Known Johnson

March 21, 2007

King Crimson: The Condensed 21st Century Guide to King Crimson: 1969-2003

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 8:46 am

King Crimson has been a chameleon throughout its 38 year existence, not just shifting to reflect the times but also acting as a sort of quality-assurance agent, issued forth new offerings at just the right times when it seems that music might just slide into morass. What King Crimson has lacked, until now, is a comprehensive collection that showcases just what the band has accomplished in its nearly four decades.

While most good music listeners will recognize the first cuts on this two-disc set (that is, of course, the legendary “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph,” the latter of which basically spelled out the path from which a good number of prog-rock bands would never stray,) much of the rest of the set may be new to the unseasoned listener – and that’s who I am excited for. Previous compilations have missed the mark in many ways, leaving out essential cuts and periods entirely, but this one covers nearly everything in some way, drawing attention where it’s most deserved.

Disc 1 careens quickly through a five year period, showcasing an incredible amount of growth and change – from the pastoral to the fearsome in such a short period of time is almost unimaginable, but the changes within the band are well documented in the accompanying booklet and go a long way to helping make obvious why the music changes so. As the group’s personnel changed (with only guitarist Robert Fripp remaining a constant in the 38 years), so did its musical dynamic, shifting more and more toward a jazz-rock dynamic as the 70s wore on. With the entrance of Bill Bruford on drums (“Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part I (Abridged)”), this band had taken on a completely new personality that almost must be experienced live to truly understand, and it’s almost a shame that this set instead chooses to focus only on studio work – as the liner notes point out, “it needed improvisation to stay alive.” But by 1974, King Crimson is no more.

In 1981, where disc 2 picks up, King Crimson returns, revitalized in a completely new way that throws many fans for a loop. Expecting the gritty doom of previous incarnations, they get something all together different. Fripp, of course, remained, joined by returning drummer Bruford, but also in tow are new guitarist Adrian Belew, hot off working with David Bowie and, more importantly, Talking Heads, and bassist/Stick player Tony Levin. The band is working very much in a more pop-oriented space, ignoring everything that King Crimson had stood for in the past – and, in fact, the band had begun life under the name Discipline, with no intention of becoming King Crimson, until Fripp felt that the presence of the band was exerting itself in the music.

And just what was this music? Intricately woven interlocking pieces, “rock gamelan,” as it has been described, reflecting a world-music aesthetic that had never been glimpsed in Crimson before. While Belew’s lyrics may often have had a playful and humorous tinge, it’s the polyrhythms the abound, and not just that, it’s that there’s is a reliance upon technology that would become a foundation of the band’s existence in the future. With advances in sound equipment, the band, like many other musicians, explored many avenues previously unavailable to them. New wave music, so big at the time, does tend to flavor this period of King Crimson’s music, but this has become a constant with King Crimson: the band uses the current technology and styles to advance itself.

And, within just a few years, that lineup of King Crimson had completed its mission and the musicians moved on, only to be called back to active service in the mid-90s when it seemed that music hit another point where it seemed obvious that the music was there for the making. The 80s lineup reconvened again but with two added members: extra drummer Pat Mastelotto (from Mr. Mister, believe it or not) and a frequent Fripp collaborator, touch guitarist Trey Gunn. What purpose could this six-piece lineup serve – two drummers, two Stick-type instruments, two guitars?

The answer comes quickly in “VROOOM,” the opening track from 1995’s THRAK. Pan your speakers left and you’ll hear one half of the band, pan right and you’ll hear the other half, both playing slight variations of the same song. It sounds like it should be a mess but it’s not, and that’s because this outfit is incredibly adept at working like this, even as new as they are. While this idea wasn’t translated throughout the entire album, as it was originally rumored, live they often worked this way, breaking off into smaller units during improvisational segments of the show.

This lumbering 12-limbed beast was not long for this world, however, as after the lengthy world tour, the band began fragmenting into smaller groups, called ProjeKcts by Fripp, to explore new sounds and ideas. It became obvious that the six-piece band just was not going to work any longer, even if there was still music for it to conquer, and eventually Bill Bruford left the band to return to his jazz roots (where he still flourishes today,) and Tony Levin opted to continue on with his very successful studio work. What is most unfortunate about The Condensed 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, 1969-2003, is that it skips over this productive and fascinating period of the ProjeKcts.

The new four-piece band, Fripp/Belew/Gunn/Mastelotto, debuted with The ConstruKction Of Light in 2000. Strangely, this set opts to showcase nothing from this album. While it is an uneven album that seems uncomfortable with itself and sounds a bit like a band confused at who it wants to be (is this a new King Crimson or a King Crimson looking back for inspiration?), it still contains key moments that should have been included here. Instead, the set focuses on the far stronger The Power To Believe (2003) and preceeding 2002 Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With EP.

The Power To Believe shows the band looking forward once again, and outward to other cultures again. While it contains the usual blend of heavy guitar workouts that listeners have come to expect, there’s an element of the spiritual that permeates the proceedings with an air of dignity that is unexpected. Belew still plays his word-play games, and to some the music may sometimes seem stoic, but underneath there lies hidden emotion and meaning – it’s been there all along, in all of their music, waiting for listeners to uncover it. But here, it seems to be revealed just a little more than ever before. Between the distortion and displays of powerful chords, there’s ethereal beauty and charm (“Eyes Wide Open”), but even sinister at times (“Level Five”). The Power To Believe might just be King Crimson’s finest moment, and it’s fitting that such a large amount of this set is dedicated to this one disc.

The Condensed 21st Century Guide to King Crimson, 1969-2003 provides a fantastic glimpse of a band at work, both for the new listener as well as the dedicated fan, for whom this will showcase the evolution of the band. While it overlooks some important turning points, as any collection will, for the new fan, these are mere speedbumps – and leave hope for exciting things to look forward to discovering once this set proves insufficient.

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March 20, 2007

8

Filed under: General — Tom @ 10:27 am

Congratulations must go to Alissa on successfully completing 8 years of marriage to me on this day. Hard to believe, but true – both in terms of time having passed and that she’s lasted this long. She’s been an amazing wife and now is an amazing mother to Amanda, and yet still finds a way to put up with me acting Amanda’s age from time to time. I can’t ask for much more than that.

Overlooked Alternatives: Andrew Bird, Low

Filed under: Music,News,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 9:49 am

Like the Batman, Overlooked Alternatives scans the skies for the beacon of need – new music that might otherwise go unnoticed by someone out there. Cast your eyes heavenward: it’s a bird, it’s a- oh, wait, I’m getting my superheroes mixed up. Regardless, it is a bird – Andrew – and then there’s those mopy Mormons from Duluth, Low.

Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha: It’s going to be hard for Bird to top his previous album, Andrew Bird And The Mysterious Production Of Eggs, a gorgeous, moody stunner. Equally balanced between upbeat rock numbers and quieter strings-backed pieces, Eggs had something for everyone, with smart, subtly-humorous lyrics strewn throughout to keep listeners coming back and making it a highlight of the year. With Armchair Apocrypha, it seems as if he hasn’t even attempted to replicated what worked right on Eggs and luckily this works in everyone’s favor. A rather more muscular affair (and we’re speaking on relative terms here, remember,) Apocrypha relies more heavily on guitars than strings than anything Bird has produced before. But his signature sense of melody and humor is ever-present, tying everything together in an ear-pleasing bundle that is sure to land this one right back in the top end of the best-of lists later this year.

Low – Drums And Guns: Who knew Low would crank things up like they did with The Great Destroyer, their Sub-Pop debut? Were they holding back all those years, or did the label urge them to do something different? Whatever it was, it worked against every notion fans had when word spread of what was on the horizon. But the bigger question was, what would happen on the next album? Now we know: drum machines! It’s not that simple, of course, and of course the results are much more pleasing than that makes it sound. And, actually, what we get is more raw and visceral than Destroyer, in some aspects. While Mimi Parker may not seem to be manning her snare drum as much, it’s a real treat to actually hear some bass drum in Low’s sound, even if it’s electronic in origin. But this is a dark, dark album, so perhaps letting the Flaming Lips’ favorite producer David Fridmann produce again was a good idea – he has a lot of tricks up his sleeve to keep things from getting too maudlin because, like with the Lips, you just want to listen to hear what’s coming next. And, again, that question comes up – what could possibly be next for Low?

March 19, 2007

Suggestion that comes from experience

Filed under: General — Tom @ 3:26 pm

In my experience, it’s a good idea to not take your wallet into an MRI machine. It just makes good sense. After all, MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and what’s in your wallet but a bunch of credit-type cards with magnetic strips on them.

Take it from one who’s learned: leave your wallet outside of the room with the big MRI machine, kids. Dealing with a wallet full of cards that won’t swipe isn’t as fun as you might think, and it’s even more fun when you don’t have a voice.

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March 18, 2007

The Sunday post

Filed under: General — Tom @ 12:14 pm

For those who were looking for the answer to last week’s big question, “Is Tom’s brain ‘normal’?” Here’s your answer: according to Dr. Brain, everything looks fine. Ask Alissa and she’ll tell you otherwise. So, at least neurologically speaking, things are good. I still don’t understand what the hell is going on, but I’m going to take it as a good sign. I still want the films of my scan – I want to see my brain, man!

And, as usual, I’ve jinxed myself – just before this whole ordeal, I posted saying that the allergy meds were working. Well, as of Wednesday everything stopped working and hell ascended upon my respiratory system. I gave it a couple days to see if it would go away, then called my doctor again. He got me on something to help clear this up right away, but he’s officially put in the order: it’s time to go see an allergist. I’ve never had it this bad, so I’m glad to follow through. I’ll be curious to see just what it is that’s dragging me down so badly.

It hasn’t been fun, I can tell you that. I’m pretty much stuck inside doing not much of anything – I certainly can’t be out in the yard doing what I need to be doing like mowing the lawn and cleaning up plants and such, which is mighty annoying because it’s only going to be relatively cool like it is right now for so long. But were I to do anything like that, I’d risk making this much, much worse. And, at the moment, I can’t imagine how much worse that could be. I can barely talk – my voice is low and scratchy, and at times it’s barely above a whisper, and my breathing is difficult, too. It’s pretty awful, I tell ya. But relief is hopefully in sight – I just have to make a call. Hopefully the receptionists on the other end will actually be able to hear me.

All this comes just days before the concert event of the year for me. Wednesday night, we’ll be getting to see guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau in concert at what is purported to be a gorgeous symphony theater in Mesa. The tickets, or the option thereof, were a birthday gift from Alissa. She knew I wanted to go, but didn’t know if I wanted seats from what remained available. They’re toward the back, and it was a hard decision because I typically don’t particularly like sitting too far back, but I decided that this is likely a once in a lifetime event for me – these guys probably won’t be back in Phoenix anytime soon, if ever, and I don’t know that we’ll be able to go again.

And, as luck would have it, Amanda is sick again, it appears. She’s coughing and weezing, seems to be running a temperature, and just doesn’t seem to be her usual spastic 19 month old self. This is worrisome to me not because she can’t handle it – she can, she’s been sick many times before – but because I’m on a short course of steroids for my allergies that could leave me vulnerable to illnesses. What good is a damned drug that might make you get sick?!

Amazingly, Amanda still continues to play pretty much like normal – just a bit less dramatic than usual. She has advanced her dancing skills to include many new moves that now include quite a bit of moving about rather than just bopping back and forth. Sickness cannot hold her back. Music absolutely rules her – this makes her daddy very proud, you can imagine. We bought a tiger-shaped xylophone/piano that she appears to absolutely love. I’ll agree with the Amazon users – the strings for the sticks, while safely short, are just too short to be very useful (the strings they show in the Amazon picture are not what comes on the toy – they’re about half that length and attached at the corners of the xylophone part – kind of misleading.) But the piano keys get the most use anyway right now, musically at least. The strings stay on the sticks because otherwise the sticks will just go on to hit other things and then eventually get lost somewhere that we’ll never find them again.

It was in buying this that we discovered that we have moved from Babies R Us to Toys R Us for toys for Amanda. Babies R Us simply didn’t have any toys for her anymore. Sure, they have some things aimed at her, but she’s really just reached the limit of their aim. I’m kind of relieved, however – there’s just more stuff at Toys R Us in general, and it seems like more registers open most of the time. I don’t know if it’s just our Babies R Us or what, but every time we go, it seems like there’s a store full of people and only one register open.

Who knows what exciting news the next installment will bring?

In which I confess to giving in to Itunes

Filed under: General — Tom @ 11:41 am

After 27 months of Ipod ownage, I finally gave in to Itunes when the new Son Volt album came out a couple weeks back. I couldn’t resist – the normal store version of the album is 14 songs while Itunes’ version is a whopping 22, and that’s not a bunch of throwaway bonus songs. These are actual album songs, not b-sides, live tracks, or alternate takes. No, what is available on Itunes is The Search as it was intended to be heard. And it’s only $9.99. I couldn’t pass it up.

And I do realize that I’m not giving up that much anymore – packaging of most albums these days isn’t what it used to be. But I still love the idea of owning an album in a tangible format, something I can hold, take with me, and most of all, decide what I want to do with it when it comes to compressing it for use in my Ipod. Now I have The Search in Apple’s compressed, lossy format, but what’s worse, I’ve got it in their damned protected format that tells me where I can use it and how many times I can do so. I realize I can find some applications on the internet to strip out or disable this feature in the files, but I don’t think I should have to. Just like with copy-protected CDs, the only person being punished here is ME, the person who BOUGHT the damned music in the first place. But I bought, I love it, it’s a great album, and I’m not going to let Apple’s bullshit destroy my enjoyment of it.

I woke up this morning with something in my head, something itching at me because of the upcoming Methney/Mehldau concert – Mehldau’s Live In Tokyo album. I have the CD, but I know there’s a Japanese version on two discs that includes what I believe is the entire concert. I did a little research this morning and found that I could buy it from either the US Amazon or the Japanese Amazon for about the same amount – about $47, or a lone reseller on the US Amazon has it for $36. And then something popped into my head, something I’d completely forgotten about. I remembered reading somewhere long ago when this album came out that Itunes had an exclusive version of Live In Tokyo. I opened the Itunes store, typed in “mehldau tokyo”, and up popped four versions. I thought three of them would be identical, being the same price ($9.99) and the other would be the exclusive (the $13.99) one, but it turned out that it’s more complicated than that. Two of them are identical, I don’t know why, but for some reason, you can get the exclusive version at either $13.99 or $9.99. Obviously, you’d be a fool to pay $4 more than you need to. I’d just love to know why the pricier one exists.

Anyway, as you can guess, Live In Tokyo, the complete version, is downloading right now from Itunes. I couldn’t resist at 1/3 of the price of the cheapest option (or almost 1/4 of the Amazon option.) I haven’t fully given in to downloading music, however. I still refuse to buy normal stuff this way – I even went and bought a hard copy of The Search from Best Buy both because I just needed a CD with packaging, liner notes, etc., and because it had a bonus disc with some more non-album content. I also still have my Emusic account that I really enjoy – it has provided me access to some really interesting music, jazz especially, that is very difficult to find, or that I might not have taken the opportunity explore given the full price of a CD. For example, I might not have stumbled across the Sam Keevers Nonet, but I’m sure glad I did. It’ll cost about $40 to get the two albums from Amazon that I got – but I got them off Emusic for $2.

I’ll be a lot happier when downloading music goes the way that DGMLive has chosen to go – giving users an option of lossless files. I just don’t trust computers and hard drives enough to store precious, paid-for music files. Sure, you can back stuff up, but at some point, there’s going to be a mess of discs to dig through to find what you need. This is just not a logical solution. The logical solution will eventually come when these download stores keep track of what you purchase and allow you redownload things that have been lost. I don’t think any of them do that now, unfortunately. Until then, I’m keeping my downloading to a minimum.

March 16, 2007

Exploding Star Orchestra: We Are All From Somewhere Else

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 1:46 pm

Tortoise alum Rob Mazurek has a big concept behind his latest project. As we all know, sometimes big concepts pay off, sometimes they simply lead to big letdowns. Exploding Star Orchestra’s We Are All From Somewhere Else is a big concept that luckily actually pays off – and you can luckily just ignore the bizarre concept behind it and just enjoy the stunning music the ensemble pulls off.

The concept, if you must know, goes something like this: somewhere in deep space, a star explodes and a sting ray experiences many things including dealing with destructive human beings and talkative electric eels until, ultimately, the eel dies and becomes a star itself. See, weren’t you better off not knowing at all? Like I said, just ignore it and listen.

The problem comes when I begin trying to classify what’s going on here – like Mazurek’s other bands (Tortoise, Chicago Underground, Sao Paolo Underground, among others), they simply defy real definitions. Oh, it’s jazz alright, but it’s impossible to pin down – it’s free, it’s avant garde, it’s bop, it’s contemporary. And, yes, there’s a bit of Tortoise hiding in there – it’s hard for the band not to show through when quite a number of the band’s members are actually taking part in this project (Mazurek, Jeff Parker, John McEntire, and John Herndon).

Parts of the album, such as much of the first section, entitled “Sting Ray And The Beginning Of Time,” have a spy-thriller feel about them, where a driving vamp gives the soloists a fertile bed over which to create thick, intricate pieces. Some segments, like “Part 2” of “Cosmic Tomes For Sleep Walking Lovers,” approach minimalist territory. Portions of the musicians work alternately with and against each other, the textures drifting one way or another as soloists break out to push the piece in a new direction. All too quickly it’s over, leaving the listener wishing Mazurek had developed a far longer piece dedicated to exploring what a jazz group could do in this setting. It’s an exciting listen that’s only disappointing in its brevity.

The real thrill, however, is that the two long segments that make up the majority of the album simply let the soloists take their turns leading the band. The strongest presence is that of Nicole Mitchell’s flute, which leads the music in high-speed twists and turns. Also taking a intriguing solos here is guitarist Jeff Parker, who might surprise those who only know him from his Tortoise stint – and even his solo jazz albums, where his laid back tone hides the aggressive stance he takes here. You could be forgiven thinking that Nels Cline had taken over at times.

Most of all, it’s a refreshing listen – it’s big, it’s brash, and it’s bold, but it’s also just plain fun. Sometimes music simply takes itself too seriously, and this is one release that has rarely resulted in anything but a smile on my face.

It’s that time again: Save Veronica Mars

Filed under: News,TV — Tom @ 9:39 am

I feared this day would come, and hoped it wouldn’t, but here it is: news is starting to trickle out that the best show on TV today, the CW’s criminally overlooked Veronica Mars, is in trouble. Word is that the faces extinction or a complete reformatting with Veronica coming back next season four years in the future as an FBI agent with most of the show’s cast gone, with a small possibility that it may return next season as-is. We VM fans want only the latter option, but I guess I’d accept the middle one if that’s all we get as long as the quality remains as consistently high.

For those of you who haven’t been watching, WHY NOT?! Please, please, please watch one episode when it comes back in April and tell me it’s not an incredible show. You may not know everything that’s going on, but that’s okay – just watch it to get an idea and then, when you fall for it like everyone else that watches it does, go get the previous two seasons and devour it. Besides, what the hell else are you watching on Tuesday night?

March 14, 2007

More than a feeling

Filed under: Music,News — Tom @ 8:57 pm

I looked out this morning and the sun was gone
Turned on some music to start my day
I lost myself in a familiar song
I closed my eyes and I slipped away

Brad Delp’s death March 9 was a suicide, his family says.

I’m not a huge Boston fan yet I find myself more upset by this than I should be – it came as a complete shock. As uncool as it is to say, Third Stage remains the one album of theirs that I find indispensible as a whole – I know it doesn’t measure up to the first two, but there’s something else going on there that just grabs me, perhaps it’s just the fact that they dared begin an album with a ballad (“Amanda”) and then ramp up the rock attitude from there, then carefully taper it back down toward a mellow closer (“Hollyann”), I don’t know. But I’ve always loved it in a completely unironic way. So Third Stage is my way of saying goodbye to the gorgeous voice of Brad Delp. I can’t understand why suicide was the solution, but I can thank you for the music you left behind.

Overlooked Alternatives: Metheny/Mehldau, Alex Skolnick Trio

Filed under: Music,News,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 10:06 am

Like the Batman, Overlooked Alternatives scans the skies for the beacon of need – new music that might otherwise go unnoticed by someone out there. This week the beacon highlights two jazz releases – one that’s going to be big and another of which metal fans might want to take note.

Metheny/Mehldau – Quartet: Hot on the heels of their fantastic duos (mostly) album, the pair return with the rest of the sessions recorded in December 2005, the majority of these being a flip-flop of the previous album: this is a quartet recording with Mehldau’s trio of Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums (the previous album only featured the quartet on two tracks while this features the quartet on all but a couple.) I expect that Quartet will quickly shoot to the top of my jazz list this year just like Metheny/Mehldau did last year. Get in on these now – you’re going to want to know these well because they’re going to be talked about for a long, long time. Instant classics.

Alex Skolnick Trio – Last Day In Paradise: Testament’s Practice What You Preach was a big part of my youth and it was in part due to guitarist Alex Skolnick’s amazing guitar playing. Skolnick left the band – and metal, in general – behind in the mid-90s to pursue his love of jazz. He’s still pursuing that love and this week releases this album of mostly new songs with three covers of hard rock songs – Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, Ozzy’s “Revelation (Mother Earth)”, a new, apparently Spanish-influenced take on “Practice What You Preach” (“Practica Lo Que Predicas”). Should be a fun release.

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