Posts tagged ‘jess rowland’

Pathos at the Water Cooler

Jess Rowland — The Problem with the Soda Machine (Edgetone, 2008)

source: edgetone records.comI can’t be the only one who’s had this experience. Sometimes a pop song will stick in my head, and I’ll learn the chorus by heart and sing along every time. But the verses don’t absorb on the first, third, or tenth listens. Then, one day, I look up the lyrics, and — oh my god. The song’s about that??

I’m guessing — hoping, really — that people have a similar experience with Jess Rowland’s songs on The Problem with the Soda Machine.

It opens with “The Future of the Machines,” a pretty and likable bit of ’70s-styled rock, which chimes along, almost like a soda commercial: “We are faced / We are faced / with a choice about the future.” And if you listen a little further, you’ll hear it’s about “the future of the machines.” Sounds deep. But if you caught the first words of the song (or already read the description on the CD cover, no fair!), you realize it’s not about society and mankind, but about the soda machine, and the fact that the soda machine company isn’t making enough money off of this particular office.

Rowland’s concept album uses a chain of real office e-mails for its lyrics — and yes, the concept is the pondering and hand-wringing that went along with the possible changes in the vending machine environment in general. As anyone who’s worked in an office knows, these discussions always end up in self-serious digressions that hit bottom when someone throws in a literary quote. If you’re like me, you’ll feel the occasional urge to reach through the music and punch the e-mail writers.

But you’ll also be amused. You have to love a song that starts with, “If they would take the trouble to put in things that people want, they might make a go of it,” with the words awkwardly crammed together to fit a meter.

The ’70s air sticks throughout the album, a kind of pleasantly poppy prog rock — not “prog” in terms of aggressive complexity, but in the breezy chords favored by Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright, for instance. When Rowland adds organ to the piano/bass/drums/guitars mix, it definitely tickles the prog cortex. Other songs carry a friendly, 1973 FM-radio air.

I think the point is to bring a faux haughty seriousness to these dopey words; these are melodies that suggest grand lovey themes (which, back in 1973, were overblown to begin with). “Changing Their Tune” even touches on glam seriousness, and has the highlight of the words “cup o’ noooodles” sung in deadpan seriousness.

In terms of lyrical style, Soda Machine bears some similarity to the puppet opera that Rowland presented at this year’s Outsound New Music Summit. Soda Machine is based on catchier, less “classical”-sounding melody, and it doesn’t have the underlying sinister air (well, sometimes, like when the sitar and electronics come in on the opening track). It’s less overtly absurd, but still absurd. And the songs are fun to sing along with.

While listening, I felt compelled to check out what’s happening at Deadpan Inc. It’s a quasi-animated blog of small office discussions about recent news items. The fact that they’re in an office is mostly irrelevant, but the blog still feels like a soul brother to Soda Machine.

September 7, 2009 at 9:41 am Leave a comment

Outsound Summit: InterMedia Night

Bonfire Madigan (center)That’s Bonfire Madigan Shive behind the flames, at left, possibly living up to her name by handing out sparklers after her performance, which capped the Friday night (July 24) bill at the Outsound New Music Summit. It was an impromptu post-4th celebration, with the musicians whooping it up among the silhouetted light barrels that were the evening’s art installation (more about that later).

This was the InterMedia night in the Summit schedule, and the only night I could attend. I really wish I could have seen more, including the “Touch the Gear” mini-expo, but at least I got treated to some unique performances.

The place was packed, by the way, thanks to Madigan’s appearance, billed as a one-time, 36-minute piece. And you could tell who was there just for her set: the goth piercings, the dyed hair, the anarchist ripped-jeans look.

source: outsound.orgJess Rowland and The Dreamland Puppet Theater: An opera performed by marionettes, with prerecorded music and singing, and live piano accompaniment by Rowland. Surreal, especially with the prerecorded electronics sounds adding an eerie sheen even over the pleasant melodies. The source: outsound.orgsung lines followed dissonant paths and were recorded by untrained vocalists, possibly the puppeteers. Arch and serious music.

The story, though, was packed with random fun. Falou, the worst poet in the world, joins Amelia Earhart in her kingdom of the air. But Earhart turns out to have a dark side, and prodded by J. Edgar Hoover, she turns on Falou and banishes him. I probably shouldn’t give away the ending … let’s just say Falou has an epiphany and a transformation — some real dramatic pull there — but it also involves Britney Spears and Saskatchewan.

Rowland wrote the opera with the puppet theater in mind, and the DIY sets added some charm to go with the overall sense of humor. Still, there’s some quite serious stuff in there about the nature of art and freedom. The audience didn’t know quite what to make of it at first; you don’t want to laugh at what seems silly but might be quite serious, right? But when a glittery Michael Jackson comes down from the sky after someone mentions “god” … yeah, that pretty much sets the tone. Rowland apparently explores similar moods in The Trouble with the Soda Machine, which is based on e-mails from her work. I gotta hear that.

Light barrels, built by Guerrero/QuillianKathleen Quillian & Gilbert Guerrero: They’re visual artists, and they provided the installations outside the Community Music Center for the performance: translucent barrels of light with scenes silhouetted to the outside world, and subtle electronics sounds (the roaring, staticky kind) emanating from within.

Their performance, “Hypnodetonation,” involved taking snippets of films and selecting one instant to play on repeat. So on the screen, you saw that instant — a handful of frames — repeated over and over, accompanied by a barely discernable fragment of dialogue or music. Then they’d shift to the next fragment, adding its sound to the previous one. Then another. What built up, over time, was a writhing wall of sounds. Guerrero was picking the clips, and Quillian seemed to be doing the edit of the overall sound, fading out the older clips so the newer ones could take over. That produced a sense of slow migration in the piece. I liked it, but it went on awfully long.

Bonfire Madigan takes the stageBonfire Madigan Shive: Then came Bonfire Madigan, with the 36-minute “Portrait of the Artist as a Transliminal Criminal.” We were told it was divided into 12-minute thirds representing past, future, and present, but the divisions weren’t easy to discern. Oh, heck, I had no idea where the divisions were. But there was a very nice, bold instrumental theme that dominated the beginning and came back at the end, so maybe that was a clue.

After playing around with that main theme for some time, Madigan added a few songs of conventional length. Good stuff — she’s got a gruff delivery that goes well with tough cello slashings, and she contrasts that with passages of airy, gossamer melody. She has the theatricality of Tori Amos but doesn’t aim for that kind of delicacy; Madigan is more capable of punching to the gut.

Going with the “Intermedia” theme, Madigan had video running through the performance. Mostly this was a blurry image of the stage itself, for that mirror-within-a-mirror effect, but the final segment of the piece had Madigan playing the aforementioned cello theme as accompaniment to the silent short film “Transliminal Criminal,” some stills of which can be found on her Web site.

Source: bonfiremadigan.com/mediaThe film itself featured images of Madigan running through fields, jumping gleefully around the world’s biggest Prozac pill, and paddling a land-stranded rowboat. More about atmosphere than storyline, obviously.

Madigan weathered some technical difficulties, particularly towards the end, but overall put on a dramatic and visually arresting show, what with the spare stage, lighting washes (yellow as seen in the photo, blue later on), and the overall ambitious nature of the piece. The Madiganites sitting next to me were blown away, gabbing excitedly after it ended. And then Madigan herself blew off some steam handing out sparklers.

Yes, I’m more than a week late in posting this, but it was a good, adventurous show worth writing about.  Hopefully it lays the groundwork for further ambitious directions out of the New Music Summit.

August 2, 2009 at 1:52 pm Leave a comment

Outsound Rolls In

source: outsound.orgOn Friday’s KZSU radio show (July 17), I’ll be hosting Rent Romus at about 5:00 p.m. Pacific, to talk about the Outsound New Music Summit, happening July 22-25 in San Francisco’s Mission District.

The summit is prefaced on Sunday, July 19, with “Touch the Gear,” an exhibition where electronic musicians lay out their instruments and contraptions for you to mess with. Yes, you get to touch the gear, to make noises on your own, to squiggle and tweak. If you’re lucky, Tom Nunn will be there with one of his homemade contraptions. And along the way, you learn where some of those electronic drones and blips really come from.

The rest of the lineup:

* Wednesday, July 22 — “Free Improvisation/Free Composition” — works with some jazzy roots.

    • Alicia Mangan and Spirit
    • ROVA
    • Vinny Golia.

* Thursday, July 23 — “Industrial Soundscapes” — probably noisy and/or droney stuff, with:

    • Peter Kolovos
    • Conure
    • Hans Fjellestad
    • Thomas Dimuzio.

* Friday, July 24 — “InterMedia” — multimedia works.

    • Jess Rowland with The Dreamland Puppet Theater
    • Kathleen Quillian & Gilbert Guererro
    • and the return of Bonfire Madigan, an old KZSU fave.

* Saturday, July 25 — “Introspection and Improvisation” — sets that could be quiet, but I wouldn’t count on it staying that way all evening, particularly the last set.

    • Natto (acoustic trio improv)
    • Ghost In the House featuring Richard Waters
    • Left Coast Improv Group (noted here)

Lots more details at the Outsound site. All events take place at the Community Music Center at 544 Capp Street (between Mission and South Van Ness, between 20th and 21st).

Yep, this overlaps the Mission Creek Festival, but Mission Creek is tapping an audience different from Outsound’s. At least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself with fingers crossed. Outsound has done well the past couple of years, so hopefully the turnout will be good this time around, too.

July 15, 2009 at 11:58 pm Leave a comment


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