Sunday, March 30, 2014

Boogarins: Pure Love From Brazil

I don't listen to radio. There may be podcasts I listen to that are broadcast, but I don't know where or when. There is one exception to this rule: Duane Harriott's show on WFMU on Wednesdays from noon to three. I even have a calendar reminder set so I don't forget to tune in on my desktop every week. Duane's depth of knowledge and feel for music are slightly less astonishing when you learn his uncle is Derrick Harriott, the legendary reggae singer and producer - but only slightly. Every three hour show features at least one period of absolute lift-off, where the groove gets so deep it's hard to pay attention to anything else.

Duane could easily spin three hours of soul 45's that you've never heard before and then become desperate to hear again, but he's too committed to variety and new music to rest on those laurels. One band he started playing at the end of 2013 that piqued my interest was Boogarins, whose debut album was released by Other Music's label in October. It took me a while to follow up but when I heard they were making their first NYC appearance at Other Music last Monday, I made it a point to be there.

Let's but it bluntly: these four young guys from Brazil levitated the store. Right out of the gate, they blew through album-opener Lucifernandis with a cohesion and attack that took the song to another level, with the twin guitars of Fernando Almeida and Benke Ferraz playing the fanfare-like riff with swagger and style. The album was recorded back in 2012 when they were just out of high school so they've lived with these songs a bit. Also, their time in Austin at SXSW and a quick west coast swing must have brought them, along with Hans Castro (drums) and Raphael Vaz (bass), closer together as a unit.

No matter how evil the sound they made was, all of them, especially Almeida, radiated a sweetness and positivity that was highly charismatic. I couldn't help associating this affect with their country of origin, a Brazilian warmth that felt so good on that frigid Manhattan night. Doce was also a triumph, it's ringing opening reminiscent of The Beatles storming cover of Soldier Of Love as well as The Byrds at their most psychedelic. Another song - a new one, I believe - featured a devastating dubbed out breakdown that shook the floor. By the end of the hour-long set, there was no question that Boogarins had arrived, and in spectacular fashion. While I wasn't able to make it to Glasslands Gallery the next night, where they were in the middle of a four act bill headlined by Vertical Scratchers, from all I heard they were no less impressive. As Duane put it on the message board for his show afterwards: "Boogarins...Slayed!!!! I feel bad for the headliners. These kids ain't playing!!"

Boogarins, named after a jasmine flower that supposedly smells like "pure love," will be touring extensively in the U.S. and abroad through June. Get there if you can. And if you can't, get the album, As Plantas Que Curam (Plants That Heal), which is full of gems like Doce and Lucifernandes as well as more left-field moments like Eu Vou, just voice and atmospherics, and Canção Perdida, a brief trip to the jungle with guitar in the distance. They seem to come by their psychedelia more honestly than some current bands, soaking in the same waters enjoyed by fellow Brazilians Os Mutantes and other members of the Tropicalia movement. This is of a piece with the intimate, exploratory feel of the album, which for all its tossed-off flair is also strikingly assured. Almeida and Ferraz, who recorded the album on their own, have mined the music of their forebears and absorbed its lessons to make everything sound like their own. And based on what I heard at Other Music, this is just the beginning for Boogarins.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reflections After The Clientele

"I Never saw it as a career, to be honest. I still am a believer that pop and rock and roll music can be art." - Alasdair MacLean, leader of The Clientele, in conversation with WFUV producer Andrew Hirshman, November 9th, 2009.

On their first album, Suburban Light, The Clientele almost seemed like a band designed to be fetishized, with their hazy but musically literate take on sixties psych-pop (via Felt and Luna) along with their innate British melancholy. Essentially a set of demos swathed in reverb, the album was also a mere prototype of the sounds Alasdair MacLean heard in his head. "We were just waiting to get in a proper studio and have strings, brass, choirs - Phil Spector crossed with Martin Hannett production," MacLean recalled on the Merge Records website earlier this year. "At the time (2000), every engineer wanted to make every band sound like Radiohead, which just broke everyone's heart. We couldn't get a warm sound anywhere we went in those days."

And so it came to pass: despite a further 10 year trajectory and four increasingly accomplished albums, there are those who hold Suburban Light as the peak of The Clientele's discography. While I love it, I can't agree. Similarly to the debut by The Smiths, I hear a band well on its way but not quite there. In both cases, the production doesn't always do justice to some magnificent songs and both Morrissey and MacLean indulged early on in some ill-advised falsetto. Perhaps the struggle towards mastery, rather than its achievement, is more attractive to a certain kind of listener. My opinion may put me in the minority (wouldn't be the first time) but even with the devotion of those early fans and hints of an expanding impact in the U.S., a shift in MacLean's songwriting - and maybe economic issues - led the band to go on "indefinite hiatus" in 2011.

Now with Merge announcing a deluxe reissue of Suburban Light, The Clientele made a rare appearance at The Bell House last Friday night. It wasn't really their show, however, as the line-up was put together by the Chickfactor zine to celebrate their 22nd birthday. This meant that there were three preliminary acts to get through before MacLean and his cohort took the stage. First up were The Saturday People, who haven't released anything since 2003 and may not have rehearsed since then, either. I don't want to be unkind, so I'll say no more. Next was Barbara Manning, who at one time in her 30 year career headed up SF Seals and Go-Luckys, and who now teaches high school in California. Here she performed solo, and while her banter and stage-presence were charming, the lack of a band and the fact that her guitar was often out of tune, caused me and my friend to once again decamp for the bar.

Talk and bourbon led us to return perhaps later than we should have and we found Versus in the middle of a song. Unlike the first two acts, this veteran band - active (mostly) since 1992 - came ready to play. Richard Balyut wielded his Gibson SG with authority and interlocked nicely with his brother James's Fender Jazzmaster. Fontaine Toups, who alternated vocals with Richard, often played near the middle of the neck of her bass, conjuring up a warm tone. The third Balyut brother, Edward, held it down on the drums, and they played a number of new songs. While the new material was in no way "confounding" (as Richard said), it was convincing and seemed to indicate that Versus is committed to being around for a while. While they were never a necessity in my life, they were always a welcome presence and I'm glad to see them back. Fans should be ecstatic.

The Clientele, however, are one of those necessary bands. I've not had fewer than three of their albums on my iPod for as long as I can remember. Like Nick Drake, they create an entire world through their songs and sound, and one that touches me deeply. They've had a few line-up shuffles over the years, so in a sense this was just a version of The Clientele, a return to a trio format they haven't used since 2005. But this was in no way a pick up band - bassist James Hornsey and drummer Mark Keen have been on the ride with MacLean since at or near the beginning - and as soon as MacLean began finger-picking a shimmering melody and singing in his warm tenor, a new world was created as if by magic. When Hornsey's liquid bass entered, joined by the metronomic soft ticking of Keen's high-hat and snare, that world was complete. Their faces were studies in concentration and absorption and served to bring us more deeply into their universe.

MacLean has been busy these last few years with Amor De Dias, his wonderful Spanish/Brazilian-influenced collaboration with Lupe Núñez-Fernándz of Pipas, and his concentration on nylon-string classical guitar in that band has honed his playing to a fine point. He played complex arpeggios and figures with a casual flair, barely looking at his instrument. The one extended solo he played (in E.M.P.T.Y) had a barbed tone and a cogent structure that had the crowd cheering. The songs, mostly from Suburban Light, The Violet Hour (2003) and Strange Geometry (2005), sounded better than ever, even with the occasional shaky moment, as when MacLean's guitar became unplugged (twice!) during Since K Got Over Me. The song is such a fantastic confection of sorrows that the audience barely registered the glitch. I'm fairly certain the only later song was Here Comes The Phantom, which MacLean told us, was only added by special request. Much appreciation to whoever did so, as it is one of my favorites.

Almost 90 minutes went by as if in a dream, which made it easy to almost ignore some of the odd things going on in the audience, including the antics of a young woman more interested in pouting for portraits right in front of the stage than in communing with the music. When The Clientele left, they were quickly brought back by our applause for an encore. "How about a couple more from Suburban Light?" MacLean asked to rapturous applause. Other than that, MacLean had spoken rarely, except to say "thank you," and at one point mentioned that he wasn't saying much because he was so "overwhelmed" by our response - I think it was a special night for them as well.

If you're new to this band, sign on to my Spotify playlist, which compiles some of my favorite songs by them. They're one of the finest groups of the last 20 years and deserve a retrospective. But the story of The Clientele may not be over. They recently recorded a couple of new songs for Merge's 25th Anniversary subscription series which is a hopeful sign in itself. Perhaps that, coupled with the reception they received at The Bell House and the obvious chemistry shared by MacLean, Hornsey and Keen will lead to a new period of activity for them. I would welcome that and I think even those Suburban Light purists would agree.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bang-Up World Premieres

Shara Worden (center) and the BOAC All Stars
Whenever I hear world-premiere performances - which almost can't be often enough - my first hope is that something new and beautiful will be introduced to the world. My second hope is that there will be more performances of the work(s). In the case of Bang On A Can's recent performance at the Ecstatic Music Festival, which featured three new works from their People's Commissioning Fund, I will be very surprised if there isn't a clamor from other new music ensembles to get their hands on at least one or two of these pieces.

First up at Merkin Hall, however, was an older piece, Lick, composed by BOAC co-founder Julia Wolfe. Its punky energy, big block chords and squealing soprano sax warmed up both the audience and the Bang On A Can All Stars. Reed player Ken Thomson's feet barely touched the ground during the performance. When the applause died down, WNYC's John Schaefer introduced Alvin Lucier, whose piece Firewood was the first of the evening's new works, which were all based on the theme of field recordings. I'm not sure if Lucier has read David Rothenberg's wonderful Bug Music, but he is already living it: The composition was inspired by the trails of insects under the bark of a piece of word - a field recording of a very different kind!

The meandering trail of the bugs is represented in sound by the cello, guitar and bass sweeping up and down the scale while interacting with pulses and tones from the clarinet, piano and vibraphone. The effect is of a sustained tone, inexorable and intense, with rhythmic beats occurring when the harmonies vibrated together. Schaefer pointed out beforehand that the piece did not contain any of Lucier's signature electronics. Lucier responded that he only used them when necessary "and after 50 years of composing electronic music, that's still my attitude." In any case, those vibrations were a whole new kind of synthesis. At just over six minutes, Firewood induced a state of concentration that was almost palpable in both players and listeners alike.

"Richard Reed Parry," I said to my friend, "That sounds familiar." "He's a member of Arcade Fire." "Oh, right," I mumbled, preparing to rid my mind of all the negative associations I have with that band. I'm not a fan, but that's not something I wanted to hold against Parry, so I listened with open ears as the musicians began his entry, The Brief And Neverending Blur.

Speaking of ears, those of the All Stars were occupied by stethoscopes, which were pressed against their chests so they could sync their individual playing with their own heartbeats. This was a nice, if slight, bit of theater that the musicians seemed to embrace, although its effect on the performance was hard to gauge. In any case, Parry's piece was lovely and wistful, evoking the music of Satie and the absorbing melancholy of watching rain stream down a window. Appearing in the background were the wobbly sounds of a dictaphone recording of Parry's piano music, which was left in an unheated shed in Canada for the better part of a year. John Cage would have approved of both the element of chance and the witty approach to the "field recordings" theme. When it comes to Parry's extra-Arcadian exploits, I say "more please."

The last of the premieres was Holographic by Daniel Wohl, composer of last year's Corps Exquis, which was on many "best-of" lists including my own. Part of his gift is alchemical, combining instruments - both acoustic and electronic - to create new and wondrous sounds. For Holographic, he "processed and stacked" recordings of instruments and vocals, in order to create an aural double image when accompanying the live performance of the musicians. The end result is beguiling and seductive, like fantasies projected on smoke, but not insubstantial. There is real melodic invention and compositional development in Holographic and I'm sure it will reveal even more delights upon further listening. It also ended with a satisfying thump, signaling the completion of the first half of the concert.

After a brief intermission, we returned for a performance of David Lang's Death Speaks, in an expanded arrangement for soprano with a sextet instead of the original trio. Completed in 2012, the half hour piece takes as its text various lines from Schubert songs where death himself speaks to the audience or another character in the song. The other stream of inspiration Lang drew on was the intimacy of "indie pop" as performed in small spaces, the way Schubert lieder were once heard. As in the original performances (and the 2013 recording) the vocalist was Shara Worden, whose ubiquity at the intersection of contemporary classical and indie rock can hardly be overstated. She is much admired for her crystalline voice whether performing her own music under the name My Brightest Diamond or collaborating with a host of composers.

I admit finding Worden and her cult just a bit precious, but she sang with deep engagement, flawlessly unspooling Lang's tear-stained libretto as the band played hypnotic, unresolved arpeggios. While I would have liked a little more articulation in the words, Worden has clearly taken ownership of this piece. Lang's incorporation of the additional instruments was very well conceived, especially the way the percussion linked up to the piano. The sound world occupied by Death Speaks seems closer to John Dowland than Schubert, but since Dowland nearly invented the melancholy pop song that only seems fitting.

It had been a demanding night, so I welcomed the chance to revisit Death Speaks and the other fascinating music we heard on Q2 Music's stream of this remarkable concert. Let's hope these important new compositions find continued life in concert halls as well.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Cogito Igor Sum

Stravinsky in the 1950's
"The piano itself is the center of my musical discoveries. Each note that I write is tried on it, and every relationship of notes is taken apart and heard on it again and again." - Igor Stravinsky

For most listeners, Igor Stravinsky is associated with the brilliant and sometimes exotic orchestral colors of his three French ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, all composed before the twentieth century was two decades old. Despite his long life (he died in 1971, at the age of 88) and career, these works cast a long shadow over his oeuvre, and all of music ever since. A good part of this is due to the sheer pleasure of listening to these scores, with their visceral rhythms, indelible melodies and his masterful use of every instrument. There's also the fact that as time went on, Stravinsky's music grew ever more "logical" and abstract, and while still beautiful, presented a glassy surface that sometimes seemed as impenetrable and unknowable as the man himself.

This is one of the fascinating elements of Jenny Lin's expert and engaging new collection of Stravinsky's piano music, compiling as it does music from 1908 to 1967. This gives us an opportunity to take a tour, over the course of about an hour, through his entire sound world as heard through the sonorities of his favorite instrument. This is a sensible idea: as the quote above indicates, all of his compositions started on the piano. In fact, a good many people - musicians and others - first encountered the Rite in a transcription for piano, albeit for four hands.

Not surprisingly, a few of the works Lin includes are transcriptions or arrangements, two by Stravinsky himself, two by his son Soulima, and one by Guido Agosti. It's only in the last, a take on three movements of the Firebird Suite, itself a reduction of the original ballet music, that we feel another composer's hand. Agosti, a student of the great Ferruccio Busoni, somehow manages to make Stravinsky sound slightly old fashioned. However, Agosti does retain a good bit of the outlandish fun of the original and Lin dispatches its many challenges without difficulty. In fact, her playing is flawless throughout, with a dynamic sparkle that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The album is not ordered chronologically, beginning with the Sonata from 1924, at the dawn of Stravinsky's neo-classical period. There's a slightly collage-like, even schizoid, effect to the way the trills and flourishes of an earlier age interact with his inborn modernism. The second movement feels very intimate in Lin's hands, as if she is channeling the composer while he searches out notes and "relationships of notes." Though the Sonata is one of the lengthier works here, it is still barely 11 minutes long. Concision was never a problem for Stravinsky, but there is no paucity of ideas in the Sonata or elsewhere.

While there is plenty of variety in Lin's selection, all the music is infused with the character of Stravinsky's formidable intellect and gimlet-eyed wit. It's a time-traveling journey that anyone with an interest in modern music should take, with only a few listens needed to expand most people's perceptions of the composer. For example, the lushly melodic Four Etudes from 1908, especially No. 1 in C Minor and No. 3 in E Minor, might surprise a few people with fixed ideas about the man, while the alien jazz of Ragtime (1918) and Piano-Rag-Music (1919) might reinforce those same ideas. "My knowledge of jazz," Stravinsky wrote much later, "was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played but as written." It was easier to be a brother from another planet in the days before you could see and hear everything from the comfort of your broadband connection.

There's another new project engineered to help you hear Stravinsky anew. This one is from The Bad Plus, an avant garde jazz trio of long standing, who have taken on the entirety of The Rite of Spring for their latest release (out March 25th). Consisting of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King, the group is known both for their cerebral approach to jazz and for applying their style (with varying success) to covers of popular favorites by the likes of Nirvana, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, and others. Put those two things together, plus the fact that they have adapted works by Ligeti, Babbitt, and even Stravinsky, and you would seem to have a group scientifically designed to execute an adaptation of one of the most popular classical works by one of the most cerebral composers. And, for the most part, there is life in this test tube baby.

The effectiveness of some of the most minimal sections is a reflection of both the ingenuity of The Bad Plus and the durability of Stravinsky's conception. For example, the penultimate track, Evocation of the Ancestors/Ritual Action of the Ancestors, has sections consisting almost entirely of quiet bass and whispered drums yet you always feel located in the heart of the Rite. Throughout the record, the trio fruitfully mines the "composed jazz" territory of Jimmy Giuffre, Kenyon Hopkins and Shorty Rogers, especially during the louder, more hard-driving sections. On the whole, The Bad Plus tackle this seemingly quixotic mission with aplomb.

The album is not an unqualified success, however. The first track features some slightly wishy-washy electronics augmenting the trio and the fact that the sounds never reappear on the album lends them even less conviction. Also, I wouldn't have minded a little more playfulness overall. While I'm not suggesting The Bad Plus go the full Ralph Font, the po-faced atmosphere starts to feel a little suffocating at times. After all, unlike the Stravinsky of 1918, The Bad Plus have actually heard jazz and it wouldn't hurt if they had made that a little more apparent on this accomplished effort.

Note: Quotes taken and photo adapted from Harold C. Schonberg's invaluable book, The Lives of the Great Composers, Third Edition.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Beats & Rhymes, Death & Life

Chris Manak, AKA Peanut Butter Wolf, on the wheels of steel
Fade from black: To the sound of a hot soul bass line we see the interior of a record obsessive's living room. Shelves groaning with vinyl line the walls and there's a party going on. But we're on the outside, looking in through the patio doors, and the music is muffled. The door slides open and someone exits. The music becomes tantalizingly crisp and for a moment it seems that we'll be invited in. Then the door slides shut and [rack focus] we see Chris Manak, aka Peanut Butter Wolf, suave in a pork pie hat, at the wheels of steel. Just as we feel the sting of rejection [smash cut], we're let inside to the ultimate music lover's party. Thus begins Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, a wonderful new documentary about the history and ethos of Stones Throw, the hip hop/soul/DJ culture/whatever record label.

Directed and produced by Jeff Broadway, the film takes us back to the beginning and thoroughly investigates what has become one of the most influential record labels in recent times, effectively letting us outsiders into the party. "Record Label?" you say, "But isn't the music industry dying?" Yes, the music industry is still in the midst of the great ruction caused by the Internet, but people still have a need for filters. Those with mainstream tastes might look to terrestrial radio, the Grammys, or American Idol and its ilk to find music. Others, like me, will look elsewhere, and great labels like Merge, Sub Pop, and Stones Throw are places we can reliably turn to to find the sounds that satisfy. One thing that makes these imprints so good is that they are the product of individuals with discerning taste and their own point of view. And so it is with Peanut Butter Wolf.

Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton gathers dazzling archival footage, marquee-quality talking heads (Kanye West, Common, Mike D., Talib Kweli, and ?uestlove among them), and a pumping soundtrack to tell the engaging story of how an army brat with a lifelong passion for music rebounded from more than one tragedy to create one of the greatest independent labels.
The film is dedicated to the memory of J-Dilla and Charizma. Charizma was Peanut Butter Wolf's early partner in rhyme who was murdered in an attempted carjacking at the age of 20. The film handles this devastating moment with compassion and sensitivity and we feel the loss as our own. "I just turned off," PBW says in a monotone and his grief feels as fresh as if it were yesterday. Eventually, his bereavement became a spur. Determined to get their music heard, PBW sent it to a number of labels, but was faced with either "no thanks" or no response. In 1996, he started Stone's Throw as a way to release Charizma's musical legacy, which remains in print nearly two decades later.

From there, the movie jumps forward to "Stones Throw Today" and introduces us first to Jonwayne, one of the label's newest signings, as he makes a beat out of household objects, and then to other members of the current roster. "We're all struggling for the same thing," Jonwayne tells us, "which is the advancement of independent music." PBW promulgates this philosophy by continually giving the unknown and even odd a chance to be heard. "I feel like I'm kind of a stomping ground to start people's careers and then they can kinda do what they want after," PBW says. Like all great label heads, he goes with his gut and against the mainstream. This has worked out well for artists like Mayer Hawthorne, who launched an international career on Stones Throw and is now signed to a major label.

When the film picks the story back up in 1998 it smoothly moves through the history, starting with the life-changing connection with Madlib (and his alter ego Quasimoto), whose multifarious talent officially put Stones Throw on the map. Madlib's prodigious ("five albums every two or three weeks") and inventive output awakened the competitive fire of a young Detroit producer: J-Dilla. "Madlib is just killing me," he told ?uestlove, "he's going where I want to go." Bringing Madlib and Dilla together was simply magic. Their record as Jaylib, Champion Sound, is indeed "a hip hop monument," as Common puts it.

Like the sun-kissed early days with Charizma, there was a future shadow hanging over this halcyon period: Dilla's blood disorder, which led to his death at 32 in 2006, just days before the release of Donuts, another masterpiece. Kanye calls Dilla's beats "the greatest drums in hip hop history," beautifully describing what makes them that way while getting a tear in his eye. "When Dilla passed, everything changed," says Madlib, "He was like one knew what to do."

It would probably not have surprised anyone if Stones Throw had become a casualty itself at this point. While PBW continued to follow his nose, a lot of his choices alienated the hip hop heads and just plain didn't sell. His dark night of the soul also became a dark night of the wallet, but he held on. Bizarrely enough the road back was partly through Folerio, another alter ego created by Chris Manak. Folerio's smarmy image and bedroom electro-soul attracted renewed attention and new blood to the label. One thing followed another and Mayer Hawthorne, along with Dam Funk and Aloe Blacc, led to firmer ground, both musically and financially.

Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton is consistently entertaining and visually appealing, with an eclectic feel that is well matched to its subject. Music fans of all stripes will find it more than gratifying to see Stones Throw get the film it deserves. The movie will be shown tomorrow night at Music Hall Of Williamsburg, along with a panel discussion and performances featuring PBW, Jonwayne, J-Rocc and others. Watch the trailer below and catch it at a screening or festival near you.