The New Decay

for those who love myusik

Friday, February 15, 2008

Chicago Tunes

I've finally done it, and made a playlist to go with the last two posts.  I've saved it as a zip file which you can download here.  Enjoy!

Tracks are as follows:

1. The Mountain Goats - Cubs in Five (from Nine Dead Poppies)
2. Uncle Tupelo - Moonshiner(from March 1992)
3. The Handsome Family - Down in the Valley of Hallow Log (from Through the Tress)
4. The Jesus Lizard - Mouth Breather (from Goat)
5. Shellac - Ideas of the North (from At Action Park)
6. The Sea and Cake - Parasol (from Nassau)
7. Tortoise - Corpone Brunch Watt Remix (from A Lazarus Taxon)
8. The Sea and Cake - The Transaction (from The Biz)
9. Isotope 217 - La Jetee (from The Unstable Molecule)
10. Tortoise - TNT (from TNT)
11. Jim O'Rourke - Ghost Ship in a Storm (from Eureka)
12. Sam Prekop - Showrooms (from Sam Prekop)

Friday, February 08, 2008

Via Chicago Pt. 2

Let's talk about Post-Rock;

Coined by music critic Simon Reynolds in 1994, the term post-rock was initially used as a means to describe music which used typical rock instruments to make very non-rock music. It's a meaningfully ambiguous term that can be used to describe everything from Mogwai, to Slint, to Godspeed You Black Emperor. At it's best post-rock is used to describe those groups who had a penchant for deconstructing typical rock forms, while still keeping one foot in the genre (see The For Carnation, Him, or Do Make Say Think). At it's worst, post-rock was just a cooler way for saying Prog (see that band I tend to criticize too much, even though I really like Tyondai and "Atlas").

While there were many great post-rock scenes, none were more vibrant and exciting than Chicago's. It was here where a sizable, but closely-knit group of musicians came together to form numerous musical groups that all attempted to fuse the cities strong rock-past (see Chicago blues, and groups mentioned yesterday), with it's long-time fascination with Jazz experimentation from the likes of Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The result was the creation of one of the most influential and exploratory music scenes in North America of the time. Bellow are some of my personal highlights from this scene.

Tortoise - Gamera/Cliff Dweller Society Ep (1995, Duophonic)
If you were to choose one band to be the centre-piece of the Chicago post-rock scene, Tortoise would certainly be the unanimous choice. The band captured the very essence of what post-rock meant in Chicago, creating a near-perfect blend of jazz experimentation, Steve Reich's minimalist compositions, and rock's showy and emotionally manipulative tendencies. For many "Gamera" is THE Tortoise song. Recorded by the band in it's original form (guitarist Bundy K. Brown, left soon after the recording was finished), the song begins with a simple acoustic-guitar line, that then gets manipulated for over 12 minutes, as the band adds numerous layers and textures. The result was the creation of a sound that would soon creatively get dubbed "The Tortoise sound" influencing countless acts to follow (such as Do Make Say Think and, to a lesser extent Explosions in the Sky).

The Sea and Cake - Nassau (1995, Thrill Jockey)
To this day, one of my favorite concert moments came on one cold December evening in 1999, when post-rock royalty Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt from Chicago's The Sea and Cake came to perform solo sets at the old Liquid Lounge in Edmonton. There was only about 150 people there, most of whom all seemed to know each other. Throughout the evening one topic kept coming up; would the two come together to play the song "Parasol" from their 1995 classic album Nassau. The song was (and still is) one of my personal favorites, as it was for a majority of the crowd. The concert was amazing, as both performers seemed to be right on their game, enjoying the intimacy of the moment. However, it wasn't until the final encore that those first few appreciated notes of "Parasol" rang. The entire crowd gave a sigh of relief, as what we were all hoping for was now happening. Thinking about now still gives me goosebumps.

Tortoise - Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996, Thrill Jockey)
When you think of iconic post-rock albums some names you think of would Spiderland or Young Team. Millions Now Living would most definitely fit in with those other records. In fact, it might even take the cake. With it's minimal approach to both songwriting and production, and the introduction of Dave Pajo as a the new guitarist, Millions Now Living Will Never Die is the album Tortoise will be most remembered for, for years to come.

Jim O'rourke - Bad Timing (1997, Drag City)
A good companion to Millions Now Living, as this is pre-pop focused O'Rourke, when he was obsessed with generating fascinating sounds. Not my favorite record of his, but still a good listen.

The Sea and Cake - The Biz (1996, Thrill Jockey)
John McIntyre often gets overlooked for his drumming skills, as he has made more of a name for himself through his excellent production on albums for groups like Stereolab, Pullman, and The Chicago Underground Duo (as well as his own group Tortoise). However, on The Biz he takes center stage, playing some of the better drumbeats in his career. This was the first Sea and Cake record I bought (on Vinyl in Calgary) and thus will always be the most enjoyable for me to listen to.

Isotope 217 - The Unstable Molecule (1997, Thrill Jockey)
One of the many Jazz-based projects of trumpeter Rob Mazurek (Chicago Underground Duo, Sao Paulo Underground Duo, Exploding Star Orchestra etc ...) Isotope 217 sees him work with Tortoise rhythm section members Dan Bitney, John Herndon and Jeff Parker (who had just recently began playing with Tortoise). It's a great Tortoise off-shoot, with it's more stripped-down, jazz focused approach.

Tortoise - TNT (1998, Thrill Jockey)
For most people, Millions Now Living is the definitive Tortoise record. For myself, it's always been 1998's TNT. Jeff Parker joins the band after the departure of Dave Pajo, resulting in a more jazz-based sound (Parker is a jazz-trained guitarist). The sound is more diverse, the songs are more intricate, as the band is clearly hitting its stride. TNT is a stunning listen from start to finish, as it is easily my favorite record on this list.
Sam Prekop - Sam Prekop (1999, Thrill Jockey)
At this point in their career, The Sea and Cake had started doing away with guitar-based music, choosing to focus more on synthetic beats and sounds.  So it was fitting in 1999 when the bands front man Sam Prekop put out his bossa-infused solo debut.  With its stripped down instrumentation, and its heavy reliance on latin rhythms, the album served as a wonderful reminder of Prekops gift at both experimentation, and writing simple yet still catchy pop melodies.

Jim O'Rourke - Eureka (1999, Drag City)
Miles Davis once stated that he never wanted to be that musician who steps up to the microphone and plays something they've played before.  I think Jim O'Rourke would agree with Miles (actually, disagreeing with Miles Davis about anything relating to music is akin to an Apple employee disagreeing with Steve Jobs on marketing strategies).  After creating numerous albums that sought to assault you sonically, O'Rourke puts together a captivating collection of lush orchestral pop-tunes.  I believe it was the last record he put out before declaring Chicago 'finished', and moving to New York (which he subsequently declared 'finished' a few years later and relocated to Tokyo, which is where he currently resides).  Well he wasn't completely off.  Soon after 1999, the Chicago Post-Rock sound would become over-saturated with Tortoise and Sea and Cake clones, which ultimately made it more difficult for both bands to continue doing what they were doing (Tortoise has only put out 2 full-lengths in the last 8 years, while disbanding into various side-projects, and The Sea and Cake reinvented themselves somewhat as they started experimenting with more electronic base sounds).  Nevertheless, if Eureka was to signify the end of 'The Chicago Sound' in someways, at least it went out in style.
Anyways, I could of focused on many more groups (Pullman, Archer Prewitt, Cul De Sac, Directions in Music, Rob Mazurek's numerous groups etc ...), but these are the highlights for me.  Tomorrow I'll have some mp3's ready for you.  They were supposed to be up last week, but I've been having some computer issues.  Also, next up is Louisville Kentucky, where we'll be looking at all the different incarnations of Will Oldham and more!
Until next time ...

Monday, February 04, 2008

Via Chicago: 1990's Indie Pt. 1

Looking back at past posts, I realized a few weeks back that most of the content on my blog is heavily influenced by music that from the late 70s and early 80s.  This isn't surprising in the least, considering my love of post-punk and synth-based pop.  However, it is weird that I don't spend more time that decade where I first fell in love with music, namely the 1990s.  That was the decade where I realized just how much I was indebted to those artists I was constantly listening to on my tape decks, walkmen or discmen.  

So to pay tribute to that wonderful decade, I'm going to do a series of features on 1990s guitar-based underground music by location.  Why limit it so much?  Because, that's predominantly what I've listened to in my life (hip-hop and electronic stuff wasn't okay in my books until about 4 or 5 years ago).  I'm currently working on putting features together on places like Seattle/the Northwest (duh!), Boston (again duh!), Louisville KT, The Carolinas, maybe New York (that could prove too large), East-Coast Canada, Ontario/Montreal, the Prairies and the West Coast.  Each feature will also have select tracks from some of the groups profiled, for your listening pleasure.

For my first feature, I'm going big and starting with Chicago.  I chose this for my first feature, for a few reasons.  First of all, Chicago was HUGE in the 90s.  Whether it was through pumpkin smashing, deconstructing both country and rock music, creating amazing record labels (Drag City, Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey etc ...) or recording one of the decades most important releases (Nirvana's In Utero), the Chicago music scene was most definitely 'in' during the 90s.  I even remember seeing gig posters in Edmonton, for small unknown acts with "From Chicago" put underneath the band name just to entice people to come.  "From Chicago" meant something back then, and this is what I want to celebrate.

Secondly (and possibly more selfishly), this is the scene I'm most familiar with.  I spent a lot of time listening to Chicago bands, and am more comfortable about writing about this scene than I am with other areas.  

So anyways, here is part one of my Chicago piece, with part two (focusing completely on post-rock) coming tomorrow, along with a podcast.  By the way, sorry about the formatting, the pictures stopped working halfway through the post.  Enjoy!

Uncle Tupelo and the inbreaking of Alt-Country
The term "Alt-Country" carries with it some heavy names; Wilco, Neko Case, Giant Sand, Blue Rodeo, and the list could go on.  However, in many ways, the genre wouldn't be where it is today if it weren't for a trio of young punks from Belleville Il (a suburb of Chicago), who, under the name Uncle Tupelo, released a trio of classic albums in No Depression (1990, Rockville), March 16-20, 1992 (1992, Rockville), and Anodyne (1993, Sire).  Led by lead singer Jay Farrar, and Jeff Tweedy, the group was able to fuse their love of country twan, and the all-out fury of punk.  This fusion jumpstarted  a new musical genre that quickly began reverberating throughout the American underground (these albums paved the way for the emergence of groups like The Jayhawks, Calexico, Palace Music/Brothers and Old Reliable, and led to the creation of one of North America's finest music Mags titled after Uncle Tupelo's debut No Depression).

Of these three particular albums March 16-20, 1992 is the album which, in many ways captures the very essence of what made the band so great.  While the album lacks more of the punk tendencies of the bands previous works (with the exception of a few of Tweedy's sudden and sporatic use of feedback pointing future experimentations with Wilco), the recording captures the band at its rawest.  With standout tracks like "Moonshiner" and "Grindstone" the album further solidified the place of roots music in the American underground.

The Handsome Famlily - Through the Trees (1998, Carrot Top)
Speaking of solidifying the place of country in North American underground scene's, few groups were able to do so with such precision as the husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks (a.k.a. The Handsome Family).  Often considered the breakthrough album for the band Through the Trees is a wonderful collection of dark and and moody pieces that are constantly blurring the lines between the material and spiritual.

Wilco - Being There (1996, Sire) Summerteeth (1999, Warner)
I'm not going to say too much about these as there has easily been enough said about them.  However, it's not fair to talk about Alt-Country and Chicago without at least mentioning them.  Summerteeth is particularly enjoyable, and rivaled only by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the Wilco catalogue.

Noise, Grunge and Lo-Fi
The Jesus Lizard - Goat (1991, Touch and Go)
One of many great releases by the Chicago-based Touch and Go label,  Goat is a great combination of the spastic grunge guitar that was coming out of Seattle at the time and the paranoid preacher stylings akin to the likes of The Birthday Party, and The Pixies.

Smashing Pumpkins - Gish (1991, Virgin)
As awful as some of the Pumkins more recent works have been, 1991's Gish  (and 93's Siamese Dream, but that can wait for later), is a thing of beauty.  The sound of the guitars and Billy Corgan's voice, are stunning, as the band takes the slacker-grunge aesthetic of Nirvana's Nevermind (which actually came out a few months later), and relocates in the arena.  Truly an enjoyable listen.

Shellac - At Action Park (1994, Touch and Go)
Even though Steve Albini is known primarily as for production skills (recording the likes of the Pixies, The Wedding Present, Songs Ohia, and Bush.  Oh yeah, he also did the original recordings of this little gem.), his work with his own group Shellac shouldn't get overlooked.  At Action Park, is a great noise-based record that, musically isn't anything extremely special, but sonically most definitely is.  How this record sounds is equally as important as the actually material on the record.

Royal Trux - Accelerator (1998, Drag City)
Rising out of the ashes of long-time act (and not-sexually suggestive at all) Pussy Galore, Royal Trux unleashes a tension-riddled song cycle in which the bands 70's influenced sound is forced into conversation with 80's style compression and synthesizers.  The result is an absolute bloody mess, but one that you still want to be involved with.

The Mountain Goats - Nine Black Poppies (1995, Emperor Jones)
It's hard to call The Mountain Goats a "Chicago act" as John Darnielle has lived all over the United States.  However, for a time he called Chicago home, and during that period put out his first full-length album Nine Black Poppies.  Recorded primarily straight on to tape, the album points towards the pop beauty of recent discs We Shall All Be Healed and Sunset Tree (as well as this years Heretic Pride which is a great record by the way), while still carrying with it troubling lo-fi tendancies.  It's one of my favorite records, from one of the most consistent songwriters of our time (and that's not an over-statement).

Tomorrow - Part II

Friday, February 01, 2008

On the Decay, Friday February 1st

So Jeff, what are you going to be playing on your show today?


1.) Xiu Xiu's - Women as Lovers
Surprise surprise, Jamie Stewart creates another song cycle that's a bloody mess, and Jeff Friesen absolutely loves it.  Everything on this album is experiencing some form of affliction.  From the instrumentation to the lyrics, to the bands performance on the record, all is broken, and the results are absolutely beautiful.  "No Friend Oh!" is the early frontrunner for track of the year as two forbidden lovers (two men of varying ages) are forced to struggle with learning how to be with each other.  The end result being an acceptance of total unknowing...
'You don't know what you're doing'
'So what, for nor do you.'

2.) Now that Africa is cool again ...
I've been struggling with the Vampire Record.  On the one hand I think it's great, full of catchy pop-hooks that will keep you coming back for more.  On the other hand, anytime an album receives THIS much praise, it's imperative that the album be able to withstand the scrutiny.  Frankly, I don't think this record does.

The intertwining on African rhythms with popular musical forms of the west is by no means a new thing.  One significant example occurring at the beginning of the 20th century when Dixie was created after a melding of African rhythms (often referred to as polyrhythms, although they are in fact more complicated than that term allows for) with marching band forms of the south.  Similarly, the earliest blues music emerged out of the cotton fields of the south as slave workers combined songs from their home countries in Africa, with country and folk tunes they were now hearing in their new homes.  The result of both of these occurrences being the creation of a new form of rhythmic playing that eventually become known "swing".  This new rhythmic style then went on to significantly impact everything from Jazz, to polka, to rock n' roll, to pop and electronic music.

More recently, in underground circles you can see the influence of African rhythms all over the place.  For example, David Byrne, due to his obsession with creating a "white-funk" sound, began experimenting with what he called "Fourth-World Music" intertwining African trance rhythms with his own art-punk tendencies.  The most exciting results of these experiments being "I Zimbra" the lead-off track from 1979's Fear of Music, where Byrne sings meaningless syllables as the band is doing it's best to mimic the polyrhythmic stylings of numerous "world-music" groups who were emerging at the time, tricking people into thinking "wow, David Byrne's singing African".  There's also My Life in the Bush of Ghosts where Byrne teams up with Brian Eno, using same trance-like rhythms against the background of numerous manipulated recordings of radio-evangelists, in order to create an brilliant and passion-filled ambient music that Eno would later refer to as "psychedelic wash."   These are only two of many examples (I could also add more recent groups like Konono No. 1, Extra Golden, or Tounami Diabate, which I'll be playing on my show today).

All of this is to say that listening to the Vampire Weekend record is kind of like a theologian coming into a graduate studies theology class and saying "the task of the church is to be the church."  It's really important to hear once and a while, but doesn't really add anything new to the conversation.

3) Via Chicago
I'm working on a longer piece focusing on '1990s,guitar-based underground music from Chicago' (which will include a podcast) and will give a glimpse of what to expect on the show.  Think anything between The Handsome Family and Sam Prekop.

Until next time...

[EDIT] Take out polka from that list of music.  I can't think of a type of music less influenced by swing.