Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (pt. 17)


Matthew Shipp / William Parker / Beans / Hprizm, Knives From Heaven   (Thirsty Ear)

Jazz and hip-hop have eyed each other for most of the latter’s lifetime, and despite noble purposes, both forms lose much of their power in collaboration, with jazz sacrificing forward propulsion and hip-hoppers simply squirreling away their best rhymes for later. So with props to pioneers Miles Davis, Digable Planets, and Guru’s Jazzmatazz, the best approximation of a hip-hop/jazz fusion came not via looping Grover Washington or inviting Donald Byrd to take a chorus, but during pianist Matthew Shipp’s tenure at Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, in which Downtown musicians, laptop artists, and left-of-center rhymers came together as equals. Which is not to claim Shipp ignited a revolution, or that some experiments were more than dry runs. But nearly ten years after the quite successful Anti-Pop Consortium Vs. Matthew Shipp, four participants return in what I’ll call a quartet, and if anything, they’ve managed to excise extraneous details and hew closer to that oxymoron, the pure hybrid. Twenty cuts, little over forty minutes, longest track 3.25 – don’t expect lengthy bouts of improvisation. But don’t expect standard verse-chorus rap, either. Expect dense bursts of electronic noise, clipped grooves, electro-acoustic tapestries, succinct lyrical flow. Nu Bop, once again.   


Emperor X, Western Teleport    (Bar/None)

 If Chad Matheny had the will to temper his pop sensibilities and gift with verse, he could no doubt accrue street cred by applying his scientific background to the not-yet-on-life-support chillwave scene, that misguided movement finding enlightenment in every three track single from mopey Europeans armed with sequencers. Luckily for us, Matheny’s heart beats too warmly to settle for mere ambient retro. This leans toward electronic textures, but it’s actually straight indie – for a vague reference point, think early Feelies or maybe later Mountain Goats. And while many titles read like parodies of hipster inscrutability (“The Magnetic Media Storage Practices Of Rural Pakistan,” “Compressor Repair”), there’s little irony at work here. Matheny understands the way technologies (and religion, plus economics) shape daily lives, especially subconsciously. He also thinks we’d all best switch to mass transit before it’s too late, entitling one of several rather detached songs concerning future social upheaval “Sig Alert”. My kind of weirdo, which is to say, not really that weird at all.      


Afrikan Sciences, Means And Ways   (Deepblak download)

Oakland-based Eric Porter Douglass pursues rhythmic abstraction along the lines of Golden State compatriot Flying Lotus, only not as cinematic and far less beholden to hip-hop. Douglass constructs glitchy sequences drawing upon various strands of dance music without capitulating to any sort of genre requirement, and while I don’t really hear the “African” beats many boosters claim, I do pick up on house, broken beat, and jazz – the type of rhythms that will trip a listener up, the kind that repay close listening even if loud background works, too. Opener “Spirals” remains my favorite track, partly thanks to a melody carried along via some kind of distortion treatment, be it steel drums or a nightmare carousel. But every cut here bespeaks a unique sense of groove that continues to define an emerging West Coast underground.

Crooked Fingers, Breaks In The Armor     (Merge)

In this Archers Of Loaf reunion year, Eric Bachmann offers a sixth iteration of rootsy songcraft, seemingly miles away from his old band’s tuneful noise, with all Pavement comparisons finally rendered obsolete. Problem is, Bachmann’s simply traded one set of influences for another, at least in the eyes of the cognoscenti, with Tom Waits and Nebraska-era Springsteen mentioned in nearly every review I’ve seen (including this one). There’s no denying Bachmann’s phrasing and timbre echo The Boss on acoustic numbers like “The Hatchet,” but there’s plenty of variety across these stripped down numbers, largely minus the horn and string arrangements threatening to swamp his last few projects. Vocals have been boosted, too, which works to his advantage on lovely songs like “Heavy Hours” and “The Counterfeiter”. But when his travelogues become forced, the album turns wordy and cumbersome. Waits eventually left behind beatnik dive bars for a grotesque Americana, while Springsteen looked beyond teenage joyrides to the plight of working families. Bachmann still seems pretty fascinated by weary outlaws and highway motels.


Terius Nash, 1977     (Radio Killa download) 

As The-Dream, Nash has produced hits for Rihanna and Beyonce, while cultivating a soulful cocksman persona with an eye for the ladies far more sympathetic than many another soulful cocksman. So what a drag to see him move from the female empowerment of “Single Ladies” to this bathetic download-era Here, My Dear. By using his real name, insisting on distributing this for free over the protestations of Def Jam, and prominently posting lyrics for fan perusal, there’s little doubt Nash means for this marital separation concept album to be intensely personal. But even sympathetic ears might eventually tire of the self-defensive hectoring deployed over clusters of synth strings. “Please don’t disrespect me,” “mind your own business,”  “damn, you look so stupid,” “all you do is nag me like a 5-year-old in the back seat,” and the admittedly pretty great “you used to strip for me, now all you got is lip for me” all appear within the first half, with the Gucci-dropping “look at my watch/look at my yacht/look at all the shit you ain’t got” boast suggesting he won’t be joining any 99% protests anytime soon. Only “Wedding Crasher” sees Nash dropping his guard for more than a few verses, admitting things might be more complicated than he’s letting on. But even that highlight turns on our man “singing you my drunk song.” Which gets it about right. Sure, messy divorces can lead to great art. They can just as easily lead to barstool rants about that whore who ruined everything.   

Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire     (Capitol)

 There’s something both vaguely touching and depressing about the fact that functioning human beings care to some degree or other about a product as lusterless as this, less an album than a weak surf sloshing over prone bodies, barely worth the effort to dislike as it very nearly barely exists. The kind of weak-kneed country/folk Gene Clark could have tossed off during a long weekend back in the early ‘70s, it should stir hope in the hearts of all heterosexual men – if being married to Mandy Moore leads to this kind of bland-out, why fear the future? Concerns of American decline are very much in the air. This weak-voiced boilerplate figure having been anointed our singer-songwriter of consequence is a lesser byproduct of this decline, but proof nonetheless.