December 28, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Reader Mr. G commented on my post from a few weeks back regarding Sun Ra's music and morality and he suggested that I check out professor David W. Stowe's paper, From Ephrata (F-Ra-Ta) to Arkestra which draws a parallel between Sun Ra and early-eighteenth century mystic Conrad Beissel. Fascinating stuff, but I'm still skeptical that any ethical component inheres to music itself, rather than merely asserted by proclamation. Still, Dr. Stowe's paper is well worth reading and thinking about (if you think about such things).

December 14, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Music From Tomorrow’s World (Atavistic UMS/ALP237)

The companion to last week’s disc, Music from Tomorrow’s World is another collection of never-before heard music from Sun Ra’s tenure in Chicago. The first thirty minutes of the disc consists of an amateur recording of a live set at the Wonder Inn, where the Arkestra, stripped down to a sextet, was in residency for much of 1960. The sound quality is remarkably good considering the era and the less-than-ideal circumstances. Certainly it is full of delightful ambience: the cash register clinks, folks are laughing and talking. But one woman is way into it, shouting encouragements like, “Play it, Sun Ra, play it like you want!” And he does. The repertoire is pretty adventurous for nightclub work, opening with three Ra originals: “Angels and Demons at Play,” a slinky 5/4 ostinato groove with some pretty flute playing by Marshall Allen; “Spontaneous Simplicity” featuring more beautiful flute work over gently rolling rhythms (but who is the second flutist?); “Space Aura” swings hard and fast with a typically brilliant tenor saxophone solo by John Gilmore. Next up are some earnestly goofy vocal numbers, including a truly bent version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It’s interesting to note that Sun Ra plays both acoustic and electric piano in a live setting, using the Wurlitzer for color, not convenience on the cramped stage. “How High The Moon” begins with a Sun Ra poem which leaves the audience puzzled, but things heat up with a cooking Gilmore solo and by that time the crowd is into it, calling out to the musicians, clapping hands, hooting and hollering. A spooky rendition of “China Gate” concludes the set with metallic percussion clattering ominously behind warbling, over-the-top vocals. Fascinating!

The remainder of the disc is given over to a forty-minute Majestic Hall studio session also recorded in 1960. Transcribed from a lowly cassette tape several generations away from the now-lost master recording, it’s pretty rough going sonically compared to the Wonder Inn stuff. Nevertheless, it’s a sparkling performance by an eight-piece Arkestra and includes three previously unheard original compositions by Ra. It’s well worth fighting through the murky sound quality to hear these intriguing bits of music. What’s striking about this session is how polished and well-rehearsed the Arkestra sounds, executing the variety of material with confidence and finesse, especially in the ensemble sections where the rich orchestrations require precision and balance. Too bad it’s so hard to discern amidst the noise and distortion. Still, it’s listenable if you can acclimate yourself to the rather gnarly sound.

Shortly after these recordings were made, Sun Ra and his most dedicated musicians would make their way to New York City (via Canada) and Philadelphia, never to return to Chicago for any extended period of time. With Music From Tomorrow’s World, Atavistic has provided us with another glimpse into Sonny’s working life prior to fulfilling his alter-destiny and is therefore a crucial historical document for Sun Ra fans.

December 13, 2008

Anthony Braxton Quartet (Moscow) 2008

Anthony Braxton Quartet: (Moscow) 2008 (Leo CD LR 518)

Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet:
Anthony Braxton: sopranino, soprano, and alto saxophones, contrabass clarinet, electronics
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, piccolo and bass trumpets, valve trombone
Mary Halvorson: electric guitar
Katherine Young: bassoon

Recorded live June 29, 2008 at the DOM, Moscow, Russia

Why is this man smiling? Is it because, at age 62, he finally finds himself feted in Russia, land of mystics and revolutionaries? Or is it because, with the Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet, he is creating some of the most viscerally exciting – downright fun music of his career? Or is it because his friends at Leo Records were to rush release this document a mere months after its historic performance? Or is it because, despite the seriousness of his intent, Braxton is just a guy who wants to “kick it about and have some fun”? I suspect all of the above and more.

As you may know, I do love the Victoriaville 2007 CD (Victo 108). Here, the addition of Katherine Young’s throaty bassoon gives the drummer-less ensemble a distinctive flavor. Mary Halvorson continues to impress me as the most complete electric guitarist around – she can do it all, but still always retains her own, delightfully unique voice. Taylor Ho Bynum has taken up a range of brass instruments, in the spirit of AACM multi-instrumentalism, to splash vast washes of tonal colors from valve trombone to piccolo trumpet. As for Braxton himself, he is seemingly at the peak of instrumental prowess, his tone quality on the various reed instruments a burnished, glowing gem. Meanwhile, the Supercollider electronics emit intermittent swirls of noise like some interference in a broadcast signal from outer space. This is wild stuff!

The continuous seventy-minute performance contains such a wide variety of creative, endlessly evocative music that time feels suspended; it’s over before you know it. The music unfolds organically, each succeeding event flowing from what precedes it. The absence of percussion allows things to proceed from the players’ unforced inner rhythms and, over the entire expanse of time, a vast multitude of instrumental approaches are explored. Yet, the musicians’ vocabularies appear limitless and the ending, when it arrives, seems almost arbitrary, as if the music will continue even if we can no longer hear it. The brief encore picks up the intergalactic broadcast in midstream only to lose contact again at the three-minute mark. It is impossible for me to differentiate what is notated music and what is wholly improvised and from what I’ve seen from the scores, they consist of graphical symbols, colors and shapes that leave much to the performer’s interpretation. But the loyalty and dedication of these gifted musicians allows for a perfect union of freedom and responsibility; I mean, it still sounds like Anthony Braxton’s music, even when his voice is silent.

This CD gives us all reason to smile. Thank you Mr. Braxton!

December 7, 2008

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Spaceship Lullaby (Atavistic UMS/ALP243 CD)

The Vocal Groups Featuring Nu Sounds, The Lintels, & The Cosmic Rays
Recorded in Chicago, IL 1954-1960

When Evidence released The Singles (ECD 22164) in 1996, it came as something of shock (to me, anyway) to learn that Sun Ra had been actively involved with doo wop vocal groups prior to the establishment of the Arkestra. In fact, the very first release on the fledgling El Saturn label in 1955 was a 45RPM single featuring the Nu Sounds covering Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” on the A-side and The Cosmic Rays contributing to a Sun Ra ditty entitled, “Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie” on the flip. Amazingly, Ra continued to record scattered singles with vocal groups up until about 1960. Of course, vocal performance would go on to assume a significant part in the Arkestra’s Cosmo Drama, especially in group space chants and the incantations of June Tyson and Sun Ra himself. But this stuff is something different: an obvious attempt at commercial pop that some Ra aficionados will find downright hokey. But, Sonny would likely reply, “This hokey shit is somebody’s hopes and dreams…don’t be so hip!” (Szwed p.352). In any case, this being Sun Ra, any pop sensibility is decidedly skewed towards the weird and utterly lacking in the kind of vapid slickness that might have aided any entry into the marketplace.

Released in 2003 on Atavistic, Spaceship Lullaby shed more light on this mysterious period in Ra’s discography, gathering together several never-before heard rehearsal tapes of some of the various vocal groups Ra worked with in the mid-to-late 1950s. The Nu Sounds and The Cosmic Rays were both (semi)professional groups and their repertoires are remarkably diverse: jazz standards, show tunes, pop numbers, and Ra compositions that range from the proto-space-chant,“ Spaceship Lullaby” to the virtuosic “Chicago USA.” Apparently written for a contest to determine Chicago’s new theme song, it’s a tour de force of rich imagery and onomatopoeia. The Lintels, on the other hand, were clearly amateurs, probably just young kids taken in off the South Side streets and introduced to disciplined arrangements and enforced self-respect by intergalactic community organizer Sun Ra. You can hear Ra working with them, getting them to try some odd harmonies before calling it a day. Nothing else is known about the Lintels beyond this snippet of tape – not even their names. What remains is a tantalizing glimpse of the kind of street-corner doo wop culture that has been long lost.

Most of the tapes are home recordings with only Ra’s prodding accompaniment on the piano. Occasionally, some spare percussion joins in on the first Nu Sounds session (and Pat Patrick contributes some bari-sax train sounds on the second take of “Chicago USA”). However, a few tracks with The Cosmic Rays feature the entire Arkestra. “Africa” would appear in wordless form on Nubians of Plutonia (El Saturn 406/Evidence 22066 CD) and here is a mere fragment, suggesting an interesting alternate approach to this seminal Ra composition. The sound quality is rough overall, but somehow that only contributes to this record’s considerable charm. Perfect for a Sunday evening.

December 6, 2008

Keeping Up With Robert Pollard (End of Year Edition)

Boston Spaceships: Brown Submarine (GBV, Inc. 3) (LP/CD) After disbanding Guided by Voices in 2004 and pretty much retiring from the road, Robert Pollard has convened another working band, dubbed Boston Spaceships, consisting of former GBV bassist (and Takeovers co-conspirator) Chris Slusarenko and Decembrist drummer John Moen. With the addition of Tommy Keene and Jason Narducy, Boston Spaceships hit the road this fall performing sets larded with super-obscure titles from Pollard’s immense catalog. I would have loved to have seen them here in Nashville, but I was of town on at the time. Fortunately for me, a crispy soundboard circulates of the Champaign, IL show from 10/9. Just prior to this tour, Brown Submarine was released on GBV, Inc. and it showcases a bunch of new Pollard songs (and an update of an old, super-obscure one) that indicate that Uncle Bob is on a roll, composing his best songs and delivering his most committed vocal performances since the demise of GBV. As opposed to the sometimes monolithic productions of current collaborator Todd Tobias, Boston Spaceships sounds like a band rocking out in a room and Pollard sings with a high-kicking exuberance that is maybe otherwise lacking. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tobias’s production and consider him a genius equal to Pollard’s own profligacy (see below); but there is just something electrifying by an actual band (or at least rhythm section) playing in real time that animates this record in a way that has to be acknowledged. Good stuff.

Circus Devils: Ataxia (HJRR 19) (LP/CD)
Of all the various releases Pollard inevitably puts out in any given year (all of which I eagerly devour), I have truly come to look forward to the annual Circus Devils record. That is because the Circus Devils allows Bob to indulge his love for intense, psych-damaged prog rock and thereby giving free reign to producer/multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias’s own fervid imagination. Tobias (and sometimes with brother and former-GBV guitarist, Tim) piles layers upon layers of shifting keyboard textures, guitar riffing and raging, and sheer random noise to create little sonic symphonies over which Pollard’s (usually) electronically processed voice intones cryptic haikus. Somehow, the result always coheres into remarkably compelling albums, each with its own distinct aroma. Last year’s Sgt. Disco was a sprawling masterpiece – perhaps one of the best records Pollard’s ever made – so, when Ataxia arrived in my mailbox on Halloween, I was expecting to be a little let-down. But, while obviously less ambitious than Sgt. Disco, Ataxia is yet another classic Circus Devils LP. Definitely a bit sludgier, and maybe a bit murkier and more diffuse than the rock-ribbed Sgt., but there are still some strong songs here amidst all the captivating weirdness. “Freedom’s Monster” pulses with an ominous industrial-techno drive and a plaintive vocal while “The Girls Will Make It Happen” pogos up and down with punky energy. Later, on side two, “He Had All Day” turns contemplative with a mournful vocal over chiming acoustic guitars. As with many of Pollard’s more, um, interesting records, this one gets better with each repeated listen. Recommended to fans of Pollard’s darker side.

The Carbon Whales: South (HJRR 17) (7”/CD-EP)
Ostensibly “an obscure band from the late 70s that actor Paddy Considine turned Bob onto,” I suspect this is really another pseudonymous side-project by Pollard & Co a la Nightwalker. It sure sounds like Bob doing his best Mark E. Smith impression on “Welcome to Miami” while the bass-playing and horn arrangement on “Work Into Me” sounds suspiciously like Chris Slusarenko. Meanwhile on side two, “False Teeth” is a lugubrious dirge that lurches immediately into “The Jeep,” another Fall-ish number with hectoring vocals from “Bob Evans.” This is a curious and novel item for the discography, but probably inessential to anyone but the most rabid completists (like me).

Robert Pollard: “The Butler Stands for All of Us” (HJRR 20) (7”) The A-Side previews a track from Pollard’s forthcoming Tobias-produced solo album, The Crawling Distance and packs four non-LP tracks on the 33 RPM B-side. “The Butler Stands for All of Us” continues with the kind of sophisticated power-pop that made this year’s Off To Business such an unqualified success. Seems to me that The Crawling Distance (due January 20) will be a welcome bit of sunshine in the middle of what’s looking to be a cold and dreary winter. As for the B-sides, “First Wave” and “I Would Be a Fish Tank” are classic Bob with guitar, drunkenly wailing at the boombox while “Elevator to Far Worse” sounds like an old basement-derived GBV fragment that wouldn’t have felt out of place on the Plantations of Pale Pink EP. “The Throat Is Young” returns to Bob and guitar, this time accompanied by windchimes banging around in the background. A quirky seven-inch gem.

Robert Pollard: Town of Mirrors (Fantagraphics Books) Published in conjunction with Pollard’s first New York gallery show, Town of Mirrors gathers 175 of Pollard’s favorite collages, hand-picked by the artist, as well as over a dozen new collages created exclusively for the book. Any long-time fan of GBV is well aware of the affective power of Pollard’s visual art, his carefully constructed images gracing albums, posters, inner sleeves and other ephemera over the past decades. Pollard’s collages evoke the mastery and mystery of Joseph Cornell while establishing a vocabulary and style that is as unique and compelling as his own songwriting. This lavishly produced hardcover catalog contains gorgeous reproductions, a selection of lyrics, and an introductory essay by Rick Moody. My only quibble would be that dates and dimensions are lacking, making this something less than a properly scholarly monograph. Even so, this is a welcome document of Pollard’s cross-disciplinary output and a must for every fan.

All this stuff can be obtained via Rockathon.


2009 is looking to be another great year for Pollard fanatics with The Crawling Distance due on January 20, 2009 (Inauguration Day!) and a new Boston Spaceships LP entitled The Planets Are Blasted expected February 17, 2009. In addition, not one but two Circus Devils are already in the can: Gringo, also to be released in February and as yet untitled disc due, as usual, around Halloween. Also on the horizon is the long-delayed release of the Some Drinking Implied DVD and no doubt there will be singles, EPs, and other stuff on the way as well. Personally, I’m still waiting for the promised box to house this past year’s HJRR singles series and a CD of those tasty B-sides, but we’ll see… Perhaps another tour is in the works? God bless Uncle Bob!