The band is called Surplus 1980 and it’s a successor to Mute Socialite, a band that impressed me with its punk energy, its jazz/prog complexity, and especially its tight musicianship. While I never saw Mute Socialite live, I really enjoyed their album, and once upon a time, I interviewed the whole band on the radio.
Mute Socialite started as a normal two-guitar rock quartet that eventually added trumpeter Liz Allbee. Surplus 1980 explodes the concept into a punchy pastiche, adding more horns, lots of vocalists (Mute Socialite, true to its name, was all-instrumental), a bit of piano here, a dose of bass clarinet there. I’m quite partial to the sound that the horns get on “Relapse in Response,” chirpy and riffy.
One nice thing about Kickstarter is that the artist can gather up small donations; you don’t have to put in more than the price of a CD if you don’t want to.
The other nice thing, though, is that Kickstarter can give a spotlight to projects that don’t have the publicity hook of live shows. Surplus 1980 is multilayered and instrumentally rich music, material that Moe! can’t show off, in full form, to bar and club crowds. That avenue of audience building (and revenue generating, assuming bands playing in clubs make any money) is closed.
In Cryptogramophone‘s characteristic attention to packaging, The Veil comes in a stiff cardboard gatefold colored in the grays and blacks of utter doom.
What makes me say “doom?” The beginning of the CD, actually, as the quick plunge into “Railroaded” tells you these guys are out for blood. They’re making a horror movie here: Tim Berne‘s sax squealing at helium density, Nels Cline shredding mercilessly, and Jim Black splattering the crowd with snare fills.
BB&C — previously called “The BBC” and “Sons of Champignon” — aims for the epic, performing long improvisations with a big sound. The Veil presents us with a 45-minute piece, split into seven uninterrupted tracks, followed by a 13-minute encore.
After that enjoyable jolt of an opening, the music does calm down and spread out. The second phase, “Impairment Posse,” gets Berne and Black into a more friendly, funky groove with Cline spewing electric sparks like an I-beam going through a supernatural woodchipper. “The Barbarella Syndrome” comes across like more of a Berne-led piece, albeit with heavier guitar. It’s got a quick-footed pace and taut, bouncy sax improvising, and Cline keeps the volume pedals and distortion down a bit for a cleaner, closer-to-jazz sound. It’s still quite aggressive; you can sense the beads of sweat on their foreheads.
A trademark Jim Black solo is always a treat, and we’re granted one on “The Dawn of the Lawn.” Cline adds some shimmering, slow guitar chords to create a proggy sheen — I feel like I’ve been comparing everything to prog lately, but Cline’s music makes the comparison apt, and there are moments on here that remind me of the electric/electronic landscapes Berne helped weave with David Torn’s Prezens.
The encore piece, titled “Tiny Moment,” is the cooldown, with moments of creeping calm that twice build up to an icy intensity.
I think all three members would like to think of The Veil as a departure for them, individually. Maybe less so for Cline. But the familiar elements do poke through: Cline’s skywriting-sized electronic tapestries (and that merciless shredding, as on the closing minutes of “Rescue Her”); Black’s unbounded energy, driven beats, and subtle sleight of hand; and Berne’s talent for telling long, captivating tales, latching onto the occasional riff as a tool to build the atmosphere for the next improvisational chapter. You know the elements. You just haven’t heard them mixed like this.
The Veil gets officially released June 7, but an order placed to Berne’s Screwgun Records might bring one to your mailbox earlier than that.
Longer answer: As some of you are aware, I’m a family man and I’ve got an actual job outside of music. Between a short-handed situation at home (think of a power play in hockey, where every goal allowed equals a kid evading bedtime), Mother’s Day, and the fact that I had a crack-of-dawn flight to New York the next morning … I had to make an executive decision.
Depending on your point of view, I either did something really noble or wussed out.
I miss a show for similar reasons just about every month, but this one really hurt. The musicians put so much work into learning these songs, and it might have been my only chance to see these songs live. It would have been thrilling to watch them pull off “R.E.S.” (Don’t know the song? Video here.)
Congratulations to all involved, and to Dominique Leone and Moe Staiano for pulling it off. Wish I coulda been there.
But Wait There’s More: (Update 5/28) … Of course, I should have realized Polly Moller and Amar Chaudhary would blog about their experiences being part of this show.
I was wondering about this latest music from Anthony Braxton. He calls it Echo Echo Mirror House, and it builds on his Ghost Trance Music by giving the players iPods (or similar playback devices) loaded with Braxton compositions. They can add these recordings into the mix, like another element of improvisation, another flavor in the spice cabinet.
The insertion of compositional modules was already part of Ghost Trance Music, or at least part of the hour-long pieces Braxton would assemble under that banner. I’d mentioned it recently here.
The iPod element of Echo Echo sounds riskier, though. Players would have to know those recordings awfully well in order to select precisely the best one for the moment, wouldn’t they? Or, is it left to chance: Start a playback, see what happens?
And is there tempo control enforced here? Ghost Trance Music doesn’t exactly work in march-time rhythms, but it’s got a march feel, and it seems like it would be disruptive to add another march in a different step.
Echo Echo Mirror House has gotten some live performances recently, including one at the Victoriaville FIMAV festival, so I cast about for any reviews. And I found a short remark on François Couture’s Monsieur Délire blog that would suggest he shares my concerns about the format. He describes the seven players’ iPods as an added layer of music. “C’est trop,” he writes: It’s too much.
I’ll be interested to hear for myself someday. The idea of modular composition and performance appeals to me, and I like that Braxton is still toying with the concept.
I like CDs and LPs, unapologetically. After all, your newfangled MP3s can’t do this:
That’s a diptych of CDs from Steven Lugerner, a former Bay Area musician who’s back in town Thursday night, May 26, to promote both of those releases at Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco.
I’ve gotten only an aural glimpse via Bandcamp. One of the CDs, These Are the Words, involves transcribing passages of the Torah into numerical codes that become tone rows. The results, pensive and chamber-like, are played out by a quartet of familiar names: Myra Melford (piano), Darren Johnston (trumpet), Matt Wilson (drums).
Narratives, the other CD, features a sextet of names that are new to me. Its tone is closer to regular jazz, with airy, supple horn arrangements and comforting piano. It’s music that can share a bill with Fred Hersch (and it will, at Herbst Theater in San Francisco in October).
I’m looking forward to giving each disc a listen and, eventually, to hearing the music live. I can’t make Thursday’s show, but Lugerner will return to Red Poppy on July 7. He’ll also be at Yoshi’s Oakland on July 25 and at Herbst on Oct. 30.
And no, I didn’t write all this just to show off the word “diptych.”
When a Bay Area band gets an endorsement from Fred Frith, it means something. There’s a high chance Frith saw them live and/or taught them as students at Mills. He’s got an informed opinion.
Like Frith’s band, Cosa Brava, Jack o’ the Clock could be called artsy pop or song-oriented prog: airy melody lines, complex rhythms. It’s the kind of album that would have a violin on it (Emily Packard) and a bassoon (played by Kate McLoughlin, and the bassoon even gets funky on “Last of the Blue Bloods,” one of my favorite tracks here). The melodies are catchy, the composing tickles my prog ear, and the musicianship is solid.
On the prog scale, this is folky, often easygoing stuff. I don’t mean Canterbury/Ren-Faire stuff (although you get a dose of that with the gentle acoustic-guitar picking of “Shrinking.”) I mean that there’s a banjo here and there, and lots of acoustic guitar. The vocals and the violin and bassoon trace melodies of the open air, sunlight through a thick forest of tree branches.
There’s even an outright jam-band feel on “Back to the Swamp,” which travels at an easygoing rock pace to produce the catchiest song on the album.
For prog sticklers, there’s the 10-minute suite, “First of the Year,” which has some nicely twisty acoustic guitar lines followed later by some intense electric guitar and bassoon. The song pulls a lot from Jack o’ the Clock’s pack: the sweetness of violin, the percolating sounds of the bassoon and electric bass, a wide variety of musical themes, and some outright nice melodies (instrumental and sung).
Principal songwriter Damon Waitkus gets some nice lyrical moments in. On “Schlitzie, Last of the Aztecs, Lodges an Objection in the Order of Things,” there’s set of lines, sung in lovely harmony with McLoughlin, that I really love: “‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7,’ you said / You even gave us 9 and 10 / But leave your filthy eights at the door.” That track also has some nicely bubbling electric bass from Jason Hoopes.
Another one that sticks with me: “The flag says the purpose of this life is to borrow your ass out of debtors’ prison,” Waitkus sings on “Looking In,” a pretty and somber piano/voice interlude.
You’ll probably know right away whether How Are We Doing is for you. I was hooked from the opening, where percussionist Jordan Glenn starts knocking out a marimba rhythms, small and unassuming and full of promise, with tension built by some electronic tweakings by The Norman Conquest.
This is terrific music — likeable, substantial, and deserving of an audience. You can be do your part on June 30 — Jack o’ the Clock will be playing the Brick and Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco that day.
After that, they’ll share a bill with Cosa Brava (something I didn’t know when I started writing this entry): Sunday, Aug. 14 at the Great American Music Hall.
When Steve Lehman goes off on one of those saxophone runs, a cascading of notes like a Swiss watch in overdrive, I think of precision and tension. Neither trait is unique to Lehman in jazz, but the way he builds his music, the steely supermodern choices of notes, the busy backing rhythms he prefers, creates a special kind of tension, like a steel cable so taut it can’t be plucked, only hammered like a xylophone to produce perfect tones of glass. (Ignore the impossible physics, I’m being artistic here.)
I got to experience some of this in person Wednesday night. Taking advantage of a rare trip to New York, I stopped by The Jazz Gallery to see Lehman play in trio, with Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums. The Jazz Gallery is a little second-floor space in western Soho just above Canal Street. It’s a quiet neighborhood with some big commercial properties; my cab took me past old industrial buildings a parking lot for a UPS fleet.
The venue’s name is literal. It’s a small photo gallery — framed portraits of Ornette on the walls — devoted to jazz performance. Few frills, no refreshments. Like The Stone, it exudes a serious dedication to the music, but with white walls instead of The Stone’s insulating black. It’s a narrow room with just enough space for a small stage and several dozen folding chairs. I opted to sit on the padded benches in the back — more comfortable there.
We got a lot of the steely, supermodern Lehman, but some of his loosest playing came on cover tracks — one a swingy Duke Pearson song that got the ultra-post-bop treatment in Lehman’s solo, another Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), played against busy drums and an ominous bass pedal tones — one note up and down different octaves. Lehman took the “Pure Imagination” theme through a sinewy disaggregation and wound up in hard, overblowing territory for his solo.
As often happens in a cozy venue, the bass was tough to hear, dominated by the toms and bass drum. I liked the work I heard from Brewer, though, and Reid was a monster on drums, at one point trading fours with Lehman in flurries of fast thunder.
Like I said, we got a lot of Lehman’s modernism, too. It was during “Alloy,” an aptly titled composition of his from a few years back, that the image of the taut cable came to me, during one of his long runs that build and build. It’s not just that he doesn’t hit resolution; the key to the sound lies deeper into the choices of notes. It’s his language and part of what makes his playing special.
The set ended with “Allocentric,” a word that, according to Lehman, can describe a directional sense based on objective directions (north, east, west) as opposed to egocentric (left, right, ahead). Allocentric orientation is like the world on a grid, and “this one definitely has a grid,” Lehman said. It was a quirky song, with bass and drums stumbling through a complex, slowed-down rhythm while Lehman cut across the lines like a jaywalker. A nice way to end the set, it was captivating but not what you’d call catchy, a fresh twist on what we’d been hearing.
Lehman said this trio is preparing to take the music on the road to Europe for a week in June, and he thanked us for being part of the NYC laboratory for working the material. They’ll also be at The Stone Aug. 23 and 24.
Wouldn’t you think I’d put some of that interview onto this blog?
Ha! You’d be wrong! Until now, that is, when a combination of having-enough-time and finally-thinking-about-it has brought you this transcript. I’ll add the edited-down audio later if I get the chance.
If you still don’t know this band — they’re crazed prog/punk, sometimes loopy, sometimes full of big evil guitars, always rocking and mind-numbingly complex. You can sample their output on YouTube and on iTunes, and you can skip straight to the Zappa part of the interview for Leone’s descriptions of the music.
How would you describe Cardiacs? You’re walking up to a friend, and they’ve never heard of this band — who are these guys?
DL: Cardiacs are an English band. They’re originally kind of a post-punky band that started in the late ’70s, although even then they were kind of out there and [had], I don’t know, a little of a circus atmosphere to a lot of their songs. But the energy and the speed and just the visceral activity of a punk band — a good punk band, too. These guys are not holding anything back.
When I first heard them, I was kind of amazed. I actually first heard one of their later albums — that was the first thing I heard by them. They’re one of these bands that — they just kind of turned it up with each record, and by the end, they were really an extremely amazing over-the-top kind of band, in a lot of different respects.
Yeah, and they have videos on YouTube, especially when they do the older stuff — they had a whole stage act going, makeup and everything. Pretty amazing. How did you find out about this band? Because their stuff is hard to find in the U.S.
DL: It’s really hard to find. I actually had trouble finding it when I wanted it. I first heard them from a friend who happened to have some of the old LPs. He thought I might like it, he played it for me, and I was floored.
But when I went out in the world and tried to find it … no record stores had them — this was back in the days when there were record stores, five years ago — so I went online and tried to look for them. There’s not really any place online where you can get them. So, I eventually found my way to the actual distributor’s web site that has a whole catalog, thousands of records, 10 of which are Cardiacs records. I just bought it directly from them. And now, that’s not even available. I don’t think that any Cardiacs records are in print — not because there’s not demand for them, but because Tim Smith, unfortunately, has health problems and can’t run his own business. He can’t take the time and talk to the people that he needs to talk to to get your records out into the world. He’s just kind of bedridden. That’s definitely a big reason why we’re doing this concert.
[As noted above, all Cardiacs records are now available on iTunes.]
Why don’t we talk a little bit about Tim Smith’s condition.
DL: Well, first of all, we want to help him take care of himself. Tim Smith had a stroke [following a June 2008 heart attack] and ever since then, he can’t perform. He can’t sing, he can’t finish the record that — at least a part of the instrumental track is already done. He can’t put his vocals on top of that. So all we’re doing with this benefit is: Try to raise a little money, try to help him take care of himself, and hopefully help him get back to a position where he can finish a Cardiacs record or at least help make his catalog available, help live out the rest of his life in a manner that’s not bedridden — that’s healthy, [where he] can enjoy what he’s created.
Now, this is obviously not “normal” music. Which is good! — “not-normal” in a good way…
DL: Speak for yourself!
… But in putting together a benefit, finding people and bands to play this music — I’m imagining it was pretty difficult.
DL: It’s tough finding people who A) know the tunes at all or B) can play the tunes. We were just talking earlier today — I schedule more rehearsals for this concert than I would normally schedule for a regular show with my band. And we’re only playing, like, two songs. It’s gonna take that much focus and shedding to get them down.
I’m playing a song called “Dirty Boy,” which is kind of — I mean, I would say it’s the greatest Cardiacs song, or one of the greatest. It’s an epic tune, but unfortunately, with a chord change every measure. For about eight minutes.
We’re gonna try to pull that off. We’re gonna try to do it. The other one — I’m actually not decided [on] what other one we’re gonna do, so you’ll have to come and see.
How many bands are involved here?
DL: It’s changing every day, but at the moment, I believe there are seven bands involved…? I actually need to consult with Moe, because Moe is the one sending me the band updates. But I know, myself, of seven.
That’s pretty impressive, just finding that many people who already know the band and/or are dedicated enough to know the songs.
DL: Thank you.
A lot of comparisons come up when you read old reviews of this band. They talk a lot about Frank Zappa, a lot about Captain Beefheart. Do you find those valid? Do you find that an accurate way to describe the band?
DL: Eh, not so much. I mean, Frank Zappa — he’s one of these guys that, in some way, you can see his music applying to Cardiacs because, if nothing else, it’s hard to play. And the tunes themselves are certainly unorthodox chord changes, unorthodox melodies.
But there’s not a lot of soloing. It’s really more of a band thing. It’s all about the actual composition as opposed to — when I think of Frank Zappa, I think of composition, but I also think of 20-minute-long guitar solos, and that doesn’t really happen in Cardiacs. More apt would be something like Devo, early Devo-ish kind of stuff, where it’s definitely coming out of post-punk and new wave, but also deranged — it’s like a deranged art band. That’s more similar to what I’d say Cardiacs is coming from.
Now, their last stuff — it’s — I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s kind of like if Queen had been a punk band. [My chosen example, below, isn’t all that punky, but there’s some Queen-ness.]
Everything’s overdriven, everything’s these huge epic productions, and just — everything’s turned up into the red. It reminds me a little bit of a Zach Hill kind of energy, except that you have these four-part harmonies and these circusy melodies. It’s definitely music that’s hard to play, in some cases hard to listen to, but it’s awesome, and it’s just this huge high. That’s what Cardiacs is. This huge glowing high. That’s what’s hard to pull of, and that’s why we’re going to try to do it.
I guess we should point out, too — the band has two distinct phases. They had saxophone and xylophone early on, for a very circusy sound.
DL: Yeah, and they still have, on their later records, some saxophone stuff. But I think their earlier records were a little bit more loopy as far as the marimba playing and the jerkiness of things. A lot of that’s down to when it was happening. There were a lot of herky-jerky-sounding bands in 1978.
Yeah, I guess you could call it two phases, because by the ’90s, everything had certainly become a little bit more — I don’t even know how to describe it. Like this sun mushroom. Jagged-edge, post-punk, really wiry kind of music.