Tuesday, December 28, 2021

A Look Back at 2021 Albums on Aerophonic with Dave Rempis

In spite of everything, 2021 could be considered a productive year for Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis. His Aerophonic imprint released a handful of physical CDs of various projects that came together over the prior year, with some from the early part of this year as well. Of the discs discussed here, two came out early in 2021, one dropped just a few months ago and one isn't officially out yet, though Rempis has offered pre-orders on the Aerophonic site. The final days of the year always serve as a good time to both look back at what came out and look ahead to what's coming. Incidentally, the site is offering a special deal through the end of this month - 3 in-print CDs for $30, with a special deal for a vinyl edition of the Rempis/ Ra album.

Rempis - Reid- Abrams - Daisy - Damon
Solos, Duos & Trios - The COVID Tapes

Like many musicians, Dave Rempis (alto, tenor, baritone) had his livelihood put on hold when the country went into lockdown in early 2020. One thing to remedy the situation was the weekly release of digital Aerophonic albums that featured recordings from various projects dating back over 20 years. Each release was launched with a live solo performance from his practice space. The COVID Tapes features six of those solos interspersed with performances in duos and trios that happened later that year in live outdoor shows. 

The two discs offer a revealing profile of Rempis' musical scope. Known more as a cutting edge free improvisor (as revealed by some of the other releases included here), he's clearly in touch with tradition too. The solo pieces range from Joe McPhee's bluesy "Knox" to standards like "The Song Is You," "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Just a Gigolo." These tracks  are compact, none lasting much more than six minutes each. Faithful to the original tunes, he zeros in on what makes them so essential, adding his personal touch to them.

The live performances stretch things further, with the various groups getting time to open up, explore the space and use it to their advantage. Rempis mentions in the liner notes how doesn't relish outdoor performances, due to sonic limitations. Yet he sounds comfortable moving from spare long tones to a more developed piece with drummer Tim Daisy. A trio with cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams captures his alto darting around the foundation set by the lower strings. Drummer Tyler Damon sets up an aggressive mix of trap kit and sustained percussion rings (almost sounding like two players going at once) and Rempis responds with the most aggressive performance of the album, bending and wailing notes. These recordings lack any major post-production work (and include faint street sounds like barking dogs and a truck's back-up noise if you listen closely), but the immediacy of the music makes any sound "improvements" unnecessary.


The Rempis Percussion Quartet
Sud Des Alpes

The Rempis Percussion Quartet gets its name from the fact that it includes two drummers (Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly) in addition to bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Rempis. Together since 2004, they create a sound where the two drummers work together and sound like one, even in the freest situations, never overpowering the rest of the group. In fact, Rempis' tenor saxophone is the loudest element in the music on the freewheeling "Late Arrival," second only to Flaten. 

The three tracks on Sud Des Alpes comes from a 2019 performance in Geneva. While all of these albums offer a good introduction to Rempis' saxophone style, this one presents one of the most compelling. He begins opener "There's a Jam On the Line" (a title inspired by the group's delayed travel by train) with visceral growls, and moves on to include fragments of melody, heavy vibrato and overtones, moving from each one for a fascinating voice. The group plays the Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Theme for Yoyo," beginning it just as spontaneously, it seems, before moving into a drum break and - eventually - their own furious groove.

All Your Ghosts In One Corner

Kuzu brings Rempis together again with drummer Taylor Damon and adds guitarist Tashi Dorji. The latter makes a strong addition to this group's uninhibited free improv sound with a sonic palette that ranges from wild skronk to mutant surf tones, going from twang and buzz. It makes a perfect third element to go along with Rempis' altissimo shrieks and Damon's thundering clatter. For what it's worth, Dorji is probably also the reason that this album wound up on my Best of 2021 list. (They also released an album for Astral Works earlier in the year, The Grand Delusion.)

"Scythe" is a 40-minute performance recorded at Chicago's Elastic Arts at the end of a March 2020 tour, just as things were starting to close down everywhere. The continuous performance is divided into three tracks, breaking where the dynamics shift reach a fevered pitch. Catching a band at the end of a tour usually means hearing at them when they can get involved in a deep discussion, and "Scythe" is no exception. Dorji's harmonics or quick exclamations add punch to the alto wails. In part two, an oud-like tone turns out to be a loop and some fast strumming comes out of nowhere to land on top of it. The drum solo sections could continue for another couple minutes and not loose any momentum. Rempis begins on alto, switching to tenor in the second part and rips up the final section with some monstrous baritone work. 

The extended performance is bookended by two shorter tracks recorded one night later in Milwaukee. They serve as a good preview and comedown after "Scythe." "One Fell Swoop" features a lot of heavy drum rolls, wide vibrato and guitar twangs, coalescing more like a composed piece than a spontaneous one. "Year of the Rat" features more baritone madness against a relatively spare groove that comes from percussives and fretwork. Maybe "comedown" isn't quite accurate in this case as this one can knock you backwards.

Dave Rempis/Avreeayl Ra Duo

After the grit and growl that capped off All Your Ghosts In One Corner, the sax/drums duets on Bennu feel relatively subdued. But that is far from a bad thing. The three tracks, recorded in February 2021, find two friends getting together after not having played with anyone throughout the winter season. It also feels like they're waking from a musical hibernation in real time, Ra laying down grooves on his kit, with cowbells adding to the sound along with the low-pitched toms. Rempis often gives him space before he begins to blow.

At the start of the 20-minute "Divisions of Time" Ra plays with mallets, freely moving around the kit, singing wordlessly, capturing the spirit of being able to play again. After the free intro, in which Rempis eventually enters on alto, Ra goes into a low volume groove that sustains, with slight variation, for the whole piece. It feels hypnotic after awhile, which makes the repetition and low dynamics rewarding in the end. 

The album opens with "Persea" which gives Rempis a chance to show off a beefy tenor tone, slipping in some growls on the side. "Fire and Ash" also features his tenor over a rolling sound of toms and tight snare, moving at a deliberate but focused pace.

Rempis and Ra took the name Bennu from an ancient Egyptian deity or symbol that created itself out of darkness at the beginning of time, much like the Phoenix in Greek mythology. Considering when this music was created, the name makes a good comparison. 

Bennu will be officially released in January 2021, but Aerophonic is already shipping advance orders - especially ones on a gray/blue ripple-colored vinyl - now. In case you missed mention of it earlier in this piece, the label is offering a special 3 for $30 deal on any in-print CDs. 

Monday, December 27, 2021

A Salute to Mary Jo Coll


There's a lot of sadness in Pittsburgh right now. We lost Mary Jo Coll, a truly badass woman who booked shows at Howlers and Hambone's, two clubs that were shuttered in the past year or so. Jo, or Mama Jo as she was often called, gave a lot of bands a break. believing in them when the bands might not have been too sure about themselves. If the band was pulling their weight, plugging their show and putting everything they had into their performance, they got her approval. If the cash register wasn't ringing constantly with hordes of drunks, no problem. Maybe next time. And as one friend put it, you still might be good enough to play on a Thursday night, opening for a band from Cincinnati.

Jo went into the hospital not too long ago with stomach pains and "came out with stomach cancer," as she posted on Facebook. Without much in the way of health insurance, friends rallied around and staged a benefit for her earlier this month at The Funhouse at Mr. Smalls. 

Originally there was talk of doing it at a later date, but it was pushed up. She wanted to be there and the photo at the top of this page is from that night. I got in as one of the last paying customers before it was sold out. Karla Doolittle, who organized the event, snapped this photo of the two of us. I wanted to talk to Jo but I didn't want to overwhelm her either. She looked weary but appreciative. So I gave her a hug and kissed her on the forehead. I hoped that would express my feelings for her. 

She was a really generous person, which is even more impressive because she didn't have a whole lot herself. Many times, I saw posts on Facebook about a bunch of food that she was cooking up at her home. "Who's coming over," she'd ask. I wanted to drop by or meet her for coffee sometime just to chaw. She was older than me, but just by 10 years, making her more like a big sister than the "Mama" that she might be to other musicians. Along with music, we would occasionally talk family stuff, which seemed to deepen the rapport between us. And she was never one to say "No" to a show request. If the date I hoped to land wasn't open, she'd have a counter offer. There was never any hard sell, any warning that we needed to draw a big crowd or else. It's all about having a good time. 

I can recall at least one show at Howlers where she corralled all the band members at the start of the evening to lay down the rules. All of it was reasonable (get the door person your guest list, no extra drink tickets, etc.). Once that was out of the way, she wanted to make sure everyone had fun. Then she'd park herself at the end of the bar where it turned a corner so she's see everyone who went into the music room. 

For Jo's 60th birthday, she organized a show with a bunch of bands playing music from the '60s, specifically music that came from the Nuggets garage rock compilations. The Love Letters were lucky enough that we got on that bill. It just so happens the show took place the night before the 45th presidential inauguration. In other words, the day before the world was about to get a little darker. (Karl Hendricks would also pass away that night.) We could all sense the change for the worse that was coming (though we had no idea how bad it would be). 

Jo wasn't going to let that ruin her party. She barged onstage in the middle of our set to make a few announcements and thank yous. With all of that out of the way, she issued a decree: "Let's have a good time. Let's forget all the other bullshit that's goin' on right now. Tomorrow is another day. For tonight - fuck the bullshit. Let's have fun."

We did, and it lasted all night. 

Thanks, Jo. I'm sorry I never brought you coffee, but we'll have it someday. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

LP Reviews: Bridge of Flowers - A Soft Day's Night/ ATTITUDE! - Pause and Effect

Of course, ESP-Disk' has always been about more than just avant-garde jazz. It's very likely that some fans of Beat-poets-turned-songsmiths the Fugs, primitive rockers the Godz or folkies Pearls Before Swine might have memorized those bands' albums for the label while knowing Albert Ayler or Sonny Simmons in name only. Throughout the label's original run in the '60s and early '70s, founder Bernard Stollman released everything from bluegrass to... whatever the hell you would consider the band Cromagnon. (Don't underestimate MIJ the Yodeling Astrologer either.)

Part of the label's current agenda includes a Drive to Revive Weird Rock. (The capitalization comes from the label.) The project began in 2019 with Painted Faces' Tales from the Skinny Apartment and continued last year with OPTO S's Human Indictive/Live. Two new vinyl/download releases continue the weird, with one of them simultaneously sharing space with the label's jazz canon.


Bridge of Flowers
A Soft Day's Night

Don't let the lampoon of a Beatles song turn you off. Bridge of Flowers are a band made for ESP. They don't sound tight in the traditional sense, but these guys are tuned in with one another and create music that feels tight, even when it might sound like the lead guitar is playing a different song ("Aloe Vera") or one of the strings on Shane Bruno's bass could use a tuning. Things never fall apart on A Soft Day's Night - unless these four lads want it to. Things crumble during the climax of "Year Without A Summer" but the mood calls for a dramatic slow down like that. 

Bridge of Flowers reminds me of many bands I've had the pleasure of sharing the stage with, especially in those days before Nevermind came along. These bands never had any regard for the Big Time. Instead they channeled everything into having a memorial 45-minute performance. If a string broke, no problem. If the audience was indifferent, that was their problem. There was rock to be had, if you were smart enough to listen. 

The production on A Soft Day's Night even feels like the mix at such a live show or, even better, at a basement party. Jeff Gallagher's vocals sound like they're coming through an amp that doubles as a vocal p.a. It could have been boosted a bit more in the mix, but it makes curious ears listen closer to try to figure out what "Vinegar and Salt" or "Tambo" are all about.. (Since this entry was originally posted, I found that the album includes a lyric sheet.) The instruments themselves are captured as they were, with little post-production, making these ten songs feel like they could be happening in front of you.

The Massachusetts band has (only) been around since 2016, but had they existed in New York a decade and a half earlier, they probably would have wound up on Shimmy-Disc, who would have provided a perfect home for their lo-fi garage rock. Maybe they would have hit the road and come to town for a show that a select few would be talking about years later. These days, it's hard to tell if the band is a local project that doesn't stray from their backyard or if, someday when it's safe, they might play on a Wednesday night in your town. In the meantime, it's best to get in on the ground floor and dig it. 

Pause and Reflect

The trio ATTITUDE! wants to be part of both styles of ESP. Side One of Pause and Effect presents them as a noise trio ranting against sexual stereotypes and racism, the pandemic and politics. The flip features a side-long track of flowing free jazz improvisation. They excel in both situations.

All three women in the group hail from different Asian countries. Guitarist/pianist Rose Tang is a Mongol from Sichuan. Tenor saxophonist Ayumi Ishito hails from Japan. Drummer Wen-Tin Wu was born in Taiwan. Each plays in a numerous other projects in New York. Pause and Reflect happened after they came together to play one song at an event. ESP, knowing their individual works, wanted an album.

Tang, who does most of the vocals, makes it clear that she has no tolerance for submissive Asian stereotypes in "Who Flung Dung." "Flames with No Names" salutes Asian protesters (she was there at Tiananmen Square) with honesty and immediacy. As she attacks her guitar, Ishito and Wu weave around her words, integrating with them rather than filling up the background. The saxophone especially acts as punctuation to the spoken performance. "Gimme the Mic," something of an opening manifesto, finds Tang positing, "The world is a theater of the absurd. The space?" Her bandmates immediately answer that question with her: "Ours!" In "8 Steps/7 O'Clock," those bandmates step up the mic following some thrash jazz that morphs into free percussion with echo-heavy vocals. 

For "Conversation," a 24-minute track, Tang switches to piano. Other than some wordless vocalizing at certain points, the trio becomes a free improvisation group. Things are loose but directed. Ishito avoids wild shrieking in favor of a more contemplative flow of lines, often in the midrange. Wu plays in waves that complement Tang's cascading lines. Not since Patty Waters' Sings has ESP presented two vastly different sides of one performer on an album. Although a comparison like that says more about ESP's everlasting sense of adventure than it does about ATTITUDE!, who proudly proclaim they're "starting a revolution with culture." 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Missing Mike Nesmith


Before I decided I wanted to be John Lennon, long before I decided I wanted emulate Mike Watt or Clint Conley (note the change in verbiage that differentiates the teenage years from elementary school days), Mike Nesmith was the guy who I wanted to be. I figured I was halfway there, namewise. Besides, he had an aura that was more inviting than the two other guys on the first Monkees album with the "plays guitar and sings" credits. (The album cover must have been based on the pilot episode of The Monkees, in which Davy Jones played guitar. And that thing that Peter Tork played was almost a guitar, so the p.r. flacks must have thought.)

Copies of the first three Monkees albums landed in our house around the time I was five or so, in the early '70s. I can make the approximation because I remember not being able to read a lot just yet, which made a song title like "Pape Gene's Blues" kind of confusing since the title didn't appear in the lyrics. It seemed like it should called "I Love You and I Know You Love Me." 

But one thing I did discern was that Mike's name appeared next to this weird title on the label, which at the very least meant that his voice was the one in the song. He also sang "Sweet Young Thing" on the other side, belting out the words over an overdrive wall of Wrecking Crew guitars and a violin. That was heavy. 

The Monkees was broadcast in reruns on Saturday mornings somewhere around that time, but my real memories of the show began when I was in 6th grade and a new UHF station, Channel 22, came along and programmed the boys to appear five days a week. Our UHF reception was bad, with ghost images and usually a lot of static, but I was committed. Mike was still the coolest to me, not as zany as Micky, just as charming as Davy and definitely smarter than Peter. His deadpan comic delivery often wound up with some of the best lines. Plus, he wore a hat, something that appealed to me even back then. 

In those days, those early Monkees albums were a dime a dozen, always to be found at flea markets and Goodwills, condition be damned. A friend gave me a copy of the slightly lesser known The Birds, The Bees and the Monkees, on which Mike went crazy, both in terms of genre and artistry. The lo-fi hillbilly tune "Magnolia Sims" was cute, with its built in surface noise and the moment where it appeared to skip (or "get stuck" as we said in our house) but "Tapioca Tundra" and "Writing Wrongs" were real stand-outs. 

The former was Mike at his most psychedelic, thanks to a healthy dose of reverb and the crazy lyrics (which, again, don't include the title). "Writing Wrongs" was a slow, equally reverb-drenched piece, with a long instrumental break, which resulted in the whole thing sounding kind of dark. Mike's fourth contribution, "Auntie's Municipal Court," pre-dated his country-rock flair with another wall of guitars (some courtesy of co-writer Keith Allison) and a mysterious vocal delivered by Micky. To make things even weirder, all three of these bold songs appeared right after the more sappy, accessible Davy Jones tunes. Well, "Daydream Believer" wasn't quite as sappy, but it was sandwiched between "Tapioca Tundra" and "Writing Wrongs" so all things are relative.

The album that was most elusive back then was one that I had only seen on the inner sleeve of other RCA records: Head. I had no idea what it was all about, with its silver cover that featured the band name written in three sides surrounding the album title. It wasn't until after high school that I'd see the Monkees movie Head at the Pittsburgh Playhouse (whose film repertory program exposed so many people to classics and cult faves). Around that same time, Rhino began reissuing the entire Monkees catalog, so I bought it and listened to it constantly. I later bought an original Colgems copy for the hell of it, and a friend gave me a CD edition. 

Mike only has one song on Head but it's one of his best Monkees tunes - the Bo-Diddley in the garage vamp "Circle Sky" which the band plays live in the film. (The version on the album comes from a studio session. Each has its own merits.) When I started playing in Mystery Date, I turned guitarist Bridget Jakub onto that song, thinking that she'd be perfect to sing it. I do believe I was right. Incidentally I did the same thing to Head's "As We Go Along" with the Love Letters, knowing that drummer Erin Dawes would make it her own. (It was a Carole King/Toni Stern song sung by Micky, to clarify.) But my Monkees sense started back in Bone of Contention when I convinced Patty Killi (nee Pisula) to try out "Daily Nightly," Nesmith's deeply metaphorical take on the Sunset Strip riots. She sounded perfect and we used to stretch it out with an extended guitar solo, during which I'd often slowly lay down onstage, because it felt like the right thing to do. (I was 19 at the time and didn't know better.) 

All that Nesmith music, deeply ingrained in my head. 

It's so ingrained that it has often become my pick-up music when I need a positive boost. Cue up "The Girl That I Knew Somewhere" and it'll put a spring in my step. Maybe I can't separate the song from the image of the band leaping around a hotel in the "Monkees, Manhattan Style" episode, which borrows from the fast-paced romp feeling of A Hard Day's Night. But that choppy 12-string guitar riff and the opening drum rolls (which were actually Micky Dolenz, not Hal Blaine) have some pent up energy as well. Things like this have become so deep-rooted in my head that it's easy to forget where they began and how important their source - Mr. Nesmith, that is - has shaped my world. 

I never met Mike Nesmith, though I did get to interview him via email in 2013 to preview a solo concert. (My uncle, Rege Cordic, appeared in two episodes of The Monkees, but that's another story.) Normally I loathe email interviews but I wasn't going to say no to this one. 

After asking him several questions about his career, his approach to songwriting and one or two things about the Monkees, I went out a limb. Always fascinated by the legacy of Lyndon Johnson, I asked Nesmith, a Dallas native, if the fact that LBJ was from Texas had any impact on how he felt about the 36th president.

All the previous questions garnered a sentence or two. This one went on longer. "I was very unhappy about the Viet Nam war," he said. "It was a real conflict for me because I felt a lot of compassion and sorrow for the fighters -- I lost a close friend there -- one day he was sending letters and cheery -- the next he was gone when his chopper was shot down. I blamed LBJ for the continuance of that war -- but this was before I came to understand that politicians have almost nothing to say about anything -- they are like leaves on a raging river. I have released LBJ and the others." [The dashes are Nesmith's, not mine.]

I've told that story so many times that I thought for sure that it was published in the paper with my preview, if not here. But I was wrong. This is the first time I've printed it. 

When the article ran, I heard from a friend who was doing p.r. for the Nesmith concert. She told me that Mike's management really liked my questions and that they were much better than other things he had been asked. All I know is I'm probably the only person to ask him about LBJ in recent years.

The other Nesmith anecdote that's been in my head lately is his soliloquy in the Monkees episode The Devil and Peter Tork. In the episode, Peter - who this time seems more innocent this time than dense - buys and learns how to play a harp from the devil, in exchange for his soul. A long scene trial scene follows, with several comic references to court scenes in movies. Eventually things turn somber when Mike tells Mr. Zero, the devil, that he never gave Peter the ability to play the harp. His love of music made him play the instrument. "The power of that love was inside of him...And it was that kind of power that made Peter able to play the harp." 

Maybe Mike was just a really good actor but the way he speaks his mind, working the thought out in his mind as he speaks, sounds like it comes off the top of his head, ending with the hip statement, "Baby, in the final analysis, love is power." Some might find the scene cloying. Some might see it as a metaphor for what the band was going through, struggling for credibility when they didn't play their own instruments. Maybe Mike's passing is bringing out the sap in me, but that whole scene feels like a message that I received not  only from that episode but from all the Monkees records: If you love music, you can play music. 

But I'm still taking his death harder than I thought.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Box Set Review: Kramer - Make Art, Make Love, Die (2020 Artist in Residence)

When it was announced that Joyful Noise made Kramer their artist-in-residence last year, which would generate the release of a five-record box set that was limited to 500 copies, I had to have it. The item stirred up feelings that have been dormant for a few decades, taking me back to the time when I waited for what seemed like an eternity to buy his three-record solo album The Guilt Trip (1993) or back even further to the time that I drove the music director at WPTS-FM crazy by asking her constantly if the new Bongwater album had been released yet. 

Like many college radio kids in the late '80s and early '90s, I found Kramer fascinating. Too poor to buy a whole lot of records, I utilized the radio station library to explore the Shimmy-Disc catalog, which all seemed to have his name listed as producer and very often as a musician as well. His work was driven by serious musical chops with a fondness for shtick, which often came in the use of random samples (back then they were simply referred to as "tapes" in his personnel credits) that might appear in his songs. After seeing B.A.L.L. (his most rock-oriented band, which included future members of Gumball) and Bongwater live, this zany bass playing/record-label-owning guy seemed like what I wanted to be. 

Tzadik, John Zorn's label, released two Kramer discs: The Brill Building and The Brill Building Book Two in 2012 and 2017 respectively, each devoted to classic pop songs that were associated with the album's title. But there haven't been many Kramer solo albums of original material in recent years. "I haven’t written too many happy songs," he told me in 2013, on the eve of B.A.L.L.'s reunion show. "Creativity for me as a solo artist has never really come from a place of great contentment or joy. It always comes from trouble. It always comes from decay and decline. A marriage or a relationship or some terrible things that have happened." He went on to say that he works better in collaborations, as his discography indicates, from Bongwater and B.A.L.L. to projects like Milksop Holly and Glen or Glenda to albums made with friends like Jad Fair, Dogbowl, Daevid Allen and/or Hugh Hopper.

While that might be the case, the long sprawling epic of The Guilt Trip had some amazing moments that still hold up. Its followup, The Secret of Comedy, might have been uneven but when he put his heartbreak on display ("I Can Watch"), Kramer was pretty convincing. Therefore, I had to hear this new set of albums. especially when it was announced that he was revamping Shimmy-Disc as a living label. (Pittsburgher Emily Rodgers released her album I Will Be Gone  on the label earlier this year. Kramer produced it, here in town.)

Worried that I might miss out the Make Art, Make Love, Die box set, I advance-ordered it in November 2020. It finally arrived on November 13, 2021.

Each of the five records is a project independent of the others. Although the vinyl box set is now sold out, all five can be purchased as downloads or individual records from Joyful Noise. Two of them include vocals, including a new collaboration with a singer, two are instrumental and one features music combined with recordings of poets.

Let It Come Down
Songs We Sang In Our Dreams

Let It Come Down evolved from a solo album into a duo collaboration after Kramer met vocalist Xan Taylor (who has been in the bands Mission Control and Technique). Our intrepid multi-instrumentalist has said he heard Taylor's voice in his dreams for years and was beside himself when he heard her while awake and producing a recording for her. Although he wrote most of the album's songs, it begins with a track written by both of them, and also includes one written solely by Taylor. 

These days, Kramer prefers slow tempos where songs take their time getting settled. Let It Come Down feels a bit closer to vintage 4AD releases than vintage Shimmy-Disc, but there's nothing wrong with that. Taylor's voice beams in over a blend of keyboards and acoustic guitars. Most of it feels slow and dreamy, but "Fingers" also moves into bossa nova, complete with a sampled guica adding the asthmatic dog/percussion sound. The four instrumentals also recall vintage Kramer, combining found tapes with the music. The most impressive one is "Three Wishes" which includes the tape of a woman expressing her trio of desires. 


Music for Films Edited by Moths

On Side 4 of The Guilt Trip (starting with song number two on the disc two of the CD), Kramer went down an instrumental spacey rabbit hole for a few songs. "The Seven Seizures" started off this section with a blend of Eno sensibilities and a keyboard sound that tipped the hat to Pink Floyd's Richard Wright. Music for Films Edited by Moths revisits this style, with 10 tracks that could easily be paired with cinematic images. 

It can be easy to get lost in a loop of sustained notes and loops, but Kramer comes up with a varied set of moods and tempos. The first couple tracks could have easily appeared on the Kranky label, with long tones that expand vertically or move through a three-chord pattern at a snail's pace. But then "Stars Will Die Tonight" moves at a quicker tempo, with a pedal point bass note that has melodies flowing on top. A few tracks add (electronic) drums, which takes "Ladder to the Moon" closer to actual rock than post-rock. The pinging keyboard in "Burial at Sea" helps to evoke a nearby submarine, adding to the scene set by the title.

Words & Music Book One

Dedicated to the late Hal Wilner, a visionary producer of unique tributes to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and Nino Rota to name just a few, Words & Music Book One might be the strongest album of the pack, and a good example of what Kramer does as a producer and sound sculptor. Each track features a different author reading their work, with musical accompaniment provided by Mr K. The bards range from original Beats Gregory Corso (reading "Army" in 1959) and Allen Ginsberg ("At Apollinaire's Grave, also 1959) to Terry Southern (reading two vignettes) to more recent writers Tina May Hall,  Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, Gary Lutz, Dawn Raffel, Jason Schwartz, Kathryn Scanlan and Scott MacLanahan.

The opening minute of the Corso track provides some tension, as Kramer's organ is mixed as loudly as Corso's voice, but once the latter begins reading, the music steps back and the words are front and center. The same thing goes for the rest of the album. Throughout, Kramer elevates the words rather than distracting from them. Even when he adds vibes, it never comes across with the whimsy that can be felt during an NPR story. In fact, it helps take away from the rather monotone delivery of the Ginsberg piece. While a good deal of Kramer's output might be too idiosyncratic for prime time, this one should be heard and appreciated by a bigger audience.

Music for Pianos and Sunflowers

Like all of the albums, this one comes with a beautifully printed cover and inner sleeve, which both have photos and credits on them. The liner for Music explains that it was created with three different pianos and three "vintage tape echo machines. All the sounds were generated by the strings of the piano." That being said, the sound of the keys being struck can only be detected once, at the very the start of Side One, when the 22-minute track ("Before") begins the way "A Day in the Life" ends - with a single chord that rings out. In this case, it never decays, leading instead to an ever-evolving pile of sounds, It might be minimal but it's also quite rich in its scope. 

Side Two's single track, "After," continues the mood but sounds like its original source is being played in reverse. This could be an homage to Eno and Robert Fripp's No Pussyfooting, which infamously and accidentally was played entirely in reverse by John Peel when he first received a tape of it. The effect is a little unsettling for the entire 22 minutes though still enjoyable. And it's not merely the preceding side played in reverse either, because it doesn't end with that long chord sucking itself back into the keys.

And The Wind Blew It All Away

The front cover and one inner sleeve photo of And The Wind Blew It All Away feature stills from Buster Keaton's 1928 film Steamboat Bill, Jr. A master of deadpan physical comedy, Keaton leans against the wind on the front cover, as everything else blows around him, swept up in a tornado. The liner photo shows him and a woman being blown to the ground as a house falls apart behind them.

Context is everything. On the silver screen in 1928 (when it might have still been silver), the idea was to laugh at the character's misfortunes. The film contains one of Keaton's best known stunts, where the façade of a house falls around him but misses hitting him directly because the attic window leaves enough room for his body. Slapped onto the front of an album of sad songs by Kramer, it's hard not to feel sympathy for the  Bill, Jr,, making us look beyond the eyes of the character and wonder what he's really thinking. Poor fellow.

True to Kramer's words in the above quote, the 10 songs all feel dark and tragic. Song titles like "The Rain," "The Wind," "The Crying," "The Heartache" and "The Killing" hint that they were born out of of some unhappy times. Of course, it was recorded between this year and last year, when the whole world seemed to be falling apart, so the feeling is understandable. 

Things move at a snail's pace, often sticking with a couple of chords that receive embellishments on top. Aside from a short interlude, only one song lasts less than four minutes, with several coming close to six. It might be interminable if the lyrics weren't so poetic and engrossing. (They're printed on the inner sleeve in a micro-mini font.) Kramer's voice, heavily effected at first for a gruff delivery, eventually comes into focus, revealing that he still possesses the reedy sound of troubadours like Nick Drake, Donovan and John Lennon. The blend of his pipes and a steady acoustic guitar on "The Rain" recalls the moody folk of Pearls Before Swine on their first ESP-Disk' album. 

Between the effort needed to read the lyrics and take in the sound of his voice, Kramer has again hooked his devoted followers, who understand the sonic benefits of deep listens (with headphones) to his '90s work. His sound has changed in the three decades since Shimmy-Disc popped to the surface, but this is a good thing. It's better than he has evolved rather than stayed in the same place all these years later. 

Incidentally, Steamboat Bill, Jr., has a relatively happy ending, so maybe I'm interpreting And The Wind the wrong way. Or maybe it just means there's hope for Kramer in the end. 

Go to Joyfulnoise.com to find out more about any of these albums.