Houseplant, from Jim Black‘s Alas No Axis, won’t be available in North America until June, apparently. Yes, I could buy it online, but maybe I’ll just wait patiently. I’ve gone through worse for this band.
In 2000, the dot-com boom was still booming, and I was sent packing for one road trip after another. It was exhilarating as well as exhausting. Years later, I would learn that the paralyzing foot cramps and persistent sinus congestion could be cured by getting enough sleep, but that wasn’t an option at the time. I let myself get wrapped up in the drama — partly because the travel meant I could visit baseball stadiums and take in some Knitting Factory shows.
The height of my adventurousness came during a trip to Baltimore, when I found out drummer Jim Black would be in Philadelphia that same week, debuting his new band. I’d become a huge fan of Black’s, based on his playing with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. I’d tracked down CDs from band members Michael Formanek and Chris Speed, and from Human Feel, the quartet that Black and Speed populated in earlier days. A Jim Black-led band was something I didn’t want to pass up. I was traveling alone, tetherless. I had the budget to rent a car.
And so I made the daunting trip up I-95, the farthest I’ve ever driven for a show. The alien turf (in California, you don’t drive for two hours and cross states) was made worse by a downpour that pummeled me for all 100 miles. And while everyone on the east coast might know this, I didn’t: I-95 is a battlefield of speeding 18-wheeler trucks. In pouring rain. On a route I didn’t know. It was a white knuckle ride all the way.
Running late, I paid at the only parking lot I saw open (it was Sunday night, IIRC) and, soaking wet, walked up the steps to some unfamiliar theater that looked dark and shuttered up. I pried the door open. No one inside. It took several minutes to realize the show must be upstairs — in the third-floor attic, in fact. I had made it just in time. Alas No Axis, as the band would be called, had just finished their first tune (a two-minute blip) and were ready to lay into the song, “Optical.” Guitar and clarinet traced relaxed, bobbing lines, while Black’s patient drumming created the illusion of a tempo continually slowing down, even though the song kept a strong pace. I sat down, feeling warm and welcomed. It was all worth it.
Afterwards, Black sold us the Alas No Axis CD. Its official release date was still a week or so away; we were the first fans to get our hands on copies. Black is easy to chat up, so we talked about the band, about how guitarist Hilmar Jensson and bassist Skúli Sverrisson were both from Iceland. Wouldn’t that make gigs a rarity, I asked. Black shrugged it off. “They’re over here a lot,” he said.
I’ll admit, I didn’t believe him, and I felt a little sad to think I’d seen one of the few shows this band would ever play. I’m so glad I was wrong. Houseplant is the fifth Alas No Axis CD, and they seem to manage a tour every year, at least in Europe.
Black has forged a fresh sound with this band, and it deserves nurturing. It’s often closer to instrumental indie-rock than to jazz, particularly on songs like “Cheepa vs. Cheep” on the second album, Splay. I also catch the indie-instrumental vibe quite a lot on the third album, Habyor.
I don’t expect Houseplant to be any radical departure. Still, I’m anxious to hear what’s next up Black’s sleeve. A certain online retailer could get it to me for a reasonable price, but I don’t like to patronize them due to their wanton abuse of the U.S. patent system. (Yes, I know, the cry for a boycott ended years ago.) I can wait. It’s no more difficult than the dragons’ run up I-95.