Tuesday, October 25, 2022

CD Reviews: Max Johnson - Hermit Music / Max Johnson Trio - Orbit of Sound

Max Johnson
Hermit Music

Max Johnson Trio
Orbit of Sound

The story has been told over and over during the past two years. The pandemic set in and everything halted - any kind of live performances, not to mention tours. Recording sessions were limited too. This was especially hard for creative improvising (also known as "jazz") musicians, who depend on such things for their livelihood and mental well being. In response, a lot of these players became resourceful, posting live shows online or doing them on porches of their houses or under bridges. These creative types became even more creative to deal with the times. 

That was all well and good but it overlooks a more vulnerable group of musicians - those of us who felt depressed throughout 2020. It can be hard to roll with those punches if you don't have a strong will.

New York-based bassist Max Johnson felt that way. "...When New York shut down in March of 2020, I became deeply depressed and couldn't bear to play my instrument for months," he frankly states in the liner notes to Hermit Music. "While I watched musicians talk about how great it was to take time off, or how productive they were being, I struggled to get out of bed each day and found it hard to put on my positive face."

The five improvised tracks of solo bass on Hermit Music feel cathartic. Rapid plucking launches the title track, sounding in part like a wake-up call and a CD that's stuck. (It's not, but it's impressive that Johnson can evoke that frenetic sound with his instrument). It continues with a drive and focus, stopping to pluck all four strings midway through, sounding more composed than spontaneous. Of course, Johnson had a lot of time to consider what to pull out of his instrument so he's making up for lost time.

A similar sense of direction continues through the other four tracks. Wide open spaces during "Ghost Whistle," where Johnson stops to reflect on his next move, bridge the gap between heavy bowed passages and a plucked section that feels like a theme coming out of the fog. The low rumbles of all four strings returns at the start of "Haystacks," making it less like a visceral gesture and more like a continuation of a theme between tracks. 

Like other solo bass albums, Hermit Music might take a little effort to get into, but the payoff is there, such as when Johnson's bowed overtones reach a cathartic level in "Glass Lungs," moving into more thematic areas. He concludes his notes by saying the music "symbolizes my struggle with self, reality, purpose and mental health." While it might not have been an easy session, what comes across in his playing is a renewed sense of purpose. 

Johnson released Orbit of Sound during this past summer. This session features him in a trio with tenor saxophonist/flutist Anna Webber and drummer Michael Sarin,  working through five detailed pieces. The album title feels appropriate because the group comes up with new ways of utilizing the sax/bass/drums format, with the focal point of the music orbiting around the different players. 

This struck me most significantly during "The Professor." The 16-minute track begins with some free flowing sounds, with everyone in close contact. But somewhere around six minutes, as things unravel, Webber gets fixated on long, plaintive multiphonics. This could get tedious at first, but after awhile it becomes apparent that the action is happening with the bass and drums. She's more of an accompanist while Sarin and Johnson build up a torrent of arco lines and rolling cymbals. It never gets to a chaotic level either, which make the nuances of the flowing music stand out.

Earlier in the album, "Over/Under" takes ample to stretch out too, building from bowed bass noise into carefully delivered plucked notes, peppered by bird sounds and what sounds like shortwave radio static (both from Webber). A pedaled bass note leads to a choppy theme over a 4/4 beat, with Sarin playing the melody as much as he drives it. The drummer gets more animated and lifts off as Webber begins to solo but before long all three reconvene for a closing melody.

Hopefully Johnson will have a chance to get this trio out in the public again. (His Facebook page has a performance from last year at Conveyer in Brooklyn.) He also played recently at Downtown Music Gallery with saxophonist Erin Rogers (a clip appears on Instagram), so it's good to know he's back at it again. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Age of Tapes or What Do Barnacle Choir, Christmas and Pond Hockey Have In Common?

I'll fully admit that when I've heard about bands releasing recordings on cassettes over the last ten years or so, I've rolled my eyes (inwardly, at least). Yes, it's much more affordable than getting a record or CD pressed, and the physical format leaves much more of an impression than a pack of songs that exist online only. But in a time where, as I've discovered recently from talking to people, a lot of people under 40 don't even own CD players (though, in a remarkable twist, they might own turntables), the chance of people owning tape players seems even less likely. That makes the whole format seem even more intentionally esoteric. One of the people I'm about to write about doesn't even own one, so he can't even listen to his own album!

Now I have to eat some crow. In the past week, I've come into possession of no less than three cassette-only albums. Granted, two of them are more than 30 years old, and one is new but I have to get off my high horse because it's been kind of fun popping these things into the machine, hoping the tape won't break and hearing the music in a different format. 

These purchases all started with Barnacle Choir. Occasionally I revisit the great '80s compilation At Dianne's Place, which I've talked about here in previous entries. Right around the time that I dug into the bands on that comp that were on Pitch-A-Tent, I also tried to hunt down any music by Barnacle Choir, a Santa Cruz quartet that kicked off side two of the album. "You're Gonna Crawl" was a weird hybrid of elements that all worked - post-punk rhythm section, semi-psychedelic guitar that played some dreamy arpeggios and a vocalist who sang/barked lyrics in a non-stop barrage that recalled both Devo and any snotty punk guy you might catch at a show in 1987.

Barnacle Choir's discography consisted of a couple cassettes that we released by Warpt West Music. Not merely a two-shot operation, the label released a handful of other tapes, including one by Box O' Laffs, a pre-Camper Van Beethoven band (they sang "Ice Cream Every Day" before CVB did it). Both Barnacle Choir tapes were re-released on CDs at some point but they have never showed up on Discogs, The original tape of Trendy Candy for Happy Tourists, however, did show up, with one copy of Germany and the other here in the US. I made an offer on it and it was accepted. 

As I waited for the tape to arrive, I had to wonder what I had gotten myself into. I only knew one of their songs. With track titles like "Bullshit" and "Eat Shit," could the rest of the tape compare to the three minutes of bliss in "You're Gonna Crawl"? 

Upon opening the package, I felt like I had been transported back to the time when DIY tapes were a big deal and when people took pride in their packaging. This is no mere dub onto a stack of TDKs or Maxells. This baby looks, and sounds, professionally copied. The labels are meticulously applied to the tape - listing all the songs on them. And then, there's the lyric sheet, folded up perfectly so it fit in the case comfortably next to the tape. If you don't feel like following along with the tiny lyrics, the J-card lists all the song titles. 

Trendy Candies for Happy Tourists is listed as a C-90 and that's no exaggeration. This is a long tape, with 22 tracks in total. Barnacle Choir didn't adhere strictly to the faster-shorter rule of punk rock either. They weren't averse to letting a song last 7:17, whether or not that was good for the song. 

It's hard to pin them down stylistically too because these guys - vocalist Gary Gray, alternating guitar & bass men Dan Bottrell and Anatol Sucher (which is one of the coolest names in rock, if you ask me), drummer Dave Ward - had a variety of ideas going on. And they weren't afraid to give them all a good shot. They often sound a bit like a less polemic version of Dead Kennedys, with guitar lines that avoid power chords as lean a bit more towards surf without really landing there. Gray goes from rabid loudmouth to basso profundo crooner. These days, a mock country tune like "Alcohol Alcohol" has been done to death, but back in 1986 that type of parody was probably a bit fresher. Instrumentals like "Grooving On the Mellow Tunes" and "Floating Down the Nile" are repetitive but almost in an Eno-esque way. A track like "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy," in which Ward shows off his roto toms, has the kind of exciting primitive drive that could be heard in a band like Pylon. 

And "Eat Shit" ain't a bad tune. It comes of out a lounge act spoof - again, something that wasn't as much of a cliché  - and it kicks pretty hard. It's also a set up for "Easter" the best song on the album, coming as a reward for those who listened to the whole tape. The whole set contains some sharp lyrics from Gray, but this might have one of the best couplets: 
"Jesus Christ is playing golf
With Mao and Job and Tonto
Computer stars have gone too far
And Disneyland's moved to Toronto"

It has a lack of inhibitions - unafraid of sounding goofy yet coming across as deep, if ambiguous, at the same time, ultimately leaving the listener to figure it out. 

Trendy Candies might be overstuffed, but it reminds me of the way I listened to college radio as a teen: Even if you don't like the song that's on now, chances are the next one will be better. 

I jumped on the Barnacle Choir tape because the seller had also had another tape that I had been eyeballing but didn't jump on it, since the price seemed a tad steep. That tape was Christmas' Yin/Yang, which probably doesn't qualify as an official release. It's more like a set of demos for their second album, Ultraprophets of Thee Psykick Revolution, another album I've expounded on at length. Because of that, I figured it would never show up online, but there it was - for $30. Hmmm, I do love Christmas but am I that much of a fanatic, I wondered. That questioned was answered when someone else snagged the tape. 

Short story long, the guy with the BC tape had another copy of Yin/Yang that he was willing to part with, so I got both! Of the 10 songs on the tape, six wound up on Ultraprophets. Opener "Stupid Kids," in fact, sounds like the same basic track without the extra layers of guitars and harmonies. It's kind of cool hearing some of the songs stripped down, getting different found sounds in the breakdown of "My Operator" and the lack of tuned bowls in "Great Wall of China." Plus there's four new-to-me songs! "The Curse" sounds really familiar though it never wound up on any release that I could find. "I Wanna Be Your Albatross" has a riff that sounds close to Devo's "Freedom of Choice" and a crazy cheerleading vocal. For a set of demos, it's a good album. Now I've crossed the threshold into big fan into aspiring completist. 

Finally, we're back to the current times. Pond Hockey was a local band that shared the stage with my band the Love Letters at least once. I thought it was more but maybe I just went to see them as often as I could. They would have been right at home on a bill with Barnacle Choir back in the late '80s. Their sound was raw, fast and catchy, if Wire had come up listening to American garage rock and then created punk rock.

From the opening moments of Age of Anxiety, the levels are in the red on the tape deck, which means the sessions captured the reckless abandon of Pond Hockey's live shows. The guitars are in your face, pounding out trebly power chords. The drums are across the garage, but you can feel them as they push everything forward, with the bass in tow. Somewhere amidst all of this, Bob Pajich and Scott Silsbee add vocals to the songs. They get pretty buried to the point where I can't tell if "Shark" is an instrumental or if it has "oooh" vocals. But no matter, you feel like you're there with the band, who delivers 13 songs in about half an hour. 

Plus the cover art features a relief of the Ghost Ship, a dark ride at Kennywood Park that burned down in the '70s, and serves as the title of a Pond Hockey song. It was my favorite ride from the time I was old enough to go to Kennywood. Baldinger told me the limited number of tapes, released by Under the Quasar tape imprint, have sold out. But the album can be heard on Soundcloud.  

Post-script: After making my way through the Barnacle Choir tape, I went back on Discogs and noticed that the entry for its CD reissue listed contact info and a website, which seems to be run by vocalist Gray. Who knows if it's still functioning (I haven't tried to contact him yet). But if I can get the band's 84 BC that way, I'm game. 

So Ive come away with a better appreciation for the tapes. But even though these purchases make me think about grabbing, for instance, the Velvet Monkeys' tape Everything Is Right that I saw on Discogs recently, I'll probably just spring for the remastered version of Bandcamp that showed up recently.