July 26, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Released in 1968, Saturn 3066 is a seven-inch 45rpm single consisting of two tracks recorded at Sun Studio in 1967 and is available on The Singles (Evidence ECD 22164). “The Bridge” is an accompanied recitation of Sun Ra’s poem, “The Fire and the Dry Weeds,” which was later published in the 1972 edition of The Immeasurable Equation. Ra begins with spindly, echoing chords on electric organ and tremulous Clavioline until the horns and percussion enter with squalling, distorted space chords, tautly controlled by Ra’s conducting. Mobarak Mahmoud (an aspiring actor then residing with the Arkestra) dramatically declaims the poem, his voice swathed in claustrophobic, bathroom reverb. At the climactic line, “They must walk the bridge of the cosmic age!” the rest of the band joins in staggered, variously impassioned exclamations of “They must walk the bridge! They must walk the bridge!” Hmm. Some more keyboard noodling and a final, blasting space chord wraps things up in suitably enigmatic fashion. Curiously, “The Bridge” was reissued as a one-sided single in 1982, indicating that Ra considered the work to be of some inscrutable, talismanic importance. The flip-side, “Rocket #9,” finds the Arkestra re-tooling the all-purpose space chant with a radically slowed tempo, transforming it into a kind of funky march from the boiling, big-band swing of the original version heard on Interstellar Low Ways (Saturn 203/Evidence ECD 22039). Ra leads the Arkestra from the delicate electronic celeste, spelling out melodic figures to be taken up by the horns. Unfortunately, the track abruptly cuts off before the bridge or solo sections. Incidentally, Terry Adams claims that he was given a copy of this single by Sun Ra himself and it is this riff-happy arrangement of “Rocket #9” that was adapted by NRBQ on their debut album in 1968.


Song of the Stargazers (Saturn 487 or sometimes 6161) was released in 1979 and is mostly a hodgepodge of various live recordings from the nineteen-seventies. But one track was obviously recorded much earlier, probably in 1967 or 1968, according to Prof. Campbell. Performed in a large, reverberant space in front of a sizable and enthusiastic audience, “Cosmo Dance” is an interesting quasi-modal composition featuring some evocative flute and oboe. Clacking wooden sticks set up a simple, repetitious rhythm with Boykins's bass and Pat Patrick’s “space lute” plucking out a droning three-note groove. Low horns and bowed bass enter with convulsively heaving whole-note fourths while flute and oboe and bass clarinet dance a medieval round. Flute and then oboe embark on expansive, Middle-Eastern sounding solos over the clacking sticks and throbbing bass/space lute, the audience bursting into spirited applause after each. Finally, the low horn/bowed bass whole-note fourths return, repeating several times before ending to more justifiably hearty ovation. Ra himself is not heard playing on this track, but the murky sound quality makes it hard to clearly make out who is doing what. Campbell says Marshall Allen is playing both flute and oboe, but that is impossible since both instruments are heard simultaneously during the ensemble section. So, is it Danny Davis on flute? It certainly sounds like him. There is also some talking barely audible throughout – is that Sun Ra lecturing the crowd or just random audience noise? In any event, this is a beautiful, prototypical Sun Ra composition of the period, perfectly realized by his Arkestra.

July 25, 2009

Playlist 7-25-09

* Lassus: “I Trionfi di Petrarca” (Huelgas Ensemble/Van Nevel): Brussels 12-19-08 (FM CDR)
* Christine Plubeau/Arnaud Pumir: Église Saint Nicolas, La Hulpe 3-20-09 (FM CDR)
* Berliner Barock-Compagney: Palas Festhalle, Wartburg zu Eisenbach 6-10-06 (FM CDR)
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Maurizio Pollini/Klangforum Wien/Eötvös: Kölner Philharmonie 3-11-09 (FM 2CDR)
* Bobby Hutcherson: “Mellow Vibes” (Blue Note mix CDR)
* Sun Ra: The Solar Myth Approach Vol.1 (BYG/Charly CD)
* Ornette Coleman & Prime Time: Quartier Latin, Berlin 7-4-78 (FM 2CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Trio: Elisabethbühne, Salzburg 4-3-82 (AUD CDR)
* Evan Parker/Marc Ribot/Han Bennink: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 6-14-09 (FM CDR)
* Myra Melford’s Trio M: Small’s, New York 7-1-09 (AUD 2CDR)
* Weather Report: Heavy Weather (Columbia SACD)
* Parliament: Mothership Connection (Casablanca CD)
* Bootsy Collins: Back in the Day: The Best of Bootsy (Warner Bros. CD)
* Elvis Presley: Command Performances: The Essential 60’s Masters II (RCA 2CD)
* Bob Dylan: Greatest Hits Vol.1 (Columbia CD)
* Grateful Dead: Iowa State Fairgrounds, Des Moines, IA 5/13/73 (end of set 2) (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C. 6-10-73 (SBD 4CDR)
* Uncle Tupelo: No Depression (Columbia CD)
* Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch CD)
* Beck: Sea Change (MFSL CD)
* Genesis: Nursery Cryme (Charisma – UK LP)
* U2: The Unforgettable Fire (Island LP)
* King Crimson: Park West, Chicago, IL 8-1-08 (DGM FLAC Download 2CDR)
* The Orb: Orblivion (Island CD)
* Chrome: Half Machine Lips Move/Alien Soundtracks (Touch & Go CD)
* Sonic Youth: The Destroyed Room (B-Sides & Rarities) (Goofin’ 2LP)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador CD)
* Cosmos: Jar of Jam/Ton of Bricks (HJRR LP)
* Robert Pollard: Elephant Jokes (GBV, Inc. LP)


The highlight of the week was a visit from Sam Byrd, all the way from Richmond, Virginia! We recorded seventy-five minutes of music and/or noise in the Heeltop Home Studio, drank beer, listened to records and otherwise had a lovely visit. It’s always a treat to see Sam!

July 19, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Astro Infinity Arkestra: Atlantis (Evidence ECD 22067)

After a flurry of recording activity that began with the Arkestra’s arrival in New York City in 1961 and culminated with the ESP-era recordings of 1965-1966, the following years (until about 1970) are, by comparison, sparsely documented with individual tracks spread across various compilations, singles, and only a very few self-contained albums. So it seems to make sense to continue our chronological investigation with the albums proper (along with contemporaneous singles) before doubling back with the miscellaneous compilations that fill in the blanks. In other words, I’m putting off dealing with The Solar Myth Approach Vols.1 & 2 until all else has been examined from this time period!

Which means we jump ahead a year to Atlantis, recorded in 1967 and originally released as Saturn ESR 507 in 1969. There are changes afoot in the band’s sound: always an early adopter of technology, Ra can be heard on side one playing exclusively a Hohner Clavinet, a recently released electronic keyboard that was later popularized by Stevie Wonder (see e.g. "Superstition” in 1972). Ra renames it the “Solar Sound Instrument” and plays it in his own inimitable fashion. Recorded in rehearsal at the Sun Studio (the Arkestra’s rented townhouse located at 48 East Third Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side), these tracks feature a bare-bones Arkestra: Gilmore can be heard from time to time on tenor saxophone, but these pieces mostly feature Ra’s clavinet over beds of percussion and sound more like sonic experiments than full-fledged compositions. But what interesting experiments!

“Mu” is a slow, 5/4 clavinet vamp with Gilmore tentatively outlining an up and down melody. “Lemuria” is another 5/4 boogie with Gilmore laying down some heavy duty riffing on top of Ra’s extra-funky clavinet. “Yucatan” is a dreamy, modal ballad wherein Ra demonstrates his remarkably sensitive touch on the primitive electronic keyboard. Hartmut Geerken points out in the discography that what sounds like electric bass us actually “two tightly interlaced African drum patterns!” (2nd ed., p.136). “Bimini” consists of roiling polyrhythmic percussion with Ra interjecting some jabbing chords on the clavinet. The Evidence CD also includes an alternate version of “Yucatan” that mistakenly appeared on the 1973 reissue of Atlantis on Impulse! Actually, this track has nothing to do with the other composition of the same name, but is rather another noisy percussion-fest interspersed with Ra’s distinctive clavinet chording. A telephone rings signaling a quick cadence to end.

The side-long title track was recorded live at the Olatunji Center of African Culture sometime after May, 1967 and is essentially one long Ra solo on the other new keyboard in his arsenal: a Gibson Kalamazoo organ. The Kalamazoo was a lower-priced copy of the Farfisa portable organ made famous by rock musicians of the time (think “96 Tears”). Ra attacks the instrument with unrelenting, two-fisted zeal, summoning forth a tsunami of sound that duly evokes the mythical flooding of Atlantis. It is a hair-raisingly terrifying performance and as menacingly psychedelic as any music of the period. After about fifteen assaultive minutes, an eerie calm sets in and the Arkestra plays an aching, moaning, richly voiced ensemble passage while Ra’s screeching organ threatens to overwhelm. The tension continues to mount until it is almost unbearable – then suddenly Ra cues the space chant: “Sun Ra and his band from outer space have entertained you here…” Holy moly! As Michael Shore puts it in his liner notes on the Evidence CD, “Atlantis” is “frightening, fascinating, enthralling, and finally overpowering music…[It] is one of the most monumental achievements of an artist who was always working in super-colossal terms.” Essential.


The Sun Studio session(s) also yielded a single (Saturn 911-AR) released in 1969 and is available on The Singles (Evidence ECD 22164). “Blues on Planet Mars” is a typically spaced out blues, this time scored for the boing-ing clavinet and some lurching, cross-rhythmic percussion. The B-side, “Saturn Moon,” is something else entirely: Ra sets up some droning, guitaristic accompaniment on the clavinet for the Arkestra’s quietly majestic, harmonized humming while drums tap away ominously in the background. Interesting! Neither of these tracks would have conceptually fit on Atlantis, but are intriguing works in themselves and I can understand why Ra thought them worthy of release as a single.

July 18, 2009

Playlist 7-18-09

* Vivaldi: “Manchester” Sonatas (Romanesca/Manze) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Christophe Rousset: Chappelle Protestante, Brussels 5-4-09 (FM 2CDR)
* Celine Frisch: Musée de Croix, Namur 7-6-08 (FM CDR)
* Collegium Vocale Gent (Herreweghe): Église des Minimes, Brussels 6-9-09 (FM CDR)
* Holloway/ter Linden/Mortenson: Garrison Church, Copenhagen 4-8-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Grant Green: Idle Moments (Blue Note CD)
* Grant Green: Street of Dreams (Blue Note CD)
* Andrew Hill: Judgment! (Blue Note CD)
* Sun Ra: Nidhamu/Dark Myth Equation Visitation (Art Yard CD)
* Sun Ra/Amiri Baraka: A Black Mass (Son Boy CD)
* Jimmy Giuffre 3: 1961 (ECM 2CD)
* Jimmy Giuffre 3: Free Fall (Columbia CD)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Eleventh Hour (ECM CD)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM CD)
* Sacred System (Bill Laswell): Chapter One: Book of Entrance (ROIR CD)
* Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (R&S – Belgium CD)
* Tortoise: KCRW “Morning Becomes Electric” 7-08-09 (FM CDR)
* The Band: Music from Big Pink (MFSL SACD)
* Led Zeppelin: How the West Was Won (Atlantic 2 DVD-A)
* Grateful Dead: RFK Stadium, Washington, DC 6-9-73 (SBD 4CDR)
* Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch CD)
* Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (MFSL SACD)
* The Mekons: The Mekons Rock’n’Roll (A&M LP)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador 2LP)
* Beck: Sea Change (MFSL CD)
* Robert Pollard: Normal Happiness (Merge CD)
* Circus Devils: Sgt. Disco (HJRR 2LP)
* Circus Devils: Ataxia (HJRR LP)

About the photograph:

From time to time, I see box turtles around Rancho Nuvoid but they’re usually lurking under the shrubbery or peeking out from the edge of the woody forest, by the remnants of the natural spring. Today, I found one right out in the open, lounging about in the grass in the back yard. Amazingly, he hung around there all afternoon. It’s unseasonably cool today (low-70s ¬ unheard of for middle Tennessee in July!), so I wonder if that contributed to his unusual gregariousness. I had to grab the camera and take a picture of this amazing creature to post it on the blog. I ♥ Kingston Springs!

July 12, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra & His Arkestra: Spaceways (Freedom CD741047)

This record certainly has a tortured discographical history! In December, 1971, Sun Ra sold a cache of tapes to the Black Lion label so as to pay the Arkestra’s traveling expenses from Denmark to Egypt. Sadly, much of this music was never released. In 1974, El Saturn released this album as Outer Spaceways Incorporated (143000A+B) – although it was sometimes entitled A Tonal View of Times Tomorrow, Vol.3. Inexplicably, some of this music also appeared on numerous hybrid pressings of later Saturn albums such as Primitone and Invisible Shield among others. Finally, in 1998, the German DA Music label released a three-CD box set entitled Calling Planet Earth (Freedom 7612), containing some (but not all) the Black Lion holdings, wherein this album is stupidly re-titled Spaceways. I say stupidly because another disc in this otherwise fine box set is inanely titled Outer Spaceways Incorporated, making an already confusing discography needlessly opaque. This is the kind of thing that makes Campbell and Trent’s Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra so absolutely necessary!

In any event, Spaceways (or whatever you want to call it) is a great companion piece to the classic Nothing Is. Most of the music appears to have been recorded around 1966, given the presence of the trombonist Teddy Nance (who died in 1967) and Ra’s distinctive piano/Clavioline combo. Recorded in stereo, it offers remarkably good sound quality for the period. The first track, “Prelude and Shadow-Light World” (originally titled “Chromatic Shadows” on the El Saturn LP), opens with a long, dramatic piano introduction which prepares the way for the ensemble chant, “Sun Ra and His Band from Outer Space.” Then comes the notorious “Shadow World,” which is marked by a slightly more relaxed tempo than usual and a honking, wailing bari sax solo from Pat Patrick. Ra takes a solo turn before giving way to burbling percussion. Finally, Ra conjures up a mammoth space chord to bring things to a close. The second track, “The Wind Speaks,” appears to be from the same concert and is another beautiful Ra ballad featuring a choir of flutes and piccolo. Eventually, Boykins takes a solo turn with the bow and Ra enters to duet on the electric Clavioline. Ra then returns to the piano for some frenetic variations on the theme before an elegiac, full ensemble re-statement. This composition was later re-titled “Somebody Else’s World” after acquiring lyrics.

June Tyson’s unmistakable voice singing the end of “Satellites Are Spinning” opens “We Sing This Song,” indicating a probable 1968 recording date (the sound quality is also noticeably inferior to the rest of the album). Her singing gradually trails off leaving the stage to Sun Ra’s rhapsodic, thunderous piano. “Outer Space Incorporated” [sic] returns to the previous concert, with the bouncy space chant setting the stage for a swinging piano solo. Ra suddenly holds down a deep bass tremolo causing the rhythm section to die down, leaving Nance and Bernard Pettaway to engage in a friendly trombone duel, sometimes joined by Ra’s Calvioline or some jib-jabbering percussion. Ra then lays down a heavy piano chord which signals another lengthy drum solo from Clifford Jarvis. Now, Jarvis is a technically brilliant drummer (check out that bass drum!), but drum solos are almost never a good idea, in my opinion. Thankfully, after a few minutes, the rest of the Arkestra takes up various hand-percussion, giving things are more interestingly pan-African, poly-rhythmic feel (despite Jarvis’s continued show-boating). Ra shuts things down with a startling piano entry, signaling another heaving space chord. Some deft editing surreptitiously launches us into “We Travel the Spaceways,” which is clearly taken from a different concert, given the subtle change in soundstage (Boykins is suddenly stage left!). This version retains the original arrangement, featuring the prominent metallic clanging on the fours but, unfortunately, the Arkestra only sings the refrain a few times before the track fades out. Despite the anomalous titling on this reissue, Spaceways is a delightful album and an important live document of the Heliocentric-era Arkestra. The Calling Planet Earth box set is currently out of print, but can found on the secondary market for a modest premium. It is definitely worth seeking out, even with its myriad documentary flaws.

July 11, 2009

Playlist 7-11-09

* Marais: Suite d’un Goût Etranger (Savall, et al.) (Alia Vox 2SACD)
* Biber: Mensa Sonora (Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel) (Archiv Production CD)
* Biber: Harmonia Artificiosa (Musica Antiqua Köln/Goebel) (Archiv Production 2CD)
* Musica Antiqua Köln (Goebel): Académie du Mont-Cenis, Herne 11-11-05 (FM 2CDR)
* Corelli: Violin Sonatas, Op.5 (Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Takemitsu: Quotation of Dream (London Sinfonietta/Knussen) (DG CD)
* Andrew Hill: Judgment! (Blue Note CD)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM CD)
* Massacre: Lonely Heart (Tzadik CD)
* Parliament: Funkytelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome (Casablanca CD)
* Bootsy Collins: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros. CD)
* The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (+) (mono) (needle drop/fan-CDR)
* Rolling Stones: Singles Collection*The London Years (Abko 3 SACD)
* Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue (Rolling Stones/Warner Bros. LP)
* Rolling Stones: Unsurpassed Masters, Vol.6 (fan CDR)
* Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series Vol.3 (Columbia CD)
* Bob Dylan: Bootleg Series Vol.8: Tell Tale Signs (Columbia 2CD)
* Grateful Dead: Academy of Music, NYC 3/23/72 (SBD 3CDR)
* Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch CD)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador CD)
* Circus Devils: Sgt. Disco (HJRR 2LP)
* Circus Devils: Gringo (HJRR CD)


Rose Rosengard Subotnik, Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music, Univ. of Minnesota, 1991.

July 5, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: Monorails and Satellites (Evidence ECD 22013-2)

Recorded at Sun Studio, New York, NY prob. 1966
Originally released as El Saturn SR 509 in 1968
While Sun Ra is highly regarded as a pioneer of electric keyboards in jazz, his prodigious gifts as a pianist have largely been overlooked, obscured by and subsumed within the Arkestra’s overall musical activities. Monorails and Satellites is one of the very few solo piano recordings Ra ever made and it is a fascinating document of his instrumental technique and singular musical thinking. Ra does not possess a dazzling virtuosity, but he approaches the piano as an immense orchestra, full of vibrant colors and contrasting timbres. Like a child at play, Ra delights in the resonant rumbling of the lowest octaves and the plinking, chattering chimes of the highest notes above. But Ra’s two-hand independence is sometimes truly astonishing: each hand in a different meter, in a different key, ten fingers layering multiple outer and inner melodies to create complex rhythmic/harmonic webs. Ra’s touch is aggressive yet supple, achieving illusionistic “bent” note effects. In a 1991 interview with Keyboard magazine, Ra was asked if he could hear quarter tones, the notes “between the notes” on a piano:

Oh, yeah, I’m using these intervals. You see, the way you attack a note can create those effects. Depending on how hard you hit the key, you can hear the third or the fourth or the fifth – those sounds in the cracks – coming out. So the touch, the attack, is very important. When I hit a note, the undertones also sound. With the undertones and overtones blended, I can get quarter-tones. Not too many piano players have that touch. […] I sing that way too, dividing the octave into 24 or 36 steps, just like the Indian singers do. I’m doing world music (quoted in Szwed, p.240).
Aside from the delightfully swinging standard, “Easy Street,” all the compositions are Ra’s and you can hear him using the piano as a sketchbook for the Arkestra’s larger canvas. “Space Towers” pits an agitated bass ostinato against jumping chords and horn-like riffing. “Cogitation” spills out tumbling blocks of clashing harmonies. “Skylight” is a beautiful ballad form spiced with intensely pungent dissonances. “The Alter Destiny” begins with an ominous roar and builds up a brittle, herky-jerky rhythm only to melt into sentimental tunefulness. “Blue Differentials” is a classic Ra blues, bright, uptempo, maybe a little old fashioned. The rhapsodic “Monorails and Satellites” contrasts gently rolling arpeggios and glissandos with enervated, multivoiced counterpoint. Finally, “The Galaxy Way” sounds more through-composed than wholly improvised as it maps the entire compass of the instrument through a sequence of descending chords and fleeting melodies. In the end, this is far from your usual jazz piano album but it offers a rare glimpse into Ra’s most intimate music-making.


It’s too bad Evidence was unable to secure the rights to reissue Monorails and Satellites Vol.2 (released as El Saturn SR 519 in 1969), which contains additional solo piano music recorded at the same session (and would have easily fit on CD). Interestingly, “Astro Vision” opens with a bit of musique concrete with Ra’s sprightly piano set against sheets of howling electronic noise, generated by contact microphones and overdriven, distorted reverb (Boykins and Hunter are the likely suspects). It sounds to me like the effect was overdubbed after the fact, since Ra does not interact with it in any way and the noise eventually subsides some time before he finishes. Curious. The remainder of the album consists of four piano solos that are more expansive than on Vol.1, but also more diffuse. Several of the longer pieces reply upon an improvised, episodic construction that moves from ambiguous chordal statements through gentle ballad forms until finally evolving into furiously dissonant two-fisted attacks. “Solar Boats” is a little different and sounds more pre-arranged: Ra’s left hand sets up an off-kilter 5/4 groove while his right hand tosses off pan-tonal melodies and strident, widely-spaced chords. Vol.2 contains a great deal of dynamic pianism, but lacks Vol.1’s compact cohesiveness. Even so, it is well worth seeking out, if only for another opportunity to hear Sun Ra alone at the piano with his musical thoughts.


The radically experimental Strange Strings was also recorded around this time period; I wrote about Atavistic’s excellent reissue of this bizarre masterpiece here. Ra’s discography gets very confusing at this point, with various albums containing material recorded at different times and places, with a slew of singles thrown in to boot. This sort of confusion continues until well into the nineteen-seventies! I would like to continue my chronological examination of Sun Ra’s albums, but I fear that a weekly schedule will be almost impossible to maintain. Just sorting out what is where will take some time. So expect some more YouTube videos in lieu of writing as I sort things out!

July 4, 2009

Playlist 7-4-09

* Schmelzer/Muffat: Sonatas (London Baroque/Medlam) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Hesperion XXI (Savall): Helmut-List-Halle, Graz 7-17-07 (FM CDR)
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Andrew Hill: Change (Blue Note CD)
* Anthony Braxton Quartet: Ljubliana, Slovenia 6-22-85 (FM CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Ensemble: Keuda House, Kerava, Finland 6-10-06 (FM CDR)
* Mary Halvorson Trio & Quintet: Joe’s Pub, NYC 6-28-09 (AUD CDR)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM CD)
* Miles Davis: Sporthallen, Umeå, Sweden 10-26-85 (FM 2CDR)
* The Who: The Who Sell Out (Deluxe Edition) (Polydor 2CD)
* George Harrison: Somewhere In England (Dark Horse CD)
* Love: Forever Changes (Rhino CD)
* Electric Light Orchestra: A New World Record (Jet/United Artists LP)
* Grateful Dead: Memorial Coliseum, Portland, OR 6-24-73 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Assembly Hall, University of Indiana, Bloomington, IN 10-30-77 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL 8-21-80 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA 3-17-95 (first set) (SBD CDR)
* The Mekons: Honky Tonkin’ (Twin Tone LP)
* Guided By Voices: Isolation Drills (TVT LP)
* Circus Devils: Five (Fading Captain LP)
* Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch CD)
* Beck: The Information (Interscope DVD-A)
* Sonic Youth: The Destroyed Room: B-Sides & Rarities (Goofin’ 2LP)
* Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador LP/CD)
* Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP/CD)


* Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (Random House)

July 3, 2009

Tortoise: Beacons of Anscestorship

Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP/CD)

The style of music termed “fusion” has become much maligned over the decades, and perhaps deservedly so. Originally coined to describe the “jazz-rock fusion” of Miles Davis and his progeny in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies, the term eventually came to embody a cynical industry churning out insipid, commercial dreck, for which the genre of “fusion” justly deserves its now widespread disapprobation. Yet, what other word can one use to accurately describe the kind of music that Tortoise is pursuing? “Post-rock” is thrown around when folks write about Tortoise, and while it is a clever turn of phrase that effectively obscures the shame of “fusion,” it is also too vague and ill-defined to be really useful. Let’s face it: like the classic fusion of yore, Tortoise utilizes cutting edge technology and sophisticated musicianship to create instrumental soundscapes with quasi-danceable rhythms. And there is nothing wrong with that! But what is refreshingly absent in their music is the kind of histrionic displays of empty-headed virtuosity that came to define the fusion era. Instead, Tortoise fulfills the integrative promise of fusion in part by never devolving into ego-fueled exhibitionism. Further, Tortoise “fuses” the plethora of pop subgenres that arose since fusion’s heyday in the nineteen-seventies: punk rock, prog-metal, noise, hip-hop, dub, glitchy electronica, etc., thereby bringing fusion up to date. So, fusion it is, like it or not.

And I like it. And I like those classic fusion albums of the nineteen-seventies, too. So, how cool is it that a band like Tortoise can virtually single-handedly resurrect a disrespected genre and make it hip once again? I guess by folks calling it “post-rock.” Fine, whatever you want to call it, it is simply good music. Tortoise, based in Chicago, has been purveying their brand of fusion since the mid nineteen-nineties, releasing an extraordinary sequence of albums on the Thrill Jockey label which document a progression from the bass-heavy, dub-wise minimalism of their eponymous record (1994), to the expansive dreamscapes of Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996), the richly Reich-ian interlocking polyrhythms of TNT (1998), and finally into the exuberantly elaborate electronic constructions of Standards (2001) and It’s All Around You (2004). Beacons of Anscestorship continues this progression and is perhaps their fusion-iest record to date: fat, analog-sounding synthesizers burble and whine, electric guitars are distorted, wrangled, and processed, lurching funk beats are constructed and deconstructed or evolve into ecstatically hard-driving rhythms. It’s fusion, I tell you.

Despite the increasing complexity, Tortoise still retains a collagist approach to group composition. There may not seem to be a whole lot going on at any one time, but as the music unfolds, a journey is taken that often winds up far removed from where you began. Melodies are stretched out and subtly submerged in texture, passed from instrument to instrument and “solos” only exist in the context of ever evolving ensembles. For example, “Gigantes” opens with exotic-sounding guitar/dulcimer over an insistent eight-note feel. Meanwhile, percolating sythesizers gradually overlay a herky-jerky disco feel while heavily processed electric guitar and swooning keyboards build up a long, richly-voiced orchestral climax. “Yinxianghechengqi” starts out like a punky rave up, with huge, nasty, distorto-guitar riffs. Then the tempo quickens and a modal chord sequence sets up some truly Mahavishnu-style electric guitar wailing -- but suddenly everything stops and keyboards and heavily processed guitar space out for a bit to end. The abrupt change of scenery is jarring yet evocatively cinematic. “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One” sustains a dreamy, spaghetti-western mood with giant-toned guitar, smoky organ chords, clip-clopping percussion, and cavernous reverb. The album ends with a kind of three-part suite built around repeated guitar appregios and long-breathed synthesizer melodies that eventually erupts into a cool, prog-y groove propelling yet more radically processed electric guitar soloing and declamatory keyboards. Sounds like fusion, right?

If that sounds like your cup of tea, by all means, help yourself. All of their albums are excellent and each has a flavor all its own. The moderately priced box set, A Lazarus Taxon (2006), consisting of three CDs of outtakes, B-sides, remixes, and other rare tracks along with a live DVD compilation, conveniently plugs all the holes and is a must for the fan. Even so, TNT remains my Tortoise album (and one of my favorite albums of all time) so I would suggest the merely curious to start there. Then again, Beacons of Ancestorship is a seriously fun blast of full-blown fusion music for the Twenty-first Century and is highly recommended to those who think that is a long-overdue and welcome development. The beautifully pressed LP sounds fantastic (and comes with a download coupon for digital portability – nice!), but is limited to a thousand copies so vinyl aficionados need to act quickly. CD is OK too, modestly reproducing the luxurious, gatefold packaging of the LP. Hooray for fusion!