Known Johnson

April 2, 2007

The Listening Post submission: Rush – “How It Is”

Filed under: Music,Reviews,The Listening Room submissions — Tom @ 7:37 pm

I’ve been too busy the past couple of weeks to catch the Listening Post train, but caught the caboose this week.

In reading Rush drummer Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider, I’ve developed a new respect for this song, so often overlooked and dismissed by fans as one of the lesser Vapor Trails offerings. Here, as in the book, we get a more humble, simpler Peart, a man facing a change in his life and opting to, for once, simply surrender instead of struggle.

Peart, having lost both his wife and his daughter in the span of a year’s time, was a man who desperately needed to let go of his past, and this song is more than just a simple ode to the struggles we all face with the difference between what we plan and how things turn out. It’s about turning the corner from spending every day dragging the past behind you as a weight, to making the past a part of your life and letting it help carry you forward. “How It Is” might not be one of Rush’s more popular songs, but it’s one of Peart’s more heartfelt lyrics.

March 30, 2007

Grant-Lee Phillips: Strangelet

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 10:18 am

You could be forgiven thinking that Grant Lee Buffalo was still around if you heard what Grant-Lee Phillips was doing in his solo career. His music is not so drastically different that it makes much sense to the outsider why that band had to end, but then it doesn’t matter much either way – the quality work continues, and that’s all that really matters. Phillips still churns out solid singer-songwriter material with folky roots-rock as its basis, his characteristic cracked and soaring croon still sounding as strong as it did back in the Buffalo heyday. What you couldn’t be forgiven for, however, is passing up Strangelet thinking that just because he’s not breaking new ground that he’s not turning in one of his best works.

Phillips took a slightly quieter route with his solo work, preferring to work in a more acoustic vein on 2004’s Virginia Creeper, it is nonetheless similiar to his previous band in most ways, feeling like a natural, more mature extension of where GLB could have gone. What works against Phillips is how subtle his music is – like that earlier album’s title, it seems to creep up on the listener by being both immediately familiar and comfortable and yet slightly too much so, so that it doesn’t stand out. Yet it winds up sneaking up and surprising by quickly becoming a favorite, effortlessly.

Strangelet nearly falls victim to the same tendency, but this time a few tunes immediately stick out and prick at listeners in just the right way. “Soft Asylum (No Way Out)” is one such tune, being the great U2 mid-tempo ballad that they’re going to wish they’d written (and Phillips is going to hope his promotion team pushes the right way.) “Fountain Of Youth” wins not just because of the tune but because of the gentle intoxication provided by the ukelele that drives the song – and it makes me glad Phillips has pursued the use of this instrument.

What makes Strangelet more immediately accessible is more variation due to songs with more aggressive stances – that’s relatively speaking, however. This is still a quiet album, in general, but distorted guitars are peppered more liberally throughout than have been in the recent past, such as “Chain Lightning,” “Johnny Guitar,” or “Raise The Spirit” which resurrects some good old loping T. Rex rhythms. The heart of the album, however, like most of what Phillips does, is in the more melancholy material – because he does that so well – and there’s plenty of that for the listener, new and old, to dive into. Strangelet might just be the most well-rounded set of music that Grant-Lee Phillips has released yet.

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.

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.

March 12, 2007

Listening Room submission: “Hyperballad” – Wasilewski/Kurkiewicz/Miski

Filed under: Music,Reviews,The Listening Room submissions — Tom @ 10:35 pm

“Hyperballad” from Trio by Wasilewski/Kurkiewicz/Miski

Having installed some new speakers in my truck, and having spent far too much time doing so, I needed to take a drive to both pick up dinner and test out the speakers. Frustrated and tired, I also just needed to get out and not think about anything for a little while.

Choosing just the right music with which to try out those new speakers isn’t easy, but after a few songs, I settled on just the right one, a cover of Bjork’s “Hyperballad” by this nearly unpronouncable Polish trio.

Freed of vocals, the tune here allows the band to emphasize the underlying melodic beauty while maintaining some room for them to explore. Of course, for my needs at the time, it sounded gorgeous, but most of all, it simply soothed my tool- and stress-weary nerves.

March 9, 2007

Big Satan: Livein Cognito

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 11:44 am

There are times when normal music just doesn’t make sense, or maybe makes too much sense. There are days when the predictability of that verse/chorus/verse formula that most modern, popular music is formed upon just isn’t going to do the job, and I go searching through my collection for the big guns – something heavy, noisy, cantankerous. Big Satan delivers.

A few minutes in, all I can think is, “Thank God I don’t know what’s coming next, thank God there’s no steady beat, thank God there are no common chord progressions, thank God it sometimes sounds like cats fighting in a bag of pans. Thank God it’s not predictable. I can’t take that right now.” Again, Big Satan delivers.

Tom Rainey, a drummer who manages most times to sound like at least two, Marc Ducret, the guitar-bastard child of skronk-era Bill Frisell and David Torn, and Tim Berne, heir to the throne of John Zorn play here like a ball of tangled, bare wires, plugged in and sparking wildly. These three could sound to some like they’re simply flailing about on their instruments, but to the right pair of ears, it’s clear these guys are listening closely, responding to each other, sometimes very subtly, in ways that reveal a lifetime spent seeking new avenues of speaking musically outside the norm. Listen in “Mr. Subliminal” how each player seems to bounce ideas off each other, domino-effect like, until it’s impossible to tell who is leading who. Great trios do this almost subliminally – the music just flows between them because they all work on the same level, each encouraging the other and goading the others on to more and better. And this is a great trio.

It’s rough, it’s raw, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but for those that found the two studio Big Satan albums intriguing, this is without a doubt a must have. While Big Satan here isn’t drastically different than its other releases, it’s a wild beast on stage that is not to be missed. Really, any excuse to hear these three musically duke it out is a good excuse. You guessed it – Big Satan delivers.

Unfortunately, Livein Cognito is not available through normal outlets. Head to Tim Berne’s fantastic Screwgun Records website to order this amazing 2-CD set for a mere $15.99. What do you know? Screwgun delivers too.

March 5, 2007

The Listening Room submission: “Here” – Adrian Belew

Filed under: Music,Reviews,The Listening Room submissions — Tom @ 9:33 pm

This week’s Listening Room submission, with further entries and discussion here:

“I See You” from Here by Adrian Belew

A coworker of mine has a band that has set out with a specific goal: to avoid the influence of the Beatles. Obviously, he can’t be the first musician to attempt such a thing, but it’s a noble effort. I just wonder if it really matters.

It doesn’t matter to my daughter, that’s for sure. Driving along one day, with Adrian Belew’s 1994 masterpiece, Here playing, I looked in mirror to find her gently swaying to this oh-so-Beatlesesque tune. In her big car seat, she rocked from side to side while gazing out the rear windows to the sound of Adrian and his spot-on Lennon imitation.

So, no, I’m not convinced it matters if a band is obviously copping from the Beatles – and, in fact, sometimes the world just needs more of that.

February 19, 2007

The Listening Room submission: “Augmatic Disport” – Autechre

Filed under: Music,Reviews,The Listening Room submissions — Tom @ 9:59 pm

This week’s Listening Room submission is one of my more unusual musical interests, the oblique, electronic blitz of Autechre.

“Augmatic Disport,” from Untilted by Autechre

It’s the abstract rhythms in the electronic chaos that Autechre creates that draws me in. The beat lurches back and forth, fighting with itself, as if two drum machines are dueling over time. This is impossible dance music – no sane person could find a beat to center themselves around here, or, if they did, it would make for something humorous.

There are stabs of synth here and there, but the focus is on time and how it competes with itself for the little sensible space our minds can allow. The listener’s payoff comes when bits of rhythmic predictability set in, little by little – chaos resolving slowly to order, layers of fragmenting drums giving way to a steady pulse. Left with a simple beat for what seems like an eternity, it’s something oddly soothing and predictable from a group who so rarely offers anything of the sort.

February 12, 2007

The Listening Room submission: Guided By Voices – Don’t Stop Now

Filed under: Music,Reviews,The Listening Room submissions — Tom @ 12:45 pm

(This is my first post to a continuing series on Blogcritics called The Listening Room, the brainchild of DJRadiohead, one of my favorite BC writers. It’s basically a piece about earworms, those songs that wind up stuck on seemingly infinite loop in your head, or maybe just those extra special songs that merit some deeper exploration. When I make a submission, I may be posting slightly longer versions here on my site, and, sometimes, like today, with a special little bonus like the bootleg recording of the song in question.)

“Don’t Stop Now” from Under The Bushes, Under The Stars, by Guided By Voices

Among dozens of equally powerful, tight songs under Bob Pollard’s belt, it could be the immediacy of that simple guitar hook that starts this song that grabs listeners, but really it’s more that there’s a rare vulnerability in Pollard’s voice in this particularly simple tune.

Pollard confronts “Big Daddy,” a local rooster with whom he holds a long-standing grudge, strutting nonchalantly around with a six-pack ring around his neck, but it’s really about the band transitioning from local indie act to focus of national attention. GBV becomes, in a sense, Big Daddy in an industry that cares little about anything but the bottom line. Pollard’s six-pack ring: get his songs to more people while keeping the GBV identity strong. This is his anthem – “Don’t Stop Now,” a rallying cry for more. And there was – a lot more.

In 1996, Guided By Voices was on the verge of being lifted out of a life of obscurity in Dayton, Ohio. It’s easy to hear in the lyrics and his voice the sound of a man possibly leaving behind a life he was comfortable with. He’d quit his job as a school teacher to go on the road to rock – his dream job – but with it came a fear of the unknown. More than 10 years on, it’s obvious that Pollard has done just fine as an ex-teacher.

Guided By Voices is now a memory as he continues his solo career, but thanks to a fan-friendly taping/trading policy, we have this live take of the song in question to cherish forever.

Guided By Voices: Don’t Stop Now – Jan. 22, 2000, Athens, GA (3.21 mb)

January 19, 2007

Rodrigo Y Gabriela

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 12:08 pm

There was a time when I was pretty consumed with, and you could make an argument that it could be considered “obsessed with” Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft legion – the California Guitar Trio, the League of Crafty Guitarists, and various smaller splinter groups. There was something about the shared skills of the many guitarists balancing complex pieces of intricate music, much of it approaching classical in style at times – it grabbed my imagination, filling my head with thoughts of notes dancing between nimble-fingered guitarists.

Over time, the effect wore off a bit – I still listen to some of the various Guitar Craft outings from time to time, but as I grew older, I found something missing. Maybe a bit of heart, I don’t know. As highly technical as the music was, I have to say that it was a bit cold at times. And sometimes that’s just the right thing – cold precision can be fascinating and beautiful in the right circumstances. But a lot of the time, I’m looking for more from guitarists and that’s where the Crafty Guitarists and I slowly parted ways.

I’ve found that “more” in the same genre that many others have – jazz – but from time to time, something astonishing comes along that also provides “more” that just sweeps me off my feet. Rodrigo Y Gabriela, a pair of flamenco guitarists, have done just that – they’ve appeared out of nowhere and given me more when I least suspected it.

I can’t pretend to know much about flamenco guitar, but I can say this: their self-titled album is rich with invigorating music that can barely be contained by that genre alone. The pair, having fled both Mexico and a metal band for Europe and acoustic guitars, developed a style that bridges a style deep in tradition with their roots in metal to give listeners something unique: dark, sometimes disturbing flamenco guitar.

Punctuated by the smack of percussive hits on the bodies of their guitars, this is hard, driving music – it feels as if the two were accompanied by drums much of the time, but the entirety of the album is two guitars, save for one song (“Ixtapa,” where violinist Roby Lakatos joins the duo.) Elsewhere, the pair show off their taste in covers by taking on Metallica’s “Orion” with a rendition that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. And if, you, like me, cringed a little bit seeing Led Zeppelin’s overplayed classic “Stairway To Heaven” listed among the songs, have no fear. While the guitar shop in Wayne’s World may have had a “No ‘Stairway To Heaven'” rule, they would lift it to hear Rodrigo Y Gabriela’s take. Where many would simply “Latinize” the original, they use it as a jumping-off point for some creative and fascinating exploration of the sounds of their world. The steps may lead up to heaven, but somehow we wind up deep in the heart of Mexico.

And that’s what makes it all work so well – heart. For all their technical prowess, behind it all is a great love of playing all this music and entertaining listeners. Rodrigo Y Gabriela’s music is plainly driven by the giddy “what next?” desire that had them jumping out of the metal band they were in and the comfort of their homeland for foreign lands and music they surely weren’t certain would take them anywhere. And now, for us listeners, we’re left with that same excited desire to know what’s next for the two.

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