bernstein show up on three tracks (two of which are arranged by Bernstein), respectively honking Morse code transmissions and pealing off typically humorous, quizzical runs. No player is ever less than completely focused, and the remarkably tight performances really push this album into the realm of the extraordinary.



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