Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Moving the albums; remembering Kramer's Guilt Trip

Playing right now: Donovan's various renditions of the ABC song/Baa Baa Black Sheep/Twinkle Twinkle Little Star - none of which ever get finished. They're emanating from the next room.

Last week I began the arduous task of moving our albums into the den (we call it the Skinny Room due to its 35' X 10' dimensions) from the small storage room behind it (we call it the Mistress Room, since the sliding mirrored doors are the perfect place to house your backdoor dame). The Mistress Room has been sort of damp since the big flood of '04 and when rain came in last month during a particularly heavy downpour, enough was enough. Some of the CDs were getting musty already, and a couple of the walls are showing signs of must. Luckily the records were against the dry wall, but still it's only a matter of time.

We have one of those IKEA shelves w/five sections across and five down. And to move that heavy thing I had to take all the records out, carry most of them to the front room and pile them up. Getting them back in was pretty easy, but I still have a bunch that have never even been on that shelf. So there's been a lot of reorganizing. At first, I left some space open in the M's because that always seems the tightest. That way, if more room was needed on either end of that grouping, they could be adjusted accordingly. Of course that lasted about a day. It's all very tight around there now. Now the major slack can be found around the Horace Silver section. We'll see how long that lasts.

It's always funny to see what artists sit side by side. Allan Sherman is still sharing company with Archie Shepp. But that's not nearly as funny as seeing Phil Ochs next to Ted Nugent.


Kramer's 3-record deluge The Guilt Trip was sitting out since it's better to keep it off the shelf due to the amount space that it swallows up. That album came out in 1993 and it was one of the most anticipated albums for me at that time. For about three years, up until then, I was a Kramer fanatic, buying all the Bongwater albums and checking out every release on his Shimmy-Disc label. When he called me back for an interview for my fanzineonce, I about died.

So after the crushing break-up of Bongwater, I eagerly awaited this humongous solo project box. (It came out about a year later.) There's something about a new release spread over three records that makes it a must have. I remember buying it on a Friday and taking it to Jennie's place that night. We only got through maybe two sides of it before it became clear that we couldn't listen to it and have a conversation.

Today it sounds... okay. I mean sonically it sounds great. Kramer's swirly, psychedelic production is what made his early work so good, and also what made his post-1993 work so lacking. He started to abandon his trademark sound around that time. (Only a few of the songs on Bone of Contention's Kramer-produced Fun CD have his telltale trimmings, which really bummed me out when someone mentioned that to me.)

But I'm digressing. The Guilt Trip is loaded with instrumentals. Some sound pretty good on their own. The opening couple minutes of the album ("Overture")sound absolutely mind-blowing, for instance. It's like the intro to Sergeant Pepper played by Blue Cheer and looped. Some tracks sound like they were ready for Ann Magnuson to add her parts. In fact all the Kramer harmonies on "Wisdom Sits" (he was always very skilled at singing all of them) make it sound like a Bongwater outtake. But other wordless tracks sound like unfinished sketches with layers of overdubs to cover up the riff-not-necessarily-a-song quality of them.

The vocal tracks are great though. It occurred to me that "Welcome Home" might be sung from the perspective of his baby (at the time) daughter, since it's being sung to a mother who has come home and is begged to "forget that awful day." Plus, there's a snippet of a squawking baby in the background before the guitar solo. The trippy vocal on "Stupid Summer" (who's he sound like? Donovan? Syd?) sounds better than it did 16 years ago. And I almost forgot about the sped-up vocal on "I'm Your Fan" (which at the time could've been about me). I might have to get out record three and play that.

Still, the best example of Kramer's post-Bongwater work from that era has to be Who's Afraid, his first Shimmy album with Daevid Allen. It's consistent from beginning to end with all the trippiness and noodly qualities reined in by conventional song structures.

I wonder where his daughter Tess is now. She's probably about 17.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

CD Review: Fred Anderson

Engine is a New York based label that recently landed a distribution deal with ESP. A couple of their discs showed up with the latest batch of ESP items. On initial inspection, what's interesting about Engine is their econo packaging: a 10"X 5" piece of recycled chip board with the album cover artwork and info printed on it. (Very similar to what the early Screwgun discs were wrapped in, only a little more basic.) The disc itself stays in place courtesy of a piece of foam that's glued on good and tight. Unless you try to rip it out, or compulsively put the CD on and off, that little pad won't fall off. Smart packaging.

I just looked at the Engine site, hoping find some background info or label history. While I agree with much of what founder Steven Walcott says (I'm assuming it's him) about getting press, the tone is rather grouchy. I mean I know it's hard to get reviews when you're a small label and that most of the people who end up reading your website will be "with you," but damn, brother, do you have to an us v. them thing? Why not talk about how great your CDs are?

Oh, I guess that's where I come in.

Fred Anderson
Staying In the Game (Engine)

On the credits to this CD, tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson "thanks God for keeping him here so he can play jazz." Whether or not you're a believer in a higher power, we should all give Fred an amen on that. In fact, let's hope the 80-year old Chicago veteran never dies because he still has an unending font of ideas to drawn on.

Staying in the Game is a trio session with bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Tim Daisy. Recorded last November in Chicago, these six tracks sound like spontaneous inventions. The 24-minute "Sunday Afternoon" opens the album, with Anderson working on a "Giant Steps"-like idea, while his conspirators play a walking waltz underneath. The dynamic level doesn't vary a whole lot, which means it stays at a similar volume throughout the duration. Even when things get free, the trio doesn't resort to crazy blowing. But the way Anderson brings out a series of melodic tricks -rather than going for the easy wail, for instance - will win over discerning listeners.

"The Elephant and the Bee" describes the combination of tenor and bass in duet, although it's hard to tell which instrument represents which creature. Bankhead's rich bowing, with its scraping harmonics, could symbolize the lumbering elephant. Then again, his fleet plucking moves like a bee too. Anderson seems to play on a parallel line, but he's clearly in tune with the bassist's movement. As the track ends, one of them - probably Bankhead since he finishes last - is heard marveling at the performance, out of breath, and it's easy to agree with the sentiment.

In "Springing Water," Daisy gets his chance to play alone with Anderson. Together they create a sound that evokes the track's title, ebbing and flowing in a stream of ideas. Then the album climaxes with "Changes and Bodies and Tones" full of rolling cymbals, arco bass (is he using two bows?) and tenor sax lines that ring out like deep thoughts. It's off-the-cuff and loose but it's also a textbook example of how this music should sound.

Check it out at

Next up, Warren Smith's Composers Workshop Ensemble - Old New Borrowed Blues (also on Engine).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Almost a Sonic Youth review

Playing right now: Burt Bacharach - Make It Easy On Yourself (Wanted to hear the version of "Do You Know Way to San Jose" because it's top-shelf exquisite pop, but man, even the slow poke title track and Burt's "rumpled baritone" sound good right now.)

Having said that...

I've had Sonic Youth on the brain for the past couple of weeks, in anticipation of getting their new album. We were talking about them at work a few weeks back, and discussing how their last few albums haven't exactly knocked it out the park like they used to. I remember liking Rather Ripped when I bought it, but it's been quite awhile since I played it. My friend Toby said that Washing Machine was one of his favorites, to which I said I bypassed that one completely at the time, due to a combination of lack of funds to buy it and feedback from friends that it wasn't very good. Toby loaned it to me and I listened to it in the car for a few days while driving around. It's not as lackluster as I heard, but it wasn't great. And it seemed like Kim Gordon hardly played bass on it at all.

Then a few nights ago, I decided to dig out Rather Ripped to check it out again. (I bought The Eternal in the meantime, but I'll get to that shortly.) While going through the Sonic Youth section of my CDs I came across Sonic Nurse. "What the hell is this," I thought when I saw the spine. When I looked at the cover I recognized it, but I had absolutely no recollection of what is on it or when I bought it. It came out in 2004, which was the year that Pulp shut down so it might've come as a promo to the paper or maybe I bought it during the time I was out of work. (For an unemployed person, I bought a fair share of records and CDs that summer.) But as far as the songs on it, the only thing that rang a bell was the title "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream," because Kim was interviewed in Bust and she explained that saxophonist Doyle had given Thurston some hand cream at a show.

I listened to about half of it last night while picking up in the kitchen. Not bad, but not exactly memorable either. Sounds like every song is in D, just like most SY albums. I'll probably keep it since I have just about all of SY's "rock" albums. (I can't do without the improv stuff.) It's good to have for reference, I suppose.

But this brings up a subject I've been thinking about for quite awhile - what's more important: between owning an album or CD or simply hearing what's on it? This question started to congeal in my head about a month ago when I went to Carnegie Library and checked out the Mosaic box of Hank Mobley's '50s Blue Note sessions. I have about 1/3 of the set already on vinyl, having been obsessed with those early, valuable Blue Note albums. My intention was to burn copies of the rest of the stuff so I'd flush from my system the desire to keep searching eBay in hopes of finding copies of the other albums for a reasonable price. (Ain't gonna happen; it's a waste of time.) I know I could find just about all of that stuff on individual CDs too, but that runs into money, time, etc...

And when I did that, I realized it wasn't so much that I wanted to possess copies of all this music (although a Blue Note album with the W. 63rd Street address would make a nice addition to the collection), but to simply hear all of it. It's not as if I have time to just sit and listen to records like I once did. Look at the time I had the chance to listen to Sonic Nurse.

I really like buying CDs and records and I want to keep up with different artists since I write about music, but I'm looking at the Revenant Albert Ayler box and wondering when I'll get back to that. The most recent St. Vincent album is on the desk in front of me. I definitely bought that because she's gotten good press and I felt like I better check her out. And she's good but how often will I putting it on? I'll be lucky if I get to know that album intimately before I have to review something or buy the next "I should check this out" disc.

And those Mobley discs? I think I've listened to one since I burned them. Just in case anyone from Blue Note is reading, don't bust my chops about copying the discs. Yeah, it's wrong, but it's not as if I would've gone out and bought Peckin' Time anyway.

But back to Sonic Youth's new album The Eternal. After about two decades (say it with me: Jeez-oh-pete!) they're back on an independent label - Matador, one of the best. Not only that, they're rocking like they haven't in a long time. On a Goo or Dirty level. With Pavement's Mark Ibold joining the fold, things sound really inspired. If the album hadn't been $15 more than the CD, I probably would've sprung for it. I just hope I'm not missing out on any bonus, vinyl-only tracks

I think I'm going to replay some of that Bacharach album. 'Scuse me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

CD Review: Talibam!

Boogie in the Breeze Blocks (ESP)

To call Matthew Mottel and Kevin Shea irreverent would be stating the obvious. They named their musical project Talibam!, after all. But aside from that, there’s the cover shot on Boogie in the Breeze Blocks, where their tousled-but-styling looks could help them pass for a couple of hip New York DJs. And then there’s the program on this release, which numbers somewhere around number 12 in a discography of CDs, CDrs, singles and 10”s, and has already been followed by a new release.
Boogie has a recurring bit that casts Mottel (numerous keyboards) and Shea (drums, “detritus”) as either ambulance drivers or cops. They receive radio dispatches, which sound like samples of real thing, and respond to them with zany comments (“Oh! That’s a strange thing!”) before the sound of motorcycles and sirens segue into the next blast of spazz jazz. Sometimes the group goes for pure noise (“Predetermined to the Master Plan”), sometimes they get downright funky (“Not Just Any Kind of Vegetable”) and sometimes they do all that and more (“Nike Rim Johb,” which includes some growling horns and bird field recordings).
Like with most of his work, Shea’s drumming often sounds like he’s dismantling his kit, throwing down a flight of stairs and making it sound good. Mottel who plays everything from piano to Rhodes to Roland, is the perfect co-conspirator for the drummer, being able to jump into any style at a moment’s notice. (If John Zorn every wants to get a new Naked City together, he should recruit these two.)
Thirteen guests show up on various tracks, including all of Shea’s bandmates from the jazz quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing. Tim Dahl’s bass gives seven of the tracks some much needed bottom. Danielle Kuhlmann adds some chanteuse-y moments to various tracks, which is the perfect foil for the chaos of “Predetermined.”
I’ve only heard one other Talibam! disc, which was admirable for its focus but got a little tiring after numerous splattering, free form assaults, even as different musical guests moved in and out of the fold. Boogie in the Breeze Blocks has one track that goes over the top with spastic screaming in the not-so-background. But for the most part, the disc maintains interest because it keeps changing shape; some songs even sound like two different tracks fused together. Plus the crazy personas that keep popping up add some much levity.

(In case you haven't read my interview with ESP founder Bernard Stollman, here’s the first part and here’s part two.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

JazzTimes is back!

For the past month or so, I've been seriously thinking that music journalism as a whole is being systematically killed, jazz journalism in particular. Then, 20 minutes ago, I got an email from Lee Mergner, JazzTimes' editor, saying the magazine has been bought.

It's a Christmas miracle!

And it ain't even Christmas.

Here's the straight dope if you want to know.

And by the way, my CD reviews of the Cline Brothers (Alex and Nels) and Charlie Kohlhase have been removed from this blog because they're going to run in JT after all. Go out and buy it. You'll be glad you did.

Monday afternoon news

Playing right now: John Vanderslice - Romanian Names (only because I haven't played it since he was in town, not because I'm that obsessed with him. []

New Fiery Furnaces disc showed up in the mail today. Ohboyohboyohboy! And it's good. But I'll refrain from commenting until I review it for Blurt.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Last night's Harlan Twins show

Last night I went to the Harlan Twins' CD release show at the Brillobox. We almost didn't get in because the show had sold out. Imagine that - a local band that's still in the picking-up-speed phase selling out their release show. It's a good sign of things to come.

If you'd like to hear my professional opinion on them go here:

If you'd like to hear my sitting-at-the-bar opinion, here IT is: this band ought to be huge. At least as big as the Modey Lemon. Some people might say that's not all that big, but I'm thinking that way after having seen umpteen local bands put out albums, get a lot of buzz going and either squander it or give up prematurely. I remember when Shopping broke up, I ran into their guitarist Nick (now of Centipede E'est) at Gooski's and yelling at him that the band should've stayed together because they were so good, etc. etc.

Anyhow, the Harlans have such a great sound and seeing them live, it's clear that all five of them are in sync with each other, and that they all belong together in this band. I told their guitarist James that if anyone wants to quit, he should pull a Charles Mingus and punch them in the mouth to discourage any quitters. I don't advocate violence but this is serious stuff.

Friday, July 10, 2009

I'm so bleeding happy

After months of wondering and fruitlessly searching throughout Blogger, I finally figured out how to change my template and add a list of blogs that I like. And now I'm able to allow peeps to subscribe to the blog. Believe me, it was often frustrating, but now I'm happy that it's there. I felt like I was really blogging off in the background, where no one could ever hope to find me.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sky Saxon too??!

Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, Gale Storm, Bob Bogle (of the Ventures), Karl Malden...... SKY SAXON too? Apparently the frontman of the Seeds died the same day as Farrah and Michael, which of course meant, we're only finding out about it now. (I saw it this morning on AllMusic.)

Jiminy crap - who's next?

On a brighter note, I just filed a story on the Pittsburgh band the Harlan Twins, who are releasing their debut CD next week. The band is amazing. If you're in Pittsburgh on July 10, go see them. I mean it.