Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 50)


Patti Smith, Banga     (Columbia)

Any hopes that Just Kids helped exorcise her tendencies to overwrite will be dashed within the opening seconds of this music + poetry paean to idealism and the healing power of art, although if wild imagery and allusions to European artists turn you off, Patti must have been a hard sell back in 1975. Truth is, this most heart-on-sleeve of rock intellectuals has always refused to deny the existence of her former self, the gangly, girlish outsider too genuine to hide her enthusiasm for an expansively-defined bohemia. “The canvas is high,” Smith warns, before going long with the shouted proclamation, “All is art!” That line defines the central philosophy at play here, not just within the ten-minute death vision of Pierro Della Francesca that is “Constantine’s Dream,” but in her many references to aesthetic figures, the vast majority hailing from foreign shores - Russians Tarkovsky, Gogol, and Bulgakov, Italians Vespucci and St. Francis, plus French Maria Schneider, Brit Amy Winehouse, Canadian Neil Young, and Saturnian Sun Ra, all topped by an anthropomorphizing ode to Mount Fuji begging for mercy from tectonic furies. One reason this muddled mural doesn’t sag under its own historical weight is that her flights of fancy are tempered by the admirably straightforward rock music she’s practiced since her Bowery days, even while her vocals display a deepening richness and range. And when she needs or wants to, she can dial it back - not just on the Winehouse ode “This Is The Girl,” which does, after all, invoke Christ, but on the lovely pop valentine that is “April Fool,” in which old friend Tom Verlaine adds distinctive guitar to a simple invocation of a lover arriving via rusted bike. Not bicycle or velocipede, just a bike. 

Jim Black Trio, Somatic     (Winter & Winter)

On the surface, these ten open-ended trio numbers seem a far departure from drummer Jim Black’s adventures with the rock-tinged AlasNoAxis, probing and detached where that outfit is nimble and engaged. If young (and unknown to me) Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder seems the key player here, that’s partly a tribute to Black’s maturity behind the drum kit and a compositional style favoring slow exploration. But the dominant voice is of course the leader’s, with the late Paul Motian’s legacy implicitly suggested not only in brush- and stick-work exploiting the full tonal range of his instrument, but in the presence of longtime Motian sideman Thomas Morgan on bass and the utilization of a record label practically synonymous with the one-time Bill Evans band member. Loping brushwork (“Hestbak”), stop-and-start swing (“Sure Are You”), subdued frenzy (“Beariere”), percussive bursts (“Protection”) - always busy, yet never merely embellished, it’s a rhythmic display all the more impressive for refusing to escape the confines of trio conversation. And throughout it all, a melodic accessibility informed by the language of pop and rock, suggesting ultimately this isn’t such a departure from Black’s previous indie/jazz rock innovations.


Carter Tutti Void, Transverse     (Mute)

In which two key players from the glory that was Throbbing Gristle meet up with keeper of the flame Nik Void of Factory Floor for an improvised one-off recorded live at London’s Roundhouse, dispatching four ten-minute tracks of metronomic trance plenty funky for being resolutely 4/4. Chris Carter’s synthesized farts, splats, chugs, and puffs surround an unceasing beat to which Cosey Fanni Tutti adds occasional vocals and Void adds jagged skronk, the latter proudly part of a long tradition of female musicians proving themselves more comfortable than their male contemporaries in distilling guitar technique to its non-harmonic essence. Industrial, then, as it was first defined and blessedly free of the misanthropic imagery rendering most industrial acts pure cornball. Plus, just dig those catchy song titles - “V1”, “V2”, “V3”, and “V4”. 

Physical Therapy, Safety Net EP     (Hippos In Tanks)

As busy and ultimately empty-headed as The Avalanches, only a whole lot less organic, five snappy dance tracks bathed in the haze of acid house drop in, do their thing, and get out of the way. Daniel Fisher’s idea of a killer sample is a breaker-one-nine gag, his idea of a guest vocalist is “visual artist” Jamie Krasner, and his idea of a killer hook is looping a forgotten house vocal for four minutes (“Do It Alone”). He’s not entirely wrong.


The Walkmen, Heaven     (Fat Possum)

Not sure why so many scribes are impressed that these once-drunken louts have transformed themselves into family men posing proudly with progeny within cd booklets - it’s the oldest and, in its way, most maudlin journey known to man. Besides, such undeniably admirable changes guarantee nothing in the way of insight, which was never this band’s strong suit anyway. When melody, arrangement, and delivery effortlessly connect, like they do on the lovely “Song For Leigh,” concerns of substance get temporarily overridden. But bands this dully traditional should be careful comparing themselves to such symbols of obsolescence as the Pony Express. 

SpaceGhostPurpp, Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles Of SpaceGhostPurpp     (4AD)

This Miami talent’s distinction as the first hip-hop artist signed to long-running indie label 4AD is a more perfect fit than many stunned observers let on. Just like Shabazz Palaces barely messed with SubPop’s cheerful boho aesthetic, SpaceGhostPurpp neatly encompasses sonic and thematic sympathies common to labelmates new and old (Gang Gang Dance, Clan of Xymox, Bauhaus, Tones On Tail). Call it goth-rap, then, with Purpp’s previous mixtapes tidied up to bring humming synthesizers to the forefront. When it’s good, as it is on “Get Yah Head Bust,” doomy dance music helps surround a minimal performance style that really is pure South Beach, raunch and all. But when it’s bad, which is far more often, his plodding odes to darkness are barely worthy for testing a car stereo’s low end. Never would have thought a 4AD album might be criticized for lyrics not being opaque enough. But who would have thought a 4AD album would offer as its centerpiece “Suck A Dick 2012,” complete with appropriate sound effects and distanced commands like “open up your mouth, bitch, and swallow this”? Whatever will the Cocteau Twins think?