The Groove

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have found my groove.

This morning I got up and drove to the house of an old man who attends my church. I cut his juniper bushes from the garden path, pulled a dead bush from the ground and uprooted some white flowers that had been causing him allergies. For this he paid me twenty dollars and sent me home. On the way back I ate a burrito and made plans to jam with friend Hayden later in the evening.

When I got home I folded some clothes and put away dishes with my mom and then I walked upstairs, lay down on the futon and proceeded to read Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw as my newly acquired Big Fun CD played on the stereo. Seventy-three minutes passed and when I got up I realized that I had not felt this good in weeks.

Here I am, overpaid lawn beautifier extraordinaire, with my under-scheduled hours and unhealthily large music collection (which has expanded in proportion to my graduation checks), having only changed one aspect of my daily activities, and I feel brilliant for once in this godforsaken summer, this penal colony of a season during which I cannot quite yet act like an adult yet still will be charged as one if I fuck around too much. My lethargic friends haven’t proposed to do a damn thing all summer, with the notable exception of Chris P.’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor, and even that’s an obligatory ceremony. I have wallowed in the dumps for some time, and it shows in my joyless and increasingly unimaginative music reviews. The other week I caught myself repeating the closing phrase from my review of The Shape of Jazz to Come at the end of Agharta, something about hoping that my work would turn out as awesome as Miles Davis’s, and I realized exactly how deeply my creative powers slumbered. Already this kind of article, which now approximates 330 words, would have taken me a half-hour to bang out if I were still in the doldrums, if I hadn’t taken that crucial break this afternoon and had such an excellently paced day already.

First things first: honest work. What I did this morning is the kind of stuff that is often (especially by its practitioners and their intimates/friends) labeled “honest work”, labor for which the laborer sees payment in proportion to effort or hours spent, and in which no one gets fucked over. No ethical lawyerisms entangle the handiworker’s mind as he makes his dough — he builds or he tears down, and gets paid for it by a grateful boss. That quality of work, combined with the physical exertion and subsequent endorphin release, put me in a good mood for the rest of the day.*

However, this was not the only thing that contributed to my general demeanor. I have done people’s gardening on other days at the same hour and the only time I approached this kind of geniality was when I worked in the open air of the countryside drive-thru village of Aromas, a beautiful pastoral place, and even that didn’t last when I went to Salinas and back home afterwards. I became a slug. The second ingredient was my reward — for having gotten up and done such work, I went back to my house and gave myself that present of reading time. FBI Agent Dale Cooper always said “every day, give yourself a present.”

The third contributing factor, of course, was the music itself — ambient stuff, what Christgau called “not necessarily music to fill the mind — just the room”. If you’re looking to have a similar experience, try Earth (Hibernaculum, the Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, Earth 2), Brian Eno (Another Green World, Discreet Music) or Miles Davis’  1967-1975 product, primarily the albums In a Silent Way, Get Up With It and Big Fun. (I like other recordings from this period [Jack Johnson, Agharta] more, but these ones are much more ambient and thought-provoking — they don’t rock nearly as much, and can also be enjoyed when your primary activities are finished.) You may not be as inclined towards musical adventures as I am, so I recommend you find your happy spot. I know I have.

So there — if you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, try finding a job or something that somebody will pay you to do, do it when you feel most productive (if you can — I realize that most people are on a shoestring budget anyhow and can’t really pick and choose work that makes them “happy” in our godforsaken he-who-does-not-work-does-not-eat capitalist’s playground of a country, where ever more people are realizing exactly how fragile is the hubris resulting from pay and position, especially when they take the place of character), but if you can, try to schedule what you have to do for your preferred working time and enjoy yourself afterwards. If we human critters were all judged by one standard the world would be full of losers; thus the diversity of interests and aptitudes that characterize our species. Go kickboxing, maybe, or ride your bike, or jam with friends, or watch baseball with your kids, or listen to your record collection, or make a quilt, or pray, or make fun of a movie with your friends. Preferences vary. Anyway, I may be wrong about all this, so I give my advice in the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut’s cheeky tips for finding true love. Don’t take my word for it — try different grooves. You might hit upon one you enjoy eventually. What do I know about you, you damned individual?

 

*Of course, I am also what sleepologists call a “lark” or “morning person”, and I enjoy doing things before the sun’s zenith rather than afterwards. Jamming, yardwork, reading, listening, homework — it all just comes more easily to me in the morning. People who boot up later in the day have historically been called lazy and gotten the shaft from Calvinist ninnies like me, but I have science to thank for my understanding of how people sleep and can more fairly judge the activities of late sleepers, who are probably insidiously excluded from a lot of daytime work on account of their biology and get their “sloth” reinforced by the nine-to-five that us virtuous wakeners follow. Maybe, if you’re a later riser (or “owl” in the parlance) you can get more done in a later period. Do what gets results. My managerial clientele will love that phrase.

“Permanent Fatal Error” by Jack Endino – Review

Jack Endino.jpeg

On a bright spring day in 2015 my dad and sister and I were in San Francisco, driving to Haight Street to check out Amoeba Music. We made a wrong turn and ended up at Recycled Records down the lane. I shrugged and went in anyway, examined the Punk section and found this CD — Jack Endino’s Permanent Fatal Error. The clerk-owner had slapped a sticker on it that proclaimed Jack Endino produced Nirvana’s “Bleach”! because in truth that was probably its only selling point for anybody who didn’t know much about Seattle rock from the Eighties, a category which unfortunately encompasses most humans; I, of course, knew a little about his old band Skin Yard and decided accordingly to pick it up.

This album is incredible. Imagine King Crimson stripped of sappy ballads and charged with punk; imagine Skin Yard stripped of the brainless attempts at Killing Joke/Scratch Acid “ambience”; imagine Soundgarden, but streamlined and stripped of the doom in favor of purely self-actualized thrashery, and you have a rough approximation of what Jack Endino is all about. Sixteen years elapsed between the release of his Angle of Attack, which (between the goofy interludes and jaw-dropping riffs) was a mixed bag, and Permanent Fatal Error, and it must have been worth the wait. This is one of those albums that has absolutely NO throwaway tracks, where every song is composed and rehearsed and studio-perfect but preserves the badass energy that must have inspired Jack himself to write songs around each riff. Here is where tasteful (as in interesting and appropriate guitar effects) and tasty (as in mean fuckin’ riffs) finally intersect.

Above all else it’s a guitar album — the axes are at the top of the mix, and a couple overdubs are audible at all times. Jack Endino himself is one of the very few lead guitarists around with a kind of audio signature, emphasizing the tones around what Miles Davis once called the “butter notes” and putting all sorts of “add(numbers)” on the power chords that drive most of the riffs. (He also likes holding the first four strings in a major position and leaving the B and high-e open, for the curious.) Clearly the guy has at least a little theory in his head. The other notable aspect is the note-perfect production, which must be heard to be believed. All the overdubs are done right, the multi-tracked songs where only Endino plays instruments are as perfect as the band tracks, and the mix sometimes usually promotes the guitars at the expense of the rhythm section, but who listens to rock for the drums? (besides Buzz Osborne, I mean)

In conclusion: One of the greatest albums in my collection, and a strong recommendation for any rock fan, guitar player or aspiring producer who wants to know how it’s done and how it’s done well. Even the Bush II protest song is still great.

“Agharta” by Miles Davis – Review

miles_davis-agharta_a

I bought Agharta at Everyday Music in Portland last December and it kicks the shit out of most other Miles Davis albums I own (with the obvious exception of Jack Fuckin’ Johnson). I got On the Corner and In a Silent Way at the same time, but they haven’t ever registered on the same level or given me nearly the pleasure of Agharta.

At the Hollister Portuguese Heritage Parade I was talking to a dude who had been in a band and he told me that one day during rehearsal the band found its groove. I asked him what he meant and he explained that at a split second everyone in the room had looked around at one another because they realized that they had locked into the groove and were playing all in perfect sync, all their neurons firing at once, and they vamped on whatever song they had been playing (its identity didn’t seem important) for what felt like two minutes but turned out to be thirty and by the end of it they were totally drained of energy. He compared it to meditation and disclaimed that he had been on a lot of different drugs but the groove was totally unlike any other altered state he had experienced — it was a merging of the brains and intentions of four separate dudes whose very deepest nerve impulses had suddenly cleaved together to form an elevated awareness. It was the convergence of intentions and passionate effort on four parts and it was glorious indeed.

I asked one of the other guys who had been playing that day about it and he said the guy I talked to was probably on drugs. I declined to believe him.

Agharta is the product of the groove. Listen to the mindless (in the best possible way) vamp of the “Prelude” that rages for thirty-two minutes with impressively dynamic breaks and some of the best solos captured on any Miles Davis record. The rhythm section is dramatically improved by Reggie Lucas’ rhythm guitar and the subtle percolation of Mtume’s hand drums — no sparse drum-bass backing for the great Miles — and the soloists rip holes in the fabric of the universe over this driving beat. Sonny Fortune, with his low-slung stage name and blistering tone (take THAT, Clarence Clemons!), could be mistaken for an R&B sax player if not for the occasional key modulations; Pete Cosey must be heard to be believed. The trumpet guy is okay. (Too much wah.)

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to sustain the intensity of a “Prelude” over the hours one wishes it would play; the album winds down a bit for “Maiysha”, which does that “Just Like a Baby” thing where the sad minor chords disappear and a badass pentatonic funk motif takes its place. (Predictably, Pete Cosey shines again.) It picks up somewhat for the “Theme from Jack Johnson” (which is actually track 1 on the second disc, but some numbskull mislabeled it — it begins with the famous lick from eighteen and a half minutes into “Right Off” and then goes into the swinging groove from same and I think they play around briefly with “Willie Nelson”, too) but the band is kinda spent by this point, and “Interlude” (accordingly, the last track) winds down to a whisper of the album’s previous intensity. Pete Cosey, who on disc 1 squalled mercilessly upon a guitar synth and peeled off twisted blues licks like strips of his own skin, is reduced to making squealy noises with his amps and wandering around confused; Miles quietly plinks upon the organ and the drums are only there for color. It doesn’t provide great listening by itself, but the last disc of Agharta makes perfect sense in context — this band has left it all on the stage.

Agharta, in fact, is more an experience than a traditional record. There are no (indicated) songs, no bands upon the tracks — just a groove deeper and more primal than any previously saved to a record, unsullied by hooks or crooks or pretty things into which the filthy casual can sink his milk teeth. It winds up and down in perfect accordance with the feelings of the band, making it a more human album than all the compressed jolts of emotion one hears in popular music’s bounded audio programs. Agharta is not beautiful, but it’s one of the only albums that can actually shape my mood because the ride on which it takes the listener is completely organic and unforced. One can only hope to make such right and natural music in one’s lifetime.

Heavy Metal Must Be Destroyed

Keith Spillett on the meaninglessness of nostalgia, rehashery and the timid, unulfilling practice of clinging to familiar forms. And it’s not just for metal.

The Tyranny of Tradition

Eye-MC-Escher-1948

We are the freak future. We are the new violence.

We are rapidly approaching a new epoch in human history. One marked by the complete destruction of all form and meaning. This formless apocalypse appears to us now in the form of a rapid decay of authentic creativity and a terminal bloodlust for conformity. That will change.

It seems as if the envelope has been pushed to its limits and there is nothing left to do but repackage the old as the new. New technologies once seemed to open an unlimited array of possibility; instead of using this to push beyond the boundaries of mystery and wonder, we have recycled our thoughts and ideas to the point of unintelligibility. The world is a meme of a kitten playing with a ball of yarn.

This horrible present will not last. Eventually, the strings to the puppet show will become so obvious…

View original post 622 more words

“Banned In D.C.” by the Bad Brains – Review

BannedDC

Not until I had grown into my senior year did I really begin to enjoy the Bad Brains’ greatest-hits compilation, which I first discovered as a sophomore. I simply wasn’t ready for punk, though I tried many times to like it — the loudness and the ugliness and the obtuse simplicity of this raw new music confounded me. At the time I was mainly into Nineties rock (Soundgarden, Alice In Chains) and super-progressive Seventies garbage (Rush, Kansas, Boston), groups which crowded their sounds with overarrangements and chops, and I could not grasp the Bad Brains’ straightforwardness (and to think these guys were the most skilled instrumentalists on the punk scene). They stumped me for years.

I enjoyed “I Against I” and “Re-Ignition” for a long time and eventually, on the last day of my junior year, I began to like “At the Movies” too. Then came “Sailin’ On” and “I” and before I knew it I was hooked on the entire album. During further research I’ve discovered that the Brains’ studio albums were often stuffed with weak or unmemorable material, but here the chaff is thrown away and burnt up and the wheat ground into the finest meal. Commendations to the guys who had to sit through all the albums and pick the best version of each song, and to the sequencing engineers too — it must have taken courage to mix up the running order of songs this diverse in production value, but since they’ve added a little compression it pays off in spades. (Don’t think I didn’t notice, guys.) And praise Jah the original versions of the Rock for Light tracks were used, instead of the mangled 1991 remasters.

As for the music? Never gets old. My personal favorites are “I”, “I Against I”, “At the Movies”, “F.V.K.” and “How Low Can a Punk Get”, but that skims only the very very best from a collection of frankly phenomenal tracks; hell, this album taught me to like reggae, for chrissakes. All the hardcore tracks are note-perfect anthems of road rage (don’t ask) and even the lumbering sickly proto-hair-metal cuts (“Re-Ignition”, “With the Quickness”) slam from side to side with evil intent. (I think I subconsciously borrowed the feel of “Re-Ignition” for my song “Slow Coyote”, now that I really think about it. Oh well.) And decent reggae! Finally! Somebody get EVERY OTHER FUCKING REGGAE ACT IN THE WORLD on the phone and tell them it’s been done so they can all go home and quit shaking down those shaggy-lookin’ rich white stoners.

It’s not hard to fathom why the Brains appeal to me — we both came from similar musical places, graduating to kickass heavy music from opulent chops-rock (jazz fusion in their case, prog-rock in mine) which we eventually abandoned. I can only hope that I end up in a better spot than they do, since they ended their initial recording career on the Rise and God of Love albums. Ick. (Of course, like pretty much everyone, they still stack up fine against Chick Corea.) Despite all their sins, though — and they committed many, as everyone from Dead Boys fans to Palestinians to the DEA will tell you — they still put some incredible music to tape, and bunched the best of it together in this excellent historical document. I am grateful that I eventually got ahold of the Bad Brains, and encourage you to do the same.

“The Legendary Dock Boggs” by Dock Boggs – Review

Dock Boggs

As shamefully middlebrow as it may sound, I was inspired by O Brother, Where Art Thou? to learn more about “roots” music and its old-timey practitioners. In the past few months I picked more often through the folk section at Fool’s Gold, finding mainly MOR pop stuff a la Richard and Mimi Farina, Joni Mitchell, and Leo Kottke (which I genuinely enjoyed); occasionally somebody dropped off a recently deceased Uncle Bob’s Folkways records, which were usually in good condition. So far I’ve been able to afford only two of the ones on display — Rufus Crisp (available from the Smithsonian) and this album, Verve’s 1966 reissue of The Legendary Dock Boggs.

I had previously fallen hard for two Dock Boggs songs, “Oh Death” and “Bright Sunny South”, which I discovered in the YouTube Recommended bar as I watched Henry Flynt’s I Don’t Wanna. They channeled the humid ambiance of the North Carolina holler where I spent my youthful Septembers, as my cousins and I banded birds on Little Bald Mountain and skulked around my grandmother’s cabin and stared out the windows into the foggy night and wondered what baleful ghosts were staring back, and I wanted to hold onto that vibe as I prepared to head to college in Oregon, where I would likely not get many travel opportunities. When I discovered that the local thrift shop had an erstwhile copy for sale it went directly to the top of my “buy” pile for the day.

Field recordings, I’ve discovered, have an integrity foreign to most modern music; the players they record, from Appalachian banjoists to African drum circles, have no interest in (or at least no knowledge of) the music industry that exists outside their enclaves, and thus don’t change their music to reflect commercial considerations; they are also uncompromised by pop-culture trends and play songs that have been handed down to them by players who made music in similar circumstances, creating a rich insider-folk tradition. (In other words, they make the closest thing to brend one can make unconsciously.) And the older the field-recorded performer, the more proficient they’re likely to be. I’d rather hear a brilliant banjo player like Boggs with a reedy old singing voice — that’s craft. A lifetime of real-time performance seems to have taught him (rightly) that fleeting vocal prowess was overrated.

As for the actual songs that Boggs recorded, “Oh Death” and “Bright Sunny South” are still my favorites, but others — “Country Blues”, “Drunkard’s Lone Child”, “Wild Bill Jones” — continue to grow in stature. Yes, many of the melodies and picking patterns are the same across songs; who cares? My interest is in Boggs’ keening voice and considerable banjo skill and his atmospheric projections. Yes, he speeds up the beat sometimes and stretches out syllables and goes over the usual number of beats in several bars; so did Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker when they played solo. Regardless of such inhuman nigglings, Dock Boggs was an excellent folk performer who had a hell of an ear for songs and managed to give us decadent modern kids a crystalline portrait of what it must have been like to live among the muggy air and mystic wilderness and haunted back roads of pre-industrial Appalachia; we can only be grateful that such an excellent banjoist and thorough folk creature was captured on record, that we might glimpse his difficult life and immense talent and understand him and his period a little better. I’d like to meet him if he were still alive, but at least we have The Legendary Dock Boggs.

“We’re Only In It for the Money” by Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention – Review

Frank Zappa

The saddest part of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I think, is the short scene where the girl in cowboy boots tries to make friends with another, better-dressed girl who refuses to look her in the eye, the scene where Joan Didion recalls that “she is homely and awkward and I think of her going all the way through the consolidated union high school… and no one ever asking her to go into Reno on Saturday night for a drive-in movie and a beer on the riverbank.” I imagine that Frank Zappa, who doubtless read Didion’s essay, would have felt deeply for the girl portrayed. It’s a weird assertion to make about the man who ripped cynically into the mystic-sentimentalist hippies, but one that makes sense as you listen to We’re Only in It for the Money, one of the best of his sixty-plus albums and probably the most vulnerable of them all. The stupid sex jokes and objectionable chauvinism that later made him infamous were not really a part of his ideology; the hippie/televangelist/conservative/Ugly American satire was closer to the mark, but only revealed a sliver of a surprisingly complex dude’s beliefs, and even then such projects deployed his outrage in ironclad ridicule. Even Robert Christgau, a critical hero of mine, missed the clues and labeled We’re Only in It for the Money “cheap sarcasm” that was “good for laughs”, yet it stands distinct as the sole Zappa album that revealed where his actual sympathies (Frank Zappa was SYMPATHETIC?!) lay: with the freaks.

Zappa was never oblique enough to “bring a sign onstage that says ‘GABBA GABBA HEY'”;  that would not have done for the jeremiah of spoof and often tasteless mockery. Instead he expressed his solidarity in funny songs. Look to tracks like “The Idiot Bastard Son”, “Mom & Dad”, “Absolutely Free,” “Lonely Little Girl”, “Mother People” and the Opus of Acceptance, “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” — Frank felt for the people who fell between the cracks. The genuine weirdos (think Allan Ginsberg, Harry Partch, Ornette Coleman) and the high-school geeks, all the individuals who did not or could not compromise their essential strangeness and were generally left out of the cool kids’ activities, are the subjects of Frank’s tenderest songs and defensive impulses. The thing most often forgotten about the “youth movements” of the Sixties (John Kennedy Toole caught this in A Confederacy of Dunces, too) was that they were mostly the province of the generally accepted population, the vanilla and/or “popular” kids of the day, rather than the freaks they all played at being; Jim Morrison, for example, and David Crosby and Grace Slick and even Jack Kerouac, were nobody’s idea of outcasts — they were just trendy people who were into the tunes and the drugs and the playing victim. Some of the period’s major figures had been genuine freaks, of course: the guarded and often awkward Janis Joplin was brutally bullied in high school; Jimi Hendrix (appearing on the far right of this album’s cover) was a shy kid who served as a paratrooper rather than face jail time for jacking cars; John Lennon and Paul McCartney, while still teenagers, watched their mothers die; Lester Bangs grew up a Jehovah’s Witness and mourned his dad’s early death; the truly disturbed Skip Spence once attacked his bandmates with an axe; Don “Captain Beefheart” Van Vliet spent his early years in the desert and was once diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia; Carlos Santana, at age thirteen, played guitar in strip clubs to support his immigrant family; and Roky Erickson, the 13th Floor Elevator, suffered three years in an asylum for the crime of being one of the only genuine freaks in Texas. But the great mass of hippies were at best the day’s equivalent of the modern SXSW festival crowd, and at worst the mocking cafe patrons (“Chinchilla! Ha ha!”) in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank — collectively they were about as shallow and stupid as Zappa charged, and he ripped into them hard with his most famous works of the period (including Freak Out and most of the album under discussion). All of his negativism and constant satire, though, served to obscure his deepest sentiments from the eyes of most of fans and rock critics; even today the majority of Zappa listeners don’t seem to have caught on to his radical embrace of the weird kids in the world. His middle finger was on constant display throughout his career, but only during this album do we see his heart. If you don’t tear up a little during “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance”, you probably wouldn’t understand, and that’s O.K.; but We’re Only in It for the Money strikes a special chord for me, even if I’m not all the way freakish like a lot of Zappa’s subjects. If you DO feel as understimulated, left out, or lonely as I have at times, give this album a spin. You are not alone.