Back Pages #5: Amy X. Neuburg and Men … and the Spatula of Eternity

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

I don’t have much of a story to go with this one. What I have is the spatula:

amyxspatulaIt’s from an Amy X. Neuburg and Men concert at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. They were promoting the album Sports! Chips! Booty!, which came out on the Racer label in 1998. The spatula, made of simple flexible plastic, lasted from then until November 2019. That’s possibly 20 years of flipping kid-sized pancakes and frozen hash browns patties — multiple uses per week, with breaks only for vacations.

I’m not exaggerating. This thing got mileage, and I like to believe it was the last of its litter still in active use. It finally cracked this past November, and after some tense moments in the trauma center (Krazy Glue station), it’s been retired to a place of honor atop my CD cabinet.

Looking at that spatula, really looking at it for the first time in years, made me think about the band. Oh wow, the band.

Amy X. Neuburg has built an impressive career mixing songwriting, electronic percussion, dense loops of precise harmonizing (a one-woman choir), and a prog-rock degree of difficulty. Catchy melodies, thoughtful introspection, and a giddy sense of humor permeate her work, including The Secret Language of Subways (MinMax, 2009), the tour de force suite she wrote for herself and three cellists.

Amy X. Neuburg and Men was a playful prog-pop outfit with Neuburg fronting on lead vocals and percussion while the all-“men” band added backing vocals, usually as a unified block. Her husband, Herb Heinz, played guitar (he released some worthy records himself during this era), and Joel Davel added MIDI-driven xylophone and marimba. In good ’90s prog fashion, the band had a Chapman Stick, played by Micah Ball. J.T. Quillan III didn’t play an instrument but looked good in a tux (and sang), which was part of the whimsy.

Following the more serious Utechma album (Racer, 1995), Sports embraced the band’s goofy side, with tongue-in-cheek artsy tunes like “The Shower Song” But the band was also about crisp musicianship and Neuburg’s gift of rich melody, as on the languid “Orange County.” Live, the band was joyous and bouncing, and I’m sure I saw them at the Starry Plough at least twice.

The spatula was a nod to Sports single, “Big Barbecue.” But the track that really sold me was “Naked Puppets.” It opens with some electronics improvising, then bursts into King Crimson-worthy guitar, some fun rhymes, and a prog-circus finale.

You can hear tracks including “Shower Song” and “Big Barbecue” on Amy X. Neuburg’s website. The band’s albums are available on CD Baby and Amazon, where you can sample other treats such as the cover of King Crimson’s “Waiting Man.”

Part of My Childhood Died

kfog-logo-2019-billboard-1548I’m still surprised at how deeply I mourned the lost of KFOG, a radio station I hadn’t earnestly listened to since about 2008. Even in the years leading up to then, I would tune in occasionally only for the “10 at 10” show (which inevitably lost some luster after Dave Morey retired), nothing more. College radio and avant-jazz gripped my soul around the turn of the century, and I’ve mostly left the classic rock world behind.

But KFOG wasn’t a normal rock station. For its first 15 years or so, DJs had a lot of leeway. The station did have a rotation and a specific “sound” — it had parameters. But the occasional deep album track was permitted, even encouraged. Weekly theme shows dug deep to fit their themes. It was on the eclectic “Headphones Only” program that I first heard 10cc’s epic “One Night in Paris” and Thomas Dolby’s shimmery, floating “Screen Kiss.”

More importantly, KFOG grew up with me. The station switched to a rock format in 1982, my sophomore year in high school. It became our soundtrack, and it stood out as superior against the four or five similar options on the dial. I carried KFOG with me through college, becoming a fringe member of the “fogheads,” as fans called themselves.

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M. Dung, host of the a.m. commute time slot and the Sunday Night Idiot Show.

This was the kind of community that commercial radio no longer tries to foster. Late in the ’80s, the station ran a poll to pick the top 1,045 songs of all time (matching the station’s 104.5 frequency on the dial). Local rock stations did this all the time, with “Stairway to Heaven” always coming in at No. 1. Not this time; KFOG listeners picked “A Day in the Life.” And the top choices from major bands were deep cuts that I had never encountered. The top Supertramp song was “Hide in Your Shell.” The top CSN (and sometimes Y) song was Graham Nash’s “Cathedral” — and holy cow, I had no idea Nash had ever written something so intense.

KFOG was never a perfect blueprint for my tastes. They didn’t like prog rock; I didn’t like Led Zeppelin. But we were sympatico in that dance of discovery that radio can be so good at. As I started dating my wife, she would comment that I seemed to own everything KFOG played. It wasn’t remotely true — but they could easily spin four or five songs in a row that were on my shelves, and I would always point this out just to annoy her.

By the mid-’00s, KFOG began succumbing to corporate blandness, and the decline kicked into full gear by the time Dave Morey left in 2008. I stopped listening shortly after.

But if you don’t know: Cumulus Media, KFOG’s final owner, understood the station’s impact and gave it one last farewell. Radio stations don’t normally get that. When KFOG switched formats in 1982, it simply switched. It was planned and pre-publicized (as opposed to a WKRP-style coup) but also abrupt. That’s the business. In contrast, KFOG’s final night — Sept. 6, 2019 — was a marathon of old shows from the archives, the familiar voices of old friends long gone and tunes that I had not heard for 10 or even 20 years. It was all pre-recorded, but the shows were selected with a fan’s ear. It was closure.

All this reminds me of another high school memory: reading William Faulkner and his famous quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even though I honestly wouldn’t enjoy hearing peak-era KFOG for hours on end, so many of my musical choices tie back to those early days. The KFOG I loved has been gone for nearly two decades, but it’s different to know that it’s now gone. This is what it really means to move on, I suppose.

Down the Spectral Rabbit Hole

lehman-travail-pi-recordingsI love sfSound Radio. It’s a continual shuffle-play of experimental and improvised music, from fully scripted modern classical to spontaneous noise. And during work, it’s a great way to shake the cobwebs and bring some avant-garde street cred to my desk.

Like any good radio, it’s also a way to discover new sounds. And so it was that I recently heard a sparse strings piece that I liked, which pulled me into the world of spectral music and made me reconsider Steve Lehman’s recent octet albums.

grisey-espacesThe piece was the introductory movement of Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques — solo viola, it turns out. That led me to give the complete album-length composition a listen. As with minimalism, Grisey’s music is a rethinking of what the orchestra can do. Les Esapces is a roiling sea of sound, not so much divided into discrete events (like waves on a beach) as presenting continuous shades of emotion. Abstractness aside, it does feel like a narrative, one full of unsettling emotions.

I’m not sure what to make of the Epilogue, where a pair of horns lash out on composed unison phrases, almost playfully. Behind them, the orchestra maintains a sparkling sheen hinting at heavy thoughts and universal mysteries. But as the piece ends, the sheen drops — we’re left with the horns and a drum. The contrast feels like it’s meant to be a silly touch at the end of this epic piece, but that seems out of character. It can’t be that simple.

Only after doing all this listening did I look up Grisey and learn that he’s the composer tied to the idea of spectral music — compositions that use the lingering harmonics of notes to create the “spectral” sheen that sounded so special to me. (Grisey did not coin the term “spectral” and apparently didn’t like it.)

I’d heard of spectral music before. It made jazz headlines thanks to the Steve Lehman Octet.

But when Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi Recordings, 2009) was released, I gave it only a cursory listen, to see what this “spectral” stuff was about. And I didn’t immediately get it. I think I was expecting some overtly complex or ugly musical language, something brutally obvious as with microtonal music. The albums were good, but I didn’t feel “spectralized.”

The problem is that I paid too much attention to Lehman’s angular saxophone soloing. It’s fantastic, but he does that all over his other albums. What I should have noticed was the sheen, that uncomfortable rustling built out of subtle, off-kilter harmonies. After sitting with Grisey for so long, it was so obvious.

In contrast to Grisey’s overhang of impending doom, Lehman’s spectral sheen is bright, like sunlight bouncing off glass. Chris Dingman‘s vibraphone is the foundation, and it’s necessarily complemented by the horns to create a dissonant and lingering effect. You hear it right out of the gate on Travail, with “Echoes,” combining a ringing vibraphone chord with a combination of horns sounding a bright but slightly “off” harmonies.


On a track like “Segregated and Sequential” (from Mise en Abîme, Pi Recordings, 2014), the sheen is more implied, spoken in horn fragments while the vibraphone — a custom microtonal version, still played by Dingman — chimes away at a different tempo. “Autumn Interlude,” also from Mise, is based on a snappy theme and rhythm but intentionally drags itself down — both in tempo and mood — through the use of what sound like microtones on the trombone.

Tristan Murail is another composer strongly tied to spectral composition, and it turns out I’ve already enjoyed his piece “Winter Fragments” in my collection. Before, it just sounded nice; now it sounds all “spectral” to me. It’s interesting how much we can influence our own musical experiences. It makes a difference when you know what you’re listening for.

Real Life Rock and Roll Band

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Real Life Rock and Roll BandHollerin’ the Spirit (Geomancy, 2019)

Nothing fancy here, and that’s a good thing. Oakland-based Real Life Rock & Roll Band play guitar-guitar-bass-drums rock that feels like sunlight over wild grasslands, filling space with upbeat, fuzzed-out guitars, strong-snap drumming and ghostly vocals. Their album is out on the Geomancy label, which has done strong work documenting some of the Bay Area’s experimental-leaning music (Grex, Surplus 1980, Jordan Glenn).

The music unfolds into extended jams, sometimes with parts made of overlapping polyrhythms, but it can be enjoyed at a simpler level — it’s electric folk descended from psychedelia. Chris Forsythe might be a point of comparison.

“Singing the Freedom of Utopic Space” eventually develops a guitar chime in 5/4 and a keyboard loop in what I think is 15/8. It breaks for a pleasantly quiet, clicking groove in the middle, then ends with anthemic group shouting that reminds me of some of the alt-folk rock from earlier in the 2000s (The Circulatory System? Akron/Family?)


Even though the music is composed, it has a spontaneous feel, like being in the center of an idea that is just starting to unfold. The spinning hypnotic cycles of jangly guitar set you down in a comfortable place and encourage you to enjoy the view. One miscue, for me, is the use of autotune; for a band that describes themselves as “favoring the spirit of the music over the evasive monolith of perfection,” it feels too inorganic.

Take a listen to the ending moments of “Earthbound Phantoms Not Numerous.” The rest of the eight-minute song has played out at this point, shifting into an abstractly flickering cooldown — the band showing off its abstract side — the drops into “There Oughta Be a Law Against Sunny Southern California.” The latter is the album’s de facto single, in my mind — a 1975 Terry Allen song transformed from gritty highway blues to a low-key haze and a thousand-yard stare. Below, I’m including an excerpt of the transition between the songs, because I think it sounds cool, followed by all of “There Oughta Be a Law.” You can hear the whole album on Bandcamp.

Lords of Outland at 25

Lords of Outland play a house concert Saturday, Dec. 21, at a venue called Sunnyvale — venue details here.

Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland25 Years Under the Mountain (Edgetone, 2019)

romus-25The band has undergone many personnel changes, but the name continuity of the Lords of Outland survives as a bread-crumb trail through time. 25 Years Under the Mountain includes some compositions from the Lords’ back catalog, but it is not a retrospective CD — it’s the latest permutation of the Lords, a quartet with Alex Cohen joining on guitar.

Lords of Outland is a free-jazz collective that also takes cues from the darkness of H.P. Lovecraft; the alternating hopefulness and despair of science fiction; and the joyful open-mindedness of free improvisation. You have to admire saxophonist/leader Rent Romus’ drive, keeping his music and this band going. (He also runs the annual Outsound New Music Summit, which I ended up missing this year. He organizes and runs this thing every year, and I sat out a year from my exhausting duty of sitting and listening.)

Where previous Lords albums dabbled in electronics, 25 Years features Cohen’s prickly, springy guitar (he also plays viola da gamba for the gently free-form sprint “Homeward Bound.”) The rhythm section remains the same as in recent years: Ray Schaeffer on fluid, hardy six-stringed electric bass and Philip Everett adding constructive clatter on drums. You get a taste of their combined freedom and bombast in the intro to “Grown out of Stone:”

 
Lords of Outland has always spread out its influences both toward and away from the jazz tradition. “Systemic Fault is a breathless free-jazz sprint, while “Like tears in ice” has Romus playing in a smoky and even romantic mode. That track jumps straight into the bumpy rhythm of “Ape of God,” colored by standalone thwacks by Everett on drums. (The album includes a second take with fluid drumming that serves as a more conventional free-jazz launching pad.)

 
You can hear more of the album on Bandcamp.

Nicole Mitchell at Happylucky No.1

IMG_5786 brooklyn nostrand ave.I’ve stayed in Brooklyn multiple times and try to visit any time I’m in New York, but I don’t really see Brooklyn. I’m usually in the Park Slope area — quiet and gentrified, lots of trees, lots of bars and hip eateries. At twilight, the sidewalks fill with young couples pushing strollers. It’s not a far walk from Barclay’s Center and downtown, but it feels a world apart to me.

IMG_5792 thestone marqueeFarther east, you get into neighborhoods like Crown Heights, which is more old-school Brooklyn: a little grittier — or, really, just more well-worn. On a commercial street called Nostrand Ave. is an art gallery called happylucky no.1, where The Stone presents shows on weekends. I ventured out there to see Nicole Mitchell (flute) in an ebullient trio with Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Liberty Ellman (guitar) — three musicians whose recordings I’ve enjoyed but whom I’d never seen perform.

This was the weekend of an unseasonable arctic chill, and temperatures hovered near freezing all evening. That might have kept the audience low. Only four or five of us, not counting the two curators at the door, were on hand, but we got to see a vivacious set built around Mitchell’s compositions.

Even internationally known names like these three have faced small crowds before and still give it their all. They’re pros. This felt like something more, though, like a small party, with all three players in high spirits even before the show started and eager to dig into the work and share the music, even if only with a few people. The music was alive and fun, brimming with the energy of three players locked into the same zone.

Just down the block, on the other side of Nostrand, is a little burrito grill that serves empanadas. Someday, when it’s warmer, I’ll grab a bite there before stepping into happylucky no.1 for another show.

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Sound check, seen from the outside.
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Nicole Mitchell’s stage.

 

Binging ‘The Stone:’ Peter Evans, Nicole Mitchell, Aurán Ortiz

Early in November, for the first time in a few years, I was in New York with enough free time for some music. I didn’t intend to only see shows at The Stone, but it worked out that way.

I hadn’t been to The Stone since it moved. Originally a black-box venue on the lower east side, it’s struck up a partnership with The New School, an arts college up on West 13th Street, where The Stone now gets to occupy a comfortable streetside performance room. I got to see two shows there: Trumpeter Peter Evans with a chordless trio, and pianist Aurán Ortiz in trio demonstrating his Afro-Cubism concept.

The Stone also presents weekly or monthly shows at some ancillary venues. So on a Saturday night, I ventured deeper into Brooklyn than I’ve ever gone before, to Nostrand Avenue, for a chance to see Nicole Mitchell.

The usual Stone rules apply: No food or drink allowed inside, and no photography during the shows.

IMG_5753 peter evans stone

Peter Evans can do plenty with extended technique and sound experimentation, but he’s also adept in contexts closer to the jazz tradition, as with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. This set showed off both sides but leaned toward more traditionally “musical” sounds, using Evans’ compositions as a foundation and presenting lots of experimental twists (one piece focused heavily on air-through-the-horn sounds, for instance). Evans’ fast fast playing showed up quickly during the first piece — a flood of crystal-precision tones flowing over long unison tones from Alice Teyssier (flute) and Ryan Muncy (sax).

The three of them had performed together in a 50-person George Lewis concert where they apparently played the prankster role, moving through the mass of other musicians and generally causing trouble. Some of that attitude showed up here. One piece gave an unaccompanied solo to each player, and Muncy’s consisted of one long multi-tone wrested from the sax.

I wish I could remember more about the compositions themselves, but I remember it being a bright, easygoing set overall, with some challenging but pleasant assignments in the music. At times it felt like a casual chamber-music set, which I suppose was the theme of the concert in general.

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Source: Sound It Out NYC

Aruán Ortiz performed with Darius Jones (sax) and Ches Smith (drums) as the trio Firm Roots, presenting one long-form improvisation. Afro-Cubism, featured on his solo album Cub(an)ism (Intakt, 2017), comes across to me as a patient style of free playing, where pauses and quietude darken the dense, gnarled harmonies. I don’t mean to say it’s all slow — Ortiz does get into rapid, splashy playing. But he relishes the journey in getting there.

On a macro scale, the piece followed a fast-slow-fast progression — with plenty of deviations, of course, but the opening segment featured Jones in a forceful, declarative mode, favoring long herading tones, and the end built up to a more quick-handed intensity.

The Evans and Ortiz shows bookended my trip. In between there was Nicole Mitchell, and I’ll devote the next blog entry to that.

Steve Dalachinsky Tribute and a History Lesson

Downtown Music Gallery, in Manhattan, hosted a concert in honor of poet Steve Dalachinsky, shortly after he died in September. The event was lovingly filmed by Robert O’Haire.

While the music and poetry are good, the most valuable parts for me were the brief talks by DMG proprietor Bruce Lee Gallanter about Steve and the original Knitting Factory, the nexus for the “downtown” avant-jazz scene of the ’80s and ’90s. Skip ahead to the 26:30 mark for Gallanter’s story of one of the greatest solos ever taken.

I came to the scene only at the tail end of that era, and while I knew Dalachinsky’s name, I didn’t fully appreciate his place in the canon. Drawn into the music as a teenager after hearing Cecil Taylor, Dalachinsky was more than a fan; he chronicled the scene through his stream-of-consciousness poetry and also served as a friend, critic, and collaborator. I can see why he’s missed.