Monday, January 29, 2024

LP Review: Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann - LP2

Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann
LP 2

The cover of LP2 recalls the stark artwork on records from Factory, the UK label whose heyday occurred around the late '70s/early '80s with bands like Joy Division or A Certain Ratio. A band of one-inch lines in various colors runs the length of the cover, towards the left; the catalog number and release date appear on the front in the lower right corner, next to what looks like a UPC code but is actually a set of bars with Greyfade website beneath it. The album title appears sideways, opposite the bands of color.

The label might share a sense of independence with Factory, but Greyfade is no post-punk imprint. It specializes in "processed-based music, electronic & acoustic minimalism, alternate tuning systems and algorithmic composition." Vocalist Theo Bleckmann has become known in jazz circles with  performances that can be either soothing or unsettling as a leader and collaborator (with groups like the brass quartet Westerlies, drummer John Hollenbeck and composer Meredith Monk among others). Joseph Branciforte has worked as an engineer and producer for numerous musicians (Tim Berne, Ben Monder, Steve Lehman) in addition to recording his own music. LP2 is the second effort by this duo, following LP1 (2019). 

While their previous collaboration was purely spontaneous, the duo took liberties in the studio this time, utilizing "prompts" to guide the music, and overdubbing more instruments. The preparation serves to blur lines between improvisation and composition, which gets further extended by the works themselves when heard in analogue form. The record is pressed on clear vinyl, making it hard to discern the breaks between tracks. All eight have numerical titles ("1.13," "10.11.5") with no time durations listed for any of them. The point, seemingly: forget typical conventions and just listen.

Branciforte and Bleckmann immediately create a rich sound on "1.13" with vocals that feel awash in subterranean reverberations, like an angel singing at the far end of a subway platform. While this happens, the sounds of the city (actually Branciforte) provide a soothing backdrop to the voice. At other times, Branciforte's modular keyboards fold in so well with Bleckmann's voice that distinguishing one from the other can be a challenge. The ten-minute "11.15" unfolds like a dream soundtrack with several voices, high and low, adding to the non-verbal conversation while the toll of an electronic bell sets a gentle tempo.

The second side of the album brings to mind some David Bowie-Brian Eno collaborations, specifically the second half of the "Heroes" album, in which the music unfolds slowly, setting a scene. Different textures pop up, with voices coming and going. It can also feel like Bleckmann's different parts have all been part of the soundscape the entire time, and just coming into clarity at various moments. Therein lies the depth of this music. 

Along with the longer tracks, the album includes a few pieces that last just over a minute, offering quick bites of static, choirs of voices or percussive clatter. A few even add what amounts to surface noise, in case the pristine vinyl might need it. The brevity of these pieces doesn't give the music time to get too abrasive; it acts more like an interlude between the bigger works. 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

LP Review: The Human Hearts - Viable

Another album I've been meaning to write about for a few months.

The Human Hearts

Nothing Painted Blue's Emotional Discipline (Scat, 1997) could be considered as the indie rock equivalent of  Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady. Like the British band's collection of eight 7" releases, the Upland, CA group compiled singles that appeared on a variety of different labels, profiling a group that could deliver graduate school-level post-punk lyrics while rocking out at the same time. With more music on it than the Buzzcocks' release, the tidal wave of hits keep coming for about an hour. Why that album isn't recognized in tandem with all the other oft-lauded albums from that period is beyond me. 

Now Franklin Bruno, the voice and wit from ∅PB, has undertaken a similar effort with his current band, the Human Hearts. Viable commits previously released material to vinyl, some for the first time, with a handful of singles, a digital EP and a few solo songs that were available through a Kickstarter campaign; all 14 tracks came out between 2011 and 2015. In addition to proving that Bruno is still a songwriter with a skill at great couplets, the seemingly random assortment of tracks reveal the wide range of his writing skills.

Songs like the darkly humorous "Flag Pin" and driving "Art Books" play to his skillful rock tendencies. At the same time, "Last Words of Her Lover," with lyrics taken from a poem by Helen Adam and sung by Bruno's wife Bree Benton, wouldn't sound out of place in a current musical or pithy supper club setting. Accompanied by some lonely piano chords and melancholy violas, Bruno himself sings "Nick Cave" with a certain in-the-spotlight pathos usually reserved for the theater (which, naturally, he counters with the song's wry tale of fan worship aimed at the subject). 

Among the rotating group of  bandmates, Bruno's longtime friend Jenny Toomey (Tsunami, Simple Machines Records) handles the vocals on a couple songs. The tradition continues in covering a song by a peer, in this case the band Wckr Spgt's odd and somewhat unsettling "Terrible Criminal" gets the Bruno treatment. "June Is As Cold As December" originally done by the Everly Brothers, also gets a faithful rendition, complete with some harmonies from longtime Human Hearts drummer Matt Houser.

Last summer, Bruno suffered a heart attack while vacationing in France. Thanks largely to the health care system in that country, the singer/guitarist was able to receive immediate treatment and was performing again before the year was out. As a fan and something of an acquaintance of Mr. B, it was scary to imagine someone so gifted being taken from us like that. I'm glad that he's better and hope that the new Human Hearts album will be in our hands before too long. 

Finally, the cover of Viable presents another homage - a hat tip to the new wave-era colors and cover art that were prevalent around 1980, specifically Epic Records' Nu-Disk series. 

Friday, January 19, 2024

You Won't Enjoy Fugazi On As Many Levels As I Do

Back during my college days, when the WPTS-FM office was my second home, I went to a party at an apartment where I used to live with a few guys from the station. At one point, a bunch of dudes standing around the keg starting hollering along with the song that was blasting from the stereo: "It's the End of the World As We Know It." These guys weren't bros in the way we think of "bros" in 2024. They were just some guys who had had a few beers and were trying to keep up with the rapid-fire lyrics of the song. (And I believe they did pretty well.)

I had already jumped off the REM bandwagon a few years earlier, in part because their more recent stuff had bored and in part because their audience soured me on them after the crowd booed Camper Van Beethoven when they opened for the Athens guys. I was at that age where things like that meant too much to me. 

Deep down, I knew "It's the End of the World" was a good song. (These days hits me heart in a special place, in fact.) But back then it was NOT THE KIND OF THING YOU SING DRUNKENLY WHILE YOU'RE STANDING AROUND A BEER KEG. That's not how you appreciate a song like this. You just.... you just... stop. Just stop, dammit. Do you even really appreciate the song, dudes?! I said that in my head, not out loud. I just rolled my eyes.

I thought of this scene recently and laughed at myself for being such a tight ass, recalling Professor Frink in that episode of The Simpsons when he scientifically explains the way a kindergarten toy works. One of the tykes asks if she can play with it. "No, you can't play with it," he snaps. "You won't enjoy it on as many levels as I do." 

There was no reason to get so bugged. After all, they were just having a good time. No, they weren't listening to Big Dipper but they weren't treating "We Didn't Start the Fire" or "I'll Be Lovin' You (Forever)" with the same enthusiasm either. Let the dudes have their fun, my current self thinks.

The reason I was taken back to this time (aside from a memory for things like this) has to do with a video I saw on Instagram earlier this week. It was a 45-second clip of kids from the Cleveland School of Rock performing live. Specifically, it was a group of teenagers, mostly young women, singing the Fugazi song "Waiting Room." These weren't serious looking straight edge kids either. These were all American looking girls in sundresses with spaghetti straps jumping all over the stage. In other words, not the types of kids you'd expect to be singing Fugazi. 

But they sounded really good. The music was tight, with the right amount of staccato buzz in the guitars. (Not sure if the kid on the cowbell was really necessary but why leave anyone out?) The singers were barking out the words with the same kind of urgency that you'd expect from Ian MacKaye. They did their homework.

But go the comments, and people were NOT happy. "Punk is dead." Random comments about suburban kids having the gall to sing Fugazi songs. There were probably more about the group of predominantly young ladies performing the song and how wrong that is. (Even though the bassist was playing a Rickenbacker! Salute!) 

I realize people love going on social media and pissing on the parade. When 20 people have talked about how much they like an album, there's got to be one schlub who say it sucks. Even though EVERYBODY ALREADY KNOW IT, it's important to remind readers how awful Morrissey's politics are. Or how John Lydon supports Donald Trmpf (which I still have trouble believing, seriously.) 

Social media allows us to legitimize these ornery positions too. Which classic songs do you hate? What music do you intentionally ignore? The latter category - which, granted is rare - is one that gets under my skin and gets to the heart of this situation. "I've heard it done before - and much better." Why are these things always a competition? Why does one song/band/version have to be evaluated next to another one? I used to hear this from musicians. "We can play it better than the original." In a lot of situations, that wasn't the case, having been the person doing the singing (and hearing live recordings on which me and the correct pitch were across the room from each other.) Just because a group of musicians has more chops than, say, the Adverts, does that mean their version of "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" will sound better? If Toto played "God Save the Queen" how would it sound? It's not a competition.

A lot of times a band that is accused of trying to "rip off" some predecessor isn't doing that either. Maybe I'm naive, but it seems like homage or inspiration is at work more than "oh, they're just trying to sound like [pick a band]." There are only 12 notes in the Western scale. If a band is banging an E chord than a G chord, maybe there's a good chance their trying to rewrite the Stooges' "1970" but maybe they just stumbled upon an easy, raunchy sounding progression on their own. Listen to how they play, and how they might look as they're playing it. Does they seemed charged up? That's what matters. Those Cleveland kids were ripping into "Waiting Room" like they had just seen Fugazi. They weren't ripping them off. Maybe they weren't as dead serious as Ian and Guy and the band was, but let them have their fun. Maybe they will change the world for the better, if not with music with their actions.

In doing further investigation, I found out that clip is several years old and has passed around IG a few times. (Chances are, someone has already written this exact post about it.) The posted version that caught my eye earlier this week, with all the grouchy comments, can't be found. If the one I just found is the same post, all but a few comments have been taken down, including one I made. I paraphrased a song by MacKaye's previous band, Minor Threat. "At least they're trying... what the f*** have you done?!"

Years after rolling my eyes at my college brethen for singing REM, I had two chances to play that song live. One came at a Halloween-time show where I played in a pick-up group doing REM tunes. The other one I ended up missing because I was sidelined with COVID: the band at the Unitarian-Universalist Church that I attend played it as part of a sermon. (They found a fill-in.)

Yeah, the 22-year old me would have said the latter one was cheesy, but he needs to shut up.  

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Playing Catch Up: Jason Adasiewicz Returned in 2023 With Two Unique Albums

The first blog post of the year finally comes down the pike, more than halfway into the month. In the past, this month has been a time of renewed excitement, with the look back at the previous year all being done in the first couple days of the new year.

There are a wealth of new releases coming out too but there are also too many things that I didn't get to expound upon before 2023 wrapped up. I couldn't get it together then, but I can now. So I'll try to be quick and concise and tell you what I liked that you might have missed.

Jason Adasiewicz 
Roy's World

Jason Adasiewicz
Roscoe Village - The Music of Roscoe Mitchell

Jason Adasiewicz's approach to the vibraphone has always possessed a magical quality, taking an instrument with a very distinct personality and using it in ways that blow any pre-determined ideas about it out of the window. There are precedents for what he does, like Bobby Hutcherson's performance on Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. But it's hard to imagine Hutcherson blending with the late Peter Brötzmann, and nurturing a more delicate performance with the burly saxophonist. Adasiewicz did that one year at Winter Jazz Fest. On top of that, and a role as one-third or Rob Mazurek's Starlicker trio, there were three albums by Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms trio, where his sustain pedal stayed in constant use, and he created flowing lines, accompanied by bass and drums.

Then he disappeared. Or at least, he fell off my radar. No new sessions, no side gigs, nothing. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right places but I worried a little. Maybe he dropped out of music, frustrated that only bloggers were talking about him all the time. Maybe family stuff took precedence. Or maybe COVID knocked him down. (Hence the worry.) I tried asking around to people who seemed like they would know but the only responses were the equivalent of shoulder shrugs.

Then last fall, somehow I stumbled across an Instagram post by the Corbett Vs. Dempsey label, talking about the second (!) Adasiewicz album they released in 2023. Suddenly my prayers have been answered. Or I was finally looking in the right place. (Those few months with no real writing gig took its toll.) The Bandcamp listing for Roscoe Village even explains his absence. He took a five-year sabbatical, became a carpenter and built himself a recording studio/practice space. 

Which brings us to my favorite album of 2023....

The tracks on Roy's World were composed as a soundtrack for the film Roy's World: Barry Gifford's Chicago, based on a Gifford's collection of short stories. However, the music was made before there was film on which to set it. With Josh Berman (cornet), Jonathan Doyle (saxophones), Joshua Abrams (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums), Adasiewicz composed eight pieces that all evoke some cinematic moods, working strongly as a soundtrack but ultimately stand solidly on their own as an album of concise music. 

The instrumentation recalls the late '60s Blue Note era when players like Andrew Hill or Grachan Moncur III were pushing against staid musical structures without completely sacrificing them. "River Blindness (Full)" opens the album with a slinky blues structure, with cornet and tenor playing in unison with the vibes. It has edge and it has a solid bottom. Like in many tracks, solos are limited to just a few choruses. Sometimes one of the horns only plays on the theme. 

On "Do More," things flow freely with cymbals crashes and rolls, while Doyle, this time on alto, plays pointed spare notes that would leave room for narration in the final cut. By contrast he switches to baritone in "Sand" and doubles Abrams part, while Adasiewicz gets a chance to play some lines, utilizing the sustain pedal. Berman lights up the scene anytime he blows and his bent, conversational work in "Walking to Clinton" presents some of the highlights.  The leader switches to balafon on "Blue People" adding to the already rhythmical groove of the song, with horns lines that evoke an African melody. 

With an A-list group like this and a sound that brings together the ideal blend of adventure and structure, it's puzzling why this album didn't get more love upon its release last summer. Now's the time to catch up.

A solo vibraphone album can be a bit of a challenge, regardless of who's holding the mallets. Combine that setting with the compositions of Roscoe Mitchell, where space, atmosphere and extended technique can all factor into a piece, and the level of intrigue increases tenfold.

Adasiewicz transcribed eight Mitchell pieces for the album, along with a one written by Roscoe Mitchell, Sr. and one by R&B singer Otis Blackwell. While his approach to his instrument has been a bit aggressive at times (on some of his other records, it sounds like he's hitting so hard that the vibes bleed through one of the other studio microphones), he plays with a delicate attack on many of these tracks, slowly teasing melodies up through the vibrato of the instrument. It might be the first time a set of Mitchell's work could be considered lyrical, and that doesn't mean the music has been simplified by any means. 

Album opener "The Waltz" (an early Art Ensemble of Chicago piece) creates an aural version of entering a dimly light room: the setting might be hard to make out initially but as time passes, it starts to make sense. From there, it's easy to get caught up in the sound of instrument. "Toro," another AEC piece from the Paris days, maintains the groove of the original, even with just one instrument playing it. 

Throughout Roscoe Village, the selection of music and the pacing assures that the tracks never start to sound the same or run together. The elder Mitchell's "Walking In the Moonlight" is built on a bluesy foundation, which Adasiewicz toys with as he goes. At the same time, the groove of Blackwell's "Daddy Rollin' Stone" (one of Mitchell's favorite songs) can be felt throughout his playing. Both those tracks present some contrast, as does "The Cartoon March," which has never been recorded before. True to its name (and perhaps, some thoughts of Carl Stalling) the mood changes shape frequently, with stops, starts and dynamic drops, but it never meanders. 

Like any good Roscoe Mitchell album, repeated listens will yield more understanding of what's happening in the music. A whole recital on vibes feel like the gateway to deeper exploration anyway.

Jason, if you're reading this - glad to hear you playing again.