Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Akito's Hey Mister Girl!

I first heard about Hey Mister Girl!, Akito Katayose (lead singer of the Great 3)'s solo debut, via Archer Prewitt, who was working on the album back on 2000. Dude was excited about it; Akito had given him a producer's role to run with, one of the first few of such occurrences (I think he had done a lot of uncredited work for Edith Frost's second album too).

That's a good way to introduce Hey Mister Girl!. The album's rooted in 60's pop a la Chicago, rooted in Turtles-type melodies but ornate with electronic florishes. Prewitt might be responsible for the more traditional of these sounds, but the more electronic of these elements are akin to those of Aluminum Group and the Sea and Cake. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that most of Prewitt's band and Tortoise appear on the album to back Akito up. It's also not a far stretch for Akito: since about 98, the Great 3 have been cozying up to their Chicago pals and releasing increasingly similar material.

That's not to say Hey Mister Girl's a wannabe Chicago album. The album is still a quintessentially Japanese take on 60s pop. While Aluminum Group channel Bacharach, Akito's all over the place, from romantic soul-pop ballads ala Dusty Springfield on "Dilemma" (backed by one of the best female indie rock voices, Rebecca Gates), to Stereolab-esque go-go tunes on "Geist." What might have ended up as over-reaching for a lesser act turns out to be cohesively broad for Akito, due to the fact that the man's no slouch in the song-writing department himself, staving off any threat of being overshadowed by his musical guests.

As an endnote, Prewitt also did the artwork with Sheila Sachs (who has seemingly designed every album out of Chi-town in the past 15 years). When I first got it, I thought it looked familiar. A glance through Don Cherry's catalog confirmed it: the scheme's ripped off from Where Is Brooklyn?, pictured to the right.

Autechre's Envane

It's always interesting to re-visit electronic music. I'm still of the mind that the primary purpose of most electronic music is, ahem, to get a muthaf*cka on the dancefloor, but re-listening to a bunch of this stuff can force a person to re-contextualize it. That's especially true of so-called IDM ("Intelligent Dance Music," a name which has its racial connotations - a piece I read years ago implied it was a way to separate the genre from the more African "jungle" music)(rock and roll in its early days was also called "jungle" music because of its African American roots), which is almost completely divorced of the regular booty-bass of dance music.

Listening to Autechre's Envane was never really about dancing, I suppose, but it's always easy to categorize electronic musicians as more single-based as opposed to album-based, and thus I had never really considered Envane as much more than a remix EP (which it technically is - all of the tracks are based upon the same root, though one has to read an interview with the Autechre boys to find that out). But listening to the EP nine years after the fact changes that initial thought, and Envane can easily be understood as a single composition with four movements.

As individual singles, Envane can be rather boring. There's only subtle nuances as between the tracks, and a couple of Autechre EPs can completely fill one's necessity in life of their releases. But as a singular composition with four sepearate movements, Envane works. The EP ends up being more a pastoral orchestral piece (albeit an extremely modern pastoral piece, if skyscrapers can supply a sense of the pastoral) than four singles, and it becomes a lot more interesting an accomplishment. That's not to say Autechre is encroaching on Mike Oldfield territory, but it's getting close.

However, as much as Envane becomes a lot more interesting in that regard, there's still really no need to own much more than this EP or any other EP of Autechre's, unless the varying 1's and 0's of their binary compositions turn yr crank. Like Oval, one can call it quits on Autechre by buying one release: there's not much in the way of grand variation. While I'm all for Autechre's ability to supply millions of shades of gray, I'm much more interested in a little colour. IDM? I Don't Mind...but I don't need, either.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Alpha's Come From Heaven

It's always somewhat of a feat to find one stellar, mind-blowing, life-affirming single, much less a whole album, and that's why Alpha's Come From Heaven still holds my attention, almost ten years after its initial release. The last track, "Somewhere Not Here," is by far one of the most amazingly beautiful songs from the Bristol scene, a slow-burning torch song that's so achingly perfect that it would fit just as well forty years prior in the jazz-diva age and forty years later into the future. Wendy Stubbs delivers fragile, yearning vocals; Dingley and Jenks write lush arrangements without stepping into the realm of overwrought or cliche. The song, quite clearly, is a classic.

A different version, "Sometime Later," also appears on the album. Martin Barnard pleads through this version; the song becomes despairing relative to "Somewhere Not Here"'s wishfulness. The album oscillates in between the two (as does much of Alpha's later output), with Dingley and Jenks arrangements providing perfect counterpoint each step of the way, and the mixture of tense delivery and lush production ensures Alpha's timelessness, more so than other albums of that period.

Alpha are an interesting lot - a Britpop response to trip hop's increasing output around the late '90s (the album was one of the initial releases on Massive Attack's now-defunct Melankolic label). Close To Heaven's never quite beat-driven enough to qualify as a trip hop album, and instead plays out more like pop music striving to catch up to the genre (the group Bows does the same thing with drum and bass a couple years after Close To Heaven). The album is an indication that it's achievable; "Somewhere Not Here" is indication that it's successful.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Aphrodite's Aphrodite

Drum and bass appealed to me in the mid-90s as this new, crazy sound: the drums were crawling out of the speakers and cramming themselves down my throat. It was a needed surge of energy relative to all the trip hop that was coming out at the time, more complicated than most the house/electronica that dominated the clubs, and more reminiscent to the frenetic jazz drumming than any of the other electronic music forms. Drum and bass, simply, was a great curiosity, and the early years of LTJ and Goldie were great to observe, even in hindsight.

It wouldn't take long, of course, for somebody to fuck it up. As every genre has its cheese element, so too must drum and bass/jungle. Witness, then, Aphrodite's North American debut on V2 records.

Granted, Aphrodite's fun for sample-checking. A little Bob Jones here, a little Public Enemy there, but for God's sake, a jungle cover of Seals and Crofts' "Summer Breeze"? The bass lines may rumble, but in the most synthetic, ringtone kind of way. Listening to the entire album is akin to ordering Velvetta, and I'm somewhat lactose intolerant.

It may not be any coincidence, then, that around that same point in time (1999 or so), drum and bass/jungle just fell off completely and became a parody of itself. The beats became formulaic, the vocalists became cliched, and all of the original sexiness inherent to it dissipated. It wasn't until High Contrast's debut album on Hospital Records three or four years later that any semblence to the original inventiveness (or sheer listenability) came back to the genre. Is it Aphrodite's fault? Probably not, but his album doesn't indicate anything otherwise, either.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra's Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1

I'm all for pastiche, but sometimes you gotta wonder: when does paying homage flow over into ripping off?

The first time I saw Antibalas, I wasn't overly sold. A group of 9-15 (thankfully not in an Arcade Fire kinda way) NYC folk playing Fela Kuti funk jams might be pretty novel in a place like Calgary, but seeing neo-hippies do that fucked up fairy dance (unfortunately) is not. To be a good sport, I picked up Liberation Afrobeat to give 'em a fair chance...I'm still not overly sold.

I can respect the group for keeping afrobeat alive, for keeping the music of Fela Kuti alive, but why wouldn't I just put on some Fela albums and groove out on "Expensive Shit" or "Water No Get Enemy" instead? Though Antibalas have certainly done their homework, there's little new that Antibalas has brought to the table with Liberation Afrobeat. If anything, Antibalas doesn't even come close to having as much tension or urgency to their music as Fela did (nor as interesting/fucked up a life), and I can't help but think this is purely for those kids that overdose on patchouli oil and herbal teas.

Instead, then, check out Red Hot and Riot, the Red Hot's tribute to Fela. Instead of the cut and paste version of Fela that Antibalas undoubtedly excels at, Red Hot and Riot updates the sound, with people like Mixmaster Mike, D'Angelo, the Blackalicious guys and Jorge Ben on board. What results is something infinitely more interesting, and infinitely more innovative. Pastiche can be fine if kept in check, but originality will always be better.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Roy Ayers' Virgin Ubiquity: Unreleased Recordings 1976 - 1981

It's a dilemma well stated by Jack Black in High Fidelity: what are you supposed to make of a music god that's released pure shite in the more recent past?

'Course, ol' Jack Black was talkin' about Stevie Wonder, who's committed more musical crimes in the past two decades than Roy Ayers has throughout his career (though a man who can write a song like "As" can do whatever the hell he pleases), but Ayers has been equally guilty. The first of the two Virgin Ubiquity comps, featuring unreleased recordings from Ayers' vaults from the late 70s through to the 80s, contains tracks that largely could've stayed in the vault, with little worry that anybody would've broken in to steal them.

Next to Ayers' amazing output during 75 - 77 (Mystic Voyage to Everybody Loves the Sunshine), it's little wonder that these tracks just didn't fit anywhere amongst those albums. Virgin Ubiquity is generally comprised of filler material schlock, late 70s soul-funk that would find itself appropriate to the more B-grade blaxploitation films of the day than anything else. Most of the tracks are completely rendered useless by the overwrought vocals of Carla Vaughn and Merry Clayton, who are reminiscent of those contestants on American Idol seeking to impress by straining their vocal cords. Word has it that both the Masters at Work and Gilles Peterson had passed on releasing the material themselves, with Ayers finally finding output on BBE - it's little wonder why.

There's the odd standout track from the compilation - the instrumental "Green and Gold" and the stomper "I Am Your Mind" (the latter reminiscent to "Running Away" or "Sweet Tears") - but it's hard to tell if they're quality on their own or if they just seem that way next to the other tracks on the comp. Do either equal "Everyone Loves the Sunshine" or "We Live in Brooklyn"? It's close, but just too hard to say (though "I Am Your Mind" does remind one of Ayers' genius). They're a pleasure to listen to, to be sure, but perhaps little equity to balance out the rest of the crimes committed with the rest of the compilation. It might not be the atrocity of "I Just Called to Say I Love You," but being boring - which Virgin Ubiquity is - might be just as bad.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Alexkid's Mint

Y'know, it's pretty hard to fuck up 'easy,' but Alexkid went and did it on his first album, Bienvenida. Instead of releasing a fun, by the numbers French house album, dude went all dancefloor jazz on us and released a boring coffee table album. Though Bienvenida wasn't bad in its day, listening to it now reinforces the fact that so-called "dancefloor jazz" is really just code for "that lite jazz you hear on the Weather Channel."

It's a good thing, then, that Mint corrects most of those mistakes and gets back to basics. Mint is largely what you'd expect to come out of a city of Paris: sleek, minimalist (though not as fargone as what comes out of Detroit), vocalists up the yin-yang. What results is a fun album to listen to, a light background noise that gets the feet tappin' without force. While Bienvenida unintentionally came across as a pretentious coffee-house bore, Mint is a carefree party album. It's about time Alexkid put down those Pharoah Sanders albums and followed the lead of his civic brethren.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

the Amps Pacer

I listened to the Amps' Pacer at work, the first time I'd played the album in over ten years. Start to finish, the album played for about five minutes...or at least it seemed like only five minutes.

The album's just not memorable stuff. Apart from the fact that the Amps features Kim Deal, there's largely no other reason for a person to have kept the album in memory through the past decade. Neither amazing nor horrible, Pacer is a complete non-entity, and the album seems short in duration purely because there's nothing to grab a person's attention for longer than a few minutes.

The sad thing is, then, that I originally liked the Amps because it seemed so much more enjoyable than the Breeders. I liked the Breeders when the Safari EP came out, and it was understandable why Last Splash became a huge hit, but even then the band seemed like just another one of those mid-90s "college rock" bands that have proven to be neither crucial nor timeless...a glut of average (see also Pavement, Archers of Loaf, most of the Matador catalog, for that matter). The Amps, a much more lo-fi and raw affair (perhaps coinciding with Deal's increasing dalliances with fellow Dayton resident Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices fame), had much more of an immediate connection, and if not important, the Amps, at the very least, seemed more fun.

It was, and probably still is. Pacer's superfluous, fluffy fun, akin to nothing more than a piece of gum or a nice glass of juice. It's not horrible, it's not great, and it's not really worth much more than a few minutes of my attention.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

the Aluminum Group Happyness

The Aluminum Group, comprised of the gay brothers John and Frank Navin, have been the unlikely toast of the fashion and design world since the release of Plano in 1998. Despite being named by a line of furniture by Eames, the Aluminum Group aren't exactly the typical type of band you'd expect to play for fashionistas or designers. Instead of being shockingly hip, the Aluminum Group supply their own brand of space age bachelor pad music, with more inflections of Bacharach than the Liquid Liquid groove of the current day's more popular dance-punk.

The Aluminum Group is a soothing lot: there's more comfort than savvy to be had here. If lite-FM or AM-gold were in need of a modern day band to champion (apart from Feist, that is), the Aluminum Group seems an obvious choice. They're like the Association or Strawberry Alarm Clark, but minus the kitsch. The songs are light, but pensive, swathed in the electro-lite that is typical of Chicago bands. It's perhaps telling, then, that the Aluminum Group is as featured on HGTV as they are at the Milan Trienniale.

That's a good starting indication as to what Happyness [sic] is all about. The album is the first of a series of three albums that were to be completed in 3 years, with More Happyness following in the same vein, and Little Happyness, a re-visit of the first two albums in Spanish, still unreleased to date. The album is crammed full of delicate pop gems, much more reliant on melody and less on electronic effects than their previous album Pelo. Part of this could be explained by the fact that they've ditched John Herndon (dubbed Johnny "the Machine Gun" by some Chicago musicians for his rampant drumming); while Herndon seems to understand Tortoise and A Grape Dope extremely well, his forte might not have been in 60's lite pop. Happyness is a more intricate affair, like pastry, but without any allusions to flakiness...

...Well, until you watch their live performance on KRCW, that is. They perform in matching sweatshirts backed only by iPods. It's like watching a gay indie rock Waiting for Guffman

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Fred Anderson and Robert Barry's Duets 2001

I suppose this isn't technically an "A" album so much as it is a "A & B" album, but I've always identified Duets more with Fred Anderson than Robert Barry.

This isn't to discount from Robert Barry's contribution to the album: the two Chicago jazz pioneers rightfully claim their places in jazz past and jazz current's elite. Both have amazing CV's - Barry backed both Miles Davis and was a member of Sun Ra's Arkestra, Anderson was an original member of the highly regarded and influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which boasted all the key players of the avant-garde jazz scene (most notably the Art Ensemble of Chicago), and has run Chicago's landmark Velvet Lounge for decades. Duets is clearly the work of accomplished veterans, and the two sound symbiotically comfortable throughout the improvised pieces, with Barry's drumming meticulous and filling, and Anderson strong in tone, skittering and commanding at the same time.

But, for me, Anderson's the one up front and leading this album, and he's an immense pleasure to listen to. Anderson's a good segueway from standard jazz to Chicago's more avant-garde free jazz scene, methodically melodic but equally free in passages as Joseph Jarman ever was...the man is grounded, but with his head in the sky. While Barry stands up and matches with equal force (though I still prefer Chad Taylor), Anderson's a spotlight to me, and, even at his age, still sounds more assured and better than many newer and younger jazz musicians out there.

Duets is one of the better and more important Chicago jazz releases of the past decade, a commanding performance of the original gardeners in what has proven to be a fertile crop of modern jazz. It's not too often that I feel like listening to a jazz album in its entirety, but this one remains a pleasure to listen to, even five years after its release.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Arrested Development's 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of...

There's just something about early-90's hip-hop that is so friggin' F-U-N. The beats seem more lively and crisp, the flow seems more lyrical, the image so clean cut: the early 90's truly saw hip hop at its final peak before the drudgery that gangsta rap would impose throughout the rest of the decade.

3 Years, 5 Months... came in a year where it was all about to change. While Speech and the crew had us all grooving to revisions of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" (despite the fact that the version we all know and love is the Metamorphis mix and not the album version), Dr. Dre was slowing brewing The Chronic later that year, bringing about a West Coast mindset that had hip hop in a death grip for much of the next five years.

But no matter - until that time, Arrested Development was so overtly positive, and in such an infectuous way, that it was hard not to get caught up with them and ride on the good vibes...albeit neo-African American hippie ones, at that. While PM Dawn were too new age-y, corny, and sensitive not to raise suspicions, Arrested Development were earthy, roots-driven good folk, if the roots were comprised of 70's San Fran funk and earthy meant traditional African robes. Arrested Development made soul-searching such a comfortable thing, and, when packaged with punchy beats, complete with late 60s JB funk breaks, positive insight seemed like a party all could, and would, want to attend.

That's, of course, neglecting that Speech basically laid way for what would become Wyclef Jean a few years later. Take Speech, add reggae and an element of extreme corniness, an acoustic guitar and voila! Wyclef. Arrested Development's political and spiritual consciousness wasn't and isn't in itself a deterrent, but when packaged with some of the 'alternative rap' that followed in its wake - Wyclef, Michael Franti, etc - it becomes clearer that there will be a disinclination to Arrested Development's place in the hip hop hall of fame.

While Arrested Development certainly did it a lot better than some of these latter bands (caustic without being preachy about it), its lack of self-irreverence will always make it pale in comparison to the revered status of the Native Tongues in the heads of the headz. De La Soul's Daisy Age was a lot more digestable to your avg. kid in Long Island because, while De La went on at lengths about some of the same issues that Arrested Development touch upon, they spent just as much time making fun of themselves.

3 Years, 5 Months is still massively enjoyable, though, because it still hadn't gone overboard with the message. While the sub-genre might tumble down the path of being overwrought with sermons later on, Arrested Development, at the time, still held back enough to render the music thought-provoking, and not a force-feeding.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Air's City Reading

It'd be easy to review one of the other Air albums, but I'm trying to re-visit CDs that I haven't really paid much attention to, and there's no album more ignored than City Reading, Air's accompaniment to excerpts of Alessandro Baricco's novel City.

City Reading is basically a book-on-tape, with the author reading passages from the novel and Air providing a soundtrack. It's almost impossible to get into an in-depth understanding of the project without reading the book itself, but sufficed to say a bit of the background helps.

From what I understand, City is the story of a sheltered 13 year old math prodigy who, due to familial breakdowns (mom goes crazy; dad's in the army), grows close to his governess, who has been equally sequestered from life. The relationship between the two forms as they exchange fantastical tales: the prodigy has his stories about a boxer, the governness has her Westerns, which she's been inventing and modifying since she was 6.

The album features Baricco reading two of the governess' Westerns, both of which have more in common with tragic Sergio Leone characters than John Wayne cowboys. It's easy to dismiss Air's accompaniment (esp. with the first story), then, as Air's trademark breezy, fancy-free and dulcet tones waft through the speakers: the music doesn't fit well with what are essentially murder, vengence, and suicide tales. But when one considers that these tales are in themselves fantasies of the governess', stories within Baricco's own, it becomes somewhat fitting that the music is more dreamy than the more obvious Morricone choice.

This is even further enhanced by the fact that Baricco, reading the stories in their native Italian, basically alienates the stories even further into fantasy, emphasizing the foreigness of what are inherently American story-forms. When one considers the post-modern clusterfuck of an author reading his own character's writings, the accompaniment by Air starts to make more sense, and becomes a lot less self-serving and pretentious than the initial reviewers had assumed.

That's not to say that City Reading isn't boring - it is. Without first reading the translations included in the liner notes, the album is basically useless, and probably not much more than an audio equivalent to watching Teleitalia. But even after reading the text, City Reading doesn't add to much more than a quaint exercise, albeit a well-conceived quaint exercise. City Reading perhaps isn't the most representative of Air's work, but then again, maybe it is.

Monday, January 09, 2006

A is for A'ight: Aim's Cold Water Music

And thus it begins...and in alphabetical order, no less!

I first heard Aim while sitting around DJ Taro's room: he was done with his original Piece Meal format of trip hop and drum n' bass (he segued into the unfortunate realm of cheesy big beat), and was purging his collection of same. Or: he was in need of cash. Aim had stood out in the boring world of trip hop, which was perennially stuck in mindset that 75bpm and no hook meant something overtly deep. The track had made two bucks for a single seem like an even better deal.

Trip hop was painfully close to lite-jazz by that point, torch divas apparently being a growth industry, but Aim infused a touch of soul and funk back into the mix. In hindsight, it might not have been a coincidence that a young Kayne West was cutting his Bobby "Blue" Bland teeth on "Heart of the City" at around the same time - Aim does the same thing for Spirit's "Mr. Skin" on the highlight of Cold Water Force, "the Force."

It's easy to focus on "the Force." So easy, in fact, that I only really remember the album for that one song (on good days, maybe the title track too, which is reminiscent of mid 90's Ninja Tune product), and have completely neglected all of the other tracks. There's one of the early appearances of Kate Rogers on "Sail," one of the more interesting vocalists of the lot, and one of the many classical-music-set-to-beats-ain't-that-novel tracks, "Demonique" (see also DJ Cam's contribution to the first Respect is Burning, the Runaways UK's "Finder Kreepers"). But if I've forgotten all of these other songs, it must've been for good reason, and upon listening to it again (albeit briefly), the reason is clear: they're just not memorable. While I'm not about to pawn the Aim albums, their function has been largely lost with time, their importance has been largely lost with time, and, save for a handful of hits from his previous output, Aim better be glad that his peers (Nostalgia 77, anybody?) have been putting out much more mediocre music in the recent years.

Welcome to the Clutterer OR Yet More Clutter to the Wasteful Worldwide Web

i figure a happy image is a good place to startanother year, another blog:
with the death of 1 2 3 4 blogs, you'd figure I would know better than to try and start a new one. the writing habit is a hard one to let die, though, and i'm too big of an asshole to let my opinions go undocumented...whether or not they're actually read is another matter. i've got an audience of one - my sweetheart - and that's more than enough.

so, the clutterer: i've got an inordinate amount of clutter lying about, and i figure it's about time i put it to some good use. cds i've bought and only listened to once, dvds i own and have never watched, etc. what lies ahead is a revisiting of each and every one, until either i run out of clutter (which is near impossible) or until i get so bored of myself that i run out of posts (which is always probable).