File-icon-gray Tue: 01-09-07
The Month In: Out Music
The Month In by Dominique Leone
Welcome to my new column. Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure what it should be called, and the exact kind of music I'll cover. How's that for preparedness? Nevertheless, there is so much great music happening right now, I badgered the P4k powers-that-be into letting me write about some of it here. And though I have a notion of what "out" music is, in truth, I'm still trying to figure out a basic definition. My best ideas are as follows:

* "Out" music is all the stuff that isn't "in". Hope that helps. It's about as specific as I can be before everything gets messy. The problem is not only that defining things like "in" and "out," even in just musical terms, or rock music terms, or even independent rock music terms, is a losing game. I know what's popular, and I know what tends to be written about in other music publications, and I also know that there are few places I can go to read about what I (think I'll) like. But there aren't any hard and fast rules about what constitutes, say, "mainstream" popular music, and what doesn't. See Pitchfork's top record of 2006, for example.

Theoretically, it's possible to research exactly what people are buying and infer from the numbers what is "in," but that assumes that people a) Are buying records for all the same reasons, b) Are buying the things they actually like most (as opposed to, say, downloading them), and c) That anyone would actually attest that the records with the most sales are the records with the most "worth." And while I'm definitely not going to use this column to debate age-old music crit subjects like "best vs favorite" or "popular vs meaningful," there is something to the notion that discerning a little about what "mainstream" music consumer culture buys can help to understand why [insert fucked up noise band here] isn't in the mainstream. Note: I also don't want to confuse this stuff with "outsider art"; some of the music I write about probably would fit into that category (perhaps R. Stevie Moore, for example), but unlike outsider art, my "out" musicians aren't required to have a conscious stance that places them at odds with mainstream culture. They just turn out that way.

With that said, my other idea is:

* "Out" music is the kind of music I listen to. I'll write about that.

If it isn't already clear, this kind of music is hard for me to define. Stylistically, "out" music is all over the map; this makes sense when you consider that the musicians making the stuff are also all over the place, with any number of lifestyles, financial securities (or lack thereof), educational histories, recording media, intentions, etc. Some of these musicians have been going at it for decades, while others might only have a few MySpace friends to their name. Some of them are masters of their instruments, while others make gorgeous noise exploiting the fact that they aren't doing anything "right". I'm not necessarily sure there is common musical ground between a lot of "out" music-- though that in and of itself could be considered commonality, I suppose (which makes them good Democrats!).

In any case, the following are records from 2006 that fit "out" to a tee-- and in all but one case weren't already covered on Pitchfork. I've grouped them, but needless to say, that doesn't necessarily mean they're coming from "scenes."

I Heard It On MySpace
Amy Kohn: I'm on Crinoline [NuNoise]

Ah, MySpace: Promoter of the unpromotable; exploiter of the desperately exploitable. Nevertheless, I took the plunge in 2006, and fell prey to hundreds of people who wanted to be my friend and invite me to CD release parties in Michigan. However, wade through (or into) the porn spam and you'll occasionally find some great music-- including, perhaps, Amy Kohn's debut I'm on Crinoline, a jazz-pop-composer's record fit for people who think Steve Reich should be writing showtunes. I'll play my obscuro card by saying it actually reminds me most of personal heroes Annette Peacock (check her I'm the One from 1972 for maximum out-jazz soul-pop) and the slept-on John Greaves/Peter Blegvad/Lisa Herman masterpiece Kew.Rhone from 1977, both of which answer the question, "What would jazz sound like if it was an excuse to write complex pop songs with baroque counterpoint?" In any case, check this record. Kohn's voice is as idiosyncratic as they come (which is probably why nobody's calling her the next Norah Jones yet), but of course, that's all part of the fun.

Attack of Tzadik
Haino Keiji & Yoshida Tatsuya: New Rap [Tzadik]
John Zorn: Astronome [Tzadik]
Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier: Malphas: Book of Angels, vol. 3 [Tzadik]
Zeena Parkins: Necklace [Tzadik]

Just when you think John Zorn has name-branded his last tasteful avant-garde trend, his (admittedly pretty far-rangingly impressive) label has a fantastic year. First up is the ornery, fuzzy second collab between legendary psych-noise guitarist Keiji Haino and Ruins drummer Tatsuya Yoshida, New Rap. Think Massacre minus the beats, plus hyperactive muscle. Think especially of Ruins improvising and not terribly afraid of sounding like torture victims. It was a great year for duos with drums (more later), and really, Haino + Yoshida are incapable of producing music that isn't full of claws.

Zorn's Astronome was a much bigger surprise. Years after the Naked City and Painkiller records, I'm not stepping out on a limb by suggesting many fans thought they'd heard the best of his noise-rock ideas. However, this record (somewhat sonically related to his other 2006 noise-rock outing Moonchild-- except a lot better) shows he still has some fury left in the pen. The players help: Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and Joey Baron make a fearsome racket. The composer helps more: Astronome reminds me a bit of Painkiller (or Ruins or early Boredoms), but the three lengthy movements move deceptively quickly (which, as any Zorn freak will tell you, is a feat!), and the beats, riffs, and whatever the fuck Patton is doing hit like bricks to the temples.

And then comes the classical noise: Violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier's take on several Zorn-penned Masada themes is tasteful on the outside, but always spiky and masterfully executed. Going back to the Bar Kokhba and The Circle Maker sets from the mid-90s, I've liked the chamber music treatments of the Masada repertoire, but Courvoisier (whose 2003 Abaton set made me a fan) and Feldman in particular spin motive, detailed webs out of these tunes. Harpist Zeena Parkins, fresh off touring with Matmos and having her contributions to avant-rockers Skeleton Crew's records recently reissued, is in awesome form on her third record for Tzadik, Necklace. However, it's not the harp you hear first; rather, violins, a viola, and a cello on her string quartet "Persuasion", which reminds me in bits of Shostakovich, with grossly expressive chords falling like molasses rain on a hopelessly inept dashboard/forehead. However, it proceeds at more brawny pace, perhaps like an interlude that wouldn't sound out of place on Scott Walker's record from last year.

Don't Forget the Dance Musics
Pom Pom, Africans With Mainframes, and STL
DJ Chaos X: Live Mixxx [Happy Set]
Wee DJs: Fear & Lothian [Touchin' Bass]

Electronic dance music made big splashes outside dance clubs in 2006. Arguably, this trend started a few years back (and DFA and Kompakt still have a lot to do with it), but in traditionally indie rock circles, disco beats and European remixes gained seemingly sudden currency. I'm not talking about IDM, mind you, but actual 4/4 (a term I with a grimace, as unless you tell someone you're talking about house or techno first, no one is going to realize you mean something other than a time signature-- which, by the way, 90% of rock music uses) house beats.

However, in a way, IDM also made a kind-of comeback. You just have to imagine spacey, cavernous mixes and post-krautrock dynamics in place of, say, squelches and chaotic glitch. In particular, mysterious German artist Pom Pom wowed me. He released six (!) 12" singles in 2006, all of which share the space-kraut vibe I mentioned, and (very importantly) fell in line with the year's true through-line: minimalism. The lunar hypnosis of 24 or bare tom-tom pulse on 26's A-side are spare enough to sound almost simplistic-- there are no extended breaks or big crescendos, just long, blank stares into the void. See also Africans With Mainframes (Jamal Moss and Noleian Ruesse) and STL (Stephan Laubner), who use similar tactics of numbing you with resonant repetition, but also inject more into the beats, and perhaps for that reason, remind me more of what was supposed to be "I" about IDM.

Scotland's Wee DJs don't play like that: think dark, messy electro with lots of bass. When I first heard them, I thought of Autechre, but in truth, they're much closer to Drexciya or Dopplereffekt. Fear & Lothian has beats to spare, though is harsh enough to scare off anyone looking to win over the beautiful people.

And that goes a million for the DJ Chaos X record. Live Mixxx is literally a mixtape with a very limited release by-- drumroll-- Eye from Boredoms/Vooredoms. Anyone who fell in love with his DJ Pica Pica Pica record from 1999 should look long and hard for this (and believe me, you'll have to); it's not as world-music centric (in fact, he seems to have subbed out the Irish tunes and gamelans for hardcore punk), but it's every bit as ADD-- 45 tracks in just over 50 minutes.

Duos With Drums
Damsel: Distressed [Temporary Residence]
Zach Hill & Mick Barr: Shred Earthship [5 Rue Christine]
Imahori Tsuneo & Yoshida Tatsuya: Territory [Doubt Music]

Duos in general are everywhere these days: Lightning Bolt, Orthrelm, KTL, USA Is a Monster, the Black Keys, Lullatone, Beach House, the Knife, Junior Boys…the fucking White Stripes. In any case, one advantage of having only two people in your band is that you can go off and do crazy things without having to worry everyone else is going to lost. Take Damsel: Hella's Zach Hill (aka the WORLD'S MOST AWESOMELY AWESOME DRUMMER) and esteemed guitarist Nels Cline. Their (improvised?) record on Temporary Residence is not only impressive, but-- hey bonus!-- nuanced and, er, musical. Cline plays a mostly textural role to Hill's hammers-for-pins work, and the overall effect is not unlike a Hella record, except with darker hues and a cleaner mix. Hill's record with Orthrelm/Ocrilim guitarist Mick Barr, however, is a silicon hurricane. It's really very simple:

+ =

The Tsuneo/Yoshida record is another beast altogether. Drummer Yoshida is of course leader of Ruins (and therefore godfather to just about all noise rock duos), and guitarist Tsuneo is most known for his work with mid-90s Japanese avant-proggers Tipographica, and their record is predictably wiry, complex and thrashing. However, the surprises are in the odd production touches: synth-guitar lines on "Parasaurolophus", moaning, ambi-vox on "False Information"; elsewhere, bizarre video game noises and fuzzed out loops and scratches. And yes, it rocks.

Hey, Remember Jazz?
Ellery Eskelin: Quiet Music [Prime Source]
Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar [Sound Grammar]

While I wouldn't call myself a jazz aficionado per se, I'm nevertheless surprised at the number of people who don't consider it music that's still happening. Interestingly, one problem new jazz has at reaching people is that a lot of it seems less like jazz than ever-- which is to say that when jazz met rock in the late 60s, the resulting "fusion" wasn't just the lame funk-lite you've read about (or heard in beardo sets), but the beginnings of now, wherein pretty much anything goes as long as improvisation is at the heart of what you're playing. In fact, I know jazz musicians who hate being called jazz musicians, such are the narrow conceptions of what jazz is supposed to sound like. See Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz ensembles, Weasel Walter's various projects, Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, Henry Threadgill, Satoko Fujii, Jamie Saft, and Zs as a few examples of music that's been prematurely mourned.

See also Ellery Eskelin. His double-CD Quiet Music (featuring his trio with Jim Black and Andrea Parkins-- sister of Zeena-- and occasionally adding vocalist Jessica Constable and organist Philippe Gelda) is another in an increasingly amazing discography for the tenor saxophonist. His music is ultra-modern, often sounding like a slide show of urban life; a playful, sing-songy tune here, chaos and beats there, but all seemingly arranged in a grid, like streets in a city. This is the first time I've ever heard vocals on an Eskelin record, though they fit in surprisingly well (as his compositional structures haven't changed), and stretching his ideas across two CDs gives the band a chance to play at a pace more suited to tuning in on fine details.

Ornette Coleman's Sound Grammar is a live recording from an October 2005 show in Germany, and is a gift to anyone who hasn't dived into his harmelodic world yet. His band is son Denardo on drums, and dual bassists Greg Cohen (of Zorn and Tom Waits fame, among many others) and Tony Falanga. All the songs except "Song X" are new, so for fans, this release was a very welcome gift. However, if you haven't checked out Coleman before, this is also a good intro: the tunes are varied, Coleman plays alto, violin and trumpet (though I'm still not sure I like hearing him on the latter two), and the band sounds like they've been together for much longer than they have.

Noise Rock Will Never Die
Various Artists: Drummachinegun [Relapse]
Optrum: Recorded [Unknownmix/Headz]
Silentist: Chariot Swing & House on the Hill EPs [Celestial Gang]

If noise and beats and distorted everything was your taste, 2006 was a good year. Relapse's Drummachinegun comp wins the award for most content in one place: 1 CD, 67 tracks, 20 artists, all playing way fucked guitar + drum machine + occasional thrash vox. The only artists I knew before listening to this was Mick Barr's Ocrilim, and somehow his stuff seems on the more mannered, composed side of things! Japan's Optrum are less digi-noise, and more post-hardcore ADD-- in fact, are often reminiscent of Melt Banana and lesser-known Japanese bands like Kirihito. Like MB or Boredoms, they're not afraid to kill their idols, as titles like "Those Heat" and "One More Red Nightmare" are prog geek in-jokes even as the music is dentist drill violence. Portland-based Silentist aren't quite that intense; rather, they make an odder, arguably more nuanced noise. I first heard them when it was just one guy (Mark Burden), playing music I'd describe as dark, mathy metal-jazz, but after adding a vocalist and releasing two EPs in 2006, Silentist seems more like horror grind now-- perhaps reminiscent of Painkiller (minus the sax solos, of course).

…Unless Ambient Kills It
Belong: October Language [Carpark]
Masahiko Okura/Gunter Müller/Ami Yoshida: Tanker [For 4 Ears]

Belong are Turk Dietrich and Michael Jones, coming out of New Orleans playing a fuzz-drenched cloud music. I think fans of Fennesz would get a kick out of this, as the same blurry-edged structures appear, though Belong are arguably more conventionally "pretty". In fact, October Language almost perfectly lives up to its name, sounding nice on Fall days when the sky is content not to care whether we're happy or not-- and seems all the more lovely for it. The Okura/Müller/Yoshida record is much sparser, though isn't strictly "ambient", in the music journo sense of the word. The three musicians are well known in the electro-acoustic improv world (particularly those following the Erstwhile or Improvised Music from Japan labels, though I'd head Okura only on the Rovo-ish Gnu records), and indeed the first half of this record ("Shibuya") is from a 2004 performance. The second half is shorter pieces wherein Okura and Yoshida recorded their parts first, and sent to Müller to edit and build upon. These pieces are busier than the live track (possibly due merely to being shorter), though never so much that you can't peer inside.

Bring the Prog
Univers Zero: Live [Cuneiform]
Korekyojinn: Jackson [Magaibutsu]

Univers Zero is a Belgian band led by drummer Daniel Denis. They formed in the mid-70s, and were part of the Rock in Opposition "movement", a collective of musicians united under ideals of progressive music (and not necessarily "prog") and politics. UZ plays a hybrid of mathy-prog and modern classical music (especially via Bartok and Stravinsky), and their live record on Cuneiform is a good place to hear how that kind of combination can happen and not result in, say, a Cirque du Soleil show. Koreyojinn, on the other hand, just craft the power trio prog. Led by Ruins drummer Tatsuya Yoshida, and also featuring guitarist Natsuki Kido (Bondage Fruit) and bassist Mitsuru Nasuno (Altered States, Ground Zero), the band plays instrumentals that are actually a bit toned down from Ruins or Ground Zero, but also with a lot more straight rock riffs (or at least straight Rush riffs). You know you want it.

R.Stevie Moore Is His Own Category
R. Stevie Moore: Tell Laura I Love Herbert [self-released]

Home-recording godhead RSM released his umpthousandth record in 2006, and as with most of his recent ones (Conscientious Objector, Far Out, Aesthetic), it's never less than fascinating. It's also good: check out "Another Day Slips Away" for XTC-ish sparkle pop, or jingle-ready "Beat Hemisphere" (which mysteriously appears from out of 1984!), or the beautiful "The Theorem". R.Stevie, why is that song only a minute-and-a-half long??

Reissues Go Last
Cluster: 71 & Sowiesoso [Water]
Can: Flow Motion, Saw Delight, Can, Rite Time [Mute]
Henry Cow: Concerts [Recommended]
Philip Glass: Analog [Orange Mountain Music]

I should probably devote an entire column to 2006 reissues, but I'll stick the above list for now. Of course, Cluster and Can need little introduction for most of the people who've made it this far into the feature, so I'll just say that their 2006 reissues are both long overdue, and sounding as good as ever. Even though the Can records aren't necessarily from their peak period, Flow Motion has always been a pet fave of mine (and "I Want More" needs to be in more set lists), and there are moments if goodness on all of their records. Cluster's reissued albums are a tale of two eras: The one where amorphous, cosmic resonance was in full swing (71 was the first record Rodelius and Mobius made after infamous proto-electro-noiser Conrad Schnitzler left the band), and another in which calmer, almost idyllic ambience was the order of the day. Check both for masterful sound and mood manipulation.

Chris Cutler and Recommend Records have been slowly reissuing all of the Henry Cow records over the last few years, but for my money, Concerts is the most interesting. Comprised of a few tracks recorded during a 1975 John Peel Session, and several others recorded live during 1974-75 (some featuring Robert Wyatt), the CD is a testament to both the compositional facilities of the band, and just how far avant-rock had come by the mid-70s. The fully improvised "Oslo" (originally occupying one side of the double LP) sounds almost completely undated, rather like hearing the band navigate some alien landscape with nothing but a few homemade wooden and electronic devices to guide them.

Lastly, I need to mention Philip Glass' Analog on OMM-- not because the music is good (it is), or because I think Glass' rep needs some life-support for the non-opera house crowd (it does), but because apparently no one else is going to tell you that Analog is actually a repackaging of his 1977 album North Star with four (admittedly good) bonus tracks. Regardless of why OMM isn't mentioning that, if you don't already own North Star-- Glass' first foray into shorter tunes for use in a soundtrack-- check out Analog. Even semi-shady marketing can't obscure good tunes.