RECENT LISTENING #21
Luke Stewart Exposure Quintet, Staubitz & Waterhouse, Blue Lick, ? Band, Roadhouse, Mausim, Ed Yazijian, Twig Harper, Acetone, No-Neck Blues Band
LUKE STEWART EXPOSURE QUINTET s/t 2LP (ASTRAL SPIRITS) Really an incredible 21st Century jazz album, which I don’t say lightly; there’s been a lot of really good 21st Century jazz albums, and certainly some that are really incredible, but the latter is a much rarer thing. And yet this Luke Stewart Exposure Quintet double LP is really incredible, in which East Coast bassist Luke Stewart composes and records with an all-Chicago band: Edward Wilkerson Jr. and Ken Vandermark on reeds, Jim Baker on piano and synth, and thee septugenarian Avreeayl Ra on drums, forming a truly outstanding rhythm section with Stewart. This band is just locked in and out for blood, really, and still keep everything from completely blowing up, maintaining a very steady boil for all four sides, degrees of exposure through degrees of composure. (During the second track “Brown and Gray” water does boil over and splash onto the stovetop, not gonna stop dinner from being served, but something you’ll have to scrub off later.) This group had met once in Chicago in 2018, and if I’m understanding correctly, jammed and composed for a day or two without playing a show or going into a studio. Recordings were made though, and Stewart took them back home to NYC/DC, where he transcribed and honed some of the group improvisations, while also composing additional themes. He then took the resulting charts back to Chicago later that same year and reconvened the group for a studio session and a live gig that was also recorded. Material from both is what is presented here, seamlessly, four sides that hold a total of five tracks, a series of huge relentless environments laid down by Stewart and Ra, heavy and steady and slowly growing subtle rhythmic branches and flourishes as the piano and reeds flower and burn above. You might say that Stewart and Ra are to this album as Cecil McBee and Rashied Ali are to Journey in Satchidananda, but if anything their branches and flourishes are even more varied and wide-ranging, for example any of those times where Ra leaves the rhythm of the tune and goes all the way out into a solo statement while the band plays on, holding down the rhythm for him, even if only for a few measures, like on his passionate reply to a furious sax solo (Vandermark? Wilkerson Jr.? I don’t know) during “Brown and Gray,” drumming so heavy, assertive, concise, and seemingly spontaneous that it brought me to tears the third or fourth time I listened to it. I’ve seen Ra play here in Chicago a couple times so I know he’s great, but I’m not sure he’s very well-known outside of Chicago. He deserves to be, just listen to this album! And then there’s the piano by Jim Baker, who might not be too well-known outside of Chicago either, but like Ra I’ve seen him perform and know how good he is, and still can’t believe how great he is on this record, neo-classical, melodic, rhythmic, emotional, impassioned, set all the way free by those huge and wide bass ostinatos. I mean, I hear both McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane in his playing, no joke, and he also plays some very subtle synthesizer on the massive “Harp and Concrete Silhouette” piece, which creates a nice slow-burn textural 2LP group-shift as it takes over all of sides B and C. Then, on side D’s “The Scene,” speaking of textural group-shifts, the drums don’t even enter until after the 16-minute mark, after many journeys within journeys have already been made without them, such as Baker and Stewart getting into an unreal driving piano/bass duo at the 10:30 mark, which gives way around 12:00 to a Stewart solo that is unaccompanied all the way until about 14:40, unless you count the sounds of traffic and passers-by (?) which I hadn’t noticed until just now. Stewart and Baker have a serious rapport throughout (Stewart even gives Baker a little tip-of-the-hat by playing one of his licks back to him during “Brown and Gray”), musical ideas flying and coalescing at light speed, and with so much of the emotional heft carried by this fiery interplay, the various reeds of Wilkerson Jr. and Vandermark are free to glide above and below it all, just vamping and riffing if they choose, only breaking into eloquent counterpoint soloing at key moments. Unless one of ‘em just decides to blow the roof off, which also happens a lot. I’ve seen Wilkerson play a couple times too, but have to admit I don’t know his style live or recorded well enough to discern it from Vandermark’s on here, as you could tell above where I didn’t know which one of them joined forces with Avreeayl Ra’s drums to absolutely blow “Brown and Gray” wide open. I can say with certainty that I’m hearing two Chicago saxophonists playing fantastically well, all throughout these impassioned sessions, just as the entire quintet does. Highly recommended, a new jazz classic for real.
STAUBITZ & WATERHOUSE Common Metals CD (MUSIC IS THE WORST) On Mary Staubitz’s funny twitter feed, which is mostly wry observations that could also be one-line diary entries, she posted that this album was “all field recordings!” I didn’t read that, or any of the promo materials, until after listening to the record, but it was kind of what I was already thinking. I did know the credits said “recordings by Mary, mix/edit by Russ,” but much like David Crosby was at the Song from a Seagull sessions not to produce Joni Mitchell, but to ensure no one produced Joni Mitchell, it appears that for Common Metals Russ Waterhouse made the mixing & editing decisions to let Mary’s recordings be Mary’s recordings. The result puts me in the mind not so much of noise music but of modern composition, or some intersection between that and conceptual and environmental art. Also reminded of some of the work of Anne Tardos, as heard on her 1981 Gatherings cassette of recordings from 1974-1981 (nicely reissued on CD in 2019 by the Recital label), maybe just the fact that (spoiler alert) the sound of water dripping as ice melts features on both Gatherings and Common Metals. Or, it’s like Common Metals was inspired by Phill Niblock, but by his visuals (films of people working) and not his music… and the one-sheet references the films of Iranian slow cinema master Abbas Kiarostami… is Common Metals somehow a work not of experimental music but of (audio-only!) experimental cinema?
BLUE LICK Hold On, Hold Fast LP (AMERICAN DREAMS) And back to Chicago for a minute, somewhere Lydia Tomkiw is smiling, checking out Blue Lick on Bandcamp, because they might just be the true Chicago heir to and natural 21st-C. progression of her 1980s band Algebra Suicide. It’s hard for me not to think of Tomkiw’s melancholy and sardonic poetry and recitation when hearing an initially similar approach by Havadine Stone of Blue Lick on Hold On, Hold Fast. That said, Stone doesn’t have Tomkiw’s unforgettably thick Chicago accent, and while her words can get just as personal and confessional as Tomkiw’s, Stone tends to zoom way out where Tomkiw would zoom way in, for examples: “Time needs life to exist but life does not need time. What are the mysteries between organisms within organisms? You have made your worlds smaller than you could ever imagine by thinking you have answers about things of which you have not inquired” . . . “It is unbelievable to me that we insist that history is human” . . . “Which part of infinity do you want to be today?” Heady stuff, and the other half of the duo, the modular synth accompaniment by Ben Baker Billington, gets the words to go even deeper and wider. Unlike Algebra Suicide, where Don Hedeker’s guitar-based one-man-band drum-machine settings were utterly charming but also a little ‘new wave cute,’ Billington’s music sputters and creeps and grinds in and out of granular darkness and expansive psychotropic vistas that Stone’s words can tip-toe through and somehow move mountains within. Either way, let’s all raise a shot of Malort to the tradition of Tomkiw and Hedeker and the expansion of Stone and Billington. And hey, Blue Lick is playing live on February 24th at Chicago’s own Empty Bottle, when they open for Rob Frye’s Exoplanet and the band that released what was easily my most listened-to album of 2021, Equipment Pointed Ankh. Man this town rules, bring on the winter!
THE ? BAND Museum Quality Works CS (RADICAL DOCUMENTS) Speaking further still of Chicago, the label Radical Documents was based in Los Angeles, where they released great stuff (buncha reviews here), but is now based here in the City that Works, where they’re working indeed and continuing to release great stuff. (Usually creative types migrate from Chicago to L.A., much respect to the opposite.) I’m now listening to the label’s recent cassette release by the ? Band, who may or may not be from Chicago themselves (oh hey, just learned from Byron Coley’s review of this tape in The Wire that ? Band is a solo project by Radical Documents proprieter M.C. Green, so indeed based in Chicago), but do remind me of another band from here and that’s Chandeliers. In fact, this cassette Museum Quality Works reminds me specifically of when I first bought the Chandeliers LP called Dirty Moves, soon after it was released back in 2009, and how both times, though over a decade apart, I was wanting to check out a Chicago band and got raw and enticing recordings of some sort of small combo somewhere in a building in this vast city, playing heavily electronic riffs and grooves in a rock/funk/house/techno/experimental tradition, no vocals, ‘rough & ready sketchbook style’ as opposed to ‘fully developed and considered studio masterpiece.’ By miniatures, I mean that the Chando LP had 33 tracks in 48 minutes and this tape has 18 tracks in not much over 30 minutes. So short tracks, not songs per se, but pieces, sketches, jams, sculptures: miniatures. Parallel parallel tracks, movements within movements within movements.
ROADHOUSE Aladdin Sales LP (SOPHOMORE LOUNGE); ROADHOUSE Supernatural XS LP (SOPHOMORE LOUNGE) Gotta keep on this non-alphabetical ‘one record review leads to the next’ train because I started listening to these two new simultaneously released debut records by Roadhouse the same week I was listening to that ? Band tape, and it really all felt like further parallel development in 2020s deep-Midwestern solo-project electro-punk sketchbook/miniature territory. (I also listened to Roadhouse for the first time right after listening to Equipment Pointed Ankh, and Roadhouse is Ryan Davis who is 1/5th of EPA, so it was initially a strange experience, almost like checking out EPA ‘isolated tracks’ YouTubes if such a thing existed.) This sketchbook/miniature style is fast-moving and brain-scrambling, and you don’t walk away humming anything necessarily or remembering specific tracks, but when you focus in while listening you’ll find that near-constant fleeting prismatic weird hooks are happening. It’s the Trout Mask effect all over again, like you have to take the time to learn the language first, although Roadhouse does have some obvious/memorable hooks up front, stuff like the stately Spaghetti Western acoustic guitar thing that opens side two of Aladdin Sales via the track “Hideous View,” or another track using acoustic guitar, “Juvie River Shakedown,” kind of a prog-rock mini-epic sitting there in the middle of Supernatural XS’s first side. Beyond that, it’s pretty damn brain-scrambling, especially during the multiple arrhythmic black holes that exist on side two. And speaking of brain-scrambling, what’s going on with this guy’s pen-and-ink artwork, as seen on both of these covers? It’s like Prof. Kaptain Molasses said over on the IG train, “seems about ready for an exhibition or collection.”
MAUSIM …the new humanity LP (HP CYCLE) Whoah, blastitude from the pastitude: I reviewed a CD or two by this Toronto-based psych/drone group back in issues #2 (!) and #14. I feel like any writer gets at least a little nervous when they read their own writing, especially if it’s been (gasp) published for the whole world to see for a long, long time. I certainly can’t read some of that stuff anymore; if you think I overwrite now, I really had a problem then, clearly trying to do a Meltzer Gulcher thing by spending more time on the twine the disc was packaged in than on the music itself — but if you ask me, I also spent way too much time on the music. It’s the bad side of being inspired by Beat literature, that thing about intentional overwriting — “getting it all out on the canvas, man.” As always, Burroughs was the rare voice of Beat reason: “You do an awful lot of bad writing in order to do any good writing.” Well, here we are 18 years later (!) and it’s nice to know that almost two decades of a nigh-daily music writing practice has paid off a little… I still overwrite sometimes, but never intentionally… not even right now! Which is indeed an utterly perfect segue into this very record review, because, get this: Mausim has improved with age too. To wit, their brand new 2021 LP called …the new humanity is simply very good guitar-based-but-not-guitar-restricted dark/weird/drone/experimental music. Not only is it not guitar-restricted, it is also not loud-restricted; for every industrial-strength drone section there are spacier sections filled with smaller sounds, as on “Part II: In the majority of circumstances, the audio itself has no inherent symbolism but can be used to accompany symbolic activities and traditional/non-traditional practices. Otherwise, it can be delivered for aesthetic purposes only.” [sic] Not any major change from they were doing in 2000-2002, but aging like the proverbial fine wine. Beautiful cover art too.
ED YAZIJIAN Gansrud LP (HP CYCLE) An LP released in 2011, also by HP Cycle, included in the package I received with the new Mausim LP. I’ve known about Ed Yazijian since 2005 when he released an album called Six Ways to Avoid the Evil Eye, and I knew he did a duo album with Sir Richard Bishop a few years after that, and somehow I knew (from a catalog description on the internet, I guess) that he played violin and guitar with Eastern-referent/reverent tonalities that align with those of Bishop’s unorthodox rock band Sun City Girls. I knew all of this, and yet had never actually heard Yazijian’s music until getting Gansrud in the mail and on the turntable, and whaddayaknow it’s a really listenable sampler of one man’s post-independent solo psych music, Eastern-referent/reverent tonalities indeed. People always talk about the Pan-Asian influence on this kind of music (what has been historically called “ethno-psych”) and the Appalachian/American influence gets underplayed, but it’s definitely there (in Sun City Girls too), a twisted version of mountain folk music and sometimes even refracted bluegrass, played on traditional instruments like the fiddle and banjo. Yazijian’s version isn’t exactly old-timey-nicey either — I put this on while the family was spending a quiet evening building IKEA shelves (OK, Target imitation IKEA shelves) and it was relatively accepted until the groaning deep dive that closes side one “Salt Curse of the Onandaga” came on, and I was instructed to immediately remove the record so that someone could pick something else.
TWIG HARPER Classical Electronics CS (RADICAL DOCUMENTS) A release still very much in the free-form zone of pure weird electronic befuddlement that Harper has always operated in, but I’m hearing a new direction here for sure, where he seems to be taking explicit recordings of classical music and severely messing with them. (Actually, as it was revealed in the comment section by @medicinestunts when I posted about this tape on the ol’ IG: “using junk tape loops to trigger midi orchestral instruments.”) This high-concept move takes his music out of the underground art-rat laboratory and right into the well-funded yet severely haunted museum location, where extended sections of relatively untreated orchestral strings recorded by a well-funded symphony orchestra sometime in a stuffy studio in the 1960s are the occasional resting places where the carpet finally stops moving from under you . . . until you realize you’re not actually safe there either. Not safe at all. Point being, this should be the record that finally crosses Twig over and gets him some of that Caretaker money.
ACETONE Cindy CD (VERNON YARD) Calling all fellow grunge apologists, you know who you are, those of us who still jam Dirt and Badmotorfinger at least once a year (hell, even brief quinquennial dips back into the Mother Love Bone catalog are allowed), and saying HEY: those records are great, but you can’t acknowledge all those superstar MTV grunge records without acknowledging the sleeper grandaddy no-MTV no-star grunge record of them all, particularly in the spaced-out power-trio subcategory (you know, the Crazy Horse > Dinosaur Jr. branch of the grunge tree), the one and only debut full-length by the secret power-trio kings of Northeast Los Angeles, the band known as Acetone and their 1993 album Cindy. The secret ingredient is taking Horse > Dino scorch and somehow perfectly infusing it with the cold L.A. spirit of Chet Baker himself, and this is a beautiful, mysterious, and melancholy album that I’ve been listening to steadily since the year it came out and the record store I worked at had a promo copy. (I don’t want to go into the very sad thing that every band/album mentioned in this review except Horse > Dino have in common, but how emotionally devastating was it to be a 1990s West Coast grunge vocalist?)
NO-NECK BLUES BAND Letters From The Earth 2CD (SER/SOUND@ONE) The double-CD album can be one of the heaviest music formats of all time (I submit the content of this Instagram post from 2018 for some preliminary evidence), and has been a preferred format over the years for one heavy band in particular, New York City’s No-Neck Blues Band. Looking back at their body of work, specifically what they were doing in the late 1990s, I find some of my very favorite moments are what I would call a super-extended noise/tribal percussion groove, which works well on the double-CD, unlimited by the constraints of one side of 12-inch vinyl. I know this groove could be, and I think in NNCK’s case actually was, described by detractors as the band doing a “drum circle”; you rock’n’roll tough-guys always do have to cry hippie as quickly as possible, don’t you? Look, I get it, NNCK was and is an extremely bearded and quite long-haired group of people, and depending on set and setting, and how much patchouli is wafting through the air, any detractor should have all the easy anti-hippie fuel they need to burn. That’s why it can be nice to remove the visual (not to mention olfactory) completely and just listen to a recording, the music standing alone, that strange shaken percussion groove ongoing for over 30 minutes at a time, sometimes almost invisibly, while mysterious ghosts of psychedelic rock and musique concrete and harsh noise whisper and play quietly in the invisible shadows. I’m really just describing the key track “John the Baptist,” track two on disc two of Letters From The Earth, the only real track in the explicit drum-circle style on this entire double CD, much of the rest of it still having a foot in the primitive beatless basement-Xenakis goings-on of the Recorded in Public and Private LP that preceded it. And of course it’s reductive to just talk about drum circles here, because really NNCK isn’t just embracing the superficial hippie concept of the drum circle, they’re taking it and embuing it with something much deeper, what they might’ve learned from the music of Sun Ra but that literally goes back thousands of years, which is drum-circle rhythms as a tool for actual inner/outer spaceways-travelling (see also reggae’s heavy use of hand-drums, particularly in the roots, dub, and nyabinghi subgenres).