Thursday, December 03, 2015

2015 - The Year In, And Around, Music

This summer I got a job at a music retailer. Subsequently, I became much more conscious of the commercial aspects of the music industry, the way that profit is made more by nostalgia and reissues than in new modern work finding an audience of contemporaries to speak to. Meanwhile, the audience for work that I think is interesting or valuable is incredibly small, and consists largely of people whose value system is inherently out of step with trends in capitalism, and so don't actually have much money to spend.

The majority of our customers are African-Americans over the age of ~35, and it is fairly easy to view their willingness to pay for physical copies of music -- on CD, no less -- as indicative of a lack of access to or understanding of the internet. Their engagement with music is a welcome exception to the rules and expectations set up by the rest of the music industry.

It is legitimately inspiring to see how many people call up the store on the day of the release of the new Jadakiss or Jeezy albums to see if we have copies in stock. However, it is commensurately disconcerting that the managerial policy holds playing music with so many expletives as off-limits, and so I have very little knowledge of what these new rap records sound like. (Song of the year, "Good Times," featuring Young Thug and Popcaan, was skipped when it came up on the otherwise basically mediocre Jamie XX album.) As interested in them as I am, the amount of off-hours unpaid research I would need to do is daunting. I love rap music, but it is not the genre I default to listening to, or that my passion for exploring leads to me checking out albums after only hearing an endorsement from one or two people. It is more the type of thing where some sort of critical mass approaching consensus persuades me to listen to something intently.

This year, the music I was more set on hearing and understanding was free jazz. Around the same time I got this job, Ornette Coleman died. I started listening to a lot of his music, and records led by his sidemen Charlie Haden and Don Cherry. The video of Cecil Taylor performing at his memorial led to an investigation of his work, that I had previously assumed I would find "too abrasive," as well as that of Andrew Hill. It felt like the dominant thing I was listening to, to the point where I started thinking about all of music through that particular lens.

Reading jazz liner notes was a constant reminder of the failings of contemporary music writing, grounded in extra-musical narratives of cults of personality, pushed by press releases, divorced from any idea of music theory.

The notion of "free jazz" is itself interesting, in its conception of freedom from restraint, and its constant wondering of how far out a person can go, It postulates music-making as a spiritual pursuit, and creates a product that to the uninitiated sounds angry and unmusical. Similarly paradoxical is the music's historical moment coinciding with the heyday of the civil rights movement; and certain artists, notably Max Roach and Archie Shepp, related their music directly to that struggle, even as they, and other artists, found their method of pursuing their art leading them away from an audience of black Americans to find a warmer reception among white Europeans. Throughout the sixties and seventies, so many individual artists found their own language and argot that the general audience's sense of what was at the core of their music dissolved. In the absence of any sort of solid ground to center the idea of what "jazz" is, the term itself starts to seem irrelevant.

This is all to say that for me the best "jazz" record of 2015 was made by Wolf Eyes. I Am A Problem: Mind In Pieces. Despite being made by white dudes, their music feels like the exact right capturing of the zeitgeist of 2015. Police shoot black youth, right-wing terrorists attack Planned Parenthood, George Zimmerman posts revenge porn on his Twitter feed, riots in Baltimore ravage areas that never recovered from riots in 1968. Maybe it is because most of my experience in West Baltimore is based in going to noise shows, because those artists were the people willing to live in half-abandoned neighborhoods, but it makes more sense to me that the soundtrack to life's struggle in 2015 seems more rooted in the sonic approaches of horror movie soundtracks than those of gospel music.

2015 in Baltimore saw all the places to consistently host noise shows in the past several years shut down. "Stabbed In The Face" played over the PA at the last show at The Bank, as people were heading out. The end of all these show spaces is pretty much directly tied to a great exodus from Baltimore of many of the artists I know and am friends with. It makes living in Baltimore these days feel real weird. That the places where we all once congregated are closing makes it hard to even remember who is still here, and that my retail job ends up occupying my weekend nights leads to a further feeling of alienation from the veins of culture.

I saw Wolf Eyes play at a legitimate above-ground venue, with a bar, and they were great. A piece of bent metal was used as a woodwind, ran through an electronics rig, and the guitar went through an amp but was not a part of the sound signals inside the larger PA. There was plenty of space, and lots of atmosphere. They were easily the quietest band that played, on a bill with acts that each had drum kits being amplified, with everything else mixed to still be audible over the volume of drums. It seemed like the majority of people in the crowd were essentially disappointed in Wolf Eyes for not delivering the full-fledged attack that can be understood as aggressive party music that they were doing in 2003. In all likelihood, if these people had seen them back when they were doing that, they would've hated it. By the time they've come around to the image or myth of what Wolf Eyes are, the band themselves have moved on, which relates very much to what I mean when I talk about freedom, which includes freedom from expectation as well.

Meanwhile, the best show I saw all year was the Sun Ra Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen. Marshall Allen is 91 years old, the same age as my grandfather, who was hospitalized with pneumonia the night I watched Allen use his lungs and the saxophone as a reminder of all kinds of vitality. I was surprised by how much was going on in the music, uncompromised by the low fidelity of El Saturn Records pressings, and at how it still felt vital and alive, despite being a repertory act, playing music composed decades ago. Watching them I thought "the music keeps him alive." Meanwhile, my friend Max Eilbacher, who opened the show as a member of Horse Lords, said afterwards, "It's amazing to be reminded that music actually is magic, and doesn't just have to reference it." (This is a paraphrase.) I was legitimately filled with more joy and goodwill for the people I was with at that show than I've felt for a long time.

I listened to so much jazz that these days when I listen to Future these days I just think "his voice is an instrument." I made a pretty impassioned argument for his Monster mixtape last year, and he's still basically mining the same artistic vein, but that's my takeaway these days, when I listen to DS2, which would be the rap record of the year for me. I know a lot of people really liked that Kendrick Lamar album, but whenever I listen to Kendrick Lamar, you are supposed to pay attention to the overall scope, and the funk sound gives you something to luxuriate in, but the lines that grab my attention are always fairly embarrassing. With Future, the lines that catch my attention as head-turners are always either incredibly real or are tiny details or are just super-musical. I like Young Thug too, and his voice is itself an instrument, but more like a rubberband being played like a bass than Future's autotune-as-trumpet, which I find more expressive and articulate.

The R&B records I liked this year were those made by Miguel and Autre Ne Veut. Miguel's Wildheart is like a hot beverage with a lot of cream in it, stimulating but smooth. The sonics at work are palpable, these songs are fuck jams. It feels deeply related/indebted to Prince, who I must mention I also saw this year. He was great. It was the "concert for Baltimore," part of the "Hit And Run" tour, and I am extremely grateful that tickets were relatively affordable. The Miguel record does this thing where what connects funk to sex is that by being "in the pocket," "in the groove," it is present within the moment, riding the wave. Miguel even says "I want to ride that wave" on this album!

(By comparison, rock music seems like it is trying to get somewhere. The best psych-garage stuff, for instance, seems to be premised on songs seeming like they are moving forward and falling apart at the same time. A good example of what I mean from this year would be The Lentils' Brattleboro Is Flooding.)

The Autre Ne Veut record, Age Of Transparency, is flailing wildly. Vocals are all over the place, high-pitched and dramatic more than they are classically note-hitting, creating a bit of crazy contrast when the choir comes in. Whereas Miguel sings about "no shame" in the context of sexual desire, Autre Ne Veut's demonstrates a lack of shame in terms of emotional performance, to the point of the record basically being unsuitable for being used as background music for sex, a gesture that is brave to the point of being performance art. In the context of music being sold as lifestyle accessory, to make "R&B" music that doesn't come off like an accessory to LifeStyles condoms is basically a Chris Burden piece. The songs themselves are embellished with jazz instrumentation, and then digitally deconstructed, each step seemingly designed to be more emotionally communicative even as it moves farther away from the directness of the song itself. The language of the lyrics themselves seems damaged in the writing of them, as if too overwhelmed by what they feel to express themselves grammatically. The way it communicates sex is almost like a Guido Crepax comic. I imagined something much cornier and trend-based when I was just reading about this dude's music, because of the context assigned to it by music writers, before I gleaned from Twitter he was friends with assorted noisers.

In the second half of the year, basically, I doubled down on my commitment to the avant-garde, as the place where I would want to spend my money and my time. That said, I continue to not fuck with pretty much all the influences of contemporary "experimental" music, in terms of goth shit or academic electronic music, kosmische, industrial, vaporwave, minimal techno or whatever. All the all white everything. (Despite my misgivings about reissue culture, I bought the rerelease of Sun City Girls' Torch Of The Mystics because that's closer to my values than most other stuff.) Autre Ne Veut's engagement with jazz and R&B makes for something closer to my wheelhouse than the Oneohtrix Point Never discography, for instance. But before that point I was spending my time mostly within the realm of something more emotionally straightforward.

During this era, I imagined a C90 with Torres' Sprinter on one side and Fred Thomas' All Are Saved on the other, although I think Sprinter would maybe get cut off. I hear Torres saying "a child of god much like yourself" as a Cormac McCarthy reference, and found her album's last song's "I shine my shoes for the fat lady" fairly-transparent Franny And Zooey allusion moving. I relate because I recognize the references, which is sort of pathetic or unimportant, like just because we have read the same books does not necessarily mean that we would be friends or even that either of us are smart - but that these have gone unremarked upon in any of the writing I've seen about the record or any interview with the artist makes it connect and feel human in the way that such things might fly at a loud party. The record mostly resembles a nineties alternative record, and that Torres went on tour with Garbage this year makes it easy to slate into a narrative that relates to the higher-profile, poppier acts of that era, especially since it's more of a "rock" record than her folkier self-titled debut, but certain tracks here still feel desolate in their atmosphere in a way that is almost reminiscent of my favorite Smog records.

The Fred Thomas record runs its mouth. It feels like a BARR record, like it is going to say all the thoughts, all the streams of consciousness, to actually describe itself and be truly open, rather than the approach of most singer-songwriters, who would rather speak in generalities to create a surface a listener can project themselves onto. Rather, the intent is for the artist to project himself into your room, like he will materialize as a friendly companion, talking about his own experience, which will alternately resonate with you and refer primarily to itself. This year I also heard a Saturday Looks Good To Me song I hadn't heard before, "Summer Doesn't Count Unless You're Here With Me," home of the lyrical sentiment I thought about incessantly for a month or so there, "I don't want to hear you talk about your girlfriend or your job/Or all the banks you always say you're gonna' rob." The best song on the Fred Thomas album, the one with the most lyrics I thought about constantly, is called "Cops Don't Care, Part 2," and I'll quote that one too: "Life is so incredibly long/Like a kiss on the bridge/Between two nervous-ass kids/Terrified of doing anything wrong." But also just the title, over and over.

More abstracted in its emotional connections would be the Circuit Des Yeux record, In Plain Speech. It's stirring, able to use the harmonies present in drones to emotional ends by combining them with a huge foregrounded voice, but still sounding lonesome. It's effect is less like a companion and more able to create for listener the feeling of watching storms soak everything surrounding you while you stand on your front porch. The Eartheater albums Hausu Mountain put out are like crawling around in the fertile soil that results while on mushrooms. The sounds of rain everywhere replaced by bugs and grubs whispering close to your ear. Both records are very good but I think that every time I have wanted to listen to one I would also be willing to listen to the other. I'm pretty sure the guy who runs Hausu Mountain works at Thrill Jockey. The Colleen record, Captain Of None, also occupies a similar space.

The sound at the root is not that far off from that explored on Jeff Zager's Still/Alive, which was pretty nice, but more distinctly domestic. Like housecleaning or drinking tea. This is also to say there's more sonic range, like there is a greater range of mobility afforded the listener. Like, one of the things you do around the house is listen to records. Zagers carries the vibe of listening to records inside his record more than most people, if that makes sense. Partly it's his proclivity for covers: There's a cassette of them that makes a good companion piece to his actual album. Similarly, this year I found out this year that his tape "Chu's Blues" was named off a song on Frank Lowe's Fresh. Maybe the other part of it is how his keyboard tones and drum machine feel like kosmische stuff in their purity of tone, but then his vocal croon is like soft rock balladeer, and these sorts of sounds make sense as go-to's when you are eating dinner with someone else? Peaceful times.

My most exciting musical discovery, made at the beginning of the year, was Gem Jones, although my cassette copy of Wurm Man Dubiosity is marred by issues with dubbing. One of those things where it would sound much better on cassette instead of digital if the cassette copy I had wasn't compromised. But also the compositional method is seemingly based around cassettes and multi-tracking and allowing for errors in terms of its party vibe. Like it feels like one dude going crazy and having a great time. In some ways this is like when Ween do their Prince homages, but even further down the rabbit hole Multiplicity-style cloning that creates a more retarded version, but for it just being one person, multi-tracking overdubs. Like the drums are playing reggae rhythms, and that allows for enough consistency that the keyboards can go bonkers, and so from there, song structures barely need to exist at all as long as the falsetto indicates the idea of "pop song." I love it! I would love to host this dude's live show which seems impossible to the point where it seems plausible it would mostly just be performance art. The Silent Girlfriend tape Night People put out this year, Backstabbing Female Supremacist, is also good fun. Also, the Night People catalog speak's invocation of Larry Young in regards to Gem Jones got me to download Unity, prior to diving into the free jazz wormhole, and discovering the later fusion record Lawrence Of Newark, which might actually have been the one Shawn was thinking of.

The best records made by people I'm sort of friends with and so should maybe not even mention but for the fact that they were totally overlooked by most music writers and so you might not have heard of them, even if you were "trying to stay on top of music," were the cassettes made by Angels In America. The Chicklette solo cassette, Unfaithful, actually did receive some praise from Tiny Mixtapes, but it includes a recounting of Esra asking, in an e-mail "Why the fuck do you like this music?" That tape rules, it's totally demented, and for a while was my favorite album to come out this year. It's possible it still is! Whenever it was playing on a cassette deck I loved it, but I don't know if it has the compulsive replayability of shit I know I listened to a bunch on iTunes, you know? The solo Farewell My Concubine tape from late last year, Symphony Of Problems, has more than its share of bangers also. Being employed as a retailer meant I attended no noise festivals this year, although the one I was most tempted to go to was Burning Fleshtival in Far Rockaway. A friend who attended picked me up the new self-released Angels In America tape, Uptown Funk, and it's a good one. That the Angels USA XILF Stikklemuzick tape hasn't come out yet is a shame.

Oh, and the other song of the year was Daphne And Celeste's "You And I Alone," written and produced by Max Tundra. I also listened to this Hinds song "Bamboo" a probably-embarrassing amount, in love with its vocal harmonies.