Dan Lissvik – Midnight

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Having a child can be utterly exhausting. For those who have not experienced it, this statement couldn’t be more true. Not only do you find yourself suddenly sleep-deprived, you also begin experiencing strange sensations and hallucinations as you go longer and longer without adequate rest. By the time you feel you can no longer function properly, you suddenly find yourself able to sleep nearly any for any amount of time at nearly any time of day. It’s a self-preservation method that helps new parents make their way through the first several years of child rearing.

That anyone would have the extra time, let alone energy, to find creative endeavors comes as something of a marvel. But each new parent must find their own outlet in order to retain some semblance of who they once were. For musicians, the creative process never truly ceases. Rather it’s only a matter of finding the time to create as before, prioritizing and focusing with a heretofore unknown level of precision. A new father himself, Dan Lissvik found the only time afforded him to continue to pursue his creative outlet to be well after everyone else went to sleep. Naturally, he opted for the title Midnight – the time after which the majority of the album was recorded – for his first release under his own name.

Exploring a sort of funk/pop hypnosis, Midnight unfolds as a series of abstract jams that allowed Lissvik, former half of Gothenburg, Sweden’s Studio, to further his creative exploits. Utilizing an analog graphic equalizer he happened upon at a flea market, bass guitar and single mic, Lissvik set about exploring the inherent potential of each in the wake of his newfound status as father. With time at a premium, these recordings retain a certain sense of urgency despite their post-midnight recording times. Opening track “M” is a taut bit of burbling funk that eases its way in before expanding into post-disco in miniature. It’s an invigorating, cyclical groove that at times sounds Moroder-esque.unnamed

All things considered, Midnight is a surprisingly invigorating album of free-flowing late-night jams that weave in and out of dance-ability as they make their way deeper and deeper into the night. On the epic “D,” Lissvik employs a repetitive figure reminiscent of low-key take on Moroder’s “The Chase.” Where the former is struck through with the feeling of creeping dread, “D” instead takes a more playful, carefree approach that sees it cycling through its nearly 9-minute running time with ease. It’s one of Midnight’s most insistent grooves and a fine distillation of Lissvik’s work as a whole on the album. Propulsive, insistent electronic drums, burbling synths and fluttering electronics skitter about the track, carried along on a steady 4/4 rhythm.

“N” plays more with time and space, allowing the rhythm to slow as a series acoustic guitar arpeggios slide across the track. Complemented by a series of electronic burbles and bleeps, the track finally cedes control to the electronic drums as they slowly and insistently take control, gradually but intently pushing the other elements forward. By the halfway point, it’s a full funk groove with heavily syncopated guitar set against an increasingly prominent beat. Yet like the rest Midnight, it never truly takes off, instead simply simmering and threatening to boil over into something larger.

Meanwhile, “G” offers a wicked bit of strutting electro-funk replete with electric piano, stuttering guitar and bubbling bass groove underpinning the whole thing. It’s one of the few moments on the album wherein Lissvik seems to be truly letting himself go, fully immersed in the creative process and allowing the music to reflect this accordingly. At under three minutes, “H” offers an anomalously ominous G-funk groove that leads Midnight to a rather muted conclusion in the circularly repetitive “T.”

That much of the album carries with it something of a restrained feel shouldn’t come as any surprise given the time and circumstances under which the recordings were made. Perfect for after hours listening or a momentarily reprieve from reality, Midnight offers Dan Lissvik the chance to continue to explore his creative potential without waking the kids.

Artist: Dan Lissvik
Album: Midnight
Label: Smalltown Supersound
Release Date: June 10, 2016

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William Tyler – Modern Country

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There’s something vaguely unsettling about the sheer amount of sky looming over the open road the farther west one travels in the United States. Leaving behind tree- and city-lined stretches of highway, one is met with nothing but a seemingly endless expanse of sky stretching well beyond the horizon. In this immensity it’s easy to feel diminished, humbled or even overwhelmed. That it’s an illusion brought on by the lack of readily identifiable landmarks to serve as points of reference for time, space and distance seems of little consequence; out west, everything just feels bigger.

“Highway Anxiety,” the first track on William Tyler’s latest exploration of instrumental Americana, captures this rolling sense of wonder perfectly, easing through the long, flat stretches of road occasionally dotted with views of distant mountain ranges and towering clouds. It’s an awe-inspiring experience that deserves a certain amount of reverence and contemplative respect, something Tyler seems well aware of in his treatment of both the music as it gradually unfolds and land that surrounds him. Like a long drive, Modern Country unfolds at its own pace, never rushing, always taking its time to get where it ultimately feels compelled to go.

While any instrumental acoustic guitar record will inevitably find itself compared to the work of the genre’s godfather, John Fahey, Tyler puts his own distinct voice into these tracks, imbuing them with a sense of forward momentum that serves as the aural equivalent of the open road. Where others tend to wander, Tyler’s final destination is always clear, if not the route used to get there. It’s in this structured wandering that he evokes the spirit and feel of travel, exploration and self-reflection. Modern Country is designed to serve as the soundtrack to the contemplative physical as well as metaphorical journey based in a sense of wanderlust. Modern Country

Using this theme as a jumping off point, “Kingdom of Jones” knowingly teases “Country Roads” during its closing moments, utilizing its familiar melody as repeated mantra for the tireless traveler. It’s a comforting, familiar moment that helps center the listener, returning focus through the use of the recognizable to aid in easing back to reality.

“Gone Clear,” with its densely clustered sixteenth notes, is the most reminiscent of Fahey in its meditative quality. Built around a drone, Tyler relies on a modal, vaguely Eastern melody that remains a slow burn throughout the whole of its six minutes-plus running time before embarking on several more involved passages that eventually circle back to the main theme. As with much of the rest of the album, it possesses a hypnotic quality not unlike the effect of driving mile after mile with the lane lines and vast, expansive grandeur of the Western United States serving as your only tie to reality.

Closing track “The Great Unwind” quite literally employs its title as it unfurls and sprawls across the speakers, ebbing and flowing as Tyler’s heavily distorted guitar roams through a landscape dotted with decaying distortion and faint traces of melody, ultimately ending in a complete and total surrender to the sound of the natural world.  Alone with the birds, frogs and insects populating some unnamed forest, Tyler reenters with smoldering, almost elegiac take on the hallmarks of country music.

Using an ethereal steel guitar and subtly twanged electric guitar, he establishes a mood that neatly summarizes the music’s origins in a very specific sound will simultaneously freeing it to explore a larger space.  The album title then is just as much a reference to the country music as a genre as the open road, the highway saturated modern country and its limitless potential for adventure and exploration. Modern Country is an album full of experiences to be treasured long after the inevitable return home.

Artist: William Tyler
Album: Modern Country
Label: Merge Records
Release Date: June 3, 2016

Weezer – Weezer (The White Album)

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Since reemerging with 2001’s self-titled release – henceforth referred to as the “Green Album” – Weezer has become a surprisingly polarizing group. Prior to the Green Album, they were hailed as under-appreciated pop geniuses who created two perfect albums, one of which bridged the gap between grunge and pop, the other having laid the groundwork for 21st century emo. But in attempting to recapture what once was, they’ve found themselves straying farther and farther from where they started, further alienating themselves from those cultishly devoted to the so-called Blue Album and Pinkerton.

To be fair, Weezer has essentially morphed into an entirely different band in the time since their mid-‘90s glory days. With Matt Sharp having left after Pinkerton to pursue his Rentals and solo projects, Mikey Welsh going off the map following the release of the Green Album and Scott Shriner now having played with the band longer than any of his predecessors, the 2016 edition of Weezer is a far cry from the beloved 1994 edition.

And yet they keep trying to return to that time in order to become the Weezer they once were in an attempt to placate the fans they lost following the release of Maladroit – and, arguably, the Green Album – on. After nearly a decade shamelessly pandering to a more mainstream pop and rock audience with singles like “Beverly Hills,” what began thematically on 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End and its nostalgia-baiting single “Back to the Shack,” comes full circle on their latest self-titled release – heretofore referred to as the “White Album.” Weezer

With this, they have crafted the most Weezer-sounding – in the traditional sense – album in years. The problem is, simply sounding like the Weezer of old does not make this the Weezer of old. Rather much of the White Album rings hollow in its clear sonic aping of their first two albums, forgetting along the way that quality songs were what made these two so beloved by an entire generation of disenfranchised listeners. Ultimately, anything they release will be held up to the gold standard of both the Blue Album and Pinkerton, something that, given their move towards a heavier sound in the intervening years, creates something of an impossible bar to reach.

Largely abandoning the larger, fuller sound of their last several releases, here they return to the strangled guitars of their debut. It’s a concerted effort to appease the early fan base, yet it fails to hit the mark as Rivers Cuomo seems to have largely lost his knack for crafting hook-y pop songs and, having been met with resistance to his seemingly more personally satisfying musical directions, here sounds resigned and somewhat defeated. Given the two decades plus between these releases, it’s categorically impossible to fairly compare the two and any attempt to recapture a sound and feel from over twenty years ago is destined to fail.

Opening track “California Kids” immediately makes it clear this is a concerted effort to recapture the Weezer behind the Blue Album’s fuzzy pop bliss. A promising enough start, it ultimately proves something of a misdirect as the overall quality begins to decline from there. By the time they end the ill-advised rap that is “Thank God For Girls,” they’ve turned in one of, if not the worst tracks of their career. It’s a lazy, Maroon 5-esque lyric that plays more misogynistic and tone deaf than cheeky and winning as was apparently the case.

So close are they in looking to recapture what once was that closing track “Endless Bummer” essentially plays as a condensed, modernized take on “Only In Dreams.” Elsewhere, on “Do You Wanna Get High” they bring back the buzzing synths and disaffected delivery of Pinkerton. While an admirable attempt, Weezer – and Cuomo in particular – would be better suited to accepting who they are as a band rather than who they were. In attempting to recapture a sound and feel, they lose sight of what was so appealing about their original sound and feel in the first place. Rather than putting the work into the melodies, they place their focus on tone and, without the hooks for which they were once known, much of the White Album feels like hastily thrown together lyrics delivered with the same minimalist approach to melody.

It’s an unfortunate progression for a group that once seemed to hold so much promise. That they’ve time and again seemingly caved to outside pressures shows they’ve reached a point where they no longer know what a Weezer album can and should be, only what it should sound like. Where Everything Will Be Alright In The End felt like a refreshing step forward for a band finally embracing who it had become, the White Album feels like a self-conscious retreat to safer territory. Never ones to push the envelope, Weezer still benefits more from taking chances than playing to expectations.

Perhaps with the benefit of time, both the band and listeners alike will be able to better take stock of where they’ve been and where they’re going within the appropriate context. Until then, Weezer remains a band with a clearly defined identity suffering through a painful identity complex. So while a certain group of listeners continues to hold the band accountable for where they were rather than where they are, those who simply take in the music for what it is while find much to enjoy. The rest will have to remain content listening to their worn-out copies of the Blue Album and Pinkerton for the five hundredth time.

Artist: Weezer
Album: Weezer
Label: Atlantic/Crush Music
Release Date: April 1, 2016

Mr. Stress Blues Band – Live at the Brick Cottage, 1972-1973

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For every band that manages to find their way to bigger and bigger stages before finally hitting the big time, there are countless equally, if not more talented groups who came within a hair’s breadth of fame. It seems every major city and town has their local legends who very nearly opened for Led Zeppelin or Nirvana or the White Stripes. Or those who had a record deal on the table only to have the label balk at the last minute, bringing to an unceremonious end any existing dreams of rock stardom. While certainly unfortunate, there is often a very good reason why certain groups fail to make an impression beyond their local scene.

That said, given the overwhelming desire on the part of collectors for obscure and overlooked regional treasures, many of these groups are finally being granted something of a chance at wider exposure.  And thanks to the digitization of music, this proliferation of previously unheard acts has continued to grow at a staggering rate. While not every unearthed group or album is worth further consideration or critical reevaluation, there do appear from time to time groups worthy of broader exposure.

Casting their lot into the game, Smog Veil Records deliver a lovingly curated and exhaustively documented collection of Cleveland’s Mr. Stress Blues Band, Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973. Named for a psych ward code for a patient whose medication was no longer fulfilling its intended function, the Mr. Stress Blues Band was the purview of one Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller. In the oral history collected within the album’s liner notes, Miller, who passed away last year, is presented as Cleveland’s answer to John Mayall, gathering talented musicians who would pass through the group, playing for a time and always gaining a deep education in modern electric blues. An impressive list of former members by any measure, MSBB saw, among others, Chrissie Hynde, Peter Laughner, Anton Fier, Vito San Filippo, and the majority of James Gang filter through the ranks. MSBB

Possessing a tough, working-class voice at times not far removed from early Bob Seger, Miller here proves a dominant presence on stage as he tears into a handful of blues tracks, his big, brassy voice augmented by his wailing harp. From the opening “How Many More Years” on, it’s clear the members of MSBB see themselves as the real thing – despite the self-deprecating tagline of “the more you drink, the better we sound.” Far from mere blues rock posturing, they show a clear reverence for Chicago-style blues with a heavy emphasis on the groove.

With “How Many More Years,” here clocking in at nearly ten minutes – a bold choice for an opening track – they show themselves to be well-versed in the modern electric blues vocabulary, tearing into solo after solo while maintaining a steady sense of forward momentum. It serves as a fine introduction to the skill of each member of the band and, despite its length, manages to just miss overstaying its welcome.

From there, MSBB embark on a series of fairly standard, though well-played, interpretations of modern electric blues by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. Given the sheer number of groups attempting a similar feat around the time of these recordings both here and abroad, it’s not terribly surprising that MSBB did not break through to a wider audience. That said, they prove themselves equal to, if not better than, the lion’s share of electric blues and blues rock bands recording at the same time – black or white.

As race is the stigma against which white blues musicians constantly struggle in terms of authenticity and right to perform, MSBB blow this unnecessary concern away from the start. Should there be any doubt, one only needs to put on “Walkin’ Through The Park” and be able to identify the geographic or racial origin of the performance. It’s a driving bit of gritty blues that helps solidify the case for MSBB’s celebration as local heroes within the Cleveland music scene of the late-‘60s/early-‘70s. Far from perfunctory, it’s a rollicking performance that, at times, places them in league with the Allman Brothers.

Unlike “How Many More Years,” the slow blues shuffle of “Sweet Little Angel” does, at just over ten minutes, overstay its welcome. Despite their best efforts to the contrary, there is only so much that can be said and done over a standard I-IV-V progression at something approaching half the tempo of the rest of the performances. That it takes up a fair amount of the collection’s second side is a bit of a detriment to the album as a whole, however it does manage to show something of their stylistic versatility.

Given the nature of the performances and the admittedly lo fi quality of these live recordings, it can become difficult differentiating one track from another. But this does not appear to be much of a concern, their aim having been more to keep the dance floor full, the bar crowded and the proprietors of the titular Brick Cottage happy. Hearing these recordings more than forty years later, it’s impossible not to picture the scene of a crowded bar as patrons move about in an ever-thickening haze of smoke and sweat.

In the end, there’s nothing truly revelatory on Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973, but for pure workmanlike blues, it has much to offer. Furthermore, that they might now have the chance to find an audience beyond their beloved home turf has got to come with a certain amount of pride. And as well they should: Mr. Stress Blues Band might’ve missed out on their chance to open for Led Zeppelin (and Sun Ra on the same bill!), but this collection is a testament to the legend as being based in fact. On any given night they very well may have been good enough to go toe-to-toe with the best in the business. As it stands, those who were there will now have something on which to base their claims that Mr. Stress Blues Band was maybe not the best damn band around, but certainly the best damn band in town.

Artist: Mr. Stress Blues Band
Album: Live at the Brick Cottage, 1972-1973
Label: Smog Veil Records
Release Date: May 13, 2016

Denmark’s Yung Go “Commercial” With Their Latest Single

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For a group of Danes, the quartet that is Yung certainly manage to capture the sound and feel of the Midwest surprisingly well. Sounding uncannily like a mix between a more together version of the Replacements and any number of third wave emo bands currently kicking about, Yung craft smartly melody-driven pop of the highest order.

On “Commercial,” their third and latest single from their forthcoming debut release, A Youthful Dream (Fat Possum), out June 10th, they tear through a blast of guitar heavy melodic punk. It’s a catchy, hook-laden two-and-a-half minutes of fuzzed out pop that travels along on an alternately buoyant and frantic bass line anchoring vocalist Mikkel Holm Silkier’s somewhat disaffected delivery.

Broken structurally into something of a suite-in-miniature, Yung manage to cram a great deal into the song’s deceptively short run time. From the false ending half-way through the song to the gradual slow-down and unceremonious end of the track, “Commercial” proves to be a memorable burst punk-tinged melodicism.

Hans-Peter Lindstrøm to Release His “Closing Shot” on Forthcoming EP

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Norwegian producer Hans-Peter Lindstrøm has long proven himself to be one of the leading practitioners of elegantly flowing, massive sounding space disco. Whether on his own or with frequent collaborator Prins Thomas, Lindstrøm’s sound and approach are unmistakable. With each idea building upon the next, his compositions unfold into massive, shimmering sonic landscapes populated by insistent hooks, floor-filling beats and a disco-indebted aesthetic that places him as a modern day Giorgio Moroder.

On his most recent single, the appropriately titled “Closing Shot,” he takes these basic stylistic tenants to their logical extremes. Beginning with radiating synths and incessant handclaps, Lindstrøm creates wildly effusive track that continually builds upon itself throughout the whole of its nearly eight-and-a-half-minute run time. By track’s end, there have been seemingly innumerable peaks and valleys designed to heighten the tension on the dancefloor only to effortlessly allow for release before embarking on yet another build. Between the exuberant synths and four-on-the-floor drums, “Closing Shot” is a brilliant bit of 21st century disco.

Released earlier this year, “Closing Shot” will see release on the forthcoming Windings EP (Smalltown Supersound/Feedelity Recordings) July 8th, along with two other tracks, “Algortme” and “Foehn.” Check out “Closing Shot” below and do your best to sit still throughout.

 

 

 

Classic Albums: Miles Davis- On the Corner

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On what would have been his 90th birthday, Freeform Noise takes a look at one of Miles Davis’ most polarizing albums, 1972’s On The Corner.

For jazz fans, the early 1970s marked either some of the best years in the evolution of the form or signaled its downfall from high art to lowbrow pop cultural pandering. In essence, it saw the ultimate and final merging of jazz with then contemporary R&B, rock and funk, elements that, until then, had only been hinted at and tip-toed around. This full immersion, while seen as blasphemous, in essence allowed the music to not only reach a new audience, but allow jazz musicians to push the bounds of what was previously thought possible within a form that was quickly reaching what seemed to be something of an impasse as the free players continued disassembling the very idea of jazz and purists struggled to retain what they saw as the music’s very integrity.

That some of jazz’s biggest names (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, et. al.) would fully embrace what was viewed as the music of the pop cultural streets came as a devastating blow for those who wished to preserve the form rather than see it expand and grow. But what these individuals seemingly failed to realize was that, in order for the music to continue on in any form, it would require a new sound and feel that would appeal to a younger, more consumer-oriented market. We are currently in the midst of a similar quandary with the continued hybridization of jazz and hip-hop courtesy of artists like Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar. But rather than causing the music to lose its very integrity, these artists are working to preserve and further the form, much as their forebears did through the collusion of rock and R&B. Miles-Davis-foto-2

No jazz figure personified this notion more so than Miles Davis. Having unleashed a series of albums that showed a greater and greater interest in contemporary pop styles, Davis was persona non grata as the ‘60s exploded into the smoldering wreckage of would become the 1970s. Despite or perhaps because of a career that spanned back to jazz’s previous hackle-raising movement of bebop, Davis was seen as something of an idealized figurehead within jazz. Not only had he played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but he’d also assembled several groups which became arguably some of the best ever. From the all-star lineup of Kind of Blue through to his mid-‘60s quartet featuring Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Davis seemed to have the uncanny ability to play something of a kingmaker within jazz.

When he brought together some of the leading lights of the younger generation of jazz musicians for his Bitches Brew sessions in 1969, he perhaps knowingly had assembled forward-thinking artists who would come to define the future of jazz and further the inchoate idea of jazz fusion cemented by Bitches Brew’s unlikely pairing of jazz and rock. With its release proving not only revolutionary, but incendiary, the onus of topping the experiments laid forth on the album lay solely with Davis.

Opening his mind to the modern sounds of Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix and, to a lesser extent, James Brown, Davis saw in his future an even more outré sound, one which would land him lightyears ahead of his peers while further ostracizing him from the jazz community. It was in this musically confusing and artistically frustrating environment into which Davis unleashed his most confrontational and, at the time at least, polarizing statement.

Opening with a frenetic blast of clattering percussion, stuttering bass and Davis’ own strangled electrified trumpet wails, On The Corner was, from the start, meant as an unapologetically challenging exploration of this new music’s potential. DroppedAlbum coverseemingly in the middle of a frantic, cacophonous jam session, listeners were afforded no point of reference nor time to acclimate to these harsh new surroundings. Those expecting an extension of the electric jazz fusion on albums like Bitches Brew and Live Evil were confronted with what to purists was the apotheosis of what jazz can and should be. Here was Miles taking his sound to the outer reaches via the increasingly contentious streets of an ever polarizing America, reaching new levels of groove-oriented abstraction.

Essentially the work of tireless cutting and pasting at the hands of producer Teo Macero, the album’s opening suite of “On The Corner”/”New York Girl”/”Thinking of One Thing Doing Another”/”Vote For Miles” flows seamlessly from one to the next, the constant percussion and propulsive rhythms serving as the bridge between each. With no clear delineation between tracks, this nearly twenty-minute amalgam shatters the very notion of accepted performance and composition within a jazz context. Not only were the performances spliced together, but they also featured a number of overdubs that, coupled with the layers of percussion and hypnotically repetitive bass riffs, that resulted in a sort of disorienting, woozy listening experience.

From the onset, the driving force of On the Corner was and is its incessant percussion. With three drum sets manned by Al Foster, Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette and assorted auxiliary percussion courtesy of Mtume, it’s a constant propulsive clatter that pushes the album forward in a linear fashion rather than that of traditionally structured jazz recordings. In this, Davis was relying on the hypnotic effect of the insistent percussion and undying rhythm coupled with Michael Henderson’s simplified, though wickedly funky, single and double-note grooves to help the listener lose themselves in the music. Here it became clear that the focus was not on the sounds being created, necessarily, but the overall impact the collective whole produced.

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It is not until the second track, “Black Satin,” that something resembling a coherent melody arrives. Its schoolyard, almost tauntingly repetitive melody plays to the preceding twenty minutes’ lack of discernible melody; it’s as though Davis were baiting his detractors with a simplistic melody that carried a deliciously barbed and unshakable hook. It’s an unsettling effect that causes a shadow of the theme to remain with the listener long after the track’s frenetic closing moments give way once more to the opening tabla and sitar motif. With Henderson playing the same sparse groove over a static chord throughout, the melody eventually devolves into a series of extended trumpet drones and phrases that run contrary to the increasingly incessant percussion and handclaps that threaten to derail the track. In this, “Black Satin” plays as something of a funhouse mirror representation of rock and funk, both shot through an hallucinogenic prism further altering the perception of reality.

“One and One” again relies on Henderson to establish the static chord groove that will inform the rest of the track. Coupled with a high-hat heavy skittering funk groove, “One and One” is perhaps the most open – or at least far less claustrophobic – track on the album. In between the driving rhythmic figures, individual horns explore long, drawn-out legato phrases, each of which stand in sharp contrast to the preceding, punctuating blasts. With nowhere to go from a melodic standpoint, each “soloist” is free to explore the sound potential of their instrument within this fragmented context. Wholly linear, the track’s primary aim is its rhythmic propulsion and extrapolation of a funk style designed for maximum ass-shaking.

27-4-gl-Gallery-3147Finally, the mammoth “Helen Butte”/”Mr Freedom X” closer combines all previously established elements to create a highly persuasive final statement. By teasing the melody of “Black Satin” within the tangled mass of percussion, Davis manages a knowing, self-referential allusion that soon devolves into a series of increasingly impressionistic phrases. More so than any other track on the album, “Helen Butte”/”Mr Freedom X” possess an insularity which pushes the whole so far into the future that generations of listeners are still struggling to catch up nearly forty-five years later.

Ultimately, On the Corner has proven so revolutionary and ahead of its time that critics and audiences of the day alike cannot be faulted for initially claiming it to be one of the worst jazz albums of all time. With little in the way of discernible melodic figures or even arrangements, much of the album places its focus squarely within the underlying groove permeating through the rock and R&B worlds. Both Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix come off as clear touchstones for Davis in his approach to pushing the bounds of what is musically possible while still adhering to an unimpeachable groove struck through with the rhythm of the streets. This is not music to be studied and analyzed, parsed or even understood. Rather it is a series of experiential performances designed as wholly immersive listening experiences, asking of the listener only to surrender to the groove. In so doing, an entire world of possibilities begins to open up, leading the way to unimaginable creativity and sonic exploration. In this, On the Corner is a roadmap to the stars and beyond.

Artist: Miles Davis
Album: On the Corner
Label: Columbia
Release Date: October 11, 1972

 

Twin Peaks – Down in Heaven

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Since rising up from the underground, Chicago’s Twin Peaks have continued to prove themselves time and again to be a band to watch. From their show-stealing mid-afternoon performance at the 2014 Pitchfork Music Festival to their wildly impressive full length debut, Wild Onion, released later that summer Twin Peaks have been operating at the top of their game. Given the rapid nature of both their rise in profile and artistic progression, one would be easily forgiven expecting their follow up to suffer from the dreaded sophomore slump. That they manage to not only avoid this but continue to defy expectations helps make them one of the more compelling groups currently kicking around the Midwest.

While not a strict departure from the previous releases, Down in Heaven certainly represents a more refined focus for the band. Where before they borrowed elements from a number of scruffy indie rock touchstones, here they fully immerse themselves in a mid-‘60s aesthetic that ultimately serves them quite well. By stripping away several of the layers of grit and grime that coated Wild Onion, Twin Peaks have allowed the songs themselves to shine through much more so than before. And what songs they are. Opening track “Walk to the One You Love” finds the group augmenting their standard rock lineup with chamber pop piano and subtle horns, backing a near-perfect hook. It’s a powerfully realized opening statement that helps set the tone for much of the rest of the album. Down in Heaven

Were it not for a few tell-tale signs throughout (a few “fucks” and production tricks here and there), much of Down in Heaven could easily pass for a collection of cuts from some forgotten Pebbles-style compilation. Maintaining more of a mid-tempo feel throughout that oscillates back and forth between garage-psych (the gorgeous “Lolisa”) and full-on Stones worship (“Cold Lips” and “Keep It Together,” among others). In this, theirs is a studied approach that places them in the upper echelon of retro-revivalists, picking up where Girls left off. At times they sound as though they stumbled upon a collection of unused tracks from that dearly-departed group. “Wanted You” in particular sounds like an unholy cross between Album at its best and Mick Jagger at his most unhinged.

Indeed, it’s guitarist Clay Frankel’s rough-hewn sneer that helps further the Stones’ comparisons, both in phrasing and tonality, as well as affording the music an air of ‘60s authenticity. Particularly on Heaven’s second single, “Butterfly,” does Frankel’s lead, coupled with the droning organ and syncopated “bah-bah-bahs,” sound transported in from a much earlier era. And while garage rock groups have been taking this approach to ‘60s revivalism very nearly since the original era ended, few manage to do so as effortlessly and tunefully as Twin Peaks. Not only that, but they still manage to do so within the traditional singles parameter of 3:30 minutes or less.

By vacillating back and forth between the lighter elements of Cadien James and Jack Dolan’s lead contributions and Frankel’s acidic sneer, Down in Heaven often feels like the work of two distinct bands. Wild Onion was plagued by a similar sort of duality, yet both albums manage to add up to a satisfying whole. Here, however, they expand their palette by incorporating a broader range of instrumentation to help offset some of these previous shortcomings. On “Cold Lips” in particular, the guitars are largely buried in favor of a lead line granted to a simmering organ. It’s here that they fully and unabashedly embrace their inner Stones circa-Beggars Banquet, all rock and roll swagger and fuckall attitude. It’s an uncanny impression (check Frankel’s Jagger-esque falsetto on the middle eight) that, by both song and album’s end, has the listener revisiting the Stones’ catalog from Beggars to Exile on Main Street.

Less immediate than Wild Onion, Down in Heaven takes time to get in to. But a full immersion proves a wholly worthwhile experience. Having slowed things down, adapted to the rural setting in which the album was recorded and turned in a set of laid back, throwback rock and roll, Twin Peaks have established themselves as a band on the rise. Should they continue at their current rate they may well find their names mentioned time and again in the same breath as (depending on who you ask) the greatest rock and roll band of all time. And while that may well sound hyperbolic, a quick comparison between the two (dig “Keep It Together” and its unmitigated, snarling arrogance and bluesy horns) will show Twin Peaks slowly bridging the gap between being simply great and truly transcendent.

Artist: Twin Peaks
Album: Down In Heaven
Label: Grand Jury
Release Date: May 13, 2016

Sonny & the Sunsets – Moods Baby Moods

Sonny & the Sunsets

For his latest outing under the Sonny & the Sunsets moniker, Sonny Smith pulls something of an of Montreal , backing away from the lo-fi pop of his past releases in favor of a more rhythm-centric album of jagged beats and compressed post-punk funk. That tUnE-yArDs Merrill Garbus is behind the boards should come as no surprise as Moods Baby Moods plays with her dayglo aesthetic in miniature, applying it liberally to Smith’s established aesthetic. Less harsh and strident that tUnE-yArDs’ most recent recordings, Moods Baby Moods is all sanded edges and smooth vocals. And yet there is still more than a touch of Garbus in these songs – she appears on background vocals throughout – and this drastic shift in sound comes as something of a surprise for those accustomed to Smith’s more pure pop-leaning albums. Album cover

From the start, Moods Baby Moods presents itself as an entirely different animal from the often ramshackle approach taken on Talent Night at the Ashram. Where that felt like a bit of a step backwards from where he had been previously heading, Moods represents a hard left turn into a more dance-centric approach. The non sequitur title of opening track “Death Cream part 2 ‘Watch Out for the Cream’” essentially sets the tone for what is to come. As disorienting as it may seem coming from this former lo-fi pop practitioner, it’s a more or less logic move given his presence on Polyvinyl, the label that saw of Montreal through its string of identity crises.

As with tUnE-yArDs, the bass plays a prominent role within each track. Functioning as an additional lyrical, rhythmic and percussive element, Shayde Sartin’s playing helps elevate much of the album from mere genre pastiche and into legitimately funky territory. On “Well But Strangely Hung Man” in particular, Satin’s playing is an odd amalgam of Chic and post-punk as it slithers around Smith’s sullen vocals in a sort of circling duet. Elsewhere he approaches Young Marble Giants territory, all sparse and angular melodic figures. “Nightmares” plays like a lost Cure B-side, Sartin’s propulsive picked bass line pushing the song along its decidedly linear path.

Thematically, Smith’s concerns range from the stresses of modern life (“Modern Age”), social inequity and its inherent absurdities (“White Cops on Trial”) and the general ennui associated with the aging process (“The Hospital Grounds at Night”). “Check Out” takes on a double meaning as Smith finds himself lost within his own thoughts at the grocery store, having forgotten the initial reason for his trip. Here he is checking out both literally and figuratively, subsequently embarking on the ultimate check out as his car careens off the road. “See you/See you later,” he sighs as Garbus coos along behind him. It’s one of the album’s bleakest moments, yet remains afloat due to the deceptively cheery arrangement.

Moods Baby Moods ultimately seems to be aiming for a more profound level of social commentary than it eventually manages, losing focus by attempting to tackle too much at once. “White Cops on Trial” is largely tone deaf to the larger issue of racial and social inequality and the rampant corruption present in a number of city police departments. Instead of focusing on the issue at hand, it plays as a tragicomedy with Smith’s jury intoning: “we have found him not guilty because we are insane/blah blah blah blah blah blah we are crazy.” And while he shouldn’t be expected to necessarily get to the heart of the issue driving these types of behaviors within a three-minute pop song, the mere fact it’s brought up only to be largely dismissed without exploring the determining factors feels like a disservice.

Similarly, Smith’s voice feels on the verge of being smothered by the often aggressive arrangements. “Reject of the Lowest Planet” in particular, with its skittering rhythm guitar and call-and-response riffing proves a bit much for Smith’s voice. Despite his best efforts his voice remains best suited to the barely-heard acoustic guitar strumming away somewhere deep within the track. Fortunately, these lyrical and vocal missteps do little to fully detract from the new wave/post-punk funk backing that permeates the album.

Unfortunately, as has long been the case with any Sonny & the Sunsets album, Moods Baby Moods tends to wander as it reaches its back half. Given Smith’s prolific nature as a writer, he seems more inclined to release nearly everything laid to tape, regardless of its merit. In this, his interest appears to lie more in the creative process than the final product, putting more effort into the creation of songs than the refinement of ideas lyrical and musical (see “Dead Meat on the Beach” in particular). Regardless, Moods Baby Moods offers yet another interesting chapter in the unfolding saga that is the prolific recording career of Sonny Smith, with or without the Sunsets.

Artist: Sonny & the Sunsets
Album: Moods Baby Moods
Label: Polyvinyl Records
Release Date: May 27, 2016

Jenny Hval Unleashes Her “Female Vampire”

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Over the course of the last several years, Norwegian singer/songwriter Jenny Hval has released a handful of provocative, enigmatic and often difficult music both under her own name and with Susanna on last year’s breath-taking Meshes of Voice. Having found a home in the US on Sacred Bones, Hval finds herself in good company, crafting tracks of darkly atmospheric beauty a la label mates Marissa Nadler and Zola Jesus.

As revered for her vocals as her often atypical arrangements, Hval has found herself near the leading edge of avant garde singer/songwriters. On “Female Vampire” her first single from the forthcoming Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones) out September 30th, Hval again shows off the quieter, more ephemeral and intimate side of her voice. As with her previous releases, her vocals stand in somewhat sharp contrast to the musical underpinnings. Beginning with a haunting, circuitous synth figure that gradually builds to an insistent, nervous thrum beneath Hval’s ethereally delayed vocals, “Female Vampire” retains a linear quality that functions as something of a narrative.

And yet unlike her previous releases, it features something of a traditional structure in its composition. It’s a noticeable departure in sound and approach that finds her hewing that much closer to the sound of Zola Jesus. This could however function as something of a musical Trojan Horse, affording her a wider audience that might otherwise have been turned off by her previous, more explicit and abstract material.

Continuing her thematic provocation, Hval presents Blood Bitch as “an investigation of blood. Blood that is shed naturally. The purest and most powerful, yet most trivial, and most terrifying blood: Menstruation. The white and red toilet roll chain which ties together the virgins, the whores, the mothers, the witches, the dreamers, and the lovers.” Ultimately, “Female Vampire” is one of Hval’s most accessible composition to date, less sexually explicitly and more traditionally structured to the point of mainstream accessibility.