Wussy, Strawberry (Shake It)
“Cultish” is the wrong word to describe this Ohio band’s small but passionate fan base, partly because such designations suggest qualities intrinsic to the music distancing it from “regular” rock fans. Unless frazzled-yet-lovely indie musicianship plus literate-yet-sensible lyrics about committed-yet-tumultuous relationships are somehow aberrations within the art form, I can’t see anything other than fate or just distribution constraints keeping this great band’s equally great fourth album from making the rounds at Pitchfork and environs. Make no mistake, the people who love this band dissect individual songs in the belief that real-life couple Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker are working out their kinks in the studio and onstage. I’m committed enough to some manifestation of Cleaver and Walker to have been initially devastated by “Waiting Room’s” “sad midwestern baptist girl” crying on the bathroom floor on her honeymoon night, or by stray phrases from “Wrist Rocket” like “I was the last to know” and “you removed the ampersand/ from in between your name and mine”. But even without my level of commitment, I’m sure the male-female vocal trade-offs and guitar grandiosity on the former number would prove equally moving to any neutral party. And since reading too much autobiography into any artistic document skews a little, well, cultish, let me note that many of this album’s highlights require no such fanaticism – the Flannery O’Connor shout-out on “Chicken,” the easy poetry of Indiana place names on “Pizza King,” the way Lisa Walker’s “Magnolia” rockets along on a melody and chord progression worthy of Joni Mitchell. Sure, there are bands with less name recognition and less national presence, but not better bands. And when Cleaver howls “there is no guidebook for this sort of thing,” meaning messy relationships or maybe just life, here’s hoping he knows plenty of us think that’s exactly what this album is.
Kieran Hebden / Steve Reid / Mats Gustafsson, Live At The South Bank (Smalltown Superjazz)
Free improvisation can be a bitch for the uninitiated, an apparently structureless cascade of noise rising and falling of its own accord, with little regard for pop-friendly niceties like hook, chorus, or beat. So the reason this noise session comes recommended to the novice is that it’s actually a groove session. One year away from an early death, jazz percussionist Steve Reid caps a long journey that began with Martha and the Vandella’s “Dancing In The Streets,” meeting up for a sixth time with Kieran Hebden, electronic mastermind of Four Tet. These two unlikely soul mates welcome Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson on six long performances, five of them very long indeed. Gustafsson brings a Nordic fire that rivals the intensity of Peter Brotzmann, while Reid supplies a percussive sense that is in no way showy and always steady. But Hebden is the secret weapon, supplying texture, color, pulse, melody, and sometimes just sound effects, his keyboard console expressive enough to win over any synth skeptic. Perhaps this trio’s finest moment (well, twenty-six minutes) occurs during the “medley” that opens proceedings, in which a droning duet between Reid and Hebden pauses for breath to allow Gustaffson to leap aboard, the sax powerhouse settling into the simplest of riffs, repeated incessantly because sometimes simple repetition is the best kind of noise. Things eventually end rather dramatically, but by that point, Reid and company have earned the right to come down in whatever fashion they choose.
Kidd Jordan, On Fire (Engine Studios)At 76, saxophonist Kidd Jordan can look back over a long career with some pride, having in the course of his dedication to teaching and exploring the art of “total improvisation” been knighted by the French Ministry of Culture, conceptualized the World Saxophone Quartet, and surreptitiously encountered the mainstream on R.E.M.’s Out Of Time. Frustratingly, this influence is not well represented on record – AllMusic lists a mere four albums under his leadership, two of them blank entries. So this trio date from last summer is as good a place to investigate this no-trace-of-dixieland-revival Louisiana perfomer as any, backed by Warren Smith on drums/vibes and Harrsion Bankhead on bass. Albert Ayler is one obvious influence, especially when Jordan propels himself into sustained investigations of his horn’s higher range, but without the melodies Ayler always introduced as a starting point. Think of Jordan as continuing the tradition of another (initially) under-recorded jazz artist, Fred Anderson, both sharing a rare ability to calmly pursue lines of thought as they unfold, the Kidd repeating phrases he likes as he comes across them, moving on to new ideas after they’ve been patiently exhausted. And there’s no doubt Jordan is thinking while he plays – the titles themselves suggest worldly engagement rather than spiritual hokum. Even if it was recorded months before Zuccotti Park was occupied, let alone violently vacated, opener “officer, that big knife cuts my sax reeds” sounds quite timely.
Milk Music, Beyond Living (no label)
Earlier this year, trans-atlantic scenesters Yuck reaped press attention as indie formalists worth watching, effortlessly creating a shoegaze/Nirvana soundtrack to Our Band Could Be Your Life, complete with the tunes so often missing from formalist exercises. The equally ludicrously named Milk Music have less in the way of tunes, even on a release barely stretching to twenty-one minutes, but they do possess a more lockstep appropriation of SST glory days, along with at least two (maybe three) killer riffs and an insistence on plugging their guitar feeds directly into recording consoles. Anybody skeptical of an aesthetic philosophy beholden nearly exclusively to Dinosaur Jr. will no doubt wish to excuse themselves, or perhaps blow chunks. But coming off a twelve-month period in which hip-hop handily out-rocked its indie counterparts, even sources as questionable as J. Mascis deserve some props, from the slop overdrive of “Fertile Ground” to the blown vocals on “Beyond Living”. With absolutely no web presence advertising their wares, all I can report is that this group hails from Olympia, WA, the singer has never owned a computer, and they think they might have a proper release out by next spring. In the meantime, we have this download.
Childish Gambino, Camp (Glass Note)
With no working knowledge of Community, I approached this project by one of its stars absent preconceived notions – why shouldn’t a TV guy take a stab at hip-hop? No denying Donald Glover flexes a deep vocabulary, knows his culture both high and low, and displays a musicality that’s consistently impressive, if a bit toothless. But this is less clever than both he and his fans suspect. As a lengthy concept album about one young man’s quest for pan-racial pussy, it’s entertaining enough. But as a project that veers dangerously close towards conceiving the American black experience almost exclusively through ambivalent backpacker reactions to his mixtapes, it’s a dead end, as breathlessly race-obsessed as liars claim identity politics always is. After a quick nod towards familial discontent, he homes in on the real pressures: being the “only black kid at a Sufjan concert,” wanting to be picked for “the cool team,” and endless variations on being told he isn’t “black enough”. At first, these confessionals are endearing. But sheer repetition saps their strength, especially as it becomes clear this self-pitying star finds escape only through sexual conquests, with girls identified solely by their race and Asians especially being highlighted, a supposed “fetish” he cops to because “black and white girls come with a set of politics”. So while his experiences on the cultural sidelines may not have taught him much about other ethnicities, he’s got a set of balls on him. After all, going out on a string-laden 8-minute epic monologue about how, at age thirteen, a girl on the bus told another girl something he had told the first girl (literal quote: “it was just for you/and you told everybody”) is pretty brave. Not exactly intelligent. But brave.
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
The bloat of “The Shrine/An Argument” confirms it: a sizable Sub Pop contingent clamors for weedy FM rock the likes of which indie types haven’t been subjected to since the dawning of college radio. A folkie Roger Daltrey moans pleasantly atop humming hurdy-gurdy, making oafish stabs at verse like “green apples hang from my green apple tree,” all the more appalling for their slipshod nods at high modernism. And clumsy poesy rules the day – setting aside the often-pretty melodies and able twelve-string guitar filigrees, what sinks this venture are the words. Hardly tossed off and sometimes thoughtful, I object only mildly to “Blue Spotted Tail’s” cosmic query “Why is the earth moving round the sun?” or the possibly ironic career opportunity pabulum of the title tune. But there’s no defending the many uninspired couplets Robin Pecknold spews up. Take “Battery Kinzie’s” “I woke up one morning” [okay, let’s see where this goes] / “all my fingers rotten” [Jesus Christ]. Someday, an indie band worth listening to may emerge boasting no working knowledge of the Velvet Underground. But it won’t be a band using CSN’s “Cathedral” as their creative blueprint.