Sunday, November 26, 2006

beta backed up

Joanna Newsom - Ys

Jack Nitzsche - Hard Workin' Man: The Jack Nitzsche Story Vol.2

Tim Hecker - Harmony in Ultraviolet

...and if you're on the streets of NYC this week, I conducted an interview with Monkeytown's chef for The Onion.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Aside from a horrendous Devendra warble tacked onto an otherwise serviceable take of "Katie Cruel" and a song that messes with Texas (sounding suspicously like Dire Straits, though no doubt Knopfler is a Jansch idolator), Bert Jansch's The Black Swan is one of the finest full-lengths of his esteemed career, behind Jack Orion, LA Turnaround, and maybe two or three more. Of course, the press all went to kneel'n'bob before the other fogies, Neil and Bob, to where I almost got a bloody forehead pounding aginst the wall at one national magazine that just wouldn't let me do a feature on the legend, opting instead to run a 2,000 word "meditation" (read: masturbation) on "Sweet Child O'Mine" that makes Klosterman look like a visionary in comparison. In a way, I'm just grateful to see the man when he recently came over to play some shows stateside.
He was listening to jazz, country blues, modern blues and everything else. There were lots of people working in one area or another but nobody before Bert was actually putting them all together and blending them in that way...he just appeared fully formed.
I forget just where the concept of folk as collage music, parallel to the DJ, comes from (Christgau maybe, or a Dylanologist like Greil?), but finally witnessing Jansch play live at the Southpaw, his first show in New York in nigh on a decade, it becomes evident during his set. Not that he makes his acoustic guitar go scratchy-scratch like Tom Morello or anything gimmicky like that, but just how he elucidates synapses between genres and disparate folks, tying them all together across time, reveals such craft. His own style stems from Big Bill Broonzy and Davy Graham and before most numbers, he tells of how he came to embody a song and the person behind it, who taught him the chords, the words. Opener Alan Licht does a bit of a mash-up as well, coupling the most heinous version of Richard Thompson's "Calvary Cross" (when he sings) with one of the most vicious (when he plays the song's guitar solo with a screwdriver).

In the same way that, say, The Game, understands the continuum of his music and shouts-out those who went before him, Jansch spends a good deal of the evening with yarns of Jackson C. Frank, Anne Briggs, John Renbourn, and Incredible String Band. He covers Frank's "Blues Run the Game" and "Carnival," delivers a stunning version of a tune he learned from Anne Briggs, "Blackwater Side," a folk ballad that depicts a one-night stand, with Jansch adding the note that "It's meant to be sung by a woman." The most deceptive thing about Bert Jansch is how he tucks his caliber of guitar playing inside the songs. Yes, he's the "Hendrix of the Acoustic," as Neil Young said, as Jimmy Page verified by basing III and Zoso's folk weirdness on the man, yet it's always inside the song itself, never extraneous. I'd be hard-pressed to point to a killer guitar solo or a flashy run by Bert Jansch. As Colin Harper noted in Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival: "(There's) a transcendant quality to the work implying that, at its heart, the work itself is the foreground and the creator a barely visible presence facilitating the construction of something magical."

Yes, it is a magical performance. Most surprising is when he tells a tale about his rendering of "Katie Cruel." It's a traditional standard that has been covered by the likes of Pete Seeger, not to mention an old bluegrass group of Jerry Garcia's, pre-Warlocks, pre-Dead. That he learned it from Beth Orton is a minor revelation, as it means his interpretation also stems from what is easily the definitive version of "Katie Cruel," Karen Dalton's kerosene-cured take on In My Own Time from 1971 (thankfully back in existence this year). It dashes my presumptive review in Paste Magazine wherein I figured he was just humoring the young'uns. Curious as to how such a song, existing across the strata of centuries, is so wholly embodied by a performer so as to be indistinguishable from it. How is Karen, not just from this late date, but at the exact moment that she first plucked it, not this Katie? Isn't "Katie’s Been Gone" from The Basement Tapes also about her? Don't they evoke her by her rightful name?

Not surprising though, as a similar thing occurred with folksinger Anne Briggs. For many ears, and generations of singers, Anne's takes of "Blackwater Side" and "Reynardine" are definitive, the others irretrievably indebted to her own stark takes. Which leads me to my other reason for being here in attendance on this night, which is to hopefully talk to Bert Jansch about his old running mate. It was he that helped craft Briggs's version of "Blackwater Side," and as I'm in the mi(d)st of a project involving her, his memories are crucial to my understanding of her. Ever since she scrapped a recording session in 1973, Anne Briggs has gone missing into the ether. I've searched in vain for the only article on her in recent memory, tracking her to a wee island in Scotland, in a piece that ran in MOJO, but its almost impossible to track. (Okay, I also don't want to pay $15 shipping for a copy from the UK.)

Weirder still is Anne Briggs's sudden appearance on some idyllictronica record from 2004. And even though it's only from two years back, that too is proving impossible to find. It's not even on Bit Torrent. To think that the even as the present quickens, it also hastens the recently-passed to disappear that much faster is a phenomenon seldom considered in the process of more and more consumption of music. Memory fades much like the woman herself, that spectral presence behind some of Jansch's most crucial works ("Wishing Well," "Go Your Way My Love"), that haunting voice resounding through the moors remains untenable, evoked only in the present, on a night when any moment in time can once again be picked out on a guitar. So when Mr. Jansch declines to speak with me on her, a most disheartening decision that leaves me clutching at the mysterious air surrounding her once more, even that feels strangely appropriate.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

beta feldman

I moved to New York presumably to get closer to fine art and other cultural pleasures, to see performances of living legends like Steve Reich and Cecil Taylor on a nightly basis, and yet I keep finding myself at turds like the Zune launch party or being forced to attend an exclusive performance by Eagles of Death Metal at Irving Plaza instead. In part, it's due to my broke ass no longer paying attention to events (much less paying for them), as it's just like shopping at ABC or down in SoHo at a certain point, a stratospheric level of fiscal existence that I can never hope to attain and so I cease to delude myself.

So I consider myself fortunate to check Alex Ross's blog and read about a celebration of composer Morton Feldman's 80th birthday (had he not died at age 61) with two piano performances by his longtime interpreter, Aki Takahashi. Triadic Memories, one of many pieces written specifically for Ms. Takahashi, is a late work I return to often, always shocked by its turbulence.

Adjusted as I am to dragging myself to rock shows as late as possible so as to avoid the opening bands, such a strategy leaves my ass locked out of the first piece, "Piano." I am resigned to sitting right outside the steel doors of Merkin Hall, focused intently on what notes make their way through. In the hush of the lobby, these furtive notes are tiny yet steely; I picture needles pushing through this solid door. If only I could hear their disintegration from the interior of the concert space. I read the program notes instead by Feldman:
As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind...different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about the form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy -- just the division of things into parts. But scale is another requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now they're like evolving things.
At intermission, I make my way inside and settle myself for the 80 minutes of "For Bunita Marcus," thinking of how Feldman served as a gateway for appreciating late-era classical music. It helped that he had fans in folks like Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, in Gastr del Sol and Jim O'Rourke, or what friends in Austin were doing with their organic sound art, to say nothing of techno producers like Basic Channel and their emphasis on negative space, on the nimbus that surrounds each hit, every event, its phantasmal presence as important as either. But what Morty did, or was doing, still eludes capture. Critics and words and emulators don't quite grip all of the man's girth, and sitting here only accentuates that feeling, making it all the more profound. Bearing witness to Feldman's music here (along with other audience members like Phill Niblock and LaMonte Young) makes me realize that this is still very much a living entity, as live as rust, as cumulative as drips culled from a rainstorm, much as a flower through the green fuse, Feldman mindful of both the bloom and the unnameable root. No matter how revered or studied, Feldman's still not touched some twenty years since his death.

For as gorgeous and gentle as his music sounds on the surface, there are odd notes and dissonance rumbling underneath, suggesting an unplumbed depth through the entire evening. Her right foot depressed on the damper pedal, each note struck by Ms. Takahashi lingers, and I note a curious phenomenon that I miss on disc, or when locked outside of the hall: on the verge of dissipating completely, at the absolute edge of aural perception, the dying notes suddenly converge into something solid once more, just as a new cluster appears and buries it irretrievably.

Listening has never been this challenging, to where your stillness determines how much you can perceive. Firmly entrenched in the middle registers of the keyboard, any low or high moves becomes a profound event, almost shocking as little changes occur. Despite his reputation for stasis, for creating the musical equivalents of tapestries, there is dynamism to this work. This must be what watching evolution is like. Randomness to the point of no longer feeling random, but determined, if not still unpredictable.

Submerged or else bobbing on the surface of "Bunita Marcus," I keep envisioning rain falling on a puddle in the street, how droplets hit and ripple in its confined space, every possibility and configuration explored, each grouping worked through. Perhaps if I had a better theory of harmony and structure, I could perceive something beyond puddles. Maybe I would see Feldman's creations as water lilies arranged on wider ponds, but I am stuck on puddles, on the play of light and rain, on rings and ripples.

And as puddles, it also suggests the idea of ground and dirtiness. While home listening makes Morton Feldman's music act as an alembic, clarifying the soot and noise of New York within the room, sitting here reveals the exact opposite. Feldman wrote pieces of such purity, of such quiescence and stillness, that any other event sullies it, clouding it. A deep sigh, an uncrossing of legs, the rasp of pantyhose, a muffled cough, a whisper that's little more than a breath, a considerate shifting in a seat as slowly as possible, all of it stains the sound with its presence. All of it is as loud as "Bunita Marcus," the noise the equal of the performance. The listener destroys the music with his/her every move. It suggests not just Cage but Heisenberg, the audience affecting the sound by the very act of just being here to hear it. One thing is clear, as I continue to sit as still as possible through its hour-plus duration, as I continue to perceive that metaphor of rain falling in ever more constricted patters and patterns, continue to witness such a gentle, insistent mizzle of droplets, continue to stand out in its aural downpour: much like standing out in the rain, it rinses the head clean.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

tuesdays with beta

I went to the Zune launch party and all I got was this free mp3 player.

Tuesday night drugged me out of the cave to two divergent yet queerly similar social experiences masquerading as artsy and hep music happenings. Standing outside the glass doors of the MoMA, I could make out hapless lackeys scurrying about in hazmat suits, collecting that most odious of show-going devices, the cell phone. A project co-presented by PopRally and LVHRD, the event's specialness hinges on these underpaid undergrads collecting everyone's cell phones in a plastic ziploc bags and mounting them on a wall. It's all under this banner of Stopping SMC.

Everyone who enters is tagged with a wristband and a little manifesto about how you can now "talk to the person next to you, reflect on your cell phone use, and enjoy a fantastic performance by Les Savy Fav." Never mind that LSF are so loud that communication is nil, to where only text messaging could perhaps convey a single thought, or that the MoMA is now rendered into a super boxy and whitewashed bar, save that it's one with the ugliest Cy Twombly scribblings imaginable, one where curatorial folk are turned into overwhelmed bartenders, slammed with the serving of free Dewar's for the drunken, suddenly untyping masses who have idle thumbs. I guess a loud guitar bar band is getting back to basics though.

Now, I'm not nostalgically pining for the days when only coke dealers in 80s movies had brick-like cellys cemented to their faces (though perhaps suggesting that folks want to pretend they are said Colombians by putting these things against their heads all the time, much like the people in HR want to act like they're in The Ramones by effortlessly wiggling into $250 pairs of tight black jeans and pre-worn vintage tees), but the LVHRD move to take away everybody's RAZR, PEBL, and WHTNT is appreciated, though cursory. It's not that my view at shows is obstructed by everyone holding up picture-phones to take blurry-ass pics of a band at 50 paces, or else word-processing their every drunken thought into the ether, but such activities, in some small way, make everyone distracted and dislodged from the moment at hand.

It's something I remember from going to see the Sistine Chapel, around the time that handheld video cameras came on the market: rather than the tourists actually absorbing this once-in-a-lifetime viewing (unless you live in the Vatican City, then nevermind), they were instead just shooting footage which at some vague point in the future they could then sit down and "experience." Experience doesn't quite transfer like that though and removed from the moment, it just becomes a rote exercise of data processing. It's why I gave up downloading music for the most part, as it becomes less about listening, more about hoarding for that distant day when I could finally "sit down" with something. So I can see the curators tonight trying to corral everyone into the present moment, quelching the need to multi-task and be in three places at once (meaning nowhere at all) so that that magical instance of face-rocking can occur. And yet it still doesn't feel special, or any more social for that matter. It's just a rock band, not playing in a bar, but at a museum. Who wants to remember that moment?

That wall, full of bagged 'n' tagged blinking radioactive candy bars, aglow with missed calls and email notifications, becomes a social art project of understated, cumulative magnitude though. In fact, aside from the room featuring Richter's October 18, 1977, it's easily the most intriguing piece on display. Not that there's much competition from the rich-boy Twombly nonsense and a good part of their "Out of Time" exhibit, which is heavy on catalog-drool descriptors yet light on actual gut-gripping work. I admire those bricks in the wall and then realize I may be missing that important phone call. I get my baby back and let it warm up my thigh with its emittance as we head to the west side.

I, like a few others, just can't get over the brown lump of plastic that Microsoft is banking on, going so far as to fly music bloggers out for the day to test drive it. Tonight is the launch party for the Zune, which leads us to some abandoned werehouse on the Hudson. The building is entirely lit with brown lights, so as to match the Zune, and yet no one can see such light on the brick, so they then shine some pink ones on top of it and have that weird Zune polygon beamed onto the rooftop, in case you're coming via helicopter. We ride up some freight elevator to the 9th floor. I'm worried that if the event bursts into a disco inferno, I might not be able to climb back down. Luckily, as my friend puts it, it's like "a 1999 dot-com party." Scads of high-heel sneakers, pre-rumpled dress shirts, sports jackets with built-in hoodies, zip-up hoodies that dovetail into blazers, jeans scuffed by foreigners, Eurotrash foreigners in scuffed denim, and a crowd whose last show they took camera phones pics of was when Kanye opened for the Stones in Jersey and their friend got them sweet seats for $200 a pop. That little brown blurr amid all the light is apparently Kanye. The place smells like corporate death.

We are somewhat late to the affair, which is appropo, since this device is so far behind in the iPod/mp3 player revolution and so inane in design and user interface that we suspect it's some sort of elaborate bit of legislation having to do with Microsoft's anti-trust brouhaha, wherein they have to just pour millions of dollars into an absolute debacle and fire thousands of employees in the process as some sort of penance. It has a radio, it thinks the Cure is post-punk, it looks at art for you, and you can beam either the 37-minute new Villalobos single or else the 45:58 LCD sneaker ad right at your friend(s). No wait, only the former, as Zune is all independent and shit, and the LCD is an iTunes exclusive. And you know, fuck corporations. I stop to get another free cocktail from Paul Allen.

From the turd-brown hue to its lame advertising campaign (one sign reads: "Welcome to the Social." while most glossy pics make it look like young urbanites are enjoying this 'secret' John Legend show in a park somewhere, sharing their non-DRM files of Baduizm), this has got disaster written all over it. Not even a bar with energy drinks can get us excited about it (though we must laud the spicy and sweet kettlecorn they had at the bar; it was yummers).

Not that I should get all party-pooper about it all, it's just a party I crashed. Any night of the week, I could do it elsewhere, be it in fashion, art, or banking, or for some stranger's birthday, slurping at an open bar and eating elaborate finger food appetizers. My friend sums up the experience via the slide show advertising that projects on the loftspace walls: "'Welcome to the Social' is just a terrible, terrible slogan, yet it was the guiding principle of both events. Not that anyone could hear anyone. I guess eye/file contact is supposed to suffice."

And yet all of this for listening to music, something I adore, and do regardless. Even though I am presumably within their demographic, nothing is aimed at me. Shit, I couldn't even hook a Zune up to my Mac if I wanted to. What I make in a month doesn't even buy most pairs of the revellers' shoes. Looking around, I don't think I've seen anyone here at a show: I see a bunch of middle management and marketing people, throwing down on a Tuesday night.

It's not about the music, I realize as I drain yet another free drink and pick up a clunker of a Zune boxset, containing two CDs and 4LPs of the absolute dregs of independent music (meaning there's an UNKLE remix by Junkie XL, and not even DJ Spooky, just someone named Spooky, since the DJ was already taken and Dr. Spooky won't work after Halloween). While one event wishes to recede from the goosestep of technology, another wishes to be avant-garde about it (not realizing that it's been lapped thrice and is basically out of the race right out of the gate). Both are about puny, uninspired ideas perched atop heaps of money, but that's what I get for attending giant metaphors perfumed so as to smell like fun instead of bullshit.
Downloading makes people lose their jobs.

Monday, November 06, 2006


This week's tree-grinding edition of The Onion features my first foodist gig, covering The Vendys. It's some 40+ pages in, after jokes about Bush, poop, child abuse, phlegm, and Rush Limbaugh, and then another joke about Bush, and then there's like an interview with Tina Fey, a bunch of serious listings, some CMJ preview stuff (recommending Hot Chip, The Shins), even some theatre listings, and then WHAM, there I is, locking the blocks down like Marlow. Though in New York, not Baltimore.

Here's a recipe for polk salad.

Here's a piece on healthy caramel corn.

More snack ideas.