Monday, April 16, 2018

Allen Ravenstine's "Waiting for the Bomb"

Present at the creation of abrasive experimental rockers Pere Ubu, synthesizer whiz Allen Ravenstine spent 15 years and change with the band and related outfits (Red Krayola, David Thomas' Wooden Birds) before stepping out in the early '90s to take off on a career as an airline pilot. He was pulled back into music after performing with current Ubu synthesist Robert Wheeler during the filming of the 2014 documentary I Dream of Wires. Two collaborative CDs with Wheeler (Farm Report and City Desk, both released in 2013 by Blue Jet Corporation) were followed by a solo CD, The Pharaoh's Bee, released in 2015 on former Henry Cow/Ubu drummer Chris Cutler's Recommended Records label. Now, ReR plans to release Ravenstine's latest album, Waiting for the Bomb, in LP, CD, and digital formats on June 29.

Ravenstine cut basic tracks for Waiting for the Bomb using a Moog Theremini, Doepfler Dark Energy Korg MS 20, Rare Waves Grendel Grenadier drone synth, and a home computer, then had a piano-bass (doubling on trumpet)-drums trio overdub their traditional instrument sounds onto the soundscapes he'd created. The resultant 18 tracks seamlessly integrate the electronic and acoustic textures in a mind-movie soundtrack that includes ghostly ambience, classical orchestration, East Indian pop, and straight-ahead jazz, among other flavors. But is the movie sci-fi or noir? The answer, of course, is "Yes." The title alludes to the pervasive sense of dread Cold War babies experienced growing up, which has perhaps been replaced by something worse. (Does anybody else miss the illusion that the people calling the shots were rational actors?) Most evocative track (to these feedback-scorched ears) is the sustained foreboding of "Out Late." Fasten your seatbelts; Captain Ravenstine is in control...

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Chris Butler's "Got It Togehter!"


When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.
- Chinua Achebe (quoted by my wife on Facebook)

As a music fan, I've been swinging after the pitch since I "discovered" the Yardbirds when I was 13, while the rest of my age cohort was digging Led Zep, Grand Funk, and Sabbath. That's right: I am old. (Remember that Police song called "Born In the Fifties?" Heh.) A few years ago, when I was busy all the time, a friend got me a subscription to Rolling Stone. Now that we are not busy all the time, my wife and I are catching up on the last five years. I'm reading Springsteen's book out of the library, and we're listening a lot to Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves. There are, however, musical enthusiasms on which I stay more up-to-date.

One of those enthusiasms is Chris Butler, whose 2013 album Easy Life -- a coming-of-age tale of its author's Every College Kid life, which was torn asunder by the 1970 Kent State massacre, to which he was a witness -- was the last record (well, CD) after Brian Wilson's 2004 Smile that I had to keep playing and playing (particularly the song "Beggar's Bullets") until my wife politely asked, "Do you have to listen to that so much?" (and she's a tolerant soul, when it comes to my musical enthusiasms).

Butler, once the songwriting secret weapon of Tin Huey and the Waitresses, is perhaps best known for owning serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's childhood home, or for recording the world's longest recorded pop song. As a writer, Butler's a great storyteller, whether his medium is prose, film, or songs. His website is full of examples, which you are hereby heartily encouraged to investigate. Now, he's got a new album out -- available on physical CD via his Bandcamp page (with streaming/downloads to follow via estimable indie Smog Veil; link will be added here when available) -- and it's a corker.

Unlike my first fave songwriter, Pete Townshend -- who did his best work before he was 30 and spent the next decade grousing about it before becoming retrospectively focused in his 40s -- Butler's songcraft has broadened and deepened in his maturity. And unlike my other favorite songwriter, Lou Reed, who had an unexpected third hot streak in his fourth decade, Butler's less concerned with encroaching mortality (Uncle Lou's preoccupation on Magic and Loss, which just might be my favorite album of his) than with the problems of living past the age when you realize that the alternative to being old isn't being young. (He's joked about prohibiting anyone under 40 from buying Get It Togehter! -- "They wouldn't get it." I beg to differ -- but I could also be wrong.)

Here, Butler's subject matter includes an imaginary musician crush ("Songs For Guys"), the joy of winding somebody up till they snap ("New Enemy"), seasonal change as mortality metaphor ("Summer Money"), responsibility as a damper to erotic enjoyment ("Late For Work": "I ran after you like a man late for work...Not like you're late for an exam / In a class you can't stand / In a useless subject that you'll never use again"), reasons to not have kids ("Mommy Glow"), the psychic struggles attendant to quitting smoking (the Tin Huey homage "Nicotine Weather"), and the awkwardness of attending acquaintances' memorials ("Awake;" I won't give away the punchline, but it's a knockout).

The heart of the matter resides in the triptych of "Never Been Old Before" (which captures the desperation of trying to impart your cultural legacy to indifferent youngsters -- "This is the Who on Shindig! / That's a Bugatti!...I was right here on May 4th! / If you say you're bored / You're not paying attention"), "Bitch Box" ("Get off my lawn" from the porch sitter's perspective -- "What do you want? / Just don't hurt me anymore"), and the R&B-tinged "Better Than I Ever Was" (which teases triumph out of having tackled life's trials 'n' tribs).

After that, things wind down with the synth-driven "The Whirlaway" and an alternate take of "Better Than I Ever Was," which reminds us that Butler can shred on a Rickenbacker 12-string better than McGuinn, Reed, and Roy Wood put together (part of the fun of this music is hearing his pop, prog, and psychedelic instincts fighting it out). Lyrically, he undercuts poignancy with sardonic humor -- until "Touch of Gray," a song about his grandfather that he wrote in the '80s, before that Dead song of the same name. The valedictory "Curious Girls" (a '90s leftover, curiously sung by someone other than Butler) serves as a palate cleanser to this feast of song.

When I was 11, I imagined Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends as the sound of what being 21 was going to feel like. Fifty years later, this album is the sound of what I feel like right now. Listen: Chris Butler's making the best music of his life. Hear him if you can.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

For CT

end of an era
last man standing
from a time when giants walked

the way you shaped and molded sound
like a dancer's leaps or
the way billie holiday phrased

you reimagined form
in a way others may understand
in another 60 years

trane was easy
even rockarollas could ape
his modal flights (if not his spirit)

ornette was also easy
to mistake for a spacey cat from texas
even after he changed the rules of his own game

you had the syntax
of the doctor or lawyer your mother imagined
hiding the soul of a poet

rest easy, master of music
go make those 88 tuned bongos
shake the gates of heaven

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

About "Astral Weeks"

1) It's the record I used to give to women I liked. I said I'd bought my last copy, since meeting my wife in '03, but then my buddy Dan told me he had a vinyl copy (which I've never owned, having become aware of it after reading St. Lester's famous paean when Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung appeared in '87, at the dawn of the CD era) in his store. Never say never again, James Bond.

2) I'd read St. Lester's take on Astral Weeks when it originally appeared in Greil Marcus' desert island disc compendium Stranded back in '79, but at that time, I still blamed Van Morrison for the legion of gravel-voiced white R&B dudes (in which category I sometimes unfairly lumped such disparate artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, and Phil Lynott, among others) that sprang up in the wake of his Moondance mega-success. And that was before "Brown Eyed Girl" topped my list of "songs I never want to hear another bar band play for the rest of my life," surpassing even "Mustang Sally." It seems I wasn't alone. His ex-wife/former muse apparently can't stand to hear his music even today, and his one-time label boss, who once bought him out of a crooked management contract by dropping $20,000 in cash in an abandoned warehouse, remembers him as "a hateful little guy."

3) I'd been touched by Astral Weeks long before that, but didn't realize it. The same year ('70) I beheld Iggy 'n' Alice at the Cincinnati Pop Festival on NBC, I also caught a show on PBS, taped at the Fillmore East, that featured Van topping a bill which also included Albert King in his prime (singing, playing, and embodying "Blues Power") and the Clarence White-era Byrds (doing "Eight Miles High" with an interminable bass solo a la Untitled). Near the end of a riveting performance of "Cyprus Avenue," he started riffing on the line "You were standing there / in all your revelation," pacing back and forth, staring intently at his feet, repeating each phrase over and over until I thought he'd lost his mind -- but I couldn't look away. It was more intense, and more cathartic, than Ig's peanut butter smearage or Alice's pie in the face. I'd had no religious upbringing and wasn't yet tuned into the spiritual realm in any sense, but I could tell this cat was into something deep. When I finally heard the album, I was disappointed to discover that the bit that had so seared my synapses wasn't in the recorded version, although I heard echoes from the same place in the ecstatic repetitions of "Never never," "You breathe in you breathe out," and "You turn around" in "Beside You," or "Goodbye," "Dry your eye," and "The loves to love" in "Madame George."

4) I'm a sucker for stories about local music scenes, dating back to the time when I was freshly out of the service and moonlighting at the record store I'd originally come to Fort Worth to open. It was my good fortune then to stumble on the MC5's Thunder Express CD and the first editions of From the Velvets to the Voidoids and Please Kill Me around the same time, which got me re-obsessed with the Detroit ramalama I'd loved as a teen (before the slightly older cats whose opinions I respected browbeat me out of it -- stupid, stupid boy). I wound up writing 10,000 word articles about obscuro Detroit bands for fanzines and webzines before I got shitcanned from my soul-destroying corporate gig and had to try and make a living writing about local music for my city's giveaway alt-weekly arts rag. In my dotage, I've become quite interested in the '60s-'70s Cleveland/Akron/Kent scenes, which has made me a devoted follower of Nick Blakey's copiously detailed and well-researched liner notes for indie label Smog Veil's ongoing archival "Platters du Cuyahoga" series, not to mention a reader of tomes such as Deanna R. Adams' encyclopedic Rock 'n' Roll and the Cleveland Connection and Calvin C. Rydbom's slimmer and more narrowly focused The Akron Sound: The Heyday of the Midwest's Punk Capital. So I was intrigued to read a New Yorker piece about Ryan H. Walsh's Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 -- basically a time capsule from author Walsh's hometown, Boston, during the time Morrison was living there and germinating his singular masterpiece. (Also the source of the ex-wife/label boss insights above.)

5) Am I the only one who misheard "I've got a home on high" as "I've got a hormone high?" Or connected "Madame George" in my mind with "Sister Ray?" The most disturbing anecdote in Walsh's book (well -- except for the one about the New Jersey muso who played with Van in Boston and was subsequently murdered) comes from Morrison's Boston drummer, who recalls the singer repeatedly frightening away young female fans by whispering in their ears, which seems to support St. Lester's contention that pedophilia was a recurring theme in Van's lyrics (going back to Them's "Little Girl" and "Hey Girl," not to mention "Cyprus Avenue"'s "So young and bold / 14, yeah I know"). Of course, you could say the same thing about Sonny Boy Williamson (in fact, I once played with a singer who had to change the words of "Good Morning Little School Girl" to "Good Morning Pretty Lady" before he would sing it). Are creepiness and great art mutually exclusive? Discuss among yourselves.

6) I knew a little of the lore of Astral Weeks, some of which Walsh debunks. Contrary to the John Cale story to which St. Lester referred, Van didn't record his parts separately from the backing musicians, although Walsh's account -- based on interviews with participants and eyewitnesses -- indicates that the singer spent most of the sessions in an isolation booth and didn't interact with the musos. And the music didn't spring fully formed out of its author's head; the album's all-acoustic approach (which was a departure from his work with the Belfast R&B outfit Them, as well as his solo debut Blowin' Your Mind) took shape in a series of August 1968 trio gigs in a Boston cellar nightclub called the Catacombs. One of the most intriguing threads in Walsh's narrative concerns a recording from one of those nights made by Morrison's friend, late night DJ and future J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf, and Walsh's quest to find and hear Wolf's tape, and share it with Van's Boston musicians.

7) A big chunk of Walsh's book is devoted to the Fort Hill Community, aka the Mel Lyman Family, a still-extant cult founded by the charismatic and manipulative former harmonica player for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (whom they say died in 1978), which gained notoriety as the subject of a 1971 Rolling Stone piece by David Dalton. There's also material on the Lyman Family's underground newspaper, Avatar; the TV experiments of Shakespearean scholar and "accidental" broadcaster David Silver; the "Bosstown Sound," a failed attempt by MGM Records to make the city on the Charles the next Liverpool or San Francisco; the Velvet Underground's long association with the Boston Tea Party, ubiquitous mover 'n' shaker Ray Riepen's answer to the West Coast's psychedelic ballrooms; the film industry in Boston ca. '68 (including box-office blockbusters The Thomas Crown Affair and The Boston Strangler as well as muckraking documentary Titicut Follies and Michelangelo Antonioni's youth culture cash-in Zabriskie Point, whose star was a Lyman Family member); Boston's historic involvement in spiritualism and the occult, and its role as the cradle of US psychedelic culture; the birth of underground radio at WBCN; and the James Brown concert that kept Boston from rioting in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination. It's a lot of ground to cover, and there's no real unity that emerges, but it's all well reported and gives a strong sense of the cultural ferment of the era -- an atmosphere that's hard to relate to the timeless, healing balm of Astral Weeks.

8) I saw Van Morrison in 1979 at Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters, when he was touring the album Into the Music. He had as strong of a spiritual presence as any performer I've ever witnessed except for Patti Smith. At no time, though, did he approach the intense catharsis of that 1970 Fillmore East "Cyprus Avenue."

9) Like no other record I know of, the music on Astral Weeks sounds all of a piece, as if it were flowing from some deep well: the stream-of-conscious poetry (here is Eliot's "perfect order of speech and...beauty of incantation" incarnate), the extemporized backing by world-class jazz musicians in between jingle gigs, the overdubbed solos (the harpsichord and in particular, that violin!) and string arrangements (which Morrison has disavowed at times over the years). I could listen over and over again (and did, for an afternoon, while writing this). In some ways, the hero of the piece is producer Lewis Merenstein, a true believer in Morrison's talent who was perplexed by the singer's ambivalence about the album they worked on together, and died shortly after being interviewed by Walsh.

10) And of course, come to find out there's a reissue from 2015 with bonus tracks, including longer versions of "Ballerina" and "Slim Slow Slider." I don't want to hear it. What can you add that would improve on perfection? (And for what it's worth, when Walsh plays one of the extended versions to one of the participants, the musician says very definitely, "That's not what happened." Messing with the past is funny business. So much for completism.) From the opening song's "To be born again" to its closing one's "I know you're dying / And I know you know it, too," Astral Weeks manages to encompass all the wonder and mystery of life -- with the option, Walsh points out, of reincarnation every time you turn the record over. And I do, I do, I do.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ornette Coleman's "The Atlantic Years"

To be a jazz fan is to be a fan of eras more than specific records. This is particularly true for artists who were active prior to the advent of LPs, but also after.

F'rinstance, when I was slinging platters at Panther City Vinyl awhile back, a customer came in seeking Billie Holiday. The question then becomes which Billie: young and exuberant (her early, John Hammond-produced Columbias, made for the jukebox market with small groups comprising the cream of the era's jazz soloists), in her hitmaking prime (the arranged, orchestrated sides she cut with Milt Gabler for Commodore and Decca), or mature and diminished (the small group dates she cut for Norman Granz at Verve, when her instrument was showing the ravages of hard living)? "Most damaged," the customer said, which made the choice simple, since I'd spied a copy of Lady In Satin, Billie's Columbia swan song, made with an orchestra when her voice was but a husk, but she could still get by on her phrasing alone.

A discriminating friend refers to pre-Bitches Brew Miles Davis as "suit Miles" -- a far cry from the acolytes of the highly individuated trumpeter-bandleader's earlier work who dismissed his '70s oeuvre when it was new.

Listening to Ornette Coleman's Atlantic albums -- to be reissued May 11 in a 10 LP box by Rhino -- it's instructive to remember how controversial the Fort Worth native's music was when he first emerged on the national scene at the end of the '50s. (A 2006 tome about his quartet's debut New York City engagement bears the title The Battle of the Five Spot.) Coleman's "classic" quartet -- himself on alto saxophone, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins -- superficially sounded like bebop, the style -- highlighted by velocity and harmonic complexity -- that had dominated jazz since the end of World War II. But Coleman's compositions eschewed the Tin Pan Alley chord changes that had provided the basis for jazz improvisation since Armstrong, adopting a freer approach to melodic invention -- even freer than Miles (Kind of Blue) and John Coltrane (Giant Steps), who were using modes and scales, rather than chords, as the basis for their explorations around the same time. His horn and his tunes had the cry of the blues he'd come up playing in Texas, and a vocalized quality that came as close as any music has to the sound of human lamentation, while sometimes sounding as simple as children's nursery rhymes. As much as these sides sound like heartbeat today, back in '59, they had the capacity to drive supporters/detractors to levels of vituperation and spleen worthy of today's social media flame wars.

Coleman went on to compose for classical ensembles (most notably his symphony Skies of America, recorded for Columbia in 1972 and performed by the Fort Worth Symphony in 1983, during the week when Mayor Bob Bolen presented Ornette the key to the city) and perform with an electric band, Prime Time (whose 1976 debut recording for A&M Horizon, Dancing In Your Head, upset at least as many people as the original quartet's Five Spot stand had). He recorded extensively, for labels including ESP-Disk, Blue Note, Flying Dutchman, Artists House, Antilles, Caravan of Dreams (sentimental favorite at my house), and Verve. But the Atlantics hold a special place in his canon, not just because of their historic and groundbreaking nature, but because of the fidelity with which the New York engineers Atlantic employed were able to capture the sound of the acoustic group. (To hear what I mean, side-by-side these with the recordings similarly configured Coleman units waxed for Impulse and Columbia.)

The Rhino box includes the six original LPs that were released between 1959 and 1961, three LPs of session outtakes that appeared between 1970 and 1975 (one of those only in Japan), and a tenth disc, The Ornette Coleman Legacy, containing six additional outtakes that first saw the light of day in 1993 on Rhino's Beauty Is A Rare Thing CD box, here making their first appearance on vinyl.

Originally released in 1959, The Shape of Jazz To Come introduces signature Coleman compositions "Lonely Woman" (in which a dirge-like theme unfolds over a hyperactive rhythm section, a trademark of Ornette's) and "Peace," while Change of the Century boasts more assured playing from the quartet on numbers like "Ramblin'" (which includes a Charlie Haden bass solo from which punk-era Brit Ian Dury stole the melody he used in "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll"), "Free," and "Una Muy Bonita" (which shows that Ornette was listening to the mariachi music he heard growing up in Fort Worth). Released in 1960, This Is Our Music is the first recording of Ed Blackwell -- whose playing shows the influence of his home city, New Orleans -- in place of Billy Higgins on drums. (Following a narcotics bust, Higgins -- unable to play New York clubs -- became a house drummer for Blue Note Records, performing on epoch-defining sides like Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder.") On the track "Beauty Is A Rare Thing," the quartet improvises freely without a regular pulse, looking forward to the Art Ensemble of Chicago's sonic experiments. A version of the Gershwin brothers' "Embraceable You" applies Coleman's methods to Tin Pan Alley material.

Besides providing a name for a genre (although Ornette didn't dig the label), Free Jazz was unprecedented when it appeared in 1961 -- a collective improvisation by a "double quartet" (the gigging unit of Coleman, Cherry, Haden, and Blackwell, augmented by Higgins, heroic multi-reedman Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and bassist Scott LaFaro) that took up both sides of an LP. (When Dolphy was in Charles Mingus' band, the titanic bassist-composer had challenged him and trumpeter Ted Curson to play like Ornette and Cherry after hearing the Coleman quartet at the Five Spot. It's no surprise, then, that the track "Folk Forms No. 1" from the 1960 LP Mingus Presents Mingus sounds a lot like "Ramblin'.") The ensemble plays dissonant fanfares before and between each musician's solo turn (with commentary from the ensemble). Much of it sounds rather tame, particularly rhythmically, in comparison to later works in similar vein by Coltrane (Ascension) or Peter Brotzmann (Machine Gun), but Free Jazz was the template. As mentioned earlier, the recording quality is notably superior to the '71 sides Coleman cut with a septet for Columbia (released on 1972's Science Fiction and 1982's Broken Shadows).

LaFaro, best known for his work with pianist Bill Evans, replaced Haden (struggling with narcotics addiction) for the 1961 release Ornette! (which came replete with cryptic initialized titles derived from Sigmund Freud's works). He's a busier player than the dark, brooding Haden, and his momentum pushes Coleman and Cherry, whose interaction by now was approaching telepathy. For Ornette On Tenor, released in 1962, Coleman returns to the larger horn he hadn't played since his Texas rhythm and blues days, and Jimmy Garrison supersedes LaFaro (killed in a car accident) on bass. John Coltrane was listening, and stole Garrison to serve as the last element in his own "classic" quartet. Following this album, Coleman disbanded his quartet and formed a trio with another Fort Worth expatriate, drummer Charles Moffett, and bassist David Izenzon. Cherry and Higgins joined Sonny Rollins' band. They'd also made a record for Atlantic, including some Coleman tunes, with Coltrane. Ornette's influence was spreading. The original quartet members would reunite for the aforementioned Columbia sessions in '71.

Meanwhile, Atlantic released two compilations of Coleman outtakes in '70 and '71. The Art of the Improvisers offers a nice cross-section of work by the '59-'61 bands, with LaFaro and Garrison on one track each. Twins features "First Take," a more succinct 17-minute run-through of "Free Jazz,"  and session outtakes from The Shape of Jazz To Come, This Is Our Music, and Ornette! The 1975 Japanese-only release To Whom Who Keeps A Record is essentially an alternate This Is Our Music, with all but one '59 track originating from those sessions. The Ornette Coleman Legacy is a further testament to the level of creativity at which Coleman and Co. were operating during those 1960 sessions: five of the tracks were cut on a single day in July, with another from the Ornette! sessions to fill out the LP.

The accompanying booklet gives you liner notes by Ben Ratliff -- the New York Times' last great jazz critic! -- and photos by Lee Friedlander to engage you verbally and visually while the records spin. Taken altogether, The Atlantic Years is an impressive edifice and a nice cornerstone for a jazz record collection.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Things we like: St. Vincent

1) Recently seen in the comments to a Prince video on Youtube: "Prince was such a great guitarist, he could have had a great career in rock, if he hadn't wasted himself on pop." Sigh.

2) Is Annie Clark the new Bowie/Prince or what? Her music is that ambitious, her persona that big.

3) I'll admit that I first became interested in her music because the 1967 Harmony Bobkat she played on Strange Mercy reminded me of my old Harmony Silvertone 1478 Silhouette (the "one that got away" in my Blogger profile pic, since reished with better pickups and a Bigsby). It made my heart glad to know that she was playing vintage, rather than a custom job. And that someone who actually knew how to play could light up the strings on such an axe so brilliantly. (She now has a signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitar.)

4) A muso friend whose opinion I respect recently purchased the entire St. Vincent catalog. "It's amazing," he said. "This music even has harmonic movement. Is there anybody else out there like this? (Don't respond if you don't know what 'harmonic movement' is.)" We recently followed suit. He'd listened to her albums chronologically, but we're not those people, so we slipped in her second, Actor, and had our synapses zapped with gorgeous indie psychedelia replete with beguiling melodies and, yes, honest-to-goodness chord changes, swimming against the tide of this age of drone 'n' groove. "Will wonders never cease?" we marveled.

5) As Iggy said, "Break it down": St. Vincent is a pop figure, one whose presentation is based on an ever-more stylized persona. Yet, she's also her own boss -- she calls her own shots, writes her own tunes, is less akin to your stereotypical autotuned diva with multiple writers and producers than she is to brainy art-rockers like Bowie, Eno, and David Byrne, with whom she collaborated on 2012's Love This Giant. I think it's possible that the social media teapot tempest over Mr. Byrne's failure to include any women on his subsequent collabs project could be down to Annie scaring the bejeezus out of him. My wife thinks working with Annie "humanized" him a bit, and I suspect it might have given her songwriting a kick in the ass. (The sonic palette she employs on my favorite album of hers, the self-titled one from 2014, is basically the same as the one from Strange Mercy, but with more immediately arresting songs. Although you can't mess with "Cruel." And "Cheerleader.")

6) Her work process while composing can be hermetic, and in her current live show, she's the only performer who appears onstage.

7) I need a few more spins -- maybe in the car, my "deep listening space" these days -- to get friendly with her newie, MASSEDUCTION. There's nothing I've heard so far that jumps out and grabs me, but it's nice to have a performer whose work can require focus and attention to get next to. (Which reminds me, we're overdue for a "deep" listen to Laurie Anderson's newie with the Kronos Quartet.)

8) Is the title character of MASSEDUCTION's "Happy Birthday Johnny" the same as the previous album's "Prince Johnny?" Their circumstances sound quite different, but someone who could see himself in Jim Carroll, take a fix and set his room on fire might also be capable of extorting a piece of the Berlin Wall -- to snort. One wonders.

9) Listening to her albums from 2007's Marry Me up to St. Vincent in sequence, you can hear an artist steadily gaining assurance and control. The backing on the debut seems cluttered and obtrusive compared to the self-titled record, even when the latter-day musos are playing flashier stuff. (Bobby Sparks' Minimoog is particularly crucial.) The glossy electronic sheen of St. Vincent's instrumental backing -- bass-heavy, in the modern way, everything mixed louder than everything else -- sets the human frailty of her voice in striking relief. So when she tops a Bo Diddley beat with synth squiggles before intoning "BringmeyourlovesallyourlovesIwannalovethemtooyaknow," you figure she means it.

10) Some of the St. Vincent tracks that initially elicited Prince comparisons ("Birth in Reverse" and "Digital Witness" in particular) now seem as redolent of Kraftwerk, and Giorgio Moroder. "Icy funk" might seem like an oxymoron, but don't tell those damned clever Euros.

11) "I Prefer Your Love" ("...to Jesus") sounded like the ultimate answer song to "Belle" at first. Then I read it's about her mother, which explains "All the good in me is because of you." What parent wouldn't appreciate hearing that?

12) Right now, the song of hers that resonates the most with me is "Severed Crossed Fingers," with its lyrics about trying to find hope where there's none -- a worthwhile undertaking these days. I have no idea what she's literally singing about, but it doesn't matter. The personal can be universal. How fortunate are we.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

3.9.2018, Fort Worth

My wife and I hadn't been out to a show together in over five years, but last night, we trekked over to the Tin Panther -- the former home of tiny-but-storied J&J's Blues Bar (where she once saw John Lee Hooker, and where my friend, the late Hosea Robinson, once got to blow harp behind Hubert Sumlin) -- to see Andy Pickett and Big Heaven (the latter of whom wound up not performing, due to Amanda Hand's illness, for which the always-entertaining Jesse Gage compensated by playing a solo set, with four-piece jam band Chillamundo in between). Tin Panther manager Tyler Stevens learned the ropes slinging drinks at Lola's and booking bands for the Cowtown Bowling Palace (where the li'l Stooge band once played one of our most satisfactory gigs). We wish her many years of success there!

Andy's another Fairmount phenom (like Leon Bridges and Cameron Smith -- 60 percent of whose band War Party also plays in Andy's band) who's been making waves locally for about as long as my wife and I have been off the set, although I heard and dug his 2015 digital debut It Happens Every Night for its dryly humorous observations of the passing scene. As a soulful, piano-playing singer-songwriter, he manages to skirt the obvious comparisons, with a voice that covers a spectrum from phlegmy growl to angelic falsetto, and a self-deprecating wit that, on this night, extended to introducing the members of his ten-piece band by name and astrological sign at the beginning of the set.

The Tin Panther stage is not large, so the band wound up deploying with the riddim section (War Party's Peter Marsh on drums, Christopher Gomez on bass, Cam Smith and my old Wreck Room ally Brock Miller on guitars, and Ray Osborn on synth) occupying the stage, the four horns (War Party's Ricky Williford on trumpet, Ben Marrow and amazing youngster Reid Murphy -- about whom, more in a minute -- on tenor saxes, and first album co-producer/Telegraph Canyon-ite Chuck Brown on trombone), with Andy himself seated facing the band with his back to the audience. I didn't sense any Miles-ian contempt in the gesture, but figure Andy's just a self-effacing cat who also wanted to be able to direct the band, whose sound was impressively on-point and uncluttered (although they could have used some more vocal mics, no knock against sound tech Khalif Dove, son of another old Wreck Room ally).

The set was heavy on tunes from Andy's self-titled newie on Dreamy Life, which was cut in Austin with White Denim's James Petralli and Steve Terebicki, and drops (digitally and on sweet, sweet vinyl) on April 1st -- no fooling. So far, my favorites from thatun are "Paid," which voices a universally understandable sentiment, and for which an intriguing video exists, and the self-explanatory "I Love My Piano," on which the aforementioned Reid Murphy took a blazing, King Curtis-on-steroids-via-late-Coltrane solo that broke the place up. A kid to watch. Reid got another solo turn when the crowd demanded, and Andy granted an encore of his signature tune, "It Happens Every Night," which had folks singing along. Hopefully a lot more of us will get to see this engaging unit, which has upcoming gigs at SXSW, the Fortress Festival, and Friday on the Green.