February 28, 2009

Hillbilly Comics (Charlton, 1955)

As a quasi-Yankee who deliberately migrated south of the Mason-Dixon Line, I am sensitive to the stereotype of Southerners that still persists – perhaps deservedly.

Be that as it may, this particular wordless strip by Art Gates scanned and posted at Again With the Comics is brilliant. As a commenter remarked, “Hank the Hermit” is really a Taoist.

Via Boing Boing.

February 22, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Out There a Minute (Restless/Blast First CD 71427)

Back in the early 1980s, when I was coming of age, hanging out with other weirdo musicians at the New England Conservatory, and discovering Sun Ra’s music for the first time, Ra’s records were extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find even in a big city like Boston. I managed to snag a couple of Saturn LPs while working at Strawberry’s Records circa. 1984 but they were totally unlabeled, extremely poor pressings, and contained a mish-mash of material recorded at various times and places. Or at least that’s how I remember them since I have no idea what the titles were; sadly, I later sold them in a fit of self-induced poverty and poor judgment. As the CD era dawned, contemporaneous recordings were issued on foreign labels like Black Saint (Italy), DIW (Japan), and Leo (France) while crummy-sounding bootlegs of the classic ESP recordings were also floating around the underground record shops. But for the most part Sun Ra’s vast body of work was shrouded in mystery. When the U.S. major label A&M released the crisply produced Blue Delight in 1988, Ra was suddenly something of a commodity and a steady stream of archival material began to flow in the 1990s.

In today’s instantaneous-information and media-saturated age, it might be difficult to imagine what a revelation it was when Out There a Minute appeared in 1989. Billed as “Sun Ra’s personal selection of rare Arkestra recordings from the late 1960s,” this CD allowed a glimpse into the darkest recesses of Ra’s most obscure period. But in typical Saturnal fashion, the packaging was devoid of liner notes beyond some cryptic Ra poetry leaving any definitive information as to dates and personnel merely inferred or totally unknown. That is until the efforts of Prof. Robert L. Campbell to compile a definitive Sun Ra discography began to circulate on the nascent internet. Thanks to Prof. Campbell (and the small but avid cyber-community of Ra fanatics), one could in the coming years finally piece together the murky history of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and gain an understanding of the material that appears on Out There a Minute. The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra was subsequently published by Cadence Jazz Books in 1994 and a greatly enlarged second edition (which I still need to purchase) was published in 2000.

So, it turns out that Out There a Minute contains several tracks that were later issued on CD in their proper album context on Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, When Angels Speak of Love (Evidence ECD 22216), and Night of the Purple Moon (Atavistic ALP 264) along with two tracks from the still-out-of-print Continuation LP from 1968. I will not consider any of these tracks here except to say that Atavistic needs to reissue Continuation pronto. The remainder of the CD consists of never released recordings, some of which derive from the Choreographer’s Workshop era and therefore fits chronologically into our discussion of these crucial early/mid-sixties sessions.

“Somewhere in Space,” “Dark Clouds with Silver Linings,” and “Journey Outward” were all recorded in 1962 and demonstrate Ra’s evolution from the more swing-based traditionalism of the Chicago era to the experimental, avant-garde music that first appeared on Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow and was perfected on Secrets of the Sun. “Somewhere in Space” is a lumbering two-chord march featuring Art Jenkins on “space voice,” actually wordless, improvisatory singing through an inverted ram’s horn (see Szwed pp.192-193 for the whole story). After a while, the horns enter with a simple, but affecting batch of riffs before each picking up small percussion instruments in support of a string of rather meandering solos: Pat Patrick on baritone saxophone, John Gilmore on tenor, Marshall Allen on flute. “Dark Clouds With Silver Linings” is a more conventional Ra original with a mid-tempo blues structure but with some typically unexpected harmonic twists. Gilmore states the melody and his tenor solos glide effortlessly through the weirdly bop-ish changes. Meanwhile, Ra explores some interesting two-handed counterpoint along with his stabbed comping. The ensemble sounds a little unsure of itself when it enters with the restatement of the theme, which yields some mild inadvertent dissonance before the close. “Journey Outwards” appears to be another early example of the conducted improvisations that would characterize this period’s most important work. It opens with Gilmore on mellifluous bass clarinet over softly mumbling drums. Then Gilmore drops out as the percussion builds into a polyrhythmic African groove. Al Evans enters with some mellow, richly melodic flugelhorn statements and Ra joins in with some angular piano figures before fading out. Very nice.

The title track, “Out There a Minute,” remains somewhat of a discographical mystery. According to Prof. Campbell, it could have been recorded at any time between 1962 and 1964, but to my ears it sounds very similar to the hissy, distant quality and subtly swinging combo feel of 1961’s Bad & Beautiful. In any event, it’s another patented off-kilter blues with some slippery piano work from Ra and a spirited Patrick solo on baritone saxophone. “Other Worlds” jumps ahead to the Magic City (Evidence ECD 22069) sessions of spring 1965, with a larger Arkestra and more aggressively avant-garde approach, but probably not recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop (for one thing, it’s in stereo). Ra plays a quietly intense introduction on simultaneous piano and bell-like celeste before the Arkestra bursts in with a hard-driving atonal workout. Throughout the piece, Ra’s piano attack is every bit as ferocious as Cecil Taylor’s and the entire 11-piece Arkestra blows hot and heavy, tossing lines around with seemingly wild abandon. But repeated listens reveal a tightly controlled compositional integrity that packs the whollop of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” into a mere four minutes and forty-eight seconds. Incredible stuff. “Jazz and Romantic Sounds” probably dates from about 1969 given Ra’s electronic organ. Also, Gilmore is notably absent, but Marshall Allen and Danny Davis duke it out on alto saxophones while Ra conjures up the “space-age barbeque music” vibe similar to My Brother the Wind Vol. 2.

These never-before-released tracks make Out There a Minute a must-have proposition for the hardcore Sun Ra fan while the whole disc is full of prime cuts and a suitable introduction for the novice. Sadly, the CD is now out print although its widespread distribution means it’s readily available in the secondary market and well worth the effort to track it down. Essential.

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Big thank you to Sam Byrd for helping me sort this stuff out!

February 21, 2009

Snail's Pace

Here's some more time-lapse photography. This time, it's French snails.

He writes: Every evening, after my automatic water system stops, all the snails who where hidden behind flowers go out and go on the grass to make parties, eating and drinking !

It really does give a new perspective!


Snails Go west ! Funny TimeLapse from http://vimeo.com/timelapsefr on Vimeo.

Via Boing Boing.

February 15, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra: Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (Evidence ECD 22036) (1992)

Recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop, NYC, 1961-1962.
Originally released as Saturn 9956 (1965).

Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow tacks on two leftover tracks from 1961’s Bad & Beautiful recording session but mostly consists of a 1962 rehearsal recorded in the basement of the Choreographer’s Workshop where there was a good piano and better acoustics. The sound quality is notably improved even if the source tape for this CD is significantly degraded. More importantly, Ra’s music is clearly moving in a new, exciting direction. Drummer/recordist Tommy Hunter had been recording rehearsals on his Apex reel-to-reel and accidentally discovered the feedback/echo effect that appears here for the first time. So while Bad & Beautiful was a somewhat traditional jazz combo album full of show tunes and semi-conventional Ra originals, Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow lives up to its title, moving forward into the kind of experimental avant garde music that would cement Ra’s reputation in the 1960s and 70s while also retaining a connection to the living tradition that would continue to center the Arkestra’s aesthetic throughout its career. To paraphrase Michael Shore’s comment in the liner notes to this Evidence CD, if Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy is a Rosetta Stone, then Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow is Ra beginning to carve it in earnest.

“Cluster of Galaxies” is a brief but portentous opening with its spacey “thunder drums,” “sun harp,” and “spiral percussion gong” all drenched in thick cosmic echo and reverb. Afro-psychedelia starts right here – in 1962! P-Funk mastermind George Clinton once remarked, “[Sun Ra] was definitely out to lunch – the same place I eat at!” (quoted in Szwed, p. 264). Shifting gears, the next track is another remake of “Ankh” which originally appeared in a more florid arrangement in 1956 on the Delmark LP, Sound of Joy and more recently on Bad & Beautiful. This composition was obviously important to Ra and the various renditions are fascinatingly diverse. Here, baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick shares solo space with a rare appearance by Ali Hassan on trombone. The mood is brighter, less ominous than usual with some funky gospel handclaps supporting the lumbering riffs. “Solar Drums” is another brief space-out featuring echoing drums, small percussion, bells and faintly tinkling piano. The hissing feed back ebbs and flows across the sonic landscape, sometimes threatening to overwhelm everything until Tommy Hunter suddenly turns a knob, bringing things back into focus.

The next two tracks appear to be Ra’s earliest experiments with a new kind of form: loosely structured, non-idiomatic, conducted improvisation. This is a form that Ra would expand and perfect as the decade proceeded, resulting in such masterpieces as Other Planes of There and The Magic City (Evidence ECD 22069). With its total absence of drums, atonal piano, and knotty contrapuntal horn lines, “The Outer Heavens” sounds more like contemporary classical chamber music than big band jazz and points the way to the later music of the AACM and Anthony Braxton. In contrast, a barrage of ceremonial drums and percussion dominates “Infinity of the Universe” with Ra agitatedly rumbling around in the piano’s lowest registers. Michael Shore points out in the liner notes that: “his repeated bass-clef piano runs mark the first appearance of what would, in a few years, turn into the launch pad for one of his greatest pieces, ‘The Shadow World.’” I think that’s correct and a fascinating insight into Ra’s working methods. Towards the end, the horns enter with fleeting and plaintive cries over the increasingly pounding percussion before the track quickly fades to silence.

The album closes with the two orphaned tracks from the Bad & Beautiful sessions and a return to its cool, swinging combo mode. “Lights on a Satellite” was originally recorded in Chicago in 1960 but unreleased until 1965 on Fate in a Pleasant Mood (Evidence ECD 22068). The version here eschews the ornamental flute obbligato and becomes a soulful ballad vehicle for Ra’s Monkish piano. Unfortunately, the track fades out prematurely just as Gilmore begins to blow. “Kosmos in Blue” is a typical Ra blues, bouncy and maybe a little old fashioned rhythmically, but full of dissonant voicings and an unpredictable, disjointed harmonic structure. Gilmore’s tenor saxophone solo stands out for its stately reserve and concise eloquence.

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As we proceed to move chronologically through the Choreographer’s Workshop recordings, next up would be Secrets of the Sun , the first really mature work of the period. But from there to Cosmic Tones, the discography get a little murky – Sam, I think I’ll need your help sorting these out! Please drop me a line!

February 14, 2009

Robert Pollard: The Crawling Distance


Robert Pollard: The Crawling Distance (GBV, Inc. 4) (LP/CD) (2009)

Robert Pollard gets criticized for making “too many records” and, indeed, it is difficult (and expensive!) to keep up with every single release by all the various bands, solo projects, and pseudonyms. By my count, he averages 6-9 records (albums, EPs, singles, and sometimes big box sets) per year, every year and even the hippest indie-record store (e.g. Grimey’s) will not stock everything, leaving direct mail order from Rockathon the only realistic option. So, for the casual listener, the sheer volume of releases (not to mention the wide range of sound quality and focus) has to be repellently intimidating. I mean, who is this guy to think that every scrap of tape is worthy of release?

The truth is that Pollard’s genius really is so absurdly profligate that even the most tossed off, drunken boombox recording almost always contains some fleeting glimpse of potential pop perfection: a turn of phrase, a monster riff or tasty chord sequence, a quirky but catchy form, or a brilliant vocal performance. And for the hardcore fan, this prodigious, unrestrained output allows intimate access to Pollard’s creative process. Over time, one gets the sense that no song is finished; no matter how perfect (or very imperfect) it might sound, it is in ever always in the process of becoming. This is evident in Pollard’s current practice of going back to old songs that previously appeared in embryonic form on obscure singles or the catch-all Suitcase box sets. On The Crawling Distance, Pollard revisits “It’s Easy” (from 1984)(!) and turns what was once a mere forty-four second sketch into one of his most fully realized and ravishingly beautiful ballads ever. Truly, this song alone is worth the price of the album.

Nevertheless, at first listen, The Crawling Distance didn’t strike me as imminently likeable as last year’s Off to Business. There’s a proggy weirdness to some songs (“Cave Zone” “By Silence Destroyed” “On Shortwave”) that would have fit right in on the last couple Circus Devils albums. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it was only after a few spins that I noticed that even these songs contain bits of the hooky, angelic pop that is quintessential Bob. What sounds immediately off-putting grows into a catchy earworm. Elsewhere, it’s all creamy ballads: like the aforementioned “It’s Easy,” “No Island,” and “Imaginary Queen Anne” rank among Pollard’s most gorgeous, heartfelt songs. “Red Cross Vegas Night” alternates between soft and sad and loud and anthemic to powerful effect. And, of course, the single, “The Butler Stands for All of Us” is classic mature Pollard: sophisticated, melodic pop rock with allusive, yet emotionally resonant lyrics. Given time and attention, The Crawling Distance reveals itself to be another complex but richly rewarding album from the Pollard-Tobias team and is highly recommended for even the merely curious.

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Next up: Boston Spaceships: The Planets Are Blasted (GBV, Inc. 5) due February 27.
Free and legal MP3s of some of Pollard’s recent songs are available here.

February 8, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Mr. Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Bad and Beautiful (Evidence ECD 22038)
Recorded at the Choreographer’s Workshop, NYC Nov.-Dec. 1961
Originally released as Saturn 532 (1972)

By 1961, Mr. Sun Ra and a diminished Arkestra had inadvertently relocated from Chicago to New York City and, although gig opportunities were slim, Tommy Hunter had rejoined the band on percussion. Hunter subsequently purchased an Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape recorder at a pawn shop in order to record the Arkestra’s frequent rehearsals. Hunter was also fortuitously employed, first at Columbus Rehearsal Studio on 8th Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets and later at the Choreographer’s Workshop at 414 West 51st Street. Thanks to Hunter, the Arkestra was able to rehearse and record rent-free on nights and weekends for the next three years (see Szwed, pp.186-187). Ra had frequently recorded rehearsals back in Chicago, but 1961 would mark the beginning of a particularly fruitful period.

Bad and Beautiful is the very first of a long series of wonderful Saturn records made at the Choreographer’s Workshop in the 1960s. This particular session was recorded in a room on the third or fourth floor where the acoustics and the piano were “not to Ra’s liking” (Campbell, 1st ed., p. 24). Sonny apparently preferred the basement where there was a good piano and better acoustics (Szwed, p.187). Indeed there is a noticeably hissy and tinny quality to the sound. But there is also that pleasantly reverberant atmosphere that characterizes all of the Choreographer’s Workshop records: They have that Saturn Sound. Along with Ra and Hunter, the sextet includes Marshall Allen on alto sax and flute, John Gilmore on tenor sax, Pat Patrick on baritone sax, Ronnie Boykins on bass. They sound supremely relaxed, languidly exploring hoary standards and show tunes along with some rather conventional Ra originals. Gilmore is in his usual fine form throughout but his oh-so-smooth solo on “Search Light Blues” is truly deep and soulful. Pat Patrick plays the unwieldy baritone saxophone with astounding grace on the riff-based “Ankh” and on the gently swinging “On the Blue Side.” But then “Exotic Two” points to the future with each Arkestra member banging away on percussion instruments in dense poly-rhythms while Ra punches out stiff chord sequences on the piano. (Small percussion instruments can be heard chattering away on “Search Light Blues” as well.) The album closes with a languorous ensemble arrangement of “And This Is My Beloved.” In all, Bad and Beautiful is a transitional, historically important album and its subdued atmosphere and sophisticated musicianship also makes for a simply pleasant Sun Ra Sunday.

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Evidence ECD 22038 also contains We Travel the Spaceways (Saturn 409), recorded at various places in Chicago during the late-1950s; it will be considered separately.

February 1, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra: Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy (Evidence ECD 2036)

Recorded at The Choreographer’s Workshop, NYC, late 1963
Originally released as Saturn 408 (1967) and Thoth Intergalactic KH 2272 (1969)
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Of all the outlandish and evocative titles in Sun Ra’s discography, Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy stands out in its audacious, baldly prescriptive claim. But, to be sure, the title is no idle put-on. In fact, Ra had presciently been involved in what would nowadays be known as "music therapy” back in the late-1950s:

[Manager] Alton Abraham arranged through his medical contacts for Sonny to play for a group of patients at a Chicago mental hospital…The group of patients assembled for this early experiment in musical therapy included catatonics and severe schizophrenics, but Sonny approached the job like any other, making no concessions in his music. While he was playing, a woman who it was said had not moved or spoken for years got up from the floor, walked directly to his piano, and cried out, ‘Do you call that music?’ Sonny was delighted with her response and told the story for years afterwards as evidence of the healing powers of music (Szwed, p.92-93).
While the term “music therapy” may conjure up some kind of dulcet, inoffensive, New-Age-y pabulum, the Cosmic Tones marshaled here are anything but easy-listening. Ra practices a kind of electro-shock treatment to the soul, seeking to, as with the catatonic mental patient, “touch the unknown part of the person, awaken the part of them that we’re not able to talk to, the spirit” (Szwed, p. 257). Ra did not consider the Arkestra to be musicians so much as “tone scientists” (Szwed, p. 112) whose investigations and manipulations of musical phenomena could help mankind in its earthly struggles. “People are disturbed and need your help 24 hours a day,” he would lecture the band (quoted in Szwed, p. 374).

People are just like receivers, they’re like speakers, too, like amplifiers. They’re also like instruments because they got a heart that beats and that’s a drum. They’ve got eardrums too, and they some strings in there, so they actually got harps on each side of their head. If you play certain harmonies, these strings will vibrate in people’s ears and touch different nerves in the body. When the proper things are played in each person, these strings will automatically tune themselves properly and then the person will be in tune. There will be no discord, they will be tuned up perfectly, just like each automobile have to be tuned according to what kind of automobile it is. My music does have a vibration somewhere within it that can reach every person in the audience through feeling (quoted in Szwed, p. 345).

Electro-shock treatment is also an appropriate metaphor in that electronic technology was always an important tool in Ra’s medic bag. On Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy, Ra eschews the piano altogether for the mewling whine of the Clavioline (an early keyboard synthesizer) and the swirly Hammond organ. Further, electronic echo is slathered onto the proceedings by recordist/percussionist Tommy “Bugs” Hunter, who had accidentally discovered the effect while fooling around with the Ampex 602 tape recorder he had purchased at a pawn shop in 1962. By plugging in a cable from the output jack into the input on the machine, massive reverberant echo was produced.

I wasn’t sure what Sun Ra would think of it…I thought he might be mad – but he loved it. It blew his mind! By working the volume of the output on the playback, I could control the effect, make it fast or slow, drop it out, or whatever (quoted in Szwed, p. 187).

Astonishingly, all of this proto-psychedelia was created years before Timothy Leary and the hippies discovered LSD and invented “acid rock.” While Ra sought the kind of change in consciousness that psychedelics promised (and, later, he certainly profited to some extent from the hippies’ taste for spacey freakouts), he abjured drugs and forbade his musicians from indulging themselves. And no matter how outrageous his music might sound, it was never merely a free-form “freakout.” No, the members of the Arkestra were sober, disciplined scientists conducting advanced research and revealing their findings.

Much of the music on Cosmic Tones appears to be in the form of brief conducted improvisations (a form that would later be refined and expanded on Other Planes of There (1964) (Evidence ECD 22037, 1992) and The Magic City (1965) (Evidence ECD 22069, 1993). Unusual instrumentation (and a conspicuous absence of brass instruments) predominates: besides Ra’s electronic keyboards, Marshall Allen concentrates on oboe and flute while John Gilmore plays bass clarinet and percussion exclusively. Known for his prowess as a tenor saxophonist, Gilmore’s brilliant solo on the quasi-rhumba, “Adventure Equation” demonstrates his remarkable virtuosity and inventiveness on the notoriously recalcitrant bass clarinet. Interestingly, the Arkestra rarely plays all at once, giving the music a contemporary-classical, chamber music quality, albeit with that “Saturn Sound” that is so unique to Sun Ra.

“And Otherness” opens the album with middle-eastern-sounding oboe and clip-clopping log drums before throbbing, low-register “space chords” assert themselves amongst the horns and Clavioline. Pat Patrick enters with herky-jerky blasts on the baritone saxophone before gently flowing, antiphonal horn lines bring the piece to an open-ended close. “Thither and Yon” again features some snaky oboe, this time with echoey minimalist percussion tapping, scribbled flute ornamentation, and Ronnie Boykins’s forceful pizzicato and delightfully singing arco bass. “Moon Dance” stands out as an almost funky strut with its repetitive bass riff, lackadaisically propulsive drums and small percussion, and Ra’s occasionally soaring, soulful organ. “Voice of Space” is a kind of an improvised concerto for Ronnie Boykins’s bowed bass, accompanied by stabbing organ chords, clattering percussion, and thick, heaving echo. Danny Davis shines on alto saxophone, weaving wiggly filigrees in the background or more aggressively battling the hissing reverb feedback that always threatens to overwhelm. At one point, Boykins’s bass tremolos merge imperceptibly with Ra’s rumbling organ which then duets with Gilmore’s woody bass clarinet – a moment of group mind at its most sublime.

So does Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy live up to its restorative claims? The usual disclaimers apply: any medication can affect people in different ways and the potential side effects are unpredictable. You may experience dizziness and disorientation, but this is normal. Thankfully, overdosage is rarely fatal. In any case, if you find yourself suffering from psychic imbalances, this can be an effective cure.

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This CD also contains Art Forms Of Dimensions Tomorrow, recorded in 1962 and tenuously connected to Cosmic Tones in venue and in the prevalence of Tommy Hunter’s echo machine. Otherwise, it is its own thing and worthy of close examination. But that will have to wait for another day.