I write about music on this blog. Progressive jazz, electronic, and anything else that happens to be fucking up my shit.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Warp Works and Twentieth Century Masters

Quick disclaimer: keep in mind that the writing below (and above) originally appeared as a column in the Arts and Entertainment page of Lawrence University's weekly newspaper. So if it doesn't read as very "bloggy," thats because it isn't. Also, I think they get better as I go along. read:

So Warp records, the U.K.-based titan of electronic awesomeness, recently released an album with music performed by the London Sinfonietta entitled "Warp Works and 20th-Century Masters." It's a concept album, but not in the way in which, say, the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" or Pink Floyd's "The Wall" are, in which a common story or theme runs through all the songs.

The concept in this Warp recording flows from the juxtaposition that is captured surprisingly aptly as you read down the track listing. The album offers works by such 20th-century concert music visionaries as Reich, Ligeti, Nancarrow and Stockhausen packed right up against prepared piano pieces by Aphex Twin and an arrangement of a song by the drill 'n' bass god Squarepusher. I would prefer to call the concept more of a background framework; the liner notes read, "The relationship between human musicians and machines, both electronic and mechanical, provide a kind if id´┐Że fixe which runs through this collection of music." I couldn't have put it any better, or more pretentiously.

A highlight of the album, a Kenneth Hesketh arrangement of the Aphex Twin song "Polygon Window," serves as an excellent microcosm of the album. The arrangement is written for two pianos, a violin and 100 billion percussionists. A big part of what makes Aphex Twin so unique and effective is that Richard D. James is an electronic sound junkie. He creates much of his own hardware and software in order to craft his alien blips, farts, squeals and haunting melodies just the way he hears them in his bizarre mind. Thus, the acoustic treatment presented here loses much of the effect created by Aphex Twin's meticulous sound manipulation. Also, the tempo was cut nearly in half, presumably because of the fact that it is physically impossible for humans to play percussion as fast as Richard D. James programs it. So the breakneck hellscape beats - consisting of twittering, otherworldly snare drums and a hi-hat so tight that it could only be duplicated in the physical world by an obsessive compulsive, manic, beastly automaton hopped up on 1000 mg of caffeine with calves twitching as fast as bees' wings - of the original recording translate into a simple, jaunty disco beat.

Now, don't get me wrong, jaunty disco beats are interesting and refreshing to hear coming out of the concert hall, but if you are going to do justice to the genius of Aphex Twin, you've got to be bringing something radically progressive to the table. But hey, props for the mere fact that this project was attempted - that's pretty cool. The fact that people are recognizing electronic music as genuine art music and not some perverted hang-up of hermit internet addicts is a sign that electronic music - at least the good stuff - is starting to take its rightful place in the realm of "high art."


OK, so this is one of those dead blogs, I'm willing to face that fact. Fine. But I won't go down without a fight. I've decided to co-opt my column in Lawrence University's quaint but well meaning The Lawrentian in order to a) increase the readership of what I write there and b) have SOMETHING to put here. Also, I can put links in my original linkless articles, which is like, 3/4 of what makes the internet cool. Also, go to Andy H-D's blog. He writes about cool shit and is making a serious bid to break into the echelon of "famous" esoteric music blogs.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


INTERNET told me about 3 weeks ago that Tom Jenkinson aka Squarepusher aka the guy for whom I built a shrine in my closet and sacrifice chipmunks to, is due to release a new album October 16th. I heard this and promptly peed my pants a little. For real, he does some awesome stuff and I was totally pumped to hear this news. And especially since I knew the radio station I work for would be getting it early. All I had to do was wait and it would be delivered to me by people that wanted me to hear it. HOORAY!!!

Now, I really don't know that much about his career. I've read what has to say, and I've talked to some people who are into him. But I've only heard his 1998 release "Big Loada" and 2002's spacey "Do You Know Squarepusher?" Both these albums are very different, with each disc exploring different sorts of sonic pallettes, structures, levels of drill n' bass rapture, and just overall genre eschewing troublemaking. I feel like "Big Loada" is sort of more fun and maybe a little more raw as far as sound production goes. But what it lacks in sound production it more than makes up for in manic, uber-fast, Coltrane-esque attempts at reaching the center of the universe. (if Coltrane had been a programmer and had access to sound production techniques that made it possible to create improvisations that no human could ever come close to playing on an acoustic instrument) What am I trying to communicate: Tom Jenkinson's forays into variations on a theme and rythmic intensity are just unspeakably awesome. I don't know, you gotta check it out.

Anyway, so his new album. I'm just chillin the other day stalking people on facebook when I see that a friend updated her favorite music to "Squarepusher." So I IM her and ask what albums she has cuz I want to build up my collection. She's like: "Um, I think its called 'Hello Everything'." WHAT!?! "Hello Everything as in the new Squarepusher album that is supposed to come out in two weeks!?!?!?!?!one." Needless to say, I peed my pants a little.

I wish I could describe the music in a way that I feel accuratley captures whats going on. I can't, I'm just not satisfied with anything I come up with. I'll work on it, I'll be struggling with it for a long time. However, I can describe my reaction to the music. And its as strong and ecstatic a reaction I've had to any music in my life. Its that sort of life energizing, spirit rejuvinating, self re-organizing reaction that makes everything fresh again. Only a small amount of hyperbole is sneaking into what I'm saying here. You have got to check it out. October 16th. Props to Warp Records and Tom Jenkinson for another stellar effort.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


I like Lady Sovereign. I caught her show earlier this summer at the Intonation festival and was digging on her pretty, pretty, pretty hard. Now, its possible that what perked my ears at the show was the raw acoustic principle that her recorded background track had a crisper percussion sound than the live mic'd trio of drumsets that the Boredoms had on stage the set before. So it was either the better sound fidelity, or that nasty grime stank was gettin all up in my business.
Seriously, this sassy little cutie-pie from the mean streets of Northwest London has got a good thing going. And damn, shes only 19. I think maybe her appeal comes from a combination of the fact that she is a very unique MC and that f-f-f-fresh grime sound setting her up. That UK delivery sounds awfully refreshing to this listener's musical pallette, and she has this paradoxical persona going on that gives her music a unique energy. You can tell she grew up listening to mainstream hip-hop, with its larger than life egos and fuck-you stance. But at the same time you can't escape a definite feminine mousiness about her, which, when set up against her hip-hop ego, provides a juxtapositon that gives a palpable humility and honesty to the music that you don't find in a lot of hip-hop (at least mainstream hip-hop). Or, I'm just a benevolent sexist.
Oh, but whats the deal with her song on the Verizon commercial? Granted, its a hip fuckin commercial, but shes got her shit on a cell phone ad? I reallyreallyreally hope her record deal with Jay-Z and Def Jam isn't a sell out. I really hope it, cuz shes fierce.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Bad Plus: balls the size of Tiger Woods

Among the many things I love about The Bad Plus is the fact that they aren't afraid of hooks. A lot of jazz shies away from the conventionally irresistable pop hook. The jazz establishement has this attitude that shuns hooks, looks down upon them as "low music"; base, simple, mindless easy music. The traditional jazz camp sees hooks as the cheesburger of musical expression, everybody loves them, but you know they aren't good. This is bullshit, The Beatles were all about hooks, and I'd like to see a jazz purist stand up and say they are too good for The Beatles. I think The Beatles were so succesful and popular(not to mention artistically respected) because their music was the perfect blend of accessibility and substance. They communicated what they wanted to communicate in as concise a manner as they possibly could. And the primary medium for that expression was pop hooks. There is something immediately and unquestioningly expressive about the hook. Its name really describes its form very well, they do just what they are called, they put their hooks into you. When they are right, you can't escape their grip. Think the first two bars of "Oh Darling" by The Beatles (we'll stick with the masters for now), Paul Mccartney sings the opening solo lyric and is joined by the band in the first bar. When he lands on "darling", you're done. He's got you, you're hooked, if you will. So why should the sophisticated and self-important jazz purist eschew hooks like these in place of complex and innaccessible chord progressions and musical masturbation? Its because our good friend the jazz purist is full of shit. He's no different than the monocle donning Mozart elitist who believes that the merit of music rests upon its status and its mathematical complexity.
So now The Bad Plus come along, and their undeniable chops don't let the jazz purist brush them off as unskilled "outside agitators" to the jazz world. They are as good a musicians as you will find around these days. And they get up there in the faces of the jazz purist with their enshrined Coltrane matrices and 1930's standards and yell: "Fuck you, we grew up listening to pop music and rocking out, and we fucking love it." And go on to make music that tears jazz apart at the seams as it simultaneosly sets the pop hook up as one of its primary musical middle fingers. Songs like "Velouria," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Chariots of Fire," and an original of theirs "Lost of Love," all feature grandiose melodies with unescapable hooks. "Velouria," a Pixies cover, is one of my favorites. TBP revel in the visceral uprising of the chorus. They avoid the pretension of the tight lipped conservatism that doesn't rock out when rocking out is called for. And rock out they do. In fact, I might go so far as to say they Rock The Fuck Out. And being the deconstructionsists that they are, they proceed to tear the hook apart.
Now I don't mean to sound like the militant leftist to the dogmatic jazz conservative, but conservatism in music, and in all art, can be a dangerous thing. Art needs to breath, evolve, change. In fact you could argue that change is the essence of music and art in general. It captures and expresses the change that shapes the essence of our culture and experience. And I also don't mean to paint The Bad Plus to be some sort of self-conscious rebels whose primary purpose is to spit in the face of the jazz establishment. They may spit in the face of the jazz establishment as a result of "doing their thang" but its a by-product and a collatoral result of their art. These guys are here to stay.