Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (pt. 16)


PICKS

Allen Lowe, Blues And The Empirical Truth  (Music & Arts)

Three discs of blues compositions and improv, dominated by Lowe himself, which may surprise those who know him mainly as a researcher and anthologist – his 9-cd American Pop, 36(!)-cd That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History and ongoing Really The Blues? projects are peerless historical re-orderings, and also fun. If those anthologies screw mightily with received wisdom re: pop, jazz, and blues, so, too, do these performances. Partly inspired by a sour exchange with Wynton Marsalis on the topic of proto-blues form, Lowe trains his guitar and Ornette Coleman-inspired alto sax on literally dozens of originals that rarely conform to “blues changes,” a framing device Lowe has no interest in recycling, even if he’d never claim it’s old hat. Big names Matthew Shipp, Roswell Rudd, and Marc Ribot lend their considerable talents, but relative unknown (to me, at least) Maine six-stringer Ray Suhy proves Ribot’s equal in skronk. Add Jessie Hautala’s bass and the bizarre electronic drums of Jake Millett, and what emerges is a long, heady project  both conceptual and earthy, The Blues as field holler, jazz funeral, Carter Family scratch, Impulse! Era Coltrane. Study those liner notes, too – Lowe’s song-by-song commentary won’t answer every question, but his references to music theory, Civil Rights figures, Ralph Ellison, Lenny Tristano’s nickname, and Cleveland poet D.A. Levy show off his casual erudition while backlighting each performance. Scoop it up while you can.   

Wilco, The Whole Love   (dBpm)

 Chicagoans have long favored an earnest strain of the avant-garde, from the Art Ensemble in their costumes to the frowning fusion nexus of Tortoise/Sea And Cake, and as a Midwesterner myself, I suspect the staid nature of Windy City experimentalism stems partly from a desire to challenge the supposed “natural” inclinations of coastal competitors. Wilco’s been pursuing just this kind of forced artsiness for ten years, winning new fans while boring those of us who never found Jeff Tweedy’s studio tinkering nearly as compelling as his way with melody. Album opener “Art Of Almost” suggests we’re gearing up for another long slog through production backflips. But then a funny thing happens – “I Might” charmingly introduces 1960s Farfisa organ, rollicking beat, and a genuine singalong chorus deployed with nary a wink nor squiggle. And so the album goes, nine more succinctly ragged pop tunes, some fast, some slow, before concluding with a 12-minute acoustic ballad that doesn’t even build or crescendo, just pushes quietly along. It’s fairly amazing.  

NEAR PICKS

Farmers By Nature, Out Of This World’s Distortions   (AUM Fidelity)

Pianist Craig Taborn more or less leads this trio, although bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver are not offering backup – this is a fully cohesive collective, with no compositions or pre-worked arrangements, just three musicians improvising live in a studio setting. And the results are impressively tight, disciplined, even compact, if not exactly curt (one number pushes 18 minutes). The opening lament for deceased saxophone great Fred Anderson begins proceedings quietly, but “Tait’s Traced Traits” nods at Thelonious Monk, the barest hints of “Evidence” peeking out from Taborn’s stabbed chords, before Cleaver drops a deep funk beat some five minutes in. Not that you’d confuse anything here with either Monk or funk. But this is playful free jazz even non-specialists can dig.

DJ Shadow, The Less You Know, The Better   (Verve)

At his best (which is to say, across nearly all of Endtroducing… and The Private Press), Josh Davis had less in common with his sampling contemporaries and eventual trip-hop followers than casual listeners assumed. No mere beat worshipper, Shadow seemed at heart a bemused psych-prog weirdo who turned to collecting records because he couldn’t physically master the chord progressions he heard in his head. Nothing he’s released in the intervening years suggests he retains the stomach or vision for those earlier creative heights, and these 16 relatively brief tracks barely scrape the edge of his potential. You got your big-beat extravaganza, you got your synth-pop vocal tracks (two of ‘em!), you got your guitar-loaded metal sequence. Admittedly, you also got great beats. But in the old days, Davis would have liberated some forgotten fuzzbomb blast for that metal track. While sources remain uncertain, this time it sounds like he just dropped by a Sam Goody’s and plucked Incubus from the discount bin.

BOMBS

Youth Lagoon, The Year Of Hibernation   (Fat Possum)

22-year-old Boise native Trevor Powers produces a debut album against the backdrop of three gimmicks, none of which I condemn out of hand. First, there’s the actual recording of the album, undertaken within various kitchens, garages, and bedrooms. But more importantly, there’s a chronic anxiety diagnosis and a messy romantic breakup, both of which seem to have determined his modes of expression. Unlike many another bedroom auteur, Powers has a striking grasp of things like pace and dynamics – songs begin softly only to soon build towards the anthemic. But dear lord, those vocals. Quavering, pathetic, milquetoast, they make Dean Wareham sound like Henry Rollins and attenuate every phrase he attempts. He probably doesn’t need any relationship advice, but might I suggest speaking with a bit more authority? Women do tend to admire confidence.

Retox, Ugly Animals   (Three One G)

Thirteen minutes of furious hardcore by a SoCal band claiming inspiration from, among other things, their “reaction to stagnant and boring cultures, as well as the countercultures that have slipped into a sea of pointlessness” – right up my noise-loving reactionary alley. Except this is sound and fury signifying, well, you know. Sure do raise a mighty roar. Bravura titles, too, although within lies the rub. “The World Is Ending And It’s About Time” is just youthful nihilism, while “A Bastard On Father’s Day” suggests they should leave the generational upheaval thingy to Turgenev. “Boredom Is Counter-Revolutionary” hints at political maturity. It’s by far their slowest number and consists mostly of feedback.