Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Look Both Ways #11: Feeling (W)iggy with a New King

King Khan and the Shrines are definitely a throwback, albeit a triumphantly forward-looking one. Where exactly they’re throwing us back to, though, is tough to say. Is it to 1974 New York City, where the Ramones’ black leather jackets blend into the damp, dark walls of CBGB as they tear through an early version of “Blitzkrieg Bop”? Is it to Abbey Road Studios in 1967, where the Zombies are bringing psychadelia to a boil with their single, “Time of the Season”? Maybe it’s to 1964, when the Rolling Stones and the Animals are recording their first Chuck Berry covers, prompting bluesman Sonny Boy Willamson II to muse, “Those English kids want to play the blues so bad, and they play the blues so bad.” Or is it to Harlem in 1962, when James Brown’s Famous Flames are tearing up the stage at the Apollo with hyperactive horns and unrelenting theatrics?

King Khan charges all the delirious mania of the psychedelic era into his soul confessor’s shout. He layers horns on top of wildly distorted guitars. He uses the ominous haze of a minor key like few musicians after Eric Burdon have been able to. In fact, the sound of Khan’s insouciant youthfulness is so tied up in the 1960s that it seems difficult to accept the overwhelming punk influence on this record.

His band teeters carelessly at the precipice of sanity, threatening to launch off with us strapped precariously to its back (kicking and screaming, yes, but laughing in spite of ourselves). And in this way it distinctly recalls four true children of the ’60s who are widely credited as the godparents of punk rock: the Stooges.

Two years ago, King Khan and the Shrines released an incredible album, What Is?!, in Europe. The LP finally got its due across the pond last week, when Vice Records released it in the United States.

The Stooges released their debut album, The Stooges, 40 years ago after frontman Iggy Pop drew inspiration from MC5 and the Doors to escape the derivative blues model of so many British Invasion bands. The Stooges fused the rhythmic and lyrical repetition of a blues stomp with the frustrated romanticism of post-adolescence and created a heavier, grimier and more lascivious music. Five years later, punk rock would emerge as a slightly whittled-down version of that sound.

There is nothing whittled down about King Khan. He takes the Stooges’ nasty guitar pulse and throws in an organ and some blustering horns. He takes the deadpan exasperation of Iggy’s lyrics and kicks it into fifth gear, often consciously bordering on self-parody. King Khan even takes Iggy’s incendiary stage presence (he was famous for climbing into the crowd and was often smeared in his own blood by the end of concerts) and adds a go-go dancer. No, I’m serious—Bamboorella is the Shrines’ full-time go-go dancer.

There’s a cockiness about both these singers that’s engendered by a supreme sense of nothing to lose. On “Real Cool Time,” a bass-heavy three-chord jam bathed in distortion and wah wah, Iggy sings, “Can I come over tonight?/ What do you think I wanna do?/ That’s right.” The same know-it-all nonchalance imbues King Khan’s “(How Can I Keep You) Outta Harm’s Way,” which sounds like the Zombies and the Animals got their hands on some horns and somehow churned out a hard-rock tune. King Khan wails, “Spilling all your honey and lies/ Got you nothing but grief/ I can hold you, baby, in my arms,/ Give you a little relief/ Believe me, baby, and understand,/ I got you here in the palm of my hand.”

King Khan’s influences are as wide-ranging and unpredictable as his stage antics, but he leaves listeners no choice but to join him in surrendering to an intense brew of emotions—the powerlessness of youth, a need for sexual commiseration, the unstoppable urge to just forget it all and dance. It was Iggy Pop’s unflinching representation of these very torments that made him so revolutionary and keeps his music fresh today.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the April 27 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

New Song from Sunset Rubdown: 'Idiot Heart'

Sunset Rubdown have offered up a substantial aperitif to get us primed for their new album, Dragonslayer, due on June 23. The six-minute-long “Idiot Heart” is now available for free download. Just click here. On the idiot spectrum, it's way better than "American Idiot," not nearly as good as "Idiot Wind." But that really doesn't tell you much.

From this track’s very first moment, you know it’s Sunset Rubdown. There are those reverby electric guitar chords, distorted to the point of sounding like not just the strings but the guitar itself is made entirely of metal.

A second guitar starts spitting back, panned to the opposite side and full of a ’70s-esque, fuzzy distortion. The sound borders on Boston, which turns out to be prognostic: the entire song is pretty heavily produced for Sunset Rubdown. Some chimes join in, then a halting rhythm section and a spacey lead guitar, and we’re off.

The song reaches high, and it’s better off for it. The big problem with Random Spirit Lover, the group’s 2007 LP, was that it was full of songs that threatened to get stuck in your head but lost their adhesive as soon as they faded out. (Take “The Mending of the Gown,” for instance.) The album was also undisciplined, filled with wordy meanderings that made Sunset Rubdown too easy to write off as the back-alley open mic joint where frontman Spencer Krug went to recite the crap he’d written but wasn’t sure enough about to bring to his brightest buddies (that would be Wolf Parade). But in turning up the focus, Sunset Rubdown is also running the risk of losing its spark and sounding a touch too rehearsed.

If we’re lucky Dragonslayer will achieve the balance between grating and grabbing that the boys struck last time around on “The Courtesan Has Sung.”

For now, I’m pretty glad to have “Idiot Heart.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Look Both Ways #10: Squarepusher has Tomorrow’s 'Weather' Forecast

Experimental musician Squarepusher, a.k.a. Tom Jenkinson, recorded an album last year inspired by something that most people might assume to have been a psychedelic-drug-induced hallucination. Jenkinson laconically calls it “a daydream.” In this fantasy, a magical rock band played a concert involving a guitarist who could travel through time, an entire building that served as a bass amplifier, and drums that switched places with each other and received electromagnetic radiation from stars. The album that resulted, last year’s herky-jerky Just a Souvenir, is not for the faint of heart. But if you get jazzed, so to speak, by exploratory instrumental music, it’s a real gem from one of today’s best progressive musicians.

Squarepusher is performing this Friday in my temporary hometown of Bologna, Italy, so to prepare for the show I’ve been listening to Souvenir, his latest. I’m constantly reminded of its nagging similarities to innovative jazz-fusion group Weather Report’s 1976 LP, Black Market.

Weather Report was founded in the early 1970s by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, two preeminent expatriates of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way sessions. The group quickly moved away from these roots, embracing a highly arranged and more composition-based sound that cuddled even closer with rock music. Weather Report even scored a hit single – almost unheard of in instrumental music – with “Birdland” in 1977.

Squarepusher, meanwhile, is a one-man band from England who started out in the 1990s as a leader in the virtuosic genre of manic dance music known as drum and bass. Squarepusher has always incorporated jazz and rock into his music, and they are especially relevant on Souvenir.

It’s a truism for me to say that the differences between the artists I compare far outweigh the similarities, but in the case of the relentlessly innovative and unpredictable Squarepusher it bears mentioning. His music is absolutely not a direct legacy of Weather Report, but the similarities are there.

For one, the fretless electric bass is central to both records. Jenkinson’s primary instrument is the bass, and his playing – ranging from surprisingly ear-catching improvisations to rhythm-bending bass lines – is his music’s most engaging element. Black Market was the first Weather Report album to feature Jaco Pastorius, arguably the most influential electric bassist of all time. But it also showcased outgoing bassist Alphonso Johnson, who should not be lost in Pastorius’ shadow. Both players provide conspicuous, energetic foundations for the complex and highly rhythmic compositions on Black Market.

“Gibraltar” is Black Market’s most similar song to the music on Souvenir. When the rhythm section busts in at 1:20, we hear a Johnson bass line that strays from root notes and downbeats, playing games with the quick and funky drum part. Shorter and Zawunil double on melodies that zoom up and shoot back down, and I find myself nodding my head so forcefully it looks like a Dr. Dre beat must be coming through my headphones. On the Souvenir song “Planet Gear,” Squarepusher layers synth chords over a jumpy bass line and a mathy drumbeat, while a climbing, atmospheric synthesizer line recalls Shorter’s solos on the lyricon (a type of saxophone synthesizer he used on Black Market).

And forget about the comparisons for a moment—Souvenir is a record worth hearing regardless of context. To listen to Squarepusher’s bass improvisations on the song “Quadrature” is to hear him turn out scores of incredibly melodic phrases – each of which could serve as hooks for their own fusion compositions – while he ventures in and out of scales. Sometimes he glides along with the fleeting chords, sometimes he collides with them. Some of the phrases are jazz arpeggios and some are classical-influenced lines that stair-step downward, adding color to the chords beneath them.

  • To watch and/or download some high-quality videos of interviews with and performances by Squarepusher, click here and choose the "03. Watch" tab.
A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the April 13 issue of the Tufts Daily.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Look Both Ways #9: Wynton Marsalis and the Stories of Music

Much of what luminary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis does, including his work as musical director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, is aimed at keeping jazz music relevant. And last month, Marsalis came out with one of his most impossible-to-ignore new projects: a concept album composed of quick poetry readings and accompanying musical pieces performed by his jazz quintet. Gimmicky? Sure. Fun? Absolutely.

When I listen to the album, He and She, I’m often haunted by the mental image of Marsalis sitting in his Midtown Manhattan office, clad in a Brooks Brothers smoking jacket. He claps his hands and exclaims, “I know something they’ll all like—I’ll do a poetry album about puppy love, and I’ll play jazz tunes that go along with the poems!” Of course, this is unfair, and Marsalis deserves credit for pushing into new territory and coming away with something as refreshingly original and utterly enjoyable as He and She. That said, the pleasant music just isn’t as energetic or engaging as Marsalis’ best work.

To find a more timeless record that uses both spoken word and jazz to illustrate the emotions of romance, we have to go back in history but we don’t have to abandon Wynton. Seventeen years ago, he made a remarkable album, Blue Interlude, whose centerpiece is a 37-minute-long suite called “Blue Interlude (The Bittersweet Saga of Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie).”

In this piece, the Wynton Marsalis Septet uses instrumental music to narrate the dynamic relationship of two mythic lovers. But it’s not without the help of spoken word: in a monologue that precedes the suite, Marsalis introduces Sugar Cane and Sweetie Pie, interspersing the occasional piano line to help acquaint us with the characters. “Well now this is Sugar Cane,” he says, banging out two high, harsh chords on the keys. “As you can tell, he’s a very dissonant, high-strung sort of fellow, perhaps trapped in the gruffness of his own presentation.”

The suite itself comes off without a hitch, and its sheer force is owed to the players, who comprise one of Marsalis’ most exciting ensembles. The musicians handle with remarkable virtuosity the piece’s many time changes and blurry blend of strict arrangement, communal improvisation and big band-style horn harmonies that back a single player’s solo. There are happy times and sad times here, attraction and anger, confusion and confidence.

Where Blue Interlude gives its top-notch musicians ample time to stretch out with expressive solos, He and She concentrates more on discipline and structured arrangements. Occasionally, it can feel like it blurs the line between classical and jazz (both genres in which Marsalis is an expert) as much as it blends poetry and music. Long-form solos are scarce, and while the tonal tales of an endearing four-track suite on firsts (“First Crush,” “First Slow Dance,” “First Kiss” and “First Time”) surely get their point across, most jazz freaks would probably agree that Marsalis succeeds more comfortably when he is less concerned with realist representation and more inclined to let the old tricks of bebop work their magic.

For instance, the 12-minute-long “The Razor Rim” hits a stride thanks to unbridled solos from Marsalis and tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding. Pianist Dan Nimmer does his best McCoy Tyner over the tune’s mid-tempo, hard-bop feel, pounding out planar harmonies and thundering fifths in the low register.

Marsalis probably won’t become the Lincoln Center’s poet laureate, but the verses he uses to set up the music on He and She are whimsical and charming. The first poem runs, “What caused country blues men to claim / A man and a woman is a dangerous game? / Well every school boy knows one plus one equals two / And boys know less than girls do.” It’s followed by “School Boy,” a tune that lives up to its name by returning to an earlier time, striding along while Marsalis channels King Oliver. Nimmer polishes off a lively chordal solo à la Erroll Garner, and all told, the tune conjures the sneakiness of a class clown and the nostalgic joy of everyone’s first-grade memories.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the April 6 issue of the Tufts Daily.